James D. McCallister

author of the Edgewater County series

THE PROGNOSTICATORS (Featured Short Story)

Here’s one of my favorite unpublished stories, one that’s not only garnered numerous rejections, but zero awards. Who cares? At ECC, we’re able to publish ourselves. Enjoy.

Note: This short story also inspired a full-length feature screenplay, the first I’d written in many years. I’m proud of that piece, too, which has also gone nowhere. At least I had fun writing them!

THE PROGNOSTICATORS

Hall McNabb, the driver. Dawn beckoning soon, but for now the black of the night slipstreaming by, and through, the vanload of sleeping musicians; the Econoline, rocking gently home on bad suspension and a hundred and fifty-thousand miles of bad South Carolina roads. Only twenty more clicks. A long night—load-in at the club in Charleston had been fourteen busy and sweaty hours ago.

Teddy, chatting, trying to keep Hall awake. Hall watched his guitarist poke at the greenglowing buttons of the CD changer. “If you play that same disc again, dude,” he said, “I’ll break your picking hand.”

“It’s the best frigging album you’ve heard in a long time, ace.”

“Still, Teddy—give it a rest.” The Flaming Lips. Hall, being told that these guys were the shit, carrying the torch of rock that went beyond mere music, into the realm of the experimental. But not grokking it—overproduced nonsense. “How about some GG?”

Teddy relented and put in an old Gentle Giant bootleg, one that Hall had converted from 1/4 inch reels he’d collected back in the 70s. “That better, princess?”

Hall, shrugging—he’d heard this one a thousand times too, but at least he liked it.

Teddy, always pushing the band into trying different stuff, which rubbed Hall the wrong way. Hall, comfortable in his role as the stolid bulwark who kept the purity of the group repertoire intact, and maintained that they performed prog classics only, and further to this, only prog from the fertile time of 1968-78, though these days it was a near constant struggle to maintain such high standards, especially as sidemen, as Hall thought of the musicians who stood in front of his elevated drum kit, came and went. The new guy even wanted to do originals, for heaven’s sake, and other kinds of covers. Hippie music, which in 1999, Alvin the new guy says, is what the people want. Hall, shuddering at the thought of all that aimless noodling.

The van, lurching and shuddering. A cry of voices from the back. The van and its trailer; Hall, losing control. But not. Easing them over to the side, bidding them all to calm down.

In this county, the last of the rural countryside before hitting the beltway and the city beyond, the interstate highway rode rough, and when the recap had given out, Hall at first thought they’d just hit a bad bump. The tire going was the last straw—the Hilton Head gig had been on Saturday, a good showing since the tourist season was in full swing, but Sunday in Charleston, a bust—the spring semester at the College had ended, and the town, like Columbia, lay deserted and denuded of the music fans on which The Prognosticators counted to populate the rooms they played. At least they’d gotten paid their guarantee, such as it was, if not quite earning it back for the cavernous Music Farm; the booking, a favor on an off-night from a pal of Hall’s who used to book Lupo’s in Columbia.

The musicians—Ted, Hall, Alvin, Jackson, and backup vocalist-slash-Alvin’s girlfriend Frieda, a recent addition to the lineup who also played flute on ‘I Talk To The Wind,’ piled out onto the dewy, sloping shoulder. Frieda and Alvin had been all the way in the back seat; her hair, mussed, and he sported a slight and impossible to hide bulge in his khaki cargo shorts.

“You just about messed me up back there,” Alvin said to Hall as the others examined the tire—he thrust his tongue into his cheek twice, then mouthed whoa.

“Ouch.” Hall, creeped out by the idea of the new guy getting a quiet hummer in the back seat. But also envious.

He gestured at the shredded tire and began issuing orders. “All right, men: There’s no getting around this shit — let’s unhook the trailer so we can get to the spare and the jack.”

Three men and one woman, groaning and exhausted.

