I know I’m supposed to admire some girl drummer like Moe Tucker or Mrs. Karash, that would be more inspirational, but Moe Tucker? I want to learn to play the drums like my hero Alex Van Halen. When I think of Alex driving the beat on “Jamie’s Cryin'” I get chills. Mrs. Karash calls it anticipating the beat and her definition is to stay ahead without speeding up.
Mrs. Karash is in the Calumet Municipal Orchestra and a punk band called Smack Raiders. She lives out here in the cornfields, her garage transformed into a studio, carpeted and air-conditioned. She has two drum kits, one rock and one jazz, a xylophone, a vibraphone, a marimba, a set of steel drums, timpani, congas, timbales, bongos, maracas, ass’s jaw, lion’s roar, slide whistle, triangle, celeste, concert bass drum, finger cymbals, you name it. She’s fat and Polish, a nice old lady. The rest of Smack Raiders are hardcore. I saw them at Battle of the Bands and Mrs. Karash held them together despite themselves.
Me and Matt Miller are out by the county road waiting for our rides. It’s Indian summer. We sit on our snare drum cases and fiddle on them with our sticks. Matt is black, I know him from school, we’re in band together. I like him because he talks to me. I guess you could say I love him, in a friendship sort of way.
My lesson is before Matt’s and after that son-of-a-bitch Bobby Vega’s. Matt takes hour-long lessons, which means Mom is over an hour late to pick me up. When I saw Bobby this morning he bragged about taking an extra half-hour slot with Mrs. Karash like Matt, so I was feeling squeezed out. And Mrs. Karash was no help. She was always Bobby this and Matt that. It’s OK I guess, they’re her best students, but I’m sick of it. Bobby has his own marimba when all I have is my Ludwig, a snare drum on a stand that my Dad makes me practice in the garage.
I told Mrs. Karash how strict he was at home and she explained about acoustics. If I set my Ludwig in a certain spot, the whole garage resonates and I’m eight times louder. I play flam-taps from that spot until Dad comes bounding out with another of his headaches.
“Julie, we bought you that practice pad, remember?”
It’s hard rubber like a hockey puck, not enough bounce. It puts a strain on my wrists.
“I hate that thing,” I tell him.
“Come inside and watch TV.”
When Matt’s mom shows up she offers me a ride.
“Thanks,” I say. “I don’t mind waiting.”
Riding with Mom got good once she admitted she didn’t love Dad anymore. “I understand,” I told Mom. I’d seen pictures of the young Dad and he ain’t what he used to be. Now Mom dates Mr. Ferguson and she’s always late to pick me up.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “Your father and I don’t want a divorce. We’re just not romantic.”
I hate flam paradiddle-diddles. They’re awkward. A diddle is a double stroke. A flam is when both sticks hit the drum at nearly the same time, a tap and a hard accent. Regular flam paradiddles aren’t as difficult, because the hand that plays the diddle also plays the unaccented stroke of the following first flam—so you can crush the diddle for the same effect. But flam paradiddle-diddles are tricky, because the extra diddle reverses the sticking, so the hand that plays the second diddle also has to play the accented stroke of the following first flam—three quick strokes with the same hand, ending on the accent, which goes against inertia. I’m fine with left-handed flam paradiddle-diddles because I’m right-handed, but Mrs. Karash expects me to alternate left and right, and to accelerando, until I’m playing flam paradiddle-diddles fast like syncopated rolls. She stands next to me in a muumuu listening, both of us wearing hunter’s orange earplugs.
I play a flam but balk the rest. I take a deep breath and try again, spitting out a right-handed flam paradiddle-diddle, then a sound from the drum like wiping out on my bicycle, and my sticks come to rest with a buzz.
“OK,” I say, semi-shouting. Still no good. Five or six more times I try. I tell Mrs. Karash we’ve been reading Hamlet at school, which is true. It’s been taking all my time, but she doesn’t buy it. Finally, I get the flam paradiddle-diddles going and I begin my accelerando. It isn’t long before my sticking outruns comprehension, what we want. But then I think about what I’m playing and my hands trip up.
“Like thees,” Mrs. Karash says. She uses fat marching sticks, her hands arthritic, weightless flam paradiddle-diddles tossed off left and right, her accelerando poised and controlled. Bobby and Matt would lick my shoes if I played like that.
“You haven’t been practizing.”
I’m listening to my Walkman, Cheap Trick’s Live at Budokan, when I see Mom’s Caprice finally coming down the road. Matt is long gone. When she shows up this late Mrs. Karash usually says, “I thought you were steefing me,” but Mom never gets embarrassed. She insists on paying in person, so they can talk progress. She pays out of her teacher’s-aide salary, and she calls me her feminist.
Only some man is driving Mom’s car, she’s not even in it. He rolls down the window and he gives me a ten with the engine idling. I feel awkward. We’ve never paid cash. Mrs. Karash is bound to look out her little window. I pocket the money and interrupt a lesson to tell Mrs. Karash we’ll pay her next week.
“I’ve got a waiting list, Julie,” she says, which doesn’t sound like Mrs. Karash at all and it scares me. She can’t quit me; I’m her only girl. Like I don’t have enough to worry about—the guy in Mom’s car is quarterback-looking and drinking age at least.
“I’ve got to go.”
“I mean it,” she says.
He wears a clean suit and cologne. He holds the door like I’m his date. “Name’s Blaine,” he says. “I work for Dick Ferguson.” Mr. Ferguson is the deputy mayor of Calumet. Blaine is obviously one of his flunkies.
“Where’s my mom?”
“Let’s go to Penguin Point,” he says. “We can talk over food.”
“I don’t want food.”
“I’ll buy you a shake.”
“Take me home.”
