Sunday, January 29, 2012

Conquest by Vik Rubenfeld

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Chapter One

The thing is, I never really liked our drummer. I never liked the guy. Our singer I could tolerate, even though he thought he was beyond human. I’d seen him on the way up, when nothing like that was ever in his head. Mostly what he thought then was how afraid he was that he was blowing it and he’d run out of money and become a street person, sleeping in doorways. He had an unnatural fear of that, as though some fortune teller had put it into him. It was like it haunted him, a vision of his own future. Then when we really hit it, something else ridiculous happened – he felt like he had won against some supernatural power, like he’d overcome his own destiny and become more than normal. It was just irritating, but I still liked the guy.

Our lead guitarist – what you see looking at us is not what you see if you’re inside looking out. Barry O. – the Fireman, if you know his nickname – to you guys he looked like he had it all under control, but I knew that every second he was just waiting for it all to fall apart. He was just convinced that this was going to last for, maybe, another ten seconds. This went on for years.

I played the bass. I guess it was only natural that I’d be the down-to-earth guy, since that’s what I did for our sound. My bass was just like the anchor that kept the kite from flying off into the sky and getting lost. I guess I tried to do that for our band too. And you know how that turned out.

But why get ahead of things? Everybody always wants to know how it all got started and what happened, and to hear about all the craziness and everything. So now that it’s all over and I’ve got time, I’m like, why not?


Actually it was kind of spooky. I’ll never forget the day because my girl friend just broke up with me that same morning. She just finally got fed up with me for being the way I am. She was excitable. She didn’t mind that I wasn’t excitable, but it was the way I wasn’t that finally she couldn’t take any more. I’m just sort of a, get up every day, get the job done, don’t get distracted by stuff, just keep moving forward kind of guy. I sort of feel like a tank on a battlefield. I just keep going. Stuff can be blowing up around me, so what, I don’t care, I’m still going ahead. Meanwhile she felt like I was a snail, just going along too slow, getting nowhere. Like I said, she was excitable. She started getting crazy about it, hysterical. Which didn’t even faze me because I’m like what I said, and that drove her even crazier, and so it was just that same morning that she just said she was breaking up. Which was kind of like, I mean, even to a tank, a bomb goes off right underneath of you and you’re going to feel it. So I was trashed and in no mood to go anywhere, much less to an audition.

I’d heard about this audition Barry was having out in some old barn or shack or something. I wasn’t going to go in the first place and now I definitely wasn’t planning on going. I’d met him once or twice and my impression was that he was a little frayed around the edges. A little flighty. Maybe not serious enough. Tanks don’t wait for guys like him, we run guys like him over. So the hell with it, was basically my approach to the subject.

I was in no mood to see anybody, and then my phone started to blow up. All these calls were coming in. I tried to remember, did we always get this many calls on a weekend? Did my girlfriend used to just answer the phone? It seemed like way more than usual. All these people asking me to go here or there or come out and have a drink or let’s go to this party or hear this band or whatever. Some of them already knew about the breakup and wanted to cheer me up, and some had no idea. Finally I had to go out just to get away from the phone calls. So it was getting late already and I just took off for the bar to play pool and have some beers.

So now I’m out and my cell phone starts blowing up and I just don’t answer it. I’m not in the mood, as you can easily imagine. I’m playing pool, having a beer, trying to not think about anything. The misery is sitting on me like a wrestler that’s got another wrestler pinned. I can’t do anything about it and I know I can’t do anything about it, so I’m trying to not think about it.

And then this guy walks right up to me out of nowhere and says, “Hey man, can you give me a lift to Barry’s audition?” I don’t even recognize this guy. I’m so stunned that I actually forget to blow him off. I actually let myself get into a conversation with him.

“Dude, I’m not going to Barry’s audition.”

“Aren’t you Reid Taylor?”

“Do I know you?”

“I’m Travis. I saw you sit in with Sammy Marshall at Harry’s a month ago.”

“Yeah, well, I’m just hanging out here tonight.”

“Everybody says you’re going.”

“Everybody? Who?”

The guy looked around vaguely. “I don’t know. People.”

“People? Who? Who said that? What was the name of the person who said that?”

“It wasn’t one person. It was at least two people.”


“That guy over there.”

