Microphone

 

In high school our senior year, Nate, Dan, Barton and I decided we would play in the talent show. I played drums, Barton played guitar. Nate didn’t own a bass, but Barton figured he could teach him how to get through a simple bass line on a pretty simple song, if we could get hold of a bass for a few days. And Dan couldn’t really sing, but somehow that didn’t matter much. He wanted to do it. We thought we could probably get through a version of “Louie Louie,” though none of us could figure out the words.

Over the next couple of weeks we made it work, more or less. But Barton wasn’t good enough to handle a solo, and we needed a solo in there somewhere. There was a kid down the street who was always carrying his sax case with him—he played in the marching band. His name was Randy Barrasani. He looked like he was eight years old, only he had this moustache.

We’d never talked to him before, and one day I walked up to him when he was at his locker and asked him if he wanted to join our band, which we were calling Back Alley. He jumped when I started speaking, and he kept his eyes down, which let me study that moustache up close.

“Yeah, OK,” he said.

Two nights before the talent show, he came over to Barton’s garage, where I had set up my drums. Nate had gotten a bass through his older brother and was working on the two notes he was supposed to play. We’d gotten Randy a tape of the song, which he hadn’t heard before, but he came in and was able to nail a solo in no time. He was a like little professional sideman. We high-fived him, and Dan called him Randy the Man. Randy looked, at that moment, like a kid who had just come downstairs to a room full of Christmas presents.

For the show we agreed we’d dress in some outrageous way. Dan wore painter pants and a vest with no shirt underneath. Nate draped a chain over his shoulders, and Barton wore a referee shirt over black pants that he had splattered with white paint. I wore a tuxedo jacket and ripped jeans. Randy showed up in his PE uniform, with a cape tucked down the back of his shirt.

“He looks like a superhero who lives in an orphanage,” Barton said. But we also didn’t want to hurt his feelings, so when we gathered around him we just called out, “Randy the Man.”

We were the fourth act to go on, and when Mrs. Phillips announced us to the crowed, she said, “Next up is Back Alley playing ‘Lovie Lovie.’”

That was the first thing that went wrong.

We walked out, our arms raised already in triumph—except for Randy, who kept his eyes trained on the stage. We were popular—I’m not bragging, I’m just saying what’s true—and the crowd wanted us to win.

I counted off, and we jumped in.

Barton’s guitar was loud—you could barely hear the rest of us, but that was OK. I was keeping us in time, and then it was time for Randy’s solo. We kept playing, and we looked at each other—Nate, Dan, Barton, and I—and it took us a minute to understand what was happening. Randy had forgotten to turn his microphone on, and no one could hear him.

Tara Niles won first place with her solo piano performance of Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer”—instrumental. In second place was Craig Humphreys, who played the banjo. Third place went to five kids from Huntley Park calling themselves Breakin’ It; they danced on some mats.

Nate is apparently a lawyer in Chicago now. Dan fought in the Gulf War, and he came through fine. He’s in real estate a few counties over, and we exchange Christmas cards. I moved with my wife and daughters back to town about nine years ago; and that’s been good for us. It’s the town that we know best. And I run into Barton from time to time, since he never left. It’s not always easy, though. Barton’s been through a couple of marriages. I think he’s seeing a waitress from Bennigan’s, but it’s not clear. And Barton is a hard drinker, so there’s that.

When we do see each other, the conversation always turns back to high school pretty quickly—football games, girls, the teachers. And just as often, the talent show.

“Didn’t even turn on the microphone,” Barton’ll say, in equal parts bewilderment and disgust.

“I mean, what did we get him for, to come out on stage with us in his PE uniform with a cape? With that moustache. Like some Goddamned Burt Reynolds. Oh, man.”

We laugh, and then I try to get us to move on to something else.

One night, Barton calls me—I didn’t even know he had my number. The girls are asleep.

“Dude, you’re never going to believe what I found out.” It takes me a minute to recognize his voice.

“What?”

“I can’t believe this,” Barton says. “I was screwing around on the computer, and it occurred to me to look up Randy Barassani, see whatever happened to that guy. And dude, he’s like a gazillionaire. He’s some kind of computer CEO or something. He invented some kind of popular computer. You’d know the name. I’m not in front of the screen right now.”

“Huh,” I say.

“Yeah, do you believe it?”

“Wow,” I say.

“But listen to this. Right on their website it says you can e-mail him directly. You know, like that kind of company president that wants people to know that he’ll listen to the Average Joe Schmoe, or some crap. Anyway, I was going to e-mail him and say, ‘Turn on the mic, dumbass.’ Or maybe, ‘You can turn the mic on now.’ Or something, I don’t know. But something about the microphone. Just a single sentence. Anyway, what do you think? That’d be awesome, right?”

In the background I hear a siren pass. I am thinking about my wife, who is at a convention for the week, and I am wishing I hadn’t picked up the phone.

“It was so long ago, is all,” I finally say.

I can hear Barton breathing. “Yeah,” he says. He doesn’t like my response. “But it’s just an e-mail. I’m not trying to blow up his building or anything. Just something like, ‘They can’t hear you—turn on the freaking mic, dork.’”

“Huh,” I say. He is waiting for me to say more. There is a crackling sound on the line, like paper being balled up, like sticks burning. I hear the siren again somewhere around Barton’s house. It is getting closer.

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