Raindrops began to fall harder, the further Amanda and I made our way down Liberty Avenue. Bloomfield was liter-strewn from the wind and rain that blanketed the Pittsburgh sky. It had been such a nice day, though. But now the storefronts were empty, and the cracked sidewalks swelled. I could never understand how things could change so fast. How something beautiful could turn so ugly. But I guess beauty was in the eyes of the beholder. And I was looking at Amanda Evarts. Even somewhat wet, she was a vision. Maybe more so then when she was dry.
The only refuge we could find was underneath the blowing maroon, cloth awning of an Italian grocery. Its lights had dimmed to the bare essentials because of the storm. We stood there smoking cigarettes, and watching the few brave shoppers race from store to store. They used their waxy white bags as umbrellas. Then we gave in and found ourselves making out hard against a glass window full of ads for pork chops, steak, and chicken. Calvin must’ve called my cell about three times. The sound of the ring just made Amanda kiss me harder.
“Do you have a fake I.D.?” she asked, when we came up for air. “Because I don’t.”
“No. But Noah will be there. He knows everyone. Besides, he told me that he was gonna take care of me on Thursday anyway, so I guess he can do it tonight too.”
The phone rang again. I checked it. Calvin.
“Can’t he take a hint?” Amanda said. “Don’t answer it.”
“I won’t,” I said.
Then we waited for a break in the sky by making out some more. So much for just being friends tonight. Man, I hope Calvin enjoyed that baseball game because he was surely missing out now. Over the horizon, downtown Pittsburgh gloomed under a light gray cloud, but no light was breaking beyond the Ohio River. So Amanda and I made a break for it and raced the length of the avenue to its end. We bound breathlessly to the Bridge Tavern. We stood for a moment at the front door and watched the whole scene. The BT was a Polish Bar and red and white streamers ran along the wall. The Polish coat of arms was tacked up behind the bar. There were faded pictures of dead Pope John Paul II framed in various locations, alternating space with maps of Poland and Polish cities. The BT’s heavy metal front door had airbrushed American and Polish flags crossing one another, as if the two were intrinsically linked. In Pittsburgh they were.
“I.D.s?” the bouncer said.
“Oh, there they are!” I heard Noah shout. The boy had perfect timing. And then he was right over with us. Noah’s hair was the perfect streak of blonde, and the way the jagged bangs went to one side over his right eye, gave him sort of a skater look. Come to think of it, Noah didn’t really look like a lot of the hipsters either. I looked at Amanda to see what she thought, but she didn’t seem like she was paying much attention. “I was wondering when you were gonna show.”
“We...” I began.
Noah looked at the bouncer. “They’re with me, Len.”
“Okay.” And just like that the bouncer stamped our hands and let us pass.
“Thanks, man,” I said to Noah.
Noah turned to me, but he didn’t look so happy. “Yeah, man, no problem. But next time you gotta let me know you’re bringing someone, all right. I’ve already let my quota of people in tonight. Any more and Len is gonna give me a real problem.”
“I’m Amanda Evarts,” Amanda said, to break the small tension.
Noah looked at her. “So?”
“So I’m just telling you.”
Noah nodded then he turned back to me. “Get some beer. Karl isn’t here yet, but Killian and Clara are sitting at a table.”
“Who’s playing tonight?” I asked.
“Gene Oldham,” he said. Then Noah was gone.
“He’s kind of a jerk,” Amanda said.
“He was just kidding around with you.”
“Sure he was.”
Gene Oldham. Killian and Clara. They were all names, faces, and personalities that I was getting to know after spending so much time with everyone at the cottages. Gene was a good guy. He was one of Karl’s best friends. He was an English Lit major at Pitt. I liked Gene because he was soft spoken and had this Beatles bowl haircut, and unlike most of the hipsters up in Squirrel Hill he treated me with a level of respect and maturity. Gene was always trying to turn me on to new music, and older music that I’d never got around to listening to on my own. Killian and Clara were all right too. I mean, Killian was moody a lot of the time. He was a poet who managed an online magazine, and he worked stock in a book warehouse. Killian told me that if I ever gave him any writing he might publish it on the web site. I wasn’t sure I had anything that good yet. As for Clara; I only really knew Clara as Killian’s girlfriend.
