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Singing Backup by Jason Kapcala

“Drinks,” Muzzie says. “You, me, and Chen—a celebration in Dizzy’s memory. Not a drinking party.” He won’t go that far with it—but Kev knows that though he never went to college, never set foot in a frat house, Muzzie holds a pretty clear definition of what a drinking party entails: keg stands and beer pong and at least twenty women. Though it’s his first night back in Pennsylvania after almost ten years, he knows every note Muzzie’s going to play before he ever plays them.

“Drinks,” Muzzie says. “You, me, and Chen—a celebration in Dizzy’s memory. Not a drinking party.” He won’t go that far with it—but Kev knows that though he never went to college, never set foot in a frat house, Muzzie holds a pretty clear definition of what a drinking party entails: keg stands and beer pong and at least twenty women. Though it’s his first night back in Pennsylvania after almost ten years, he knows every note Muzzie’s going to play before he ever plays them. That’s the way it is among former band mates.

The drinking will take place at The Smiling Skull, a bar outside Emberland, and the way Kev sees it, he’s got no choice but to go. Muzzie, in full bandleader mode, has let slip the dogs of guilt and gossip. He’s requested the honor of Kev’s presence, called him up to the big show for the kind of drinking they never got to do back in high school, at least not legally, and word’s gotten around: The Mourning Afters are back together—one night only—and even if they won’t be performing, you can still stop by and throw a few back with their long-lost frontman, Kev Cassady.

Kev, to his credit, at least looks the part of a rock star. His T-shirt, Aerosmith today, is authentically faded. His normal flannel traded in for a mustard brown cardigan, in honor of Kurt Cobain on the anniversary of his death, though he’ll be disappointed later when no one in the bar picks up on it. There’d been a contest back at Tony’s, the not-quite-Los-Angeles-but-you-can-smell-it-from-here dive bar he’d hung around in with the rest of Del Lago’s fading rockers, one that went something like this, Name the greatest dead musician after Cobain? Free drinks for the guy with the best answer. Shannon Hoon a popular choice. Layne Staley another. But Kev was always partial to Andrew Wood. Without Wood, you wouldn’t have had Temple of the Dog or Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains never breaks through to the big time. He never won any free rounds with that answer—Wood died four years before Cobain—but he kept tossing it out there anyway. Wood was a rocker worth buying a round for.

Dizzy, too—though Kev’s not so sure it’s a great idea.

In Emberland, The Smiling Skull looms like a set piece from an action flick about anarchist biker gangs that roam Death Valley picking off unsuspecting tourists. You’ve seen the movie about a hundred times: Some nervous-looking rebel hoping to earn his stripes picks a fight with the wrong dude, a loner-type with an eye patch, a guy who’s just minding his own business, drinking to forget his badass past. The young squid, hopped up on whisky and bath salts, ambushes Eye Patch in the parking lot and leaves him for dead, maybe kills his pretty barmaid girlfriend by accident—the one who’s never seen the ocean—and before you know it, there’s a ruthless one-man war party roaring down the highway in hot pursuit of the whole gang.

That’s the real charm of the Smiling Skull.

Otherwise, it’s pretty much like any other small-town bar, serving cold beer in the bottle and watered down drinks from the well. Muzzie’s snagged a table near the back, surrounded himself with drinking buddies—guys Kev recognizes from high school, the girls on their arms closer to their teens than their thirties. It’s a real “Glory Days” crowd, in the Springsteen-ian sense, and tonight they all want to hear about Kev’s exploits in The Golden State. He’s the boss, has got top billing, and they’ve gathered so that he can serenade them with tales of what it means to be a flesh and blood rocker. Not that they believe him to be anyone important. They’re all smart enough to know he isn’t rich or famous, but they remember The Mourning Afters, and they want to know when his album will be made available on iTunes. They’ve heard that on the West Coast a man with a guitar and a demo tape and a notebook full of big ideas can make a cottage industry of himself. After all, isn’t that how all the great bands did it going all the way back to the Beatles? They’re hoping that maybe he’s brushed shoulders with someone they’ve heard of—Eddie Van Halen or Ritchie Sambora.

