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Authors: Sean Madigan Hoen

Songs Only You Know (7 page)

BOOK: Songs Only You Know
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Once we let loose, it didn’t matter how many people were watching, whether we were in Houston or Bad Axe, Michigan. Repa closed his eyes. Ethan played facing his amp, convulsing with the low end. We did what we’d come to do, which was to forget where we’d come from. I dropped to my knees and howled any which way but into the microphone, keeping true to the lyrics nonetheless. One line went
Sing the recovery lie / I’ve got the cord tied / To thin the bleeding / Old flame clean me tonight
, and another song screamed
The lie is in the wind / So breathe it to me
until my vision began to tunnel and my lungs crumpled together.

And then one of the San Diegans caught the racquetball on a bounce and held it.

As they neared the stage, the bartender turned her stare our
way, and the soundman returned his unlit cigarette to his ear in order to—why the hell not—see this moment unfurling. Ethan walloped his strings with a fist, and Repa dragged out the last song longer than anyone could bear. With nothing left to scream, I let the volume smack my head in any direction. My hands went numb, but I heard my fingers making sense of the guitar, until the three of us locked eyes and stopped perfectly in time.

“Yes!” shouted the promoter. “Badass.”

He clapped loud and fast, as if to arouse some invisible audience to applaud the thrashing we’d given ourselves. All others present had yet to relax their wincing faces, thankful only that it was over. The promoter must have felt guilty about all this, because afterward he led us to his parents’ house, where we were each assigned our own room, to lie naked on fresh sheets as our clothes spun in the wash. A tremendous southern estate, though you’d never have suspected it from the guy’s tattooed neck and the silver-dollar-sized earrings punched into his lobes. He even offered to gas up our van the following morning. All he wanted in return was a record.

“So I can say you crashed with me, way back before anyone knew who you were.”


opper bedposts. A ceiling fan. Track lighting, but no clock. It took a moment to remember what state I was in and why I was lying naked in a queen-size bed. I watched the sun illuminate the drawn shades until from somewhere in the house came the digital explosions of a video game.

Signs of life in Houston.

Outside the bedroom door, my laundry sat folded in a tidy pile. Stepping through the home, I began to dread all things family—I remembered I had one. It must have been the framed pictures in the hallways: the promoter arm in arm with suntanned people looking too much like him to be anything but siblings, smiling with a sort of conspiratorial mischief Caitlin and I hadn’t shared since we were children. That’s how I missed her, in flashes of guilt. I’d mailed a postcard to Will but had yet to call home since the band left Michigan.

“Help yourself,” the promoter said, about the phone, hardly bothering to turn from the video screen.

A few rings. Then Caitlin answered with a midmorning rasp. “You’re not causing trouble,” she said, “are you?”

My sister was not above irony. For my November birthday, she’d given me a mauve sweater with an oversize golf ball embroidered across the chest, a canny nod toward my previous status as a hateful, underpaid scooper of fairway goose shit. As I’d opened it, she’d laughed herself to the floor—a rare burst of glee amid the family sorrows she’d been taking so hard. The cable-knit atrocity must have cost twenty bucks, and she’d wrung every penny out of the joke, gesturing for me to try it on. This was her humor—rarely spoken. When it came to words, Caitlin was heat seeking, impossibly literal.

“Doing anything stupid?” she said.

“I’m fine.”

“You better be careful, brother,” she said, passing the phone to Mom, who explained that things back home were basically copacetic. Caitlin was working extra hours pouring coffee, saving her tips, preparing to live in the Michigan State dorms. Dad, three months out of rehab with four new valves in his heart, was making it to Ford Motor every day, rising to his usual 5:00
. alarm.

“He’s upset, though,” Mom said. “Ford gave him a bad performance review for the first time.”

Each morning, before heading to work in Dearborn’s schools, Mom had been attending mass. Now that summer vacation was here, she might have been putting in extra hours at the pews. I watched Repa pecking though the estate’s record collection, shaking his head with each flip of the album jackets. I heard a shower running—Ethan making the most of the home’s plumbing. Our host thwacked the controls of a pixelated go-kart that sped across his giant television.

“Be careful out there,” Mom said. “Don’t make me worry.”

“We’re good.”

“Where are you?”