He looks over at somebody and at that exact split second, before I can see who it is, the guy he’s looking at turns and walks out of the place.

“’Scuse me one second. I want to say hi,” I said, and went to see who it was.

So I head out of the bar and the guy is walking away towards his pickup, and I said, “Dude.” He stopped, looked around, I’d never seen him before, and I already don’t like him. I’d never seen the guy before, and I swear to God I already don’t like the guy.

“Yeah, what’s up Reid?”

“You know me?”

“No, some guys in there said you were going over to Barry’s. You want a lift?”

At this point I actually said, screw it, I might as well go. I mean, why not at this point? It was either go or hear about it all night evidently. It was turning out to be the path of least resistance. The easiest way to not have to think about going was to head over there. I could already see that if I didn’t I’d spend all day tomorrow answering people who wanted to know why I didn’t go.

“Yeah, sure, why not,” I said. I got my axe out of my trunk and got into his pickup and we took off.

The guy said his name was Clay Hicks.

So now I’m headed off on a mission to be in this band, when in fact I could care less. I felt like one of those embedded reporters who travel with the army.

The plus side was, I needed a laugh, and heading off to this thing without caring at all what anybody there was going to say about me was funny. They were going to be judging everybody and I was going to be not even beginning to care. I was way beyond caring already tonight about anything any of these guys were going to say to me.

And I had to admit it was a welcome distraction from this misery I couldn’t shake.

After a while Clay started driving too fast. Way past the speed limit. He’s taking curves at roller-coaster speeds. I’m looking at this guy, I’ve never seen him before, and I’m wondering, is he testing me? Is he waiting to see how I’m going to act? Or is he just trying to rattle me so I can’t audition? I watch the road. He’s not skidding much, he’s not driving outside the lane or anything. He seems to be able to handle the car at this speed. So I don’t say anything.

We’re driving way outside of town and the streetlights are getting farther and farther apart, and finally we pull up in this parking lot outside of some kind of big old run-down looking building. I grab my axe and get out of there because there’s no way I’m talking to this guy since I’d only tell him that no matter how proud he is of whatever he thinks he was doing, he’s just like one of those comets heading down through the night sky, that burns bright while it’s burning itself up. Let’s put it this way -- chances are that when he crashes his car, I won’t be in it.

The front of the building looks dusty. The door doesn’t feel solid when I open it. Inside it’s dark. There are tables all around – it’s some kind of closed restaurant. There’s people milling around on the far side of the room, and that’s where the lights are on. There’s a stage set up over there. I see Barry, long-haired, rattled-looking but cheerful, proud that this is his thing, he’s running it, everybody’s there to win his approval. People drive all the way here, they get here, and they’re into it, man, you can feel it. It’s electric. People want to be chosen.

I consider just hanging out back here in the dark and watching, but that’s too ridiculous. Besides, I need more distraction or I’m going to get swallowed whole by this wretchedness that feels like it’s eating me alive. So I head over to the edge of where everybody is and see a singer I know named Shawn.

“Hey, how you doin’?”

“Reid, all right man, how are you?”

“Pretty good.”

“I heard you and Sharon broke up.”


“You okay with it?”

I like Shawn, but why do people always have to ask the wrong question? He’s saying it like he’s my friend and being all sympathetic, but what if the answer is what it really is, namely that I’m anything but okay with it? He’s gonna make me talk about that? Expose myself like a fish flopping around on a boat deck waiting to be iced? Is that like a friend to do that, to bring that up, to try to make me say it? I don’t even give him the benefit of the doubt. I bet that somewhere in the back of his mind, he knows exactly what he’s doing. When you’re suffering, it almost takes a saint to be your friend.

There’s nothing I feel like answering. I’m not a good enough actor to say I’m fine and have anybody believe me. Or maybe I could, I’m not going to protect myself by lying, by hiding, by pretending to be something I’m not.

“No. I’m not okay with it. It sucks.”

“I’m sorry, dude.”

To me that looks like the fakest sympathy ever. So what. I don’t care. I don’t say anything back. I move on.

Barry spots me and comes over.

“Hey Reid! Good to see ya’. Thanks for coming over.”

“Glad to be here, man.”

“I didn’t know how to reach you, so I just told people to let you know about it.”

“Okay, cool. It worked.”

