Ghosts with Broken Hearts
by Philip David Alexander
It's a daydream. What's troubling about it is that it comes unannounced. I won't even be thinking about my brother Leonard and out of the blue there's this vivid film loop spinning in my head. I'll shut my eyes and try to shake it, but it has to play out:
Rain is teeming down. Leonard's in the driver's seat of Bruce's car, a Grand-Am with a tired, worn interior that reeks of stale cigarettes. The engine is running, the wipers are swishing and the radio is on. Leonard shakes his head and stuffs some gum into his mouth, glances toward the front door of Bruce's girlfriend's house. Finally, Bruce hobbles out onto the porch with a tallboy in his hand. He takes a swig and starts his way toward the car.
Once he flops into the passenger seat, Leonard grabs the beer, empties it out his window and tosses the can in the back seat.
"I wasn't finished that, you moron," says Bruce.
"You're finished it now. We gotta a practice to get to," says my brother.
Len slides the car into drive. Bruce's girlfriend stands in the huge bow window, smiling, a bobby pin in her mouth as she fixes her hair. Len and Bruce wave to her. The two of them look pale, like their bodies are made of gauze and smoke. Before they roll out of the driveway, Bruce grabs Leonard's arm, looks at the radio and says, "Listen! . . ."
I was at a house party that my buddy Nick from work had been hell-bent on throwing. He wanted to re-unite a whole bunch of us from high school and figured that a good old fashioned bring-your-own-booze affair would get it done. Trent strutted in with his guitar case in hand. It was like he'd been delivered by some time machine; nobody sees him for ages, and then the door opens and he swaggers in. He said hi to a few people over the din of Nick's new stereo, hammering out 70s rock. He saw me and gave a hesitant smile, followed by a barely perceptible nod. I raised my can of Coke to him. Before long chicks floated over to him and they got in a semi-circle, the stereo was shut off and he was strumming his guitar and singing. His voice was no real singing voice. It was full of gravel and grit, but it worked for the songs he'd written. They were all slow, introspective tales of prison, minimum wage jobs and motel rooms rented by the hour.
Everyone was pretty gunned. A few joints were being passed around and the party—which had been a drag—finally hit its stride. Pretty soon people were telling stories about Trent, while he was still on the couch plucking his guitar, crying out his new tunes. I heard what he'd been doing the last few years in fits and starts. One girl said he'd been in the military, but was arrested and jailed for punching an MP. And then the chatter stopped when Trent launched into an acoustic version of one of Hollow Ground's tunes. That bothered me a little. Nick said my older brother would have approved. I just stood there and listened to Trent's rendition. It didn't work. It was gruff and lifeless. Nick looked at me to see how his remarks had gone over. He wasn't usually one to raise my brother.
"Sorry, Andy," Nick said.
I just tilted my head. People were always telling me they're sorry. Once upon a time it made me angry. Trent played and played, sang his lungs out. Nick said he'd heard that Trent had been out West working on a farm, and had only been back in town for a few months.
Trent took a break from playing to guzzle a beer and smoke a cigarette, a Player's non-filter. He spit little bits of tobacco in between draws. One of the girls, who kept touching his elbow, told him to hurry up with the cigarette. She wanted to hear more of his music.
You know how it goes at a house party. By midnight people have slithered up to the bedrooms for drunken sex, passed-out on floors and couches, staggered to toilets and laundry room sinks to puke, congregated in the kitchen to drink more beer they really don't need. Trent sat at the kitchen table, flanked by Nick and two snickering girls. The boot-licker was weaving in her seat, telling Trent how talented he was. I sat across from them. Nick tapped the chick on the shoulder and said, "These guys should have a chance to talk."
She looked surprised and insulted. Her friend hooked her arm in arm and helped her wobble out of the room. Trent took a key chain bottle opener and popped the cap off another beer. The bottle gassed and the cap landed in an ashtray. He took a sip and spoke his first words to me in three years. "You've packed on a little beef, Andy Travis. Mrs. T's home cooking is treating you well, huh?"
