I was just wadding up a piece of toilet paper and wiping it under my eye when the door to the men’s room opened, bringing a blast of club/bar noise with it: jukebox pumped through the PA, bottles clinking, people talking in that rowdy bar way. The wad of paper came away from my skin horrifyingly sooty-looking. Sigh. Despite having played a pretty fucking good set, actually, and having abstained from drugs, I was feeling pretty low at that moment, tired, unsure why I was there, exactly the mindset I’d been trying to avoid. Fuck that, I was telling myself. Don’t be so fucking serious all the time. It was a ripping fun stupid wild set, full of gut-punching guitar solos like nobody writes anymore, and bikers’ girlfriends danced on the floor with plastic cups of beer in their hands while the bikers themselves nodded their heads with the riffs. It was the most fun I’d had in weeks. What’s wrong with that?
That’s what I was thinking when I looked up and saw who had come into the restroom. Two guys, one was Dave, who had to put his beer down before he could start trying to unzip his fly with his one good hand. The other one was someone I hadn’t seen in a long time.
He was staring at me in shock and my face probably went through the same contortions, from disbelief (holy shit) through a kind of happy (well, gosh…) to a kind of guarded look (long time no see, huh pal?).
“Remo,” I said. He looked like he hadn’t changed, same buckskin-colored denim jacket and jeans, his hair and skin sandy to match the jacket, his eyes blue to match the pants. Remo was perpetually thirty nine.
“Daron,” he replied. Then he took a step closer and held out his hand and we shook, which felt stupidly formal. I mean, Remo wasn’t the huggy type anyway, and maybe he was afraid to get soot all over himself, but for someone who had once been like my uncle or my godfather or at least a friend, goddammit, the handshake was wrong. We were both smiling those fake smiles that just curl your lips and nothing else. It had been what, four years since we’d seen each other? But it felt like forty.
I started it. “Jeez, Rem’, whatcha doing here?” Meaning, what are you doing in Providence and also, what are you doing in a dumpy beer bar like The Cage. I thought I did a pretty good job of keeping my voice neutral, but I found myself high strung with anger. We hadn’t parted on great terms and in four years I was pretty sure I had graduated from surly teen to genuine angry young man. “Didn’t think this’d be your kind of place.”
“I was going to say the same thing to you,” he said, his head a little sideways, giving me the same look Doug had given those fucking boots. Askance.
Anger doesn’t lend itself to a witty rejoinder. I said something like “Fuck you,” and Doug’s head whipped toward us.
“Whoa son, I know you’re still sore…”
“Don’t call me son, and don’t be giving me that judgmental look, you…”
“…at least give me a chance to say something before you tear me a new…”
“…what do you have to say about it anyway? Or did you think I was going to play blues all my life after you took off?” Sore was a good word for how I felt, kind of rubbed raw and stiff.
Doug stepped up behind me, though his big-brotherish stance was kind of ruined by his ineffectual attempts to zip himself back up. “You know this guy?”
“Yeah.” I wasn’t sure how to describe who Remo was in relation to me. It was easy, though, to describe him in general terms. Public terms. “This is Remo Cutler, from Nomad.”
Dave’s mouth opened and he went from tough guy to pussycat in an instant. “No shit, man, pleased to meet you! I listen to the Gary’s Garage album all the time. I’m Dave.” He held out the hand with the cast on it and then pulled it back and offered his left. Remo shook.
“Hey, I bet the other guys would love to meet you, too,” Dave said, his hand on the door.
Remo never blushed, just smiled wryly as he eyed the urinal. “I, uh, I did come in here for a reason…”
“Oh yeah, sure, of course,” Dave was saying as he backed out into the noise of the club. “Daron, bring him on backstage. We got beer.”
When the door closed, Remo turned to me. I stood there, not sure what to say or what to do. The standoff was pretty much deflated. He eyed my getup and I resisted the urge to cross my arms over my chest. I was still feeling burned, but didn’t have as much of an urge to yell at him.
“So, uh, how are you?” he tried.
“I’m working.” No thanks to you, I thought. Ooh, that sounded bitter. Immature, even. So I didn’t say it.
“You call this working? Daron, I … oh, Christ, I have to say this. You look like a five dollar whore. I hope you know that. It’s breaking my heart here, seeing you like this.”
“Well, gee, Rem’, it’s really great to see you, too, after all this time.” This was not happening. This was like one of those nightmares where you show up for the recital and they tell you at the last minute it’s not going to be a guitar recital, it’s going to be a trombone recital instead, and there’s just you and this stupid-looking brass thing and a host of deans staring at you. I’d been having that kind a lot lately, ever since the bill for next semester’s tuition arrived. I could not stand there and let him put me down even if I agreed with him. I knew what I looked like. I turned around and walked out.
In the club it was more loud guitar riffs and thunderous drums on tape. Men in leather jackets held their dates around the waist, heavy-set older guys sat at the bar like fixtures, a couple of women dressed more or less like me but with glittery bras on and very tall teased hair stood around the women’s room door with bottles of beer in their hands, laughing and clutching one another’s arms with long red-nailed fingers. I went back to the wall of beer cases and pushed open the dressing room door. Unlike the men’s room, the dressing room wasn’t insulated from the club noise because the wall didn’t run all the way to the ceiling. The room was stacked with black road cases with TYGERZ stencilled onto them. A flimsy card table held various pieces of band clothing, dry shirts, jackets, street shoes.
Remo was, of course, right behind me.
I stood in the doorway, wishing I had the Strat on. “What.”
Remo was holding up his hands like he was either surrendering or trying to stop an oncoming truck. “Daron, hang on, jeezus.” He had to shout to be heard. “I haven’t seen you in like three years and I don’t want to spend it in a dust-up with you. At least give me a chance to apologize.”
“If you want to apologize, you can do it after the second set.” I was being cruel now, if I was going to make him sit through Tollman’s rendition of David Lee Roth for an hour.
I was surprised he agreed so readily. “Okay. Okay.” He held up one hand like he was waving. “Meet you right here.”
I nodded. Maybe in an hour I’d be feeling better. There was another hour of crazed stage play still to go. Remo went back into the crowd and I shut the door behind me.
Dave handed me an unopened Rolling Rock from the band stash and a lighter. I used the lighter to pry off the lid.
“Hey,” said Ron, “you shouldn’t be drinking.”
I shrugged. I’d been nineteen for a couple of months. There wasn’t much use lying about my age since I didn’t have any advantages like height or good facial hair. I was five foot four, underfed, still wearing the clothes I’d worn in high school because they were what I had. “It ain’t my first beer, Ron.”
“I was only kidding,” he said. He could hold a pair of sticks in the same hand as his beer, and drink, and not get himself in the eyeball with the sticks. “You look like you got punched in the eye.”
“Thanks.” I kind of wondered why Ron carried his sticks everywhere.
Dave tipped his bottle toward the door. “What happened to your friend?”
“He’s constipated,” I said.
(sorry, no video available to go with this catchphrase, which was, I think, coined by legendary radio DJ Scott Muni…)