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Authors: Sean Madigan Hoen

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BOOK: Songs Only You Know
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Two days later a priest called to tell us that my dad had made his way to a church rectory. This time my mom went to meet him. Apparently my parents had been in counseling with the priest, a diocese-appointed expert on addiction who oversaw a quaint Catholic parish in the downriver town of Wyandotte. Mom had once dragged me to mass there; now I understood why.

It was late afternoon.

I’d returned from the 6:00
. to 3:00
. shit shift in time to catch the gist of things and make a routine call to Lauren that, like most of our recent speed-talks, divulged nothing personal, only the perfunctorily good news that my band had practice later that night.

“Cool,” she said. “I want to hear it.” Then she asked, “What’s wrong? You sound like a different person?”

I got off the line as quickly as I could. Caitlin appeared, sleuthlike, in the kitchen, wincing at my shit-covered slacks, minding my business because she didn’t want to be alone. “You stink,” she said, and I edged nearer to her until she shrieked. “They should give you a special suit or something. It’s wrong to go around like that!”

I scraped a brown-green fleck from my pant leg and brought it to my lips.

“Sicko,” she said.

This was an improvement. She’d been skimping on meals
and depriving herself of television. While she’d resigned to driving Dad’s car, she was spooked by the emblems contained within: his coffee mug, his baseball hat. Everything now a clue to some larger mystery. She wanted to know what we were supposed to tell people.

“Nothing,” I said.

“What are you gonna tell Lauren?” she said, high pitched, fretting this particular idea more obviously than she’d prefer to let on, nevertheless sharpening an angle I’d hoped to avoid altogether. “What’s Lauren gonna think?”

Because whatever kind and pure memories I had of my girlfriend were quickly being moved to the outskirts, along with those of my sister herself and my family and everything I’d known—let the music come rushing in. Anyway, Lauren was leaving in a week to live in a Michigan State University dormitory, where she’d introduce her genuinely huge smile and curious hazel eyes to a world of young, hungry strangers. Maybe the best moments of my life so far were spent reclining in her hand-me-down Crown Victoria as we played the Beatles and the Misfits until we lost track, holding each other tight; but they were easily shoved aside by brooding irrationally, vindictively, over how she’d betrayed me with a quarterback named Joe, how she trusted in a Christian god and enjoyed Dave Matthews Band and therefore couldn’t possibly know who I was.

“This,” I told Caitlin, “is family business.”

She glared, her eyes totally clear. I couldn’t really look into them, but knew they were pleading for something more than I was prepared to give: that she and I would finally crack ourselves open and let our feelings bleed out all over the floor; or maybe just that we’d have an actual conversation about any of this, even the smallest piece of what was happening.

“So what does that make me, then,” she said, “if my dad is a drug fiend?”

“Same thing it makes me.”

back door with such forward momentum I thought she’d arrived alone. Seconds later, my dad staggered in. The sight of him intimidated me, despite his bloodless color and the trembling of his limbs the moment he glimpsed Caitlin, who stared him dead in the eye until he could no longer bear it. His hair was matted, his skin glazed with sweat. He ducked his chin to his neck as he began to cry with animal force, more spasm than sorrow, as though it were his only bodily expression left to wring dry.

I went in for a quick hug, trying out a new, manly grasp. His scent, the salty odor of nights we’d spent tossing baseballs or riding bikes. Could this be the same man, whom I’d never before seen shed tears, now weeping against my shoulder? It made me feel I was the sole person on earth whose forgiveness might cure him. I slapped him on the back, meaning to say,
Go ahead and cry until you’re done
, but with a heavy breath he choked off his sobs and released me, opening his arms to Caitlin, who drew away.

“Hi, crackhead. What did you do with my car?” She wrapped her arms around herself. While it appeared to require a grave effort, she kept her eyes trained on him.

“Cait,” he said.

Then he said “I love you” to my sister—to all of us.

“Don’t ‘I love you’ me,” Caitlin said. “Stupid. Real stupid.”

At that my parents went upstairs, where Dad would spend the evening shivering in bed and sweating through the linen. But to remember this—the Ridgewood Hills house and the sound of footsteps above, the refrigerator humming and the sun
going down beyond the windows—is to remember the four of us together. Because he was home, and because we still had a chance.

