Off I was bright and early the next morning with a new pair of work boots and a bleak heart; joining a workforce I still had little interest in and having watched my remaining money disappear in order to buy the boots. I didn't care if the sale price was so fantastic it couldn't be refused or that the investment would be yielding great cash dividends with a bit of patience, handing over almost fifty bucks at once just hurts sometimes. Adam had gone ahead of me to where a large foundation had been dug. A small forest of fresh lumber lay scattered around the field, some still wrapped in tight plastic bundles while groups of men hammered nails, operated circular saws that screamed like banshees while mowing through one of many planks and demonstrated a fine commandment of a language that could be described by certain people as sacrilegious. Watching all this with wonder and a bit of reluctance, I walked through the gate and told the first guy I saw, a roly-poly figure wearing an obnoxious bright safety vest that I wanted to speak to someone named Big Bear.
"Well you don't have to look far,
" the man said, tipping back his dirt caked hardhat. "Barry Taylor's the name, of Taylor Construction Limited. You the guy Adam told me about?
“I hope so,” I said. “I’m Richard Demin.” One look and it was plain to see why this Big Bear had been bestowed such a moniker. He looked like a man who might have considered a career in the fascinating world of sumo wrestling had he been shorter and born in Japan. He stood a good head above me, eyes moving all over like he was sizing me up like a predator trying to decide if I would be a tasty morsel. Compared to him, I felt like a skinny little twig. Only once before had I met someone taller than me. The same person who also spent a great deal of time trying to make my life at Brentwood Central High hell on earth and was sure to be sporting a broken nose for the next few weeks so the less I saw of him, the better. Big Bear unfastened the hideous vest and walked towards what looked like a small trailer sitting close to the dug foundation, beckoning I follow. I don't know why such a thing was needed on what looked like a simple job site. Then again, I knew nothing about construction at all. Perhaps it was better this way.
If I thought the trailer looked small from the outside, I got quite a surprise once I stepped inside. Taking a look around, I was surprised there was room for the little desk and two chairs by the door, to say nothing of the bookshelf and small file cabinet, both looking ready to burst at the seams, jammed with many a file folder and binders. He invited me to have a seat, taking the chair behind the desk. Fine joke on me, I barely managed to fit on the silly thing. It reminded me of one of those chairs you saw in elementary school classrooms, the kind that fastened to the desk. With the two of us alone in the little office, away from prying ears, I felt a bit of honesty was in order. It may not do a budding applicant any good to admit to his prospective boss right out of the get go that he knows jack shit about what he’s doing but I tried to reason with myself, (or make one final excuse, depending on your point of view) that if you lie through your teeth, get out on the site and then make an ass of yourself or worse, get injured, how's that going to be any different?
Bear, (he told me to call him that for short, made things easier for everyone, allowed him a bit of dignity) appreciated my honesty and told me in no uncertain terms that "ya don't need no fancy piece-a paper saying you're a genius to do this job. If you got guts, muscles and aren’t afraid of hard work, you’ll learn quick. We dig, frame, cleanup and move on to the next one. This whole lot looks empty right now but mark my words, by year’s end, we’ll have a good number-these cussed townhouses standing." That didn’t sound so bad.
"Can ya lift heavy stuff?" he asked. I said I could, though the super heavy things may take a bit of assistance to get going. "Fair enough, can ya take directions without being a smart mouth?" Of course I could, deciding not to share my true feelings for the concept of breaking one’s back in pursuit of the almighty dollar while it began to dawn on me that really all I was doing was swapping one set of dictators for another. Then again, the formers at my soon to be ex-school didn’t offer the temptation of cash for my efforts so it couldn’t be seen as total slavery.
"You're not a sissy are you; not afraid of getting dirty?"
"Well, I was no stranger to a mud pie or two as a child," I said. He didn't laugh or even crack a smile. "No, I'm not."
This seemed to convince him. He said we would try each other out for two weeks, see how things worked out. We shook hands, by which I mean his giant mitt swallowed mine, and I was sent off to be fitted with a hard-hat, safety goggles and tool belt. F--k me, give me one of those ugly vests and I look like one of the Village People, I thought before heading onto the main site, contemplating all things man will do in the name of commerce.
