One Minute In
(five minutes in)
Pat was trying to figure out which drink tipped him over. Was it that last whiskey, the rum with the bass player, or the beers at the beginning of the night? It couldn't have been the beers. The beers were his friends.
It was the rum, he decided, that confounded the delicate mental balance between sober and not. Rum was their bass player's sole pre-show requirement: without it he was a nervous wreck onstage, and impossible to play with. Pat rarely suffered from nerves, but now he was already having trouble keeping track of the chord changes. Even when playing these songs for the millionth time, all it took was a few shots to knock the melody right out of him.
He squinted into the audience and realized that the faces were blurred. Not a good sign. He zoned in on his strings and tried to convince himself that maybe they were just blurry because he was playing so fast.
A frenzied cacophony heralded the end of the first song. Pat had written it together with the singer and it was their pride and joy, heavy as a beluga whale and objectively just as bloated. Top-heavy. Their only song to ever get any radio play, squeezing its way onto the few remaining stations that didn't cater to the "top-40." It was sad, the state of music in their city.
(fourteen minutes in)
Okay. Pat fumbled his way through three songs without screwing it, major-league. He was feeling better. The singer was making jokes in-between, people were actually laughing, and they'd even got a few dancers out on the floor. It was a shitty little venue, with little room for dancing, and the stage was sandwiched between the bar and the tacky red booths. The traffic flow reminded Pat of downtown Toronto, at rush hour.
He hopped around the stage a bit, hamming it up with the bass player while the drummer got sweatier and sweatier behind them. The drummer started off the night in a turtleneck; now he was down to a sweat-stained white wifebeater. He was only a temporary player, until they found someone who could really hit the skins.
Dizzy though. Pat shouldn't have jumped so much. Now the crowd was liquid, and Pat was swimming through human molasses. He was standing on the forecastle of a boat, a great big sailing ship, except Pat hoped to hell that they wouldn't hit the rocks.
(twenty-three minutes in)
The sound guy had no clue what he was doing. He miked the drums all screwy, way too much bass drum, and the poor singer was straining to get his voice out on top. Or maybe the bass drum just seemed louder because it matched the pounding in Pat's head. Some well-intentioned bastard had gone and ordered up a round for the band, and they'd fired it back in unison because it was rude to say "no." And the crowd loved it.
His strings were slick with sweat and the cherry-red finish of his guitar shone alluringly under the hot stage lights. The drummer was topless, and Pat was finally finding his groove. The changes were coming nice and easy and the solos were flowing. No playing with his teeth tonight, but if somebody showed up with lighter fluid he could probably be convinced to set his instrument ablaze. Nothing too tricky about that, he would say. Nothing tricky at all.
(thirty-two minutes in)
Two songs left until they were done the set, then they'd have a smoke break, then another set more. The tunes were howling off the stage, like rapid-fire Gatling guns. Unstoppable. The sound of galaxies filled the bar; the eerie hum of Jupiter spinning on its axis roared from the amplifiers. Pat was pumped up. His arms were bulging and sweaty, the blood in his veins moving like lava through subterranean fissures.
Brimming with confidence, Pat caught Sandra's eye. He wanted to wave, but guitar playing is a two-handed job, like moving furniture and racing cars. Her eyes disappeared abruptly, but the haze was receding steadily, and soon he was able to focus on the rest of her: torn up jacket, light yellow undershirt, spidery hand on her breast. Lips otherwise preoccupied.
Pat missed the changeover leading into a bridge and stumbled to catch up. The singer was giving him the "drunk & stupid" eyes and the drummer was trying to push him along, like drunkard in a wheelbarrow. Somehow Pat managed to finish the set as he watched his girlfriend moving and grooving with the ugly-as-sin bass player from the opening band.
(forty-one minutes in)
The band took their time getting off the stage, but not Pat. He tossed his guitar on the ground and reveled in the screeching feedback until eventually the singer switched off the amp. By that point Pat was already at the back of the bar, on the prowl. The booth he'd spotted Sandra in had been overrun with teenage girls, having just turned the corner into womanhood, probably all excited and feeling empowered as they made silly jokes in a seedy bar. They looked at Pat's wild eyes and giggled and Pat wiped sweat from his forehead.
