I ran in circles around the room, singing loudly to the music the DJ was playing. Dozens of my friends stood about, listening to the music or dancing in place as I jumped up and down and sang, “Wake me when it’s over, touch my face. Tell me every word has been erased.” When the song finally ended a couple of minutes later, I collapsed to the light green-carpeted floor and lay there, catching my breath.
“Looks like Steve could use a breather,” the DJ announced loudly. “So here’s something a little more mellow so he can relax a bit, OK?”
“Thanks, Matt!” I shouted between huffs and puffs to the DJ from my place on the floor. I looked around the run-down hall as I breathed deeply and slowly. A few of the dropped-ceiling tiles above me were missing or broken, while others were marked with big brown misshapen circles from rain seeping in through the roof. The hall had thin wood paneling covering the concrete walls, and the nearby stage on which the band was setting up had several patches where the rug had been worn thin. The edges of the three narrow carpeted stairs leading up to the stage were torn, and loose threads hung down onto the steps. God, this place is great.
It was my sixteenth birthday, and in lieu of an actual present, I had asked my parents to throw me a party instead. They had been wary at first, scared of the possible cost of this production should I invite everyone I knew. But my parents knew someone who was a member of the local chapter of the UAW and we were able to rent their meeting hall for a relatively low price. The DJ was a friend of mine who worked at the local AM station, so he came cheap too. Luckily our tastes in music were similar, so he would play mostly just the kind of music I liked and not the “popular” stuff normally played at high school dances. Since I didn’t ask for much in the way of food, just a few bags of chips and two-liters of soda, my parents agreed to letting me invite forty friends to my own private dance.
I can’t believe they didn’t freak out on me, I thought to myself as the air returned to my lungs. Well, too much, anyway. I still think it’s lame that we have to stop by eleven, but it’s not Mom and Dad’s fault. The law’s the law. I stretched a deep breath out into a yawn then sighed and slowly let it all out. Then again, they didn’t have to call the police and see what time the music had to end.
Now that I had my breath again, I crossed my legs, threw my hands back above my head in a V shape, and calmly listened to the music playing. The way I was lying on the floor was crushing the back of my gray felt fedora, so I removed it and placed it on my chest. I stared up at one particular brown watermark on the ceiling, thinking to myself, That’s kinda shaped like that space monster Ferro-Lad died fighting, what was it? — oh yeah, the Sun-Eater!
Suddenly a girl’s head popped into my field of vision. She was upside down from my point of view, so I couldn’t tell who it was or recognize the look on her face. “Why are you lying on the floor, Steve?” she asked as she stared down on my strangely reposed figure.
I turned my head around to see who it was, and when I recognized her, I sat up quickly to see her better. “Hey, Leslie. I didn’t think you were going to make it.” She looked at me as if she were witnessing an amateur bagpiper’s first performance.
“It’s only ten ‘til nine.”
“Yeah but if you’d been any later, you might have missed the band playing,” I explained as I rose to my feet and again donned my hat. “Dave’s almost got us totally set up.”
Leslie looked up onto the stage where my fellow band members were getting things ready for us to play. “You guys sure have been playing a lot lately.”
That we have. My friend Dave and I had formed this group during the summer, with him on guitar and me on vocals. Most of our early performances were really just practices that our friends stopped by for. But now things were really picking up. We had played four shows for the school’s annual variety show, Cabaret, and one of those shows had been for our entire school of fifteen hundred students at a mid-day assembly. That was so cool, I thought to myself, letting a slight smile come to my lips.
“Yeah we’ve been playing a lot, but we just couldn’t resist a captive audience,” I said, continuing my grin. Leslie laughed a little and I paused before I went on. “Besides, anything would be better than our last gig.”
Leslie looked at me in confusion. “I thought you guys did good at Cabaret.”
“Not there,” I explained. “We’ve played since then, at the nursing home where Dave’s mom works.”
Leslie grimaced. “A nursing home? Yikes.”
“Yeah that was ever so much fun,” I said sarcastically. “You wanna talk about a captive audience? One of the old ladies obviously did not want to be there, but they just wheeled her out and stuck her in the middle of the room. She kept yelling the whole time we played, ‘Turn that down.’ It was sorta sad, actually.”
“Oh, that is sad,” Leslie said, although I could tell she was stifling a laugh.
“By the end we had turned the amps down so far we could barely hear them ourselves, and it was still too loud for her.”
