The road to Lyle’s house was less of a road and more of a farm trail buried under two inches of soft red dust. Tires churned the silt into swirling, rust colored clouds even if you were crawling at five miles. So when my sister Sam took our moms ’95 Corolla barreling round the turns at a whopping twenty-five, we looked like the goddamn roadrunner.
I laughed when the barn finally came into view and Sam double tapped the horn to let them know we were here, ‘meep meep.’
“What’s so funny?” Nina asked.
“Just thinking about the Looney Tunes.”
She smiled in a way that made my thighs ache. Nina was sitting shotgun and when she turned to look at me like she was doing now, the angle was just right to catch a glimpse of her bra pressing into soft, bronzed cellulose.
“Don’t be such a child Todd,” said Sam. “These guys are cool. Just try not to embarrass us.”
“Fuck you too,” I said.
My face felt hot. The inside of the car was sweltering. I could feel the first beads of moisture tingling out of my pores. I wanted to crack the window but it’d been busted ever since Sam kicked it when she was in the backseat with some guy she met in Santa Cruse. I’d never met him but as the water levels started rising in the pits of my shirt, I hated the asshole. Nina smiled again, only this one felt more like pity.
Sam put the car in park and we clicked open the doors, stepping out into the sun. The summer air wasn’t any cooler than it had been in the car but it wasn’t as dense either.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Lyle asked as he came storming out the barn door. “Slow down. You just dusted my parents house. They barely let us practice here as it is.”
He was wearing a pair of black skinny jeans… and nothing else. I suppose it looks more Rockstar when people can see the sweat running straight into your pubes.
“Alright Lyle, take it easy. No harm done.”
“Oh, it’s you Sam,” he said. His tone lightened and he crossed his arms in front of his chest, pulling in his stomach. He looked strong in a doughy sort of way. It was impossible to tell exactly how much of him was muscle and how much was fat. “Come on in, we’ve just stopped for a break.”
The barn wasn’t huge by barn standards, about the size of a two car garage. The outside was painted in a fresh coat of pale blue with white trim. On the inside, a bare bulb hung from a rafter by an orange extension cord, though most of the light came in through a couple of skydoors. The bare-pine walls were covered in posters from bands like Pantera, Anthrax, Slipknot and Avenged Sevenfold. The floor was covered in a tangled web of chords. They criss crossed from microphones and guitars to synthesizers and equalizers to amplifiers and power outlets. You couldn’t take two steps without a musician telling you how much what you just stepped on would cost to replace.
There were only three members in Lunatic Hive There was Lyle who was the bass player and a fuckin’ ugly miser besides. He wasn’t even that good really. They just kept him around for the practice space. That and his mom was an old school hippie who could never remember where she put her weed.
The Drummer’s name was Spence. He was a nerd until about two years ago when his back brace came off and he picked up a pair of sticks. Now he had a Mohawk and a tattoo of a breasty sphinx on his chest. He’s still a fuckin’ nerd though. The whole school knew that Deborah Gibbs once walked in on him jacking it to anime porn at his brother’s party. All that aside, the dude was also a metronome. He never lost a beat no matter how hard Lyle shit the bed.
Of course the real talent was Jamsey. They say his dad gave him a guitar the day he skipped town and Jamsey just poured all his frustration into the poor strings till you could hear his tears in the chord. They say a lot of dumb shit like that. He stood in the back of the barn, diddling the dials on his amp.
“What’s up?” asked Spence from his throne. He gripped the front of the stool to show off how his black Metallica shirt clung to his chest.
“Hey,” said Sam. “Lyle said it’d be cool if we came to hear you play.”
“I’ll bet he did,” sneered Jamsey, not looking up from his Marshal. “Two girls and a kid. Real cool Lyle.”
“Whatever,” Lyle responded. “If Spence can bring his ladies, I should be able to bring mine.” At the word ladies, he held up his hands and wiggled his fingers, biting his lower lip.
Jamsey looked up from his amp at Lyle. “We weren’t talking about Spence. We were talking about you. The drums are solid. You’re the one who’s been jerking off. Pick up your bass and tune it. Sound check was shit.”
“Fuck you Jamsey.”
The guitarist leapt over the field of chords and got right in Lyle’s face. He was about a foot shorter than him and couldn’t have weighed more that one-fifty but all of that was lithe muscle, like a cat. Lyle backed into the open door.
“Come on guys,” said Spence. “You can find dumb shit to fight about after practice.”
Nina stepped in between them and put her hands on Jamsey’s chest.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “We’ll just sit in the corner and listen. You won’t even know we’re here.”
Jamsey’s expression softened, and then turned into a smirk. He picked up Lyle’s blue tortoise shell bass and shoved it into his arms.
“Tune it,” he said and then he went back to his amp.
I followed Sam over to the corner of the barn. We had to sweep aside rusted nails and old cigarette butts before we could sit on the bare concrete. It was hard and uncomfortable, but at least it was cool.
