This holiday, we present Tommy Orange’s short story “Session Drummer” from Issue 116 in its entirety.
I’m on a train and it’s Saturday so I don’t have to work, but when I’m not working Saturday I’m usually working. I mean it’s work only because I get paid and need the money, but it’s playing drums—like a drum set in a studio. I’m a sometimes session drummer working mainly at this studio in West Oakland where people know me as a good enough drummer to call when they need a good enough drummer for a usually mediocre album project. What I do for a living, as they say, is to wash windows. I wash building windows no one else wants to clean at the risk of falling to their deaths at fall-to-your-death-high heights. The pay is actually pretty good, because of the risk that a cable could potentially snap and I could fall to splat. I like the sky on glass better than I do the sky—I like to make it shine. I don’t need the money I get for drumming, but it’s nice to get extra money especially ’cause I’m always helping out my dad. I don’t like to think or talk about my dad and that is maybe precisely why I always do.
Sometimes when I’m looking out the window of a train I’ll find myself sort of accidentally narrating in my head about human behavior and activity like some fucked up anthropologist and it’s really sad, but I don’t usually catch myself doing it until it’s too late.
The year’s just hours old and everything feels new and not in a good way. Christmas just passed and I spent it with my dad and his wife for the first time. I guess we have our shit together enough to feel okay celebrating together and not fighting; to be able to afford gifts, to care enough that each one of us cares enough to get together at all. I had the thought over the holidays that this new administration is like the ghost of America’s Christmas past. But then I thought America is not Scrooge and probably won’t have a change of heart anytime soon anyway. And then I had the thought that America is Scrooge and will have a change of heart sometime soon probably?
It smells like piss and new-car on this train, with a faint trace of cigarettes, bourbon, and burnt rubber, or condom rubber, or both; all of them are there in the smell that I smell just now as I pass an especially sinister-looking man on the second to last train. He’s white, like poor-white, and desperate-seeming enough to be entirely untrustworthy, he says something about it being his birthday that I ignore and he just stares hard at me like he’s trying to force something out of me, like with his dark eyes under thick dark brows, he’s trying to move further in, past the surface of my face, as he watches me watch him, loving that I’m, if not scared, then at the very least acutely aware of his presence.
* * *
I get to the studio late ’cause my dad called me when I was almost there and told me some shit about his wife that made me stop in my shoes. Is that a saying? No, sorry, it’s that I stopped dead in my tracks, but my shoes are what stopped, with my feet wearing them and me looking down amazed that I’m surprised he’s once again lost it.
“She took all my clothes and gave ’em to the homeless,” my dad had said. I didn’t know what to say so I didn’t say anything. “She took all the money I keep under the mattress I was gonna pay you back with so now you’re gonna have to wait a little longer.” I didn’t want to have to tell my dad that if he had enough money under his mattress to pay me back why did it go under the mattress in the first place and not to me.
“She’s off her meds,” he said. I’d loaned him $2,000 to get a new used car after he told me she’d taken his car and refused to give it back. This was before the holidays when all of our problems seemed to disappear. The thing about my stepmom’s supposed mental health problems is that they’re not hers but my dad’s. I play along like he’s living with a criminal, like he’s the victim, because when he gets to where he gets to it’s the only way. I’ve known his wife, Carol, long enough to know she genuinely has his best interests in mind. I genuinely don’t know why she stays with him. Or I do know—hate that I know—and don’t want to know because of how much it’s related to why I keep caring about him. Abusive people can be charming is something no one likes to admit. Carol’s one of these white women who worships Native American men even while these men like my dad knowingly take advantage of the fact that white women like my stepmom worship them.
My parents split when I started high school. The non-fight over custody hurt. Meaning my dad didn’t fight to have time with me. The strands that connected us to any shared sense of reality had been coming looser and looser over the years, way before he was accusing my stepmom of shit I knew was some kind of crazy sabotage related to his being particularly self-destructive via a most likely undiagnosed bipolar diagnosis. I’m maybe like him in ways I can’t see. That’s the fucked up thing about not seeing: you don’t see what you don’t see, or you see what other people don’t see when they don’t see, but never your own.
* * *
Producers—like directors and doctors—are control monsters. Have god complexes. I like the guy I’ll be playing for today. His name is Dennis. He’s an old white guy who always wears a beret and actually pulls it off. Normally I don’t like berets on anyone unless it’s in a black-and-white picture. Or if they’re from another country and I’m seeing them in a movie. Dennis is pretty old or looks that way anyway, and once you get old enough you can wear any kind of hat you want.
They’re all smoking a blunt on the sound engineer’s side of the glass. I’d hit it once then come onto this side of the glass to sit on the throne. That’s a fancy name for a drummer’s stool. I’m trying to get this dream I just remembered to go back where it came from. Something about a giant robot made of arcade machines. We were in a battle against people from the City. Eating heads gave the robot power. I was helping the robot lure people close enough to him that he could suck their heads into his vacuum arms bloodlessly, which would make his glow get brighter, and he’d grow a little. I felt good. We were winning. We were getting stronger. We needed more heads. I don’t know or care what the dream means right now ’cause I’m about to play. But here it sits with me on the throne, heavy like an impossibly shaped crown on the top of my headphoned head which hears all the nonsense they’re talking on the other side of the glass.
