THE TROUBADOUR, WEST HOLLYWOOD, TWO WEEKS LATER
“So here it is boys...” Lola’s voice boomed in the empty venue as she smacked a stack of stapled papers, “...Perfect Crime’s record deal—a copy for each of you.” She threw each one like a card dealer to Walter and his bandmates as they sat on the front lip of the Troubadour’s stage, two hours before doors on their label showcase.
While small in size and sweet in face, Lola Roxy was a legendary but rebellious rep in the music industry, and the only one who came ready with a contract before they even played—although Walter and she had been in discussions well before. In the nineties, she’d been the front woman of an infamous, all-girl, punk rock group named Malicious Creatures, who were notorious for onstage sex acts, drug use, and self-mutilation. However, after everyone but herself self-destructed from suicide or drugs, she turned to the business side of things where she quickly made a name for herself and put Cirkus Records on the map.
“Take all the time you need to read it,” she said slowly pacing in front of them, her fuchsia mohawk finning her tattoo-covered body like a flamboyant swordfish. “It’s not long, and I believe Walter has already told you most of the details. At Cirkus, we value simplicity and transparency unlike the big record labels we formed in response to—the same ones who will also be here tonight. Yes, we can’t offer you their big label signing bonuses, but those bonuses will most likely lock you into a contract as cross-collaterized as a company store with at least a three-album commitment. With us, it’s one album, and you keep your publishing, recording, and merchandising rights, so long as you deliver on your one album. After that, you’re free to go. However, my track record speaks for itself, so I doubt that will be the case.”
It was true. Almost every act Lola signed had risen to some sort of stardom.
“We’ll still give you modest bonuses to get by until the record’s out,” she continued, “but you’ll no means be living like rock stars—at least not yet.”
“But you’re giving Walter a beach house,” Brian “Squids” Squibbs, the band’s bassist said.
“We’re not giving him a beach house, we’re renting him a small cottage near the ocean to finish writing your debut album. Yes, Walter’s getting a little more out of this, but don’t you think that’s fair?”
“Well, it’s just no wonder he’s pushing this deal over the other ones. Why can’t you rent a beach house for us all to write together?”
“Because when have we ever written together?” Walter said. “And do you suddenly have songs Squids?”
“Yeah, maybe I do.”
“Then let’s hear a song. Go get your bass or whatever you need to play it and let’s hear it.”
“They’re works in progress. Just some ideas, like riffs and stuff.”
“Oh, fuck off.”
“Come on guys,” Seano, their lead guitarist and natural Slash lookalike, said. “Squids, Walter has always written the music alone. You know that. And if he doesn’t write the album, we’re out of a job.”
Jimmy Stokes, their drummer and not one for words, nodded in agreement.
Finally, Walter was getting through to them without Squids. Since Jimmy hardly spoke and Seano never wanted to be involved in band politics, it was always Squids Walter had to deal with on everything, and everything was always a fight.
From the beginning, Walter saw Squids as a lazy and unnecessary liability, but like marriage, sometimes blind eyes and compromise are required to keep a band afloat. Seano, who was irreplaceable in Walter’s opinion, founded the band with Squids and they’d been best friends since the third grade. Also, as Walter discovered at the two shows they tried to do without Squids, when Seano didn’t have his best friend, Jack Daniels became his best friend, so much so they couldn’t leave each other alone enough for Seano to make it to the end of a show before passing out. So for Seano, Walter put up with Squids. Not just his unreliable performances, playing, and risky drug use, but also his mouth.
“But we already have two EPs worth of songs written,” Squids said. “Those are the ones the fans know. We should be rerecording them for our debut album.”
“Why?” Walter said. “So we can give them more polished and inauthentic versions of songs they already know? Besides, my songwriting was still developing on those EPs.”
“Well, if development means more songs like ‘Baby Blue Part 2’ or ‘MagPi Song’, we’re fucked.”
