Sticks And Strings. Part 18

I didn't have to say another word before excited cries and demands I start sharing broke out.

Ultimate Guitar

By the time Sunday came around, the lyrics had undergone several revisions, eating up a fair number of the notebook's already few remaining pages, along with a few sleepless hours. Gone was the title "Betrayed By Blood", the first victim of the rewriting process. It wasn't such a bad title, just didn't feel like the right fit with the tone the words were taking on. Alas, Kill your darlings. So said Ernest Hemingway, at least, according to one of Mr. Ballard's droning lectures, I'd never actually read anything by Hemingway before. The final product ended up being named "Deaf Ears" instead, taking up three-quarters of a crumpled page. More fitting, I figured. Practice started off with the usual exchange of small-talk greetings - Sup dude, and Ready to rock it?, to name a few, before attention was sure to divert to my interesting new face and the usual reaction one would expect in such situations: What the hell happened?

I gave the shortest recap possible of my sudden exodus from the Demin house to get Jason and Mitchell up to speed. They sympathized. Neither seemed surprised. Something told me it was only a matter of time before something like this happened, Mitchell mused, shifting the shoulder straps of a bulging backpack which seemed ready to explode at any second. Three bandages covered his right hand. Seeing how unfavorable you speak of him, I gotta say I'm surprised you didn't let sock him back.

I'd be lying if I said the thought never occurred to me, I replied, deciding not to tell the whole truth.

Where you stayin' now, Jason asked, running a hand over his buzzed head. You got anywhere else to go? He pinched a ball cap by its Velcro straps, spinning it around two fingers. No cowboy hat today? That was different. You aren't wandering the streets, are you?

We'll cross that bridge when we come to it, I replied. Right now, I'm a hundred percent focused on the band. This is Systex, not 'Crap Days Of My Life', starring Richard Demin as The Poor Sod. He seemed content for the moment. Kayla looked less reassured, doing that twitchy lip thing of hers and sitting as close as she could get to me without giving away she'd done so on purpose like it was the bloody obvious. I didn't have to look at her to know her eyes were fixed on me. Nobody seemed the wiser. Right, so about this new song, I said, changing the subject before anyone could ask anything else. I got the lyrics finished.

I didn't have to say another word before excited cries and demands I start sharing broke out. The reaction caught me off guard. I pulled the page from my pocket and began to read in my deep growling voice:

"Deaf Ears"

"This is something I would never expect Not from you, in spite of your faults Say one thing, do another Blind trust, I think not What do you take me for?

Turn your back on me; that's what you do Write me off like I'm nothing to you Ignore my cries Feed me only lies As arguments fall upon deaf ears

Nothing I can do Nothing left to say Loyalties divided Deaf ears hear no cries

'Reap what you sow' they say But if it's true, why are you still the top dog? And I'm the bottom man on the totem pole?

Turn your back on me; that's what you do Write me off like I'm nothing to you Ignore my cries Feed me only lies As arguments fall upon deaf ears

Nothing I can do Nothing left to say Loyalties divided Deaf ears hear no cries


Betrayed by blood Life brings us to a fork in the road One path I refuse to walk You turn a blind eye to the world around you It's My way or the highway Two can play the same game Unfounded judgment is what you preach Non-conformity - the ultimate sin in your eyes

Nothing I can do Nothing left to say Loyalties divided Deaf ears hear no cries"

Not bad. Not the greatest thing ever written; certainly not the worst. The others seemed to agree. The screamed bridge, CRIES,,, left something to be desired as I pondered whether to keep it in deep growl or turn it into a shriek instead. Adam thought growling all the way through was the best approach. Jason preferred the shriek idea. Kayla offered no opinion at all, no surprise there. It was agreed practice would decide for sure, plenty of opportunity to experiment. Of course the real test would be pairing it against the beats Jason and Adam had been working on all week. If it worked, and I was sure it would, we'd have two original songs to our name. If, on the other hand, it should suck, someone would be wiping egg off his face. It doesn't matter how good you make the music, if the lyrics don't fit, the entire point is lost. Who wants to mosh to a death/groove melody about unicorns and glitter? I rest my case.

Only one way to answer this question: Plug in and play. Equipment was set up, players took their positions and we were ready to go, when Mitchell interrupted Adam's count-in with a heavy accented Wait! Curious eyes watched as he undid the backpack which now sat behind the amp he'd brought with him. Ere Richard, why don't we try this on for size?

