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WAR FOR THE OAKS
Another Magic Moment in Showbiz
The University Bar was not, in the grand scheme of the city, close to the university. Nor was its clientele collegiate. They worked the assembly lines and warehouses, and wanted uncomplicated entertainment. The club boasted a jukebox stocked by the rental company and two old arcade games. It was small and smoky and smelled vaguely bad. But InKline Plain, the most misspelled band in Minneapolis, was there, playing the first night of a two-night gig with a sort of weary desperation. The promise of fifty dollars per band member kept them going; it was more than they'd made last week.
Eddi McCandry stared bleakly at the dim little stage with its red-and-black flocked wallpaper. The band's equipment threatened to overflow it. She'd tried to wedge her guitar stand out of the way, but it still seemed likely to leap out and trip someone. She was glad the keyboard player had quit two weeks before--there wasn't room for him.
The first set had been bad enough, playing to a nearly empty club. The next two were worse. Too many country fans with requests for favorites. And of course, Stuart, as bandleader, had accepted them all, played them wretchedly, forgot the words, and made it plain that he didn't care. They were the wrong band for this bar.
"I think," Eddi said, "that this job was a bad idea."
Her companion nodded solemnly. "Every time you've said that this evening, it's sounded smarter." Carla DiAmato was the drummer for InKline Plain. With her shaggy black hair and her eyes made up dark for the stage, she looked exotic as a tiger, wholly out of place in the University Bar.
"It would have been smarter to tell Stuart it was a bad idea," Eddi said. "Ideally, before he booked the job."
"You couldn't know."
"I could. I did. Look at this place."
Carla sighed. "I think I'm gonna hear the 'This Band Sucks Dead Rat' speech again."
"Well, it does."
"Through a straw. I know. So why don't you quit?"
Eddi looked at her, then at her glass, then at the ceiling. "Why don't you?"
"It's steady work." Carla was silent for a moment, then added, "Well, it used to be."
"Tsk. You don't even have my excuse."
"You mean I haven't been sleeping with Stuart?"
"Yeah," Eddi sighed, "like that."
"Sometimes I take my blessings for granted. I'm going to go up and scare the cockroaches out of the bass drum."
"Good luck," said Eddi. "I'll be right behind you."
She almost made it to the stage before Stuart Kline grabbed her arm. His face was flushed, and his brown hair was rumpled, half-flattened. She sighed. "You're drunk, Stu," she said with a gentleness that surprised her.
"Fuck it." Petulance twisted up his male-model features. She should have felt angry, or ashamed. All she felt was a distant wonder: I used to be in love with him.
She asked, "You want to do easy stuff this set?"
"I said fuck it, fuck off. I'm okay."
Eddi shrugged. "It's your hanging."
He grabbed her arm again. "Hey, I want you to be nicer to the club managers."
"Don't look at me like that. Just flirt. It's good for the band."
She wanted to tweak his nose, see his smile--but that didn't make him smile anymore. "Stuart, you don't get gigs by sending the rhythm guitarist to flirt with the manager. You get 'em by playing good dance music."
"I play good dance music."
"We play anything that's already been played to death. All night, people have been sticking their heads in the front door, listening to half a song, and leaving. You in a betting mood?"
"I bet the nice man at the bar tells us not to come back tomorrow."
"Damn you," he raged suddenly, "is that my fault?"
"You pissed him off, didn't you? Why do you have to be such a bitch?"
For a long moment she thought she might shout back at him. But it was laughter that came racing up her throat. Stuart's look of foolish surprise fed it, doubled it. She planted a smacking kiss on his chin. "Stuart, honey," she grinned, "you gotta grow where you're planted."
She loped over and swung up on stage, took her lipstick-red Rickenbacker from the stand, and flipped the strap over her shoulder. She caught Carla's eye over the tops of the cymbals. "Dale back from break yet?"
Carla shook her head, then inhaled loudly through pursed lips. "Parking lot," she croaked.
"Oh, goody. The whole left side of the stage in an altered state of consciousness. Let's figure out the set list."
"But we've got a set list."
"Let's make a new one. May as well be hanged for Prince as for Pink Floyd."
Eddi grinned. "I want to leave this band in a blaze of glory."
Carla's eyes grew wide. "You're--Jesus. Okay, set list. Can we dump all the Chuck Berry?"
"Yeah. Let's show this dive that we at least flirt with modern music, huh?"
