Slime's gaining on me. I know he'll catch up in a minute or two. I can hear his heels clicking on the sidewalk behind me. In a few seconds I'll hear his wheezing, labored breathing. Then he'll be here, begging me to go back and finish the set so he can get paid. Maybe then I can do what I should have done when he first proposed this fool's errand. Maybe for once I can tell Slime no.
I stop walking and turn around to watch him run toward me down the sidewalk beside the VFW hall. He's dressed the same as me: faded jeans frayed and torn at the knees, black boots, zippered leather motorcycle jacket, studded leather wristband, the whole punk rock wardrobe. The only difference between Slime's clothes and mine are that he's been wearing his ever since we had our last gig, at least ten years ago.
On his skinny, weathered face, he's grinning his usual winning, boyish grin. He flashed the very same smile when he showed up at my house last week, clutching the handle of his old bass guitar case, proposing that we revive the band.
I was glad to see Slime; it had been a while. I led him through my house out into the den, passing Sandy in the kitchen on our way. I could tell she wasn't pleased. She barely mustered a nod to answer Slime's "Hey, howsit goin'?" Slime, of course, didn't notice the dark, sideways glance she threw me.
She could've talked me out of agreeing to Slime's scheme. She's much more sensible than me. She remembered the last time Slime came around. It was around Christmas about two years back. I don't remember the hour, but it was well after the kids were in bed. Slime called from a truck stop phone booth.
He was on his way from Houston to L.A., where his folks live. I talked to him quietly, hoping Sandy wouldn't hear. But when I hung up, all she said was, "How much does he want?"
I told her and she frowned. It wasn't the sum. We could easily afford it. I knew that she was justifiably troubled at how easily I gave in to Slime.
I had no stomach to pretend we'd ever see the money again and Sandy didn't say another word. She understood that helping Slime was neither an act of generosity nor of compromise. It was friendship and mutual history pure and simple, a natural order of things no more subject to question than gravity.
Slime showed up, got the money and stayed long enough not to seem rude -- which was too long for Sandy's taste -- and split. He promised he'd stop by on his way back to Houston after the holidays and meet my kids. I said I'd like that. That was the last I had heard from him.
I could understand Sandy's reaction to seeing Slime stroll back into our lives, but I had spent a particularly gladiatorial day in the bowels of the legal profession. I needed the antidote of an old friend.
Slime was wearing his usual collection of leathers and zippers and his hair still arched over his head in a jet-black crest like the outlandish topknot of a bizarre tropical bird. As he sat tapping his knee and bouncing his heel on the carpet, I could see that he hadn't lost any of the excited nervous energy that oscillated between creativity and a bad hustle. Whatever the case, Slime's humming energy level attracted people and tended to make them do things that they didn't mean to.
"Hey, man," I said. "Here you are."
"Yeah," he said, grinning, bobbing his head. "Good to see you."
"You look good. You ever eat?"
"No," said Slime, "as a matter of fact, I get my calories in beer."
"I get the hint," I said, and went to get us two bottles of beer out of the mini-fridge we keep in the den for Super Bowl parties and the like.
"Stylin'," said Slime, looking around appreciatively at the room. The den is cedar-paneled and opens through French doors out to the hot tub bubbling on the deck. I could tell he thought it looked pretty good. Probably compared to his one-room efficiency digs, I live the high life. The way I figure it, I deserve it, the shit I have to put up with.
"I try," I said.
"I remember this house," he said. "Doin' all right. Big-time lawyer."
"Not so big, Slime. I just do my job well. Actually, I have to put up with a lot of crap."
Slime winced. "Ooh, no. I couldn't do it, man. No way. I don't do real well in the, like, office scene. I was doin' temp stuff for a while. I thought, whoa, get some, like, income, man. You know, cash flow. But it was not cool at all. The first thing they made me do was cut my hair and get some new clothes. You wouldn't have known me, Phil. Anyway, I couldn't hack it. I went back to driving a delivery truck. That's more my type of deal."
We sat on the leather sofa, sipped our beer and talked about the frat parties we'd played where the sons and daughters of Texas oil millionaires puked out their brains in the shrubbery while we ripped through our ten-thousandth cover of "Louie Louie." About our one abortive "tour" when we went on the road in Slime's old VW van playing bars in Dallas, Fort Worth, Tulsa and then back down to Houston. When it was all over, we had made about $50 each and felt lucky at that.
