Just Some Other Time.
Red guidance lights running up along the length of the refuse plant smokestack blinked when he happened to glance up. The sky seemed to shift on him and he moved his gaze slowly over the massed grey clouds. The red lights flashed again. For that second the sky looked even darker.
'Darkness on the edge of town,' he thought. 'E Streets' on Eastern Avenue.'
When he was on E Street he was close to home and knew which direction to be walking. If he was beyond recognizing the street, the lights of the expressway strung out above the darkness of the lake would situate him.
'East of Eden. East Side Studios.'
East Side Studios. The name tripped a switch. Once, he'd tracked sounds there. He could hear the double guitar growl, the walking bass dropping down low and the laconic slap of the snare that made the groove feel faster than it was. With the memory he started singing out loud.
"I'm feeling ready to run and hide, but there's a few things that I must confide,” his breath steaming back over his chaffed, red face. “I just wanna be a rock 'n roller."
For a few steps through the snow his feet mocked his old swagger, as if again a guitar hung down behind his legs as he yanked the mike loose and his knee nudged the stand so it crashed down onto the dance floor. No one ever noticed the nudge.
A stretch of posters pasted along the sidewalk hoarding advertising major concerts coming to the city, coming to venues he once dreamed of headlining, caught his eye.
"Corporate hacks. Sell-outs. Charlatans," he blurted, momentarily losing track of his own lyric.
"One thing I forgot to say-“ he let the pause draw out as he had in the old days, just for a second, long enough to flash a haughty grin at some number standing close to the stage, like that blonde in Parkdale who’d shook it back and back until her limbo splayed her hair all over the bell of his mike stand.
"Oh, yeah, ah, I’m crazy and I just wanna be a rock 'n roller."
He hadn't intended irony, anymore than Townsend talking about getting old. He was building that Bughouse mystique. 1983. Toronto. Kensington Market. Quoc Te. The ultimate underground.
A chunk of ice stopped his boot, throwing him off balance. He fell into the hoarding and slid down onto the snow. He sat there a moment looking out across the empty lanes of the wide, industrial avenue.
Deep in his parka pocket he rummaged, nudging away empties, feeling for a full airliner mini in his pocket full of crowns. One left. He cranked off the top and drank off half of the whiskey. Where was his other glove? Good thing the full bottles sank to the bottom. In the city, you can always find a new pair of gloves.
Green light. Several, many lights hanging in lumps of jumble up ahead. Was Christmas coming or over? Fucking lights. He grew up in a neighbourhood where people drove around 'taking in the lights.' There were always two or three faces in the back seat, mostly not even looking.
‘What you’re seeing’s not so,’ he’d be thinking as he watched through the drapes.
Nothing was ever what it looked. Big house. Big City. Big masquerade.
Brighter lights swept up and past in a startling blur, then burned small and red going away. There was no other traffic either way. He pushed himself up, out across the sidewalk, over the ridge of filthy snow at the curb and onto the stiff slush of the lanes. Four lanes, with more rough snow in the middle.
On the far side he reached out to balance on a frost fence rail but missed and his hand sank with the give in the chain-link mesh. His fingers, chilled through already, fumbled thickly for a hold on the wires. He kept himself upright, stood a moment, then set off for the intersection, trying to read the sign.
He knew the street, knew it was his street. He had been rooming there for weeks. Fourth porch on the left. No fence.
He got several steps into the yard when his boot broke the surface snow and sank - he pitched forward and made for the steps. Pushing himself up, he sat on the second step, pulled open his parka and pawed for the key. Eventually he moved on to the other pockets then pushed himself up the steps. He stood up on the stoop and slid his foot out and pivoted over to lean against the door. He tried the knob, shook his hand a few times and tried again. Again he reached into his pockets dragging out the spent airliners until the pocket was empty. Still searching with the other hand he pulled the pocket lining right out and it hung there. He wrapped his left hand around the knob, covered it with the glove of the other, and grasped and turned at the knob. He pushed his chest against the door and his feet slid out so he crashed down cutting his chin. There was a seat, a crate, under the window and he moved toward it. Kneeling, propping himself up with the window ledge, he got to sitting. He was winded, kept moving his hand along the side of his coat but he couldn't get it in the pocket.
