Owen Noone and the Marauder
Owen Noone and the Marauder was published in 2005.
Transcript from WXRT Radio Chicago, January 1, 1999:
We’ve just received breaking news: guitarist and singer Owen Noone of Owen Noone and the Marauder collapsed while performing tonight in Los Angeles. Nothing about his condition has been made clear to us, and we’ve received no official comment from anyone connected to Owen or his label. Stay with us—we’ll keep you posted with any further developments. Forty minutes of uninterrupted music start right after this commercial break.
Everyone knows the end of the story. This is the beginning.
When I first met Owen Noone it was 1995 and I was a junior at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. I was an English major, and believed I was a poet:
You’ve been in my dreams
Three times: once, you
Were lying next to me; in
Another you were standing
In the corner; I don’t remember
The third, just that you
Were there. I didn’t have
The courage to speak or act,
So I just lay there, breathing,
Watching and waiting.
This was how most of it went; rhythmless poems about girls to whom I’d never spoken, to whom I’d never speak, but for whom my heart was supposedly aching. Since nobody else understood what a good poet I was I didn’t have many friends, and I walked around campus with my fists in my pockets, thinking about the day when I’d be great and all these bastards at Bradley would pretend they knew me when.
I also cursed everyone I knew because they didn’t understand music. I worked as a DJ at WCBU, Bradley’s radio station, hosting a two-hour indie rock show once a week. They gave me the slot because I wrote a long and pretentious proposal discussing obscure bands, insisting that this music was vital to the community at large and not just to a few obsessed college kids. These bands were far more talented, interesting and, like my poetry, destined for immortality in the ages to come, unlike the lousy jam-bands that the fratboys who scored with the girls I wrote about liked. Everything played on commercial radio – everything – I deplored.
This is how, or rather, why I became friends with Owen Noone, because of a debate about music. It was late January, the beginning of the second semester, and everything in Peoria was dead: the trees, the buildings, the sky; an endless gray mass of cloud pushed across the cornfields and down on the city. The temperature never rose much above zero, and even the factories seemed dead, the cold overpowering their usual stench, which normally served in place of a welcome sign as you crossed the Bob Michel Bridge into the city. Because it was so cold I spent most of my time in my room with the heat turned up as far as it would go. I didn’t leave for days, skipping classes and living on ramen noodles and other instant soups.
It was Friday, and one of the student bars was holding an open-mic night. A girl who was one of the subjects of my poems always sang, so I thought I’d go, telling myself I’d work up the nerve to talk to her, although I knew I wouldn’t. I put on a thermal undershirt, a long-sleeved flannel shirt, a heavy wool sweater, longjohns under my jeans and two pairs of wool socks, then jammed my feet into my shoes, put on my parka, wrapped a scarf around my neck and face, and finished up with a wool hat, a pair of gloves and mittens. I hated the cold.
By the time I got to the bar my undershirt was soaked with sweat. I opened the door and was blasted as the warm air of the bar collided with the cold outside. I started perspiring even more. The open mic hadn’t started, so I peeled off most of my layers, got a beer and sat at an empty table near the back of the bar, watching people arrive with their friends while I drank alone. After half an hour or so somebody got on stage and announced that the singing was about to start. The first performer would be someone called Owen Noone.
Owen took the stage. He didn’t have a guitar or notebook, he just stood in front of the microphone empty-handed and said, “This is a song everybody knows.”
I’d never seen him before, and he didn’t seem like a student. He was tall, a little more than six feet, and thin, but well-built, not skinny. He wore faded blue jeans and a white dress shirt, and his sandy hair was long enough to cover his ears. He was good-looking, I thought, the type of guy who could probably pick any girl in the room.
After a pause during which he inhaled deeply, he said “One-two-three-four,” like he was counting off an imaginary band in his head, and began stamping his foot on the stage and clapping in time. Everybody in the audience started clapping too, even me, but none of us seemed to know why. We were just smiling in anticipation, mild confusion and bemusement, clapping along with this guy we didn’t know. Then he started to sing.
