Wormwood In Remembrance

14th of June, 2008. El Corazon club, Seattle.

This was Wormwood’s last performance. It was our very last song together.

Passages of Lesser Light crescendoed toward its finale of layered bass-pummels / percussion-thrashes / keyboard-smashes—and ended in an abrupt cessation of sound. On stage, in the instant of that sudden silence, I felt an indescribable emotion surge as I lifted my hands away from the keyboards. I realized with painful clarity: everything would be different from now on.

A tremendous and formative life’s-chapter had just come to a close.

* * *

Wormwood began in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1997—in an era before smartphones and streaming music, in an age before GPS systems succeeded AAA Trip Tik maps. We were a team of new friends in our twenties, bound by creative collaboration. Our disparate specialties—punk, hardcore, black metal, goth—gelled into heavy-handed, oddly-timed, and unlikely songs. Our music-centered alliance was strengthened by humor, alcohol and cigarettes, and plans for the band’s future.

Over eleven years together, our support systems extended far beyond Lawrence city limits, corralling artists and writers and independent sound engineers, venue managers and underground record labels, and sister and brother bands from the Midwest, PNW, and across the world. But Wormwood was always a grassroots endeavor. Our friends were our first audiences. Our fans became our friends.

* * *

Primarily, Wormwood was a creative venture: we wrote music, designed album art and show flyers, made posters and stickers and T-shirts, and even built a webpage (from HTML-scratch!). But Wormwood was also business. Not a business, mind you. But it had a practical side that demanded attention.

The business of the band entailed buying music equipment, maintaining a van, paying for gas. It meant door money and drink tickets and guest lists and a cooler of beer in the green room. It meant paying rehearsal space rent—every month. It meant saving to afford DIY recordings and screenprinted shirts and flyer copies at Kinko’s.

Properly tended, Wormwood’s practical side ensured the best future for its creative output. We taught ourselves how to format images in Photoshop—we learned about rasterizing and color separation and optimized file size. Vinyl records required careful packaging; we saved bubble wrap and flat square boxes. Our music reached listeners near and far through mail order and record trades—from kids in small Midwest towns to European and Japanese record distros.

The early business of Wormwood meant making connections in a pre-social media age. We wrote letters and email messages back in those days (uphill both ways). Later we posted on MySpace. We also mailed out demos and promos and “press kits.” We even had a well-intended but ultimately neglected mailing list, which would be set out on the merch table during shows.

Ah, the merch table. Here’s where any band’s creative and business sides coalesce. Records, CDs, T-shirts, stickers, patches, even cassette tapes. Sharpies and masking tape and extra paper and little price signs and a lock box for cash and cash itself (in a hopeful variety, to make change). The merch table was sometimes a sore point: in the absence of a roadie, which one of us was going to sell merch after a performance? Bring that man—or woman—a drink!

* * *

From a personal standpoint, Wormwood had been my social center and ersatz family for well over a decade. What would happen next?

My husband and I had shared eleven years in the band together. It had been a grand-scale ongoing project that started long before marriage, long before kids. Would we find a new project together? Would we endure?

Being in Wormwood had also ensured persistent friendships with the amazing creative humans that were my bandmates. It meant a beer at the bar before band practice twice a week. It called for long bouts of creative collaboration, long hours in the studio, and long drives across the country in an old Chevy van with a hole in the back floor. In fact, Wormwood survived a move across the country (well, with four-fifths of its Kansas-era membership intact). Even when disagreements and tempers and sensitivities arose, there was always another rehearsal or another show that would usually smooth things over. Now, no more practice. No more shows. What did the future hold?

Wormwood was the common theme in my own internal creative life. It motivated and inspired art and writing. I catharsized my darkest nature through Wormwood. I thrived on the artistic redemption this provided. But what would redeem me now?

Wormwood did wonders for my anxiety and self-image. At first, I huddled trembling over my keyboards, hidden behind the bass amps at basement shows. But eventually, I would stand out front—hoping desperately I wouldn’t screw up Screwtape or pass out during Out Cold. Wormwood provided internal psychological leverage against my own social awkwardness: “Hey, why should I feel shy and unworthy? I’m in the band!”  (Sadly, it didn’t cure me—although a mid-40s life perspective does help a lot.)