“’Family' is a term any common denominator understands well, not only as an ideal but as an essential constant of culture," his father, the tenured anthropologist once lectured him. Way back. Maybe back when they all took their meals at table. Maybe even as far back as the enforced annual Christmas drives, but he could never apply it to his life. The structure alone, he knew, patriarch, matriarch, whatever smattering of children, did not ensure 'family', only genealogy. By his mid-teens he'd grown sickened and enraged by depictions of parental nurturing and understanding. In time took that deconstruction out into a world easily titillated by one bound to reject the perceived inevitable and dance afire on one's own hearth. Family. And didn't Christmas lights epitomize that myth. For years he'd stolen pockets full of the conical coloured lights from festive neighbourhood displays, taking special pride in looting the most religious and elaborate. Out back the Catholic Elementary school he'd destroy each one by hand on the rough brick wall, covering the snow with coloured glass glitter.
Christmas. He tried again to decide if it were still coming or over. Propping himself up, not even noticing he couldn’t feel his own hand, he raised his head to check for lights on in living rooms down the street. The street didn't match the one he'd envisaged, his father's.
Again the lights triggered his loose mind.
One bright, white spot shone straight on him, with a few coloured lights on the wings, mostly low and red. Then a glowing blur and another smash of glass at the front of the stage. Some joker across the dance floor was knocking bottles off of the bar, carpeting the hardwood with clusters of sharp, brown flares. The band fell back, taking the dynamic way down until only the guitar, scratching out itchy, fragmented bursts, held sway.
"I'm waiting for…the liquor store," he sang and then paused long, still staring straight into the shadow across from the stage.
"I just want to sit and drink……’til she brings me more."
He'd shown up over an hour late. The band was already onstage, playing. They looked as worn as their week-old clothes. The lead guitarist wore a blue, mechanic’s shirt. Bill, it read. Bill put his foot on a Gibson guitar lying silent on the stage and kicked it back between the drums and his amp. They were playing the Velvets.
No one in the band looked at him as he crossed the floor and stood with his toes against the low stage. He hauled himself slowly up the mike stand as Bill’s lead line exploded, then he pulled free the mike as the next song kicked to a start. In the chorus he grabbed the bass player and they both shouted along until the mike fell. He picked it up, entwined now among the numerous patch cords, and pulled at it as he made his way across the stage, weaving between Bill and his amp. He slumped against the PA stack during the lead, then shot for centre stage. Again the mike cord snagged and when he pulled, Bill’s amp jerked from the cabinet, bounced off the floor tom and kept working.
It was then the first beer shattered at the foot of the stage.
He started baiting whoever was throwing the empties.
"Gimme a full one, pussy. Gimme something I can -" and he yowled into the mike, gesturing to the shattered glass as if to conjure a flame.
Bill kicked on his distortion and took another lead, kept it going wild, wound it into feedback, called out "Waiting for the Man" and the drummer picked up the beat.
He was singing again by the end of the first verse. A second bottle hit and he arched up into the air as if to dive, caught hold of a light rigging pipe and swung out over the edge of the stage. A third bottle exploded. He dropped to a squat, tossed the mike back behind him and yelled, just as the bartender ran over and shovelled away the glass with a flattened beer case.
He dropped to the stage rolling and laughing as Bill threw down his guitar, and barely bothering to step over him, jumped off the stage.
A light rain has started falling, but still he hovers around the doorway. It is the old scene where the poor boy stands outside the toy store window longing for, gazing at the train set, but shot from a different script. The toy is now an acoustic guitar, old and worn. The 'boy' is no young rube yet to learn a G-chord but just full of knowing he's big time. The whole premise is inverted as he once owned the guitar, the store was a Church Street pawnshop and the promise was not of rags to riches. The guitar itself was a fine 1963 Guild T-45. It's solid Spruce top was tanned and toned and the lower bout bore a desirable degree of players' wear. Beside it hung an assemblage of angular 80's metal axes and cheap Asian knock-offs. He had acquired the guitar when he was still working. Value Village employees are not allowed to purchase donated items before they go on sale, so he had arranged for his girlfriend to be shopping right when the item hit the floor.
He had pawned the guitar a week after being discharged after surgery, his hand still firmly bandaged, but the damage clear to be seen. In his thinking, having the pawn ticket in his pocket meant that Guild T-45 was still his, and one day he would return to reclaim it. He'd told the pawnbroker as much.
"Doesn't look like you'll be playing anytime soon, pal," the clerk had said.
"I've been meaning to take up slide," he said, not even implying humour. "I'm going to call some guys I know, start a new band. Maybe even a sax. I heard Andy's back from Vancouver."
