by Kori Frazier Morgan —
The Seeburg movie jukebox was delivered to the Venice Café in Kent, Ohio in the fall of 1969. It was the first of its kind, an innovation that was as much of a draw to the bar’s college crowd as the genuine Italian pizza. When Alex and his bandmates went there to grab late night meals on the weekends or discuss plans for their shows, they inevitably ended up standing shoulder to shoulder around the jukebox, popping in quarters.
The way it worked was this: you chose your song, then watched the small TV screen in the center of the jukebox, waiting for the machine to select a filmstrip to go with it. There were four movies total, in grainy black and white, and all of them involved girls dancing in different locales—a Go Go dancer doing the Monkey on a brightly lit stage, a bikini blonde digging her heels into the sand, a pale woman skipping through a wheat field in a nightgown-like dress.
Alex’s favorite was the girl sitting on a haystack in a barn, strands of hay stuck in her long braids. She wore a red gingham shirt tied in a knot under her chest, and didn’t dance, but only sat there, throwing hay into the air and letting it rain down around her. Sometimes, after Lyle and Maddy and Dave had gone home, Alex would stay behind to pay for drinks, then inch back toward the jukebox to watch her one more time because he liked the way she made him feel. It wasn’t sexual—he didn’t have fantasies of pinning her down on the barn floor, undressing her to just her denim culottes and hay-stuck pigtails. But the image of her still spoke to him. He sensed her wondering, the way she gazed upward as if searching for a way out of the glass, whether there was something beyond the Seeburg’s dark screen.
The day before their gig at the Agora in Cleveland, the four of them sat in the Venice working over their set list. Their band, The Purple Orange, had been generating buzz across northern Ohio for about a year; they played three nights a week at J.B.’s, one of the myriad clubs that lined the downtown Kent area, did a small tour of the Midwest with some big-name national artists, and recorded a single in heavy rotation on local radio. Then, just a few days ago, an agent who was in the audience at one of their Kent concerts invited them to play the Agora for a talent showcase of major local acts, where the audience would include some “important people”. It was the biggest opportunity they’d had so far, and the fact that he already seemed interested in The Purple Orange gave Alex extra encouragement. The agent had said if they could blow away a packed house the way they did the tiny basement of J.B.’s, they might make a deal.
“You know,” Alex said, “we’ve been doing fine until now. But tomorrow, we’ve got to blow these people away. This thing could really happen.”
Maddy, their lead singer, laughed at him and curled her long blonde hair around her fingers. “We’re already on the radio, dope,” she said. “We opened for the Edgar Winter Band and the friggin’ Buckinghams. Look around. It’s already happened.”
“No,” Alex answered. “Nothing’s happened yet.”
Maddy leaned against their bass player, Lyle, her eyes dazed to the point where Alex couldn’t tell what she was looking at or feeling. She curled her legs onto the seat of their booth and kept looping her hair around the tips of her fingers, then letting the strands spring loose. Alex worried about her—not just because of what she was doing to herself, but what she could do to the band. Maddy and Lyle had been at the National Guard protest in May, still hyped up from the three days of riots, while Alex chose to stay at the house the band shared across town and not get involved. When they tried to get him to come to campus with them, he explained that his feelings about the war were personal; although it outraged him, he was against public displays of outcry. He had privately made the decision to go to Cleveland and hop a boat to Canada if he was drafted, but beyond that, nothing they did could result in anything productive, especially when the National Guard was involved. The rest of the group, though, didn’t understand this, especially Maddy, who was a firecracker when it came to injustice. At Kent State, though, she’d finally burned out at both ends. She saw a girl get shot and drop like a sandbag at her boyfriend’s feet, and hadn’t been the same for the past four months.
Lyle scribbled their standard numbers down on a notepad. He took another sip of beer, soaking the bottom of his blonde moustache, not seeming to have heard anything Alex and Maddy said. “We need to open with something they’ll know. If we kick off with the single, some people might know it, but we won’t get as strong a reaction right out of the cage. If they go apeshit from the top of the set, especially if they know the words, it can only go up from there.”
