Fiction by Ryan Alan Boyle
Can’t call it happiness, not quite victory, but watching Dan Ng pitch over the footlights and flop head-first into that hardwood floor, I did feel a certain satisfaction. Bright lights bearing down, cherry-red guitar cradled in his hands, Dan went staggering, white-faced with distance in his eyes, and tumbled right off the stage while a cheering crowd of fans and friends turned to gasping. Bandmates dropped instruments midsong. Dan wobbling back to his feet while Abbi, his silly new wife, called out—“Dan! Dan!” And me, back of the club looking good, lipstick smirk drawn across my face, hoping that gorgeous cherry Telecaster hadn’t got whacked too bad ’cause it used to be mine.
Supposed to be a homecoming victory for National Hurricane, end of the tour, playing their biggest show yet for an adoring hometown crowd, but here was Dan floundering on the ground. They’d had a whiplash eighteen months—signing to a label with national distro, releasing their second album, Hearts of Palm, to rave reviews and think-pieces, five stars, 9 out of 10, song of the week, album of the year, crowds getting bigger, summer fest bookings, song in a car commercial, another in the credits of a minor TV comedy—year and a half of heat and flash beginning almost as soon as they kicked me out.
Now the club was a chaos: a doctor muscling his way to the front of the crowd, Dan sitting looking faint and staring into space, fans snapping tragedy photos, house lights coming up. Good size venue, nice bright reverb, a room I would’ve liked to play myself. Amplifiers screaming feedback that echoed around the corners as the spinning lights of an ambulance pulled up outside.
I went skipping out the venue into the warm Florida night: palm trees sleeping, stars casting greasy halos, me humming to myself without fear in the late August heat. Hadn’t written a good tune in months, but broke out singing as I flung through the door to my apartment, hair all mussed, makeup humidity-smeared into a fine sweating mess. Tripping over patch cords and pedals, I grabbed for my guitar and a microphone, hit record on the old 4-track—same one I’d demoed the first National Hurricane songs on, convincing Dan to make a go of the band in the first place. Tape winding through the spools, I started playing that song I’d been humming, about how thankful I felt watching the band blow a big gig, how gratified I was watching Dan Ng take a tumble—not caring how late it was or who I woke, ’cause inspiration doesn’t hold down a 9-to-5.
Biopsied and x-rayed and blood tested and the word ain’t good: Something’s growing inside Dan, each test came back worse than the last. Poor Dan, had six months, or three months, maybe a year, or even a 10 percent chance of five years, depending which doctor he talked to when. Baby-faced Dan, only twenty-seven, cusp of success and now he was dying. And me, didn’t I feel like the world’s biggest asshole—like somehow it was my fault. A few days after the show, guilt got the better of me.
His little wife, Abbi, sighed as I walked in the hospital room. “What are you doing here? He needs rest not drama.”
“Seeing my friend,” I said. Blinking lights and snores behind the curtain.
“I’m sorry to have to break it to you,” she said soft, “but he doesn’t want you.”
“Is that Sally?” his voice croaked behind her. “Let her in.”
She set her lips in a flat line, nodded to herself, stepped aside. Dan looked like a crumpled paper ball in a crumpled paper gown in crumpled cotton sheets.
“Heard you’re not feeling great,” I said, sitting next to his bed. Looked over at his wife by the door, her arms crossed, spiky expression playing across her face.
“I’ve been better,” he laughed quiet. “You were at the show?”
“Surprised you invited me, honest.”
“It’s your band. You deserve to see it.” He tried smiling but I turned away, friendliness surprising me. Not the best time to remind him our last conversation was him firing me. “Wasn’t my greatest performance, was it?” He pulled up into a sitting position.
“Those first three songs though, you sounded powerful.” I patted his hand, sight of which made Abbi shake her head slow. “Telecaster never sounded better.”
“Just wait,” he said.
“He’s got this ridiculous idea.” Abbi scoffed. “He thinks getting sick, he thinks it’s good. For the music.”
He smiled for real this time. “I’m going to make something. Truly great.”
“National Hurricane was great,” I said.