“What about roadside assistance?” Jackson, lawyer by day and keyboardist by weekend, nipped a flask; Jackson, a taste for the heavy ales and microbrews that’d become all the rage. As well as the harder stuff. An issue. “Didn’t we pay for AAA?”

“Lapsed.” Hall, futzing with the jack. “We don’t play out of town that much anymore.”

The group of friends worked in silence until the sky to the east changed from a band of lilac to full milky dawn. By the time they got the van reloaded and found themselves crossing the beltway toward Columbia, rush hour, beginning to peak. Hall had planned to be home by six at the latest. What a clusterfudge.

Progs music note single

After dropping everyone off in the big-box parking lot where they’d left their cars Saturday morning, Hall hauled ass home and ran inside his house, a 1970s split-level tucked into a small, older subdivision off 378 in West Columbia, near the zoo and the river. With time only for a quick shower and an even quicker peck on his wife’s sleeping cheek, he darted back out and into the van—Hall, corporate accountant, miserable: the firm’s returns a bear this year. Extensions. Yadda yadda. He couldn’t adequately describe what he did for a living because it didn’t have any goddamn meaning.

So, while fending off phone calls and declining to be available until after lunch, Hall spent half the morning ripping the DAT tapes of the weekend shows to his hard drive—he wanted to get the recordings processed in his Sound Forge software, to remove artifacts like digipops and snits and other anomalies sometimes introduced in the digital recording realm. Not that the tape they’d pulled truly mattered, but after runs like this weekend, he had a few loyal fans to whom he always sent sets of discs—folks on the email list, including one music lover as far away as Eugene, Oregon. It felt good to have a follower outside the home turf, and all the way on the other side of the country, no less. Made the whole enterprise seem legitimate. Not that it wasn’t.

For a bunch of guys who weren’t serious about being a working band—not really—on most nights they sounded pretty good, unless Jackson started downing shots of George Dickel, a practice he seemed to have gotten into even when they weren’t gigging, and perhaps especially when they weren’t.

Jackson, worrying Hall more and more: He might have to be replaced on keys, far from the first time such a change had been necessary, but an unwelcome one. In a band like The Progs, keys were crucial. The band had now been around for nearly twenty years, and cats had come and gone except for Hall and Teddy, the warhorse mainstays who’d kept it together. Hall, hating the idea of having to yet again teach some ivory-tinkler the subtleties and nuance of the critical synth intro to ‘Watcher of the Skies’—when they understood dynamic range, you knew you were working with a real musician.

Between the lawyer keyboards, Hall’s own status as percussionist and CPA, real estate appraiser Ted’s sublime gunslinging, and Alvin’s bass-slapping—owing to some family money he’d inherited, as well as playing acoustic restaurant gigs two or three nights a week, he was the only one who didn’t have another career—The Prognosticators could rip through some Yes or ELP covers with ease, while also, through their professional qualifications, enjoying the ability to handle any sort of business situation that might arise—a solid combination of skill-sets, this, musically and otherwise. Too bad the passion was gone.

Not for Hall. And never would be.

Alvin, the wild card—dashing, a ladies man with money, and if he chose to do so, could walk at any second. That’d be a major bummer, almost as much as losing Jackson—Alvin had the best practice setup they’d almost ever had, in a converted garage at which mucho money’d been thrown; Alvin, the possessor of a kickin’ jam room, one that Hall coveted for his own. Not that good for recording, however—Alvin’s McMansion was in a newer subdivision close to the freeway, and with it the howling and moaning of semis roaring by at eighty mph.

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Using his audio-editing software, Hall scrutinized the waveform of the Hilton Head first set and cursed: to his dismay he saw at least two dropouts, three flat plateaus that were obvious bursts of diginoise, and another two sharp spikes that were the pops you sometimes got with DAT decks. DAT decks needing head replacement.

His temples throbbed—he couldn’t put another three or four hundred dollars into new heads for the small Sony digital recorder. Evelyn would kill him for so much as even suggesting it. No going back to cassettes, however.

