Thursday, November 17, 2016
"When the Lights Go Out" - Chapter Three
(Author's note: In the six years I spent writing, editing and rewriting this story, I spent a lot of time amid live music. Not only did I see a lot of performances on my own time, but I also worked for three years as a bartender at three different music venues in Boston, Massachusetts--including the legendary Paradise Rock Club. Over this period of time, I saw hundreds of musicians and bands, from acts as large as Arcade Fire to middling collectives still finding their footing. Every night provided a new entry, one with their own style, substance and deficiencies. Many of those shows provided motivation for characters and performances in this story--including some of the scenes that unfold in the following pages. This is Chapter Three of When the Lights Go Out, so enjoy.)
I look into your eyes
See you standing by the bar
Wonder if you’ll have the time
To dance with this young rock star
-“Nights of You & Me” by J. Nolan
My alarm clock was beeping and squealing as sunlight joined a wailing car alarm outside my window shades. When I glared at the clock, it read 7:23 a.m. Again.
The day was Monday, which was nowhere near Friday. On Fridays, I could slip out after work for an exhale away from the job, away from home. At the end of the week, McGinty’s Pub on Swan Street featured five-dollar Miller Lite pitchers to accompany its world-class jukebox, full of rock legends and undiscovered Canadian guitar magicians. But Monday was not Friday. The frustration of this reality brought my palm down hard on the clock, which silenced the cacophony and elicited grumblings from my wife, Dana.
“Why do you have to smack the shit out of that snooze every morning?”
I caught my first glimpse of a tanned twenty-one-year-old named Dana Morelli a little over four years ago, back in the thick of my Nighthawk residency. I remember exactly what she wore that night. I remember the way her raven hair hung past her emerald eyes and over her shoulders, covering the first and last letters of “CBGB” across the chest of her tight black T-shirt. I remember how she moved and swayed a few rows back from the front edge of stage. I even remember her vodka tonic and how she held her straw during every sip. Most of all, I’ll never forget her sharp green gaze, a look that didn’t burn as much as it warmed. When a look like that connects, it’s like a lightning bolt that staggers before it injects a dizzying sense of drug-free alteration. It’s hard to shake off, harder to forget. Still, I gathered myself, let that look wash over me. Once stable, I returned a glance of my own, one that connected and locked before I spoke up and took a chance.
“For my last one tonight, I want to take a request,” I said into the mic, looking right into her eyes. “How about you, miss? You in the black tee. Do you have a song you want to hear?”
She smiled, embarrassed at the attention.
“How about ‘American Woman’,” she asked. “Do you know that one?”
“Do I know it?” I asked, adjusting myself on the stool. “Sweetheart, after this rendition, you’re going to think I wrote it.”
Laughs, claps, hoots from the floor joined her smile as she took another sip from her drink. After my left hand was set on the guitar neck and my boot soles were planted comfortably on the stage, I began finger picking the loose strings, plucking lightly to incite the emanation of a sultry blues walk-down to a G. After I repeated this progression a few times, I replicated the humming and the doo-doos famous in the song’s introduction. I soothed out lyrics about an American woman and how she can mess your mind before I spelled out “American” letter-by-letter.
The crowd swayed in anticipation of what was coming—the visceral thrust forward that followed the tame picking and humming and singing. When I hit the last string of the lead-in, I paused, looked at her again. She was waiting. I pulled an orange pick from my pocket and stomped my black Doc Marten boot on the stage four times—THUMP, THUMP, THUMP, THUMP—before thundering down on the heavier acoustic strings to reach the power of the song’s electric guitar work. My fingers slid up and down the neck, through the frets, changing chords and manipulating strings to stir patrons into a head-bobbing lather. I continued to stomp the stage planks and replicate a beat in the absence of a bass drum.
