After the FadeRonald Malfi
After the Fade © 2012 by Ronald Malfi
Cover Artwork © 2012 by Daniele Serra
All Rights Reserved.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
P.O. Box 338
North Webster, IN 46555
T.S. Eliot once wrote that the world would end not in a bang but in a whimper. At least, I think it was Eliot. (He wrote about cats, too, right?) I take this to mean that there will be no great boom—no mushroom cloud, no nuclear holocaust, no great tidal wave to wipe out the pittance that is mankind—but rather a series of events that brings us collectively to our knees, like POWs lined up and blindfolded before a firing squad, cigarettes jutting from our heat-blistered lips, waiting for the darkness to take us. It would be the kind of death we would see coming: those famed horsemen of the apocalypse galloping up over the horizon, swords ablaze with blue fire. There would be no secret, no conspiracy, no shock. Like the rampage of some virulent yet undiagnosed disease, it would wipe us all out one by one, dropping us like dominoes. That is what I think Eliot meant, anyway, although I could be wrong.
Either way, I have begun to believe there exists some middle ground—some plane of existence between bangs and whimpers—where the world slowly creaks down to a grinding standstill, much like a wristwatch that hasn’t been wound in a while: it slows and slows until it finally and inevitably stops. In a way, it’s sort of like music…though not in some elitist “music theory” sense, but in the actual recording of songs, and how some songs never seem to end but merely fade away. You know what I mean? Pop in your iPod ear buds, scroll to your favorite tune, and listen till the end. Hear how it fades, leaving nothing behind but a simmering silence of ghost-music until the next song kicks in? Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about. It’s the dying of the song and the fade that follows—that cryptic silence, pregnant with mystery and awe. Have you ever wondered how much longer those songs go on after the fade? What happens to the music after your ears are done hearing it?
I know about music. When the whole thing started, I was twenty-four years old, and in the two years since my graduation from the University of Baltimore (with, at best, a mediocre grade-point average), The Tom Holland Band had gone from a local blues quartet to a somewhat well-respected touring band. We had begun opening up for some fairly renowned blues, jazz, and R&B artists in clubs along the east coast, to include Manhattan on a few occasions, and the bookings afforded us the opportunity to cut back hours from our miserable day jobs and focus more on our musical aspirations while the profits we made from digital downloads provided for some additional spending money. For the first time in my life since playing in a band—which, to some degree or another, had been for the better part of a decade now—I could see myself making an actual career of it. Not in the fashion I used to daydream about as a teenager, with scantily-clad groupies fawning over me while I raked in millions and my mug graced the cover of every magazine, but in a sort of modest, workmanlike, realistic sort of way. It seemed success had just been waiting for me to accept it with all its lofty and preposterous aspirations shucked aside.
Our out-of-town gigs were mostly on the weekends, so we would pile into Jeb’s van on a Friday night, shuttle our gear to whatever destination was on the radar, perform, then hustle back in time for work on Monday mornings. It left little time for a social life, which was why Lauren opted to travel with me in the beginning; it was the only way we had been able to spend weekends together once things really started to take off. And while she had never complained, I could sense her patience waning before too long. I couldn’t blame her. After a while, she quit tagging along, preferring to stay home under the guise of having too much work or household chores to do. I knew the score and it was cool with me. Yet when I realized I didn’t miss her companionship on the road, I knew things between us would have to change…
You’ve heard the saying “the beginning of the end” before? Well, that’s what it was the night I had planned to break up with Lauren: it was the beginning of the end, though not just for Lauren and me. For the world, really. Funny, how the macro and the micro collide. Did T.S. Eliot ever say anything about that? I wonder.
Initially, I had decided to break up with her at my apartment, but my roommate, Billy Beans, was home smoking dope and lounging around in his boxer shorts, the glow-in-the-dark pair with the little skulls and crossbones on them. I didn’t think that would provide the best backdrop for a breakup, so I called Lauren and left a voice mail on her cell telling her to meet me at The Fulcrum downtown. Then I showered, shaved, and dressed casually in bootcut jeans, an old Jimmie’s Chicken Shack T-shirt, and an unbuttoned chamois shirt.
