Sticks And Strings. Part 13

It never goes away, does it? I wondered. You can try to forget it as much as you want, but in the end, your past never truly stays buried.

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It's been a while, hasn't it, Richard? You seem to be making out well. It sounded innocent, almost believable for a minute. What good natured person wouldn't want to? It was those eyes, something hypnotic about those two piercing, perfectly shaped little green marbles that could warm even the coldest of hearts; heaven knew it had happened before. How noble of her, how politehow phony. There was no missing the dagger cloaked behind her almost friendly, sing-song voice; alluding to the past without directly bringing it up in front of the others. Her eyes may not have lost their sparkle, but the unforgettable aura of menace was not lost on me. It told a different story from once upon a time, ending long ago, and not with happily ever after.

Yes, Sarah. It has been a while. Not long enough.

You guys know each other? Kayla looked to me, then Sarah, and back to me, her eyebrows raised in surprise. Funny, you never mentioned that.

Oh yeah, we go way back. Don't we, Richard? Oh fine. Thirty seconds in and it's Classic Sarah Matheson all over again, wear the oh silly old me mask while deftly sliding that dagger deeper into your back. It never goes away, does it? I wondered. You can try to forget it as much as you want, but in the end, your past never truly stays buried. The farther you walk, the faster you run from it, the quicker and closer it draws. Like gum stuck to a sneaker, it just can't be gotten rid of. Funny, in times of silent self-reflection like these, the little voice had nothing to say. Go figure.

Well, if you consider middle school way back,' then yes, I suppose we do, I said, trying to pass off Sarah's sudden appearance was nothing more than a coincidence. I'm sure she saw through it at once. Luckily, the others didn't seem to pick up on the bad vibes, except for maybe Mitchell. Ever since announcing their presence, he'd been looking at Sarah non-stop through narrow eyes. She's a decent shredder, too.

You're too kind. What happened to your face?

"I beg pardon?"

"Did I stutter? What happened to your face?" That was more like the Sarah Matheson I remember.

It was an accident." Kayla and I said it in unison, much to everyone's surprise.

Ah, accident, right, I see, she said. Spying yet another stray milk crate, she caught the handle with her toe and flipped it over, planting her delicate frame on it a second later. Well, Kayla's been goin' on almost non-stop about this band for weeks now, so I thought I'd tag along with her and check this for myself, so hope you don't mind an audience. She watched us exchange baffled looks while popping a small handful of what looked like gum into her mouth. Kayla's expression seemed more pleading than perplexed, especially when looking at me. Please, Richard? Please? she seemed to say. I thought that over. "You can relax, Sarah added, I ain't gonna steal your songs, I've my own thing going on.

Adam seemed to seriously consider this unexpected development. Well, he finally said, I can't speak for the others, but it's okay with me, I guess. Can't say how much playing might actually occur today, what with this unresolved matter. Unresolved mattertut; now who's playing populist, I couldn't resist thinking. Nobody else voiced an objection, although I saw a faint flicker of doubt cross Jason's face. This time I didn't disagree, but if it would avoid any further commotionwell, I didn't have to talk to her, did I?

The meeting tone turned a bit more civilized after that, though opinions did not change a whole lot. Mitchell didn't seem to get the message from Jason, and continued to play both sides, while AdamAdam just sat there. At least there was one more voiced for the Yes, We Play campaign. Soon, I grew tired of it all and got the idea to put The Garage's newest acquisition to use, going over to the whiteboard and drawing a line down the middle of it, with another line running across the top. In one of the small boxes above I put a checkmark; reasons for why we should sign up for Thrash for Cash. The other got a big X. Both boxes were soon full of reasons:

***

Pro:

  • Good exposure for Systex
  • Opportunities for constructive criticism from Black Heart Legions
  • Cheap fees, $6 per person it worked out to be, hardly expensive
  • Equipment already available, no transport or storage worries
  • Opportunity to check out and gauge local talent and/or competition
  • The rewards more than outweighed the risks and costs
  • We get to perform for the public at last

    Con:

  • Not enough original material written
  • No previous performance experience
  • Covers could be seen as weak; (it felt stupid, but Mitchell insisted)
  • Tight timeframes: Three and a half months didn't seem long enough
  • Commitment: Could all five members commit to more rehearsals?
  • Lack of scene knowledge: Ten-plus bands sounding all the same wouldn't be original
  • Age; the biggest concern: If NO MINORS' was strictly enforced, what would we do about Kayla?