I leaned into the mic to wail out the opening lyrics about an American woman, how she should stay away from me and let me be. This song wasn’t exactly conducive to what I hoped to achieve with my request solicitation. As the divisive lyrics hit her ears, I hoped she didn’t get the wrong idea. Even though I didn’t know anything about her, I knew I wanted her to stay. But she requested the song, so I played the shit out of it, regardless of the nasty lyrical connotations. Strumming and singing, I caught sight of her again. She was rocking back and forth, flailing her wiry arms above her head and calling for more, loving every second of it. At the end of the song, I struck a string so hard it snapped and curled up the neck, effectively ending the performance. When I stood to take a bow, sweat dropped from my shoulder-length black hair and stung my eyes. After I rubbed them dry, I opened them to see Dana, smiling and clapping. She waved me over to the bar, so I stashed my guitar before stepping off the stage. When I reached her, she already had a bottle of Budweiser waiting for me.
“For my request,” she said, holding out the beer to me. We did introductions. I was Johnny. She was Dana.
“Interesting take on that song,” she said. “I saw Lenny in concert last year and he doesn’t perform it like that at all.”
“Lenny?” I asked. “Lenny Kravitz?”
“Of course. Who else would sing his song?”
I turned my head to the side and took a long, deep swig. Annoyance, confusion and irritation were all simmering. I tossed strands of my sweaty hair away from my face.
“Kravitz’s version is a cover,” I said. “It’s originally sung by the Guess Who, from Canada. You’ve never heard the original version?”
She paused, perplexed.
“I guess not,” she said, looking a bit embarrassed. “When I think of that song, I think of the video with Lenny, the American flag, and Heather Graham gyrating on the roof of a school bus. He doesn’t do a bad version, though, right?”
It was the worst cover. Ever. Worse than Madonna’s cover of Don McLean’s “American Pie.” Worse than U2’s cover of the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter.” This was fact, not opinion, but I still shrugged with indifference. Damn those eyes of hers. Every time I locked with them, that radiating euphoria returned to my head and chest.
“This is my first time here,” she said. “My friend has been begging me to come with her for weeks, and she finally broke me down. She’s over there, at the high top with that guy.”
I turned to see a mass of snarled dyed blonde hair being cradled and led by a tattooed forearm. The girl’s lips were mashed into the face belonging to the inked forearm, and the pace the two moved with was aggressive and impressive. Even prudes throughout the barroom had to be inspired.
“No,” she said. “They just met a little while ago. She’s quick like that, I guess.”
“Decisive, for damn sure,” I said, smirking before I took another swig. “You two don’t go out much together?”
“Not really. Like I said, this is my first time here. After seeing you perform, though, maybe I’ll be back again. You play every Friday?”
“You got it. I tend to attract the heaviest drinkers on the scene, so that’s how I nailed down the Friday slot,” I said. “It’s not CBGB’s, but it’ll do.”
She looked at me, perplexed again.
“CBGB’s? Is that another rock joint around here? I don’t hang around this area of downtown too much.”
“Are you kidding?” I said, looking down and pinching her shirtsleeve. “You’re wearing the bar’s shirt. You didn’t know what this shirt was for when you bought it?”
“Not really, no. I got it at Urban Outfitters for twenty-eight bucks. It fits nice, looks cool. Don’t you think it looks good on me?”
And I did. I liked how tightly it fit over her breasts, how cool it looked with her skinny-legged black jeans, her black strap heels. I liked the depth in those emeralds, the style of her raven hair. The way her scent intermixed with the Nighthawk’s tobacco and Southern Comfort-tinged interior breeze; the way her delicate hand grazed my arm to send soothing warmth through my chest. I loved all of it.
Later that night, we sat outside the bar and shared a few cigarettes before we made out against a parked Honda. I kissed her left cheek before she pulled back and told me she had a boyfriend. I told her I didn’t care. She smiled at my confidence, then leaned toward me so I could move my lips down to her neck. I worked up to her mouth as she slid her fingers across the ink sleeve of Celtic knotting over my entire upper left arm. At four in the morning, we hiked up to my place on Allen Street and made love on the kitchen floor. She broke up with her boyfriend the next weekend.