They came up with a list of songs in a few gleeful minutes. Stuart hoisted himself on stage as they finished, eyeing them with sullen suspicion. He slung on his guitar and began to noodle, running through his arsenal of electronic effects--more, Eddi suspected, to prove to the audience that he had them than to make sure they worked.
Dale, the bass player, ambled on stage looking vaguely pleased with himself. Dale was all right in his own disconnected way; but he liked country rock and hated rock 'n' roll, and consoled himself with dope during breaks. Eddi cranked up the bass on her amp and hoped it would make up for whatever he was too stoned to deliver.
Carla was watching her, waiting for the cue to start. Stuart and Dale were ready, if not precisely waiting. "Give us a count," she said to Carla. Stuart glared at her. Carla counted, and they kicked off with a semblance of unity.
They began with a skewed version of Del Shannon's "Runaway."It was familiar enough to pull people onto the dance floor, and the band's odd arrangement disguised most of the mistakes. Eddi and Carla did impromptu girl-group vocals. Dale looked confused. Then they dived into the Bangles' "In a Different Light," and Stuart began to sulk. Eddi had anticipated that. The next one was an old Eagles song that gave Stuart a chance to sing and muddle up the lead guitar riffs.
Perhaps the scanty audience felt Eddi's sudden madness; they were in charity with the band for the first time that night. People had finally started to dance. Eddi hoped it wasn't too late to impress the manager, but suspected it was.
Carla set the bass drum and her drum machine to tossing the percussion back and forth. The dancers were staying on the floor, waiting for the beat to fulfill its promise. Eddi murmured the four-count. Dale thumped out a bass line that was only a little too predictable. Stuart shot Eddi an unreadable look and layered on the piercing voice of his Stratocaster. Eddi grabbed her mike and began to sing.
You told me I was pretty I can't believe it's true. The little dears you left me for They all look just like you. Ugly is as ugly does--Are you telling me what to do?
Wear my face You can have it for a week Wear my face Aren't the cheekbones chic? Wear my face See how people look at you? Wear my face See how much my face can do?
They were still dancing. The band was together and tight at last, and Eddi felt as if she'd done it all herself in a burst of goddesslike musical electricity.
Then she saw the man standing at the edge of the dance floor. His walnut-stain skin seemed too dark for his features. He wore his hair smoothed back, except for a couple of escaped curls on his forehead.His eyes were large and slanted upward under thick arched brows; his nose was narrow and slightly aquiline. He wore a long dark coat with the collar up, and a gleaming white scarf that reflected the stage lights into his face. When she looked at him, he met her eyes boldly and grinned.
Eddi snagged the microphone, took the one step toward him that she had room for, and sang the last verse at him.
I've seen the way you look away When you think I might see, You say I scare you silly--That's reacting sensibly. Why should people look at you When they could look at me?
It was Eddi who had to turn away, and the last chorus was delivered to the dancers. The man had met her look with a silent challenge that made her skin prickle. His sloping eyes had been full of reflected lights in colors that shone nowhere in the room.
She almost missed Carla's neat segue into the next song. She nailed down her first guitar chord barely in time, and caught Stuart's scowl out of the corner of her eye.
Eddi had wanted to close with something rambunctious, something the audience would like yet that would allow Eddi and Carla to respect themselves in the morning. Carla had hit upon ZZ Top's "Cheap Sunglasses." Halfway into it, with a shower of sparks and a vile smell, the ancient power amp for the PA dropped dead.
As the microphones failed, Stuart's vocals disappeared tinnily under the sound of guitars and bass and Carla's drums. Stuart, never at his best in the face of adversity, lost his temper. He yanked his guitar strap over his head and let the Strat drop to the stage. The pickups howled painfully through his amp.
Eddi heard Dale's bass stumble through a succession of wrong notes, and fall silent. She supposed he was right; Stuart had made it impossible to end the song gracefully. But for her pride's sake, she played out the measure and added a final flourish. Carla matched her perfectly, and Eddi wanted to kiss her feet for it.
The dancers had deserted the floor, and people were finishing drinks and pulling on jackets. She swept the room a stagey bow. At the cornerof her vision, she thought she saw a dark-coated figure move toward the door.
Stuart had turned off his amp and unplugged his axe. His expression was forbidding. Eddi turned away to tend to her own equipment, but not before she saw the club manager striding toward the stage.
"You the bandleader?" she heard him ask Stuart.
