The Hunger Bone: Rock & Roll Storiesby Debra Marquart
Fiction. Short stories and short-short stories about traveling rock musicians that focus on the unseen, less than glamorous side of touring as a struggling rock band—the personal tolls, the grueling poverty, the gnawing hunger for fame, and the small and unlikely moments of redemption. These characters are slowly realizing that their dreams are slipping away… See more details below
Fiction. Short stories and short-short stories about traveling rock musicians that focus on the unseen, less than glamorous side of touring as a struggling rock band—the personal tolls, the grueling poverty, the gnawing hunger for fame, and the small and unlikely moments of redemption. These characters are slowly realizing that their dreams are slipping away, that age and hard living have worn them down, that their funky, rootless, rock & roll lives have not taken on the grandeur they'd envisioned.
A one-time touring musician herself, Marquart understands the fragile community a band develops on the road and the intricate emotional alliances that form and dissolve among its members. It is generally within this context that she explores a particular character's state of mind for her stories.
In "Three Mile Limit," Marquart imbues her main character-the "chick singer"-with an almost unbearable sense of yearning for the recently married and still philandering guitar player. The strength, however, of Marquart's characterization is that she keeps the yearning low-key and "cool." There are no histrionics, no explosions of tempers, and no frantic embraces. Yet the longing the woman endures and the awareness of the chances she's lost are palpable: "In that moment alone in the van, I wanted to take a scalpel to the last two years of my life, wanted to watch the unimportant days and weeks fall into curls at my feet. I wanted to keep the good parts, splice them together without interruption, arrange them so that they added up differently."
Through a different guitar player in the title story, Marquart examines the soul-crushing absurdities life piles on these artists. Forced to play '50s music to get a dance booking, the guitarist encounters a hustler who talks him into selling tombstones while on the road, the premise being that no matter where he goes there will be dead people. The situation would be funny were it not for the fact that the guitarist minutely feels the grief of each potential customer. Moreover, he knows that in forsaking his own music he, too, is dying in a way: "Late at night after a gig, he'd think about last year and this year and next year, and he'd feel the hunger bone, floating foreign in his chest like a sponge left behind by a surgical team. That's when he'd get out of bed and start to work on his songs. The empty feeling never went away completely, but writing the songs helped." (January)
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We pulled into our guitar player's driveway at first light. The birds were chattering in the linden tree next to the driveway. It was the loudest noise I'd heard so early in the morning that wasn't leftover noise from the night before. Troy lived on the edge of town in a new development full of winding streets and cul-de-sacs with names like Shady Acres and Lake View, even though there wasn't a lake for thirty miles.
Joey put the van in park and pulled the emergency brake. He honked the horn, three sets of triplets tri-pa-let, tripa-let, tri-pa-let. Drummers. Then he held it down, one long foghorn blow.
The house was a two-story white clapboard with a bay window and a small front porch with wind chimes and bentwood rockers. Arrangements of pink and blue petunias bloomed beside the steps. Around the side were sprays of yellow rose bushes. I mean, the place was landscaped. Beds of wood chips lay scattered around the base of trees and bushes.
"Susan's really settling in," Joey said from behind the wheel, looking at the scene as if watching film develop.
"The nesting urge," I said. Susan was our guitar player's new wife. In the two years we'd played with Troy, his interests had been guitar, guitar, and more guitar. Since Susan, it was china patterns, fabric swatches, and lead crystal. He had to be consulted on every decision, and we had to hear every painful detail afterward. As the only woman in the band, it should have been my job to like Susan, but even I wasn't about to.
We sat in the van and listened to the birds rioting in the linden tree. Hundreds of them hopped from branch to branch like it was a house party. A few lifted off in small groups and looped through the air in tight formation, then circled back. The treetop was black with birds. The branches shook. The leaves twisted in the air and floated to the ground.
"Damn grackles," Johnston, our bass player, said from the backseat. His voice was low and grouchy with morning. He had crawled into the van twenty blocks away on Culpepper and would stay under the blanket until noon.
"I think they're starlings," I said.
"Whatever," Johnston mumbled. By nighttime, his friends José or Jack would undo the hard knot of his voice, but that bad mood nothing to be done for it. We'd carried it with us from state to state for over a year.
We sat in Troy's driveway and waited. One song ended on the radio, a few commercials played. The crass unfunny banter of the DJ came and went, then another song began.
"Don't make me come in there and get you," Joey said, sounding like someone's dad. His nose had a bump and a crook in it, like it had been broken and healed wrong. His hair hung down his neck and shoulders in shaggy layers. A tarnished skull-and-crossbones earring dangled from his right lobe.
