At Least There’s Pretty Lights

25 Jun

It was the first cold night of fall – the one that made you realize that summer was officially gone. A group of us had gathered in the woods behind the cemetery right around dusk to guzzle the forties of malt liquor we had paid a trailer-park drunk to buy us. We passed around a plastic bottle of vodka that Bill Lando had stolen from his mother and smoked Newports purchased from a vending machine in the lobby of a Chinese restaurant. They helped to take away the sting from the vodka, which tasted like rubbing alcohol.

Chris Vincent had gotten some pot from his brother, but I passed on it. He couldn’t roll joints very well so they burned unevenly and little bits of pot always fell out into your mouth. Plus, it was brown and there were seven of us.

A half hour or so before kickoff we trudged our way out of the woods, the leaves crunching beneath our feet and our heads buzzing with the kind of raw intoxication that every alcoholic’s been trying to chase for years. Chris walked backwards in front of us, promising he would call his brother from a payphone and convince him to give us a ride. Bill claimed that if he saw Jared Dawson after the game he was going to fight him. He asked if we would back him up. I said yes, but I didn’t mean it.

Julianne was standing with a friend just behind the strip of yellow paint adorning the curb when we pulled up. As always, she’d looked slightly different than I had been picturing her – her eyes weren’t as blue as I’d remembered and it appeared that she’d caked on some make-up where a blemish had started to form on her forehead.

Chris’ brother drove an old Chevy Beretta, black except for where the paint had peeled back along the edges of the hood, exposing rusted steel. Its trunk housed an expensive stereo system that rattled the car when the bass notes hit. After the last of us had piled out, he shouted ‘Later, homos’, squealing the tires as he left the parking lot. A trail of smoke floated up from the black tracks left behind.

She was wearing a blue windbreaker and tattered designer jeans that flared out just above her sneakers. Her hands were tucked in her back pockets and she blew a couple strands of her bangs upward before noticing me and smiling. I smiled back and followed my friends towards the stadium.

We usually only watched a quarter or so of the game, sometimes a little more if any of our friends got playing time. Most of the games were spent underneath the bleachers, along the rows of concession stands and bathrooms, where everyone gathered to talk about how much they had drank and where they planned to drink afterwards. The general consensus this weekend was that Marty McCann’s parents were out of town, or so that’s what they had all heard. Everyone laughed and complained about whatever they could find to fill conversation – how cold it was, friends that ditched them, the perceived stereotypes of the school we were playing, etc.

We made our way through the various cliques for a while, saying hello and shaking hands like politicians, and ended up on the side of the brick wall behind one of the concession stands to smoke cigarettes. Nobody ever went back there except for Mrs. Larkin, the principal’s secretary, who was always smoking herself, and before she left always did the thing where she zipped her lips shut with her fingers and tossed an imaginary key into air.

Julianne didn’t smoke, but had filtered in with a friend or two who did. She bounced her legs up and down and rubbed her arms and made shivering noises. I tried to make casual transitions from acquaintance to acquaintance, using them as swinging vines to have a reason to be near her. I managed to make my way over to Mark Morris, who stood just to her left, and struck up a conversation about gym class, my stare catching hers every thirty seconds or so. We switched off a couple of times, her staring and me looking away, and vice versa.



‘So I hear Marty McCann’s having people over,’ I say, shoving my hands in my pockets. I can hear Bill behind me, the alcohol already warping his words, asking if anyone had seen Jared Dawson.

‘Yeah, I think Lisa and I are going.’

‘Cool, well maybe I’ll see you there.’

Eventually we all shuffled back into the stands and made our way up the bleachers, making a slow procession as we stopped every now and again to say hello to various classmates. We ran into Marty McCann, who reluctantly admitted his parents were out of town.

‘You guys can come…but just you guys,’ he warned. ‘I don’t want to the whole school showing up.’ I was sure he had remarked this at least a dozen or so more times, and was going to be in over his head in a few hours.

In the third quarter, our friend Keith returned an interception for a touchdown, and we stomped on the metal planks and high fived. Bill screamed and thumped his chest like he’d done it himself. Despite the score still being close, we left before the end of the game to fetch the beer Chris had stolen from his neighbor’s garage earlier that afternoon. Marty McCann lived about a fifteen minute walk from the stadium, in a subdivision called Seabury Pines. His father was on the school board and his house always smelled like it was new. Bill led the way, the cubed backpack slung over his shoulder, strutting like a prize fighter, and ranting like rappers do about how great he was, and how fucked up he was, and how badly he was going to fuck up Jared Dawson.

I ran into Julianne while standing in the hallway waiting to use the bathroom and studying the family portrait on the wall. In it, Marty McCann’s hair was slicked with a neat part, the hands of his balding and pudgy father resting firmly on his shoulders. His was wearing a thick, fuzzy sweater and his smile was rather apathetic.

‘So did we win or lose?’

‘You didn’t stay for the whole game?’

‘No, we dipped out to grab some beers we had stashed in the woods.’

‘You guys have beers?’

“Sure, you want one?’


I waited around while she was in the bathroom, telling the small group that formed behind me that I wasn’t in line, and once she emerged we migrated into the kitchen. A group of football players, their hair still slick from the shower, sat around a table playing drinking games with a deck of cards. Chris was flirting with Lisa Savola in front of the fridge, his arm rested on a Polaroid of Mr. McCann hoisting up a large fish. I squeezed between the two of them to grab the beers, making sure to talk him up as I passed. Lisa gave Julianne an eyebrow raise.

We found a seat on a couch in the living room – the same couch featured in the McCann family portrait – and drank our beers slowly, half-shouting to each other over the throngs of other conversations bouncing around the room.

‘So you’re friends with Bill Lando and them?’

‘Uh, yeah.’

‘That’s cool. I hang out with Lisa and Janessa and all of those girls. It’s…I don’t know, they’re cool.’

‘Yeah, I know what you mean.’

Two of her friends came over, demanding we check out the basement, where a large group had gathered to dance, an activity I’m certain that Mr. McCann didn’t envision when he’d built his rec room complete with entertainment system and bar. Lined along the walls were framed scorecards and pictures of his friends on the golf course. A metal sign hung above the bar reading ‘A bad day on the course beats a good day at the office’. The room still smelled of fresh carpet.

