My Summer in the Gutter

by Jordan Martich

This is dedicated to the friends and family who have seen me through the dark spaces. I can never repay you.


n June 2011, my summer courses at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., were almost complete. I was 21 and had a weekend free of homework, so I went to see my friends in Broad Ripple, a youth-filled suburb just north of Indianapolis. The metal band that I had been playing guitar in for more than a year, Nautilus, lived in a house close to the Broad Ripple bars. After picking up my girlfriend of one year, Jen, we went to the house to see what we could make of a Thursday night. I wanted to see my friend’s band play at a venue in downtown Indianapolis. Everyone else wanted to go to the bars on the Broad Ripple strip, where awful people could dance to awful music and drink cheap beer. Jen stayed with the rest of the band, and I drove to the show, knowing I could meet up with them later on. As I drove, I thought about how alone I was, even with a girlfriend. I was the only one in my group of friends or the band who was interested in supporting other musicians. The others wanted to drink and explore the same alcoholic boundaries we had been pushing for years. At the bar, the bands that played were fantastic. I had played with my other band, Fangface, on the same small stage before. The room was tiny and crowded. I closed my eyes and let the music soak into my body. The sounds were original and impressive. I made as many friends as I could at the show, but I still felt like an outsider without my friends or the band there. I wondered how seriously we could be taken as musicians if they never went to support the other bands in Indianapolis. After the final band played, I said goodbye and drove back to Broad Ripple, parked in a space by the White River, and walked to the bar. I found my friends at the back of the bar standing quietly in the crowd and

sipping $1 beers from plastic cups. The bar was dim, and lights from the dance floor lit our faces in the surrounding crowd. A strobe blanketed those dancing in quick bursts of bright white light. I felt like I would get a headache if I kept my eyes open for much longer. I leaned in between Ricardo, the other guitarist in Nautilus, and Ryan, the bassist. “Where’s Jen?” I asked. Their eyes went to the dance floor. I saw her bent over in front of Eric, the singer for Nautilus. She and Eric had dated a couple of years ago. They fought a lot during the relationship, and eventually both had moved on. Now that Eric was in the band and Jen was with me, they had been seeing each other more often. I watched her grind against him on the dance floor and felt a surge of frustration. I ordered a drink and stood with my back to the dancing. I tried to distract myself in the back-and-forth shouts that passed over the music. After the song, Jen stumbled toward me and said hello. “How was the show?” she asked. “It was fine,” I said. “Are you all right?” “I’m going to buy everybody another shot. Want one?” she pulled her mother’s credit card out of her wallet. “No thanks. Are you sure you want to spend that much money?” “I don’t care. I’ll deal with it when the bill comes.” She turned away. I wanted to ask her about Eric without sounding jealous or aggressive. If it was truly just another friendship coming back to life, that was fine, but I was worried that she was developing feelings for him again. I reached for her shoulder to stop her. She felt my hand, jerked away from me, turned, and glared with disgust. That look made my heart stop. In that single manifestation of frustration, I’d become that type of guy that I never wanted to be. I was jealous, aggressive, and belligerently trying to express my feelings in the wrong time and the wrong place. I spent the rest of the night chain-smoking in the corner, away from the group. I ignored Eric, afraid I might do something I’d regret. We left and drove to her mother’s house in Carmel, another suburb farther north of Indianapolis and our hometown, to spend the night. Jen didn’t say a word; neither did I. Our relationship was already strained by distance and the inadequate amount of time I could spend with her, and now I had to think of a way to apologize for what I’d done in the bar. The next day, I woke up early and read in her living room. I thought

about everything that made the two of us different and wondered how we got along at all. She didn’t like to read, didn’t play an instrument, didn’t write or paint. I’d known her for more than six years and cared deeply about her, but the things that I was passionate about weren’t important to her at all. Jen awoke with a hangover. She smoked outside in the rain and then joined me on the couch. We sat and watched reality television together without saying a word. The rain outside had turned a bright summer day into gloom. I knew something had happened, but I didn’t know what came next. “I’m sorry that I was so weird last night,” I said. “I was being weird too,” she said. Jen broke down. Tears glossed her eyes over as she listed the reasons that she needed to be on her own. “I’m young. We’re young, you know?” She curled into a ball on the couch, pulling her knees tight to her chest. “I’m not in the right mindset for a relationship. I just don’t want to drag you down with me.” It was clear that she wanted to end things. She tried to convince me that it wasn’t about another guy, specifically Eric, and I wanted to believe her. I became desperate, trying to persuade her to give me another chance. I began hating myself for every flaw that I imagined she saw in me. “So are we breaking up?” I said. “I guess so.” I stood up and walked to the front door, but she stopped me from opening it. Mascara bled down her cheeks and stained my white T-shirt in fuzzy, dark blotches. “I just don’t want to hurt you, Jordan,” she said. “You won’t,” I said. I drove to the liquor store and bought a bottle of Evan Williams. Jen’s identity crisis paralleled my own. I was going to start my final year of college in the fall as a magazine journalism major. I had changed my major three times since I started college and still had no idea what my plans were. More than anything, I wanted to play music for a living, but because of school, I didn’t have time to devote to bands the way that my peers did. As friends started booking tours and getting attention from record labels, I felt insecure about my own abilities. If I was going to do what I love for a living -- play music -- I would need to make drastic sacrifices like they had. Without a girlfriend to keep me occupied, I felt like I was wasting

time academically. I wanted to drop out of school. The only place I could think to go was Broad Ripple. I went straight to the band’s house and drank the whiskey with Ricardo, one of my closest friends for years. He tried to cheer me up. “Dude, you’ve got the rest of the summer to do something new,” he said. “I know,” but I didn’t seem to know anything anymore. Ricardo didn’t know else what to say. He slapped me on the back and held out the bottle of whiskey. * * *

