Freewheeling

by Peter Anderson

Mark slid into the coffee shop booth, his Navy peacoat infused with the scent of the outdoor chill and a few too many cigarettes. The steaming mug of coffee which sat before him—I knew to order in advance, no cream or sugar—was eagerly raised to his lips before he ever said a word.
 
His eyes were tired, but his crooked smile unmistakably showed his irrepressible spirit. He was down, but not out. Curiously, the soft-sided guitar case which seemed to be a permanent part of his wardrobe was not slung over his shoulder. That Fender was his life, I knew. Its absence warned of something momentous, life-changing.
 
My suspicions were confirmed.
 
"We're giving it up," he stated evenly, with neither the emotion nor gravity it deserved.
 
I sat, not knowing what to say. His statement really didn't surprise me. I knew the last few years hadn't been easy, but somehow I thought the band would always stay together. Like Mount Rushmore or, more accurately, Rainier. Mark sensed my bewilderment, and broke into a broad grin. One tooth was cracked and another twisted, an utter failure of orthodontia. He hadn't bothered, he had told me years before.
 
"Are you really surprised?" he asked.
 
"Well, no..." I said, struggling for words. "But I just always thought..."
 
I first saw them in '89, in a Tacoma dive by the airport that was right at the end of one of the main runways. The jet liners roared overhead throughout the show, every couple of minutes, rattling the building to its foundation, and the band played right through it. Whether it was out of defiance or indifference I couldn't tell. Defiance seemed possible, as they played their show that night with a fury that made them seem like a ungodly force of nature, like Zeppelin at their peak. But indifference seemed more likely, as Mark's between-song banter, giggled and usually incoherent, and the endless quantities of Olympia they slugged down suggested none of them were taking any of it too seriously.
 
I was sixteen years old, sneaking into my first club show. I didn't take a chance at ordering a beer at the bar and probably getting myself tossed out, since the atmosphere—the rising crush of bodies near the pit, the clouds of cigarette smoke, just the whole throbbing vibe of the place—was more than intoxicating enough for me. It was just so much different than anything I had experienced. I had grown up listening to musical dreck, whatever the radio told me I should like, and only stumbled across this show, at some unknown place in Tacoma that I had to look up in the phone book, after picking up a flyer off the floor of a record store. The band’s name meant nothing to me, but seemed vaguely dirty, just suggestive enough to grab my sixteen-year-old attention.
 
"I just always thought," I repeated, trying to continue. "I mean, you guys are like godfathers..."
 
"Godfathers," he repeated, inhaling sharply with a smirk. His nervous twitch told me he already needed another smoke. "I'll tell you, it's better to be a young heir than a godfather. I mean, we might have laid the groundwork, blazed the trail or whatever, but it's these younger bands that are getting all the benefits."
 
I stared at him as the reality, the finality of it, sank in. Across the table sat the ultimate punk frontman. Tall, lanky, full of nervous energy, his tousled mop of sandy blond hair possibly washed yesterday, capable of nuanced guitar work but content to bang out chords behind Steve. In fact, his onstage guitar playing was mostly a means of keeping his hyperactive hands occupied.
 
Though I loved all of the other guys—Steve, Matt and Dan—it was Mark’s magnetism that drew me in. I was hooked after that first show in Tacoma, and was soon sneaking into every local show they played. They started putting me on the guest list, which saved me on cover charges and usually eased me past the bouncer without using my fake i.d. I saw so many shows those last two years of high school and developed such an unexplainable, instinctual ardor for the band that when it came time for college I opted for the local juco instead of heading all the way to Pullman, where I had been accepted at State to the elation—momentary, it turned out—of my parents.
 
Being around Seattle, around the band, just seemed more important at the time. My friendship with them, and particularly with Mark, was inevitable. When you spend that much time together with anybody, either friendship or hatred has to result. And they were too easygoing to really hate anybody.
 
By the time I finished junior college, four years after I first heard of them, we were almost constant companions. Getting drunk, raising hell at shows and meeting up the next morning for coffee and tired chattering became regular rituals. Not even finishing up at a real college seemed as essential, as real, as what I had with the band. I believed in them, lived through them. I even forgave them for signing the major label deal. The deal didn’t detract at all from their music, and everybody else was leaving the underground back then anyway, so if some corporate suits wanted to pay them big money for being the same as they always were, I really couldn’t blame them.
 
"Let's face it," Mark went on. "Being an icon, having critical acclaim, is nice, but it doesn't pay the rent. We could tour for the rest of our lives and not make enough to retire on. Plus with Matt deciding to quit, it just wouldn't be the same."
 
I raised my eyebrows at the mention of retirement security. Hearing such considerations voiced by this paragon of the underground was something I never anticipated, and I stated as such.
 
"I'm just being realistic, maybe for the first time in my life," he said reflectively. "As much as I enjoy the underground—and I've enjoyed it a lot more now that our major label deal is over—I know there's not much future in it. Kids buy the records, and not many of them want to watch a bunch of guys who are pushing forty, no matter how great their older brother says we are. So I've got to look out for myself. Or, I should say, we've got to look out for ourselves. We're all in agreement on this."
 
It made sense, though I didn't want it to make sense. I wanted them to go on and on, banging out those three chords, working the fuzzbox, sneering the lyrics which been germinating since high school, stage-diving until they needed Medicare.
 
I had been a fan first, long before becoming a friend. And the fan in me couldn't bear the thought of it all coming to an end. Though I couldn’t make it to more than a few shows a year any more, I wanted to keep knowing that on any given night, somewhere, they were playing yet another small club for cover charge money, blisteringly loud, soaked with sweat, exhaustedly happy afterward knowing they had given their all. And do it all over again the very next night, in some other club, in some other town.
 
But truly great things...
 
"Great things never last," Mark shrugged, with an air of quiet acceptance. His ragged grin never wavered.
 
 
© Peter Anderson 2006


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Peter Anderson is a fiction writer whose first story publications have appeared this year in Storyglossia, Zisk, Skive Magazine, The Angler and Gapers Block. His audio short stories have also been featured on the Quirky Nomads podcast. He lives in Joliet, Illinois, with his wife Julie, daughter Madeleine and two well-rested cats.