The last show of Kevin’s tour is in a small club north of Canal Street. The owner doesn’t like indie rock, but Kevin and the manager went to school together and she offered him a spot, a welcome-home show. The place is packed with friends and as many of his regular fans as could fit in the door.
Kevin could have played a larger club, but he wanted to keep the goodbye show intimate. He’s achieved that level of indie rock celebrity where the faithful anoint the musician as being something like Jesus, buy everything they produce and write internet blogs analyzing their lyrics. Beth, the president of his fan club, encapsulates the type. She’s a nineteen year old with bad highlights who lives in Weehawken. She’s watched the entire show rapt, sitting in a folding chair at the side of the stage wearing a red t-shirt whose white letters proclaim her: KEVIN’S FRIEND.
Standing next to her in a shirt that says KEVIN’S MOTHER is the lady herself, a little heavy, a little stunned. The shirt that says KEVIN’S FATHER is moldering with the rest of Dad under his Navy uniform in the family plot outside Montclair. As for KEVIN’S BROTHER, it resides somewhere in the possession of a closeted Puerto Rican in Bushwick who insisted on leaving my place in a clean shirt no matter what ugly questions it might raise at home.
I’m bringing Mom a gin and tonic from the bar as the last note dies on Kevin’s guitar. He pushes the hair out of his eyes and smiles at the crowd and begins one of his monologues. (Dad, who never saw any of his shows, listened to my recording of one and only remarked, “More talk, less rock.”)
“When we were on tour, we stopped in a town in Ohio in the shadow of the nuclear power plants. And I thought: how can you not spend every day of your life waiting for them to explode? Anyway. The place we were playing, we get there and all these old men are sitting at the bar. And the guy who set it up? He turned out to be a fifteen year old kid. It looked like something had fallen through with the booking. Bartender says, you guys can’t play here. The kid is shaking in his boots. He was going to impress his friends. Now the venue just falls apart. So we went to this other bar. The guy there, it’s a slow day, he says ok. Problem is, it’s an all ages show. Can’t have kids in the bar. And all of these kids are in fact showing up. The guy says, well, performers of all ages can always appear. So ok. We set up on the very edge of the stage facing the back of it. All the kids sit down in front of us, all the way to the back of the stage. We’re like, two feet away from them with our backs to the rest of the place. And we played this great set. Right into their faces. As loud as we could. And they loved it. Afterwards we all went outside and there was a vacant lot next door and as the sun was going down behind the nuclear power plant we played touch football, the kids against the band, and frankly we really kicked the shit out of those kids and I think that was the best day on tour I have ever had in my life and we, the band, last night while we were drinking a little, and, cover your ears Mom, smoking a little pot, we decided that from now on, instead of playing gigs, we are going to tour as a touch football team. And for those who are curious, yes, I will be quarterback, because that is the kind of asshole I am. We call this next one Snit. One, two--” And they hit off into loud jangly assault while the audience was still laughing at the story Kevin appeared to have told off the top of his head. It was more likely, as I knew, that he had written the entire anecdote out on the set list.
Our friend Larry showed up a song later, hair long, face wild, wearing his expensive jeans and his torn t-shirt and a hat from Guitar World; they pay his bills, he takes their pictures. He was shouting over the music before he reached the front of the stage and then he tried to sit down on a chair someone had spilled beer on and he hopped right back up wiping his ass and cursing. Mom grabbed Larry’s arm and Larry whipped the hair out of his face and then grinned stupidly. Growing up, Mom had been like a second mother to Larry. She shouted something at him. He shouted back. It was too loud near the stage. Larry raised a pack of cigarettes and we followed him out to the sidewalk.
“Larry,” Mom said, when he stopped to light his cigarette, after lighting hers, “I was thinking of you today when I was looking at that spot on the lawn where you lit the fire and Rick thought he was going to kill you. I yelled at him when he got mad at you because I realized I didn’t care what happened to the lawn I was more afraid he’d scare you away.”
Larry laughed and looked at me and looked at the sidewalk and said, with a kind of wonder, “I was always setting things on fire, wasn’t I?”
“I wanted you to feel you had someplace you could go, even if it was to set fires,” Mom concluded.
Larry turned his hat side to side, and said, yeah, yeah. And then he said something I didn’t expect. “You know,” he said, “it was great to grow up like that. I think it was like we really had something you know?”
“I’ve always thought,” Mom said, “that it was something special.”
Larry went on, “Sometimes I think that’s all Kevin’s music is about, that he’s playing, about growing up like that.”
Something seemed to come over Mom then. She flicked her cigarette away and folded her arms. “I shouldn’t miss another song.”