Over the next year, we had some good times and survived some bad times. I took Dana to rock shows at the Nighthawk, for strolls up Elmwood, down Delaware and around the Erie Basin Marina. We went to Sabres games, grabbed postgame beers at the Swannie House. When my parents died, she was there for the crying, the depression and the hurt. She was there when I needed someone to take away the pain, to coax me toward some path of relevance. About sixteen months after our first night together, we stood in front of Uncle Finn at St. Stephen’s and were married. At the reception, we danced to both the Lenny Kravitz and Guess Who version of “American Woman,” our first necessary compromise as husband and wife. A little over four years after I played that song for her at the Nighthawk, we slept in the same bed—and dealt with drastically different schedules.
“Do you want me to make you some coffee?” I asked. “I’m gonna go turn the pot on for myself.”
“Coffee?” she grumbled. “I’m fucking pregnant. I can’t drink caffeine.”
“Right, right,” I said. Of course she couldn’t drink coffee. “Well, you missed out on Brendan’s party yesterday. Finn showed up with a cake, we had some laughs. Good times.”
“Look, I don’t mean to sound like a total rag, but could you please make yourself silent? I worked a double until two last night and my ears are still ringing from all the yelling and screaming during the football game. This talking isn’t helping the ringing.”
A little over three months into her pregnancy and she was already irritable. I just shook my head, set my feet on the cold hardwood and tucked the comforter tightly under a shivering Dana. She rolled away from me to cradle a body pillow between her arms and legs, cooing and moaning as she adjusted herself back into a sleeping position. I stood there enviously watching her as she jostled about. I leaned over and kissed the back of her head, pulled the window shades down and let her be.
Our schedules weren’t always so contrasting. When we started dating, Dana worked as a customer service representative for B&B Collections, located in an office park near downtown’s Amtrak station on Exchange Street. Every day, she went to her desk, put on a headset and went down a list of residents who missed payments on phones, cars, credit cards or student loans. She spent her mornings listening to excuses and reluctantly enforcing penalties. Every day, she absorbed the yelling, crying and pleading associated with problems considered bothersome one day, life-threatening the next.
“I’m out of work,” they’d say to her. “I’m still looking for work. The wife left me. My husband cheated on me. The kids are in college. The kids are selfish brats. I need my car for work. I need my car for fun. Mother died. Father died. Depression has worn me down. Gonna get paid soon. Have to get paid next week. Give me another week. How about another month? One more chance? Don’t you have a soul, you heartless bitch?”
By the time we married, this omnipresent flurry of resident fury buried Dana like a lake-effect snowdrift. Every morning, she walked into work hollowed, numb. The job transformed her, sucked out all that youthful exuberance stowed behind her eyes when we first connected at the Nighthawk. In its place, it instilled an acceptance of life’s brutal hand, a jaded attitude to combat a nagging empathy—and such emotions were useless between nine and five. Feeling bad for people didn’t relieve debt or remove boots from car tires. Sympathy didn’t dismiss the fact that Dana was on the delivering end of a harsh reality. Every evening, she returned to our Allen Street apartment depleted by the job, tortured with the nagging whispers of guilt from the necessary actions of her days.
One day, she decided to revolt.