Try what, I started to ask. The sentence came to an abrupt halt as the group watched with fascination. The familiar speckled head of a microphone peeked out from the gaping backpack, smooth and polished, Audio-Technica emblazoned on its side. Mitchell pulled it free, dragging a coiled loop of cord behind. It looked like an asp peering from the safe confines of its basket, poised and ready to strike as he reached out and handed it to me. Kayla's reaction did well to compensate for the sudden case of speechlessness now overcoming me. Whoa!

Whoa indeed.

Mitch, dude, how... what... Listening to the babble dripping from my mouth made me feel like an idiot, taking the microphone in hand, wishing I'd remained speechless. Mitchell found my reaction humorous; waving it off like no big deal, saying just that. "No big deal, my a-s, I knew what the price tag was, after all I'd held the damned thing not two days ago." How did you get this?

Eh, not a lot to tell: Just a little negotiating and voila! She's ours. The whole thing seemed too fantastic. I also knew QuikPawn wouldn't budge on its price that easily. Whatever euphemism negotiating' stood for seemed to have paid off in Mitchell's - in the band's - favour. Besides, he added, no offense, but I'm a little tired of having to struggle hearing you over the f--king amps, bout time you joined in the fun, sticking his tongue out from behind his crooked teeth as if the whole thing was a joke, one he was having quite a good time with at that. The others shared awe-struck glances with the two of us, Adam pumping a stick-clenching fist in the air.

Part of me wanted to keep asking. This felt part of some fantastic dream, expecting to wake up any second and realize once again, the joke was on me. Rationality took a back seat for the time being. I could've hugged Mitchell right then and there, but considering he'd taken up instrument again, it wouldn't have worked so well. We opted to shake hands, the kind that leaves you with the feeling you've had your hand broken by the other guy's grip. I just don't know what to say, I can't thank you enough...

Pshaw. Rock them vocals, he said, cutting me off. That's thanks enough. A request I was too happy to oblige. I hooked it up to the spare amp, adjusting for acoustics, cleared my throat, gave the nod to Adam.

Hit it.

To say it was the best practice Systex ever had would be nothing short of an understatement. After months of feeling suffocated, drowned out by three amps blaring grooves, lines and beats, to rise out from beneath and find my voice, quite literally, was as much an enlightening experience as it was a key learning opportunity. The five of us played for the next two hours straight, stopping only for water or to re-tune or tweak volumes. It was apparent to me by the time we stopped playing. The lyrics to "Deaf Ears" were the missing puzzle piece to Jason and Adam's parts, fitting in perfectly. Only one problem persisted with it: Me. The growl versus shriek battle didn't seem close to being resolved yet, but I wasn't worried about that. Being so used to not having a mike had forced me to up the volume in vain attempt of being heard over the others. Now I had power, the trick was finding the proper volume. Growling at full volume with the mike practically pressing against my lips was just not going to work. A fine irony it would be to drown the music out after all this time. When your screams overpower the drums, there's a problem. Good thing Adam was cool as he was, lest I have been assaulted by a flying drumstick.

You do well, Mitchell said, possibly sensing frustration in me. Don't sweat it. It's just practice. We got time.

Yeah dude, Jason chimed in, pulling the cap from his rounded head, letting his bass hang from his shoulders. The point is you're plugged in now. And now we got two cool songs to work with. That was nice. Two cool songsgood ring to it. They were right, of course. It was more about fighting the self-critical perfectionist voice inside me. Well, one day at a time. I nodded, taking a swig of water, while a small hand patted my shoulder. I didn't have to turn around to know it was Kayla's. Our blonde and pink streaked shredder seemed all too content to graduate from sitting to standing right next to me. Conflicting emotions were plentiful.

Thinking back to our talk on Friday and her subsequent decision to kiss me created more confusion. If she was seriously crushing on me and not just being friendly, that would leave more questions than answers. If the prior was true, I failed to see exactly what she saw in a chubby, socially awkward headbanger admittedly capable of frightening, wrathful outbursts if angered; a guy who'd only one prior relationship which ended not in a clean break but rather a scattershot explosion leaving multiple casualties in its wake. Thoughts like these weren't always sufficient answers to the inward questions of why I lived and acted in such ways. Rather, they served as sullen acceptance that things were the way they were because... well, just because.

