When the 18th comes around at long last, every waking minute I've not spent working, I've either spent at the Ravenclaw house plugged into my relocated Mesa-Boogies, or headphones and my dummy practice Peavey in my little hole in the wall overlooking East 12th. You might not think I'm being literal when I say "every waking moment," but it's the truth. I wanted to know the five songs in our repertoire backwards and forwards, seeing as I had both rhythm and lead to record. Besides, it's not like I had better things to do, any friends to go hang out with, save from Kevin and Lindsay, and drinking alone was an activity I could leave behind for a while. My bank account thanked me for that, even though gathering the money to pay for my share of the recording dues did more damage than I would have liked to admit. Sure, I still had the Visa, but anyone who's ever reached for the unholy plastic in an emergency or otherwise knows how slippery that slope can become and how fast.
We rent a cargo van, an ugly white pillbox with wheels, and transport all our instruments, our amps and other essential equipment to the studio in two trips. The studio, "Opus Recording and Sound," is a modest little setup occupying three suites on the second floor of an industrial building approximately thirty kilometres outside of Vancouver, overlooking a set of rusty and weather worn CP Rail tracks running across the Fraser River. In the midst of moving our stuff in, Lindsay introduces us to the friend she keeps referring to, a gaunt giant thinner than her, an image I couldn't have conceived in my wildest dreams, with a shaggy mess of blonde hair held in place by a Blue Jays cap with the brim spun around to the back. He extends a tattooed arm towards me and introduces himself as "Cloudy."
I shake hands with him. "Cloudy?" I ask, trying to stifle a laugh, which the skin and bones giant doesn't hold against me.
"That's what my friends call me," he says, adding the nickname came as a result of his liberal use of the sticky green leaf, something I quickly identified coming from his hoodie but didn't mention it.
"How about that, then," I say. "So, how do you know Lindsay?"
Cloudy sneaks a glance over his shoulder. Lindsay has busied herself dragging two hardshell cases towards an elevator while we become acquainted. "High school," he says, sharing that the two used to date but it was now just a platonic thing, something I was happy to learn in light of her sudden and quite unexpected behaviour towards me last week, even though I kept telling myself it hadn't meant anything.
"Did you dump her or was it vice versa?" I ask.
Cloudy shakes his head. "It was mutual. I don't even think there was any actual feelings involved. Lust, perhaps. Love? Nah. I don't think Lindsay Wagner is the type of girl who falls in love, at least from what I've seen."
"You don't say." This bit of news doesn't help. Things remain friendly, but surface-level as we unload the rest of the gear and get setup in the studio. Cloudy sits at a soundboard in an adjacent room, talking to us via speaker; pointing out where gear might better fit, what we should record first, tech stuff. It's all Greek to me. I have no clue how these things work and no desire to learn how. My job is to play. It's what I was put on this earth to do.
As the week progresses, most of the focus is on vocals and string work. When I'm not needed, I spend time chilling in the production room with Cloudy and Kevin, the latter looking more and more bored or anxious over time; fidgeting in his seat, pacing the room, hammering out patterns on an invisible drum kit. It's as if he needs to be behind a kit (or drinking) at all times, otherwise he's a hyperactive ball of energy of no use to anyone, least of all himself. Worse, he seems to know it, too; slowly slipping into a negative, critical mood, suggesting tweaks or complete overhauls to parts that everyone else is satisfied with. Eventually, a time comes on Friday where I lose my temper and tell him that since he obviously knows the guitar better than me, either he should come in and play the solo to a song called "Hotblooded," or shut the f--k up and let me do my part. He takes this badly and tells everyone he's going out to get some air, kicking the door closed behind him, and we take this as a time for everyone to take a break. Cloudy offers to go get food, and leaves shortly after.
"Man," I say to Lindsay after a long and heavy drag on a badly needed cigarette, "what the hell is up with him today?"
"Oh, ignore him," she says, "he always gets jumpy if he doesn't get any playing time in."
"Well still, I don't exactly appreciate being lectured on how to play. I don't tell him how to double-time on those bass drums, or whatever."
"Just don't take it personally. You have to understand this about Kev - he's an all or nothing kinda guy. He's never comfortable just coasting in neutral."
"Unless he's drunk," I mutter.
"What did you say?"
"Nothing, just - oh, forget it, just thinking out loud."