He zoomed in on one of the spikes and began mitigating its effects, clicking the mouse toe repeatedly until the spike became rounded, like one of the old mountains along the northwestern border with North Carolina.

Evelyn had been right about the money, though—no question.

“No more band stuff this year,” she’d said back in the spring, and with good reason—she’d been laid off from her administrator job on the SC Arts and Cultural Council, and as important as The Progs might be, the McNabbs had two kids to think about, college tuition, sneakers, braces, whole bit. Sean would be sixteen next year, and that meant another car payment soon to be added to the monthly nut—maybe he’d get him a junker like his dad had done, sending him off to the early 70s Southeastern University campus in a ’62 Comet that burned almost as much oil as gas. Hah. Sean would flip at such a suggestion—kids, so different now. Jennie, at least, was only nine, and her needs could usually be satisfied economically enough, though god knew they grew up fast anymore, before his squinting eyes. More expense—it was time for bifocals. Ugh.

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He’d finally gotten such a headache from futzing around with the sound files—the audio problems just got worse and worse on the subsequent tapes; new heads for the recorder, yes, a necessity—that he thought he’d pass out: after nearly thirty years of being free of them, the migraines he’d suffered as a kid were of late coming back strong. Ridiculous. Maybe next he’d get zits again, too.

Hall went to his supervisor, Monisha, competent, fair, bucktoothed like Condi Rice, and pled illness.

“Monday blues?” she asked. “Join the club.”

“Moni, I should’ve just stayed home. Back to full steam tomorrow.”

“Let’s make sure of that,” she said with ominous portent. “Would hate to lose an asset like you.”

Hall could barely see driving home, but at least it was only three in the afternoon and not rush hour. It was bad enough that one of his headaches was coming on, but on top of that? He had no usable tapes from the weekend—maybe a song or two at the beginning of the sets. He burned inside to put out a new live CD, even if he had to fund it all himself—or maybe he and Alvin could foot the bill together. The Alvin had money, after all.

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And, as happenstance would have it, Alvin’s own powder blue Ford T-Bird—the modern kind, an expensive car—sat parked next to the rounded curb of Hall’s cul-de-sac. Ah, Hall thought. It’s like, cosmic.

Wait.

Alvin’s car here. Middle of the day. He knows I’m not here—I’m not due in for another two hours, tops.

But Evelyn is here—there’s the wagon.

What in hell was going on?

Flashes: his wife and the new guy at the band cookout two weeks ago, the joking and flirting and how she kept slapping him on the arm. Oh, Evvie—not the bass player. Not the new guy.

No way was he going to bust in there and see it for his own eyes. No way. He already felt as though he’d been kicked in the stomach—why rub salt in the wound? Now he understood. She’d been so cold to him all year. He’d attributed it to the job loss, to depression. Now, he knew. Now, he’d be breaking in a new keyboardist and another goddamn low-end guy. Again.

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Hall roared out of his neighborhood and straight over to the commercial district two exits away, sliding the rickety old van up to the front door of the musician supply superstore, the locally owned one he preferred to patronize.

Inside, Hall, on a consumptive rampage: selecting an entire new set of drumheads; sitting and bouncing and thinking about replacing his stool; buying Teddy a couple of sets of Elixirs, primo guitar strings coated with Goretex, to better fend off sweat and other onstage body fluids; and finally asking Steve, the counter guy, to special order a book of King Crimson charts, but only because the copy he already had was falling apart—Hall, trying to talk them into performing the complete Lark’s Tongues in Aspic, note-for-note, as a second set.

“Got some Progs gigs this weekend, Mr. McNabb?” the clerk asked.

“Last weekend, down in the lowcountry.”

“You rage?”

“We raged it.”

“Awesome, dude.”

The first time he’d talked to the kid, Steve, all of twenty-one, had never even heard of prog rock. “It kinda was—we owned that room.”

