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Circuit Breaker

Kurt Danielson

May 13, 2009

Kurt has played bass for Bundle of Hiss, Valis, and TAD, recording and touring extensively. He recently returned from several years in Paris, where he taught English. Now back in Seattle, he writes fiction and journalism, and he’s working on material with his new band Misericords.

“We should keep our socks on,” she said, wiggling her feet, which were sticking out from under the rumpled bedclothes. I could barely see them in the dark. She was wearing her socks, which were thick and heavy around her delicate ankles, and nothing else.

“Okay,” I said, refraining from taking mine off, thinking how absurd it was and how I felt like a chump in a low-grade porn flick. It was extremely cold in her bedroom, as it was late winter, and I was in Detroit after all, and you had to do what you could to stay warm, especially since this apartment where I was sleeping with this girl had no heat, and it was about four in the morning, and a vicious wind was heaving against the rattling window panes beyond the foot of the bed.

I was in Detroit because TAD was in town opening for Alice in Chains, with whom we’d been doing a Midwest tour of a dozen cities or so. It was the final show, and the atmosphere surrounding it was one of celebration and climax: another tour come and gone, this one without cancellations. Everyone seemed intent on having a good time. Pranks were planned for the opening bands, and I’d lost my glasses after getting too drunk the night before, a mishap that occurred to me quite often in those days.

But by the time I’d climbed into bed with the most beautiful Native American girl I’d ever seen, the show had been over for several hours, and a lot of other things had happened since our arrival at the venue, a large theater downtown with a warren of backstage rooms and crisscrossing corridors and a labyrinth of catering areas.

First, we did the perfunctory sound-check, and subsequently I wandered into the back stage area. Arranged on long tables was the usual spread of cold cuts and cheese and sandwich bread, sliced fruit, a salad plate, and plastic tubs filled with iced beer. Unopened bottles of liquor stood lined on the table next to stacks of plastic cups. There was a bowl of green apples that later would become missiles aimed at the walls, the television that sat dormant on a chair, and the mirrors that lined the room on one side. Despite the cold that pervaded the bare walls where the pipes and wiring were exposed, the cold cuts had an overly ripe, iridescent sheen, and the cheese slices were blistered with moisture, as if sweating.

Somebody lit a joint, more probably several joints, and our road manager finally appeared in the cloud of sweet-smelling smoke to introduce a couple of girls he knew from being in Detroit on previous tours with other bands. They were strippers, he said, and one of them in particular caught my eye, even if I wasn’t wearing my glasses.

She was shy, and she hung back, chatting in a whisper with her friend, who was loud and boisterous, laughing and exchanging jokes with our road manager, who clearly had designs on the loud one, though she was the least attractive of the two. That was fine with me, for I preferred the quiet girl in any case, but even if I did, it didn’t matter: I didn’t seriously believe I would get to know her, and besides, I was tired and therefore officially disinterested, there were plenty of other guys hanging around, any one of them an able competitor, and these backstage flirtations never amounted to anything anyhow. There wasn’t time, but I was bored enough to enjoy watching the shy girl. It hadn’t been a long tour, yet I was tired, and as I got stoned and drank beer after beer, she distracted me from that gnawing sense of loneliness that felt so much like boredom.

I only wanted to kill some time. And that shy girl seemed like as good a killer as any. Her eyes were black as was her long straight hair, which was glossy like the wing of a crow in the rain. It was very cold that afternoon, and outside an icy late winter wind was blowing through leprosy-gray streets where remnants of snow and ice still clung to the sidewalks and the asphalt. Inside, it was cold enough for your breath to be visible; the decrepit space-heater plugged into the wall was too weak to warm the large, high-ceilinged backstage room, and the shy dark haired girl must have been freezing, for she was only wearing a thin black leather jacket over a t-shirt cut short, revealing a flat belly and a navel pierced with a silver ring. She was holding her arms tightly around herself, as if trying to keep warm, and it seemed to me that I could detect a slight stiffness in her posture, as if she might be shivering. She was very thin; her legs encased in tight jeans, and moved with the coiled grace of a feline, her gestures speaking of tension held in reserve. I took another drag off the joint, watching her, and, although I was wearing a sweater and a thick corduroy coat, I too felt the cold invading my body, either out of sympathy for the girl or because I really was cold. It was hard to tell.

