"Come on?" The conversation turned Matthew’s stomach more than the strong coffee or the greasy eggs that the small diner served them for breakfast. He began to wonder if he should have chosen a more personal place to meet his old friend, John Gaither.
"Matthew, I don't trust you anymore."
"I know I kind of left you guys hanging, but-"
"No, no buts. You really left us hanging. Carolina Sky is nothing without Matthew Callaway. And you've been gone too long. We're done. We’ve been done since you left."
“I don’t get that, John. I’m just one guy. What happened?”
John looked at him as if he had lost his mind. Matthew thought back to those last days. He could barely even remember the last few shows and he knew his final performance was pathetic. How could he have ever kept a band together?
“You really don’t get it, do you?”
“Clue me in.”
John shook his head and sipped some of his coffee. “After you left, I couldn’t get the others to care. Your passion for the music drove them. It was more about that than anything. You poured yourself into every performance, like no one else could.”
Matthew sat there thinking about what John had just said. He knew that pouring himself into the music had caused his breakdown, the reason he left.
“I really don’t want to watch that again, Matthew.”
"No." John stood up and started to leave. He tossed a five dollar bill on the table. “I’ll always be your friend, but that doesn’t mean I’ll play with you.”
Matthew touched his arm. "We can try again. I am trying again, with or without you."
John shook his head. "You just don't get it, man. There is no more band. I don't even know how to get a hold of Greg, and Joe's getting married soon."
"Sit down, John. Let's just talk about it some more. Maybe we need a new sound anyway."
John did sit down, if reluctantly. "Ten years, Matthew." He shook his head.
"I meant what I said. I've got nothing else, now. I'm going to tour the East Coast clubs, then work my way to Nashville. I have the first few dates already set. All I have to do now is put the rest of the band together."
"Good luck, man."
Matthew pounded his hand on the old Formica table, rattling the silverware and coffee cups. "John, damn it. You're the best drummer I can get."
"You can't get me, Matt-man. You got me when we were kids, but it's time to grow up now. You taught me that the last time we were together. Remember? When you walked out on the band?"
"I was wrong."
"Nah, man." John shook his head. "You're wrong now." He got up and walked out, pushing through the swinging glass door of the diner.
Matthew closed his eyes. What now? Lord? What now? He had been out of touch with the music scene for years. When he left Carolina Sky the first time, he had been unable to bring himself to sing or play. It took him a long time to even listen to music again.
Things changed, but not all things. There would be a way. He would just have to put together some new musicians. He still knew how to make connections, and he had some dates to play coming up quick.
He paid the check and left the diner. His old faithful pickup truck waited for him on the curb. Matthew did not like regretting his decisions. The biggest one was ever leaving Carolina Sky in the first place. He would have never done it if he had been healthy. This time around, he would be better at balancing his energy. He would not give in or give up. He started up the truck. "Yep, we're going places. We may go alone, but we're going."
There would be several clubs to visit over the next few nights—the best way to scrounge up a band. He needed a skilled lead guitarist that could carry the melody, and a thumpin’ bass player that could lay the harmony down. Maybe if he could get a couple of guys that worked well enough together, he could convince John to play with them.
Matthew plugged in his guitar and looked out the open garage door, expectantly. He took a deep breath. Either John would stop by or he wouldn’t. Either way, Matthew still had work to do. He turned to the other two guys, also plugging in guitars and tuning them up. Wayne Perry thrummed his bass while Jeff Kato plucked at his lead guitar. Matthew would play rhythm and sing. They only needed a drummer.
Once satisfied with his tuning, Wayne turned on a drum machine to keep the beat while they practiced. Wayne had more of a rock background and Jeff was extremely versatile. He could play anything. This could be the best group he had ever played with, if only Matthew could get John on board with it. He felt his chin tighten with anxiety.
“You know,” Wayne said, interrupting Matt’s thoughts, “my cousin’s girlfriend is not a bad drummer. I know it sucks to travel with a girl, but it might not be too bad. She’s pretty hot.”
“Hot as in good looking, or as in a good drummer?” Kato asked.
“Ok guys, let’s just run through some practice time. We’ll figure out the drummer later.”
“Later when?” Wayne asked. “Cause we’re running out of time.”
“I know,” Matthew said. He glanced out the garage again. He invited John to come by for a few beers. He didn’t tell his old friend that the band would be practicing. He knew John would never come by just to hear the band. He squashed his guilt down; Matthew would not give up on John yet. “Trust me. Let’s just play. What do you guys want to warm up on?”
He didn’t tell Wayne or Kato either. He didn’t want to get their hopes up, or make them feel like they were auditioning all over again. Matthew had done his best to set it all up, now he had to let it be. Either it would work out or it wouldn’t.