LONG TIME AGO
It was Christmas morning, almost a green Christmas, only a dusting of snow covered our lawn—rare for a suburb of Toronto. I'd been up for over an hour, sitting on the edge of my big brother's bed. Every now and then I'd rock back and forth and he'd growl and take a swipe at me with his pillow. He got tired of this and pushed himself up and yanked on some blue jeans and a sweater. He gave me a playful slap across the head and said we should go and wake mom and dad. As we walked the hallway to their bedroom, he saw the wall clock and said, "Andy, it's not even seven o'clock."
I told him I was sorry, but also too wound up for sleeping.
"That's all right, you're eleven, it's your job to be a pain in the ass."
My mother's slippers whispered against the hardwood as she made her way to the kitchen to make a pot of tea. My father put on his housecoat and loaded a roll of film into the camera. I rushed to the living room and waited, poised to rip into a gift with my name on it.
"Go on," urged my dad.
I got a new pair of skates that Christmas. I also got a Beatles record and a Toronto Argonauts sweatshirt. My parents unwrapped their gifts: perfume and a new necklace for mom, gloves and a bottle of rye for dad. It was my brother Leonard's present that I remember most. It was a box about four feet long, wrapped in green foil paper with candy canes taped to one end where a bow would normally be. He tore the paper off, opened the box to reveal a guitar case. Inside the case: a brand new Gibson. He was shocked. He handled the instrument like it was made of blown glass. He strummed on it gently and began tuning it.
"Hey, thanks a lot," he said. His tone of voice was reverent.
"You're welcome," said my father, " Look after it."
My mother giggled and said, "I can see it now. Ladies and gentleman, this year's Juno for best new artist goes to. . ." She did a drum roll on the coffee table and I said, "Leonard Travis."
We all laughed and Leonard played a little solo. My dad put his hands to his ears and complained the guitar was too loud for 7:30 on a Christmas morning. Leonard stood, walked to my father and played a riff, a fast and furious Jingle Bells right in front of my father's face.
"You big show-off," said my dad, laughing and pretending to hit him with the bottle of rye.
A LITTLE WHILE BACK
It was late August and Leonard was in University. He'd spent the summer cutting grass during the day, and practicing with his band at night. The band was called Hollow Ground. I'd never heard them play because they jammed over at Trent Lockheart's place. He had a vacant garage behind his house that Trent's old man had rewired so the boys would have juice for their amps. Trent played lead guitar, Scott Dreaver played drums, my brother played guitar and sang. Bruce English, a friend of Trent's sister, played bass. Leonard would talk endlessly about the band on the weekends. They did cover songs, like any garage band does, but Trent and Len had written some of their own stuff.
We never saw Leonard much that autumn. School and the band ate up his time. He even quit his part time job at the video shop to squeeze in more practice time. My father wasn't too thrilled about that, but let it slide. He loved music himself. Used to play the saxophone when he was younger. He drove me and my brother nuts with his reel to reel and rows of cds: Be- bop Jazz; Fleetwood Mac and Kenny Ball, some British guy that nobody had ever heard of, but my dad insisted was the greatest. Our stereo was always playing some weird music from my dad's collection. Every now and then, Leonard would sneak on some Deep Purple or Queen that my dad would shake his head at, but tolerate.
On my father's forty-sixth birthday, Leonard arrived home just after we'd gobbled down some birthday cake. My mother and me had sung happy birthday and given my father a new golf shirt. My father grinned a lot, ate cake and kept on glancing at the clock on the kitchen wall. When Len burst through the door, all smiles and apologies, my dad's eyes lit up. Leonard gave him a bear hug and then waved at the front door. My mother went slack-jawed when the rest of the band entered the house, lugging pieces of equipment.
"Hey Mr. Travis, happy birthday," said Trent, negotiating an amplifier through our cramped kitchen.
"What's all this?" asked my father.
Leonard turned out the pockets of his jeans, shrugged and said, "Hey dad, little short on funds, so, this'll be your birthday present."
"Oh, good God, what about the neighbours," said my mother.
My parents and me sat in fold-out chairs at one end of our basement. The band stood, practically on top of each other, at the other end, plugging in amps and tightening up the drum kit. My father nudged me and pointed to the bass drum, which had Hollow Ground painted on it in green psychedelic lettering. Len blew into the microphone and adjusted it. Everyone appeared to be in place.
"Oh boy," mumbled my dad.