It’s a different world today, nothing like the 60s, or 80s, or even the 90s for that matter, but they don’t want to hear about that. They want the classics. They’re chanting for Kev to play “Freebird” for the hundred-twenty-seventh time. And what choice does he have? You always give the fans what they want.

It should be an easy-enough gig. These are men who buy their polo shirts in bulk. They lease sensible cars. They’re hardware store clerks, high school teachers, IT professionals. Most have never left home, except maybe during college where they sowed their wild oats enthusiastically and returned five or six years later with news that the world is, in fact, much larger than Emberland and rounder than previously reported. Their girlfriends wear heavy concealer over their pimples and dayglo flip-flops on their feet. It’s the kind of group that hangs out in a bar with a steer skull on the sign. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the script. And yet, when conversation turns to California, Kev disappoints. Offers up a shrug. Talks weather and traffic.

“The Chinese food is top notch,” he says.

Eventually, banter swings back to the local—whether it’s going to be a dry summer again, whether any of the men will find time to get out in the streams before Memorial Day, whether the high school baseball team will fare well at regionals—and Kev takes the opportunity to ask Muzzie, “What happened to just you, me, and Chen?”

“I’m here,” Muzzie says. “Chen’s on his way. The question is: where the hell are you?”

Kev shrugs. I’m here. Just wondering.

The beer—Muzzie has been ordering an endless round of pitchers for the table—is watered down. The appetizers stingy. A plate of nachos, brand-X tortilla chips with a toxic yellow cheese sauce and pickled jalapeno slices from a can. Soggy onion rings, grease pooling on wax paper. You can’t expect too much, they tell him. On the weekend everything has to last to closing time. Including the entertainment. Through a beer fog, Kev hears Muzzie say, “Ask the man of the hour. He’ll tell you all about it.” He’s talking to a guy with a big gold cross chained around his neck—worn on the outside of his shirt, of course. The man’s girlfriend is a good head taller than he is. She’s turned in her chair, holding her shoes by their straps and furiously chatting with one of the other girls.

“Muzzie tells me it’s a rough life being a musician. I guess you probably play a lot of joints like this one to make ends meet.”

Rock and/or Roll. Rock—with or without the Roll. Rock, and could you please bring the Roll on the side? The topic of the hour. Kev can’t think of anything he’d rather talk about less.

“You don’t know the half of it, bro,” Muzzie says. “My man’s eating his food out of tin cans six days a week, and on the seventh it’s eat the can or go hungry.”

Muzz, Kev thinks. Give it a rest. He finishes another pint.

“That’s the high cost of free living,” Muzzie says. “Everybody thinks your average rocker is just a showman, but you’ve got to be equal parts musician and accountant, even the lowliest of the low. Out there,” he says, pointing in the general direction of the door. “Even the littlest worms ride big hooks.” He elbows Kev. You’re on.

Kev’s never been a mean drunk—a little melancholy maybe, his perception heightened by the alcohol rather than dulled—still he could hack Muzzie apart with an axe right now. Even at sixteen, booze had strange effects on him, made him see things he didn’t want to see, and so he’d sworn off it for the most part. Drank ice-water more often than not. Nursed a beer when the occasion called for it. But tonight’s different. He’s home—back sitting among people he never expected to see again—and in a funeral parlor across town, Dizzy’s body is lying motionless in a pine box, his second-hand Fender slung across his chest, perpetually silent. Floating above the table, Kev watches himself pour another, sees Muzzie singing his lonely ballad though the volume has been turned way down. At the bar, the bartenders, weekend replacements, rush in slow-motion to refill drinks. They’re yin and yang—one a cage fighter with a twisted nose and a nasty looking cheek scar, the other the sensitive type, a mustard stain on his collar but no worries, his mom uses Tide with bleach. Muzzie jabs him again, harder this time, and Kev takes a long sip. Stalls for a while.

 

“Chit-chat. Swap lies. Baffle them with your glorious bullshit,” Muzzie says. “Is that too much to ask of an old friend?” He’s followed Kev to the men’s room, forgotten the unspoken rule about not talking to a guy when he’s holding his dick.

