Rather than parking in the seedy, half empty, lot of the Fox’s Paw, complete with cracked blacktop and oil stains aplenty, Mitchell pulled into an empty slot outside a row of questionable looking apartments. Not that anyone would be dumb enough to want to steal an ugly blue tin can on wheels with a crooked fender and a bumper sticker that read, “Like my driving? Call 1-800-EAT...” Well, would-be tailgaters got the point. It turned out one of said questionable apartments was what Systex’s co-guitarist, the male one at least, called home. Only a two-block walk to the bar from here. It worked. Co-guitarist seemed a bizarre, yet apt, term. Lead and rhythm positions hadn’t been permanently designated between him and Kayla. It would have to be decided someday. No hurry right now, duties were shared, and everyone was happy.
“Man, you been quiet,
said when we were out of the car and bar bound. “What’s up?
“Nothing,” I replied. “Not a whole lot to say. You know how it goes.” He grunted, reaching into his jacket pocket, pulling out a familiar red packet. A beaten up lighter, minus the little metal strip over the wheel was attached to the packet with a thin rubber band. Plucking a cigarette from the pack, putting it in his mouth, he offered the pack to me. “No thanks, maybe later.” Another grunt, the pack went back into the jacket, the lighter popped free from its elastic restraints, a tiny orange flame popping out from the top, igniting the one in his mouth. Plumes of smoke drifted towards me as we walked. I paid them little notice, other thoughts occupying my attention.
The image of that mammoth beige sheet of plywood refused to leave, haunting the forefront of my memory, f—king taunting it, more like. Negotiating— that’s what he called it back at The Garage! All with a smirk and a shrug—negotiating! Dear God. Poor as my French was, that was hardly the word I’d use to describe it. Vandalism? Theft? Hell, call it whatever you want, it all spelled the same outcome: Trouble. More than enough to make the trials and tribulations of the last four months look like child’s play. I cast a glance at Mitchell, cigarette dangling from his lips, smoke breaking against his face, looking satisfied. “Things good,” he said, giving my arm a playful punch, not hard enough to hurt. “It’s only up from here.”
“Yeah,” I said, once more donning the mask of congeniality. It was a familiar fit, not to mention uncomfortable. “Yeah, things are good.”
(You just keep telling yourself that, Richard.)
Now I wished I hadn’t passed on that smoke. I shut the doubt out - for now. It would never be fully silenced. To hope otherwise was to fool myself. But I could hope it would stay quiet, at least until we got to the bar. There were better things to think about.
(Think about Kayla. You know you want to.)
It was quiet for the rest of our walk as I contemplated how often attempts to quiet one’s mind only result in your thoughts coming right back at you, screaming louder than before, a sort of mental f--k you. Sometimes the effort costs much more than it’s worth.
I would know.
If the parking lot at the run-down, shabby looking Fox’s Paw was anything to go off of, the exterior of the single storey dive hole made it look pristine by comparison. Flat roof, whitewash brick covered with various stains and the odd graffiti tag. I wasn't holding my breath for what was about to come next. One wonders how the urge to fill in one of those “Hello, My Name Is” stickers with such twaddle as “DABOMB-MEISTER, BI-OTCH!” came to be. Why, and to what end was another question; both a perfect waste of mental energy. I can’t say I ever experienced such creative desires. Maybe we’re just not supposed to understand these things.
Mitchell pulled the heavy door open, letting me enter first. With some apprehension, I walked through another door, propped open by a rubber doorjamb, and looked around. Weird, was the first thought to register. Seeing the outside property left little hope for anything the least bit tasteful, and even that was a stretch. For a weekend, the place was rather empty, only a few patrons here and there, the largest gathering at a table far off in the corner. A modest looking stage was set up nearby, void of instruments right now. How one would fit a single drum kit on there, let alone a group the size of Festering Brides was beyond me. Repulsive neon lighted beer signs and posters advertising some clash of the titans boxing match covered the walls. Dark-stained finish, cherrywood I thought, just like the large bar up front. The place sported many tables and chairs, for those who like to take their daily medicine in private, like the group in back, cigarette smoke wafting around half-empty glasses, deaf to the world outside their huddled conversation. Aromas of deep fryer oil, heavy with grease and burnt fries, hung in the air like a mist while a team of men and women in white coats visible from a narrow pass scrambled about the kitchen. A tattooed hand lifted a large white plate with a mountain of chicken wings glistening in a bright red sauce, ringing a nearby bell, while a bald, whiskered man in shorts and a Harley Davidson tee looked on in anticipation.
