Thomm Quackenbush, author

01.11.06 10:03 a.m.

The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side.  

-Hunter S. Thompson

 



Previously in Xenology: Xen became the quietest clam around most Pagans. He was also repeatedly denied jobs in Beacon. Dan Kessler was some sort of Ambivalent Elephant. Ann moved in with Dives Dives.

Gritty

"You seemed a lot more at ease with my group today. I like that."

"What do you mean?" I ask, though I'm not exactly vague on why Emily might have said this.

"You just seemed in your element and relaxed."

It did not hurt my relaxation that we began the day with a calorie-loaded authentic Southern breakfast cooked by one of the members of the grove, who is an implant from Georgia. It is hard to be stressed or socially awkward when plied with home fries and biscuits with pork gravy. I curled up on the sofa while more and more of the grove appeared to partake of vittles. Emily lay with her legs dangling over the back of the sofa and her head on my lap. It is hard to be anything but content in a social situation wherein you are full of greasy, homemade food and a beautiful girl has her head on your thighs.
we don't need no water, let the motherfucker burn  
We don't need no water

After thoroughly slaked of food for the day, we migrated to a second house a town away, where we would be burning Christmas trees in Orien's and Christine's backyard. I had only been to one tree burning before and I was quite small for that. It was held at the neighborhood fire station and thus was controlled, and yet huge. Christmas trees are utterly pyrotechnic, bursting into giant, crackling flames with the slightest provocation. I wondered out loud if this wasn't a sizeable fire hazard to have in someone's backyard, but Emily answered simply that they had a fire pit, as thought this made everything proper.

Despite that the vast majority of the partygoers were Pagans of one stripe or another, there is no contradiction in our burning our Christmas trees. They did derive from a very pagan conceit and were ours before. When you think about it, exactly what does a pine tree have to be with a carpenter from the Middle East? Very little, though it is a tradition I have never ceased to love. Christmas trees are beautiful and utterly useless, making them the finest of art.

Much as my friends - I believe without exception - consider Emily to be their friend, Emily's clan as consistently tries to make me feel appreciated and included amongst them. I can well understand why Emily holds them in such high regard and longs to have a religious group that meets on a more consistent basis given that this is her template. These are good people and those whom I am happy to have share a religion with me. They have none of the accompanying discomfort that I associate with far too many Pagans. They live their religion and also have actual lives above and beyond, something I wish were far more common in members of Pagan faiths.

Academy

The look of pity on the man's face is answer enough but I pressed on anyway. "No, I don't actually know how much the position pays."

He got on the cell phone in the middle of this interview and, over the course of a few minutes, it emerged that I would be earning $12,000 a year if I took this job, with no benefits and no days off. The worst part is, working at the Beacon Academy to tutor the multitude of teenagers who weekly drop out of the Beacon City School District is actually a better gig than I currently have. Right now, I get paid four dollars less a day and I have to fight to work every day. At least this would be steady income. I have nothing against paying my dues, less so given how irritated the obscene amount of nepotism I find in the teaching profession. However, "paying dues" should actually afford an employee enough to pay dues at the local library.

He kept talking and I almost felt bad for him, he seems so guilty. He explained that he would want to hire someone who would keep the position until June. The only reason I was even called was because the last two people who have been given this job in the past month - both of whom share surnames or blood with district administrators past and present - quit rather quickly. He added, "I don't want you quitting just because you would get more money and benefits working at McDonald's." I had not considered it from the perspective and, though I enjoy and respect the man interviewing me, cringed at seeing my career in this focus. I hope it is not arrogant to imagine that my Master's degree in this subject area is worth more than emptying the fryalator.

I remained positive and friendly, as I always do in interviews. At least he isn't offering me eight dollars as though I should be grateful for it. At least I would have holidays and weekend off, even if I wouldn't get paid. At least this is a job in my degree field. At least, at least, but I can't continue to be Pollyanna about the numerous false starts of my career. I'm not going to give up by a long shot, but I am most definitely not going to be able to keep up this pep talk monologue that would earn my ire if it weren't coming from inside my skull.

