Changes or (Antonio Sánchez Saves the Day)
by Benjamin Eric
This fish slivers through the vessels of the body as if the bloodstreams were dormant canals.
I settled with drums as my passion. I wanted to be a singer who could render devotion through chords better than anyone else. Half my childhood was choir practice. But after listening to Charles Bradley sing “God Bless America,” I had to ask myself, why even fucking bother?
So I drum. I’m a drummer. A glorified metronome who, at best, can guise itself with rhythm and funk.
Self-deprecation is an evolutionary trait my family developed. That and alcoholism. I’ve always had to be a little different by tiptoeing over boundaries, especially the ones I inherited. A contrarian through and through and there’s enough booze in me already. That’s why I’m sitting on the hood of my Honda, in front of abandoned freight train tracks that look like some Post-Soviet Belarusian oblast, sipping on cough syrup like it’s dry whiskey from a flask.
There’s a spliff in my shirt pocket and I’m going to light it with my uncle’s zippo that he took off a dead Vietnamese. I may play in a soul singer’s band but tonight I feel pretty grunge. The 90’s ensnared a part of me. That decade maimed my foot in a bear trap and I never gnawed off the mangled limb, so I just drag the contraption wherever I go. The rest of me matured but I went down so many different paths I don’t think the components of myself ever reunited.
I’m near the bottom of my plastic, purple, pharmacy flask. A car’s highbeams pass behind me and for a second a cargo hold looks like it has the nuclear symbol painted over the rusted metal. My lungs suck down the burning dope and instead of being paranoid of boys in blue I’m now worried about the KGB, a different kind of thug from an empire that’s long dead.
Cough syrup and marijuana is a mystical combination. I once conjured a ghost with this formula like a Slavic pagan séance. What spirits are waiting to be summoned from under these decaying tracks?
Last year I was at a hotel down in Natchez. I indulged in my mixture and a woman stood at the foot of the bed. She dressed like a 19th century call girl and so I asked her what she was doing here. She told me, “I have a habit of visiting potential jons.” I asked if she wanted to to fuck and she laughed. “Soliciting is just a habit. I told you” she repeated. “Even if we wanted to, it's not compatible with you on that side.”
She continued to speak in that colonial hotel with the Mississippi River right outside. “This visit doesn’t have to be for naught. I can share something about your past or future.” I asked if she could really see in the future. This time she didn’t laugh. Her lips grew brighter and her eyes ignited in a smoky texture. “Time doesn’t work like that here. Events are just places you can see, not moments that have or haven’t happened.” Who doesn’t want their future told to them? So I asked what will happen to me later in life. A vague question earned a vague response. “You’ll be known for sharing wicked stories of men with rotted hearts.” I asked for more. “I cannot say. I’m not even allowed to be here. We’re not supposed to visit the inebriated. And you still owe me for what I already shared.” I asked what I owed and she laughed again. This time she curtsied with her frilly skirt. “You’ll compensate me in the astral plane. I’ve already seen you do so.” Are you going to hypnotize me, I asked for some reason. “Only those who want to be hypnotized can be. Otherwise it’s a hollow influence.”
I blinked and she left.
Weed is burning and the thick, artificial taste of NyQuil is still lounging in my throat. Despite enduring my discomfort, my ritual fails to summon any spirits. Empty cargo holds surround me. She told me they are not supposed to visit a person in this state, but maybe another one, like her, will break the rules. I’m counting on it.
After all, I’ve never seen anyone from the other side while sober.
I can’t drive. I can drive, just not at this moment. I crawl into the backseat. It’s cold in the car but my body doesn’t care. At first, I keep opening my eyes, expecting to see a long deceased soul staring outside through the window at me. I’m expecting it so much that the absence startles me. My eyelids don’t just shut for the night, they practically die and anchor themselves down.
Gluttony makes this fish ill. It nestles in the stomach with its own protruding belly pushing against the gut.
I’m not an easy sight this morning. The rush hour congestion behind me isn’t doing any favors. I open the door and step outside to puke. I crawl back inside the car to lay down and squint at my phone through a litany of unanswered messages.
Rehearsal is later in the evening. Some of the texts are reminders from the band that they wrote in a “this is the last straw” sort-of tone. I have one from my sister which I delete before reading, not because I’m angry at her but because I don’t feel like reading what I know she’s going to say. One of my apps pushes a notification of movie times. “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” is playing just a few exits down at the same time as Gone Girl and that new Keanu Reeves action movie.
My breath is rancid.
My eyes close again, but the jammed highway makes for the worst lullaby. Somehow, even though it’s the morning, the sound is haunting. Any one of those blasting horns could be coming from a god damn psychopath directing their frustration at some sociopath who will become a random person’s problem later today. It’s noisy and I’m thinking about all of this.
