2010 Fiction Open: Third Prize
It was after midnight when Scott finished his front desk shift and met Alistair in the parking lot of the Sea View Hotel, where they both worked. Alistair was sitting on the hood of his convertible, smoking a cigarette, a mild breeze ruffling his blonde hair.
“Where are we going?” asked Scott.
“It’s a surprise.” Alistair stubbed out the cigarette on the ground and got into the driver’s seat.
“I’m not used to being taken on midnight trips to secret destinations.”
They had only known each other a few weeks, and Scott felt off-balance whenever they were together. He was like an awkward teenager, trying to counteract his eagerness for Alistair’s attention with a self-protective nonchalance. Maybe it was the British accent or the tweed jackets that made Alistair seem so much older, always in charge.
Scott turned on the radio, spinning the dial in search of a decent station. His former favorite had recently switched from rock to New Wave, playing bands like The Cars and Talking Heads, while his taste was solidly “Southern California Singer-Songwriter.” He went from one end of the FM spectrum to the other, needing only a snippet of a song to determine he should move on, until finally turning it off.
He looked in Alistair’s glove compartment. “Don’t you have any cassettes? There’s nothing good on the radio.”
“No, I don’t really listen to music.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever been friends with somebody who doesn’t like music,” Scott said, wincing afterward at having called him a friend. As of last night they were something more than friends, and he worried that he’d just hurt Alistair’s feelings. Or maybe it didn’t mean anything. Alistair had led him into foreign territory without giving him a map.
“I didn’t say I didn’t like it, just that I don’t listen to it. On my own, I mean. Maybe you can change that.”
Scott could see Alistair’s smile in the highway lights.
They drove up the Pacific coast toward town, and then past town, into the area around the university, a neighborhood Scott usually tried to avoid. The few times he had ventured in that direction he had come away feeling old, even at twenty-five. The residential area was like a giant kindergarten. Day and night there were overgrown teenagers in the streets, throwing frisbees and hitching rides on the bumpers of cars with their skateboards.
During his teenage years, Scott had had to take life more seriously. Some of his fellow students had narrowly escaped being drafted for Vietnam. Buildings were blown up on college campuses, riots exploded in the streets, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. The world felt dangerous then. Now, just a few years later, college kids seemed to be able to ignore the insanity outside their cocoon, oblivious to hostages kidnapped from the American Embassy in Tehran, the oil crisis, the Soviet Union invading Afghanistan.
As if to illustrate how crazy things were now, the Republicans had just nominated a “B” movie actor as their presidential candidate. The state of California being wacky enough to elect Ronald Reagan governor almost made sense, but Scott had a hard time imagining the rest of the world taking the United States seriously if they actually elected him President.
They continued past the university neighborhoods and on into the next town. Alistair turned down a dark alley and parked next to what looked like a loading dock.
“We’re here,” Alistair announced.
“Where’s here?” asked Scott.
Alistair didn’t answer. Instead, he pulled on the handle of a metal door and ushered Scott into a dark hallway where he motioned him to wait. He went several yards down the hall and knocked on a door. Light flooded the hallway at the place where the door opened. Alistair motioned for him to follow.
They entered a room full of guitars, acoustic and electric, hanging from the walls and the ceiling, and propped up in stands in the corners of the room. A glass display case was filled with picks, capos, and boxes of strings. On the storefront window in reverse were the words, “Sullivan’s Guitar Shop.”
“Holy shit,” said Scott, almost whispering. “I’ve heard of this place, but I’ve never been here.” He looked at Alistair for some clue about what they were doing in a guitar store after midnight.
The long-haired bearded man who had let them in said, “Want to try any of them?”
“Are you kidding? I want to try all of them!”
“This is Sam Sullivan,” said Alistair. “Sam, you’ve heard all about Scott,” he said, winking.
Sullivan hooked his thumbs under his red suspenders. “What do you want to try first? How about this Martin D25? Willie Nelson borrowed it for a concert last year.” He reached up to a guitar hanging on the wall behind the counter and pulled it down. Scott looked at the price tag dangling from the neck: three thousand dollars. “Want a pick?” asked Sullivan.
Scott nodded. He chose a fairly stiff amber marbled pick from a box Sullivan held out. Then they followed him to the opposite side of the store, where there was a closed door that blended into the wall.
