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It's Only Rock 'n' Roll (But I Like It)
Family curses never die, they just mutate. In Greek mythology, the curse of the House of Atreus began with some smart-ass making soup du jour for the gods out of his own son's meaty bits. Things went downhill from there. These days, though, the curse probably just makes the Atreus family forget to send each other birthday cards.
The curse of the House of Griffin, whatever sinister form it may have taken in the Old World, has left me with a gift for the persuasive arts. In the straight world, this means sales and marketing or as I like to call it, S&M.
The slim, thirtyish dude across the desk scans my skimpy resume. Short dark hair flops over his forehead as he nods along with the blues squawking from a wall speaker. His fingers tap the wooden surface between us in unconscious synchronicity.
The tiny office's clutter of memorabilia would shame the Hard Rock Cafe. Near one boarded-up window, a life-size cardboard John Lennon peers into my soul; near the other, Jerry Lee Lewis peers through my blouse.
"So, Ciara..." David slips me an earnest glance. "Why do you "
"It's keer-ah, not see-air-ah." I rattle off the pronunciation as politely as I can. "Not like the mountains."
"Sorry. I bet you get that all the time." He flips my resume to look at the other side. Blank. He lifts my portfolio folder, probably searching for another page. "Where's the rest of your job experience?"
I give him a wide-open smile. "In the future, I hope."
He blinks, then looks back at the resume. His eyebrows pop up. "Well, it's very readable."
Due, no doubt, to the sixteen-point font I used to fill up the page.
He inspects it again, green eyes flitting back and forth in a desperate search for an interview kickoff. "Ciara. Interesting spelling."
"It's Irish. It means 'dark and mysterious.'" I point to my tawny hair and studiously guileless eyes. "Even though I'm neither."
David's lips twitch up briefly, then he puts the resume aside and opens my portfolio. While he examines it, his thumb pumps the plunger on his ballpoint, creating a staccato of clicks that wears my nerves down to the nub. I resist the urge to wipe my clammy hands on my only interview suit.
The air-conditioning clunks on. Above my head, backstage passes begin to flutter in the breeze, hanging like Christmas decorations from the antlers of a peeved-eyed deer.
"This first project's dated six years ago," David says. "I take it you go to Sherwood College part-time?"
My shoulders tense. "I take sabbaticals." Oops, this was supposed to be an exercise in honesty. "I mean, I take breaks so I can earn tuition."
He nods in sympathy. "It's expensive. I gave the army four years of my life in exchange for a degree."
"The army, wow. Did you kill anyone?"
His gaze sharpens, and I wince at my nerve-induced idiocy. Usually when I botch an interview, it's on purpose. The fact that I actually want this job makes my stomach ache.
David's mouth relaxes into a smirk. "Shouldn't I be asking you questions?"
"Sorry. Ask anything." As long as it's not about me.
"Why do you want to work at WMMP?"
I knew that one was coming, and I've been working on a convincing answer ever since David found me through my college's job-match program.
"I love rock 'n' roll." Damn, that was cheesy. I rub my nose and look away. "I wasn't allowed to listen to it growing up, but I did anyway. I'd lie under the covers at night with my Walkman, listening to tapes I'd stolen I mean, borrowed uh, stolen." This truth thing is harder than I expected. "Anyway, I figured a radio station might suck my soul less than a corporation would. Plus it's already June tomorrow, and I'm desperate. I can't graduate without a summer internship, and if I don't get out of this town soon, I'll " My mouth shuts, about three sentences too late.
David blinks, and blinks, until I wonder if the airconditioning has dried out his contact lenses. He sighs through his nose, making a sound that says, Why am I wasting my time with this girl? I scramble for something else to discuss.
On the desk between us, a photo of a beribboned Chihuahua sits next to a calendar of 365 Oscar Wilde quotes. I squint to read, I like persons better than principles, and I like persons with no principles better than anything else in the world.
I glance up at David, then back to the photo and calendar. "Cute dog."
"Oh. This isn't my desk." He pushes his chair back a few
inches. "This is Frank's desk, the sales and marketing director." He shifts the Chihuahua photo's heart-shaped frame. "I'm not, you know..."
I think the word he's looking for is "gay."
"Are you the owner?"
"I'm the general manager. The owner is " David glances past my shoulder at a closed office door. " absent."
I wait for him to elaborate, but he just tugs the cuffs of his sport coat and changes the subject.