His voice was bad. He could barely hold the tune, which was even worse than it might be, because he was right, everybody did know the song. It was Guns N’ Roses. “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” A few people giggled when he started, but Owen seemed undeterred. He sang slowly, deliberately, and woefully off-key, which was exacerbated by the fact that there was nothing else to cover up his voice. Still, people clapped as he rumbled through the first verse to triumph with the chorus.
“Whoah, oh oh oh, sweet child o’ mine,” he sang, gaining volume and somehow finding a few of the right notes. His voice began to change slightly, transforming into a parody of Axl Rose. He closed his eyes and grabbed the microphone stand, and by the time he hit the second verse he seemed oblivious to everything, the clapping audience, the fact that he was out of tune, even oblivious of himself. His eyes were crushed in his reddening face and his neck convulsed. He looked almost violent, but not threatening. “C’mon,” he hissed into the microphone between lyrics, “Sing along with the Roses!”
We did. Or rather, we sang along with Owen Noone and his appalling imitation of a recording we’d all heard a hundred times or more. Now strutting and screaming, he twisted his hips like a hack-Elvis, doubling over so his face was a foot from the ground, pumping his fist in time to a soundtrack that he could hear in its entirety, but of which we were only getting a fraction. The pitch of the bar—the whole bar, from Owen on stage, to the very back where I was no longer sitting but standing, craning my neck to get a better look—was raised to an almost euphoric level. As he screamed out the final sounds—they were no longer notes—drawing out the last word, “Meye-ee-eye-ee-eye-eye-eye-eye-eyyyyyyyyye-nuh,” everybody rose to their feet and made a fury of sound that eventually drowned out Owen himself, filling the entire building with a cacophony that pushed against the fogged-over windows and into the cold streets outside. Somebody threw a bra at him, but it missed, and he didn’t notice.
Then, as easily as he had transformed into a contorted screaming maniac, Owen slid back into the good looking, unknown guy who’d stepped before the crowd five minutes earlier. He left the stage smiling, oblivious to the people laughing and slapping him on the back.
The next performer was a girl with a guitar who announced that she was going to play Indigo Girls, but no one was paying attention. As she started singing, I heard a hoarse voice addressing me from behind.
“You mind if I sit here?”
I looked up. It was Owen Noone himself, although at the time I had forgotten his name. He held a beer and was soaked with sweat, breathing hard, his hair stringy and damp.
“Go ahead.” I nodded at the empty chair. “Nice singing, but Guns N’ Roses fucking suck.”
He drank half his beer in one gulp and wiped his mouth slowly with his arm, all the while staring straight at me. I stared back as though it were a contest, but with high stakes. I was determined not to lose.
“What would you prefer.” He said flatly.
“Like the Indigo Girls.” He pointed towards the stage without looking away.
“What’s your big idea, then?”
I didn’t have one, but I didn’t want to back down. I breathed deeply to give myself time to think. “Nirvana.”
I picked something I was sure he’d never heard of. “Big Black.”
His mouth spread into a wide grin, and he slammed his fist on the table. “Now you’re talking! I’ll do something from Songs about Fucking next week.”
I was crestfallen. And angry. I’d lost. I kept my eyes trained on him, unable to make the gears in my head lock back together to form some kind of response.
“I’m Owen Noone,” he said, reaching his hand across the table, “It’s nice to meet you.”
I shook his hand and told him my name, and he repeated that it was nice to meet me and offered to buy me a beer. After a few minutes he came back from the bar with a pitcher and set it on the table, the beer sloshing over the sides.
“Are you a student?” he asked.
“What do you study?”
“Poetry or fiction or both?”
“Which do you prefer?”
“Who’s your favorite poet?”
“Is he alive or dead?”
“What should I buy of his?”
“What’s your favorite novel?”
“On the Road.”
“I’ve read that. What’s your favorite novel that I haven’t read?”
“I don’t know what you haven’t read.”
“A bunch of shit and On the Road.”
“The Sun Also Rises.”
“Who wrote it?”
“What’s your favorite band?”
“Have you ever been in love?”
“Do you like sports?”
“I have better ways to waste my time.”
“Republican or Democrat?”
“I’ve never voted.”