More than that, it’s to remember Caitlin beside me, scowling with that same old what-the-fuck on her face. A scene I’d give anything to return to, because at the time I could only stand scratching my arms, hoping to insist by my lack of expression that none of this scared me.

As she had been—that’s how I’d wanted her to stay, twirling her hair, journaling on her bedroom floor, until this mess was filed in the family joke book along with those once-calamitous but now-amusing tales of me urinating on mom’s sewing kit or ass flashing a neighbor. Dad would be up the next morning, suited for Ford Motor and off to the office before I awoke. Caitlin would douse her Escort with air freshener and soon forget all that had happened, and I could still snatch the cassette from the car and make it to Repa’s in time for rehearsal. There was a new song we’d been cooking up, our most brutal yet. We’d been calling it “the sludgy one,” and I had lyrics in mind as I hugged my sister and escaped through the back door.


he three of us, inside a conversion van.

Seatbelts that didn’t give or retract, one size fits all, no tightening the slack, just these frayed, knotted up straps, decapitation-ready. Gray-blue interior that camouflaged the many years of DNA stained deep into every reachable fiber. The window roller handles had been ripped from the passenger doors, but we’d saved one and used it like a skeleton key to crank the panes up and down, preferably down, to mask the van’s unique odor, something mature and organic that’d been there since Ethan won the thing at a police auction several months earlier. In tow were sacks of canned food and boxes of our newly pressed twelve-inch album. Cassettes overflowed from a paper shopping bag, fed one by one into a Hitachi boom box we’d duct taped to the dashboard. Cigarettes. Buck knives. A road atlas. We had bedrolls and an imitation Colt .45, as well as Will’s Easton, which we’d elected to call the peacemaker. Who knew what might happen out here, blazing the land. It was June 1997, and after nearly a year of Rust Belt road trips, the band
was a week into its first national venture, gigs booked from Chicago to Houston to Gainesville, then up the Eastern Seaboard.

“On tour,” we liked to say.

Hardly a person outside of Michigan had heard our name.

The mission was to play for dear life, taking each city by surprise and leaving copies of our record in the hands of the converted. I was nineteen, finally making a go at something, with a backpack and a paycheck’s worth of cash to spread over the weeks. It gave me the feeling my existence was at stake, or that, by committing to the journey, I might reinvent who I was. Through the windshield, I caught my first real glimpse of the country, the plains and billboards and wooden crosses in cornfields, all of it stretching on and on, farther than the movies had imagined. Our equipment was packed tight beneath a plywood loft that slept one. Ethan had done the carpentry and slapped decals on the back door:

Repa had christened our chariot: the Orgasmatron.

An ’85 Chevy G20 conversion van, corroded silver with a red pinstripe.

“A love machine,” said Repa. “She’s gonna take us all the way.”

I’d been handling the driving and had begun putting Michigan and everyone there out of my mind the minute we’d crossed the state line. Our next was stop was Cincinnati, too close to the Great Lakes for me.

Back home, my family and I had lived one long, sleepless year, but things had been quiet ever since my dad returned from a second rehab that March. He’d spent the winter at a state-of-the-art facility in Atlanta, during which time he’d undergone quadruple-bypass surgery at the nearby Piedmont Hospital. His heart, his mind—everything strangled. After three months down there, he’d quit treatment without the doctors’ approval, and I alone had escorted him home on an eleven-hour drive up Interstate
75. He and I, in a rented sedan. In the days since, we’d all been holding our breath, praying in our own ways that he was sober.

My mom, I trusted, was keeping watch over things while I was away. That she believed our family could be healed made me believe. Only Caitlin had grown skeptical, leery not just of my father but of dangers everywhere, especially to the planet. She worried about the proliferation of bottled water, the plastic waste burrowing into the earth’s crust. As summer neared she’d begun fretting over the chemicals in fertilizer as much as she fretted over the whites of our father’s eyes, which were often shot through with red. September was coming fast, though, and Caitlin had enrolled to attend Michigan State University, which comforted me only in the sense that she’d be joining Lauren, now a sophomore, who knew that vast Big Ten campus and had become something of a confidante to my sister, someone who’d remind her of home.

Let me be gone for seasons and seasons—I wasn’t homesick.

