You wake up on the floor. It’s a grainy, cheaper brown carpet with noticeable rips and tears on the edges, either from some poorly domesticated house cat or the inevitable crawl of time. You drooled all over the lime-green pillowcase she gave you around four a.m. You’re trying to think of her name. There were a lot of bland introductions in between the show, bar and back around again. You think it’s something like Lisa or Lexi, but you can’t be sure. Your head isn’t nearly as bad as it was the previous morning. An immunity to all types of distractions has developed in the last week or so.
This Saturday it’ll be a month since you’ve been on the road, carting your bullshit poetry in the form of punk-rock verse and handcrafted jewel cases. You sold maybe ten last night along with the final yellow T-shirt from the original printing. The only colors left are pink and purple. All the college kids wanted black. They made you think that breaking even was a possibility in the beginning. Now you know it’s all some joke left to dangle and smirk you into submission as you stretch out the kinks in your legs and back.
If you and Missi were still together, she would have never let you get this bad. It was yoga first thing every morning, then breakfast, showers, work, home, dinner, TV and maybe sex. She didn’t think much of your music. How could she? When you first met Missi, her car consisted of greatest-hits compilations and old high-school mix CDs from friends she didn’t bother talking to anymore. You put yourself right in the middle, expanding her knowledge of the underground, while still pressing the right buttons. She fell for you, and it was close to mutual, but you could never spend the rest of your life with this girl. She wasn’t Muse material.
You step to the living-room window and peek out. It’s a beautiful day that you don’t want any part of. The road has taken its toll, from your knees up to the calluses on your fingertips. The days off have all but buried you. In a strange place, you’d walk from one corner to the next, eating crappy food, dealing with the backlash of compliments from young thugs and deviants coming down. While their words used to give you a kick, you now realize they’re just as deluded as you are, if not more so. They don’t understand the struggle or circumstances thereof. They aren’t old enough to remember how MTV used to be. You’re only twenty-six, and the memories are dim and unsettled.
Your guitar sits next to the sofa. A dirty, bearded bastard in a black T-shirt with no sleeves snores his morning away. You don’t recall his deal the previous night. Excess was abundant, but it used to mean a lot more. Everyone had fun getting fucked up, but somewhere along the way you lost the reasoning behind your actions. It used to be heartbreak, or an offshoot of major media spoon-feeding you all kinds of pale comparisons. You tried being the sweet guy in high school and then a lingering rebel in college. The office asshole almost fit before they laid you off. Then you figured the music thing would work if only the right people started to care.
Your friends back home were all a notch above supportive, at least when they had to be. Their pet projects and accidental offspring have taken precedence, but that’s fine by you, just so long as you continue to drop them a line when it’s convenient. Jerry in New Mexico, Kaitlin in Denver, Kurt and Jenny in Kansas City; they all loved seeing you, but there was still tension. A day off from tour meant just enough of an inconvenience for them to consider why they hung out with you in the first place. You hope Missi’s come to the same realization in your absence, but like clockwork, there’s her text message on your charged cellphone:
Was thinking about the time we left your cousin’s wedding early. Miss you. Hope you’re okay out there.
You thought your decision to the see the country would have prompted her to take a similar journey of self-discovery, even if it just happened to be across town at another watering hole. Instead, Missi feels the need to vicariously live through what little time you’ve spent away from her. You didn’t officially break up, but moving on was certainly implied. She’s a beautiful human being, regardless of all the notions that make you and everyone else see things differently.
Grabbing your guitar from the crack between the couch and coffee table, you contemplate leaving a note for your hostess, but decide there are other ways to say thanks. They weren’t up early enough to feed you. There wasn’t an encore request at the show, just a can of cheap beer, a puff-puff pass, and the underlying feeling that no matter how much time you spent making an impression, these people will almost certainly forget about you the next morning.
While there’s something reassuring in this, after a month of similar run-ins you can’t suppress your homesickness, even if you hate that town for all its quirks and tight jabs. You know you’re a bum, hitting the street with ragged hair, bad breath and nothing worth writing about. Locating your car is somewhat difficult this morning. You have to backtrack to the bar, then the art gallery and finally the proper parking spot. There she sits with rust on both sides, waning tires, a bird-shit-stained windshield and all your essentials in the trunk. Your diamond salvation on four wheels; the car you’ve had since you were a junior in high school. She’s yours, all 197,000 miles of her. Yankee: down, damaged, but not out, not yet.
You pull the squeaky driver’s side door open and wait for the engine to purr. Decatur had its low points, most of which are easy to ignore driving down the main drag, searching for Free Wi-Fi signs. Yolanda’s Café speaks to your innermost hipster. You park on the corner and grab your laptop from the back. Entering, your eyes first drift to the scribbled pink-and-blue-chalk menu and then to your barista. She looks familiar; perhaps a face from the crowd, although you can’t be sure.