Leslie let her laughter free for a moment, but she very quickly stopped herself, putting her hands over her face as she blushed. “Oh I’m so bad. I shouldn’t laugh at that poor old lady.”
I quickly changed the subject to make her more comfortable. “So what took you so long to get here?”
“I had to go get you a card!” she said happily, holding out for me a green envelope.
“Oh, not yet.” I shook my head and held my hands out to signal I wasn’t going to take it from her, waving them side to side slightly as I said, “That goes on the table in the corner. This is party time; it’s not about gifts. I don’t even want to see it right now.” I turned my head to the right slightly as if I was looking away.
“OK. I’ll be right back,” she said with a laugh as she turned to walk away. “Don’t go anywhere.”
Like I’m going to do that, I thought to myself, turning back to watch her as she walked away from me. Leslie and I had known each other in passing for quite some time; we’d been going to the same church for over three years. But up until recently I hadn’t paid too much attention to her. She was two years younger than I was, not even in high school yet, while her older sister Laurie, two years older than me, seemed to me to be a worthier object of affection. Unfortunately I never stood a chance with Laurie, as she saw me as someone much too young for her. Yet in lamenting my fate to Leslie, I discovered her charms, and quickly my adoration switched direction.
Leslie soon returned to me, saying, “Well, your captive audience seems to be a pretty good size.”
“Yeah, I invited forty, and at last head count almost twenty-five were here.”
“Cool. How’s it feel to be so well thought of?” she asked with a smile.
I laughed and shook my head in false humility. “It’s easy for people to like you when there’s nothing else going on in town.”
“Sure. Downplay your popularity.” She paused for a moment as we both looked around the room. “Um, Steve…” she said tenuously.
She’s right. It is a pretty good turnout. I wasn’t sure some of these people would show up. I was still glancing around the room and not really paying attention to Leslie at the moment. “Yeah?”
“Who’s that guy?”
My eyes stopped on the large bulky man standing by the front door. “Oh, that was my parents’ idea,” I explained, slightly embarrassed. “They were a little worried someone might come with alcohol or something, so they asked him to be a ‘bouncer.’ He’s a friend of a friend of my parents.” Guess they did freak out a little.
“Huh?” she followed my gaze and quickly corrected me. “No, not that guy… though I was sort of wondering… I meant that guy by the food table.”
I moved my eyes from the door over to where she was looking and saw my uncle Wes standing there, talking to my mom. Uh oh. “Uh, that’s my uncle.”
“Your mom’s brother?”
“Well, she is talking to him.” I had to stop myself from rolling my eyes. Are you trying to get her to break up with you before you even go out? “Uh, yeah, he’s up here visiting from Florida.”
“Oh really?” she said curtly, still looking off in his direction.
Great, now I’ve made her mad. “Yeah we used to go visit him a lot when I was a kid. I remember one time in eighth grade that Mom and I drove down there and back in less than three days.”
Now she turned back towards me, confused. “What?”
Good. I’ve got her back now. “Yeah we had to go down there to drop my grandma off because Uncle Wes was…” Whoops. “so she could visit.” Gotta keep at her so she doesn’t ask why. “Yeah we went there quite a bit when I was younger, you know, to go to Disney World and all that.”
“I’ve never actually been myself,” she replied. “Did you know Darren and Sundae used to work there?”
“Yeah they told me and Kyker about it one day.” Darren was my church’s youth minister, and before he and his wife had moved to Centralia, they had worked their way through college at Disney World. Why anyone would move here from Orlando is beyond me, though.
“Did they tell you the story about Mickey and Minnie being a couple in real life too, even though the people in the costumes were both girls?” She laughed and made a face like she was going to gag. “Ick. That left me a mental image I couldn’t get rid of for days.”
I was still looking at Uncle Wes in the corner. “Yeah,” I said brusquely to her, my attention elsewhere. “That was gross.”
Leslie seemed not to notice. “You know, for living in Florida, your uncle sure looks pale. Is he sick or something?”
I suddenly thought back to the health class I had as a freshman only a year before. During the sex education unit, our teacher had asked the class if any of us knew someone with AIDS. My hand was the only one raised, and everyone looked at me a little different for the rest of the period. “Yeah he’s had the flu, hasn’t been out much.”
“What’s he doing here then?” she asked. “He might get somebody sick, especially since he’s standing by the food.”
