I don't think anyone noticed Conrad's tough-guy routine except the band. He was standing there, jerking his thumb toward the door and trying to stare me down. The rest of the crowd was breaking up from the front of the stage, heading to the bathroom or the bar or outside for cigarettes. Nobody was paying attention to the big dummy who wanted to fight the bass player.
I nodded to Conrad and gestured for him to head right out, like I would be right behind him. He nodded and marched toward the exit.
Ryan smacked me on the shoulder while I pulled my bass off. "What the hell was that?" he said. "What's going on with this clown?"
"Don't know," I said. "The last few times I've seen him he didn't even know who I was. He looks mad, doesn't he? I'll go have a chat with him."
He grabbed the sleeve of my shirt. "You're not going to fight him, are you? We have to play another set. Don't get in a fight."
"Come on, Ryan," I said. "You've never seen me get in a fight, have you? It's not like I just walk around fighting guys all the time."
Jed came around from behind the drums. "What does that big guy want?" he asked.
"Hell if I know," I said. "I'm going to go chat with him."
I hopped down from the little stage. Jake's Restaurant was buzzing a bit. It wasn't jammed the way it had been the first time we played there, and frankly, I liked it better this way. There was some elbow room, and the atmosphere was less tense. All told, I felt pretty good. The scene with Jasmine had left me tenser than hell, but she hadn't stuck her nose in the door during the whole set, and playing really got my mind off all the crap swirling around me. Even Conrad couldn't bring me down.
There was a little beer left in my bottle, and I gulped it down. Blah. Warm. It would be easy to grab another, but the simple truth was that I wanted to go outside and fight Conrad, so more alcohol would not be helpful. And it was definitely a good thing I didn't smoke any of that joint before the set. Once at a high school party I'd got into a fight completely stoned, and my timing was so bad that I got my ass completely kicked.
Then I realized the joint was still in my pocket, and a wicked smile crossed my face.
Ryan and Jed followed me out. I thought about hanging around inside for a while just to make Conrad sweat, but to hell with it, I wanted to get the show on the road.
Just before I reached the door, Ryan grabbed me by the arm and stopped me. He held me there, and looked up at me. He had wild, nervous eyes.
"Seriously, Eric," he said. "You've got a cocky look right now, like you're going to go fight that guy. I really, really don't want a fight right now.
"Dude," I said with a laugh, "I already told you that I don't get in fights all the time. And besides, there are three of us. You should be getting my back. Like, you fuck with one of Riot Band, you fuck with all of us, that kinda shit.
He shook his head. "There are just two of us, and this guy is fucking crazy. This is not a good time for a fight, Eric! We're at a gig!"
"What do you mean, just two of us?" I said. "Jed is right here."
Jed was indeed standing right behind Ryan. He was touching his chin, as though stroking an invisible goatee. I almost wanted him to grow his stupid moustache back so he would know what to do with his hands. "Seriously guys," he said, "what's going on?"
Ryan sneered. "That guy seems pissed off about something," I told Jed. "Just play it cool, okay? Both of you?"
They both nodded and followed me out. There were a bunch of people standing around smoking. I saw Conrad standing off to the side, leaning against someone's car. I didn't see Jasmine or her friend Cara anywhere.
I walked over to Conrad. He still had his stupid tough-guy look on. Usually when I'd seen him before he was either just out of it on booze or drugs, or he'd acted like a big goofy clown. He was a big, solid looking bastard though. I had no intention of just scrapping it out with him. What would be the point? Two big idiots just punching each other on the sidewalk. No. Not for me. After all, I had a show to play. I didn't want to risk getting hurt.
He squared up when he saw me, his hands hanging loose at his sides, ready to start throwing punches. I stopped two paces from him and shrugged my shoulders.
"Okay, buddy," I said. "What's going on?"
"You know what's going on, asshole," he said. "You know that Jasmine left, right? She was crying and shit, because of what you said to her. You think you're really cool, don't you? I've heard all about you. Man, you've done nothing but abuse that f--king girl."
Right. Conrad was rooming with Jasmine now, and no doubt she'd been filling his ears about what an asshole I was, even though every other time I saw her she was cozying back up to me. Fair enough. If that was motivation enough for Conrad to want to fight, that was good enough for me. I was happy enough to knock his head in. The guy just bugged me.
"I'm sure it seems that way," I said. "It's not really any of your business though, is it?
"I'm her friend," he said, taking the moral high ground. "And you deserve to get your ass kicked."
"Hey man," I said, taking the Dude Love approach, "let's not fight." I reached into my pocket. "We can be friends, can't we?" I froze for a moment and looked around, and then nodded to Conrad. "Hey man. You smoke, right?"
Conrad got a confused look on his big stupid block-head face.
I slowly pulled out the joint and held it out in my hand where he could see it. "I'm not a bad guy, man. Jasmine, she's angry now, but you know how she is, don't you?"
