3. Juan Bon Joker
“You realize that Valhalla is still under contract, right?”
I pressed the phone to my ear and covered my head with my hand as I hunched over the Booksalot help desk. All I could think about was the contract. I asked Claire for advice. She said I should call the label and try to get out of it. I didn’t really want to get out of it, because then what would I have? What would I think about during the endless hours of pulling each and every book to the exact edge of the shelf? How else would I stave off the pernicious sounds of Paul Simon’s Graceland, which streamed from the store speakers on infinite repeat? But she had a point. You can’t make an album and go on tour with a band that no longer exists. A dead metal band.
“Use your words,” she’d said, flipping through a copy of Maximum Rock and Roll. “And don’t let Lisa see you.”
Lisa was the rule-obsessed manager, constantly writing up employees for the smallest infractions.
“Yeah, I totally realize that, Sean, it’s just that I’m basically the lone Viking left manning the Valhalla ship.”
“David, we need an album. Soon. Besides, a new one will help sell the old one.”
“It’s not like I can make an album by myself.”
He continued like he hadn’t heard me.
“And you still have your touring obligation. We put out one record and so we’ve got to get you guys going on a tour and a second one. At the very least you need to tour this summer, get your name out there. You don’t even need the whole band for that. Otherwise, all of you are in violation of the contract, a legally binding contract.”
I thought of John romancing some poli-sci major by the Sof-Serv ice cream machine in the university cafetorium, chatting her up after handing her a flyer for the next Smokey the Band jamfest. And me, every day, toiling away in this place. Clock in. Shelve books. Man the register. My every action accompanied by the endless loop of Paul Simon’s voice, one world beat Möbius strip of sound. I tapped a paper clip against the desk.
“Uh … excuse me … can you help me find a book?”
A customer. And a jingling sound, like the help bell that only true assholes ever rang. It wasn’t loud enough to be the bell, though. It sounded like some distant reindeer herd.
Was it Santa Claus from the mall?
I sighed. Why can’t people just browse?
“Sean, I promise I’ll talk to the guys. I’ve got to go.”
“Remember: legally binding.”
I hung up. The jingling bells still reverberated across the help desk. How was that going to work?, I thought. Who ever heard of a one man metal band, live and on tour?
“Can I help you?” I hissed, my paper clip now a mangled mess.
The stress was getting to me. I needed to cut down on coffee, free or not. A Renaissance fair refugee stood in front of me. It wasn’t Santa from the mall, but it could have been one of his elves. This guy, short and Latino, wore a billowy frilly smock of the kind last sported by Percy Shelley. He’d topped the smock with a brown leather vest fringed with tiny bells. He was dressed to board frigates.
A taffeta headscarf, cut from a flag, or maybe a blood red prom dress, contained a shock of wild black hair. He’d cinched the scarf, Rambo style, right above his thick black eyebrows. A plaited ponytail hung halfway down his back.
“I’m looking for a book.” He was courteous, his voice more cultivated than the average Miamian. He sounded as suave as George Hamilton looks.
“It’s called The White Goddess. It’s by Robert Graves.”
“Graves … Graves ….” I typed the name into the computer. I could feel his hard stare at my chest. I had on an old Candlemass shirt, the one for Ancient Dreams. I got it when John and I first started playing music together. He and Phil had it on gatefold vinyl, put a couple songs on those early mix tapes, and I thought the cover, an Edenic garden scene, sky blue and gold, taken from some 19th century painting, looked so classy in contrast to the therapy art used for so many other album covers.
Something the parents would approve of, I’d thought at the time. Something to show them the piano and guitar lessons had been worth it. They’d almost canceled them when I sat at the dinner table in the first metal shirt I’d bought, a Slayer shirt with a throned goat presiding over a trio of bishops bobbing in boiled blood.
“I like your shirt.”
“Thanks,” I said absently, scanning the computer screen. “Graves … here it is. Mythology. Follow me.”
I stepped around the desk. His costume was comprehensive. He wore fringed knee-high moccasins. As we walked across the store, he swished and jangled like a belled cat. He even had a brass bell hanging from one ear. He had a tiny acoustic guitar, ukulele-sized, but with a compact, nearly triangular body, strapped to his back. I’d never seen a guitar quite like it; I wondered how it played.
“Are you into Lore?”
The way he said it, I thought he meant a band. “Lore.” It sounded doomy, like Candlemass. Something forlorn and direful.
He didn’t let me answer.
“You seem like you might be. Not many people are, these days.”
“You know, the imaginary, the stories and images that never really die, but keep repeating, even here in this ridiculous city. That’s a Thomas Cole painting on your shirt. ‘The Course of Empire.’ He would have loved painting this place, shown it swallowed by the sea.”
If you’re not from Miami, you’d be surprised how many locals hate the place. And not just the ones, like me, indentured to its service economy. We stopped at the mythology section, a shoulder-high half shelf topped with a plastic ivy in a “Greek urn” and a squat stone gargoyle, the bestial offspring of a bowling ball and a garden gnome.
I scanned the shelf, found the book, and handed it to him. It wasn’t hard to find. The spine was bright yellow with black writing, like a traffic sign.
“I’ve been looking for this for a while. I thought I’d have to special order it.” He started flipping through the pages.
“What’s it for?” He’d sparked my curiosity. The book was thick. It looked serious. Unlike most of the books people actually bought, it had no pictures, except for a sketch of some weird symbols, three ladies, a snake, a pentagram, on the cover.
“I’m doing a bit of reading for a tattoo I’m getting. It’s going to be of the Ouroboros, here, around my heart.”
“The Ouroboros?” I had no clue. It sounded like the name of a sandwich. An Ouroboros deluxe, extra pickles.
“You’ve never heard of it?”
“No. What is it?”
“A mythical creature. No—more importantly—it is the mythical creature, the creature at the center of every story, a creature that lies at the center of the underworld and the heart of the empyreal sphere. A creature that does both simultaneously whilst roiling beneath the toiling waves of the ocean.”
I stepped back. Dude used the word “whilst.” Another very un-Miamian move.
“It’s the serpent that lives in the water, that marks the equator, not dead but dreaming, the tip of its tail in its fang-filled jaws. When it awakes, it will drown this city.”
Just then, Lisa stormed past.
“David, are you on break?”
“This isn’t the time for personal conversations.”
“He’s a customer.”
“If you’ve finished helping the customer, we need you in the back room. A shipment of books just arrived.”
She hustled past, her hair helmet swinging like a clock pendulum on speed.
I wanted to talk more to this guy. He told me his name was Juan. He said he’d be in the cafe, reading.
I wanted to ask him about that guitar.
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