"I saw your tattoos and your Mohawk come into the waiting room and expected you to be another one of my daughter's shitty friends; the ones that made her like this. God love them. But you're not! It's such a surprise, even though you're Jewish and . . ."
'Stop. Just stop.' A voice in Ernie's head blocked out the grieving woman. 'You want a lesson on Jewish perspective? Let's look at the picture, welcome to yeshiva. Jesus was a fucking terrorist with delusions of grandeur. He supported a group of fishermen and whores in their wacky antics while drinking excessive casks of wine on a quest to take down money lenders and the religious paradigms of his age. Boy, that's a mouthful. Is it
any wonder people wanted him dead? I mean, Larry Flynn got paralyzed for his beliefs and those just involved naked chicks peeing on things!'
But Ernie couldn't say all that. They'd have no idea for the next three hours if Squier would ever walk again. Six hours of religious debate had gone without any update and Lisa foraged for hints of surgical progress by tearing the OR receptionist begrudgingly from her cellular game.
"Why didn't the doctors tell me themselves?" Lisa worried.
"Your daughter needs a lot of work," the receptionist construed, her eyes still on the cellphone. "Maybe it's best not to assume busy medical professionals have time for such courtesies as keeping you updated when the poor girl could lose a valuable life function at any moment."
Lisa turned to sit down. She sniffled.
"Hey wait," the receptionist raised her voice. "You want me to ask them how she's doing? I could do that."
"You co --"
"Yeah, I could walk right on in there while they're doing God knows what to your daughter in my unsterilized scrubs and get the 411. Maybe I could even give them a hand."
"No," said Lisa dejectedly. "And you don't have to be so mean about it."
"Whatever," the receptionist said. "I'm outta here in a minute anyway."
She thunked her cellphone against the plastic desktop. "Lookit that, so close. . . And now? . . . Stupid fucking birds." She shoved a few things in her purse and stormed out, mumbling "No good ass kids always beatin me at the stupid game, fucking lazy about everything else! Stack up candy on a fucking screen - that's great - do the same damn thing to pay for your fucking cellphone bill - No, ma! No, ma! Just once I'd. . ."
Lisa heard this from the other room and patted her breast. The old woman could feel good about herself again.
Throughout the building other seemingly important pieces of administration were stripped from their desks and cast into the rush hour traffic. The bus stops bulged. For once people actually walked down the streets in this section of San Jose to feel the eyes in the slit project windows staring at them. Groups that hung in front of the 7/11s scattered to the blocks behind with their tallboys and fake nails. They'd return when things quieted down. Traffic from the highways backed down the onramps and the roads preceding. Arms hung out windows tanning; so many people were in such a hurry that no one went anywhere. The air sizzled. Radios played the same two hundred songs that came on every afternoon everywhere else. People would stay that way to see the sunset, inching along in a one-mile-per-hour conveyer belt of their own control. No one came to replace that receptionist at the desk guarding Squier's operating room. All around the building lights on a circuit dimmed.
"Night shift," mumbled Squier's stepfather. "Light conservation. Nice setup." The man shuffled his hand up to his flannel pocket for a cigarette then realized the doors would lock if he stepped out. He let them go. Instead he bit his nails to the quick. They tasted enough like cigarettes. Yellow cuticles and all, there was enough of it caked into his callouses to get high.
"Why do we have to be here? Squier's the idiot who got all drunk and rode her bike through a stop sign! It's God's way of punishing her, not us! Do you understand me? Hey! Not us! He's not punishing us so you don't have to punish me! He's not punishing us! He's not punishing uh-uss! He's not punishing uh-uss! We've been good!" Squire's stepbrother darted his eyes around the room, hopping and banging his chest. He was dismayed at his lack of leverage.
Lisa paused amidst her gospel to give a silent, other-cheek smile while her boy got all this out of his system. "Mom. Mom! Mom! Listen! She'll be alright, you know? We can go now, she doesn't want to see us anyway. What do I personally have to do with this? Mom!" He danced around, kicked his legs in the air. Then he pouted down into the same spot he sat before. "What do I have to do with all this?" The 13 year old posed it like a real question, like anyone in the waiting room could give a simple answer and upon hearing it, he would magically teleport back to being the only homeschooler for 20-some-odd miles in Nowheretown, USA.
Ernie envisioned a small but sturdy rock on the side of the highway this boy biked every day to church. Ernie pictured that rock puncturing the boy's bike tire and sending him over the cliff side railing into endless stabby Redwood branches. The boy's eyes would come clean out, Pop! Like in the cartoons the boy was never allowed to watch. Then his skin would be flagellated by a million absolving Redwood pricklers. Ernie pictured himself in the waiting room of that hospital saying 'what am i even doing here; I always thought that kid was a fuck!' Then Ernie Ball dashed the thought immediately so that if the Christians were right and God could actually read everyone's thoughts, these wouldn't get mixed in with anyone's prayers of hope for Squier.
Lisa looked at her husband with the most serious face she had outside of talking religion. "Did you let him have Mountain Dew?"
The man shrugged. "I told him he could get whatever he wanted at the gas station."
"You've got to be more assertive! It starts at Mountain Dew and then he gets all . . ."
"And what are you doing here?" the boy said of Ernie amidst a resurgence of his tantrum. The drummer's neck creaked around on its locked joints to view the boy. Nights of sleeping on floors had lined his spine in just the right way. There was a crack! Fluid from between Ernie's spinal column was released. Acid flashback. He saw Squire's stepbrother throwing some kind of cartoonishly large switch at the other end of the waitin groom that would somehow shut off Squier's surgery, erase her. The family would have no memory of it. Then they would baptize Ernie until he drowned. Because he was a witch. He practiced witchcraft. He spoke to them of a daughter that they never had. 'You are seriously paranoid' a voice rang in his head. Stabilization. He could subdue this vision by calling it paranoia. He was dealing with a kid, after all. Hadn't Ernie been terrible at handling everything before this? Wasn't he even there to make up for a time where he shouldn't have been so paranoid? His heart swelled. Ernie caught the kid's eye and in a weak voice said "I know you didn't mean that about Squier, but . . ." Then boy looked right at him and stuck his tongue out. "What are you even doing here, sinner?"
"You little shit," Ernie said as his tired arms failed to raise him from the chair. "I don't care how old you are, soon as I get up I'm going to rip that tongue of yours out and make you eat your own goddamn asshole with it." But his legs didn't work. His body was devoid of fuel. The parents argued on. Ernie flounced like a dying horse. The boy laughed and clapped his hands. This was apparently what Ernie was doing there.
"Lisa, the boy's sister is practically dead!"
The boy stopped clapping. "Squier's not my sister!" His pubescent voice lost any of its depth and was shrill enough to give a few of the 40 bottles in the waiting room trash bins a crack. "She's a ghost! Squire's a ghost Mom should never have had that's coming to tear this family apart! We shouldn't be here!" There were tears in the corners of his eyes.
"No more of this." Lisa commanded. Everyone went silent. She gave a forced laugh to downplay the intensity. "He's just cranky from the drive. Take him to the hotel." She handed the keys to her husband. "And if I find out you fed him anything else we agreed would corrupt him . . ."
"Okay, okay" the man shrugged. Then they were gone.
The drummer found himself sprinting alone between a ghost town of stretchers to the cafeteria. It was all he could do not to scream. His legs just started working by themselves the minute the kid and his dad left. When more weight in Ernie's stomach anchored his body to the world, he would go back and find Lisa. Around him the lights were dimming, people leaving; all the unnecessary pieces were cast aside from the hospital. Ernie saw the boy and his father walking across the parking lot as he ran the length of a long window. In that moment Ernie knew the kid was right. Squire would've just told these strangers to hit the bricks anyway. Good riddance, he thought, like Lisa and her Pagans.
The cafeteria workers were pulling off their aprons when Ernie ran in all sweaty and wide eyed. Hairnets filled the trash cans. The crew all were too happy to slop their leftovers on the drummer's plate. "Register's closed, put it in the tip jar." Ernie gave them what was left in his pocket without stopping to count. Styrofoam glistened with little brown slop drops; the white tray's waterproof, million-years-to-biodegrade surface like enamel under fluorescent lights.
By himself Ernie sat. Barely chewing, slurping, choking, chugging, devouring. Carbonated soda and soup disappearing from his utensils as the cafeteria lights shut around him. Cracker wrappers went flying. Crumpled napkins carelessly hit the floor. Ernie opened up parmesan cheese packets and poured them directly onto his tongue. He got up and reached behind the sneeze guard to refill his soda. He grabbed more crackers. Two by two in an uneven checker pattern across the grid above rectangular sets of fluorescent bulbs went dead. Ernie crammed food even in the dark, squirted ketchup onto the saltines and made little parmesan sandwiches that spread out his meal. He didn't want it to end. In total mastication concentration he'd transcended the hospital. He wasn't anywhere. A Cafeteria-Hole. Then the warm soup bubbling in his stomach brought him slowly back down to a bloated body.
Ernie flopped back in his chair. The wall ahead was a window spanning the length of an unused courtyard. At the center was a minimalist work which technically qualified as a statue. Visually it could have just been a depository for leftover bricks. A placard with a name and a year is sometimes all that separates these things.
Ernie looked down at the moonlit table. Half a bottle of Sriracha in a cup of chili left behind nothing but steaming, spoon-gauged cardboard. Ernie rolled his tongue around in his mouth and felt the blisters forming. Still tasteless. Not enough spice. Not hot enough. How long could he hold on to that warm soup bubble feeling in his stomach? It was the same as the whiskey which no longer got him drunk after each bus or Caltrain ride since Gibson's phone call. A phantom cell vibration went off in his pocket just thinking about it.
Had the rhythm section not met Squier that first night back at Gibson's pub in Santa Cruz, Ernie woulda either shivered on the metal floor of his bassist's mobile home or busked for bus fare. A general sentiment of crash landing was shared amongst the dirt broke musicians as they returned from their latest SoCal tour. The last few times they'd hit the road and broken even. Logically, this was supposed to be the time they actually made money. Instead it sapped every bit of their savings.
