Jason Duffy Eats Your Friends
Katie Darby Mullins
hen people bring Jason up now, I say that I always knew there was something off about him, but I’m a liar. I didn’t. And worse, when people told me that he was a bad guy—a liar, a cheat, probably a thief—I said, “You don’t really know him like I do.” In fact, right before everything went down, Denny said I was just too naïve to see it— Jason would eventually ask me for money like he did everyone else, and that if I said no, he’d just take it. But I’m a sucker.
It was Jason who first started calling me Fat Ray. It’s not that I wasn’t fat before—and it wasn’t even that people didn’t call me fat. But he seemed to think he was edgy for doing it, and for whatever reason, it stuck. We’d gone to school together, but I always blended in until I finally dropped out. One night, he came into the diner I worked at late, saw me in the kitchen, and yelled, “No way—Ray Ipo? From high school?” I peeked out the hallway towards the restaurant to see him staring back at me. “You got really fat,” he said.
I winced and wiped my greasy hands. “Yeah, I guess so. You didn’t.”
He laughed. “I always liked you, Fat Ray. Hey, when do you get off?”
He sat at the diner bar and shouted back to me until my shift ended around 1, then he invited me back to his place. He lived in an old Victorian house that had been split into several single rooms, most of them occupied by musicians who wanted the cred of living where Kurt Cobain was from. When we got there, though, he told me to stay in the alley for a minute, and he ran up to his apartment. When he came back down, he had a small bag of weed and a dog.
“I actually have to knock on my neighbor’s door to get through his room to use the bathroom,” he said. “It’s fucking ridiculous.” He laughed and lit a joint. “Usually I just piss out that window,” he said, pointing right above our heads. “Too degrading to have to share that kind of stuff with some guy I don’t know.”
The big sheepdog-looking thing at his side whined. He kept reaching down and scratching the dog’s ears while the dog emitted low grunts, almost like a constipated person. “Ahab’s my best friend,” he said. I figured he was probably telling the truth: Jason had never had a lot of friends.
We stood in the cold drizzle while he smoked a joint and waited for D, who was apparently a friend of Jason’s. “He can’t just come up to the apartment. We’ve got to escort him in.” He held out his arm, offering me the pot. It’d been a hard year since my dad died, and my mom had grown more and more distant. I guess she probably wanted me to move out, but I just wasn’t ready. Drugs weren’t a good answer, I know, but they were an easy one—and besides, it’s just pot. I inhaled and my lungs burned: I was not a very good smoker. Jason laughed. “Easy there, Fat Ray.”
“Why’d you ask me back here?” I asked.
“I like you.” Jason cocked his head and smiled.
Jason’s apartment was close enough to the ocean that we could smell the salt mixed in with the usual smell of rot from the alley. I was uncomfortable at first: I don’t really have friends and I don’t really know how to talk to people. But he kept laughing, talking to me. Finally, he went upstairs and brought down his guitar. He started playing me some of the songs he’d written and I started singing backup, drumming on the dumpster.
“Not bad, Fat Ray,” he said. It was a lie: I was awful. “You got a band?”
“Playing like that? Hell no.”
“You got one now. D’s a killer bassist, but we don’t have any percussion,” he said. I looked at him standing in the alley; his coat dwarfed him, made him almost look invisible. He had sunken in eyes that seemed less noticeable because of his scowl and beard. He wore a tight, dark gray knit cap, and he couldn’t have been taller than 5’2”. The slouch didn’t help. Jason looked like a screw up, plain and simple.
“I can’t, dude. I don’t do anything in front of people.”
“You’ll get used to it. Besides, the last few places I’ve played were empty.” He looked me up and down, which, with our height difference, was an exaggerated motion. “Anyway, you’ll be behind me.”
“What’s the name of your band?”
He smirked. “Jason Duffy Eats Your Friends.”
For whatever reason, that sold me. I had never played the drums before. Jason told me later that the whole reason he brought me on was he thought I sucked so bad that it made the vocals and lyrics sound better; like we were rough around the edges, but there was hidden brilliance to us. Jason was always obsessed with what was hidden.
By the time D finally got there, I was nodding off sitting in rainwater and Jason had taken up residence on top of the dumpster, picking out chords. Ahab sat in the trash in the open part of the dumpster, scavenging. It had to have been 4 a.m.
