by shukyou (主教)
illustrated by serenity_winner
The headache wasn’t what woke him, but it was what kept him from going back to sleep once he was up. It rolled through his head like a drum line, pounding its high school marching band arrangements of some once-golden oldie across his brain with all the embarrassing force of the time he’d been sixteen and nearly killed himself with his father’s Jack. He hadn’t been hung over like this in years, decades. Just one more shit side effect, he supposed, of getting old.
What woke him was the phone. The Damn Agent had bought him the fucking thing, showed up on his doorstep to show him how to use it, and threatened to show up again every time Sid didn’t pick up, which was by Sid’s estimation a fate worse than answering a phone call every other week or so. Thus he wasn’t surprised when he picked it up to see the words Damn Agent on the screen. He’d learned how to program that little feature himself. “Sid,” he half-mumbled, half-grunted into the receiver end of the weird little rectangle, falling back against the couch cushions and draping an arm across his eyes. He hadn’t made it the bed; he hadn’t remembered that.
“Sid!” chirped the Damn Agent, who sounded too chipper for … well, Sid hadn’t looked at the clock yet, but he decided the exact time didn’t matter as far as too chipper went. “Got something I think you should take a look at, really make your day.”
Sid ran his free hand across his face, feeling stubble rasp across his palm. He’d run a razor over his face the morning before, but that was a long time measured by the beard clock. “Which is…?”
The next minute or so of the conversation could have been made of water, for all it ran off the duck’s back of Sid’s hung-over mind. The Damn Agent was doing all the talking anyway, telling him something about something he didn’t understand and which certainly had not made his day yet. He wanted a cigarette, but a quick scan around the room showed that he’d been dumb enough to leave his pack and lighter way the hell on the other side of the room. His Manhattan apartment wasn’t big — a palace by Manhattan standards, but a grape looked giant to an ant — but if the goods weren’t in immediate reach at the moment, they weren’t so good after all.
God, worse than crashing on the couch, he’d fallen asleep in his clothes, nearly down to the article; he’d taken off his shoes and coat by the door per usual when he’d come back from the previous day’s appointment, and he’d lost a single sock somewhere in the process of getting shitfaced, but for heaven’s sake, he still had his scarf half-wound around his neck. He hadn’t remembered that either. He didn’t feel hungry, but he didn’t feel like he was going to puke either, so that was something. Comfortable as the couch was, he still had a crick in his neck from where he’d pillowed his head awkwardly against the upholstered arms, meaning that when he turned his neck to the left, he could hear the joints pop like a trio of tiny rifles.
The phone went quiet, and he realized the Damn Agent was probably waiting for him to respond. “Sure,” he said, because it seemed like a good idea at the time, “sounds great.”
“So you’ll check it out?” asked the Damn Agent, with a note of hope to his voice that made Sid wonder what the hell he’d just agreed to.
“If I get time,” he said, raking his fingers through his bristly auburn hair, which he’d once claimed was the only thing in God’s universe more stubborn than he was. “Got to go,” and he pressed the button that gave him the other red button to press to end the call. He missed the days of damn reasonable phones, where to hang up the phone on someone you just had to hang up the phone.
He missed a lot of reasonable things.
Well, there was no getting back to sleep with his head the way it was, so he lurched himself into a sitting position with all due care he could manage. A cigarette would be great, but it’d have to wait until after the aspirin. A few more negotiations with gravity and he was on his feet, shuffling forward around the room’s oversized loveseat (which had never actually been used for love, self- or otherwise) back toward his bedroom. His apartment had about a bathroom and a half, which most of the time was three-quarters of a bathroom more than he needed, and right now he could have let everything that wasn’t the toilet and the medicine cabinet fall into the sea. He didn’t bother to close the door to the smaller hall bathroom, just flipped up the toilet seat, pulled out his equipment, and let fly; one of the small mercies age had allowed him was that that aspect of his plumbing still worked just fine, and he made several good beers’ worth of water into the bowl. He closed his eyes and leaned his cheek against the cool tile wall as he pissed, using the sound the stream made when it hit the porcelain to let him know he was still on target. At last, he was empty again, so he shook off and tucked back in, then set the old creaky pipes to flushing it all away as he turned to the sink behind him to wash his hands.
Of course he’d expected to see his reflection when he turned around — he’d lived here for close to thirty years, after all, and knew all the dimensions and reflective surfaces by heart — but that didn’t stop him from getting a mean fright when he came to face himself. He looked like shit, of course, hangovers would do that, but now he sensed something else there, something deeper, beneath the skin, down past where sleep and stubble could ravage. He stared down his own bloodshot blue eyes, then ones he’d inherited from his decades-passed father’s side of the family, with something like a vain and crazy hope that, in a Nietzschean way, he could stare into himself long enough that he’d end up with some introspective epiphany, the answer to himself.
He got nothing. Scowling at himself (and feeling a perverse burst of happy sadism when he saw his own face scowl back) he washed his hands before opening the medicine cabinet and finding a bottle of generic aspirin there. He popped three in his mouth and crunched them in his teeth, shuddering down the quinine-bitter taste. It was vile, to be sure, but it was a more effective wakeup than any coffee he’d ever had. He placed the bottle back and gave the medicine cabinet a slam shut without checking it for a second opinion.
A glass seemed too much work, so he stuck his mouth under the kitchen tap and got a few swallows of water, enough to clear his mouth and get the rest of the aspirin into his system. He’d let the place get a bit of a wreck, the way he always did when he was preoccupied, and takeout cartons and boxes piled up on the available counter surfaces; he’d sweep them into a bag and haul them down to the first floor later, if he felt up to it. For all the good things about his beloved old building — among them being that it’d been cheap enough in 1982 to just out-and-out buy both top floor apartments and make them into one — the damn thing didn’t have a trash chute, and he’d decided a few years back to take the extra effort it caused him as a personal insult. He’d considered instituting a system where he asked each new delivery monkey to take the last meal’s leftovers down for him, but he hadn’t yet worked out how much extra he’d have to tip to have it happen, so it was still only in development.
That all done, there was nothing really left for it but to wait for the painkillers to kick in. He grabbed his Luckies, tapped one out of the half-empty pack, and lit it, concentrating on everything but the way his lungs lurched a bit against the hot smoke. He held the air in his chest as long as he could, then exhaled through his nose, feeling dragon-like. It suited him, he supposed: old and cranky and protective of his cave, and foul-smelling to boot.
The late morning light shone down on the buildings out his window, and he cracked them open, trading the smells of new and old cigarette smoke for the scent of mid-day mid-Spring Manhattan, warm and filthy and beautiful. Down on the street four flights below, he could see the people walking back and forth, the old immigrant couples, the suits with their fine shoes, the teenagers in their ever-variable rags, the little kids with backpacks who were members of that rare, rare breed you called a Native New Yorker. Nobody else was from here, not even Sid, who’d latched onto the City like a barnacle the first time he’d seen it on shore leave at the age of twenty-one. It’d taken him nearly a decade beyond that to have both career and money enough to settle down there, but it’d been completely fucking worth it.
With the breeze blowing in, Sid felt his spirits lift a little, so he sat back down on the far end of the couch. He left the cigarette burning down in the coffee table ashtray, then grabbed an old trusty Taylor from the stand nearby. Once Sid had been bored enough to calculate that there wasn’t a place in his apartment where you could be more than a dozen feet from a guitar, and that proximity served him often. He settled back against the cushions and placed his fingers across the strings high on the neck, feeling the easy way the steel settled into the grooved calluses on his fingertips. With his right hand, he plucked a few notes, getting the high harmonics off the strings; the guitar wasn’t entirely in tune, but neither was he, and as long no one else was around to care, he wasn’t inclined to be picky.
“When peace like a river attendeth my way,” he began, growling out the first line of the hymn — then stopped, screwing up his mouth into a frown. His mother’s favourite hymn was all well and good, but he hadn’t sung it in years, and wasn’t feeling particularly peaceful at the moment. Still, it stuck in his head, so he settled for humming the tune wordlessly as he picked out the notes on the guitar, just the plain church-folk version first, then with a more bluesy edge to it that Sid’s Pennsylvanian coal-mining Methodist family would have frowned upon. The thought of their faces, politely horrified at the idea of mixing ‘that music’ with their Sunday best, made him crack a smile. Bless his heart, he’d always been a something of a problem child.
By the time the phone rang an hour later, he’d managed to get some coffee into his blood and to replace most of the previous day’s clothing with less slept-in versions of the same articles. He scowled at the screen; what the hell was the Damn Agent doing calling twice in one day? “Sid.”
“Did you listen?” the Damn Agent asked with a tone of voice that clearly indicated he expected the answer to his question to be ‘no’.
Sid decided there wasn’t a hope in hell he was going to be able to bluff his way out of this one. “Now, uh….” He scratched the back of his head. “Now, what was it again?”
The Damn Agent sighed, not in honest exasperation, but more like a parent at the business of wrangling a stubborn toddler. “Sid, I want you to do something for me. Can you go get in front of your computer?”
That was another beast the Damn Agent had insisted on, and Sid would have gone to his grave before admitting that he had from time to time found it useful, especially when trying to scout the local live music scene without having to go on exploratory walks too far beyond the comfortable perimeter of his neighbourhood. “Fine,” he said, walking over and pulling up the silver cover of the laptop that had never, to his recollection, gone on his actual lap. It gave a whir as its parts spun awake, something with which Sid could sympathize. “Okay, here.”
“Open a browser,” said the Damn Agent, and when Sid didn’t respond quick enough, he clarified, “you know, Firefox.” Sid knew Firefox well enough — it was, in fact, about the only thing on the computer he did know, well enough or at all — and he clicked the little orange-and-blue circle that brought up the window. “You got it?”
“I got it,” Sid grumbled. He wasn’t sure what exactly was happening, but he’d made up his mind already that he didn’t like it.
The Damn Agent’s smile was audible over the connection. “Great. Now go up to the address bar and type in YouTube.com.”
Hunting and pecking at the keys, Sid managed to get utube.com into the top line and pressed the Enter key. “‘Universal Tube & Rollform Equipment Corporation’,” he read aloud off the flashing image at the top. He’d wound up at weirder websites before, to be sure, but never on purpose.
There was a smacking sound from the Damn Agent’s side of the phone. “No, YouTube. You, as in second person, like, y-o-u-t-u-b-e.”
Well, why the hell hadn’t he said so the first time? Grumbling, Sid erased his previous typing and pecked in the appropriate letters. He pressed Enter before he realized that he’d forgotten to add the key ‘dot com’ portion of the address, but the browser thought for a second, then spat out anyway a page that had a matching half-red logo at the top. “Okay, I’m here. Wherever ‘here’ is.”
“See the search bar at the top?” asked the Damn Agent, and when Sid grunted acknowledgment, he continued, “Okay, search for ‘Nathan Vaughn’ and ‘Times Square’. Got it?”
“H … A … N …” narrated Sid, hoping that up-to-the-minute updates would satisfy the Damn Agent’s curiosity about his typing skills. “V…. How’s the rest of that spelled?”
“V-a-u-g-h-n,” the Damn Agent supplied, and Sid pressed the appropriate keys, muttering the letter names under his breath as he went along. “And then ‘Times Square’–”
“Hang on, hang on.” The headache that had been chased away had started crawling back in, and Sid decided to blame it on the damn computer screen’s weird glow. It had always seemed too bright to him, especially when compared to his television, like a spotlight you had to stare right into. He entered the last of the words and pressed the ‘Search’ button, wondering what was going on in Times Square that was important enough for the Damn Agent to spend so much time and effort harassing him about. Things went on in Times Square every day; that was sort of the point of Times Square.
What popped up as the first search result, however, didn’t look much like Times Square at all. In fact, as far as Sid could tell from the grainy little picture, it looked like a small recording studio, complete with a scattering of microphones all rigged up around a black baby grand. Looking closer, it seemed even less like a recording studio and more like somebody’s house, with a pair of what looked like closet doors in the white-painted walls and a dismal brown carpeted-floor, even a smoke detector fastened just above one of the doorframes. There was a figure at the piano, but whoever it was was bent over the keys, obscuring any identifying details. A bit of text sat beside the picture, like a little card at a gallery, proclaiming the title of this particular piece of modern art ‘Nathan Vaughn – Times F***ing Square [explicit]’.
“You got your sound on?” asked the Damn Agent.
Well, now Sid had gone from suspicious to just plain resentful. He hated covers of his stuff, more often than not because the covers got more famous than his originals (“wasn’t ‘Boardwalk Queen’ originally by Billy Joel?” he’d overheard asked on more than one occasion), but mostly because they tended to be bad, especially when done by amateurs. Not that it was such a common phenomenon anymore, but if he found himself out at an open mike night and some don’t-quit-your-day-jobber strummed the first few chords of one of his pieces, he hit the road. Hadn’t he made his displeasure about this evident to the Damn Agent before? He made a resolution to be louder and more displeased in the future.
But on the other hand, it was ‘Times Fucking Square’, the last even semi-big hit Sid had put out before he’d mostly dropped off the map nearly fifteen ago. Generally speaking, if someone was going to cover one of his pieces, they did one of the more standard love songs, or things from his early career, or things like ‘Boardwalk Queen’ that were stolen books with his own name scratched off the cover and someone else’s written over it in thick permanent marker. He’d never yet heard of someone trying to cover something like this.
As if feeling his hesitation, the Damn Agent sighed. “Just put the sound on and listen to it.”
“Fine, fine,” Sid nodded, and he pressed the button on the side of the laptop that let the little box make beeps and whistles to its heart’s content; however, doing so made nothing come out of the speakers. “Do I have to click on something else?”
“Click on the first picture there,” said the Damn Agent. “Now, I’m going to hang up,” so I don’t have to hear you bitch, Sid mentally finished for him, “but when you’re done, call me back. If you don’t, I’m going to call you in a quarter hour. Exactly fifteen minutes. Got it?”
“Yeah, I got it.” Sid didn’t bother disconnecting the phone this time, just let the Damn Agent do it for him. Instead, he clicked on the little picture, as instructed, and waited as another page loaded.
It turned out to be a video that the Damn Agent wanted him to watch, which Sid supposed he should have guessed from the ‘tube’ part of the equation. When the first frame came up, it was the same room-and-piano setup Sid had seen from the little caption, but now the bench was empty. For a second or two, Sid wasn’t actually sure that he had managed to turn the sound on earlier, but then there were a few telltale bumps and shufflings from off-camera, and then someone walked into the frame.
“So, um, okay,” said the person on the video, standing by the piano bench almost like a ten-year-old announcing a piano recital piece before playing it, “this is just a little something I felt like recording.”
He was a baby. Not a literal baby, Sid added to his brain’s assessment, but really, the kid looked fresh out of high school; the video quality was home-movie grade stuff, but even so the subject’s youthful face was visible. He had a shock of strawberry blond hair that seemed to stick straight up from his forehead and settle down as it went on back, though the effect looked more intentional than Sid’s own hair’s usual independent attempts at verticality. He wore a slightly ill-fitting dark suit over a dark red shirt, and a bow tie perched beneath his chin, something that didn’t help the little-boy-in-daddy’s-clothes impression. “Not by me,” the figure on the video (Nathan Vaughn, Sid assumed) amended, rubbing his hand along the side of the piano, “but by Sid Stills. I’m just, like, the cover band today. Except it’s just me. So … cover boy, I guess.”
Babbling concluded, Nathan sat down on the bench, rested his fingers atop the keys for a moment, and began to play. A deep, rich sound carried out despite the shit quality of Sid’s computer speakers, much the same as Sid’s original arrangement but slightly uptempo and with added notes to compensate for a lack of strings. It was not unlike what Sid himself did to the piece when it was just him and the keys, though he tended to slow things down live, not speed them up. Well, the kid seemed like a nervous little thing, so he supposed it was to be expected.
As for other expectations, Sid hadn’t quite known what he’d been braced to hear to come out of the boy’s mouth, but whatever it had been, it hadn’t been this: a bold, clean tenor, with all the style Sid had come to associate with modern popular music, but without any of the associated loss of quality. Any nervousness in body language or tempo was entirely absent in his rich, confident, lyrical tone. In what was clearly the lower third of his register (though already a fourth up from Sid’s original key), he sang, “Now the girls are all clothed down in Times Square today / and they’re walking their kids with identical names / on past store fronts and windows that all look the same / but the signs still say Times Fucking Square….”
This was beyond wasn’t-half-bad; good goddamn, this was good. Even before he’d clicked, Sid had already been writing his stock praise for the unknown singer, figuring it was the Damn Agent’s friend or nephew or some such, and what good would it have done anyone for Sid Stills to shit on a homegrown homage like that? But now, hell, he wouldn’t even have to pretend. He sat in his seat, light-years more rapt than he’d ever expected to be, as the little bit in front of the piano belted out a heartfelt rendition of what had been Sid’s circa-1995 attempt at registering his displeasure with the gentrification of midtown. It had been popular at the time with the crowd who’d been less than happy with the corporate steamrolling of the formerly seedy Times Square, but the same fans now took their nuclear families on outings down its squeaky clean sidewalks. Sid hadn’t been there in years. Probably couldn’t smoke within a ten-block radius of it. Hell, this was New York City; you couldn’t smoke anywhere now.
Now here he was, listening to his lament for the lost strip clubs and dive bars from the mouth of a kid who probably wasn’t old enough to remember when it had been anything but Broadway Disneyland — and to his lasting shock, not only was he not annoyed, he was loving it. His problem with other people’s covers, amateur or otherwise, tended to be that no amount of technical skill could give a piece heart and no amount of soul could save a tin ear. This kid, however, had managed in the space of a four-minute song (two entire minutes shorter than Sid’s original, but it was faster and the kid left off a verse) to convince Sid he had both in spades. Damn that Damn Agent, he’d been right.
The kid didn’t bother with any repeats of the chorus at the end, just played himself out with a little riff on the first line of ‘New York, New York’ that must have been his own innovation, then sat there for a moment after, fingers still poised on the keys, as though waiting for someone else to tell him what to do, or at least remind him how the world that wasn’t music worked. Then the screen went dark, surprising Sid, and five new picture rectangles replaced the previous image of the kid at the piano. All five had captions that included the words ‘Nathan Vaughn,’ and he selected the topmost one of them, wondering what would happen.
Another page opened up, this one much like the one he’d just been viewing, except now the text at the top read ‘Nathan Vaughn – 1manband medley‘. It started playing, and the top left corner of the screen filled with an image of the kid in front of a drum set, still wearing a bow tie, but this time sporting a large pair of studio headphones. He nodded out a four-count, then kicked up a beat that wasn’t just the work of an amateur with a pair of sticks — this kid could actually, legitimately play the drums. After a couple measures of this, a second image appeared just below it, this one with the same kid playing on a fretless bass. A third took the other top corner, showing the kid standing and playing on a pair of keyboards, one at each hand. Finally, the fourth quadrant filled, this time with the kid’s face much closer to the camera than before as he belted out (accompanied by his three other selves) a song Sid had never heard before.
The video continued much in this vein, weaving in and out of songs all unfamiliar to Sid, and from time to time one musical Nathan would switch out for another musical Nathan, sometimes overlapping one another on the screen as they passed. By the time its few minutes were up, Sid had learned that the kid was also reasonably proficient at alto and tenor sax, trumpet, acoustic and electric guitar, multiple handheld percussion instruments, and being his own backup singer. Good grief, who was he?
This time, when the clip ended, the topmost of the options didn’t have the words ‘Nathan Vaughn’ anywhere in its title; instead, a shot of what looked like a Jolly Roger accompanied the words ‘BIG IN JAPAN Sincerity is the New.‘ Deciding he’d come too far down this rabbit hole to turn back now, Sid shrugged and clicked.
What he found on that page was unexpected, to say the least. The camcorder-like footage had been replaced by much sleeker, studio-quality film, and and the scene opened on an overly obvious soundstage version of a pirate ship. Four young men stood on the deck, each of them wearing pirate costumes that looked like they’d been stolen from some community theatre production of Peter Pan; the one with eyeliner was a captain complete with shoulder parrot and eyepatch, the chubby one of the bunch had the striped shirt and touque Sid associated with Mr. Smee, and other last two in less extravagant rags might have been twins for all Sid could tell their bearded faces apart. Above the video, the full title told him that what sincerity was the new one of was ‘Irony (And I Am Balls To The Wall Sincere).’
There was some sort of narrative going on with the video, Sid was sure, but he was damned if he could follow it. The captain was doing something ridiculous that involved standing on top of a cannon, and something was wrong with the sails, and maybe they were all supposed to be ghost pirates? Sid had no real idea why the website had sent him here — at least, not until the video intercut to concert footage and the one who’d been wearing the Mr. Smee getup opened his mouth and started to sing. “Holy shit,” Sid said aloud, “it’s the kid.”
It was the kid, all right, only wearing thick-rimmed glasses and about eighty pounds up the scale. He had a only guitar and a microphone — when he wasn’t being a pirate, at least — and the song was the kind of pop number Sid knew would slide off his mind the second he was done listening, but there was no mistaking that tone. The song, however, wasn’t asking him to do much with those pipes of his, and whatever the lyrics were, they were first and foremost unintelligible. Well, that somewhat answered Sid’s first question about the kid’s identity, but it raised so many more.
Just as the video ended, and before he could start up another, Sid’s phone rang. “What did you think?” asked the Damn Agent before Sid could even get a noise of greeting out of his mouth.
“Huh,” said Sid, because he’d cry blood before he let the Damn Agent know he was impressed. “Who is he?”
“Nathan Vaughn, frontman of Big in Japan,” said the Damn Agent, and when Sid made no noise of recognition, he sighed. “Pop-punk band from Chicago, broke up about a year and a half ago now, so he’s doing his own solo stuff. In fact,” and Sid could hear the noise the hook made as it poked through that bait, “he’s going to be in your area tonight, doing a secret show at Jim’s Tavern, over off Astor Place. I called Miguel, you know, Miguel Rios–”
“I know Miguel,” Sid interrupted. He’d known the manager of Jim’s Tavern for years, in fact, since back in the days when Sid had played there once in a blue moon, which hadn’t been often but was more than never, which was his touring schedule now; he still loved to hear live music, though, and Miguel was usually more than happy to find him a seat or spot to stand even on crowded nights.
“Anyway, Miguel will be expecting you at eight. Stay around, he’ll introduce you two. Nathan’s getting real into producing things these days, maybe you can even have a talk about his doing your next album….”
If the Damn Agent had been there, Sid would have glared at him hard enough to bore a hole into his chest. The issue of Sid’s Big Next Album was a touchy one between them, and had been since eight years previous when the current Damn Agent had taken over for the retiring former Damn Agent. At least this one’s predecessor had had the decency to recognize a man’s desire to see the writing on the wall and ease into obscurity before the transition became painful.
“Or don’t. But either way, you should go. Okay?” There was a pause. “Okay, Sid?”
He’d lost the war before he’d even known he was fighting it. “Fine, fine.” As much as he hated to admit it, getting out of the apartment and doing something was probably a good idea; last night had been rough, and if he opted for another night in alone, the odds of a repeat performance were uncomfortably high. And apparently his body didn’t need his help on the path to self-destruction anyway. “I’ll go if you’ll shut up about it.”
The Damn Agent laughed. “Shutting up. Let me know what you think!” Sid didn’t respond, and after a few seconds the phone call ended without further discussion.
Sid stole a look at the clock in the corner of his screen and saw that he had at least four hours before he had to leave the house. Two of those, he figured, should be spent showering and shaving and generally manhandling himself back to a stage where he didn’t mind being seen in public. He had nothing planned for the two before that, though, so technically they would have been a wash anyway, and now the top post-video option came with the intriguing text ‘Big in Japan – That’s What She Said‘ next to a picture of an elephant on top of a tractor.
Maybe he had something in his closet that wouldn’t make him stick out like the old man that he was, he reasoned, and clicked.
It wasn’t, Sid knew, like anyone was going to recognize him anyway, but he kept his Panama hat tipped low toward his eyes regardless as he leaned across the bar. “Another George Dickel, neat,” he said, tapping the rim of his empty glass as he pushed it toward the bartender, a tall girl he’d never seen before. He’d resolved to pace himself tonight, but the show was running late, which meant the most interesting thing in the room was his whiskey. Besides, he reasoned as he took the refilled glass from her with a smile, this was only his second.
There was a commotion on stage all the way at the other end of the place, and the room took on a hush as all hundred-odd people in the room turned. Jim’s wasn’t as packed as Sid had seen it, but the Damn Agent had said it was a secret show, whatever the hell that meant, so maybe the secret had just been too good for a full house. The noise turned out to be what got made when a performer knocked a microphone into a drum set, and by the time Miguel had helped right things, that place was church-mouse quiet.
“Uh, hi, everybody,” said the kid, and the first thing that Sid really noticed about him live was how small he was; Miguel wasn’t a big guy, just under six feet, and the tips of the kid’s pointy hair barely reached over Miguel’s shoulder. He wore a dark suit, but the bow tie was gone now, leaving his white shirt beneath open past the base of his pale throat. Seeing him in real life, Sid could tell he wasn’t actually twelve years old; he just had a self-conscious grin that could erase years off his already youthful face and all the body language of a high school junior showing up for his prom date. “Sorry for the delay, there was–” A wash of feedback overwhelmed the system, and he stepped back, looking for all the world like he’d just set off the fire alarm. As it faded away, he sighed and came close again. “Little trouble with the sound hookup.”
Sid found a bare spot against the wall and commenced leaning; he’d get Miguel to find him a spare barstool later if his feet got tired, but he’d given enough concerts standing the whole time that he didn’t so much mind hearing one that way. “So, um, I want to start off with one I just finished, like, the other day. Still working on kicking out all the kinks in it– Oh! Thanks for coming out tonight, everyone, really. I know it was sort of really short notice,” a gentle wave of laughter hummed through the room, and Nathan relaxed a bit, “but I’m really glad you’re here. Really glad. So, yeah, this one’s called ‘Paycheck’.”
He hit the guitar running. There’d been few videos Sid could find that had featured Nathan’s guitar playing without drowning it in other instruments, and the few that he’d found had been acoustic versions of Big in Japan’s punk-rock-pop-whatever songs. Live and on his own stuff, Nathan’s guitar playing had a real bluesy swing to it, something equal parts Django Reinhardt and B.B. King, while still maintaining the same manic pulse that had shaved off a third of Sid’s own ‘Times Fucking Square’ time. The song was an upbeat bitter rant on fame, every word belted out in Nathan’s sweet tenor was clear in a way Big in Japan’s lyrics had never sounded.
He barely stopped long enough when he was done to let the earnest applause rise and fall, plowing right into the next song with no preamble, then two more straight after. Only after the fourth song did he step back from the microphone, sweating visibly under the stagelights and panting. Miguel had left a water bottle at his feet, and he cracked it open and drank half of it down without pausing for a breath. This, however, had broken his rhythm, and Sid could see the kid’s eyes widen a little as he realized he should probably say something to the fans who’d dropped everything and shuffled down on a Tuesday night. “So, uh,” he said, scratching the back of his head, “how’s it going?”
A happy wave of applause broke forth from the audience, about as loud as a hundred-odd people were going to get, and the grin on Nathan’s face widened. “Hey, that’s … that’s awesome. ‘Cause it’s, you know, New York! Woo! Big Apple and all.” He wiped his hands on the sides of his pants. “Yeah, Big Apple. Yeah, it’s all … I’ve never really been here before, you know, so this is all … it’s all really new. I mean, I’ve been here before, but it was, like, on a big tour bus, and we were sort of passing through so … no tourist stuff. No Statue of Liberty or anything. But I saw her! Coming in, she was right there, and, like, big and green, and I thought, wow, you don’t really think of the Statue of Liberty as being something you just … see. She’s something you go to, right, or maybe something you see if you’re a nineteenth-century immigrant. But, like, there she was! And it was … well, I don’t know, this Chicago boy thought it was pretty cool.”
Sid figured that the kid possibly could have gone on like this all night, letting his nervousness turn the rest of the show into a stream-of-consciousness riff. He paused to take a breath, though, and in that pause, one of the young men in the audience yelled out, “‘Avatar State of the Union Address’!”
At first Sid thought this might have been some sort of code, but the cheers from assorted audience members and the look of deer-in-the-headlights terror from Nathan made it clear: this was a request. And from the stupid title, Sid suspected it wasn’t one of Nathan’s. “Oh, um, sorry guys,” Nathan stammered, looking down at his feet, “but … I mean, I’m glad to do requests, and it’s awesome that you like the band, but … I’m trying a little to get away from the old stuff.” He scratched the back of his neck, and though he was still smiling, Sid could read gritted teeth in the set of his jaw. “If you’ve got other requests, though, that’d be great–”
“‘If They Gave Ph.Ds in Fucking Up, You’d Be Calling Me “Doctor” By Now’!” shouted a girl who sounded like she might have been sitting at the same table as the previous requester, and another round of vocal encouragement followed. Sid hadn’t actually heard the song, of course, but he suspected its lyrics had nothing to do with the ridiculous title; from what he could tell from his adventures on the YouTube, that seemed to be about par for the course.
Nathan’s nervous smile began to falter, and he toed at the ground with his sneakers, kicking at his microphone cord. “Come on, guys,” he said, “maybe even like a cover or something….”
He couldn’t swear to what made him speak up — really, he’d gone in that evening specifically meaning not to make a nuisance of himself — but the support the previous requests had gotten made Sid more than a little certain that there was a vocal Big in Japan fan contingent here tonight, and he’d seen more than once what could happen when a bunch of dedicated fans got drunk and entitled. It was a gamble, maybe, and maybe more than a little egocentric on Sid’s part, but it was better than nothing. He took a swallow that finished off his whiskey, then called out, in his clearest voice, “‘Times Fucking Square’!”
Nathan’s eyes went wide for a second — and then that grin came back, the real one that stretched ear to ear and erased all anxiety. “Now there’s a man with taste,” he said, pointing stage-blindly in Sid’s general direction; Sid knew from experience that everything past the first two rows of tables was pretty much lost to blackness, and thus he felt no fear of recognition. “Sid Stills, man, he … well, he’s just the best out there, a real hero to me ever since I started playing, and I’m about … one piano shy of what I’d really need to do justice to this song, so you should all go out and buy the real version off iTunes or something when you go home tonight, but, well, I hope you can forgive me….”
No forgiveness was necessary. Sid had never before thought of how the song would sound arranged for solo guitar, but the kid obviously had from the way he lit into the intro. It was simplified from the piano version, of course, and involved more strumming and less picking, but it was beautiful, and by the time Nathan started into the first lines, Sid had declared it a damn shame that he’d written the song any other way than this. The crowd mumbled and shuffled in the way audiences often did when confronted with a familiar musician’s take on an unfamiliar song, but they settled quickly under the heartfelt strains of Sid’s song in Nathan’s mouth. It was slower now, taken downtempo by necessity with only a guitar for accompaniment, and Nathan sang every word like he damn well meant it.
When he settled his hands on the strings to silence the last chord, the room was quiet for a moment, then swelled with honest applause. Smiling like the sun come out from behind rainclouds, Nathan rode that momentum through the end of the show and a two-song encore after. At last, the crowd rose to leave, bustling toward the door, and Sid realized both that he was completely sober and that his feet were killing him, and both of these things were because except to clap, he’d barely moved a muscle for the whole hour and a half. His right shoulder was warm from where he’d been leaning on it the whole time, and he rubbed it a little, urging feeling back into the skin.
The place was a mess after shows, like it always was, and Sid knew that post-concert was never the best time to approach any performer, so he grabbed an outdated 5×7″ band flyer off the wall, sweet-talked a pen off the bartender, and wrote on the back, Great show, really great Times Fucking Square, call me tomorrow or sometime, followed by his name and phone number. He made sure it got into Miguel’s hands, then disappeared out into the evening, same as everyone else.
The walk home was short, just a few blocks east, but Sid took it slow, breathing deep and clearing his head. His ears still rang with a good hum that muted the city, turning all the engines and voices down just a notch, but enough to make a difference. The night air was on the late-spring cool side of cold, but little venues like Jim’s heated so quickly that he enjoyed the contrast as the breeze dried the sweat off the back of his neck. A taxi screeched by and two drunk teenagers nearly plowed into him on the sidewalk, and he smiled. Home sweet home.
He made the walk at a tourist’s pace, looking the familiar buildings along the route without really seeing any of them. Work on a busted water line had shut down part of St. Mark’s place, so he turned on 2nd Avenue to avoid it … and just kept going. It felt good to walk, to get out and put himself back on his feet again. The City was safe at this time of night now, even down toward the Bowery, in a way he figured he’d never get used to, no matter how hard he tried; for heaven’s sake, he hadn’t been mugged since 1998, and even that had been the most half-hearted stickup in the history of human civilization. The world was changing around him, and it was going to hell by not going to hell in a way he’d never known how to express.
Mostly, he missed that living in New York City was no longer what it had been when he’d fallen in love with it: a compulsion, something like a disease. It made him think of the way his Navy buddy Saul, the first Jewish guy he’d ever met, had talked about keeping kosher — it wasn’t something you did because it was fun or because you thought it’d get you anything special out if it, it was something you did because you couldn’t really imagine what you’d do if you didn’t. Nobody liked living there, but nobody who did it could stomach the thought of living anywhere else. Now, though, people came because it was convenient, or trendy, or whatever the hell they thought about it, and when they were tired of it, they moved on. These days, Manhattan didn’t chew up the weak, it just lightly gummed them until they were irritated enough to see themselves out.
He knew he was thinking all this to keep from thinking about the kid, and that was all right. No one was holding his feet to the fire on that one, except maybe his Damn Agent, and even he’d probably call Miguel to confirm Sid’s attendance before he’d call Sid himself. Sometimes Sid could even admit that the Damn Agent — whose real name, Sid remembered in his more charitable moments, was Randall — was all right for an agent, definitely a pain the ass, but at least he cared. He kept poking at Sid not because Sid was making him a lot of money (he wasn’t) or because Sid was poised to make a comeback (he definitely wasn’t), but because Clarence, the former Damn Agent, had been Randall’s father, and Clarence and Sid had always had a good working relationship, and Randall seemed bound and determined to honour his father’s fondess for the cranky old rocker. And Sid put up with it because it was sweet, in its own way, and because it was nice to have at least one person left in the world who still knew who the hell he was.
Two. There were two, he reminded himself: the Damn Agent and the kid, that tiny ginger mess that could sing down the rafters and play what seemed to be damn near every instrument ever made. All Sid’s old friends had drunk and smoked and shot up their brains to pudding, or married and given up their rock ‘n roll lifestyles, or become such superstars that entire worlds had begun to revolve around them; he barely kept in touch with any of them, and mostly heard about them in the form of two-column obituaries in the Times. At sixty-one, he figured he’d pretty much outlived the majority of people who’d ever given a damn about him or his music. Everyone, that was, with a pair of notable exceptions.
He stopped in one of the little bodegas below Houston to get a pack of Lucky Strikes, but the Spanish-speaking clerk apologized and told him they didn’t carry Luckies. His doctor would have liked that, Sid figured, so instead he got a glass bottle of Mexican Coke and drank it outside as he leaned against the heavy metal shutters of the boutique next door, watching the evening traffic. It wouldn’t take him ten minutes to get home from here, and he didn’t want to go there, not just yet. Home was where he’d left his phone, his computer, and all the paperwork from his doctor telling him all the do’s he should do and the don’ts he should don’t and the number he should call to set up an appointment for futher tests, and he didn’t want any of that, not now, not tonight. Tonight he just wanted to breathe on his own a little longer.
After a minute or so, he realized he was humming, and a few notes after that, he realized what he was humming: the second encore, the kid’s last song of the night, a cheerful little thing he’d called ‘Sunshine’. At the time, Sid had been impressed enough with it, but he hadn’t realized quite how catchy it had been until he found it bubbling up from his brain. Whether the kid was doing it on purpose or not, he really knew how to get under a man’s skin.
“Why say the forecast’s cloudy now when it’s been that way all my life,” Sid sang under his breath, the noise all but drowned out by the rumble of passing cars, lost in the heartbeat of the Lower East Side. “Guess I’ll make my own sunlight.”
The phone woke him for the second day in a row, though this call only stirred him from a dream, not from the dead bottom of a hangover. The sound seemed closer than it should have, and only when Sid opened his eyes did he remember he’d brought the phone into the bedroom the night before to charge it. He didn’t even bother looking at the number before he snatched it off the nightstand, just slid the imaginary tab to the right and flopped back on the bed. “Sid,” he said into the phone, preparing his whole ‘it was nice’ speech about the concert for the Damn Agent.
Instead, he heard an awkward little cough from the other end. “Is … is this Sid Stills?” asked a nervous little tenor.
Sid sat upright again, raking his fingers self-consciously through his hair even though he knew nobody could see him. “Yeah, this is Sid Stills,” he growled, and he cleared his throat so he didn’t sound like quite such a billy goat gruff. “This Nathan Vaughn?”
His question was met with an inch of silence, followed by an anxious huff. “…This seriously better not be a prank, Doug.”
“Not a prank,” Sid laughed; he admired the kid’s caution, even if it was misplaced this time. “Just an old man with an iPhone. So you got my note from Miguel?”
“Ohmygod,” squeaked the voice on the other end of the phone, squeezing all three words into one. There was a pause during which Sid heard three rapid calming breaths, then the sound of a clearing throat. “Uh, yes, hi,” said the kid, this time speaking in his lower register not unlike a boy trying to sound older on the phone, “this is Nathan Vaughn and, yes, I got your note. I had no idea you were at the show, I … well, I would’ve done a better job of ‘Times Fucking Square’, or maybe not even done it at all–”
Sid laughed. “Nah, it’s okay, I’m the one who requested it.”
“You’re the–” Nathan’s voice caught in his throat, and he made a little choking sound. “Oh.”
It wasn’t until he heard the kid’s hesitation that Sid realized just what an asshole move it had been, requesting one of his own songs at the kid’s show. He’d been listening to the various videos right before; surely if he weren’t such a self-centered bastard he could have come up with one of the kid’s own song titles, something where he could have shown off his own talent instead of regurgitating Sid’s tired old numbers. “Just the first thing that popped into my head, sorry–”
“No! No, I love doing that song! I really do.” The kid’s enthusiasm was too genuine to be faked. In fact, there seemed to be nothing about him that wasn’t crystallized sincerity, a quality that Sid had gotten the sense had been devalued these days, judging by the too-cool-for-school attitudes among the young people that staffed his most local record shop. But if Sid had it all wrong and Nathan was trying to play it cool … well, he wasn’t doing a very good job. “It’s just, nobody asks for it, really, so I never get a chance to do it — I mean, they don’t really think, like, he used to be with Big in Japan, he’s got to cover Sid Stills songs, right? Not really a connection everybody makes.”
“I just saw the video on your Tube,” Sid explained, trying to give some context for his actions, lest he come across as the kind of guy who crashed live shows and asked for his own songs, hoping that, like a cranky old blind squirrel, he’d magically find a nut.
“Ohgod,” Nathan mumbled, this time squishing them into a one-word expression not of excitement, but deep regret. “I … was hoping you wouldn’t say that.”
“Why not?” Sid laughed. “It was good!”
“It was terrible, it was in the basement I was renting from a friend in Nashville, and I don’t think that piano had been tuned in, like, centuries, and … oh, that was when I forgot the words, wasn’t it?”
“Oh, kid, if they counted off for forgetting the words, they would’ve kicked me off the stage years back.” Sid stood as he talked, still a little fuzzy on being able to move around while he talked on a phone. He’d had a cordless phone and then a cell phone long enough to get used to the idea of being able to pick up the phone anywhere, but there still seemed something odd to him about not being tethered to a specific place once he started talking. He was thirsty and undercaffeinated, though, and the coffee wasn’t going to make itself, much less bring itself to him; he wasn’t living that far in the future.
His admission seemed to make the kid feel a little better, and he could hear Nathan’s nervous little laugh settle out into an easier one. “It was … just the first thing I thought of when Dino — the guy I was staying with — said, hey, you know, I’ve got some recording stuff in my basement, so you could, I don’t know, make your own video. Since I was telling him about how much I hated making videos with the guys, with, like, all the costumes and people having cameras in your face for a week — not that I hated the guys in the band, or being in the band, but–” He interrupted himself with a giant sigh. “And I am now officially talking too much, so … yeah, going to shut up.”
Sid laughed again as he poured the water into the coffee maker. “Hey, no, it’s okay,” he said, and he was a little surprised to find that he meant it. “Not much of a talker myself.” Something about the kid’s charm was infectious, and even his freight-train babble, which might well have set Sid’s teeth on edge from anyone else, was endearing to the point of being comforting. Sid still got out and around the neighbourhood, of course, and he knew the people in all the shops and delis and bodegas within a few-block range, but … well, he’d let himself get a little out of practice with regards to actual conversation, and this was kind of nice. “Leastwise, not on the phone.”
“Oh, me too, I hate phones,” Nathan agreed. “I don’t like not being able to see the person I’m talking to, and Doug — he’s one of the guys setting up venues for me — Doug’s the kind of guy who likes practical jokes, so when you left the number, even though I checked with the manager at Jim’s, like, five times to make sure, I still thought it might be him I was calling, since he’d said he was going to do something for my birthday even though he’s still back in Chicago, and … and I usually talk too much, case in point, again, sorry.”
“Nah, don’t be.” The percolator hissed and spat as it went to work brewing coffee in a machine that was probably older than the voice on the other end of the line, and even just the coffee fumes helped usher Sid’s brain into a more coherent waking state. “Hey, you want to ditch the phone part and you just come on over?”
The stillness from the kid’s side of the phone might have convinced Sid their connection had been lost, had he not still been able to hear shuffling and traffic in the background, noises that sounded like midtown as heard from a balcony high above. They’d probably set him up in some nice-but-not-too-nice hotel somewhere, the kind of place intended to know the label appreciated his business without having to drop four figures a night to prove that appreciation. “To,” Nathan managed at last, “to your place?”
It didn’t sound strange until the kid said it, and even then, it really didn’t sound that strange anyway. Sid’d had friends come over all the time back in the day, to play music and shoot the shit and maybe even stay the night if things got drunker than the ability to navigate the subway or hail a cab. “Sure, unless I’m stepping on your plans for today….”
“No!” Sid could damn near hear the kid fall forward in his attempt to keep Sid from rescinding his offer. “I mean, I didn’t … I wasn’t going to do anything today, I’ve got a show tomorrow, but I was just going to…. You know what? I wasn’t even really going to do anything. It doesn’t matter. I’d love to come over. Yes. Thank you.” Nathan cleared his throat. “So, um, where exactly is ‘over’?”
“Do you know Alphabet City?” asked Sid, and when he heard a confused pause, he followed it up with, “Do you know how to get to Alphabet City?”
“I’m guessing it’s where Sesame Street goes, but other than that….”
“Get something to write with,” Sid said, and he gave his address such that a cab driver would understand. “Go downstairs, get the doorman to hail you a taxi, and say exactly that. It’s a red brick building with a green awning over the door, halfway down the block, just to the left of a salon with Japanese magazine ads all in the windows. Ring the top bell and I’ll buzz you on up.”
“Okay, I think I got it,” Nathan said, and then Sid could hear him swallow, as though he’d just remembered something important. “…Um, now?”
Sid supposed it was a fair question; after all, he hadn’t specified. “Yeah, sure, now,” he said, before he caught sight of his face reflected in his toaster’s shiny side. Stubble like that was no way to greet a guest. “Or, on second thought, how about you move slow and I’ll move fast and we’ll say see you here in an hour or so? Take your time; I didn’t have anywhere to be today either.”
After a few more exchanges to triple-check addresses and directions, Nathan thanked Sid, promised he’d be over soon, and hung up with a certain deliberateness that Sid knew well — the kind that cut off a conversation before either party could back out or change his mind. It’d been how Sid had forced himself to be, back when he’d just been starting out, when his impulse had been to interrogate every self-professed fan and record producer just to make sure they weren’t fucking with him. But no, they’d been serious, just as serious as he was about having the kid over so they could talk face-to-face.
Alone again, he finished his coffee and washed the mug in the sink, then just gave up and washed the other dishes that had accumulated there, putting them on the wooden drying rack atop the counter when they were useably clean again. It wasn’t like he was trying to impress the kid, or anything; impressing him would have involved taking him out to eat at some exclusive place some long-time friend of Sid’s could have gotten them in, or scared up some backstage passes from one of the other big names the Damn Agent represented, or pulling even any of his strings to try and pretend he was still somebody with some celebrity power, and not just the strange rocker time forgot.
But the truth was he was too old to play the fame game anymore, and his apartment was about as good as it got, so the least he could do was make sure it wasn’t an utter sty. His dear departed mother would have been proud, he thought to himself as he swept a small legion of empty beer bottles off into a garbage bag for recycling, with his cleaning the house before company came over.
He didn’t know what it was he expected they’d do when the kid got there, but that was all right too. Sid wasn’t expecting more than an exchanged handshake and maybe a couple good stories before the kid made some too-polite excuses about things to do to prep for the next day’s show and backed himself out the front door with no more than a thanks-for-your-time handshake. He supposed it was even a little cruel of him, inviting someone over who had such an inflated opinion of him, only to no doubt shatter the poor kid’s illusions about one of his musical influences. That was one of the perils of the business, Sid had learned, getting to meet your idols and see that they had feet of clay — but it was a rite of passage as much as anything else, and Sid supposed as letdowns went, he was at best a mild disappointment, not a crashing, world-shattering asshole. Besides, who the hell could ever look up to him enough that his real self could be that much of a heartbreak?
He started to wonder what he should wear.
The first thing Sid noticed when he opened the door was how far down he had to look.
To be fair, he was a little embarrassed it was the first thing he noticed, considering how he’d seen the kid on stage and figured out even from a distance that he was a bitty little thing, so he’d had no reason not to be prepared. But when he heard the little rapping sound a minute or so after he’d buzzed the building’s main door open, he swung open the door to the tiny hallway outside his apartment still expecting to greet someone around about his six-foot-two eye level.
He fumbled for a moment, then ratcheted his chin down the appropriate number of degrees, until he had well in his sights a row of spiky strawberry-blond bangs, and beneath them, a wide-eyed face with a nervous smile. “Hi down there,” Sid said, because sometimes his mouth crossed the finish line before his brain even started running the race.
“Hi,” said Nathan — or at least his lips did, because his vocal chords didn’t contribute anything to the sentiment. He cleared his throat and tried again, this time with a look of determination so fierce Sid was afraid he might sprain something: “Hi, Mr. Stills, I’m Nathan.”
Sid’s next thing that merited serious notice was that he — Sid, that was — had considered the elements of his closet and erred on the side of underdress. He’d picked out a pair of nice khakis and a short-sleeved button-down shirt he’d had for decades but still hadn’t yet worn any holes into, but he hadn’t bothered to do anything more with his hair than toss a hat over it and had gotten distracted on his way to find a pair of shoes sufficiently that he was still shuffling around in an old pair of brown leather house slippers. The kid, though, had actually put on a tie, and though he was still a jacket shy of a full three-piece suit, he wore a light grey vest and dark grey slacks that cuffed up at the bottom over the tops of a pair of bright red sneakers. Sid, who didn’t think he’d owned a pair of tennis shoes in decades, found the contrast at once bizarre and charming. Kids these days. “It’s Sid,” he said with a smile. “Just Sid.”
“Sid,” the kid repeated with a nod, and when Sid moved back from the doorway, Nathan stepped inside with the look of wonder you sometimes got off tourists at the Met, wide-eyed and searching, trying to take in everything at once. Sid’s apartment didn’t have nearly as much to it as even the most paltry of museums, but he supposed, glancing at his walls, he had a couple things worth seeing. He saw the kid’s eyes catch on a framed photo near the coat closet, a black-and-white shot nearly thirty years old of two guitarists on a tiny Cincinnati stage, and was pleased to see Nathan’s amazed stare widen another inch with recognition.
