About twenty minutes after placing the call, a familiar looking truck pulls up alongside a lane clearly marked NO PARKING. I look up from the cigarette I've been trying to smoke, only to let it die out and having to re-light it more than once, drop its dead, half-smoked length into a metal ashtray bolted into the top ring of a garbage bin and walk towards the truck.
"Are you going to get in or just stand there looking lost?"
I open the passenger door and step up, swinging it closed behind me. Even in the early morning light, the upholstery is surprisingly warm to the touch.
"Belt," I'm instructed, and I slip the shoulder strap on and struggle to find the buckle, sunken in the crevasse between ass and back cushion, but quickly find it and click it in.
"Thanks," I say. He doesn't look back at me, which I'm okay with. I'd prefer not to have to make a second trip in as many hours to VGH - or any hospital, ever again. "I know I don't deserve this, but..."
"No. You don't." Slowing to a stop at a red light, he allows himself a moment's glance at the troublesome fucker riding shotgun with him. "You don't look as bad as you made it out to be when you called. Still... shit, Jay! Have you looked at yourself?"
"Many times, I'm afraid." I can't help feeling bristled by his outburst, although I know if there's anyone in this world not obliged to show even an ounce of concern for my well being, it's Stephen Gain, guitarist extraordinaire, and ex-Dichotomy of Mind's answer to Good Guy Greg. As if Stephen would ever be caught dead smoking spliff, I think, and that actually gets me laughing, although it comes out as more of a choked cough.
"What?" Stephen asks.
"Nothing. Just... glad to be in one piece, I suppose."
Stephen seems to consider this, then nods as the light snaps to green and he shifts the truck back into first gear, guiding us towards the Cambie Street Bridge. "I echo that. Although two fights in one week is a bit much, wouldn't you say?"
"In my defence, I didn't start this one. I was ganged up on."
"So you said. What the hell was up with that, anyway? They rob you?"
"Yes." A pause. "No. Well, not exactly."
"What do you mean, 'not exactly'?"
I sigh and recount the condensed, but authentic version of last night's events, right up to the moment I ended up in a tangled mess among a pair of upset recycle bins. Stephen watches the road the entire time, but I can see his eyes growing big as I tell about being lifted out of the mess and helped inside the house until Corporal Caruthers came a-calling with his nosy little recorder.
His response takes a while, but he eventually comes up with, "Well I'll be damned. There really are good people in this city. You ought to send them a thank you card at the very least."
"First of all, I resent that parental tone, I ain't ten years old. Besides, I doubt very much they ever want to hear from me again. She was a nice woman, but definitely suspicious about me. And him?" I chuckle and shake my head. "He just sat there and looked at me."
"Can't say I don't blame them, entirely. Anyone's got a right to be suspicious if a guy smelling of beer..."
"ONE beer, thank you."
"Duly noted - ends up knocking over their trash cans and passing out in the process after having his face rearranged. And that card business is just a thought, that's all. Don't get snippy." A few moments pass in silence. "You may have a point, though. You probably don't even know the number of the house, much less who lives there."
"That's whose house it was."
Stephen looks like he's just been slapped across the face. He appears to struggle to keep his eyes on the road while making a sharp turn. "Bullshit."
"I know it sounds crazy - insane, even. But I ain't lying." He glances at me from his peripheral for a long time until it becomes unnerving. "The road!" I say. He doesn't answer. He seems to be weighing various responses in his head. Finally, he comes up with "You hungry?"
I actually jump a little in surprise, as though just snapping awake from a crazy nightmare. "Huh?"
"Are you hungry?"
"Less so than I am exhausted, but I probably need the nutrients."
"Good. We're going to make a little detour en route to your place. There's a diner just off Kingsway, not too far away from your place. Best hash-browns in town. You're welcome to just sit and keep me company, but we're going to sit down and you're gonna tell me this story again. And I mean the entire story. I don't want the short and sweet version. Leave no stone unturned, as they say."
Just when I think my day can't get any stranger. "Uh..."
Stephen drops his hand from the two o'clock position on the steering wheel and wags a finger in the air. "No buts. Call it payback for the ride home."
So we stop and eat in a little corner booth in a diner heavy into the nostalgia of the roaring '50s. He's right, the hash-browns that accompany a pair of over-easy eggs and over-crisp bacon are probably the best I've ever had; shredded and crispy on the outside, yet fluffy on the inside and not too greasy. The coffee's another story, but the last thing I need right now is more caffeine. We also talk, although in fairness, I do most of the talking and Stephen listens with growing astonishment.
"I don't believe it," Stephen says after a period of contemplation. "I simply can't believe it. Of all the places and all the people... Richard Demin. Fuck me."
"No thanks." Stephen doesn't pay a lick of attention to the bad joke.
"That is just insane. Almost as much as the gang-up on you to begin with. How did you keep yourself so passive? Isn't he like your biggest idol?"
