A Preview of P-Town Forever by John Grochalski

CHAPTER ONE

Girl, you act so esoteric, like the whole world can’t get near it

                Some dime-store philosopher on Twitter had this post the other day. He said, when I was young my music played on the radio. When I was in my twenties it played in the bars. And now that I’m in my thirties it plays in the grocery store. A trite observation, sure. Though it was probably true. I’ve heard a lot of music in the grocery store that I could attach to a memory or two. But nothing profound. At almost forty I thought that I was beyond thinking that anything from my past was profound, or anything but a series of mistakes and luck that lead me to where I was today: an almost middle-aged public servant in my local grocery store, dodging old ladies in the pasta aisle, and just wanting to get home and have a stiff drink or two, shake off another miserable day, before I stumbled off to bed. And, boy, was today miserable.

                I’d left the past behind. At least I thought I had. Until that song came on in the grocery, as I was doing a serpentine between two old bats for a small box of rigatoni and a cheap can of sauce. Take a Bite (Outta) Me! Talk about profound. In an instant it all came back. The rehearsals. The gigs. The fights. The stale cigar smell of Marvin O’Jay’s basement studio. Being side by side with Bryce in the recording studio singing into these old mics that Marvin had. Corey thinking that he was the rap king of Pittsburgh. D.J. wondering why Marvin wasn’t putting him in the booth too. And when he did, wishing that he was out. Travis, his hat pulled down to hide his eyes, always looking to complain about some injustice. Always worrying over a buck.

Amateur Nights at Rosebud. Kim there because I asked her. Because we’d become friends. How she had no clue how I really felt back then. My best friend’s twin sister and I was in love with her. Slick talking record guys from Florida. The promise of record deals. Fame within our grasp. Girls. Millions. Faint memories of really feeling alive. Memories really just distilled down to five young men on stage moving in unison, singing, sweating, and thinking that they were going to own the world. That banal little pop song was as profound as profound could get. It was my youth. And it was playing in a grocery store some twenty years later.

And what had my life transformed into since then? Or what was it today? Today was Brooklyn Joe waiting outside the library when I got there. “I gotta use the bathroom,” he said, as I unlocked the glass front door.

                I checked my watch. Same watch I had for twenty years. I’d gotten way more mileage out of it than anything else in my life. “You know we’re not open for another forty minutes.”

                “Yeah but I gotta use the bathroom.”

                “You can use it at ten,” I said. I opened the door as little as I could to squeeze myself in. Brooklyn Joe had a habit of trying to grab the handle to force himself inside. A few times he’d made it into the foyer; a much harder negotiating position on my end.

                Brooklyn Joe was a familiar sounding name. Like a neighborhood guy. Joe. Joey, right? Brooklyn Joe. Most days it was a name I wish I never knew. Our Brooklyn Joe was always in the library first. He stayed from open to close. He used our public men’s room as his own shower. Joe stayed there for an hour at a time, scrubbing himself clean from the sink and toilet, while angry men and boys yelled and complained to me, and I had to threaten to call the cops. When someone else was in the bathroom, Brooklyn Joe yelled and raged and pounded on the door…until I had to threaten to call the cops. Other than that, he napped in a chair and occasionally threatened children. Joe clocked more hours at the library branch than I did.

                “Gotta use the fuckin’ bathroom,” Joe said, through the muffled glass door. He shook the door violently and then backed away. “Fuckin’ fascist, man.”

                “He’s been here for almost an hour,” Murielle said. She was the branch’s custodian. Being the first to arrive at the branch every single day, she’d suffered many a door-opening battle with Brooklyn Joe. Murielle didn’t need his bullshit. She had a daughter at home with an eating disorder and an elderly father in Puerto Rico who barely survived the hurricane our asshole president had done nothing about.

                “Should give him a set of keys,” I said, walking away. “Or a swift kick in his ass.”

I almost made it to my office. There was a shout and I found myself running back over to Murielle at the front door. I looked out at Brooklyn Joe. He smiled at me with one hand down the back of his dirty, baggy khaki pants. He came up with an armful of shit. Brown, watery. Joe stepped forward and smeared his fecal matter all over the door and door handle. Foggy brown smudges. I’d seen a lot of things working with the public: drunks sleeping in chairs; teens fighting; baby vomit; men punching each other out; bathrooms defiled; used needles left in the sink; rats; mice; cockroaches you could ride; a basement flooded with raw sewage. But never this. Never a grown man smearing his shit everywhere

                “What in the fuck?” I said. “What in the actual fuck?”

                “Oh mercy, Jesus!” Murielle shouted. Brooklyn Joe stood watching us, grinning and huffing like a killer in a film. His right hand was brown to his wrist.

                “I’m…I’m calling 911.”

                “Bah,” Joe said. He went and sat on a bench, like it was nothing.

                It took the cops over an hour to get to the building. By then Brooklyn Joe had fled. We had to delay the opening of the library for an hour. I had to call this office and that office, telling and retelling the shit-smear story to disbelieving library administrators. Poor Murielle had to put on a makeshift hazmat suit, once the cops got their pictures, to clean up the mess. By then it was only eleven thirty and I needed a drink. Instead I sat in my quiet office alone, retracing all those years that had come before that moment, wishing I’d done something else with my life.

