PRAYER IS BETTER THAN SLEEP
"Cake," he says.
I play bass in St. Louis, Memphis, and Oxford with no hitch because I abide by the first rule of being a Horse-Thief: Never Stop Playing. From song one to song whatever, no breaks. Keep your right hand moving, who cares about the left one. And shake. For such a fat man, Turk can shake it. In St. Louis Turk stands on Crandon's drum kit and jumps off, leading with his gut. If the guitar gets smashed, the guitar gets smashed. There are other guitars in the world. All he asks is that it have strings, a volume knob he can turn up, and a tone knob he can turn down. (The guitar gets smashed, he switches to another. The gig is over when he breaks four strings off that one, tries to balance it upright with the balls of his feet on the horns. The neck snaps in there somewhere. It all happens so quick and half the time my eyes are closed, anyway.)
Crandon stands as he plays drums. He takes off his shirt and runs his fingers through the thick patches of hair on each side of his balding head until they stick out straight to a twisted point and he looks like a wonderland mayor. He slouches hard over the kit, raising a stick over his head with each crack and the front side of the bass drum puff puff puffs. In Oxford he busts through the snare head and holds the whole drum above him, tattered. He is proud; he smiles. It's like he has been drumming this whole tour just to break this snare. Screw the beat, screw the music -- they're just evils necessary to efficient drum breakage. He cradles the snare in his forearm like a discus, then throws it out into the club. Once it's past the lights, I can't see it. Our adoring fans are lucky to be almost nonexistent. No one screams, but it's not like I would hear them if they did.
Me, I sling the bass as low as I can and pull up my shoulders tight for a Frankenstein sort of effect. I flutter my eyelids, like I'm moved. I pretend that we are the religious revival that we wish we were. I cannot help myself, sort of. You have to meet transcendence halfway. You have to look for it; you must to be ready for it. So what if that looks like faking it.
In Memphis, my volume goes from four to ten.
In a McDonald's, I say, "I don't want to go home." The chair I sit in sprouts from the floor like a tree. It's rooted there.
Crandon says something back, but it drowns in all the ringing.
"What?" I say. "What?" I'm going deaf, have been for a long time. Only now I don't mind.
Turk leans over me. Special sauce is on his breath. His finger presses over my ear. This is something Ruth and I sometimes did at shows if we wanted to have a conversation over the noise. And he says, "Eat something, kid. For Christ's sake." Then he slaps me on the back of the head.
But I don't eat. Lately, it all tastes like ash. I don't sleep much either. There's a ball of light in my chest and it is too warm; this is every night.
Little Red Riding Hood
Someone punches me in the face. I don't see him coming. The blow pushes me backward, which I realize has become downward when the back of my head hits something hard and I stop. There's no need to fight back. I know that no one meant me harm. The noise shoots from my ears so fast I have to wonder: was all that sound just in my head the whole time? This is a vacuum of silence, this is tranquility. Tranquility is black and still. My thoughts become quiet melodies, and all I can do is listen to them, there is nothing else. I'm barely here. In my chest is the tepid weight that comes before a sneeze. But I don't sneeze. Behind my eyes is the tangy pull that comes before tears. But I don't cry. My head flashes run, but I do not move. Fear is beside the point. There's pleasure in all of this if you can make it last.
"You were dehydrated," he says. "You passed out." He talks through cotton, but I hear him.
"Passed out?" I say. I want to tell him what I saw, but naming it would only make it smaller.
"Don't drink so much on an empty stomach," the doctor says. "If this happens again, get an MRI."
I say, "Sure."
"Better safe than sorry."
"Right," I say, but it's a false choice. I don't think I'll ever again be either safe or sorry.
It happens again. In Philadelphia.
"Fuck off, Kraut." I say it into the mic.
Turk's guitar cuts out to feedback. The Kraut smiles; he likes the idea of knocking me out. Turk pulls me back from the mic.
Turk says, "He just got out of the hospital."
Someone from the crowd yells, "Asshole!"
The Kraut smiles wider and walks to the stage. He hugs my calves and pulls. My head hits the lip of the stage. Just knowing what's coming next feels good.
But I'm wrong. Nothing comes but a bad dream about Ruth. She's naked and sharing apple slices with a man I don't recognize. He's naked too. When they laugh they lean toward each other and I'm forced to watch like a ghost when he puts his hand on the inside of her thigh and makes her smile. When I wake up, I'm in the back of the van. My brain feels too big for my head; it's trying to get out through the pores of my skin.
Turk's mouth moves. I can see it in the rear-iew. He might as well be saying "You're a fucking liability, but that rocked," because the rakish smile I can see.
Crandon's hands leave the steering wheel to gesture emphatically. Probably about the money we didn't get paid in Louisville.
"Why are you calling me?" she says, like she's about as far away as she is.
I don't even pretend she's asking me a real question. "Tell me something true, Babe."
"Don't call me again." She hangs up.
It happens again. But it's different this time. Like someone forces my head under water. My eyes see black but I can still hear the world as it reverberates with distance. I can hear when Turk stops singing and screams, "Christ!", like a lyric. I can feel the floor come up against my jaw. The crowd is rowdy and indifferent to me. They are cynical; they think this is a stunt. Blood is thick and tangy in my mouth. I am halfway between what I want and what I have. When you see those worlds side by side like that, like a surveyor flying above the landscape, you realize that they are not as different as you need them to be. It's the worst thing, hoping for something and then finding it to be familiar.
It turns out this universe I found is only the size of my own head. I can't tell from the darkness, because unless there is light, darkness has no edges. I can tell from the ringing of my ears. The tinnitus is on either side of me, like two fluorescent lights at the far ends of a long room, me in the middle.
Pete Coco did an MFA at Iowa and now lives and writes in Chicago, also teaching at StoryStudio Chicago and City Colleges. His work has appeared in the Madison Review and elsewhere.