Time can go one of two ways. It can pass by in the blink of an eye, or it can drag its heels kicking and screaming into the next hour, day or week. Whether or not one's calendar is fully loaded seems to play a big role in its speed. Either way, time is passing us by; the ultimate finite resource mankind has yet to master. In a way, part of me hopes we never will, for it may be tampering with the fabric of time that will be our undoing as a species if nuclear war doesn't beat us to it. They say everything in life happens for a reason and that time heals all wounds. The jury's still out on whether or not I think that's true, but I like to think I'm smart enough to know better than to fight the inevitable, choosing to accept the passing of each day and await tomorrow, unconcerned about whatever challenges or treasures await. Today has enough challenges of its own to keep a busy mind occupied.
Thoughts like these most often seem to occur when you're alone, as I was on this particular morning, gazing into the mirror at the pale, fuzz-studded face greeting me with equal neutrality. Going an entire week without shaving had produced a thick carpet of black hairs below the chin, crawling over the jaw line like moss on a tree, thinning across the cheekbones to the point where it became difficult to tell where beard ended and sideburns began. A couple more days and you just might be able to pass off a decent goatee, I thought, and then reached into the medicine cabinet. A few minutes later and the only evidence of a beard-in-training was a wispy crop around my mouth, my skin quickly beginning to redden and prickle. Razor burn, thou art a heartless bitch. The length and speed at which the tangled raven mop atop my head was growing astounded me, and it would continue to. No need to subject myself to what a barber might refer to as 'major surgery' anytime soon. I wiped the sink of any stubborn hairs still clinging to the pallid porcelain and, taking another look at myself, decided that all in all; perhaps I wasn't so bad looking. A rare display of self esteem, and why not? It seemed a suitable day for that kind of thing.
I went into The Garage, re-reading the note I'd found on my door a few minutes earlier. It was from Adam, telling me that he'd discussed it with the others, and they would all meet me at Fox's Paw at 5:00, plenty of time to stake out good spots. He closed it with the usual messy handwritten A. Below that, in a different color ink, he'd scrawled four additional words. I read them, smiling and laughing to myself while collecting a beer from the fridge, deciding that it wasn't such a big deal to start drinking at noon, one day out of the year:
"Happy Birthday, big guy."
I sat down, drew a good sized swig from the can and set it on the concrete, plugging in my GIO and throwing the switch to ON. The Fender had gone back to Central the day before, Mr. Walden throwing what Mitchell described as 'no small feat.' I think he meant to say 'fit.'
"Well," I said after getting in tune, "let's see if you have any presents for me today." There's nothing quite like coming up with a brand new riff to add a sparkle to the day. On the other hand, facing a creative block and failing to create even a half-decent progression can take a lot of the wind out of your sails just as fast. It's a harsh lesson that never seemed to get any easier over time as I realized after half an hour, accepting that the hot, passionate burn I often got while composing failed to muster anything above a few faintly glowing embers. I gave up and powered down, wondering if I'd become too used to having the other Systex members around in order to feel inspired.
(That's not it and you know it.)
Damn. Guess I should've known better than to hope that my conscience would have given me the day off. Only then did it strike me: This was the first birthday I'd ever had away from the Demin house, and without any family around. I began to feel strange, as though something was missing, stolen even. Granted, Captain Bob never made birthdays a big deal, but it still felt weird. Why? God only knows. Maybe it was the tradition of it all, one of a rare few pillars that stand strong while the river of life rages on, refusing to yield to its merciless, roaring currents. Sure, large waves may crash against them now and again, yet they never buckle. More likely, I think it might have been some stark, denial shattering reminder that adulthood, an intangible concept at times, is still very real and something I will have to deal with sooner or later, whether or not I like it. The only question is, will it be accepted with, or without open arms?
(The choice is yours, Richard. Don't wait too long to make your mind up, or you may find the decision has already been made for you.)
I was shocked to feel a lump in my throat. What the f--k? This is no time to be crying about anything, I told myself. Hell, I hated crying, and not just because it ran contrary to every stereotypical macho bullshit societal clich known to exist: We are men, real men don't cry, we're supposed to be tough and hide our emotions. Emotions make you weak. F--k that, there are enough of those out there already, thanks. As a child, whenever I started to cry there was no stopping it. Once opened, the floodgates would not close until the reservoir ran itself dry. I would become very reclusive and shut myself away in my room and glue the shattered pieces of my mask back together, usually by playing my guitar for hours, screaming (before assuming vocals, back in my pre-Systex days) or just write - something, anything - to build myself back up.
Of course I felt no such desire or urge to do anything along those lines right now. Before I knew what was happening, I'd showered, changed, left the house and boarded a bus bound for Brentwood Exchange, except I wasn't planning to go that far, not yet at least. I had a different stop to make first...
