3 – Poor Little Fool

I paced frantically in my small bedroom. I ran my hand along the edge of my large ride cymbal and thought about how fast things could change in someone’s life. The sparkling set of drums that held my dreams looked motionless and morose. I knew I had to make some kind of stand concerning our careers as musicians.

In the two weeks following The Upset’s night of unintended consequences, it became obvious that Jenny’s decision to move the family back to New Jersey was serious. The effect on Joey was catastrophic. There were daily fights between the strong wills of Joey and his mother. After days of contemplation and countless counseling sessions with Joey on the phone, I decided to ask him if I could speak to Jenny.

“Anything! Please, man,” Joey cried. He was exhausted both emotionally and physically. “Ask your parents to adopt me. I’ll be legal in two years. Anything’s better than this. It’s all out war here!”

Joey’s parents had pushed him towards music his entire life. That’s why this all seemed so insane. They gave him piano lessons at a young age, before he switched to guitar.

They drove him to radio stations when he was ten years old to perform live. From his vantage point, he was only doing what his parents wanted him to do and now here they were pulling the rug from under him—because of one screw up. It didn’t jive and everyone knew it.

Joey spat back through the phone receiver to me, “I know what’s really going on here. They’re just sick of California and want to live their retiring years in the old New Jersey neighborhood where they started out. They’re using me as a friggin’ scapegoat and won’t come clean. Rusty, my parents are your grandparents’ age and I’m stuck in the middle of this shit. I swear to God, man, they’re gonna pay for it if they don’t let me stay!”

At four thirty the next day, Joey and I pulled up in front of Joey’s house. We had just returned from Cronon’s Music Store where we had picked up two songs to add to our repertoire: “Fingertips-Part 2” and “Surf City.” I hadn’t been in Joey’s house since the night of the party that now seemed to be our undoing.

“Well, Rusty,” Jenny said in a tolerating tone.

Joey sat quietly across the room.

I froze for a moment. I took a deep breath and began. “Jenny, I’m here to plead our case today. Joey and I have been working hard to try and pull off this record deal and if there’s any way you can put off this move, I would be truly grateful. If—”

She started to speak.

“Let me finish before I lose my nerve,” I said urgently.

“Oh, I don’t think there’s much chance of you doing that, young man,” she said with a slight edge. “Anyone who’s as close to my son as you are has to have a lot of nerve.”

“I would just like to apologize for that mistake we made and promise you that nothing like that will ever happen again.”

“That’s very noble, Rusty, and I accept your apology. It’s just that I can feel things unraveling for Joey here and I want to put a stop to it now. I’m so angry with you two. It’s going to be a long time before I can trust either one of you again. He’s much too important to us to let this kind of teenage trouble mess up his life.”

“Jenny, it’s the biggest mistake I’ve—we’ve—ever made. But if you will give us one more chance, I swear on my life to you, it will never happen again.”

“Hey! What am I, twelve?” Joey chimed in. “You two are talking about me like I’m not even here!”

“Joseph, hold your tongue!” she snapped.

I continued, “Jenny, we’ve been waiting for months to get this deal. You take him now and if the deal is offered, it’s all down the river.”

“There are no guarantees in your business. You boys have your whole lives in front of you. You can replace him and he can start another band back east. I’m sorry, Rusty. I heard you out, but his father and I have made up our minds.”

With that she stood and walked into the kitchen.

We walked outside. Joey paced up and down in front of the red Bel-Air. I lit a smoke, holding it down low in case Jenny was watching.

“I swear to God, Rusty, if they make me do this, I’ll do something crazy!”

The following night, I walked solemnly from my car to the stage door. On stage fifteen minutes later, we were in the middle of “Surfing Drums” by Dick Dale, as if trying to commit suicide on our instruments. The Plush Bunny nightclub rocked for what was supposed to be our last gig together. Joey was sullen and low key. Then he suddenly turned and yelled so I could hear over the music.

“There’s no way I’m going, man! I gave her every chance. She’s about as sympathetic as the Gestapo.”

He turned, walked across the stage, and played “Night Train.” Then he walked back to where I was drumming, leaned over, and yelled again, “They can force me, but I’ll just split!”

The drum sticks felt like bowling balls in my hands.

