I got a drumset for my nineteenth birthday. Time and distance had softened the memories surrounding my failure at guitar, keyboard, clarinet, and the use of my own voice. Drumming seemed like something I could do on instinct without learning to read sheet music or tabs, and a part of me deeply believed that so many years of playing Nintendo had given me the hand-eye coordination of, at the very least, the one-armed guy from Def Leppard. In hair metal videos, the drummer was always twirling sticks and having the best time out of anyone in the band, and that made me feel like drumming was the sort of catharsis where if you were good at it, the blackness that filled your ribcage in the moments you were forced to interact with your parents would just come pouring out in a rush of sweat and noise.
I started taping Sam Ash ads to the TV and coffeemaker, appliances that generally received more attention than I did. We were a family where no one talked to each other, so passive-aggressive note-leaving was our native tongue. My mother once left me a note that said, “THIS IS NOT A FLOPHOUSE,” that my coworkers laughed at so hard that everyone at my job started referring to her as Floppy. It was hard to tell at almost-nineteen what was normal and what was specific to the excruciating silences of the relationships in my family. My parents were actively not speaking to me more often than they were, so I didn’t expect a birthday gift. It was almost as if I was taping up pictures of drum kits and cymbals the way a ghost will make a lamp flicker to show its energy is still around. I was still there, going to a cheap state school close to home, working two jobs, hoping to learn to play the drums, stuck in some kind of post high-school purgatorial afterlife where the only people who could see me were my friends.
My mother came home from work on my birthday. She made macaroni, gave me an empty card, and told me she would go with me to Sam Ash. We made the long drive in my 95 Chevy Beretta, enveloped by the silence of two people who do not understand each other and will probably stop talking in a few years. My mother smoked out of the open window, white-knuckled the door handle when I merged onto the expressway, and got exceedingly agitated when I turned into the wrong parking lot by accident. I picked out the cheapest drumset, a brand called Sound Percussion, the only one cheap enough that I didn’t feel guilty about not buying it myself. She paid, and a man with a ponytail helped bring it out to the car.
The cymbals rattled in the trunk as we drove down the highway.
She smoked two more cigarettes.
I wish I could say that I practiced everyday with a dogged determination, that I would emerge from the basement after drumming along to Emerson, Lake, and Palmer for hours with sweat glistening on my giant new biceps and sculpted ladypecs. Instead, I joined a punk band, and that was as good as I got. I was nervous and uncoordinated and we played at the VFW hall where I booked shows. We played my college once and twice we played a dirt lot where I brought my own kit and unloaded each piece from my car, which somehow felt even more drummery than actually playing the drums.
I wish I could say that my drumset didn’t eventually come to its final resting place next to my guitar in a darkened corner of the basement near a pile of broken VCRs and a Cabbage Patch named Bronwyn Hope. I wish I could say that I kept trying and got better and made it out of my hometown as quickly as possible.
But I was twenty-four when I graduated college. Emotionally, it was like sitting in the waiting room of a dentist’s office for those six years, listening to the whirring of drills, and watching the sun set day after day through dirty Venetian blinds. I was working at a record store when my diploma came in the mail. I made a six-month plan to move as far away as I could, took a second job, and started selling off anything I knew wouldn’t fit in my car.
The record store was down the street from my parents’ house. The window display hadn’t changed since I was in junior high, and one of the first things I did when I started working there was rip down the sun-stained album flats for Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy and Madonna’s Immaculate Collection that had been hanging in the window on rusted staples for over ten years. I electrocuted myself backing up into the pink neon sign that said TAPES CDS LPS BOUGHT & SOLD and came to in the store window twenty minutes later. Cars backed in and out of the parking lot. No one noticed the electrocuted woman in the window.
The store was usually a motorcade of debilitation before noon. The first customer of the day was always Richie, the slow guy who cleaned the Taco Bell parking lot in the mornings for free tacos. He had every Diana Ross record on indefinite layaway, and his fingers were perpetually coated in different stages of nacho cheese, from wet to crusted. Richie always wanted to shake hands, and even though I am deeply germaphobic, I did it anyway because he said I was his best friend.