For all my years in school, Wormwood was a learning experience that no college program could have provided. Tours especially opened my eyes and un-sheltered my thinking. Tours meant exposure to other bands, venues, artists, and music-supporting communities across the country and beyond. It meant seeing firsthand other lifestyles, subcultures, and means—from heartland rural USA to New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Vancouver B.C., and more. Tours were often chaos barely constrained by good humor, but it all served to bring on new awareness. Setting up instruments in wet basements and oven-hot garages and crowded living rooms and oversized stages under over-bright lights—performing in bars and night clubs and VFW halls and back yards—playing for both the straightedge and the drunken, for the underage and their parents too, for vegan crust-punks and black-metal kids in face paint and Harley Davidson enthusiasts and female-fronted-folk-rockers—sleeping in the van, sleeping on sofas and floors, sleeping in the towering outdoors, simply not-sleeping—and eating free pre-show spaghetti and red sauce in towns all across America….

Also, tours often meant survival as the sole female among the guys. That experience could stand as a narrative all its own. Well, maybe some day.

* * *

Passages of Lesser Light‘s lyrics allude to the elusive nature of the past’s objective truth. “Memory is but a likeness that our minds arrange.” But the past is more elusive to some than others. I have a terrible memory for proper nouns and event sequences, and the more remote the memory, the worse this gets. But I rationalize that it’s because my memory is primarily emotional. I distinctly recall (and sorely miss) the excitement and exhilaration of creative collaboration. I clearly remember the escalating energy of Wormwood shows, and the sense of sheer joy in the studio during perfect playback of a newly-recorded song.

And I can never forget the drug-like high that results from entrancing an audience—from evoking animation and excitement and passion in others. 

I also clearly remember the advent of emotional dissonance. I recall irreconcilable differences rising within the band. The last song Wormwood wrote was Reversal of Fortune: it seemed to take forever, and where creative coalescence had once raised songs to their best possible form, Reversal sometimes seemed an exercise in grudging negotiation. Not that I don’t like the song; I do, and very much so. But its existence is a miracle, which says a lot about Wormwood’s health status toward the end.

The manifestation of Reversal of Fortune eponymously, prophetically accompanied the band’s collective decision to end. The difficulties we experienced with the song’s direction and scope serve as a metaphor for the band’s overall difficulties. Discussions rose and fell around the subject for weeks before it was settled. Not everyone happily agreed it was the best idea. But at last we formally ended the band.

Personally, I hate the end of something wonderful. But then again, I don’t like loose ends. I hate to say goodbye. But in the wake of unexpected finalities, I’ve regularly yearned for the chance to have said a proper goodbye.

I didn’t want to miss Wormwood’s end. I could not tolerate the thought of its quiet slink into the increasingly-obscured past, loose ends trailing. I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to celebrate the intense creative, long-term challenge that was Wormwood. Better to formally end it and celebrate than to blink, distracted, and miss it.

Certainly, the days of giving everything over in the name of the band were over for me. And for me, that’s what Wormwood had always meant—devotion, obsession, catharsis, invocation. It was all no longer sustainable. And the effort and change required to somehow make it sustainable again—to force the emotional dissonance into submission, as if that were even possible—was not something I wanted as much as that which closure might permit: new creative pursuits, new personal endeavors. Re-learning survival in a non-Wormwood environment. Learning to thrive in a post-Wormwood age.

* * *

In Theodore Roethke’s The Dance of the One-legged Man, one haunting line of poetry captures the bittersweet essence of change: “Each thing’s an end of something else.” What nature of thing would emerge from the end of Wormwood? The era that would rise from that last, poignant instant on stage meant change in ways I could not predict nor remotely fathom at the time.

Passages of Lesser Light’s lyrics, first written in 2001, consider the inevitability of change: “Passages arrange, by nature, re-emergence.” I hadn’t read Roethke yet, but maybe his ghost was already haunting me? (I’ve heard that he frequented the Blue Moon Tavern in Seattle’s U-District, which was just a few blocks from my tiny alley-level apartment back then…)

Re-reading Passage’s lyrics now prompts a new consideration. Occasionally one must re-choose life’s current trajectory by answering the question: Is this still where my heart is? When the answer is “Yes,” this reaffirms and strengthens the heart’s position. Stay on the path, maintain trajectory—until it comes time to ask the question again.

