Lise and I lucked out on Monday night and got a shift closing the store together. Will, the manager, knew we were going out, and never scheduled us on the same nights alone. He was somehow afraid that we would do less work together. Who knows, he was probably afraid we would spontaneously close and lock the store and then have sex on his desk. He was uptight that way.
Well, we couldn't possibly have worked less anyway. Nights were slow in that crap-end of town convenience store, especially in a frozen January, and the staff were required to do almost nothing. If the stock was all out on the shelf, all you really had to do was serve customers and keep the store clean. Not exactly taxing work. And we weren't shagging on his desk, so really, no matter how little work we actually did, we were still model employees.
In fact, the job was so easy that Lise frequently work a shift at Sally's completely high. Depending on who she was scheduled to work with, she would either arrive high, or smoke a joint during her break. I hadn't been aware of what she was doing, but apparently none of our coworkers were bothered, whether they knew or not. Some did. Some didn't.
Apparently she'd been nervous about telling me she was smoking at work, but halfway through our shift of standing around doing nothing, the boredom overcame her and she asked if I was interested in splitting a spliff.
She asked me while I was mopping up the mud that our occasional customers had been dragging in. Posing like some ridiculous high school goon standing and holding a mop, I asked her: "Do you really have something?"
She reached into her vest pocket and pulled out a fat joint. It was party size, appropriate to be shared with a group.
"Wow," I said. "Let's get out coats."
No customers were in the store and that moment so we didn't hesitate. We grabbed out coats and went outside, ducking just around the corner so we weren't smoking right in front of the entrance. She lit it up and we passed it back and forth until it was nearly gone. A car pulled up in front of the store, so she stubbed it out and popped it in her pocket, and we headed back inside.
Everything was good. We served customers at the cash desk and processed their debit cards and gave them correct change on the cash transactions, and mostly manage not to laugh at ridiculous shit when we had people in the store. But pretty soon the pot started kicking in, and I started talking.
And what would I talk about? I had only three things in my life, really: my relationship with Lise, my stupid boring job, and my on-again-off-again love affair with my broken band. Of course, I started talking about the band.
"I think he's going to be different," I said, staring dreamily at the distant ceiling.
"Who are you talking about?" Lise asked.
"Ryan. It's been a long time since we played together. And we've only really hung out that one night last week, and it was pretty awkward. You guys were there too, you and Emily, and that probably made him kinda close up, be defensive. Hold things back, you know? But I bet he's grown. He's changed. I bet he's had time to mature and look back on this all more philosophically."
"What's it been?" she asked. "Five weeks? Six? Seriously, when that Emily chick said that you guys have come full circle, Ryan told her to shut up. I agree with him. Seriously. It's been a few weeks, not years. It's not like you're all twenty years older. Like, he's had all these different experiences and has a different outlook on things. He's going to be the same as he was before."
"I don't know. It's only been a few weeks, but I feel like I've changed. I've grown."
"You're high, and it's distorting your perception," she said. "Really, it's been a few weeks. You haven't changed that much."
"Sure," I said. "But I've learned so much. I had my band break up because I was being too much of a hard-ass. It's a message that you're treating people badly, you know? I was being irresponsible, and I was treating people badly, and I had to deal with the repercussions. But then I slowed down and tried to clean up my act. And this whole thing with Conrad? I took in my greatest enemy."
"You sound like such a dip-shit right now, Eric," she said. "He was never your greatest enemy. You keep acting to people like you hit him for no reason at all, like you're the super-villain who's coming clean about being evil. But when it happened, you were telling me how he kept staring at you all the time, like he was egging you on. You're always trying to act like a devil and a saint at the same time. Like you're so complex. You know you just took him in because you felt guilty for sucker-punching him."
"I know," I said. "That's no secret. But what is guilt, right? If I'm feeling guilty, that means I recognize what I did was wrong. So I'm doing something to make things right."
"Look, Eric, we all think it's cool that you're helping out Conrad. Nobody want's anybody to be homeless, but you're acting like you've learned this deep life lesson. And maybe you have leaned something over the last month or two. But please, don't get all preachy like you've grown so much. You really haven't changed that much over the last few months."
"I don't know," I said. "I think I have. And I'm still willing to bet that Ryan has too."
"We'll see," she said. "I don't know why it's so urgent anyway. If he says he doesn't want to play again, then to hell with him, right? What's the big deal? Find someone else. Or at least give him some time to think it over. It seems like you're in this big rush to get him back."
"We are," I said. "We've got an opportunity to play a big gig this spring, but we'd need the full band, right away. We don't have time to dick around."
"What gig?" she asked.