Kato let a familiar riff, an old Eagles tune, rip out of his instrument. Wayne picked up the baseline easy, and the music instantly transported the three into a different world. In their minds, they were on a big stage playing to thousands of fans. Matthew relaxed into the music, forgetting about John for a moment. He belted out the first few lines of the song. He could almost see the music, touch it; it wrapped around the musicians like a familiar blanket.
A few moments later, Matthew looked up and saw his friend standing in the open garage door. He stopped singing in the middle of the line, throwing everyone off.
“Hey Matt-man, thought you said come by for beer?”
Matthew smiled. John was just country through and through, from his faded blue jeans and cowboy boots to his white T-shirt and dusty cowboy hat. When it came to his music though, John simply played the best. It didn’t matter if he played country, rock, or jazz, the beat lived in him.
John walked across the crowded garage and bent over to turn off the drum machine. The garage fell silent without the background beat. Matthew wasn’t sure if John was just going to give him more hell, or leave, or what.
“We got beer,” Matthew spoke into the silence.
“Yeah, but you don’t seem to have a drummer.”
Matthew didn’t say anything. He wanted this to happen, but he didn’t know what to do. He could feel his jaw and chin tightening with the stress. It meant everything to him, but John already knew that. Didn’t he?
“Give me half an hour, guys,” John said. Not waiting for an answer, he practically stormed out of the garage.
“What the hell?” Kato asked.
Matthew shrugged. It would be a long half hour.
Kato wasn’t giving up that easy. “Is that guy a drummer? Did you know he was coming?”
“Yeah, I knew he might show up. Guess I was really hoping he would.”
“Why didn’t you say something earlier?”
Matthew sighed. “I didn’t want you guys to be upset if he didn’t show. Or maybe that it might jinx it.”
Wayne laughed. “Dude, we can still get my cousin’s girlfriend.”
Kato through a guitar pick at Wayne, and they laughed. Matthew was just happy the tension had broken, and maybe John would play with them.
“So, what? Is he coming back?” Kato asked again.
Matthew shrugged. “Let’s just play.”
John returned before the half hour ticked by on the clock. He rolled in with his drums and set them up as the other three guys watched silently.
“Hope ya’ll know something besides the Eagles,” he said, spinning a drumstick between his fingers.
“Well, hell yeah,” Kato answered, breaking into a country riff and then cycled into something harder, a little rock and something that resembled Smashing Pumpkins.
“Good. If we want to make a difference on the road, we better know some new stuff, and a lot of different styles.”
Matthew smiled. He knew he had John in the band. “I think you’ll see this group is up to it.”
They played for a few hours and then drank that promised beer. Matthew’s energy soared. This band had three of the most talented people he ever played with, and they only had two weeks to be in Atlantic City for the first gig he had already booked.
Thank you, God, he prayed silently as John laughed easily with the other two band members.
Matthew and the band set up their equipment. They crammed into the furthest corner of the bar where a small raised platform served as the almost non-existent stage. The band barely had room to set up the drums, and some of their equipment banked the wall next to the stage. The entire bar seemed tiny, but the owner paid him in advance and it was the highest paying gig he’d booked. It was also the last Atlantic City night. Tomorrow they were heading farther south to Hilton Head for a few dates, then on to Myrtle Beach. Based on their growing reputation, Matthew booked a big important gig at Myrtle Beach at a big resort that paid phenomenal rates. Tourists liked good music.
The crowd started growing and buzzing around the bar before they even finished setting up and doing their sound checks. Matthew had played bigger rooms than this the first time Carolina Sky toured. Walking out onto a huge stage with hundreds of expectant people looking on somehow seemed easier than warming up this close, contained crowd. Butterflies danced in his stomach and his throat felt dry. He picked up his bottle of water and chugged half of it, wishing he could swallow his nerves down with the liquid. It was one thing to be jamming with friends in a garage or old barn, and quite another to be in front of real, judgmental, people. These people didn’t even know Carolina Sky. He could not consider them fans. They were here for drinks and some band, any band, as long as it was loud and rockin’.
A bar full of strangers looked up expectantly as Wayne started thrumming the base line. Matthew considered for half a second telling them to wait while he got a beer, and downed it. But he had no time. He knew what to do. He turned to the mic, and counted out the beat in his head. Then he opened his mouth and sang at the exact second that John and Kato ripped out the music. The Sick Puppies song You’re Going Down started the first set.
At the end of the song, Matthew yelled out, “Who’s here to party?” The bar screamed in return. He knew he had them. He didn’t even have to ask twice. “We are Carolina Sky, and we are here to rock you tonight!” More screaming. The bar jumped as the band broke into a favorite party song, ACDC’s You Shook Me All Night Long. It wasn’t a song that showed off his vocals, but it got the crowd worked up. Women danced and jumped around, men lifted their beer, and many sang the words along with him. One woman pulled off her shirt and was left wearing only a bikini that barely covered all her parts. It proved an easy set.