"Yeah," said Stuart, "what is it?"
It's our walking papers, Stu, she thought sadly, knowing that he could save the whole gig now, if only he would be pleasant and conciliating. He wouldn't be, of course. The manager would tell Stuart what he should be doing with his band, and Stuart, instead of thanking him for the tip, would recommend he keep his asshole advice to himself.
And Stuart would make Eddi out the villain if he could. Well, she was done with that now. She finished packing her guitar and tracked the power cord on her amplifier back to the outlet.
"You're that sure, huh?" Carla's voice came from over her head.
"You mean, am I packing up everything? Yeah. You want help tearing down?"
Carla looked faded and limp. "You can pack the electronic junk."
Eddi nodded, and started unplugging things from the back of the drum machine. "You done good, kid. Even at the end when it hit the fan."
Carla shook her head and grinned. "Well, you got to go out in a blaze of something."
Over at the bar, Stuart and the manager had begun to shout at each other. "I booked a goddamn five-piece!" the manager yelled. "You goddamn well did break your contract!"
Carla looked up at Eddi, her eyes wide. "Oh boy--you mean we're not even gonna get paid?"
Eddi turned to see how Dale was taking the news. He was nowhere to be seen.
"Carla, you think your wagon will hold your equipment and mine, too?"
Carla smiled. "The Titanic? I won't even have to put the seat down."
They did have to put the seat down, but the drums, drum machine, Eddi's guitar, and her Fender Twin Reverb all fit. They made three trips out the back door with the stuff, and Stuart and the manager showed no sign of noticing them.
As Carla bullied the wagon out of its parking space, Eddi spotted Dale. He was leaning against the back of his rusted-out Dodge. The lit end of his joint flared under his nose. "Hold it," Eddi said to Carla. She jumped out of the car and ran over to him. "Hey, Dale!"
"Eddi? Hullo. Is Stuart still at it?"
"Still at what?"
Dale shrugged and dragged at the joint. "You know," he croaked, "screwing up." He exhaled and held the J out to her.
Eddi shook her head. "I didn't think you'd noticed--I mean--"
"Been pretty bad the last month. It'd be hard not to." He smiled sadly at the toes of his cowboy boots. "So, you going?"
"Yeah. That is, I'm leaving the band."
"That's what I meant."
"Oh. Well, I wanted to say good-bye. I'll miss you." Which, Eddi realized with a start, was more true than she'd thought.
Dale smiled at his joint. "Maybe I'll quit gigging. Friend of mine has a farm out past Shakopee, says I can stay there. He's got goats, and some beehives--pretty fuckin' weird." He looked at her, and his voice lost some of its dreaminess. "You know, you're really good. I don't much like that stuff, you know, but you're good."
Eddi found she couldn't answer that. She hugged him instead, whispered, "Bye, Dale," and ran back to the car.
Carla turned north on Highway 35. Eddi hung over the back of her seat watching the Minneapolis skyline rise up and unroll behind them. White light banded the top of the IDS building, rebounded off the darkened geometry of a blue glass tower nearby. The clock on the old courthouse added the angular red of its hands. The river glittered like wrinkled black patent leather, and the railroad bridges glowed like something from a movie set.
"I love this view," Eddi sighed. "Even the Metrodome's not bad from here, for a glow-in-the-dark fungus."
"Boy, you are feeling sentimental," said Carla.
"Yeah." Eddi turned around to face the windshield. "Carla, am I doing the right thing?"
"You mean dumping Personality Man?"
Eddi looked at her, startled.
"Hey," Carla continued, "no big deduction. You couldn't leave Stu's band and stay friends with Stu--nobody could. So kissing off the band means breaking up with Mr. Potato Head."
Eddi giggled. "It's a really pretty potato."
"And solid all the way through. This'll probably wipe the band out, y'know."
"He can replace me," Eddi shrugged.
"Maybe. But you and me?"
"I'm not sticking around to watch Stuart piss and moan." Carla's tone was a little too offhand, and Eddi shot her a glance. "Oh, all right," Carla amended. "Stuart would scream about what a bitch and a traitor you are, I'd tell him he was a shit and didn't deserve you, and I'd end up walking out anyway. Why not now?"
Eddi slugged her gently in the shoulder. "Yer a pal."
"Yeah, yeah. So start a band I can drum in."
"You could play for anybody."
"I don't want to play for anybody. You do that, you end up working with bums like Stuart."
