Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

The Listening Room

 

 

 

It is early evening and the sunset, known once in this valley for transcendental pinks and golds, is dirty orange. Alex opens the sliding door of the van. He sees a bearded man squatting by the door of the club. His hand is cupped to conceal the joint he is smoking. Funny, thinks Alex, how old habits die hard.

 

Alex nods at the bearded man and peers through the window. He can see the stage lit by a single, yellow-gelled light. There are a handful of people sitting on folding chairs, talking in low voices. The band has been driving nine hours, and this is it—where they will be performing tonight.

 

“Is Bernie around?” Alex asks. 

 

“He’ll be back in a few minutes. Went for beer,” says the bearded man.

 

“Do you know where we load in?”

 

“Through this door. Need some help?”

 

“You work for Bernie?”

 

“Not exactly. He gives me free beer. Where you from?”

 

“Portland.”

 

“Long drive.”

 

“Not bad. We took our time coming down. Camped in the redwoods.”

 

“Are they still standing?” laughs the bearded man.

 

The Listening Room is a small, wood-frame house, named after a club Bernie played when he knew Keith Richards thirty years ago in London. The stage is on metal risers with three chairs for the musicians, a Cardioid microphone, and old Vox amplifier. Hanging on the wall are black-and-white posters of Jimi Hendrix and Martin Luther King. They have been blown up so large that the pixilation makes it difficult to tell who is who. There is a sound booth off to the side with a mixing board. A sign on the wall reads: Assembly Limit 41.

 

The band named themselves Destino, after a Salvador Dali short film that Alex discovered on YouTube. Maitra said she liked the name and the association with finality but hadn’t watched the film. After she saw it she said, she didn’t like the dancer because she was too “cheerful.”  

 

“I see the dancer as your alter ego,” said Alex.  

 

“You mean because she dances nude. Is that how you see me?”

 

“Watch the video without the music,” Alex said.

 

“It’s fine. I don’t mind. We have to call ourselves something.” 

 

“We could rename the band, Maitra.”  

 

“That would be worse. I just don’t like Dali.” 

 

“Everybody loves Dali.”

 

“Not the surrealists. They hated him,” she said turning away.     

 

 

 

As they unload the van, a few more cars arrive. A very thin man introduces himself as the sound engineer and takes a seat at the booth. He watches quietly as the band sets up, once going on stage to connect the long cables. Bernie, who is sixty-six, arrives with his fiancée, Katrina. Bernie turns on three more spotlights, and the colored gels cast soft patches of light on the stage.

 

There are only nine in the audience, including the sound engineer and the bearded man. Bernie looks at his watch. He nods to Katrina to get started.

 

Katrina begins: “First some housekeeping. If you need to use the restroom, it’s over there by Jimi Hendrix. Please don’t get up in the middle of a song. Same if you want to buy a drink, but no problem taking it back to your seat. God knows, we need all the liquor we can get.” She waits. Nobody laughs. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a special treat for you. A very talented group who drove here all the way from Portland. We are thrilled to present—Destino!

 

The band looks shell shocked. Alex, who plays lead guitar, isn’t ready. He adjusts a knob on the house amplifier. Ben is on bass. David, the oldest at twenty-seven, on drums. Maitra is dressed in black. She has straight black hair, cut short. Her bangs come down to thick eyebrows, painted on. Her dress is sleeveless, revealing clear arms with tattoos of spiders on the backs of her hands.

 

“Not many rooms like this anymore,” laughs Alex.

 

The sound engineer copies his laugh, and Alex wonders if he is mocking him. Maitra looks like a professional, but the guys are wearing the same jeans and tee-shirts they slept in.

 

The night before they had camped in the redwoods by the side of the road. Ben and David had discovered a path that led to an open area by the river. Ben had a bad stomach, and they stopped the van twice for him to vomit. He vomited a third time in the morning, but nonetheless drank beer for breakfast. Alex and Maitra slept late in the van.  

 

“Do you want a cup of coffee?” asked Alex.

 

Maitra shook her head. She scribbled on a ruled pad without looking up. Alex said they should write as a team. Maitra explained she needed her own space. She laughed.

 

“Yeah,” said Alex, “we need a bigger van.” 

 

They stand silently on the stage. Maitra waits for her cue from Alex. He plays a long chord, distorted by feedback. She remains motionless. Alex plays another chord, this time screeching and raw. Maitra reaches into the back of her dress to touch her spine. The gesture looks Dada, perhaps a bit of arty pretension? The drummer thumps ONE, TWO, THREE on the foot pedal. A strange beat…slow, irregular. Alex looks over to Maitra, whose hands have invisibly advanced to the microphone. She sings the third song from their album War and Peace.  

 

I speak of things that do not move.

 

War is peace and peace is the rubble.  

 

Take this offering and call us even.

 

My throat is sorer than it seems to you.

