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Authors: Sean Madigan Hoen

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BOOK: Songs Only You Know
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The only orgasms taking place were private toss offs, when one of us drew all-night security duty while parked in bad hoods. St. Louis, Akron, Little Rock. A lack of romance was no concern. We talked little of girls. There was the unspoken assumption that Repa was a virgin, and Ethan was the busted-hearted type who made you believe he’d lived the blues. I’d been making trips to Lauren’s East Lansing dormitory every few weeks, never certain where we stood, but she indulged the dark, narrow ideas I had about art. “Whoa,” she’d say, when I’d describe the band’s music, though I’d yet to play it for her, for the same reasons I kept it from my family: I worried she wouldn’t understand. I didn’t want her to understand. Or deep down I knew she had the power to undermine my anger—my only source of artistic currency—simply because she’d love me anyway and in spite of. My mom adored Lauren as much as Caitlin did, counting among her many graces the connection she allowed to my otherwise withdrawn life. On the road, I tried to put aside memories of Lauren’s whorls of light brown hair, how she’d once cuddled beside me when the sad songs played.

By early afternoon, we were deep into the Lone Star State, ahead of schedule for Houston. A major metropolis—it gave us hope the evening’s crowd might arrive en masse.

My left arm hung sunburned from the driver’s-side window. My bare foot held the pedal steady. Texas was an expanse of
petrified dirt and yellow plains. Repa grunted, ashing his Camel into an empty soup can, while Ethan awoke to pull a dime bag from his steel-toed shoe.

Then came the signs:
WACO, TEXAS
. 6
MILES
.

We cheered.

Visions of a lunatic barricading hostages in a blazing compound. Branch Davidians. Christ figures rising above the plains.

“Koresh,” Repa said. “Where’s the holy man?”

“It was the government,” said Ethan. “Koresh was a patsy.”

We’d not seen a car for miles until entering Waco proper. Then came a siren, cherries whirling in the driver’s-side mirror.

“No,” Ethan said, stuffing the drugs into his shoe. “The fuzz.”

Law enforcement seemed to radar our band. Our inaugural gig, at a Ypsilanti punk house called the Sugar Shack, had been busted during our fourth song by cops who griped that they’d heard us a mile away. A month later, authorities were summoned to an Ann Arbor club when our audience conspired against a pack of neo-skinheads who’d thrown the
sieg heil
one time too many. From the stage, I’d watched the bodies swirl as Repa parted the crowd wielding a claw hammer he used for nailing two-by-fours onto the stage, antislippage for his thundering bass drum. The sight of him gave pause to the fascists and anyone else who’d moments before seen him bashing cymbals.

“The hell is this?” I said, with an eye on the mirror, edging the van toward the highway shoulder. “We aren’t speeding.”

“It’s those damn stickers,” Repa said.

“Remember,” said Ethan, a veteran road dog. “Tell ’em we’re Christian rock.”

Seconds later, a suntanned Texas Ranger ordered me onto the asphalt. His face was a network of ruts. Cowboy hat and a silver badge—the whole deal. There was little doubt he’d toss us in the clink for a dime bag. The tour, over like that.

It was to my dad’s credit that I knew how to address my superiors, to look them squarely in the eye and nod diligently. The sturdier the handshake, the better, and at times like this I snapped into form.

“Couldn’t have been doing more than seventy, sir. Had the cruise set.”

The Orgasmatron was 170,000 miles old and without a single working amenity: no air, no stereo—no cruise control.

“Might wanna get that speedometer checked,” said the copper.

My hair was a greasy, uncivilized feature. Caitlin had given me a butcherous trim that left me looking like a mental patient with a penchant for ripping clumps from his scalp. I tucked the blond strands behind my ears as the ranger sized me up. Barefoot on the side of the highway—that’s when you feel the glory of the Texan sun.

“You on some kind of mission?” the cop said. “What’s in the van?”

“We’re a band.”

“From way up in Michigan,” he said.

The pavement was molten, a floor of coals. I shifted from foot to foot, rolling from heel to toe.

“We’re modern jazz.” I said this with utter conviction.

“Better watch your speed on my highway. I could ticket you for driving shoeless, if I wanted.”

I liked the grip of the pedal on my bare sole, curling my toes around the edges.

“Better wear shoes on my highway.”

“Yes, sir.”

