The ringing phone snaps me out of a less than peaceful sleep. Getting to my feet, a gesture that takes more effort than I'd like, I notice with some chagrin that I've spent the night passed out on Billy's couch, which would explain the string of knots running down my neck and back. Not to mention the empty Budweiser case laying forgotten on its side in the corner, dead soldiers surrounding it. The wall clock battery seems to have died in the night, the hands frozen at two and five. The clock on the stove is no help either, 12:00 flashing on and off like a crosswalk light. Shaking my head to try and clear the cobwebs, I grab the phone from my coat pocket, one of the arms dangling lifelessly off a chair back and fumble to get it open.
"Hey," a tired voice groans on the other side, "it's Curtis."
"Oh." I wished I'd let it go to voicemail instead. "You sound like sh-t."
"Yeah, well I sure feel the part. It feels like someone went upside my head with a bat and didn't bother to turn the lights off before they left."
"Uh-huh," I say, trying to make sense of this through the slow departing fog of sleep. "Well, Stephen warned you, didn't he? What was it you said? 'This ain't my first rodeo'? What's not, Curtis? Getting sloshed beyond hope and then f--king up your parts? Again?"
I seem to have caught him off guard, all I'm greeted with is silence. After a minute, Curtis groans and manages a response. "It didn't sound that bad," he mutters. "What I remember of it, that is." The urge to sock him is the strongest it's ever been. I want to throw my phone at the wall, through the window, something. I can't recall ever feeling so angry, and I've had my moments.
"Well it did," I say, opting to test my diplomatic side. "To be frank, we're all getting really tired of it."
A scoff. "Let me guess, Billy's throwing another fit." After a pause, then, "No, it's Brea. Of course it is. She's never going to let me forget that incident, is she? Sh-t. You'd think she'd take it as a compliment." This brings a warning rumble out of me, so he quickly continues. "Look, okay I f--ked up. I realize that. But you're totally acting like I just told the record company to take their million dollar contract and shove it. Besides, I don't like being crucified without giving me a chance to defend myself." What is there to even defend? "And I don't think I'm entirely at fault here. Brea looked pretty lost, too. And even you've had more than your fair share pre-show."
"Look, before you start throwing stones in that glass house of yours, I'm well aware I've blown it before. The difference is I know where my priorities lie. I've always done what I can to put the band first because I've got my future to think about. Do you think I want to work at Cage for the rest of my life? Do you wanna keep doing - I don't even know whatever the f--k you do for a living."
More silence. I ask if he's still there.
"You done? Good. I want you to know I called to apologize. I realize this may come as quite a shock to you, but it turns out a couple of buddies were at the Nest last night and saw our show and were too happy to point out I was a perfect tool."
"Really," I say, not sure I've heard him correctly. "Just who were these 'buddies'?"
"That's not important."
"And why call me, of all people? Billy's the frontman, if anything you should be apologizing to him."
Another scoff, one not entirely unwarranted. "Like he's going to be in any mood to talk to me, you know how he gets. I figured you were the only one willing to hear me out before you all hand me the death sentence. That and I don't have Stephen's number. Anyways, I thought I should grow a pair and call to apologize before you start painting me as the big bad wolf, but apparently I'm too little too late." I can't think of anything half-decent to say. "All I wanna know is if we're still having practice on Thursday or not."
I stand there in the middle of the kitchen, feeling a draft from an open window breaking against my shirtless chest. The only thing to come to mind is why the window's open, and if my stomach really is as big as it looked from here.
"I'm here," I say, "and yeah, we're still getting together on Thursday, far as I know. Make no mistake though. We've still got a few things to discuss." I hang up and turn to head for the bathroom when I spot a thin figure out of the corner of my eye, sitting right by the large window that overlooks the weed studded walkway, staring off into space; one thin pyjama clad leg dangling off the whitewash ledge, her bare arms crossed over her other knee. She makes no effort to look over at me, but I can see her reflection scowling.
"How long have you been sitting there?"
"Good morning to you too," she says to the window. Other than having her hair caught in a tangled mess which I chalk that up to the usual tossing and turning in the depth of sleep, Brea doesn't appear to be even a little bit hungover, or else she's hiding it well.
"You overheard that whole conversation didn't you?"
"You asked how long I've been sitting here. You got your answer. Couldn't sleep, too much to think about."
She shrugs. "Not like you could've done anything about it."
"Well still, you can't tell me you're over it, because you're clearly not."
"Your psychic powers astound me."
"See my point? Look, I don't blame you for being mad." A voice inside my head cautions about meddling in affairs beyond my ken. "But you needn't spit in my face here."
