In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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On the first night of our band’s “Collingwood Tour,” somebody broke into our LTD station wagon in the parking lot of the Snowdrop Motel. The next morning we gathered around the jimmied door while my mother told the investigating officer over and over how relieved she was that the thieves had known so little about musical equipment. Otherwise they would have stolen her boyfriend Ken’s Mesa Boogie amp instead of his beat-up MXR effects pedals, his vintage Les Paul guitar instead of his Takamine acoustic, our Shure microphones instead of our ancient mixer. Kids were responsible, she speculated: lowlife druggies, hurried and stupid, who’d grabbed what they could carry. Mom kept talking even after the officer had gone and her only audience was Ken, my older sister Caroline, and I.
“They did us a favor,” Mom explained, stroking Ken’s back. “We would have had to replace that mixer soon anyway. And those pedals were ugly. We can always upgrade.”
Ken leaned on the LTD’s fender, smoked, and showed no outward concern over what we’d lost.
An hour earlier, when I’d first looked over Ken’s shoulder into our pillaged vehicle, I’d felt a brief, furtive hope that the thieves had also taken the white Fender Precision bass Mom and Ken had given me ten months earlier for my thirteenth birthday. Or maybe my Peavey amp, bought a month after the bass. But my instrument, in its gig bag, and my amp sat untouched where I’d put them after the previous night’s show. Caroline stared at her untouched drums, and our eyes met long enough for me to suspect she was feeling the same.
“Didn’t that boy you gave lessons to move up here from Toronto?” Mom asked Ken. “Sean? The one with the jazz trio? He had that nice little acoustic, and he might own a mixer too.”
“I’m not borrowing from a former student,” Ken said with mild indignation. He wasn’t a man capable of major emotions, like rage, joy, or despair. He had minor-key emotions, diminished-chord emotions, nuanced and muted.
It took Mom an hour on the phone in our motel room to track down a friend of a friend named Paul, and another hour for Ken and me to drive out to Paul’s in Orillia to pick up his acoustic guitar and mixer. I half dozed in the passenger seat for most of the trip, imagining huge scythes razing the farmhouses and warehouses we passed. I’d volunteered to go along not because I enjoyed Ken’s silent company, but because I needed some time away from Mom and her pep talks and sunny optimism. By now she would be convincing us that the thefts were all part of some providential plan to help us improve and succeed.
It was Mom who had dubbed this our “Collingwood Tour,” though, like all our other so-called tours, it was nothing more than a set of weekend gigs in a backwater town, at whatever venues she’d badgered into booking us. We’d driven up here Friday in a patchy drizzle after school, the station wagon’s cargo area full of gear and our suitcases in a nylon rooftop carrier that lurched forward at each stop. We’d played our brief Friday-night show under a tent at the Blue Mountain Folks and Fun Fest, where we’d been drowned out by the taped music of the teen baton-twirling team on the next stage. Afterward we’d driven back to the motel, dejected, while Mom had enthused about the two shows to come, the final Sunday-afternoon flea-market gig most of all.
Ken and I stopped at Burger King on our way back from Orillia and ate wordlessly in the car. Ken finished before I did and started the engine.
“Shouldn’t we get something for Mom and Caroline?” I asked.
Ken turned and stared at me through his tinted prescription glasses. He’d been dating my mother for more than a year by then, and I’d become used to his dry, abstracted gaze, his gaunt face with its heavy jaw, his scant ponytail that he habitually tugged. I knew it was nothing personal when he stared through me, like he did now as he unfolded his wallet and handed me a five. He waited outside while I went in for the food. Ken was a man who always waited outside, smoking and pacing and staring down roads. He slept in snatches, getting up in the night to play guitar, watch horror movies, or smoke on our apartment’s balcony. Mom explained that he had a restless nature and couldn’t stay indoors for long without feeling “cooped up.” She excused his odd behaviors in a way she’d never done with my father. Then again, my father was not a musician, not an “artist.” Mom always made that clear.
When Ken and I returned, Mom and Caroline were sitting in the diner beside the motel. I offered them the stained bag of burgers, but they had half-eaten grilled cheese sandwiches in front of them. Caroline made a face and shoved the bag away. I sulked. Mom broke the silence: “Well, we’ve learned one thing: we know better than to park the car out of sight again.”