He didn’t feel much better afterwards, but running up the band credit card was something to do. Besides, his birthday was coming up in about two weeks—the big one. He’d felt perfectly fine about it until this ridiculous, sordid turn of events.

Hall McNabb. Act two of his life.

Surely for adultery he’d be able to kick her out and keep the house—in the American South, basements, where he had set up his man cave, media archive and functional jam room, were rare. It was why he’d insisted they buy that house.

Drifting into a kind of fugue state, he killed an hour drinking coffee at a 50s-style diner situated on an outparcel in the Wal-Mart parking lot where they’d left the cars, rereading the same paragraph in the same news story on the front page of USA Today. A few gutpunch moments; squeezing back the hurt and the tears. What did the band, or anything, mean if he didn’t have Evvie to come home to?

How to deal with her? And him?

Hall and his wife had been married a long time, and to be honest they’d had their ups and downs. Five years ago she’d announced one night that she wasn’t sure she still wanted to be married; Hall’s passionate, tearful, reasoned arguments—not only did they have the kids to think about, but he truly did love her—took hold, finally, and the estrangement had been aborted.

Then there was the time he’d screwed the assistant, and oh, what a big emotional mess that’d been, even without Evelyn finding out.

And then, of course, there’d been the occasional moment of indiscretion at an out-of-town gig—happened with all the guys, though, so everyone was good about keeping their trap shut. Those dalliances, meaningless—but the one with his secretary, a cute twenty-something named Belinda, well, before breaking it off he’d almost started to feel real emotion for her, and was lucky the whole thing hadn’t blown up in his face. Belinda had been a real tiger in the sack, but finally the tawdry nature of their afternoon couplings had gotten to him, as had her pedestrian taste in popular music. As it turned out, she had a drinking problem, one which “screwed with her judgment, sometimes,” she admitted, and had quit the firm, checked into rehab, and exited his life. Made Hall feel like a schmuck, that judgement comment—he’d allowed himself to think she was really into him.

But with Evelyn . . . well, for all he knew Alvin might be the tip of the iceberg. What exactly was going on those years ago when she’d made her big announcement about maybe calling it a day on their union?

How many Alvins had there been?

His mind raced. He felt impotent and ugly. Nutted.

Another aspect of this unwelcome development troubled him—Alvin, one of the best bass players with whom Hall had ever worked. The rhythm section had to be tight, thicker than thieves. You couldn’t just grab someone off the street, not with the challenging material The Prognosticators attempted.

The images flashed through his mind of Alvin and Evelyn going at it, after which he felt a touch too close to his band mate. What a jerk. Alvin was putting both Hall’s marriage, as well as the future of the band, in dire jeopardy.

Goddamn this, he fumed. Now I’m really pissed. The marriage, for all its problems, a solid partnership between compatible people; the band, more so. What a myopic waste, he thought.

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The next gig was on the following Saturday at a local hole in the wall, a club that was more or less home base for the band: In reality, Slim Lupo’s was hardly a hole in the wall—it was the premiere live music venue in the Old Market, the downtown college neighborhood.

But Columbia, not much of a music town—you could tell by the fact that, on a Saturday night, The Prognosticators were booked instead of an act younger and hipper. Then again, with a few exceptions club-level acts of any heat and renown usually bypassed South Carolina’s modest capital city for greener markets to the north, south, east, and west. And in a college town, no less! Southeastern University had forty-thousand students, for pity’s sake. One would think there’d be a half-dozen decent music rooms. But there weren’t, and that was that—maybe Sherman had burned the people’s musical taste along with all the antebellum buildings, Hall wondered.

The Prognosticators didn’t draw the college crowd anyway, and maybe that’s why they got booked into Lupo’s with the frequency that they did. The Progs, appealing to more of a middle-aged demo, folks who had plenty of money to blow on overpriced beer—that aspect of their draw was definitely fine by the Lupo’s owners.