“Right now, this is a delicate enough operation without you crooning in my ear,” Kev says, focusing his aim on the pink urinal cake in front of him.

“In case you’ve forgotten, small talk is a currency in this town. Thanks to small talk, I drink for free most nights. And Kev, buddy, I love drinking for free. I love it, man.”

“God forbid I ruin your discount, Muzz. It’s not as if I have a lot on my mind right now,” Kev says, zipping up, and when he gets to the sink, Muzzie’s waiting with a paper towel in hand.

“Just be human,” he says. “That’s all I’m asking.”

Kev nods, though mostly because that’s the direction his chin is moving anyway. Muzzie’s talk of talk and currency makes his head swim. His brain buzzes like a blown-out amplifier. In truth, there’s little about his time in California that he wants to share, least of all with an expectant crowd. Least of all with Muzzie. He’s let them think he’s something he isn’t, and now he’s in no condition to maintain the ruse, to give it the TLC it demands. The real story—that he squandered time in a bar with other wannabe musicians while his guitar case gathered dust, that he waited a lot of tables and watched a lot of basic cable, that he lasted all of three gigs as the front man of a Pearl Jam cover band, The Jeremy’s, before his band mates took a secret vote of no-confidence and started auditioning replacements behind his back—is an unforgiveable sin. Better he should’ve rotted away in small-town obscurity.

Give them what they want, he thinks, splashing himself with water, shaking out the nervous energy, pumping himself up the way he would have had he ever gotten a chance to take the stage in front of a real monster crowd, but the truth is he’d rather be anywhere else right now.

“I figured you’d want all this,” Muzzie says, leaning on the door. “All that prodigal son stuff.”

“Sure,” Kev says. “Let the record show you’ve got a big heart.”

Exiting the bathroom, the bar looks even more crowded than Kev remembered. It’s doubled in volume in the time it took to drain one eighteen-ounce bladder. Young people standing shoulder to shoulder, jostling.

“No one ever fell over dead from telling a story, you know?” Muzzie says, clapping him on the shoulder, and then, somehow, as if by magic, he’s disappeared into the crowd.

Right, Kev thinks. You get their attention, and I’ll break their hearts.

At the end of the bar, one of the girlfriends is sitting by herself, a spot open next to her, her boyfriend with the big crucifix nowhere to be found. “So you’re the one who got out,” she says to Kev who, picking his way through the throng of bodies, does a double take. He notices her out of the corner of his eye, the one who’d been holding her shoes, an unlit cigarette dangling from her lips. And for a moment, he wishes he was the kind of guy who carried a lighter. Muzzie is nowhere to be found, has undoubtedly made his way back to the table to gather the groupies for round two. The girlfriend’s purse sits in her lap like a pet. It’s one of those impressively tiny bags that snaps at the top. She’s dressed in tight blue jeans and a teal shirt that shows off her tan cleavage. Her hair piled high on her head, intentionally messy.

“Who are you supposed to be?” she asks, eying his sweater. “Charlie Brown?”

“No one special,” Kev says, pointing down at the empty glass with lipstick marks. “Can I buy you another round?”

“I’m not really drinking,” she says. “I’m waiting for the bathroom.” And they both glance back at the restroom hallway, as though to catch the faint sound of flushing toilets.

“I’d offer you a light,” Kev says, his shrug conveying the rest.

“I’m not really smoking either,” she says.

She picks the straw from her glass and noodles it in her mouth, and in that moment she seems older than he’d first guessed. She should be somewhere else—sitting with her girlfriends from work at the tiny Chili’s bar just off the highway or maybe changing into a pair of flannel PJs and curling up on the sofa with a glass of Chardonnay and a bag of microwave kettle corn. This ain’t her scene.

Kev says, “Your boyfriend was grilling me pretty hard about music.”

“That’s a terrible come on,” the girl says. “If you keep saying things like that, no one is ever going to buy that you’re a rock star.”

“I’m not a rock star,” Kev says. “And that wasn’t a come on.”

