Alabama Kjerstin Johnson
Sean belted Neil Young’s build-up over the empty floor of Hoagie Planet—he was about to hit the best part of the best track on the album. But just as he burst into the chorus, the music fell out, and his righteous blast of “Alabama!” fell unaccompanied over the counter.
There was a clattering in the back. “Goddammit, Drew,” he said, right before the opening lines of Straight Outta Compton came over the speakers.
Drew walked out of the kitchen. His shoulder-length surfer hair fell into his face even though Sean had already told him to tie it back that day. “We’ve been listening to your sad-sack shit for like, an hour. You said I could play this when we were closing.”
“We’re slow, not closed.” It was twenty til ten. And there were only two songs left on Harvest! The Planet Hoagie door dinged open, giving Sean the proof he needed. Drew slinked back to the kitchen and the loud, caustic sound of an unplugged iPhone followed.
“This weather is nuts,” said the man at the door, stomping snow-covered shoes on the carpet without looking up. “Hey—Sean!”
“Lito, long time.”
“Yeah man, I didn’t know you still worked here.”
“Oh, yeah. Well, managing now. I mean, yeah, I’m still working here, but also I became the manager. But, I mean, that was a while ago.” Sean pushed up his glasses. “What can I get you?”
Lito squinted at the menu on the wall. “Footlong beefeater. No onions,
thanks. It’s so good to see you, man. I don’t think we’ve seen each other since…”
“Probably since that show at Nate’s.”
“Oh yeah. That was a good time. I thought you guys would open for us some time. Didn’t he work here too?”
“For a little bit. Before Brooklyn called.”
“What’s his new band called? It has a bunch of letters, I always forget. They’re blowing up.”
“Hatemail,” said Sean. “Well, ‘HTML.’ They’ve got a Nikon commercial now.” He trailed off. “Kinda stupid.”
Lito shrugged. “Kinda funny. My new band is called ‘the Rocky IV,’ so I’m not sure I can talk.”
“Oh. I was talking about the—” He heard the door ding open again. His face changed. “Hey, Naomi.”
Instead of the size-L green Hoagie Planet tee Sean was used to seeing her in, the only one in stock when she started two weeks ago, she had on a regular shirt under her parka. She had two of those bird tattoos beneath her collarbones. “Hey,” she said. “I just came to grab my schedule for next week.” Sean had started making her a mix CD after she had asked about a Dinosaur Jr. song he had played last week. It wasn’t anything serious—twelve 100% platonic tracks, no room to read anything else into it, not unless she wanted to. He hoped she wouldn’t notice that they were working the same shifts.
Naomi headed to the kitchen and Sean turned back to Lito. “I like your name,” he said. “You guys are good. Weren’t you written up in The Weekly recently?”
“Yeah. It’s just that Charles is leaving, and that’s who they mostly talked to.”
“Huh. That’s cool, I mean—it’s not cool. I’m sorry. For your band.”
Lito shrugged. “He was okay. We’re really happy for him.” Lito was such a chill guy. “Hey! We’re doing tryouts for a new front guy this week. You should come, Thursday’s open. I know you’ve got the chops—I’ve seen you at Milo’s.”
Sean laughed and pushed up on his glasses.
“No I’m serious,” Lito continued. “We need someone soon, too. We have a New Year’s gig at the Central with Antler Spray.”
Antler Spray sucked, if Sean was thinking of the right band. “Wow, thanks man. Let me think about it. I’m gonna see how that sandwich is going.”
Sean stepped back in the kitchen where Drew and Naomi stood nestled against the dishwasher, Naomi smiling at Drew’s stupid California face. The beef hoagie sat chastely on the mottled cutting board. With fanfare, Sean snapped a square of aluminum foil from the industrial size roll above the sandwich fixings. Drew casually looked back; Naomi jumped. “Got my schedule,” she said, guiltily flashing a note-scribbled napkin at Sean as she slipped out, eyes down. Sean finished wrapping the sandwich.
“Naomi’s giving me a ride,” said Drew, grinning. “You know, the weather.”
Back out front, Sean slid the sandwich to Lito. “Sorry about that.”
“No, thank you! Glad I saw you. See you Thursday, I’ll text you my address. Can’t believe this snow.”