Jen spent a lot of time with the band and our friends in Broad Ripple. Each weekday meant a different bar with a different drink special. Stuck in Muncie for summer classes, I imagined my ex-girlfriend grinding with guys on the dance floor nightly. I drank myself into oblivion. I quit sleeping. One week later, summer school ended. I had to leave Muncie for fear of boredom and loneliness. I went to band practice in Broad Ripple on Friday, after the final day of classes. “What would you guys think about me spending the rest of the summer here?” I asked Ricardo and Ryan. We were taking a break from band practice outside. “Yeah, I don’t care,” Ricardo said. “Where are you going to sleep? The floor?” “I guess so,” I said. “It doesn’t bother me.” Later that night, Ricardo and I went to the store for groceries. We walked around, and he picked up things from the shelves as he saw them. In the home-furnishings section, Ricardo stopped to sit on a futon. “What do you think?” he asked. “About what?” I asked. “I’m gonna buy this thing. It’s really soft, and that way you won’t have to sleep on the floor.” “Dude, you don’t need to do that. I’m seriously fine on the floor.” “No, we need one anyway.” He lifted a box and hoisted it onto his right shoulder. Ricardo paid for everything, and we went back to his house to set up the futon. We put the frame together on our knees, helping each other assemble the larger pieces.

“Thank you,” I said. “I wish I had money to help on this thing.” “Don’t worry about it,” he said. We finished and walked down the street to the bar. I bought Ricardo a drink to thank him. That first night on the futon, I felt like I belonged somewhere. Even though things were falling apart around me, I had friends who would help keep me together. Self-destruction was all I could accomplish for the next month and a half. I had enough money saved to last me until late August, and I planned to use it on nothing but cheap booze and cigarettes. The idea was to purge whatever weakness had made me react to the breakup so sensitively. I used alcohol to push myself into and through the pain, hoping that my landing on the other side meant safety and sanity. * * *

On the Fourth of July, Ricardo and I went to a party at a friend’s house. I started drinking whiskey as soon as we got there because I knew Jen, Eric, and the rest of the band were on their way. Ricardo and I sat by the pool. “So you’re doing okay then?” Ricardo asked. He had been worried about me lately. I’d been heavily drinking for a few weeks, rarely stopping for sleep. “I don’t know,” I said. “Things are going to be fucked up for a while, you know?” “Well, I got your back. This is pretty shitty.” “I guess. It’s like, what was the point of the past year if Jen and I weren’t going to work out? What have I been doing in school when I could have been playing guitar with you dudes?” “You’re almost done, though. You’re going to have a degree.” “Yeah, but is that going to make me happy?” I opened a bottle of beer with my lighter and threw the bottle cap into the pool. Ricardo nodded and sat back in his chair. “Is this making you happy? We drink a lot, and that’s fine, but ... I don’t know.” I pointed with my opposite hand to the beer I was holding. “This makes it harder to realize just how unhappy I am.” We left the conversation at that. People started to show up, and the party was soon in full swing. I finished the bottle of whiskey and started on a six-pack of beer. Jen and Eric arrived together, and I ignored them as best as I could. Eric had brought a gallon of grain alcohol mixed with blue

Kool-Aid, which he sat on the counter in the kitchen. Already drunken, I decided that drinking as much of it as I could was a great way to passiveaggressively deal with the tension between us. While Eric was turned around, I began pouring shots of the mixture and taking them. “Oh, dude, do you wanna do some shots?” Eric asked. “Yeah, man. I’ll pour you a few,” I said. We took more than I can remember. Things started to get blurry. I went outside to smoke a cigarette and stand by the pool. Someone put music on, and I wanted to dance. I threw down my glass and stomped around on the broken shards barefoot. Friends pulled me off the mess that I had created, sat me in a chair, and checked my feet for substantial injuries. I didn’t care. Later on, I dared anyone who would listen to shoot fireworks at me in the yard. I woke up the next morning and tried to stand, clutching my swelling head. Sharp pains shot up from the bottom of my feet, and I remembered something about dancing from the night before. My legs were covered in shallow bruises, and the cuts on my feet began to bleed. I found socks. Ricardo came downstairs to explain what had happened. My headache was tortured with thoughts about the breakup and my idiotic behavior the night before. I felt like I had been used by Jen or was just filling in for Eric while they took a break. I wondered why I hadn’t seen the breakup coming sooner or, darker still, why I had ever believed that my relationship with her would last. * * *

My Ball State roommates and I were moving to a new house in Muncie at the beginning of August. I drove to Muncie the afternoon before to pack up my old apartment and move everything. I packed my things quickly, throwing clothes into a garbage bag and fragile items into boxes. I threw out all the papers, assignments, and worksheets that I had completed in classes the previous semester. “You don’t look so great,” my roommate Justin said as we packed up the kitchen. “I know,” I said. “I haven’t been sleeping.” “What have you been doing? I’ve been so bored up here.” “Sorry, man. Just playing guitar and going to the bars.” “Have you been writing?”

