I lag back a little, watching. Jane gives her ID to the bouncer. He shines a flashlight on it, glances up at her, and hands it back. Then it’s Tiny’s turn. I take a series of very quick, short breaths, because I read once that people with a lot of oxygen in their blood look calmer, and then I watch as Gary gets on his tiptoes and rears his arm back and wallops Tiny in the right eye. Tiny’s head jerks back, and Gary screams, “Oh my God, ow ow, shit my hand,” and the bouncer jumps up to grab Gary, and then Tiny Cooper turns his body to block the bouncer’s view of me, and as Tiny turns, I walk into the bar like Tiny Cooper is my revolving door.
Once inside, I look back and see the bouncer holding Gary by the shoulders, and Gary grimacing while staring at his hand. Then Tiny puts a hand on the bouncer and says, “Dude, we were just fucking around. Good one though, Dwight.” It takes me a minute to figure out that Gary is Dwight. Or Dwight is Gary.
The bouncer says, “He fucking hit you in the eye,” and then Tiny says, “He owed me one,” and then Tiny explains to the bouncer that both he and Gary/Dwight are members of the DePaul University football team, and that earlier in the weight room Tiny had spotted poorly or something. The bouncer says he played O-Line in high school, and then suddenly they’re having a nice little chat while the bouncer glances at Gary’s extrarordinarily fake ID, and then we are all four of us inside the Hideout, alone with Neutral Milk Hotel and a hundred strangers.
The people-sea surrounding the bar parts and Tiny gets a couple of beers and offers me one. I decline. “Why Dwight?” I ask. And Tiny says, “On his ID, he’s Dwight David Eisenhower IV.” And I say, “Where the frak did everyone get a fake ID anyway?” and then Tiny says, “There are places.” I resolve to get one.
I say, “Actually, I will have a beer,” mostly because I want something in my hand. Tiny hands me the one he’s already started in on, and then I make my way up close to the stage without Tiny and without Gary and without Possibly Gay Jane. It’s just me and the stage, which is only raised up about two feet in this joint, so if the lead singer of Neutral Milk Hotel is particularly short—like if he is three feet ten inches tall—I will soon be looking him straight in the eye. Other people move up to the stage, and soon the place is packed. I’ve been here before for all-ages shows, but it’s never been like this—the beer that I haven’t sipped and don’t intend to sweating in my hand, the well-pierced, tattooed strangers all around me. Every last soul in the Hideout right now is cooler than anyone in the Group of Friends. These people don’t think there’s anything wrong with me—they don’t even notice me. They assume I am one of them, which feels like the very summit of my high school career. Here I am, standing on an over-twenty-one night at the best bar in America’s second city, getting ready to be among a couple hundred people who see the reunion show of the greatest no-name band of the last decade.
These four guys come out onstage, and while they don’t bear a striking resemblance to the members of Neutral Milk Hotel, I tell myself that, whatever, I’ve only seen pictures on the web. But then they start playing. I’m not quite sure how to describe this band’s music, except to say that it sounds like a hundred thousand weasels being dropped into a boiling ocean. And then the guy starts singing:
She used to love me, yeah
But now she hates
She used to screw me, bro
But now she dates
Barring a prefrontal lobotomy, there’s absolutely no way that the lead singer of Neutral Milk Hotel would ever think, let alone write, let alone sing, such lyrics. And then I realize: I have waited outside in the cold gray-lit car-exhausted frigidity and caused the possible broken bones in Gary’s hand to hear a band that is, manifestly, not Neutral Milk Hotel. And although he is nowhere amid the crowd of hushed and stunned NMH fans surrounding me, I immediately shout, “Damn you, Tiny Cooper!”
At the end of the song, my suspicions are confirmed when the lead singer says, to a reception of absolute silence, “Thank you! Thanks very much. NMH couldn’t make it, but we’re Ashland Avenue, and we’re here to rock!” No, I think. You’re Ashland Avenue and you’re here to suck. Someone taps me on the shoulder then and I turn around and find myself staring at this unspeakably hot twenty-something girl with a labret piercing, flaming red hair, and boots up her calves. She says, askingly, “We thought Neutral Milk Hotel was playing?” and I look down and say, “Me—” I stammer for a second, and then say “too. I’m here for them, too.”
