Stephen is toying with a couple of effects pedals while Brea and a chubby pimple studded kid who I assume is the aforementioned friend look on. The kid's holding a Fender Squire-P bass that's seen better days. One of the tuning knobs is missing which makes me want to scream. His patch cord, covered with more duct tape than original material is plugged into a dummy cube amp. This and the poorly fitting Judas Priest shirt screams "poseur;" an insult in the metal subculture unmatched by any four-letter word in the English language. Part of me can't help but question her sense of judgment. This kid better be hiding a surprise or two, I think.
"What's up? I'm Josh," I introduce myself to the kid, the name beginning to sound foreign to me after all being called otherwise by everyone else for so long. The kid's name's Tommy. "Have you been in a band before?" I ask him.
"Uh-uh, but Brea told me you were looking for a bass player so..." His sentence dies, slow and painful.
"Been playing long?"
"A little over a year."
"Right. Well I don't know what Brea's told you, but we take this band very seriously. This isn't just 'Hang out with your buddies, drink beer and play rock and roll,' we've got a few shows under our belt and we're looking to be touring in the next little while."
That catches Brea by surprise. She looks at me like I've just told her she's fired.
"I got you," Tommy hesitates and then adds, "I'm not in school."
"I know I look like I'm just a punk, but I'm serious too."
"Nobody's saying you aren't," I reply, "I just want you to know where we stand, alright?" Billy's come into the studio at some point during this conversation, closing the door and standing behind his mike stand. Brea takes her cue and hops behind the drum kit which occupies almost half the room while the rest of us get set up and in tune, although the room feels more open with Curtis' normal setup having been moved elsewhere to accommodate Tommy the Poseur's wimp cube.
We spend the next hour jamming, a relatively enjoyable experience, and then play through "Frozen Emotion," while I show Tommy the simple bass line. "It's all in the pick hand," I tell him. "You're only bouncing between three chords, so don't sweat over that too much. Keeping the rhythm's more important right now."
"Yeah," Billy adds in, "it's not like anyone pays attention to the bassist anyways."
"That's great, Billy," I say. "That one never gets old."
Tommy the Poseur watches mesmerized and then agrees to take a crack at it. Everything pleasant about this experience up to this point ends. The kid doesn't seem to know a low D from a high C. His timing's even worse, constantly playing a measure or three behind the rest of us. It's as though he's forgotten how to use his hands.
The backing vocals serve as a good outlet to mask the irritation building within me.
My hope that he snaps out of it is proven futile through three more rounds. He looks as clueless as a headless chicken when we break it off. Looking around the room, there's silent agreement between the three of us that one butchered song is enough for today. Tommy the Poseur leaves soon after, thanking us for the opportunity while Billy tells him we'll be in touch about next week's practice. It's obvious in spite of his gracious acceptance however, that he senses we won't be doing any such thing. He's right.
"Well that was fun," I mutter, unplugging my guitar after he's gone. "Where'd you find that guy, band class?"
Brea keeps her eyes fixed on the snares in front of her. It's hard to say if she's p-ssed off or embarrassed. Either is a fair guess, since flashes of red are crawling up the sides of her face. "He's always screwing around on that Squire. The way he keeps talking about wanting to be in a band, I figured it was worth a try."
Screwing around indeed, I think while wrapping patch cords up into tight bundles. "Talk is cheap. Anyone who takes himself half-serious as a musician doesn't mess up a song after being thrown every bone possible. The guy has as much talent as a pet rock."
"Thanks, Jay-Jay. Thanks a lot. Great vote of f--king confidence."
"Oh, let's not go through this again. Did I say it was a stupid idea?"
"You might as well," she says. "Sh-t players don't mean sh-t ideas. At least he was better than Curtis."
I'm not so sure I agree.
Billy's been quiet this whole time. That's never a good sign.
Stephen, the normally neutral voice of reason in conflict, shocks us both by saying that he agrees. "The kid's a joke," he says, draping a ragged towel around his neck. "I'm sure he'd be decent if he didn't have his head in the clouds."
"Or somewhere else," I add. "Hey, speak of the devil. Billy, what did you mean earlier?" Billy looks confused. "About Curtis, I asked if you talked to him, told him he's out. What was it you said? 'Why don't we talk about that later?' Well, it's later. Why didn't you boot him?"
