Despite the minor weirdness of the morning, I didn’t waste a lot of bandwidth thinking about Janet or Malcolm. There was something else to occupy my worried mind: an upcoming musical performance. I had been recruited to play bass in with a ska band, and our first gig was coming up. The problem was that I wasn’t very good. It wasn’t that big an issue, as the other half dozen people in the band weren’t all that good, either.
Caleb, the guitarist and lead singer, had booked us a show at an all-ages venue called Big City that would book absolutely anyone. It wasn’t even really a gig, it was part of their “Showcase Night,” which was pretty much just an open mic. Everybody had ten minutes to show ‘em what they had. We were rehearsing a lot so as to avoid utterly embarrassing ourselves at the performance.
As it turns out, we didn’t do too bad at the show, but we didn’t burn the house down, either. Manny, the trombone player, was a no-show, and the audience was about the same size as the rest of the band – about six people. No matter – we’d actually performed live and had acquitted ourselves. We were good enough that the place booked us for a full-fledged show in three weeks.
February ground on. For my money, T.S. Eliot was full of shit: April is not the cruelest month, February is. The hangover of the holidays is long gone, and you’re left looking down the barrel of two more months of miserable weather. It’s not so bad in Portland – it doesn’t get too terribly cold, and there are usually few snowstorms. Still, it starts getting dark around 4:30 in the afternoon and the sun doesn’t really come up until 7:30. If it’s cloudy (as it usually is), it sometimes seems like the sun never comes up at all; the gloom just lightens for a few hours in the middle of the day.
I didn’t see Malcolm for a couple of weeks, then he called me asked if I wanted to hang out. I’d pretty much been moping around the house all day, feeling gloomy for no particular reason. I was glad to have an excuse to get out of the apartment.
I peeked through the blinds on the front window. It was drizzling, and the temperature was perhaps forty degrees. Not a good day for a bike ride, so I took my beat-up Camry over to Malcolm’s. Parking in Malcolm’s neighborhood is hit-or-miss, and I ended up having to park four blocks away from his place. On the way, I passed a newspaper box containing one of the free weekly arts-and-politics rags. The headline was in huge, blood-drippy type: “DOWNTOWN CHAOS!”
I grabbed a copy and opened it to the feature articles. The first was about another alleged protest that had quickly turned into a vandalism spree at the History Museum. They had smashed all of the windows at street level and spray painted slogans like “NO MORE HISTORY!” and “DOWN WITH REALITY!” on the walls. I sneered. “Down With History?” What a bunch of dumbasses. These weren’t “protestors,” they were just thugs; mostly young, mostly underemployed, mostly “protesting” because they wanted to pick fights with cops. I called them “anar-kiddies.”
The next article was titled “Freddy Killer Strikes Again – Or Does He?” It was a detailed recap of the putative serial killings in Oldtown. The murders had started out as what one police detective had called “involuntary overdoses.” The local media had picked up on this, and a writer from the Oregonian had dubbed him the “Freddy Killer,” in reference to a character from a 70’s Blaxploitation movie.
Then, three nights ago, there had been two fatal shootings at homeless camps downtown. They had happened within a 30-minute timeframe, just a few blocks apart. Once again, the Portland Police Bureau had been tightlipped about the details, but word had begun circulating that the cops thought that the shootings were related to the overdoses.
It was all a great big bummer, so I flipped to the back of the rag, to check out the live music listings. Sure enough, the listing for our next Big City gig was listed. A Thursday night, but what the hell? It was a step above Showcase Night, anyway. The only thing I wasn’t on board with was the name of the band. “Rood Boyz” seemed like just about the lamest, least imaginative name for a ska band that the human mind could possibly produce. The problem was that Caleb liked it, so it stuck.
On the way up to Malcolm’s apartment, I debated telling him about the band. I still hadn’t told anyone in Portland Esoterica about my participation in the band. I wasn’t sure we were going to be able to avoid embarrassing ourselves, to tell the truth. Besides, it’s not like a gig at Big City was Carnegie Hall; it was basically one step above playing a house party.
Malcolm seemed a little keyed up when he answered the door, but was as cordial and gracious as usual. “Good to see ya, good to see ya,” he said as he ushered me in the door. IN his living room, the furniture was still pushed back against the walls at his table was mounded high with keyboards, computers, cell phones, circuit boards, tools and miscellaneous debris.