“Excellent.” He moves on to talk to somebody. It’s like I said, the guy’s a little flaky. He didn’t know how to reach me, so he just told people. But it worked, I gotta give him that.

“Hey, how’s it goin’?” A drummer I know has spotted me, a good guy, named Leon.

“Okay, man. How’re you?”

“I heard about Sharon, dude.”


“That sucks, man.” He says it like he’s talking about a coat that doesn’t fit. He’s not making that big a deal out of it. You can see he’s not acting like it’s the end of the world. Leon’s an okay guy.

“I appreciate that.”

“For sure. You think it’s really over?”

“Oh yeah.”

“You were with her, what, a couple of years?”


“Well, if it’s not right, it’s not right, huh?”

“Yeah, man. Thanks.”

“For sure.”

Barry gets up on stage – the action’s starting, and Leon goes to find out when he’s up. These encounters are taking too much effort, so I go sit down on the outer edge of the group, in the shadows but not like I’m trying to avoid people. Barry’s warming up, playing some old blues.

Sitting down, there’s not enough distraction. I’m trying not to think about Sharon, but it’s too big to avoid. It’s like a yacht bearing down on a rowboat. You want to enjoy the beautiful day, but you see that yacht bearing down on you to cut you in half.

Then I realize I already got cut in half, when Sharon left. This misery is too big, I can’t fight it, I’m just going to have to go through it. I get ready for it, I look for how to like the grief, how to want it, how to make something good with it. Feeling it means something, it means finding out what you’ve lost, like a store owner taking inventory after a flood. It’s super painful but you have to do it so you can keep the store going.

For a minute I didn’t even notice what was going on. Then I started to hear the new stuff Barry was playing. He wasn’t playing blues anymore. This must be his own stuff. It’s pretty much just straight chord progressions, but these aren’t the same old tired boring patterns I’ve heard a million times. I’ve never heard these progressions before, and the chords he’s got sound great together.

I know what this means if it’s not a fluke, but I figure that’s gotta be all it is. There’s no way he’s got a lot of this stuff. But then he hits us with another one, and another one. This is the DNA of songs that haven’t been written yet. This is what I’ve been looking for. Sharon thought I wasn’t getting anywhere – she didn’t see that I was looking, waiting, for what it’s starting to look like just showed up here in this busted-up closed restaurant.

I want to stand up and charge the stage. It’s such an overwhelming mix of feelings – this wretchedness on top of this exaltation and excitement. I get the sense a person can hold an infinity of feeling. It starts to make me feel physically bigger than myself. It’s making me giddy. It’s making me dizzy.

I move really quietly over to some friend of Barry’s with a note pad and get my name on the list. Then I sit back and watch what goes on, carried along on these sensations like a loose rowboat – or a piece of a loose rowboat that got cut in half -- on top of huge ocean swells.

Bass players, drummers, singers come and go. Leon tries out and does great. The bass players are just playing right on top of the same notes Barry’s got, just a few octaves lower. It’s driving me crazy. I can’t stand it. I can’t wait to go up. Finally they call me. I walk up, plug in. Barry hits it. Leon’s on the drums.

This tremendous sense of power hit me. I was so full of passion over breaking up with my girl and now it was going into the notes I was playing and the counterpoint I was finding. It was like the whole day was fated to put me on fire for this. I blew that room away so hard that even my competitors just looked at each other and they all saw each other felt, I was the guy.

When you live a certain way, certain days come along and change the rest of your life. And when that happens it just kind of naturally shows you were right all along – waiting, believing, praying, hoping for that to happen. And that is quite an experience. The surprise that you were right about that stuff, that you were right you could do these things, that you could find what you needed in the world that was missing in yourself, and put that all together, and make the things happen that you thought you could, and where other people wonder how you got there and how you did it – it puts awe into you. Of course, that night, it was still just my belief, my hope, my faith, that that was what had happened. Nothing was proven yet.

Leon did not get chosen. It hurt his feelings, and I felt like my friend had been dropped into a deep deep well and I didn’t know how to get him out. And who did get picked – Clay Hicks. Clay had outperformed Leon on the night, no question. But how could I tell Barry that I had a bad feeling about Clay based on one crazy car ride? Barry didn’t know Clay, didn’t know Leon – none of us knew each other yet.

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