“We’ll be right in,” I told her. She squeezed Larry’s arm and went back into the club.
“Why are you being so sweet?” I asked.
He smiled. “I’ve always loved your Mom. Besides I’m on ecstasy.”
“Thank God,” I said, “that there is an explanation for that.”
After the show, Kevin stayed close to Mom, his arm around her, dripping sweat. She stood next to him smiling her dazzled smile. He hung around introducing Mom to everyone who hadn’t met her and most of the people who had. I couldn’t tell if he was high and amped up from the show or just really amped up from the show. When we finally left most of the band had gone home. With us were Larry, Jen, who played violin, David, the second guitarist, and his girlfriend, who Kevin suspects of slumming. Mom made noises about catching the train but Larry insisted she get a drink with us. He knew just the place.
We followed Larry up the street into the Lower East Side. The club’s lights shut off behind us as we left; did we keep them too long? Mom wondered.
I walked on one side of Mom, Kevin on the other. Around us the band went, talking, cigarettes burning in the dark.
Mom was asking Kevin about the little girl who ran the fan club. Kevin was explaining he’d packed her off home. Her mother had called him to make sure she wasn’t running away to the city to meet some man who’d lured her there over the internet. If she found out about that, Kevin said, she’d be mortified, but the girl’s only sixteen. Her mother had a right to be worried.
Mom turned to me, “I never had to worry about you two when you were growing up. You were good kids. I didn’t have to worry, did I?”
“We weren’t stupid,” I assured her. Though in fact at sixteen I had been seeing the bus driver for the local parochial school who had once driven me to Asbury Park and threatened to drown himself in the sea if I didn’t run away with him to Fresno.
The bar was new, expensive, shiny, with dark wood floors and big dark wood tables with candles almost lost at their dark centers. We crowded around a table into a booth lining the wall. The shuttles started from the table to the bar for drink orders, leaving Mom and I to watch the shadowy milling of my generation.
Showing her usual concern for what she considers my life style choice, Mom said, “I read these awful things, you know, about crystal meth.”
“Look at my teeth.” I raised a candle to my mouth and grimaced and she leaned forward and examined my gums. I was reminded of all the times, when I was young, that she would open my mouth and shine a flashlight down my throat when it was sore, looking for the tell tale white fuzz of infection. She’d seen everything I suppose.
“Your teeth look alright,” she admitted. “And Kevin,” she asked, as Dave and his girlfriend slid in at the end of the booth, “is he getting along with Janine? Where is she tonight?”
“I think she’s coming later.”
Jen and Larry squeezed past the ominously silent couple. Kevin sat down on the other side of Mom. “Did you like the show?” He asked.
Mom said she had, very much. She’d been a little uncertain about the new political songs however. “Do you really know anything about Afghanistan?”
Kevin pushed his hand through his hair and laughed and said he thought it was important to tell people what you stood for. Nobody thought music was going to change the world but it had changed his life, hadn’t it?
Mom sipped her drink and asked, “Was your life as bad as all that?”
“I don’t know what I’d be doing right now if I didn’t have music.”
Mom raised her eyebrows. I knew she was thinking, if you didn’t have music, you’d be working a normal job and perhaps living closer to me with a family.
“It just sounded,” she said, “like you thought you needed to get away from something. I would hate to think it was us. I’m your biggest fan…”
Kevin laughed and was about to say something further when one of the bartenders, a big guy with a bristling beard and a shaved head appeared over our table and pointed a finger at Jen. “What are you doing? You can’t bring a drink in here from outside,” he said. “Give me that.”
Meekly, Jen lifted up to him a small bottle of Jack Daniels she’d been using to spike her Coke from the bar. I hadn’t seen her using it. The bartender must have it out for us, I realized. Kevin, Larry, Jen, one of them had done something stupid here they’d since forgotten. It never occurred to them that bartenders were sober, or supposed to be, and sober people have a tendency to remember just how obnoxious you are.
The bartender looked slowly over the rest of us. “I’d better not catch you with anything,” he said and pushed through the crowd back towards the bar.
There was an uncomfortable silence. Then Jen and Larry excused themselves. They were headed for the security of the bathroom to dip into Jen’s coke.
“That man was a bit awful,” Mom announced.
“He’s just jealous of our family togetherness,” I said.