On the other side of the door was a huge empty room, which must have been some sort of performance space. The walls and ceiling were painted black, and it was dimly lit with a layer of smoke hovering just above their heads. There was a platform stage at one end of the room, with stacked sound equipment in the corners and piles of folding chairs along the wall. In the center of the room, five men with instruments sat on stools and chairs in a circle, passing a joint and swigging from beer bottles. As Scott entered the room, they looked up and waved to him.
Sullivan began pointing out the musicians. “That’s Slim Walton, with the Taylor 1000. He plays backup for Jackson Browne. They guy with the mandolin is Jim Martin, no relation to Martin guitars. He’s in James Taylor’s band, no relation to Taylor guitars. Andy Rudman plays with Stephen Stills. He’s the one with the Martin D50. Let’s see, that’s Shorty Amos. He played bass on Joan Armatrading’s last album. And last, but not least, Jonas Welby, no relation to Marcus Welby. He plays banjo with Dan Fogelberg. Have a seat.”
Alistair handed Scott a bottle of beer as he sat down in an empty chair. He settled the guitar in his lap and Rudman passed him the joint. After he had taken a hit, he looked around the circle, not knowing what to think. “I’m in way over my head, here. I don’t know what Alistair told you, but I’m not a professional musician or anything.”
They all laughed. “That’s ok, man,” said Jonas Welby. “Most of us shouldn’t be either.” They laughed again.
“Let’s stop jawing and start playing,” said Shorty Amos, starting to pluck out a bass line. Scott recognized it as the beginning of a James Taylor song. One at a time the musicians around the circle picked up the tune and joined in. Scott could hear a little bit of an echo, but it wasn’t what he would have expected from such a large space. He watched the guitarists’ fingers for a few bars to make sure he knew which key they were playing in and tentatively tried a chord. It seemed to match up with what the group was playing, so he changed to the next chord and the next until he was right in the middle of the jam.
Slim Walton started singing the lyrics and some of the others started humming harmonies. On the third verse, he started stumbling over the lyrics, missing a line, laughing, and going back to start over, but stumbling in the same spot. Scott screwed up his courage and sang the missing line loud enough for the rest to hear. His effort was rewarded with whistles and hoots from the other musicians. Alistair came over and patted him on the back.
When the song was over, Sam Sullivan said, “Hey, Alistair, you didn’t tell us how good this guy was. We’d have invited him to jam a long time ago if we’d known.”
Welby started a banjo riff that Scott didn’t recognize, but everyone joined in and he followed along. The musicians took turns doing solos in no particular order that Scott could discern, but it was so perfectly orchestrated that he thought there must be some sort of telepathic communication going on.
Walton said, “Hey, Scott, want to take lead?”
He wasn’t sure he was quite ready for this, but he might as well try. He nodded his head and closed his eyes for a few seconds to make sure he understood the logic of the chord patterns that everybody was playing. He moved his left hand up the neck and started picking out notes, improvising a sort of melody based on the background chord changes. A couple of times he felt himself wince as he hit a note that didn’t fit with the chords, but nobody else seemed to react, so he kept going. After a while, Shorty Amos started slowing down the bass line, which Scott interpreted as a signal that it was time to wrap up. He felt bold enough to do a run of quick, high notes, ending on a steady strum.
Everybody applauded. Scott set the guitar against his knee and realized he was sweating profusely. Suddenly the other musicians had concerned looks on their faces.
“Need a break, man?” asked Slim Walton.
“No, I’m fine,” replied Scott.
Sullivan disappeared for a minute and then came back with a towel. “Here. You can wipe up the sweat.”
“Oh, sorry, I hope I didn’t drip any on the guitar,” said Scott.
“Don’t worry about the guitar,” said Sullivan. “Are you sure you’re all right? Maybe the boys gave you too much of a workout.”
“No, really, this feels great. I can’t believe this is actually happening. It’s like a dream.”
They exchanged glances and nods all around the circle. “That’s the whole idea,” said Shorty Amos. “Making dreams come true.”
Scott thought that was a somewhat odd comment, but everybody had been drinking beer and smoking pot, so he attributed the weirdness to that.
They played two more songs and then took a break so that everybody could visit the can. Scott saw Alistair and Sullivan in a huddle over in a corner of the room. When they all came back to their chairs, Sullivan said, “So, Scott. Could you play one of the songs you’ve written? Alistair tells me you’re a good songwriter.”
