I hadn’t talked to Jim in years, not since the band broke up, so when I answered the phone and heard his gravelly voice, I couldn’t place it. “Bear,” he said, “Howz it going, dude?”
“It’s going,” I answered, knowing it was a voice from the past, since everybody I knew now called me Barry.
“Got your number from Reef,” the voice said. “Calling to see if you’d like to get together.”
Reefer. The mention of the Barbarians’ bass player brought back a cloud of memories: bongs, roach clips, dime bags, Panama red. Bailing him out that time in Santa Barbara at three in the morning.
“Hmm,” I said. It was all I could think of to say.
“Hey dude, whadya say? It’s me, Jimmy.”
Jimbo, Jim Dandy, Jimorama. Thinking if he called himself Jimmy he could be another Jimmy Page.
I hadn’t heard from him since the accident. I had no clue what he did after, how his life turned out, and all these years later, didn’t want to know. He was bad news, leaving a trail of evil mojo.
His breathing was jagged as he waited for me to say something. Then he launched into some serious coughing.
“I don’t know,” I stammered. “Sharon and I, we’re pretty busy with the kids…”
Although the kids were a lot of work, they were also handy excuses to get out of things I didn’t want to do.
“You and Sharon still together?” Jim roared. “Fanfuckingtastic. And you’ve got little Bears and Shares? I knew you two were soulmates that day I introduced you.”
He seemed all over the place. I wondered if he was on something. Or maybe all the years of drugs permanently scrambled his brain. “They’re teenagers now,” I said coldly. I’d lived a whole other life since the days of the Barbarians. He hadn’t been part of it and I didn’t want him to be part of it now.
A lot had also happened music-wise. Big-hair bands, heavy metal, and grunge had come and gone. Guitar solos and stadium rock, double-disc LPs, and long-haired guys with axes were ancient history, along with Ludes, coke, spandex, and groupies. Nobody listened to CDs anymore, although vinyl was making a comeback. The couple of times I’d mentioned Zeppelin or Skynard to Lucy and Ben, trying to explain what those sweet days of sex and drugs and rock and roll were all about, all I got were blank stares.
My kids were BFF with their devices. All they did was tweet and Snapchat and Insta—but what they shared with their friends was a mystery. Lucy was moody and preoccupied with death, and Ben was overweight and spent a suspicious amount of time in the bathroom.
“I’d love to meet them,” the raspy voice said. “See how life’s treating you and Share.”
I hated to say no to people. Sharon said that was one of my biggest flaws. I never said no to Sharon. If I wanted any peace and quiet, I had to say yes.
But I was ready to say no to Jimmy. The thought of having him near my house and kids scared me more than saying no. I took a deep breath and was ready to say goodbye and hang up, when he said, with a pathetic wheeze, “Look, dude. I don’t have much time. The Big C’s pulling my tail and I’m going down.” He coughed a few times for emphasis.
The screaming started a couple of hours later. “You what?” Sharon said when I told her. “I can’t believe you invited that scumbag into our house. Couldn’t you have met him at a bar somewhere?”
“He’s stopped drinking.”
Sharon knifed with air with one of her sharp laughs. “Ha. I find that hard to believe. What about meeting him at Starbucks then?”
“He said he can’t drink coffee with the chemo.”
I pleaded. “Just a couple of hours. Steaks and salad maybe. He wants to meet the kids.”
Sharon pressed her lips together. “No,” she said, turning her back to wipe the counter. “I don’t want that creep near Lucy and Ben.”
I knew she’d be adding this to my tab of misdeeds. She’d be bringing up Jim every time we had a fight for the next five years. And I had a sense that this transgression could end up bigger than the others—the afternoon I let Ben wander out of the yard, the year I forgot our anniversary, the time I messed up the reservation for our summer vacation.
Back in the day, Sharon had been cute, with luminous green eyes and a long flame of red hair. The first time I saw her she was one of those girls in bikinis sitting on some guy’s shoulders at the Us Festival, pumping her arms.
The Barbarians were one of the opening acts. Later, when Sharon and her friends wandered backstage, Jim was on them, trying to get one of them drunk and high enough to hang out in his van. He had to try harder, since he was just the drummer and backup singer. The girls registered his stringy hair and bad teeth as they scanned the field of musicians for guitar heroes, their eyes eventually landing on me.
I wasn’t exactly a guitar god, or if I was it was from a lower pantheon. As a kid, I’d spent hours playing guitar in my room, drowning out my parents’ bickering. I became adept at copying Clapton, Hendrix, Satrioni, and Santana. I could play solos on all the greats: Layla, Stairway to Heaven, All Along the Watchtower, even Sultans of Swing.