Hall remembered his own time at Southeastern—yeah, he was a townie, so what—in particular a golden spring afternoon in a friend’s dorm room, smoking joints and digging album rock. When Fragile had spun round the component stereo—it had a turntable, an eight-track player and an FM tuner built in, pretty groovy for its day—how Hall had sat glued to the ratty dorm-sofa, mesmerized from the first notes of the classic album. Until that moment he’d been more of a heavy-rock fan—Zeppelin, Sabbath, maybe some southern stuff like the Allmans—but after that it was all Yes, and for months afterwards. He could still listen to that record—side two in particular—and be transported back to the dorm room; he could still see the motes of dust he watched drifting lazily in a shaft of light that streamed in through the limbs of a huge oak tree outside the window, he could smell the reefer, he could remember the girl he’d gone out with later that night, even though he hadn’t scored so much as a dry hump with that one, whatever her name had been. It was how you judged women, then—what you got away with. Different with wives. Wives, so much more than all that.

Which made the idea of Alvin and Evvie hurt all the more.

Long dis-tance run around,” he sang to himself as the guys loaded in the gear; Hall, eyeing Alvin as he rolled his bass rig inside.

“Close to the edge down by the ri-ver,” Alvin answered as he shoved his amp in through the alley stage doors.

“Wrong album, nitwit,” Hall muttered.

“And down by the ri-ver,” Alvin sang over his shoulder, in a different melody, “I shot my bayyyy-beeee . . .”

“In that one misguided and offensive expulsion of breath, you’ve conflated Jon Anderson and Neil Young,” Jackson huffed as he struggled with the enormous case that held his Kurzweil keyboard. “That’s just wrong, man.”

Hall, schlepping in his kick drum and giving Alvin a flat smile. “He’s bad about that. Aren’t you, Al?”

Alvin frowned. “Huh?”

“Conflating.”

“I don’t even know what that means.”

“To fuse two disparate ideas together.”

“Hubba hubba,” Alvin said with a salacious air. “Me likey fusing ideas together.”

Inside the club, which looked gray and exposed under the harsh fluorescent house lights, Alvin wiggled his tongue at Frieda, onstage setting up her mic stand. “You hear that baby? We’re gonna conflate tonight after the show. Maybe even a few times.”

“Oooh,” she said, winking. “Sounds nasty.”

The back of Hall’s neck grew hot. You sure you got any energy left for Frieda, asswipe? 

Perhaps the Progs would end up famous after all—the band whose drummer killed the bass player during ‘Starship Trooper.’

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Once the Prognosticators were soundchecked and satisfied, they retired to the green room to allow the opening band, Tin Foil Hat, to set up their instrumentation. Jam-band youngsters with an eclectic mix of instrumentation—mandolin, synthesizer, drum machine, bass guitar—when he’d seen them play Hall had found them intriguing enough: Part bluegrass, part funk, part dance-groove, on some nights they’d seemed tighter and more interesting than the Progs. So, despite all the problems, Hall hoped his band would click into place tonight, show these whippersnappers how it was done.

Thinking about Alvin and Evvie and seething, he went out to the van with Jackson and Teddy to burn a doob and watch the sun go down. The patrons began to trickle in during Tin Foil Hat’s forty-five minute set; Hall, recognizing many faces.

A seed popped in the joint, sending a hot cinder into his eye. He cursed Teddy, who shrugged—it happened every time he twisted one up, it seemed. Even at his mature age, Teddy refused to take the time to properly clean his pot, which to Hall seemed downright lazy and childish.

“Pretty good crowd so far,” Jackson said, slurring a bit.

“Yup.”

Jackson inhaled and spoke through a closed throat. “Take a gander at them three Bettys coming down the sidewalk—see anybody familiar?”

