Sunday, April 13, 2014

Painting Tacoma, Chapter Ten: A Drummer Who Actually Counts

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The color was blood red. The company called it New England brick, but to Shawn it could have come straight from the vein. He daubed his brush, riffled one side against the can, and pulled it along the baseboard. He wiped up a drop with his finger and looked like he had just cut himself.
            By lunchtime, he had worked the edges all the way around the hall. The doors were left for other exotics: raspberry, burnt sienna. Shawn enjoyed the double crackle of his sandwich, bacon on Dutch crunch bread (Swiss cheese in between).
            “Mmmf! You’ve outdone yourself.”
            “I’m thinking of opening my own deli,” she said, getting that bemused nebula in her eyes. “So are you going to tell me, or od I have to whack you over the head with a skillet?”
            “The performance! How did it go?”
            “Oh, sorry.” Shawn let out a shy smile. “I’m a bit distracted. I met a girl.”
            “So! Your drumming was good.”
            “Yeah. She liked the way my hands worked, the way I focused on my partner and stayed in synch.”
            “Smart girl. What’s her name?”
            “You’re dating the city?”
            “Her parents were hippies.”
            “She’s pretty incredible, Shelly. And gorgeous. I can’t quite get over that. There’s a catch, of course. She’s a Christian girl. I haven’t had much luck with Christian girls.”
            “You’ve done all right with me,” said Shelly, and smiled.
            “Oh!” said Shawn. “I’m sorry, I...”
            “’Course I came round to it in an odd way. My husband was into eastern religions, so I splashed around in Zen, Feng Shui, tai-chi. We were always about ten years ahead of the curve on that stuff, so we got a reputation as the neighborhood wackos. But these days, I’m right back to Episcopalian. Even go to church once in a while, just to sing the old hymns.”
            “I could handle Episcopalian,” said Shawn. “I always get these ‘bumper sticker’ Christians. Honk If You Love Jesus, ‘personal relationship with Christ.’ Tacoma’s not bad, but once in a while she says something like ‘devil-worship,’ and it freaks me out.”
            “Is she pushing it on you?”
            “No. That’s what makes it complicated. She doesn’t hold non-believer status as a disqualification.”
            “Oh, Shawn. Don’t think yourself into a corner. It’s called infatuation. The two of you are going to be perfect beings for a while. Enjoy!”
            Shawn gave her a nod as he took another loud bite out of his sandwich. “Speaking of impetuous behavior, what’s the deal with these colors?”
            “Yes! Isn’t it wonderful? I always wanted a wild, bohemian household, but Francis was a bit stuffy that way.”
            “Oh. Who’s Francis?”
            “Francis is my husband, Shawn. Passed away about twenty years ago, poor soul. Smoked those damn cigarettes.”
            “Then... who’s Richard?”
            “Richard’s my son.”
            “Oh. Then Richard passed away, too?”
            Shelly blinked her eyes. “No. Richard’s alive.”
            “Oh,” said Shawn, still confused. “But it seemed like... you were talking about him... as he were dead.”
            Shelly’s native cheerfulness flushed from her face. She looked at her hands, gathered in her lap.
            “Richard’s in... prison, dear. He came back to Tacoma about ten years ago. Was always in trouble, that one. He said he could make a new start if I let him convert the garage to a studio. Give him enough space to be... independent.”
            She stopped and took a long breath.
            “He was running a lab, Shawn. Methamphetamines. He was selling it to... kids at the high school. His best... market... was game nights at the stadium. That’s when they caught him. I was used to bright lights and noise on Friday nights, but then I saw that some of the lights were from police cars. When I stepped outside, they had Richard in handcuffs, kneeling on the sidewalk. There was a big crowd of people just... staring. I never felt so stupid in all my life.
            “That’s why I went to that memorial service, Shawn. The night I met you. I know what it’s like to lose a son.”
            Shawn wished he knew Shelly better, could offer a hug, comforting words, whatever she needed. He sat, stock-still.
            Shelly rose and headed to the kitchen. “You finish your sandwich, dear. I’m going to fix myself some tea.”
            Shawn ate his lunch, then returned to the hallway, poured the red paint in a pan, and dipped his roller.