"That's a bit of an overstretch," I say, thinking back to what would prove to be the final entry in a worthless blog read and commented on by even more worthless trolls. Funny, it's the first time the now former blog has come to mind since the fateful night at Funky's. Even now, it's not a terribly welcome thought. But how many have there been? I ask myself before switching back to exterior dialogue. "Owning a band's entire catalogue and a fair share of shirts hardly qualifies as idolatry."
Stephen makes no attempt to hide a smirk. "Alright, alright, I'm backing down."
"Besides, there's something about being kicked in the face to remove your desire for stimulating conversation."
"At any rate, I don't expect him to show up on my radar again. I was too fucked up to notice his address." This is a lie, the address quoted by Corporal Caruthers is a rare moment of clarity in the din of last night, but I've no desire to suddenly show up on his doorstep, right out of the blue, again. What on earth would I say? "Hey Richard, remember me? I'm the guy you pulled out of the curb and fed coffee to before unleashing your cop buddy on me. I was just in the neighborhood, thought I'd drop by. How you doing? How's the family? More importantly, where the fuck have you been all these years?"
I jump in my seat, banging my knee against the solid metal table beam. "What?"
Stephen looks both amused and annoyed. "I asked you to pass me the sugar. Twice."
"Oh." I reach out and pass him the glass container, flipping the little metal lid back in the process. "Sorry."
"No problem. Where the hell did you go just now?"
"Oh, uh, just flashing back to last night. Trying to make sense of it all, if that's even possible."
"Ah." Stephen generously sweetens the coffee in his mug, adding in two little cups of "coffee creamer product" for good measure. Jesus... "creamer product..." What won't they think of next? He stirs the cup, looking right at me without blinking. Soon, the stirring subsides and the spoon clinks against the ceramic before coming to rest, the stumpy metal handle rising from the greyish-beige liquid like a fat straw.
The prolonged staring begins to unnerve me. Distance begins to grow in his eyes, as if he's no longer trying to look at me, or stare through me to the other side of the banquette's tacky polyester. He is only thoughtful. "Uh, dude? You alright there?"
He blinks once, twice, and then resumes stirring his coffee for longer than necessary, eventually removing the spoon and taking a long, purposeful sip. He then surprises me by letting out a hearty chuckle and returning cup to saucer.
"What? What's funny?"
"You," says Stephen, chuckling again.
"God, you're a real character, you know that, Jay?"
"What the hell do you mean by that?"
"Of all the wannabe musicians I've known, you're the most..." He pauses, seemingly searching for an appropriate word, "...individual."
"Interesting, but not helpful."
Stephen begins counting off his fingers. "Two fights in a week - one more defensive than the other, I'll grant you that - ruined instrument, lifetime ban from one of the few places in all of Vancouver that caters to metalheads, lying to the police to try and save your own ass, not to mention all the shouting matches, the passive-aggressive 'fuck you, I won't do what you tell me' attitude, countless cartons smoked, cases drunk..."
I throw up a hand. "Yeah, how about we don't mention it, okay? Thanks."
He doesn't miss a beat, continuing his monologue as though my objection were nothing more than the buzzing of a pesky fly. "All of this, coupled with an incredible level of stubbornness, to create the most iron-clad, yet shockingly see-through armor - chainmail more like - a poor camouflage for the deep sense of idealism and commitment to a dream that earned far more respect than any bullshit 'tough-guy' persona you try to show people." A brief pause to take another sip of the sugar-heavy coffee, then he goes on to add, "Are you happy with where it's gotten you?"
If he expects a reaction from me, apart from the stinging red that's lighting my cheeks and spreading across my face, he's going to be disappointed. I feel like I've been cut open and had my innards scooped out. I also feel a bit like a kettle just called black by the pot. I wonder if Stephen's aware of his own passive-aggression. After a few sips of my own coffee, black as my mood, I venture a question to Stephen, asking if he feels better now that he's gotten all that off his chest.
He sighs and rolls his eyes like he's looking to the heavens, asking God, "See what I have to put up with?" Then he rolls them back down to meet my gaze and says, "You see? That's exactly what I'm talking about. No offense, but I can only wonder how long your new band will put up with it before you either find yourself kicked out or at the bottom of another moshpit getting your face rearranged."
"At least Lindsay and Kevin don't break my balls to the nth degree," I mutter, "even when disagreeing on arrangements and song structure." A few moments go by as we pick at the remnants of our breakfasts, appetites seemingly lost. The waitress comes by, asks if we're done. We nod. Our plates are snatched away with an impressive efficiency while our mugs are topped off. She pulls a crumpled piece of paper from her apron pocket, folds it, drops it on the table and assures us there's no need to hurry, a fact supported by the near emptiness of the diner on a weekend morning, a bad sign for business if ever there was one, and she leaves to tend to another table.
