Kayla didn't stick around long enough for Adam to get caught up on how the peacemaking mission went. We'd barely been back at The Garage five minutes before she collected her guitar and went home. I was expecting her to throw every curse word in her dictionary at Jason, or simply shrug it off and reiterate her earlier opinion about wound-lickers having no business in a band. Instead, she reverted to her quiet and distant mode, uttering little more than a meek "I'll see you guys Friday" before leaving. She looked ready to cry. I wanted to go after her, the wiser part of me knew better than to this time.
While Kayla's reaction surprised me, Adam's didn't: Denial, followed by endless questions woven with an optimistic insistence that we'd somehow gotten the facts mixed up; the whole situation was nothing but a comedy of error, that's all. He was careful to use 'we' in his assertions, "we're mistaken," not "you're mistaken." After a fight with a close friend, no matter how minor the scrimmage, you're often much more careful with your choice of words. My father used to call people like that 'eggshell walkers.'
"He actually said it?" asked Adam, clutching a beer can so tight that the thin aluminum was crinkling around his fingertips. "You're sure?"
My own can was empty before Adam even cracked his open. "Like I've told you dude. I know what I heard, okay?"
"I know, I'm not saying you're wrong, it just seems -" He flailed a hand through the air before sighing and taking a long swig. "Hell, I don't know what." He finished his can off and asked if I wanted another, more of a formality than anything else since he brought me a fresh one anyways, taking the empties and tossing them into the blue bin. I cracked it while Adam eyeballed his then put it back. We both knew it wasn't a wise idea to toss back so many dead soldiers when facing another early morning workday, but I didn't care right now. "Where this starting a band with Mitchell idea came from, I'd like to know."
"Your guess is as good as mine. Maybe his dad got confused, misheard things. He did think I was Mitch."
"Hey, that sort of thinking's my job. 'Moderation Merritt', remember," he tried to joke. I allowed a smirk. "You're right, though. We'd have heard something about that long ago. You don't start side projects and keep them secret for long. Mitch hasn't said a word about being unhappy with Systex." True that. "What really gets me is why he didn't say anything to us before?"
I shrugged. "Who knows why? Why this, why that? Why anything?" I pulled one of the Thrash ads off the whiteboard, the tape peeling with a crisp sticky sound, meaning to crumple and throw it out. Instead I threw it over my shoulder, not bothering to care where it landed. "So much for that," I muttered.
Adam didn't seem to like that. "So that's it? We give up, just like that?"
I shrugged. My head was starting to feel light from swallowing those tallboys with no solid food in my stomach since lunch. "What else do we do? Kick Jason out and find another guy half as talented and cross our fingers? Look at what we went through just to get to where we are."
(Look where you could have been if you'd bothered to just shut up and play.)
Adam stared blankly at me. "No. I'm not having this bullsh-t. It doesn't work that way. Don't act like this has all been for nothing. I know you better than that. We all want Systex to work, no doubt, but you've wanted this more than the rest of us, combined. The Richard Demin I know didn't give up on a certain guitarist just because everyone else didn't look past the surface and realize the hidden talent. He didn't give up on this contest when others rejected it out of hand."
"You mean when Jason rejected it," I said.
Adam didn't stop. "That speech you made right before we voted, are you kidding me? I know without a doubt that we wouldn't even be talking Thrash if you hadn't said anything."
"I suppose so. But -"
"But, nothing. You look me in the eye and tell me you can just give up and walk away from this."
I was silent for a long time, the armies of thought and emotion waging war within me, casualties piling up on either side. Adam folded his arms, awaiting my answer. It seemed ridiculous to even have to think it over. Does a drowning man think it over when the rescue boat throws him a rope? Finally, I opened my mouth. "I know what you're trying to say, Adam and I appreciate it. I do. What else can we do though? I'm being serious when I ask this, don't fly off the handle. Say we just continue as normal as if nothing ever happened. We're still going to lose a member before the contest."
"Only for the summer, he'll be back in the fall."
"Yeah but what if he doesn't come back, decides over the summer that it's not worth it in the long term, or finds a better group to play with?"
