by Steven Mohr
Reading level: Ages 15 and up
Paperback: 198 pages
Publisher: Silver Shield (contemporary fiction imprint of Dare Empire) – releases in early Fall
Living in the crudeness of Detroit, Michigan and working in the refinement of the metro area suburbs, first year teacher Conor Batey is having difficulty adapting to a world plagued by greed and vanity. In his college days, the response was to rebel against society through music and art, but with age creeping in and a recession on the lookout for those in the undeserving working class, he chooses the suit and tie life.
Quickly, however, anticipation rises and fears are avoided as Conor, together with his past musician friends, are offered a record deal for their fairly successful but recently defunct band Listless. The group doesn’t immediately see the value in this brief stint of regression and avoidance of their everyday existences. However, with adult/professional life during the recession looking so bleak and their past dreams so close to realization, they choose to take this one last chance to tour their favorite music venues and play with some of the their favorite bands.
Along the way, the band meets the beautiful young journalist Ellie Cruz who opts to travel with the indiepop rock group and document their sometimes funny and other times awkward jaunt around the East Coast. The story ends in a realization that takes the characters (and reader) right back to the start in this vicarious ride through the cyclical reality we call life.
A Petite Tragedy
“Cowards die many times before their deaths! But the valiant never taste of death but once!” roared the defiant cage fighter as he leaped to safety in thwart of the towering Soviet wrestler.
“Aidan, if you quote from some lame old book one more time while I’m playing Street Fighter, I’m gonna pile drive this androgynous joke of a fighter you picked back into pre-pubescence,” Kurt declared with squinted eyes and a shrugging display of pity.
“Whoa! Since when does Kurt Hammit use big words like ‘androgynous’ and ‘pre-pubescence’?” remarked Aidan. “And why did your first grownup use of the English language have to be so lewd?”
Without even the slightest indication of blow to his ego, Kurt shot back, “Well, we didn’t all have the genius idea of going to college in a recession and racking up tons of debt with no way to pay it off. I got those words from the internet… no charge.” His words were laced with the stunted vocal rhythm and distinct mannerisms of Bill Cosby. Whether by reason or chance, when Kurt lashes out in a sarcastic way, the delivery comes across like he’s mimicking the comedian.
“Besides, look at Conor over there, spending most of his day grading papers for a job that pays just about the same as mine. And I pretty much do nothing! I check people’s IDs and get to watch bands for free.”
“Don’t bring me into this,” I said.
I was sitting in my usual spot in the corner of the living room, finishing the grades on a test my junior high students had taken that morning. I wasn’t about to get into a discussion on jobs with Kurt. The guy had already gone through three of them in the past six months, ever since he moved in with Aidan and me. I’ve gotten used to getting paid rent in old vinyl records. But I’ll admit, the month I got Of Montreal’s first pressing of Bedside Drama: A Petite Tragedy made it all worth it.
“At least I get summers off,” I continued. “And besides, aren’t you working now at that dive bar over on Cass Ave that brings in all those jam bands and their weird hippy fans, banging their heads to the same first-fifth chord progressions over and over again? How can you stand that, man?”
The question hung in the air for a while.
“I know… I don’t think I can take it much longer.”
He paused the game and turned to Aidan. With a devious look in his eyes, he said, “But… if Aidan could get me a job down at the record shop… things would be completely different.”
Aidan gave Kurt one of his jolly smiles that is known for its ability to do two things: brighten the moods of all those nearby and stop most girls dead in their tracks.