The rhythm section barely made it into Santa Cruz before the drum station wagon ran out of gas and Katrina, their singer, made a heroic straight shot in her sedan crammed with the rest of the gear to San Francisco. There was a stack amp with the band's logo on it strapped to her car roof. There was nowhere else it would fit and she quickly found herself outrunning a rain storm as it crept its way up the South Bay. A video taken from a passing driver was sent to the band's website and managed to raise the group's spirits. But it didn't fix any of their financial woes.
Ernie planned to take an acoustic guitar, the x factor in his scheme, as far away from the bus station as possible in downtown Santa Cruz. He'd go past the 'no smoking or the fullest extent of the law' blocks, past all the homeless cop magnets and the cops pretending to be homeless cop magnets. Maybe he’d play back by the farmer's market where a few hours' worth of beachy covers could get him home. Years of beat novels in libraries made him genuinely sad that broke travellers could no longer hitch or pick up short term dishwashing gigs in restaurants right off the streets.
Ernie was broke. Flat, 'are you going to finish that?,' living on gas station packets of mustard and drink tickets, broke. His children's museum gig was taking their sweet time with his direct deposit. Going to the ATM each time to verify this only created more transaction fees. Those transaction fees then triggered overdraft fees which would increase incrementally for however long Ernie decided to keep checking if he was broke.
Gibson's finances weren't much better. The bassist was a slave to his day job until he could cover some debts incurred failing to fix the band's trailer. The hitch snapped somewhere near the endless nasal assault that was Cowshwitz. Beautiful fields, lush blue skies, cowshit and death in the air for as far as the feet could walk. Before ultimately renting a second car and dividing up all their gear into the two vehicles, the whole band, stuck on the side of the highway amidst this rotting, grotesque smell, made a promise to avoid all meat forever. This promise lasted less than hours with only gas stations around to grub and the band wound up eating the very same animals they'd been so disgusted by. "Serves 'em right for being there!" "Who, the animals?" "Will you guys shut up, I'm trying to get a map going. Siri, get me to Bakersfield." "It's taking you to a bakery." "I hate the future!" Expecting to make money, the band maintained their route but only managed to triple their debt without reselling their trailer or even covering the rental car. Ernie couldn't rely on Gibson for more than a floor to sleep on. The poor bassist barely got to keep the food he put in his mouth after the tour. He was lucky he worked in a restaurant. So was Ernie for all the day old French fries the bassist gave him. Being stranded in Santa Cruz was at least in a pleasant state of limbo before Ernie's job worked him to death as well.
But Squier wouldn't hear a word of it. She wanted to take care of her newfound rhythm section ever since offering them some of the twelve Hamm’s she had a smitten Safeway cashier deliver her at Gibson's pub. "Last call," screamed Gibson's boss. "Last call," echoed the other bartender and all the guys in the dish pit.
Squire had been punching Ernie in the face when the cashier came in. The drummer was staring straight ahead, tired from tour, eyes loosening, vision blurring, afraid to take another sip of the last whiskey he could afford. A set of knuckles landed on his cheek. It wasn't hard. "The next one's going to hurt." She said.
Ernie didn't even turn. "You've got to stop doing that." His eyes caught himself in the mirror. He looked like a ghoul. Black bags with creases at the bottoms. Greasy skin. Squier blew him a kiss. He looked at her in the mirror. She threw another punch but Ernie caught it in his palm. "Girl, you've got to stop doing that."
"You can hit me back," she smiled.
"I don't do that." Ernie replied. He'd just met the girl. He never hit women. He let go of her boney fist and it dropped to her side. 'No, you don't understand. She was asking for it. Really!' Squier threw another blow. Only her arm moved. Ernie caught the knuckles again without turning from his whiskey. He took the drink in a long slug before finally looking up to talk with her.
"What's this about anyway? You seem a tad too nice to be starting an inter-gender barfight and I'm reeeeeeaaaaaally tired." He could feel the blood in his eyes, his head thumped an off kilter polka. The lead bartender walked by swabbing a pint glass and looking concerned. He scoffed at Ernie calling the dame 'nice.'
Squier's white teeth shone. "You looked troubled but still had all this soft skin." She tugged at his cheek. Ernie's brow furrowed. "It's like you haven't been punched in the face in a while. You just wear your pain internally." She was one to talk, her raccoon eyes posing a sincerity almost embarrassed by her fiendish red smile.
"Great," he said to her "I was just lookin for a barstool psychologist! So doc, you sayin you think a bit of facial bruising will improve my morale? Maybe help me on the path to weightloss? Win back my husband?"
"Maybe. But I wasn't thinking that deep. I just thought you'd look a lot cuter with a black eye."
The Safeway cashier walked up to the bar with her package for Squier. The girl had cropped blonde hair and a red flannel shirt. Squier kissed her on the cheek. "Thank ya honey," then she swatted the teenager's butt towards the door.
"Hey, Hey Hey!" shouted the bartender walking over at a brisk pace. "Kid, what'd I say about coming in here without ID this late? What're ya, sixteen? You want us to get shut down here, little lady?"
"I'm a man," said the cashier. Her face was oily as the fried food section of her store. She slid her thumbs around the waist of her jeans to tuck in her shirt. The neon glow made the bartender look to be a stained glass effigy of St. Patrick.
"Aw, just get out! Don't make me tell you again."
Neither the cashier nor the bartender moved. Squier put a beer in the cashier's hands. The cashier turned to look at Squier. "Thanks doll," she said with a deepened voice and ran to the door. "See you tomorrow night, Jack!"
"Fuck you for bringing that kid in here," he said to Squier as the glass door shut out the night frost. "I don't know why he-or she-or whatever risks their stupid job for you. You probably don't know how hard it is to get work around here being good lookin as you are. The rest of the people workin at that damn supermarket with her are over 30! Over 30 and cleanin the aisles at the Safeway cuz college kids got all the other jobs for anyone in a small town. Over 30 and moppin floors makes you mean, hungry, you'll do anything for a 50 cent raise. Why, they're liable to rip that kid apart." He stared wistfully beyond Squier. The cashier was smoking a cigarette in the distance by one of the parking lot stanchions. The bartender Jack poured himself a Blue Ribbon and toasted her in a salute. The cashier averted his or her gaze. Jack was about to sip but he remembered an order. His right foot was lame. He hobbled to the sink and washed his hands. Still lecturing. "They say the minimum wage's goin over 12 bucks in the next two years, but where you gonna live? There's no retirement plan on that. You hit forty and you'll kill a man to become a supervisor at that Safeway. Why that kid's throwing away any paycheck at all for a pretty face, the pretty face that’s plastered to the front of a Venus flytrap! . . . well, that is beyond me."
"Always a charmer, Jack."
"I see you in here often enough, Squier. You keep breakin the rules and, much as I don't wanna, you're 86'd."
"You do that and Fireball sales are going to dip seventy percent!"
"That may be. Whole twelve pack there'll cost ya less'n two rounds o' Fireball here. Don' tell anyone you heard me say that, a'course. It's late and I know you're just gonna keep buying it no matter what the old man has us charge." He started to drink his beer again but saw another item that needed tending. He picked up the fallen fifth before it became trouble and placed it on the shelf. He went back to his beer but stopped again with the same look of concern on his face. "Hey Squier" he began. For all the bums he'd ever had to bounce, this was a troublesome thing to say. "If I find out any of those beers there is the one that finally kills you, so help me, I’ll . . ."
"You'll what? I'll be dead!" Squier laughed.
The bartender just threw a rag at her and putted off to take care of some other business on the far end of his bottle collection. Tiny little tremors were rattling the bottles against the back mirror. "You feel that, jack?" "Yeah, yeah, just keep washin the dishes, Dingus! I wanna get out of here. Last Call!" "Last Call!"
Gibson walked out of the bathroom and wiped his wet hands on the sides of his jeans. "What'd I miss? Oooh, twelvepack, we goin to a party?"
"I was just going to drink all these by myself," Squier laughed. It didn't sound like such a joke. Her hard, pointy nipples balanced a black T shirt perfectly in a halo an inch from her waist; deliciously tanned stomach still somehow devoid of a healthy shine. The stomach was lean, brown like the rest of her, showing the outline of abdominals but the absence of real food, the excess of beer; a flabby little pouch adorned with NorCal star tattoos. Her sleeveless shirt hung right above this decorated eggsack of hers and a studded belt, a veritable medieval torture weapon, protected whatever treasures lay below. "It was my birthday a few days ago," Squire explained, leaning on the bandmates' shoulders. Her raccoon eyes darted between them. "It's been one big party! You want to join?" The bartender rolled his eyes. "Yes," said Gibson. "Emphatically yes."
Ernie smiled. If the bassist wanted her she was his. The drummer had managed to sleep with a professor of music on the tour and felt quite validated. Gibson didn't sleep around too much and experiences like these were good for a fella. Especially one so under the thumb of a timeclock. Were there not a barback that evening, Gibson would've been right there washing dishes from the moment his over packed station wagon ran out of gas. It was still hard to believe they'd made it to city limits.
Past the train tracks and into the murky suburban darkness, Squire pulled out a bottle of Ancient Age from her backpack. She gave the plastic liter a smack with her fingernail. From where the band mates stood shadows covered everything but her smile. "So what does your group sound like?"
Three cigarettes poked through a darkness which spiraling semicircles of decrepit willows only deepened. The Monarch gazebo was invisible to the Ranger station just beyond the path. Natural Bridges State Beach. Not a bit of sand in sight. Duckweed swamps, mud, bugs, willows, but no California succulents or seaweed. One could barely hear the ocean. All around the Monarch butterflies slept off the stress of mating. Their three month lifespans would be up in a matter of days and as they clung to anyone, potential mate or not in those warm stalactite formations. These bugs were the 7th generation grandkids of the ones who'd been there the year before. With their lives running out, the males, colors otherwise faded and possessing only charisma, would take runs at the darkest colored, most dangerous looking females. Then they would all die.
