Max thought I was never coming back. Everybody else did, too, but Max is the only one who told me to my face. The rest of ‘em, I read it in their eyes.
Max and I were smoking cigarettes on his front step after band practice when he told me. Our band wasn’t going anywhere but his living room and a couple open mikes at lousy bars between Lauderdale and Hollywood, if we were lucky, but that’s all we wanted, so we were happy.
Out of nowhere, he said, “Yeah, brother, I wrote you off.” He shook his head and let loose one of his raspy chuckles. “Some friend, huh?” He was holding his cigarette cupped in his palm the way he did when the wind was blowing. I imagine he copied that way of holding it from one of the war movies he watched late at night when he couldn’t sleep, but it looked cool, so I didn’t give him shit for it.
Max kept talking, which was unusual for him. “I was playing Fat Cats with Scotty and that fuckhead Jason and we were talking about you between sets. Couple years back, maybe three.” He stopped and thought about it. “That shitty fish place you waited tables at hadn’t burned yet, so it must have been three. Coulda been four I guess. Anyway, Jason asked about you and I said, ‘I don’t know what happened, but that cat’s been gone seven years.’ Then Jason said something about the Bible and numbers, you know how he gets when he’s been smoking weed, how you were ‘biblically’ gone, some shit like that, and started talking about seven and three and eighteen. So then Scotty looks at me, all serious, and says, ‘Seven years gone. I think if you’re gone seven years and you got life insurance or whatever, they call you dead, they read your will and all that. They decide you’re dead.’”
Max took the last drag on his cigarette, rubbed it out on the side of the concrete step. “Seven years gone. Shit’s fucked up, man. That’s when I started believing you were never coming back. Smoking in the alley behind Fat Cats. I was playing there with those guys back when you first got into town.”
“Yeah,” I said, “I remember. It was Halloween. That’s the night I met Holly. She was dressed up in that devil costume.” Holly is Max’s special lady friend. Back then they’d just started dating.
“Yeah, she looked hot in that. We played pretty good that night.”
“I remember you told me in Florida nobody wears underwear because of the humidity.”
“Yeah. You said it right before you introduced us, so I wondered if Holly wasn’t.”
He said, “Hey now. That’s my girl you’re talking about.” But he was laughing.
“You’re the one put the idea in my head, you fucker.” I finished my cigarette. “That was fifteen years ago.”
“Really? So we’ve known each other fifteen years?”
“Must be. I still can hardly play bass. You’re still not much of a drummer.”
He laughed again. “Well, Bud, you gotta remember I only play drums when you play bass, and you weren’t making band practice for a few years there.” He laughed then turned serious. “How long was it anyway?”
“Nine years, not seven.” That spooked him, so I said, “I had to do all my government shit over again, driver’s license, social security. I was kinda lucky there wasn’t anybody to claim any benefits, so it went pretty easy.”
He shook his head again and let loose another chuckle—if he did one he almost always did the other, it was one of those things that made him Max. He took a long look at the palm trees that only partially blocked the three-story condo somebody’d built across the street while I was gone. He hated that condo, complained about it almost every time I’d been over since I got back.
“Did I see a halfie in there when we came outside?” I wanted a little more smoke and I didn’t want to hear about the goddamn condo.
“Yeah, brother.” He pulled the half-smoked cigarette out of the box and held it up.
“Split it with ya?”
“Sure.” He lit it and took the first drag. When he passed it to me he said, “Seven years gone sounds better than nine years gone. He looked at me and I nodded and then he said, “Sounds like a song title to me.”
“It’s an album title. The first song is called And I still can’t play bass to save my life.”
He grinned. “You’ll have to write that one.”
I held up my right hand. “Be cool, I’m missing fingers.”
“You still got your index finger. That’s the only one you ever used.”
He offered me the cigarette again and I waved him off, saying, “You kill it.”
He did, then rubbed it out on the side of the step and dropped the butt into an ashtray sitting on a chunk of coral he’d dug out of the yard while re-planting palm trees. Still looking at the ashtray he asked, “You ever gonna tell me what happened?”
I stood and slung my bass over my shoulder. “Tell you what. I’ll tell you about it one song at a time. I can’t make this weekend, but I’ll be here Tuesday and we’ll work on it. What do you say?”
He hadn’t expected that, I could tell, but he said, “Sounds good, man, sounds good.”
“Alright. Be good.” I stood a minute watching the fountain in the corner of the garden, the flowers I could never remember the name of growing around the papyrus sprouting in the middle. The fountain looked a lot like the one in my hotel in Cartageña. I’d met this super hot local girl at the bar. She was smart and funny and everything. She was too good to be true, basically. She’d gotten up to go to the bathroom and I’d been looking at the fountain trying to decide if she was for real or a pro when the rockets or mortars or bombs or whatever they were hit. Then I was getting dragged out of there, my ears ringing, my hand hurting like hell, and I saw her buried in the rubble, blood all over her face…
The rattle of a choke chain brought me back to Max’s front step. He was talking to Betty, getting ready to take Betty for her walk. “You believe that Bets? Seven years gone.” There was a pause—I knew he was shaking his head—and he rasped out a chuckle.
I walked through the bougainvillea-covered gate and turned right, toward my apartment. I had to be at work in an hour. Waiting tables, if you can believe that.
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