If this was a reproach to Ken, it was a mild one. Mom even smiled after she said it, as if to soften the criticism.
The night before, after our disastrous craft-festival gig, Ken had parked around the corner in the side lot, instead of directly outside our motel room as Mom had urged. When she had insisted he bring the gear inside, he’d ignored her and gone to sleep. Now Mom stared at Ken with a beseeching look, probably waiting for some acknowledgment that she’d been right. None was forthcoming. She smiled grimly. “All that matters is we’re back in action. It will take more than this to stop us. I hope those thieving kids get a hernia carrying that old mixer.” She laughed wickedly. “I hope it blows up in their faces.”
“They didn’t steal it to use it.” Ken’s voice was quiet and authoritative. “They probably traded it for a few cases of beer.”
Caroline gave a snort before her usual indifferent expression returned. Though she despised Ken, she allied with him whenever he opposed my mother. My father had always called Caroline a “shit disturber.” He’d enjoyed this quality in her, this willful need to cause strife. Sometimes I enjoyed it too, for its entertainment value and for how she punctured people’s hypocrisies and pretensions. I wasn’t enjoying it right now, though.
My mother stiffened, and color appeared on her cheekbones.
“It’ll be all right,” I said, though my words sounded so dispirited that Mom gave me a look. I was annoyed that the burden of backing her up had fallen, as usual, on me.
Our Saturday gig was at a music store called Diamond Records. The owner, a stout Pakistani in stained dress pants and flip-flops, seemed totally unprepared for our invasion of his store, which was too small for a live band. He looked on, chagrined, as we set up our speakers and untangled our cords. Mom had likely convinced him over the phone what a great “promotional opportunity” this would be. I had heard her make many such calls in the breakfast nook off our kitchen, charming the owners of pizzerias, roller rinks, and shopping centers. Her pitch made “live music” seem like the ultimate business panacea. “Don’t you think some live music would be a great draw?” she would say. “Wouldn’t your customers love a little live music?”
I set up the amps, speakers, and monitors in a tight space between the register and the back door; then I helped Caroline with her drum kit while Ken fussed over the unfamiliar mixer. Mom arranged her pyramidal wooden stand with her maracas, wood blocks, castanets, tambourine, flute, and piccolo, all suspended from stainless-steel hooks. My father had made the stand for her years before in his basement workshop. It was ingeniously designed and rotated 360 degrees on its base, putting everything precisely within her reach. My mother had viewed my father’s skill at building such contraptions less as an art and more as some idiot-savant trick.
Mom had a cardboard display of albums by Essentials, her old gigging band, and she placed it prominently before us at each show beside a poster-sized image of her in a diaphanous gown, standing on a circular rock in a pond. It was meant to look like some sylvan glade, but I knew it had been shot in the drainage ditch behind her drummer’s apartment building. Our band, the Poplars, had no product of its own, though Mom promised the audience at each show that our debut album was imminent, “as soon as we get some studio time.” She kept a half-page log of advance orders for it. She also kept a standard contract, just in case some vacationing record exec caught our act and wanted to sign us on the spot.
I waited for Ken to finish sullenly tuning the borrowed acoustic so he could tune my bass. He had perfect pitch, and my inability to tune my instrument struck him as some inexplicable handicap. My musical ability didn’t impress him either. He had originally written simplified bass lines for me with the promise that he would come up with more-sophisticated ones later. He’d never bothered to, and I’d never reminded him.
Mom led us through a lengthy sound check, though the owner kept repeating, “Sounds good. Begin. Please begin.” Then she stepped to the microphone and faced the tiny group of shoppers who’d watched us set up. Over the past couple of weeks, her introduction had lengthened incrementally with each gig: by a phrase, a joke, a musing. It was now so long that I felt, by the end, as if someone were slowly driving a knife into my gut.
“Hello, all. I’m Glynn Poplar. We’ve come up here from Toronto to entertain you for the next hour or two. Now, some of you might recognize me from my former musical group, Essentials.” She always paused here for recognition, never showing any sign of discouragement when there was none. “But this is, I must say, my favorite project.” A fond glance over her shoulder now. “We call ourselves the Poplars, and we’re not the Partridge Family, but we do hope you will ‘c’mon, get happy.’ ”
I winced. I had pleaded with Mom dozens of times to remove that stale TV-show reference.