Two mornings later Gibson was obviously smitten. "You godda let me marry Squier," he said. "I'll make it fair. You let me marry her if I can sink this basket."
He actually had a basketball. There actually was a hoop. It was one of those spectacularly bleak Santa Cruz mornings where the sun just never came out. Still it was too bright to look above the tree line without squinting. The sun, curious as always, peeked at the basketball court to see the drummer rub his stubbly chin.
Ernie'd intended to let Squier be with Gibson from jump but she wanted both. The rhythm section had no reason to compete. They would never have been good band mates if they did. Amidst the thralls of passion the musicians would tag in and out, having crafted perfect rhythm together for years. They played to a very receptive audience. Occasionally there was a standing ovation. But it felt just like a gig, something that could only last a few days, a fragile happiness so far as Ernie believed.
With the bet, the drummer could seamlessly bow out from the picture just as the orchestra swelled and the downtrodden bassist carried his Eskimo bride up the staircase. Their smiles would finally lose the weariness from years of forgotten sleep. Grease would evaporate from all his clothes and the scars along her knuckles would close up. A kiss between the raccoon eyed beauty and her thick forearmed, timekeeping lover would ring out with the bells across the land as the screen faded in the shape of a heart and the credits rolled.
"Yeah," the drummer smiled, "If you can make the shot."
"You don't think I've got game?"
"When was the last time you actually played?"
There was a basketball court by the public restroom Gibson was forced to use for fear the smell might return to his trailer. It was the only bathroom he could shit in for miles and closed at 9pm with the rest of the park, reopening at 7 am. Gibson timed his meals to this schedule and woke up every morning ready to unload a 9 hour totem pole of excrement into its metal throne.
On that particular day somebody left a ball. Ernie and Gibson sat on the bleachers enjoying the one thing Ernie’s bank would let him have besides overdraft fees: free coffee.
Days later Ernie was finally back in San Francisco. He had to keep drinking since leaving Santa Cruz to stay awake. Squier woke him up early that morning and he was already inside her. With her mouth she was sincere, careful, delicate until finding the right spots and then merciless. Ernie could see why she kept these moves secret: they were a true expression of her understanding for another person. But Ernie had a hellfury of a whiskey shit brewing within him. It was poking at the hemorrhoid a week's worth of tight stage pants and drum stools pulled out of his rectum. He was trapped. She told him she loved him again like the night before at the Gwar show. Squeir said it and slid his erection back down her throat. Then she came up for air and said it again. 'This isn't how this was supposed to go,' Ernie thought. Squier was supposed to go with Gibson and Ernie could just walk away. They'd made a bet. Ernie had lost. This was supposed to feel amazing and all he could think about was not dousing his pleasurer's chin with farts or letting anything near the pulsing boil between his ass cheeks. "I love you," she said again, lips glistening. He just groaned and grabbed a handful of her coarse black hair. His other hand carved at the tattoos spread between her shoulders. Ernie's fingers dug into her dark skin. She groaned with him inside her mouth. It gurgled. She didn't stop, just moved her head up and down back into his palm. A froth was churning, sea foam. Ernie looked up at the ceiling and told himself he would crack a beer the minute Squier's alarm went off and she had to run to work. The connective tissue piling into a painful itchy grape was just inches from her fingers. Could she notice it? A painted nail grazed its surface like a hot knife. With his hand gripping her head, the drummer lay in a confusing state of misery.
It was late at night in San Francisco. But Ernie's mind was still right there in Squier's bed. He'd cracked a beer. He'd cracked many beers. The museum had finally sent him enough money to get home but the overdraft fees ate a lot of the check which didn't clear until just hours before he needed to be at work. A text message notified him, "Ping! Check Deposited, You're Done Being Broke! Lol!" It came in right as Squier slammed her bungalow door. She was annoyed that Ernie hadn't finished. She was really looking forward to it. "Fuck, that's my alarm, I godda go to work!" "That's alright." "Well shit! . . . they won't mind if I'm a little late." "No, no, it's alright, I really appreciated it but --" "No. I will show you later. Believe me. You will. Later." When he got that text Ernie threw on his pants, hit a liquor store then sent his goodbyes digitally to Gibson and the Eskimo princess. He'd see everyone later. There were only so many buses Ernie could catch before he would be late for his shift. What a perfect excuse for an exit.
As his BART passed through Colma, a cloud of black smoke rose from the expanse of graveyard. Ernie recognized the smell of newly bought, scorched department store merchandise all too well. Leather goods. Sneakers. Sweaters. Purses. The things whoever they were burying never had in life. This was part of a Chinese superstition for preventing vengeful spirits' return. The worse whoever was being buried was treated in life, the more expensive crap it would take to keep their battered spirit detained. The ghost would see this as it possessed the body of the six white men carrying the casket. They needed to be white for the spirit to possess them. Whites were Gwailos, or walking ghosts, to the Chinese. They were blank canvasses to be used as a periscope from beyond when the deceased made sure they wouldn't have to return angrily from the ethereal. It was a fifty-dollar-a-day job for a guy like Ernie. But he'd graduated from such work. All of his old coworkers were probably there. He lifted his beer can in a salute.
Another drunken session as night janitor in the children's museum. Ernie crushed a beer can on the way into work and sent it flying toward a recycling bin he'd empty in 20 minutes. The keycard slid into the door. Beep. Boop.
Squire was at Gibson's bar getting hammered. She was waiting for the bassist to take off his apron and call it a night. Now she had blowjobs on the mind. She looked around the room at the creases in people's jeans and grew impatient. Gibson would have to just sweat the fryer grease off at the concert because there was no time to change. It was another crazy costume metal band. Squire loved those. She didn't want to miss a minute.
Ernie was removing dead starfish from a tank and hosing the bodies down in a big dish pit for preservation. He flung one like a ninja star which ricocheted off the wall tiles then plopped down into the sink with the others. One of the arms snapped. That was three points from where he stood, meaning Ernie could officially take a break and smoke a cigarette. The shot was specifically impressive considering between his shoulder and ear the janitor cradled a cellphone. Squire was on the line, his only company where he was just as he was hers. She lurched full of whiskey like the night they met.
"How come you never tell me you love me when I tell it to you?"
If Squire was saying these same things to Gibson about love there was no way of knowing. Ernie stood looking past the highway at the Golden Gate Bridge. The bright lights along the highway barrier shone orange against a black sky, making the road look a shade of bluish gray uninterrupted by any traffic. Not a single sound came even from the homeless encampment by the freestanding museum offices near Crissy Field. Except for a little strip that slowed traffic down to a trickle, the entrance to the bridge was torn up with earthquakeproofing construction. Miniature, house-wide strips of highway were left dangling from cranes overnight. There would be no falling onramp when another earthquake inevitably destroyed more of California. Ernie let out a long drag of smoke. The big museum doors shut behind him. He had no idea what to say to Squier.
"It's complicated, I guess . . ." He gestured softpack Marlboro smoke through the air. The paper above the filter was translucent with slime. He'd forgotten to take off his gloves again. But starfish weren't poisonous.
Squire would not accept his answer. "How complicated could it be?" Even her burps sounded angry. A crowd at the other side of the bar, over where Gibson was cooking, cheered for the Niners. He could hear Gibson's voice too.
If Ernie had any way of knowing this was his last time to speak with Squire, the reality of it would have kept the Janitor from getting outraged. It would've made him realize how little time there really was. The janitor would've dismissed all the images about the cat whose head got yanked clean off, about the bundle of metal rods holding together that girl from his high school, about the kid who burned off all his skin; everything that stigmatized love for him. He'd let things with Squier exist on their own. Free from that. One cleansed soul to another, because wherever Squire was coming from had at least as much pain behind it. Ernie would have seen that if he'd known this was their last conversation. If he knew that he would have left his job, rented a car, called a cab, done whatever it took to get down to Squire. He would have done anything to prevent her from becoming just a few days' worth of memories. But there was no way of knowing. Ernie just fumed, clenched his fists, burned his throat with cigarettes.
"Love's just a big word, alright?" Ernie felt dead. He didn't want to talk anymore. He was frustrated. He would've done anything to go back inside, take a stiff drink of Jameson and brush the Starfish goo from his jeans.
"C'mon, you use big words in your songs all the time!"
"You barely know my music, you barely know me!"
"Don't get me wrong. I care about you Squier, I really do, but this is all too . . ."
"Just say it!!"
"Please, just say you love me. That's all I ask."
"Ugh, alright, fine! I love you, okay?! Alright?!?!"
There was an unsatisfied pause. "No." A shot glass clinked on the counter from her end. "Ahhh!" Then. "Look, I'll call you after the show. Pick up, alright? Do me that much at least."
"Squier . . ."
Click. Dead line. Ernie held his phone's screen in front of him to watch the amount of time the conversation lasted. A few seconds later the call was only a digital earmark in an outdated machine. The rectangular LED glow was the only light between the scattered traffic lights of the 101. Not a car went by, it was silent. Ernie's fingers slipped from the plastic. The phone almost dashed against the ground but for the drummer's muscle memory. This phone was one of the few things in Ernie's life whose usefulness was unquestionable. It was one of his few possessions that he brought from the East Coast.
A few feet away, by the Palace of Fine Arts' loading doors, Ernie noticed a boombox he'd left outside during his last crossing guard shift before the tour. Being a crossing guard paid fourteen an hour to smoke cigarettes and practice his David Bowie impersonations. Hence the boombox. Sometimes people needed to cross the highway construction. Mostly not. That's why the job gave him so few hours. "Come back when you've got a physics degree. When's your band playing next, though?" His boombox only worked when he did. It sat out there plugged into the wall, untouched or stolen, a true testament to the limited usage of modern radio.
Ernie walked over, wiping the starfish goo from his phone onto his shirt and throwing his gloves into the street. He fell to the curb and lit a cigarette. Placing the antenna towards the oldies station, he flicked on the dial. "I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you," crooned Sam Cooke. Ernie felt as though punched. He smacked the antenna into a different spot and flicked the dial again. "Ain't talking bout love!" screamed David Lee Roth, but it was too close to the subject.