He nodded me back to the van. So long, without so much as a handshake. Then he sat in his cruiser as I started the engine and pulled carefully onto the empty road. But once the
Orgasmatron was moving again, taking a good mile to regain highway speed, I let my bandmates know the score.

“I beat him,” I said, “with my mind.”

Y
OU LEARN A THING
or two about a brother, cruising thousands of miles together in a steel box. Snoring together in parking lots, breathing one another’s tang, sharing gallons of warm OJ and filling the emptied containers with communal urine, pulling over only for the show or when the tank runs low. As the country blurred, we told the same stories, embellishing until they became fabulous lies. I could recite the best of Ethan’s childhood misadventures and Repa’s demoniac rants as if they were my own. When, to accentuate a point, someone stamped the Orgasmatron’s floor, clouds of gray dust billowed up into the sunlight.

I’d never before felt a part of something the way I did that band—a sense of belonging, being irreplaceable. My bandmates saw me at my most inspired, screaming every pain I had access to, though I’d told them next to nothing of where I’d come from. They seemed to prefer it this way. They were unaware of Lauren; they’d never seen Ridgewood Hills or met my mom. They’d never heard my sister’s name. I told them I hardly knew my father, which had come to feel almost true.

Days before I left on tour, my dad had listened to our album. I’d accidentally left a stack of the records in the garage, one of which he’d snuck to the basement to give it a spin on his old United Audio 1229Q. How long he’d endured our sound I’ll never know, yet I still flinch to imagine his displeasure. Dad’s time in rehab, however, had weakened his powers of criticism. When I next saw him, he’d politely handed me the platter, saying, “I could hardly believe it was human beings.”

So much had happened since that night a summer earlier
when he’d gone missing with Caitlin’s Escort. The only bit I told Repa and Ethan was that I’d had a gun pulled on me. I juiced up the scene to make it sound like there’d been a hair-raising showdown. The truth was that after Dad returned from the Wyandotte rectory, we’d thought he’d been cured. But he’d vanished again and again throughout the fall. Mom took calls from relatives who’d heard from him, and I found lipstick-smudged cigarette butts in the ashtray of his car. Mom confiscated his credit cards. Caitlin suspected he’d swiped money from her purse.

Our father …

Suddenly his eyes were dead circuits, an unknown catastrophe going on behind them. The past October he’d arrived at a wedding manic happy and tweaking, sweating through his dress shirt. Pale. Clammy. Mom and I whisked him to a nearby movie theater, where we’d bought tickets to whatever was playing. Dad sat between us, lit by the flickering of an action film, kneading his arms in a Technicolor comedown. At least Caitlin hadn’t been there. By late November Mom had checked him into the Atlanta Recovery Center, a facility known for curing the tough cases. Unlike Brighton, the Atlanta asylum kept patients for an indefinite time, as long as it took. After a few weeks, Dad’s left arm went numb, and he’d fainted, winding up in a cardiac unit and calling to tell us he’d be undergoing quadruple-bypass surgery three days before Christmas.

And when these memories began to haunt me, I’d crank the volume on the boom box, making my attempt to get personal with the road, the rolling plains and wind turbines. Wild dogs on southern backstreets. Ghost towns. The van so small beneath the sky. I’d analyze our songs, how to better fret the chords the next time we took the stage. When in need of a real distraction, I’d ask Repa to recount a dream from which he’d
woken up bellowing one night, about a giant house of flesh, with steel handles bolted to its supple exterior. “I was making love to it. I hope I dream it again,” he’d say, and I’d see it rippling above him, a faceless mound of sex, as we laughed, on and on, making our way to the next show.

W
ITH THE
O
RGASMATRON PARKED
outside a small Houston club in an old cantina, Repa and I opened the back doors and unloaded our crates of albums. We’d do this upon arriving at each destination. In Houston, Repa unboxed a single twelve-inch, groaning with the realization our vinyl platters had been warped by the southern heat. “This frickin’ sun,” he said. “They’re going limp on us.”

With a few hours to kill before sound check, we began sliding the misshapen discs from their jackets, attempting to bend them back to form. We’d recorded our nine-song album in a flurry of first takes over a single afternoon, and it felt like the sole accomplishment of my life, the most honest thing. Yet when I was in another mind, the pride I felt was erased by my shame over our songs, the mad sadness I knew no other way of expressing—it made me protective of our records, one hundred of which were pressed on limited-edition orange vinyl.

“If we sit on them,” I said, holding a deformed twelve-inch to the sunlight. “Maybe then.”