Another realization struck. Throughout this period of self-reflection, that little hand hadn't released from my shoulder. It may have only been a few seconds, but it was long enough. What was she up to? For that matter, what would the guys say, watching all this? I looked over at Kayla. Her hand was back around the neck of her guitar faster than I could blink, her face starting to flush, eyes deliberately aimed elsewhere. Should we play some more? she said in a small voice, bringing the guys' attention back from their tuning, water, or whatever was occupying them. To my relief, and probably hers as well, nobody seemed to notice or care. That's when I caught Adam watching me from behind his setup, a coy smirk crossing his face, looking eager to make a funny at my expense, but knowing full well what I would do if he opened his mouth. He kept quiet, continuing to watch me with a teasing glint in his eyes. I see you, they seemed to say. As if sensing the silent words, Kayla made a point of clearing her throat, patting her face, claiming she was feeling a bit hot.

Yeah, right.

We played for another hour or so, adding more finishing touches to Rage and throwing in a couple of covers just because we could. We'd planned just one, a simple one we all knew. As usual, it didn't go that way. During a lull moment, Kayla began throwing out random scales, merging into an impromptu rendition of Sepultura's "The Abyss", impressing everyone. I watched with silent admiration, the way she moved up and down through the song. Tossing her pick aside, performing the song beginning to end like an old pro with just her fingers. Hearing an electric take on the original acoustic interlude from the "Schizophrenia" album was an experience like hearing it through new ears for the very first time. Wonderful. Soon, I realized I was standing there applauding, out in the open. Jason followed my lead, a surprise to me and her. A short, silent acknowledgment passed between us, the corner of his mouth curling up in an approving smirk. Hey man, I get it. Of course not wanting to look like ingrates, Adam and Mitchell joined in the adulations. Kayla flushed a bright pink and smiled, keeping her eyes on the ground. "Ok, quit it already," she said. "It's a simple enough song, nothing special."

Inexperienced players were sure to disagree with that, but that's what practicing is for. Illusion shattering as it may be to many an aspiring shredder; one does not simply pick up a guitar and start playing a five-star difficulty song. I still remembered many of my own youthful frustrations struggling with that inconvenient truth.

Things continued to wind down, practice soon ended, officially. Jason was the first to go, packing up his stuff and bidding farewells with the same old two-fingered salute and see ya next time, in that slight drawl befitting the Arizonian cowboy nickname. No one else made a conscious effort to leave. Adam didn't care, saying we were welcome to stick around a while longer. He set his sticks down, drew a cold bottle from the newly replaced case of pale ale in the fridge, cracking the top off with a single twist. Anyone else? he asked, lifting his own bottle. I took one, using my teeth to loosen the cap, an act sure to make any dentist wince. Kayla held out a hand and asked for one. This made Adam pause for a minute as though suffering a crisis of conscience. It passed, and he handed over one of the brown glass bottles into her waiting hand. She opened it with her shirt and raised it in cheers. We complied, following up with the customary sip. Mitch? You want one? asked Adam. Mitchell passed, saying he'd probably grab one later at Fox's Paw, one of Brentwood's less reputable holes, fitting in with the row of slum lots and other questionable looking homes.

That didn't make any sense. How you get away with that? I asked. Are they super lax with ID's? Well, that wouldn't surprise me, knowing that part of the neighborhood.

Wouldn't matter even if they did check me, I'm twenty, he reminded me, very matter-of-factly. The only reason you see me at that damned school is I need to upgrade my coursework. Part of that whole student exchange deal. As if he needed to justify the reason to anyone. One of the weirder exchange deals I've ever heard of, I thought, but didn't say anything. It wasn't my business anyways. Fie on those lingering doubts. I watched a similar doubt pass over Adam's face, fleeting though it was. We caught each other's gaze, the silent agreement passing between us - odd.

How about that, then, I said, taking another sip. Any good locals play there?

Tons play. Whether you'd consider them good is another question. Mostly country, sh--ty classic' rock covers, only seen one metal group there.

Yeah, who's that? Kayla asked.

Uh, some all-chick group, they were pretty good, he replied, shutting his eyes, head tilting upwards, struggling to remember the name. Bridal something or other... Bride, ah... Crap, Bridal Fetus, perhaps? I dunno.