“No friggin’ way!” Joey yelled again over and over like a man obsessed.

“I’ve decided,” he said when the song was over and we prepared for another. “I’m leaving my family. I’m running away. Dig?”

“Dug! Where to?” I asked. “You stay at my house and they’ll have the cops checking all the time, and my mom won’t allow it without your old lady’s permission.”

“I got a plan,” he said.

I watched Joey play the lead on “Walk, Don’t Run.” It had become our most requested song. Joey seemed to lift off the ground, his emotions seemed in some strange way tied to this one song. I could see the extreme focus and determination Joey showed during the lead solo.

When the song ended and the audience went nuts, Joey turned toward his twin-reverb amp. As he turned his head up, I could see that he had been crying.

Just then I saw Eddie Olmos at the front of the stage. To keep the momentum going and cover for Joey, I yelled to the band, “Hey! Let’s have Eddie up!” I turned and spoke into the microphone, “Hey cats and chicks, you’re in for a real treat now. Please welcome a guy with a band almost as good as the Upsets…Mr. Eddie ‘James’ Olmos.”

As the audience clapped and Eddie walked up on stage, Joey composed himself and turned to Eddie.

“Hey, man! What do you want to sing?”

“‘I Feel Good’ in C,” Eddie said, taking the microphone off the stand.

“‘I Feel Good’ in C, you guys,” Joey yelled to the others.

I counted off the song and Eddie screamed, “Yes, babies! I…”

The stress Joey and I were under seemed to lift as Eddie whirled the audience into a frenzy. Eddie’s ability to use his body to express himself the way other musicians used their instruments put him in a category all his own. As he sang, he’d run to the other musicians and put his left arm on us, holding the microphone with his right, bending at the waist as if he were a tour guide to euphoria and laughing like he had energy from another dimension. I took a quick view of the whole room and could see that no one could take their eyes off this human dynamo.

When “I Feel Good” ended and the audience exploded into applause and shouts, I looked to Joey and pointed at Eddie.

“‘Mustang Sally’ in C!”

He counted it off and we were all off again into the music womb. It was safe there during the four-minute song. The world couldn’t get at you. We held Eddie for six more songs and I thought how Eddie had been sent that night to ease our broken hearts.

After the gig, Joey was alone in his bedroom. His mind wouldn’t stop racing and he talked to himself like an old homeless man in the park.

“How the hell can anyone in their right mind move from California back to Jersey? It’s supposed to be the other way around. People work to get here, not to leave here.”

Joey’s breathing became heavy. His mind raced erratically like a hose someone turned on full-blast with no one holding the other end. His folks were insane if they thought he’d lose his life for them.

Nothing—nothing—meant more to him than his music. It defined him. It lifted him. He would not do anything else! They’d have to understand that or he’d rather die. They said he had the talent and wanted nothing else for him. Now, they were knifing him in the back, taking the very thing they encouraged him to do and strangling him with it. I won’t submit, his mind hammered on and on.

Joey bent over in complete frustration and smashed his fist on top of his small twin bed. His rage cut through his body, leaving him weak and desperate.

“Okay,” Joey said to me quietly over the phone the next evening. “I don’t want them to hear me, so listen close. I’ve got the details of my escape all worked out. I’ll jump out my bedroom window the night before they leave for New Jersey when everyone’s asleep and you can drop me at Hoops’ house. His parents are gone for a month. His married sister is stopping by a few times a week to check up on him. My parents will think I’m at your house, but you will have dropped me at Hoops’ place.”

“I’m in,” I said. “I’ll take you to Hoops’ and play dumb when the cops come to my house. I don’t care at this point what they do to me. How’s Adele taking this?”

“Not good, Moon-doggie,” Joey said. “She asked me to give you a message to meet her in front of her house at four tomorrow.”

I cleared my throat. “Tell her I’ll be there. Later, Joey.”

The clock above the old Chevy chrome radio read 4:02 as I turned off the engine in front of Joey’s house. I walked to Adele’s front lawn and leaned against a tree. I knew as long as I was in full view of the window and Adele’s mom could see us that it was all right for me to be there.

“Jenny has gone insane on this one,” Adele said as she walked to me. Her natural beauty almost made me gasp. If I weren’t so depressed about the band and Joey, I would have told her—but I didn’t.

