Jordan was incredibly enthusiastic about going to the rec-centre at six in the morning to see the singer guy play in his "natural habitat", but Ruben and I managed to veto him with threats and glares. We simply couldn't understand why he didn't want to set up a meeting at another time instead. Finally, we came to a compromise. Jordan called his friend and set up a meeting at six in the evening.
Jordan insisted we carry our acoustic guitars, and Ruben take his harmonica. I didn't know what Jordan had in mind, but I knew I wouldn't like it. Arguing with him seemed futile, though, so I went along with it. I couldn't blame him for his obsessive behavior. The past few months had taken their toll on all three of us. We were sick of jamming and playing the same cover songs over and over again, without a voice to lead us.
The man at the reception was notably puzzled to see us carrying instruments. Also, we weren't exactly dressed like gym-goers, but thankfully, he didn't ask any questions. He let us in after seeing our student IDs.
We went straight towards the basketball court. Nobody gave us a second glance, so I figured maybe they were used to seeing people carrying musical instruments.
"Damn, this place is nice," Ruben said, looking around. "If I wasn't a smoker, I'd come here every day."
"Well, yeah, that's one of the reasons," he said, with a smile. I followed his stare, and saw a bunch of girls clad in sports bras performing gymnastics routines through a glass door. "Ahh, salsa lessons," he said, noticing a sign on one of the billboards, as we walked ahead. "I'm starting to wish I went to this school."
"Being a student here isn't exactly a cakewalk," I said. Jordan was a few steps ahead of us, and he seemed to be absorbed in his own world. "Lots of competition, and the syllabus is challenging."
"But it's worth it, right?" He asked, and winked. I wasn't very good at understanding double meanings, but even I knew what he was talking about.
We reached the piano. It overlooked the floor down the stairs, where people were using dozens of exercise machines, and the door to the basketball court was to its left.
A guy with jet black hair sat on the bench, with his back to us.
"Sup, Ali," Jordan said, and he turned around. He was white, fat, and wore an Iron Maiden shirt and black jeans. He had a slight slouch, which I associated with head-bangers, and a grin on his face. He and Ruben exchanged greetings, as they had met at the karaoke night while I was out chasing the bartender.
"Ah, nice to meet Jordan's new band. You must be Rob," he said, and extended his hand.
"And you must be Ali," I said. "What's it short for?"
"Alistair," he said. "I think you know my cousin Joy."
"Wait, you're Alistair Montemayor?" I asked.
"Unfortunately," he said.
"That can't be true. She's... Asian." Joy was a friend of mine from Spanish class. She looked nothing like this guy. Firstly, she was skinnier, and secondly, she was a lot more attractive. "How did you know that I know her?"
"I checked your Facebook last night. She was one of our mutual friends," he said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. I stared at him, trying to see the resemblance. He laughed. "Her mom's Philipino. Even she has trouble believing we're related, but there it is," he chuckled. "She tells people I'm adopted."
"You two don't get along?"
"Oh, we get along fine," he said. "I tell people the same thing."
"What instrument d'you play?" I asked.
"Bass," he smirked at Jordan. "Didn't he tell you I was his replacement after the Alien Pudding fired him?"
"Ha, ha," Jordan said, sarcastically. "They didn't fire me. I quit."
"As if you had a choice, after what you did," Alistair said.
"Let's not go into that right now," Jordan said, quickly.
"No wait, I want to hear more," I said.
"Me too," Ruben chimed in.
Jordan gave us an icy stare. "On second thought, never mind," I said. "Anyway, are you the organizer of this Spinning Tomatoes gig?" I asked Ali.
"Yup," he said. "We're actually a group. Somebody cancelled at the last second, so we had an empty spot."
"It's a charity gig, right?" Ruben asked. "What's the cause?"
"Drinking water for kids in Africa," Alistair said. "We do these things every few months. Last time the proceeds went to the World Wildlife Federation, and before that, to build a school in Pakistan, and so on. This one's actually quite low key, compared to the others. We call it Money for A Lot of Things."
