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He didn’t believe in reincarnation, though he wanted to. He wanted to live a million lives at once, wanted to walk every speck of the world. Like every foolish youth he believed he could understanding everything if he ran far enough and looked closely. He found mountains of meaning in a broken neon sign, a dropped candy wrapper by the side of the highway, or a sepia photograph from the time when brothers in blue killed brothers in gray. He fell in love with the ancient, broken, forgotten things because they, not the diamond necklaces nor the shining new skyscrapers that grew outside his window like weeds, had stories. Or at least, had good stories.
He kept two pencils on his person at once, one behind his ear in case he needed to write quickly, and one in his pocket in case the one behind his ear fell to the ground and was crushed, absentmindedly, by his feet. He kept a small notebook where his wallet should have been and, without a moment’s notice, he would stop his walking and scribble on a sheet of paper. He would pull over in his car, forget to leave an elevator, stop a conversation, all to chronicle what he had just discovered in his notebook. It was his bible, his book of knowledge, his diary, his best friend.
He had no friends. Men like him rarely do.
He barely slept because at night, as soon as he shut his eyes, the half-baked inspiration, the faded images, the lost stories, all danced in his head. But as soon as he sat down, took pencil from his ear, and commenced his scribbling, they vanished, leaving him without a single word for his time. As soon as he lay back again, they returned like vengeful ghosts. He wondered what he had done to anger them so.
And so this pattern went on for nights and days, in weeks, then months, then years. His job was aimless; he was caged between the bars of horrid choice. To live in a soulless cubicle, working nine to five, drinking cold coffee, and going nearsighted by staring at a computer? No; not the life for him! Not the life for an artist. But here he was, asking paper or plastic and counting out change, scanning credit cards and putting TV dinners, cake mix and spaghetti onto shelves, organizing the empty artifacts that would be gone long before they reached their expiration dates. At least this job, he told himself, meant people.
But he hated people. They were always smiling, forever laughing, with no need to find meaning in the world. All that mattered was where to find their favorite flavor of nutrition bar or which brand of frozen pizza did he recommend. He wanted to grab them by the collars and shake them, push them up against the wall, scream at them. He wanted to stare into their empty heads and find the answer to the question; is bliss worth the ignorance? Sometimes, on the very, very bad days, he wanted to put a knife in their heart.
He looked to his past and tried to find a turning point, tried to remember when he had lost his childish happiness. He could find none. He imagined it trickling away from him, ever since he had opened his eyes. But he could not find a time, a day, an event, not even a year, where innocence had been lost for good. He could not recall his last good day anymore then he could recall his first bad one.
But had he looked to his future he would have known where to begin. With the rich man. The one who wore a suit to the grocery store that looked good with his trimmed, slicked back hair. The one who could have been a model for men’s hair care commercials. He probably tipped his waiter with a fifty dollar bill, the same he used to light his cigarettes.
The rich man wasn’t buying much. Just a few peppers, a chicken breast, and some taco shells. “You a family man,” the rich man asked.
”That’s a shame,” said the rich man. “You look like you’d be good with kids. Me, I’ve got a family but it’s got its downsides. For instance, see these tickets.” The rich man took out two slips of paper with a name printed on them. The name was that of a band that played on the radio when he drove to work in the morning. He liked them all right. “I was going to take my wife; she loves these guys,” the rich man explained, “but it turns out it’s my sons ninth birthday and she’s intent on staying home. You want them?”
There was a time when he said yes to everything simply because he wanted to fill his head with every experience. Now he felt the tiniest amount of hesitation, but he nodded. “Sure.” He’d never seen a concert before. The rich man gave him his tickets and he slipped them into his pocket. “I don’t have anyone to give the second ticket to,” he confessed.
The rich man handed him a twenty dollar bill and bagged his groceries himself. “That’s easy, son. Go to a bar and find a pretty girl, or boy if that’s your taste, and ask them if they wanna see a concert. Make sure you tell them what band it is. Everybody loves these guys.”
“Yeah, all right,” he said. He had no intention of doing such a thing. As soon as he got home, he put the ticket up for sale on ebay, making note in his little book about some of the stranger items he found. That weekend he called in sick, hopped in his car, and went to the concert.
He’d been to symphonies when he was young, massive bands of classy men and women playing Beethoven or Bach. But he’d never been to a rock concert. It was louder than he expected; the strobe lights gave him a headache, the smoke machine made him sneeze. He was right up in front, near the mosh pit. Men and even a few women, all sweaty and tattooed with metal stuck in their faces, jumping about like wild animals, screaming in tune with the music. At the end of the concert, the band threw things at the audience. First they threw t-shirts and signed CDs. Then the bassist threw his pick, the guitarist threw a string, the singer unplugged his mike and hurled it at a girl who’d taken off her shirt, and the drummer ran to the front of the stage and tossed his sticks, almost as if he was bowling.
He’d been watching this display with detachment, but when the drummer’s sticks came hurtling towards him, he stood up, not knowing why, and held out his hands. He caught them and they fit perfectly in his fists.
