Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Popcorn Girl, Chapter 23: Sea of Limbs

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Billy’s been leading a campaign against dead air – those awkward pauses between songs. The antidote, it turns out, is a little bit of ruthlessness. Whoever we have designated to begin the next song is expected to plow on through, and if somebody’s not ready, they had better just catch up. Anne tells me that, at one point, she is adjusting her keyboard settings for one song even as she’s singing the a capella ending for another.

I have always been a little skeptical of the dead-air phobia, but tonight, playing the single cavernous room of Mountain Charley’s, I have happened on an unexpected by-product. Halfway through our set, the non-stop playing has propelled me into a trance. My focus has broadened out into a warm bath of brainflow, and my body has divided itself into two parts: my animal self, four warmed-up limbs operating pretty much on their own; and a ship’s captain who peers through my eyes to take note of other things going on in the room. Billy is shredding more than usual – something we’ve been urging him to do – and tossing his hair around in a Cobain-like manner. Our crowd is standing around in chatty clumps, an indication that they’re really here for the post-band DJ party. Anne and Pamela’s harmonies are striking me the way they used to before I joined the band, as the cherry on the sundae. Smeeed nudges my cymbal stand and almost sends my crash a-crashin’. He smiles and tiptoes back to his spot.

My next subject is the drummer. Near the end of “Fool,” he’s supposed to go into a tom-tom jungle beat as the guitarists repeat their four-measure progression. The tempo hasn’t changed, but he has somehow doubled up the number of strikes. The ship’s captain finds this quite amusing, but also realizes that this new sound is throwing off the guitarists. He gives an order for the hands to return to the standard beat, then triggers the trio of cymbal strikes that cues the final cut.

The sudden cessation elicits a chorus of shouts – it always does. I’m the next song-starter, but I decide to wait for the applause. I want to save this for later.

This is the curse of drumming. You’re all buzzed from the crowd and the band. You’ve got ten friends to talk to, you’ve got a hot girlfriend with a cold beer. But NO, first you’ve got to load up your shit. Especially tonight. We’ve got a huge dance crowd coming in, so we need to clear out fast. I go into speed mode, slipping my cymbals into a carry-case, breaking down my stands and easing them into a converted wardrobe bag. I undo the toms from my bass and carry everything outside. The sound guy has the freight elevator locked open on the ground floor, so suddenly I have some down time – time to gaze over the parking lot and think about Sass’s email.

Hi Paul. Something occurred to me today, and I thought it might have some significance. When I first met Jasmina, her scars appeared to be fairly fresh. In fact, two of them were still scabbed over. I took a particular pride in the fact that they stopped after I took her in.

But my streak did not last. Two years later, I came home to find her in the bathroom, applying a fresh bandage. I demanded to see what was underneath: a brand-new stairstep, still oozing.

Two girls at school had somehow found out that Jasmina’s mom was a prostitute. They informed her that the both of us would burn in hell. I told her she should ignore that kind of talk. She started to cry. “I couldn’t,” she said. “I beat them up. I beat them up pretty good.”

You know Jasmina’s temperament by now, and you know she’s not exactly built like a street fighter. I can’t be positive she was telling me the truth, but I could sure feel the anger. I would actually be pretty happy if she did beat up those bitches, but I tried to teach Jasmina the wisdom of walking away. That was the last time she cut herself in Minneapolis.

I miss my girl. I hope she’s doing well.


The sound guy sends the elevator back up. I prop the door open and load up my equipment, one other image floating in my head. Jasmina, shaking in her sleep, some sort of night terror. I thought of Sass and leaned over to kiss her on the forehead. Her face grew calm.


I envy his drumming. When he’s heavy into a set, I can see him becoming absorbed. He goes away without going away, and the people shake to his sound. Magic.

Now he’s off loading his kit, and I have my assignment: trade a pair of drink tickets for a pair of drinks. The bartender is mesmerizing: young guy, bottle opener strapped to his arm, deciphering orders over the infernal thump-thump. He drops cubes into a trio of glasses, flips a bottle of vodka, catches it over their open mouths and pours, shoots them up with the soda gun, takes a twenty, spins to the register and returns a handful of singles even as he takes the next order. I would never be able to do this. I’ve got patrons to my left and right, vying for the ‘tender’s attention, but I’m not about to add to the chaos. Molly whispers in my ear.

“I’ve been reading this book about the story synthesizer, a processing center in the brain that takes the random material of dreams and fits it into oft-repeated motifs. Apparently, most people have a single idea that takes over most of their dreams. So I’m wondering, what’s yours?”

“Paralysis. The inability to act.”

“You realize that’s pretty common – being that dreamers are unable to physically act in their own dreams.”

“Hey, you’re the one who asked.”

“Sorry. Unfair of me. So give me an example.”

“Here’s my latest: I’m locked in a room, lying in bed. There’s a fire outside, curtains of orange at the windows. The flames are peeking inside like curious snakes. I should be getting the hell out, but I can’t move. But it’s not precisely paralysis. It’s more like I’m butting up against a force field. Then, all of a sudden, the fire’s out and water is pouring in. I’m relieved until I realize that the water isn’t stopping. It’s creeping to the edge of my bed, and still I can’t move.”

“Yikes. Does it end there?”

“Usually. But last time, a kayak slid down the stairs and splashed to a halt at my bedside. It was Sass, my friend from Minneapolis, dressed like Sacagewea. She reached over to touch me on the forehead and zap! The water was gone. And so was Sass.”

“Stairs. Was this room a basement?”

Someone touches me on the hand. It’s the bartender.

“Oh. Hi. Two black-and-tans.”


The club throbs with twentysomething bodies – maybe three hundred of them. Squirming through the crowd, I feel like I may, technically, be having some sort of group sex. I burst forth at the other end to find Jasmina at an elevated table, hovering over a pair of two-tone drinks.

“Awesome set, honey. You guys were really tight.”

“Thanks. Felt that way.”

We meet at the corner of the benches, her head against my chest, my arm draped around her shoulder. I gaze over the sea of limbs and pan to the window, the shockingly calm main drag of Los Gatos. A silver Jaguar rolls to the intersection. I take a sip of the black-and-tan, and study the purple paint on my girlfriend’s toenails. Three hours from now, we will roll up to her house and find eight pink flamingos hitched to a riding mower, a giant panda at the reins. She will eat up the look on my face.

“It was the closest I could get. Do you know how hard it is to find a life-size Gene Autrey cutout?”

Image: The author

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