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An excerpt from Minstrel: A Novella

1 …

The weatherman on Channel 5 had said that the temperature would reach upwards of one hundred ten degrees, which meant that the mayor’s office would announce a code red heat index. And so when Isaiah Williams climbed on the bus and attempted to put his quarter into the slot with his one free hand, the driver’s gloved one waved it away, obeying the mandate of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. Even though he was receiving treatment usually reserved for senior citizens, Isaiah didn’t sit down in the sideways seats that faced each other, but with both hands dragged the leather guitar case down the aisle, and sat in the back, alone. He closed his eyes, inhaled, and listened to the bus’s rumbling as the brakes exhaled at the stoplight.

He figured that they would have amps at the studio. It would not be a large studio. There would be mirrors and a long, metal bar on the far wall because there is a ballet class on the weekends. There would be hardwood floors with blue mats because there is a karate class for elementary school kids in the afternoon, and a women’s self-defense class at night. Perhaps to defend against people who looked like him, he mused. They would not own it, but they could afford to rent it, and they could afford their own amps. He was sure of that.

He opened his eyes, looked out the window, and saw houses with trees that were planted in the front yards but reached across the street towards one another and blocked the burdensome sun from the finishes of the cars below. On the sidewalks were blonde women in sweatsuits with iPods on their hips and the leashes of golden retrievers in their hands. The bus rumbled to a stop beside a small Bank of America, and the doors opened as Isaiah stepped down the stairs, then pulled his bass guitar case off with him. He scratched his head, his finger running between the long, thin cornrows that curled around his skull and draped down his spine. Despite the weather warning, he wore his baggy carpenter blue jeans, but because of it, a very loose-fitting XXL Bob Marley T-shirt that hung upon his tall, lanky frame. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a folded up sheet of newsprint cut out from the underground newspaper called the CityPaper. It read:

AUDITIONS FOR POST-PUNK PROTO-FUSION METATRONIC NEW WAVE AVANT GARDE NOIR NOUVEAU RICHE NOBLESSE OBLIGE CUBIST MODERNIST SURREALIST EXISTENTIALIST REVIVAL SUPERGROUP

All instruments, styles, religions, philosophies, dojos, and film schools are welcome.

Those willing to remain starving artists preferred.

Leave your influences at the door, or sneak them in through the window.

Call (202)-555-9691 or e-mail str8edgejunkie@gmail.com

 

Isaiah had circled “Existentialist” and “Post-punk.” “Existentialist” because he had read Albert Camus’s The Stranger for English class and found Meursault to be intriguing. “Post-punk” because he had heard that term used to describe Bloc Party, a British band. Not the kind with oily hair falling over their ears and two-piece suits that don’t quite fit right. The kind that like to wear their collared shirts tucked in and with the sleeves rolled up, but no neckties, or perhaps simple T-shirts that wrap around them with sleeves that reach inches below their shoulders. When Kele Okereke, with skin like pine bark, and dreads like a willow, lead sings, he sounds like a young boy who has learned something about the world that he does not like, and will see to it that it is changed once he grows older. He had downloaded their album at school and brought it home on two Zip disks to listen to in his room. Isaiah’s left knee would bounce up and down until he was forced to stand up and roll his hips and knees like pistons when he listened to their “post-punk art rock” sound, his upper body ricocheting from one pose to another, and then rocking back again. He would continue this rocking and rolling until he heard the door to his room creaking open. He would turn and see his father, a bespectacled bald man with a grim goatee, wearing a necktie and an ID card in a lanyard, rolling his eyes and shaking his head.

His father did not download, but bought Motown compilation CDs that he rarely listened to, content to carefully arrange them in alphabetical order on the shelves beside his own computer. So, each night, after Samuel Williams checked in on his son after arriving home from work, he would then go to his room and turn on Newshour, and Isaiah would turn down the volume on his computer’s speakers. At least they both supported public broadcasting.