"So tell me about this gig," I said.
Slime's face lit up. "Aw, it's golden, man. Really golden. Rich guy's throwing a birthday bash for his son this coming Saturday. He's rented the friggin' VFW hall, man. Bandstand and everything. Found out about it from a friend of mine. I said, hey, great, I'm gonna get the old band back together. I been wantin' to see you guys anyway."
"What about Damon?" I asked. Damon had been our drummer, the third member of the group. I had completely lost track of Damon and didn't even know if he was in town anymore.
"He's in, man. Definitely. I talked to him today."
Well, that was something. I thought I'd like to see Damon again and I found the thought of the old band doing a gig together appealing. I missed the exhilaration I used to feel when I jumped onto even the meanest stage and started yelling the words to our favorite songs. I felt office work progressively weakening me, making me soft, sleepy. I looked at Slime, who hadn't changed a hair in ten years. I stared down at the shiny red, black and silver band stickers that covered the case of his instrument which lay like a hip coffin on the deep pile of my den.
"So we just run through the old lineup?" I said. "Is that it?"
"Yeah, the stuff the kids will like. Some Stones, Elvis. They'll even go for some New Wave tunes: Heads, B-52s. And some of the hot soul stuff."
"Right," I said, starting to remember our old repertoire: "Land of a 1,000 Dances," "Nobody," "96 Tears." We may have been pot- smoking meatheads, but we knew how to control a crowd. We could move them through escalating layers of excitement from Doors to Stones to hard-rocking classics like "Party Doll," "Devil with a Blue Dress On," and "C.C. Rider." We'd slow down for "Sweet Jane" to give the crowd time to catch their breath and then we'd power through a finale of "Paint it Black," "Gloria," and "Good Golly Miss Molly."
Now I wondered if I could even find the chords on the guitar anymore, much less manage to make my fingers do those old contortions.
"So, are we on?" said Slime with a kind of halfway smirk.
I hesitated. Sandy was right. I had no business doing the gig. I had a wife and kids who depended on me. I had a job and responsibilities. I didn't know if I could play the songs or if I still had my voice. Add to that my old certainty that any venture with Slime was doomed from the outset. I had every reason in the world to say no.
"We're on," I said.
When Slime had gone, my kids, who had been spying on us from a safe distance, came into the living room. Jenny, the oldest, who is seven, said, "Daddy, who was that man?"
"His name is Slime," I said blandly.
Jenny cocked her head to one side, letting her long hair fall to her left shoulder. She smiled a wide, toothless grin at me. "Slime?" she squeaked in a falsetto of disbelief. "That's really his name?"
"He's an old friend of mine."
Joshua, the two-year-old, decked out in Osh Kosh overalls and socks with gumball machines on them, mimicked his big sister: "'lime?"
"How much did you give him?" said my wife, still standing by the front door.
"Nothing," I said, jamming my hands deep into my pockets and hunching my shoulders. "He wants to get the band together."
Sandy's fine blue eyes got wide, then narrowed. Jenny said, "What band, Daddy?"
"We used to be in a band together."
"I don't believe this," said Sandy, cocking a fist against her hip.
"Really? A real band?" chirped Jenny. "Like New Kids On The Block?"
"Well, not exactly," I said.
"Band, band, band," said Joshua, rolling over to grab my leg.
Instinctively, Sandy reached down and scooped him up in her arms.
"What was your band called, Daddy?"
"That's enough," interrupted Sandy. She set Joshua back down on the floor. "Take Joshua and go and wash your hands for dinner."
"O-o-kay," sighed Jenny as she led her brother out of the room.
When they had gone, I said, "What was that all about?"
"I can just see Jenny at school: 'My daddy was in a cool band called the Sex Offenders!'"
"I see your point," I said.
I promised Slime I would come to his place to practice during the week before our date, but things got crazy at work. One of the senior partners, a pompous asshole named Cramer who thinks he's important because he worked with Edward Bennett Williams in New York when he was in his twenties, dumped a load on me. Smack in the middle of a twelve-million dollar lawsuit that he had been preparing for two years, he decided to skip off to Florida for three days and go marlin fishing with some cohort who owned a yacht. He told the client he was ill and turned the case over to his assistant who, in turn, needed a second chair. Cramer recommended me. For this I was supposed to be grateful except that it meant staying at the office until after ten o'clock for three nights straight planning the redirect of a hostile witness.