By the end of the first day I had pounded hundreds of nails, hauled around what must have been close to half a ton of lumber and sweated through every layer of clothing and then some. When I climbed into the truck with Adam at the end of the day, he asked my thoughts on how the day went. Eyes dry and itchy from all the sawdust and drywall, I took one look at him and offered what may have been the wisest thought I’d had in a long time:
"If this is what you call doing a favor for a friend, for God sakes please make sure that whatever life throws at us, I never end up on your enemies list."
It took Adam a while to slip the key into the ignition, he was laughing so hard. "If you thought today was hard, you're going to love tomorrow if the forecast is right about that rain. Oh, and a word of advice: You can't do the dorky-faced 'sorry, I'm new' routine for long with Bear," he said, still tittering.
Oh goody, I can't wait. Why didn't I buy that mammoth can of coffee at Walmart last night...?
The next couple of weeks went something like this: Wake up, shower, eat, change, go haul around tools and wood for eight hours, go home, shower, practice, eat, write/play/hang, sleep, dream. And hurt. Oh God, hurt! Carrying my guitar after that first day was almost agony. Every muscle in my body felt like it was on fire. I wasn’t too sure if that which does not kill me really did make me stronger or just made me wish I were dead. Well, some of the guys on the crew did say I'd be building muscle fast with this job. I was starting to believe it.
My own pain aside, for once I was more concerned about someone else’s well being. After the Showdown in Shanty Lane, if Kayla showed up to practice sporting bruises or bloodied bandages, I was sure to hate myself for quite some time. She probably would too and I wouldn't blame her.
She didn’t. While looking no worse for wear, damage seemed to have been done on the inside. She spent all of that day’s practice holding onto that guitar, refusing to put it down once. She wouldn’t loosen the strap even when it began winding around her neck like a textile serpent wrapping its coils around its prey. What surprised me was the way she kept her distance from me the entire time, unable to look at me. Each split-second glance shot away from me like a bullet from a gun as soon as I looked at her. She’s mad at me, was my first thought. Sneaking glances at her as practice dragged on, it dawned on me that I had it wrong. The glowing coals I’d seen in her eyes before weren’t there, the colors a listless fog, empty, broken. It didn’t affect her playing in the slightest; quite the opposite, her focus unwavering. Emotional, not intellectual disconnect. Our eyes briefly met again, hers snapping right back to the patch of concrete she pretended was so fascinating.
That’s when it clicked. It wasn’t anger. She was scared. F--king scared of me! What in God’s name for? Scared that I was mad at her? As if somehow I blamed her for almost having my brains beaten in by that drunken, bat-wielding buffoon of a father and now I didn’t feel for her anymore? Sure, scratching my face I could forgive, but this was immortal sin? Bullsh-t. She told me to run and I didn’t. She warned me and I ignored—my own fault.
During down time I slipped off my guitar, rested it on my case, walked towards her. I wasn’t having it. After all the hoops we’d been made to jump through in order to solidify the group, no way was I going to allow it to fracture. Not again. She saw me coming and looked ready to curl up in a ball and pretend I wasn’t there, which annoyed me more than it hurt me.
“What’s up with you?” I asked, keeping my voice low. Not that I needed to fear being overheard, the braying laughter of Mitchell and Jason sharing a joke by the couch drowned out everything else. “You’re acting like you expect me to hate you after last night.” She didn’t answer, just stood there staring at her feet like a child receiving a talking-to. I didn’t know whether to continue, wait until later or just forget it altogether. “He - didn’t take it out on you, did he?” She shook her head. “You’re sure? Because I’ll really hate myself if he did.”
Finally she spoke. “No. Just yelled a lot like he always does, threatened to burn my guitar in front of me if I kept wasting my time with you guys. Not for the first time either. He doesn’t have the balls to do anything else.”
“Yet you’re here anyways...?”
She scoffed. “Like I said, not the first time I’ve heard it. You watch, by tonight, he’ll be too focused on yet another f--king case of Miller f--king Lite and pretending to know how to assemble some model f--king engine block to remember I even exist.”
Yikes. I liked my F-words as much as the next profane linguist but even I had limits. “And what, your mom just lets this happen?”