“Well, come on in and have a seat. Can I get you something to drink?” Sid gestured to the couch and loveseat, indicating that Nathan should take whichever one made him feel more comfortable, and walked over into the kitchen area adjacent the living room. The place wasn’t a studio by any means, but everything that wasn’t either a bedroom or a bathroom met in one bigger, undivided space that Sid had never seen the need to partition.
“Um,” said Nathan, who hesitated only a second before choosing the couch, “sure, that’d be great. Is that, um, Muddy Waters with you in the picture?”
Sid laughed as he opened the fridge and pulled out a pair of beers; it’d be 3:00 in a few minutes, and it’d take him at least that long to find the bottle opener. “Sure was. Taken back in ’78, during a little blues fest. He was on the next night and I’d done a set the night before, but one of their other performers got sick, so … we figured, why the hell not?” He rummaged around as he talked, finding the little churchkey faster than he’d anticipated, stuck in a corner of the silverware drawer by the spoons that were either too big or too small to be good for regular use. “Negra Modelo good by you?”
Nathan squinted and Sid held up the two gold-labeled bottles for a visual aid. “Oh! Sure. That sound great. Great, thanks.” Sid turned and set the bottles down on the counter to open them. “I was just thinking, I don’t really get to meet a lot of people who just happened to play a set with Muddy Waters,” Nathan half-laughed; he alternately balled his hands into fists, clasped them together in his lap, and rubbed them on the thighs of his pants.
“Probably don’t get to meet a lot of people who met him, period,” Sid pointed out. He came over and handed Nathan his beer before sitting back on the loveseat; he reclined against the back cushions while Nathan stayed spine-straight, perched on the edge of the couch, both of his hands now wrapped around the lower half of the perspiring bottle. “He died in ’83, so … back while you were still in diapers,” he guessed, erring on what he figured was the politely low end of his best guess for the kid’s age. Nathan had a baby face, to be sure, but Sid had done the math from a few of the album dates listed in the YouTube video summaries, and figured someone that talented and with that many albums to his name couldn’t be that young.
That caught Nathan with his beer bottle midway to his mouth, and he paused, looking down at the carpet near his feet. “Actually, about … two years before me,” he corrected with a sheepish mumble, rubbing the toes of his shoes one against the other. “My birthday’s the same day Midnight Cats came out.”
Sid concentrated on putting his lips to the mouth of his own bottle in an effort to keep his jaw from dropping; as it was, though, he couldn’t keep his eyebrows from creeping up in surprise. It was one thing to know, intellectually, that his next-to-last major album had been put out two and a half decades previous, but it was another to have the embodiment of that gap sitting on his couch, old enough to drink beer and do his own shows and say ‘fuck’ in public. That was what time did: it got away from you. “That a fact,” Sid finally said, and his voice was hoarse from his throat’s first alcohol burn of the day.
Nathan nodded, perking up with a little edge of what looked for all the world like pride. “When I say I grew up on your stuff, I mean, I literally did — Dad would listen to your records when it was his turn to watch me. He and Mom both play and sing, like, mostly old folk stuff, and I think part of the reason he eventually let me drop out of high school and join a band was because, you know, I think it was something he’d always wanted to do back when he was that age, and I–” Nathan stopped himself mid-sentence and took a deliberate, almost forced deep swallow of his beer, cutting off another of his tangents of nervous babble, the likes of which he’d shown both on stage and over the phone. “This is good beer, really good,” he nodded, looking at the bottle, “and I don’t usually drink beer, but I like this. It’s good. Yes. Thanks.”
As Nathan talked, Sid felt a wider and wider grin stretch across his face. Sure, he’d had occasion to meet some real cuties in his life, male and female, young and old, but in the span of five minutes this kid had established himself as the king of them all. “Hey, no problem. It’s just … what I have around for me.” He cast a glance toward the empty rest of the apartment and shrugged, acknowledging all the unfilled space around them. “So, how long are you in New York?”
“Just ’til Sunday. Show tomorrow night, then the next day my agent’s got me doing an interview with … this is so embarrassing, but I can’t actually remember who.” Nathan laughed. “Is that bad?”
Sid shook his head. “In my experience, it’s best if you just show up where you’re told, when you’re told, and let somebody else manage the details. But this is coming from a guy who’s lucky if he can remember which pair of pants he left his housekey in.” A thought caught him, and he patted his hip reflexively, smiling as he heard a muffled jingle in return. “Ah, good, I’m one for one today.”
“It’s the little victories.”
“I’ll drink to that,” Sid agreed, and he lifted his bottle to prove his point. “And then where are you headed after?”
“Up the coast.” Nathan walked his fingers up an imaginary map, like the old commercials about the yellow pages turned on its axis. “Mostly school shows, though a couple venues here and there: Northampton, Boston, and … I think Providence? This is really embarrassing, I feel like I should know this better, but … it’s different when it’s not just, like, you know, you get on the bus, the bus takes you where you need to be, you get off and do the show, you get back on the bus, lather, rinse, repeat, and nobody really expects you to know where you’re going next — or if, like, they do ask, there’s always somebody standing nearby who can tell them. I feel like I should be a lot more … responsible? When it’s just me? But … well, obviously intent hasn’t caught up with the rest of me.”
“So which do you like better, being with a band or running a solo project?”
The question seemed to catch Nathan off-guard, and he pressed his lips together, looking staring down the neck of his bottle for a long moment before shrugging. “I mean, it’s nice not to have to deal with five thousand people, and cameras and reporters and the other guys in the band being pigs on the bus, and Jason always wanting to bring his cats and stuff — and I really like the little venues, and getting to sing my own stuff, and getting to … anyway. So yeah, I guess this is better, it just … I don’t know, it’s stupid.” He shook his head and drank his beer too much too fast, which made him cough a little at the end of it, something Sid pretended not to notice. “I like this better. I do.”
Sid felt a sad smile prop up half his mouth, remembering what it had been like back when he’d been on tour — always as a solo act, but usually with a backing band, which came with all the herding-cats problems that the kid had alluded to. But he knew the smaller trips as well, especially from the days he’d been just a little older than the kid was now, non-stop shows through foreign territory until everything was a blur but the stage, and even that started to fog over after a while, nothing more familiar than a hotel bar’s pay telephone and maybe a sign for a McDonald’s if the town was big enough back in the ’70s for a franchise, same faces, same guitars, and barely an inch of difference between one microphone and the next. “Just a little lonely, huh?” he asked, but it wasn’t a question, not really.
Nathan jerked his head up as though he’d had cold water splashed in it, and he gave Sid a strange sort of frown, the kind that said who are you and why can you read my mind? It passed quickly, though, and was replaced with a quiet laugh as Nathan’s gaze sunk back to his feet again. “Yeah,” he nodded, those bright grey eyes looking past the floor, past that moment, back into a kind of solitude that resonated with Sid’s heart. “Maybe just a little.”
Honest to God, Sid had expected the kid would start to make awkward excuses after an hour, two at most, and that by dinnertime Sid would have been alone again, left to ponder the stack of menus in his kitchen drawer, facing down his usual conundrum of how to order enough for one person to make the delivery minimum.
What he didn’t expect in the slightest was to look over at the clock in the corner of his computer and register that the time was already into four digits. He didn’t get to look long, though, because the kid was already typing nathan vaughn come on down in the YouTube search bar, and the empty-container remnants of the Chinese takeout they’d gotten a few hours previous stood scattered across Sid’s coffee table with chopsticks still protruding here and there like skinny rabbit ears, and they’d have been the only things on that table had they not been joined by no fewer than a dozen empty beer bottles, and Sid’s face hurt from laughing as he braced himself against the computer desk, leaning over the kid’s shoulder, watching as screens that made no sense to him flew by. “Nobody covers that,” he pointed out, shaking his head in amazement.
“Yeah, well, I love it. The first time I heard it, it was, like, wow.” Oh, the kid was more than a little drunk now, and had stopped protesting about how he really wasn’t much of a drinker only a short while before he’d just up and stopped drinking, which to Sid showed an impressive level of common sense. But in his excitement, he’d made the trip from the couch to Sid’s computer table a wobbly one, and a misstep might have toppled him over if Sid hadn’t been there to catch him, so they’d both had a good laugh about that.
Somehow, they’d made the hours not only pass, but fly by. Instead of finding reasons to leave, the kid seemed to have found nothing but reasons to stay. Sid had warmed him up a little by telling a yarn or two, stories of his own time spent alone on the road, and that had been all the permission the kid needed to open up. He could babble with the best of them, but as he’d talked, his speech had evolved from random nervous stammering to more coherent narratives, telling Sid about everything from how much his parents loved his music (Sid’s, he’d meant, though Sid couldn’t imagine they didn’t think the world of their own son’s compositions), to how Jason his former band member and (also former? hard to say) best friend got him into Big in Japan, to what he was planning to do with his own music now that the band was over, to what he’d done already. And that last topic led to how there were apparently a bunch of videos on YouTube Sid had never even ventured near, including one where Nathan apparently did a version of one of Sid’s more obscure songs.
Which was why, apparently, he was now looking at a mid-quality image of Nathan, wearing a suit and resting a bass across his knee, in front of a pair of microphones; he looked like he was in some office building Sid didn’t recognize, though the scene out the windows behind him was clearly Times Square. “Now, before I press ‘play’,” said Nathan, not the one on the video but the real one, “you’ve got to understand: I haven’t, like, even seen this. I just did it the day before yesterday. Rolling Stone just said, come over, do some of your stuff from your album, but I was kind of freaked out that nobody would like any of it, so I picked this to go with it.”
“You were worried they wouldn’t like what you did, so you picked ‘Come On Down’?” Sid scoffed a little, not meaning to mock, but still helplessly incredulous. “What, did you consider something by Phillip Glass first, then think, no, no, that would be too familiar and accessible?”
Nathan smothered a laugh in his hand at that, though beyond his fingertips his cheeks were flushed pink from the alcohol. “It’s a classic,” he protested, and with the determination of a man jumping before he could change his mind, he clicked the mouse and set the video in motion.
The Nathan on the video looked very handsome, dressed much as he’d shown up on Sid’s front door, only here it seemed he’d traded his tie for a jacket. “So, um, okay,” said Video Nathan, “this is something a little different now, this is– I’ve got a– well, now I get to show off my bass, this is great, this isn’t even my bass, I borrowed it from my friend Jeff Truvino, who’s– hey, Jeff.”
Video Nathan waved to someone outside the tiny frame of his existence, and his real-life counterpart pinched the bridge of his nose. “I just need to learn how to sing and never talk,” he sighed, blush deepening.
“So, um, yeah. So.” Video Nathan played a few notes on the bass, a quick riff that checked the tuning. “So this is a song by Sid Stills, that … well, I wanted to cover it because it’s– I thought it might be fun to do something else, something different. That cool?” There was a smattering of applause from off-camera, enough so that Sid figured it was a pretty small crowd. “Okay, great, this is by Sid Stills, and it’s called ‘Come On Down’, and it’s– well, I know it’s going to sound a little funny, because I’m, like, not all, Now the girls are all clothed down in Times Square today,” sang Video Nathan, only he gruffed up his voice and dropped it down into his chest so that he sounded like Sid to an uncanny degree.
“Oh, God, I forgot I did that,” mumbled Nathan, wide-eyed with horror as he stared down the screen. “Oh, God, why don’t they edit these things before they put them on the web?”
Before he could get an answer to that, though, Video Nathan tapped the drum machine behind him, nodded a few times with its pulse, and then kicked into the lazy bass riff that recycled itself under the song’s somewhat tuneless lyrics. As odd as Sid might have thought the song for his own reasons, he was especially puzzled at the choice for a singer like Nathan, who seemed more the type to pick pieces where he got to show off his incredible range and quality. But both of the Nathans in front of him seemed pleased with the choice in general, as the real one bopped his head along with the beat, and the recorded one began to half-sing-half-bark: “Come on down … come on down … that’s right, you could be the next contestant / you may have already won … some of our lucky audience members have been chosen to receive … can’t win if you don’t play / can’t win if you don’t play / come on down….”
Aside from a few drunken impressions by friends, Sid had never heard anyone other than himself perform that song before, and had definitely never heard it done in all sincerity. It was an odd sort of experience, the way he imagined some celebrities felt when they encountered impersonators of themselves that maintained some obvious variant, like a skydiving Elvis. Of course, the kid’s sweet tenor didn’t sound anything like Sid’s rough grumble, and Sid sure as hell had never in his life looked as pretty as Nathan did — but instead of killing the funhouse mirror effect, the huge discrepancies only strengthened it.
And then the kid began to forget the words. It was subtle at first, just a little extra pause between one line of TV voiceover gibberish and the other, but Sid had performed that particular lyrical mess enough times himself to know what it felt like when you suddenly realized you didn’t know whether it was time for the line of banter that started ‘promotional consideration has been provided by‘ or whether you’d just finished singing that and it was time for something else now. For all the times he’d done it, Sid had realized there were only two choices at that point: nod to the band members to wrap up the song, or just sing the damn verse again.
The kid, however, seemed to have developed a third option: make shit up. “This … this … this program is brought to you with limited commercial interruption by / do not adjust your set / don’t turn off your DVRs … must-see TV / must-see TV / coming this fall on NBC,” sang Video Nathan, all the while wearing a beautiful apologetic smile that said he was sorry, but dammit, he was faking as fast as he could. “So come on down…”
He could only keep it up for so long, though, and only a few lines later retreated to Sid’s first option and let his hands still on the bass; he waited for a minute, frowning, then turned behind him and switched off the drum machine. The small, unseen audience applauded quietly, though there were a few scattered whoops among the assembled listeners. Well, Sid supposed, the guys at Rolling Stone were damn near required to know their ancient history like his stuff. “I’ll, uh, I’ll stop pretending I remember the rest,” Video Nathan apologized, and there was a small cloud of laughter as the video faded first to the Rolling Stone logo, then to black.
“Well, damn,” said Sid, and when Nathan looked up at him with those wide, pale eyes, Sid realized that maybe he hadn’t picked the best tone of voice for his response. “No! It was good, it was … I mean, that’s impressive! It is. It’s….” The dissonance of it all struck, and he shook his head. “Really?”
“Really really.” Nathan nodded, and the little spikes of his hair that stood up from his forehead wobbled with the effort. “I always wanted to write music like you. I tried, but … I mean, I’m okay with lyrics, but I’m not, like, you. Nobody’s like you, not even–” A little cloud crossed his features, drawing a single wrinkle down between his eyebrows. “I mean, I didn’t used to write the words. Just the music. Lyrics were, you know, Jason’s thing.”
Sid didn’t have the heart to admit he had no idea whether or not this Jason guy was any kind of writer, since Sid’s only exposure to his material had been watching the videos on his computer, where he hadn’t been able to catch half the words coming out of the kid’s mouth. “Well, everybody’s got a talent,” he said, figuring it was about as diplomatic as things got, considering the circumstances. “Like how someday you should tell me what it’s like to be able to sing.”
That caught Nathan in the middle of a sip of beer, and he laughed so hard he choked, coughing and snorting liquid out his nose. Feeling more than slightly terrible, Sid reached over to the handle of the fridge and grabbed the dish towel he kept slung there, then handed it to Nathan, who buried his face in it, turning red with exertion and embarrassment. “Oh, God,” he moaned into the towel, shaking his head. “Can I just curl under your desk and die right now? I promise not to smell too much.”
Sid clapped him on the back. “You do what you need to do, kid. Meanwhile, I’ve got to go let some beer out my other end.” With a stagger a little less steady than he might have liked, considering the circumstances, Sid trundled over to the hall bathroom and shut the door behind him.
He took a long, deep breath and let it out slowly as he emptied his overfull bladder, still navigating by sound. What he’d expected to be a short hi-how-are-you had turned into the best damn night he’d had in a long time. Hell, his jaw hurt from how much he’d been smiling, and that was an ache he associated more with being just past thirty than just past sixty; he’d talked more over the past several hours than he had in the last month, too, and never once caught himself going on when he should have been shutting up. He’d met groupies and die-hards before, and knew what hero worship looked like from the hero’s end, but this was something different — mostly because every time Nathan came out with a reason to admire Sid as a musician, Sid looked up and found a new reason to admire Nathan.
This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship, he thought with a smile as he washed his hands and looked at his own tired but happy face in the mirror. Making music and corrupting the youth were two of the biggest pleasures in life, and he hadn’t done either in far too long.
When he walked back out again, Nathan was standing with one hand in his pocket and the other holding his phone; it looked more like a tiny, rounded computer than Sid’s did, and it even had its own little permanent keyboard covering the bottom half. “Manager’s looking for me, so … I mean, I should totally go, I didn’t realize it’s almost midnight.” He looked a little sheepish as he tapped a button on the side of his phone, sending the screen dark.
Sid frowned over at the kitchen clock; son of a bitch, when had it gotten that late? “Hey, don’t let me keep you,” he said, extending his hand. “It was really good to meet you, kid. I mean, real good. We should do this again sometime.”
“Yeah,” said Nathan, shaking Sid’s hand with a little light of awe in his eyes, “yeah we should–” His eyes widened with the force of a sudden idea. “Come to my show tomorrow night. Please. I’d love to have you there. …I mean, if you don’t already have plans, shit, I mean, you’re probably totally busy and I’ve–”
“No, hey, I’d love to. I mean it, I really would.” Sid grinned and noticed after a moment that Nathan hadn’t released his hand. “Where’s it at?”
“I … have no fucking clue.” Nathan laughed and brought out his phone, tapping at buttons with a speed such that Sid almost couldn’t believe his keystrokes weren’t random. “Um, yeah. Nope. No idea. But I’ll find out and text you tomorrow. And, you know, if something comes up between now and then, that’s totally okay, I get it.”
“I’ll be there,” Sid promised, giving Nathan one more squeeze of his hand before letting him go. “You good finding your way back to your hotel on your own?”
Nathan frowned as though he hadn’t considered that one. “Just the subway, right? I can do that. …How do I do that, again?”
After a few minutes’ worth of explanation and directions, many of which involved squinting and pointing at the little map on Nathan’s phone, and a few more promises from both of them to attend the show and to text with information about the show, respectively, Sid gave Nathan another good-night handshake and closed the door to his apartment.
The silence was so thick Sid felt like he could touch it; it clung to him like heavy soot, sticking to his clothes and matting down his hair, ringing in his empty ears. He leaned his back to the door and looked over his apartment: the empty beer bottles and delivery containers, the throw pillows in disarray, the screen of his laptop still bright on a website he hadn’t known existed forty-eight hours before. It was as if he’d opened the door and let life itself in, only to find that when he showed it out at the end of the evening, it left a bit of itself everywhere. It was the same room, the same space, the same mess, but everything was somehow different, lighter, like Sid had been living inside a deep fog that had accumulated over the last fifteen years, so gradual that Sid had’t noticed the change, but by just being there, Nathan had managed to clear an air Sid hadn’t noticed was dirty. But that also meant his absence made the dimensions sharper, easier to see.
Sid sighed as he gathered the empties for the recycling and the white takeout boxes for the trash. Living here had become like being a boy spending Christmas in his aged grandmother’s stuffy old house, in a way, except that place had been full of human footprints: pictures on the walls, medals and certificates framed on bookcases, old curtains and doilies handed down from mother to daughter, a jar of drippings on the stove, the dirt from generations of miners’ boots that stained the cracks in the linoleum and wouldn’t come out with any amount of scrubbing, old coats of all sizes by the back door, scuff marks on the floor beneath the dining room chairs. It had been an empty old place, but it had been a place that had been lived in, and would never shake the sense of that, no matter how many times its emptiness was pointed out.
Here, Sid was his own only ghost, without the remnants of anyone’s life but his own, haunting himself. In the course of a single evening, his house had gone from being the right size for an old bachelor and his collection of musical instruments, to being vast, cavernous, boundless. He thought again of being a child in that same house, with The Lord of the Rings perched on his knobby knees, reading about the Mines of Moria and how all sounds made there echoed out until they disappeared into the blackness. They hadn’t sounded much like the cramped, dark spaces that had given one of his grandfathers black lung and crushed the other in a rockslide; they’d been magical mines, dangerous with monsters but safe by virtue of their sheer incomprehensible size. He’d never expected to find himself one day all grown up and living like a dwarf in the unfillable depths, four flights up from the New York City streets.
A shudder crept across his shoulders, and he shook it away, then reached for his computer. He tapped the little right-facing arrow, and the little ginger-topped smile lit up the screen: “So, um, okay, this is something a little different now….”
Sid smiled as Video Nathan stammered his way into the song, and when the video had run its course, he played it a second time, then a third, then a fourth, until finally he just gave up, unplugged the beast, and carried it to his beside so Nathan’s voice could keep him company while he dressed and got ready for bed. It was weird, he knew, but it also made him feel better, and he’d lived long enough to know that peace of mind was worth a few oddities. “Hand-picked, chosen, signed, sealed, delivered, so come on down,” sang Video Nathan as Sid pulled the covers up to his chest and shut his eyes.
“Okay,” said Nathan, blotting his forehead with a handkerchief as he grinned out at the crowd, “I’ve got one more, but I’m going to need a little help on it.”
The room rose with applause from every seat; this show, Nathan had explained, had been scheduled longer in advance than his engagement two nights previous, and thus had used the extra time to sell out. Despite Nathan’s sheepish offers to the contrary, Sid had taken up his same spot as he had before, not wanting to cheat some paying fan out of a chair. Instead, from his vantage point (located conveniently near the bar), he could catch a look at the house as well as at the stage. He didn’t wind up calling out any requests for his own stuff, but nobody called out for any Big in Japan songs either, so Sid figured that was an improvement on matters for the kid.
Nathan seemed much more comfortable than he had the previous night, stammering less and playing harder. Maybe it was the friendlier crowd, or, Sid figured, maybe he’d just needed some time to settle in. He didn’t make his prior mistake of stopping between songs without anything to say either, which made the show run smoother overall. So he’d played his way through the set and the two encores Sid had heard him do the night before, and Sid found he hadn’t stopped smiling the entire time.
“I’m going to need you,” Nathan addressed the audience, “to put your hands together and help me welcome a very special guest to the stage: Mr. Sid Stills!”
Well, that was enough to knock the smile off his face — not into anger, just into shock. He got a double dose of it a microsecond later as the room fired up: cheers rose, hands slapped together, and heads turned, looking in the direction of Nathan’s beckoning gesture. What kept Sid from approaching the stage just a moment longer was wondering why the hell a room full of kids who were here to see Nathan might get excited about hearing his old fart name. But Nathan was standing up there with that handsome expectant grin on his face, and Sid didn’t want to let the kid down, so he tipped his hat back from his face and strolled forward through the tables, toward the stage lights, toward a life he’d left a million years ago.
When he stepped on the stage, though, all his apprehension disappeared beneath the million-watt beam of Nathan’s smile, giving way to an old familiar rush of performance adrenaline. Working on muscle memory, he stepped close to the stage’s second mic, then yanked it up the extra foot he needed to put it in the range of his own mouth. “Well … if I’d known I was going to be up here tonight,” he rumbled, dropping into the gentle thunder of his chest voice, “I would’ve put on a cleaner shirt.”
That got a laugh from the crowd and Nathan alike. “Sid’s the definition of a surprise guest: it’s a surprise to him as much as to you.” There was a nervous little note to Nathan’s expression, the kind of a kid hoping he was grinning wide enough to see himself to the other side of whatever thin ice he was walking on. As though making a conciliatory gesture, Nathan slipped the guitar strap off his shoulders and held the whole instrument out toward Sid, a placating offering of the best kind he knew.
And who had time to resent that kind of imposition in the face of how good it felt to be back up here, in front of a crowd hanging on his every word? He took the guitar and plucked a few strings on it, getting a sense of the sound. It was a smallish thing, probably a women’s guitar, made with the same proportions but sized down for a less large musician. “I know that ‘I’m a little out of practice’ is up there with ‘my dog ate my homework’, but….” He plucked a few more notes, then played a little blues riff, noodling and aimless. “It all comes back to you, sort of like falling off a bicycle.”
The crowd laughed again, louder this time, and a few whistled and clapped too, led by Nathan’s bouncing enthusiasm — Nathan, who’d just played a whole stellar show on his own, but who now looked doubly ready to (as Sid’s mom had always said) bust his buttons. “So, uh, did you have anything in mind?”
“Considering I didn’t know about this until fifteen seconds ago, no,” said Sid, but despite his gruff stage voice, he couldn’t keep from working up a grin to match Nathan’s. That kind of enthusiasm went beyond contageous, straight into the instantly infectious stage, and Sid had caught it as bad as any cold. “I don’t know, you thinking mine or yours?”
“Yours!” chirped Nathan, an eager student well-prepared for the exam question, leaving Sid to wonder exactly when the kid had come up with this crazy idea. He gestured to one of the stagehands, who brought him over his other performance guitar, tuned and waiting. “‘Times Fucking Square’?”
Some of the audience members clapped that one on, but Sid shook his head. “That’s more of a piano number for me,” he said, nodding to the stage behind them, which was emphatically absent a set of keys. Sid was a half-good pianist and a half-good guitarist, and he tended not to try both halves at once, leaving his repitoire divided into what he thought of as his ‘piano songs’ and his ‘guitar songs’. He lay his callused fingers over the twelfth fret, plucking harmonics off the strings and smiling as he heard the sound system deliver their high, angelic tones back to him. The novelty of his just being up there would wear off soon, though, and he knew he had to make a choice before he had a mutiny on his hands: “How about … you know ‘Stay’?”
The look on Nathan’s face went back and forth between terror and delight so fast Sid was afraid the kid might hurt himself. “I….” Nathan swallowed. “Okay, true confession time: I’ve played that before, but never so someone else could hear it.”
“Only behind locked doors, in the privacy of your own home?”
“After my parents had gone to bed,” Nathan quipped, and Sid was almost shocked to hear the crowd giggle in response, not because it hadn’t been a cute thing to say — it had, everything about damn kid was cute — but because it had been so easy to forget, just in the span of a few lines of conversation, that they weren’t alone. Well over a hundred people sat out there, hanging on the two performers’ words, but the way Nathan looked at him made Sid feel like he might be the only other person in the entire world, much less the cramped venue. Nothing he’d ever done in his whole life was good enough to deserve getting looked at like that.
A few notes plucked on his guitar and Sid had the sense of the song again; the instrument was unfamiliar in particular, but familiar in the general ways that all guitars were alike, and his hands fell back into well-known patterns. This had been one of the songs off his last album, but never a hit, and thus he’d performed it a only few times in a few venues, never as a request and never for an encore. Frankly, he was surprised the kid knew it at all, much less appeared willing to jump into it with such enthusiasm. “Ladies and gentlemen and various riffraff,” Sid addressed the crowd, hunkering over the microphone so it caught all the wind from his words, “for those of you who don’t know who the hell I am or what the hell is going on here, I’ll just say: this is a song about a girl I knew.”
Sid lit out into the easy strumming pattern that started the song, and he heard Nathan’s guitar join him a split-second later, following perfectly. “And when I say ‘knew’,” he continued, talking over the underpinnings of the song, “I mean — and I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone this before, come to think of it — she was a waitress in a coffee shop in Osceola, Florida, and the nametag on her apron told me she went by the illustriously southern name of Eunice.” He paused and thought about it a little, then repeated it, thinking about the sounds as they rolled out of his mouth: “Eunice.”
Some bit of the good sense still in him told him to cut it off there, that nobody was interested in an old man’s tale about the origins of a song they didn’t know — and then he glanced over at the kid, whose face was the portrait of expectant excitement, and really, what storyteller could refuse an audience like that? “Anyway, I was camped out at the counter for hours while she worked the graveyard shift, and she just kept pouring me coffee, every time, it was like some magic spell, just … abracadabra, the ever-full coffee mug. So I thought, damn, I just have to get to know this magic woman with her magic coffee. And we talked, and she told me her sweetheart was about to be sent overseas, in the army somehow, she didn’t quite know to say, to the Persian Gulf — this was the first Gulf War, mind you, so we’re talking ancient history here — and she wanted to be with him, to spend time with him before he deployed, but they needed the money, so she was there with her apron and her order pad and her magic, magic coffeepot.” That got him another laugh, and he couldn’t help smiling in return. “So I made up a song about her, partly from what she told me, mostly from what I made up in my head. And it turned out like this.” With one last nod to Nathan to indicate he’d finally decided just to shut up and play the damn thing, he picked at the melody for a few bars, then set in singing.
It felt good to be back on stage from the moment he opened his mouth to perform, like stretching after sleep, like taking a first deep breath after a long chest cold, oiling rusted parts back to the jobs they were meant to do in the first place. “Doesn’t think that she can greet the sunrise sober,” he rumbled over the guitar’s heartbeat, loving the way he could feel the song’s melody pour out of the speakers in his own voice and bounce off the ceiling right back through him. “Drives all night so she doesn’t wind up home.”
His folk music upbringing had taught him that the best songs happened like this: find a voice, tell a story, and it didn’t matter that it didn’t happen to you or even at all, it’d still be true. He couldn’t swear Eunice herself had ever thought any of these things, or that she’d even know the song was about her if she’d ever heard it, but it’d been what Sid had reasoned he’ feel in that situation, and that had been as true of a thing as he’d ever known how to say. “She’ll wait on him until the end of the world / and every morning hope it won’t come today,” he sang, hearing Nathan’s wordless guitar counterpoint behind his own voice — wordless mostly, he supposed, because his own semi-tuneful singing didn’t leave a lot of room for close harmony. “When his plane takes off all she’ll have left of him / is what she might have said to make him stay.”
He finished to silence, and was fairly certain he’d confused and alienated them all — at least, for the few seconds before the room came to life, full of honest applause and cheering. It ran through his body the same way the song had, only louder and more percussive, an earthquake of human hands. “Sid Stills, everyone!” Nathan called into the microphone. “Thank you all, we’ve played way too long, but you’ve been fantastic, thanks again, good night!”
Before Sid could say anything of his own in gratitude, the house music came up and the lights dimmed on the stage; the applause lingered in the air like an exhalation of smoke, hovering before being swept away on the wind of realizing that the show was, in fact, over. Sid’s hesitation was less temporary, however, and he might well have stood there for several minutes more, had Nathan not taken him by the arm and tugged him off to the side of the stage, half-hidden from sight by the venue’s larger speakers. His bright eyes sparkled, and he hopped a little on the balls of his feet. “That — that was amazing,” he stammered. “Just — it was — and then — and then you — wow.”
A little self-conscious under the weight of such admiration, Sid shrugged off the guitar and placed it in one of the nearby stands. “Didn’t mean to steal your thunder….”
“Steal it?” Nathan looked at him slack-jawed, as though his words didn’t make sense. “My thunder,” Nathan put his hands a few inches apart, “isn’t even big enough for your thunder,” he spread his arms nearly as wide as they could go, almost whacking into a mess of cords than ran up to the lights, “to notice. You didn’t steal anything. You made it awesome. You were awesome.”
Before Sid could get off an appropriate reply — somewhere between gratitude and slight chastisement for the kid’s obvious exaggeration, though gentle on both counts, as he didn’t want the kid to think he’d done something wrong — a tall man with shoulder-length black hair tapped Nathan’s shoulder, and Nathan turned around with a start. “You about ready to go?” the man asked, his voice gruff and his vowels pure Midwest.
“In a minute,” said Nathan, who hadn’t quite stopped bouncing. “Sid, this is Doug, he helps me find places to play and keeps me in line. Doug, this is–”
“Sid Stills,” said Doug, extending his hand. “Doug Berquist. Big fan. Big surprise to see you up there tonight,” he added, giving Nathan an eye that told Sid that Nathan’s impromptu pressing of a guest star into service may not have been strictly kosher.
Nathan’s bright grin faded a little, and he took off his own guitar, putting it next to where Sid had left his own borrowed instrument. “We met the other night.”
“Hey, I was glad to play,” Sid said, and he placed a hand on Nathan’s shoulder, a surge of protectiveness he neither had expected nor really understood surging inside him. It didn’t make sense to feel like needing to protect a grown man from his own tour manager, but Sid had already decided he didn’t like this Doug fellow — the one Nathan had suspected of pranking him by pretending to be Sid, if Sid recalled correctly — one bit, and sixty-one years of instincts had rarely let him down.
True to his profession, Doug never let his smile even flicker. “Good, then, that’s great. Might want to give your agent a call in the morning, though, just to check in.” And there was the real concern, not that feelings had been hurt or artists had been imposed upon, but that somewhere, someone should be getting paid that wasn’t. With a final half-gracious nod, Doug turned back to Nathan. “Some local press looking to interview you, a few bloggers with cameras. Might want to get on that.”
“Go on, I’ll be there in a minute,” Nathan promised, and when Doug raised an eyebrow, Nathan sighed. “Thirty seconds. You can time me.” With one last frown to make sure Nathan knew he was serious, Doug waded off into the crowd; when at last he judged they were alone, Nathan turned back to Sid and took one of his hands, pulling him close. “I’ve got to go,” Nathan said, his voice all apology, speaking as quickly as he could and glancing all the while over to the direction in which Doug had disappeared, as though someone might actually be standing there holding a stopwatch. “And I don’t know how long I’ll be, and then tomorrow I’ve got that interview, and then the day after tomorrow we’re taking off, but I’ll call you tomorrow evening after it’s all done, all right?”
“Fine, that’s great,” Sid nodded, feeling a bit breathless himself; Nathan’s sense of urgency was contagious. “Come back over and we’ll order in, or something. I’ll go get more beer.”
“You sure?” Nathan’s brow furrowed just above the bridge of his nose, ever the anxious little thing. “I don’t want to invite myself over….”
“That’s why I said, come back over. Consider yourself invited.” Sid gave Nathan’s hand a squeeze before letting go and nudging him in the direction of the as-yet-unseen mobbers, or whatever Doug had called them. “Don’t keep your adoring public waiting.”
Nathan started to go, then turned back as though snagged by a sudden thought. “You could come with me. I’m sure they’d love to talk to you too.”
“Your show, kid.” Sid patted him on the back. “You go shine.”
Though the look on his face said he was unconvinced about the general goodness of the publicity cloud that awaited him, Nathan put on a game smile and, with one last nervous tug to his tie, walked to the front of the stage and into a small shimmer of camera flashes. Sid had played the place enough to know all the exits, and he slipped his hand into the gap between the curtains to where, he was gratified to find, a door still waited. Nice to see that some things didn’t change.
Before he disappeared behind it, though, he stopped and gave one last glance back to the Nathan amongst the pressing crowd. They all seemed so much bigger than he was, circling him while keeping their faint distance, shadowed figures surrounding him, the brightest spot in the room. It was clear to see the kid loved the stage but hated the attention afterward, something that got Sid’s sympathies in full. That, at least, was one of the good things about have fallen from the grace of fame — no matter how loud the applause for him had been, Sid was still about to slip out next-to-unnoticed, just an old ghost let loose to haunt the streets. He might have seen Nathan glance back over his shoulder, but it might have been his imagination just as easily, and he paid it no mind as he pulled his hat down lower over his eyes and disappeared into the night.
By the time Nathan showed up at Sid’s the next night, he looked like he could use something stronger than the beer Sid handed him, but he took the what he was offered gladly and collapsed on the couch with a sigh, tucking his legs up beneath him. “I think this has been the longest day in the history of the universe,” he sighed, putting the bottom of the cold glass bottle to his head.
“In a bad way?” asked Sid, for whom it hadn’t been much shorter — at least, as far as phone calls had been concerned. He had already been awake and ready by the phone when the Damn Agent called, though before he’d gotten a word in edgewise he’d still had to sit through a five-minute sputtering fantasia on the themes Nathan Vaughn and ringing off the hook and why didn’t you TELL me? Even agents had to breathe, though, and Sid had used the gaps in the torrent to clear up a few things: one, he hadn’t told the Damn Agent because he hadn’t known it was going to happen; two, he’d received no compensation of any sort for his performance, and had offered up his time and creative product entirely pro bono; and three, despite the Damn Agent’s histrionics, Sid didn’t think too many people had even really noticed his being there, much less cared, so what was the big deal? That last point in particular sent the Damn Agent into a flurry, and Sid suspected that the Damn Agent’s ending the conversation shortly after Sid expressed this sentiment was an effort to keep his blood pressure down. He didn’t seem mad so much as … hysterically excited, Sid supposed, if in a way that made him sound a little outraged.
He’d called back, though — five different times, in fact, each time slightly calmer, but no less intense, and by the end it had boiled down to the core inquiry: when was it going to happen again? Sid didn’t know what to say; he hadn’t really been in charge of its happening the first time, and despite Nathan’s protests to the contrary, Sid still felt bad about the idea of taking any of this from him. This was the kid’s first real solo venture, after all, and he deserved his time in the spotlight, unimpeded by some old relic — even if Nathan himself seemed to like this relic in particular.
Thus, Sid’s heart sank a few inches in his chest when Nathan, in answer to Sid’s earlier question, turned to him and smiled. “You should see my Twitter. It’s gone crazy about last night.”
“…In a bad way?” Sid repeated, unable to judge from Nathan’s actions what, precisely, any of those words might mean.
But Nathan laughed and reached into his backpack, pulling out a long silver rectangle that Sid only recognized as a computer when Nathan opened the top half and a little minus-one-bite apple began to glow. “In an awesome way. Look.”
Sid looked, but that didn’t help him make sense of what he was seeing. The window had a tall column of little pictures next to sentences, and Nathan scrolled past them with a haste that assumed a reading speed Sid just didn’t have. “Is this you talking?”
Nathan shook his head. “Nope. Loyal fans. Of yours.”
“What about that one?” Sid pointed to a box halfway down the screen that read ‘@nathanvaughn WHO THE F*** IS #SIDSTILLS?’
“And see?” Nathan clicked on an arrow that made that line appear on the right side of the screen, then pointed to links that appeared below it, most of which went to a Wikipedia page that Sid had known about for years but never up and visited. “That person was enlightened.” He zipped back up to the top of the website, then clicked on something that opened a different window; here, in the middle of a page that had pictures of what appeared to be Nathan in the background, was a square picture of a young woman and the text, ‘@nathanvaughn Was anybody recording you and #SidStills last night? Pls say you’re coming to #Miami!’ “You’re trending.”
There wasn’t enough beer in the world for this, and since by now Sid was of the opinion that they both needed something stronger, there wasn’t a reason on earth to hold off any longer. He pushed himself up from the couch, grunting with the effort of standing. “You do whiskey?” he asked, trundling his way toward the kitchen. The internet was a strange and unfamiliar place, and he wasn’t quite sure what to make of how it was apparently talking about him.
Nathan scoffed. “Maybe if you have a little thimble for me to drink it out of.”
“Little strong for you?” The cabinet above his fridge was high, so he kicked over a plastic stepstool he’d acquired many moons previous; he kept his best booze up there, since it was such a pain in the ass to get it out.
“Little lot strong.” With a click, Nathan’s laptop shut, and he slid it back into his bag. “Always ended up doing something stupid whenever I got too drunk. Which was fine, you know, back when Jason….”
Though he’d never been one to push touchy subjects, Sid honestly had no idea how to finish that sentence, and if it was going to go anywhere, he needed Nathan to take it there for him. “Back when Jason…?” Whiskey acquired, Sid went about the business of readying glasses for it, plucking two from the wooden drying rack by the sink. It wasn’t classy, but Sid had never stood on a lot of ceremony, up to and including what his food and drink sat in before they came to his mouth.
“Back when he’d keep an eye on me.” Nathan rubbed his palms down the tops of his thighs and kept his eyes fixed ahead, far from Sid’s direction. “He was older than me, so he’d had a lot more practice drinking, so he could … well, make sure I didn’t run into too much trouble. Or, you know, so I only got into the right kind of trouble. At least, by his standards.” As Sid returned with the glasses, Nathan reached out to take his measure (which was far more than a thimbleful, but Sid figured whatever the kid didn’t drink, he could polish off himself later) without once looking Sid in the eye. “Sorry, my head’s just … not in a good place today.”
“Long day, you said.” Sid settled down into his side of the couch, feeling the familiar decades-old cushions fix and fit around his old bones. “Long days are all right.”
“Just a lot of questions during the interview. About the other guys, and what they’re up to.” With his head bent over the glass, staring into its shallow depths, Nathan looked like modern-day penitent, clutching his Jameson’s instead of his rosary beads. Even the way the light caught his wispy ginger hair gave him a little bit of a halo. “And I hear, you know, but mostly second-, third-hand. I don’t know anything more than anyone else knows. Can’t get any secret gossip out of me.”
Sid stretched out his glass until the two rims clinked together, and he tried not to laugh as the contact made Nathan give a little startled jerk. “Then let’s drink to not knowing anything about anything.”
Despite his protestations, Nathan not only finished the whiskey in his glass, but when Sid got up to get himself a refill, he handed over his own glass for a little more. By the time he was through his second glass — meaning that he’d consumed in total less than half the volume Sid had that evening, but Sid would never have pointed that out — he still had on his smile, but now it was tugged at the corners by relaxation, not by nerves. He wasn’t even close to fool-making territory, though Sid didn’t have trouble imagining just how easy it would be for some charismatic hooligan or unscrupulous groupie to take advantage of that sweet young man, to say nothing about what kind of influence a self-styled best friend might have on someone who so obviously looked up to him. For what little Sid knew about that Jason guy — because as much as Nathan talked about him, he mostly talked around him — he’d already raised a fair number of Sid’s red flags.
But Nathan found more than Jason to talk about that night: somehow the conversation meandered its way through issues of weather, politics, pizza preferences, and family, and Nathan had jumped on the opportunity to tell Sid what a giant fan his own amateur folk musician father was. “Made me listen to all your albums,” said Nathan, the edges of his words dragged down with the gravity of alcohol. “All of them. On the … the….” He pointed his finger downward and traced a circle several times in the same space.
“On the record player?” Sid supplied, figuring it was a better guess than ‘tiny cauldron’.
“Yes!” Nathan laughed for a moment, then stopped mid-giggle and buried his face in his free hand. “…Oh, God, I’m drunk on Sid Stills’ couch, Dad will never believe me. Hold on!” Without telling Sid precisely what it was he was holding for, Nathan rummaged in his pocket and pulled out his little black computer phone. “He’s totally asleep now or I’d call him, but….”
“But what?” asked Sid, though seeing Nathan tilt the phone sideways and lift it up to eye level gave him a sneaking suspicion.
“But smile. Okay? Please?” Understanding now what was going on but not quick enough to mount a coherent objection, Sid gave a little half-grin, and Nathan laughed as his phone made a camera-shutter noise. “Oh, you look good.”
Sid raised a skeptical eyebrow. “You took my picture with your phone?”
“And now I’ll see it if you call. See?” Nathan turned the phone, and there was Sid, looking curious and amused at once, a little more rumpled and drunk than he might have liked to have had preserved for posterity, but nothing he didn’t see when he looked in the mirror every night before bed.
“Huh,” said Sid, because Miss Manners had never taught him the proper response to being photographed by a telephone.
Some level of skepticism must have come through his voice, though, because Nathan shrank back a little into the couch and pulled his phone back so Sid couldn’t see the screen anymore. “I mean, if it’s okay by you. I mean … no, sorry, that was stupid, I shouldn’t–”
“No, hey, it’s fine!” Sid leaned forward and set his drink on the coffee table, then went fishing around in his own back pocket. “I just … hell, maybe I should get one of you. …Can I do that? Does this phone take pictures?”
There was a beat, and then Nathan laughed, loose and happy again. “Yes, your phone takes pictures. Better than mine does, even. Here, I can show you.” He scooted closer to Sid on the couch, and Sid moved in kind, until they were both in the middle, shoulder to shoulder. That seemed a bit uncomfortable, so Sid stretched his arm out along the back of the couch, past the place where Nathan sat. Nathan closed that last little gap between them as he reached for the phone, and Sid had a drunken moment of noting with no small surprise how well Nathan … well, just fit. He’d seemed small on stage and even smaller at Sid’s front door, but here, in the crook of Sid’s arm, he was more Baby Bear: not too big, not too small, but just right.
The odd train of thought derailed as Nathan slid the little bar to the right with his thumb and the phone clicked awake. “See the little one that says ‘Camera’?” he asked, pointing to one of the squares on the top row. “That’s how you do it. Tap there and….”
The screen went dark for a moment, and when it came back, the image had a sick broken quality to it, which Sid was fairly sure was not supposed to be there. But Nathan raised it to eye level, and a second later, the picture snapped into place, until Sid could see images from the other side of the room. “And press this,” he said, tapping his thumb to the little button at the bottom of the screen, “and there you go!” The screen closed in a slow-motion shutter animation, freezing Sid’s apartment wall for one brief moment before going back to the blurry motion again. “And now you have a picture of your apartment wall! In case you ever … get homesick or something, I don’t know. But that’s how you do it. And then when you plug your pictures into your computer, you can get them.”
Sid took the phone from Nathan’s hand and frowned, moving it around in his field of vision and watching as the picture on the phone, after its brief delay, slid along with him. “Huh,” he said again. “Didn’t know it could do that.”
“It can play music too.” Nathan reached over and pressed some combination of buttons faster than Sid could register. “And there’s maps, and you can get apps for games and stuff. Like Angry Birds. It’s pretty neat.”
Despite his general technophobia, Sid had not been entirely immune to the phenomenon of Angry Birds; he had seen them lauded in posters mounted on the sides of bus shelters and plastered over the ubiquitous plywood that kept one construction project or another from bleeding out into the street. Their exact nature remained a mystery, of course, beyond their general spherical dimensions and their obvious temperament, but he could still muster a certain sense of pride that he could for once that evening nod along with the kid on his couch and look like he wasn’t completely stuck in the Dark Ages. “That sounds like a lot of things,” he said, rumbling his voice with as much authority as he could muster, considering the circumstances. He swallowed and scratched at the back of his neck with the arm that wasn’t behind Nathan.
Nathan grabbed the right side of the phone lengthwise and pressed down with his middle finger, and the phone made a click as the screen snapped to black; Sid filed that one away in his old dog’s book of new tricks for later use. “So, yeah.” Nathan handed the dark phone back to Sid and wiggled a little closer to the edge of the couch, just far enough that their bodies no longer had any points of contact. “If, I guess, um … well, now you know! How to do it. You know. The pictures.”
“Yeah.” Sid held the little black rectangle between his fingers and spun it, feeling how cool and smooth it was, and how heavy; it didn’t look like it should be that heavy, a little thing like that, but it reminded him of a deck of cards, substantial, weighed down with meaning as much as mass. He could probably make the phone play cards with him, if he got Nathan to show him how. “So, you want an action shot?”
“An…?” Nathan’s light little eyebrows snuggled closer just above the bridge of his nose. “I mean, I got one of you, I didn’t mean to–”
“Come on, kid, of you. Fair’s fair.” Sid waved the little phone between then, but didn’t hand it over. “So you can make my phone do with it whatever you made your phone do with my ugly mug.”
Nathan’s cheeks, already pink with the flush from the Jameson’s, shaded even redder, and he teetered backward a little, testing but not taxing his center of gravity. “Oh, no, I … no, I mean … I….” He balled his hands into fists and pressed the heels of his hands against his hairline, giggling in a way that didn’t sound as full of joy as the action might otherwise indicate. “I take such shit pictures. Seriously. Like, they used to get me and the other guys together, and they’d get us all up for some photo shoot, and then whatever lady they’d have putting us all in clothes would just look at me and there’d be this little sigh and she’d be all let’s see what we can do with this, and then when they set up the shot they’d, like, hide me behind the other guys, or something, or they’d….” The last word came out as a croak, the last air pushed from emptied lungs, and Nathan took a noisy breath to fill them up again, but let it out right after not as words, but as a sigh. “…Woo, okay. Trauma. I guess. Or something. Fat kid trauma. Ex-fat. Something like that.”