"I'm also the program director. As I'm sure you're aware, WMMP broadcasts syndicated talk shows and paid programming during the day. But at night " He gazes at the wall speaker like it's a holy relic. "That's when WMMP comes alive."
Huh. "Will Frank interview me, too?"
"I make all the personnel decisions. Frank would have joined us, but he hates the " David's glance flicks to the stairway behind me. "He hates to work at night."
I check the wooden mantel clock above the bricked-up fireplace. 9:30. "Why interview me so late?"
"I wanted any potential intern to meet the DJs. This is the only time they're all...here."
Hmmm. My first act as marketing intern would be to suggest playing music when people are actually awake to hear it.
He shuffles my resume and portfolio, rapping their edges against the desk. The motion has a finality about it, as if he's about to thank me for stopping by.
Panic jump-starts my mouth. "I know my resume is a little thin, but I can explain."
"No need." He folds his hands, steepling his fingers and tapping his thumbs together. "Do you know why I called you for this job?"
I've been afraid to ask, and I hesitate to guess.
David continues. "Your history indicates that you're sympathetic to how shall I put this the outsider's point of view."
My gut plummets. He did a background check.
"What kind of outsider?" I ask innocently.
"The kind with a lack of regard for " He spreads his thumbs. " conventional morality."
I sit back in my chair, moving slowly, as if from a poisonous snake. "I've never been charged with anything."
"I know you haven't." David extends his hands palm down, as if to hold me in my seat. "My point is "
"Thanks for your time." I stand and grab my purse from the back of the chair. "I've really enjoyed our chat, but I think another opportunity would fit me better." I head for the exit.
"Wait." He intercepts me, placing his hand on the door before I can open it. "What I'm saying is, I don't care about your past. Neither would anyone else here."
My mind calculates how much he could know. A legal background check wouldn't reveal anything too incriminating. My juvey record cleared when I turned eighteen, and in the six years since I've never been caught. Sort of.
"We couldn't pay you a lot, I'm afraid." He gestures toward my resume. "But judging by your address, you don't need much."
Did he just insult my neighborhood? Doesn't he realize I live above the best pawnshop in town?
"You'd work over there." He points to a smaller desk next to the fireplace, on the opposite wall from Frank's. Beyond it sits a copier so old I expect it to have a hand crank.
"Come." David moves past me so suddenly it makes me jump.
He descends a creaky wooden staircase between the two closed office doors. I follow him, trying not to get my hopes up. Maybe his hiring talk was hypothetical, as in, you'd work at that desk if all the other intern candidates got eaten by a giant cockroach. I force my mind away from the things I'll have to do if I don't get a summer job. Things I can't put on a resume.
At the bottom of the stairs, David rests his hand on the knob of a closed door. He takes in a quick, deep breath as if to say something momentous. The words don't make it out before he shakes his head.
"Probably best if you meet them without preconceptions. If they like you, the job's yours."
I nod. No pressure or anything.
David opens the door to let me pass into a small, dim lounge. A pervasive cloud of cigarette smoke gathers over the halogen lamp in the far left corner, muting the room's lurid shadows.
My stinging eyes take a moment to adjust. I strain to see a group of
Exquisite freaks, to be sure, so soul-shatteringly beautiful, it's a tragedy that radio is for ears only. But they each look like they stepped out of a different time machine.
David squeezes past me through the doorway, where my feet have stopped. "Ciara Griffin, meet the pride of WMMP."
Three men and a woman are playing poker around a table scattered with plastic chips and open bottles. They examine me with a palpable distrust. Maybe it's the interview suit: navy blue makes me look like a fed.
"Spencer, Jim, Noah, Regina." David points from left to right. "And back there is Shane."
On the love seat at the foot of the lamp, a young man in faded ripped jeans appears to sleep, right arm draped over his face. One leg is bent, foot resting on the cushion, and the other stretches beyond the end of the sofa.
David touches my elbow to urge me forward a few steps. "I'm hoping Ciara will be our new intern."
The hostility fades from the faces of the four awake DJs, replaced with a patronizing politeness. I attempt a smile, encouraged by the slight thaw.
"Spencer does our fifties show," David says. "Birth of rock 'n' roll and all that."
A man in a white dress shirt and black pants stands to greet me, unfurling endless legs from under the table. His dark red hair is slicked back into a ducktail. He squeezes the hand I offer.