“I can’t believe it either,” said Sean, watching Naomi thumb at her phone in an empty booth.
“Just bring your guitar, and maybe check out our Soundcloud,” Lito called on the way out. Sean hoped Naomi heard. He played a real instrument, he didn’t “make beats” or whatever the fuck Drew did. The door shut and N.W.A. began blaring from the speakers again.
“Okay kids,” Sean announced loudly. “I’m gonna go count the till,” and he took the registers upstairs to the office.
As he waited for Hoagie Planet headquarters to confirm the night’s numbers, Sean opened a new browser to check his email. Two camisole-clad brunettes stared at him from a sidebar, offering to CHAT NOW FOR PORTLAND ORE HOOK-UPS. On a whim he clicked on the image, and was instantly assaulted by seven small windows billowing onto the screen.
“Hey man. Knock knock,” said Drew at the door. “Hands where I can see them—ha, I’m just playin’.” Sean quickly clicked around to close the pop-ups. “We’re checking out, I just wanted to see… with the snow and shit… I don’t have to come in tomorrow, right? Lots of places are closing up tomorrow.”
“Like who?” said Sean.
“Lots of places! Have you seen the forecast? Go to Weather.com,”
Drew started toward the monitor and Sean quickly pressed a CLOSE icon, releasing a new flurry of hungry-eyed Portland singles over the screen.
“No. And yes, we’re open. Nice try.”
“Man I’m just saying, it’s hard to get around without wheels.”
“We have that Coke shipment coming tomorrow. My hands are tied.”
“So wack,” said Drew as he went out the door.
Sean finally closed all the errant windows. There was only one new message in his inbox, from OkCupid. SEANSTER11, SOMEONE CHOSE YOU! He hadn’t logged in for months and was surprised he still remembered his password. The message was from a girl named Valerie. OkCupid said she was 26, she ate meat, and that she hated the question about what movie you could take on a desert island. Her music tastes weren’t objectionable, either, but that just meant she didn’t list HTML.
“Later big guy,” Drew called from below. Naomi giggled at something he couldn’t hear.
Sean clicked the reply button to Valerie and asked if she was free tomorrow night, maybe around eight.
The power went out at five the next day. Sean had just navigated to the Rocky IV’s Soundcloud when he heard a tell-tale click and the living room flickered dark. His laptop screen glowed dully and he stared at their track list, completely unclickable.
“Power’s out,” said Jason, emerging from his bedroom. “I’m going to Teddy’s.”
Sean shut his laptop and walked toward the window. He pulled the blinds up, like the dark outside could light up the dark inside, just a little. Nothing moved outside except for the snow, which fell in sheets.
He sat back down and picked up his guitar from the futon. He had gotten as far as tuning it before getting online. He’d dicked around on Facebook—searching in vain for Valerie, spending too much time on Naomi’s profile, and hate-browsing photos of Nate, whose flash-brightened face smiled back at him from parties in cramped apartments. When Nate left for New York in April, he and Sean had texted for a while—Sean asked Nate how he’d made the decision so easily, and Nate asked Sean why he couldn’t just leave too. Sean had just renewed his lease and been offered the management gig at Hoagie Planet, and he couldn’t really turn down the better hours and pay, especially since Careers—that, of all things, is what they had called their band—would no longer be booking shows. Nate hadn’t even planned on moving—he just couldn’t afford to fly back and had somehow made it work. He had asked Sean to visit, to at least bring the amp he had left in Portland. Sean had texted I would have to sell it to buy a ticket lol. Nate texted back: sell everything else and drive ya dummy.
That was all before the camera commercial. Jason was watching a baseball game when Sean got home from work. He had just opened a beer when he froze at the riff blasting from the next room. He walked slowly into the living room, where a bright, vivid commercial of sunflowers blooming and dancing cameras played chords he had once jotted down on a Hoagie Planet to-go menu, though they were now revved up in a catchy, two-tone synth number.
“What the fuck,” he said, more shocked than mad. He watched a pile of puppies tangle on a beach.
“I know, it’s like, why don’t you fix your crappy 230 model before making an extra crappy 560,” offered Jason.
“I wrote that,” said Sean. “We wrote it. Here.”