Scott blushed. He didn’t have much confidence about his songwriting to begin with, much less enough to perform something in front of this crowd. His best friend Jorge was the only person he had ever been comfortable enough to play them for. And how would Alistair know whether he was a good songwriter? He had never let him see any of his songs
“I don’t know, guys. I don’t usually sing my stuff in front of anybody. Most of it is pretty rough,” Scott said, rubbing his beard.
“Come on. We’re all friends here. Besides, we’re so stoned, we won’t know the difference,” said Shorty Amos.
“Yeah, come on,” added Walton.
There was a chorus of “Come on” from around the circle.
Scott closed his eyes and pretended he was alone in his room.
“Give us a key,” said Welby.
“OK. G,” said Scott.
He began to strum, aware of the nakedness of the sound of his one guitar after having spent the last hour in a symphony. When he finished the introduction, he tried to begin singing the first verse, but nothing came out, so he continued strumming the same chord and cleared his throat. Finally he managed to squeeze out the first verse, quietly and tentatively. The rest of the musicians began to join in one by one. By the last verse, there was a full backup band complete with harmony singers.
When the song was over, everyone applauded and shouted, “Encore! Encore!” He thought about Jorge and wished he could be here to see this. Jorge said he liked most of his songs, but Scott always allowed for the possibility that he was just encouraging him because they were friends.
He ran through a mental inventory of all his songs, trying to decide which one would was worthy of being played, finally settling on one of Jorge’s favorites. Just after the bridge, Jonas Welby added a banjo break. Not to be outdone, the rest of them grabbed solos and turned the entire middle of the song into a seven minute instrumental. After each one had had his chance, Welby nodded to him, to signal that he should continue with the last verse and chorus.
“I love that song,” exclaimed Welby. “Would you mind it if I shared that with David Lindley? He doesn’t usually do covers, but I think he’d like it a lot.”
Scott sat for a moment, in shock. “Uh, no. I mean, that would be amazing.”
“Do you have a demo tape?” asked Welby.
“No, not really.” He didn’t know how he would go about getting one, but if it meant David Lindley listening to his song, he would find a way.
Welby exchanged a look with Sullivan. The two of them went over to the stage and returned with two microphones. When they saw what was going on, the others followed and brought back more. Sullivan went to the sound board in the back of the room and unwrapped a cassette tape. He moved some levers on the board and put on a set of large cushioned headphones. Scott sat and watched, not wanting to wake up from this fantasy.
When all the microphones were arranged, Sullivan yelled, “Levels,” from the back of the room. One by one, the musicians played a bar and sang into the nearest. Finally, Welby nodded to Scott and he started to play. Somehow, even though they had only heard his song once, they were able to play it through from the beginning, skipping the long instrumental breaks they had inserted in the first rendition.
At the end of the song there was complete silence, except for the sound of the click when Sullivan turned off the tape recorder. Suddenly it hit Scott what had just happened and he felt tears streaming down his face. He looked over at Alistair and silently mouthed the words, “Thank you.”
He looked around the circle and saw that each of the other musicians had tears in his eyes as well. Nobody spoke for a very long time, and then Sullivan took his headphones off, came over to him, and hugged him. One by one the others came and hugged him as well, smiling and crying at the same time.
Then Welby said, “I know I speak for everybody here when I say what a privilege it has been to play with you tonight. I’m inspired by your courage and your grace. I will carry the memory of this night with me for the rest of my life.”
Everyone murmured and nodded in agreement.
Sullivan said, “I’ll make copies of this tape for everyone so we can all remember.”
“I just don’t know how to thank all of you,” said Scott, his voice choking up. “I feel like the luckiest guy in the world.”
“That’s what I mean, man,” said Welby. “Everything you’ve been through and you feel lucky.” He shook his head.
Scott shot a look at Alistair, but he looked away before Scott could make eye contact. He was suddenly feeling as if he had been left out of some big secret.
They began packing up their instruments and cleaning up the beer bottles. He reached out to hand the guitar back to Sullivan.
“No, man, I want you to have it,” said Sullivan.
Scott was dizzy with the strangeness of it all. It was a three thousand dollar guitar, and some guy he had met for the first time tonight wanted him to have it for free.
“No, really, I couldn’t.” He tried to hand it to Sullivan, but he put his hands behind his back.
“You’ve given us a gift tonight, and now I want to give you something. It’s not much, but I hope it will give you some happiness.”
