They’re waiting for him in a Greek diner on 9th Avenue, hanging all the way in the back, in the last booth before the bathrooms. None of them look up as he approaches. He might as well be a ghost.
Without lowering his paper Paul says, “Have a seat, Joel.”
There’s no room in the booth—why would they choose a four-person booth when there are five of them in the band?—so Joel drags over a chair from a nearby empty table. “You guys already ate?” he says, surveying the pileup of dirty plates and cups and hollowed-out plastic jelly packets.
“You’re late,” Andrew says.
“You said nine,” Joel says.
“We said eight.”
“We ordered you something,” Paul says, peering out from behind his screen to nod at the loaded plate sitting by itself in the middle of the table.
Clearly it’s been there awhile. The omelet has started to unfold and give up its cheesy stuffing. The home fries have congealed into a glistening gray mound. Butter has soaked through the toast like acid burning its way through cardboard. As Joel gathers in the cold food and starts to eat, he scans the table to see if they’re watching him but everyone’s acting as if he isn’t there, back to what they were doing, or not doing, before he arrived. Paul, the lead guitarist and band founder, stays behind the New York Post, only a stray swirl of his blond hair visible above the tabloid rim. Andrew, rhythm guitarist and electric keyboardist, returns to his ever-open notebook, furiously scribbling away as if someone’s about to snatch the pen from his hand. The drummer, Sal, holds his cleanly shaven head in his brightly tattooed hands, staring into his lap. Only Ruby, the lead singer and Paul’s girlfriend, acts like Joel is even there. She slides over the tray of butter tubs. She hands him some extra napkins.
As soon as he’s done, the instant he puts down his fork, Paul methodically folds his newspaper and stuffs it between the bench seat and the wall. “Okay Sal, you’re on.”
They all look at Sal, the most sanguine and equanimous of the bunch, who apparently has been tabbed to be the spokesperson to address something no one else at the table wanted to touch or else they wouldn’t have picked Sal to do it.
“So we’ve been talking,” Sal begins, angled in Joel’s general direction but not making actual eye contact. “Having conversations.”
“Yeah I think he gets that part,” Andrew says.
“The thing is, a band is like a family, and a family …” Sal’s voice quavers. He sweeps the back of his hand across his nose and takes a long swig of water. “A family has to be like this,” and here he contracts his spread fingers into a fist and raps his knuckles on the glass tabletop, on top of the cartoonish map of the Aegean spread out underneath. “And this—this right here—just isn’t holding together.”
“What isn’t holding together?” Joel says.
“He means you, Joel,” Andrew says. “Believe it or not he’s talking about you.”
Sal looks at Paul who nods solemnly like it’s some big secret sign passing between them and Sal slides a small white envelope across the table. Joel’s name is scrawled on the front.
“What’s this?” Joel says.
“It’s what we owe you,” Sal says.
“No,” Paul jumps in, clearly exasperated, using the same corrective tone he deploys if a chord is off or a tempo’s too lazy or one of the amps throws off too much distortion. “It’s not what we owe him, because we don’t owe him anything, remember, we talked about that last night, it’s a gesture, a recognition for his contributions.”
“The word is severance,” Andrew says to Sal. “Sev-er-ance. I should have written it down on your palm.”
“Okay, fine,” Sal says. “Severance. It’s a fucking severance. Everybody happy now?”
“What are you all talking about?” Joel says. “You’re kicking me out?”
“Sorry Joel,” Paul says, pulling on the ends of his wiry golden goatee, his go-to tic when he’s socially uncomfortable or monumentally bored or experiencing both at the same time, “but we need to make a change. For the good of the band.”
“The greater good,” Sal says.
“In other words, you’re fired,” Andrew says.
“It’s not what we wanted,” Sal says.
“It’s exactly what we wanted,” Andrew says. He turns to Paul with his hands spread out. “I told you he’d fuck this all up and we’d have to swoop in and clean up the mess.”
“Well then you should have done it yourself since you’re such a great fucking communicator,” Sal says.
“Fuck you,” Andrew says to Sal who flings a fuck you right back.
“I missed one gig,” Joel says. “I was running a fever. I could barely get out bed.”
“You missed two gigs,” Paul says. “Three if you count showing up twenty minutes late at The Hen House.”
“It won’t happen again,” Joel says.