She went on. “This is my husband, Ken, on guitar, and on drums my daughter, Caroline Anne Poplar. And last but not at all least, our most recent addition: my son, Thomas Bertrand Poplar, who eagerly took up the bass this year to help us out.”
I always kept track of the inaccuracies in Mom’s introduction; today there were three: First, we were not from Toronto but from Mississauga, a suburb far removed from downtown. Second, Ken was not her husband, though she had campaigned for them to set a date for some time. They’d had two near misses: an announcement at Christmas that had gone nowhere, and more plans around Valentine’s Day that also had never materialized.
But it was the last inaccuracy that pricked me most. I hadn’t taken up the bass with any enthusiasm but rather had been forced into it through a combination of guilt-tripping, goading, flattery, bullying, and unkept promises. They’d begun the band with just my mother, Ken, and Caroline, but the sound was too thin; it had no bottom end. Ken’s meandering solos sounded stranded, suspended like kites caught in telephone wires. I was a conscript, like Caroline before me, drafted shortly after her fourteenth birthday when Mom first came up with the idea for a family band. Caroline and I knew better than to reveal the true circumstances of our participation, though I suspected people sensed the truth. I’d seen a documentary about American POWs in Hanoi who’d blinked Morse-code distress signals to the camera, and I sometimes imagined the audience could read the same message of resistance in our faces.
When Mom had finally finished, she invited the audience to “share this time with us,” which was our cue to begin.
For a half dozen record shoppers, we played our usual first set: “The Girl from Ipanema,” “Photographs and Memories,” “Desperado,” “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” “Stardust,” a treacly Essentials ballad called “The Promise of My Love,” and a white-bread funk number co-written by Mom and Ken called “She’s Got That Look Again,” whose bass line I’d yet to master.
More customers entered but avoided eye contact with us, as if afraid they might unwittingly commit to something. One man hovered in the doorway a moment, then headed right back out.
During the break between sets, I sat in a folding chair against a wall and listened to Iron Maiden’s Number of the Beast on my Walkman. I watched a group of kids my age in concert T-shirts peruse the new releases, including the Judas Priest album Screaming for Vengeance, which I’d coveted for weeks. A few girls were among them, plastic combs in the back pockets of their jeans. I half hoped they’d seen the first set, half hoped they hadn’t.
Caroline sat next to me, a sheen of sweat on her throat, her bangs combed down to conceal the acne on her forehead. She was eyeing a blond boy across the record racks, but he seemed too timid to approach. I might have been frightened of Caroline too. She wore a pink halter top and a short black skirt with a slit partway up the thigh — a stage uniform Mom had approved. Caroline ran the bead of her drumstick along her cheekbone, crossed her legs, and stared at the boy with a cool expectancy that he had no answer for. I wondered where she’d learned this new talent. She’d changed over the past year. Not long ago we’d actually talked, schemed, and joked, even slid notes underneath each other’s doors when we were supposed to be sleeping. Lately her few communications to me had been either criticisms or threats.
Mom spent the break hustling, as usual, holding up an Essentials LP to a middle-aged man in a tweed driving cap who kept his hands folded across his chest and far from his wallet as he stared appreciatively at her. Mom’s blond Lady Godiva hair reached the small of her back, and she looked ten years younger than thirty-eight.
After a precise fifteen minutes she motioned for us to start the second set.
“Do you take requests?” the tweed-capped man asked, grinning. “I’d love to hear a little Carly Simon.”
Though the man was just a few feet from her, Mom answered into the microphone. “I’m sorry, sir, but Carly and I are having a little disagreement. She refuses to sing my songs, and I refuse to sing hers.” She laughed her bright laugh, but no one joined in. I pretended to adjust my volume knob. The tweed-capped man edged away.
