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During my first few weeks at school, I spent a lot of time in the old music department building. I wasn’t a music major, really, I wasn’t even taking any music classes; I hadn’t decided on my major, but it would probably end up being something like psychology or economics. My mom wanted me to be a business major.
Often on warm September afternoons after my morning classes let out I would let myself in through the front door and into the cool, dark atrium. As soon as I entered I could hear it, faint echoes venturing down the distant hallways – frantic, ramshackle jazz piano from the practice rooms upstairs, a delicate chorus of nylon guitars, the far-off clatter of a brass band underscored by a distant, looming thunderstorm of tympanis. It was my favorite place to just escape and immerse myself in music.
But I wasn’t only there for the music specifically; I was there for musicians. Every so often I would meander down one of the broad linoleum hallways and press my face against the checkered glass windows of the doors to the rehearsal spaces or just stand outside and listen. My ears searched the soundscape for talent – crisp, heavy bass, someone who didn’t just know how to play, but how to make it sound good. Even more importantly, I listened for a good drummer. I would sift through the rehearsal schedules posted by each door to find out when the jazz band practiced; jazz is the rhythmic foundation of modern music, and jazz drummers can play anything.
I could play the piano. I took lessons when I was a kid but I stopped a while ago. I can sort of play the guitar too, but I’m not that good. I didn’t like singing but I would if I really had to, if I couldn’t find anyone else.
I saw other people in the building, most of them (probably all of them) real musicians. You could always find heavyset kids lugging around their sousaphone cases or a posse of little Asian girls with their violins at their sides. But the only person I specifically remember was this guy.
He strode into the building one day when I was lurking near the auditorium entrance. He was tall, a lot taller than me, maybe six-two or six-three. His messy, dirty-blond hair came over his ears and a eyes a bit, and he had a short kind of stubble-beard of the same color. I figured he was at least a senior, maybe a grad student. He wore frayed jeans, but not the kind that kids buy pre-shredded, and a brownish-khaki barn jacket over a plain black t-shirt. He had his hands in his pockets, and his posture was relaxed but confident. He strolled through the atrium looking around inquisitively, like he had never been inside before. His eyes were strikingly blue, so much that it caught me off guard when I accidentally made eye contact. He jaunted over to me, smiling, and held out his hand.
“Hey, I’m Jack.” He didn’t so much shake my hand as grip it firmly for a split second. I noticed his knuckles and the back of his hand were scarred badly.
“Will.” I grinned and tried to avoid his probing gaze.
“So what do you play?” His tone was casual and friendly, but I got the impression that for some reason he wasn’t just making small talk, that he actually wanted to know.
“Oh, I, uh, actually I don’t really play anything. Well, I play the piano, but I don’t really take lessons anymore.” I felt really stupid after I heard the words fumble out of my mouth, and I’m sure my face turned red.
He chuckled. “That’s cool man. I actually play a little guitar.” He asked me about the building a little bit, and his eyes started to wander. I gave him a distilled version of the dedicational plaque he had walked past on the way in just to be polite. Turned out he wasn’t a student, that he was visiting, and he had just driven down from New York. We talked about nothing for a few more minutes, but then the conversation returned to music.
“So what do you listen to?” He looked at me intently, and his tone shifted just a bit.
“I dunno, I like a lot of different music. I like classic rock, some older hip hop, indie rock, reggae, lots of stuff.” He nodded and seemed satisfied with my answer. He furrowed his brow for a moment, then looked up at me and smiled. I got a weird feeling like I had met him before.
“You wanna see something cool?” He got a strange glint in his eye, and I started to wonder if I was talking to a psycho or a perv or something. But I was curious, so I followed him out to the parking lot. I had some time to kill before I had to catch the train, and I anticipated that the next two weeks would be pretty damn dull.
I squinted through the sunlight trying to guess which car was his; my money was on the Nissan parked next to the empty handicapped space. I was pretty surprised when the slick black Audi in the corner of the lot flashed and hiccupped. A large dog inside started to bark and lick the window feverishly.
“That’s Saxon. He’s an idiot, don’t worry about him.” He must have seen me hesitate a half-step, or maybe he just saw it in my face. Saxon looked like maybe a German Shepherd, but not in a threatening way, I realized when I got closer. Jack opened the door a crack and let Saxon slather his face with spit, then reassured him with a scratch behind the ears. When the door closed he stopped barking and laid down patiently in the hair-covered backseat, clearly his territory.
