Read Streetlights Like Fireworks Online

Authors: David Pandolfe

Streetlights Like Fireworks (8 page)

“Let’s check it out,” Lauren says.

We go into the cool air, slide into a bright red booth
and look at menus. Not surprisingly, they’re big on breakfast items since,
evidently, the place stays open twenty-four hours. And, of course, there’s a
big range of burger options plus the comfort food you’d expect to find.

“Ooh, French Toast,” Lauren says.

“I’m thinking Carolina Burger,” I say.

As soon as we place our order, my phone starts buzzing
against the table. I wish I’d left it in my pocket since it’s even harder to
ignore with both of us aware of it.

“Do you think maybe you should answer that?” Lauren says.

I don’t have to look to know who’s calling. “I probably
should,” I say, but I don’t. After a minute, my phone stops vibrating.

The waitress drops off our drinks and Lauren sips her
lemonade. “Have they been calling a lot?”

I poke my straw at the ice in my Coke. “A number of
times.”

“Maybe you should just let them know you’re okay.”

“And tell them what, that I bailed on camp and took off
with you in search of whoever might have owned my guitar because a ghost keeps
appearing next to my bed?”

“You could. After all, it is the truth. I’m fine with it,
if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“What about you? Don’t you—”

“Different situation,” Lauren says, sliding out of the
booth. “If the waitress comes back, can you ask her for extra syrup? I mean, if
it looks stingy.”

I watch as she walks toward the restroom. Lauren wears a
red skirt, a gray t-shirt and sneakers. With the vibrant streaks in her hair
gone, at least for now, she doesn’t draw stares for standing out next to the
other people in the diner. I wonder if she just dresses dark for school to put
people off, almost playing into the scary thing, something she picked up as a
defense mechanism along the way. If that’s been her intention, it’s worked
nicely for her. People have long stopped making fun of her and keep their
distance these days. I wonder if, deep down, she cares but I get the feeling
she stopped caring about them years ago.

The waitress drops off our food along with a large
dispenser of maple syrup, so there’s no issue there. I can’t help it. I check
my phone, hoping maybe it was Justin or Doug this time. It wasn’t. I set my
phone down again, then pick it back up. Lauren’s right. I send my father a
text.

I’m fine. Not dead or anything.

I wait, wondering if my phone will start buzzing. But he
gets it—I’m not answering.

A moment later, he texts back.
Where are you?

I think about telling him but I don’t want to. It’s as
simple as that. For good or bad, I want this experience to be mine. Telling him
would ruin it. God only knows too—he might call the Charlotte police or
something.

Just not at camp.

I sip my Coke and wait.

You need to get back here.

I will. Soon.

I look at my burger, which looks good, but I’m not hungry
anymore.

Unless you plan on paying for college yourself, I’d
suggest you do it now.

And there it is. What can I say to that other than nothing?
So, that’s exactly what I say. I stare at the screen, at that message, wishing
I felt more than I do. I notice my battery is about to die. I put my phone in
my pocket, deciding not to charge it for a while.

I’m looking out the window when Lauren slides back in
across from me. American flags flap outside in the breeze. Cars and busses roll
past.

After a moment, she says, “I guess you called them.”

Maybe she noticed that my phone is no longer on the
table. Or maybe it took me a moment too long to break off my gaze from things I
was barely seeing. I look at her now. In her eyes, I see both concern and
knowing. And something she hasn’t shared with me. At least, not yet.

I nod. “I sent a text.”

“What did they say?”

“They said to take my time and do what I have to do.”

Lauren pours maple syrup onto her French Toast.
“Something like that,” she says. “Right?”

“Exactly,” I say. “Something like that.”

“Well, I still think it’s good that you let them know
you’re okay.”

And she’s right. Not for their sake but for mine. I know
where I stand now and it’s way worse than I thought. I’ve never known my father
to bluff. Why do I not care? Why do I really hope something comes along that
keeps me from going back there? I want this to happen even if it makes no sense
and everything comes crashing down. I get the feeling that, somehow, Lauren
knows this. That she at least senses it.

“I think so too,” I say.