“You have to be kidding me. What are you still doing here? I was supposed to meet you like, four hours ago.”
“Havin’ a party,” said Jason. I laughed. Jason grinned at me. “Plus, I found Fat Ray at the diner, figured you guys would like each other. Worth the wait.”
I shoved him playfully, and he lost his balance, falling into the garbage with Ahab. I wanted to die, I was so embarrassed, but he laughed. “It worked out though,” he told D. “We got a new drummer.”
“No shit,” said D. He smiled, and stuck out his hand to shake. “I’m Denny. I play bass.”
“Nice to meet you, Denny,” I said.
He took a deep breath. “Really? No one’s going to ask? You assholes don’t even want to know why I’m late? I got mugged.
“Oh no, are you all right?” I asked.
“Yeah. Got stabbed a little, but no big deal. Urgent care.”
I shuddered, but Jason laughed. “You have the worst luck.”
I was suddenly aware of my hands. I didn’t know what to do with them. I felt awkward and miserable in the few seconds of silence that passed. I knew I’d go home and go over and over that moment, almost like I was rehearsing for the minute he’d change his mind and not want me around. I had only been in the band for a few minutes before I started waiting for Jason to take it away.
It was hard to figure out how to feel about Jason at first. I’d go to write him off as a jerk, and then he’d scrounge together all of the money he could find and pay my car payment for a month when I got laid off. He was a man of contradictions, always. Maybe that’s why I could never listen when other people said he was such a loser.
One night, on our way back from Spokane, he was bitching about how broke we were. We’d actually lost money on the gig. “We can’t live like this,” said Jason. I had been looking out the window while Jason drove, but I looked up at the hole between the front bucket seats, acknowledging him in the awkward way people do in cars. Denny kept playing with his stringy ponytail, looking at the floor of the van. “I mean, this is insane. Fat Ray, I saw you digging for change to put gas in the van.”
Despite our collective poverty, I seemed to be getting fatter all the time, and Jason hadn’t let me forget about it. I asked him once what he would call me if I ever lost the weight, and without missing a beat, he said “Polynesian Ray.” In all the years I knew him, I was the only friend who had an adjective in their name, and also the only Ray.
“We should do a benefit concert,” Denny said, still avoiding eye contact.
“For who?” asked Jason.
“For us,” said Denny with a mirthless laugh. He rolled a joint. “Please help support the poor musicians. A benefit concert for Jason Duffy Eats Your Friends.”
Jason laughed and reached back for the joint. “Donate money so he doesn’t eat your friends,” he said, taking a puff. “You know, that’s not a bad idea, though. We could do a benefit concert. Those things rake in tons of profit.”
“Don’t you have to have a name before you can pull something like that off?”
“Fuck you,” said Jason. “I got a name.”
He rolled the window down and cold wet air hung in the van. The smoke rolled out the window, soft in the night.
Jason passed the joint back to me, and I silently handed it back to Denny. No one seemed to notice. I watched the houses change from mansions to shanties like a slow flip-book as we got into Aberdeen. Finally, the old Econoline wheezed to a stop in front of my mom’s house.
“Tell Fat Mom hi,” said Jason with a sneer. It was hard to tell who he was insulting there.
I slammed the door and whispered “fuck you” knowing he couldn’t hear me as he drove off.
We must have practiced together for almost a year and played a hundred crappy gigs like that one. Every so often, around 10 a.m., Jason would knock on the door, and I’d know it was a practice day. I didn’t like to leave the house if I didn’t have to, so Jason always came to me. We usually practiced in my mom’s basement while she was at work. My mom didn’t have a phone, and neither did the guys, so I don’t know how often Jason must have stood and knocked for nothing, but the morning he wrote “Shadows,” I was there. I stretched and walked down the stairs as slowly as I could, pissed off at him for something I can’t even remember now.
“What took you so long? We’ve got to get a practice in,” he said, probably high. By then, he was completely off methadone—had been for years—but he was taking painkillers pretty regularly. He was wearing a scarf and a hat, but it wasn’t that cold out. His guitar was slung around his back in a cloth gig bag.
“Did you sleep at all last night?”
“Not really,” he said. “Do you have any coffee?”