If a day comes when the answer is “No,” this is the first step on a new path, and into a new passage toward change. But it doesn’t mean the heart was never there.

The legacy of the Wormwood passage in my life—that wonderful, circuitous path—and all the energy that surrounded Wormwood—the friendships and collaborations and hopes and concerns and endeavors of that time—all of it had my heart. All that music you can still hear, the artwork you can still see, the words you can still read today—all of this has my heart. It is my heart, as it once was.

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Wormwood at El Corazon, Seattle. 14 June 2008. Photographer: Emily Hadley.

* * *

Links

Last song of Wormwood’s final performance, via Poetweek on YouTube:

Photographs from the night of the show, courtesy of Emily Hadley on Flickr:

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Posters for the final show:

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Artist: Zachary “EZ” Nelson

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Story Excerpt No. 7

A new sign graces Massachusetts Street’s eastern storefront row, between the pet store and the bagel shop—a simple plaque above the door of Rose Red Vintage. Until this morning, taped-up butcher paper had obscured an inside view through the front windows. The paper is now gone, the shop interior exposed. Inside, fixtures jut from the floor in varying states of assembly, nude mannequins recline in stiff repose, and boxes overflow with incipient retail stock.

With focused intent, Vivian flits from place to place in the room—roots through a toolbox on the counter, attaches hooks to a rack, kneels near a paint pan in the corner, dabs a brush over an imperfection in the wall. It’s as if she’s moving in one smooth workflow, choreographed and precise. And despite the event of her manual labor, she’s dressed in casual 1950s vintage style, wearing tan Capris and a sleeveless burberry blouse.

Vivian is a phenomenon.

Outside the heavy wooden door, I drag from the last of my cigarette. The notion dawns on me: At this very instant, I’m witnessing the execution of a long-pursued dream. It’s of sociological interest. A rarity. I toss the butt down and grind it out with my toe, then shove at the door. It’s locked, so I knock and wave.

Viv throws the bolt and welcomes me with a smile. “Hi, Wil. Come on in.”

“The place looks great.” I plop my backpack down on the front counter. “So your booth at the antique mall—?”

“Closed for business, as of yesteday.” Vivian wipes her hands on her vintage pants, entertaining no precious second thoughts. She gestures at the scattered boxes and racks around us. “Everything’s here now. I really appreciate your help—let me buy you breakfast. I’m thinking bagels from next door.”

“Sure. Thanks.”

“While I’m gone…” Viv grabs a hammer from a toolbox on the counter and hands it to me. “Can you tighten up that shelving unit? Pound on the upper corners?”

She leaves me to it. I heft the hammer, guage its weight, wonder at its long and robust history in service to mankind. If I had a hammer, I’d hammer in the morning… I could imagine my mother singing the rest, implementing a hippy moment at the offered opportunity. I perform the requested work awkwardly—to be expected of someone who just never hammers, you know? Yet nonetheless finds themselves hammering away one morning indeed—and in open view of the busiest street in town. After I’m finished, I entertain a mixed sense of relief, uncertainty, and overblown self-satisfaction.

Unsure of what to do next, I wander along the periphery of the shop interior, exploring the nascent layout. I hum the “I’d hammer out a warning” part, quietly. A basket of shoes sits in one corner. A clothes rack runs along the north wall, already burdened with hanging bundles of coats under plastic wrap; an exquisite green-velvet cloak hangs unwrapped at the end. Near the changing room, an antique trunk overflows with gloves and scarves. Next to that stands a full-length mirror with a claw-foot base.

I take a walk, take it all in, and take a seat on a stool near the counter. I spin on the stool, slowly. Then faster. Rose Red Vintage becomes a blur of colors and shapes. A dream fulfilled… Dizzy, I stop spinning and crook my feet in the brace of the stool legs. I stretch out my arms and gaze down their familiar length where they stick out from the sleeves of the battered Black Flag T-shirt. I kick out my feet, observe the plain blue jeans, the second-hand Vans. Imagine what it must feel like! I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the mirror: stool-splayed ridiculousness. “I look crazy,” I whisper, and tuck my legs back in, fold my arms over my chest. The reflection’s new narrative: a dignified figure seated coolly above the floor-scattered disarray of someone else’s dream.

Ah, yes. That’s better.

