Women, booze, drugs, violence, reckless high-speed drives across Ohio -- Thomas M. Atkinson's Strobe Life has all this and rock and roll too. V2 is the lead singer in a band whose regular gig is at the Club H in a university town somewhere in Ohio. As he struggles to stay high at all times and maintain an impenetrable front of hopeless cynicism, V is one alpha male who's not a believer. He especially doesn't believe in love (the L word). Women are all over him, toys he uses, then throws away. Hanging with his strange crew of friends -- an ex-New Yorker, a Mexican Indian, a burned-out Vietnam vet, the clothes horse guitar player in the band, and P-Man, his white trash drug dealer -- V proceeds to dig himself deeper and deeper into his solitary hole, even as his friends slowly turn away from the wasted life. Against a rich and fulminating background of characters and incidents from the music-drugs-booze-biker underworld, Strobe Life probes the psyche of a born winner who is starting to realize he's pretty far down the road to becoming a loser after all.
Excerpts from STROBE LIFE
Excerpts copyright©2001 by Thomas M. Atkinson
I'm sitting at one of the picnic tables at Club H running a gnawed fingernail through the U in FUCK that someone has carved in quarter inch thick letters on the table top. I figure it's been here awhile 'cause the grooves are smoothed out with a deep coat of varnish.
Dono and Coyote are sitting across from me talking about some Mexican welterweight Coyote knew back home in El Paso. It seems like a long way to come just to end up in the fucking flatlands of Ohio. But then again, Dono is the last white man from the South Bronx. Ohio - the heart disease of it all. I don't know anyone that meant to come here, even the people from here. It's like everyone's luck just played out on their way to someplace else.
Coyote is a Mexican Indian and he looks just like a carving from some Aztec temple wall. Same eyes, same nose, same pushed back head. It's hard to picture him sitting around some shithole shack with eleven brothers and sisters and an uncle with TB, especially since he's one of the few sane people I know. Maybe the only one. Definitely the only one at the table. Maybe abject poverty gives you a firm grounding in reality. He's here and they're there and that's best I guess, for him anyway.
Dono looks like he's wrapped too tight and he is, but so am I. He taught me to box and now we go up to the university gym three times a week and beat the shit out of each other in a racquetball court. It does us both a world of good. And for those three days at least, it probably does the world some good, not that I really give a fuck.
Dono usually spends his time with Penny or Christy, depending on who's up for punishment that week. Coyote hasn't gotten laid in two years. I'm working my way through the phone book.
I've been drinking shots and shorts since happy hour started two hours ago and the shit is working slow. I've already drunk myself sober once today and that's not something I want to experience again. Ever. Under normal conditions I understand very little about the world, and when I'm sober I understand even less.
I'm not really listening to Coyote's boxing story but it probably looks like I am. I'm looking between them and watching Snake Woman do what she does better than anyone on the planet - dance. That's how she got her name, which she doesn't even know is her name. She doesn't dance like she's a slut or like she took classes, but she most definitely makes my dick hard. And any more that's about the highest compliment I have. Maybe the only one. Her long, honey blond braids are sweeping the air around her boyfriend and we're making eye contact every time his head moves to one side. I can still taste her on my fingers. She comes over to my place three or four times a week while her boyfriend is at work and parks her bike in my garage. I really like that, that she parks her bike in my garage. I mean, I know it's so her boyfriend won't see it if he rides by, but it just looks nice leaning there. Her boyfriend is an okay little guy, but so what. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to see her at night, like just go out and do something together. I guess it would probably just spoil it.
I keep ordering shots and shorts but I stopped drinking the shorts three rounds ago. I've been giving them to Coyote so he's sitting here sipping on the same little glass of beer he had an hour ago. He's got two more glasses of warm beer and it'll take him the rest of the night to get through those. Coyote never gets really drunk, maybe a little more animated, like laughing a little louder, but never howl-at-the-moon-and-wake-up-in-jail drunk.
