And so it was decided. In two weeks, we'd be setting sail for Victoria to join Bloodwood for what would hopefully be our first crack at recording. Mitchell went ahead with the guys to catch their performance at whatever venue they'd managed to get a booking for, as well as hopefully setting up connections with the local music scene so we might not need to consider using vehicles for bedrooms every night. Part of me wanted to go along with them for the hell of it, after checking out their demo and other bootleg recordings of early shows, I wanted to see them live, but I was dissuaded by both the knowledge I needed to tie up loose ends on the mainland first, and by Patrice who hinted to me in confidence that their Island tour wasn't necessarily relegated to the one show, and there may be room for openers. No promises. I didn't need promises. The idea alone was enough to satisfy me. The remaining three of us continued to play together, although at a reduced frequency. Everyone else needed to set affairs in order, too.
I set about putting my new life together the day after we made the decision to go for it. First stop: The bank. After getting an appointment with the trust account advisor and signing off on all the necessary paperwork, half the money was transferred into my account without delay, fifteen hundred Canadian, not a giant fortune, but a hell of a lot more than I'd ever had. It would take a serious conscious effort not to watch it evaporate like water droplets on a hot plate. I also took the opportunity to apply for a credit card while I was there. Why not? It could come in handy indeed with the way the future was looking. The first thing I did after receiving the money was to put down advance rent on a two-room with half-bathroom SRO in a building just off Powell Street in Vancouver, straddling the invisible borders of Chinatown, Gastown and the infamous Downtown Eastside; a stretch of squalor and homelessness that made Brentwood's Skid Row look like a playground by comparison. My own building fared no better. It had, by miraculous grace, avoided being slapped with a condemned notice by the city during the most recent wave of crackdowns on slumlords but could hardly be considered four-star. I didn't object too much, knowing it was only temporary. When things were in order, I collected my stuff from Adam's spare room and after leaving a note, and a sizeable stack of folded twenties, (along with a couple fifties) on the bed, moved them into my new place and spent the next week there, apart from necessary shopping trips and practice sessions at The Garage, opting to tap the dormant part of my mentality, the one that sought adventure and human connection, choosing instead to pound out riffs, recording everything I could on a cheap little tape recorder I'd bought shortly after moving in. Lyrics, though less affluent, were written down - all of them, even the crap ones and began quickly filling up the few remaining pages. It ended up becoming a period of creative self-imposed exile from the world. I suppose we all have a time in our lives where we feel the need to run away and do our own thing, where we combat our need to connect with those around us, it looked like mine had chosen not to wait until my mid-twenties to announce its presence. And it was welcome. I had other things to pay attention to.
When I play, the music takes me to a quiet place deep inside me where the instrument and I become one, navigating through riffs and scales with an emboldened sense of adventure. Never a chore, I could spend hours with a guitar or bass in my hands. Strings only, though, leave the sticks in Adam's capable hands and leave me to my stringed, long-necked friends. My focus would be so intent on the random notes, chords, patterns that my cigarettes would often go out sitting on the makeshift ashtray by the windowsill.
When I wasn't creating, I'd sit by the window, smoke whatever cigarettes were cheapest at whatever fleabag corner store I could be bothered to drag myself to and watch a steady stream of transients pass by along the sidewalk at all hours, while listening to the neighbors swear a blue streak about "that f--king racket" when they weren't too strung out or fighting with each other to notice the new guy's existence entirely. Fine by me, I'd often think. If they really want to get on my back about noise, it'd be a simple matter to flick my boombox on and introduce them to Chuck Schuldinger's vocal talents at max volume. Mealtimes, sparse as they were, consisted of anything and everything that could be microwaved; ramen aren't so bad if you don't really think about what it is you're eating and pay more attention to the cheap black label beer. At night, the sickly yellow-orange glare from the street lights penetrated the paper thin window blinds, giving the room an eerie aura not unlike a crime scene.
(Do you really need to act so destitute in order to harness your potential? The other songs came in their own time.)
How about that, the little voice appeared to have evolved as well, offering more constructive (and not altogether unreasonable) opinions. That was the problem, though. Before, it was all easy-breezy carefree jam-until-we-come-up-with-a-beat and indeed, it worked. That was then. This was now. Bloodwood wanted evidence we were serious about recording our demo, and serious was going to be my new middle name.
