(In Two Parts)

I'm sitting in the sleazy grimy Greyhound station waiting for the bus to New York, and I'm thinking: it was "My Fair Lady" that screwed up Todd's mind. That was the turning point; before he played Henry Higgins he was a straight kid who never cut classes or smoked weed or mouthed off to teachers. All the applause he got made him dizzy, and instead of going to music college like he planned to he decided to be a rock star. He went to New York City, just threw himself into the middle of everything to see where he'd end up. Which I thought was amazingly great. I just never thought it would be Todd, of all my friends, to go and really do this.

Now he's in a band and they're supposed to play their first gig tomorrow night, and the bassist is sick and can't make it. Which is why Todd called me, and which is why I'm heading for New York. I wish I had time to get myself in the right mental state, to get rid of the weird nervous feeling in my stomach. I always thought Todd was half-nerd and that I was his guide when it came to anything cool, but now he's in the city playing in a band and I'm a college student writing papers on Plato and Aristotle, which makes me think maybe I lost it and Todd is cooler than I am. A scary feeling. I catch my reflection in a bagel stand's clear plastic shield: I've got neat moussed hair, no dirt under my fingernails ... I'm a fucking Connecticut wet dream. I try to mess my hair up with my fingers but the gel I used this morning refuses to give up control and now I just look like an idiot. An old lady is looking at me. I curl my lip and stare her down. I decide I need cigarettes. I don't smoke, but I'm desperate to change my image. I buy a pack of Marlboros and light one up. It tastes good. I stub it out on the back of the seat in front of me, watching the antiseptic sea green molded plastic congeal into burnt black bubbles.

I step off the bus in New York City with the best bad-ass expression I can come up with on my face, and catch the subway to Atlantic and Flatbush in Brooklyn. I walk six blocks to the apartment where Todd is staying and he buzzes me upstairs. I step up to his door and he swings it open and doesn't even say hello; instead he leaps at me and whirls me inside and drops me on a couch. "Thank fucking god you're here," he says. He starts trying to force a large black Fender bass guitar under my armpits.

"Todd!" I yell. "Calm down! Say hello for fuck's sake! Offer me a drink or something!"

"Oh," he says. "Yeah, hello. Shit, I'm hyper."

I kick my sneakers off. "Aren't you gonna ask me how my trip was?"

"Yeah, yeah. How was your trip?"

"It sucked." Todd doesn't hear my answer, and I allow him to strap the black bass around me and plug it into the amp. He manages to do this despite the fact that his own guitar is hanging from his shoulders by a strap. He checks his tuning and looks at me pleadingly. "Todd," I say. "You don't wanna play some music or anything, do you?"

"Shit, man," he says. "I'm dying. I'm so nervous. This fucking thing with Spencer getting sick has me so damn mad. You know, I was nervous enough already. And the fucking dickhead isn't even sick. He's got the fucking sniffles. Man, I've been a lot sicker than he is without it slowing me down ... I can't believe he did this to us the day before our first gig."

"Okay," I say. "But just calm down. Look at you. I can't learn songs with you hyper like this."

Todd takes a deep breath. "Okay. Okay. Sorry."

"Anyway, maybe Spencer's just chickening out," I said. "Maybe he's afraid to go onstage."

Todd gives me a long, significant look. "Maybe," he says. "I've been thinking the same damn thing."

Todd's had a lot of trouble finding good people to play with. For his first six months in New York he was bummed out playing lead guitar in a Pink Floyd copy band called Eclipse. He wrote me letters about the drummer who couldn't figure out the beat on "Money," who kept pacing the room babbling about 13/8 and 26/15 time signatures as if his crummy drumming was a mathematical puzzle he could solve in his mind. Finally Todd dumped this crew and hooked up with a decent drummer named Ragusa. Together they found Spencer the bassist, and this completed their band.