I didn't see my kids from Wednesday morning until Saturday.
Of course, that did little to soften Sandy up to the idea of my playing with the band. I cared about her anger, but there wasn't much I could do. I had given Slime my word.
On Friday evening when I finally got home, I ate a cold supper and headed up to the attic where I dug my guitar case out from under a pile of toys my kids had outgrown. I schlepped the thing down into the den, cracked a beer and sat down on the sofa, laying the case on the floor at my feet. I snicked open the silver clips and lifted the lid. There, nestled in its crushed red velvet couch, lay my old Fender Stratocaster, as sleek as a '55 T-bird, as modern as the Chrysler Building. Looking at the guitar, I felt the old times wash around me like a tide.
I remembered buying the thing when I was still in high school and spending hours learning songs off my records. I learned to play songs by the Velvet Underground and a lot of stuff by Iggy and the Stooges. I liked the old fifties and sixties stuff too, garage band stuff like Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, ? and the Mysterians, Mitch Ryder, Chuck Berry, and, of course, lots of Elvis. I liked songs with an edge. I liked the mean Stones songs: "Stupid Girl" and "Under My Thumb" and "Get Offa My Cloud."
I met Slime after I had started college and we immediately wanted to start a band. We needed a drummer and put a card up in the Laundromats around campus that said "drummer wanted for rock band" or some such and had my phone number on little pre-cut, pull-off pieces on the bottom. After about a week, Damon called. He was quiet, the odd man out, but he could play the drums like the devil himself: loud and fast and he never missed a beat.
I put my hand around the neck, lifted it out of the case and set it on my knee. The guitar felt natural in my hands. Before I knew it, I was finding the chords to "Sweet Little Sixteen." Without amplification, the metal strings sounded tinny and distant, but my fingering was surprisingly good.
Just then I happened to glance down in the case and noticed a something I hadn't before . It was a Sex Offenders sticker that I had completely forgotten about over the years. Damon, the artist in the group, had done a black and white drawing of a hunchbacked old coot in an overcoat leering over his shoulder. The text was done in lettering that seemed to be bleeding or melting. I reached down and picked up the sticker. We must have had thousands of these at one time. We gave them away to friends, people who came to the concerts, bartenders, whoever. They ended up all over town on lamp posts, car bumpers, backs of traffic signs. At the time, the sticker represented to us the reality of the group. To run across one by accident around town was a rush. It meant someone out there was paying attention. They were proof that we were having an effect. It occurred to me that I hadn't had that sort of proof in years.
I became aware of someone behind me and I turned to see Sandy leaning in the doorway, smiling at me in spite of herself.
"You with your guitar," she said. "I haven't seen that for awhile."
I blushed like I'd been caught with a love letter from an old flame in my hands. I wanted to say something, but I didn't know what.
Sandy came and sat on the sofa next to me. She put an arm around my back and said, "I didn't think I'd have to worry about a mid-life crisis for a while."
"Is that what it seems like to you?"
"A little," she said.
"Well, I don't know," I said. "If that means I'm afraid of getting old, well, I've been afraid of that for years. I guess that's part of it, but it's more." Sandy furrowed her brow at me. I could tell she didn't understand or didn't believe me. "When we had the band, I felt like I was doing something that people appreciated in their own twisted, anti-appreciative way. People would actually pay us to play. Bartenders gave us free drinks. Girls thought we were cool. And when we played, that was something you can't understand if you haven't done it. It sounds weird to say it, but it was the closest I've ever come to real power. We could get people worked up. Make them dance. I lost something when I stopped being in the band and I've never gotten it back."
Sandy grinned a little and said, "Well, then, I guess you have to do it."
I grinned back. I thought, maybe this thing might go all right after all.