He told me that I would hear back in a week, but I don't. Even though this is a job that has earned the resignation letters of two employees in as many weeks and even though I made clear that I was not in a position to turn him down, he didn't call me. I cannot help but imagine that this is because I am on some sort of Beacon blacklist; that my mother's being angry that I had been jerked around about the job in September has effectively stopped any Beacon City School from hiring me. Even a grunt, entry-level job is beyond my reach in my hometown.

D'Ann

"So that's it? 'Wham, bam, thank you, ma'am?'"

Putting on my shirt, I point out that I have not said "thank you." She smirks and looks for something soft to fling at my head.

I would like to have stayed with her longer, but I had other plans this evening that regrettably did not include her by virtue that she had to get up at four in the morning and would be working all day Sunday. Our tryst would be the most fun we had together all weekend. More over, the joint concert between Dan Kessler and Ann wasn't starting until eight thirty and would not be over until significantly later, and thereby would be nearly prohibitively late for her even on a normal schedule.

The concert was being held in a place I knew only as 60 Main, which may well be its name as well as its location. I had heard about it as the Artist's Co-Op, but calling it something does not make it so. I would rather it was called 60 Main as it made it easy to find in New Paltz, where most everything worth visiting is on the same road.

The room was small, existing as a combination eclectic goods seller and free-trade coffee dispenser most nights. Dan and Ann were in the front corner getting set up. Zack and Cristin were curled up on a sofa like the enraptured couple they are.
Ann  
Strumming her guitar

I watched Zack and Cristin from a table across the room, far enough away that they could forget I was there, but close enough to see how in love they are. Zack watched her and his eyes were pools of German chocolate, the backs of his fingers languorously brushing her cheek. She slid against him, feline with infatuation. I had never seen Zack like this, though I have been his friend a decade and through many loves and losses. This pairing with Cristin is something altogether different. One cannot compare the fancies of young love to having to do your partner's dishes and laundry. This is Zack's first real case of what I would arrogantly dub "mature love," but only because it is how I perceive my own relationship with Emily.

Ann was first to play. She never ceases to be herself on stage; the music never overtakes and claims her. This is not a complaint, mind you. It can be off-putting to see your friend disappear and a melodic stranger take their place when Chango, the Orisha of song, possesses them. Ann's music lends itself to being hers, not the issue of a muse. It is quirky and passionate, never quite breaking the audience's heart or making them fall into peals of laughter, but walking the wide path between.

Zack and Cristin sit next to one of those girls who are vaguely familiar, but in a way where I know I haven't actually met them. She looks like a reflection of a shadow of a girl I once kissed. I did not initially think very much of her either way, not even sure if she is a friend of Zack and Cristin or just a proximal audience member. When I was introduced, I gave my name and said that I was Zack's friend and secretly hated Cristin, assuming that they must be associates by virtue that Cristin introduced the girl to me. I did not actually recall her name an hour later when, spurned on by my saying that Ann is cooler by virtue that she is playing with Dan, she asked me if I thought she was cooler because she and Dan once dated.

"Yes, actually. I genuinely think you are cooler." I realize judging her favorably because she once shared intimacies with a person I quite like may be shallow but it least it tells me something of her character that Dan found her worthy of his affections for however short a time. There are circumstances to take into account, e.g. how long did they date and at what point in their lives. Aside from a few girls, those with whom I shared more than a month and a half of my time, all the many girls I have kissed are sloughed into the mass grave of memory. I wouldn't like to be called as a romantic reference for the first girl I ever dated.

"Of course, I do note the past tense," I added. "Dated, not date. I'll have to subtract points for that." I realize a moment too late that this could have been a cruel thing to say, depending on whether her status as ex was her choice or his and how recently this occurred. She did not seem stung by this, offering me a sour candy which she convinced me to accept despite my protests that I never acquired a taste for sour.

After a minute of sucking it tentatively, I bit it and cringed.

"You bit, didn't you?"

I stuck my tongue out, though not at her, by way of explanation.

I later ask Zack and Cristin the name of the girl, apologizing that I have forgotten it, as I didn't know she was cool by proxy. They tell me she is Melissa and, in their own ways, both tell me that I shouldn't judge people as worthy of my attention simply because of whom their lips have touched.