Owen’s question and answer session lasted the rest of the night. He asked them as fast as I answered, and mostly one question followed the other without any discernible logic, jumping from one subject to another as though they had some connection too obvious to explain. He nodded and listened to each answer and referred back to questions I’d forgotten he’d asked, grinning the whole time. At the end of the night I knew nothing about him except that he might be insane, but he knew everything there was to know about me, including the name of my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Hamilton.
The performers kept coming and going on the stage but neither of us paid attention. Owen bought two more pitchers in between his questions, and when I looked up the bar was almost empty and the bartender was shouting last call. Owen finished his beer and fired off one last volley.
“Do you ever get the feeling that you’re great? That you’re going to do something really special with your life? That you’ll make a difference?”
“I guess not. Not really. Do you?”
“All the time.”
Owen slapped his palms flat on the table and stood, staring straight into my eyes. He nodded once, picked up his coat and walked away, leaving me alone. After sitting for another minute or two, I stumbled home through the cold, trying to remember if Owen had said what he studied.
I woke up with a hangover, ate a bowl of cereal and drank as much water as my stomach would hold. I had to go to the library to get some books and articles about Robert Lowell for a paper that was due the next week. After bundling up, I stepped out into the cold. It was almost noon, but the campus was empty, everyone avoiding the sun, which, rather than making things warmer, somehow seemed to drag the temperature even lower, reflecting off the thin layer of frost and snow.
I turned down Elmwood—the street had the same name as the hall I lived in, which was more or less a brown brick cube with a few thin trees in front of it, bare and gray against the sunlight. A car passed, swallowed by the steam and exhaust billowing from its tailpipe. I beat my arms against my sides, cursing myself for drinking too much and for waiting until the last possible weekend to start my paper, then turned onto Bradley. By the time I got to the library I was once again overheated from all the layers.
Libraries always look strange, as though at some point in history the architects’ guild decided that because they provide such a unique function—storing a collection of knowledge, like a big inert brain—this gave them license to try out every blueprint in their heads, regardless of where the building stood. Cullom Davis Library is proof of this. Surrounded by trees that, in the right season and with a little imagination, make the area around it seem like the countryside, the building itself is a large concrete and glass box. With the trees bare—all except a lone pine, which provided the only variant from shades of white and gray—the library mercilessly reflected the sun off its glass, and I got angry, as though it were all a plan designed against me and my stupid hangover.
The place was empty. It was eerie without even the quiet library sounds of rustling paper, books closing, pens scratching and chairs creaking. I wove through the stacks looking for the call numbers I’d written down.
A book caught my attention. It was shorter than the rest, about half the size, but longer, like a piece of notebook paper. I pulled it out. It was The Penguin Book of American Folk Songs by Alan Lomax. The cover had a drawing of a guitar colored like the American flag and with a smiling sunflower in the middle, where the sound hole would be. It made me laugh. The back had red and white stripes and a blurb. I knew who Alan Lomax was, having bought Leadbelly albums after Nirvana played one of his songs on MTV. And I knew some of the songs—“Yankee Doodle,” “Old Smokey,” “The Midnight Special”—but most of them were completely foreign to me, with great names like “Goober Peas,” “Ground-Hog” and “I’m a-Ridin’ Old Paint.” I laughed out loud at this last one, but the sound of my own voice made the library feel even emptier. I tucked the Lomax book under my arm with the others and hurried downstairs to the circulation desk.
There was someone standing on the corner of St James and Elmwood as I approached. As I got closer I realized it was Owen Noone. He was holding a plastic bag and he didn’t seem to be hung-over at all.
“Hi!” he yelled as I approached. “I got those books.”
I was confused. I’d still been thinking about the library. “What books?”
“You know, John Berryman. Ernest Hemingway. I was looking through those poems. Nuts.” He moved his arms a lot as he talked, even though the bag of books weighed him down. “Hey, listen, I had an idea this morning. Can you play an instrument?”
“Neither can I, but I figure we could learn, right? The point is, do you want to start a band? We like the same kind of music and everything, we could get a couple guitars, it’d be a lot better than screaming Guns N’ Roses songs at open mic nights.”
There was no way I could afford to buy a guitar, and I told him so. I was at Bradley on a National Merit scholarship, which was basically the only way I could have paid for college without taking time out to work and save enough money.
