Authors: Mark Ferguson
n retrospect, Val
wasn’t sure why she’d called Gabe in the first place. Her bumbled apology over voice mail wasn’t planned. Nothing was. She supposed she just wanted to hear his voice. She needed a signal that things were essentially okay, that the weirdness of their morning-after could be forgotten.
She waited a day before trying him again, and during that time she replayed the night in her head. Gabe’s sleeping face inches in front of her own. His pained look of awe when she lifted her arms to stretch in the doorway. It felt good to relive those moments. Too good. So as an antidote she tried to picture Henry crazy and lost, gone and alone. But she couldn’t hold him in her mind.
Gabe answered her second call. They talked for more than an hour, but not about Henry. After hanging up Val lay on her bed and clutched her phone. It was hot in her palm from overuse. It felt like an admonition. She had meant to bring up Henry, she told herself. That was why she’d called. But then Gabe sounded so happy to hear from her. The awkwardness had apparently dissipated on its own and it didn’t seem necessary to dampen the mood.
That was Monday.
On Tuesday, Val kept away from her cell as best she could. She congratulated herself almost hourly for having the willpower to restrain herself. When Gabe called her, late in the afternoon, her neck and arms tensed with guilty anticipation.
She was expecting the same breezy conversation as the day before, so she was surprised when he said, “I think I’m kind of losing it.”
“How so?” she said.
“I’m hearing things. I see Henry—just, like, out of the corner of my eye. And I’m…I don’t know. I’m scared. That I’m going crazy.”
“You said that when Henry started acting weird he could barely talk, right? And when he did, he didn’t make sense?”
“Well, you’re making sense to me.”
Gabe laughed. “Maybe you’re losing it too.”
“I know it must be really hard, but you’re not going catatonic or anything. Whatever you’re experiencing, I’m sure it’s normal.”
Val could hear a faint exhale on the other end of the line. “I feel normal,” said Gabe. “When I’m talking to you.”
Val didn’t know what to say.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“This isn’t on you, Val. It’s not your job to make me feel good. But, honestly, I’m scared—really scared. The fact that I can talk to you, that we can be in touch like this, it’s the only thing that feels real right now. I appreciate it, I guess. I think that’s what I’m saying.”
“I appreciate it too,” said Val. “I was worried that I was, like, using you or something. Honestly? I’ve just felt out of touch since I moved here. Like nobody knows who I really am. When you called—and I know it’s about Henry, and I can’t imagine what you’re feeling and it’s really scary, I get that—but when you called I was just really happy. And when you came over, that made me happy too. So you don’t have to be too appreciative. This is good. We’re good.”
Gabe sighed again. “I just need him to come back,” he said.
“I know,” said Val. She wondered why she hadn’t said
“I need this to be over.”
It wasn’t the painful confrontation with a sad reality that Val had been counting on. It didn’t resolve her confusion. And when it was over, it was as if they’d purged something poisonous. Gabe lit up, even brighter than before. By the time Val hung up, the muscles around her mouth felt weak and warm from smiling.
Wednesday and Thursday passed and Val lacked all focus. She made sure to be home by eight or nine so that she could talk to Gabe. Kara teased her about it, how Val was locking herself in her room at night like a teenager, her laughter seeping out from around her door.
“But you’re just friends, right?” said Kara.
It was the same question Val was asking herself as she stepped off the 5:43 New Jersey Transit Northeast Corridor train and onto the platform in New Brunswick.
She couldn’t calm down as she walked up the bright, familiar sidewalk on Easton Avenue. Why did she have an extra set of clothes in her bag? What did she expect to happen now that she was in this place that she’d fought so hard to leave? More to the point, what kind of heartless bitch makes plans to sleep over with her missing ex-boyfriend’s best friend?
Val’s only answer was that it couldn’t be wrong to spend time with someone who made her feel like herself. And Gabe was
best friend, not hers. She trusted that friendship. If Gabe could feel okay about what they were doing, then she could too.
It was Friday evening and the streets were already loud. The weekend had taken hold of New Brunswick and it wouldn’t let go until Sunday came to make everything quiet and sad again. Sundays in New Brunswick reminded Val of how she used to feel after birthday parties or bar mitzvahs when she was young. It was an empty loneliness brought on by the realization that something she had looked forward to was over and it hadn’t changed a thing.
On Hamilton the street was darker. She passed the grease trucks, smelled the alluring mix of oil, cheese, eggs, and meat that poured out of the food vendors’ little trailers. Across a campus parking lot from the trucks was frat row. The hair-gelled bouncers were already set up on their moldy front porch couches. As she passed the frat house closest to Hamilton she heard a moan followed by laughter. She glared in the direction of the catcalls, but the offenders were in shadow.