His father had heard The Refugee All-Stars of Sierra Leone play on The Kojo Nnamdi Show a month before, and had recorded the stream onto a CD and given it to him. Isaiah put it in his computer drive and soon felt his shoulders tilt up and down in time with their reggae-like rhythm, his lips soundlessly responding to the lead singer’s calls. As soon as he had finished listening to it, he took it to his father’s bedroom and handed it back to him. But his father’s hands were always busy dealing cards for solitaire. He never took it back without first giving the preamble to one of his long black history lectures.

“You know, boy,” he would begin. “The style of music your band plays wasn’t just influenced by the ones in sequined bellbottoms and afros. It goes even further back. Back past the speakeasies where the men wore loud suits and fedoras with long feathers and the women’s lipstick and nails were so red they could ride in the backseat and just turn around to signal that the vehicle was coming to a stop. Back behind the fields where eyes sunk beneath hats of straw as they lowered themselves to reach into the leaves to pull out what was inside and whispered songs into the soil while they were down there. Back in the wake of the ships carrying those uprooted, whose lips were sealed but whose feet stamped the wooden planks hoping they could force themselves back in and somehow get back home. Back home, where though they had been betrayed by their own they could find solace beneath the sun that gave gifts, not burdens.”

Instead of asking an intelligent follow-up question to further the discussion as Kojo Nnamdi would do, Isaiah would, at that point, say, “This has been another black history barrage with Samuel Williams. Stay in school, so that he doesn’t take it upon himself to educate you.”

And defeated, his father would sigh and say, “Fine, son, fine. You can go, for now. I’m through with you.”

He’d written “smooth jazz” in the corner, as a note to himself, to remind himself to watch for any evidence of the commission of the offense. He hoped they did not turn out to be guilty of being a smooth jazz band. Smooth jazz bands, he knew, do not play jazz because they enjoy jazz. They play jazz so that people will find them intriguing, because everyone says that they enjoy jazz. They play jazz at jazz clubs with “No smoking” signs and autographed photos of Kenny G on the walls. Bands that play smooth jazz are not the only smooth jazz bands. Any band that puts out an album on CD with a DVD as a “limited edition” is a smooth jazz band. A band that plays a set that is shorter than its opening act because it only has one album and hasn’t written line one for its new album is a smooth jazz band. A rapper’s entourage, whose members do little more than march around on stage and shout along with the end of every rhyme, that is a smooth jazz band. Michael Bolton is a smooth jazz band.

Isaiah already knew he would get into the band. Or, at least, that he had the requisite talent, skill, and experience to play with them. The question was if they would turn down their noses long enough to be able to see it, for he knew that the band he had formed before had been known all over the city, or at least the parts of the city that mattered. Where the bouncers didn’t worry about your cheap, cotton-polyester clothes, just as long as there was no metal underneath them. Where smooth jazz was contraband.

His guitar case handle tight in his hand, he began to walk down the street, looking again at the address he had been given from his phone conversation with whoever called himself “str8edgejunkie.” Even before he had finished writing it, he had clearly drawn the neighborhood in his mind. He knew he would cross even streets and pass coffee shops on the lobby floors of high-rise buildings with windows for walls, displaying all the laptops the patrons feverishly typed (but never spilled their lattes) on. He knew he would not see any fried chicken carry-outs with barred windows, surrounded by long since faded posters advertising the new Kool Moe Dee album. He might see some of the friends he had made (“acquaintances,” his father always called them) from school, since it was only a few blocks from the high school that his father had (begrudgingly) allowed him to take the subway across town to attend. He would not see any of the friends (“hoodlums,” his father always called them) that he grew up with.

The building he had been searching for was a two-story building with walls of yellow bricks, shoved between a dry cleaners and a video store. Isaiah entered and squeezed through a narrow corridor to a metal door plastered in chipping blue paint with a window just big enough for his face to be seen from the other side. He pushed it open. Across the hardwood floor with a rolled up blue mat in the corner, he saw his own reflection, severed at the waist by a metal bar attached to the mirror. In the middle of the room, three boys stood hunch-shouldered beside the drum set, muttering to each other with the same affected, aloof voice that had filled the halls of Isaiah’s high school. They turned and tilted their heads up in his direction. Isaiah stepped over a tangled web of cables that came from outlets in the walls and approached them.

