Fiction by Jason Basa Nemec
What can I say about the way Tommy Jensen played guitar, the way he sang?
I was home for Christmas, feeling sorry for myself because of the mess with Lyla, when Tommy called and told me the news. “They’re tearing down our childhood,” he said. “They’re turning it into a fucking Starbucks.”
I heard music and shouting in the background and I knew, even before he said so, that he was at the pay phone on the corner of Kent Road and Lincoln Street, right next to the Horizon.
Tommy and I hadn’t talked in well over a year, and yet he launched right into things, speaking quickly and with a familiarity I didn’t think I deserved. He told me they were having a farewell party and a bunch of the old musicians were going to play. He hadn’t been able to get ahold of Matt or Joel. “Get off your ass and come out here already,” he said. “Bring your bass. We’re playing.”
Get off your ass. It was as if he could see me right through the phone. I was in the wood-paneled basement of the house I grew up in, watching the Cavs game with my dad. My bass was upstairs in the closet of my old room. It had been at least seven years since I had even opened the case. I looked at my dad, who was snoring in the recliner next to me. His mouth was wrenched open in an awful O. It struck me that he would one day die and there was nothing I could do about it.
The game came back on. I told Tommy I would be there in twenty minutes, then stood up and turned the volume down on the TV. My dad didn’t stir.
Outside, I got in my Toyota and waited for it to warm up. I watched the wind move the branches of the evergreen in the corner of the front yard, the white lights twinkling. When I boarded the plane in Boston that morning, there was snow on the ground, but none had yet fallen here in Northeast Ohio.
I took the back way to the Horizon, out past the middle school where my dad taught me to drive stick and we almost killed each other in the process, down North River Road, past where Tommy’s grandma’s house was before they leveled it and built the new golf course, behind the Kent State airport where we used to camp out and once lit Danny Freeman’s arm on fire. The Cuyahoga River snaked though the trees on my right, flowing south to Munroe Falls and the overlook where I smoked my first cigarette with Tommy, which in turn was only a few hundred yards from the house where I lost my virginity to Amanda Martone on the night Kurt Cobain killed himself. Home has a way of doing this to me: wrapping me up in a gauze of nostalgia, the air so thick with ghosts it’s all I can do not to hold my breath.
The lot next to the Horizon was full, so I parked across the street in front of a real estate office that used to be a laundromat. I wondered, as I looked past my reflection getting out of the car, if the drains were still in the floor, underneath the sad quartet of desks that had replaced the washers and dryers.
A steady stream of cars rushed by as I waited for the light to change. All the Kent State students were going home for the holidays. I thought of Lyla, and that first Thanksgiving I went home with her to Maine and her dad found us kissing on the dock behind their house. “Pump the brakes there, Drew,” he had said. “You’re not in the family just yet, buddy.” He was a good man, a part of her life I never would have thought I would miss but had ended up missing quite a bit.
Lyla was probably with him in their patio room at that very moment, sitting by the fire and telling him that she and I were broken up again, and that this was it, that there was no more getting back together this time. He would be nodding, watching the snow fall against the windows, and thinking that this was for the best, because his daughter deserved someone better. Someone who was going somewhere.
The light changed and I crossed the street. The Horizon Café was bigger than I remembered. The tall, sharply angled roof made it look like the place was sinking into the ground, as if a whole other row of windows was buried beneath the sidewalk. There was a crowd, and as I looked for Tommy, I couldn’t help but think how young they all were. A blond kid with dreadlocks leaned against the long side window, staring at me as he banged out a heartbeat on a conga drum. A black girl sat cross-legged on the ground, suturing a tinny guitar line back and forth over the beat. A few people had signs that said things like Save the Horizon! and Fuck the Buck! The mingled smell of patchouli and cigarettes was thick in the air.
I found Tommy around the corner, on the stoop of what was once Time Traveler CDs but was now an empty storefront. He was sitting and talking to a short woman who was wearing pajama pants under a long leather coat.
I walked up. “Is this the senior citizen section?” I said.
