That Other Thing
Mick Rogers fumbled with his keys in the dark as he swatted at a cluster of gnats that were congregating on the porch of the lake house. Although it was close to nine, the skies were still dark purple, not quite fully night, because Daylight Savings Time had just passed.
Actually, Mick had not planned on coming out to the lake house until the following morning, Saturday. However, after rubbing elbows with department heads, alumni and cellists at the university’s gala concert tonight, Mick decided he needed a drive to clear his head. So after the concert, he stopped at his Garden District apartment, packed a quick bag and was on U.S. 11 headed north in what seemed like a matter of minutes.
It was typical Louisiana weather, already stifling hot at night in April. He drove with the windows down and the radio cranked, set on the local classic rock station.
The latter was an oddity for Mick, as he generally listened to the Classical station, as all good music professors are apt to do, or one of the many jazz stations near the low-numbered end of the frequency spectrum.
The dying strains of Hotel California, by the Eagles, were coming to an end, just as he hit the five-mile bridge and he wished, hopefully that this was one of the station’s “rock blocks”. More specifically, he hoped to hear “Witchy Woman”. And then, as if by magic, he was rewarded, as the song he’d just wished for began.
Mick didn’t think too much of it at the time. He chocked it up to coincidence. It wasn’t as if Witchy Woman was The Eagles most obscure song on the radio. It was also about that time that Mick’s head began to throb dully in the back, near the base of his neck.
The lock stuck for a moment, but he jiggled and pushed. It didn’t give at first and Mick realized it was more than likely the humidity that had made the front door swell slightly. He nudged it with his shoulder and the door swung open. He was immediately assaulted by the musty damp smell, which eventually, instead, seemed to greet him like an old friend.
The lake house had been in his family since he was a child, probably even before he’d been born. It had been his grandparents’ house. But after they passed away, his mother eventually sold the place.
Both Mick and his sister had protested the sale, yet the place did need a lot of work. It had fallen into disrepair as his grandfather had aged, and become unable to maintain repairs. At the time of the sale, neither Mick nor his sister, were in a position to buy the house, so their arguments fell on deaf ears of their mother.
It wasn’t until around fifteen years later, after he’d been gainfully employed as a music professor at Tulane University in New Orleans, when Mick decided on a whim to drive down Lakeview Drive, and saw a “for sale” sign in the yard. He knew that Mr. Gambino, the guy in the camp next door, had bought the place.
Mr. Gambino had made some significant renovations to the exterior of the house, but after a brief conversation and a quick tour of the inside, Mick saw the inside had remained mostly the same. There was new flooring and carpeting and the old window unit air conditioners had been replaced with central air, but they layout of the place had remained the same.
Less than a month later, the place was Mick’s.
It was a retreat, of sorts, for Mick. While he lived and worked in the city, most of his weekends were spent at the lake house; where he composed music, wrote, or sometimes just vegged out in front of the TV or fished off the back pier.
The musty damp smell hadn’t changed a single bit over the years. Mick fumbled in the dark for the light switch and flipped it on. The overhead light came on, but as it did, one of its two bulbs popped and blinked out.
“Shit,” muttered Mick. “Guess I’ll have to add change light bulb to my list of things to do this weekend.”
He walked directly through the living room, or the front room as it had always been known as in his family, and into the kitchen. There was no doorway or wall that separated the two rooms; just an archway of sorts that ran the width of the two rooms. As a kid it had been a big deal for him to be able to jump up and try to touch the archway. He remembered the day, he was around ten, when he first jumped and reached it.
His grandfather had commented, “Well Elsie, I guess we’re going to have to stop feeding him now, He’s grown too much.”
The memory brought a smile to his face now as he reached up effortlessly and lightly tapped the archway. He pulled his hand down and saw the dust on his fingertips and added, “Dusting is now on the “to do” list too.”
He opened the fridge, which was mostly empty, and grabbed a cold beer. He shut the door to the fridge, sipped the beer, sat it down and opened the kitchen window. He then walked out to the back porch.
The back porch wasn’t actually a porch in the normal sense of the word, as it was walled in with a row of windows that overlooked Lake Pontchartrain. However, again, it was what his family always called it and old habits didn’t die easily.
Although it was hot outside a cool breeze blew in through the back windows, smelling vaguely of brine and mud, which meant it was probably low tide out.
After he opened all the windows on the back porch he walked back into the kitchen and switched on one of the wrought-iron oscillating fans; which was one of the few artifacts he actually had left over from when his grandparents lived there.