“Then quit. You’re always threatening to, but never have the balls to. Go start your own band where you write all the music and make all the rules because I’m done arguing the same points over and over again with you Squids.” Walter leapt off the stage and began walking to the bar. “I’m just done.”
“Walter!” Lola shouted at him. “You’re done, when I’m done. Until then, sit your ass back on the stage.” She stared at him until he did so. “While I understand the new material isn’t your old material,” she addressed his bandmates, “what great artist wants to repeat themselves? With time, I think the new material will grow on you. I believe it’s something special, so special I’m not only ready to sign you right now, but have you open for the biggest artist on our label on their U.S. summer tour this year.”
“You mean… Jester?” Squids asked.
“Yes, the all-mighty Jester,” Lola said. “That way before heading into the studio this fall, there will be an audience waiting. I think their fans will take to you. What do you think?”
“We’re going on tour with Jester?! Gimme a fucking pen, I’m in!”
Lola and Walter smiled at each other. He had negotiated the tour in knowing Squids wouldn’t be able to refuse; Jester was his favorite band.
As Jimmy’s lone, plodding, double-bass drumbeat beat the air during the breakdown of “Minerva Doom”, the third song of their showcase set, the world felt wrapped around Walter like a warm bath of balance and harmony. He was in a place where he could make no mistakes; a place he could only find onstage—that is if it was a good show. If it was a bad show, the stage was a sucking whirlpool of chaos and self-hatred.
Although already decided who they were going to sign with, the label showcase was still the music industry’s formal acknowledgement of Perfect Crime’s arrival to the big leagues, an event even more talked about because they were a rock n’ roll act, a genre thought of as all but gone by the industry. But people are always looking for saviors.
With Marshall full stacks, fuzzily distorted guitars, and stories of wild shows, sometimes filled with unpredictable drunken debauchery—mostly exhibited by his bandmates but Walter played along too, Perfect Crime sold rock n’ roll saviors well. But they weren’t simply making something old new again like so many other “new” rock bands. They were doing something wholly new with rock n’ roll itself, a sound so new it had to be heard because words couldn’t describe it.
But like all great music regardless of genre, the lyrics moved minds, Walter’s voice moved hearts, and most importantly, the music moved bodies, both masculine and feminine alike. Walter’s face also swelled genitals, so that helped too—or at least it helped in attracting the big record labels back to rock n’ roll.
“A sick man’s lying in my head no doubt...” Walter sang with his guitar slung over his shoulder as the crowd clapped along to the beat, “...it’s a wonder people think it’s me. I try to keep him down but he always comes out for everybody to see. I mean that’s why you’re paying me...”
Clap, clap, clap...
“...The stage is blessed as a sovereign state from accountability. So every time I cast my name on the marquee pane, we celebrate the death of me. I mean, that’s why you’re paying me. Great cemetery with personality!”
In a well-practiced move, he then spun his heavy Les Paul back to his front and pick-slid into a grand power chord which re-introduced the chorus:
“Glory Hallelujah. Glory, glory friend! Glory Hallelujah, and I’m frying myself again. Lying to myself again!”
The band then broke into a double-time chorus and the crowd went into a frenzy of not exactly moshing, but not exactly dancing. The dancefloor became a gigantic fun pit of crisscrossing bodies, many of whom were “Quarkians”, Walter’s most-dedicated fans who were mostly teenagers who distinguished themselves by the bellbottoms they wore in emulation of his.
Onstage or off, other than when he used to dress up as Axl Rose, Walter’s bottom half was always seventies. And his top half, always nineties: a plaid flannel and shaggy, unkempt hair. The only wardrobe item that changed was his ceaseless supply of nerdy science shirts. Tonight, his shirt had a picture of the physicist Richard Feynman with the caption “DICK!” written underneath it.
