For Old Time's Sake
This town didn't offer much to your average group of teenagers, and truth be told, I don't really think it offered much to anyone at all. Sure, there was the cinema that had just opened about three years ago, a brand new two story building with fresh coats of red and white paint on its cultivated exterior, and the machine that seemed to make that whole side of town smell like butter and freshly popped corn. If you had friends like I did that were on good terms with the ticket salesman, he could maybe get you balcony seats to the last showing of Lawrence of Arabia for a handsome discount to match his handsome face. Or maybe, if you were just plain lucky, you could sneak in the side door, where the concession stand workers and janitors snuck out for a quick smoke, for the midnight showing of Psycho.
The problem with having a brand new cinema was that it only stayed brand new and interesting until we'd seen all that there was to see.
It didn't help either that the cinema had opened right beside Swanson's, the only diner in town that had sinfully greasy chicken wings, the largest root beer floats, and a jukebox where I first discovered that music could take me far, far beyond the town limits. It was the first time I'd ever heard of this band called The Beatles; in fact I didn't even know what they were called until I begged the manager of the diner to play me that song one more time, before he closed and tell me please, the name of the band. It was during the chugging chorus and the waling melody of I Saw Her Standing There that Robert, James, and Shirley walked in.
I remember the manager hollering at us that it was closing time and that we should get on out; Shirley (who was dating James at the time) gave a little tug on his arm and was about to leave, but James wouldn't budge. Robert just stared the manager down with a gleam in his eyes that brought shivers down my spine and then proceeded to walk over to me. I guess I just kind of stood there silently until he approached me with a smile and casually reached across me to turn the volume up on the jukebox.
When I look back on us, I don't really think I remember the typical things. That is to say, I don't remember quite when or where we had our first kiss, but I could remember the way Robert's eyes shone with a light that was as close to happy as he could be at that time. I don't completely remember how his voice sounded when he told me for the first time "Mary, I love you," but I remember the way the corners of his mouth would crinkle into that wonderful smile of his, sweet but oh-so- melancholy at the same time. I did associate some of my happiest memories with him, but more precisely, to the one place in town where the four of us could actually create our own happiness-the recording studio just outside of town.
We were never officially a band, although it had been my idea ever since that fateful night when I'd discovered The Beatles and met Robert, James and Shirley. Even when I'd found out that Robert played the guitar and the bass guitar, and James played drums, and Shirley sang like an angel, and that I was quite good at piano-even then, it was more of an unspoken agreement between the four of us. James's father was a car salesman, and since he had all of that extra cash lying around, he'd decided to buy the abandoned building outside of town. James had taken an interest to music and spent the next few years collecting recording equipment until he had transformed it into his own personal haven. His problem was he had no one to share it with.
Until of course, he met Shirley, and discovered that she could sing. And then they started dating.
Robert had taken his old man's Ford Thunderbird in for a quick repair at the automobile sales office one day when he'd spotted James trying to tune an acoustic guitar. And then, oh Lord, when he'd attempted to play it…Robert had walked over to him and shown him how to tune it, and when his fingers had played some fiendishly difficult riff for shock value, he casually shrugged and handed it back to James. That was how Robert had explained to me his unofficial audition into "James's world" as he'd called it. I realize now that I was the last one who caught on to the inner workings of that world, but the first one to want out once I realized it wasn't the one I wanted to live in.
Shortly after our first meeting at the diner, Robert and I had discovered we'd taken a liking for each other, which was around the time Shirley became my best friend. I had always thought she was prettier than me, although Robert did all he could to make me think otherwise. She had eyes coloured like the summer sky; mine were just plain brown.
She was taller than me and could pull off an outfit, no matter how outrageous, precisely because of that fact. I was just of average height. Actually, I thought of myself as "just average" and that Robert was so much better than me and I didn't deserve him. I guess you could say, I thought Shirley belonged more with him than I did.
