by Jeff Klebauskas
Steve hasn’t left his apartment in a week. The panic attack hit him while he was walking to the restaurant he works at over on 12th and Passyunk. Katrina told me that he told her that every time he sees the glowing La Birra sign hanging over the building’s brick façade, it happens; he hears a sound like an elongated sub-level bass drop that seems to be coming from deep inside his own brain—BOOOOOM—then his vision starts to dim, and he has to run back home before he faints.
He’s sitting on the bare futon across from me. I watch him pull strands of tobacco from a plastic pouch then haphazardly scatter the dried leaves along the concave of a white zigzag. The tobacco that doesn’t make it into the final product lands on the coffee table underneath his outstretched arms, where it lays with all the other tobacco that didn’t make it into the previous final products. He doesn’t seem to notice the pile forming as he twists the cigarette and lights up. This is the ninth time I have seen him do it, and I’ve been here for, maybe, forty-five minutes.
We’re posted up in his third-floor apartment on 5th and Mifflin in his half-assed living room with its two decrepit pieces of furniture, its random posters hanging unevenly on the wall, and its single wooden bookshelf in the corner that looks like it was made by him in shop class back in seventh grade because it was.
He’s lying on the futon now, shirtless and supine, with his knees bent and pointed at the ceiling like his eyes. Gravity is pulling the hem of his black mesh shorts down mid-thigh. There’s a gigantic tear in the fabric running up the right leg. He takes a drag, exhales the fumes and says, “I just…” He stops to spit out stray bits of tobacco then continues. “I just couldn’t maintain anymore. I had to quit that job, felt like my heart was dying.”
I’m over here on the beat-up loveseat, finishing off my third bottle of Red Stripe, staring at the flyers on the wall with our defunct band’s name on them.
There’s us in Chattanooga, 2006. There’s the promo poster for that east coast tour we did. There’s that basement show we played in Long Island City in front of seven people. We left with fifteen dollars and an eighth of dirt weed.
Decent memories, but I’m just not into music anymore. I uprooted myself, settled in a city that isn’t my own in search of something more than what I was given. I’m hanging on because I don’t know where else to go. I’m thirty now. Too old to start over, too old to move forward. I’m stuck.
Pete sold his guitar, moved back to Scranton. I haven’t talked to him in almost a year, but I heard he’s got a job with the Sewer Authority. I guess that means he’s doing okay. Katrina will be fine. She’ll do something with that Psychology degree. So now it’s just me and Steve and by the looks of him, I’m starting to worry it’s just going to be me soon.
I slam the empty bottle down on the table and check the stash by my foot on the floor. There’s only two left, but there’s more in the fridge. I grab a fresh one, pop the top off with Steve’s Bic, start pounding it down while he laments some more.
“We weren’t supposed to end up like this, Josh. We were supposed to have an impact.”
I try to balance him out.
“Katrina really wants to talk to you.”
Which is true. She said he had stopped speaking to her, that when she told him she was leaving he just stared at her like she was an inanimate object. I told her I’d go see him. So here I am. And he hasn’t gotten up from the futon the whole time.
I lay down some Hallmark card shit.
“She cares about you. Don’t push her away.”
“I’m just gonna keep disappointing her. Everything’s too fuckin’ much.”
I know exactly what he is talking about. It happened to me when I was going into work a few months back. I was on the 57, heading west on JFK Boulevard, packed into the bus like a book on some bibliophile’s shelf, each person a different story, a different set of themes, a different purpose. My brain said, Josh THINK, and I thought, there’s so much pain out in the world, just floating, and my problems are just a speck, a dot on the map amongst billions of dots. I am no longer on the outside looking in. The collective mind frame applies to me. I am just like everybody else.
I bolted from the bus when it stopped at 19th Street, four blocks before I was supposed to get off. I ran through the swarm of people crowding every single inch of the sidewalk, trying to get away from something, terrified because I had nowhere to run to. The panic attack left me gasping for air on a bench in Rittenhouse Square, grasping my cellphone as if I could call someone for help. I ended up calling in sick instead. I just couldn’t mop floors and scrub toilets that day. I couldn’t bottle up the emotions that came with the realization that my existence is inconsequential enough to make it through the eight-hour shift. I hailed a cab, went home, and collapsed on my bed.
Now I just walk everywhere, haven’t ridden a bus since.
But I’m good. I’ve scarred over. Steve will too if he just stops caring, if he comes to grips with his own worthlessness and realizes there is no point to any of this, that nobody in the world is right about anything, that we were all born directly in the middle of the human continuum with no clear understanding of anything that has happened, that is happening, that will happen. There is no need to have an impact.
I give him the abridged version.
“Stop thinking so much.”
He’s not listening to me. His face is in the crook of his elbow now, lit cigarette dangling from his lips, and he’s not moving.