Shortly after he moved in Mr. Gambino stopped over one Friday night for oysters on the half shell and a couple cold beers. A few beers into the conversation, Mr. Gambino told him he still had a few boxes of “stuff” that had been left behind.
“I don’t think selling the place was easy for your mom,” Mr. Gambino said that night. “She left more stuff behind than folks usually do; nothing really probably worth a whole lot of money. I got rid of most of it, but kept a few things. They’re still in my junk room.”
In addition to the old fans, there were also some old cooking pots and kitchen utensils; his grandparents’ old record player which had been bought new in like circa 1978, but which also still miraculously worked after all this time; two lamp tables and a plant stand. Assuredly, this would have been junk to most people. But for Mick, they were treasures of sorts and he managed to integrate them into his modern décor.
Mick finished his beer and then rummaged in the large, stand-up freezer on the back porch, for some meats for the weekend. He found a roast, a freezer bag full of catfish filets and frozen shrimp and retrieved them from the freezer. He walked back into the kitchen, placed the catfish filets and roast into the fridge and then placed the bag of shrimp in the kitchen sink and began running lukewarm water over the bag.
He walked back to the living room, plopped down in the recliner and turned on the TV. He caught the ten o clock news on Channel 4 and then part of a repeat of NCIS on USA before he realized he’d left his car door open and hadn’t brought in his bags.
He rose a little too quickly and his head throbbed again, but he ignored it, went outside and grabbed his bags. He locked up his car and then went back into the house.
He almost set the bags down and hit the recliner when he walked in, but instead walked through the doorway that separated the bed rooms from the living room and kitchen. This half of the house was still dark. He paused for a moment. To the left was the guest bedroom, to the right was his grandparents’ old bed room and directly in front of him was the bathroom door. He nudged the bathroom door open and as expected got a little light from the old streetlight that sat on the other neighbors’, the Muscarellos, property.
The Muscarellos were a family of shrimpers. Unlike his grandparents’ house, or camps as the locals called them, most of the homes on the lake side of the street were actually built out over the water and had long wooden runways that led out to the front doors. His grandparents’ house was actually build right on the street, part of it on land, the rest over water.
The shoreline was situated directly under the bedrooms.
The Muscarellos house was built out over the water, about a hundred yards out. However, they had a large open but covered garage area where they parked their cars, a couple boats and some of their shrimping equipment.
Because shrimping equipment didn’t come cheap, and because “the fish-head boys”, a term the locals used for scavenging thieves that ripped of trawling nets and outboard motors in the dead of night, the Muscarellos decided to install a bright, old-fashion halogen…street light, for lack of better words.
The light certainly warded off the fish head boys, but in the meantime it had driven Mick’s grandmother crazy.
“Earl, I don’t see why they can’t just get a dog like normal people do,” Mick’s grandmother used say to his grandfather time and time again.
“Oh Elsie, you’d just complain about the barking dog if they did that,” he’d respond.
The light gave Mick just enough light to see what he was doing and he made his way to the guest room and flipped on his light.
Mick wasn’t superstitious. And while he didn’t necessarily not believe in ghosts, there had been nothing to lead him to believe that Elsie or Earl were still hanging around. In fact, they both died in a hospital in Slidell, both in their 80s. It was always the first thing his colleagues questioned him about when they discovered he lived part time in his grandparents’ old house.
Be that all as it may, when Mick did move in, he opted to convert the old guest room into his own bedroom. His grandparents’ old bedroom was now the guest room. In Mick’s mind, it was more an issue of respect than it was superstition. He tossed his bags in the corner, opened a drawer and took out a pair of shorts and a tee-shirt and then made his way to the bathroom.
His head was still bothering him, so he figured a hot shower and some Advil might do the trick. Plus, he was glad to get out of his dress suit and tie.
After showering and outfitting himself in a faded pair of cut-off blue jeans and an ancient Body Glove tee-shirt, Mick returned to the kitchen. He pulled the stopper in the sink and removed the bag of shrimp, which had, by now, thawed. He removed a cast-iron skillet from the cabinet and cranked up the stove. It was an old gas stove, which he preferred immensely over electric. He liked the flame control a gas stove gave him.
He then dumped a stick of butter into the skillet and watched as it began to melt. He heard the loud squawking of geese outside the kitchen window. The geese, and a couple mallard ducks, were permanent residents who had been around as long as Mick could remember. They were loud and obnoxious but had a pretty good life, feeding off of bread that everybody’s grandkids tossed off their piers.