He noticed the newspaper I was carrying. “Reading up on the so-called ‘Freddy Killer,’ huh?” he asked. “Well, you know that’s all bullshit, right?”
“I dunno,” I said. “It sounds like nobody really knows if there’s a serial killer or not.”
“Oh, that,” he said. “I know all about that. No, I meant the name. They got the name all wrong.”
“In the movie, it wasn’t Freddie that got killed by a heroin injection. That character’s name was Scatter. Freddie got hit by a car.”
“Yeah, well I guess that ‘Scatter Killer’ just doesn’t have the same ring,” I said. “Also, Curtis Mayfield didn’t sing a song about him.”
“And another thing,” continued Malcolm. “Not only are they getting the name wrong, they’re also spelling it wrong. The character in the movie was ‘Fat Freddie,’ spelled with an -ie. The newspapers are spelling it ‘Freddy’ with a -y.”
“So. It’s important,” he insisted, now in geek high-dudgeon mode. I’d seen him get this way when getting into Star Trek-related trivia arguments with some of our more pedantic sci-fi fanboy acquaintances. “This is a big story. You figure the newspapers could at least get the facts straight.”
“Man, I’d have thought you’d have other things to worry about than spelling,” I said. “I mean, that shelter you volunteer at is right down in the middle of Oldtown. Aren’t you afraid?”
“Of the so-called ‘Freddy Killer’?” he scoffed. “Certainly not! I have no fear of this misnamed fictional murderer!”
“Did you know any of the people who were killed? Were any of them your, uh, clients or whatever?”
Malcolm shrugged. “Yeah, one or two of them might have used our services. I’m not sure. No great loss, anyway.”
“Jesus, how can you say that?” I exclaimed. I flapped the paper at the Buddha statue in the corner.
“It’s all about suffering. Look, Carlos, those people who died – all they did was suffer. Their whole lives were suffering, and causing suffering for others. A lot of suffering for others. It’s a blessing, really.”
What the fuck was I supposed to say to that? I could tell Malcolm was agitated about something. It could be something as trivial as a bad solder connection on a project he was working on, or a punk trade on the currency exchange – or something I had said or done. It seemed like a good idea to change the subject.
“Actually,” I said, brandishing the paper, “I don’t give a rip about the Freddy Killer. I was checking the show listing for this new band I’m in.”
That got his attention. “What? You’re in a band now? Wow! I had no idea!”
“No, I’ve been keeping it on the downlow,” I said. “At least until we tighten up our set and get a few gigs under our belts, y’know?”
“So, what – are you playing bass?” He knew that I had a bass and a decent amp. He also knew that I wasn’t particularly good with it. Malcolm was a fairly accomplished keyboard player – his parents had made him take piano lessons starting at age five. He’d ditched the lessons fairly early on, but had kept up playing keyboards. I’d hauled my bass over to his place once or twice for a “jam session,” but his skill level was so far above mine that it wasn’t much fun. It’s hard to “jam” when you only know the bass line to “Smoke on the Water.”
“Yeah, playing bass. I’ve really been trying to sharpen up my skills. Practicing a lot at home, and we’ve been rehearsing two, three times a week.”
“Wow, that’s really cool!” said Malcolm. “So, give. What’s the name of the band? What sort of music do you play?”
“Ska,” I said. “Like third-wave stuff, mostly. Our name is, uh, Rood Boyz. With a double ‘O’ and a ‘Z’ at the end.” I winced a little saying that.
“Seriously?” Malcolm laughed. “You white people kill me. That has got to be the lamest band name, ever. If you’re going to engage in cultural appropriation, you should at least come up with a decent name. Talk about adding insult to injury. ‘Rood Boyz.’ Jesus!”
“Hey, how is being in a ska band ‘cultural appropriation’?”
“It’s not, really,” shrugged Malcolm. “Perhaps I just said that to wind you up. Hell, you can make the argument that all of rock ‘n’ roll is cultural appropriation.”
“I guess so,” I said. “But that seems pretty limiting, don’t you think? I mean by that logic, the only music I should be allowed to play are sea shanties and Kraftwerk covers.” I didn’t like the direction the conversation was taking, but couldn’t think of a way to get out of it at this point.
“Nobody said anything about allowing anything,” said Malcolm. He shook his head, “Man, you just don’t get it.”