"Wow, that's admirable," Ruben said. "Also, catchy. Are you a Dire Straits fan?"
"Nah. The name wasn't my idea, and personally, I think it's kinda vague. Still, all of the gigs so far have been successes," he said. "We've got a Facebook page with about 5000 fans, and we're thinking of spreading out to other cities near the Triangle area." The Triangle consists of the cities Durham, Raleigh and Chapel Hill.
"So you've got a following. Nice. Anyway, tell us more about our mystery singer," I said.
"No need for that. He's here," Alistair replied. We turned around, and saw a tall, lanky Asian guy approach us. He fidgeted a little, and had thick straight black hair that reached his shoulders.
"Guys, this is Push," Alistair said. "Push, this is the Euphoria Cartel. They'd like to see you play."
"Nice to meet you guys," he said, and shook hands with each of us. He resembled Han from the Fast and Furious movies. I looked at Ruben and Jordan, and knew they were thinking the same thing. What kind of a name was Push?
He sat down on the piano bench, and Alistair got off it. We all took out our instruments.
We sized him up as we introduced ourselves, but he seemed to be at ease. "So. Push. Is that your real name?" Jordan asked.
"Nah. My real name's Shou. Push is just a nickname."
"How long have you been playing the piano?"
"Oh, since I was thirteen," he said. "My parents refused to buy me a guitar. They're orthodox Japanese, and they thought it won't be a good influence. But we had a grand piano at the house, so they got me a tutor."
"So you're classically trained?"
He nodded, then smiled. "I got him to teach me rock n' roll songs. I know nearly every song from the sixties, seventies and eighties that has piano in it," He put his hands on the keys, and started playing a few bars. "Recognize that?"
I didn't, but Ruben did. "'Come Sail Away'. Styx."
"First song I learned," he said. Then, he played a few bars from "Bohemian Rhapsody", and then "November Rain". "Name a song and I can play it."
"'Lady Madonna'," I said.
Without hesitating, he started playing it. I was impressed.
"Can you play 'Flight Of The Bumblebee'?" Ruben asked.
"Ooh, that's a tough one," he said. "I'll try my best." He started playing the rapid, descending series of notes, but then stumbled halfway through. He cursed, and tried again, and this time made it, but stumbled again. "Is that good enough?" he asked.
"That'll do. So you're mostly into rock n' roll, then?" Ruben asked.
"Yup," he said. "And Japanese rock."
"Japanese rock?" I asked. "Seriously? You mean that L'Arc-En-Ciel sh-t?"
"Hey, that's the greatest band ever, man," he said, defensively. I was about to argue, but then Jordan interrupted me.
"Well, this is great and all, but we're more interested in your singing," he said.
Push's smile disappeared. He looked at Ali. "I thought they wanted a keyboardist."
Ali avoided his gaze.
"Wait, what?" Ruben asked. "No, we want a singer."
"I'm sorry guys, I'm not who you're looking for. Good luck with your search." Push gave Ali a disgusted look, then got up to leave.
We stared at him walking away, completely puzzled. Then, Jordan turned to face Ali. "What the hell was that about?"
Ali shuffled his feet. "He's a great singer, but he just doesn't want to sing. I think he hates the sound of his voice or something."
"Have you actually heard him?"
"Yeah, I have... Once."
Jordan gave him a questioning look. "Once?"
"He got really drunk at this party I took him to, and... it's a long story, but trust me, this guy's got a gift. I'll bet my last dime on it." He sounded sincere enough.
Jordan sat down on the bench, exasperated, but I was p-ssed off. "I'll be right back," I said, and sprinted off, trying to catch up with Push. I reached him just outside the rec centre. "Hey, wait," I panted. "Come on, man. Let's sit down and talk about this," I said, pointing to a bench near us. Reluctantly, he nodded, and we sat on it. His hands moved constantly, and he kept drumming his fingers on his thighs, as if he just couldn't sit still. I suspected he was a little ADHD. For a while, neither of us said anything. Then, once I caught my breath, I spoke up.
"Ali told us you're really good."