They were a motley bunch. Trent in his jean jacket, complete with crayon designs, and black nylon leggings with cut-off jeans shorts over the top of them. Len in his lumberjack shirt and camouflage pants. Dreaver, the drummer, had shaved his head and wore mechanic's overalls and military boots. Bruce the bass player—who none of us really knew too well at that point—wore a pair of ripped jeans and a tank top with a marijuana leaf on it. I saw my mother look at it and frown.
Len counted one, two , three . . .
They launched into the song. It was nothing like I'd expected. I figured they'd rip our faces off with feedback and bar chords, hammered out at break-neck speed. But the song was mid-tempo, almost country rock, acoustic and electric guitars playing beautifully off of each other, the bass crying out it's own rumbling cadence, crisp drumming with a perfectly struck high-hat hissing throughout the entire song. My father looked at me, amazed and shining with pride. My brother could sing. We'd heard him before, in the shower, stuff like that. We knew he could carry a tune. But that day, in our basement, he was belting it out with range and passion that had us hypnotized.
Trent told me he'd been following his thumb for while. He didn't seem too keen on giving details. There'd been some work on a farm, a job mopping up at one of those quick-lube places. And yes, the story about joining the military and getting jailed and then booted out was true. Trent was interested in hearing how my folks were doing. I didn't candy-coat it, my mom was twenty pounds lighter and had started smoking again, my father was quiet these days. He'd traded in all of his cds at a used record shop. He seldom played the stereo anymore. It sat in a coating of dust. The reel-to-reel was long gone.
"Do they ever mention me?" asked Trent.
I thought back, but couldn't recall Trent's name ever coming up.
"No, I don't think they have."
Trent nodded and drank another beer. His eyes were red and he was pretty tweaked. He'd tipped back at least six since arriving.
Some people were laughing at the front door, something broke and I heard Nick say, "Oh nice going, my mom's gonna flip when she sees that's been busted."
The group laughed. I peeked around the kitchen door to see that a taxi had pulled into Nick's driveway. The people all fell out of the door onto the front lawn, yelling and laughing.
"You seem pretty sober," said Trent.
I held up my Coke.
"Yeah, I had one beer earlier. I switched to this, though."
Trent nodded and said, "You got wheels?"
"Yeah, out front. You need a lift home?"
"That'd be sweet," he said. He went to get his guitar and say so long to the two or three people that were still coherent.
We drove toward Main Street, where Trent was living. He told me that he'd been back for three months and had lucked out on an apartment over a sporting goods store. When we were approaching Highway 48, Trent said, "Turn up here, could you?"
It made no sense, we could've just kept going eastbound and hooked up with Main Street.
"I'm not tired yet, figured I'd roll the window down and clear out my lungs."
I signaled, eased over to the left turn lane and got onto #48. "You want to tell me why we're heading up here, Trent."
He exhaled and didn't answer the question. We came up on the diamond-shaped road sign, a huge thing with a reflective arrow, warning of the sharp bend. Trent sat up and looked around like he was expecting to see something. I accelerated out of the bend. A car coming south had his brights on and I flashed my highbeams right back at him.
"Pull into this little laneway, could you?"
Trent looked freaked-out. He was getting me riled up. The road was dark. There were no streetlights.
"Trent, man, what's going on?"
"Just pull in. It's just a laneway to that farmhouse, they're all asleep by now. We won't be bothering them."
I drove onto the laneway.
"OK, you're apartment is that way. So, why are we here?"
Trent lit a cigarette and let his head go against the headrest. "I've hooked up with Scott. We're writing some songs. I've also been in touch with Lane at Phoenix Recordings. He's listened to this tape me and Scotty put together. He's agreed to sit down with us and talk. He might want us to re-form, do some of the old stuff and some of me and Scott's new stuff."
I thought about this. It was chilling to picture Trent and Scott and Lane the record company guy, especially sitting where we were, surrounded by night, only yards away from where the future got shattered.
"I thought Scott quit music. I heard he found God," I said.
"Yeah, he did. He also found his old guitar. His wife made him get rid of the drum kit, you know."
"So you've been playing together," I said.
"What do you think about that?"
"I don't know. What should I think?"