Grinding Minerva’s second to last chord over his strings, Walter took a full swinger before hitting the song’s stinger. A roar blew back at him from the crowd like wind from a blowhole. Just behind the blast, Amber clapped with a proud smile and blew him kisses from the merch booth she’d been dutifully managing ever since the West Coast tour, the tour which had been key in taking Perfect Crime from local sensation to unsigned phenomenon. Because of this, one of Walter’s pet names for Amber was lucky charm.
“I know you weren’t planning on hearing any covers tonight, but I’d like to do one,” Walter said to the crowd as he set down his guitar and began walking to his new Wurlitzer electric piano, a secret gift from Lola, a secret between only them. “It’s not a Guns N’ Roses cover, however, it’s a Neil Young song, and it’s for my girlfriend, Amber Evans...” The crowd awed and clapped. “I won’t point her out because she’ll hate me if I do, but I love you lucky charm.” He then sat at his piano. “This song is called ‘See the Sky About to Rain’.”
“I love you so much,” Amber said after the show.
“I love you too,” Walter said, his hand undoing her pants. Dim, auburn light from a streetlamp twenty yards away drizzled onto her bare stomach stretched across his car passenger seat. His car along with all the bands’ cars were parked in the Troubadour’s side alley since it was where they had to load their equipment in and out. Currently everyone and their equipment was in for about another twenty minutes while the closing band, personal friends of Perfect Crime, finished their set.
With his bottom half already de-clothed, after de-clothing hers, they joined their de-clothed halves together and made wordless love for two songs on the radio until commercial break.
“I don’t know why it didn’t click until I was onstage tonight...” Walter said, his mind still racing from the excitement of the night, “...but this is the greatest day of my life. My life will never be the same after. Today is the beginning of life 2.0. And best of all, I never have to wear that monkey suit for Endeavor ever again.”
“I know,” Amber said grinning, “I can’t believe we’re finally quitting.”
“Wait, what? You’re quitting?”
“Yeah. Not right away. But once we go on tour. Someone has to manage the merch booth, right?”
“I think the label will probably have someone for that now.”
“But what else am I supposed to do on tour?”
“Well...” Walter made a dry swallow, “truthfully, I didn’t figure you were coming because I didn’t know you were quitting your job. And maybe the label might pay you, but I don’t think it’s going to be enough to pay rent, even if it is just to your mom.”
Amber’s eyes began blinking rapidly. “But I thought...” she said, “I mean, I just figured we’d be moving in together since Cirkus is paying for a house. I know how badly you’ve been wanting to get out of your grandma’s, and you know how badly I’ve been wanting to get out of my mom’s. I thought that’s why you had them put it in the contract.”
“No, not at all. I put it in to be left alone. I have to finish writing our album.”
Her body paused along with their lovemaking. “Okay...” she said, “but where do I fit in in all this? What’s your girlfriend supposed to do for the six weeks you’re on tour, then for however long you need to write the album?”
Unprepared, Walter struggled for words so only the crude truth came out: “I guess I was so caught up with everything else, I didn’t think about you,” he said.
“Y-you… you didn’t think about me?” Amber’s breath began quickening. “I put my heart and soul into this band too.” She pushed him off of her, then started rummaging the dark floors for her clothes. “Your dream has been just as much my dream Walter. How could you not think of me in its future? How could you not think of your lucky charm? Or was that just onstage bullshit? I can never tell if you’re really being real on there or not. Because right now, offstage, I’m really beginning to doubt if you actually love me.”
He remained silent, searching for answers on the dashboard, but the only answers he found were all those little doubts he thought he’d gotten over.
“Say something!” she yelled.
“I never asked you to share my dream,” he said at last. “When I first met you, you had a dream of your own; you wanted to be a writer. But once we got together, instead of finishing the novel you always said you would, you just began making excuses until you convinced yourself it would never happen.”
Amber sighed. “Because I realized I don’t have the same gift in writing that you have in music,” she said after a long pause. “That’s the truth. After seeing the dedication you have—the dedication it takes to make art a career, I just came to terms I’m not cut out for it.”