 

Her voice is low. The audience can barely hear the words. She is casting a spell. Her song rises like a vapor from the cleft—a warning delivered by Pythia at the Temple of Apollo. They want to feel it like a generous knife. Everyone does. Her throat is dry. It doesn’t matter how scratchy her voice. Her full lips are barely open. They want to fall in love with her. Of course they do, it’s how truth works. But she gives them nothing. No passion, no yearning…but those blazing violet eyes.

 

David slows the beat. For Maitra there is no such thing as performance. No lie. The less she gives, the more they love her. She touches the top of her head and presses her fingers into her hair. Agony? The music is difficult but this audience knows music; it turns out musicians from Hollywood hide out in this rural town. For a moment Maitra looks unsure. What’s wrong?

 

The audience doesn’t understand it. The song, the beat, the lyric? Too heavy…painful. Too soon. Why play this song? Maitra never knows what she will do on stage. She likes randomness. She doesn’t like to rehearse because it dulls the performance. Alex says she’s right. “She knows the song better than anyone.”

 

“But we know the music,” says David.

 

Maitra doesn’t need approval; just the opposite. She likes the pain of disapproval. The small audience applauds but are unsure.

 

“Don’t look so serious,” Ben says.

 

“You mean Maitra or the audience?” laughs David.  

 

“We are the Lost Generation,” says Ben, going into their stock riff.   

 

“Lost like the audience,” says Alex.

 

“Let’s save the best insults for last,” says David.

 

“We are bruised,” says Alex.

 

“Bruised like bad fruit,” says Maitra.

 

Alex plays a rock lick, then begins picking.

 

“This song is from my diary,” she says soberly. “In the music business you get passed around. That’s the way it’s always been. You gotta be tough. So I got tough. There was this pretty boy—I met him after the show. I don’t remember his name.”

 

Alex looks at her hard.

 

“He was tall, wore a sleeveless shirt, and had blonde sideburns.”

 

Alex feels distressed. Why tell that story?

 

An older couple, musicians themselves, lean forward to hear. It strikes a painful note, and the older man feels his heart race. He came home early from touring and found his wife in bed with his business manager. His lip curls back.  

 

Alex scans the audience. Is that the producer from Hollywood? he wonders. The man with the black shirt and gray ponytailwell dressed, goateethose black pointed boots. It reminds him of another of Maitra’s affairs. When he confronted her with it, she said: “Why does it matter? You know the way I am.”

 

Alex strikes a violent chord in front of the speaker. He sustains the feedback too long and it hurts everyone’s ears. Bernie, who is standing by the bar, looks up. The audience doesn’t like it either. For a moment they are unwilling to go along. Bernie raises his hand reflectively for Alex to move away from the speaker.

 

To love and then deny. What about me? thinks Alex. Why does she need to tell the story about the song? When it comes to the part, “Don’t eat everything on the plate, save something for the devil,” he knows the devil with the blonde sideburns and all the rest of them.

 

Bernie has taken a seat in the front row. Katrina knows what this means: Bernie is interested in Maitra. Bernie loves beautiful young singers, he can’t help himself. He is a good-looking man, young for his age. Bernie is delighted. He overuses delighted, a word he says with an English tinge. He loves how she is remote. How she doesn’t move. He imagines how he would seduce her. It’s reflexive.

 

After the fifth song the audience wants more. It is not approval, it’s demand! “One more,” yells a cowboy. Everyone applauds; the sound engineer is smiling for the first time since it started. Bernie is smiling, now standing up.

 

But she doesn’t want to encore. What kind of act is this? Ben and David look at Alex. What’s up? When the music stopped they had sung only five. Why drive all the way from Portland to sing just five? There must be an encore. Alex is the first to leave the stage. He goes directly to the restroom. Maitra has already put her guitar back in the case.

 

Katrina takes the stage. “Oh, please, one more. What do you think, everyone?”

 

As the audience claps loud approval, Maitra leaves the stage and mingles with the audience. The cowboy asks her if she has a CD of the album. She looks inside a large handbag and pulls out a CD with a pen-and-ink drawing of a bird with a broken wing. The cowboy asks if she drew the bird herself. She did. He has a slow way of talking, and she likes him right away. He tells her he is buying the CD as a Christmas present for his mother. “Are you going to sing an encore?” he asks timidly.

 

“Would you like an encore?” asks Maitra.

 

She is back on stage with Alex standing beside her. He rips a hot rock lick. She sings: “Too Tired to Love You.”   

 

I am too tired to love you.

 

I know what you need.

 

Only the crawling survive.

 

You’re beggin’ me to speak,  

 

But nothing comes from my heart.

 

Maitra is an avenging angel. Her eyes look possessed. She is wild, driven by the desert wind, searching the ancient walls; the wind tangles her hair. The sound of fury is terrible, a dome-shaped charge. She looks for signs of life, searching the fallen statues for her lover. There is nothing. No rat, no snake or bird. Only green statues of what was. She spreads her arms, standing open against the onslaught. Bees pour from her mouth, amputees with hooks grab at her ankles—her microphone melts in a puddle.  