A far cry from high class, but not bad. Satisfied, we planted ourselves at the bar. Mitchell’s stool wobbled and rocked underneath him, and he cursed. There’s always a wobbly one. A well-muscled bartender noticed us sit down, wiped his hands on a rag hanging from his belt loop, tugged at the brim of his backwards cap, and came over, while a tired looking waitress passed by, holding the plate of wings by one hand.
The exchange of pleasantries was short, and to the point. “How do, friends?” he greeted us with a nod, which we returned. “What can I get ya?” His arm rested on a row of tap handles displaying a variety of liquid lunches. The little metal nametag pinned to his open collared shirt identified him as Zeke, or ‘Zee-Man’, according to the a.k.a. sticker. Screw that. Zeke it would be.
“Gastown amber,” I said, nodding at one of the handles, a long white rectangle advertising ‘Granville Island Brewing’. When in doubt, go with the local product. Mitchell ordered a bottle of Bud, Zeke nodded again and reached for a glass. “Nice place,” I said, glancing at the clock; seven-thirty on the nose. “It always this empty?”
“Only until about nine-ish when the late-night specials start, unless we got a band playing or it’s a Friday or Saturday.” He didn’t seem interested in small talk, holding the glass under a tap, pulling the handle without looking over at us.
“Maybe we play here sometime,” Mitchell said, resting his crossed arms on the countertop. “We’re in a band.”
“Not a bad idea,” I agreed.
Zeke the bartender brought over the drinks, sliding the Budweiser over to Mitchell and passing me a tall glass with a nice crown of foam, a faint stream running down the side. I began to relax. It looked like I was in the clear this time. We raised our drinks, first to the bartender, then each other. “To you,” I said.
“To us,” Mitchell responded. Another lift of my glass followed.
Zeke spoke again after the customary sip. “Oh, you’re musicians, huh? Let me guess: Metal.”
Mitchell showed a half-smile. “Are we that obvious?”
“Well, you’ll pardon my saying so, but I haven’t seen many guys your age who are into songs like 'Proud Mary' and 'Ride Sally Ride', which most of the prior performers have been.” Mitchell rolled his eyes at the mention of those song names, drawing a sympathy chuckle from the bartender. “So you see my point.”
“Nothing wrong with them, far as I’m concerned,” I said from behind my glass. “But you called it. We’re metal guys. We play in a five-piece group.”
The guy started to look interested. “Local?”
“What’s the name of it? What do you play?”
“Systex,” I said. “We don’t have a defined genre, we’re just... well, Systex, I guess.”
“It works,” Mitchell chimed in.
“Siss-ticks,” the bartender mulled the name over, wincing as though it hurt to say. “What kind of name is Systex, anyways?”
“You know, I been wondering the same thing, Richard. It’s not like anything I ever heard before.” This was true. No such word existed. Wiping a drip of foam from my lip, I shared the small history behind how the band name came to be. When it was just Adam and me in the beginning, one of us coined the moniker DeMeritt, combining our last names. We scrapped it pretty quick, hardly a creative one. By the time Jason came around, we’d been calling ourselves System, but it seemed to lack something, thus we added an X at the end. Then one day, it was actually the same day we placed the controversial ad that ended up bringing Kayla into the fold, someone wrote System X in sloppy handwriting, it came out looking like Systex. We joked at first, but the more we said it, the more it grew. Thus, we settled on the name Systex from here on in. And it worked.
“Interesting,” Mitchell said. “I’d always wondered but guess I never got around to asking.”