Tommy turned and smiled. He looked different. His hair was still wild and unkempt, but he was skinnier, more hollowed out, his sunken cheeks barely hidden by the patchy beard he’d grown. We embraced. There was whiskey on his breath, smoke in the leather of his skin.
He stepped back and shook his head. “My long-lost son,” he said. He gripped my bicep. “Still hitting that gym, eh pretty boy? Staying healthy?”
“Doing what I can,” I said. As the pajama woman drifted away, Tommy fixed me with those unrelenting eyes of his, and for a second it felt like the mess I had made of my life was as obvious as my thinning hair. I came around to stand next to him and leaned on the rail. He asked where my bass was and I lied and told him I had left it in Boston. He said not to worry, that he could find me a bass, and when he asked whether I’d been playing out, I lied again and said I had, even though it had been at least a year since my last gig.
Tommy, on the other hand, said he’d been gigging like crazy. “These guys I’m playing with now,” he said, “are the tightest band I’ve played with since us.”
I nodded but didn’t say anything. I thought about Matt and Joel, who were both probably at their respective homes in West Akron, watching holiday cartoons with their kids or something. Unlike Tommy, I wasn’t surprised that they weren’t here.
Tommy took a flask out of his coat and handed it to me. “Shit,” he said. He gestured to the crowd, dropping his hand with a flourish. “God, this place was so special.”
The Horizon Café. Tommy was right. It was special. It was where we first started believing in music, back in high school when the four of us—Tommy, Matt, Joel, and myself— used to dance for hours to The Black Hole Jokers, dreaming about packing the place to the rafters like they did, until we eventually did just that: we got a monthly gig at the Horizon and started dreaming even bigger, about making it, about recording and playing music for the rest of our lives, together. I went to a small university in Cleveland so that we could stay together, passing up scholarships at out-of-state schools so I could drive to band practice every Saturday. Then, in the fall of my junior year, Tommy announced that he was moving to Chicago to be with Mariana, the so-called love of his life.
The night he told us he was leaving, I said terrible, dramatic things to him. I called him a coward, a pussy, a sell-out. I told him I hoped Mariana was going to break his heart the way he had broken ours.
After the band broke up, I quit playing bass. I bought a guitar and started trying to write my own songs. Playing guitar and singing didn’t come easily to me, but I desperately wanted to be good at it. I didn’t want to be in the background anymore. I met Lyla. I told her I loved her after only a month of dating. After we graduated, I followed her to Cambridge, where she went to graduate school for speech pathology and I started working in restaurants, occasionally booking solo acoustic gigs at shitty bars in Allston, where usually the only people in attendance were Lyla, a few of her friends, and a handful of college kids screaming out the requisite drunken request for Free Bird. It was around that time that Tommy tracked down my number and left me a drunken message saying my wish had come true, that he and Mariana were no more. “She broke my fucking heart, man. I hope that makes you happy.” And it did. I felt a sick satisfaction at hearing all that pain, all that loneliness, in his voice.
All that was years ago. Now I was alone too, pushing thirty and working as a bartender at an upscale restaurant in Harvard Square. I hadn’t been playing out. I still thought of myself as a musician, but barely, as most of my songs were now just hastily scrawled lines on cocktail napkins, lyrics about Lyla I composed when the bar was slow and then pulled from my pockets when I returned alone to my one-bedroom apartment in the North End, nine times out of ten stoned and stumbling from smoking up with the kitchen crew at the end of the night. Those crumpled white napkins sat on my desk and collected dust. I told myself they were filled with everything I didn’t know how to say to Lyla. I told myself they were waiting for me to simply pick up the guitar and fit the words to a melody. As if it were just that simple.
“So,” I said. “A Starbucks, no shit?”
Tommy took a drink from the flask. “No shit.”
“What’s going to happen to Beverly?”
“Who knows? I heard her say something about buying an Airstream and going to Mexico. I think she’s getting a decent chunk of change.”
I folded my arms. “So did she want to sell?”
“Maybe. I don’t know.” Tommy tipped the flask up again then handed it back to me. “She’s in there. Why don’t you ask her?”