“I’m popping out to The Fulcrum for a while,” I said, snatching my car keys from the ceramic bowl on the table that stood by the front door of our Eastport apartment. “You gonna be here all night?”
Beans slouched against the doorway that led into the kitchen. He scratched absently at his pale, flat stomach. A braid of wiry black hair twisted up from his navel and spread in the suggestion of bat wings across his narrow, birdlike chest. “Got no plans to go anywhere,” he said, talking around a joint that was smoldered in the corner of his mouth. “Did you want some company?”
“Not tonight,” I said, pulling on my jacket.
Beans raised his eyebrows. The gold hoop in his left nostril glittered. “Is it…tonight?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I think so.”
“You gonna chicken out?”
“Good.” He plucked the joint from his mouth and extended it to me, pinched between his thumb and his forefinger. “Wanna hit? Gives you courage.”
I considered it but then decided against it. “I should probably not smell like pot for this.”
He shrugged, his thin shoulders nearly pointed, and wedged the joint back between his lips. “Probably right,” he said without expressing any genuine interest. “You know, for what it’s worth, I’ve always liked Lauren.”
“Me too.” It wasn’t about liking or not liking her. It was about where my life was headed and whom I could take along.
Beans farted, grinned, then sauntered back into the kitchen. When I went out the door, he was rattling some pots and pans.
It was a short drive from my Eastport apartment into downtown Annapolis, the narrow streets mostly vacant in the pre-dusk hours of a Wednesday evening. The weather was still comfortable enough so that a few tourists languished around the bulwark down by the inlet, drinking coffee or hot chocolate and taking pictures of boats. A good number of the downtown shops had already closed for the night. It was the type of early October evening I typically enjoyed, the serenity of the world tugging tight the straps of its cloak around the smattering of low brick buildings; the sunlight receding from the cobblestones along Main Street; the fallen leaves swept along the intersections and parking lots in a cold breeze scented with the promise of Christmas…
But I was in no mood for it tonight. The whole thing with Lauren had been festering in my brain for too long; while I was glad to finally address the issue and move on, I felt a familiar hot guilt worming its way through my guts like a parasite.
I turned onto Main Street, the cobblestones causing the car’s undercarriage to jounce like a roller coaster. Street parking was in abundance at this time of the year, so I coasted along the curb and was about to pull into a metered spot when something detonated against the car’s windshield, startling me. The sound was like a giant fist striking the glass. I’
d been looking across the street at The Fulcrum’s large plate glass windows at the moment of impact, trying to see through the dim lighting whether or not Lauren was already inside the bar, so I’d only caught sight of the thing from the corner of my eye as it rebounded off the windshield.
The force of the impact caused me to jump down on the brake; the car shuddered to a stop. Square in the center of the windshield, a yellowish ooze in the shape of an asterisk glistened in the fading daylight. I glanced in my rearview mirror expecting to see an injured bird wheeling through the air. There was nothing there.
If I believed in omens, I might have reconsidered the purpose of tonight’s meeting with Lauren at that moment. After all, I’d already been putting it off for weeks now. Was I being too hasty? Did God throw birds (or whatever that had been) at your windshield in an effort to stop you from breaking up with your girlfriend? Was He that invested in the trivialities of our everyday lives?
A more superstitious man might have kept driving. As it was, I had no faith in portents, so I stepped out of the car and into the day’s fading warmth. Dead leaves and bits of garbage blew down Main Street toward the docks. In the opposite direction, the sun sank behind the dome of the capitol building, draining the color from the sky. I completed two rotations around my car, expecting to see a wounded bird or even an injured bat thumping dully against the cobblestones, but there was nothing there. Shoving my hands in the pockets of my jacket, I hustled across the street and, pausing to take a deep breath in case Lauren was at the bar, entered The Fulcrum.
