This dude named Gary was standing in my garage. Our drummer had driven all the way across town to pick him up and bring him back to my house so he could listen to our band and see if he wanted to book us to play at the club he had just opened. Gary was what you would call a little sketchy. Gary was from Los Angeles, and he was shifty and had a shaved head and was wearing filthy jeans, Vans, and a Mickey Mouse shirt that looked like it had seen far better days. Gary didn’t bother asking—he saw my pack of smokes on top of my amp, picked it up and pulled two of them out, putting one behind his ear while lighting the other. I didn’t say anything to him because he was sketchy and because I didn’t want to blow whatever this was—an audition or whatnot—by being a greedy prick to a dude who was standing in my garage ready to decide our fate after watching us play.
Gary looked way more nervous than we did. Must have been something about unknown territory. He looked even more nervous when my father came into the garage to tell us that we had one hour before he was going to light all of our equipment on fire and send everyone out in ambulances. Gary looked like he was going to shit his pants right there, the tough punk rock guy from the brutal streets of Los Angeles, afraid of my father. When my father went back inside, the rest of us broke out laughing. That was just how my pop was—he loved to fuck with people he didn’t know.
We—Grave Mistake—all made eye contact with one another and got into our respective positions. We had already worked out the set we were going to play for Gary a couple of hours earlier, and we were ready to melt his face.
The first time I ever really ran away from home, I ended up staying with a friend of mine who had dropped out of school and taken his GED and was now taking college classes. We weren’t that close, but we seemed to dig one another. We met through some friends we had in common—a guy I had worked with introduced me to him and another guy I ended up working with—and we both played guitar and loved punk rock and the early thrash metal bands. This kid lived with his mother but was basically on his own 24/7. She was never there and when she was she seemed to be off in her own world, not paying a lick of attention to anything he did at all. She didn’t even realize I had been staying with them until the beginning of the second week or so.
While I was hiding out over there I stopped going to school. I pretty much spent my day running around with him and his girlfriend—she was so punk rock she had a fake cockney accent and wore so much eye make-up that she looked like a raccoon—hanging out at the mall while they shoplifted and bummed smokes and spare change off of people. They’d sometimes disappear and leave me hanging alone in the food court, only to come back with marbles for eyes and a wobble in their gait. I just figured they were tired or had just found some secret place in the mall to get it on and were in a post-coital haze.
It did start to dawn on me that I was wearing out my welcome with my friend, though. After a few days he started to get short with me, and his girlfriend would sneer at me whenever I would enter into a conversation. At one point they tried, but failed, to sort of set me up with one of her friends. This friend was not a very nice person — she never stopped whining or talking shit about people, and she had an air about her that said she came from a home that was worse than the one I had just run away from. She was pretty, but the scowl on her face made her look mean. We all went to a small desert party one night and she got very drunk and tried to make out with me, but I brushed her off. I was not very slick about it. She ended up puking on me in the back seat of someone’s car on the way to my friend’s girl’s house. She passed out with her head kind of lolling in my lap with her puke and the other people in the car were making fun of me and I was mortified not just for myself, but for her.
When we arrived at my friend’s girl’s house, we carried the other girl inside and put her on the couch. My friend told me to stay out there in the living room and keep an eye on the passed-out girl.
Gary isn’t watching anyone else but me.
I can feel his eyes on me. Every movement I make—and with a guitar strapped to my body and volume and a rhythm section, I move a lot, uncontrollably so, like a kitten shot-up to the gills with methamphetamine—Gary’s eyes make as well. We move violently as a band through our entire set of songs, cutting out twenty-five or so minutes of careening teen aggression and distortion from the ether, our limbs on fire and our own eyes glazed in that holyfuckingshitwhatdidwejustdo kind of way. We are spent. Totally tapped-the-fuck-on-out. We all look at one another and psychically acknowledge that this sketchy Gary dude just fell in love with us and we will be getting booked to play show after show after show.