“National Hurricane was yours,” he said. I inhaled slow, kept my hands steady. Abbi was right. I shouldn’t have come, blood was too bad.
A blue-scrubbed nurse entered holding a new IV bag and Dan sank back in the sheets, looking like a deflating balloon.
“You should go,” Abbi said, tenderness and concern plain on her face. I nodded and stood, taking a last glance at my friend, looking about as small as he did when we met twenty-whatever years before.
She grabbed my arm on the way out and pulled me close.
“I saw you at the show,” she whispered. “I saw you smiling.”
C-60 Side A – 00:00:04
You should know some stuff about me. Mama was from Oklahoma but didn’t stay, lighting out for the border at fourteen. Trainhopping and hitchhiking down to Juarez, Mexico City, Acapulco, broke and barefoot and wild, before Mexican cops sent her home as an illegal—sixteen and pregnant. Daddy some drunk tourist or other.
Ashamed, Granddad tried to make her respectable. Set her up with an older neighbor boy back from college—upstanding reputation, white savior-type thinking he could civilize Mama, could save me. Moved us down to South Florida, a cheap house in the suburban maze of fresh roads, new construction, baby trees, good schools. Mama, feeling trapped with an infant, knew I needed money and schooling to grow right and seeing no better option. One good thing Stepdaddy did, bought me that Telecaster when I turned fifteen. Suppose he saved me after all.
Mama’s new way to freedom—she liked her drink, and liked seeing me bad. I was a feral thing: biting and kicking, hurling cusses, flipping teachers the finger, reckless and fierce but couldn’t look anyone in the eye. And Mama—either pacing the house like a caged tiger or laid out in a stink—she encouraged me.
“That’s my girl,” she said when I got caught shoplifting.
“My little angel,” she said when I spit on a cop.
“Just like your mama,” she said, picking me up from the station again.
I was nine.
It drove respectable Stepdaddy mad. They had awful rows, thrown cutlery and broken china. Sent me flying out in the night, wishing for a hurricane to slap it all down.
Went running one night after a glass of bourbon hit the wall. The Ngs lived just up the road, Chinese immigrants running the best takeout joint in town. Saw Dan there for the first time, a shrimpy-looking kid sitting alone in the dark in their front yard staring at a plant. I slowed, stopped, wiped my tears, heart racing. He raised his hand.
“Hiya,” he said.
“Hey,” I said.
“It only blooms at night, once a year.” He pointed at the plant.
Heard Mama screaming my name.
“Tell me if it’s pretty,” I said, and kept on running.
That’s about all I care to say about Mama.
* * *
Home from the hospital, Dan called me wanting help on this new album. I set my teeth and said, “Yeah, maybe.”
Came up on his house—little low-slung rancher with slat windows, a sunroom, bright paint, very ’60s Miami. Abbi opened the door with her head in a towel, wet hair hanging, face crushed out like the ash end of a cigarette. She’d showed up only three months before my firing and we hadn’t spoken since. Dan’d met her on tour, when I’d figured her for another cheap and easy band-aid groupie: too much lipstick, not enough self-respect. Now she was Mrs. Ng, and pretty much the anti-me: moderate, reputable, responsible; no vices, no flaws, no fun. Worse, she looked nothing like me.
Abbi waved me into the tiled kitchenette. Formica table was covered in bottles with a big green glass bong rising from the center like a crown. She motioned at a seat but I stood looking at the thing sparkling in the light, fingers twitching. ‘Good girl’ Abbi.
She collapsed in a chair and we looked at each other a long beat. Then she just started yammering, nervous. “There’s a vacation we meant to take, between tours,” she said, eyes going watery. “Head down to Islamorada, rent a houseboat, float from key to key. Swim with dolphins, eat what we catch. I booked the boat, thought I’d surprise him while we still can.”
“Abbi?” I said, still eyeing the bong, smelling the burnt resin, little twinge of skunk in the air. She was sniffling and wheezing, looking down at her hands.
“He said no. And I can’t get him to do anything—I tried to make him visit his brothers. I tried to take him to the beach. His parents came to visit, but he just sits in that room by himself and records. He’s up all hours. I have to bring him meals, remind him to shower. The room stinks. I can barely get him to go to the doctor. It’s like he doesn’t want to get better.”