It was the usual Wednesday night crowd. Behind the bar was Tori Lubbock, better known as “Boobs McGee” to the grizzled watermen who frequented the place, due to her ample bosom and her predilection for showing it off. She smiled prettily at me as I entered. She had her long auburn hair pulled up in some type of bun at the top of her head while the rest flowed down over her shoulders. Seeing that pretty smile reminded me just how long it had been since I’d been in here.
Old Victor Peebles sat in his accustomed stool at the front of the bar closest to the windows, a tattered Baltimore Ravens cap throwing a shadow over his weather-beaten and time-hardened features. He sipped from a frothy mug of piss-colored beer. Following Tori’s gaze, he swiveled around on his bar stool and raised a hand at me, a gesture I returned with Pavlovian dedication.
Across the bar, Jake Probie and Derrick Ulmstead nursed their own beers while sniggering at something humorous on Jake’s iPhone. A well-groomed couple I did not recognize sat at a table by the windows, sharing an order of crab dip and drinking wine. Toward the back of the place, a shadow marched back and forth along the wall; I assumed it was Scott Smith, the proprietor.
I took the stool beside Victor so I could maintain a view of the street and keep an eye out for Lauren’s arrival. I set my cell phone on the bar top and saw it was already a quarter after six. I had asked Lauren to meet me at six thirty, anticipating my need to arrive fifteen minutes ahead of time and knock back a glass or two. Liquid courage.
“Hiya, Tommy,” Victor said, grinning at me. His front teeth, both top and bottom, were missing, having been knocked out when a chainsaw recoiled and smacked him in the face; his smile looked like that of a carp’s. “Haven’t seen you around in a while.”
“Hi, Mr. Peebles.” I shook his hand. “I guess I’ve been busy.”
“That band of yours is doing pretty good, I heard,” he slurred. I knew from experience that this was not Victor Peebles’s first beer of the night. “There was an article in The Capital last month, too. Glad to see you’re motoring along.”
“Don’t give him a swelled head, Victor,” Tori said, leaning down on the bar in front of me. She was wearing a black spandex top that hugged her ample breasts. The line of her cleavage seemed to run clear up to her chin and was deep enough to lose thoughts in. “I remember back when Tommy used to play here.” She nodded in the direction of the decrepit bandstand in one dark corner of the bar. The spot looked like the place where a museum display had once been but was now closed down and dark.
“The good old days,” I said.
“Now he travels the world.”
“If you consider a racetrack in West Virginia ‘the world,’ then sure,” I said.
“Modest.” Tori rose up off the bar. Her perfume smelled like lilac. “What can I get you?”
“What’s on tap?”
Tori ran through the regular assortment but nothing struck my fancy.
“Dewar’s on the rocks,” I said. Beside me, Victor grunted and looked down at his piss-colored beer as if regretful of his own selection.
Tori twirled a strand of hair around one forefinger. “See that?” she said, addressing Victor again. “Our beer’s not even good enough for him anymore. Now he drinks like a goddamn jazz legend.”
“Blues,” I corrected. “It’s blues. And besides, I was drinking scotch back when I was playing that shitty old piano you used to have in that corner.”
“For nothing but tips,” Tori reminded me.
“How could I forget? You guys were always so generous to me.”
“You were underage back then. You’re lucky we even let you in the place.”
“Where is that old piano, anyway?”
“Scott rolled it out into the street and shot it like a horse with a broken leg,” she said.
“She ain’t joking,” Victor interjected, nodding fervently. He wet his lips with a pointy pink tongue, lizard-like. “Pushed the damn thing out back and took it apart with his pump-action Remington. Saw him do it with my own two eyes, too. Then he gave the Bremmerton twins ten bucks apiece to load the pieces in the dumpster.”
I frowned, looking from Victor to Tori. “Why would he do that?”