“Try saying it again, only put the emphasis on ‘star’ this time. I’m not a rock star,” the girl says, pressing her finger to her chin.

“I’m not a rock star,” Kev says.

Star,” she says. “Rock star. You keep practicing. I’m sure you’ll get it eventually. Before you know it, they’ll be throwing their panties on stage.”

“Who are we talking about here?”

“Muzzie,” she says. “And the rest of those idiots.”

Kev glances back toward the table. They are idiots, he thinks. But so’s he. In fact, he’s made a living out of being idiotic. Wasn’t that the joke about the difference between a livelihood and living—one makes you money, the other makes you poor? Eight years ago, The Mourning Afters had all had dreams, but he was the only one dumb enough to actually believe that following his was a good idea. At least, that’s part of the story. Kev thinks about telling her this, starts in with a clever reply, but when he turns back, it’s only to see the girl disappearing into the men’s room.

 

Back at the table, Kev’s arrived just in time to watch two of the boyfriends start arm-wrestling. They’ve stacked the dirty plates like a tower, swept away the crumbs and the congealed gobs of cheese sauce. Rolled up their shirtsleeves, their arms stretched across the tabletop like long, white fish. The two men look at the others, grin. They’re playing, but not really. It’s what happens when you stick around the same town too long, Kev thinks. The concept of play becomes all twisted up in your mind. It gets lost among the primitive high school desires that somehow never go away. So you laugh, and you make jokes about it, trash-talk like a couple of testosterone-crazed jocks, until the arm-wrestling goes on just a little too long or one of you tries a little too hard—perhaps a vein pops out at the temple and threatens to give you both away. You’re about three seconds from everyone else realizing the sad truth: that somewhere under all the congenial bullshitting, the two of you really care who wins this pissing match. And then what choice do the two of you have? Inevitably, someone has to take a fall. The winner gets to gloat.

Kev hears the crowd groan, looks up from his beer in time to see the taller of the two guys kiss the air around his biceps.

“Have we really run out of things to talk about?” The voice floats from just over Kev’s shoulder, and he half turns so as not to miss the spectacle surrounding Conor’s arrival. Conor, the once-and-never-again bass player for The MA’s. Conor who’d had more than a little to do with Kev’s decision to leave town. He pulls up a chair at the far end of the table, next to Muzzie, parts his sports coat and straddles it backwards and, after he’s shaken the right hands, bumped a few fists, winked at a couple of the girlfriends, he nods at the waitress, and from the bar she escorts his first magnanimous purchase of the night: a round of shots for the entire table.

Muzzie scowls—he’s wearing the look of the usurped. The shake of his head says, This is your fault, Kev Cassady. You bombed. Cut short the set list and left a gaping hole. And look what happened.

Kev shrugs. Sorry, Muzz. Maybe if I could see the set list in advance from now on?

He’s actually relieved to be out of the spotlight. Let Conor carry that burden with his unbuttoned collar and his gold watch and his perfectly trimmed fingernails. Kev’s more concerned about Ramie—she’s nowhere to be seen, and that’s a good sign. It might mean she isn’t here at all. Though maybe she never comes here. Truth is, he doesn’t even know if Ramie and Conor are still an item. Muzzie would know, but Kev won’t be asking that question any time soon. Got too much sand in his pee-hole, as his Dizzy would say.

“To Dizzy,” Conor says, as if on cue, raising his glass. The rest of the table follows suit. “They say every man has his demons. That was definitely true of our dear departed friend. But if I know Dizz, he’s up there somewhere strumming on the prettiest Strat you’ve ever seen, and he’s looking down on all of us right now, happy to see so many of his pals gathered here celebrating life.”

There’s a million and a half wrongs in that stupid salute. For starters, Dizzy wasn’t the kind of guy to play a shiny Stratocaster, or any other “pretty” guitar. He’d have sneered at the idea. Second, Dizzy didn’t know or couldn’t stand half the people at this table. If he were here now, he’d be in the bathroom, hiding from the crowd and shooting up. Dizzy wasn’t possessed by any demons. He wasn’t haunted by bad memories or dark thoughts. He just loved heroin. A lot, as it turned out. The only question that remains, as far as Kev is concerned, is whether or not it’s tasteless to raise a glass to his memory.

