|Jul/Aug 2013 Fiction|
Digital artwork by Adam Ferriss
You know the tune. Even if you don't know which version you're listening to, you still know the song when you hear it. And maybe you know a few words, about how there was a secret chord that David played and it pleased the Lord, but you don't care for the music as much as I do. I can guarantee you that. Just ask any of the regulars from karaoke night down at Max Rogan's Bar & Grill. They know I don't mess around. As soon as I walk in, the whispers start.
"Hey, look. There's the Hallelujah Guy. He's good."
I always take a seat at the bar even when it's crowded, and if there aren't any seats, I wait against the back wall as long as I have to for a stool to open up. Max and Sasha know me well enough by now not to ask if I want a drink until after I've sat down. But once I've situated myself with my shoes on the footrest and my arms folded over the counter, one of them, usually Max, comes over to take my order. I feel my throat tightening as the performance draws near. Max's tip at the end of the night is determined by how little he talks to me now.
"Good to see you, Cameron," Max says, pink lips drawn out between his muttonchops. "All ready for tonight?"
"You know it," I reply, and if I can muster the levity, I might see his smile and raise him a wearied thumbs-up, but otherwise I just sit and nod.
"Right. Vodka tonic?"
Max turns to the row of clear glass bottles on the shelf, and unless he makes the mistake of trying to chat me up before show time, he'll get his 15 percent when I'm finished. In the meantime, Sasha passes through the partition at the end of the bar and goes over to turn on the karaoke machine. A blue plane of light spreads over the projection screen, and right away a smattering of applause rises up from the drunks at the back tables. The song book is unleashed among them, and they all edge in around good-natured Sasha for one of the ink-drained pens that will leave them drawing invisible circles on the scraps of paper. If there's one thing I can't stand about my craft, it's all the amateurs I have to compete with. Some of them don't even know what song they're going to choose before they pick up the book. All the time I can hear them debating with their friends as they drag their cold wet hands over the rightly plastic-protected sheets.
"Hey, man, you wanna do some Skynyrd wit' me?"
"Nah, man, let's do somethin' funny. Cee Lo Green or Outkast."
While all that mess is going on, I take out my wallet and remove one of the printed slips I always bring with me to karaoke night. It's essential to get to Sasha first before anyone else. Otherwise I might have to suffer through some drunk redneck's rendition of "I've Got Friends in Low Places." If it weren't for the house rules about karaoke night, I wouldn't bother with the slips. I memorized the numbers for every version of "Hallelujah" in the book a long time ago—Allison Crowe (AL3012), Jeff Buckley (JE375), John Cale (JO1187), Leonard Cohen (LE2817), Rufus Wainwright (RU104). There are 374 different versions out there. I'm confident in my ability to perform at least 16 of them. Someday I'd like to find a bar that carries Peter Jöback's Swedish-language cover "Hallelujah Decembernatt," but until then Max Rogan's has the best selection in Fresno.
I maneuver around the outside tables to catch Sasha right as she's taking her place at the computer. But along the way this drunk Elvis Costello-looking bastard with a shaved head bumps into my shoulder and spills beer down the sleeve of my favorite blue pinstriped shirt. And as I'm reeling with anxiety at the thought of performing with a big wet stain on my arm, the bastard does a sort of lazy half-turn and mumbles "Sorry, guy," before stumbling past me to hand his song request to Sasha first. Nothing would please me more at this moment than to run out into the street and beat my fists against the ground, but I haven't missed a karaoke night at Max Rogan's all year, and above all else, the show must go on.
"Hey, Cam," Sasha says. "You feeling all right? You look pale."
"I'm fine," I tell her, trying to keep my breathing steady. "Just nervous."
"Don't be nervous. You always do great. Last week, especially, I think you really impressed the crowd."
Sasha has always been nice to me. I don't know why. With big Max there's the tip he's working for, but Sasha isn't obligated to do anything more than take my number and enter it into the computer. That she goes out of her way to try to calm me down is something I'm eternally grateful for. It's not enough to make me forget the filthy stain on my shirt, but it helps.
"Which version is it gonna be tonight?"
"The original," I reply, handing her the unfolded slip.
"Got it. You'll be on in a few minutes. There's one person ahead of you."