Bill stepped out of the No Frills and handed the singer a Mars Bar and a handful of loonies. The week before he’d been on the other corner outside the LCBO. Bill wouldn’t use the cup, as if passing the coins from hand to damaged hand could forestall anything. He watched the singer spin the tambourine in his good hand, still shifting his feet, still vibrating impatience as if there was anywhere left to go.
The weekend before Bill’s band had played Pedestrian Sunday down in Kensington, sweating it for the passersby on Augusta and a smattering of the old crew spread along the concrete steps across the street. A shadow fell across his set list, pinned under the bell of the mike stand, and there was the singer in all his ragged glory. Bill finished singing a last verse as the singer stood there talking at him, then reached out and embraced him as Bill struggled to finish the song.
“Sing a couple with us,” Bill said, never expecting he would.
Surprize turned to shock as the singer dropped his coat, grabbed the mike and years of disaster momentarily vanished. The singer, buoyed on the tight, hard band smiled and from between missing teeth sang with all the cool fury Bill thought long, long lost.
Then the lyrics were done and Bill watched as the singer grabbed his coat by a sleeve and dragging it, walked off into the colourful crowds of Kensington.
He was admiring the draft glass’ design, like the thin, long waist of some flapper chick spun on a tuxedo man. Designed to invite and hold your fingers at rest, just like a woman. Just like a woman. Even here in the shittiest bar he could expect to be recognized in, even here, such marvels of design, free for the using.
He spun a dime under his fingertip. Pictured his girl. She’d be home by now, picking at leftovers in the fridge, looking to the phone. Maybe she’d already made something and set a portion aside. Maybe he would call, to say he didn’t want to see her. Or to tell her about this girl who’d asked him to come home with her, and yeah, he didn’t even know her.
Scrawling circles to get the ink flowing, he started writing on some green posters for a rival band he’d torn off the street poles. Lyrics were easy, just lie like the truth.
A couple of musician types came into the bar and he smirked. They’d probably just finished postering. Still, he had another jug coming. And the song was writing itself.
They formed in his mind as little film noirs’. Cheap apartment, Interior, Late Night: He’s been pounding on the door, she’s beating on his chest, he grabs her wrist and tosses her at a chair. She swings, shrieking ‘That’s the last time.’
He pulls her flat against him, snarls ‘I’ll tell you something right now. I know that you’re mine.’ Suddenly it’s a technicolour, Buzz Berkely production as he steps out for the chorus, “Aint that funny ‘bout love? It’s not what you thought it was", as he glides into the waiting arms of the chorus girls. “Aint that funny ‘bout love? It’s not what you thought it was at all.”
But the chorus girls are gone, the song writing is gone, and his voice rolls along on the wind behind them. Grossman’s was where he’d written that one, living up the title of his next,’Writing On Benzedrine.’
Again, he hadn’t known how prophetic his words were. If he could only write what he was thinking now. If only he could think what he was thinking.
Thinking about her, the one. The last one. If he walked down the tracks to the overpass he could all but see her house. She still lived there, the Elvis-legs door knocker said it was so, but the neighbourhood had changed. So many new kids on the block. Still, he knew her habits. And he still had a key.
A gritty wind blew down the railroad corridor and around the curves of the grain silo. He stopped a second, blinking his eyes. One eye watered and drew the cold to his cheek.
The metal silo door rattled in its hinges but held tight so he moved on. There was a shed, and if it was locked there was a sand bin, but the hasp on the shed was still broken. He sat down on the lid of a tar barrel, put his feet up a little higher and rummaged his pockets for a mini crown.
He woke up on his side with his face pressed against the rough wood of the shed wall. Drawing up, he flinched as a hair snagged and ripped from his face. Light opened his eyes. His leg was warm, his one sock wet.
It was a mid-morning light that seeped through the door jam, confirmed by the relative hush of the traffic over on Keele. He’d slept right through the early commuter trains. He rummaged in his pockets, dropping empties to the gravel floor.
Out in the air he scratched at his face, turned his neck about. The only workers were over at the level-crossing, so he stepped toward Junction Blvd, working out cramps and into his saunter, singing ‘Compunction Junction, what’s my function?’
There was one Mom loading a kid from a stroller to a car seat a few houses down, but otherwise the street was quiet. He stepped down the short walk, up under the veranda and tried his key. It turned and he pushed open the door and stepped in quick.
Nothing much had changed. Framed ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ lobby cards in the living room, a couple of empty beer cans on the end tables. Dishes undone on the counter. Sprouts and organics in the fridge. And beer. He cracked one and all but drained it. Put another in his pocket.