Ernie grabbed the boombox, yanked it from the wall so fast it played a split second's more music before running out of juice, then chucked the cylindrical speakerbox like a football over the fence onto the highway. Perfect spiral. A cassette went flying from the tape deck, landing a few feet away from a CHP officer taking a coffee break. The officer thought this funny and waved to Ernie. Ernie felt robbed of his passions when he had to fake a smile and wave back. Nothing was really wrong, just everything the law couldn't help him with.
A late night 18 wheeler suddenly pulverized the boombox in approaching the Golden Gate tollbooths. That CHP officer cheered. "You see that?"
A quarter-state away Gibson was there on his bike right behind Squire yelling "slow down" as she blew through that unlit Santa Cruz street. She turned to curse him off, didn't see the Ford Explorer, Gibson screamed but she screamed louder.
Ernie was good and drunk when he got that expected call later. He had closed the facility down and was using Jack Daniels to teach himself 70s rock classics on the museum's Theremin. The 'Ghost of the Science Museum' was making the lights above twinkle randomly across their fluorescent grid. From this pattern the janitor could discern which bands the spirit had enjoyed while alive.
"Squier!" Ernie screamed into the receiver, "Check this out!" His left hand was flat over the metal plate, popping up and down whilst his right hand moved to and fro in relation to the metal antennae. "You ain't seen nothin yet" vrrrooooovrroooooo "Bu-buh-baby you just ain't seen nothin yet!" vrrrroooooovroooo "Here's something, here's something that you ain't never gonna, never gonna . . . Squier? You hearin this?"
But it was Gibson calling. He said "She'll live."
Behind the strip malls and theme restaurants was the very edge of New Jersey. Her parking lots and bus terminals shone in all their glory. It was an invisible border which in Ernie's own lifespan had absorbed New York's crown, the Statue of Liberty. The old green lady stood in the same spot as ever. Except now she was more conscious of her abs, considered tanning beds and drank muscle milk on her torch-holding breaks. It was unionized work, torch holding, and you know who runs the unions in Jersey. But Sam Ash and Ernie didn't care, they cheered for the statue to get back to work. The two shared a cigarette on a dark bench staring out across the peaceful Hudson at Grant's Tomb.
"My father was the same way, except he stuck around that hospital. I only see him sometimes. He let his health go. Sits in a little room. Sips water. Looks out tempered glass windows he'll never break with any of the furniture they give him. Refuses medication but doesn't act up . . . In Japan they call this a Hungry Ghost; peaceful with deterioration for having never appreciated life's offerings. Idolizing death but not doing a damn thing to bring it about any faster."
Sam grabbed a twig and drew a wraith-like lich in the sand. The packed, wet particles splintered. Her intended image obscured. She looked at it, cocked her head then decided to smudge the whole thing away with her boot. Knee-high Doc Martins. Black. Pink laces. She sat down. "So what comes next for the Hungry Ghost?"
Ernie stopped failing at smoke rings. His adolescent voice was crinkly from cigarettes and lack of use. It didn't matter what he said.
Sam went on. "The Hungry Ghost is so entrenched in a sublime state beyond misery that he can't even see he's in it." She slapped the bench. "My father developed diabetes so his foot's alwaysin this massive cast." She made a cast in the air around her leg. "It bleeds constantly." Her fingers simulated blood trickling from her foot. "The cloth's always stained, too red to sign. That made me sad as a girl. I've never seen what it looks like underneath. I've always wanted to."
Sam Ash was obsessed with morbidity. The artist volunteered at an animal rescue intake to really finesse the contours of emaciated rib lines for her burgeoning web comic. "Look at this sketch from work: little bugger lost an eye in a fight and there weren't enough tranquilizers in the world to make her sit still and lemme doodle!" As passionate as Sam was, part of her was just locked off. That was the crucial part which allowed her to create more fluidly with every bit of tragedy she absorbed. It also deprived her of the joy in any of it.
"Listen," Ernie warned, never certain of the girl's fault lines. "Vic Firth isn't some cutesy sideshow like you think . . ."
"'Cute?' . . . I tell you about my father and you say 'cute?'"
Faultline. The kind of slight tremors he'd eventually feel through the floors of San Francisco. But to a seventeen year old boy, a girl this angry was the earthquake which would finally split California into New Atlantis.
"You oughta hear yourself!" Sam Ash exclaimed. "Do you really think I romanticize seeing my supposed male role model through a glass fucking window in a . . . a padded room because I snuck away and found him there when they wouldn't let us see him when he was first admitted and they . . ."
She looked off at the Hudson and the countless bodies in cement galoshes beneath. Jimmy Hoffa. Some passengers on the Hindenburg. Maybe even the Lindbergh baby. "He looked right at me, Ernie. My Dad. He was in a jacket, arms behind his back, locked in place and looking right at me. Ernie, it felt so empty."
The drummer was scared to say anything. He stared straight ahead at Grant's tomb. A sing-song riddle popped into his head. 'Who's buried in Grant's tomb? No, really, who's buried in Grant's tomb? No, really, who's . . .'
Sam Ash went on. "Mental self-preservation. Like how Columbus' boats approaching were too much for the natives ashore to even conceptualize. Those ships were right in plain view but the natives' eyes refused to acknowledge them until the plague blankets came out." She showed Ernie a know-it-all cloudburst smile that was over quickly as it started. "The man in the straightjacket was not my father." She shook her head. Her hair wagged. "No, my dad smoked a pack of cigarettes a day and took me to see the Giants every month. He drove a great old car and listened to really cheesy metal. He collected leather pants. That guy in the straight jacket became less of a person from the moment my nine year old eyes saw him. . . Then his foot started bleeding and he stopped talking in sentences, then altogether and my Mom would sit up at nights crying --"
Ernie put his arm around her. She let him. It was silent for a while. Sam Ash put the top of her head against Ernie's cheek and let the rest of her body fall on him. He sat uptight supporting her, taking the last drag of the cigarette and attempting to flick it at the water.
"I just don't want Vic Firth playing any of his head games on you. He's a mess."
"Then why do you stick around him?"
"There's nobody else around for the guy and I can't figure out why he keeps reaching out to me."
"I feel the same way."
"Baby, the guy was stalking you at your espresso bar. It wasn't like you were there by coincidence. He knew your schedule!"
"Why do you always have to belittle my things?"
"Well, it's like . . . he's my friend, but --"
"But what? You need to worry your loving girl about him on a romantic night like this and tell her she can't truly know his ways because she's a woman he lusts after?"
"Well, yeah . . . That's eerily succinct. You should write film reviews."
"Christ, you and my guidance counselor! Well, aside from being a paranoid nutter, what does all this make you? A martyr of friendship to be sticking around this guy? Quite the pretentious title, Ernie Ball. I thought you were a high school slacker." She placed the back of her hand to her forehead and made to faint. With a faux southern belle accent: "Perhaps you're not the man I fell in love with."
"Sam, he needs a friend, I'm there for him . . . sort of . . . well, I was there when he seemed to be getting better. I've been trying to avoid him lately. I'm worried about him and I'm worried what he might do to you. He doesn't . . . He's got these ways of almost, I know this sounds crazy--"
Across the Hudson on the West Side Highway one of the many Ford Windstars combing the Five Boroughs to proclaim the new messiah drove uptown. A Hassidic congregation in Brooklyn had apparently discovered that one of their Rabbis, a now-deceased fellow one could assume ate the other candidates for the job, was the true descendent of King David. And since this long overdue messiah died unceremoniously of a heart attack while eating a Ruben, the only way to tell the world he existed was to plaster his image on the sides of an endless fleet of minivans.
It was awful convenient that the great coming would happen in the age of pamphlets and photocopiers. Not to mention how easy being an apostle in distant lands could be with the advent of the internet. Had the original Christian apostles possessed email, the Corinthians would've certainly lost their foreskins.
This holy Windstar, on sacred mission to the unconverted Orthodox of Riverdale, cut three lanes across the highway without signaling. The Hassids ducked into the confusing tangle of ramps beneath a bridge that George Washington would have given his left testicle to use crossing the Hudson.
"Why do I put up with him?" Ernie said as the car passed.
Sam Ash elbowed him with an encouraging smile. "C'mon, you can't be afraid of your friends. Otherwise they wouldn't be your friends."
The drummer looked at her uncomfortably.
Another Windstar barreled down the West Side Highway. It was Erev-something-or-other on the Jewish calendar. A somber moment of contemplation before the act of repentance. This was achieved by denying one's self sustenance for a day's worth of time. The minivan had what looked to be a flashlight replacing one of its headlamps. The Hassids were symbolically denying themselves half their range of nighttime vision.
"Listen, if Vic tries anything else I'll just brush him off. We owe him for introducing us."
"'Owe him?' We don't owe the guy shit. Dude was Stalking You at a bookstore and he's damn lucky you're into such gruesome fuckers."
"Ernie! You can't say things like that. He's like Appolonia. Remember when she came into the rescue and her eye was all ---"
"Whatever. Most people can't even look at him straight. You're in the minority on this. Even I catch him the wrong way sometimes and gag."
"Ernie, you've got to stop trashing on the guy. He needs every shred of self-esteem he can get so he doesn't lean on people like us so hard."
"Sam, he's not leaning on you, he's ---"
"No, you listen to me! Have you ever thought you might be perpetuating the unhealthiness in your relationship with Vic Firth?"
"All I'm saying is the guy introduced me to you as a way to burrow deeper into your life."
Sam Ash screwed up her face, "ooooh!", and spat at his feet. "Do you have any idea how this makes me feel?" She rolled her eyes. "You're actually telling me that by pure coincidence I happened to be this . . . I don't know, call me something good."
She gave Ernie a dirty look" . . . gorgeous, fantastic, spiritually liberated girl you just had to get close with even though you knew I was some sort of walking trap."
"Not you specifically, but . . . um . . . yeah . . . I guess that's about right." Ernie shrugged. "Vic and I have similar taste in women, it seems. This has happened before."
