Always Something There to Remind Me

I took Remo to The Brickhouse, a blues bar tucked on the edge of Providence’s vacant downtown where the bouncers knew me and wouldn’t bug me about not having ID. I was in there all the time. This was a kind of rough place, a different set of townies from the Cage, with regular brawls, but the music was usually good, blues in the Stevie Ray Vaughn mold which I knew Remo would like. Maybe that meant I wanted to make peace, or at least I felt a little guilty for making him sit through another hour of glam metal covers. I got a root beer in the bottle from the bartender, Remo got a shot of Scotch and paid for both. We sat down on a bench along the back wall and watched the band play for a while. It was almost like old times there except for the kind of sick feeling I had in my chest every time I thought about what I wanted to say. Maybe that’s where that expression comes from, to get something off your chest. I might write a song about it later.

It was too loud to talk and Remo was starting to look impatient, so I pointed out a bouncer, a stocky, beer-bellied guy carrying an air horn. I put my hands over my ears and Remo did the same, watching me. The band finished their set, saying their thank-you-goodnights and then exiting. The crowd, mostly muscley-looking older guys (this was not a collegey kind of place) clapped and cheered for an encore. The bouncer was shouting something we couldn’t make out. The guys pressed the stage. Then the bouncer let loose with the air horn, driving the crowd back. His mouth moved with unheard words while he blasted them. The stubborn men shouted for a while more and then the group broke up, shuffling back to the bar for another drink or heading out the door.

“What was that all about?” Remo said when we took our hands down.

“City says the band has to be off the stage by one-thirty on the dot even though the bar can stay open until two.”

“Is it always like that in here?” He had a bemused look on his face.

“Pretty much.” I took a pull on the root beer and looked around. The Brickhouse wasn’t any more like our old home town place than the Cage was, I guess. Maddie’d never had to chase the crowd out with a horn, that’s for sure. “So. Where were we…”

“I think you were getting ready to tear me a new asshole for leaving you behind in Jersey four years ago.”

Put like that, the anger stuck in my craw. “Oh yeah,” I said. “That’s right.”

“I mean, come on, Daron, you were fifteen. What, was I going to kidnap you or something so you could come with us? The deal was done. Proverbial fame beckoned. So we went. If there’d been some way to take you along…”

“I know.” Of course he was right, but that didn’t ease the itchy old feeling of abandonment. “But you never…” I tried to say it without choking. “I didn’t understand why you had to move to LA. Once you were gone, there was no… Safe Haven for me, anymore.” I couldn’t help but use the title of a song I’d played with them, those years ago.

Remo looked pained—it was a cheap shot, but I had known that would get him. “Jeezus, kiddo…”

“Don’t call me that,” I said, too sharply. “I know you did what you had to. I wasn’t expecting to… I mean, I knew that playing with you guys on Wednesday nights and weekends wasn’t like I was, like, integral or anything.”

“You shut your mouth,” he said, but in a kind way. “If you’d been any older, if you’d…” He shook his head and sipped his scotch. “What did you think you were, our mascot or something?” He was chuckling. “Oh sure, when you were like twelve, it was cute, getting you up there. But.” He took a deep breath. Sitting side by side like we were it was hard to look directly at each other. “You got wronged, all right? Can we leave it at that?”

“Why, is there more to the story than that?”

He jumped a little in his seat, like I’d pricked him with a pin. “I’m just not into assigning blame or whatever. What’s my responsibility, I apologize for it.” He sipped his scotch while his eyes roamed over the thinning crowd. “I didn’t come here to talk about all that old stuff, anyway. I gotta know, what the hell are you doing in Rhode Island? And…” He stopped but I knew he wanted to say: and playing in a cheesy metal cover band looking like a five-dollar whore. “Digger said something about you going to school but…”

“But you never asked him where.” That was a low blow, I saw him wince out of the corner of my eye. “Conservatory. I’m studying classical guitar at RIMCon.”

“Classy.”

“Or I was.” I stole a glance at him and his eyebrows were knit together in disapproval. “I was here on grant money, basically.”

“Scholarship?”

“Sort of. I came up in the fall of 85. I’m supposed to go back in September for my third semester.”

“You don’t sound too sure about that.”

I didn’t want to tell him my problems. You’d think, me being bitter and all, that I’d want to paint as pathetic a picture for him as I could, but no. I wanted him to think I could make it on my own. “I’m working at a recording studio. I’m doing these fill in gigs sometimes.” I wiped bottle condensation from my hand to my jeans. “There’s really no street musicians in Providence to speak of…”

“Hey, kiddo, don’t tell me you’re busking for food money.”

“Don’t call me kid. And I just said there’s no busking in Providence. The place doesn’t have the foot traffic for it.”

He took a bigger swallow of the whiskey and turned on the bench to face me as best he could. “So you got out of New Jersey on this scholarship, landed here, and now you’re hard up for cash.”

“I am not hard up.”

“Daron.”

“Okay, so the economy sucks here and even bands with steady work can’t make enough to live on, unless you count the wedding bands, and even the studios are losing money because nobody can afford to record…”

“And you’re telling me your scholarship doesn’t cover what you need.”

“No. It was a fixed amount of money and it’s basically gone.” I drained the last of the foam out of my bottle and set it down on the bench with a clunk.

“Do you want to go back? To school, I mean.”

“I think so. There’s a lot to learn still. And Bart’s got another year to go, too.”