I turned to her and said, “Can your parents talk to them? Talk some sense into them?”

Adele made a face. “My mom said Jenny’s wanted to move back to the old New Jersey neighborhood for years. Stupid.”

“Fine. But let the kids stay here.”

“They’re old-school Italian, Rusty. Sorry to say that’s just not going to happen. Geraldine will be eighteen in twelve months and they’re treating her like a twelve year old with this move thing. This is so crazy. Those kids are seriously stuck between a rock and a hard place. We’ve been friends forever and now the old bat isn’t even going to let them graduate.”

I started towards my car. “I’ll call ya later, Gidget. I’ve got some business to take care of.”

“Hey, you. What, no song tonight?” she teased.

I smiled. “Sorry, honey. I don’t know the words to ‘Town Without Pity.’”

The next few days were filled with hushed meetings and countless frenzied telephone calls to Mike Hoops, who reluctantly submitted after several pleas from Joey. The day before the caper was to take place, Joey called me to synchronize and set the departure time.

“You’ve been watching too much Dragnet,” I laughed.

“Okay, yeah, I have,” Joey, said. “It’s 8:30 exactly. Set your watch.”

I set the hands of my watch. “What time do your parents usually go to sleep?”

“Usually by ten, maybe eleven,” he said. “I’ve got one bag packed, that’s all. As soon as I’m sure they’re asleep, I’m going out the window. I’ll jump the wall and stash the bag behind the Bowling Alley by the service entrance and call you.”

“No, don’t call me,” I cautioned. “What I’m telling my folks is that we’re playing at the Plush Bunny. I’ll hang there for a while and get over to the Bowling Alley about ten-thirty.”

“Cool,” Joey agreed. “See you tonight.”

The evening before the Zagarinos were to leave, I drove straight to the Beverly Bowling Alley with all the pre-crime jitters of a first-time bank robber. The Beverly Bowling Alley was packed to capacity. League Night. Perfect, I thought. The right night to get lost in the crowd. Couldn’t have planned it better myself.

Small children ran up and down the aisles as their parents tried earnestly to win tonight’s bowling pot. Leagues played competitively. Dancers boogied in the lounge to Arthur Lee and Love. The coffee shop laughter danced around the long hanging lamps. Pool room boys-night-out types drank gallons of beer and flirted with the waitresses. Car club members held impromptu meetings. Pinball machines screamed with clanking bells. In the commotion of strikes, splits, and gutter balls, partners of league players sometimes camped out at nearby tables to cheer on their spouses. Kids good at math hired themselves out to keep score for two bucks a game.

Caught up in the noise of the place, I nervously glanced at my watch. Where’s Zagarino? Stay cool. Be calm.

Over the P.A. system, Dell Shannon was singing “Runaway.”

“Hi, Rusty,” a voice came from behind me. I turned to see my best gal-pal Eileen Draus with her friend Lonnie.

“Hey, Pinky and Lonnie. How you ladies doing?”

“We’re good,” Eileen answered. She seemed to know that something was amiss. “You just hanging out or are you going to play music tonight? You look a little nervous or something.”

Eileen excused herself from Lonnie and took me by the arm. She guided me away so we could talk alone. “All right, Buster, what’s going on?” she demanded. “I’ve only seen that look on your face when you’re really worried or about to do something stupid. Come on. What’s up?”

I smiled. “I never could put anything past you. I’m meeting Joey here tonight to help him run away. His parents are leaving for New Jersey tomorrow and this is all we can do to try and save the band.”

She thought for a minute. “You guys could get in big trouble. But I know how you feel.”

Over Eileen’s head I spotted Joey coming in through the Maple Street double-doors. “Here he comes,” I blurted out.

Eileen tuned to look. As Joey approached us, I could see how scared he looked. His eyes were darting from side to side as if everyone knew he was a criminal.

“Hey, Eileen,” Joey said.

“Hi, Joey,” she said looking back at me with a worried look on her face. “Okay, you two, be careful and I’ll see you later.”

“Say hey to Tony for me, Pinky, and tell him I want his car.”

“I will,” she said and walked back to Lonnie.

“How’s it going?” I asked.