We danced to a Prince song. I hung my hands limply around her waist, and she tossed hers around my neck. Her skin was sticky with sweat and her perfume smelled like something purple. I fumbled my hands around her body, not quite being able to figure out which areas were off-limits. I could feel an erection swelling.

We continued on like this for a few minutes until it got to the part of the song where Prince starts moaning like he’s having an orgasm, at which point we swayed our arms and legs a bit, just to show that we were in it to the end. Bill, wearing one of Mr. McCann’s novelty golf hats with a big foam ball and tee on the brim, turned off the song, telling everyone that Prince was gay.

The crowd moaned and dispersed a bit, and Julianne and I made our way upstairs to get another beer. I stuck out my hand behind me and she latched onto it. I looked back for a quick second to notice a band aid on knuckle of her index finger. We ran into Chris at the top of the steps, who told us that Jared Dawson had arrived and dashed downstairs to find Bill.

‘Get that fuck out of here’, Bill yelled with a shit-eating grin, slapping Chris’ outstretched palm. We had all piled out into the front lawn to witness the aftermath.

Jared Dawson looked like he might’ve cried if half of his algebra class hadn’t been standing around him. Blood had already begun to pool and blacken inside the pockets of flesh underneath his eye. The skin of his right temple had been scraped raw by the tile floor, a few stray strands of his hair matted to it. He looked like he might say something, gathering his thoughts as he panted, but he just spat some blood into the grass and walked off, having to push off my shoulder to get through the circle.

Bill had wasted no time. There was none of the posturing that normally took place during our high school’s fights. They didn’t spend time circling each other, asking what the other’s problem was or disputing statements made. Bill just bounded up the stairs, tore right past Julianne and I, and knocked him back through the kitchen and up against the fridge. A few magnets and post it notes went flying into the air. Marty McCann rushed in, pleading hysterically and tried to fight his way through the yelling crowd that swallowed them to break things up. I tried to jump up and down and get a glimpse, but all I could hear was Bill’s fist smacking into flesh.

I don’t really even remember why Bill had wanted to fight Jared Dawson. There probably wasn’t any real reason. There never really needed to be with Bill. He may have cited something about an errant comment heard in the hallway, but in all likelihood it was just Friday night and Bill had settled on Jared Dawson.

Jared was good looking and had a driver’s license and a spot on the baseball team; Bill lived in a trailer with an alcoholic mother, paid for his lunch with one of those little green punch cards and rode his bike around town. And he didn’t like that, so in frustration he cleaned his clock. That’s probably as good a guess as any.

‘Goddamnit! Fuck! I am so fucked! You guys have to leave now! Everybody! Out!’ An indignant Marty McCann had been pacing back and forth in the kitchen when the police arrived. He had been holding the jagged remains of his mother’s sugar bowl and ranting on like this for several minutes until his eyes caught the red and blues flashing through the window. His shoulders drooped and his eyes filled with a vacant, weary anguish.

Bill and Chris were the first out the back door, followed by me and Julianne, whom I dragged the first few steps by the arm. A few scattered others trailed behind, pushing at our backs and tripping over our heels as we dashed off into the woods in all different directions, trying to call out to each other in a half-yell, half-whisper for instructions on where to meet.

The four of us ended up crouched behind a pair of large trees, unable to see anything aside from the occasional sweeping flashlight near the clearing. I breathed as slowly as possible, wondering if she could hear the pounding inside my chest as well as I could.

No one spoke for what seemed like an eternity, until Bill – the veteran in these types of situations – rose and announced that it was probably clear to exit the woods, promising knowledge of a back trail that led towards the interstate. A few others emerged from behind various trees and as a group we began high stepping through the trail over branches, our arms extended for balance, Bill Lando leading the way.

We ended up at the Motel 6 near the interstate. Chris had called his brother on a payphone and gotten him to rent us a couple of rooms with the money we all threw together. Bill had managed to get the tattooed clerk with the black and jagged teeth at the gas station to sell him a couple cases of beer.

It hadn’t taken more than three or four calls for the cavalcade of Honda Civics to come rolling in. Two more rooms across the parking lot were rented, and we picked up where we had left off, oblivious to the agony Marty McCann was probably going through at that moment.

‘I’m really sorry about tonight’ I said to Julianne as we sat next to each other on the itchy maroon and green bedspread, oblivious to the Letterman monologue coming from the television bolted to the wall. ‘Bill’s kind of crazy sometimes.’

‘It’s really not a big deal.’

‘Sometimes I wonder why I hang out with those guys.’ Chris mimicked porno music as Bill pretended to hump the other bed, grunting like a gorilla, everyone around them laughing.

‘I know what you mean.’ She squeezed my hand and smiled at me. ‘My friends are idiots, too.’

‘And yet here we are.’

‘I don’t think it ever stops,’ she said, sipping her beer. ‘You just go from hotel parties to frat parties to dinner parties to retirement parties, and you just have to shrug off the fact that they’re all idiots…we’re all idiots.’

‘I don’t think you’re an idiot.’

‘Thank you,’ she said with a laugh, glancing down at her lap. ‘I don’t think I am, either. But, I mean, I’m still going to mall with Lisa tomorrow, right? I’m going to stand around and nod while she talks shit about everyone and acts like she’s got herself together.’

We didn’t say anything for a while. Letterman threw his pencil at the camera while Paul Shaffer laughed and ran his hand down the piano. I thought about Jared Dawson, and Marty McCann, and all we give up to make it seem like we’re not vulnerable. Bill recounted the fight for the third time for those who just arrived, his bravado rivaling a pro wrestler with a microphone in his face.

‘You remember that poem from Mrs. Stanton’s class?’ she asked. ‘Laugh, and the world laughs with you, weep, and you weep alone?’ I think that goes both ways. Like, it’s not cool to be sad, but you can’t be too happy, either. If you’re like, bursting with joy until you can’t contain yourself, people think that’s weird, too.’ She picks at her fingernails. ‘Sometimes I don’t think I really tell my friends anything. By the time I filter it down…it’s a half-truth at best.’

‘I know exactly what you mean.’

