If there was anything positive to come from the current situation we found ourselves in, it was our two hopefuls, holding instruments and chasing dreams. Jason—for whatever reason—hadn’t filled Mitchell Guerin in on the hot-button issue of Kayla Morton or any associated drama, which was really what this was whole fiasco was becoming whether the three of us wanted to admit it or not and that was fine, both seemed oblivious to the tension, sitting on the raggedy couch in the corner chatting it up. Mitchell seemed very excited to see a girl clutching a guitar, not just sitting on the sidelines. I wondered if he would still be excited at the end of this impromptu dual audition.
"Alright lady and gentlemen,"
said Adam, sitting down at his kit. "Shall we get some tunes underway?"
Everyone took their respective position, instruments in hand, power on, ready at attention. With five people standing in at one time—three of them larger than average— the dusty garage seemed even smaller. "Alright, so how about if we…"
Adam’s voice trailed off as he stole a glance at me standing in front. "Richard, what’s up with your ear?"
All attention was on me before I could blink. I pulled my hand away from my ear with as much grace as being put on the spot could muster. "Oh nothing, it’s just really itchy," I fibbed.
"Are you sure?"
"Definitely. I’m probably just getting another damn zit." I tried to add emphasis by waving a dismissive hand. "You were saying?"
"Uh, well why don’t we just jam together for a bit, sort of get the hang of each others abilities?" Adam finished. He didn’t seem to buy my answer but didn’t ask further. Instead, he turned to Mitchell and said, "So Mitch, I hear you’ve been playing for quite a while, huh?"
"That’s right," Mitchell said with a proud smile, grasping a black and white Fender in his meaty hands. "I can give you a taste of what I know if you’d like." Adam gestured for him to proceed. I’m not sure which one of us was more interested to see him play, though a good performance would definitely entitle Jason to bragging rights, being the one who discovered him.
Mitchell checked his tuning and began to play, treating the four of us to a jaw-dropping display of a perfect marriage between enthusiasm and skill, playing through almost every scale the treble clef had to offer; eighth-notes, sixteenths… at one point I was sure his glasses would crack from the pitch, God knows it wasn’t making the pain in my ear any better. This fact I was able to conceal thanks to a well developed poker face; it’s probably nothing serious anyways, I told myself, just keep the head banging along, who’s to notice?
All four of us broke into spontaneous applause when Mitchell finished with his "little ditty," as he called it. A more suitable term, though still an oxymoron I might have used was ‘mini-symphony.’ The closest Systex had come to witnessing talent in such proportions was standing three feet to my right with a gaping mouth to match the guys standing around her. It was also quite likely the last time we’d see her in the Systex H.Q. While Adam was coming around to giving Kayla another try, after a performance like that, there was no way Mitchell would set foot outside the garage without being offered the position. The awe-struck expression plastered across his face reminded me of the old seeing stars shtick from Looney Tunes cartoons. I didn’t think it was very funny however. Neither did Jason, who was making no effort to hide the proud, boastful grin crawling across his stupid face. He may not have been looking directly at me but I knew what that smile was really about: Ha! How do you like that, Richard?
Kayla was the first to speak once our ovations died down. "Holy Hell in a handbag," she cried, "that was f — king incredible! I thought I was pretty good but wow!" I almost found the irony of her showering accolades on the man destined to show her the door a bit much to take. The ear pain seemed to agree, twisting itself into a searing knot. It was as if someone had lit a cotton swab on fire and was shoving it further down the canal. My tight lipped smile did as best a job possible of disguising the pain for pleasure.
"Wow indeed," I said. "Geez Mitch, where did you learn to play like that?"
Mitchell smiled a little too modestly for my comfort. "Back home I go to a private school very focused on music and the arts," he said in his Quebecois-rich accent. "There, they are not so much about the metal, but good classes on rock-and-roll classics, helps with the practical aspect of the gee-tar, everything else; the passion, the drive to play… that I learn from here." He pointed to his heart, a gesture that filled me with both great pleasure and upset. The tapping on his chest was like a nail being driven into the coffin carrying what little hope I had left as to who would get the gig. Here lies the shattered remains of Kayla Morton’s future in Systex, Kayla, we hardly knew ye.