Jason grasped Sean’s gravity for a short silent moment. “So you don’t want to watch the game?”
Sean downed his beer. “I’m going to Milo’s.”
Now, in the dark, his fingers moved to the familiar frets. He plucked out the original melody, comically neutered on the unamplified instrument. It made him sad. He still liked the way the chords sounded. He played it through a few times, the way he had written it, pretending it had never been twisted three time zones away. He let the strings bite into his uncalloused fingers; the more it stung now the less it’d hurt later.
His phone buzzed. It was a photo text from Drew of the register’s daily sales so far—$16.54. Drew had included a memo at the bottom for emphasis: 8===D~
Sean sneezed, realizing he was sitting alone in a dark room that was getting progressively colder. He got his coat and headed out.
The snow wasn’t falling fast, just steadily, like it was pacing itself. The sky was an unfamiliar purple. With the wet soaking through his canvas shoes and his unlit block now foreboding in the pervasive darkness, he hustled the four blocks to Milo’s, where the neon KARAOKE sign was caked in snow drift.
Sean’s glasses fogged up the moment he stepped through the door. He wiped them off and ordered a double whiskey soda and a burger. At the bar, a glowing plastic Santa welcomed a busier-than-usual weeknight crowd—cold and confused refugees from the neighborhood. Sean wondered if his chances to sing tonight would be slimmer, then felt guilty about it. Another text from Drew: made 5 sammies all day. no coke.
He was on his second drink when a girl with dark, shoulder-length hair and cat-eye makeup walked over. Her face was flushed, like she had been outside for a while. “Sean?” she asked, head askew like he had done something and wasn’t fessing up to it.
“Hi. Yeah, Valerie. I mean, I’m Sean, you’re… Valerie. Hi.” Sean ran his hand over his beard and stuck it out, then hesitated, then wiped his hand on his pants. Valerie just sat down.
“This weather is nuts. For Portland I mean.”
“Yeah, I lost power at my place.”
“Oh shit, really? We still have ours. I’m like ten blocks thataway,” she said, nodding her head back toward the Santa. “Where do you live?”
“Pretty close, it’s not a bad walk. It’s like, 21st and Thorn. Between 21st and 22nd. Sorry, that was really specific, you didn’t need that specific a location.”
“That’s funny, I work near there… The ugly brick building on 20th. My cousin’s law firm.” Without warning, Sean’s body shivered and he sneezed.
“Bless you,” said Valerie. “Did you only have a coat on? You realize they make products for problems like that. Hats. Gloves.”
“Sorry, I’m from Wisconsin. It’s just second nature for me to have five layers on when it’s cold out. I had to walk tonight—it’s impossible to bike, and I don’t have a car.” Another biker. At least she wasn’t vegan. Over at the bar, Sean saw the Nikon commercial come on the TV. He ran his thumb over the pads of his left-hand fingers under the table.
“So, you… do… legal stuff?”
“Well, it’s sort of a temporary gig. But yeah, I do admin at this legal firm. Until I figure out grad school or something. Pretty sure I don’t want to be a lawyer though. Not if it means going to work at 7:30 even when there’s a psycho snowstorm.”
Sean nodded sympathetically. “Sucks.”
“What about you, do you have to work tomorrow?”
“Um… maybe? Guess we’ll see what the weather’s like?”
The KJ was setting up. Sean had finished his drink but didn’t want to push another round on her, even as she stabbed at her ice cubes. She was looking at her watch. Fuck.
“Okay,” said Valerie gravely. “There is only ten minutes of happy hour left. I need to get a drink right now. Do you want another?”
Sean adjusted his glasses. “Oh! Yeah, I mean, if you—I can—I mean, I have a tab—but, yes. Yeah I would.”
“Yes,” said Sean. “Thank you. I’ll have what you’re having.”
The KJ placed a songbook on Sean’s table. He realized he had torn his napkin into shreds and quickly wiped the tiny wet bits onto the floor.
Valerie returned with two amber glasses. “What’s this?”
“Laaaaadies and gentleman welcome back to another karaoke night at Milo’s. I’m your host Stevie B and we’re going to get started with… Kaaaaatie! Katie come on up.” Sean preferred it when Stevie B kicked things off—usually with Springsteen. It set a good tone for the night. It was important, like the first track in a mix CD.
