06 May 2006

Unfinished fiction: Night out

He’d gotten up early and met his buddy up on the trail at seven. They’d pumped themselves up hills and hopped down them enough so they finally felt they could coast for the rest of the day. Awash in endorphins, he parted company with his spandex-clad pal and turned back to his ranch-style bachelor pad to enjoy the privilege of having the day free, unlike the other working stiffs – of which he’d been one until a month ago, when his telecom company laid him off. He’d had a fantastic job as a user interface tester. The pay was good, the work was fun. It looked like that ride was over and he wasn’t sure what was going to happen next. Jobs like his seemed to have dried up and blown away overnight.

But he put gas in the car and then stopped to buy Sarah pastries and a flower. Sarah, laid off from her job two months ago, was still sleeping when he got back. He didn’t mind seeing her in his bed. He could not tell whether she would be here long, though. After he woke her up, they spent the day puttering around the house doing the maintenance and catching up with newspapers and phone calls. Today she went shopping with a girlfriend.

He now slumped in the dark watching sports and scratching himself. More often than not, when they came to rest, each was doing something different. He wasn’t sure if sitting in the easy-lounger watching sports was for him anymore. He wasn’t sure if he should believe her when she said she was out with her girlfriends. He wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do now.

But then the beer ad came on. The music begged and pleaded, the bottle stood rigid, dripping, a swirl of steam flowing off the chips of ice that trickled down its sides. “What the hell,” he said, reaching for his swelling cock. At home alone in the dark, the pulsing glow worked its magic on him, as if it were designed only for him at this moment.

After he had caught his breath again he stood and stretched, stumped into the bathroom, took a piss, stripped, and got in the shower. He pulled on his jeans and Vicious Kitties t-shirt and slammed the door behind him. He jumped into his car and went to meet Sarah and her girlfriends at the show.

Floie closed the book on her desk, aligned it with the edge of the wooden organizer, and nodded to close her day at work. She rose and reached for her sweater. She locked the door behind her, clicked down the hall and into the parking garage, where her car awaited her at the best parking spot in the building. Early birds do get their worms, she thought with satisfaction when she saw her car at the end of the day.

But this wasn’t a typical Friday night for her and she felt agitated. She was going to go on a date on her own with a guy she didn’t really know except for meeting him one time with friends. They were going to dinner and then going out to hear a band that he liked. She didn’t know the band, either. Couldn’t really get a fix on them from the little she’d heard. So she fretted about the first of the decisions she had to make about tonight: What to wear. She put on a dress and then felt dowdy, old-fashioned. That didn’t seem right. What had he said about this band? They were an art-house rock group? He said it ironically, out of the corner of his mouth. What on earth did that mean? What to wear? She settled on jeans and a white sweater, with some chunky ceramic beads, and her leather boots. She pulled her coat out of the closet and worried about the evening in earnest.

Ben was on time. His lopsided glasses were of a style that almost demanded a piece of tape somewhere. Bet he was picked on at school too, she thought. But he was a smart one, she could tell that right away. She would have to keep on her toes. She was always a little nervous about telling people she never went to college. Some people just lose interest so fast.

Over dinner they discover they have both worked as river guides in Colorado, which gives them lots to talk about. Floie feels good. She’s ready for some of that slinky psychedelia she heard in the song they played on the radio. Ready for some lovin’.

Inside the small theater, they stand at the railing where there is room to put your drink and a clear sightline. They try to chat, but Floie finds herself trying hard not to reveal her lack of an education and she falters.

The lights go down.

The band launches into an attack on three electric guitars – not to mention the bombastic bass and drum combination -- and Floie is in shock. It is so loud. This is not the kind of music she expected at all. Ben is thrilled, expecting his grin to be reflected on her face. She can’t look at him. She is angry, riled by the clangorous guitars.

The woman next to her along the railing bounces up and down like a pogo stick, and Floie can’t imagine what this woman is hearing. It’s weird: they are dressed alike, this other woman in a white t-shirt and tight jeans. She hops obnoxiously in time with one of the band members, a cute guy with soft curls of brown hair. Floie watches his bee-sting mouth but he looks too sweet, too simple. Boring. The middle guy, the one with the raspy voice made for blues, looks oddly like her date. She doesn’t find him attractive. The guy on the left just looks wasted. He looks like an anorexic, a camp survivor. He’s probably a junkie, Floie thinks, her mouth pursed.

