Bound for Brooklyn, killing time. Longest train ride, lazy eyes. Jeremy sat alone in the last rattling car, staring up at the “Subway Poet’s” poster. An hour later, he arrived at the door to Terrance’s new apartment. He rang the bell.
“It’s open,” Terrance yelled.
Jeremy entered. Silly paranoid reflex, he swung the deadbolt on the door behind him. Then he hung his checkered newsboy’s cap on the rack. His eyes went wide. “Damn,” he called down the wide hall. “This space is wild.”
Terrance didn’t answer. The baby was crying. The light went on in the nursery. Jeremy sat down on the couch. He looked out the bay window overlooking the desolate street. Inside, he noticed several dust piles lining the walls and odd corners. There was a stack of boxes leftover from Terrance’s move.
When Terrance emerged, Dad cradled his girl in his arms. Jeremy hardly recognized his friend and former band mate.
“You’re not going bald, are you?” he asked, lamenting Terrance’s missing ponytail.
“You caught an accent over there,” Terrance joked as he crossed the hardwood floor.
Jeremy stood up to see the baby. “Let me hold her?” he asked.
“Did you wash your hands?”
Jeremy shook his head.
“Bathroom is down the hall.”
When Jeremy came back, he held out his arms toward Terrance. They passed the squirming spectacle. Jeremy rested the bundled darling’s head on his shoulder, swayed and hummed and stroked the girl’s fine strawberry hair. “What’s your name?” he whispered across her ear.
“Billie,” Terrance answered.
“She’s beautiful. Congratulations.”
“Terrance, I had no idea—”
“I meant to tell you one of those times you called from Ireland.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“I thought you’d be mad. We didn’t invite you to the wedding.”
“I was broke and across the ocean,” Jeremy said. He sniffed and he muffled a laugh. “Did you really think I could swing a ticket?”
Terrance put his hands in his pockets. “I was still digesting the tour,” he said. Jeremy knew Terrance had waited forever to say that line. He looked down at Billie. Her eyes were as blinking bright and blue as her father’s. He smiled at her. Then Billie’s features blurred and he was searching the flowing waves and the rings in the wood on the floor. “You invited Beth, didn’t you?” he asked Terrance, unable to lift his eyes off a chestnut knot.
“She was here, you were abroad.”
“Did you do it for spite?”
“I’d say it was convenient.”
Jeremy sighed, and almost stumbled backward. Regaining his balance, he held the baby with one arm and ran a hand through his hair. “Will you hurry up and fix us a drink?” he said, turning up the accent his friend had detected.
Billie fussed and let out a cry.
“Can I have my baby back?”
“Sorry,” Jeremy said, passing Terrance the swaddled infant.
Terrance nestled Billie on his broad chest. “There are beers in the fridge,” he directed.
Jeremy went to the kitchen. “You need more furniture,” he observed as he peered into each of the rooms down the hall.
“One piece at a time,” Terrance said, following.
The kitchen seemed a skinny afterthought in design, but was functional in concept. There was a long counter and even a dishwasher that leaked. Regardless, sticky pots and pans piled high in the sink.
Jeremy opened the fridge. “What’s with all the Jamaican beer?” he asked, examining the round bottles.
“Cheapest brew in the hood.”
Jeremy popped the lids and distributed.
They tapped beers “cheers” and each took a sip.
“Tastes sweet,” Jeremy said, swallowing.
“You’ll get drunk,” Terrance promised, rocking Billie between glugs.
“By the way, do you have a charger? My phone is nearly dead.”
“Let me see your phone?”
Jeremy showed him.
“Damn, a Nokia? That’s an old model.”
“You don’t have the plug?”
“Sorry,” Terrance shrugged.
“Not your fault. When will Mommy be home?”
“Jacquie finishes work at five. Let’s stay a bit when she comes. Then we’ll go?”
“Doesn’t the concert start at seven?”
“Don’t worry, we’re close. We can walk.”
Billie complained. Her cries were increasingly strident.
“I bet you’re craving music,” Jeremy said.
Terrance opened the refrigerator and took out a nipple-capped-bottle of Jacquie ’s breast milk. “She’s hungry,” he said.
Preparing the milk took time. Terrance filled a pot with water and put the burner on low. He swirled the plastic container in the warming pool and concentrated with endurance that defied distraction.
