A face presses against the glass, body crammed into the corner. The lights are out, but a fickle gray beam comes through the rain-spattered window. He blinks and remembers to breathe, sees the misty release cover his own reflection, and wipes it away.
An old man stares back at Kay from the mirror. The lines on his face are deep tonight, shadows stacking on top of one another beneath his eyes, over creased brows and worried-eyes. Crows’ feet leading in to blue island floating in yellow seas shot with ropy little threads. Cheeks pitted with tiny craters under a dust of pale mascara. Lines around a mouth used to screaming and singing, smiling and talking; stretched with use.
Behind him, the building shakes with two hundred thousand stamping feet. The slow music of the crowd, gathered outside on the floor. A hundred thousand hushed voices, pierced with shrieks and high-pitched laughs. One hundred thousand. Shuffling feet, indrawn breaths and beating hearts. Young fans and old.
The past is gone. For him, and the rest. They hit their stride, found a place to focus all the pent up energy that is the rightful property of youth and released it in dazzling chords and blazing shrieks from tortured throat. Kay would wake in the middle of the night with some perfect melody, a couple of notes or a short riff, and sit down with his guitar at 2AM. He could ignore the cigarettes, the booze and the cooze to focus on the music, and get it down on tape. Just to get it out of his head. Then he’d sleep. Later on they’d get together, write some words, string it out, make a record. Another hit. But that was forty years ago. Now he was old, and heading up to the stage.
Already the others were there, warming up ancient joints, tuning up classic instruments that were new when they were young. The crowd could hear them. They were getting antsy. The rush was growing in the crowd. That special surge before the first chord, sad or angry it may be, that would set the tone of the night. Kay could feel it too, seeping into their bones. The excitement of the set. Their movements became quicker, more sure. The time to wallow on dusk was gone. No time to be old, to think of the dues they’d pay for what they do on stage.
It hit him then, as the curtains rose and the lights dimmed. Nobody he’d ever talked to, from Indian mystics to self-help gurus to other musicians knew where it came from. But the artists, as they styled themselves, those who gave themselves to their craft, beyond skill and learning and time knew what it was and gave a conspiratorial grin to those who had it. Energy filled him, added confidence to his swaggering walk, the thrash of his pale limbs. Eyes lifted from the floor to stare at the rising curtain, the loud hush of a hundred thousand souls. He fingered the pick and the slide. It was time.
Kay’s heart beat like a train, ears ringing from the noise and pounding blood, sweat hot and sticky as it dripped down his sides, and he started out a mournful moan to match the first few notes. The song was of sin, something he’d had much experience in. Half of the book of their lives were writ large with sin of every sort. And love. Every song in rock and roll was love. It was at the heart of it. The ancient rocker grabbed his mike and started screaming his heart into it, pouring out the words. Kay stood there through the break, grimacing in pain, digging at the strings, forcing the notes from cramped and arthritic fingers. They could all die after this set, after this song. For now they played and sang.
That was the key, for all those people out there, the ones that were old enough to be the children of their own children sired on some groupie on tour and others as ancient as them. To dream, to hope, to strive for just one day, one moment, one concert and share that something primal with another, the audience and the act. To feel the vibration and pain of his voice echoing throughout the hall.
The ancient rocker screamed the words at the crowed and they sang them back to him.
Maybe tomorrow the Good Lord would take us all away, but for tonight, they sang together and dreamed on…
Seems day after day I’m more confused. Forty years of sin’ll do that to you. I stare with him through the window, watching the pale gray light come through the pouring rain. It’s a game with us, before a show. See who gets bored first. When the reflection of your eyes wander off. I hate to lose. He understands. Today, I win.
Feeling strange toda.. The crowd’s beginning to pick up a bit. Kay’s just staring in a mirror. I know what he’s thinking. Ain’t it a shame, forty years gone, we’re still here when others aren’t. Some died, some retired while the getting was good. Before they bottomed out their talent or killed themselves with drugs. Then you’ve got us. Wasting time after forty years, playing our guitars.