Sid’s love life had never been a life so much as a few intermittent stops in otherwise permanent bachelorhood, but he’d had women for friends and lovers alike, and he gave every one of them a silent prayer of thanks at that moment for making sure that he knew better than to open his mouth and say any variation on the theme of but you’re not fat now. Truth be told, from his tiny expeditions around the internet, looking for what Nathan Vaughn had been before he’d been the boy in the basement room with a piano, he’d come to the conclusion that it hadn’t been the weight that had made Nathan’s previous turns under the camera unsuccessful — and he had taken what Sid had found to be a variety of shit pictures, though Sid also knew light-years better than to confirm that assessment — but the sort of sickly pallor that he’d had. Every shot Sid had seen, staged and candid alike, had captured Big in Japan-era Nathan in expressions of forced sincerity, where his wide smile didn’t quite trickle up to chase the shadows that ringed his eyes. Current Nathan was seven kinds of anxious, but somewhere, along with the pounds, he’d shed the hollow, haunted look.
So instead, Sid smiled and clapped Nathan on the shoulder, squeezing the bony little joint with his knobby hands. “Kid, I’ve seen a lot of people use their pretty faces to get forgiven for making shit music. Getting called ugly is a damn high compliment, because it means they’re not there for what I look like, they’re there for what I do.”
Though Nathan’s forearms still blocked his face, Sid could see the tips of his ears go scarlet. “Yeah, but….” With another deep breath, Nathan let his arms drop and laughed. “You’re not ugly.”
“Oh, no.” Sid clucked his tongue as he shook his head, then hauled himself to his feet, where he was surprised to find the world not as precariously tottery of a place as he might have expected it, given his twice-emptied tumbler of whiskey. “Don’t you start. I worked hard to get a face like this. God gave me the start of it, and I did the rest.” He tucked his phone into his back pocket before gravity could get the best of it.
“Well….” Still seated on the couch, Nathan craned his neck upward — the height difference between them was noticeable when sitting, substantial when standing, and somewhat prohibitive when Nathan was doing the former and Sid the latter — and balled his hands into fists atop his knees. “But, like, you’re not unattractive at all or anything–”
“See, there’s a difference between ugly and unattractive. Or at least,” Sid amended as he picked up the glasses and headed toward the sink, “I’ve had enough people in my life willing to make the distinction on my behalf to believe it’s true. Now, come on, you drink my booze, I think that entitles me to a snapshot.”
From the corner of his eye, Sid could see Nathan start to rise from the couch, and did the kid the courtesy of pretending not to notice when his first attempt wasn’t so successful. The second try, however, landed the kid on his feet, and he stood there for a moment like a baby deer trying on new legs before navigating around the coffee table and toward the kitchen area. “I mean, sure if … if you really want to, I….” Nathan ran his fingers through his hair, and Sid didn’t tell him that had just made the ginger puff on top of his head stick up in a different direction. “So, like, where should I stand?”
“Action shot, remember? Come on.” With a nod, Sid indicated the trio of doors that led, from left to right, to the spare room, his own bedroom, and the bathroom. Nathan’d had cause to use the facilities on his prior visit, and Sid hadn’t bothered to shut the door to his bedroom all the way, but he kept his spare room closed up mostly as a matter of habit these days. He’d seen Nathan’s eyes dart over in its direction, but bless the kid, he’d been too polite to ask. Well, now was as good of a time for a dramatic reveal as any; he walked over, and Nathan followed close behind. Gripping the doorknob but looking at Nathan’s face instead, Sid turned the handle and opened the door.
Double the space here was still half the space he could’ve gotten for the same price in most other places, but living anywhere else had never been a real option — and he’d never quite been able to shake that house-wife-kids model of adult living his upbringing had instilled in him. He’d never had a wife, nor anything he might have mistaken for one, and he’d always taken the proper care to ensure there’d never been any kids, but when the architects had presented him with the choice of chopping up the second bedroom and parcelling out the space equally into his main bedroom and the living area, or leaving it just the way it was, he’d made the second choice. Space was good, but rooms were good too, and doors were even better for how much you could close them and almost forget what was behind.
What was behind this door number three wasn’t anything spectacular, at least not by Sid’s own standards, but the way Nathan’s jaw dropped, someone watching him would’ve been forgiven for mistaking the room’s contents to be the Crown Jewels. “Oh, man,” said Nathan, stepping forward into the space that, for lack of having anything better to be in it, had over the years accumulated Sid’s full instrument collection — minus, of course, the few guitars that had trickled out into the rest of the apartment, but those little wandering minstrels were only a fraction of the whole.
If asked, Sid would admit only to being able to play guitar and piano, but the truth was his musical skills extended past that comfortably into the vast category of ‘objects that make noise when you hit them against one another (or against something else)’, and thus a variety of shakers, rattles, and other percussive knickknacks lined the walls and filled the spaces between the bigger objects. Nathan’s gaze, however, fixed on past all them, past the dozen-plus various guitars resting upright in their respective stands, past the baby grand tucked against the far wall, fitted neatly into the corner between the window on one wall and the closet against the next, all the way to a white-bodied Martin guitar with a black neck that lay flat across the back of a chair. He walked over with the gentle walk of a drunk trying to avoid becoming the proverbial bull in a china shop, giving all objects even more of a clearance than they strictly required, until he stood in front of it; he stretched out two fingers and traced the curve of its body with a tenderness akin to awe. “Oh, man,” he repeated, shaking his head.
Sid lingered in the doorway, sliding his heavy phone back and forth between his thumb and forefinger. Did this constitute showing off? Had he been so long without any sort of external validation that he needed to throw everything at his one admirer just to make sure he still had his sparkle? “Go on, sit down with it,” Sid directed, waking up his phone with the slide of his thumb. “Action shot.”
Nathan turned back to Sid, blue eyes wide. “Oh, no, I–”
“Go on now.” Sid waved at him with his free hand. “I was just playing it the other day, so it should still be in the general vicinity of being tuned. No more than just down the block.”
His skin had gone the kind of white that Sid knew from his time in the Navy, from seeing men’s hearts plummet into their stomachs, but bless the kid and his brave little soul, Nathan picked up the guitar and sat himself down where it had been. He rested the body across his right thigh and took the neck in his left hand, then draped his right arm over the side; the relative largeness of the guitar and smallness of the man holding it made this a bit of an awkward-looking arrangement, but Nathan straightened his spine and squared his shoulders and somehow puffed up bigger enough than the instrument to get the situation under control. “This is the guitar that you were holding on the back cover of Postcards from Easy Street, isn’t it?” Nathan asked, looking not at Sid but down at the guitar’s soft matte surface.
It had indeed made the back side of Sid’s second album, resting across Sid’s lap at the center of a blurry stage photo, because it had been literally the only guitar Sid had owned at the time the photograph had been taken. He’d bought it right after getting out of the Navy, around the time when he’d realized that as much as he’d loved his uncle’s hand-me-down five-dollar pawn-shop Yamaha, if he had any hope of making a living out of this, he needed something to play that didn’t sound like a string stretched between two tin can telephones. It had cost him as much as three months’ rent on the pocket-sized apartment he’d had in Harlem at the time, and he’d had to trade in the other instrument with it, but from the moment he’d seen it in the shop, he’d been in love. Most of the guitars in that room, he hadn’t touched in years, maybe even a few of them in as much as a decade, but there wasn’t a week went by that he didn’t pick up that one and pluck out at least a couple songs, and he made a point of changing the strings on a regular basis. And now it fit Nathan like some Christmas coat, half a size too large but worn anyway under the watchful eye of a mother who promised ‘you’ll grow into it’.
“Sure is.” Sid nodded and clicked the ‘Camera’ option on his phone’s screen, just like Nathan had shown him. The screen hesitated blank for a moment before the camera opened up its eye and the display turned into a jerky, blurry version of the reality in front of it. He brought it up so he could fit Nathan in the frame, the kid with the guitar too big for his britches. “All right, do your best impression.”
Nathan laughed and shrank back behind the instrument’s covering body even as he plucked at the A string, bringing it back up from flatness. “Of … of you?”
“Me, sure, if you want. Dylan. Elvis. Baez. Yourself. Just play me something.” The weight of the camera held out like that from his body made Sid’s hand tremble, so he steadied it in both palms while bracing his elbows back against his chest. There was Nathan at the center, which seemed appropriate enough, though the distance meant his digital expression was rendered unreadable by the blurry image quality. Sid took a few steps forward, until Nathan’s legs and most of the guitar were out of the shot, and his face filled most of the top half of the frame. There, that was better.
Nathan bowed his head with an embarrassed little chuckle, and his twin on Sid’s phone did the same. “How about….” He strummed a few times, then started picking out a riff that Sid couldn’t quite place until Nathan took a deep breath and belted back, “Wellllllll… since my baby left me! I’ve found a new place to dwell!”
On the downbeat between the lines, Sid tapped the camera button — a move which proved fortuitous, because after the second line, Nathan stopped and pressed his lips together, laughing quietly as he hugged the guitar to his chest. “Oh, God, there’s people downstairs! I totally forgot!” He brought his strumming hand up to his mouth to muffle the sounds of laughter, though those, even at their loudest, weren’t even a fraction as loud as his heartfelt rendition of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’.
“Nah, I had the floor pretty well soundproofed, else I would’ve been complained out of town years ago.” As he spoke, Sid looked not at Nathan’s real face, but at the shot caught by his phone. It wasn’t what he might have thought of as a flattering shot, necessarily — Nathan’s eyes were closed and his brow was furrowed with the Elvis-level concentration needed for those three intervening strums; the taller strands of his soft hair had fallen down toward his forehead despite what Sid assumed was some hairstyling product’s attempts to keep them upright; the flush in his cheeks lingered, stretching out beneath his eyes and across the bridge of his nose with such intensity he looked almost as though he had been slapped twice. He knew he should show it to Nathan, get Nathan to show him how to delete it, set up another shot, get a real photograph, the kind the magazines and publicity wanted. Instead, he tried out his new Nathan trick and pressed the top button on the phone; with a click, the device went dark, and the picture stayed locked inside it.
Nathan tapped the thin carpet with the toe of his shoe. “Hey, that was pretty smart. Do you, like, have lots of loud music parties up here?”
Sid shook his head. “Not anymore, no. Not for a long time.” He stuck the phone in his back pocket and continued, “Used to, though. Not loud, and not maybe what anyone else would call a party, but … we’d all get together, and some of us would play, and some of us would sing, and all of us would drink and maybe smoke a little. So I took precautions against being unneighborly. And wouldn’t you know it, all this time, and the only complaints I’ve ever had were on account of idiots who didn’t understand how sound travels in a stairwell.”
“Oh.” With the guitar settled back into playing position, Nathan’s fingers began to pick over the strings, plucking out a soft classical piece that sounded like the far less annoying cousin of bad cocktail party live guitar music. Even taking into account how the kid was drunk and noodling on an unfamiliar instrument, Sid could hear that the kid was a damn fine technical musician — better than Sid himself, that was for sure, and on past good, well on into great. He had a heart behind the sound, though, one that turned technical skill into art, and that was finer than any application of technique. He could take an instrument older than he was and make it sing. That wasn’t something anyone could teach.
“Hey,” said Sid, nodding toward the white Martin, his oldest love, the only one he kept up with, his longtime companion, “why don’t you go on and have that one.”
The music stopped with an abruptness Sid associated with spaghetti western movies, the crash in the saloon when the bad guy pushed in through the swinging front doors and the revelry broke open, spilling silence out. Nathan’s hands clutched at the strings as he looked up at Sid, those blue eyes taking up half his face. “Have…?” The word was barely louder than a dry cough.
“Your little tour thing that you’re doing up around New England.” Sid took one of the room’s high stools and leaned against it, giving it as much of his weight as he thought it could manage without sending him ass over teakettle into a decades-old Casio synth keyboard he kept around mostly because he hadn’t in those decades found enough energy to give the shits necessary to get rid of it. Everything in here but the kid belonged in a museum. “You need something nice to keep you going. She’s got a nice sound, and she’ll take a beating if you want to give it to her, never say two words about it.”
“I–” Nathan’s knuckles went pale as his hand tightened around the guitar’s neck.
Sid chuckled as their earlier conversation came to mind. “Show that to your father, see if he doesn’t believe you then. Better than an old ugly picture.”
“No.” His eyes closed tight, Nathan shook his head so hard Sid thought he might knock a sprocket loose, and the way he continued when he spoke again after didn’t do much to dissuade Sid from this notion: “No, no, Sid, you’ve done — you’ve been way so much more than — this is when you — what you did and give and gave me and you–” Nathan stopped and took a deep breath. “I am so grateful, like … like you don’t even know, but I can’t, I–”
“Kid,” said Sid in a low rumble that stopped Nathan’s babble cold. “She’s made to be played.”
That hadn’t stopped Nathan’s protests, of course — he’d given his you shouldn’t haves and I really can’ts all the way out the front door, gripping the handle of the guitar case like a drowning man would hold a lifeline — but it had been the effective end of the argument, meaning it was all over but the proverbial shouting. No argument of Nathan’s had been able to fly in the way of Sid’s appeal to the utilitarian value of the instrument, and since Nathan was about to set out on a two-week East Coast mini-tour and Sid had no plans (immediate or otherwise) for public performance, it was obvious whose hands it would serve better. Sid hadn’t gotten Nathan to stop insisting that he’d return the guitar just as soon as it was all over, in condition as good as or better than that in which he’d acquired it, and Sid had conceded that plan for return with a sigh, planning even as he did how he would refuse to take it back. It was better this way.
As before, the Nathan-less apartment seemed cavernous, and the void grew even larger as Sid peeked into the spare bedroom and saw the Martin’s stand empty. Two of the sweetest, brightest things ever to grace his apartment, one old and one new, and they’d gone off together, an arranged marriage of delightfulness. It wasn’t their fault if the world they left behind was just a little darker for their being gone.
A few couch cushions had gotten displaced, so he settled them back where they belonged; the throw pillows were still faintly warm where Nathan had been, and Sid sat back against them, taking over the side of the couch the kid had occupied. A pack of cigarettes and lighter lay on the coffee table, and he picked them up, tapped a single one out, and lit it. The first few drags were sweet, but halfway through the cigarette, the smoke grated against his lungs the wrong way, hot and sharp, and he exhaled the rest in a series of harsh coughs so bad he wound up doubled over, tears leaking from the corners of his eyes. By the time he got his breath back, he’d coughed himself nearly sick, and he ground out the rest of the cigarette in the closest ashtray, unable to stomach any longer the thought of finishing it.
That could have been anything, though. Tickle in his throat. Dry smoke on dry air. Things like that happened all the time. They didn’t mean a goddamn thing.
Damn Nathan Vaughn and the things he drove a man to do.
Well, Sid amended, that wasn’t wholly fair; after all, Nathan probably had no idea what he was up to right now, nor did he likely have any idea that he’d been the cause of this excursion. But the farther north Sid walked and the higher the numbers climbed, the more inclined he was to blame Nathan for it in absentia. Around the time the streets started climbing into the double digits, he began to nurture a crawling sense of displacement, not unlike what he supposed must be the inner life of a pet pig brought to a dog run. By the time they were in the twenties, he entertained imagination adventures about futuristic Manhattan Zone Police that would take him down for being too far out of his appropriate radius and drag him back to his native Lower East Side habitat. By the thirties, he became convinced that there’d been some mass migration, where all the inhabitants of New York City had been replaced for the day with tourists, just to see if anyone would notice.
His first impulse, of course, had been to shop locally, partly out of a great desire to spite the ever-encroaching tide of big corporate stores, and partly because there was a place just a few blocks over where he hung out from time to time, where about half the employees knew who he was but were bound by their attempts at projecting ironic detachment not to make a thing of it. The only clerk there that morning was a skinny Indian kid with a name tag identifying him as Giovanni, of all things, and his initial response to Sid’s inquiry had been to lead him in the direction of the store’s back end, where plastic milk crates held foreign releases of domestic albums, their big square covers sporting text he couldn’t read that he supposed to someone read ‘Sex Pistols’ and ‘Queen’. No, no, Sid had clarified, actual Big in Japan albums. As in, the band? He didn’t care where they’d actually been popular.
Giovanni, bless him, hadn’t actually outright laughed in Sid’s face, but Sid could tell it had been a close call. Well, Sid had pressed on, did he think there might be anywhere else in the area that would? Giovanni couldn’t think of anywhere, he’d said, but if Sid wanted to take a small hike to midtown, there was one place he knew would be able to accommodate Sid’s sudden and inexplicable mainstream needs.
And thus Sid found himself, for the first time in well over a decade, standing at the tip of what truly put the ‘fuck’ in Times Fucking Square — or, really, took the ‘fuck’ out of it, since he was fairly sure the cute corporate restaurant just to his right had once been a truly delightfully sketchy strip club. Or maybe it had been a porn store, and the strip club had been over there? He’d so far lost his bearings he didn’t much know what planet he was on, much less what avenue. All that was left was to trust that he was on the right path, and hadn’t somehow slipped up and found his way into Penn Station, or New Jersey, or the Moon.
Following the directions Giovanni had found him on the store’s computer, Sid eased his way through the crushing throngs of tourists. He loved people, of course — hard to live in New York City and not, short of becoming a complete hermit crab — but they were best in small doses, in limited groups, at a distance of more than three inches away from him. A man with a jogging stroller nearly ran him over, but before Sid had enough time to wonder just who in his right mind would try to ram a jogging stroller through a madhouse like this, a flash of red caught his eye, and he turned to see before him, in giant red lighted script a thousand times as tall as he was, hovering far above both his head and a set of glass doors, the word Virgin.
Speaking of taking the ‘fuck’ out of things.
Well, if he stood there like an idiot any longer he’d get run over by pedestrians and his obituary would read ‘Sidney Allen Stills, 61, cut down in his twilight years by tour bus horde on their way to a musical,’ which was frankly too embarrassing to bear, so he stepped through the doors; a punch of warm air over the doors ruffled his hair, blasting away any unseasonable late spring chill that might have threatened to come in with him and pollute the store’s warm, sanitized, family-friendly environment. Some noise filtered through the speakers, and Sid hadn’t been out of the game so long that he didn’t know what an Autotuner was to hear it, or hate it like poison. The real cruelty of it, he figured, was that this girl singing — and she didn’t sound like she could be out of diapers yet, much less a pop star — would likely have had a lovely enough voice without its meddling. But everything had to sound the same these days, like some cafeteria dinner cooked until all dishes, regardless of origin, turned a uniform grey. He’d seen that writing on the wall and taken his growly barroom monster voice home before it someone could come along to kick it out.
But he wasn’t here to feel sorry for himself, despite how he sometimes felt that was all he damn did these days. He was here to shop, so he shuffled on forward before some cheerful employee could ask him what rest home he’d escaped from and how best he might be returned there.
It was halfway down an aisle labeled ‘Alternative’ (to what? Sid wondered) that Sid realized this might be something of a bigger challenge than he had bargained for. He checked halfway between the B divider and the C divider, but the CD covers went from a gloomy-looking picture of a dead raven surrounded by a circle reading Biannual Juice Box to a sweet picture of two girls with short hair and guitars posing under the cursive word Birdhouse, with no room between to indicate anything might be missing. A sign suspended above the next row read ‘Rock’, and the one a few down proclaimed itself the line of demarcation of a section known as ‘Pop’. Past that was ‘Blues’, and though Sid didn’t think he’d wind up that far, he was neither sure nor keen to spend his entire day wandering aimlessly. It was time for professional help.
A girl with a nametag reading ‘Jemmy’ and earlobes stretched down to her shoulders by giant lime-green circles came to his aid. “Looking for Big in Japan?” he responded when she asked from behind her counter how she could help him, cursing himself right after he’d said it for setting himself up for the same foreign release redirect he’d gotten in his local store.
Jemmy, however, smiled the smile of a true fan, and instead of pointing him in the direction, she stepped out from behind her little station and started walking toward the ‘Rock’ aisle. “Oh, who’re you shopping for?”
“For … well, for me.” Sid shrugged, once more reduced to the status of escaped geriatric ward resident. He shoved his hands in the pockets of his trousers as he followed her lead, wondering if he’d just given her some creepy old man vibe that she’d be bound by store policy to trip the alarm about, or some such.
“Oh!” She shrank and held her hand up to her mouth even as she kept walking. “Sorry, I just … I mean, I love Big in Japan, don’t get me wrong, they’re great, but you … aren’t the usual demographic.”
Sid laughed at that, and he could see the muscles around her mouth relax as he made a show of having taken no offense. “More for kids your age, huh?”
Jemmy stopped in front of a shelf and pointed to a section that, while not meager, was not as impressively stocked as many of the names around it; the title card that peeked up over the back of the last CD read Big in Japan. “More like … people my age now who used to be in high school back when they were big.” Her face clouded, taking on a look of concern so near-comical in its perfection that he could have cast her, based solely on the strength of that expression, as a soap opera doctor burdened with terrible medical news. “You do know they broke up, right?”
“I’d heard something like that,” Sid admitted — and then, feeling as though he’d called Nathan a liar by doing it, asked, “Why?”
“Oh, well.” Jemmy leaned forward in true good gossip style. “Officially, it was creative differences and wanting to work on other projects and all that usual bullsssshnookey,” she amended at the last moment before cursing in front of a strange adult, which was more of a testament to her upbringing than what she’d done to her ears. “But Jason Kingston, their bassist and the guy who was basically in charge of the band, obviously had some real falling-out with Nathan Vaughn, their singer. And those guys were, like, best friends, so it must’ve been something real bad. Like, steal-a-guy’s-girlfriend bad or something, except Nathan didn’t have a girlfriend before or after, and Jason got married to some actress two months after the breakup that he’d met, like, six weeks before.”
It was a little creepy, Sid thought, how much she knew here, but he was willing to put his misgivings about what he felt was a slightly stalkerish level of knowledge aside for the sake of good information. “And then what happened?” he prompted, willing to risk a certain degree of inappropriate interest when engaged with a party that, no matter how intrigued he sounded, had him beat.
“Well, Jason’s doing a thing with another singer, Mimi something, a little more electronic, and they’re calling themselves Aces and Eights , but they don’t have an album out yet. Donnie and Chris, the other guys, are off playing for some other bands. And….” She frowned, thinking. “I think Nathan’s working on an album or something? I don’t know. He was producing stuff for a while for other people, though, so he may still be doing that. He got skinny,” she added, the approval clear in her voice. “Wish I could lose weight just like that.”
That was Sid’s cue to change the subject. “So,” he said, looking at the shelf, “do they have a lot of albums?”
“Oh, yeah, four. And we’ve got them all here. These two, though,” she said, tapping the first and last CDs in the stack, “they’re the best. Well, I think they’re the best. They’re the newest, and the other two are older, and a lot of people who like the other two don’t like the newer two. They kind of had a sound change — started out punk, then went a little punk-pop, but never quite got all the way to pop, so they sort of ended up rock, you know?”
Sid emphatically did not. “Oh, sure, yeah,” he nodded, gathering up copies of both the albums she’d indicated and the two in the middle.
After paying what he considered an astonishing amount of money for four plastic-wrapped jewel cases with discs inside, Sid thanked Jemmy, grabbed the handles of his plastic bag, and marched right back out the way he’d come without so much as pausing in a single genre-specific aisle to see if any one of the enormous store’s various S sections still kept even a single copy of a single one of his albums around. Best not to give his ego any illusions about his continued relevance, despite how the Twitterings might be trendy about him, or whatever Nathan had said.
He walked the distance back home, though he could have taken the subway there just as easily as he could have taken it north. It was still nice to get out once in a while, to wander around above ground, and there was nothing really that could match the feeling of seeing the city slowly grow more and more familiar with every block. He lit a cigarette and held it in his hand as he walked, but after the previous night’s coughing fit he didn’t think to take more than a few drags before he at last brought it to his mouth and saw nothing there but filter. Shame to be so wasteful, he thought as he pitched the dead cold butt into a nearby trashcan, though he couldn’t bring himself to feel any worse about it than he might about not being able to finish an entire plate of greasy, fat-laden bacon. Being wasteful about the consumption of vices was hardly a vice itself.
The bodega on the corner had some bright cups of fruit out on display in a tall cold case, so Sid picked up a tub of sliced strawberries and whole blueberries. It was too early in the year for either, and the strawberries would probably be sour, but hadn’t he read something in a magazine the other day about fruits and preventing diseases? His doctors could smoke that, he thought as he paid for them indoors, smiling all the while at the cheerful man with whom he probably shared little to no common language. That was all right, though; the prices were on everything, and in markets global and local alike, letters didn’t much matter so long as your numbers were good.
The strawberries were sour, so he dumped a truly inappropriate amount of sugar on the whole mess before settling down on his couch, fork in one hand, stereo remote in the other. Jemmy had said the later two albums were the better ones, but to appreciate the change, he figured he needed to start at the beginning. Leaving the fifth slot in his five-disc changer empty, he loaded up his new purchases in order and lay back to listen.
The quality of his computer speakers was terrible, and he’d known that since he’d bought the damn thing (yet bought it anyway, since computers weren’t for listening to music), but he wasn’t quite prepared for the difference a real sound system made. All through the first album, Sid munched on blueberries, letting the sugar work its strawberry magic, and tried to make his brain and ears reconcile just what he was hearing. It wasn’t good by any metric, except for the part where it was great — like eating a gourmet bowl of Spaghetti-O’s, where the introduction of the gourmet aspect wasn’t quite enough to overcome the Chef Boyardee reality, but not for any lack of trying. There was a lot of screaming and general racket, and as Sid usually liked both of these things, he had to concede that just because they weren’t his usual speed of pandemonium didn’t mean they weren’t quality pandemonium. The bassist might have been anywhere from great to terrible, as there just wasn’t enough complicated going on there for Sid to tell one way or the other, but the guitars sounded competent enough with what they were doing, and the drummer had a few moments here and there to really shine. As far as the vocals went, Nathan sounded about five, but for that to have counted as a negative mark toward Sid’s analysis, he would’ve had to have ripped out his heart first.
Not much changed from the first to the second album, except that somewhere in there, Nathan developed a low range and the screaming mostly stopped. Sid found this latter factor a bit of a disappointment, as he’d managed to have it grow on him over the span of the previous dozen songs, but he was willing to concede that different artistic visions required different things at different times. He wondered who was doing the screaming as well, since he didn’t think Nathan would want to do something like that to a voice as pretty as his. Forewarned about the change, but expecting much of the same, Sid finished his strawberries about the time the disc changer slid from the second album to the third.
The feedback hum at the start of the first track got his attention (not least because it gave him a brief stab of fear that his new musical interest had managed to break his expensive stereo) but a guitar ripped over it with great purpose, and then past that — there, now, there was Nathan, actually Nathan for the first time, loud and clear. Not that the previous vocal offerings hadn’t been Nathan, of course, but there was a light year of difference between the little pup that had held down the vocals on the first two albums and this, the first hint of the brave, clear voice he’d heard live from Nathan’s lips just a few nights previous. He grabbed the jewel case nearby — the album cover seemed to be some nonsense photographic montage, with a cursive Big in Japan and a smaller Consider the Stars hovering above whatever was going on beneath — and checked the date: 2007. Making Nathan … twenty-two then? Twenty-three? Somewhere in there, anyway. About the time Sid’s own voice had gone and grown up.
He still couldn’t understand more than about half of the words, but as a man raised on the works of jazz scatters and himself accustomed to babbling nonsense syllables when the spirit took him, he found himself largely unbothered. There was more to the spirit of the sound than just what was getting said, and Nathan could bring that spirit in spades.
The fourth, with the unpronounceable (at least to Sid) title of Syzygy, sounded even better, and when Sid opened his eyes as the last track faded out and the stereo clicked into silence, he found that the room had gone dark while he’d remained fixed to the couch, stretched lengthwise from end to end, learning something new. The gourmet canned pasta had grown up to at least a gourmet grilled cheese sandwich by the end there, and Sid had eaten in enough fine ‘American’ dining restaurants to know that wonders could be done with such a simple formula. It wasn’t his cup of tea, not exactly, and he never would have gone out listening to it on his own, but now that he had, he found he had one more thing to thank that kid for showing him.
As though it had been listening to his thoughts, Sid’s phone chimed a little chord, and he picked it up from the table — only to find a strange box with rounded edges in the middle of his phone’s screen. The top line had Nathan’s full name, and the bottom read: ‘Just did a short set with the guitar! She sounded great!’
Sid was halfway through reading that box for the fourth time when the screen went blank. That must have been one of those damned text messages the Damn Agent was always threatening to send him. He knew he’d refused for a reason.
He stared at the phone in the dark for a minute before deciding that maybe it was just best to leave well enough alone, start up the music again, call out for dinner, and hope that Nathan would accept the communication as received without reciprocity. Sid was happy that the guitar had worked for the kid, and hadn’t really expected otherwise, so maybe there wasn’t any need to respond to an affirmation of the obvious. He’d order in from the Mexican place that had the good guacamole, and he’d sit around and give Big in Japan’s discography another listen, and maybe later Nathan would have the decency to call and–
Oh, hell, the phone went off again: ‘Just did a short set with the guitar! She sounded great!’ “What do you mean?” Sid asked aloud. “It’s the same message! Why are you telling me the same thing again?”
The phone had no answer to give him, but he reasoned that if Nathan had texted him twice, that probably meant he was waiting for a response. Sid slid the computer open and was greeted with a screen he’d never seen before: Nathan’s message in a pale comic-book speech bubble, poised over a keyboard at the bottom. Sid gingerly touched the tip of his finger to the key marked T, and he heard a click as a ‘T’ appeared in the line just above the keyboard. Pressing the H key next changed that line to ‘Th’, and Sid relaxed in the face of a perfectly normal keyboard. Well, not perfectly normal, maybe, but if he could learn to dial a phone by pressing areas on a flat screen, he could learn to do this.
His sense of keyboard geography, however, left something to be desired, and it took him several minutes to find all the letters for ‘Thanks I’m glad you appreciated it’. He’d actually typed ‘im’, on account of being unable to find (despite several minutes of looking) either a capital I key or an apostrophe, but the phone had fixed that for him, and he’d felt a grudging sense of gratitude toward it for that. The little button on the right read Send, and when he pushed it, the phone made a science-fiction-television-show swooping sound effect and the line above the keyboard turned into a green comic book speech bubble on the right side of the screen from Nathan’s bubble. Was it stupid to feel proud about such minor accomplishments? Perhaps, but Sid was satisfied anyway. Maybe he’d call in his order and while he waited for Nathan to respond.
He didn’t even get so far as pressing the square-in-a-circle button at the bottom of his phone, though, before the phone made a backwards swooping noise and another bubble appeared on Nathan’s side: ‘I did! Really impressed everyone when I told them where I got it, too!’
“Oh, for God’s sake,” said Sid to no one in particular.
It took him well past ten minutes’ time to tap out a reply, in no small part because the same smart software that had translated ‘im’ to ‘I’m’ didn’t seem to be quite as smart about other things, and whenever Sid tapped the wrong key, the phone would guess at the word he really meant — and it seemed to guess wrong every time. Snappy replies and self-deprecating commentary were out of the question on account of taking too much effort, so Sid settled for, ‘Sure it sounded great what did you play’.
Having learned his lesson, he sat patiently by the screen, and sure enough, the idle sensors hadn’t even dimmed the screen before the swooping sound presented him with another of Nathan’s bubbles — ‘Sunshine, mostly, though they got everyone here going on Black Betty, and that was fun’ — followed even before he’d finished reading that by yet another — ‘You would’ve been right at home’ — and then a third — ‘You should come next time!’
Well, this was getting ridiculous. Instead of replying, Sid went to the telephone option and pressed the actual button to make an actual call. On the second ring, Nathan picked up, and even before he spoke, Sid could hear crowd noises over the connection. “Hi!” chirped Nathan, sounding a little breathless and muffled. “Hey, hi! Hi!”
“Hi yourself,” said Sid, who could feel as he spoke the way his words all came out in the shape of the giant grin that had fixed itself upon his face. He couldn’t remember the last time he had enjoyed so much calling someone for the a purpose other than bringing him food. “Where are you?”
“Backstage at the….” There was a little shuffle, and Nathan said something to an unseen person on the other end of the line before he came back, a little louder this time. “Shit, this is really embarrassing, I can’t actually remember what the venue’s called. I’m in New Jersey, I think, though they, like, might have kidnapped me and taken me anywhere and I wouldn’t have noticed, I slept so hard in the van. Just like….” He made a two-part sound effect that Sid interpreted as the crashing airplane and sawing logs of sleeping off a hangover.
As Nathan talked, Sid closed his eyes and stretched back along the length of the couch in the same position he’d held while listening through to Big in Japan’s albums, though he had no trouble admitting to himself he liked better hearing Nathan’s voice like this, even if it was so distant he might as well have been a recording of himself from three years ago. “Sorry about that,” he said, though he couldn’t help smiling as he did.
“Nah, it’s okay! I mean, like, if I didn’t know how to get rid of a tour hangover by now–” Nathan stopped that thought with a nervous little laugh. “So, um, what are you doing? Did I catch you at a bad time?”
Sid frowned, a little baffled. “Bad time? No, I’m just sitting here,” and listening to your old music, he planned to continue, but he stopped himself mid-sentence. There was nothing wrong with what Sid was doing, of course — for heaven’s sake, those records were popular enough that odds were someone else in the world had spent the evening doing the very same thing Sid himself had done, maybe even two or three someones — but when it came time to admit it, embarrassment sewed up Sid’s mouth. Maybe it was strange, considering how Nathan had on multiple occasions talked about how many times he’d listened to everything Sid had ever put out (no mean feat, that, and certainly more effort than an evening with four CDs), but Sid still couldn’t bring himself to confess his listening activities. Something in the way Nathan talked about his time in the band, combined with what that Jemmy person had said about the way things had ended, left Sid paranoid about bringing up the matter.
If any hesitation had made it into his voice, though, Nathan bowled by it without stopping. “Oh, really? Because I….” Nathan cleared his throat. “Well, I thought you might be somewhere, like, and I might be annoying because you were too busy to text back–”
Sid barked a laugh that cut Nathan off nearly mid-word. “No, I’m afraid that’s just … my speed.” He drummed his fingers on the side of the phone and felt the beat against his ear on the other side. “That’s actually the first text messaging I’ve ever sent. Well, first two. Whole brave new world going on here.”
“Oh!” Nathan’s bright laugh rang through the phone. “Well … good! I mean, I’m glad! I’m sorry, I, like, sent all those texts and then I thought, you know, he’s probably got other things to do.”
“Me? No, nothing special this evening. Might get dinner in a few.”
“God, dinner sounds good.” Nathan laughed again. “What are you having?”
“Mexican, I think.” There was another burst of noise from the distance on Nathan’s side of the phone, and Sid heard Nathan cover the phone’s speaker and say something unintelligible. “Hey, uh, you should like you have a lot to do, so don’t let me keep you….”
Nathan’s sudden change of expression was audible even across their crappy connection. “Yeah, I … I really have to go, they’re really starting to bug me to get ready.”
Sid winced. “Shit, I’m sorry, I didn’t know it was a bad time–”
“No! No, not a bad time! Never a bad time.” The words tripped over one another as they came out of Nathan’s mouth, leaving him breathless. “Call anytime, Sid, really, and, like, unless I’m on stage or something, I’ll pick up. I don’t mind. I really … like talking to you.”
That earnest admission was enough to chase away the worry lines from Sid’s forehead — the ones that weren’t there permanently, anyway, but he didn’t see any mood getting rid of those anytime soon. “Me too, kid.” He ran his fingers along the smooth edge of the phone, thinking of the way Nathan’s hands handled his guitar, gentle and nimble. “Wish I could be there,” he added.
“Me too,” said Nathan, his voice little more than a sigh. “Hey, so, like, I’ve got the guitar and it’s going to sound really good, and I’m really, really grateful, I can’t even– Okay! Okay, I’m coming! …Yeah, so, thanks again, really, thank you, Sid. And, um, I’ll call later? Or … this, and then there’s something after, and it may run really late tonight, so I’ll call you tomorrow or something, all right?”
“Or send a text,” Sid quipped.
That drew one last laugh out of Nathan, light and beautiful, and Sid could close his eyes and picture exactly the expression on the kid’s face. “Deal. Okay. Sorry. Thanks. Bye.”
“Bye,” said Sid, though he didn’t know if the word made it through before the connection closed. He pulled the phone away from his ear, and it shone for a few more seconds before going dark, leaving him once more aware of just how few lights he had left around him. With a grunt and the snap of a few joints, he sat up and stretched his arms above his head, then pulled himself to his feet. He had a menu for them somewhere around here, probably, in that drawer in the kitchen where he kept random someday-useful things for just such a someday as this. Maybe this time he’d try something new, instead of just ordering the same damn thing he did every time. Wouldn’t that shock the girl behind the counter, when she saw his number on whatever machine they used to tell them who was calling, and when she gave him a delivery time without even confirming the order or quoting him a total, if he said, you know, let’s do something a little different today? What might they make of that?
Somewhere in New Jersey, Nathan was probably at that moment being herded onstage, his outfit neat and his wispy hair wild, standing there in the spotlight with his nervous smile, hands gripping the guitar like a lifeline. Despite having seen him perform live only twice, Sid still had no problem picturing the scene clear as though he were himself in the audience, hiding out in the back of the room, the slightly sketchy older fly on the wall. He lit a cigarette from the pack on the table and tucked it in the corner of his mouth as he went hunting first for the light switch, then for the menu drawer, trailing smoke as he passed, looking forward already to tomorrow.
A sharp blast of a truck horn from outside his window woke Sid, and he sat up straight, blinking and wondering why his neck had started to ache. A few quick blinks to gather himself provided the answer: he’d fallen asleep on the couch, not even lying down but sitting straight up, with the foil remnants of his supper still on the table in front of him and the stereo halfway through its who-knew-how-many-th repeat of Consider the Stars. His mouth was desert-dry, so he smacked his lips together a few times, trying to scare off the stale open-air taste.
On the couch beside his knee sat his phone, still and dark. Nathan hadn’t called.
Well, Sid reasoned as he tried to coax his old bones into a standing position, that was all right; shows like that always had things going on after, appearances that were more mandatory than not, and Sid knew from firsthand experience that time had a way of getting away from you there. Besides, Nathan was young and had plenty of friends and admirers who wanted all his attention. Hell, he probably even had a girlfriend who’d made the trip with him, or at least some cute groupie who’d wiggled her way backstage and into his lap. Sid remembered that sort of thing from the million or so years ago he’d been in a similar position. It was good that the kid was being a kid while he still had the chance. He’d been through a lot, and he deserved to live a little. A click of the stereo’s main power button cut off the heavy drums mid-pound, leaving the apartment full of silence.
He cleaned up the disposable parts of his delivery dinner with what little energy he could muster, and to his credit, most of the garbage made it into the trashcan on the first try. There was nothing to put into the sink either, as he had used the disposable fork the restaurant had sent along with his steak fajitas with ancho molé sauce — and she had been surprised, the girl on the other end of the line, when she’d asked him if that would be all and he’d said, no, actually, it wouldn’t. Now his apartment would smell like that for a day or so, which wasn’t all bad, not at all.
His hand on the lightswitch, he paused and glanced back over to the couch, where his phone sat on the cushions, its dark face pointed up, as though it were a invited guest. They stared at one another a long moment, he and the device, and at last he conceded defeat in the form of going over and picking it up. Without putting any silly thing like hope into the gesture at all, he punched the circle button at the bottom. The top of the screen told him it was a little before three o’clock in the morning; the middle had a single line: Nathan Vaug… Text (5).
Well, that seemed an odd thing to say. Sid slid the phone bar to the right with his thumb to see if he could figure out what it was talking about.
It took him a moment to get his bearings, but he pushed the screen around with his thumb until he found how it slid around to get the speech bubbles that were hidden above the top border of the screen. By the time he’d worked it all out, he’d read each of the messages several times, but it was still something to get it in order start to finish, like knowing all the songs already but not understanding the story they told until dropping the needle at the farthest edge of the record:
Left the party early. Told everyone I had a headache. I didn’t want to call in case you’d gone to bed, but if you’re awake, you can call me. :D
I’ll be up for a little longer, I think. Don’t have a headache, but I feel a little restless. If you call and don’t get an answer, I’m in the shower and I’ll call right back.
Okay, guess you’ve gone to bed. That’s probably smart. I should do that. Instead I’m just flipping through the hotel channels. Nothing good on. :\
I don’t like hotels. They’re better than a tour bus, but. I never thought I’d say it, but I miss the days when touring meant crashing on friend-of-friends’ couches.
Rather be there with you.
Sid stared at the screen until it went dim, then woke it up with a touch so he could read it all again, guiding the words on their slow march up and off the screen. By the time he’d scrolled through it that one last time, he’d committed it all to memory, and even when he turned off the phone again, it was still there. He took the phone with him back to the bedroom, then put on his bedside table before he changed into his pajamas and brushed his teeth. Sleepy and bathed in the grim fluorescent light above the mirror, Sid looked even more hangdog than he usually did, and that was saying something. He tugged at the skin beneath his eyes with his fingertips, pulling it down and watching as it slowly moved back into place. Age did that to a man; hell, age did that to everybody. It wasn’t anything more than that. Just getting old. It happened to everyone, right up until the point it didn’t anymore.
When Nathan called a little after noon the next day, Sid answered on the first ring; Nathan didn’t offer any further explanations of or commentary on his late-night texts, and Sid didn’t ask. He did ask about the show, though, and to his considerable delight, he found Nathan more than willing to jump on the opportunity to have someone listen. The kid wasn’t what Sid would call a good storyteller — more an enthusiastic babbler, really, with all the engaging charm of a slightly hysterical stand-up comic who had to arrive at his punchlines before he realized he’d said them.
Thus Sid found his the next two weeks of his life became long stretches of waiting for phone calls, punctuated by calls in which he might say nothing for a good ten or fifteen minutes at a go. He’d make a grunt every now and again, or laugh if Nathan’s speech indicated that’s what he was expecting from Sid, largely to make it clear that Sid was in fact still listening, but confirmation noises made up the lion’s share of Sid’s contributions. It wasn’t because Nathan was self-centered at all; quite the contrary, he came off as one of the most sincere and thoughtful people Sid had ever met, worrying about the well-being of those around him so consistently that his stories made a narrative so inadvertently coherent that Sid could follow it like a soap opera.
But Sid knew from his own youth what it was like to wake up one day and find you had a person who both would listen to you and understood. The first time Sid had ever met a real, professional musician — a guitarist at a dive blues joint in Metarie, an elderly man by the name of Leo James, who had never released an album or gone on a tour — Sid had stayed up the whole night with him, sitting at the bar until well after it closed, just babbling his heart out about everything he’d wanted to do and be and create. And bless Leo, he’d listened, never once letting the sweet, genuine smile fade from his face, even when he’d told Sid that it would never be easy, but if that’s what he wanted, he should damn well try. For all the family he’d grown up around and the friends he’d made in the Navy, Sid had never before felt like he’d encountered someone where he could say I want to do this for a living and have that person nod back like it was a good idea. And Leo had been a chance encounter on a random weekend leave in New Orleans; had that been the days of cell phones, Sid would have been ringing Leo every night too.
Nathan, of course, didn’t need any more encouragement on the path to becoming a professional musician — he’d done that already, long before Sid had ever gotten to him, before he’d even finished high school. (He’d dropped out at sixteen to be in Big in Japan full-time, he’d confessed to Sid, who’d shared back that he’d been the first person in his whole family to graduate anything, and thus made no judgments on anyone who didn’t.) But Sid knew from experience you didn’t just choose a career path and have everything else in your life magically sort itself into place behind that decision. Everything was more complicated, everything always, and the worst feeling in the world was the one where you had ten thousand people around you and the nagging suspicion that if you opened your mouth, not a one of them would listen.
Sid listened, though, and it wasn’t due to some saintly patience or misguided pity. In fact, he loved hearing Nathan talk endlessly about nothing in particular, and suspected that if Nathan had gotten a mind to read the phone book instead of thinking up new topics for conversation, Sid would have listened just as intently. He didn’t know how much he could offer in the way of advice, or at least in the way of good advice, but listening seemed to be enough for Nathan, so it was enough for Sid too.
He got better at texting, too, though only marginally. At best, it became kind of a doorbell: Nathan would text a quick message or observation, and if he didn’t mention specifically that he was in the middle of something and texting because he wasn’t in a place where he could talk, Sid would just call him back.
After complaining at length after one too many times of trying to crook the phone between his ear and shoulder to free his hands, only to have the phone slip out and clatter to the floor, Sid took Nathan’s suggestion and went to the nearest drugstore. He had to ask the woman behind the counter where to find the earphones, and she directed him to a whole big section of a shelf near the office supplies that he’d never noticed before. He’d worn studio headphones before, of course, and there were a few pairs of those near the bottom, with their big cushioned familiar roundness — but none of those promised that they’d work with a telephone, which was what Nathan had specified needed to be on the box. At last he settled on a black pair with little skulls on the ends, not because he felt one way or another about the design, but because they looked to be the cheapest that didn’t also remind him of hearing aids. He’d been so interested in trying them out that he’d opened them on the street outside the store, even though the process had involved getting out his Swiss Army knife to cut through the horrible moulded plastic, and when he’d finally figured out right from left and where on the phone to plug the other end in, he’d been amazed to hear the old-fashioned phone bell right in his ears, even though the phone was still in his hand at his waist.
He was so impressed, in fact, that he didn’t register how long the phone had been ringing until he heard a little click, followed by: “Hi, this is Nathan’s voice mail! I’m — Jason, quit it — I’m not here at the moment, but if — cut it out! — whatever, just leave a message after the beep, okay?” There was a brief, distant sound of a triumphant whoop, truncated by the aforementioned beep, and Sid was left on the midday Manhattan street with nothing left to say.
He had to think of something, though, or Nathan might worry he’d had a stroke. “Hi, Nathan, I–” He cleared his throat. “This is Sid — Sid Stills, you know — and I … well, I hope you can hear me, because I’m trying this out on those little headphones you suggested I buy. I think this is the part I talk into, but if it’s not … well, if it’s not, I guess you can’t hear me anyway, so it doesn’t much matter. So … have a good day.” He tapped the red button with his thumb and ended the call before he could talk himself into anything more awkward than he already had.
Instead of going straight home, he wandered a few blocks until he came to Tompkins Square Park, a tiny patch of green he often made into a stop on his rambles throughout the area; he took a seat on a bench where he could watch the pets and owners at the dog run. The day was pleasant and warm, and a light breeze blew down faint scatters of petals from the last few flowering trees at the edge of the park.
So, that was Jason.
Nathan must not have changed his answering machine message in a while. Sid supposed that wasn’t too strange; he didn’t know if he’d changed his ever, or even set it in the first place, so he couldn’t blame Nathan for not having thought about that. He couldn’t tell from the sound of the recording just what Nathan had wanted Jason to stop, but it apparently hadn’t been critical, just annoying — and not even that annoying, because Nathan had been laughing throughout despite any protestations to the contrary. Once upon a time, they’d been that close, not only so much so that Jason could intrude on a voice mail message like that, but that Nathan would choose to keep that version. And then … something.
Had they been dating? Sid had considered the possibility more than once, just from hearing Nathan speak about the better parts of his early career, where every story involved at least some mention of Jason’s ridiculous antics or bizarre charisma or extensive tattooing or big mouth. It didn’t seem that way, though, because as far as Sid could tell, for Nathan, Jason had just … vanished. Nathan didn’t speak of him in the bitter language of exes, or tell the kind of humiliating-to-the-other-person tales former lovers often did to make themselves feel better about not being in said relationship any longer. Every word from Nathan about Jason was said with such fondness, right up until the point nothing was said at all.