‘Enough Breakfast Club over here,’ Bill said, my face flushing with warmth upon realizing he’d been listening. ‘Hit this.’ He thrust a plastic half-pint of bottom shelf whiskey towards us. His eyes were glassy and the cuts on his knuckles were still glistening.

‘Hit it, girl!’ her friend Lisa chirped from across the room, and everyone ooh’ed like a Three’s Company audience. We both took sips from the bottle, and I had to swallow down a little bit of bile.

‘Danny’s a good guy,’ Bill said as Julianne hands him back the bottle, slapping my back. ‘Fuckin’ smart.’ He stumbled off to the bathroom and we smiled at each other.

‘Do you want to get out of here?’

‘Very much so.’

I walked her home, which was about a half a mile down Route 84. We didn’t talk about much – The Barenaked Ladies, our biology teacher’s propensity for scratching at his chest hair, how cold out it was – but I still felt like we were learning things about each other. She kissed me under a streetlight and told me to call her some time. I stood outside until she shut off the bedroom light. On the way back, I tried to reach Chris or Bill from the payphone by the Dairy Mart, but no one picked up. I walked home amidst a disjointed symphony of crickets, the occasional whoosh of a car passing chiming in like a cymbal crash, wondering about the person that she hid from the world.


The Boy is a Boy

23 Jun

Ernest Hemingway sucks. People talk about how great he is, but I bet they’re just saying it ’cause that’s what they were taught. We had to read The Sun Also Rises in Mr. Hartley’s English class, and it’s boring as hell – the guy is depressed and he just drinks and never says anything about it. If I wanted that, I’d go talk to my asshole dad. The guy in the book is miserable because he’s in love with some slut but he can’t get it up after getting shot in Vietnam. I mean, that could be an interesting story, right? But the guy never says anything. What’s the point of writing a book about being sad if you never talk about being sad? I don’t get it.

My band, Anal Skull Fuckers, Inc., we say what we feel. We have a song called ‘Fuck George Bush’ and we come right out with it – we say that he sucks and he makes us mad. If Hemingway wrote a book called ‘Fuck George Bush’ it would probably be all about how the beer was cold or the sun was hot or how he had a headache. All of our songs are under two minutes, so we get straight to the point. And people really like us. Last summer we played a show in Pittsburgh and like a hundred kids showed up. The owner thought we were so good that he invited us back to play this summer, and we also booked a show in Buffalo and another in Cincinnati, so we lined them all up together and called it the Three Holes Tour (get it?).

Anyway, at the end of the year we had to write a paper on Hemingway, and so I told Mr. Hartley what’s what. I said that the book was stupid, and that Hemingway was a pussy who was too afraid to say anything, even when he blew his brains out. We had to cite other works, so I said that the book was as lame as his other one, The Old Man in the Sea, which we had to read the year before in Mrs. Donnelly’s class. I also said that Henry Rollins was much better than Ernest Hemingway, and we should read him instead, because he knew the world was shit, too, but he had the balls to say it.

I got an F, which meant that I failed the class and had to go to summer school, which meant I couldn’t go on the Three Holes Tour. If it were up to me I would’ve just quit school and gone on the tour, because the band was what I’m going to do for a living, anyway, but my mom said I had to stay in school until I was at least 18, which didn’t happen until August. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the band replaced me. They said it wasn’t fair to cancel the tour just because I was stuck in summer school, so they got this kid from the skate park, Stinkfinger Steve, to replace me. Me! The one who booked the shows in the first place! The one who wrote ‘Fuck George Bush’!

So I had to wake up early every morning and sit in a hot classroom that smelled like disinfectant while everyone else got drunk at the skate park and my band went on tour without me. All the English teachers must have had enough sense to go on vacation, because the class was taught by one of the gym teachers, Mr. Jensen. He favored the jocks, and was always showing off his college championship ring, even though he was only a punter. He called me ‘Johnny Rotten’ all the  time, but it wasn’t in a complimentary way.

‘How do you get through metal detectors at the airport, Rotten?’ he’d ask with a smirk and all of the jocks would laugh.

One night I got a call from Tom, and he said that someone from Morbid Records was at the Buffalo show, and offered to print a seven inch for us. But not for us. For them and Stinkfinger Steve.  He said that they’d been writing some songs while they were on the road, and were thinking of changing the band’s name to Satan’s Foreskin. I could hear a bunch of people in the background yelling and laughing. They sounded drunk. I just hung up the phone. If Ernest Hemingway’s band ditched him, he’d probably just sit in a cafe and talk about wine.

I went to the skate park. Roland was there, drinking tall cans of Steel Reserve under the ring of the spotlight. He was skinny and weird looking and only had seven fingers, ’cause his mom drank a bunch when she was pregnant. He had lots of squiggly homemade Nazi tattoos and could always score beer or pot or coke. I told him about the band, and about summer school, and he took me back to his mom’s place, which was above the bar that she worked at. It smelled like cat poop and garbage and everything was covered in cigarette ash. He gave me a tall can and pinched some coke from his mom’s room and said it would make me feel better.

It did, for awhile, but then I started to get panicky and my insides pulsed like a Joy Division bass line. I couldn’t stop smoking cigarettes, even though they were making me nauseous, and Roland wouldn’t stop talking about how much he hated Jews and blacks. The rabbit ears on his TV were wrapped in foil, and the horror movie we were watching came in fuzzy. I drank one more beer and went home.

The front door was locked, and my mom was out at the bar, so I had to crawl in through the kitchen window. I took my songwriting notebook and ripped it to shreds and threw away all of the tapes we’d recorded and hurled my bass out the window. Then I stole my mom’s wine and took all of the pills in the bathroom. Probably about seventy or eighty of them.

I woke up in the hospital. They made me drink black sludge and I threw up for a few hours, and once I was feeling better they moved me to another wing on a different floor, where the crazy people are. I’ve been here two weeks now. Doctors ask me questions all day, but I really don’t want to talk about the band, because if I talk about it, I think about it, and nothing hurts more than having to think about it here, where bug eyed crazies shuffle around and drool all over their green gowns. So I just shrug and say that the world is shit.

Fuck Ernest Hemingway.

