Christmas was quiet at my parent's house in Rose Creek. We visited relatives in nearby towns and spent most of the time watching old movies on TV and eating cookies. And every night I talked to Lise on the phone. It had only been a few days, but I missed her.
Knelson and I jammed a few more times, and I got him to teach me a bunch of songs that I'd wanted to learn. Not really hard stuff, but songs I'd heard and taken notice of. A few Hendrix songs. We had some fun, and he kept arguing that I should start looking for new guys to play with.
"You can just sit back and wait for things to happen," he would say. "You've got to talk to get out there."
"Dude," I would respond, "I will. I'm just here over Christmas. I'll start looking when I get back to Garrison Valley."
"You better," he kept saying. "You better."
Between Christmas and New Year's Eve I went with Knelson to a farm house near Castleton. That was where the lady lead singer of Knelson's band lived, and they got together in the evening for a run-through of their set to prepare for their New Year's show. Knelson picked me up in his old truck, and with a burning joint between his fingers as he drove, we went down the highway in the dark to Castleton.
I expected the practice to be like a little holiday party. Maybe some cookies and egg nog, but it was all business. These guys had been playing together a long time, and they weren't very interested in dragging things out. I had the feeling they saw plenty enough of each other at rehearsals and gigs, not to mention all the driving they had to do together. They didn't hang out for fun very much. Total opposite of Riot Band, really. Hell, Ryan and I used to hang out almost every day.
The members of Crankshaft gave me a friendly welcome, and we all headed to the basement. All the gear was set up down there. I was surprised to see the singer's ten year old son down there playing video games on an old TV. She sent him upstairs, and they started to play.
For the first while I sat in the corner and watched them play. Since I figured it was going to be more of I party, I brought a six pack of light beer. Light beer, because I was trying to turn over a new leaf and keep myself under control.
They worked through their set with quiet determination. With no flashy costumes, they seemed like average working jerks, doing their jobs, and working up a serious sweat while they were doing it. They were so casual about the whole thing that they didn't even seem to know what incredible music they were making: fast, hard, classic rock and roll. No tricks. Just high skill and high power.
After they finished running through their first set they let me get up and play with them. Knelson took off his fretless bass and picked up a guitar. I took the fretted five-string Gibson that was his gigging backup instrument. With three guitars, bass, drums, and vocals, we started bashing out some old numbers. We started with 'Purple Haze,' and played a dense, crunched-out version. After we got to the end, the lead guitarist asked if we could play it again, except slowed down. We played it, and it came out super-heavy, the phrases all snapped out, the riffs coming like crashing waves.
We did 'Foxy Lady,' and then 'Hey Joe.' Knelson hadn't taught me 'Hey Joe,' but I was able to pick it up pretty fast. You get the pattern of the main five notes, and then you get the rhythm, and it all seems to just play itself. You just roll with it.
It was at moments like that that I truly loved playing the bass guitar. Not being in a band or having people cheer, or trying to get laid or trying to get some money...I loved standing there with the weight of the strap on my shoulder and sweat running down my face, pressing the strings down on the frets with one hand and banging out the notes with the other. And the music rolled and rolled...and the song seemed to last forever, and then it was over in an instant.
"Okay, that's enough of Jimi," said the drummer. "Let's get back to work, okay? I don't want to be driving home in the middle of the night."
I took off the bass and sat down and drank down another light beer. Knelson gave me a little wink. I must have had an absolutely beatific look on my face, like an angel had rubbed her tits against me, and I just sat and watched and listened, drank my beer and enjoyed the night.
The next day I called Lise and mentioned that Crankshaft was playing a gig on New Year's Eve.
"Oh," she said, and I could hear the drop of disappointment in her voice. "Did you want to go to that instead of the party?"
"Oh, no," I said. "Of course I'm coming to the party. I was just mentioning it. Conversation. Just making conversation."
"Okay," she said. "Because if you wanted to go, I'd understand. You don't have to come to the party. I would understand."
"No, no," I said. "I'm taking the bus back on the thirtieth. Thursday. I'll see you that night."
"Hang on," she said, and she disappeared for a moment. "I'm working on Thursday," she said when she returned. "I'll see you on the thirty-first. You can either just come to the party, or we can meet up in the afternoon."
So that was that. I wanted to play with Crankshaft, if only for a few songs, but there was no way I was going to break Lise's heart. I knew she really wanted me to be there for the party she was co-hosting with her brother Smoky. And the party would be fun anyway. To hell with it.
On Thursday I thanked my folks, gave them hugs, and with my nice collared shirts snugly packed inside my bag (my Christmas gifts-- Dad was still holding out hope that I'd soon get a real job), I got on the bus and headed back to Garrison Valley.