Dana took her last call at B&B on a Tuesday. After she hung up the phone, she took off her headset, packed up her stuff, and walked right out the door. No goodbyes. No two weeks’ notice. No consultation with a boss. She simply left and never went back. She needed a change in her life before it was too late, before the resignation that extinguished the hopes of her methodical coworkers had a chance to douse hers. She wanted satisfaction, fulfillment and all that other shit young idealists want to bask in. She wanted to escape Buffalo, to leave behind the gray skies and long winters that could sap ambition. Dana wanted to work a job she loved under perpetual sunny skies, in a place where overcoats and tanning booths were unnecessary; where flip-flops were the preferable footwear. She wanted to move to Florida, a state her parents had already made home a couple years back, right when we started dating. Every few nights after she left B&B, she’d pitch a move. And every few nights, I talked her down. Eventually, I defeated the relocation idea. I had no interest in leaving my family behind to escape to the south; I didn’t intend to leave my birthplace. I wanted to live in Buffalo, raise my kids in Buffalo and be laid to rest in Buffalo. Dana still needed to find a new life path while she was young enough to abruptly change course. So a year into our marriage, she decided to go back to school. She decided to pursue an associate’s degree in the Eastern art of massage therapy.
While learning this trade, she needed to work somewhere on the side, somewhere with a flexible schedule and decent pay for someone absorbing the benefits of holism, Oriental anatomy and physiology at the Western New York College of Massage. With these considerations, Dana became a waitress at the White Room, a blues bar down the street from the Nighthawk. The joint was known for its Wednesday karaoke night and killer blues revues on Fridays and Saturdays. Also, according to the Buffalo Gazette article framed outside their men’s bathroom, the White Room hosted the city’s third best Sunday Night Football party, making Monday mornings a bleary ordeal for the bar’s Sunday evening patrons. Its battered wooden tables played lunch host for area Democrats, salesmen and servicemen, dealing out large portions of crisp, sauce-soaked chicken wings and pulled pork sandwiches, complete with the White Room’s own homemade barbeque sauce. These lunch shifts were the safe play for waitresses. With the standard wing and sandwich fare came few drinks and even fewer drunks, a welcome respite from the rowdy biker crowds who frequented the neighboring whiskey dives around Lafayette Square. If a waitress wanted to make some serious money, she’d have to brave the dinner elements, which were fueled by a loud trio of large appetites, leather-clad alcoholics and functional binge drinkers.
When Dana was offered night shifts to balance with her daytime therapy classes, she went for it. Her dark hair wooed older men into generous tips from dinner through the wee morning hours. Her emerald eyes invited even more, ranging from whispered pick-up lines by blue-collared union reps, to phone numbers from white-collared suitors. When she would hustle her delicate frame across the restaurant floor, these men watched and admired. Each kept the wings and pork and beer and liquor coming just to earn a glance in their direction, the same glance that hypnotized me. And Dana knew this. She knew that, every time she grooved her hips from side to side and tapped her heels on the tiles, the tips would pile up. Staged or not, she learned to like it. There were no more repossessions to deal with, no more faceless tears over the telephone. Anything was better than debt collection. Anything. Even working as a waitress through her first trimester.
After I left Dana to sleep that morning, I walked into the bathroom and shut the door behind me. I stepped into the shower and flicked on the waterproof radio, tuned it to 97 Rock and kept the volume low. I turned on the water and made it scalding hot, let it fall down on my dark hair as I listened to three straight wailers from Zeppelin. After ten minutes, I stepped out of the shower, humming the melody of Robert Plant’s vocals on “The Ocean.” Once toweled off, I returned to the bedroom to quietly grab a pair of navy blue pants from my dresser. Dana was still clutching the elongated pillow and was curled up next to it while rhythmically breathing. She had entered the heightened relaxation of back-to-sleep sleep, a state that elicits the most vivid dreams, the most tempting fantasies. Those were my Saturday mornings, the early hours I’d lie under the sheets and slip into dreams until thoughts of coffee and a newspaper put my feet on the floor. Watching Dana adjust herself under the sheets again, I wanted the rest she was having, the sleep she was lost in. I delicately crawled atop the sheets to sit next to her and watch her serene temperament until she felt my gaze on her lids. Her eyelids fluttered open, wearily.
“What?” she growled, her voice muffled as her face was still plowed into her pillow.
“I’m just watching you sleep,” I whispered.
“Great. Have fun with that.”