The Barbarians got a few decent gigs—the Troub, Music Machine—even an opener at the Whiskey. An L.A. Weekly write-up described us as a cross between the Stones and Allman Brothers. A&R men were showing up at our gigs and we almost had enough songs for an album.
Then Jim drove our van off Mulholland. Tony, our frontman and songwriter, died on impact. Reefer, our bass player, lost his legs when the engine rammed into the passenger compartment. And our manager Todd Moritz bled out before help arrived. The only thing we didn’t lose was our drummer, the one who’d ruined our lives with his drugged-out lack of care.
It took me a long time to recover, or maybe I never did. I tried hooking up with a couple of other guys, and we played the Valley for a while, with Sharon singing backup. And then it was a few benefits, then weddings, then nothing. Sharon got pregnant, and after we got married, I went to work for Allstate.
Jim and I settled on the following Saturday night for the get-together. As the days went by, the fireball in my stomach made it hard to eat.
That hurt Sharon’s feelings. “What’s the matter?” she snipped. “I thought you liked pork chops and scalloped potatoes.”
“I’m sorry hon. I’m just not hungry. Ben, do you want to eat more of your mother’s wonderful cooking?”
Ever-ravenous Ben grabbed the plate and scarfed down the food. And Sharon seemed to forget about it afterward, banging plates and pots and pans like usual as she did the dishes.
But I knew we had to talk about the visit, maybe set some ground rules, or at least get her to agree to be civil. I saw my chance later that night. After sex, I held her close, instead of rolling over and going to sleep. I realized I hadn’t looked at her in a long time. She’d become like the couch or dining room table.
Somewhere underneath the baby weight and graying hair was that fox in a bikini. I thought if I looked hard enough, the years would melt away.
Sharon pulled away. “You’re making me hot.”
“Let’s just lie here. We don’t do enough hugging.”
“What about the kids? Do you want them to see us naked?”
“No, I want it to be like it used to be.” It slipped out.
Sharon threw on her nightgown and I readied myself for the yelling. I’d gotten used to it. Had a strategy for dealing with it. When she started up, her words became white noise. When it got really bad, I grabbed my guitar and went outside.
Sharon sat on the bed. Her jaw was clenched, but other than that, there was little sign she was pissed off. She just sat there, leaving me wondering what was going to happen next. Finally, she sighed, and I thought I’d dodged the bullet.
Then she narrowed her eyes. “It’s that Jim thing, isn’t it?”
“Yeah I guess. Him showing up is opening a can of worms.”
“Worm. That’s a good word to describe that spineless bastard.”
“I know he’s a bastard. But he’s a dying bastard.”
Sharon opened the window. We were close enough to the coast to get an ocean breeze. But it was Lakewood, miles of houses that looked so much alike that I still sometimes got lost. But at least the neighborhood was safe.
Sharon tossed my underwear and socks in the laundry basket, then hung up my shirt. I could tell she was really stewing when she began stacking the coins on the dresser with her back to me.
“Sharon?” I asked. “Hon?”
She didn’t answer. And she didn’t turn around. At that moment, yelling seemed preferable. At least I’d have some idea what she was thinking. Then she surprised me again by lying back down on the bed. I reached out and she came right into my arms. After a while, I felt something wet on my arm and realized she was crying.
The Saturday of Jim’s visit was sunny as usual. Just a few streaks of cloud in the sky. Couple of squawking seagulls up there with some warbirds from the airport. I was spacing out while hanging clothes on the line.
Sharon seemed more agitated than usual as she cleaned the house. I knew enough to stay out of her way. If I didn’t, I could get rammed by the vacuum or sprayed with Windex.
“Share, I’m heading to the store. Need anything that’s not on the list?”
She scowled as she scrubbed stains from the sink. “How about a noose?”
“Ha ha,” I said, giving her shoulder a squeeze. “Back in a bit.”
Pushing the shopping cart through Vons always made me disassociate. Today I was doing it for Sharon, the one who cried in my arms, not the one scrubbing the sink.
It was strange to think there were two Sharons. I wondered if there were two Jims also—the irresponsible asshole I’d known and maybe an older, nicer version who could make it through dinner without a freakout. And maybe there were two of me, the one who held grudges and the one who could forgive.
I didn’t think of Jim when I was grabbing cereal from the shelf, or beans and soup from the canned goods aisle, or lettuce and tomatoes from the produce section. But when I got to the meat display, it hit me.
With her purple hair and black attire, Lucy would have been a cool goth instead of an outcast if she’d been born ten years earlier. Ben didn’t care what people thought, which made him instantly cool.
