"Looking back at all the times that pass me by each day
Reminds me of what once was, but now has gone away
Now surely I would have seen it coming, seized the moment then
But it's obvious that what it was is another lie I told myself
Left here within my empty shell..."
Staring at the last page in my notebook, feeling lost among the fresh scribbles that blotted out over half the lyrics for the third time only deepened the sense of discouragement still lingering from the other day’s practice, adding to an already bleak Tuesday, rekindling a long nagging voice to book it and do something else while I still had a chance. Having spent a good portion of my free block wandering the campus, reading the song top-to-bottom, scratching whole verses out, re-writing only to scratch those out, I’d wound up at my locker, leaning propped against the open door, nose deep in pages, words no longer bearing any emotion. The likelihood of "Empty Shell" making it into the Systex setlist seemed dim.
It’s hard not to take it personally when something you’ve invested so much time and emotional energy into fails to pay dividends; failure leaves a bitter taste. Knowing the creative process didn’t produce any lemons along the way is even worse - the riffs Mitchell came up with weren’t bad, Adam
’s beats didn’t mismatch, nobody hated the lyrics, and yet the song just didn’t work. Most of Sunday’s practice revolved around that one song undergoing multiple transformations; thrash to groove to blues to some style nobody knew what to call. Jason
was most excited during its short-lived time in the realm of the blues, a chance to lean heavily on his musical roots. You couldn’t blame him for that.
By the time we finally said f--k it and went on to other songs, it was beginning to sound more like the sort of tune heard at a mournful gathering. All that was missing was the somber “We are gathered here today... ”, my voice taking on a lower brogue reminiscent of Cemetery Gates: Good, but not for me. Perhaps the music I listened to was a bigger influence on me than once thought. Nobody wanted to create a Pantera knockoff. The last thing I wanted was to end up being nothing more than a tribute vocalist doing covers in a two-bit tavern on karaoke night, surrounded by those with broken dreams who gave up on life long ago and now just watched the remnants of a sorry life drain away through the proverbial pint glass. Some of the guys wanted to keep working at it while others favored scrapping it altogether. With no practice again until Wednesday, all we could do was play the waiting game.
No offense Ernest, but killing your darlings is a task much easier said than done, I thought, continuing to stare down in the notebook, when a large shadow swallowed the thin rays of sunlight from the large window nearby. Hot, heavy air laden with an offensive cheesy odor assaulted my nostrils, enough to draw me away from the page, right into the gaze of an over-muscled, under-brained crew cut goon clad in a heavy leather jacket. “Hey Demin, how’s life down there?” came the mocking voice. A snarling grizzly looked on from the right breast pocket, the name opposite identifying the wearer as ‘McLeay’, known to the student body as number thirteen, Ryan McLeay, right tackle sub-par for the pitiable Brentwood Central Bears football team... one of the many jocks determined to make life at this intellectual hellhole more torturous.
“Get lost, Ryan,” I said, going back to the notebook. “Ain’t you got football things to worry about? Like how to actually spell it?”
McLeay’s pudgy hand swatted the notebook from my grip. It made a sound like someone swatting a fly with a wet towel, clipping my nose as it sailed through the air, landing with a soft thump some distance away. “Ya think you’re funny, don‘cha?” he snorted. “We don’t take that kinda crap, do we, Clive?” It was then I noticed his companion for the first time, a just as stupid looking, macho strutting dark-skinned oaf sans the jacket. Clive only gave a short nope in reply. He didn’t look as interested in hassling me as McLeay.
“That makes three of us then. Imagine that, we actually agree on something! Now bugger off, I got nothing to say to you,” I muttered, starting to move for my notebook, only to be deterred by a grip clamping down on my arm. The sheer size of McLeay’s hand seemed to swallow my entire shoulder before he gave a hard shove; my body crashing into the hard metal door, the impact making an echo in the adjacent locker. Bolts of pain traveled through my shoulder, down my arms and back.
“You better watch it, bitch! I’ll kick your a-s!”
