Going by the Book
by David Cleden
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
His eyes ached, there was a crick in his neck from scanning row after row of spines and he could feel his nose starting to itch from the dust he had disturbed. In short, it was time to leave.
That wasn’t as straightforward as he expected. The second-hand book store was cavernous. At some point, various stores and apartments had been knocked through to leave a warren of fusty rooms spread across many levels, complete with creaky stairs and floorboards, and every inch of wall space covered by shelves of books.
He had wasted yet another afternoon here, searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack. It was a fool’s errand, and he was the prize fool.
He made his way to the front of the store and found himself squinting in the strong sunlight. He was just groping for the door when a voice said, “Hello, Kenny. What a lovely surprise!”
He turned. A woman browsing the shelves nearest the door had spoken to him. It took a moment for recognition to dawn.
She flashed him a warm, genuine smile of pleasure. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it? What... six, maybe seven years?”
Some impulse took hold of him. “Take a walk with me? For old times’ sake?” he asked without much hope.
“Sure,” she replied, with a little nod that shook a lock of her auburn hair free. Just like that, he thought. A simple thing, and his whole day had changed for the better.
Rebecca smiled again, and his world seemed to light up. “How have you been? Are you still writing songs?”
They left the store, already settling into easy conversation, forgetting an obscure book shelved high on the “Newly Acquired” rack. It might have been the one Rebecca was reaching for when she spotted Kenny. Its sky-blue dust jacket was a little faded, but the title on the spine still gleamed in gold lettering: KH — A Life Story.
He was already late, which didn’t help. Becky had been called in to the office for some important breakfast meeting at the law firm, so it was down to him to get Freddie to the nursery across town. And Freddie’s idea of passing the time was warbling — at high volume— some of the songs Kenny had been singing to him at bedtime. That had seemed sweet, a father-son bonding experience, as they sang along together, laughing. Now, it put his teeth on edge.
Finding a sudden gap in the traffic, he sped up between the lights. Stupid really, but this morning it felt as if those precious few seconds really mattered.
He noticed an old lady, well-wrapped in thick winter coat and scarf, the only passenger waiting at a bus shelter ahead. Just next to her on the seat, someone had left a book behind. Kenny stared hard as the car drew level. Was it? Could it possibly be? What were the chances...?
He thought of it now only as The Book. In all his searching, he hadn’t set eyes on it in more than ten years.
Impulsively he braked and pulled in to the side of the street. It earned him a hoot from the BMW Estate behind which pulled round him and accelerated away with a roar.
Freddie stopped singing, aware that something had changed. Just as the car slowed to a stop at the curb — Bang! Kenny’s head whipped round, his first thought that a bomb had gone off nearby. Man, that was loud! A sports car racing through the red lights at the next intersection had cannoned into the front of the BMW that had pulled round Kenny seconds before.
The BMW cartwheeled through the air, crunching down hard on its roof, skittering across the pavement and embedding itself in a shop front to the accompaniment of shattering glass, tortured metal and still-revving engines. Seconds later, a woman started screaming.
They could do little for the driver of the BMW. From the angle of his crumpled body, it was clear his neck had snapped instantly. The sports car driver was dragged from the wreckage by bystanders, Kenny among them, all painfully aware of the stench of gasoline pouring from a ruptured tank. The man was unconscious but alive. They did what they could for him in the brief minutes before the emergency crews arrived.
Kenny stared around at the wreckage, realization dawning. Had he not slowed, he and Freddie would have been sideswiped by the sports car. They would have been the ones lying in the middle of that carnage. And the only reason he had slowed...
By the time he returned to look, both the woman and the book — or possibly The Book — were gone.
It was perfect; better than they dared hope for at rehearsals. Steve and Jodi hit their harmonies pitch-perfect. Tom thundered the final bass riff, and Wayne pounded his way round the drum kit, the kick drum pile-driving its way straight past eardrums to vibrate bone and sinew directly. In a final virtuoso performance, Kenny let the notes fly from his fingertips, the guitar screaming out its melody. Nothing he had practiced, just improvisation direct from the soul.
They couldn’t afford clever lighting effects and certainly not a crew to operate them. They stood on stage, acknowledging the cheers and the applause, bathed in the cheesy multicolor lights and glitterball the club used for all its acts, grinning at each other as the crowd pleaded for more. The cellar bar was packed; could have been two hundred and fifty all told.
When the shouts and whoops began to die down, Kenny flicked the Marshall to standby and divested himself of the Firebird. Drenched in sweat, his throat burning, he was deliriously happy.
“Man, that was cool,” Tom said, high-fiving him. Wayne was still teasing a portion of the crowd chanting his name. He obliged and threw his sticks to the crowd.
A pretty brunette pushed her way onto the stage. “Oh wow!” she said, wide blue eyes staring up at Kenny. “Awesome! Sign this?” she asked.
Kenny fumbled with the pen, scrawling something he knew bore little resemblance to his usual signature on the back of the book she proffered. He was flying so high — on the toke he had shared with the others before the final set, on the adrenaline, on the sheer exuberance of the moment.
But still there was the little voice in his head. This is as good as it gets, Kenny. Remember that. Didn’t you want more than this? Didn’t you want to reach the top? You wanted the tours, the record deals, the adulation, the respect. But this is the pinnacle for you. You do know that, don’t you?