“How long do you have to count for?”
“I’ll pick a record?” Jeremy suggested.
“We haven’t unpacked the stereo.”
“Where is it? I’ll set up.”
“Come on, I’m dying to hear some Dylan.”
“It’s a mess in the other room.”
“That’s where the box is?”
“No, Jer. I said no record player today. Besides, I think the needle is broken.”
“Jeremy, if you’re that restless, you can play my guitar. I have to feed Billie.”
Jeremy finished his beer and took another bottle out of the fridge. Terrance’s was still more than half-full.
“Your guitar is in the bedroom?” Jeremy asked.
Terrance nodded. Billie became curious in their silence. She peeked over her father’s shoulder. Jeremy blew his cheeks wide a big bubble and she smiled back at him, almost laughing. Then he turned toward Terrance and Jacquie’s room.
Terrance hummed a little ditty while he cooked. Billie clung to his arms and watched the stranger in her house disappear down the hall.
The door creaked open. The room was dark. The light switch didn’t work. Jeremy felt along the bedpost and found a lamp on the cluttered nightstand. The dim yellow light grew brighter. The bed sheets were rustled, there was a rosy stain on the white—Jeremy spied the instruments in the shadowed corner. Terrance’s mammoth upright bass was hiding in its case. The barn-red, banged-up, Fender acoustic his friend had carried through college was leaning against the dresser. Jeremy had to step over a pile of dirty clothes to reach. The wood was dusty. He gave the dried out hull a strum. The strings were old and out of tune. One was broken.
Jeremy knew the guitar was unplayable, but he brought the instrument anyway. Stepping back over the pile of clothes he’d crossed, he spied the stained glass picture frame Terrance had bought when they played the Asheville streets and bars circuit. The frame was lying face down on the dresser. Jeremy turned it upright. Terrance had replaced the picture Jacquie had snapped of the band, standing together in front of the blue-green mountains, with a wedding photo. Jacquie’s dress was white and flowing. Her lips shone as her heart alighted. Terrance wore a tux and it must have been on account of the wedding that he’d first cut his hair.
“Heaven is the past playing Pastures of Plenty,” Jeremy recited Subway prose. Forgetting only to turn the lamp off, he put the frame face down again, and left all as he had found.
He bumped the guitar on the doorframe as he exited. Awkward chords reverberated. He’d chipped the red paint.
“Sorry,” Jeremy said when he found Terrance in the living room. His friend sat on the sofa, cradling Billie. She sucked the bottle he’d prepared.
“I couldn’t care less about that old music box.”
Jeremy sat down across from Terrance, took a swig of his brew and placed the guitar in his lap. “You haven’t been playing at all, have you?” he asked.
“When?” Terrance answered. “When is there time?”
“Always,” Jeremy answered. “I think there ought always be time.”
Terrance resumed the feeding. Billie sucked away. Jeremy stared at the knots in the wood floor again until he remembered the guitar. Then he bent back the broken thread so that it was out of his way and tuned the five remaining strings according to an open strung banjo. He strummed a few improvised chords before he picked a bass pulse.
“You ought to play Billie lullabies on the cello,” Jeremy suggested.
“Ought, ought, ought…” Terrance said, rolling his eyes.
Jeremy laughed. “You can’t stand the way I talk, can you?”
“It’s fake,” Terrance said, exasperated.
“Believe me. You spend three years abroad and you’re tongue will twist. Especially if you’re making music.”
Terrance took a break from feeding Billie and finally finished his beer.
“I’ll get you another?” Jeremy offered.
“Nah…I’ll wait until Jacquie gets home.”
Jeremy didn’t push him. He went back to playing guitar. He found an alternating melody that wandered low to high.
“It’s pretty,” he said. “You don’t feel the missing note in the chords.”
“I do,” Jeremy said. He stopped abruptly and dampened the last strum. Hollow thud; he set the guitar down on the floor.
“Don’t you have something hard to drink?” Jeremy asked.
“You could have brought me Irish Whiskey.”
“I left in hurry, Terrance. No time for souvenirs.”