“You don’t scare me, Ryan. I dunno what your f--king problem is with me nor care, your pathetic attempts to intimidate me won’t work.”
McLeay feigned awe. “Ooh, big words.” He glanced at Clive. “You get a load of this guy? Talkin’ all big and stuff, like he’s better than us, you believe this?” Focus back on me. “My problem is you: I don’t like you, I don’t like your face, and I don’t like knowing out of all the sperms, you were the fastest. You just remember where your place in line is.”
“Whatever.” Better is a strong word, I certainly think myself anything special—smarter, perhaps, but at least I had enough sense to know smarter didn’t mean better. Until such an encounter in the flesh, the thought that people like Ryan McLeay; pigheaded, sadistic goons with unhealthy obsessions with authority, existed only in movies and books seemed almost believable. Quite a rude wakeup call when reality hits.
“Man, Ryan, come on. Ease up,” Clive spoke up, a slight accent about him that I couldn’t quite identify. “Don’t blow a vein over this worm, he’s not worth it. Let’s just go.”
Thanks for the vote of confidence, Clive. Really appreciate it. Once more, I went to go fetch the notebook off the floor before the creases became permanent, leaving me with a double dog-eared cover.
“Shut up.” In talking to his friend, funny way to treat one, McLeay once more shoved me against the row of lockers, this time his hand pinning me in the narrow gap between door and the open nook that held nothing else but my guitar. To me he said, “I’m not done with you, f-g.” That last shove not only sent more pain through my upper body, it jostled loose the padlock on the door holding back the dumb and dangerous impulses, letting rationality reign supreme. A decision was made, one that had been mulled over for months, action held in check strictly by fear of a being no longer in the limelight of influence.
High school lost its appeal on me not long after my tenure—imprisonment seemed more fitting - began, when another one of life’s unfortunate truths reared its ugly head, and its function became clear: School was simply another word for the conformity paradigm adapted by so many of today’s public schools. Factory produce willing workers, strip away the ability to freely think and express; rebuild, rebrand and ready the cattle for a lifetime in the wonderful world of careers. Oh, and remember to look the other way should one of the young dare try and stand out only to find himself or herself at the mercy of their clique-y peers; mustn’t allow such unbridled original thought to see the light of day, no-no.
Well, the education bigwigs were about to watch their paradigm shatter. As far as this sheep was concerned, black always was an attractive color.
“No?” I said, pulling my back out of the gap, staring down my would-be bully. “Well, I’m done with you—you, and this whole f--king school.” Then I drew my arm back fast, bumping an elbow against the wall of lockers, and swung a tight, white knuckled fist at Ryan McLeay’s face, making direct contact. Pain danced throughout my hand amidst a sharp cracking sound. The first thought to strike was “Holy sh-t, I just broke my hand!” until I saw the blood, dark crimson globules, burst from his nose, some of which smeared the back of my fingers in long, fat streaks, while the bridge tilted away at a sharp angle from the rest of his face. But for the fight-or-flight, panic ridden moments, the sensation of the world around slowing to a crawl might almost be an almost euphoric experience, a theory that would have to wait to be tested.
McLeay yelled, hands releasing me, covering his mouth and nose, moving into a crouch. The only sound to come was the muffled groans coming from behind McLeay’s cupped hands. Clive stood rooted to the floor, his eyes moving rapidly from me, to his oaf friend, and back to me. His lips curled in a lopsided O, as if he were trying to whistle. “The f--k,” he whispered.
“That’s right. This worm bites back,” I said, glaring back at him. A bit anti-climactic, not to mention cliché, knowing I sounded like some deus ex machina ending to a cheesy B-level action movie fight scene; the kind that macho ‘he men’ like to cheer and pump their fists at after downing a few beers. He said nothing to me, moving over to the fallen McLeay, dragging him to his feet and guiding him down the hallway, showing a bit of common sense that surprised me. Without wasting the precious few seconds head start, I emptied my backpack of all but my personal effects, grabbed my guitar case and bolted for the front doors, leaving my locker door ajar which held little importance on my radar. Any lollygagging was sure to nail my coffin shut.