Dancing In The Dark

21 Jun

Seventh grade has been a complete mess. Everyone goes through rough patches, I suppose. Even cool people. Look at Bob Dylan. He’s pretty much the coolest, and even he had that period where he painted his face like a mime. I’ll bet people made fun of him, too, otherwise he probably would’ve just kept on with it forever. I never knew my clothes or hair were stupid until people made fun of me for it. At some point, someone must’ve said to him ‘Hey, Bob, you look like a faggot.’ That’s what Rick Huntington said to me when I wore my dad’s leather jacket.

I was trying to look like Bruce Springsteen on the ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ album cover. He looks tough, and he’s sneering and he seemed like someone Jenny Parker might like. But it turns out she likes guys who wear Abercrombie clothes, like Rick, and he called me a faggot, and I didn’t really feel like Bruce Springsteen on the album cover, so I tossed the jacket back in the storage room and got a job to save up for some Abercrombie clothes.

I wash dishes on the weekends at Mazarra’s near the mall. Mr. Mazarra is a friend of my grandfather’s, and he pays me twenty dollars in cash at the end of every shift. The dish tank is like a hundred degrees, and it makes your skin wrinkled and spongy. There’s usually four of us back there – me, Ramon and Luis, who don’t speak much English, and Monte, who has Down syndrome and only works until seven. There’s another guy, Wayne, but we’re not allowed to work together because he went to prison for touching kids.

It can get kind of boring because there’s no one to talk to. Sometimes Ramon and Luis will teach me dirty words in Spanish, but most of the time I just sing songs in my head. There’s that one R.E.M. song, ‘Stand’ – I like to sing that but change the words to be about what I’m doing, so in my head I’ll go ‘Stand in the place where you work, now clean forks’, and stuff like that. It helps pass the time.

When I’m not in school or at work, I like to sit in the basement and listen to my dad’s records. There are loads of them in the storage room, packed away in wooden crates, all dog-eared and faded. At first I used to play them based on what the covers looked like – I listened to Pink Floyd for the first time because they had the man shaking hands with the other man who was on fire, and the Rolling Stones because they had the real zipper on the cover and Billy Joel because he always looks sad and lonely on all of his album covers, and I feel that way a lot.

I don’t ever remember meeting my dad. Mom says I did, but he left when I was little to live with some other lady in California. I’ve never been to California, but everyone’s always singing about it, so there’s got to be something to it. One day I want to go out there and find him and talk about records. Maybe he could help me sort some of this stuff out. Mom’s great and all, but she’s not really much help. She just sits on the couch after work watching T.V. and sometimes she cries, and if I tell her about any of my problems she tells me how great I am, which I don’t really believe, because no one else seems to think so.

I’m kind of like Simon. He sings a song about how he’s alone and he doesn’t need any friends, and he seems like he’s doing OK, so maybe it will work out. He has his poetry and books, and I’m kind of like that with my dad’s records. He’s also kind of short and puny looking and has a dumb haircut, so we have a lot in common. Except that Simon probably doesn’t get a million boners and zits and I bet his voice doesn’t crack all of the time. And he says he doesn’t have friends, but then what’s Garfunkel? If he ever got too lonely he could always just call up and say ‘Hey, it’s Simon, want to write a song?’ I don’t have anyone like Garfunkel.

Tonight is our school’s Spring Dance. I didn’t want to go, because I went to the winter one and the music was crap and I just stood by the punch bowl the whole time. No one wanted to dance with me, and after a while I just waited outside the gym until my mom came to pick me up. But she says she always had fun at school dances and made friends and that I should go. Plus, I got an Abercrombie shirt last week. It was $60, which adds up to three shifts in the dish tank. Mom said that was ridiculous, and that no one should pay that much for a shirt, but when I told her that the dance was coming up and everybody wore them, she paid for half of it. She told me to save the rest and maybe use some to buy a girl ice cream after the dance. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that girls don’t like me, so I just said that I might. She’s always sad, and it would probably make her sadder to find out that I’m not as handsome as she thinks I am.

After I get out of the shower, I put on my Abercrombie shirt and try to style my hair all sorts of different ways. I make it like Sting’s, all pointy and messy, but I figure that Rick Huntington would make fun of that, so I try Rod Stewart hair, but that ends up looking just like Sting, and so I try to comb it down like the Beatles, but it’s not long enough, and even if it was Rick would probably make fun of that, too. He’s been on my case all year, ever since I wore the leather jacket. Whenever we pass in the hallways he does this thing where he jerks forward like he’s going to lunge at me, but he doesn’t, and when I flinch he laughs and knocks my books on the floor. Sometimes I really wish I was a tough fighter like Elton John or Mick Jagger, so I could just pop him square in the nose and tell him to leave me alone.

I end up doing my hair like I always do, and my mom says that I look really handsome. On the way there she asks me if there’s any girls I was thinking of dancing with, and I say maybe Jenny Parker, because the idea of me dancing with a girl seems to make her happy. She says that if Jenny and I wanted to get ice cream after the dance she could take us and even wait out in the car until we were done. I know she’s just trying to be a good mom, but it makes me want to cry because the idea seems so nice, and it will never happen in a million years.

Little circles of light bounce around the dark gym, and there are a few green and white streamers taped up in the doorway. A few girls are out in front of the DJ booth that’s set up under the basketball hoop, but they’re just kind of swaying, not really dancing. Everyone else is leaning against the walls or standing near the refreshments table.

I don’t really know what to do or who to talk to, so I duck into the bathroom for a minute, even though I don’t need to go. After that, I sort of take a lap and wind up at the DJ booth. The guy has big hoop earrings and when I ask him to play Fleetwood Mac he laughs a little. He says junior high kids don’t want to dance to Fleetwood Mac, but I tell him that I’m a junior high kid, and I dance to them all the time. He laughs again and says he’ll see what he can do. I head over to get some punch, where I run into Jenny. She has on a blueberry dress and heels with straps and her hair is swooped up. She looks really pretty.

‘How are you?’ she asks with the same chirpy sing-song voice she uses when she cheers at the football games.

‘I’m fine. You?’

‘Glad not to be in science class,’ she says, emphasizing the word ‘science’ as if it were our little secret.

