Of course Pearl Kitt moved to San Francisco. She was the first girl in Ernie and Vic's high school to get a tattoo. At sixteen, it wasn't a meaningless image she picked from some portfolio. "Gimmie that one, number 3 on the list, with a side of number 12 on my pinky right here. Hey, you guys do finger mustaches?" No. Pearl Kitt got something truly disturbing rendered on her arm forever, the proud center of a now award-winning sleeve. At twenty three, she was hired immediately out of taxidermy school to work for one of those froofy Edwardian oddities shops on Haight Street.
And of course the one female in the one taxidermy school in all of Bergen County was buddies with Sam Ash. Even if they weren't drawn together by the intrinsic forces of obscure morbidity, both girls worked at the same bookstore coffee shop and shopped at the same Hot Topic. It was only a matter of time before they were swapping NIN CDs. "Check this one out, Trent Reznor and Adam Ant!" Yes, only a matter of time which, for Pearl and Squier in those days, was measured at seven and a half dollars per hour to press automated espresso buttons.
Pearl wasn't the kind of person who people got close with. Even Sam Ash, the closest person Ernie was aware of in the future fashionista's life, knew nothing about Pearl that any inquiring mind couldn't have picked up from her Xanga.
Today I feel so bleak. The sun hasn't been out in forever. 'We live as we dream alone,' isn't that right, Mr. Kurtz? I've enclosed some pictures from the cover set I did last night with my band in Hackensack. Thank you Mrs. Jones for talkin the bar into lettin us play. Thanks Mr. Spinezetti for having us, hope the Sinatra cover was okay. Sorry about Gene's guitar solo. You're all great people.
Mood: :/ Bleh.
Listening to: These Days, Joy Division"
When Ernie started hanging around Sam Ash, Pearl Kitt and he could finally exchange hellos. But they were fleeting. Pearl Kitt was entirely put off by any male under the age of 30. She was only 18 herself. "They don't know how to fuck," Ernie overheard Pearl say once in the mall food court, "and what have they done with their lives?" She dated older guys with whips and chains and drugs and all that. The sort of thing you made up stories about in high school with your friends.
One time Pearl Kitt got her bellybutton piercing, connected by a chain to her nose, stuck in her boyfriend's car door. This was just after a lunch period on a school day and everyone was returning to the building. It was one of those overcast days where you could look straight up at the sun; headphones tuned to the local classic rock station, and never have to look away from the burn.
Hundreds saw as Pearl's chain dragged her for a half kilometer, screaming, skin grated like parmesan, tiny black pebbles being implanted in the opening wounds. Her boyfriend drove without the slightest concept of the street pizza cooking behind. The only thing that made him aware over Tim Armstrong yelling in his ear on his birthday money car stereo was the mob of kids waving their arms. He got pissed and jammed the brake. Then he saw Pearl's arm clinging to the window. He could tell by that trademark tattoo. Her hot pink acrylic nails were cracked from tapping louder than the music against the safety glass. "What the fuck?" her boyfriend shouted. "My car!"
But it was no real problem. The kid had money and thus style and those were the biggest qualifiers on Pearl's checklist for potential lovers. She simply got up and brushed herself off. Her leather looked better faded, anyway. She had a battle of the bands to win that night. It was the very same battle Ernie's band had been disqualified for. On every single painkiller Pearl could convince the hospital to give, the singer popped all the brand-new stitches over her shallow xylophone ribcage. She pulled too much air into her nicotine depository sacks rocking a Pixies cover "Gigantic! A big, big love!" Ker-pop. pop. pop. She got a standing ovation. Her white shirt turned red. Pearl saw this, took the mic stand, rammed it through the bassdrum head, spun in a full pirouette back towards the crowd and bowed. The rest of the band bowed too. Then the girl collapsed and was rushed to the hospital. Needless to say, her band won the battle.
Pearl was just one of those people who tragedy affected well. Her upper lip got a scar from being dragged by that dimwit's car, but it upturned to make her look even more tempting and wicked. Perma-smirk. It fit. Nothing could mar her. She was above it all, not the kind of woman you could reach out to as an average man. One couldn't read her that simply. She wasn't a book. She was a bookend on a shelf that unless she told you, you would never realize you were counterbalancing.
So Facebook told Pearl Kitt that this vague connection of hers, a friend of a friend from New Jersey, had a pretty well-known band in her new City. Immediately she wanted to be shown around by someone who understood what a good bagel should taste like. Friend Request, mutual acquaintances, Sam Ash, Bergen County, message, response. The taxidermist arrived at one of Ernie's shows and didn't leave his side for a month.
Over the stereo one day at an overpriced Bacon-themed restaurant in the Lower Haight, Ernie asked "You still speak to Sam Ash?"
It was a Monday. The lovers met midway between their jobs to nurse hangovers on lunchbreaks. Soju cocktails and greasy food were a must; though anything, animal tranquilizers, a stern blow to the head, would have done in a pinch.
Throughout the whole town, no one had gone out harder than Ernie and Pearl on a Sunday night. Nekromantix had been at Slim's. They played almost to an empty house. The two had to party extra hard to show an international act that their country was worth coming back to. They knew the pain was worth being ambassadors of Rock and Roll.
"Sam Ash from the bookstore coffee gig way back when?"
"Nah." Pearl took her coffee stirrer out of the biodegradable styrofoam cup and swizzled it around in her cocktail glass. "I'm not a therapist, you know? I'm just trying to enjoy this shit, get real paid and leave a pretty corpse." Then suddenly her smile dropped 50 feet. She gripped her head. "Ow, it hurts to think!" Her foot kicked at the ground like a wounded animal.
"My darling," Ernie said in a fake Gomez Adams accent, "you wouldn't just leave a 'pretty corpse,' it would be ravishing!" Ba-dum-kishh he beat out on the plastic tabletop.
"What's this about ravishing corpses?"
Pearl smiled between her fingers. She could never be affected. She had her long nails, hair back in a red bandanna, matching red lipstick with her diamond Monroe piercing aglitter, adorable beer belly covered in tattoos, bluejays of happiness holding banners, band logos, red-and-black Norcal stars, leather jacket and the kind of jeans she had to take a running start to get into. Fashion battle armor deflecting all the world's troubles.
Pearl left a tip for the barista coming around to collect their saucers. Then she got up to "powder her nose." It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what she meant. "You want to come with?" She asked the drummer. "Nah," he said, "Why would I want to be more awake and edgy to clean toilets?" She shrugged and trotted off. He kicked back in his metal chair. His folded knee sidled against the plastic table, a collapsible surface made to look like a shabby picnic set. Or maybe it was just a shabby picnic set made to look like a parody of itself. Ernie closed his eyes and envisioned the phrase 'kitschy kitsch kitsch' being repeated by Milan Kundera in a soothing trance. Then the drummer awoke to find a kid in an apron staring at him. It was the barista. He looked the drummer in the eye. "I saw your date on the Travel Channel."
Ernie didn't like the way the guy said it. The barista wore a white apron and had a Mohawk the same length as Ernie's but more kempt. The kid's hawk was plastered Babel style towards the ceiling but there was a flourish set into it which curled the mane into a lopsided 'S.' This was not a guy who could just roll out of bed in the morning. He needed expensive hair gels and then fancy clothes that could match. The barista wore all white, strictly independent fabric designers, to a job which required he constantly get battered by errant espresso spray. But still the barista had not a stain visible. This implied he wasn't working very hard.
"Tell her I liked her segment, I'll be by her store later." The barista grabbed Ernie's unfinished black coffee out from under him and walked back to the milk station. There was a bus tub underneath the counter. The barista also didn't do the dishes. There was a short Latino fellow Ernie could see putting around the back washroom through its window.
The drummer palmed Pearl's handful of singles off the table just as she came back possessing energy from a Bolivian nasal conquest. Ernie didn't want this overly expectant barista to get any of their money. Let his parents worry about where his next globule of expensive organic Mohawk-sculpting product came from.
On the walk back through the Fillmore to work, Ernie handed the bills to an old black man lying on the McDonalds' stoop. "Now he can buy something," said the drummer to the black visor-wearing burger-flipper who came out with a broom to shoo the old fellow away.
"You shouldn't do that," said the McDonalds employee. "Now he thinks he can just keep hanging out here."
"Maybe you should give him a job," Ernie laughed.
"I was born and raised here," croaked the old black man as he thrashed in slow motion on the ground.
"Couldn't have been," the McDonalds' employee chimed. She was short, mid-twenties, Chinese, kind of cute but for the unfortunate side effects of eating that fast food she cooked. "This place all get destroy in earthquake. 1990s. Whole Western Addition. Highway fell."
"I told you I was here, I've been here! This is my City! I was born here! They knock down my house, build a nicer one an then I can't live in it no more!"
"You tell her," Ernie cheered. He was a bit buzzed.
"Shut up you Google Bus sonofabitch!" The old man turned on Ernie, "All you kids came here and . . ."
By then the drummer was already walking away. Live in San Francisco long enough and all the compassionate smiles you give, the money you throw to the homeless, the ear you occasionally lend, it all plasters over an uncaring, rotted interior. In a few weeks you could sink that low too.
That was only part of the experience. Then there was Pearl Kitt. She'd be, let's say, locked onto Ernie's neck with her teeth, flash bulb drenching them in white, teeth digging as he wailed in pain, Mohawk and barely-still-tucked tuxedo shirt popping from a baggy pair of pinstriped thrift store slacks. A two-toned fool, the coolest janitor in town with the prettiest girl on his arm.
Pearl Kitt wanted to be a model so bad. She hated retail, she was over taxidermy. She wanted to get paid to play dress up and perform with her body. She hated the politics of the stripping world. Suicide Girls would steal her identity if she modeled with them. She had been through so many bad attempts at jumpstarting this modeling career before. Men on subway trains with cards that had no number on them so they could personally look you in the eye and jot down their digits on the back. "You're perfect, just what we're looking for, what's your availability? Can you meet at my manager's apartment?" Rumors surfaced about the American Apparel owner or that guy from Vice Magazine insisting their models sleep with the photographers. Pearl was determined to become the next Marilyn on her own terms. Do-it-yourself bombshell. So there were tons of pictures: reels from dive bar photo booths which all instantly posted onto social media like their internet jukebox brethren; smartphone videos of running through mosh pit walls-of-death, dressed to the nines at Slim's; raunchy band photos with Ernie’s lead singer Katrina; everything was tagged and sent right to the internet.
Seeing them up there in 'the cloud' made her happy, there were so many bright colors in those photos: neon, sunshine, sunglasses, good times, whiskey, cigarettes, cocaine, rock music. Ernie felt like a new person, a real man. He even spoke like a Californian. "That's hella interesting, bruh!" It was as though he were supposed to have a sun tan all his life. Foretold like a myth. With mythic powers, no less. Pearl's invulnerability was contagious to any man who could hold on to her.
All their pictures looked like the celebrities they idolized. They could become new people now. The supermodel and the rock star. It painted a good image. But it was more than that. Being around Pearl actually made Ernie write better. He came to his band with the songs he was always supposed to write using the part of his brain that usually was too preoccupied feeling bad all the time.
It wasn't just dressing nice, it was the full package. For all the rest of the world to see they would forever have a beautiful image from this time which neither of them could ever burp, fart, or have a bad breath to ruin. It would all be on the internet.
Less than a month later it was over. No regrets. They still exchanged hellos at Molotovs, watched the Giants win the series at El Rio and generally behaved exactly how the young and unaffected were supposed to.
But the graveyard of what had been, a million snapshots of a short period in history, still existed as ones and zeroes you could see any time from all over the world. Pearl Kitt never took down a photo. Ernie never thought much of it.
Less than a year later, New Jersey, a holiday visit, Ernie's first in years.