I led him downstairs where we always practiced. Mom and I lived in a split level house, thick padded carpets leading to a basement with a bedroom in it. I lived there. I had my own door to the outside and a mini fridge, so there wasn’t really any reason to move out. Mom lived upstairs with the full bathroom and kitchen. She was always telling me she didn’t like Jason in her house, but I told her he wasn’t in her house—he was in mine. He only went upstairs when she wasn’t home.
Jason went over to the outside door and poked his head out to smoke.
“You high today?” I asked, as casually as I could.
He looked me right in the eye. “Not today. Maybe not again. I’m not sure how I feel about the whole thing anymore,” he said. He told me some story about walking into an NA meeting and telling everyone that he was having a hard time remembering to feed Ahab.
“I know it doesn’t seem like a big deal, but all the sudden I was bawling, you know?” he laughed. “About a dumb animal. I mean, inconsolable. And the leader guy, he says, ‘That’s the most you’ve ever shared with us, Jason, I’m proud of you,’ and then I remember where I am, and I think it embarrassed the addiction out of me, to be honest.”
“I didn’t know you were going to NA,” I said.
“Did I say I was going to NA? I went once.”
“Then why did the leader—never mind,” I said. “Whatever.”
Jason wandered around the basement. Every time he came to a table or a shelf with knick knacks, he’d stop, pick one up, turn it over in his hand, and then sit it back down gently, almost like he was going through a store of precious things. Finally, he made his way to the corner and picked up a guitar he left over at my house, a piece-of-crap Epiphone electric, and strummed hard. “Anyway, what are we doing here?”
I walked over to my table. “I’m getting breakfast,” I said, pouring a bowl of Cheetos. “Of course you are,” said Denny, walking down the stairs. “Door was unlocked.” I got over close to him and elbowed him in the side.
“Guys! What are we doing here?” asked Jason.
“I don’t know. You finish that song?” I asked.
Jason tuned the electric and handed it to Denny, whose fingers were already coated with orange powder. “I can’t believe you touch your guitar with those filthy hands.”
“Dude. It’s a cheap-ass guitar. Chill.”
Jason picked up his guitar—the only thing he’d ever owned that was worth any money. A warm sounding sunburst Guild acoustic. He’d already tuned it. He sat down on a stool and played a slow introduction, and then he started singing.
“Whoa,” I said. “You actually sound really good today.” The truth was, Jason always sounded good, but everyone once in a while he sang about something that made me feel something deep. He was some jackass, but when he sang about mercy and being damned, it gave me chills.
“I like that song,” said Denny. Jason smiled.
“We’re getting better,” he said. “It’s a pretty damn good song.”
It took me a few listens to understand everything Jason was saying through his low growl, but the more I understood, the more I liked it. He was singing about knowing how God’s mercy is supposed to be boundless, but it’s always people who ain’t so bad saying that. That the divide between bad and good was something vaster than I’d ever understood. He was using the idea of a volcano… I don’t know. It’s hard to explain. Ghosts in a volcano. I was blown away.
“Fat Ray,” Jason yelled, “hit the drums. Make yourself useful.”
We practiced for a few hours, and finally Denny pulled out his computer to record it in GarageBand. Before the evening was out, Jason released the song—tentatively titled “Shadows”—online. Jason uploaded it to Youtube and captioned it, “Check this out. If you like it, great. If you don’t, you’re an asshole.” We laughed and drank until my mom got home, and then we drank quieter, hoping not to make her come down to the basement and see what we were up to. Denny passed out first, so Jason and I hauled him onto the couch and tucked him in. Jason put his hand on my shoulder awkwardly and said, “You know, you always try to take care of us. I really need that, man.”
“You’re wasted,” I said.
A few hours later, drunk off whiskey, Jason passed out, too. In the corner, though—with his arms wrapped around his legs. I knew he was going to be sore in the morning, but I also knew that I was way too drunk to be moving him. I always tried so hard not to love Jason, but it was impossible: I loved him whether I wanted to or not. Even when I knew it could hurt. I brought a blanket over to the corner and covered him up, too, before passing out in my room.
I had a nightmare that night, but I can’t remember what it was about. I woke up early the next morning feeling uneasy and confused. I went into the basement to check on Jason and Denny, but Jason was gone. He left a note that said, “See you soon.” I never knew whether to believe that or not.