‘Yeah,’ I say, and then it gets quiet for a minute.

‘I really love Third Eye Blind,’ she says, pointing towards the ceiling.

‘They’re great,’ I say, though I don’t know who Third Eye Blind is. It gets quiet again, and I start to think about the idea of dancing and ice cream and how happy my mom would be. ‘Hey, um, I asked the DJ to play a song, and he said that he would if I got people to dance to it, so maybe you could help me get some people?’

‘Sure. What song?’

‘Yeah, what song?’ Rick says as he bumps his shoulder into mine from behind.

‘Rick,’ she says with gritted teeth, stamping her foot and narrowing her eyes.

‘What? I’m just playin’, he says with a smirk, putting his arm around her shoulder. I start to walk away but Jenny follows me and grabs my wrist.

‘We’ll dance to your song, OK? Just tell me when it comes on and we’ll get people out there.’

It takes about four or five more songs, but when I hear the first few piano bars, I signal to her, and she grabs two of her friends’ hands and a bunch of others follow. At first when the song kicks up, everyone is jumping around and hollering, but when it starts to settle in people just kind of sway a little and don’t seem so excited anymore.

‘What the fuck is this?’ Rick asks with a crinkled face.

‘Fleetwood Mac.’


‘Fleetwood Mac,” I say again, this time looking at the floor, a film of heat covering my face.

‘More like Fagwood Mac,’ he says with a laugh. ‘You can’t dance to this shit.’

He walks off and most everyone follows him. Jenny stands around for a second, and it looks like she might say something, but her friend pulls her away. After a minute or so the DJ changes to a different song and looks at me with a shrug. I get another cup of punch, and Mr. Michaels, my English teacher, says that he likes Fleetwood Mac, so we talk for a minute. He tells me I should listen to them before they had Stevie Nicks. I tell him I will, though I don’t know which one Stevie Nicks is. I hope he’s not the singer, as I like him, and the girl, Lindsey. They sound nice together.

The next song is a slow dance one – Janet Jackson, I think – and when it starts the bouncing lights settle into a steady carousel around the room. Everyone partners up except for a few of us, but I’m the only one who doesn’t have friends around they can pretend to talk to. Jenny dances with Rick, and puts her head on his shoulder while I stand against the wall, wishing that I hadn’t spent so much on a stupid shirt.

I wait until the dance is over before leaving, wanting my mom to think that I had a good time. As I’m walking past the line of idling cars Jenny calls out to me from behind, wobbling in her heels as she tries to catch up to me.

‘I’m really sorry,’ she says with a frown. ‘Rick is a jerk, and that was mean. I should’ve danced with you.’

‘It’s OK.’

‘I like that song,’ she says, swiping a strand of hair behind her ear. ‘They played it when the president got elected. He played saxophone.’

‘Yeah, he did.’

‘Seriously, though, I’m really sorry. I promise to make it up to you some time.’

‘Well, um, if you want, we could go get ice cream? My mom can take us. She’ll wait in the car. I can pay for it.’

‘Oh,’ she says, her eyes falling to the sidewalk. ‘I, um, we’re actually going to hang out in Rick’s friend’s basement. He lives down the street.’

‘Oh, yeah, no, that’s OK.’

‘Maybe another time?’ she asks, returning to her cheerleader voice but still frowning.

‘Yeah, sure. I’d like that.’ She kisses me on the cheek and my guts stretch and twist like boiling silly putty. She smells like green soap and perfume. I feel a little like Bruce Springsteen.



‘Was that Jenny Parker?’ my mom asks when I get into the car. I can’t remember the last time I saw her smile so wide, her cheeks bunching against her eyelids.


‘Does she want to go for ice cream?’

‘She can’t. Her mom says she has to go home. But we might go, another time.’ She puts a hand on my knee, shaking it a little. ‘Can we please just go home?’

I’m not dumb enough to think that the kiss meant anything. I know she’s into guys like Rick who play football, and she just felt bad for me. But it made me feel nice, and maybe she could end up like a Garfunkel, and that would be a good start.

When we get back my mom turns on the T.V., curling up on the couch, and I head down to the basement and listen to songs about California.

Slash Prepares To Run To 7-Eleven For Cigarettes At 4 A.M.

15 Apr

Where is it? I could’ve sworn I took it off in the living room. Goddamn it, you don’t need the top hat. The top hat doesn’t define you. You can go places without it. God forbid you lose it one day. Who do you need to impress, anyway? The 7-Eleven guy? The 30-year-old chubby guy with a brow ring who always has to say “Welcome to the jungle!” every time you walk in, as if it were funny the first time. I fucking hate that guy. Did I leave it in the car maybe?

I really need to quit smoking. I should at least cut back. No smoking after 11 p.m., while playing guitar, or during photo shoots. Starting now. After this next pack. It shouldn’t be all that hard. I can do that. Where the hell are my sunglasses?

It’s getting cold, I really should wear a shirt. Every year you say, “Oh, a leather jacket is enough,” and every year you end up sick for a week. He’s going to ask about a reunion again. No, I haven’t talked to Axl since you asked last Wednesday; I have no idea what Duff is up to; yes, “Mr. Brownstone” is about heroin. Now just ring up my cigarettes and let me get the hell out of here. I should just drive to Circle K so I don’t have to deal with that guy.

I should just buy cartons. It would be so much easier. And cheaper. I just can’t bring myself to do it. It’s like admitting that I can’t quit. Pack to pack, at least you can promise yourself … Who the hell am I kidding? I’ll never quit.

I wonder if Axl still has the number to that hypnotist that helped him. Maybe I should give him a call. It’s been long enough. Time heals all wounds, right? Just be an adult about it. Call him up, say, “Hey, I’m sorry I walked out of your wedding, I just didn’t really approve at the time, I should’ve kept it to myself, but I was young and all I could think to do was to rip a solo in a sandstorm.” He’d understand. They’re divorced now, anyway. But what if he’s with that guy with the bucket on his head? I’d look like a total loser calling him then.

It’s got to be around here somewhere. You would think I’d have picked up more than one top hat by now. Let’s see—I walked in, took off the scarf, checked my messages, went to the kitchen, poured some Jack. I can distinctly remember wearing it then. Or was I? Did I leave it at Cindy’s?

