I could hear the question from where I stood, playing simple background chords to Bob Seger’s “Her Strut.” It was exactly the sort of question I wanted to hear. Mr. Goody-Two-Shoes-Know-It-All Todd was at a keg party playing in the band. Maybe he’s not as much of a prick as we thought he was. I smiled.
My electronic keyboard sat precariously on a piece of plywood held up by two old sawhorses. Every time I played a full chord the plywood bent a little in the middle, providing my imitation ivories with more spring than intended by the manufacturer. I had been placed stage left, between Dave and the drumset. Dave played rhythm guitar by leaning against a tree next to the stage with his body totally still except for his two hands, resembling Jon Entwhistle at his best; the drummer mindlessly kept the beat and rarely looked up from his set. The three of us stayed out of the way of the bass player and lead guitarist who occupied stage front. They were testing the theorem that all the girls love guys in the band, and wanted to make it obvious that they were the movers and shakers in this particular combo. It was our first gig, if you could call playing on a rotting hay trailer hidden inside a clump of pine trees a gig. I would, but then I was not looking to make it big. I was slumming.
My family moved to Gatesville the summer before I began seventh grade. My nickname quickly became Odd, partly because it was just dropping the T from my name, but mainly because I was nerdy.
Joe tripped me in the hall the first week — testing the new kid, I suppose — and I dropped my bag and swung at him with all I had. Time has dimmed my memory of it, but I knew I couldn’t stop swinging and neither did he. When a couple of male teachers were finally able to pull us apart, I had the black eye, but his lip was bleeding.
The next week we faced off against each other in Physical Education. It was War Ball — a game in which the entire purpose was to throw a dull red rubber ball at people as hard as you possibly could. Although half of the entire grade was there in the gym, Joe and I focused on each other. I hesitated in the back, using a couple of larger kids as blockers, hoping to catch him on his blind side. He acted like he did not care, but I could tell he knew where I was standing at all times. A kid next to me went down, hit by one of the soft, squishy ones that would leave a welt on his leg for an hour. I went to pick up the ball and — wham — -right against the side of my neck. I looked across the room, and Joe strutted in front of the other players, oblivious of the game still being waged around him.
It never stopped. He bolted my locker shut one day; I injected a dose of hydrogen sulfide through the vent in his locker for revenge. But it was just physical. We weren’t scholastic rivals by any means. My grades put me in the honors classes; I often wondered how he even made the next grade.
By the time we hit high school, our fighting had escalated into a cold war. We preferred to have nothing to do with each other, but if we did interact, it was a hard elbow to the head or stomach. Joe had the advantage in these situations, for he had gained pound after pound and turned it into muscle while I remained a 110-pound weakling.
Joe was everything I hated. I considered him a lazy, rude redneck who would likely get some fourteen-year-old girl pregnant before he turned twenty-one. And I couldn’t understand how he could be so popular.
Keith, the lead guitarist, swung his arm in a full circle on his guitar as if he was Pete Townsend — the five of us were all big Who fans — signifying the end of the song. The drummer woke up long enough from his basic one-two beat to bash everything in sight, then slumped back into his seat.
One or two claps came from the direction of the keg. It was still early, most people had not arrived yet, and those that were here had not had enough time to get drunk yet. As a band we sounded better with alcohol. We discovered that in practice.
“Take fifteen,” said Keith, trying to sound like he did this every night. The drummer, some army brat from Killeen, immediately shuffled off for a beer. Dave flipped off the amplifier for his guitar and my synthesizer. Dave was the reason I was in this band. Dave and I had been sharing musical discoveries for years, trading mixtapes and sheet music. Dave and Keith were cousins and had learned guitar together and formed a band when they were freshmen. When they finally decided to move into the synthesizer-influenced Who music, Dave suggested to Keith that I join. Being the only person they knew who had a Roland had something to do with it.
“Wanna beer, Odd?” Dave asked.
“Sure,” I said. Even though I was a first-time slummer, I planned to go all the way.
High school is the training ground for the assembly-line world of tomorrow. You not only learn categories for people, but you also discover the joys of watching the slow hand of the clock, working to stay busy, and attaching blame to others. Forget those cynics who claim that our schools do not teach children what they need to know. They do. What schools do not do so well is advancing people past these basic lessons into learning how to enjoy life under those circumstances.
Music supposedly calms the savage beast. For me, though, music helped me escape my stereotype and gain entry into the other side of school. What did you call them when you were in school? Kids from the other side of the tracks? Hoods? Juvenile delinquents? For these kids, music delivered the savage message, and provided a soundtrack for their destruction.
For me, the two became intertwined. There existed a seed of rebellion and destruction inside me. Rock and roll nurtured it through a long winter of being a model son, and it bloomed on the night of April 20: Joe’s end-of-the-school year kegger. “Can you make it, Odd?” Keith asked me, during a practice session the week before. All eyes were fixed on me, even though we were packing up after an hour’s rehearsal. This was the final test of whether the nerd was willing to accept a full initiation into the belly of the beast.
“No problem,” I said.
The party started to come alive about an hour after dark. Joe as the host had placed spotlights where it was needed — on the beer and the area around the band — leaving the parking lot and the hay bales dark. In the near shadows, Joe sat in the cab of his pickup truck, his arm draped around his girl of the moment. His truck was the envy of the school — a Ford F150 with a chromium roll bar for show, bright red pin stripes from the hood to the door, then flickering flames across the back wheel wells. He drove it like those back tires were actually on fire.