I reach for the ketchup and pour some out next to my
fries, then dip one in. Suddenly, I’m hungry again and the burger is looking
good.

~~~

Too soon, though, we’re walking back. The sun is directly
above us now, beating down. It has to be well into the nineties and the shade
offered by the trees planted next to the sidewalk is definitely losing the
fight to all the concrete and glass around us. My shirt is starting to soak
through, not exactly the best feeling after eating a burger. Lauren, on the
other hand, seems fine. She keeps looking around at people and buildings just
as interested as when we’d walked up the same street before. I guess she’s not
bothered by the fact that we’ll soon be getting back into the van with nowhere
to go but I’m not feeling that way at all.

Despite the heat, the same old guy remains sitting on his
milk crate where we saw him an hour ago. As we approach, I almost recognize the
song but can’t quite place it. Again, he’s putting his own spin on it, making
the song his own. He’s an interesting old guy, that’s for sure. He has to be at
least sixty and before he was playing a Pixies song. But, okay, sure—the Pixies
have been around since the late eighties. So, I guess he would have been in his
thirties back then. 

We’re just a few feet away and the song keeps nagging at
me. I know this melody. The chord progression sounds really familiar. I stop
walking and Lauren does too. I listen as he sings, trying to place the lyrics.

Looking at the sky, something for the eye.

Trying to forget, what hasn’t happened yet.

I think I’m going to be a long time…

I think I’m going to be a long time coming down.

Suddenly, I recognize the song and it feels like the
world stops. I no longer hear the cars and busses or remain aware of the other
people walking by. There’s just the song and, inside my mind, the image of the
woman who once fronted a band that broke up almost twenty years ago. A woman no
one has heard from since.

This time I don’t think to leave any money in his case. I
start walking fast back toward where we left the bus. All the same, he calls
out, “Keep the faith, my man.”

A moment later, Lauren catches up to me.  She grabs my
elbow and I stop. I turn to face her.

Lauren looks into my eyes. “What just happened?”

“I know who she is,” I say. “Remember Purge?”

“The band?”

I nod. “Right, the band. Purge”

“Holy shit,” she says. “This just keeps getting more
cool.”

 
11

Facebook Friends
in Music City

 

We sit in the van, engine running and windows down while we
wait for something resembling AC to kick in. The VW bus is old and even though
it’s been nicely restored it’s still not up for a summer afternoon in Charlotte,
North Carolina. My shirt sticks to my back. Lauren’s face is sheened from the
walk back, especially after sprinting to catch up with me.

Now, I’m not sure why I started rushing back to the van.
I guess I just wanted to get somewhere to sort things out. But the VW bus only
offers a place to sit while the sun beats down on its roof. It’s not like I
know where to go.

“Do you really think it’s her?” Lauren says.

I can see her more clearly than ever now. Wild red hair
and intense green eyes I’ve seen so many times from old photos.

I nod. “Jessica Malcom,” I say. “I’m sure.”

Why I hadn’t realized before amazes me on one level but
makes perfect sense on another. I just haven’t thought about Purge in a long
time. I used to listen to them when I was first learning to play, trying to get
that same raw, honest sound to come out of my guitar. They were a very cool
band and Jessica Malcom’s voice had cut like a knife. But a million other bands
have come along since. Over time, I almost forgot this band that broke up
before I was even born.

Lauren takes out her phone and starts tapping at the
screen. I know what she’s doing but I also know she won’t find anything. I have
no doubt about it. It wasn’t so much that Purge had been forgotten. They had
their place in history, definitely. They’d kicked ass, even though they’d just
been an indie band out of Boston. They’d also been influential. In fact, Frank
Black from the Pixies mentioned a few times how Purge had helped shape their
sound. The two bands had even toured together. Who knows, maybe Purge would
have been bigger than the Pixies, or even Nirvana, if they’d kept going. Word
was they’d been about to sign with a major label when something derailed them.

No one really knew what happened. Sure, there was
speculation about band members not getting along, drugs, all kinds of stuff.
But the only thing known for sure is that one of the coolest indie bands from
that era suddenly called it quits. What was weird, though, was that the lead
singer and songwriter, Jessica Malcom, totally vanished. No one seemed to know
where she’d ended up.

Now, here she was seemingly calling out to me from
wherever she’d gone—which made no sense at all. Could I really have somehow
ended up with her guitar? Freaking cool beyond belief, but still. How could
that have happened?

 “Tohru says maybe she can help,” Lauren says.

Only then, it occurs to me that Lauren was texting rather
than randomly researching. “Who’s Tohru?”

“Just a friend. Well, not just friend. She’s like us.”

I crack a smile, thinking back to the old TV commercials
on YouTube. “Hang on, do you mean she’s a psychic friend?”

Lauren smiles too. “Well, I was trying to avoid that
phrase. But, yes, she’s a psychic friend. Her roommate’s psychic too.”

I search my memory but I definitely would have remembered
that name. “How do you know them?”

“Facebook.”

“Seriously, they’re Facebook psychic friends?”

Lauren laughs. “Yep. But here’s the thing—Tohru is really
into music and she’s mentioned Purge a bunch of times. They’re one of her
favorite bands.”

“Wow, weird coincidence,” I say.

Lauren raises an eyebrow but doesn’t say anything. She
doesn’t have to since just that much tells me what she’s thinking.

“You don’t think it’s a coincidence.”

Thankfully, Lauren doesn’t say there’s no such thing as a
coincidence. Obviously, sometimes that’s all it is. But she does say, “You just
never know. Anyway, maybe she can help us think of something. I didn’t go into
the whole thing. I just figured we could talk to them when we get there.”

Which brings to mind the obvious question. And something
tells me I’m probably not going to love the answer. “Where do they live?”

Still, Lauren doesn’t even hesitate. “Nashville,” she
says, like it’s the most reasonable thing in the world. Then she adds, “I know
what you’re thinking but it’s only like six hours from here. We could be there
by tonight easy.”

While yesterday I definitely would have freaked out at
the idea, today not so much. I only think for a few seconds, then say, “Sure,
why not? After all, my parents told me to take my time and do what I have to
do.”

“Something like that, right?”

“Exactly.”

Lauren puts on her sunglasses and starts the engine.
“Cool, let’s do this.” Then she thinks for a moment and rummages in her bag.
“Here. Totally forgot I had these.”

She hands me a pair of wrap-around sunglasses, thick
black frames with giant tear-drop shaped lenses.

“You just happened to have these with you? Did you like
mug Bono or something?” All the same, I put on the sunglasses.

“You look good in those,” Lauren says. “More mysterious.
Like a man in charge of his own destiny.”

I’m not exactly sure what she means by that but a moment
later she pulls away from the curb and merges into traffic on Tryon Street.
Neither of us even glance in the direction of the Trolleyman Brewery.