Billy glares at me, obviously p-ssed off at my sticking his nose in where it doesn't belong once again. "What makes you think I didn't?"
"Because I know you too well. If you had, you'd have told me outright instead of passing the buck. You're never wishy-washy about stuff like this."
"That's a bit hypocritical, wouldn't you say?"
"Just this morning, you say you're not having anything to do with this and yet here you are, giving me crap for not firing him. You're not the f--king band leader here, Mallory. If anyone's being wishy-washy, it's you."
A split-second reminder that cursing out the frontman never ends well is the only thing that keeps me from doing so. It's a struggle to speak without screaming as words bounce through my brain, trying to form cogent sentences.
"May I point out that you two are the ones champing at the bit for his firing," I say, casting a side glance at Brea behind the drums. "Yeah, okay. I may not be his biggest fan either. At least I'm willing to give him one final chance to shape up before we hand him his head on a platter."
"That's the problem. You've been giving him 'one more chance' once too often."
Brea puts her sticks into the plastic tube clipped to one of the many polished chrome bars on her kit and crosses her arms. "Jay-Jay, the guy does not listen to reason. He's too happy to let his share burn a hole through his pocket and make up some pathetic excuse about why he's short on his end of the expenses. How many chances does a guy need? Look, I can be a good sport about a lot of things, far be it for me to point the finger at someone who gets f--ked up before a gig and makes a right a-s of himself."
Hypocrite, I think.
"But three times in a row? After swearing it won't happen again? And let's not forget how he kept giving me the glad eye even after we made it clear that he was playing with fire."
Billy bites his lip, fists flexing at his side. Brea spots it and says, "I don't like to think about it anymore than you. I'm just trying to make him see."
"Fine," I say. "I won't argue that with you. But what are we going to do? He's still expecting to show up to practice on Thursday. What happens? We act all 'business as usual' through practice and then while we wrap things up, it's 'Well done! Rock on, good job dude! Oh and by the way you're fired. Pay no attention to the knife, excuse all the blood.'?"
"I'm not talking about him anymore," Brea mutters, jumping up suddenly from behind the drums, knocking the stool over. She storms across the room and snatches water from the flat. "You know where I stand."
Stephen shakes his head, turning his face up to the ceiling, eyes screwed shut. I stare out the small window, watching the world go by; the trees rustling gently in the wind, a solitary car sounding desperate for a tune-up entering the cul-de-sac. It's quiet in the studio for the next few minutes, apart from the occasional click coming from Brea's direction as she pokes at the toggle switch on an extra overdrive pedal.
Soon, the click of the pedal clicks with the gears in my head. "And why the hell did we move all the bass equipment out of here for that kid? At least we could have attempted some new stuff until someone bothers to do the right thing."
"My thoughts exactly."
It's a different voice speaking now, one that wasn't there before. The three of us look towards the direction where the voice came from. Brea's the only one not looking at the looming figure standing in the doorway, back arched, arms bent at the elbow. Public enemy number one, Curtis Crest, fire blazing in his eyes, looking to scorch us all.
Now that the bomb's detonated, all I can do is brace for the oncoming shockwave when it strikes - and it will strike, sooner rather than later. The only thought to come to mind is how I should have closed the door again once Tommy the Poseur left.
Curtis doesn't move from the doorway. "Well. Isn't this a fair sight?"
Stephen is the only one of us not to be rendered mute. "Curtis? How long have you been standing there?"
"Long enough. Although for the record, I could hear the rumblings from my car, even with the engine b-tching as it does. Christ, you guys are loud even without mikes in front of you."
Such ends the mystery of the cul-de-sac car crying uncle, I think.
"What are you doing here?" It's the only logical thing that can be said at a moment like this.
"I could very well ask you the same thing. Holding auditions behind my back, plotting to get rid of me, all the while stringing me along like some f--king puppet, lying to my face." He looks right at me with that last part and snorts out of disgust, bemusement at his own naiveté perhaps.
"Picture this," he says, hands relaxing slightly. "I wake up after suffering the hangover from hell and drawing my tail between my legs to try and make things right, throw open the window to try and air out the joint, and what do I see crowding my doorway but approximately five grand worth of musical equipment?"