You really dig her bright red hair, how it intentionally curls in front of two nearly catatonic brown eyes. Your order is simple: skim latte and a chocolate-chip muffin. She’ll bring it over to you. The computer fan is almost loud enough to stir the mice sleeping in the nearby alleyway. You’d buy a new system if you had any money, or cared. There’s something endearing about the minor rattles and shoddy virus protection at this point, how finding the proper network temporarily freezes the screen before launching your browser, making you wonder if everything’s about to blow. You wrote things on the fading keyboard, words you quickly forgot about.
The girl shimmies over in her apron and sets your breakfast down. You thank her and consider asking if she was at the show, but decide against it. As your eyes wander, you notice the flier on a nearby corkboard. Sure enough, your moniker makes an impression at the very bottom of the list. Slacker Son: you’re still not sure if this particular name suits your sound, and while you’ve considered just going by Eddie Niesner, there are still parts in between the letters and syllables of the name your father gave you that don’t sit right. It’s like a stomach full of bad, processed food just waiting to make the rest of your body itch.
You sip and chew slowly, savoring the subtle kick of caffeine and barren nutrients. First it’s your e-mail. Nothing new to report. The promoters that didn’t get back to you can all choke on their self-righteous sense of dread. They don’t know what they’re missing, or maybe they just don’t have the time to realize. People love pretending to be busy so when they’re lazy it’s somehow justified. You’ve met far too many undistinguished shades. They either work crappy service jobs as a means of maintaining balance with a false reputation, or there’s a career on paper, but not much else. A wife or husband on their tax return, maybe a plus one to impose their last few wishes on; small ears to listen as they talk about dreaming big once and then finally settling on the pain that comes with waking each and every morning before the alarm.
Your friends’ internet identities don’t help the situation. Jenny’s food blog is nauseating. Kenny’s prose isn’t worthy of a constipated bathroom read. Ilene’s minor quips make you depressed in a way you didn’t think possible this morning. Missi hasn’t updated her blog in nearly two weeks. Nevertheless, you scroll through familiar territory, right to the picture she took of you outside the abandoned green barn. You’re not quite smiling in it, but there’s no denying you were happy then. You wonder if she posted it to make you second-guess leaving the relationship in its last swampy transition. Even Missi wouldn’t know for sure. She’s not impulsive so much as oblivious to how other people consider her actions, no matter how insignificant they are to everyone else except you.
Dwelling in this particular realm of uneasy awareness was but one of many tipping points. You search and jot down directions to Canton. Google says a little over seven hours. Before you left, you were looking forward to every drive. Then the douchebag money-grubbers started canceling on you, leaving you in the lurch. You haven’t burned bridges so much as lit the fuse and walked away with no remaining dignity. They called you shit in Amarillo. You were unrehearsed in De Soto. The kids in Boone stole T-shirts. Rockford’s beer and limited cuisine gave you the runs. Chicago was almost cool enough to make you contemplate why you weren’t there all the time. Then you remembered that even those you talked to afterwards weren’t really listening. In this way, they shared too much with your cohorts back home.
You shut down and use the facilities. Fear of public restrooms went away by the third day. You approach each new lavatory with a whimsical confidence. Punk-rock clubs are usually the worst. Nobody cleans anything, and there’s rarely a lock on the door. In Augusta, you called some Mohawked teenager a poser mid-release. The plop sent him running back to his trendy companions, searching for the right app to make their punk phase a little more bearable. Either metal or top forty would follow, maybe indie or jazz if they were lucky.
You’ve had sex twice since departing. The first time was purely out of revenge. Hannah in Bridgeport needed a story to tell her roommate. You didn’t spend too much time making her feel good, although the booze certainly helped you both achieve a greater understanding of the human condition. Hannah seemed to genuinely like your tunes. You gave her a CD for free, but she still slipped a twenty-dollar bill in your abandoned blue jeans pocket with the tiniest of red ink scribbles around the edge. Don’t lie. You need this. Her careful consideration made you feel like a whore. Perhaps that was her intention all along.
The second person was Jenny. Neither of you meant to cross that particular barrier despite residual sexual tension since college. She never acted on it, the two of you previously caught in formulas and proportionate antibodies on the cusp of disappearing altogether. You hated the guys she chose, and she wasn’t all that fond of your one-night stands, although you never gave her the chance to get to know them. Jenny and Missi have never met, but are both aware of each other.