Lindsay gives me a long look. "He's not that bad, you know. Besides, I thought you liked him."
"Well sh-t, of course I like him! I don't like being micromanaged, that's all."
"Fair enough. Nobody does." She turns to go back inside, her hair floating in midair behind her like a red curtain.
Something strikes me. "Hey, Linds."
She stops and looks back at me. "Yeah?"
"That..." Pause. Gulp. "That kiss. Last week, you know?"
"What about it?" Her expression is plain, uninterested. For a minute, I wonder if she even remembers it, and feel the underside of my face begin to prickle with heat.
"Thanks. I guess." It's all I can think to say.
"Sure." She goes back inside. I finish off my cigarette, contemplate lighting up a second, decide not to, and head back upstairs after waiting another minute or two. Cloudy returns ten minutes later with two big plastic bags of takeout sushi. I try to offer him some money, but he refuses to take it, insisting that any friend of Lindsay's is a friend of his. I'm secretly relieved to slip the crisp ten back into my pocket, and tuck into a California roll. Kevin returns shortly after, in a brighter mood made better by the surprise appearance of sushi. The four of us eat, dispose of the trash and prepare to go back to it.
"Yo, Cloudy?" I say.
"My hand's cramping up, I think I need to ice it for a bit. Why don't you let Kevin lay down tracks for 'This Love'? It's pretty straightforward, no mixing or tweaking required. Why not get it out of the way now, leave us more time to work on the other four songs?"
Cloudy and Kevin share the same surprised look. "You sure?" Cloudy asks. "You've been on a roll this morning."
I nod. Cloudy shrugs and agrees. Kevin's face brightens further and he excitedly punches the air and runs to fetch his stick bag. I take a gel icepack from the bottom of a cooler filled with unlabeled bottles of water and clench it in my left hand and settle into a chair next to Cloudy's work station.
Lindsay goes into the booth to retrieve her bass. "Bullsh-tter," she mumbles under her breath just loud enough to hear as she passes by me and drops into the only couch, a hideous three-seater that seems to have been plucked from Austin Powers's swingin' sixties shag pad. She's careful to avoid looking me in the eye for the rest of the day. I give up trying after the second attempt.
Kevin returns with a large black bag slung over his shoulder and slips into the larger of the two booths. Thankfully, Cloudy had the foresight to get the drums setup and the recording equipment fine-tuned and tested on the Tuesday, so we don't have to spend hours fiddling around with stuff. I watch him slide various sliders, tune various knobs with his skeletal fingers. He catches a glimpse of the fascination in my eyes and asks me if I know anything about sound engineering, while Kevin unzips and begins fishing through a bundle of beige-bleached sticks that look as though they might have come from the same tree once upon a time.
"All I know about recording lies on the other side of the glass," I say. "This here's your domain."
"Ah," Cloudy nods and twists one last rheostat. Then he reaches for a flexible-necked microphone not much thinner than his index finger and bends the head forward while lowering his mouth to meet it. "Okay, Kev, we're all set. Ready to rock and roll?" Kevin shows him the bird for using such a cliche, but he's grinning a tightlipped grin. A polished stick pokes out either side of his clenched fist like handles on a rolling pin. "Uh-huh. F--k you too, drummer boy," Cloudy says, his voice void of any malice. "Just remember: You're supposed to hit the drumheads, not the rim."
A snort escapes from Lindsay on the couch behind us. I don't bother turning my head, choosing instead to recline as best I can in the stiff-backed chair and watch the drummer boy do what he does best.
It's quite a show.
By dinner break, which turns out to be just an extended water break for me; unlike its Chinese cousin, sushi has an interesting habit of sticking to my ribs for hours, Kevin and I find time to sit down and have a man-talk. You know the kind, a talk where both parties say what they mean without ever saying what they really mean. Heaven forbid you should run the risk of actually talking about feelings! It doesn't take long for both of us to arrive at the same conclusion: We're both touchy a-sholes when it comes to music, but we're likeable a-sholes and we'll both come through the other side with a kick-a-s product. Kevin lifts a lager in a toast. I lift water.
