The Long Road Vol. 4: The Matchbox Ignites

Jennifer was a firecracker, and Paul was a steely, wiry box of matches. They drove from show to show, screeching hell’s fury, flanking rockets at each other as they did it. It was a war zone of hate and intimacy; but that’s how they lived their lives. Never resting for the pleasures of a warm marriage. Everything they did was hot and fast. There was no time for love, and no room for it in their beaten hearts.

Paul was a latchkey kid who watched his father beat his mother every night before bed. Jenny was a tied up bag of broken bones and bruised memories. Her parents were cold shadows in her thoughts, distant, blurred out figures in the shape of adult humans who carried no traits of parenthood. She came and went as she pleased, and they never questioned where she went. They hardly noticed her when she was around, anyway. Their teenage lives were violent retching, grabbing, snatching, riptides that pulled them under to the floor and pulled them around until they gasped for air. Until they met each other.

They met after she dropped out of high school and he left his broken home to collapse in on itself with no possessions but a few hundred dollars swiped from his drunken fathers’ wallet and an old guitar. She was working at a liquor store, and he was her best customer. He had nowhere to go and she had nothing to lose, so she snuck him into her parents’ attic to spend the night sharing a bottle of Alberta Premium, and that’s where it began. They talked all night about their hopes and fears, and he played Hallelujah in a mournful key, when she sang along in near whispers. Their flashlight lit faces swung back and forth in the shadowy attic, and in a moment of connection- the first of its kind for either of them- their eyes floated through the bruised and battered facades of their tough hides, and swept them together as they made love; or, at least, a brutal manifestation of all their lives toils and torments built up into what they imagined making love – truly making love rather than simply fucking- was meant to look like.

They left the next morning, hitchhiked to some small towns, played their music for dimes and quarters. They made barely enough to eat, but they were their best impression of happy. They made some friends along the way. And by that I mean Jen made some friends while her husband was too drunk to function. As a result of her natural talent and ability to influence, those friends joined them. They became a band. Something like a family – a foreign concept to both of them. a gruff, burly motorcycle gang looking family. But the old men looked out for the young couple like fathers or uncles, and they were happy. The band was a cast of road dogs, loners, losers. The people that life forgot. They performed and traveled together in an old beat up van that the bassist stole from his ex-girlfriend. Soon, the bassist gifted the van to young couple and took up their own vehicles to travel more comfortably. For the first time in their lives, Jennifer and Paul had a home.

Neither had ever felt the warmth of a loving heart in their lives. but they’d seen love on TV. So they produced the best version of that that they could. It was a rough and sharp-edged excuse for affection, the rage they had built up in their youths often frothed forth in explosions of volcanic ash; but the heat tempered the riptide, and they loved the contempt their bouts stirred up. They loved their reckless intimate circle-jerk of pseudo-affection that they shared with one another. They loved that they could each direct their anger with laser-precision and neither harm nor damage the integrity of their marriage. Most of all, they loved how much they hated their love.

But before that day I found her waiting on the shoulder of the highway, he had never abandoned her. He had never left her to fend for herself in the rock-hard, cold, uncaring world. As much as they threw up torrents of abuse at one another, they saw themselves as the same team. One would never leave the other behind. Her heart had never broken before; it was a calloused, grey withered thing. When he shoved her out of the passenger seat of the van, and tossed her bags out the window onto the brown grass, her heart broke. For the first time in her life, she felt true pain. She wouldn’t tell me what they fought over, but she was sure we would meet up with him in Pincher Creek.

We pulled into Pincher Creek, an old beat up agriculture town. There are only three bars – as we were told by a middle-aged man upon asking him for directions – Excuses, Leo’s, and if you’re looking for something fancy, Boston Pizza. So the venue wasn’t hard to find. By the time we got there, the show would be an hour away from starting. We walked through the door to rows of cheap looking tables and a checkerboard dance floor. There was no band. Jen walked ruggedly to the bartender as I stood by the entrance noticing the unusual arrangement of a dartboard hanging on the wall directly beside the dance floor. She came back, eyes shining with tears held back against them, trying to keep her face in its natural shape as not to let this stranger she barely knew see her cry.

“He’s not here,” She said. “The whole band isn’t here. They never showed. Called the bar and said they weren’t coming.”

She marched through me and beyond the door, sat herself on the hood of my car, and stared off into nothing. I can say with confidence that this was the second time she had ever felt her heart break.

After several minutes of silence, I finally spoke up. “What now?”

She looked up into the cloudy evening sky, “Where were you headed anyway?”

The old man in the motel found his way into my mind. Have you ever been to the Yukon? was all I could think of. Somewhere he had always wanted to go, but a place that faded away into his dreams. I doubted if he ever would

I sat down on the pavement beside the car.

“Everything looks better in the light of day,” I said softly.

“What?” she turned slightly in my direction.

“Just something my dad used to tell me,” as I drifted into a distant memory, “But I haven’t seen or heard from him in years.”

“Why not?”

“My parents stopped being a part of my life as soon as I was old enough to move out,” I said.

She pounced up off the vehicle, “Do you want to see him?”

The lonely hills become buried in the size of the mountains as you go further and yet further west. The road to Vancouver is long, and it doesn’t sing like the hills of Alberta 2; but it carries with it a sense of hope as the sun sets, turning the mountains into an unnatural shade of some unknown colour while the sky darken its hue of blue until it washes out into grey. But we drove that direction anyway.