The next day, the brush- and roller-strokes were showing through. Shawn laid down a second coat. Shelly seemed less talkative than usual, and at lunchtime she begged off to take a nap upstairs. He arrived home at dusk, flecks of red on his hands and face, and played back a phone message from Ivy.
            “Shawn! Dude! Call me right away. I got a cool new project, and I need you in on it.”

He would have to stick with the snare-drum shuffle (“Ballroom Blitz”) longer than he wanted (“Radar Love”) because once he came off of it (“Helen, Hell on Wheels”) there weren’t many other directions he could go. He drove it through three verses and halfway through Pancho’s guitar solo before he shifted to the ride cymbal, laying double smacks on the snare to keep the swing. When Ivy came back in on vocals, Shawn caught Jimmy sliding a pair of triplets on rhythm guitar and matched him on the crash. Jimmy grinned. Two measures later, the song clunked to a halt like a choked-off motor. Bobby clamped a hand over his bass and quizzed Pancho.
            “Is this a fast-change?”
            “Yeah.” Pancho played the chords as he spoke. “You got the one to the four, back to the one... four again, then the five-four-one at the turn.”
            Jimmy pointed at the new drummer and said, “Whattya think, Shawn?”
            “Well,” said Shawn, rubbing a stick along his jawline. “Let me see if I’ve got all this. You got a three-beat countoff, twelve-bar intro, three rounds of a twelve-bar chorus combined with a four-measure stop-verse, a twenty-four solo from Pancho there, back to the stop-verse, chorus, repeat, and then apparently it all goes to hell.”
            The bad stared at him.
            “Boys,” said Bobby. “We got us a drummer who actually counts!”
            “Drummer hell,” said Jimmy. “He’s a moo-sician! Where did you pick up fancy terms like ‘bar’ and ‘chorus’?”
            “The job of the drummer,” said Shawn, “is to understand the structure of the song, and to guide the rest of the band along that structure.”
            “I told you he was good,” said Ivy.
            “Hey Jimmy,” said Shawn. “Are you going to do that little slide on the chorus and repeat? If you are, I can smack the downbeat to set it off a little.”
            “Actually, no. Let’s save it for the repeat, and then for the twelve-bar solo Pancho was supposed to play right after.”
            “I was?” said Pancho.
            “Tell you what else,” said Shawn. “Let’s follow that with a twelve-bar drum break. You guys sketch the chords, sorta ‘Wipeout’-style, and I’ll fill in the gaps.”
            “You got it, bro,” said Pancho. “But first, let’s figure out this ending. Ivy, can you hit the CD again?”