It was none of Sid’s business, of course, but that didn’t mean he could stop his mind from grinding up possibilities and making sausages out of them. He found himself more than a little angry at Jason — which was ridiculous in the extreme, considering that not only had Sid never even been in the same room with the man, Jason likely had no idea who Sid was, or if he did know the name, wouldn’t recognize him on the street. Of course, that meant that if Sid found him, went up to him, and clocked him on the jaw, he might actually somewhat get away with it. Yes, that would be the way to answer an argument he knew nothing about: random violence. And wouldn’t that make the tabloid headlines? ‘Geezer Slugs Rock Star!’ ‘Gramps Says Bassist Had It Coming!’ He didn’t know if Nathan would hate him for it or give him a medal.
Chuckling to himself from time to time, Sid stayed in the park until the sun began to go down, then went home by the way of the kosher deli with the amazing reubens. If he couldn’t punch the man who’d made Nathan unhappy, he could at least enjoy some corned beef and sauerkraut. Life was full of little trade-offs.
“So, you know, it turns out after this all is over, I’m coming back to New York.”
Sid’s hands stopped mid-chord; since acquiring his earphones, he’d taken to noodling on the piano while he had his conversations with Nathan, and thus had played more over the past three days than he had in the three years previous. “You are?” he asked, trying to sound calm and reasonable and not like his heart had made the sudden decision to pound its way out of his chest. The bluesy sound faded as the strings stilled.
“Yeah, um.” Nathan laughed, and the earphones sent the sound directly in, close as though Nathan were there with his lips up against Sid’s earlobe. “Got to finish my real record and then go on a real tour, so I need a real band. And by ‘real’ I mean ‘not just thirty different digital versions of myself’. And my agent said he had a couple of guys in mind, but they were based out of the New York area, not Chicago, so I said, you know what, New York’s great. Real great.”
“Wow.” Sid sat back on the piano bench and let his hands come to rest in his lap. It felt a little strange just talking to the air like this; he was used to talking to himself, of course, and could do that all the live-long day, but having someone answer back was a novelty. “And this is going to be when?”
“Two weeks! I finish up here the day after next, and then I’m going to go home to Chicago and see my parents for a little bit, and then … back in your neck of the woods! For about a month, I think. They’re still setting things up, so it depends. I’m sort of at the mercy of the elements, you know? They say, there you go, and that’s where I go.” Nathan’s nervous pace threatened to blur his individual words into a single unbroken sound. “Except, like, for New York. I got to choose that. So I did. Choose that.” Nathan cleared his throat, and Sid could hear him fidgeting with something that sounded like paper.
“I’m glad you did,” said Sid. “Where do they have you staying?”
“I … actually have no idea. I don’t even know if they know yet. Everything’s still kind of up in the air, since I just talked to my manager about this an hour before. I, like, called you pretty quick after, so you’re kind of the only person who knows. But I’m sure it’ll be somewhere okay. Like, a hotel, maybe, or someone’s guest room, or maybe subletting someone’s apartment somewhere. And, you know, we’ll get to see one another! Sometimes. If you want. I mean, I know you’re busy. I’ll be busy too. All the rehearsing and recording and some press, if I can get it, even though I don’t like it. But, like, maybe sometimes. If, you know, you’re free.”
Knowing better by now than to try and cut off one of Nathan’s anxious torrents at the pass, Sid waited until there’d been nearly a full second of silence over the connection before saying: “Why don’t you stay here instead?”
This time the pause that followed was closer to ten seconds, and Sid kicked himself once for every one, sure that Nathan was trying to find a polite way to turn down the creepy old man’s offer of crash space. He himself had started composing a retraction when Nathan said, “Are … are you sure?”
“Sure I’m sure. It’s a big enough place, and the couch … I think it folds out, but even if it doesn’t, you’re a little guy, you can fit on it.”
“I….” Nathan swallowed. “No, Sid, I can’t impose.”
“It’s not an imposition.” Sid shook his head before remembering that gestures didn’t transmit so well over the phone. “It really isn’t. It’s….” With a short sigh, Sid stood and took his lit cigarette from the ashtray on the corner of the piano. This was something new, too, getting used to being able to walk while he talked without having to worry all the while about dropping something or giving his neck a crick. “This is a big place. A little too big for one man. I got it back when I thought my life was always going to be full of people, and for a while there, it really was. And then it wasn’t anymore, and I’m left here rattling around like the last almond in the tin. Kind of haunting my own house.” He took a drag from the cigarette and let it out through pursed lips, summoning yet another ghost to fill the place.
A thoughtful silence came from the other end of the line, and Sid waited, standing and staring out the window. Down on the street below, young people moved through the early dark in bunches, pushing past one another on the narrow sidewalks and laughing; he couldn’t hear them, but he could see the sound in the way their mouths moved and their shoulders shook, in the way they threw their arms around one another and pressed into pairs to kiss various body parts. Why would a city want to sleep if it could stay awake for this?
At last he heard Nathan’s soft voice say, “Well, if you’re sure….”
“I’m sure,” Sid repeated. “I’d love for you to. If you don’t mind that there’s two bathrooms but only one bathtub and you have to share it with a grumpy old smoker, then please. I’ll get you your own set of keys and everything. We’ll be roommates or something.” What exactly that ‘or something’ might include hung on the air at the end of Sid’s sentence in the same way his cloud of cigarette smoke had.
“Then … yeah.” Nathan’s entire tone brightened, and Sid could hear the way his smile turned the edges of all his words. “I’d really like that a lot. Thank you. I promise I don’t have a lot of stuff. Or I won’t, anyway. I’ll keep it simple.”
“Then it’s settled. You said, what, two weeks?”
“Something like that. Everything’s still up in the air right now, so I don’t have dates or any flights booked yet or anything, but … I’ll let you know as soon as I do. And only if you’re sure you don’t mind.”
“Kid,” Sid sighed, shaking his head with a grin, “I’d rather have you here with me.”
That won a quiet noise from the other end of the line, and Sid couldn’t help picturing Nathan’s pale little cheeks gone pink. “O-okay,” he said. “Okay. Well, um … okay, then, let me call my manager and tell him that’s all settled out, and then let me call my parents and tell them I’ll be invading soon, and … then I’ll be your houseguest.”
“Sounds fantastic,” said Sid, and after a few more pleasantries and promises to call again later and a variety of expressions of gratitude from Nathan, the conversation was over and Sid took his headphones off. He rested his cigarette in the ashtray as he coiled them around his phone to keep them from getting tangled and settled the whole bunch atop the piano’s glossy surface. He’d have to make good on his promise to go get another key made — not to mention tidy up a little, maybe clear out a space in the spare bedroom’s closet for some of those handsome clothes Nathan was always wearing, maybe give the half-bathroom a decent cleaning, find out whether or not that damn couch actually did fold out or not. Hell, the polite thing to do would be to get some of those rent-some-maids in here and give the place an actual scrub, top to bottom, so it didn’t seem like the place a reclusive smoker had been hibernating for a decade, subsisting on delivery and coffee.
He supposed too that it was time to own up to the fact that he, Sid Stills, had been flirting. Of course, most of it had been being friendly, and the offer of crash space was something he’d extended to any number of his platonic friends in years past — but that last bit, with quoting the kid’s late-night message back to him, had crossed some invisible line. The kid was a little smitten, that much Sid was sure anyone with eyes could see, but Sid in his younger days had seen a number of people look at him with the same starstruck eyes Nathan had, and he knew most of them weren’t inclined to do anything about it — not anything long-term, at least. Hell, he’d probably spent most of his twenties staring dreamily at countless musicians and singers who’d mentored him, regardless of anything he thought he might ever get from the relationship. He suspected most everyone did the same to their role models in whatever professions they were entering: culinary students looked up to famous chefs, acting hopefuls looked up to starlets, and young musicians looked up to the big names. It was an economy of impressiveness.
Flirting back may have been a little irresponsible of him — but he did genuinely like the kid. Plus, it’d been so long since he’d tried to flirt with anyone that for all he knew, everything he was saying might have been romantic banter right up until the moment it left his mouth, at which point it became the kindly dodderings of an old man. Hell, realistically speaking, Nathan was probably humouring him as much as anything.
Still, Sid had to admit, as he crushed out the end of his cigarette, it was nice to be wanted, even if only for the musician he had once been. It had been so long since anyone had wanted him at all, for any reason, that he was loath to scare away that one bright, beautiful source of attention he’d had drop into his life. And it would be nice to have someone else around, even if only as little as Sid knew a rehearsal schedule would allow Nathan to be. When he was around, Sid could show him the area, which would be a nice reminder to get out of the damn apartment once in a while. Get a little fresh air, he thought with a chuckle.
That chuckle tickled his dry throat, so Sid went to the kitchen to get himself a drink of water, coughing into his sleeve the whole way. The water didn’t help, though, and by the time he’d managed down the whole glass of water, he was still coughing, deep barking spasms in his lungs and throat that had him doubled over the kitchen sink, gasping for breath. He knew he’d get no air bent over like that, so he tried to force his shoulders back, taking the pressure off his diaphragm by putting his arms atop his head. He succeeded in getting a few good gulps of air that way before the cough came back, so deep in his torso he could feel it in his stomach muscles. That quickly became the most troubling part of the issue, and he staggered as best he could to the half-bath, making it to the toilet just in time for him to half-cough, half-vomit up what felt like the contents of his stomach and lungs alike into the bowl.
When at last he was sure nothing else unexpected was going to come forth from his mouth, he flushed the toilet and rinsed his mouth out as best he could with water from the cold tap. His hands gripped the side of the basin as he stood there, trying to regain his bearings, begging his lungs not to start up that shit again. In some small mercy, they listened to him, and after a few moments, he found he could again both breathe and stand without too much fear of failure on either front. His arms felt weak, but as long as his legs would obey, he could make that work.
He’d managed to get only a little sick down the front of his shirt, but he knew from experience that even a little bodily excretion on an article of clothing rendered it essentially unwearable, so he peeled it off and tossed it into the laundry hamper. That done, he lay back flat on the bed, hands folded across his chest, staring up at the ceiling, concentrating on his breathing. He tried to take a deep breath, but that made his chest ache, so he stopped before he could set off his lungs or stomach again. Every inhale and exhale rasped, like someone sitting on a busted accordion again and again, praying for a tone but getting nothing but air.
Tomorrow, he’d call the doctor, get another opinion on this business. They’d make him come down for a bunch of tests, probably, but that was just what doctors did, and getting mad at them for that was as useful as getting mad at a guard dog for biting you when you stepped into his territory. But that was tomorrow, and he didn’t have to think about that when he could think a full two weeks ahead to a future that already seemed that much brighter for having the promise of Nathan in it.
After some extra shows tacked on to the end of Nathan’s mini-tour — things were going well for him, both in terms of well-reviewed shows and positive buzz about his upcoming album — and what Nathan described as ‘a we-never-get-to-see-you-anymore parent attack’ from the Vaughns, two weeks ended up being more than a month. The extra time, however, gave Sid the space he needed to get a number of things ready, including figuring out that the sofa in question did not fold out (not that it hadn’t ever, he could tell that much, but somewhere along the line it had given up the hide-a-bed ghost), contemplating acquiring a different one, considering that he could just get a second bed if he was going to go about acquiring new furniture, realizing that he didn’t have room for either a real bed or a sofa-bed to extend, and finally texting Nathan to ask what he’d prefer. ‘I like that couch!!! It’s comfy!!! :D’ came Nathan’s enthusiastic reply, even if Sid suspected his fingers had somehow slipped on the keyboard in the process of entering the last two characters.
At last, it was Nathan Day, and Sid was so excited he couldn’t sit still. He’d been fidgeting around the apartment all day, straightening things, getting objects in order, moving furniture back and forth and back again. He’d offered to meet Nathan at the airport, but Nathan had said his manager was arranging a car for him, so Sid had agreed that making the trip would be silly. Instead, he’d spent most of the day on the couch himself, trying and failing to read some trashy true crime book he’d picked up at the newsstand; he found his eyes wandering over the same paragraph three and four times before giving up and putting it down. To force himself to stop pacing, he’d gone down the street to get a shave and a haircut for considerably more than two bits, though he hadn’t really been too much in need of either. On his way back home, he’d gotten a text from Nathan — ‘On the ground! Starving! There soonish!’ — and detoured to get a truly amazing variety of small dishes from the Indian place on the way. Anything in there Nathan wouldn’t eat, Sid would, and anything neither of them finished that night, he could find a space for it in the refrigerator. At least, he hoped he could; he’d gotten a fair stock of groceries delivered the day before in advance of needing a kitchen that might cater to the needs of an actual human being that lived on more than coffee and takeout.
When the buzzer rang, Sid was already standing by to ring Nathan in, and nearly a minute later, there came a knock on the door. Sid opened it wide, and saw a tall, unfamiliar man in a uniform standing there with a large black suitcase on either side of him. “Mr. Stills?” asked the man, touching the brim of his cap.
“Um, yes, I’m–” Sid heard a thumping from behind the man, coming up the stairs accompanied by slow grunts. He couldn’t see the stairs from inside the door, but he had his suspicions about its origins. “Nathan?”
“Hi!” came the bright response, followed by another thump. “Coming!”
The uniformed man gestured to the bags, and Sid stepped back to wave him in. “Uh, just put them over by the couch there, thanks. Thank you.” He propped the door open with a small doorjamb, then poked his head out into the hallway. “Do you need help?” he called out.
“Nope!” answered Nathan, who then paused. “…Yep.”
With a chuckle, Sid walked out to the top of the stairwell and looked down to the next landing, where Nathan was trying to wrangle two guitar cases and a pair of saddlebags crossed over his chest, out of breath but wearing an enormous grin. “Here, give me those cases,” said Sid, who was glad he was feeling better today than he had for a few days previous, and Nathan didn’t protest as he handed them over. They were light but bulky, and Sid didn’t relish the thought of making the whole trip up trying to manage one of those things, let alone two. Maybe in his next life he’d have the foresight to buy into a building that was capable of supporting the addition of an elevator. Getting them up the last seven steps and into the door wasn’t a problem, though, and as soon as he got there, the driver took them from his hands.
Nathan walked in the door a moment later, the picture of a man who’d spent hours on a plane and then been forced to haul several musical instruments up the stairs, but wearing a bright grin all the same. “Hi!” he said again as he hauled his messenger bags of his shoulders and let them down on the floor by the coffee table. He stretched his arms above his head, then locked them behind his back and lifted them, sending off a small drum roll of cracks. “Wow, am I ever glad not to be moving right now. Thank you, Thomas,” he said to the uniformed man. “Is there anything else you need from me?”
“You’re all set,” said Thomas, “unless there’s anything else you need from me?”
“Uh-uh.” Nathan shook his head with great conviction as he dug into his pocket and produced a bill, which he handed to Thomas with a grateful smile. “I intend not to go anywhere else for a very long time. Thank you so much.” He extended his hand again to Thomas, this time to shake, and Sid did the same as he saw the man out the door.
When he turned back, he saw Nathan collapsed on the couch in a very undignified sprawl of limbs and jacket. “I am so glad to be here, for so many reasons, you don’t even know,” said Nathan from beneath where he’d draped his forearm over his eyes. He took a deep breath and relaxed even further as he let it out, until Sid feared he might liquefy and pour off the front of the couch. “The flight was delayed, and then we got stuck on the tarmac, and then there was turbulence, and Thomas was great but there was traffic, and then all those stairs, and … basically everything about today sucked right up until two minutes ago.”
“Two minutes ago?” Sid frowned. “What happened then?”
“I saw you.” Nathan peeked out from beneath his arm, and there was that million-watt smile, sheepish and beautiful, and it didn’t matter that they’d talked at least once a day every day since they’d last seen one another; all Nathan had to do was to physically walk back into Sid’s life to remind him that voice-only wasn’t the same, not at all. “So, um,” Nathan laughed, sitting back up, “have you eaten?”
“Hope you like Indian,” said Sid, gesturing to the three grocery-sized brown paper bags on the kitchen counter, “because if you don’t, I’m going to have to do a lot of this on my own.”
As it turned out, Nathan did like Indian, and between the two of them they polished off well over half of what Sid had brought home, which was better than he’d been expecting, all things considered. Between mouthfuls, Nathan told the more detailed horror story of the day’s transportation follies with a slightly hysterical enthusiasm that had Sid in stitches the way that only a tale of surviving modernity could. They sat next to one another on the couch — the better to share the same dishes with you, my dear — and as they talked and drank bottles of beer, they moved closer to one another until their knees knocked every time one of them leaned forward, which was fairly often. Neither of them made a big deal about it, and Sid wasn’t even sure if Nathan had noticed, but the contact was still good, reassuring if intermittent. Nathan was here, Sid could reach out and touch him, and that was all right.
At last, enough beers had made their way into Sid that some were pushing to get out again, and Sid excused himself to the restroom. He wasn’t particularly slow about it either, but by the time he’d relieved himself, washed his hands, and come back out again, Nathan had gone from being a bubbly eating machine to stone cold passed out, head back against the back of the couch, mouth wide open, snoring little kitten snores. It was far and away the cutest damn thing Sid had ever seen.
He packed up the Indian leftovers with as little noise as he could manage, though more than once Sid was sure the crinkling of an aluminum tray or the snap of its plastic lid would rouse his guest; Nathan, however, slept on, dead to the world. At last, Sid had done as much cleanup as he could, and though he hated the idea of disturbing someone who looked so very comfortable, he knew that position would stop being comfortable sooner than Nathan would like. Besides, Sid hated to sleep in his travel clothes, and Nathan still had all his on, down to his dapper leather dress shoes. With a regretful sigh, Sid placed his hand on Nathan’s shoulder and shook, lightly at first, then with more conviction.
After a few jolts, Nathan awoke with a start. “Hm? What? I’m awake.”
Sid laughed and ruffled his hair. “Sure you are, and snoring is your idea of great conversation.”
“Snoring? I–” Nathan brought his hand up to his mouth, rubbing his lips and cheeks with the self-consciousness of a sleeper trying to make sure he hadn’t drooled somewhere impolite. “Oh, I, um….”
“It’s all right, kid. Get some rest. You deserve it. We’ll get all your stuff settled in come morning.” Sid pointed to a little pile of linens at the far end of the couch, near where Thomas had left Nathan’s big black suitcases. “Pillows there, and some blankets; the thermostat’s right there on the wall, so if you get too hot or too cold, you can mess with it or the window, whichever you like. Bathroom’s all yours, and if you wake up before I do, you can get the coffee going.”
Nathan listened and nodded through Sid’s instructions with a dazed expression, still half-stuck in sleep; when Sid was finished, he tried to speak, but wound up yawning into his sleeve instead. “Sorry,” he said, or at least Sid thought he said, as Sid was out of practice interpreting any yawns but his own.
“Quite all right. Oh, one more thing.” Sid grabbed a pair of keys from his pocket, two on a bare ring, and jangled them together a few times before putting them down on the shelf in front of the stereo. “Bigger one gets you in the front door, littler one gets you in this apartment. Don’t leave without them, since both doors lock behind you.”
“Aye aye, cap’n.” Nathan tossed off a half-hearted two-finger salute, then smiled. “Really, Sid, thank you, I can’t say it enough.”
“You can and you have,” said Sid, who wasn’t just being polite — at least once every time they’d spoken since he’d made the first offer, Nathan had found some way to work his gratitude for the spared space into their conversation. It wasn’t that Sid was tired of it — what kind of jackass would he have to be for that? — so much that it embarrassed him a little, that Nathan was so grateful for something that was not only not a hardship to Sid at all, but something Sid hadn’t stopped looking forward to since he’d suggested it. “And you’re welcome. You got anywhere you have to be tomorrow?”
Nathan shook his head. “Not until Thursday.”
“Then sleep as late as you want, and whenever you’re up, you can use the shower, and then we can wander and I’ll show you around the place. Maybe even get lunch somewhere they make us sit and stay like the good dogs we are. Sound like a plan?”
Even through the sleepy fog that still muted every expression, the stars that appeared in Nathan’s eyes as Sid spoke could not be hidden. “That … might literally be the best thing in the world.”
Sid nodded. “I’ll have to think of somewhere good, then.”
“Yeah,” Nathan laughed, “because there are any bad restaurants in New York City.”
“Oh, sure, there’s plenty. And they all have a lifespan of about two minutes. I’ll just have to take you somewhere that’s been around a little bit longer.” His tone was nonchalant, but already he was running through the list of possibilities in his mind — somewhere nice but not fancy, tasty but not high cuisine, impressive but not obviously impressive. His date-planning skills were rusty. “Well, you’d better get on to sleep or Santa won’t come.”
“I will,” said Nathan, though the last bit of his agreement was swallowed up in another monster yawn, and as he finally worked his mouth closed again, resignation to his sleepy fate was all over his face. “Goodnight, Sid. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Night, kid.” Sid gave one last little wave and disappeared into the bedroom, shutting the door between them. He had every good intention of staying awake for a while longer, just in case the kid needed anything or had any more questions about the place, but he got into his pajamas and tucked up under the covers and nodded off before he could even pick up the book on the bedside table, much less shut off the reading lamp. His last full, conscious thought before he drifted off was about how pleasant and easy it was to fall asleep in a place where you felt safe, and then the rest was given over to dreaming.
Nathan loved New York. That much, at least, was clear every time Sid led him to new places, through parks, down streets, into restaurants, and back out into neighbourhoods. He didn’t love it with the same familiarity that Sid had felt upon really seeing the place for the first time, the great sense of homecoming for a place he’d never lived before, a final filled sense of belonging; rather, he loved it in the way that kids in the commercials loved Disney World, eyes wide with undisguised amazement, staring at everything as though he didn’t believe any of it. Of course he’d been down here before, he’d told Sid, but that had always been as part of going somewhere, doing something executing some greater purpose — this had been the first time he’d ever gotten a chance just to wander.
And wander they had, as when they’d made their way downstairs a little after noon on that Wednesday — Nathan had slept like the dead for nearly ten hours, taken a long shower, and emerged claiming he finally felt human again — Sid had turned to his very own stranger in a strange land and told Nathan to decide where they’d go. Nathan’s combined amazement and lack of directional familiarity led them in more than a few circles, but about the tenth time Nathan’s wandering instinct led them back to Astor Place, he claimed he was starting to get the lay of the land. As they walked, they talked, not about themselves but about the city, and for once it was Sid’s turn to hold up the lion’s share of the conversation as Nathan listened with eyes wide. Sid took the reins only to urge Nathan into a little bistro on the corner for late lunch, where Nathan was indeed suitably impressed.
Sid feared that his constant presence might start to annoy Nathan, so after lunch he offered to head back and let Nathan do his own thing for a while, but Nathan’s face took on an expression of such honest dismay at the idea of being left alone that Sid relented and promised instead to show Nathan the way to the water. “Head east long enough and you’ll fall right in,” he said as they came up on East River Park and the river itself just beyond.
“This is crazy,” said Nathan, shaking his head. The wind whipped a little off the water, ruffling Nathan’s wispy hair even wilder than he’d managed to do himself before they’d even left the apartment; the breeze chilled the otherwise nice day, and he jammed his hands in his pockets, burying the lower half of his face into the loose fringed bandanna-scarf he had tossed around his neck. “Like, I’ve lived near water, sure, it’s Chicago, but … I don’t know, I don’t think of a river as a place you can just go to, like, by walking.”
“Well, here it is.” Sid made an expansive gesture with his arms, indicating the narrow, whitecapped stretch of water that separated them from the buildings of Brooklyn. “Nice enough to look at, but you wouldn’t want to swim in it, and for the love of God, don’t drink it.”
“No worries.” Nathan hopped up and down a little on his toes as he looked around.
Sid frowned. “You cold, kid?”
“Nah, no, I’m … yeah, a little.” Nathan brought out his hands to rub the sleeves of his shirt; it was a loose grey thing, like a long-sleeved t-shirt but with a few buttons at the collar, and it should have looked like he was out in his pajamas, except that somehow he made it look damn near fashionable. “But I like it! I love it! I just have to come back with a jacket.”
“Well, here,” said Sid, and he stepped between Nathan and the river, blocking the wind as best as he could with his larger frame.
“Sorry,” laughed Nathan, though he burrowed into the windbreak until his chest was touching Sid’s and the top bristles of his hair brushed the underside of Sid’s chin. “Skinny Nathan gets colder faster than Fat Nathan ever did.”
Sid shrugged, standing firm, ready to go whenever the kid was, but ready to stay as long as he wanted too. “No shame in getting cold,” he said, though the wind picked up and whipped away the words before he could be sure they’d ever reached Nathan’s ears.
The next day, Nathan was gone so early that Sid didn’t hear him leave; when Sid finally roused himself and poked his head out of the bedroom around 8:30, ready to be Nathan’s alarm clock, he found the couch unoccupied, the blankets folded upon it, one of the guitar cases gone, and the rest of the apartment empty. There wasn’t even any coffee on, though the slightly deconstructed state of the percolator and the tin of grounds left out beside it (but not, Sid noticed, returned to its original place on one of the higher shelves) suggested that someone had tried. The keys he’d left by the stereo were gone. There was no message left, either on the notepad on the counter or on Sid’s phone.
Thus, Sid found himself in pretty much the same position he’d been every morning for the past decade: awake, alone, and with nothing in particular to do. It should have been the most familiar thing in the world. It surely should.
He took a long, hot shower, almost too hot for his skin, but the steam that filled the room made breathing a little easier. At last when he emerged, overwarm and tender, he lay naked on his bed for a while until his exhalations were no longer hoarse wheezes. His head hurt; he wanted a cigarette. Instead, he decided to distract himself by straightening up the apartment; he’d had the professional cleaners in a few days before Nathan’s arrival, but that didn’t magically keep things from getting out of place again. He took the folded sheets Nathan had slept under the night before and replaced them with a clean stack from his linen closet, tossing the old ones in the laundry basket. It was a very hospitable thing to do.
Another hospitable thing might be to unpack, Sid thought, though his inclination to do that went to war with his desire not to be too nosy in someone else’s personal effects, and the latter won. Still, he thought he might at least move them somewhere more convenient — a thought stopped short by how he took the handle of one of the black suitcases and gave a quick tug, and the case didn’t go anywhere. Thomas had hauled those with effortless grace; Sid was belatedly impressed. A closer inspection revealed an unfamiliar company name stamped on the side, and when Sid looked closer, he could see the word synthesizers in cursive beneath. They dwarfed the two ratty messenger bags beside them. Leave it to a musician to pack for a month with more instruments than clothes. His head was pounding by the time he finished fussing about, so he decided to go out for some fresh air, and wandered around nearly until dark, trying to think of anything but what Nathan was doing right then and failing.
When Nathan arrived back that night, he was a clockwork toy overwound: he couldn’t stop talking about rehearsal, his new band members, how great they were, the songs, how much said band members had liked the songs, how great they’d all sounded together, how good it felt to be back in the business of making music. He talked so much, in fact, that Sid had to keep reminding him to eat his burger and sweet potato fries before they went cold, though he couldn’t be too stern about that — how could anyone want to put a damper on such enthusiasm?
“Oh,” said Nathan, his mouth half-full of his blue cheese and bacon burger (Sid had ordered two, that and one with mushrooms and artichoke hearts, with the expectation that he’d enjoy whichever one Nathan didn’t want), “you should totally come to rehearsal sometime. All the guys, like, flipped out when they heard I was staying with you.”
Sid raised a skeptic’s eyebrow; at least Nathan’s overestimation of Sid’s fame and importance, though misguided, was both flattering and charming. “Is that so?”
Nathan nodded, though this time he waited until he’d swallowed the bite and wiped his mouth to speak again. “Yeah! …You know, if you have a minute and want to, and if not, it’s seriously no big deal. But they’d really all think it was great.”
“Maybe,” Sid conceded, and then asked another question about tour plans just to get the attention off himself.
When they’d both finished eating, Sid offered Nathan space in the guest room for both his clothes and the synthesizers, and after a level of polite protestation Sid had come to associate with whenever he offered something nice to the kid, Nathan accepted. Scooting each black suitcase across the room took some coordinated and frankly comic effort, and twice Nathan, who’d volunteered to travel backward, tripped over his own feet and nearly fell down. When they’d reached the midway point, Nathan had the bright idea of just opening up the damn things and taking each individual, lighter piece to the corner Sid had cleared for him. Sid nominated him right then and there for the Nobel Price in Good Goddamn Common Sense, and Nathan made up a half-sentence’s worth of an acceptance speech before he began giggling too hard to continue.
Somehow, the two boxes worked out to be three keyboards, one long and two short, and an incredible architectural feat of stands that were, oddly enough, the lightest things in the boxes. Nathan promised that he knew what the hell he was doing, so Sid just stood back and assumed a supervisory role, and pushed the occasional guitar out of the line of fire. At last, Nathan plugged two cords into the nearest outlet and pushed a button, and the whole rig chimed to life. “I’d like you to meet … my orchestra,” he said, making dramatic gestures of presentation at it before taking a conductor’s bow. Sid applauded.
In his time, Sid had played with more than a few synthesizers, though that had mostly been in the late seventies and early eighties, when digital music was still cutting-edge enough that most synthesizers looked less like actual instruments and more like space-age answering machines with too many buttons. These, however, looked more like a piano and Sid’s phone had married and had babies, and the piano’s genes had been the dominant ones. Sid reached out and depressed the F key closest to him, but heard nothing.
“Got to turn it on,” said Nathan, and he keyed in a three-digit code; the speaker attached to the set began to emit a wobbly tone, almost the sound of a low human voice, but not quite close enough to fool anyone. “Excuse me, I meant my orchestra and my choir. We’re the Nathan Vaughn Philharmonic, Nathan Vaughn conducting.”
“Pretty impressive,” Sid agreed, and as he pulled his hand back, the digital voice stopped. “Your whole orchestra at such a young age.”
Nathan brushed his fingernails along his imaginary lapel. “Yes, well,” he said in a terrible fake posh British accent, “I try to keep humble, but heaven knows it’s so hard when I’m so damn brilliant.”
Sid just stared at him for a moment, long enough that Nathan turned to look at him with a note of apprehension in his posture, a man wondering if his gamble of sarcasm had fallen flat on the side of being not sarcastic enough — and then Sid burst out laughing and clapped Nathan on the shoulder, with in turn got Nathan going as well. They laughed together past the point it should have been funny, past any source or cause, just for the sake of how good it felt. The kid was terrible for Sid’s laugh lines but so good for everything else.
Thus, the two of them settled into their days together so quickly that within a week, Sid had forgotten it had ever been any different. On the days Nathan had rehearsal, he’d leave around the time Sid was getting up, if not earlier, and wouldn’t be back until that evening; on the days he didn’t, they’d wander around the city together, sometimes on a particular mission with Sid in the lead, sometimes at the mercy of Nathan’s curiosity. Nathan even managed to take them places Sid had never seen before, and once got them so turned around in Tribeca that Sid just found the nearest subway stop he could and navigated them back to familiar territory from under the ground. On the subway car home, Nathan picked the seat closest to the map and studied the system, asking Sid questions like why the A and C trains seemed to spend most of their time doing the same thing and why there were really no Manhattan subway stops east of the 6 line, and Sid sat next to him, their legs pressed against one another, and answered as best he knew how.
He didn’t make it to any of the rehearsals, though Nathan promised he wouldn’t be a bother, and really, he wasn’t make it up, the other guys in the band did want to meet Sid. “If they really do want to meet me, then I would be a bother,” Sid reasoned. “Finish your work and I’ll come when you’ve got something solid to show off.” Nathan seemed a little disappointed by this, but he made Sid cross his heart that he’d come closer to the end of the month, and Sid promised.
Sid had feared Nathan might get tired of spending so much time with him, even though it became clear almost immediately that there was no one around Nathan would rather burn his free time with more than with Sid. However, Sid had also kept in the back of his mind another, related fear — that he might get tired of Nathan and want to revert to his old mostly hermetic ways. That possibility, though, turned out to be complete bullshit about the same time the first one did. Sid loved having Nathan around, and even missed him on the days when he was out to rehearse. Vague worries about having to entertain his guest proved unfounded as well: one evening, Nathan texted that he’d be late on account of a meeting over dinner, so by the time he got home, Sid was already fed and sitting on the couch, reading away toward the climax of his book. Upon arriving, Nathan chattered on for a bit, but whatever event he’d just attended had talked him out, and he said little more than a few greetings and a declaration of intention to use the shower, if that was all right with Sid. He emerged ten minutes later, with damp hair and wearing his pajamas, and without comment, curled up on the couch next to Sid and pulled out his laptop and headphones to do what he said was the final polishing on his album tracks. They ignored one another for nearly two hours that way, well past both their bedtimes, sharing the most comfortable silence Sid could ever remember having felt. Even when he might as well have not been there, Nathan still had a way of being present that made everything all right.
On the Monday nearly two weeks after Nathan’s arrival, they had once more taken up their respective places on Sid’s couch, close but not touching, when Nathan took a deep breath and closed his laptop. He didn’t say anything at first, but Sid pulled out the back cover flap of his book anyway and marked his place with it, just in case. Finally, without turning to look at Sid, Nathan spoke: “Can I ask you a question and have you be … honest but gentle?”
“Honest but gentle,” Sid repeated, weighing the concept. “So … if my answer is good, I’ll be honest, and if my answer is bad, I’ll be gentle?”
“Something like that,” said Nathan, and when Sid nodded, Nathan sighed and looked over at the stereo. “I, um, saw you’ve got … you know, all the old albums. All the band’s old stuff.”
Sid hadn’t known if Nathan had noticed that at all; he supposed now he did. “Have and have listened to.”
Nathan gave a nervous little laugh, tapping on the silver lid of his computer as he did. “Well, okay, that was going to be my first question, so I guess, um, my second is … what’d you think?”
“Ah,” said Sid, and he saw Nathan’s face fall at the sound of that one hedged syllable. “No, no! I didn’t mean…. I liked them. I did. I liked them and I listened to them all more than once.”
“Is that honesty or gentleness?” asked Nathan, chancing a look in Sid’s direction.
“Honestly? A little of both.” Sid placed his book on the coffee table in front of them and settled back against the back of the couch. He wanted another cigarette, but he’d cut himself back to four a day and he’d already had those, and he wasn’t yet prepared to admit that there was anything in the world, even his own addiction, that was more damn stubborn than he. “It’s not my kind of music, and like the girl at the record said, I’m not the target audience. That all being said, even to someone who isn’t primed to appreciate the genre, I can hear that you guys were good. Really good, maybe even better than you had any right to be, considering how even one of your fans admits most of your fans were teenage girls. And there is nothing wrong with making music that gets liked by teenage girls, or little kids, or blue-haired grannies, or the snobby little shits that run my local record store, or whatever. There’s no sin in making music people like, or don’t like, so long as you’re making the music you want out of it.”
Nathan laughed and looked away, leaving Sid to fear that he’d stepped over some dangerous invisible line into the territory of being flat insulting, but when Nathan looked back, he was wearing a resigned little smile. “You know, if you’d asked me two months ago — hell, if you’d asked me even back when I was actively in the band — hey, what do you think Sid Stills would make of your music? I would’ve guessed that you’d think it was absolute shit. And not felt good about it, either, so … your brutal honesty is way better than I ever would’ve hoped your gentle might be.”
“I’ve heard shit. I’ve written shit. That’s not shit, absolute or otherwise.” Sid pointed toward the place he’d left the CD cases piled by the disc changer, not ostentatiously out in the open, but not hidden either. “If anything, I’d say the worst thing about them is that at least one of you seemed to have suffered a concussion before naming the songs, because I don’t know which one’s ‘Like a Version’ and which one’s ‘Abe Frohman, Sausage King of Chicago,’ or whatever that one was, hell, I can’t remember.”
With a fond sigh, Nathan shook his head. “It was kind of a thing, I don’t know, naming songs after things that didn’t have anything to do with the song or the lyrics or anything. Puns, pop culture references, things to make you sound clever. That was always Jason’s department. He was….” Nathan waved his hand about, groping for the word in the air in front of him. “He knew how to market things, I guess. How to get and keep attention. That was always the part I hated, the attention. I just wanted to show up, play music, maybe say hi to some of the people who came to listen, and then go home. Not … put on pig hats and then give radio interviews about what I thought about whatever stupid thing Jason had done that week.”
In the debate that ensued in Sid’s brain between wanting to respect what was obviously a tender subject for Nathan and wanting to know more, Sid’s worse angels won. “Oh, yeah?” he said, as though he had spent not a single spare thought on this man he had no reason to know much of anything about. “What kinds of things would he do?”
“Oh, just stupid shit, like….” Nathan sighed, pressing the heel of his hand to the bridge of his nose. “Okay, if I’m going to go down this memory lane, I think I need to be a drunk driver.”
“On it,” said Sid, who didn’t mind using a whiskey buzz to help kill a cigarette craving. He got up from the couch and gestured for Nathan to continue as he walked to the kitchen.
“Stupid shit like … I don’t know, saying stupid things. Pulling stupid stunts. Dating stupid people. God, he’s got, like, the worst taste in women ever. He’s married right now. He’s five years older than I am. She’s twenty-two.”
Sid shrugged as he tossed an ice cube in each glass, mostly for the musical clink they made. “Eight years isn’t too bad,” he said as he poured the whiskey in over them. Hell, he’d never been married, but he’d definitely been involved with people past that on either side of his age at the time.
“I know, but … she’s, like, a really young twenty-two. Like….” Nathan covered his lips with his steepled fingertips as he thought, then exhaled and let his hands fall. “I know this kind of makes me a huge hypocrite, but she’s a pop singer, and she’s been managed since she was, like, twelve. You know, had all her money handled for her, all her problems solved for her, all that.” Sid handed him his glass and Nathan took it, then took one large, ill-advised swallow; he didn’t cough, but his eyes grew a little wide, and it was a moment before he could speak again. “I wasn’t even invited to their wedding.”
Sid winced. “That’s tough.” He took back his old spot on the couch and curled his hand around his glass, watching the sheen on the top shimmer and move as the liquid and the ice swirled around inside.
Nathan waved his hand, dispersing the possibility into the atmosphere. “It’s probably for the best. I would’ve been all grabbing him and going what the hell are you doing?! And that’s not a good way for a wedding guest to act.” He took another drink, and when he brought the glass back down to level, Sid could see close to half of it was gone. “She’s nice, I mean — I met her once, but she was nice. That once. But still.”
Listening to the way Nathan talked about his former bandmate and best friend, Sid began to suspect he’d dismissed the possibility of their being lovers far too soon in the information-gathering process. Whatever had passed between them had a layer of close friendship to it, one that Sid felt was probably genuine — but that particular circle didn’t go all the way around the problem on its own. “Can I ask you a question? And you can say no after you hear it,” Sid added, lest his hospitality imply that he expected reciprocity in the form of gossip.
A smirk lifted the corner of Nathan’s mouth. “Why’d we break up?”
Caught on his line of inquiry before he’d even begun, Sid nodded and took a drink. “If you’re willing to tell.”
Nathan grew quiet, and now it was his turn to stare into his drink as Sid waited, knowing better than to interrupt the pause by either pushing for a confession or shutting down the answer before it’d begun. The kid would talk if he felt like it, and he’d keep quiet if he needed to, and either way it was none of Sid’s damn business. Everybody had secrets, and sometimes the telling made them better, and sometimes the telling made them worse. But the most valuable skill Sid had ever learned in all his six decades on earth, above any musical or literary talent, was the on that let him know when to just damn listen.
At last, after another deep drink, Nathan nodded and began. “I was seeing someone. Someone … really good — well, someone I thought was really good, anyway. Someone in one of the bands that was touring with us. But we were keeping it a secret because … well, a lot of reasons, but they were mostly stupid reasons and … that person I was seeing really wanted to let everybody know. Or at least let somebody know, because when I say we were keeping it a secret, I mean literally, we were the only two who knew about it. And I didn’t want to, because I didn’t want to tell Jason, because I didn’t want Jason to make a big fucking deal about it.”
“And he would have made a big deal?”
“He would’ve made a huge deal. I mean, that’s all he ever did. He made big huge deals over everything. If he was going to the store, he’d make sure at least five guys with cameras were there to document it, to catch a glimpse of him in some bizarre tuxedo-pants-and-mesh-top outfit so everyone would be talking about him for the next week. He loved the attention. Loves the attention, he still does all this shit. So, I didn’t tell him, and then … the person I was seeing and me, we broke up because I wasn’t going to tell anybody, and then he told Jason we’d broken up, and Jason was pissed at me.”
“Who told Jason?” Sid asked, glad to have this slip open up an avenue of conversation that wouldn’t require Nathan to do verbal gymnastics around gendered pronouns. After all, if the significant other in question had been a woman, Nathan wouldn’t have hesitated, so Sid didn’t know what trying to hide anything actually hid.
Caught in his own slip, Nathan bit his lip hard and looked back down into the glass. “Evan,” he said quietly. “The, um, guy I was seeing.”
Sid nodded, keeping his expression careful and even; he didn’t care one way or another, or course, but everything about Nathan’s body language screamed that he did. “And Jason was mad because Evan was … a man?”
“No. Yes. Sort of. Ugh!” Nathan hit his balled fist against the side of his leg with a force that would have traveled through his body and sloshed the drink over the side, had there been any more in the glass than that. “He was pissed that I hadn’t told him anything. That I hadn’t told him that … you know, that I like guys at all, much less that I was dating one. Or that it was someone Jason actually knew and I hadn’t told him. Like, Jason means well, but he’s sort of got a vision of the universe where he’s at the center of it, so it’s easy to tell everyone everything about you, so there’s no reason to keep any secrets, when … it’s harder than that. Especially for me in general, and this in particular. He doesn’t get it. For him, it starts and ends with stage gay, and that’s … you know, not how it actually is.”
He’d been keeping up admirably, Sid thought, but the end of Nathan’s explanation tripped him up so much that he had to ask: “Stage gay?”
“You know … guys kiss other guys on stage.” Nathan looked at Sid, who felt his brow wrinkle in confusion. “For attention. And because girls like it. It’s a thing.”
Sid had been out of the live music scene a while, if he’d missed that trend. “Gay men?”
Nathan shook his head. “Straight men.”
“Kissing gay men?”
“Kissing other straight men. I mean, maybe there’s some more gay guys out there, I don’t know, but all I knew about was Evan. And me, I guess, but I’m not even gay, I just….” Nathan grunted and shut his eyes with an exasperated grimace. “It’s complicated! I hate how complicated it is.”
“Complicated is all right.” Sid shrugged, and he sat up enough to cover the distance between them with his reach; he put a hand on Nathan’s arm and kept it there, holding them both steady until the tension began to ebb again from Nathan’s body. “Everything’s complicated. I’m complicated. I’m a simpler kind of complicated than some, but still complicated. It’s not a bad thing. It keeps things interesting.”
“I guess,” Nathan conceded, and as he leaned into the touch, Sid resolved not to pull away until Nathan did first. “But … anyway, Jason and I ended up shouting at one another, and normally I’m not like that, but when Evan and I broke up … it wasn’t pretty, let’s just say. I got some mean shit said to me, and I was not in the mood to go easy for round two with Jason. So I broke up with the guy I was seeing, and then I broke up with my best friend, and then my band broke up, so I ate myself stupid on fried chicken and champagne because I just didn’t give a shit.”
Despite his best efforts, Sid couldn’t help chuckling at the thought of that particular depression meal. “Fried chicken and then champagne, or fried chicken with champagne?”
“Oh, with. Definitely with. Concurrently, not consecutively.” A weak little chuckle shook Nathan’s shoulders. “And then I went to Nashville, and lived in basements and on couches for a while, and produced some records, and stopped eating like a pig and started running, and lost nearly a hundred pounds, and … basically got my shit together. Well, as together as it is now. Which is to say, semi-together. Togetherish. Togther-like. Am I babbling?”
“A little,” Sid admitted, “but it’s cute.” He let go of Nathan’s shoulder only long enough to ruffle Nathan’s hair; Nathan laughed and clapped his free hand on top of his head, smoothing the strands from one arbitrary tousled arrangement into another. “What I’m still stuck on is this ‘stage gay’ concept. Was this Jason’s idea, or….?”
“Oh, no.” Nathan shook his head, giving up on grooming for the time being. “It was a thing that actual bands who weren’t us did too. Kind of … fanbaiting?” Sid looked blankly back at him. “Like, just part of the performance. Doing things to make all the girls scream, and then it’d be over and neither of the guys would actually think of kissing another guy when someone else wasn’t watching. I don’t know if there’s an equivalent thing real humans do. Jason tried to rope me into it all the time when I was singing something and he’d, like, come over and try to sing along right in my face or something. I always told him off, but like that ever worked.”
At the risk of taking nosy into the realm of just plain intrusive, Sid figured that if Nathan was going to talk about this properly, he needed to feel like he could put all his cards out on the table, and if Nathan wasn’t inclined to do it all on his own, well, Sid wasn’t above giving the kid’s hand a little push. “He ever find out about your thing for him?”
Nathan froze, a rabbit in the headlights of an oncoming truck, and he looked up at Sid in about the same way Sid imagined he might stare at an actual eighteen-wheeler, paralyzed by fear and waiting for impact. When his inevitable crushing death didn’t come, though, and when Sid didn’t offer a word of commentary or clarification beyond his question, Nathan sighed and drained his glass dry with three great effort-laden swallows, leaving only the half-melted ice cube languishing at the bottom. “Nope,” he said, and his voice rasped with the dryness of the alcohol, “Not a clue. And, you know, I love him, I really do, I still do, but I would’ve known if he’d known, because he’s never been able to keep a secret in his life.” He eyed his empty glass as though it had betrayed him, and when no apology was forthcoming from it, Nathan sighed and put it on the coffee table, then sank back into the couch cushions, one arm draped across his face.
“Well,” Sid began; he placed his own still half-full glass on the end of the coffee table closest to him and stood again, heading back for the kitchen. “Knew a girl once when I was about your age, a dancer in a chorus for some Broadway show, married to a man who played sax for me for a while. So because she was married, and because I was gentlemanly toward her and friendly with her husband, she thought I cared for her in a sisterly fashion, and that meant she could kiss and hug all over me in relative safety.” He chuckled to himself as he got a tall tumbler from the drying rack beside the sink and filled it with water from the tap. “She never questioned the purity of my intentions, but there were more than a few times where she could have sat in my lap and landed right on top of my cause for her to doubt.”
That at least got a snorting little laugh out of Nathan, muffled though it was by Nathan’s sleeve. He peeked out as Sid returned, and when Sid handed him the glass, Nathan didn’t even question the gesture, just took it from Sid’s hands and began sipping at it. He pulled his knees closer to his chest as he did, folding like a little piece of human origami, until he was mostly a ball with toes peeking over the end of the couch. “How’d that work out for you?” he asked, keeping his bottom lip pressed up against the lip of the glass.
“About as well as you might expect.” Sid sat back down and lifted his own glass, toasting her memory. She’d been a slight thing with deep black hair, sweet as a cup of sugar and about as smart, but as far as bad decisions went, getting interested her hadn’t been one of his worst. “At least, until her husband sat on my lap first.”
Nathan downright choked on his water, coughing as he spat what he’d had in his mouth all over the knees of his slacks, and Sid felt more than bit guilty that he’d timed that particular reveal so poorly. He’d figured from Nathan’s reticence to identify his boyfriend as a boyfriend that Nathan had read Sid as straight-up straight, perhaps even with a little of the homophobia often found amongst the men of his generation, and he’d figured this was about as good a time as any to work that into the mix; obviously, he’d been wrong. There was a brown paper napkin left over from one takeout meal or another by the side of the couch, and he handed it to Nathan, who mopped up his mouth and blew his nose into it. “Um,” said Nathan, his cheeks gone so red Sid was sure they’d feel warm if he reached over and put his fingers against them — not that he was planning to do so, of course, as he’d traumatized the poor kid enough for one evening.
“So … it’s not the bit about getting frisky with your band members I don’t understand. Old farts like me have been doing that for years. But doing it on stage and dropping it behind the scenes is about the absolute-zero polar opposite of the way it used to be.” Sid glanced over to Nathan, who still looked a bit waterlogged. “Did I drown you there?”
“Nope! No! Fine! Fine. Just fine.” Nathan took a deep breath and let it out in a slow, thin stream of air, an attempt at relaxation that didn’t stop the crimson in his face from migrating out to the tips of his ears. “I’m, um, really sorry.”