I'm afraid she can hear the bitterness in my voice, but smoothing things over with her will have to wait. Right now there are more pressing matters to be dealt with. I duck into the men's room and try to wipe out the stain with a wad of paper towels, but I only succeed in spreading it out over the fabric. No matter. I've got a nice V-neck t-shirt on underneath, and with the Cohen version I don't feel the need to dress up quite as much. I fold up my blue pinstriped shirt, hold it behind my back, and exit the men's room, praying that no one will notice the wardrobe change.
As soon as I'm through the door, I know something is terribly wrong. The music for "Hallelujah" has already started up, but it's the Wainwright version instead of the Cohen. And as I stand frozen, unable to decide between complaining to Sasha or going along with the mistake, I see the Drunk Bastard mosey up to the front and take hold of the microphone, his head covered with an ugly gray porkpie hat that makes the Elvis Costello resemblance even more uncanny.
"Hey, guys," he says, tossing the mic from hand to hand like a Vegas lounge singer. "This is a song from my favorite movie. Shrek!"
Laughter and cheers fly out the mouths of the drunks. My hands fall to my sides, and the blue pinstriped shirt unfolds against my leg. The Bastard starts in with the opening verse, and by the time he gets to the part about the baffled king, I can barely keep my hands from shaking. My song. The Bastard's stolen my song. And as if that isn't bad enough, he's having fun with it. When the chorus starts up, he pulls the mic away from his lips and waves his arms through the air like an evangelical preacher, crooning, "Hal-le-LU-yuh! Hal-le-LU-yuh! Hal-le-LU-yuh! Hal-le-Loo-OO-oo-OO-yuh!"
I'm so mortified by the start of the second verse that I don't even notice Sasha approaching until she's already at my side. She bites her lip gently and lays a hand on my trembling shoulder.
"I didn't realize what song he picked when I was entering it in," she says. "If you want, you can hold off until later."
"It's fine," I say. "I need to get going anyway."
Out on the street I collapse onto the first empty bench I can find. Already panting, I sit clutching the collar of my good winter coat and trying to hold myself together. But as the tears fight their way through, I can tell that this is going to be a very bad night. For 42 Tuesdays my solace has been replenished by the spotlight, by the sound of my own voice bleeding out through the rafters of the dimly lit bar, but there is no solace tonight, no peace, nothing to look forward to except the cold silence of my apartment and the blessed Xanax above my bathroom sink.
It was during my second stay at the Serene Waters Wellness Center that the music first took hold of me. I was in bad shape. I was on three different medications, and still they wouldn't let me eat with real silverware. But then one afternoon while I was doing crafts with some of the other residents, a woman I had never seen before came through on a guided tour of the facility. She was middle-aged with brown hair streaming down her back, and she made a soft rattling sound as she walked because of all the strings of pearls around her neck. She also wore a braided wool vest over her dress, and even if I didn't know who Janis Joplin was back then, I could still guess what kind of look she was going for.
"And this is the activity room," the Director said. "Right now some of our residents are enjoying personal creative time."
The woman glanced at our green clay ashtrays before turning to examine the rest of the supplies available to us—the heavy tubes of paint and Elmer's glue, baskets of feathers, sheets of colored construction paper. Her face retained the same neutral expression until she noticed our Thanksgiving hand-turkeys on the wall, at which point I heard her laugh under her breath.
"What about music?" she asked. "Do you have anything for patients who like to sing or play instruments?"
The Director scrunched her overfed face together and puzzled over it for a second.
"Well," she said, "we have a stereo in the lounge, and the residents are free to have visitors bring in any equipment they want, but otherwise we're not set up for much."
"I see," the woman said, gazing up at our pinecone wind chimes. "Maybe I can look into getting a few things together to donate."
"That would be wonderful. We're always looking for ways to liven up their routines."
As the Director led her into the hall, the woman looked back over her shoulder and noticed me staring at her. I still remember the look she gave me, a pitying smile that probably had as much to do with my inability to shape ashtray handles as with the situation I was in.