The ad wasn’t kidding. They were dressed so differently from another, Isaiah thought they could have been in a three-tour-bus pileup on the highway, and had to exchange insurance info before they could continue on to whatever battle of the bands they were headed for. Except they were all wearing Chuck Taylor All-Stars.

The first was a punk, all in black from head to toe, in a studded belt, safety pins in the sleeves of his T-shirt, eyebrow and lip rings, and a checkered flat cap on a mass of restless black hair. “Sup?” he asked. “I’m Aidan.”

The emo kid waved briefly, the sleeves of his wrinkled white, collared shirt rolled up, and peered at Isaiah through brown, unkempt bangs and horn-rimmed glasses without lenses. “Hey …” he muttered. “I’m Cameron.”

The last one sat behind the drum set, which obscured the faded blue jeans but not the black T-shirt with the yellow smiley face on it, under red hair, draped back to make room for long, similarly colored sideburns. Isaiah was less certain about him, but he settled on “alt-country.” “Nice shirt,” the alt-country kid said.

“Thanks.”

“I’m Zeke.”

Aidan looked down at Isaiah’s case. “You said on the phone you play bass, right?”

“Yeah,” said Isaiah. “So … I guess you’re str8edgejunkie, huh?”

Aidan nodded. Isaiah handed him the flyer, Aidan chuckled when he saw what Isaiah had circled, and handed it back. “Cool. Glad you could make it.”

“No problem. So, I guess you guys have up been in this studio all day, then.”

“Yeah,” said Aidan.

“You’ve been here, standing in a circle like this, faking like you’re all equal, like the Knights of the Round Table, when really, your instruments are all trying to out-blare each other, assert dominance over each other, because might makes right.”

“Yeah.”

“And you all are the core of the band because you already know what each other’s true voices sound like and determined that only the most grandiose terms would apply. And that ad in the CityPaper was a clarion call to all other grandiose-thinking, restless thanes seeking honor and glory on the field of battle.”

“Yeah.”

“So you have all been standing and stomping here, pausing only at the sound of that metal door behind me making semicircular skid marks in the floor, with each newcomer swaggering in, knowing how badly this test will wear away at his number two pencil but not having an accurate account of just how much lead he’s got.”

“No,” said Aidan.

“No?”

“You’re the first to call and the first to take the bold step of descending into the pit we’ve been digging in here. Perhaps you are the only one with just the right amount of insanity to even tune into our frequency.”

“Oh,” said Isaiah. He then wondered if this white boy had even noticed that he had written the words “smooth jazz” in the corner in sarcastic ink. He wondered if they were speaking the same language. “Well, you guys must have plenty of insanity to want to form this kind of supergroup. Where’d you get it from?”

Cameron pushed the glasses back up the bridge of his nose. “Well, I was in an electronic synth-rock band. Not to be confused with synth-pop. It was not for dancing in dark rooms with checkerboard floors. Not for those people wearing oversized neckties, swinging their hairspray-contaminated sweat everywhere. On stage, our lead singer was a vile redheaded temptress right out of a black and white detective movie and our guitarist played music that could have been the voice of The Internet Pedophile in Peter and the Wolf. I did the synthesizers, to balance out the creepy feeling he invoked, and I also did regular maintenance on the drum machine. We were called Land Line. The music we made was always really cool, but I listened to a lot of other stuff. Especially since I grew up next door to an obnoxious, causeless rebel who spent his afternoons in his garage with a bunch of others who could barely read their tablatures what with all the hair over their eyes.”

“Hey, fuck you,” said Aidan. “Don’t listen to Cameron. He’d have you believe that hardcore punk is spoiled children trying to hide their petulant rants about how unfair their parents are behind the guise of biting political commentary, and … he would be right ninety-nine percent of the time. But Burning Chrome was the exception. We didn’t try to compensate for our lack of melody and chord knowledge with screaming. Our lead guitarist played solos like a man in a padded room, rolling around on stage like he was trying to get out of his straitjacket. Our drummer could be heard for miles and sent the citizens of Tokyo running. I played rhythm guitar and sang. Eventually I met this kid in my music class at school, who handed me his noise-cancelling headphones like they were his recipe for homemade hydroponics. So I put them on, and was amazed to hear lap steel guitar without a hint of conservative propaganda, or odes to Chevrolet pickup trucks.”