After we had all decided that yes, indeed this town could offer us very little, we'd decided to turn to music to make up for it. I started to obsessively hoard Beatles records over the upcoming months, and made Robert meticulously study George Harrison's style; James was pounding away on the drums at the studio and when Shirley wasn't helping him, she was with me, discussing our grand plans for the future. We would be the next band to "make it big;" our unbridled musical talent would save us from this lifeless life in a forgotten town somewhere on the face of the planet.
And then of course, the Beatles broke up, and we outgrew all the things that we once loved, although I'm not quite sure which event happened first.
If I recall correctly, that was around the time I decided to break up with Robert. It shocked me that he hadn't seen it coming. What shocked me more however was that Shirley was right there to make sure his bleeding heart didn't have to bleed all by itself. James had broken up with her, so the newly rejected couple found solace in each other, leaving James and I to do the same. It was all done in an impulsive, messy, bitter manner; feelings ran high, and desperation even higher. We all wanted the same things from each other, but the circumstances of our lives made it difficult to get precisely what we wanted. Of all people, James suggested we should at least finish recording the last song on the album we had been working so hard on-for old time's sake.
So, just like in the good old days, we all met up at the studio around noon on a scorching, beautiful but otherwise uninteresting Saturday in June. As usual, James was there before us, thoughtfully sitting behind his drum kit, flipping the errant hair out of his olive green eyes and taking long drags of his cigarette. I gave him a little smooch on the cheek as I came in, because that's what you're supposed to do, and then proceeded to my spot in the studio.
There was a rack of well-used guitars, including two oddly curved Supro's, and the distinctive Rickenbacker; long cables intertwined from tube amps with tattered grills that gave those guitars their crunchy tone. There were a bunch of guitar pedals too, from fuzz pedals, to absolutely sonically filthy distortion pedals. Beside the mixing console was a Scully eight-track tape machine and the keyboard that I sat at directly across from it. I glanced at Robert from time to time, watched him thoughtfully ponder which guitar he felt like using. Once he'd settled for one, a look of peace settled over his features and he plugged in the guitar to the amp with a satisfied light in his eyes.
Shirley smiled at me as she adjusted the height of the Unidyne microphone she was using, like the one Elvis used to use. Once she had plugged in all of our necessary cords into the recording machine, she dragged the microphone, stand and all, to the middle of the studio where we could all see her. My hands hovered over the keys, itching in anticipation; through the slats in the wood roof of the studio, shafts of scorching heat poured all around us, landing on the dusty floor. James unbuttoned his plaid shirt and picked up his drumsticks; his eyes met mine, and I counted to four. On the last beat, James produced a steady mid-tempo rhythm and kept it going while each of us added our respective parts.
Since Robert couldn't play guitar and bass at the same time, it was up to me to somehow fill in the "middle" section of the song with the keyboard. I played a few simple chords: two major chords, reminiscent of the happiness a child has when opening presents, and two minor chords, as melancholy as a rainy day. James cut me off, calling out to me while still drumming:
"No no, let's end this properly!"
And then with no warning, he sped up the tempo, beating out a faster shuffle rhythm. A grin stretched across Robert's face and I could feel my heart beat a little faster, caught in the music. I hit a few notes, just messed around really, until Shirley let out a joyful laugh, humming a sort of melody into her microphone just loud enough so that we could all hear. Then an electric growl that soon built up to a shout poured from Robert's amp and with a crash of the cymbals, the song began to take shape.
Robert's riff was bombastic, slightly sleazy, carried by a cocky swagger and a guitar freakout that perfectly mirrored the lyrics Shirley had begun to sing some lyrics, a paranoid rant that made you shiver even while you shimmied to James's stuttering rhythm. After she'd let loose a scorching howl, Shirley commanded me to "Hit it, Mary!" and I just let my fingers play. There seemed to be very little thought; all I knew was that I was playing my feelings and what I heard was a piano solo full of past memories. Robert's guitar solo seemed to answer my own, his fingers peeling off the notes from the guitar's fretboard blisteringly fast. James brought the song to a slow throbbing mid-section, letting Shirley croon into her microphone, before my fingers slid down the keyboard and we all brought the song into a wild, passionate conclusion.