"At pianos and keyboards," he said. "Maybe organs and harpsichords. Even harmoniums. Anything that has keys. But I'm not frontman material, man. I can't handle that shit. Do I look like Steven Tyler or Axl Rose to you?"
"We don't want an Axl Rose or a Steven Tyler. We just want somebody who can carry a tune," I said. "Sh-t, I've only been playing guitar for like, eight months. Trust me, we don't give a crap."
"I... I can't do it. I just can't. I'd be happy to play keyboards..."
"We don't want a f--king keyboardist," I said, annoyed. "We need a vocalist."
He sighed. "Even if I agree, this gig is in two weeks. I'm just not ready."
"Neither am I, but that's the point. You just gotta jump into it, man. Look, I'll be honest with you. I'm new to all this. I barely even listened to music before this year, but then some crazy sh-t happened, and now I'm here trying to talk you into joining my band." I looked him in the eye. "What's the real reason you don't want to do this?"
He seemed to be fumbling for words. "Okay. Fine. I'll tell you, but it's going to sound pretty retarded."
"I'm sure I've heard worse."
"Okay. I can only sing when I'm alone, or when I'm... Drunk."
I stared at him, not sure how to react. "You're shitting me, right?"
"No, I swear. This is serious." He didn't look like he was lying. "Ali heard me sing at a house party we went to. I had had a few too many beers, and there was a karaoke machine... I just couldn't help myself. Ever since then, he's been trying to get me to join a band."
"Did you have a bad experience or something when you were a kid?" I asked.
He seemed like he was going to counter that, but then he stopped himself. "How did you know?" he asked.
"Doesn't take a genius to figure it out," I said, rolling my eyes.
He shrugged. "Ninth grade. I forgot the lyrics halfway through the song, and we were booed off the stage. I didn't agree to a show until the eleventh grade, but even then, I f--ked it up. I suppose I have the vocal skill, but I'm not cut out to perform."
I understood how he felt, but I couldn't give him my sympathy. "Look man, whatever happened, happened in the past. We won't judge you. We just want to hear you sing. Come back inside, sing a song or whatever, and we'll decide whether you're right for us or not. You've got nothing to lose."
I got up. "One song. Just one song is all I ask."
He hesitated for a moment, but then got up. "I'll try."
A minute later, we reached the other guys at the piano. The three of them got up so Push could take the bench.
"So, are you going to show us what you've got?" Ruben asked.
Push didn't reply. He sat down, and put his fingers on the keys. "Name the first song that comes to your mind," he said.
"'Desperado'," I said, immediately. I had recently gotten pretty heavily into the Eagles. "By the Eagles. You've heard it right?"
"'Desperado' it is," he said, and rested his hands on the keys. Then, he started playing the first few notes of the song. He took a deep breath. Then, he started singing the words.
"Desperado," he sang, in a really, really soft voice, as his fingers pressed the keys. "Why don't you come to your senses. You've been out riding fences, for so long now..."
Jordan picked up his acoustic bass, and I picked up my guitar. Ruben took his harmonica out of his pocket. I knew the chords to this song, so Jordan simply followed my lead. Together, we started supporting Push.
He didn't seem too bothered by the instruments. In fact, his voice grew stronger, and more audible. He sounded a little like Adam Levine combined with Chris Cornell. I didn't like Maroon 5, but I couldn't complain.
"Don't you draw the queen of diamonds boy! She'll beat you if she's able, the queen of hearts is always your best bet."
Ali started a slow clap, and to my surprise, he was joined by more hands. I turned my head, missing a note in the process, and was surprised to see a few people had gathered in the open space behind us, mostly just sweaty dudes in gym shorts. If Push noticed, he didn't show it. He was absorbed in what he was doing. His voice was clear and unhindered now, and I noticed that Ali was right. Drunk or not, this guy had chops.
"Now it seems to me, some fine things, have been laid upon your table, but you only want the ones that you can't get, desperado..."
By now, people were stopping in their tracks to stare at the commotion, and I was beginning to feel self conscious. However, I kept control somehow and didn't miss a beat.