    ***

    Attitudes softened on both sides once the issues were all out in the open for all to see. Even I had to admit that seeds of doubt were beginning to plant in my mind, even though they would be weeded out best as I could manage. When asked if she had any ideas to overcome the age barrier, Kayla couldn't answer. Frustration was evident in her eyes. Sarah watched from her spot, silent but intent. Adam spoke a second later. Okay. We could debate and argue and hem and haw till the cows come home but it just won't work anymore. He picked up the sheet of blank paper, folded and tore it. The sound of the first tear struck me hard, so much so that I twitched; a violent, full-body spasm that attracted everyone's attention, even Sarah's. Richard? Adam asked. What was?

    Wait. Before we do this, justwait a second. I was on my feet a split second later, tearing into my bag while others watched me, their faces written with confusion, wonder or just plain shock. Where is it? I muttered to myself, opening every zippered pocket the bag had, even the ones that were too small to hold what I sought.

    Where's what? Sarah spoke for the first time since sitting a spell on the old crate.

    That's my question all the same, Mitchell chimed in, but I cut him off with an excited cry, which came out sounding more like a high-pitched yip than the Ah! I was going for. Out of the bag came a dog-eared soft-cover copy of Familiar Quotations III adorned with a barcode sticker reading Brentwood Central High School.' I thumbed through the thick, heavy book, the pages yellow with age and fading. For once, English class actually provided me with something useful.

    Richard, what are you doing? Jason sounded both amused and angry at the same time, if that was even possible. This isn't homework time

    Shush, I retorted, feeling a slight twinge of guilt and pleasure at being able to extend the same courtesy, (or was that discourtesy?) to Jason while he had been engrossed in my book of many scribbles that sometimes became lyrics. Somebody in the room suppressed a chuckle. Whether at me or the snappy comeback I'd offered Jason, I didn't know or care, it humored me. At last, I found what I was looking for!

    You are the music while the music lasts. - T.S. Eliot

    The group shared a collective Huh?

    Snatching up the faded marker from the cool metal lip of the board, I bit the cap off and, spitting it on the floor, an act for which I'm sure I could hear Adam's stomach turn, I scrawled the highlighted quote across the top of the board in bold black block letters, going over it twice more to make the faded ink stand out across the bright white backing of the board as best it could. Caught in the exhilaration of the moment, I went to underline the passage, but the poor marker gave up halfway across the board, making a long and rather ugly squeak as it died. I had to chuckle in spite of myself, giving it a good vigorous shake but to no avail. Ah well, it had served its purpose. The others leaned forward to see what I'd written while I deposited the pen, cap included, into the waiting mouth of the garbage bin. Sorry, I said to Adam as the pen hit the bottom of the empty bin with a clunk, I'll have to owe you.

    Adam replied with a short raspberry, No worries, plenty more where that one came from. Then he craned his neck to read the board, his chin resting in cupped hands. Then he recited the quote off the board, slowly and with purpose like an old-school professor.

    Yes! I cried, turning to face the others. Their eyes darted back and forth, reading the quote for themselves, letting the impact settle. Guys, why are we in a band? I was stared at as though I had gone mad.

    Uhto write music? Jason said.

    Well, obviously. But think about it. I tapped the board with my finger so hard, for a moment I worried it would slip off the nails or whatever held it up and come crashing to the floor. It didn't. Why do we want to write music, to be famous? Or because we want people to like us? Sarah let out a noise through clenched teeth. If there was an English translation for it, it might have been fk people. Never mind, I told myself. I can't answer for you, but I know why I'm here. I took a breath, half expecting someone else to ask why, but no one did, so I pressed on.

