By Steve Mitchell
The music is a fog between us, warm and ripe, intimate as skin. It’s a heat generating our limbs bone to bone. Nathan’s guitar bobs hip to opposite thigh, his right foot rising to the toe, then dropping on the downbeat. My eyes are closed most of the time, but I know we’re facing each other, facing the roar between his guitar and my voice.
The crowd is churning; they’d been completely his for the last three songs, before he called me to the stage. The entire night has been one gradual ascending climb and now we’ve collected at the summit, appreciating the arrival as much as the destination.
There’s the blaze of the audience, their sway, and the collective stamp at every fourth beat; the subtext of their voices as they hum the melody or sing along, all a vibrant foundation for my own reach. I can feel Nathan’s band shifting around us, feel them pass close.
I blink, catching sight of the cloud of Nathan’s hair swarming over his fingerboard, Mark’s fists coming down hard on the drums. Red lights, blue shadows, a band like a single elegant thought, like a family. I close my eyes again and my voice opens to the room until it takes its own light and weight. The other voices rise around mine, the crowd a few steps away and Nathan’s close at my ear, deep and rough, a jagged rasp that somehow softens once it leaves his throat, becoming more rounded and mellow.
My body sways as I sing, my bare arm brushing his. The air shifting in waves of cool and warm, the dance of the guitar, and the thump of his foot on the floor. My arms are marking their own language into the air. There’s a vast and unknowable space opening around us in the vicinity of dream.
And we are burning, some flame enveloping us. His body so close, the song driving us forward, our arms slick with sweat, glancing, sliding off one another. I have one hand on the mic stand, using it as an anchor as I tilt toward Nathan and the raw edge of his guitar. I lean into him, our shoulders grazing, the heat damp now, damp with our bodies in the glare of the lights and the burst of the music.
I let go of the mic stand and rest my fingers on his shoulder. His body so close as we enter the last chorus and, because it bursts into a ragged and full blaze, we do it again, not yet wanting this song to end or the frame of this horizon to disappear. The room loses its shape, threatening to vanish forever.
We do it again and with the last note we stand, feet apart. His body so close, we declare a silence as if all music were a strategy for arriving at silence. We hold ourselves in the stillness for an instant. I open my eyes and Nathan leans into me, his lips against mine, and his arms enfold me, the guitar between. He lifts me from the floor and we spin, one, two, three turns, in the final peal of our stillness, then into the leap and shout of the crowd.
I’d been lucky to get the job. It was a club we’d never played before, larger than we’d played before. Over our heads, really. Maybe I simply walked in at the right moment or maybe the previously booked band had just died in a fiery plane crash; whatever it was, the owner looked relieved as he quizzed me on my music and the places we’d played. Never even listening to the demo, he offered me a gig only two weeks away.
“You heard of Nathan Driscol?”
“You’ll be opening for him.”
My eyes widened. My mouth fell ajar. I tumbled into thoughts of what songs we could possibly do with Nathan Driscol in the building.
I reached out to shake his hand. “Deal.”
The next thing to do was to get a band together. It wasn’t that I didn’t have a band; it was just that I didn’t have a band. I had Edgar on drums and we wrote songs, or I wrote songs, picking them out on guitar for him, then working them out between us. Later, he’d find a guitarist, a bass player, now and then a violin or an accordion, and now and then they’d play three or four gigs with us before drifting off into drunken binges or construction jobs.
Keeping a band together for more than two months was as improbable as capturing clouds, unless, I wanted to sleep with them, buy their drugs, or bail them out of jail—which, I didn’t. So they stumbled through like vagrants at a bus station, always en route to somewhere else.
Edgar isn’t impressed by the possibility of opening for Nathan Driscol, leaning more toward Scandinavian Metal as he does, but he is impressed by the venue.
“It’d be cool to play a place that big. Must hold 400 or so.” He’s stroking his bushy, unkempt beard, “I bet I can get hold of Tom and Sylvan.”
“I’ll get back to you,” he mumbles, shambling toward the rear of the store. I’m trapped at the register and can’t follow to ask what instruments Tom and Sylvan might play.
I can talk about music with Edgar. Mostly, he nods or, occasionally, grunts equivocal agreement, in the way one might humor a younger sister. I’d been back at Marino’s Books for three months, before we ever made eye contact.
It was a slow process, warming up; but now, twice a week or so, whenever we work together, we eat our lunch under a tree in the median of the parking lot and talk music. I talk and he listens, politely engaged, or he becomes excited about some new Norwegian Math Metal band with an unpronounceable name and I relish watching his eyes light up and his body jitter.
But he is who I have to talk to. No one in my family cares much about music. They don’t notice it. They don’t notice anything, actually. It’s something I never understood. Something I find constantly mystifying.
