Joyland

San Francisco |

Absentees

by Kenny Kelly

edited by Lisa Locascio

Already, the drunk optimism of December is gone. The wind sighs as if to say, I’ve already been as good as I’ll ever be. This block used to be a forest; hundred-year-old oaks surrounded the bandstand where me and Reilly used to listen to Eagles cover bands and jazz trios play. When the trees got sick the city cut them down and drew up plans for the million-dollar concrete fountain I sit beside. Across the plaza, I see a kid I think I recognize. The familiar way he holds his guitar makes me think that time has turned in on itself, but he’s only a mondegreen—the words I hear though I know they’re not true. He plays an old punk song with his case wide open but no one is there to listen. I move closer and hear it for the first time again, crackling over the speakers at the show Reilly and I played at the moribund Riff Raff.

The static hum of Reilly’s amplifier formed the horizon behind the forgotten conversations of a sparse audience. Reilly’s girlfriend May stood front and center yelling encouragement to Reilly, who didn’t listen. He swatted at an invisible wasp screaming in his ear. Hanging low off his neck was the guitar he bought for fifty bucks at the pawn shop at 5th and Broadway. He had duct taped an X across the body, ripped the D and B strings out, and tuned the low E a step down. He played it open, a guttural thunderclap, as he approached the microphone and said something distorted through the PA that I thought I understood.

This isn’t what saves me from you. It’s what saves you from me.

Reilly nodded at me, the volume swelled, and we ripped the air apart.

The next two years disappeared in a syncopated rest. Each grain of time compacted together like sandstone, the kind found in the gully outside the city where we rode our bikes under a staccato sun. Reilly’s mother Carol remarried and his brother Patrick left for his first tour in Iraq seemingly in the same ceremony. Idle days of practice and video games slipped into long weeks of tedium at school, which slipped into months of apathy, which slipped into years of watching snow accumulate and melt on the caps of the Sierra Nevada walling us in the valley. All until senior year when Reilly and I went to Jacob’s Café to see the Nolan brothers’ new band, The Absentees. They were one of the few in town that wasn’t trying to be a carbon copy of neatly trimmed pseudopunk pop bands like Mellowcard and Sob Story of the Year, the safe kind that coincided with the owner’s thinly veiled Christianity.

Seconds into their set, Reilly got a circle pit started. He’d grown his hair out and done it up in bloody liberty spikes. It looked like a shark’s fin swimming through us in the gyre. Before Reilly could make three revolutions, a kid in an apron broke it up. The punks fell in line and bobbed their heads to the rapid-fire bass triplets, the parabolic and dissonant guitar melody, the tom rolls organized only by chaos, a cacophony not unlike rain, muted and rhythmic, then suddenly torrential. In the chorus, the front man sang in an eagle’s cry, It doesn’t bother me to see you die. It ended with one last burst of frenetic energy, and in the last measure, the time signature changed. The absence of the final note tore the breath from my lungs.

During the next song, Patrick came in. He had just returned from Iraq, and in his ironed slacks and uniform buzz cut, he was out of place among the kids doing anything to be different. Patrick pushed his way through two fashion punks and pulled Reilly out of the fray. Reilly fought back but all of his rage was no match for Patrick’s strength and training. Patrick said something that made Reilly go inert. They embraced. I came over and asked what was wrong. Patrick took us outside. The door shut and the music grew dim. Reilly shivered next to me as Patrick explained, Our mom was in a car accident. Corey was driving; he’s fine, cuts and bruises. They were coming back from Tahoe on Highway 20 and another car came around a corner in their lane.

What happened to Carol? I asked.

Alive, Reilly said, she broke her back and she can’t move her legs. She’ll never walk again.

Reilly threw his arms around me. His hot tears soaked my shoulder. I didn’t hug him back at first, neither one of us versed in the language of grief, but soon we were both holding each other and crying, listening to The Absentees play the muffled sounds of imagined anguish, while a new pit formed and spun on without me.

The music he wrote after that night grew abyssal, reaching unknowable depths of hatred, augmenting every chord with wrongness. The tempo slowed, giving the semblance of a method though the songs became amorphous. Reilly’s rage took on a new form now that he had a target, or at least that’s what I thought. To what could he have reasonably directed his anger?

When he turned eighteen that April, Reilly got a sine wave tattooed on his wrist with the Central Valley drawn in the trough and the Sierras in the crest. On his other wrist, he got the Fibonacci spiral. The spiral was initially May’s idea. She wasn’t old enough to get tattooed and treated Reilly’s skin like her personal sketchpad. But when I asked him why he got it he said, It’s this perfect symbol of symmetry but when you look at it, it’s not. It reminds me of you and me.