Jeremy could spar. In fact, he usually enjoyed cynical banter. But there was a mean streak clanging behind Terrance’s sarcasm that set their rhythm awry. Jeremy wanted more than ever to get drunk. He desired a real clean drunk that would blur the bumps of his reunion with Terrance in with memories of their better adventures together. Then time would easily take on the happy shades that shroud nostalgia. But Terrance offered no escape from confrontation. He simply wouldn’t engage until Jacquie returned.
“I can’t play that guitar,” Jeremy said. “Honestly, I think it’s garbage.”
Maybe it was Jeremy’s smile, or his resilience under criticism that made Terrance crack. He laughed and admitted, “Yes, the thing is finished. I don’t know why I still lug it around.”
“Let’s get you a new one?”
“Money Jer. Babies are expensive.”
Billie licked her lips and closed her eyes, her mind wandering off to milky wonderland.
Jeremy sat forward. He rested his elbows on his knees and put his head in his hands to watch her. “You’re having fun?” he asked.
“Yes,” Terrance answered.
There was a knock, then the lock turned and the door in the hall opened.
“Afraid of a break-in?” Jacquie called, mildly concerned.
“Sorry, nervous habit,” Jeremy answered for Terrance. He stood up eagerly at the sound of Jacqui’s voice.
“She’s drifting off,” Terrance cautioned his wife as she entered. Jeremy sat down again and Jacquie tiptoed away. She tossed her purse in the bedroom, and scurried to the kitchen to fix some snacks and drinks.
Terrance sang Leadbelly’s Goodnight Irene until Billie’s arms went limp. Jeremy joined in, and for the first time that day they were in tune, humming and harmonizing. Jacquie loved what she saw when she returned. She carried a tray with chips and salsa, fresh beers and a glass of virgin lemonade for herself.
“Have one with us?” Terrance asked when she set the tray on the coffee table and sat down between them.
“It’s late, don’t you guys have to leave soon?” Jacquie answered.
Jeremy remembered the dimples in her cheeks. She looked older on account of the pregnancy, but was still blooming beauty. “Billie takes after Terrance, I think,” he said.
“That’s the consensus,” Jacquie agreed. She leaned back and put her hair into a loose and hasty braid. Jeremy admired her long eyelashes and the neat figure she struck sitting cross-legged.
Terrance tasted Jacquie ’s lemonade and made a sour yet satisfied face. “Jacquie squeezes our own, fresh,” he said.
“Do you have any gin?” Jeremy suggested, taking a chip with salsa.
“We do,” Terrance answered. He stood up and gently passed the sleeping baby to his wife. He knelt and kissed Jacquie’s cheek. She pulled at his shirt and brought him closer. She kissed his lips.
Terrance remembered his mission. He went to the kitchen to fetch the pitcher of lemonade along with two more glasses and the frosty bottle of gin from the freezer.
“Long time, Jer, it’s good to see you,” Jacquie said.
“Good to see you too, Jacquie. I’d give you a hug but—”
Jacquie looked down at her baby and laughed. “Yes,” she said. “Life has changed a bit since you left.”
“I admire that,” Jeremy said, “You always had the patience to bear us children.”
Jacquie laughed. Terrance returned. He poured a shot into Jacquie’s lemonade and duplicated the drink twice more.
“Cheers,” he offered, lifting his glass in the air. “Here’s to Jeremy’s homecoming.”
“And to Billie,” Jeremy added.
“Yes, to Billie.”
“And to your new apartment…”
“Enough. That’s too much to celebrate in one drink,” Jacquie said, tapping Jeremy’s glass and then her husband’s.
Terrance sat down again. Jeremy drank fast and Terrance drank faster. They were both suddenly eager to leave.
“How’s nursing?” Jeremy asked Jacquie about her work at the hospital.
“Long hours,” she answered.
“You get stretches off, don’t you?”
“Barely long enough to recover.”
“Have you seen any interesting cases?”
“This is New York, Jer. I’ve seen everything.”
Jeremy finished his drink and grabbed for the sweating beer Jacqui had originally brought him. “By the way, I mean it. Congrats on the wedding, and the baby,” he said, changing the subject.
“We’re sorry, Jer. We didn’t know how to reach you.”
“I did have an internet connection. But never mind,” Jeremy said.
“You already told me you wouldn’t have come,” Terrance argued.
“I’m just taking the piss,” Jeremy bit, bitterly.
“There he goes speaking Irish again,” Terrance said.