I kept waiting for the little voice, the darker side of it at least, to talk me out of this as I walked down Maple Crescent and approached the house, walking up the driveway, my heart picking up many a skipped beat as I passed the familiar looking car parked in front of the shut garage door. Dead silence, not a single peep from either side. I wasn't that surprised. When I got to the front door, I found it took an actual conscious effort to lift my hand. Right away it dropped down to my side.
Not today. Not now. I'm not ready.
(When will you ever be ready? Just do it, now, and get it over with.)
Sometimes the point becomes too simple to argue. I knocked on the door and waited, holding my breath, preparing myself for - something, whatever reaction awaited me, too late to turn tail and run, I was committed to it now. Nothing happened. Strange, nobody ever needed to knock twice at the Demin house. I tried again, hitting the door with louder, firmer raps this time. Again, there was no response, no sounds of movement from above, no rhythmic pitter-patter of feet on the staircase. All I could see was darkness when looking through the frosted window on the door. It was like the house had been abandoned, no signs of life anywhere. Even the car in the driveway didn't appear to have been washed for some time, a cardinal sin in the eyes of Captain Bob. After knocking one more time and having nothing change, I gave up and walked back down the driveway, looking over my shoulder a couple of times, in case the door should swing open, revealing a concerned face before I was out of sight.
Oh brother, even I didn't buy that one. Maybe I am more melodramatic than I know, I thought, heading back down the street towards the bus stop, guessing all the while that one could substitute melodramatic for any other suitable adjective in the above sentence, (stubborn, thickheaded... irrational?) without ruining the overall point. In a way, I was kind of relieved. Who knows what might have happened had someone been there to answer. The fact that it was my birthday would have made little difference; the famous Demin temper never took a day off, regarding holidays as just another catalyst to trigger an eruption. Grudges were known to be held onto like a lifeline, simmering and stewing away in the beholder for weeks, even months at a time. Still, part of me hoped somebody would have been there, temper flare-ups be damned. The sun, having shone brightly all day, suddenly sought shelter behind the mass of white cloud passing over it, throwing the world below under a blanket of dim shadows, lending a bit of chill to the air and giving my eyes a welcome break as I sat on the flimsy wooden bench beside the bus stop, fishing a cigarette out of the pack.
(You did the right thing in trying.)
Wow. I guess my conscience decided to give me a birthday present, after all! Life is funny sometimes, the things that will come to mind when you least expect it.
I got to the bar about quarter to five before the others, both out of wanting to be sure I didn't leave them hanging and also to take the opportunity to scope the place out and see how it looked in concert setup. The cracked blacktop parking lot didn't look too full and there was no sign of any equipment being moved, not even a single piece of sh-t U-Haul. In fact, except for a tub o' lard all dressed in black, sporting a shirt not meant to be worn by gentlemen of extreme size, you'd be hard pressed to find any sign of this being anything other than just another run of the mill dive bar that come a dime a dozen to any city. I pulled my I.D. out of my wallet, along with a tattered looking ten to save Tub o' Lard the trouble of asking. He took my money, stamped my hand with an obnoxious caricature of a grimacing moon and let me on my way with a brusque "Happy Birthday."
Inside, the first thing I noticed was the lack of a karaoke stage from our last visit. Replacing it was a large elevated dais at the back of the room, effectively closing off access to the patio and made even larger by the absence of all but a few tables and chairs, lending the room a certain ballroom like ambience. Temporary fencing had been placed a few feet away from the makeshift stage, just enough wiggle room to squeeze in the added security. Three microphones and two large Peavey cabinet setups were already on the stage, along with a drum set that made Adam's kit look like a monster in comparison. I was a little disappointed seeing only one bass drum but was otherwise impressed. The eventual moshpit would no doubt be a more intimate experience tonight.
Taped to one of the scuffed hardwood columns near the pathetic looking cordoned off restaurant section was a printed sign, pointing to a staircase that appeared to be quite literally on its last legs. It said: ADDITONAL SEATING AND BAR SERVICE AVAILABLE UPSTAIRS. As I peeked up the rickety stairs, it sounded like the top floor was only seconds from giving way. Waves of television static, crap house music and the usual raucous din of obnoxious drunken laughter was a sufficient enough warning to prevent my checking it out further, so I walked up to the large bar and ordered a draft, setting down a five. Declining the change, I looked around again, spotting a single table in the corner closest to the doors that led to either washroom. As if that didn't turn me off right away, it was also occupied by a trio of shady characters who seemed more interested in their rapidly emptying glasses than each other's company. Satisfied, I sat at the bar, close to the door and tucked into the domestic brew. Now, anyone who's been cruising the bar scene long enough has heard the old half-joke about house beer being nothing but a foul stew of several weeks worth of nightly tap runoffs, the kind of swill that even prison house alcoholics would think twice about touching, but I took these twisted tales with a grain of salt. If it tasted decent and was free of any floaties, it was fair game, at least to start the evening off with. The Guinness would always be there for later.