Jack used his sleeve to casually wipe the slobber off of his face as he straightened. As he strode around to the trunk he glanced over each shoulder like a fugitive, and I got even more curious as to what was in there.
“I don’t want you to think I’m crazy or anything,” he forewarned, “but if you’re a music fan I think you’ll be able to appreciate this.” I was already starting to think he was crazy so he really had nothing to lose. The latch clicked and the trunk popped open to reveal a black vinyl guitar case wedged in with a sizeable green duffel bag. He reached for the guitar case, grinning maniacally, and started to undo the latches. I was almost disappointed; I had expected something more outlandish than just a guitar. At the very least I expected it to be some rare, collectible ax, or one that belonged to somebody famous, which is why my breath caught in my throat when he finally opened the case. It was not a guitar; inside was a long, slender, nickel-plated twelve-gauge shotgun.
“This was Kurt Cobain’s,” he whispered reverently. “Wanna hold it?” Then it hit me.
“You’re Jack Vandermaur!” I realized, “You were the lead singer of the Plastic Bags!” I was immediately embarrassed by the way the beaming smile melted off his face. The Plastic Bags had been a one-hit wonder from a year or so past, but I had read that they broke up or something. Recently actually, they broke up because their singer wigged out. The singer standing right in front of me. I got a little nervous realizing that I could be talking to a heroin addict or a psycho. I considered bolting right there, but for some reason I didn’t feel at all threatened.
I had hated their song, it was called… “Stuck on You (Like Glue)”. It was even worse than it sounds, the most banal pop. It was embarrassing to listen to; I looked at Jack and realized it must have been embarrassing for him, judging from the fact that he looked like he’d just been stabbed in the gut with an ice pick.
“How did you get that?” I blurted in an effort to change the subject. His face relaxed a little bit, and he turned away from me and deliberately closed the case and clasped the latches. He turned back to me, smiling again.
“Are you hungry? Because I’m hungry, and I’ll tell you how I got it if you tell me where we can find some good sandwiches.”
I could imagine the look on my mom’s face if I told her I had gotten into a car with a shotgun-toting, wandering musician with a history of supposed mental instability, so I decided I wouldn’t tell her who I met. I remembered again that I would have to catch the train to Cleveland later tonight, home for Thanksgiving. It would be my first time back since I had left for school, but I wasn’t looking forward to it as much as I thought I would.
Saxon kept breathing in my left ear, these warm, moist heaves that gave me an intense urge to wash my hair. I rolled down the window and tried to lean my head out without making it too obvious. I had decided that we shouldn’t eat on campus, just so nobody would recognize Jack and make a scene. The only place I knew for good sandwiches outside campus was in Springfield, the little town about a mile down the main highway that the college fed on. A squat, red-brick building housed a little deli run by Polish immigrants that catered more to working professionals than college kids. For all the people in suits it was pretty casual, although it always smelled like disinfectant and hot laptop batteries.
I ordered my usual ham and Swiss melt, and Jack got roast beef with pepper jack. I started to pay but he stopped me and pulled a fifty out of his wallet for both of our meals. He started to talk almost immediately as we set our trays on the linoleum tabletop.
“So you might have read the headlines about how I more or less ‘went crazy’, and, I guess to an extent it’s true.” I sipped my Coke and decided that I had no way to respond to that.
“Well, my band’s first album, or single anyway, was pretty successful. Commercially anyway. I don’t know if you heard it…?” He looked away and kind of trailed off as he asked, so I just took another bite and nodded for him to continue.
“So after our tour and everything, I was feeling kinda burned out, and I arranged a meeting with the head of our label. I didn’t tell the other guys in the band, but I was just… unsure about our music. About where we were going, whether we really had fans or just listeners.” He leaned in and confided in a low voice, “and to be honest, I hated our first album.” He looked at me expectantly.
“Yeah, I mean, you guys weren’t my favorite band.” He started to nod so I became less diplomatic. “I actually really didn’t like that song, the Glue one.” He laughed and rubbed his chin ruefully.
“I know. I…I knew it then too. I just… I felt like if our first album was a commercial success, I would have more leverage, more creative control. I just had to buy their trust.” I noticed a man sitting alone at the table next to ours, business type, more or less shouting into one of those cell phone headsets. He was pale, balding, and he was clutching his coffee mug a little too tightly. He seemed to be staring at a spot on the wall, but his eyes were unfocused, still blathering at somebody who wasn’t there. The effect was unnerving.