First off, neither Slime nor Damon were anywhere around when I arrived at the VFW hall. I found the place on the near east side of town just beyond the interstate in a warehouse district that had lately become gentrified. A greasy near-rain had been falling all day and the sparsely filled parking lot glistened menacingly in the failing light of dusk. Inside, the hall had been decorated with crepe paper and balloons and at one end there was a bandstand set up. I set my guitar on the stage and walked back toward the door where some caterers who looked Vietnamese or Korean dressed in white chefs' outfits complete with puffy hats were setting out trays of food on a long table covered with gleaming white linen. I asked one of the men if they had seen a guy with long hair and a leather jacket. He scowled at me like I had tasted the crab dip with my finger and shook his head. I wandered away.
I sat on the edge of the stage and waited for Slime. After about half an hour, a raunchy looking dude with sunglasses and a beard and mustache walked in the door. He took off his shades and squinted around the room like the dim light hurt his eyes. He headed straight for the bandstand.
"Are you Slime?" he said without a smile or a prologue.
"No, I'm Phil."
"Glad to meet you, Phil," he said. "My name is Mike. I'm the drummer."
The drummer? But where was Damon? Then my brain engaged. Slime had used a reunion to get me in. No doubt he had tried the same trick with Damon with less success. After all, Damon had always shown a little better sense dealing with Slime than I had.
"Give me a hand with my gear?" he said.
"Right," I said and followed him out into the rain. Mike's vehicle turned out to be a late model Ford van with a dazzling purple, metal-flake paint job.
I thought, this guy is doing all right for himself.
We made two trips out to bring in the drums. Once we were back inside, Mike went to work arranging his equipment on the stage with the precision and confidence of a professional. He paused at one point and said, "You got a cigarette on you?"
I gave him one and took one for myself. I struck a match and lit his and then mine. He said, "So you were in that band with Slime?"
"Yeah. It was a long time ago."
"The Sex somethings?"
"The Sex Offenders," I said.
"Punk shit, right?"
"Well, mainly covers," I said defensively. "But we did a few originals when we could."
"I hated that punk new wave shit," he said with an end-of- discussion tone of voice. "I'm glad that shit's dead."
"So what do you play?" I asked.
"Jazz," Mike sniffed with the smug air of the first chair viola at the Philharmonic.
"Great," I said flatly.
By the time Slime arrived, the stage was set up and Mike had smoked all my cigarettes. I was in a sour mood.
"Great!" clucked Slime when he saw that we were set up. He put his bass on the edge of the bandstand and started taking it out of the case.
"Right," I said. "Great." I was annoyed and I wanted Slime to know it, though I wasn't sure what I hoped to gain from him knowing.
"So what happened to Damon?" I asked.
"Aw, Damon couldn't make it, man. He, like, he canceled out."
I stifled a snarl. "Was he ever in?" I said.
Slime stopped mid-motion in the act of plugging his bass into the amplifier. "What's that supposed to mean, Philly?" he said.
"Nothing," I said. "Forget it."
"No, man. Say it. You think I lied to you about Damon to get you to play."
I glanced at Mike, who stood to the side of the stage, smoking. He wasn't looking at us, but I could tell he was listening. I said, "No. Forget it. I'm just tired out. It's been a long week. I don't really care if Damon plays or not."
Slime grinned. Happy as usual to seize on the merest of excuses to be upbeat.
"That's cool," he said. "And, hey. Mike's a bitchin' drummer."
"I'm sure he is," I said dryly.
Slime's bass hung from his neck by a broad, rainbow-colored macrame strap.
"Hey, guys, the joint's filling up," he said, fiddling with the volume button on the red body of his bass.
I looked around. Sure enough, the hall was starting to fill up with teenagers in hard shoes and brand new dress clothes: boys laughing nervously and girls standing very still. I felt my colon tighten. For the first time, it hit me that I had no idea what kind of music these kids liked. I hadn't listened to the radio in years. I couldn't name three bands on any top ten chart.
"Hey, Slime," I said. "What are we going to play anyway?"
"Only the best stuff," he grinned with his hands out, palms up in a what else? kind of gesture. "Only our very best repper-twar."
We started playing at nine o'clock sharp. The place was pretty much filled up and none of the kids were paying the slightest attention to us. I couldn't tell which one was the guest of honor nor were there any adults around to speak of other than the caterers.