~~~

In the dream, Jessica Malcom is with a man this time and the
two of them are arguing. I can’t hear what they’re saying. It’s like a silent
movie with just their mouths moving and them gesturing wildly at each other.
Maybe it’s because he’s moving his hands all over the place but I notice the
rings on his fingers. He must have a thing about rings because he’s wearing a
lot of them. Then he turns his back on her and walks off. Just like that, he’s
gone and she’s standing alone crying. But then I’m on a plane and the ride
keeps getting more bumpy. Suddenly, the plane is rocking back and forth and
stuff is spilling out of overhead compartments. My heart hammers in my chest
and now oxygen masks are dropping from the ceiling. I’m white-knuckling the
armrests and I look down at my clenched hands, all those rings pressing into my
fingers. We’re spinning like crazy and I’m screaming my head off when
everything suddenly goes black.

I sit bolt upright, thinking I’m still on the plane, that
I’m still him. Then I see the road stretching out ahead and realize I’m in the
van.

Lauren looks over at me. “Another dream?”

My heart continues thumping away. I push my hair back and
wipe sweat onto my jeans.  “Yeah, I really need to stop falling asleep while
we’re driving. Maybe it’s this old bus that’s haunted.”

Lauren laughs. “You never know. And I guess it would make
for better company.”

“Sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it. What was it this time—did you see
her again?”

I shake my head, trying to clear the dream. Damn, that
last part on the plane felt totally real. “Yes. But other stuff too. Totally
random.” I tell her about Jessica and the man arguing, about the rings on his
fingers and then being on the plane that was going to crash.

Lauren keeps her eyes on the road. “Yeah, that is pretty
weird.”

“There’s something else,” I say. “The guy in the dream…”
I’m not entirely sure, but I feel fairly sure. I’ve just never seen him alive
before.

“What about him?”

“I think he’s the ghost.”

Lauren doesn’t say anything for a few minutes and I guess
she must be thinking. Finally, she says, “Why do you think you experienced that
just now?”

It’s kind of a strange question since you could ask the
same about any of the flashes or dreams I’ve had so far. “I don’t know. It was
scary as hell, that’s for sure.” After a moment, I add, “What about you?”

“I think he wanted you to know,” Lauren says. “For some
reason, he wanted you to know how he died.”

I give that some thought. “Because maybe it was sudden?”