Shortly after, he and May broke up. I had never gotten along with May. I thought she was flighty and immature, so Reilly’s supposed heartache was good news for me. I took him to an another Absentees show at Jacob’s Café to get over it, but May was there with her new boyfriend. We saw her wrapped in his arms. His feathered jet hair hung over her face as he kissed the top of her head. In the space of a measure, Reilly was on top of him. The symbols drawn on Reilly’s wrists morphed and untangled as he held his fists up and brought them down on May’s new boy-toy. One of the boy’s friends came up behind and started clapping his hands at Reilly as if he were trying to scare away a dog. But Reilly didn’t let up. Finally, the friend grabbed Reilly in a bear hug and ripped him off. Reilly squirmed and stomped his feet, but the friend didn’t let go. The pit swirled around them and May’s new boyfriend cheap-shot Reilly in the face. His nose exploded in a crescendo of blood, the sight inciting in me an atavistic fervor. I stormed at them and the friend let Reilly go. We collided and twisted until I grabbed one of them and pulled them to the ground. I pounded out a rhythm only I could hear until the friend’s face was raw. Hands all over me, pulling me off the friend and out the door.

Jacob’s Café stopped doing shows after that night, and the Riff Raff had closed down months before. Many people in the scene blamed Reilly for killing all ages shows, including myself, as if the fists that fell on that poor guy weren’t my own. I spent the next week, and years since, picking broken skin from my knuckles, watching my blood darken.

After high school, I was accepted to Chico State in town; Reilly didn’t apply anywhere. At the end of a Hellix practice, Reilly shoved his cables into his bag and said, I got a job up by Truckee. I’m working as a white water rafting guide. You should come with me.

What about your mom?

What about her?

Isn’t Patrick going on tour again? Who’s taking care of her?

Not my fault Corey bitched out on her. You coming with me or not?

I told him no while silently condemning his callousness, though if I had known then what I know now, maybe I would have been more understanding. I spent much of that summer at his mom’s, cooking for her, cleaning the house, relaying what little Reilly told me of life in the mountains. She said she thought of me as one of her own sons. I told her Reilly would be back soon though I had no way of knowing when or if he would.

Standing before the kid now, I drop a five into his offering case. He gives me a look of recognition and continues on strumming and howling for no one but me though soon I’ll be gone. No, I can’t go, not now, not again. I sit on a backless bench across from him and listen to all he has to say.

The notes aren’t the ones I want to hear. I want to hear the songs we used to know. We only had one more show after high school. We were playing a Halloween party on Warner St. I invited this girl I had met in my Intro to Lit Class. She came from a small town south of Carson City, so to her Chico was a big city. She had a nervous habit of turning her head down whenever she laughed like she was afraid to show her teeth. Her name was Melody. Her mother named her that because she wanted her to have the same love for music she did i.e. gospel and campy musicals, but around age thirteen, Melody discovered The Misfits and Bad Brains and it was all downhill from there. I fell in love with her instantly.

When Reilly and I played, we never worried about playing right or sounding good. We only wanted to play hard and loud. But with Melody standing in the epicenter of us and the pit, her haunting beauty like the eye of a maelstrom, I found myself, for the first time, thinking that what I did mattered, that maybe music should be more than mindless destruction. I tried to play clean and controlled like the Victorian poetry Melody and I were studying in class. I wanted to be transcendent. Reilly, however, had picked up some new habits during the time in the mountains. Covered in sweat, he played a scrambled mass of static. It wasn’t music. It was noise. Ten minutes into our set, I kicked over my drums and unplugged Reilly’s amp. Enraged by his disarmament, he snapped his guitar over his knee, and that was the end of Hellix.

The next week, Reilly went back into the mountains to work at a ski resort. Carol had hired a caretaker so I didn’t have to play surrogate son anymore.

After Christmas had passed, Melody and I lay in the center of the plaza lawn, her head in my lap. The plaza was in the process of its deconstruction. The concrete had yet to be poured and the stumps of dead trees still dotted the area. A chill wind cut across the new emptiness. Melody was reading either Brautigan or Nabokov as I stared into the sky, watching the imperceptible movement of clouds to the east, toward the Sierra Nevada, towards Reilly. It was the first time in my life where I didn’t see Reilly most days. I enjoyed my suddenly quiet life with Melody and without him, but I still often wondered what he was doing.

I don’t think I’ll ever get used to not seeing him. I give the kid another five because I can’t bear the thought of him stopping.

Later that night, Melody came over to my new place to watch Nosferatu. As soon as she rested her head on my shoulder, Reilly came banging on the front window. I hadn’t even told him I moved. Somehow, he always knew how to find me. The noise startled Melody and even me, though I was no stranger to Reilly’s habits. He rolled his fists on the glass. He wasn’t wearing a jacket, so I could see his spiraled forearms moving in 2/4 time. He wore a vampire grin and his eyes were alight with wicked electricity. I got up and felt the absence of Melody’s body. I opened the door and Reilly was inside and hugging me around torso before I could close the door.

