by Christopher East


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 asked.

“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 four-track.”

“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 together.”

“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 it.”

“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 into place.

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, simple, tantalizing.

“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,” she said.

“I was all right.”

“I’m sorry.”

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 masterful.

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, doing something.

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 simple power.

*     *     *

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?”

I nodded.

“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 happened.”

"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.”

“Like what?”

“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 go in?”

“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.



About the Author:

Christopher East is a survivor of the Clarion workshop, whose fiction has appeared in Farthing, Interzone, Talebones, The Third Alternative, and elsewhere.   He is also the fiction editor for the website Futurismic ( www.futurismic.com).



Story © 2007 Christopher East.  Photo by Mike Manning.