That particular evening his parents were at the veterinarian looking after their Labrador. Poor thing busted his back legs chasing a skunk up the collapsing steps of a barn. It would have been less of a deal if it wasn't the same barn Ernie's father talked about tearing down every time they spoke. "Oh, Ernie, so glad you called! Nothing, nothing, just pricing out a cheap way to remove that barn again. No, nothing yet. Bad economy." It was one of the few things they communicated about besides old movies and reruns.
The dog needed surgery, a new hip or something. "Don't put him through it Dad." The room was dark. They watched TV together. Blue filtered light soaked the white walls and bookshelves. "Just put him down. He's eight, he was already old. Prolonging that's just not right." " . . . 'old'? He's my age in dog years." "But if you go putting fake parts into him . . ." "We're not playing God." "I never said that." "We need to be going; you can have the rest of the whiskey in the dog's bowl." Ernie looked at the old man quizzically. "What?” asked his father “Don't think we don't listen to your music." He smiled. "Be seeing you."
Ernie sat inside his folks' Victorian fix-er-upper as their Pilot clumped the driveway's snow into ice. Then they were gone. He thought of that Israeli girl and her metal pelvis. Did it chill in the winter? Was it the same operation for dogs?
A black and white set with rabbit ears patched by tinfoil was the only light in the house. Outside the sky was cloudy, muted blue growing purple but never any darker by the minute. This was what passed for sunset around there. The house faced a major street but through the window a strip of grey concrete was all one could discern. Tree branches drooped with snow. The sidewalk was invisible. The hill on the other side of the street was just an erasure. Not even a resilient weed broke through the downfall. It was all tinted blue with the onset of night and framed for Ernie's eyes by wooden siding. Heat fogged the findows.
"I bet you never thought compulsively shopping at Costco would pay off," his mother had boasted as the storm's first toe stubbed their region.
Until their dog was injured, the Ball family hadn't needed to leave the house. It was a cozy little reunion. Even though the bevvy of allergies his mother developed as a result of cleaning houses for decades prevented her from eating half the preserved foods she'd lined the cellar with as a younger woman, the family mostly munched Powerbars for fear cooking might take up too much of "The Stand" to enjoy the rest. "You ever see this one? It's good. Yeah, total classic. No, I didn't see it when it first came out, it was the 1990s and I had a life!" Now it was just Ernie. He sipped his tea and sat with the television muted.
The streets were plowed once a day but the storm would've had to stop for that to keep them clear. It was really the errands of a hundred less-prepared little housewife wagons that kept these paths usable. God forbid you worked at a supermarket and wished to get a snowday. The housewives turned every inch of fresh, fluffy powder into grey sludge at a rate of 25 miles per hour. There was a school nearby.
Occasionally a pizza boy sloshed by in the opposite direction. Chinese food? Rain, sleet or shine. They drove Pintos, Subarus, Toyotas; the housewives in Lincolns and Hummers. Everyone sloshed tire-sludge to the curbs at anyone dumb enough to be out walking. As though the boot-entrenching, knee-high sidewalk snow banks weren't deterrent enough.
"Who's going to pump my gas, the state won't let me pump my own, get your overpaid ass out here, gas boy! Gas boy!! I see you in there!" All anyone in service wanted to do was listen to Q104 and enjoy the relative warmth of their boss' outdated space heaters. The county vet was still open only because it wasn't Christmas and she lived upstairs atop her Fort Lee shop.
Ernie's cellular rang.
"Vic is back in town," Sabian Korg said as though it was the 10th grade again and so many things had never happened. "Oh yeah?" Ernie asked. All of the drummer's important conversations seemed to exist on one end of a telephone. It was becoming a theme that he didn't like. Ernie wondered if he would phone in his wedding vows or have a priest telecommute to his funeral.
An infomercial played in the background promoting digital broadcasting chips before the TV waves switched over. Phrases like 'end of an era' were being thrown around casually. Prices were sliding; the corporations and networks wanted the people to maintain consumption. They just wanted to see how much they could clip the public for it. The screen lit up the room. A CG background. A bunch of words. A basic-cable pretty girl holding ironic props. Who cared. Within days this television would no longer be functional. It didn't even have a built in VCR. It would fall into a coma and spout only gibberish.
"Yeah. Vic wants us to see him."
"Of course he does."
"I'm just telling you what he said."
"I know. He wants us to see him and then what?" Ernie's eyes locked on a car passing by. Red brake lights lit up the snow.
"I don't know, he has dinner plans? Said he would text me an address."
"Dude, what's even open today?"
"Ernie, this is Bergen County. Asian folks are always up making food!"
Somebody's cat was out there in the road slinking around, eyes slit, orange coat pummeled all over by wind. A car passed, swerved, drenched the animal with sludge. It wore a collar. There was a tiny bell on the end. The cat’s shoulders stood far above the drooped head. It was an animal that belonged to somebody. Did the family who kept it not care or could they simply not keep the darn thing from barging out into the storm?
Ernie couldn't take it anymore.
"How've you been, Sabian? It's been years!" His voice was pushy. There was a lot Sabian needed to answer for.
"How've I been?" Sabian repeated. Ernie could barely remember what this person resembled. Who was Sabian Korg, just a glimmer from years ago?
"Yeah," Ernie said, "First time you've been back here in a while. Longer than me, isn't it?"
"I guess," Korg replied, "I came back to visit my folks in Alpine. They rented out my room to some jerk we went to high school with. Guy works at the Bottle King, never left town, got all my old music gear mixed up in his and claims he owns everything . . . Now I get this real friendly phone call like no time has passed and Vic's very insistent, super vague but polite, inquisitive, friendly . . . It was great until I hung up and realized I was shaking."
Ernie shook his head. Eyes rolled. "Yeah, yeah. Like a ghost, right?"
"Exactly! Like in the Chinese legends, it's --"
"Oh, I'm so fucking tired of hearing about ghosts around these parts! What would you even know about ghosts? You weren't here for any of the hard times. Vic never killed your girlfriend's cat, Sabian."
Sabian lived near a huge tower in Alpine which is said to be haunted by a woman laid to rest at the top; some kind of murder story which changed depending on who was telling it. As kids, Korg and Ernie used to wear sheets and jump out at the teenagers in cars driving around the thing backwards. That was how you supposedly summoned ghosts. Sabian loved doing this. Other times, on foggy nights, looking out through the trees which divided his back yard from the road, Sabian could actually see that woman walking around. It was only on the foggy nights and he could never bring himself to tell Ernie about it. Over the phone now, Sabian got the exact same feeling.
"Don't exaggerate" Sabian said.
". . . Exaggerate? Exaggerate??"
"Yeah, don't exaggerate. Vic wouldn't kill anything. We're talking about our old friend here!"
"'The fuck would you know about 'our old friend'? You fled the scene like a bitch machine."
The snow came down slow, taking its time, viewing the neighborhood. It was a nice place, the snow would settle down right there on top of someone's rusting push mower. Ernie stared out the window. The thump of powder being too much for roofs hold thumped sporadically from different places in the neighborhood.
"Alright, okay," said Sabian over the phone, "But it's been years. We're all different people now. I hear you've got this music project you godda tell me about. Sunday Times' South by Southwest review said you guys are coming up. None of that woulda happened if you stuck around here, I'll tell you that much! As for Vic? He was just a scarred up kid back then. He's been out of our lives for years and sounded a bit homesick when I spoke to him. You really going to hold a grudge?"
Ernie was about to hang up the phone, his finger millimeters from the button but it felt useless.
"We all shared something once," Sabian encouraged "don't you want to come tie up some loose ends?"
Ernie paced the room. A squirrel who was always menacing the Ball family dog hopped briefly onto one of their trees outside. The branch from which the little creature leapt sent an accumulation of snow onto the ground. The vibration brought two or three icicles from the roof onto a section of concrete porch where the dog nuzzled his toys; a hideaway, a dog fort. One icicle deflated a squeaky copy of the 'Daily Growl' which Ernie had purchased for the animal in middle school using his allowance.
"Remember that girl who fell from Project Adventure? The one who disappeared?"
"Yeah. I read about it." Said Sabian, "So what?"
Ernie was silent. He watched another icicle fall. This one landed in the frozen pool of a metal dog bowl. Shards flew everywhere. The icicle after that struck a metal stake which drove a leash into the ground.
"Sabian, if you didn't believe Vic was capable of something so horrible why did you ditch town before he got out of the hospital?"
"Because I had a few months of high school to go and I decided to finish them elsewhere. It was an unrelated decision! "
"Hardly. You left me with these huge shoes to fill. I became the only person that sick fuck Vic could reach out to. My feet were too small and had no blisters. I wore them anyway until they stomped all over everything they brought into my life and made me miserable. Now I wear sandals. You call that friendship?"
A pause. Crackling reception.
Sabian Korg: "You know I was the only one who could recognize Vic at the hospital. I will probably always understand him better than anybody else."
Ernie rolled his eyes.
"That is my burden," Sabian pounded his chest. "Or it was. Because I really believed that! . . . Then the audition . . . God, how wrong I was! I couldn't believe anyone I'd become so close with could prove to be such a different, horrifying person."
"Wait," Ernie asked "the audition for the battle of the bands?"
"Yeah, the audition where Vic tried to kill the judges."
"Sabian, they had him on the floor in ten seconds. Less. Jeez! It wasn't a big whoop. All he got was a running start and a few threats. Only his Telecaster took any real abuse. What are you talking about?"
"Don't you think you're downplaying the whole thing a bit?"
"I'm not downplaying shit. He's still a psycho. You're just a pussy."
"Ernie, I didn't have much going for me around these parts. Seeing Vic foam at the mouth, sets of hands having to restrain him . . . Then seeing him pop right back to this unnatural tranquility and explain his family history of epilepsy? . . . He doesn't have a goddamned family history of epilepsy! They just let him back up and he came over to ask me if I wanted to grab a soda. 'Hey Sab', let's just cut 5th and go grab a slice too. Man, real shame about this audition, buddy! Whoops.' I bought the plane tickets that night."
Ernie folded his arms. "I thought Vic was unrelated."
"Yeah," Sabian said, "for years I did too. It's hard to be honest about it. I still feel torn up, like maybe I was just overreacting."
A disturbing thought came over Ernie. "Wait, you booked tickets for Arkansas before Vic tried to kill himself?"
"Yeah. Weeks before."
"Korg, did Vic know you were moving?"
"I never told him . . . I . . . no. He couldn't have known."
"Because the guy never left a suicide note."
Ernie spit a wad of phlegm into his parents' toilet. Back in the East a week and his head was already a mess of congested fluids. Over the porcelain seat the drummer eyed the dog bowl. A few bits of sediment floated about in the brown liquid. Canine mouths were supposed to be the cleanest around. Ernie tipped the alcohol to his lips. 'Whiskey,' he thought, 'how quaint a painkiller in the year 2010.' Glenlivet, the injured animal drank better than he did. Ernie's bare feet slapped the wooden floors back into his parents' kitchen with renewed vigor. Sabian was saying something through the receiver to defend his past actions. Ernie's demeanor shifted and suddenly he whipped the empty dog bowl at the kitchen island, screaming "You left me with him, Sabian! You ditched us! "
"It was never my responsibility!"
"You were his only friend, Sabian!"
"I keep telling you, it wasn't my responsibility! The guy had family, he had you . . ."
"Oh! And what am I, Mother Teresa?" Ernie spat another phlegm wad into the sink.
"Wait, ya need to repeat that. A cop just passed and I had to hide the phone. I'm pulling in to my parents' place now. Go ahead, I'm still listening."
"For Fuck's sake, you're driving?"
"Listen man, I'll swing by and . . ."