“Eh, the couch’s had worse. Besides, you’re the one who’s sleeping on it tonight, not me.” Sid sat there for a minute, looking at his drink, giving the kid a moment of privacy to get himself back together. “…Anyway, my point is, I know I don’t understand, but I do understand. Why it was tough, and why it all went to hell, and why, when it did all go to hell, you got out of there and changed it all around. And your secret’s safe with me.”
Without looking up at Sid, Nathan gave a weak little nod. “…Thanks. I mean, really, seriously, thanks. For listening. And, um, for trusting me.”
He didn’t feel this was quite the time to dismiss the sincerity and enormity of Nathan’s gesture by pointing out that there probably wasn’t a person left in the world who cared if Sid Stills kissed boys, girls, dogs, or rubber chickens — to say nothing of how his laid-back sexuality had been both a known and shared quantity amongst many of his fellow musicians back in the day — so Sid just reached for Nathan again and patted him on the arm. “You’re a good kid. Hell, you’re a good man. And I’m really glad I met you.”
“Me too,” said Nathan, who looked up at him with those bright grey eyes full of trust and affection, and Sid felt something knot up in the middle of his chest, smack dab in the center of a place he hadn’t known could bend. And what happened then? He heard Bors Karloff’s voice in his head, familiar after so many Christmases spent alone with television and takeout for company. Well, in Whoville they say–
“Guess we’re stuck with one another, then.” Sid squeezed Nathan’s arm and noticed that as happy as Nathan looked at the sound of that was exactly as happy as Sid felt.
He took a cab home, but stopped the driver two blocks before his destination and walked the rest of the way, taking deep gulps of air to clear out the lingering cloud that followed him; even if no one else could sense it, he knew it was there. It had gotten deep into him while the white coats had been poking and prodding, making him sit up straight and blow into a tube, listening to his chest with a stethoscope as he obeyed their commands and drew giant lungfuls of the hospital air into his body. He felt like his skin had become Listerine amber, soiled with a layer of disinfectant that did the opposite of what it was supposed to do. City air may not have been cleaner, but it felt better, it tasted better, and by the time he reached the front door of his building, he was almost feeling like himself again.
The trudge up to his apartment went slower than normal, but that was all right. He had nowhere in particular to be right then, and no one who’d start to miss him until that evening. He’d gotten up early enough that he and Nathan had actually seen one another before Nathan left, and he’d made up some excuse about going out and meeting with an old friend as Nathan stood there in the kitchen listening to him, half-dressed in brown trousers and a white undershirt, waiting on coffee. (The kid had lasted exactly two days with the percolator before coming home from rehearsal with a box under his arm and the declaration that it was time to leave the twentieth century of coffee making behind; Sid didn’t know how much he trusted the mysterious black machine and the tiny little cups that went in it, but even he had to admit, what it put out was pretty good.) Nathan had wished Sid a good time and said he’d be home late as usual, but maybe they could have pizza tonight? He’d been in the mood for some good, quality pizza — Chicago-style, of course, which had led into a hilarious mock-argument about the supremacy of various geographic pizza varieties and taken Sid’s most of mind off the day ahead of him.
But the day had come and it had gone, and now he was tired. At least the vampires had left him alone after getting their fill last time; the insides of his elbows had been ugly red and purple spills for a full week after. This time, though, all he brought home about his person was his little cloud of unclean feelings and a plastic ID bracelet around his wrist. A pair of kitchen scissors took care of the latter, but the former would need some serious scrubbing to banish. Damn hospitals and the way they made you feel, not just at the time, but for hours afterward.
He undressed to his underclothes and tossed everything else he’d been wearing in the hamper on the grounds of its being unwearable until cleaned at least once, maybe even more than that. He thought, as he did, about nothing — not nothing, perhaps, but nothing of consequence. He tracked the chord progressions of the snips of songs that had come through the taxi radio, even though that was a disappointingly short exercise. He pictured playing scales on the piano the way he’d done as a child, major and minor, crossing his thumb under on the way up and bringing his middle finger over on the way down with his right hand, and doing the opposite with his left. As he sat on the bed and kicked off his shoes and socks, he beat four against three with his fingertips against his thighs, tapping four even beats with his right hand in the same time it took him to tap three with his left. Music always made him feel better, even at its most rote and deconstructed state. It was all good, familiar and good, in the way his mother had sat with him at the kitchen table and recited his Bible passage for Sunday School with him until the cadence of her tone and the shape of the words wrote it to memory far surer than the passage’s meaning ever could. Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest, said together time and again, and five decades later he couldn’t have found that sentence again in a Bible or told for certain who’d said it, but he knew it was in there. Familiar words, familiar songs, familiar thoughts, familiar air: all good.
So caught up was he in the fog of his own thoughts that he opened the bathroom door and stood there for several seconds, wondering what on earth was wrong with his bathtub, until realizing that it had a Nathan in it.
Sid opened his mouth to apologize, but stopped short when he realized two things: one, Nathan had earphones in his ears, with a long black cord trailing to a little box atop the closed toilet lid; and two, even if Nathan hadn’t been deafened by modern technology, he was still unaware of Sid’s presence by virtue of being sound asleep. The kid had pulled back the drapes on the bathroom’s one small window, something Sid never did, and the sun had peaked just high enough in the mid-afternoon sky that a beam of light came streaming in, illuminating the tub and its contents with an angelic glow. With one hand folded across his middle and the other loose by his side, Nathan napped on like a cat in the sunlight.
No cat had ever looked quite like this, though: as was customary for a bath, Nathan was naked, and that shut Sid up even further. The kid wasn’t just naked, he was naked and gorgeous. His skin goldened by the light, he looked more like the subject of a Renaissance master’s oils than a sleepy musician in a bathtub on the Lower East Side. He’d likely poured some bubbles or soap into the water earlier, but the water was clear again now, with only a faint translucent rainbow sheen across the top to obstruct the view.
And what a view it was. He wasn’t muscled like a bodybuilder, with all the well-defined lumps curving his skin, or even particularly athletic-looking at all. He was mostly just lean, though he still had a little roll just beneath his navel, left over from what had once been a much larger belly. Nothing about his overall physique was particularly striking — he just fit together quite nicely, so much so that Sid wanted to touch him all over and confirm just how lovely he was.
To Sid’s great embarrassment, as he stood there gawking, he found that what most caught his attention was curled up at the place where Nathan’s legs met, as asleep as the rest of him. Nathan was a small guy in general, and while Sid hadn’t gone to any great lengths speculating about what was under those stylish clothes, he’d just figured that everything about the kid would be proportional. He couldn’t have been more wrong. Nathan’s tool wasn’t comically giant — no garden hose or elephant’s trunk swinging down below his knees — but just nice and thick, even when soft as it clearly was now. Those jeans the kid wore were pretty slim; Sid wondered where on earth he’d been hiding that.
After a good minute of staring, shame crept back in, compounded by the realization that if Nathan opened his eyes right then, Sid wouldn’t know what to say — and Sid slipped back out, leaving the door as half-open as he’d found it. He changed into a clean pair of trousers and a loose shirt, then went back out to the couch to sit and read his book and indulge himself from time to time in the guilty pleasure of thinking about what he’d just seen.
The guilt was there was much as the pleasure, too, as Sid didn’t imagine Nathan — who’d more than once drunkenly rambled about how he hated having his body seen, with vague allusions to how even sex had never been enough of an incentive to get him in the nude — would have taken kindly to being peeped on, regardless of how accidental the circumstances had been. Nathan might have had a taste for other men from time to time, and he might even have still been working through his hero crush on Sid, but those two elements, when added together, didn’t equal Nathan’s wanting Sid to be the dirty old man spying on him. There was a gap between infatuation and wanting to do something about it that might as well have been an ocean.
An hour later, when Nathan emerged, he was wearing nothing but a towel around his waist and made a noise of genuine shock when he saw Sid sitting on the couch, thumbing through a copy of the poems of Phillis Levin he’d picked up cheap from one of the used booksellers’ tables. “Sid!” He clutched at the knot in the towel with both hands, drawing the ends together around his hips as best as he could, and Sid tried not to stare anew at what he now knew to be under there. “Oh, hi, I … um, I didn’t … I totally fell asleep in … uh … you been home long?”
“Couple minutes,” Sid lied, marking his place in the book and putting it aside. God, the kid was gorgeous, naked and slightly damp and pinkening by the moment. Now that he’d had it, Sid wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to make that thought go away again. “Heard the water running, so I figured you were home.”
“Yeah! Yeah, um.” Nathan’s fists tightened around the towel, extra insurance against the dangers of gravity. “There was, like, a construction crew working across the street that cut some power line or something, I didn’t get the full story, and they didn’t know how long it was going to be until they got it back — one of the guys was saying, like, ten minutes, while his boss was all, no way, a couple hours — so I just said fuck it and everybody went home early. And I, um, came back here.” The longer fringes of damp hair that stuck to his forehead started to drip, and he chanced letting go of the towel with one hand just long enough to wipe his face dry.
“Sounds reasonable.” Sid stood and walked around the loveseat toward Nathan. “Did you use up all the hot water?”
Nathan swallowed and backed up a nervous step, though that just ended up walking him into the side of the refrigerator. “Uh, no, I … I don’t think so.” The pink blush to his cheek made his pale freckles even more pronounced, though he didn’t look full-on embarrassed so much as just plain bashful, which for Sid’s money was adorable.
“Well, if you’re finished, I think I’ll follow your good example of clean living, and maybe you can order your ridiculous Chicago pizza so it’ll be here when I’m out.” Sid reached out to brush dry another drip heading for the bridge of Nathan’s nose, and even though he knew he shouldn’t have done so from the moment he started the gesture, it was too late to pull back — and then the contact was there, and he could feel Nathan’s warm, damp skin beneath his fingers, and that made it all worth it, especially when Nathan neither flinched nor pulled away, just stood there with the very edge of his lower lip caught between his teeth. “Dry off so you don’t catch a cold,” Sid added, and before Nathan could offer a response, Sid walked past him into the bedroom and shut the door.
The shower Sid took after that was not long by most standards of showering, but for Sid, it took a while. He’d gotten into the habit of taking quick showers during his Navy days and never quite broken it: wet up, water off, lather up, water on, rinse off. He allowed himself exceptions in winter, when it was too damn cold even indoors to stand around stark naked and covered with suds, but today was a warm day, and after a blast from the shower head to damp himself all over, he reached for the knobs and turned the stream off.
The sun had passed by the uncovered window by the time Sid stepped in, but the sky was still cloudless blue, and Sid stared out at it as he worked the bar of soap into a lather and rubbed the suds across his skin. He started first with his chest and arms, then moved his way down his torso to his hips, and meant to continue on down his legs, but got caught up around his nether regions. His own penis had not decided to go out of its way to prove the adage about using it or losing it, or else the last decade or so of incidental celibacy would surely have rendered it little more than vestigial flesh, but neither was it as responsive as it had been in his younger days. Still, the thought of what he’d seen earlier pushed him halfway to hard, which was halfway more than he’d gotten there by thinking about anything or anyone in particular in a long time. It felt good, like stepping out on the first day of spring after a long, cold winter and feeling not as young as you had the previous fall when you’d gone down into it, but not as old as you had the day before the frost in the air broke. It was so damn pretty Sid thought he might compose a song about it, except he didn’t know how many people would be inclined to listen to a charming little ditty about how a senior citizen got his erection back, much less if Nathan would appreciate being the semi-subject of it. Maybe he could do it blues-style, like the naughty songs of the twenties and thirties about elevator papas and organ grinders and handymen, full of plausible deniability. “Baby drummer, you gave me my drumstick back,” he sang beneath his breath with a grin.
Damn, he really was turning into a dirty old man.
He rinsed, dried, shaved, and dressed with his customary military efficiency, and by the time he emerged into the main room, he found Nathan there with a thick pizza box sporting a logo he’d never seen before. “Where’d you go for that?” he asked, using his fingers to comb his towel-damp hair into partial order.
“Found them on Yelp,” said Nathan, pointing to the computer on his lap as though that made anything make sense and looking adorably smug. “They promised Chicago-style deep dish.”
Sid snorted. “Traitors.”
“Just the way momma used to make it!” Nathan chirped — and then he giggled, a sound Sid was only accustomed to hearing from the kid when he was…. Ah, that explained it; a tall glass tumbler sat on the coffee table as well, partly obscured from Sid’s view by the box, and from the looks of things, no matter how full it had once been, it wasn’t that full now. The contents that had disappeared into Nathan’s stomach had turned his bones liquid, and he half-slumped against the couch cushions, looking sweet and a little sleepy. As Sid came to sit down next to him, Nathan shut the computer and put it on the floor before gravity got its hands on the device first.
Damn it all to hell, the pizza wound up being good, nice and thick and loaded with all kinds of horrible meats and cheeses, with nary a vegetable in sight. Sid ate two slices, swore he was done, refused to admit that there was anything of quality to be found in a culinary monstrosity like that, and was halfway through his third before he quite realized what he was doing. When they both conceded defeat, Nathan took the box with the remaining slices to the fridge, and when he came back, he had a bottle of Jack in one hand and a clean glass for Sid in the other.
They talked about nothing for a while they way they often did, endless loose babbling along aimless lines, as the liquid in the bottle went down and the flush in Nathan’s cheeks went up. The kid might have been drinking a little harder than usual tonight — and Sid had never seen Nathan start without him — but hell, after they day he’d had, getting poked and prodded and winded, harder than usual was about the right speed.
He’d never noticed it before Nathan’s arrival on the scene, not in all his years of owning it, but the couch had its own little black hole right in the center, sucking everything in, until he and Nathan were at last side by side in the middle, with Sid’s arm along the back of the couch and Nathan tucked snug in the crook beneath. They’d done this before, just wound up tucked into one another for some reason, or even for no reason at all, comfortable together; once Nathan had even fallen asleep like that, and Sid had stayed there until he just couldn’t bear the pins and needles in his arm any longer. But Nathan was awake now, if a little sleepy, and Sid couldn’t stop thinking about the sight in the bathtub that afternoon, and how that beautiful sight was even at this very minute hiding beneath Nathan’s soft long-sleeved shirt and ratty jeans. There was a loose thread hanging from the breast pocket of Sid’s shirt, and Nathan batted at it and giggled as Sid made up dirty lyrics to ‘Stormy Weather’.
He ran out of reasonable rhymes for ‘vagina’ pretty quick, though, and ran out of unreasonable ones for it shortly after, and was thus reduced to humming old jazz standards and petting Nathan’s hair. “Little drunk, aren’t you, kid?” he asked. Nathan’s hair smelled like Sid’s shampoo and alcohol and pizza and sunshine and puppies and summer and good things.
“Little.” Nathan nodded. “Little lot. Like, drunker than I’ve pretty much ever been ever? Yeah, that little.” He spread his hand and waved it through the air as though framing a marquee. “Nathan Vaughn: World’s Drunkenest Man.”
“I’m a shitty influence,” Sid said into his hair; he brought his arm down from off the back and rested it around Nathan’s shoulders in what could still have been considered a friendly hug, he supposed. Maybe. Plausible deniability.
“You’re a great influence. A great one. The best.” Nathan poked Sid’s chest a few times as counterpoint to his claim. “Best influence ever. From even before I met you. I’d listen and play along with your … um, with your music, and maybe kind of sing a little bit, and want to grow up to be a musician like you. …Not a singer, though. Never though I’d be a singer. Guitarist. The next Django Reinhart, that’d be me. The twangy-not-speaky type”
“That so?” Sid raised an eyebrow. For all his considerable instrumental talents, Nathan had a set of pipes on him that Sid, even on his clearest alto days as a young man in the church choir, could only have dreamed of; that he might have considered a musical career not making use of his voice was unthinkable. “Then what happened?”
“Jason sucked,” said Nathan, though he barely made out the second word before exploding into another fit of giggles. “And Donnie sucked worse, and Chris said if we made him do it he’d kill us. So … had to be me.”
Sid chuckled as he stroked Nathan’s arm through his shirt. “And look what a treasure you turned out to be.”
Nathan buried his face against Sid’s chest at that, shaking his head in a way that made the spiky tips of his hair brush the underside of Sid’s jaw. “Hey, Sid,” he said after a moment, his voice soft, and when Sid didn’t respond right away, he continued, “would you, um, tell me if I was being a pest? Like, kick me out or something? Or at least, like, change the locks?”
“Wouldn’t hesitate,” said Sid, and Nathan’s shoulders relaxed, tension-knotted muscles letting go of their anxious pose. “…Truth be told, though? It’s nice, having somebody else around. Having you around in particular, that’s real nice.” That earned Sid another bashful burrowing attempt from Nathan, who gave up not long after and went for his glass, which still had a few swallows’ worth of liquid remaining; he drained them in a single backward toss of his head. “Keep that up and you’ll be ugly as me someday,” Sid quipped, pointing toward the glass with the hand not resting on Nathan’s shoulder.
“Nuh-uh, you’re not ugly.” Nathan shook his head with a force so emphatic it reminded Sid of seeing a toddler put his foot down about something.
“I appreciate the sentiment, but you don’t have to pretend. I was an baby so ugly the doctor didn’t know which end to slap, and it’s just gotten worse from there.”
“Disagree!” Nathan poked Sid’s chest with three strong jabs. “Dis. A. Gree.”
Laughing, Sid grabbed for Nathan’s hand to make him stop doing that, then held on to him like that past the point where doing so was strictly necessary to make sure Nathan didn’t start up again. “It’s all right. I’ve got my old white man bulldog jowl thing going on. Pretty soon these things’ll be dragging the floor with the rest of my parts.”
Nathan rolled his eyes. “Whatever. You’re hot.”
“That? Is a smart and good thing to say to the man who keeps you in alcohol. …Maybe forty years ago, maybe. But sure as hell not now.”
“Then and now.” Nathan gave a rueful little chuckle. “A magazine once called me the Year’s Unsexiest Dude. For all of 2007, I was the unsexiest. There was no dude unsexier than I.”
Even if he hadn’t been predisposed to feeling affectionate toward the kid, Sid would have felt that was uncalled-for at best and just downright mean at worst; knowing Nathan now as he did, he felt the protective urge to spit nails at these unknown people. “Was it a magazine for shallow idiots? Shallow Idiot Monthly?”
“I don’t even know why I subscribe.”
“I assumed it was a gift.” That won Sid a snort of laughter from Nathan, and Sid drew him closer, petting his arm and side through his shirt. “You sure the ‘un’ wasn’t a typo?”
Nathan shook his head. “Oh, no. There was a little article to go with it and everything. I think they even asked me for a comment. So I said some funny self-deprecating shit and then felt terrible about myself in private.”
“Of course, you know what you should have done, don’t you?” Sid peered down at Nathan, who shook his head. “You should have written a fucking song about it. ‘The Ballad of Shallow Idiot Monthly‘, you could’ve called it. Still could, you know. Sometimes time heals all wounds, but sometimes it sharpens all knives, too.”
Nathan smiled up at Sid, bright as the sunlight that had captured him so beautifully that afternoon, pure trust and perseverance rolled up into one tiny man with ridiculous hair and soft lips. “Maybe you could write it for me. I make jokes, but I’m still … not sure if I’m quite there about it.”
“I think you’ve got to get yourself more credit than that, kid. You’re pretty damn brave.” That made Nathan snort and shake his head again, and this time when Sid ruffled his hair again, it was in as punitive a fashion as one could imagine a hair-ruffle might ever be. “You are. Everything else in your life is shouting at you to do one sort of thing, and you’re just giving it the finger and doing whatever the hell you want. Don’t try to make like it’s not, either, because it’s a damn crime to sell yourself short after all the stuff you’ve been through. Lots of kids like you get caught up in the whole business and don’t make it out alive, or at least not in one piece. You’re still going on, like the world’s bravest Energizer Bunny. That’s worth a lot more than I think you know.”
When Nathan finally lifted his face from where he’d buried it against Sid’s chest, that flush still painting a sunset across his cheeks and the bridge of his nose. The kid was drunk, there were no two ways about that, but he wasn’t stupid drunk; as sloshed as he was — and Sid wouldn’t have put money on Nathan’s being able to walk from one end of the room to the other without incident — he had the look of a man who still knew full well what he was about to do. Thus, Sid both was and wasn’t surprised at once when Nathan scooted closer to him, lifted his chin upward, and pressed his spirits-soaked lips to Sid’s.
You didn’t get past sixty without being kissed a few times, though, so Sid was prepared to ride this one out, to let Nathan get done whatever gesture of gratitude he had in mind and retreat again in his own time, so that Sid could see just how much all this meant to him, and maybe one day some decades down the road he could tell his grandchildren about that one time he’d kissed Sid Stills. Nathan, however, grabbed Sid’s face and opened Sid’s mouth with his tongue, turning as he did so the position was less awkward; Sid put his arms around Nathan and tugged him closer, violating his own good intentions about letting the kid get this out of his system and be done with it, but damn himself if he didn’t want it bad too. Nathan tasted just the way he smelled, and even all the Jack that had soaked him through that evening couldn’t overpower the natural sweetness of his mouth. It would be a crime to let Nathan think his bad decision was anything but what it was, Sid told himself, and swore he wouldn’t encourage the kid even as he grabbed great fists of Nathan’s shirt and pulled free of his mouth to kiss the smooth, beautiful line of Nathan’s jaw. Nathan gasped and shivered, which was all the incentive Sid needed to do it again.
With a clumsy push that was far more effort than grace, Nathan turned in Sid’s arms until they were chest-to-chest, then swung a knee over Sid’s legs so he was sitting right in Sid’s lap, and holy shit, had it been so long since he’d had anyone do that he’d almost forgotten how it went. Nathan, though, seemed to have no problem driving this particular bus, and he wiggled his little self closer until he’d nestled their bellies together and wrapped his arms around Sid’s shoulders. Sitting on top of Sid’s thighs equalized their heights, and now when Nathan kissed him, they fit with no stress or strain on anyone’s neck.
The more Sid thought about, though — at least, as much as he could think about anything with a little wriggling ball of daylight pressed up against him — the more he came to realize Nathan’s decision here may have been bad, but it wasn’t spur-of-the-moment. No wonder he’d started drinking early, if this had been what he’d had in mind; Sid was not a man with so much natural confidence that he knew nothing of the applications of liquid courage. Aw, kid, I’m not worth all this effort, he wanted to say, but his mouth had better things to do at the moment, including kissing the salt off Nathan’s throat while Nathan made the most beautiful noises. Decades in the business, a dozen albums or so, and at last, Sid Stills had found a new favourite instrument. How about that.
He was a bad man for encouraging this, he had no doubt, and an even worse man for taking advantage of a drunk and beautiful thing less than half his age, who’d looked up to him since God-knew-when. He’d had fans like this before, of course, gentlemen and ladies alike, even on this very couch — but Nathan was different, Nathan was Nathan, so much more than just another handsome young thing who’d do it all for the experience and go home happy a few hours later. He trusted Sid, and trusted Sid to take care of him, so the last thing Sid should have been doing was sucking on the kid’s earlobe and slipping his hands beneath Nathan’s shirt to the warm, smooth skin of his back; this was, of course, precisely what he was doing, and the disconnect was not lost on him. He was a bad man, sure, a bad dirty old man who peeped on beautiful sleeping naked boys (well, boy, singular, which he supposed was less terrible), but not an inch of Nathan’s actions told any story except for the one where he wanted all of this, and Sid couldn’t refuse that most compelling tale.
As they kissed, Nathan unbuttoned Sid’s shirt and ran his fingers along Sid’s bare chest and shoulders. It was an old man’s body he had, wrinkled and soft and bony, and he took a moment to feel self-conscious about it before resolving that if that, after everything else, was going to be the straw that broke the back of Nathan’s interest, then that was probably for the best. To the contrary, however, Nathan smiled as he got his hands on Sid, grinning as he bent to kiss at the side of Sid’s jaw. As much as he wanted to see all of that beautiful skin beneath Nathan’s shirt, though, Sid restrained any urges he had to start undressing them both; despite how really damn attractive he was, Nathan didn’t talk about himself as though he felt that way, which may have been criminal, but was also an opinion Sid had to respect. Instead, he just stroked at what of Nathan’s back and sides he could reach under his shirt, learning the topography of his body by touch instead of sight.
After what could have been either ten minutes or ten years of good old-fashioned making out, Nathan paused and took a deep breath, which he exhaled in a rueful little laugh; Sid pressed his hands flat against Nathan’s back and waited. “I really–” Nathan began, though he broke the word off as he bent down and buried his face in the bare crook of Sid’s neck. “I really hate my penis right now.”
Sid made a noise of inquiry, and Nathan reached behind him, took one of Sid’s wrists, and guided Sid’s hand from his back to the front of his pants — which, though tight, weren’t tight enough to mask how Nathan’s beautiful cock was completely soft beneath. Nathan leaned into the contact, but Sid felt no response. “God, I really, really have never had this happen before,” Nathan murmured, sounding just plain miserable, “and that sounds like such a line, but I swear, it’s not you–”
“Kid,” said Sid, and Nathan shut up, though he still clung to Sid with a sad little grip, all the confidence from earlier robbed in the wake of his body’s failure to perform. “So you got a whiskey dick. Big deal.”
“I just … crap.” Nathan swallowed back a noise that sounded half like a sob. “Crap crap crap.”
Sid took his hand from where Nathan had placed it on his crotch and returned it to Nathan’s back, where he gathered up the kid as best he could in a warm bear hug. “Shh. I know it’s not me because I know it’s not you either.” Nathan made an inquisitive little noise, so Sid pulled him closer until the inside of Nathan’s thigh was resting right up against where Sid’s erection should have been, had his old, drunk body been able to pull one together on such short notice; as it was, he’d managed maybe a quarter of the way there, more than enough to feel good but not enough to do anything with.
Nathan swallowed. “Oh.” He took another deep breath, this one great and slow, all the way in and out. “Are … you sure it’s not me?”
“Oh, kid.” Sid chuckled and kissed his hair as he doubled up on the strength of the hug. “I’m really, really sure.”
Nathan gave a nervous little chuckle, then did his best impression of a koala with Sid as the tree, locking his arms around Sid’s neck and shoulders, and getting his knees around Sid’s waist as far as the architecture of the couch would let him go. Sid held on just as tight, one hand flat on Nathan’s back, fingertips fit into the notches in Nathan’s spine, the other stroking Nathan’s soft hair down the curve of his head toward his neck. It shouldn’t have been comfortable, by all rights, and Sid couldn’t vouch for how Nathan was handling the arrangement, but if someone had come along and told him he’d have to spend the rest of his life just like that, without moving another inch, he might well have been all right with it.
At last, Nathan opened his mouth, and Sid waited for him to speak — but Nathan then kept opening his mouth even wider, and he pressed his lips to the bare curve of Sid’s shoulder in a semi-successful attempt to muffle a massive yawn. “Well,” said Sid, giving the back of Nathan’s neck a scritch with the tiny edges of his short fingernails, “I think it’s about bedtime.”
“Oh,” said Nathan, sudden disappointment dripping from the single syllable. He stayed that way for another moment, safe in Sid’s lap, before starting to extract himself from their entanglement; he withdrew his arms, then leaned back, and at last drew his leg back over Sid’s thighs so he was all on his own side of the couch again, much the way before they’d been before this all had started. With a bashful little sigh, he straightened his shirt and tucked his legs up underneath him. “Um, okay. Good-night.” He took a couch pillow and drew it to his chest the way a child might hug a teddy bear, combination companion and shield.
Sid shook his head as he stood, alcohol and arousal alike making it somewhat of a difficult task. “Come say it to me in the bedroom.” Sid extended his hand to Nathan, waving him closer with his fingertips. “I can hear it better there.”
The hopeful smile that followed erased the sad little cloud of dismay lingering around Nathan, and Nathan took Sid’s hand, using it more for reference than for support as he stood. Sid took their joined hands and drew Nathan close, until they were kissing again, and so what if Nathan had to crane his neck up and Sid had to bend down for their mouths to make contact? It was worth it, all worth it.
Progress to the bedroom was slow, as one of them wound up stopping the other every few feet to bring their lips back together, and once that got started going, it was hard to quit. Still, by their shared need to be somewhere that did not require them to be vertical, they pressed on, around the loveseat and down the dozen or so feet that marked the distance from the area by the kitchen to the foot of Sid’s bed. With a playful shove, Sid sent Nathan in the direction of the bed, then sat down beside him, giving Nathan a few more kisses before he went about the business of getting his own socks off. Sexy or not, he didn’t much care, but if he was going to sleep in his own bed, by God, he would be comfortable.
Nathan snuggled up behind Sid and put his chin on Sid’s shoulder. “Do you ever get hung up on how ‘socks’ is such a funny word?”
“All the goddamn time.” Sid pushed his shirt — conveniently already unbuttoned for him by someone’s clever little hands — off his shoulders and tossed it in the general direction of the laundry hamper; it hit the closet door, and he supposed that was good enough. “Also ‘lunch’.” With one quick kiss to Nathan’s cheek, Sid stood again and slipped off his trousers, leaving him down to his plain white cotton boxer shorts. There was an old t-shirt of his crumpled up on the floor beside the bed, though, and he put that on, just in case he got cold during the night.
Nathan giggled. “Lunch. That’s a pretty good one too. Lunch. Lunch.” He stopped himself by bracing his forehead against the palm of his hand. “I’m, um, pretty still drunk.”
“Here, hold on a second.” They’d left the lights on out in the main room, and Sid thought this might be as good a time as any to take care of that, so he set back over the ground they’d just covered, filled two glasses from the sink, and flipped the switch on his way back in. Nathan was now sitting up at the head of the bed, covers tucked around his waist, with his jeans left pooled on the floor. “Here,” he said, handing Nathan one of the glasses and resting his own on the bedside table before climbing in. “It’ll make tomorrow less terrible.”
Nathan gave him a skeptical look, but Sid waved him onward, and Nathan drank it down to the bottom, finishing with a noisy ahh. “There. Was I good?”
“Beyond good. The best.” Sid took the last swallow of his own glass before switching off the lamp and settling back into the bed; he lay his arm across the pillows, and Nathan snuggled up beside him, resting his cheek against Sid’s bicep and draping his left arm across Sid’s stomach. “Absolutely the best and the bravest and handsomest man ever to walk through my front door.”
“Flatterer,” Nathan snorted, but he hugged Sid tight even as he protested the sincerity of the compliment. He was tiny and warm, and he fit as well in the bed beside Sid as he had on Sid’s lap, settling right in as though there’d been a space for him the whole time, just waiting for him to fill it. Sid didn’t know what he would have been doing instead that night if he’d never met Nathan, but he couldn’t imagine anything in the whole damn world that could have been better than this.
Sid kissed the top of Nathan’s head. “Go to sleep. We’ll pick this up again in the morning.” Nathan turned his head up for one more kiss on Sid’s mouth, and Sid shut his eyes, able to believe for that one moment, despite all evidence to the contrary, that everything was going to be all right.
He woke up once in the middle of the night feeling an urgent pressure in his bladder and fairly certain the weight on his chest was an early symptom of a heart attack. The latter fear was dispelled as soon as he blinked a few times, clearing the film of sleep from his eyes, to discover that somehow, sleeping Nathan had decided that the only pillow in the apartment that was better than Sid’s arm was his ribcage. As charming as this was, it did nothing for his need to urinate, so he kissed Nathan on the top of his head and nudged him over to the side, then made a beeline for the bathroom.
As he made water into the bowl, he looked down at his penis in his hand, soft and pink and barely compliant even now. “You are more trouble than you’re worth,” he muttered to it, trying to imagine even as he did what a contrite penis would look like. With any luck, it’d be something like his bit of flesh down there, he hoped as he gave it one more stern gaze before shaking it dry and tucking it back in his undershorts.
When he woke the second time, the glow coming from the bathroom was daylight, and though Nathan was still in bed, his eyes were open and he had his head propped up on his elbow. Smiling, he reached for Sid’s forehead and pushed Sid’s sleep-wild hair back from his face. “Morning,” he said, looking far too radiant for a man who’d had as much alcohol as he’d had the night previous.
“Hey,” said Sid, and when he stretched his arm out to the side the way he had the night before, Nathan tucked up right next to him. “How’re you doing?”
“Fantastic.” Nathan kissed the soft inside of Sid’s bicep just below the place where his shirtsleeve stopped. “I mean, now. I felt like shit earlier, but I woke up and brushed my teeth and drank, like, a hundred glasses of water and ate a cold piece of pizza and went back to sleep, and it was sort of like magic. How about you?” His hand rubbed little circles on Sid’s belly through his shirt.
“Feeling pretty good, actually.” Euphoric might have been a better word for it, except that Sid’s brain wasn’t quite firing on all cylinders yet, and he wasn’t sure the sentiment would quite come out the way he meant. Definitely better than he had waking up in years, though. “…When did you get up? I didn’t notice.”
Nathan shrugged. “You were snoring pretty hard. Guess you were having good dreams.”
Now, of course, was the time for one of them to take it all back. It was easy enough, they’d been drunk enough, neither one could swear to what the other one did or didn’t remember, it could all be walked back now, but only now. In all honesty, Sid had expected his second waking to be alone — Nathan’s having realized his horrible mistake in the middle of the night, of course, and retreated to his usual sleeping arrangement — but now that hadn’t happened, Sid supposed it was his responsibility as the older one, the more experienced one, to put a halt to this madness now. He was more than old enough to be the kid’s father, and a young artist just finding his feet in his solo career didn’t need to be saddled with a romantic relationship with a has-been, someone far better in memory than in practice. It was the kind thing to do, it was the sensible thing to do, and it would hurt now but it would be better sooner than later. All he had to do was tell Nathan he was a sweet kid, but just not his type. A little lie would save Nathan from his bad decision.
Instead, Sid looked at Nathan’s bright, hopeful face, and felt all his resolve land shattering around his feet. “So,” he said, taking a deep breath, “that couch isn’t very comfortable, is it?”
Nathan took his lower lip between his teeth in a bashful little smile. “It, um. I wasn’t going to mention it, but … not really.”
“And this,” Sid stretched out his legs, “is a pretty big bed.”
“It’s a nice bed.” Nathan put his hand flat on the mattress on Sid’s other side and gave it a few good bouncy pushes. “Lots of nice features. And I don’t take up much space.” Proving his point, Nathan tucked himself into a little ball beside Sid, until his head was on Sid’s chest and his knees weren’t far beneath.
“Guess the hospitable thing would be to offer you your fair share of it.”
“I’d really appreciate it, Mr. Stills,” said Nathan, and the way he spoke Sid’s last name now sounded nothing like the way he’d blurted it out at their first introduction, clinging to politeness as though it were a life preserver. Now it was a soft tease, almost with the dirty-schoolgirl air Sid had never found even the least bit attractive until right this very moment. The way Nathan smiled at him, too, and the way he untucked himself from his fetal position into a sprawl that was more on top of Sid than not — Sid may have been a bad person for not cutting off this bad idea at the pass, but really, greater men had crumbled in the face of less.
Resolved then to take this as close to its logical conclusion as Nathan wanted it to go, Sid placed a hand on Nathan’s back, across the strip of bare skin exposed as his shirt pulled up, and slipped just the tips of his fingers beneath the elastic of Nathan’s shorts. “Guess it’s the least I can do.”
“Well….” Nathan traced wavy lines on Sid’s chest, looking down to watch his finger’s movements instead of meeting Sid’s gaze. “There may be one or two other things you can do for me. Like, say … give me a chance to make up for last night’s tragic failure on my part?”
Sid shook his head. “Nope.” When Nathan’s eyebrows furrowed into a puzzled V, Sid smiled and kissed the wrinkled-up skin between them. “I don’t know what the standards are in that windy hellhole of yours, but I don’t consider dinner and drinks that lead to kissing a handsome man and falling asleep next to him a failure by any definition of the word.”
Nathan burst into a laugh, though he managed to control his expression just enough to also stick out his tongue at the city rivalry. “Well, then … give me a chance to give you another reason to be glad I walked through your front door?”
“Fair enough,” said Sid, after a moment pretending to consider what had in fact always been a sure thing. He reached down to grab Nathan’s ass — just get a real handful of it, right through his shorts, firm and warm and perfect for grabbing — and hauled him up the last few inches’ difference in their respective elevations, straight into a kiss.
Despite how it was still early, Sid wasn’t quite all the way to awake yet, and there was no way the kid wasn’t at least a little hung over, kissing Nathan was still like kissing pure energy. Body heat spilled off Nathan’s body in waves, heating Sid’s skin wherever they made contact. It seemed cliché for Sid to say he’d never kissed anyone quite like this before, but the truth was, he hadn’t — among all musicians, and perhaps all people in the world, Nathan was the most unpretentious, eager, and sincere, and there was nothing behind his kiss greedier than a true desire to be kissed more.
Sid got his hands up beneath the tail of Nathan’s shirt again, riding it upward as his hands climbed toward Nathan’s shoulderblades, until at last Nathan relented and pulled back, sitting up on his knees. “All right, all right.” He sighed as though this were all some tremendous hardship, but any disapproval in his tone was wiped away by the smile on his face as he drew his shirt up off over his head, leaving his already slept-upon hair a fright.
“Well, look at you,” said Sid, not even bothering with a tease. Nathan was beautiful, maybe not in the way that would ever find him plastered in his underwear on a sky-high billboard, but still lovely, all soft and pale and smooth. A few white lightning-bolt stretch marks crept out from beneath Nathan’s boxers, just as charming and handsome as everything else about the kid. Sid reached for the waistband of said boxers and tugged, and Nathan, after a moment of bashful hesitation, complied and wiggled them off his hips. “Now get back here.” Sid wiggled his fingers, beckoning Nathan closer, and Nathan grinned and fell right in.
They stayed that way a little while longer, Nathan on top, Sid beneath, just kissing one another as Sid’s hands roamed up and down Nathan’s sides. It felt good to have Nathan so close and so enthusiastic — so good, in fact, that Sid felt a burst of playful energy inside him, and with a little growl, pushed Nathan aside on his back and loomed over him on all fours. Nathan’s eyes went wide for one surprised moment, and then he was grabbing Sid and kissing him twice as hard as he had before, grabbing fistfuls of Sid’s shirt and locking his ankles around the back of Sid’s knees. “That good?” Sid growled into his ear, taking advantage of his sleep-roughed voice until every whisper rolled out like some distant thunder. “Is this what you’ve been thinking about?”
“God, Sid.” Nathan’s voice was a needy little whimper, and he pulled their bodies closer with his legs, grinding their hips against one another. “Yeah, I … I wanted you to … to please….”
“Please what?” Sid echoed, though he’d never been much of a tease, and even as he feigned ignorance, he braced himself on his left elbow and brought his right one down to wrap around that beautiful cock he’d thus far only known in its recumbent state. There was nothing relaxed about it now, though — Nathan was hard, and as Sid’s hand circled him, he gave a sweet little gasp. “Please this?” He stroked again, bringing another musical whimper from the kid, and then yet another as he continued on, just touching skin to skin as he skimmed his fingers along the surface. It might take a bit to master, but Sid wouldn’t mind this kind of instrument practice at all.
Eyes shut, Nathan nodded, and his breathing came in gasps more and more ragged as Sid quickened his hand’s pace and pressure. Whatever the whiskey had done to him last night was by now a distant memory — as was, Sid was pleased to discover, whatever age had done to his own equipment. As Nathan pressed into the contact, Sid felt Nathan’s thigh rub against his own erection, which responded with not only obedience, but downright interest. Sid was half-inclined to take back half of what he’d said to it at the toilet last night. Such wonderful therapy for erectile dysfunction: get drunk, get a good night’s sleep, and wake up with a naked, horny, beautiful young man in your bed. He could sell the method on public access television; he’d make millions.
Nathan must indeed have been thinking about this, because he didn’t take long at all — a few more minutes, and he was writhing into Sid’s touch, grabbing at Sid’s hair with one hand and digging his fingernails into Sid’s bicep with the other. “Please,” Nathan managed, “harder, don’t stop, please….”
“Wouldn’t stop for anything, kid,” Sid rumbled against Nathan’s throat, gratified at how much Nathan rose and responded to the sound of his voice. “Not while you look so good. Think I might just keep going for a good long while, if it makes you sing like this.”
“For you,” Nathan said, or something like it, Sid couldn’t be sure, because the words were lost in the hitch of his breath as his body stiffened and his muscles all held taut. Sid squeezed hard around Nathan’s fat dick, and that was all that was needed to send Nathan over the edge. He gasped and bucked up against Sid’s body as he came, spilling into Sid’s hand and beyond, coming so hard he not only spunked on the both of them, but managed to get some on the headboard. Ah, youth: it was good for many things, and one of them was distance.
At last Nathan’s body went limp again against the sheets, drained of energy as well as of certain fluids, and Sid crawled off the top of him and lay beside him, tucking him close. No sooner had he done so, though, than Nathan was alive again, kissing him with an unexpected energy, such that Sid was the one caught at a loss. Nathan filled that gap in control with purpose, though, and moved down toward the foot of the bed, pushing the covers off the end as he did; he took a quick look at Sid, and before the little blood left in Sid’s brain could quite prepare him for what was coming next, Nathan had slipped open the flap in Sid’s shorts, pulled out his cock, and taken it all into his mouth.
It was too late to stop Nathan, but it wasn’t too late for the ice-water fear that crept up Sid’s spine — what if his cock wasn’t up for the challenge; what if no matter how hard Nathan tried, nothing much happened; what if it seemed to be working but gave up halfway through; what then? This was why he should have said no to the whole business from the start, not because he didn’t think Nathan would enjoy himself, but because he couldn’t deal with disappointing that beautiful, hopeful energy with an aging body that seemed lately to have more than a small vendetta against him.
His penis, however, seemed to have realized exactly the situation it was in and responded with gusto. As Nathan bobbed his head up and down, Sid’s cock showed no signs of flagging, and indeed strengthened its attention, giving Sid at least some confidence that this might be a success. With that assurance from his oft-misbehaving organ, he allowed himself to relax, and once he could do that, he could get to the business of enjoying himself.
And enjoying himself proved no difficult task, not with Nathan’s talented little mouth working with such enthusiasm. Nathan was more than just good at giving head, he was enthusiastic about it, so much so that every time he glanced up to look at Sid, Sid could see a playful sparkle in his eye. Even when Sid’s orgasm took a long time in building, just as Sid began to worry that he was taking too long and Nathan was going to give up on him any minute now, he saw Nathan reposition himself so he rested on his side, not his knees; Nathan took his own cock in hand and began to stroke it again, his pace with his fingers matching that of his mouth. Well, if Sid’d had any worries that the kid might regard this as a chore, or even just polite reciprocity, it was time to take those and throw them out the damn window.
He reached down and touched Nathan’s hair, and Nathan looked up, pale eyes inquisitive, smiling around the head of Sid’s cock. “You’re so goddamn beautiful,” Sid said, petting the curve of his ear. “You’re the most beautiful thing in the world. …Don’t let me distract you, though.”
Nathan laughed and withdrew his mouth just long enough to kiss Sid’s palm and fingertips. “I’ll get right back to work, Mr. Stills,” he promised, and he did just that, kissing the tip of Sid’s cock once before taking it all, top to root, into his mouth.
He was a hard worker, too, that kid, and it wasn’t long before his efforts paid off. Sid grunted some polite warning, and Nathan grinned as he both sucked and jerked himself harder, so that when Sid came, he did so deep in Nathan’s mouth, nearly to his throat, and Nathan swallowed like a champ. Sid’s orgasm raced through him, stronger and more intense than he’d felt in years; that, coupled with how much his reactions were turning Nathan on, left him feeling pretty damn mighty.
Of course, the harder he came, the farther he fell, and when Sid collapsed back against the bed, he suspected that Nathan had sucked out of him his very motor control. He lay there, taking breaths as deep as he could without bringing himself to coughing, and waited as Nathan wiped his mouth, retrieved the fallen comforter, and brought it back up over both of them as he cuddled up against Sid’s body. Nathan pillowed his head on Sid’s arm and kissed his jaw, and Sid smiled. “Not bad, kid.”
“Not bad yourself.” Nathan pecked a kiss at the corner of Sid’s mouth, and Sid turned to him for one that was longer and far less chaste. Whatever qualms he’d ever had about kissing the person who’d just sucked his dick were years behind him, and he wanted to have his mouth on that boy again, as much as he could get it there. They were an odd couple, mismatched in so many ways, and Sid knew that he might well yet turn out to be the worst thing that had ever happened in the kid’s life — but it felt good, and it felt right to be together like this. It couldn’t last, of course, and Sid wasn’t foolish or naive enough to think otherwise, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t enjoy their time together while it lasted, and when it was over — and Sid didn’t want to think about when it might be over — he could, like a good Boy Scout, leave the place better than it had been when he got there.
Thoughts about the future pushed a far more immediate concern to the front of Sid’s mind, and he pulled back from the kiss just enough to get a stern mock-frown going in Nathan’s general direction. “…Don’t you have rehearsal today?”
“I–” With a guilty little grin, Nathan buried his face against Sid’s side. “I may have come down with a twenty-four-hour stomach bug in the middle of the night and texted the band members to tell them I couldn’t possibly make it.”
“Playing hooky from your own band.” Sid clucked his tongue. “I’m impressed.”
Nathan mimed tapping a phone keyboard with his thumb. “I guess I could have been more truthful. ‘Sorry, guys, can’t come today, planning to spend all day naked.'” He laughed and hugged Sid’s chest “We’re, um, pretty ready anyway, you know, if somebody decided to sit in sometime….”
He’d hesitated every time before when Nathan had hinted at how welcome Sid would be, but not because he really thought a group of professional musicians couldn’t handle having an old relic such as himself kibitzing, or had any illusions about how fantastic Nathan’s music would sound at any stage of its development. Instead, he dreaded becoming what he’d seen in his youth: one of those older musicians, kept around long past their prime, who’d worn out their musical usefulness but not their big names, kept around for nostalgia value; the young ones were polite to their faces but could be ruthless behind their backs, sneering about how they weren’t making music anymore so much as reheating leftovers, and talking about how it was better to die young than get old. Sid had been one of the few who hadn’t managed to pull that off.
But he wasn’t so old — not that old, anyway, not so old he couldn’t make Nathan smile and gasp and come like that. And if Nathan wasn’t inviting him along for pity’s sake, but because he really did want to see him there, well, as they said in Oz, that was a horse of a whole different rainbow.
“How about tomorrow?” Sid asked, punctuating the question with a kiss into Nathan’s hair.
Nathan lifted his head so sharply that he came close to knocking Sid’s lips into his teeth. “Really? Like, really really?”
“Assuming, of course, you’re over your stomach bug.”
“You know, I heard of a home remedy for that,” said Nathan, and when Sid nodded at him that she should continue, he laughed. “It involves having a lot of sex.”
The kid had meant it as playful, of course, but hearing him say it still sparked the same fears that he’d felt earlier, the worry that he might be a frustration or, worse, a disappointment to someone so young and active and incredibly attractive as Nathan. But Nathan didn’t look disappointed, and the way his erection poked into Sid’s hip definitely didn’t feel disappointed, so Sid figured he had two choices right there: to let his worries gnaw a hole in him from the inside out, or to grab that young man and kiss him within an inch of his life.
Nathan came twice more before either of them left the bed again, and even though Sid didn’t even work up a half-mast salute again in that time, he enjoyed every inch of the experience — and what was more, when he told Nathan not to worry about getting Sid off, Nathan didn’t worry. In time, Sid’s clothes came off as well, until they were both bare and tangled up with one another, kissing and talking and laughing and kissing again. In the process of making love to him, Sid also learned that Nathan was ticklish, which was a delight beyond all imagining to exploit, as Nathan squirmed and giggled and cried mercy; he would relent, and Nathan would collapse breathless into his arms, calling Sid all kinds of names while kissing him hard.
