New Songs for Old Radios
  Stories by B. B. Garin
  1  Ashes Hit the Floor
2  The Last Ballad of Saddler Vance
3  The Fix
4  The Brothers Cooly
5  New Songs for Old Radios
  About the Author  |  echapbook.com  |  Winter 2019 Fiction Issue
 

The Fix

The fang was a mistake. But there’s no fixing it now.

I ate a puck in junior hockey when I was just old enough to have grown-up teeth and young enough to be a real bloody, bawling mess. I quit on the spot, got an implant the next week and signed up for drum lessons. Later, I dyed my hair black, let it grow all over and filed the implant down to a point.

My cousin Zemgus (guitar) and his girlfriend Nora (vocals/tambourine) and I started a band. RockSalt had soul. RockSalt had edge. RockSalt was taking us places. A lot of girls in those places wanted me to bite them. Things were good. Until, Zem and Nora fell apart in the kind of alcohol-fanned, bottle-breaking, instrument-smashing frenzy only musicians understand.

I do cover bands now. Probably played with every one for fifty miles. Spend my Fridays in sticky-floored bars with two-dollar drafts and limping neon signs. We take requests. I hope for Def Leppard and settle for Aerosmith.

After the band, Zem became an orderly on the pediatric ward. He doubles his accent and the kids all laugh at him. Sometimes he brings a ukulele. The nurses can’t get enough of him up there. He pretends like he doesn’t care. He says kids are like puppies, they can’t help being cute even when they shit on your shoes.

I’m a phlebotomist. I’ll take a routine over all that sloppy charm any day. It’s a lot less exhausting. Make a fist. Uncross your legs. Relax the fist. Tell me if you feel faint, please. No, it’s okay, lots of people don’t like the sight of blood. Just say you’re feeling nauseous next time. And then I page janitorial for a mop.

We’re from Latvia, but my family was already planning our departure when I was born. My mother thought an Irish name would make me seem more American, so she named me Colum. My dad thought rock ’n roll made me seem American too, so he never minded all the noise. When RockSalt broke up, I shaved my head and grew a beard. By then, neither of them was around to comment.

We went back to Latvia once when I was a kid. My auntie sent Zem along with us, but wouldn’t go herself. Or my grandparents, who still lived in Riga, wouldn’t have her. I was too young to really understand the grownups. And to be honest, my grandfather terrified me. I remember thinking my auntie had been smart to keep an ocean between them.

He took us to a hockey match. My gum still had a sore pink spot above my new tooth. I flinched every time the boards rattled. Zem laughed and didn’t explain when our grandfather asked what the matter with me was.

My auntie made sure Zem didn’t forget his Latvian, though he was only seven when we left. I’m two years younger, and most of what I could remember by the time we went back was only good for lullabies. If my grandfather understood a word of English he never let on.

My presiding memories of the trip are Zem mistranslating signs with a smug look and my grandfather swiping the back of my head with all the playfulness of a dancing bear. I didn’t find out till a lot later that we went because my mother had just been diagnosed.

When I look at the pictures now, I see she’s not smiling at the camera. She’s watching me and Zem scattering pigeons in front of all these blue and white castle type places, like we’ve run amok in some fairytale. And if I look really close, I think her lip’s trembling, like she’s trying very hard not to cry.

After RockSalt, I rented a studio apartment across from the hospital’s ambulance bay. It was convenient for the job, but I never got used to the noise. That’s when I started taking cover gigs, anything that kept me up and out, away from the sound of other people’s tragedies.

I only lasted a year on my own. I moved back to my auntie’s house, which Zem never left. It’s the house we grew up in, but it seems too big for us now and it’s worn-down in a long-toothed way I never noticed before.

We put my auntie in a home last year, but we checked her out for Christmas, because we’re not heathens. To be sure, she smacked our ears and dragged us to church. When we didn’t burst into flames, she went home with us. She crossed herself three times at the sight of the kitchen and tossed salt around. Then she opened her handbag and produced half a pound of grey peas, followed by some fatty, marbled bacon. I half expected her to pull the frying pan out of there too, I swear.

But she consented to use one of our two pans to fry up a proper meal. She shook her wooden spoon (which was in the bag) and told us that eating peas was good luck. Or maybe brought you riches. Or both. Well really, it’s the same.