Hall’s heart leapt: Evelyn, walking along with two of her girlfriends, Jeannie Mulgrew and Fran Boykin, to whom he secretly referred as the Columbia metro area’s number one MILF. The women, giggling and reeling around and obviously tipsy.

Hall, playing out the scenario in his mind: Evelyn, rubbing it in his fucking face. He’d be extra mindful and vigilant about spotting longing, lascivious looks between his wife and bass player—they only thing getting inserted tonight, however, would be an inopportune and surprising drumstick into someone’s orifice, and he didn’t mean that of his spouse.

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Something about the angst and anger that Hall felt as he watched the interaction between Evelyn and not merely Alvin, but all the other band members—chummy, friendly, and oddly furtive—lit a real fire under him. He’d pounded the hell out of his kit, more Keith Moon-intense than his usual subtle stylings.

At one point he swore he saw her give Alvin a suspicious wink; Alvin, leaning over toward Evelyn, seeming to play just to her; Hall, pounding his drums and slashing at the cymbals until Evelyn looked up at him with wonder in her eyes—she rarely came out to shows anymore, and seemed duly impressed with her husband’s abilities.

The explosive improv segment led into one of the band’s originals, followed by a sublime, expansive take on ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’ to end the set. The crowd, going nuts; the band, drenched, triumphant, high-fiving and pumped up like kids at their first garage band gig. The second set, more of the same, with all band members surviving an explosive and epic ‘Starship Trooper.’

During the load out, Evelyn and her friends hung around like groupies; Evelyn, plowed, her eyes reduced to a pair of alluring slits.

“I can’t believe I finally got to meet you, Mr. McNabb,” she purred. “If you need someone to help you, you know, with your stuff, my friends and I would be glad to.” She gave his butt a squeeze. “My big amazing rock star.”

Hall, beyond confused, feeling as though a terrible mindfuck of a plot had been hatched against him. None of it made any sense. Were they trying to drive him over the edge, Evelyn and her lover?

And yet, and yet: during the set break, Alvin and Frieda, all over each other in the green room. Hall had left and walked around the block, not talking to Evelyn and her friends.

When it was time to play again, Teddy had come out to find him slumped against the alley wall.

“You okay, or what?”

“Yeah. Head hurts a little. I’m ready to play, though.” And he had, maybe the best of his life.

At home, Evelyn had torn at his clothes. “You were so hot up there.”

“Shhh,” he said. “Kids’ll hear us.”

Mmm—so let’s go down to the basement, put on some records. You don’t have any pot, do you?”

He did.

After a tentative and awkward start, Hall and his wife made explosive and aggressive love like randy hormonal teenagers, rolling around on the thick pallet she’d placed on the cool concrete of the basement floor. Her, bucking up against him; him, a red hot poker-piston.

He pushed thoughts about Alvin or other imagined lovers out of his mind, and made Evelyn his and his alone, and the next day had the scratches on his back to prove that he’d done so. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d awakened with a sore one—they’d even gone at it one more time up in the bedroom, this time more gently but no less powerfully. They hadn’t had a twofer in years.

They’d slept in until nearly eleven, when Jennie had finally pounded on the bedroom door, asking if everything was all right. Hall called out that it was.

But he still wasn’t sure.

Brushing his teeth and glancing back at his wife’s sexy painted toes sticking out from under the mussed sheets—the party girls had gone to get mani-pedis before heading out for their big Saturday night—he reasoned: If worst came to worst, he could tack up notices at the music school over on the Southeastern campus, try to attract some hotshot bass-playing gunslinger to replace Alvin—someone with classical training, maybe, who could handle the complicated arrangements that were the bread and butter of Hall’s band.

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Despite the wondrous Saturday night intimacy, the next week brought with it more concerns, more worries: Evelyn, seeming to sneak around making whispered and hurriedly completed phone calls, running mysterious errands at odd times. At one point, Hall had clicking around looking up private detective agencies, but stopped himself from calling any of them.