Jack tore off a piece of his sandwich and continued as he pushed the masticated lump into his cheek. “So I show up for the meeting at the guy’s office in New York. He’s the president of the label, you know, more or less one of those A&R jerks, the head A&R jerk I guess. He doesn’t know a thing about music, but he knows how to sell it.” He took a moment to swallow. “Greets me with a big fake smile, two-handed handshake, ‘Jack, my man,’ all that. Welcome to the Machine.” He chomped again into his sandwich.
“So he’s all, ‘what can I do for you?’ not that he actually gives half a crap about whatever I might want to talk about. I started to explain to him that I wanted to try something new, something a little more original, and I even brought a demo that I had been working on. He gets this amused look on his face, but he tells me to play it for him anyway, so I go over to the wall where the CD player is. I look up, and in this glass case on the wall is the shotgun, the one I have in my trunk.” It was getting closer to noon, and more people started to come into the deli, haggard nine-to-fives crowding at the trough.
“So I ask him, ‘do you hunt?’ and he laughs, this grotesque, gut-heavy laugh, and tells me, ‘no no no, that’s purely decorational.’” The anger in Jack’s voice began to rise.
“He gets this ugly smirk, then gloats, ‘that was the shotgun Kurt Cobain killed himself with. Crazy fucker, blew his brains all over the floor in the prime of his career.’ He laughed.” Jack leaned closer to me. “He laughed. He somehow got his filthy fucking hands on this, this Spear of Destiny – ” he sputtered, his rage seemingly inexpressible through words. He got control of himself and slouched back into his chair.
“So I basically decided then and there that I was done. I was out. I told him that I wanted to terminate the contract. He laughs again and tells me, basically, that I still have to make two more albums under his approval and that there is not a thing I can do about it. So, I guess I kinda lost it.” He sipped his Coke thoughtfully and gazed out the window. “I punched out the glass,” he indicated his scarred hand, “grabbed it, and booked. I took the stairs, and he called security, so they were waiting for me in the lobby. But they don’t give guns to the rent-a-cops, so I pointed the shotgun at them,” he shook his head and let out a good-natured laugh, “and I asked them if they felt lucky.” My laughter sent an agonizing surge of carbonation into my nose that I barely kept from escaping.
“Even though I don’t think it was loaded,” he shrugged. “hell, it could have been loaded. Might still be loaded. Anyway, they backed off, people started screaming, but I got out of there before the cops came, and I’m not really sure if they’re still looking for me. I’m sure someone from the label is, probably to sue me for the clothes off my back. Which is why I was planning to go to Vancouver.”
I was so awestruck that I couldn’t even think of anything meaningful to say, so I just sat there shaking my head incredulously. I envied this man; I couldn’t even imagine doing something like that, something reckless, exhilarating, and so morally uncompromising. He made me feel like a pushover, a cowardly people-pleaser.
“Why Vancouver?” I finally stammered. I had never been there, but I had heard it was really nice. I had never been to Canada; I had never actually left the country. When I thought about it, I realized that I had never even gone west of the Mississippi.
“I have some friends there who offered to take me in for a while, just so I can sort of lay low. Plus, it’s out of the country.” He slurped up the last bit of soda from the plastic cup, then took both of our trays over to the garbage. I looked at my watch – it was already half past twelve.
“Jack, can I ask you a favor? I need to get to the train station by one. D’you think you could drop me off?” I felt bad, almost like I was ditching him, but he seemed unperturbed.
“Will, I would be happy to. Heading home for Thanksgiving?”
He smiled wistfully and nodded his head. “Are you a freshman?”
“Yes,” I admitted grudgingly. I expected the usual, ‘oh, a freshman, how exciting’ bull, but he didn’t patronize me; he just nodded and left it at that.
The ride to the train station was pretty silent. I realized that I was more or less dreading my return home, but it wasn’t out of desire to remain at school. I just stared at the barren trees lining the road and tried to shut off my mind.
We pulled in front of the gray cinder-block building as the clock hit 1:55. Jack held out his hand and again looked directly into my eyes.
“Will, I really enjoyed our lunch. Have a nice Thanksgiving.” He seemed to be holding something back. I turned and stared straight ahead. I looked at the platform, populated by other students heading home for the break mingling with the assorted adults who were there every day of their lives. I looked back at him and met his gaze for the first time that afternoon.
“When are you going to Vancouver?” I asked. His face split into a wide smile.
“I was planning to head out after I dropped you off, actually. I mean, I might make a few stops along the way.”
I took a deep breath. “Can I come with you?”