"This is ridiculous! Can you even hear yourself?"
"Not too well because I've been drumming my whole life. What of it? I hate rhetorical questions. Just answer me this: would you have ever kissed Vic if he asked?"
" . . . I don't see what that has to do with anything."
" . . . Ernie, that's not fair. We didn't . . . on the first date, we didn’t . . .”
"Yes we did. And it was amazing, remember?"
". . . Oh yeah. What're the odds that little place in Edgewater would've let you play their drum set?" She smiled.
"Hell of a first date." He beamed back.
"Hell of a first date." She repeated. "Guess you're right."
"He's done this shit before, I’m telling you."
"Done what, introduced you to wonderful people?" She was still smiling.
"No. Found ways to manipulate people around me. I can't get mad at him: he needs help. But he's too smart for help. Vic just weasels his ways out of it. Then on top of that he knows I think he's lost control so he takes advantage of that. So --"
"You are seriously paranoid."
"The kid burned off all his own skin!"
"Yeah, but a few days in a bracing fucking loony bin will scare anyone straight!"
"Obviously not or else why would they have lifers?"
"But they let him out."
"And God bless modern psychology for that! They let a teenage nutjob out to get his GED in manipulating people's love lives!"
"Hey! Women have free will."
"This isn't about women. I honestly don't know what this is all about. I hope to be far away from here long before more of it can happen. And I hope, wherever comes next, you're comin with me, Sam Ash."
Weeks later Sam Ash called Ernie Ball at his folks' house. She'd come home, unlocked her building, taken the elevator upstairs and found, instead of the mail, her cat Appolonia smeared all over their door. The slices were too clean to've been another animal and the cat should've never been outside. Mrs. Ash was out of town. No one else had keys but Sam. There was no note of explanation. Just a tiny, headless body on Mrs. Ash's doorstep.
Her daughter looked on with a cellphone to her ear.
Their landlady craned her head out of a chained door. She was outraged by the mess and her voice came in through Ernie's connection. "You clean this up! You clean this up now! Of course you have no nice anything, you keep dead cats on doorstep! . . . And don't think I no seen you smoking indoor! You dismantle smoke detector? Dismantle smoke detector and rub dead cat all over wall? Ooooh! You clean this up right now or . . ."
"What a bitch," Ernie said.
"You learn to tune her out. You can learn to live with anything, I guess."
"Oh, Ma! Chaa! So much mess ou’ here!" The little old woman puttered around the hallway.
"At a time like this that's a real disturbing thing to hear you say, Sam Ash."
"What would you know about it?"
"Girl, you're the one who called me."
Silence. Sam's bootsteps stopped. "Oh yeah."
"You don't think this has anything to do with your old man, do ya?"
Ernie was in his boxers eating leftovers. The family dog was chasing behind. Ernie wore a brand new truck stop Black Sabbath T shirt. The shirt he'd started last night's strip mall video booth cleaning shift in he'd tried to burn but the thing was too sticky. One could only lose so much clothing to Verona Township’s finest pleasure-slime before feeling the simultaneous need for sustenance and immolation. Shitty fast food was an antidepressant anyone in New Jersey could buy by the cardboard suitcase. Looking at such quantities of hamburgers now, riding the crest of this wave which would only lead to more farewells, Ernie already felt like lonely sludge. Then Sam told him about the rest of her day.
"My father . . . whatever was left . . . was transferred to intensive care. I went to see him. Earlier, before work. Before they sent me home from work, I should say. Can you believe that? They had the nerve to send me home!"
"Sam, what happened to your father?"
" . . . I don't know. They rushed him away too fast to see." Her bootsteps picked up. There was a stairway, she marched down it. Thunk. KerThunk. Thunk. KerThunk. "He just . . . stopped breathing, or. . . I don't know . . . They took him away too fast to see. That's all I know right now."
The rain hissed down through the phone. It hit the pavement outside Ernie's parents' house. His arm went limp and the family Labrador came up and plucked the hamburger from his fingers.
"Last Monday the old man apparently asked the nurses to start giving him pills. Big pills, pills that would knock out a horse. Came up with this list of complaints. It wasn't normal, he's spent over a decade in there and has always been against medication. They called my mom. She was out of town with her choir group. I had to go see him. I wanted to be sure. Maybe he was coming back to life, maybe. . . I was still angry about it the whole way because I hated going to see him. It wasn't real life, just a pause screen of perspective like church or health class . . . but then there he was, drooling, quieter than I'd ever seen him and he never was much of a talker. He'd already taken all those pills. He was saving them for two weeks, no explanation; no note. Today was just the day. That was it. He jammed all of them down his throat in one shot a few hours before I came. I got there just in time to see the big finale, or rather the Alka-Seltzer making that disappointing muted pop in the seagull's stomach. It was a pure fucking coincidence. The old man didn't even know I was coming."
Short gasping breaths, the first and only time Ernie would ever hear Sam Ash cry. “He didn’t even know I was there.” Recovering from this wound would cauterize any semblance of the girl Ernie loved into scar tissue. But of course, there was no way for him to know this at the time.
"Come on, talk to me baby; keep talking." Ernie was out of his depth. This would come to be a recurring feeling in his life until one day he too became cauterized to a point of developing gills and breathing in the wicked air of these depths. He would live off it.
"And now I come home and Appolonia's dead." With all the talk about her father, the drummer had plumb forgotten the cat. Hanging on Sam Ash's every hysterical word sent his internal organs on a roller coaster without him. He staggered. The dog, seeing an opportunity, climbed onto the kitchen table and was eating the sliders, cardboard boxes and all.
"She's just a baby, my little Appolonia! She had the spirit, she came in with her eye all slashed out. 'You should see the other guy,' you practically said it when I put that needle into you. Didn't ya, baby? Aww, yes you did. Boop! Ha. She wouldn't even let me draw her ruffled fur without sedatives. Never let me touch her so long as I owned her. Ohh!! I never saw fight in anyone like that! You deserved a Prince, didn't you, baby? Oh! We had to pluck that eye of yours out by the roots and sew it all up so you wouldn't keel over right then and there. But after that . . . well, Appolonia was the strongest kitty we ever rescued! Isn't that right, baby? Isn't that right?" She was right up against the receiver on her end. You could hear the cackling as her tears hit the electrical parts inside. "She must have given up. How else could they have done it? She must have given up and let them slice her up like this."
Ernie's father came into the kitchen, saw the dog on the table and started yelling. "Who the hell needs a dog on their table eating hamburgers?" Ernie put his free hand over his free ear. "Hey! Hey! I'm talking to you bucko, get the dog off the table!"
"We had to sedate you at the clinic," Sam Ash said to the dead cat on her end of the phone, "She's just a baby. She must have given up. Nobody sedated you, did they? Oh, god! She wouldn't have let anyone touch her otherwise. She was just a baby and . . ."
Ernie's father yanked the dog free from the Crave Case. "One of these days you're gonna fly too close to the sun with those burgergrubbin wax paws of yours, buddy." He spoke to the dog as he carried her black Labrador body through the air around his chest. The Lab's paws dangled weakly and he looked up at him with dancing bottom legs. They left the room.
". . . uh, Sam?"
"Oh, you'll love this. Here's the kicker, Ernie." Her voice wound up in a dreadful crescendo. "Appolonia's head was cut clean off by piano wire."
"Oh no. . . no, no no . . . "
"Piano fucking wire. Piano wire like in a goddamn gangster movie! 'Look ma, toppa the world!' Now, who in the fuck do we know that talks about piano wire like . . .!"
"I'll be right over."
"No," demanded Sam. "You can see the problem but you are a million years away from being able to change it. You can't reroute it. You can't solve it. You can only recognize it and that's useless."
"So what, you barely know what to say to me on the phone right now and you think being here with me will make a shit lick of difference? Maybe if you came over here we could fuck my problems away. Yeah! Is that your plan? Oh boy! Maybe you could come over and I could suck your dick because that's my best way of coping with dramatic loss. Because I'm not normal. Because I must inherently be this fucking dark and that's why I want all these dark fucking things to keep happening in my life. We do it to ourselves, right Ernie? Oh man, then we could go see a movie. Oh boy! Piss off, Ernie."
"But Vic . . ."
"Fuck Vic, I chose you. I always chose you. You can't blame Vic for any of this because he's not even a person. They should have insurance against a guy like that. Practically an 'Act of God!'"
"Please, I'll be over in a -"
"No, don't come anywhere near me. I'll bury the cat myself. Nobody has to know. Just walk away, that's what I'm going to do. Walk away from this. Walk away from you."
She made a grunting noise as though to shovel. That's when Ernie realized the water in the receiver wasn't tears but the rain from outside.
"There's this . . . uuff! . . . Orbit of rot that will forever keep you surrounded by ghosts . . . huff! . . . Maybe I'm one myself. Who knows? My goddamn cat's dead and I'm fucking hysterical. You ever dig a grave before? I bet not. It's powerful fun, won't charge you much to . . ."
"Listen, jus -"
"Another thing! Huff . . . Anyone in your life that's lucky enough to realize this . . . huff! . . . God, how did it get this . . . fuucked . . . uuuuuuupp!!" There was a wet thump on the other end of the phone. She had just dumped the cat's body from a standing position above a wet, muddy grave. She sniffled, quiet, staring down after it. "We were so happy . . ."
Then: "I need a drink. Goodbye Ernie. Don't call. Don't write."
"But . . ."
Click. Dead line.
Ernie ran to Vic' house through a ghost town of parked cars and streetlamps. Vic's brother let him in. Mrs. Firth was yelling over a phone upstairs while using a blowdrier and listening to oldies radio. Ernie dripped rainwater onto their doormat.
"My brother's gone."
Joseph Firth, who would've had no problem working as a prison coroner, sucked all the streetlight into those dug-in, black greasebags under his eyes. They studied Ernie as the boy held onto the door for a second too long. His fingernails were enormous. "My brother's gone," he repeated. His eyes never looked at anyone in the face. They stared at Ernie's hands and liquefied canvas shoes. Without a word, he walked back up the stairs to his room. The door stayed open.