And neither’s ever happened. But we nodded and sang her Christmas songs in terrible Russian. We brought out an attempt at sauerkraut soup, which made her so proud she cried, even if it tasted like dishwater. So, everything was alright. I didn’t even get upset when the nurse shouted at us for bringing her back almost a day late and said she had been ready to call the cops.

Zem got a pack of tarot cards in the pediatric floor’s Secret Santa. He claimed it was a regift from someone’s New Age aunt. But I think he was making excuses so I wouldn’t rant about someone mistaking us for gypsies. I’d already made some flavored declarations over the mug I got with a cartoon vampire and a lame line about needing coffee more than blood. Zem insisted it was a commentary on my job and not my tooth, but I had serious doubts.

Anyway, we had a good time for a few days ignoring the complicated chart of instructions that came  with the tarot box and making up our own interpretations. The first card Zem shuffled up was the 5 of Cups, and as he pointed out, it was five days until New Year’s Eve when we’d be draining a lot of cups. So, maybe we were on to something.

New Year’s morning, I woke up with a dry head and a painful taste in my mouth. Or the other way around. Doesn’t matter. January’s a crap month. The bars fill up with people who are sick of drinking at home. Only they’ve forgotten that they’re drinking at home because going out involves three layers that make you sweat as soon as you’re in the door, and still haven’t kept the wind from freezing out your eyeballs. Not to mention scraping off the car, and getting stuck behind a plow, and the three inches of slush in the parking lot that reminds you too late to put a new coat of waterproofing on your boots.

Zem was still asleep on our plaid couch. The springs have all cemented and it squeals like a cat tuning a piano with every move. Zem can sleep anywhere.

I punched him in the shoulder and he groaned upright, accompanied by a sharp C scale.

“Coffee?”

“Not yet.”

He leaned down, gathered the spread of tarot cards from the floor, and began shuffling.

I paused on my way to the kitchen.

“What’d we get?” I asked, when he flipped one up.

“Three of Coins.”

“Hmmm…I guess we won’t hit it big this year.”

He continued to flick cards down on the worn couch cushions. As I went into the kitchen, I heard him mutter, “Never gonna hit it big.”

It wouldn’t have made me ram the coffee pot under the faucet with such force if he had actually sounded bitter about it. But he didn’t. He sounded like he did when he told me Santa Claus wasn’t real, like he knew something I was still too young to understand.

Another thing we got over the holidays was a new neighbor. A jogger. January 2nd, she puffed down the street, little drops of calories darkening her bright pink headband. I figured we wouldn’t see much of her after a week or so. I’ve never known anyone who got further with their resolutions than ordering lite beer. But it’s been almost a month and she hasn’t quit.

She’s got a husky dog that lopes along with her. I don’t mean a sleek gray one that could lead your dogsled team. I mean this shaggy, big brown thing that looks like it was a lumberjack in another life. She pants encouragement to it as they go, her ponytail bouncing in annoyingly perky time.

She calls the dog Max. I don’t know what she calls herself, despite several cheery waves (her) and blank stares (me). Since my abbreviated junior hockey career, I’ve never had much interest in fitness.

Every so often, Zem tows me along to the gym, or at least up to the 7th floor to fuss around with weights and flirt with the physio girls. He gets a lot of phone numbers and I almost always drop something on my toe.

Zem’s just shy of six and a half feet tall and built like a brick house. I’m almost as tall, but despite my auntie’s vigorous attempts to put some meat on my bones, I’ve always looked like a turkey whose neck isn’t worth wringing. A med student once told me I could pick up some extra cash modeling for her anatomy class, since my ribcage was so clearly depicted.

I try not to let it bother me. I’ve got my cover gigs to keep me busy on the weekends, and these days the tooth never goes over well, no matter how I spin it on a first date. Maybe I’d have better luck if Zem still played wingman. But I’ve stopped asking him to catch a show. He always said he’d get the next one, but he never did. Most Fridays he heads upstairs early and I hear him faking his way through the guitar solo of “Comfortably Numb” when I head out.

This week though, he sat at the kitchen table contemplating the appearance of the Hanging Man on top of his deck, when the pizza boy banged on our door with unusual enthusiasm. I left Zem meditating on the future, but there was no greasy cardboard box in sight. Just our cardio-fixated neighbor looking wildly about the yard. She glanced up at me with a desperate killer sort of look.