Adam crossed the room and sat behind his drums while I was talking. He selected a fresh pair of sticks from his holder and gripped them tight. If I didn't know better, I'd have thought he didn't pay attention to anything I said. "You play bass, right?"
"Huh? Yeah, I can. What does it matter?"
"Then that's our solution. Friday, after we hash things out with Jason, you start learning the bass parts so you can fill in for the contest while he's back home. God forbid he should decide not to return, we can still play while we find his replacement. Speaking of which, plug in." He stood up and turned on his old boombox, spinning the volume dial until a familiar acoustic intro was the only thing I could hear. "Play," he mouthed, pointing a stick at my guitar case. "The night is young."
I didn't know where to begin. "Hang on," I was almost shouting over the din, "it's not that simple. We can't just -"
"We can and we will," Adam grinned. "Now, play!"
I scrambled to pull the GIO out and get set up before the acoustics faded away and the grinding lead-in to Beneath The Remains took over. In spite of the blitzkrieg set up and lingering lightheadedness, I was able to capture the rhythm pretty well and by the end of the first verse, I could feel the worries and tensions of the day begin to drift away, not entirely but enough to have a good time. Touch, Adam. But our discussion is far from over. Many details still needed ironing out, not the least of which was where on Earth I was going to find a bass to use.
Then again, most good things in life start off as nothing more than an idea.
Friday arrived with a mixture of fear, dread and excitement; excitement for payday. The prospect of once more having a fat wallet injected an extra dose of hard work into the entire crew. By lunch, walls stood where there were no walls before; some of the older tools had actually overheated from constant use. I asked one of the senior guys, a heavily tattooed older guy named Clay if that was common for paydays. "Green's quite a motivating color, Rich-o!" he told me between loud slurps from his thermos, appearing to find amusement in purposely ignoring my hang-up about nicknames. I was sitting between he and Adam on a wrapped stack of lumber destined to become a south wall that afternoon and was just lighting up my second cigarette when Bear approached, clad in that hideous safety vest. He was clutching a fat stack of envelopes in one of his hands.
"Look alive, gents," Bear called, waving the envelopes at us. Hoots and cheers went up around the site. As soon as he handed me an envelope with my name on it, I forgot all about the cigarette, tearing it open, prepared to receive my bounty. Inside was a light green cheque with my name and an amount that seemed unthinkable, until I got a glimpse of Adam and Clay's cheques, eight hundred a piece. I double checked mine - four twenty even.
"What the f--k," I said, showing it to Adam. His eyebrow rose when he saw the amount listed. He said that wasn't right. Clay leaned over and squinted, reading the attached summary and agreeing with Adam. Strange, he called it. I called it something else. Spotting Bear wandering past us, headed for the trailer empty handed, I climbed down off the lumber. "Hey Bear " I called, racing after him. He stopped, turning to face me. "I think there's been a mistake with my cheque," I said, holding it out to him. He looked it over and handed it back, shaking his head.
"I don't see nothing wrong with it. All the numbers add up."
"That doesn't make sense. Adam and Clay both thought so, too."
Bear looked over at the lumber stack behind me and then his pudgy face lit up with understanding. "Ah, I gotcha now," he said. I started to feel a little relieved until he said, "trainee pay."
"Trainee pay," I said, feeling like I'd just been kicked in the stomach. "You're joking."
"I don't joke about money, kid." His face was serious.
"That still doesn't add up. Adam doesn't work full-time, yet he gets paid more"
"Trainee pay," he repeated, sounding like he couldn't be more bored. "No site's gonna pay top dollar to a kid who's still cuttin' his teeth."
"Perhaps not, but they shouldn't try to screw over the new guy," I was waving the envelope in his face. "This is an insult when I'm busting his a-s like everyone else." A small crowd was starting to gather, probably wondering why the new kid was shouting his head off. Isn't it interesting how there's never anybody around when you want them and yet the masses are all too eager to assemble at the first sign of trouble?
Bear shrugged. "You didn't ask. That's not my problem. Now if I were you, I'd get back to work and be grateful for what you got. That's a lot more than you'd be making with that band you're always yapping about." He turned to walk away.