Dono is over at the bar with Stoney the Biker comparing black leather jackets. They do this every time they see each other, which is about every night. They talk about swapping then decide to keep their own. They usually get around to swapping New York stories. Stoney's never been closer to New York than Scranton, Pennsylvania but his Scranton stories are everybody else's New York stories. He was supposed to go to some art school in New York, but an assault with a deadly weapon held him up in Scranton for 2 to 5.
Jane came in about an hour ago, I guess. She came up behind me and kissed my neck and Coyote blushed. Before I saw it happen the first time, I wouldn't have thought Indians could blush. Or maybe I just thought there wasn't anything left for them to blush about. She dropped four codeines in my hand, kissed me again, and she and a girlfriend have been dancing. Jane is on the bar side of the dance floor and Snake Woman is over near the fire exit and the codeine has finally kicked in.
Coyote taps some salt in his beer and we watch the bubbles. Coyote is always quiet but he's real quiet. Not a good sign. Counter Point comes in and takes his usual table and, as usual, a circle clears around him. Some people say it's 'cause he smells so bad but I don't think so. Most everyone in the world gets about a six foot circle and it moves with them wherever they go. Crazy people get about a twenty foot circle 'cause most people don't want to come any closer, like maybe it's catching. He's got long salt and pepper hair and a long beard and they are so tangled they're starting to look like dreads. He walks about a hundred miles a day. Not to anywhere in particular, he just walks all the time. We call him Counter Point 'cause he comes in the club every night and carries on these incredible arguments with himself. One voice is real calm and reasoned and then he turns his head a little and the other voice is out of fucking control. Nobody fucks with him 'cause Dave the Bouncer thinks he's good luck. Depending on which story you hear, he either caught a land mine in Vietnam, or he was an engineer that just woke up crazy one day. Sometimes I envy him. He's probably not any crazier than anyone else, but at least he doesn't have to pretend he's not.
Coyote says, "I am the coyote."
He's drunker than I thought. The what-kind-of-animals-we-are speech, like I haven't heard this record before.
He says, "They kill us every chance they get. But we will always be."
They, they, they. The busiest motherfuckers in the world. Jane waves to me. She has a boyfriend down south somewhere, but he's only around a couple of weekends a month.
Coyote says, "Dono is the wolf. Dangerous in a pack. Dangerous alone. Can be tamed, but never domesticated."
Jane and Snake Woman are about as different as two women can be. They are both just drop dead beautiful, but each in ways the other can only guess at.
He says, "And you, you are a bird of prey."
What a surprise. A falcon I bet.
He says, "You are not just any bird of prey. You are the falcon."
Jane is all pale skin and soft lines. Round butt, big breasts and more white, straight, perfect teeth than her mouth knows what to do with. Her hair is almost white it's so blond, and her eyes are like two circles shot out of a perfect fall sky. She does everything like life is just the sweetest joke she knows, and she wants the laugh to last.
Coyote says, "You hang wa-a-ay up in the thermals, so high you don't even make a shadow."
Snake Woman is tan and lean and angles. Like a dancer. Like a dancer with brown eyes. She does everything like somebody's about to turn out the big light and she'll never know what she was looking for.
He says, "You are always above. At a distance."
They find each other fascinating. I don't flatter myself to think that has anything to do with me. I mean, they might know, but they don't know. Knowing and knowing are very different.
Coyote says, "And when you see something you want, it's all over. V2 - death from above."
"And none of the cute, fuzzy, little animals know what the fuck happened."
"I fold my wings and come out of the sun at 200 plus."
He smiles and says, "Out of the sun."
"Then it's all over."
And Coyote says, "Until next time."
I shrug. "Nobody really misses anybody."
He says, "It must be lonely up in the thermals."
I would much rather be a drunk than talk to one.
"I'm never hungry."
Coyote says, "You are always hungry."
Jane and Snake Woman are dancing next to each other.
"Christ, Coyote. You're ancestors thought some spic wearing a bedpan was God. They sacrificed virgins, for Christ's sake. What the fuck would you know?"
Coyote looks into his beer. I guess that concludes this evening's pseudo-psycho-animal-bullshit. The folks that brought us hot chocolate don't find Cortez all that funny. It seems to me if you're going to talk that shit, you ought to goddamn well know falcons don't play.