Brea draws her legs up to her chest, rests her chin on her knees. She doesn't say a word. Part of me wants to wave the white flag now and walk away, leave her to sit and stew. Contrary to public opinion, I actually don't like to fight with anyone. Yet it would seem that if conflict is the fuel, I am the match. Perhaps the scientists, the psychologists, the Jerry Springer's and Maury Povich's are right when they postulate that some people are just wired the wrong way.
I'm a bit startled to see a red tinge in her eyes. The first thought to enter my mind is that she took the term "wake and bake" a little too far, even while my other senses tell me that's bullsh-t. No smoke lingering in the air, no smell. She's been crying. It's the only other possibility, and it must have been for a long time too. One's eyes do not simply turn red from just a few seconds of weeping. No, this had been a hardcore bawling session. Either she's good at crying quietly or I was more than a little out of it. Neither option makes me feel good.
"Let me ask you something," Brea says. "What keeps you going?"
"No." She's holding her forehead like she's trying to repress the beginnings of what could be a really killer migraine. "I mean, with all the sh-t that we've gone through - what we're still going through - just to try and keep us functioning, like, how do you find and maintain the motivation to keep trying without feeling like you're just beating a dead horse? What keeps you fighting a losing battle?"
Her words trigger familiar and unwelcome feelings in my stomach. I lift a hand in the air as if to say "your guess is as good as mine." That's not a complete lie. I know why I'm on this path and I also know why, despite the bad seeming to outweigh the good, I continue instead of pulling off the highway and sitting by the curb idling away my time. Exactly what to call the desire that continues to fuel me is another matter entirely.
"Tenacity," I say with a smirk, "the refusal to quit and let the naysayers win. That and I still dream, I guess. Hell, it was dreaming of the big time that even got me going in the first place. Otherwise, it probably would've ended up as just me and Stephen f--king around with cover songs until we got bored and moved on to something else."
"Are you saying you're bored now?"
"More stuck, frustrated." I chuckle a little in spite of myself. "Guess part of me still hasn't learned that trying to make it as a band isn't all fun and games."
Brea mutters something about our idiot bassist thinking otherwise.
"One problem at a time, please, alright?" I say. "Right now, I'm more concerned about finding the next gig to play after the one at Funky's."
"Of course you are," she says, climbing down from the ledge. I notice she's wearing one of Billy's shirts featuring the cover of Metallica's "Ride the Lightning." It looks more like a blanket with sleeves on her. "If we're lucky, Curtis will f--k that one up beforehand and get it out of his system, right?"
She flounces past me towards the bathroom. I start to open my mouth then force myself to stop, knowing it won't do any good to keep poking at this. Better to let whatever's got her so riled up burn itself out like a tire fire.
The door slams. The concussive ricochet makes my head scream. I go to fish a smoke from my pack and make for the door to go sit on the front stoop and think. As I pull the door open, I hear another voice from across the hall.
"It's all fun and games until someone gets hurt, isn't it?"
I peer through to the living-slash-dining room and find Billy tipping back in one of the dining chairs, his rotund shirtless stomach dangling dangerously over his waistband, arms crossed behind his head, unmistakeable p-ssed-off expression on his face.
"I'm guessing you heard all that." There doesn't seem to be anything else to say.
"We have to fix this and fast," he says. He looks at me, steady and serious. He means fix, too. No "turn the other cheek," no sweeping under the rug. No f--king around in any way. "I think you can agree it's for the best?" A quick double take confirms that he is indeed not f--king around.
"So you want him gone too, then? No second chances?"
"I want what's best for the band."
"Well so do I, but-"
"Good." Billy smiles and gets up from the chair and walks towards his bedroom. "Glad that's settled then. I gotta get ready for work."
"Hang on," I say, "We can't just pull out the knife and slit the throat all willy-nilly. No bassist, no band."
"Yeah but in case you've forgotten, I kind of have a guitar to deal with. What do you suggest? I go shove a thousand-dollar Gibson in storage and take up that beat to sh-t Warwick? The damned thing always sounds flat. Is that what you want, for us to ruin all our songs?"
"You've been talking about writing new material. Think of this as your request being granted. Oh and by the way, Mallory?" Here comes the death stare again. "Curtis isn't the only one who ought to remember where the boundaries of relationships are drawn," he says just loud enough for Brea to hear. He disappears behind the whitewashed door, which also slams.
How he can sound so goddamn cheerful about this is beyond understanding. A switch flips inside my mind, releasing the brooding frustration in a single breath.
"Alright. Alright. Fine. Whatever! You want to shoot us in the foot, go ahead. But I'm not having any part of this. You two can be the ones to tell him. I'm out of here."