The woman next to her swings her arms out in front of her, forging a little dance space and Floie’s irritation spikes. Just one more time, she mutters, one of those hands gets into my space and I may not be responsible for what happens next. I have a right to enjoy the show, too, Floie seethes.


It’s so rare these days, Marianne thinks, having a babysitter and going out for some live music. I love it, she sighs, the anticipation, the smell of all those leather jackets brushing together as the crowd oozes into the bar to get loose and wait for the sound check to end. They wait a good 20 minutes, pressing closer and closer until their release into the dark hall. People flow out to their places of rest, hang coats, order drinks from the roving waitress, spill some, and order more. She and her husband wait, talking and making each other laugh. She marvels again at how perfect a date her husband is.

An hour later when the opening band still has not taken the stage she leaves the theater and flashes a charming smile at some polished and buffed 18- or 19-year-old girls so she can direct them away from the only pay phone, which none of them are using (they all have cell phones, Marianne is certain). She calls the babysitter. The bands haven’t even started yet, she says, so I’m sure we’re going to be out until 1 or 2 easily. All is well. Their sweet child sleeps. The babysitter is happy to make the extra cash and get back to kissing her boyfriend on the couch, with the monitor turned on.

Marianne hangs up the phone, skips across the street, and has a little smoke. She’d love to share it with her sweetie, but he’d just fall asleep. She gets wired on a couple of hits, walks to the end of the block and back, milling and seeing the crowd, spotting the band’s bus.

When the first band finally comes onstage, she is initially impressed with their groove. There’s something a little presumptuous, a little too tailored for the college crowd, Hootie-and-the-Blowfishesque. The guy whose name the band uses has some lyric skills, and the ability of Moxy Fruvous to ape musical genres convincingly. It all starts working and she dances.

The bartender and his buddies drinking in the aisle in front of her holler, “You suck!” while the opening band plays their first song. Marianne smiles at them and says clearly but too softly for them to hear her: “Come on, this guy is good!” A few minutes later the trio is reaching skyward, jabbing the air in unison, and belting out a chorus they’ve never heard before, living out their rock-star fantasies through the guy on the stage.

She bounces between shocked at their brazen requests for sex and awe at some of their chops. Again and again the words come around to the same old thing. The skinny kid in a midwestern mask of John Deere hat with bent visor is shameless in his do me do me do me please do me do message. Midway through the second song in his short set he whips out a chant of Bob Marley’s “One Love.” Marianne knows he hasn’t earned the effect the song has on an audience fed a steady diet of Marley on the radio and at all the local festivals. Marianne holds back on the chanting, but many in the audience are playing along, feeling good, having been drinking for the two-hour wait.

The singer slithers toward sleaze, sings of eating humble pie (not the pastry kind) and chants about staying in bed all day. The next tune is a surprise: “Too Much Ado,” a clever and catchy tune about one of the Enron execs, yet another gimmick, but one that confers on him instant cred in this liberal university town for being current on affairs. The guy has his original moments. She recognizes in his nervy patter a decent writer.

Marianne looks a towering front-row follower who inadvertently shows just how sincere each “oh, oh, oh” is by parroting each one exactly, sometimes just ahead of the singer. She noticed him earlier in the bar, speaking Spanish with his pal. He has clearly been following one of the bands on this tour. She’d figured them for European – they all get oodles of vacation time. He mirrors every one of the lead singer’s plaintive expressions. The fan has heard every break in the singer’s voice and knows where each one goes.

Now and then she grudgingly slips the singer a bit of awe at his chutzpah in presuming the devotion of the crowd’s female contingent. And then he blows it again: “Any ladies out there?” he asks, a salacious shiver in his voice. “Selective, isn’t he?” she murmurs wryly when a few women clap and holler.

He breathes his willingness for sex as if he’s about to go down on his mike – and as if anyone in the room could have forgotten about his readiness in the three seconds since he last proclaimed it.

The first band leaves the stage, having reviewed and concluded, a) we want drugs, b) we like sex, c) we like to drink, and d) did we mention that we love sex, and e) here’s an “address” where the “foxy ladies” can find us. “You know where you’ll find them,” says Marianne’s husband through the side of his mouth, “In the van.” So burst the pot-scented bubble of hotel-room slogging that had formed in Marianne’s mind.