My mind roamed during our second set, returning only in the middle of Ken’s frenetic, jazzy outro to “Touch Me”: I always enjoyed watching his pained expression, as if the guitar were an immense weight he had lifted incorrectly. I also tuned back in during my mother’s flute solo on “Summer Wine,” which I liked for its graceful runs and its finish, where she played a fluttering trill and gradually drew back from the microphone, eyes shut. Aside from those moments, I was thinking of the girls who were shopping. I imagined playing for them: not here but on a real stage, and not this music but something incredible and majestic of my own composition. I imagined this until I saw a smirk on one teenager’s face, and then I stared at my feet, furious to be playing a Glen Campbell cover in my mother’s band. I flubbed a few changes, and Ken’s eyes lit on me. I felt sulky and chastened for the rest of the set.
To make Caroline and me view our performances more professionally, Mom and Ken had instituted a policy of fines. Our normal wage was five dollars per show, but for each obvious mistake we were docked fifty cents. If we were “caught napping” or made a serious screw-up, we were fined a full dollar. Other minor offenses included frowning, rudeness, gum chewing, giggling, and improper stage attire. I averaged three dollars per show, after penalties. Caroline did slightly better. She was more skillful and had a genuine feel for her instrument that I never had. Mom and Caroline joked that I played bass like my father would have: as if I were trying to wrestle it into submission.
After the record-store gig, I received $2.50 from Mom — until Ken corrected her and revised it to $2.00.
Caroline complained when she got only three dollars.
“You spaced out twice when that blond boy walked by,” my mother admonished. “We turn their heads, not the other way around.”
Caroline stomped away, her body tight with fury. My sister looked dangerous, with her bony shoulders and gunmetal braces. She seemed to have some coiled menace within her to which our mother was oblivious. Sometimes I thought I should warn Mom.
On our way out of the store I picked up a Screaming for Vengeance cassette and surreptitiously made my way to the counter. Mom intercepted me at the register. “I thought you were saving your money for that nice hard-shell case at Steve’s Music.” I hesitated, nodded, then placed the tape back on the shelf.
“What if he doesn’t want a nice hard-shell case?” said Caroline, who had returned and was leaning in the doorway. “Isn’t it his money? Why can’t he spend it how he wants?”
Mom studied her coolly. “Ken is giving both of you lessons for free,” she said. “What if he charged you what he charges his students: twenty dollars an hour? Would you want to pay that? Would you be able to?”
“But we don’t want lessons,” Caroline said. “You can’t force somebody to do something, then make them pay for it.”
Mom laughed and said, “Welcome to the real world.” This was a favorite expression of hers, though she often substituted the “grown-up world” or the “big, bad world.” Whenever she said this, I imagined her standing at the gates to some joyless wasteland.
We drove back to the motel. Maybe in response to Mom’s earlier admonishment, Ken made a point of guiding the LTD into a spot directly outside our room, even though the space was so tight that Mom couldn’t open her door and had to slide out on the driver’s side.
“Go get some rest,” Mom told us. “Don’t worry about today. It was a dump. And a crappy crowd. Tomorrow’s the big one. They get four hundred people at the flea market on Sundays. That’s a real show.”
It turned out that Mom and Ken had gotten their own room for the night. I was surprised, after all Mom’s talk about belt-tightening, but I didn’t complain. I welcomed the chance to be away from them. Caroline and I lay on our twin beds and watched a Saturday-night movie about two thieves holding hostages in a bank. We heard muted voices through the wall — or, rather, one voice. Ken’s never projected, and so we got only Mom’s monologue, punctuated by her ringing laughter.
I put on my pajamas and listened to Judas Priest’s Stained Class so loud on my Walkman that it wasn’t until the tape ended that I realized something had changed in the one-sided conversation next door: a rise in volume; a new staccato rhythm; a repeated, insistent question.
Caroline went into the bathroom and reemerged five minutes later in jeans and a halter top. “I’m going out. And I guess you’re going to tell on me.”
“Why shouldn’t I?” I said with a laugh.
Caroline whirled around, and I felt fearful. “You can grow up anytime you want, you know. Grow up and stop being such a little punk. No one’s preventing you.” She stared at me so savagely I had to look away.
“I hate all of this too,” I said.
“You know that if both of us told her at the same time we hated it, she would finally get it through her head. She couldn’t pretend anymore. But every time I try, you punk out, you little momma’s boy.”
I stared at the television.