Our front door’s a heavy, slippery bastard. It closed behind me, pushing me out onto the step, where my breath immediately clouded and my nerves began to burrow in for warmth.

“Ax?” she said, frantically.

“Umm…No?” I said, reaching for the doorknob slowly, so as to not provoke her into frenzied attack. The neighbors already thought we were a bit off. I could imagine sang-froid satisfaction going around the block with the news I’d been chopped to bits on my own front lawn.

“Oh,” her blue eyes filled up, probably with worry over how to do me in now. “He’s never run off before. But there was a cat,” she sniffed. “I mean it’s instinct right?”

She collected herself, put two fingers in her mouth and whistled like a pro.

“Ax! C’mere boy! Ax!”

“I thought your dog’s name was Max?” I said, testing a new theory.

She shook her head, ponytail swishing. “Ax. It’s short for Axel.”

She didn’t seem like a typical Axl Rose fan, but I thought it was promising.

“I design mountain bikes,” she added.

Of course.

Well, we found the dumb dog. It was whimpering under our back porch. Shelly said he must have chased a squirrel or something in there and gotten stuck. Personally, I think he was hiding from a cat. We have some very demonic strays around here.

Either way, I had to get on my belly and crawl under there to push the big baby out. Then, I stood picking matted leaves off what was now an authentically grungy Nirvana shirt while she hugged Ax, and sobbed into his muddy fur.

Zem leaned out the back door and announced the arrival of our pizza. We didn’t technically invite Shelly to join us. But she followed us in as if we had.

I expected her to flinch at our oozing, over loaded dinner and start picking at least two of the three meats off. If not declare herself a gluten something. But she devoured three slices and two beers, which was a feat in itself because she never stopped talking. She dropped the crusts on the floor and her monster dog swallowed them whole.

She laughed when we told her where we worked.

“People in healthcare always have the worst diets.”

I shrugged and went to look in the fridge for nothing particular.

“Your accent’s cool,” Shelly said. “Are you Swedish?”

Zem choked into his beer. I bent deeper into the fridge.

“Latvian.” I told the crusted ketchup bottle.

“Oh, nice. That’s like around Germany, right?”

“Give or take Poland.”

I grabbed a coke, though I still had half a beer sweating on the table.

“We’re out of whiskey,” Zem said.

“Gig tonight. I need the caffeine.”

I popped the tab and listened to the fizz. Neither of us much liked sweet things. God only knows how long that coke had been in there. “Gig?” Shelly said, like it was a foreign word.

“Cole’s a drummer,” Zem grinned.

“Zem’s a guitarist,” I countered.

“I don’t play anymore,” he stopped grinning. “Cole does. All the time.”

Shelly and Ax both stared at me with bright, eager expressions.

“Really? Where?”

I shrugged. “Around. I don’t have a regular band.”

“You’re at The Fix tonight, aren’t you?” Zem asked, scratching the monster dog’s ears.

I nodded, hoping he was about to get bitten.

“I don’t know it,” Shelly said. “But I haven’t been out much since I moved.”

Zem cleared his throat, the dog made a low, mangling sound in reply.

“The Bees?” he asked, and explained to Shelly. “All-girl Beatles cover band. Except when they need Cole to be Ringo.”

She smiled, uncertainly. “That’s like Paul MacCarthy, right?”

I managed not to spit out my drink in horror. Zem nodded, but his teeth dug into his lip.

“That’s fun,” Shelly said.

But she stood up pretty quick and beat it out of there, the beast trudging at her heels.

“You’re an idiot,” Zem said.

I picked up my beer but it’d gone flat. Later, as I was leaving for The Fix, I heard Zem up in his room, starting on the intro to “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

The next morning, Shelly and the beast trotted by as I pulled into the driveway. She puffed to a stop and started jabbering, bouncing from foot to foot. I squinted at the gray lumps of snow, and tried to indicate, without opening my mouth, that I wouldn’t mind if she went jogging on.

I had an insistent hangover. I’d told the girls I’d play for drinks. So, I’d actually made quite a bit, depending on how you looked at it.