Sam, old buddy, old pal; I’ve missed you, he said.

Reilly, what are you doing here?

He let go of me and said, I’m not interrupting anything am I?

Melody sighed.

I said, I thought you were working at Tahoe.

I was. But then something happened and I had to come see you.

What happened?

I thought that bitch gave me AIDS. She was seeing one of those tweakers from Truckee, so I come into the bar one night when she was working and she says to me all nice, Hey hon, what can I get you? And I say, Nothing those venereal sheepfuckers gave you. And she says, Wait what? All innocent and confused. So I say, Fuckin’ Jake or Trevor or Thad, whichever of those hermaphroditic Neanderthals you’ve been screwing behind my back. Her head cocks to the side like a dog hearing your voice out of an answering machine. She says, I don’t know what you’re talking about. Then the bouncer comes up behind me and says, Time to leave. He pushes me toward the door and I fight back but it’s like punching a brick wall. He gets me outside and says, Come back when you haven’t been hitting the nose candy. This pisses me right the fuck off, so I go for him, ready to break my knuckles across his cranial bones, but I slip on some black ice and my face goes into the concrete. I don’t lose consciousness, but my nose breaks. My sinuses swell and blood pours down my face and coagulates into icy crystal formations in the cement. The bouncer goes back inside but not before calling me a fucking tweaker. I spit and him and tiny shards of frozen blood fall down like artificial snow. I get up and I don’t know why, but I start walking down the mountain, bloody nose and all. Can I have some of your wine? I get to the highway and I walk in the road ‘cause the plows that go through push all the snow to the sides. There’s six-foot walls of ice on either side of the highway. It’s soulblack and I feel nothing, not even the cold. I find my way by scraping my hand against the wall so there’s these long scratch marks running for miles. When cars come by, I turn around and stick my thumb out and put on this big, shit-eating grin, my face still caked with blood. With their high beams on you know they see every drop. I wish I could have seen it from their angle. Miles of lines in the snow, moving in a sine wave, all leading to me! A killer, an apparition, a lunatic lurking along the side of the road, ready to drink their blood. Nobody stops of course. Eventually, I get bored and change tactics. I stumble around like a wounded animal, really play up the pity angle, then at the optimal moment, I thrust my thumb out. The first few cars don’t stop. How selfish of them, really. Here’s poor me, limping through the dark and the cold and no one even stops to help. Boo hoo hoo hoo hoo. Finally, a Good Samaritan pulls over. It’s this aging Good Ole Boy in a truck. He’s wearing a plaid shirt and snacking on a jumbo pretzel like a cigar. He says, Boy, you in some kind of mess. I laugh. You should have seen him. Eyes all white, face pale, mouth agape with that pretzel dangling from his lips, like he was staring into the face of death. I say, Yeah, I reckon yer right. Turns out he was going through Chico, so he says, Hop on in. He asks about my face and I tell him it’s nothing. Just a bloody nose. He gives me some tissues out of the glove compartment and I clean myself up. We listen to twangy three-chord country all the way down the mountain. Close to midnight and we get onto Highway 20. He sings along to the radio just under his breath Your cheatin’ heart will pine someday. I ask, So what’s a fella like you doing out so late? He laughs and says, Well, I just finished up a roofin’ job in Kings Beach and I wasn’t supposed to leave ‘til tomorrow, but I haven’t seen my wife in two weeks. I couldn’t wait another night. Then he goes on about how pretty she is even after all these years and how loyal she’s been and how they’re best friends. I could listen to Good Ole Boy get sappy about his wife all night. Anyways, he drops me off at my house sometime around two or three, and well, long story short, things didn’t work out, so I’m wondering if I can crash here tonight. I’m only staying in town until the weekend. I gotta be back in Tahoe for Patrick’s funeral on Saturday.

I stopped Reilly. What? Patrick’s dead?

Yeah, his convoy ran into an IED. He was the only casualty. Did I forget to mention that? It’s why I came to see you.

I let Reilly stay with me that week. Before he went back to the mountains I asked him what happened at his mom’s house but he wouldn’t give me a straight answer. Reilly had never been an affectionate person, but whenever he spoke to me during that week, he ended his sentences with friend. Good morning, friend. Welcome home, friend. Like a word he had just learned and was trying to impress me with. Strangest of all, after he had thrown his bag into his ride’s truck, he turned around and said, I love you, friend. Then he hugged me for an inordinately long time. He had been so aloof about Patrick’s death. I had a hard time believing that he cared about anyone but himself. He let me go and climbed into the truck.

Then as soon as he arrived, he was gone. Back into the mountains until the snow melted.

After that, I visited Carol more regularly. On one of those visits in the spring, she told me what had happened the night Reilly came home.