“You joined a band without knowing the name?” asked Zeke, looking at Mitchell, puzzled.
“I knew the name, not the why. Frankly, the why wasn’t important, just curiosity. I cared more about the music than the name. Long as there’s good sounds and good soul behind it, who gives a sh-t what it’s called?”
I couldn’t resist smirking. “Wait until we change our name to Rainbow Butterflies. Then tell me you still feel the same.”
His only response was to roll his eyes and take a large swig of beer while I laughed. “Sh-t, you do and we’re gonna have to have a talk. Be right back, gotta use the men’s.” He slid off his stool and wandered in the direction of the washrooms. Zeke took the opportunity to step back from the conversation and tend to the other bar flies, leaving me to sip and think. Doubts and worries about the QuikPawn window hadn’t left my head, though I’d managed to reduce them from near overwhelming worries to mere naggings. Who knows, maybe it was all just a coincidence, something entirely unrelated. Yeah, let’s go with that.
(If that’s true, why am I still here?)
God, self-doubt is a real b-tch sometimes.
I began to slip into that state of mind where time ceases to have any bearing, where seconds feel like hours, and the slightest movement seems an almost herculean effort, like trying to slog your way through quick drying cement. Some call it daydreaming. I called it boredom. Whatever it was, it drained my glass quicker than I was anticipating to the point where I didn’t even notice until the sharp voice of Zeke the bartender brought everything back to life. “Wow that was quick! You ready for another, big guy?”
Whoa... Staring into the empty glass was almost hypnotizing. “Sure, hit me again.” A fresh sleeve was presented to me a few seconds later. “Thanks.”
“That’s alright.” He looked around the room, fiddling with one of the buttons on his shirt. “So how long have you guys played for?”
“Well actually, I’m the singer. Only a handful of months, if we count the very beginning, but I’ve played guitar since I was ten, bass since twelve.”
“Nice! And you’re how old?”
“Eigh - nineteen,” I was quick to correct myself. That was close. Never mind my birthday was in May and it was only April. Let Zeke believe my lie.
He seemed to, nodding again and opening his mouth to reply when the tired waitresses passed by, leaned over the bar and said, “Hey! I need two more pitchers of Bud, stat!” Short, and definitely not sweet; her voice had a sharp, take-no-bullsh-t tone. “If,” she added, “it wouldn’t impose on your conversation.” Hmm, somebody missed her siesta, I thought, reaching for my glass while Zeke rolled his eyes as if to say “why me?” and headed back towards the taps. I’d taken another couple mouthfuls, savoring the taste of toasted barley, when a hand clamped on my shoulder. For the second time that day, I came dangerously close to spitting beer. I really had to work on that.
Adam took the seat to my left, having changed from the white sleeveless he’d worn at practice into a Dio tee, black of course, showing off the "Holy Diver" cover art. “Hey hey,” he said. “Sorry I’m late. Where’s Mitch?”
“Bathroom,” I said. “He’ll be back. What kept you?”
“Left my truck at home, bussed it. Damned if you’ll ever catch me drunk behind the wheel.” Good to know. Eyeballing my glass, he asked what I was drinking, ordering one for himself when I answered. “I’d have been here even sooner, but I got held up in town.”
“Oh, what’s up?”
“Dude, you’re never gonna believe it. The -” He stopped short, accepting his beer from Zeke, reaching into his pocket and producing a crumpled fiver, dropping it next to the glass. “Cheers Mate. Keep The Change.”
“Hey, thanks.” Zeke accepted the fiver and went away again.
After a long, satisfying sip, Adam started to talk again. “So yeah, while I was walking over here from the bus loop, I noticed -” His attention drifted again, staring all the way to the back of the bar, eyes narrowing. “What the hell is he doing?”
