July 5, 2002
He wasn't sure why he'd let them talk him into getting here days before they had to play. Usually they flew in, performed, and flew out with maybe an overnight before or after depending on their schedule. They didn't have anything else scheduled and since they were playing a carnival they (the ones who weren't John) thought it'd be fun to hang out for a few days.
The girls had entertained themselves by going downtown the day before yesterday. They hadn't gotten back to the hotel until early this afternoon so evidently they'd had a good time wherever they went. John didn't want to know and he didn't care as long as they showed up in time to go onstage tonight.
He, Claude, Billy, Sean, and Noel had stuck around Shermer for the most part. Sean and Noel were pretty young, so carnivals and the hometown girls that attended them appealed to them. In fact, they'd each met girls opening night of Shermer Days. Claude, Billy, and John spent a lot of time in the beer tent and checking out the acts for the first three nights.
Briefly, the night of the Fourth John thought he saw someone he recognized. Billy noticed, too, but John got the hell away from there before actual recognition clicked in by the other person. It hadn't been bad, he had to admit. Shermer always did have one of the best summer celebrations so he wasn't surprised. It'd been a long time since he'd eaten things like grilled corn on the cob and cheese curds. He still liked them, too, so it was probably good he didn't have access to them (especially the cheese curds) readily over the years.
Finally the time had come to do what they'd come here to do. John was a little nervous as he took a sip of his beer right before their set was about to begin. No bottled beer allowed on the premises. He vaguely remembered that rule from being a kid, but as he hadn't gotten his beer while here legally it had slipped his mind. Tap beer was all right, but he preferred bottled.
Wesley Carter took the stage to introduce them. He still didn't seem to have a clue who John was or that someone in the band he'd hired to perform for the weekend was from Shermer. Fine with John. He wasn't here for any recognition or pomp and circumstance. Oh, he didn't doubt he'd enjoy it if someone recognized him, but he wasn't exactly here to prove a point.
Sean was attentive to one of the girls sitting closest to the stage. John was pretty sure it was the same girl he'd met a couple days ago. She was with a group of girls, of course, so it was kind of hard to tell. John hadn't had any reason to be around twenty-something girls in a very long time, but he remembered the phenomenon well of traveling in packs. It was pretty obvious Sean was watching her, though, because her friends were laughing and she wasn't. She didn't look upset or anything that the group she was with knew he was watching her or anything.
More than once when he and Sean were standing together at a mic he got the feeling her eyes were on him versus his younger bandmate. Hard to tell, though, because she was wearing sunglasses. It was just a feeling he had, and he'd learned long ago that his feelings were rarely wrong on things like that.
Everything was pretty much the same as it had been twenty years ago just with him on a stage this time. He laid odds there was a group of burnouts like him and his buddies were back then huddled just out of sight in the area of trees near the stage. The view wasn't the best, but you were privy to pretty much front-row seats to the music. There were more people here than he remembered, but that wasn't surprising, Shermer had grown in his absence so of course there'd be more here.
They'd played well. Then they always did at these smaller venues. It was the larger ones they sometimes had problems. They got their start in Billy's garage. Billy and Noel were from the area, too, a few towns over. Their pasts weren't as mysterious as John's or something because no one cared about visiting their towns' summer festivals. Then they hadn't been asked to perform at their festivals either.
Their sound, though, tended to lend itself to smaller, more intimate venues given their start in a garage. They made the large venues work. They'd had to, but they knew where they came from and sometimes the larger venues caught them off guard.
He got his things ready to go, helping the others, too, so they all got done faster. The girl's friends were gone but she was still there when John walked out front of the stage. She was standing there, obviously waiting.
"Sean'll be out in a bit I imagine," he said. It seemed rude to just ignore her. Closer like this he could tell easily that she was the girl Sean had been talking to since Tuesday.
"Okay," she said. "Thanks."
He went about his business, ensuring the stage was clear of their things.
"You're really good," she said.
"Compared to all the other guitar players you know? Thank you."
"I play," she said, sounding somewhat pissed off to John's ears. That was all right. Like he cared. He played in a band with Sean he didn't have to like the women he took back with him at the end of the night.
"Fantastic," he said. "What do you want me to say? Thank you isn't good enough?"
Hopefully Sean hadn't latched onto someone who thought he'd be able to get her her big break or something. That had happened to each of them at least once. They were lucky, and they knew that. Right place, right time. Here they were. Ironic she was interested in the guy who was probably in diapers at the moment they were in their right place, right time.
"What's your name?"
"John," he said, regarding her a little closer as he recalled earlier thinking she was watching him as much as she was Sean now and again.