The girl leans into my ear to shout above the atonal arrhythmic affront to decency that is Ashland Avenue. “Ashland Avenue is no Neutral Milk Hotel.”
Something about the fullness of the room, or the strangeness of the stranger, has made me talkative, and I shout back, “Ashland Avenue is what they play to terrorists to make them talk.” The girl smiles, and it’s only now that I realize that she’s conscious of the age difference. She asks me where I’m in school, and I say “Evanston,” and she says, “High school?” And I say, “Yeah but don’t tell the bar-tender,” and she says, “I feel like a real pervert right now,” and I say, “Why?” and she just laughs. I know the girl isn’t really into me, but I still feel marginally pimping.
And then this huge hand settles on my shoulder, and I look down and see the middle school graduation ring he’s worn on his pinkie ever since eighth grade and know immediately that it’s Tiny. And to think, some idiots claim that the gays have fashion sense.
I turn around and Tiny Cooper is crying huge tears. One of Tiny Cooper’s tears could drown a kitten. And I mouth WHAT’S WRONG because Ashland Avenue is sucking too loudly for him to hear me, and Tiny Cooper just hands me his phone and walks away. It’s showing me Tiny’s Facebook feed, zoomed in on a status update.
Zach is like the more i think about it the more i think y ruin a gr8 frendship? i still think tiny’s awesum tho.
I push my way through a couple people to Tiny, and I pull down his shoulder and scream into his ear, “THAT’S PRETTY FUCKING BAD,” and Tiny shouts back, “I GOT DUMPED BY STATUS UPDATE,” and I answer, “YEAH, I NOTICED. I MEAN, HE COULD HAVE AT LEAST TEXTED. OR E-MAILED. OR SENT A PASSENGER PIGEON.”
“WHAT AM I GOING TO DO?” Tiny shouts in my ear, and I want to say, “Hopefully, go find a guy who knows there is no u in awesome,” but I just shrug my shoulders and pat him firmly on the back, and guide him away from Ashland Avenue and toward the bar.
Which, as it turns out, is something of a mistake. Just before we get to the bar, I see Possibly Gay Jane hovering by a tall table. She tells me Gary has left in disgust. “It was a publicity ploy by Ashland Avenue, apparently,” she says.
I say, “But no NMH fan would ever listen to this drivel.”
Then Jane looks up at me all pouty and big-eyed and says, “My brother is the guitarist.”
I feel like a total asshole and say, “Oh, sorry, dude.”
And she says, “Christ, I’m kidding. If he were, I’d disown him.” At some point during our four-second conversation I have managed to completely lose Tiny, which is no easy task, so I tell Jane about Tiny’s great Facebook wall of dumpage, and she is still laughing when Tiny appears at our table with a round tray holding six shot glasses full of a greenish liquid. “I don’t really drink,” I remind Tiny, and he nods. He pushes a shot toward Jane, and Jane just shakes her head.
Tiny takes a shot, grimaces, and exhales. “Tastes like Satan’s fire cock,” Tiny says, and then pushes another shot in my direction. “Sounds delightful,” I say, “but I’ll pass.”
“How can he just,” Tiny yells, and then he takes a shot, “dump me,” and another shot, “on his STATUS after I say I LOVE him,” and another. “What is the goddamned world coming to?” Another. “I really do, Grayson. I know you think I’m full of shit, but I knew I loved him the moment we kissed. Goddamn it. What am I going to do?” And then he stifles a sob with the last shot.
Jane tugs on my shirtsleeve and leans in to me. I can feel her breath warm against my neck, and she says, “We’re going to have a big frickin’ problem when he starts feeling those shots,” and I decide that Jane is right, and anyway, Ashland Avenue is terrible, so we need to leave the Hideout posthaste.
I turn to tell Tiny it’s time to go, but he has disappeared. I glance back at Jane, who’s looking toward the bar with a look of profound concern on her face. Shortly thereafter, Tiny Cooper returns. Only two shots this time, thank God.
“Drink with me,” he says, and I shake my head, but then Jane pokes me in the back, and I realize that I have to take a bullet for Tiny. I dig into my pocket and hand Jane my car keys. The only sure way to prevent him from drinking the rest of the plutonium-green booze is to down one myself. So I grab the shot glass and Tiny says, “Aw, fuck him, anyway, Grayson. Fuck everybody,” and I say, “I’ll drink to that,” and I do, and then it hits my tongue and it’s like a burning Molotov cocktail—glass and all. I involuntarily spit the entire shot out onto Tiny Cooper’s shirt.
