Silver Paint and Cigarettes

The man’s face was painted silver. Thick, shiny silver. He wore a black jacket over a flannel shirt, and he had a Saints ball cap pulled low on his head. Blue jeans, tennis shoes. He leaned against a wall and took a long drag on a cigarette, blowing the smoke out in a long stream, and a low sigh exited his lips as he stood there. Then I noticed that his hands were painted silver too.

I leaned over to Mike. “Look!” I spoke in an excited whisper. The man took another long drag on his cigarette, blowing the smoke out, and then he began walking down the block, away from us. Mike took brief notice, then looked back down at his phone, disinterested. But I was fascinated by this man.

“He must have been one of those guys who does street performances. He paints himself silver and stands there not moving like a statue and people stand in front of him and take pictures and give him tips and stuff. He’s one of those guys.”

Mike used his phone to navigate us to our destination, a little supper club space a few blocks off of Bourbon Street. We entered an old building with sparse decor. A band sat right inside the entrance, playing old blues songs, and the perfect mix of the percussion, the clarinet, the bass, and the piano arrested my senses. The man at the piano crooned softly into a microphone, his voice reminiscent of Louis Armstrong. (But somehow in this setting it made me think more of King Louis in Disney’s the Jungle Book). My foot started tapping as I surveyed the room. A simple bar with a bartender named Jory who was dressed like some kind of 1950s pin-up girl as she deftly mixed drinks for the small crowd. A few scattered tables and stools with six or so people spread among them, all listening to the music. No one had their phones out, and that struck me almost more than anything.

“Oh, this is perfect,” I whispered to myself. Just a few blocks away there were hundreds of people swarming up and down the street in vast crowds, tripping over each other, half-drunk. They clamored from bar to bar, shop to shop, on the street full of singers, crooners, and musicians, with a different club every thirty feet, each with its own oyster or crawfish specialities, its own drinks, its own music with horns and drums and lead singers. But this place, with this handful of people, just far enough of the beaten path, was somehow perfect.

I ordered a drink from the bar, something with rum and gin and ginger beer and cherry juice and orange peel, and as Jory began shaking it all together in a metal cup, the band started a new number. The piano shifted into the upper octaves, the bass thumped out a deep resonant strain, and the percussion shifted into some wood-block-tapping sound. I turned as the clarinet began its song, and my spirit soared with it. I took my drink and joined Mike at the table.

“This. Is. Perfect.” I repeated with emphasis, and he laughed.

“Happy 40th birthday vacation weekend,” he smiled, gripping my hand, and I laughed. We clinked our drinks together, and the clarinet soared around our heads as we sipped in celebration.

One song later, I looked up to see a cop ride by on horseback, clip-clopping through the French Quarter a literal head and shoulders above everyone else.

I leaned in to Mike. “Where else would you see that?

He twisted his lips up the way he does when he’s about to make a joke. Banter is one of the very best parts of our relationship. “Canada,” he replied.

“No, they ride moose there.” I wiggled my eyebrows.

Mike rolled his eyes. “You can’t tame a moose.”

“Well, I did,” I stated, then stroked his hand affectionately, like I was petting a dog.

“Hey! I’m not a moose!”

He jabbed at me as I simply took another sip of my drink. “Aw, I made the moose upset. Look at his cute little waaaaaaah-tlers.”

Mike broke, laughing, and the singer started crooning again. There was a growl in his voice, and it made me want to snarl in the very best ways.

We went for a walk after that, weaving around the side streets of the French Quarter, with its small and beautiful homes, its waving flags, its low lights. We passed no less than six gay clubs and fifteen supper clubs, and people were crammed into every one of them, watching the Saints play football. We heard whoops and shouts and laughter, and we held hands as we walked.