At last the main attraction takes the stage. Three youngish men front the group: a mousy-haired stringy, stick-thin guy who seems to hold the keys to the doors that lead to trance and techno, a cherubic sculptor of sounds on keyboards, mellotron, and guitar who bounces on each beat, and a guy who looks like a computer science grad student but has a way with his guitar and an earthy, seasoned blues voice. The three sing, execute guitar heroics of all kinds, keyboards, and other things and continuously trade the spotlight, supported by a small fleet of tight rhythm musicians.

In no time at all Marianne’s imagination breaks free of the late-night porno antics she had imagined for that other band. A new thought fills her mind, as if projected above the band’s head. What if I were that guy? she thinks, amazed at the ability of that birdlike singer to be utterly himself. In her new fantasy, the spotlight is on her. She sees her own hair slicked back under a fedora, a zoot suit resting on her shoulders, a 1940s angel. She wears a loud guitar on her shoulder and a strap-on in her pants. Or she wears jeans and a t-shirt, and big feathery wings on her back. It dawns on her. I am such a fag. Or is it fag hag? I had never imagined that word was about me. She grins and skips in time with the bouncy roundfaced drunk boy who is standing right where she herself wants to be most in the world, soaking up the audience’s loose, freewheeling love and admiration.

She loves it and feels herself at the center, or at least playing a crucial part in making this a night to remember. Her feet can’t stop. After a few songs, one of the singers says something utterly sincere about the audience being really kind and everyone, including the three musketeers in front of her, pauses in a rare moment of collective praise.

A soft, yearning psychedelic melody is a soothing drone. She feels bells ringing all over her body. She is still here, at the center, blessed to be with these others in the light, all of them swirling together, filled and redeemed by sound. She swings her arms in the space around her as the song lifts and takes flight. Her soul stretches its wings and carries her up, up.


I come onstage in a t-shirt and old jeans but I’m wearing my blue velvet shoes. I wonder if anyone can see the glitter I wear in my hair. The lights are so bright and hot on me, on all of us, my clan, and everything slows down. I feel every drop of sweat flow down my back, hear every whisper, and I listen. I listen for my entry, my moment, my chance to develop the theme, riff on a tangent, reply to the questions.

I am home again, loose and present, letting the music I know evolve into something new. People laugh and cry, their faces contorted with passion. I can’t stand to look at them sometimes; it’s like watching people fuck in the movies. But they have an insatiable thirst for my guitar solos, which I have an insatiable desire to give them. When they dance, I know I can do anything. Then they sing my songs back to me as lullabyes and it’s all I ever wanted, wrapped up in a piece of blue velvet and handed to me. I can’t explain it or apologize for it. It’s all there is.


Pablo, stares at his Spanish friend Teo in wonderment. How can one guy, one package, be so hot -- and so uncool? It is simply beyond him. Craggy-faced with a lightbulb of blond afro, Pablo himself has had to cultivate his charm and wit to maintain his place in the world, which, he feels, is here, at the center of the known universe. He thrives on the freewheeling whirl of the bands and their entourages. He’s been coming through town to this club for so long that everyone knows him. He and his fellow tourheads are the reason bands invite folks out to party after the shows. They are all celebrating together, steeped in music and travel, smoking and drinking, making and trading friends. A new pleasure around every corner.

Pablo met Teo at the Knitting Factory. He knew his impression of him had been biased by meeting at his favorite New York haunt, and when he saw how taken Teo was with his own favorite band, Pablo had an instant crush. He wasn’t into Teo physically, but they were somehow soulmates. Teo was always at the center of a group of women, more big brother than lover to any of them, so it was a good partnership. They went to clubs together, met each other in favorite cities to hear new music, and Pablo fell for woman after woman while Teo tended to skate lightly and avoid entanglements. Pablo’s type was a tall willowy woman with a great laugh. It was his discretion and his gallant manners that made the women all think he was older. And the craggy chin.

Sometimes when they went out on foursomes Teo neglected his dates and kept Pablo in the corner of his eye. Pablo was beautiful to watch, turned into a Michael Jordan of grace in the presence of a woman. As much as Teo enjoyed the attention of a lovely woman, he’d never been with anyone who had been as inspired as Pablo’s lovers usually were. He had never lit that spark himself, and he studied Pablo to learn how it was done.

During the set break the two men and two women chatted and drank brown liquids. Teo found himself looking at Pablo’s Adam’s apple, imagining the texture of that bony burl on his tongue. Teo gave a little shudder. He wasn’t going to go there. They were friends.