"Hey," I said to the bartender, an older guy with thinning hair and faded tattoos crawling up his forearms like muddy green serpents, hell they probably had been serpents once upon a time. "How packed does this place get for a show like this?"
The guy thought it over for a second, pursing his lips together like he was holding onto an invisible cigarette, then lifted a hand and rocked it to and fro. "Hard to say for certain, depends on the act and the day of the week. What is this, a Friday?" I confirmed that it was. "Could be a full house then; last time these chicks played here was a Tuesday. We were about a hundred fifty then." He considered this and then blew a snort through his pursed lips. "Jesus, I remember that night, too."
"Nah not overall, a couple of idiots got way too polluted, it's bound to happen. But those girls..." He shook his head.
Now I was curious. "What about them?"
"You know, I try not to speak I'll of people, especially women, I ain't a sexist..." He rested a hand flat against the bar top and leaned his head in close to me, lowering his voice, "but between you and me, these girls make me grateful me and the missus only had to deal with raising our boys."
A wry smile flickered across my face. "B-tches?" I asked, sipping away at my beer. The bartender made a pantomime of slipping a noose around his neck and tugging on the rope.
"Trust me kid, if they didn't draw the crowds in, I'd never let them back in here. You ought to steer well clear of those girls and head right for the hills if you run into them later."
"The things we do in the name of commerce," I said. "Thanks for the tip. I'll make sure to avoid them... all except one." I waited until the guy went away before adding that last part, growing more curious. Since I had no idea who she might be, I decided shrewd tactics were in order: Keep my eyes peeled for a large group of girls, remembering to overlook the singer and drummer. That would leave three girls to study and keep in mind for later. After the show was probably the best time to split off from Kayla and the guys to get a chance to talk to her.
(Don't do it. You're asking for trouble.)
You're not asking her to marry you, for God sakes, it's only a f--king conversation, I reminded myself. If she tells me to f--k off, I will. No harm, no foul, no problem.
(Think about Kayla.)
I did. I thought about how she tried to dissuade me at the skate park last week, her almost frightened eyes. It still didn't make sense. The way she acted, you'd think it was my ex playing for Festering Brides. That thought made me laugh as much as it did p-ss me off. The only thing that girl was worse at than playing bass, or any instrument was her laughably atrocious butchering of some of the band names I listened to. Besides, if Sarah f--king Matheson had anything to do with any of this, I'd be spending my birthday elsewhere. Tired of opening up that can of worms for the umpteenth time, I coldly dismissed her from my mind and swallowed more beer, wincing at the sour aftertaste stinging the back of my throat. Perhaps those house beer tales weren't so farfetched.
"Well well, if it isn't the walking big mouth!" a voice rang out from behind me, close enough to feel warm breath hitting the back of my neck. It gave me such a start that I almost slid right off the stool when a big pair of hands grabbed me by the shoulders to prevent such a thing. Keeping a hand on the bar for support, I leapt up, expecting a nasty confrontation judging by the tone with which I was being addressed. A large, round face pressed up right in front of mine. Our noses touched, my heart jumped into my throat. He spoke a single sentence.
"Happy birthday, motherf--ker."
"Son of a b-tch," I put a hand to my chest, feeling my heart beating away like a hummingbird on steroids. "What are you trying to do, kill me before the concert?"
Mitchell was beside himself. "Hey, take it up with the girlfriend, it was her idea." Kayla smacked him in the arm without losing her smile as my friends and bandmates gathered around me, barely able to contain themselves.
"Given a choice between the two, in the future, I think I'd much rather go with Richy," I said. Oh great, now even I'm calling myself that. Now I'll never shake that damn name.
Hugs and backslaps and happy birthdays were exchanged. Kayla made sure hers stood out above the others by taking the liberty of slipping her tongue deep into my mouth when she kissed me. "Top that, boys," she said with that adorable smile of hers. Nobody dared. Her attention turned back to me. "Hey no fair, Richy, getting a head start on the festivities without us?" She looked at my glass.
I shrugged. "Well I had to do something till you guys showed up, and I'm not that good at thumb-twiddling, so..." I didn't have to finish that sentence for them to get the joke. "Anyways, it's only my second one today. No worries, you got lots of time to get Richy smashed." This seemed to make her very happy. I looked at the clock on the wall, surprised to discover I'd only been here five minutes. "Looks like I'm not the only one here early."