Oh for God sakes, not again. It didn’t seem to occur to Adam that starting to share something and then stopping so abruptly was teasing the lion in the cage when it came to curiosity. “Noticed what?” I almost shouted. “And who are you talking about?” I looked over, feeling my own brow knot up in confusion. “What...?” Up there on the dais was Mitchell, walking back and forth across it, arms held out like he was measuring something. He seemed too focused on the stage to notice the surly glances and mocking whispers coming from the huddled table nearby. After a few more seconds, he climbed down and walked over to the bar end, practically slamming his hands down on the countertop and once more bending the ear of Zeke the bartender.
“I wonder what they’re talking about,” Adam said, looking almost amused by the whole spectacle. How this was in any way funny was beyond me. The rest of the conversation was a perfectly timed tango of talk and listen. Mitchell pointed at the stage, making several exaggerated gestures with his hands. Zeke listened, scratching his chin and then counted numbers on his fingers which made Mitchell bite his lip, tilt his head to one side, and mouth something. If only either of us could read lips, we’d have stood a chance of figuring out what was being discussed. “That’s some weird sh-t,” Adam said, taking hold of his glass. Talk about an understatement! It soon ended with Zeke taking a card from a glass on the shelf behind him, writing something and sliding it over to Mitchell. He took it, pocketed it, shook hands with Zeke and came back to his seat. No mistaking the look of pride on his face.
“Hey, Adam, when’d you get ‘ere?”
“About five minutes ago. What’s going on with you?”
“Oh, I was asking about gigs.”
“Gigs?” we both asked.
“Yeah, I wanted to know how we’d go about getting one here. Nothing fancy, just a simple show to cut our teeth on before the Thrash.”
Did you, now? I thought. Part of me was irked at not being included in the discussions. The rest spoke volumes: Shut up and listen. So I did. Adam looked intrigued. Mitchell reached for his drink, took a swig, grimacing and remarking it was starting to go warm, put the bottle down and laid it out for us.
“So, basically, it’s a pay-to-play deal,” he said. “If we wanna do this, it’ll cost a deposit, plus we gotta sell the tickets first, no door sales.” Super. Sales - the last thing I ever wanted to do. Well, it could be worse. “It’s also bringing our own gear, obviously. Plus it was implied we indulge in some eat and drink, before or after. He gave me the number of the manager, said to call him tomorrow, he does the booking, can get all the details then.” He waited for a reaction. When none came, he asked, “Well, what you think, guys?”
Adam looked thoughtful. “It could work,” he said. “What kind of deposit are we talking about here? And how many tickets need to be sold?”
“I dunno, that’s what the manager’s for, I guess. We find out tomorrow. What say you, Richard?”
“I say we go for it, pending the others are down. The only problem is who are we gonna sell tickets to? We’re not the most popular guys around.”
“Meh, we’ll figure that part out. We’re surely not selling at mainstream Metallica, Judas Priest prices; that’s a f--king laugh!” That thought I refused to even allow. Try and sell someone a garage band ticket at headliner prices? You’d be laughed out of the bar. Then I had a better thought. “Maybe some of the Compton crowd would be easy targets, get Kayla to sell over there.” Adam and Mitchell agreed.
(You can’t let her go, can you?)
“Go to hell,” I muttered at the little voice, chasing with a large gulp of ale.
“Say what?” Mitchell asked.
“I said what the hell. If we can sell the tickets, let’s do this! It’s time for Brentwood, if not all of Vancouver to know that Systex is here and we’re here to stay!” The three of us raised glasses with a chorus of hellyeah’s and more sips.
And more sips.
The late night crowd was beginning to spill in. Pints were being pulled, shots poured, mountains of nachos and wings pushed up to the pass faster than you could blink. The three of us were on our third; if you didn’t count the round of Jim Beam consumed between numbers two and three. Music was getting louder, along with the conversation, and the world was getting a little blurry, though not so much that you couldn’t stand up straight or walk out on your own two feet. The decision was mutual. We settled up tabs and left. The cold, crisp night air was a welcome relief; it was getting hot in there. We began walking towards the sidewalk. Mitchell and Adam were laughing over some joke I hadn’t picked up on. Through the fog of beer, bourbon and wonder, my mind began spitting up prior images, sentences and harsh realities: Here I was; eighteen, illegally tipsy, away from home for almost three days, with no long-term decision about when, or if, I’d be going back. And then there was the matter of Kayla’s strange behavior around me, and the broken QuikPawn window, on the same day I’m given the almighty microphone. I didn’t remember at which point I began saying all this out loud, it only hit home when I saw them both staring back at me. Amazing how quickly a case of drinker’s remorse can materialize.
