NARRATOR: I want you to try and remember what it was like to have been very young. And particularly the days when you were first in love; when you were like a person sleepwalking, and you didn’t quite see the street you were in, and didn’t quite hear everything that was said to you. You’re just a little bit crazy. Will you remember that, please? – Thornton Wilder, Our Town
The uncomfortable pause in Joe’s story was interrupted by two, polite bangs on the door of the airport holding room. Abby drew a sharp breath, waking from the tale and returning to the here and now. Another moment passed in silence. “You want me to get that?” asked Joe, sarcastically.
“Thanks, I got it,” snickered Abby, masking her startled reaction with a sneer. She moved to the door and opened it halfway. Joe could see Raheem holding a paper cup with a tea bag string dangling down its side and a plastic bottle of orange Fanta. Abby took the beverages and briskly closed the door.
“D’you need anything else, Abby?” asked Raheem as Abby shut the door on him.
“No, thank you, Raheem,” called Abby, through the door. She handed the bottle to Joe and then checked the battery level of the iPhone on the table. She took a sip of the tea, then reached into her briefcase and pulled out a charging cable. She took another pull on the tea, and plugged the charger into a wall outlet and then into the phone. Joe opened the Fanta with a hiss of carbonation and took a swig. Settling down again in her chair, Abby picked up her pen again. Joe registered for the first time that she was left-handed, and that her left hand had a mark on the back, a birthmark or a scar. He squinted, looking at the yellow legal pad, trying to read her handwriting upside down. She hadn’t written much. Joe guessed she was relying on the voice recording for the story, and writing questions as they struck her, and answering the ones that the story resolved. “Okay, Joe,” she said, “Go ahead whenever you’re ready.”
Providence, Rhode Island, USA – 1997
James added a Saturday night show that week for the first time. I remember the crowd felt different that night. An ominous vibration hummed throughout the patrons of the Downward Spiral. There were more college students than we usually had on gig nights. Many of them seemed like they had pre-gamed, arriving already drunk. The college kids came in packs and reeked of too much cologne and privilege. The college guys all seemed to be wearing those white baseball caps that were popular for a while in the late nineties, bearing a cheeky college team name, like “Cocks,” or “Hogs,” or something else they perceived as emblematic of their smirking irreverence and smug misogyny. In addition to the abundance of drunken, preppy white-hats milling about, I noticed something else.
After soundcheck, my routine was to spend some time behind the bar, making sure Mona was stocked for service. That also gave me a chance to get a feel for the crowd, and report to James, Jenny, and Dennis before we took the stage. That particular evening, while taking the temperature of our audience, I noticed an unfamiliar group sitting around one of the corner-booths. There were six of them, crowded into the booth; four young men and two young women. They were dressed like nightclub, party kids, and I wouldn’t have paid them much attention except they were all wearing big, gold aviator sunglasses, like the pair Elvis Presley wore in his Las Vegas era. As if sensing my gaze, they all turned and looked at me, and one guy in the middle of the group, sporting a shaved head and a white fleece vest, removed his sunglasses, meeting my eyes. He peered at me with eyes so light, they almost glowed in the dim, smoky atmosphere of the Downward Spiral. The stranger turned up the corners of his mouth in the slightest of smiles, and then looked away, sliding the Elvis glasses back on his face. When he looked away, so did they all, except for one girl. She was intimidatingly pretty, with rainbow hair pulled away from her face and styled in space buns, allowing a few wispy locks to fall beside her impossibly large eyes. She raised a single eyebrow at me in a show of sexy indifference, making the glitter of her theatrical eye makeup catch the bits of light hanging in the room. Then she broke into a brief, warm laugh, as she slipped her shades on, while turning away from me and popping a lollipop back in her mouth. I hadn’t even noticed Mona behind me until she told me to close my mouth before I walked, so I wouldn’t trip on my own lower jaw.