* * *
The session goes well but it’s a little boring because they keep punching in guitar licks where the producer doesn’t think the timing’s quite right. It’s an indie rock band full of white guys not as good as session players who care about making a good album more than they do playing on it. All I pretty much do is watch the producer watch the lead singer, watch the session guitarist, Eric, who’s very good, and black, unable to listen to the vague directions the producer keeps giving him about hitting it right. You don’t hit guitar licks. You might rip, or shred, or some other apt verb—that verb you do on the guitar—but you don’t hit. Finding out the band’s name is the worst part of my day: Radical Enjambment.
* * *
I get back on the train headed for my dad’s apartment over in San Leandro. I didn’t tell him I’m coming. I know he’d leave if I told him I was coming. I see his call coming in and intuit he wants to know where I am. I know he knows I might be coming over.
“Hey, son,” he says, casually like he’s happy I answered for reasons related to wanting to hear my voice when I know it’s because he wants answers from me related to whether or not I’m coming over.
Hey dad sorry I can’t talk right now, I text like I’m busy, which will make him think I’m occupied somewhere and most likely not headed to his apartment. The weird thing about mental illness, or whatever you want to call it, is how you can end up closer to a parent more fucked up to you than the one who loves you better because of having gone through shit and coming out together—if you can.
* * *
I’m at eye level with the J15 on his front door. I don’t knock because I know him. He’ll not answer. There’s an eyehole and he’s an asshole. He’ll see me and say no to us having an encounter today, no to my knock. He’ll not come to the door to even say it, he’ll say it by not having to say it. He’ll be somewhere far off from where anyone should rightfully be. Shit’s fucked up for some people and has been for long enough to where it will feel normal to the point of comfortable for people who have had to get used to it. But I do knock only I duck and move to the left of the door where he can’t see me from the eyehole or his front window. When the door opens and he pops his head out to see both ways I get up like I was tying my shoes and make sure he can’t close the door by stepping through it. The house is a mess to say the least and to say the most would be to say it both smelled and looked like puke.
“Where you been?” is what my dad asks me sitting shirtless and pantless but with yellow-white worn underwear—sitting but maybe more leaning—on his couch. “You haven’t been here,” he says to me like he’s saying, You don’t know me.
“I’m not here about money,” I say.
“Everyone’s here about money,” he says.
“You know what I mean,” I say.
“You don’t is something we won’t talk about,” he says.
“Dad she’s not against you,” I say.
“She keeps taking everything,” he says, then stands on the couch like that’s something someone should do when they really mean to mean something.
“You’re the one, Dad. You’ve always been the one,” I say.
“You know you don’t know, son.” This thing he says as a statement seems at once entirely true and false at once, because I do know that it always comes back to him and what he does to us—we, the anyone forced to explain that it’s we who love ourselves wrong, and not him when aiding and abetting his madness.
“All I’m saying is get it together, if not for you then for us,” I say, and I don’t know exactly who I mean by us.
“Everyone always thinks they have it more together than we do,” he says.
“Who do you mean by ‘we’?”
“Who do you mean by ‘us’?” he says and steps off of the couch and goes to the fridge for a bottle of sparkling apple juice.
“You’re off your meds,” I say as a statement but mean as a question.
“What are yours?”
“I’m here to tell you it’s okay about the money, I don’t need it,” I say.
“Dad you’re not treating me right. I’m gonna go,” I say.
“But who does need money,” he says.
“I work for a living. I wash windows way up in the air where the sky shows brighter than when I look at it in the sky. And I do other stuff to make a living. I play drums. They pay me to do that, too. I didn’t live the life you lived but I lived one inside of the one you lived. I know you may not hear this even as I’m saying it but I’m saying it because I know things said can live longer than the span of their sound in the air,” I say. His back is to me, he’s bent into the fridge looking for something or not looking but hoping something will come from inside the fridge he never could have thought to look for.
“I work for a living,” he says. I walk to the front door and I grab hold of the knob. I drum my fingers on the knob from pinky to thumb with the pinky meaning the highest note I hear in my head and the thumb the lowest. What I’m drumming is what I’m feeling and I don’t know exactly what it means. I’m waiting because I know he was just repeating something I said and not actually saying something, and because I know he likes to have the last word.
“You haven’t lived the life I’ve lived inside the life I’ve lived, son,” he says. And he walks out of the room meaning to me it’s already been time to go.
* * *
In the car I keep flipping back and forth between listening to music and the radio and podcasts then going to the silence of my loud head about my dad and how much he or I could possibly know about each other at all. I get to a red light and it seems to stay red forever. It keeps staying red. While it refuses to change I think about the future past and present as the same dreaded thing to think about. The light stays red and I don’t even know where I’m going or why. All I know is that I’m here red waiting for green, and my dad is at home and we can’t possibly understand ourselves or even anything.
Tommy Orange is the author of the New York Times best-selling novel There There (Knopf), a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize. You can purchase Issue 116, which features his story “Session Drummer,” via our Shop page.