Sharon made them tidy their rooms. The chorus of “Oh moms” and “Really?” had faded and now they were sitting on the living room couch waiting. Ben tapped on his PlayStation and Lucy scrolled through her phone.
“Have you heard of the Slender Man?” Lucy asked.
“Is that some new band?”
“No,” she said. “He’s a spirit that makes kids commit suicide, usually by hanging.”
I narrowed my eyes. “You haven’t seen him, have you?” I asked. “I hope if you do, you’ll tell me about it.”
Lucy laughed, her purple lipstick a circle of death. “No dad. It’s just something kids are doing.” She paused. “But I wonder if this Jim guy has seen him.”
When Sharon and I told the kids about Jim, we’d mentioned he was dying. Lucy wanted to know what he was dying of and how long he had to live. Sharon still held out hope that Lucy’s interest in death might lead her to a nursing career, but ending up a mortician seemed more likely.
“Look, he may not want to talk about it,” I told her. “Try and be sensitive.”
Lucy looked at me blankly then went back to scrolling.
I could hear the bang and clatter of Sharon making salad in the kitchen as I stood by the front window, waiting for Jim to pull up. My head was a salad of conflicting emotions drenched with a dressing of anxiety.
Sharon had surprised me by putting on the shimmering green eye shadow and red lipstick she used to wear, but finding something in her closet that fit proved a challenge. I’d sat on the bed as she struggled to pull jeans over her hips, before she finally settled on black leggings.
I was there to answer no to the inevitable question, “Does this make me look fat?” I could tell she was looking for something that would make her seem cool, not like the overworked mom and schoolteacher she’d become. She finally found one of the shiny black tops she used to perform in.
I didn’t care what I wore. I was focusing more on keeping memories at bay.
And then a dented Honda Civic pulled up. Its windshield was smeared with dirt. It looked like it hadn’t been washed in months. Time stopped as Jim dragged himself out of the driver’s seat.
He was taller than I remembered, and more haggard. But he still wore his standard t-shirt, jeans, and baseball cap. He was carrying a box of something bloody looking. I hoped it wasn’t one of his sick jokes.
“Kids! Sharon!” I yelled. “He’s here.”
“You don’t have to yell,” said Ben sarcastically. “We’re right here, remember?”
I pointed my finger at them. “I want you both to behave, is that clear?”
Lucy looked up calmly from her device. “Chill dad. It’s gonna be all right.”
The doorbell rang, but I was paralyzed. Sharon rushed to the rescue, wiping her hands on a dish towel, looking hot in her new outfit.
She glanced at me quizzically. “Barry. Are you going to answer the door?”
I forced myself to move, grabbing the door handle and pulling it toward me, and staring at the tall figure standing there, illuminated by the sun’s glare. “Jim,” I said. “Come on in.”
Once Jim was inside, he thrust out a box of strawberries. “I wanted to bring something,” he stammered. “And I saw these as I passed the fruit stand.”
All I could think of were Reef’s bloody stumps. Thankfully Sharon stepped up and took the box. “Thanks Jim,” she said. “And welcome.”
It would have been a shock to see him even if he hadn’t been deathly ill. His skin was greenish, and there were deep hollows under his frightened eyes. I recognized the look from right before Sharon’s dad died of liver cancer.
I patted him on the arm, and felt bone. “How ya feeling?” I asked.
Jim forced a smile. He had dentures now—no surprise since his teeth had been so bad—but the neat row of tombstone teeth only served to highlight the wreckage of his face. “I feel better than I look,” he said grimly.
“Sounds like tough times,” I said. “We’re making steaks. Hope you’ll feel up to eating something.”
“Yeah I think this will be one of my good days—maybe one of the last ones.” He sighed, seeming already fatigued.
“Well you’re both looking good. Share, you’re as much a babe as always,” he said, winking. “Bear, looks like you’ve put on a few pounds.” He jabbed me in the stomach. “Believe me, now that I’m a walking skeleton, that’s a compliment.”
I couldn’t look at him, so instead I looked at the strawberries in Sharon’s hands. Although I tried to stop it, my mind went back. It was all a blur. I’d suffered a concussion, but Jim walked away without a scratch. I couldn’t help but think the cancer was some kind of payback.
Sharon’s sharp voice brought me back to the present. “Come on and meet the kids. And want something to drink?”
“Water would be fine,” Jim said, panting. “That’s about all I can keep down. But yeah—lemme see those kids.”
Ben and Lucy were still on the couch, pretending to be immersed in their devices. They looked up in mock surprise when we entered the room. But I knew they’d been listening. Sharon went to fetch water, leaving me with the introductions.