    Music is my water of life. Put on a record, I don't care what genre, and there's something about it that gives me such an authentic feeling, a spiritual connection to myself as it were. Sure, Systex is a metal band so I tend to gravitate more towards that, but right now that's beside the point. Music, in all its form and glory, makes me feel alive; be it the best or worst of times. It's always there. You can't imagine the emotional highs I get from expressing ourselves through what we do. Whenever Jason drives through a bass line like he's behind the wheel of an eighteen-wheeler, or it could be watching Adam turn into the human Energizer bunny, tearing full blast into those drums until my ears throb sends shivers down my spineWOW!

    "We've got something to say, each of us has a story; where we came from, all the shit we've endured, all the joys we've lived. I don't know what your story is, but that's okay, because that's what's so great about this contest; we have a chance to tell all of Brentwood, 'Here we are! Love us or hate us, we're not going anywhere because we are motherfing Systex, and we have a dream!' And you know what? If we decide Thrash for Cash isn't for uswell then so be it. But I promise you this: I'll wake up the next day and bring my best to the band, because I have a dream, and whatever it takesdammit, I'll do it!

    "I don't know about you guys... but if we don't try and share our story, regardless of who will listen, then I'd rather just lie down right now and die."

    Heavy silence settled on The Garage. You couldn't even hear anyone breathe.

    (Oh how melodramatic. Richard Demin's Final Stand: The last desperate gasps of a dying man.)

    I told the little voice to go fk itself and sat down on the steps. Only then did the power of what I had just said register with me. It seemed to settle in with the others too; the room went deathly quiet again and seemed to last a lot longer this time around, broken only by the soft tearing of paper. In the cluttered garage, it seemed as loud as the crash of a cymbal. Adam handed each of us a jagged piece and a pen. Let's put this to a vote once and for all, we're either in or we're out. Yes or no. When you've made your choice, fold up and toss it in here. He had grabbed an empty paint can and set it by his feet. Whatever the decision, we stick to it as a whole, all decisions final. Agreed?

    It was gone just like that; all the stirring emotion, the heartfelt declarations, vigor and enthusiasmgone in the blink of an eye; a clean snap instead of a long, drawn out deflation like air escaping from a balloon. It hurt more than anything else might have, leaving me heavy in body and spirit. I was unsure I even had the strength to make a simple checkmark on my paper.

    Agreed? Adam asked again, eyes very serious. Two consenting grunts replied, followed by Agreed from someone else. All I could do was nod. Adam took his pen and paper into the house, saying he'd be back in a few minutes. My vote was the first to make it into the can, of course it didn't bear any contemplation, I'd already come this far, why change it now? Richard Demin's Final Stand? Damn right. If I was going down, I was going head held high, arms crossed. I left the garage to have a smoke while others sat around with thoughtful looks.

    ***

    The sun shone off in the distance, bathing Clark Street in a warm blanket, its beams reflecting off the roof of a two-storey rancher up the street, catching me square in the eye while I sat at the edge of the driveway, as far downwind I could get without leaving the Merritt property. I winced and slid down the walk until just out of its way while my trusty little red lighter clicked to life, igniting the end of a Number Seven Blue before vanishing just as quickly as it had come when my thumb slid off the red tab. My first drag was long, slow and deliberate. The sky was caught in the inevitable clutches of time, still blue directly overhead while the edge of the horizons took on a hybrid of dark and bright oranges and yellows much like the flame in my lighter while a few, unthreatening clouds began to look like charcoal wisps in the shadow of the setting sun. Soon dusk would give way to night, and if more clouds swept overhead, there wouldn't be a single light in the skya fitting metaphor.

    Kind of figured you'd be out here after all this, a voice came from behind me. I didn't even have to turn my head to know it was not someone I wanted to converse with just now, or later, for that matter. The only suitable response in mind was to take another long drag, releasing the smoke in a long stream. It drifted further up into the sky and eventually faded. Ah, I don't blame you. You always seem to light up whenever you're stressed, or emotional. The silent treatment didn't appear to be making my point. I should've known better. Don't suppose you got an extra one you can spare?

    Third time's the charm, I guess. I thought you quit, I said without moving.