Get it together, Slash. Think. Maybe I left it in the—oh, man, the bathroom! I’m such an idiot. I spend 20 minutes walking all over the house and I don’t even look in the bathroom once! From now on, it goes on the hook first thing, as soon as I walk in the door. All right, top hat, nose ring, sunglasses … now, where are my keys?

I Capture Beauty In A Conversation

27 Jan

Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke once said that Mark Mulcahy’s voice is what inspired him to make music. Read any review of Mark’s work, and you’ll inevitably run into that statement within the first paragraph, sometimes even the first sentence. You may also be told right off the bat that author Nick Hornby has featured Mark’s music in his Songbook collection, or that he’s opened for the likes of Seal, Oasis, Elliott Smith, etc. It’s as if the critics feel they need to sell you on Mulcahy like a friend trying to sell you on a date they know you won’t want to go on. Because they know you don’t know who Mulcahy is, and if they don’t pound it into your head that he’s someone to pay attention to, no one else is going to steer you towards him.

I first became entranced with Mulcahy at the age of nine, by way of his band’s musical contributions to an early-nineties children’s television series called The Adventures of Pete & Pete. I don’t know what it was about the thirty seconds I saw and heard of him every week, rollicking around on the front lawn of the protagonist’s home with his frizzy unkempt hair, glamourless sweatshirt and jeans. But his frayed, emotional voice, the way he hopped onto the top of a bass drum and back off, singing carelessly into the mic, as if he and his buddies were just having a round of practice, somehow set off a spark.

The most daunting task one faces when writing about Mulcahy is figuring out how exactly to describe how truly beautiful an instrument his voice is. It’s entirely chameleon-like, a swirl of passion, longing, immediacy, mournful resolve, playfulness, instability, etc. He can go from a hardened growl to a frightened whisper in a matter of chords, and when he does it in front of you it’s arresting.

I spent entirely too much of my youth hunting him in various record stores around the country. Nearly every one in Northeastern Ohio has probably at one time or another put in an order for his works, and each and every one has come up empty. In the early days I foolishly hit the giant corporate chains, and it wasn’t until the second or third small time store employed by long haired clerks with tight fitting Ziggy Stardust shirts that I learned what “out of print” meant.

My fervent search occurred in the infancy of online purchasing and .mp3 files, so there were a few years of listening desperately to the occasional twenty second clip I managed to come across on some graduate student’s personal website. I was lucky enough to find an obscure 80’s compilation with a track from Miracle Legion, the New Haven outfit Mulcahy fronted for over a decade, a song I listened to so many times that I found myself playing it note-for-note in my head when I needed to kill the last few minutes of a boring study hall. This held me over until a small used record store an hour and a half away managed to snag a copy of a Miracle Legion album, a drive made with a begrudging grandfather ranting about ‘giving my money away to idiots’ (in his eyes, if you have long hair and/or are a musician, you are an ‘idiot’).

A misspent youth resulted in, among other things, my inability to obtain a driver’s license until the age of eighteen. The first chance I ever had to see Mulcahy was at a show in Northampton, MA. The drive would require a good twelve and a half hours, and fell on the weekend of our senior prom, for which I had inexplicably landed a date with a girl with frosted blue eyes who is still bitter and unforgiving about the whole thing to this day.

The trip was made alone — Mulcahy’s conversationally-toned lyrics are steeped in the confessional. He’s not telling you a story, not singing to you about an ex-lover, but rather he’s speaking directly to that lover, to himself, to the wall, but not to you; this is not something you were supposed to hear – a deluge of confused thoughts, naked desires and personal emotions, the innermost deliberation, barren of reserve, none of which has any place in the world of high school popularity. The lesson was learned quickly that Mulcahy was something to be kept to myself and no one else; after a friend’s demand to hear who I was forgoing practically guaranteed sex with Jill Huntington for, I was quickly dismissed as a ‘faggot’ amongst my contemporaries.

Northampton, nuzzled between the foothills of the Berkshires and the banks of the Connecticut River, home to Smith College, is a small village town made up predominantly of Colonial-era buildings housing art shops, record stores, music clubs and trendy restaurants. The downtown streets are red-bricked and narrow, and its drivers seem to have no sense of urgency, bowing calmly to passing pedestrians.

Dusk had settled in, and the town was buzzing with conversations, the cafes and streets filled with shaggy moptops and sportcoats over tight faded t-shirts, cherry hair, thick horn rimmed glasses and floral vintage dresses, a gay couple walking a ferret. I was strolling through town to kill time when I first saw him in the window of a small Mediterranean restaurant on Main Street. There was no double take or moment taken to register recognition. The second my eyes meet the illuminated window, I knew it was him, slurping noodles as he nodded to the pale girl with short, jet black hair across the table from him. The artist in his element.

He looked much more bloated compared to the pictures I’d seen of him. His square jaw had rounded out slightly, and one could see where jowls could eventually start to set in, right under his bushy sideburns that were about a week’s growth away from being described as mutton chops. His shoulder-length brown had hair had lost its edge, hanging limply from a line that had crept up his forehead considerably, unkempt but not in the vibrant way it used to. His nose was bulbous and bent, one you’d imagine on the face of an Irish dockworker.

His milky blue eyes seemed out of place amongst such working-class features. They burned with a sort of oblique longing; one look at them and you knew he was an artist. He wore an ill-fitting navy blue and green suit over a pointy collared shirt, unbuttoned enough to show a long silver chain amidst a tangle of thick chest hair. It’s a face you will never see on the cover of Rolling Stone.

The front room of the Baystate Hotel is nothing more than a garden-variety dive, lacking the flair the rest of the town possessed, a flair I had built myself up for, come to expect. In the daydreams I had while driving through the winding mountains of Massachusetts, the place was ornate, almost regal. The doorman accepted the scrambled proof of age on my license without incident as I tried to hide my disappointment of what was before me. My overzealous anticipation and a lack of anywhere else to explore had made me one of the first patrons of the evening, save a few that appeared to be regulars. The lights were kept depressingly low, the room illuminated by the glow from the outdated trivia machine at the end of the bar. The bartender silently crunched numbers on a calculator near an old brass register, noting my arrival with a quick stare. I pursed my lips and nodded.