“I just don’t feel right taking it,” insisted Scott.
“I’ll tell you what. Think of it as a loan, then. Take it and play it, and Alistair can bring it back when you’re…” Sullivan’s throat caught on the words. “Done with it.”
“Take it, Scott. It’s all right. Good bye everyone, and thank you for a wonderful night,” It was Alistair, just behind him, taking his elbow and guiding him out of the room and down the hallway to the parking lot out back.
The sun was beginning to come up as they headed back down the road toward the hotel, the cold dawn wind blowing their hair straight up. “That was a perfect night,” said Scott. He hesitated for a minute. “I think…” God, could he really say it out loud? And what if he wanted to take it back the minute he’d said it? “I think I’m in love with you.” He closed his eyes and gritted his teeth. Yes, he did want to take it back. He felt so stupid. But the highway was noisy. Maybe Alistair hadn’t heard.
“Making you happy makes me happy,” Alistair said.
“How do you know those guys?” Scott asked.
“Don’t question. You’ll make the magic go away,” responded Alistair. “Just watch the sun come up and enjoy the drive.”
They stopped for breakfast at a popular coffee shop and had pancakes and tea.
“OK, I understand you don’t want to reveal all your secrets,” pressed Scott, “but I felt like there were some weird moments. Like there was something everybody else knew that I didn’t.”
“Really, Scott, it’s better if you don’t push,” said Alistair. “You’ll ruin it for yourself.”
Scott thought about the tears and what the banjo player had said about bravery. As he recalled the various odd comments, he realized they added up to a specific scenario.
“Oh, my God, Alistair,” he asked, horrified. “Did you tell them I was dying or something? Is that how you got them to play with me?”
Alistair burst out laughing. “Bravo. You figured it out. Rare cancer.”
Scott’s eyes opened wide. “You’ve got to be kidding me! You lied to them?” Suddenly the glow of the night before turned into a dark haze. “I have to apologize. I have to return the guitar.” He started to stand up, but Alistair grabbed his arm and pulled him back down.
“Don’t be ridiculous! I venture to say they had as good a time as you did. What’s the harm?” Then he chuckled. “You have to admit it really is quite humorous.”
Scott didn’t speak for a minute. His breathing sped up until he thought he might hyperventilate.
“Are you angry with me? Please say you’re not angry with me.” Alistair pouted. “I was only trying to do something really special for you.”
Scott searched his feelings for angry. He found confused, embarrassed, and horrified. What Alistair had done was fraud at worst, misguided at best. It was crazy, risky, way out on some limb where Scott would never venture. It was fearless. And it was the first time anybody had ever done something insane just to make him happy. “No, I’m not angry.”
“Good.” Alistair squeezed his knee under the table.
“But we have to return the guitar.”
Alistair nodded and took a sip of tea.
Scott smiled, and then he began to laugh. Then Alistair started to laugh, almost spitting tea, and the two of them were in hysterics for several minutes. The other restaurant patrons were staring at them, which only made the whole thing funnier.
“I can’t believe you did that,” said Scott.
“You are a very good musician, and a good songwriter. That banjo player is going to give your song to that David whoever he is. How do you think that would ever happen under normal circumstances? You have to make your own luck. If you have to stretch the truth a bit from time to time to get your foot in the door, isn’t that better than sitting by while other people get all the opportunities?”
“Not if I have to lie.”
“That’s the beauty of it. You didn’t lie. It was all me. You don’t have to take responsibility for something you didn’t know anything about.” Alistair waved to the waiter for the check.
“So, how long do I have to live, anyway?” asked Scott as they got in the car.
“Oh, only about six months. You look remarkably good for someone this ill. Of course, once you’ve exhausted all the available treatments and you’re at peace with your fate, a quiet radiance descends on you.”
Alistair would return the guitar in six months. No harm done. They’d have a story that was just theirs. Remember Sullivan’s? And they would laugh and nobody would know what was so funny. “Peaceful, Easy Feeling” was playing on the radio as they pulled into the parking lot of the Sea View Hotel.
Rachel Unkefer is president and a founding member of WriterHouse, a non-profit writing community in Charlottesville, Virginia. “No Harm Done” is excerpted from her second unpublished novel, “The Sea View Hotel,” about a hotel clerk seduced by a con artist. Her story “Remote Control” won first place in the 2009 Hook Short Story Contest judged by John Grisham.