You’re like heaven from a above

                Wanna give you all my love

                But you play so hard to get

                Like you ain’t seein’ me just yet

It actually startled me to hear Take a Bite (Outta) Me! In my own lousy grocery at the tail end of my own existential crisis of a day. That song shook me. I mean what in the fuck was happening? Take a Bite (Outta) Me! shouldn’t have been playing in that grocery store after a miserable fucking day. Not in a club. Not in a bar. Not anywhere tickling anyone’s memories of the good old days. It couldn’t be. Take a Bite (Outta) Me! was never anyone’s hit.

From what I remembered; the song got played just once. On a college radio station in Pittsburgh, at midnight, on a random Friday night somewhere in December 1999, when no one was listening to college radio. One supposed play and then gone forever. Like we were. How everything ended so suddenly only four months after that. Yet there it was in the spring of 2019, Take a Bite (Outta) Me! by P-Town, graduated all the way from college radio to the grocery store, without those other historical pitstops in between. But how?

Come on and take a

                Come on and take a

                Come on and take a

                Take a

                Bite

                …Outta me

One of the cashiers was actually singing the song, like she knew it, while she was playing on her phone at her register. Like people in clubs knew songs. Like those boys on the street that I saw this morning rapping along to Kendrick. Like the little girls in the library who sang K pop ballads in unison. The cashier was a young, Arab girl with a pink hijab and clashing bright red lipstick. She had the most beautiful, round eyes that she shaded in black eyeliner. Or hell it was natural for all that I knew. I was long past the age where looking at young women in the wild was considered even reasonable social behavior. I was becoming an embarrassed old man who refused to date a woman who had children. But an old man whose past had come back to reckon with him, on a day when I was ready to cash in all my chips and walk the Earth alone.

“Excuse me,” I said to her when I got to the register. She looked up at me with that bored, frowning visage that said I now must talk to a member of public. I knew the look. I wore it almost daily at my job. Like a mask. A painful facade. “How do you know this song?”

                “What do you, like, mean?”

                “Like exactly what I, like, just said.”

                “I don’t know,” she said. She began ringing up my groceries. A small box of pasta. Canned sauce that would do damage to my blood pressure. A hero roll serving as Italian bread. The kind of meals that I was getting used to making since Larissa left me two months before, and took all of her cooking expertise with her. Indian food. Tacos from scratch. Poof. Gone. Ryan, I just can’t stand how miserable you’ve become. “Like it’s on TV, I think.”

                “When you say on TV what…” She held up a finger and then began typing into her cell phone. It was post-work, so the natives behind me were getting restless. Moms with screaming kids. People holding dripping packages of purple meat. Old ladies who shouldn’t have been allowed outside once rush hour hit. Screw them. I was willing to bet no matter how hard their days, they didn’t have to suffer some derelict pulling shit out of his ass in front of them and smearing it on a glass door, and then just randomly hearing a song they’d recorded twenty years ago playing on grocery store speakers. No. The lucky winner of that prize had been me.

                The girl held up her phone. There was a trailer for some show on MovieFlix called Vampire Wives of Brooklyn. It was about this group of rich women in Park Slope who had to balance their children, yoga and their husband’s penchant for their au pairs, all the while hunting Brooklyn at night for fresh blood. It appeared that they mostly ate hipsters, minorities and fat white people. If Shakespeare were around maybe he’d be writing something like that. The music that accompanied the trailer? Take a Bite (Outta) Me! by one P-Town of the good city of Pittsburgh, of ancient talent show and dive bar fame. One-time legends in their own minds, like Bryce always called himself.

                “It’s the theme music on a show now?” I asked.

                “Duh?” The cashier said.

                “But that song is twenty years old.”

                “Um, it’s brand new. Or like retro.”

                “That song was recorded in 1999,” I said. “By a group called P-Town.”

                “I don’t care,” she said. “It slaps.”

                “Slaps?” She rolled her eyes. “What does that mean? Urban? Edgy?”

                “Like the New Kids on the Block?” someone behind me asked.

“Although maybe you should care how old the song really is,” I said to the cashier. “Maybe that’s the problem with youth now. The apathy. The lack of desire to find the origin of things. Cherry picking culture at their will. Like you all think everything in the world happened within the last five years or so. This is why the nation is teetering on authoritarianism.”

                “Okay Boomer,” the cashier said.

                “I’m not…I’m only thirty-nine.”

                “Forty is a boomer.”

                “Forty is NOT a boomer,” I said. “And I said thirty-nine.”

                “Thirty-nine is like forty so like…Boomer.”

“No, it’s not. There are clear generational demarcations. Like I’m Generation X. That’s 1965-1979. Boomers were 1946-1964. Like you Millennials were 1980 to 1994 or something. I’d have to be damned near sixty…or older”

                “Well, I’m only sixteen so I’m Gen Z,” she said. “So, thanks for the history lesson, Boomer.”

