CHAPTER 22: SUBURBIA
We had no fucking guitarists.
Riot Fest was two weeks away and we had no fucking guitarists.
Jojo and I were loading equipment into the Gray Area, trying to transform the derelict warehouse into someplace we could rehearse. I heaved the final road case into a corner while she worked to decompress her full drum kit from its various bags and trunks. Nearly a third of the rehearsal space was now given over to a massive array of drums, cymbals, stands, pedals, sticks, thrones, and miscellaneous percussion items including, but not limited to, a woodblock, a piece of slate shingle, a set of fantasy chimes, a jar of pennies, and a trash can lid.
Jojo opened one of the larger drum cases and was bombarded with an avalanche of t-shirts. “What the—omigod, GOREY!” she swore.
“What’d he do?”
She pulled out a tom and extracted a bale of t-shirts from inside the hollow. “He packed my drum cases full of fucking merch.” It was true; every inch was crammed with crap that could be sold: stickers, t-shirts, CDs—all no doubt swiped from the Robot Overlords while packing up our final show. She threw the fist full of t-shirts on the floor, then sighed. “I miss that fucking maniac. It’s weird without him around.”
“He’ll be back,” I said.
“How can you be sure? He said he was leaving the band, right?”
“His guitar is still here.”
“I haven’t heard from him, have you?”
“No, but we got money coming in now. Once he gets a whiff of the cash he’ll be back. Just watch.”
I was certain of this fact even if I wasn’t sure about anything else. Between the Firestone buyout and Riot Fest, it was just a matter of time before our filthy lucre lured him out of the woodwork. And if he didn’t show up by the time Riot Fest rolled around, I could always tap our guitar tech, Tedrick, to fill in for him. Tedrick had been our bassist for eight months while Kilroy was in rehab and had stood in for Gorey when he sprained his wrist trying to teach himself parkour. He’d even stood in for Tombstone a handful of times when sickness or stage fright got the better of him. As a guitarist, he had zero imagination, but he made up for it in brute-force effort and he was the person we called whenever we needed someone to patch the band back together.
We loved him.
The bigger problem was Tombstone. We hadn’t spoken since our fight at Club Lure, in spite of my efforts to make amends. I’d called a dozen times, but the calls went straight to voicemail and the voicemails went unanswered. No one knew where he’d gone. No one knew if he was coming back. I wasn’t even sure Riot Fest was on his radar
But Tedrick couldn’t replace both Gorey and Tombstone at the same time.
“You hear from Tombstone yet?” I asked for the millionth time.
“We have no fucking guitarists.”
“Have you talked to Marla?” Jojo asked. “If anyone knows where he is it’ll be her.”
“I was hoping it wouldn’t come to that.” The thought of dragging my ass to the suburbs to talk to Tombstone’s ex-wife ranked somewhere between a tax audit and a root canal on my personal scale of nightmares, but I was getting desperate.
I drove out to the suburbs the next day without calling first.
Marla’s house, paid for by Tombstone, was a McMansion in the northern suburbs. It was masturbatory in its grandeur: situated in a subdivision filled with barn-like palaces. Size mattered. In this neighborhood it mattered more than anything else. It didn’t just outweigh taste, it actively persecuted it and beat it into submission.
I parked the GTO on the cul-de-sac where the Tombstone Manor presided over the neighborhood like a dowager countess. A manicured lawn sloped artfully to a grand entrance where a two-story glass atrium showcased an antebellum spiral staircase. The insistent yapping of a tiny dog drew my eye to the sidewalk where a pair of neighbors eyed me with suspicion as I climbed out of the drivers’ seat. I waved, and they hustled down the sidewalk clutching their designer handbags close and hiding their gossip behind premium coffees.
I approached the front door and pressed the buzzer. Somewhere deep in the house, the bells of Westminster announced my presence. A flood of cold air poured over me as the door opened to reveal a mousy, twelve-year-old girl in patterned leggings and socked feet: Tombstone’s younger daughter, Piper. Her face lit up to see me.
“Damen!” Piper leaped toward me and wrapped her arms and legs around my body like she always had as a kid. Only she wasn’t a kid anymore. I hoped Judgy Eyes and Tiny Dog weren’t watching. I swung her around once in the most avuncular way I could manage and set her back down on the doorstep.
“Your folks around?” I asked nodding toward the vast, cool depths of the house.
Piper shook her head. Her hair was a downy brown; perfectly straight. It hung to her shoulders interrupted only by a headband with a butterfly on it. She took a Blow-Pop out of her mouth, her teeth stained red and wired with braces. “Mom’s picking up Lacey. She’s in Saturday school.” Her emphasis on ‘Saturday’ made it clear she meant ‘remedial’.