Snort. “Yeah right, she’s as gone as he is. In case you haven’t noticed, I don’t actually have parents, just a pair of dopey f--king drunks whose biggest woe in life is that I had to be born and spoil the party.” I kept expecting her to start crying, her voice sounded so weary and sad, robbed of the happy yet cocky sing-song I was coming to adore. Perhaps she’s cried herself dry, I thought with a sinking heart.
“Why don’t you get the hell out of there?” I asked. “Find somewhere safe, go tell the cops, child services, anyone?” Her reaction was sharp. “Sorry, stupid of me.”
Her face softened a little. “Since it’s you, I’ll ignore it this time. It’s not that simple, though. Look at me. I go complaining about stuff at home, they’ll take one look at me and write me off as just some young punk with attitude issues. You know what those pigs think of us.” Unfortunately I did, having been called many things by some of the more world-weary ones. Miscreant, hooligan, the list of unflattering labels went on. Serve and protect... Ha! “Unless I show up at a cop shop bleeding from my head,” she added. “Even then, I have my doubts.” That was a mental image I could have done without.
“Thanks, by the way, for what you did last night.”
“What? For making sure some homely sticky-fingered troglodyte didn’t decide to help himself to your ‘forgotten’ guitar?” I waved as though I was long used to belligerent loudmouths wielding blunt objects inches from my face.
“That too,” she said. “But I think you know what I mean.”
I did. “Hey no problem, I was feeling sleepy anyways, the adrenaline boost woke me up.”
She smirked, punching me in the arm, a playful pop that wouldn’t have crushed a fly. Then she kissed me on the cheek, which Jason spotted.
“Aw go on, guys, get a room would you?” he teased. “This is The Garage, not The Grotto.” Oh brother.
“Hey Jase, ” Kayla replied, showing him a finger that she’d forgotten to put a ring on, “right here, buddy.” I expected him to get p-ssed off, instead he laughed, surprising the both of us. “That’s a real nice hat,” she added. “It’d be a real shame if something happened to it.”
“Ooh!” Mitchell hooted as if we were all in school watching the principal tear a strip off a troublemaker in front of the student body.
Jason’s face turned the color of his hat and he pointed a finger at her. “Hey now, them be fighting words where I come from!”
“Yee-haw,” Mitchell whispered loud enough for Jason to hear. Soon the whole Garage was filled with laughter, intensified by Adam returning with a six-pack of cans after his inspection of the fridge’s beer levels turned up nothing more than an empty fridge and pretending to lament at always being left out of the fun.
Work on the instrumental piece was slow at best as the week progressed, optimism fading each day. Soon it began to feel like we were forcing it to work instead of allowing it to mellow and develop like a fine wine - signs that it was heading for that intangible realm where rejected songs go to die. While nobody was to blame for this development, I felt some of the responsibility fall on my shoulders. This construction job was like an eight-hour workout, and it wasn’t always easy to be pushed to the physical limit and then try and channel the muse. Maybe other musicians work contrary to this and would disagree but like snowflakes, no two are created equal. One positive thing to take away from it was the fact that it wasn’t me dragging my heels, trying in vain to bring it back to life long after it had flatlined. I was well ready to cut it loose and go on to something else. This time Mitchell was the one champing at the bit, seemingly determined to go down with the ship. He liked the idea way more than he did relying on a cover for our future Thrash setlist.
“I’m not against playing covers,” he explained at practice on Thursday, “sometimes there’s nothing better, but what goes to my mind is if the promoters have to issue a rule about one cover only, then either A: They don’t want tribute bands participating -” a notion that everyone agreed was no way to open up for a band like Black Heart Legions, or any band for that matter, “- or B: The local music scene is seriously lacking in original talent.”
Unlikely. Brentwood was the kind of city where if you were underage, into metal, subscribed to a ‘f--k the whole terrible, cold world’ attitude (or all three in severe cases) you did not have a whole lot of entertainment options available except play or listen to music for hours on end. Unless you were willing to hop a bus or the SkyTrain down to Vancouver, where there were more age-friendly options to choose from depending on how much you were willing to reach into your wallet for until night fell. Come dusk, the only thing that seemed to be open was all of Granville Street and its many ‘happenin’ nightclubs and hotspots that if you didn’t have the right age or I'd it was tough titty said the kitty and you were stuck wandering the street end to end for hours watching everyone else have a good time... But that was another story.