I get dropped off across the street from my building around a quarter to midnight after a less productive but still intense evening session, during which Kevin suggests we return the cargo van and just rent another one when recording wraps up next week. We wouldn't be saving that much more money than if we just kept it for the rest of our tenure at Opus Recording, but the idea is unanimously agreed on. That damn fool even offered to drive it back to the twenty-four hour depot on Kingsway, a proposal which Lindsay vetoes with a tone of voice that seems to suggest "do it and die." She wasn't exactly stone cold sober either, but two beers over eight hours was a safer alternative.
"How are you guys gonna get back home?" I ask, undoing my belt buckle and sliding towards the shotgun door.
Lindsay gestures to Kevin, stretched out in the back. "Chug-a-Lug here has a compact parked at the depot. We'll be fine."
The nickname strikes a chord in me, and I almost fall out the door laughing. "When he comes to, tell him I'm gonna call him that from now on."
"You do, and your hand's gonna be cramped a lot longer!" he cries in a voice thick with sleep, and flails an arm through the darkness. If there's a finger protruding from his hand, I don't see it.
"Duly noted," I say between hiccuping chuckles. "Goodnight Miss Wagner. You're alright, yourself." She doesn't say anything, but I'm able to detect the faintest outline of a twisted smirk before I close the door and the van drives away. I dart across the road in the shadows of the streetlights and almost run right into a dark coloured car sitting parked underneath a burned out pole, skidding my heels at the last possible second so all I end up doing is planting both hands on the hood, pushing myself away so as not to prove the Newtonian law of physics by rolling onto and over the hood and leave a body-shaped dent I can't even imagine being able to afford fixing. The driver, and apparent sole occupant of the vehicle looks up from a phone, the lower part of his face a misshapen silhouette jumping out against a blue-white glow from the screen, eyebrows raised questioningly, eyes wide, his pupils almost swallowing the irises whole.
"Sorry!" I raise my hands and wave at him. "Sorry, man, sorry! Totally my fault!" The light from the phone is extinguished as the man behind the wheel opens his door and climbs out. He's enormous, nearly spherical. I'd wager it would take at least two of me to fit into his pants, and I'm not the most in-shape guy out there. His dark, piggy eyes poke out from a doughy face hidden under the bent brim of a grey ball cap with a large diamond on the front. I'm easily a foot taller than him, maybe more, but that wouldn't stop him from wrapping his stubby arms around me and squeezing me to death if he wanted.
"Sh-t, are you okay buddy?" he asks, eyes still big. "It looked like you were gonna bail for a minute there."
"I'm fine. Only my pride seems bruised." I glance at my palms, still tingling from the sudden impact. "And maybe my hands, but otherwise, no harm done."
The fat man lets out a "Phew!" and says, "That's good, man. I wouldn't want you to be hurt. Too badly."
Hindsight is a cruel thing. We always know the right thing to do, the safe and sensible thing, after the fact. But where is the little voice of sanity when you're stuck in the heat of the moment? Curled up in the deep recesses of the mind, babbling to itself, or sitting back with a bucket of popcorn, ready to watch the action unfold like the climactic fight of any corny Friday night cable TV movie. It was the words, I'll tell myself later. That's what set off the alarm, his words, not his size, shape or anything else. "Too badly."
"Yeah. Sorry again." I turn and head toward the front doors, when the fat man calls out. What made me stop, I'll never know.
"Hey, you live in this place?" He points at my building.
"Yeah. Why do you wanna know?"
"Well, I've been trying to reach the guy in 402 all evening but he's not answering. Or else he ain't home. Do you know him by any chance?"
That kicks my heart into a higher gear. I can feel the thunder of my pulse crawling up from my chest and licking the underside of my throat. "402?" I manage to spit out.
"Yeah. I got an important message for him."
Run! That's the only thing going through my mind right now; run fast, run for the door, run down the street for all it's worth. Just move! Now!
"That's my number," I hear myself say, defying any lingering trace of rationality or reptilian instinct more concerned with survival than reproduction. The words come out slow and flat and monotonous, like honey dripping over a spoon lip.
"Really?" asks the fat man. "You're Mallory?" His eyes move, sizing me up and down, before he lets out a low bark of a laugh. "Thought that was a girl's name."
"It's my last name, and it's what people usually call me. Now what do you want?" The fat man takes a step forward, and I take one back. My back brushes against something solid, yet soft. I have enough time to turn and see another human mountain in a plain black hoodie standing there, and then all of a sudden, I'm grabbed around the waist and squeezed like a child's stuffed animal. The shock and the pain are incredible. It feels like I'm caught in a giant vice. All the air rushes out of me, and I gasp, struggling to take in another gulp of air while my arms are pulled back and pinned behind me.