One thing I made sure to do in between these voluntary self-imprisonments was go to the nearest self-storage facility and pre-pay for a storage space to make sure the important stuff didn't get stolen whenever my room was broken into. I said whenever because, as I told Damien a week later, while sipping away on what would surely be my last Contrast cappuccino for a while, "Slumlords don't necessarily put a high priority on security."
"True," said Damien, lounging back in one of the soft chairs, opposite me. Business was crawling along at a snail's pace, and Damien decided he could afford the luxury of a few minutes rest between cleaning and awaiting the next caffeine-junkie to come through the door, desperate for his or her afternoon fix. "I still can't believe you're crashing at one of those places, though. Surely Adam wouldn't have cared about you continuing to crash at his place a while longer? He's an understanding guy."
I shook my head while taking a sip. "He said the same. But no, this is the right thing to do. It's time to do things different. Besides, it's only so I have a place to crash once we get back."
Damien had to think on that for a minute. "Well, there you go then. Sounds like you're crafting together your own fairytale ending. Is this Richard Demin's Last Stand?"
Again my head shook. "No. Think of it more as the rebirth of Systex. The band deserves the spotlight. I'm just along for the ride."
"Ah," said Damien. "Boy, it'll be weird not seeing you around for a while. Who else is going to order almond lattes, almond cappuccinos?"
"Hey, others like that syrup stuff too, you know," I said with a laugh.
"Something I'll never really understand. You know, we do have almond milk for a reason."
"Ah, but then you're missing the subtle nuances of sweetness."
He rolled his eyes and chuckled. "Oh man." Then his face lit up and he sat up straight, a great idea apparently having struck him. "When do you guys take off?"
"The day after tomorrow. Why?"
Damien pointed up at the black-framed bulletin board adorning the bleached wall beside us. "Our open mike's tonight. You should come by, lay down a song or two."
I thought about it. "Nah won't work," I decided. "Most of our gear is packed up and ready to go, all I have is my guitar."
"So? Come anyways, do a solo act. Get a taste for the spotlight before you're famous."
"Solo? I don't know man. I mean, we have our demo stuff, and there's all the material I've got written down from just this past week. Still, I don't know if I could slap something together that people wouldn't outright boo in only," I checked the poster, the clock on the wall, "five hours."
Damien was unflinching. "So come anyways," he repeated. "Think of it as one last kick at the Brentwood can." He kept pressing me until I promised to give it serious consideration. "That's what I like to hear. Say, I'm curious. How are you guys going to get all that equipment over there anyways? I've seen Adam's truck, and I don't see all your speakers, drums and the works fitting in there."
"Begging to be stolen on top of everything else," I added. "No, we're looking at just renting a cargo van to get our stuff to the studio, and then return it to the rental agency in town, saves us unnecessary extra trips. It's cheaper to get a long-term rent than try and trade-in the truck, anyways."
Damien nodded his agreement, then the obnoxious door chimes began to clang and the smile left his face as he rolled his eyes again, muttering something about throwing those bugger things in the trash at the end of the day. "I need to get this," he said, standing up and stretching before extending his hand out to me. "Well, if you do come by tonight, we'll see you then. Otherwise, take care, Richard. We'll see you around again soon, I hope."
"Oh I'm sure you will," I said, shaking his hand. "You can't keep me out of the city for long. Restraining orders have to expire at some point."
He laughed again. "You're one of a kind, Richard. I appreciate that about you, though I can't imagine the rest of the world thinks the same." I decided to let him win this one. Who knows, maybe a couple months away would give me time to further sharpen my sense of humor. I took a deck of cards out of my jacket pocket and laid out a solitaire hand, the only card game I was good at. Turning over the opening cards, I quickly built a strong, queen-high stack in the fourth row. Jack, ten, nine of hearts, alternating between diamonds and spades. The pleasantries between Damien and the customer droned in the background, loud enough to hear without picking up on any specific words apart from the usual "Have a good one!" Damien offered every customer without fail, regardless of how good or bad a day they'd already been having. I gave the customer a casual glance as he passed by my table, gaze focused straight ahead, failing to notice my presence, and then prepared to turn back to my cards laid out on the table, when it struck me.