“Is there a friend’s you can stay at?” He takes my drum and puts it in the trunk. I get in the car and turn up the radio, searching for something tolerable. Blaine pulls onto the road, hunched over while he drives. I find a Bob Dylan tune I like and I roll down my window. Mama’s in the fac’try she ain’t got no shoes. I’m in the kitchen with the tombstone blues. Blaine keeps his window up because of his perfect hair.
“Your Mom is indisposed until six,” he says. “We could go to a movie or something.”
That sounded all right. Mom had been acting bizarre so I should have known. She’d even done herself up. When I commented she said, “You would too, if you were in love.”
“Turn here,” I tell Blaine as we approach Calumet National Reservoir. The dam is impressive but so much a part of my everyday scenery it’s pathetic. We can hear the siren from our house, which they blast every Saturday for Civil Defense and whenever else they feel like it. Once in Girl Scouts they let us canoe after they’d opened the floodgates and we hardly even had to paddle.
There are lookout points on both sides of the dam. The reservoir side has something of a beach, where there are picnickers and park rangers. At night it’s a make-out spot. Blaine drives over the top of the dam, to the non-reservoir side, which is deserted except for some boys kicking over stones, hunting crayfish and keeping them alive in jars.
I remove the keys from the ignition and take my snare drum from the trunk of the Caprice. I climb down the bank, take off my shoes, and roll up my jeans. The river churns at the foot of the dam but quickly becomes shallow, too shallow for a canoe. Blaine sits on the hood of Mom’s car like a smoking lifeguard. I take the Ludwig from its case, put the stand together, and carry it out to a flat breaker twenty feet from the foot of the dam. There isn’t any water running over the top of the rock, but it’s slick from splashing. I step onto the slab and steady the snare drum stand with my foot. I take my sticks from my pocket and try a medium rim shot—birds take off, a stray dog barks, the little crayfish hunters stand straight up—I’m loud as hell. I put in my earplugs and improvise a cadence.
Eventually, Blaine comes down for me. He walks on the tops of stones in his dress shoes. It’s cocky. He’s showing off.
“If the siren blows, you won’t hear,” he says, and he takes the Ludwig back to shore. I’m left holding the sticks. I’m not finished.
He gets the drum in its case after initial difficulty, and he lies in the grass. I sit next to him and look into the sky, to try to see what he sees: turkey vultures, wispy clouds.
He says, “Your mom tells me you want to be the first woman president.”
“She says a lot of things.”
“It’s a long way to the top.”
“But kudos when you get there, eh Blaine?”
“I want to go home.”
“Not until six.”
“What’s your deal?”
“It ain’t six.”
“Drop me off and I’ll walk.”
“What about your daddy?”
“He doesn’t care.”
“You show up at home without her and he doesn’t care?”
To this point I’d been noticing Blaine’s good looks, but now all of a sudden he’s creepy. “You get off on baby-sitting,” I say, which puts things in perspective, and he takes his hand off my knee. From then on he talks to me like I’m a human being. About leaving Calumet, or about his dream of getting a job for the Parks Department. Stuff everyone thinks.
“If I were you,” I say, “I’d at least be an alcoholic.”
“What makes you think I ain’t?” He takes a steel flask from inside his suit and he asks if I want to hit it. I’ve never been drunk but why not? We pass the flask and talk. By six I have him believing I’m fifteen.
“Where are we going?” I ask.
“They could have been less obvious.”
I’ve only seen pictures of Dick Ferguson, from his flyers: Vote ‘Yes’ on 5O4! It’s for the schools! I have no idea what Mom sees in him. He’s no better looking than Saul, our band director. He has cowlicks. She went around the neighborhood asking people to sign his petition. When she talks about him I keep my opinions to myself.
Blaine carries my drum to Mom’s car.
“You have the keys?” he asks.
“Yes, I’m driving.”
“You got a permit?”
“Sure. Mom lets me all the time.”
Once I’m in the driver’s seat nothing else matters. I roll down my window and Blaine rolls his up. I still have that Dylan tune in my head. The sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken. The Ramada isn’t far, thank God, mostly straightaway. I get Mom’s car up to 45, I can’t wait to be grown.
I park in the carport at Ramada and I hand the keys to Blaine, so he can feel like he’s done his job. We find Mom in the lobby, she looks tired, she’s been crying.
“Let’s go,” she says, and she takes me by the hand to the car.
I’m disappointed I don’t get to meet Mr. Ferguson. He had to be better in person. Blaine seemed to like him. I want to ask, “Blaine, will I see you again?” but I can’t because Mom rushes us out of there. I look over my shoulder to see if Blaine watches us leave and he does.
When we’re alone in Mom’s car, she says, “Flat tire, that’s our story.”
“Did you call Dad?”
“If you had it planned why didn’t you tell me? There’s such a thing as courtesy.”
“You’re no good at lying, Julie. You know that. We don’t want him suspecting.”
“I can lie,” I tell her, and I think about the ten-dollar bill in my pocket. “Just make it worth my while.”
“I want a full hour of drum lessons and permission to practice in the house.”
“He won’t go for it.”
“It’s the only way. I’ll play quietly in my room with the door closed.”
“The thanks I get. Are you drunk?”
She makes me nervous driving. I know what it’s like now and she’s not paying attention. We quit talking altogether and I try to think of ways my life is like Hamlet’s. If I were Hamlet, Bobby and Matt would be Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and I’d have them killed off by one of Dick Ferguson’s flunkies. They’d go for a ride and never come back. I’d also kill Ferguson: “I stabeth thine heart, motherfucker.” All for Dad, the ghost.
Blaine would be Ophelia. He’d put flowers in his hair and drown himself in the reservoir. He’d be gorgeous.