“Yeah, but ‘Paradox’ has killer vocal tracks,” Alex said. “That agent said he liked it. And don’t forget that Maddy’s really what we’re selling here. If we pick something to cover, it’s got to have massive vocal potential.” He kicked her under the table, aiming at her dangling sandal. She shifted a little, but barely looked up. “What about you? Any ideas?”
She gave an uneven sort of shrug. “You guys figure it out. I’m game for anything.”
Alex and Lyle exchanged a look across the table. Maddy had a mesmerizing talent, the kind of voice that was pleasurable to both listen to and perform with. But ever since Kent State, she either channeled her feelings into the song, her full voice filling the cave-like interior of the downtown club, or cratered in public emotional outbursts. Every show had only one thing in common: they never knew which Maddy would show up. Last summer, Lyle drove her to a clinic in Akron, where a doctor said it was a bad case of nerves. He gave her a prescription for a tranquilizer, which Maddy seemed to take according to her own instructions. It was true that she was edgy—Alex knew she walked a thin divide between placid and spool—coil tight. But taking the pills sent her to a place that was too strange for him to watch—filterless, no restraint, no regard for her actions, or those of others. Too mellow to care.
“I vote for ‘No Sugar Tonight’,” Dave said. He was high, and it was the first thing he’d said the whole band meeting. “People know that one. It’s got killer grooves.”
Lyle frowned at him, as if surprised he’d actually come up with a good idea. “Yeah,” he said. “Let’s do that. The Guess Who it is.”
As they left The Venice for the band’s VW bus, Alex caught Lyle by the sleeve of his jacket and they lingered at the entrance. “What’s Maddy’s thing today?” Alex said.
Lyle rested his elbow against the brick wall of the building, pressing his hand to his forehead. Alex realized he looked terrible, and knew he’d probably been up with her half the night. “She took those pills after the show last night and was drifting in and out until about four in the morning. Started babbling about all kinds of stuff—people I’ve never heard of, guys from high school. That girl who died.”
“She gonna be okay?” Alex said. He thought of a few nights ago at J.B.’s, when she burst into tears in the middle of their single, “Paradox”, and ran offstage, disappearing into the wings. The band spent the rest of the set thinking back to before Maddy was in the band. She was so integral to their music, such a draw for crowds, that most of their audience had just walked out that night.
“You know,” Alex went on, “you should talk to her. This is an important show, Lyle. She doesn’t seem to get that.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Lyle said. “I’ll talk to her in the next couple days, try to get her in a good mood.” He grinned. “You know Maddy. She’ll get it together. She’s gonna blow these guys’ minds.” He thumbed toward the group’s yellow VW bus parked across the street, where Maddy was leaning against the passenger window, watching them, lips at a precarious slant.
* * *
The last time Alex went to the Agora was four years ago, back in his junior year of high school. He’d grown up in Alliance, an industrial town outside Canton, with parents who’d never expected much from him. Alex was a loner, sullen and quiet, and his father had always assumed there was something wrong with him, that he was a delinquent in the making and would probably just end up in prison. Most days, Alex played records in his basement bedroom and melted into the sounds from his headphones, or sat in the high branches of the beech tree behind their house listening to his transistor radio. There was nothing wrong with him, other than that being with his family was like being constantly on trial, having to justify his actions and defend his emotions, which his father was always quick to deny.
One Saturday, Alex borrowed his friend’s car and drove to Cleveland to see a matinee performance by the Young Rascals. When he got to the Agora, he was so far in the back that he could barely see the microphones, so he shoved his way through the mass of people packing the dance floor. He finally reached the stage, just as the group counted off “Good Lovin'”—his favorite—and shot into the song in a way that left Alex hypnotized, watching how the lead guitarist jerked his head back and forth, eyes closed, as he hammered into the breaks. The music against the floor shook something up inside him that he now believed had been lying there his whole life, a fusion of the intensity of their faces, the parts coming together, the bright light in a tunnel that gradually was beginning to open at last. He stopped at a pawn shop on the way home and bought a beat up Gibson and an amp. Alex knew he wanted to be a part of this, of the first thing that wrapped him into a place where he could finally rest.