Was that a... cowboy hat? I jumped up, banging my knee on the tabletop, and ran for the door, shooting a hand out to keep the door open.
"Jason?" I asked, stepping out into the early afternoon brightness, sunrays eclipsing my vision. My eyes adjusted to the hot clarity, and I found that I was alone. No pedestrians on either side of the walk, the adjacent overflow parking lots empty, no man in a large hat - no one besides me. I went back inside, feeling an odd sense of disappointment.
Contrast Cafe came alive when night fell; jam packed with crowds from every spectrum of the city's music scene come to take part in the open mike night; hipsters, punks, even a table of slam poets in matching turtlenecks and berets, sneering at their peers around them for not "diggin' the vibe" of their earlier performance, a bizarre song-and-dance about dark alleys of loneliness, or lonely alleys of darkness or whatever the f--k it was. I never did care much for poetry in the first place, yet didn't bother to join in the smattering boos and hecklings that followed their... Could you call it a performance? The only one who didn't seem disgusted with the dead poets' society was the emcee, a pasty skinny shrimp whose dreadlocks slapped to and fro with every turn of the head. I'd thought about going up to lay down a solo song, but didn't know what to play, until I opened my case to check and see if I had a patch cord for the house amp sitting off to the corner of the dinky stage, and discovered a crumpled paper ball hiding underneath the thick electrical serpent. I smoothed it out on top of the case, and was surprised to discover lyrics to the abandoned "Empty Shell". "I thought I torched you," I said to myself, looking the wrinkled paper over, top to bottom, back up to the top, three times over, the melody quietly playing in the background of my memory. "You know, you weren't all that bad..." I told the paper.
The emcee said something, I didn't hear what. Looking to the stage, he was holding the microphone in one hand, waving his other one across the room. "Come come now, people," he said. "You can't all be tired; we're in a coffee shop. Surely somebody's got something to share. Hey, there you go! You there, tall guy in the back, I see you, come on up!" Faces turned to face me, and it was then I realized I was holding my hand up in the air, clutching the lyric sheet. "Come on, don't be shy. We won't bite... Too hard."
Oh brother, are bad jokes a requirement in order to qualify as an emcee?
Deciding the embarrassment of being on stage and messing up was not as bad as slinking out the door like a coward; I grabbed my case with some reluctance and headed towards the stage, the crowd offering weak applause. Coming around the cash counter, I got encouraging thumbs up from Damien and the two other baristas, which I returned with a weak smile. That's when I saw it again, the large cowboy hat. This time, the wearer was looking at me with both surprise and tight-lipped anger. It was Jason all right, and he didn't seem to consider this a happy coincidence. He actually dropped a tall paper cup in the nearby trashcan and started to move towards the back door while I got out my guitar and hooked it up to the amp on stage. The overhead lights felt hot and especially bright as blood pounded in my ears and the feeling of nausea filled the empty pit in my stomach. The gradual fading of applause did not surprise me too much. Clearing my throat, I brought my lips close to the mike head.
"Hey, what's up guys? How are we doing out there?" I said without waiting for a response. "My name is Richard Demin and I'm..." My voice caught, watching Jason continue towards the exit. Instead of continuing as planned with namedropping Systex, I heard myself say, "...and I'm an a-shole." Stilted laughter came from some of the audience members while Jason ground to a halt, turned back and looked at me, his expression masked by shadows on the lights periphery. Even the baristas stopped what they were doing; taken by this guy who'd just announced to at least fifty people that he was an a-shole. "Yeah, that's right, you heard me. I'm an a-shole who dared to dream of making it big with his band. He tried to control the dream, and wound up with the dream controlling him until he learned too little too late that it was the music, not him, that belongs in the spotlight." I began to strum a few soft chords while continuing to talk. "Now things may not have totally gone to hell, but he's still facing the consequences, picking up the pieces of his Empty Shell." Slow, somber melodies began to fill the silent room as Jason stood back, half in, half out of the light, face still hidden in the shadows. I left the screaming aside this time and let the mid-baritone in my voice take the lead.
