I finally finished the short story I started last January. Here's a background on why I wrote this piece. Now before you literary types count the number of mistakes I make per paragraph, please bear in mind that this is my very first serious effort at writing. And definitely the longest. Having actually finished it is, for me, an achievement in itself. (cue: canned applause)
Thank you. You can bash this piece now but I won't guarantee that I won't delete your comments. After all, this is my blog. Ayt!
"You're up in 30 minutes, Bro," the stage manager yells at me over the throbbing din. Her curt announcement is followed by an anxious smile. I respond with a raised thumb and a confident nod. A fleeting shaft of light momentarily reveals her tired eyes. She hesitates then starts to say something I couldn't make out because of the noise. I lean closer and strain my neck but she suddenly cuts herself off and trudges off towards the buffet tables.
Marian. I remember her name now. Everyone backstage had been calling her Yan which I took to follow. But I remembered distinctly that I used to call her by a different name – Mar.
I spy on Marian through the gaps in the sparse crowd. She pauses in front of the steaming half-empty chafing dishes while holding her worn clipboard to her flat bosom. Her eyes, obscured by narrow heavy-rimmed glasses, glide over the few choices displayed before her. If not for her eyewear, she'd look too young and unconvincing for a stage manager. Maybe that's why she wore them, to appear less diminutive. They were probably not even corrective at all.
Marian reaches for a clean plate off the top of a short pile. Hesitating, she slowly turns her head in my direction. Quickly, I turn to look away! My reaction was a tad too slow. She knows I'm worried too. My mustard yellow telecaster perched on my lap gives me something to do. Switching my eyes back and forth between my guitar's headstock and the tuner parked between my two feet on the steps, I make a show of plucking each string and twisting the machine heads intently.
I had tuned my guitar twice already since arriving. A pointless exercise since once would have been enough. It doesn't calm my nerves. Not tonight.
Where the hell was Jeremy?
He should have been here an hour ago, our appointed call time. This is so unprofessional of us. Not every band gets to be headlined in a show and this is our first big break. If anything, I would have thought Jeremy would show some eagerness.
"I'm on my way bai", the text message on my phone had read. I wasn't even half convinced he really was, but I wanted to believe he was telling the truth this time around. If he really was on his way when he sent that message, he should have been here already. He wasn't. I should have expected this.
Last week, we had a practice session we had to cancel because of a sudden personal emergency of his. We had booked a practice studio on a Monday night for a two hour session. We all arrived at roughly the appointed time, except Jeremy. Considering his habits, we figured he was running late again and would be arriving shortly.
Ten minutes came and went. Then twenty, then half an hour. Still no Jeremy. I fish out my cheap Nokia and type in a question mark, hit send and wait. Nothing.
After a long half-hour, he finally texts back apologizing he couldn't make it. He explains with cryptic phrases how wasted he was and how he needed to sort things out only it was too personal to explain. I hand my phone over to Sandy who was straddling a chair. After a quick scan she hands it over to Jherson before leaning further forward into the backrest she was hugging.
His message was worded like he was in dire straits and a whim away from committing suicide. None of us believed his ass. We hated his guts and probably wished he actually did hang himself with a guitar strap. No one though said anything openly in the group except through snide and indirect comments.
Jherson hands me back my phone. "So, we're the hostages again tonight huh."
He leans back in his chair. "How 'bout a round of beer to sympathize with Jeremy's sudden personal emergency?" the last phrase delivered in an exaggerated American street twang parodying Jeremy's faux accent he reserved for media interviews.
We all laughed and felt clever and nasty behind his back. But we were the ones being had. Just that none of us would openly admit to it. It was like we all knew that if someone would speak up – say anything even loosely serious about the problems Jeremy was causing the band – a huge dam holding back two years worth of pent up disgust would burst open. Nobody wanted any pointless talk to go his way. Why ruin an evening for Jeremy? He didn't deserve wasted spit.
Tonight though, he deserved a mouthful from the band.
Now, busying myself with my gear, I could tell the crowd had swollen even without looking up. The racket had noticeably picked up over the last few minutes. Although the noise from the audience wasn't at its expected peak yet, the growing buzz was now clearly audible through the regular ebbs in the music.