After a short break, the band ripped through the second set. When they originally planned their lineup, Matthew didn’t like this second set, loaded with hard rocking songs. They grew on him, though, until it became his favorite lineup. He enjoyed the challenge and the ability to really wail. Starting with Break by Three Days Grace, he got the crowd really pumped. Singing along and yelling, they filled him with energy. His nerves from earlier turned to adrenaline as they covered the hottest bands from Rise Against and Puddle of Mudd to a few of the classics, Poison and Ozzy. The music ripped through the night, and their final set ended on a good note. They had the mix of music just right: a good bit of country, pop, and rock with some classics and some newer tunes. John had been right about that. They had a versatile style and left the crowd happy.
By the time they played the final song of their last set, sweat poured off Matthew; he was exhausted. This last song, Scream with Me by Mudvayne, had become his favorite song. It had been included to invite an audience to join along with the band. When he roared out the chorus, he let out all his anxiety in a primal scream of rage. He knew everything would somehow fall into place. When he sang the verses, he put every doubt into the dark words. At the end of the song, the audience was thunderous. “Come on ya’ll, let’s scream!” he yelled as the band broke into the final chorus.
Matthew almost fell down when the final note released into the air. Too easy to let himself go, but he could not imagine ever going back to the office world. Nerves or not, this was all he wanted in life. He looked up and smiled as the crowd cheered. They wanted more, but that was it. He had nothing else. “Thank you. Good night,” he said. The band started breaking down the equipment.
A tall blonde woman came up to him and handed him a beer. “You look like you could use a drink, cowboy.”
He smiled back at her, took the beer, and nodded his thanks.
“You were really good up there. Where you playing next?”
Matthew had enough girlfriends on the road in the past. He knew it was asking for trouble. Some guys could handle it, but not Matthew. He didn’t like starting something he couldn’t finish, and one night stands were just not his style; he knew his limits. Besides, he didn’t have the energy for it after that last set. He had to focus on balancing his energy. There could be no crash and burn this time. The girl was sweet, though; he had a soft spot for blondes. It wouldn’t hurt to be nice, especially since she’d bought him a beer. He smiled, “This is our last gig in town. We’re heading down south.”
“Hilton Head for two nights, then on to Myrtle Beach.”
“Wow,” she continued on. “Can I buy a CD or something?”
Matthew shook his head. “We don’t have one yet, sorry. We’re still pretty new.”
She started saying something else after that, but Matthew tuned her out as he packed up his gear. He looked up and smiled every now and then, but he just wasn’t into her. He silently hoped for Kato to come take her off his hands.
The band packed up and left quickly, the blonde got the hint and disappeared into the bar crowd. They had no reason to stick around, since the manager had already paid them. He would call and thank the owner on their way out of town.
Matthew noticed a slight chill in the air as they walked out to the van, John pushed his drums on a cart and the others carried their guitars and amps. Matthew pushed the soundboard and equipment on a cart with wheels.
“Man, that crowd was stoked,” Kato said. He was practically jumping up and down as they walked through the parking lot.
“Yeah, they ate it up,” Wayne answered.
“You see the girl with the bikini? Whoa, hot!”
“Smokin,” Wayne agreed.
“We totally rocked.”
John didn’t say anything; he just threw a grunt in now and then. Matthew only half listened to their chatter. He felt a strange void in his chest. Now that the adrenaline had left him, he felt lost. He always felt strange after a really good set, but this was even more odd than normal. He tried to shake it off as they loaded the truck and headed back to the hotel.
He felt shaky, lonely, and he wondered if he should have been nicer to the blonde. She could be warming his cold, empty bed tonight. He shook his head. He knew better. It would have just crushed him when he had to leave her in the morning. It was better this way. He wondered why he was so satisfied on stage, and so empty coming off it. Still, he wouldn’t trade it.
John, still his closest friend of the three, noticed. “What’s up, Matt-man?”
Matthew shook his head. “Nah, I’m good. Just really tired.”
“That takes a lot out of you, like emotionally, right?” John nodded. He understood Matthew more than the others. They had been together the longest. They grew up together. But, the emotional up and down of the music didn’t affect John exactly the same way. John Gaither was cool and collected. He didn’t let much get under his skin. Matthew liked that about his friend, and wished, not for the first time, that he could be more like that sometimes. “Well, relax, and get some sleep. It’ll be cool tomorrow.”
Matthew nodded, but he felt his chin tightening. “I feel like I need to run around the block a few times, but I don’t have the physical energy to do it.”
Kato piped in, “You should have grabbed the blonde. You know she wanted you.”
“Just ignore him, Matthew,” John said, bumping his shoulder into Matthew.
“It’s alright.” Matthew nodded to his band members and loaded the equipment in the van.
After a short ride to the hotel, Matthew walked into his room and stretched out on the bed. He said a quick thankful prayer and asked God for strength to get through what was ahead. He thought briefly of getting up and taking a shower, but fell asleep almost immediately.