The circles under his eyes were dark as bruises. I wondered if he'd slept at all during our week off. It was never a good idea to cancel a gig and leave the guys alone with too much time and not enough money. Musicians are like fruit. They go bad quickly.
The week before at Spanky's, my throat started out low and froggy on Monday, then went down to five hoarse notes by Tuesday. By Wednesday, nothing just a dry, catgut whisper. Even Spanky's hot buttered rums couldn't put the resin back. Finally we gave up and drove five hundred miles home with two nights' pay. I spent the rest of the week in bed, drinking hot tea and watching soap operas.
If you think your life is bad, just check out daytime television: obsession, depression, and demon possession; husbands who cheat; brothers who embezzle; shadowy criminal figures who bury you alive in underground caverns equipped with drinking straws and tiny video cameras so that they can better torture you. After a week of watching daytime, I was happy to be sitting in any driveway on Monday morning on the way to a gig.
"C'mon, pretty boy," Johnston yelled out the window. Surely we spent half our lives waiting for Troy.
Joey slumped over the wheel and pressed his forehead into the horn. He banged his head against the steering wheel. Little barking honks followed. Then he pressed down hard on the horn with his forehead and held it for an eight-count. The sound was monstrous in the early morning quiet. It bounced off the garage and rang through the still neighborhood.
"Quiet, he's a homeowner now." I nudged Joey, and we both started to laugh. With the money we made each week about seventy-five bucks apiece after we covered agency fees, gas, motel expenses, and equipment payments we were all surprised that any of us could end up owning a home, especially our can-I-borrow-five-bucks Troy owning a house in a place called Pleasant Hills, even if there were no hills to recommend it.
Susan had money, we found out after they were married. Her father had inherited gobs of farmland on the north side of town where the city was expanding. You wouldn't have known it from her silver toe rings and torn jeans when she first came out to see us, winking at Troy like any barfly and drinking Tequila Sunrises with cherry swirls of grenadine. She told me later she was slumming with her girlfriends the night she stumbled into the Zodiac, a biker bar we played that was best known for its gleaming rows of Harleys parked at a slant out front, and its bimonthly stabbings and shootings.
Just as Joey was about to get out of the van and rap on the front door, Troy's front light came on. The fixture glowed like a candle inside a golden globe. The sun was already up, so it wasn't much use. The screen door opened a crack, and Troy's hand appeared, his wide palm raised in the air like a traffic cop. He looked like he was struggling to get out the door but was being held by some force within. Joey took one last drag on his cigarette, then flicked it out the window. The cherry broke apart and skidded down the driveway.
"Oh, honey," Johnston growled from the back and fell on his pillow in a mad embrace. "Don't leave me now."
"Yeah, baby, I'll miss you too," Joey said, and kicked his big black boot into the van door, which fell open with a crunch of metal meeting metal. It sounded like something inside coming unhinged. The door made that sound ever since last year when a drunk fan rammed into us with her vintage Mustang behind the Rusty Nail. The name of our band was Everything Goes, and usually everything did. But sometimes things went wrong.
The front door of the house opened wider and Troy looked out, squinting in the early morning light. He pulled on a pair of black wraparounds and stepped onto the front stoop. He must have rolled out of bed at our first honk. He was wearing jeans and a pair of undone boots, the laces pulling wide at his ankles.
He stood on the front steps and pulled on his shirt. The ripples of his stomach showed tan against the denim. I noticed these things about him. Let's just say I noticed.
We were lucky to have Troy in the band. Never mind his playing, just the way he looked brought people out to see us. He had long, guitar-player legs, long dark hair, and those lush, sad-boy eyelashes that inspired women to want to have a man's baby. He had smooth olive skin and jutting cheekbones that cast gorgeous shadows under the stage lights. Behind the sunglasses, his eyes were deep set and dark as obsidian. They gave off a silvery hematite sheen. If you looked close enough, you could see your reflection in them.
Most people woke up with ratty bed hair and funky goo lodged in the corners of their eyes, but not Troy. In the two years since he started playing with us, I'd seen him get out of bed and look like he could walk into a Calvin Klein ad. Sometimes I'd been the one to wake him to sit by his bed shaking him to tell him it was time to go and he would sit up in the sheets, his lips full from sleep. He'd rub his face, brush his hands through his hair, and look better than ninety-five percent of the people in the world looked on their best day.