I try not to make eye contact with Gary. Our singer is talking to him, telling him we will play with anyone as long as it is not a racist band. He is telling him we’d love to even play with all the straight edge bands—we just want to play. Our drummer is dicking around with his kit, smirking because he knows we just destroyed this dude. Our bass player keeps on nodding at me—this is something he and I will do for years, the nod that lets one another know we’re good and we work well together and we know how to rock—and I toss him the pack of smokes from the top of the amplifier.
Gary is now standing directly in front of me.
“Dude. What’s your name?”
“Shit, Sean. You are fucking ridiculous, man. How do you do that shit with only one guitar and make it sound like three of them are playing?”
“I don’t know.”
Gary just stands there looking through me. Gary is making me uncomfortable. I shuffle my feet a little and turn to grab the pack of smokes I had tossed to the bass player. That’s when it happens.
“Do you guys think it would be cool if you played one of your harsher songs and let me sing?”
We all just look at each other. Nobody moves.
“I have my own lyrics I can sing over the top—I just think you guys fucking kick ass and I haven’t been able to jam with anyone for a long time. Is it cool? Can we jam one song?”
We all look over at our singer. He looks at all of us. He shrugs. Gary grabs the microphone. Gary leans into me, far too close.
“I want to steal you for my own band, Sean. I’m going to show you why right now.”
We lurch into one of our songs and Gary pretty much turns into a monster. He has the microphone halfway down his throat and he is crouched down like a crab and he is screaming and the veins in his face are huge and we sound like a completely different beast. Gary’s voice is a jet fighter. The drummer looks up at me from behind his kit with a look on his face that is half bemused and half whatthefuckishappeninghere. The bass player is trying to stay in line with the shaky time the drummer is laying down. I look over at the singer and his arms are folded across his chest and he looks back at me and nods his head as I rip into a very distorted and evil-sounding guitar lead as Gary falls to the garage floor and looks as though he is in the middle of some kind of seizure. The song ends.
Gary is still on the floor.
The passed-out girl is snoring and she sounds just like my father.
I am sitting on the floor next to the couch with a bucket, just in case she wakes up and needs to puke again. The light from the television flickers epileptically, muffled voices and used car commercials. I found a pack of smokes under the couch and keep firing off one after the other, using an empty beer can as an ashtray. The light from the television looks spooky in the hanging smoke. I smell like desert and puke and vodka. I already tried to scrub the puke from my jeans with a washcloth and some dish soap, but the smell hangs on me. I even snorted some warm salt water to try and rinse the stink from my nose, but it didn’t seem to work.
Hungry, I get up and go open the refrigerator to hunt for scraps. I know this isn’t my house, but I have not eaten for most of the day and need to put something in my stomach or I will end up just like the passed-out girl, puking and stinking up the place. I find a container that has some spaghetti and meatballs in it, and I rinse off a fork and start eating it, cold. I can feel the sauce on my face but I do not care. I turn to open up the refrigerator again and my friend is standing there, stripped to his boxer shorts.
“What the fuck are you doing, Sean?”
“I was hungry.”
“We’re not even supposed to be here—her mom will be home from her night shift in half an hour. You need to go home.”
“I don’t have a home, dude.”
“Yes, you do. You should go home. Seriously.”
“I don’t want to. I don’t want to live there anymore.”
My friend just stands there, staring at me. His girlfriend comes up behind him in a tiny tank-top and her panties. Her bright orange hair is a nightmare around her head. Her raccoon eyes are runny. There is blood in the crook of her elbow.
“Are you eating my mother’s food, Sean? What the fuck is wrong with you?”
“I was hungry?”
She makes a hissing sound from between her teeth. My friend takes the container from my hand and puts it in the sink. He picks up the phone receiver from where it is and hands it to me.
“Call your parents and tell them you want to come home.”
“I’m not going to do that.”
“Fine. I’ll call them myself.”