“But dedication is different than being gifted,” Walter said. “Dedication is something you can change if you didn’t let your depression have such a stranglehold on it. Depression is a part of your gift, and it can either work against you or for you. Let me show you how it can work for you, but I can’t do that if you won’t let me read your writing. And from everything your mother has said, it seems like it’s worth reading.”
“Of course she’s says good things,” Amber said annoyed. “She’s my mother. It’s decent, but not exceptional, not like your music. If you read my writing, you’d know what I mean. Plus, I told you. The story was inspired by the death of Greg’s dad our first year together. You don’t want to read about that, and I’m not sure I want to write about it anymore either.”
“For God sake’s, just let me read it!” Walter said, losing his patience. “I don’t care if it was inspired by Greg or if you don’t think it’s ‘exceptional’. I don’t think a great majority of my art is good, let alone ‘exceptional’. But still, I share it all with you, even the stuff I’m most uncomfortable about. How can we share our hearts together if you’re not willing to share your art? Are they not one in the same? . . . In fact, there’s a lot I wished you’d share with me more, like when you’re angry with me, or when something I do bothers you. But instead you swallow it inside and just pretend everything is perfect. Why?”
Amber hugged her knees to her chest and began sobbing. “I’m sorry!” she cried congestedly into her knees, making her sound as if she were speaking into a paper lunch bag. “If you want to know the truth…” she said, then made a long sniffle, “the truth is, I’m terrified to lose you. That’s why I don’t say anything. Because I don’t know what I did to deserve you, but if I didn’t have you, I don’t know what I’d do.”
“But hiding your true feelings—hiding your true self, is exactly how you’ll lose me,” Walter said. “I don’t want you to feel like you can’t express yourself honestly. Why would anyone want that in a relationship? And why would I be with you if I didn’t think you deserved me?”
“Because you feel guilty.”
It slapped him in the face because it was true. It had always been true. His heart, however, had convinced him that he was in love with Amber because Amber would someday change into somebody who wasn’t Amber. But that Amber, he was realizing, only existed in his head.
“Amber, don’t think that,” was the best consoling comment Walter could come up with without lying. He was fresh out of foma. “However, what are you supposed to do now if my dream is coming true and you don’t have one of your own? Are you going to sponge off me and my dream for the rest of your life? How is that any different than the complacent housewife you refused to be for Greg? I just don’t understand. I thought . . . I just thought you were someone with their own dreams; a love outside of just me. That’s what I want because that’s what I have with my music. I don’t want a sponge.”
“A sponge?” Amber said. “Is that what you really think of me?”
“I’m sorry, but if you don’t have a job, a dream, and you’re moving in with me, then yes. I’m sorry, but you know I sometimes have difficulty with sugarcoating the truth.”
She was silent for a while. “So...” she then said quietly, “what are you trying to say then? You don’t want to be with me anymore?”
“I think… no, I am.” Walter began crying. “I’m so sorry. I love you, but you still need to find yourself. I can’t be your surrogate dream.”
Amber looked at him dumbfounded as tears filled her eyes. “Why…” she said lowly, “…why are you the one crying?”
She then burst into tears and began groveling and clawing at him. “No-no-no…” she pled. “Please. Please. I’ll begin writing again. I just need time. Please, not right now. I had plans for us. Something that might inspire me to write again. That’s what I need. Fresh inspiration. Please.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, “but you need to find that inspiration on your own. When you do, then maybe we can try again. But it’s the best for both of us right now, okay? I really am doing this out of love.”
“No, no…” she put her left fist to her mouth and began gnawing her thumb’s knuckle. “You don’t understand. I had plans for your birthday.”
“My birthday? That was over three months ago.”
“Next year. I had something planned for—” Amber’s face froze into the blank stare Walter had seen in this car before. Her thumb then began bleeding from her clenched teeth cutting into it.
“Amber!” he said trying to pull the thumb out of her bite, but she clenched harder. “Amber stop! Amber!”