"You swindling fatf--k." A wave of gasps broke out among the crowd while voices whispered back and forth. Those watching the circus act stared at me with shocked eyes. It took a moment to realize it was my voice hurling that epithet. Adam appeared on my left, looking at me as though I were possessed and he expected me to turn my head a complete three-sixty and speak in strange tongues while levitating like something out of The Exorcist, although the strange tongues seemed to have been checked off.
Bear's back stiffened. He spun around and walked up to me, trying to use his size to intimidate me while I stood my ground, matching his glare. "Pardon me?" he snarled. "I don't think I heard that."
I don't remember everything that followed, the film strip that runs through my memory seems to have been spliced here and there. Little error messages pop up whenever I try to recall the series of events preceding my oath. I remember being shoved hard enough to knock me down. When I get back up, my pants are streaked with dirt and grass. I'm shoved a couple more times, and then my fist hits something solid and warm. Pain is shooting across my knuckles. There are small droplets of blood dotting the reddening skin; it's unclear who it belongs to. Voices are yelling, swearing, a sparse few are chanting "Fight!" It sounds like everyone else is speaking tongues now. Adam is grabbing my shoulder, his lips are moving but I don't understand what he's saying. The words are slow and garbled as if he's speaking with a mouthful of peanut butter. He's pointing towards the fence that surrounds the worksite, and then to the envelope in my hand, which is now crinkled and spotted with mud. The only words I am able to understand are "bank" and "practice". I don't remember anything else that may have happened after I got past the fence.
When things became clear again, I found myself on a bus headed for downtown Brentwood, nursing a sore hand and trying very carefully to wipe mud off my cheque, hoping I'll be able to cash it before that bloated buffoon try to put down a stop payment. Insulting as the amount was, no one needed to remind me that even a little money was better than none at all.
(Look at it this way. Now you have lots more time for songwriting. Maybe now you can write something good.)
I got off the bus and started walking, wondering just why Fridays were so popular in the first place.
In moments of great anger, some people can chain-smoke their way through a good pack or three, drain a bottle of something strong or seek out stronger, more illicit means of release. I was no stranger to a six pack and a joint, but neither became "I gotta have it!" in these moments. When I got mad to the point of seeing white spots dot my vision, I went down another road altogether and turned to music. Even when emotions got the upper hand and vicious words or fists (or both) started flying, I always turned to music in the end. I was content to throw on a CD or tape of something loud and heavy and scream along, or reach for my old GIO and just play, hammering out majors, minors and anything else in between. The chords don't have to be in the same scale and the pattern doesn't have to make sense, those thoughts don't have a chance to form. It's more of a musical exorcism than serious playing, safe refuge for those with a little talent and the right focus can safely lose themselves for hours. I was a good hour into one of these sessions, shredding away when the large garage door lifted up, casting light across the entire room. Spotting a mimicking shadow on the concrete where there hadn't been one before, I stopped and turned to look; expecting Adam to be standing there, ready to ask me what in God's name I'd been thinking back at the site. Instead, I saw someone else I wasn't expecting.
"Hi," said Jason.
Overcome with a sudden sense of playing the role of host, I went and got water from the fridge, handing one of the bottles to Jason. I was surprised to see him here this early. "Usually, it's a tie between you and Mitch for who arrives last."
"Yeah, funny how that works. So, my dad tells me you and Kayla dropped by the other day." Both of us stood waiting for the other to speak. When that didn't happen, we both tried to speak at once, only to stop and wait again, elephants trumpeting in the background all the while.
Adam's truck pulled into the driveway during this silent standoff. "Good God Almighty, Richard," he said, walking into The Garage. "It's a good thing you got away from the site when you did, I've never seen Bear so furious. What in God's name were you thinking -" He stopped short after recognizing Jason. "Oh hey buddy," he said, forgetting whatever he'd been telling me. "It's good to see you." Such a diplomat Adam was, acting like nothing had ever happened. "You're early."
"Yeah, I know. I figured there's no sense doing this in front of the whole band and wasting more time than necessary."