“Jitters. That’s all, man. Let’s split. I just called Hoops on the outside phone and he’s all set. I took a white,” Joey said, looking around nervously as if he were confessing.

“A what?” I asked.

“A white. You know, a benny. An upper. You want one?” Joey asked.

“No, thanks. I’m white enough as it is,” I cracked. “What are you now? The man with the golden arm? ’Sides, don’t they keep you up all night?”

“I have a feeling it’s going to be a very long night.”

Hoops was waiting on the porch when we pulled into the driveway. He walked to Joey’s side of the car as Joey and I got out of the old Chevy. I could hear “The Stripper” by David Rose playing in the house on Mike’s hi-fi system.

“Hey,” Mike said. “Took you a little longer than you thought, huh?”

“Yeah,” Joey said. “My folks were up a little later than usual.”

“I hope this works, you guys,” Mike said.

The saffron moon shined brightly on the field across the street. It cast a low, shadowy feeling over all of us. Joey shut the trunk and walked to the front of the car with his suitcase.

“If they catch us, it would just be a week of not speaking and ‘Joey, how could you?’ and all that good shit. I feel like putting them through it anyway for all the shit they’ve put me through.”

“All right,” I said. “Got to get home and cover my tracks. Call me tomorrow.”

Hoops put his hand on the door of the car. “You’re the one’s gonna need the luck. First place they’re gonna look is your house.”

“Can’t wait. I live for this shit,” I said as I backed out of the driveway. But I knew he was right. They’d be coming to my house, and I hoped I was up to the challenge.

The next morning, I was paid an irate visit by Jenny Zagarino. Geraldine, Joey’s sister, and Pete, his father, were waiting in the car with a trailer behind it. I dressed quickly and drove back to Downey. Joey and Hoops were eating breakfast when I pulled the Bel-Air into the driveway.

Knowing what could have happened, Joey sprang for the door immediately.

“What happened? Did they come to your house?” he asked urgently.

“You got it, buck-o,” I cracked, closing the car door and mounting the steps. “And if your mother isn’t fit to be tied, then Elvis never made a dumb-ass movie. She threatened to have the police lock you up as incorrigible. Means you don’t get out of jail till she says you get out. She went so far as calling in a missing persons report on you from my parent’s phone. Almost accused my parents of stealing you, causing my mother to get pissed off at her. She took me outside and treated me like a mob boss in a gangster movie.”

Hoops had walked behind Joey onto the front porch. He looked down the street and suddenly shouted, “Shit! The cops!”

I turned and saw a police cruiser pull into the driveway.

“They must’a followed me on your old lady’s orders. Shit!”

Joey turned on a dime and ran down the driveway into the backyard. The passenger side of the police car burst open and like a track star a patrolman ran down the driveway to stop Joey. He jumped the puny fence without breaking stride and was around the back door as Joey raced across the lawn in his tee shirt and Levis. No shoes.

“Joseph Zagarino. Halt!” he bellowed.

Mike, myself, and the other cop who was driving ran down the driveway following them.

“Is that Joseph Zagarino?

“Yes,” Hoops wailed in a voice laced with fear. “Don’t hurt him!”

Joey kept running and was at the back wall when the cop got to him. He yanked Joey back on the lawn, twirling him around and onto the ground. He was cuffing him when the three of us arrived.

“You don’t have to cuff him,” I raged. “He’ll go peacefully.”

The cop shouted back, “Then why did he run if he was all set to surrender?”

“Surrender!” Joey yelled. “What is this? The Untouchables? It’s just a family misunderstanding.” Joey shook his head from side to side trying to free the grass blades from his lips and cheeks.

“Listen, you boys,” the cop said. “This could turn into something you don’t want to mess with or it could resolve very quietly. We’ll drive Joseph back to his parents’ house without arresting him. If you’ll submit, we’ll call it a draw. If not, we can take him to jail right now. We can take all of you to jail.”

“I’ll go home,” Joey growled.

I looked at Joey and decided I couldn’t let him go through this alone, since it was the last time I would see my friend for a long time. “I’ll follow you.”

The policeman took the cuffs off Joey.

As the police car pulled in front of the Zagarino home, his sister and father came running down the walkway. The police removed him from the car as I pulled up behind them. They released him to his father and drove off.