“You know I’m not gonna fuck with Beverly,” I said. Tommy grinned.
When I was fifteen, I brought Burger King from across the street into the Horizon and ate it while we were setting up our equipment. It was one of our first shows. The next thing I know Beverly comes flying out of the kitchen, screaming about how would I like it if I invited her over to my house for a home-cooked meal and she showed up with a bunch of factory-made genetically-engineered soul-killing fast food. I had been slightly terrified of her ever since.
Tommy tapped a cigarette from his pack and held it out. I took it, though I almost never smoked anymore. He lit my cigarette, and then one for himself.
We smoked in silence for a minute, watching as a bunch of kids took turns jumping off the flatbed of a truck and knocking each other over. Stage-diving with a shitty Ford Ranger for a stage. Tommy smiled at me, and I thought he was going to say something about how we had done the same stupid thing back in the day, but then I realized he was smiling at someone over my shoulder. When I turned, Mariana was walking across the lot toward us, her dark hair blowing across her face like a curtain.
Mariana was tall and had light caramel skin and looked barely a day older than she had at eighteen, when she’d first met Tommy at one of our shows up in Cleveland. I hung back while they kissed. She gave me a hug and we made small talk for a few minutes. She no longer had the woe-is-me attitude she used to carry in the slump of her shoulders. Now Mariana was all brightness and possibility, and as we talked, I relaxed. I couldn’t help but like her. It turned out she was a counselor at a local grade school, which meant she worked with kids the same age as the ones Lyla worked with. I told her this, which brought out the inevitable question about how we were, and when I told her we had broken up, Mariana apologized and gave me a look that was so soaked with pity I actually turned my body away from her, as if hoping, in the way of a child who still believes in magic, that the movement would cause me to disappear right there on the sidewalk.
Nobody said anything for a minute. Mariana put her arm around Tommy’s waist, and when they looked at me, I got the feeling I’d had when I first walked up to Tommy. They were seeing straight into my ribs, seeing all the ugliness collected there, my depression, the million ways I had done Lyla wrong.
“Well,” Tommy said. “We have to get in there pretty soon.”
“Are you guys going to play together?” Mariana asked.
“We have to find this guy a bass first,” said Tommy. Mariana smiled at him, perhaps, I thought, because she knew how much it would mean to him to play with me again, to re-inhabit that first and somehow best music.
He kissed her on the cheek. God, they really were happy.
“Tommy,” I said. “I don’t think we should play our old stuff with me on bass. I want to play one of my songs instead.” I paused, watching him. “I figured I could borrow your guitar.”
It’s vivid. The way Tommy looked at me. Hurt. Surprised. Like a man knocked off balance, having only just then realized he’d been walking on a wire the entire night.
The year before, winter’s darkness seemed to come earlier than usual in New England. The sky would already be draining of its color by four in the afternoon. That was the time of day I would bike to work. As I pedaled down Mass Ave into Harvard Square, I began to imagine how easy it would be to jerk the handlebars hard to the left, slanting all the way across the right lane and headlong into the path of the inbound Number 1 bus. Every time I got to a certain stretch of the road, past The Plough and Stars where the lanes narrowed and the skinny apartment buildings got taller and appeared to tilt over the sidewalks, I thought of this and my arms would shake and I would see the details of my impending death—a wide-eyed bus driver, a quick spray of blood, a tangle of iron—ghosting out ahead of me.
It was about this time that my desire to sing or play just disappeared, evaporated from my throat and fingers like water. Music, which had once meant everything to me, suddenly seemed pointless. I told myself that no one was listening. I stopped playing out, and then I stopped playing altogether. I spent my days alone. I would lay on the couch in complete silence for hours at a time, intimidated by the simplest tasks, a mere trip to the grocery store or the bank requiring a reserve of energy I simply did not have.
And yet, the moment I walked into the bar where I worked, I was a different person. As long as we were busy and my mind was occupied, I was an amazing actor, performing the furious balancing act of keeping drinks full and plates cleared, smiling and joking with people whom, had I met them in a different context on the other side of the bar, would have terrified and overwhelmed me.