I crush the unlit cigarette and throw it at the wall. Better than my phone. My hands are shaking. Veins are tightening in my neck, I can feel the headache demon beginning to sink its sharp claws into my head. I snatch the cigarette pack off the kitchen counter and shake out a fresh one. Before going outside, I crush the box of leftover nicotine patches in my bag and toss them into the trash, making it a hat trick as the sound of the front door banging against the frame echoes across the cul-de-sac.
Just another typical morning in suburbia.
Art seems to catch I'm in a bad mood early into my shift, a half-day only thank God, but he doesn't ask questions apart from an occasional variation on "you doing okay?"
I manage to get through it without any fuss or trouble, getting out a half hour earlier to go tape up posters for LocalFest over lampposts from here to Granville Street. It's a pain in the butt trying to space them out over a pole already smothered in in announcements for concerts and album release parties from months past. I do the best I can, keeping one of the posters for myself to show everyone at Thursday's practice when I spot the announcement for auditions in the fine print again.
Whatever desire still remains alight inside me flickers against the windstorm of cynicism. With the events of the past twenty-four hours still raw and exposed like an infected stab wound, and Brea and f--king Billy sitting with their fingers on the self-destruct button seemingly content to send us back to the Stone Age, part of me knows the futility in bringing up the subject, especially with an impending vacancy in the Dichotomy of Mind lineup, but I keep the poster anyway.
Taping up a loose corner, I spot one of those take-a-number ads clinging onto the pole for dear life by a scraggly, weathered strip of Scotch. I reach for it, meaning to tear it off and re-tack it onto the opposite side so as not to cover the LocalFest posters; instead tearing off one of the strips with a phone number. As I take a closer look, I see the number's for bass lessons for those looking to play metal.
ANY EXPERIENCE LEVEL WELCOME, it boasts. REASONABLE PRICES, ONE ON ONE TIME AND MORE! CALL TODAY, 604-427-3470.
We don't need lessons, confound it. We need a new bassist. Still, looking at the phone number pinched between my fingers gives me cause to think. Maybe we should place another ad; it ended up working for us last time. It's how I came into the picture after all.
My petty side gets the better of me for a moment as I imagine putting Billy's number down as the point of contact. But even I'm not that low. Instead I just end up lighting a smoke and wandering the streets for a while until that gets tiring and I plant myself in one of Vancouver's many coffee houses and lose myself over two large cups, black and thick like squid ink.
Brea's words echo in the distant realm of memory. "What keeps you fighting a losing battle?" It is in fairness, a reasonable question to match the circumstances. Perhaps the true answer isn't as existentially "deep" as I might think. The truth is far less prolix than I think.
Call it tenacity, call it being a stubborn a-s who refuses to allow the word 'quit' into his vocabulary, either is but a euphemism for the true answer that serves as both the spark of motivation and the sturdy tether that keeps me chained to reality: Fear. Fear of failure, of proving all the haters, the detractors who have followed me all my life, right. The knowledge that despite our best intentions, the creature known as Dichotomy of Mind is predestined to never break free from the shadows, to remain forever trapped in the dark no matter how far we try to step into the light. Fear of the unknown, of success itself.
My mind flashes back to my blog in stasis about the artist known as Richard Demin. What made him quit putting out new music? There are those who might argue that producing no new music in however many years is not the same as saying "I quit!" in public and sticking around.
Perhaps, but however you care to slice it, the band known as Systex wasn't making music anymore, hadn't even performed an album anniversary show in well over a year. What drove them to step out of the spotlight? A series of nagging problems that just wouldn't quit until the voices became unbearable? Was it the true cost of what it may take to finally rise above the din of those around us and make the name Systex known to every headbanging, horn-flashing individual out there that finally broke the camel's back?
Is that what I fear happening to us? Is the ultimate answer a fear of commitment in the face of certain defeat?
(Is that why you continue to cling to some false hope that Curtis Crest may end up being the saving grace you're looking for? Or do you just fear change in general? Is that what it really boils down to?)
Just when you're foolish enough to think your conscience has nothing to contribute to the conversation.
Tired of the "woe is me" routine, I go to pull out my handful of loose change to count out bus fare back to my place, ready, for once, to focus on anything other than music for the rest of the day. As the small pile of coins clinks in my hand, I spot something that shouldn't be among them. Sticking out from underneath a quarter is what appears to be a crushed cigarette but when I go to pluck out its ruined remnants, I discover it's actually a piece of paper: The phone number from the lessons ad back on Seymour.
Odd. Thought I'd thrown it away. I start to crumple it in my fist, wondering why bother offering lessons on how to play in a band instead of starting one up?