“You do have an accent!” Jacquie delighted. When she saw Terrance scowl, “You must have had so much fun over there,” she smoothed.
“There’s music every night, Jacquie. You can’t do better.”
“I’m sure. Terrance always says he’ll take me.”
“Do visit, someday. I promise, you won’t be disappointed.”
“We’ll go.” Terrance promised. “By the way, we better leave soon.”
“I’m sorry I was late,” Jacquie offered.
Terrance kissed her again. All was forgotten.
Billie sighed, but hardly stirred.
“I’ll go to the bathroom?” Terrance said.
“I’ll go after.”
Jacquie squeezed her daughter close to the source of all her love.
“Honest, I’m blown away,” Jeremy said.
“It’s amazing, I can’t explain,” Jacquie described her attachment to the child.
“She’s beautiful,” Jeremy said, and it was clear he didn’t know what else to say about the baby. His Jealousy equaled his embarrassment.
“How’s Beth?” Jacqui asked. She seemed to know instinctively that Jeremy wouldn’t waste a minute seeking out his muse upon his return.
“I saw her once. She lives on the Upper West Side.”
“I know. We had lunch last week.”
Jeremy’s eyes fell to the floor again. “I’d love to do a show or record with Beth this fall,” he said.
“Be patient, Jer. Everybody is still a bit shocked you’re home.”
Pity Terrance returned too soon. Jeremy would have confessed the rest of his feelings. He stood and waved across the coffee table to Jacqui. “See you soon,” he promised.
“Have fun,” Jacquie said. Terrance leaned over the couch and kissed his wife and child. “Text me when you’re on your way?” Jacqui asked him.
“Will do,” Terrance promised, blowing her a parting kiss.
Jeremy followed his tall friend out of the living room.
“Don’t forget your hat,” Terrance said, when they reached the entrance.
Jeremy put the plaid, Irish cap over his head.
“A little out of season?” Terrance asked, opening the door. The late afternoon sun was still shining bright outside.
“It’s bitter cold already in Ireland,” Jeremy answered. “Supposed to be fall here too.”
“You know how it is in America, Jer. Hot and idle in September.”
Terrance led the way down the street.
“I forgot how much energy it takes to keep up with your city walk,” Jeremy said. Terrance’s long legs allowed him a lengthy stride and Jeremy had to peddle hard despite his buzz.
“What do you think of the neighborhood?” Terrance asked.
“Can I be honest?”
Terrance laughed. “Lot of opportunity here. Anyone who can swing a mortgage—and that’s not saying much these days—is buying in.”
“What about you?”
“We’re still renting.”
They stopped in front of a wire fence that closed off an open lot between two brownstones. Terrance pointed out the sprouting urban garden project underway.
“Can you afford to buy?” Jeremy asked.
“Owning means serious commitment,” Terrance said. They resumed walking. “I’d need financing,” he continued musing. “And let’s be honest. Since when have Jacqui and I ever been good at thinking long term?”
Jeremy laughed. “What’s that Beth always said about Brooklyn?” he asked. “Brooklyn is a spectator’s sport?”
“Speculator’s sport now.”
“Sucks to stall,” Jeremy shrugged.
“You’re telling me. Let’s duck in there,” Terrance said, pointing across the street to a bodega.
There was a chime attached to the door. The shop smelled of cherry-mint hookah. A dark skinned man sat behind the register. He chomped the bit, bubbling the water pipe. Terrance went to the refrigerators in the back and perused the beer selection. “Grab some snacks,” he told Jeremy.
“Pick something bitter, please,” Jeremy said, grabbing a bag of chips.
They took two six packs and went to the register.
“Love that smell,” Jeremy said, breathing in the Hookah smoke. “Do you have rolling papers?” he asked Terrance. “I brought a nug.”
“I quit smoking, Jer.”
The man at the register rang them up. “$26.27,” he said.
Jeremy was slow reaching for his wallet, so Terrance put down his credit card.
“No, let me,” Jeremy protested.
“You bought the tickets.”
Terrance withdrew his card. Jeremy scrounged up some greasy fives and ones. The teller made change. Jeremy shrugged the dregs of a dollar into his pocket.
“I gather you’ve been playing the parks?” Terrance asked.
“Got to scrape by somehow. I’m trying to line up some gigs for the winter.”