The weight—that’s what I called it at first, the weight—would be back the next day, and if I had the night off, Lyla would return from the grade school where she worked to find me on the couch, the blinds drawn, the chatter of punk rock kids at the Elks Club next door floating up to our windows and falling through the room like snow.
Once, holding my hand there in the dark, she said, “Do you still love me?” I thought I had imagined it at first; her voice was so quiet, almost drowned out by the noise from the street.
I hesitated, staring at her shadowy form framed by the light of the window, unable to see her face. “Yes,” I finally said.
But I didn’t. I didn’t love her. Not then. I know how harsh this sounds, but it was true.
She wanted so badly to help me. And yet all the listening, all the embracing and the handholding—none of it could pry the weight from my chest. Plus, she had her own trouble: a difficult job that didn’t pay enough, parents going through a divorce that neither she nor her younger brother had seen coming, and God knows what else she kept hidden from me. Sad and listless as I was, I couldn’t help shoulder any of her struggles, and this made me feel even worse. It was the night we got Thai carry-out and they forgot the Crab Rangoons and I started crying, that’s when I let something slip about wanting to kill myself. Lyla rushed me off to a doctor the next day, who referred me to a therapist in Davis Square. In the car on the way to the first appointment, she tried to joke about it. “So that was the tipping point,” she said. “Those fucking Crab Rangoons.” I laughed, but all I could think was: Therapy. Jesus Christ. I’m going to therapy. What a piece of shit I am. What a weak, useless, sad excuse for a man I had become.
Slowly, the winter months passed. And as the days got longer and summer finally decided to come back to the city, I did start to feel a little better. Maybe the therapist was actually doing me some good, or maybe it was just the meds finally kicking in, but either way, when the warm weather returned, so too did my hope. There were bright spots in my days again: the smell of fresh mint as I made mojitos, the lingering glance of a woman when I boarded the T. And yet, things still weren’t right with me and Lyla. We had sex less and less. She blamed it on the meds, so we had my doctor switch them. But the meds weren’t the problem. I had already decided: I had to leave her, again. I had already broken up with her once, years before, and I knew this time it would have to be for good.
When I told her that I had found a place in the North End and that I would move out by the end of the month, she didn’t say anything at first. Then she stood up from the couch and told me, calmly, that I better start packing now, because the longer I waited, the more likely it was that she would set my guitar on fire. I laughed, but not even the slightest smile broke on her face. “I’m serious,” she said. “I should have done it a long time ago.” Her lip quivered. “I never told you this, but I never really thought you were any good as a songwriter. You can’t sing for shit. You never could.”
Inside the Horizon, every table was full, both on the ground floor and on the balcony that wrapped around up above. People were standing on the stairs. Everyone was watching a red-haired girl singing “Blackbird” and finger-picking a guitar at the far end, in front of the window with the neon orange Horizon Café sign. She was standing between the old standup piano with its lid torn off and a huge kettledrum that had a beat-up sunburst jazz bass laying across it. Immediately to her right, at their usual corner table, were the two Chess Joes: Big Joe and Fu Joe, hunched over the chessboard, contemplating their next moves, hanging on until the very end. Between them, next to the timer, a silver carafe of coffee gleamed like a bomb they were trying to defuse.
Behind the counter, Beverly looked tired. Over the glass case now empty of baked goods, her face sagged, yet still she smiled when she saw us approach, the automatic smile of someone in the service industry. The woman she had been talking to put her hand on Beverly’s wrist and walked away. “Beverly,” Tommy said. “You remember Mariana? And Drew?” She nodded.
Tommy clapped me on the shoulder. “I’m up next,” he said. He and Mariana went and stood near the front. I hung back. The red-haired girl started up a song I didn’t recognize.
“Coffee?” Beverly said. “One more for the road?”
“Sure,” I said. I fidgeted with a menu on the counter. “I don’t know if you remember,” I began, “but there was this time I came in here with—”
“Burger King. I remember.” She had reached for the coffee pot and now held it above a mug but did not yet pour. “You’d be amazed at what I remember.” Her voice was so soft. I had forgotten how quiet she really was since in my memories she was always yelling at me.
