“Bad Hand” is an excerpt from How Far We Go and How Fast and was originally published in the Summer/Fall 2015 issue of TSR.
The door girl takes my five bucks and marks the inside of my wrist with a Sharpie. She wears her hair all in her eyes, like she’s so cool she doesn’t need to see where she’s going. I’d like to take notes on how she pulls this off but Ivy is saying my name.
“Jolene! You came!” She goes for the hug. I don’t hug easily, but I think I submit to it without doing anything too alienating. “The band’s about to go on,” she says as we enter the room. “We’re gonna have to elbow our way to the front.”
The gallery has high tin ceilings that amplify the music pounding out of the speakers not far from where we stand. I’m not going to get away with mumbling tonight. I yell okay and she shouts that she’ll be back in two shakes and then she’s gone, fighting her way over to the folding table bar, where a tall fellow who seems to be going for a Jesus look immediately engages her in conversation. Tonight her pastel hair is swept up in a bird’s nest knot at the back of her head like a haphazard confection. She’s wearing jeans and a denim jacket lined with thick fake fur. Denim on denim and it works.
I shift from one foot to the other. I try to rearrange my face to mask my discomfort but in the end I give up and walk to the wall, which is hung with over- sized photographs of sad cityscapes. No one else seems to be here to consider the art but I circle the room recognizing buildings, graffitied train cars and boarded-up storefronts. I study each photo in turn and when I’m done Ivy still isn’t back, can’t see her anywhere. At a bit of a distance and to an untrained eye these people could be homeless, with their anti-hairstyles and laundry hamper-looking clothes. They don’t appear to be paying attention to me, but I feel observed anyway. I could leave. The door is right there. But I stormed out of the house not an hour ago, and the thing about storms is no one remembers the ones that just blow over. They have to rage on for a while.
“There you are!” Ivy appears, puts a beer in my hand. “Shall we do this thing?” She starts towards the stage without waiting for an answer. “I’m sorry in advance if this offends your sensibilities,” she calls over her shoulder. “I haven’t heard Drew’s music in a while. It could be bad.”
In front of me Ivy slips through the crowd, squeezing her slight frame in between the bodies of people talking in twos and threes. I struggle to fit myself through the gaps she’s leaving in her wake. It turns out there’s no stage, just a red and gold Persian rug on which the boys in the band are organizing themselves. A rough semi-circle has formed around them, leaving space in front that suggests a dance floor.
Of course, that’s where Ivy takes me, into the hole in the crowd at the feet of the band, where I am taller than everyone. I can feel resentment burning at the back of my head as the house music cuts out and the drummer counts off.
They launch into it and immediately the music is so arresting I forget to worry about how I’m obstructing sightlines. The band is a two-piece, the drummer and another guy on guitar who hovers over a table spread with panels of dials and knobs I don’t understand. Tattooed and spry, he hangs back from the microphone while his hands move between his guitar and these other strange instruments. I recognize a loop pedal under the table and he steps on it at intervals, building layers of spooky guitar sound and then tweaking them by turning a dial or bending a string. When he opens his mouth, it’s an ugly beautiful thing. His voice is filtered through so many effects that I can’t make out any words and don’t need to.
The drummer plays with a messy intricacy, plays with all kinds of abandon. The kit looks makeshift; a kick drum, a snare, and a cymbal. He has the sort of thick, floppy hair girls like to touch and then declare themselves jealous of, and unlike his comrade he appears to be un-inked. I watch him watch the lead guy, waiting for the changes. The sound is quiet but large and it stills the room, commands it, makes me want to give up making music because I could never play like this and at the same time go home and write a song.
Ivy is trying to talk to me but she’s so much shorter than I am that I have to do a sort of half-squat maneuver to get low enough for my ear to be anywhere near her mouth.
“What do you think?”
“Maybe a little too interesting?” she asks, but I could stand here studying them forever.