“Hell no. Strictly Ford,” said Zeke. “We were an alternative country-rock collective with way too many members, called Ethanol. Everyone was versatile, except me. Our vocalist played acoustic guitar, our acoustic guitarist played harmonica, our harmonica player played the keyboard, our keyboardist played the fiddle, our fiddler played bass, our bassist played lap steel, and our lap steel guitarist sang vocals. Solve for x.”

“You’re the drummer,” said Isaiah.

“Guilty as charged. Get my cell at Folsom ready,” he said. “What about you? Don’t tell us you’re just carrying that case around just for show.”

“Yeah, man,” said Aidan. “What do you usually play?”

They were all watching him. He knew that what they were waiting to hear was the record of his own travels, the sound of his own footsteps, taps, and stomps upon pedals, in equal trade for their own. But it was not the time to give it to them.

Isaiah relaxed his grip on the handle of his case. He set it down on the floor, beside theirs. “I was in a go-go band,” he said.

Zeke nodded, slowly. “Go-go?” he asked. “Sweet.”

“All right,” said Aidan. “Let’s get set up and get started.”

Aidan went to the corner of the room, opened up a leather case, and lifted out a Gibson Les Paul with an explosive red, orange, and yellow design, and the letters “TW/OR” written on the body in Wite-Out, which Isaiah correctly presumed to be the protest against Congressional rule of DC, standing for “Taxation Without Representation.” He plugged it into a Peavey combo amplifier, twisted a few dials, started stroking, and out of it came a few yips and a long, longing howl that slowly faded as if it had dissipated into the clouds of a night sky. “Okay, good.”

Cameron approached the silver Yamaha DGX520 88-note keyboard sitting atop its stand and switched it on. His fingers then stroked the stickers that he had slapped onto its front—the tye-dye decorated peace sign, the yellow equals sign on the blue field signifying gay equal rights, and various stickers advertising local tour dates for various indie electronica groups. He tapped the keys, then turned to the others and pushed his glasses back up onto his face.

Zeke twirled his sleek, finished drumsticks and used them to smack the dots above the letters in the faded “Zildjian” that appeared on the crash cymbal. His foot tapped on the pedal that flung the beater into the kick bass, and the other pedal that clapped the hi-hat cymbals together. Finally, he struck the Pearl snare, tracing the lines in the worn canvas. He stretched his neck, and gripped the sticks in both hands, his knee still bobbing up and down, his foot inches from the bass pedal.

“We’re just gonna jam for a little bit, first,” Aidan said. “Isaiah. Why don’t you start us off with a nice, funky riff and we’ll, ah … splash some cologne on it.” At this, he put his hand out, his forefinger and thumb forming the barrel and action of a pistol, pointed it at the ground and then shook it.

Isaiah unlocked his leather case and pulled out a dark blue four-string Fender Precision Bass. There were no marks or stickers on it, or anything else that could have made it any less aerodynamic, or depreciated its value. He lifted it out of its case slowly, leaving behind several sheets of paper towels that made up an extra layer of insulation.

He lifted the strap over his head and dropped it on his shoulder, and looked around at the others, all of them ready to play their instruments. His wasn’t quite as sleek as theirs. Their instruments, he decided, had been bought for them by their parents.

His was a gift from his Uncle Jerome, who’d bought a new one for himself to play in that smooth jazz band. The one he joined, not the one he formed. The smooth jazz band that sounded like it plagiarized the air-conditioned music in a department store. Not the one with the drummer who made sparks fly from his cymbals and the horn player who could store a winter’s supply of hazelnuts in his cheeks. Not that band. That band was his old band. Now he was in a smooth jazz band.