Now fully dressed, Troy yawned and motioned for us to wait one more minute, then stepped inside the front door to pick up his gear. He returned with two long black guitar cases under his right arm and Susan tucked in the crook of his left arm. She was laughing. She waved, and I waved back. She was dressed in oversized flannel pajamas and wool slip-ons. She looked straight from bed, too, but still sunny and beautiful with her long straight blond hair and no makeup. They kissed on the stoop.
"Oh, baby, be good," Johnston murmured in the backseat.
"You be good, too, baby," I whispered in return.
Then Troy stepped backward down the three stairs, Susan hanging on with both arms. The screen door snapped shut behind her with a loud clank, and all the birds lifted from the linden's branches. Hundreds of sleek black bodies flew from the tree and scattered in all directions. Off to different yards and different trees.
It's hard to say how it started, exactly, for me with Troy. I still remember the first moment I saw him in the rented storage garage where we practiced, right off of NP Avenue behind the railroad tracks. We were auditioning new guitar players because our old guitarist, Jimmy B., had disappeared.
The whole time we played with Jimmy B., he was AWOL from the army, which made him generally hard to locate when we needed him. If we called his house, his mother would say, "Jimmy, no, I haven't seen him," almost like she wasn't quite sure who Jimmy B. was. Until we would say, "It's us, Mrs. Barnes, the band." Then she would turn the receiver away and scream, "Jimmy, it's for you."
But one weekend we played in Detroit Lakes, a resort town that triples its population in the summer and you can imagine how many blonds in french cuts that makes. And when it was time to go home, we couldn't find Jimmy. When Monday came, we couldn't find Jimmy, then the next weekend came and we still couldn't find him. Jimmy B. had become AWOL, even from us.
So that's how we found Troy, through an ad in the paper. He was one of about twenty guys to audition. There were country guys with big clunky hollow-bodies, and metal guys with flying Vs and hundred-watt Marshall stacks. There was a guy who hadn't taken his guitar out of the case since high school, but his wife had said, "Go for it."
Our keyboard player at the time tried to get him in tune, playing the notes E-E-E, A-A-A, and so on and signaling the guy, who was tightening and loosening his tuning pegs with no sense of sharpness or flatness. Our keyboard player kept screaming, "Up, up, bring it up." It took all of twenty minutes just to get his six strings tuned, so the guy never did get to audition. Then there was the Holy Roller who consulted his pastor before coming over. He told us that his pastor had counseled him, about the possibility of playing in bars, "Well, Hal, you gotta go where the sinners are."
So by the time Troy walked in with his blond Strat and his modest thirty-watt practice amp, and his slow tasty licks, we were ready for him. And he was one of those guys he was like a bull's-eye. As soon as you met him you were trying to figure out where you knew him from. For a long time, I thought we'd met before. I didn't remember his face, but I knew his voice, which was a low rumble in his chest, a voice full of old bones and dust. And I knew his hands, those wide palms and long fingers that sustained my voice each night, playing flawless chords and riffs and solos on the neck of his guitar the same hands I tried to place my body in the path of whenever possible the first year we played together.
That night of the auditions, after all the guitar players cleared their equipment away, the band closed the door of the practice garage and voted on who would be our next guitar player. We did it on paper, so no one could sway someone else's vote. It's a solemn decision, choosing a band member. You'll be broke and tired and stuck in small spaces with this person for hundreds of hours. Every piece of paper had Troy's name on it, except for one which, as a joke, had a vote for Hal the Holy Roller and his liberal-minded pastor.
Getting out of town is always the hardest part. Even though there are only five of us Troy, Joey, Johnston, me, and our soundman, Tom, whom everybody calls Tommy Boy we can still drive up and down the backstreets all morning, lingering in driveways, loading gear. Later there will be stops at the coffee place, the gas station, then the rest area.
In order to be in a band, you have to be able to do something like sing or play an instrument or run sound or lights, but the most important skill, the one that's absolutely essential, is knowing how to wait. You must be able to wait for everyone else's hunger to be satisfied, for the two minutes it takes to nuke a burrito bomb, for the ten minutes it takes to smoke a joint.
You must wait for bladders to be relieved, and for the little click of the lever that tells you the gas tank is filled. While you wait, fuses will be replaced, strings changed, and the roll of duct tape will be found. You must wait for drunks to be removed, for equipment to be packed, and for guitar players to go inside the house one last time to say good-bye to their wives.
Behind the van in Troy's driveway, Joey wrestled the guitars and amp into the small space left between the wheel wells. The van lurched and swayed with his pushing. I sat in the front of the van on the ten-gallon cooler we kept between the bucket seats. I was good at this waiting because I knew what rewards would come to me. By tomorrow night, I would be in another part of the country, screaming my lungs out at a place called the Cat's Paw. Not exactly the Fillmore, but consider the alternatives I could have been in some kitchen in Kansas sweeping the linoleum and spooning strained carrots into the mouth of a fat-faced baby. By some miracle, I was not.