I could never learn to be blank and incurious before the rumble of the world, could never see it as closed and cold, as if it isn’t constantly calling for embrace, as if it isn’t always whispering, humming, shouting, luring me into its sink and swim.
So, I grew up awkward in my skin, nurturing secrets, clutching all passions close; an agent behind enemy lines always concealing a true identity, constantly on guard against the revealing mistake.
I wrote songs in a notebook I hid under my mattress. I hid it, not because my mother might be horrified should she find it, but because it wouldn’t matter to her one way or another. And that horrified me.
As soon as I could drive, I traveled to nearby towns for open mics. I was awful, screeching my teenage passion into my shoes while clawing at my guitar. I wanted to sound like Fiona Apple or PJ Harvey or Ani diFranco. I thought I had something to say. I thought I had to have something to say.
I never saw the audience when I sang, hunched over the fingerboard, hair shielding my face. I never talked to anyone. I sang my song and ran. I didn’t want them to hate it before I liked it; I didn’t want them to like it, before I liked it.
I was struggling to find something in memory that had never actually happened, yet nagged nonetheless. I just wanted to hear myself in a voice I recognized.
After a few months, the regulars would nod or smile when I entered the room. They’d attempt pleasant conversation. But I didn’t know the language. I had no voice. I was comforted by the assurance that, unless I came back the next month, I never had to see them again.
Until I did. Until the day Marietta walked into the bookstore. Her face lit up and she rushed toward me at the register.
“You’re that girl,” she said breathlessly, “always comes to the Abingdon Open Mic and runs out the door after. I don’t even know your name.”
I shuffled the books before me, flustered and stuttering. “I’m…Sarah.”
Marietta was tall and broad with flowing gray hair, partial to blowsy, flowered skirts and sandals. She had a deep, full voice that she seemed to dredge from far underground when she sang, her body rolling between notes like a boat in a swell. I enjoyed her spirituals most, but now and then she’d sing a dirty blues number and I’d find myself laughing along with everyone else.
“Sarah!” She extended her hand and I was forced to take it. “Marietta.”
She held my hand and patted the top with her other. I wanted to sink beneath the counter, terrified my co-workers had now been ushered into my secret life. I stared at our hands, clasped together, hers older, broader, fingertips calloused from years of playing.
She looked into my eyes, but I avoided hers. Finally, she released me, her palms sliding away and folding together, prayer-like before her.
“You keep singin’, girl,” she told me, her inflection making it seem a command. “It’s what you do.”
It took three months to work up the nerve to go back to the Abingdon Open Mic, but when I did I spoke to Marietta. Each time after, she’d greet me with a hug and we’d talk a bit. Sometimes about music or my singing, sometimes not. She was always engaged and immovable, rooted somehow, like a tree dancing in a breeze.
She’d tell me about my breathing, where I’d taken a breath and where I should have, or make cryptic suggestions, asserting a song needed a little more red in it. One night, she clutched my forearm and drew me in close.
“You know, we all gonna be judged by how often we escape time.” She winked, knowing I had no clue what she was talking about.
I went away to school for a year. When I decided that was a bad choice and came home, Marietta had moved. No one was exactly sure to where.
So I make do with Edgar, and he manages to put up with me always suggesting rehearsals and new gigs and open mics and playing in empty fields if the cows don’t mind, trying to make something happen with a band as impermanent as weather.
Edgar’s in front of me, pulling on his beard the way he does when he’s annoyed or interested. “Yeah, they can do it. Tom and Sylvan. That’s a bass and a lead.”
“When can we get together?”
“You mean, before?”
“Yeah, we’ve got to rehearse.”
Edgar sighs. “Aw, Sarah, they know what they’re doing, they can…” I stare him down. He shrugs, still tugging at his beard. “Alright,” he mutters, “I’ll call ’em back.”
I’m the one who gets the gigs, sets up the rehearsals, puts up the posters, creates the Facebook event pages. I’m the one attempting to coax people into our empty web. I’m the one who shows up an hour early to the venue, because I’m anxious that way, believing somehow if I demonstrate great restraint and responsibility, the guys will at least be there on time and ready to play.
And this time it works. Tom and Sylvan had been good about our two rehearsals, arriving on time and huddling together to work out their parts. They’d seemed to like the songs; a nod between them, a smile to me. Shoved in a corner of Edgar’s parents’ basement between the lawn mower and croquet set, we’d worked through six; the ones Edgar thought best.
I was grasping into darkness, using the rhythm they laid down, the gentle weave of Sylvan’s guitar, for leverage; clutching it and swinging out into the dark, all the time searching for purchase, something I could use to pull myself into the song. All the while feeling dishonest with the band. As if, I should already know these things.