My eyes snap towards Billy. He doesn't acknowledge me or Curtis, his own eyes seeming to stare off into the distance. The shockwave is drawing closer, I can feel the hum buzzing through the air.
"If that's supposed to be what I think it is, the question now becomes, exactly how long have you been wanting me out and why not say so to my face like a man?"
I don't answer. Like Brea, I too am done talking about all this. Curtis doesn't take the silence well, fists balling again, tight enough to turn his knuckles white. "So that's it, huh? This is how it's gonna be?"
Those who wanted him out the most can't actually bring themselves to say the words. I surprise myself by feeling sympathy, instead of the more logical bitterness or relief that should follow such an excision. Further surprising are the words that come out of my mouth. "I'm sorry."
"Sorry..." Curtis mulls the words over, lips puckering like a dog who's just bitten into a lemon. "Sorry..."
Then the shockwave hits. And it hits hard.
"Sorry? F--k your apologies! F--k you! You can all go to hell!" He raises his fist and swings it at the door, eliciting a heavy thud, eyes darting around the room before growling through clenched teeth and returning it to his side, a twitch racing through it. "You know, you just thank your lucky stars nobody jacked my stuff or that you didn't damage it." He's trying to look Billy in the eye, but our frontman seems unwilling or unable to return the favor. "I might not have been in much of a talking mood to reconsider punching your face in that I do now."
"Big man," Brea mumbles, sullen and quiet, keeping her back to everyone.
The shockwave shifts directions like the tide in a freak windstorm. He roars at Brea. "Oh, f--k you too! I'll bet you're just loving this, aren't you, you useless b-tch?" Snort. "Oh and don't flatter yourself, you're not even my type."
You could hear the fuse snapping in the stillness. The infamous Billy temper returns in style. In one fluid movement, he leaps from behind the mike stand, knocking it askew, approaching our officially ex-bassist, tanned, meaty arms extending, twitching hands aimed for his throat, ready to do what I wanted after the shenanigans that transpired at the Crow's Nest. A loud, thick growl not unlike his singing voice escapes from his throat, muddling the few words that follow. Best I can remember, it comes off sounding like "Motherf--ker, I'll kill you."
Billy's hands slip slightly south as they close, his clumsy fingers slipping around the collar of Curtis' shirt instead of the swan-like neck he was aiming for, and pulls. The sound the popping seams and tearing fabric make sound amplified in the studio. Part of the shirt comes away in a jagged flap, revealing bare traces of a tattoo outline, a sentence of some kind, I guess. A trio of bright red lines begin to surface on Curtis' hairless chest, no doubt left by Billy's untrimmed, boxcutter-like fingernails as a result of his miscalculated grab, now causing Billy to stumble backwards, opening him up to a swinging undercut from Curtis' not quite as big but quite likely just as harmful fist. It cuts through the air between Billy's tree trunk arms and connects with the fleshy pouch underneath his chin. The sound is both muffled and ugly. Billy swears and stumbles further backwards, hands slipping off the torn shirt flap.
I watch all this unfold like a slow-motion dance, unable to speak or move to break up this fight, something my subconscious seems to know I have little chance in doing. I see Stephen, off in my peripheral, making some kind of gesture with his arm, but I can't make it out. The only one who seems unaffected is Brea, who flies from her position like a compacted spring let loose. Her slender frame slips between the two men, her smaller than both but equally dangerous hand, perhaps originally intended for Curtis, instead opens into a full palm and drives into Billy's stomach, hard. The wind escapes from him in a single, choked gasp. It sounds something like "Pluh!" and causes him to trip over the upset mic stand, sending him to the ground, his substantial a-s absorbing the brunt of the shock.
The sudden intervention seems to have shaken Curtis from whatever state he was in. He shakes his head a couple times, as though trying to clear an Etch-a-Sketch inside his head, and looks down at Brea standing right in front of him, hands on her hips. She has to crane her neck to try and look him in the eye, keeping her feet flat on the carpet. I've a strong urge to talk her down but know there's zero chance of her listening. We can only stand and watch.
"Yeah?" she says, sneering at Curtis. "Yeah, you think you're so tough? Think you're a big man? Go on then, stud. Do it. Punch my face in."