“Not really. I can’t make myself start.” Justin and I had lived together for three years. He was majoring in creative writing at Ball State. We traded our work back and forth, trusting each other’s opinion more than any class workshop. He was quiet and reserved, enjoying solitude while I thrived on the chaos. We knew each other in high school but didn’t become close until college when we shared a dorm room and then an apartment bedroom. Justin was consistently rational and had helped me to remember my self-worth when I felt down. “Still stuck on Jen?” he asked. “I don’t know,” I said. “Her and Eric have a thing. It’s weird.” “Seriously? That’s so shitty.” “Yeah. Well, everyone says that they’re just hanging out, but they’re always together.” I didn’t tell Justin that they had been coming to the band’s house in Broad Ripple more often. I didn’t tell him that when they came over I ignored them and played guitar in the basement alone. Ricardo would call down the stairs for me to come with everyone to the bar, and I would sit at the other end of the table. Jen and Eric would leave together. My friends would assure me that nothing was going on, but we all knew. Justin and I went back to packing. We moved some boxes and the smaller furniture into the new house. Drenched in sweat, we drove to a restaurant for margaritas. All of us were entering our fourth year of college, and we shared our confusion about the future. Outside at a table, the night air cooled us. “I just don’t think that I want to do anything that I’ve learned in college,” I said. “Even writing?” Justin asked. “No, I’ll keep writing. I don’t like doing journalism though. I can do it, but it doesn’t make me happy. There’s too much bullshit involved.” “Everything is full of bullshit, though. What can you do that makes you happy?” “Exactly. Except that, with music, I enjoy the bullshit. Getting fucked over by the venue owner, gear breaking, being poor, dealing with people’s egos -- it’s all stuff that I like to do, like in a sadistic way.” I sucked down the rest of my margarita and poured another. “You mean masochistic,” Justin said. “Right. Even writing has bullshit that I like to deal with. I just want to be happy with myself and what I’m doing.”

“Everyone wants that. It doesn’t always happen.” * * *

Nautilus played at The Emerson Theater in downtown Indianapolis early in August. This venue used to be one of the biggest and most popular when I was in middle school and high school. I drove down from Muncie early in the afternoon to load our equipment into the cars. My younger brother, Andy, met us at the house in Broad Ripple so he could ride with me to the show. He was 18, soon to turn 19, and was as invested in music as I was. His band from high school had fizzled out, but he was adamant about starting another. He had come to watch us play because he envied us. I parked around the corner in front of an abandoned house. We got out of the car, and I threw the keys to my brother. “Take care of these while I’m gone,” I said. “The beer’s in the trunk, and everyone can have one. Just don’t be stupid.” I gave my friends a stern look to tell them that they were in charge of Andy and that I would blame each of them if he somehow got into trouble. I wasn’t excited to play the show. A few days before, my friend Brett told me his band was kicking out its bassist. He played in a group called Stone Throats. Each member was more talented than we were. The record they had finished was already getting attention from record labels and bands around the country. We sat outside watching people walk by. “You should totally play bass for us,” Brett said. He jumped up and put his hand on my chest. “I wish. Are you serious?” I said. “Sort of. You can probably keep up.” “Maybe.” “No, really. You could do it, man.” “I don’t have any bass gear.” Brett thought about this for a second, “Sell your stuff,” he said. “Or I’ll buy you some.” “I can’t make you do that,” I said. “Plus, I’ve got a full year of school left.” “Fuck school.” “Exactly.” Before Nautilus played at The Emerson, I sat on the side of the stage and sipped whiskey from a water bottle, handing it to Eric once in a while.

We joked around. I wanted to let him know that whatever was happening between him and Jen, I was trying to move past it. Aaron, the drummer, walked over to us looking disappointed. “We have to sound check in 10 minutes,” Aaron said. “Did he say that we’d get paid?” I asked. “Not this time,” Aaron said. He picked up the cases that housed his drums and loaded them on the stage. We moved our gear quickly and efficiently. It was something that we’d practiced by playing shows before. The guy who ran the sound and set up the microphones seemed surprised by how easily we set ourselves up. But the sound check was painful. The guy running the mixer had no idea what he was doing. He took 25 minutes to figure out how the drums should sound and just as long to balance out the volume of the guitars. When we were finally done, the older band began loading its gear in behind us. The other band’s members could tell we were frustrated with the venue already. “We don’t play here very often because of these guys,” the guitarist told me. “It’s just not the place it used to be.” The engineer had done an awful job at mixing everything together for our set. Chaos blared at each of us, and we struggled to keep in time with one another. We botched our first song. I stepped up to the microphone to ask for more of the drums and more of Ricardo’s guitar in my monitor. Aaron complained that he could hear only himself and the vocals. The sound guy said he fixed the problems, and we got ready to play the next song. Things didn’t improve, and we each made serious mistakes. I was embarrassed. After Song 5, I tore my gear down as fast as I could. The rest of the band was pleased, but I knew I hadn’t performed as well as I wanted. The entire night felt like a waste of time. I thought that we were ready for this, but we hadn’t developed to that point. I thought about every night I had spent drinking and not practicing. I felt like the performance we gave was my responsibility. School took up most of my time. If the band suffered, I naturally blamed myself. If music was something I would pursue for the rest of my life, I would have to improve and find a band willing to do the same. We walked to the bar near the band’s house when we got back to Broad Ripple. I drank in silence and listened to the guys tell our friends about the show. I felt disgusted for being a part of the group and knew I would have

to make significant changes in my plans for the future. I wondered how possible it would be to play bass in Stone Throats. They were in the middle of booking a long tour, and it seemed like exactly what I needed -- to get out of the Midwest and play music, for a few weeks, or even forever. * * *