One evening while she was out, he’d driven over to Alvin’s place, but the only cars he spied there were the T-Bird and Frieda’s black Jetta, the rear end covered with anti-Republican stickers, Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History, and other progressive statements. No Evvie wagon. Thank god. If he came upon them again as he had last week, he didn’t know what he’d do. After Saturday night, no way was he losing her, not to that nitwit.

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Dinner on Thursday night, a tense affair: Sean had gotten caught going down to the rapids near the zoo with his friends, a place where all manner of people besides teenagers hung out and drank beer and did god knows what; Jennie, sick and whiny with a summer cold that Hall hoped against hope wouldn’t make its way through the rest of the family. A stuffy nose on top of the headaches—he’d gotten another one yesterday—would just about suck the big one.

Evelyn, cleaning up the kitchen; Hall, stooped over and struggling to pick up garbage that spilled after the overstuffed plastic bag had split open—coffee grounds, old cat food, the avocados they’d let go bad.

“What do want to do for your birthday?”

“The big day’s tomorrow, huh?” He’d put the milestone out of his mind. “Would rather forget it.”

“Not possible, oldtimer.”

“Hey—watch it, Grandma Moses.”

“You weren’t calling me that last Saturday night, now were you, big boy? ‘Oh Evvie, oh Evvie . . .’”

Hall shushed her—glancing into the family room, he saw that the kids were engrossed in Almost Famous on HBO. “I’ve been trying not to think about it.”

“What—about Saturday night? That’s all I’ve thought about.”

Yes and no was what he almost said—he still didn’t know what, exactly, to think about anything. “Look—I’d rather—I’d probably rather not make too much of a big deal about the whole birthday type-deal. If we could.”

Evelyn, disappointed. “Aw—I thought we could go out. Diane’s, something nice like that.”

“Yeah, sure.” He got out the broom and dustpan to sweep up the last of the filth from the tiled kitchen floor. “Can we afford that?”

“We’ll make an exception.  It’s a special night.”

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Evelyn left the house Friday morning before Hall had finished shaving. He couldn’t shake the nagging sense that something was up, something terrible was brewing. Surely she wouldn’t drop the bomb on him about her and Alvin on his goddamn fiftieth birthday.

Moni and Boris and Sally-Ann from HR took him out to John-Paul’s Steakhouse for lunch; the servers all gathered around and sang an original birthday song and presented him with a piece of chocolate cheesecake, but he’d been left cold by the whole enterprise, and this despite quaffing a couple of draught beers which’d given him a welcome midday buzz.

“You should get the heck out of dodge,” Moni said, picking her prominent teeth. “Nothing on for today that can’t wait till Monday.”

“Not a bad idea,” Hall said. “Don’t know what I’d do with myself, though.”

“Go to a movie. Enjoy life.” Sally-Ann smiled at him, her cheeks aflame from two glasses of Yellowtail Shiraz overpriced by about six hundred percent. “Take the day for yourself. You’ve earned it.”

“Have I?”

Everyone shrugged, an unsettling and silent sentiment.

“Are the Proctologists playing sometime soon?” Sally-Ann asked. “I keep meaning to come see you guys—it’s so wild that you’re in a band.”

“Soon,” he said, smiling with grim determination. “I’ll add you to the email blast.”

After wrapping up some work nonsense and backing up his hard drive, he took his colleagues’ advice and beat a path to elevator bank and then the parking garage. He drove around for a while at utter and complete loose ends; he motored over and parked at Canal Park and took a shuffling, listless stroll as an endless succession of afternoon joggers—don’t you people have jobs?—passed him on the narrow strip of asphalt separating the canal from the river below.

Fifty. They say it’s the new forty, right?

Right. Sure it is.