Her name was Dr. Cynthia Bray. She wasn't a medical doctor, but she had a PhD and worked as a professor of music at Fresno State. Not long before she wandered into the activity room at Serene Waters, her favorite niece decided to skip counseling and opt for some stainless steel medication in the bathtub. It came as a serious blow to Dr. Bray, and in the months that followed, she decided to start volunteering with organizations that provided mental health services to young people in the area. And after her first tour of Serene Waters, she became convinced that we needed more than preschool art supplies to help us get readjusted.
So that Sunday we were all invited to a special group meeting with Dr. Bray as the guest speaker. About two dozen of us showed up. We weren't sure what to expect, but for attending meetings we received these blue plastic chips that we could exchange for candy and cigarettes at the residents store. I didn't smoke or have much of a sweet tooth, but I attended anyway just to have something to do.
"I'm happy to see so many of you here tonight," Dr. Bray said. She stood at the center of the chair circle with a portable karaoke machine set up in front of her. "To begin with, how many of you have ever played a musical instrument?"
A few hands poked up shyly along the perimeter of the circle, but most kept still.
"Oh, come now. Certainly you all must have some experience with music?"
She scanned the faces of the other residents until our eyes met once again. I was trying not to stare at her this time, but, damn it, for an older woman she really had a quality about her.
"Young man," she said. "How old are you?"
"I see. And you never studied music in school?"
With all the attention focused on me, I tried to appear calm while strangling my hands inside the pouch of my baggy gray don't-give-a-fuck sweatshirt.
"Not really," I said. "I took choir class instead of band."
She turned up one of her palms and laughed delightedly. "That's still music," she said. "Your voice is an instrument like any other."
"Sorry," I said, eyes dropping to her feet. She took a step toward the karaoke machine, which let out a cheerful digital melody as she switched it on.
"How many of you have ever sung karaoke?"
Another timid show of hands, even fewer this time.
"I understand that some of you must get anxious at the thought of performing in front of a group. Now, I'm not a psychiatrist, and I can only imagine what you've all been through to wind up here, but I think if you could find something to take your mind off your problems, you would feel a lot more positive about life in general. And I think music is a very good option, even if all you do is sing karaoke for fun. Because when you're up on stage and the music is playing, you'd be amazed at how quickly you let go of your worries."
My eyes, which had been rising up slowly since she resumed talking, were now locked onto her. My hand, in turn, unclenched its counterpart and shot into the air.
"That sounds like therapy."
"It is. In a way."
"So if we really get into music, then we won't be so caught up in our own thoughts?"
"I think music could be a very positive outlet for all of you," she said. "It's like the song says—'Even though it all went wrong, I'll stand right here before the Lord of Song, with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.'"
The lyrics developed as a black and white film across my mind's eye—a man destitute, with nothing and no one between him and the darkness, suddenly redeemed through the power of music. As quickly as it came to me, the daydream faded away and I stared back up at the doctor.
"What song is that?"
Again she laughed.
"I think we have our first volunteer," she said, and beckoned for me to come up and claim the microphone.
The karaoke nights became a regular Sunday event, the highlight of the week for me and a lot of other residents. I was terrified the first time I stood in front of an audience, but I soon discovered that as long as I followed the progression of the yellowing lyrics on the screen, I could drown out everything else, including the darker voices inside my head. Some of the other residents teased me about it. They thought I took it too seriously. But they didn't understand. As far back as high school, the voices came to me at night to remind me that death was not something to fear but a kind and loveable thing that could solve the problem of my life by ushering me away to a place where I could be at once alone and without loneliness. They were always there, always whispering. But once I started singing, really singing, I put away the thought of death. For the others it was a hobby. For me, it was church.
So you can imagine what it means to me when some Drunk Bastard in a porkpie hat comes along and steals my song.
Wednesday morning I call in sick to work. My editor sounds concerned on the phone. He's still waiting on the CD reviews I promised him two days ago, but he knows when I get like this I'm no good to the paper anyway. "Take a couple days to yourself, Cam," he says. "But if you can get something done in time to go to print, drop it in my email, all right?" I sleep until 3:20, and after a quick adrenaline shower, I'm back at Max Rogan's right as it opens at four. Sasha stands alone behind the empty bar setting up pint glasses for the happy hour rush.
"Hey, Cam," she says. "You back for your card?"