"Doing what?" Adam tossed his work gear inside the house before sitting on the couch, an odd change from the beaten up stool that lived behind his kit. Jason sat down on one of the empty milk crates while I stood.
"Damage control," Jason answered, casting a side glance at me, "better to put out the brushfire now before the flames grow out of control and reduce the entire forest to a smoking pile of ashes."
(Hear him out first before you pull the trigger...)
"You must think I have a little explaining to do." We remained silent. "And I suppose I do, given what my dad's told me. First of all, Mitch and I don't have some kind of secret side project on the go. My dad doesn't have the best hearing, he gets things mixed up. Secondly, yes, I've known for a while that I'd be returning to Phoenix over the summer. However," he raised a finger to hold off any backlash, "it was only supposed to be from August till early October. The BHL tour doesn't start until early in the New Year, there was time. I fully expected to be around through the contest." That past tense did little to relax me. He sounded almost glad, as though he was getting that pestering monkey off his back once and for all.
"So what changed?" Adam's calm voice belied his obvious disappointment.
"Business politics or some other crap, I don't really know or care. All's I know, Dad's gotta go back down and sort the mess out, keep the company from going up in smoke."
"Well, why do you have to go with?" I asked. "You're twenty. Why not just stay here and keep house while he's busy saving whatever it is he does?"
"Auto parts," Jason said. "And I've only got a student visa to upgrade for college, I can't work up here. No money, no rent, no home. Besides, Dad's got me lined up to work one of the plants back home." Silence descended on The Garage again. "It's only for the summer," he added, as if that would make everything better.
"Well that's good at least," Adam said. "It'll suck not having you here, though, just when things were looking good. You'll be missed."
Jason didn't seem to believe that, but he nodded. "Yeah. Maybe it's all for the best. I can't be the only bassist in all of Brentwood."
Adam looked at me. "We're not gonna replace you while you're gone, we've got a plan, discussed it last night. We'll have Richard cover the bass part for the contest and any gigs that may come up in the meantime -"
(Oh, you dreamer.)
"- and whatever happens with that, when you're back in October, we can all pick up where we left off, right Richard?" He was looking at me again. Sorry buddy, if you expect an answer from me, it ain't coming. The plan continued to sound more insane by the minute. It wasn't a lack of heart that concerned me. If the band could come to terms with Kayla's 'attitude', given time I was confident I'd be able to let bygones be bygones with Jason. Four months was still a long time, not to mention I knew at least one band member who wouldn't be happy with that idea. "Richard?" asked Adam again.
"No." The word escaped in unison from mine and Jason's mouths. "Is it really that simple for you?" I asked. "Just saddle up and head off into the sunset?"
"What are you talking about, Richard? He just said there's nothing he can do about it. I mean, if you're still nervous about staying in rhythm, I get that, but we've got time to -"
I cut him off. "Adam. He's not talking about the contest."
Adam didn't seem to know which of us deserved the baffled look first. "Then what...?" he started to say. The question trailed off in the same way house lights will fade to black before the headliner takes to the stage in total darkness. He realized the answer was right in front of us. "Oh."
"So that's it then." It came out more as a melancholic statement than the question I'd intended. "You're out."
"You sound almost disappointed."
"I'm hardly weeping inside." Adam shot me a warning look but I paid it no attention. If he wants to play his hand, I'll go all in with him. "We've never been best buddies, you and me, and that's fine. We don't have to. What I don't get is, if you've known about this for over a week, why not say anything earlier? It'd be nice to exercise some form of damage control." Jason started to laugh, a closed-mouth snort of derision, and clapped his hands. "What's so funny?"
"You know, I don't get you Richard. I'm the one who's being shipped out and somehow, you manage to make this all about you, and you're whole diatribe on how this is such an imposition 'on the band' doesn't fool me." He stood up and pushed the milk crate aside with his foot. "Two songs, Richard! Two goddamned songs are all we've come up with, and you're acting like this contest is the only chance Systex will ever get. If you were half as serious about songwriting as you were about dreaming up some ridiculous future, we might have come up with enough material to put a demo together by now."