Whatever my troubles, they were assuaged by the open road and the fact that the band was sounding crueler by the night. The van seemed to require a fierce concentration to keep it on the move; the brakes shuddered and the wheel was loose in the steering column. I likened it to flying a plane: easy does it, coasting through the turns, avoiding turbulence at all cost.

“You’re a smooth daddy,” Repa said. “Real cautious.”

He wasn’t encouraged to drive the van. We’d seen him in action in his Buick Century, chomping the wheel with his teeth and air drumming. He sat in back, black clad, on a bench seat, sporting a drastic buzz cut. For breakfast each morning, he guzzled unheated clam chowder from aluminum cans. “My soups,” he called them. “The perfect meal.”

No matter what city we pulled through, Repa put other drummers to shame, but the ado fellow musicians made over
his talent didn’t affect him. He’d already disowned the punk rock cosmos. You’d think it was because we never knew if we’d be getting paid, on what floor we’d unroll our sleeping bags, or what abysmal sound system, if any, we’d play through—Repa’s antiscene vitriol had little to do with any of that. It was the lingo he despised, the tongue-pierced punkers making out in the bathrooms. The three-chord guff of the bands we played with; the tattoos and white-boy dreadlocks; the schlock politics. “I’m burning my records when I get home,” he said. “Everything but the biker rock and true metal.”

Since the tour’s first show, Repa had wandered the streets of whatever town searching for local drunks to enlist as audience members. “This guy’s with me. VIP.” What acumen he had with these folks, mumbling to them in sublingual tongues while sharing bottles of King Cobra and Wild Irish Rose. “I love you, man,” he’d say, arm around a trench-coated beggar. “Only honest son of a bitch in this place.” And it happened that some nights these men were our truest fans.

, a guest-listed wino stood at the stage’s edge, raising a nicotined thumb and yelling for Hendrix. His was the only clapping evident between songs, and beneath the lights he appeared agelessly decrepit, a sunburned scab posed before a mostly empty barroom. Onstage, Repa whacked his cymbals with a joy that assured me he was performing for the drunkard alone. It made me jealous—this outsider infiltrating our vibes. We were in the middle of a long piece, working up a crescendo when I strutted toward the derelict, bending notes and stooping to wrap my lips around his putrid thumbs-up. A good long suck, right down to the knuckle. A rindy, bitter taste.

Immediately, I feared the worst—staph infection, hepatitis.

The man smiled, holding aloft his yellow thumb as if awaiting a second wetting. I stepped back to the mic just in time to scream the final chorus. At last, the few punks at the bar applauded, and Repa, the one I’d hoped to impress, let loose one of his backbeat howls.

The club’s staff had made a stink about Repa and me being underaged. They’d threatened to boot us. Now they were probably wishing they had. We’d brought no big tippers to the bar, little more than an unpaying wino and some heavy wear on the eardrums. Once we’d finished, the man helped us carry our gear from the club, hoping we’d slide him a buck, which we did. As we boarded the van and waved good-bye, he once again raised his thumb. “Thanks for the lick,” he said. Which put a smile across Repa’s face that just about made up for the fact we’d not been paid a cent. The next gig was Houston, a fifteen-hour drive.

, we crossed the Arkansas-Texas border with a thousand miles worth of insects smeared on the windshield. The bugs had grown larger and stranger the farther south we drove, splattering the glass like condiments on a dinner tray. Their deaths marked the nighttime hours, until the sun rose over the highway. The needle was steady at seventy miles per hour; any faster, and our old van rattled epileptically.

Ethan could sleep through anything. Unconscious in the passenger seat, he wore, as he would the entire journey, a pair of black athletic shorts that nearly revealed his scrotum, which he itched unknowingly. His latest tattoo, a band of stick figures sprinting the circumference of his calf, was oiled and glistening. Occasionally, he smacked his lips and sighed.

From the backseat, Repa grumbled the make of each passing semitruck.
Peterbilt. Volvo. Peterbilt
. If the music didn’t work
out, he intended to become a trucker. Behind the wheel, I was shirtless and shoeless, carved with featherweight muscle from a regiment of pretour calisthenics. With every traveled mile I sensed a mythology in the making, a history I imagined musicologists discussing years later. Sweat from our performances encrusted my jeans. Texas in June—so hot I felt made of hydrogen, a combustible element inside the Orgasmatron.

BOOK: Songs Only You Know
10.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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