Kevin smiled and Mom’s eyes glittered, watching us. “You are both so lucky,” she said. “When I was growing up, I always dreamed of moving into the city and living in a little apartment in the Village and having a whole group of friends and we’d smoke cigarettes and drink and have conversations just like this.” She looked back and forth at us, in the dark bar, in the loud bar, where we had all ended up. “I never did,” she went on, “of course I was more than happy with your father. But I’ve always regretted I didn’t go out and try to live in New York and experience everything like the two of you. I’m trying to live my dreams through my sons who play in a band,” she said to Kevin, “and are such serious thinkers,” she finished to me, which is an idea she gets who knows where.
Kevin and I could not even look at each other. We both nodded, as though taking this in. But who knows? Maybe she was right. The Greek gods were immortal and almost omnipotent. And they had spent all their time drinking and screwing. There is some kind of lesson there, I’ve always thought.
“You could still do it,” Kevin told her. “You could sell the house, buy a place, move in, join the 92nd street Y.”
“I suppose I could,” she said. “But I feel like I’d be abandoning your father.”
“Mom,” Kevin said, and he looked her in the eyes, “Dad wants you to be happy.” And he said it with such sincerity that even I almost believed Dad still existed in a state where it was possible for him to want anything.
Mom looked at Kevin gratefully. “Yes, yes,” she said. “Do you think you could get another cigarette from Larry?” She asked me. “I hate to bother him. I’ll buy everybody a drink if he does.”
“Not the kind of offer Larry can refuse,” I was already moving out of the booth. I had to pass Dave and his girlfriend. I pushed against her knees, harder than I had to. She looked up, annoyed. I glared back.
I found Larry and Jen in the largest bathroom at the back of the bar. The door was unlocked. Larry was leaning against the wall by the sink. Jen was standing over it tapping cocaine onto her security key.
“Mom wants a cigarette,” I told Larry, shutting the door after me. “She’s buying the next round.”
“Cool,” Larry fumbled at his pockets.
Jen turned from the mirror and looked at me glassily. “It’s so cool that you’re family is so close. I haven’t seen my dad in like eight years. You want?” She offered me the keys.
Sure I wanted. It was Jen’s coke. But it was always Jen’s coke. It was always the same coke, pretty all right coke, the cigarette of coke, not bad, not outstanding, a sort of a fine, functional drug for our fine, functional lives.
Larry and Mom and I went outside and lit our cigarettes and stood before the darkened window. Kids piled out of bars and pushed into them. Further down the street, wooden scaffolding rose whitely in front of some decrepit pile. I tasted the post nasal drip of the coke but stopped myself from clearing my nose; my mother had seen too many movies.
“You know in Hong Kong,” Larry said, “when I was over there they have all this scaffolding on the front of the buildings and all the scaffolding they use they make entirely out of bamboo and the scaffolding goes way up the side of these skyscrapers and of course it goes so high that it’s under these tremendous pressures and every once in a while you’ll hear this loud, pop, it’s the weirdest sound, this kind of popping, snapping sound, and that’s because one of the bamboo struts has just snapped out of the scaffolding and gone flipping through the air at speeds of hundreds of miles per hour. And maybe two or three times a year, these flying pieces of bamboo totally impale somebody walking down the street like a spear that comes out of nowhere. Yeah. Can you believe that?”
“Thank god you’re not living in Hong Kong,” Mom concluded.
Already vague about what he’d said, Larry leaned back against the window. Another group of kids came towards our door. I saw a boy I’d spent an hour trying to seduce a few weeks earlier. He stared at me with the blankness of total recognition. No hard feelings. I’ve always considered my failures a softening up of the target, if not for me then for someone else. And, the city, in turn, was performing the same function and leaving possibilities ripe for me, like the white bicycles of Amsterdam that anybody was welcome to use in the 1960s.
“It’s Janine,” Mom said. “Janine!”
And then Janine was standing before us, a sharp, smart girl who works as a producer for a television news show. Janine and Kevin have been involved since college. Mom loves Janine because at Dad’s funeral she’d won a fight with the caterer who’d been trying to cheat us on the bill. That was Janine. Even a funeral was an opportunity for her to search and destroy.
Mom and Janine went inside. We followed them back to the table. Kevin sat glowering, holding something against her. Of course, she hadn’t come to the show. After seven thousand shows, he still sulks when she doesn’t show up. They sat next to each other and immediately fell into a low, intense conversation.
Mom looked distressed. She could see they were arguing. “I hate it when they fight.”
“It’s just a lover’s quarrel,” I said.
The bar was much louder now. We had to lean our heads close to talk and when she said something I could smell the mix of gin and tonic on her breath, the limey smell I knew so well from our childhood when she would mix cocktails for Dad when he got off the bus from the city, a scene out of the eternal life of domesticity of the United States, the cocktails, the quiet records, the sweating glasses, the two boys, me and Kevin, racing around and around the rooms making the pictures clatter on the wall, as if our home had to be wound up like a toy every night so it would run for as long as it could; the domestic merry go round that enchanted and distracted us from evenings that were otherwise the same as the night before, the night to come.