It was a good thing I'd remained standing, or else whatever chair I might have used was apt to be knocked over now. "You want to talk about seriousness? At least I still stick around to practice when I'm kicked, instead of running away like a bitch. Look at you. You don't even have your bass handy. You had no intention of playing today, did you? So what was the point of all this, then?"
"Call it courtesy," he said, turning and walking down to his car, "something you're probably unfamiliar with." He returned a moment later, carrying his bass and wearing a self-satisfied grin I wanted to slap right off his face. "Did I say I wasn't coming to play? Did you even ask? No. You did what you always do in situations like this - you assumed. It didn't occur to you that maybe there were specific reasons why I didn't say anything to you right away. Reasons like, oh I don't know - maybe that I knew you'd go ballistic. Did you ever stop to think that maybe I don't want to spend my f--king summer slaving away in some warehouse? This may come as quite a shock to you, but I actually enjoy being a part of Systex. It's brought out a new musical side in me that I never knew existed before."
"Yet you've no problem walking away from it all."
"Oh... you know what? I'm done. I've nothing left to say to you, Richard. Let's get one thing clear right now: The only reason I'm even here is out of respect to the promise I made to Mitchell that I'd be here today. If you want to learn the bass parts, then start taking notes, because we're through. Otherwise, say the word and I'll be happy to take my leave, and you can explain why." Part of me wanted to do just that and I likely would have followed through with that had it not been for two things: The silent, moon-eyed stare from Adam begging me to stand down; and the sudden screech of brakes that grabbed our attention like a magnet.
Mitchell's compact pulled up behind Adam's truck, millimetres from striking its rear fender... and with Kayla in the passenger seat. That's odd, I thought. Both got out, retrieved their respective gear and came into The Garage, Mitchell lagging behind having stopped to eyeball either vehicle and make sure there was no damage. "Sorry," he said to Adam, looking sheepish. "Damn brakes." Then he noticed Jason. "Hey big guy, it's good to see you! Kayla made sure she was out of everyone else's visual range before glaring daggers at Jason and aiming the skeletal f--k you right at him. She whispered something to me, but I didn't hear, only nodding absentmindedly.
"Well, shall we get right into it?" Mitchell asked, totally oblivious to the tension.
"Yeah man," Adam said, standing up. "I think that's what we all need to do. Am I right?" He stared hard at Jason, then me. Say one more word and die. I nodded my understanding, slipping the microphone jack into the smaller amp while I watched Jason try to hide his anger. If he thought I was going to be the one who deliver the bad news, he was mistaken. Go on, Cowboy, you're such good friends, you tell him, I thought, feeling guilty for including Mitchell in that little jab. I had no reason to be pissed at him.
(You know you're not making it any easier.) Funny, for once I actually found myself agreeing with the little voice.
"Right," said Jason, through clenched teeth. He knelt and flipped the latches on his case, the hat brim hiding his face. Adam said something nobody else picked up and patted his shoulder. "Appreciate it," he said quietly, walking past me and towards his drums. That brought a wave of guilt. Even in anger, his ability to show compassion was remarkable.
We played through "Rage" and further tightened our lead-in to "Deaf Ears" that would follow Kayla's "Bumblebee" solo, my eyes trained on Jason the whole time, though not out of a hope that he would look up at some point and we'd share one of those brief, acknowledging glances; a silent understanding between two people seeking to bury the hatchet without having to say anything, whether out of some foolish idea of pride or stubbornness. Man-Syndrome, I'd once heard it called. He didn't have to look up. We both knew there wouldn't be any acknowledgement today, perhaps not ever.
The rest of that day's practice passed with a tremor of futility running through it, as if those present were all in agreement, that this was indeed the beginning of the end; that we were in a sense, running out the clock. So it seemed ironic that the newest group of riffs and ramblings sometimes thought of as The Mirror began to come together and form a half-decent song.
I tried singing that afternoon, my first real crack at throwing down some of the tweaked lyrics with an actual tune behind them instead of spewing them at the microphone in a voice befitting the Cookie Monster.
"Mirror, mirror on the wall, what's the darkest secret of all? Bleak reflection, show and tell; truth exposes this fresh hell..."