If I had a hammer, I fear it’d be wasted on me. I mean, look at this place: Vivian is on the brink. She forged the path. Fulfillment. Validation. A wish come true. If I had a hammer, I don’t even know what I’d do with it. Since school let out, what more have I aspired toward than a free beer at Janet’s bar? A word of encouragement in Mr. Crosthwaite’s writing class? A simple, friendly glance from beautiful Sean—the ultimate redemption?

Allured by the green velvet cloak at the end of the rack, I slide down from the stool, sidle toward it. My bare arms glide along the cloak’s silk lining as I fasten a large onyx bead into the loop at my throat. Beautiful green fabric embraces me. I step in front of the mirror, Vans and claw feet parallel to one another. Vintage-cloaked-me looks like a kid playing superhero with a blanket cape. I shake my head, amused by the sight—and then I nearly jump out of my skin when a white rat skitters past in the mirror’s reflection, crossing the floor behind me.

“Oh-my-gosh!” I cry, whirling around, the cloak’s fabric billowing dramatically. The rat stops at the center of the room and pops its head up. It sniffs the air, its pink eyes on me. I take a deep breath. “Oh, boy,” I sigh. Viv is going to freak out.

Think fast, I think slowly. I could throw the cloak at it, like a net… I unhook the bead from the loop and remove the cloak with no sudden movements. The rat huddles down, whiskers twitching, but it stays put. Yet even as I take a tentative step toward it, I realize—I have no idea how old this cloak is, how valuable. Vivian might freak out about a rat in her new shop, but she’ll definitely kill me if I catch a rat in prize vintage velvet, regardless of any good intentions.

Carefully, I hang the cloak on the rack. The rat watches me with a sidelong gaze. I scan the room. My own gaze lingers on the hammer in the toolbox. A pertinent thought barely dawns before I shudder, dismiss, move on. Next, the shoe basket catches my eye. Perfect… But can I turn overturn it, empty it out, without scaring the rat away? I take a ginger step toward the basket. The rat hops forward uncertainly. I stop. It stops.

I step, it hops.

“All right. Look,” I say, forced to resort to pleading reason. “You can’t stay here, you need to go back to the pet store. There’s no food here, no water.”

The rat moves in a circle, sniffing the floor.

I step, it hops.

“Okay. Listen.” I try again. “Some kid’s gonna adopt you, any day now.” The rat casts its gaze at me skeptically. “Maybe a freshman,” I add. “Maybe you’ll live in the dorms? Party every weekend!”

Apparently it’s not a selling point. The rat lopes off quickly, headed straight toward the changing room. “Wait!” I hiss, and pace after it. With a scrabble of claws on the concrete floor, the rat squeezes its plump white body under the door, a seeming-impossible feat.

“Dammit.” I whirl around and run back to the corner to grab the shoe basket. In an unceremonious wake of dainty antique lady-shoes, I return to the changing room with the empty basket in my grip.

I pause, one hand on the doorknob. I quell a prophetic vision of a hundred rats waiting inside the little room, a nightmarish furry mass of beady eyes and claws and teeth. Bracing myself with faith in reality —though that, shaky at best—I twist the knob and pull the door open.

The rat is gone.

I’m amazed. I kneel down to inspect the back wall. Along the edge where the wall meets the floor is a crack in the concrete, no more than an inch wide. I try to peek inside the crack, but it’s not really a hole. There’s just more crumbled concrete and dirt.

I sit down on the floor. “I know you’re in there,” I say. I lean against the back wall, gazing out at the main floor through the doorway: a new remote perspective from this stark box of a changing room. “And I can’t imagine what you’ve been through, the choices you’ve had to make,” I continue. “To escape. To be out on your own like this. I’m sure it was scary. Is scary.”

The bolt on the main door makes a chunking sound.

“But wonderful, too,” I add. “You’re free.”

The heavy door swings open. Vivian enters, keys jingling and bagel bags rustling in hand.

I lean down toward the crack in the floor . “But rats are bad for business,” I whisper confidentially. Like a mob boss. Drug lord. Bad cop on the take. “And you and me? We’re not done here.”

“Wil?” calls Viv from the front counter. “What’s with all the shoes…”

I jump up, dust off my rump, and mentally craft the cover-up tale via rapid fire of desperate neurons. “It’s about time,” I call back, and I head out to meet her. “I’m starving over here.”

