Alex stood looking out her window. Occasionally a car drove down Main Street of the small New England town of Ross. Alex's apartment, over the town's General Store, was rather cold, but she didn't turn up the heat. She liked the way the chill made her feel.
She reached over to her desk and picked up her a small flask, which was filled with bourbon. She cradled it against her sweater for a moment, then opened it and took a sip.
Vinnie walked up to the Snow's front door, combing his greased-back hair. He stuck the comb into his back pocket and knocked. After a moment, Mrs. Snow, Craig's mother, opened the door and said, "Oh, hello, Vinnie. Craig's downstairs. Go on down."
Vinnie opened the door to the basement and walked down the rickety stairs. The smell of dope was strong in the air. He wrinkled his nose, thinking of the free beers he'd get at the gig later that evening.
Craig, Walking Wounded's guitarist, was sitting in his sagging old recliner chair, eyes closed, headphones on, dope pipe dangling forgotten between his long fingers. A very familiar sight.
Vinnie switched the speakers on, so he could hear what Craig was listening to. It was a tape of the last Walking Wounded rehearsal. Vinnie listened for a minute, noticed himself making more than his share of mistakes on the bass, then switched off Craig's headphones.
Craig opened his eyes slowly, then grinned as he straightened up his chair. "Just getting into the mood, so to speak. Pretty good tape, you know. You're not so great, but what the hell. What's up?"
"Isn't it time to get going?"
Craig looked around, as if to make sure no one had brought back all the band equipment that usually surrounded him in his basement, the equipment that was waiting for them at the club.
"Yeah, I guess so. You got your car?"
Vinnie nodded. "Sure. Look, you talked to Alex today?"
"She was here before. Almost all day. I was out. Mom says it was pretty wild down here, lots of guitar playing, real loud guitar playing, and throwing stuff around. Mom stayed upstairs."
He paused, turning off the tape player and putting the pipe on top of one of the speakers. "She can play better than you'd think. She really can. But the minute she realized she'd never be great..." He waved his hand.
Vinnie shrugged. "You have any idea what it's all about?"
"No, not yet. It's the usual, I guess. She's working on the epic. Don't worry, it'll be great. It always is." He got to his feet. "Oh, shit. I think I was supposed to get something at the store for Mom. I hope she's forgotten about it."
Vinnie had never had the nerve to ask why Walking Wounded's theoretical leader, at the age of twenty-five, still lived with his parents.
Their first stop was to get Lenore, Walking Wounded's drummer. She lived in a big house out near the highway, with many roommates. The man who opened the door was someone Craig and Vinnie had never seen before, and he'd never heard of Lenore. He let them in to go look for her.
They went up to her room on the third floor. Vinnie knocked on her door, saying, "I'll never figure out how these people live. Who runs things?"
Craig shrugged. "Someone, I guess. Or no one."
Vinnie knocked again, then opened the door. The room was empty. Then they heard the sound, melodic and unmistakable, of Vinnie's horn.
Vinnie laughed. "Always one step ahead of us. Come on."
Lenore was sitting in the passenger seat, smoking a cigarette, looking pleased with herself. Vinnie got in behind the wheel, and Craig got into the back. As Vinnie started the motor he said, "You plan that or what?"
She chuckled. "What do you think?"
"I think you like me not knowing."
The next and last stop was at the General Store on Main Street. Alex was outside already, wrapped in her battered trench coat. She got in without a word.
At the club Vinnie parked his car next to Craig's truck in the parking lot. The lot was already about a quarter full.
Craig went in the back way, to the dressing room, but Vinnie, Alex and Lenore went in through the front door. They were well-known enough that many eyes turned towards them.
Raymond Frame, the club's manager, was moving towards them, eager to talk to Alex, as always, but she slipped away and he was left with Lenore and Vinnie.
"I think this is going to be good," he said absently. "We've been talking to a Boston band called Flesh Resistors about playing in a couple of weeks. I'm just not sure, though. They may be a little too weird, or something."
"I've never heard of..." Lenore started to say, but he just nodded to himself and wandered away, in search of Alex.
Vinnie chuckled. "Raymond's getting spacier these days. Moderate success isn't good for his nerves."
"I guess not," she said with a chuckle. She nudged him.
"Come on, you. Stop standing around preening. Go get me a drink."
Vinnie went over to the bar, and was about to ask for the drinks when his eye was caught by the interesting-looking woman standing next to him. Not only wasn't she a local, but she looked somehow different from everybody else there. He couldn't have said how.
She was blonde and thin, dressed in khaki pants and a safari jacket. Her eyes were wide. Vinnie smiled. "Hello. You a fan of the band?"
"No," she said simply, but her strange smile invited some further conversation.
"You from out of town? You don't talk like a local."
"Boston," she replied. "Flesh Resistors. You in the band?"
"Yes." He stuck out his hand. "I'm Vinnie, the bass-player." She shook his hand firmly, and said nothing. "What type of music does your band play?"
"Not my band. I'm the manager. My name's Starling. Who's the red-head?"
Vinnie turned. Lenore was watching them, her arms crossed and her brows pulled down. He threw her a grin as she came over to them.
"Where's my drink?" she asked, ignoring Starling.
"Lenore, this is Starling," Vinnie said. "Starling, this is Lenore, our drummer. Starling manages Flesh Resistors."
He stepped away to get Lenore's drink as the two women looked at each other. When he got back they were still looking. Lenore wasn't looking pleased.
