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He rushes through the crosswalk, his asphalt gray mane bouncing after him like a pet ferret. High-top sneakers with thick rubber soles. Jeans worn to the color and consistency of sweatpants. Damned if that flashing hand will slow him down. He darts between traffic, each car a projectile on his private obstacle course. He hustles now because he’s late, but the fact is he’d be hustling either way. He knows no other way to move.
Learned it on the road: head down, quick, careful steps. Replace the dislodged speaker cable, right the toppled splash cymbal, hand the lead singer the double-necked guitar, grab the Les Paul, turn and get out of there.
You are not the one they came to see. You are a glitch in the fantasy. No one cares that you’re just as good. No one cares if you could nail that solo and spice it up with a few licks of your own. They’re not here for you. Keep your head down. Keep moving.
Rockstars can afford to be late. But not roadies. And not employees of the United Parcel Service. Applicants must be able to lift up to 70lbs. Please. Ever lift a vintage half-stack? Not that cheap, lightweight shit they’ve got at the chain store these days, but one of those 1960’s bad boys from before the days when people worried about their backs or the shocks in their Toyota Corollas.
He tries not to think about the days on the road, but he doesn’t have the energy to block it out. He’s two hundred in the hole for driving with an expired license. Cop searched the whole car looking for weed. He tried to explain he doesn’t do that shit anymore, just drinks his Buds, and not until he gets home, but the cop wouldn’t quit. Bastard was so sure, so sure. He had to smile when he thought about how many years he spent doing all that stuff. Never gave it a second thought. Right there backstage. Or in the parking lot. Or at 3 a.m. beside the hotel pool. Didn’t even try to hide it. “What’s so funny,” the cop hollered. “I know you got something. It’s in here somewhere.”
There was nothing. Just that license with the picture of a younger man. Too young now by a couple of weeks. So this morning he waited at the DMV for hours. Left himself plenty of time, he thought. “You know you can renew these online now,” the woman said reproachfully. Too late for that now, don’t you think? She scanned his renewal form, snorted and took her crisp eraser to the thin page. “You in denial, Honey,” she said, replacing ‘brown’ with ‘gray’ in the hair color column.
But he’s not in denial. He knows he’s 46. He knows he’s got some gray. Okay, mostly gray. He knows his days on the road are over. He knows he works loading boxes for UPS and he knows that Ray is probably going to can his ass when he shows up even later than he originally said.
He knows he’s alone.
On the road, he never wanted to be tied down. He got his share with the second or third-tier groupies or on the nights the band had passed out drunk. Sometimes he’d lie and say he was the keyboard player. Didn’t they notice him? Just to the left of the drums? The band didn’t even have a keyboard player but most girls were able to conjure him out of their haze.
The boys at UPS get a kick out of those stories. Helps to pass the time when they’re loading up the trucks. But those old stories are the closest thing to action he or any of those other old pervs ever get anymore. They all got their stories, but nowadays they either pay for it or they got fat, ugly, old, vodka-swilling girlfriends. Of course he thinks even that might be better than nothing.
He turns up Lewiston Street and he knows Ray is going to give him hell. He knows he’s got nothing except his job and his guitar. He sits on his ratty old sofa plucking away watching old action movies. Dirty Harry. Lethal Weapon. Die hard. Knows them all by heart at this point. He plays along on his old Martin acoustic, provides the soundtrack that has always been there, inaudible, just beneath the surface.
That beautiful guitar. Worth more than his car at this point. Never played for another living soul. He never did get a shot. All those days hanging out on the road, touring the country, you’d think he’d meet somebody. Somebody who knew somebody who had a cousin who had a studio who could at the least give him a chance. But they don’t want you to make it. They only want you if you’ve already made it.
He played in a few bands back home over the years, but traveling so much made it tough to keep anything going for long. He managed to slip a demo to an AR guy at an after-party once. The guy told him it was ‘technically proficient to a fault.’ What the hell was that supposed to mean? ‘Heavy on musicianship, light on hooks,’ the guy explained. ‘Dumb it down a little,’ he suggested. At least he took the time to listen. More than he could say for any of the guys whose guitars he strung and tuned on a nightly basis.
It happened slowly. The drugs stopped flowing. The groupies stopped knocking. Guys were checking into rehab. He once offered to step in for a guitarist who had to be rushed to the hospital. The way everyone looked at him, you’d think he put the needle in the dude’s arm himself. They wound up cancelling the gig, and the rest of the tour too.
By that point it was pretty much too late anyway. Once he started dragging gear around casinos and state fairs he knew he was done. If he could muster more resentment he might have enjoyed watching from the wings while those stars’ glory faded right in front of him. But when he saw their listless looks as they surveyed the crowds, the disinterested way they launched into the very riffs that had made their careers, he just felt bad for them. Sure he was a bitter, grizzled roadie, but at some point he really did love those bands. Short of actually being a member, keeping their gear safe and in tune night after night was about as much as a fan could hope for.
But the tours were getting shorter, the budgets getting tighter and sooner or later he had to move on. He had the experience. Just needed more dough. Ended up doing one tour with some chick singer and her backup band. Bunch of spoiled pricks spent more time picking out their clothes than rehearsing. He couldn’t stand it. Might as well be working for UPS, he thought, and so he did.
His white Reeboks help him bounce through the gated parking lot without too much strain on his ankles, around the back where the trucks sit like rows of walnut coffins. A reflexive, nervous flick of the vertebrae send ashen locks back to their proper place. He half expects Ray to be waiting on the front step, like a scolding parent waiting for their drunken teen, out past curfew.
What if Ray cans him on the spot? What then? Back on the road? Back to 12-hour bus rides and months away from home? To hell with that.
Stop it, he tells himself as he pushes through the door and heads toward the punch box. He would never say it to anyone else, but he knows he’s the best. He knows he moves a little faster, loads a few more boxes. He would never keep track, but he knows who would. Would Ray really can him for being a few minutes late? Maybe if he were some lazy, young kid, someone who wasn’t that great anyway. Ray might do it to set an example, to show what happens to slackers. But he was no kid, no slacker. He knew it. Ray knew it. All the guys knew it.
But Ray’s not on the front step. He’s in with the crew, already making a dent in the day’s load. There’s an audible slowing to the boxes’ thunks and the men’s grunts as they watch, morbidly curious, from the corners of their eyes.
Ray comes over. Just wants to give him hell, he understands now. All bark, no bite. He repeats the old saying, over and over in his mind as Ray strides toward him.
“Look who decided to show up,” the asshole announces to the room. “You know I oughtta can your bum ass right here on the spot.”
For the first time, he holds his head up, squares his shoulders, looks straight at Ray and smiles. He hears his own music swelling under old Harry’s words. “Go ahead,” he recites, “make my day.”
Now the thunks and grunts cease completely. A silence hangs over the room like a thunderhead. The cloud breaks with the first laugh, quickly followed by another. Then all the men are laughing and finally, Ray laughs too. What choice does he have?
He puts his head back down and bounces past Ray, his silver hair a half step behind. He sweeps up the first box. It seems to glide of its own accord, to simply float into place in the bed of the truck.