                If every weekend you’gone vamp out

                Then I’m gon’get myself the hell out

                But if you want a man that’s juicy

                Keep you fresh and loosey goosey

“And why would they even use that song?” I said.

                “Don’t know, don’t care.”

                “It was a rhetorical question.”

                “Well, here’s my rhetorical apathy.”

                “That’s not even what rhetoric…”

“Excuse me.” I felt a hand on my arm. I turned and one of the old bats from the pasta aisle was glaring at me with a constipated look. She looked to be on the dark end of the Silent Generation and it was a miracle that she was still standing. Boomer music most likely tortured her. That probably sounded ageist. And Larissa had often accused me of such. Senior citizens are people too, Ryan. Maybe. But, yeah, I hated the idea of growing old. “I’m very glad that you’re enjoying the music, but if you don’t mind people have places to go.”

                “Lady, you look like you haven’t had anywhere to go since Regan was in the White House, and someone went and shot J.R.,” I said. “And, not for nothing, with the minutes of my life you wasted back in aisle three, deciding which brand of clam sauce to gingerly roll into your cart, I think you can stand two minutes of my existential crisis.”

                “That’s harsh,” the cashier said.

                “But not dishonest,” I said. “And I’ve had a bad day. And if you can count on us Gen Xers for anything it’s our blunt honesty.”

                “You young people are so rude,” the old bat said.

                “Ok Boomer,” I said.

                The cashier rolled her eyes and rang up the rest of my pathetic dinner. “That’ll be six bucks, Kurt Cobain,” she said. “See? I know my history too.” She looked as done with me as well as everyone else in line seemed to be.

                “Fine,” I said. I handed her the six bucks. There was no point discussing the matter anymore. One man’s Xanadu was another man’s McMansion. I had a well of memories to entertain that evening. I turned back toward the waiting line. “Sorry to disturb you this evening folks. Please let’s all get back to the fine art of growing old and slowly dying.”

I grabbed my bag as Take a Bite (Outta) Me! played out.

                Come on and take a

                Come on and take a

                Come on and take a

                Take a

                Bite

                …Outta me

I got home, set a pot of water to boil on low, and played my answering machine messages (yeah I still had one of those), as I set about doing my evening routine of fetching mail and opening every window in the apartment, because I lived on the first floor and my building pumped the heat like it was free. Loretta was outside smoking. I didn’t know if her name was Loretta, but she was a white trash blonde who chain-smoked in front of my window. Had loud conversations in front of my window. Invited her white trash friends to chain smoke and have conversations in front of my window. She didn’t even live in my building.

“I thought I told you to fuck off,” I said to her.

Loretta gave me the finger then slowly made her way back up the street. But she’d be back.

                I pressed play on my answering machine. “Yo Sly,” a voice said. It might as well have been a time machine because it sent me right back to 1999 just like the song had done. “Yo, Dawg, I know you heard that song playin’ on a radio too, cuz. I heard it playin’ in Target. And Wal-Mart. And, yo, it was playin’ in Iggles when I was getting my snack on. Take a Bite (Outta) Me! brutha. I put us on notice. Now I’m just sitting here chillin’ waitin’ on peeps to call the C to the O to the R to the E to the Y yo for the hook-up. I’m talkin’ money. I’m talkin’ getting’ paid for all that work we did back then. Give me a call at 412-555-5695, Sly. Or fuck it. Get yo ass back to Pittsburgh and let’s meet face to face. Life is bound to be changin’. No more sittin’ here chillin’ like we Bob Dylan. Make money, make money. Peace Out.”

                A voice from the past. Blast from the past. Nostalgia. Holy shit, it was Corey Evarts! Corey “The King of Pittsburgh” Evarts, as he self-applied to himself back in the day. The voice sounded the same. Maybe a little deeper. At forty years old he was still putting on a ‘hood accent even though Corey had been born and raised in posh Fox Chapel, the son of a rich real estate developer. Corey had wrecked more SUVs than anyone else I’d ever met. Boy did he wreck. Wreck a room. Wreck a man’s virginity and his crush. Wreck an evening. I could still picture him. Tall and lanky. Ratty goatee. Sunglasses on at all hours. Basketball jersey with a white t-shirt underneath. Hat cocked sideways. Mesh shorts year-round. A hoody serving as a winter coat. Brand new high tops at all times. But Corey couldn’t still look like that now? He had to look old like the rest of us now, right? A little worn but not worn out.

That night I woke up from a dream in which P-Town was on stage playing to packed arena. I was singing. Corey was rapping. The fans were going crazy. When I woke up, I was literally sweating. And like a flash I wanted to see him for myself. All of them. D.J. Bryce. Travis. Kim. I wanted to get the fuck out of Dodge and relive the past. The past was where it was at, right? It was what I need to break the malaise. My change of pace. Rethinking brought full circle. It was where I could find some comfort and a sense of place. Jay Gatsby be damned. If that shit smear from Brooklyn Joe was a harbinger of doom about my future, then hearing that song was a love sonnet to my past. Take a Bite (Outta) Me! For sure. I needed to get the fuck out of Brooklyn for a while. Go home and recalibrate. If the old car would make it. I’d figure out what to tell my job when I got there.

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