Isaiah plugged his uncle’s bass into a nearby Crate combo amp. His right hand started teasing the strings of his guitar as the left twisted the knobs at the top until it moaned to his liking. Though his eyes were fixed to the headstock as he tuned, he could feel the band still watching him, waiting. He lowered his right hand over the pickups and quickly rolled and unrolled it into a fist to force out the fatigue of gripping the leather case, and then his fingers dripped over the strings while his left hand bit into the meaty spaces between the bone-like frets.

He pulled,
He plucked,
He popped. The white boys watched as
He pulled,
He plucked,
He popped. The white boys watched as
He pulled,
He plucked,
He popped, and when they joined in
They strummed,
They strolled,
They struck a couple of matches,
They strummed,
They strolled,
They started a wildfire that
They sparked,
They stoked.
They scorched. Brought it back again.

His eyes closed as his head bobbed to the rumbling of the amp on the wood. He opened them briefly and saw Aidan’s closed eyes looking up at the ceiling, while his lips mouthed words he might have been considering as candidates for lyrics. Cameron’s shoulders see-sawed up and down while his waist slid from side to side and his head softly turned from side to side. Zeke slammed his feet on the ground as the toms and snare were punished by the sticks that he gripped between tense, white knuckles.

Cologne is pretty flammable, Isaiah thought.

After the final flourish, Isaiah watched how they watched him again, and they all saw on each other’s slightly reddened, heavily-breathing faces the possibilities, their rabidly blinking eyes darting around as if counting the leaves on all the branches of all the trees in Rock Creek Park. He saw that their noses had been down the whole time.

Isaiah smirked. He took it upon himself to voice their concerns. “So what do we call ourselves?”

They looked at one another, and then Cameron, looking down at the floor, put his hand up, requesting silence.

“How about …” He cleared his throat. “The Lobbyists?”

By the time their jam session had concluded, the sky had turned red, the sun behind trees, houses, and streetlamps. Isaiah carried the leather case, the blue bass nestled back into its paper towel bed, back to the bus stop, and climbed on. The air conditioning of the bus slowly chilled the sweat on his back that he had accumulated from carrying the case down the street. He could not hear the bus’s rumbling. It was drowned out by the sizzling sounds made in the not-large studio, still cooking in his head. Isaiah had to admit, The Lobbyists were clearly not a smooth jazz band, but a rock band. A rough rock band.

When he got off, he dragged the case over the uncut grass on the front lawn, up the concrete stairs to the porch, through the living room with the sofa covered in plastic and prints of (White) Jesus on the wall with the lines from John 3:16, and (Black) Jesus on the other wall with that poem about the footsteps in the sand. He went down the wooden stairs to the basement where the 27-inch screen and XBox were hooked up at the moment, but only because no one was practicing there anymore. No one needed an outlet now.

No one needed an outlet now, so the XBox stayed plugged in and hooked up, but one of the controllers was still in Malik’s keyboard bag. No one would bring a CD with the name of some band from College Park written on it in felt tip marker for Dante to study the beat, for he had already packed his drum set up in his Oldsmobile and gone to his apartment twelve blocks away. No one would bring a yellow flyer from Bar Nun still warm and wet with the time of their set, their name in a list that usually ended with Backyard Band or Suttle Thoughts. No one would bring the lyrics of a Linkin Park song heard on the Top 40 station along with an old Grandmaster Flash LP so that Victor could re-mix and -mash it. Victor would not be scratching for them anymore.

He had left his turntables there, sitting next to the TV and the Xbox. Isaiah had stopped returning Victor’s mother’s calls after she had asked him if he could bring them by. She finally sent Victor’s half-brother Ronald over to pick them up, while Isaiah was out. Isaiah left a key for Ronald. He would not be there when the turntables were taken away. He would be getting off the bus in front of the not-large studio being rented by whichever of them had put that ad in the CityPaper, whoever it was that he had called and given his name to in return for an audition. He had gone to that audition and played with them, on the bass given to him by his Uncle Jerome.

They had been Isaiah, Malik, Dante, Victor. They rented almost everything they had, though they felt like it was their own. The only things they bought were a few cords. The microphones and the PAs and the amps had belonged to the clubs, and the cars that had taken them to their gigs had belonged to their parents, who took turns attending each show for their safety.