There in the den, not ten feet away, was that family piano of truth. Ernie could open the lid and be certain of everything. But what good would it do? 'Nobody has to know. Just walk away, that's what I'm going to do.' It was so close to no longer being his problem. The family pictures atop the baby grand went unmoved. On the way out Ernie even locked the door.
Before long the drummer graduated high school and left New Jersey. Shaving his very first Mohawk in the mirror of a cross-country bus, duct tape and saran wrap sealing off a fresh tattoo, Ernie Ball felt like a new person. He was off to make it big as a musician in California.
It seemed like it was just Lisa and Ernie in the whole hospital, like if they stopped believing in the skeleton crew of multicolored scrubs and the moshpit of surgeons in an unseen ER, they would all cease to be.
To prevent this, the staff's pictures stared at Ernie and Lisa from inside their frames. Each collage let them know exactly how long everyone's PhD’s had been valid, where they came from and just enough other details to keep them manifested by the minds of the only two visitors in the hospital; for Squier's sake. Who knows what would happen if all her surgeons in the operating room there dissolved into a puff of smoke. One could assume though that if it were American Spirit smoke, Squier would've appreciated it.
There didn't appear to be a lot of old doctors in the pictures. They all looked younger than Ernie. But they all had more expensive haircuts. That was the mark of a true adult no matter what age. Ernie thought about his system of using guitar straps to cut the perfect Mohawk for free and showing it to Squier. She'd insisted Ernie stop looking like a bum if she was gonna bum him things. It was bad for her image. Santa Cruz was a small town, after all.
It had been hours since Squier went under the final set of knives. She had no idea either her mother or Ernie were there. The drummer wondered if surgeons still took smoke breaks. Could he see them in the courtyard complaining about their jobs? He strained to look through the glass of the darkened cafeteria.
They were in a room just outside the main lunchroom and a quarter of its size. There were enough vending machines in this vestibule to compensate for being miles from any real food. A two-week-old sandwich dropped lovingly from a plastic platform by a series of gears was only the better part of ten dollars. Turquoise and black floor tiles reflected blinking morse code from twitchy industrial lights above, their faded blister plastic covered with enough dead flies to tint the room orange. The bulbs sputtered, hummed, crackled; high off their fluorescent asses on caffeine fumes from the coffee vending machine. The hallway to the left, the one with all the staff pictures, was darker than hell.
A woman passed through the vestibule wearing a hospital gown. Her head hung, straight black hair covering her eyes to the shoulders. She came in from the cafeteria, weaving in behind Lisa and looking up quickly at Ernie. She must have been in the darkened cafeteria there for a while because all the other doors except this vestibule were locked. Aside from the windows, it was pitch black in there. Who knows how long she'd been watching them, silently. The woman dragged her oversized hospital gown right past the vending machines. Lisa didn't look up to see her. Her shuffling was silenced by the buzzing of the lights. Her fingers reached out and ripped a few of the buttons off of the machines in one stroke. Then she passed into the total darkness of the hallway with the doctors’ pictures as though eaten by the ocean. Total silence. Even the lights stopped flickering.
Ernie was drawn to it. He walked somnambulantly to the hallway threshold. His feet stayed inside the room where there was light while his head peeked its way out into the darkness. There was no way to see. All that was clear was the few staff photo-collages illuminated by the doorway's glow. Ernie was afraid to use his cell phone light. There was nowhere to run if this woman reacted badly.
At the far end of the hallway something jumped and smacked the green glowing EXIT sign, the only point of light. The letter 'T' went dead. Then another hop, the 'E' and the 'I' followed. The door didn't open. The woman stood right up against it, standing completely still, invisible in all the darkness. Above her was a shining green letter 'X.'
Behind Ernie, waiting for the instant mocha to dispense like urine from the hulking metal vending machine, Lisa ran her mouth to fill the space between whistling steam and light bulb buzz. Ernie looked back at her from the doorframe. How long had she been talking? They'd left her knitting needles and her rosaries in the waiting room upstairs. All she had was coffee, which she admittedly never drank.
" . . . But you've got a good Christian heart and you'll wind up there, like Ghandi or anyone in the Old Testament who was alive before the good word and didn't sodomize anybody. For The lord is an ever changing being . . . and he was not yet a father back then! You have no idea what that's like, thank god. Our good lord wasn't a father until the New Testament. Before that he was a bit more irrational, rebellious, hated people telling him what to do. You know that? Do they teach that in your schools? He was a lot more like your people. Not yet fully developed. Always trying to prove that he was different. Then came Christ." She kicked her stubby leg up onto one of the chairs and rubbed the varicose veins. "That's when he started passively hating people, making his presence less known, letting people sort it out for themselves. Having kids changes anyone, makes them realize their true goals. Sometimes you think you're one person and then POOF! You got a baby and you weren't that person at all." She looked up at the fluttering fluorescents and squinted. "In the end, boy, the Holy Trinity will accept you into heaven's gates if you have a strong Christian heart; it's the helping-one-another that's important. When the rapture comes I'll put in as many prayers as I can that you're allowed a fair trial, even if you come from a lineage that cast aside the Word."
"Thanks," Ernie said. He walked back from the doorway and slid in around a plastic chair. "You know, the Hassids claim the messiah has already come to New York. Brooklyn. They claim he's come and they ride around in their minivans telling everyone about it."
"What's a 'Hassid'?"
"They're kind of like the Jewish Amish."
"Oh, I don’t like them already. They build barns?"
"In Brooklyn? No. And, even if they did, they would probably hire out other groups to do it for them: the Goy. See, those Hassids have got so many holidays and traditions I'm surprised they have a work week at all!"
"And you guys can't work on your holidays too, right?"
"Hey, not bad. Yeah, it's a thing in our culture." Ernie was beginning to enjoy the conversation. It was soothingly rudimentary.
"So what do they do?" Lisa was entranced; somebody was finally playing her game.
"Hire Greeks, Mexicans, Chinese, you name it."
"Can you guys do that?"
"Ha! ‘Us guys,' I like that. No, not technically. Part of the Jewish religion is about bargaining with the written laws. Through different interpretations, different exceptions can made to God’s word."
"Yeah, you guys definitely godda stop doing that. It's . . . yeah, I see now about a bunch of things. Mmmmhmmm."
Ernie's smile was hard to contain as it split his face sideways.
He'd truly satisfied the old woman. She just wanted some validation. Nobody, especially not a Jewish city slicker, had played her game with her like this in over a decade. Being there for Lisa was crucial to Ernie because it was the closest he could get to Squier. He felt awake for the first time in almost half a decade and with that came direction. The direction led here. It was a strange sensation that swelled his throat every now and again but brought with it no rage over wasted time. His band's music had been going so well for years that a part of him shut off, got less hungry for new pinnacles and simply wanted to maintain. He never noticed because it felt the same as anything else. He never saw the mute button get hit. He still got drunk, got laid, got to travel, played songs, barely worked; lived in moments onstage disconnected from anything preceding or to come. People loved him but he never had to get attached. He'd even stopped writing the songs. Katrina had enough good ideas of her own. That could have been why the tour failed. He was more distant than ever. He had his guitar ready for busking long before the crash landing into Santa Cruz while they were still renting the car. He didn't want to waste the energy fighting the inevitable. He didn't see the point to brainstorm or make the phone calls to save the tour.
But Ernie's need to be at Squier's side when she got up, if she got up, no matter what followed in their lives; that was worth all the time and money in the world. He'd break his drum set and every single stick within a 50 mile radius for her to be okay. He'd kick box an armed police officer for her to be okay. And if all he really had to do was console a hysterical fanatic, then he would give her everything she ever wanted and be her uncle tom.
Right there in the vending machine vestibule of a hospital cafeteria, Ernie decided to console a hysterical woman by apologizing for the Jews murdering Jesus. The reparation would come 2000-some-odd years late and go entirely unheard by the rest of the world. Maybe it would make her smile. She would win at her game finally. She would get the ultimate validation that only she could hear. It was one of the dumbest, most shortsighted ideas the drummer ever had. But Ernie Ball wasn't one to let ideas just sit in his head. He was about to say it when Lisa cut in.
"Be honest," she said. Ernie went cold and felt sweat on his forehead. He knew what she was about to say and already answered her in his head. 'yes, I fucked your little girl and I made her cum to the song Generator by Bad Religion. I met her at a bar one night and she took my rhythm section home without ever hearing our music. I can't stop thinking about it except now it's all gross and part machine and Johnny Marred forever!'
You know how sometimes your brain recalls a million thoughts, maybe a whole story at once? Well, in that fraction of a second Ernie Ball saw the brief saga of an Israeli girl who broke her pelvis falling from his high school gym's obstacle course:
Vic Firth fucked that same fallen girl as soon as she could walk again. After all of her surgeries she didn't mind how Vic looked. She just disappeared one day though. Her parents filed a report that she was missing and then this blog surfaced with all these horrible end-it-all posts dating back for over a year. It was set to be private until that specific date. No one could tell when it was really made but she never showed back up.
Ernie saw specifically how Vic described the girl's innards. How it was like shoving his dick into soft wet flesh being strung together around those totemic stick bundles from the Blair Witch Project. Sometimes it would cut him as he poked at it. He had to put lubricant up there with his fingers but needed to be careful not to cut himself that way.
At the hospital Ernie was going commando in a pair of thrift store pants that came complete with a spider he'd only just discovered and removed. He could feel his scrotum shriveling against the cheap thrift store fabric at the thought of Squier being forever part mechanical, at the head of his penis getting cut and Ernie getting some kind of mystery illness from the bike spokes inside of her being drenched in a stranger's semen. Then he would be in a hospital like this. They would become freaks together. He would have to get his penis amputated for fear of the illness spreading. Squier would somehow be immune after being pumped full of so many surgical chemicals. Then he'd truly live with Gibson and his half-machine wife Squier as harmless third wheel. It would be everything they hoped for but in a cubist rendering.