The concert was being held in the parking lot of a mall that had opened just last month so its relative novelty assured it of curious visitors even though it was located in the city's suburbs. Even without the free concert happening here and on a Friday night at that, everyone knew the crowd would swell a lot more by the evening's peak.
The band that had been playing finally finishes their set to a lukewarm applause. The token clapping rapidly wanes when suddenly, the monolithic speakers stacked up on both sides of the stage blare an annoyingly processed music that, curiously, is much louder than the live rock performance it succeeds.
The corporate jingles! Piercing the humid air, they blast away without mercy and in rapid succession. The series cycles and quickly turns predictable. Without really thinking about it, you could figure out the order each 30 second segment was played. It gets to a point where your mind anticipates the next jingle ahead by half a second. That's when it gets really annoying. I guess that's the point. To sell cell phone credits, beer, and chewing gum to crowds, you need crappy jingles repeated with utter abandon until it numbs the throng's collective senses. Not so much hypnosis as it is mass surrender at the unrelenting onslaught.
The next band needs time to set up anyway so it makes sense to fill in the gaps with – noise. It wouldn't be a rock concert if the decibel levels didn't stay up at unhealthy levels.
"Did Jeremy text you already?" Sandy interrupts my third guitar tuning. Looking down at me, she casts an irregular shadow obscuring my view. My old gadget's display is the traditional needle that swings a short arc, sort of like a car's odometer. Not a glowing LED display.
"Yeah. He says he's on the way. Would you mind stepping to one side please?"
"What time did he text you? Just now?"
About an hour ago. Sandy, I can't read my tuner!" A hint of irritation escapes me.
Sandy shuffles grudgingly to one side. "Did he leave the house already?"
"How should I know?"
"Text him again. Tell him we're up next. Yan's been asking. Tell him that."
"Why don't you text him yourself?" I finally look up at her, pulling out the cord from my guitar. "Maybe your charm can help" I balance my guitar on its collapsible stand.
"Atay!" Sandy grimaced. "If this wasn't a paying gig, I wouldn't be here you know"
Sandy had been openly hinting at her disgust with Jeremy lately. But only in front of us, never when Jeremy was around. Not like her, really. She was always the most outspoken in the band - typical of band vocalists. By nature, she talked a lot, which helped when you're on stage for spiels or for dealing with the media. But even she held back a bit with Jeremy.
A soft spot perhaps?
Ok, so maybe she liked him. It wouldn't be the first time someone fell for a bandmate. Relationships in a band never get anywhere. Sure, I know of a musician couple who managed to survive in spite of being in a band together. I say in spite of because life in a band always brings out the best and the worst in everyone. But they played in a 'showband' that played covers. Not a rock band so that doesn't count. More like the exception rather than the rule.
My thoughts are drifting again. And then it hit me like a pail of cold water suddenly doused. Sandy has a crush on Jeremy! It all makes sense now.
I remember one time several years ago Sandy said to me she thought Jeremy was baby-faced, that was her exact description. He was a little on the chubby side so I didn't think much about her comment then. That was way back when the band was still starting. Looking back now, there was something there in the way she said it.
I felt the furrows in my brow deepening as I think of Jeremy's smug baby-face. Where the hell was he?
The creeping discomfort finally distracts me. I realize I had been sprawled too long on the cold concrete steps towards the mall entrance. Earlier, I had picked this backstage spot upon arriving mainly because it was the least crowded area since it offered no view to the performance. I didn't care to watch the other bands anyway. I also wanted to avoid the usual backstage groupies. They asked too many pointlessly probing questions. I was in no mood to mingle and act friendly.
Sandy moves her scrawny shoulders to heavily punctuated breathing before plopping into a graceless position beside me. She sat like a boy. She always did. Her short and carelessly cropped hair didn't help things. I thought that made her look cute though. With her slender arms crossed awkwardly over her slightly bent knees, she turns a wrist on one hand and waves a few sheets of white paper to catch my attention. In the wildly shifting lights, I could see they were marred by her ugly handwriting in black felt-tipped pen. It was our set list that night. Only three songs long. That's easy enough to remember so why write a set list that short? I guess I wasn't the only one trying to keep busy.
I nodded to signify I was agreeable to her selection of songs. I actually thought we had overplayed "Luxury" on our live sets but decided I really didn't care anymore what we played. Short of playing company jingles, I'll play anything right now. Just let me get on that stage and play.
