The Birth of American Bandstand – Sam Berman
May 30, 2023
All at once it was late afternoon.
And we were like something pulled from the shelf, Elijah and me, recalled for our dangerous parts. Parts that might break off and be swallowed by a dog or small child. Maybe our paint mix was Toxic. Radioactive. It doesn’t matter. All I’m trying to say is we looked sucky and off the shelf, and we were out of our minds, half-wasted and coming down off everything. Sweaty: yes, we were. And our car was parked at the waterfront off Montrose because we were watching the war planes come in low, preparing their landings, their barrel roles, and their nose dives for the airshow that following weekend. And because Elijah was taller than he had any right to be, I waited for him to sit on the hood of the car to get serious, to kiss him, to tell him we needed to score and quick because I was starting to feel dizzy and sick-like. “Baby we’ll be fine,” Elijah said calmly, handing me the cell phone we shared but he paid for. I called Gargoyle, who let me know there was no chance, no shot, no possibility of getting my computer back. “Fuck,” I said. Then I said, “All good.” Because you can’t stay too mad about the things you can’t change.
You just can’t.
It’ll kill you.
I told Gargoyle I could always get a new computer, that computers you could find at any Best Buy or pawn shop, but a reliable hook up was a rare thing.
I laughed and said, “It sucks…But…when do you think you’ll be loaded up?”
Elijah looked at me on the phone with Gargoyle–whom he never met because Gargoyle was my dude, and I was the one that got in his car whenever it went down, always taking a bit more than my fair share of the dope, a quick night in the backseat, because, of course, I was doing a bit more than my fair share in terms of us scoring. Elijah did his frown. He frowned because he could tell by my voice that Gargoyle was in between, was dry, that he had nothing for us. And that sucked. It did suck. Sucked so bad and we both knew it. I told Gargoyle we’d hit him up tomorrow and to call if anything changed, then I set the phone down on the hood of the car. Elijah’s frown look had turned to a concerned look and his concerned look had him looking like an altar boy at Saint Lawrence cathedral, locked out of whatever door it is that altar boys use to get in, so they can be waiting in the wings when mass begins. The fact Elijah was wearing one of his white shirts didn’t help anything.
Not a thing.
He looked confused.
I looked tired.
We looked off the shelf.
Maybe we looked as though before we could be pulled down from the shelf, the shelf had broken from its hanging screws and we were things that had fallen, crashed, rolled out of the back of the department store and come to rest beneath the dumpster, the funky store dumpster, where we’d spend weeks and then years in the stinky wet shade, slowly, quietly and then completely becoming nothing more than an outline in the spoiled dark. Yes.
That’s the way we were.
The way we looked.
Elijah and me.
But we still had time to figure out a plan; it was turning into one of those purple nights where everything could fall into place, if I could just figure out how to make it happen.
I picked back up the phone and slid off the hood of the Mercedes.
Standing on my thin, white, bullshit legs I scrolled through the phone until I found K.
Sometimes a dealer would have a name: Gargoyle, Paso, Reef, Chucky. A name. But most of the time they were just a letter: B, J, j, M, D, Dude X, K.
K always had good shit, but he wouldn’t front you a damn thing.
He didn’t need to.
His dope was that dope and anyone who knew anything about dope would tell you as much.
I texted K and then looked to Elijah, who was still sitting like a sad sack on the hood of the car, his face in his sweaty palms, squirming as an F-18 passed overhead and shook the earth, the Mercedes, his long black hair, which swayed like a dead person’s hair, having been awakened, reanimated by the fighter plane’s rumble. Everything was loud. The boom of the F-18’s nose breaking the sound barrier. The cheers of the stockbrokers and office assistants looking out from their too-tall buildings. The sound of clinking glasses that fell like bullets from the zeppelin overhead; the bourgeoisie just trying to get a better look at their fancy kill machines, the mayor and his Dobermans and The Rockettes all in victory formation as the champagne popped big and fizzy. All loud. All confused. My head was all over the place.
We were running out of time.
We were running out,
I sucked on our last bag of junk like it was the mother root; I trapped it in between my cheeks and concentrated on absorbing every ounce of its healing properties.
And then it came to me.
I grabbed Elijah’s hand and looked out over the water.
A speed boat bobbled in and out of view way out beyond the whitecapped waves.
“I have a plan,” I said.
“Thank goodness…I’m starting to turn,” said Elijah, grabbing my leg tight.
He turned his head up like a Pez dispenser.
His throat swallowed tough.
I put my finger on his chin and guided his eyes back to mine.
Giving him a look that I’d seen a pretty girl in a bad movie once give, I said, “Call your dad.” Then I kissed my sick boyfriend. A long, good kiss.
And when we were done long, good kissing, Elijah sighed and said, “I bet I can get at least a hundred–maybe a hundred and fifty.”
I met Elijah in his college library. He was attempting homework and I was attempting to steal a heavy photobook of famed Italian architect, Alessandro Mendini, in hopes that I could hawk it at the swanky bookstore off Ashland.