Still, Conor’s address is met with a chorus of applause, the requisite encores, and from across the table, Kev watches as Muzzie shuts his eyes and leans far back in his chair.

 

“So, you seen Ramie, yet?”

It’s an obnoxious question—the kind that only gets asked when you’re closing down the bar, drunk and bored and maybe looking to pick a fight. Muzzie’s band of merry drinkers is down to four: him, Kev, Conor, and the guy with the cross whose name Kev can’t remember now. They’re drinking a double-shot of something Conor calls “The Three Wise Men”—Jack, Johnny, and Jim—and Kev keeps pinching his legs beneath the table to make sure they’re still attached. He shakes his head at the thought of Ramie, imagines her shaking her Joan Jett-haircut right back at him and twirling her drum sticks over her head.

“You should look her up,” Conor says, leaning conspiratorially across the sticky wooden table.

“Now why would I want to do something like that?” Kev says, leaning back and studying the steer skull behind the bar. It seems to be following his gaze. Maybe even mocking him a little—Hey, pard, settle down now; no need to go seein’ red. Kev shakes the thought away, and it must signal some sort of weakness to Conor because he sinks his teeth in deep and doesn’t let go.

“Seriously. You should,” he says.

“Last I heard, you two were a couple now,” Kev says.

Conor rolls his rocks glass in his hand as though he’s trying to warm it up and grins down at the ice. From the wall, the steer skull chimes in without invitation: Listen to that feller, buckaroo. If you were as horny as I am, you’d mosey on down the road and give that filly the ole’ what-for.

When Conor finally whips his head up, his eyes practically gleam. They’re beautiful eyes, Kev thinks, terrifying. They remind him of the first time he ever watched Pearl Jam’s Jeremy video, the way Eddie Vedder with his high cheek bones and intense grin made him feel terrified and maybe a little confused. “Oh, I wouldn’t say that exactly. We’ve scratched each other’s itches from time to time.”

“Sounds sexy,” Muzzie says sullenly, his words a serpentine slur in his mouth. He’s eyeballing the dead cow above the bar now, too, and his glare says it all. Yeah, I hear him. And if he’s not careful, he’s gonna get popped in the kisser.

Conor shrugs. “It’s an okay arrangement,” he says. Then he makes a show of licking out the inside of his glass. He has a tremendously long tongue—the kind of tongue that might give Gene Simmons a run for his money—and there’s no mistaking the innuendo. The guy with the cross laughs, high-pitched and girlish, and so Conor stops, grins. Shrugs again.

“What about you, Kev? I’m sure you got plenty of tang in California, being a rock star and all.”

It’s not really a question and so Kev doesn’t really answer. He keeps his eyes focused on Conor, shakes his head slowly. Notices how quiet Muzzie has gotten, which is a bad sign. “I’m not a rock star,” he says.

“Come on, man,” Neck Cross says. “I need all the pointers I can get.” And Kev recognizes his role in tonight’s performance—he’s the guy who self-deprecates about his lack of sexual prowess for laughs. There’s one in every group. He’s probably not nearly as bad as he claims to be, but buy him another round and he’ll start moaning about how poorly endowed he is.

“You want a pointer? It helps to be rich,” Conor says, winking at the waitress who’s come to clear their empties. Kev vaguely remembers some story Conor told earlier in the night, one he’d only half heard, about how he had big plans for getting back into the energy business, wanted to harness the thermal power from the mine fires below Accident or something. He’d been a little too drunk to follow by that point. “I plan to drag this county into the future kicking and screaming,” Conor had said. “You ought to come see the plant I’m building outside of town.”

Kev had only nodded.

Now, he wishes Conor would talk about something boring like that, instead of this different business.