"Don't your feet get cold in the wintertime, the sky won't snow and the sun won't shine, it's hard to tell the nighttime, from the dayyyyy. You're losing all your highs and lows, ain't it funny how the feeling goes, away..."
The slow clap grew louder, and the crowd larger, now consisting of even more sweaty guys in gym shorts.
"It may be raining," he crooned, "but there's a rainbow above you... You better let somebody love you, before it's too... Late..."
After Push played the final notes, the whole crowd burst into applause. By now, it also contained a few girls, to my relief. Even the people downstairs had paused their cardio machines to cheer at us. I started laughing, when amazed at how ridiculous this was.
"Bravo!" somebody yelled. "You guys suck!" Somebody else yelled. Push got up and looked around, finally starting to notice the crowd. "F--k," he said, and grinned.
Jordan bowed, and so did Ruben and I, followed by Push.
"I told you guys," Ali said, smugly. "I told you he was good."
The crowd started to disperse, and downstairs, people got back on their cardio machines. A nerdy looking bespectacled guy came up to us. "That was really cool, guys," he said.
"Haha, thanks, man," Jordan said.
"I managed to record most of it. It's on my phone, so the quality isn't that great. D'you guys want a copy?"
"Sure," Jordan said, taking his phone out. "We'd love one."
As Jordan received the video from the stranger, we turned to face Push. Ali clapped him on the back. "That was bada-s, man,"
"Still afraid of singing?" I asked. "Still convinced you need to be drunk to do it?"
"F--k, no," he said, and laughed. "I could get used to this. Thanks, man," he offered me his hand, and I shook it. "Couldn't have done it without you."
"Don't mention it," I said.
"So. Made up your mind?" Ruben asked.
Push and Ali exchanged a look. "I'll join you guys," Push said. "I'll be your vocalist."
"Congratulations," Ali said. "You now have a gig, as well as a singer. Don't forget you owe me for both."
"We'll buy you Chinese food, once a week, for the rest of the year," Jordan said, as he came back to join us. "Thanks, man."
"No need for that. Just give me a good show, eh? Do it for the thirsty kids." He said, with a grin. "I'll see you guys at Spinning Tomatoes."
"Welcome to the Euphoria Cartel," Jordan said to Push, once Ali was gone.
"With your entry, we are officially a minority band now. Black bassist, Indian guitarist, Hispanic drummer, and Japanese vocalist."
"Wait, you're not white?" Push asked Ruben. "And you're the drummer? I thought you played harmonica!"
Ruben looked offended. "Don't let the blue eyes and fair skin fool you. I'm Paraguayan. Besides, what sort of a band did you take us for? Bluegrass? Of course I play drums. I just happen to play harmonica, too."
Push raised his hands apologetically. "Just asking, man."
"Next jam session's tomorrow, seven PM. I'll text you the address," Jordan said.
"You do that," Push replied. "I gotta run, now. I'll see you guys."
"Me too," Ruben said. "I don't think I'm allowed to park my car here, anyway, so I'd better get going before it gets towed."
With that, they left.
Jordan and I said nothing to each other as we walked towards the bus stop.
"All in all, a good day," Jordan said, as we got there. "A great day, actually."
I nodded. "What was Ali talking about, when he said you didn't have a choice, after what you did? What was that about? I thought you quit Alien Pudding because they didn't let you play bass solos or something."
"It was much more complicated than that," Jordan said, staring out at the horizon, with his hands in his pockets.
"Was a girl involved?" I asked.
He pretended not to hear me. "Alright, fine, if you don't want to talk about it, I won't bring it up," I said.
"That would be nice," he said. "Anyway, are you ready to be a rockstar?" Jordan asked, with a smirk.
"Rockstar? F--k, no," I said. "I can barely believe all this shit's real." Sometimes, the whole year so far seemed amazingly surreal to me, as if I was the lead character in a novel somebody wrote.
"Well, good news is, no autotune," he said.
"Still not funny, man," I said, as the bus arrived.