Coyote says he's sorry, that he didn't mean anything and I get even more pissed 'cause he shouldn't be sorry and I never mean to say shit like that but once I do I can't apologize or take it back. I'd rather cut my tongue out. It's something I've thought about.
And that lovely codeine buzz, small as it was, is gone. It's worse than before. I could see the crest and now I'm at the bottom looking up. I want to punch a hole in someone's chest and fuck their heart. But not Coyote. I like Coyote. Coyote wouldn't ask for your belt if he cut his hand off.
"Death from above."
I know the voices, I'm just having a hard time sorting them out right now. But I don't care. 'V' was Dono or Coyote and '2' was the other one, whichever one 'V' wasn't. 'V2' was both. They love it. Tag team mantra. I have a name but everybody calls me V2. Valium and vodka. As in V squared. The rocket fuel for the few and the loud who need to slip the surly bonds in a fucking hurry. Higher, further, faster. In the last hour I've thrown down seventy milligrams of my blue heaven with a wealth of vodka. And while I can't be certain, I think the codeine found its way home. Unlike most people, who would spend the next twenty years eating through a tube and trying to write "kill me" in their diapers, I shine. I shine like a star going nova. I can do anything. I can do it better. I can do it all. I'm certifiably bullet-fucking-proof.
I think "Rocketman" was Snake Woman.
They are standing around, and Snake Woman's boyfriend and Jane and Karen and Stoney and Counter Point and a couple of guys I might know and a couple of girls I will know, standing around watching me shoot pool. But what I am doing is not shooting pool - it's something much, much better. The game, the table, the night - all mine. And this Lynyrd Skynyrd looking motherfucker is watching his dick shrink with every shot. And I don't have to say a word.
I have arrived, quite by accident, right where I need to be. The P Man came in earlier with my script of Valium. It was no ordinary miracle, the P Man early, a whole day early. The P Man is never early, he's never even on time. But he came like he knew.
I send the two ball on a long slow ride into the corner pocket. Long green. When the cue ball stops everyone groans. Lynyrd smiles for the first time. A seven ball run and people groan. That's fucking life all over. Nobody thinks I have a shot at the eight ball, including the laws of physics. Lynyrd is chalking up. Oh, ye of little faith. My pack of Luckys is out so I bum a Camel off Snake Woman's boyfriend and tear off the filter.
I tap the left side pocket with the tip of my stick. That's where it's going. Say goodnight.
Lynyrd says, "How many rails?"
Lynyrd looks at the eight ball and says, "You can't play off my ball."
Stoney says, "Which one, pal? Hell, you ain't got but six left."
Everyone laughs but Lynyrd and me.
"It's going in that hole. Clean."
There seems to be a little hum in the crowd. I put my stick down and pause for half as long as anybody expects and shoot. The left side of the cue ball just nicks the right side of the eight, sending it on the sharpest cut that has ever been made. The eight walks close by the twelve and drops in the side pocket.
Lynyrd says, "Fuck."
Counter Point yells, "IN COMING!"
It's something people usually yell when I come in the club.
Lynyrd says, "That was the luckiest goddamn shot I ever seen."
Something brushes past my shoulder and there is a long whistling in my head like a bomb dropping from a mile high. Karen hits Lynyrd so hard that he hops back about three feet and ends up sitting on the bench with his back against the picnic table. He's just sitting there with his hands on his knees blinking real slow like a drunk waiting for a bus. His nose is split from the bridge to the tip and besides all of the blood running off his chin, I think some bones are not where they're meant to be 'cause he's blowing foamy red bubbles where there shouldn't be a nostril. Counter Point sits down next to him and does a perfect imitation, except for the blood. It's pretty funny.
"Stand him up."
Dono and Stoney each take an arm and prop Lynyrd up at the corner of the table. I put the nine ball where the eight was and set up the cue.
"That look the same?"
Lynyrd looks at the balls, trying to bring them into focus. He nods. I make the shot again.
Dono says, "In your face, asshole."
Stoney says, "What's left of it."
"I just didn't want you to think I'm lucky."