We started with a shaky version of the old Human Beinz song "Nobody" which drew about the same reaction as a two degree change in the thermostat. We followed that by kicking into a version of "Sweet Jane," which started out all right except that I forgot the words and had to sing the second verse twice. No one was paying attention. The hum of crowd talk had increased just enough to drown us out. My only indication that we were making any sound at all was that I could see the needles on the amplifier bounce every time Mike pounded on his drums. The crowd huddled around the edge of the gaping dance floor like a poolside party in January.
Slime said, "Jailhouse Rock," but I said "No, Heartbreak Hotel." I was encouraged to see a few heads nod in the crowd. They had heard about Elvis, at least. In my frame of mind, I found it easy to put some effort into the spectral, vaguely suicidal lyrics. I even managed to balance on my toes while kicking my knees out into a wobbling hula-hoop dance step worthy of the King himself. Slime said, "Whoa, dude," but the only reaction I could see in the crowd were a few smirks.
A pretty girl wearing a low-cut green party gown with eyes to match came to the edge of the stage and said, "Do you know any Guns 'n' Roses songs?"
I looked at her and said, "Sorry," and believe me, I was. She shrugged her shoulders and went away.
We played two or three more songs to similar responses. The kids were getting bored. Knots of kids stood around the edge of the vacant dance floor successfully ignoring my first cover of "96 Tears" in 10 years. When I said we were going to take a five minute break, no one looked too disappointed.
I went outside and stood by myself looking at the cars in the parking lot.
I took out my last cigarette. The door opened and Slime and Mike came out.
"Got another smoke?" said Mike.
"No," I barked.
"How're we doin'?" said Slime.
"We suck," I said.
"Huh?" said Slime. "You're not into this? I'm thinkin' this is cool, us jammin' together again. Runnin' through the old tunes."
"It's not like old times, Slime," I said. "It's new times and these kids are into a whole different bunch of songs by bands we never heard of."
"Phil's right," said Mike. "This gig's not happening."
Slime looked confused. I allowed him a scant moment of compassion.
"Well, then. What do we do?" he said.
"Do you guys know any Jane's Addiction songs or Jesus Jones or Guns 'n' Roses? Because this golden oldie shit is not working."
Slime shook his head. Mike looked bored.
"Here's what we do," I said. "We try some of our originals."
Slime perked up. "You mean the Sex Offenders stuff?" he said.
Mike groaned, but Slime nodded his head and said, "Wicked!"
"Let's go," I said.
We went back inside, got settled on the stage and crashed into a screaming version of "Kill the Rich." What happened next was like one of those old Alan Freed movies where the band at the prom finally gets sick of playing Strauss waltzes and starts rocking and the kids go wild and the parents get nervous at first and then they start twisting too. The atmosphere in the room suddenly snapped into place. The kids looked up from their punch and stopped talking. A couple jigged onto the dance floor and then another and a third and before I knew it, there were a good number of dancers. I felt myself start to relax for the first time in days. Maybe we could salvage this thing after all.
We finished "Kill the Rich" and launched into "I Hate This Town." I could feel the old energy returning along with my confidence. More kids went onto the dance floor and gyrated to the pounding beat. I ripped harder into the lyrics and started pacing the stage and shouting into the microphone like James Brown.
I caught a glimpse of the caterers who were suddenly standing beside deserted chafing dishes, arms folded, shaking their heads.
We jumped into "I Want To Sleep With You" without so much as a sixteenth note's pause between songs. I glanced at Slime who had a big, shit-eating grin on his face, but Mike looked like he was struggling to keep up. We were cooking. I felt the last ten years of office burden detach itself and float away from me like a dandelion fluff.
Just then, I heard someone calling my name, yelling in fact: "Phil! Phil!" I thought it must be Slime and I turned to look at him, but he only grinned back.
That's when I looked down and saw, of all people, the most unlikely and unexpected face in the world: Cramer, the senior partner in my law firm. He glared up at me with a mixture of disbelief and embarrassment. His sunburned face strained out of his starched collar.
"Phil," he said. "What the fuck are you doing up there?" He seemed as confused as I was. I had stopped playing and Slime and Mike petered out behind me.
"What am I doing?" I said. "What are you doing here?" Though I thought I already knew.
"This is my daughter's 16th birthday party. She's the one with the green dress on." I looked over at the girl he motioned to, the same one who had asked for Guns 'n' Roses.
"Pretty," I said.