He limply groaned that he’d be with me in a second, and before I had the time to become impatient, Mulcahy stalked up and seated himself next to me, taking a folded setlist-in-progress from the pocket of his coat and scribbling notes. My nerves fizzling, I ordered a Corona with a lime, for some reason thinking it was cool. Mark went for a pint of Guiness and I quickly began to second guess my selection.

I wanted to tell him everything, how late at night, alone in my bedroom, he’d always been there for me through all of the introspection, confusion, self-doubt and what I’d perceived to be lost love. I wanted to tell him about how my friend didn’t get him, and I did. I wanted to ask about love and women and indecipherable lyrics and vague liner notes, for an autograph or a photo. We talked instead about the Pistons.

‘They look like the real thing this year.’ He took a pull from his drink, his eyes fixed on the small television screen hanging in the corner. “Good defense.”

‘You got a horse in this game?’

‘Nah. You?’

‘Cavs fan.’

‘Cleveland?’ Whenever people say Cleveland, they either say it with patronizing reverence (‘Cleveland rocks!’) or chuckle with a laugh and a joke about river fires. ‘You from there?’

‘Yeah.’ My voice was quivering. I drove twelve and a half hours to see this man. Somehow, this man has become a kindred soul to me, a very influential part of my days; he’s soothed me, saddened me, lulled me to sleep. I had begun to realize the absurdity of this sitting in front of him, his mythic figure becoming human, but there was really nothing I could do about it. It’s who I am.

‘Long drive?’

‘Twelve and a half hours.’

‘Jesus.’ He laughed in awe to himself. ‘I’ve heard fourteen before…but that’s…that’s good, man.’

We talked about the game, and the deterioration of Cleveland, and the respect of staying with one team your entire career. He asked me if there was anything I’d like him to play, and I rattled off the first song that came to my mind. Once he slipped off to the back, I began a line questioning regarding whether or not I made the right choice, one that still continues to this day.

The back room of the place was spacious and well-lit, with round cafes tables scattered all along vintage maroon and gold carpet. Large chandeliers lit the room, their reflections shining against the mirrored walls, and thick, velvet maroon drapes cover the windows. It took about a half-hour or so after the crowd has swelled to its full potential before it hits me for the first time. Beatles haircuts. Pretension. Corduroy. Sideburns. Liberalism. Angst. Insecurity. Ironically ugly sweaters. Elvis Costello worship. Pale girlfriends with opinions. Fuck. This is who I was. These were my people.

I never wanted to admit it, never wanted to accept it. Because these people, my people, don’t date Jill Huntington. They’re too busy driving insanely long distances to see obscure singer-songwriters wax intelligently and wistfully on love and loss and doubt and sad happiness. And no eighteen year old girls, or at least any that I dated, wanted anything to do with that.

The stage was cramped and about half the size it probably needed to be, just enough room for Mark and his backing band. Before he played the request I’d nervously spit out, he called my name out into the mic and had me stand, announcing to the crowd the lengths I’d taken to get there. There was a mild smattering of applause and a few impressed head nods. Those sitting behind me patted me on the shoulder when I sat down. I’d gone from hiding it to being praised for it.

It wasn’t until late into college that I realized that perhaps my love of Mark wasn’t a dirty secret to be kept to myself.  The source of this realization came, as most tend to, from a girl, one as beautiful and blue-eyed as Jill Huntington, yet equipped with a fierce intellect and an appreciation for music beyond the Top 40. She, for some reason, appeared to accept me, all of me.

I didn’t have save him for solitude, there was no scramble to change the disc when she walked into the room. In fact, she seemed to take a genuine liking to him, text messaging me song lyrics and writing them into little collages she had made for me. It seems trivial, but in many ways it was an important gauge. If she liked Mulcahy, then she liked me. This vote of confidence led me to leave Mark on the stereo when guests dropped by; I began to loan him to friends. It turns out that there are a lot more of us than I thought, those who get Mark.

Mark Mulcahy will never be popular, and it isn’t for a lack of talent. It’s for his failure to adhere. His catalog shows a knowledge of the three minute pop song with the catchy chorus. He knows the rules. But he doesn’t play by them. He exposes himself for who he is, and doesn’t edit for the sake of a consensus. He’s himself, and he doesn’t necessarily fit into the right demographic, but that’s a big part of the attraction.

I Think It’s Better the Second Time Around

24 May

As she fumbles to get the key into her front door, the realization occurs that this is the best part of the night. The bits that occur after the idle twenty minute chatter in the kitchen is what brought me here, but isn’t the knowledge or feeling that this person is eagerly and willingly walking you into their bedroom equal to or better than the physical sensation of the act? If that weren’t the case, it wouldn’t matter who was on the other end of that sensation, would it? We’d fuck like blind rabbits. Isn’t the person in question usually carrying out some sort of role or aim we’ve concocted for them? Isn’t that the point?

I am more alone here than if I were by myself in my bedroom. The drone of my fan is missing. The person warming the back of my neck with her breath is a stranger. The most she can provide for me is a prop body for me to close my eyes and pretend it to be the one I would rather be with. I sold myself out there, recognizing her excessive giggling and brushing of limbs. I said things I didn’t mean and censored opinions and laughed at dumb jokes and ignored inane commentary and did nothing but prove to myself that being myself isn’t the reason I got here. And for what? What have I sold my character and time for? A mediocre drunken blowjob? Twenty minutes of thoughtless, distracting pleasure? This is far more shameful than paying for it monetarily.

I peel her arm away from my body and slip out into the quiet night, the slush of wet snow making a squishing, sucking sound as I walk. We often choose these partners on the merit of a thoughtless interaction – no phone numbers, no breakfast, no strife. But this is never the case. They are serving as an antidote to loneliness, an assurance. A replacement to disperse affection on and fuck when we can’t be with the ones we want. The situation cannot be casual and mutual, as neither party understands the other’s thought process. A disconnect exists that prevents comfort and flippancy.  I used her while I thought of someone else. She was no different than a walking, talking, flesh-and-blood masturbation tool – a blow-up doll with a pulse.