“You’re right, it won’t,” Paul says softly.
Ruby starts saying something but Andrew rolls right over her. “You need help, Joel,” he says. “Seriously. This is the great fucking communicator communicating to you. Go off somewhere and figure out some shit before it’s too late. Get your act together. See a shrink. Take some new meds. At least buy yourself a watch so you’ll know what fucking time it is.”
The silence that follows is disrupted by a strange rattling sound that seems to be coming from the floor below but is really Ruby doing this rhythmic, repetitive hand wringing that jangles her bracelets like a mini tambourine.
“Change can be a good thing,” Sal says as if his memory’s suddenly been jarred and something he forgot to recite earlier comes tumbling out. “Sometimes you just need … you just have to accept …”
“Where are you going to get another bass player by Saturday?” Joel says. That’s their next gig—playing at a downtown basement club they’ve been trying to book for months because everyone says real-deal music industry people from both coasts regularly show up to scout new talent.
“We already found a new bass,” Paul says. “We’ve been rehearsing with him.”
“He’s stellar,” Andrew says.
“Jesus, what’s wrong with you?” Ruby says, glaring at Andrew and looking to Paul to back her up but all he does is mindlessly toss his arm around her which she instantly removes.
“So you went and replaced me behind my back?” Joel says. He actually feels a sharp jab in the center of his spine.
Andrew shrugs. “We would have done it right in front of you but we couldn’t find you. It’s so weird, we set a time to rehearse and this new guy actually shows up. With his instrument. Ready to play. And you know what’s more? He gets our sound. He fucking gets it.”
“Can everybody please stop this shit?” Ruby says.
“Put me on probation or something,” Joel says. “Give me one week—”
“Too late,” Paul says. “It’s done.”
“Done,” Andrew echoes, triumphantly throwing his hands behind his head and leaning back in full smirk mode.
Without saying another word Joel goes into the men’s room, locks the door, and squints into the dirty mirror over the sink. He counts to ten to slow everything down but that only seems to speed things up. He wants to punch something but there’s nothing good to hit, just a framed poster of a must-be-famous Greek statue hanging above the urinal, the thing already headless anyway. Instead he gives himself another cursory inspection and snaps his head into the mirror like replicating whiplash from a car accident. The impact sends spidery fault lines to all four corners of the mirror, Halloween-style. He checks his altered image in the cracked glass where a bright red skid mark now runs along the center of his forehead and a purple gash crosses the bridge of his nose.
He returns to the booth, moving a little slower but feeling a little better.
“Oh my God,” Ruby says, putting her hand over her mouth.
“What the fuck did you do to yourself, man?” Sal says.
Paul and Andrew simply stare at him.
Joel sits down and grips the side of the table. He has everyone’s total, locked-in attention, whatever that’s worth. No one moves until a drop of blood falls onto the table and he wipes it away on the cuff of his tattered army jacket.
“Holy shit you really are schizo,” Andrew says.
“Can you stop being a prick for one minute?” Ruby says to him.
Paul smiles benevolently at Joel. “Okay, fine, you’re upset, you’re pissed, that’s cool, we didn’t expect you to understand,” he says like a parent talking to a child. “Since I’m the one who brought you in how about I take the blame for you fucking up? Will that make you feel better? If I say it’s all my fault you’re unreliable and immature?” He takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes which is his way of saying he’s seen enough and wants to move on.
“I’m taking my song,” Joel says.
“‘Dark Rhymes.’ I’m taking it with me.”
“No fucking way.” He’s never seen Paul’s face redden so deeply or his eyes flash pure aggression the way they’re flashing now.
“It’s my song,” Joel says.
“It’s not your song, it’s our song, it belongs to the group, it was a group effort and you’re no longer part of the group. That’s how it works. That’s the deal. You go, the song stays. End of discussion.”
“What are you fucking talking about, I wrote it, I brought it to you guys—”
“It wasn’t even finished!” Paul says, his voice about as charged as it gets. “We had to work out the chord progressions.”
“Are you shitting me?” Joel says, trying not to shout but shouting anyway. “You made one minor chord change. It’s like all you did was tighten a bolt and now you want to say you built the whole fucking thing?”
“I’m still trying to fix the lyrics so they make sense,” Andrew says. “I can only love you in dark rhymes, I can only hold what you leave behind.” What does that even fucking mean?”