“Not you, though.”
“No. I get straight A’s,” Piper stepped back. “You wanna come in? They’ll be right back.”
I stepped into the house and Piper closed the door behind me with a vacuum-like thwip that sealed out the Midwestern summer. I looked around for some sign that Tombstone might be in residence. There was none. Humans didn’t live here. Everything gleamed with newness like it had just been taken out of its plastic wrap. The walls of the massive entryway were lined with framed photographs of the girls under a florid inscription that read Live, Laugh, Love! in gold lettering. The air smelled like potpourri.
“What about your dad? He around?” I asked, following Piper into the kitchen and opening the fridge to see if there was anything worth eating. There wasn’t.
“Mom kicked Dad out again.” Piper pulled the Blow-Pop out of her cheek and looked sad. “I’m not really ‘sposed to talk about it cuz it’s ‘Family Business’.”
“Your mom tell you that?”
“Did Mom tell her what?” Marla’s voice pierced the kitchen as she let herself in through the garage door. She had a monogrammed handbag over one shoulder and an earth-friendly tote in each hand. Seeing me, she squealed and clopped forward in kitten heels to wrap both manicured arms around my neck.
“Daymeeeeee! How the heck’ve you been, honey?!” She pushed me away and smoothed her hair, preening for my benefit. Everything about her was conspicuously expensive: her highlights, her veneers, her tan, but she came from the same brackish end of the gene pool as Tombstone, and no amount of money was ever going to wash the hick out of her. Behind her, Lacey wafted in the door and glanced up from her new iPhone long enough to roll her eyes.
Marla began to put away the groceries in a dervish of movement that seemed to require an extraordinary amount of bending and reaching. “If you’re looking for TJ, he’s not here,” she purred, bending at the waist to put a bottle of vanilla flavored vodka into a freezer drawer. “He is out of the picture.”
“Mom kicked him out last week,” Lacey supplied in a sardonic monotone without looking up from her phone. “She says if he’s going to cut her off from her payments then she’s going to cut him off from us.” She snapped her gum with a pointed glare in Marla’s direction.
“You are grounded until next month, young lady. Give me that phone.”
Lacey’s mouth dropped open as Marla snatched the iPhone out of her hands and dropped it into her purse.
“Don’t ‘Mom’ me, princess, or I’ll take the car too and you can take the bus to school.”
Lacey stomped out of the room in a roar of frustration punctuated with the salute of a slamming door. It was Marla’s turn to roll her eyes.
“Girls,” she said. “Never have children, but especially never have girls.” She caught a glimpse of Piper staring at her feet trying to make herself as small as possible and relented. She went over to her and smoothed her hair. “Not you, angel, you’re just fine.” She kissed the part in Piper’s mousey hair. Then she sniffed. “Is that cherry I smell?”
Piper tensed as Marla snatched up the Blow-Pop wrapper, which had been partly hidden under the edge of one of the shopping bags.
“What did I tell you about having candy in the house!”
“I’m sorry!!” Piper was nearly in tears.
“It’s my fault,” I cut in. “I brought it as a present. I didn’t know it was off-limits.”
Piper stared at me wide-eyed, then looked at her mother as Marla looked at her for confirmation. She gulped and nodded.
“You should have said no,” Marla told her.
“C’mon, Marla, you know how hard it is to say ‘no’ to me.” I snagged the wrapper out of her hand and made her grab for it until we were chest to chest and then waltzed her around the kitchen, ending with a dip that made her shriek with laughter. “I’m a bad, bad influence.”
“Yes, you are.” Marla was suddenly all eyelashes. I felt a surge of loathing. There was easy, and then there was Marla. I would’ve had more sympathy for her if she wasn’t the kind of woman who dangled her sexuality like bait for the sheer delight of holding it out of reach.
“I couldn’t come to town and not stop in, could I?”
“To see my…biggest…fan…” I tapped the tip of her nose with my finger, and then pushed past her to sweep Piper up off the floor and twirl her around. Marla staggered slightly as her gambit lost traction.
“You’re coming to our show, right?” I asked Piper after I set her feet back on the ground.
“I don’t know—Mom? Can I?”
“Show? What show?” Marla demanded.
“I mean, it’s just Riot Fest. It’s not a big deal,” I sighed like this was a burden. “But, I mean, money is money amiright? Surprised Tombstone didn’t mention it. It just came up last minute, though—when did you last talk to him?”
