CHAPTER 2: SWEET HOME CHICAGO
Chicago squatted on the horizon, pointing at the heavens like an accusing finger. Even from a distance it seemed to laugh at me. I ground my teeth and stomped on the gas hoping to wreck myself on the highway before I got there.
“Dude, you’re viral,” my rhythm guitarist, Gorey, stuck his phone between my face and the windshield to show me a gif playing on an endless loop.
“Dude, I’m driving!” I knocked his hand away, struggling not to swerve across all available lanes of traffic. It didn’t take more than a glance for me to know it was a video of the debacle with the TSA. I stole a second glance at the screen out of the corner of my eye.
Damen Warner Bares it All!
Yup. Definitely me. I watched myself turn toward the camera: my mouth forming the words ‘fuck off’ again, and again, and again. Someone had added a black bar over my junk: the fig leaf of the digital age.
“D’you make that?” I asked.
“Pfft. No. I got people for that.”
“We don’t have ‘people’ anymore,” I reminded him. “Remember? The Robot Overlords cut us loose.”
“We don’t have people,” he grinned broadly enough to show the gold tooth on the right side of his mouth. “I have people.”
It was true. Gorey had an enormous, sprawling family and he was as contagiously likable as a terrier puppy. He tumbled through life in a tangle of enthusiasm, superstition and glee; with a nose ring and a rat’s nest of a top-knot that he never bothered to put any product in. His main contribution to our sound was criminal mischief and social media, which, now that we’d been dropped by our record label, was about all we had left. Now, here we were: careening toward fucking Chicago in a battered cargo van that smelled like farts; the same van we’d packed up thirteen years ago to haul our asses to Los Angeles in search of fame and fortune. The passenger side was emblazoned with our band’s handle: the letters OBNXS scrawled out in lurid blue spray paint. Below this, someone had helpfully added “SUCKS”.
God, I hated my life.
I steered the van onto an exit ramp toward the west side neighborhood that the Gorej family had occupied for decades: an enclave of Hungarians locked in a war of attrition against the encroaching Latino population. I pulled to the curb in front of a non-descript brownstone with the oversized hand of a palm-reader in the front window and put the van in park. Gorey stared up at the house but didn’t get out.
“Welp. Here we are,” he said, unnecessarily.
“Yeah. Sweet fucking home Chicago.” I nodded toward the house. “You wouldn’t happen to have a couch I could crash on, would you?”
Gorey looked at me in surprise. “Me? What, no—I was gonna stay with you.”
“Me?” It was my turn to be surprised. “I’m literally gonna be living in a van down by the river if I don’t find a couch to surf on.” I gestured meaningfully to the Bandwagon around me. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d called it home.
“What about your folks?”
My expression must have said everything it needed to because Gorey held up his hands in surrender. “Sorry, stupid question.”
“What about your folks?” I asked. As far as I knew, Gorey was on good terms with his family. “Trouble at home?”
Gorey squirmed. “Ma’s gonna make me get married,” he mumbled, “she wants grandkids.”
Gorey’s people married young, and his mom had been trying to set him up in a family way since high school.
“Don’t your sisters each have a litter?” I asked.
“Doesn’t count—they don’t have the family name.”
I stifled my urge to roll my eyes. Family names meant fuck-all to me: I was already wearing a dead name. I’d emancipated when I was sixteen and taken Mom’s maiden name, Warner, as a final gesture of defiance. No fucking way was I going to go through life as an Adomnan. But names meant a lot to Gorey’s people and they’d been after him to get married for years now in order to produce the appropriate name-carrying heir.
“They were fine with me being on the road as long as the money was coming in,” he continued. “we’re travelers—we’ve been musicians for, like, a million generations—but when the money stopped…” he trailed off, but I could fill in the rest. Gorey stared up at the palm-reading sign as if it really did hold the future and cracked his fingers. “I oughtta just get it over with. I’m almost thirty—”
“Fuck, don’t remind me—I’ve finally sobered up.”
“—How bad could it be?”
“I mean…” I trailed off without finishing the thought. I didn’t need to.
“Yeah…” he muttered, resigned. “Hey, this Lolla thing… It is for real, right? I’m not back in Chicago risking my nuptials for…you know.…” He looked to me hopefully.
“Of course, it’s real,” I said with a certainty I didn’t feel.
“I mean, I’m with you, dude, but…you were pretty drunk still at the airport.”
The same thought had crossed my mind. I’d spent the past two days trying to call our agent but kept getting the brush-off from his assistant. Never a good sign.
“Gimme your phone,” I said.
“Use your own.”
“They screen my number.”
Gorey tugged his cell phone out of his pocket and tossed it to me. I typed in the agency number and listened to it ring.
“Chase Kitsch’s desk.”
I put on a falsetto with a southern twang. “Howdy, darlin’, y’all lemme talk to Chase, now, this here’s Reverend Walter Simon with the Light of Christ Evangelical Mission callin’ ‘bout his tithin’.” Gorey snorted and dissolved into giggles, but the assistant was not fooled.
“Is this Damen again?”
“Have you prepared your immortal soul for the comin’ end of days?”
“He’s not at his desk right now.”
“Gaaaawwd will stand in judgment over all the LIAHS!”
There was a click and the line disconnected.