“Stay out of trouble,” the cop driving told me, pointing a finger. “You look like a nice kid.”

“Rusty!” Jenny called from behind the screen door. “Let Joey come in here for ten minutes with me, then you can come in to say goodbye.”

“Okay,” I answered glumly, resting against my car, arms folded. My head and shoulders were drooping.

“Come in here, Joseph.” Her tone was different, almost sad. Joey looked up at me like a beaten prizefighter and started moving up the walkway. His shoulders were now sunken deep in his frame. Grass blades still covered the front of his Levis.

After a while, Jenny appeared at the door and invited me in.

“He’s in his room,” Jenny said. “Someday you’ll understand.”

I couldn’t say anything. I stood in the front room alone. The room was completely empty, except for the piano the movers would pick up tomorrow. Joey and I had discovered we were great at something together and now we had to break it up. For a moment I wanted to scream at Jenny. My mind was now wallowing in self-pity. We had taken it all the way. Joey and I had done everything we could do and were beaten into submission. If the record deal happened now, we had no band to back it up.

I walked slowly to the piano and played a G chord. I let out a low, hardly audible whisper. “This isn’t right. I know in my heart. This isn’t right. I’ll never get over this.”

Joey walked up behind me, pulled out his pocketknife and cut the thumb on his right hand. He placed it on the middle C of the piano. He offered the knife to me. I silently took it, cut the thumb of my right hand and, as I put it down toward the middle C, Joey raised his hand, exposing the blood on the key that I now touched.

“There,” Joey said defiantly. “At least they can’t take that away from us. Now we’re blood brothers in music forever.”

I smiled. “Eternally, moon-doggie. Forever. Come hell or high water.”

“Gimme some high water, will ya? ’Cause this sure feels like hell.”

We walked back to Joey’s room and collapsed on the floor, exhausted. The gloom hung in the air so thick I could touch it. Joey didn’t look up. He was sprawled on the floor in the corner. He stared straight ahead. I sat on the floor, my back against Joey’s empty closet.

“We fought a brilliant battle, Joey,” I spoke sadly.

“Guess we showed ’em.”

Joey spoke, but didn’t look at me. His eyes were filled with fire. “Not only am I losing my musical partner and my band, I’m losing someone who knows all my secret desires, all my habits. And most important, all my songs.”

A long silence cut through our hearts. It was over and we both knew it.

“What in hell does New Jersey hold for me now?” He stood up and walked slowly to the window. Adele’s parents were trimming rose bushes and cutting the lawn. Adele looked over the wooden fence from their backyard into Joey’s room and waved at Joey. He smiled faintly. Joey’s hand rubbed his eyes as if his head were splitting in two. “I feel like I’m going to be sick.”

I stood and walked to the window facing Adele’s backyard. She was just turning back to her parents as the sun cascaded off her golden hair and I wanted desperately to hold her at that moment and have her tell me that this was all a bad dream.

Joey looked at me, staring forlornly into Adele’s yard. “I know this is like pouring salt into an open wound, but you’re going to have to come to terms with the fact that you’re not going to be able to see her anymore. Her parents aren’t going to allow you to hang out now that I’m leaving. The only reason you could see her was that you were involved with my family.”

We carried two boxes and Joey’s guitar to the trailer behind the Oldsmobile. No one spoke. Everybody seemed to be internalizing the sadness of the situation. Joey shut the doors of the trailer and locked it. He and Jenny walked to the front of the car.

Geraldine and Joey stepped to the rear doors. Overhead, the clouds turned gun metal gray and a deep crack of thunder rumbled in the distance. A cluster of black crows flew overhead. Several of their calls announced the impending rain.

A prolonged, haggard moment took place. Time passed before he spoke. A forced smile appeared sadly from the corners of Joey’s downcast mouth. Joey put his arms around me and squeezed. He felt lifeless and withdrawn. His arms barely made it around me.

“I’ll be back, Rusty. I swear to God I’ll be back.”

“I know, Joey. You will. Call me when you get there.”

“Sure, I’ll call you,” he said. Joey finally had to speak the words he had fought so hard to not have to say.

“Goodbye, Rusty.”