"Hey, baby, what's shakin'?" Spencer's southern drawl and impeccable clothes give him a gentlemanly façade, which doesn't quite gel with the feral look in his eyes.
"Not much, Daddy-o." It just comes out. Rather than take offense, Spencer smiles and nods approvingly.
The next guy springs out of his chair, and I force myself not to retreat from his approach.
"This is Jim," David says.
"Man, I really dug your portfolio." Jim hugs me. His long brown curls and tie-dyed shirt reek of marijuana and patchouli. "I used to go to art school, too."
"Thanks, but I'm not an artist." Is he sniffing me?
Jim pulls back and regards me at arm's length. "Then how'd you get all those layouts to look so groovy?"
"For my class projects? I used the computer, of course."
His eyes crinkle with confusion. "The...?"
David clears his throat loudly enough for my bullshit alert system to creep into Code Yellow. What the hell's going on?
Comprehension crosses Jim's face, and he snaps his fingers. "Right. Back in my day, we had to do it all by hand."
I squint at him. He looks just a few years older than I am. They all do.
"Back in your day?"
The third man scrapes his chair against the floor as he rises.
I turn to him, relieved to slide out of Jim's personal space, which seems to lack boundaries.
"I am Noah." The man's voice rolls over me like a warm Jamaican breeze. "It is a pleasure to meet you, sweet lady." He reaches across the table, takes my hand, and draws it to his full lips. My eyes go all moony and unprofessional under his gaze, which is softened by a pair of dark-rimmed glasses lying low on the bridge of his nose. Noah's green, gold, and red knit cap perches atop a fetching set of chest-length dreadlocks. I'm relieved the seventies are represented by reggae instead of disco.
"Oh, please. Get the fuck off her, you wanker." Despite the Briticism, the punk/Goth woman Regina, I presume has a flat midwestern accent. Beneath a shower of spiky black hair, her face is a study in monochrome, with black eyeliner and lipstick setting off her skin's porcelain perfection.
Regina gives me a chin tilt and a "yo," before turning to Shane. "You can pretend to wake up now."
He slides his flannel-shirted arm from his face, then turns his head. I take my first full breath of the evening. His warm eyes and crooked smile make me feel like I'm really here and not just a stain someone left on the rug.
"Hey." Shane drags his battered Doc Martens off the couch and stands up slowly. Even with the grunge-cool slouch, he's taller than the others. As he approaches, he flicks his head to sweep a tangle of nape-length, pale brown hair out of his eyes.
When our hands touch, he starts as if I've shocked him. He pronounces my name perfectly, and so softly I wonder if someone else in the room is still sleeping. Then his gaze cools, and he half-turns away, hands in his pockets.
Aw, he's shy. How lovable, huggable, stuff-in-a-bag-andtake-home-able.
Or not, as I look at Regina, whose eyes are slicing me in half. Shane must be her boy. She could probably weaponize any of those six facial piercings in seconds.
An enormous stack of chips sits in front of her next to an open bottle of tequila. "Who's winning?" I ask, in an effort to get on her good side.
"I have two hundred ninety-two dollars," Regina says. "Jim has forty-six, Noah one hundred sixty-seven, and Spencer, ninety-eight. No, wait ninety-nine."
"Shane bombed early," Jim says, "not that he had much to start with."
The flannel-clad man in question turns to David. "She'll be fine. Can I go now?"
"Sure. Thanks for coming in."
Jim fishes a set of keys from his pocket and tosses them to Shane. "Happy hunting. And remember, none of that lowoctane shit this time."
Shane heads for the door, sparing me a cool glance of acknowledgment. My eyes shift to follow him, but not my head. I congratulate myself on my restraint.
"What do the rest of you guys think?" David says. "Should we hire her?"
They examine me like I'm a cow at a 4-H auction. I try not to moo.
The four DJs exchange looks, then nod, more or less in unison. David rubs his hands together and starts to make a declaration.
"Wait," Spencer says. "What about Monroe?"
David shifts his weight from foot to foot, then shakes his head. "I don't want to interrupt his program."
"Who's Monroe?" I ask David.
He points to a closed door in the corner with a glowing on the air sign above it. "He plays the Midnight Blues show."
"But it's only 9:30."
"It starts at nine, ends at midnight. That's when Spencer takes over, then Jim from three to six, on alternating nights. The other nights feature Noah, Regina, and Shane, same schedule."
The DJs make a point of picking up their cards again, dismissing us. David beckons me to the bottom of the stairs.