What finally convinced them both to get up was Nathan’s growling stomach, though he pointed out to Sid that he’d called out naked, and though Sid reminded him that he hadn’t actually done that, he accepted Nathan’s offer of ordering lunch via his computer as payment for Sid’s getting dressed to answer the door when it rang an equitable exchange. He tipped the young woman who brought them their sandwiches the cost of the meal over again, and they ate them on the couch, Nathan sprawled across Sid’s lap as Sid tried not to spill too much of his sandwich’s contents or condiments on him. Of course, with the way Nathan yelped every time a cold shred of lettuce fell onto his belly, the temptation to be messy was high.
A long shared shower later, and they were both back in bed together, naked and damp beneath the covers; despite his best efforts to stay awake, Sid felt his eyelids drifting shut, and he’d nearly dozed off when he heard Nathan say: “I’ve never … been like this before. I mean, like, I’ve been with other people, you know, before — men and women — but I’ve never just … felt safe like this. Like … I’m not worried right now. Or embarrassed, or self-conscious. I’m just … good.”
Sid swallowed back a lump in his throat, then reached over to gather Nathan closer, letting his chin rest on top of the kid’s fine, damp hair. “Me too,” he said, first because it was the polite thing to say to someone who’d poured his heart out like that about you, and then because it was as true when Nathan said it as it would have been coming out of Sid’s own mouth. Perhaps he wasn’t as given to worry as Nathan seemed to be, but he did have his anxieties and his ghosts, and already today he’d seen them banished left and right in the path of the little ball of sunshine next to him.
“Just really good,” Nathan said, though his words got muddled as he yawned into Sid’s skin. “I think it’s naptime, okay?”
“I’ll be right here when you wake up,” Sid promised, and he never wanted that statement to be untrue again.
He thought about backing out, thought about it good and hard, in fact, in the thirty seconds between the time he opened his eyes and the time Nathan bounced on the bed, kissed Sid hard on the mouth, and chirped, “Are you ready?” And there was not a single answer to that in the world that wasn’t ‘yes’.
Self-conscious about his out-of-date wardrobe, Sid asked Nathan to decide what he should wear, and was more than a little gratified when Nathan, after minimal consideration, pulled out an old-but-clean blue-ink-on-white Hawaiian print shirt and a pair of dark blue trousers. “And this,” he said, reaching into the top of Sid’s closet and pulling out a grey fedora he’d honestly forgotten was up there. Nathan looked at it, dusted it off, whacked it once against his thigh, and straightened the pheasant feathers woven into the band. “You are an elder god of the the hipsters.”
“What’s a hipster?” asked Sid, who didn’t understand why Nathan laughed as he deposited the hat atop Sid’s head.
They walked to the subway together, not making any effort to touch one another, but at one point when a passing crowd narrowed their progress into single-file formation, Sid felt a tug on his shirt and looked back to see that Nathan had grabbed the hem in a manner not unlike the way in which a baby elephant might grab his mama’s tail with his trunk. The subway car was packed with morning commuters, so they stood together; Sid held the rail above their heads, and Nathan held on to Sid’s waist as they were jerked and shoved the whole ride uptown. From time to time, Sid would look down and Nathan would look up at the same time, and when their eyes met, Nathan hugged Sid tighter and Sid couldn’t help feeling like he’d won some lottery all over again.
The guard at the front desk waved when Nathan showed up and, when Nathan indicated that Sid was with him, buzzed them both in. Nathan led Sid up an elevator and down a hall to a room that looked half like a recording studio and half like one of the sets from the original run of Star Trek. Three men were already there when they arrived, all of them about the same age as Nathan, and when the door opened, the one messing with the mute on his trumpet turned to greet them. “Hey, Nathan, how are you feeling holy shit.”
As he spoke, the other two turned from their conversation, and their eyes grew just as wide as the first man’s. They were all looking in the general direction of the door, so Sid looked behind just to make sure some 800-pound gorilla hadn’t snuck in behind them — but no, he and Nathan were the only two there. Nathan put a hand behind Sid’s back and pushed him forward into the room. “Marc’s my lead guitarist,” he said, pointing from left to right and starting with the two in the back, “Bean’s on drums, and Adam plays just about anything you put in front of him. Guys, this is Mr. Sid Stills.”
“Just Sid’s fine,” Sid said, and he gave his hat a shy tip by way of greeting.
Sid, it turned out, was the 800-pound gorilla of interest all by himself. The three band members flocked to him to shake his hand and tell him how much they admired his work, and when the other two arrived shortly after — Nathan introduced them as Jeff the bassist and Leo the keyboardist — their reactions to Sid’s presence were much the same as their bandmates’. Sid might have expected Nathan’s having put them up to this, except for how sincerely impressed they all seemed to meet him. He suspected that age might have something to do with familiarity, but not one of them seemed much older than Nathan, and baby-faced Leo looked like he might have cut classes at his middle school to show up for rehearsal today. In the midst of this all, he glanced over at Nathan, looking for signs that he might indeed have become the problem element he feared being; Nathan, however, just folded his arms across his chest and wore the smug smile that was the universal facial expression for I told you so.
True to Nathan’s word, they were pretty close to performance-ready, and the few times they stopped mid-song were not because someone had screwed up, but because Nathan wanted to revise his own compositions. Whatever agents or managers or talent-seekers had pulled this bunch together had really known what they were doing, as all of those guys made changes on the fly as easy as breathing. Sid could see how much they just plain liked one another too, as they smiled and joked with one another both during and between songs. They were comfortable enough with the music and with one another that they could kid around without missing a beat, and they sounded great every second of the way.
It was a joy to see Nathan perform again under any circumstances, but this had an energy that even his enthusiastic solo performances hadn’t quite been able to reach singlehandedly. Nathan bounced back and forth in front of his microphone when the songs really got going, working up a sweat as he sang his heart out and played whichever instrument he’d appropriate himself for that particular number. He shone, a little beacon of light and sound, and Sid was glad that now he knew Nathan would appreciate all the dirty thoughts he was having.
They broke for lunch what seemed like a few minutes later, except when Sid looked up at the clock on the wall, he saw they’d been at it for hours. He applauded, and all the band members beamed, though none so brightly as Nathan, who half-walked, half-hopped over to the chair Sid had set up in the corner. “See?” said Nathan. “I told you you’d have a good time.”
“Not as good as yesterday,” said Sid beneath the general noise level of the room, and he was gratified to get a blush out of Nathan over that one, “but I have to say, you boys put on a good show.”
Jeff walked over and clapped his hand on Nathan’s shoulder; he was dark-haired and eagle-nosed, and had the kind of lank, unwashed look at Sid had come to associate with bassists in general. “You going to be there next Saturday?” he asked Sid.
Sid frowned; he didn’t tend to be a forgetful man, and he made so few appointments these days that they tended to be memorable. “Next Saturday?”
“First show! The Knitting Factory, over in Williamsburg.” Jeff grinned at Nathan. “Got to kick things off in style.”
Sid wanted to smile, he really did, and he even managed to work the corners of his mouth up by sheer force of will, but all he really felt was the cables holding up his heart cut, sending it plummeting downward. First show, indeed — the first of many, first of a whole six-week tour’s worth of shows that started in New York City and got farther away with every following evening, sweeping him all the way out to San Francisco. Nathan had shown Sid the tour map on his computer before, but back then the little dots on the map had been nothing more than dots, some random scatter plot points of interest trending westward across the United States — not actual, physical locations where, all too soon, Nathan would be and Sid would not.
But Nathan was all sunshine and no clouds at the mention of his first show with the band, so Sid drew his spine straight and resolved to be much the same. “If this kid wants me there, then I suppose I could make an appearance.”
“If this idiot doesn’t want you there, you can have one of my backstage passes. Hell, you can have all of my backstage passes.” Jeff gave Nathan a noogie in an affectionate kid-brother sort of way, and Sid seemed to recall that Nathan had said something about Jeff’s being the only one he’d known before all this started; well, that explained a lot about their interactions.
“He’s coming!” Nathan batted Jeff’s hands away, and Jeff stuck out his tongue and laughed. “I mean … you are coming, right, Sid?” His eyes grew wide and his expression softened. “Please?”
A month had seemed forever when he’d agreed to let Nathan come stay; how had he wound up with only a week of it left? “Well, since you asked so nicely,” said Sid, “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
They spent the whole weekend on average no more than about ten feet away from one another at any given point in time, wearing on average no more than two articles of clothing apiece, counting socks. There was sex involved, of course — a great deal of sex, in fact, which Little Sid managed to show up at the party ready for more often than not, though for every one time Sid got off, he got Nathan off three, which contributed to his general feeling of mightiness. Being able to make a man thirty-six years your junior cry uncle in bed was a good, good feeling.
However, the rest of their time together settled into the same comfortable space-sharing routine they’d had before, only now with Nathan in Sid’s lap more often than not. They talked and laughed and kissed and talked some more, whether tucked up in bed next to one another or curled up on the couch. Sid played around with his phone until, with some helpful hints from Nathan, he figured out how to associate the picture that he’d taken with a certain person who was calling — then snapped a picture of shirtless Nathan when Nathan was asleep and did just that. Nathan got out his laptop and showed Sid how to get movies through the internet right onto his computer screen, and together they watched a movie about Townes Van Zandt that made them both get a little choked up at the end. They did the dishes together at the sink, hip to hip, making more contact when passing plates from one to the other than was strictly necessary. They were so boring, but they were boring together, and that made it all perfect.
On Sunday afternoon, Sid woke up from a post-coital nap to find the bed empty and the soft sounds of a guitar coming from the rest of the apartment. He got up and pulled on a pair of pajama pants, then padded into the spare bedroom to find Nathan seated by the window, wearing only a pair of boxer-briefs and a long-sleeved t-shirt, picking at one of Sid’s guitars with his eyes shut. Sid had no problem imagining that being a guitarist had been Nathan’s first ambition: the kid was good, and Sid knew from good. The music he played on stage, both alone and with his new band, had a real taste of rock to it, but here, noodling on one of Sid’s old Gibsons, he could have been a time traveller from a jazz club in the forties, dropped into the present for a limited engagement. One month only! the playbills would say, and then he’d have go back.
Nathan hummed a little as he played, and neither the tune nor the accompaniment from the guitar sounded familiar to Sid, who folded his arms and leaned against the door frame as he listened. Nathan’s bare foot tapped against the carpet, keeping time as he meandered through the music; every so often, he’d stop, frown, and try something over again, a compositional tic Sid knew from experience. Maybe the kid would never get the credit he deserved, especially not for having been pigeonholed as a rock star from the get-go, but there was no denying how much talent was working in those little fingers.
His lungs were ever determined to kill the moment, though, and despite his desire to remain quiet, a tickle crawled up his throat and set him to coughing; by the time he got himself back together, Nathan was up from the chair and at his side, petting his hair. “Hey, you all right?”
“Fine.” Sid swallowed, coughed one more time, and took a deep breath. “Sorry, it’s … a little dry, the air. You been up long?”
“Little bit.” Nathan ran a hand up and down Sid’s bare back. “You sure you’re all right? That sounds bad.”
Sid shook his head. “I’m fine. Just me getting old.” He let Nathan lead him into the apartment’s main room and shuffled over to the couch as Nathan went to the sink to fill a glass of water. “You sounded good. What was that you were playing?”
Nathan brought the water over to Sid and frowned at him until Sid drank at least a few sips. “Just playing.”
“Writing something?” Sid smirked at him over the rim of the glass.
“Maybe.” With an angelic grin, Nathan kissed the tip of Sid’s nose. “Maybe a song about you, even. Oh, Sid, Sid, you like to eat squid, you … do something else, I don’t know, I’m not very good at writing lyrics that rhyme on the fly. I guess that’s why I became a punk rocker instead of a rapper.”
“Got to play to your strengths,” said Sid, and he kissed Nathan’s pretty little mouth, which brought the conversation to a quick close.
They spoke of Nathan’s upcoming departure at oblique angles, only ever in terms of small, practical considerations, never as a larger inevitability — things to be moved, arrangements to be made, but never what it would actually mean for Nathan to be gone. When Nathan came home on Monday after rehearsal, he texted ahead to say that Jeff and Bean were coming with him to get the synthesizers. They claimed they’d only be a minute, but that minute turned into two hours as Sid led them to the instrument room and they both had much the same reaction as Nathan had before them. Sid feared that their extended stay might grate on him, but he actually found that he enjoyed having guests over again, especially two as entertaining as sophomoric, friendly Jeff and dry, manic Bean. When they left around midnight, lugging one giant black case apiece, Sid found he was sorry to see them go.
What surprised Sid even more, though, was how bare the bedroom looked now without the keyboards and their setup. Nathan hadn’t used them much while he was there, though he’d practiced and composed on them plenty, and filmed a couple short numbers that he said he might edit and upload to YouTube someday. Still, every time Sid passed the doorway, he did a double-take at the bare white stretch of wall that marked where they’d been. it was strange, how easy little things could go, and what great holes they left behind them.
The less time they had together, the less time they got to spend together; practice and final business producing the album and arrangements kept Nathan out later every successive night, and some nights when he came home, he was too tired to do anything but fall into Sid’s arms and pass the hell out. He apologized every time, but Sid kissed him and held him and sang him to sleep, little nonsense lullabies made Nathan smile even as he began to snore. This, he thought as Nathan slept curled up to his chest, was what Sid would remember most when it was all over, how good it felt simply not to be alone, even if only for a little while.
Nathan’s clothes went next, out from the drawers and closets into which they’d spread and into the white bags bound for the cleaners’, and when they returned, they went straight from their folded stacks into Nathan’s bags. Sid sat on the edge of the bed as Nathan packed, telling a story about nothing in particular from some tour or another he’d been on back in the late seventies, while neither of them quite managed to make eye contact with the other. When Nathan was finished, he put the bags on the ground at the foot of the bed and curled up next to Sid, resting his head in Sid’s lap, and Sid found that he’d run out of things to say.
When that Saturday morning came, Sid woke up early, well before he knew Nathan would, and he slipped on his clothes and crept out the front door with as much stealth as he could manage. Outside, the day was still cool, though that would burn away the minute the sun started peeking over the tops of the buildings. Puddles of standing water filled the potholes and dips in the sidewalk; it had poured all last night, and he’d brushed droplets off of Nathan’s hair and jacket when he’d come home the previous evening, but now the sky was clear and cloudless blue, no longer threatening rain.
The deli on the corner wasn’t anything special on most counts, but they made the best fried egg sandwiches for miles, so Sid had them fix him up two breakfast combos with sides of home fries and sausage links, all to go. At the bodega next to it, he bought a small clutch of bright pink summer geraniums and a pint-sized carton of orange juice. The liquor store wouldn’t be open at that hour, but Sid had planned for that and made a trip the day before.
Ten minutes after stepping out the front door, Sid was back with a plastic bag in each hand. He peeked into the bedroom to make sure Nathan was still sound asleep, then went back to the kitchen to assemble the components. He didn’t have to do much more than arrange the deli items, but they still looked nicer on a real plate than in styrofoam compartments. He’d kept the half-bottle of champagne in the back of the refrigerator, halfheartedly hidden inside a brown paper sack he figured Nathan wouldn’t check anyway; lacking proper glassware, he poured two large tumblers half-full of champagne, then topped off the rest with orange juice. The flowers wound up fitting snug inside the lip of a mason jar he had for reasons he couldn’t rightly remember. It wasn’t fancy, but neither was he, and consistency had to count for something.
As he entered the dark bedroom for the second time, he heard Nathan stir and make an inquisitive noise. “You’re still asleep,” Sid ordered, and he smiled to see Nathan comply by pulling the covers up to the pillow and burrowing beneath. Without the aid of a serving tray, Sid placed the flowers and drinks on the table on Nathan’s side of the bed, then went back for plates and utensils. At last, he crawled back into bed and kissed at the back of Nathan’s neck. “Okay, now you can wake up.”
Nathan peeked out of the covers only to his nose and sniffed the air. “Did you … bring me breakfast?”
“No,” said Sid, bending down to kiss Nathan’s forehead. “I brought myself two breakfasts. But if you’re nice, I’ll let you have one.”
“I can be nice.” Nathan grinned and took advantage of Sid’s position to give him a long, sweet kiss. “I can be very nice.”
He’d never brought someone more than a morning-after cup of coffee and cigarette in bed, much less gone out on an early-morning scavenger hunt for special breakfast ingredients; he’d never had someone fall so effortlessly into his house and life, nor threaten to leave such a gaping hole when he left. Nathan was the beginning of many new things Sid thought he’d never try, or even want to try, and as he pulled back to look at Nathan’s handsome, naked body where he lay against the sheets, Sid knew there was at least one more he had to add to the list.
When Sid bent down again, he pressed his lips to Nathan’s collarbone, enjoying the twin sounds of pleasure when he sucked the skin with his mouth and laughter when he rubbed over the same area with his morning stubble. “Sid,” Nathan warned with a smile, propping his head up against the pillows for a better angle on the scene, “your breakfasts are getting cold.”
“You go on and eat,” said Sid. “I’m busy.” He pushed the tip of his tongue against Nathan’s skin and dragged it downward. His skin was so smooth and warm beneath Sid’s tongue that he didn’t know why Nathan had worried about anything’s getting cold; all they had to do was put the eggs up next to that little human space heater than had taken up residence in Sid’s bed, and they’d be hot again in no time. He flicked his tongue over the pink bump of Nathan’s nipple and cackled like the wicked old man he was when Nathan squirmed. Nathan’s skin had a clean taste to it, a touch of soap that couldn’t hide the salt beneath. Pushing the covers back to give himself more room to work, Sid kissed down the center line of Nathan’s belly, taking a moment to nip at a little freckle right above Nathan’s navel before travelling along the ginger line of hair that started just beneath and kept going down.
When he arrived at the tip of Nathan’s cock — which was more than ready for him by the time he got there, so much so that it had trailed a little puddle of precome onto Nathan’s hip — Sid paused, laughing at himself. The sound, however, made Nathan frown. “What?” he asked from the other end of the bed, his once-contented smile starting to dim.
Sid kissed Nathan’s hip, big and loud enough to leave a red mark when he pulled back. “Don’t laugh, but … I’ve never done this before.”
Nathan’s eyes widened into little round planets of disbelief. “…Really?”
“Never came up.” Sid paused, considering his wording. “Never went down? Something to that effect.”
“Oh.” After a beat, Nathan laughed, and Sid could hear a little wobble of relief in his tone. “Well … you know there’s no such thing as a bad one, right?” He brushed the backs of his fingers along the curve of Sid’s cheek and jaw, skimming just above the sandpaper there.
Sid clucked his tongue. “Save your reviews for after the show.” Still unsure about whether or not he was doing any of this right, but too committed now to retreat, Sid flicked his tongue across the head of Nathan’s cock, then opened his mouth, tucked his teeth behind his lips, and took him inside.
His first surprise from his first blowjob was that Nathan’s cock tasted much the same as the rest of him did, only a little more so: saltier, brighter, warmer. He’d used his mouth on women before, of course, and hadn’t so much refused prior solicitations to suck off men as not really had the opportunities arise; most of the men Sid had been with before, like Nathan, both obviously enjoyed giving head and had no complaints about what Sid’s hands got up to in return. In fact, he was more than sure that if he’d brought Nathan breakfast, pressed their bodies chest-to-chest, and proceeded to stroke him off, Nathan would have been satisfied in the extreme. But that wasn’t the point now. The point was that he’d never done this before, and he might never get the chance again, and if there was one man in all the world who deserved it from him, it was Nathan Vaughn.
His reward was Nathan’s response: Nathan gasped and clawed at the bedsheets, arching his back off the bed while Sid’s arm across his thighs held his hips in place. “Oh, fuck, Sid,” Nathan gasped, and despite wording that initially troubled Sid, it wasn’t a cry of distress in the slightest. Encouraged, Sid opened his mouth a little wider and slid his lips down, taking Nathan in by inches. Maybe there could be such thing as a bad blowjob, some heretofore undiscovered catastrophic combination of incompetent mouth and trusting phallus, but judging from Nathan’s reaction, that wasn’t what was going on here by a long shot.
He didn’t do much of the work, but it didn’t seem to be necessary, as every little movement of his mouth brought a new noise from Nathan’s mouth. Sometimes the sounds approached words — permutations of oh, fuck, and Sid were most common — and sometimes they were just noises, moans and grunts and sighs. Sid wished he had a recording studio set up right there in his bedroom, something to catch this melody so he could play it back whenever he wanted. He wouldn’t put this on any album, though; this song would be for his ears only. He’d given enough music to the world that he could justify being selfish with this one.
When Nathan’s fingers fisted hard in his hair, Sid pulled back and switched out his mouth for his hand, understanding what was about to come next. Seconds later, Nathan buried his face in the pillow and cried out as he came all over Sid’s hand and his own chest. Perhaps someday Sid would be ready for that trick Nathan had of latching on and smiling as he swallowed, dainty as a dowager who never spilled a drop of her tea. Or maybe he’d never get the chance to try again.
This time, when Nathan tugged, Sid took the hint and scooted back upward until they were both stretched on the bed in the proper direction. “That was,” Nathan started, but he didn’t finish on account of kissing Sid clean, sucking at Sid’s tender, swollen lips and grabbing at his clothes. “Do you….?” He slipped a hand beneath them, headed for Sid’s belt.
“Rain check,” Sid promised against Nathan’s mouth. He always felt a touch of unease when admitting that his body hadn’t quite worked its way into a state where it would appreciate the attention, as though it might come off as a judgment on Nathan’s powers of sexiness when, really, it was more of a judgment on Sid’s uncooperative plumbing.
But Nathan smiled and kissed the tip of his nose. “Mr. Stills, you’ve got yourself a deal.”
The eggs were leaving lukewarm and heading into the territory of stone cold by the time they got there, and the champagne in the mimosas had gone mostly flat, but Sid couldn’t bring himself to care, and from the looks of that smile on the kid’s face, neither could Nathan. The flowers, which Sid had feared at the last minute might be a sentiment too far — less romantic, more token at the end of a successful piano recital — made Nathan blush and grin, and he plucked one bloom from the bunch to tuck behind his ear. They said little as they ate, and little more once they’d finished; instead, they tucked in close and held one another in silence until the wake-up alarm on Nathan’s phone cracked into the stillness with a warning that could not be ignored: their time together was up.
When they walked out the door of Sid’s apartment together, carrying a bag and a guitar case each, Nathan was vibrating hard enough that Sid would have believed the kid’s bright blue sneakers weren’t actually making contact with the ground below him. His actual outfit for the concert was already at the venue, he’d explained, when Sid had looked askance at the regular pair of jeans and a zip-front black sweatshirt he called a ‘hoodie’ he’d put on after getting dressed. He’d already done his hair, though — or so he claimed, though the ‘after’ effect looked little different to Sid from his ‘before’ bedhead, if maybe a bit shinier. Nathan jabbered on about the set order as he hopped down the stairs, and Sid followed silently behind.
The whole while they’d been getting ready, Nathan had said nothing about his leaving, so Sid hadn’t brought it up either. Why ruin the kid’s perfectly good anticipation buzz with something as obviously unimportant as that? He was a kid, after all, and kids by definition had more to look forward to than to look back upon. Better to let him do that.
When they got to the Knitting Factory (a name so ridiculous that Sid hoped there was a textile mill down the road called the Music Venue), Sid saw Nathan get whisked away into the arms of Doug the tour manager, double-checked to make sure the men guarding the doors would know him when he came back, and asked Bean to pass on the message to Nathan that he’d be back, he was just running out for a second. Bean frowned and put his well-tattooed hand on Sid’s shoulder. “You okay, man? You’re looking kind of pale.”
“Little carsick on the ride over,” said Sid, and it wasn’t a complete lie. “Live in Manhattan long enough and you forget what monsters those little four-wheeled things are.”
Bean laughed and stuck the tip of his tongue out through his teeth; with his shaved head and copious ink, he obviously took his drummer role to heart. “I hear you. No problem. Enjoy the fresh air and we’ll see you back here in a few, okay?”
Outside, the world felt completely different, even though Sid knew all had to do would be hike half a dozen blocks west and he’d be within spitting distance of the water; hell, he couldn’t be more than a mile away from his building, and he might even be able to see it from this side of the river, if he squinted and found the right place to stand. Instead he turned east, toward a little corner grocery they’d driven by on the way over. The wide, clear sidewalks and tree-lined streets might as well have been part of the landscape on the moon for how unfamiliar they seemed. Had Brooklyn always been this unlike Manhattan, or had he just forgotten and then become disoriented when reality failed to line up to his expectations? He hadn’t been here in decades, after all, though he supposed that was less Brooklyn’s fault and more his own.
The grocery turned out to have a deli attached, and Sid thought he might try eating a bite, to see if it could bring him up out of the grey mood he’d fallen into, but the thought of food turned his stomach. Instead, he grabbed a ginger ale and a pack of gum and placed them both on the counter for the narrow-faced, bespectacled clerk. “And a pack of Luckies,” he said, and before he could think twice about it, the efficient young man had taken Sid’s bill, made change, bagged his items, and wished him a very pleasant day.
There was a miniature park across the street, a little island demarcated by three intersecting roads, a plot of land with barely enough room for sidewalks and a single tree, and not a bench in sight; the tree was big enough to make shade from the afternoon sun, though, and that would do. Sid walked over and stood beneath it, then reached into the bag and pulled out the pack of cigarettes.
He hadn’t Quit — Quitting was the big thing, the last stop on the subway, the one where you got off and couldn’t get back on, because you’d made such a fuss about doing it — but he had slowed down, especially having Nathan around. He hadn’t smoked in the house since he’d had it cleaned in anticipation of the kid’s arrival, and the one time he’d lit up when they were out exploring the neighbourhood together, Nathan had made such a face that Sid hadn’t ever done that again. He’d made his last pack last so long the last few had actually gone stale, and he’d thrown them out. That had been two days ago.
He’d even thought he might start wanting them again after sex, as he had once upon a time, but as it turned out, it’d been so long since he’d had sex at all that the connection had been broken; besides, sex with Nathan was a new thing, a totally different thing than he’d ever had before, something worth constructing wholly new habits around. Nathan’s presence also kept Sid from being bored or anxious, the other two main reasons he’d tended to light up in the past. That all, combined with a personality that had only ever been casually addictive at best, had damn near turned Sid into a nonsmoker without his noticing.
But Nathan was almost gone. He pulled the plastic off the pack, tapped out one long cigarette, lit it with the pack of matches he’d taken from by the cash register, and inhaled.
The smoke rasped through his lungs, hot and heavy, and Sid couldn’t help the reflex that made him cough it all out again. The second drag went better, though, and by the third, he’d remembered how to ride this bicycle. Old habits were the best habits; you knew them, and they knew you.
He chain-smoked three cigarettes like that, standing there beneath the tree, watching the cars and people go by as the summer sun made its way down over the buildings in the distance. He was overdressed for the warm day, but the breeze that ruffled the leaves above him brought a chill with it, and he alternated holding his current cigarette with one hand and sticking his other in his pants pocket. Nathan had picked this outfit too, a variation on what he’d had Sid wear to the rehearsal earlier that week, only now with a corduroy jacket over the top that Sid thought looked mismatched but Nathan said went perfectly. Nathan didn’t see the world the same way Sid did, that much was certain, but Sid loved the world as presented to him through Nathan’s eyes, how new and fresh it always was, how full of light. He was a kid who had a lot ahead of him, and he was on his way to making the most of it. Good.
It would not, he thought, be bad to remember Brooklyn like this, to remember summer itself from this angle: beneath a shuddering tree full of birds, at the intersection of unfamiliar city streets, waiting for the close of the day. If this was the last he ever got to see of either of those things, it might be all right.
He drank the ginger ale by sips, letting it settle his stomach, and chewed a stick of gum for his breath before he walked back inside the venue. Young people were already starting to gather outside, and he thought one or two of them might have given him a double-take as he passed by, but he didn’t turn around to check. Probably just his imagination or theirs, anyway. He tipped his hat to the gorilla-sized man keeping an eye on the stage door and went on inside.
“Oh, hey! Mr. Stills!” Adam looked up from where he knelt over a stack of instrument cases, fiddling with some black box stuck inside the mouth of a saxophone. “Nathan was looking for you.”
Sid indicated the half-empty green plastic bottle tucked in his jacket pocket. “Just took a quick walk. Did you leave him somewhere I can find him?”
“Think he was getting wired up,” said Adam, drawing his finger in a line between his ear and his mouth, which Sid supposed meant something, though he couldn’t have sworn what. “Or if you can’t find him there, I think some webcast wanted to grab an interview with him.”
“Did he say what he needed me about?”
Adam shook his head, making the curtain of beaded braids that was his hair clatter as they swayed back and forth. “I don’t think it was anything critical, I think he was just looking for you.” He stood and brushed the white stage dust off the knees of his tight tuxedo pants. “I know he’s really thrilled you’re here tonight — he’d kill me if I told you this, but he’s only said it about thirty million times.”
“Of course.” Sid shrugged, wondering how much of Adam’s perception of the situation, beyond the obvious hyperbole, was an exaggeration. “He’s worked hard, and you guys look like you’re set to put on a really great show.”
“Thanks.” Adam gave a proud little smile. “Hey, can I ask you something, and if you don’t want to answer it, you can just tell me to fuck off?”
His honesty startled Sid into a laugh. “Ask away.”
“You ever going to get back into it?”
There was no need, when asked musician-to-musician like that, to ask what ‘it’ was. Six months ago, he might have given some sort of positive answer, played up the potential for return, teased at the ‘maybe someday’ possibility that let people go on believing what Sid knew would never happen. Now, though, was very different from six months ago, and the gum might have cleaned his mouth, but it had done nothing to chase away the taste of three cigarettes at the back of his throat. “Probably not,” he said, though he knew even as he said it how hard of a truth that was to hear. “I didn’t stop for any real reason so much as … I had my run, and I did my thing, and now it’s time to step back and let you kids do something new.”
Disappointment was clear on Adam’s face, but as Sid watched, it kept going right on into the kind of brave smile Sid knew best from Nathan; no wonder the kid and his band got along so well, the fucking little optimists. “Fair enough, but … you ever do and you need some brass, Nathan knows where to find me. Call and I’ll drop whatever else I’m doing, no question.”
“Consider it done,” said Sid, not because it might ever happen, but because he truly was touched by the offer; unbridled hopefulness and an appreciation of Sid Stills albums, these were the shared qualities that held together Nathan’s little touring sextet. He extended his hand, and Adam shook on the promise. That settled, he headed off in search of Nathan before he could preemptively poach any more of the kid’s band members.
From the first drumbeat, Nathan was on fire. By the time Sid found him again, he was in the kind of vest-and-tie combination he’d been wearing the night he’d first come over to Sid’s, only now the tie was bright blue and the outfit came with black fingerless gloves; he also had what looked to be a tiny microphone hooked over his ear, which put Adam’s earlier gesture into perspective. Backstage, he’d been a bundle of nerves and energy, but when the lights came up, he was on and everything was all right. Sid had a hard time believing that this was the same young man he’d seen on the stage at Jim’s, who back then had looked about ready to quake out of his boots. Grinning and bouncing and playing and singing his heart out, Nathan looked unstoppable.
Of course, it no doubt helped that the crowd couldn’t get enough. They didn’t applaud, they roared, and every time Nathan paused between songs to ask them if they’d enjoyed what he’d just done, the answer came back as a resounding yes. Sid watched it all from backstage, tucked away as best he could out of the realm of the light and sound wizards, and grinned so hard his face began to hurt. Nathan was so beautiful out there, so alive, and Sid was so damn proud he couldn’t stop smiling.
Halfway through the set, the lights dimmed and the band members cleared off, leaving Nathan on alone; he walked over to the keyboards and played a quick scale. “Everybody still doing all right?” asked Nathan, and a wave of cheers crashed back against him. “All right! Well, good.” While he talked, he played beneath, wandering around a chord progression that didn’t go anywhere and didn’t have to. “Because I’m having a really good night. You guys know this is my first show on the tour, right?” Another round of applause. “Yep! So you get to hear me make all the mistakes I’ll have worked out by the time I get to all the others shows, so … I hope you all enjoy being my guinea pigs.”
As the laugh from that died down, Sid heard something familiar from Nathan’s fingers — a bit jazzier than he was used to it, and played with far more talent than he himself could ever coax out of a piano, but there was no mistaking what it was. He turned to Jeff, who was standing beside him, tuning his electric bass in silence. “Did you know he was going to do this?” Sid whispered, nodding toward the stage.
Jeff listened for a second, then smiled. “Of course, he’s been talking about it since day one. …Didn’t you?”
All Sid could do was shake his head in disbelief as Nathan settled into the riff with a clarity that was unmistakable — and to his shock, at the point the song became recognizable, he heard a not-insignificant amount of enthusiasm from the audience. “Oh, you like that, huh?” asked Nathan, grinning at the applause that came in response. “Me too. In fact, when I was a kid, all I wanted to be when I grew up was Sid Stills. I wanted to sound like him, I wanted to write music like him, I even … okay, this is going to sound stupid, but there’s this hat he’s wearing on the cover of Coronary and Bowery, this grey fedora with a little feather on the side, and my dad had one just like it, so when I was, like, ten, I took it out of its box in the front closet and wore it every day for, I don’t know, months. Wore it everywhere: school, church, piano lessons — especially piano lessons.”
Sid reached up and brushed the brim of that very hat, hand-picked by Nathan for just that occasion; he remembered the photo shoot for that cover, set up to look like shot from the nightly television news, but he had not until that moment made the connection between that moment years ago and tonight. “But you know,” continued Nathan from the stage, “I got to meet Sid and … well, he’s kind of the best person in the world, I’m not even joking, but talking to him helped me get to see that … I don’t have to be him. I want him to be him. I want me to be me. So,” he took a deep breath and exhaled it in a laugh, “I’m going to do a song by him, but I’m going to do it like me. And I hope you like it.”
With no further hesitation, Nathan leaned forward into the keys and set into a bold, soulful rendition of ‘Times Fucking Square’, deep and rich, with a piano part far more complicated than Sid could ever have hoped to write, much less play. “Now the girls are all clothed down in Times Square today,” he began, and Sid had to hold on to the concrete pillar that held up the curtain rigging at the side of the stage to keep from toppling over. Whatever the world had lost when Nathan Vaughn had become something other than a dedicated guitarist, it gained it back a thousand times over every time he opened his mouth to sing. Sid had listened to that first recording he’d ever heard of Nathan so many times that, if it’d been a tape, it would have snapped in the deck, and that had still left him unprepared for the sounds rolling off that stage now. The words and the tune were Sid’s, but everything else about it, from beginning to end, was all Nathan. As he watched the stage, the image of Nathan grew blurry and shimmered, and as he blinked to clear the haze, tears spilled from the corners of his eyes and rolled down each cheek.
And then it changed. Nathan paused in the middle of the last verse’s final cadence, holding the resolution as Sid held his breath — but the kid didn’t come back home again. Instead, he landed in the middle of a modulation, and instead of slowing, he sped it all up. His fingers tore across the keys, coming down so hard they rocked the entire structure that suspended the keyboards, rising in volume and tempo only to come down into a spectacular crash that somehow wound up as the chorus of ‘Sunshine’. Nathan belted out the chorus, and as the crowd began to sing along with him, dawn broke over his face. He sang his heart out, laughing and rocking all the while, at home in his element in a way Sid had never seen him before. Sid knew how great it was, that euphoria of knowing you were where you were supposed to be, doing what you knew best how to do, in front of a crowd hungry for more. Good for the kid; he’d found his place.
When at last he took his hands off the keys, the house came down. Even the band members applauded as they walked back out with their newly retuned instruments to greet Nathan, who smiled and bowed, then waved to the crowd as the spotlight went down and the rest of the lights came up. Only Sid stood still in the face of that performance, unable to move for fear he might shatter his glass heart.
When the band left the stage after the main set, Nathan made a beeline for Sid, throwing himself into Sid’s arms so hard he nearly knocked them both over, and Sid might have been more upset about the close call if he hadn’t been hugging Nathan just as tight. Sweat-drenched and still bouncing and oven-hot, Nathan buried his face in the crook of Sid’s shoulder, standing on tiptoe as Sid leaned down to make it work. “You sounded fucking great, kid,” Sid growled in his ear, unable to keep the pride from spilling out of his voice. “God, you’re the most amazing thing in the world.”
Nathan shook his head and held tight enough that Sid could feel the shake in Nathan’s body wasn’t so much residual excitement as nervous exhaustion. Bless that kid, he’d poured so much of himself out there. “Listen to them,” said Sid, stroking Nathan’s back as best he could around the wires that kept Nathan’s whole concert sound system in place. “That crowd loves you. You just put on the best damn show they’ve maybe ever heard in their lives. How’s that make you feel?”
“Feels great,” Nathan answered, though with all the noise around them, Sid could feel the words on Nathan’s mouth against his neck more than he could hear them.
“Now get back out there.” As much as he hated to do it, and as much as he could have pictured himself just staying like that, with the kid in his arms, until the end of the world, that crowd out there wasn’t going to be silenced anytime soon. “Your adoring public demands it.” He swatted Nathan on the ass, on the side that didn’t have a battery pack attached to it, just to make his point.
Nathan pulled back from the hug and glared at Sid with mock anger, an expression he kept up for about half a second before his mile-wide smile won out again. “Okay,” he said to Sid; then he looked at his band members. “Okay! Let’s go put a little cherry on top.”
“You’re a little cherry,” said Jeff, who wrapped his arm around Nathan’s neck, working him into a gentle headlock. “I’ll have him right back,” he promised Sid, and then all six of them were on again, their reappearance greeted by thunderous applause.
Jeff’s promise, however, turned out to be more hopeful than realistic; they wound up doing one long encore, and the strength of the cheers as Nathan finally shouted good night, New York! led Sid to believe the audience would have been just as happy to have the kid keep going. Nathan, though, was wilting, and everything about his body language as he walked off the stage spoke of how glad he was to be heading toward somewhere he could sit down for a while. He never made it to Sid, though; Doug, bossy as ever, intercepted Nathan first, saying things Sid couldn’t hear and pointing to the various equipment around the stage. Nathan nodded as he poured an entire bottle of water straight down his throat, then gave Sid a quick sad look as he was carted off, no doubt to some meeting or greeting.
Sid stayed put as the world came down around him, though really, it wasn’t so dramatic as that — at least, not when viewed in light of all the shows Sid had done, which had always had some complex bit of artistry to them, some balloon drop or glitter sprinkler or Roman candle wheel that took forever to set up and take apart, but always looked great at the time. This, though, wasn’t more than a few instruments and a twenty-foot backdrop with Nathan’s name in some space-age font. It was a testament to the kid’s talent, Sid felt, that he didn’t have to go for the spectacle; he could let his music stand on his own two feet.
As Bean disassembled his drum setup, Sid stood there and chatted with him, and even helped out a little, though mostly in a here-hold-this-light-thing-for-a-second way. The next day’s show was at one summer music festival or another in New Jersey, and they were on at two, which meant they had to get on the road tonight instead of tomorrow. Bean, who had played the festival before with different artists, told Sid about it, and Sid listened with unfeigned interest, though as they talked, he couldn’t keep from scanning the wings every few seconds, looking for some tiny burst of strawberry blond hair.
At last, when the stage was clear and the boards packed up, Sid felt a tug on the back of his jacket, and he turned to see Nathan, who kept tugging and nodded to the nearest dressing room. Sid nodded and followed the few feet between the general hubbub and the empty room, and the second the door was closed, Nathan was kissing him, arms around Sid’s neck like a drowning man would grab a life preserver. Sid held him just as tight, glad not to have to worry about sound equipment this time, and kissed right back. He grabbed handfuls of the kid’s shirt, one of his casual long-sleeved ones, and tried not to think about the only thing on his mind: how this would probably be the last time he’d ever get to do this.
They were interrupted by a sharp knock on the door. “Nathan?” called Doug from the other side of the door. “Ready?”
“Can, um,” Nathan took a deep breath, “can you give me five?”
“I can give you two, and then we’re gone,” Doug said, and Sid heard the sound of his footsteps’ retreating.
Nathan pressed their foreheads together, holding on to Sid with a bone-crushing grip. “I’m sorry,” he said, shaking his head, “I tried to get away, but there was somebody and then there was somebody else and then–”
Sid silenced him with a quick kiss. “It’s okay,” he whispered against Nathan’s mouth. “I’m sure they all wanted to talk to you. You were a hit out there.”
“You, uh, you weren’t, you know, mad about your song?”
Sid found himself at as lost for words as he’d ever been in his life, so he did what seemed to be working well for him lately and kissed Nathan again. “That was the best goddamn thing I’ve ever heard. The best. And,” he tried to sound brave, but could hear the little wobble in his voice, “you’re going to knock ’em dead everywhere you go.”
“I’ll call you every day.”
“Kid, you don’t have to do that–”
Nathan shook his head. “Every day. Twice. And I’ll text and send pictures and videos and … and maybe we can figure out how to Skype or something.”
Though Sid had no idea what a skype was, he knew enough by now to trust that if Nathan thought it was something worth doing, then it was something worth doing. “You do what you need to do, and if you think of it, from time to time, you give this old man a call.”
“I’ll be thinking about you the whole time. Nonstop. Everybody is going to get sick of me talking about you.” Nathan looked up at Sid with a brave smile, though his bottom lip was trapped between his teeth and his eyes were rimmed with red; Sid didn’t want to think about how he must look to the kid. “And you can call me too. You know, if you think about it.”
He didn’t imagine he’d be doing anything for the next several months that wasn’t thinking about how much he wished he was talking to Nathan, but he didn’t want to come off too clingy; it was cute when the kid did it, but he figured it lost some of its appeal coming from a creepy old man. Besides, Nathan was going to be busy with his own million things, while Sid’s social calendar pretty much dried up tonight. “I’m going to miss you,” he admitted, though, and even saying just that hurt. A thought struck him, and he took off his hat and put in on top of Nathan’s head. “There, now you look the part.”
Nathan’s eyes went wide, and he let go of Sid to reach for the hat with undisguised awe. “Oh, no, Sid, I can’t–”
“Go on, take it.” Sid grabbed the brim and jerked it down over Nathan’s eyes. It was a little big on the kid, to be sure, but there was nothing about the combination that wasn’t adorable. “Anyway, looks better on you than it ever did on me.”
“I … I mean … that’s … you’re….” Nathan pushed the hat back on his head, then grabbed Sid’s face and kissed him again, and when the next knock and call of his name came pounding through the door, he shouted at the intruder that he was coming before turning back one last time to Sid. “I’m going to miss you so much, Sid. You have no idea.”
“No,” said Sid, unable to disguise the shake in his voice, “I think I do.”
He took a cab back home, because as much as he preferred walking to yet another car ride, he wasn’t in the mood for negotiating an unfamiliar subway route and the idea of walking over the Williamsburg Bridge, especially at that time of night, proved daunting. He thought about wandering the city for a while once he got there, though, haunting familiar streets and parks, but he was so tired when he driver dropped him off in front of his building that he just paid and went on inside. Up the stairs he trudged, and every step felt lead-heavy, until he stood exhausted at his front door, fumbling with his keys. It wasn’t even a good tired, the all-over ache felt after running a marathon or completing a difficult exam; this was the sick kind of tired, the feverish tired that started from the bones and worked its way out. He tried one key, then the other, then went back to the first key and didn’t screw it up this time.
Everything was as it should have been. The only pairs of shoes by the door were his, and the only items hanging from the coat rack beside them fit his own tall frame. There were no stray computers or telephones or gadgets scattered around the couch, plugged in to various outlets and adapters that got tangled when you so much as looked at them funny. The apartment contained no less than it had six weeks ago, save an old guitar and an older hat. He put his jacket with the others on the rack, then turned off the lights and headed straight for the bed.
He stopped cold in the doorway to the bedroom, though, and no matter how inviting the bed looked, he couldn’t take another step. They’d cleaned up and packed up everything of the kid’s, but neither one of them had gotten around to straightening up much else, and so there was still a space left in the bed, a Nathan-shaped gap that started with the dent in the pillow and continued on down. The sheets on Sid’s side (what had become Sid’s side, there were no sides now) tugged and bunched up almost all the way to the bottom, but the last foot or so on Nathan’s side (what had been Nathan’s side) still looked mostly made. He was so small, that kid, and that was a stupid thing to think, because he was a grown man, not a kid, and he could take care of himself, and he could look after himself, and he’d be fine on his own, he didn’t really need anyone to make sure he ate right and laugh with his stories and listen to his songs and tuck him into bed and kiss him good-night–
He couldn’t do this. Sid pressed his hand across his eyes until he saw stars behind his eyelids. He couldn’t fucking do this.
He wound up falling asleep on the couch in the clothes he’d worn to the show that night, but woke a few hours later because something was jabbing into his hip. That something turned out to be his phone, and when he pressed the button to light up the screen, nothing happened. Damn those stupid things, you had to charge them every twenty minutes. He wondered when it had gone dead.
Instead of going back to sleep, he lurched himself upright and over to the computer table, then plugged the phone into the white cord attached to the back. The phone chimed and showed its little logo, which was then replaced with an illustration of what Sid supposed was meant to represent a very dead battery. Plugged in now, though, it glowed like a little beacon in the dark apartment. He unlocked the screen and saw the green ‘Messages’ button at the bottom had a little red ‘2’ in the corner. Tapping on it brought up his conversation with Nathan, which had two new comic-book bubbles. The top one was an ill-lit snap of Nathan from an unflattering angle that nonetheless preserved the two most important elements of the image: Nathan’s youthful smile and much older headwear. The bottom bubble held a simple two-sentence message: ‘Got you on my mind (literally). Miss you already.’
Sid thought about replying, but didn’t know if Nathan had remembered to turn off the ringer on his phone — an oversight that had startled them both awake on more than one occasion over the past week, considering Nathan’s friends and their late-night habits — and the kid needed his sleep. In the morning, then. By then he’d no longer feel the urge to hunt and peck for every key he needed to say you made me forget in one week how I spent sixty years living without you, or if he still did, he’d have the good sense not to do it anyway.
Instead, he lit a cigarette, then turned the volume dial on the stereo low and hit the power button, telling it to play whatever the hell it wanted. The machine whirred for a second, finding its place in the world, and when Sid heard the small-church whine of a Hammond organ kick up, he smiled. He still hadn’t managed to match title to song, but he recognized this one as the first track off Syzygy, one of the ones where he could almost make out all the words. Nathan hadn’t spoken much about Big in Japan’s music as far as meaning went, but he had made a fair number of incidental comments about this album’s being autobiographical. This song was full of anger, not rage but stubborn defiance, and when Nathan howled the chorus — the scars are still here and so am I — Sid was left to wonder how literal the line in fact was.
Sid thought then about Jason, a man he knew only through music and hearsay. He’d been jealous of the man at first, Sid was big enough to admit it, but if he’d had a glass at the moment, he would’ve raised it to the poor bastard. He may have been a jackass and a shitty guy to have a crush on, but he’d obviously learned how to live without Nathan Vaughn, and if he had even a shard of a heart, doing so must’ve broken it.
The speakers handed him Nathan’s younger voice, and it wasn’t much, but it was something. Sid tucked up his long body as best he could on the couch and let Nathan use someone else’s words to sing him to sleep.
He didn’t get a chance to text Nathan back, though, because Nathan called him first, from backstage at the festival as he and his band were waiting for the group on before them to finish. He could only talk for a minute, he said, and then stayed on so long that Sid could hear a voice in the background (probably Jeff’s, though it was hard to make out) pleading with Nathan to hurry the fuck up, they were on, like, now. Nathan went, but not before promising to call Sid that night — which he did, telling Sid all about how well it’d gone from his bunk in the bus as the tour rumbled southward.