I had just finished slamming my second beer when Keith said, “Rage, Odd.” Rage was the band; the song was called “Burnout,” something that Keith and Dave had come across in the used record store and decided to transcribe. It was my show number, because it let me diddle with the pitch bender and echo on my Roland, which I was much better at than actually playing the thing.
Gatesville, Texas, is such a small town that I used to tell people that we went to Waco to have fun. Waco: the sleepy home of that conservative Baptist college, Baylor University. Excitement in Waco was dancing on campus.
I had known about Joe’s party before the band brought it up during practice that night. News got around, even to the nerds. One last bash. Come May, we would all go our separate ways, which in Gatesville meant that you either went to work as a guard at the Women’s Penitentiary or you left town for college. Joe’s party was the last hurrah for our class.
Joe would never have invited me to his party, but I could come as one of the band.
Why are teenagers so angry? I certainly did not have anything to complain about. My parents were fair and honest with me, providing me with most everything I asked for. I did well in school. I had friends. I guess I was just missing excitement. I found my life drab and boring, and I was tired of being the perfect child.
My life had been safe, and I wanted to see what non-safe was like.
Dave and I sat on the edge of the trailer. He was still drinking beer in a plastic cup, but I had graduated to Johnny Walker. The party was now over a hundred people. As we drank, I would glance surreptitiously over at the edge of the barn, my heart pounding, imagining what might be happening with the couples whom I had seen disappear into the tall grass.
“Is this what you wanted?” asked Dave.
I looked at Dave. In some way, he was above this all. He was neither a nerd, a scholar, a jock, nor a hood. He maintained an independence from everything. In school he neither failed nor excelled, in the schoolyard he was never an instigator nor the victim of a fight, in gossip he was never a wallflower nor a pushover. In the theater, there’s a term for the character who is neither protagonist nor villain, not a second banana or the love interest. These characters that sit apart and nudge the action along every so often are called “fifth business.” Dave was like that, the odd man out, the fellow who was never picked for play by either side not because he wasn’t any good, but because he walked away from the game.
“Yeah,” I said. The startled looks of recognition, the whispers, and the faint nods — the combined group of my peers had acknowledged my presence and the alcohol in my hand. I had shocked them.
Gatesville was a dry county, which meant that alcohol could not be sold in any store within its boundaries. Just thirty minutes away, however, was Ireland, a tiny town with a population of 60, most of them farmers, but hardly big enough drinkers to support the three liquor stores on the county border. Joe’s brother, a sophomore in college who was home for scholastic probation, had bought the keg.
I have no idea where the marijuana came from. Maybe that’s what the Irish farmers did the rest of their time.
Joe came by the music trailer a little after midnight. The party had reached its peak an hour ago, and people were now starting to pull out in waves of twos and threes, conversations broken by the backfire of pickup trucks with bad mufflers and beery goodbyes. We were into our last set — all the good parts of Who’s Next. We had saved “Baba O’Reilly” for an encore, although none had been asked for. The Roland played itself for most of it — once I pressed for program one, it would continue its endless electronic twiddle until I hit the end key.
Joe motioned for me to come down. I hesitated, staring at him. He had been drinking. I wasn’t ready for a fight. The music faded in my ears as I realized just how unprepared I was for this. Behind him, back at the keg, but watching us, were Jacks and Rutherford, his cronies. Dave was no help here; I had lost my protective coating of school roles and social class. Joe motioned to me again to come down. I jumped off the makeshift stage, staggered a little, then reached back and steadied myself against the trailer.
Joe grabbed my arm, pulling me to him. I tensed, waiting for the kidney punch from the other hand. I could just fall and curl into a ball, I thought. He might kick, but I could put my arms up and protect my face.
“I just wanted to know, to let you know,” he slurred, breathing heavily into my face. “I wanted to say, to, to let you know I’m glad you came,” he said.
I glanced at him. He was definitely drunk. But he was nodding as he continued talking, “You guys did a kick ass job. Great sound.”
“Uh, thanks,” I muttered. He started to walk away, then turned around quickly and flung his hand out to me; I took it, and we shook hands. He let go, turned around again, and went back to his pickup truck.
I left Gatesville in 1984, and only went back a few years ago to clean out my room when my parents sold the house. When people ask where I’m from, I call it my hometown, although it never felt like home. Except for one night.
Roads in Texas are wide, with generous shoulders and good markings. I drove home slowly, likely too slowly for safety. I was drunk, I knew I was drunk, but I knew I had to get home before two o’clock. The brightly painted yellow line in the middle of the road was my friend — it separated me from the vehicles in the other lane, their glaring lights making me nervous. The shoulder was my friend. I could always pull over, I thought. But I pressed on. Every mile seemed to take forever, and the entire time I thought, never again. If I get out of this, I would never drink again. Nothing was worth this, not even the warm feeling that I had been floating on since Joe’s handshake that I knew was not related to the whisky.
I made it home at 1:30 a.m. I parked my father’s pickup away from the house in the dirt driveway. I let myself in the side door so I did not have to open the creaky garage door. I made my way to my room, and safety.
The next morning’s headline was about a highway crash on Farm-to-Market Road 12. One pickup, two occupants, driver dead, female passenger in serious condition. A picture of the vehicle was included, where you could still see the custom paint job. Likely time of the accident was 2:30 a.m. I didn’t have to read the story, because I knew that road. I knew that pickup, its pinstripe along the door with the flames on the wheelwell.
“Did you know him?” asked my mother.
“Not very well,” I said. “Not well at all.”