J. hit the next exit. When he rolled down the window to toss a quarter in the ramp toll basket the air smelled swampy. We rolled on up the road toward something that looked lit up about a half mile away.
A diner. A real, honest-to-god diner. They made me sit down and have a bowl of chicken noodle soup, followed by Greek moussaka (most of the best diners in New Jersey are run by Greeks–I have no idea why), then the half of Jonathan’s steak he couldn’t finish, and chocolate cream pie to top it all off. I have no idea what Ziggy ate. I was too focused on my own plate and he was done by the time I looked up.
“Feel okay?” J. asked, looking more worried than I thought the situation warranted. Then I remembered I’d chewed his nuts off a short time ago. We’d never had a fight before. And he’d never seen me in the dumps. Of course he was worried.
Ziggy looked worried, too, though.
“I’m fine,” I said. “Wiped out, though.”
They were hanging on my words. And I could feel the tension between them, too. They each wanted to make me feel better. Neither one knew if he could do that with the other one sitting there. Which was the one thing left that made me want to put my head down on the table and scream.
Nothing I could do about it, though.
J. and I started to talk at the same time. “But thanks for–” I said, while he started something like, “I didn’t think–”
And then a few seconds of “you go-no you go” ensued, before I finally forged ahead. “I was trying to say: thanks for taking me over there. Even if it didn’t turn out to be what either of us hoped.”
“Heh. I was just saying I’m sorry it was such a bust. And, I had no idea visiting home was going to be so rough on you. I’m sorry.”
“I never felt at home there.” I shrugged.
Except that was a lie. Madison’s had probably been the one place that did. Maybe. Or it felt like it to the person I thought I was going to be. I’m not sure that’s who I actually became, though.
“I wonder if there’s somewhere else that has live music now, or if that’s just over with now,” I said, looking at my hands in my lap.
“I don’t know,” J. said. “It’s not really like there was a music scene there, was there?”
“Not really. It wasn’t like they ever booked anyone there but local acts, you know, It was mostly a crowd of regulars that kept the place going…” I tore open a sugar packet and emptied it onto the plate that had held my pie. “Maybe karaoke is a step up from the acts they had lately. I don’t know.”
“But still,” Ziggy said. “A fern bar?”
“I know. I’m amazed they kept the name.”
“They probably had to keep the name to keep the liquor license. The owner probably got a nice payday from selling that,” J. said.
“I wonder if Remo knows? Probably not. He hasn’t been back, either, as far as I know.” I pushed the sugar around with my finger. “The first time I got on the stage there I think I was eleven.”
They let me talk then. I did the Zen sand raking thing with my fingers with the sugar on my plate while I told them about how Remo used to pay me ten bucks to help them haul their gear up the stairs, and another ten bucks to haul it back down. It was two payments since sometimes Digger and I didn’t stay to the end of their second set. He never paid me to play on the stage with them, though. That was its own reward, I guess. I hadn’t really thought about it.
Right before they’d left for Los Angeles we’d gotten into a routine where we’d switch back and forth which of us was playing rhythm guitar and which was lead. Even mid-song. At the time I hadn’t thought of it as amazing or even out of the ordinary. I wondered if I was ever going to be that sympatico with another guitar player again.
“So you played twice a month with Nomad, in a regular gig there?” Ziggy asked. “Did you go around other places, too?”
“Not very much. Some places wouldn’t allow it because I was underage. Some were too far to get me home in time to go to school. They snuck me into summer gigs down the Shore sometimes.”
Ziggy was looking right through me, it felt like. I pushed the sugar around.
“And then they up and left?”
“Yeah.” Not that I could blame them for doing it. “I had just finished my sophomore year of high school.”
That was the last word on that subject. The waitress came and offered more coffee. I asked for the bill, paid it with per diem cash including a decent tip, and then went to the men’s room before we hit the road.
On my way back to the table, a girl stopped me, though. “Excuse me, I don’t mean to bother you, but my boyfriend thinks he knows you and he’s too much of a chickenshit to ask you.”
“Is he normally afraid to talk to people?” I asked.
She laughed. “No! Just ones that got rich and famous.”
“Well, it’s okay then, because I’m not rich yet, just famous. Where is he?”
She pointed to the booth a few feet away where the boyfriend was given me one of those awkward smiles and waving his palm back and forth slowly.
“Holy shit, Adam, right?” I went and shook his hand and he relaxed a little. I couldn’t remember his last name.
“Rasmussen,” he said, nodding. “I’m amazed you remember. I didn’t see much of you after freshman year.”
“The trombone player,” I said, as it clicked into place where I knew him from. My somewhat short-lived experiment in the high school band.
Ziggy came up then, probably wondering why I was now in a conversation with some random people. I introduced him. We exchanged a couple more pleasantries. Ziggy was focused on getting me out of there, I think, and he autographed some things and made me sign them, too, and then we shuffled out.
In the car I told them that the only reason I remembered the guy’s name was that I’d had a crush on him. Neither of them seemed inclined to talk about that. We pulled in WPRB, the Princeton college station I’d only been able to get sometimes on my radio at home. When that faded, I looked for WSOU, the Seton Hall station, which was reliable for music that was loud and head-bangy.
My next worry, of course, was what the fuck was going to happen when we got to the hotel. What kind of awkward hell awaited? Was J. going to come upstairs? Was Ziggy going to let him?
I fell asleep, though, somewhere before the Pulaski Skyway.
(Happy Valentine’s Day everyone! Thanks for being a part of the love story that is DGC! -ctan)