“The words are beautiful,” Ruby says but no one seems to hear her.
“I can’t talk to you, I can’t walk to you, I can only see you when you’re gone.” He shakes his head. “How can someone sing that with a straight face? Right, Ruby?”
“Fuck you, Andrew,” she says. “You wouldn’t know poetry if it fucked you in the ass.”
Joel eyes Andrew’s notebook. “Is that what you’re doing? Messing with my lyrics?”
Andrew makes a pouty face and pantomimes hugging the notebook like a little kid guarding his favorite toy.
“I swear to God if any of you go near that song again I’ll fucking sue,” Joel says.
Paul takes out his eyeglass case and exchanges his regular glasses for his sunglasses, taking refuge behind his shades, a bullshit move if ever there was one. “Do whatever the fuck you want. It’s not your copyright. All collaborations belong to the band. Read the fucking agreement. I’ll mail you a copy since you obviously lost yours.”
“Fuck the stupid agreement, fuck you, fuck this.”
Joel pushes back from the table, gets to his feet and steers the borrowed chair back where it came from, leaning on it as he goes. His hands are trembling; he shoves them in his pockets but that only sends the shakes up his arms and radiating out to his shoulders. He faces the band. This is now officially the worst day of his life. His jaw wants to clench shut. He can’t swallow. It feels like he’s blinking nonstop. It’s everything he can muster not to bawl in front of them.
“Take the money,” Paul says with restored calmness, pointing at the envelope.
“I don’t want it,” Joel says.
“Like now your pride kicks in?” Andrew says. “Seriously?”
“Take the fucking money, Joel,” Paul says.
Joel looks over their collective heads out the plate glass window at the people unheedingly passing by on the sidewalk like this is any other day, the traffic lights monotonously cycling through their signals same as always. If the city doesn’t care, why should he? He snatches the envelope and jams it in his coat pocket.
“No hard feelings,” Sal calls out with his unshakable Sal sincerity.
Joel takes the long walk to the front of the restaurant—sightline leveled straight ahead, not knowing or caring if anyone’s watching—and out the door. Sunlight sears his skin and he’s aware of the metallic taste of blood in his mouth. His head feels heavy and light at the same time, like his brain can’t decide which extreme to choose. He wishes someone would take him out, cut his legs out from under him, stop him from going wherever he’s going next. Another three or four storefronts and he turns around and heads back to the restaurant. He marches down the same aisle, ignoring the same faces, again. This time his bandmates—former bandmates—ex-everything—take full notice of his approach. He stops one booth short of theirs.
“Ruby, can I talk to you for a minute?” he says. “Outside.”
“What the fuck, Joel?” Paul says.
“Christ, you’re like a bad penny,” Andrew says.
Ruby looks at Joel with one of her faraway, completely indecipherable expressions. She stands up.
“You’re really going to go talk to him?” Paul says. “For what?”
“Can you please just move,” Ruby says, trapped on the inside, by the window.
“Un-fucking-believable,” Paul mutters as though standing up to let her out into the aisle is the most exhausting, unreasonable thing he’s ever done.
“God they can be such dicks,” she says to Joel once they’re on the street, heading downtown, walking fast. He wonders how she manages to move so nimbly in those crazy, clunky clogs she wears. Once they’ve gone far enough Joel guides her under a shit-splattered green awning where they put their backs against the façade of a darkened storefront, looking out at the street.
“Did you know they were going to do that?” he says.
She slides over a few inches so they’re shoulder to shoulder. Her hair smells like the ocean, and also bacon and maple syrup and skunky pot. “It was making me sick in there, the way they were treating you,” she says in a shaky voice. “I thought I was going to puke. I swear I wanted to fucking kill them.”
“I don’t care about them.”
“Forget them,” she says. “You’re better than them. You’re better than all of them.”
“I want to tell you something,” he says.
Joel turns to face her. Up close and in the unfiltered daylight her eyes aren’t exactly the rich chocolate brown he always thought they were but more of a cinnamon shade flecked with green. There’s a faint spray of freckles on one side of her nose and a super-thin scar line on her upper lip, things he’s never noticed which is pretty strange since he thought he noticed everything about her. He’s known her for almost two years but never, not once, not for a single moment, at no place or time has he been alone with her the way he is now. He’s always wanted to talk to her—like really talk to her, hours on end, just him and her, the rest of the world falling away—but somebody always got in the way, and now, right on cue, it happens again.