"Brea!" Billy barks in between pained groans from his new recumbent position. It falls on deaf ears.
Curtis snorts again and rolls his eyes, yeah right he's probably thinking. His fists don't relax though. The two of them continue staring back and forth, silently daring the other one to make the first move.
"Yeah?" says Brea again. "Well go on. Do it. I dare you."
Curtis's fist releases, cramps, releases. It's hard to overlook the stiffness in his spine melting away; the natural slump in his shoulders crawling out like the sunrise over a hill. Who's the b-tch now? He swears and turns to leave. When he's halfway out the door, I watch his shadow pause and spins on its heels, and re-enter the studio, booted foot cutting a clean arc through the air, making contact with a nearby cabinet holding stacks of various CDs.
Everything is airborne at once. CD fragments go flying every which way across the room, tiny rainbow fragments sparkling in the late afternoon sun. One of the shelves, dislodged by the kick, slips off its holders, missing the drum kit, and Stephen, who raises an arm to cover his face and ducks, by inches, becoming a sad pile of splintered whitewash lumber near the room corner, crushing what few discs haven't taken a sudden flight. Billy also covers his face with his arms. One of the broken shelves leaves a nasty scratch on his arm that begins to grow spotty with blood almost at once. A few CDs crash against my body, but I avoid getting cut up. Brea is the only one who doesn't flinch as the studio transforms into something resembling a crime scene. The sights and sounds of breaking objects is something she's grown up with, it must no longer have an effect on her, which is kind of sad when you think about it.
"You done?" she asks.
Curtis's response is to tell us, less emphatically than before, to go f--k ourselves and then he leaves without looking back. Nobody seems inclined to go after him and deliver a parting shot, physical or otherwise. A tense, silent moment passes, and then an engine roars to life outside, coughs, backfires. Tires shriek. The clank and rumbling fades and the neighbourhood is quiet again. It doesn't feel right to talk, only stand and let the dust settle.
After what seems an appropriate amount of time, I go into the only bathroom on the other side of the studio, and return with a beat to sh-t broom and plastic dustpan. Something crunches under my shoes, one of the many fallen CDs or a jewel case lid, judging by the brittle crunching sound. Brea is now kneeling on the floor, fingers running through her hair. Her shoulders rise and fall in shaky breaths.
Billy looks at the cuts on his arm, nothing major, wipes the dots of blood away with his hand, then turns to notice Brea for the first time. The muscles in his face seem to relax and almost fall away from his knotted brow, and he turns to me with a rare helpless expression. What are you supposed to do in this situation?
Stephen looks just as clueless. He's risen from his crouching position behind the kit during the violent winds of Hurricane Curtis, but hasn't moved any further. His wide eyes survey the room as though a man who's just arrived home to find his home ransacked by thieves might before calling the police in an adrenaline-fuelled stupor.
I can only shrug at Billy. Don't ask me, guy, there's a reason I'm single. I gather up the CDs, many of them are still in one piece, thankfully. A few cases have spider web cracks coursing through the jewelled plastic but appear otherwise undamaged. The casualty list includes names such as Diamond Head, Exodus, Saxon, and a few others, all replaceable.
"Good thing I work at Cage," I say absent-mindedly, sweeping up the shattered remains of Motorhead's "No Remorse" into a garbage bag.
"Yeah, right?" says Billy, not paying much attention. Brea's stopped shaking but she does not speak.
I sigh, tying a trash bag closed and setting it by the now closed door. "I could've ended it this morning."
"What?" Billy asks.
"This morning, when he called with that lame apology, it would've been so much easier to just sever the lifeline right then and there. But no, that's not how it goes, is it? Whatever. F--k it. It's done now, no sense worrying about it anymore. Tomorrow's a new day, a new opportunity and it can't come fast enough."
"Opportunity for what?" asks Stephen.
I hesitate, running a handful of excuses through my mind, none of which sound remotely decent. I'm forced to give in and tell the group about the ad, the phone call and the girl, remembering how well Billy has taken to others offering their opinions in the past.
"It's a long shot I know, but I think it's worth checking out. Better than just sitting around on our asses, wondering 'What if...' right?"