 

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The Long Road, Vol. 2: The Songstress and the Dive

I stopped at the first hotel I could find. The hotel clerk was a grey-haired man with eyes like dull, unsharpened pencils. He only sort of watched me come in with one eye half fixed on an old Canadian Geographic magazine that was rounded at the corners due to repeated use. “Looking for a room?” he asked; but didn’t quite seem to be talking to anyone in particular.

I asked him if he had any vacancies.

“What does the sign out front say?” he replied in a tired, surly voice.

I hadn’t even noticed a sign. “I didn’t think there was a sign.”

“I can tell you without even looking that is says vacancy,” he said. The clerk licked his finger, and slowly brought it to the corner of the page. He flipped pages with the same grace possessed by a grizzly bear breaking into a garbage can. “It always says vacancy. We’re never full.”

I assure you he was very proud of himself.

“Can I have a room, please?” I finally asked. My eyes were now heavy. They felt like bags of sand desperately trying to pull down the curtains after the first act of a very long, tedious play.

“Yup,” The clerk said. “Yup, yup.” He continued to peruse his magazine. “Have you seen it before?” he asked.

Seen what? I want a room! “No – uh, seen what?”

“The Yukon. This issue is all about the Yukon.” He looked out the window and his vision faded into a far off dream of the past. “I planned to go there when I was a young man,” his voice fell into a deep sigh. He reached under the table and pulled out a key. “Room 445,” he half-whispered. His eyes were glazed, transparent, and shimmered in longing for a life he would never live.

The lights in the elevator buzzed as I rode it up to the the fourth floor. It was not so loud that I could not hear the dreadful music emanating from the old muffled speakers, but loud enough that the sound was drowned out and the notes fell flat of anything resembling harmony. There was no ding when I reached my floor, and so the elevator doors startled me as they opened. As I stepped into the hall, the buzzing followed me in every light bulb which was hanging overhead. Constant buzzing filled the air ever so delicately, but yet sharp enough to slightly assault the ears. This is life, I thought. Endless minor annoyances; unavoidable; unstoppable. Then came a soft sound from below the floor; a subtle array of strings vibrating in deep harmony. The harsh percussion of drums soon followed through the paper thin floor and walls, and then a voice joined. Muffled through inches of cheap  plywood and carpet, the voice crashed vaguely familiar tones into the hallway.

I marched back towards the elevator, encapsulated by the soft melody protruding through the fabric of the hotel. Down to the first floor. The music grew stronger and louder. I could see the old clerk still sitting in his chair with the magazine sprawled across his lap and his head tilted back, dreaming of far away places. To the left there was a door which I had not noticed before. There was the source of the music. Jazzy bass notes rolled across the floor. The violent strum of guitar strings streaming through the air were accompanied by that sickeningly sweet voice. As I entered the room I saw the bar was populated mainly by rough looking men who had likely spent far too many late nights awake driving down the same road I had turned off of.

The band was an ensemble of older men with beards. In the middle of the stage, like a fiery ember, stood a young lady with her lips nearly pursed around the microphone. I can’t remember most of the words she sang; but during long nights I can often hear a few words echo through the empty air of my bedroom:

“I will never be set free

Because I hold myself in chains

Prisoner of my own ideals

Abuse runs through my veins”

I sat awhile and listened. The song soon ended. The band performed a haunting rendition of “Lilac Wine”, then some other old jazz songs; but the room focused always on the woman. The singer was the pearl of this hotel bar. Her red hair scorched the dark air that seemed to be watercoloured by cigarette smoke, and she looked deeply under-dressed compared to the rest of the band, in a tee-shirt with the words “Come at me” written across the breast, and jean shorts that barely came down far enough to cover anything. Her shoeless feet tapped as she sang, as if in tune with a completely different song.

Eventually the room got quiet when the band stopped playing, and packed up. Most of the patrons went back to their drinks and guzzled away whatever troubles they happened to be facing. I sat alone. Soon the speakers played fuzzy rock music that was barely legible, and the customers became rowdy, laughing with one another. I sat alone. The bartender asked me if  I wanted anything else. I said no. “It’s last call, you know,” he told me. I assured him that my answer was not changed. He wandered off to offer last minute hangovers to the regulars.

I sat alone, looking into my empty glass. Suddenly, a sharp, yet delicate voice appeared out of the space immediately next to me. “Never seen you before,” she said. I looked up as I nearly pounced out of my stool. “Where are you from?” she asked.

A bonfire flowed like liquid out of the top of her head and just past her shoulders. “Not here,” I said.

“Everybody’s from there,” her ocean blue eyes were a little too big for her face, but nearly seemed to make up for the size of her lips.

I stirred my straw around my glass as she leaned forward.

“That’s my husband,” she said, pointing to a skinny man wearing a snapback turned slightly to the side.

I sat unsure how I was expected to respond.  Better say something. “Congratulations.”

“Thanks,” she said. “He’s an idiot.”

She hopped up out of the stool, and bounced onto the floor. “But I love him,” she said as she leaned back against the bar.

“I don’t get to make many friends,” she told me, “He only lets me talk to people when he’s drunk and not paying attention.”

Had I been watching him, I would have seen her husband suddenly and without any premeditation throw a shot glass across the room, which happened to cross the path of a rather burly man wearing a wife-beater. It crossed his path in the head. That’s when the woman said, “Nice meeting you, friend” and sauntered out into the lobby. That’s also when the burly man threw a punch, missed, and landed himself on the floor. I don’t know what the husband screamed as I left the bar looking for the woman; but I didn’t find her. I returned to my room lost in thought. Is that really all it takes to make a friend?