None of us could have guessed how things were going to change after “Shadows.” It didn’t take long before the video went viral. Surprisingly, though, that’s when I stopped hearing from Jason as much. I was more sad than surprised. He showed up for practice once a week or so, and the rest of the time, he was busy. I never saw him out or anything—honestly, I never went anywhere without Jason. He kept telling me he was booking shows, and I didn’t believe him for a long time.
“I’m not going to settle for less than we deserve,” he’d say. “I really want to hold out for Springsteen or someone like that.”
Denny and I would laugh, but it wasn’t because we thought it was funny. “You back on the junk?” I asked a few times. He’d say no, and he didn’t get angry, so I believed him. Finally, a few weeks down the road, he knocked on my door unexpected. He had Ahab with him, so I knew something big was going on.
“Man, get packed. We need to leave right now. I just stopped at Denny’s, and we’re going to pick him up on the way out of town.”
“Out of town? I can’t leave. I’ve got work tonight.”
“You’re convincing, Jason. Excellent logic.”
“Seriously. Call in, quit, and pack. We need to be in San Francisco tonight.”
His pupils weren’t dilated and he wasn’t shaking. None of the usual signs that he was on something he shouldn’t be. “What’s wrong with you?” I asked.
“Nothing’s wrong. Jesus, you and D both suck at surprises. I was going to let it be a surprise, but I guess you guys can’t wait.”
“I’m not going to quit my job for nothing.”
Jason’s hands were shaking a little. “OK, but you have to pack while I’m telling you what happened.”
“How long do I need to pack for?”
“I don’t know. At least a few weeks.”
We went into my room and he sat at my desk. I opened a duffle bag and threw a bunch of pairs of boxer shorts in while he watched. “You going to let me in on what’s happening?”
“Oh, yeah,” he said, almost as if I’d kickstarted him. “The weirdest thing happened. I’ve been emailing around, trying to get people to send money to the band—”
“You’re kidding, right? You’re begging from people?”
“Not begging. Asking friends and family.”
“So you’re only abusing the people who actually give a shit about us?”
“So not the point here, asshole. You want to hear the story, let me talk. I’ve been emailing people in the industry, too, got in touch with a bunch of higher-ups— you know, managers, booking agents, a few musicians themselves. Figured maybe they could donate some money or time to the Jason Duffy Eats Your Friends cause. We’ve got some tentative interest in it, a couple of backers, everything’s going great—but then, I get ahold of Tony at East End Management, and it’s done.”
I looked at him in silence for a minute. “Who the fuck is Tony?”
“You really don’t know shit,” he said. “God. Tom Petty’s manager. We’re opening for the Heartbreakers tonight in San Francisco, and if it goes well, they’re going to have us out on tour with them.”
“You’re messing with me.”
For the first time that morning, he looked completely serious. He smiled at me, and he stopped shaking. “Dude, I am not. This is for real. Something about ‘Shadows.’ They liked it. It’s happening.”
“You don’t give yourself enough credit,” I said. “You made this happen. I sure as hell wouldn’t have had the balls to call Petty’s management.”
Jason smiled. “Thanks, Ray. I mean it.” He walked over to the bed and started tossing anything from on top of the dresser into the bag—some deodorant, a book, a comb. “Move faster, man. I can’t wait any longer.” He patted my back. “I’ll be upstairs.”
By the time my bag was packed, my mom had gotten home. She and Jason were sitting across from each other in the living room, not saying a word. The tension was almost physical.
“Ray, what’s this Jason says about you guys going out of town?”
“We’re going on tour, Ma.”
“You moving out?” she asked. She never broke eye contact with Jason.
“I think so, Ma.”
She nodded and then said, “Don’t bring this one back here, OK?”
I went over to her and kissed her on the cheek. “OK, Ma. I love you.”
She told me that she loved me too, and I walked Jason out to the van. “Man, what happened in there?” I asked.
“Your fat mom is nuts,” Jason said.
“Stop talking about my mom, man.” I looked at him seriously—but just for a minute. He was always stronger than I was. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I know you’re joking.”
The first show with the Heartbreakers was an absolute blur. We got there just in time for soundcheck, and we wound up playing to a nearly sold-out auditorium. I don’t really remember anything about it. We didn’t even have time to meet Tom until the next day while we were on our way to LA: it was just too fast. It wound up that Jason had caught Tony at just the right time: the Wallflowers were supposed to open for them that night, but Jakob Dylan had come down with the flu.