They thanked the teller and left the store. Now the sun was beginning to set. Long shadows crept the sidewalk.
“Where are you staying?”
“That cracked out apartment?”
“He’s moving to Brooklyn next month and giving me the bum’s rush.”
“Makes sense. There are always shady deals driving Joel downtown.”
“How convenient,” Jeremy said.
Bulking-brick-Bushwick opened onto a factory and warehouse-lined street.
“The money Joel makes? I’ll bet he’s buying.” Terrance imagined the druggist’s wealth.
“Brooklyn Heights,” Jeremy affirmed the high-rise quarters where Joel planned to run his sordid empire.
“What’s the kid selling these days?”
“There’s an epidemic, Terrance. Do you really think Joel wouldn’t have a piece of the action?”
Terrance stopped in his tracks. “Promise me you’ll stay away from that stuff?” he said.
Jeremy smirked. “Don’t worry about me. I’m through pushing the limit.”
Out of words, Terrance took a deep breath.
“I am thirsty though,” Jeremy said. He drew two sweating beers out of the plastic bag he was carrying.
“Really? On the street?”
“Terrance, do me one? Don’t hesitate.”
“All I’m saying; we’re a block away.”
“This one is for the road.”
Jeremy popped the two bottles with his lighter. He clinked them together, saying cheers without permission. Terrance checked the street: A group of trend-dressed characters was approaching.
“I bet they’re going to the concert.”
“Let’s walk,” Terrance said, taking a bold swig.
“Don’t walk so fast,” Jeremy called after him.
There was silence. The street was dark. A base line and an amped guitar sounded down an alley. Jeremy looked up at the broken widows on a rusting warehouse. Terrance checked the number on his phone. “This is it,” he said. “Let’s finish these?”
Jeremy held out the bag. “Didn’t they say it was BYOB?”
“I’m worried we’ll make a scene at the door.”
“You’re kidding me, aren’t you?”
“Jer, last time I saw you—”
“I was out of my mind. I know. We all were.”
“You were belligerent. Downright hostile. Then you set the woods ablaze?”
Jeremy almost threw his bottle on the sidewalk. “Take that back Terrance,” he said. “That’s not fair.”
“Don’t draw me into your guilt.”
Jeremy put his half-full beer back in the case in his bag and opened the plastic up to Terrance.
Terrance drank the rest of his drink down in one long slug. Then he replaced the empty. “Let’s get inside before there aren’t any seats left,” he said.
“Good idea. All I want is to hear some good music,” Jeremy said.
Redundant sips of sorted youth appeared from all directions. There were smart-dressed kids mingling with merry pranksters, biker gangsters—all the colors of a flag—entitled successors, coupling loves. As obvious as their demeanor, they shared a secret nonetheless.
“Are you here for Big Echo?” strangers confirmed invitations at the doorstep. Terrance knocked on the big metal door. The heavy barrier pushed aside and the rag-tag acquaintances filed in. A made-up girl checked their tickets and drew an X on their wrists. Jeremy smiled, his hand in hers. He made her blink mascara-lined lashes.
The music was coming from upstairs. They followed the line, climbed the back flight, and entered a room where the lights were dim.
Now they felt the heat of the crowd.
“We’re late,” Jeremy admitted. All eyes were on the band. They were up against the wall.
Tremulous vocals. The singer was tall. His hair was slick on the one side, buzzed on the other. A beautiful guitar strung his neck, awaiting occasional strums.
“Where’s his posture?” Jeremy critiqued the lanky figure bending over the microphone—the drummer and the bass.
“There’s no rhythm,” Terrance assessed the instrumentals behind his scratch.
Steady drums, flat drive and no tonal depth.
“The warm up band sucks,” Jeremy said. He took out his unfinished beer from the street and opened a new bottle for Terrance.
“Give them a chance.”
They tapped cheers and listened.
There was a rising pulse and a steadier voice. Terrance rolled his head to the rhythm, stretching his neck. Jeremy swayed too. The refrain was catching. People were singing along. Then the tempo slowed. The singer’s voice faded as melodies merged. Jeremy’s gaze fell on the singer’s guitar work, his long fingers stabbing the strings. The acoustic-electric’s warm sound billowed unlike any Jeremy ever heard before. Rumbling blues amplified, echoed spiritual delights past curfew. Jeremy closed his eyes. He heard Beth’s voice syphoned through Virginia slims—her dainty cigarettes. He pictured her pinching rouge-red lips mouthing songs.