    I think we both know how well that worked out, said Sarah, drawing closer until she stood right next to me. I'd have moved if I wasn't risking sitting in the middle of the road. Or maybe I just really didn't give a damn right then. Unwilling to actually bring myself to give her one, either out of some petty grudge or desire not to fiddle around with anything, I halfheartedly held the pack out to her, still refusing to give her a second glance. She took the pack without another word. A small metallic click and a brief whiff of some repulsive smelling lighter fluid followed, and then she dropped the pack right by my foot with a quiet thank you. I pocketed it, pulling at the cigarette again.

    This really means a lot to you, doesn't it? She didn't wait for my reply, which was probably a smart move on her part because it wasn't coming. I mean, the girls talked about it a little but not to this extent like you guys have. Wow. What did she mean, the girls? The only girls I knew were her and Kayla, and neither particularly impressed with their antics. Oh well, whatever. Props to Kayla though, for whatever reason she seemed to be trying to move on from the other weekend's bullshit, which was fine with me, though if she expected me to be best buddies with her now, it just wouldn't work that way.

    If that's supposed to be comforting in any way, it ain't working. Sarah only shrugged and pulled at her own cigarette. Take it how you will, I'm only saying. When I didn't answer this, she growled while smoke escaped from her mouth and nose. You're not going to let it go, are you?

    You tell me, I replied, feeling a pang of anger in my stomach. One final drag from the cigarette, then I dropped it down through the grates of a nearby storm drain without grinding the cherry. Let the city's sewage put it out. Would you if the shoe was on the other foot, huh?

    Oh let's not

    No, let's, I snapped. You seem to be too content to act all Little Miss Metalhead and trying to pretend nothing ever happened and you have the nerve to try and be friendly with me again just like that? Get it through your head: It's not going to happen.

    It's called courtesy.

    The sheer absurdity of that remark blew me away. What?

    I thought you'd appreciate it a lot more than me engaging in some verbal warfare with you in front of your little group there. You know, this may come as quite a shock to you, Richard, but you're not the only one who can show a little tact in awkward situations.

    Awkward situation is the understatement of the year, I hissed, trying to keep my voice down. And I don't recall you ever displaying such tact with me.

    Whatever. Sarah chained that cigarette to a butt in what felt like only a few seconds. When it was gone, she breathed the last puff of smoke past her thin pink lips and said, You weren't the only one hurt the last time we She trailed off. You said some horrible things too. The urge to fight was almost gone before she let fly that last comment. Then, as if to pour gasoline on my fire, she added, that hole in the wall is still there from when you put your fist through it. You overreacted.

    Overreact I snorted, bolting to my feet. I overreacted? Good God, Sarah! Do you even have a shred of decency left in you? Oh wait, let me think about what happened last timeof course you don't.

    Hey now just a

    No! No more! Be friends with Kayla if you must, I have no say in who my band-mates hang out with, but I never want to see you here again.

    I had to see you

    Shut up! Fk you, Sarah! I hate you! The words were out in the open before I could bite my tongue. That was too much for her to handle. Her face darkened to a shade matching the wisps of cloud now almost out of sight, her Medusa eyes shone with building tears as she scowled at me. This was anger of a kind even I couldn't anticipate from her; hot, silent fury. For a moment I thought she would add to the scars on my face, or tear some other strip of flesh off me. Part of me wanted to apologize, while the rest grappled with the Schadenfreude that came with releasing that last bit of lingering vitriol.

    Hey! Kayla's shrill voice blasted from The Garage.

    What? I yelled back.

    There was a slight pause before she called back, You guys ever coming back inside? We're finished here.

    That makes two of us, I thought, turning back towards the garage and as I went, Sarah whispered with a strain in her voice, I loved you, you know, and then walked ahead of me. Her head hung low, avoiding eye contact with anyone while I stood there, unsure how to react. Not now, I told myself and went back to the concrete steps. They seemed to become my unofficial seat in The Garage whenever playing wasn't happening, when I overheard Mitchell mumbling to himself.

    I'm sure I've seen here somewhere before. Heck if I remember where. I guess he was talking about Sarah, but confirming this was the least important thing on my mind.

    Just hurry up and count em, I said to Adam. I don't want to waste anymore time.