“I’d been calling to see if he’d donate to us—sponsor some studio time or something,” said Jason explained while we ate at Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles in LA.
“Whoa, you’re asking people to sponsor us?” Denny asked, eating a conservative breakfast of scrambled eggs and bacon. He never did take chances where breakfast was concerned.
“Yeah,” Jason said. “What’s the big deal? It’s not cheap to launch a career like this. I just tell them we’ll send them the record when it’s finished.”
I swirled my chicken around in the pool of syrup on my plate. I’d never had chicken and waffles before, but I was glad Jason had suggested it for breakfast. It was surprisingly comforting. He always seemed to know somewhere local and interesting, like he’d lived in every town in America and always knew what the natives knew.
“Really? That’s what you’ve been up to?” Denny asked. “That’s awful.”
I looked up. “I kind of thought you were joking, Jason. Are you putting our names on these emails, too? I mean, we’re working. We don’t need other people’s money. Plus, are you really keeping track of who we need to send those records to?”
Jason shook his head and looked out the window. “Man, you guys just don’t understand. Sure, it’s easy for you. I can’t just go get a job—things are different for me, you know?” Jason kept interrupting himself and changing the subject, but in a way that made it seem like he wasn’t. He was always good at that. Looking back, I’m not even sure that what he said made sense.
“You sure you’re not just skipping your meds again?” I said with a laugh. Jason, who was sitting next to me on the booth, turned and punched me, hard, in the stomach.
“Dude, that’s not funny.”
I coughed. “Sorry.” I was quiet. Every once in a while, I’d say something to Jason that I thought was a joke, but he didn’t take it that way. That meant I was probably right. He’d been on a few different psych meds that I knew of, and some I’m sure I didn’t. Maybe that’s why he’d been weird.
“I’m not skipping my meds. I just care about you guys, man. Fuck you.”
He left without handing either of us any cash, but he scraped what was left on his plate into a napkin and headed out to the van. His plan was to feed Ahab his leftovers throughout the whole tour.
I put a twenty on the table and nodded to Denny—he must have known where I was going, though, because he grabbed my arm. “Ray, I don’t think you get what’s going on here,” he said. “I kind of figured when I came up to you guys in the alley that night that you were just some junkie or something, so it wasn’t a big deal. But that’s not how it is. You’re kind of—I don’t know, a sweet guy. Jason destroys guys like you for fun. Just watch your back, OK?”
I looked at Denny with pity. “Not everyone’s broken, man. I’m embarrassed that he’s asking people for money, too, but he’s not some bad guy—and anyway, he’s doing it for us. He’s a good guy deep down.” That is the conversation I would take back if I could. I hate that Denny must remember it. But at the time, I just thought I knew better. I shrugged my shoulders and followed Jason out to the van, hoping to apologize and make the coming trip a little less miserable.
“Hey man,” I said when I opened the sliding door to get in. He looked up at me, still mad. He had a handful of sausage gravy, and Ahab was licking it, slowly. I wondered if dogs could savor. “He looks happy.”
“Yeah, he’s a dog. What’s he know?”
“Look, I’m sorry.”
“You’re right, you know.”
“You’re off ‘em?”
He looked like he was smiling, but it wasn’t a real smile. He dug in his pants pocket with his free hand, pulled a crumpled pack of cigarettes out, and threw it at me. “Light one.”
“No, man. But usually, if I was acting like this, I would be, you know?”
I fumbled to find a cigarette that wasn’t wrinkled and broken from having been in his back pocket, then I struggled to light it. I’d never been great with cigarettes. Finally I handed it back to him. “It’s OK. We all got stuff.”
“It’s not that. It’s just—you guys don’t get it. I got nothing. Nothing was ever going to get better than my shitty, leaky apartment and my fucking dog.” He looked tenderly at Ahab. “Sorry. But it’s true.” Then he looked at me again. “I guess things are more complicated now, and I’m getting scared.”
“Why are you scared?” I asked him. “That doesn’t make any sense. You’ve got real contacts now. Real people on your team.” I shoved him, but lightly. Wanted him to know I was playing around with him again, wanted him to still like me. “I think you’re probably good to stop cold calling people for money.”
“What if everyone finds out I’m a phony?”