I check the tuning on the bass and play the beginning notes of "Dazed and Confused." I don't play rock bass at all; the only reason Todd thinks I'm a bassist is that I used to play classical bass, and I wasn't even good at that. I played classical bass because I was told to in third grade. One day Mrs. Pearsall stuck her hands under my armpits, lifted me up and placed me on a wooden platform in front of a six-foot-tall instrument. She instructed me how to put my arms around the instrument and caress its wide womanly waist, even broader than my mother's or Mrs. Pearsall's, and she held her hand over mine to show me how to stroke a horsehair bow across the glittering thick steel strings. I did everything Mrs. Pearsall told me to do and she made a big fuss over me and said I could play Carnegie Hall someday if I worked hard enough at it. I held the first seat in the junior orchestra during seventh, eighth and ninth grades, and Todd was first violin. After ninth grade we joined the senior orchestra, but now instead of nice Mrs. Pearsall we had mean Mr. Minkof. He was a skinny angry guy with greasy black hair falling over his forehead who had a Ph.D. from the Harvard Music Department and was furious that he hadn't become a famous performer. He hated me because I was one of the crowd that smoked pot in the fields by the bike stands between classes. I came into his class late one day with a pretzel in my hand and a goofy smile on my face. Mr. Minkof went insane and descended on me like a "Fliedermaus" and smacked me on my cheek and sent me sprawling onto the floor on my ass. It totally shocked me and I sat there with my cheek stinging and my arms and legs spread out on the floor, and I started to scream "You asshole!" but I was so stunned my words came out in a choked sob, and the story went around that day that I was crying. Mr. Minkof got in trouble for hitting me, but I still hated him so much I never took a music class again.

Todd is still standing over me waiting to rehearse. "Todd," I say. "There's something I've always wanted to ask you. You liked Mr. Minkof, didn't you?"

"What?" he says. "Why are you talking about Mr. Minkof? We gotta get going here. Can I start the tape?"

"This is a serious question," I say, intending to drag this out as much as possible. I love watching Todd get frustrated. "If I'm going to play music with you it's important that we demolish any barriers that stand between us and prevent us from truly rocking out. This has been buggin' me since tenth grade. Did you really like him or were you just kissing his ass all that time? You liked him, didn't you? Just admit it."

Todd flaps his arms in desperation, willing to give me any answer I want but not knowing what answer I want. "I liked him," he says.

"You fucking slimeball bastard," I say. "I knew it! You traitor! How could you like him? Why?"

"He believed in music," Todd says with finality. "Now. I'm starting the tape. The bass is already in perfect tune. I tuned it while I was waiting for you. First song's in D."

"You don't have to tell me what key it's in," I say. The tape starts. The first song is a fast Primus kind of thing, cheaply recorded with a single mike. Todd watches as I start plucking at notes until I find the bassline. It's a simple progression, D to E minor for the verse and a chorus of D, G and A.

I feel better once I realize I know how to play, and after the first song Todd breathes a sigh of relief. "So how the fuck is college going, anyway?" he asks me.

"About the same," I say. "It's college."

"Why don't you blow it off and be our new bassist? We need somebody who isn't a dickhead like Spencer. You're a dickhead too but we'll take you anyway."

"Todd," I say. "I don't know how to play bass."

"Yes you do," he says. He starts up the second song, which has an even easier bassline. This one is called "Quiet Mystery," and I start to pay attention to the words Todd is singing on the tape.

A network of secrets that you spin like a web
I stand at your ocean but the tide does ever ebb
I want you here beside me but you're way too far to see
I gaze through a haze at your quiet mystery.
"Shit, Todd," I say. "You wrote this stuff?"

"Yeah," he says, embarrassed.

I smile and shake my head. "You think things like this? Man, you're fucked up. You better get some professional help."

He shrugs. "I don't even know what I'm writing, I don't know what it means. I think I should see a shrink myself when I read some of the shit I write." He plops down in front of me what looks like a white $2.49 nylon-covered photo album from Woolworth's. I open it and see page after page of handwritten lyrics under clear plastic photo sheets. Some are illustrated with crayon sketches or magazine photo collages. I see a section labeled "Fuck You Poems" illustrated with a bleeding black heart and a color yearbook photo of Todd in his nerd mode, clean V-neck sweater over a nylon shirt, hair neatly combed, in the middle of the heart. The first poem begins "Fuck you mom, fuck you dad," and Todd stutteringly tries to turn the page, pretending he wants me to see something he wrote on a different page, I guess because he realizes that I know his Mom and Dad, who are actually fairly cool people.

There's a knock on the door and it's Ragusa, the drummer. Ragusa has bleached blond hair cut so short that at first I think he's bald. He sits and stares at me like he doesn't like me. I think of a joke I once heard: what do you call a guy who likes to hang out with musicians? A drummer. Todd starts the tape for the third song, and while I work out the bass line Ragusa takes two plastic Chinese Restaurant chopsticks from his jacket pocket and starts to play a beat on the coffee table.

We get through both sides of the tape and smoke a joint. Todd turns off the tape player and we start to jam for a while. Ragusa tip-taps away with his chopsticks on the coffee table and performs cymbal crashes on the lamp. When we hear the lock turn in the front door Todd jumps up. "Shit! I forgot to tell you, I don't live here. I'm sponging off my brother, and the other two people who live here are kind of pissed off about it. We gotta get out of their way."