“Please don’t? I’m just not ready to go home and have my ass kicked right now. I’m drunk and my guitar and shit is at your house.”
“Fuck your guitar, dude. I can bring it to you tomorrow. You need to leave.”
I don’t know how I started crying, but I totally started crying. Not full-on childish weeping, but grown-up type tears that just leak out and glisten under kitchen lights. My friend puts his hand on my shoulder then he hugs me close to him. He smells like sweat and something other. Sex. Her. She sees us hugging and me crying and she stomps her feet and punches my friend in the back.
“You promised me you would get rid of this fucking kid. Why are you hugging him? This is bullshit!”
“I’m hugging him because he is my friend. Don’t be a bitch. Your friend is passed out and smells like fucking puke and death. At least he’s not afraid to cry.”
“Fuck you. My mom is coming home. We need to do something about this shit. Now.”
Gary’s club is in a warehouse in an industrial park in a shitty part of town between the riverbed and the airport. There is nothing in the area but warehouses and giant earth-moving vehicles. To the south are what passes for projects. To the east is a road the runs along the river to a university. To the north is the airport. The closest place to buy a soda is a Circle K more than two miles away to the west and that Circle K has bulletproof glass.
The inside of the club is bare brick and concrete. The stage is bare wood that looks like it was scrabbled together from old pallets and other scrap material from the street. There are red curtains on either side of the stage and the brick is spattered with ridiculous graffiti—band logos and bullshit punk rock colloquialisms—half of them misspelled. There is a giant spotlight on a stand near the back of the concrete floor pointing toward the stage. The lights affixed to the front of the stage look stolen and wired together in a haphazard way.
We’re here early to load in our gear and do a soundcheck, but Gary is nowhere to be found. The only people around are a ridiculously large skinhead who goes by Kong and a dude in a wheelchair who goes by Kirk The Crippled Jerk. Kirk is the dude who has been drawing all of the flyers for the shows at Gary’s club. Kirk doesn’t have use of his arms, so he makes them by putting pens and pencils in his mouth and using his head and neck to move them around on the page. They keep on telling us Gary is on his way and that we should just take our gear to the stage and set up.
While we’re on the stage setting up our gear, Gary comes bounding through the door with some long-haired hippie guy in his wake. The hippie comes up on the stage and starts moving microphones around and setting us up for the show. Gary is in the middle of a very animated conversation with Kong and Kirk in the middle of the concrete floor. I try not to eavesdrop and try not to make any kind of eye contact with Gary. The hippie is standing near the amplifier I am using and he is looking at me with a weird look on his face.
“Gary tells me you’re a bad motherfucker, kid. Is this all you play through—this little combo amp?”
“Yeah. It’s not even mine. My history teacher loaned it to me.”
“Don’t worry, kid. Gary told me to make sure to crank you up in the mix.”
I don’t say anything else to the hippie. I just tune my guitar and look at my band and try not to think about how awkward this sketchy Gary dude is, and about how uncool it is of him to blatantly act like I should be playing with him and not my friends. We do a quick soundcheck by fucking around with a couple of cover songs. I watch as Kong pushes Kirk The Crippled Jerk across the giant empty floor in his wheelchair to the sound of us dicking around with a medley of Misfits songs.
I am pretending to be asleep.
I am on my friend’s girl’s sheetless waterbed, next to the passed-out girl who is still snoring and continued to snore as we carried her into the bedroom. There is a puddle of drool forming on the rubber mattress next to her face. She still smells like puke and now the puke smell is mixing with the smells in the room—cigarette smoke, sex, sweat and a cage full of rats in the corner—and even though I am pretending to be asleep I feel like puking, too.