I nodded. “Hey,” I said. “I’m sorry.” I looked at her. I could hear my heart beating. “I’ve always wanted to tell you that.”
“Well, thank you. You didn’t have to say that.” Beverly poured the coffee and pushed the mug toward me. “But then I guess you did, didn’t you?” She smiled again, this time baring her teeth, which were straw-colored and crooked.
I took out my wallet, my shoulders already lighter, my heart slowing.
“No, no,” she said. “No need.”
Grateful, and not knowing what else to do, I tapped the counter and went to stand next to Mariana near the front.
What can I say about the way Tommy Jensen played guitar, the way he sang? His voice was not beautiful, at least not in the way the red-haired girl’s voice was. It was too loud, right from the first note out of his mouth, a tremendous you-ooh that rose and crested and instantly silenced the crowd. I felt it in my stomach. He stood instead of sitting, pinching the neck of his beaten guitar between his thumb and fingers, a simple chord progression, G to C to E minor, his back straight, his head thrust forward slightly, his eyes closed. He sang a song about a girl, about heartbreak and loss, because that’s what he always sang about. It’s not for me to say who or what he was singing to. Maybe it was Mariana. Maybe it was somebody else I didn’t know. Or maybe it was an elegy for the Horizon. Any or all of these would have fit.
I don’t remember a single lyric from Tommy’s song, but I know it did what the best music does: it made me want to bring the world closer to me, bring lives across the distance I keep between myself and others. I watched Tommy and stopped worrying that when I got up there I would forget the words or fumble the chords. I wasn’t nervous for once. Nothing was certain, except what I wanted in that moment. I wanted to sing a song for Lyla, wherever she was, and I wanted it to be beautiful.
Before I knew it, people were clapping for Tommy and he was handing the guitar over to me. I took the instrument from him, feeling the warmth of the leather strap as I slung it over my shoulder. The wood of the guitar itself was also holding on to some of the heat from Tommy’s body, and I took confidence in this, imagining a sort of transfer of talent from him to me, smiling as I plucked a pick from the headstock, took a deep breath, and launched into my song.
But right away, things began to fall apart. As soon as I slid my hand down the neck, the strings cut into the soft skin of my fingertips where once there were thick calluses. I strummed an A, but I flatted a wrong note and the guitar yelped as if in pain. I reformed the chord correctly, but then I couldn’t remember the next one. I couldn’t get a grip on the pick. My timing was off. Everything was off.
I started to sweat. A murmur ran through the crowd. If I could just get the chords moving, I thought, and then just pry my voice out of my chest and sing strongly like Tommy had done, I could make this right. But I couldn’t. My fingers felt like they were filled with sand. My throat closed up. I saw Beverly watching me from the counter, her brow creased. It was the last night of the Horizon, the last night of this place that had been a home to so many music-makers and dreamers, and there I was fucking it all up.
I stared into the faces of strangers. Where was everyone I used to know? Where was Lyla? What were the words I was supposed to sing to her? Blue light of morning, you’re still sleeping… I mumbled my way through the opening lines, but that’s all I could remember. And even if I could call up the rest of the verse and mumble my way to the chorus—that shining, pomegranate heart of the song, the bursting melody that was supposed to lay bare my feelings for her—she couldn’t hear it. She was hundreds of miles away.
Lyla had been right. I couldn’t sing for shit. And yet, she would have been there anyway. She would have come home with me, would have been sitting right there in front that night at the Horizon if I hadn’t “needed to figure some things out,” which really meant I had wanted to see who else was out there: women I would meet in bars, at parties, in any number of rooms throughout the blinking city. I finally saw the previous year for what it was. Lyla had saved my stupid little life. And in return, I had cast her aside like a spent booster rocket, like so much used-up love.