Dave the Bouncer appears behind Lynyrd and picks him up by the shirt collar and the seat of the pants. He hauls him away like a sack of meal. These people do these things for me. All they ask in return, the price of admission, is to be close enough to see the Big Finish. Close, but not too close. They wouldn't mind catching some shrapnel for a good seat but they wouldn't want to lose a limb. But there are a few who would juggle live hand grenades with me and laugh. Just to see what happens.
I am a bird of prey, a leaking O ring, a singing telegram from Adolf. V2 - death from above, coming to a neighborhood near you. Time to fold my wings.
The front door pushes open and Mac stoops in, in all his Hitler-wet-dream glory, carrying his clothes for tonight fresh from the cleaners. Mac is six-six, blue eyed, blond, perfectly etched features, and he plays lead guitar. He also seems to have an endless supply of money. Of course the little girls swoon. He's adopted and I guess his folks must figure they either hit the lottery or there was some terrible, terrible mistake and somebody might find out.
Mac says, "V Mon. How goes the glamorous life of Our Town's most eligible lead singer?"
"Eligible? For what, work release?"
"How can a man who gets laid as much as you be in a bad mood? Last night you had three different girls just hanging on your jock, and don't even tell me you didn't get your dick wet."
"When was this?"
Mac says, "Last night. At the Club. Closing time."
"I don't remember."
Mac says, "I'm glad our blackouts are on different cycles or we'd never know what the fuck was going on. There was Jane and Snake Woman, but the Snake Handler was there but like he doesn't know, and some young bit of strange. My money's on the strange. The other two are on the line, but strange, my money's always on the strange."
"Yeah, it was real fucking strange."
Mac takes out a two gram vial and shakes it. He says, "We're musicians, dammit! Get me the mirror." He says this every time he brings coke on a show night. He doesn't even have to tell me that Marci doesn't know he has any. I get the mirror and Mac chops out four lines without taking a breath.
He says, "You missed sound check. Go ahead."
He hands me the mirror and I can see past the lines that the insides of my nostrils already look like two powdered doughnuts.
"Jesus, remind me to get some water up there."
While I'm doing up my lines Mac fills a glass of water at the sink and while he does his I dip two fingers and sniff up some water.
Mac says, "We went ahead and made up the set lists."
He cuts four more lines.
"I was with P Man. Out to the Great Beyond."
"The P Man! And his lady love?"
"Much the same. Hermann Goering in drag."
Mac says, "We should write a song about this."
"I think that old 'Timothy' song pretty much covered the cannibalism thing."
"Better his dick than ours. You didn't miss much. But I wouldn't make a habit of it. Well, any more of a habit of it. The troops don't see why they should show if you don't. Go ahead. I took the liberty of bringing over some clothes. You've got to be tired of that same old shit. I know I am. Thanks."
I hand Mac back the mirror and get the last "good beer." I sip it while he does his lines and then hand it to him.
He says, "Check this out." He pulls up the plastic dry cleaning bag and slips an arm under a white shirt that looks like it's silk and may have been in a period movie. I know it cost more than my rent. "With the black pegged jeans and the jodhpurs, and leave the shirt about half undone so the chain shows. You'll look better than Gene Vincent."
What I'll look like is some kind of Eurofag, but I don't have the heart to tell him 'cause he takes this band image shit real serious, like anybody cares but him. I also don't have the heart to tell him 'cause he dresses like this all the time so he must think it actually looks good. Maybe Marci is just paying him back for all the missed coke by telling him he looks good. I've got to give him credit though, if I'd have sustained one more blow to the head, the Gene Vincent line might've worked.
Mac says, "We've got to get going. We're late."
He lights a cigarette like he's thinking about getting up, then he starts laughing and takes out the vial again.
He says, "One more time, then we've really got to go."
I like Mac and I think I'll wear the shirt. Maybe if I give it back stained with sweat and blood and a cigarette burn or two, he'll let V be V.