“Hung up,” I tossed the phone back to him. “Same thing all week. Y’know what? Fuck this.” There was one last card to play. I pulled out my own phone and dialed.
“I thought you said they screen your calls?” Gorey said.
“I’m not calling the agency.”
There was a click as the line connected and Chase himself answered. “How’d you get this number?” he demanded.
“If you don’t want me calling your private number, don’t have your assistant jerk me off every time I call your goddamn office.”
“This is my wife’s phone,” he said, his voice cold. “I don’t have anything for you.”
“You didn’t get us the Lolla gig then?”
“What Lolla gig?”
“Lollapalooza,” I said. “They offered us a spot in the Saturday lineup. I got a call from some dude named… Austin? Dallas? Some city in Texas.”
“That’s the one.”
“About Lollapalooza?” his disbelief was palpable.
“I know, right? It’s like they don’t even know us. Is it for real? We’re in Chicago now, and we’re fucking trapped here if there’s no gig.”
“Is that a promise?”
“You wanna be smart or you wanna do your fucking job?” I demanded. There was an annoyed silence on the far end of the line. I waited him out.
“I’ll see what I can find out,” Chase said at last. “Just stay put.”
“Fuck,” Gorey said.
“Fuck,” I agreed.
“Stephen?! Is that you? I thought I saw your van—” A dark-skinned, woman rapped on the window with her knuckles then turned back to the house to shout: “It’s him! Stephen’s back! He’s back!”
Gorey sighed without turning. “Hey, Ma.”
A flood of women and children poured out of the house to surround the Bandwagon pressing their noses and fingers against the passenger side windows for a glimpse of their wayward son. The door yanked open from the outside and a surge of hands reached inside to paw at Gorey’s clothes like they were trying to pull him from a burning wreck.
“Hang on, hang on!” he protested, struggling to untangle himself from the seatbelt; a task made even more difficult by the fact that his Ma had both arms wrapped around his head and was smothering him with a storm of kisses. “Ma. Ma! I can’t see!”
Gorey’s Ma backed off incrementally and he cast a pleading look in my direction.
Gorey’s Ma seemed to notice me for the first time and scowled.
“Oh, it’s you,” she spat on the back of two fingers like I’d seen Gorey do a hundred times when he wanted to ward off bad luck. His entire family was an old-world kind of superstitious. Gorey himself still gave me grief for getting the Ouija board alphabet tattooed across my chest.
I gave her a limp salute. “Hey, Mrs. G.”
“You’re the one been keeping him away from us—”
“Leave him alone, Ma.”
“We finally got him back. Don’t be comin’ ‘round here tryin’ to spirit him away again—”
“God, Ma!” He gave me an apologetic look. “Guess this is it. See you on the flippity-flop.” With a click he unbuckled his seatbelt and was immediately swept out of the van on a familial tide. He turned a wide-eyed backward glance toward me and mouthed the word halp! before the Gorey clan dragged him up the steps to the front door and disappeared inside.
And just like that, I was alone. Again.
Gorey could joke about his family all he wanted, but at least they wanted him. I tried to imagine my own family wanting me that much and failed. No one was going to drag my ass out of the wreckage of my life to welcome me back into the fold. I was a bastard son. The man I grew up calling my father had met my mother on the day I was born; a police officer who just so happened to be riding the same train as my mom when she went into labor. He delivered me into the cruel world but had played no part in my conception. Later, he and my mom got married and had two other legitimate children: a boy for him, a girl for her. One big happy family: perfectly complete without me in it.
I surveyed the Bandwagon and considered my options. I hadn’t been kidding about living in it, but the cargo cabin was packed wall-to-wall with gig cases and the thought of sleeping upright in a driver’s seat for four weeks until Lollapalooza made me want to stab myself in the eye. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be parking thousands of dollars of instruments and gear on the streets of Chicago in the swelter of summer heat anyway: I was going to have to find a place to stash it, and with a sinking sensation in the pit of my stomach, I already knew where that place was going to be.
I picked up my phone and dialed before I could talk myself out of it.
“Yo,” a male voice answered over a connection that sounded like a speakerphone.
“Quetzalez? It’s Damen.”
“Well, shit.” He drew out the word as if annoyed, but I could hear a smile in his voice. “What’s up, buddy?” Thirty years ago, Dave Quetzalez had been the Chicano punk kid who lived next door. Mom hired him to babysit me while she was working on her doctorate, and he’d practically raised me. Now, he was nominally employed as the family driver, but in truth he was part of the family.
“I need my keys,” I said. “You still got them?”
“Sure, I still got ‘em. You back in town?” Quetzalez sounded surprised, but not displeased.
“Yeah, for a few weeks. Whether I want to be or not,” I muttered. “Do me a favor. Don’t tell anyone I’m here.”
There was a pause on the far end of the line and then: “Well, no one’ll hear it from me. I’m up Glencoe right now, drove your mom up for a wedding at the Gardens. I can message you when I’m back your way. Where you stayin’?”
“I’m still trying to figure that out,” I said. “Right now, I just gotta get into my storage unit to stash a bunch of gear.”
“Ahh,” Quetzalez said. “I’ll let you know when I’m headed your way. Just sit tight.”
As if I had any fucking choice.
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