The trio faded out and bowed to overzealous applause.
“They’ve one thing going for them,” Terrance said, clapping. “That’s a hell of a guitar.”
“Only lacks for a better handler,” Jeremy said. He finished his beer and opened another.
When the band ducked offstage, Mascara lashes leapt up in the light. Friends in the crowd cheered and whistled. She thanked them, and blew kisses until the roar died down. Then she lowered the microphone and smiled.
“Let’s hear it for Abandon Ship, everybody!” Mascara pointed to the band that had played and called for another round of applause.
Mascara’s strained voice was smoky, yet direct. “Welcome everybody. “I’m your host—” More applause kept her from saying her name. “Welcome to Big Echo. The sound system squealed and the mic hissed. Mascara covered her ears. She stepped away from the ringing and cleared her throat. “I’m sorry,” she said. Now the sound was balanced. “I’m Sasha Reeves and welcome to Big Echo. Can I see a show of hands? How many first timers out there tonight?”
Hands went up. Jeremy raised his arm and put it down.
“Jesus, sweat is pouring from my pits,” Terrance complained. Jeremy agreed and stretched the collar of his shirt, fanning air.
“First of all, welcome,” Sasha said, her voice smoothing. “Folks, your patience please: I’ve the quickest intro. Then we’ll hear what you came for; amazing music.”
Sasha quelled stirring applause. She read bullets off her script: “Big Echo started three years ago in New York—Little speaking game veterans were playing in the city’s low down dens and salons. They’d meet and monologue and that got their stories in the open. One thing they all agreed on was that the Wars lacked a soundtrack. Iraq, Afghanistan: silent films. Would you believe it? Twitter caught on and the mission went viral. People were posting one-liners with links to echoing music—Sounding clouds. The slogan for Big Echo is Never Lament Revolution. That means you can’t look back. So once a month we hold secret concerts in the ass-crack of Brooklyn where there’s space like this to fool around.”
Shouts, whistles and applause filled the room. Someone in the back raised a glass to Sasha’s charming yarn. “Here’s the line up.” Sasha continued. “Three up-and-coming bands will play three songs each tonight. It’s hard to believe. You all assembled out of nowhere when you received our word-of-mouth invitations. There’s proof, great truths lie on the tips of tongues and our lives defy regret. Our one rule: Please keep quiet during performances and hold applause till the end. Big Echo is all about reciprocating the passion and the confessions indie music imparts. There aren’t many live venues supporting the raw and experimental with a vision like ours. Bars and concert halls only want to cash-in on swarming conformity. They sell you overpriced drinks. Here we bring our own.”
There was roaring applause. The next band was setting up in the background. Sasha waited until calls died down.“Remember Big Echo shows don’t come together unless we all pull together,” she explained. “First someone has to volunteer to host, and then we need cash to make it all happen. We want to improve Big Echo and stay relevant, so please, everybody, if you like what you hear tonight, donate what you can when we pass the hat. We’re all grateful for whatever you can spare. Now, Ladies and gentlemen do you believe in big echoes?”
Tremendous applause. Guests drummed on the floor.
“Let me introduce tonight’s first band: Listen up and be real, Big Echo! Listen, this is Fuzz on the Needle!”
Thunder in the nosebleeds, Sasha stepped offstage to roaring cheers. The band split open the static with electric fiddle piercing the sharp chords of a reel. The drummer picked up sticks and the guitar set pace. A tall girl with long brown-braided hair dangling down to her waist controlled the mic. She chirped Appalachian sass and tapped the rhythm.
The song wound down.
“They’ve a fun sound,” Jeremy yelled above applause.