Lauren nods. “That’s what I think too. Like maybe there
was something he still wanted to do but never got the chance.”

~~~

By the time the sun starts getting low on the horizon, the
GPS shows we’re still a couple hours away from Nashville. It’s funny how six
hours can sound like a short time but not seem that way when you’re trying to
get somewhere. I start thinking about Tennessee again. I’ve never been there
either and it’s always sounded so far away. Strange to think that it actually
borders North Carolina and Virginia way down south. Still, just thinking the
word “Tennessee” brings to mind all the deep south stereotypes you see in
movies. Hillbillies sitting on front porch rocking chairs holding shotguns.
Bluesy harmonicas, bayous and burping bullfrogs. At the same time, I know many
people think the same about Virginia. People I talk to online sometimes freak
when I mention living there, like they imagine my family living on a cotton
plantation.
How is it down there? Is it okay?
They never exactly say it,
but I know what they mean since the media always portrays the south like it’s
still 1956. But the fact is, the south is a mixed bag. Most of us have all our
teeth, don’t plan on marrying cousins and banjo playing is not required.

As for Nashville, I’m not sure what to expect. For one
thing, I’ve never been much of a country music fan. While I’ve heard things
have changed in Nashville over the years, I still kind of think of it that way.
As if to underscore that feeling, our luck with the radio is pretty much zero
now that we’re in the middle of nowhere. By the time the sun sets and we’re
barreling along in the dark, we’re stuck with classic rock or country again.
So, we turn the music down and try silence for a while.

Still, after a few miles it feels like I should probably
say something.

“July fourth is just a couple of days from now.” The
thought doesn’t come completely from nowhere. I was thinking about my family
and the stuff we used to do before things started unraveling. I glance over at
Lauren.

“Yeah,” she says. “Almost forgot.”

“Any plans?”

Lauren stares out at the road. “Not such a big fan of
that particular holiday.”

“Why’s that?”

For a minute, she doesn’t say anything and I wonder if
she isn’t going to answer. Then she says, “All those families. Outside. Where
everyone can see them.”

Lauren reaches for the radio and turns up the volume just
in time to catch the intro to an old Guns N’ Roses song. I don’t exactly get
the feeling she really wants to hear the song. All the same, she turns it up
some more.

~~~

It’s pushing ten o’clock when we cross the bridge into
Nashville. Spires of light rise into the sky and the city casts a shimmering
rainbow reflection on the river. Before long we’re downtown driving along
Broadway. Music spills out of bars with open doors and I notice right off that
it’s not just country. I hear blues and rock mixing in too. Street musicians
play wherever they can find room on sidewalks packed with people striding along
talking and laughing. The street is an open air party and the focus of that
party is music.

“I guess this is what Saturday night looks like in Music
City,” Lauren says. “Seems cool.”

“Very cool,” I say, not taking my eyes off the scene
around us.

But we’re just passing through and twenty minutes later
we pull up in front of a brick apartment building. Lauren sends a text and
within seconds one of the sliding glass doors opens on a balcony above. Two
women appear and stare down at us. It’s hard to be sure from a distance but
they’re probably in their early twenties. They both hold beer bottles.

“Psychic Potato, is that you?”

“Twitter name,” Lauren explains, before rolling down her
window. She calls up to the balcony. “Woo-Woo Girl?”

“That’s me, right here next to Vibezilla! You made it!
Just park right on over there in the visitor space and come up!”

“You’re really going to like Tohru and Shakeesha,” Lauren
says. “I just know it.”

We park, they buzz us in to enter and we go upstairs to
an apartment unlike anything I’ve seen before. Artwork is displayed
everywhere—paintings, photos, posters and sculptures—in all kinds of styles
ranging from classic to totally bizarre. A six-foot statue of a woman with a
rabbit head kneels in a corner reading a book. Papier-mache bats circle above,
attached by string to a ceiling fan. Detailed pencil drawings of hands and
faces line the walls alongside both color and black and white photos. A pink
Christmas tree stands decorated with Day of the Dead skull lights. There are
easels with canvases showing works in progress. As for sound, jazz—a mix of
horns, drums and bass coming from speakers somewhere. Within less than an hour,
Music City has taken on a whole new meaning.

I watch as Tohru and Shakeesha continue to hug, laugh and
talk. It’s cool to see how excited they are to be meeting each other in person.
After all, what were the odds of Lauren ever dropping in out of the sky like
this? It’s like I’m not even there and I’m totally fine with that but I guess I
blow it by continuing to watch them.

Lauren suddenly breaks it off and says, “Oh, sorry! This
is Jack.”

“Hi,” I say, giving a little wave.

“Jack has an issue,” Lauren says. “We’re trying to figure
it out.”

Really? Thanks so much, Lauren. But she’s totally in the
moment, not even realizing how weird that sounded.

“I can totally help Jack,” Shakeesha says. “Tohru, can we
help Jack?”

“You betcha! What you need first is a beer, my man!”
Tohru is maybe five feet tall but has a deep voice that doesn’t match up. It’s
like hearing a fog horn when you expect a whistle. “You too, Potato!”

Tohru goes into the kitchen and Shakeesha motions for us
to follow her toward the living room. A few seconds later, we’re clinking beer
bottles, standing in a group. It’s not like I’ve never scored a beer before,
but it does feel strange not to be trying to hide it somehow.

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