When we came out of the evening and into the Kinsmen Field House, people were still mostly in their seats. I wanted to be right in front, so I dragged the girl I was with down the aisle. It was as though we were a bathtub plug that had just been pulled: I looked behind, and everyone was draining toward us, carrying us to the edge of the stage.
Big bass notes rolled through like a hearse.
The hall went black suddenly, then the lights came up fast on treble chord chops.
There. Feet planted together, right leg jerking with each chop like he’s trying to stomp change out of a hole in his pocket. White shoes, white jeans, black cowboy shirt with the sleeves cut off, white star in a red circle on the black t-shirt underneath. I nail the first line, right on cue, sing along so that I’m part of the band.
The girl I’m with thrusts her mouth to my ear and screams, “Oh my god I want to fuck him.”
I’m thinking, “I want to be him.”
The girl next to me got me the ticket to this show. I gave her eleven bucks. She offered the ticket to my cousin, who is an asshole, but he didn’t want it. She’s seen him pick me up after work and he’s given her a ride home a couple times. He flirts like he’s got an affliction: “Anything that squats to pee,” he tells me and then he looks at me like I’m going to be next.
I back off for the next line, then come back in on time, every time.
Yesterday, the girl next to me, Paula, came into the tube room. We both work at the Sears Catalogue Warehouse in Regina . My summer job is to stand in front of a rack of pneumatic tubes, open the ones that are coughed into the trough, pop the top, read the order, stuff the order back into the tube; reposition it, lid-first, at the open mouth of the appropriate screaming vacuum that will redirect the order to shoes, housewares, linens, small appliances, ladies clothes, infants’, toys, children’s’, men’s, and every other fucking thing. It’s hot, it’s noisy, it’s mindless, it pays more than minimum, and it’s mine because my mom used to work in Customer Service (Complaints) before she went on Disability. You have to know someone to work here, even for a summer job.
At the end of yesterday’s shift, Paula followed me out to the parking lot. Paula is heavy and tall, narrow and mannish in the hips but with big breasts, so my cousin has his eyes on them when he says to me, “Sit in the back.”
He looks at her shirtfront, she smiles, he turns the music up loud. “My blood runs cold! My memory has just been sold! My angel is a cennerfold! My angel is a cennerfold!”
Paula shouts toward my cousin. I see her happy mouth moving, but because of the music I can’t hear her until my cousin turns off the radio, so then there’s the one of those moments when the person is accidentally yelling.
“Tomorrow night in Edmonton !” she suddenly yells. Then, more normal, “Do you wanna go?”
My cousin frowns. “I don’t do that punk shit,” he says.
“I’ll go,” I yelp from the back seat.
Paula looks confused but says, “Okay. We have to get the 9:30 bus,” and looks out the passenger side window. My cousin turns the music way up again as we pull out onto Albert Street.
When we get to our house, my mom’s house, my cousin parks so close to the garage door that I have to get out and walk around back of the car to get to the front door. My cousin is already opening his door and getting out, and he meets me behind the car. Grabbing me above the elbows, he says, “Gotcha!” like it’s a game and he’s tickling me or something. He gets his face in close and hisses, “What do you think you’re up to?” He pulls his arms in around me fast so my feet leave the ground and my breath leaves my lungs in an ugly grunt. “Your fucking problem,” he says, “is you’re always trying to be different.” Drop. “Don’t even think of fucking going.”
But I do.
Come out of your cupboards, you boys and girls.
Next morning, at the start of my 7:00 shift, I go to my boss and say, “I’ve got to leave at nine for a doctor’s appointment.”
“No way, José,” my boss says, not raising his head. His scalp and his hair are the same colour. “You change your shift 24 hours in advance. You know that. Besides,” he says, now looking at me over the tops of his glasses, keeping his shiny chins pressed into his neck, “Paula from Mail already used that excuse.” He stares at my head for a long while, until I unclip my i.d. badge from my shirt, put it on the counter beside his fat hand and say, “Alright. I quit.” He frowns deeper in surprise, but only snorts as I leave.
The ice age comes in on the chorus, and the sun is zooming in, and he lives by the river, and then I’m back in again, right on time, every time.
By 9:20, I’m in a Greyhound seat beside Paula. She has a mickey of Southern Comfort. She wants to talk about my cousin. The ride is ten and a half hours long. “What’s he like?”
“A jerk,” I say. “Exactly like a jerk. He listens to shitty music and drinks beer and doesn’t smoke dope.”
“I like his car,” she says.
“Uh huh.” It’s my mom’s car, but I don’t tell her.
“We went driving around last night,” she offers, “after we dropped you off.”
“Yeah. We drove around for a while and drank some beer at Wascana Park .” She giggles. “After I gave him a blow job.”
I already know this.
“Why’d you do that to your head? To your hair?” Paula says.
“I don’t know. Felt like it.”
“Your cousin is really cool,” she says.