Shelly asked if I sang too. I blinked and shook my head. Levon Helm, I am not.

“Oh well,” she shrugged, making her entire body bounce. “When’s the next one?”

“Not sure.”

It seemed like she was finally going to move on, until a squirrel leapt from the roof to our sprawling tree, probably to keep a good distance between itself and Ax’s drooling jaws. A hunk of gutter creaked lose in its wake. I would’ve left it, but Shelly offered to fix it. So, I cracked my neck and went for it.

“I worked for a lawn care company summers in college,” she said, while I climbed on the remains of the porch rail and tried to push the sloshing, aluminum trough back in place. It slipped, clipped my ear and I jumped back to the ground swearing. Ax cocked his shaggy head, obviously laughing at me.

“Don’t need it anyway,” I muttered, rubbing my ear. “Rain goes down. That’s gravity.”

“Don’t be silly. I’ll do it today. And I’ll only charge you in pizza and beer,” she said, like that was our thing.

“What?” Zem said, when I told him.

“I couldn’t stop her.”

He looked paler than me, with bluish smudges under his eyes. I winced, along with the couch, as he sat up, knuckling his temple. A bright orange pick fell out from behind his ear, though I didn’t see his guitar anywhere. Just the tarot cards that never seem far from his fingers these days. He hasn’t played with anyone, not even me, since RockSalt, but I used to hear him plucking out new melodies late at night, when I dragged in reeking of beer and damp flannel.

“Why stop her?” Zem said, starting to shuffle.

I sucked my sharp tooth and glared.

“Were you going to do it?” he asked.

He flicked down the Fool card and I went to make coffee.

When Shelly came, I pretended to be passed out. But I listened to her hammering while Zem fought Ax for mastery of a stick. And somewhere in there, he mentioned that The Bees were playing The Fix again, next Friday.

The home cancelled poker night, so I visited my auntie Thursday to make sure she didn’t start a riot. Zem didn’t go much, so I tried to come around once a week. I felt like he was wasting a perfectly good mother. But maybe he thought the same thing about me, that I’d blown it with my father, squandered the only male role model available to us.

I was late and blamed it on the icy roads. She snorted, telling me I didn’t know a thing about a real winter. When she was a girl, they could walk out their second story windows, the snow piled so high, and the whole family slept on the oven for warmth.

I brought my drumsticks to tap out rhythms on her card table, while she sang folksongs. She said she knew a thousand and one songs that had never been written down. They all sounded the same to me, and suspiciously like Duran Duran. But I hummed vaguely along, while she grinned like a hungry wolf.

“Once I sang at Latvijas Nacionālā Opera,” she said.

I blinked and called without thinking, laying down what I had known was a bad hand a minute before. My auntie’s very good at shock tactics.

I considered her nimble fingers as she stacked my nickels into a shiny tower.

“When?”

“After the war,” she said, enigmatically.

I tried to do some math but it was blurry.

“What did you sing?”

“Opera.”

I couldn’t tell if she was bluffing me.

“I would’ve liked to see that,” I said.

“I was something.”

She nodded proudly, and took the rest of my nickels.

I think my auntie decided to live twice as long to make-up for her sister dying so young. Or maybe twice as much. When I start to think of her as just the woman who used to dole out lunch money, do my laundry, and avoid all the usual social functions associated with parenting, she’ll get a letter postmarked Montreal. The writing’s black and bold and full of strong French accents. She’ll leave it lying where we can see it, because she knows Zem and me can’t read it.

Zem asked her once what happened to his father. She said something sharp in Latvian that Zem wouldn’t translate for me. She was ten years older than my mother. It’s hard for me to imagine Mom aging like her. Becoming a woman with so much past, most of it is invisible.

Friday morning, I dragged Zem to work an hour early so there would be no chance of crossing paths with Shelly. I was hoping she’d forgotten all about The Fix.

But you can’t always get what you want, and all that. She was sitting on a barstool, waving at me when I slunk behind my drum kit. Tall as I am, I can’t see much from back there. I threw myself into ‘Help’ and tried not to think about it.

After, I dodged out the back door while the girls took a bow. I didn’t look around to see if Shelly had made it to the end of the show. I just waited by the van with a couple of cymbals until Vic came out, lugging an amp and unlocked it.

