The voice on the other end of the line sounded
vaguely familiar, a gentle, soft female voice that teased at my
memory but failed to trigger it. “Is this Eddie?” she asked
tentatively. I could barely hear her over the television.
“Speaking,” I responded, awkwardly thumbing down the
TV volume with my good hand. It had been years since anyone had
called me Eddie.
“This is Mia,” the voice continued.
“Mia Davis,” she said, her voice unsurprised at my
lack of recognition.
The image of a short, nondescript girl from high
school came into my mind: shy, with brown hair and freckles and
a nice smile. Now that I had placed her I felt guilty for not
having remembered; she struck me as the type of person who might
often be forgotten. “Of course! Mia, I’m sorry. Geez, it's
been what, ten years . . . ?”
“Don’t worry about it.”
I heard a short intake of breath as she started to
say something, then faltered. I clicked the power button on the
remote to extinguish the television, wincing as pain shot
through my wrist. Wrong hand, this time. “Are you there?” I
“Yeah. Listen, I . . . well, something happened last
night that reminded me of you, and I thought I should call.”
“Well, it’s weird,” she said. “I was listening to
the radio and I heard you playing.”
I considered what she’d said for about a second.
The idea of me being on the radio was crazy. I hadn’t picked up
a bass in six years, let alone been in a band. My wrist was
shot, from years of excessive typing. I couldn't manage the
frets any more. “Playing the bass, you mean? It couldn’t have
been me. I mean, the only recordings I’m on . . . the sound quality
would suck. Old tape recorders, mostly. We didn’t even have a
“What about that demo you did with the guys?"
“If it had been the demo, you would have said it was
the demo.” I heard the touchiness in my voice, tried to relax.
She had stirred up a part of my life that had long been buried.
“I’m sorry, it’s just . . . you’ve got to be mistaken.”
“Listen, I know it was you,” Mia said, her voice
calm and gentle, and lost memories of her trickled back. She
had always been soft-spoken, unobtrusive, agreeable. Everybody
had taken her for granted. This was as assertive as I’d ever
heard her. “You’re the only person I’ve ever heard play the
bass that way. That thing you did, bending the string and
scratching your thumbnail across it . . . and that really percussive
sound you had. It was you. On the radio. Last night.”
Mia had spent a few hours hanging out at our
rehearsals, back then. I hadn’t realized at the time how
closely she’d been listening. “Yeah, well everybody does
hammers,” I said lamely.
An awkward pause. I tried to think of something to
say, but she moved quickly to fill the silence. “Listen, what
are you doing tomorrow night? Or Saturday? Are you busy?”
“No, not really.”
“You feel like coming down?” she said. “I’m in
Chicago, now. It’s just a couple hours’ drive. We should get
“Uh, yeah. I mean, I could do that. Sure.”
“I’ve got to work until four, so any time after
that. Got something to write on?”
I grabbed a pencil and an envelope off the coffee
table and scribbled down directions as she recited them,
surprised that I was doing so. I had maneuvered my way out of
invitations from closer friends than Mia, for no reason at all.
“Okay,” I said, making sure my notes were legible. “I’ve got
“You’re actually coming, then?” Mia said, and for
the first time I detected a quaver in her voice.
“Yeah, sure. It’ll be cool.”
“I’ll prove it to you, that I heard it,” she added,
and hung up before I could respond. After her voice faded I sat
for a while in silence, surrounded by the usual comforts and
distractions of my living room. For some reason, it suddenly
felt like a prison cell.
The next afternoon was overcast, good driving
weather, and I set out for Chicago with a glove compartment full
of tapes and an overnight bag on the passenger seat. On my way
out of town I filled the Grand Am’s gas tank at a Handimart, and
impulsively bought a pack of Parliaments at the counter. I
hadn’t smoked for two years, but by the time I hit Interstate
90, heading southeast, I was grinding out a cigarette in the
ashtray. My lungs were on fire, but somehow I felt like myself
again, like a missing piece of my personality had slipped back
Nostalgia. The phone call from Mia had sent me back
in time, filling my head with memories. Road trips from my
small Wisconsin home town to Chicago with the band, a van full
of smoke and loud talk and youthful ego. Driving around the
city, we would peer through the windows at the clubs and
theaters and talk about playing gigs in them, how we would blow
away the audience. We were so serious about it, a bunch of high
school kids cutting class, totally expecting to climb the charts
with our run-of-the-mill alternative pop originals. I had to
smile at the memory. Those goals had been so immediate, so
attainable. But the passage of time had fragmented them,
reduced them to hazy glimpses of ambition. I could only imagine
what it would be like to have all that time in front of me
again, to feel that excitement, that infinite possibility.
