CHAPTER 7: EVEN STEVEN
I stayed on the roof for the rest of the night, watching thunderheads scuttle overhead until I fell asleep. I was still on the roof in the morning when I peeled my eyes open to the gray light of pre-dawn and the shrill sound of a rooster crowing directly into my earhole.
Mary May perched nearby looking pleased with himself. I was going to kill that fucking bird. I took a swipe at him and missed, startling him into fluttering half-flight out of my reach.
Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep!
From the back of the house, I heard the grinding of an engine and the sound of Gorey shouting parking instructions at someone.
“Cut it! Harder. No—the other way—”
The roof shuddered and I scrambled to my hands and knees to crawl along the roofline until I could look down into the alley. A decrepit RV was trying to wedge itself into the space behind the house where a garage should have been. It shifted into drive and lurched forward with a grinding squeal as the fiberglass popped and sheared against the side of the house. Then it reversed once more, this time succeeding in cutting the corner and settling into the backyard with a sense of finality.
“What the fuck’s going on?” I demanded.
Gorey squinted up at me. “Oh, hey dude. Were you up there all night?”
“Don’t ‘Oh hey, dude,’ me,” I snapped at him. “What the fuck is he doing here?” I nodded to the rangy, sunburned ginger who emerged from the RV’s driver-side door.
My guitarist: Tombstone.
I hadn’t seen him since we’d howled out of Colorado in the dead of night, but now here he was standing in my back lot wearing his stupid straw hat and his stupid mirrored sunglasses staring up at me with that stupid redneck face that I wanted to punch through the back of his stupid skull. Back west, he had tried to sell my family’s heirloom silver pocket watch to an itinerant preacher, and I’d retaliated by shitting in his boots. I noted, with some satisfaction, that he was currently wearing flip-flops.
“It’s my house,” Gorey said. “I said he could park out back.”
“Don’t you have a fucking house in the suburbs?” I snapped at Tombstone, knowing full well he did. He paid every penny he earned to his ex-wife Marla and she lived in luxury up on the North Shore with his two teenage daughters, Lacey and Piper. But I also knew his welcome at Marla’s place was directly proportional to his ability to meet her support payments. And if he was here, it meant he was just as broke as the rest of us.
Tombstone gave me the finger.
“Christ on a cracker, use your words.”
Tombstone lived up to his nickname thanks to a stutter so severe he hardly ever spoke. He’d grown up poor: the third son in a family of five brothers, one sister, seven cousins, a single mother, four stepfathers, and a quadriplegic Vietnam veteran grandfather all trying to live off welfare and government cheese. It was not a family that had a single spare fuck to give about speech therapy. But whatever facility Tombstone may have lacked in speech he made up for on the guitar. Even I had to admit he was the best goddamn guitarist I’d ever seen.
Jojo’s window shrieked open, and she stuck her head out.
“Oh. My. God. What the fuck is going on out here?” She squinted at me with the special kind of scorn reserved for women woken up too early. I shouldered my way past her through the window, ignoring her protests, and thundered down the stairs to the living room.
Tombstone charged in through the kitchen door to meet me with a head full of steam. He whipped off his sunglasses and prepared to take a swing at me, but Gorey wedged himself between us to play referee; holding us apart with arms outstretched.
“Hey!” he shouted. “Hey! Give it a rest, dudes.”
Tombstone made an angry series of gestures.
“He wants to know where his guitar is,” Gorey supplied.
“I fucking heard him. Sucks, don’t it? When someone’s got your most valuable possession?” I held up the pocket watch in front of his face. “You never know what they might try to do with it. Or who they might try to fucking sell it to.”
Them was fighting words.
“Ohh, shittt.” Kilroy and Jojo backed away very slightly as Tombstone knocked my hand away with a scowl. I lunged at him, stopping myself just short of actually throwing a punch, and Tombstone flinched, then flushed red, about to punch back when Gorey caught his arm.
“Godd guyssss,” Jojo’s lazy Valley Girl vocal fry cut through the tension and brought us back to reality. “Y’all are bigger bitches than I am. Just fuck and get it over with.”
Gorey walked Tombstone backward and sat him in a threadbare recliner as I felt Jojo’s hand’s forcing me to sit on the nearest surface, which happened to be an upturned milk-crate. I shook her off, but she still loomed nearby in case I decided to try to stand up.
Kilroy waved a manila folder between us like a flag of truce.
“Lolla paperwork’s here.”
