Time Fades Away
BLACK AND WHITE AND READ ALL OVER
A novel-in-progress by Mike Edwards
(See Chapter 1 also)
The City Paper stack lay below the front counter, bent and contorted like a fallen skydiver. Billy had pushed it off the front counter without so much as a "Geronimo!" moments after unlocking the front door. That's one thing that could not be said about Billy Blank, is that he wasn't on time. At ten AM every morning, come snow, come wind, come gales of whiskey, the doors to Blank Records opened, but it was a brave soul who actually entered before noon. Billy thought of it as his time, time to pay bills (when he felt like it), time to catalog shipments of CD's, time to hold his head and consider a quick, clean suicide, like he was this morning.
When Kenny walked in, he did so with his head down and his eyes averted. He set a large cup of 7-11 coffee in front of Billy and slunk away to the CD bins. Billy wanted to say something, something biting and hurtful, but the lure of the hot, almost certainly black coffee stopped him. Little Beatle freak might just grab his 20 oz. of relief and bolt, and that would be a tragedy. Kenny flipped through the CD's quietly, barely a clack as he cruised through the B's first, then the M's, the L's, the H's and in a dire Beatles emergency, the S's. More than anything else, more than being an Asian adoptee, more than being a male, more even than being a virgin, Kenny was a Beatles freak. Not a fan, a fan knows when Paul's birthday is and that "Hey Jude" was about Julian Lennon. Kenny was a freak. Kenny owned every Linda McCartney record, Kenny had Yoko's entire oeuvre, he had acetates of records that George deemed too awful to release. He owned a record called Ethel Merman sings the Beatles. Kenny had a Sgt. Pepper suit that he'd worn every Halloween since he was 14. It didn't fit him that well anymore.
Billy kept the coffee close to his nose and did his best to block out that clickety clack of Kenny's well worn progression through the letters that corresponded with Beatles' last names. He felt the weight of his expectations like a lead neck brace. He was looking for something new. Like a junkie chasing that long lost buzz, Kenny was looking for new material from a group that broke up when he was still a twitch in his daddy's pants. Two dead members, only one of whom was doing anything but spending money. The boy always smelled of aging vinyl, a moldy, harsh smell that Billy knew as well as the smell of his own sweat, but one the he longed to scrub off. When he wasn't drinking the coffee he was breathing it deeply.
He'd hidden a prize for Kenny in the CD's and he watched him over the rim of his coffee and waited to see his reaction. You can't very well say to a guy, I have a CD by the King of the Pan Flute doing Abbey Road in its entirety and I want $40 for it. You can't do it with a straight face, anyway. So, Billy liked to scatter these things into the regular collection to let Kenny, or perhaps his arch nemesis Phil find it. No matter how egregious the material might be, if even the most tenuous connection to the sainted Beatles could be made, one of these nitwits, or sometimes even a total stranger, would buy it. It kept Billy in business and at the very least entertained.
A stack of bills waited, unopened and desperate for Billy's attention sat on the counter in front of him. He'd written the deposit from the previous day's take and it was an unhelpful $96. He'd been open for 11 hours, sold 15 CD's, took another 20 in trade. That put him at about $8.50 an hour. And it wasn't even a bad day. Deanna, his former employee and his most recent bed mate had decided that she deserved a golden parachute for time served when he fired her, so she'd stolen another 30 or so CD's, which was all she could carry, and left her unable to flip him off as she left, so she shouted "fuck you, loser!" as CD's feel from her pile and left a trail of glittering plastic in her wake. He'd hoped the fucking might continue, but when it came to sex he'd always been an optimist. The last glimpse at her round young ass had zapped him with regret.
The bill on the top was in a blue envelope, a new color for the people demanding his cash, and always a bad sign. Billy nudged it with his finger so he could read it better, but he knew the source and was well versed in their demands. The I.R.S.. The mother of all motherfuckers, the brawny bastards of bullying, King Kong, Godzilla and George W. Bush all rolled into one. He hadn't read one of their letters in months. It seemed pointless. Billy had debts no honest man could pay, and Billy wasn't even honest. Billy was at ground zero on 9/11 and the planes were moments away. Billy's arrogance failed him in the face of the blue letter.