He went down the narrow wooden stairs to the basement and picked his way toward the jam room, ducking his head under the duct work. Standing on the nest of cables he looked at the amps, ran his fingers down the strings of her sunburst Precision bass. He put his hand on a mike and considered switching on the Traynor YVM-3 she’d found in the garbage.
A thump sounded over his head, but he knew it was just Mojo, come in the window looking to eat. Still, he left the room and went back upstairs. Mojo had enough food and water, he just scratched her ear. Then he started looking in the tall pantry cupboard, pulling aside stacks of canned beans and lentils. He stepped back, got on his toes and eyed along the tops of the cupboards, then he looked under the sink. In a heavy paper bag he found a 60oz duty free bottle of Canadian Club, blue label.
The first hit he took long and slow, letting his throat open.
“Second verse, same as the first,” he sang, moving from the kitchen toward the dinette and the china cabinet. All those family photos. The table and chairs of dozens of holiday dinners with that whole family crowded around laughing as old Frank told again about jazz in Harlem. Frank dug him. Frank dug a musician tight on his craft.
In the living room he ran his fingers over the patterned nap on her old, sea foam blue couch. Emotion tried to spark in synapses layered under generations of scar, generations of deranging elixers, from the first sickly sweet wines of adolescence to any liquid left forgotten or abandoned outside any club or greasy spoon. He almost sat down, but hefted the bottle instead. He looked to the door and went toward it, stuffed the bottle in a plastic bag from his pocket, then stepped out, turned the lock and pocketed the key.
For the first time he saw fall disappearing, fast. His missing fingers ached at the thought of another Toronto winter. Vancouver was a town for winter. Why had he even gone out there that time?
Moon Slither Smoke? The band lived up to the name. One, maybe two good songs out of all that. He stepped quickly from the small porch, cut straight down the lane to the alley and back-tracked to Keele Street.
Toronto hadn’t seen a winter like this one since ’79, militia or not. The whole city looked tired of it. The hordes of working types hustling away on the sidewalks of Yonge Street, the vandals and smokers in the back alleys, the other denizens of corners and doorways feebly thrusting out upturned hats.
“Could you spare some cutter, me brother?”
It wasn’t a matter of giving up or punching out. Endurance falters and survival fails. All things eventually wind down to rust. The cupboard door opens and the trusty hinge snaps.
The time he’d finally had enough was shadowed under too many chill nights in cardboard blankets and newspaper pillows, too many food court ejections, far, far too many miles of TTC.
He was on a subway side-seat now, slumped beside the door, no longer even feeling the cold as the doors opened again and again, never again to be bothered by the jerking and bustling along miles of tunnel. He didn’t really even notice his own rhythm failing, missing a beat, and his weight slumping down onto the seat at rest. He was no longer present as attendants lifted his arms, brusguely lay him on a stretcher and carried him off through the lights of downtown to the hospital, to the morgue.
The internment site was to the left side of a curve that dropped down to the east in Mount Pleasant Cemmetary. The yellowed petals of a Mountan Ash lay on the moist apshalt and fluttered on a light breeze. There were just enough mourners that some had to stand beyond the reach of a striped canopy.
The mother and the daughter stood in a small clutch of family, openly flumoxed but cheered at the throng of strangers around the grave. A disparate bunch to be sure. A mixture of camel hair coats, leather pea jackets, parkas and patched ski coats, but a community, clear to see, though they knew almost no one. Unable to tell the concert promoter from the the producer, the drummers from the bass players, the college station dj’s or the used record store clerks, each, to them, as inaccessible as the next.
A young woman spoke softly, elegantly, from a page that fluttered on the breeze. The tarp was pulled back and gloved hands set the urn into the dark opening in the ground. As the shovel began to be passed from hand to hand, the lightest of rains began to fall. Bill put his umbrella up and held it over his wife, thinking, ’None, none of us will have a movie scene funeral like this.”
Bill and another guy nodded at each other, came together, then each took an acoustic guitar from a case. With cold fingers, not too raucously but with spirit, launched into his theme song, “Be A Rock ’N Roller.”
As he sang “She said she would accompany me, all the way to the land of the free,” Bill looked from the girlfriend to the hole in the ground. Bill’s wife took his guitar and lay her thin hand over his heart. Bill stepped again onto the loose, scattered soil then dropped his guitar pick down into the earth.
Some of the mourners pressed more closely to each other, a few hankies were drawn, as one by one they turned away and started back up the hill.