They were a band that went by many names, partly because they could never agree on the ones that they tried to give themselves. At every show there was always something singular about how they played, some florid metaphor that someone used to describe them, and pointed out to them, so they would just shrug their shoulders and go with it, until the next show, until someone gave them their new name, or a name they had been given, translated into the dialect of Shaw, or Anacostia, or Brightwood, or whatever neighborhood their travels had taken them to. And yet, wherever they went, the people knew who they were. They played music that could have an R&B singer, a rapper, or a dancehall deejay toasting over it, accompanied by a keyboard or an organ, a saxophone or a lead guitar, though it required a drum kit as well as congas. They played music that demanded that its listeners put down their drinks and stand up. They played go-go.

Isaiah could have said this when they had asked him, but he had kept it back to honor Isaiah, Malik, Dante, Victor, to keep their names unsoiled. It was not until he saw the guys pick up their instruments that he knew he had to take the audition seriously. And he’d played perfectly. Now he realized that achieving that level turned everything he had ever done before into a kind of failure. And now he felt a heavy debt upon his head. A debt that he, Isaiah, the artist, owed to The Lobbyists, for disparaging their name before he had even heard it, and for refusing to give them Isaiah, Malik, Dante, Victor’s names. And then there was the debt that he, Isaiah, son of Samuel, owed to Isaiah, Malik, Dante, Victor for waiting until he was in the presence of the dearly purchased guitar, keyboard, and drum kit before making his dear uncle’s cheap bass guitar truly priceless.

Isaiah laid his guitar case against the wall and climbed back up the stairs to the kitchen. He looked inside the refrigerator and pulled out a gallon of milk, raised it to his lips, and as he stepped towards the door to the dining room, stopped, turned around, and slowly tiptoed towards the cupboard to get a glass.

“Wrong cupboard, boy,” his father said, from the dining room. “Those are the good glasses.”

“Hey, Dad,” said Isaiah, reaching for the other cupboard. “How was work?”

“Productive,” he said. “What did you do all day?”

Isaiah walked into the dining room. His father was still wearing his suit from work, his necktie loosened, and a lanyard still around his neck with an ID card that read, “Samuel Williams – D.C. Department of Health and Human Services.” His jacket lay on the back of his chair, and his wingtips lay on top of the scattered pages of the Washington Times on the floor. He was reading the Sports section of the, the pages laying neatly on the tablecloth, his elbows on top of them. Beside his newspaper was the television remote, a glass of melting ice and an empty bottle of Miller Genuine Draft. Washington Post

“I had an audition for a new band,” he said, as he sat down.

“A new band? Is it a blues band?”

“No.”

“A jazz band?”

“No.”

“A marching band?”

“No.”

“Not another go-go band?” His face screwed up into an affected visage of disgust, then fell out of character, back to reading his paper.

“No,” said Isaiah, grinning. “An indie rock band.”

“An indie rock band?” He looked at his son through the upper half of his bifocals. “What you want to be in a rock band for, boy? What’s them songs they always singing? You want to be on American Idol or some shit?”

Isaiah put his head in his hands. “No, Dad. That’s not what you do on American Idol.”

“Don’t go on Showtime at the Apollo, now, boy. They’ll boo you offstage, and then you’ll have to call me and I’ll have to come pick you up. And I’ll embarrass you. I’ll see to it.”

“We’re not going on Showtime at the Apollo, Dad.”

“So you got in the band?” asked his father. “They let your black ass in their band.”

“Yes, Dad. They did.”

His father sighed and turned the page of the newspaper. Michael Wilbon had written a column about the Redskins. “Okay, son,” he said. “I’m through with you.”

Isaiah walked out of the dining room and climbed the stairs to his room. He could hear his father pick up the remote and turn on the TV. The opening fanfare of Newshour was playing.