Shuffled my feet awkward, trying to disguise my pleasure at her pain. She’d never said this much to me. I didn’t know how to respond.
“I know you and I aren’t friends.” She rubbed her arms like she was cold. “But I’m worried in six months I’ll be a widow in black putting him in the ground, and my last memories of Dan will be him wasting away in a dark room that smells like sweat—alone.”
She stood and grabbed a paper towel off the roll, dabbing at her eyes and nose, wet hair sticking to her cheeks. She turned back, saw me staring at the table.
“Oh shit, right.” She grabbed the bong and stuck it in the pantry.
“Should you be smoking around him?”
She paused, glaring at me, and shut the pantry door. “It’s medicinal.”
Abbi was right—Dan’s room smelled something awful. Dim and musky, sunlight streaming in stripes through the slat windows past half-drawn curtains. Place was a patch cord jungle, cables snaking tangled across the floor, eggcrate foam panels glued haphazard to walls and the ceiling. Dan sitting in front of a laptop, his back turned, headphones on, mic close to his lips but sitting silent, looking like a mad scientist in his lab—guitars and synthesizers and samplers and blinking lights and ungrounded amps humming with electricity cycling with the power grid, microphones pointed at walls, at nothing. Even sitting by a mandolin, he looked frail, lit up ashen in the bleached monitor light.
“You’re a sight,” I said.
He jumped, hearing me through the mics, slapped the keyboard and pulled off the headphones.
“Gonna have to redo that take,” he said. Wobbling as he stood, an inflatable man losing air.
“You weren’t playing nothing,” I said.
“Getting the room ambience, the amp hum.” He waved around. “Good to see you, Sal.” Spread his arms for a hug I didn’t want.
There was an amber bottle, color of whiskey, balanced on a bookshelf by the computer.
“You need a bath,” I said, crinkling my nose and pushing him away. “How’s the record coming?”
“Great,” he said, nodding. “I think this is it.”
The bottle was pills.
“Your great masterpiece,” I said.
“You sound jealous.” He smirked and I wanted to slap him right across that gaunt skeleton face.
The pills were painkillers, semisynthetic opioids, oxycodone, pharmaceutical grade good shit.
Put my hands on my hips. “I know you think ‘pressure makes diamonds’ or whatever—”
His grand theory: misfortune fueled great art. Dan’d always wished all manner of pain, terror, and catastrophe on artists and musicians he liked. He went actively rooting for their personal failures and tragedies, being happy when he heard his favorite guitarist was in a car accident, when his favorite singer relapsed after rehab. ’Cause the next album was gonna be “fantastic.”
“Rumours was made in the middle of a divorce,” he said, launching into his usual lecture, talking with his hands. “So was Blood on the Tracks and Here, My Dear and Shoot Out the Lights and The Boatman’s Call and Graceland. David Bowie had liver cancer and released his best album in thirty years two days before he died. This is my chance, Sally. To make something great.”
He didn’t look like he was capable of much besides a nap. “I’m interested to hear your new material too,” he said, smiling.
“I gave that up.”
His eyes narrowed. “What have you been doing the last year?”
I shrugged. “You can fill a lot of time with TV.”
“There’s no point to living if you don’t leave something behind, Sal. Look at Homer. We only have bits of his work that survived, but it’s the Odyssey, man.”
“Still as pretentious as ever.” I scoffed. “Dan, you ain’t Homer. And Art don’t last forever—statue of David, most perfect statue ever, I just read, is toppling on account of weak ankles. That’s what artistic perfection gets you: it collapses under its own weight.”
“David’s not perfect anyway.” He chuckled. “Micropenis.”
“You thought about going outside?” I said. “Spending time with your wife?”
He shook his head. “Most nights I lay awake feeling the clock ticking like a threat, tick tick tick, every heartbeat one less. That’s what I think at night: I’m running out of time. Every second in bed is a waste, every second I’m not up and productive and engaged is pointless. I have one last thing of value to do, and that makes me feel better.”
“Music can’t be everything,” I said, glancing again at the bottle.