And I was bored, deadly bored with the tedium of identical hotel rooms and venues and restaurants, the unrelenting monotony of the open highway, the sustained all-night drives, and the repetition of back-to-back shows, night after night, the incessant succession of cities, each like the last, the easy camaraderie with my fellow band mates that devolved into bickering as the stresses and frustrations of touring built up and overwhelmed civility, the endless joints and beers and vodkas to help us relax when we were wired, the merry-go-round of acid and cocaine and speed and painkillers that some of us resorted to when exhaustion bore down on us, and the loneliness of a solitary bed, with no one to share it, that faced me at the end of each night, leaving me feeling empty and weary and deadened, like someone under a tide of anesthetic stretched on an operating table. The loneliness led to emptiness, which aggravated the boredom, and, in turn, the boredom felt like loneliness. It was a cycle, and I wanted to break the cycle.

I opened another beer and lit a cigarette. My gaze moved to her face. I noted that the symmetry of her eyebrows and mouth was duplicated in curved hips, sharp elbows held akimbo, and small breasts. Everything about her body was beautifully proportioned; nothing disturbed the feral elegance of a perfectly designed figure. Trying to kill the boredom I felt welling up in me, I watched her, trying not to be noticeably attentive, in a vain attempt to add everything up so that so that I might explain, to myself, what interested me so much about her. Nothing could, because it wasn’t her that fascinated me so much as the fact that she seemed to fill a vacuum that the boredom and loneliness had created in me. Her long legs, the spring-loaded repose of her lithe body, her bare neck when she brushed her hair aside, the faint whispery tone of her voice, what did it all mean? I wasn’t sure, but later it seemed that somehow she and her gestures resonated with the void inside me; she filled it, though I still can’t say how. Her skin was smooth and brown, and much later that night I learned that she was a Native American. She had slender hands with long fingers that nervously smoothed back her hair and dug into a leather purse for Marlboro reds that she smoked pensively, blowing smoke that obscured bright and watchful eyes that glinted, reflecting the overhead lights, and when she moved, the silver bracelets on her wrists glittered.

As the afternoon wore on, I got quite drunk, of course, and after we ate dinner, there was the gig itself. She was always there, floating through the background, though it wasn’t until later, long after I got offstage, that I had an opportunity to speak with her.

I drank several vodkas, trying unsuccessfully to wind down from the show. And then I watched Alice in Chains play their set. Finally I met a crowd of Detroit people who invited me to go out and explore the town. I left the theater with them, and soon I was riding in the back of someone’s van, where I noticed with pleasure that she was also a passenger, and suddenly we were on our way to an afterhours bar called the Red Door, where not only was there rumored to be beer but also nitrous oxide. This turned out to be true, as so much else proved false, but I didn’t know that then, and so as we rode through the nocturnal streets lit by streetlights and a cold moon that was sliding rapidly down the black sky like a greased coin down a visqueen curtain, I glimpsed her vivid profile over the seat in front of me, briefly illuminated by splashes of watery yellow light that came in through the van’s side windows, and an unknown sense of anticipation replaced the emptiness that had been filling me like a tumor, and I accepted a vial of cocaine from another girl seated next to me and also some pills.

After we got inside The Red Door, I found myself alone in a room crowded with people I didn’t know. The dark-haired girl had disappeared. I stood in line to buy a red balloon full of nitrous oxide. A young kid stood behind a tall metal tube that resembled a scuba diver’s oxygen tank. I handed him a five-dollar bill, and he deftly inflated a red balloon, tied it off, and handed it to me, accepting the money in exchange. I wandered over to the nearest wall, where I stood, inhaling the gas and feeling incredibly light-headed. People were collapsing to the floor all around me.

And then, after I watched a guy who’d been standing right next to me crumple down to the floor, leaving an empty space in the crush of people staggering around me, I saw the dark-haired girl canted against the wall, alone, a limp balloon in her hand. She was unsteady on her feet. I knelt down to see if the guy who’d just passed out needed any help, but he seemed okay, so I walked over to her.