“What a fucking premadonna, right?” whispered Sam.
“Definitely,” I answered.
“I don’t know,” whispered Nina. “I think he’s just really passionate, you know? I kinda like it.” She gave a small smile, displaying her teeth like pearly white tombstones.
“Passionate like Charles Manson,” I muttered.
The boys finished tinkering and Jamsey took his spot front and center. He shifts the microphone so that he’s facing us. Spence gives a four count with his sticks before he starts in with a beat. It wasn’t anything fancy, he didn’t abuse the kick or send his sticks twirling through the air between beats but it was constant. Each thud on the bass felt like a heartbeat. The ratt of the snare was as measured as the ticking of a clock. Even the splash of symbols were uniform in both pitch and resonance, ringing into the background with absolute precision. He didn’t look like a rock drummer is supposed to look when he’s playing, mouth hanging open, all teeth and attitude. When Spence played he went into a trance, like he felt the beat through his whole body and the rest of his consciousness melted away. His motions were mechanical, creating the most solid and unbreakable skeleton.
After a minute, Lyle came in. If the drums were the bones of the song, the bass guitar was the soft flabby tissue. Lyle’s fingers walked across the thick steel strings like a drunk man, stumbling up stairs. Maybe that’s too harsh. Lyle was competent enough. He never tripped or missed a note. He played in key, in time, but he lacked the smoothness the music was crying out for. He struck the chords a little too hard giving each a flatulent quality. His face was screwed tight in heated concentration. I felt bad. He was really trying.
Then Jamsey put his fingers on the neck of his Les Paul and that shitty little blue barn off some back road in northern California turned into a motherfucking stadium. The orange glow of the bare bulb lit him up like a spotlight. His dirty, oil-stained fingers glided across the strings and the sound that came out of his amplifier made my spine go numb. Think Jimi Hendrix, meets Diamond Darrell, meets God. I’m not surprised if you can’t picture it. He took the steel skeleton wrapped in doughy flesh and injected it with the soul of a dying angel.
Sorry if I got a little poetic there but it was kind of a religious experience for me. And if you don’t like it, well, you weren’t there, so fuck you.
We listened to them play for three hours. They ran through their entire set list four times. It didn’t feel that long, so I was surprised to see that the light coming through the sky doors had turned a bloody red.
“That was amazing,” Nina squealed. She went bounding up to Jamsey like she was planning to jump into his arms but stopped herself just short.
“It was alright,” Jamsey grumbled, looking anywhere but at Nina.
“Alright?” asks Sam. “It was fantastic! You guys are gonna be famous. When’s the tour start again?”
“Not till next summer. We’ve already got the van. Spence’s mom is upgrading. She agreed to hold onto her old one and let us use it for our trip. Now we’re just saving for gas and food and shit.”
“That’s so cool,” I say, trying to be a part of the conversation. “I wish I could do something like that.”
“Well maybe you can come with us,” jokes Lyle, rubbing his hand through my hair like he’s my fuckin’ dad. “You could be out little roady.”
Sam laughs. “Can you imagine what mom and dad would say if you asked?”
“Probably no,” I admit sullenly.
“No probably about it. They’d flip out the second you said the word roady.”
Jamsey’s face went dark. “Let’s get a fire going,” he said. “Lyle, go snatch a couple of joints and a bottle.”
Lyle shifted uncomfortably. “I told you last time. My mom’s getting suspicious. We’re taking too much.”
Jamsey rounded on him, poking him hard in the chest. “Don’t be such a fucking pussy Lyle. Get the booze and get the weed.”
Lyle looked to Spence for support but Spence suddenly seemed really interested in a hole in his jeans. Defeated, Lyle trudged out the barn door.
Everyone was quiet as we followed Jamsey around the barn to a black hole in the dust. Dirty green and pink folding chairs circled the fire pit. The ground was littered with broken glass and even more cigarette butts. Jamsey lit a fresh one as he and Spence collected scraps of paint-flecked wood that looked as though they’d been ripped from a rotting tree house. They piled the wood on top of the ash from old fires and doused it in igniter fluid until the whole area reeked of gas. Then Jamsey pulled out the same red Bic he used to light his cigarette and the fire bloomed to life. It was much too hot to sit near at first but as the last rays of sun disappeared into the fields, a cold wind moved us closer. It was nearly full dark when we heard the crunch of Lyle’s van clad feet returning.
“What took you so long?” Jamsey asked.
“Parents wanted to talk,” Lyle mumbled.
“Well tell them to fuck off.”
“Yeah, I’ll do that next time.”
He held out his hands, one had two brown bottles hanging from between his knuckles, the other had two joints wrapped in delicate white paper. Jamsey snatched one of the bottles, unscrewed the cap and took a long pull. When he pulled it away he cringed at first but then forced his mouth into a smile.