"Did anyone care if I dared to dream again?
Surely you would see through the illusion
Maybe it was just the shreds of hope left far behind
An obvious self-delusion
The promises filled with hope
Have turned and walked away
The dreams I held onto have faded
I'm left inside an empty shell
Taking a look back at all the times that passed me by with every day
It reminds me of what could have been, but now has gone away
Now surely I would have seen it coming and seized the moment then
But it's obvious, another lie I told myself
The promises filled with hope
Have turned and walked away
The dreams I held onto have faded
I'm left inside an empty shell
Left here within my empty shell...
All the promises once heard
Have brushed me off and gone away
(I'm now an empty shell)
The hope I held onto has faded
All that remains is me..."
The audience at in awe of the almost sinful beauty that flowed through the song as I performed with a new appreciation for the lyrics, aware for the first time that I was in fact, telling a story I was well familiar with; a tale of selfishness, inflated egos and the heavy lessons learned from being knocked off one's high horse - a narrative of the past six months of my life. When the final note echoed from the amp, the response was overwhelming: Loud, heavy, unanimous applause, like hail on a tin roof. I surveyed the crowd, many of them standing in appreciation. Jason was nowhere to be seen. I lifted a hand in simple thanks, and stepped out of the spotlight.
Outside, I took a long pull at the Marlboro. The bitter charcoal taste from the filter was extremely unappealing. No, that's not hypocritical at all. It wasn't like I was going to quit anytime soon, there was enough for me to deal with right now, never mind adding the difficulties of quitting smoking. The sun had dipped beyond the horizon hours ago, leaving the skies above littered with stars. I always enjoyed new moon phases more than full moons, the darkness seemed filled me with an uncanny sense of peace, the light from the cafe provided a cozy contrast to the outside world. I could feel myself mellow out in mere moments just watching the stars go by. I couldn't identify constellations to save my life, but that didn't bother me. The scenery was just as breathtaking.
I'd retreated through the back door, around the block and back to the front door area where others were standing about, smoking, drinking coffee in paper cups and trying to act cool while the occasional peddler came by, hoping in vain to collect on generosity. I bummed a Marlboro off one guy, lighting up and setting my case down on the concrete, not yet wanting to take off and run, despite Jason's apparent displeasure at spotting me in the crowd, and again on stage, something kept nagging me to stick around a few minutes longer. Despite standing right next to the door, I didn't hear it open or close; I was busy high-fiving a couple of baked skunks who stank to the high heavens and insisted that I was a rock god while the security for hire tried to send them on their way without causing a ruckus.
"Nice song." Jason's voice made me jump. He leaned against the patio railing, arms folded across his chest. "You decided to keep it after all?"
"I don't know," I said, the hand clasping my cigarette falling to one side, "something tells me it's not quite Systex material, but I like the feel of it. The muse urges me to keep playing." I put a foot on top of my case to prevent it being snatched.
"Ah yeah, I get you."
"I'm thinking it might make a good acoustic, something to keep on the backburner for another time, you know?"
"It could. It could." We didn't say anything else for a minute. My insides felt heavy. Neither of us had to say a word, we both understood the point of our small talk. The incident was still fresh in our minds and we knew it. Jason sighed and removed that renowned cowboy hat of his.
"Richard..." he said, perching his muscular frame on the corner of the deck, "we can't just keep ignoring this, it's not fair to either one of us."
Placing the half-smoked cigarette between my lips, I sighed as I tried to re-light it; succeeding in only blowing the flame of my lighter out and missing the whole point. I gave up and sent the cigarette off into the night with a weak flick of the wrist.
"I guess you have a point," I replied, taking another drag. Deep down, I knew it was easier said than done, seeing as our relationship had gone beyond the point of repair, relegated to little more than a memory that would start off, "Hey, remember back when we were young...?"
Jason made a noise that had a tendency to sound like "Do I have 'Stupid' written across my head?" He said nothing more, just watched me standing there.
"You give the f--ing creeps doing that, Jason," I said, suppressing a shiver, not quite able to look him in the eye. "Open mike nights never struck me as your cup of tea."
His voice rang with hints of impatience. "A man likes to test the boundaries of his tastes now and then."