“I can get it out easy for you,” Elijah said to me, sucking on his straw at his iced coffee.
“I can get it out easy too,” I said. “But be my guest.”
Two weeks later I was living in his dorm, helping him pawn his fancy bass and fancy bass amp, the humidor his uncle got him as a graduation present, the watches he didn’t wear. And for a while we were killers, Elijah and me, making quick moves and swiping wallets from the boys’ locker room while the lacrosse team ran winter practice. I was the brains, certainly, but Elijah was no slouch. He saw the doom path we were on. Together. The dope. The lying. The thievery. It didn’t matter: we understood so much about each other, agreeing almost completely about how the world should work, and how easy it could work for the both of us with just a little practice. And we were so good at being together–so very good that we decided to be in love. Because to be so good at something and to then not be in love, well, that just felt wrong.
We waited outside Dock 12, where the big boats were kept. Rich, white boats with shiny cleats, and creamy, good smelling cushions on the deck chairs. Their blue underlighting made the murky waters of Lake Michigan look like the lobby of the downtown Hotel. These were the nicest docks in the whole city: magical enclaves that stretched out into wealthy, unlit night. A place where NHL players, politicians and skin doctors could all come together and enjoy themselves. This was the world Elijah had come from and I knew–even then–that he’d one day return to it.
But on that night, he was mine. And I, his. And we were in it together.
In pain, but together.
It was dark when Elijah Sr. came stumbling down the loud wooden planks toward the locked gate. He was whistling, his wide hips swinging, shoulders back. He had on a pastel shirt and orange bell bottoms. He looked like a higherup at the county fair. Or something.
“You could have just told me the code,” said Elijah.
“Oh, no I could not,” said Elijah Senior, opening the gate but standing guard in its entrance.
His afro wig fell onto his forehead.
“Party?” asked Elijah.
“Wayne Heller is hosting a Soul Train dance on his yacht, what’s your excuse?”
“It’s her skirt,” said Elijah. He pointed at me as I stepped back towards the shadows.
“A girl’s skirt, nice,” said Elijah Senior, fixing his wig. “What’s up?”
“I need to pay a parking ticket.”
“At eight-thirty on a Sunday?”
“Tomorrow morning. I have to do it real early or they’ll boot my car.”
“How much?” asked Elijah Senior, looking us both up and down.
“One forty…or…One sixty”.
He grunted. Then Elijah Senior reached into the back pocket of his bell bottoms and came up with a fat wallet. “Bring me a receipt,” he said, looking at his son and knowing there was no receipt to be had.
“I will,” said Elijah, playing simple.
Elijah Senior did a disco spin and landed crooked. He said that we needed to be careful. That kids like us get killed all the time in the city. And that running around like little punks didn’t make us gangsters or tough guys.
“We will be safe,” I said, like that might help.
“You two know American Bandstand?” asked Elijah Senior, walking back down the dock, the loud crash of the metal gate hanging in the air between the three of us.
“My mom watched it I think,” I yelled quietly from the edge of the trees.
“Me too,” said Elijah Senior. “Soul Train is the only thing people seem to remember about music on TV. You tell your mom we’ll go hoppin’ sometime.”
Then Elijah Senior disappeared between two boats and all we could hear was his loud steps against the dank wood, and the faint whistle of “Bandstand Boogie” somewhere in the dark.
I stood behind Elijah and watched the sweat pool in the small of his back. His white shirt turned gray like something big had drooled on him: an elephant, or tiger, or police dog.
I put my hand on his shoulder. “Let’s roll.”
“I fucking love you,” he said, shaking, his heart aching as he turned toward the Mercedes.
Finally with direction, a purpose, we drove fast through the city, away from the demonic lights of the ESPN Zone, the Prudential Building and cash bars on Clark Street. My head was in a spin, I was dragging hard as Elijah changed lanes. Everything felt exceptional and hard and permanent and cold and hot and wet and lazy and scary and sad, happy, sour, loose and like baseball and leaves being swept into a pile, left to be bagged, except they’re not bagged, and the wind re-scatters them all over the lawn. Everything felt like everything. And everything felt different. I’m sick, I said, but Elijah was fixed on the road, fixed on restoring us to our horrible state. I put my head against the glass and looked out at the wobbly stars, pausing themselves for little moments at a time. I thought it was funny because my brain was kinda feeling the same way as the sky, small and drifting away from clarity. I was thinking: red dawn/ war paint/ good men/ kid cops acting brave/ don’t hit the birds/ don’t/ there was mom/ there was lightning/ Eat, eat, eat, she said/ as the egg race was lost on church lawn/ Remember, she said, nobody’s that great.
The car bumped. The engine bumped.
We were in farm country: a strange borderland we only would have ever explored in search of dope. And for a long time as we drove it was only corn stocks, or dead corn stocks, until we were at a gas station next to the La Quinta Inn that K said he was staying at. I called K, who said he needed ten minutes, that his kid was having his birthday party by the pool, and he needed to cut the cake and get out real chill-like or his old lady would have his ass.