Owen paused for the first time and looked down the street. Then he turned and looked me in the eyes. “I could loan you the money. Pay me back whenever. It doesn’t matter. Come on, let’s go.”
“Owen, no, I mean, how could you afford it? What do you study, anyway?”
“I’m not a student,” he said. “I’m a baseball player.”
“A Bradley Brave,” I said.
“No. Peoria Chiefs. Cubs farm team. I’m a professional. But I live in Peoria year-round, because I’ve got no reason not to. Come on, let’s go buy some guitars.”
I followed him, my bag of books on my back, my paper forgotten. After about a block I asked him what his story was.
“What’s my story?”
“Yeah. I must’ve told you everything about me last night. But all I know about you is that you play baseball.”
Owen shrugged. “There’s not much else to know. I was born in Charlotte, North Carolina. My parents divorced when I was two and I never knew my father. When I was fourteen my mom got remarried to a tobacco executive. We moved into a big house and when I was sixteen, they moved to the Virgin Islands, leaving me the house and a trust fund. I lived by myself in that big house and continued to play baseball. I was drafted by the Cubs out of high school and played in Michigan for half a summer before being moved to Peoria. I’ve been here for two years. I know it sounds weird, but it feels pretty normal when it’s you. No big deal, really.”
We came to the guitar shop. For a few minutes we stood outside, looking at the instruments hanging in the window: Stratocasters, Telecasters, Jaguars, Les Pauls, plus a bunch of different-colored effects boxes. Inside there was even more. I’d never been inside a guitar shop before, and felt somehow like I was trespassing. In a back corner a guy with long hair, black jeans and a black t-shirt was trying out a guitar, his fingers tapping the strings and then moving on, never lingering for even a second. A blur of notes raced out from a mountain of amplifiers. Guitars hung from every wall—electric and acoustic—and in a back corner, the one opposite from where the guy was playing, were a couple of banjos. We wandered around together, the two of us, looking at the names, shapes and colors of the guitars. Neither of us knew a thing about them.
A middle-sized, balding guy came over to where we were standing and smiled. “Can I help you gents?”
“No, just looking,” I said.
“Yeah, can I try that one?” Owen said, pointing at a guitar.
It was a yellow Telecaster with a black pickguard. I knew this guitar. I’d seen lots of pictures of Keith Richards playing one. The salesman took it off its hook and walked with Owen to the corner where the guy with the long hair had just finished his workout. I didn’t want to watch Owen try to play it, so I wandered over to look at the banjos.
“How long you been playing?” I heard the salesman ask.
Owen grinned. “Never played in my life.”
The salesman plugged the guitar in and turned on the amp. Owen played a single note. It didn’t sound like a real note, though. It sounded wrong, somehow, like it wasn’t a guitar note. The salesman smiled again and offered to tune it. After he’d finished, Owen started up again, playing the same single note. Then he got the idea that he could play lots of other so-called notes. The guy who’d been jamming before was at the cash register with another salesman. They both looked over, then looked at each other and chuckled. Owen seemed oblivious, stumbling away and smiling. Finally he stopped and said he’d take it, plus the amp. He and the salesman walked over to where I was scrutinizing the banjos.
“You looking to buy a banjo?” the salesman asked.
“No, he’s getting a new guitar too,” Owen said, slapping my shoulder, “Except, unlike me, this guy can actually play.”
I was terrified when I heard him say it. Not embarrassed or worried, but terrified. I was going to have to try to play a guitar in this shop, in front of these guys whose lives were all about guitars. My feet felt like they were stuck to the floor.
“Which one you want to try?”
I looked at the salesman.
“That one,” Owen said, pointing to another Telecaster, black with a yellow pickguard, the opposite colors of the one Owen was getting. “But we’ll just take it. And another amp, too.”
I could imagine the salesman’s glee, two suckers walking in and dropping a couple thousand dollars on equipment they couldn’t even play. He picked another amplifier off the mountain and walked to the front counter with us. The other salesman was standing by the cash register. He smiled at us.
“Anything else I can do for you, gents?” the salesman who’d helped us asked.