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Wall sticker found in Seattle’s “ghost alley”: rat ouroboros woodcut by artist Zardulu

For the Love of Zines

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When I encountered my first zine, it was love at first sight. A punk kid was handing out Xeroxed copies of his masterwork in the halls of my high school between classes. As I leafed through those stapled pages, I knew instantly: I wanted more. This was something I wanted to do.

The year was 1988, the beginning of my sophomore year of high school. In this pre-internet era in Topeka, Kansas, underground music culture was barely accessible. Having the university town of Lawrence half an hour up the highway helped. All breeds of underground music fans shared space at the Outhouse punk venue just outside Lawrence. Love Garden Sounds opened its doors in 1990, and swiftly became a sacred weekend destination for Topeka alt-rocker teens in search of rare vinyl.

Topeka had its bright spots, too. The Basement all-ages club spun a decent New Wave selection, making for an appreciated gathering place. If resourceful, one could special-order Fields of the Nephilim on vinyl through World Records on ‪6th Street. Mother Earth just down the road carried Bauhaus and Sisters of Mercy on cassette.

And for those inclined to reach out and network beyond Kansas borders—inclined to make contact with that romantically (over)-idealized “world beyond the Fly-Over-States”—well, there were zines.

Being so inclined, I started my own goth fanzine in 1990, which came collated and hot off the Kinko’s press in ’91. The world of zine crafting and trading became a primary creative outlet and collaborative platform that lasted for years. Zines were my main means of expanding awareness of underground subculture. They were a resource for learning about bands, fashion, and even films, as well as sharing art and writing.

Perhaps most importantly to me personally, zines were a means of establishing a unique brand of friendship. Although also bought and sold (usually for a dollar or two), zines were typically traded among their creators through the mail. We shared pieces of our lives and loves with one another through this medium both literary and artistic—both privately inspired and motivated, and yet vulnerably, purposefully public.

In this digital age, online communities are instantly accessible, focusing on any area of interest of which you could possibly, wildly dream. For every networking desire out there, it seems there’s a corresponding social media opportunity to connect and self-validate. But in the late 80s and 90s, zines were the primary way of connecting folks who shared arcane and under-the-radar interests. They networked bands, fans, penpals, artists, and zine-traders all across the world.

Today the significance of paper zines has shifted as their purpose has changed. But their status as an art form remains—perhaps holding stronger now than ever, emphasized by their survival in this era of immediate electronic engagement.

Story Excerpt No. 4

I park on the street and shut down the Mitsubishi rental. With the unlit cigarette at my fingertips, I wait. Procrastinate.

The neighborhood is quiet. 4:30, hot and humid but breezy. Damp spots on the concrete from a recent rain. Cicadas’ song is a buzz-saw crescendo all around, a gradual progression into a wild insect wheeze, followed by abrupt cessation. And then—reply in kind, passing from yard to yard and increasingly farther away.

This sequential buzz from one grassy lot to the next seems placid, but vaguely unwelcoming. No. Foreboding. Wait, no…. Conspiratorial.

No. This is the very sound of indifference to humanity’s plight. Cicadas in the brush have nothing to do with us. Their buzzing repartee among discrete lawns represents an entire society in a two-block radius proceeding happily without heed to humanity.

Somehow this thought is both eerie and comforting at once. I savor it, turn it over in my mind. I tap the unburnt cigarette on the Mitsubishi’s console next to me, as if to disengage the last length of imaginary ash, then slide the cigarette behind my ear.

For want of further excuse, it’s time to gather my bags and head up to the house. Vivian won’t be home until later, but her housemate Janet is supposedly here to let me in. Sheesh. I feel shy—what am I, five years old?

“Knock really loud,” Vivian told me over the phone earlier, “just in case she fell asleep in front of the TV. If she doesn’t get up, knock on the bay window with a key. If that doesn’t work, go around to the north side and bang on her bedroom window.”

Great. I breathe a sheepish prayer that this elaborate troubleshooting won’t be necessary, and commence knocking on the door. I wait. Knock again, louder. Nothing. I’m about to begrudgingly key-tap the window when I hear footsteps drum the floor from within. Locks clunk, the door swings open, and suddenly I’m facing a tall, athletic-looking girl in an oversized KU T-shirt. Tousled blond hair, couch-cushion pattern impressed upon her cheek.