Trent was bobbing his knee up and down so vigorously that my car was rocking. He groaned a little, and said, "I feel guilty, that's all."
"It was my fault, Andy."
We looked at each other for the first time. He was drunk, but not gunned enough to be talking pure nonsense.
"What was your fault, Trent?"
He hung his head and it struck me as bit of an act—the usually good boy caught breaking the schoolhouse window.
I put the car I drive and said, "I'm tired. If you're gonna play games, have me come here of all places. . ."
He took my arm gently, so I put the brakes on and we stopped.
"If I hadn't freaked out on Leonard, he and Bruce would never have driven that day," said Trent.
He had my attention. I rammed the car back in park. "I'm listening."
"They'd drank a load of beers, you know that, from, you know. . ."
"From the accident report and the Coroner's documents. Do you and me a favour, Trent, just lay it out, huh? If you have something to say, say it."
He looked hurt. The whole delicate guy act was getting me angry.
"You think this is easy for me?" he asked. I didn't answer him. He began playing with the sun visor, flapping it up and down so that it squeaked.
"I was worried. I was bombing in school, I was never gonna break that blue-collar curse. For me, the chance to get into the studio and cut that record was everything. Man, we poured our blood, sweat and tears to get that break. The others, especially your brother and Bruce, they treated it too lightly, hey if it works out that's cool, if not, well, back to college. You can't do that. We had studio time bought for us. And when the tape starts running, it costs money. You gotta be ready. You can't start fucking around with the structure of the songs in that environment. You have to have them down. We weren't U2 or REM, you know?"
I told him to leave the visor alone. He apologized and lit a smoke.
"When they called me that afternoon, I thought they were just checking in to tell me what time they'd get to the house. Steve and me were waiting. When I found out they'd been at Bruce's girlfriend's, drinking since noon, I told them to get their asses in gear and head down to the house. Bruce put Leonard on the phone and we had it out. Finally, he said if one practice was so damn important, then he'd drive down. I should have backed off. Man, did I ever fuck up. I pressured them. If I'd waited a day, one shitty day, we'd have put the final touches on those songs and been in the studio that Saturday. The record would be done and we'd be sitting pretty. All of us."
He rubbed his brow. He looked spent.
"Get out," I said.
He looked frightened. There was no doubt in my mind that he was the tougher of the pair of us, but it felt like my eyeballs were on fire, and he must have seen that.
"Andy, it'd take an hour for me to walk home, come on. I just thought you should know. I've been carrying that around for a long time."
"I said get out. You had me drive here so you could tell me that ? Not once did I hear any sorrow for Len or Bruce. You missed the chance to do the record. That's what you're sorry about. My old man would, fuck, forget my father, Bruce's dad would break your neck if he knew. They lost their daughter to an overdose and then their son two years later."
"I'm sorry, Andy."
He got out of the car as if his legs were asleep. I didn't wait for him to close the door. I tore onto the road, reached over as I screamed out of there and yanked it shut.
LONG TIME AGO
It was the summer holidays. My father had bought a gas barbecue. We were the first on our block to have one. He called from work one day to tell my mother that he'd picked up some big, thick t-bones. Leonard and Trent were in the backyard sunbathing, listening to the radio. Len offered to fire up the barbecue. He and Trent couldn't get it started. They kept pushing the ignitor switch until it stopped clicking. Len was scared that my dad would freak when he got home to find it busted. They were just a couple of kids, fifteen years old. I guess they wanted to look cool and in control, so they took the panel off the thing and dismantled some wires, popped the switch out and couldn't get it all back together. Trent was the mastermind, urging Leonard on, smiling at me and enjoying the whole mess.
When my father rolled in, he came to the backyard with the steaks wrapped in that pinkish butcher's paper. When he saw the demo job Leonard and Trent had done on his new barbecue, he kneeled down and sighed.
"Andy, grab my tool kit from the basement, could you?"
When I came back with the tool kit, my father was lecturing the two of them. I can hear his voice and remember what he said, clear as a bell. "First of all Leonard, don't shirk your responsibilities. Secondly, if Trent Lockheart told you to dive off a bridge, would you? Go and wash up for dinner. You too, Trent, if you're staying."
He got everything back together. He wiped sweat from his brow and looked at me, smiling. "Couple of clowns, didn't have the gas turned up high enough," he said.