Fifteen years of living, of real life, had changed so much.
The miles extended behind me, and soon enough I was
in Lincoln Park, slowing down traffic as I followed Mia’s
directions. Finally I located her street, a tree-lined drive
with a number of weathered greystone buildings. It was a nice
neighborhood; the rent must have been outrageous. I pulled up
to the curb just as a light rain started to fall. According to
the dashboard clock I was early. Mia was still at work.
I left the car idling and rummaged in the glove
compartment for a new tape. I had listened most of them into
the ground, but some digging turned up an unlabeled cassette
buried under the owner’s manual. It looked familiar, but I
hadn't seen it for ages. I popped it into the deck and reached
for a cigarette.
The music that emerged from the speakers was loud
and busy, the players assaulting every open moment with riffs
and fills, and in surprise I realized it was one of our jam
sessions. The cassette was maybe seven or eight years old,
recorded from the next room with an old tape recorder, and the
sound quality was terrible. But the music, a collision of
sensibilities we had improvised a year or so after college had
broken up the band, was lively, swirling, full of ideas and
passion. My bass-playing was heavily influenced by the
punk-funk music I’d been listening to at the time, while Matt’s
keyboards and Mike’s drums were jazzy and all over the map. The
guitar-playing from Jay walked the line between my grooves and
the freestyle, everything-goes assault of the others. It was
inspired, frenetic, and hopelessly clumsy. I hadn’t heard the
tape in years, thinking it had been lost during one apartment
move or another. But listening to it now, I knew it was likely
the last extant evidence of my one-time abilities as a musician,
my best recorded playing.
It was just as the jam session had staggered to a
halt that I spotted a woman some distance down the street,
walking briskly towards the car with an umbrella and a
backpack. As the tape devolved into loud talking, feedback, and
a rattling snare drum, I watched this attractive woman grow
closer for several moments before realizing that it was Mia, the
short brown-haired girl of my memory but looking so much
different now in her early thirties. She was self-assured, her
hair short and stylish, no longer the awkward high school
student who’d quietly followed the band around. She didn’t see
me in the car, intent on getting in out of the rain, and I
allowed her to do so, feeling like a voyeur as she walked up the
steps to one of the buildings and keyed her way into the entry
foyer. I lit another cigarette, then caught a glimpse of myself
in the rearview mirror. For the first time in years, the image
reflected there seemed young and hopeful, almost anxious.
“Let me see if I can find the station,” Mia said,
lowering herself effortlessly into a cross-legged position on
the floor. She tweaked the dial on her box, but managed only to
coax static and fragments of noise from its speakers.
I sat on her sheet-draped couch, enjoying the
background roar of rain, the low lights, the smell of incense.
The living room of her second floor apartment told me more about
Mia than I’d ever known back in high school. She liked old
things. Her coffee table, the Oriental carpet, the rocking
chair, the knick-knacks covering an elaborate mantlepiece; it
all spoke to a rebellion against the prefab suburban
neighborhood we had grown up in, contempt for all things new and
ordinary. Her music collection, much of it on vinyl, was
substantial, and I found our tastes overlapped more frequently
than I would have guessed. The whole scene was just cool; it
was the kind of life I should have been leading. Authentic,
“This place is amazing,” I said.
“My stepfather has money,” Mia said, flipping off
the radio. “He pays for it. Mom’s out in San Francisco, now.”
“Can’t find the station?”
“It doesn’t always come in before sundown.” She put
on a Stereolab CD. “You still drink coffee?”
While she was in the kitchen setting up the coffee,
she asked me to tell her the story of my life since high
school. I told her about school and the ill-fated marriage and
my middle management job, trying to make dull material sound
reasonably interesting and not exactly succeeding. I realized
that I desperately wanted to impress her. Mia, so plain and
quiet when I had known her, so unremarkable. I had never given
her a second glance. Too busy trying to impress other people,
the wrong people as it turned out. But time had transformed
her. The years had rendered average many of the beautiful,
popular people I had known back then, but Mia had gone the other
way, had blossomed. It struck me as one of those rare instances
of fated justice, and sitting there talking to her it seemed
impossible that I could ever have overlooked her.