She made it to Gabe’s place early. She’d never seen it before, so she checked the number twice before mounting the stairs and ringing the doorbell. Cal opened the door and greeted her with more warmth than she would have expected. She’d met him a few times and always thought he seemed harmless but odd. He led her through the front hallway to the living room.
“Gabe’s in the shower,” he said.
Val thought she heard something strange in Cal’s tone, like maybe what he really meant was
you know what that means
. Then she wondered if it was Cal’s tone or her own ear being tuned to a specific key. She sat down on a couch and looked at her fingers. The cuticle on her left pinkie nail was ragged from being picked. She made tweezers of her right thumb and index finger, but then thought better of it and slid her hands underneath her thighs.
Did Cal think this was a date? Had she been visiting anyone else the answer would be self-evident, but Gabe wasn’t anyone else. He was Henry’s best friend, and Henry was still missing. And as for the shower, Gabe probably showered every day.
Val’s nose twitched from the sharp smell of mold and pine. She wondered if it was Henry’s living room or his roommate.
“You wanna smoke?” said Cal. In his outstretched hand he held a marbled glass pipe in the shape of a mushroom.
Val smiled. “That’s okay.”
Cal shrugged, lit, and inhaled deeply. “So you’re at NYU now, right?” he said, his vocal chords muted by the smoke.
“Yeah. I love it,” she said. The words sounded strange.
“Well, it’s a really good school.”
“I think it’s insane.”
Val couldn’t tell where the conversation was going, but she wasn’t about to back down out of uncertainty.
“Insane?” she said.
“I mean, what—sixty thousand dollars a year? You should tell your parents to just give you that money to keep. After four years you have almost a quarter million dollars. You could just move to Argentina or somewhere and live off that money for the next thirty years or something.”
Val heard footsteps on the stairs. Gabe appeared in the doorway to the living room, a towel wrapped around his waist. She’d seen him shirtless before—at the beach and in the dorms—but this time felt different. She’d always told Gabe that he was attractive, but she’d said it in a big-sister
I’m gonna find you a girl
kind of way. She puffed him up because she knew he needed it, not because she had a strong opinion about his looks. He was skinny. Not tight and purposefully skinny. Semi-starved broke-college-kid skinny. He had strange little patches of hair pushing out from the sides of his upper arms. His back, too, had sparse, long hair arranged in two splotchy wings beneath his shoulder blades. He wasn’t muscled. Acne scars were just barely visible on his shoulders.
“Sorry,” he said as he rushed past her. “I’ll be out in a minute.”
Gabe entered his bedroom and closed the door. Sitting so near to his naked body gave her a buzzing feeling. Even through the door. Even if he was flawed.
Cal continued. “I mean, for that kind of money you could make a real difference, you know?”
“Where’s your bathroom?”
Cal placed the pipe on the coffee table and rubbed his face with both hands. “Go out the way we came in, and you’ll see the stairs. Take them up and when you get up there on the right is my room, the next door down is the bathroom.”
“So, upstairs then,” she said.
Cal giggled, confused, and Val stood up. She smiled silently to herself as she walked down the hall.
Once in the bathroom she lowered the toilet lid and sat down. She needed to order her thinking, but all she could focus on was the impressive filth of the room in which she sat. Black mold carpeted the single shower curtain, and yellowed tissues sat piled around the long-overfilled garbage can. The light switch was within reach, and Val flipped it with a flick of her wrist.
She breathed deeply. Once she felt steady enough to go back downstairs, she turned the light back on and flushed the toilet for appearance’s sake. She washed her hands, taking care not to look up at herself in the mirror.
By the time she got back downstairs, Gabe was out of his room and standing in front of the television. Apparently all the ease afforded by the telephone was gone, because neither of them seemed to know what to say.
“What do you think of the place?” he asked. He sat down on the couch and moved his hands from his lap to the couch on either side of his legs, then back to his lap again.
Val remained standing and picked up her coat. “Can we get something to eat?” she said.
Gabe jumped up and went back in his room to get his jacket.
Val turned to Cal. “You coming?” she asked. She knew the answer, but she wanted to see what she could learn from his response.
“No,” said Gabe as he walked back through the living room. “He has plans.”
Cal shrugged and grabbed the remote from the coffee table. He met Val’s questioning gaze with a heavy-lidded smile before resting his red-rimmed eyes on the luminous screen.
Val followed Gabe into the kitchen. He was standing by the back door, holding it open with one hand and rubbing the hair that fell around his ear with the other.
“After you,” he said.
Val followed his direction, her body propelled forward by an electric anticipation that burned from her navel to the top of her scalp. She sensed that it was strange to feel so excited, but she also knew that if she examined the sensation it would go away. So she left it alone. She was tired of feeling bad. She was tired of asking questions. Too many things had felt wrong for too long. For that night, at least, she was back in New Brunswick. It was the weekend. She was with Gabe. For once, all her pent-up angst couldn’t penetrate the happiness she felt.