Except he didn’t. Not really. When he finally graduated high school and moved to Kent, he drowned himself in LSD and dope, more high on drugs than his love for music, trying to drive the memory of his dad’s voice out of his mind and banish the past from his life. The Purple Orange was the first band that hired him. hey partied hard before, during, and after shows, so much so that he barely remembered any of the gigs. He completely forgot what brought him to Kent to begin with, and it wasn’t until one frightening bad trip, walking through downtown watching the pavement crack in front of his feet, that he realized he really was falling. He quit drugs, quit the insanity, quit everything except the band, who didn’t seem to get that he wanted to succeed, not squander the first good thing that ever happened to him the way he almost had.
The afternoon of the show, the Agora smelled cold and wet, as if the brick walls were breathing out the last wafts of fall. As Alex carried his guitar and a case of Dave’s cymbals through the stage door, he thought of his dad peering down into his basement bedroom, watching him pluck on his guitar, irritated by the crackling sound of the poor amplifier connection. He wasn’t sure why this still mattered, but it did; that rage that still curled up when he thought of him, wanting to prove him wrong, giving him an itch to play that always transformed into raw energy by showtime.
Lyle came in behind him, holding Maddy’s hand, and the two stopped in the doorway while Alex walked into the wings. She looked better today, less delicate and floundering. She’d put on some makeup, and the front strands of her hair were curled into tiny sausage loops. Keeping a distance away from him, she and Lyle quietly conversed, glancing at Alex once out of the corner of her eye, then Lyle kissed her on the cheek and walked back outside.
Maddy scuffed her feet against the concrete floor, and Alex decided to join her, maybe scope out the situation so he knew where they stood for the show. “You okay?”
She flicked her head to the left, a sideways nod. “Yeah,” she said. “Sorry about the Venice yesterday. I wasn’t much help. I just—” Here came the part Alex hated, where she would lie even though they both knew it wasn’t the truth. “—didn’t sleep well.”
“You sure you’re okay?” Alex said.
“Oh, I’m fine.” Her voice rose on the last word, articulated it hard and fast. She kicked one foot in front of the other, nearly tripping, and laughed as she steadied herself. “I’m ready to roll.” In the dim light, he saw her wink at him.
“You know,” Alex said, “this is really big.”
“I know. You won’t shut up about it.”
“I mean it. This could change everything.” He stepped close to her, and her face was shadowy, one sided in the dim light of the backstage. “You’re so good. The way you sing—” Her eyes narrowed toward him, as though suspecting flattery. “You’ve got to be great tonight,” Alex said. “I mean, really, really great.”
She turned away from him and didn’t answer. He could hear her breathing, sort of shallow, the way she did when she was firing up for an argument. “What’s that supposed to mean?” she finally said. “You think I don’t want to be great? You think I like this? Waking up every day not knowing how I’m going to feel?”
“That’s not what I was talking about,” Alex said, even though he knew it was. “But I know. I do know what you mean.”
Her lips curled together. “That’s just it. You don’t know. You weren’t even there. You didn’t see a guy bleeding to death on a sidewalk. You didn’t see that chick’s boyfriend covered in her blood. You have no idea what I’m talking about, which is why you have no right to give me orders.”
“I’m not giving orders,” he said. “I respect you. I respect what you think. But that’s in the past. Do you really want to ruin this for us because you can’t just let it go?”
Maddy’s small face contorted into a pug-like sneer. “Let it go? Damn it, Alex you really don’t get it, do you? You stayed home and listened to records instead of supporting the cause. That says everything.”
“Maddy, stop it. We’ve been through this. I just couldn’t go to that protest. Everything was already too much. I told you, that isn’t how I’m wired—it’s not my way to be public about this stuff.”
“Well ‘your way’ isn’t how the rest of this world works,” Maddy said. “I do what I can every night with what I’ve got. I feel good right now. It’s going to be a good night. What else do you want?”
Alex thought of his own drug phase, the widening cracks in the sidewalk and knowing he couldn’t run from himself anymore. “You do most of this to yourself, you know,” Alex said.
“How dare you.”
“Look,” he said. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that if you want something—that’s enough fuel to get you through. That’s what playing music does. It doesn’t matter where you’ve been or what you’ve seen. Music changes that. Your emotions and the crap you put in your body, the ways you try to cope—they don’t do jack.”