Around the bar, there were a lot of people I knew from Squirrel Hill. They were taking up a good deal of the BT’s frayed seats. Some sat up at the bar. They talked in loud, drunken voices about music and guitars. They were little chic boys in Izod shirts and tight jeans with tousled hair and thick glasses. The girls wore t-shirts that barely covered their bellies, and many had barrettes in their hair with small, cat-eyed glasses. Hipsters. Every one of them was there to see Gene’s band play and to hang out in their big, intellectual scene. All of them put back dark thick beers with expensive sounding names. In my blue short sleeve shirt and baggy jeans I felt noticed, like a big, brooding clown at somebody’s funeral. I was just a high school boy standing with his high school girlfriend. Was Amanda my girlfriend? I hated feeling this way.
“Do you know all of these people?” she asked.
“Some, but only by sight or slight.”
“You stick out like a sore thumb.”
“Thanks for noticing.”
Then Amanda leaned up and kissed my cheek.
Killian and Clara were sitting at a small table in the corner of the room. Killian was dressed in a tight t-shirt with some band’s name that I’d never heard of before, and Clara had her hair slicked back and her thick, red glasses on; her pink Chuck Taylor tennis shoes glowed in the BT’s soft green lighting. The sight of them relieved me a little bit. Clara caught my eye first and she waved enthusiastically. Then Killian raised a hand, meekly registering himself in this silly scene. His long thin legs looked burdened underneath the small table, and he had shaved off his beard since the last time I had seen him. I looked around again. It was summer. Most of the hipsters in the bar had shaved their beards. Stubble was where it was at now. I had neither. I had a small goatee and moustache that made me look like a street hoodlum.
“Hello, chiefy,” Killian said, when Amanda and I sat down. It was his pet name for me.
“Amanda Evarts meet Killian Cromier, and Clara...Clara...”
“McDowell,” Clara said, waving at Amanda.
“Sorry,” I said. “Killian told me your last name, but I have a terrible memory.”
“Think nothing of it.”
I lit a cigarette and leaned back in my chair, trying to make myself seem like I belonged there more than I did. “Is the whole world here tonight?”
“It appears so,” Killian said. “ It also looks like Gene Oldham is at the epicenter of all the action.”
And he was. Gene moved from crowd to crowd. His thick bowl cut shook like a shaggy dog as he spoke. He looked like the chairman of the scene. Not a table was missed. Not a person was made to feel they weren’t important. Gene worked the dank insides of the BT like a young and idealistic politician. I’d never seen so much glad-handing and backslapping in my life. Noah was hanging around too, but it was different. He wasn’t seeking people out. They were flocking to him.
“He looks like he should have a martini in his hand,” Amanda said, noticing Noah.
“And a long, dangling cigarette in his mouth,” I added. “He’d look like one of those decadent guys in a Fitzgerald novel, only with a cooler haircut.”
“More high school reading?” Killian asked.
I blushed. I couldn’t tell if Killian was joking or not.
Clara got up from her seat with a smile. “You guys keep joking. I’ll be in the bathroom.” She walked away toward a set of smeared metal doors. Then Killian quit laughing and turned glum.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“Ah, nothing.” He ruffled his thin brown hair, “It’s just that Clara and I are going through some shit again.”
“Aren’t you two moving in together?”
Killian looked at me sadly. He took a big pull on the dark bitter beer in front of him. “Well yeah,” he answered. “Maybe. I just don’t know how I feel about her.”
“She seems nice,” Amanda added. Killian gave her a look but he didn’t respond.
“You felt good enough about her to back out of moving to Philly,” I added. “That has to account for something.”
“I know. But... I really don’t know. All is know is that things with Clara have taken an unexpected turn and Noah has a spot opening up at his cottage in August. I’m on the short list to get in.”
I could feel Amanda Evarts looking at me.
“But none of that matters right now.” Killian shifted his eyes toward the bathroom doors. Soon Clara came out wearing her same sweet smile.