Abruptly, it gets loud. The crowd swells behind me and I go flying forward. Ivy catches my arm and steadies me but it comes again and I dig my heels into the ground to keep from crashing into the band. The crowd isn’t just close, they’re closing in. I’m sandwiched between bodies on all sides, bodies that are jumping and shoving violently, like they’ve been waiting all night for the cue to go ape shit and the band’s just given it.
The bottle of beer, barely drunk, is ripped out of my hand. My toque is yanked off and tossed into the air. I try to escape but it’s impossible to do anything because staying on my feet and not getting flattened now requires all my attention. I feel hands on my back and a hard shove and anger flares in me. I ram a shoulder into the nearest chest, but there’s no way to tell if I nailed the asshole because everyone is pummeling everyone else indifferently.
That’s when it hits me; it’s not personal. In fact, I think it’s impersonal.
I stop resisting the push and the shove and in seconds I’m bashing into bodies with the best of them. Beer sprays into the air and lands on me like cool carbonated rain. Sweat drips down and soon I’m soaked, but so is everyone. My foot finds the fallen beer bottle—I lose my grip on the ground and go down, but right away strong hands grab me underneath the arms and yank me back up. I know without needing to be told that there’s a code to this, an expectation that if you’re knocked down, someone will pick you up. A moment later a girl falls to her knees in front of me and I don’t hesitate, hauling her up and shoving her back into the roiling mob.
In between jumps I catch flashes of Ivy. She’s standing on a speaker looking out. Then she’s turning around and launching herself backwards out over the crowd. Hands reach up and hold her and she’s passed around over our heads. As she floats my way she starts sinking fast. I try to get close enough to catch her but only manage to put my face in the path of her falling shoulder. Tears flood the eye that took the hit but I can’t wipe them away because Ivy gets up, grabs my arms, and we jump up and down more savagely than before. They try to tear us apart but Ivy’s hold on me is tight. Hair sticks to my face but I don’t brush it away. My calves clench and cramp but I carry on. I take an elbow to the head and feel my brain bang into the side of my skull but still we jump.
The crowd is an organism unto itself and I’m in the thick of it. I let a smile unfurl on my face, close my eyes, and throw my weight around.
“Thanks,” the frontman mumbles into the microphone before lifting his guitar over his head. In the audience we fall still, look around dazed, like we can’t remember what we were doing before we lost our collective shit. The last strands of feedback die out and there’s some applause but it seems beside the point. Hip-hop comes over the sound system and chatter rises, people move towards the bar. I’ve lost Ivy but spot her in the lineup for drinks. I wander around looking for my toque. My legs are shaky and I move slow, letting the sweat dry on my skin. I’m not alone; around me there are others picking up shoes and items of clothing that were wrenched off them in battle.
I find my hat as Ivy comes back, all aglow. She hands me another beer. “I wasn’t expecting that,” she says. “These gallery shows are usually so tame.”
“That was amazing,” I say.
“You liked it? I wasn’t sure. Mosh pits are an acquired taste.”
“So that was a mosh pit?”
“Don’t tell me you’ve never been in a mosh pit before?” She shoves my shoulder in disbelief. “Jesus, Jolene. What have you been doing with your life?”
I shrug. “Wasting it?”
“Well,” she says, “Not on my watch.” She starts toward the door. “Always leave the party while you’re still having fun. That’s a rule of mine.”
“What about our drinks?” I ask as she tilts her head back and drains hers.
“Bring it,” she says and I follow her out onto the street, pulling my toque on even though it’s covered in mosh pit. Without a word we begin to run, hurtling away from the party, racing each other for old times sake. Beer foam overflows the bottle in my hand so I throw it at a wall, where it shatters. We laugh so much it hurts.
“Where are we going?” I huff a few minutes later when we slow to a giddy walk on a deserted street near the river.
“Remember I said you I’d show you my art?”
“Well, that’s some up there.” She points and I look up at the sky. The stars are dizzying. “No,” she says. “Over there.”
I follow her gaze to the building next to us. Painted on the wall about twenty feet up, a sharp-beaked bird is frozen in midflight, its wings blurred around the edges to suggest a weightless hovering.
“Oh,” I say.