“What?” she finally came to and released the thumb. Looking more disoriented than before, she didn’t seem to notice her bleeding hand or the blood in her mouth.
“You had another staring spell and you almost bit your thumb in half. Are you okay?” he said gently taking her injured hand and showing it to her. It wasn’t permanently damaged, but the top layer of skin around her thumb’s knuckle was almost removed.
“Of course I’m not okay!” she shouted and pushed the bloody hand into his chest. “You’re leaving me!” She then flung the car door open and took off down the alley.
“Amber stop!” Walter yelled running after her, catching her by the arm just as she reached the sidewalk of Santa Monica Boulevard.
“Don’t touch me!” she screamed pulling her arm away. “Get away!”
He attempted to keep hold of her, but she kept screaming bloody murder, attracting a nearby hotel security guard.
“Should I call the police miss?” he said stepping between them. He then noticed the blood around Amber’s mouth. “Did he hit you?”
“No, no,” Amber said. “But just keep him away from me until I get my car from the valet.”
“Amber, you shouldn’t be driving,” Walter said. “Please come back and talk to me . . . You don’t understand,” he said to the security guard blocking him. “She shouldn’t be driving right now.”
“Is she intoxicated?” he asked.
“Are you intoxicated? Your breath smells like whiskey.”
“Yes, I just had a glass not that long ago, but—”
“Then don’t make another step toward her until she’s in her car and gone if you don’t want me to call the police. You understand me?”
Walter stood helpless on the sidewalk. “Catherine,” he then said, and ran back down the alley and into the backdoor of the venue.
“What do you mean you broke up?” Catherine said. “Why?” After being unable to find her downstairs, Walter finally found her playing darts in the upstairs bar. He told her what happened, but it was loud and she was buzzed, so only some of the story sunk in.
“I’ll tell you later,” he said. “But right now we need to stop her from leaving.”
“Amber’s leaving? She’s my ride home.”
“Yes, and she just had a staring spell.”
“Oh my God!” Catherine said finally getting it. “She shouldn’t be driving.”
They ran downstairs, but by the time they made it to the valet, Amber was already gone.
“I should’ve stopped her,” Walter said as he loaded his gear into his Prius’s hatchback. “I tried, but she just kept screaming like I was trying to kill her.”
“You did everything you could,” Catherine said, pacing with her phone to her cheek. “Damn it, she’s ignoring my calls now.” The phone then switched to her hands and she began texting.
“Why did I break up with her?” he continued, mostly talking to himself. “And why tonight of all nights?”
Catherine put her phone down and went over to him. “Because change brings things like this out of nowhere sometimes,” she said putting a hand on his shoulder. “But to be frank, I thought this might happen once the band took off. I didn’t think it would happen the night you signed, but still.”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Well, I could just see... see that you and Amber were on different paths, that’s all. I was just hoping—maybe foolishly—you might help her to yours.”
“And I think so was I.”
Catherine sighed and gave Walter a one-armed hug. “And you had the best intentions,” she said. “But I guess the lesson learned is everyone has to find their own path on their own. You did the right thing by leaving. It wasn’t a healthy relationship. I know because I left her father for the same reason.”
She then gasped and quickly moved away. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t have said that. Honesty just has a way of spilling out of me sometimes even if I don’t want it to, but especially if I’ve been drinking.”
Walter smiled. He wanted to hug her again, but didn’t. “No,” he said, “I’m glad you did. And strangely, I feel better because you did. Thank you.”
Catherine’s phone then buzzed in her pocket. “Oh shit,” she said taking it out. “It’s Amber . . . At home. Don’t worry, I’m safe. Just need time alone. Going to bed now. Talk to you in the morning.”
When they arrived at Catherine’s house, Amber’s dark green Civic was parked in the driveway.
“Looks like she’s here,” Walter said pulling in front of the house and putting his car in park.