After the guitarists loaded up and left, Shawn sat with Ivy on her back-porch swing. She lived on a hillside in Puyallup, overlooking a large cemetery and, further on, the speckled houselights of the Puyallup Valley.
            “One helluva place you got here, Ivy.”
            “Yeah. Too bad I have to move.”
            “Really? Why?”
            “The folks I live with are moving out, getting a little love-nest in Steilacoom. I‘m getting a  room in Tacoma, but there’s no place to rehearse.”
            “Hmm,” said Shawn. “I might have an alternative. I’ll check it out and get back to you. Got a cigarette?”
            “Since when do you smoke?”
            “I smoke after sex and rehearsals.”
            Ivy handed him one and lit it for him. He took a puff and let it out quickly. Ivy reaffirmed her alpha-smoker status by performing the out-the-nose, into-the-mouth routine.
            “This music is really fun!” said Shawn. “I didn’t know blues had so much range. All I know is that interminable, crawly twelve-bar shit they play at jam sessions.”
            “The old wank-athon,” said Ivy. “Yeah, real blues goes all over the place: shuffles, jumps, backporch Delta, maybe some swing-blues when we get good. When I get good.”
            “But you are, Ivy! You’re about the blackest white girl I’ve ever seen. You got that Harlem growl.”
            “I have a fantasy that I am actually the product of my father’s one-night stand with Etta James.”
            Shawn considered this as an explanation for Ivy’s earth-mother hips, but knew that voicing such a thought was a strict no-no. Ivy took a drag and sprayed it over the valley like a fog bank.
            “So what’s up with you, drummer-boy?”
            “Nothin’ much.”
            “Horseshit. Who is she?”
            Shawn couldn’t help the smile bursting out over his face. “A goddess, apparently. I’m not sure that she actually exists.”
            “Oh! So we’re into goddess territory. Good sex?”
            “I’ll say. And we haven’t even had sex yet.”
            Ivy crossed her eyes. “Boy, you are in love. So. You in on the band.”
            “Hell yes. This is exactly what I left Ellensburg for. Get away from all those rectangular country beats. I’ve never thought of playing blues before, but it seems to be there in my hands.”
            “Well, that’s good,” said Ivy. “’Cause we’re playing Shakabrah in three weeks.”
            “Aigh!” Shawn half-screamed. “Are you nuts?”
            “You get good by gigging,” said Ivy. “My last band rehearsed for six friggin’ months, polished very note to perfection – then broke up a week before our first gig. So what do we do for a name?”
            “Gotta be Ivy and the Somethings. How about Ivy and the Dawgs?”
            “D-A-W-G Dawgs. Isn’t that a blues thing?”
            “Man. You are from Ellensburg.”
            “Wuhl I don’t know! How about Ivy and the Horndawgs?”
            “Ivy and the Corndogs.”
            “Ivy and her Sweet Fajitas.”
            “I got it!” said Ivy. “Ivy and her Swingin’ Dicks”
            “Yeah! And all you guys would be nicknamed ‘Dick.’ Shawn ‘Dick’ Turk. Jimmy ‘Dick’ Catarino.”
            “You realize you’re pretty much ruling out gigs at Disneyland.”
            “Fuck Disneyland!”
            “No,” said Shawn. “That would be a punk band.”
            They laughed until Ivy started choking on her cigarette. Shawn spotted a car descending the opposite ridge, a road they called The Enchanted Parkway, and felt the pulse of rhythm still coursing through his hands.

Shawn didn’t know what to expect. Tacoma was the most feminine creature he had ever met. Each one of her movements gave off a small sexual charge. But he had been down this road before, and was afraid he might be headed for a big letdown. He wondered if she would start finding little ways of inserting Jesus into the conversation. He didn’t want to share her with anybody.
            She opened the door and flashed that drop-dead smile. She wore a black pantsuit with a checkered jacket – couldn’t have looked more adorable if she had Mickey Mouse ears. He stood on the step below her and delivered a hearty lumberjack kiss. She slipped down in his arms, woozy with affection, and opened her eyes.
            “Hi. What do you feel like doing?”
            “More of this.”
            “That’s pretty much guaranteed. But what else?”
            “My housemate’s gone. I’ve got dinner coooking.”
            “Really! What’s on?”
            “Chicken rice casserole, green beans, and, for dessert, sliced-up mango with vanilla ice cream.”
            “Sounds great.”
            “Come in. Sit on the couch. Watch TV.”
            Shawn watched a couple college basketball teams have at it. He took the first commercial to sneak behind her in the kitchen and wrap his arms around her waist.
            “Pull my hair,” she said.
            He ran a hand through her fettuccine curls and tugged, evincing the familiar feline squint. After a minute, she slipped away to check the casserole and ordered him to set the table.
            After the meal, he sat at his place, searching for things to say. Her silences made him nervous.
            “That was great.”
            “Thanks.” She carried her dishes to the  sink.
            “That cherry tree out front is going nuts.”
            “It’s not a real cherry. They call them cherry blossom trees. They’re ornamental.”
            More silence.
            “How’s work going?”
            “Pretty good. I’m helping out on this huge database project, which probably means more Saturday mornings.”
            “That sucks.”
            “It’s not so bad. They’re paying me well.”
            Tacoma wiped her hands on a dishtowel and walked over to give him a kiss on the cheek.
            “Go watch some more television. I have to go do something.”
            He watched a nature show about Arizona rattlesnakes. The host kept playing up their deadly venom, as if that were some kind of shocking revelation. Shawn began to feel drowsy, but then he heard footsteps in the hall. He turned to find Tacoma, standing there in a silk chemise the color of shamrocks.

Photo by MJV

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