He shuts the door behind us and jerks a thumb over his shoulder. "Do you know what they are?" he whispers.
It seems like a trick question, so I shake my head.
"A revolution." David's eyes are googly with fanaticism. "They each dwell in a time when a new sound embodied the zeitgeist of a generation and knocked the world on its ass."
Code Yellow again. "When you say they dwell in that time "
"So what's with the costumes? Was that for my benefit, or are they on their way to a cliché convention?"
David sends me a sly smile that says he thinks his name should mean "dark and mysterious."
"All will become clear." He trots up the stairs. "What's important is that you understand the music they live for and the history behind it."
I hurry up after him, my hand flaking white paint off the banister as I go. "I'm not exactly a rockologist, but "
"Don't worry. Ignorance is the world's most curable affliction." He turns right at the top of the stairs and opens the door of a tiny corner office. A light flickers on.
When I join him, David is running his hands over a wallsize bookshelf. He yanks out one tome after another and stacks them on a small round table until the pile stands as high as my head.
"Oh." He puts his hand on the stack. "You never said yes. To the job."
I can't afford to suspect why they want to hire me after such a perfunctory interview. But the weirdness begs one question.
"What about the future?" I point to the framed handbill of a '69 Dead concert at the Fillmore West. "This place is like a museum. What about now? What about tomorrow?"
David sighs. "Have you listened to the radio lately? Honestly."
I shrug. "Too many commercials."
"The music is boring." I pull my MP3 player from my purse. "At least with this, I know I'll hear something good."
"Exactly. All the music sounds the same, because big corporations take over stations and make everyone play the same vanilla-flavored crap." He leans forward, voice low and calm. "You won't find crap of any flavor at WMMP. Here the DJs play what they want, not what some CEO or record promoter tells them to play. Do you know how rare that is?"
"I'll take a guess: extremely?"
He slides the top book from the stack The Rock Snob's Dictionary and caresses the worn edge of the spine. "This place is a gift to people who love music. I don't take credit for it. It's all them." He points to the floor. "But people don't know about them yet. The owner just spent a fortune boosting our signal strength to reach listening areas in D.C., Baltimore, and Harrisburg."
"That's good, right?"
"Maybe not." He taps the spine of the book against the table. "She did it to make the station more attractive to buyers. A communications conglomerate called Skywave has spent the last decade gobbling up hundreds of radio stations."
"And WMMP is next."
He nods. "Our owner says if ad revenue doesn't quadruple by Labor Day, she'll sell to Skywave. And we'll all be out of work." He tosses the book back on the stack. "Frank needs another set of legs for our last-ditch marketing campaign. Based on your course work, your portfolio, and your energy, I think you'd be perfect."
Again, no pressure. I glance at the books. "Those are for me?"
"You have to know your product." He says the last word with a twist of his lips. It must pain him to speak of music as a commodity.
"You never answered my question about the future."
He looks away, face pinched. "If Skywave is the future, maybe we're all better off in the past."
Dubious but desperate, I reach for the stack of books. "Get the door."
"Wait." He holds out his hand. I reach for it to seal the deal, but he brushes my hand aside. "Uh-uh. Give me that." He points to the MP3 player protruding from my purse.
"Are you kidding?"
"Spend two weeks listening to the radio instead. With your first paycheck I'll give you a bigger player, with more memory and more songs, courtesy of the station."
I hand it over. "One with video would be great."
He laughs and slides the player into an empty slot on the bookshelf. "See you at eight-thirty tomorrow morning."
I lug the books out to the parking lot, trying not to stagger too much.
"And lose the suit," David calls after me. "This is a radio station, not a savings and loan."
I send him a grateful grin as he waves and shuts the door.
The parking lot's tiny pebbles crunch under my feet, loud in the summer-night stillness. No traffic noise reaches me, since the station lies ten minutes outside the small town of Sherwood, Maryland, separated from the highway by a quarter mile of dense woods.
I balance the books against the fender of my worn-out car and fish for my keys. My purse feels light and roomy without the player, which I already miss. Maybe I could borrow my friend Lori's
Footsteps scrape the gravel behind me. David with more books, no doubt.
"Honestly," I tell him as I turn around, "this is more than "
The word enough dies in my throat.
No one's there. The only light bleeds from an orange porch lamp near the station's front door, turning my half of the parking lot a dull amber. The radio tower looms above, its winking red eye too high to provide illumination.