I liked Vic. She was our Lennon, even wore the glasses. And she didn’t ask why I was standing in the freezing parking lot without my coat like an idiot. She and the other girls brought out the rest of the stuff (my coat included) and I started loading it into the van.

After the other two shouted their goodbyes, Vic leaned on her guitar case and watched me play Tetris with our equipment.

“I’m thinking of getting another band together,” she said. “Something with a bigger repertoire. Your cousin plays guitar, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Think he’d be interested?”

I knew Vic had a crush on Zem, but I wasn’t sure I was ready to let another musician into his life. Nora left him with a split lip, a busted guitar, and a broken heart. Not to mention he seemed more likely to join a circus than a band these days.

“Probably not,” I said.

“How about you?”

“You know, I’m always up for more ‘Don’t Stop Believin.’”

“I hope it doesn’t come to that,” Vic grimaced. “Ask Zem for me, anyway. Will you?”

Before I could start evasive maneuvers, Shelly appeared around the corner of the van.

“You all were so good,” she said. “I liked the one at the end with everyone clapping.”

“Come Together?” Vic’s eyes crinkled up behind their round lenses. “Thanks.”

I shoved the last amp into the van.

“Well, let me know about that wedding next Saturday,” I said, snapping the doors closed.

“I’ll see you, Cole,” Vic turned to Shelly. “Always fun to meet a fan.”

She actually shook Shelly’s mittened hand before swinging around to the driver’s side.

“She’s nice.” Shelly grabbed my arm as if she suddenly couldn’t navigate the icy parking lot.

“You didn’t have to stay,” I said.

“Oh, but I had fun. And it’s not last call yet. We can still get a drink.”

My feet were numb and I owed her for distracting Vic. So, we went back inside and I have to admit, I didn’t have the worst time once I settled into the rhythm of her chattering.

“You don’t say much,” she said, as the lights flickered up. “Is it because you bite your tongue a lot?”

I sucked my fake tooth and let her laugh at her bad joke. It was the closest she’d come to asking about the fang, which made her pretty unique really, especially since she wasn’t shy about asking everything else.

“I’ve learned to live with it. It keeps me sharp,” I said, and she laughed some more.

My dad called to wish me a happy birthday, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him he was a week early. He tried, I knew, but Mom was the one who kept track of things like birthdays and bills. After she died, he would sit at the kitchen table, pulling his beard, staring at the checkbook and muttering reassuring slogans about capitalism. You have to fake it to make it and so on. I don’t think he ever really learned to read English. He gave up and went back to Latvia when I was fifteen. I think we were both a little relieved.

We do our best, what with a generation and several time zones between us. Like I said, he was early on the birthday, but he was really pleased he remembered the time difference. And he did better than Zem, who completely forgot.

Maybe it shouldn’t have bothered me so much. But last week he seemed shocked when Shelly showed up with the monster dog for us to babysit while she was at some bike conference, even though it was Zem who volunteered for the job (despite my protests). All he seemed to do lately was play with his stupid tarot cards. I tried suggesting he take them over to show my auntie since she’s full of gleefully arcane bones, but he snapped at me to mind my own business and stomped upstairs. I hadn’t heard a single riff out of his room since.

When one of the nurses shouted happy birthday to me on our way out of work, Zem just looked blank. Then he apologized at every stoplight until I turned the radio up. By the time we got home, I just wanted to bang around on my drums while he made up some over the top melodies, like we did when we were kids and one of us failed a test.

“I’m sorry, Cole,” he said again, as we trooped up to the front door.

“It’s not a big deal,” I said.

“You order a pizza. I’ll call Shelly, and have her bring some good beer.”

I hadn’t asked her to, but Shelly had come to a few more of my gigs. And we’d had a few more drinks together. Apparently, she’d met up with Vic too, for coffee and some impromptu rock history lessons. Vic told me she approached music like some kind of math problem, as if multiplying a few bands together could explain The Beatles. I couldn’t see it working, but it did make me feel guilty for turning down Shelly’s offer to loan me a bike.

And now she had a present for me. The thin square package could only be an album. I peeled the paper off hoping it wouldn’t be Genesis. That she hadn’t done some internet search for hit drummers that spat out Phil Collins.

It took me a minute to recognize the angular letters spelling out Def Leppard.