“A monochrome Jackson Pollock,” Jane says, and then tells Tiny, “We gotta bolt. This band is like a root canal sans painkiller.”
Jane and I walk out together, figuring (correctly, as it turns out) that Tiny, wearing my shot of nuclear fallout, will follow us. Since I’ve failed at drinking both the alcoholic beverages Tiny bought me, Jane tosses the keys back to me in a high arc. I grab them and get behind the wheel after Jane climbs into the back. Tiny tumbles into the passenger seat. I start the car, and my date with massive aural disappointment comes to an end. But I hardly think about it on the way home because Tiny keeps going on about Zach. That’s the thing about Tiny: his problems are so huge that yours can hide behind them.
“How can you just be so wrong about something?” Tiny is asking over the noisy screechiness of Jane’s favorite (and my least favorite) NMH song. I’m cruising up Lake Shore and can hear Jane singing along in the back, a little off-key but closer than I’d be if I sang in front of people, which I don’t, due to the Shutting Up Rule. And Tiny is saying, “If you can’t trust your gut then what can you trust?” And I say, “You can trust that caring, as a rule, ends poorly,” which is true. Caring doesn’t sometimes lead to misery. It always does.
“My heart is broken,” Tiny says, as if the thing has never happened before to him, as if it has never happened before to anyone. And maybe that’s the problem: maybe each new breakup feels so radically new to Tiny that, in some way, it hasn’t happened before. “And Yaw naht helping,” he adds, which is when I notice he’s slurring his words. Ten minutes from his house if we don’t catch traffic, and then straight to bed.
But I can’t drive as fast as Tiny can deteriorate. By the time I exit Lake Shore—six minutes to go—he’s slurring his words and bawling, going on and on about Facebook and the death of polite society and whatever. Jane’s got her hands, with fingernails painted black, kneading Tiny’s elephantine shoulders, but he can’t seem to stop crying, and I’m missing all the lights as Sheridan slowly unwinds before us, and the snot and tears mix until Tiny’s T-shirt is just a wet mess. “How far?” Jane asks, and I say, “He lives off Central,” and she says, “Jesus. Stay calm, Tiny. You just need to go to sleep, baby. Tomorrow makes everything a little better.”
Finally, I turn into the alley and steer around the pot-holes until we get behind Tiny’s coach house. I jump out of the car and push my seat forward so Jane can get out behind me. Then we walk around to the passenger seat. Jane opens the door, reaches across Tiny, manages through a miracle of dexterity to unfasten his seat belt, and then says, “All right, Tiny. Time for bed,” and Tiny says, “I’m a fool,” and then unleashes a sob that probably registers on the Richter scale in Kansas. But he gets up and weaves toward his back door. I follow, just to make sure he gets to bed all right, which turns out to be a good idea, because he doesn’t get to bed all right.
Instead, about three steps into the living room, he stops dead in his tracks. He turns around and stares at me, his eyes squinting as if he’s never seen me before and can’t figure out why I’m in his house. Then he takes off his shirt. He’s still looking at me quizzically when, sounding stone sober, he says, “Grayson, something needs to happen,” and I say, “Huh?” And Tiny says, “Because otherwise what if we just end up like everybody at the Hideout?” And I’m about to say huh again, because those people were far cooler than our classmates and also far cooler than us, but then I know what he means. He means, What if we become grown-ups waiting for a band that’s never coming back? I notice Tiny looking blankly at me, swaying back and forth like a sky-scraper in the wind. And then he falls facefirst.
“Oh boy,” Jane says behind me, and only then do I realize she’s here. Tiny, his face buried in carpet, has taken to crying again. I look at Jane for a long time and a slow smile creeps over her face. Her whole face changes when she smiles—this eyebrow-lifting, perfect-teeth-showing, eye-crinkling smile I’ve either never seen or never noticed. She becomes pretty so suddenly that it’s almost like a magic trick—but it’s not like I want her or anything. Not to sound like a jerk, but Jane isn’t really my type. Her hair’s kinda disastrously curly and she mostly hangs out with guys. My type’s a little girlier. And honestly, I don’t even like my type of girl that much, let alone other types. Not that I’m asexual—I just find Romance Drama unbearable.