“Your father and I never fought like that,” she said.
“You were the rare ideal.”
“Do you think so?”
“True love is the trophy,” I said, quoting from a song. All I knew to say to people came from songs. At least they were good songs. “But not everyone is gong to win are they? You happened to. And Dad. You really did.”
“You think so?” She repeated. “I’ve always thought it was the life to come that was the trophy.”
“You can’t win the life to come,” I pointed out. “You earn it. Like the Medal of Honor.”
“You sound like Ronald Regan.”
“Maybe I am turning into an old conservative,” I said.
“You can’t though? Can you? I mean because of your lifestyle choice?” Her forehead creased with doubt.
“I can admire the classical virtues. I’m sure in Sodom they had beautiful manners. Look how eager they were to welcome guests.”
“Now,” she said, “you’re starting to sound blasphemous.” But she was smiling. Larry returned holding a clutch of glasses in a packed, diamond shape, explaining that he had no idea whose drinks these were and then everybody was testing them, even Kevin and Janine pausing to sip from one glass, then another, is this yours? Or this?
Mom sighed and was about to say something further when there was a commotion behind us and turning, we found Jen pushed up suddenly through the crowd. The bartender with the shaved head followed her, pushing her shoulder. His face was red and furious and he towered over the table and announced, “You’re all out of here. All of you. Go on. Get out. Now.”
Mom intervened, “Excuse me? You can’t do that. You have no right to do that.”
The bartender turned on her and looked suddenly confused. “Yes I can. This is my bar. And I’m not having any of this goddamn shit going on in my bar I don’t care if you’re supposed to look the other way or what.”
Jen fumbled over the table and grabbed her bag from the booth. Then she pushed past him and went for the door. Kevin wasn’t in his seat, he’d slipped away when I’d been talking to mom. The bartender folded his arms. Standing in front of him, Mom didn’t know what to do. It was the coke in the bathroom of course. I thought that was the kind of thing bars lived for, like the stars in a Zagat rating.
“Very well,” Mom said, “but I’m never coming back here.” And she turned and went after Jen. I watched her go, slightly amused: who did she think she was?
The same thought must have occurred to the bartender. “Is she somebody’s mother?” he asked.
“She’s my mother,” I said.
“Man,” the bartender said. He looked truly amazed. “What the fuck are you doing doing coke with your mother at the table? What the fuck is the matter with you?” He seemed genuinely surprised.
Janine stood at my side. “Who gives a shit about coke in the bathroom?”
The bartender’s face clouded over. “I’ve thrown you guys out, now go.”
I looked towards the bar, saw the face of the boy I’d tried to seduce. A girl had her hand on his chin and was trying to get his attention again. At the very least, he must have recognized we were having a better time. I asked Janine where Kevin was. She gave me a disgusted shrug.
“I have to find my brother,” I said. The bartender told me to be quick about it.
I went to the back of the bar and couldn’t find him near the bathrooms and then, as I was returning to the main room, I saw him. He was sitting at a table in the corner, surrounded by girls, his guitar case sticking up between his legs, gesturing, talking, telling another story. For a moment, I just stood and watched. It looked like he’d been sitting at that table with those people for years, had been their best friend, lover, even family.
Mom was waiting outside. Janine was outside. And even though I knew that Kevin had probably just noticed someone at their table and then got caught up in his routine, I still felt as if I was seeing him for who he was, a man who didn’t even recognize that there were differences between everybody else in the world. All of us, to him, were just something lying around, waiting to be entertained. Our only responsibility was to adore him for doing it well.
I stood over the table. “Kevin!”
He looked up and smiled his dazzling smile, that glazed over, happy smile. I said, “We got thrown out. Everybody’s out there. Mom’s out there. We’re waiting for you man.”
“Ladies,” Kevin announced, grandly, “My public calls.” And then he was disengaging himself from the booth he’d ended up at the middle of; girls smiling and squeezing his hand.
I grabbed his arm. He wasn’t drunk but he didn’t brush my hand away. Instead, he leaned towards me and said, “I think Janine is going to break up with me. I think she’s going to let me have it.”
“Why would she break up with you?”
“She knows we have a new recording session. I’m going to need some new songs.”
The bar now overflowed. Packed tightly together, Kevin and I moved through the crush of people who looked like us, were like us, could have been us, a little happier, a little richer, but, to the Chinese at least, all exactly the same, all interchangeable.