Valerie turned back, “Did you know about this?”
“Well I—I mean, yeah—well it’s every Wednesday so—but I didn’t like, plot this. I mean… I come here a lot.”
“Do you… enjoy… karaoke?”
“Uh… well,” Valerie cocked her head again. “I guess—well, I don’t think I’ve done it. So I can’t really say.”
“Oh, it’s the best. You’d be great at it.” Katie finished her Nelly Furtado song to polite applause.
“Let’s hear it for Kaaaaaatie,” said Stevie B. Steve was such a pro. “Now let’s get Sean up here. Come on up Sean!”
Valerie made a “well look at you” face at him and he took a deep drink before heading up to the mic. The signature synth of “When Doves Cry” started up. He liked this song—it was a crowd pleaser. As he sang the first verse, he hit every innuendo without coming off too American Idol. He felt Valerie watching him, and even though he didn’t need the screen, he found himself glancing at it to avoid her gaze. He nailed the closing Prince ad-libs, and growled them over the robot-chorus refrain.
“Thank you Seaaan! One of our Milo’s regulars performing a little Prince for you fine folks. Next up we have…Cher…isa? Am I saying that right? Cherisa?”
“Bravo,” said Valerie, when he returned to his seat. “I’m definitely not going to go if you’re the competition.”
“It’s not a competition!”
“Do you like, practice or something? You even made that little”—Valerie made a little Ow! sound, which, to be honest was a little more MJ than Prince—“sound pretty hot.”
Sean ran his hand over his beard. “Thanks, it’s just something I like doing.”
“So you work at Hoagie Planet? My friend got sick there once.” There was a pause. “It was the one downtown,” Valerie added quickly. She flipped through the songbook. “I don’t know any of these songs! I mean, I know Ace of Base but I don’t want to sing them. Maybe if they had, like, Antler Spray, I’d sing that.”
“Did you say Antler Spray?” said Sean.
“Yeah,” she said, then gave him a look. “Don’t give me any Pitchfork bullshit about them. I like them. A lot of people like them.”
“No, I mean, well, I have only heard their older stuff—I mean, sorry I didn’t mean it that way, I have seriously only heard one album by them and it happened to be their first one. What I mean is that this band—a band I’m in… we’re actually playing with them—”
“What.” said Valerie. “Wait. The New Year’s Eve show? If you are bullshitting me—if this some elaborate hipster joke I swear to god I am going to walk out of this bar right now.”
“No, seriously. The Rocky IV. At the Central.”
“Are you shitting me.”
“I cannot believe this. I’m texting my roommate.” Valerie started typing on her phone. “She is literally going to slit her wrists about this. She is like, their biggest fan.” Her phone chimed almost instantly. Valerie answered and whispered loudly “It’s her” to Sean, pointing at her ear.
She walked to a quieter end of the bar and Sean ordered another round. He rubbed his left thumb around the pads of his fingers over and over. At the mic, a girl watched her Third Eye Blind lyrics reel by. “Whoa. I did not know these were the words to the song.”
Valerie came back a few minutes later with her phone still cocked to her ear. “Hey, I’m trying to figure out work tomorrow. Where do you live again?” Sean told her, even though he didn’t understand the question. Still… he texted Drew. k HQ says we’re closed tomorrow.
Valerie returned and sat down. “Yikes,” she said to Sean, nodding back at an older guy’s off delivery of “I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You.”
“Yeah, I feel really bad when this happens. I don’t even think this guy is a bad singer, he’s just like, one note off-key, and he knows it, and he’s just… clawing his way back.”
Valerie kept her eyes on him as he spoke. She put her hand on her heart and in faux earnestness locked eyes with Sean. “Makes you wish there was something you could do.”
“It’s a heartbreaking, completely preventable condition,” he replied in matched concern.
“So but seriously. Is that what you do—sing?”
“Well, I also write music. Figure out the song structure and chords before Nate adds lyrics and like… his pretty-boy production. Probably doing that in Williamsburg right now.”
“Williamsburg? Like, New York? And he’s coming to the show next week? My roommate tried to fly home and said the airports are a complete shitshow.” Sean realized she hadn’t been asking about Careers.