"Yeah, sorry," I say, positioning myself on a stool. "What do I owe you?"
She takes my card from the register and sets it down on the bar. "Don't worry about it," she says. "You barely touched your drink."
"Still, I left my tab open. I don't want Max to be mad at me."
She does this little titled-head smirk thing she does and reaches for another pint glass. She's not a tall woman, but she has slender features—long arms, long hips, long fingers.
"Max isn't mad," she says. "He likes you."
"Yeah. He thinks you've got a good voice. A lot of people do."
She puts the glass she's drying aside and looks up. This time she gives me a full smile while leaning forward over the bar. She surprises me. I haven't even ordered a drink and she's already working for the tip. I slide my card back to her.
"I guess I'll take a vodka tonic."
"Sure. Keep it open?"
"Actually, is Max around? I want to ask him something."
"He'll be in later. Why? What's up?"
I wait for her to finish mixing the drink. Once it's resting on a paper napkin in front of me, I bring the glass to my lips, and before I realize it, I've finished half of it in a single gulp. I don't know what's happening to me, whether it's just karaoke withdrawals or if I'm really regressing to the dark side.
"I was wondering," I say. "I was wondering how much Max would charge if someone wanted to buy a song."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, if someone wanted to have a song taken out of the book so only he could sing it, how much do you think Max would charge?"
She gives me a different kind of look and releases an unsettled laugh.
"Is this because Devon beat you to "Hallelujah" last night?"
"No," I answer sharply. "I was just wondering."
Devon. The Bastard has a name. Devon.
Sasha reaches under the counter and pulls out a small gray flier. "Have you heard about the Fog Fair this Sunday?" she asks. "Max is performing with his bluegrass band. You should come. It's gonna be a good show."
"I didn't know Max played bluegrass," I say, taking up the flier. "Is he making you hand these out to everybody?"
"I don't mind," she says. "I'm in the band, too. I play guitar."
I take another sip of vodka and pretend to study the advertisement. Sasha brushes a lock of yellow hair from her face and blinks at me several times. I can guess what she's angling at. She must have remembered me mentioning that I write reviews for The Fresno Bee. Not a bad trade, really—free publicity for their band in exchange for exclusive rights to the song.
"I'll check it out," I say. "If you see Max before then, tell him I'll be there."
"Awesome," she says, and she grabs another napkin from the stack on the counter. "Let me give you my number in case you have trouble finding the place."
When I'm finished with the drink, I rise slowly and leave with Sasha's cell number scratched across the bar napkin in the same faint blue ink of karaoke night. Somewhere in my contract there's got to be a rule against accepting favors for articles, but I don't care. It's worth the risk in this case. All I have to do is put up with a few hours of bad weather and bad music, and I'll own "Hallelujah" forever.
Sunday I drive downtown bright and early for the start of the Fog Fair. Well, early, anyway. The fog that rolled in sometime before dawn still obscures the sky and everything beyond a few blocks' radius. Even so, there's already a crowd gathered around the stage, standing snug with their hands in their coat pockets, waiting for something to happen. I meet Sasha in a tented area behind the stage, and she surprises me by running up and giving me a hug. She looks pretty in a short wool jacket, blue skirt, and dark leggings. I guess I don't look like much by comparison, what with my baggy gray sweatshirt, but it's not like I'm the one going up on stage or anything.
"Glad you made it, Cam," she says, standing with one knee bent. "How are you?"
"Fine," I say. "Just haven't been sleeping very well."
She frowns empathetically. "There's some coffee on the table," she says.
"Good to know." A blast of wind catches me across the cheek, and I burrow my hands even deeper into my sweatshirt pouch. "This whole thing is kind of crazy," I say. "Having a big event like this outside in the middle of winter."
She smiles. "Because we should only have fun when the weather's nice?"
"Just teasing," she says. "Anyway, I need to help set up. Stick around after the show, okay? I want to talk to you about something."
She picks a brown guitar case up from the table and exits for the stage, looking back over her shoulder at me as she mounts the steps. When she's gone, I pull out my tablet and pen and start jotting down some notes about the venue. If Sasha wants me to interview her so badly, she should've talked to me now. It's crowded here under the tent—band members tuning instruments, friends and family munching donuts and sipping coffee—and I'm not sure I can handle staying through the entire show.