2 …

Four days later, Isaiah went to the first practice session. For most of the afternoon, The Lobbyists’ instruments stayed dry in their cases, while Isaiah, Aidan, Cameron, Zeke sat in a circle on the floor, discussing what direction the band should go. They all agreed that they wanted to make music that none of them had ever made before. Cameron had brought his laptop and a microphone so that they could record what they played. Aidan had brought a spiral notebook full of incomplete, scratched out lyrics and doodles of prospective band logos. They listened to Aidan sing the lyrics he had written to the tunes of their favorite songs, then deconstructed the melodies, hacked them down to their core riffs and beats, and then imagined how their favorite bands would cover them. Then they picked up their instruments and played them. They revised the lyrics to fit the rhythms, and vice-versa. At the end of the day, with three hit B-sides for seven different bands, they shook their fists at the gods for cursing them with such eclectic tastes and poor long division skills. Then they looked at their watches and cell phones and realized it was not yet 2:00 pm.

“All right, fuck it,” said Aidan. “I’m hungry. Is anyone else hungry?”

“Yeah,” said Zeke. “Let’s go to Chipotle.”

They loaded their instruments and amps into Aidan’s van and piled in. Cameron sat up front with Aidan, while Zeke and Isaiah sat on the floor with the instruments. They began to drive down the street, past Woodrow Wilson High School, the District of Columbia Public School that everyone in the car except for Cameron, attended.

“What school are you at, Cameron?” asked Isaiah.

“Georgetown Day School my whole life,” said Cameron. “Started in Pre-kindergarten right up to the eighth grade, then came over to the high school campus not far from here. I was with the same incestuous enclave of uniformed pedants year after year, sitting in the same classrooms with computers on every desk so that we did not have to risk jeopardizing our chances at Harvard by looking at each other—even though we were all mirror images of one another anyway.”

“What about you guys?” asked Isaiah.

“I went to Janney, then Deal,” said Aidan. “Pretty standard around these parts. Almost everyone who goes to Wilson started out at Janney, indoctrinated by the same bunch of soulless disciplinarians, then pushed along the assembly line until it is time for college and we split up across the country and lose touch with each other. So if you see us self-segregating in our bullshit little cliques, all of us sitting outside on the stands at the football field smoking our smuggled-in cigarettes, it is not because we do not associate with minorities. It’s because our parents have done such a good job of subtly hinting that it’s not in our best interests.”

“My mom pretty much home-schooled me until ninth grade, then I came to Wilson,” said Zeke. “My lunches consisted of vegetables grown entirely in our backyard with the occasional tofurkey sandwich. Once my neighbors got home from school, though, I got to go over and play video games and marvel at other technological advances such as the incandescent light. Of course, my mother would always Scotchgard me with her teachings before I would go over, explaining that I should not activate any electronic devices myself unless there was someone available to make certain my soul was not pulled away from the loving embrace of mother nature for too long.”

“Where did you go to school before Wilson, Isaiah?” asked Cameron.

“I started out at Rudolph Elementary until sixth grade, then I went to Paul Public Charter School,” he said. “We always managed to violate the separation of church and state by singing old Negro spirituals in music class, apparently a method of breaking our spirits by removing our sense of agency and making us think only God could decide our fates, so that we would not organize an escape during recess. Black History Month tended to last from Kwanzaa to St. Patrick’s Day, starting with a packet of Kwanzaa assignments to do during Holiday break, then thirty days of Martin Luther King speeches, then, the big three-thousand word report on important, non-Republican figures in black history, ending with the scenes from Gone With The Wind with Hattie McDaniel in them.”

“Yeah,” said Aidan. “Social control, man. Everyone wants your head on their mantel.”

Isaiah could hear the offhandedness in his voice, affected to sound young enough to rebel against all of adult society, but old enough to be nonplussed by it. The insistence that their experiences were just different branches of the same tree. He watched as Aidan reached into the ashtray and picked up the iPod he had left lying there, connected to the car stereo. He clicked on Minor Threat.

When Isaiah heard the song, he decided to have a bit of fun with them. “Is this the one with ‘Guilty of Being White’ on it?” asked Isaiah. He remembered the lyrics.

I’m sorry for something I didn’t do …

“Yeah, yeah it is,” said Aidan. He turned down the volume. “Wait … So you know Minor Threat?”