The other side of the parking lot lies in shadow, and that's where I look muscles frozen, eyes darting, like a baby rabbit hoping the predator won't see me if I just stand still.
Yeah, right. Anyone stalking me might think I've been replaced by a mannequin. Good strategy.
Since there are no other buildings within yelling distance, I should either drive away or run back into the station. The thought of whimpering to my new boss about a scratchy noise in the parking lot makes my decision easy.
Without turning toward the car, I fumble for the trunk lock, then insert the key. The trunk pops, and I shove the books inside before slamming it shut. My feet stumble backward to the driver's-side door.
A breath at my ear, too cold for a summer breeze. I spin to face
I stifle a squeak, open the car, and slip inside with a quick check of the backseat. My elbow mashes down the door lock as I start the car and slam it into reverse. Gravel spins from under my tires and clatters against the undercarriage.
The driveway forms a long, headlight-bright tunnel in the leafy darkness, and it's not until I reach the main road that my lungs release their pent-up breath.
No wonder Frank hates working at night.
My hands have stopped shaking by the time I arrive in downtown Sherwood. After checking my side street for suspicious characters more than the usual, anyway I grab half of David's books from my trunk and head up to my apartment, over Dean's Pawn Shop. It really is the best in town, as evidenced by the large red-and-white sign in the window: no stolen goods. Dean might as well have written wink wink at the bottom of the sign.
I enter through a double-locked, street-level door next to the shop, then clomp up a dark stairwell I've been bugging Dean for weeks to change the unreachable lightbulb to another door, also double-locked, leading to my apartment.
The stale hot air chokes me. I hurry three steps down the hall to the bedroom, where my only air conditioner perches in the window. Soon my suit lies crumpled in the corner and I'm standing before the AC in my underwear, letting the frigid breeze dry every drop of fear-infused sweat.
Once cooled to the point of shivering, I switch on my computer and connect to the Internet, then run to the kitchen to avoid the modem's eviscerated-android screech.
I open the fridge to see one lonely beer looking for company. It finds its ideal mate in a piece of leftover pizza.
Back in my bedroom, my e-mail has finished downloading. At the top of my in-box sits a message from David, sent a few minutes ago:
ARE YOU LISTENING?
"Yeah yeah yeah." I switch my alarm clock to the radio function and search for WMMP's frequency. (Do they know that their call letters sort of spell wimp?) I scan the dial until a harmonica purrs from the tiny speaker.
Returning to my e-mail, I notice that one of the in-box's subfolders is bolded. It looks like this: "M (1)," which means I have one message from a person who gets filtered into her own subfolder "M." She must have convinced the guards to give her computer access again.
The message crouches safely behind a wall of mouse clicks. After a few moments of stomach-churning hesitation, I leave it there.
Just before midnight, I send my last "I finally got a Job!" e-mail, this one to my former foster parents. Stretching to crack my vertebrae over the back of the chair, I notice the radio's gone silent. Did the signal die? I grab my beer and cross the room to make sure the plug hasn't slipped out of the ancient, fire-code-violating outlet.
Then a voice, soft and low, says, "I'll never...never get out of these blues alive." For a moment I wonder if the voice belongs to Monroe the DJ I haven't paid enough attention to know what he sounds like. Then a guitar eases in, followed by light applause. The words must have been the name of the song.
A slow, insistent drumbeat joins the hushed guitar, mesmerizing me even before I hear the first lyrics. I sit on the bed, gingerly, as if an abrupt movement could break the spell.
His voice sweeps over me, crooning of black coffee, cigarettes, and the futility of trying to sleep in the face of heartache.
An impassioned piano joins in, defying the lyrics' doom. I close my eyes and I'm there, in a dim, smoky bar where loners sway, heavy-lidded, wrapped in thoughts of those they've lost. I swallow the last warm sip of beer and wish I had another.
The song ends. Applause erupts. I click off the radio before another voice can take the singer's place. His contagious restlessness prickles my skin and shatters my sleepiness. I can't lie down. Even the soft cool sheets would scour my nerves.
I draw up the shade and peer out my window. The quiet streets of Sherwood beckon, begging me to make one last run before this normal life tightens like a straitjacket.
I tap my nails against the wooden sill in a quickening rhythm and wait for someone, anyone. But in a small town at this hour, the sidewalks and alleys are empty of prey.
Besides, I always hunt far from home. Copyright © 2008 by Jeri Smith-Ready