When we come out of the evening and into the Kinsmen Field House, people are mostly sitting in their seats. I drag Paula up front to the stage. I look back, and everyone is draining down the aisle toward us, like we’re a bathtub plug that’s just been pulled.
The hall goes black, then the lights come up on treble chops. Twelve.
There he is. Feet planted together, right leg jerking with each chop like he’s trying to stomp change out of a hole in his pocket. Pointy-toed Docs, black jeans, pink socks. Cowboy shirt with the sleeves cut off, white star in a red circle on the t-shirt underneath.
When the bass line comes in, it rolls up like a hearse.
Paula thrusts her mouth to my ear and screams, “Oh my God I want to fuck him.”
I’m thinking, “I want to be him.”
I nail the first line, sing along so I’m part of the band. The war is declared and I nail it.
The girl I’m with, Paula, she got the tickets. She offered one to my cousin, who is an asshole. He didn’t want it.
She’s seen him pick me up after work. He flirts like it’s involuntary: “Anything that squats to pee,” he says, giggling like I’m going to agree with him.
Yesterday, Paula came into the tube room. We have summer jobs at the Sears catalogue warehouse in Regina. Mine is to stand in front of a rack of pneumatic tubes, flip open the dirty plastic canister that pops out, read the order, stuff the canister back up the tube, go fill the order, come back, and do it again. It’s noisy, mindless, and pays more than minimum; it’s mine because my mom used to work in customer service before she went on disability.
At the end of yesterday’s shift, Paula followed me to the parking lot. She’s tall, with a flat bum like she’s on her back too much, and has really big breasts, so my cousin has his eyes on them when he says to me, “Get in back.”
He looks at her shirtfront and turns the music up loud. When she leans in to shout, I see her mouth moving, but I can’t hear her until my cousin punches the radio button. Then she’s yelling, “—tomorrow night in Edmonton?”
Then, more normal, “Do you wanna go?”
My cousin frowns. “I don’t do that punk shit.”
“I’ll go,” I yelp from the back seat.
Paula looks confused but says, “Okay. We have to get the ninethirty bus.” She steps back from the car and does a fingertip wave.
My cousin turns the music up again and we pull onto Albert Street.
At home, he parks so close to the garage that I have to walk behind the car to get to the house. He’s already opening his door and getting out, and he meets me behind the car. Grabbing my arms above the elbows, he says, “Gotcha!” like it’s a game. He gets his face in close to mine and hisses, “What do you think you’re up to?” He jerks his arms in around me and my feet leave the ground. My breath leaves my lungs in an ugly grunt. “Your fucking problem,” he says, “is you’re always trying to be different.”
“Don’t even think of fucking going.”
But I do.
Next morning, I go to my boss and say, “I’ve got to leave at nine for the doctor’s.”
“No way, José,” my boss says, not raising his head. His scalp and hair are the same colour. “You know you change shifts twentyfour hours in advance. Besides,” he says, looking at me over the top of his glasses, keeping his chins pressed into his neck, “Paula already used that excuse.” He stares at my head for a long while, until I unclip my ID badge, put it on the counter and say, “All right. I quit.” He frowns deeper in surprise.
By nine twenty, I’m in a Greyhound seat beside Paula. She has a mickey of Southern Comfort. She wants to talk about my cousin. The ride is ten and a half hours long.
“What’s he like?”
“A jerk,” I say. “Exactly like a jerk. He listens to shitty music and doesn’t smoke dope.”
“I like his car,” she says.
“Uh huh.” It’s my mom’s car, but I don’t tell her.
“We went driving around last night,” she offers, “after we dropped you off.”
“Yeah. We went to Wascana Park and drank some beers and then we went back to your place.” She giggles. “I gave him a blow job.”
I already know this.
“Why’d you do that to your hair?” Paula says.
“I don’t know. Felt like it.”
“Your cousin is cool,” she says.
I say, “He doesn’t like punk.”
“Neither do I,” she says.
“Why’d you buy tickets?” I ask.