You dwell on the circumstances, exiting the café and hitting the road. Kurt was wasted, but decided to stay at the bar. You walked back to the apartment. She poured you a thick blend and started talking about all the problems in her life. You weren’t given a chance to mention any of yours. She kissed you, and you fucked her without a condom on the couch. It was like a nature video, quick and feral. The whole time you thought about Kurt walking in, how cliché that would be. He wasn’t a terrible guy, but lacked the personality to make you a true fan.
Jenny regretted it almost instantly. Her face sunk as you both sat up on the couch and got dressed. You left early the next morning, even though you didn’t have a show or anywhere to be. You drove to a halfway point and got a hotel room, wasting the next twenty-four hours on cable television and bourbon. You wanted to call and talk to her, to send a text message or write out the right kind of e-mail. You loved Jenny, but even she knew how little that meant. There was no future there. Kurt set an effective example. He was an asshole, but made it work better than you ever could.
Illinois blurs with Indiana. You stop for lunch in some dive, stretch your legs, and call the kid running the show. Elliott sounds like a jerkoff, some young outsider far from understanding the differences between you and him. He babbles for a while, before providing you with the only viable piece of information: a venue change. The show’s moved from a bar to some rented college basement. You’re not going to break even. Nobody’s going to buy Pitch Paranoia, the album you spent days slaving over in your bedroom, much to the dismay of Missi and your downstairs neighbors.
You humor Elliott past his youthful excitement, hanging up and wishing the waitress was quicker with your Reuben. You hate being disappointed before a show’s even happened, although this is an inevitable part of getting older, not to mention playing out. At least you’re somewhere else, not like those deadbeat friends of yours, sitting around their living rooms, watching countless hours of streamed television episodes. They think playing a bar within a twenty-mile radius is bold; singing Rolling Stones covers off printed sheets to the bearded, beer-bellied drunks lined up around the tap, wondering why there’s no jukebox that night.
The waitress needs to get out of the game. She carries a solemn vibe, as if the sweet, nurturing women she used to be has all but evaporated with multiple courses of steak and eggs. You think about the tip before your first bite. You’re not exactly broke, after saving for some kind of escape. Missi wanted a summer vacation, but you hated her favorite beach. There was no point going out of your way to get sunburned before food poisoning from buffet shrimp and crab legs. She pretended to love you because you were unconventional, when, in reality, Missi only wanted you to change a little at a time, so as to make her tattered ego blush.
You think about Jenny again towards the end of your meal, how when the two of you lived in the same town, she’d depend on you for everything but. Before that, Jenny was shacked up with Paul in a post-collegiate wormhole. You didn’t talk to her much then. He eventually cheated, and then the calls came in. You’ve always held this particular trait against her. Something never sat right about her lack of compassion, how she could completely ignore your entire existence one moment, and then suddenly when her life turned to shit, there she was crashed on your sofa, ready to talk but refusing to listen.
You use the can, pay the check, and get back on the road, assuming more distance will eventually stifle every remaining impulse. You think you’re just horny, and since Jenny was your last, it only makes sense for you to long for her demented touch. You’re good at being alone, while letting people in makes the room fill up fast. They all sit in a circle, barking misguided bits of advice. Deep down, you’ve always thought yourself a good, genuine human being, although at this point, you’re tired of doing the right thing.
The afternoon liquefies in turnpike fever. You listen to a mix CD, then shuffle through radio stations, some NPR and finally silence. It washes over you as you double-check the directions. Then there’s the rattle. It barely registers at first. You feel like you’ve heard it before, somewhere out west or maybe as close as the night before last. You ignore it best you can, returning to the music, letting it bounce off the cracked windows and dashboard. You take the exit and pay your toll, almost twenty dollars. You need to check your balance soon, to decide whether you’ll buy beer or bum from the mice and rats mingling in lieu of further experimentation.
You’ve got maybe another forty minutes to drive and then an hour or so to kill before bothering to show up on time. In between tracks, the gears sputter and the wheel locks. You hit your signal and pull off to the side. Popping the hood, you smell a mix of charred fluids and rusted familiarity. You wait a few minutes and then try the engine. It doesn’t start. A few more pass along with the cars. Not one of them stops to make sure you’re okay. Yankee grumbles and groans in all kinds of tones for the next half hour, before you relent and call Triple A. They say it’ll be an hour. You think about your salvation, some invisible runaway bride on a speedster, just looking for your type to help along the way.
The tow-truck driver isn’t much older, although clear stress lines gradually change color on his forehead. Riding shotgun, you’re nervous arriving at the shop. Gino’s Gears is the hole he’s always dreamed of. You sit in the waiting room, flipping through a swimsuit issue, before Gino himself gives you the skinny. The engine’s dead, with the transmission approaching a similar grave. You ask about scrapping it, whether they’ll give you anything. Gino smiles a little at your predicament. He was just about to call it a day before you arrived in a rut.