“Is it hot?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Real hot.” And when I said, “I love you,” I said it low enough that Repa, pulling an album he approved of from the stack and checking for scratches, couldn’t hear me above the promoter, who shouted, “Outta my way!” again and again in a fit of virtual road rage.

van sleep in truck stops to posh suburban bedding. The excitement of never knowing what came next. Anarchist communes; outdoor riverside stages; crowds too narcotized to stand; crowds of drug-free youth dancing violently with giant X’s marked across their fists. Houston to Austin, through Fort Worth, and northward to Denton, where we pulled up to a ranch-style house with a lawn of dirt. On the porch, a gaggle of black-haired kids sat with beers between their feet. According to our itinerary, we’d located the place—the evening’s gig.

“This it?” I said. “Who’s the promoter?”

Ethan consulted our rumpled spreadsheet of dates and addresses and contacts. “Spider,” he told me. “That’s what it says.”

The trees lining the street were infested with gray sacks, nests of some kind, sagging from the branches. Repa walked to a tree and pulled out his lighter, reaching for the lowest of the cocoons.

“You don’t wanna do that.” A shirtless Texan in a black mesh hat stepped out of the house, wagging a finger, a black widow tattooed on his breast. “Hell, nah.”

This was the place, all right.

The porch dwellers flashed us the stink eye, parting apathetically as we carried our equipment into the house. The usual rub: locals sizing us up as we rolled in our speaker cabinets. None of us were punk rock protocol. Me, barefoot with my home-cut locks. Ethan in cock-printed shorts and a five-dollar Caesar he’d commissioned from an Ohio barber. Repa was sallow and jowled, a dark horse ready for any apocalypse that might rain down.

An audience usually made its decision within the first thirty seconds of our first song. They’d either wince and head for the door or begin stamping their feet, bobbing their heads. Whatever. We played as if the sunrise depended on it.

“Paying the dues” was how Ethan put it.

Despite its ghastly trees, Denton was on our side. By the time of the show, forty or so belligerents had crowded into the living room, some stripping naked as we tuned our instruments. The walls were painted an unthinkable red-pink. Spider had removed the furniture, if there’d been any, and Repa arranged his drums so that he’d play with his back to everyone. At the first smash of Repa’s cymbals, the front row bonded in a flesh-toned rendition of the running man dance, jogging in place as their genitals wagged to the beat.

We burned through a song, then another. Someone leaped from a windowsill and was passed over raised hands, hydrating the room with a beer mist. When the neighbors complained, Spider ordered the show into an empty bedroom, and our noise resumed, half the audience watching through the doorway, the heat reaching toward the thousands. Packed somewhere in a shoe box is a picture of me, midscream, framed against that bedroom wall. I barely recognize myself in the magenta-faced young man, eyes bloodshot, a glistening artery protruding from his neck. Yet, seeing the photo, I can almost feel again what it was like to be free of everything, screaming for my life.

We played every song we knew. By the end, only a few stood before us, naked and sweating, pleading for another.

“One more,” Repa said.

“We already played ’em all.”

“Then make it up.”

We improvised a five-chord pattern, six-eight time. A leg breaker—never to be recreated, scalded once and for all into the plaster of that Denton bedroom. If only for a moment, we’d taken the reins of a sound we’d been chasing. Repa, I could tell by his rolled-back eyes, was finally satisfied. So was I. Say nothing of the crowds, the records sold or not sold, we would return to Michigan triumphant, carrying something that could not be taken back.

Repa kept the rhythm slamming, even as Ethan and I sat cross-legged at the foot of our switched-off amps; when he’d finished, he walked out of the house to a smattering of applause. Spider passed his mesh hat through the house, pestering the crowd to cough up a buck for the entertainment.

“What’s the name of your band, again?” he said. “That’s right. Yeah, yeah. Y’all was crazy. How about a beer?”