Mick often wondered if any of the geese that swam around now were the same geese that had been around when he was a kid. He didn’t know the life span of geese, but figured they mostly almost all had to be second; or maybe even third or fourth generation geese.
“Quiet down out there,” Mick called out the window in a scolding tone. “I just got here. There’s nothing to eat yet.”
Mick cut a lemon in half and squeezed the juice, along with a generous splash of Dixie beer, into the skillet with the now-melted butter. He then dumped in a splash of Worstershire and stirred in the shrimp devouring the smell as it lifted from the cast-iron skillet. Mick then found a bag of hush puppies and a bag of onion rings in the freezer, placed them on a pan and slid them into the oven.
The headache wasn’t as bad, but it was still lingering. Mick figured the barbecued shrimp, onion rings and hush puppies would do the trick. He hadn’t eaten or drank much at the little alumni gathering following the concert; just a couple deviled eggs and a glass and a half of red wine. But for whatever reason, he found wine did this to him sometimes; gave him immediate and severe headaches.
He fixed himself a plate, ate in front of the television, put the dishes away and then retreated to the bedroom.
Although the lake house was a great retreat, one of Mick’s favorite features was the bed itself, because the bedroom was situated right over the shoreline. There was a lot to be said for the gentle lapping, or the rougher smacks during stormy weather, of waves under the house. It was one of those things he also missed the most after his mother sold the house and the years in between before he bought it.
People paid money for audiotapes of fake wave sounds for God’s sake; something Mick admittedly tried when he was in college. But it lacked in effect. First off, the sounds of the background seagulls were just plain ole obnoxious. Secondly, with the audio tapes you could only hear the waves.
In the bed at his grandparents house though, you could actually feel them; first in your toes, and then gently spreading throughout your whole body. It was an indescribable feeling of calm and peace; which, oddly enough was indigenous to Lake Pontchartrain. He’d slept in other water-front properties, primarily in Biloxi and on the Florida panhandle. But the Gulf of Mexico was different; slightly more coarse, almost vulgar; whereas Lake Pontchartrain was more ladylike, soft and gentle at times but also volatile and frenzied at other times.
If you closed eyes and let yourself drift, you could actually feel your entire body attune to the ebb and flow. Ten minutes of rest on the bed at the lake house, with no sleep was far superior to a sound two-hour slumber on land.
On any other night, Mick would have been content to loll off just to the sound of the lake. However, he was still in the slight mood for music, classic rock to be exact…
It had been a hell of a day, as far as Fridays went. Mick only taught one class on Fridays, music theory. However, because it was a “once a week” course, the class was required to run three hours.
“For fuck’s sake,” Mick complained that morning to one of the university’s English professors, Gary, over coffee in the teacher’s lounge. “I can’t even stay awake for three hours of music theory in a single class. The students end up having to wake me up half the time.”
“You jest, but that actually happened to a guy who taught economics here a few years back,” Gary replied. “He was an older guy, apparently a stroke victim, but he started nodding off in class in the middle of sentences. They ran his ass off.”
“That’s harsh,” Mick replied.
“I think it was more of a liability issue than anything,” Gary said. “He’d already had one stroke. They didn’t want to be accused of creating job stress which would lead to another. And he was tenured too.”
“That’s just wrong,” Mick said.
“It is what it is,” Gary said. “Are you bringing anyone to the concert tonight?”
“What like a date?” Mick asked. “God no. I’ll be busy conducting. I thought Peterson was conducting tonight.”
“No,” Mick said. “He weaseled out of it.”
“Oh for fuck sake, let me guess, the carpel tunnel syndrome thing,” Gary said.
“Yep,” replied Mick.
“I for one, happen to know that’s total bullshit,” Gary said. “The dean ought to make Peterson give them a doctor’s note. He doesn’t see a doctor, only a chiropractor. Peterson doesn’t conduct or type too much, he jerks off too much to boy porn, the creepy bastard.”
“Well whatever the case may be, he was cleared for tonight,” Mick said. “I’m not up for it. The day already started out as shit.”
“And you haven’t made it through music theory yet? Ouch,” Gary said.
“Well, I lost power last night during those storms, but I was apparently already asleep,” Mick said.
“Let me guess, you woke up late to the blinky digital clock,” Gary said.
“Yep, and then my dishwasher or my sink or something got clogged, damn near flooded my kitchen,” Mick said. “I’m supposed to meet Ted for lunch.”
“Andrews or Hollister?” Gary asked.