With a drawn out shrug and a heavy pat on Kurt’s back, he lamented, “Ahh, I’m sorry, man, but Lee’s strapped. His shop hardly makes enough to keep up with what he’s got now. And even I’m only there part-time, which is cool for now while I’m still going to Wayne State. “
He paused for a few seconds and let the natural elation his face normally showed turn down a notch, “But maybe you’re right about college… I started this English degree hoping that at some point along the way I’d find out what I wanted to do, where I would go into from here… but I’m almost finished with it and I’m still clueless…”
In his usual avoidance of serious discussion, Kurt rolled his eyes, stood up and replied, “Owen’s back in town, and I’m meeting up with him at the hippy bar. But I have two things to say about that, Aidan: one, I agree. You are clueless. Two… well that’s all. Oh, and by the way.” He glanced back just before walking out the door, “Owen said he had some good news for all of us. He wouldn’t tell me what it was about over the pho—” The last word was cut short as the thick mahogany door slammed shut.
“I wonder what that’s about,” Aidan questioned.
“I haven’t seen that Owen in months, not since whenever that last show at the Ottawa Tavern was.”
Owen was an old friend who I had first met in high school. At the time, I was playing in a Weezer cover band—we played only the 90s material. When the band’s bassist decided he could take no more of our singer’s insatiable ego he quit, leaving a gaping hole in our rhythm section. The drummer asked a guy he knew named Owen to fill in. After seeing what he could do on such a limited instrument, I continued asking him to play on recordings and live projects for the next seven years Though, I’ll admit, the fact that he was African American also helped. Who wants to listen to some lame band of all white guys? Now, I’m not saying all single racial group bands from the past were lame (that’s obviously far from the truth), but that was the past. Today, people want variety, an integration of ideas for a newer, more complete sound. Owen was perfect for all of those reasons. But, to be honest, for how long I’d actually known him, I knew very little about Owen.
I stopped reminiscing and gathered my thoughts about what I was doing. “Hey, I’ve only got a few more papers to deal with. I’m gonna work on them outside. I can’t sit in this living room anymore with such a great day outside.”
“Sure, man. I’ll be out there in a minute, too. Let me get a book,” Aidan said as he turned off the game and practically sprung up. For people like us, the thought of reading a good book on a nice day, with the sun shining and a cool breeze blowing, was enough to put a spring in every step. And anyone who’s seen the state of our house would understand how literally that statement could be taken.
The floorboards creaked as he moved up the stairs, making the roughly 150 pound guy sound much larger than he was. We first moved into this old house a little under a year before, and no single part of this “fixer-upper” had yet been fixed. It wasn’t that any of us lacked ambition, and we all had enough personal experience in carpentry for moderate fixes. And for what we didn’t know, there’s always research. We just had lives filled with things we found more important.
After graduating from the University of Toledo, I found a job teaching junior high social studies at a charter school in Southfield, Michigan, right outside of Detroit. My longtime friend, Aidan, had still been living with his parents in Ann Arbor and was looking for a cheap place to stay while he was in college. Between our combined incomes, and Detroit’s desperate need of home owners, I was able to get a four bedroom house in an only semi-seedy area for a great price. Aidan—and Kurt as well soon after—pay me enough rent to make my monthly expenses very cheap, which, regrettably, is essential to my survival. The paycheck I take home every week seems to jokingly skirt the poverty line.
Seeing as I teach kids that probably top my salary in their allowances, when one talks about becoming a teacher and asks me how much we professional educators make, I just say it’s not about the money, it’s about enjoying what you do. Recently, that statement has seemed less and less true. Not the money part; I’ve never felt the need to make a whole lot of that. It’s the part about enjoying what you do. Do professionals ever really enjoy what they do? Or maybe it’s just the thrill of victory over another that brings some kind of adrenalin rush to type-A people, a rush I have never felt, nor want to feel.
I’ve been told that in the first five years of the education field, a third of teachers leave the profession never to come back. I sometimes wonder if I’ll find myself in that minority that gets away and never looks back. I imagine many of them, like me, thought this profession would be different from the rest—some kind of altruistic oasis of society giving sustenance to a world ruled by dry-mouthed bureaucrats, with only money on their minds. I was wrong.