Early the next morning, my mother called. I was hung over, but the pain had become familiar. I still felt the swarm of bees angrily stinging my head from the inside. I still felt my stomach melt and churn. I still felt the terrible aches wrap and squeeze like chains around my limbs. Lately, though, I hadn’t been able to sleep past 9 a.m., even after going to sleep at 5. The amount of alcohol that it took to get me to bed kept growing while the amount of rest I was getting shrank. “Hello?” I said. “Jord. Where are you?” my mother said. “Broad Ripple. Sleeping. Why?” “Well, I’m sorry. I have to tell you something. It’s about your cousin Steve, on your dad’s side. Mike and Cathy’s son. Remember him?” “Maybe. I don’t know.” I stacked loose change from my pockets on the table. “You haven’t seen him in a while, I don’t think. Well, you know they have three kids and live just outside of Chicago? Remember, I gave you his number when you went up there to see your friends?” “Sure.” I pulled two crumpled bills and some coins out of my jeans and threw them on the couch, counting the change. “His wife’s name is Amy. Was Amy. She died. I don’t know all of the details yet, but something about she drowned.” “Wow. That’s terrible.” I stopped counting, unsure of what to say. I looked out the window at the traffic. “The funeral is in Elmhurst in two days, and we’re driving up. I know that we don’t see your father’s family very often, but I want you to come.” “Yeah. Yeah. I’ll be back tomorrow. That’s just awful.” I had a little more than $3. “It is. It really is, sweetie. You know that we have to leave early-early, so no going out to the bars and drinking. Okay?” “I know. That’s fine. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

My dad’s family was not very close. Steve is the son of my uncle Mike, my dad’s older brother. He lived in a suburb of Chicago. He and Amy were in their 40s, raising three children ages 10 and younger. I hadn’t seen him or his brothers in a decade. It seemed as if we had nothing in common, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how tragic Amy’s death was. I spent the rest of that day pensively. I thought about my own problems and how they had taken such a firm hold on me. They were so small in contrast to this. I had become so self-destructive over details, which would fade away in time. The next day, I went to my parent’s house. I checked my bank account and used most of what was left to buy a bus ticket from Chicago to Indianapolis in three days so that I could stay with my friend Hayden after the funeral. We lived in the same neighborhood in high school and hung out a lot during our years there. Since then, I had gone up to Chicago to see him every once in a while during college. I dated his roommate Christina briefly during my sophomore year, but the distance wasn’t worth the relationship for either of us. Instead, Christina and I developed a strong friendship. Once I began dating Jen, the visits to Chicago became less frequent. I wanted to change that. I let Hayden know we were on our way, and he told me that he was excited to see me again. The drive to Chicago with my family was quiet. My brother listened to music in his headphones while I read a book. My mother asked me questions about the classes that I would be taking soon. “So do you know what you’re going to be doing yet?” she asked. “Yes. Mostly journalism classes, but I have a couple of creative writing ones.” I slipped a bookmark in the book to keep my place. “Good. We need to think about applying for internships for next summer.” “I know.” “Well, have you thought about it?” “No, not really.” “We’re going to talk about it when you get back tonight then. You’re not going to Broad Ripple right away, are you?” She turned around in the passenger seat. “I’m staying with Hayden for a few days,” I said. My mother stared at me in disbelief. “Why didn’t you tell me?” “Because I didn’t want you to worry.” “Did you even bring clothes or anything?”

I pulled my backpack from between my legs. “I have everything that I need.” “I know that you’ve been out of it the past few months, but you need to buckle down soon,” she said. Once we were through Chicago, everything thinned out into suburbs and forest. Elmhurst was a small town to the west. We approached a gated community. The houses were neat and identical, and the lawns were a perfect shade of green. We found the church in the middle of the neighborhood. My mother scowled at me for lighting a cigarette as I got out of the car. “Do you have to do that right now?” she asked. My aunt and a few cousins stood by the parking lot near a small playground. They greeted us, and we caught up with them before going inside. We formed a line in the viewing room. Steve was receiving people at the other end. Pictures of Amy and the family were pinned to a bulletin board that stood just inside the doorway. I had never seen any pictures of Steve’s children or his family. The three children in the pictures were smiling wide with their parents. Near the back of the room, a group of adults had surrounded the kids and were trying to make them smile now. Their faces stayed solemn. Steve was devastated. His eyes were red and sunk into his face. His cheeks were wet with tears, and he occasionally pulled tissues out of his jacket pocket to wipe them away. Behind him stood his parents and Amy’s. My mother began crying at the sight of Steve. She hugged him and held his forearms as she spoke. “Oh, sweetie. I am so sorry. Oh, honey, you’ll get through this,” she said. Steve searched but could not find a response. He looked at Andy and me then back to my mother. “These are your cousins, Jordan and Andy,” she tugged at his sleeves and pointed at us. Steve was shocked. “You haven’t seen them since they were tiny, but Jord is 21 and Andy is going to be 19 in a week.” My mom put her hands on our shoulders to make the designations. “Wow, this is just amazing,” Steve said. He looked us up and down, holding his hand out for a handshake. I