He handed her her drink as Starling pulled a small poster from somewhere within her jacket and handed it to him. It said "Flesh Resistors" and the name of a club and a date. The photograph was of Starling, from the waist up, naked, her arms crossed on her stomach as if she'd just been shot. She was screaming, her eyes wide.
Alex looked down at her hands. She thought about getting a job. Her summer projects were almost all either completed or abandoned, and the weeks ahead looked pretty bare. The air was getting colder, and she knew she wouldn't mind working again. After a summer of formlessness, she needed something to impose some structure on her life. It would have to be the right type of job, though. No more waitress or receptionist jobs. She saw herself as some sort of file clerk, losing herself amid the books and cabinets.
Alex, looking out the window, felt the hairs on the back of her neck tingle. She turned as Raymond came up, walking with a woman she'd noticed earlier. Alex and the woman looked at each other, and Alex had trouble turning her attention back to Raymond when he said, "Alex, this is Starling..."
His voice trailed off as his wandering eye spotted someone important, Alex couldn't tell who. She turned back to the window, ready to ignore the woman with the strange name, but Starling said, "A word from you could do it."
Alex turned back to the pale woman with the mad eyes. "Am I supposed to be intrigued?"
Starling ignored the sarcasm. "Raymond is fixated, you know. And we do do need the gig."
Alex shook her head. "Am I supposed to know who you are? Or is this supposed to make no sense?"
Starling stuck out her hand, "Starling. Flesh Resistors. From Boston." Alex shook her hand.
"And why should I help you?"
Starling shook her head. "More later. I've got a phone call to make."
Raymond said, "Alex seems on edge tonight, more than usual."
Vinnie shrugged. "I guess so. She's been weird recently. She's been missing rehearsals, and changing songs around for no reason. I don't know, maybe she's got some big plan behind everything. I'm new, after all. But I don't think she's thought some of this out too well. Doesn't seem so, anyway."
"Then why does she do it?"
Vinnie shrugged, wondering why Raymond was so interested in all this. Vinnie just found it irritating.
Craig said, "I don't know, but the last time time she was like this was right after she saw Vinnie's old band for the first time, and she decided that Vinnie would replace Ricky, our old bass-player. Ricky didn't even know he wanted to leave until she told him. And we all thought she was crazy, that Vinnie was just some greaser in a rockabilly band, some guy stuck in 1957. We're pretty lucky to have him, though. He's got some stuff the rest of us don't have. A real push. Lots of people say it was a real kick in the ass for us. So, as long as we keep him under control, we're okay. I don't want to do any of his stuff, and neither does Alex. But as long as we handle it right, we're in good shape. Lenore likes him, too. She does."
Raymond nodded. "Must be a real change for Vinnie, though. I remember what his old band was like. They played here a couple of times."
"He hasn't changed, though. Not really."
"Vinnie said Alex has been acting weird. What happens if she doesn't shape up?"
Lenore shrugged, not taking the question (or Raymond) all that seriously. "She'll never push it too far. The band's too important to her, she'd never risk losing it. She knows the limits very well, and she's too self-conscious to step over them by accident. So, she'll just be a pain in the ass for the rest of my us."
"So, how's it going in suffering-artist land?" Vinnie asked.
She opened her eyes and turned to face him.
"Don't take me so seriously!" He knew when to keep quiet. "You people. No wonder I can never work. Everybody blows it all out of proportion. If everybody treated Craig like this-"
"Oh, come on," he said. "If you didn't act-"
"I know," she said quietly, suddenly amused and resigned.
"I can never tell you anything about you."
"Believe me, I'm the expert. Oh, come on, let's stop all this foolishness."
He nodded as she took his beer from his hand and drank some. "I saw you talking to that woman from Boston. She's really weird, huh?"
Alex finished the beer. "She's not weird. She's playing games. I don't like her." Vinnie nodded, and she was angry at how easily he'd made up his mind that she wasn't telling the whole truth.
Vinnie looked around, ignoring her frown. "There are a lot of people here. We should do pretty well."
"You mean musically?"
"Okay, yeah. I think we'll be okay."
Raymond stood at the back of the bar as the lights went down.
He always felt a little nervous when Walking Wounded played, but for some reason this time he felt it more than usual. He took a swallow of beer and leaned back against the wall.They looked like they were in four different bands, but Raymond had always liked that. Alex was wearing a washed-out black T-shirt several sizes too large for her emaciated torso, and a pair of worm black corduroy pants, her feet bare. Craig wore a headband, a work-shirt and jeans and cowboy boots, all ancient-looking and wrinkled. Vinnie looked cool as always, combing his hair as the lights glinted off his leather jacket and motorcycle chains. Lenore looked attractively androgynous as always, Raymond thought, her long red hair, earrings and make-up contrasting
pleasantly with her tuxedo. She lit a cigarette and waited, smiling slightly.
Craig, as usual (Raymond was suddenly conscious of how predictable Craig was, how often "as usual" could be applied to him), seemed to take a few moments to realize where he was and to remember what was expected of him. He looked around running up and down the neck of his hand-painted guitar.
Raymond felt flattened back against the wall he was leaning on, not only by the volume but by the powerfully united structure of sound these three could produce behind Alex, who was standing center stage, hands clenched into fists at her sides, waiting for the exact right moment to jump into the song.
Then she did, and from then on Raymond was only vaguely conscious of Craig, leaning back on his heels and seeming to think about everything but the music, or of Vinnie, leaning forward, eyes always on Alex, the roar of his black and chrome bass shaking the floor, or of Lenore, unruffled, cigarette in the corner of her mouth, drumming hard enough to rattle teeth.