Everything came back to that suicidal freakshow in high school. Ernie marveled that Vic Firth hadn't shown up around the hospital yet. Maybe the fact that there were no pictures on the internet this time slowed him down.
"Just be honest," Lisa said, "Was Squier a heavy drinker? The doctors said they were afraid to touch her with her BAC so high and veins all filled with . . ."
But Ernie dreamed on. Another instantaneous flash; another instant story.
There were no streetlights anywhere off the main strip of Santa Cruz as the city's backhanded way of creating a curfew. Ensconced by the quiet points of multiple highways and the ocean on either side, despite the boardwalk, Santa Cruz residents could see the stars better than any of the surrounding counties. There were whole strips of park between the beaches and the houses lined with succulents so thick you bounced when you walked. There were great big nature preserves, cliffs with waves dashing up against their sides, tons of wind but no streetlights.
Then you hit the suburbs, a place that despite its proximity to the beach was so oppressively pushed together and capped off into cul-de-sac's that you could see how skateboarding was really finessed; four little wheels rolling down perfectly kept asphalt which tourists or even casual visitors never saw.
Then came little factories and warehouses, rusted fences, parking lots, stores on the main streets which were recently renamed, quiet parts of highways as they rolled through city limits. But no corner shops, no glass windows or neon lights anywhere in the cuts. The cuts extended for miles, bled off into highways, led to nowhere. One's moves had to be decisive in a place like Santa Cruz, always having exact change for the rigid bus system or possessing a steady mode of transportation. Santa Cruz existed only by starlight after a certain point and was shaded the rest of the time by jagged rows of trees popping out from sidewalks, spiders patrolling their branches through zero visibility.
All the cops, vigilant as they were, stayed close to that main strip to prevent drunks from ruining a tourist's night. "No smoking there, you need to move along, no smoking here, you need to move along. Is that an open container? Fuck it, just move along. No wait, dump it and give me thirty push-ups. Just kidding, get in the car. Hey, you! Put down that guitar unless you got a permit!" They hardly cared about traffic in the outer regions: up the cliff, by the beach, between the rows of houses cluttered in the back by Natural Bridges. Speeding tickets wouldn't save a woman in a bikini from a scraggly drifter harassing her for quarters. Who knows, maybe those tourists would even take the rescuing officer's picture and put it up on Facebook. Tag it "my hero." Maybe the very same drunk would be smoking a cigarette by the bus station. Then the officers could bring him into the station and they'd all get some shelter form the beach wind. That would kill a boring night to say the least.
Meanwhile, the rest of Santa Cruz with its crisscrossing train tracks, roaring ocean and succulent filled cliffs went unpoliced. Bikers were struck so frequently at night that Squier's case wasn't even a remarkable one. The only thing that set her apart was how close she'd come to death while still hanging on, screaming at the driver. Anyone could see she was not going to let a coma or a broken back or anything keep her from breathing.
The community that developed around the flux of fallen Santa Cruz bikers in the winter of 2012 took care of each other. Rumor of another accident would spread and groups would get together to meet and support those affected.
Ernie and Gibson were hunched over a round of Jameson at his restaurant when the bikers came for them.
"It's okay if you wanna retract that bet," Gibson said. It wasn't in reference to anything. Whether or not the two realized it, they hadn't talked since Ernie got back to Santa Cruz. They met at the bar in silence, Jack gave them their drinks without even taking an order, and now they just picked up a conversation comfortably as though having it telepathically the whole time.
"It's not that you didn't win," Ernie conceded. "But when I said you could marry her I assumed this was all a three-night-stand and you were biting off more than you could chew."
"I love her too. I realize that now. I fucking wish it didn't take something this fucked up to make me notice. But come on, you could tell she was trouble. I mean, she was sleeping with two thirds of our band and she started throwing around the word 'love.'"
"I wasn't afraid, my heart is open." Gibson, elbow on the table, jerked his shot glass to his face so fast the liquid practically flew into his mouth. Nobody around those parts ever seemed to shudder from any kind of liquor burn in those dark days.
"Yeah, but . . .” Ernie looked at Gibson's stone face. Two hundred feet down the road the accident had happened. The scene, long since cleaned up, was visible through the bar windows. Not even a pebble of safety glass remained. How many hours had it been since that first spinal column cracked right there over that manhole? Gibson and Ernie could have been at any other bar in town. But that would mean walking home drunk in the darkness and they were too afraid. Ernie looked out at the purple night, the train tracks and the dead grass fields of Younglove Street, the millionth strip of unconnected road named Mission in the greater Bay Area, the last few streetlights surrounding the strip mall, the thicket of shadows which had surrounded the accident site. A little pinpoint of moonlight shone through an asterisk-shaped gap in the evergreen canopy. He took Gibson's words as a challenge to his own confused heart. "She'd never even seen us play. She just took our word for it. We could have been lying. You think that's really love?"
"I played her the old album on the internet."
"Gibson, would you sleep with two thirds of a band over a handful of streaming Mp3s?"
"Depends: How many girls are there in the band Heart?"
Ernie and Gibson looked at each other, almost smiling. It didn't last.
"I couldn't feel anything for the last 24 hours until 'Girlfriend in a Coma' came on at the Red Room and I started bawling. I couldn't help it, I threw my whiskey right into the jukebox, they had to kick me out and it still didn't stop the song!"
"I know," Gibson said as he clicked a photo of the drummer with his smartphone. "They wanted me to get a snap of you for their 'banned-for-life' wall.'"
"Dude! Come on, at a time like this?"
"No. You come on. I work in ‘the industry’ too. I respect the goddamn industry that I love and behavior like that, well it's just . . ."
"We heard about Squier" said a group of five wearing multicolored spandex. Each had a stein of lager in their hands and hair still wet and springy from their helmets. Special shoes with pedal connectors clanked across wooden barroom floors.
These guys had a friend in a coma after being sideswiped by a Jeep. The Jeep's victim hadn't woken up in over a month, but since none of his friends shared blood or marriage with him, the hospital had just shooed them out like they did every night at the end of visitor’s hours. It had been a silent, vigilant bike ride back, same as it always was. All their gear was now fitted with as many lights and reflectors as possible. They glimmered in even the dim bar's neon. Biking for them was no longer just transportation. Every bike ride after six p.m. was a game of survival. Their numbers were thinning.
One of the bikers offered Ernie a place to stay. "You're one of us now," she said. It didn't matter that he hadn't owned a bike in years. Her house was looking right out at the dormant Undertow coaster on Beach Street, close enough to hear the winos cackle beneath the freezing Ferris wheel.
Ernie's plan was to stay at the hospital every day until they kicked him out. He'd then catch a samTrans back to the boardwalk. He'd do this to let Squier know his heart was finally open to her manic, unconditional love. And though he'd seen it flare up in the barroom, this effort would be in no way competition with Gibson.
The bassist was in a debtor's kitchen. He was specifically shackled to that fryer. As much as Jack understood the boy and wished to cut him free, the big boss had Gibson by the balls and left the country with an unalterable schedule. No new hires. All debts were to be paid by Gibson working kitchen doubles, human spackle to the schedule's cracks. Even if, with the boss away, Jack wanted to step in and cook, he was in no way handy with a fryer or a grill.
"Let ya go if I could, pal." Jack would say as he stocked ice the next morning. Valerie's second surgery would be just underway.
"I know," Gibson would reply over the first blanched batch of fries. The bubbles were hypnotic. "At least I'm doing something I love."
"You'll be out of here soon enough."
"Jack, I'm cooking all day."
"Aye . . . well, then Ernie'll be up there. Yeah!" He would insist they drink to that. Jameson, free for employees and at a three-hundred something percent markup for customers.
"Alright Jack, but I've got a long shift ahead and can't be showing up at the hospital drunk."
"Aye, aye aye! It's great how you boys both care about that girl. She needed it. Takes a village sometimes."
"Amen, Jack. I'll be with her soon."
In reality, even if Gibson's always-present love for Squier hadn't made Ernie feel as small as he'd originally wished to be in their lives, Ernie wasn't going to the hospital alone to psychologically imprint himself as the prime lover in her life. He had to be there for Gibson when Squier awoke, if she awoke, because they were working this whole grief thing in shifts. Everything in their lives, it seemed, came to guys like them in shifts; a course of time that either paid a certain amount of money or could be valued that away in relation to the time they could've spent getting paid elsewhere.
For Squier Ernie'd grow a big mangy beard and hang around helping nurses move her in the bed when she needed assistance, changing out her tubes after bringing her fresh flowers and maybe even a nicotine patch if he could swing it. Then he'd return to his new biker family at the bungalow until Squier's health was stable. FInally, after long enough, he'd have to go back to work again. But only if Squier let him. She hadn't last time, even though she'd told him that too late, and look what happened. No, in this scenario ideal future Janitor Ernie would be speaking to Ideal Future Convalescent Squier on a headset at the hospital while he solved, once and for all, his museum's raccoon problem. It would be a touching end to what Ernie was hoping would dissolve into just another Romantic Comedy. Like when Cary Grant's date got hit by that car in 'An Affair to Remember.' There's always a joke and a big musical number at the end of the movie.
But the amount of Jameson it took to put his commiserating friend and him to sleep that first night by the Santa Cruz Boardwalk caused both of them to piss her bedding.
"I peed on your couch," Ernie said to her as the sun came up and visitor's hours at the hospital began anew. She was asleep in her room. The drummer had been up for an hour scrubbing the soiled bedding in the freezing dawn with the hose and a sponge. Everything was still blue, the sunlight just peeked its head out over the dark ocean. He shivered. Dehydrated brown urine smell still covered his skin; excreted whiskey and nicotine with a little bit of excess water. "I'm an adult with real world problems," he said to the biker, "and my bladder has chosen this time to remind me that my maturity might be fallacy. Please either let me clean the mess or absolve me of this embarrassment!"
"It's quite alright," said the woman as she threw back her own blankets, "for I've peed my bed as well. It is a bad time for many things. I will clean all the sheets. Go forth to Squier."