took his hand and leaned forward into a hug. I pat him on the back a few times and stepped back. Steve hugged my brother and then my dad. “So are you both in school?” Steve asked. “Ball State for journalism,” I said. “Ivy Tech, but I’m transferring to Ball State soon,” Andy said. Steve nodded. We hugged my aunt and uncle and shook hands with Amy’s parents. Around the viewing room were more poster boards with pictures of Amy. Every picture was of her smiling, laughing, or making someone else do both. I could see Amy’s body in a coffin in the back of the room, but I avoided walking near it. I stayed near the front of the room with the pictures. We were asked to take seats in a large room adjacent to the viewing room. There were two sections of seats packed close together with a narrow gap between them for those walking to the front. Men stood against the doorway at the back of the room, with more standing behind them in the viewing area. As the room filled, the chatter and noise increased to a roar. A reverend took his place behind the podium in front of the altar, and the entire room hushed. He welcomed us and began talking about Amy’s life, her family and friends, her work, and her spiritual life with the church. I learned that she was generous, compassionate, and kind. Amy’s boss, a slender man in an expensive suit, spoke at length about her. I hadn’t realized that she was an international head at the company she worked for. She traveled around the country and the globe on business and was like family to her co-workers. Her boss told stories about Amy’s sense of humor at the office, her loving family life, and the amazing accomplishments she made through her work. The company would pay for a new house for Steve and the kids and college tuition for each of the children. They were covering the funeral costs and had set up a fund in Amy’s name to help the family while Steve was finding a job. Amy had been the breadwinner in the family while Steve enjoyed his time as a stayat-home dad. Throughout the eulogy, I felt my own problems slip away. I was beginning to realize that a change was necessary and possible. Nothing as tragic as this had happened to me. To give up on myself because of a few shallow issues and a girl was ridiculous. The service pushed me into a mature clarity. The reception was enormous. My family, my uncle Pete, his wife MaryKay, my aunt Carolyn, her daughter Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s son Jake

were the first there. The dining room had vaulted ceilings with chandeliers. At least 100 tables were set up, with 10 seats at every table. Six long tables full of food served by caterers lined the walls of the room, and a bar filled the far corner from where we entered. We sat down and marveled at the size and quality of the reception. The company must be paying for all this, we guessed. We were alone at the table for a long time, watching the door for more people to arrive. The staff stood in its positions, ready for what would surely be an enormous crowd. Each of them stared straight ahead, except for the bartender who was reading a book. I decided to test how the familial boundaries had changed since I had turned 21. “Is this an open bar?” I asked. Everyone turned to me with different expressions. My mother was disappointed, my father’s eyes looked upward in thought, and his family looked at me confused. They didn’t know if I was legally allowed to drink. “Only one way to know. If it is, grab me a Coors,” Pete said. I walked to the bar and asked the bartender if it was an open bar. He said that it was and asked to see my driver’s license. He was reading a Gabriel Garcia Marquez book, but I couldn’t tell which one. “Good book,” I said. He nodded and smiled. I ordered a Heineken and a Coors for Pete. “It’s open bar.” I sat down at the table and handed Pete his drink. My mother rolled her eyes. People were now walking through the doors and claiming tables around the room. “He can have a couple of drinks, Vicki. You’re just driving home after this anyway,” Pete said. “No. Jord is actually going to go stay with some friends that he has in Chicago,” my mother said. “Oh yeah? Where at in the city?” Pete said. “Wicker Park area,” I said. “Cool.” Pete nodded and went back to eating. My aunt Carolyn wanted to know what I was doing in school. “Journalism,” I said. “Magazine journalism at Ball State. I mostly write.” She turned and asked Andy the same question. “Acting, I think,” he said. “I’m at Ivy Tech but transferring to Ball State soon.” We sat back and I drank my third beer slowly. Pete wanted to know more about school.

“So what do you want to do as a journalist?” he asked. “Write,” I said. “Well, I’d rather do music. Journalism isn’t really my thing.” “Then why get a degree in it?” Carolyn asked. I stared down at the white cloth on the table and spun my beer bottle around with one hand. “That’s a good question.” “I told him that he should have gone to school for music,” my mother said. “He really is talented.” “I can’t read music, though, and you don’t get a degree to play independent music,” I said. “You just do it.” The discussion ended. We gave our condolences to Steve one last time. I drove us into the city. My mother was too afraid to compete with the dense Chicago freeway traffic, and my father wasn’t about to spoil an already dampened mood with road-rage expletives. * * *