“How are you?”

“Dizzy.”

“It’s this nitrous. You like it?

“No.”

Despite her response she snatched my balloon, which was still almost full, and took a big hit, breathing it in deeply. After a moment, during which she gazed at me with eyes that seemed to drain themselves of light as I watched, she collapsed against the wall, which was made of plywood and very flimsy. It gave under her weight and I saw that it was composed of two pieces of plywood that hadn’t been properly nailed together. As she fell, I tried to catch her, but in her stupor she was heavier than I expected, and before I could brace myself in order to support her, she slipped between the two pieces of plywood as they caved in, and she fell heavily, completely inert, to the floor behind where the wall had stood a moment before. The pieces of plywood that had made up the wall had flopped over with her, and now they partially covered her motionless body. She was moaning. As I disentangled her from the plywood boards, her feet automatically scrabbling among the debris, I saw that one of her hands was bleeding from where she’d torn it against a ragged edge of plywood. When I had her standing again, still wobbly, she raised her hand to her eyes and peered at it, apparently fascinated as she watched the drops of dark red blood, like globules of nail polish, as they crawled down her fingers and dripped, one by one, from her rings and her fingertips.

“Jesus,” I said, “Let’s get that hand bandaged up. I’ll take you home, but first we should get it taken care of.”

We found a bathroom in the back somewhere, and she went in and got some toilet paper to bind up her hand, but by the time she came back out, the blood was already soaking through the makeshift bandage. She seemed very dizzy still, and I guided her out of the Red Door on my arm, her body leaning against me as we walked.

“Where do you live? Let’s find a taxi.”

“Not far. Let’s walk.”

She was shivering, walking unsteadily, so I hailed a taxi—we were lucky that one came by, for the street was all but deserted by that hour—and I was relieved when it pulled over to the curb to pick us up. She gave the driver her address, and he pulled up at an old clapboard apartment building a few moments later. I paid and we got out.

Her apartment was tiny. She shared it with the loud stripper, who wouldn’t be back that night, so we had the place to ourselves. There was only the bedroom, a tiny kitchen, and the bathroom; the front door opened into the bedroom, and we sat on the disheveled bed. She wanted to have a drink right away, but I insisted on taking care of her hand first, and it wasn’t difficult, for when she glanced at it, she saw that the toilet paper was by now completely saturated with blood, and I could see that the sight nearly made her sick.

When I remarked that there was only one bed, she explained that she and her roommate shared it. It was her preference, she said, especially during winter, because that way they could stay warm.

Our breath made frayed plumes in front of our faces as I helped her rinse her hand in cold water in the bathroom sink, and when I reached down to apply some antiseptic, I heard her breath catch in her throat like a fish choking on a hook. She abruptly clutched at my hand with both of hers, holding it as if to get a better look. She stared at it wide-eyed, incredulous, her mouth slightly open. To my mounting surprise she dropped it with disgust, as if she’d read an ill fortune there, and, swiveling towards me, she savagely punched me in the shoulder with the fist of her good hand. She’d seen, apparently for the first time, the gold band I wore on my left ring finger.

I stared at her, saying nothing.

The repressed tension and feral energy that were intrinsically contained in her body language and that had fused together to fuel the punch to my shoulder, expressed themselves now in her voice, giving it a razor’s edge, as she demanded, accusingly, “You didn’t think I’d notice? You intended to cheat?” She bit off that final word with a sharpness that cracked in the cold air like ice.

I hadn’t intended on anything, but there I was, and it must’ve looked bad from her point of view.

Finally, I conceded, “I’ll go, if it upsets you that much.”

She didn’t react, so I started for the door, but before I reached it, I felt her hand on my arm. Resigned, I turned to face her.

“You’re married?” she demanded, most of the venom and ferocity dissipated by the violence of her initial indictment.

I let that one go, ignoring the favorable alteration in her tone, and, turning once again towards the door, reached for the doorknob. I started to open it.

Her hand was still holding my arm, and her grip tightened. Not letting go of the doorknob, I faced her again. She gazed intently into my eyes, her eyes holding a challenge.