Underneath the glass of the counter were a series of effects pedals. Owen was looking at them and stroking his chin. “Yes,” he said, “One of those orange boxes as well.”
“The Fuzz pedal?” the salesman said. He took a key, unlocked the case and took it out. “I tell you what. Since you guys are spending so much today, I’ll throw this in free. I’ll throw in a bunch of cables and some picks, too.”
Owen was ecstatic. “Great! How much does it all come to?”
The salesman tapped the prices into the cash register. I felt like I was waiting to hear lottery numbers. “Two thousand, three hundred and thirteen dollars and seventy-seven cents.”
Owen took out a credit card. “Do you take Visa?”
We called a taxi and took our new merchandise back to my room in Elmwood Hall. It had clouded over and snow flurries had begun falling and swirling in the wind. There was hardly room to sit once we’d brought in the amps, shoving dirty clothes, books and CD cases aside to make floor space. I had to unplug my computer so we had enough outlets. We were ready, Owen sitting on my desk chair, his guitar running through the effect pedal and into the amp, me on my bed, plugged straight in. Well, we were sort of ready. Neither of us seemed to want to start. We sat facing each other, grinning.
“Do you have any idea what to do?” Owen asked.
Suddenly I remembered the Lomax book. In the back was an appendix that started with “American Folk Guitar Style.” There was a drawing of a guy playing guitar, plus a diagram that showed a bunch of different chords, and where you should put your fingers to make them. I set the book, with this page open, on top of my amp. E minor looked like the easiest, so we played that one first. From my guitar it sounded impossibly real and clean, filling the tiny space with music I’d never heard before, recorded or live, as though somebody else had played it.
Owen leaned over to see how it was done, then strummed across the strings. It sounded like multiple grand pianos being dropped off a roof, an assault that felt like the room would explode before it dissolved into a piercing whine of feedback . Owen lunged across and flipped the power switch, ending the torture and supporting himself on the amp to keep from falling.
“I think we should turn it down a little,” he said.
We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening trying to contort our fingers into the right chord combinations. Around nine o’clock we both realized we were hungry, and I realized I had a paper to write. Owen insisted on paying for a pizza, which we devoured when it came.
“Do you mind if I leave this stuff here for now?” Owen asked as he stood by the door, shrugging into his jacket. “I don’t feel like hauling it across town tonight, and besides, I want to do some reading.” He rattled the plastic bag and left, closing the door behind him.
While I worked on my essay I kept looking over at the guitars, one black and yellow, the other yellow and black, leaning upright against the amplifiers. I wondered if we’d ever be any good at playing them. Every once in a while I went over and picked mine up, turned on the amp and plucked a couple of notes, trying to remember a chord or two. Then gave up in frustration. But I kept at it, off and on for the rest of the night. I couldn’t help going back and picking up the heavy instrument, strapping it over my shoulder, and making sound.
Owen’s gear lived in my room into the spring, creating an obstacle course that was hard to negotiate, particularly if I got up in the night. After a while, though, the guitars, the amps and their tangled networks of cables became pieces of furniture, and I didn’t give them any thought. Owen came over a couple times a week, working around his baseball schedule, and we rehearsed chords until we had them memorized and could change between them. Then we began working on songs from the Lomax book.
The first one we chose was “Yankee Doodle,” because we knew the tune. Neither of us could read music—I’d played trombone for about five weeks in grade school and had a vague recollection of quarter notes and half notes, but that was about it—so we had to rely on the sound of the chords to provide an idea of how the tune went. With “Yankee Doodle” our dependence on this method was limited, and by the middle of April we could more or less play it competently. I strummed and occasionally picked out the arpeggios, and Owen blasted the chords through the fuzz pedal and sang.
“We oughtta play at the open mic next Friday,” Owen said one Sunday.
I looked up. “No way. Not in front of all those people.”
“Come on, we can play it without trying now. Sort of.”
Owen stared me down. “You won’t be embarrassed. We can play it. I’ve got nowhere to go but up after that performance last January.”