"'Oh, Vic? He's too psychotic to hurt a fly! Let's all just get together like it's two thousand fucking four!' You're an enabler. You want him to be weak. Need him to be weak because you're scared of what he's really capable of. Then you feel bad because that's not the way you want to see someone, it's too conflicted, so you let him into your head. And he rubs it right in your face. 'Vic sounded sad and homesick so I'm going to go see what's wrong with him! Oh boy!' But that piano wire. Piano. Fucking. Wire. You know about the piano wire, dontcha Sabian?"
Sabian shook in his driver's seat. Maybe this was a bad idea. He pulled off the 9W and onto the roundabout with the tower in the center. It would just be a quick half circle and he would be in his parents' house. There was only a little bit of fog. His eyes darted from side to side. When he looked back through the windshield the woman was already in the hood, drifting right through it as he drove. He'd collided right with her. Her hideous face was so old, so wrinkled, a bullet hole pierced the center of her shriveled forehead. It passed right through him; Sabian could feel the every brick being laid in the foundation of the tower. His foot jammed the break. His arm jammed the break. He uncovered his eyes. The car was parked in the driveway.
Ernie went on over the phone: "Sam buried the thing herself because she wanted us to just get fucking lost like you did. You lucky bastard. What're you even doing back here, anyway? You were free from all this! Free in an enviable way. It cost us a life together, Sam and I. It cost the world a couple living fucking beings."
Sabian wiped his forehead. Sighed. Didn't dare look back. He pulled his phone a bit away from his face and looked at it as though Ernie could see Sabian’s expression. "And you two hid the evidence so you're just as big an enabler as I am!"
"Oh!" Ernie cried, "So you agree cat was murdered now?"
"I'm not saying that, I'm just saying --"
"What, the girl with the busted pelvis? You still deny that?"
Sabian's fists clenched. "Piss off, man! None of this wordplay makes you any better."
"Me? Fuck me! You're still the chickenshit that ditched and let all this happen in the first place."
"And none of this would have happened if I had stayed?"
"I don't know what you want of me. If you saw things getting bad, why'd you stick around until the worst of it?"
A little bell jingled in the street just a few inches above the snow. "Because," Ernie said through gritted teeth, "It would've been selfish to leave. Vic didn't really know anyone besides you, remember? You left a huge fucking hole in the kid's life that I felt a need to fill." An unprecedented second snowplow came by, scooping up the orange cat in its spray of slush and shooting the animal into the distance. "For fuck's sake," Ernie continued, "I of all people had no idea why Vic reached out to me from his goddamn suicide bed!
"Man," said Sabian. "Come on, you know Vic never shut up about you! You think he ever listened to Pink Floyd before you started talking about them?" Sabian unbuckled his seatbelt. The car heater died and the change in pressure fogged his glasses. He put on his gloves.
"What? Wait. When?"
"Before the audition, years ago when we were all still practicing."
"That can't be right, he knew all the parts."
"Doesn't take a guy that good much to get a part down. I saw him play Mozart once by ear. He can sing all the words to songs he's never even heard just based on their titles . . . He kept talking about how cool it was that he finally got to play music with you. 'I been wondering about that guy.' Guess he saw you were gonna become this indie big shot one day. I always knew you would, you jackass. Vic would always tell me, even before we started playing, how confident you seemed walking down the hallways at school. Like you belonged someplace else. He always said he wanted to go there, wherever it was you were going. One time he told me if he could spend one day as you, he would --"
"Dude . . . stop creeping me out. Stop. He did not say all that."
"He did. A bunch."
"Dude! Why would you not tell me that?"
"Remember how desperate we were to get into the battle of the bands?"
"Oh no . . ."
"Well, I kind've bet on the wrong horse with that one."
The 'call waiting' sign flashed on the LED of Ernie's phone. He pressed it unintentionally.
"You guys got the sponsorship, the tour starts on . . ."
"Email me." Ernie said at the phone screen and jammed buttons.
"But this is no way to . . ."
"Email me. email me. email me! I've got an important call on the other line!"
Ernie finally clicked back to Sabian Korg. Instead this call was from his Mother.
"Dog . . . D-dog died." She was crying. He'd never heard his mother cry before. "Ernie. We're just calling to let you know that . . ."
From the other room the television sang. "Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name." Ernie shuddered. He hadn't been away from New Jersey all that long at all.
He sat back on the couch and thought about his life in San Francisco. His 'new life':
The thing about living in a boomtown was that when all the commotion died, you still had to face the demons which brought you there. Ernie'd watched the atmosphere of a whole metropolis change in the last four years while nothing had changed back here in the suburbs. The bands who ran the San Francisco scene when he moved out had all gone to LA because, with the pay-to-play and the blackout dates promoters were copying from NYC venues, a broke concert spot shut down every week in The City. Everyone had the money to buy records, but nobody had the places to grow local San Francisco talent.
Bands came through their old Bay City now only for tours. 'We're so glad to be home,' they'd say in the forty-five minute gap before packing their gear back up and driving on. Sometimes they'd stop at the Nitcap and talk to other local bands about the things which made them glad they left. Nobody had the kind of money or computer programming know-how that would be required to stay in a City like that. They were all just smelly rock-and-rollers with vans and amplifiers; sometimes less than that.
San Francisco, in the short time Ernie lived there, had become the second most expensive city in the country. It had three classes now: The techie rich, the class that cleaned up after them and the homeless. In a boom city you saw these lines drawn and you forgot your past. You became a part of a superficial fight to keep up with a city which did nothing to hold on to you.
Leaving boomtowns like these even for a moment brought back your old life with a freight train's speed. You remember who you were before people started handing you money, alcohol, free concerts, marijuana and then telling you years later you couldn't afford it anymore.
"You wanna go where people know, people are all the same. You want to know where everybody knows your name." A tear formed in the corner of Ernie's eye. It wasn't for the dog. He walked up to the television and pushed the dial into the set. The screen imploded behind the glass into black nothingness.
"I'm gonna miss you when you go extinct." Ernie said to the device. Then he pried the rabbit ears off its crown like wishbones. He held them in his hands, looking at them, head shaking, lips curled.
Feeling the whiskey, he drummed the metal antennae out on his parents’ living room table; a big slab of wood with great acoustics. The snow outside was a dark blue with black shadows casting long cartoon wraiths across its expanses. Ernie sang: "Oh, how we danced with the Rose of Tralee! Her long hair black as a raven! . . . And Oh, how we danced and you whispered to me --"
The doorbell rang. The knob jiggled. Ernie looked up cautiously. "You'll never be going back home" he whispered, finishing off the verse.
Sam Ash staggered in like a mobile distillery. A black, cigarette ashen crop top dangled off her shoulder revealing a Hello Kitty bra. Her hair was dreaded but not intentionally. Frayed bits extended from her scalp like the greasy abstractions of a crab tank. Sam reeled in at a tight angle from the doorstep. A dramatic series of sidesteps, zip-zip-zip, were needed to stay aloft. Her pants were tight, threadbare, wine stained. They encased chubby, uncoordinated legs. A stretch marked belly sprouted, at war with the Maginot line of studded Hot Topic leather which contained it. The metal spikes were mostly rubbed off. A few remained like the teeth in a jack-o-lantern. Was it possible that Sam Ash hadn't gotten out of bed since Ernie Ball left for California?
"Where's Vic fffffFucking Firth?" Sam beamed. Her teeth were a merlot purple. "I paid my admission, lemme see the show!" She cheered with an audience only she could see. "Ba-dump-dah-dum-da-do-dah-de-doo-doo! Wooo!" she sang swing tom beats with a deep scat voice, conducting along with a band only she could hear. Ernie watched her move. He wished he could see what she saw, the things that went through her head before she put them on paper. They were so beautiful. It was only then, watching her mimic a crude Benny Goodman, that years of suppressed longing took a good swing at Ernie’s heart. Why was it that the drummer could never have her without summoning Vic Firth?
Smoke filled the hallway. The sugary stench of bourbon sweating from Sam's every pore overpowered the pervading Double Happiness stank. Ernie grabbed the foil tipped cigarette from her fingers and flicked it out his parents' door. Sam didn't notice. She brought her empty fingertips up to her lips for a drag. Her nails had fading paint from three different shades.
"You know it's funny" Ernie said coldly watching her, "I was just talking to a guy who doesn't believe your cat got murdered."
Sam angrily propped herself up against the wall with an elbow. "How izzat funny?" She tripped and sent the door crashing shut behind her.
From the ground, chin practically dug into her nose, Sam muttered"I never had a cat. I hate cats. I hate them." Her body went limp, sprawled out against the wall, legs dangled over her head. A crushed spider. "I hate them. I hate them." One of her Cons’ came loose and swayed from her big toe. "I hate them."
"What are you even doing here Sam Ash?" Ernie said, "You were supposed to be onto better things. Your comics are great. I've been keeping up on them. Every one you post gets darker and closer to what you said you wanted years ago. You could put out a book, you could be anywhere but here . . ."
"Except I never left," she said with sudden composure. She rolled over on her back and threw her hands behind her head. "We both were supposed to be finished with all this." Their eyes locked. Then hers closed. She looked almost content but for the way her tone contorted her face. "You were way off in California, never supposed come back, done with me, done with us, free from the suburban chupacabra!"
"Sam Ash," Ernie sat on his hams approach her, "It always sounds like your joking." He put out his hand to her unmade face. "You ever notice that?"
"I work service," she said, recoiling from his hand disgustedly."Wanna see my service smile?" A big welcoming grin spread across her face but quickly faded, spread but quickly faded. It melted Ernie each time, yellowed smoker's teeth and all. It was something she'd perfected. Something she did from muscle memory even when blind drunk on somebody's floor. Why did it have to be the one look Ernie remembered on her face? It was in that moment he knew she was the only girl he ever loved. What a shitty time to realize it.
"Honestly," she laughed, "I'm not even sure how you can take all this seriously. It's not like Vic killed my cat or anything. I never had a cat. You should just laugh!" The sounds that came out of her were not laughter. They were the sounds absorbed from a near-decade of treating damaged animals. It was the sound that bounced off of linoleum tiles as needles were being refilled.
Then she started singing the 'Magical Mystery Tour.'
Outside her Double Happiness was smoldering on the wooden porch. The drummer could smell the wood lacquer singe. North East winters, air crisp enough to stab the outer rim of your nostril, could trap such smells in place during snowstorms. And Chinese cigarettes, as Ernie'd learned through working a barter system out with the Chinatown Bus Company, would burn through anything given the chance. You could use them to light pipes in the wind. So the drummer unbolted the door and puffed a couple drags off the butt before unsuccessfully flicking it again into the street. This time it landed in a pile of ice.
"Hey!" Sam Ash said, "Let me hit that." Thunk! She didn't make it to her knees. Her ratty hair fell over her face. She looked like she was going to puke. Ernie looked inside and felt his heart gaining weight.
"The truth is Sabian Korg called." He adopted a business tone as he walked back in and closed the door. It was all he could do. "You ever meet him? Of course not. Because he was supposed to be free from all this long before we were. I still can't believe you're here . . . But I guess why am I surprised? Sabian's here too. Sometimes you get stuck in a fucking place where everybody knows your name."
"Cheers was filmed before a live . . ."
"Stay focused here, Sam."
"Ooooooh! Yell some more, big boy!"
Ernie looked at her askew then went on. “I haven't had much time to think about it, so pardon me for coming off like an asshole . . ."
"I pardoned you for being an asshole a long time ago."
He looked at her again. "Thanks" He decided to say, and then he clapped his hands together to rid the room of nostalgia. "So let's game plan tonight." He said. "When did Vic tell you about all this?"
"He called the second I got off work. The exact second. Hey, you seem to be enjoying this!"
Ernie was unconsciously rubbing his hands together. "No, I . . ." He looked at her and knew exactly what he shouldn't say. It was so good to see her again. Ernie hadn't ever allowed himself to think it would be. If he ever had, he wouldn't have been able to live with any of his decisions from years ago. "I . . . just wanted to find a way to stop all this. I just want all this to end."