I run into Max on my out to get some air. He's carrying a violin case in one hand and hugging a woman's shoulder with the other. She's not too pretty, really—short and obese with a pink track jacket stretched tight around her middle. But they do look good together, I'll admit, both big and both pink and both happy, and the baby resting on her shoulder seems content with the situation.
"Cam, you made it!" Max says, patting my arm. "Sasha said you might turn out."
"I'm happy I did," I say. "I was hoping I could talk to you."
"No prob," he says, and turns to the woman beside him. "Honey, can you see if Sasha needs any help testing the mic?"
"Course," she says. "But only if you can take over the little prince for a while."
She pats the baby's bottom and hands him off to his father. Max turns the baby around for me to see. He looks up at me with his blue glass marble eyes and furrows his tiny brow, unsure of what to make of the new face presented for his inspection. I can't blame him, honestly. If I was in his position, I wouldn't know what to make of me, either.
"This is the little prince," Max says. "Our boy Dylan. Mind holdin' him while I tune up?"
"I don't know anything about babies."
"It's cool," he says. "Just takes some practice."
And before I know what's happening, a fragile young life is resting in my arms, gazing up at me in ignorance of how ill-suited I am to support him. Already I can feel my hands shaking, which fortunately the little prince misinterprets as some sort of game. His eyes roll sleepily as the vibrations run through him, and he takes his balled fist in his mouth like a binky and gnaws on his fingers with slobbery pink gums. Max unhooks his case and begins tightening and untightening different strings, plucking them with his fingernail as he goes along, moving his ear in close to listen for the changes.
"I didn't know you played the violin, Max."
"Fiddle," he says. "In bluegrass it's called a fiddle."
"Sorry. I forgot."
He laughs. "It's fine, man. No worries."
"I actually do know a lot about music," I say. "I even work as a music writer for The Bee. But I guess Sasha already told you that."
"She didn't mention it," he says. "But I'm not surprised, as often as we see you at karaoke night."
"Yeah, sorry about that. You guys probably get tired of hearing "Hallelujah" all the time."
"You sing it well," he says. "At first I wasn't sure why you liked it so much. Thought you might be a Jesus freak or something."
I don't laugh very often, but I laugh now. It's too absurd not to. "I'm a music freak," I say. "I don't even believe in God."
"Neither does Sasha," he says, and he shoots me a strange wink like there's supposed to be some mutual joke between us or between me and Sasha or between Sasha and him, but whatever it is I don't get it, and anyway I'm about all laughed out for the week.
"I guess she told you why I'm here today. About the song."
"You mean the duet?" he says, trading the fiddle for the baby, who at some point managed to fall asleep in my arms. "It's okay by me. We'd be glad to have you."
"I don't know what you mean."
I feel something brush up along the side of my back, and when I turn around Sasha is there grinning up at me.
"Hey," she says. "You hungry?"
Something strange starts happening under the tent. Suddenly I'm sitting at a picnic table eating some Chinese noodles that don't taste half-bad, Sasha across from me, chatting me up, telling me all about her favorite singers and what it's been like playing with the band. But I don't reach for my note tablet. In fact, I forget all about the article. I just sit and listen, watching her, and by the time she gets around to the Decemberists and their bluegrass spin-off band, the monologue has turned into a conversation.
"I've never heard a good karaoke version of 'Yankee Bayonet,'" I say. "Even if the couple is sober enough to keep pace, one of them always ends up singing over the other."
"That chorus is a bitch," she says. "To get it right, you really have to gasp it instead of sing it."
"True. The worst version I ever heard sounded like a cross between that and 'For the Longest Time.'"
She laughs into her hands, and we just keep going on like that. None of the other band members join us at the table, but there's life and activity all around. Tech guys move equipment in and out, joke with one another in passing. Scent of chicken skewers and hot kettle corn blows in through the entrance. Dude with a braided beard plucks a small, burgundy-varnished mandolin, one foot propped up on an amplifier. And all the while the fog hangs above us like a second canopy, and it amazes me that so much warmth can be found under all this cold.
"We should probably start playing soon," she says. "I'll talk to you afterwards. There's still something I want to tell you."