Then there was Jim the Pedophile, who was eighty-seven and dragged himself into the store with a walker every day. He had the two most enormous front teeth I had ever seen, and one of them was broken at an angle where spit would pool into the rack if he was looking at a CD for too long. It was my boss who pointed out that Jim only bought albums with teenage girls on the cover, and that he had bought the first Britney Spears and Mandy Moore albums over a hundred times. He was like a giant, sexually-deviant, liver-spotted rabbit.
Vinny started coming in on my first day and would fetch the albums that people asked for and then hand them to me without saying a word. He had a gray ponytail and a moustache and looked like somebody’s handsome father who works on model railroads or cabinetry and only tells his wife he loves her on his deathbed. After a few weeks, he started talking to me and bringing me mixes. My boss said he had been coming to the store since 1987 and had never spoken a word to anybody. When I told him I had a boyfriend, he brought me one final mix: fifteen songs about killing the woman who broke your heart, and then he never came back.
The store had been staffed by unfriendly, spectrumy men for so long that almost no women or young people came in to shop. When I changed the window display, it brought a new wave of people who noticed the store from the street. I had just finished assembling the new window: a cardboard cutout I had painted of a demented Santa chasing down an elf with an axe. The sign said, WE’RE SLASHING PRICES FOR THE HOLIDAYS! I stood outside in the November cold to admire it for a while. Then I went inside to check if I had sold any of the stuff I had put on Craigslist in anticipation of moving.
The door chimed and a boy with a rat-tail walked in. He was probably about ten. His shirt was kind of dirty and he walked straight to the dollar records. I watched him flip through, see if they were scratched, and make a pile of what he wanted. When I rang him up, I saw that they were all AC/DC records.
“Hey, you have pretty good taste,” I said, putting his stuff into a bag.
He looked embarrassed. “Thanks,” he said. I handed him the paper bag and he left.
He came back the following Saturday around the same time. This time, he had moved onto B: Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality and Blue Oyster Cult’s Fire of Unknown Origin.
“These records are amazing. How’d you get such good taste?”
He looked like no one had ever asked him a question in his life. “I’m just guessing.”
“Well, you’re doing a good job of it.” I took his wrinkled five-dollar bill and handed him the paper bag. “What’s your name?”
“Steven,” he said.
“Steven, I’m Cassie.” There was a pause. He looked down, probably nervous that a weird adult was talking to him. “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
He looked embarrassed again. “I don’t know.”
“Well, I don’t know either, so that makes two of us.”
He drummed his hand on the counter and I had an idea.
“Steven, do you play an instrument?”
He looked down, then scratched the back of one leg with his other foot. There was a hole in the side of his sneaker. “No. I want to, though.”
“Have you ever thought about drumming?”
“Let’s say I had a drumset I didn’t need anymore. Do you think your parents would let you have it?”
He looked around like he was trying to find a hidden camera. “I dunno. Maybe. Probably. I hope so. I could ask my mom. She’s getting her nails done next door.”
He came back with his mom twenty minutes later. She had big hair, cheap perfume, bangs sprayed magnetic north like a dated yearbook photo. She fished cigarettes out of an oversized pleather purse. “I think it’s fine, but we’ll see what Big Steve says. Little Steve will give ya a call.”
Steven called as I was closing the store. He sounded shy and nervous and like there had probably been a fight among his parents over the drumset. “Is tomorrow okay? My dad says he can get it in his work truck.”
Sundays were my favorite day because I was mostly alone in the store. It was a day of vacuuming and trying to sync up Iron Maiden albums with straight-to-video movies from the dollar bin. I brought the drumset into the store and thought I might play it one last time, but instead I sat on the stool and watched Melissa Gilbert cry about a bungled adoption with Fear of the Dark ripping over it. I was eating takeout when Big Steve pulled up in his work truck. Little Steve was in the passenger seat. He jumped down from the truck and helped me drag the components of the drum set into the parking lot. Big Steve didn’t say a word. He smoked a cigarette while we unscrewed the cymbals and put the parts in the bed of the truck. There was a familiar tension I recognized as minor inconvenience paired with the strain of two people who would probably never really know each other.
“You’ve got a good kid here,” I said.
“You gonna give me earplugs, too?” Big Steve said, throwing the butt of his cigarette into the street.
Steven tensed up when his father spoke. We put the last pieces in the truck and his dad started the engine.
“You gotta promise me that you’ll get good,” I said, handing him the sticks and bass pedal.
He got in the passenger side. “I promise.”
He never came back to the store.