He passed headphones to me, pulled over a mic stand, set it before me. “Like old times.”
“I’m not here to forgive you.”
He smiled. “You’re here to sing harmony.”
C-60 Side B – 00:57:31
Quit our day jobs and toured the east coast on a shoestring—young colts running, hair streaming wild. On the road and onstage, living reckless in a van, wearing the same clothes for weeks, gin and whiskey and Vicodin. Wake up in Omaha, sleep outside Chicago, cross the Mississippi, swim in the Pacific. You saw us. I was a freewheeling woman sowing terror on the open road, just like Mama. A saint of danger giving a lesson in how to feel, that’s what I thought.
National Hurricane got signed by a big indie, went in the studio and recorded my songs, called the album Tropical Depression. The sound wasn’t what I expected—bright and savage and silver. Pop hooks followed by bursts of noise and chaos—a rock band I stripped to the chassis, smashed to bits with a hammer, and Dan glued back together perfectly wrong.
Started booking fests, bigger and bigger crowds. Everything I ever wanted. I could barely write a thing.
Started fucking up: went missing, showed up late, flubbed my lines, city after city. In my defense, oxys make you warm all over—whole body vibrating like a struck bell pealing a note of pure rejoicing.
When he kicked me out of National Hurricane, Dan sat me down in the old practice space, posters on the walls, silent amps and broken strings and crushed beer cans everywhere, serious look.
“You and I will get along better this way,” he said.
“Judas,” I hissed.
“I sincerely hope you get help.” He touched my hand, so neutral I wanted to spit.
“That jealous groupie put you up to it, didn’t she.” I shrugged him off. If he’d been mad, would’ve been easier. “This band ain’t shit without me and you know it.”
“I know you’re angry—”
“I will never forgive you as long as you live.” I started walking out, wobbly.
“—but you’ll make something great from this,” he called after me.
The key to avoid a hangover is never stop drinking. Way to avoid withdrawal is never come down. I was in rehab by the time Hearts of Palm came out on a bigger label. Dan’d written and sung a decent batch of songs without me—less anarchic, more conventional, bit overproduced maybe—but the band got noticed, got big.
Started to hate the sound of my voice—everything I sang was a toothache.
I was ashamed. I relapsed. I rehabbed. I relapsed.
* * *
Abbi took to calling all hours.
“I know what you did,” she’d say and hang up.
“I know you stole his painkillers, junkie,” she’d say and hang up.
“I know you’re still in love with him,” she’d say, and start weeping and not hang up, and that was the honest worst.
Tried to keep my distance after that. Things I heard though, rumors of rumors. Sudden alarming loss of blood. Collapsed again, at the supermarket, the bank, right in the doctor’s office. Treatment doing as much damage as the disease. Gaggles of doctors in white coats circling around: puncturing, prodding, pricking, poking, polluting with radiation, poisoning with chemotherapy—and still, scans showing white spots spreading through lungs, liver, large intestine. Poor Dan shriveling up, clumps of hair falling right from his head. In pain but getting pretty used to being in pain, I’d imagine.
Abbi, I’d heard, had given up trying to spend time with him. She was staying out the house, running for hours every day, drinking for hours every night, trying to chase clouds from the sky, like Dan was already gone.
One night late, the phone started ringing again. Tried to ignore it, but the ringer kept clanging—a few minutes later, it started up again.
“Stop calling me! I didn’t take no damn pills!” I started to hang up but heard laughter coming down the line.
“Sally, it’s me. I want you to have the old Telecaster.”
Rolling up on the house the next day, I expected something bad, some accusation or confrontation with Abbi, but she just burst out weeping at the sight of me. I stood there for an awful second not knowing what to do or say, so I didn’t say or do nothing. Finally walked past her to Dan’s recording cave.
TV was on, throwing blue light and sharp shadows across everything. Dan with headphones on again, sitting by the computer. His eyes straight locked on the TV, showing a psychic talk show—ethnically ambiguous lady in a turban and too many jangling rings, telling folks she could speak with the dead. Without turning, Dan held one finger up silent, listening to the TV voices: “communicating with the beyond,” “what is heaven like?” “in a better place, but they miss you.”