That's when the idea clicks like a key turning in its lock. I smooth the paper out best I can with one hand, reaching for my phone and dialling the number with the other. The dial tone drones in my ear four times before connecting. The first thing I hear is the muted din of what sounds like Iron Maiden's "Run to the Hills" playing in the background. The next sound I hear is that of an unusually high pitched voice answering the call with one quick word: "Hello."
"Yeah, hi, I'm calling to talk to the guy who put up those ads for bass lessons?"
There's a pause, and then "That's 'she,' kid. Now state your business."
Now, there are moments in life where your mind paints such a picture that you begin to believe what you have imagined as reality, until reality actually hits and your preconceptions shatter in an instant, leaving you to pick up the pieces with about as much grace and dignity as you can muster, only to come to the sad realization that any remaining traces of either disappeared along with your original idea. Such is the situation I find myself in as I do my best not to drop my phone, sitting there in the café, certain the expression on my face must be making me look like the idiot I feel inside.
"Hello? Hello!" The woman's voice is losing patience with each pause.
"Hi," I say after managing to find my tongue. "I'm calling about your ad, the one about the bass lessons?" So far, I'm batting a thousand.
"Yeah, you've already said. What about it?"
"Well, I play but, you know, I'm always looking to improve. I was calling to ask if you were - I mean, how much are you charging?"
I navigate the rest of the brief exchange with about as much elegance as a man trying to run a marathon with his shoelaces tied together, the music blasting away in the background. I can't be sure how much this girl is hearing correctly, she doesn't sound too impressed but agrees to give me a chance, telling me to bring my instrument over to her house, along with thirty bucks and "we'll try each other out, take it from there."
"Tomorrow afternoon, sounds good. Thanks. See you then." I jot down the address when I hang up and quickly leave the café.
As the change clatters back into my pocket, one of the city's many transient residents shuffles up beside me like clockwork, extending a blue baseball cap holding a few pennies and crumpled cigarette butts. "Spare some change, sir?" he asks in a thick, raspy voice while bouncing the cap in front of him like a threadbare yo-yo.
I emerge from the quiet hypnosis of self-thought long enough to wave a hand over the raggedy hat and keep walking, just catching the empty expression on the man's face before he shuffles off to whatever alley he calls home. Only when I get to the bus stop do I realize that I've just given away my way home. Yet I'm not too bothered. My mind is on other things. I've heard of equal opportunity employment before, but this was a whole new level. All I can do is think about what lies in store for me tomorrow.
The guys are going to love this.
I get a message from Stephen halfway home after making an unscheduled stop at the bank, further draining my financial well of what few precious funds still remain ing afloat. It asks if I'm still around town and if so, to come by the studio. When I ask why, Stephen's reply is vague: "We may have found a solution to our problems. Can you come by?"
When I get to the studio twenty minutes later than I promised Stephen after calling him back, I see Billy heading through the door, straddling a small case of water from the fridge across his shoulder.
"Hi," I say when he notices, feeling a dual burn of grudge-laden petty shame when I look at him.
Billy acts as though he's forgotten all about this morning, beaming with enthusiasm. "Glad you could make it in time."
"In time for what?"
Billy looks at me kind of funny. "Didn't you get my message? I left it an hour ago, said that Brea called on a friend who happens to know his way around a bass. He's green but eager so I suggested she bring him by, jam for a bit you know, get a feel for him."
"Oh. Sorry man, my bad. Fell asleep on the bus." Bluff. I'd seen his name flash across my call display while the bus snaked its way across the downtown core, and had ignored it, having no desire to continue this morning's conversation. I can feel burning behind my ears as the shame stabs again, twisting the knife this time, wishing I'd bothered to get over myself and answer.
"S'all good," Billy says, adjusting his shirt. He seems to detect the bullsh-t but doesn't try to call me on it. "You're good to go?"
One advantage to working in a record store is having a liberal dress code at your disposal, which translates into any and every band shirt you own making regular public appearances. "What the hell. Let's go for it."
"Good. Think fast!"
Billy reaches into the pack and throws a water bottle my way. I catch it and take a long swig. Then I make the mistake of asking if Curtis has been relieved of his duties after a long sip. Billy's smile flickers, which translates as "No." He suggests we talk about that later, which triggers the hypocrite alarm in me after our little talk earlier. I let this sleeping dog lie and we go into the studio, a converted detached garage on a small strip of industrial land on the corner of East 12th that belongs to Billy's uncle and now serves as official band headquarters for the moment. It gets hot in there pretty fast once the bodies start piling in and start moving around, prompting those sensitive to heat to consume a more than normal amount of water (we've taken to buying it by the flat).
I decide to wait until later to mention my phone call with the Maiden loving maiden.