We pushed out onto the sidewalk. I saw the group standing on the other side of the street at the corner. Mom waved. Larry was smoking a cigarette. Janine stood apart from everyone talking on her cell phone. Dave and his girlfriend had vanished. Jen wandered near the curb, watching the cars whip by.
“Where did you disappear to?” Mom asked, smiling- now she had something to tell her friends.
“Nowhere,” Kevin remarked, leading us down the street in the direction of the subways, the direction of home. The scaffolding on the construction sight loomed ahead of us like a giant ladder you couldn’t help but walk under.
Janine said something sharp to Kevin I didn’t catch. Then Kevin replied loudly, “I was not talking to that slut, Marie. I was going to the bathroom.”
“I’m not fighting with you in front of your mother,” Janine stated.
“Then why did you start one?” Kevin snapped.
Jen brought her hand out from her bag and with it the bottle of Red Stripe she’d been drinking in the bar. “That guy was an asshole.” She downed the beer and hurled the bottle towards a streetlight. It missed and exploded against a shuttered storefront.
I looked at Mom. She was looking at all of us with a dazed expression. Jen grabbed her arm. “I think it’s so great,” she said. “That you feel comfortable going out with your kids like this. I haven’t talked to my Dad in eight years and my Mom thinks I’m going to hell. If I ever have kids, I’m going to make sure that I’m always very involved in their lives.”
“Poor bastards,” Larry said.
“Fuck off, Larry,” Jen said pleasantly. “At least I’ll know who my children are.”
“I haven’t had any children,” Larry said. “I don’t plan on it.”
Mom struggled to remain in the conversation. “You have to have children, Larry. I always thought you’d make a great father.”
Larry started to laugh. “Some days I can hardly get out of bed.”
“I always thought you would,” Mom insisted. “Because you’re so forgiving.”
Larry looked like he was going to keep laughing but the word seemed to bother him. He stared down at the pavement and tugged at the brim of his hat.
Behind us Janine said, “You know what? You don’t have to be an asshole.” And Kevin said, “I thought it was the perfect compliment to your bitch.”
They’d both stopped walking. Mom stopped too and Jen tried to drag her forward and got to the length of her arm and then had to let go. Mom was not moving. She was looking back at Kevin and Janine.
Janine was talking solemnly into her phone. Kevin moved toward her, then stopped and hitched his guitar on his shoulder and started walking after Larry. Jen raced ahead of them. Janine stepped from foot to foot along the lines of the sidewalk.
Mom announced, “We can’t just leave her. People get mugged all the time around here.”
“Mom,” I said. “She’ll catch up with us.”
“I thought I raised you to be more of a gentleman than that.” In the slowness of her voice, I recognized for the first time that she’d had more to drink than I’d thought.
“It’s Kevin’s argument. I don’t want to get in the way,” I said.
“We’re not getting in the way. We’re just waiting. There’s all sorts of things we can do.” She turned and looked up at the scaffolding. Something winked in her eyes and she shouted, “I’ll race you!”
Before I understood, she’d grabbed hold of the first horizontal bar of the scaffolding and then, with surprising strength, she scrambled and clawed and pulled herself up until she was standing on the edge of the first blocks of wood, her heels even with my chest. Clinging to the scaffolding, she pushed the hair out of her face and looked down at me and shouted, “Come on! Come on! I’m going to beat you.” And then, looking upwards, scouting, she tried another bar and proceeded, carefully, to clamber and haul herself up until she was on the next level, out of reach of my hands.
Kevin heard the commotion and came to my side. Larry and Jen stopped a little ways down the street and looked back at Mom.
“What is she doing?” Kevin asked.
“What does it look like?”
“Hello all of you down there,” Mom called. And giggled. She was close enough you could see she was a woman, but there was something about her up there that was no more than a girl.
“You all get it from somewhere, the exhibitionism” Janine remarked. She had hung up the phone and was standing next to us.
“She’s drunk,” Kevin said.
“The excitement’s too much for her,” I said. “It’s been a big day.”
“How are we going to get her down?” Kevin wondered.
“We are just going to have to wait,” I said.
And so we did. Mom didn’t go any higher. She prudently moved back and forth on the scaffolding like a climber on a cliff face, laughing as she did, and shaking the hair out of her face. It was funny and it was a little odd, but watching Mom on the scaffolding I had the strange feeling that even though I knew it would all work out, that she’d climb back down safely, there was still something in our lives that could just as easily take a wrong step, and slip, and end badly. Like everybody else I guess, most of the time we are too busy having fun to notice how high up we are. And how far down it is.