The phone rang, a clacking, dull, Andy of Mayberry ring that Billy usually preferred, but in his current state it sounded like an invitation to get a free spinal tap.
He put the receiver to his ear but didn't offer a greeting.
"Billy Blank?" came a business like voice that swam in the static of the old phone. The dude didn't have the cheery familiarity of a high school drop out telemarketer, but Billy remained skeptical. This was a voice with an agenda, a slightly mocking voice that could only mean he felt he had the advantage from the get go.
"Billy, it's Brian Hiatt from Rolling Stone, do you have a minute for me?"
College educated, smart, drives a Beemer and eats at fancy restaurants, Billy surmised. He hung up and stared at the phone. Times must be hard when a guy like that is trolling for subscriptions.
He'd barely hung up when it rang again, and just to stop its mechanical clank, he picked it up, held it unsure of what to do for a moment, and hung it up. Rolling Stone. For God's sake, who reads that left wing, classic Rock ass licking rag in the 21st century? Hell, with Hunter S. Thompson dead, any chance of relevance had been buried with him. The last cover he'd seen showed the white trash lolita Britney Spears showing her big utters on the cover with the question "Her best album yet?" emblazoned on her belly. You can't trust people like that.
Billy couldn't take the grating noise of Kenny's stoic progression so he looked through stacks of CD's waiting to be filed into the bins. He frowned at the sight of them, with the former Deanna on the lam, this was his job again. He spotted Neil Young's Rust Never Sleeps and plucked it out of the leaning pile and put in into the CD player. The previous night's kicking was long forgotten now, so it was with great surprise that he saw that when the drawer closed it no longer lined up correctly or closed with a crisp snap. The machinery made a grinding sound inside the player and he could hear the CD raggedly spinning and scraping and then the drawer opened again and offered to let him try another. He sighed and ground his teeth.
Behind the counter the wall was filled with over priced vinyl, out of print "classics" that 99 per cent of right thinking Americans wouldn't even recognize. Billy thought of this wall as a sucker trap, you put the musty old vinyl on the wall, put a ridiculous price on it, and you let interest grow like the fungus that inhabited most of the grooves. Neil Young's Time Fades Away sat among the rest, a whopping $60 price sticker on it, with a hand written index card tapped to the plastic bag that encased it explaining why it was worth it. It wasn't, that was undeniable, it was a shambling, poorly executed, and drunken wreck of a record that was in cut-out bins for a decade and beloved by only the most ardent of record nerds. It had been at least 20 years since Billy had heard it, in the moment when he plucked it off the wall he couldn't remember even a note of it, so it was with cautious enthusiasm that he carefully slid it out of the plastic sleeve and balanced the center hole on his middle finger and inspected the condition of the vinyl. It looked clean, unplayed perhaps, or more likely listened to once and put away with the intention of further study later. Billy had hundreds of records that he'd intended to study further at some future date, but it was doubtful he'd live long enough to even get to a fraction of them. This particular record had sat in the graveyard of the basement, the place where old records went to die, until one day recently when he needed to fill a hole on the wall. It had been the cause of much conversation since he'd put it out, but not much else. He remembered having taken it in trade some time in the 80's. Probably given $1 for it.
He laid it on the turntable delicately, these records demanded care and more over love, to actually have any lasting value. CD's were tough and bland and utterly worthless. There was no such thing as a collectable CD as far as he knew. Digital changed all that. Music was cloned now, as organic as a plastic cup. Just product.
He smiled as he lowered the needle and he stood back and watched it slowly drop to the vinyl like a glider coming to the tarmac.