I stop into the gas station to grab a pack of cigarettes and to get the sting of feeling back into my numb fingers. The skinny middle-aged man behind the counter is the same one who sold condoms to us a few hours earlier, rolling his eyes as we stumbled and howled near the coffee machine. Now he gives me a sly smirk and a wink as I hand him a five.

It all comes down to the desire to love and be loved. Without that passion, that seeking of affection, that hazy sense of romanticism, you are merely fucking a stranger, and with every stranger I fuck I feel a little less able to ever believe in those things again. We de-emphasize love while we scrutinize sex, and why are we scrutinizing sex in the first place, outside of the lacking of what we expected it to provide? We attach some grandness to it, some buzz, that it can’t live up to because, well, it’s just sex. It’s mythos lies in validation, in the giggling and high fives of friends, the images of media, our green nature on a subject we have to fight ourselves to frankly discuss; without affection, it is simply a highly pleasurable sensation, something akin to a massage at the spa.

By the time I arrive home my pant legs are soaked halfway up to my shins, rings of salt dust layering around their ends. Seth is asleep on the couch, an episode of Taxi glowing from the television. I peel off my jeans carefully, making sure not to touch the frozen ends to my skin.  The tips of my toes are still numb as I crawl into bed. Every now and again I hear the faint sound of Danny Devito’s animated ranting. I grab an extra pillow and pull it to my chest, drifting off to the low hum of my fan and the canned laughter of a 1970’s studio audience.

All We Are is All Alone

19 May

We went from bar to bar – rickety service elevators in meat-packing districts opening to purple velvet, fish tanks, make-out rooms, steel bartops, drinks by the bottle. They paid for everything and introduced me to their ‘fag hags’, one of whom was Ellen. She had black hair that looked red in certain light, marble blue eyes and wore a black cocktail dress with a long coat that looked like something a businessman would wear. She had a fierce intellect, a wealthy family and a studio apartment on Bedford. Why she held my hand in the dead of winter outside the Christopher St. station, looked into my eyes and kissed me, I’ll never know.

She ran five miles and threw up her lunch and spent fifteen minutes fidgeting under an incubator and read glossy magazines with models on the cover and put on glittery, sparkling war-paint and bunched her brightly colored toes over thin, curved planks and bit her lip as she stared into the funhouse mirror of her mind. And she most certainly didn’t do it for a guy like me.

These slip-ups were apt to happen back in school, but this wasn’t just any girl, it was a Manhattan girl, who was taking a semester off from Brown, who traveled with her sister to London and Greece at seventeen, who lived in a brownstone, who fucked lawyers for clothes and vacations. Girls from my hometown kept pens from hotels in Toronto to remind them of weekend trips. But when I looked into her eyes, I noticed that Manhattan girls are the same as Ohio girls; they only have fancier costumes and better opportunity.

She pointed out the apartment they used for all the exterior shots on Friends, which was on her street, and I looked up at it as we walked by, flakes of snow breezing through the glow of the streetlight. It was that moment, the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album cover, that solidified my status as an adult, as truly existing in the world. Here I was, walking through the Village (was I? I was pretty sure I was) with a beautiful woman, having spent the night stumbling around lower Manhattan with wealthy trendsetters, a week away from starting work on a nationally televised late night show and what’s more adult, more cool than that? And yet on another level, it seemed nothing had changed.

I had always thought that when I got to this level of adulthood, of ‘someday’, that things would somehow be different. But everything was all too familiar. Her breath was stale and beer soaked and she had cocaine-sprinkled mucus caked around the rims of her nostrils and our lips mashed together as we tried to kiss-and-walk and it was just as sweaty and smelly and confusing and nerve-racking as it’s always been. I didn’t feel what I’d expected cool and adult to feel like, which was in control, or in love, or assured of purpose. I still felt like nothing more than a scared shitless kid lying awake in the apartment of a girl who was mysterious and flitting and went to an Ivy League school and was bi-coastal, and who despite all that seemed like nothing more than an equally scared shitless kid with a more desirable lifestyle. It felt like nothing new.

Whenever one is gazing around at the living quarters of a stranger they plan to or have gone to bed with, there is always a moment – sometimes as brief as a millisecond – where the little David Byrne voice pops into their head and says ‘How did I get here?’, and I hear it as I am looking at a picture on her nightstand of her and her brother?/boyfriend?/friend? at the bottom of a ski slope. She is wearing a puffy North Carolina blue coat and she has an orange tan that match the lens of her goggles. I hear a car honk in the distance.

We are adversaries, I thought to myself, watching her sleep. That’s all we know, people like us, isn’t it? Adversarial romance. Pushing you against a wall and going into make-out rooms and batting eyelashes and carefully selecting words packed with meaning set to incite their receiver and trading stares that are anything but honest. We are afraid of each other, and we have to be. Because if I hang around with you strange, new people long enough, I will become just another guy and my Midwestern mystique will become Midwestern simplicity and you will become just another girl and your sultry mystique will appear to be nothing more than a pathetic need for attention, and only then will we be able to give each other honest looks and words, and there’s no quicker way to kill romance for people like us than to have that kind of honesty. I could love you, I thought, as she smiled in her sleep, but you’re only looking for those who want you. Or perhaps that’s what we were all looking for. I determine that the skier is a boyfriend and drift off to sleep.

I slip out a little after nine with an excuse that is met with sleepy murmurs and head on foot to Big Cup, the only place I know to go, my head buzzing in the gray Manhattan morning. Back at school, this is known as the ‘walk of shame’, where you are leered at by the walking seniors and visiting parents as you burp up beer from the night before and trip over your shoelaces. Here, nobody gives a fuck. I stop on my way there and puke in a garbage can, and I don’t think anyone notices.

‘Welcome to New York!’ Louis says with a wink, eying my previous day’s wrinkled clothes and unintentionally tousled hair. The thought occurs to me that he’s still not aware that I’m straight. He just laughs when I ask if Todd or any of the others have been by. A skinny black guy with pirate earrings and stoplight red pants says with a hand wave that none of them will be up for at least another two hours. On the train home a homeless man recites bad poetry. I give him four dollars.