Scuffling noises traveled down the wide hallway, laced with raging profanities. No mistaking that noise: Ryan McLeay was gunning for my head. “Let go, dammit! I’ll kill him! I’ll murder the bitch, f--king let me go!” Perhaps Clive wasn’t as thick as I thought, seeing sense in trying to prevent further bloodshed, though likely not for my own benefit. The head honchos of Brentwood Central High didn’t take too kindly to fights of any kind—ironic, bullying is overlooked but woe to you if a single drop of blood was spilled—all the more incentive to get out while I was still alive.
McLeay’s heavy voice boomed from afar. “Demin, you’re dead! You hear me? F--king dead!”
I never did like those B movies, I thought, pushing open the main door to freedom. Speed-walking off the campus, I looked behind me once to make sure nobody was looking. The big door swung closed and stayed that way, no suspecting teacher or enraged jock strap coming for me. It didn’t dawn on me until I stepped onto the sidewalk opposite the school just how big a step I’d taken, the ramifications still up in the air like bingo balls cycling in the draw tank. What happened next was up to fate or luck, call it what you will.
I began to walk. No place in mind, and no care. Just walk and think. Sometimes that’s all you can do.
Hooky was not an unfamiliar game to me, having partaken in more than a few opportunities to give English or Math class the finger and engage in some independent study, the most common being the effects of the sticky green leaf on a teenagers’ songwriting ability or researching the local societal norms tender points and subsequent prodding of the more sensitive areas - wearing a Tomb of the Mutilated shirt through the local mall and observing the more colorful reactions, for example. Maybe it could be seen as teasing the lion in the cage in the eyes of some less liberal minded. Such assumptions were met with little more than a shrug. People shouldn’t be so uptight anyways. Wasn’t life more than being shackled to a nine-to-five, Monday to Friday prison sentence, complete with two and three piece suits, for forty plus years? Mine was. That much was certain.
The malls and coffee shops held little interest this cloudy afternoon. The urge to create was strong, gnawing away at me like a rabbit clutching a carrot while walking through the quiet downtown core, trying to enjoy the break in busyness before the rumblings of the hell on earth known as rush hour would shatter the solace of quaintness. Balancing a guitar case over the straps of an empty backpack was an uncomfortable challenge accomplished only by refuting the alternative: Carrying the case by hand, switching arms when one became too tired. No thank you, not without a firm destination in mind, and especially not with my hand still throbbing from the shot I’d delivered to McLeay. At least I could still move my fingers without much effort. No cracking sounds, none of my own blood spilled, and nothing to stop me from banging out a few tunes on the old GIO, I thought. Not a bad idea - if I wanted to play alone. This was an itch that could only be scratched with a second musician.
Go figure such feelings would stir on one of the two days the band couldn’t rehearse as a whole, darn Jason’s previous engagements. Not the work of Murphy himself, likely one of his evil brothers yanking the invisible chains instead. Adam would be out of town until nightfall, jamming with him wasn’t an option. For a second I pondered dropping by Arthur Compton to find Kayla, an idea thrown out as quickly as it was formed. Navigating that minefield of Goths and skateboarder wannabes was not a recipe for fun times. Let her find me, I thought, wandering further from downtown, my travels taking me towards the outskirts, otherwise known to the ‘civilized class’ as the point of no return.
Taking a walk through the outskirts was an even worse idea than hanging around the Compton grounds. I knew what to expect if I continued: Dive bars, dilapidated corner stores and scum pharmacies, not to mention a couple of suspicious looking greasy spoons emitting odors deemed unsafe for long-term inhalation, and the infamous Slum Row; home to hordes of homeless and penniless. Where the Brentwood destitute went, dozens of requests—many unintelligible, a few hostile - for spare change and a sympathetic ear were apt to follow. Spare change for what, I didn’t know nor wished to, nor was I eager to be swallowed by such a swarm. I had my sympathies for those unfortunate people, but sympathy does not equal safety. A lot of good a sad smile and aching heart did you when facing the sharp end of a broken whiskey bottle while its grimy wielder swung it inches from your nose, demanding your wallet and watch, lest he test his new toy out on some unsuspecting, innocent flesh. About facing back towards downtown, I went maybe a hundred feet, saying to myself “No way, no f--king way, thank you,” when another thunderclap idea struck, grinding my rapid pace to a halt. Thinking for a second, the negative and cynical muttering evolved into a “no f--king way” of awe and amusement, reveling in my own silliness before turning around again and pressing onwards. One avenue of opportunity still remained unexplored, and it didn’t require a journey through Slum Row to get there.