"I just came to give you a message, that's all," says the fat man, stepping forward and delivering a heavy backhand slap across the face. My head snaps back as bright comets jump across the world, leaving streaky tails. He says something else before going back across the other side of my face, but I'm unable to understand. That first slap sets off a piercing ring in my ears made only worse by the second slap. I struggle against my captor, but it's useless trying to break free.
"You'll have to say that again," I say in between gasps, spitting red foam on the pavement. "I don't answer well when being bitchslapped."
The fat man's dough-ball face folds into a wrinkled sneer. "A f--kin' wisea-s," he says, forming a fist and cutting an uppercut through the air. I'm able, just barely, to twist my head and miss the heaviest part of the impact, getting clipped on the ear, only to open myself up to a follow-through jab to my stomach. It feels like I've been struck by a sledgehammer, and everything dislocated from the punch starts crawling up towards my throat. The unknown grappler seems to pick up on this, and loosens his hold. I drop to my knees, draw a shaky breath, then crawl on all fours towards the nearest patch of grass and empty the remains of my lunch in a strangled belch. And another one. And a third, the latter leaving a lake of fire alight inside. As I'm trying to catch my breath, the fat man walks right up to me, his shadow swallowing mine whole, and asks if I'm listening now.
"Yes!" I manage to say, holding onto my stomach as though this will somehow keep me from vomiting again, although it feels like I've emptied everything I've eaten and drunk since the Mach Two hangover that preceded this tale of interesting events, in which I play the lead role; another everyday, ordinary shmuck who finds fate constantly against him in a struggle for ultimate control. "Who are you, and what do you want? And what the f--k did I ever do to you?"
"You made a friend of mine very angry," says the fat man. "You went and took something that doesn't belong to you."
"Is that so?" I say, spitting more red foam into the grass. Things are slowly coming back into focus as the spinning comets fade from view and the ringing subsides. The fire in my stomach, however, continues to burn. "Your friend wouldn't be named Curtis by any chance, would it?" I don't know what made me say it, but when I look back on all that's gone wrong in the last four months, that drunk f--ker's name seems to pop up quite a bit.
The fat man takes a step back, pauses, and then offers a single snort of a laugh. He even sounds like a pig, I think. "No. But we did pay a Curtis a visit earlier tonight, didn't we?" he asks the other guy, who offers a muffled "mhmmf." I dare to look up from the pile of puke and bloody spit and glance up at another giant, he sure as hell looks like one from down here on the ground, a dark hood covering his head, his face hidden by a cheap, plastic clown mask. A f--king clown mask. This is just perfect. All that's missing is a toy gun that pops out a brightly coloured BANG! flag when the trigger's pulled. Instead, I'm the one pulled - back onto my feet by Clown Face and once more restrained and made to face the fat man, much to the chagrin of my stomach. I've never swallowed bleach, but were such a thing to occur, the resulting damage to my innards would probably feel a little bit like how it feels right now.
"Right!" barks the fat man. "You listening? Cause I got other things I'd rather be doing, and my friend wants to make sure you get the message. I don't mind telling you that that Curtis f--k didn't wanna listen, and that made me angry. You sure you're listening?"
"Yeah, you got my full attention."
"Good! So, here's what's gonna happen: you're gonna stay away from the girl. You don't talk to her, you don't look at her, you don't even walk on the same f--kin' side of the street as her. You ever think about showin' up at the studio again, that'd be a bad idea. You got it?"
It's difficult to process anything right now. The inside of my head is tipping back and forth like a teeter-totter while names of people and places bounce around like bingo balls in the draw tank; no matter how hard I try to convince myself this is just another f--ked up nightmare I'm soon to awake from, the cold reality of the world clings to me like a sweaty shirt after a vigorous bout of moshing.
"Got it?" the fat man asks without a glimmer of patience.
"Yeah. I got it." What I've got is a horrible stomachache, a sore face and bloody lip, but he doesn't need to hear that.
"Good! Any questions?"
As though falling back into a default pattern, I glance at the fat man and say, "Where's your mask?"