Out in the cold among the crowd, I stand in the back next to Max's wife, whose name I learn is Vanessa, and she gives me another turn holding the little prince, who's woken up from his nap and turned into a little ball of energy. Smiling toothlessly, he takes both drawstrings of my hood and whips them up and down like a sled team leader driving the snow dogs forward. Mush, mush.
"He's a playful little guy once he warms up to you."
"He's usually never good with strangers," Vanessa says. "But he likes you."
The speakers blare momentarily as the band takes its place on stage. Sasha stands out front, guitar strap across her shoulder, string accompaniment behind her.
"How y'all doing this morning?" she asks the crowd through the microphone. A few cheers and scattered clapping. "Thanks for coming out. We're the Blue Picks."
"Huh," I say. "Didn't know she sang."
"Shoot, she practically started the band," Vanessa explains. "Got it up off the ground same as the karaoke nights."
Sasha strums a few chords, and the rest of the band joins in after her. They start off strong with a couple old classics, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" and "Wildwood Flower," Sasha's voice carrying the melodies with a melancholy grace more like Emmylou Harris than June Carter. But then she takes a detour through ballads I've only heard sung by men, "Carrickfergus" and "Green Fields of France," and still she owns the stage, filling the songs with such bittersweet longing that I can imagine yearning for my own far-off homeland, wherever it might be. Her long fingers move across the frets as naturally as a bird gliding over water, eyes lie shut, hair hangs in blonde curls off her shoulders like a young Stevie Nicks. She's astounding, really, and by the time she's finished mourning Private Willie McBride, I feel ashamed of myself. All this time I've been tooting my own horn, but I'm nothing compared to her. Just a karaoke guy. She's a real singer.
"Thank you," she says as the strings' final notes fade to quiet. "For our last song, we'd like to invite a special friend to come up and join us." She glances sideways at Max, who nods approvingly with his fiddle resting in the crook of his arm. "Cameron," she says, "get up here."
Vanessa smiles at me and pulls the little prince from my shoulder. The unexpected command and ensuing applause drive me up to the stage, but once I'm there looking out at the chilled spectators whose expectations for the finale have been built up beyond reason, I feel my chest tightening and stare blankly out at the white screen of descended sky as if the familiar yellow lyrics might appear in neon across the clouds.
"I can't do this," I say.
"Yes, you can," Sasha replies. "You've done it a hundred times."
"Not like this. It's too different. I need the words."
"I'm right here. Just follow my lead."
"But what song am I going to sing?"
"Honey," she says. "You know what song."
I take a deep breath as Sasha starts in with the opening chords. Max and the others follow in with fiddle, mandolin, and bass until only I remain standing silent, the entire audience staring up at me in wait. Fighting my throat's urge to contract, I close my eyes and begin to sing.
"I heard there was a secret chord…that David played and it pleased the Lord…"
Sasha carries me through the first verse with a slow and unpretentious rhythm. In the darkness I've made for myself, I drown out everything but the sound of her guitar pick tearing across the strings, so it catches me off-guard when her voice emerges at the start of the chorus to turn the song into a duet. I have to pay close attention to keep our voices in harmony. That's something I've never had to do before, harmonize with another person. But somehow I'm not afraid. I change my pitch as needed, her sound alone coming through to me in the holy dark, the audience and everything else vanishing from thought, and in this moment I've never felt more vulnerable or more secure. Opening my eyes for the final refrain, I see that some in the audience are swaying with their hands up, as if in surrender, and at the end they all break out clapping in a way that sounds similar to the applause of barflies but feels a whole lot better.
"You see?" Sasha says, slipping her hand into mine for the closing bow.
Still in a kind of trance, I tuck my arm around her waist as we make our way offstage.
"That was bizarre," I say. "I started off with the Wainwright cover, but by the end I wasn't sure which version I was singing."
She leans in close and brushes my chest with her cheek. "Our version, honey," she says.
Back in the warmth of the tent, a dozen smiling faces I've never seen before gather in around us to congratulate Sasha and welcome me into the band. Out of the cluster of strangers, one face strikes me as oddly familiar, but I don't recognize who it is until I notice the gray porkpie sitting atop the dome of his head.