Saw a microphone set up under the TV, the words turning into waveforms scrolling choppy across the computer monitor. Dan finally hit a button and lowered his finger. “It’s almost done,” he croaked, pulling off the headphones.
He used to look like a god onstage, now all shriveled and small. Always was a skinny thing but humming with life like a live wire—now his skeleton showed through skin. But he still seemed, even weakened, prideful and madly productive, like a motor speeding up right as it burns out.
A list of titles was half-crumpled and pinned to the bookshelf next to the computer.
Last Night In Paradise
Riptide Out to Sea
Serpent in the Orchids
The Night Blooms
He caught me looking and smiled. For a bare moment, there was the old Dan shining through that weathered skull. “A loose end,” he said. “Nothing but loose ends now.”
I cleared my throat. “How you holding up?”
“My memory is shot, Sally. My head is so cloudy I forget what day it is, forget to change clothes. I lose my keys, microphones, even bottles of medication.”
Felt my back stiffen, ready to deny, but he wasn’t accusing.
“I have no idea where any of it goes. The things. The time. The energy. I thought one day I was going to wake up and finally get it. That meaning of life crap. Like, for instance, you ever worry why the sky at night is dark even though the number of stars in the universe is so ridiculously vast that there should be, like, a hundred stars for every point in the sky? You ever worry about that?”
I shook my head. “No, Dan. I never worried.”
“Why bother,” he said. “The normal state of things is confusion—that’s the only thing to ever get. But, I don’t have to worry anymore. I relinquish responsibility for the world, except for this album.”
He went silent and the TV psychic suddenly blurted: “. . . be reunited in the afterlife . . .”
He looked up at me, eyes dark smudges, rheumy like a granddad. “I imagine it will be just like the kind of sleep where you don’t know you’re asleep, don’t know you’re in a dream, until you wake up. Except I won’t wake up.”
“Except the dead don’t dream,” I said.
“What if they do?”
No color in his face, lips chalky, like a wax figure of himself, but a bad one. He tried to stand slow, swaying like a palm blasted by storm winds. He made it to his feet and looked confused, glanced down at his legs and started shaking all over.
Without even thinking, I stepped up close, closer than I’d been in ages—could smell sweat on him, smell the scaly dried scalp, smell poison coursing through his veins, smell white spots threading around his body, parasitic. I put my arms around him, pulling him right against me, his hands, his legs, his body trembling with mine. Felt like his bones were bird bones, a strong enough gust would carry him off.
“You’re the best friend I ever had,” I said, voice catching in my throat. Squeezed him tighter, till I heard him start wheezing, but felt like he might collapse, I might collapse, if I let go.
TV psychic blurted: “. . . a relief without pain . . .”
He looked down at me teary eyed, faces so close, and landed a kiss right on my lips, slow and warm. I didn’t stop him. Years went melting away, before the tours and the bands, like two fresh cherries tumbling in the backseat for the first time.
“Jesus, Dan,” I said, pushing away. “Your wife is out there crying.”
His face was sunken and webbed, lit by the light of the TV. I barely recognized him. He reached out to wipe a tear off my cheek and I flinched hard. Let out a long breath, felt my knees go watery, and suddenly found myself stumbling for the door. “I gotta go.”
He seemed baffled, picked up that old Telecaster from the corner. “Your guitar,” he said, holding it up, already looking like a ghost of himself.
“I’m sorry. I can’t be here,” I said, pushing through the door. Waiting there was Abbi, more composed but looking salty, her face puffy, eyes red, mouth scowling, weed stink coming strong off her clothes and hair. Streaks of fear down my back, thinking she’d been listening, thinking she’d heard it all.
“How could you steal from him?” Her lip trembling. “He’s dying!” I let out a sigh of relief.
“I been sober thirteen months,” I said, and pushed past her, empty-handed. Swore to myself I was never going back.
Two days after, he called again. “The album needs a duet,” he said.
Two days after that he was in hospice.
C-60 Side A: 00:48:53
We’d skipped school again, cruised the mall. Felt me up in the backseat—probably you don’t care to hear, but I’m trying honesty.