I go over to the open window, check out the scene on 5th. It’s July—seven-thirty on a Saturday night. Nothing crazy. No violence. No anger. Just kids running around on the sidewalk, their moms watching them from the stoop, smoking Virginia Slims, and yelling, “Hey! Get back over here,” every time they get too close to the street. Just hipsters walking their hipster pit bulls. Just the non-stop hum of about fifteen air conditioners hanging out of the row apartment building across the street.
I say over my shoulder, “Come look at this, Steve. Look at all these people, just out here living. They don’t care about having an impact.”
I get nothing in return.
I walk away from the window, downing my fourth Red Stripe, and place the empty bottle on the coffee table next to the other three then pop open another, the last one I have out here.
Steve is in the same position on the futon, the cherry on his cigarette about two centimeters away from singeing his lip.
I grab the American Spirit, take the last drag, then drop it into one of the empty beer bottles on the coffee table.
He doesn’t move. He doesn’t care that I’m here at all.
I backhand his knee.
“You gotta get out of the house, man, seriously. You’re creeping me out.”
I take down the rest of my beer in two huge gulps, and I’m still thirsty.
I have to peel my chucks off the sticky, beer-soaked linoleum floor as I walk across the kitchen towards the fridge.
The place is an eyesore. Dirty dishes piled up in the sink. A lead paint warning duct-taped to the fridge by the landlord, reminding his tenants that if the wall chips and the dust gets in their lungs their risk of getting cancer doubles. Two baby mice on the floor in the corner, squeaking and flailing their tails back and forth, trapped in that glue trap for the rest of their short lives. Remnants of Katrina: the flowers on the table, the quadruple photobooth pics of her and Steve magnetized to the fridge next to the lead paint warning, the organic, cruelty-free health food on the shelf—dried seaweed chips, dried kale chips, dried apricots looking like shrunken heads, all lifeless and small. The inside of the fridge itself is mostly empty except for my four Red Stripes and a bottle of Sriracha.
I grab my beers and head back out into the living room.
And there’s Steve in the same position.
I try to pull him out of his hole, drag him up to my level where nothing matters anymore.
“What’s up with all that seaweed out there?”
I get nothing back. Well, not exactly nothing. He’s got his leg resting on his kneecap, toes tapping the air like they’re slamming down on a bass drum pedal. That’s something, I guess.
I say, “So, what you’re done talking now?”
I’m running short on ideas.
The streetlights are on now. The kids and their mothers have gone in, but those air conditioners stay humming as I press on alone, all loosened up and drunk, looking for something to get into. I got four bottles of Red Stripe banging around in my front hoodie pocket, pulling the neck of my sweatshirt down, making me look like a slob. I’m down for whatever.
I take a right on Mifflin. A plan takes shape—follow this up to 20th. There’s a show at JR’s tonight. I’ll run into somebody I know.
Identical row homes loom as I stumble-stomp down the sidewalk like I own the place. Watch me drain this bottle of Jamaican pride and ditch the empty in the community garden off Broad Street. Watch me take a piss behind the elementary school where that fight scene from Rocky V was shot. Watch me tower over restaurant-goers eating their Americanized Mexican dishes on Passyunk as I strut my stuff towards the bar.
I hit 20th, take a left. Two blocks up I see figures on the corner where JR’s stands. I walk a block, make out the glowing tips of cigarettes. I walk a half a block, see who’s holding them—Joan Jett-looking chicks decked out in leather and denim, minuscule mini-skirts hiked up to their upper thighs, almost revealing everything they’re working with.
I get to the corner, try to bum a cigarette off one of them, but they’re having none of it. Maybe it’s because I tripped when I was stepping onto the sidewalk and instinctively grabbed one of them by the shoulder to keep from falling on my face. Or maybe it’s because after I regained my balance I said, “Yo, let me get a cigarette,” instead of apologizing.
Whatever. They don’t know me.
I pull the door open and get blasted with a wall of noise. Every band sounds bad to me anymore. They’re all the same. Everything’s been done before.
I check out the flyer on the wall to see who’s playing tonight.
Suburban Death Squad from Boston.
Manchurian Candidate from St. Louis.
Headlining is Philly’s own ASSASSINATION.
I barrel through the small group of people hanging out by the entrance. Will’s working the door. He knows me. He won’t make me pay the cover. He’s guzzling a forty, looking bored, staring at his phone. When he sees me, he perks up.
“What’s up, Josh?”
I pull a bottle out of my hoodie pocket.
“What’s up, what’s up? You got something I can open this with?”
He says, “Yeah. Don’t let the bartender see that, though.”
He hands me a Bic. I pop the top, drink, swallow, make a face at him like, I don’t gotta pay, right?