Three hundred dollars later, your back hurts carrying your guitar, merch box and backpack down the road, slowly but surely approaching Canton and the rest of your night. You’ll have to send out some e-mails, cancel some shows and somehow find your way back to that horribly lovely place you left behind. Missi is your last resort. You can already see the way her teeth reflect the light at the very inclination of saving you from the torturous trials of the road. You feel more remorse not bidding Yankee a fond farewell, running your hand across the steering wheel or front hood one last time before an improvised epitaph.
There’s never enough time to properly salute the inanimate gems you end up scrapping when properly cornered, while awful people get more sunlight than they deserve shining through the stained glass windows. Your legs hurt right before the twenty-mile marker. You think about calling Elliott and having him send a search party. Perhaps it’ll be the beginning of something meant to last longer than obligations hastily dissolved. Either way, you know you need a drink and perhaps a loose set of breasts to make all that came before predominately less significant.
Two steps from reaching for your phone, a crappy black pick-up slows before its windows gradually descend. You’ve seen this movie before. The driver is in his thirties, shorter with a chew in. “Where you headed, Elvis?” He asks.
“Canton,” you reply.
“Hop in, if you like.”
It’s the first time you’ve ever had to depend on the kindness of strangers. All the days leading up to this particular ride don’t count. Things were loosely planned, typed responses exchanged for the sake of saving face and identity. He doesn’t ask your name, but drives fast, passing all varieties of cars, occasionally whipping the bird when necessary. In the spare moments, he tries to get under your skin, find out what makes you tick, why you’re doing what you do, attempting to please a bunch of sunken radicals digging through their transitional phase.
He gets into his life for only a second. On his way home from another job, the man figured he’d up his karma ratio by offering you a ride. This is nothing like you imagined it’d be. Not that you were seeking some eternal bond, but the sluggish nature of this particular encounter makes you more lonesome than every ride that came before. He’s got two boys and a girl back home. They’ll be screaming when he arrives, not happy to see him, but still far from disappointed. He says his wife used to be a knockout, but now she’s another causality of age and unflattering American commercial standards.
The question if you’re getting any arises. You kind of smirk and reply with something simple but easily translated from one libido to the next. “What musician doesn’t?” He gets a kick out of it, as you check your phone for the exact address. You sense more than nostalgia lingering on the back of his eyelids. This working-class instigator wants to come with you, to see the dimming lights and listen intently to all the words you’ve written but don’t quite understand. You consider giving him a CD, but are afraid he’ll regret offering you a ride upon his first and only listen. You’re not of his religion or what remaining creeds he practices.
A simple thank you seems to suffice as you shake the man’s hand and hop out, grabbing your nomadic possessions. He drives away as you step past strangers in cut-off vests with patches poorly sown in. It’s a tattered crawl inside and down the basement stairs. You set your belongings on the cold floor and look around at your prospective audience. They make you feel older despite no more than a four-year difference. A few girls catch your eye, but none are quite like the ones you fell for on the verge of college graduation.
Elliott finally finds you. He’s quite welcoming. You get a beer from him before discussions with some of his nerdy friends ensue. You joke around and try to sound cool when necessary. They don’t know about Yankee, and although you’d love to tell the whole story, something about the expressions on their faces dissuades you from divulging information. You want this day of speed bumps and hiccups to be all yours. Tomorrow may be the boost that leads you back to reality, but tonight is still somehow special.
Your stomach grumbles with your next drink. You’re a bit woozy when the show starts. The first act is some chubby raspy heathen with fast hands and little to say. An angel’s voice follows. She’s young, blonde, and good at fingerpicking. You don’t particularly like the subject matter of her tunes, but clap and shout after each one, if only to feel like part of the crowd. People filter in. You’re on your third beer, trying not to smile at some douchebag’s forlorn tale of his afternoon class. He tries to impress a gal who cares more about where her friends are. You could tell him stories, but they wouldn’t quite match up.
One more beer opened before Elliott finds you and pushes you towards the front of the basement. You tune up quickly and try to get your bearings. You glare at a few uninterested souls heading upstairs, probably getting high without you. Those present seem to give enough of damn. A warm feeling hits your chest as you think about every song you’ve ever written, how only a few sum up who you are. The others are filler, but easy to play to a room full of people. You introduce yourself: your real name, your moniker and finally a little something nobody will understand, not even your friends back home. You strike that first chord and only play it louder and harder as the rest feels like nothing at all, just another goodbye you forgot about before bed.