That was pretty obvious, but I didn’t want to find out what it was that I just wasn’t getting. A lot, probably. I was starting to think that this entire visit had been a mistake. Desperate to change the subject again, I blurted, “So, how’s Janet?”
The residual smile disappeared from Malcolm’s face. “What?” he said. “What do you mean?”
“I dunno,” I stammered. “I was just thinking about her, and the last place I saw her was coming out of your place. I just assumed that you guys had been, y’know, spending some quality time together.”
“You assumed, huh?” he asked sharply. “You know what happens when you assume, right?”
“Dude, what is your problem?” I asked. “It’s a simple question, and legit. You know that. If you had seen – oh, I dunno – Storm Large coming down the steps from my apartment, wouldn’t you be a little curious? Wouldn’t you assume she’d been visiting? Wouldn’t you ask me about it? Huh?”
Malcolm glared at me a moment, then broke into a wide grin. “I guess I’d assume that your band was really taking off, if I saw a bigtime local musician like Storm Large coming out of your place. And yes, I’d certainly ask you about it.”
“Well, okay then,” I said. I was expecting a blowout fight over this, and was relieved that Malcolm seemed to be de-escalating.
“Yeah, look, sorry man,” said Malcolm. “I’ve been a little tense lately. Things at the shelter have been weird lately, and I made a couple of bad calls on the investment front. Sorry for taking out my troubles on you, Carlos.”
“No worries, bro,” I said. “I know what that’s like. I’m sorry if I, y’know, disrespected your privacy.”
“That’s okay, too,” he said. “Truth be told, I have been hanging out with Janet a bit lately. No big deal, though. It’s just hanging out, nothing more.”
He was lying; I was sure of it. The way Janet looked when she was coming down the stairs made me think that they were doing more than just “hanging out.” I thought about telling him that I was going to ask her out, just to see what he’d say, but I decided against it. I didn’t see any point in stirring the pot at this point.
Instead, I waved at his cluttered work table and asked, “So how are things going with your dancing drone?”
“Going great,” said Malcolm brightly. He seemed glad for the change of subject. “I’ve added a couple of extra drones and some sequencer action into the mix. Dig this.” He put his fingers to his mouth and gave a shrill whistle.
He whistled again at a slightly higher pitch. From the work table, four small drones sprang to life. They flew up from the table and positioned themselves around the periphery of the room. Malcolm hoisted one eyebrow, as if to say, Pretty cool, huh?
The copters hovered, colored LEDs blinking slowly on and off. I stepped up to one of the copters, and could see that the LEDs had been glued onto the shell, with wires running into a hole drilled in the side.
“Step back, now,” said Malcolm. I did, and he raised his hands, held them for a dramatic pause, and clapped them twice, hard.
The keyboard on the table began pulsing out a tune. It took me a moment to recognize it: “Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This,” by Eurythmics. The drones began a three-dimensional ballet, flying around the room and each other, lights flashing, all choreographed to the song.
“You might want to duck here,” said Malcolm. I did, and one of the drones flew into the airspace just vacated by my head, then did a flip and flew up to the ceiling.
I crouched down and watched as the song continued. The copters flew in more and more intricate patterns. As the song began to fade out, they flew slower, their lights flashing less frequently. As the final notes faded out, the copters returned to their starting positions. Malcolm whistled again, hitting the right pitch, and they flew back to their spots on the table and turned off.
“Well,” said Malcolm, “what do you think?”
“Fucking amazing, man!” I said. “You should put on a performance or something!”
He shrugged. “Ah, it’s not all that and a bag of chips,” he said. “I’m just having fun. But speaking of performances, when will we get to see Rood Boyz play?”
“We’ve got a gig on Thursday,” I said. “But I’m still keeping things on the downlow. At least until we suck a little less. If things go okay with this show, I might start telling people.”
“Okay, I’ll wait,” said Malcolm. “But I’m itching to see you perform. Wanna see if Rood Boyz can live up to their name.”
“Yeah, you will,” I said. Suddenly, I was eager to get gone. Something was still off with me and Malcolm, and I was afraid if I stayed much longer, one of us would say or do something that would bring us into open conflict. “Look, man, I gotta bounce.”
“Yeah, sure.” He didn’t seem too disappointed, even though I had only been there twenty minutes.
“I’ll let you know how the gig goes.”
“Yeah, dude. Break a leg.” He turned away and began tinkering with something on the table.
I went to the door and let myself out. “See ya,” I said over my shoulder, but got no reply.