I can hear my friend trying to goad his girl into sex. They are on the floor in the far corner of the room, just out of my vision. She is sitting with her back to the wall and he has his back to me and he keeps on muttering what sound like sweet things to her, trying to get her to fuck him. He has pulled her tank-top off of her, and in the darkness I can see her breasts, much whiter and larger than I thought they would be. She keeps on looking over his shoulder to make sure that we—passed-out girl and myself—are asleep. I watch as my friend leans back on his elbows and then her head disappears into his lap. He groans and I hear mouth-night-sounds. I put my hand in front of my face so they cannot see my eyes. I can feel myself getting an erection and then I feel passed-out girl’s leg across my hip as she snorts and rolls over.
I am pretending to be asleep.
She lifts her head from his lap and rolls herself out on the floor in front of him. I watch as he enters her and his strokes are slow and deliberate. Her shock of orange hair is glowing and her breasts are moving around and he keeps moving in and out of her as her head stays fixed on the ceiling, mouth agape and half-words coming out of it accent-free. I am pretending to be asleep and I am watching them through my hand. He finishes quickly and dismounts, rolling over onto the floor, close to where I am in the sheetless waterbed. She gets up and pulls her tank-top back on and goes out of the room to the bathroom, leaving the door open and a sliver of light from the hall illuminates my open eyes. He reaches up with his hand and grabs hold of the hand in front of my face.
“Did you enjoy the show, Sean?”
I am pretending to be asleep.
We play first. The club is surprisingly populated for a new place that is so far out of the way for every kid who normally goes to shows in Phoenix. Granted, a bunch of them are our friends, but it is still nice to stand on a stage and see a lot of heads out there in the dark. We played the night before with Social Distortion so we have a little bit of a swagger to us, the singer taking the microphone in his hand and barking at the crowd as we turn some other local band’s semi-hit into our own little intro—the members of that band are in the crowd, so it is especially sweet to see their faces.
We sound incredibly loud in this large room, with each chord struck bouncing back at us through the crowd. Every thump of the bass drum makes the shoddy stage feel like it is about to collapse. We are on fire, though—ripping through our set with reckless energy and violent fun. I break a string during a guitar lead on our third song, which causes a slight hiccup and I get my other guitar out to finish off the set. The hippie sound guy mumbles something through the monitor directly in front of me, but I cannot make out his words. We start up our next song and suddenly there is a strobe light going off on us, blinding us.
We stop playing.
“Turn that fucking strobe light off — we’re not Ted Nugent, asshole!”
I cannot remember who said it. All I remember is laughing and starting to play “Cat Scratch Fever” and then we went back into our own shit. I remember the crowd moving in waves and people shouting and remember that at different moments during our set we all looked at each other with huge and demented grins on our acne-riddled faces.
To this day, nothing beats that feeling of playing in a band with your friends and having a fucking ball.
The next day we are back at my friend’s place and I am bugging out because I have a guitar lesson and cannot miss it and nobody will give me a ride. My friend is indifferent to me at this point, and I am a little freaked out about what happened in the dark of his girl’s room and how nonchalantly he touched me and mocked me for watching them fuck. I felt exposed and like I was about to be abandoned.
“Dude, why don’t you stop being a pussy and just walk to your lesson? It’s not that far.”
I felt my face getting hot.
“We’ll come pick you up after. Just walk.”
We shared a joint and then I put my guitar in the heavy-as-fuck hardshell case and left. From his place to the guitar shop was four miles. In the Arizona sun, four miles is like four hundred miles, especially when you are a teen who has run away from home and you are high and thirsty. I almost gave up and walked home, but I didn’t want to give in and do what everyone else was telling me I should do. I am sure I looked ridiculous to people who were driving—a goofy kid lugging a guitar case covered in punk rock stickers, stumbling along the side of the road all covered in sweat. I kept on thinking about my friend’s girl’s breasts the entire walk, about how they moved to and fro as he did and then I thought about the way the room smelled after they did what they did and about how quickly I was able to force myself asleep after he grabbed my hand to fuck with me and about how when I woke up the passed-out girl asked me if I wanted to fuck and I just got up and left the room.
When I finally walked into the guitar shop, I saw my mother standing there talking to my guitar teacher.
Stay cool, motherfuckers.