Counter Point and I are sitting wrong way around at one of the picnic benches leaning against the table. This side of the bar is still closed and all of the lights are off except for the ones over the stage and it looks like maybe we're waiting for a strip show to start. Mac went after Marci without much enthusiasm and Dono and Coyote are entertaining the Blue Light on the other side of the bar and I think Dave went down the basement to catch a nap. The rest of the band went home to kill a few hours until show time. Roberto had to pick up some diapers for his kid and the wife has dinner waiting on the table. Kurt's toasting a joint the size of a nickel Ibold cigar and watching the hoops on ESPN. If Mike's not naked in front of a mirror practicing Rock Star poses he's probably humping a neighbor's dog. When Mac gets back we're supposed to go get some dinner up at Casa Esteban. Everybody calls it Steve's house and it's not real Mexican but it's closer than anything else Coyote's found.
Counter Point says, "When does the show start? TITTIES! TITTIES! SHOW US SOME TITTIES!"
I get us out two cigarettes.
"Yeah, some titties would be nice."
Counter Point's first drag is so deep a good half inch of his Lucky turns to ash. He takes another drag and rubs his forehead with the back of his hand and his face changes gears. His face is like that, like a slide show - manic click suicidal click rage click stunned click stunned click stunned click.
He says, "So she's back. You must be very happy."
If I throw my elbow hard enough into his temple this conversation will end. I know exactly what he's talking about. Since he's crazy it'd be easy to pretend I don't, but that probably wouldn't change much.
"That's not her. It just looks like her."
Or so everyone says.
He smiles and says, "Time passes, people change. But the important thing is, she's come back. I knew she would."
Counter Point has more pistons firing than you'd think, just not in any recognizable sequence. Most the time he doesn't know where he is and I don't know why he's hung on to this.
"It's not her. It's somebody else."
He taps my knee with the side of his fist and says, "You're a lucky man. You get a second chance. Not many of us get a second chance. All of that, all of that, that's in the past. Take her hand, twist her ring, tell her everything you've been thinking all the empty days since you left."
He rolls his head slowly on his neck and when he opens his eyes again he is someplace else. He says, "As if, as if, AS IF that fucking mattered. You think that matters? That doesn't matter. The world is empty. Did she make you feel less empty? Sure she did. But when you think about it, when you really fucking think about it, it wasn't that great, was it? I mean, it's not like it was good, it's not like it was so fucking great, right? It just sucked less. You know, there's this scale, like negative one hundred to plus one hundred and zero is just nothing, right? It's not good, it's not bad, it's just nothing. And it's not like life was a ninety nine, Christ, life wasn't even in positive numbers, right? But with her life was the smallest negative you could remember. Isn't that amazing? You sit around crying like some little schoolgirl because that was the best it is ever going to get"
"It wasn't like that. It was real."
I know it was real. It was real for us both. But it's possible to love someone too much, I know that now. You have to love somebody an awful lot to think about killing them, and we both thought about it a lot during that last sad spiral. Maybe that would've been the way to go, just toss my small intestines over a beam in the garage and hang us both, it's not like they weren't handy. At least you'd be with someone you care about, instead of alone. Since then there hasn't seemed much point in getting that close, 'cause even if you do it'll only be for a moment, no matter what.
Counter Point says, "'Real.' 'It was real.' I hardly think you're qualified to recognize reality."
He's right. But he's also the last person on the planet to be pointing it out.
He claps his hands together three times and says, "But all's well that ends well. You've beaten the odds. You're more likely to get hit by a meteor. Did you know that? You're more likely to get hit by a meteor. It's true. Not by lightning or bit by a shark, but hit by a meteor. I've worked it all out, in my head. You should play the lottery. If you were ever going to win, this would be the week. And besides, all proceeds benefit our public schools. Play a lot of zeroes. Very few of them ever make it through our atmosphere."
He works on the last half inch of his Lucky. Blue Light laughs on the other side of the bar and Counter Point smiles and nods and says, "What a beautiful laugh. You're a very lucky man. I've told you that. You should get married, have some kids. Children are a gift."
"If she'd come back, would I be here, with you?"
He drops his cigarette on the floor and his eyes clear for a moment. He says, "Flush out your fucking headgear, V. They never come back."