I fall asleep anyway.
After digestion, this fish plunges up to the neuro system to find shelter. This is where it was born.
I see the time on my phone and mumble to myself “make a wish.” I always say that but I never actually make one. My stomach purrs so I guess my wish is to get something to eat.
The highway is empty again. No more broken heroes on a last chance power drive (my parents should be proud I keep the classics in my heart). It’s an easy merge into the lane and I drive ahead leaving behind that nuclear-esque dystopia.
There’s a diner just 3 minutes away. It’s a chain with underpaid employees who never give a shit that people park their cars in the lot to shoot and snort scag. Why would the employees care? At least they know those people won’t create commotion, unlike the booze hounds they have to deal with on their shift. Cops patrol the lot though because of course they do. Their budget is too big and they have military grade weapons. No one who has ever held a machine that can reign death upon a population has ever once said “let’s just idle and take in the pleasant weather. Maybe that kind old lady on the stoop can tell us about her apple pie recipes.” The potential for obliteration can inspire a lot but it sure does not inspire idleness. So you’ll see them more here at night, knocking on windows, pulling people out who can barely stand while they slap cold metal cuffs around their wrists.
Oinking while dragging them to the paddy-wagon.
The waitress is nice. I’ve sat in her section before. Not often enough to initiate familiar small talk, but just enough for awkwardness and hesitancy. I’m sure she recognizes my sleeve. My arm resembles an arbor with all the wrapping, tattooed green vines. I look around and don’t see anyone who was working here when I had a late dinner last night.
The whole purpose of these kinds of retro diners is to spark nostalgia. It’s a bit misleading if you ask me. There’s no way they’ll let you smoke and everyone besides me is wearing sweatpants and some kind of graphic shirt with whichever superhero hit it big at the box office. Somehow in just jeans, a silver shirt, and some sneakers I’m the one overdressed. Other than the 60’s music and the unregulated cholesterol count, nothing here is nostalgic.
That reminds me to check my notifications again. There are those movie showings I can catch if I eat fast enough. I drink enough coffee to caffeinate a comatose Sasquatch. I still feel exhausted and I know all of these drinks are going to make me piss like a busted pipe full of jet fuel, but I’m not making it through the day without it.
I’m tapping my finger and counting in 16th notes. Grooves sound better in 16th notes when playing a standard 4/4, in my opinion. The crisp hi hat taps clustered between the bass drum and the snare throughout the measure have a mesmeric influence. I’m brainstorming a simple groove to get through a new song in practice later. The lyrics and melody are escaping me, but I think keeping the groove simple and playing an accent note on the snare of 4 and ghost notes on the ‘e’ and ‘uh” of 4 will accompany the song nicely.
I rehearse with my fingers and feet right there on the table.
It’s only a 20 minute drive to the theater. Parking is easy enough and I just pull right into a spot. I decide to return a text to ease the singer’s anxiety about me not showing up this evening. As I tap the screen I search in my backpack and grab my flask. At the same time I notice a message in my spam about the MFA writing program at my alma mater Sarah Lawrence.
The theater’s near empty and I get a text back from our singer with just the letter ‘k.’ This comes off as passive aggressive. I know it’s in my head the same way the clerk’s shitty attitude as I order my one ticket is just in my head.
I’m halfway down the stained carpeted corridor looking for theater 17. I take out my flask and I swear to god I don’t remember polishing off all the whiskey yesterday. There’s not enough time to drive over to the liquor store before the trailers end. If the movie blows, I’ll just bail. I should probably do that anyway. Why sit through a movie I’m not enjoying just because I bought the ticket? I’m flipping the paper stub between my fingers. 17 is right ahead.
The lettering for “Birdman” illuminates red.
Despite this fish being home, it is restless. It has desires to devour but has lost ounces of power.
I can’t shut up about the movie. Everyone else in the band has already seen it and adored the soundtrack. The band wants to focus on the new song we’re trying to put together and I just want to talk Birdman. They’ve been telling me to go see it before the theaters pull it for new releases. Seems like a sin to pull a film like that. I can only imagine what blockbuster piece of shit is going to get swapped in.
Birdman’s plot was good, but Antonio Sánchez was the star. A whole performance of drum solos is a feat to behold. Anyone left unimpressed does not know a god damn thing about drums. I had to piss during the whole movie but I held it in trying to decipher how he could have been playing those beats. I’m still baffled and pretty sure my bladder has now endured irreversible damage. We’re literally practicing our newest song right fucking now and we have to stop because I’m as far off tempo that’s acceptable for a drummer.