She returned with a tray, which she placed on the
coffee table. “Do you still play?”
“No,” I said. “Not really. I mean, my right wrist
is bad from work. I had surgery on it a while ago.” I showed
her the scars, and noticed her look of disappointment and
sympathy. I felt my face turn red, my stomach dropping at the
confession. Music had been the one aspect of my life that had
set me apart, had defined me. It occurred to me that without
it, Mia didn’t know anything about me, and in fact that there
wasn’t all that much to know. “I can still use it, if I don’t
over-do it,” I said, attempting nonchalance. “Just no more
typing or bass.”
She sat on the floor across from me, and her
expression was genuinely sympathetic. “You were so good at it,”
“I was all right.”
I shrugged, but it was forced. “I should have
mentioned it on the phone. See why I thought it was weird,
now? That you thought you heard me . . . .”
“I did hear you,” she said, picking up a pack of Shermans from the coffee table. She lit one of the slender
brown cigarettes, then slid them across the coffee table toward
me. “I wasn’t just fawning over you guys back then, you know.
I was actually listening.”
“We weren’t all that great,” I said.
“I’m not talking about the band. I’m talking about
those jams you did after you broke up.”
I nodded. I didn’t remember her having been
present, but life had been full, then; it could have easily
slipped my memory. “That was probably my best playing,” I said.
“You were great,” Mia said. Her use of the past
tense hurt, and I think she noticed. “You were all great,” she
said. Then, mercifully, she moved the conversation into
different territory: the obligatory where-are-they-now
conversation. She seemed to be in touch with more of our old
friends than I was. Soon we were recalling our teenaged antics,
parties and gigs and general mayhem. Certain wild moments from
our past that brought laughter from us both. We talked for
nearly an hour, and it was as if we had been the best of
friends, even though we had only been peripherally acquainted.
“We really missed the whole point, back then,” she
said, after a particularly intense spell of laughter.
“How do you mean?”
“We were always griping about being trapped. Never
having anything to do, and so anxious to get our lives
underway. But it was all that stuff we invented for ourselves
to do, all that time-killing, that’s what we remember. That’s
what's good about life. You know?”
We finally got around to tuning in the radio station
at about seven-thirty. I noticed that it took some work, and
that she was tuning way down at the end of the dial where you
couldn't usually find a station. But eventually the music came
out. It was unlike anything I’d ever heard. It was brilliant.
And all of it was sampled.
I didn’t notice that at first, though, too caught up
in what I was hearing. It was like a pool of sound, a swirling
hybrid of styles and approaches. One would feature a thrash
guitar backed by swing drums and a rumbling funk bass, the next
would feature a smooth blues saxophone backed by beautiful piano
chord progressions and a simple rattling drumbeat. For all the
music’s ensemble effect, it was clear to me immediately that
each individual instrument had been plucked out of a different
context and fused into a composition, like a sound editor
cutting and pasting from various recordings. But it was
Mia and I sat together, mesmerized, for nearly an
hour, not really acknowledging each other, just smoking our
cigarettes and absorbing the music. When I did chance to look
in her direction memories flooded back, the look of
concentration that had been on her face as she listened to us,
the deep appreciation of music that she so obviously possessed.
If our initial conversations had triggered my attraction to her,
this period of listening together only served to amplify it.
Or perhaps it was the moment I was falling for, the
simple pleasures of the immediate situation: music, hot coffee,
a rainstorm, companionship, my favorite things juxtaposed in
perfect alignment for a change. I thought then about the weave
of circumstance that had stripped this kind of feeling from my
life: the job, the injury, the failed relationship. Some of
these things beyond my control, but so much more of it
self-inflicted, artificial, a web of excuses I had made to
justify the status quo, when I could have been out there trying,
But then I returned my focus to the radio, and
started to recognize the musicians. Not all of them, usually
not more than one at a time, but performers whose abilities and
styles were unmistakable, even if the exact notes and ideas
were unfamiliar and fresh. Jaco Pastorius, maybe the greatest
electric bass player of all time, his convoluted walks so
effortless and smooth; Herbie Hancock on keyboards, reminiscent
of his early funk stuff but somehow different; percussionist
Trelok Gurtu, as unusual and distinctive a drum stylist as ever
played; Frank Zappa on the guitar, his sound raunchy and
metallic and spine-tinglingly beautiful, sculpting the air over
its brilliant patchwork accompaniment. And as these
recognitions hit home, I suddenly believed Mia completely, knew
that she had heard me on the radio last night, because it was no
less impossible than what I was hearing right now: an amalgam
of great unrecorded moments in musical history, snatches of
brilliance that had slipped away, somehow brought together to
grace the ears of those lucky enough to be listening. The music
cast its spell for hours, and when it finally ended at around
midnight, it was some time before its effects wore off, while
Mia and I sat smiling at each other, in appreciation, in
recognition of a special shared experience, in awe of music’s
We strolled down the damp sidewalk, shoulders
hunched against the autumn wind. She had suggested a walk with
no destination, a proposition that usually leaves me cold. But
that night I would have followed her out into Lake Michigan.