Another twenty minute stretch of walking led me past the Fox’s Paw bar, the outside of which looked uglier in the daylight. On a nearby pole, the letter board hanging alongside the entrance advertised Cuervo shots at two bucks a pop for their upcoming ladies night that Thursday. Reading the sign painted a gruesome mental image, two things that probably didn’t work well together spelling a recipe for certain disaster, a sight I didn’t care to ever witness. Walking past it, towards the less offensive looking slums where Mitchell resided, I spotted a fresh tag on the building’s south wall. Apparently that DABOMB-MEISTER schmuck had been compelled to inform any future patrons that he ‘IS THA MUTHAF--KIN’ KING, YO!’
...And I’M the weirdo?
Crossing the street at the direction of the chirping little man in white, I hoped Mitchell would be home and otherwise unoccupied, making a trek this far out on foot for nothing would be a real pain. No sooner was I across the walk than my question was answered. The heavy, distorted sound of pulsing bass rang across the makeshift parking lot, leaving my eardrums vibrating deep inside my head like a suppressed echo. It was safe to assume that none other than Systex’s co-guitarist was responsible for the overdose of decibels now rattling the complex, which a sign identified as Meridian Mews, to its core. Amazing none of the neighbors were complaining, much less going around with shotguns, kicking in doors and delivering a healthy supply to buckshot into the offending stereo. Something I wouldn’t put past certain folk.
From outside, it was impossible to tell in which unit I would find Mitchell, they all looked the same: Bland white doors, white walls, narrow and dangerous looking staircases on either side of the upper walkways; the word conformity did this place an injustice. Looking around, it was a lucky guess which door to start at, no apartment directory or buzzer listing to be found. The blaring music seemed to envelop the entire building like a mosquito net, no help there, either. Until by sheer luck, I spotted a row of white crosses hanging in front of one of the windows on the second level, the dark outline of sinister looking hands hovering above them, clutching rows of taut string. I didn’t even have to read the large ‘Metallica’ to know which door I needed.
The higher I ascended the nearest stairs, the louder the music. By the time I reached the door, I could feel my eyes beginning to bounce along with the music. Thanks to the sheer noise, the toneless buzzing bass lines, one couldn’t tell whether if it was Pantera or Pink Floyd. I banged on the door hard as I could, a small voice in the back of my mind insisting it a futile act. True it was. The music blared on. F--k it, I’m all for loud music, but even this is insane, I thought, kicking at the door until silence finally descended on the complex, with much relief to all except the man behind the door. Strings of profane slurs rang out while the doorknob twisted and jiggled.
The door flung open mid-sentence. “- first time, for God sakes, I said I’d have -” Mitchell’s chubby face stretched with surprise upon seeing me. The cigarette butt pinched between his lips fell to the carpeted ground. “- it?” He stood there, a one-size-too-small wifebeater tucked into his wrinkled jeans, a poor attempt at covering up a large gut. “Richard?” he asked, reaching out with a shoe to grind the butt out before it began smoldering.
“Hey Mitch, what’s going on?”
“Eh... yeah, it’s going alright. What you doing here?”
“Good to see you too.”
“No, man, no, course it’s good to see you. I was just expecting someone else. Come in.” He stepped away from the door; waving me through, closing it once I was inside.
“Who was it you’re expecting?”
“Kayla,” he said, adjusting his shirt. “I got something to give to her. I thought you were enslaved today?” It was a nice euphemism.