    Yeah same here, I can't stand it, Mitchell added. He pushed the can towards Adam, who took the point, along with the can, over to the workbench, read and tallied each of the votes on a separate sheet, recounted them and then returned to his stool.

    Well? Everyone was leaning forward, even Sarah, though while we all had intense, focused looks on our faces, hers was back to its original fk you, I don't care state, the only defense mechanism she seemed to know. Circle of life. Adam looked at me for a long time, perhaps a little wary of my reaction. Richard?

    Yes?

    Call up Murphy's and tell them, by a vote of four to one, Systex is entering the Thrash for Cash!

    My heart almost stopped, along with the world outside. I hadn't heard him right, couldn't possibly have. I'm sorry, what was the question? Adam laughed and repeated it. It still sounded surreal. What? Like, right now?

    Adam gestured towards the door behind me. You know where the phone is. You wanted it more than I think anyone else here did until you put your heart on the line like that, he nodded at the whiteboard, and frankly, I think we should keep that quote there, to remind us all who we are and why we're here.

    Yeah, buddy, Mitchell agreed with a grin. Kickass, man. Even Kayla was beaming. Jason however, sat stone-faced. I tried with you Jason, I really did, I thought as I went inside to make the call. It was short and to the point. The person on the other end took the names of each member, the group name and informed me that someone from the group had to come by in person to pay the registration fee by Friday or our spot would be given away. I assured the friendly but professional sounding woman that that wouldn't be a problem. When all was said and done, I sighed, put the receiver back into place, and burst into tears. Happy, relieved, excited tears. I hated crying, but right now, I didn't care and just stood there, letting them fall until the well ran dry. I wiped my face with my shirt sleeve, turned to head back to the garageonly to see Jason standing there in that hat of his, his bulky frame taking up half the doorway.

    You really wanted this bad, he said, not to question but rather affirm. I said I did, feeling more than a touch embarrassed at being caught. He didn't seem to mind. Well, we agreed that the decision was final. I guess there's nothing left for me to do but take up armser, or rather, bassand justgive er. I tried to speak but could only manage a strangled gulping sound, like a bullfrog with a bad cold. He smiled and nodded, seeming to understand me. You know Richard, he said, Just because I disagreed with you on this doesn't mean I don't respect you, or your dream.

    I know.

    And I'll be frank, I'm still skeptical about how we'll pull all this off. However, I'm a man of my word. We're doing this thing, so we might as well give it our best, am I right? He held out his hand.

    I felt a smile crawling across my face that soon stretched from ear to ear. Right, I said, and offered my own hand. Then we looked at each other, laughed and embraced.

    Now I think a practice is long overdue, he said with the smile back in his voice, giving me a heavy slap on the shoulder. Lead the way, maestro!

    We returned to the garage, where the others stood ready to play. Sarah had moved from the crate to the couch and sat looking at me with a dark scowl along with, perhaps, a trace of sorrow hiding in her eyes. I turned away from her and looked at Adam, seated behind his kit, sticks in hand; flashing me a quick metal horns underneath one of those many cymbals, along with that reassuring smile of his. He had been right all along. This was good.

    Okay! I said. What should we start off with?

    Rage, Jason suggested, plugging in his bass and tuning up. The sun, now almost hidden behind the rancher, bounced a ray off one of his tuning keys. It was agreed. Then he asked a question everyone else seemed to have forgotten, Hey, Kayla.

    Yo.

    How'd you figure we were all here, anyways?

    It's a practice day? She looked at Jason like he was stupid.

    Yeah I get that, but I thought you said you were busy with school?

    She tightened her shoulder strap and looked at Mitchell, and subsequently all of us. Yeahfk that. I'm too busy for school; we've got a contest to practice for! Look out Brentwood, because we are motherfing Systex! And she smiled brightly at us with her own horns. I smiled too, raising my own. It wasn't a real answer, but for now, I didn't mind. My eyes met with hers and stayed with them for a long time. She didn't look away once. Yes we are, I thought as Adam brought his sticks up and counted down to cue the intro from an eager Mitchell.

    Yes we are.

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