“Yesterday,” Marla said. She drummed her fingers on the countertop. The hollow tapping of her acrylic nails sounded like a dog’s claws on a tile floor. “He came by to pick up Rita.”
Rita was Tombstone’s session guitar: a ‘69 Pink Paisley Telecaster that he’d acquired in a Devil-Went-Down-To-Georgia style guitar duel against Keith Richards. Rita was his most prized possession. He never took her on stage—certainly not for an outdoor festival. If Tombstone knew about Riot Fest, he would have taken his stage guitar: the Blackjack, instead.
“TJ didn’t say anything about a show,” Marla was saying. I arranged my face into an indifferent expression. “He said he was going to get session work. Steady work—no more of this feast or famine bullshit.”
“Well, you know how it goes—gotta strike while the iron’s hot.”
“I haven’t heard anything about you playing Riot Fest either,” she persisted.
“Well, you’ve been out of the scene for a while now,” I said, lobbing the statement over my shoulder like a grenade. Marla prided herself on knowing All Things Band Related and to suggest otherwise was heresy of the worst kind.
“What?!” she screeched.
“You’re coming to Riot, though, right? I can probably get you a pass…”
“Shut up!” Marla liked to think she was the kind of girl who could flirt her way in any door, and it might have been true once, back when she was nineteen and willing to get a little handsy with security, but she was a suburban soccer-mom now. The only way she’d get backstage now would be by demanding to speak to a manager.
“Heyyy, all I meant was you’re all respectable now,” I pulled her in close, toying with the wedding band hanging around her neck on a gold chain. Her breath hitched at the sudden nearness. “I mean, look at you. When did you get so…uptight?”
“Here in your pretty little dollhouse: suburbs, soccer games, organic groceries? C’mon seize the day while you’re still young…ish.” If I negged her any harder she was going to end up in therapy. I leaned in until I could whisper in her ear and played the last card I had in my deck: “Forget Tombstone—come for me. Make him regret it.”
I let the unspoken promise hang in the air between us for a minute. Marla bit her lip. My work was finished: she was hooked—wild horses wouldn’t keep her from the show now. I stood up sharply, snapping reality back into focus.
“Welp, tell TJ I said hi,” I said, then turned to Piper. “C’mon, kiddo, walk me out.”
Piper accompanied me to the driveway where Lacey lounged against the front fender of the Goat. I got the impression she’d been waiting for me. Unlike Piper, Lacey was a sweet sixteen Go-Straight-To-Jail-Card and she knew it. She sized me up and tucked a stray strand of hair behind one ear. Her shirt was loose—some kind of jersey so thin it showed as much as it covered. I opened the driver’s side door and leaned on it—keeping it between us.
“You two coming to the show?” I asked. If Tombstone was really as OUT of the picture as Marla wanted me to believe, there was a chance that even she wouldn’t be enough to get him to rise to the bait. But his girls were something else.
“Mom would never let us,” Piper said.
“So, don’t tell her. Sneak out, then sneak back in. She’ll never know. Your sister looks like a pro if ever I saw one.” I nodded toward Lacey whose eyes twitched toward a trellis running down the side of the house. “Yeah, you look like you’ve got a system.”
“You sneak out?!” This was news to Piper. “How? Where do you go?”
“A lady never reveals her secrets.” Lacey looked annoyed that I’d clocked her. “Is Dad really going to be there?”
“It wouldn’t be much of a show without a guitarist.” That much was true: if he didn’t show we were going to end up on stage with nothing but our dicks in our hands. Fuck.
“It wasn’t cuz of money, you know,” she said.
“Mom kicking Dad out. It wasn’t cuz of money—Dad already paid the September support check. He bought me the new iPhone.”
“Yeah? What was it about?”
“I dunno. Relationship stuff, I guess. They had a huge fight about it,” Lacey shrugged. The collar of her shirt slid off her shoulder. “Mom’s not ‘sposed to ask what Dad does on the road, but then he found out she was seeing a guy from her tennis club and he got mad…I dunno…It’s not like they’re married or anything.”
“It’s complicated, huh.”
“Mom won’t let us see him anymore. She’s such a bitch—I hate her.”
“She can’t stop you from seeing him on stage, right?” I gave her ponytail a tug. “C’mon down to the show. I’ll sneak you in.” Said the thirty-year-old man to two underage girls. I felt creepy just saying it. “You’re already grounded. You know your mom is gonna take away the car anyway; make it worth it.”
“I dunno…” Piper looked doubtful, but then she was the smart one. Lacey didn’t need to be asked twice.
“We’ll be there,” she said.
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