"Nice job, dude," the Bastard tells me. He takes a sip from a plastic cup full of beer and shakes my shoulder with enthusiasm. "Always liked that song."
"For sure," I reply, unable to meet his eyes for very long.
"Yo, Sasha!" he shouts. "Damn, girl, you keep getting better ‘n better!"
Sasha allows herself to be squeezed firmly in the Bastard's arms, the beer swishing inside the cup, nearly spilling onto her jacket.
"Thanks, Devon," she says. The Bastard moves on to another member of the band and Sasha disappears outside. I try to hold up on my own, but without her next to me, the closeness of people inside the tent gets to be too much. I escape through the back exit and find Sasha alone, leaning against a wall, smoking a cigarette.
"Hey," I tell her. "Was there something you wanted to say to me before I go?"
She drops the burning cigarette on the sidewalk and walks toward me.
Lips close over mine, arms envelope my neck, against the wall we fall into each other.
Sasha rents an apartment down the street from a sports bar, and as she leads me up the steps to the door, she says that she's already looked into it and their karaoke night isn't very good. "Doesn't matter," I say. "I'm happy with the place I've been going." Her living room is almost empty except for one couch and an entire wall of milk crates loaded with vinyl records and CDs. I feel fine at first sitting next to her, but as she slips off her shoes and moves in closer, my heart starts racing and I have to pace around the room a bit to calm down.
"Listen, Sasha," I say. "I like you. I really like you. Everything that's happened today has been incredible."
"Because you got to sing?"
"No. Not because I got to sing."
She smiles sweetly and looks down at the seat cushion next to her, then back up at me.
"Look, the thing this, I've got a lot of issues I need to work out for myself. I've been on medication for a while… a few years ago I was even… well… the fact is, I'm pretty fucked up."
"It's okay, Cam." She takes a blue guitar pick from her skirt pocket and tosses it to me. "We're all pretty fucked up."
I study the guitar pick in my hand, realize that it's been flattened and cut down to an arrowhead shape from something much larger. But the surface has been preserved just enough that I'm able make out the emblem of a white bird settling calmly onto a rippling pond, the same symbol that appeared on the papers I had to sign each time I checked into Serene Waters.
"Dr. Bray didn't just start the karaoke nights," Sasha says. "She also helped some of us get back into playing."
"Did… did I meet you back then?"
"Once. But I'm not surprised you never recognized me. I was a lot thinner then, and I spent most of my stay in the Close Care Unit."
Close Care. The silent wing at the far end of the hall where the really serious cases resided. Most of them in wheelchairs, arms and legs atrophied to skeletal wisps, scalps tonsured with a rim of frail hairs still holding on. How many times did I pass one of them in the course of my sulking and feel a chill run through my shoulders, look away until I was sure it was gone?
"I used to watch you sometimes on karaoke night," she says. "I thought you were cute."
"Yeah. Back when your hair was longer, you had a cool Eddie Vedder thing going."
"Wow. He's awesome."
She chuckles. "It's funny, though. In a way, you seemed a lot happier at the center. Or at least you were less anxious then."
"I've been thinking… lately, I've been thinking about going back for a while."
"I really wish you wouldn't."
Leaning forward, she takes my hand and helps me collapse onto the couch beside her. After each long series of slow kisses, she turns her neck to me and I set my lips to work there, listening for the moans that tell me what I'm doing is making her feel good.
"How old are you, Cam?" she asks me.
"Same as me. When was your last relationship?"
"I've never been in one. When was yours?"
"About six months ago. He was a jerk. But I admit I loved him at the time."
"Who was he?"
"Mmm. You sure you want to get into that?"
"Yes. Tell me."
She inhales deeply, her body rising under my hands. "Devon. It was Devon. I dated him for almost a year."
"Does that bother you?"
Slight tightness creeping into my chest, pressure behind the eyes, but no trembling. Hands pull her to me more closely, steady as a rock.
"It does bother me," I say. "But I can manage."
"Yeah. I can't own you, Sasha. I can't own a song. I can't own anything. I get it now."
"About time," she says, and kisses the underside of my jaw. "I think the song broke you," she says.
"You broke me," I reply. "And thank God for that."