"Whatever," she said, nervously eyeing Ernie's hands.
"What did he say to you?"
"He said to come here," Sam ash replied.
"And you came?"
"Not in months."
Ernie smacked his face. Bad joke.
"Buh-dump-ksh!" Sam Ash laughed, pulling another Double Happiness to her lips.
"What I meant," Ernie stared into her boozy eyes as she lit the cigarette, "was that you came here when Vic told you to?"
"Obviously." She got to her feet. "Duh! I mean no, I'm a fucking ghost. Wooooooh!" Then she realized what she had unintentionally said and shut up, hateful for playing disfavorably into her own metaphors. She exhaled a long puff of smoke and crossed her arms.
"Why show up, Sam?! Why let him back into your life? Sam! He killed your cat!"
She looked at him in the eye for a moment, squinting because of the smoke in her face. Cigarette fuming. "You even remember how boring it is around here?"
Something inside Ernie shattered so quickly he could feel the pieces dangle in midair.
"Oh, Sam --"
"Don't 'Oh Sam' me nothing! I've paid my admission and I think you have too. But you keep changing your address; it's hard for you to get your ticket by mail. Poor guy, I'll sneak a camera in for ya, make you a nice little bootleg. It's a bang up show."
Ernie went over to embrace her but she pushed away, almost to the point of toppling again.
"So where's Vic?" She demanded, "Where is this fucker? There ain't no refunds and Imma start a riot!" Sam Ash jumped a couple times, swinging her fists in the air.
Uncharacteristically, the drummer scoffed. He'd become polarized at his love's untouchable actions. "Oh, don't give Vic Firth so much credit," he decreed. "Vic's more John Cusack with a knife than William Effing Shakespeare."
"Piano wire," Sam replied calmly. "Not a knife, piano wire."
"John Cusac with a knife. John Cusac with piano wire. John Cusack in the conservatory with a wrench, whatever. You get my point. You still came back here so it couldn't have mattered all that - - "
"No. Piano wire, it was very specific!"
"D'you ever actually look inside that piano?"
"Didn't think so," Ernie said. "Me neither." He put out a hand to stabilize her. She let him.
"You were supposed to be better than this," she said. Her tone was paced, tempered. She was taking more breaths. It was a voice Ernie Ball recognized. A woman becoming unpossessed.
"I never knew what you fucking meant by all that." he said.
She threw a drunken punch, missed and almost spun out onto the floor. She fell instead into the drummer's arms. The only light in the room shone through the glass window above the door. Snowstorm moonlight, clouded purple skies beating down on dirty sludge ridged roads. The streetlights made uneven shadows but their orange beams did nothing to illuminate the scenery. The window light halved their faces in the dark room. "You said you loved me but you let all this happen." She looked at him, head at his chest, too drunk not to be vulnerable. "If you really loved me none of this would have happened."
"Sam Ash, I do love you but you know that’s now how it works."
She spat on his shirt without moving her face. It rubbed into her cheek. "You an expert?"
"I write love songs and get paid for it sometimes."
"Alright well if you are the expert on this faulty system then I demand you put in a word with whoever's in charge!"
"Just put a letter in the complaints box, baby." And for some reason Ernie thought this was a perfect time to steal a kiss. Obviously not when she put her nails in the drummer's face.
Honking from outside. A car pushed around the gravel in the driveway; got stuck on the snow, drove back out a little bit. "Go," she whispered, hopping out of his hands. "Go put on some goddamn pants." She slammed the door behind her.
Ernie looked down and realized he was wearing the kind of boxers without the button on the front.
The first food ever to grace Ernie Ball's no-longer-delicate janitor nostrils was in Fort Lee. It was the kind of aroma which made you fat just thinking about all the minced garlic, butter, fresh noodles, mozzarella, ricotta, tomatoes and olive oil. The neighborhood was still nothing but pizza joints when his parents moved from Vermont in 1990 practically to under the George Washington Bridge. Their apartment windows looked eye-to-eye out at the drivers fumbling for toll change on the overpass. Car exhaust filled their living room at all times. It was a wonder no one died. You could reach from the Ball family windowsill and backhand these drivers during traffic with a roll full of quarters if you wanted. Ernie was just a little baby. His memories existed as a blurry set of intangible concepts; like smell his first calzone, which made him sad because, although he couldn't remember now, he'd spilled it all over his bib and everyone embarrassed him with a scene. The Ball family moved to a house in Tenafly and got a dog when he was about seven. Most of Bergen County smelled like Italian food back then, accounting for all the mafioso bodies turning up piecemeal in the 'Hack-en-sack River.' Pasta and wine flowed free.
But demographics switch in any cheap suburb and Fort Lee became filled with Korean families. Types of wine changed, the pots of noodles were dumped for pots of rice. The air became acrid with every single backyard fermenting kimchi in ancient ceramic pots.
Ernie didn't realize how allergic he was to the national food of Korea until he left Bergen County and his sinuses cleared enough to not recognize his own voice through a California sound system. He had to relearn how to sing.
Now, back in New Jersey, the kimchi regained its vice grip on the inside of his face. It created a black hole at the point where his nose, ear canals and throat met which coarsened the sinus lining into chalky burnt sponge. He was amazed at how completely that smell, that spicy aged red chili, had eclipsed the garlic and fried oil predecessors of each retrofitted restaurant. All the neon was entirely different, featuring Soju bottles and foreign lettering, but the Italian facades were exactly the same. If it ain't broke don't fix it. The buildings, glass front, overlooking the Hudson river like everything else on that side of New Jersey, were perfect the way the Mafia designed them. From the smell though, you would have never known these places hadn't been serving fermented cabbage since construction. Even the ashtrays smelled like chili paste. Ernie staggered as though punched entering the restaurant where Vic had reservations. He fell into a podium at the entrance in a coughing fit. When there was no more phlegm to loosen from his lungs, the vibration in his clogged sinuses triggered a gag reflex and Ernie croaked, burped, eyes bulging. He held the wall for support.
"I can't eat anything here," he wheezed, "I'm going to be sick. I gotta get out of here." His throat was closing. He thought it was already closed but apparently there was another level of breathlessness he'd not yet experienced.
"Leaving so soon?" asked Pearl Kitt. Half her head had been shaved and a tattoo of her brain covered the exposed scalp. She was sitting at the first table to the left with her date. The ink on her head was the same color as her fellow diner's had been at the hospital years ago. Surrounding the mural were jagged epidermal piercings filed up and down the border of her hair like a metal Mohawk. The two sat on lush couches, golden candelabra at table center. Vic was careful not to upset the open flame as he slid out. Pearl had just managed to get her faux whalebone corset into the ridges of the cushion; she wasn't willing to get up for anyone.
"That's right!" Vic darted to Ernie. He was wearing a fine collared shirt, purple with green insignias and a pair of pressed slacks. His shoes were patent leather. Large canyons dug out of his body were either filled with flesh grafted from hidden parts of his body or from donations of the deceased. They varied in color. Some holes just remained bare, gauged by oil in a basement bathtub. Bags had grown out of the scar tissue under his eyes. Atop his head was a brown, combed and parted wig.
"I'm so sorry!" He patted the drummer's back as Ernie lurched over the red carpet. Another half burp, half cough came up. The phlegm was coming out so hard it gurgled in his larynx. The drummer was drowning inside himself. He bent in on his haunches, supported himself on his knees. Ernie took in as much air as he could.
"I forgot all about Ernie's allergies!" Vic bent over the drummer. "You've just been looking so healthy in your pictures, old buddy . . ."
"We could go someplace else," Pearl suggested, "There isn't much on this menu here for me that doesn't have meat in it anyway." The model shrugged and flipped through the menu as though something would change.
"No," Vic said clapping his hands, "This is great! This will be a healthy meal for kings! Kimchi has beneficial life fuels that will provide energy for our new venture. You and I will feast, my dear, in honor of our new photo job together!"
"But I'm allergic to Kimchi!"
"Ernie, Vic flew all the way in from Norway to do a shoot with me. He saw my portfolio online and contacted me about a theme gig - paid of course! - for some gallery in Oslo. Aren't you excited?"
"That's great!" Sam Ash said, sliding her ass into the far end of the booth next to Pearl Kitt so as to avoid touching their host. Sam’s booty dangled off a cliff of seat cushions; pant-seams bulging, pockets about to burst. Smelly fabric concealed an overgrowth of leg hair and panties she couldn't remember changing. This was either a testament to a lack of cleanliness or Sam’s overall lack of clarity. For all their praise, Sam couldn't even remember producing her own web comics anymore. She saw a bottle of table soju and went for it, nodding to herself in appreciation. After a thick swig she set the bottle down on the tablecloth. She peeled away the label.
"I agree, dearest Sam, I've been a photographer out there with the Norway Post since leaving Tenafly. Truly a beautiful thing, capturing life on film. Ya know, Native Americans - some of them, I don't know which for I've only heard this anecdotally - fear it steals your soul, but i disagree. I feel that, just like a good review can make or break art, a good photographic portrait can bring more life to its contents or destroy them; horribly, massively . . . But your art is only as beautiful as your subject." He beamed at Pearl Kitt.
"I agree," Sam Ash said. She jabbed the table with a fork. "Have you seen my comics about the dying animals?"
"Of course," Vic said, "that's why I brought you here. Your work keeps getting better and better!"
"Really? I thought you brought me here because you're a raging psychopath."
Pearl, Ernie and Sabian all stared at Vic. For a moment his face was a mask. Then it erupted in laughter. He just laughed. Then Sam laughed. Pearl Kitt looked puzzled, but ultimately unaffected. Ernie looked sad. Sabian was shivering by the door. His hand was still holding it open as though another would pass through.
"No," laughed Vic, "No, Sam Ash. I brought you here with the rest of the artists I always respected from my hometown to find something amazing we can do on film with our old friend Pearl Kitt's body here."
"Do with her body . . ." Sabian repeated, still holding that door. His eyes stared glassily. His sweater was suddenly too tight around his neck. The door stayed open, letting in the night air.
"I'm flattered enough working with you, Vic," Pearl Kitt blushed, "but don't smother me!"
"My dear, I have the least intention of smothering you." Vic laughed. "That would be so mundane!"
You could tell Pearl loved it. She tossed back the side of her hair which she hadn't shorn clean off. It was dyed crimson.
"My throat is closing up . . ." Ernie wheezed.
"How can you be allergic to Kimchi? I've seen you eat Sauerkraut before!"
"Sam, I told you about this years ago." Ernie's voice was gravel. The fits had him shaking in his boots but Vic's hand was clutching the scruff of his heavy jacket to keep him aloft. "They're just different things."
"A nuanced allergy" Vic smiled down at him.
"Can't you eat Sauerkraut?"
"Yeah, but . . ." Ernie’s knees jerked from a stifled cough. Vic held him up.
"Then you can't really be allergic to Kimchi. It's impossible!" She waved her arms. Ernie struggled to regain balance.
Vic smiled, still gripping the drummer's coat. He pulled the scruff in close. Ernie and he were neck to neck. The skin of Vic's palm was smooth, scar tissue removing lifelines, love lines or any other pieces of palmistry forever; one grabbed at Ernie's earlobe in a way no one else could see. "Welcome to my creative summit," Vic said.
"Yaaaaaaaay!" Cheered Sam Ash. She threw her hands into the air.
Sabian let go of the door.
"Come here Korg," Vic beckoned with a large sweeping gesture. Sabian did as he was told. His shoulders drooped as though he expected to get smacked. Vic extended his arm. Sabian winced. Vic made a gesture, bobbed his head up. Korg nodded and lifted his corresponding arm. At arm's length Vic took Sabian's hand. He gave it one swift pump and let go as though it were steaming garbage. "Been a while," Vic said dispassionately. Sabian just stared, open palm still extended. He looked down at his fingers and quickly dropped his arm.