 

Maitra sits in the back seat. “I can take turns driving if David gets too tired,” she says. “How are you, Ben? Tummy better? Let me help with the driving.” She sits up in her seat. She winces. It feels like something is growing in the chinks of her spine.

 

David says, “Thank you, it’s a lot of driving.”

 

“Are we going to camp tonight?” asks Ben.

 

“I think we’ll drive straight through,” says David.

 

“Bernie wanted us to spend the night at his place,” says Ben.

 

“Bernie is a friendly guy,” says Alex sarcastically. 

 

“How many CDs did you sell to the cowboy?” asks Ben.

 

“All I had,” says Maitra.  

 

“What happened to the Hollywood producer?”

 

“Bernie said he didn’t come,” Alex says. 

 

“Katrina was friendly.”

 

“They’re getting married,” says Ben.   

 

“She’s gotta be thirty years younger,” says Alex.

 

“They want to honeymoon in Italy,” says Ben.

 

“If the planes are flying,” says Alex. “Did you check out the cowboy? Couple of times he reached up to tip his hat, but he wasn’t wearing a hat.” 

 

Maitra smiles.

 

It is a moonless night. There is no city glow. No light from the off ramps. No brake lights ahead.  

 

David mentions Bernie paid them $180, plus the money from the CDs.

 

“She only sold two,” says Alex. “Anyway, it’s Maitra’s money.”

 

“Plus the six-pack,” says Ben a beat too late.

 

Maitra wraps herself in a blanket. After Santa Barbara there is a black ocean on their left, then winding roads and inclines where David has to slow down.

 

“It’s a good thing we filled up in Ojai,” says Alex.

 

“The night’s beautiful. No light pollution,” says Ben.

 

Alex wants to hold Maitra’s hand. She says she’s too tired.

 

“Do you want to listen to the radio?” asks Ben.

 

“You mean the weather,” says Alex.

 

“There’s a food bank in San Francisco,” says David.

 

“There better be,” says Ben.

 

“Are you hungry, Ben? Ben’s hungry!” says Alex.

 

“Don’t make me laugh,” says Ben.

 

“Were you surprised by the turnout?” Alex asks.

 

“Not really.”

 

“That dude with the ponytail might have been the producer?” says Alex.

 

“Not according to Bernie,” says Ben.  

 

“We already talked about that,” says David. 

 

“Anyway, Bernie has our demo,” says Alex. 

 

Maitra pulls the blanket over her head.  

 

“Where’s the mandolin?” asks David.

 

“Under Maitra’s feet on the floor.”

 

“Are you alright, David?” asks Ben. “You blew a red light in Ventura.”

 

“It doesn’t matter. No cops.”

 

“Funny, huh?” says Alex.

 

“We are anarchists,” says Ben.  

 

Maitra emerges from the blanket. She looks in the mirror and touches the top of her head. She slips her wig off. Underneath, she has short hair with bald patches. Alex hands her a towel, and she wipes off her makeup. Her face is scabbed. David removes his makeup too.

 

“We are guaranteed five hundred dollars in San Francisco,” says David.  

 

“Maybe we should have forgotten about The Listening Room,” says Ben.  

 

“No, it was good,” says Maitra.

 

Ben turns on the radio for the weather report. The weatherman announces the forecast is cloudy, chance of rain on Wednesday.

 

“Rain’s good,” says Ben.

 

“Not really,” says David.

 

“It gets the shit out of the sky,” says Ben.

 

“Does it spread the radiation?” asks Alex.

 

“They say it doesn’t,” says Ben.

 

“Rain is bad,” says David. 

 

“Who knows. I don’t trust the weatherman. We should get a rad meter to measure it,” says Alex.

 

“I don’t want to know,” says David.

 

“Rain is good,” says Maitra.

 

Announcer on the radio: “The fallout will be moderate tomorrow. Rain Wednesday, light showers. The radiation level will continue to be level four: dangerous in Los Angeles, Bakersfield, and Sacramento.”

 

“What about fog?” asks Ben.

 

“You know, I don’t give a fuck,” says David. “Can everyone shut up?”

 

“Look, it’s raining,” says Maitra.

 

  

Todd Easton Mills received his bachelor’s degree from Antioch University. He co-wrote and produced the documentary film Timothy Learyʼs Dead. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Alabama Literary Review, Amarillo Bay, Euphony, Rougarou, Entropy Magazine, Fogged Clarity, The Alembic, Griffin, The Legendary, ONTHEBUS, Voices, The Coe Review, Yellow Silk, AUSB Odyssey, Sage Trail, riverSedge, OxMag, Collage, Antiochracy, Forge, Jet Fuel Review, New Plains Review, Crack the Spine, Storgy, Serving House Journal, Barely South Review, Santa Monica Review, The Penmen Review, and in the anthology Poets on 9-11.