“Vic said they had a good drummer,” Shelly said quickly, when I just stared.

“Total bad ass,” Zem said. Maybe it was the beer, but he actually looked pleased for me.

Rick Allen. He lost an arm in a car crash,” I said.

“Really?” she said. “And he kept playing?”

“Turns out he only needed one.”

For a week after my birthday, I considered telling Zem about Vic’s offer just to wake him up a bit. I stuck my head in his room before I went to practice with The Bees meaning to do it. But then I glimpsed his guitar looking all dusty and forgotten in the corner.

“You want something?” he asked, looking sleepily up from his usual shuffling.

I wanted to yell at him to go pick up his damn guitar and play me some ironic exit music, but I sunk my sharp tooth into my lip instead and shook my head. When I got back, Zem was on the screechy couch with Shelly, tarot cards piled up between them.

“Hey Cole!” Shelly gasped with laughter, while Ax rolled around at her feet. “Zem thinks I’m going to adopt a parrot and move to Barcelona.”

“Those things are ridiculous,” I said.

“I like them,” Zem said, cradling them in his palm.

“I’ve noticed.”

Ax bristled and Shelly grabbed his collar.

“It’s just for fun,” she said.

“Zem doesn’t have fun anymore,” I said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Forget it,” I headed for the stairs.

I was halfway up when Shelly caught my elbow.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” I jerked my arm back.

“I think he gets lonely when you’re out playing.”

“It’s his own fault. He doesn’t play anymore.”

“Maybe he’d like to.”

“What do you know about it?!”

She gathered her breath like she meant to shout at me, but then she just turned and ran back down. Ax gave me an evil eye, and thumped after her. Zem appeared at the foot of the stairs as the heavy door banged behind them.

I hadn’t seen him look like that in years, not since I broke a string messing around with his new guitar.

“What?” I shouted, my lungs really burning up now.

“You don’t get it.”

“I don’t get why you’ve become such a superstitious hermit!”

“Shut up, Cole.”

“I don’t get why you fucked our band! Why you don’t care about anything-”

“Get out!”

“It’s my house!”

“It’s my mother’s house. You don’t have one. Get out!”

I didn’t know where to go, so I went to see my auntie. I had to sneak into her room, since it was way past visitor’s hours, but she was still awake, sitting defiantly upright in her robe. She didn’t seem surprised to see me, but then nothing’s really surprised my auntie since the Berlin Wall came crumbling down.

“Well?” she said, muting the television.

“I don’t know,” I slumped into her only comfortable chair.

“Alright.”

She turned the volume back on and we watched some unconventional partners solve a crime.

“Zem hates me,” I said, afterwards.

She tutted, like she did when we were squabbling teenagers.

“No really,” I said.

“Do you hate him?”

“No.”

“Good.”

“Can I sleep here?”

“No. Go fix your problems.”

But she didn’t rat me out when the nurse made her rounds and I crammed myself into the malty smelling closet. She told me again how her whole family slept on the oven when she was small. How wolves would sit in the snowy yard and make demands in clear, clipped voices. How we’ve all gone soft over here with our central heat and our snow blowers.

She nodded off, her little walnut chin dropping onto her chest, her breath whistling through the gaps in her yellow teeth. I pulled up her quilt and took one of the four crocheted blankets piled in a basket by the bed for myself. I settled into the chair and let the warm blue glow of the TV put me to sleep.

I woke up to the less than warm stare of Cleo, the day nurse. She punctuated every other word with a tap of her glaring white sneakers.

“This is not your home,” she said.

“I didn’t mean…”

“You are not allowed to sleep here.”

“I can…”

“I could have you banned.”

“I...”

“What is wrong with you?”

She waited, fists balled into her hips, her foot doing double time on the linoleum. I gave it another beat to be sure I was allowed to finish a sentence, then I mumbled an apology.

“You boys,” Cleo whisked the blanket away from me and began to vigorously fold it. I didn’t wait for her to finish that thought. I just got the hell out of there.

I went home. And then I went past it. Past the two rusty poles that are all that’s left of someone’s intentions to fence the yard, to the end of the lane. I climbed the jagged edge of a drift left by the snowplow. I don’t know why. There was nothing to see. Just thin, crunchy looking snow stretched over a divot filled field to some meager trees.