"You playing music these days?" Vic continued.
"No," Korg said, then his eyes flashed. "I don't honestly see why you called me. I just so happened to be in town seeing my parents. I don't do anything artistic at all. I'm a dental hygienist. I don't even offer people different types of toothpaste. We got this deal with Crest that's just . . . oh, nobody cares about toothpaste . . .”
Vic shrugged. "Chalk it up to old times.'" Then directed Sabian and Ernie into the booth. "Besides, I never would have met any of these people if it weren't for you, Sabian."
Ernie tried to push in next to Sam Ash but she redirected him to the other side with Vic. She smiled wickedly.
"Hey Sabian, you like it there in Arkansas?"
There were no other diners to stare at this horrific experience. The whole red carpeted room, every table was empty but for the reflections of our cast in the mirrored walls. The waiters avoided them as best they could considering there was no one else to tend to. In the back they drew straws over who had to deal with the crazy white people.
"Yeah, it's peaceful. Sure, people hate going to the dentist and all, but that's no different than dogs and mailmen or some shit like that. Ultimately, it beats joining the military or becoming a cop to make money, you know?" He laughed nervously. Vic didn't seem empathetic.
"Yeah," the photographer changed topics, "I guess you could say I've chosen a medium more to my calling too . . ."
Next to Vic, a cough shook Ernie. He was squeezed into the center of the booth, slumped over his menu. His mouth hung open. He was wondering what he was doing there, wondering if he could break free. He was wondering why he came. Why this had to be his life.
"Can I tell them?" Pearl's eyes lit up.
"No, it's best you let me. I'm steering this ship, my darling."
"You can talk about it all you like, babe, that's fine. But remember, if I don't have the creative control I need while we're working on the damn thing . . ."
"Fret not, my dear."
She smiled, motioning him to speak.
"Body Modification," Vic said, pouring everyone a round of Soju. Sam Ash had finished their bottle so he had to fish one off a neighboring table. In the back room the waiters watched angrily. "That's going to be our bread and butter here. That shit is edge-yy!"
"Pssshhht! No it's not, that's old hat." Pearl Kitt needed to brag.
"Yes my dear," ammended Vic, "but the few people touching this stuff at this day in age wouldn't know a camera lens from a cockring. If we really emphasize the photography aspect of this while still pushing a boundary with the contortions of the human body . . . well, I think we could strike gold!"
"OOOOh! Oh! Oh! I say we do Bulimia," Sam Ash jumped out of the booth with excitement, "We could get you all dolled up like Betty Davis, and then kerblammo! Guerilla puke on some unsuspecting mailman or something! Weeeehooo!"
"I godda admitt you're much more fun these days," Pearl Kitt smiled her devilish smile at her forgotten friend. "What happened to you being such a sad sack?"
"I am the passenger now, girl, I ride and I ride."
"Ernie, you could really take a lesson from Sam Ash here," Pearl Kitt said, "you look terrible. You've been a shitshow all night."
"I'm dying in here. I'm literally allergic to everything in this room." Ernie's shoulders splayed across the table.
"Psssht," Pearl Kitt snorted, "Drama queen." She sipped her Soju with a red extended cocaine nail. A miniature chandelier above cast disturbing funhouse reflections against everyone's face at the table. Except Pearl Kitt. Pearl Kitt's appearance, this flurry of lights only improved. Pearl Kitt couldn't be affected by anything. Her every smile was so devilish with its three-stitch scar.
"What if we did something anti-Wall Street?" Asked Sabain Korg.
"No, that sucks!" Said Vic. He smacked the table with his cup. The ceramic hit the table at an angle and shot a startling blast of hot soju at Ernie's prostrate head.
"This is ridiculous," the drummer croaked from down on the table. "This isn't real. Who gave you the money to do this?"
"Excuse me?" Vic asked, looking finally satisfied. A trap had been sprung.
Ernie lifted his head as best possible. "Who gave you the money for this? Where exactly in Norway is this being displayed?"
Vic Firth concealed a wide grin. "At the Flershenherferr."
In anger, Ernie regained his strength. "Come on, you're making that up!"
"You ever been to Norway?"
"No, but we could just look it up on . . ."
"You're being so rude, let the man finish" Sam Ash intoned, looking at Ernie, eyes significantly widened. It was a cruel game she was playing. It only cost her a cat.
"Yeah," said Pearl Kitt. She was oblivious but delighted at the quick progression her modeling quest had taken.
"But the Flershen . . . whatever? And the Norway Post? Those aren't real names!"
"Actually, the Norway Post is totally a real newspaper, dude," said Sabian.
"See, even Sabian got something right," Vic smiled.
"Dude, just lay off, will ta?" Korg said, "you've been riding me all night. Is everyone where you live this big a dick?"
"No," said Vic, "I just . . . it's been a while. You split for . . . uh, where is it you live again?"
"Arkansas. You just said it a minute ago."
"Yuck. Yeah, you split for fucking Arkansas without a word back in high school. You never called, you never wrote. I thought we were friends, Sabian. Friends don't do those things."
"You tried to kill yourself and never left a note!"
"Whoa," Vic cried out, "will you lookit that, here comes our food!"
Ernie slipped out from under the table and almost knocked the steaming tray from the waiter's hands. He ran coughing into the night. His legs pounded the concrete, chest roaring until he came to the cliffs of the Palisades. He looked out at New York, so anonymous, so close, then down at the Hudson, so deep, so permanent. Then he gripped the hand railing and let forth a final, cleansing cannon fire of respiratory eruption.
"I'm a bad person," Squier said.
"In what way?" The drummer asked, lighting two cigarettes. "Is it because we're raiding your job's green room to see if Gwar left behind any Jagermeister?"
"No, this is fine. This is punk rock. I mean me, I'm an unsalvageable wreck. Just ask my ex."
"I'd rather not. Judging by what I've seen, I think you're just fine. Hell, you're tough as nails."
She sat on a bench labeled No Smoking and watched through the chain fence as her friend rode off drunkenly on his bike. "That fucker," she said, "see that cast on his arm? Last time he drove his bike home that drunk he smashed into a parked car."
"Yeah, immobile. It was a compact car at that. Fucking hybrid. Now he's got permanent nerve damage. How's he supposed to cook with goddamn nerve damage?"
"It's not like there are any streetlights out here."
"Bye Squier!" said the biker in the distance as a swerved attempt at a wave.
"Yeah, yeah," she said, waving back. "It's not the lights. It's the people, they're just unsalvageable." Huge drag of a cigarette and a thoughtful pause. "Even the bums don't all get picked off like us. They stay where it's light, right off the main streets. Sure they get yelled at, but they know that's the worst they're gonna get. The rest of us shmoes in this beach town, we're the empty cogs running the service industry, the sad sacks of the world!"
"I don't think you're a lost cause" Ernie told her, sucking on his cigarette and setting himself beside her.
"You barely know me!" Big exhale of smoke.
"Well then why are you the one who keeps talking about 'love?'"
They looked at each other, silently, tips of noses in near collision. Then they rose, held hands and walked through the door in the chain link fence.
Dark hospital basement hallway. Ernie stared at a chintzy collage of the new fall interns. The only light was dim and above the vending machines in the room behind. That's where Ernie thought Squier's mother was, at the table all lit on coffee.
Lisa was actually right behind the drummer's couch-surf knotted back.
"Him," the old woman pointed over Ernie’s shoulder, "That's the doctor who's operating on Squier right now."
"That can't possibly be."
"No," Lisa continued, "I'm certain of it."
"Him?" Ernie demanded, pointing to the same picture.
"I'm certain. Why? What's the big to-do?"
"How certain are you?"
"Is this some kind of a joke? I've never been more certain of anything!"
"If you're joking with me . . ."
"You're the one who's screwing with me! What's the deal here, why can't that be the person operating on my Squier!"
"Because," Ernie said, "we're looking at a picture of this year's new interns."
"But that's him . . ." Lisa pleaded.
"Maybe he's just the guy who delivered us the news; gave you guys the updates. You know, the grief runner."
"No!" cried Lisa. "That man right there told me he was the surgeon, I'm telling you this, and he said that he would be operating on my daughter. This picture is wrong if it says otherwise!"
Ernie pointed to the little face in the group photo again. He was a pretty average looking Indian guy. There were a lot of other guys on the board who looked like him. This had to be a misunderstanding. "This guy, you mean, Rajeesh?"
"This guy told you he was operating on Squier?"
Little red security cameras gave pinpoint punctuation piercings to the darkness. It tracked the depth of the hall around them, kept their surroundings in perspective without illuminating the terrain. Somewhere beneath the busted Exit sign was still an anonymous patient, but it had been silent long enough to assume she’d make no movements. Ernie had honestly forgotten her. He studied the photograph to make sure he wasn't missing anything and shrugged.
"Because this guy's not a surgeon. He's an intern."
Someone crossed from one door to another at the far end of the hallway by the exit. There was a swoosh of draft. Whoever it was clutched a flashlight. Lisa and the drummer both turned, seeing only the distant burst of light and hearing only heels clicking against linoleum. There was a loud smack against the door on whichever opposite side she headed through. Every letter in the 'EXIT' sign blinked back on when the clicking heels left.
Both the drummer and the mother's heads craned slowly back to this class photo of an intern who may or may not have been wrongfully operating on Squier.
Lisa let out a long breath. "You think there's someone in that operating room who's not supposed to be there?"
"He's been calling again."
"Great, a simple case of AIDs would be easier to ditch than this guy!"
"Don't say things like that."
"What'd he say?"
"Says you're going to have to kill him."
"So I can't talk about AIDs but you can tell me there is legitimately a crazed burn victim out there who wants me to put an end to his life?"
"Joking about AIDS disrespectful."
"Uuuur-kneee," she said in a low voice.
"He wants me to kill him!"
"No, he said that's just how things will probably end. Also he demanded for the millionth time to know why I'd never leave a manic like you for him. Why I 'wasn't fucking [him],' why I wasn't . . ."
"He said 'probably?'"
"Well, no. . . God, you don't care about me in all this anymore, do you?"
"It's really hard to, Sam. I mean . . . fuck, I haven't even punched a guy outside a mosh pit in years!"
"What? So you're just gonna duke it out with the guy now?"
"No . . . but who knows. One of these days probably. How much does it take for someone to want to break somebody else's nose. I can't even remember. It's going to come to something like that though. I mean who does shit like this?"
"He should have been locked away in the first place and we never should have met. The only thing we have left between us is phone calls like these. We're actually paying the phone companies for each minute's privilege of this long distance unpleasantness. Isn't that sad?"
"Sam, if we never would have met you never would have become twisted like this."
"I've always been twisted, Ernie. But my art would have suffered for not going through all this. Truly I think it was worth it. I don't mind being transformed by the rot in the atmosphere so much but for the crippling depression of it all. But my art is at its peak. Isn't that what you always liked about me?"
"Guess I'm a sucker for a Daddy's Girl."
"Don't say that."
"I'll say whatever I please, you're not helping anyone. Nobody is. I'm beginning to believe we're all just fated for whatever we've got in store and fighting it just makes every step of the way feel tense with the illusion of flailing control."
"You sound like you're becoming a ghost yourself."
Ernie got on his tiptoes to peer behind the security desk. He wasn't tall enough.
The front door to the building was locked with no key or anyone around to open it. He'd broken through one of the windows to get anyone's attention but it didn't do anything. No alarms. No one came running from anywhere. Even the weather outside was dead, not a gust of wind. The erratic barking of every dog in the neighborhood was unable to warn anyone of the onslaught about to enfold.
