Conrad sat there, busting out a long boom-tat beat on the little drum set at Lise and Smoky's New Year's Eve party. He was making weird expressions with his face...he seemed to shift from confident to concerned, from tortured by the exertion to enamored with the action. And we're not talking about Kieth Moon in the middle of some insane, kit-wrecking super-solo. Conrad was making all these crazy drummer faces trying to hold down a routine 4/4 beat for a full minute.
Smoky arrived at my side and put a bong in my hands. "Here, take one off this, Eric," he said, and lit the lighter and held it up to the bowl for me. I smoked it, pulling it in deep and watching Conrad bang away on the drums. I exhaled and stood there, watching him play. He wasn't terrible. He sucked a bit, but it might have been rust. After a while of playing hard he might be a regular ass-kicker. But the weird faces were a little worrisome.
I sat down with Lise on the couch and we chilled for a while. I told her about my time in Rose Creek, and about Christmas time at my parent's place. She told me about heading home with Smoky to supper with their parents on Christmas Day. Their family situation sounded tense. No surprise there, considering the kids in the family: a drug dealer and a self-cutting dropout. Who knows what the parents would be like. I was suddenly glad that I'd gone home for the holiday instead of staying in Garrison Valley. Somehow, the idea of going to a formal holiday meal with Lise's whole family seemed heavy duty.
"You'll have to meet them sooner or later," she told me. "I mean, they live in town."
"Sure, sometime," I replied. "Not Christmas dinner, though. That would be a bit too much. I'd rather do something really informal."
"Something will come up," she said. "We could go over for dinner some random night. Or we could meet out if you didn't want to go there. It doesn't matter. But we've been going out for months. It'll get weird if we never go."
I nodded. It was true.
Through it all I kept an ear open to what Conrad was doing on the drums. Nothing earth-shaking or ground-breaking, but he seemed capable of keeping a beat. Another kid got up and started playing guitar. He wasn't so good. Probably at the level Ryan was at a year earlier, or worse. He was really chord-hunting, but it didn't really matter. All in fun, right?
To my surprise, James came down the stairs. He really looked like shit. He was all pale and slack, and his eyes were practically shut. He came in and tumbled onto the couch next to me.
"Shit," I said. "Where did you come from?"
"Fuuuuuuuuuuuck," he groaned. "I was puking in the can upstairs. I always overdo it on New Year's. Last year I passed out nine o'clock."
"I figured you guys would have a gig tonight," I said. "I've heard there's a lot of competition for bands on New Year's Eve."
"What, you mean The Urges?" he said. He wasn't even looking right at me, but I could still smell the cloud of tequila fumes coming off him, and he spoke slowly and drunkenly. "We've only played a couple of shows. We've played three times at Jake's, and you know, we were the only band the last two times. Crowd liked us. It worked out well." He paused and looked at me. "But nobody is trying to book us to play New Year's Eve. Shit, even Jake's is closed. I guess Keith wanted the night off."
"Things are going okay for you guys?"
"Pretty well. The shows were good."
I looked around for James' girlfriend. It seemed ridiculous to imagine that I might have missed Meghan in the crowd. She has a tendency to attract attention to herself. Besides, there was also no reasonable way James could have gotten Meghan to show her face at Lise's party. Those two hated each other. But you would think, if James and Meghan were still going out, they would be together on New Year's Eve.
"Did things go wrong with you and Meghan?" I asked.
"Yeah," he said. "But I'm going to try and pick up some chicks here."
"You can barely open your eyes."
"I'll figure something out," and he seemed to settle down and go to sleep.
"What do you think about this drummer?" I asked.
He cracked open his eyes. "Damn, is that Conrad? What's he doing here?"
"He's crashing at my place right now."
James just leaned back. "That's insane, man..."
Lise elbowed me. "So this guy's crashing with you? Conrad? Isn't that the guy you punched out?"
I had my beers in my backpack. I opened it and pulled out a can for myself and one for Lise. "Yeah. Fucked up, huh?"
I gave her the beer and we sat and watched Conrad thump away. "Why don't you go play?" she asked. "No one is playing bass."
It seemed inevitable that I would. I didn't even know what I was waiting for really. Maybe I'd been waiting for someone to suggest it. There was no point in sitting and watching Conrad to decide if he could play. After all, he was only useful to me if we could play together.
"Sure," I said. "Why not?" That random kid had given up on guitar and was taking the instrument off, but Conrad was still playing. I pulled a can out of my bag and walked over and held it out for him.
He did a big trill on the cymbals and whacked the snare, and then looked up at me with a red sweaty face. "Holy shit," he said. "Yeah, I'll take a beer."
Conrad cracked it open and had a drink, while I picked up the vacant bass and slung it over my shoulder. With the drumming stopped the room was almost quiet, and I heard someone whisper that it was the guy from Riot Band who was getting up to play bass. Shit. It hadn't occurred to me that people in town would know or care who Riot Band was, let alone who I was.
Conrad and I finished the cans. I started a thumping bass line, boomp-beemp, boomp-beemp, and then cut to a simple bass knockoff of the Purple Haze guitar riff. I stroked it hard and punchy, and Conrad picked up what I was doing. He didn't need to play fast, and he just banged along with a simple beat.