I never understand the things I do. Why I hear the music, why it burns up inside me and I have to get it out so I can rest. Not that I could ever say that out loud. Kay’s the vocals of this crew, that’s a fact. On stage and off, they all want to hear him. Same today as forty years ago.
Forty years…the world is less forgiving now. The world outside is so unkind…to us, who should have known when their time is up. What they want nowadays is the sweet young things. No talent, just the beautiful people and a hundred techs behind the scenes making their bitching into something tolerable, aye, even pleasing on the ear.
One of the reasons I’ve stuck with Kay all these years. He’s carried me through, the good times and the bad. Back in the 70’s, when I’d ‘free my mind.’ I was so far gone, so done out on the drugs and the sex that I blocked out the music. I’d sit there, blood dripping from my nose, staring at a damn lava lamp like it was the center of creation, and the melodies couldn’t reach me. Too much static from dying brain cells fizzing between my ears.
Then there was Kay, coming through, helping me out. He dried me, well and true. Took me back to the old house in the hills, back where we came from, and let me sweat every drug out of my pores. And then came the Blue. So dark it was like a night sky tinged with purple, it covered me inside and out, and began to eat me. My need and my enemy all at once. I figured I’d die, and that was alright with me.
Kay came to me that night, and gave her to me. My ‘riel. The guitar soothed me. The Blue had me, but I started to play. Some stupid report once asked me why I named her after an angel. Could’ve told the skirt behind the microphone a lot of things, but I told the sweet young thing she didn’t understand. She couldn’t. A guitar to me, to everybody…it’s the voice of God to us. Music is our religion, and this is the instrument of my salvation. ‘S why I never cracked my axe like those big-hair dumbshits in the Eighties. It’s too sacred to me.
So when, the curtain rose, me and Kay out on the stage, I began a few mournful notes. Thank you for the joy you’ve given me ‘riel. Everybody else was silent, as I began, and then Em chimed in, voice perfect, younger than he’d been in years. Stronger than his aged body could make alone. ‘riel was singing with him.
Oh ‘riel, I want you to know I believe in your song. The rhythm, rhyme and harmony. Helping me on, to dig out the notes, clawing at your strings ‘til me fingers near but bled. Making me strong enough to stand against the searing lights and screaming crowd. To complete me communion, the orgasmic release from music that you’d never get from any thin wine or crisp host.
Now I’m talking to the others, and they hear me, even over the song. Give me the beat boys, and free my soul, I want to get lost in your rock ’n roll and drift away…
Just get lost in your rock ’n roll and drift away…
When I was young, I knew everything. We all did.
She was a punk. Rarely took advice, no matter if it was her friends who gave it to her or her fucked-up parents. Guess she knew everything too.
Now I’m on my knees, sobbing, just fucking crying with my entire body, almost convulsing, unable to move for the pain in my chest. Why do I feel guilt for her? Why? I see her baby inside her, gasping for breath…then stopping. I see someone filling a shoe with rice and throwing it at her on her wedding-day that will never happen. It’s not me. It’s not my fault. I can’t be held responsible. I can’t.
She was touching her face when we found her. Pale fingers caressing cold cheek. The basement floor is cool against my forehead, hot tears stream from tight-closed eyes. I won’t be held responsible for this. I won’t be held responsible. It’s not my fault. I didn’t do anything. She’s the one. She fell in love in the first place, not me, not me, I can’t, I won’t be responsible…
I try and I try, but for the life of me I can’t remember what made us think we were wise. That we’d never compromise with the world. Not our morals. Not each other. I didn’t believe, we’d ever die for these sins. It wasn’t wrong. No, not wrong. Just sex and dope and shit. Teenage rebellion and all that. It’s not like we were damn seniors, short-timers waiting to get out of here, or even fucking know-it-all college students, we were merely freshman. Just freshman. That’s all.
