This is chapter six of a story entitled The Other One. To start at the beginning, click here.
It was probably only a few minutes, but it felt like I spent two hours staring at my suitcase, trying to remember what was appropriate to wear to a concert in a bar. Or maybe I was figuring out what was appropriate to wear when invited to a concert in a bar by an attractive female whose motives for inviting me I didn’t understand.
Either way, I was partly terrified of going out with a group of people I didn’t know, but none of my begging had convinced Ashley to drop her plans and tag along. I was flying blind, dressing slightly nicer than normal and just hoping I wouldn’t do something dumb enough to require leaving early.
The show was some twenty minutes away in Jackson, the capital of the state. Growing up, there were always places in Jackson we went and places we didn’t. Our little suburb had what we needed, and the things we didn’t were safely in particular areas of Jackson. It wasn’t so much that my parents were afraid of the city, but when you have children, I think you just start to get a bit more paranoid than you were before.
There was something about the city, though, that had definitely changed over the years in the name of Progress. There was the old mall that we used to shop at because it was closer. Then, it became a place you only went to if you were interested in being stabbed, and we had to drive slightly farther to the “new” mall. However, this “new” mall has since been replaced by bigger and flashier malls farther outside the city, making it a place people didn’t care to enter.
Progress kept pushing things farther and farther out of the city, and people on the outside started to get more and more afraid of the places they had abandoned. The reason for their fear never seemed to cross their mind.
As I got older, I found myself occasionally heading into areas I didn’t normally go. I had started to discover that the city wasn’t really naturally dangerous. There wasn’t much to be afraid of, really, because there honestly wasn’t much in these “dangerous” spots at all. At night, the city fell quiet. Honestly, most of the fear was in the heads of people who didn’t live there. Granted, there was crime, but I started to suspect it was actually far from the areas we were taught to fear.
This particular venue was in one of those areas we didn’t go to. I knew of the place, but hadn’t ever been inside. After all, not too much for a nervous 18 year old to want from a dirty little bar in a grungy old building. I wasn’t exactly trying to push the boundaries of what I could get away with, rather content to spend my free time in places more appropriate for me.
I had to admit, though, that the spot was interesting. It definitely held an “everybody knows your name” vibe for the regulars, but hosted enough events so that outsiders didn’t get glared at. In fact, if you could see past the smoky haze and dim lighting, it almost had a bit of a charm. Almost.
Judging from the loud noises coming from the back room, I guessed that the band was setting up and that’s where I would find Jenn. I passed by some patrons and golfing arcade games and found myself in a significantly larger back room, which made me wonder how this building actually had this much space at all. The architecture was confusing.
I had no idea what to expect out of this place. Jackson always felt like a place with nothing going for it. There were people in this place, though, who didn’t look like any subculture I had ever seen before. Apparently the city actually had residents who hung around these days. Who knew?
I couldn’t imagine Jenn belonging in this place, though. It seemed far too….dirty. She seemed far too clean. But there must be a reason she hangs out around here. Maybe this city has life after all.
Jenn’s voice snapped me back to reality. I spotted her across the room, calling me over to the group of people she was standing with. I was certainly glad she was looking for me, because otherwise I think I would have stood nervously in the entrance scanning the room for all eternity. It wasn’t that crowds scared me, really, but that I tend to freak out when I wander alone into a place I’m meeting someone and have to look for them. It’s always amazing how when you’re looking around for someone, you can never see them.
“I’m so glad you made it!” Jenn proclaimed in a cheery tone that seemed out of place compared to the rest of the hushed mumbled conversation in the room. “I was worried you couldn’t find it or something.”
“No, I knew where it was,” I said, awkwardly trying to figure out if a high five was an appropriate greeting, “just wasn’t sure what to do when I got in the doors.”
Jenn went instantly to a side hug, the most non-confrontational greeting available. “Oh well cool. Here, let me introduce you to everyone.”
When she said “everyone,” I was expecting to meet the five others in the circle with her. Over the course of the night, though, she would somehow introduce me to seemingly everybody in the bar. It seemed so strange that someone with her demeanor would frequent a place like this. I more expected her to sit at coffee shops reading classic English literature nobody had ever heard of before while freehand sketching the scenery around her. Instead, she apparently had been hanging around dirty bars long enough to be familiar with all of the regulars.
“You seem to know everybody in this place,” I said astutely. “You really come out here this often?” I think I was secretly afraid she was a bar hopping floosie or something. I apparently also thought people still used the word “floosie”.