“I didn’t.” My heart skips a beat. “I stole them from my sister. She’s going to shit.”
I hate this girl. I feel sorry for her sister. But I’m glad I’m going.
“So, let’s get drunk!” she says.
“No thanks,” I say, turning my face into the seat, shutting my eyes.
The bass line rolls up the tail end of the song, and a rooster crows.
Last night, after my cousin and Paula dropped me off, I sat on a kitchen chair beside my mom’s bed in the living room. The hospital bed didn’t leave room for a couch. I turned her onto her side, made sure her arm wasn’t stuck underneath. I watched Love Boat, put Vaseline on her lips. I ate some soup then watched MASH, holding her hand. She didn’t wake up, or come to or whatever it’s called, when I kissed her forehead and checked her IV. We call it the living room even though she’s dying in it.
A guitar string hammers Morse code short short short long long long short short short—just like on the record. Ess oh ess. Ess oh ess.
My mom’s hair never did grow back in. When she was allowed to come home, nobody expected her to last more than a few weeks. My cousin was still working at his job when he moved in to help out.
I hold my mom’s hand, listen to her breathing and mine, and think, “What a knob. It’s not about going. It’s about coming back.”
Darkness. Then the spy-movie guitar riff, and a single spotlight picks him out. He grabs the neck of his guitar, peels it off over his head. He raises it high and, without looking, hurls it straightarmed into the dark behind him. He grabs the mike, growls, “Driiiiiiive.” Boomboom. “Drive.” Boomboom.
When I hear my cousin come in the back door, I turn the TV up. Even so, I can hear his voice, and then a laugh in reply. After a while, I go down the dark hallway toward the bathroom. I have to pass my cousin’s room. The door is open. They’re not in there.
I walk down the hallway. The light from the TV in the living room flickers on the walls so that it’s all underwater blue. Everything feels slow as I get closer to my room. The door is open and what I see first is Paula’s dirty foot soles. Her toes are curled under, and she rocks slightly on her knees. Her bum is covered by her skirt, but she has no shirt on. She’s got her arms on the bed, hands in fists, and he’s holding her head down.
My cousin’s eyes are aimed at me so I stop and figure out too late that he isn’t seeing me. Then he is.
The Kinsmen House is full of screaming but everyone shuts up when Joe Strummer knee-drops to the stage. He falls forward and grinds the side of his face into the floor, holding the mike down. He tells it: “Baby, baby, won’t you hear my plea.” He says it again, like a hiccup, like a sob. Everyone starts screaming again.
Beside me, Paula bawls to nobody in particular. “I wanna fuck him! I wanna fuck him!”
“Why don’t you just fuck everyone then, you fucking hosebag!” I scream at her, hurting my throat. She opens and closes her mouth, all happy, like I’ve said something nice. She holds her fisted hands out, both thumbs up, waggles them like we’re thinking the same thing. She hasn’t heard me at all.
My cousin’s eyes fasten onto me. He locks his elbows, ramming his hands into my old bedspread. He’s pumping so fast that his chin points at me—you, you, you—with each thrust. I try to stop looking, try to make my feet move. I want to go back to my mom, but when my feet do start moving, they take me down the hall to the bathroom. I go in and lock the door, slide down with my back against it, onto the cold tile.
I sit there for a long time. I run a bath but don’t get in it. I’m glad the TV is on loud.
After I figure they’ve gone, I open the door. The hallway is dark. It’s quiet.
Back in the living room, I find out why: for some reason my asshole cousin has turned the TV off.
Also, my mom’s not breathing.
Joe Strummer is on his hands and knees, circling the mike. He puts his mouth close so his lips are touching it. “Baby, baby won’t you hear my plea?”
Her IV is still in place. For a long time I sit in the dark living room. Her face looks calm. I bolt the front door and the back door, hoping that bastard will stay out all night.
I get into my mom’s bed with her, stay there all night.
In the morning, the house is cold. My mom is cold. Even though I know she can’t feel it, I tuck the blankets in around her arms and legs. The bones, bone thin.