When they broke it off…when they were done with each other, that afternoon, after all the fighting and yelling and Em crying her eyes out, Jay couldn’t come to work. I explained it to the boss. The old man understood. After all, he’d been a kid once too, right? Take a couple days off. Get some rest. Forget her.
So Jay did.
I was the one that went over to her house. She was my friend too, I figured I’d give her a shoulder to cry on or something. ‘Course, I never knew she took Valium. Had trouble sometimes, needed to take something to calm down. I found out when I got there, door unlocked like she’d left it open on purpose. So I went in. There she was. With an empty plastic pill bottle in one hand, the other, resting on her face. Eyes closed like she was sleeping.
Jay came in behind me. Had to see her again. All the times I thought he’d walk in on us together, I never thought it would be like this.
There he is now. Unable to move, just lying there, sobbing. His head on the floor next to hers. Jay was trying to cry, but no tears came. They never would, not from him.
Later, after we’d made the calls to everyone he told me how he’d thought about it. How he’d never really wept. He says to me: I can’t be held responsible.
I remember her smooth hand touching her face.
My friends says to me: I won’t be held responsible. She fell in love in the first place.
That’s how we tried to wash our hands of it. We weren’t responsible.
We never talk about our relationships nowadays. The memories are too painful. Then one day, we were talking and we both started crying. Both of us finally knelt on the floor and cried forgiveness. Jay cried because Em died for him. I cried for friend I had killed.
Guess we were just trying not to slip when the relationship got icy. We never knew she was pregnant. We never found out which of us was the father.
Just like she never knew about us. Em and Jay. Jay and I. I and Em. We fell through the ice, I guess. Now we have to drown in our own sorrows for what happened to us.
We never thought we’d die for these sins. Him and her. Him and me. The whole future was before us.
We were merely freshman.
Concentrate on my breathing. It’s important. Look ahead, can’t just wait for the road to come to me. Grip the steering wheel so tight I can barely feel my fingers. I have to relax a little, let my fingers feel the grooves in the wheel. Work with adrenaline, don’t fight it, don’t freeze up.
There’s an alley ahead. I spin the wheel and the car slides to the right. The sudden motion causes us both to lean. Dee’s eyes flick back and forth between me and what’s coming after us. Her gaze feels like the glare from an electric light. She’s scared. Me too. That’s why we have to get out of here. Because we’re in love. Because we’re afraid. Because we just stepped in the middle of a feud that been going on for years and years and years. Montagues and Capulets, Sharks and Jets. The lovers die at the end, and narrative tradition is not something to rise up against easily.
‘Course, I’ve got an advantage the others don’t. Got a machine head. Better than the rest of those flesh and blood losers.
Say what you will about our Families, but the Italians are a bad mix of old and new. Old traditions, old feuds, old-fashioned prejudice against hard-tech upgrades to the flesh-comps we’re issued at birth. Then again, Ma Familia paid for this. Wanted me to have every advantage. Now I do.
The light ahead changes from green to red. My machine head takes over, and all I see are vectors and the car charges along the one I pick. The police bands scream in the radio plugged into my back brain, the chatter of cops and the Mafiosos on our tail one more data source to process. The alley buys us seconds, kills their line of sight. I dodge into a parking garage, kill the lights, stop the machine. The muscle cars zoom by. That’ll buy a little time, so I double back.
Light ahead of me turns from green to yellow. Machine head automatically adjusts; I speed up. Yellow goes to red. Pedal hit’s the floor, and we’re running.
I crash straight into oncoming traffic. The airbags pop as our heads bash forward, brains still trying to move at thirty kph. My machine head switches to automatic pilot. Get out of the car. Grab her arm, take her with me. Dee’s eyes are still wide, my Juliet, shocked. I kick open the door of the machine. Can’t really call it a car with that much armor on it. Eyes and ears haven’t quite adapted to night-time and traffic yet. Goombas on our asses, they know the make, will be listening to the police bands, try to beat the sirens to get to us. We need to move.