With a lurch and a rumble of drumheads, they pulled in the driveway of Chester's. Even in the dark, its bits of Tudor architecture were unconvincing. The bar rush that hit every all-night restaurant was in full force; they had to wait for a table. When they got one, they ordered coffee and tea.
"So, are you going to start a band?"
Eddi slumped in her seat. "Oh God, Carla. It's such a crappy way to make a living. You work and work, and you end up playing cover tunes in the Dew Drop Inn where all the guys slow-dance with their hands in their girlfriends' back pockets."
"So you don't do that kind of band."
"What kind do you do?"
Their order arrived, and Carla dunked a tea bag with great concentration. "Originals," she said at last. "Absolutely new, on-the-edge stuff. Very high class. Only play the good venues."
Eddi stared at her. "Maybe I should just go over to Control Data and apply for a job as Chairman of the Board."
Carla looked out the window. "Listen. You don't become a bar band and work your way up from there. There is no up from there. It's a dead end. All you can become is the world's best bar band."
Eddi sighed. "I don't want a new band. I want to be a normal person."
Carla's dark eyes were very wide. "Oh," she said.
"Hey," Eddi smiled limply, "it's not like you to miss a straight line."
"Too easy," Carla said with a shrug. Then she shook her head and made her black hair fly, and seemed to shake off her sorrow as well. "Give it time. You don't remember how awful it is being normal."
"Not as awful as being in InKline Plain."
"Oh, worse," said Carla solemnly. "They make you sit at a desk all day and eat vending machine donuts, and your butt gets humongous."
"Now that," Eddi said, "is a job I can handle."
"If you work hard, you get promoted to brownies." Carla set her cup down. "Come on, let's roll."
Outside, the wind was blowing. It had none of the rough-sided cold of winter in it; it was damp, with a spoor of wildness that seemed to race through Eddi's blood. It made her want to run, yell, do any foolish thing ... .
"You okay?" Carla's voice broke into her mood. "If you don't get in the car, I'm gonna leave without you."
Eddi took pleasure in the dash to the car, the way the wind tugged on her hair. "Roll the windows down."
"Are you bats? We'll freeze."
Eddi rolled down her own, but it wasn't enough. As they drove toward the city, the early spring madness drained away. The wagon's rattles and squeaks, its smell of cigarette butts and old vinyl and burnt oil, took its place. By the time they'd reached the edge of downtown, Eddi felt weary in every muscle and bone.
What should she do now? What could she do? It sounded fine to tell Carla that she wanted to be normal for once, but Eddi had never been suited to a normal life. Once she had taken a job as a security guard, patrolling an abandoned factory from four until midnight. Each night her imagination had tenanted the shadows with burglars and arsonists. At the end of a week the shadows were full, and she quit. She typed too slowly--did everything with her hands too slowly, in fact, except play the guitar.
As for a normal love affair, it wasn't impossible. She was reasonably intelligent. She was attractive, though not beautiful: blond and gray-eyed with strong features and clear skin; and she was small and slender and knew how to choose her clothes. But she wasn't sure where to find men who weren't--well, musicians.
"Mighty quiet," Carla said, as if she already knew why.
"I'm ... I guess I'm beginning to realize the consequences of everything."
"Mmm. You going to chicken out?"
"No. But ... would you call me tomorrow? Around two-ish? I figure I'll call Stu at one and tell him."
"And you'll need someone to tell you you're gonna be okay."
Eddi smiled sheepishly. "You must have done this yourself."
"Everybody has to, at least once. Don't beat yourself over the head for it."
The light was red at Washington and Hennepin, the corner where Carla would begin negotiating the rat's nest of one-way streets that led to Eddi's apartment. "Let me off here," she said suddenly.
"I want to walk. It's a nice night."
Carla was shocked. "It's freezing. And you'll get murdered."
"You've been living around the lakes too long. You think any place with buildings more than three stories high is full of addicts."
"And I'm right. Anyway, what about your axe and stuff?"
It was true; she couldn't haul her guitar and amplifier fourteen blocks. She was settling back in the passenger seat when Carla spoke again.
"I know, I know. 'Carla, would you mind taking them to your place and carrying them all the way up the back stairs, then carrying them back down tomorrow when you come over to keep me from being miserable 'cause I broke up with my boyfriend?' Sure, Ed, what're friends for?"
Eddi giggled. "If you'd quit going to Mass, you'd make a great Jewish mother." She leaned over and hugged her.