"Your buddy here's wearing that stupid clown face, yet you're confident enough to look me in the eye without one. Of course, with a face like yours, you hardly need a mask, huh?"
The fat man's face screws up into a grotesque image, as Clown Face shoves me to the ground. I have barely enough time to roll over before something blunt and heavy hits me in the forehead, a shoe most likely, snapping the lights on to full brightness and lending the world an off-key echo. I hear the fat man saying something about being a f--king wisea-s, and I'm brought back up into a stand. This time, I don't wait for the next blow to strike. I grip my keys hard, again feeling their cold metal teeth cut into my flesh, and swing as the street slowly comes back into clarity. The door key strikes something hard before continuing up into the air, followed immediately by a scream that sounds more like the bleat of a wounded animal than anything human. The first image I see is the fat man covering his pig face. In a blink, dark, red blood begins to pour from a jagged gouge in his forehead as though someone turned a valve. I don't need to be prompted to start moving and fast, before Clown Face gets his hands on me again. I run down the street, towards Main, fumbling clumsily with my keys, shoving them deep into my back pocket, feeling something sticky on my hand, pulling my hood up over my forehead with my free hand.
As if the fates are, for once, choosing to smile on me, rather than at my misfortune, a bus is sitting one light back from the closest stop, kitty corner to a convenience store with its lights out and door locked and barred, a legal looking document sitting in the door window. I'm able to get on board, drop a handful of change and rush for the back row of seats, knowing I'm running on pure adrenaline by now. A man who's been punted in the face shouldn't be able to even walk a straight line. Lodged deep within this fact is an even purer nugget of truth: I need a cigarette, and a doctor. Preferably, in that order.
I tell myself this as I plop into a seat in the far rear corner, apparently the only rider on the bus. I turn to the window and peek out from under the lip of my hood, and then everything goes dark.
Something shakes me awake. My first instinct is to reach for my keys and swing at the fat man's face again. I hear a voice telling me to calm down and take it easy while I blink away the sleep. The bus driver, clad in dark shorts that might once have been dress pants, and baby-blue uniform shirt, is staring into my face, his hand on my shoulder, but he draws it away as I bolt upright, aware of the pain in my gut, but not quite feeling it. "What? What do you want? What?"
"Take it easy, buddy," the driver urges me. "I'm not going to hurt you. You're not in any trouble. This is the last stop. You have to get off."
"You fell asleep, sir. We're at the exchange. You have to get off now, I'm going out of service."
"Oh." I move my hand to wipe my face, and the hood tips back, collapsing around my neckline. I see the driver's eyes go wide. "What?"
"Jesus, what happened to your head?" he asks, sounding alarmed. "You look like you've had the crap beaten out of you."
"I'm fine," is the first thing to come out of my mouth. "I just - I'm fine, I fell asleep, like you said. I fell asleep. Excuse me, please."
"Sir, you look like you need a doc..."
"Excuse me please!" I say, and quickly push past him and exit the bus by the rear doors, walking quickly what appears to be the exchange exit lane, crossing a walk and continuing up a road dotted with hanging lamps on dark poles, each wearing a set of twin banners I can't read. After a few minutes, I cross to another road perpendicular to the one I've been travelling and go down what appears to be a residential road lined with tall, black, plastic garbage bins. I have no idea where I'm going, what little adrenaline I've left in my reserves seems to be carrying me on a pre-set course. I continue like this until I inevitably trip over myself and go crashing into a pair of cans, knocking them askew and falling amongst a pile of flattened cardboard and old newspaper.
Off in the distance of my peripheral, a light snaps on in the house whose cans I've just upset. I try to lift my head, but only get it an inch or two up in the air before dropping it back onto the hard plastic bin. I hear a door open, and then a bright cone of blue-white light cuts through the darkness, snapping from left to right like a tightly wound pendulum before coming to rest on me. I don't bother trying to move, only lie there and wait for someone to yell at me to watch where I'm going, or to pick up the sh-t I've spilled and beat it before they call the cops.
Instead, what I hear is a woman's voice call out in the quiet stillness of the neighbourhood road: "Oh my God! Oh my God!"
"Babe?" a man's gruff voice calls from the house. "Babe! What is it? Is it a raccoon? A bear?"
"Richard! Get down here!" she replies.
"Just get down here and help me out. This guy needs help!"
"Who…?" I start to ask, and then I go away again.