We ended up back at the same club, wanting just a bit more, and saw the band was on break. Jory waved at us as we arrived, outside on her cigarette break, and I smiled. Taking a seat at the same table. I watched the four men from the band at the bar. Two wore straw hats. The singer had dreadlocks. I wondered what their lives were like. They had wives and children, day jobs, families, and here they were on a Thursday night playing incredible music for this tiny crowd for no other reason than that they loved it. Between sets, they checked text messages, had idle conversation, had a quick drink. At the end of the night, they’d go back home by bike or in a cab, and they’d sleep before their alarms went off for the workday in the morning.

Soon after, Mike and I headed back to our Airbnb, tired from the long flight and the time change, the walking and the humidity. And I thought of that man, the statue performer. I thought of him posing with drunk people in photos for tips. The put on his jeans, his jacket, his hat, then snuck around a corner for a cigarette break, still in his silver paint. I thought of the silver paint from his lips on the cigarette, of the silver swirls that must permanently stain around his shower drain, of the canister of silver body and face paint that must stack up on the side of his bathroom, of the cigarette smoke rising slowly in the air before disappearing. Evanescent. Just like me.

Silver

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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the Band Bus

 

 

 

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As the bus sped along the southern Idaho freeway, hurtling toward home, I looked outside at the dark horizon and yawned. I was exhausted.

I was 16 years old, and a sophomore in high school. Early that morning, all of the members of the high school pep band had gathered at the high school and boarded the bus, and then we had driven several hours from south-eastern Idaho to south-western Idaho, where we played upbeat songs for a sports team during their match. The school fight song, “Wooly Bully”, “the Hey Song”, and other inane tunes still blared in my brain during the long drive home. My clarinet was safely tucked into its case underneath the seat.

Sarah sat next to me, a senior. She played the flute. I didn’t know her well, but I’d always found her nice. She was quiet, a good Mormon girl, modest, friendly. Pretty in a homely kind of way. Toward the back of the bus were the more raucous kids, wild with laughter and teasing each other, blasting music and playing cards. Sarah and I sat at the front of the bus, among other kids who just wanted a quiet easy ride. The unspoken rule was that the more well-behaved students sat closest to the bus driver, and the more wild ones sat farther away.

The bussed had lulled into a steady dark drive, only occasional chatter now. I wasn’t really aware of anyone around me. I just felt the vibrations of the wheels against the road and listened to the sounds of traffic, and I pulled the pillow I’d brought from home up next to me, resting it against the window and pressing my head snugly into it. We wouldn’t be home until past 2 am, and I hoped to sleep the rest of the way. Sarah had a pillow also, and after trying it out behind her head and then on the seat in front of her, she asked nicely if she could rest it against my arm.

“That’s fine,” I yawned again, and she pressed the pillow against me and was soon sleeping. I fell asleep not long after that.

A few hours later, I woke up as the bus pulled into the high school parking lot, a building designed, on purpose, to look like a spud cellar, a building that housed potato on farms. Our high school mascot was a potato, and the architect had apparently felt this would show school spirit. I slowly came aware and realized that Sarah’s pillow had shifted downward until it was in my lap, and she lay there sleeping soundly, bent at the waist. My pillow, meanwhile, had moved to her shoulder, and I had been sleeping soundly there. I tapped her on the shoulder, indicating that we had arrived, and we both gathered our things and got off the bus, stretching the kinks out of our backs and necks along with everyone else. It the the middle of the night, and winter, and I pulled my coat tightly around me. As pre-arranged, a friend gave me a ride home, and I immediately went inside, changed to pajamas, and went to sleep.

School was back in the next day, so I only slept a few hours. I woke up at 7, got ready, and headed in for my usual schedule of classes. History, Math, English, Economics, lunch, Seminary, Band, Theater. The day felt a lot like it normally did, routine and easy. I did my homework, bantered with my friends at lunch, and visited my locker to change books between classes.

It helped that things at home were quiet right now, routine. It had been a few weeks since Kent, my step-father, had lost his temper and thrown all of my mom’s things out on the front lawn, screaming insults and terrible things to her while Sheri, my little sister, and I had cowered in our rooms. Usually, after one of his violent and angry spells, things got really good for a while. Kent was a great father figure in between those spells. He made meals, took us to movies, and planned family events. There was always the threat of another storm, but for now things were okay, and being at school felt safe.