“I’m not worried about it,” he said, and for the first time in a while, he really wasn’t.
The drinks arrived. “Seannnnn, Sean if you could step up to the mic.” Maybe he and Stevie B should be in a band together.
Valerie raised her eyebrows. “You’re singing again?”
“I mean,” Sean stared ahead at the microphone. “I can’t go home. It’s just…cold and roaches there.” Valerie laughed. He hadn’t said it as a joke but he was glad she liked it.
Pink letters reading Sweet Talkin’ Woman—in the style of Electric Light Orchestra bled into a cyan screen. The strings started up and Stevie B put on a pair of sunglasses. “Don’t know what I’m gonna dooooo,” he crooned, stretching his arm out like total cheeseball, then drawing it back and clutching a fist—“I gotta get back to youuuu” he looked at Valerie even though he hadn’t planned to. He had expected her to be browsing the songbook but she had been looking right at him with a bemused ex-pression, and only glanced away when he caught her eye.
About halfway through the song Katie’s table came to the dance floor. This was his favorite part of the song, when the music dropped out for two measures then kicked back in before things got too melodramatic. “Slow down—slow down—sweet talkin’ Lola…” Sean received loud whistles when he was done.
“It’s cold outside but let’s keep things hot with a little R. Kelly from Robbbbbie,” announced Stevie B. “Can we get Robbie up here.”
After that the dancing never let up. Valerie even went up to sing some Gwen Stefani with an amorphous group of middle-aged women. When last call rolled around it seemed like the whole bar was on the dance floor, shouting along every word with Stevie B to “Hungry Heart.” The room’s warm red lights shone on everyone’s face and the tinsel rippled on the wall. Outside, the snow plummeted, the flakes lit up by the orange glow of the streetlights, falling like sparks from a fire.
“The roof is on fire,” he said.
“You’re drunk,” she said.
Then it was over. The house lights came on and Sean’s damp t-shirt stuck coldly to his back. Over a clatter of glasses, “Comes a Time” came over the bar’s speakers. Neil. “Do you know this song?” Sean slurred to Valerie. He was in love with Valerie. He was going to make a mix CD for her. It would have Neil, and Dinosaur Jr., and “Mama You’ve Been on My Mind”—the Jeff Buckley version. “I want to talk to you about this song. You can’t hear it right now, you can’t hear it right, but I need to tell you about it.”
“I bet you do,” said Valerie. They stepped outside. The snow glowed faintly pink from the bar’s red Rainier sign. “Here, wear this,” she gave him her wool hat. Then she grabbed his shoulders and positioned him East. “Lead on.”
He turned to her, fat flakes falling on his face. “You’re coming to my place?”
“I just think…” she blinked and her eye makeup left small black tracks on her cheek. “Sometimes it’s nice to weather these things with someone else.” The thought had never occurred to him. “Also I need to get to work in the morning.”
When Sean woke up, he had a thick headache and a dry mouth. The snow had stopped, his phone was dead. The power was back. Valerie was gone.
He took a hot shower and grabbed the last High Life from the fridge. Cancelling work had been a great decision. Drew was a genius.
A sleeping bag folded in an oblique square sat on the futon. He moved it aside and it crumpled into a soft mess on the floor. He plugged his phone in and played through three Rocky IV songs before his phone buzzed to life. He made himself wait until he had finished the song before texting Valerie. Had a great night. Am free tonight after band thing.
When Sean had run through every Rocky IV song twice and had emptied his High Life, he shut his laptop. He looked at his phone, and at the sleeping bag, and out the window where everything was white and grey. He couldn’t see anything when he looked back inside. He closed his eyes and let his fingers find their place for the Careers song again. Now amplified, the song seemed sadder, lonelier, with so much energy behind it but no backing band. Working slowly, he picked out a new chord, a bridge that chased the gloom with a knowing nod. He murmured a song with no words somewhere high above it.
At ten til two, his car didn’t start. He counted out bus fare from the kitchen drawers. The snow that had sparkled last night now scrunched with contempt underfoot, and his feet were soggy when he reached the bus stop. A girl with huge headphones, maybe Naomi’s age, was waiting too. She glanced reservedly at him when he approached.