A copy of tonight's concert poster was taped to the panel fronting me. At a glance, you could quickly tell what it was. Its crappy graphics were so typical of local events posters.
In the background in the middle was a tacky angular silhouette of a flying-V electric guitar, the kind that's been out of fashion for ages. Screaming titles and blurbs were emblazoned across the middle in too many different fonts and in a psychedelic clash of colors. Surrounding the main composition was a crawling army of mish-mashed company logos that overwhelmed the whole poster -- the event sponsors and donors all competing for space and attention and all failing.
Closer I looked. Yuck, it featured our band photo that was several years old.
"Did you see this?" I look over to find Sandy busy with her cell phone apparently texting someone. Hopefully Jeremy. She doesn’t hear me. Never mind. I turn my attention back to the ugly poster.
They probably fished the image from the internet. Why didn't anyone bother asking us for a proper band photo? If they wanted to embarrass us, then they did a good job then for they picked out the absolute worst picture from our old catalogue. Well at least I looked thinner and in focus. Standing closer to the camera, I could make out Sandy and Jeremy's blurred features. Jherson stood isolated in the far background looking all mysterious, his face half hidden under his cap's visor.
I scanned the contents: Band Explosion
– how original – a FREE entrance ROCK CONCERT featuring Minus Me
– at least they spelt our band's name right – with 12 of Cebu's best new bands
– really? So why leave out their names? Studying the poster more, I finally notice a hazy orange blob on top of the Band Explosion header. Realizing what it was, or at least what the graphic designer was trying to make it look like, I stifle a chuckle. A nuclear mushroom cloud, how original! A little further down - Presented by Chewy Fruity Chewing Gum (Chewy na, Fruity pa!)
– the company sponsoring the event and, indirectly, paying for our gig. It will be their marketing executives who'll go ballistic when things go south which they probably will the way things were going so far.
This poster will have to do as my souvenir. I made a mental note to bring the poster with me before I left. Heck, why wait? I stand up and lunge for it. No one ought to mind but I hope no one will notice me. Snatching it from the wall, I quickly folded it and tucked it into a pocket in my gig bag. Done. A metallic shriek suddenly pierces through the drone of the jingle for Chewy Fruity.
"Feedback oi!" Marian shouts into the mic of her bulky headset. I turn around surprised she was just behind me. How long had she been there? Did she see me grab the poster?
A couple of panicked stagehands scramble up the platform and race to the malfunctioning boom mics. Finally, the sharp signal is controlled. Checking her clipboard briefly, Marian now turns her attention to me and signals with two raised fingers. She mouths clearly for me without actually saying it – "Two more bands."
This time I didn't return a thumbs-up. What could I do? Damn Jeremy. What if he actually didn't show? What will the Chewy Fruity marketing executives do? Pelt me with their candies? I try to amuse myself with the imagery but knew this was no laughing matter. Breach of contract is what it is. And it is a serious issue, more so for a struggling band like us still trying to break out. This gig after all was pre-booked a month in advance by the organizers. We even got paid the fifty percent booking fee. That didn't happen often.
Can they sue us? Would they? Nah. I'm guessing the money involved wasn't significant enough for them to bother. But we might have to return the down payment they made. Damn, I already spent my share.
At a time like this, I should be mentally preparing myself for the performance. Instead, I was playing unpleasant scenarios in my head. I curse silently and rub my eyes.
My butt was really sore now, I finally admit. On reflex, I stand up and stretch my back welcoming the short distraction. We'd be up in – I fish out my cellphone from my front pocket, stab a button and check the glowing clock display - 20 minutes. He was cutting it really close this time.
"Bai, is that Jeremy? Any word?", someone shouts. I turn to see Jherson waving at me with heavily taped drumsticks. His other arm was cradling a piccolo drum to his chest. He was climbing up the stage. A flash of panic hits me. Was it our turn already?
"Nothing. Nothing new!" I manage to reply, still bewildered.
"We're next after this. You guys be ready, Ok!" Jherson hurries up after the other band players – his other bandmates. In the stress of the wait, I forgot that "The Gogos" were playing before us, Jherson's other band. "I won't be getting off the stage after this. Call him bai. Call him now!" he adds just before disappearing from view.