The murmurs from the crowd grow louder. I stare into that tide of nameless faces, some filled with pity, others with annoyance or indifference. I see Tommy and Mariana, their shoulders touching, the loose bind of their fingers as they watch me. I see Beverly’s tired smile. I look down at the floorboards and see so many things: the drive home from Brady’s, the car accelerating into the sharp curve where North River Road hooks out over the water, my father forever asleep on the couch. I close my eyes and lift the guitar from my shoulders. And when I turn to set the guitar down, Tommy is standing there, holding out the sunburst jazz bass for me to take. The C of his hand clutches it just below the headstock, like that of a man about to grab another man by the throat.
It was well after midnight when I pulled into the empty lot off Route 91 and began to walk towards the falls. A yellow-orange light bloomed on a wooden pole at the mouth of the trail, and as I passed beneath it, I saw my breath feather out and disappear, the vapor drifting up to the canopy of branches that had materialized out of the black. To my left, the ground swelled. High above, a few expensive houses dotted the ridge, their back porches woven with Christmas lights. The lights made me think of spaceships that had come crashing down from another world, images like those I sketched in the margins of notebooks as a kid. It seemed impossible that almost fifteen years had passed since Tommy and Joel and I used to race each other on this bike trail, heading to downtown Kent to buy comic books, only just beginning to dream of girls and adulthood and escape. To my right, the ground dropped off, and I could hear the low static of the falls as they churned through the night. The only other noise came from my footsteps, thudding softly on the paved path like fingers tapping on a microphone.
I took the dirt trail that split off to the right, ducking under a few low branches, guided by another security light that lit the falls from high on the opposite bank. Thick stone slabs two feet in diameter stood at the edge of the overlook like giant gray ice cubes. The ground was littered with cigarette butts. I had half-expected to come upon some kids smoking or some couple making out, but there was no one.
I stood up on the stones and looked down at the rushing falls. The green-black water launched off the edge in smooth arcs, dropping approximately fifty feet before breaking into foam on the jagged rocks below. Beyond the rocks a cluster of driftwood was jammed together, and after that the Cuyahoga started to smooth itself out again, whispering past the Sonoco paper mill and flowing south towards the Akron gorge. I kneeled, stood, then kneeled again.
Lyla. That night. God, that night.
After we had played, Tommy and Mariana and I went out to Mariana’s car and finished the last of the whiskey. Then we split a joint and watched the crowd outside the Horizon grow smaller and smaller. By the time the neon sign winked out, I was pretty stoned, and when Beverly appeared at the door a few minutes later, working the key in the lock for what seemed like an hour, I had the sense that she was coming instead of going, trying to get into the place for the first time instead of leaving it for the last time. If she could just find the right key, I thought, the door would swing open and the next however many decades of her life would be laid out before her, there under the high ceiling of that tremendous old house.
I jumped. I lived.
There are nights when I still wonder why both of these things happened. To attempt an answer is to claw my way back through these memories, through years and shame and the never-ending fog of a hospital room, reaching for all the long-gone melodies of that time, the music that never sounds or feels quite the same, even when I listen to it on headphones.
Tommy’s voice. I hear him singing above the rush of the falls. Singing the song that he and I had played to close down the Horizon forever, the very last song we had written as a band, the one we all said was going to make us famous when we recorded it. I remember taking the bass from his outstretched hand. I remember being surprised at how easily I recalled the opening riff, the verse, the chorus, all of it, the same as Tommy had. I remember the weight of the bass, the thickness of the strings, my fingers running across them, and the sensation that I was both creating the song’s undercurrent and yet skimming along on its surface at the same time. Still, even after all these years, it’s never become clear to me: whether I was the one holding Tommy up, or if he was guiding me, and I was following the rise and fall of his voice as he sang smoke a thousand cigarettes in your name, the melody like a tired bird spiraling over a great body of water, straining to stay aloft.
Jason Basa Nemec’s writing has appeared in carte blanche, Fatherly, Gulf Coast, Kenyon Review Online, Meridian, Slice, and various other magazines. He lives with his wife and daughter in Hong Kong, where he spends most of his time parenting, cooking, teaching, and making cocktails (not necessarily in that order). You can follow him on Instagram at @horizondrinker.