Sean nodded at her and pulled out his phone and dialed the bus alert number. “Thank you for calling Tri-Met. WINTER. WEATHER. ALERT,” annunciated the robot voice. “Arrival times may be indeterminate due to winter forecast. Number FIFTY. FIVE is FOUR minutes OR. TWENTY. ONE. minutes away.”
Sean texted Lito. Bus late. SO sorry. Be there as soon as possible. He paused then hit backspace. Be there asap. He deleted everything. Bus is late. Keep u posted. He hit send.
“S’not coming,” he half-said to the girl, throwing it out with a laugh for her to respond to or not, only then remembering her headphones.
She removed one earphone and he heard a thin, familiar strain of music. Was it—? Probably not. He couldn’t. He wasn’t that guy. She probably had a boyfriend. Why wouldn’t she? What if she didn’t? What was he doing? Valerie had come home with him last night.
“The bus,” Sean threw his thumb back. “I mean,” he held up his phone. “I called it, it’s not coming. I mean, they said it was, but, like—the number, Tri-Met, said—I mean, usually when the weather is like this, it doesn’t come..” He put his phone in his pocket. “Are you… is that Harvest?”
“Are you listening to Neil Young?” But it was too late. He now heard plainly that what he had mistaken for the signature harmonica of “Heart of Gold” was actually a dark violin riff, a harsh and ugly melody warped through her headphones and this bullshit weather. “Nevermind, I just thought I heard… Okay so this is funny because actually, the other night I was listening to, well, I mean I wouldn’t normally care that you were listening to Neil Young—” He could hear more of the abrasive music now. “But you’re not! So I don’t—”
“It’s Two Days Til Your Tombstone.”
“Oh! Yeah,” said Sean knowingly, like she had just asked if he was wearing clothes or if his body took food he ate and converted it into energy. He pushed up his glasses. “Wait, that’s the name of the band?”
She had removed her headphones. “That’s what you asked, right?”
“Yes, I did,” said Sean.
“You said the bus isn’t coming?”
“It’s either really close or not coming.” He shifted his guitar from one side to the other and ran his hand over his beard. “So not cool. I’m gonna be late for band practice.” She gave him a tight smile and began scrolling through her iPod with her fingerless gloves. “I’m sort of the frontman, not sure what they can do without me right now.”
“It’s here,” the girl said.
“Hm?” said Sean, leaning in.
He turned to see the 55 plowing over the white horizon in a wake of slushy refuse. “Right. Cool. Yeah.” He pulled out his phone. nm. on my way.
It was 2:50 when he walked up to Lito’s house. A birdbath filled with snow stood nearby, its bowl pockmarked with cigarette butts. Three empty PBR cans lay half-interred near the front steps.
He tried the door, but the wet brass knob twisted uselessly, making a whiny, tactile squeak. “Hey!” Sean looked up to see Lito’s tapping at a window. “Sean! Try the back.”
Inside it was warm and smelled like weed. Sean left his shoes in a pile of boots by the door and put his coat and guitar by a closet. He could still smell the wet metal of the doorknob on his hand. Five guys sat around a huge television playing Call of Duty. Sean recognized a few of them, he thought, although they looked like a lot of people. They were tall and trim, wore moustaches and North Face. He imagined they drove Jeeps and had girlfriends with names like Dakota and Taryn. An elegant, blown-glass bong sat on the table.
Lito glanced over at him. “Hey man. Sorry, a bunch of guys had work off today. We’re getting a late start with practice.”
“No worries,” said Sean, crossing his arms and leaning on his right foot, then switching to his left. The men twitched and angled in front of the television. Sean wanted to comment on the game, but didn’t know which trajectory to follow on the split screen.
His pocket buzzed. Valerie. Hey. Thanks for letting me crash! Busy tonight, have a good band thing :)
no worries, he typed. some other time :) Now he had time to finish her mix CD. He kept his phone out for a bit but she didn’t text back.
“Ah fuckshit,” said Lito. “I got shot. You want a turn, Sean?”
Sean said sure, though he now wished the 55 had never shown up, that he was still on the curb with Two Days Til Your Tombstone.
“Are we playing co-op?” Sean asked, mimicking what he had overheard Jason say a few times.
“Cool,” said Sean. “Cool cool.”