Finally he had to concede that Sandra was no longer inside the bar. He went over to the counter and attempted to make small talk with the bartender, before grabbing a pack of smokes from his guitar case and heading outside.
(forty-nine minutes in)
It was mid-April and the midnight air was chilly. The snow had melted quickly enough, but the cold hadn't abated much. Pat fired up his cigarette and leaned against the filthy brick façade of the bar. He was nearly alone; his bandmates were probably trying to convince the teenage girls to go home with them. A few people were huddled together further down the street, and a homeless man was shuffling along the sidewalk, as though trying to ski on the cold concrete.
"Bum a smoke?"
"Sure." Pat pulled a cigarette out of the pack and handed it to the little man, who only came up to Pat's shoulder. The man's wild, mangy hair was stuffed under a Montreal Expos baseball cap. As he sucked deeply on the cigarette he ran a hand over his soiled jean jacket, like he was searching for an itch to scratch. He reeked of urine and cheap cologne.
"Catching the show?" asked the homeless man.
"Playing the show," said Pat. He stomped his smoke out and lit another.
"Where's all your groupies?" The man winked at Pat mischievously. Looking down at him, for the first time Pat realized that the guy must've been nearly eighty, ninety. Still walking under his own power, and still smoking with his own breath.
"No groupies for me. I've got a girl."
Pat groped for words. He shrugged and took a drag, and the little man lost interest. For a second his cloudy eyes burned with a spark, a flash of memory. Then they were hidden by a cloud of cigarette smoke.
"My wife, she died a few decades back," he said.
"That's too bad, man," said Pat. "I gotta admit, I wasn't around a few decades back. That's gotta be rough, though." He wracked his brain, trying to come up with something sensitive to say. But words, like the chord changes, had been blasted right out of his skull by the noise and the alcohol.
"She got shot by accident, off doing doctor work somewhere, someplace overseas. I'll be damned if I can remember where."
"Awful stuff, man," said Pat. He began to wonder whether the little man was telling the truth, or if he just wanted someone to talk to on a cold April night.
"The people over there, they said she was just in the way. No reason, just there, when two seconds makes the difference. Think about it: she bends down and ties her shoes and she lives, but if she doesn't she dies. And they were just shooting around."
"Like guys, all the guys just shooting around for practice. But she was in the way."
"That's awful, really awful. I gotta get back in there, but if you want to drop by after we can talk some more." Seemed like the right thing to say.
"Really? Because I could tell you all about my son." The old man's voice suddenly sounded very feeble, like a whimpering puppy, and Pat squirmed.
"Second set's starting, man. I'm up onstage."
"Have fun then. Young man like you. Maybe we'll talk later." The little man raised his smoldering cigarette in a mock salute.
The Show (II)
(sixty-five minutes in)
They kicked off the second half with one of their old favorites, a tune they wrote way back when things were just getting off the ground. The crowd never liked it because it was kind of slow, and not very heavy, but it was fun as hell to play. Pat was chugging beers between songs and singing along, another little voice lost in all the music. The shitty sound guy had everybody cranked so high, it was a miracle that there were no bleeding ears.
He saw Sandra, finally, out of nowhere. She'd switched booths, and she was still sitting with that nasty looking bass player, all dolled up in his trendy jacket with his trendy hair. Their hands were on the table, which was a good thing, but they were intertwined, which was not.
The bass player shouted something in her ear and she turned to him and smiled her smile. Pat knew the smile, because it was the one that melted him every time, the one that told him everything was going fine. Two seconds of bliss. Except this time it wasn't his. Sandra nodded and they stood quickly and left the bar.
She didn't look back at the stage.
Pat didn't feel himself falling. He just figured he had the spins or something, keep rocking, it'll sort itself out in a sec. And suddenly all he could see were the stage lights, giant glowing orbs racing across the sky like comets, all headed for some destination lost to periphery. And there were faces, blurred, like he was looking through the bottom of a dirty beer mug.
A warm feeling emerged in his chest and spread like a sweat stain, all down his legs and arms. The sounds, instead of going through his ears and into his brain like music is supposed to, were just flying right through his head. They whistled like the windstorm that brought trees down last week, the day he went for a walk with Sandra and told her about the show. By the time they got to Pat's apartment the power was out, and so it was by the light of candle stubs that they sat together on Pat's shitty couch, and smiled.