“She reminds me of Beth,”
“Don’t go there,” Jeremy said, fixating on the illumined stage as the band launched their second song. Truth was, he peered past the actress and her shadow. Sporadic raindrops splattered against the propped windows and there, stuck in the corner, on a wobbly stand, stood the guitar he’d fallen in love with. The song was lazy, swaying. Obsession flashed. He gazed with longing. Terrance danced with the sweet girl—leather purse strung over her shoulder—standing next to him. Jeremy passed him another beer from their stash and silently offered Sweet Cheeks a bottle. She took the drink and eyed Terrance’s wedding ring. Marijuana scented blues notes wafted through the room. Jeremy took the passing joint and smoked greedily. Deep breaths, he loosened his arms as his legs caught the chorus. He dropped the roach in his bottle. The last hit fizzled melodious spells. Now everyone was dancing. The song drew on, striking synchronized keys. The singer’s voice deepened, wielding hints of sorrow. I’ll make Terrance a present, Jeremy vowed, eying his admired guitar in the corner. He decided to look for Shasha. He wandered through the silent mood-struck crowd, dodging dancers. Rain streaked down the windows and the song sighed in closing.
“Hope you all brought umbrellas,” said the singer. She smiled. “Those are two from our new album, Waltzing Willow.” She explained, acknowledging her band. “This next one, let’s jam, boys. We’re the Fuzz on the Needle, thank you all; thanks Big Echo.” She blew the audience a kiss and bowed her head. The light lit her halo. Song stirred her lips. The base bellowed and the fiddle freed rhythm. She clicked and tapped her heels. Her braids bounced. Jeremy approached the front row. He stood behind Sasha. Guitar dueled and soothed the racing melody. His heart was beating. He tapped her back. Sasha looked over her shoulder and flashed her mascara lashes. She waved a finger, reminding Jeremy; silence. The song revved faster. Sasha stood still, concentrating on the music. Jeremy put a hand on her waist. He spun her. She looked at him, danced with him, but refused to smile. Jeremy knew she craved a cigarette. The song slowed. The fiddler had the last word. He struck strident chords, crying Taps forever.
The band took bows. Applause was vibrant. The rain had dwindled during the performance. Now the air felt static and moist. Terrance basked in the breeze by the fan, while he waited for the bathroom. Jeremy let go of Sasha’s hand and joined her clapping. Sasha peered over her shoulder again. Then she leapt on stage, her black skirt riding high on her side revealing spider stockings. “I love this audience!” She countered cheers. “I love this band. Let’s hear it for Fuzz on the Needle!” Cheers, woots and hollers. “Damn, that echoes!” Sasha said. Jeremy was offered a beer. He said “cheers” to everyone around him and he drank like a fish. “This next band is called, Bottles,” Sasha announced. “These guys are real Brooklyn heroes.” A harmonica and guitar duo took the stage and sat down on stools. Jeremy made for the staircase. Sasha watched him exit. Gristly whistle, the harmonica sounded, and the guitar stroked descending crescendo. “Bottles everyone,” Sasha yelled into the microphone. “Hear’em echo!” She ducked offstage as Bottle’s sound uncorked. She followed Jeremy’s fleeting shadow. Out of breath, climbing stairs, smokers mingled on the rooftop. In the darker corner, Jeremy rolled a joint. Sasha stared him down. “I knew you looked familiar,” she said. “You’re Jeremy of—” She snapped her fingers, searching for the name. “You’re the guitarist in Jeremy on his Lunchbreak!” Jeremy took a long, hard drag. He offered the joint to Sasha. She smoked. “I saw you play the Bowery in ’02,” she said, laughing. “Jeremy On His Lunch Break, I still love that name.”
“We went by Lunch Break in the end.”
“Who did I go to that concert with?” Sasha reminisced. Her memory cast a shadow. She sniffled when she smoked. Even the flutter of her eyes slowed strokes.
“That’s right. Your band had that horrible break up out west. There was gossip. I think I read about you in Rolling Stone.”
Jeremy took a drag and peered over the side of the building. The alley was a dark and dangerous drop.
“Life moves faster than reason,” he mumbled.
“That was my favorite song.” Sasha started to hum: “People in the world when time is running on…” but she stumbled on the lyrics. “Are lines and fits of passion,” Jeremy filled her in. Sasha’s dress had pockets. Jeremy offered her the last hit of the joint. She shook her head and buried her hands.
“I like your hat,” Sasha said, shivering.
“Cold?” he asked, dropping the smoldering filter in a roof-puddle. He stamped out the ember.
“I better get back,” Sasha said.
“Good to meet you, Sasha?
“Yes,” Sasha said, putting out her hand, matter-of-fact.
“Host of Big Echo. Show was grand.”
“Honor’s mine, Jeremy on his lunch break.” Jeremy’s smile made Sasha laugh. “Thanks for the smoke,” she said. “I needed that.”