Sean’s camo-clad figure moved at an uncomfortably quick clip through a cement structure, feeling a sense of command and ineptitude at once. A figure appeared to his right. Sean shifted his sights, aimed, and fired something.
“Dude what the fuck?” said one of the guys.
“Oh shit, sorry,” said Sean. “Did I get you killed?”
“No,” said Chris, the casualty. “You got both of us killed because you threw a grenade.” Sean stared at the screen, now turning crimson. He pressed on the buttons on his controller just to hear them click.
“I don’t think the two of us can hold them off,” said another guy. Lito exhaled a cloud of smoke “We should probably get started anyway. Ready to play yet?”
Sean checked his phone again as the Rocky IV extricated their lanky frames from the couch and descended to the basement. No new messages. Maybe he hadn’t actually sent the last one? He clicked to his outbox. Okay, he had.
The basement was freezing. Chris settled behind the drum kit.
“What do you want to play, boss?” asked Lito.
“Uh… Well, I mean, I only know—I mean, what do you want to play?” They ran through some Rocky IV songs, Sean successfully coasting through the ones he didn’t know the words to.
After a few songs Lito said, “Well you definitely don’t sound like Charles, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.” It felt good to be part of something again, to feel everything swell up around him, even if he tripped up a few times and his fingers felt a little wooden in the cold. Even if they were opening for Antler Spray.
“Okay, one thing we’ve been making people do,” said Lito, “is show some stuff you’ve been working on that you think maybe we could all play.”
“Sure, sure sure,” said Sean. “Yeah, I uh, I do actually have something. It’s uh,” Sean quickly fingered the frets. “C major 7… B minor 7… then uh… D.” He started at a slow tempo, finger-picking the song he hadn’t shaken for two days. “Oh—hold on actually.” Sean stopped and pulled out a glass slide. Its sound on the guitar seemed to cement what he had been going for, and after a few stanzas he looked up, almost surprised at himself.
Lito began a bass line beneath it and Chris eventually surrendered a simple beat. The confluence of sound spread a warmth he hadn’t felt in a long time through his body. It carried him somewhere and a melody came to him that he hummed lightly, just off the mic. He closed his eyes and heard his song for the first time.
Lito seemed pleased. “Nice, man. How do you guys feel about it?” The keyboardist shrugged assent.
“Yeah, it’s cool,” said Chris. “Reminds of that one song—”
Sean interrupted. “Well actually I—I mean. Nate didn’t even—this is what it was supposed to be.” Sean stopped talking because he felt his voice tremor.
It was quiet for a second. “No I mean, it sounds like that one song. You know, Duh nuh nuh nuh lotta-love!” Chris sang flatly. “Same chords, right?”
Sean turned to face the drum kit. He thought he felt his phone buzz in his pocket but he left it.
“You guys know what I’m talking about, right? Unhhuh unhhuh lotta love… to get me through dun-uh. Who was that, Clapton?”
“Neil Young,” said Sean. “It was Neil Young.” He ran through the chords on his guitar slow and deliberately, the slide squeaky but clear. “You’re right,” he said, still staring at his fingers on the fret board, dis-appointed in their betrayal. He slipped the slide off.
Chris held out his drumsticks like he was shrugging. “I mean, maybe your song changes? I don’t know.”
Sean turned the volume down on his guitar but kept playing, humming something over the tinny sound of the strings. Then he stopped. “I don’t know if it does.”
Lito broke the silence. “I like that song, wanna make a go at it?”
Sean looked up, realizing where he was. “Yeah. You know, I actually have a shift at five… that I need to make. And it’ll probably take forever getting over there… I better—I really appreciate you guys having me over. Good luck with auditions.”
Outside Sean studied the bright, cold landscape in front of him. The small houses, the bicycles left locked to stop signs, the dog turds on the sidewalk—they all sat where they had been two days ago, only now they were enveloped indifferently by a soft three-inch layer of snow. He stood there until he heard a muffled drum beat come from the house he had just left, the real band practice starting, the sound swallowed up by the snow. Sean walked over to one of the snow-covered cars in the street and put his hand on the white-coated roof, pushing through the icy crust to the fluffy snow below. He left it there until it began to hurt.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Two.