“If you like fish tales, you’ll appreciate this,” Conor says, and he launches into a graphic sermon about cunnilingus, about finding the g-spot and eliciting an endless series of earth-shattering, headboard-rattling orgasms. Parts of it sounds geographically plausible—just barely—though Kev has his doubts about any of it being true. He may not be a rock star, but he’s spent enough time between the sheets to know better than to believe any man-to-man sex advice that comes unsolicited. The guy next to Conor is clearly getting off on all this talk though—he’s thinking about practicing these tried-and-true techniques on his girlfriend, who has already taken the car and gone home alone. Kev can’t imagine that one letting old Neck Cross anywhere near her delicates tonight, no matter how worked up Conor’s story gets him. Not after the arm-wrestling fiasco.

Besides which, that’s not what this story is about. Guys like Conor don’t care about g-spots or the female orgasm. It’s not about pleasuring women. Or even pleasuring a woman. This story is about pleasuring Ramie in that read-between-the-lines sort of way. Conor is polishing the biggest trophy in his case. Rubbing Old English into the deepest notch on his bedpost. And it’s all for Kev’s benefit.

“Look at who I’m speaking to,” Conor says. “You know what I’m talking about.”

“It’s been a long time,” Kev says. “I can’t really recall. My relationships mostly all end the same way.” He punctuates his point by replicating a nose-dive plane crash with his hand. Fill in your own blanks.

That man ain’t talkin’ relationships, pardner; he means ruttin’, the steer skull starts to say, before Kev silences it with a dirty look.

“Hey, no offense meant, partner,” Conor says.

“Come again?” Kev says, and now he’s not sure who’s talking anymore.

Conor extends his hand almost graciously—the same hand that has, if you believe his story, brought Kev’s ex-girlfriend to the brink of death countless times—and it’s clear that he’s passing the totem. It’s your turn now, rock star. What stories of debauched sexual conquest do you have to share tonight?

Had he given it enough thought, Kev might have come up with a good rock and roll story, but it wouldn’t have involved sex. It wouldn’t have even involved California. His favorite story was more like a fuzzy memory from just after high school. The Mourning Afters. Conor had been there. Ramie, too. They’d all been playing at a bar near State College, one of their first really big out-of-town gigs, and they’d hit a streak of bad luck. At a gas station, one of them (Kev still wasn’t sure who, though he could take a guess) had locked the keys in the van, and they’d had to wait almost an hour in the rain for a locksmith, a little old guy who had to be on the verge of celebrating his very own bicentennial. By the time they got to the gig, it was late. A rushed sound check. No time to eat or drink or even take a leak. No time to fix their misspelled name on marquee out front either. The club owner threatening to dock their already meager pay. And Kev, feeling the first hints of fuzz at the back of his throat, practically begging the guy for something to wet his lips—an iced tea, a bottled water, anything.

They couldn’t even hear themselves playing through the cheap monitors the house had set up at the front of the stage, but they somehow managed to limp through the first set even though no one was dancing. Kev’s voice was growing softer and hoarser the longer they played, and they’d made the rookie mistake of saving some of the toughest covers for the end of the night. By the time they got to “Livin’ on a Prayer” the song had taken on a new meaning for Kev. No way he was going to be able to take it up an octave that last time through the chorus. No way he’d make it back out alive. He’d be lucky just to survive to the end of the song. Only he was committed to it now. Too late to turn back, and so he leaned forward and let her rip and what came out wasn’t his own voice, or even John Bon Jovi’s voice, but Muzzie’s voice, and out of the corner of his eye he could see Muzz practically kissing his microphone and nodding. I’ve got you covered this time, buddy.

That was his favorite rock and roll story.

It’s the kind of gesture that makes Muzzie not only the best band mate in the world but the best friend a guy could ask for.

Which is why it doesn’t surprise Kev now to see Muzzie returning from the bar, coming up behind Conor slowly and holding his Miller Lite by the neck. He’s just singing back-up. Before Kev can even move to stop him, Muzz has raised the bottle. Kev knows what carnage comes next—the shattered glass, the deep laceration to Conor’s scalp, the trickle of blood that runs down from his ear, maybe worse—and he’s got his eye on the guy with the cross, is worried that after losing the arm wrestling match, he’ll be looking for any excuse to prove his manhood.