“You’re Wil?” she says, blinking groggily. “Hope you weren’t waiting long.” She pushes on the screen door and grabs the handle of my rolling suitcase.

“No worries,” I say. I step into the house after her.

We enter the main room, which is set up for general college-kid entertainment. Stereo system in one corner. Cinderblock-and-plank bookshelves against a wall, full of textbooks, paperbacks, and magazines. Sofa and patchy La-Z-Boy co-dominate the middle of the room, facing an antenna-topped TV set; onscreen is an ancient Mork and Mindy. The bay window overlooks the street, letting in a meager amount of light.

Overall, the place would be pretty depressing—dingy eggshell walls, knobby taupe carpet, flesh-and-grey-blotch laminate on the kitchen floor—if it weren’t for certain distinct signs of life. Colorful throw rugs distract from the otherwise sullen palette. Band and art posters are Blu Tacked here and there. A bright green TV tray upholds half a sandwich on a red plate.

The Mork and Mindy laugh track glamorizes our passage across the room. I follow Janet’s barefoot shuffle down the main hall, passing doors on either side. She gestures to each and names them: “That’s my bedroom, that’s Sakura’s, that’s the bathroom, that’s Viv’s.” She pushes open the last door on the left. “This is yours.”

I step inside, let my backpack slide sleepily down my arm to the floor. Take a few more steps, and pivot in a full circle to take it all in. Twin bed in one corner, nightstand next to it. Closet with a sliding door, half open: some clothes are hanging inside, but they’re shoved back to make room for mine. An Elliot Smith poster graces one wall, Billie Holiday the other. Antique knickknacks are perched everywhere, ironic vintage décor balanced precariously between cutesy and kitschy.

“Actually,” Janet says, “this is Kate’s room. But yours for the summer.”

I love it. I absolutely love it. Nothing in here reminds me of home, nothing in here reminds me of the recent past. Nothing reminds me of myself.

“It’s cool,” I say. Coolly.

Janet gives me a sidelong glance, implying a skeptical, “You think so, huh?” But she says, “Glad you like it.” I think I’m picking up on deadpan. A good sign.

Janet lugs my suitcase up onto the bed. Next to the headboard, she twirls the wand at the window blinds. Sunlight brightens the room. “Viv and Sakura-san get home around five or so. Don’t mean to be rude, but I’m leaving. Gotta work tonight.”

“Oh. What do you do?” In the fleeting beat prior to her response, I try and guess, mind racing. She tutors athletes up on campus. Nah. She’s a manager at an outdoor-sports-stuff store. Hmm, no. She leads city bicycle tours. Yes, maybe that.

“I’m a bartender. At a complete shithole, I might add.”

I assimilate this new information, surprised. “Sounds like more fun than retail.” I smile.  I know a bartender! Hell, yeah. Cheap drinks and the initiation of an instant social life, all in my near future. Already a plan formulates in my mind: I’ll just hang out at Janet’s bar every night, all summer long. Perfect.

Janet gives me the sidelong glance again, and adds a raised eyebrow. “Picture, if you will, your worst retail customer. Obnoxious, entitled, self-righteous as hell.” She pauses, her gaze trained on me. “You picturing it?”

“Yeah…”

“Now picture that same customer, drunk off their ass. That’s bartending.”

I nod, properly schooled. “Got it.”

“Great. And one more thing, there, Wil. No smoking.” Her gaze flicks to my ear, to the perched cigarette.

“Oh, that.” I scrabble for the cig, slip it into my backpack unceremoniously. “I quit. Recently. I don’t smoke. Actually.” The words come out with the measured precision of a well-recited poem.

“‘Course you don’t.” Janet shrugs, smiles. Mild sarcasm. Okay, she’s messing with me—not bad, but a little bit. What now? Consequences loom large, imminent. I can react further, get serious, insist on my veracity. I can laugh, play it off, be cool. Or maybe I’ll just switch the topic. “Well, I’ll leave you to it,” she says. Heads back down the hall, slips into the bathroom.

On my own in Kate’s room now, nearly without exception. It’s just Elliot and Billie and me—me, identifying at the moment as a personification of my own social awkwardness.  It’s all fine, I think, mollifying myself distractedly, unzipping the suitcase on the bed. I unpack my clothes. Shorts, jeans, band T-shirts. Subhumans, Crass, Black Flag. Nothing precious, but I hang them anyway, since Kate went through the trouble of making room in the closet. I have a little more work to do, but soon Bartender Janet and I will be great friends. I decide this. Commit to it.