In my experience, these factories that we call schools today suffocate both teachers and students in their regulation and procedure. I knew it was my own fault for continuing with such a juvenile faith, though. I was given the warnings. A particularly good professor I had in college once told our class that he never worked a day in his life until the federal regulations of the early 2000s. Every day in his fiction writing class was an experiment in teacher and student creativity, with interjected thoughts ranging from the life of a poor pedestrian in the ancient world to the power and prestige of a galactic empire in the midst of revolution. After the brick of federal regulations broke the shop window it was nothing but flash cards and standardized assessments. He said that once the government came into the classroom, all teacher discretion vanished and it became a punch in-punch out industry. When the class was over, he finished his monolog with a sympathetic, “Good luck!”
I walked out the door. The Midwest spring temperature was ideal. A slight breeze was playing against the sun’s warm presence to the perfect degree. The grass was green, and probably could use a cut. The birds were chirping, and my cul-de-sac was as at peace as a neighborhood four blocks down from a recent break-in could feel. Our neighborhood watch group was on special alert since they first heard news of that last situation. I was growing more worried by the day. Not so much about the robbery; I was more worried that my neighbors would guilt me into joining them in their righteous quest.
All in all, my neighbors are pretty awesome people. Whenever I have car trouble, all I have to do is walk three doors to my right and tell Sam what’s going on. In lightening speed that guy will have a diagnosis, prognosis, and any other kind of nosis that’ll get it back up and running in no time.
Evelyn, in the yellow house just to the left of mine, is our neighborhood’s resident chaplain. While her day job involves running a shelter/after school program for the Detroit youth, in the afternoons she’s the one my neighbors go to with questions about God and the afterlife. While I have a lot of respect and appreciation for a girl in her twenties taking on so much responsibility in such a selfless way, I steer clear of any discussion on religion with her. Though, she seems to always swing it around to that. It’s amazing how pervasive it is in some people’s lives… I told her, it’s not that I didn’t believe in something supernatural, I just needed more time in life to see these clues that are supposedly hidden all throughout creation, certainly more time than it took this young woman to find them.
I chose this city block because it reminded me of the cul-de-sac I grew up on in Toledo, Ohio. Our road dead ended into a large circle of pavement where we played baseball and roller hockey all summer long. We tried hard not to shoot the puck over the tall fence at the end of the road because if we did, that was it. The game was over. On the other side of that fence was a cavernous slope filled with broken bottles and lost toys that had been accruing for as long as I could remember. And it only got worse once you reached the bottom. From the heights of our cul-de-sac, all day and all night, we could hear the roar of the mighty I-75 Interstate that lies below. Cars flew by with little regard for the speed limit. Trying to recover a lost puck or ball through these mighty obstacles was treacherous—and we knew it as well as any grade-schoolers could—but it stopped us only occasionally.
Coming back into the present, the first thing I noticed happening on my block was my neighbor across the street painting his garage. In the sun’s glare, I couldn’t quite make out the colors, but I was pretty sure they didn’t match those of the house.
Since the 1970s over a million residents have left the city limits of Detroit, leaving it open for communities of artists and open minded people who want the freedom to do what they feel is right for themselves. There are no housing regulations in this neighborhood that say if your house is some pastel blue so is your garage. When one neighbor decided to grow pumpkins and tomatoes in her front yard last year, no one stopped her. There were no little old ladies bereft of open mindedness or upper middle-class businessmen desperate for the respect of others to tell her she couldn’t do that. It was her property and her right. When I was searching for a place to live over a year ago, the freedom so prevalent in this community called to the artist in me, a part I had so often been forced to cover up in the professional world. It felt like the America we read about in our textbooks; a place where outcomes were of our own making.
“Hey dude. Wow, it’s nice out!” Aidan exclaimed as he walked out the door, breaking me from the state of sullen contemplation I had been finding myself in more and more for the past year. “What do you think Owen is gonna say to Kurt?”
“I’m not sure, but I’ll definitely ask one of them what went on,” I answered. “Even with nothing special to talk about, those guys always have something interesting to say.”
“Yeah, man. They’re characters.”