"I love it," Jason said. "That’s what the band needs, more of that." The grin grew larger in size to match the ego behind it. Why don’t you just tell Kayla where to go, Jason? Isn’t that what you really want? I looked over at Adam, still stuck in his star struck gaze. Not hard to tell what he was thinking. It was becoming clearer the more I looked to either of them: This general wasn’t going to win the war. Better start working on that concession speech.
"Thank you." Mitchell smiled and then pointed to Kayla and said "So, her turn now I guess?" a move that took everyone by surprise, including me. When nobody could come up with a quick enough answer, Kayla stepped in.
"Oh, they’ve heard me play already. They know what I’ve got to offer."
"Ah perhaps," said Mitchell, raising a playful finger. "I haven’t though." This was true. "I like to know what I’m up against."
"Oh-ho, is that a challenge I hear? Bring it on, boy-o." Kayla swung her guitar strap across her shoulders and put her hands on her hips, giving him a playful "do you dare?" look. Any other situation, the sight of short, slender Kayla challenging portly Mitchell might have been a humorous one but nobody was laughing. While his words sounded a bit coy, there was no mistaking the seriousness in his eyes; a feature Kayla mirrored right back at him. Neither backed down, they just stood there staring each other down like two gunslingers before their big, climactic duel.
Adam seemed eager to avoid any confrontation. He stood up and leaned over his kit, attempting to insert himself into his typical role of peacekeeper. "Uh, guys, maybe we should just jam—whoops!" The period to his sentence came sooner than he expected via my hand grabbing the collar of his shirt and pulling him back into his stool, which promptly spun around to put the two of us face to face. "What the hell?"
"Just a minute dude, let’s not be too hasty here," I said. "This might just be what we need."
"Our two auditionees are staring each other down, and you tell me this is a good thing? Richard…" His voice trailed off like the remnants of an echo and I watched his eyes scan my face, which put a reluctant look on his own. "Richard…" He lowered his voice so only he and I could hear. "You have that ‘I’ve got a crazy idea’ look again. What is it now?"
"Trust me," I said, deciding not to tell him there was no such word as auditionee. "Kayla and Mitchell, I’ve got an idea."
"Yes?" they both said, not taking their eyes off one another while I repositioned the two amps so they were pointed facing the three of us. Jason watched me all the while looking like he wanted to cry foul at my meddling but kept quiet. Adam just looked puzzled. After swapping over a couple of patch cords and re-adjusting for volume and pitch, I was set.
Now it was my turn to show off the proud smile everybody seemed to have at some point today. "Okay you guys, we’re all set," I said.
Mitchell looked questioningly at the amps, then at Kayla and finally me. "Uh Richard, excuse me please. What is going on? Why do you turn away our amplifiers from us?"
"Yeah Rich…ard," Kayla said, making a good save with my name. "What’s the deal?"
"The deal my friends, is this: We’re going to have a guitar duel."
Everyone else in the room shared a collective "What?" with two distinctly different tones. Kayla and Mitchell were puzzled, Adam and Jason more indignant. "A duel?" asked Mitchell. His accent was rather strong this time, the word came out sounding like ‘dyoo-ale.’ "You kid, yes? How do we duel, we shoot each other with picks?" The teasing grin wiped right off his face the minute he realized I wasn’t clowning around.
"Simple," I said. "I want you both to just start playing. Whatever comes to you, any style, technique, or scale you want, it’s all good. The three of us will just chill back and listen, heck we may even join in if we’re feeling it. And at the end of it all, whichever one we like, that person will get the job. Sound good?"
The shredding kicked off before anyone could answer, with Kayla playing a medley of wailing chords, her hand gripping the upper stretch of the guitar as though holding onto it for dear life. Mitchell did not let her get too ahead, chasing after her with a complex melodic minor solo, leaving no string out. And to think I was impressed by Mitchell’s mini-symphony. What we were witnessing now was on a scale far above.
"Well heck, Richard," Adam shouted over the ongoing duel when I stepped back to watch the magic unfold in front of us, "I don’t know how in God’s name you came up with that idea but I gotta hand it to you—clever idea."