But the guys liked it. They told me I sounded great and seemed excited about the gig, the possibility of playing together again. Still, I sigh with relief when their station wagon pulls up to the stage door and all three climb out. Habit, I guess. We stack the gear by the door, getting it all in before deciding how to set up in the cramped space the roadie has left us at the front of the stage.
When they kick into “Steamroller”, it’s a shock somehow, as dark and charged as walking into a thunderhead. I close myself around the mic stand, head down, lips to metal, something dangerous rising in me. The crowd is loose; it always is at shows like this. There are loud conversations by the bar, a couple making out at one table, a few curious onlookers drifting toward the front of the stage. I’d scanned the room before we started; I know what’s out there.
But damn the guys sound good and the song lights up something in me.
“You always get feisty with that one,” Edgar had observed with a low chuckle. “It’ll be a good place to start.”
There are random claps after the song, a wolf whistle from the bar. Bottles clank, a burst of laughter from the corner. I turn to Edgar, who’s tightening a drum; he glances up, grinning. By “Chupacabra”, I’m finding a place to stand, feet apart, both hands at the mic, leaning forward and back into it, hitting a certain growl in the chorus I’d always heard, but could never reach.
I arch back into the last note of the second verse and when I come up level again I’m staring out across the floor. There are fifteen or twenty in front of me, twenty or so more toward the back of the bar. People would start arriving now for Nathan. They don’t care about us.
But, there’s a woman off to the left. Straight, dark hair, simple t-shirt, and jeans. She’s a few years older than me, with a guy who keeps glancing back to the bar where all the fun seems to be. Her eyes closed. She sways, bottle between two fingers at her hip, her body lost somewhere in our sound and when I push my way into the chorus as hard as I can, she flushes, a heat rising in her face. Her head slips back into her sway, shoulders rocking as she swings right to left.
I watch her, wanting to wrap the song gently around her. I’m planted and clear, some part of me seating itself in my joints, arms rising before my chest as I throw my head back into the last run of the chorus.
Her loose hand reaches out blindly for her boyfriend’s and he turns toward her, then curiously to me, where his gaze lingers for a moment before drifting off, her sway communicating up his arm even as he turns away.
I mutter something once the song ends. I kneel down for my water bottle and notice Nathan, angled into a doorway at the side of the stage, arms crossed loosely over his chest.
We’d met earlier, a kind of guttural acknowledgment of mutual existence passing between us while Edgar talked to the roadie. Nathan is a few years older, tall and lanky, his hair, a wild dark thought. He shrugged in conversation as if suspicious of language.
“Hi, I’m Sarah,” I extended my hand. “So happy to meet you, to be opening…”
His fingers were long and his grip firm, but momentary. “Hi, Sarah. Nathan.” And then he was gone.
Edgar counts off for “Inside/Outside” and I follow him, trying to ignore Nathan slouched in the doorway, swinging my vision into the room where a few more have stepped forward. I vow to make it impossible for anyone at the bar to have a conversation, finding new places for my voice to birth itself, my eyes coming back now and again to the woman on the left, who rises with each verse and centers down into the choruses.
At the last song, I’m lost and empty, hollowed to something thin and sharp. With the final note, the woman opens her eyes; hers meet mine and she smiles. I say thank you for the group, stepping away from the mic. On the steps of the stage, Nathan touches my arm.
“Nice set,” he tells me, eyes clear as if I’ve suddenly taken form.
He leans in closer. “You need to get a real band,” he confides.
He taps my arm with his forefinger. “Listen, I oughta get up there,” he points toward the stage where everyone is shifting monitors and amps.
“Listen,” he taps, “Stay close.”
So, I lean in the doorway, taking his position, watching as they run through equipment checks, kick cables out of the way, set mic levels. Edgar and the guys are at the bar by now, having shoved all our gear into the station wagon. I lean in the doorway, wondering what Nathan had meant. By anything, he’d said.
They begin slowly, quietly, Nathan growling a hello into the microphone, the crowd shouting back. The room has filled by now, but there’s still traffic at the bar and in the shadowy outskirts of the club. The crowd jostles itself, stretching and yawning, making itself comfortable.
They begin slowly, quietly, as if they’re marking time while everyone finds their place. Then, they burst into a white heat and never stop burning. Nathan pulls the crowd away from the bar, from each other’s arms, from the corners and the darkness. He pulls them into a singular body before him. The bar isn’t doing any business at all.
I watch as they roar and buck, settling to a low purr and whine for one song, then winding back into full assault for another. The band allows no empty space, no silence, no noodling or tuning, always a low drone or a beat, always a full extended note leading into the next song.
The room warms from the press of the crowd and the music burning off their skin. Nathan’s body hunches, then explodes, clenching and opening like a fist. He pushes toward them, punching his voice into the thick of them, leaning out from the stage, or settling into place, still and simple, repeating the gesture one song after another, each time a little further out and a little further back. Inviting them. Drawing them with him.