Repa took night duty in the van. While the party continued, Ethan and I spread our sleeping bags across the bedroom floor we’d sweated upon just hours before. Not much later, we were lying in the shadows of our amplifiers. From the room’s doorway, Spider touched the brim of his cap to bid us good night. “I saw a wolf spider in here earlier,” he said. “Gotta keep an eye on them. They’ll spin a web in your mouth as you sleep and pinch your nostrils till you suffocate.”

best performances, just before sleep, when the tones of home began calling loudest. I’d rest my head on a strange floor and hear Caitlin weeping, hear phrases spoken
in my mother’s gentle, worried voice. The force I employed to avoid thinking deeply about my family might have been used instead to propel me toward a life of profound usefulness had I only been able to transfer the ungraspable powers of denial. Everything I did was shaped by a desire to escape the truth: that we—myself and the people I loved most—were on a horror ride. But once Ethan began to snore, I’d close my eyes and soon enough begin reliving the time six months earlier when I’d slept on a cot the night before my dad’s quadruple bypass.

The feeling of being holed up in a courtesy room for out-of-town families at Piedmont Hospital, North Atlanta. Mom and Caitlin lying feet away, sharing a bed. December 22, snowless in Georgia. The room was decorated to look like a hotel, wallpapered and outfitted with a television, none of which altered our awareness of the institution’s fluorescence looming just beyond the door.

And beyond that?

On the cot, I’d had nightmares of being onstage, my hands mittenlike on a guitar I couldn’t remember how to play. Caitlin had thrashed in the sheets, stealing most of the bedspread as Mom made not a sound, and by the time we’d entered the cardiac unit the next morning, my dad was already wired to machines. “Good,” he’d said, unwrapping the Christmas gift I’d brought him, a Beatles CD anthology of outtakes and false starts. “I need some music.”

Some trips exhaust you long after they’ve ended. Mom couldn’t smile, and I’d seen the signs of fury and forgiveness cycling through her. A crusty, magenta third-eye boil had risen from her forehead and would remain there for weeks. Caitlin was gaining weight and losing it again in a span of days. I’d been having spells of breathlessness that I believed were caused by throat nodules, wounds owing to my pterodactyl vocal style.
We’d all stared down at my dad lying there in a green paper gown, weak in the face, supine on a gurney.

They were about to carve his chest open and graft arteries onto his heart, a fact that brought my attention to the glugging beat of my own.

“Thanks for being here,” Dad said, gripping my hand as a nurse shaved his chest to prep him for the incision. Dark blood leaked from a razored mole. He twitched his jaw, searching for a funny line that would settle our nerves.

Barely 8:00

He’d stared at me with an awful sobriety in his eyes, which were faintly blue, very much like Caitlin’s. He was bargaining with unknown forces, cutting deals and making vows, and I’d felt an old pride resurge, faith in a superpowered father capable of small miracles. “You’re a good son, in case I haven’t told you lately,” he said while the nurse wiped his blood and shaved hairs with a sanitary napkin, slapping on adhesive EKG electrodes.

Caitlin’s bleached hair, a darker blonde at the roots, was a slept-upon mess, tumbling over my dad as she bent toward him and whispered. A moment before, she’d told my father, “I hope when you’re better, you’ll learn your lesson.” But she began crying as he held her, saying, “Cait, Cait, Cait.”

She and I wandered to the cafeteria, letting our parents say whatever they needed to. When Mom reappeared, Caitlin followed her to the hospital chapel. I walked to a bus stop to scribble in a notebook until the hours blurred and dusk fell on Atlanta, by which point my dad was conscious enough to relay the news.

“The doctor said it’s good for about twelve years.”

He’d been stoned, blissed out from the best of the pharmaceutical best. His torso was bandaged, and he’d barely had the strength to lift his head and peer down at his reassembled chest.
The next day was Christmas Eve: Caitlin sleeping against my shoulder on a quiet flight home. Dad left behind in the hospital, pumped full of morphine and back to square one in the rehabilitative process, with brand-new music but no means of tuning in.

.” R
toed my ribs with his boot. “Slept like a baby.”

Through the bedroom windows, the sun lit his Cro-Magnon face. I’d never been happier to see him. Once the heat inside the van became too much, he’d walked Denton’s streets to swipe his debit card and enter a twenty-four-hour ATM vestibule, where he’d sprawled in its AC until a patron startled him awake. “Good as new,” he said. “But you should have seen that lady’s face.”

For me it had been a baked, grimy slumber. My hair was damp as I rose, scratching at clusters of small red welts across my back and ribs.

BOOK: Songs Only You Know
7.25Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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