It occurred to Ernie in a cold instant that the basement exits had been locked as well. To disprove this unsettling feeling he rushed to every single doorknob he saw. Lisa followed, her orthopedic sneakers squeaked. She ticked away at air-rosaries out of muscular instinct. Her swollen diabetic parts ached. The doors were all locked. Back at the front desk, Ernie needed to see the security feed. If there was anyone else in the hospital, the closed circuit cameras would pick them up. The place couldn't just be empty. They'd seen people in the basement and Squier was in the middle of an operation.
"We could go to her room," Lisa suggested. She was on a chair now in the lobby. Her legs weren't tall enough to reach the ground; they dangled amidst her invisible rosary slack.
Ernie grunted as the front desk dug into his midsection. His feet were off the ground, lifted by his forearms enough to see the security feed. If the ground caught fire right then neither of Ernie nor Lisa’s feet would have been burned. A baker's dozen little black-and-white television sets sat behind the lip of the security desk counter. The thirteenth little screen had George and Jerry yelling in loud 90s sweaters. It was 7 pm. The rest of the world was watching Seinfeld.
"What if we're just being paranoid here," Ernie said. "Can we really just barge into a surgery? We'll fucking kill her, You know it, I know it. She'll just die and ---"
"You already smashed a window."
"And my arrest record is clean. Let the cops come. Let them come and tell me that everything's fine and that I'm crazy. Let them come and send me to a cell somewhere to sleep through the night or two. Hell, let them lock me up for as long as they need to so long as Squier's alright. I'd strike that deal right here! When I come out I'll see Squier, she'll be married to Gibson."
"Who is Gibson?"
"I must have told you, he Squier's soon-to-be husband! But we're cool. We'll all have hospital food together. I still owe her lunch. It will be an engagement gift. Lunch. But somewhere nice. Maybe hospital food at a nicer hospital. Would they transfer her? What kind of insurance do you guys have?"
"Sure, you're going to be a great grandmother soon. Well, not a great-grandmother. But a great one, I bet! You know, it's all going to go great so long as you just don't go in there and stop the surgery!" He didn't look back at her from the television screens.
On one of the segments of a split monitor feed, a sliver of broadcasted space, Ernie saw a familiar tattoo. It was so tiny. Ernie wondered if Lisa knew how many totem poles and eagles her daughter Squier was covered with those days. The arm was unmistakably hers. Why was there a camera pointed directly onto the floor of her operating room? Ernie mashed his ribs trying to get over the desk for a closer look.
There were four surgeons hovering over Squier, her arm dangling off the table and frequently picked back up by one gloved hand or another. In the corner of the room was a chair. Just one. A single chair with a bald man in it, not just bald, but devoid of skin like a mole rat in a set of all-black human clothes. His skin, a thin gloss over his bones, had thick creases throughout which shone even in the distant security camera shot. It was a patchwork. He was eating popcorn. No, the image wasn't that clear. There was no chair. Vic wasn't there. Ernie was being paranoid. He rubbed his eyes, gave himself a smack on the side of the head. "C'mon, Ball, keep it together." He pushed himself back from the screens.
Lisa shrugged when they made eye contact. Ernie's eyes were empty, looking past her. There were lightning bugs in the parking lot. "Fuck," the drummer sighed.
Ernie knew then he couldn't just walk away. He'd seen too much. He couldn't just sit there anymore with impunity knowing there was a camera pointed right into Squier's room; Vic Firth or not.
Then his cell phone rang. He looked at Lisa, whose eyes were as wide as the sun, and picked up the call.
"Hello," he said.
"Gibson, why the fuck aren't you here? How did no one let you out of work early on a day like this? Why did you even go to work in the first place? I can't take this anymore alone, man. Gibson, things here . . ."
"So you feel it up there too?"
"Feel what, Gibson? Gibson, it's Vic, he's . . . where are you, how close is your car?"
"I'm stuck on 17."
"Why didn't you . . . is it traffic?"
"How have you not felt this yet? I'm lucky to be alive, you're . . ."
Then the whole entire building turned three steps to the right in its foundations, didn't like that direction, shifted four to the left and then twirled around to check its perimeter like a dog about to pass out. But the building didn't lie down. It just kept rattling.
The hospital security monitor playing the local TV station bounced like a basketball and erupted into sparks against the fluorescent lights, a desperate bulletin announced "This is the Big One."
Cue the music:
'San Francisco, open your Golden Gate
You'll let no stranger wait outside your door
'San Francisco, here is your wanderin' one
Saying I'll wander no more.'
The dangling pieces of highway fell from their cranes. But no sooner than the Golden Gate Bridge itself. That structure was notoriously weak. The bridge's 50th anniversary brought so much foot traffic that the structure bowed. It had been a concern all year leading up to that summer's 75th.
Like the suicide preventative netting which never went up, much wasn't done to prevent tragedy befalling the Golden Gate Bridge's structure in times of calamitous plate shifts. She was an Imperial Orange party girl left to spin out of control, waiting for the day someone's roofie destroyed her. The transit folks would just build a safer one, more streamlined and less memorable, once anyone who survived forgot their loss in favor of a necessary commute. Commerce went on before, after and during earthquakes, you know.
Across the water, the New Bay Bridge being erected practically an arm's length from its predecessor collapsed before the "unsafe" monstrosity it preceded. It died incomplete; the only casualties being a bunch of lunch pails and boomboxes from the workers.
The original Bay Bridge looked on contemptuously at its so-called replacement. The light display which adorned its any-bridge-USA cables for its final year shot sparks like the fourth of July on its other falling rival, the Golden Gate. It would eventually collapse, but the Bay Bridge would enjoy a fleeting moment's victory first.
The TransAmerica building collapsed around itself. This proved that despite adding plumbing, desks, phone lines and glass windows, the original Egyptian pyramids, tombs for rot-less pharaohs and not rotting salary men, were built with much more intent to last. Maybe TransAmerica had been constructed this way to be easily razed like every other change that happened at hyper-speed in San Francisco's skyline. It was only a matter of time. In the Castro, the other Trans America Building, a garish hookup bar, also collapsed.
Katrina was in her Guerrero St. apartment, cigarette smoking in the ashtray, Replacements on the stereo, fingers making slow circles with arm up to her wrist through the open fly of her leather chaps. Her other mitt slid down to pull back the hood, a peace-sign gesture. She lay stretched out on her sofa, naked, rubbing. Her eyes were closed. The room, lit only by the giant pink martini above the 500 Club, spun just a few BPM lower than her turntable. The singer had grown callous to being in a moving building; another concession to live in a cultural hub she now realized was just a weekend party spot for the south city tech catacombs. She hadn't known her neighbors in years.
Katrina thought of the producer in Australia, the synth pop she knew would sell, how good he felt. There were plenty of convoluted thoughts going through Katrina's head but the thing that got her wettest was the hope drenching it all. Ernie didn't seem into the band anymore. She was writing all the music anyway. In Australia, Katrina could live on the beach with her bronze, golden-eared lover. The joints in her elbows cracked as her passion crescendo’d. It took the same muscles she used for the guitar, a strange bit of muscle memory. Her left hand changed the shape of her hold to fit the stereo's minor chords. She slid it in, twisted the wire; imagined herself in a sundress and straw hat running off the airplane and into his bronze surfer arms. Quarter inch stereo out, still vibrating with live music. She slid it in. Her man's bronze arms would grip her tight. 'I can't . . . hardly wait!' She was about to climax when the plates below her shifted and sent the family sofa from upstairs down atop Katrina’s couch. She climaxed amidst a crushing blow to her kneecaps and forehead, accompanied by the sad sound of a record being yanked from the stereo. Katrina cried.
'. . . Other places only make me love you best
Tell me you're the one in all the golden west
San Francisco, I'm coming home again
Never to roam again, I'm coming home'
Like the movie Lost Boys with winos instead of vampires, in Santa Cruz the homeless 2 buck chuck dependents living underneath the boardwalk were squashed as though grapes.
If it wasn't the Ferris wheel collapsing atop their tents, it was the roller coaster throwing cars at their tarps. And if it wasn't that, there were thirteen other collapsing thrill machines that could do it. Grease fires from every conceivable concession stand erupted. The Double Shot fell forward, not into the sea, and took with it rows of bungalows. Ernie's biker friend was just finishing her laundry, sipping a sad bottle of Jameson, when the ride turned her house into matchsticks. A safety harness from one of the seats, plummeting with massive force, caught the biker friend’s head and yanked it clean off.
The fryer Gibson had shut moments ago erupted all over the night janitor whose leg was already stuck in a mouthlike hole through the floor. A full fryer tub went cartwheeling through the air at his face. The room shook all about, breaking the man's leg bones into M&Ms against jagged flooring but doing nothing to relocate him from the 43 pounds of raining hot oil. Time actually slowed down like everyone said it would. He could see every single droplet bubble as it flew out of the spinning basin.
Of course he'd heard stories about this, about people losing legs from trying to clean something above the fryer and accidentally falling in. From the stories, he'd always assumed the pain would be indistinguishable from the shock of cold ice, instantaneous. A man that works around both fryers and alcohol tends to think about these things. An armful of cooking burns can make a fella think he knows it all.
But in the pub janitor's last moments, the universe corrected him. His dying minutes were spent savoring every inch of skin slowly descending down his cheekbones. He took it all in. Then the grease valve below shot its knob into his chest, shattering a few of the ribs. His face dripped lower. The smell was still indistinguishable from that of the last batch of onion rings. Bits of burnt, blackened breading coursed their way through his sinuses, surfing on a river of fryer oil that was quickly pushing his bodily fluids out and replacing them with fatty burning.
The fryer oil gentrified his lungs, melted them more to their liking. The black cigarette tar which was living there became homeless, pouring out like a Black Snake firework from the burning hole in the janitor's chest. The fryer oil then decided it wanted to occupy the backs of the janitor's eyes, so it burned through the flesh wiring that connected the eyeballs and then took his ocular sensors too. They shriveled up and turned yellow because everything that gets deep fried looks about the same. There goes the neighborhood.
Now that there was no longer a cap in place, the fryer oil still in the drain pipes shot at the blinded janitor's belly and sizzled holes right through. The store's Muzak system blared cruelly above. 'Take on Me.' The reception wouldn't work if there was the slightest sign of rain. The slightest cloud killed the noise even with a satellite guarantee, but somehow during the great earthquake it was fine. 'Take on Me.' The synthesizer shone in clear through all the speakers as they fell from the wall and onto the pool tables, alcohol bottles fell, fires broke out, bartenders and customers struggled to reach the doors atop collapsing floors. 'Take me on. I'll be gone in a day or two.'
Down the rocky edges of Seacliff at Neptune's Kingdom, the Arcade machines flew out of their sockets, engaged in vicious battle with not only each other but the owners and all their precious quarters. The Ferris wheel, Log Flume and Roller Coaster; a lonely mechanical death befell these entertainment behemoths. They lurched through the boardwalk slats like men beheaded.
Gibson was just a few miles down the highway in his pickup truck squinting at the call time flashing its digital numbers on his cellphone. Twenty seconds. No matter which way he dangled the cigarette in his mouth the smoke still got in his eyes and seemed to stay trapped beneath the brim of his trucker cap. The earth below his Ford pickup was swaying evenly, lurching his car up to forty five degree angles from what used to be easily described as level.
Traffic was packed so tight on 17 that no one had enough room to fly around. The plates beneath this strip weren't as violent as in other places. Some of the very road which constituted the 17 had been sent sailing off into the sky. These cars surrounding Gibson just felt the decrescendo of those massive plate-waves. There was nothing but orange trees surrounding their highway track, the bridge behind falling to the canyon and taking any unfortunate soul with it. The forest on either side collapsed in on itself, leaving these cars unharmed. Everyone just shook, waiting impatiently to see if Mother Nature had truly decided to let their smog beasts alone amidst her tectonic temper tantrum. She was a fickle deity.