Mitchell looked at me like I’d begun speaking in Swahili, while Adam snapped his fingers. “Hey! That’s right, that’s what I was talking about earlier!”
“What?” Mitchell asked, completely clueless.
“I was telling Richard about it earlier, when I was coming over here. You know that QuikPawn place?”
Oh shut up, Adam, for the love of God, please shut up! I could hope and pray all I wanted, no amount of silent pleading would be able to stop what came next. “The windows were all boarded up! Somebody smashed the sh-t outta their windows!” Adam almost shouted. Mr. Beam’s fine product seemed to have hit him a little harder than once thought. Mitchell stopped dead in his tracks, as I could only cover my eyes and curse under my breath. It’s over, I thought. It’s all over...
Until I heard the words leave his mouth. “No! How f--king weird is that? I was only there yesterday. What happened?” I looked up from behind my hand, feeling my eyebrows twist and bend in what must have been a confused expression. That was an answer I wanted, too.
Adam stretched his neck to one side, and a loud pop sounded, making my stomach turn. I hated that sound. “I talked with a kid who works there; he was out sweeping the sidewalk -”
“Yeah, that’s him. Anyways, he mentioned closing up shop like normal on Saturday, then this morning he went to go open up and half the window’s missing, thanks to a big honking rock. And I’ll tell you the weird part: Nothing was stolen.”
I hadn’t heard him right, couldn’t have. It was all the beer on an empty stomach, had to be. It didn’t make any sense. “Did you say nothing?”
“Not a thing. The display case was emptied the night before. If anything, the vandal left stuff behind.”
Mitchell looked ready to fall down and start laughing. “Like what?”
“Trash, mostly. A lot of empty Molson bottles, a few broken ones, a Nirvana hoodie and a piece of paper that said ‘I hate you, a-shole!’” He blew a raspberry and shook his head. “This town gets weirder every day, I tell you.”
We all shared the next word - “Yep.” Then Mitchell began to laugh. Why? Who knows? Who cares? I laughed too, harder than he, to the point where we had to sit down on the curb and collect ourselves, Adam doing his best to suppress the laugh machine churning away. I felt like a proper idiot. This only made me laugh more.
“Well hey,” Mitchell said between titters, “if you’re gonna lose a hoodie, the guy lost the right one.”
“F--k you, I like Nirvana!” I cried. Adam shared my opinion. We didn’t stop laughing once, progressing into that fit of hysteria most common after wetting one’s whistle where you think everything’s the funniest thing in the world, and nothing can shatter your ‘good mood’, until you wake up the next morning with sore throats and cotton mouths. Oh well, nobody seemed to mind; better than trying to beat the rotten tar out of some random schmuck.
“Hey Richard,” Adam said when the festivities died down.
“I told you, you got a place to go for the meantime, until you sort shit out with your old man. We don’t call it a guest room for nothing. I’ll talk to mine tomorrow, I know he won’t mind if you crash for a little while.”
“Really, are you sure...?” The look he gave was good enough an answer for me. “Cheers.”
“Hey, we best friends exist for a reason.”
“You mean, besides for laying decent beats?”
“A-s,” he said with an amused snort.
Mitchell chuckled again, smacking my calf with a backhand. “See, what I tell you, man? Things are good.”
“Yes. Yes they are... Nirvana hater.” Cue another round of laughs. But then, wait a minute... I knew someone who had a Nirvana hoodie. The same person, who I also knew for a fact, drank Molson like water. Oh no...
It wasn’t hard to guess who the a-shole was that the note referred to. And just when I was beginning to hope I’d finally seen the last of her, too...