Ben dutifully shook Jim’s hand. “I’m Ben. Sixteen. Freshman. Into videogames and stuff. Just so you won’t have to ask.”
I squeezed Ben’s shoulder. “Kid’s a real comic. Not sure where he gets it.”
Lucy stared at Jim with a weird smile, purple lipstick smeared on her teeth.
“This is Lucy,” I said. “She’s fourteen. Ninth grade.” I was going to stop there, but then added, “Into vampires and stuff.”
Jim smiled and nodded at Ben, but his attention went right to Lucy. “Vampires, huh? The undead?”
Lucy’s eyes flashed. “The dead and the undead,” she said with a sick smile. “And those just waiting.”
I shot her a warning glance. “Now Lucy…”
“It’s all right, Bear,” Jim said. “I’m interested in death too.”
Right then Sharon showed up with the water. “Here you go, Jim. Why don’t we go sit on the patio?” She looked at Ben and Lucy. “You two can stay here.”
Ben’s eyes returned to his game, but Lucy stood up. I put my hand on her shoulder. “Lucy we’re going to be talking about old times. Boring grownup talk.”
“That doesn’t sound boring. I want to hear what you guys did when you were young.”
I gave her a look to let her know I was serious. “You can hear about it later.”
Lucy sat back down. “All right. But I want to hear how you two met. From Jim, the guy who introduced you.”
Jim smiled, happy to be included. Lucy was doing what she always did, playing people against each other. I could tell this was going to be a long night.
Out on the patio, it got grown up in a hurry. Sharon poured herself a gin and tonic and was gulping it back, but when she asked if I wanted one, I said no.
“Giving up drinking—that’s been the hardest thing,” said Jim, wheezing. “Well and cigarettes. And weed. The medical marijuana card helps. Had a brownie earlier. Case you’re wondering, I’m a bit stoned.”
“Some things never change,” I said, unable to help myself.
Jim coughed. “Yeah, and some things do.”
Sharon put her hand on my arm. She’d even painted her nails. But I continued. “Well what’s changed? Except your health.”
“Dying changes things quite a bit,” said Jim, taking a sip of water. “Hope you won’t have to discover that for awhile.”
“When did you find out?” asked Sharon.
“Six months ago. Chemo’s just buying me time. Everybody knows lung cancer’s a death sentence.”
“Live and let die,” I said, thinking of Todd and Tony.
“When you were young and your heart was an open book,” sang Jim in his raspy voice. “You used to say live and let live.”
I rebounded with the next line. “But if this ever-changing world in which we’re living, makes you give in and cry...”
“Then live and let die,” burst in Sharon. It had been years since I heard her sing.
“We make a good trio,” said Jim with a sickly grin.
I suddenly wanted this to be over. “Sharon, steaks ready? I’m starting the grill.”
Sharon dashed into the kitchen, registering my change of mood. I turned on the gas and hit the starter, and orange flames shot up, fed by grease from previous cookouts.
The anger that I’d been trying to contain for two decades exploded. “Why are you here?” I asked. “I mean, we haven’t talked in years. Not since…”
Jim interrupted. “Since the accident, yes.” He narrowed his eyes. “Just giving you one last chance to apologize before I leave this earth.”
“Apologize? For what?”
“For dropping a burning roach in my lap while I was driving. For going around town afterward telling everybody it was my fault.”
“You’re out of your fucking mind,” I said.
Jim crossed his arms and looked down at his worn sneakers. I realized my arms were crossed too.
Then Lucy was there. “Dad, what’s a burning roach?” she asked. I hoped she hadn’t been listening the whole time.
Grabbing the grill cleaner, I scraped at the greasy buildup. “I’ll tell you later.”
Jim came to the rescue. “So you like vampires, huh?” he asked Lucy. “What do you like about them?”
Lucy sat down next to Jim. “I like you can only kill them with a stake through the heart, that they can’t see themselves in the mirror.”
“How about the blood-sucking part?”
Lucy’s face hardened. “We’re all being sucked dry anyway. That’s life.”
“Yeah,” said Jim. “I remember feeling that way too. Now I’m the one sucking. All those blood transfusions.”
Lucy laughed. “I feel like I suck too.”
Sharon showed up with the steaks and I threw them on the grill and watched the flames lick the edges. The sound of Jim and Lucy talking faded into the background, as I tried to remember if what Jim said was true.
All these years I’d been trying to outrun what happened, look forward instead of back. We’d all lived to get high. Then memory’s curtain parted. I was sucking weed deep into my lungs, passing the roach as we drove along a dark road. Then the sensation of flying.