We decided to keep that first take of the song, because even though we toiled away well into the late afternoon, stopping very briefly to eat some sandwiches and drink some water, none of the other versions that we recorded seemed to capture us so well. We all agreed that it was the best song on the album, and all that really needed to be done was for James to put it along with the rest of the songs. To this day, I don't know if he did. I'd like to think that he did, even though for all I really knew, our unfinished album was sitting in his attic or basement, gathering dust. He never gave any of us copies of the song; we chalked it up to his bitterness about the band breaking up. At that point, none of us really had the need to care about the past anymore, for the future was far more promising.
Shirley carelessly twirled around us while we walked home, her previously carefully coiffed hair now left loose to untangle and spill down past her shoulders in waves of light brown. Robert walked just behind her, obnoxiously smacking his gum, a mischievous gleam in his blue eyes as he tried to snake an arm around her waist. Shirley giggled, always just beyond his reach. He gave up after a few apparently futile attempts. As Robert reached into the breast pocket of his leather jacket to withdraw his comb, he winked at me and then proceeded to delicately attend to his pompadour and sideburns, like nothing extraordinary had happened.
I preferred to look down at the boring (but safe) sidewalk, at the way my grass green peep-toe heels contrasted so harshly with the colour of the cement. It was safer than looking at Robert's eyes. After all, those eyes held out the past so close to me that I feared if I stared too long at it, it would no longer matter to me, that I would see right past it. Truth was, I didn't really want to forget. Sure, seeing Robert and Shirley together brought a twinge to my heart. But that twinge, if fed by my constant phone calls and visits to Shirley and my incessant questions about her relationship, could very well grow into that familiar pain in my heart I seemed to be feeling more often these days.
As long as I felt something, anything, that meant that I still cared.
Naturally, the day I discovered that I could look back on all that happened between us with only cool acknowledgement, I decided to go back to that town-for old time's sake. I didn't know what to expect of the place; how much had it changed after all of these years? Even now, I could only remember certain parts of my visit; all that remained of the cinema was an abandoned shell of a building. The diner was still there, but it was no longer called Swanson's and the food was far too healthy to be any good for anyone. The main street of the town had quite a few empty building, and the stores that were occupied were in a shaky state of disrepair. Part of me was sad and disappointed to note that things had changed, but the other, larger part of me gave me a reminder that things hadn't really changed.
I had predicted long ago that the town would come to this fate; that was why I'd left the first chance I got. On a whim, before I left this place for good and never looked back, I decided to drive by James's house. I didn't know if he still lived there, but I knew if I didn't find out I would regret it. I slowly cruised down the street with my windows down, peering at the rickety houses with their drab brickwork and whitewashed wood when a familiar sound caught my attention. I stopped on the opposite side of the street, across James's house and stared in disbelief at the man that sat on the front steps, a radio beside him, the volume turned up so that the whole damned neighbourhood could probably hear the song.
Our song. For Old Time's Sake.
There were only faint traces of blonde in the man's hair, and a gruff stubble had gathered on his chin, below lips that seemed to be locked into a perpetual hard line of regret. His clothes were simple, average, boring. I couldn't see his eyes from this distance, and I frankly didn't want to, for fear that they would be empty too. So I simply sat back in my seat, closed my eyes, and let the song take me back to my youth, oh so very long ago. Back to the past. Until-
"Excuse me ma'am, but you can't park here."
My eyes snapped open. I was so lost in the music I hadn't even noticed that a police officer had pulled up to James's house. The music was suddenly cut off. I squinted at the other police officer as he repeated his statement.
I mumbled an apology as I turned the car back on and then stopped backing up as I heard the officer mutter as he walked away:
"…does that every damn Saturday…!"
Saturday. Today was Saturday.
I don't remember whether I took the long way of town or the quick and painless way. I remembered my disbelief that James, James, the one out of all of us that had wanted to leave this place so badly-he'd ended up staying here. I also remembered that as I finally cleared the town limits, the cool acknowledgement settling back in my chest-
I remember that I didn't look back.