"What do you want me to do?" I ask. "Apologize for who I am?"
"No," Stephen responds. "If you're looking to clear your conscience, maybe apologize to Billy, for tackling him off the stage." He raises his own hand in understanding before I have a chance to respond. "But I also know the likelihood of that ever happening."
"Well, what then?"
He shrugs. "I'm not your shrink, Jay. You know yourself better than I do."
"Funny. Sometimes I think I'm the last person who understands me."
"Well, that's your own business. Sometimes, a friend needs to speak the truth, no matter how shitty it makes you feel."
"Friend?" His words take me by surprise, and vice-versa, judging by his slightly offended look.
"I never stopped being your friend, Jay. I just know I can never be in a band with you again."
I suppose I should feel some sort of happiness at that, but all the exhaustion and emotional turmoil of the last thirty hours are taking their toll. "I'm sorry. I guess."
"That's okay." Stephen stands and stretches, flips over the bill and studies it. He removes his wallet from his back pocket, extracts a crumpled twenty and tucks it under the bill. "Let's go. You look ready to drop dead on the spot."
Stephen lets me off in front of my building, assuring me he won't be leaving until he sees the front door slam shut behind me. We share a long look before parting, agreeing that we'll see each other next time, whenever next time might be. I unlock the door and step inside, peering up and down each side of the walk. The door closes and the lock clicks shut. Stephen raises a hand and punches the horn twice before pulling away from the curb and down the street. I stand still and watch until his truck is out of view.
"Thanks," I say, standing there in the lobby.
I make myself check the mail before heading for the elevator, way too lazy to climb even three flights of stairs.
When safely inside, I lock my door and thread the chain while kicking my boots off and dropping a week's worth of mail - six flyers, a boastful circulation from the local MP, bragging about his government's various achievements while simultaneously skewering opposition parties, and an "urgent" appeal for donations from some charity, the Sally Ann, I think. That's the beauty and the downside of being a single guy with no kids - apart from the phone company, nobody at the mail company seems to care you're alive.
I empty my pockets and drop everything on top of the scattered mail. After pulling off my shirt and reaching for the button on my jeans, my eye catches the crumpled postcard pocketed from the Demin residence. I reach out and pinch it gingerly by the corner, handling it the way you might handle a bug or small animal that might like to reach out and bite you. I smooth it out against the wall as best I can. The multiple folds and bends have broken the polished sheen of the artwork, the "LocalFest" logo barely legible.
The writing is crystal clear, though. My hands begin to tremble as I re-read the new and improved ad for "LocalFest." By this point, it's a miracle I'm still standing. The shock I get from the ad is more than enough to make my knees buckle. I eventually have to lean against the wall for support, but am able to finish reading the ad. Then I read it a third time. And a fourth.
I could read it a fifth time, but during a moment when I lift my eyes from the postcard ad and wipe sweat off my brow, I spot the steady neon blink of my answering machine in my peripheral. 04... 04... 04...
I'm going to regret this, I think, as I reach out to press the play button, while my body screams at me for sleep. The robot voice announces that the first message came at 8:36AM. The next voice I hear fills me with dread, and a desire to go directly to bed and hide under the covers.
"Jay? It's Art. Where are you? And why's the store still locked up? You should've been here at 7 to open. I hope you're on your way. Call me if you're still at home."
Message number two, received at 9:10AM: "Jay? Pick up. Pick up if you're still there, Jay. Why the hell don't you answer your cell? What have I told you about keeping it on silent outside the store? Just... just call me back, let me know you're on your way. Tell me you're okay."
Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck. The other two messages play, but I don't hear a word they - Art - says, his voice is all swimmy and distant, like he's talking on a tin-can phone you learn to make in first grade. The postcard is gone from my mind all at once as panic sets in. Art's a great guy to work for, but he's also a no-bullshit guy. He's going to want an explanation for why I blew off work for the first time ... and if he doesn't take my excuse very well, the last time.
I rush to grab my phone, only to realize the fool thing is dead. No wonder I never got any of his calls. I decide it must have died shortly after calling Stephen. I carry it back to the kitchen, find the charger and plug it in. It quickly comes back to life. Keeping it hooked up to the charger, I snap a selfie, with some self-consciousness, of my injured face and send it to Art, along with a lengthy apology and a promise to explain everything, but I'm in desperate need of sleep right now. Before I put it down, an idea strikes me. I'm surprised it didn't occur to me sooner, but the brain is tricky like that. I scroll down my contacts list to a number I've barely used and send the same photo, with a different caption.
"Are you happy now, Brea?"
Let Clown Face and the Fat Man track me down again if they get wind of this, I'm far beyond caring at this point, and have no desire or intention of using that number ever again. I go into my bedroom, shut the door, sit down on the side of my bed, hide my face behind my hands and sigh.
I can't remember, but I'm pretty sure I fell asleep that way too.