"Thrilled," he said. "Sean's probably in the back if you wanted to find him."
"How did you learn to play?"
He sighed. Here it came. "I didn't really learn to play. I picked up a guitar and could play."
"Just like that?"
"Pretty much. I played by ear, eventually had a music teacher who realized that with some lessons to read music I could possibly be good."
He chuckled softly at that. "Yeah, Mrs. Norman. You had her?"
"Yes," she said.
"I'd figured she'd retired by now. She was, God," he said, thinking about her for the first time in years. She'd been into her fifties he would have guessed twenty five years ago. This girl couldn't have been out of high school that long, so that meant the woman was still actively teaching.
"No," she said.
"Well, good for you. She's good. Probably one of my favorite teachers," he said. He was going to have a chat with Sean about talking about him, or anyone, to people. He didn't want his past blabbed to everyone around.
She slid her sunglasses off then, regarding him. If she'd been stoned earlier her eyes were pretty clear now. He wasn't sure why else she'd have been wearing sunglasses in the evening and this late otherwise. She had some of the most incredibly nice dark brown eyes he'd seen. He wouldn't say ever, but it'd been a while. He supposed he should have guessed brown with the red hair, but he'd seen some redheads with hazel or green eyes.
"She'd be excited I met you."
"Unlikely. I bet she wouldn't even remember me. That was years ago and she's had to have thousands of students."
He was underselling their relationship a bit. She'd told John he had one of the most natural, raw talents she'd ever seen when she'd heard him play. He'd been eleven at the time. He'd found his grandfather's old guitar and picked it up. His parents hadn't cared because it kept him out of their hair for hours at a time. He'd listen to the radio and try to emulate guys like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Les Paul, Eddie Van Halen, and even guys like B.B. King and Buddy Guy. If a song appealed to him, he'd tape it off the radio and listen to it constantly until he was able to at least get to the point of sounding as though he was playing the guitar parts in that song.
The day she gave him sheet music and expected him to read it he'd realized he was nothing more than a hack. A wannabe. He wanted to be better. He wanted to play a song by those great guitarists and know he did it right. So he'd worked. Hard. She'd pushed him, too.
"She told me once that she'd only encountered one person who plays as well as I do."
"And you think she's talking about me?" He scoffed. "Nice to think that, but no."
Sean found them and John was very relieved. He draped an arm around her before leaning in to kiss her.
"Did you like the show?"
"I did! You guys were good."
"Thanks. I see you met John."
"How'd you two meet?" John asked. Having an arm around her suggested they hadn't just met today.
"I met her on Tuesday."
"Ah, all right then," he said with a nod. He knew that. That hadn't been what he was asking exactly. He had no idea how the two of them had encountered one another to begin with. "I guess you have had more current people to hit up for dinner advice."
Sean blushed a bit then. "Yeah, I guess."
"I'm glad it wasn't my choice in pizza places."
"No," Sean said.
"All right. Well, see you tomorrow I guess."
"It was nice to meet you, John," Missy said.
"Yeah, sure. Likewise," he said, but the words were hollow and he knew she was as aware of that as he was.
John tried to dismiss the persistent knocking at his door, but it wouldn't stop.
"Christ," he said gruffly, glancing at the alarm clock by his bed to see that it wasn't even nine o'clock in the morning.
"Coming," he called, hoping whoever was knocking would at least stop. He knocked a beer bottle onto the floor, cursing until he realized it was empty but for a little bit of backwash. No cigarette butts in that one, so it wasn't a huge mess to clean up.
He found his pack of cigarettes, lighting one before getting up from the bed and going to the door.
"What the fuck is your issue?" He opened the door, seeing Sean stand there and felt bad. Sean was, overall, a pretty good kid. "Oh," he said.
"What the fuck is your issue?"
"My issue? Other than you knocking on my door at a stupidly crazy hour, nothing."
"She couldn't shut up about you last night."
"What are you talking about?"
"Who the fuck are you talking about?"
"The girl who was with me at the show?"
"Oh," John said. "The redhead with the nice brown eyes. I remember."
"She was asking me questions about you."
"Maybe she likes older guys, Sean."
"You're old enough to be her father."
John shrugged, taking a long drag off his cigarette. "Some women like that. Daddy issues or something. I don't know what to tell you."
"What did you say to her?"
"I didn't say a god damned thing to her. I told her you'd be right out and she started talking to me. I tried to get her to stop talking to me by telling her where she could find you."
"Oh," Sean said.
"Maybe you shouldn't tell people that I'm from here and then they wouldn't care about me."