Jamsey didn’t share that bottle but everything else was passed around. When Nina gave the other bottle to me I hesitated. The firelight caught the glass and I could see that it was actually green. There was a shine on the rim where it was wet with Nina’s saliva.
“No, he isn’t old enough,” said Sam.
“Nonsense young man,” said Jamsey puffing out his chest, his eyes gleaming. “Take a big wet one. It’s good for you, medicine really.”
Sam scrunched up her forehead, helpless from Lyles lap. She didn’t look like my big sister. It made me uncomfortable. Nina was smiling at me. I closed my eyes and took a big gulp. I meant to take another but it caught in my throat. It tasted the way gasoline smells. Even after I swallowed it, I could feel the amber liquid burning all the way to my stomach. I yanked the bottle away, coughing and spilling some of it down my shirt.
Everyone except Sam laughed.
“Don’t worry,” said Jamsey. “It gets easier.” He took another drink from his bottle. He hissed like a snake after but his eyes stayed locked on Nina.
“So,” said Sam, breaking the silence. “You guys are going on tour, then what? Some big shot sees you play and offers you a record deal?”
“That’s the idea,” Lyle croaked through a cloud of smoke.
“I can live with that,” added Spence.”
“Getting discovered like that would be awesome.”
“Will be,” corrected Jamsey.
“Will be,” Lyle repeated. “But I’m just excited to be out on the road, away from the parents, you know?”
“No Lyle, I don’t know,” Jamsey spat. “Tell me again about how terrible it is having parents.” Silence. “Go on bitch. I’m all fuckin’ ears.” Silence.
The tension hummed in the air around the crackling wood. I could feel a strong tickling in my fingers. My face was hot but my insides were cold.
“I’m sorry Jamsey,” Lyle muttered.
“Oh, I already know that. I’ve heard you play.”
Lyle mumbled something that sounded like achoo.
“What was that?” Jamsey asked. Spence went back to picking at the hole in his pants.
“I said fuck you!” Lyle shouted. “It’s like walking on egg shells around you all the time. This isn’t just your band you know. It’s mine and Spence’s too.”
“’Sthat how you feel Spence?” Jamsey slurred.
“I dunno man. You can be a little demanding.”
“’Sthat so?” Silence.
Without looking, Jamsey turned and hurled the bottle at Lyle. The heavy glass cylinder sailed past him and struck Nina in the arm. She cried out in pain, cradling her arm.
Without thinking, I leapt over the fire and tackled Jamsey. He was smaller than Lyle but still bigger than me. I caught him off balance and together we went tumbling through one of the pink and green chairs to the dust. Something hit me in the side and before I knew which way was up, Jamsey had me pinned on my back.
“Todd!” Sam shouted.
Jamsey arched back to punch so I pulled as hard as I can to get out of its path. I heard the dull thud of his fist followed by two seconds of sterling silence, and then his scream.
Hot blood gushed onto my face as the older boy reeled off me nursing his hand. I scuttled away toward Sam. Blood coursed around a piece of glittering green glass that jutted out from between his knuckles.
“Look at his hand!” Nina shouted over his sobs, rushing over to Jamsey. “What did you do to him?”
“I…I don’t know,” I stammered. “Nothing, I didn’t do anything.”
“Oh shit,” groaned Spence, his face yellowing.
“What the fuck Todd?” said Nina. “He can’t play now. What the fuck were you doing?”
“Back off Nina,” said Sam, stepping in between me and the unending gyser of blood.
“It doesn’t matter whose fault it is,” said Spence. “Go into the house and get some towels Lyle. Jamsey needs to go to the hospital.”
Lyle took off at a run. My heart was drumming so fast that it hurt. My hands were shaking even though the fire still felt warm and as far as I could tell my only injury was a bruise forming on my side from where I hit the chair. Lyle came back with the towel and his parents. They wrapped up Jamsey and walked him to their car, Lyle’s dad shouting for us to put out the fire and go home. Nina insisted on going with them.
The car ride home was quiet. Sam drove slower around the curves and I was left to fiddle with the radio. All mom’s presets were lame, coffee house, Dave Mathews bullshit. I had to play with the dials to find something good. I filtered though talk radio and Mexican mariachi. I got excited for a moment when I heard “Angie” by the Rolling Stones until I realized it was being used in a Ford commercial. Who the fuck uses a breakup song to sell trucks? I finally gave up and turned it off.
“Who the fuck does she think she is?” asks Sam.
“I don’t know,” I answer, thrown off by the word she.
“That psycho hit her with a bottle. Did she just forget that? Fuck her. Fuck all of them.”
“Yeah,” I said, not really meaning it. “Fuck ‘em.”
We pulled into our driveway. Sam was over the console hugging me as soon as the car was in park. She smelled like weed and body odor but I hugged her back all the same.
“What do we tell mom and dad?” she asks.
“Nothing they don’t need to know,” I answer looking at our front door. I was eager to be on the other side of it. “We just saw some guys playing rock and roll.”