The group's reaction makes me realize how much I truly hate silence, especially when accompanied with tension hanging so thick in the air you could suffocate in it. Stephen looks thoughtful, perhaps trying to weigh the pros and cons in his head. That or he's figuring out a polite way to tell me I'm out of my gourd again. It's Billy's silence that worries me. My mind's eye paints a picture of him turning those large mitts onto my throat after all that's happened today.
"Unless you have a better idea in which case tell me to p-ss off." In spite of the unaggressive tone of voice, I wince at my choice of words. For a minute I question if there's some subconscious, masochistic part of me trying to pour gasoline on our fire instead of water; some deep hidden part of me that secretly wants me to fail. It's probably not so farfetched an idea if that's the best line I can come up with.
Brea is the first to break the silence. I don't hear her stand up, walk across the room. Her hand brushes against my back and I brace for what's coming next. A fist, her nails clawing through my flesh like a hot knife through butter, anything.
"I like it."
For the second time today, reality swings its hammer and reduces my preconceived expectation to rubble. There's no mirror in the studio but if I was a gambling man, I'd bet my face looks similar to Billy's; wide-eyed, gaping mouth, at a loss for words. We share a look that asks the other one if we heard that correctly.
"Something wrong?" she asks, shoulders rising and falling in a simple shrug.
"Well, if I may be candid," I begin. She makes a gesture that implies I'm incapable of anything else. "That wasn't quite the answer I'd braced myself for."
"What, you thought maybe I'd freak out? Give you a physical definition of 'thrash?'" When all I'm able to do is look at her and shrug, she laughs, feigns offence. "Have a little faith in me, why don't you, Jay-Jay? It's not like I'm going to start some foxy boxing sh-t. Not unless she starts trying to bed my man." Her hand's long left my back. I notice it's now firmly gripped around Billy's, an act he's not returning, still not looking at either of us.
"Well, I wouldn't blame you," I mutter. There is no possible way for me to not feel even a little bit stupid. Stupid, and confused how quickly some people can change their mood.
"Frankly, I feel this band could do with a bit of feminine objectivity, don't you think?"
"I thought that's what you were for." I go along with her joke, feeling the tension evaporate from the room as though somebody had opened a release valve somewhere.
"Billy?" I turn to him for input. He's deathly silent. I can feel my hope circling the drain as the seconds tick by. God only knows what's going through that mind of his.
Stephen speaks. "What the hell. What have we got to lose?"
Brea asks me what time I'm meeting this unnamed girl tomorrow. I tell her four o'clock.
"Good. I'm going with you."
I'm caught off guard by this announcement. So is Billy. "You are?"
"Sure, why not?"
I'm sure there are many ways to answer that question, however none of them come to mind, which is a good thing because I'm also quite sure that no answer I could attempt to give will be good enough to satisfy her so all I say is "Okay," though I'm not exactly thrilled at the prospect.
Neither is Billy, who gives me a long look, reaffirming his earlier point about defining relational boundaries. I shrug again. You chose her, you tell her no. He won't. Though by the look of his face, it's obvious he wants to. To his credit, he seems to have recognized the futility in trying to talk a girl like her out of something once she's made up her mind. Now if only he'd extend a little of that credit my way. Evidence aside, I don't have a death wish.
Brea meanwhile seems oblivious to this silent exchange, as she keeps talking. "Besides, it won't hurt to start things off on the right foot if we're going to be part of LocalFest."
I nod. "Yeah, I mean with - wait, what?"
Before I can even process what's been said, Brea smiles sweetly and then she seems to almost float out of the room as though she's walking on air.
I stand and stare at the open door for a few minutes. Out the corner of my eye, I can spot Stephen pressing a closed fist against his lips while Billy and I stare at the open door. "Billy?"
"We haven't signed up for LocalFest. Haven't even talked about it yet, right?"
He doesn't blink. "Looks like talk is cheap." He exits the studio, leaving me and Stephen behind to finish cleaning up. Listening to the acid in his voice, part of me would have preferred he stayed silent.
I reach down for the dustpan and carry it to the trash can. As the cracked discs and splintered wood falls from the pan, I hear Billy's voice again. This time, though, it's in my head.
What was that you said about knowing me too well?