Caroline sighed. “I’m going out. You can tell on me if you want. I don’t give a damn.”
After she’d left, I kept the television on with the volume turned down so I would feel less alone. Its light stroked the walls and ceiling. The argument next door finally lost momentum, though I did hear my mother’s voice rise in some final assault.
I must have drifted off because when Caroline returned, closing the door hastily behind her and bolting it, the noise woke me. I saw by the clock that she’d been gone three hours. She smelled of smoke, and her eyes looked strange: luminous and large. After a moment I heard a soft knock.
“Don’t open it,” she said, going into the bathroom.
Shivering in my pajamas, I walked to the door and looked through the peephole. Two boys in denim jackets and jeans stood outside like phantoms. The short one was spinning what looked like a silver cross on a chain, wrapping and unwrapping it around his forefinger. The tall one, who had a shaggy pile of hair, leaned on the hood of our LTD with a proprietary grin. They smirked in my direction, and though I knew they couldn’t see me, I backed off.
“They still there?” Caroline asked.
She snorted with either amusement or contempt and climbed into bed without bothering to get undressed. Within seconds she was asleep. The pair disappeared, but I kept vigil. Once, I heard scuffling outside and what sounded like laughter. I put my ear to the door, not breathing. I heard a whoop in the far distance; then I headed back to bed.
In the morning, I watched TV while Caroline attacked her forehead with a washcloth until blood beaded on her skin. We had said nothing since we’d awakened.
“So, those two guys last night . . . ,” I began.
Annoyance flashed in her face. “What about them?”
“They weren’t the same ones, were they?”
“The same ones what?”
“The same ones who took our stuff.”
She was watching me with amusement now.
“Are they?” I asked.
She shrugged, then collapsed onto the bed with a grunt and threw an arm over her eyes. “So what? You’re going to call the cops on them?” She sighed. “I met them at the crafts festival Friday.”
I watched her silently.
“I never told them to take Ken’s stuff — just my drum kit. But they couldn’t carry it. The idiots.”
“What did they do with the things they took?”
“I didn’t ask.” She yawned and scratched under her arms. “I just can’t take this anymore. I want to do something normal on the weekends. I want to have a normal life — or as normal as I can with her around.” She turned to look at me. “So I guess you’re going to tell her now, right?”
Just then Mom knocked on the door and poked her head in to hurry us along. The station wagon was already idling outside, and her damp hair was wrapped in a towel. She seemed oddly nervous, even giddy. “Ken and I have a little news for you,” she announced.
© Calee Allen
Mom drove this morning, which was unusual. She waited until we were well out on the highway before she gave us the news. “We thought you should be the first to hear: Ken and I will be getting married next month.” She smiled and looked at us in the rearview mirror. “No more delays. No more messing around. We’re going for it.” She likely knew not to expect much enthusiasm, but she tried to drum some up anyway. “Tommy, Ken would like you to be his best man. Caroline, I’d like you to be my maid of honor. And I guess we don’t have to worry about hiring a band.”
Mom peered back at us, searching our faces. Caroline’s expression showed sardonic amusement. I forced a smile. I wasn’t sure what more she wanted.
Five minutes later Caroline scribbled in her small notepad and laid it open on my knee for me to read: “Twenty bucks says it doesn’t happen.”
She probably had the smart money here. Both previous wedding plans had gone bust, and though the reasons had been kept from us, I could guess what they were. In the period after each announcement Ken had become sullen, restless, quarrelsome. It was the same when Mom would talk enthusiastically of the old farmhouse we would buy and renovate, and Ken would agree, then clam up for days. Right now he seemed even more removed than usual, staring out the passenger window. A part of me was troubled by Caroline’s wager; another part relished the chance to deny her. I scribbled on her notepad: “You’re on.”
Mom got lost on the way to the flea market, which was off the highway in a town called Burwich. She held the directions, written on the back of a bank-deposit slip, up against the steering wheel and drove slowly down a section of access road. Then she turned the station wagon around, swearing softly, reentered the highway, got off at the next exit, and repeated her search. She stopped twice for directions but got nothing.
“The rest of you could help a little,” Mom said.
“What can we do?” Caroline replied. “We don’t know where it is.”