This is going to be bad, Kev thinks.

Darn tootin’, Tex.

Of course, none of that happens.

What happens is that Chen arrives. Studious, nervous, chicken-winged Chen. Only he doesn’t seem so scrawny and bookish now dressed in his tan Assistant Sheriff’s uniform. He very quietly takes the empty from Muzzie’s hand, clapping him firmly and humorlessly on the shoulder. “Don’t spill your beer,” he says.

For a moment, Muzzie stares up at him dumbly. Then he says, “Hey, Chen’s here,” and he wraps his arm around their ex-keyboardist’s back and gives him an awkward, sloppy kiss on the cheek and adds, “and he smells really good.”

 

Kev lights the cigarette he bummed from the bartender in the polo shirt on the way out. A few more months on the job and that kid will know better than to share his spare Camels with every drunk who seems appreciative. Truth is, Kev doesn’t really smoke. Just likes to light one up every so often when he’s been drinking.

From Muzzie’s front porch, Kev can hear the sounds of the late-night freight train making its way through downtown Emberland and the grandfather clock chiming three a.m. in the hall behind him. He feels that warm, familiar buzz behind his eyes, and his feet are sore from the walk back to Accident. He and Muzzie have dispensed with the chairs, choosing to sit on the top step instead as they polish off the last of the six-pack Muzzie bought on the way out of the bar.

Kev studies the label on his beer bottle, holding it up to the porch light. He knows just when he’s got Muzzie’s undivided attention. Knows how to ask a question without asking it. Clears his throat.

So. Conor and Ramie?

Muzzie studies a groove in the porch railing. Though Kev can’t tell for sure, he seems exasperated—his sigh says it all. Move along, man. I’m telling you, there’s nothing to see there. Just smoke and mirrors. Snake oil and tonics.

Satisfied with his answer, Kev takes a deep drag, offers the cigarette to Muzzie who shakes his head, and then exhales a slow silvery cloud that reminds him of the mine gas below.

“Do you think I’d look better with mutton chops?” Kev says, rubbing the side of his face.

“Chen should have let me clock the bastard,” Muzzie says.

“I’m sure there will be other opportunities.” For a moment they both stare down at the subsidence pit.

The way Kev sees it, he has a choice to make. He’s here now, in Accident. Nothing waiting for him back in Del Lago. He could always stay awhile. The question is: does he want to? If he goes back, it’ll mean renting another one-room hole-in-the-wall. More crap jobs for little pay. He might open his guitar case more often this time, but probably not.

Kev stubs out his cigarette on the porch and pulls his arms up into the sleeves of his Cobain sweater. At night, under a full moon, the smoke from the mine fire is ghostly, almost peaceful, and Kev is astonished when two men emerge from the dense fog, wearing mining outfits like the one his old man used to wear. He grabs Muzzie’s arm, starts to say something, but it’s clear that he’s the only one seeing this. Side effect of the booze. Weird visions. It’s like Muzzie said: Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.

“You didn’t play a damn thing in California, did you?” Muzzie asks.

“I was there seven years and I didn’t change guitar strings once. You do the math.”

Muzzie nods, takes a long swig from his Miller Lite, and that’s the extent of it. No guilt. No questions. No disappointment. He tosses his empty out into the yard, and the bottle cuts directly through the closest miner before landing in the grass. As if on cue, Kev throws his bottle, too. And then he watches the two phantoms pass, sees the Fender guitar slung over the one miner’s shoulder and realizes he’s just said goodbye to Dizzy.

 

 

Issue 6 Contents

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About Jason Kapcala

Jason Kapcala lives in northern West Virginia along the Monongahela River where he offers a series of community writing workshops for nontraditional students. His writing has appeared in Blueline, The Summerset Review, Cleaver Magazine, Prime Number, Saw Palm, The Good Men Project, and elsewhere. He is currently shopping a novel, Hungry Town, and is writing a novel tentatively titled Welcome to Accident about a small-time rock band from a ghost town based on Centralia, Pennsylvania. His website is www.jasonkapcala.weebly.com