“You aren’t a phony, man. You’re the real deal. You wrote “Shadows”. You’re on tour with Tom Petty and the goddamn Heartbreakers. It doesn’t get more real than that.”
He sucked on the cigarette and held his breath for a minute like he was underwater. I wondered if his chest was burning from the inside out. He looked so tired. “You’re right,” he said. “I’ve got this.”
That night, we were playing at the Hollywood Bowl, a bigger stadium than I’d ever dreamed of playing in. The rock and roll dream was still relatively new to me: I hadn’t grown up thinking someone like me could play music, so I didn’t bother fantasizing about it. But all of the sudden, the weight of where we were hit me, and I choked on my own recognition. I couldn’t drink backstage, because I knew I’d throw it up. My only chance of getting through the show was having an empty stomach and not looking at the crowd.
It was a beautiful night, one of those that didn’t feel real. Only in LA. The breeze was light and refreshing, the air was constantly moving. It was like being on a movie set or something—like someone was always making sure that the climate was at optimum temperature and comfort level. The stage itself was huge, built into a dome. My drum kit wasn’t as far back as I would have liked; we set up in front of the Heartbreakers gear, and I was close enough that I could see a few rows of faces. I twirled my sticks over and over, hoping that I looked cool and not nervous.
Right before we went onstage, Jason was hunched over, messing with his guitar. I knew it was tuned, but he couldn’t stop fidgeting. “It’s OK,” I said. “We’re going to be fine. We did this last night, remember?”
But I was anxious too. The first night was pure adrenaline. We’d have to be present for this one.
“What if I screw this up?”
“You won’t,” I said. “I hate to be clichéd and all, but this is one of those life-changing moments. This is the first step to the rest of our lives, man. We’re about to be somebody. Thousands of people are going to see you every night.”
He put his hand up to stop me from talking. “Yeah,” he said. “I guess you’re right.”
We took our places onstage, and just as we were about to start, a ladybug landed on my cymbals. I smiled—my mom had always told me they were good luck. “Hey you,” I said, lifting her up with my drumstick and blowing her into the wind. “Thanks.”
“Hey, I’m Jason and we are Jason Duffy Eats Your Friends,” Jason said, small and quiet into the microphone. Then he turned around, looked at me, and smiled that almost-smile again. But then he hit the first chord, and he was transformed: Jason Duffy became a magnificent beast, strutting all around the stage, lifting his knees up high and playing dirty licks. We mostly played originals, but we always played a Stones cover—and tonight, he chose to play a stripped down acoustic version of “Sway”. He looked into the audience and almost as if he were daring them, he sneered, “It’s just that demon life that’s got you in its sway,” and I swear, I saw people pulling out honest-to-God lighters like they used to do back when rock and roll was young. It was incredible. Maybe the weirdest part was how powerful I felt. The second the spotlights hit, it was like some other Ray behind the drums. Not Fat Ray, not even Polynesian Ray. Cool Ray. Ray the Drummer.
When we got off the stage, just for a few minutes, he was still the rock ‘n roll star, proud and standing as tall as he could. He hugged me, and I could feel that his heart was racing like it used to on drugs.
“I’d say that went pretty well,” said Denny.
“No shit,” said Jason. “I think this is it.”
Jason wasn’t wrong when he said that was it—our thirty minute set at the Hollywood Bowl was the last show we ever played together. I always knew Jason could fall off the wagon, mix the wrong pills and drugs, but I wasn’t prepared for him to come to me early the next day, stone cold sober, and say, “We’ve got a problem.”
“Please tell me Denny’s OK.”
“He’s fine. Just… can I come in?”
We’d stayed in a roadside motel the night before. Everyone shared a room except for me: Jason always made sure that, when it was possible, I had some space, and I didn’t have to hang out with people all the time. It was still dark in my room; the curtains were almost carpeted, and they completely blocked the light. “Come in, man.” I walked over to the table that was supposed to serve as a kitchenette and poured dirty tap water into the dirty coffee pot. “I’ll make coffee.” I parted the curtain and realized Jason’d shaved; I’d never seen him without his beard. His faced was changed, like his chin receded into his neck. He was different.
“Do you have any idea how much money it takes to fund a tour like this without a label backer?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “How much money?”
He winced. “Sit down.”
I sat in the vinyl chair next to the table, my legs sticking to the cheap plastic cover. “That bad?”