"Thanks. It sort of just came to me; they both want it, why not make ‘em work for it, eh? This way we can compare and contrast." An interesting thing for me to say since I could tell looking at Jason, his mind was made up before the starter’s pistol had even been fired, and why should it have been any different? I was still in Kayla’s corner, more determined than ever now not to throw the towel in. Mitchell may have had her on the ropes but she wasn’t going down without a fight.
A few seconds later, there was a loud twang that made both me and Jason lean forward. Kayla snapped a string in the middle of her own stab at a solo. This didn’t seem to bother her in the least; instead she blew a lock of hair from her eyes and dropped down an octave, letting the broken string dangle from the tuning key like a long silvery hair curling at the end. Broken string? Pooh. Even Mitchell looked impressed by her resolve while Jason promptly fell back against the couch. I’m quite sure if he wasn’t wearing that hat at such an angle, I would have seen a look of disappointment on his face. I was also surprised to note that the burning feeling in my ear had subsided again, for the moment. In fact I couldn’t even remember there being any pain while reorganizing the amps either.
Adam tapped both of us on the shoulder a minute later and gestured towards the door. It was decision time. After getting the two budding guitarists’ attention, Adam announced that we had some things to talk about and would they make themselves comfortable—as comfortable as one could make oneself in a garage that is—and we would be back with our decision.
The door was barely shut behind us when Adam faced us with raised hands and said, "Now guys, keep your heads on and let’s try to be rational." While Jason looked ready to unload on me, he kept quiet. I did too, though not without eyeing him from the corner of my eye. "Okay good," Adam said. "Now then, I think it wouldn’t be unreasonable to admit that what we just witnessed was simply incredible. Fair?"
"It’s no secret some people have keen interest in a certain player and while that’s good, it’s important we remember that this decision should be made objectively, in the best interest of the band. Richard?"
"What are your thoughts?"
"Well… We all know from yesterday, Kayla has some amazing skills about her. However I will admit, Mitchell definitely knows his stuff. I mean his fingers were moving so fast during those last few seconds, you couldn’t tell what strings he was tapping." It was an incredible feat to keep a tight leash on my words. The little sane voice of caution must have been using a megaphone. Adam looked appreciative of that.
"The duel was a good idea," Jason said without much enthusiasm. If that was as close to a compliment I could get from him, I’d take it. "And I suppose there’s no denying either of their talents. Both know their way around a guitar which is a blessing, considering the other fools we tried before them." He pushed his hat back, giving us a clear view of his face. "But, and Richard I’m sorry if you disagree, there can only be one guitarist and my vote is for—"
"Now wait a minute—"
"Oh, not this again," Adam moaned.
"No," I said with a calm voice. "No, let me speak." But I didn’t speak, instead I just stood there, feeling a tidal wave tossing around inside my brain and crashing against the walls of my skull. "Oh my God," I said in a near whisper, repeating it like each was more significant a statement than the last. "Oh my God, that’s it, oh my God."
"What?" they chorused. "What’s it?"
For the second time that day, an epiphany struck me. "It makes so much sense now. That’s why we’ve been so stuck."
Jason and Adam looked at me like I was speaking gibberish all of a sudden. "Richard?" Adam patted my arm. "Richard, are you feeling all right? Do you need to sit down?"
"I’m not sick Adam, I’m…" Enlightened? Awake? No, nevermind that spiritual gobbledygook, not what I was looking for. "I get it," I finally finished.
"Get what?" Jason said with a little snort of impatience. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"You," I said, pointing a finger at him. "You said there can only be one guitarist."
"I did. So?"
"So, maybe we’ve been going about this all wrong. Look, ever since we put up the ad all we’ve done is go through a handful of guys, fight like idiots and ultimately make no progress. Why? Because, we’re looking for the perfect guitarist, and now we find ourselves in this situation, two equally talented players with the same goal."
"And?" Jason asked, sounding more impatient. He rubbed his eyes with thumb and forefinger. "Please Richard, what are you getting at?"
"Answer me this: why does it have to be one or the other? Why can’t we bring them both into the band?"