The biker absolved Ernie of the need to explain his bladder-uncorking dream so quickly that he almost told her anyway out of expectation. His lips started moving but by then he was already halfway to Laurel Street. His autopilot always remembered to lock people's doors, even on this harrowing adventure in piss soaked pants to grab some cheap secondhand replacements before the first 17 bus left the station. If he hit the bus depot before ditching the pee pants, he'd have been interrogated by the station police at least.
All the surf shops and restaurants were thankfully closed. It was early. Walking through the bright municipal field-laden suburban sprawl, Ernie needed only glower at a few runners. They knew the drill. The town had enough transients. Everything else was dead. It was the kind of morning where the sun just didn't come out over Santa Cruz.
A squad car pulled up.
Ernie's first thought: 'why is it the State gave such cool noise modulation machines to utter idiots? They should give them Theremin classes first. State mandated Theremin classes. Did other people think like this? Play it cool, Ernie Ball, just play it cool.'
The cop on the passenger's side rolled down his window. Ernie felt sick trying to erase his miserable features. The sudden realization of his cold, salty, dehydrated penis in a freezing patch of human urine that would never dry through tight denim released a more driblets waiting involuntarily in the end of his urethra. Because why not? His body did the same thing when he started to pee in a pool, just kept going sporadically without much attention from then after. It was a feeling of uncontrolled release which Ernie only ever otherwise felt with Ketamine.
The cop was about to say something authoritative when he saw the pee pants and laughed.
"I'm walking to the store to get new pants" Ernie explained.
Now the other cop was falling on his steering wheel. His fist banged the dashboard as he brayed out into the morning air. "Have you ever seen a goddamn thing like that?" Across Laurel Street, seagulls filled the baseball diamond, then a sudden skyward dismissal at the howls coming from the squad car. Ernie walked off. The store would be open in a matter of minutes. The cops pulled up alongside him.
"Whoa there sunshine, you got a problem with my rights as an officer?"
"What about my rights?" asked the other officer.
"No sir what about them?"
"I'm not disrespecting you as an officer. I mean disrespect towards neither of you. That is all I'm saying."
"Alright then, why did you walk away just now when you were detained?"
"I wasn't detained."
"Answer the question."
"I just wanna get some new pants. I peed my old ones, as you can see."
"And why did you do that?"
"I had a dream . . ."
The officer behind the wheel could no longer contain himself. He slapped the officer in the passenger seat, who shrugged and smiled himself. "He had a dream!" laughed the cop in the driver's seat. The passenger cop, leaning out his window, slyly chimed "Alright MLK," to Ernie, "but we'd better not see you around here once those buses get moving." He shifted into gear and popped on the lights. "So get out of my town, you bum! You don't belong here!" Then they were off. "Haha! MLK, nice one" chuckled the passenger cop as they pulled an illegal U-turn up to Mission street.
When Ernie got to the Salvation Army, he quickly grabbed the first pair of pants that fit him and wore them out of the dressing room. He left his old ones on the hanger. There was no time to notice the spider crawling inside these 28 waist tuxedo bottoms. They had a black stripe down the side. Ernie was 5’9”, the leg was 30, neither of these were unusual sizes. Unbelievably, this was the most casual pair of pants Ernie could dig up. The bus was leaving in moments. The arachnid crawled between the hairs of his legs. The drummer didn't notice. More so than the shoehorned discomfort of a 31-waisted man-child in a pair of spider-riddled 28-waisted pants was that dream, the horribleness which opened his bladder like a hotel doorman. It festered in the drummer's memory that whole crowded bus ride.
The dream was about Vic Firth and Pearl Kitt, a short-lived flame of the drummer’s that the skinless wonder always had a TV-eye for. Pearl was really into body modification and, after she and Ernie split, went into back suspensions professionally. This involved inserting eyehooks into the flesh of her back. The insertions were deep enough to stay rooted as she dangled from the ceiling by chains. With Pearl, it was a kind of burlesque show. She'd start out in a Betty Paige bikini and then she would either swing around naked over the heads of awestruck onlookers or run full speed until completely out of slack and catapulted back across the room. She was gorgeous with a rockabilly pompadour, bandanna-round-the-head thing going on; impossibly red lipstick. In real life she would go on to become a professional model for one of those tattoo/piercing magazines and a vegan activist. In the dream she did not. She died because Ernie broke his word.
Dream Vic was running a body modification show. He looked the way he did before "the accident" except much older and with pencil moustache. Occasionally the boiling oil decrepitude would reappear on his face whenever Ernie's dream vision tilted in a particular direction. The two were having a business meeting. Ernie told Vic he could headline the body mod show. "Shucks, I could play 'mod music!'"
A festival gig was a hell of an opportunity, and even though Ernie didn't have a band in the dream, he wanted the gig. So, in a written contract, Vic put his faith in this cockamamie scheme of Ernie's to throw a band together before the show. He had only a matter of weeks and it didn't come off. So dream Ernie had to back out of the contract with a couple days' notice, which fucked Dream Vic over royally. Vic swore revenge but Ernie didn't take him seriously. He had such a doofy moustache and wore an outfit like a carnival barker. Talk about one's subconscious setting them up for failure!
Like a putz, Ernie went to Dream Chris' show. It was a catered reception and there were tons of suspensions, folks hanging from the ceiling by hooks in both their backs and fronts. White walled rooms like the Manhattan MoMa covered in neon reprints of every conceivable modern artist. Many were casually running about the checker-tiled floors butt naked with newly inserted hooks sticking from their preferred sides, Bloody Maries swirling from the glasses in hand, waiting to be connected. Drunken Soccer Hooligans with hooks sprouting from their backs like fins threw arms around each other and sang "Flying through the air with the greatest of ease, (everyone sort of forgot the words here and garbled something) Flying Trapeze!" Beer steins were smashed together. Some broke. With surgical precision and the cleanest of tools tongues were split, sewn back up; serrated. Lips were tattooed; nostrils sewn, unsewn, tattoos of every conceivable variety were covering every conceivable parcel of skin. Limb removal seemed to be very "in" as well. Apotemnophilia. "'ey! Who do I godda talk to bout getting a hole the size of my fist in my earlobe ova here!" In the back there was a nightclub-styled blacklit room for the people to exhibit their otherwise invisible ink work. "Ernie," said Dream Pearl Kitt from just beyond this dancing crowd.
Ernie walked to her, through the pulsing electronica, like a man on a moving sidewalk. Bwooowwooowwwoooowwomp went the speakers. His feet jumped a little off the ground each time. The speaker cones inside their grates popped in and out, breathing dubstep. They were angry animals made of music in metal cages for the entertainment of the people on the dance floor. These people spoke to Ernie, his arms bouncing off of them as he continued, entranced."'ey, I'm dancin' over here! Get a face ring somewhere, you loser! What's that, just ten tattoos? Ugh! Who let this guy in. Nice hawk, ever do anything with it?" People he knew from high school came up to show him how different they looked. There was a cubist mural of Sabian Korg in one of the other rooms. It was also done in neon wiring. But the sidewalk kept moving. Ernie opened a big neon door to a formal reception. Shutting it behind him, it was like the nightclub never existed. There were all sorts of banners, streamers, curtains, well-made tables with formal punchbowls. The walls were baby blue, pierced with golden sconces and virgin whiting out everything else in the room, even the floors. It was like the blank space in a half inked cartoon. Men in tuxedos cavorted casually with plump women in lightly colored cotillion dresses. 40 oz bottles of malt liquor were being poured into champagne bottles. Two violas, two cellos and a violin were playing through baroque Fats Domino renditions without looking up from the floor. Vic was wearing a red, white and blue seersucker suit and eating heartily from the luncheon meats laid out on the reception table. His mouth was so full that instead of explaining he just gave a contented "feh," pointed to the stage beyond the well-dressed crowd and returned to gorging himself.
On the stage was Pearl Kitt.
When Dream Vic called her for a special showcase, of course she'd answered. She would do anything to improve her modeling career. A beautiful single-sighted woman convinced she could outsmart the world. Of course she signed Vic's waiver too, because as smart as she was, she was equally impulsive. A missed opportunity could cost her a week's sleep. Ernie remembered her sitting up nights planning around how to recover from unsuccessful P.R. stunts. He would rub her back, knots lining her spine like internal nooses, but it did nothing. She would just get up and pace, go through her phone directory, chainsmoke cigrettes, try on a new combination of outfits and ask if Ernie thought that would make a difference. Now here she was on a stage, pretty red lips all made up but covered by an anesthetic mask connected to two huge gas tanks.
The staged scene behind depicted waves and cartoon dolphins. It was all quite elaborate, moving back and forth on motorized wooden planks, a garish carnival rig. The machines beat a crude time with the musicians. A fishing hook, connected to a line from the rafters, was jammed through her cheek. Her legs had been painted green up to her torso, little scales tattooed on her powder skin bulged and bled; fresh, unattended, infected in multiple ways. Her knees had been snapped off and reconnected backwards with huge, crude lanyard stitches. Green children’s lanyard like at summer camps. The same had been done to her feet and even her legs from her pelvis. It bent her body into a rigid 'S' shape like a mermaid. Her arms were similarly reconstructed: fingers melted together, upper arms pinned to her sides creating flippers. A tear rolled down her cheek. "Ernie."
Then the drummer's bladder opened up. He caught it halfway through the release, a load seven hours large. He darted for the real life biker's bathroom. The couch and sheets were already soaked. Pee ran out of him, through the searing pain of a clenched urethra. He expelled the stuff as fast as a Super Soaker. The muscles unclenched, the dam broke. Little droplets rebounded around in his pants. Beneath the flow, his testicles were a rigid set of walnuts shivering as close to his body as they could get.
Four steps from the bathroom threshold and he collapsed in futility. The rest of the pee ran out of him right there, got into the canvass of his shoes, pooled around his knees. His denim pants swelled up like clown shoes. He was crying. "Fuck," Ernie said, pounding his fist into the salty soaked shag.