“Oh, okay,” I said. Looking around, I was surprised to find the apartment interior spotless. Not even a single dirty dish in the sink. The tiny hallway led past the just as tiny kitchen, into a modest living room spotting only a beat up couch and a mammoth stereo resting on a row of concrete blocks, the same stereo I that assumed had treated the rest of Meridian Mews to an unhealthy dose of loud. “I was enslaved, until an altercation with the King Kong of the Brentwood Bears made different plans.” He gave me a deer in the headlights stare, prompting me to try again. “Ryan McLeay and one of his merry men started messing with me in the halls. Wasn’t in the mood for his crap, busted his beak a good one and booked it out of there, post-haste.”
“Shut up!” As if I was just having him on. “You dared scrap with Muscles McLeay?”
Muscles McLeay... I winced at the fantastically stupid nickname, holding my hand in front of his face so he could see for himself. Mitchell squinted, moved his face closer, and then started to laugh. “Oh buddy! Ha, ha! I love it, way to go!” He clapped me on the shoulder. “Of course you know you’re dead the next time he sees you.”
“Who said I’m going back?” He looked confused. “I’ve had it with that hellhole, man. If I stay there another day, I’ll shoot myself.”
“Serious?” A question about as pointless as screaming “Are you hurt?” at a major traffic accident. He seemed to realize this almost right away. “Well, what are you going to do now?”
“Now,” I said, “I was hoping we could just jam for a while, if you’re not busy. Just - got the itch, you know? As for tomorrow and the day after, well... well, we’ll just see, won’t we?”
Mitchell looked at me for a long time without uttering a word. For a second, I had legitimate wonders if he was about to give me a lecture on the importance of school. Then his face broke into an excited grin, raising his large hands high in the air. “Well, all right, dude! Hell yeah, I got nothing else planned, let’s rock!” Our hands met for an enthusiastic double high-five. “Don’t worry. I got extra juice you can plug your axe into. Hey, maybe we get Kayla to join in for a bit when she comes.”
“We could. Hopefully the neighbors won’t come storming the gates once we really start tearing away,” I said, alluding to the prior stereo madness.
“Oh to hell with ‘em,” Mitchell said, blowing a raspberry. “They never notice. I think I’m the only guy in the goddamn complex that doesn’t shoot up or snort.” Comforting, I thought, following Mitchell into what might have been a bedroom, if a large mass of spare amps, effect pedals, even a primitive looking speaker setup hadn’t already laid claim to the room, along with a sea of twisted cords littering the floor. “Welcome to the cave of wonders,” he said.
Only in music stores had I ever before seen so much equipment occupy a small space. “Holy,” I said, gazing around the room in awe. “You own all this stuff?”
“No, I robbed the local Tom Lee Music before I moved to B.C,” he replied, overdoing the sarcasm. “It’s mostly second-hand stuff, hardly top of the line.” He reached for his guitar hanging on the wall. “Oh by the way, you get anywhere else with the Empty Shell lyrics?”
“Nah, I dunno man, it’s not working out. They just don’t want to fit with the rest of the song.”
“So kill them,” he said, twisting the tuning keys and striking the corresponding strings.
I was indignant. That’s it? Just kill them? “Hey, do I tell you to just kill any sucky riffs you write?”
For a second, I feared that last line was apt to trigger an ugly debate. Mitchell just flashed that half smile of his. “No, you don’t. But unlike you, I’m able, and willing to cut away dead flesh without fretting about like a silly. If it sucks, move on. Keep hunting for the next gem.” Ouch. That seemed a little below the belt. I stood there waiting for an apology. None came. “Well, you gonna hook up to some pow-air or not? You said you wanted to play.” His abruptness caught me off guard.
I began to slip my arms out of the shoulder straps. “Which amp should I use?” Mitchell pointed at a Marshall cabinet close by. Interesting, I thought, unzipping the case. I’d never played on a Marshall before, this would be a first.
“You’re not a crappy writer,” Mitchell said, flicking the power switch on his own setup. God, it’s like he can read minds. “You think I never made a bad song before? Just try again, no shame in starting over. You can do it.”
Well, at least one of us was optimistic.