Then she was back at the table, and Clara and Killian started this big long talk about Philosophy. I didn’t really get the gist of it. It seemed like a conversation right out of a college class. It seemed a bit dishonest. But I’d heard dozens of these people talk this way, this sort of studied, educated take on everything that generally expressed no clear and consuming joy for subjects as thirst quenching as philosophy, art or music, or writing, for that matter. Sure, I ingested what they typically said. But alone with one of their suggested novels, or looking at Picasso or Van Gogh at a museum, I couldn’t help but be overtaken with the beauty of art in such a sad, cruel world. How could it be discussed so dispassionately at times? Oh, where did I belong? One look at Amanda Evarts and I knew.
“Do you want to get a beer or something?” she asked.
“Yeah.” I looked at Killian and Clara. “Excuse us.” But my words didn’t register. They were on to Russian novelists now, and fighting about them as well.
“Well, this place is a far cry from Pirates games and the Metro,” Amanda said.
“I know,” I answered. But I had nothing else to say.
“You’re an interesting guy, Alex Javorski.”
“I’m sure you’re further along on the short list than Killian is.”
At the bar I ordered Amanda and I a couple bottles of Iron. Gene Oldham was there yapping away to Noah. He was telling Noah about a paper he had written on James Joyce’s Ulysses. Somehow Gene had connected the laborious prose of Joyce to the lyrics of Sonic Youth. The paper was written for Gene’s Irish Literature class. I’d listened to endless tales about its inception during the long and trying nights at work when Gene would visit Karl at the Circulation Desk. Joyce didn’t interest me. Neither did Sonic Youth. As for papers, I did an English Class term paper on Anthony Burgess, the writer who did A Clockwork Orange. I faked most of my sources, and my English teacher caught about half of them. I got a D on the paper, and a B- in the class, and that term paper killed the solid A I was sporting. I was pretty much done with hearing about papers. I was pleased that Gene had found himself another audience for the story. But then Noah looked at me and rolled his eyes, and it made me laugh.
“What’s so funny?” Amanda asked. I pointed at Noah, who was now making lunatic faces to try and distract Gene. Finally Gene got the hint, and he gave Noah a comical shove. “What’s that guy’s deal anyway? Sometimes he seems cool, and sometimes he seems like a jerk trying to be too cool.”
“You just don’t know him,” I said.
“I don’t think I want to.”
“Noah truly is a cool guy.”
“Cool doesn’t always mean nice,” Amanda said.
“Do you want to leave?”
“Yes. I want to leave and take you back to your futon, and have my way with you.”
Amanda laughed. “Eventually. I think we’ll stick with beers, hipsters, and maybe some petting in my car a little later.”
Then someone tapped me on my shoulder.
“You drunk yet?” Karl said, when I turned to him. “I hope so because you totally need to be, to be here amongst these people.”
“I’m stone sober,” I answered. “Karl this is Amanda Evarts. Amanda this is Karl Rudolph.”
“A pleasure,” Amanda said. Karl took her hand and shook it. He was grinning and he looked like he didn’t want to let go.
I ordered Amanda and I another can of Iron. I bought Karl one, too. Then the three of us looked over the scene.
“Man, I can’t even believe I’m here,” Karl said. “Look at all of these people playing cool.”
“I thought you knew everyone here,” I said.
“I do. That’s why I don’t want to be here.”
Karl shook his ragged head of long black hair. He fixed his glasses. “Just wait, Javorski. You’re new to this scene. Hell, you’re an outsider. I wouldn’t mix too much with this bunch.”
“Didn’t you introduce him to them?” Amanda asked. She seemed to ask a lot of question. It was like she was trying to navigate every angle.
“Yeah. I’m kinda not that nice of a guy.”
“At least you’re honest.”
“Anyway,” Karl began. “I’ll bet Gene’s gonna crap in his pants tonight. But stick around because around every corner is a surprise.”