I froze. I hadn't told Lise yet that The Pop Rocks were coming back to town. I knew she wouldn't be thrilled with me playing a show with them, especially after all the crap that went on the last time I shared a gig with that band.
"Well," I said, not seeing any way to hide or lie about what what was going to happen, "we have a chance to open for The Pop Rocks again."
Now she froze. She'd been munching on some pretzel sticks, and she stopped and turned toward me, narrowing her eyes and staring at me like her eyes were laser beams. "The Pop Rocks," she said. "As in, the girl who you were fooling around with after their show, after I'd been beat up."
"Well, yeah, I guess," I said. "It's not like any of that was planned. And I'm not trying to get this gig so all that stuff can happen over again. It's a chance to play a big gig, and it's at The Market, at the University. It could be a big deal. It could be an opportunity."
"Right," she said. "What good did it do you last time? Where did it get you?"
I shrugged. "I don't know. We didn't really capitalize on it in a meaningful way. But I think we'll be in a different place this time."
"Yeah?" she asked in a spiteful voice. "And are you going to feel that chick's tits again like last time?"
"What? No!" I said. "Look, that was really just drunk shit," I said. "I don't want to be with anybody except you." I felt some force growing into my voice. "It was a bunch of drunk people being silly. It wasn't about me wanting other girls or anything like that. I'm with you. You know what I mean? You're the girl I want to be with, and you're the girl I love. The only tits I want to play with are yours."
She looked at me sharply and then looked away. It may have just been my imagination, but I think she started scratching at the leather bracelet she always wore.
It got quiet for a while, and we got through the rest of the evening by talking about other things, and even managed to have a good time without arguing. We closed the store and went back to her place together, and after hanging out for a while more we went to bed. She was having her period, but she got me off and we slept in each other's arms.
* * * *
Knelson got into town the next day to help his sister move. He'd emailed me his sister's cell number, and I phoned him during the day. They were still boxing stuff at the time, and he wasn't sure if he'd be able to make a Tuesday night jam. Jed, Conrad and I had planned to jam regardless, and I kept checking back with Knelson, all the way up until nine o'clock, when Jed and Conrad and I were ready to call it quits. By that time he was full of beer and pizza at his sister's new place, and there was no way he was going anywhere.
The next night we were all able to get together. I worked an afternoon shift, but by seven o'clock we were assembled in Nick's basement. Knelson's truck was parked on the street in front of Nick's house, he had his guitar and amp downstairs with the bass, drums, and keyboards, and we were ready to rock.
It was cool to have Knelson there. He wasn't wearing the corny "rock star" outfit he wore at gigs-- no mullet wig, no shiny clothes. He just looked like a cool bald guy in his forties. And Conrad, Jed, Nick and I, all goofy young men, felt cooler and more mature just having him there in the basement with us.
"So, what kind of stuff have you guys been playing?" he asked as he set up his gear.
"I don't know what these guys call it," Conrad said. "Sounds kinda lame to me so far. Just droning and distortion from the keyboard over a beat."
"Oh," Knelson said. "Um, okay."
"No, no," Jed said. "There are songs. There are parts and changes and stuff. It's not just droning. We've just been missing the guitar parts." He looked at Knelson. "Don't listen to him."
"Okay," Knelson said, strapping on his guitar. "What do you want to show me first?"
We went to work on the songs. We introduced him to several numbers, but we each quickly discovered that we didn't have that much to teach him. When I tried to show him a song that had a three-note bass line, I expected him to just start playing the more complex riff that Ryan had played to accompany it. Only Knelson hadn't been there when the song was being written, so he only knew to play what I was telling him to play.
Likewise, what Jed was able to hear in his head was not so easy to explain to Knelson. Knelson, having no idea the sound we'd been working on, and not wanting to change the direction of what we were doing, played only what we told him. And it all came out sounding pretty bland.
"It's not bad," I said, as the last song dragged to a loose end. I looked at my watch. It was eleven o'clock. Time to shut it down. "We'll be fine for tomorrow night."
Jed nodded to Knelson. "How do you think we sound?" he asked. "Would you feel comfortable playing with us tomorrow night?"
Knelson laughed. "That's two different questions, man!" he said. "No, I'm kidding. "Yeah, we sound all right. No great, but we could get through the set. I definitely wouldn't call us ready, but we could survive a set. What kind of place are we playing tomorrow? Nowhere major, I hope. No offense, but I don't want anyone I know to see me. I'm not going to wear the wig, you know?"
"Right," I said with a grin. "That's okay. Sometimes I don't want anyone to see us either."
2010, Nolan Whyte