A part of me wondered if it even mattered. Tony and Todd were long gone. Reefer was living on disability in some downtown L.A. hotel. And Jim was making his exit. Soon it would just be me. Everyone else who might care would be gone.
I flipped the steaks. Thought of a coin toss. Heads or tails. Right or wrong. Or maybe a bit of both.
“What’s dying like?” Lucy asked Jim.
Jim cleared his throat. “Weird and scary,” he said. “I don’t know what’s on the other side, or if there is another side.”
He coughed into his hand, and it took a minute for his lungs to settle down. “Been thinking back, putting things in perspective. Forgiving myself and everyone else too.”
Jim stared at the backs of his hands, maybe marveling how wrinkled they’d become, just like I did. I suddenly felt sorry for him.
“Jim,” I said softly. “I forgot to ask—how do you like your steak cooked?”
When he looked up, it seemed like he’d forgotten where he was. “The steak,” I reminded him. “You know—rare, medium, or well done?”
He smiled, and I could tell he was grateful to have company. “Medium will be fine,” he said. “Probably won’t eat much anyway.”
Sharon showed up with the salad. The leafy greens and tomatoes in the clear glass bowl looked fresh compared to Jim’s sickly pallor.
“Looks good, Shar,” said Jim. “Just like your family and backyard full of flowers.” He let out another dry cough, then said in his weak, raspy voice, “It’s all beautiful, baby. Thanks for letting me share it.”
“Sure thing Jim,” Sharon said. “It’s our pleasure.”
Sharon put her hand on Lucy’s shoulder. “Honey, go wash your hands and get your brother and bring out the silverware and napkins.”
“Yes mom,” Lucy said, walking solemnly into the house without her usual slouch.
Dinner was good, and Jim managed to eat more than he expected. Bars of sunshine lit up the grass, the table, our faces. It had the feeling of a perfect day, maybe one of the last ones Jim would experience.
After Sharon cleared the plates, and brought out the strawberries and ice cream, and they were enjoying their desserts—Ben finishing his then looking around for more—Lucy made her request. “Jim, tell the story of how you introduced my mom and dad.”
Jim cleared his throat and sighed. “Ahh, this ice cream feels good.”
“Tell it,” urged Lucy.
“I want to hear it too,” said Ben.
And then Jim sat back and began. “Well it was the summer of the first Us Festival back in the 80s…”
“What’s an Us Festival?” asked Ben.
“You know like Coachella or Lolapalooza,” said Sharon. “Only older.”
“Yes,” said Jim. “The Barbarians were opening, and I was psyched to be playing with my good friends Tony, Reef, and of course your dad. When we went on the crowd was screaming—and in the front row of girls in bikinis waving their arms, something red caught my eye.” He paused. “It was your mom’s hair.”
Sharon blushed. “I’m not sure it went exactly like that, but okay…”
“When I invited your mom and her friends backstage later, she made a beeline for your dad. They loved each other so much. Everybody could tell they’d get married and have a couple of great kids like you. Their love was like a balloon no one could pop.”
I knew it didn’t exactly go like that either, but the kids were eating it up. And then Ben turned to me, “Dad, can you get out your guitar?”
It had been a while since I played. These days, my old Fender Strat lived in the back of the closet behind my gym bag. The feel of it always took me back, but this time when my hand went around its neck, it took me back even further, to that long-ago performance.
“So,” I said, looking at Jim. “Requests?”
Jim scratched his chin. “Well if I can only hear one more song, I know which one it would be.”
I smiled. “Freebird?”
“Nail on the head.”
I launched into the opening chords, and Jim began to sing in his raspy voice. “If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me? I must be traveling on now. Cuz there’s too many places I’ve got to see.”
Sharon joined in. “If I stay here with you girl, things just couldn’t be the same. Cuz I’m as free as a bird now, and this bird you cannot change.”
As I hit the solo, everyone’s heads were bobbing. And then Sharon began swaying, and Lucy joined in. I was so deep in the throes I went somewhere else. To that afternoon. The crowd. The music. That red flame of hair. And it had been love at first sight. Jim had been wrong about many things. But he was right about that.
After the song ended, I shook Jim’s hand. “I’m sorry for blaming you. We were all at fault,” I said.
“Apology accepted,” said Jim. “And now we are free.”
I played Freebird again way too soon. Just a couple of months later at Jim’s memorial. Not many people there, a few cousins and neighbors, and only us and Reef from the old days. Jim had fought hard, but gave it up when the chemo stopped working. As my guitar wailed, I hoped he was flapping his wings overhead.