Lighting up a joint in the parking lot after, he leaned forward. “Okay, so. The point of art isn’t to see,” he said. “It’s to be seen.” And I cracked up. He got mighty philosophical around weed.
“I’m serious. Everything is bullshit,” he said, waving at cars in the mall parking lot, at patrons with new purchases in shiny plastic bags. “Buy. Sell. Only way off the hamster wheel is to be caught unaware. By beauty.”
“Or ugliness.” I laughed. This was after our second or third band broke up—The Wet Land or Big Fucking Shark or something else—only played two terrible shows.
“It’s like, mystical or some shit, some connection across space and time. You don’t go to see the Mona Lisa,” he said, exhaling a cloud of smoke. “You go to be seen by the Mona Lisa. Every visitor feels like she’s just smiling for them.”
“You never saw no Mona Lisa,” I said, shaking my head, pulling the joint out his mouth.
“Yeah but like, finding that painting or that movie or that song, you know? That’s what it’s about, that connection: knowing immediately your life will change, has already changed. Knowing someone thinks like me. Someone feels like me. Someone is like me. Someone likes me. Mystical.” His eyes bloodier than bloodshot.
“I like you fine,” I said, I could still feel his hands all over me. “But you got it wrong, point is to scramble your senses. Get fucked up, psychedelic and shit.” I took a drag and passed it back. “Let’s hit the food court.”
“They got those soft pretzels,” he said. He pulled me close, arm on my hip.
“You’ll find the pretzel smiles just for you,” I whispered in his ear.
* * *
The worst day of my life broke strong and blue, no clouds. Quiet morning mid-December, sitting struggling over a guitar when the call came. It just about killed me—like some piece of the world had gone missing, like going to the beach and finding the ocean empty, like looking up at night and seeing the moon split in two. Whole host of angels come blowing their horns announcing the end.
Went stumbling outside, pitched, half blind, blinking in the punishing sun. Heat usually slacked off before December, but not this year. Got in the car baking like inside an oven, sweat springing up all over. Burned my hands on the searing leather steering wheel. “Merry Christmas,” I said and burned my hands on the metal end of the seatbelt latch.
Went driving through my neighborhood, through the next, following that maze of familiar roads and canals, back to our old street, past his house, half expecting two kids that looked like us playing out front, ring around the cereus. Everyone in ugly sweaters in the too-hot weather, fairy lights twinkling up and down the palm trees, snowflake motifs in a place it never snowed, sun sitting high in the sky.
Found myself suddenly pulling up to my old house, a place I hadn’t been in ages. Mama’d never been one for tradition, but there were strings of lights up, a wreath withering on the door, canned frost sprayed in the windows, making me doubt she even still lived there. We hadn’t talked much after I left school.
I pulled up and the front door opened and there was Mama looking smaller and softer than I remembered, a tired old lady in a cigarette-burned robe with hair all tangled—but still seeming like she’d expected me. I got out the car and she walked up without a sound, put her arms around me.
Old place was almost the same inside: piles of mail everywhere, dusty knickknacks she probably didn’t remember owning, empty pill bottles. Except she had a Christmas tree all dolled up with tinsel and ornaments, something she’d stopped doing when I was about nine. She caught me looking at it.
“I still put it up,” she said in a smoky voice, pulling her robe closed. “Since the divorce.”
“’Tis the season,” I said.
She cackled. “Makes me feel less alone.”
She started filling a kettle from the tap. I moved a stack of newspaper to take a seat at the kitchen table. Framed picture on the wall of Dan and me as little kids making silly faces on a green lawn. I started shivering, sharp cold, face sweat-slick.
“You can get sick with any disease at any time,” she said, her back to me as she put on the kettle. “No rhyme or reason to nothing.”
“What a thought,” I mumbled.
“That’s life.” She pulled two mugs down from the cupboard, dropped a teabag in each before turning and catching sight of my state.
“It’s my fault, Mama.” Felt my hands start shaking, voice catching, frightful. “It’s all my fault.”
“Oh Sally, baby.” She sat down and touched my hair. “You ain’t God.”