The mouthful of ale turned to vinegar and caught in my throat. It was a struggle not to choke and double over with laughter, spitting the beer back into the bottle. Not the classiest move. A lot better than spewing a sudsy shower across The Garage. Mitchell also probably would not have appreciated it. Do you mean Festering Brides? I asked, nipping the corner of my lip to stop the smirk.

Yeah, that's it! They held out pretty good in spite of the cat calls and the wolf whistling idiots. Didn't stick around to catch the whole set. Didn't get their stage personae though, it looked like a Frankenstein bachelorette party.

(Pear-so-knee?) They're an interesting one all right, I agreed, taking a fresh sip. Some beers can leave a real nasty copper aftertaste if all you get is a mouthful of foam. I thought corpse paint was daring enough when I saw them. You mostly see that sh-t out of Norway and other countries heavy into black metal, but then they go and add in that bright cherry lipstick. What next? I chuckled, out of amusement and silent admiration. It was daring, definitely a shattering of the Brentwood social norm. Not a bad thing.

I like it too, Kayla said, cradling her guitar across her crossed legs. It's different.

True that.

I've actually met them once or twice. Cool girls. Don't think you'd like them anymore out of costume though, Richard.

Why do you say that?

Yeah, why? asked Mitchell. Are they ugly?

Hey! That's not very nice, Adam interrupted.

What? I was only kidding. No offense. He looked at Kayla, who only shrugged and then proceeded to chug the remnants of her beer, earning more impressed glances.

I've heard worse. And no, they're rather hot, if you ask me. It's a... Personality thing, that's all.

Odd explanation, I thought, offering a simple I'll take your word for it.

We continued to drink and shoot sh-t for a little while. When Kayla's bottle was drained of its final mouthful, she looked evidently disappointed, packing up her guitar.

Adam noticed it as much as I had. Hey, ditch the frown, Kayla, he said. We'll be back tomorrow.

Huh? Oh I know... I just like hanging here with you - Did she just eyeball me again? - you guys, y'know? You're alright. Same time tomorrow?

We'll be here, I said, barring any cataclysmic aneurysm or nuclear war.

She giggled. Cool. Catch you later guys, walking off with a parting flash of the horns. Nope, it wasn't a daydream, she really was eyeballing me. Oh boy.

I'd better split too, Mitchell said, standing up, stretching, gathering up his serpentine cord, wrapping it into a tight bundle. He glanced over his shoulder at us. You guys wanna join me over at Fox's?

Tempting, but you forget I'm still a shackled minor for another month, I said.

So? You easily look twenty, or older. They'll never check you. It's not a show night.

Suppose they do, though? After all the bull of the last few months, one more problem's the last thing I want, you understand.

Hmm, true. Well hell, worst case scenario, we go to my place, drink and jam some more. It doesn't get any simpler than that. That was different, a step-up from just bandmates on the road to becoming friends. I approved.

So did Adam. That sounds cool. You guys go ahead of me. I just have to tidy up here and take care of a few things. I'll join you in a bit.

And so it was decided. I helped load Mitchell's gear into his matchbox on wheels, laughing at its ridiculous size, compared to our heights and waist widths. Sure I won't put my head through your roof?

Tell me about it. If I can fit, you should be able to. Gonna be tight, but luckily not very far. Hop in Rich-Ard. Good save, I thought with another smile, climbing into the passenger side, pulling the door closed, feeling an all-new sympathy for canned anchovies, a parallel that only deepened when Mitchell got in. We drove through town, passing many a storefront, most of them displaying obnoxious, over-capitalized, not to mention uninteresting signs. START SAVING FOR COLLEGE NOW! NO FEE SAVINGS ACCOUNTS AVAILABLE! Well, I agreed with the NO F part...

Hey man, thanks again, I said.


For getting me - us, the mike, that's really cool of you.

Ah, I told you, forget it. I had the cash to spare. He looked at me with that cheeky tongued face. You don't sound as meek anymore.

Bite me!

No thanks. I'm trying to reduce the fat in my diet. We both laughed, rolling past the QuikPawn. I looked out the window, the fit of chuckles running dry. A heavy lump formed in my stomach as I looked with increasing unease at the large, heavy sheet of heavy plywood covering up what used to be the main display window. I looked over at Mitchell, who looked ahead, unflinching.

The image would continue to haunt me all the way to the bar. What had he called it again, just a little negotiating?

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