As his pickup swayed about with all the other bathers in the asphalt wave pool, Gibson had time to actually think about the hospital. He wasn't paying attention as the concrete dividers and sound walls collapsed.
Gibson's imagination filled in the unknown imagery of the hospital he'd never make it to. He was mentally already there next to Ernie. The hospital had to be earthquake proof, he would get there and his love would shine powerfully enough for Squier to receive and get right up out of bed there and mosh again. Somehow he would be that crucial difference in her recovery just by being there. Gibson didn't even notice the flaming bus bearing down from the woods. It was bouncing on the very earth itself, lighting the trees ablaze as it slid down a hillside from God knows where. It came straight at Gibson's pickup truck. The bassist turned just in time to make eye contact with the screaming driver.
Hanging up from Sam Ash's phone call, Ernie looked at the clock. It was two hours before showtime and he had to get that drum set moved. Plus there was the tour. Ernie tripped over the mattress at the center of the room and fell onto a succession of partially broken acoustic guitars. Finally he got to his feet and balled up the most colorful t shirts and pants he could find in his cigarette burnt dresser. He threw them at a duffel bag on the floor. There was a JCC summer camp logo on the side of it. He'd purchased it ironically because it reminded him of being young in New Jersey. He wondered how Vic was going to find him this time. He felt pretty untraceable. Ernie, of course, had forgotten entirely about Gibson's blog.
All the drummer's attempts to become untraceable through the internet contradicted entirely the idea of trying to publicize music and so he needed to make concessions. Gibson's penchant for blogging was one of them. Ernie could never be wholly invisible playing in a touring band and never truly happy otherwise. That was a point reached at the end of a long yelling match at Thieves’ Tavern on 14th street. Katrina, of course, had the loudest voice because she was the singer. But the drummer had no personal Facebook, Twitter, blog or even internet phone anymore.
Ernie was counting potential ways Vic could track him in his head as the rest of his body ran through their tour kickoff set at the Elbo Room. Since Katrina was writing most of the new music, Ernie had time to worry about things like skinless stalkers. Through much of the drumming he was on autopilot anyway. All his songs had grown so old they needed retirement from the set to make room for Katrina's new numbers. Ernie barely showed up to practice the newer stuff. Most of the songs were 'straight 4 on the floor' and required little of his beat construction skills. A few Katrina tagged on at the end, some bedroom jams she'd written with a former lover in Australia. Ernie didn't know the parts so Katrina insisted he get off the stage and let her drum machine do the work. With his head somewhere else, Ernie agreed but the other drummers at the club that night would hear none of it.
"Lettin computers do your job for you?" One punk laughed. He had a Mohawk that looked like it took hours to set each morning. All over his scrawny body were tattoos of '80s movie characters.
"Not a real drummer, eh?" Said another percussionist. This guy wore horn rims and a flannel shirt like Rivers Cuomo hadn't copyrighted the look. "A guy like you makes guys like us look bad." He twirled his sticks in his hands.
Ernie's Mohawk hung over his face in the green room. His skin was greasy. "I'm a drummer, alright? I've been playing this instrument since I was a kid. Now let me alone, I got a lot on my mind."
When would Vic appear? Could it be now? Did these guys know Vic? It was getting to be too much. The paranoia was setting into Ernie's blood. He was having a panic attack; the tightening grip was collapsing his lungs.
"Oh, 'a lot on his mind'! Ha! You think you're better than us? That you think so fucking deep you don't even need an instrument anymore?" The guy drummed a paradiddle out on the stone wall right next to Ernie's ear. Ernie didn't flinch.
"Takes a lot of nerve!" The other drummer said.
Ernie got up and went to the cooler of beers in the corner, an unexpected gift from the venue. The kid with the sky-high Mohawk didn't look three hours out of a high school class. The bar probably didn't care to card him. He probably attended the Dolores school down the block and had been scolded by some authoritarian all day. Now he was finally letting it out.
"You want proof I'm a drummer?" Ernie asked dispassionately. Then he proceeded, one at a time, to crack and drink all the Hamm’s in the cooler.
The other drummers were more amazed than angry. It might have been because nine beers got drank so fast that they didn't have time to realize he was stealing all of theirs. Ernie wiped his lip and staggered. "Way to go," said the punk. "You're still a pussy in a drum machine band."
Ernie threw an arm around the kid. "Punk's dead, sonny Jim, I just cut my hair like this cuz it's convenient. What's your excuse?"
The indie kid laughed, uncomfortably, barely capable of allowing himself to show pleasure through his intentionally placid face.
"And you," Ernie said to him, "Destroy your sweater."
The drummer stumbled back on stage at the sound of applause and fell behind the drum set. Usually they finished with his song "The Hate Blender Suite," but at that horrifying moment Katrina announced the newest of her new batch of songs "Girl Alone." It was the one Ernie forgot entirely. If there was a metronome he would have been fine. If he could see anyone in the crowd dancing he would have been fine. Katrina didn't write crazy rhythm changes, it was just a matter of keeping up with her. The song started and Ernie darted his head around desperately. The room tilting, the beer was catching up; that's when Ernie saw it.
Katrina's blouse was cut in just the right way on one side. From where he sat downstage, only he could see her boob popping out. Katrina didn't even notice it herself, she was belting her lyrics and side-step dancing around her guitar like her life depended on it. Ernie watched that breast spin pendulously to the song's tempo. Perfect time. He stared at it, followed its nipple-swish through the air, locked into that breast which he would never ever get his hands on.
The next day Ernie woke up on Katrina's couch, head throbbing. The girl was in her bedroom playing back the tape from Elbo Room. Flannel shirt, panties; Katrina’s legs crossed as she mooned over her laptop. One of her many lovers, at her request, had been there the night before filming the band. Then he went home alone because Katrina needed to see the film. It was entirely possible she'd been up all night drinking and re-listening to these tracks. "Ernie, this is great, I've never heard this song sound so good, what's your secret?"
Then, without telling the drummer, she sent the video off to Gibson for his collection.
Gibson was obsessed with Rock n Roll chronology, having been an avid reader of Rolling Stone magazine growing up. He was the one who connected every one of the band's websites and interviews in an elaborate web of hyperlinks. Ernie had forgotten about these pages because Gibson knew not to talk about them. The bassist knew all about Vic Firth and his drummer's hatred for the internet.
Weeks later, in shock after the accident, Gibson felt it important to beseech his band's internet supporters’ prayer for Squier. It was something that would've made Ernie Ball sick. The drummer, who used to love showing the world every bit of his band's progress on the internet, now gagged at the idea of expanding Andy Warhol's "fifteen minutes of fame" metamorphosis into every person as a human camera. 'Lookat me, lookat me, lookat me!' But Gibson knew Squier would need all the love he could provide and he believed firmly that a world's worth of positive energy, if concentrated, could revive a fallen soldier in the war against cold hearts. It wasn't particularly a spiritual belief, just a belief in directed human intention. He wanted to wrangle this good spirit into a mollifying, globe-spanning revival beam unto the convalescent Squier.
Of course, in his haste, Gibson may have given away a few too many details.
Ernie awoke on a gurney, cigarette standing straight up in his lips. He lurched himself perpendicular, uncrossed his arms and spat the stoge so hard its tip collided with the wall and ricocheted back.
All he could see of Lisa was a pair of unmistakable orthopedic sneakers. In those was a pair of socks. In those were two feet cut off at the ankle. Blood led a path back across the linoleum into the rubble that had been a front lobby just moments ago. The building was too collapsed to see out to the parking lot.
Ernie needed to find Squier. The operating room, if there was anything left of it, needed to be opened. The operating room, which way was that again? Straight. Which other way could he go? Options were collapsing shut as he looked to them; hallways behind unmoving door frames were disappearing beneath the floors above them as the earth split pieces of a segmented candy bar hospital into its cavernous mouth.
The whole place quaked from subtle tremors. But the major force which demolished so much of the hospital before was taking a bathroom break. Union rules. The ground now at the eye of the quake wasn't sturdy, but that gurney Ernie was laid upon hadn't tipped over yet. There was no way that would last long.
So Ernie jumped to the floor but fell on his face. His chin made the sound of snapping chalk. Ernie felt nothing. The cigarette in his mouth had been drugged.
A man walked briskly through the SFO terminal. Clumps of hair leaked out from under his bowler cap. Some strands hit the rented artifacts under glass casing in the clear corridor between the crowded moving sidewalks. He was wearing a black trench coat from neck to black leather shoes. The red hairs that spewed from his black hat were the only bit of color about him. His skin was ghostly white. His hands were firmly shoved in his pockets, his posture hunched. He carried no luggage.
"Excuse me! Excuse me!" a stewardess called after him, "you dropped your . . ."
Then she looked down at what she held: a non-descript strip of hair connected to what appeared to be very expensive strip of tape. ". . . Mustache?"
A burned hand snatched the hairpiece out of her grip and reapplied it to his young, forever destroyed skin.
"Thank you," he said through gritted teeth. "It was a long flight and the adhesive must've gone dry. I am, as you can see, in a very big hurry. Adieu." He took off for the nearest taxi.
The stewardess shrugged. There was always something crazy flying into San Francisco. A stewardess learned not to ask questions. Customer service while plummeting from altitudes all day was hard work enough as it stood.
There was a woman hanging just her head out of the remaining space in a collapsed doorway. She moved not a muscle but darted her eyes imploringly at the drummer. He looked her in the pupils as he raked his numb body over every conceivable jagged shard an earthquake could scatter across a hospital. His legs couldn't support his weight.
"Can't you see I've got my own problems here?"
The woman, head shaved and covered in pox, dropped a tear but moved not a muscle.
Ernie looked at the teardrop. "I don't know what difference it makes to someone like you. You're locked in your own body anyway." He looked back to the crawl ahead. The sprinklers, what few hadn't had their water lines entirely yanked from the spigots, shot in patches, mostly missing the fires. It was quiet otherwise; just the rumbling and the sporadic hiss of water.
A voice inside the woman's room laughed. "You can say that again, stranger. Now how about helping me move this smelly human boulder so we can both get out of here?"
Ernie's fingers gripped the floor and slid so forcefully the calloused tips of many of his fingers were left behind in the crack of the flooring. His skin lacerated into ribbons, bones popped in and out of sockets as they collided with obstacles. Toes broke on chunks of basement foundation. Glass hung from his forearms. He was too numb to feel any of it. Being drugged kept his insides warm. He thought of Appolonia, how the only way to get the cat with the eye dangling out to sit for a portrait was a needleful. It was such a beautiful portrait. Sedation was the escape Ernie'd been looking for at the bottom of so many Jameson bottles. The siren call of a K hole sang over him, promising an escape the drummer would never know he'd taken until flashing dismally back into his own shambled body. Sparks flashed from a busted wall socket. His face singed but only the smell alerted him. Being drugged kept the drummer crawling, splatter painting his insides thin across the jagged linoleum incisors with every centimeter of progress.
"Hey! Hey pal, you still there? No! No, come on! Don't leave me. Don't leave me here. Pal, come on! I'm just a night janitor stuck behind this fat, stinking, bitch! Gemme out!! All I wanted to do was scrub a few bedpans and get high. I wasn't even going to come to work tonight. It's my anniversary! My girlfriend's sick! My dad died! Amigo? Hello? I can't die like this. Hello? I'll give you anything! Hello??????"
Mr. & Mrs. Ball watched the earthquake coverage from a hotel bed in Vermont. Since getting rid of the television in their own home, the couple had decided to use the money they'd been saving up all those years for travel. The most television they watched now was during twilight moments like these in furnished rooms at the crack of dawn.
"This is the closest coverage we can get," apologized the talking head, "Our dispatcher has asked that our Channel 11 action news chopper be turned around. Once again, what you're looking at is a magnitude . . ."