Conrad was looking at the joint. As much as I hated conflicts with girls like Jasmine, I had no issue at all screwing around with a big goon like Conrad.
"Dude," I said, "My buddies and I were just about to spark this thing. I've got no hard feelings. Do you want to join us on this?"
He stared at me with his crazy eyes. I knew his type: he was basically a sensation junkie. He wanted women, booze, drugs, caffeine, adrenaline, or anything else that would send him up or down and out of his confused normal state. He wanted to fight me for the rush, not because he really wanted to stand up for Jasmine. But a joint is a better high than a punch in the face, and I was certain he would take the easier route.
He finally shrugged, and I knew I had him. "It isn't cool, man," he said, clumsily trying to cover up the fact that he was basically dumping his righteous anger over Jasmine in exchange for a share in a joint. "You can't treat a bitch that way." He stepped towards me, but not threateningly.
"I know, I know," I said, nodding. "But you know bitches, right?" I wanted to kill this f--ker. "Here," I said, handing him the joint. "Let me spark you up."
I turned to Ryan and asked for his lighter. Poor Ryan, he was staring at me with this completely baffled look on his face. I winked at him, but not in a gay way. Not that there's anything wrong with that. He handed over his lighter.
Conrad held the joint between his fingers, and when I turned around with the lighter, he held it up to his lips, ready for me to light him up.
I held up the lighter and sparked a flame, just a little away from him, so he had to lean out for it, sticking his neck out. Perfect, I thought.
"So, Conrad," I said conversationally, "have you ever been sucker-punched?"
"Hmm?" he said, still trying to reach the tip of the joint to the flame, and I smashed him on the jaw with a heavy right fist that sent him spinning around. He fell and thumped against the door of a car parked on the side of the road.
There was a gasp from the crowd that was collected around the door of the bar. They hadn't been paying attention to the little confrontation, but they were all looking now.
"Holy shit," said Ryan. "I... wow." He stooped down and picked up the joint, which was lying on the sidewalk.
Conrad rolled into a sitting position, leaning against the side panel of the car. He looked completely stunned, sitting with his mouth open and his eyes glassy.
"Dude," was all Jed could say.
I shook my sore right hand. "Um, should we go back in?" I said. "I could use a beer."
Some people from the front of the bar walked over. "What happened?" someone asked.
I shrugged. "Not much," I said. "This guy is kind of a dick, and we had a disagreement. I hit him. That was the wrong thing to do, I admit. But what's done is done. I'm going back inside."
Ryan started chirping, pointing at Conrad, who was still sitting there looking dopily around. "He called Eric out!" Ryan said. "He's the guy that wanted to fight. He asked for it."
"Dude, chill," I said, and I grabbed his arm. "Let's go back in."
Jed followed as Ryan and I walked back inside. Most of the crowd was in there. KISS was playing on the bar stereo, and people seemed to be enjoying it, ironically or not. I felt like a big cocky asshole. I knew I was an asshole, in fact, but I didn't really care. The whole thing seemed to fit with the rock and roll image. Somehow, it just felt right to be an asshole. I felt like King Shit.
Ryan, Jed and I slid up to the bar and ordered beers. We still had about twenty minutes before the second set, which gave up plenty of time to relax.
We clinked bottles and had a drink. I was wondering where Lise was, but then a nice looking girl tapped me on the shoulder. I turned and had a look. She was smart looking, with dark red hair, black framed glasses, and fashionably dressed. "Hi," I said.
"You know that guy you just punched out?"
"You know that he's mentally ill, right? He's basically an un-medicated schizophrenic. And I know he's pretty over-the-top and he can make a nuisance of himself, but try to keep in mind that he's basically a person with a mental challenge who has been let down by our social and medical systems. He's slipped through the cracks, but he needs help, not beatings. So next time, maybe you could think twice about pounding his face in and leaving him lying on the street."
The girl turned and walked out of the bar. I stood there with my mouth open, still feeling like an asshole. But now I felt like the wrong kind of asshole.
"Man," Ryan said. "What a weird night."
"I was wrong," Jed said. "This band isn't boring at all."
"I don't know what the hell I'm supposed to think," I said. "I feel like an idiot."
Lise arrived. Her eyes were red. I guess she and her brother's gang had gone somewhere to smoke up. "Hey," she said. "Great show. Are you starting again soon?"
"The sooner the better," I said, and I looked at Jed and Ryan. "I want to play and get the hell out of here."
We drank our beers, ordered another round, and went back to the stage. Nick came around to check in, but he had nothing really relevant to say. He hadn't come outside, so he'd missed the whole affair with Conrad. I didn't fill him in.
I was thankful that except for two songs, Ryan was doing most of the singing in the second set. We hadn't planned it that way, but that was how the set list worked out. I was happy about it, because I didn't want anyone to look at me. I felt like crawling under a rock. Once again, the whole night had managed to turn into one big piece of shit.
2010, Nolan Whyte