“Yes, it does,” Catherine said looking at the driveway. “So happy that’s over.” She then turned to him. “Well…” she said somberly, “I guess it’s goodbye now.”
“Yes, I guess it is,” he said just as somber. “Goodbye forever.”
“No, not forever. We still can… No, we can’t. We can’t ever again, can we?”
“No,” he said after a moment. “I don’t think we can ever see each other again, or at least not for a long time. But everyone says that and it never happens. So yeah, it’s probably forever.”
“You’re probably right...”
There was a long silence, then Catherine began weeping.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “just a little emotional right now. I was so worried about Amber, I didn’t have time to process this was goodbye for us . . . We’ve sure had some great times together, haven’t we Axl?”
“Yes we have Dolly,” Walter said and began weeping too. “I don’t think I’ll be able to sing ‘Jackson’ with anyone else.”
“And here I thought ‘A Whole New World’ was your favorite duet? Or maybe it was just mine because you always insisted on singing Jasmine’s parts.”
Laughter began soaking up their tears.
“I’m going to miss your ‘dirty pictures’ from the lab of HeLa cells and mutated DNA,” Walter said.
“I’m going to miss our late-night debates after movie night,” Catherine said. “Who else can I discuss the laws of thermodynamics and the concepts of Brahman with until three a.m.?”
They laughed again, then became silent. The air became warmer and the windshield began to fog. As Walter watched the fog slowly grow, so did a realization.
He turned to Catherine, but said nothing. She also said nothing, but their eyes began telling each other a lot. The heat continued to grow, then something pulled his hand to hers, resting atop her lap. She clasped it. The hands then began to caress one another.
“I…” Walter said, but before he knew what he was going to say, his lips were saying it on hers, and his hands, her body. He tore under her clothes and into her soft flesh, as her hands began doing the same, grazing up and down his chest. His mouth then found its way down her neck and to her breasts as her hand found its way down into his pants. One of his hands then followed into hers, and after a great storm of panting, she began to spasm, then began coming greatly, soaking his hand and the inside of her pants, causing him to spasm then reciprocate just as quickly and strongly over her hand. Looking down at the mess, it was only then that they both comprehended what was happening.
With sweat pouring over their faces, they sat back stiffly and sticky in their seats, still breathing heavily and wide-eyed on the now fully fogged windshield.
“I’m so sorry,” Walter said wiping his hands on his pants.
“It was just as much my fault,” Catherine said doing the same, then wiped her forehead on her sleeve. “I need to go.”
“I understand,” he said. “We probably shouldn’t hug goodbye.”
“Yes, we probably shouldn’t . . . Goodbye Walter.”
The next morning, Walter awoke in disbelief of the twenty-four hours before. Surely it had been a dream—or nightmare. But the phone ringing on his nightstand was a reminder it was not. It was Catherine.
“Hello,” he said.
It was her weeping again.
“Catherine? What’s wrong?”
“Walter...” she mumbled.
“Yes? What is it?”
“I’m not sure how to say this . . . Amber passed away last night. She had a grand mal seizure and asphyxiated in her sleep.”
His eyes lurched back and his gut compressed as if gravity had suddenly been strengthened.
“No, no, no…” he said and began bawling. “I killed her. I killed her!”
“Stop it. You didn’t kill her. Please, don’t blame yourself.”
“How can I not?”
“Please, just don’t Walter. It’s not your fault...” Catherine then dwindled into more crying.
“Catherine?” Walter said.
“I need to see you. I can’t handle this on my own. You’re the only person who understands.”
“And that’s exactly why we can’t see each other. No good will come of it . . . I’m so sorry, but we can never see each other again.”
“No, please Catherine.”
“It’s for both of us Walter. But don’t let this stop your dream. Go on tour, record your album, put this pain in your art. That’s all I can say . . . I’m sorry, but I’ve got a lot more people to call; you were the first.”
“I can’t say goodbye.”
“Then I’ll do it for you . . . Goodbye Walter.”
The call ended.