"Who are the other two people?" I ask.

He listens to the heavy footsteps as somebody opens the door and steps inside. "That sounds like Wayne," he says. "He's just some guy, a lawyer or something, I don't really know much about him. I don't think he likes me." We gather our guitars and picks and patch cords and poetry books into our arms and get it all into Todd's brother's bedroom and slam the door behind us just as we hear footsteps enter the living room.

"Who's the other person who lives here?" I ask.

"This girl Tara. She does modern dance or something. She doesn't really talk to me either. I just try to stay out of their way."

"How did your brother meet them?"

"An ad in the Village Voice."

"Wow," I say. "Just like 'The Real World,' except MTV isn't filming it."

Todd sneaks into the kitchen and returns with a two-foot-high plastic bag of potato chips and three bottles of Miller Beer. We go over some more songs until Ragusa goes home. At ten- thirty Todd's brother Paul arrives from work. Paul works as a computer programmer for a Wall Street bank, and he peels his suit off as he walks into the room. He is tall and thin and more serious looking than Todd, with a trimmed beard and red weary eyes from staring at computer screens all day. I see that he and Todd have a thing worked out that Todd doesn't speak to Paul until Paul has finished changing into a t-shirt and gym shorts and calling his girlfriend. "Paul hates his job," Todd whispers to me as Paul mutters into the phone across the room.

"Why doesn't he quit?" I whisper back.

"He makes pretty good money."

Paul hangs up the phone and asks where I'm going to sleep. Todd shows him how he's rearranged the blankets on the floor to make room for both of us. Paul shows me the Motorola beeper he'd taken off his belt when he came in. "It might go off in the middle of the night if there's a systems problem at the bank," he tells me. "If that happens I'm gonna have to turn the light on and log in from here until I fix it."

"How often does that happen?" I ask.

"Couple of times a month. Probably won't happen tonight."

Todd hands Paul a joint and Paul takes a long hit, exhaling and staring into space with his raccoon-ringed eyes. "I'm beat," he says. He gestures towards a gigantic record and CD collection spanning an entire wall and asks if I want to pick out an album. I stand up and study his collection. He's got as many records as a small record store. About half are bootlegs, and I find stuff I never knew existed: U2 in Japan, Neil Young at the Bottom Line, the Beatles at Shea Stadium. "I never knew there was a Beatles at Shea Stadium bootleg," I say.

"There's a bootleg of most anything you can think of," he says. "Especially if you're willing to spend your entire fucking salary on it like I do."

He pulls himself up from the bed to show me something in his Bob Dylan section. "See this bootleg?" he says. "This was recorded at the Coffee Grinder. That's where you're playing tomorrow night."

"You're kidding," I say. "You mean we're playing one of those historic old Village clubs? Shit, now I'm even more scared."

"Ah, don't worry. The place is a dump. Once Dylan got famous he never played there again."

I look at the album cover, cheaply printed with a xerox of a skinny young Bob Dylan playing guitar in front of a brick wall. The club date is March 1961. "Can we hear it?" I say.

"Sure." We listen to the first three songs, but Paul and Todd are both tired and want to sleep. I'm still wide awake, so Todd, his eyes closing, suggests I go into the living room and watch TV.

I step out of the bedroom and see a pretty brown-haired woman sitting in the dark watching "Love Connection" on TV and eating Ben and Jerry's Fudge Brownie Frozen Yogurt slowly with a spoon.

"Oh," I say. "Hi."

She stares at me like she just turned on the kitchen light and I'm a cockroach running across her stove. "Ohh," she finally drawls, understanding that I'm yet another person there to sponge off Paul.

"I'm Jonathan," I say. "I'm sitting in with Todd's band tomorrow."

"Todd has a band?" she says blandly, and I realize that the bare minimum of communication has not taken place between the people currently living in this apartment.

"Yeah," I say. "Is it all right if I sit out here?"

"Not really," she says. "But I don't want to make you sit out in the hall so I guess I have no choice."

I sit on the chair farthest away from her and face the TV. The wavy-haired California boy in the middle chair says "When the night began she was tame as a kitten but after two drinks she was wild as a tiger." Chuck Woolery smirks and the audience goes crazy. Tara licks the matte silver surface of the bottom of her spoon. I think about the gig tomorrow night.

(Continue to End of Story)

Queensboro Ballads
by Levi Asher