“I was into hummingbirds for a while,” she says, unable to conceal her pride. “I’m onto peacocks now. Still working on getting the lines right.”
I’ve got my head craned back to take it in. “How did you get up there?”
“Easy,” she says, pointing to a series of rusted ladders that climbs the side of the building, which looks to be abandoned. “It’s just a hop, skip, and a jump up to the fire escape. Then you lean out over the edge and don’t look down. The long swimmer’s arms come in handy.” She hooks her thumbs through the straps of her backpack and motions down the street. “Come on, I’ve got something in mind.”
She produces a can of beer from her bag and we pass it back and forth as we walk. The only sound apart from what we’re making is the ice on the river breaking up a block over, creaking like footsteps on old floorboards. We cross the street and go down another alley, where Ivy slows in front of a building. This one is definitely abandoned; the windows are broken and scattershot graffiti decorates the walls. We walk up to where the metal rungs of a ladder end in mid-air a few feet above our heads. Ivy hands me the beer, slips off her backpack, takes out a can of spray paint. She gives it a shake. “You coming?”
I stand in panicked silence but Ivy doesn’t press, just says, “Can you whistle?” “What?”
She pats me on the arm. “Just keep an eye out, eh?”
I still don’t understand as she scrambles on top of the dumpster and reaches for the lowest ladder rung, grabs hold and pulls herself up easily. Her muscles haven’t melted like mine. I watch her climbing up and up but then my stomach pitches to the left and the rest of my organs go right and I have to put out a hand to keep from falling. Luckily the wall’s right there. I hold onto the brick of it and count sounds to calm myself. Ivy’s feet on the metal ladder, then the hiss of spray paint. A heart beating, mine maybe. The river groans, mutters to itself. I open my eyes but keep my hand on the wall. The nausea has gone, and a fury fills me instead; the mosh pit was one thing but this is another. This is not what I signed up for. Not at all, not even a little bit. I’m still fuming when I realize two dark figures have rounded the corner and are coming down the alley towards us.
I try to whistle but nothing comes out. Shit. I try again and this time it works, a clear note leaves my lips and cuts through the night. Above me the hissing stops as two men step out of the shadow and into the glow of a streetlight. It’s the boys from the band. “Hey, Ivy,” calls the guitarist. “What’s up?”
She leans out, looks down. “Drew? That you?”
They come to a halt in front of me, their arms full of gear. Drew is looking up but the drummer watches me emerge from behind the dumpster, where I’ve been cowering.
“Hi,” he says, amused.
“Hey,” I mumble, as Ivy drops to the ground beside me. Together, we back away and look up. A white bird floats on the wall two stories up where there wasn’t one before.
“Swan?” asks Drew.
“Albino peacock,” says Ivy. “I saw one at the zoo.” She elbows me, too hard. “Pretty cool huh?”
“Uh huh,” I say, and try to tell her with my eyes that I want to go. But she’s in no rush.
“Jo, this is Drew and Graham. Drew and Graham, this is Jo. You guys need a hand?”
And then we’re continuing down the alley, around the corner, and up the street to their rehearsal space, where Drew fumbles for his keys before letting us in. Graham holds the door so I can go in first and in the elevator he stares at me and not in the way guys stare when they think you’re pretty but in the way they stare when they think you’re going to drop their expensive musical shit and break it. I hoist the amp a little higher in my arms. Maybe my muscles haven’t completely melted yet. The elevator is too well-lit and the walls are mirrors and there’s nowhere to look that doesn’t make me more uncomfortable than I already am—and I am, and how. Ivy is explaining how we met, making it more than it actually was. Making me more than I actually am. I have to learn how to do that.
“Jo and I used to be rivals, in another life. She’s also in a band.”
I shake my head. “I’m not in a band.”
“So you’re a singer-songwriter then?” Graham says, and it’s clear that’s an insult. Douche, I think, but out loud I just say, “Gross,” and feel a pang of relief when everyone laughs.