Hayden was at work when I got into his part of the city. The Humboldt Park and Wicker Park neighborhoods were home to most of the friends that I had made on my visits to Chicago. Christina was at a bar around the corner, so I set off to meet with her after saying goodbye to my family. We caught up with each other and talked about school and friends that we knew. We walked to her apartment so I could change out of the dress clothes that I had worn to the funeral. I told her about Amy and Steve and the funeral. We talked about how our summers had been and about how afraid we were to be entering our final year of school. “Are you going to get a job in Indiana?” she asked. “I’m not sure,” I said. “I’d rather move someplace else.” “Like move up here? That would be fun.” “Maybe. I just need to get away from home.” We sat on her couch with their dog, Pig, between us. Pig was falling asleep as we spoke, curling slowly into a ball. The conversation was starting to make me nervous and anxious. I tried to keep my voice calm. “I mean, you’re going to have degree,” Christina said. “I’m sure you could work for a newspaper or whatever.” “I’m a magazine major, though, and I would hate to work at a newspaper,” I said. “It’s not that I can’t do it. It’s just not as fulfilling as I thought it

would be, you know?” “Yeah, but you have to get a job anyway. You should take what you can get.” “That’s the compromise. Your level of happiness is directly opposite your level of obligation to pay rent.” Hayden came home, and we hugged each other. He showed me the tattoos he had gotten since the last time I saw him, and I showed him mine. The three of us went to a bar around the corner, played pool, and drank. I told him about the funeral, my summer and how much our friends in Indianapolis had stayed the same. Hayden knew the friends that I had been surrounding myself with, and he knew why I had been so self-destructive. “You need to get out then, man,” he said. “It’s not healthy to be around all of that.” “I know,” I said. “I want to quit school and travel. Or at least free up time to do everything that I’ve been putting off.” “It’s one more year. Power through it.” I agreed. Christina went home early, and I met some of the friends that Hayden had made since I stopped coming to Chicago. We left the bar, and I slept in an empty room in their apartment on an old mattress. The next day was Hayden’s day off. We started drinking at 4 in the afternoon. Hayden helped me forget about school and the career choices that I was regretting. Every time I fell back into being melodramatic Hayden would pull me back into having fun. The sun went down, and we went to the dive bar down the street. More friends showed up to the bar to see me while I was in town. I caught up with my old friends Seth and Leif over drinks. Seth was working for his dad in the city, and Leif was working at Victory Records, a label that I had followed closely in high school. I had bonded with them over a shared love of music. They were both talented musicians and passionate about turning their talents into a career. Seth apologized for not coming to see me the night before. He had broken his cell phone and wasn’t able to call anybody. We walked to Leif ’s favorite bar and got drinks. It was packed with people at close to 3 a.m. I talked with one of Christina’s friends, Katie. She was being harassed by some aggressive guy and asked if I would walk her home. We headed out without telling anyone where I was going, with Katie leading the way. At her apartment, we watched television in silence

for an hour before she stood up. “Well, I’m going to get to bed,” she said. “Oh, yeah. Right on,” I stood as well and looked through the window at the street below. “You know how to get back, right?” she asked. I was afraid. The walk home would take more than an hour, and it was already after 3 in the morning. Whatever plan I had when I walked this girl home was unclear now. Katie continued to watch old MTV shows while I struggled to push myself back into sobriety. Katie stood and walked to the kitchen. “Do you want another shot before you leave?” she asked. “Probably not. How do I get back to Hayden’s?” I ran my fingers over the spare key that he had given me, as if it would come to life and lead me to the apartment. I went into the kitchen, and she began to describe the route I should take. After each street name that I recognized there would be two that I did not, but I typed the street names and directions in a text message and sent it to myself. Katie poured herself another shot and one for me. Seth walked in the door as we lifted the shots from the counter. He had come back from the bar with one of her roommates. “Can you get us home, buddy?” I said. “My bus leaves in six hours.” “For sure, dude,” Seth said. Katie poured two more shots of rum. We took them and went on our way. Once on the street, I turned left; Seth turned right. “Katie said to head this way,” I said. “Where are you going?” “She doesn’t know where she lives, man,” Seth said. “Trust me. I know where I am.” I had to trust him. Seth had lived in the city for more than two years. We walked through the neighborhood until the houses and apartments that lined the streets became storefronts and parking lots. The trees and bushes in the Wicker Park neighborhoods were gone, replaced by trash and the homeless. A few cigarettes later, I had to stop. “Are you sure you know where you’re going?” I asked. Seth turned to me and pulled on the back of his hair. He took a final drag from his cigarette and threw it into the street. “Not exactly. I think we’re too far north.” He went to light another

cigarette but his lighter wouldn’t produce a flame. He threw it into the street. I handed him mine. We walked south, or at least what we guessed was south. Seth didn’t have his phone and mine didn’t have the GPS technology that could have saved us. I referred to the directions that I had sent myself, but we were too far out. Each street name seemed more absurd and removed from the area that Seth and I were familiar with. We passed groups of people standing outside of bars and houses in circles. They went silent, and we walked past with our eyes straight ahead, our hands fumbling with knives in our pockets. A few times they yelled after us. “What the fuck are you looking at?” or “Keep walking gay-ass bitches!” When they yelled, we would walk faster, but neither of us had the energy to run or fight. Cars with underglow lights and shiny rims slowed down as they drove past us. We changed directions a few times, always on Seth’s cue. We tried to find streets with more lighting -- and more witnesses. We tried hailing a cab, but the cab drivers ignored us, when we saw any cabs at all. My phone died as we approached a bridge. Beneath it and on the opposite side were five homeless people sitting around a trash-can fire. One stood up and embraced the concrete wall, took a hand, and smeared something dark brown in a curve. A few blocks later, we passed under another bridge and spotted a Church’s Chicken. The intersection was Fullerton Avenue and Clybourn Avenue, near the north branch of the Chicago River. Once we reached the corner of the intersection, everything smelled like fried chicken. We were ready to give up. I walked to the bus stop bench on the other side of the street and sat down, prepared to die in front of a fast-food restaurant. “I’m so fucking hungry right now,” Seth said. He walked to the dumpster behind Church’s. “That’s fucking disgusting, dude. Are you serious?” I said. He was. Seth tried to open the lid, but I heard a banging sound and the rusting of chains. “It’s locked. Damn it!” He slammed the padlock into the side of the dumpster and came to sit next to me. We watched the sun rise over the banks of the river and then over the Chicago skyline. “I’m sorry, buddy,” Seth said. “I just can’t miss the bus,” I said.