After a little more badgering, I reluctantly agreed. I found it hard to say no. Owen had a confidence about things that I didn’t, and he always found a way to persuade me. I spent every free minute going over “Yankee Doodle” that week, even though it was only three basic chords, G, D and C. Owen had the hard part, singing nine verses. By the time Friday night came around, there was no way I could have made a mistake. I was still terrified, though. What if people didn’t like it?
Owen didn’t concern himself with questions like that. They were irrelevant. As with the first open-mic night, the point wasn’t whether or not people liked it, the point was to get on a stage and close your eyes and let go and see what happened.
We were the last name on the list that night, and by the time our turn came, everybody in the bar was glowing with a mix of damp heat and alcohol. I didn’t want to be drunk when we performed, and Owen had limited himself to two drinks per evening for the baseball season, but we both raised a toast for courage and slammed down a double Jack Daniel’s before we went on.
The master of ceremonies announced us as “Owen Noone and—” here he looked to the side of the stage where we were standing. Owen tried to mouth my name, but the guy couldn’t understand, so he said, “Owen Noone and friend.”
People remembered Owen from January and cheered and whistled, some of them yelling about Guns N’ Roses. I shuffled after. We plugged our guitars directly into the PA system, Owen running his through the orange fuzz pedal, and stood facing the crowd. My entire body was shaking, and I felt sure I would collapse; I didn’t think I’d be able to hold the guitar, much less make the chords. I looked at Owen, who looked back at me, then leaned into the microphone. “We’re Owen Noone and the Marauders,” he said, then looked over at me again. “Marauder. This is a song that you all know, so please sing along on the chorus.” He took a deep breath, counted one-two-three-four, and we began.
People giggled, and nobody sang along on the first trip through. Without Owen’s pedal on everything sounded clean and strange to me. I kept my eyes on my guitar, as though I could will my hands to do the right things if I held them within view. Then, when we got to the second chorus, Owen stepped on the pedal and a blast of noise and energy pulsed through the bar. I froze and looked up sharply, stunned by the outburst of noise. Owen had his eyes closed and was singing in a sing-songy way like it was a lullaby or nursery rhyme, but off-key. Still, nobody was joining in. I looked back down and kept playing, and when we got to the next verse, Owen stepped on the pedal again. Then we returned to clean chords until the third chorus, when he stepped on it a third time. This time the bar joined in, a choir of voices rumbling to the stage and supporting Owen’s. The whole thing was discordant, but people were clapping, knocking time on the table with their glasses and bottles, Owen’s voice rising and becoming a hoarse yell. Then the calm of the verse. The pattern continued through the rest of the song, becoming more and more boisterous as it went along, and I even forgot that I was playing and strummed along automatically, watching Owen, watching the crowd watching Owen, pumping along to the rhythm of our guitars, his voice, the audience’s clapping and bottle thumping. On the last chorus, which we went through twice without even thinking, I sang, my voice disappearing off the stage and into the audience without a microphone. I didn’t care. I was happy.
Two weeks later Owen knocked on my door. I was reading Measure for Measure, and every thought I had, and everything I said seemed to be in iambic pentameter.
“Good morrow, sir,” I said after opening the door.
I held up the book, a big mustard-colored Complete Shakespeare. “Never mind. Too much of this, methinks.”
Owen scratched his head. “Listen, I’ve got bad news. I’ve come to pick up my guitar and stuff. I’ve been promoted to Triple A.”
“But that’s good,” I said.
“Yeah, good for baseball, bad for the band.”
“What band? It’s just the two of us, anyway. I mean, it’s been a lot of fun, but I’d say you’ve got more important things going.” I felt like I was trying to convince myself as much as I was him. That night playing “Yankee Doodle” had been one of the best moments of the past few years. I’d felt confident, and when we’d finished, people had told us how much fun it was, and I’d felt like I was something more than this shy kid who walked around with his hands in his pockets, looking at the pavement. All of this was because of Owen. He’d bought the guitars, he’d insisted we play, he’d brought me a fraction of an inch out of the shell I’d created. And now he was going. “Where is Triple A, anyway?”
“Iowa’s not so far. Where in Iowa?”