A LITTLE WHILE BACK
Hollow Ground played the campus pub for two months running. That winter, they were asked to play a club in Toronto. They started getting gigs every weekend. It seemed like the band and the music had a force of its own. Trent's uncle—the first in his family to attend university—worked in advertising. He managed to get a three song demo tape into the hands of a guy named Lane Vibert at Phoenix Recording. Lane Vibert got the tape to CVFX. My brother's band was actually getting played weekly on this new music program that showcased up-and-coming bands.
The night that Leonard threw the dice, I was fighting the flu. I heard Len and my parents talking in the kitchen. The amount of conversation and its tone compelled me to roll out of bed, slightly dizzy, and shamble into the kitchen. My dad pointed to a chair, which I pulled up to the table. My mother was speaking. "If it's what you want, Lenny, we're not opposed, we. . ."
My dad cut in, "You have to have a plan B, son, that's all there is to it. You talk to the school and make certain that you can skip a term, maybe two. Don't abandon your education. Leave that door open."
And then my mother took over, her voice more hopeful than my father's. "It would be a shame to have to re-apply and start the program again. Your father's right."
Leonard played nervously with an empty coffee mug. My dad sighed with even more doubt, like he was becoming more hesitant from one second to the next. "Oh, good Lord," he moaned, "This is such a crap shoot, Len. Can't you just stay in college and play part time? So many musicians cut a record and spend time on the road, give a chunk of their lives only to fall back on some run-of-the-mill job."
"No. We've decided to take a serious run at this. We've written eighteen songs. Lane's totally behind us. I believe we have a good shot."
I remember saying five words the entire time. But they changed the mood of the whole conversation. I looked at my dad and said,
"They are good. Damn good."
Leonard looked at me and said, "We need a roadie, Andy."
My father couldn't help himself. He laughed and gave Len a playful swat. "You get rich and famous, boy, and I want a brand new Saab."
Leonard leaned back, tossed his hair out of his face and said, "You got it. And I'll get a matching one for mom."
All of the guys made arrangements to put school on hold. Except for Trent, he dropped out. They played a load of gigs, including a new music festival put on by the local rock station. In the scarce moments that Leonard was around the house, he was upbeat, happy, singing under his breath.
On a Thursday evening in late November, my mom was on the phone to her friend Beatrice. She talked to Beatrice a lot. She and her husband used to live next door, but they divorced and moved away. My mother would counsel and console her on the phone. If my dad was in the room, he would make faces and pretend to wipe his eyes, or play the violin. Mom would wave him off and scowl. That was exactly what was happening when the doorbell rang that night. I answered. There were two police officers on our doorstep. They didn't have to open their mouths. Their faces said everything. Rain dripped off the peak of the tallest one's cap.
I got home with barely enough strength left to get out and walk up to the house. I'd already undressed and brushed my teeth when I realized that Trent's guitar was still on my back seat. I put on some track pants and shoes and went out to get it, fearing that my father might see it if I left it there.
In my bedroom, I opened the case and took out the guitar. It was pretty beaten up. There was a sticker on the back of the neck that read: Born To Raise Hell.
I sat with it and, ever so gently, strummed its taut strings. And then it crept up on me:
Rain is teeming down. Leonard's in the driver's seat of Bruce's car, a Grand-Am with a tired, worn interior that reeks of stale cigarettes. The engine is running, the wipers are swishing and the radio is on. Finally, Bruce hobbles out onto the porch with a tallboy in his hand. He takes a swig and starts his way toward the car.
Once he flops into the passenger seat, Len grabs the beer, empties it out his window and tosses the can in the back seat.
"I wasn't finished that, you moron," says Bruce.
"You're finished it now. We gotta practice to get to," says my brother.
Len slides the car into drive. Bruce's girlfriend stands in the huge bow window. Len and Bruce wave to her. The two of them look pale, like their bodies are made of gauze and smoke. Before they roll out of the driveway, Bruce grabs Leonard's arm, looks at the radio and says, "Listen, that's our song!"
And the two of them sit a still as statues and gaze at the radio, long-faced and disbelieving, like ghosts with broken hearts.
Copyright©2004 Philip David Alexander