We sat in silence. Cars pulled by as the light changed. More and more traffic appeared as the sun brought morning into the city. A taxi stopped at the red light, next to the bus stop. I looked up and ran to it. I knocked on the passenger side window. I heard the door unlock and slid inside. Seth got in back and we pulled out. “Division and Damen,” I said. “You’re pretty far out, eh?” the cab driver asked. I laughed and nodded. “Yeah, crazy night.” We paid and got out at the corner. I walked past Hayden’s apartment and straight into a gas station and bought a bag of chips and a jar of salsa. We sat on Hayden’s couch and ate as much as we could. I went to sleep in the back room, and Seth fell asleep on the couch near the front door. I plugged my phone into an outlet. It was 7:30 a.m. * * *

At 9 a.m., my phone rang. It was an alarm to remind me that my bus would be leaving for Indianapolis in an hour. I sat up and slapped myself in the face a few times. Seth was still asleep on the couch with the bag of chips in his lap and his hand in the bag. I got dressed and packed my clothes into my backpack. When I left the back room, Hayden was pouring me a cup of coffee. “When does your bus get in?” he said. “Ten. How long would a cab ride take?” I said. “Fifteen, maybe 20 minutes. You’ll be fine.” Seth woke up and rolled over on the couch. He moaned and rubbed his eyes. “Hayden, I got so lost last night,” Seth said. “Yeah. When did you guys get back here?” Hayden asked. “7:30. Seth is an idiot,” I said. “Fucking dumbass. You live here,” Hayden said. Seth laughed. He sat up on the couch and continued eating chips. I hugged them both and left. Outside, it was sunny, and the city boiled with people. I hailed a cab after a few minutes of walking. “Greyhound Station,” I said from the back of the taxi. I paid the driver and walked to a convenience store near the bus stop. In my pockets I found $2.70. The store was busy, so I squeezed through to the back to find a Gatorade and a bottle of water for the bus ride home.

I stole two granola bars and stood in line to pay. One of the employees approached me from the side, and I felt my stomach turn. “Sir, your bag is open,” she said, pointing to my backpack. I swung it around and saw that the underwear I had worn the day before were hanging out the side, clenched in the zipper’s teeth. “Thanks,” I said. I smiled casually and tucked them inside. A crowd had already gathered by the side of the street where the buses came to drop off and pick up passengers. I smoked and ate until my bus pulled in. Those with larger bags put them into the storage space beneath the bus, while those traveling light lined up by the door. A driver appeared from down the street and shook hands with the driver getting off the bus. He read my ticket, and I took a place near the back by a window. Most of the passengers sat near the front and talked to one another in clusters. Children ran up and down the aisle once we were all seated. The driver put the bus into gear, and we made our way out of the city. I didn’t sleep on the bus. Sleep doesn’t come when there are still things to take care of. I lay back in my chair and stared out the window at clear blue skies. I tried to rest, but sleep eluded me. In my backpack were two spiral-bound notebooks. I took them out along with pens and markers from the smaller pockets. I wrote the previous night’s adventure and fumbled with the meaning. Something practical must have been learned from such a dynamic experience, but the lesson seemed spread out. As I jotted down whatever wisdom I could extract, the next two hours were a blur of scribbled writing. I penned thoughts on death, music, and the forces that shape our universe. The past came out on the page in the moments that I could remember. * * *

The next few weeks were intensely productive. I wrote daily at a coffee shop in the Broad Ripple strip, sitting alone in a corner for most of every afternoon. I saved my money and cut my drinking off at a reasonable point when we went to the bars or would drink water instead. I learned to thrive on chaos because it was all that I had found. Two shows were booked for the weekend before school started up again. Nautilus played on Saturday, and Fangface played Sunday night. I

was excited to be performing with both bands in one weekend. It was the perfect way to get wild before school started again. Stone Throats asked Nautilus to play at their CD release show. They had recorded an amazing album in Nashville and were ready to send it out right in Indianapolis. I was honored. These guys were all far more talented than I was, and they proved it on the rough tracks that I listened to. It was the type of music and the group of people that I wanted to be a part of as a musician. The other groups on the bill were also friends of ours. These bands had more connections than Nautilus and had been playing around Indianapolis more often. Playing the show meant that we had an opportunity to network with the people who ran the underground music scene in the city. The band was already at the show when I pulled up. People stood around outside smoking cigarettes in the heat. The crowd was made up of mostly other bands, but more kids showed up as we loaded our stuff in. I helped unload our gear, and we began setting up on stage to play first. Brett, the Stone Throats’ drummer, helped me lift my amp on to the stage. “Seriously, I’m so glad you guys are here,” he said. “For sure, dude,” I said. “I’m proud of you guys.” He gave me a hug and went to sit behind the T-shirts and CDs that they had for sale. I finished setting up and looked around the venue, a new place that had opened in downtown Indianapolis called The Hoosier Dome. It was a medium-sized storefront in a beat-up strip near Fountain Square. The stage was hand-built. The naked wood grain supported three speakers for the microphone and all of our gear. Aaron, our drummer, finished setting up and laid our CDs and stickers out on a table by the door. I sat next to him. “So you’re doing okay, right?” he asked me. “Yeah, I’m fine,” as I said it, I knew that the answer sounded hollow and that Aaron would want to be sure. “C’mon, really? Eric and Jen, that whole mess. That stuff would piss me off.” “Forgive and forget, I guess.” When I came back from Chicago, that all seemed insignificant. I knew Eric and Jen were going to get back together, and I wanted to be happy for both of them. I just didn’t want to be a part of it anymore. The crowd came inside, and we played our set. The songs were much