They’re all holding their instruments. Their guitars and basses and brasses. The piano keeps tapping the keys because he is feeling the rhythm. Everyone seems annoyed but not in the same way they have been with me. More like a “will you just fucking focus, please” kind of way. So I try to recenter myself and focus while also noticing I’m sweating more than normal. I forgot to stop off at the liquor store before coming over here.
I try and recenter myself again.
I play the groove I practiced at the diner earlier.
I decide to add another ghost note on the “&” of 2. I like how it sounds and the bassist seems to jive with it.
This song that is being birthed right now has me captivated. I’m hearing all the keys and chords amalgamate. Our singer bursts out keys and the instrumentals make their respected changes. I start to play quarter notes. Even though that wasn’t planned or discussed the decision somehow conjoins all the sounds into a perfect, polygamous union.
We continue to play and I can hear the ghost I met a year ago. She’s not here with us but her voice is more vivid than it has been in my memories. I’m allowed visitors on the other side in this state. At least I assume. I don’t see why that wouldn’t be allowed.
The music has me entranced even though I can’t hear one instrument or one voice any more clearly than another.
Maybe I need to rest. Maybe I need to take time to explore this hypnotism. I have the joy of finishing this song, and, when we are done, I’m excited to go back and play the others we crafted together.
The fish lingers and broods, whispering to itself in the hopes that the door to his own home will open again.
If only I woke up 3 minutes earlier. I just missed a chance for another wish. I can use a few more wishes. Who in this world, or the next, can’t find purpose for a few more wishes?
Right after rehearsal a couple weeks ago I scavenged all the serums and potions tucked away and forgotten in the dark corners of my medicine cabinet. Thank god for my sister who knocked on my door and discovered her brother on the floor spooning with an empty bottle of Jack. I’m blessed she came by and drove me to the ER, but, still, detox was a bitch.
I just wanted to go home that night and play my drums.
There’s nothing cinematic about the shaking and puking and weight loss, no matter how much you look like a Jared Leto douche bag. The worst is when you’re forced to smell your own diarrhea because it’s a dead heat between shitting and puking and you can’t flush because you don’t want any brown or green saturation to splash back to your face. They don’t show you that conundrum in the art house dramas and Hollywood passion projects. There’s no Oscar nomination or standing ovation waiting outside the bathroom.
It’s difficult sitting here, in this room, in this building, for too many reasons. I keep thinking of the song our band created, but I know I am only recollecting a memory of that sound. My memory can’t replicate those notes. Not exactly. Our brains don’t keep souvenirs. Instead they give abstract sculptures while convincing us it’s realism.
Typhoons of shame and self inflicted depravity hit me. I have no defenses. Though, I am blessed for the tremors of relief that occasionally rock me. I don’t recall ever experiencing delight in bursts.
There is a man sitting at the chair beside my bed when I step out of the bathroom. I assume he is here for my therapy session. Today is my first one-on-one. At first he reminds me of James Brown and gives me a warm smile. I sit cross-legged on the mattress.
“How are you feeling?” he asks me. His tone has a kindness that seems foreign with clinical dialogue. I tell him today, like most, is a rough day. He speaks with a subtle lisp and tells me he understands, and shares “I’ve felt like an empty shell.” He goes on and tells me about his mother and how much he suffered when she was taking her last breaths followed by a last goodbye. When describing her illness, he uses the word crisis. I’ve never heard anyone use that word to describe someone who is sick. I’m not really looking at him while he is talking. This might be rude but I haven’t been able to look anyone in the eye since I started rehabilitation. It’s been hard to listen to anyone, but every word he says is clear to me. He continues like he knows with unwavering confidence that I am listening. He says he knows I’m an artist and he says artist instead of drummer or musician. This makes him sound less and less like a therapist. I ask if he plays music and he tells me he still does because music is eternal no matter which side of the universe you are on. “A real good artist learns to be a better person through all the changes they've been through.” My eyelids are shut but translucent. The light doesn’t seem to be coming from a particular source. The flashes of purple are manifesting from my own tension with the anchors I have yet to detach from my eyes. I finally look up at him but he’s not there anymore.
I feel like my mind is coming down from an elevated consciousness or even just a regular high, but instead of a free fall collision it’s a gentle glide.
I look around the room. The carpet and desk and mattress that have remained the same for the past week appear undiscovered as if I’ve never been here before. As if I stepped out from a void.
The door opens and a nurse walks in to tell me I’m late for my therapy appointment. I tell her there was just someone here. She says all sessions are in the office and that therapists are not allowed to meet patients in their room.
This fish is mostly in a state of retrograde but dreams of escaping a stalled remission.
About the Author
Benjamin's stories have been featured in New Plains Review and East by Northeast. Previously, he was a member of the The Washington DC Comedy Writers Group. He lives in Washington DC, where he was born and raised, with his wife, Dana, and their 80-pound dog, Appa.