“Bart?”

“My bass player.” And best friend. The loud growl of motorcycles rumbled the wall behind us and I heard a car honk.

“So you have a band.”

Okay, I smiled. “Yeah, I have a band.” I stared into the dark hole of my bottle. “Of course, I have a band. I mean, what’s the point of living, right?”

“Hot diggety.” He was fishing in the breast pocket of his denim jacket. “You do have a demo tape, right? Here, would you send me one?”

I fished in my own pocket and pulled out a cassette. “Here.” I traded it for his business card.

“Always prepared.”

I sat back, realizing that the thing, whatever it had been, was off my chest. “I was never a Boy Scout and neither were you.”

He put the tape into his own pocket and patted it like it was something precious. “It’s been forever since I’ve heard you play.”

“It’s been about forty five minutes, actually.”

He gave me a cocked eyebrow, a touch of consternation. “I mean really play.”

“Just giving you shit,” I said, and couldn’t help but smirk. “My address and number are on there. Though I don’t know how much longer I’ll be there.”

“And it’s not like you can ask Digger for money. Or Claire.”

I shrugged. My mother had hated me playing the guitar so much she’d forbid me to even practice in the house. And she held the purse strings in the family, so appealing to my father wasn’t likely to do any good. Besides, begging him for money was one thing I never wanted to do. “I could ask, I guess, but I don’t think it’d do any good.”

“You mean you know where to get a hold of Digger?”

I blinked. “Isn’t he at home?”

“Last I heard from him was, what, six months ago or so. He said he was…” Remo trailed off and stared at me.

I must have looked like I’d been hit by a car or something. I said it aloud. “He did it. He left her.”

Remo was nodding.

“Holy fuck.” I decided to look at the floor for a while. “And does the sonofabtich let me know? No.” The abandonment wound sliced open again. Some night this is turning out to be, eh, Daron? “Oh, that motherfucker.”

“He’s been incommunicado. Claire had the phone at the house disconnected, they just hung up on me when I asked for him at the store.” Remo put a hand on my shoulder. “I thought you knew.”

“This is what I get for not calling home more often,” I said, though I didn’t mean it. Claire would always be the one who answered and she more or less treated me like a stranger ever since I moved out. Hell, she treated me like a stranger when I lived there. And what would I have said to her, or to Digger—hey, I’m broke and whoring myself out to poodle-hair bands? Yeah right. Oh, and by the way, I’m living a life of sin and perversion, too. Jeezus.

Remo was staring at me, not blankly, more like he was concentrating very hard, or trying to make some kind of decision.

“Well, anyway,” I said. “I guess I’ll be looking into McDonalds or something next. As soon as I get the money saved up, I can go back to classes. Or, I don’t know, maybe I’ll move.”

“What about the band?”

My shoulders sagged. “Shit, Remo, I don’t know.”

“How much money are we talking, here?”

I held up a hand to stop him. “No. I know I was guilt tripping you earlier but don’t make me a loan because of that.”

“What do I look like, a charity ward?” he said, and it sounded like the old Remo. “Let me finish. How much do you need?”

“About three thousand for the semester.” I was afraid to look at him now, afraid to look too eager, too needy.

“You been keeping up on the latest in live audio?”

“I do what I can.”

“You want a road gig as a guitar tech?”

“Are we talking in theory or in reality? Do you have some friends who need someone or something?” I was trying not to hope too hard because I always end up slapped down and disappointed when I do.

“Yeah, there’s this pretty cool band who are doing a warm-up tour in July, ten dates or so, starts on the West Coast and finishes up in Boston.”

“I need the money by August 30th.” We were practically the only ones in the place now. The clink of empties being collected and glasses washed came from the bar. “So who is this band and will I get along with them?”

“Daron, don’t be thick. I’m talking about Nomad.”

“Well, jeezus, why didn’t you say so.” Now I looked at him. He had this big shit-eating grin on his face and I couldn’t help but feel a jolt of excitement. When I started to talk my tongue got all in my way. “Will I, I mean, will you need any, like, backup playing?”

“Jeezus, you want everything don’t you.”

“You bet I do.”

“Okay, three thousand bucks, I’ll put you in the set somewhere, and, shit, I’ll probably have to get you a guitar, too.”

“You don’t have to…”

“Shut up when I’m being nice. Will you do it?”

I held out my hand to shake and he took it. “Tell me when I leave.”

“We hit the road July 14th. I’ll want you in LA by the first to rehearse with us.”

“That’s in like two weeks, Reem.”

“Just tell me where to mail the plane ticket.”

“You got it.”

I didn’t know what to say after that but it didn’t seem like anything more had to be said. I walked him back to his hotel (There being only one major hotel in downtown Providence, that’s what size city we’re talking about here.) and we took turns carrying the Strat in its case. A fishy smell came from the river which ran mostly under the city and we walked through Kennedy Plaza with night summer breeze tousling my partially de-gelled hair. There were so many things I wanted to know now, things I wanted to talk to him about, like what it was like to tour around the world, to share a bill with Stevie Ray Vaughn or Bruce Springsteen, to appear in advertisements in guitar mags. There were so many things I wanted to tell him about, things that had happened after he’d left, things I’d learned. But they were all things that could wait two weeks and it felt good not to talk, too. The something was off of my chest and, as long as I didn’t think about Digger, I felt damn good.

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