Tori examined a piece of lint she’d plucked from her long auburn hair. “He got tired of it. No one played it except the drunks who’d bang on it with their fists and spill drinks all over the keys. Scott put an ad in the Pennysaver, free to a good home if you can haul it away, that sort of thing, but he had no takers. In the end, it was easier for him to take it apart and shove the pieces in the dumpster out back.”
“Bremmerton twins did the shovin’,” Victor said again. For whatever reason, he seemed bent on driving this point home. “Scott jus’ took it apart.”
“With a shotgun,” I intoned. I’d lost my public performance virginity to that old upright. On the darkened little bandstand in the corner of the barroom, I could suddenly see the ghost of that old upright piano, its body nicked and scarred and looking like something that might have been salvaged from an old pirate ship. The keys had been capped in pearl, not the cheap plastic coating you find on—
“Anyway,” Tori sighed, “one Dewar’s on the rocks, coming up.” She twirled away to the other side of the bar.
Beside me, old Victor coughed into one hand. So close to me, I could smell him: a mixture of unwashed flesh, stale cigarette smoke, and the brackish perfume of the Chesapeake Bay.
“You okay?” I asked him.
“Prob’ly coming down with something,” he rasped. “Been rattling deep down in my throat for the better part of a week now.” His voice sounded like an old lawnmower. “Weather’s been unseasonably cold. It’s like an icebox back on Old Becky.” Old Becky was the name of his schooner, which was docked in one of the Eastport marinas where he lived year-round. Old Victor was a regular of many of the bars along Main Street, since they were all within walking distance of the docks. He got to know the owners pretty well, like Scott here at The Fulcrum, all of who conveniently forgot just how much the old man owed on his bar tabs. “Portable heater’s been acting funny, too,” Victor went on, his voice morose now. When he looked up from his beer and at me, his face was that of a storm-ravaged scarecrow’s. His eyes were moist little nuggets that reminded me of the gray and formless bodies of oysters. “They say a storm’s coming up the coast.”
Tori arrived with my drink. She set it down on a
cocktail napkin in front of me and didn’t bother asking for a credit card before moving across to Jake Probie and Derrick Ulmstead at the opposite side of the bar.
“Cheers,” I said, lifting my glass and clinking it against the side of Victor’s pint glass. I drank it, feeling nervous and anxious and wound-up, then set the glass back down on the bar.
“Snowstorms in North Carolina this morning,” Victor said, still staring at me. “You hear about that?”
“In October, no less. People jabber on about that global warming nonsense, but it don’t look like we got too much heat to worry about when we’re getting snowstorms down in the Carolinas in October. Here, too.” He took a large gulp of his beer then set it back down on the bar. His lower lip came up to swipe the foam from his upper lip. I thought of chameleons and how they’re able to lick their own eyeballs. “I sit out on my boat at night and it’s like I can hear the storms coming in off the Atlantic. Every night, they get a little bit closer and a little bit closer…and soon they’ll be crossing the Chesapeake.”
“Is that right?” I was only half listening to him, more focused now on the rising tension at the table between the man and the woman I did not recognize. The man wore a cream-colored knit sweater, pleated slacks, and boat shoes without socks, and the woman was in a floral dress with a fringed shawl draped over her shoulders. They looked like they might be tourists. They were arguing about something in hushed tones.
“Sure is,” Victor went on. “It’s getting so’s I can pick out individual sounds in the storm, you know what I mean? That’s how I know they’re gettin’ closer.” He reached out and, with one callused thumb, flipped through the stack of cocktail napkins at the edge of the bar. “Sounds just like that. A distant flutter.”
At the table, the guy in the knit sweater barked a distinct “No!” at his female companion before realizing his voice was too loud. He looked around guiltily and, for a brief moment in time, caught my eyes. He was a hard-faced guy in his mid-forties, with short, graying hair and the aquiline features of a Greek statue. He might have been handsome ten years ago, but now he just looked tired from struggling to hold onto his youth. I held his gaze and refused to let go, suddenly fueled by this anonymous game of chicken. After a moment, he looked away.