Ken took the slip with the directions and turned it over in his hands before dropping it back in my mother’s lap. His fingers twitched as if he were playing arpeggios. From what I could see of my mother’s face in the rearview mirror, she wore the expression of a sulky, fretful girl. “It’s not my fault,” she said. “I drove exactly where the guy told me.” We were to start playing at noon, and it was now 12:30.
Mom kept doggedly searching the same roads until finally there it was, in such plain sight that she cried out in exasperation. A Day-Glo sign announced BURWICH FLEA MARKET before a weathered, two-story brick warehouse. We parked in front, already forty-five minutes past our scheduled start time. While Ken stayed in the car, cleaning his glasses with his shirttail, Mom hurried to the manager’s office, up a cast-iron stairway that overlooked the rows of tables and booths. I followed her.
A nameplate on the manager’s desk read: “Dave Tyson.” A slight man with a cinnamon beard and a stainless-steel cane, he looked up from his desk only after we’d been standing before him for some seconds. Mom approached, hands clasped in supplication.
“Dave? Hello, I’m Glynn Poplar. It’s so nice to meet you in person. I want to apologize for our lateness. Had a little trouble finding the place.”
Dave stared blankly at her. I felt a fierce dislike for him before he’d even spoken.
“But we’re here now,” Mom continued, “and we can set up in twenty minutes, and —”
“No thanks,” Dave said.
Mom hesitated. “It will just take a moment.”
“You can set up. And you can play. But you’re not getting paid.”
I’d seen my mother fly into public rages at less provocation — at the grocery store, the movie theater, the post office — but this time she remained unnaturally civil. “We’re late because I couldn’t understand your directions.”
Dave shrugged. I felt like seizing Mom’s arm and dragging her away.
“How about half?” she said, giving her hair the slightest toss. It was not flirtation exactly, but more of a warm, feminine gesture.
“No.” Dave grinned mirthlessly.
Mom straightened up. “Listen, I have a lot of musician friends. You’d be surprised how quickly word gets around about —”
“I don’t care.” It was plain in Dave’s face that he spoke the truth. He grunted and raised himself in his seat. “I just got your tape in the mail. You can have it back.” He laid the cassette on the desk. “I’m not sure I would have booked you at all if I’d listened to it first.”
Mom stared stiffly down at the tape but didn’t touch it. Then she turned and left the office. I followed her, watching her small, tight shoulders as she headed down the staircase, got briefly lost, and then found the parking lot, where Ken leaned on the station wagon’s front fender. His eyes shifted behind his tinted lenses, but he said nothing as she gave him the news: “There’s no talking to this jerk. I can’t freaking believe this. I can’t believe it.” She slapped the hood of the station wagon so that the metal rang. Finally, resigned, she said, “So I guess we’ll just keep it to one set. It isn’t worth doing two.”
“What are you talking about?” Ken bit his thumbnail and spat.
Mom shrugged. “We’ll do a short set, sell a few albums, and leave. We drove all this way. We can at least go in there and show them what we can do, make them sorry they didn’t get more. I want to see that little jerk’s face when we blow the roof off this place.” She moved to unload the car.
Ken didn’t budge from where he leaned. Caroline stood behind him, watching the scene with curiosity and pleasure.
“Let’s go, guys,” I said to them quietly. No one followed me. Again it had fallen on me to stand with her. I started helping Mom pile gear on the asphalt. Caroline stared at me venomously. Ken stubbed out his cigarette and lit a fresh one.
Mom looked from Ken to Caroline and back for some seconds before she let go of the cable she’d been tugging and walked over to a drinking fountain by the entrance. She bent and drank for a long time, gripping her hair in a fist behind her neck. When she walked back, she was breathing heavily, and her face was flushed.
“I feel sometimes — I’m made to feel sometimes — like I’m the only person who really and truly cares about this band. That fact alone wouldn’t bother me. . . .” A pack of transport trucks roared by, and she waited for them to pass. Her eyelids fluttered; tears were beginning to form. “But if I am the only one who cares, why does no one care enough about me to pretend?”
Ken stood silent, his tinted lenses opaque in the afternoon sun. I didn’t understand how he could be so unmoved.
“Just come and play,” Mom said. “Please.”