C-60 Side A – 00:18:32
Stepdaddy moved us to that neighborhood like a maze when I was six. No streets identical, no houses exact, but everywhere close enough looking to everywhere else that it was hard to get your bearings, like wandering the desert looking for one dune you recognize.
Dan Ng, the one interesting boy in the whole place, shaving his hair into a mohawk, wearing jean jackets even in summer heat, jumping his bike off homemade ramps. There was a heat between us, even then. Made fast friends, setting off bottle rockets, waiting on the night-blooming cereus to blossom, looking for toads and turtles and gators in the canals. Stealing sips from his daddy’s liquor cabinet, we’d go riding bikes tilting drunk through the maze trying to find something, anything notable but just finding each other again.
We hit high school, the local freaks. All around us, Florida sunbathers with calf implants and spray tans, retirees with toupees and silicone breasts, and I’m praying for a tidal wave, shark attack, alligator rampage. Started pilfering pills from Mama’s medicine cabinet, going to see local bands play with our heads spinning free. Started our own incompetent bands. Everybody hated us, nobody came to our shows, the Okie slut and the Chinese punk. Made us bolder, confounding, trying new sounds to please nobody but ourselves. We grew up weird together, me and him, two trees twisting round each other reaching for the light.
I dropped out of high school, he left for college. Broke up for good, ended things bad, didn’t talk for a year or more. But something clicked, we got good, apart. He came back on break and the things he could suddenly do with a guitar hit me funny.
Played him the tunes on the tape I’d made in my bedroom. He looked awful pretty, standing there listening to my songs—he didn’t notice, or didn’t acknowledge, they were about him.
He said he knew a drummer.
* * *
Clouds stacked up pink and turquoise like an old colorized photo. Down by the water, bunch of folding chairs set out in a semicircle around a podium, a pier, boats bobbing in the tide, sound of waves lapping, seagulls keening a sad song, condo towers looming on either side with Christmas decorations in the windows like a joke. Open casket beside a big smiley photo of healthy young Dan, full head of hair Dan, no idea what’s coming Dan. All this pageantry for the living, no, it wrecked me.
Black dress, black flats, black ribbon, black eyeliner—everyone else sweating in sweaters and jackets. Some folks got up to speak, people sharing stories: his brothers, band members, his parents struggling in broken English before giving up and switching to tearful Cantonese, but everyone got it. Someone said something about heaven. I don’t believe in no heaven but I imagined Dan circling high overhead in a plane, looking down from a window over the wing, head on glass, eyes half closed. A plane that would never land, where the babies still cried but the peanuts were always free. I could maybe never write another song in my life.
I wanted to dance, wanted a whiskey. No.
Tried to speak with his folks but it’d never been easy—even with Dan there to translate, they’d always been distant types, stoic. His dad stooped and bald-headed, his mama half-milky-eyed, fragile as a leaf. Both faces lined and weathered, but they patted my shoulder, rubbed my arm, warmer than they’d ever been, as if I was the one needing comfort, no. Mr. Ng tried to tell me over and over that Dan and me were “oldest friends,” but the accent sounded like he kept saying “only friends.” I kept seeing Dan tumbling off that stage, kept seeing me smiling, round and round my brain, no, seemed so petty now.
I wanted to sing, wanted powders and pills. Get me away. I’m dying.
Got close to the casket, but no, couldn’t look, no, couldn’t bear it. There he was lying stiff, probably looking healthier than he had in months—rosy cheeks, unsunk eyes, rigor mortis smile—but it wasn’t him, don’t look. Revolting, baffling, way we turn into objects—a body with nothing spiritual, musical, magical, with nothing real about a person, just a hunk of rotting meat wearing the face of someone you loved, no, someone I loved. Those last days of Dan, still reaching for glory as he withered, no, it was maybe more important to live. Could still feel his hands all over me. Ambition a hole that couldn’t be filled, no, afraid of everything I loved. Didn’t look, couldn’t look, blind, terror, weak in the knees, no, if I fell I’d keep falling down a dark tunnel and never hit bottom, don’t look, see the clouds instead, see the seagulls, see the searing sun. He died thinking I hated him. My friend.