That was what the band was all about, wasn’t it? To stave off the onset of that stodgy, stiff attitude that his old man had developed by about, oh, the age of thirty-five? Harold McNabb, a bitter and hard lifelong Ford salesman had been a confirmed hater of longhairs and their rock music; he’d been a strict disciplinarian who didn’t seem to have much fun in life, who’d driven Hall’s sister to run away at sixteen and never come back. Hall’s recalcitrance had come in becoming a musician himself, inevitable even by the time of his adolescence, much of which spent seeking out the very music of which his father had so disparagingly disapproved. The credo Hall had adopted for himself was to have fun whenever possible, to not succumb to the vagaries and stresses of adult life. Music was fun. It made his heart sing, no pun intended.

But now he’d gone and done just that, chosen a path of stultifying ordinariness: A boring accountant working in a soulless, cold corporate company, with college tuition looming, a mortgage, a bad roof, an aging HVAC system, a broken-down band van, and an out of work wife who was . . . who was . . .

He looked at his watch—three o’clock, the same time last week he’d seen Alvin’s T-Bird parked outside his house, with Alvin presumably parked inside his Evelyn.

His ears burned—were they talking about him? Laughing, even?

Resolve, an upswelling like sudden raw courage: No matter what had happened, Evelyn remained his wife, and he aimed to keep her. He didn’t care what happened to the band, or anything else. He blazed home, fortunate not to get a ticket from West Columbia’s finest.

As he rounded the bend and turned into his cul-de-sac, what’d been speculative fantasy turned into sick reality—it wasn’t that Alvin’s car was parked there, which was bad enough, but seeing Frieda’s beat-up Jetta right behind it only added to his anger: All three of them. No other explanation possible—Evelyn thought Frieda was a ditz, though.

And yet: All three of them—she’s swinging on me. They’re in there having the time of their lives and laughing and loving one another. He didn’t know whether to be titillated, or vomit.

Hall, barely able to see to open the front door. He reached out for the handle, tried to steady himself, and wondered whether the .38 in his desk sat loaded. He pondered how his mug shot would look on the news, and if they gave you the chair, or a trio of successive life sentences, for a crime of passion as his was about to be.

As he burst into the house, a scream of anger caught in his throat—he heard their voices coming from the family room, murmuring, giggling, salacious moaning ecstasy. They were doing it right there on the floor, where his children could come in and see them. Sick, unrepentant motherfuckers, these. He’d never known his wife at all.

He charged out of the foyer and turned to the left. “You sick motherfu—”

“Hall! Damn you.”

“What are you doing here, McNabb!” Frieda screamed. “Shit.”

He swooned and fell back against the wall: the three of them, their limbs entangled by crepe paper and surrounded by the black balloons they’d been blowing up. Frieda threw up her hands; Alvin, laughing and letting his balloon go—it turned languidly in the air as the breath he’d forced into it escaped with a wheeze: The sound of failure.

Hall took in the colorful banner hanging from the ceiling—NIFTY NIFTY, LOOK WHO’S FIFTY!—and could smell that something sweet was on the verge of coming out of the oven.

“All my work!” Evelyn yelled, then sighed and adopted a more sanguine tone. “Well—happy birthday. Guess we can start the party . . .”

“I’ll cork the white,” Frieda said, jumping to her feet and smoothing her tiedyed skirt. “Newcastle or Sierra, Al?”

Alvin, looking to Hall, who stood frozen, unable to respond.

“Both.”

Hall, his head spinning, leaning against the wall and sliding to the floor. Fifty. Fifty wasn’t so bad after all; fifty, the new forty.

Now that he’d gotten his marriage back on track, he thought, he could go ahead and get some gigs booked. Get the guys talked into doing the complete Lark’s Tongues in Aspic. They could work it up at Alvin’s, or if they had to, down in the basement. In Hall’s house, where the music never stopped. If they all got serious, who knew where they could take The Prognosticators? Anywhere. Everywhere.

–end–

 

 

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About dmac

James D. McCallister is a South Carolina author of novels, short stories, and creative nonfiction. His latest book, a story collection called The Year They Canceled Christmas, releases in November 2017.

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