Showtime. James, Dennis, Jenny, and I took our places under the lights and earned the crowd’s attention by breaking into an ironic rendition of the opening theme song to Beverly Hills 90210. That always made the crowd laugh and then cheer as I named each band member, who took a turn flourishing on their instrument. The atmosphere still felt tense. I remember hearing some drunken frat boy yell out, apropos of nothing, the homophobic slur that starts with “F” and rhymes with the last name of the actor who played Danny Tanner on Full House. So, to keep things upbeat and moving along, I turned back to the band and called out the opening song: our rendition of Deee Lite’s Groove is in the Heart. The crowd cheered and began to dance to the disco house beat. And then, there she was, like disco lemonade, Rainbow Girl, dancing. It was such a captivating spectacle, I had to focus intently to keep from losing my place in the song. A circle formed around her on the dance floor, and one by one, the Elvis Shades Crew took turns in the dance circle. They were all amazing dancers, and the crowd around them cheered for each one as they performed. Rainbow Girl started the dance circle, and she finished it. As she danced, one of the preps, wearing a white hat that said “Beavers,” idiotically gyrated into the dance circle and rudely began to grind on her from behind. She turned and shot him a look, and I saw her mouth the words, “No thanks.”
The song ended, and we transitioned into “Shuttlef*cked.” The crowd cheered and I felt proud that they were familiar with one of our originals. Finally, the audience seemed to be enjoying themselves along with us. Rainbow Girl looked right at me grinning, and I melted a little. Beaver Hat was creeping up behind her again. He had a bottle of beer in his right hand, and I saw him reach from behind and slide his left hand around her bare midriff and then up to her breast. She turned with a fierceness in her eyes, but before she could say or do anything, Beaver Hat was on the ground. One of the Elvis Shades Crew had walked straight through the crowd and, without breaking stride, grabbed the beer bottle out of Beaver Hat’s own hand and smashed it across the side of his face. I saw a shard of brown glass piercing the skin just under his cheekbone. We stopped the music, and the remaining noise were shouts from the onlookers. The member of the Elvis Shades Crew who attacked Beaver Hat, without a moment’s hesitation, straddled his victim, dropped a knee on each of his victim’s arms, pinning them down, and began pounding him with emotionless efficiency. Two of Beaver Hat’s buddies started to go to his aid, and found their way blocked by two more of the Elvis Shades Crew. One of Beaver’s buddies started pushing and scrapping and found himself with his arm locked in the grasp of his opponent. But, rather than merely subdue him, the kid in the Elvis Shades continued the pressure until a nauseating crack echoed as he broke the preppy guy’s arm.
I looked and saw Rainbow Girl standing just off to the side of the action on the dance floor. Not only did she appear to be unfazed by the violence, but she was calmly smiling. The other girl from the Elvis Shades Crew was by her side now, squeezing her hand. Then a voice as loud and clear as a fire alarm cut through the commotion: “Del! That’s enough. It’s time to go.” The voice belonged to the stubble-headed guy in the fleece vest with the impossibly light eyes. Immediately, Del climbed off Beaver Hat and strode away as quickly and mechanically as he had attacked, his bloodied fists still clenched at his sides.
Absentmindedly, I had put my guitar on its stand and stepped down off the stage. From the moment that Beaver had groped Rainbow Girl until now had been a mere thirty seconds. I saw Dale, the bouncer, clamber in from the entrance, swiveling his head from the bloody college kid in the fetal position on the dance floor toward James, who was ushering the crowd back, his military training kicking in. I swiveled in the direction of the bar and saw Mona on the phone, I assumed with the police or rescue or something else with flashing lights.
When I turned back, the Elvis Shades Crew had bolted, and I looked toward the entrance in time to notice their five backs exiting. Wait, five of them? Where was Rainbow Girl? Then I felt a hand on my hand, and I jumped. Glancing down, I saw purple glitter nail polish and a hand tattoo of a pair of cherries connected by stems. But the cherries weren’t cherries. They were red human brains. Following wrist to arm and upward, I met the eyes of the Rainbow Haired Girl herself. “Sorry for that,” she said quickly, “We’re pretty protective of each other. But your band was great. What I heard, anyway before, you know… hey, what’s your name?”
“Joey,” I said, suddenly self-conscious of how dumb those two syllables sounded.
“Joe, of Below Me?” Her face broke into that sly smile again, “Okay, Joe Below, if you’re not busy tomorrow, you should call me and maybe we can hang out.” And, as if there wasn’t a crumpled college kid with a face like a watermelon after a performance by Gallagher, bleeding all over the black and white, linoleum dance floor barely six feet from us, I said, “Thanks. Okay … okay, yeah. I mean, yeah, I’d love to. But I don’t have your number.” She raised her eyebrows and cocked her eyebrow mischievously, then nodded toward the stage and gave my hand a squeeze before skipping – actually skipping – in the direction of the door. I looked where she had gestured toward the stage and saw on the white pick-guard of my black guitar, written in lipstick, a phone number and the name Lili.