“I doubt there’s a lack of original talent in the city,” I said. “The question is how many of these voices are able to rise above the din and be heard, and how many countless others are either silenced or ignored altogether?”
“Touché. Back home, metal is so underground, we don’t even know where or when a local show is unless you know the right people.” Ouch. Remind me not to visit there anytime soon.
“Wow, a metal secret society. Cool.” Kayla had a dreamy look at the thought.
“Not so cool playing telephone for hours just to go rock out. Hopefully it’ll change with time.”
Adam was spinning a drumstick between his fingers, lost in thought. “I’m down for us putting together an all-original set for this thing, I can agree with Mitch’s point. If the whole idea is to show the band off; ‘this is who we are, this is what we’ve got to say,’ throwing in any cover, even a classic, won’t help convey the message. We don’t want to use it as a crutch or anything.”
“I don’t think anyone wants that,” I said. “That’s even worse than trying to force-feed this... Song, half-breed, whatever. It’s like telling the crowd ‘Hey, we couldn’t think of anything better to play!”
“Yeah but let’s not go crazy here. We’ve still got time until the contest,” Jason reminded us. He pulled at his bass’s low string a couple times, his amp spitting out a droning low D. Dun... Dun... Dun... Then he asked Adam, “Do we have to submit a setlist ahead of time to whoever’s running this thing?”
Adam looked shocked at the idea. “That would be a first. I’ve never heard of such a thing, course I suppose in some parts of the world some inexperienced control freak might impose such a stupid rule.”
“Adam, you’ve never competed before,” I said.
“I know. I’ve been in the audiences before though, hung out with some of the bands, never heard of anything like this before.”
“All I’m saying,” Jason tried to regain control of the conversation, “is that we shouldn’t get so sidetracked that we lose the whole point. Mitch, you’ve said it before when we’ve jammed at your place: If it doesn’t work, kill it.”
“If you have any ideas, throw ‘em out, I’d love to hear ‘em,” said Mitchell, his words sounding harsher than he probably intended. He looked tired, perhaps coming to his own acceptance that this feeble attempt of a song was beyond salvation. Jason had to admit that he had none.
I noticed Kayla hadn’t said a single word since hitting the pause button on playing. She sat cross-legged on the ground with guitar in hands, appearing to be off in her own little world, in such deep focus that for a brief second, I wondered if she’d even blink an eye if someone reached out and plucked one of those bright bubblegum strands right off her head; a curiosity I was not willing to risk bodily injury for. “Uh... Kayla?” I asked.
“Hello you,” she said without looking up.
“Have you been paying any attention?”
“Not a word,” she said with a cheery peep, her face set in a content smile while her tiny fingers climbed up and down the neck of her guitar, attacking the fretboard at speeds which only a hummingbird stood a chance of keeping pace with while her right hand seemed to work on its own accord, impossible to tell which strings were being struck. “I just hear a bunch of babble going around in a circle, ‘blah blah blah, song doesn’t work, covers are a no-no, now what?’ Ho hum, same old song and dance.” She stopped playing long enough to look up at the varying degrees of surprise and annoyance aimed at her. All she did was shrug and say, “Sorry, but it’s true. No offense guys but I came to play music, not politics.” Then she went back to playing the same high-speed pattern, a tune I wasn’t quite able to make out with her guitar unplugged from the amp.
“Richard?” Jason’s perplexed tone captured my attention. He was giving me a funny look. “What you smiling about? What’s so funny?”
“No f--king clue,” I said. And it was the truth. “Must be one of those involuntary reflexes, you know?” The sound of Kayla laughing softly through her nose gave me a pretty good idea what I had been smiling at.
Adam broke in, asking Kayla what she thought about our dismal instrumental. “Honestly, I have no feelings toward either. Whatever the decision, I’m a hundred percent okay with it. If we’re keeping it, then keep it. If not, move on to something else. Decide quickly either way, less talky, more play-y.” I winced. I’m no grammar Nazi but my tolerance for abuse of the English language can only go so far.
Mitchell cocked his head. “Speaking of this, uh, play-y, what’s got you so distracted?”