"Never mind. It doesn't matter. I have to admit of all the people who could know I'm from here she's not so bad to look at."
"You know, if you're here talking to me maybe I need to give you a clue on what to do with her. You should be in there with her, enjoying the next couple of days with her."
"She didn't even come back here with me," he said, sounding disappointed. John couldn't help but chuckle.
"No. We just walked around until the Midway closed up for the night. She had to go home to her grandparents'."
"Ah," John said. "One of those, huh. There are plenty of them in Shermer. Though the grandparents' angle is an interesting twist."
"Like you'd know."
"The town hasn't changed that much, Sean. I know. In fact, based on my experience and knowledge of this town I'd suggest you stay as far away from brown-eyed redheads as you can."
"So you didn't hit on her?"
"No! Trust me, I have absolutely no desire to hook up with someone in Shermer." John took another drag off his cigarette. "Can I go back to bed now?" If he'd be able to go back to sleep.
"Yeah, sure. Sorry."
"Don't sweat it. I'm not trying to steal your girl, Sean."
"You do know if I wanted to steal your girl I wouldn't have let her leave with you, right?"
"Well, no. I mean, yes, I know that."
"See you later then," he said, closing his door. He walked to the mini-fridge and pulled a beer out, popping open the top as he took a long pull off of it. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand before taking another pull.
He sighed, knowing he wasn't going to be able to go back to sleep. He had gone to bed pretty early so while nine was earlier than he usually woke up he'd gotten a good six or seven hours in. He showered and got ready for his day, grabbing a pick before heading out of his room. The Midway wouldn't open until eleven so he would be shit out of luck finding anything going on there. That didn't mean he couldn't drive around for a bit. They'd gotten two rental cars for the week. He had the keys to one and no one had called dibs on it or talked about plans that required it.
He'd like to claim that all of his memories of Shermer were bad, but really they weren't all bad. Mostly they were pretty decent. Yeah, Vernon had been an asshole, but overall he'd enjoyed his childhood despite his parents and their shortcomings. So driving past things like his elementary school and junior high where he'd first met Mrs. Norman didn't bring back bad memories or overwhelm him with hatred toward his past.
Driving past the Standishes house, though. That brought out some hate. Mrs. Standish hadn't been so bad. She'd seemed to disagree with Mr. Standish's handling of the whole situation. He'd been strong-armed, though, into signing away his rights more or less. Her dad was a lawyer who knew other lawyers who could have buried John in bills and debt. He'd made it abundantly clear, too, that Claire didn't want him involved. So, he agreed to their terms, making a few of his own. None of which her dad objected to because they distanced him from the kid even more. He'd never met her, never seen her, and knew absolutely nothing about her beyond what she'd cost his bank account over the years. He had no idea if how he handled the situation had been the right or best way, but it had been the only way at the time.
Claire hadn't spoken to him since that day of detention. Her parents showed up to talk to him one day during his band practicing. That's how he'd found out he was going to be a dad. Mrs. Standish had seemed to think maybe John should be given a chance, but Mr. Standish was having none of that. It was bad enough the kid would have common Bender blood running through its veins. He'd been given a choice of no involvement or they would tell his parents'.
If his parents had found out Claire wouldn't have gotten child support payments since then because John wouldn't have been living to earn income. Her dad had known that, too, and played his hand well. He hated the man, maybe even more than his own old man.
He was brought out of his thoughts of his past by activity on the property. He expected to see Claire's dad or mom. He did not expect to see the girl Sean had been with last night.
"Fuck," he said.
Had he said anything wrong? Bad? Incriminating? He couldn't remember. He hadn't been drunk out of his mind or anything, but he'd had a toke or two before they took the stage and more than a beer or two on top of that.
He'd think he was seeing things except Sean had mentioned her needing to get back to her grandparents' so he knew he wasn't hallucinating. Was Claire here? Was Claire out of town for some reason, leaving the kid, Missy, with Grandma and Grandpa?
Short for Melissa.
He was a fucking idiot not to connect the dots. Missy. The red hair. Her playing guitar.
Except he knew nothing about her other than her name and birthday.
He doubted very likely Claire's brother named his daughter the same as Claire's, so that ruled out the kid being anyone but Claire's.
His arm slipped along the steering wheel, causing the horn to go off and her to glance in the direction of his car. He pulled away, trying not to go incredibly fast as if to make it seem as though he was fleeing or anything. He wasn't supposed to be anywhere near her. He'd agreed to that. What if Claire's dad saw him?
"Fuck," he said again.
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com