Suddenly, punching Tombstone fell to my second priority.
Kilroy extracted a sheaf of papers and scanned it avidly. “Damn, you seen these numbers?!” he asked. He held up the paper so Gorey and Jojo could see the bottom-line.
Gorey yanked the papers out of Kilroy’s hands and flipped through them like a kid reading a comic book. “Let’s play Lolla every year!”
“Lemme see.” I held out my hand for the papers, but Gorey didn’t hand them over.
“Hey, sooooo…we splittin’ this even or…?”
“Or are you gonna, like, carve up your half in the middle like usual,” Jojo needled me.
“They’re not coming to watch you drum, dude,” I told her. “When you front the band then you can take your half wherever the hell you want.” I yanked the paperwork out of Gorey’s hands and flipped to the bottom-line. Inwardly, I breathed a sigh of relief; after weeks of being broke, it looked like a number that could solve problems.
Jojo was not prepared to let me bluster my way out of answering her question.
“Oh. I’m sorry—do you want to go wave your dick on stage without the rest of us behind you?” she asked. “It’s not ‘The Damen Warner Show’.”
“Yeah, dude,” Kilroy and Gorey went to her side, flanking her like mutinous bookends.
“Even-steven or I’m not signing—we’re not signing,” Jojo said, pulling the entire rhythm section up onto her high horse.
“Good, cuz you don’t fucking have to,” I flipped to the last page and showed it to her. There were only lines for two signatures. Mine and Tombstone’s.
When you got right down to the nitty-gritty of it, we were Tombstone’s band. He’d started it back in high school to cover grunge and punk metal back in the nineties when mainstream kids still listened to actual music, and he had a knack for the guitar like no other, but he sure as hell wasn’t a front man. I was the one who had put us on the map. It wasn’t a fucking democracy: ours were the only votes that mattered.
I signed the paperwork.
Gorey, Kilroy, and Jojo all now turned their attention to Tombstone—the final word.
He crossed his arms, staring at me through squinted eyes, making me sweat.
“Even-steven, bro,” Kilroy said.
I saw the corner of Tombstone’s mouth twitch. He nodded: even-steven. What was I going to do about it? I seethed under his accusing stare, but there wasn’t much I could do. As much as I never wanted to see that soulless ginger face ever again, we couldn’t play Lollapalooza without him and I wanted to get paid. Needed to get paid. More than that, I needed to get on stage again. Needed it like I needed air.
“Fine,” I said. “Even-steven. You stay, you play, you keep the fuck away from me.” I kicked the pages across the table to him, but Tombstone didn’t reach for them. Instead, he just stared at me, chewing on a pen cap while he waited for me to sweeten the deal.
He stuck out a foot significantly and wiggled his toes in the new pair of dollar store flip-flops. He puckered his lips and made a kissing noise.
“Kiss my ass,” I told him. “Never in a million years.”
Tombstone stood up like he was ready to walk out.
“Where you gonna go?” I challenged him. “With Marla? With the kids? If you had anywhere else to go, you’d be there right now.” I saw his shoulders tense as I hit a nerve. I prodded deeper. “What’s the matter? Your pockets not deep enough for her right now?”
“Gawd, low blow,” Jojo tried to head me off at the pass, but I was on a roll.
“I ain’t sayin’ she’s a gold-digger, but she ain’t messin’ with no broke ginger.” Tombstone whirled on me and I knew I was right. “All that cash you got from selling my shit back in Last Chance—it didn’t get you very far, did it? After gas and all, maybe you had a couple hundred bucks. Bet you spent it on gifts, didn’t you? And I bet Marla loved that right up until she held out her hand for a support check and you came up empty. And she told you to get your hillbilly Hilton out of her goddamn driveway.”
Tombstone paced around a frustrated circle and kicked the coffee table, scattering beer cans and takeout containers across the room. He fronted up against me until we were chest to chest and knocked his forehead against mine. I shoved the paperwork against his chest.
“Sign it,” I said. “Hate me later.”
Tombstone hated me now. Hated me with all his guts. But he snatched the paperwork out of my hands and backed away to look at it, turning over page after page as if he were actually reading more than just the bottom-line numbers. At last, he held out a hand for a pen. Kilroy produced one from behind his ear and Tombstone scribbled his name on the dotted line: Thomas Jefferson Jackson. He dated it. Gave me the finger. Walked out of the room.
“Nice flip-flops, shitheel,” I called after him.
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