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**PRINT: FRIENDS FROM CINCINNATI: Installment 24 features this part coming-of-age short by Chicago's Patrick Somerville, author of the Trouble collection of shorts out in 2006. | PAST BROADSHEETS |

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Todd Dills' biweekly column

Pete Coco

In Saint Louis, Turk shows up late to the club with a camouflage gig bag over his shoulder. He comes over and places the bag flat on the merch table like it's a patient for surgery and says, "You play bass, right?" Right. "You know all our songs." Right. He unzips the bag and pulls out a bass the color of dandruff shampoo: pearly green and ugly. This is a color only chemicals can make. "First few gigs," he says, "we'll just turn you down real low." He slaps me underneath my jaw and leaves his hand there until I duck away.

"Cake," he says.

I play bass in St. Louis, Memphis, and Oxford with no hitch because I abide by the first rule of being a Horse-Thief: Never Stop Playing. From song one to song whatever, no breaks. Keep your right hand moving, who cares about the left one. And shake. For such a fat man, Turk can shake it. In St. Louis Turk stands on Crandon's drum kit and jumps off, leading with his gut. If the guitar gets smashed, the guitar gets smashed. There are other guitars in the world. All he asks is that it have strings, a volume knob he can turn up, and a tone knob he can turn down. (The guitar gets smashed, he switches to another. The gig is over when he breaks four strings off that one, tries to balance it upright with the balls of his feet on the horns. The neck snaps in there somewhere. It all happens so quick and half the time my eyes are closed, anyway.)

Crandon stands as he plays drums. He takes off his shirt and runs his fingers through the thick patches of hair on each side of his balding head until they stick out straight to a twisted point and he looks like a wonderland mayor. He slouches hard over the kit, raising a stick over his head with each crack and the front side of the bass drum puff puff puffs. In Oxford he busts through the snare head and holds the whole drum above him, tattered. He is proud; he smiles. It's like he has been drumming this whole tour just to break this snare. Screw the beat, screw the music -- they're just evils necessary to efficient drum breakage. He cradles the snare in his forearm like a discus, then throws it out into the club. Once it's past the lights, I can't see it. Our adoring fans are lucky to be almost nonexistent. No one screams, but it's not like I would hear them if they did.

Me, I sling the bass as low as I can and pull up my shoulders tight for a Frankenstein sort of effect. I flutter my eyelids, like I'm moved. I pretend that we are the religious revival that we wish we were. I cannot help myself, sort of. You have to meet transcendence halfway. You have to look for it; you must to be ready for it. So what if that looks like faking it.

In Memphis, my volume goes from four to ten.

We take a night off in Nashville. We are, for the first time, heading in the direction of home rather than away from it. Having the time to consider that fact makes it feel like a doom.

In a McDonald's, I say, "I don't want to go home." The chair I sit in sprouts from the floor like a tree. It's rooted there.

Crandon says something back, but it drowns in all the ringing.

"What?" I say. "What?" I'm going deaf, have been for a long time. Only now I don't mind.

Turk leans over me. Special sauce is on his breath. His finger presses over my ear. This is something Ruth and I sometimes did at shows if we wanted to have a conversation over the noise. And he says, "Eat something, kid. For Christ's sake." Then he slaps me on the back of the head.

But I don't eat. Lately, it all tastes like ash. I don't sleep much either. There's a ball of light in my chest and it is too warm; this is every night.

I've never been to West Virginia before. It's pretty. But driving up and down these mountains, it's hard not to worry about falling off. The sound is the worst yet in Charleston. It's all bass and treble, no middle. Not that we have much of a middle in the first place. The Horse-Thieves are designed to hit from under the ribcage and behind your eardrums. This is intentional. I scream just to see if I'll hear it. I don't, but my throat hurts. I know, at least, that I have a throat. Turk jumps off the stage and stays in the crowd. The lights are dim, I can see him. Some local brings him the mike and stand from the stage. He howls into the mike like a wolf. He says to the crowd, "Come on," and howls again. The local howls with him, but that's it. Again Turk says, "Come on," and this time the rest of the crowd howls too. He sings:

Little Red Riding Hood
I'd like to hold you if I could
But you might think I'm a big bad wolf, so I won't .