Andrews,” Mick said. “Believe me, I wouldn’t be able to handle Hollister today.”
“Yes but Andrews is bad enough,” Gary said. “What is this damned project he’s working on? It’s all been very hush-hush. Isn’t it some kind of ESP thing or something?”
“I don’t honestly know myself, something along the parapsychology line,” Mick said.
“Witchcraft,” Gary muttered. “Doesn’t he know the psychology department here doesn’t believe in, much less teach parapsychology.”
“Oh contraire mon fere,” Mick said. “We’ve had it now for three semesters. Andrews teaches it. You should consult your course catalogue more often.”
“What and expedite an early death,” Gary said. “I’m on a need to know basis, and quite frankly I don’t need to know anything beyond Chaucer studies, so I’m golden.”
“Slacker,” Mick said.
“Say what you will, but while you’re leading the band tonight, I’m going to be at the piano bar at Pat O’s sipping Hurricanes,” Gary said.
“Really,” Mick said. “That’s so, so touristy.”
“Fuck it brother, we’re both in the same boat now, the lonely hearts club band,” Gary said.
“Me, not so much,” Mick said. “I talked to Allison the other day. She’s still in Rome but she’s missing me. We’re talking reconciliation.”
“Lucky bastard,” Gary said. “I’m telling you. The dating pool isn’t a good place for a 35-year-old man to be. It’s embarrassing.”
Mick just nodded, downed the rest of his coffee and stood up.
“As enlightening as this has been, music theory awaits,” he said.
“Later,” Gary said.
Of course, there was no reconciliation in the works. But, as Gary had pointed out, the dating pool was an embarrassing place for a 35-year-old man to be. The lie was much easier than trying to explain the truth of his breakup with Allison. Mick barely understood it himself on most days. Trying to describe it to someone else was damn near next to impossible.
Mick remembered a time, which wasn’t all too far away when he really thought about it, when life seemed ripe with opportunity, an almost endless sea of possibilities. And a cold chill went through his still body as he lay there in the dark as he began to realize that all the things that had once seemed to stable, so solid, were becoming fluid, enshrouding him in ways he’d yet to even begin to understand. His life, his reality, the very world around him was under metamorphosis, changing into one of impossibilities.
His grandparents old stereo was just within arm’s reach of the right hand side of the bed. Mick reached out and flipped it on, smiling not so much at the radio lights, but at the 8-track player.
Kids born in the age of CD’s barely knew what audiotapes were, he mused to himself. They wouldn’t know what to make out of an 8-track.
The lake had grown slightly choppier since he’d arrived, and he could hear the waves splashing a little louder than usual. However, they still held a trance-like quality and Mick let himself sink deeper and deeper into the mattress as he stared idly as the lights on the radio dial – the reds, greens and yellows – came to life.
“I’m in the mood for a melody,” Mick said absently, not really knowing why, as the stereo powered up fully.
There was actually no sound as the stereo powered up and for an instant, Mick thought that perhaps he’d left the stereo’s dial on another function like tape or LP. However, he quickly realized the silence was a pause between songs.
The waves continued to lap mercilessly under the house and for a brief instant Mick thought he heard seagulls. But it was the beginning strains of a song – Robert Plant’s, “I’m in the mood.”
“Well, that’s just fucking weird,” Mick mumbled to himself. “I guess that makes me two for two now,” he added, remembering his lucky guess earlier in the car, on the ride over.
He still didn’t think too much of it and let his apprehension slip away with the dissonance of the sound of the waves propped against Plant’s melodic crooning. It was only after the Plant song that he began to take notice.
As the song began to draw to a close Mick decided to thwart himself and said, “Rock block, three in a row by the Rolling Stones: Ruby Tuesday, I’m Just Waiting on a Friend and Emotional Rescue. There, that should break my winning streak; three different songs, three different albums and three different eras.”
There was a commercial break. The DJ, Jimmy John or some such nonsense, announced a Zebra concert and then switched to commercials. There was a bank commercial, an Alterman Audio commercial and a New Orleans Original Daquiri commercial.
Jimmy returned full of renewed energy.
“I wonder if he was snorting lines off the mixing board,” Mick mumbled to himself.
“And now, three in a row by the Rolling Stones,” Jimmy said.
The announcement was like a powerful blow to Mick’s psyche and he actually had to gasp for breath as Ruby Tuesday began. Mick was too stunned, too surprised to even try to form thoughts or words. In fact, it felt as if his entire body had become paralyzed and he could only wiggle his fingers slightly, like spasms, but with great efforts.