Teo sprang into action, gathering empty glasses, playing the hero by offering to remove the empties of everyone within ear shot. (His motives were selfish; he wanted to be able to move during the show, so it behooved him to clear the debris.) He carried an impressive tower of glasses to the bar, set them down, turned around to face the stage, and the lights went down.

When the lights came up on the three men creating a storm of guitar sound, a woman turned to Teo, grabbed him, and kissed him. It felt like New Year’s Eve. When he came up for air, she grabbed him and kissed him again.


Ben buzzes with excitement. He puts on a clean pair of corduroy pants and a dress shirt, and he drives to Floie’s airy flat to pick her up. He loves it there: It is the exact opposite of his dark corner at the bottom of a staircase on the shady side of the street. Her apartment makes him like her, and want to know more about her. It is painted so crisply, white walls with red and yellow window sashes, curtains hanging on shiny yellow rings and the sun coming through them, illuminating the fruit.

Come to think of it, it is the opposite of any place he has ever lived in, but she makes him feel that it is still possible for him to break out of a life of dark damp houses and apartments. For she is shy, like he is. She hides behind rituals, putting away his coat in her hall closet, fixing tea and cookies for them. They sit in the light that grows golden and stumble through the niceties, trying to find some overlap they can pounce on and unravel together.

Over dinner they discover it: They’ve both worked as river guides. This is great, he thinks. Those were some of my best times, those summers. Wouldn’t it be something if we’d met back then and not even known it? He shares his most outrageous stories and she does too, but at a certain moment he feels her slip away from him. She’s no longer his for the night and he has no idea why.

He patiently waits through the opening band’s set, unmoved by their obvious attempts to score sex and drugs. He felt older than he’d ever felt next to these randy boys. It reminds him of how he feels watching the kids walking around the junior high he went to. They all seem so little to him now.

The band comes onstage in a blast of amplified guitar backed by driving drums and intricate bass. Ben settles in for the groove. It is all worth it, even Floie’s awkward glances, the date gone bad at some specific moment that he still can’t identify. He is here, having the time of his life with the band of his dreams.


Sarah and Jill meet at the club early enough to go out for sushi. Over yellowtail and quail eggs they giggle about the men they know and the stuff they’re doing at work. They drink tea and beer and sake.

Back at the club Sarah sees Mike in the crowd and knows their days were numbered. He’s nice – the pastry and flowers were a treat, but he isn’t striking that spark in her. Nor is he the refuge she had found in other men. One of her girlfriends with kids had described two-year-olds as playing in parallel, and that’s exactly how she felt with Mike. They’d learned how to like all of the same stuff, all of the stuff everyone promised would make them happy, fulfilled adults. But high school, college life, frats and sororities, jobs in hip downtown firms, and sporty weekends had not answered any of the questions she had today.

Sarah thought about the time she spent with her best friend and felt Jill understood her in a way that Mike never would. He was just such a guy’s guy. He was growing up to be a stockbroker who never misses a day at his gym. She felt like an accessory in her only vision of their future together. She was afraid to wake up one day and find herself mutated into one of the matched set of stainless steel appliances, mutely overlooking the grand view in some enormous house filled with surfaces that had never been touched by human hands.

She remembers her shock at meeting his parents. She wasn’t surprised by them -- she had guessed well what they were like from the things Mike said – so much as shocked at their taste.

Mike was impressed by their house, and spoke of it with pride. His parents had invested a lot of time and energy in it, but she found it plain and suburban. Big, yes, with a nice garden, but boring. She realized at that moment that she was a snob. The new recliner every three years stuff just didn’t do it for her. Your surroundings had to be real, have some sort of provenance. His parents were most proud of the new Thomas Kincaid above the gas fireplace. Coordinating wallpaper borders topped walls cluttered with shelves and gewgaws. The elaborate moldings and frilly curtains only made her claustrophobic. After she saw that house, everything they did annoyed her, seeming common and derivative.

She knew that her snobbery toward his family had clearly spilled into her relationship with Mike. He was a La-Z-Boy at heart, she saw, and she knew he would only become more so. She had to see the world, look for what people were doing well, ask questions about art and nature and god. He wasn’t so curious. He liked what he was given: his movies, sports, TV shows, newspapers. Her questions only baffled him; to him they were unanswerable. But Jill and the other women she knew were on quests. They half supported one another and half competed to be the one get somewhere good first. They all knew that the people they were at 24 were not the people they would be at 40.

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