“Fuck you, Alex.” She slid off the stairs and walked through the curtains, giving him a bitter, slanted-eyed look over her shoulder.
It was almost time to set up. Alex went outside and found Dave lying on a row of trap cases next to the van, smoking a cigarette and singing the one-line chorus of “Whole Lotta Love” over and over, mimicking the guitar riff with his mouth, smoke drifting in loops around his face ” Wanna whole lotta love—NEEEEEEEER!—wanna whole lotta love—NEEEEEEERR!!!!!”
Alex kicked his foot, and Dave looked up at him with squinty, half rolled eyes. “Get up,” Alex said. “We’ve got work to do.”
“Man, screw that,” Dave said, but got up anyway, half dragging his short stub of a body through the stage door, leaving the drum cases behind.
* * *
Around five o’clock, musicians poured into the theatre, five or six groups, all fringed leather jackets and tangled hair. Maddy was outside trying to bogart a joint from a guy with dark hair and tight jeans. She was talking fast, gesturing with wide sweeps of her hands, and watching her from around the corner of the stage door, Alex realized he knew the guy. His name was Eric, the lead singer for Eric and the Electrics. The Purple Orange had played with him a couple of times before. Once, Alex saw Eric stick a rolled up pair of socks in his pants before he went onstage when he thought no one was looking, then spent most of his set jutting his hips toward the audience in a way that made girls hysterical. And that was about all he had—mediocre guitar skills, nursery rhyme lyrics, and a pelvis—but no one seemed to notice. The only time Alex and Eric had actually spoken was at another concert where Alex was in a good mood and decided to tell Eric he’d played a good show. Eric had shoved him out of the way and kept walking as if he hadn’t heard a thing.
Eric came inside before Alex had a chance to duck an encounter with him. “Hey man, how’s it going?” Eric said. “Been awhile. You guys ready?”
Eric had lost weight, and wore a mauve-colored blouse unbuttoned to his chest. When Alex looked closer, he realized he was wearing eyeliner. “Suppose so,” he said.
Eric raised his eyebrows and made a quick, hard hmmph in his throat. “Yeah, sure,” he said, and headed into the theatre. Alex wondered if word had gotten around that The Purple Orange was crashing, and now it was okay for the two of them to talk because competition had been eliminated. He blinked several times as he walked away, as if trying to get the thought out of his mind.
Alex went downstairs to the basement dressing room, taking a moment to study the paper sign taped to the door: THE PURPLE (written in orange) ORANGE (written in purple). Inside, Dave was lying on the floor, staring at the ceiling, playing his drumsticks against his legs in a series of frenetic paradiddles. That’s gotta hurt, Alex thought, but Dave didn’t seem to care. Maddy was sitting in Lyle’s lap and had changed into a pair of jeans and a long red blouse. She hadn’t talked to Alex since earlier that afternoon, and when she looked at him, it was biting and edged, lips tightly pressed together. It was a kind of anger he’d never seen in her. Maybe, though, it would fuel her voice; maybe, unknowingly, she’d take his advice, convert her nerves and frustration into something sleek and stunning.
“So,” Alex said. “What now?”
“We mellow out,” Maddy said. She shot a hard glance in his direction. “I know that’s not your style, Alex. But we need something to do for the next hour or so. Come on. Hang loose for once.”
Alex saw Maddy’s prescription bottles pushed against the mirror along the makeup counter, morphing into four red reflections. Upstairs, he could hear the first band warming up, a mumble of voices, a few erratic shouts from the audience filing in. “No,” he said. “This isn’t a good idea. Dave’s already torched and we have to play soon.”
Maddy raised her eyebrows. They were plucked into graceful arches, and the knowing expression on her face made her look more like Maddy than she had all day. She reached out toward him and poked her finger against his nose. “Alex,” she said, “please shut up. Dave can take care of himself.”
She opened a bottle and popped two capsules into her mouth, staring into his eyes the whole time with an unbreaking defiance. Alex felt something boil in the pit of his stomach, his body tensing. An image of his father, looking down into the basement where Alex had set up his combination bedroom and music studio, fired into his head—the premature wrinkles in his forty year old face, his lipless, accusatory glare. You and that fool guitar. Want to ruin your life? End up in prison? He thought about how his only response was to crank up the volume on his amp and press his fingers into the strings until they dug against his skin.