tighter and more defined than when we had played at the Emerson. We were all sweating, but the heat drove us to perform even wilder. I threw my guitar up in the air and caught it a few times. We all thrashed around like maniacs and had as much fun as we could. We finished and loaded our gear to the side of the stage for the next band to start setting up. My shirt was completely soaked with sweat. It stuck to me all over. Brett came up to me with one of the Stone Throats shirts. He held out his arms and squeezed me, lifting me off my feet. “Dude, I’m super sweaty,” I said. “I don’t care, man,” he said. “You guys rocked.” He gave me the Stone Throats shirt, and I wore it proudly outside. The band wasn’t around afterward. I smoked a cigarette and talked with some of the other musicians about booking new shows. When I went back inside, only Aaron sat behind the table with our stuff. Our gear still sat to the side of the stage. We watched the next two bands perform and told each group that we enjoyed their set. The rest of our band finally showed up out front to smoke cigarettes. They had been drinking in their cars and were now looking for a liquor store. They asked me what I had been doing. “Watching talented people play music,” I said. I walked back inside as the next band started. Aaron had to get home to his daughter. He took the CDs with him, and I stood with the new friends I had made at the show. The rest of the band stayed out front smoking or in their cars drinking. They came in to watch Stone Throats play their new album in its entirety but stood at the back with their arms crossed, watching the crowd go nuts. After the show, I thanked Stone Throats and the other bands. I went home that night disappointed in Nautilus. Instead of actively participating in the music scene, they had chosen to drink. Bands like that don’t last long in any local music community. The next day, the day before the fall semester at Ball State began, Fangface was booked to play a show at a local record store in Muncie called Village Green Records. I’d been going to shows there since I was a freshman and loved to have conversations with the owner about anything music-related. The lineup was mostly noise rock and experimental groups. Fangface fit in with them better than most of the other bands that we’d played with. I tried to nap in the afternoon but couldn’t. The band that booked us, Humans, were already over at the Fangface house, where Taylor, the drummer, and Dylan, the bassist, lived. We practiced for the first time in

five weeks and nailed all our songs. The audience gathered on the lawn in front of the store for the show. Many of them looked like freshman, but familiar faces came to say hello as we set up in the grass. When more people showed up, the record store owner came up to me. “You’re in Fangface, right?” he said. “Yeah. We’re ready to go whenever,” I said. “Cool. I’ve heard good things about you guys. Go ahead and play when you want.” I plugged my guitar in, and we started the set. Kids pushed one another around and stomped through the crowd. I told some jokes to the crowd between songs and received both blank stares and laughter. Before the final song, I wanted to talk to the fresh faces in the audience. “We have one more song,” I said. “I want to thank every freshman and everyone watching a show at Village Green Records for the first time.” A red bowl was passed around for donations to the touring bands and the store. “This place is incredible for a lot of reasons, but the biggest is that this is where local music lives. Come often and come open-minded. I got to play with my other band last night, and I get to hang out with you all right now. Thanks for making that possible.” We played the song and ended the set with Dylan throwing his bass guitar into the air while I let the amp feed back as I shook my guitar. His bass crashed to the ground, and I turned off the amplifier to an applauding crowd. We tore down our stuff and loaded it into the cars. The other bands helped us carry the gear and told us that they loved our set. The record store owner said there was pizza inside for the bands that played. I ate and watched the sun set while the other bands played. * * *

The first class of my final year at Ball State started at 9 the next morning. I had set my alarm in advance so that I wouldn’t forget, organized everything in my backpack, and loaded one of the smaller pockets with brand new pens. All 18 credit hours’ worth of courses were written on a sheet of paper along with the corresponding times and room numbers. The final band finished at 11:30 p.m. A group went out to a bar down the street to continue discussions about bands, the local music scene, and plan future shows.

We sat at the bar and drank the cheapest drinks offered. Some of the bands played laid-back games of pool in the corner. These were friends I admired and musicians that I respected. At 2:30 a.m., the bar closed, and we all said goodbye to one another in the dark parking lot. I walked home alone and collapsed onto my bed, sore and full of excitement for the next school year. The alarm went off on time, but I instinctively hit the snooze button until waking up was absolutely necessary. My throat was raw. I struggled out of bed. The muscles in my arms felt stiff as I got dressed. I made the 20-minute walk to campus and began my senior year of college.

Gently Used by The Invictus Writers is licensed under a Creative Commons-AtrributionNonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License To view a copy of this license, visit send a letter to Creative Commons, 171 Second Street, Suite 300, San Francisco,California, 94105, USA. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at Photo by Vincent Desjardins, available through the Creative Commons License. See the original picture:

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