Someone punches me in the face. I don't see him coming. The blow pushes me backward, which I realize has become downward when the back of my head hits something hard and I stop. There's no need to fight back. I know that no one meant me harm. The noise shoots from my ears so fast I have to wonder: was all that sound just in my head the whole time? This is a vacuum of silence, this is tranquility. Tranquility is black and still. My thoughts become quiet melodies, and all I can do is listen to them, there is nothing else. I'm barely here. In my chest is the tepid weight that comes before a sneeze. But I don't sneeze. Behind my eyes is the tangy pull that comes before tears. But I don't cry. My head flashes run, but I do not move. Fear is beside the point. There's pleasure in all of this if you can make it last.

The doctor shines a penlight in my eyes. I stare behind him into the corner of the room as he has told me to do. He turns off the light, but I can't see him. A purple-hot splotch on my eye covers his face. I can't quite remember what he looks like.

"You were dehydrated," he says. "You passed out." He talks through cotton, but I hear him.

"Passed out?" I say. I want to tell him what I saw, but naming it would only make it smaller.

"Don't drink so much on an empty stomach," the doctor says. "If this happens again, get an MRI."

I say, "Sure."

"Better safe than sorry."

"Right," I say, but it's a false choice. I don't think I'll ever again be either safe or sorry.

It happens again. In Philadelphia.

Days before Philadelphia, I pick a fight with a skinhead in Louisville. I know he isn't a Nazi; his boots are laced white and black, and on his jacket is a swastika with a black X over it. His buddy even has dreadlocks. But I stop playing and sieg heil twice. Turk is on his back. His eyes are closed and he windmills his guitar with slow, heavy strokes. The skinhead mouths What? I turn and find Crandon bent over his kit. He looks at me and smiles. He hasn't seen any of this. I'm afraid, but fear is beside the point. I stare the skinhead right in the eyes and heil Hitler.

"Fuck off, Kraut." I say it into the mic.

Turk's guitar cuts out to feedback. The Kraut smiles; he likes the idea of knocking me out. Turk pulls me back from the mic.

Turk says, "He just got out of the hospital."

Someone from the crowd yells, "Asshole!"

The Kraut smiles wider and walks to the stage. He hugs my calves and pulls. My head hits the lip of the stage. Just knowing what's coming next feels good.

But I'm wrong. Nothing comes but a bad dream about Ruth. She's naked and sharing apple slices with a man I don't recognize. He's naked too. When they laugh they lean toward each other and I'm forced to watch like a ghost when he puts his hand on the inside of her thigh and makes her smile. When I wake up, I'm in the back of the van. My brain feels too big for my head; it's trying to get out through the pores of my skin.

Turk's mouth moves. I can see it in the rear-iew. He might as well be saying "You're a fucking liability, but that rocked," because the rakish smile I can see.

Crandon's hands leave the steering wheel to gesture emphatically. Probably about the money we didn't get paid in Louisville.

After a resoundingly dull set in Pittsburgh, I call Ruth.

"Why are you calling me?" she says, like she's about as far away as she is.

I don't even pretend she's asking me a real question. "Tell me something true, Babe."

"Don't call me again." She hangs up.

The drive into Philadelphia is quiet. The skyline sparkles and the river we cross is black for the night. Turk puts on a tape to keep him company. He and Crandon talk to each other now and then, but I can't hear them over the ringing. I can't even tell if they know this.

It happens again. But it's different this time. Like someone forces my head under water. My eyes see black but I can still hear the world as it reverberates with distance. I can hear when Turk stops singing and screams, "Christ!", like a lyric. I can feel the floor come up against my jaw. The crowd is rowdy and indifferent to me. They are cynical; they think this is a stunt. Blood is thick and tangy in my mouth. I am halfway between what I want and what I have. When you see those worlds side by side like that, like a surveyor flying above the landscape, you realize that they are not as different as you need them to be. It's the worst thing, hoping for something and then finding it to be familiar.

It turns out this universe I found is only the size of my own head. I can't tell from the darkness, because unless there is light, darkness has no edges. I can tell from the ringing of my ears. The tinnitus is on either side of me, like two fluorescent lights at the far ends of a long room, me in the middle.

Pete Coco did an MFA at Iowa and now lives and writes in Chicago, also teaching at StoryStudio Chicago and City Colleges. His work has appeared in the Madison Review and elsewhere.