“K has a kid?” asked Elijah.
“I don’t know,” I said too impatiently.
“Don’t be mean,” said Elijah, handing me the money.
Our bodies twitched and ached, we coiled like agitated snakes, waiting in the neon glow of Shell station for K to exit the hotel. My nose was running and after a few attempts at sucking in I gave up and just let the snot drip onto the front of my shirt.
“Let’s do radio,” said Elijah. And then he turned on NPR because he’d had a hard time listening to real music since his band, The Bad Blokes, had broken up.
I scratched at arms and rolled down the window of the Mercedes.
The smell of backwater, stick plants and lost animals filled the hot air.
Stomachwise: I was in knots. On the radio a story played about conjoined twins that could feel each other’s emotions, but then separated and could longer feel the connection. They became just sisters, just girls, just freshmen with smooth, shiny skin grafts where their ears should have been.
I coughed and Elijah wrapped his arm around me.
“We’re almost there.”
I called K again, but he didn’t answer.
Then a text came in: 5 min.
My legs began to cramp, and I closed my eyes until I could see white in my eyelids. I tried to concentrate on something, anything, and chose my father: the way he looked, the way he always called everyone a cocksucker in traffic, cut his own hair, and stopped talking to his parents in his forties but always made sure to send his brother a birthday card in early June.
A pickup truck stacked high with hay bales rolled through the near-empty parking lot.
Elijah vomited out his open window.
He began to moan like a Civil War soldier, injured in battle and being operated upon without being anesthetized. It felt bad hearing him like that.
“I love you,” I said right then. “Even though I’m pretty sure you’ll be gone soon.”
“Where would I go?” wheezed Elijah, gripping his stomach with both hands.
“I don’t know, rehab…maybe you’d just go home”.
“No,” he said. “I won’t do that. I’d rather–”
A knock on the trunk of the car.
And there was K in the rearview mirror, having snuck around to the other side of the gas station for some reason. He walked up slowly to my open window. Another story had begun on the radio: a reclusive and whimsical billionaire who’d crane-lifted his entire house, turning it twenty degrees so that he had a better view of the sun rising above the Pacific Ocean.
K ducked his head down into the window.
“Rich people are crazy,” said K. “Lifting a whole house.”
Elijah wrapped his fingers in mine.
We’d been ripped off before obviously, but we needed to score bad.
“You got it?” I asked K, in a way that sounded like begging.
“I got it,” he said.
“We got the cash,” I said, then I held out our money.
“I don’t need that,” said K, pointing to his black Saturn parked at the far end of the hotel. “Just follow me,” he said. And we did. And beside his car, K asked how much we weighed, how tall we were. And he got up close like he was checking for himself.
“Hundred pounds,” I said. About five-eight. My guts stung and my heart panicked like something just added to the endangered species list.
“About the same,” said Elijah, his jaw trembling.
“Cool,” said K, popping the trunk of his car. He handed me and Elijah each a baggie and said, “Get down so you ain’t sweating on people and come in once you’re straight.”
K and the children from the birthday party were huddled quietly in the shallow end of the hotel pool when Elijah and Me came in dressed like monsters. Movie monsters.
Monsters Inc., I think.
“Here they come,” hushed K. “Mike and Sully.”
We got close.
The children erupted with cheer.
K’s wife or girlfriend was smiling at the far end of the pool like he’d pulled off something that she couldn’t believe.
And the kids had fun with us for a while, they enjoyed slapping us with their pool noodles and shooting their Nerf guns at our heads and at our crotches.
Elijah danced between the plastic coconut trees that stood above the hotel gym.
It was a party.
And my heart had fallen back into the wild.
Everything was calm, was better.
The night grew late, and the children fell away into the rooms K had rented around the chlorine-bright pool. Until it was just Elijah and me.
We floated on our backs–a green eyeball and a blue thing–drifting in and out the shallows, looking out from our mesh eye flaps and through the fogged glass toward the moon, sitting slight in the sky like some half-eaten wonder.
I felt the blood in my ears.
Smelled the smell of bad water.
And I could hear the ice machine cycling somewhere down the hallway.
Then for a moment in the pool, I understood things; that one day Elijah would leave me or be taken away; that I would someday die, high or not high; that all pain is deferred, so best to just love things; all things; love the house on the crane, lifted, turned, and then returned to the edge of the earth in a new direction–a better direction, the best direction money can buy; love the gross boats and the gross bands playing softly on their decks; love the boy who’s floating towards the deep end, his heart slow from K’s dope, and love that he will become a powerful nation, but that now–right now!–he’s ripe for the conquering.
I kicked my feet.
My ears popped about halfway.
“I do,” I whispered, knowing Elijah could not hear me. “Of course, I’ll marry you, silly. I can’t imagine my life without you. I don’t wanna be alone. So, I do. I do. A million times, yes, I do.”