"Do you mean to say that you play in this band?" said Cramer, still unclear of the situation or what it meant about me one way or the other.
"Yes sir," I said. "Slime and I used to play together in a band called--" I paused. "Well, never mind."
"I'll be damned. My second chair is a punk rocker."
"Substitute second chair," I said. "Well, do you like it? The music?"
"No. It stinks," said Cramer. He glanced around at the teens on the dance floor and added, "but the kids seem to like it."
"Okay," I said, forcing a grin, though Cramer wasn't smiling. I didn't like that. I wished he would crack a smile. I could tell he didn't know what to say, what to make of my being there. I figured by Monday morning he'd have made up his mind. I would spend a nervous weekend until then.
Cramer nodded curtly and disappeared. I managed to croak out two or three more songs, but the energy had left me and where I had felt the old power again, now I only felt a tightening in my gut.
I turned back toward Slime who was grinning like Joshua when I take him for ice cream. "I'm through," I said.
Slime yelped something at me I didn't hear and I was out of the building by the time he got his strap unhooked.
Slime's gaining on me.
I lean against the brick wall of the VFW hall. I tap my pockets for another cigarette but they're all gone. I wait for him to catch up to me. When he does, he's panting hard from running so fast.
"Philly, what're you doin'?" he says after he gets his breath back.
"I'm leaving, Slime. I'm out of here."
"But why?" he says. "We were kickin' ass, man."
"What?" I say indignantly. "Do I have to spell this out for you? This thing was a bad idea from the beginning. I've been lied to, laughed at, and humiliated. I've alienated my family and pissed off my boss. I've been reminded of my weakness, my lack of talent and my lost hopes. What else do you want from me, Slime?"
"But what?" I fire back at him.
"But, I mean, wouldn't all of that stuff have happened anyway?"
I stare at him for a minute, then close my eyes against the weariness. I feel myself losing the need to blame Slime for any of this.
"Hey, man," he says, "You have it all. I'm, like, in awe of you, Philly."
"In awe of me?" I say. "Why the hell would you be in awe of me? I have a stressed-out job chasing bones for assholes like Cramer. I'm mortgaged up to my eyeballs. I have two kids and a wife I never get to see. I haven't gone out dancing or drinking or even to a movie in five years. I eat badly and I drink too much and I don't ever exercise. I'm probably going to croak from a heart attack taking out the garbage one of these days and it's going to deprive the world of absolutely nothing. In awe of me, Slime? You've got to be kidding."
"No, I mean it," says Slime and, for once, he isn't wearing his silly grin. "Great job, beautiful wife, cute kids, cool house. You got it all. You ought to relax and enjoy it. See, there's the difference between us, Phil. I'm too relaxed to go out and get that stuff you have and you're too uptight to enjoy it."
"Well," I say, beginning to grin in spite of myself. "You want to trade?"
"Trade, Slime. I mean, Monday morning you put on a suit and tie and go sit at my desk at the firm of Cramer, Dillahunt and Dillahunt and I'll go odd-jobbing around the southwest for awhile sleeping late and playing in clubs. You can yell at my kids until you're blue in the face, sit and drink scotch in the hot tub and do the dinner dishes to your heart's content. What do you say?"
Slime looks like he might actually go for it. Then his grin comes back and fills his face like a sunny window. At last he says, "No, no. I guess not" and starts to back away down the sidewalk.
"Hey man," he says. "I'll call you soon."
"Okay," I say and watch him as he turns and starts back toward the door of the VFW. No doubt he's going to track down Cramer and get paid for the gig. I stand in the cold drizzle and watch him walk away. Long after he's gone, I say again, "Okay, buddy. You do that."
But I know he won't.
Mark Smith (email@example.com) lives in Austin, Texas. His first book of short stories, Riddle (Argo Press) won the 1992 Austin Book Award. His first children's book, Slosh, was scheduled to be published in 1997. (This biography written in 1996.)
InterText stories written by Mark Smith: "Back From The West" (v2n5), "Reality Check" (v2n6), "Slime" (v3n1), "Doing Lunch" (v3n1), "Snapper" (v3n2), "Innocent Bystander" (v3n3), "Sue and Frank" (v3n5), "The Hard Edge of Things" (v6n2).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 3, Number 1 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1993 Mark Smith.