"Jeez, will you get out of here? The light's changed twice already!" After Eddi had bounced out and slammed the door, Carla shouted through the half-open window, "I'll call at two!"
"Thank you!" Eddi yelled back, and waved as the station wagon rumbled and clanked away from the curb. The gold-and-gray flank of the library rose before her, and she followed it to the Nicollet Mall.
Whatever had tugged at her in the restaurant parking lot refused to be summoned back now. Eddi shook her head and started down the mall, and hoped that the effort would blow her melancholy away. The rhythm of her steps reminded her of a dozen different songs at once,and she hummed one softly to herself. It was Kate Bush, she realized, "Cloudbusting," and she sang it as she walked.
Then she saw the figure standing by the bus shelter across the street.
By the shape, it was a man--a man's broad-brimmed hat and long, fitted coat. He didn't move, didn't seem even to turn his head to watch her, but she had a sudden wild understanding of the idea of a bullet with one's name on it. This figure had her name on him.
You must be feeling mighty low, girl, she scolded herself, if you think that every poor idiot who's missed his bus is lying in wait for you. Still, the man seemed naggingly present, and almost familiar. And three in the morning was an odd hour to wait for a bus in a town where the buses quit running at half past midnight.
Her pace was steady as she crossed the empty street. Behind her, she heard his steps begin. It's not fair, she raged as she sped up. I don't need this, not tonight. She thought she heard a low laugh behind her, half the block away. Her stride lost some of its purpose and took on an edge of panic.
South of the power company offices, Eddi turned and headed for Hennepin Avenue. If there were still people on any street in Minneapolis, they would be on Hennepin. A police cruiser might even come by ... .
The footsteps behind her had stopped. There, see? Poor bastard was just walking down Nicollet. I'll be fine now--
A black, waist-high shape slunk out of the alley in front of her. Its bared teeth glittered as it snarled; its eyes glowed red. It was a huge black dog, stalking stiff-legged toward her. Eddi backed up a step. It made a ferocious noise and lunged. She turned and ran in the only direction she could, back toward Nicollet.
She got one of the streetlight posts on the mall between her and the dog and turned to face it. It wasn't there. Across the street, in the shadow of a doorway, Eddi saw the silhouette of the man in the hat and long coat. He threw back his head, and she heard his laughter. The streetlight fell on his face and throat and she saw the gleam of his white scarf, his dark skin and sloping, shining eyes. It was the man from the dance floor, from the University Bar. She ran.
The footsteps behind her seemed unhurried, yet they never dropped back, no matter how fast she ran. She tried again to turn toward Hennepin. The black dog lunged at her from out of a parking ramp exit, its red eyes blazing.
This is crazy, she thought with the dead calm of fear. Muggers and mad dogs. I'm stuck in a Vincent Price movie. Where are the zombies?
She was running down Nicollet again before she realized that it couldn't be the same dog. But it was insane to think that the man could have known she would walk home, impossible to think he had a pack of dogs. Her breath burned in her throat. She had a stitch in her side. Her pace had become a quick stumble.
She'd almost reached the end of the mall, she realized. Two blocks away were the Holiday Inn and the Hyatt, and she could run into either, into a lobby full of light and bellhops and a desk clerk who'd call the police. She staggered across the street toward Peavey Plaza and Orchestra Hall.
The black dog seemed to form out of the shadows. Perhaps it was only one dog, after all; surely there weren't two dogs like this. It was huge, huge, its head low, its fur bristling gunmetal-dark in the street light. It growled softly, in macabre counterpoint to the waterfall sounds of the Peavey Plaza fountain. Did the damned dog know it stood between her and safety? How had it gotten past her? She moved sideways, through the concrete planters that marked the sidewalk level of Peavey Plaza. The hotels seemed miles away now. She would have to try to lose both dog and man in the complexity of the ornamental pool and fountains below her, and escape out the other side.
The dog lifted its head and howled, and Eddi thought of the dark man and his laugh. She wanted to curse, to throw something, to be home in her bed. She raced down a flight of steps, then another.
The footsteps behind her were sudden, as was the tap on her shoulder. She tried to turn in midstride and her foot didn't land on anything. Just before she plunged backward and headfirst down the last of the steps, she saw the man behind her, his eyes wide, his hand reaching out.
Then pain took away her fear, and darkness took the pain.
Copyright © 1987, 2001 by Emma Bull