From the corner, Dave craned his neck sideways. His pupils were dilated, his mouth open in a grin that revealed only his upper teeth. “Man,” he said, “relax. I’m good! Forget about the rest of these losers—when tonight’s over, nobody’s gonna rememmm—” He stopped, chewed on the word, then nodded to himself. “—forget Dave! I’m burning this place to the ground!”
Maddy grinned and tossed an empty prescription bottle across the room. It hit Dave straight on in the forehead, and he laughed, without even moving.
“Sure, Dave,” Alex said. “Sure you are.”
Upstairs, the Agora’s ballroom was filled to capacity. Alex watched the show from the wings, the mass of heads in the crowd swaying and bouncing as a group called The Bill of Rites played a wild fusion of psychedelic and British pop with no rhythm, just screeching guitars and screaming lyrics. Still, the audience was loving them, and Alex wondered if half of them were stoned, if no matter how bad The Purple Orange played, they would still go insane for them, producing the kind of ecstatic reaction that would show agents that no matter what happened onstage—they still had potential.
Alex thought he’d have to force the band out of the dressing room, but they came up on their own. “You guys ready?” he said. The lights from the stage offset Maddy’s body in a way that seemed to make her pants cling to her, and he realized how thin she’d gotten, her face tightly sculpted around her cheekbones.
Lyle put his arm around her shoulder, shifting the neck of his bass to his other hand. “Yeah,” he said. “Let’s do this.”
The master of ceremonies was Larry “The Duker” Morrow from WIXY,he was Alex’s favorite, but Alex was too shaken with nerves to appreciate the fact that the disc jockey was introducing his band. The Duker recited their short list of accomplishments—headliners at J.B.’s in Kent, opening for The Buckinghams at Chippewa Lake Park, a small regional tour as an opening act, their rising local hit “Paradox”. And then, let’s welcome to the stage, The Purple Orange!, the round of shouts from the house, and they were out.
“No Sugar Tonight” began just with Alex and his guitar, quiet chords that built into louder, minor accompaniment to the bassline. He would get them off on the right foot. As he moved out of his opening solo, he glanced over his shoulder at Lyle, waiting for the low, plucking bass notes that signaled the vamp into Maddy’s vocals. Maddy leaned into the microphone stand as if gripping it for support. Then, she belted the opening lines, and the crowd howled with recognition, then quieted, Maddy drawing them in, making them listen.
The notes sounded effortless, rising out of her birdlike body. When she and Alex began to harmonize near the end of the song, its verses mashed against each other, their eyes locked even as different words came from their mouths. Alex was struck by her focus, the way she stared at him, her eyes tightened and angry and blue, and was too caught up in how perfect she sounded to worry about the edge in her voice. It only made her sound more beautiful, and he took pleasure in knowing that maybe she’d reconsidered what she said that afternoon, that talent and opportunity had to win sometimes and you just had to shelve your pain. He could feel their voices from the speakers on either side of the stage, his breath turning to mist on the mic, the shake and chill in his chest that he felt whenever Maddy sang. By the time they finished the song, it was a year ago, before the gunshots and the dead girl and the pills, and the ghost of Maddy was resurrected. He never wanted to leave the stage.
The song ended. In front of the mic, Maddy jumped up and down, her eyes wide and wild, her hair wavy with static. She grabbed the mic stand and leaned over the edge of the stage. The crowd was still cheering. “Thank you!” she shouted, but they drowned her out, so she said it again. Alex watched her from behind, how she bounced on the balls of her feet and raised her hands over her head, quieting them. She closed her eyes and led her head fall back, seeming to take in the silence. Alex felt a cold, sinking feeling in his stomach. Now that the song was over, anything could happen.
Alex exchanged a glance with Lyle, who seemed unconcerned, fiddling with the tuning on his bass. Maddy was looking at the audience, hesitating just a little longer, a glazed, faux-peaceful look over her face. Alex, recognizing that expression from the previous times, knew what was about to happen.