“Six figures bad.”
“Shit! How’d you get six figures?”
He laughed. “Are you kidding? I’m off my meds.”
The coffeemaker started to wheeze. “That’s not really an answer,” I finally said.
“Kind of is.” He looked nothing like the confident frontman he’d been less than twelve hours ago. His eyes looked dark and tired, and he clearly hadn’t slept. “I might be in some trouble.”
“What kind of trouble? Bad reputation trouble?”
He closed his eyes and put his head in his hands. “Least of my worries right now.” Jason stood up. “But the good news is, you can help, Ray. I need you to tell your mom to back the fuck off.”
After he admitted that he’d stolen my mom’s checkbook, he admitted that he hadn’t been asking people for money—he’d just been taking it. He’d stolen tons of checkbooks and taken a few hundred dollars here and there, but when my mom saw money go missing, she immediately suspected Jason and called the cops. I kept shaking my head. I was sick. “Dude, we didn’t have money for you to take. Of course my mom noticed,” I said. “My dad just died.”
“I know, man. I feel horrible.” Finally he said, “Hey, Ray?” for the first time ever dropping the nickname.
“Please, please take care of Ahab,” he said. Then he burst into tears.
Later that day, I heard the sirens pull up to the hotel, and even through those carpet-thick curtains, I could see the dull blue and red lights. I knew they’d come for Jason. Denny was so angry, he could barely speak. When I said, “I just can’t believe this,” Denny said, “Oh, yeah, the big mean con man was nice to you. It was everyone else he screwed over, but to you he’s different.”
I don’t know exactly how many thousands of dollars Jason had stolen. He couldn’t just give them back, because they’d been spent—on paying debts he owed, on drugs, on fixing up the Econoline, on groceries.
I moved back in with my mom, but it was uncomfortable. As sad and closed off as she’d been after my dad died, it was so much worse. She had locks on everything—every time I came up the stairs, she jumped. I didn’t invite anyone over again. It would have been too much. I got my old job back, and I tried to forget about drumming and “Shadows” and Jason. I forgot how comfortable my life had been before the noise and the stage lights. Denny started playing in other bands around town. Some days I felt sort of relieved that we were never going to have giant crowds of people needing us for things. I tried to remind myself of that on the days I missed Jason.
I had to go back to the diner and beg for my job back, but I also had to get another job—I needed to pay my mom back the money Jason wouldn’t, and besides, I didn’t want to be in that house with her. I’m selling instruments at a music store. I still can’t play for shit, but every once in a while when no one is looking, I can still go sit behind the drums and pretend. At least Jason had made that easy for me: I could talk to people, finally, as long as I was talking about music.
At nights, when Ahab and I sit in the basement and share a bowl of Cheetos, I wonder what signs I missed; I wonder if I’ll miss them again with some new friend. I actually sat and stared into Ahab’s eyes once and tried to ask him, “Did Jason ever give a shit about me?” Ahab licked my face.
Recently, I read an interview Jason did from jail, and he didn’t mention me or Denny, or even my mom. He apologized, sure, and admitted he was bipolar. He’d fallen off the wagon. And all of that is fine, I guess.
The last thing he’d said to me in the hotel that morning, before I had to move back into my mom’s basement and go back to a life he’d dropped a bomb in, was that he was afraid—that he wrote songs because he was terrified of the person inside of himself who was stunted and cruel. “It’s OK,” I said. I walked over to him and hugged him while he shook. “It’s all going to be fine,” I lied. He nodded, swallowing hard.
I remember closing my eyes as he said that, pretending that I was alone in my room at home. I pretended that Jason was on his way over and that we were going to practice for a while. As the fantasy grew bigger and bigger, I pretended he was hit by a car. I wasn’t going to be able to sit behind him and play anymore.
Katie Darby Mullins teaches at the University of Evansville. In addition to being nominated for a Pushcart Prize and editing a rock ‘n roll crossover edition of the metrical poetry journal Measure, she’s been published or has work forthcoming in journals like Hawaii Pacific Review, Harpur Palate, Pithead Chapel, Big Lucks, The Evansville Review, and she was a semifinalist in the Ropewalk Press Fiction Chapbook competition and in the Casey Shay Press poetry chapbook competition. She’s also the lead writer and founder of the music blog Katie Darby Recommends.