But any other information he could've given them was already displayed at the bottom of the screen. The anchor was mostly just exclaiming what anyone watching was thinking.
"Should we call him?" Mrs. Ball asked. She didn't even look at her husband.
"Changed his number, remember? He calls us now."
"So what can we do?"
Through the wreckage galloped the ghost of Marc Bolan. He rode atop a large white swan and wore a top hat. The swan stopped above Ernie's prostrate shoulders. They were hunched, barely crawling along. The swan gripped Ernie's Mohawk scruff between its beak and yanked upwards. Marc Bolan controlled it using a set of cashmere reins. The drummer's head had been dragging along the floor, eyes closed, his body's only command was 'forward.' Exposed now to the light of flame, the glam rocker cringed at the lacerations leading the drummer's once handsome face to be a mess of sinew and muscle; the skin torn thin like denim. Cartilage hung freely out of the drummer’s nose.
His eyes opened, paid no regard to the swan or the ghostly rock idol before him and shook himself back to the ground. "Nyyuuuhh!" With one hand in front of the other the drummer began his crawl anew. He was silent.
Marc Bolan shrugged. He dismounted the colossal bird and strode beside the drummer.
"Still lookin for the girl, huh?"
"Yup," replied Ernie simply.
Marc Bolan, incorporeal now, passed through the wreckage which mired Ernie. A flap of skin containing the centerpiece of Ernie's tattoo sleeve was left on the shattered linoleum, sliced clean off by broken reception area glass. Ghost Bolan picked up the floppy skin with suddenly solid fingers. He analyzed it against his own translucent arms and ultimately decided it a poor fit. He threw the floppy human salami slice back at the drummer. Marc Bolan, throwing with a limp wrist, did all this without ruffling any of the fine attire he wore for the cover of 'Tanx.'
"Why did you stop writing songs?" Bolan asked Ernie.
"They weren't sounding good anymore." The drummer didn't even look up as he spoke. The hallway was lit by burning chemicals and stray electric wires. The smell of human shit and gasoline was too much for anyone not dead or dying to bear.
"They sounded good before that."
"Well, those were coming from a place of hope. When I lost that . . . well, I needed someone else to write those wide-eyed songs which kept me going. Katrina was quite good at that."
"Katrina would've died at 27 like the rest of them." Marc didn't seem too excited at the prospect of a lady songwriter.
"She'll change the radio before that." Ernie said, arms still pulling forward, raking a destroyed body across a dumped array of dirty needle bins. "Right kind of attitude. Strong women always have a spot on the airwaves. Doesn't need me. My songwriting days are toast."
Bolan strode casually beside him, hands in his satin bellbottom pockets. "That's like saying you ran out of recipes so you stopped eating."
Ernie finally looked up. "You know, there's a Kafka story like that."
"Oh, I would so love to talk about Kafka! All I ever wanted with the whole showbiz thing was a fine book collection to bury myself in and the fastest cars to race back to reality in a cocaine pleasure kaleidoscope with! Books and cars all day and all night! I love a good story. That's why you always had my vote into Roll Valhalla, Ernie Ball."
"Thanks, 'Electric Warrior' was pretty rad too." Ernie put his head back down and continued his crawl. The rising smoke from the cracks in the floor was burning his eyes.
Bolan bounced evenly on his golden toed boots, hands in pockets, broken glass and blood surrounding his every step. His top hat tilted itself back and forth over his curly black locks. "You know what song you were nominated for?"
"Was it anything from my two month span acting in 'Beach Blanket Babylon?'"
"God no! What a piece of garbage, I hope they paid you well to make such a fool of yourself!"
"Well . . . anyway, this was an early one, 'My Beerdrunk Soul is Sadder than All the Dead Christmas Trees of the World.'"
"Yer right, that is an old one. Surprised you heard it."
"Why did you stop playing it?"
"The tune got old. Got pushed out of the set. People wanted to hear new music. You know the feeling."
"No, I played 'Bang a Gong' every night of every show until I died."
"Yeesh, sounds like a slow, torturous death."
"Says the guy who just left his baby toe in a ditch back thataway."
Ernie looked behind him. The digit had been wrenched clear off. It was nowhere to be seen.
"Feh," the drummer shrugged. Then he put his head back down and kept moving. He was dragging a pool of blood across the prickly linoleum but too much of it was coming from different sources for Ernie to pinpoint the most critical wound.
"You need to believe in something, Ernie Ball. Apathy in rock and roll is a misconception. If you believed in your music there would have been an afterlife for you."
Ernie didn't respond.
"I said that you have been denied from Rock and Roll Val halla, the truest pinnacle of all rock and roll deaths, because, even though you qualified, you pussied out of creating art and prematurely let your spirit rot. This is just a courtesy call. If it was up to the other guys, you would have just died alone without knowing that at some point your art . . . Hello, are you listening? I came back from the dead for this!"
Ernie kept crawling.
"Oh fuck it!" Being angry wasn't a look Marc Bolan's wide, eyeshadowed face was used to. That's why the newspapers found it so shocking when the story broke that he was a real life wifebeater. "Just go to her," said the ghost of Marc Bolan gratingly, "she's over there."
Then the spirit was gone. His last motion was a gnarled, pointed finger towards the southwest. Ernie looked up.
The flowers rustled at Sam Ash's grave. Bergen County; next to the hospital where Ernie visited Vic that one high school morning years ago. Sam Ash's passing was the kind where words like 'complications' were laughable. There was nothing complicated about it.
The flowers rustled on Sam Ash's grave and her mother ate a cheeseburger. There wasn't time for her to eat at work before visiting her daughter. There was nothing very complicated about that either. Sam would have understood.
Pearl Kitt strolled through the gate, kissing her gloved fingers and touching them to the epitaph for "Cinderella Man" James Braddock. She approached Mrs. Ash, flurries of little snowflakes parting. Mrs. Ash rested her burger atop her daughter's gravestone and wiped her hands against her dark jeans.
"Sorry I'm late," Pearl exhaled with a cloud from her electronic cigarette. Being a full-time, plus-sized body modification model now, Pearl couldn't risk what the actual smoke would do to her skin. Staying in her weight class was already murder on her otherwise slender body.
"Oh darling," said Mrs. Ash, giving the plump model a hug, "it's quite alright, you're so busy with your career. One of the girls in the choir wanted me to have you sign this."
She handed Pearl Kitt a copy of Holey Covered Skin which the taxidermist had modeled for. Beneath all the wording on the cover of the magazine was an image of Pearl Kitt writhing in absolute pleasure astride a tattoo parlor chair as her buddy Eugene gave her a touch up. You could tell she was his favorite customer. She gripped his goatee like reins on a horse.
Pearl Kitt laughed. "What's someone in your choir group doing with this?"
Her fake peacock feather collar blew in the wind. Snow was bunching up against the tattoo on Pearl's naked forehead. It was the first snowfall since Sam was buried. Above them towered the hospital, dark windows studding the sides so that invalids in adjustable beds could look out from their mess of assistive wiring onto a snowy field and their ultimate fate.
The cheeseburger fell on its side from the gravestone against the matted dirt. Pickles, sauce, cheese, meat, it all scattered where her daughter was buried. Mrs. Ash quickly reassembled the pieces, dusted it off and took a bite. She cringed and spat out some dirt. Then she went back for another taste.
"So how did she go?" Pearl asked. She'd seen the comments on Facebook and had been in Manhattan modeling anyway. Swinging by was easy for her when she could finally get a day off work. But were it not for the posts of friends and Sam's mother on a dead girl's internet timeline, Pearl would certainly never have known a thing. The two young women had been out of touch since the dusk of their girlhood years.
Yet calling up Mrs. Ash felt to Pearl as normal as calling home. She hadn't spoken to her own parents in years. Hadn't had a reason to cross over the Hudson, either. 'You can never go home again,' was a motto she stuck to. It kept her moving forward. Truth be told, she'd even lost her parents' numbers but was too stubborn to admit something so theoretically heartbreaking. It just didn't bother her, but she knew it was expected to and Pearl didn't like to think of herself as conceivably heartless. That was a very unattractive look. She chalked her lack of sentiment up to being over-driven. And it was this level of self-awareness which allowed Pearl to write the whole thing off. Because Pearl believed someone so in tune with convoluted emotional paths like these could never be heartless.
Meanwhile Mrs. Ash was equally excited to reacquaint herself with the model. She told her choir group all about it. The whole thing gave her something to look forward to.
"How'd she go?" asked Pearl again as she passed Mrs. Ash the signed magazine. She could tell the old woman wasn't listening. In the slit between her knit cap and scarf, the winter chapped at Mrs. Ash's nose. Pearl's skin was impervious under layers of moisturizing products.
The old woman answered the taxidermists' question by throwing up her hands and looking around her. She made a sweeping gesture at everything. The 166 swooped down Engle Street behind them and chipped pieces off a curbside ice mountain in passing. The old woman continued her circles, sweeping her arms about as though thanking an invisible academy. Pearl Kitt looked on, puffing at her electronic cigarette. The liquid nicotine cartridge was flavored mint so the feeling wouldn't be too harsh on her throat. She would be speaking at a convention in a couple of days. Pearl folded her arms and took another drag.
'Whatever that means,' thought Pearl Kitt as she nodded knowingly to Mrs. Ash.
Squier was leaning on an I.V. pole, letting the little black wheels guide her slowly across the destroyed linoleum. The very walls of the hospital themselves were slicing through the hallway. Pieces of floor where dislodging and falling to the foundations below their feet, maybe even further. Squier's arms hugged that IV pole for dear life. Her cheek clung to it, pressed into it enough to discolor the pale skin surrounding it. The I.V. bags leaked clear liquid onto her coarse black hair, it melted in her eyes, made blood dribble from her tear ducts.
Squier's back arched with the I.V. pole, shoulders like knuckles clutching the thin metal rod that comprised it. Just above her first lumbar, where the young surgeons even put a 'L1' in reassuring blue Sharpie ink, Squier's body was rent in two. Various surgical clamps jangled off her skin like metal lobsters. Her legs trailed behind, limping. Between her halves was a taught-strung mess of wires and organs. Amidst it, a fractured spine; bones white and dripping, holding the two pieces of body together, running commands from the top and bottom of this hideous costume horse, keeping the legs moving.
"Squier!" Ernie called out. He was thirty feet away slung out across a floor. The effort caused him to lose purchase and jam his head down onto broken glass. It went through the soft spot of his chin beneath his jaw. The glass cut all the way through to his tongue. It was the first pain he'd felt in a while. He let out a glorious scream. Behind him that very same floor was disappearing. Squier kept limping.
Her right leg, half bent, patted the ground with the ball of her delicate yellow sole perpendicular to her left heel. Her back, the upper part of her body, was only a few inches to the left of where it would have otherwise connected with her pelvis. The lightbox on the wall next to her exploded. The whole building lurched to the left further, a monstrous roar from all around. Then it stopped. Ernie reached out for Squier again, tried to call her but nothing would come out. He gripped the glass shard jutting out the bottom of his face. It lodged deep into his hand. He yanked it out with a force. "SQLIEYUH!" he yelled through his forked face. Then the blood made him gurgle. There was so much of it. A split second image of a turkey with its mouth open, drowning in the pouring rain flashed before Ernie’s eyes. Then the building shook so he was now laying in what had previously been the upper right corner of the ceiling.
Squier was still just slightly left and cut in half from her usual posture, clinging desperately to an IV pole as she limped across what had previously been the wall. She was rolling right over the pictures of the staff and doctors, the little Polaroid’s of field days and graduations, hundreds of lives that she would outlive. It was as though she didn't even have the time to realize her body was split in two. She walked as though this was normal, as though she'd just had too much to drink and it was all a dream.
Ernie called to her. Screamed her name as many different ways as he could. Then a burned hand reached out from the wreckage behind and pulled him in.