In the bathroom, I use scissors to get my hair short all over, then a safety razor on the sides to get down to the skin. It makes me look more like my mom.
He stays low on the stage. I can almost touch his Mohawk. His left arm is jack-knifed back, choking the mike stand. When he whips himself up to standing, the sweat from his face and hair splashes my fingertips.
He leaps for the mike. “She ain’t coming back!”
Squeezed upright beside me, Paula is danced up and down by the press of the crowd.
“She ain’t never coming back!”
I am happy. I wish I could raise myself up higher so Joe could see my Brigade Rosse shirt. I bob my head so hard it hurts my neck.
I know I am not Joe Strummer. He is the frontman of the only band that matters, and I am a teenage girl from Saskatchewan.
The stage edge cuts under my arms as I reach. The drummer counts it in, “One-two-three-four!” Drums and bass crash into each other. Feedback slices like a bullwhip overhead, lasts as long as the sting of a whip might. The drummer plays like he’s sprinting on the spot.
Joe Strummer turns his head to listen to something, mouths, “What the fuck?” Nods at what he hears—was it Cincinnati?—then nods at the bass player, who is all long legs, leather, and biceps.
The pressure of the crowd is too much. I push back, use my elbows.
Instead of more room, I suddenly have less. I am vised between bodies that piston up and down, squeezing me off the ground. Paula is five or six people away. I reach my hand to her. She’s yelling straight up into the air. My breath is pressed from me. My arms are on the stage, but my vision is going funny.
“Hey, hey,” cries Joe, then, clang buzz scrack. The music grinds to a halt. “Fucking bedlam, innit? Shut it off.”
I think the music has stopped, but I could be going unconscious or into a dying dream, because Joe Strummer and a roadie each have one of my arms. They are scraping me over the edge of the stage, my ribs a xylophone. My studded belt catches on the stage edge, and for a second I am stuck. Scrape of metal fly, kneecaps, shins. Then over, and I am beached on stage.
I try to stumble up, get my feet and knees under me. A hand is on my arm. I reach up.
I have hold of Joe Strummer’s forearm. He looks right into my eyes. Doesn’t smile, just looks.
His eyes are narrowed. His mouth is opened slightly, jaw relaxed. I can see the tip of his tongue.
He’s busy, that’s all. Saving people, I think.
Then he smiles, showing shark teeth.
The drummer counts in “Clampdown” again. The ones who have been hauled to safety onto the stage, stranded punks like me, start to dance, heads banging, washed by feedback.
Joe Strummer smiles maybe at the white star on my red shirt, maybe at my straight leg jeans, at my hair, I don’t know what. He pulls me to standing, puts one hand on either side of my head, where the skin is still smooth from last night, draws my head toward his, ducks so that his forehead touches mine, resting together, keeps his hands on the sides of my head and shrugs his shoulders so I know to put my hands up, too. I wonder what it must look like from the audience, what we look like with our foreheads together and our Mohawks touching. The subsonic growl rhyme that should come next in the song doesn’t because Joe Strummer is whispering instead, whispering and whispering to me only, so that his breath dries the sweat from our skin. He rolls his forehead against mine and whispers and breathes, and what he says is so low that I already know it will take me years to figure it out. For a moment, he lets his cheek rest in my open palm.
Then everything drops out.
Kick snare kick snare kick snare kick snare kick snare kick snare kick snare kick.
Joe’s hands let go, and he lunges to the mike: “What are ya gonna do now?”
I let my lungs fill with air, and it feels like the first breath I’ve drawn in twenty-four hours. So I draw another breath. And another. And another.
– Janette Platana was born and raised in Saskatchewan and now lives in Small Town Ontario, where she writes, plays music, and makes short films. Her writing has been published in Canada, the United States, and Turkey. She is grateful for the support of the Ontario Arts Council, the Canada Council, and the Chalmers Foundation.
Copyright © 2014 by Janette Platana from A Token of My Affliction. Reprinted by permission of Tightrope Books.