The crowd is churning; they’ve been completely his for the last three songs, when he turns toward me, extending a hand. “I want to bring somebody up here. I was watching her from the back. Can’t leave town without doing a song with her.” It’s two sentences more than he’s spoken to the crowd all night.
He’s leaning into his guitar player, their heads tilted low, cupped hand to ear. The crowd is cheering, clapping above their heads. I’m scorched and tremulous. I pull myself from the doorway and toward him.
The guitar player nods as I cross the stage, moving a few steps from center toward the drummer, shouting something I can’t hear above the noise. There’s a low roaring drone, an insect hiss, all around us.
The stage is an oven. Heat bakes off the bodies and bounces from the floor. Nathan is blanketed in sweat, his shirt gummed to his back and arms, hair dripping.
He leans in, mouth to my ear in the roar. “Do you know ‘Salesman’?” I nod, staring at a place on the floor.
I look up to him. “But it’s your song.”
“Go ahead,” he nods. A slight smile, a soft permission. “We’ll follow.”
For a moment, I’m sure I don’t know the words. Or I’ll forget them. My knees quiver and I’m terrified I’ll drop to the stage, or my voice will be swallowed by his band and I’ll be left stranded like a baby bird.
An anxiety followed, for an instant, by a reprieve: I’m seven or eight, I’m ten or eleven. I’m lying on my back in a meadow staring into the open sky, my body, a simple receiver: the clack and warble of distant birds, a hiss of faraway cars, the low hum of the earth, and the roar of my own blood—the planet arranging and revealing itself before my senses. The vast swarm of the world and the shape of noticing, always a different, changing form: a melody or a rhythm, the way two words can click together and glow, a glance across a room. I’m lost in a cloud of new temperatures and seasons.
Then, the guitar kicks into the intro, Nathan shifts away from me toward the crowd and, all at once, I know exactly where I am.
My feet touch ground and Nathan releases me, dizzy from our spin, dizzy from the noise swamping the stillness and the push of the crowd. Losing my place again in my body, in the world, after so long away.
Nathan raises his arm to the room in goodnight. He takes a step back, arm dropping toward me and I step forward. The room is full; the crowd exultant, chanting, applauding. I cannot find the woman I knew from before. I give a slight bow and make my way from the stage. I take my place in the open doorway, trying to find breath, waiting for their next songs.
But Nathan is finished, pulling his guitar over his head and unplugging it from the amp. The rest of the band nurses noise from the crowd, who clap and stamp in reply. Nathan brushes past me across the threshold and I roll along the doorframe into the back room. We’re both flushed, breathing hard, fingers twitching, skeeved with adrenaline. My back is to the wall. He paces the room a few steps before returning.
“Well, that was fun,” he announces nervously. His face has lost its stance and distance; his eyes are bright and wide. I feel a new blush rising; I nod, stupidly searching for words. I don’t know if he’s going to apologize for the kiss or kiss me again but, if he reaches out for me, I know I’ll drop into his hand.
Thank God, he doesn’t.
Even though, for an instant, we are together, a murmuring joy passing between us: a joy of recognition, of remembrance.
His eyes drop to his sneakers, arms collapsing with his gaze, and he tilts side to side, lips working toward the next sentence.
“It was great. Thanks so much,” I tell him.
I touch his arm and, instead of opening in a gesture of intimacy, the touch somehow becomes one of closure, the hand pausing on the doorknob or the final bittersweet wave. He doesn’t seem to notice.
“Sarah. It’s Sarah, right?”
I nod. He’s innocent and boyish, awkwardly stumbling over his words. “Listen, let me get an email or a Facebook from you. I mean, we’re on the road for a few months now. But I’d love to hear how you’re doing.”
Nathan is searching the room for a pen as the band stumbles through the door, falling into each other, the roar and stamp of the crowd following.
“Are we going back out there?” the guitarist asks. “They’re making a shitload of noise.”
“Just let me…” Nathan’s found a sharpie. He scrawls my email address onto his forearm, just before the guy tugs him through the door.
There’s a smile, just before the door. It’s a gift; it lets me know what’s real. And then he’s gone. I slip out the side door during the encore.
In the car, the dark road unrolls beneath the dark sky, one an endless reflection of the other. I don’t turn on the radio. I listen to the faint high hiss of the tires on the road, noticing the shifts in pitch as I slow in curves or accelerate when the road opens.
I’m seven or eight, I’m ten or eleven: I’m staring, the sky so close I can taste the willowy clouds, cool and clean, feel them enter my lungs. I’m on my back in a meadow and the clouds are forming their promises. I’m singing. It’s a thing my body accomplishes of its own. There are no words, only a thrill in the sound as it shapes itself in my breath and around my tongue, then leaves me.
And I am not alone.