It’s Paul hustling up the sidewalk, coming towards them. He’s too cool to actually run so he’s doing this awkward power walk like someone’s poking him from behind with a stick, an image made even more ridiculous by his round-lensed retro Ray-Bans all askew and about to fall off his stubbled face. Ruby acknowledges him with a dismissive eyeroll.
“Rube!” Paul calls out again, louder and more insistently, getting closer. “Come on, we’re going.”
Ruby stays glued on Joel. “What is it? What do you want to tell me, Joel?”
“For fuck’s sake, Ruby! Come on!” Paul’s screeching now.
“I wrote it for you,” Joel says loudly, making sure he’s heard above the din of Paul and the passing traffic and the rowdy construction going on across the street.
She cocks her head, skeptical. “Wrote what?”
“It. I wrote it—the song. ‘Dark Rhymes.’ For you. It’s true. I swear. I was even going to call it Ruby but I didn’t have the balls.”
There it is, the first time all day, a hint of that smile, and the little tic of hers where she nervously rubs the little green pendant hanging from her neck.
Now Paul’s within a few feet of them and stops in the middle of the sidewalk. He widens his stance and crosses his skinny tatted arms. Ruby glances over as if to make sure it’s really him, and Paul dutifully removes his sunglasses.
“Come on, Ruby,” Paul says, quieter, calmer. “Time to roll, babe. We’re all waiting on you.”
“I just wanted you to know the truth,” Joel says to her. “I mean, if you didn’t already.”
“We don’t want to be late,” Paul says. He takes one more dramatic step in their direction. “Okay? Ruby? Ruby?”
She looks over at Paul and then back to Joel who tells himself to lock eyes with her and stand steady and basically try to look like someone who isn’t going away.
“Ruby!” Now Paul’s doing the urgent whisper thing, the one volume level he hasn’t tried yet.
Ruby ignores him; she’s totally fixed on Joel. He knows she’s waiting for him to say something, do something, make his grand gesture in opposition to Paul’s trite bullshit, but all he can think to do is hold out his hand in her direction. She frowns at it as if she isn’t sure how to interpret the sign, or maybe she’s deflated by how unoriginal and uninspired it is, like that’s all he’s got? That’s the best he can do? So he walks over and kisses her, full on the mouth, for a good five seconds. Then he grabs her hand and they start down the avenue together, tentatively at first but gradually picking up the pace to the point where other people on the sidewalk have to step aside to let them through. They’re practically running. When they reach the end of the block their momentum is stopped by a wall of pedestrians waiting to cross the intersection. If she’s going to change her mind it will be right here, staring at the traffic light, the pixilated red hand bringing on the realization that it’s not too late to turn around and let Joel live the rest of his stupid life without her and write more songs to someone who will never love him back. Except she doesn’t—she doesn’t turn around.
Mini-interview with Peter Gordon
HFR: Can you share a moment that has shaped you as a writer (or continues to)?
PG: I think—and hope—a steady accumulation of moments large and small has shaped me as a
writer. In terms of the moment when I knew I wanted to be a writer, that one is easy: reading Virginia Woolf for the first time.
HFR: What are you reading?
PG: Right now I’m alternating among several books: The Idiot by Elif Batuman; To Be a Man by
Nicole Krauss; and Poems of Louise Gluck 1962-2012.
HFR: Can you tell us what prompted “Dark Rhymes”?
PG: The story went through several iterations and multiple drafts but was always focused on the
theme of being exiled from where you thought you wanted to be but somehow ending up where
you were meant to be all along.
HFR: What’s next? What are you working on?
PG: I have a story collection, my second book, that is just about complete. I’m working on some final edits and the possible inclusion of one more piece.
HFR: Take the floor. Be political. Be fanatical. Be anything. What do you want to share?
PG: Nothing fanatical here. I’ll just share my none-too-original belief that any person anywhere
should have the right to decide the course of his/her/their pursuit of happiness.
Peter Gordon is a writer living in Massachusetts. His work has appeared in numerous journals including Ploughshares, The Southern Review, The Missouri Review, Yale Review, Gettysburg Review, North American Review, and elsewhere.
Check out HFR’s book catalog, publicity list, submission manager, and buy merch from our Spring store. Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.