I say, “He doesn’t like punk rock.”
“Neither do I,” she says.
“Why’d you buy tickets?” I ask.
“I didn’t.” My heart skips a beat. “I stole them from my sister.
This morning, after your cousin dropped me off. She’s going to shit.”
I hate this girl. I feel sorry for her sister. But I’m glad I’m going.
“So…let’s get drunk!” she says.
“No thanks,” I say, turning my head and pushing it down into the chair back, shutting my eyes.
The bass line starts to roll up the song, and a rooster crows three times.
Last night, after my cousin and Paula left to go driving around, I sat with mom in the living room and watched Love Boat on TV. Then I watched MASH. My mom didn’t wake up or come up or whatever it’s called when I kissed her forehead and checked her IV and everything. We called it the living room even though she was dying in it, and the hospital bed didn’t leave room for a couch or anything. I sat on a kitchen chair beside the bed, ate some soup, held her hand, put Vaseline on her lips once. I turned her onto her other side, making sure her arm wasn’t stuck underneath.
A guitar string hammers Morse Code short short short long long long short short short; short short short long long long short short short, just like on the record. Ess oh ess. Ess oh ess.
My mom’s hair never did grow back in after the last time. When she was allowed to come home, I don’t think anyone expected her to last more than a few weeks. My cousin was still working at his job when he moved in to help out. Now, whenever the hospice nurse comes, she always asks if we want to move my mom into palliative. I always say no and my cousin always says no, but for different reasons.
I hold my mom’s hand, listen to her breathing and mine, and think to myself, “What a knob. It’s not about going. It’s about coming back.”
Then it’s dark again. The spy-movie guitar riff and a single spot that picks him out. All the lights come on and as the song kicks in he slips the strap over his head and with a straight-arm throw sends the guitar into the dark behind him without even looking. A roadie, waiting in the dark, catches it. He grabs the mike, growls, “Driiiiiiive,” like it’s a threat. Boom boom. “Drive.” Boom boom.
When I hear my cousin come in the back door, I turn the TV up really loud. Even so, I can hear my cousin’s low voice, and then a higher laughing voice reply. After a while, I go down the dark hallway toward the bathroom.
The door to my cousin’s room is open. They’re not in there. I’m walking down the dark hallway. The light from the TV in the living room flickers on the walls so that it’s all underwater blue. Everything feels really slow as I get closer to my room. The door is open and what I see first are the soles of Paula’s dirty feet. Her toes are bent under, her heels point toward the ceiling, and they rock slightly. Her bum is sort of covered by the short skirt she is wearing, but she has no shirt on, and I can see her breasts swing and then slap, swing and then slap, against my cousin’s knees. She’s got her arms up on the bed, and he’s got her head held down.
My cousin’s eyes are aimed right at me so I stop, and figure out too late that he isn’t seeing me. Then he is. His eyes fasten onto me.
Joe Strummer knee-drops to the edge of the stage, falls forward and grinds the side of his face into the floor, bellows into the mike he’s holding down so it will stay still and listen. Already hoarse three songs into the set, voice raw with something more than half grief, he tells it: “My baby drove up in a brand new. Cadillaaaac! Yes she did!”
Beside me, Paula is still screaming. “I wanna fuck him! I wanna fuck him!”
“Why don’t you just fuck everyone then, you fucking hosebag!” I bawl as loud as I can, hurting my throat. It’s like screaming under water. She smiles big. “Right on!” and gives me two thumbs up. She hasn’t heard me at all. She turns back to the stage. We’re both sweaty: where her bare arm slips against mine, it’s slick.
I know my cousin sees me because he rams his arms into the mattress of my bed, his hands press onto my old pink towel bedspread, and he locks his elbows. He is pumping so fast, fucking Paula in the face is what he’s doing, and he’s doing it so fast that his chin points at me as if he is nodding and nodding and nodding, agreeing to something I don’t want to know what. Or he is pointing at me, at me, at me: you’re next.
I try to stop looking, and I try to make my feet move. For some reason I want to go back to my mom, but when my feet move, they keep taking me down the hall to the bathroom. I go in and lock the door, slide down to the floor with my back against it, sit on the cold tile until it’s over.
I sit there on the bathroom floor for a long time. I run a bath but I don’t get in it. I wonder if my mom is okay.
After I figure they’ve gone, I open the bathroom door, peer out. The hallway is dark. It’s quiet. They — he — must have turned the TV off.
And when I get to the living room, I find out why it’s so quiet. My mom’s not breathing.
Joe Strummer is crawling around on his hands and knees, circling the mike that lies helpless on the stage. He puts his mouth close, so close his lips touch it. “Baby baby won’t you hear my plea?” I feel like crying too.
For a long time I sit in the dark living room. She hasn’t been on painkillers for a long time. There are none in the house as far as I know. Her IV is still in place. Her face looks calm. I bolt the front door and the back door from the inside, hoping that bastard will stay out all night with Paula. I get into my mom’s hospital bed with her, sleep there all night.