He had snuck into the house without her knowing. He didn’t make his presence known until the early afternoon when he came into the living room in his underwear. She noticed that his pupils were dilated and his nostrils were ringed with dried blood. She was willing to let it go because one son was home and the other would never come back. She swore she wasn’t pushing him away. She only asked him to stop for her sake. Reilly left. That’s when he showed up at my house.

Before I left, Carol asked me to tell Reilly he could come home, but I didn’t see him until the summer when I got a call from him. He was at Enloe hospital. I didn’t even know he was back in Chico. I was with Melody at the time and she asked, What did he get himself into this time. I told her I didn’t know, but that I had to go see him. It felt like a chore.

The hospital was all white and beige. The last time I had been there was when Reilly’s mother had been paralyzed. Walking through the hallways was walking through a memory. The spiraling corridors and doorways led me off through a labyrinth and I never felt as if I was getting any closer to where I needed to be. Eventually, I came to Reilly’s room. He sat up in bed and smiled when he saw me. He was as skinny as ever, his nose wet with blood. I asked him what happened and he told me through pained breath that he had come home after the ski season ended and went (unannounced) to Corey’s new place in Chapmantown. Corey agreed to let him stay even though his new girlfriend was living with him. Reilly wound up, of course, making a scene wherein he called the new girlfriend a manatee homunculus and Corey a limp-dick cuckold.

Reilly walked out and wandered all the way to Highway 99. He walked east along the road until he was on the outskirts of town, cars ripping past him the whole way. Two shitkickers in a real-life Tonka toy yelled imaginative insults as they drove past e.g. pussy, queer, but on that stretch of road there’s a sequence of two traffic lights that keep cars stuck in the city. The light turned red on them and Reilly took his chance. He sprinted the hundred yards to the light until he was even with the truck. He picked up a grenade-sized rock and hurled it into their windshield, splintering it into a spider web of broken glass. The shitkickers got out of the truck and, with boots ordinarily used for kicking shit, kicked the shit out of Reilly.

When he finished his story, he said, The shitty thing is that I can’t work on the river this summer because of my broken arm.

Maybe it won’t be so bad for you to stay with your mom this summer.

I can’t sleep in the same house as that bitch.

I stopped feeling sorry for him. I was glad that someone had finally beaten the hell out of him. I left the hospital thinking he got what he deserved.

I don’t know how Reilly and I got so far away from each other so quickly, but I didn’t see him again for another two years. I was catching a show after work, the Nolan brothers had traded their guitars in for a banjo and a mandolin and had formed a new folk band called The Shifters. It seemed like everyone in town had given up on punk, myself included. I think we outgrew the rebellion. Melody was there with her new boyfriend. I wished I had it in me to tackle him to the ground like Reilly would have.

The Shifters were playing my favorite song of theirs. They all joined in and harmonized the chorus, I shed my skin / Rip it off and / wear my sin / wait ‘til it’s over / to let me in . I was mouthing along when I felt a hand on my shoulder. Reilly. He pointed a thumb at the stage and said, When did this scene turn into a bunch of pussies? Y’know, I’ve been thinking about getting the band back together. What do you say?

That was something we did when we were kids.

When did everyone change?

I shrugged. I couldn’t pin down a moment, but surely there had to have been one. Though he was standing right in front of me, Reilly couldn’t have been farther from me, and we’d never get any closer. He walked out and I couldn’t have known it then, but that was the last time I’d ever see him, but not the last I’d hear from him. He called me late one winter night, his voice strange and choked.

He said, Sam, I just want to talk.

I told him I didn’t have time.

If I had known what he was about to do, I would have stayed with him. When I heard the news the next day, among all the other thoughts, I had, for the briefest of moments, a sensation of relief. Reilly wasn’t going to be my problem anymore, and for a sixteenth-rest, among the guilty tears, I was happy. Of course, now I can’t help but think there was something I could have done, even though Reilly was his own man. He made his own decisions. But what if I had given him that kindness he was looking for after Patrick died, when his mother would never walk again?

I’ve tried and tried to get the story straight, but truth bends away from me, further and further. Nobody knew what was going through Reilly’s mind as he stood at the top of the slope, looking out over the valley he called home, into the other side. All anyone knows is that Reilly went down the slope straight. He didn’t try to slow himself by carving to the left or to the right. He barreled down the mountain like a meteor, heading toward a jump he couldn’t possibly land at those speeds. They say he died when he hit the ground, but I know that’s wrong. He never came down.

The kid ends his song and looks up at me. I tell him I used to play. He smiles and holds the guitar up. It takes me a moment to realize that he wants me to take it. My skin grows hot with shame as I lift it and turn it around. The strings dig into my fingers, the calluses lost, softened, though they haven’t forgotten where to go.