Lynched somebody, but I don’t know who …

“I’ve heard some of their stuff,” said Isaiah. He had their complete discography on his computer.

“So what do you think of ‘Guilty’?” asked Aidan.

You blame me for slavery a hundred years before I was born … Guilty of being white …

“It’s an okay song,” said Isaiah. He showed the rear view mirror a daring grin.

“Yeah, personally, I think Ian MacKaye was a lot better in Fugazi,” said Aidan.

I’m a convict of a racist crime …

“Oh yeah,” said Isaiah. “It doesn’t get any better than Repeater.”

“Definitely,” said Aidan.

I’ve only done 19 years of my time … Guilty of being white …

Once Aidan had safely shifted the conversation from Ian MacKaye’s younger, angrier band to his older, wiser one, Isaiah knew that he could not reveal to the rest of The Lobbyists the story of his band, because he could not be certain that they would understand the risk involved in the telling—that they would listen to his words but hear only what they expected was the truth. He could not be certain whether anything he said would make them see any clearer what he was describing, or if his words would simply refine the ideas that their parents had passed down to them, that their Eurocentric textbooks (even as they themselves described them) had preached to them, with which their televisions had bombarded them. He knew that he had been wrong about them after leaving the studio the day before, but he did not yet know whether they were wrong about him, or whether they would be less wrong about him after the words left his mouth and became a part of their minds and became theirs to interpret.

And he knew that first he would have to receive the blessing of his old band. To inform them, and take whatever condemnation they would lay upon him, perform whatever acts of contrition they demanded of him. Only then could he walk into the house of his new brothers and still be accepted in the house of the old.

When they reached their preferred fast-food chain, they climbed out of the van and went in to order their burritos, then sat down to eat them.

“You ever heard of Bad Brains?” asked Aidan.

“No,” said Isaiah. “Who are they?”

“They’re considered the first ever hardcore band. They formed here in DC in the late seventies,” said Aidan. “They basically invented hardcore, but switched back and forth between that and reggae between tracks on their albums. People disputed whether they qualified more as one or the other, as if one part was some kind of mask and the other was their real flesh. I may not have been alive back before they were banned from performing here in DC, but I don’t think that one of them was a mask. It was more like they had two souls inside them. But they weren’t split personalities jockeying for total control of one body, they were more like unmarried parents, not divorced, with joint custody of the children. And they would come to each other’s houses to pick the kids up every week. I don’t even know if such an arrangement is legal, but perhaps that is part of the reason why the powers that be decided to ban them from this city.”

Isaiah nodded. “Yeah. Maybe.” Aidan didn’t have to say it, but the image of four bearded black men, dreadlocks pouring from their heads was vivid in his mind. Maybe Aidan hadn’t mentioned it because he thought it better to sound color-blind. Or maybe there was just something more solid, more heartfelt, more clench-fisted about Aidan’s somewhat clumsy way of saying “You might be interested in this band whose members happen to be black” without sounding like he was saying “Hey, black guy, here’s some black history for you to get your black on with,” that he had heard so often from his friends (“acquaintances”) at school. The shame he felt at not knowing of them faded when he realized his father probably didn’t know of them either.

Thanks, man, Isaiah thought. They ate their burritos and talked of other DC bands that they had made themselves deaf with.

Isaiah left satisfied with what they had accomplished in their first practice session. When he returned home, his father had already started stirring the marinara, and Isaiah picked up the cheese grater. He answered his father’s questions about the band, describing the convergence of styles that they were inching towards. His father nodded and grunted, understanding his son’s words. They sat down and ate lasagna, and afterwards, washed the dishes. His father went upstairs to his room to play computer solitaire while watching CNN, while Isaiah went downstairs to the basement to practice playing the bass. He played the choppy, bouncing bass lines that they had practiced, his mind trying to recreate them, forcing his fingers to follow along. Then, without warning, his fingers went off the tracks and began to play the swerving rhythms of what his old band had played. When he realized this, his hands completely derailed. He didn’t know how long he spent in the basement, sitting on the floor, staring at the silent guitar in his idle hands, but seeing his old band on stage.

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