The parking lot was crabgrass and cracked asphalt, on the outskirts of something.

“Warden used the cheap stuff,” Repa said. “Horseshit vinyl.”

“What did you expect?” said Ethan.

Mike Warden was an irascible character with a knack for flying his ambitions to the edge of triumph, only to giggle when they went ablaze shortly thereafter. Weeks earlier, he’d released our album on his label, Conquer the World Records,
established 1992. Though he’d barely turned twenty-five, Warden’s punk fanaticism and jackass business practices were already scene legend, made notorious by bands and fanzines who’d accused him of death threats, of fudging numbers and ordering unauthorized reprints. A Florida hardcore act had recorded a twelve-inch bearing the title
Warden Can Suck It
. He was dimpled and curly haired, a media mogul, Detroit-style. His infamy trailed us everywhere. Promoters refused to book us due to our CTW affiliation, but Warden’s earnest insanity endeared him to me from the start. He was genuinely deranged and made no attempt to hide it—a blunt honesty I longed to be near. Ethan called him Conquer the Colgate because he’d once caught Warden masturbating with toothpaste inside an RV full of touring musicians.

“Total piss.” Repa grunted.

He had no respect for Warden, any of this.

One by one he smacked the warped LPs against the Houston blacktop. Even in the Southern heat Repa wore black denim and motorcycle boots. Ethan sat on the Orgasmatron’s fender, using a Sharpie to black out the CTW logo on the salvaged albums. I set one aside for myself, the most warped I could find.

“Think anyone shows up tonight?” I said.

“Hell no,” Repa said, driving home a point: Warden had booked this gig.

I’d had a private desire to see the CTW logo on a record I’d made, knowing Warden would distribute them to lands we’d never reach on our own. He talked about Europe, saying, “We’ve gotta get you overseas. The Germans will love it.” So what if the vinyl melted? There was still Germany, and a thousand more promises Warden had made—one being that Houston would be a big gig, a scene awaiting our arrival.

“Anything Warden,” Ethan said. “I told you it’s a mistake.”

“Get Colgate on the horn,” Repa said. “Tell him we want a hotel tonight.”

The deal we’d struck with Warden was that we’d be paid in albums, ten percent of each pressing. CDs, too, but who cared? Before leaving town, I’d gone to fetch our copies from his lair, where he’d answered the door cloaked in a blanket and holding a flashlight. He lived in Detroit’s bowels, in a house that had once been a hub for subcultural activity. A family of ferrets had also resided there for a time, along with several vegan anarchists, one of whom gave free tattoos in the attic. All but Warden had since deserted, but not without first smashing the front windows and looting the joint.

“You better sell a lot of records,” Warden said, by way of inviting me inside.

Having maxed his credit paying for our albums, he hadn’t been able to cover the bills. His electricity had been disconnected. I’d followed him to the kitchen, led by the beam of his flashlight. There were empty pizza boxes and a mangled cage where the ferrets had slept. A warm stench radiated from decomposing fruit on the countertop. Warden moved at the stove to light a burner with a match, pressing his face near the flame. “At least there’s still gas,” he said.

“Christ, man.” I’d yanked up my T-shirt to mask my nostrils. “That smell.”

He turned toward his refrigerator. “Look at this,” he’d said, opening it and slapping a sack of vegetables to the floor. Then he got an arm around the back of the contraption and, with the door hanging open, wrestled it from the wall. Contents spilled forth—condiments and rotted tofu, green bread and Styrofoam containers. After hauling it halfway across the room, Warden attacked the fridge’s interior, for a moment gracefully, with the
style of a martial artist. Then he lapsed into troglodyte barbarity, swinging his arms like clubs.

“I’ll get rid of the smell,” he said, reaching to open the back door.

Leveling his spine against it, Warden attempted to shove the monstrosity through the crumbling wooden doorframe. When he gave up, the fridge was lodged in the doorway: half in, half out, going nowhere.

“I guess you want your records now,” he’d said. On his way to the attic he snatched his flashlight, wiping his nose as the stove’s burner hissed blue—and not much later, our albums were in my arms.

C
OME SHOWTIME WE PLAYED
to the barmaid, the promoter, and the headlining band—San Diegans, who all the while bounced a racquetball across the dance floor. Our songs echoed back at us from the far wall of the room, but we played fiercely through it, whatever was there.

BOOK: Songs Only You Know
8.54Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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