After Ann's folksy set, Dan walked around the room with a mini-disk recorder, asking the audience to say the name of a fruit or vegetable. He mixed these into a song with Zack's slowed down voice as the bass line. I could not tell which "kumquat" on the soundtrack was mine, as a man who was not paying attention said the same fruit. Dan calls this his parlor trick and it certainly entertained the small crowd.
Dan  
Pondering

Zack and Cristin would later give spectacularly detailed feedback about the show, mentioning a cricket sound to which I had not listened and drawing him into a conversation about subsonic frequencies. Dan's music tends to put me in a pink fog and I lack the critically trained ear to give much useful feedback about tonality or subsonic crickets. I am trained to focus on lyrics and word, explicating them and searching them for literary antecedents. In the presence of raw sound, I can do nothing more than listen and enjoy.

Above Dan was the photo of a Hummel figurine of an Iraqi girl, her hands held together as though in true prayer, which is to say the kind derived from her soul instead of the rote words adults taught her. I want to know what she is asking the photographer and what she would think of the electronic spectacle over which this monochromatic image of her presides. Could she even grasp this form of entertainment in her cultural context? Given my reaction, could I?

The walls of this venue were covered in photographs of Afghanis and Iraqis. They are all implicitly sympathetic, as I think nearly all Western photojournalists not in the employ of the United States armies know to be. There is a picture of a one-legged man on crutches looking into the photographer's car in a way that suggests informed disgust. This is the only of the portraits that could be implying why Afghanistan and Iraq are currently topics worthy of three walls of art space. I cannot tell you why Africans blighted by genocide are not likewise worthy. I suppose we do not mark them as our genocide and do not need to given them the sympathy of our artists.

I feel purposeful and content in this small room, watching my friend provoke music from sound clips. This is the sort of activity my soul needs on at least a weekly basis to make me feel that I am shaping up to be the human I want to be. I could observe Dan and type on my mini-keyboard without looking down, which immeasurably improved the experience of watching to know that every thought could be chronicled in real time. I want to share more of these experiences with Emily, but she is presently far too occupied or tired to join me on such activities, so I will have to detail them well herein to bring them to her.

After Dan finished is set, the proprietors of the venue pass around a bucket for the audience, such as we were, to donate to the performers and space. I had absolutely no money on me, having spent my last dollar on a pack of cinnamon gum. The gum, incidentally, was more than a dollar, but the shopkeeper insisted that he trusted me and I could return with the thirty-five additional cents the next day. I was flummoxed, quite unused to the concept of people trusting me implicitly, and started to put the gum back on the rack until he stopped me. In retrospect it might have been Emily's cherubic face that inspired his confidence that I was honest. I am, of course, but the situation so threw me that I immediately went to the car and returned with the coins immediately. The clerk seemed almost frustrated that I had not waited until tomorrow to make good on my tab.

After most of the audience had vacated the premises, I approached Ann and said, "So, I hear your roommate is talking to a producer."

"Yeah," she smiles, "and she was just interviewed for the Chronogram. She'll be in it in February."

"So I hear." I don't really know what to say after this. I wanted to provoke a discussion of what she thought of this turn of events, since she had given me nothing I didn't know going into it, but I am not sure that we are close enough that I can plumb her metaphoric depths at this time.

When the equipment is loaded into the car and a bearded boy has locked the door behind us, Melissa stated that she was hungry as a means of asking us to lengthen the evening. Zack and Cristin demurred to return to their home, but I followed the diner goers. In a way, this was a crucial step in furthering my respective friendships with Ann and Dan, though I was not thinking in this manner. I merely did not yet wish to go to sleep, as would have been inevitable once I went home.

I had no cash and made to go to the gas station next door to use the ATM, but Dan stopped me and insisted that he would cover me. "Okay, but I am buying you dinner soon."

On my first date with Emily, she left the table for the bathroom just after we finished eating. I paid the entirety of the check before she returned and this pleased her. She told me a few days ago that she had done this as a test, which I passed. "What if I hadn't paid? What would that have meant?" She was evasive, but I think it might only have subtracted points from me early in the relationship; it would not have been a deal breaker. I just find divvying up the check such a pain in the ass and a social burden that it is sometimes better to pay the blasted thing yourself and not operate under the resentful burden that either you or your friends are skinflint cheapskates who value getting their meal at a discount over a stress-free friendship.

Soon in Xenology: Hopefully a new job.

last watched: American Beauty
reading: The Catcher in the Rye
listening: Keep It Like a Secret

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.



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