He gestures toward the room the band is playing in with his head like, Nah, go ahead. We clink our bottles together, and I head into the show.
I’m watching three kids from St. Louis do their thing on stage. I don’t know their exact story, but I can fill in the blanks. Their band fund’s in the red. They’ve drawn less than twenty people at every show they played. They believe in what they’re doing.
I home in on the bass. The kid’s playing bullshit lines. Basic octave patterns in nothing but minor scales. Old news. I want to stop the whole charade, tell him that my Fender did that a decade and a half back when I first bought the fucking thing.
They finish their set and get a weak round of applause from the audience.
Good. Manchurian Candidate needs to know how unimportant they are, so they can grow up, get all bitter and apathetic like the rest of us.
By the time ASSASSINATION takes the stage, I’m in the back polishing off my last Red Stripe, brooding in the dark, analyzing the scene in front of me. The alcohol depression is starting to hit. I’m catching nothing but bad vibes.
The singer is bouncing around like a straight-jacketed maniac in some antediluvian insane asylum. I estimate his age at nineteen, maybe twenty. Only people that young get that excited. The measly crowd is already starting to thin out, and they haven’t even finished their set. They finish up with a song called ‘Dachau.’ The lead singer introduces it by ranting about the evils of Nazi concentration camps like he’s bringing something new to the table. The drummer kicks off the song with the prototypical four stick clicks and the noise starts, all redundant and fast and sloppy and indistinguishable to the untrained ear. I can tell what they’re going for, but it’s not working. The drummer is a half-step behind on his blast beats, and the guitar player has a lazy right hand—his strumming can’t keep up with his fingering. The bass player’s holding it down though. I guess that does something for me.
‘Dachau’ is done in less than a minute. The singer sends out the word that they have t-shirts for sale in the back. Ten dollars.
Will’s counting money when I get over to the door. One of the St. Louis kids is standing in front of him. He gets his twenty dollars then walks outside.
The cash count continues, one-dollar bills with the occasional five. Without looking up, Will says, “So how you been, Josh? Y’all playing again or what?”
I scoff at the question.
“Hell no. I can’t do this shit anymore. Pete’s gone, and Steve won’t even leave his apartment.”
One of the Boston kids comes up to Will for his pay-out. He’s full of life, starts telling a story about state troopers searching their van somewhere outside Atlanta.
Will feigns interest, gives him his twenty-dollar cut of the door money then goes back to counting. The kid catches on, leaves without finishing his story.
I watch him as he goes then I say to Will, “I feel so out of place. I think I’m getting too old for this.”
He takes a sip from his Olde English, smirks.
“Josh, you were too old for this when you were nineteen.”
The bands are loading equipment into their vans when I get outside. Busted-up cabs and heads are lifted, strategically placed into the back like they’re pieces to a puzzle.
I remember doing that. Bass cab first, then the drum hardware case, then the guitar cabs, then the bass drum. Toms and cymbals and the snare go on top of the hardware case. Guitars get slid in between the cabs and the side-rear window. The van had to be packed in that order, every night, or else nothing would fit.
I’m sitting on the steps that lead up to JR’s, eyeing them all down.
Boston regurgitates the van search in Atlanta. St. Louis talks about how bad their van smells after living in it for three weeks in hot-ass July. Philly regales their listeners with the story about that time in Chicago when they came back to the van from the house they were staying at to find all the windows smashed.
Everything revolves around the van when you’re on tour. It protects you from the elements when you’re two weeks in and starting to crack. You can crawl in the back after all the equipment is loaded into the venue, and your bandmates are out wandering around Cincinnati or Syracuse or D.C. and just lay there, milk the small amount of alone-time for all it is worth.
Will comes out. I shift my body, give him room to walk down the steps. When he gets to the sidewalk, he half-turns to me and says, “You good to get home? I’m riding with ASSASSINATION.”
“Yeah, yeah I’ll make it.”
Now it’s just me.
I head north on 20th. It’s a little past midnight, and the streets are basically empty except for homeless cats and an old homeless woman who asks me for something, but I dip by her. Her life is just something I can’t deal with right now.
I hope that Korean joint on the corner of 18th and Mifflin is still open, so I can get more beer. I look both ways at 19th and see it to my left—the 57-bus rolling up the street towards me.
My brain says, Josh THINK. I think about what Will said. How I was always too old, always hateful, always self-absorbed. It all comes full circle. The beer dulls the panic but gives the low mood swing a wide berth to work with. I don’t fight it. Let it drag me down to Steve’s level where everything matters. I hear a sound like an elongated sub-level bass drop that seems to be coming from deep inside my own brain, like an atomic bomb explosion in slow motion.
Jeff Klebauskas lives in Philadelphia and is currently an MFA student at Temple University. His work has appeared in Cleaver Magazine and Confetti Head.