Achilles’ Last Stand

By on Oct 21, 2013 in Fiction

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A band from backstage

So how did D.C. stack up that night? Pretty damn well. I read later that they’d been having trouble selling out shows in bigger cities, especially on the coasts. Grunge was already swiping their audience. But Indiana’s never been much of a trendsetter, and that night they had something to prove. The crowd was exultant; the mix was perfect; and the band was feeding effortlessly into and off of one another. There’s Woodstock in ’69, Donnington in ’88, and, for me at least, Noblesville in ’92. But like I said, this isn’t a concert review. If you want to hear about what happened onstage, go find an Indianapolis Star from twenty years ago.

After two encores and five minutes of the crowd pleading for a third, the lights came on, and things began to break up. The drunkest people were helped up the aisles by girlfriends with five-inch bangs and leather skirts. The rock crowd odor — sweat, alcohol, pot, urine — burned in my nose, but I didn’t care because we weren’t following everyone else. With a wolf’s grin, Jeff took the two backstage passes out of his pocket and slipped one around my neck. I held it tightly, sure that some punk would grab it and run. We slid against the flow of traffic down to the stage and were met by a monstrous security guard sporting muttonchops and a bulldog tattoo on his forearm. I know now that a version of this guy has guarded the door at every rock show for the last forty years, but remember, gang, this was my first show, and Bulldog scared the hell out of me.

“What?” he growled, ready to be done with us before we even spoke.

“Yeah, man,” Jeff said. “We’re going backstage.”

Bulldog looked doubtful as Jeff held up his pass for examination, and he contemplated me longer, probably wondering where Jeff got off taking a fifteen-year-old backstage at a rock concert. I thought he wasn’t going to let us in. In fact, I thought he was going to eat me.

“Looks good. Be careful back there and don’t touch anything.” He sneered and pulled back the curtain.

There were people everywhere, few of them dressed like people from Indiana. Some wore suits and ponytails, others sported leather top-to-bottom. There were several women, almost all unnatural shades of blonde, wearing the same passes that hung from our necks. One of them, a tall girl with red lipstick and a painted-on Madonna mole, stopped and sized up Jeff.

“Are you with the band?” she asked.

“Not anymore,” Jeff said, pushing past her. 

As we walked, I took it all in, fascinated by the world I’d read about and imagined for so long, but Jeff moved with purpose, even asking for directions a few times. The clot of people was stifling. I’d expected the bacchanal MTV had prepared me for: men with needles hanging out of their arms, security guards beating the hell out of people, naked women and sleazy guys doing lines of coke off of amps, pills in Elvis-sized bowls. Instead, most of the people shuffling past looked tired. Behind one door, I saw a roadie asleep on a stack of sound equipment. The noise here was thinner than in the arena, because not many people were talking. They moved around each other, trying to preserve some personal space as they butted and rubbed, waiting to work. In another doorway stood the man who’d played keyboards onstage. He was having a heated phone conversation, something about a contract. Every face I saw as we moved steadily down the hall held concern, anger, or indifference. The joy and elation that Jeff missed in the grunge music was nowhere to be found here either, replaced by a mechanized routine that seemed on the brink of shutdown. Twenty years down the line, it’s almost funny that this surprised me. I would become part of that coughing, sputtering machine, but that night I had a head full of music videos and Kerrang! articles. I don’t know what I thought the man behind the curtain would look like, but I hadn’t yet realized that he worked for scale.

After some wrong turns, we came upon a curtained doorway with a posterboard that read “Talent” in black marker. Jeff tried to go in, but a security guard put a thick hand on his chest.

“Sorry,” he said, an octave below my normal speaking voice.

“Who’s in there?” Jeff asked, assuming his shit-kicking posture.

“Nobody you need to worry about,” the man said as he reached for his walkie-talkie.

“Port, you in there?” he yelled. The guard moved to intervene, but the curtain flew back to reveal a man who had once pissed himself on my bedroom floor. Same greasy brown hair, same deep-set eyes, much better clothes.

“Hey, man!” he said. “Come on in. It’s okay, Terry, they’re with me.” The guard nodded, and we stepped into a room full of guitars, most of which were on a large round rack. Port was futzing with one in particular. (An odd thing to see a guitarist do this after a concert, I would learn later; most let their techs do the futzing.) He still had the rail-thin frame he’d had as a boy in Ayrshire, though his hair and stubble helped hide it. He didn’t look as glam as in his videos. Rougher somehow, and as tired as the people outside. His shirt was soaked with sweat, and he smelled like my gym locker. “How the hell are you, man?” He grabbed Jeff in a bear-hug, then saw me standing by the curtain. “Is that your little brother?”

“Yeah,” Jeff said. “He’s a lot bigger than you probably remember him.”

“You were tiny the last time I saw you, man. How’s life in prison camp?”

“What?” I asked, flustered.

“P.C. Pike Central. Prison camp?” It was the joke nickname of our high school. He glanced back at Jeff. “He didn’t used to be retarded.” He laughed and shot me a sleazy wink. “So what’d you think of the show?”

“It was good,” I said. 

Jeff looked at me with disdain as Port laughed harder, like he got a joke I hadn’t told. He pulled a crumpled cigarette from his pocket and lit it.

“It was phenomenal, man,” Jeff said. “Better than anything I’ve seen you do on TV.”

I tried to keep up with their conversation about the concert but kept getting distracted by the voices in the hallway. Lots of swearing and yelling, roadies careening past with equipment to pack, girls chatting up men claiming to know band members. Billy’s/Sledge’s name came up quite a bit, not often in a pleasant tone.

“I’m really glad you sent the tickets, man,” Jeff said. “I thought maybe you’d written me off for good.” The sly accusation drew me back to them. Port sat the denim-colored Les Paul he’d been messing with on the stand and focused on the bare wall behind my brother, as if something important hung there.

“Honestly, man?” He looked back to Jeff, taking a long breath. “I did write you off.”

Port started to walk past Jeff, toward another guitar, but my brother grabbed Port by his designer shirt and pushed him against the wall. Jeff had been known to wrestle his Rice Krispies to the ground if they snap-crackle-popped at him wrong. Instantly, the bodyguard was at the curtain.

“Is there a problem in here, Mr. Wells?”

Port looked over Jeff’s shoulder and past me to the guard. “Nothing’s wrong. Just take off, man.” The guard turned and walked away, mumbling “asshole” as he went. Port pulled away from Jeff. “Relax, man,” he said, and Jeff’s fingers loosened. “Yeah, I’ve been a dick for most of the last seven years. And you would’ve been, too, if you’d come along.”

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Chris Drew's essays and stories have appeared in The Bellevue Literary Review, Big Muddy, Concho River Review, Red Wheelbarrow, and The Sycamore Review. He is currently a dissertator in the creative writing Ph.D. program at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, where he has served as nonfiction editor for cream city review. Chris can be found on the web at