“Well, I come here enough, I guess. There are just so many characters around here. So many stories. It’s fascinating to me.”
“Really? Stories? You come here for stories?”
“Well that and shows. Good bands come by pretty often, which is neat. But yeah, you get neat stories around here. Like the older guy over there? Drove a truck for years, and has been all over the country. He’s got ridiculous tall tales of things he’s seen while on the road. I’m not sure any of it is real, but it’s entertaining. Or that tall guy there? He’s on a quest to watch a game in every Major League Baseball park. I think he’s only got five or so to go.”
“Oh okay.” I was kind of amazed at the fact that she knew all this stuff. I guess I was expecting to call her bluff.
“And you see the guy by himself in the corner?” As she drew my attention to a brooding guy around my age, she had to raise her voice to compensate for the band beginning their set.
“You wouldn’t guess how friendly and caring that guy is. Or that he’s pretty stinking rich.”
I laughed before realizing her facial expression told me she was serious. He couldn’t be any older than me, and he looked as though he wore the same stuff he wore a decade earlier.
“He wrote some books that for whatever reason blew up. They were huge successes and they made movies and he cashed the checks and disappeared. And every now and then, he’s here.”
I was amazed at this girl. She honestly was just interested in the people around her. Their stories, their lives. Their problems, even. I don’t think I had ever met anyone who just honestly cared like she did. I think I caught myself staring at her with my mouth slightly open instead of listening to the music.
“Invented an entire city in his head, Aaron. You can go up to him now and ask him what happened to any of the residents of that city and he could tell you. And you wouldn’t know that unless you talked to him and got to know him. Everyone has some sort of story behind them.” At this point, she had to yell just to be barely audible. “Not everyone takes the time to listen, though.”
But she did. She listened. And not only listened, but got invested. And I was amazed.
“So why did you leave?” she yelled at me.
“What, you trying to figure out MY story now?”
She grinned. “Maybe I am.”
I couldn’t help but wonder if I was nothing but a story to her. I was starting to realize that her inviting me out was really just her learning about somebody new. I didn’t have anything to read past that motive. There was nothing more to be concerned with. My heart felt a bit like sinking, but I guess I expected it from the beginning anyway.
“My best friend died. I know that’s a rough start to the tale, but that’s what happened. He died, and I didn’t feel like I should stick around.”
“So you ran away.” I wasn’t really a question. She just stated it, and it sort of stung.
“You make it sound so simple,” I said, sort of disgusted that she reduced it all to four words.
“Well I like to think that things are often simpler than we make them.”
“Maybe, but it’s more than that. There just wasn’t anything here that appealed to me, I guess. I didn’t….belong….”
The words were getting harder to find, as I realized that she was right. It was a lot easier to elaborate and make up reasons than it was to say what she had said.
“It’s okay,” she lightly grabbed my arm in some sort of reassuring move, “running away isn’t necessarily bad. Sometimes you have to get away to get perspective.”
She smiled. It was a really pure smile. She wasn’t dissecting my life with four words. She was just finding a way into it.
As she smiled, it occurred to me that this whole time, she was dancing to the rhythm in the room. Her concern was amazing light-hearted. She really meant what she had said, and she really meant that I hadn’t done anything wrong. I finally took my eyes off her grin and focused on the stage and for the first time paid attention to everything around me.
The band was unlike anything I had ever seen before. They were unlike anything I had seen in New York, and somehow unlike anything i remembered from the music scene when I was growing up. The members of the band jumped from instrument to instrument, microphone to microphone, constantly revolving to get their own unique creation. It was like a constant party on stage that just spilled over into the crowd. The band looked as though they were having the time of their lives, and we were invited to join in. At all times they were jumping from guitar to banjo, standup bass, violin, drum kit, other percussion, or an occasional horn. Each of the seven members kept moving the entire time, and the energy matched the sound.
The sound. It was so beautiful, in a weird, raw way. It was twangier, dirtier. It wasn’t trying to sound like any other music scene in the world, but just sounding like its own unique creation. Almost like the city had decided to fully embrace what it really was: a dirty little place. There was no glamor. There was no pomp. There were just people with guitars and cigarettes loving the sounds they were making. Maybe there was life in this city. Finally, it came back.
All of it was perfect. It was simple. And it was just what I wanted to hear.
I looked back at Jenn, who was still in a groove with that smile on her face. I knew I didn’t have anything beyond her caring motive to wonder about, but started to hope she was wrong. I hoped things weren’t nearly as simple as she made them out to be.