Behind the van, Joey gave one final tug on the equipment and slammed the double doors shut. A blast of air spread through the van.
"Don't wake me up until we see mountains," Johnston said and fell back in the bunk. We had all day to make it to Bozeman. We'd probably get there around ten that night, check into a motel, and sleep. The next day we'd set up the equipment, sound-check, and play that night.
Now Troy came out of his front door carrying his suitcase. He walked down the driveway and headed for the van. I braced myself. The first few minutes around him were always the hardest. I put my feet up on the engine hump and hugged my knees.
Troy pulled open the passenger door and threw his suitcase in the back of the van. "Hey, Ninj," he said to me. He, called me that, Ninj, short for Ninja, instead of my real name, Nina, which was just fine with me. It was my grandmother's name, and it didn't seem right in this part of the world. Did he also know I practiced the art of invisibility?
"Hey," I said back.
Troy slid into the front passenger seat and pulled the van door shut. This is the way we usually traveled: with Johnston and Tommy Boy sleeping in the back of the van, which had been stripped down and outfitted with a couch and some bunks; and Joey, me, and Troy rotating across the two front seats and the cooler. I liked to sit on the cooler, even though it didn't have a backrest, because I wanted to keep Troy on my right side.
I had two different profiles. On the left, my nose turned up in a slight pug and my cheekbone flared wide, making me look like everybody's cute kid sister. But on the right side, my nose ran straighter, my jawline stronger, and my cheekbone followed a stricter angle with my face, only breaking into a slight flare at the top. It made me look aloof, like a woman who could demand things and expect to get them.
"How's the pipes?" Troy smiled and motioned toward my throat. He reached his hand out and rested his palm on my adam's apple. His fingers wound around my neck and stayed there for a moment like he was checking my pulse. His hand felt cool and dry against my skin. He looked at me a little harder now. He was staring I could see behind his sunglasses at my hair, which I had dyed the deepest jet-blue-black I could find during our week off.
Should there be a three-day waiting period on over-the-counter hair dye? Even as I stood in the beauty section in front of all the hair products, I had wondered this. My natural color was chestnut brown. People told me it was warm. I thought it was boring. I liked the way my new hair color brought things into focus, clarified the lines around my face, made me stand out like a major figure in a minor painting.
"The voice is back," I whispered. "It's a little rough."
He drew his hand away, and I trilled out a supersonic eeeeh, then swooped down to my lowest note, oooh. This was the sound I made first thing every morning to see what kind of damage my voice had sustained the night before. It was a test pattern, like the color spectrum you see on TV after hours. If I could get from the top to the bottom of the trill without breaking, I knew I could make any noise I wanted to onstage.
"Sounds like old Ironsides is back in the harbor," Johnston said.
"We're not at Livingston yet," I yelled back, putting some grit on my voice.
Joey opened the front door and hopped into the driver's seat, the van rocking with his weight. "Let's haul," he said, and turned the key. He stepped on the clutch and jammed the transmission into reverse.
Just then the front door of Troy's house opened and Susan came running down the driveway. She had thrown a gray flannel robe over her pajamas. She flashed an apologetic smile and waved for us to stop. In her right hand, she balanced a white paper plate.
"Aw, she shouldn't a oughta," Johnston said.
"Hi, guys." Susan smiled and circled around to Troy's side. "Honey," she whispered, "you forgot your breakfast." She pressed the Chinet plate through the window. On it was the most carefully prepared arrangement of french toast I'd ever seen thick slices of homemade bread slathered in butter, a sprig of mint for garnish, and fresh blueberries swimming in an ocean of warm syrup.
"Yeah, honey," Johnston growled, "you forgot your breakfast." The smell of cinnamon and vanilla filled the van.
"Shut up, you guys." Susan laughed. She pulled Troy to her through the window and held his face in her hands as they kissed. It was a beautiful thing to see.
"Uh," Joey said, letting out the clutch. "Gotta book." Susan stepped back and waved. The van rolled down the driveway. We waved back.
Troy let out one long breath and rolled up the window. He balanced the plate of french toast in his left hand until we rounded the corner. Then he handed it back to Johnston, who would wolf it down, we knew, by the city limits.
"Five days is way too long to be home," Joey mumbled. "Too many entanglements."
"Tell me about it," Troy said, then he looked at me like it was all my fault for losing my voice. "Let's not do that again."
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