On an impulse, he played the first few notes of “Paradox”, hoping that maybe the rest of the band would follow. “Cut that out,” Maddy yelled over her shoulder. She gave Alex the same cold stare, instantly dissolving the calm expression. Before Alex had the chance to do anything else, she moved back toward the mike, pushing it toward the edge of the stage.
“I don’t have to tell you,” Maddy announced, “that we’re at war.” There was some cheering from the crowd muddled by the acoustics of the room. The tone of her voice heightened. “And I don’t just mean in Vietnam. I mean right here where we live, where citizens who have the balls to say something about all this have somehow become the enemy. Just six months ago, Governor Rhodes whipped his dick out and sent the pigs to Kent State to show us what the military’s made of.” The audience responded with a noise Alex couldn’t distinguish as positive or negative. The sick feeling in his stomach intensified. “It’s bad enough we have to deal with them killing babies in Saigon,” Maddy went on. “Now they’re doing it here, too.”
The noise grew louder. Alex looked at the well-treaded stage floor, staring at the grooves in the wood as if he could somehow bring himself out of a dream, biting the inside of his bottom lip. Had she actually said “killing babies”? Or had he just imagined it? He glanced up at Lyle, whose smile seemed to have weakened. The only person in the auditorium who seemed at peace with what had just happened was Maddy, her eyes smug and self-satisfied.
“Hey!” A voice rose out of the discord in the audience, and Alex could see a guy shoving his way to the front of the stage, stumbling a little when someone pushed him out of his way and tried to keep him from coming through. He shouted out again, and this time Alex could faintly see him in the stage lights, a half-shadow of a face. The guy in the crowd pointed up at Maddy. “Hey, lady!” he shouted. “My brother was one of those ‘pigs’. He didn’t know what the hell he was doing. He was just following orders. His life’s shot enough as it is without having to worry about commies like you saying he’s a murderer. Shut up and play some music like you’re supposed to.”
“Yeah?” Maddy said. She was leaning over the side of the stage now, staring him down. “What about Bill and Sandy and Jeff? What about Allison? You think their lives aren’t shot?”
“My brother’s wrecked,” the guy in the audience repeated. “You don’t understand. He’s not himself anymore and he didn’t ask for any of it.”
“He should be locked up,” Maddy snapped back. “They all should. Anyone with innocent blood on their hands, from Saigon to Kent State! Fuck the pigs! Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, N.L.F. is gonna win!”
The rest of the crowd joined in on the chant. Maddy jumped off the stage into the crowd, shoving her way through the audience, trying to find the guy in the dim light. The sound of glass smashing echoed from the back of the theater. Dave started banging on his drums, keeping time with the audience. “We’re going to play another song now,” Alex said into his microphone, but his voice trailed off when he saw cops come in the back entrance. A panicked expression crossed Lyle’s face as he noticed this, too, and he leapt off the stage after her, pushing his way through the mob trying to find her. Alex unplugged his guitar and walked off stage, not caring if anyone noticed.
He went back to their dressing room, where he sat on the vanity table and leaned against the mirror. He didn’t know how long the noise from the stage went on—the sound of the ecstatic crowd mixed with police sirens and Dave’s drums, but knew it continued longer than it probably should have. When the next act was finally allowed to play, he could still hear the crowd trying to overpower them, faint strains of the Ho Chi Minh chant breaking through. He spent the next hour or more thinking about how quickly the performance tanked—that perfect fusion of notes Maddy had bludgeoned to pieces. There was no doubt that it was over now; a little controversy in music was good if you were the Doors on Ed Sullivan, but when next morning’s headline read Local Band Incites Riot, the odds of being able to escape it weren’t good.
Finally, Lyle and Dave came through the door, alone, Lyle looking fatigued and sick. “Hey man!” Dave shouted. “Maddy got arrested!”
Lyle told Dave to shut up and sidled over to Alex at the vanity. “It’s true,” he said after a moment. “They got her for disorderly conduct. Her and about twenty other people.” He sat next to Alex and let his head lull to the side, as if staring at his own reflection in the mirror. “Man, I really tried,” he said. “You gotta believe me. I did try to talk to her. I told her she couldn’t pull any crap at this show, not tonight. She promised she wouldn’t.”