I hated the idea of having to call Jeremy. We all knew we were expected to show up an hour before a scheduled performance – our call time. If anyone should call, it should be Jeremy, not me. He's the one that needs to do some explaining. Besides, I was low on cellphone load.
"He's right bro, call him already." Sandy mutters behind me.
"I know, I know." I reply without turning to face her. Damn it Jeremy, did I have to use up the last of my phone credits! I start to dial his number from memory. The glowing screen stares back at me with a string of numbers I had grown to hate. Why do I end up calling him just before every gig? I can't even remember the last time Jeremy showed up on time.
Last month, when we played for the bar tour Bandorama, I had to personally ask the event producer to move us to a later slot because Jeremy couldn't come on time again. They grudgingly obliged and slotted us last but they dropped us from the lineup for the succeeding legs. We got dropped from three shows in one fell swoop. Jeremy never talked about the incident and we gave him the silent treatment for a couple of weeks. We thought he had learned his lesson. We thought wrong.
Tonight was a way bigger gig than Bandorama. This was our first headliner! Didn't that matter to him?
I thumb the call button on my cellphone while bringing it to my ear. My mind races. How do I handle this? What do I say to him?
A drumroll opens "The Gogos" set which quickly escalates into a punk number. The noise is deafening. I turn away from the stage and press the phone harder to my ear. I hear the ringing. No answer. Fuck!
"Sir, you guys complete?" Marian asks with feigned politeness. She had sneaked up on me again.
"Not yet Mar. Still lacking one but he's on his way." I eye my phone's display checking my battery charge level. Good thing I remembered to recharge this afternoon.
"This Gogos are only doing three songs. You're to set-up immediately after them."
"Ok. No problem."
"There will be a short intermission"
"Intermission?" I hope this buys us time.
"Just games for the audience. You know, the usual. The hosts will do it. Maybe ten minutes. Then they'll introduce you and you'll go ahead and do your set. 5 songs, ok?" She pulls out a cue card from her clipboard and hands it to me. "Please thank the sponsors. Just read the list. You know the drill."
I scan the list briefly, "Sure."
"No delays ok? Set-up immediately after The Gogos exit."
"Our drummer is already up there so setup will be faster" I offered weakly.
"Yeah, I know. I saw him. But your bassist?"
"He's on his way."
"Two songs to go!" Marian scrunches her face.
"Yes, yes. Really, not to worry." I bring my cell phone back to my ear and gesture to Marian to excuse me. Damn it, why doesn't he pick up!
I walk away, the cell phone still pressed to my ear and mingle with the crowd. The backstage crowd had now gravitated to the stage like ants eagerly converging on a dying insect. My eyes scan the faces but I don't really look at them. It would be too much to hope for that Jeremy was among them. I look over to the audience side which I could see from where I was standing now. Momentarily, the audience erupts reacting to a stunt on stage I didn't catch. The worry welled up inside me even more. I look away.
There! Was that him beside Sandy? She was talking to someone, yes, Jeremy, it was him! His baby-faced profile was unmistakable. Finally! He had arrived just in time and just as the Gogos where going into their last song. Lowering my phone, I heave a deep sigh of relief. I turn to look at the stage. The subsiding worry slowly gives me room to finally take in the scene playing out.
The Gogo's were now prowling the stage like they owned it. Sweat on skin glistens in the flashing lights. The vocalist screams a random litany in a rising staccato. The crowd explodes.
Behind a row of metal rails, the sweeping lights expose raised arms and animated heads bobbing to the mounting rhythmic din. The riot of bodies play to the colored lights now shifting erratically with the pounding music.
In the confusion, someone pulls himself up on the railings trying to get to the stage until burly men in black shirts converge on him with quick efficiency and push him back into the swelling crowd. It is getting worse by the minute. The Gogos’ upbeat set was really prepping the crowd tonight.
It should be easy to ride this wave of excitement when our turn comes. We were up next, the thought finally sinks in. This is when the knots in my stomach will come. This is when my hands will turn cold and my knees will feel weak. I brace myself for the torture of anticipation. But it doesn't come. Instead, I feel – nothing.
All I want now is to get it over with and be done with the gig. Everything that had come before had spoiled everything for me. Right then and there, I make a surprisingly easy decision. This will be my last with the band.
- END -