She bounded down the steps and into the night.
hey parked around
the corner from the club. 80 walked a block in both directions in search of felled signs that might prove that their spot was too good to be true. Henry stood on the sidewalk and peered through chain-link at the tour bus in the club’s back parking lot. He hadn’t seen the bus in more than ten years, but still he felt the terrifying power of it.
It was almost nine. They rounded the corner onto Frenchmen Street and mixed in with the crowd. Frat boys in plaid shorts and polos dripped beer from plastic cups. Old tourists smiled in New Orleans T-shirts. Locals were marked by their casual indifference to the out-of-towner dress code. They wore sweats, basketball shorts, baseball caps, paint-stained tees.
The sound of a four-piece band blasted through the open doors of a bar across the street. Faint traces of a robust Latin percussion section wafted from a couple blocks down. A reggae bass line joggled Henry’s insides, and he vividly recalled the few hours he’d spent at Café Negril a decade before, entranced by the Bob Marley songbook as performed by a group of musicians that looked like they’d been thrown together by a tornado. The white guitar player had a science-teacher look about him. The woman on keys was dressed as if for casual Friday at an insurance office: ill-fitting straight-leg jeans, a turquoise sweater, fancy bejeweled flip-flops. The lead singer was more the part, though his dreads were thinner and better kept than the mane worn by Marley in the mural that covered the back wall of the venue. The drummer played so far behind the beat that Henry’s face contracted in a grimace of pleasure. But the real object of Henry’s infatuation was the bass player. If the drummer was the heartbeat, she was the blood. She was fat and dark-skinned, her short hair pulled back in tight braided rows. To Henry she was sexier than any photo spread, more enlightened than the Buddha. He’d been looking for a god, and there she was. Her ministration was the rhythm. Her disciples were all who had ears to hear.
Henry snapped back to the present. The flood of memories made him nervous, but if 80 shared his anxiety he didn’t show it. Once inside d.b.a., Henry marveled at how small the place was. A long bar bisected the space. On one side was the stage, on the other a lounge with high tables and stools. The early show was just wrapping up, an all-male three-piece rock outfit. The lead singer wore the kind of checkered scarf that had been popular among hipsters for a time before once again becoming the domain of Saudi princes. Henry crossed back over to the lounge area to find 80 leaning against the wall by the door.
“Do you remember anything yet?” asked 80.
Henry shook his head. Lost in nostalgia as he’d been for the past few minutes, he’d nearly forgotten why they were there.
It was difficult to hear over the din of the bar. Henry moved a little closer to 80.
“Do you think we should stay on this side?” asked Henry. “So he doesn’t see us until we want him to?”
“I don’t imagine he’ll be able to pick us out of the crowd,” said 80.
Henry tried to remember what it was like up on that stage. He had retained little of the forty-five minutes he’d spent there twelve years before, and what he did recall was slippery. He saw a crowd painted red by the lights. Now that he was here, though, none of the lights seemed to be red at all.
“When are we going to approach him?” asked Henry.
80 put his mouth directly to his young self’s ear so he wouldn’t have to yell. “He’ll go next door to hear that reggae band. When he walks over, we approach him on the street.”
“Too public,” said Henry. “We should go out back, to the bus.”
80 pursed his lips. “We’ll have to get over that fence.”
“Easy,” said Henry. “My memory is better than yours. He’ll go out there right after the show to change out of his sweaty shirt. The rest of the band will be in here accepting free drinks from the crowd, trying to get laid, whatever. We go out to the back before the last song is over and wait. When he gets there we call him over, have a nice quiet talk.”
80 leaned away from Henry and squinted with apparent concentration. “Okay,” he said. “We’re doing this together. Whatever happens, we remember that.”
“This was your idea, old man,” said Henry. “Whatever happens, you remember
” He was teasing, but only just. “I need some cash.”
80 put a hand deep into his pocket and came out with two twenty-dollar bills. Henry hadn’t seen the old design in years, but the bills were stiff, the ridges of freshly pressed ink still tangible on their surface.
“I’m going to the other side,” said Henry.
“I’ll see you at the end of the show.” 80 tottered to an empty stool and sat down.
The opening band finished their set in a torrent of affected wails and pained expressions. Henry sipped his beer and enjoyed the quiet of a space in transition. The house music that came on was soft in comparison to the live act and conversation got softer too. Henry remembered this kind of peace from his years of gigging. It was the quiet in which nerves took hold, the quiet that said
The stage was almost clear. The drummer took the last pieces of his kit; the guitar player snaked cable into loops.