I walk away from the remains of my machine, holding Dee by the wrist, nearly dragging her along, not running, just walking. She keeps looking back. dazed, tripping over everything. I walk away from my machine. Cars keep crashing into it. Mafiosos with fleshy heads smacked up against spider-webbed windows.
Here we are. Deaf from the sound of impact. Nearly dumb from the shock still working it’s way through me. Machine head keeps goin’ Fifteen and fifteen. Thirty years between the two of us. I think I’m starting to deserve this love between us. Yeah.
Dee says something. Slips my grip. Leaning on the wall. I look her over, really look at her. All of it, the chase the crash, she can’t take it. My machine head gets it first. My meat twigs to it a few ticks later. There’s blood, like a deep red wine, and it’s coming out of Dee, through her ears and nose and mouth. For the last time, she looks at me. Then her eyes close.
Unconscious all the time. A coma. It wasn’t the crash. She took something. Big dose of some nasty brain-cell killer. Brain orgasms as it dies, burning out from the inside. Better to die happy, heh? Yeah. Fried her noodle good. The machine says her autonomic systems will shut down soon.
I hold the knife up to my heart. Machine head’s already done the calculations. I know just how much to press and where. I fix my last gaze on her. Narrative inertia. We just fell into the wrong story, Dee, baby.
If I had it all again…I'd change it all.
The house was dark, bare wood with ancient paint and plaster, empty save for him. I could see him through the windows: a man, hair hanging to the shoulder, round glasses reflecting the darkness of night, thin beard and mustache to match thin and lanky frame. He was looking out the window. No lamps were lit, no stars or moon shone, no street light or city glow on the horizon. Only the occasional flash of lightning showed him, standing there. Looking into the darkness; lips moving as if he was speaking softly.
I crept closer to the house, moving between flashes. Tree to tree, bush to bush, running through raindrops and laying in the mud. My heart beat in my chest as I came up under the bay window at the rear of the house, immediately beneath him. Close enough to hear him speak aloud to the darkness.
“When I find myself in times of trouble; when the road I walk seems too long, when my legs drag and thighs burn and shoulders ache, and there’s a deep empty whole in my chest like I’ve lost the breath of life within me; when no energy keeps me going through the motions of living, Mother Mary comes to me.
“The virgin mother, She comes to me, standing before me in the darkness. She speaks to me, as I ask for an answer, and I hear Her words of wisdom. ‘Let it be.’
“And here, in my hour of darkness; where no light can intrude, I see Her standing right in front of me, smiling. Kneeling toward me, whispering. ‘Let it be.’
“Let it be. Let it be. Over and over I repeat Her words to myself in throaty, hopeful whispers. Her words of wisdom. ‘Let it be.’
“Only at times like this, in my dark hours, when all the broken-hearted people living in the world agree to surrender themselves of the night…when they sleep the peaceful sleep, in the comforting arms of Her darkness…then there will be an answer. Even though they may be parted, there is still a chance that they will see, in their shadowy dreams that are reflections of Her ebon glory, there will be an answer.
“She says to me ‘Let it be.’
“Let it be, let it be. Yeah, there will be an answer, let it be!
“And when the night is cloudy, and the moon and stars are hid, there is still a light that shines on me, Her dark radiance. Shine on until tomorrow, I need your presence to my prayers! Let it be!
“I wake up to the sound of music, and Mother Mary comes to me, striding through the darkened room to Her, speaking as I would sing, speaking words of wisdom. Whenever I ask for an answer, she replies “Let it be. There will be an answer, let it be.”
“Let it be, let it be, Mother Mary! Whisper words of wisdom, let it be!”
“Everyday I search for the answer She has told me must be. Every night, when I fail and despair, she is standing right in front of me. Let it be.”
The window cracked where the bullet went in. I saw his body slide against the glass, saw the crimson stain as the lightning crashed. Disappeared back into the woods and the night.
End of Tape