Thus, the two of them settled into their new routine: Nathan would call, and Sid would sit by his phone and pretend when he answered that he’d been doing anything but just holding his breath, waiting to hear that ring. After missing that first night’s message, he kept his phone plugged into the computer or the charger by the bed whenever it wasn’t in immediate use, to make sure no other communication from Nathan slipped by. The long phone calls always came late at night, after whatever show Nathan was playing had finished, but he sent random messages off and on throughout the day, sometimes with pictures of his surroundings or his band members, sometimes just a little ‘thinking of you’ text; Sid kept the volume turned up as high as it would go, and more than once a noise from outside or a misplucked guitar string made him think he’d heard his text message notification sound, something which always left him disappointed when he checked and found nothing new.
They talked about nothing, most of the time — or rather, Nathan talked about nothing, and Sid listened and gave the occasional comment as always to let the kid know he still had someone else on the line. It wasn’t that Sid didn’t want to comment or didn’t think that Nathan wouldn’t hand over control of the conversation in an instant, so much as that he really had no real news to report, not compared to the goings-on of a tour. He did the much same things that he’d always done before without Nathan, only now he did all of them Without Nathan, and he didn’t know if he could articulate the difference, so he said nothing about it at all.
It was about the end of the first week that Nathan, one night, didn’t call. He texted his apology, of course, saying that he was at a Thing and he couldn’t get away for more than a few seconds, but he’d phone tomorrow when he woke up, and he was really sorry. Sid texted back that this was all right, of course, because what else was he going to say? Instead, he sat on the couch with his guitar, plucking through old songs and trying to think about anything but a creeping suspicion that the kid was lying. All right, not lying, per se, but … Nathan was young and attractive and charming, and Sid had seen the throngs of young women that gathered around him, both in pictures from his Big in Japan days and at the Knitting Factory the night of his first show — young men, too, even though they were no doubt even in this age of ‘stage gay’ a rarer breed. Besides, neither of them had ever said anything about their relationship that had implied an expectation of fidelity, much less that had even implied that what they had was in fact a relationship. Nathan was on the road and deserved to take every advantage of his emerging solo rock star status, and he could do what he want with whom he wanted without having to check in with this old man every night.
It was also about that same time that Sid, cooped up in his apartment with only the occasional jaunt outside, began to get really sick.
He wrote it off first as a summer cold — hadn’t the young man who’d delivered his groceries wiped his nose on his sleeve before he’d handed over the paperwork to sign? — but he wasn’t stupid enough to be able to convince himself of that for long. Colds started first in the sinuses, or at least the throat; what Sid had now ignored everything else and went straight for his lungs, pinching and rasping at them until he doubled over into coughing fits once or twice a day. Intellectually, he knew that smoking just exacerbated the problem, and he made a vow to cut back that was thwarted again and again by habit, such that he could look down and see a cigarette burning in his hand without having the memory of having lit it in his conscious recall. At last, he walked his last few cigarettes down to the trash cans at the bottom of the stairwell and tossed them in, then stubbornly refused to leave the apartment for the next three days, just to make sure his subconscious didn’t steer him into a bodega for another pack. Maybe some habits were harder to break than he’d thought.
He was in the bathroom, rinsing out his mouth after a particularly violent coughing fit had unsettled his stomach again, when he heard the phone ring, and he raced across the apartment to where he’d left it, grabbing it on the last ring without even looking at the screen. “Hey, kid.”
“Sid!” Oh, hell, it was the Damn Agent. “Did I catch you at a bad time?”
Sid wanted to say yes, but he wasn’t sure he could conjure a convincing lie quick enough, and at any rate, hanging up on him now wouldn’t stop the Damn Agent from calling again later. “No, I was just in the can. Had to run catch the phone.”
“Oh! Well, I was just calling to check in on you, see how you were doing and all.” When Sid didn’t reply after a moment, the Damn Agent continued: “You know, now would be the perfect time for you to get a new album out.”
Sid snorted, because laughing outright might have set him off coughing again. He supposed there was something to be said for how the Damn Agent had done this about once a year for every year thus far of their acquaintance and hadn’t stopped even though it obviously hadn’t worked, but Sid wasn’t going to say it. “And why’s that?”
Now it was the Damn Agent’s turn to scoff. “From everything I hear, Nathan Vaughn has been a pretty big evangelist for your stuff. Talked you up big time in the interview Alternative Press did with him, did you see?”
“No,” said Sid, whose customary grumpiness was cut off at the knees by the mention of Nathan. Damn his soft spot; he just had to hope the Damn Agent didn’t notice.
“Well, he did. And they got in touch with me saying they’d like to talk to you too. How about it?”
Sid’s instincts pushed him toward a big fat no, but if, whatever Alternative Press was, Nathan had been willing to talk to them, then maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea. He’d make a point to ask the kid for details later. “…Can I think about a good time and get back to you on that?”
He could damn near hear the Damn Agent’s jaw smack into the floor. “Y-yeah! Yeah, you can get back to me. Sorry, I just….”
“Expected me to refuse outright?”
The Damn Agent gave a sheepish little chuckle. “Something like that, to be honest. Seriously, though, I’m just saying, no pressure, but now would really be the key time to get that all back out there. You wouldn’t even have to go on a tour or anything — though you could, if you wanted. Whatever you have in mind, we could make it work.”
Sid didn’t know what he had to say that was of any possible interest to anybody, much less if he still had any music left in him that someone other than the kid and his band members might care about, but hearing that Nathan had been talking Sid up even when Sid hadn’t been around … well, that had to count for something. “Got to think on it,” he said. “But … maybe.”
“Maybe’s better than nothing,” said the Damn Agent, who chattered on a bit more about Sid’s increased record sales and selling the rights to some band that wanted to cover ‘Boardwalk Queen’ and some other business items before signing off and leaving Sid to his apartment and his thoughts.
He ran his knuckles along the neck of the guitar by the couch, then gave up and moved to the instrument room; this was the kind of thinking that needed a piano. His fingers brought slow, gloomy chord progressions out of the instrument, wandering in and out of keys with no real direction or goal. He wanted a cigarette, so he played harder instead, filling the air with the musical equivalent of smoke clouds. He’d never had any formal training on things like music theory or composition, but he’d picked up enough along the way, even if he did say so himself, and he knew what sounded good.
The worst part about the Damn Agent’s nudging him toward a new album was that he did have the songs, or at least skeletons of them. He could have left his apartment right then, walked into a recording studio, and by nightfall had fifteen tracks of completely new music in hand, ready to be cleaned up and put in action. Just because he’d stopped performing didn’t mean he’d stopped writing; hell, he could have cut his arms off at the elbows, never to touch an instrument again, and it wouldn’t have stopped him from humming new tunes in the shower or polishing rhyming doggerel to the rhythm of his walks. Writing songs was something he did without thinking, not because of any conscious desire to continue, but because he didn’t quite know how to stop.
But just because he could didn’t mean those fifteen tracks would be any good once they’d left his head — and if by some miracle they were, well, they’d at best be good by the standards of 1985, maybe 1990, certainly not 2011. And even if he did have a song that was maybe more than a little bit about the kid half-done and rattling around his brain, well, that still didn’t mean the kid would appreciate hearing it, especially if it clunked. Here, I wrote a shitty song about you wasn’t much of a compliment.
When Nathan called later that evening after his Atlanta show, Sid didn’t mention the conversation he’d had with the Damn Agent. Nathan would have encouraged him both to give the interview and to make the album, of course, but Nathan was sweet like that, and the Sid in his imagination was far better than the real one had ever been.
“And then you see that little thing that says ‘Create Account’?” Giovanni pointed to the bottom of the bright blue screen with the white clouds and curious green rainbow in the background. “Click that.”
Sid did, and a screen with several little horizontal boxes popped up, asking him for things like his ‘Full Name’ and ‘Skype Name’. He knew the former, but the latter gave him pause. “What’s a Skype Name?”
“Like a username. It’s so people can find you. Like, if there were thirty John Smiths signed on, and you wanted to talk to one, the computer wouldn’t know which one to go to. But if the John Smith you wanted to had a Skype name of, I don’t know, ‘johnsmithlovescats’, all one word, then you could find him. You can just make up whatever.”
He hadn’t been prepared for such decisions. “Can I just be ‘Sid Stills’ both places?”
Giovanni shrugged. “You can check and see, and if nobody else has it, then sure, it’s all yours.” Bless him, Giovanni had not only agreed to help Sid figure out how the hell to make his phone work with the program Nathan wanted — Sid could take instructions over the phone or he could work on the phone itself, but he couldn’t do both at once — but showed no hint of irritation with Sid’s glacial typing speed. His local record store might not have been the most obvious place for Sid to go for computer help, but when it came to young people who’d talk to him, it was the first place on his list. Fortunately, he’d come in on a slow Wednesday afternoon, and his plight had been more interesting to Giovanni than whatever heavy physics text he’d been reading before.
After a few false starts, and one point where Giovanni just took the phone from Sid’s hands and entered Sid’s email address for him, his phone proclaimed him ready to connect and even had an entry for Nathan in there already. Giovanni tapped the top of the front of the phone. “Camera’s there. Just talk into it and you’ll be all set.”
Sid glanced out the window to the park across the street, then looked back to his phone. “Is it okay if I call from in here? Just in case it doesn’t work.”
Giovanni gave him a thumbs-up gesture, so Sid pressed the call button. His phone screen lurched a little, and he heard an old-fashioned phone ring once, twice — and then there was Nathan, wearing headphones and a giant grin.
“Hey!” came his voice through the phone’s tinny speakers. “Sid, hi! Can you see me? Can you hear me okay?”
“I hear you fine, I just … hold on a second, okay?” With the phone still in his hand and pointed mostly at his face, Sid thanked Giovanni and walked out of the shop, over to the park where a clutch of trees shaded a couple empty benches. He picked the one farthest from the others. “Sorry, I just had to find a spot.”
“It’s okay! Hi!” Nathan waved again. The quality of the image wasn’t great and the screen was tiny, but Sid could see that Nathan was stretched out on his belly, propping up his chin in both his hands; he was probably one of the bunks on that bus he kept talking about, talking on his computer instead of on his phone. “Hey, look.” Nathan reached behind the screen, then pulled back an object that Sid could only just make out — at least, until Nathan put it on his head.
“Aw, you didn’t give it to the first hobo you met. That’s nice of you.”
Nathan laughed outright, and Sid found himself wishing he could just reach through the screen and pull the kid back through. He was small; he could fit through a phone screen. This was supposed to be the future, wasn’t it? Gene Roddenberry had once, in person, sold Sid on his hope that personal instant-transit systems weren’t too far off in the future, and Sid was grumpy that here it was, the twenty-first century, and he was still stuck in Manhattan, sitting on a park bench, talking through a camera on his phone to someone talking on his computer from a bus in Louisiana. …Okay, he had to admit, that was kind of futuristic already. “I wear it all the time. I mean, not when I’m on stage or when I’ve got somebody messing with my hair. Did you know they get real mad at you when they get your hair all, like, spiky just the way they want it and then you threaten to put a hat on it?”
“No, but I always just walked in with the hat already on. Kept that discussion to a minimum.” It made him a bit self-conscious, sitting out here like this in broad public daylight, talking on a phone where anyone passing by could hear both ends of the conversation — but on the other hand, it felt good to be outside, even in the humid mid-day heat. Besides, it was New York, where people of all stripes had carefully cultivated their collective attitude of not giving a shit, something that went double for an old man on a park bench. Hell, it was almost nice that Nathan’s voice was audible; that way Sid didn’t seem so much like a senile coot, pretending his phone was a person.
“I can’t talk long,” said Nathan, settling his face back in the v of his hands, a cherubic posture. “We’ve got a radio station promo coming up pretty soon. But see, now you’ve figured it out, we can do this all the time!” He clapped his fingertips together in front of his face, then paused, frowning at the screen. “Sid … are you okay? You look kind of pale.”
All the problems Sid had wrapped himself up in about this arrangement had concerned the mechanics of it: getting the little program on his phone, causing it to run, figuring out what information it needed, making the connection. Somehow in all this he’d lost the real problem with communicating by video, which was that now not only could he see Nathan, he could himself be seen. “Nah, just….” Sid raked the fingers of his free hand back through his hair. “Haven’t been getting out much. Guess I should work on my tan.”
The worry on Nathan’s face disappeared into another bright smile. “Yeah, me too, except for how I don’t tan, I burn. From marshmallow to lobster, estimated time, three seconds.”
“I’d guess so, based on that hair of yours.”
“Welsh down my dad’s side, Irish down my mom’s, and none of us go out without at least SPF 5000 on.”
The sun chose that moment to roll out from behind a cloud, and Sid squinted as the trees parted just enough to blind him with its rays; he scooted to the other side of the bench. “Well, you’d hate it out here today. It’s sunny and gorgeous.”
Nathan shook his head. “I’d love it out there today. I’d love to be there today, with you. Even if I got some sun and all my freckles came out to say hello.”
Thinking of Nathan’s nose and cheeks, all dotted with what Sid’s mom had called angel kisses, helped Sid conjure up a smile that defeated the crush he felt inside when Nathan said things about New York and coming back — because he wasn’t, Sid knew. Ever the sensible little thing, Nathan had bought a house in Chicago some years back with his rock star money, and though he was renting it out to a couple of friends at the moment, Sid couldn’t imagine that wouldn’t be where Nathan wanted to wind up again. Chicago was his home base, after all, where his friends and parents lived, where all his connections began. New York was at best a stop on some future tour of his, or maybe, if Sid was beyond lucky, the location of another month-long pre-tour rehearsal. He grinned and nodded through all of Nathan’s ‘wish I were there’ claims, because Sid knew no matter how much the kid wished it, it wasn’t going to happen.
And besides, it didn’t matter anyway. It was good the kid had somewhere else to be; hell, it was for the best all around. One fewer loose end to worry about leaving untied.
“Mm?” Sid sat up a little in bed, in which he very clearly had not just dozed off, that was ridiculous. He’d just been resting his eyes. “Yeah?”
“Tell me a story.” Nathan’s voice was as sleepy as Sid felt. They were voice-only tonight; after a week of frequent video conversations, Nathan had confessed when he’d called that night that he’d been just too damn exhausted to set up his computer.
Sid chuckled and secured his earphones, then propped up another pillow behind his back. “A story, huh? What about?”
“Don’t know,” said Nathan, who’d lately seemed to have figured out that requests for bedtime stories were ones Sid couldn’t refuse. “Something happy.”
“Something happy,” echoed Sid. He took a sip of water from the glass by his bed and hummed as he thought. “…Say, you know the one about Nathan the Bunny?”
A drowsy, quiet laugh breathed into Sid’s ears, close as being there and a thousand miles away. The kid and his band were somewhere in the Midwest tonight, though Sid had forgotten where, meaning that adding to the distance was the problem of time, and how Nathan’s late-evening shows ended even later for Sid. “No, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a story about Nathan the Bunny.”
“Oh, you should, it’s a good one.” Sid folded his hands across his stomach and shut his eyes. “The smallest and bravest of all the bunny folk, Nathan was. Little ginger bunny from a long line of little ginger bunnies, but even in his own family, he was the littlest. The tips of his ears only reached as tall as the other bunnies’ noses.”
The silence from the other end of the line as he spoke worried Sid, who feared that this story might be too weird even by his own strange story standards — until he paused, and he heard Nathan laugh again, a sound so clear Sid had no trouble knowing what the expression on the kid’s face looked like. “But you said he was brave,” said Nathan, prompting Sid on.
“The bravest. And the best. He had a little sword, about the size of one of those little cocktail skewers they put olives on for your martini, that he kept hanging from a belt around his waist, and whenever he saw someone in trouble, well, he’d just hop on over as fast as his little legs could get him there, and he’d help that someone out. Badgers trembled when they saw him coming, because they knew.”
“The biggest bullies in the animal kingdom. Taking all the other woodland creatures’ acorns. Beating up the mice for their cheese money.”
Nathan laughed aloud at that, though the sound was muffled enough that Sid could tell Nathan was trying not to disturb other people within earshot. At least, Sid assumed it was out of respect for the late hour and not to keep anyone else in the band from finding out the nonsense that he and Sid talked together, since they’d been doing this so often now that Sid couldn’t imagine anyone in the band had any illusions left about what precisely was going on between the two of them. “I didn’t know mice carried cheese money.”
“How else do you think they buy their lunches?” asked Sid, and Nathan giggled again. “At any rate, one day the badgers had been harassing a kitten, a little black-and-white kitten who’d gotten separated from its parents, and they’d chased that kitten right up a tree. Except the problem was that the kitten was still so little, once it got up that tree and the badgers went away, it couldn’t get down again. It thought about jumping, but it’d been so scared it’d climbed up way too high, and whenever it tried to go down headfirst, its tiny claws couldn’t quite grip the tree trunk.”
“The poor kitten!” said Nathan, and that was one of the most amazing things about the kid, how big his heart was. He was honestly distressed on the fictional kitten’s behalf, and instead of finding this silly, Sid thought it was the best thing ever.
“It mewed and mewed, but the only folks that heard him were the bunnies — since bunnies, as we all know, have the best hearing of all the creatures in the forest.”
“As we all know,” Nathan agreed.
“But the problem with bunnies, you see, is that they’re terrible tree-climbers. Fantastic on the horizontal — they’ll out-hop anything around. Not so good on the vertical, or at least on the sustained vertical. They could hop up to see the situation, but not high enough to get on any of the branches. One of the faster bunnies thought about running for the mother cat, but no one knew where she lived, and the little kitten was too scared to tell anyone her address. One of the smarter bunnies had the idea of creating a tall bunny tower, but the problem with bunnies is that they’re so fluffy that when you stack them on top of one another, they just … compress.” Nathan cracked up at that, and with a grin, Sid continued: “But Nathan the Bunny had an idea. This couldn’t be solved by bunnies alone, he realized. They needed to enlist some help.”
Sid nodded. “There were mountains nearby, and at the foot of the mountains there was a cave, and instead the cave, there lived a great big bear.”
Nathan laughed again. “And did this bear have a name? A name that rhymes with ‘bid’?”
“Nope.” Sid shook his head. “He was just Mr. Bear, because there was only one of him around, and no one was likely to confuse him with any other bear. But the bear was famous for being a giant grouch. Lived in his cave all alone, didn’t talk to anyone. He only came out for food, and then he went right back into the cave when he was done. But he was a big bear, and bears can climb trees both up and down, especially when they’re big. So Nathan the Bunny knew that this bear would be the perfect ally, if they could only get him out.”
“Bears can be grumpy, especially when they’re hungry.”
“That’s what the other bunnies said. Now, they didn’t like Nathan the Bunny’s plan, of course, but they thought if he was going to do it, he should start with food. The smarter bunnies suggested that the faster bunnies go run and get all the berries and nuts they could find and bring them back so the bear wouldn’t eat them. But Nathan the Bunny said, no, he had a better idea. He reached for his side, and all the bunnies gasped, because they thought he was going to grab his sword. But instead he reached around farther, all the way to his back, and grabbed his guitar.”
“His very own Gibson, the smallest and bravest of all the guitars.”
There was a smothering noise from the other side of the connection, and it took Sid a moment to realize that it was the sound of Nathan’s pressing his face into his pillow to keep from howling. Sid waited on the tale’s continuation until he heard Nathan take a deep breath and let it out in a thin stream. “Okay, so the bunny has his tiny Gibson….”
“And he took it to the mouth of the cave,” said Sid, resuming the story, “and stood right up next to it where the bear could be sure to hear him. All the other bunnies were afraid, and they all held back, ready to sprint away or burrow underground at a moment’s notice. But Nathan the Bunny was right there, front and center, and he cleared his throat and began to strum and sing. …Well, he was a very brave bunny, but he wasn’t very good at lyrical improvisation, so it was more of a spoken-word number.”
“And what did the bear do?”
“Well, the bear appeared, and he was groggy and only half-awake, since bears spend most of their time sleeping, especially when they’re that big and old. And he was old, too; he had grey hair all down his back and up at the tips of his ears.”
“I bet it made him look very dignified,” said Nathan. “Majestic and bearly.”
“Or barely majestic, take your pick,” said Sid. “But he lumbered out because he heard the music, and he saw Nathan standing there — Nathan the Bunny, that is — and he wasn’t sure to make of the whole situation. What he did know, though, was that he’d been woken up, and bears are notorious for hating that. So he told the bunny to go away, stop bothering him, and let him go back to sleep, or he’d swallow that bunny in one whole bite.”
“But he didn’t mean it.” Nathan sounded honestly concerned. “He didn’t mean it, right?”
“Of course he didn’t mean it. But bears like to keep to themselves, so they learn at a very young age how to growl and keep everyone else away. So that’s what he did. Nathan the Bunny, however, being the smallest but also the bravest of all the bunnies, was undeterred. He just kept on playing and explained that it wasn’t for him, it was for a kitten, a poor stuck kitten who’d never hurt a soul in her life, and who had been a victim of terrible badger crime.”
“But does the bear like the badgers?”
Sid shook his head. “Mr. Bear hated them. He’d been victimized before. Badgers, they’re the notorious criminals of the class mammalia.”
“Thieves and scoundrels!”
“They also violate copyright.”
Nathan gasped. “Music pirates?”
“Some of them. Most just use songs without permission in corporate ad campaigns.”
“Wow. That is evil.”
“So you understand why the bear was sympathetic to the kitten’s plight,” said Sid. “And despite his general misgivings about interactions with … well, with anyone, he realized that this was something he needed to do. So he raised his paws above his head and stretched, and then he interlocked his claws and cracked his knuckles, and then he bent his head down low, right next to where Nathan the Bunny was, and told him to hop on.”
“Oh my God,” gasped Nathan. “Does he … get to ride on the bear?”
“Well, the bear could tell that even though Nathan the Bunny was still the bravest of the bunnies, ‘as fast as his little legs could carry him’ wasn’t so fast. So up on top of the bear’s big furry head went Nathan the Bunny, and they hurried along through the forest, and at every intersection, Nathan the Bunny would call out directions, and the bear would comply. As they ran, all the bunnies trailed along behind him — at a safe and respectful distance, of course, since they weren’t nearly so brave as Nathan, and they wanted to be able to bail out if the whole thing went pear-shaped. And in no time, they reached the tree where the kitten was stuck, still crying.”
Nathan swallowed. “Poor kitten.”
“Nathan the Bunny called to her to just jump down, because she had something soft to land on now. The kitten, though, was too scared to let go, so Nathan went to Plan B. He told the bear to climb the tree instead, and up they went, inch by inch, until they were close enough that the kitten could just step off the branch and onto the bear’s head. And together they went down to safety.”
There was a small pause from the other end of the line, and then came the sound of Nathan’s quiet applause, the tips of his fingers tapped together in appreciation. “They make a pretty good team,” Nathan said quietly.
“I suppose they did at that.” Sid chuckled. “So the kitten came down and the fastest bunnies took her home, and the smartest bunnies went off to make sure there were no more badgers around, and that left Nathan the Bunny alone with the bear. Thank you for your help, Mr. Bear, said Nathan the Bunny; we couldn’t have done it without you. Oh, it was nothing, said the bear; it was actually kind of fun, and if you need me again, you know where to find me. And the bear turned around and trundled on back home, and Nathan the Bunny grabbed his sword and guitar and hopped off to his next great adventure.”
“Wait,” said Nathan. “No, I … I think you know a different version of the story than I do.”
Now that was a twist Sid hadn’t seen coming. “…Why, how does the one you know go?”
“Nathan the Bunny thanks the bear, and then bear says you’re welcome, and then Nathan the Bunny says, we made a pretty good team; do you want to come with me on my next adventure? And the bear says yes, actually, he wasn’t doing anything else anyway and it might be good for him to get out sometimes, and Nathan gets back up on his head, and they go off together to sing songs and fight badger crime.”
“…Is that so,” said Sid. “Well … that bear’s not a very good singer. He just sort of growls and stamps his paws at random intervals.”
“Perfect. Percussion section. They sound great together. And they go around making music and fighting the bad guys and helping the people who need it. And then they get to go home together when they’re done.”
“Yeah, the bear makes….” Nathan’s words got caught up in a yawn, and Sid waited until he was done and could speak again. “He makes a little place in his cave, just digs it out, and the bunny goes to sleep in there, right next to the bear. Or on top of the bear. The bear’s got a lot of good parts for bunnies to sleep on.”
Sid looked over at the other side of the bed, the empty space that had remained Nathan’s despite Nathan’s not being in it; ever since he’d returned to sleeping alone, Sid had not once woken and found himself taking up more than half the bed. “He just … loves that bunny,” said Sid, brushing his fingers across the space on the pillow where Nathan’s cheek should have been.
“He’s got to know it’s mutual.”
“Hm. Could be.”
“It is.” Despite how tired he was, how tired they both, were by now, Nathan’s voice was serious and clear. “It really, really is.”
The cab to the hospital gave as good and gentle of a ride as he’d ever had through early-morning First Avenue traffic, but he was so nervous and uncomfortable he felt like vomiting anyway. He took deep breaths and stared out the window, though, and at last the driver parked him at the front of admissions. With a decades-old backpack slung over his shoulder, he walked on in, told the receptionist he’d arrived, and got handed a ball-point pen and a clipboard with enough pieces of paper on it for Gutenberg to print his whole Bible. Well, he knew what he’d be doing for the next few hours.
In the end, the process didn’t take nearly as long as Sid had imagined, though that was because most of the pages were for him to read, not to fill out — pages of information, disclaimers, warnings, and the what-not. Sid, who had worked his way through a fair number of record company and venue contracts in his life, could read the standard ‘if this goes to hell don’t blame us’ sentiment through the lines. When it came to the lines at the bottom, he signed them all anyway, and handed the whole bunch back.
Sid hated hospitals. The first real hospital he’d ever been in — not just some country ward with a few beds and a single doctor on hand, but a real sterile white mess of white angles and tempered glass — had been when he’d joined the Navy, and he’d hated everything about it on sight. This one was a little better than that first VA hospital he’d been inside, since it looked like Uncle Sam had managed to squeeze out a couple extra bucks to paint the walls a warm pink and set up a couple plants here and there, but it wasn’t even so much the appearance of it as the smell. The whole place reeked clean and cold, like disinfectant poured over a corpse, like a hundred people trying to step over the carcasses rotting right in front of them. He choked on the air and covered it by coughing into a rough tissue from one of the boxes nearby; he’d put nothing in his stomach for the past twelve hours, on doctor’s orders, but he felt like vomiting all the same. He didn’t want to be here so much that he very nearly just turned and walked out.
The receptionist called his name, and instead of leaving, he walked over to her. She was painted and dyed and hairsprayed from top to bottom, but at least the smile she gave him wasn’t artificial. “Mr. Stills,” she said, handing back the clipboard with one sheet still attached, “you forgot to put in an emergency contact.”
He wanted to tell her that it hadn’t been an oversight, it had been a deliberate omission. His parents were long dead, and he’d been their only child. He had some cousins here and there, mostly still in the same rural Pennsylvania towns where his family had been for generations, but he barely knew their names, much less whether or not they were still alive. “I don’t … have family left,” he said, turning it around and sliding it back across the counter to her.
She slid it right back without looking as she picked up the ringing phone at her desk. “Doesn’t have to be family,” she told him, then set to greeting whatever caller was on the other end of the line before Sid could tell her that didn’t broaden the field much either.
A few good friends of his from back in the day were still around, here and there, but he couldn’t imagine that they’d contact him if they had medical emergencies, so he couldn’t really see himself reciprocating. There were plenty of people in his neighbourhood he knew on sight, some even by name, but he didn’t know any of their phone numbers unless those were also the numbers that summoned his dinner. He supposed the Damn Agent was a reasonable choice, all things considered, but he was also the last person in the world Sid wanted to know that he was going into the hospital.
Instead, before he could really question the decision, he wrote down the kid’s name and phone number and turned the whole thing back to the receptionist, who took it this time. It was going to be a routine procedure anyway, his doctor had told him. Minimal risk, maximum chance that Sid would walk out of there that very evening, easy as breathing.
He sat down in the plastic chairs to wait, and as he waited he pulled out his phone. It’d still be before dawn where Nathan was, two hours behind him somewhere in Colorado. When they’d talked the night before — a conversation cut even shorted than usual, on account of how Sid had known he’d be up early the next morning — he’d told Nathan he’d be out running errands all day on into the evening, and if he didn’t answer the phone when Nathan called later, not to worry, they’d catch up again the following day. There wasn’t any reason to get the kid all worried when he had so much on his mind already, not for something as little as this.
He woke up feeling like he’d been kicked in the chest by a mule, repeatedly. The room was fluorescent bright, but the first thing he noticed when he worked his eyes open was that the window to his left showed a view of the city with all its bulbs lit, set against the black background of night. The summer sky stayed bright blue well into the evening; how long had he been out?
His arm hurt, and he wanted to turn his head to see, but he had a tube beneath his nose with two little plugs poking up into his nostrils, and every time he breathed in, the air was cold and smelled of ozone. He found if he moved slowly enough, he could shift a little without pulling anything free. An IV tube trailed toward his elbow, and though he couldn’t see what was happening beneath the tape, he could guess. Below that, on the same arm, a little clip perched onto the tip of his left index finger; a cord went out the other end, connected to something he couldn’t see. He was wearing the same hospital gown they’d made him put on earlier, so far as he could tell, but it wasn’t tied in the front in the same way he’d done it up himself.
A sick dryness lingered in his mouth, and when he darted his tongue out to wet his lips, he could feel they were starting to chap. God, his head was pounding; he’d thought that drumming had just been a passing marching band outside, but no such luck. He wanted to call out for someone, but every time he tried to draw in breath, he felt he could only get little gasps. What the hell had happened? He couldn’t seem to make his head work right. The last thing he’d remembered was letting someone put the oxygen mask over his face and being told to count backward from 100, and then….
A minute’s exploration turned up two important buttons by his right side; one raised and lowered the head of his bed, and the other called for help. He pressed the second button, and thirty seconds later, a tall nurse with short sandy hair pulled back the curtain. “Hello, Mr. Stills,” he smiled; he had on bright purple scrubs and a nametag that read ‘IAN FRENCH, R.N’. “How are you feeling?”
Sid summoned all his energy and took a deep breath. “Sid,” he rasped, and took another. “Terrible.”
Ian smiled and set to the business of checking the machines at the side of the bed. “Well, Sid, the doctor on call is with another patient at the moment, but he’ll be here in a minute. Is there anything I can get you in the meantime?”
Sid considered his options and went with the shortest one he could find: “Water.”
“Got it. You want to sit your bed up a little more for me?” Ian went over to the sink at the other end of the room and filled a paper cup with water. The room had two beds in it, but the one between Sid’s bed and the door lay empty. Sid pressed the up arrow, and the bed began to bend in the middle, lifting him so his top half, at least, was mostly upright. Ian came back and slipped an arm beneath Sid’s head, holding the cup to his lips as Sid sipped. “There you go. Take it easy. Nobody’s in a hurry.”
The water seeped into the dried cracks in Sid’s brain, filling it until it sat wetly in his skull as it should, and was no longer the last bitter little walnut rattling around in the bowl. It was like the world’s worst hangover, taken and multiplied by ten. At last he closed his lips and Ian pulled the cup back. “There you go. Better?” He wiped Sid’s mouth with a paper towel from the stack by the bed.
Sid took the deepest breath he could and held it in his lungs as long as he could, then shut his eyes and used the exhale to ask, “What happened?”
“Dr. Kearns will discuss it in full when he gets here, but the short version is that you had a bad reaction to the anaesthetic used during the biopsy. Did you list any allergies on your intake form?”
Sid shook his head. “Didn’t know.” He wondered when it had started: had it kicked in right after he’d started counting down, or had it waited until the middle of the procedure to become a problem? It was just like his damn body; there wasn’t anything he could have happen to him that it couldn’t make worse. “Head hurts.” Even trying to flex his fingers felt like too much effort. He hadn’t done anything all day and he was still so tired.
“I’ll give you another shot of painkillers in a minute.” Ian reached for Sid’s chest and untied his gown, revealing a set of circles stuck to his chest that he hadn’t noticed earlier; all those had their own wires, just like the device on his finger, but given how gently Ian was easing them off, Sid didn’t suspect they were doing him much good at the moment. They stung a little as Ian eased the adhesive free, but no more than the ouch of removing a band-aid. There was a square patch of bloodied gauze around the middle of his chest, taped down, but Ian left those strips in place. “Are you hungry?” asked Ian, as though they might be two strangers chatting on the subway, and not one stranger examining another stranger’s naked torso.
The hunger question was a fair one, though, and Sid had to think about it. “Not … yet,” he answered; food sounded good to him, but it also sounded nauseating, and he’d learned that when his body couldn’t decide between those two options, the best thing to do was to sit and wait until hunger won out. “Why, are you?”
Ian laughed at that, loud and honest, and the sound rang through the otherwise empty room. “Starving, actually. Want to blow this joint and grab some pizza from the lunch truck across the street?”
“Sounds great,” said Sid, who summoned enough effort to smile. The joking felt good, even though Sid didn’t need a doctor’s evaluation to know that he wasn’t going to be leaving this bed for a few days. And that realization smashed into him at freight-train speed. “Phone? My phone?”
With a frown, Ian scanned the room. “You know, I wonder if it and all your other stuff didn’t get taken down to the outpatient area by mistake. Everything’s safe, I promise, just in the wrong place. It happens sometimes. You weren’t supposed to be up here, after all. Let me make sure you’re all set and then I’ll go make some calls about it, all right?” Ian placed a hand on Sid’s and squeezed.
“Sure.” Sid tried to squeeze back, but the best he could manage was a little muscle twitch. Why did he feel so damn tired? “Just … somebody to call.”
“Oh, your son Nathan?”
Sid ran his brain’s recording of that sentence through his mental tape deck a few times, each time losing a little more hope that it would ever make sense. “Nathan?”
“I was the one who called him earlier, to let you know the doctors want to keep you here a little bit longer than they’d originally planned. He sounded worried, so I talked to him a bit and told him you’d give him a call back just as soon as you were up and running again. What’s his area code; is that a Chicago number?”
Oh, this was going to be a mess of apocalyptic proportions. “Chicago,” Sid nodded; at least breathing and speaking were both getting easier by the minute. “But … Denver now.”
“Scary being that far away when someone you love is in the hospital. Believe me, I know; I’m out here with my wife and our two boys, but both our families are back on the west coast, and my parents are about your age now, so I get how it’s rough for him.”
Sid didn’t know if Nathan had been the one to say that he was Sid’s son, or if Ian had offered the possibility and Nathan, thinking fast, had confirmed it, but he admired the kid’s ingenuity. That also meant it was probably good Sid’s phone wasn’t in arm’s reach at the moment, since he’d want something concrete to add to whatever bits of information Nathan had been handed over the phone, and Sid would need to talk to the doctor before he could have a hope of putting together himself what was going on, much less packaging it up for someone else. “Upset?”
Ian nodded. “Not mad, just worried. Say, did you know he’s got the same name as this musician guy who used to be in this one pretty big rock band?”
“Heard it,” Sid nodded, closing his eyes. Well, there was nothing to be done for any of it at the moment. There was a TV on the far wall of the room, suspended just below the ceiling, and below it the red glowing letters of an analog clock told Sid the time was now 12:39. Subtract two hours from that, and … well, Nathan would be playing, or if he wasn’t up yet he’d be just about ready to go on, and either way he wouldn’t be able to talk for another hour at least, probably closer to an hour and a half. He could call then, or at least send a text to let Nathan know that he was awake. Assuming, of course, that Nathan was still performing and Sid hadn’t fucked that up entirely as well.
He tried to convince himself that there was nothing wrong with his not having told Nathan he was coming in for the procedure, that he’d just wanted to wait until he knew more before worrying the kid, that there was nothing to be gained from aimless anxiety about something probably wasn’t true. Except it was true, and Sid didn’t need the doctor’s results to tell him what he already knew deep in his lungs, and he hadn’t been planning to tell Nathan, not only about the biopsy but about any of it at all. They’d have their phone conversations and stories and songs, and then one day Sid would just … not be there anymore. The surprise wouldn’t be a pleasant one, but it had to be better than months of worry about something that couldn’t be changed, hadn’t it?
Well, it didn’t matter now what he’d thought. Sid closed his eyes and breathed the air from the plastic tube, each breath as deep and even as he could make it. He knew he should eat, or at least try to, but whatever desire he’d felt for food had disappeared. “I’ll go find your phone for you,” Ian said, “and I’ll let the doctor know you’re up and running, okay?” Sid didn’t respond, and after a moment’s wait, he heard the retreat of rubber-soled shoes and the closing of a door, leaving him alone to his thoughts and his bed and his disease.
He wanted to answer the phone on the first ring, he truly did — he had his earphones all ready in his ears, perched and waiting for the full forty minutes since Ian brought him back the box of his belongings with a triumphant cheer — but his hand shook so violently that he fumbled moving the green slider far enough to convince the phone that he wanted to talk. At last he made it, and there was a small click, and then the white timer of the top of the screen started with 00:01. “Hey, kid,” he said, and he forced a smile to see if that might make it not sound quite so bad.
“Sid?” said Nathan, his voice a sob — and then nipping at the heels of sadness came the anger: “Goddammit, Sid.”
“Hey.” Sid swallowed. “Hey.”
“Goddammit, Sid!” There was a flat smacking sound, the percussion of a flat hand’s connecting with something much harder than itself, and then the sound again and again. “You just — when you — how could — when did you — fuck dammit, Sid!” Nathan took a noisy, ragged breath. “No. I’m sorry. I’m sorry, just … you’re in the hospital? When did you go to the hospital?”
“Just this morning.” As much as he wanted to downplay all this, he knew they were well past that point. Nathan deserved the truth, and he deserved to hear it from Sid himself, not from some random nurse — albeit a very nice, understanding one — phoning a number on an emergency contact sheet. “Hard to talk. Got me on a sedative. Keeps my lungs calm. Makes breathing tough.”
“Good!” shouted Nathan. “Good, because I think you need to listen to me yell at you for a while. Goddammit, Sid, you told me you were running errands today.”
“Sort of an errand,” said Sid, though he knew he was skating on some pretty thin ice, joking at a time like this. But why shouldn’t he be allowed to do just that? Why did Nathan get to set the tone of the conversation? He wasn’t the one who was dying.
Nathan exhaled in a great burst of frustration; Sid could just see him now, still in his stage outfit, down to his gloves, pacing and talking into the little headset he had, the one that fit over his ear. Sid had never seen the kid mad before, but with the help of the tone of his voice, it wasn’t hard to picture. “I’m cancelling the tour. I’ll cancel these last two weeks and come back.”
“What? No!” yelped Sid, though with his diminished lung capacity, the effect wasn’t what it could have been. “No. No, no. You can’t. No.”
“So what else am I supposed to do? Sit here and wait for nurses to call me? I know what a biopsy is, Sid! I know what they’re looking for! And the only reason I can think that you wouldn’t fucking tell me about this is that you’re pretty sure they’re going to find it!”
Give the kid a prize for perception. “They’re not sure,” said Sid, just passing on the message from Dr. Kearns, a white-haired man who looked like he’d changed God’s diapers but was sharp as any tack Sid had ever touched. It would be morning before the results came back from the lab, he’d said, so there wasn’t any reason to get hopes or fears up one way or another, but Sid hadn’t missed the grim look on the doctor’s face as he’d flipped through the chart hanging at the foot of Sid’s bed. Dr. Kearns had also been the first one in this whole mess to take the words ‘lung’ and ‘cancer’ and said them both together directly to Sid’s face, and he’d done so in a way that wasn’t dramatic or judgmental, just factual. Sid wondered how many times he’d seen men just like Sid, how many times it had taken before he’d learned to be so calm while talking about monsters.
“That’s okay,” said Nathan, and Sid could hear the kid was talking as much to himself as to Sid. “That’s okay, that’s why you’re there, to find out. That’s why you do a biopsy, right? So you can find out. And then once we know, they’re going to tell us what to do next, right? I mean, we can get you started on … on, I don’t know, they’ve got all sorts of treatments, and there’s, like, I mean, there’s new drugs and things th-that are coming out every day, and, and there’s–”
“Kid,” said Sid, with just enough power in his voice to cut through the volume of Nathan’s rising hysteria, and Nathan fell silent. There was no easy way to come at this, so Sid just shut his eyes and began: “That’s … well, it’s a lot to go through….”
The sound from the other end of the phone was a crash followed by a heavy creak, the noise made when someone sat down hard on a bed. “Oh my God,” Nathan whispered, his voice so thin it cut Sid’s ears to hear it. “You’re just planning on letting it kill you.”
And there it was: damn the kid, he was no idiot. But Sid was sixty-one now — he’d be sixty-two in a month, hell — and once upon a time, that had been forty years older than he’d ever expected he’d get to be. He had his regrets, sure, but he’d made his peace with them, and didn’t have any grudges left held against anyone. He’d seen the world, both from the inside of a battleship and the front of a concert stage. He’d done what he was good at while he’d been good at it, and when he’d stopped being good at it, he’d stopped doing it, and that had been all right too. He’d made some people happy to hear him play, and some others happy just to know him. And here, at the very end, he’d fallen in love. It hadn’t been a bad life at all; hell, it’d been downright good, and that was more than a lot of people got. He just didn’t have enough in him left to give to justify stretching things out for the twelve, maybe eighteen months more that he could get, even with the best doctors and the newest medicine. Best to play the hand he’d been dealt and walk into the sunset when it was done, head held high. He’d see winter come but not the spring, and he’d die in the city he’d come to love, and no one would ever say that Sid Stills didn’t know how to make a graceful exit.
Sid frowned and poked at the earphones. That couldn’t have been right. “Pardon?”
“I said fuck you! Fuck you for thinking you could do this on your own, like it doesn’t matter to me, like you think it’d be easier on me if I just got to wake up one day and find out from somebody else that you were dead and I didn’t even get to tell you good-bye, I just had to hear it from some stranger through a phone call, and I had to live the rest of my life knowing you were in pain and dying and you wouldn’t even let me help and fuck you, Sid.” Nathan was crying now, Sid could hear, but he wasn’t hysterical any more — instead, fury had narrowed him to a cold white calm. “I just got you. You are the best thing that has ever happened to me, ever, in my entire life, and fuck you if you think I’m just going to let you fucking curl up and die on me.”
“I….” It wasn’t the sedatives still in Sid’s system that made it hard for him to speak. “I may not … have a lot of choice.”
“No.” Nathan cleared his throat. “No, no, no, you stop thinking like that, you fucking stop it right now.”
“Kid, I don’t want … to disappoint you–”
“No! Shut up! Goddammit, Sid, shut up right now! Fuck!” The last word was both loud and at a great distance, and Sid silently thanked Nathan for having had the foresight to distance the phone from his mouth before engaging in shouts of anger. “The only way,” Nathan continued, close to the receiver again, “you are going to disappoint me is if you fucking give up. Because if you do, you’re not a tenth the man I thought you were.”
Sid didn’t have the breath to tell Nathan he was right — about that, at least. The Sid that Nathan saw was the man Sid had been thirty years ago, even he’d ever been that at all. Nathan had enough youth and enthusiasm to think he saw a giant where there wasn’t anything but an old, useless man. It was sweet for Nathan to say that Sid had been so good for him, and maybe he even thought it was true, but … the world looked different when you were that young. Instead of trying to explain, though, Sid shook his head and stared at the window; it was just dark enough outside that he could see his faint reflection in the window, feeble and ghostly. “Maybe I’m not,” he said, only half-intending it to be out loud.
Nathan shouted again, and this time he didn’t bother to take the phone away. “No! Fuck, Sid, I don’t know who lied to you or who dropped you on your head or what, but you seem … I don’t know, like you woke up one day and decided that just because the world was different, it didn’t need you in it any more. Fuck that! You’re amazing. When I play your songs at shows, everyone goes fucking nuts for them! All the musicians I talk to you about, the people who know what the hell they’re talking about, they agree! The band? Nearly fell over themselves when you showed up, which you should have noticed, because you were there. But fuck, you’ve, like, talked yourself into believing that you don’t matter to anyone, and it doesn’t matter that literally everything is trying to tell you otherwise. So here! Let me say this to you: I love you. I love you. Not some idea I have of you, but you, actual you, you, Sid. You’ve been my fucking hero since I was a kid, and I won’t lie about that, but I started falling in love with you the minute I walked through your front door, when you turned out to be better than I could ever have imagined. And if you don’t agree right now to fight this and mean it, I will cancel this tour, right now, and come there, and find the nearest blunt object and beat you to death with it myself.”
That final threat seemed to come on the last bit of steam Nathan had, and he fell quiet, breathing like he’d just finished running a race, leaving Sid reeling. He blinked and tears ran down his cheeks, and he blinked again to make them stop, but they just kept coming, no matter what he did. He reached for a tissue from the box beside his bed and pressed it to his eyes. “Don’t … don’t cancel,” he said, because it was the most immediate, concrete issue he could think to address.
“Then you’d better promise me right now,” said Nathan through clenched teeth. “Promise me that you will do whatever the doctor says, and do all of it, and the second I am done, I am getting on a plane and flying back to you, and we are going to beat this together.”
“You shouldn’t … have to.”
“Fuck shouldn’t! I want to. You need someone there to worry about you and love you and take care of you, and I need to be there and worry about you and love you and take care of you. I need you as much as you need me. I need you, Sid,” Nathan repeated. “And I need you not to give up on yourself or me.”
Sid flexed his fist as best he could, feeling the way the monitor around his finger gripped him tight, watching his blood, keeping time with his heart. “…I’m scared, kid,” he said, the first time he’d admitted it to himself or anyone. “I … don’t know if … if I can beat it.”
“You don’t fight it, it’s got you beat already.” Nathan gave a brave little chuckle, the smallest and bravest of all. “And you don’t have to be scared because I’ll be right there with you. See?”
He’d prepared himself for this; he’d spent so many days and nights alone, staring at the world, taking stock of his place in it, committing it to memory, saying good-bye to his life in pieces. He’d known this was coming from before his first doctor’s visit months ago, almost from the first cough he’d had that spring morning, the one that had felt different, broken. He hadn’t been surprised by a single thing they’d said thus far, and wouldn’t be surprised the next morning when the results came back and told him how long the doctors guessed his cancer would let him live before it ate him from the inside out. He’d resigned himself to how difficult it would be, how much it would probably hurt, and still he’d been ready to let it all go.
So how the hell had this kid — who’d walked into Sid’s life unannounced and walked off with his guitar, his hat, and his heart — managed to make him change his mind?
“I noticed,” said Sid, “you kept your keys.”
Nathan laughed, breathy and relieved, and Sid heard a little jingle. “They’re right here. I’ve got them right here. I was always coming back, Sid.”
“You…?” Sid swallowed. “I thought … you know. Chicago.”
“Well … yeah, okay, maybe for a little while, I was thinking. But this is more important. You’re more important. And I will turn this tour around if you think I’m not sincere. I am. I’m dead fucking serious.”
“I don’t doubt it,” said Sid, and he didn’t, not for an instant. He was an old man who knew from stubborn, and he still knew he’d been outmatched. “Don’t quit. Keep going. Fans love you. They want to see you.”
“You’re more important than fans,” said Nathan. “However many of them I get, there’s only one of you.”
In the face of such overwhelming opposition, even Gibraltar would’ve crumbled. “I’ll make … an appointment tomorrow. When the results come. If they’re bad.” When they’re bad, Sid didn’t say, but even in the face of that inevitability he had a kind of peace inside he hadn’t had in months, maybe years. He was a boxer now, his hands wrapped and his heart pounding, and he might still go down, but he’d go down swinging. Somewhere along the way, he’d forgotten how much of his life he’d spent fighting — as a kid growing up in poverty, as a sailor, as a musician, as a New Yorker. It’d taken seeing himself through Nathan’s eyes to remember who he’d been all along.
“First thing tomorrow. Cross your heart.”
“Cross my heart.”
“Call me after you do. Like, the second after you talk to the doctor. You can even call me when you talk to the doctor. Put me on speakerphone or something. I’ll keep my ringer on; I want to hear.”