“Oh, I almost forgot,” I said. “Finn’s band scored a spot on the bill for the annual Joe Strummer tribute night and wants us to go.”
“Isn’t that show around Christmas?”
“A little after Christmas, at the Nighthawk. Finn would never do a show in the middle of Advent, so I imagine it’s a few days after. What do you think?”
“What do I think? I think it’s fucking October,” she said. “Ask me a little closer to the date, preferably when I’m not freezing and telling you to leave me alone. If I was forced into an answer right now, I’d tell you I have no interest in trudging through the snow to watch Clash covers before another one of your uncle’s bass players gets clipped by a shoe.”
“No, no. He said this new guy is—”
“I don’t care,” she interrupted. “Can’t you tell me this later? Also, why are you still here? Aren’t you going to be late for work?”
“That all depends,” I said. “Do you want me to go? I could stay home today, call in sick.”
“Are you joking?” she said, then turned over to yank the covers down to her waist. “Why the hell do you want to stay home from work?”
“I haven’t seen you in a while. I could stay in bed with you all day, keep you warm. Maybe you can practice your massage techniques on me. What do you think?”
“What do I think?” she said. “I think you’re talking like an asshole who’s thinking with his cock, not his brain. I’m a student and a waitress, pregnant and attached to your health insurance. If you lose your job, we’re completely screwed.”
“Dana, c’mon. You think I could get fired for calling in sick? Guys in my building have been lighting up their morning coffees with Jack for decades.”
“I don’t give a shit about the old drunks in your building,” she said. “You’re the one I’m depending on, so quit acting like a boy and think like a man, dammit. Get your fucking pants on and get out of here!”
“Fine, I get it. You’re in a bad mood.” I climbed off the bed and slipped into my pants. “You’re overworked. You’re tired. You’re pregnant. Maybe you’ll feel better when you give up some shifts at the bar. Did you tell them about the baby yet?”
“During yesterday’s Bills game? No. If I had to break the news during that shit show, my manager would have gone berserk. After we went down by three touchdowns, he looked like he was going to stab himself. I’m lucky I’m not showing that much.”
“But you’re going have to tell him soon, right?”
“This week. I’ll tell him this week.”
“And then what? How long can you wait tables pregnant?”
“A few more months, I guess.” She pulled the blankets up to her chin and over her shoulders. “I could probably do it for a little longer if I could get some proper rest. Uninterrupted.”
“Fine, I’m gone,” I said, clapping my hands while backing toward the door. “You need anything else before I go?”
“My God, just go,” she said, causing me to grab the bedroom door handle and exit. I had one foot into the kitchen before her voice turned me around.
“Wait, John, hold up a second,” she said, then sat up and let the comforter fall off her shoulders and down to her lap. After she flipped the matted black strands of hair from her face, she fluttered her eyelashes at me. “I’m sorry I’m being such a bitch, okay? I’m irritable and spent. Plus, after working the last four nights, my back is fucking killing me. I don’t mean to take it out on you; you just happen to be here. You’re the one in front of me when I feel like this.”
“You know you can quit, right?” I said. “I can go knock on some doors, get a job bartending nights somewhere. I know it’s not ideal, but say the word and I’ll make it happen.”
“I’m not letting you do that. Just let me get a little sleep and I’ll be fine, okay?”
“You got it,” I said. “And with that, I’m out.”
I shut the bedroom door behind me and had a sudden urge to say one more thing to her, just three more words before I let her be. After I turned the knob and poked my head back in, though, I couldn’t interrupt the silence. Dana lay curled and serene, utterly peaceful amid her rhythmic breathing. There was something about her exhaustion I found oddly endearing. Whether it was how her black strands lay strewn about the pillow or how she spooned with feathered pillows as if they were people, there was something so alluring it sucked the venom from her earlier attitude. Watching her slip into her therapeutic slumber, I could surrender within this truth and note my attraction as an element of love.
(Interested in purchasing When the Lights Go Out? Get it here.)