It was a grim ride. I had a carefree feeling on the ride to Rose Creek, but on the bus back to Garrison Valley, it started to settle in how little I actually had to look forward to. No school. No band. I just had the crap job and Lise. Lise was great, but there wasn't much else. I was going to need to get out there and find myself another band, and that wouldn't be easy if I wasn't in school. I wouldn't even knew where to begin looking for players.
I meditated on the problem for the whole ride. When the bus pulled into the little terminal in downtown Garrison Valley, I had a plan: I would put up posters around the music stores and on some of the community boards. I would start hanging out at the skunky bars that had jam nights. Hell, even karaoke nights were a possibility. Maybe I could at least find a singer.
That's what was on my mind as I climbed down off the bus. I walked inside the terminal, and out through the doors exiting onto the street. There was a hobo standing outside the door, holding a cap, asking for change. He was a great big guy, wearing a wool hat and a scarf. His army-style jacket seemed too light for the freezing weather. I was about to cut away from him and start walking home, but I saw his eyes, and I recognized him.
It was Conrad.
Yes, Conrad, the slightly crazy, maybe schizophrenic or maybe bipolar hulk of a guy that I had sucker-punched outside of a Riot Band gig a few months before. Conrad, who had moved in with my ex-girlfriend Jasmine, but later got thrown out for non-payment of rent and plain crazy behavior. Conrad, who was probably the biggest pain in the ass of anyone I'd ever met.
"Dude," I said, stopping. "What the hell are you doing out here? It's like, twenty below."
He tugged down his scarf, and he had a big smile on his face. "Hey, Eric man, what's up? Yeah, it's cold, isn't it? It sucks, but I'm getting some good change. One old guy gave me a five."
"Yeah, but what the hell are you doing bumming for change anyway? Is this seriously what you do now?"
"For now, yeah. Things are a little tough at the moment, you know? Hey, could I get a smoke off you?"
"Sorry, Conrad. I don't smoke."
"Oh. I thought you did. Hey, I wanted to ask, how come you hit me that night?"
I bit my lip. "Look, Conrad...I'm sorry I did that. It was stupid, and I was an asshole."
"Well sure, but...you know, why'd you hit me? What did I do?"
"I don't even know any more. Look, do you want to come with me? I'm heading back to my house. You can warm up. I've probably got something we could eat."
He shrugged. "Sure. Do you have anything to drink there?"
"Oh...well, yeah, I'll still come."
So we walked through the cold back to my place. He didn't have any stuff with him. He told me he had some bags of clothes and a bongo drum, but they were scattered around at different people's houses. Basically he was a street person with the clothes on his back. And I was taking him in. Why? I hated the guy, but guilt is a powerful emotion. I knew I wasn't responsible for him ending up on the street, but I did feel as though I owed him one.
Back at my place, I let him take a shower, and gave him a t-shirt and some sweat pants to wear while I took his stinky clothes down to the laundry in the basement. Then I scoured the kitchen for food, and managed to come up with discount-brand tomato soup, some pasta, and half a pound of frozen hamburger meat. I cooked it all up, mixed it together, and we ate. It was awkward, but what the hell, right? He needed help.
He counted out his change, and after dinner we walked a few blocks to a liquor store and bought a big jug of cheap red wine, then went back to my place and had some drinks. We talked about music, mostly. Sports a bit. And girls.
He slept on my couch. I wasn't sure if this was going to be a temporary or a long term situation. I figured I would play it by ear. I knew I couldn't just throw him out to sleep in the alleys. But I also didn't want him to go crazy on me. I wasn't sure if I would be able to handle him with the volume turned way up.
The next night I ended up taking Conrad along with me to Lise's party. Smoky answered the door to let us in, and he gave Conrad a hard stare as we came in.
"He's okay, Smoky," I said, patting the shaven-headed, devil-faced drug dealer on the shoulder.
Smoky shrugged. "Come on down," he grunted.
We dropped our jackets on the couch and descended to the basement. Like the previous parties, the basement was crowded, and there was a heavy fug of pot smoke in the air. Lise jumped up and wrapped her arms around my neck, and we gave each other a long hello kiss.
The same high school band that always played Lise's parties was there. They were taking a break. The kid that played drums was crashed out on the couch with a empty bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label clutched against his chest. He looked like he was done for the night.
"Sweet kit," Conrad said, checking out the band's drums. "Whose are they?"
"His," I said, pointing to the limp body on the couch.
"Go ahead if you want to play," shouted the band's guitarist from the corner, where he was making out with a young woman I'd not seen before.
"Sweet," Conrad said. He sat down, picked up the sticks and started to batter the toms. He loosened up for a minute, and then started knocking out some simple beats.
Someone cheered. Not because he was awesome or anything, but people will cheer anything sometimes. Even so, I could tell he knew how to play. And a thought that I really, really did not want to think crossed my mind.
2010, Nolan Whyte