“I’m coming,” I repeated miserably. “I’m playing.”
“Thank you, Tommy,” Mom said, her voice quiet now. “Caroline?”
Caroline paused as if she were actually considering it. “I think I’ll stay here.”
Mom nodded, then walked over to the piled gear. Together, she and I carried her percussion stand, the small PA, my amp and bass, the box of Essentials LPs, and the dog-eared cardboard display. It took several trips. Mom walked purposefully erect in her three-inch heels. She carried too much each time and was often forced to stop and shift her burden or rest. We set up in silence on the small, scarred plywood stage outside the office. Dave was nowhere to be seen. A trio of boys eating funnel cakes, powdered sugar sprinkled all over their shirts, watched as Mom bent to secure a cable. I saw their eyes on her body and wished something would fall from the sky and crush them.
Mom gave no introduction today. She just turned to me, whispered, “Ipanema,” and counted us in. I felt exposed as I played my simple bass lines and fills. I suddenly wished that I were a better musician, that I had practiced harder or asked Ken for more-challenging parts. Mom sang and played tambourine gamely, though her voice was tight. We received a few pitying and amused looks from the young mothers in track suits and home perms, but little beyond that.
After three songs, my mother thanked the indifferent bystanders, and we finished. She was brittlely civil to me as we packed up, thanking me for each item I handed her. She carried twice what I did, and I saw the strain in her pursed lips and the taut tendons in her throat.
“We sounded good,” I said.
She nodded, her eyes showing very little emotion now, or maybe just something deeply contained.
Outside, Caroline was talking to two lean boys who sauntered away like jackals as we approached, peering back over their shoulders at her. When they were some distance away, one waved, a last invitation that she coolly ignored.
“We going now?” Caroline asked.
Ken didn’t appear until some minutes after the gear had been packed. He carried a crumpled foil wrapper in his hand. He had probably heard us playing, I realized, while he’d bought his hot dog. If I had seen him inside, eating his dog and licking mustard from his thumbs, I would have broken my untuned Fender bass over his head.
We got into the station wagon, Mom driving again.
Caroline was the first one to speak, some miles down the road. “Mom, Tommy didn’t get paid.”
I turned on her. Caroline’s expression was guileless, though I could see the twinkle of mischief in her eyes.
“No one got paid today,” Ken said quietly.
My mother glanced over at him, then opened her small pocketbook with one hand, removed a five-dollar bill, and held it back between the seats. When I didn’t reach for it, she dropped it. I stared with fury at the bill where it had landed between my running shoes.
I won the twenty-dollar bet with Caroline, though just barely. Mom and Ken did get married at city hall later that month, and all four of us, the “bridal party,” leaned against a dusty bookshelf in the justice’s office for two Polaroid snapshots. Then we went to the White Pine Steakhouse to celebrate.
Ken left us shortly after that, with no note or explanation. He took with him his station wagon, his guitars and gear, and, for no reason I could see, my bass amp. Perhaps he’d been in a hurry and hadn’t noticed it in the back.
The day after Ken left, at the hour when we normally would have practiced, Caroline approached my mother in the kitchen, where she sat in her nightgown. I was filling a bowl with cereal. Caroline carried her drumsticks in her fist.
“So, do I have to play drums anymore?” she asked my mother.
Mom stared at her, blinking. She had on no makeup, and her face looked slightly swollen, her hair wispy and in disarray. “No, you don’t have to play drums,” she said.
Caroline laid the sticks down on the kitchen counter. They sat there for a week before I put them in the drawer with the spatulas and wooden spoons. I expected Caroline eventually to start playing again, now that she’d made her resentment known and regained whatever dignity she’d lost in those bowling alleys and school gymnasiums. I thought she’d enjoyed it just a little; she had always been more skilled than I was. But the sticks stayed in the drawer.
I counted my savings and realized that, between Christmas money, gig money, and the twenty dollars I’d won in the bet, I had more than two hundred bucks. I used it to buy a used bass amp from an ad in the paper. The seller dropped it off, and I carried it through the front door and into the living room, where Mom sat on the couch, smoking and listening to records. I’d hoped my mother would notice what I was carrying and inquire about it, but she said nothing, and I felt a small but keen sense of betrayal.