“My loyal son?” asked Sid with a smirk.
A little embarrassed laugh came from Nathan’s side of the phone. “It … seemed like a good idea at the time. But I will be, if that’s what it takes to get in there and get you better. I love you.”
Sid looked straight at his cynical side — the one that told him Nathan couldn’t love him, despite everything he’d said, it was still too soon, the kid was too young, he didn’t know what he was talking about, he’d figure out someday that there were more and better fish in the sea — and told it to go straight to hell. “Yeah, you must.”
“I do. I really do.”
“Sorry I come … a little busted up.”
Nathan laughed at that, though it turned into a choked sob. “It’s okay. We’ll fix you right up. Two more weeks and I’ll be right there to badger you back to health, you old bastard.”
“Guess it’s not,” Sid began, and as thought the words they became true, “the end of the world.”
“No. It’s not. It’s not the end of the world at all. God, I really wish I were there right now to hug you and tell you that.”
“Little tough.” Sid looked at his immediate surroundings. “Lot of wires.”
“I’m small, remember? I can just squeeze right in.”
Nathan sighed theatrically. “Then we’ll just have to meet up at your place and sleep in your own damn bed. Two weeks. I’m making the plane reservations the second I hang up here. First thing in the morning after my last show, San Francisco to New York, nonstop, straight home to you.”
How about that, Sid thought; it turned out Nathan had known the better version of the story after all. “Two weeks.”
“Two weeks,” Nathan repeated, his voice full of exhaustion and relief. “I love you. Remember that, okay? Just keep thinking that. Don’t forget.”
“Couldn’t forget,” said Sid, who didn’t know if he’d be able to think of anything else in the next two weeks that wasn’t just this conversation, looped through his mind, played again and again as it slowly drilled through that thick skull of his. Maybe he’d even set some of it to music, if he got the energy. After all, if he was going to live, he was going to have to find something to do with himself.
“…God, it’s late, and I didn’t even think, it’s two hours later for you. You should get some sleep. Want me to sing something for you?”
The offer was so sweet and caught Sid so off-guard that he started crying again in little hot, wet drips that fell from the corners of his closed eyes. “That’d be great,” he said, folding his hands across his belly.
“I lost myself on a cool damp night,” Nathan began, his voice quiet and rough but steady, and trickles of Sid’s tears became streams. Leave it to the classics to get him every time. “Gave myself in that misty light / Was hypnotized by a strange delight / Under a lilac tree….”
That was what had caught Sid about Nathan’s voice from the beginning: not that it was lovely (which it was) or that it was powerful (though that was also the case), but that it was just about the truest thing Sid had ever heard. Every word that Nathan sang, Sid could believe he meant it, and could in turn begin to believe them himself. This wasn’t a song meant to be sung unaccompanied, or so Sid had thought, but hearing it stripped down like this, reduced to Nathan’s voice through the thinness of the telephone connection, Sid found its bare sentiment the most beautiful thing he’d ever heard. Eyes shut, he let himself relax into an awareness of his own breathing, shallow but even, and drifted off to the sound of Nathan’s soft singing: “Lilac wine is sweet and heady, like my love….”
To say he was acting against doctor’s orders was a sharp understatement. After the results of Sid’s tests had come back — less dire than he’d hoped, but there’d been no two ways about the small but dangerous cancerous mass found on his left lung — he’d begun seeing Dr. Das, an oncologist who reminded him a great deal of Nathan, if Nathan had been a young woman born to Bengali parents in Queens. She seemed to come up only as high as Sid’s elbow and she couldn’t have weighed more than a large sandwich, but when she lay down the law, the law was laid down: six to eight months of chemotherapy, done at two-week intervals, and then surgery as soon as possible after, depending on how quickly and effectively the chemo reduced the number of tumor cells. It was a fast-growing cancer, she explained to him with a fierce grin, and fast cancers responded the fastest to treatment.
He suspected, in fact, that he wouldn’t have gotten away with pushing back the date of the first dosage as far as he had if he hadn’t dropped Nathan’s name; Sid’s own celebrity didn’t seem to ring any bells of recognition with her, but he saw a crack in her lion-like expression when he explained at least the basics of the situation. She’d pretended to maim him with a clipboard and called him a sneaky old man, but in the end, she’d relented — provided that he swore up and down to show up bright and early the Monday morning right after the Sunday when Nathan was scheduled to fly back to New York. And if he was planning on doing something as stupid as travelling in that time, he was not, repeat, not to be stupid enough to tell her about it.
So instead he leaned his head against the glass and looked out the car window at the water as it shimmered far beneath him, reflecting the city lights off its surface. He’d lied to Nathan again and told the kid he’d be in and out of the hospital all day, probably unable to get to his phone or get a good signal even if he could; he felt bad about telling one more lie, and this one so blatant, but supposed that the ends justified the means here. His army-green backpack lay at his feet, his only piece of baggage; he’d bought two days ago when he realized how little he had to carry and how many holes time had worn in all his other luggage.
His phone’s screen lit up, showing the time — 9:58 — and a text bubble from Jeff Truvino: ‘About to go on. You still good?’
Damn delays and traffic and more delays and more traffic; he’d planned to be here nearly three hours previous, but as the old couple who owned the kosher deli had framed on the wall by the register, ‘Man plans, God laughs’. Well, Sid hoped today’s joke on him, at least, was nearly done. He texted back: ‘Slow and steady. See you soon.’
Seconds later, another bubble popped up on Jeff’s side of the screen: ‘Looking forward to it.’
Sid smiled and clicked his phone shut, then woke it up again. The time was now 10:00, but the more important thing on the screen was the picture that he, with a little help from one of the nurses, had finally figured out how to set as his wallpaper: a cameraphone picture of Nathan, wearing Sid’s hat and a goofy smile, and holding an index card that said ‘I ♥ YOU’. In the grand scheme of things worth living for, that had to make it somewhere pretty damn near the top.
Half an hour later, the car pulled its way into an alley and stopped, and Sid stuck a bill through the small door in the fiberglass participation between driver and passenger before hopping out. He was stiff from sitting so long, and a touch loopy from the mild dose of painkillers Dr. Das had prescribed for him on an as-needed basis, but none of that mattered. The man minding the back door frowned at first, but relented when Sid knew Jeff’s name and all the other right things to say as well, and when Sid showed him the texts from Jeff, the man let Sid inside.
The second that stage door cracked, the familiar music from inside washed over Sid like a warm wave, blanketing him in a wash of comfort that made him laugh out of sheer relief. They were in the middle of ‘Time Bomb’, Sid knew now, almost to the part where Adam and Nathan got to go crazy playing their cornets at one another (well, Nathan called his a pocket trumpet, but Sid was damned if he could make out the difference). Some of the venues Nathan played either video-recorded the shows for later or broadcast them live over the internet while they were happening, and Sid had watched every one since he’d been told how to make his computer do that, learning the songs backwards and forwards from hearing them so many times. Even just over the past two weeks, he’d seen how Nathan got better every show — more confident, stronger, and just plain more alive. The distance between hearing it through his earphones and being there live, though, was as great as the distance between New York and San Francisco.
Nathan had also gotten into the habit of performing one of Sid’s songs solo at every one of his shows, and as ‘Time Bomb’ ended, the band shuffled offstage so they could do just that. Upon seeing Sid, they all greeted him warmly but without surprise; Jeff had needed all of them in on this one to pull it off. “Been here long?” asked Jeff, using his and Marc’s status as the two tallest band members to block any view of Sid from the stage.
“About three minutes,” said Sid. “Sorry I’m late.”
“Think you’re right on time,” said Bean, and he nodded out to the stage as the lights dimmed until the only ones left shining on the stage were soft and blue. The band members stepped back, tending to their instruments as needed and letting Sid have a place by the arch, shadowed from the stage but still able to look out onto it.
His heart jumped into his throat as he saw that little redhead, all done up in his smartest concert attire, sitting behind an actual grand piano and grinning like the sun just come up. “Hi, everybody,” said Nathan into the microphone, playing beneath his patter, and the crowd called back greetings and applause. “So I guess you all know this is my last show on this tour, and man, it’s … it’s been a hell of a ride. Some pretty low lows and some really high highs. And I’m glad and sad at the same time that it’s over, you know? Sorry to stop performing for a while, but there’s a couple of things I need to go take care of, and I’m really looking forward to that. But before I go, I’ve got one more thing I want to try out. And you all are going to be my guinea pigs, okay?”
The crowd cheered, but Sid frowned; the kid had never done this sort of thing before. “This is a totally new song. And I mean, I’ve never played it for anyone, not the band, not anyone. And I was going to save it for someone else to hear first, but I … well, I got nervous about it, and I wanted to try it out beforehand. So you all have to tell me if it sucks, okay?” With a laugh and the crowd’s supportive applause, Nathan took a deep breath and started in.
Sid knew it at once for what it was: the song he’d heard Nathan playing on the guitar that sleepy afternoon, when he’d watched Nathan’s fingers twitch and fly across the strings with the same nimble speed they hit the piano keys now. On the piano, the piece’s bluesy quality was augmented by slowing the whole thing down and making room for the intricacies of the music. It had been been beautiful when Sid had heard him working on it, and it was even more so now, all grown up and settled out, having finally become what it was always meant to be.
The song had gone on long enough that Sid thought it might be wholly instrumental, when Nathan at last took a breath and leaned into the microphone attached to the piano lid. “I’ll be home,” he sang, each word long and steady over the work his hands were doing beneath. “I’ll be yours.” His voice would have filled the whole stage unamplified; through the sound system, it filled the room, rising to the light fixtures at the top of the high ceilings, spilling into every gap and hollow it could find. “Just keep breathing for me.”
There were no more words than those, but Sid couldn’t imagine what else could have needed to be said. Nathan repeated them all once more, this time giving each word more decoration, showing off just how much tight control he had over that gorgeous voice of his. As he finished the second time through, he fell silent and let the piano take over the melody, which slowed and softened as his hands climbed higher up the keys, finishing with a little flourish near the top and disappearing into air.
A pause followed, no more than a fraction of a second, but Sid knew that kind of silence made up the longest moments of a performer’s life — and then the applause rose, loud and clear, punctuated by shouts and cheers, a show of unmistakable support. Though Nathan’s back was to Sid, Sid could see him smile as he turned out to the crowd. “So, uh, that one’s okay?” he asked, and the crowd shouted back in the clear affirmative. “Okay! Well, thanks, guys, for listening. Maybe you’ll see that on my next album, I don’t know. Let me bring the band back out here and we’ve got a couple more numbers for you before we all call it a night….”
Sid stayed fixed at his perch for the rest of the show, through another three songs that Nathan liked to close with because they were some of the most energetic. By the end, Nathan was hopping up and down, sweating so hard he’d undone his tie and the first few buttons of his shirt, and rolled up his sleeves up to his elbows. He bounced and sang his way through the end of the set, then finished with a bow, bidding the crowd a temporary good-night before the encore, and headed backstage right to the place where Sid was waiting.
Laughing and sweating as he was, Nathan at first didn’t notice that another person had joined the collective backstage, and he managed to down an entire water bottle in great gulps before Sid cleared his throat. “Hey, kid.”
He was glad he’d waited for Nathan to finish drinking, because with the way Nathan jumped to hear Sid’s voice, Sid was afraid he might’ve choked to death. Instead, he spun and his eyes grew so wide, Sid could see white all around his grey irises. He clapped his hands to his mouth, taking sharp, gasping breaths before darting forward and throwing himself into Sid’s arms, burying his face against Sid’s chest. “Oh my God,” laughed Nathan, his breathing ragged with excitement.
“Just couldn’t wait,” said Sid, bending down low so he could speak into Nathan’s ear and be sure he’d be heard over the crowd. Once their faces were that close, Nathan grabbed either side of Sid’s face and kissed him good and proper, tasting like sweat and sunlight and every healing thing. Sid wasn’t sure if he was so happy he was shaking, or if Nathan was, or if they were both feeling the same way. They were together again, and that was what mattered more than anything.
The noise from the crowd didn’t stop just because they’d been reunited, though, and Nathan broke from the kiss and grabbed Sid’s arm, then lurched back toward the stage — dragging a very surprised Sid with him, into the light. The crowd clapped for Nathan, though the sound was strange, muted by confusion over just who this strange man was he’d brought with him. Nathan walked to his standing microphone at center stage and waved at the crowd to be quiet as Sid stood next to him, thinking that if he’d known this might happen, he would’ve changed into something other than the khakis and baggy cardigan he’d worn on the plane. “Okay, so,” Nathan began, and the audience shushed, “I’ve got a surprise tonight that’s as much as surprise to me as it is to the rest of you, though I suspect some people — and I’m looking at you, Jeff — may have known this was coming. Since he’s come to help me close out the tour, can you all please help me welcome the man without whom this might all have been possible, but it sure wouldn’t have been this good: ladies and gentlemen, the finest musician and the best man I’ve ever known, Sid Stills.”
The crowd may not have known him by face, but his name set them ablaze. Here was a group of people who’d come here to see Nathan Vaughn and his band — who’d had no prior expectation of seeing anything other that that — cheering and hollering for him. And maybe it wasn’t as big of a reception as Nathan got, and maybe by the foot of the stage Sid could see some young-looking fans with puzzled expressions and polite but unenthusiastic clapping motions, but he could see even more around them raising their arms in the air, jumping up and down, cupping their hands around their mouths as they shouted their excitement.
Maybe he still had something to give, and someone to listen to it. After all, he wasn’t dead yet.
Nathan hooked his hand in the elbow of Sid’s jacket and pulled him close enough that Sid would be in range of the microphone, provided he bent a bit. “I really … I’m just thrilled to have this guy here.” Nathan grinned up at Sid even as he kept talking to the audience. “And if you’ve been to one of my other shows or seen the Livestreams, you know I usually cover one of his songs, and I didn’t tonight, but … we’ve still got a little time left, don’t we?”
All things considered, Sid supposed he should’ve seen this one coming. Turnabout, though, was hellishly fair play. “And why didn’t you do a cover, hm?” asked Sid, even though he knew damn well the answer.
Nathan sputtered and lifted his hand to half-hide a nervous giggle. “Well … I had that other song I wanted to try out.”
“Oh, yeah, that one.” Sid nodded. “Got here just in time to hear that. Thought it was real good.”
Though it was hard to tell through the harsh stagelights and the excited pink the show had already worked up in Nathan’s face, at this distance, Sid could see him blush. “You … liked that one, huh?”
Sid patted the hand of Nathan’s still curled around his arm. “You got some real promise. Ever thought about going into music professionally, kid?”
The crowd and Nathan both laughed at that. “Thought I might give it a try. See if it works out for me.” Nathan shrugged. “Maybe you could show me how it’s done.” He gestured to the piano, then began clapping, and presently the whole room joined him in their audible push to get Sid to take the seat.
Maybe he should’ve seen this one coming, too, but he hadn’t, and a small stab of panic gripped him. He’d kept up his playing alone in the apartment, of course — especially over the past two weeks, hammering out songs that had been rattling around in his head for years — but playing to perform was a whole ‘nother monster. “You realize,” he said into the microphone but still to Nathan, “if it’s terrible they’re all going to blame you.”
“I am officially willing to take that risk.” This time Nathan literally pushed him toward the bench — a gentle shove, but one that let Sid know he wasn’t going to get out of this one. And if Nathan Vaughn, multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire and rock star sensation, wanted to hear him, well, who the hell was Sid Stills to refuse?
Sid got settled and turned back to see the other band members’ coming on behind him, carrying instruments and wearing grins. “Oh, this is going to be a production,” said Sid, more than a little surprised to hear his voice echoed back through the sound system, via a mic he hadn’t thought was live. Bless whoever was on the sound board for being on the ball.
Nathan gave a sheepish grin that didn’t manage to look sorry in the slightest. “So last time Sid and I were on stage together — which was also the first time we were on stage together, I should point out — it was a little unexpected too. And I had a song I wanted to do, but he said, no, can’t do it, there wasn’t a piano. Well, Sid, I got you your piano. You think you can do me that song?”
If he hadn’t known better, he would’ve suspected the kid had been the one planning it all, and Sid had been the one who’d walked into the setup. “Take it away, kid,” he said, setting into the opening riff of ‘Times Fucking Square’, and a half-second later, Adam joined in on his saxophone. The other boys in the band fell in shortly after with their respective instruments, thickening the sound as it rose and paused, and in that inhale before the downbeat, Nathan began to sing.
He’d never gotten tired of this part either, no matter how much he’d convinced himself he was over and done with it. There was something amazing about playing and having one person listen, and doing it from the stage took that feeling and amplified it by ten, a hundred, a thousand. Playing that first tiny show with Nathan had been great, but thinking back on it, he’d been so wrapped up in fears and anxieties and insecurities that he’d let himself get into it well enough, but he hadn’t just plain given himself over to it like it was doing now. He knew this all by heart, so deep it was muscle memory waiting for the chance to come back up and out through his skin. Age had slowed him and worn at his joints, and every breath he took was a reminder of the monster he carried inside him, but he still had it.
The instrumental part of the bridge came, and Nathan stepped back from the microphone, letting Adam wail on his tenor sax to high heaven. He was so good — they were all good, all of them, such talented little things, that it was a joy to be just in the same room with them while they were playing, much less to be allowed to join in on stage. Sid looked up at Nathan, who smiled right back and pointed at him. Sid frowned, and Nathan pointed again as Jeff played the bass pattern that indicated the bridge was coming to a close, then mouthed, your turn.
Well, if Sid’s piano-playing skills were rusty, his voice was a thousand times more so — but at least it had never been what anyone would have called pretty, which meant anyone who knew him already wasn’t expecting much, and anyone who didn’t had no measure for being disappointed anyway. Besides, Nathan wanted it, and that was what mattered. “There’s the dancers that dance, there’s the sinners that pray,” he growled, feeling steadier with each word. “There’s the fighters that fight, there’s the lovers that lay / There’s a hole in the world that just won’t go away / So they plug it with Times Fucking Square….”
His hands stumbled on the keys as he started into the last verse, and what he sang when he opened his mouth didn’t feel the way it had when he’d recorded it a decade and a half previous. When Sid had written this song in the first place, he’d been angry — not just at the way the world was changing, which he’d blamed at the time, but at the way he wasn’t changing with it. The people he’d loved had started dying, the New York he’d loved had started changing, the music he’d loved had been on the decline, and he’d been left in the middle of it all with the first grain of suspicion that maybe he didn’t belong here anymore. Instead of fighting it and pushing on, he’d retreated into his hermit-like life, working that grain into a pearl of self-doubt that he’d been so convinced was valuable that he couldn’t see past it to what was right in front of him. Which was he going to believe, himself or his lying eyes?
“And you can’t buy redemption in the stores they have here / And the road to hell’s paved with all the things that I fear,” he sang, keeping his eyes shut because he knew if he looked at Nathan, he’d start crying, and he couldn’t do that right now; right now he had to finish the song. “But I’ll make my list and swear I’ll be better next year / As the crowd down in Times Fucking Square starts singing….”
The music held its breath long enough for all the members of the audience to draw theirs, and then the voices joined his and Nathan’s, starting with the ones who knew Sid’s song the way he wrote it, then followed soon after by those knew the song Sid had mugged for his own purposes: “Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind? / Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and auld lang syne?” Nathan’s vocal flourishes trilled through the melody, floating over all the rest of them. “For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne / We’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.”
As the song finished, Sid drummed on the keys, though the sound was lost in the cheers from the crowd. He looked to them, then to the band, and was surprised to see all six of the other men on the stage looking at him and applauding — or, in Bean’s case, beating his drumsticks together. Sid stood and gave a little bow, and Nathan clapped loudest of them all. “What a way to end the tour! One more round of thanks to Marc, Leo, Bean, Jeff, Adam; a very, very special thank-you to Mr. Sid Stills; I’m Nathan Vaughn, thank you all, and good night.”
They stayed at the post-show celebration for half an hour, during which time Nathan literally did not leave Sid’s side. They kissed again only once in that time, right as they got off the stage together, but Nathan grabbed Sid’s arm and wouldn’t let go all the way to the restaurant, and when they got to the private lounge in the back, Nathan commandeered a loveseat for both of them. He talked and laughed with the others the whole time they were there, and drank champagne with them as Sid sipped at his bottle of water, and not once did any of his bandmates so much as blink to see Sid and Nathan cuddled up together like that. Sid supposed Nathan must have kept them all updated on the situation, and was surprised to find that despite his very private inclinations, he didn’t mind if they knew. He wasn’t about to print it on the front page of the Post, sure, but if the people around knew that they were together, then that was all right.
After thirty minutes, though, Sid felt himself nodding off, and at last actually fell into a doze, so much that he jerked awake when Nathan called his name. Friends gathered around them laughed kindly, and Nathan gave him a half-hug. “Okay, old man, we should put you to bed. We’ve both got an early flight tomorrow.”
Sid protested being the reason Nathan left early, but in truth, he was glad when Nathan put his foot down, said his grateful good-byes to the talented troupe that had been so good to him for weeks, and got the restaurant host to call them a cab. Nathan directed the driver to take them to whichever hotel by the airport was most likely to have rooms open, then snuggled up next to Sid for the ride. “I really … can’t believe you came,” he said, brushing his thumb across the backs of Sid’s knuckles. “I mean, I’m really … still, like, kind of in shock here. I keep looking up and there you are and that’s, like, really … really great.”
Sid kissed Nathan’s hair; despite having changed into more comfortable clothes, Nathan hadn’t showered, and still smelled nicely of sweat. “I’m glad you’re not, I don’t know, upset.”
“Upset?” Nathan pulled back and gave Sid a look of utter bewilderment. “Why the hell would I be upset?”
“Getting in the way? Stealing your thunder?” Sid shrugged. “Making you have to leave the party too soon?”
Nathan sighed and pulled Sid’s hat down over the top half of his face. “You are a deeply stupid old man, did you know that?” As Sid pushed the brim back with his free hand, Nathan cuddled up next to him again. “Besides, I’d just have left the party early to talk to you anyway. It’s what I do pretty much every night.”
“Oh,” said Sid, whose self-pity had been effectively cut off at the ankles. Nathan laughed at that, and Sid tipped Nathan’s chin upward so he could kiss him good and proper, and if the cab driver minded or even noticed, well, he didn’t make a sound about it.
By the time they got checked in and to their room, it was around midnight California time, which meant Sid was already past his bedtime plus three hours. Being in the cab with Nathan, however, had done wonders for getting Sid up in more ways than one, so that sleep had made its way to being the last thing on his mind. He put his backpack next to Nathan’s on the dresser — veterans of tours learned how to travel light, and Jeff had promised to bring or ship all of Nathan’s non-essentials back for him — and grabbed Nathan by the waistband of his pants. “I missed you so much,” he said, pulling them close.
Nathan laughed and draped his arms around Sid’s neck. “Oh, did you?” He kissed the underside of Sid’s jaw. “Because I never, ever would’ve known.”
“Guess flying across the country for a surprise guest appearance wasn’t enough. Maybe I’ll try harder next time. Get a skywriter involved.”
That just made Nathan laugh harder, and he kissed his way up to Sid’s lips. “Well, as long as you’re here, why don’t you just show me?”
Sid brought his hands together at the front of Nathan’s pants and began unfastening his belt buckle. “Now that,” he said, breathing the words into Nathan’s mouth, “I can do.”
Truth be told, Sid had been afraid that on account of feeling terrible in general lately, despite his best efforts, he might not be able to perform how he wanted when they were reunited — and, as part of his new policy on honesty, had told Nathan just that; Nathan had listened without laughing or teasing, and when Sid had finished, had pointed out that after their failed first attempt at being with one another, he was disqualified for the rest of his life from criticizing another man’s inability to get or maintain an erection. Now that anxiety proved groundless, however, as Sid definitely felt a pointed redistribution of blood in his body when he drew Nathan close. Whatever the doctors had waiting for him the day after tomorrow, there was no way it was better medicine than this.
Nathan slipped his fingers under the hem of Sid’s cardigan, then pulled Sid’s long-sleeved shirt beneath from where he’d tucked it in. “Aren’t you burning up?” he asked, running his fingers over Sid’s newly exposed belly.
“Airplanes get cold,” Sid protested, though he raised his arms and let Nathan slide both sweater and shirt beneath over the top of his head. He’d been chilly lately in general, despite the summer heat; Dr. Das had assured him that temperature sensitivity was normal, and would likely intensify with further treatment. Right now, though, he was as warm as could be, and didn’t mind the feel of the room’s air-conditioning on his bare skin.
He didn’t think about what else he was baring by removing his shirt until Nathan bent down and kissed his chest, just above his ribs on his left side. Nervous, Sid held his breath, but Nathan smiled and ran his fingers over the dark red line. “…It kind of looks like a whale.”
“A whale?” Sid looked down and pulled at his side, trying to get a better look at the scar left by the open biopsy. “How do you get a whale out of that?”
“Well, you know, it’s sort of … I mean, here’s its tail, and this is the front end, and … there’s a wrinkle right there that kind of looks like a spout? I don’t know, maybe it’s just from this angle.”
“Maybe you just need glasses.”
“Got my contacts in! Ha!” Nathan pointed to his eyes and fluttered his lashes. “So I am in prime whale-viewing condition.”
Sid rolled his own eyes. “What am I going to do with you?”
“Oh, I’ve got a couple of ideas….” Nathan guided Sid backward toward the bed and held Sid’s hands as he sat down on the end, then lay down on the bed next to him and put his head in Sid’s lap. “See?” he asked, petting the scar and the skin around it. “I’m not grossed out or scared. You don’t have to hide this from me. I told you it’s not the end of the world, and I meant it. Plus, you have the advantage where you’re still, like, the hottest, sexiest man ever.”
And all this while Nathan was staring at Sid’s soft, saggy old man chest. If he kept this up, Sid might just have to start believing he meant it. “Thought you won that this year.”
“Hardly. They just saw you shirtless and said, here, let’s just give the award to him now and save everyone else the trouble of trying.” Nathan leaned forward and kissed Sid’s belly, then looked up at him with a smile of pure mischief. “So, are you tired, or…?”
“Or. Definitely or.” Sid tugged at the back of Nathan’s shirt. “I’m going to sleep like the dead after this, but right now, I need you naked.”
With a triumphant laugh, Nathan rolled off the bed, half-bouncing as he hit the edge in a way that made him land more or less on his feet. “Hope you brought your dollar bills,” he purred, wiggling his hips in a ridiculous approximation of a stripper’s seductive gyrations, “because I’m taking it all off.” He grabbed the bottom hem of his shirt and pulled it off over his head in one fell swoop, turning the shirt inside-out and making his hair puff out behind it.
Sid settled back on the bed, kicking off his shoes and socks before tucking his legs under the covers. “I think I’ve got a MetroCard and a stick of gum in my wallet,” he said, pointing to the jacket he’d left hanging over the back of the chair.
Nathan tossed his shirt at Sid, hitting him in the face with astonishing accuracy; Sid considered the garment for a moment before wrapping it around his neck like a scarf. “Man, New Yorkers don’t know how to tip at all.” Nathan stuck out his tongue.
“Keep taking off your pants and we’ll talk about compensation,” teased Sid, and Nathan did just that, turning around so Sid’s first glimpse of his naked lower half was from the rear. He smacked his own backside once, though any attempt at making the gesture boilerplate sexy was ruined by how Nathan laughed at the same time, then turned around and flopped down on his stomach between Sid’s still-covered legs. “You know, I thought it might be a shame, getting a room on the first floor and all, but I have to say, I can’t complain about the view.”
Nathan bent his legs at the knees and kicked his feet back up above his thighs. “The beds are comfortable too. I might fall asleep right here….”
Sid folded his hands over his stomach and closed his eyes. “All right, good night.”
He heard a long-suffering sigh, and opened his eyes to find that Nathan was going for Sid’s belt buckle. “I’ve got to make a rule, never play sleepy chicken with someone who goes to bed before the evening news comes on.” With all relevant fasteners undone, Nathan grabbed Sid’s pants and underpants alike, then slid off the end of the bed, pulling Sid’s clothes and half the bedsheets off with him. With a little squeak of dismay, as Sid’s feet popped free of his trousers, Nathan slipped and disappeared below Sid’s line of sight at the foot of the bed, then popped back up a half-second later. “Everything’s fine! Totally under control! Meant to do that!”
“Get back here.” Sid mock-scowled at Nathan. “It’s safer.”
Nathan laughed, crawling up the length of the bed on his hands and knees until he was side-by-side with Sid again, their naked bodies pressed up to one another. He tugged at Sid until Sid was on top of him, resting half on Nathan and half on where his knees and elbows pushed against the bed. Nathan didn’t seem to mind the weight at all, though, and even hugged Sid closer to him, wrapping his arms around Sid’s waist and grinning. “Look what I found,” he said, nuzzling his nose against Sid’s. “I followed him home; can I keep him?”
Sid shrugged. “I don’t know, kid. Taking care of an old man’s a pretty big responsibility.”
“I can feed him and walk him and change his water every day.”
“Hm.” Sid ran his hand up and down the curve of Nathan’s side, feeling the smooth, soft skin of Nathan’s hip and back beneath his fingertips. This was what he’d dreamed of in his hospital bed, being able to hold Nathan again like this, and now that it was here, it was almost too good to be real; he joked so he didn’t dissolve into the sea of every other emotion that pounded at him as he pressed a kiss to the corner of Nathan’s mouth. “Old men need a little more attention than that.”
Nathan laughed and kissed right back. “Whatever do you mean, Mr. Stills?” He wiggled and squirmed a hand beneath their bodies, grabbing both Sid’s erection and his own in one tight handful. God, the kid made him feel so young again that his worry had shifted from not being able to get it up to popping off too soon.
“Just a little, you know, tender loving care. Special attention.” Sid kissed his way down the side of Nathan’s jaw to his earlobe, which he tugged between his teeth before purring right into Nathan’s ear, “Like a little sugar, too, when they can get it.”
Nathan’s hands turned into claws against Sid’s back, and Sid could feel the bite of the narrow ridges of the kid’s short fingernails. “God, Sid,” Nathan breathed, laughing and writhing at the same time; his grip tightened around their cocks for a moment before he let go of his own and turned his attention to Sid’s shaft alone.
“You like a little sugar too, don’t you?” Sid spoke in a rumble barely louder than a whisper, but he knew the kid heard him from the way he shivered and rubbed against Sid’s body. “Of course, you’re pretty sweet as is. Especially those hands of yours. Sweet enough to make a man think some pretty dirty things.”
Sid could feel Nathan’s fingers fumble as he talked, and if there was a better sign of encouragement that he was doing something right, Sid didn’t know what it could be. He kissed at Nathan’s throat again, careful not to leave any marks on that pale, beautiful skin of his. The kid was such a wonderful combination of small and sturdy, fragility and fierceness; you could tell just by talking to him that he’d been hurt by life, but you could also see that he’d kicked back against it and come out even stronger for it all. What had he been doing, thinking he was saving Nathan somehow by keeping him at a distance? Bringing him in for this, trusting his strength, just might save them both.
Nathan shifted them both so Sid’s weight came to rest on his own hip, giving him a little room to work as he stroked Sid faster and kissed Sid’s throat. Over the past few weeks, Sid had been poked and prodded by so many medical professionals that he’d almost grown weary of being touched. This was the antidote to all that exhaustion, though, all this warmth and gentleness, and Sid growled deep in his throat as Nathan rubbed his thumb over the wet tip of Sid’s cock. “Ooh, Mr. Stills,” said Nathan, his lips pressed against Sid’s adam’s apple. “You feel like you missed me.”
It was meant as a fun tease, Sid knew, but he couldn’t help choking up as he heard Nathan call him out on how much he hadn’t felt right in his own house, much less in his own skin, once Nathan had gone away. “What can I say, kid?” He swallowed and pressed his lips into Nathan’s soft, fine hair. “Your shoes are hard to fill.”
Nathan paused. “…Because they’re a size seven?”
“You said it, not me,” laughed Sid, and he gave Nathan another quick kiss. It felt good to be with someone like this, where sex could be meaningful and stupid all at once. He’d had arrangements like this before, decades before, but those had mostly been among friends who’d never be anything more to Sid than what they were already, trusted acquaintances who were often fun to be around but went as easily as they came. This, though, felt like had a chance of lasting maybe even as long as Sid himself did, however long or short that happened to be, and that thought made him grin so brightly he had to kiss Nathan right then and there.
Spurred on by the kiss, Nathan stroked Sid faster, pressing his own erection against Sid’s hip. “I’m right here,” Nathan whispered against Sid’s mouth, “I’ve got you,” and Sid closed his eyes, trusting Nathan to take care of the rest. Not long after, his breath caught in his throat as he came; he was perhaps past the days of violent, rapturous orgasm, but the way this one spread all the way through him, warm and relaxing out to the tips of his fingers and toes, was nothing to complain about at all. Everything about Nathan, start to finish, made him feel safe and good, and he had no idea how he’d gotten so lucky, but was so grateful he had.
As he finished, he collapsed into Nathan’s arms, and Nathan held him, kissing him and laughing and kissing him some more. “That sounded good,” Nathan grinned, wiping his hand on the sheets before putting it back on Sid’s bicep, stroking the place where a faded olive-green tattoo of an anchor had spent the last forty-odd years on Sid’s skin. It had seemed sexy and daring at the time, and then Sid had decided soon afterward that it was pretty much beyond trite and had spent the intervening years wearing sleeves at least to his elbows when in public; Nathan’s fondness for it, however, suggested that it might have worked its way full circle into being cool again. Some things, he supposed, just tended to work out like that.
“Here,” said Sid after a moment of cuddling, nudging Nathan away from him. Nathan looked confused at first, but let himself be pushed, and eventually got the gist of what Sid was after, which was to roll Nathan onto his other side so they were both facing the same way. Sid spooned up behind him and draped his arm over Nathan’s waist, stopping to pet his hip a few times before going straight for Nathan’s beautiful cock. The arrangement was easier on Sid’s arm and shoulder, to be sure, but the real benefit came from how little effort it took for Sid to get his mouth up right next to Nathan’s ear. “There we are.”
Nathan shivered at Sid’s touch. “This is nice,” he said, snuggling up to Sid until their bodies were as close as they could be. They fit so well like that, one puzzle piece against another, just locking into place.
Sid just stroked him like that in silence for a minute, listening to Nathan’s breathing as it grew heavier and louder, feeling Nathan’s cock twitch and pulse in his hand. He hadn’t moved them like this for the quiet, though, and as he settled into a good rhythm, he pressed his lips up to the curve of Nathan’s ear. “You feel good like this,” he growled, and Nathan gave a gratifying gasp. “I saw you in the bathtub that day, napping in the sunlight like a little kitten, naked and beautiful, and I knew right then and there, I wanted to get my hands on you. Never thought I would, and knew I probably shouldn’t, but that didn’t stop me from wanting it.”
It’d been years since he’d really had a chance to let his skills at patter and improvisation shine, but there was no time like the present to polish them up and get them going again. “That night you climbed into my lap, I thought, this is it, this is the end of it, I’ve died and somehow conned my way into heaven, because I’ve never done a damn thing in my life to deserve something as good as this. And when I woke the next morning and you were still there, well, it didn’t do much to change my initial diagnosis.” Sid closed the circle of his thumb and forefinger as it slid up and over the head of Nathan’s cock, then back down again. “But then I got to touch you and see you like this, and I thought, well, I must still alive, heaven can’t have anything on this.”
Nathan laughed at that, though his sound was weighted with arousal and air. “I’m a few feathers shy of an angel.”
“That’s good, because by now I know better than to fall in love with an angel.” Sid closed his eyes and let his other senses guide him through this, responding to every sound or movement Nathan made. “Too unpredictable. Flighty. Not down-to-earth. With you, though … I just couldn’t help myself.”
Nathan made a choked sound, a gasp that sounded almost like Sid’s name, and Sid kissed his neck just behind his earlobe. “It’s all right,” said Sid. “Everything’s going to be all right.” As if saying made it true — though really, who the hell was he to say that it wouldn’t?
At last Nathan froze, his body rigid in Sid’s arms, every muscle pulled tense — and then his body went limp as he came, spilling hot and wet all over the sheets on the far side of the bed. He gasped and writhed, and Sid held him, kissing him and murmuring soothing nonsense into his ear. It was all right like this, right here and now, and as for whatever might come next, it could come — they’d still have one another. Sid kissed Nathan’s bare shoulder and drew him back over to the clean side of the bed, then pulled the sheets up over them both.
They lay there still for a minute, all breath and heartbeats and skin, until all of a sudden, Sid heard a gurgling noise that startled him from the beginnings of his doze. He thought at first it might be the pipes, but a split second later, Nathan started laughing. “You,” he said, turning over his shoulder to fix an accusing glare on Sid, “sexed me all the way to hungry.”
Sid laughed and kissed Nathan’s cheek. “We could call for room service.”
“Nah, it’s cool, I just….” Nathan kissed Sid and patted the hand across his belly, and when Sid let go, he popped up and went over to the room’s mini-fridge. “Here we go.” He reached inside and pulled out two green bottles. “Snagged these from the bus kitchen and tossed them in my backpack before I left. If I eat something I’ll never get to sleep, but these are good.”
As the bottles got closer, Sid began to realize that they themselves were made of clear plastic, but the thick liquid inside was another story altogether. “That’s very green for someone to drink voluntarily.”
“They’re delicious. They’ve been a staple of my tour diet for years.” Nathan twisted the top off one and handed it to Sid, then opened the other as he got back into bed. “Two of these a day, and I never got sick, not in years.”
Sid took a sniff of what looked to him like dirty pond water, and was surprised to find that it smelled like fresh fruit instead of algae and frog shit. He glanced back to Nathan to make sure this wasn’t a joke, but Nathan had already downed a third of his and looked like he wasn’t stopping anytime soon, so Sid took a sip. Despite its general thickness, it went down easy and tasted mostly like apple juice. Of course, Sid hadn’t gotten anywhere in his life by making anything easy on anyone else, so he screwed up his nose and made a face. “Tastes like a farmer’s market. Or a tree.”
Nathan wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Mm, tastes lke apples.”
“There … may be a bit of apple in there.” Sid took another drink, then stared down the mouth of the bottle. “I think they showed it a picture of an apple once.”
Rolling his eyes, Nathan tapped the side of Sid’s bottle. “Look at the label! Right there! It has two and a half apples in it!” When Sid pinched his nose and took another generous swallow, Nathan fake-punched him in the side. “You pain in my butt. Sexy nurse Nathan says drink your Green Machine.”
Sid raised an eyebrow. “Where is the sexy nurse part? I want to see some thigh.”
Nathan tossed back the sheet, revealing his entire naked lower half. “There, you got two for the price of one. Now drink up.” He finished up his own bottle and tossed the empty into the garbage can by the bureau, doing a little wiggly dance when the plastic projectile hit the rim but went in anyway. “Yes! Anyway, it’s totally delicious. You’re just being curmudgeonly for the fun of it.”
“Not my fault if your crazy green mold beverage tastes like what it is,” said Sid, who was well over halfway done with the bottle. It wasn’t filling, per se, but it was also more satisfying than water would have been, and the kid was probably right about eating before bedtime.
“I will pour it into an opaque cup next time and you will say, hm, sexy nurse Nathan, thank you for this delicious drink!”
“Lovely, tastes just like a sandwich I left in the fridge for a month.”
“Just put a lid on it and get a white straw, and you’ll say,” Nathan dropped his voice into his lowest, gruffest register, doing an eerie good impression of Sid, “‘This is delicious, kid, you should get me some more.'”
“I have lung cancer, not colourblindness.”
For the instant after he’d named his disease, Sid froze, afraid that by saying it he’d dropped a metaphorical rock on their collective good mood — there was the world of sickness and the world of happiness, and the two could never cross without the former’s polluting the latter. Nathan, however, laughed right through it and rubbed Sid’s belly just below the biopsy scar. “Well, green or not, get used to it. Sexy nurse Nathan is going to be on the job from now on, making sure you drink healthy things and eat right and get all the sleep and exercise and doctor’s visits and whatever the hell else they tell you that you need to get, and it’s going to include a lot of crazy green mold smoothies. I’m going to kick your ass into shape, and we are going to beat this together or go down trying.”
Leave it to the kid to find the bright, slightly sadistic side in all of this. “So if the drugs don’t get me and the cancer doesn’t either, your,” Sid looked at the side of the bottle, squinting at the ingredients list in the room’s dim light, “spirulina and wheat grass and odorless garlic will?”
“That’s the plan!” Nathan tapped the bottom of Sid’s bottle, and Sid made one last dramatic face before turning it upside-down and pouring the rest into his mouth. It got a little like sludge at the bottom, but it never stopped tasting good, and Sid supposed if he had to drink more of these to get better, well, there was worse medicine out there, especially if it came to him from the hands of such a sexy nurse. “You’re still stuck with me.”
Sid put the empty bottle by the side of the bed and opened his arms, and Nathan crawled into them, nuzzling and laughing. “I’ll dig out room for you in my cave,” he said, stroking Nathan’s bare back.
“Do I get to ride on top of your head?”
“What if I just let you wear all my hats?”
Nathan frowned, considering this, then broke into a wide grin. “Mr. Bear, you have yourself a deal,” he said, throwing his arms around Sid’s shoulders for another deep, long kiss. There were still a lot of things about the immediate future that were deeply uncertain, much less the long-term future, but maybe it really wasn’t the end of the world. And if it turned out to be, well, Sid didn’t know anyone he’d rather have had in his arms when the end came.
Sid knew why everyone was clapping — hell, he was clapping too, it was polite — but he didn’t know why everyone also seemed to be looking at him.
His face was up on the big screens by the sides of the stage, too, like the cameras had all pointed in his direction, which was weird. Nathan, both on the screens and by his side, clutched the sleeve of Sid’s jacket and bounced in his seat, but that didn’t make any sense either. After a second or two of this, he heard the music over the applause and recognized it for what it was: ‘Bed Rest’, the piece he’d recorded in his own bathroom, wailing and growling about being stuck inside the apartment for the fifth consecutive week, accompanied by any hard object he could find banged rhythmically against any hard surface he could find. That’s when he knew he’d won.
Nathan helped him to his feet, steadying Sid under one arm as Sid grabbed his cane with the other. He didn’t move quickly these days, but the applause didn’t seem to be going anywhere as he made his way up toward the stage, and as he got to the half-dozen steps up from the seating level, the perky little girl who’d opened the envelope scurried over and helped him. She had on pink tennis shoes that laced up like ballet slippers and white-bleached hair in pigtails; he had no idea who she was and odds were strong that he wouldn’t listen her music if given the option not to, but he decided he liked her as a person, and that was more important. “Thank you, miss,” he said, and he was gratified when she out-and-out giggled. It was nice to see he still had it.
At the podium, a young man in a strange silver-grey suit applauded and held the little brass gramophone for Sid to take. The big screens had added text beneath his image, the top line announcing ‘BEST ALTERNATIVE MUSIC ALBUM’, and the bottom proclaiming that the winner as ‘SID STILLS, LONG DISTANCE‘. As Sid took the trophy and turned to the audience, he realized they were all standing, which he was pretty sure he hadn’t told them to do — standing and still clapping, even, which was even more ridiculous, considering how long he’d taken to get up there. “Um,” he said, and everyone quieted down, including the music over the speakers. He cleared his throat. “I … didn’t prepare a speech.”
It wasn’t hyperbole; he not only hadn’t prepared anything, he hadn’t even given much of a thought to what he’d say, because he’d been just that damn certain that there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that his strange, sometimes-feverish offerings would be chosen over the other excellent nominees. Nathan had told him to have something ready, at least, but he’d been too ornery to listen. Well, he supposed he deserved this.
“I guess what I have to say is … thank you.” He leaned into the microphone, letting it do the work of carrying his voice throughout the theater; the surgery, though successful enough that Dr. Das had declared him fully in remission, had left him a little breathless in general, and some nights the rasp in his voice was worse than others. “And I want to say it’s good to be back. Not easy being back, but–” He interrupted himself with a quiet laugh and shook his head. “I really didn’t think I’d be up here. For so many reasons. Thought I was done making music for good, but … sometimes it’s good to be wrong.”
A ripple of laughter and a smattering of applause spread across the audience, and Sid reached up to touch the pearl-white ribbon on the lapel of his dark suit. “There’s probably dozens, maybe hundreds of people this wouldn’t have been possible without. But I couldn’t possibly thank all of them up here before I bored you all to death, so I hope you’ll indulge me for just a couple. Jeff Truvino and Adam Petrella, for stepping up and helping make all the sounds I couldn’t. Randall McGuckin, for taking care of all the business nonsense, so I don’t have to. Dr. Molly Das and all the staff at the Manhattan VA Medical Center, and the good folks at the American Lung Association, for all the good work they do all day, every day, keeping tired old engines like mine still running.
“Most of all,” he said, looking down at the Grammy in his hands, because if he looked up he knew he’d look over to the seat next to the one he’d left a minute ago, and if he looked there he wouldn’t be able to finish what he wanted to say, “none of this would have been possible without the talent and support of Nathan Vaughn, because not only did he record and produce the album all by himself, and not only did he give me feedback on the songs while I was writing them and play on several of the tracks and set me up one of those Twitters….” Sid gripped the head of his cane for support and took a breath. “It feels stupid to get up here and thank him for just helping me make an album, when what he did was save my life. Every time I wanted to give up or quit, he showed me what it was to be brave, and when I couldn’t be, he was brave enough for the both of us. He’s the reason I’m both here and still here. So … I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that I’m humbled by this, and I’ll show my gratitude as best I can, which is to say thank you, shut up, and sit back down.”
The music and applause rose again as the young woman took the Grammy from him and the young man offered Sid his arm, and together the two of them escorted him off the stage and out of the lights. There, the girl kissed him on each cheek and the boy shook his hand before a stage manager came by and swept Sid off to the side. She explained someone would be along to escort him back to his seat in a minute and showed him to a chair out of the way of the main flow of traffic, which he took with gratitude.
Backstage was a hubbub of noise and commotion, every inch packed with all the movement and sound necessary to pull off a production like this, but Sid sat back and let it all wash over him. He ran his fingers along the contours of the surprisingly heavy award as it rested on his lap. Soon one of the assistants would come along to lead him back to where there’d no doubt be throngs of people waiting for him, armed with cameras and microphones, ready to mop up any words of wisdom he might spill, no matter how trite or absurd they might be — and since he’d gotten his sea legs back about being trite and ridiculous on command, he’d delighted in rewarding obnoxious press with both.
But Nathan would be there too, and after all the lights had dimmed and the voices had faded, Nathan would still be there, his hand perched in the crook of Sid’s arm, Sid’s constant support. They’d spend a few more days in Los Angeles, being the slow-moving tourists that they presently were, and then they’d get back on a plane to their place in New York, where it’d be the kid’s turn to start on his next album and Sid’s turn to take a break for a while. Maybe they’d be be back here next year, only Sid would be the one remaining in his seat while Nathan got shuffled onstage in his smart little tuxedo, grinning and making some touching, comprehensive speech that he’d been smart enough to prepare for.
Or maybe they wouldn’t, and that would be all right too. As a small, brave young man had once told him, holding his hand by his bedside in post-op, there’d be time for lots of things now: failures and successes, learning new things, trying something different, trying something else when the first something different didn’t work, life together, life at all. There was time for waiting, too, so Sid closed his eyes and listened to all the new music and the young voices and the familiar beat around him, and when the young runner arrived some minutes later to tell him she’d be glad to escort him back to his seat now, Sid rose and followed her back to where he belonged.
Wow. This is just so, so good. I loved Sid’s quiet depression and cynicism, and Nathan’s bright enthusiasm and anxiety, and the way they fit together. I love slow (very slow!) burn of this. While I was reading, I was completely afraid at what the ending would be – I could so easily see Sid dying – and I was dreading it, so I really appreciated the ending you wrote for them instead. Just a really wonderful story. I had such a great time reading it.