And then it was time. Phil, the bass player for the Grits, stepped onto the stage. He was followed by Jack, the guitar player, who brought out his custom-designed pedal board and lovingly placed each piece of equipment in its own perfectly calibrated position. Molly herself wouldn’t bless the stage with her presence until after the band had actually started playing. It was just one of her many stolen stagecraft tricks. She was more Jim Morrison than anybody else, with her faux-deep lyrics, wry poetic commentary, diva affectation, and raw sexual aggression uncut by shame or inhibition. She wasn’t nearly as charismatic as Morrison must have been, but she thought she was and that got her about halfway there.
Henry was done with his first beer and motioned to the bartender for a second. After paying up, he looked back at the stage and saw his bass drum with attached tom-tom placed in its customary position. His diaphragm tensed and his lips parted in a smile. From the side of the stage came the silver glint of a cymbal stand. The man who carried it was overweight and dressed in ill-fitting clothes. His face was serious and he never looked up from his work. It seemed like he wanted to avoid the audience entirely. Henry watched his young self set up each piece of the kit. He took pride in seeing how 29 tweaked the tom, adjusting for the sound of the room, how he carefully gauged the space between the top and bottom of the high hat. At any moment the Henry onstage could raise his eyes up from his work and see his older self at the bar. A whole new universe would be created—not with a big bang, but with a silent moment of recognition. So far 29 was too focused on his work. He fidgeted and tuned while Henry drank his beer and watched, fascinated.
Phil, Jack, and 29 all left the stage, signaling that their setup was complete. The house music faded out and the venue’s manager came out. Though three out of four of the Grits lived in Jersey, he announced that they came from Brooklyn because their manager, Marco, had insisted that it sounded better. The lights dimmed to a chorus of hoots and scattered applause. 29 was the first out. He sat down, looking contemplative, then picked up his sticks and began an earthy, shuffling beat. Henry recalled that he’d worked for days on that snare drum before he was satisfied with the tension of the heads and snares. The result was half drum, half shaker. A barrel filled with beads. The bass drum was tight, the mallet on the pedal hard so that when amplified its sound was round and fierce like a kick in the stomach.
Then Jack and Phil came out, guitars hanging from their shoulders. When they plugged in, the speakers popped in time with the beat and feedback splashed out in dissonant waves that built up and up so loud that the drums were almost obscured. Then a garbled blues riff smoked out from Jack’s guitar and the distortion broke. After a few measures of that, Phil completed the foundation with a bouncy bass line, and the crowd nodded, swayed, laughed and moaned as one great body.
Henry smiled. The needle was in the groove, but he knew it was only foreplay. Molly would come out when everybody was primed for her, or maybe a little after. She liked to make them wait.
Just when heads began to turn side to side, just when the audience finally got acclimated and slightly bored, Molly extended a naked calf onto the stage. She announced herself with red patent leather shoes—vintage, of course—with a modest two-inch heel. The shoes caught the eye but didn’t hold it. Rather, they served to force anyone looking at her to start at the bottom and work his way up. Cutoff shorts ended impossibly high on her slim, muscular legs. A black bra showed through her white sheer shirt, the neck of which was cut low enough to bisect the top of the image that decorated it: Ziggy Stardust in halftone. On anyone else it might have seemed trite. In fact, when Molly wasn’t onstage it
seem trite. Henry remembered walking into roadside stores with the band. With her little bowler hat akimbo, her long red hair reaching farther down her body than her shorts, she got looks that could be mortifying. But here she was where she belonged, and Henry got it. She wasn’t simply sexy. She was sex incarnate. She owned the room before she opened her mouth. She owned the whole building when she breathed into the microphone. By the time she started singing, she was Minerva, and the whole city was hers.
Once the set was fully under way, Henry stared hard at 29 and tried to remember what it had been like to live his current moment as that younger man. Of this particular performance, though, nothing concrete remained. So he let it go. Grooving on his own drumbeat, he let the noise of the room converge. The babble of the crowd, the bark of the bartender, feet shuffling on dry floorboards—the sounds groped each other and conjoined before spinning off alone again. When he sipped his beer, the bubbles on his tongue seemed to mingle somehow with Minerva’s voice. The sensation was pleasant at first, like a warm melting low in his gut. But then it turned sour and Henry felt something pop and fizzle deep in his sinus cavity. His eyes shot open and he looked at the stage. Where Minerva had been standing, partially blocking Henry’s view of his twenty-nine-year-old counterpart, there was now an open space. Framed by two cymbals and the rise of the high tom, he could see his own face. It was younger, contorted by the effort of driving the band steadily and furiously forward. 29’s eyes were open and when his gaze met Henry’s the larger music of all crescendoed to an almost inconceivable wail.
And then Henry remembered.