“Goodbye, Joey.”

Joey moved listlessly into the back seat of the car. The engine started and the car started moving. I watched as if a funeral procession were silently passing by. A small crack of thunder erupted overhead, announcing a light drizzle.

As the car glided slowly down the street, Joey poked his head out the window and waved. I suddenly remembered Joey’s face that day on the lawn at school when I was told I got the job in The Upsets.

I watched the Oldsmobile and trailer turn left and out of my life. A rain began to fall. Tears clouded my eyes as I stood in silence. I leaned against the tree that grew from that small portion of dirt between the street and the sidewalk. I heard the screen door shut from Adele’s porch and looked up.

As Adele walked toward me, our eyes met. I looked down, feeling self-conscious. When she was standing in front of me, I noticed she was holding a letter.

“You all right?” she asked sweetly. The concern in her eyes touched me. “Jenny made me promise I wouldn’t give this to you until they had gone. I don’t know what it is.”

Slowly, I opened it and read:

Dear Mr. Zagarino and The Upsets:

Thank you for submitting your demo tape to Surf Records. My staff and I have gone over the material and liked what we heard. We’d like to have you and the band come into our studio and record some of our material and some of your own for a possible recording contract. Please call me at your earliest convenience for an appointment.

Sincerely,

Danny Mann

A & R Director

Surf Records

Hollywood, Ca.

In Jenny’s own handwriting was a message.

Rusty,

You carry on. To show this to Joey while we’re leaving would make it even harder for him. I’m sorry and good luck.

Jenny

After a long moment of stunned realization, I started laughing with my head tilted back and my eyes closed. Just as suddenly, my arms fell to my side and my body went lifeless as if some dark force had instantly sucked all the life from inside of me. The letter fell from my hand and into a small run off of water heading for the curb gutter. I gazed like a man who just found out his family had been killed in a head-on collision. I thought about going for the letter and saving it, but I couldn’t move just now. I didn’t seem to breathe.

My lips stuck together. The wind echoed in my ears. I watched the record company letter go towards the street drain, exactly like my dream of the music I had created with a guitar player named Joey Zagarino. The letter had wrapped around one of the small iron bars over the gutter drain. As I stared at the wet letter, it now represented my new life without Joey. One day we could be wanted by a record company and the next day I could be bending over the gutter. I took three steps and picked up the soggy paper. I turned and looked at Adele. I was now shivering from the emotional shock. She could see in my eyes I was about to crack.

I held up the soggy record company letter to her. “This is what’s left!”

I fell against my car. She ran to me.

“Rusty.”

I turned violently around, digging both of my hands into my hair as if I’d been shot in the head. The emotion boiled up into my face as I burst out crying. The tears of rage and defeat shot from my eyes like small rain clouds. I pulled her to me and just wept, burying my head on her shoulder. It spilled from me in great waves of release. Adele had probably never seen anyone cry like this before. My heart was so broken I didn’t care what I appeared like to anyone else.

I put my head back, trying to control myself, but the emotion was so great, the sadness so profound, I had to get it out somehow.

“Rusty, it’s okay,” she kept saying. “I know, I know, honey, how you feel.”

She set me down on the lawn. She kept her hand on my arm, then moved it to my cheek. I grabbed her hand as if it were a lifeline. I looked at her with such red, swollen eyes, that she felt helpless. I said, “What if—What if this is as close as Joey and I ever get, Adele? What if this was our only shot and we wind up old farts selling dumb ass insurance to people who don’t care or know anything about music. What if I never see him again?”

We sat on the lawn leaning against the old Chevy. She took my hand and got as close as she could to me.

“This phase of our lives might be over, but I’ll guarantee you this: That a new one will start soon that has some of the elements that we learned from this one. And mixing that with the new one will make it all better.”

I smiled. “How’d you get so smart, Gidget?”

“I shared a piece of my life with two musicians with big hearts. Joey Zagarino and Rusty Johnson.”

We stood and walked around the car to the driver’s side. I got in and started the engine. We stared at each other silently. I put my hand out the window. It had the wet Record Company letter in it. Adele took it. The car started to roll. We watched our hands slowly separate.

“I love you, Adele,” I whispered.

“I love you, Rusty,” she answered.