It would have sounded offensive to any real Hendrix fan, but to the stoned slackers in the basement, it just sounded like bashing away on a hard rock riff. It was nothing special, but it was good hard playing. Conrad didn't deviate at all in what he played, but just threw in the occasional cymbal bash. Nothing special. Just rhythm.
The kid from the high school band got up and picked up his guitar, and he tried to join in with what we were doing. It wasn't in time or in tune, but it was fun. We jammed our way out of that into some random thumping. It was good. Nothing like playing with Knelson or his compatriots in Crankshaft. Hell, I felt like I was taking the lead in the jam, and as a fairly inexperienced player, that felt wrong. But fun is fun.
We played for about fifteen minutes then took a break. There's only so long three complete strangers with questionable skills can hold together a half-decent jam before it starts getting painful and repetitive. I was happy we stayed relevant for as long as we did.
The night progressed. Lise and I spent most of the night tied up in each other on the couch. Conrad, who had brought along a bottle of cheap red wine, got drunk with the young guys and played drums as much as he could. I think he was just excited to have a kit to play on.
At midnight everybody kissed and sang that stupid song that nobody knows the words to. The crowd eventually thinned. James crawled up the stairs on his hands and knees to crash in Smoky's living room. Conrad found the carpet on the basement floor was good enough for him, since the couch space was taken up by early-crashers. And when things started to die out, Lise and I headed back into her bedroom.
* * * *
I couldn't tell what the time was when I woke up. Lise was still sleeping, so I groped her until she woke up and we got to work on each other. We hadn't had a chance to get it on in a few weeks, and despite the mild hangovers and morning breath, we pushed and pulled and grunted and squealed like it was our first time. It was good. Oh hell, I don't need to tell you about it. You've done it, right? Give me a high five.
We lay there for a while until the need to pee overwhelmed the need to rest, and I pulled my clothes on and opened Lise's bedroom door.
The basement had cleared out. The people were gone, leaving behind their empty bottles and potato chip bags. The band's gear was all gone. The only human leftover from the party was Conrad, who was still sleeping, face-down on the carpet, gently snoring.
I went to the can. Lise was up and dressed when I came out. "What are you going to do with him?" she asked, gesturing to the big guy splayed out across the carpet.
"I'll take him with me, I guess," I said. "Unless you want him. Feed him a couple times a day, and he'll bark when burglars come around the house. Just make sure he gets plenty of walks."
"Cute." She started walking upstairs and I followed along. "Seriously Eric, I haven't seen you in a while. I was hoping we could spend the day together. I'd hate to have this guy hanging around."
"Yeah. Well, maybe we can ditch him. Hell, maybe he'll need to go to work today."
"Work? It's New Year's Day. Nothing is open. Where does he work?"
"He's panhandling. Like a classic hobo. I found him in front of the bus station collecting change in a baseball cap."
She gasped. "Are you serious? He's actually bumming for change?"
"Yeah. He's apparently homeless right now too. It's pretty screwed up. Like, he's a big strong guy. It would be easy for him to do any job. He's just, you know..." I tapped the side of my head. "He's a bit strange."
"Well, yeah, I remember you kept saying he was retarded and stuff. Still," she came over and wrapped her arms around my waist, "I'm so proud that you're helping him. When I was on the street, all I wanted was for someone to offer me some help."
I hugged her back. "Well, I hope it works out all right. I definitely don't want it to be permanent. Let me ask you this though: what do you think about getting him to play in a band with me?"
"Sure," she said. "Why not? He's not nearly as good as Jed, but if you want to play, there's a player for you."
We had breakfast and hung around the house for a while, just talking. Smoky got up and we all played some video games. Conrad eventually lumbered up the stairs. He ate some cereal and stayed pretty quiet. I was used to him being a loud, obnoxious, in-your-face type of guy, but with the hangover he just seemed meek and defeated. Shy.
We brought in pizza for supper, and late in the evening I decided it was time to head home. If Conrad wasn't with me I probably would have stayed that night as well, but it seemed a little weird. Lise and I made plans to get together again, we said goodbye to Smoky, and headed out for the walk home through the snow.
"Conrad," I said, "what do you think about forming a band?"
"Absolutely," he said. "With you?"
"Sure. You don't have any hard feelings about our past or anything?"
"Of course," he said. "I'm not angry, but I'm aware that you might have some kind of mental issues that make you prone to violence, or something like that. I mean, people don't just go around hitting people, you know? But you do. So I'll have to watch out for warning signs or something. But yeah, I'll be in a band with you. You know I don't have a drum kit, right?"
"Yeah, I was thinking about that." We walked along, and when we reached Victoria Street I stopped in front of the gas station and used the pay phone. I called Nick, the former manager of my former band.
"Nick man, how's it going?"
"Eric, is that you?" He groaned. "I'm in bad shape. We had a party here last night and there's puke everywhere. We've been cleaning puke all day. It's insane. The whole house stinks."
"That's disgusting," I said, "but it was probably an awesome party, wasn't it?"
"One of the better ones. What's going on?"
"Does Jed still have his drums in your basement?"
"Do you think he would mind if I brought a friend over to use his kit? I'm starting a new band and we need to find some drums and a place to play."
2010, Nolan Whyte