The doors slide open and we go down a long hall to another door where Drew can’t find the key but then does, and inside I put the amp down as super-extra- gingerly as I can. When I straighten up Graham’s watching again, but I’m relieved, because now we can leave. But no. Drew is grabbing beers from a little fridge and Ivy is saying of course we want to drink on the roof, are you kidding? And then we’re back in the elevator, going up to the top. I hold my beer too tight and the can crackles and I keep opening my mouth to say I don’t do rooftops and no I’m not kidding but every time I open it nothing comes out so I take a drink of beer instead and by the time the elevator doors open the can is empty.
We’re not there yet, now it’s into the stairwell and up a flight to a maintenance room, where pulleys and other elevator entrails hang out in the dark. In one corner a wooden ladder leads up to a trap door in the ceiling.
Ivy goes first, pushing the door open and disappearing out onto the roof. Drew follows and then Graham. I hang back, looking up at the square of empty sky. There’s no way I can’t and there’s no way I can. Graham’s face reappears. “You coming?”
I would give anything to be cool right now and follow him up that ladder, douche or no douche, but my head shakes of its own accord because my body doesn’t listen to anything I tell it anymore. I’m headed for the exit when there’s a thud behind me. “That’s cool. I’ll stay down here with you.”
I turn around and he’s settled onto the floor near the base of the ladder. He nods at the space beside him and I sit, careful I’m not too close, not too far.
“My mom is super afraid of heights, too,” he says, and I feel blessed that it could be that easy. I’m afraid of heights. That’s all.
“Hey!” Ivy peers down through the hole in the ceiling. “Come on, you guys! The view up here is crazy.”
“Jo and I are going to hang down here,” he says.
“Oh,” says Ivy. She looks at me, an eyebrow raised, and I look away. I look at Graham. He hands me his beer and I drink it. Usually people only call me Jo when they know me. But he doesn’t know me, not at all. Not even a little bit. And suddenly that’s appealing.
He pulls out a joint and puts it between his lips. Flicks a lighter alive and holds the flame to it until it joins in the burning. While I’m watching him inhale, I’m planning out the way I’ll decline when and if he offers but then he holds it out and my hand reaches for it. Bad hand, I think, as the joint transfers between our fingers expertly. I put it between my lips and breathe in and then I am warm, when I didn’t even realize I was cold. Relaxed when I didn’t realize I was holding all kinds of parts of me tightly. “So what do you do?” he asks.
“I walk a lot,” I say, after releasing so much smoke, and through the smoke I know I’ve said something strange but I’m feeling beer-brave, I’m feeling weed-wise, and I don’t care. I don’t know if I’ve ever not cared this much in my life.
“You don’t drive either?” he says and I shake my head. “It’s a fucked up place to live without a car.”
“I don’t like cars.”
“Same.” He smiles and passes the joint back to me and again I plan on declining and again I accept it instead.
“The thing about them is they go so far so fast. Too far and too fast. You can’t take things in.”
He nods. “I like to move more slowly,” he says, stretching his legs out languid in front of him. They are long and thinner than mine by far. He looks up through the trap door to the sky.
“But you’re a drummer,” I say. “You’re like, speedy...and...” I lose what I was trying to say, cast around for the right words. “Like, always in motion.”
“But I’m also staying still. Think about it—I move but I don’t go anywhere.” He smiles. “Anyway, I try not to be one of those drummers who’s always tapping things and keeping time,” he says and demonstrates, beating his knee, the ground, my arm.
I find that curious. Not his hand on my arm. Well that, but the other thing. “Do you though? Keep time?”
“Yeah, I do. I hope I do. I try to keep it to myself though. Does that make sense?”
“It does,” I say, and he looks at me, and like that, I feel too far gone. Too in deep. I sit on my hands to keep them from doing anything else I haven’t sanctioned and Ivy’s head appears in the trap door again.
“You kids behaving?” she says, and when we assure her we are she disappears and then Graham asks me what I listen to. Here is something I know: when talking to boys about music, prepare to be talked at. But it’s not like that. I don’t know why I can talk to him but I can. I do. I wonder if I could learn to keep time, too.