His eyebrows crumpled down and he turned his head slightly sideways. “I have no idea.” We both laughed. I helped him gather together his guitar, amp, pedal and the various cables. “I tell you what,” he said, standing just outside my door, his things clasped to his side with his arms. “You graduate in another year and a half, right? If I haven’t made it into the majors by then, I’ll be back, and we’ll hit the road and make this band thing work.”
“Yeah,” I said, chuckling through my nose, “Right.”
Owen smiled, set down the amp, gave a mock salute, picked up the amp again, and walked down the corridor, disappearing around the corner on his way to the stairs. I closed the door and returned to the Duke and Isabella.
I spent the rest of my college career as I’d spent most of it already, writing bad poetry, doing my radio show, reading and writing papers. And playing guitar. I managed to steal the Lomax book from the library by turning it back in, then going back a while later, peeling the “Due for Return” slip off another book and fixing it into the Lomax, then playing innocent and showing that it wasn’t due for another two weeks when the security alarm caught me. I learned all the chords listed in the back—there weren’t all that many anyway—and practiced the different styles. I also learned to read the music by beginning with songs that I knew the tune to, more or less, and working it out. By the time graduation day rolled around, I knew a couple dozen songs, although not all from memory. I’d also managed to get a job at Caterpillar in Peoria, writing and editing their internal newsletter and press releases.
The graduation ceremony was long, hot and boring. It was almost 90 degrees that day and sitting in the sun wearing a robe over a suit—my mother had insisted I wear a suit—made it almost unbearable. The commencement address was given by some state senator who told us that the world we were about to enter was ours to fashion to our greatest ideals and that we had more opportunity than any generation before us. We would all be going off to different futures, some of us into business, some of us to further education, some of us, like him, into public service, but we’d all, each in our own way, be contributing to the singular future of America and, indeed, the world. “The world is yours,” he concluded, I remember this exactly. “Don’t let anyone stand in the way of your vision of it, your dreams.” And vote Republican! I hoped he’d add, but he didn’t. After the speech, we spent hours listening to people’s names and achievements as they walked across the stage. At the end, hats were thrown.
After taking me to a deli for a supper of subs and french fries, my parents left. They had two hundred miles to drive because Dad had to be at work early the next morning. It was out of the question to take a day or two off in the run-up to the summer shut down, even if it was your only kid’s graduation. After supper they dropped me off at Elmwood Hall—I had two days before I had to leave and move my stuff to my new apartment. My dad shook my hand and said he was proud. I was the first one in the family to finish college. My mom cried and gave me a hug. I stood on the sidewalk, watching their car as it rolled away towards Main Street and I-74, which would take them home. Staring down the street until they disappeared, I suddenly felt empty and alone. I hadn’t known very many people at Bradley, but the few people I did know were all leaving for different places, cities like Chicago, St Louis, Indianapolis, some of them even as far as New York or San Francisco. I was staying in Peoria, a place I’d hardly left in four years and only a few hours’ drive from where I’d lived my entire life. Of course, it was by choice that I was staying, but something made me skeptical, or scared, about venturing wider into states, regions, cities to which I’d never been, places that were names and postcard pictures, places that were television news footage. No, I preferred to stay in Peoria, work at Caterpillar, a respectable job with a respectable company, and save some money. I could always go to those places later, when I had experience, money and something about myself to sell.
“I hoped I’d find you here.” I recognized the voice and turned. It was Owen Noone, unchanged from the few months I’d known him a year and a half before, except he was tanned and wearing sunglasses. I couldn’t think of anything to say, but then I remembered what he’d said before he’d left. He grinned, and took off his sunglasses. “Have you been practicing?”
“Yeah,” I said. Owen was taller than me, and it made me feel younger than him, standing there answering his questions.
“All right,” he said. “Where are we off to then: East, West, North, South?”
“Owen.” I was speaking slowly. “What are you—I can’t—”
“I told you I’d come back if I didn’t make it, and I haven’t. Baseball’s getting boring, anyway. Catching a ball, hitting a home run, stealing a base. People cheer. I’ve been playing lousy, too, and I think they were about to send me back here, so I just saved them the effort and expense.” He pushed his hand through his hair and I could see small dark patches in the armpits of his gray t-shirt. “So, which way are we headed?”