The concertgoers spilled out of the stadium drunkenly and dazed. He was among them, clinging to his drumsticks like a talisman, feeling as happy as he’d ever been. He reached for the pencil behind his ear to write about his bliss but it was gone, probably being trampled beneath the stampede of music lovers. He reached for the one in his pocket but that was gone too, as was his notebook. He knew he should be panicking but he felt horribly serene. The wood of the drumsticks felt good against his palm. As his tapped them against the lamppost they sounded clear and fine.
He knew, somehow, that this was right. He would drum.
When he was young, he was scolded by his parents for making too much of a ruckus. Like kids in bad sitcoms he hammered spoons against pans, became addicted to pure, loud noise.
A song was nothing without rhythm these days. A beautiful melody was all fine and good but what you needed was to get people’s feet tapping. If you couldn’t play it in clubs or dances or parties it was no good, doomed to be forgotten. For a good rhythm you needed a good drummer, and ever since he popped out of the womb, banging his clammy hands against his bloody thighs, he had been a damn good drummer. He was always making up beats, drumming on his desk during school, too concerned with the sound his pencils were making on the desk to care about Newton’s laws of physics or Asimov’s laws of robots or whatever the old lady with the ruler was teaching up there. He dropped out when he was sixteen, ran away as soon as he saved up enough to buy a car.
He drummed on the streets making a fine fortune of kindly donations. He wasn’t authorized to busk and so he got kicked out of every streetside and alley in every city this side of Chicago. Until finally he made it to New York and he found them.
There were three of them and each was like a god come down to earth. The singer sounded in turns like a man-siren and a dying cat, whatever the song needed. He sung about girls and boys, life and death, his screwed up childhood and the wonders of innocence. He was every contradiction piled high in the shape of a man. The guitarist strummed on a stolen acoustic because he couldn’t get an amp for his electric. When he did though he played to summon up demons and kill them, all in one swoop of his neon green leopard print pick. The bassist was the oldest, nearly forty, and had played upright in a jazz band in pubs across the country before he got addicted. He was all they had for rhythm and was more concerned with giving everything they played a sense of malice. They were about ready to sign a deal but with one little snag. They needed a drummer.
The singer found him busking by the side of the road, counting the hours till the cops told him to split. He felt like his game was slipping, his rhythms were rubbish, and not a soul had dropped more than a single coin into his hat. The singer watched for nearly an hour, sitting on a park bench and staring as he swung his sticks against his buckets. Finally, the singer came and dropped a hundred dollar bill into the hat. “You want more?” he said. “Join our band.”
So he did. And then his life was touring or sitting in a studio with real drums instead of buckets. They trashed hotel rooms and cleaned up after, they played to crowds of screaming punks, metalheads, and a veritable grab bag of tortured souls. Instead of the cops chasing them away they escorted them to their gigs. They played in stadiums on stages the size of a street block. They wore earplugs to keep from going deaf. It barely worked.
He had always wanted to make people happy. He wanted them to love his songs, dance to his rhythms, smile at him. But all he seemed to do was make them angrier. The moshers swung their arms more, screamed louder, the faster or better his beats were. The news reports talked about gangs quoting their lyrics, playing their songs out of boom boxes from the eighties as they attacked. They killed to the beat of his drums.
His band mates, his friends were slipping away. They were as miserable as him. They had sold their only dream, and to make it disappear they smoked and drank and shot up, but it did nothing for him. They sat in the hotel room and faded like ghosts until one of them finally disappeared. The singer.
He remembered staring down at the singer’s body. He remembered loving and hating the singer. If it weren’t for him he’d be drumming his way to California, slow and sure, than going back again, aimless and purposeless. But here the only difference was better drums, a bigger stage, and money. The singer had made it bearable, almost. The singer had been his friend. And now that the singer was dead, did he make any difference whether he stayed of left.
They begged him to stay. Where would they find another drummer, one as good as him? And so he stayed. They got a new singer, who screamed in fake anguish and sung of fake heartbreak. He had a voice like an alcoholic Frank Sinatra. He was good, and people danced to the band on their radios, killed to their songs on their boom boxes. Parents across the country took albums away from their children. Riots started. Hate mail flooded in. He cried, because he felt it all like physical blows.
One concert, no different than the hundreds of others, except for someone in the crowd. He was young, with dark shadows around his eyes, and skin as pale as the man in the moon. But he moved to the beat, he swayed and tapped his feet. He reacted the way the drummer always wanted, the way people on the street had back in the busking days. So when they threw things out into the crowd like always, he aimed his sticks. The man rose to accept them, like a gift.
After the concert was over he wandered through the seats, knowing he was looking for something but not sure what. He found it then, near where the man had been sitting. Two pencils, sharpened to points, and a notebook, small enough to fit in his pocket. He picked them up like treasures and could have sworn he felt an electric charge when he touched them.
Experimentally, he lifted the notebook and with a pencil, painted a picture made of words he’d never had use for. He painted a picture of the singer, of a street corner, of crowds. The picture had a warning that contained all his fears, that the music was poison fueled by his beats. No more. It was settled. No more would he hold the needle, no more would the poison find its way into society’s veins. No more.
It was decided. He would write.