“I doubt it,” I said dismissively. Not unless you’ve been giving him his daily injections even though you’re not trained to do it. My gaze shifted from Uncle Wes to my mom standing beside him, and I thought of the orange box labeled “biohazard” that sat on top of Uncle Wes’s dresser. Or you’ve been sleeping with someone who’s been giving him injections. I looked at my dad then. Or you use the same razor as someone who’s been sleeping with someone who gives him injections. I looked back at Leslie then. “He’s not contagious.”
“So why’s he here?”
“He wanted to see the band play before…” Watch it. “he went back home next week. He made me that goofy banner hanging over the food table.” I pointed to long string of computer paper hanging on the wall that read in huge block letters “Happy Birthday You Party Fish.” On each end of the banner was a fish wearing a party hat with a paper blowout in its mouth.
She paused and was about to ask me a question when I cut her off. “You’ll be like the tenth person to ask me what a party fish is, and I still don’t know.”
“Good thing I didn’t bother asking then,” she said, smiling at me and looking me in the eye. I returned her stare. I have to tell Matt to play a slow song in a minute.
“Steve!” Dave shouted to me from the stage. “We’re about ready.”
“OK!” I shouted back, then brought my eyes back to meet with Leslie’s again. “Gotta go. Enjoy the show!”
“Nice rhyme,” Leslie replied. “I can see why you’re so good at this songwriting thing.” She smiled and waved at me slightly as I walked away backwards, not yet willing to look away from her.
I wasn’t looking where I was going and bumped into someone running around behind me. Turning around, I was ready to start apologizing when I realized who it was I’d run into. “Watch where you’re going, ya little punk,” I said with a tone of mock anger.
“Sorry,” my little brother said insincerely.
“I’m just joking with you, Nate.” Nate had been buzzing about all night, dancing to the music and shoving fistful after fistful of potato chips into his mouth. He had been going with my mom almost every night for the past two weeks to my grandma’s house while Uncle Wes was in town. I knew that it had to be boring him stiff, since my grandma’s house was out in the country with virtually nothing to do. Tonight was his first night when he could let loose and have fun, and he was taking full advantage of it.
I had had play practice a lot and so wasn’t able to go with them very often. Or scholar bowl, or the newspaper, or whatever excuse I can use. The few times I had agreed to go, it was only after being bribed by being allowed to drive. In driver’s ed. they barely let me drive down side streets. But one of those side streets that I had driven down the few times I had control of my driver’s ed car had been Leslie’s.
“So, you having fun, Nate?” I asked him, glancing back over my shoulder at where Leslie was standing. “Are Mom and Dad and everybody having fun?”
“Yeah I guess so,” Nate said. “Mom might take Uncle Wes home after you play, ‘cause he’s been coughing a lot.”
“Yeah, those spring flus are the worst.” Nate didn’t know why Uncle Wes was sick. Mom and Dad had decided not to tell him because they didn’t want him to distance himself from Uncle Wes when time was so fleeting. Or for him to be afraid.
“Hey Nate, go make sure Kyker’s ready with his video camera for us to start playing,” I told him.
“Aye aye, birthday bum,” Nate said with a joking salute before flitting off.
I stepped up onto the stage just as Matt was finishing playing another They Might Be Giants song. I checked with Dave and my fellow bandmates to see if they were ready. Then I looked to Kyker, who stood with his video camera in the back of the room. He gave me a thumbs up, so I signaled to Matt that we were ready.
“Well, ladies and gentlemen, it looks like the main feature for the evening is about to begin so I will bow out gracefully for a little while,” Matt announced over his loudspeaker. “But don’t worry, folks. I’ll be back… whenever Steve tells me to be, I guess. Until then, I turn you over to the Psychedelic Paisleys!”
I took over my microphone then and worked the crowd a bit before we began to play. As I spoke to them, introducing some of the other band members, I thought to myself, Look at all of them. Staring at me. “Rapt” is the perfect word for it. I live for this moment.
When I started singing, I looked over at Leslie. She was smiling up at me so I threw her down my fedora in mock rock star fashion. She pretended to groupie-swoon. She was seated on the floor, as were most of the other partygoers, so I motioned for them to stand with my hands. They did. I love this!
As I looked down, surveying all the people I held within my thrall, I glanced over at Uncle Wes standing in the corner. He had become one with the crowd, enjoying the music just like the rest, and his enchantment gave his face a youthful glow. Then suddenly he began to cough. I turned away and sang all the louder to everyone else in the crowd, really belting out each note. As the song was coming to an end, I noticed my mom leading Uncle Wes out the door, but I simply led the band on to our next song.