Get me away. I’m dying. Can’t even remember being young.
Abbi was making eye contact through her veil. Her fists clenched, jaw set, her husband dead beside us. Please, no.
We stood with locked eyes a long minute, sweat trickling down my back, before her face crumbled, body swaying like she was about to spill herself over the concrete—and I knew how she felt. I grabbed her elbow, stinking of booze, and propped her up.
“I got all the stories,” I said soft. “I’ll make you a tape.”
“I thought you hated me,” she said.
“No,” I said. “No, no, no.”
C-60 Side B – 00:19:08
Writing Tropical Depression felt like a fever, every neuron sizzling, every thought a lyric, every sound a chord, like I could write my way outside life. Maybe the best thing I’ll ever do. Still living off the meager royalty checks, fractional pennies per some thousand online plays barely covering rent. Inspiration sure feels like an alien thing, some mighty spirit that enters and moves through you when it wants, not when you want. Suppose it hasn’t wanted to move through me for a good while now.
One tour, before you, we hit Europe, played a dirty Paris nightclub for an indifferent crowd. Next day I went alone to the Louvre. Saw the great works. Mona Lisa lit up in pixels on a hundred phone screens, the tourists snapping photos from twenty feet away through plexiglass. I didn’t feel seen. She might have been smiling for someone, but not for me.
Life is short: make enemies, burn the bridge you stand on, dream small.
* * *
Package came in the mail addressed to me, Abbi’s handwriting. Didn’t want to open it but I did. Didn’t want to put it on the stereo but I did. Didn’t want to listen but I did. It had to be mind-blowingly great. To be worth it. A prerelease copy, The Night Blooms.
The cover was an overexposed polaroid of young punk Dan—green mohawk, sleeveless denim jacket covered in band patches, mouth open like he was saying something insufferably profound—the cereus behind him, three buds bursting pink and wide.
No record could have come with more tragic feeling, no album could have better reflected my dumb life—my Tonight’s the Night, my Berlin, my A Crow Looked at Me—but it sounded like nothing to me. Mixed bad, hard to hear, out-of-tune, a discordant mush of sleepy mumbled vocals over bleating beats and sappy sentimental lyrics. Dan sounded too tired to pluck a guitar string.
He’d never make his great work. A statue crumbling down at the ankles, the album was trash, his masterpiece. Yet there was love in it.
Put it on my shelf and went digging through my own tapes, stacks I’d piled since leaving National Hurricane, and listened to the bits of songs and half-formed ideas. Better than I’d remembered, some even as good as Tropical Depression. They were raw and seething, gnashed teeth and barbed wire, each song a fist clenching tighter.
Then I got to the one from the night Dan fell, my first time listening back. It was undeniable—maybe a single. But there was no love in it, no love in any of them.
Started unwinding the spools after listening to each cassette, letting that magnetic tape spill out in great shining black threads. A few days ago this would have felt a crime but now it felt good—I liked the glossy pile of tape at my feet. Can’t call it sad, not quite liberation, but it felt meaningful, it felt like love. I started pulling harder, ripping out lengths of tape, sweating and smiling and enjoying it as one after another fell in long streamers fluttering to the floor. I put one last C-60 cassette in the machine and hit record. “You should know some stuff about me,” I said into the mic, and filled both sides.
Looked over the mess I’d made, a weightless shimmering mountain of tape around my feet. Still breathing, left alive. I headed for the door, wishing I’d taken the damn Telecaster so I could smash that too.
I opened the door and heard something way off in the distance, something like a peal of joy. Went running in the sunlight, trailing laughter—felt unafraid, wide open, alive—bottle of pills rattling in my pocket like a tambourine.
|Ryan Alan Boyle is an editor, writer, and music journalist. He has written and edited liner note essays for acclaimed archival albums released by the Numero Group—including Teen Expo: The Cleopatra Label, Local Customs: Cavern Sound, Joanna Brouk: Hearing Music, and The Royal Jesters: English Oldies, among others. His fiction has appeared in Atticus Review, Opossum, and Fiction Southeast. He earned a masters degree in American history from the University of Florida and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York, with 2.6 million other humans.|