I managed to finish the set without falling off the stage, having a heart attack, or passing out. I mostly tried to pretend no one was there in the pit, but I looked at them a couple of times. Claire was smiling and if I thought too much about it I was going to miss my cue, but I caught myself a couple of times trying to figure out whether that was her plastered-on public smile or if Courtney had slipped her some Ecstasy or what. I tried to imagine the conversation. Hello, mother, I just happened to be passing through Kansas because your prodigal son is putting me through college and your ex-lover is his boss and they’re playing a show tonight, would you like to come along?
I missed a cue and had to step closer to Remo’s monitor to pick it up again. He gave me a slightly exasperated look then modulated it with one of those little amused smiles and I could imagine him saying, well, what can you do? A nomad just keeps moving. So I stopped thinking about it. But I practically ran off the stage before the first encore, grabbed my usual Gatorade from Flip and chugged it down.
And then stood there gasping with my hands on my knees. I felt a hand on my back and knew it was Remo’s. “Don’t die on me, kiddo.”
“I’m fine.” This was an outdoor venue, and it was August, but the heat I was feeling wasn’t from the weather. I straightened and shook out my bad hand. I was thinking the most ridiculous things like if I hadn’t gotten hurt fate wouldn’t have dropped her in my path at this point. I know that makes no sense but Murphy’s Law seems like a thing at times like that. “Did you know she was coming?”
“You mean it wasn’t your idea?”
“And here I was impressed you were so sanguine and mature about it.”
I opened my mouth to say something but realized I didn’t know what to say to that. Since when was I the sanguine and mature one? Maybe the thing to do was pretend to be sanguine and mature about it instead of freaking out. Fake it till you make it, isn’t that what they say? “How are we doing on time? Let’s do our acoustic encore. Just you and me and two guitars.” I shook my hand out again.
“Like we did in Florida?”
“Yeah, like Sarasota.” Or was it Orlando…? “It won’t be as good as it would be if I were one hundred percent, but–”
“Sure. Let’s do it.” He passed the word to the crew and Flip brought me the re-tuned Ovation. Louis put two spots at center stage front, and the crew re-set the mics. I don’t know why I suggested this. I guess maybe I thought Remo would want to? Though I can’t tell you know why he would, other than maybe I had the feeling it had impressed Melissa’s family? For my part, why would I want to be exposed that way? We’re at our most vulnerable when it’s just our voices and the guitars and no band to hide behind. And yet I suggested it and he agreed.
Remo trusted me when it came to musical decisions like this. When it came to taking musical risks like this. And make no mistake, it is a risk when you go out there in front of people and go off script. I love it. I love taking those risks. That’s the adrenaline rush I live for, the tightrope I like to walk without a net. I admit it. And maybe I hoped… Never mind. Let’s get to what happened.
I went out there first and the crowd went nuts when I lifted the guitar in my fist. I didn’t need to tune up but I checked the tuning anyway as a kind of mental preparation while Remo came out and waved and blew kisses all around.
We sang the acoustic version of “Safe Haven” and the crowd ate it up with two spoons. This was the song, remember, that sounds like it’s about a guy taking in a woman when she flees her abusive husband but which Reem said was actually about me. Halfway through the second chorus I got a better idea for the harmony than what I had done before, and I did it, and that got a rise out of Remo who looked me in the eye and was half-smiling even though it’s a sad lyric. We could hear people singing along–it’s one of Nomad’s best known songs. I used my pick hand to conduct them as I went into the half-speed section at the end, like I had done on the radio gig, and they sang louder. They were singing all the way out on the lawn. Great moment.
I didn’t dare look into the pit to see if Claire was even still there at that point or what. I kept looking at Remo. We just had to trust each other.
“Let’s do your lounge act, too,” I said into his ear during the applause.
“You going to sing or leave me hanging out to dry?”
“I’ll sing when it fits,” I said. “And do ‘Riptide’ after.”
“All right. Here’s hoping I can remember the goddam words.”
I had a feeling singing it in front of ten thousand people wasn’t going to be harder than singing it with Alan staring him in the face.
“This one’s new, brand new,” he said and cleared this throat as approving applause washed up. “In case any of you were getting ideas that I was quitting or anything.” Louder applause.
I didn’t fuck around with harmonies much. I just sang the octave up from him, with a little slide here and there, on the last line of each verse. It’s a classic country duet kind of sound, though it’s usually a man and a woman singing the two parts. The female voice sings in unison but up an octave or sometimes up a fifth. The crowd got kind of quiet in the middle of the song, probably because they’d never heard the song before and had to listen to make out the words, but then at the end another rain of approving applause showered us.
“Okay, and you folks know an encore is supposed to be an repeat of something, right? So we’re going to do a song you already heard, just a different way,” he said. “‘Riptide’ is about how sometimes no matter how hard you try, you’re going to get pulled in a direction you don’t want to go. Sometimes things are bigger than you. Sometimes all you can do is keep your head above the water.”
While he was giving that intro I finally looked into the pit to see she and Courtney hadn’t moved. I made brief eye contact with Courtney but not enough to get any impression of how she was doing.
And then I needed to look at Remo so we could stay together. “Riptide” ripped along and the next thing I knew we were taking our bows at the edge of the stage and going off before the last encore.
Second encore was the last encore. It was raucous and a little sloppy but not embarassingly so. The rest of the band had picked up on me and Remo’s edginess and carried us away. Send ’em home with their feet tapping and their ears ringing. That probably contributed to a higher-than-usual performance high for me, too.
We came off the stage dripping with sweat. I stripped off my shirt as usual–it wasn’t my job on a tour this size to take care of my own laundry, and it was whisked out of my hand. I toweled my face and hung the towel over my shoulders.
Remo caught me by the arm. “So. Which one of us is talking to her first?”
I shrugged and leaned against the cinderblock wall of the back hallway where he’d stopped me. “I’m not sure I want to talk to her or that she wants to talk to me.”
“She’s your mother.”
“She didn’t come all this way just to ignore you.”
“Remo, be serious. She had a much bigger attachment to you than she ever did to me.”
“You think? I think I was attached to her. I don’t think she was ever particularly attached to me.” He looked me in the eye. “Obviously the only thing to do is to go see her together.”
I laughed though I didn’t think it was funny. “Because she can’t go for the jugular on both of us at the same time, can she?”
Remo pulled me into a quick, sweaty, almost painful hug. I did not much mind because it was his words that meant the most to me. “If she goes for you at all she’s getting the same reception your father got.”
I wanted to say something–thanks, something–but the lump in my throat kept me from saying anything.
“Grab a shower,” he said, then. “I’ll go find out where she is.”
I gratefully fled.