"Yeah," said Adam, "we were planning on hiding somewhere then jumping out and yelling 'Surprise!' when you got here, until Mitch spotted you and we went with Plan B."
"Sorry to throw you that monkey wrench."
He chuckled. "It's all good. Besides if that's your reaction, I'm quite sure we'd have killed you if we'd hidden as planned." He then snapped his fingers as though a genius idea had just come to him. I half expected a cartoon "Eureka!" light bulb to appear above his head. "Oh by the way, I stopped home to change before heading out. You've got mail."
"Somebody who knows it's your birthday, I guess. There was just a bright envelope sticking out of the mail slot with your name written over it." He paused and looked up at the ceiling, trying to remember further. "Come to think of it, I just missed whoever it was, too."
"Yeah, I was getting ready to pull into the driveway and this blue two-door was pulling out of the driveway. It sped off before I could see who it was, but I chalked it up to some guy going down the wrong street and turning around. I found the envelope a minute later and put two and two together..." His sentence trailed off and he shrugged.
"And I got four for you," I said. "You said it was a blue car?"
"Well, only one guy I know drives a blue two-door. In fact, I'll bet you it was the same guy I was hoping to see earlier."
Adam looked surprised. "Who's that?"
"Eric." The mention of my brother's name brought more questions than I was prepared for, so I quickly brought everyone up to speed on my surprise visit to the Demin residence. When I finished, Adam thought it over, saying that if that it had been Eric who'd left that card, maybe it was a good sign that the cracks in the family tree were not so irreparable. I thought that was possible; unlikely, but still possible.
"Any sign of the evening's entertainment?" Mitchell asked to change the subject, taking a look around and seeing only customers, no familiar faces jumping out. His lips formed a weak pout. "What, nobody?"
"None so far that I've seen," I said, pointing to the stage. "There's a rig set up on the stage there, no idea which band it belongs to though, the drums are blank."
"Not even one Brides maid? So often for local gigs like this, you can find the band getting pre-drunk somewhere."
"Pre-drunk," Kayla mused. "That's a funny way to put it. And I hate to burst your bubble Mitch, but Lizzie told me they weren't going to show until close to show time."
Mitchell blew a raspberry. "Well that's disappointing. I was sure the Bloodwood guys would be hamming it up. We always talked about it back home." I couldn't help thinking that for a guy who supposedly bailed out before the band ever went anywhere, Mitchell sure seemed to know a lot about this band.
"I'm still surprised the guy didn't even bother to check I.D.'s after Kayla reached for the door," said Adam.
Kayla indicated her top with a wave of her hand. Black, low cut and revealing as hell, it complemented her features quite well. Her jeans looked like they'd been clawed by cats, though, compared to Mitchell and Adam's nearly identical choice of black everything; the only different colors coming from the contrasting album art on their tees.
"You're kidding, of course," she said. "Why do you think I said 'me first?' I could've saved you the bother." Again, she had them beat. They didn't say a word, and she looked mighty proud of herself. "You're welcome."
"Well it's a good thing either way. You'll forgive me but I don't have much faith in fake I.D.s, even near-perfect ones like yours. I'd hate to think what'd happen to you if your parents found out; never mind what the cops would say."
"I'd tell either to go take a flying f--k, as I'm sure they'd tell me the same," she said. "Now, enough chit chat. There's work to be done."
I raised an eyebrow. "There is?"
"I should say so," she pointed at my near-empty glass, "that is one sorry looking drink!" Her arm looped around mine, hooking my elbow. "Let's go!" She started to drag me towards the stairs.
"Hold on a second. I'm not going anywhere until I'm finished this." She jerked to a stop and stared at me. With one swift movement, I drained the glass and set it down on one of the tables. "I'm finished."
Her eyes lit up and she smiled, showing off a full set of brilliant white teeth. Mitchell started to laugh and it quickly turned into a cheering sort of wolf howl. "That's what I'm talking about!" He slapped me on the back. It sounded like a pistol shot. I didn't mind. "Though I tell you, you got some learning to do about proper chug-a-lugging" he said, then nodded to Kayla, "Lead the way, lady love!" She kept smiling even though her face began to light up as it always did.
Adam shook his head and followed close behind. "I'm sorry, but I have to rain on this parade for a moment here." Everyone looked at him. Then an amused, yet wary closed-mouth smile crept up and he said, "Best friend gets to buy him the first round." Another wave of cheers and high-fives broke out and Adam went over to the bar while the rest of us scouted a table to crash at until the moshpit broke out. After all, it just wouldn't be a proper metal concert without one.
Two down, plenty more to go... It was going to be a good night.