"Because, they…well…" Jason’s answer ended with a sudden jolt of a stalled engine. One big stutter and it was dead. No input from Adam, either. We just stood in the hallway, thinking. The auditions were always one at a time and the ad did read "seeking determined guitarist." Even granting the possibility that Systex might evolve into a quintet seemed foreign to everyone. But was it really so inconceivable? Lots of groups out there, metal or otherwise, had five members—sometimes more. It wouldn’t be that big of a difference.
"Are you gentlemen doing alright?" Our heads turned to the sound of Mr. Merritt, who stood at the foot of the stairs, watching us with interest. He wore a brown leather jacket that looked at least a few years older than my father—and even that was pushing sixty.
"Oh yeah Dad, we’re good," Adam said. "We’re just having a little powwow about the band."
"Is that right? Well what happened to your other friends?"
"This is about them, actually."
"Oh." He paused a minute as though unsure if he should ask another question or not. He did. "You’re sure everything’s okay?"
Mr. Merritt smiled and chuckled to himself. "Alright, alright, I can take a hint. I’m just going out to the club for a little while; you guys enjoy your evening."
"We will Dad. Thanks."
"Thank you, sir."
"Have a good one, Mr. Merritt."
He walked out the front door and a minute later, the Caprice engine roared to life then gradually faded into the distance. I can’t be sure but I thought I caught the faint sounds of Led Zeppelin coming from the car radio, which both amused and delighted me.
"Is it really so weird?" I asked. "Having two permanent guitarists would allow me to focus all my attention on vocals." Adam agreed this would be an advantage. We had a few lyrics floating around but nothing concrete yet; it would be nice to focus on that aspect. "Plus with two, there are twice as many ideas to bounce around."
Even Jason nodded consent and then, to my great displeasure, said "I don’t know. I just don’t know."
I sighed. "Oh for the love of… Alright Jason, I’m sick of fighting, I’m sick of watching Systex turn into a go-nowhere band watching its chance slip away. I think we can all agree this is getting ridiculous." No dissent. "I’m going to ask you this once and only once and please think about it before you answer."
He said, with the slightest tilt of his head, "I’m listening."
"Is there any hope at all that you could possibly be willing to overlook whatever objections you’ve got about Kayla and agree to admit her, and Mitchell, into Systex? You’re not stupid Jason. The benefits of having either in the band are evident even to you. Can you imagine if we take Mitchell’s precision and passion and pair it with Kayla’s energy and—"
Hold your tongue, Richard.
"Tenacity," I said through clenched teeth. Even that was harder to say than I would’ve liked to admit. "The possibilities would be unlimited. Yes she’s got a mouth on her, who here doesn’t? We all say shit from time to time; I’m as guilty as the next one. Is the risk not worth the reward?"
Judging by the look in his eyes, Jason seemed to be genuinely contemplating it, so I took a chance and made a final offer, hoping it would seal the deal. "If she doesn’t work out, I will ask her to leave the group myself. What do you say?"
The phone rang while we waited for Jason to come to a decision. Adam excused himself to the next room and answered it. "Hello? I’m sorry, who’s calling please? Oh. Oh I see. Yes, this is Adam. Okay Mr. Demin, I’ll tell him. Sure. Goodbye." The receiver clunked back into place and I swore, almost certain as to who called. I regretted ever giving my father Adam’s number. Adam rejoined, looking unhappy. "Richard, I guess you heard—"
"Oh yes. Apparently Captain Bob doesn’t trust me when I say I’ll be home in time for dinner. Well, what are we going to do? We told them we’d make a decision."
Adam didn’t look any more pleased than me. "I don’t know. I guess we’ll have to talk about this later and make a decision tomorrow or the next day."
I was so angry I could’ve punched the wall. "Right, well I’ve said all I can ever say about this. If you guys figure out where you stand, let me know. Otherwise, I guess we’ll see you same time tomorrow." I turned to leave. "Stay cool, guys."
I faced Jason. "What?"
"I’ll think on it. No promises, but I’ll think about it."
Hardly the answer I wanted but we were out of options by now. It would have to suffice. "Okay, fair enough," I said, using every last bit of resolve to mask the jadedness I felt. "See you guys tomorrow." I made up some excuse to Mitchell and Kayla and went home upset, wondering if we would ever come to a decision about the fate of the guitar role. The walk seemed longer and less enjoyable than yesterday’s. Of course, the return of the pain didn’t help any.