On the other hand, my acquaintanceship with Absentee Kate will never develop past the shared-closet stage. It’s strange to settle in amidst someone else’s personal stuff, and yet to have no idea what the person even looks like. Certainly, Kate’s vintage taste shows in much of her décor, just as Vivian had foretold over the phone. Beaded shawls and colorful scarves hang over the window in lieu of curtains. A beautiful swatch of patterned silk covers the surface of the nightstand. Alongside more modern trappings—CD player, digital clock—her myriad knickknacks grace every surface. Vases, perfume bottles, tinted glassware in animal shapes. I kneel down to look at the spines of her books. Crime novels, organic gardening books, Sylvia Plath, a couple of 50’s-era cookbooks.

So, my mystery hostess, I think, leafing through Plath with savvy. You’re girly, you’re fashionable, you like Elliot Smith, you read. We would bond over books, I guess. That’s about it….

Or is it?

I get nosy. Go through the drawers, poke deeper in to the closet behind the dresses. More clothes, more books. Storage boxes, big and small. I don’t dig through the boxes, though—better save some for later.

When I hear the front door open and then slam closed, I realize I’m alone in the house. I plop down onto the bed with my empty suitcase, and stretch the last of the travel-weary confinement from my limbs. Staring up at the popcorn ceiling, I’m amused by the thought that wherever I may roam, there will always be a popcorn ceiling in any place that I call home. It’s like looking up at the same moon as one’s lost love far away: I merely look to the popcorn cottage cheese above me, and I connect with my own geographic history.

I roll onto my elbow, face the window, and lift the blinds a few inches. Outside, the backyard is shaggy but green. Dandelions dot the lawn all the way to the alley beyond. Dumpsters, carports, sheds. The alley is busier than the street: kid walks a dog, dude with band equipment loads up a Jeep, a mom jogs with one of those athletic baby stroller things.

I roll onto my back, meet Elliot Smith’s melancholy poster-gaze from across the room. He’s taking inventory, sizing me up, yet he seems to withhold judgment at this point. “I’m not so bad,” I promise him. “You’ll get used to me.”

I’ll get used to this. The house, the yard, the alley, Kate’s room: all will be familiar soon. But for now, and for a limited time, everything around me is new. Sometimes, in places that have become deeply familiar to me, I try to see with the same perspective as that very first time. I attempt to relive that initial sense of new. My dorm room, Mom’s house, even my childhood home before the divorce—even back then, I would occasionally sink into a carte blanche reverie. Focus on the furniture and wallpaper, which was otherwise just an everyday backdrop. Really notice the books on the shelves, pictures on walls, decorations along the mantle and windowsills. I would ask myself, what does one’s sanctuary reflect about one’s identity? What aspects of one’s private space might make an impression upon a total stranger? And what sort of stranger might that person be, so impressed?

Furthermore. Is there grand significance behind such a semiotically-charged exchange? Perhaps something metaphysical, even? Or is any sense of numinous connection merely an illusion, just another representation of the great universal high indifference?

I squirm around, next looking up at Billie Holiday, who sings into an old-school Shure microphone on the wall over the bed. Billie barely notices me at all: she is in the zone, replete with euphoria in the expression of her art…. I’m envious. I know that feeling. I want to feel that. I jump from the bed, grab my backpack. Grapple for pens, pencil, my notebook. Words begin to rush through my head already, eager for escape onto paper.

As I pull my notebook free from the pack, the spare and unburnt cigarette catches the ride, trapped between pages. It falls to the floor at my feet.

I pick it up. Turn it over between my fingers. A strange compulsion overwhelms, to smoke it here. In the house. Alone. In secret.

In a dark spirit of villainy.

At the window, I raise the blinds. They collapse at the top with a zzzzzip. I lift the window sill as high as it will go, warm and humid air pushing through the screen like something alive and breathing.

I place the unlit cigarette to my lips. I think about Eddie, for the first time since I got here.

Consequences loom, I think. I remind myself. There are consequences to everything.

In the little overgrown yard beyond, cicadas make a glorious racket.