“Well, Maddy’s not real great at upholding bargains,” Alex said. He was trying to hold back the urge to explode, to let out his anger at Lyle for not taking the situation more seriously. But somehow, it didn’t seem like the place. Their lead singer was in jail, along with a bunch of people who went to a rock concert not planning to get arrested. Letting his rage boil over would just make the situation worse. “Even before the shooting, she still wasn’t. You know that. So what happens now?”
“Well, nothing yet,” Lyle said. “Bail’s set at five hundred dollars, so we’ve got to come up with the money tomorrow and get her out. I figure we’ll ask Joe at J.B.’s.”
“We can’t,” Alex said. “He can’t know about this. He’ll fire us.”
“He’ll find out eventually,” Lyle said. “You know he wasn’t too thrilled about the student protest movement, especially after they trashed his club during the riots.” They both sat there for a moment, staring at the floor. “You were right,” he finally said. “We shouldn’t have gone to that protest. Sometimes, it’s better to just shut up.”
Alex felt a twinge of satisfaction to hear him admit this, then remembered that satisfaction didn’t matter, not this way. Maybe that was what it had all been about, really. Convincing everyone—his dad, Lyle, Maddy, the world—that he was right. He put his arm around Lyle’s shoulder. “Maybe after we have Maddy back, we can leave Ohio, go someplace else where they’ve never heard of us, change our name. Maybe Canada.” He laughed darkly, but Lyle didn’t respond, and it occurred to Alex that starting over wouldn’t be that easy.
They started packing up their instruments to load the van. As Alex walked toward the back of the stage, he passed the agent who’d given them the tip about this show, shaking Eric’s hand. Eric looked smug, grinning while the agent looked at him the same way he’d looked at Alex and Maddy once—a gaze full of promise, discovery, that assured them a ticket upward. Alex continued toward the stage door, pretending not to notice Eric’s sly, satisfied grin.
* * *
It was just after two in the morning when they got back to the house. Alex parked next to the curb and got out of the van, not knowing what Lyle and Dave were planning on doing and somehow not really caring. He didn’t tell them where he was going, and they didn’t ask. He decided to head down Route 59 toward downtown, the noise from the bars audible in the distance, the road mostly empty.
It was nearly one in the morning, but the city was open for business almost all night on the weekends. On Franklin Avenue, a herd of college students trudged down the sidewalk, drunk and smelling of grass. Farther up the block, music trickled out the door of a club, someone hollered a wolf-like wail of noise. It was true, Alex considered, that there could be more rock shows, more agents and producers, maybe a chance meeting at J.B.’s when the band resumed their regular show schedule next week, provided that Joe didn’t have a stroke when he found out what happened. Maybe a manager from the concert would step up and make them an offer, thinking Maddy’s charisma could be tamed into something marketable. But somehow, Alex could feel that it was over—that all of it had been taken away, when it was really too distant to even be able to touch.
A drunk kid in a Kent State t-shirt stumbled toward him, his eyes big and bloodshot, looking at Alex with a squinted gaze that suddenly brightened. He pointed toward Alex, stumbling over his feet. “Hey!” he shouted. “You’re the guy—the guitarist! From the purple band!” At any other time, Alex might have found this funny. The kid shook his head, his hair shaking back and forth. “You guys—you’re outta sight, man. You’re like better than anything.” Alex brushed by him without answering, hitting his shoulder against him.
He went to the Venice. It was empty, except for a group of frat boys shooting pool who looked at him with that same sense of recognition that made him sick inside. He went to the back of the room, where the jukebox was waiting, and popped in a quarter. As Tommy James sang “Crimson and Clover”, the shaky vibrato of the guitar melodious in the smoky air, Alex watched the farm girl frolic in the hay, in the ephemeral black and white of the screen, over, and over, and over. The straw rained down around her pale, outstretched arms, her eyes seemed quiet and sensitive, as if she were inviting him to climb into the barn with her, let her gather the muscles of his shoulders into her kneading hands, rest her chin against his neck. She looked right at him, met his eyes, then dove into the haystack with a laughing, closed-eye smile. He hoped he had enough spare change to last the night.