Soon Gene Oldham was at the foot of the stage, plucking away at his un-amplified guitar. He looked okay. The other members of his band were all plugging into the amps and microphones. Then Gene stepped onto the stage, plugged in, and his band rose to take their places in front of the instruments and microphones. They were a tight unit of drums, bass, and two interlocking guitars. When they began playing, heads dipped back and forth in mass hypnotic revelry.
I liked Gene’s band enough, but what a sham the whole scene seemed to be right then and there. It was all a fake, a rouse done by these fancy idiots all in an effort to feel a part of something great, vital, and of their generation. It didn’t even matter that you couldn’t hear Gene’s soft voice and lyrics over the racket of guitars and youth. I felt angry just being there. I felt like a fool, too. Amanda was right. I stuck out like a sore thumb. I belonged at stupid baseball games and clubs. Sensing this, I think, Karl patted me on the shoulder and then paid for another round of beers. Amanda and I weren’t even close to done with the one I’d just bought us. Then we ducked through the crowd. We went back to Killian and Clara’s table.
“Ah,” Gene began addressing the crowd. His face was full of sweat. His mop-top was matted to his forehead. “I’d like to thank you all for coming down tonight to see us. Sorry we still don’t have a name yet. Any suggestions would be great.”
“HOW ABOUT, JAMES JOYCE!” Noah shouted
“ULYSSES!” Someone shouted from the group of cronies Gene had surrounded himself with earlier.
“Very funny,” Gene deadpanned. He pointed through the glare of the lights into the audience. He played a few sarcastic riffs on his cheap red guitar. “Go have another beer.” The crowd laughed. Hipsters laughed the same. They laughed monotone and slight, like humor hurt their soul, but they were forced to respond to it. “Right now, we’d like to bring up a good fellow, and a close friend of mine, Karl Rudolph, to play drums on a few songs.”
Slight applause rang over the crowd, and the drummer got up from behind the kit. Karl rose awkwardly from our table to stand amongst his peers. He made his way to the stage. He was their black sheep, a low class kid from Swissvale, mingling in the mud. Karl whispered something in Gene’s ear, and he enthusiastically agreed with whatever it was. Then the drummer was suddenly motioned to sit back down. From the sopping floor, I gauged the murmurs of the audience. Perhaps it would be something they could discuss at all of their shabby, chic dinner parties. Killian snickered at the sight.
“Actually everyone, Karl is going to sing a song, or two.” Gene looked to Karl for reassurance. “Hopefully I know all the chords.”
“Oh this should be good,” Killian said, sarcastically.
Gene began playing Love Will Tear Us Apart by Joy Division. He started the song a bit faster and harder than it should’ve been played, but the band quickly caught up. Karl bounced his head a little, and then began moving spastically. He screamed the lyrics, occasionally smacking into various members of the un-amused group. Karl flailed himself on the ground. He snaked along the wooden stage, and then wrapped the microphone chord around his body. I looked at Gene. He slowed his guitar until playing a rudimentary version of the song. He looked scared and agitated. Gene’s eyes were fixed on the flopping singer.
“I’ve heard this song before,” Amanda said. “I don’t think it’s played like that.”
“What in the hell is Karl doing?” I asked, aloud, and to no one. “I think Gene is going to cry!”
Killian laughed. “God, this proves so many things to me tonight.”
Karl got up off the ground with the microphone still wrapped around him. He was shouting incoherently, kicking away at the drum kit. At first, the poor drummer laughed, but then he backed away. His grin vanished, and he stood at the corner of the stage. Gene looked devastated. Hipsters booed and shouted. Karl tried unsuccessfully to sing into the microphone again, but it was dead.
“Christ, I think he broke Gene’s microphone!” Killian laughed. Clara and I looked up onto the stage, dumbstruck.
There, Karl stood alone. He was smiling angelically. I think he winked at me. The band circled around him, ready to snap. Gene was furious. He picked up the limp chord, and held it like a dying lover. People rose from their seats. The great spectacle suddenly ended, their catty topic of conversation brewing inside a multitude of thick heads. No one clapped. They all cleared out of the bar, like a pack of lemmings. A new shunned legend was born into the hipster universe. Killian and Clara said goodbye and made for the exit with little more than a wave.