He shook his head. Too late, he remembered the girl he had never met before tonight and the book he had just signed. He’d never even looked to see what it was. Who brings a hardback book to a gig?
“Wait—” he called, but she had already vanished into the crowd.
He could smell smoke while still a dozen steps away.
It wasn’t much to look at from the outside: a converted garage, half-sunk into the end of his sloping front garden and reached by a few descending steps. He had bricked up the doors facing the road, added power and lighting, installed sound baffling, some decent mics, a public-address system and an expensive Mac to act as a mixing console and sound processor. Altogether not bad as a home recording studio.
And now it was burning.
He fumbled the key in the door, had time to notice the expletives scrawled on the glass with a marker pen, and knew exactly what had happened.
He had only been trying to help, but of course Freddie, just turned fifteen last month, didn’t need help. Didn’t need anything from his father. Knew it all, in fact.
“I’m just saying, you could do something better, is all,” Kenny had said. “I can see real talent in you. So don’t waste it. Go back to the real influences. Everyone’s sick of this samey, bone-headed stuff.”
Freddie was actually shaking with anger. “You think what we do is bone-headed? You really think that, huh? Well you know diddly-squat about our music. What gives you the right—”
“Freddie, I’m just saying—”
“Well, don’t, Dad. Just don’t! You’ve never given me anything but criticism, and that’s fine, because I don’t need anything from you. Just leave me alone and stop trying to control my life.”
So now this.
It wasn’t as bad as it looked. Freddie had obviously dumped some stuff — papers, a few manuals and books from the little shelf behind the recording desk — into the waste bin and dropped a match in. There was plenty of smoke and the now-charred metal bin had warped, but thank God the flammable sound baffles on the walls had never really been at much risk of catching fire.
Coughing from the smoke, he dragged the bin into the garden. Whatever had been set alight, there wasn’t much left now. Underneath the computer manuals and old lyric sheets was something that might have been a hardback book. Only a small part of the sky-blue cover and gold lettering remained.
Kenny hadn’t thought about The Book in years. It had faded in his memory to become a cross between some half-remembered dream and a children’s fairytale. How The Book — assuming it even existed — could come to be sitting on a shelf in his studio as Freddie undertook his act of pyromanic revenge, he couldn’t begin to imagine.
Carefully he reached in to pull out the sky-blue fragment. At his touch, it crumbled into ash.
Kenny grimaced a little as he painstakingly shifted position, taking care not to dislodge any of the tubes he was plumbed in to these days. Thankfully, he was through the worst of it now. That had been when there was still a chance, still things to be done or tried. Strange, but now there was no hope, he felt quite calm. If the ending was now written out for him, then he was prepared to accept it with equanimity.
His eyes drifted around the room. On the table near the bed there were cards and flowers from well-wishers — more, in fact, than he would ever have expected. For all the cruel unfairness of this disease, he had at least been blessed with some good friends. Someone had brought reading material for him, a small stack of magazines and — ah, yes. He had half expected it. Some books. And in the middle of the book pile, The Book.
Just as the song said, he had a few regrets, but they were choices he had made for himself. That said, he would very much like to take a look inside The Book, just this once.
The table was beyond his reach, and he wasn’t sure he had the strength to get out of bed. He called out but he already knew that Rebecca was out picking up Freddie and Ella from the airport. They would be back soon enough.
Freddie’s bandmates were on the West Coast leg of their tour. They had cancelled two dates just so he could make this trip back home, and it had been the talk of the music press.
Ella had been given leave of absence from her finals; there were always autumn resits anyway, she had said. This was family. This mattered. Kenny was grateful. Everyone had been so kind.
But he really would like to take a look at The Book. It was tantalizingly close. Perhaps he could yet summon the strength to make the two or three steps across the room which was all that it would take.
Laboriously he levered himself to a sitting position. There was very little pain; the drugs were very effective. But he worried that his sense of balance wasn’t right. He stood shakily, one hand grasping the bed for support, one hand reaching out falteringly towards the table. Easy does it. Just a few more centimeters. But then he felt the room tilt and the darkness descending...
Ah well, he thought.
Several weeks passed before Rebecca could face the chore of clearing out the room, but she knew it must be done sooner or later. The pain had ebbed just a little, but the emptiness... it was just as dark and bottomless as ever.
On the little table near the bed, pressed between magazines and unread crime novels and paperback biographies of famous rock stars, she found a curious book with a bright blue cover. KH — A Life Story, the title proclaimed.
Had Kenny kept some kind of diary? She didn’t think so. Puzzled, she flicked through the pages. No preamble, no copyright page, just a contents page listing nine chapters and an afterword. Other than the chapter headings, every page had been neatly removed, carefully torn out to leave only the page stubs still attached at the spine. The Afterword was still intact but there was just page after page of crisp, blank space.
She smiled. Perhaps whoever’s life this was supposed to depict had done their living for real, not on the page. Wasn’t that how it’s supposed to be, she mused? Every day a blank page.
She was sure she put the book carefully to one side to examine again when she felt strong enough, but days (or maybe weeks) later when she searched for it, it could no longer be found.
Copyright © 2014 by David Cleden