"That's understandable." The little voice began to scream at me. I sighed. "Look, I know we'll never be friends, you and me. You were right. I was - I am - a d-ck. I don't blame you for walking out. For what it's worth, if anything, I'm sorry to see you go."
He blinked, as though not expecting to ever those words uttered by me. "I don't recall ever outright calling you a d-ck. But yeah, I think you are. What brought all this on?" He squinted, attention caught by the puffing wound above my left eyebrow. "Did that have something to do with it?"
"Along a couple of other revelations, let's just say, having a broken bottle thrust in your face gives you a whole new perspective on life."
"Sh-t! Are you serious?"
I nodded. "It's a long story, and not an important one for that matter, nobody's dead, that's the important thing." I went to take a drag off my smoke before remembering I'd thrown it away. "I guess you must be getting closer to your return to the homeland?"
"It's getting close. Come the end of the month, we trade lush forests and mountains for scorching deserts and triple-digit temperatures." He added an unconvincing "Yee-haw!" before adding, "Actually, I'm not sticking around. I have other things to finish up tonight."
"Oh. Well I hope I haven't kept you."
"Meh, a few extra minutes on a Friday night isn't a big deal. I just wanted to say goodbye before I left."
"I thought you weren't going till month's end?"
"I'm not, but we're going to be busy shutting down house for a while, you won't see much of me around town after tonight until the fall. And I've been talking to Mitch, he's told me about your guys' upcoming demo."
"Prospective demo," I corrected, feeling guilty again.
"Prospective demo," he repeated. "I must say, I'm surprised to hear you're backing out of the Thrash, considering how hard you fought for it."
I shrugged. "What can I say? If opportunity knocks..."
"Answer the door, and fast. Hey, believe it or not, I'm glad you got the chance. I really am. Life's too short for grudges." He checked his watch. "Anyways, I just thought - well, my dad always taught us never to leave town without settling our accounts, so... Yeah."
"Yeah." I looked at him. A small smile crept out from behind his stubble-marked stone face.
"I'd like to say it was fun while it lasted, but I'll have to get back to you on that."
"I'll be waiting. Brentwood's not that large a city, I'm sure we'll bump into each other now and then."
"Anything is possible." He zipped up his coat, brought his arm up and started to extend his hand, then paused and lowered it into his pocket. "Anyways... Rock on, Richard, see you out there."
"Rock on. Sorry things went sour. It would've been nice to create more good memories."
"Yeah, well, that's life, I suppose. The way I see it, don't hold onto the past, it's something we can't have anyway." He walked towards the parking lot, and I watched him get into his car and drive off towards the edge of town, his taillights becoming dimmer until they were gone.
See you out there... Hmm, maybe there was hope yet... and then it struck me with the suddenness of a bee sting. I walked towards the bus loop, repeating Jason's parting words. Don't hold onto the past, it's something we can't have...
When I got back into Vancouver, it was kissing one o'clock. Activity moved along the streets at a snail's pace, I didn't see anybody outside the building or in the hallways as I climbed the dank, dark stairs to my place. I should have felt exhausted; instead it was solemn, yet optimistic inspiration. The night crawled on, punctuated by chain-smoked cigarettes, many a sheet of paper and bursts of excited grunts. At the end of it all, I was rewarded with an eerily melancholy marriage of mystery: forlorn acoustics from the guitar and my morose vocals danced an enigmatically intertwined dance of mournful remembrance; as the first slivers of sunlight struck the dark sky, giving birth to another day.
"Reveal truth never divulged
Show me the safest place to avoid all hidden deceit
Stay the course
I need to find a way to live
In the right
Where is this light?
All the stories that remain untold must be shared
Shed new light on the face of a forgotten dream from yesterday
Bury the sorrow, and release the pain set free within me
Don't hold onto the past, it's something I cannot have
Where is the place I can find my fault?
Search for one who can show me a way
Guide me to the light and help me see
Where I am (Where am I?)
I need to find my safe way out away from here
Release my fear
All of the stories that remain untold must be shared
Give me a reason to let this feeling pass
Bury the hatchet, set the pain free from within me
Don't hold onto the past, it's something I cannot have".