The next day we hit the road for Philly and I spent the two-plus hour bus ride sitting by myself, staring out the window or resting my head on my arms. Whenever Bart or Chris would ask me how I was doing I’d shrug and tell them I was resting my throat or I felt a little dizzy or something. And my throat was killing me. The words Strep Throat were mentioned several times and ignored.
But while I sat there with my silence pulled around me like a blanket, really I was thinking over last night and wondering if anything had really changed. For all his talk, Ziggy and I hadn’t made any “decisions,” and it seemed for now that our secret was intact. Ziggy ignored me. I gnawed on my calluses and played over in my mind things he’d said last night, and other nights. I could not decide for myself what my admission might have meant or how it changed anything. Maybe, I hoped, it would change the way he treated me, maybe he would take my feelings a little more seriously. But I feared that all it meant was I’d given him another opening to hurt me, another length of chain to jerk.
They checked us into our hotel first before taking us to sound check. John handed me a room key and explained that they were rooming me alone to try to keep anyone else from getting sick. “Your singer gets that sore throat and we’re fucked,” he said.
I refrained from telling him why this precaution was probably too late.
By the time we got to the hall, I felt exhaustion creeping up on me and I sat down in the front row to wait for our sound check. MNB went pretty quick, or so it seemed, as I dozed off in the middle. When I did go up the stairs to the stage, I felt like I was climbing Mount Everest. Even the Ovation felt heavy on my shoulder, and the Strat was like a bag of bricks.
We had played halfway through “River” when I felt like my legs were going to give out on me. But I stuck it out, finished the sound check, and stumbled back into a seat, too worn out to walk all the way to our dressing room backstage.
John came over with a clipboard under his arm and I decided he was more camp counselor than cruise director. “Are you okay?”
I shook my head. “No, but I will be, I hope.”
“We can cancel you for tonight if you need to rest.”
“No. I… I ought to take a nap and then I’ll be fine.” I stood up. “I couldn’t sleep on the way here.”
John put a hand on my shoulder. “Well, if you want to, you can always crash for a while in the bus out back. Might be quieter there. But tell somebody where you are, okay? So we’re not searching for you all night.”
He gave me a quick nod and walked away, his mind already on his next errand. Man, I wonder if they go to a special school for that, Planning Ahead 101, Coping and Multiple Priorities 202. I wondered how much he got paid and if I had remembered at some point to get his business card. Belle would have it.
I made my way slowly to the backstage area and sank onto a couch there.
Bart sat down next to me. “How are you feeling?”
I was getting sick of that question. “I’ll be fine. I want a nap.”
He chuckled. “This is weird. Usually Ziggy’s the one off by himself, but today he’s been hanging out with us and you’re the moody one.”
“I’m not moody,” I insisted. “Just ill.”
“Whatever you say, bwana.” But he looked at me sidelong. “We’re going to get some dinner. There’s supposed to be this great Indian food place around the corner. You coming?”
I shook my head. “Food’ll just make me feel sicker. I’m going to have a nap. I’ll be in the bus.”
In the dark, quiet bus, I felt a surge of relief as I lay down. But although lying down felt good, I did not fall asleep. I kept thinking about all the same shit again, Ziggy and me. I was exhausted, but my brain wouldn’t rest. Eventually, though, even the worry engine began to run out of steam and I started to drift off. I was in this hazy, half-awake state when I heard the bus door open.
Ziggy climbed in and sat down across from me. “You doing okay?”
Yeah, I tried to say but my throat was seized up. I coughed. “Yeah.” The word came out sounding bitter, like No Thanks To You.
His eyebrow twitched up. “Did I do something wrong? You looked like you wanted to be left alone, today. So I backed off.”
“I…” My larynx was so inflamed I couldn’t get the words out. I put a hand on my throat.
“Come on, let’s get you some salt water.”
“Why?” I croaked. We hadn’t even bothered to set me up a mic tonight, there was no way I could sing backup.
“Gargle with salt water, it’ll make your throat stop hurting. I guarantee it. Come on, don’t be an ass.” He gave me a hand up. As we made our way to the backstage door, he put his arm around my shoulders. I didn’t fight it.
He put me in a chair backstage and told John to send someone to buy some salt. Twenty minutes later I was gargling in the men’s room while he supervised. He was right, the swelling went down and I could talk again without stabbing pain. But now I couldn’t think of much I wanted to say. My legs were shaky and I still wanted to sleep.
A short while later I found myself standing with the others in the wings, the lights went dim, and the crowd began to cheer. Bart nudged me on the shoulder and I went up the stairs to the stage.
The lights swirled up around us as I went to plug in, then remembered that we were running wireless. In my disoriented state I turned to look at the guys running the monitors in the wings. They took no notice of me and Christian hit the backbeat that opened the first song. I came in, half-surprised, half-relieved that everything worked. Bart and I made eye contact as we played in unison and he gave me a questioning look. I shrugged.
Two songs later I was feeling the fatigue. But somehow the sweat and heat felt good, I was sinking into the music, my fingers flying even as the rest of me seemed to be all torpor. I closed my eyes and played, leaning against a stack of P.A. at the edge of the stage. As I put my head back I felt my sweat-soaked shirt pressed against my back.
My solo came to an end and I opened my eyes to see Ziggy in front of me. I let my legs buckle and we sank down together, knee to knee. We finished the song that way and then he got up and sprang away. I stayed on the stage. I didn’t think I could get up without staggering. I hit the opening riff of “Candlelight” and lay down on my back. The others kicked in.
Around the second verse Bart came over and mouthed something to me.
He knelt down on one knee. “Are you okay?”
As he backed away, shrugging, I sat up and punched my effects pedal with my hand. The flange came on and I sat cross-legged at the edge of the stage wailing into the riffs of the bridge with the spacey wash effect making the guitar sound like an orchestra from Mars.
When the song finished I let the effect bounce around for a while until it faded out. I looked up. The other three were all staring at me.
I got to my feet and went back to the effects pedals and switched the flange off with my foot. My eyes flicked over the set list taped there and I realized I’d skipped two songs in the set, but they’d kept up with me. Bart raised an eyebrow at me like “what are we playing next?”
I turned to Christian. “Welcome.”
“You sure?” We hadn’t played that one recently, but we used to really jam on it when we played in Boston.
“Yeah.” What the heck, we were off the map now, anyway, why go back?
Christian counted off and he and I kicked into it. Bart caught on and caught up with us. Ziggy gave me a look like I was crazy but he came in when he was supposed to.
Maybe I was crazy. It felt right. My blood was pumping. And we were really cooking.
After “Welcome” we did “The Right Hand” and closed the set with “Rain.” I spent all of Rain on my knees again and after I played the last note, I unslung the guitar from my shoulder and sat there until the roadie who came to take it from me helped me up.