“Do you think it’s right to cheat on your wife?” Then, obeying a sudden emotional shift within herself, she dropped her eyes. “Not that I care.”

I sighed. “Why do you ask if you don’t care?” I shut the door, but my hand stayed on the knob.

Keeping her eyes down, she explained in a small voice, “Because if we ever got together, I wouldn’t be able to trust you.”

If I’d known then what was going to happen later, then I might have realized that I couldn’t trust her either, but I didn’t know that then, so I said, “Oh.”

I dropped my hand from the door, and she held me with both her arms. I felt lousy. She’d disappointed me. I was trying to escape consequences, and here, where I was finding refuge in distraction, I was finding consequences after all. I felt like I couldn’t escape, and it depressed me.

“Come on,” she said, stroking my shoulder. “I’m sorry. It’s really none of my business.”

She led me to the bed, where she sat down and opened her purse, which was still hanging on her arm. She took out a vial of cocaine.

“Here, let’s do some lines. There’s booze in the kitchen. Make us some drinks. Please?”

I walked out of the bedroom and into the microscopic kitchen, where I found a bottle of scotch, ice, and soda. I had to rinse some glasses, and then I came back into the bedroom with the drinks.

She had a mirror on her lap and several lines already chopped out. After we did two apiece, we sat and sipped the drinks, and I began to feel better. I set our drinks aside and I kissed her. It was a long kiss. She put the mirror away, got up, switched off the light, and undressed quickly and leaped under the covers, trying to shield herself from the cold, but it was no good; the bed was freezing too. I got rid of my clothes as quickly as I could and got into bed with her, and we embraced under the covers in order to establish some warmth. I kissed her again, and soon we started to get really warm. It was then that she insisted that we keep our socks on, because of the cold. It seemed a reasonable measure at the time.

Later, as I smoked a cigarette, glancing once again at the window that was heaving against the wind in its frame, wondering if the old, warped glass could hold up much longer against the thrusts the wind made repeatedly against it, the apartment’s front door, which wasn’t far from the window, banged open, letting in a draft of even colder air.

To my horror, a shadowy figure was standing there, very threatening and blacker than the night that it stood against in the rectangle outlined by the doorframe.

Clutching the bedclothes to her chest, the girl screamed. I slipped out of the bed, glad of the socks, and that’s when it hit me that they were the only things I had on. There’s nothing more ridiculous than a naked man in socks, and I fleetingly wished I were completely naked instead.

The shadowy figure advanced a foot into the apartment, saying nothing, throwing out a hand that fumbled for the light switch. That black on gray silhouette of an arm stretched out against the night remains etched on my memory. I reached down to gather my clothes off the floor, but before I could put them on, electric light flooded the room, and I looked up to see a very big man with a crew cut dressed in a red and black tracksuit and built like a weightlifter coming towards me, his arms hanging ready at his sides.

“Get the hell out of here Charlie!” she screamed from the bed. “You ain’t got no business in here, you goddamned fairy!”

Charlie only looked at her, his eyes tiny like a pig’s. He certainly didn’t look like a fairy. I was standing there, holding my clothes in front of myself, naked, freezing, very drunk.

He swung at my face, and then I was on the floor, my arms sprawled out, my clothes flung away. I remember how cold the linoleum felt against my naked shoulder blades. Before I could react, strong arms picked me up. I was hit again, and this time, because I’d dropped my clothes, I tried to hit back, but my assailant was much bigger than me and I was too drunk. He hit me a third time, his arm pile-driving straight into my face, and the room disappeared as my neck snapped back and my legs gave under me.

When I woke up sometime later, the bed was empty, the apartment was vacant, the open door was fidgeting on its hinges in the dying wind, and, still quite drunk and naked except for my socks, I gathered my scattered clothes together and got sullenly dressed, shivering and numb, my eye swollen shut, a large knot growing on my forehead.

As it was nearly dawn, no cabs were running. I had no choice but to walk back to the hotel in the winter half-dark that was turning indigo, like a bruise, as dawn appeared, a vast, sky-wide headache. My eye throbbed in the cold. I felt emptier than ever.


It was a long walk.