It was only after Emotional Rescue began, that Mick was able to even form a thought.
“There’s no way, no way,” he mumbled. “There has to be a rational explanation for this. Sure there is. The graveyard shift broadcast is probably taped in an endless loop.”
That had to be it.
“But even if it is, you don’t listen to the classic rock station enough at night to have the songs memorized in the right order,” Mick said. “Oh just shut up. That has to be it. There’s no way I could know what songs they’re going to play next. That was a fluke, we’ll try it again.”
This seemed like a suitable solution and Mick began to try to think of songs he rarely, if ever, heard on the radio.
“Allright, got it,” he said aloud, defiantly. “Flirting With Disaster, by Molly Hatchet.”
The next song up was Flirting With Disaster. Mick had tried to prop himself up, but as the song began he sank back down into the bed defeated and afraid.
“What the fuck is going on?” he asked. “What’s happening to me? Please make it stop.”
His breath was heavy and his pulse was racing and a string of song titles began to float just beyond the periphery of his consciousness.
“You have to stop this,” he said to himself. “It’s easy, just reach over and turn the radio off and it will stop.”
But just as that thought came, he was filled with a sadness that was so heavy and so acute that he felt hot tears stream down his face. He still was also unable to move. It was like there was a weight pinning him down. He was sobbing heavily now and he realized the reason for his sadness.
He didn’t want to stop guessing yet. There was a part of him that enjoyed this, that enjoyed the control. But was he controlling it or was it controlling him?
“Sprits in the Material World, 22,000 Days and You Got Lucky, by Tom Petty,” he exclaimed quickly.
The hits kept rolling in Mick’s predicted picks and order, and the process continued to terrify the living shit out of him. Yet, each time he tried to work up the courage to turn the stereo off he grew sad again and was unable. Meanwhile song titles kept coming at him faster than he could even remember them by the time they actually played.
It was dizzying. His head was throbbing again, and it occasionally felt s if he were falling.
“That’s what this is,” he finally exclaimed. “It’s a dream. It’s just a dream. It’s some sort of weird waking dream, but it’s only a dream. But it isn’t a dream and you know it. You’re doing this. I’m doing this.”
Two hours later, Mick was still going strong, but the effort was exhausting him. He was soaked in sweat and his head hurt terribly. He could barely think, save for song titles which came rushing at him.
In an effort to mix things up, he’d scooted himself across the bed, nearer to the stereo and kept his fingers on the tuning dial. He now scrolled from station to station, different formats; blues, Jazz, rap, and country. He was now predicting songs he didn’t even know, by artists he wasn’t even familiar with like Billy Ray Cyrus and T-Pain.
“Vivaldi, Coltrane, Iron Maiden, beastie Boys,” he said as he scrolled, and each station there were those artists and songs, when he specified them. Now, with his finger on the dial, he also felt the buzz, the electric hum flow through him.
“I wonder if it’s charging me up?” he asked. “No,” he replied. “It doesn’t work like that. I don’t know how it works or what’s happening but it doesn’t happen like that.”
Now too, as he listened to the music, he kept his eyes closed, in an effort to quell the throbbing in his temples. But when he did, he uncontrollably envisioned a blank white screen, like a projection screen and it filled with notes; changing musical notes that went in time with the music.
After paying attention though, Mick realized the notes weren’t appearing in time to the music. They were appearing slightly before, not even a quarter beat; but a mili-beat if there could be such a thing. The appearance of the notes was actually anticipating the music before it played.
The sensation that came with this though was nauseating, like speeding fast down a steep country hill, your heart caught jammed in your throat. He couldn’t hold on to it for too long without opening his eyes.
Mick lost track of time and then suddenly, as fast as it all had started it stopped abruptly.
There was no more sound, no more music. Mick thought, for a moment, that he’d accidentally turned the stereo off in his frenzied excitement. But the lights were still on. He scrolled from station to station but got nothing but static.
“This isn’t possible either,” he moaned to himself. “The entire FM band just doesn’t go dead.”
But it had. He flipped over to A.M. and it had too. For the first time since he lay down he actually was able t sit up. He switched on his bedside lamp and checked the speaker connections. But they too were all connected.
“What the fuck?” he asked, his ears now ringing.
His stomach heaved and he thought he was going to vomit but it subsided. He got up, walked to the bathroom, got a drink of water and then returned to bed. He lay back down, flipped off the light and finally, mercifully, turned off the stereo.
He listened to the waves lap under the house for a long while before finally drifting off to sleep.