“Just a little ditty I’ve been practicing,” she said, eyes glued to the ground, making occasional shifts to her hand wrapped around the fretboard.
“Let’s hear it.” Excited sounds of agreement followed. “Maybe we can use it.”
“Almost done, wait.”
“Aw come on.”
“I said wait! I just have to finish this last part.” Confused looks were exchanged. The Garage went quiet, except for the muted twangs from Kayla’s guitar. Perhaps unable to wait, Mitchell walked up to her amp, reached for the patch cord and, before any of us could cry out and stop him, plugged it in. The screechy buzzing shook Kayla from her hypnotic concentration. She twitched so violently, I was sure we were about to watch that guitar take flight. Only a very tight grip prevented this.
“God, what the hell?” she almost shouted, putting a hand to her chest. “You scared me half to death! Do I come over there and jam a plug into your amp while you’re strumming away on something?” She looked offended.
By the look on his face, Mitchell seemed to worry she was one step away from jamming that proverbial plug into some sensitive area of his anatomy. “Eh...” he started to say, before deciding no form of tease or joke was going to work this time. He settled on a subdued “Sorry.”
“Next time, be a little more patient. Damn!” Before she resumed playing, she asked Adam if there was a metronome she might borrow.
Adam stared at the boxes galore scattered around The Garage, and at the back wall shelves. “I’m sure I have my old one somewhere in this... Collection. What do you want it for?”
She shrugged again. “No particular reason. Just wanted to see how fast a beat I was playing at, that’s all. There’s no soul in one of those things anyways.”
“Playing what?” the impatient cry came from Mitchell while I tried not to laugh. Oh, she is a tease.
She laid her guitar across her lap, cracked her knuckles, and picked it up again, finding her position. “Don’t blink. You might miss something,” she said with a smile before treating the four of us to a stunning display of technical mastery and artistic flair sewn together like two pieces of fabric: a high-speed once-through of the infamous "Flight Of The Bumblebee", a song both revered and reviled by musicians worldwide. I’d heard wannabes try and show off their talent playing that song on guitar before and was often unimpressed with the missed notes, wrong scales and facial expressions that made it seem like they were seconds away from dropping dead mid-song. Kayla put those posers to shame, running through the song with ease, looking almost bored with her efforts. Looking around the room, all the guys were sharing the same dead fish impression.
I expected applause when she finished with a grinding chord, killing it almost at once with a quick palm-mute and a self-satisfied smirk. Instead, everyone sat around in shocked silence, the only noise coming from one of Adam’s drumsticks slipping from his hand and clattering on the concrete. Nobody paid it attention.
“Hoe-lee sheet,” Mitchell cried after a moment, accent ringing through loud and clear. “I-you-sheet!” He seemed at a loss for other words. So did everyone else.
Kayla smiled again. “It’s alright, eh?”
“It’s alright, she says.” Mitchell swore again. “Normally I hate that Bumblebee song, but that’s wicked. Why don’t we throw that in?”
“Into our Thrash set?” asked Adam. He didn’t seem to notice he’d dropped the stick, hand dangling over the lip of his snare.
“Yeah I know, I’ve been preaching all original songs, but think about it. How many bands you know play that?” He pointed at Kayla. “Most of the groups out there today, they wanna cover Metallica, Judas Priest, that sorta stuff. If we arranged Bumblebee for metal, it might give us a distinct advantage.”
The idea was mulled over for a few moments before Jason spoke up. He was frowning. “I don’t know. I mean I get it, but it doesn’t strike me as the kind of song a whole band can perform, you know? It doesn’t seem very ‘us.’ How do you put an aggressive twist on a classical song?”
“Over-drive,” Mitchell suggested. Jason gave him a look.
“Let’s give it a try,” I said, getting up from the floor, going over to my case. “Maybe it’ll work, maybe not. Sitting on our asses won’t accomplish anything.”
Adam looked skeptical but intrigued. “What the hell. Let’s go.”
“Now this is what practice should be like,” I said, feeling the excitement begin to churn inside me like a well-oiled machine. I looked at Kayla. “I don’t want to play politics either.” She seemed pleased. So was I. So what if it didn’t work? The point is we would have tried and we would have a good time regardless.
This was going to be fun, I thought. And it would be. Fun times are something I’m never opposed to.