“Where are you going?”

Shelly, on her usual jog, stood just below me, Ax grumbling at her heels.

“Zem and me used to hunt for pirate treasure out there,” I said.

“We’re miles from water.”

“We were kids.”

“You grew up in that house?”

“Yeah.” I hopped down, stumbled a bit to get my balance without stepping on Ax’s giant paw. “Well, my parents lived a few blocks over. My auntie took me when I was fifteen.”

“I’ve never lived anywhere more than two years.”

She looked past me, as if she could see two little boys missing their gloves, pelting each other with snowballs while their fingers numbed to red. I wondered if she’d ever lived anywhere with a long winter before. If she’d had anyone to drag around on a sled or build a snow fort with.

“We used to have a band,” I said. “Zem and me.”

“He told me. Why’d you stop?”

“Bands don’t stop, they break up.”

“Well?”

I shrugged. “What else did he tell you?”

“He said that tooth was his idea,” she said.

I laughed—of all the things he could’ve taken credit for. It was Zem who gave me the drum lesson flyer the day I came back from the dentist with a gauze-packed mouth.

“No, it was all me,” I said.

Ax thumped his tail, scattering salt. Shelly looked down at him.

“He’s cold,” she said. “He wants to go home.”

“Me too,” I admitted.

When I came in, Zem was sitting on the couch, cradling a black and white Fender. It was his first guitar. When he got it for Christmas, it was longer than he was tall.

“I didn’t think you still had that,” I said.

“Sure. Been with me forever.”

“Never let you down.”

“Nope.”

I started shuffling for the stairs.

“I shouldn’t have said that about your mom,” he said.

I turned around, leaning on our poor, scratched banister.

“I was jealous when we were kids, you know,” he said, testing the tune of one string. “When we went on that trip, your mom and dad were so proud, showing you off to everyone.”

“Everyone liked you better.”

“No, they didn’t. Everyone wanted to say snarky things about Mom not being there.”

“Oh.” I hadn’t known Zem’s Latvian was good enough to pick up sarcasm.

“It didn’t seem fair. You with your two perfect parents. I thought it so hard, it ate me up. And then we came home and your mom died. I knew it was my fault.”

“Zem—”

“I’m sorry.”

“Zem, that’s ridiculous. You didn’t give her cancer.”

“What if I did? What if that’s how it works?”

“That’s not how it works.”

“You don’t know that.”

“I wished you were dead a hundred times and you’re still here.”

“That’s not funny.”

But he smiled and I slumped on the couch next to him.

“RockSalt was never it for me, you know,” Zem said after a while. He played a quick, folky sort of thing that he might have heard from my auntie.

“I don’t think I’ll ever love anything but music,” I said. After all, “Hey Jude” wouldn’t ever get a tumor or become a fragile photo in my memory.

I expected him to laugh, to mistake it for a joke. But he didn’t. He just nodded and kept plucking.

“Vic’s putting something together,” I said. “She’s looking for a guitarist.”

“Covers?”

“Yeah,” I said, looking around for drumsticks. “They’re not so bad. You should try it.”

“Maybe we should try again.”

So, the two of us got a gig at a drab old bar where the regulars had stopped listening to anything but their own demons years ago. The acoustics were dead and the stage was shaky plywood. But most of the nurses off pediatrics came. And Vic.

I took a pizza to Shelly’s to invite her. Once Ax decided not to chomp my head off, it seemed to be going alright. Until, I saw the book sprawled on its belly amid all these technical looking sketches of wheels. I must have made a face without thinking about it, because Shelly demanded to know what my objection to poetry was.

I shrugged, starting to consider exit strategies.

“It’s just like music,” she said.

“Music’s different.” I couldn’t help myself. “Music has a heartbeat.”

“What does poetry have?”

“Pretension.”

I guess she thought that was funny though, because she came to the show. And she cheered and whistled even louder than Vic did.

Zem and me didn’t take requests. We played all our old favorites. The stuff we muddled out together when we were kids, while my auntie answered our racket with her own percussion in the kitchen. The songs that seemed to have all the answers. The songs that made us feel like we were famous. Like we were timeless. Like we had all the fixes at our fingertips.

end

     
  © B. B. Garin, 2019

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