“Thanks for the company.”
“See you around.”
Jeremy held his hiding smile. Sasha turned the corner.
Downstairs, Sasha stood onstage. Jeremy searched the crowd for Terrance. Had his friend left alone? Sasha’s voice was hoarse, but she raised the stakes. “Echo! Echo! Echo!” she started a chant. The clapping was fierce. “Amen to music,” she praised all the bands that had played and toasted soldiers. Then she raised her arms, halting applause. “Remember, give thanks,” she said, passing the hat. When the Fedora came round, Jeremy dropped his last three dollars and scratched behind his ear. Seventy-three-cents jingled in his pocket. His phone was dead and he wondered how he’d find Terrance.
“That’s our show tonight,” Sasha closed. “Thanks for coming. Hope we’ll see you all again soon. Until then, promise: share the music, share the love. Spread loud echoes everywhere and never say sorry.”
Sasha descended the stage. Everyone wanted to hug her.
Jeremy was dizzy amid the rush. In passing, Sasha brushed a whisper against his cheek. “Come with me to The Parlor?”
Jeremy knew the Brooklyn bar. He wanted to go. But he was reluctant to leave without Terrance. He put up a finger and said, “I’ll be down.”
When he lost sight of Sasha, his eyes fixed on the corner. Nobody saw the abandoned guitar he craved with all the tension in his palms. His fingers were twitching. There was another exit—not far. He’d snag the music and run. That was his cause. He watched for the singer, any sign of the band. Despite the crowd, he went alone and unnoticed. His trance accelerated past the scattered chairs and standing conversations. Past the stage and the lights and the speakers. He grasped for the instrument, and dropped the curved mellow box in its soft-cover case. Then he was off. Down the stairs in five seconds flat, his stride was sharp on the sidewalk.
Present for Terrance, Jeremy rationalized his act. God knows he needs this guitar. He kept running. The instrument wobbled as he ran, aching his back through Brooklyn. When he felt safe, he stopped. He was out of breath. He was sweating. Rain drizzled, and the sidewalk smelled homeless. Jeremy neared the docks. There was a payphone across from the Navy Yards. Jeremy watched the city glimmer beyond shadowy cranes. He set the guitar down at his feet and picked up the receiver. He knew Terrance’s number by heart. He entered his change, minus the pennies. Then he dialed.
The phone rang twice. Terrance picked up.
“Hello? Who is this?”
“It’s me, Jeremy. My phone is dead.”
“What the fuck?” Terrance said.
“I knew you’d get lost on Sasha.”
“I can’t do anything right, can I?” Jeremy said.
“Jer, please.” Terrance’s tone disarmed. “I didn’t mean that. I got tired and I figured you’d run off with the girl.”
“I thought you’d hang late.”
“You can sleep when you’re dead.”
“I’m dead tired.”
“Come on, turn around. Let’s grab a bite. For old time’s sake.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“Jer, how you getting home? Where are you staying tonight?”
“Come out for a nightcap and I’ll tell you. Besides I’ve got something for you.” Jeremy looked down at the stolen guitar balancing on his knee. “A present,” he added.
“I can’t tonight, Jer. I already told Jacqui I’m on my way home.”
The line beeped a warning. Time was running out.
“I’m across from the Navy Yards. Terrance, please come meet me? I swear Otherwise we’ll never talk.”
“Can’t tonight, Jer. Besides, I’m all talked out.”
“My phone is dead. Don’t cut me off,” Jeremy yelled but he was out of time. The call dropped. He banged the receiver against the notch and bowed his head. The longer he lingered; the cold steel frame of the booth began to chill his face, leaving a red mark. Jeremy looked through the too-dark night, shivering lonely. He staggered toward the river, dragging the guitar case behind him. He sat down on the rotten wood bench overlooking the water. As if he’d sat there before, someone had carved a “J” in the wormwood. He unzipped the case and brought out his trophy. Out of tune, he tinkered with the pegs until surround sounds emerged and chords rang wholesome. The guitar was beautiful. Light’s out, Jeremy picked prayers and hummed melodies. Looking out, he wished the city lights would dim as though he were on stage, offering some semblance of darkness. Flickering regrets, the best he could do was strum old tunes, his voice fading to whispers.