And then it was time for band class. I entered and took my seat in the row of clarinet players, getting out my instrument, assembling it, and attaching my reed. With the flutes in front of me and the saxophones behind me, we waited for the band leader, Mr. Marr, to begin class. He walked out of his office, took his place in front of us, and then started to yell.

“It has come to my attention from those who chaperoned your pep band trip that some of you in this room took advantage of the fact that I was not there to engage in inappropriate behavior! The things I heard about some of you doing on the bus last night were unacceptable! Reports like the ones I received, they do not reflect the morals and standards of this band at this school! And if you think I don’t know your names, then you are wrong, I hear things. I know what happened between people like Chad and Sarah on that bus!”

He continued yelling, but I didn’t hear another word. My head filled with cotton and my stomach immediately became nauseous. What was he talking about? What had he heard? That we fell asleep in the same seats? Had someone made up a rumor about us? My heart was thudding wildly as he stopped yelling and angrily lead us through our band routines for our upcoming concert.

For the rest of class, I only pretended to play. I couldn’t calm down. I’d felt all those eyes on me, some of confusion, some of concern. A few times, Sarah had looked back at me, her face pale, and we’d exchanged looks of utter bafflement. What had he heard?

In time, the bell rang, and people made their way out of the room toward their next classes, having only four minutes to get there. I put my instrument away and waited as the room emptied. Then I walked over toward Mr. Marr’s office to ask him what he had heard.

Without even waiting for me to speak, he looked up at me from his desk. “I don’t want to hear it, Chad. What you did was not okay, and today is not the day to talk to me about it. Try next week when I’ve calmed down.”

My mouth was dry. “But, sir, I didn’t do–Sarah and I barely even– we didn’t–” I was stammering, unable to finish a thought.

“I said not today! I don’t want your excuses! Now go!”

He shouted and I rushed from the room. My fingers were shaking as I fumbled at my locker, putting my instrument away and grabbing supplies for my last class. I felt like running away. Being yelled at like that, it felt too familiar, like everything that was going on at home, me being screamed at when I hadn’t done anything wrong. I walked on autopilot into the theater class, seventh period, and took my seat in the front row. The bell rang and students around me were laughing and chatting. I just clutched the desk, my heart in my stomach, my skin tingling, feeling nauseous.

Mr. B, the drama teacher, stood in front of the class to introduce what we would be doing that day, but he didn’t get far before the tears started falling from my eyes. I sat there and wrapped my arms around myself, hoping no one would notice, but then I started crying harder. Little gasps escaped my mouth, and a sob escaped my throat, and suddenly I was sobbing, quietly and then more loudly. I gripped my desk and bent my head forward and just sobbed, my body overcome with anxiety at the same time. And then the sob was a small wail.

Mr. B emptied the classroom quickly, moving everyone into the auditorium, instructing my friends Lynda and Jill to stay with me. One grabbed tissues while the other rubbed my back, telling me it was fine, it was fine, what’s wrong, you’re okay, it’s okay, calm down, you’ll be fine. A minute passed, then two, and then my stomach seized, and I bolted out of my chair and rushed down the hallway, making it to the bathroom just in time to vomit.

Jill and Lynda waited for me outside and walked me back to the classroom, where Lynda asked me, “What in the hell is going on?”

I bit my lip, unsure what to say. “Just, things aren’t great at home, and just got in trouble in band for something I don’t even know what, and I’m tired and–”

Within 20 minutes I was home. I ignored Kent when I entered, said I wasn’t feeling well, and went to bed, my puppy sleeping on my knees. Sarah and I never talked about what happened. I never again asked Mr. Marr what he heard. And while I’d never had a breakdown like that before, I still had a few more to go before Kent was out of our lives once and for all.