Kenny grabbed his ears when the awful scraping commenced and Billy snatched the needle from the groove, but the damage was already done. He held the record arm up so he could look at it and he could see that the previously sharp needle now looked like a broken tooth. He remembered the lid of the turntable yawning open and snapping shut after he kicked the CD player and he gave his teeth another good grind. The record had a gauge that went across the beginning of the first tune now. A deep, groove flattening tear that revealed the black plastic core of the record. Scarred for life, beyond repair. Billy took it off the turntable, walked to the front door, holding the record as if it were a frisbee, and flung it out and across Pine St. It flew a straight and true path across the parking lot that adjoined the electronics store, nearly decapitated a woman getting out of her car and smashed into the brick rear wall that she had parked against. She looked hurt, a pained "why me?" expression on her face, but as Billy tried to duck back into the store, she yelled "Hey!" as Billy locked the front door and peaked out. She was definitely coming this way.
The phone rang and even though Billy was busy trying to think of a quick and useful lie, he answered it.
"Billy! It's Mike Johnson, did you see the City Paper article?"
"Mike Johnson, did you see the City Paper?"
Billy could barely hear him for the banging and screeching coming from outside the front door.
Billy snapped his fingers at a stunned looking Kenny and yelped "Go tell her you're the owner, hurry!"
Kenny just shook his head 'no' and slunk back further into the bins.
"Mike, I gotta go, I've got a lunatic at the door who think I threw a record at her."
"Uuhh, technically, but not really. There was no malice, just bad aim."
"Man, I wish I'd gotten to put that in the article, that sounds like gold."
"What are you yammering about, you can hear I've got a crisis going on."
"Do you have the City Paper yet? Just read it and call me back, and if that guy from Rolling Stone calls back, don't hang up on him, we both might be able to get a gig out of him."
Billy shook his head and stared at the receiver and hung up. Guy must be on crack.
The yelling continued out front, but her hands must have become fatigued, because the banging ceased. For a nice looking lady, she said "cocksucker" a lot, and "wait till my husband gets a hold of you" even more. He peaked through the window by the front counter and saw her walking backwards across the street and hurling insults as she went. Her voice got more distant and finally he heard the slam of a car door and the screech of tires. He looked out and saw she'd left the remnants of the shattered vinyl where the lay and he snuck out and picked up the evidence. A stunned mail carrier stood on the sidewalk and watched him cross the road back to the store.
"Damn, Billy, you do cause quite a response in the ladies." He said as he handed him his mail.
"She's got her period, she's usually pretty nice."
Billy remembered the manic call he taken and went to the City Paper stack, flipped them over and wrestled the top copy free of the binding.
There was a picture of him there, probably in his early twenties, longish hair, poorly cut and pushed behind his ears. He was wearing a "Pylon" t-shirt and ratty jeans that still sat in a drawer in the hovel he called his bedroom. The members of The Elementary Desks stood around him and he appeared to be lecturing them. Goddamn, he thought, where did that young guy go.
"What ever happened to the King of Punk Rock?" the headline blared. He stared at it, he breathing stopped for a moment, his heart felt still and a chill started at his ears and spread across his neck and into his chest. Kenny was standing beside him now, looking over his shoulder.
"You don't look so good, you alright?"
Billy breathed, a big cleansing gulp and he felt his color return.
"The King of Punk Rock?" Kenny said, hoping to bond for a moment with Billy. "Who cares?
Billy handed him the paper, grabbed another copy and went behind the front counter to study it.
"It's me, stupid," he said.
"What?" Kenny looked at it more closely. "Is that you? Wow. Why are you the king of punk?"
"Fuck if I know. Read it and find out."
"Yeah, OK. Is that crazy lady gone?"
Billy ignored him and tried to look deeper into the pixelated black and white cover photo. Tried to remember when that might have been.
Kenny laid two wrinkled twenties on the counter.
"I'm buying that Pan Flute record" he said as he walked away.
That guy on the cover of that paper looked so authorative, so sure of himself, with a half smile and the stance of a drill Sergeant. Billy sunk down deep into his memory. Is that really me?
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