“Did you hear Zappa?” Mia asked, breath misting in
the cool night air. “The guitar solo?”
“He turns up a lot on that station,” she said.
“Is that right?”
“His style is very distinctive,” she said. “He used
to do that, you know. Strip a solo out of a live performance,
then layer it over different tracks to create a jam that never
"Yeah, Mike was telling me about that.”
“He called it xenocrony,” she said.
She stopped on the street corner. “Every time I
tune that station in, I think of that. Like there’s some guy in
a basement studio, somewhere, maybe even in the neighborhood
here, mixing these compositions and transmitting on some
pathetic band nobody but I can tune in. But the music . . . he just
pulls it out of the air, instrument by instrument. Just
whatever appeals to him, whatever just . . . fits.”
I smiled. “I don’t know. I mean . . . I don’t know.
It’s as good a guess as any, I suppose.”
“Yeah, I suppose so,” she said, and smiled.
We resumed walking and turned onto Clark Street,
enjoying the cool night breeze and the energy of the city. I
felt somewhat intoxicated, risky, and when our hands bumped by
accident it felt natural for my fingers to interlace with hers.
It was my right hand, my bad wrist, and I braced myself for the
spike of pain to drive its way up my arm. But for some reason,
it never came. And while usually I felt myself tense up in
cities at night, every approaching person a threat, tonight I
felt a sense of invulnerability. This was just one of those
days that was meant to be, when everything came together.
“You should get back into music, Eddie.”
I turned to her, met her eyes briefly. It
communicated my cynical response without any words.
“You don’t have to play,” she said, having
anticipated this reaction. “There are other things you can do,
better than most people who can still play.”
“You can hear it,” she said. “You can analyze it,
think it, appreciate it. You have the ear.”
I contemplated her words as we continued to walk,
and knew there was something to them. I had bottled up that
aspect of myself, thinking it had slipped beyond my grasp. But
it was still inside me. Quitting music entirely had not been a
decision beyond my control. It had been the path of least
resistance, the easy thing to do. Now it seemed insane. The
mundane, tolerable administrative duties of my day job seemed as
preposterous to me now as the idea of a life in music had been
to me just yesterday. At that moment I didn’t know how I could
ever go back to that grind of an existence, even though I knew
that I would, that this feeling was likely a fleeting one.
“I’m sorry,” Mia said, stopping. “I shouldn’t have
brought it up.”
“No,” I said. “You’re not wrong. You've got a
point. I let myself forget.”
She smiled. “Yeah?”
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s still in me, somewhere.”
We stopped walking, and I noticed then that we were
outside a club. Blues guitar emanated from the door as a group
of people pushed into the place. It was not magical, not like
what we had heard on the radio, but it was live, and there was
nothing like the sound of live music played well. Hearing it,
my fingers itched to contribute, to get involved. “You want to
“If you do,” she said.
I glanced at the door, then to a sandwich-board sign
just outside it. OPEN BLUES JAM, 11PM - CLOSE.
“They have house instruments,” she said.
I flexed my wrist, wondering if there was one more
jam left in the old digits, and nodded to her. As we pushed
inside, my instinct was to expect the worst, that I would sound
terrible and lose the feeling, ruin the perfection of this
night. But once inside, the press of people and the good
spirits and the wall of wonderful sound combined to melt away
that attitude. I decided to enjoy these moments, not question
them. And if the inexplicable events of the past few hours
turned out to be illusion, transitory moments of happiness that
would disappear tomorrow, well then so be it. Life had been
memories long enough.
It was time to experience something.