The streams of cold water rained down from above, stabbing at my skin like thousands of tiny needles, sending a shiver through my body like a jolt of electricity. It helped wake me up after steaming away in the hot shower for several minutes, staring down at the faded tiled floor, watching the excess drip off me and circle the drain. If there was any motivation inside of me to either up the water temperature or get out and dry off, it was doing a good job hiding. Moving was be the last thing on my mind.
We were so close, I thought. We could have had this all said and done and put behind us, ready to take a step forward for once. Instead, it felt like we’d taken two steps back. If things seemed hard before, now it felt like trying to roll a boulder up a mountain; a boulder filled with bad feelings and rotting creativity, rolling down the hill on a direct course to crush us where we stood like bugs. "Maybe we should give up," I mused aloud, "hire a singer instead and let me worry about the guitar. Oh hell. If we can’t agree on this, what hope do we have of choosing a singer?"
Shivering now in the icy torrential of the shower, I turned the water off and willed myself to climb out and towel off before sneaking across the hall to my room with just a towel wrapped around my waist. No sooner had I declared myself home free that I heard the sound I’d come to dread; the rumbling baritone cry of "Richard!"
Crap, busted again. "Yes?"
"Telephone," said my father.
Phew, perhaps I dodged that bullet after all. "Who is it?"
"I don’t know. It sounds like your drummer friend."
"Oh, okay. I’ll be there in a minute," I called back, dropping the towel and entering a Flight of the Bumblebee mode, dressed and down the hall in less than thirty seconds, my shirt clinging to my damp back. I took the receiver from his hand. "Thanks Dad."
He grunted and headed back to the living room, calling over his shoulder, "we have bathrobes for a reason, boy. There are young girls living in this house."
One girl, I mouthed silently. Besides, it was almost nine o’clock; my sister Andrea would be long asleep by now. Whatever. "Hey Adam," I spoke into the phone.
"Uh, it’s Jason." He sounded a little put out.
"Oh sorry man, my dad said drummer friend. Guess you must sound alike on the phone or something. What’s up?"
"You said to let you know when I made a decision. I have."
The receiver pressed hard against my ear as though doing this would make the conversation more private. "Well, what’s the word?"
Jason cleared his throat. "First of all, I want you to understand this was not an easy decision to make. I really did try my best to weigh the cost of asking both to join the band versus either or. At the end of it all, personal feelings aside, the final call came down to what I think is the best option for the band."
"I’m not thrilled with the idea of having Kayla in the group," he continued. "I don’t want there to be anymore pigheaded arguments either. However, you were right as well, I’m not stupid. Perhaps it doesn’t make sense to shun such talent just like that, but talent should not—does not—outweigh personality. Adam and I talked about it for a long time after you left and we’re both in agreement. We need to start making music again."
"Absolutely," I said, trying to sound positive.
"So, with all that in mind, our search is over. We asked Mitchell—and Kayla—to join Systex this afternoon. They’ve accepted. We’re complete." His voice was simple and plain, but hearing those words uttered struck such a chord in me that I nearly dropped the phone.
"Wow. That’s just...wow."
"We’ll see how it goes," Jason said. "If Kayla works out, then that’s great, I’ll be happy. If not, I expect you to live up to your word."
"You know I will," I said.
"Good. Anyways, I just wanted to call and let you know that tomorrow we can start our first full practice."
"Sounds good, Jason. And thanks, for being the bigger man."
"S’alright. We both got what we wanted. Are we good now, you and me?"
"Oh we’re better than good, dude," I couldn’t help but laugh. "We are motherf—king Systex!"
"Language!" my father’s voice barked from the next room. I heard Jason stifle a laugh over the line.
"That we are. It’s got a good ring to it. Well, I better go, gotta finish up that essay on Animal Farm. Rock on, Richard, we’ll see you tomorrow." The line went dead soon after.
"Rock on, Jason," I said and set the phone down with the biggest smile my face had seen since the first jam session. I returned to my room, whispering to myself, "Motherf—cking Systex." I liked how that sounded. The missing puzzle pieces were in place and things were looking up at long last. Tomorrow the music would go on, better than before.
I liked the sound of that too.