In the morning, the house is cold, my mom is cold, and I feel like I’m never going to warm up. Except for me and her, the house is empty. I know she can’t feel it, but I tuck the blankets close in around her arms and legs and feet, the bones, bone-thin.
In the bathroom, I use scissors first to get my hair short all over, then use a razor to get down to the skin on the sides. It takes a while, but I get it done eventually. From some angles, it makes me look more like my mom. When I leave the house, it’s still early enough to make it to work on time, even though I have to walk.
He stays low on the stage. I can almost touch his mohawk curls. His left arm is jack knifed up, choking the mike stand. We are so close, when he whips himself back up to standing; the sweat from his face and hair splashes my fingertips.
He leaps for the mike. “She ain’t coming back!”
Squeezed in beside me, Paula seems to sober up enough to notice where we are, and starts to dance up and down, or is danced by the press of the crowd around her.
“She ain’t coming back!”
I’m bobbing my head so hard my neck hurts. I wish I could raise myself up a little higher so Joe could see my Brigade Rosse shirt.
I am happy.
“She ain’t never coming back!”
I know I am not Joe Strummer. He is the frontman of the only band that matters, and I am a teenage girl from Saskatchewan . Feedback cuts above our heads in the Kinsmen Field house like a bullwhip, and lasts as long as the pain of that might.
Packed tight on the floor, the stage edge cuts under my arms as I reach. Joe Strummer turns his head as though to listen to something, mouths ‘fuck’ to a roadie or to Mick or who? Nods at what he hears, nods at Mick, at the drummer and then at Paul, who is all long legs, biceps, black leather and bass.
The drummer calls, “One two three four!” Drums and bass crash into each other. The drummer plays like he’s sprinting on the spot.
The pressure of the crowd behind us is a live, surging thing. I have to push back. I use my elbows, don’t say anything, push again, say, “Hey!”
Instead of more room, I suddenly have less. I am vised between bodies that piston up and down, squeezing me tighter with each pulse. Paula is now somehow five or six people away from me, and, unlikely as it is, this makes me feel scared. I reach my hand out to her. She’s yelling straight up into the air. My breath is squeezed from me. I feel my lungs deflate. I can’t even yell. My arms are still on the stage, but my vision is going funny.
Joe wails. The guitar keeps lashing feedback. “Hey hey,” cries Joe, then, clang buzz feedback squeal. The music grinds to a halt. “Iss a fucking nuthouse, innit? Stop the show. Turn it off. Aw Chris’.”
I think the music has stopped, but I could be going unconscious, or going into a dying dream, because Joe Strummer and a roadie each have one of my arms and are scraping me over the edge of the stage. My studded belt catches and for a split moment I am stuck. Then scrape of metal fly and thigh and my legs don’t bend that way, but my ankles and shoe tops scrape over and I am beached on stage.
I try to stumble up, get my feet and knees under me, and a hand is on my arm above the elbow. I reach up, grip. I have hold of Joe Strummer’s arm when I look up. He looks right into my eyes and becomes utterly still. Doesn’t smile, just looks.
His eyes are narrowed at the corners, smiling there only, clear. His mouth is opened slightly, jaw relaxed, and I can see the tip of his tongue.
He is busy, that’s all. Saving people, I think.
Then he smiles with his mouth. Topper counts in Clampdown again. The ones who have been hauled to safety onto the stage, stranded punks like me, start to dance, heads banging to the drums and bass, washed by feedback.
Joe Strummer smiles maybe at the white star on my red shirt, at my white peg leg jeans, at my hair, I don’t know what. He pulls me to standing, puts one hand on either side of my head where the skin is still smooth from last night, draws my forehead to his so they rest together, keeps his hands on the sides of my head and shrugs his shoulders so I know to put my hands on his head. I wonder what it must look like from the audience, what we look like with our foreheads together and our mohawks touching. I let my thumb and finger trace the outside edge of his ear from the strangely pointed tip down to the lobe. The subsonic growl rhyme that should come next in the song doesn’t, because Joe Strummer is whispering instead, whispering and whispering to me only, so that his breath dries the sweat from our skin. He rolls his forehead against mine and whispers and breathes and what he says is so low that I know it will take me a long time after to figure it out, the words he pours off the tip of his tongue and into my ear.
For a moment, he lets his cheek rest in my open palm. Then everything drops out.
Kick snare kick snare kick snare kick snare kick snare kick snare kick snare kick.
Joe’s hands let go, and he lunges to the mike. “What are you gonna do now?”
What I do is let my lungs fill with air. It feels good, like the first real breath I’ve taken in twenty-four hours. So I draw another.
And another. And another.
Janette Platana was born and raised in Saskatchewan and now lives in Peterborough, Ontario. She’s currently at work on a novel.