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Hey Little Sister

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The gig went later than usual tonight. And after--well, it's close to four by the time Billy leaves the club. 

He's tired enough that the world around him is just a little too loud and a little too sharp, and he knows the smart thing to do would be to go home and crash. But he's going past the bar anyhow, and he may as well stop for a drink. Just the one. He'll sleep better if he does, that's what he tells himself. 

He's in here often enough that he knows the bartender by name. He knows her teased hair, a bright, garish orange that looks bottled, is natural because she told him so. He knows her husband left her six years ago because she told him that, too.

He knows the betrayal still rankles because he can see it, behind the sharp anger that narrows her eyes and tightens her lips. It’s a bewildering, formless sort of pain. An empty place inside that used to be raw and bleeding, and now just aches.

He normally wouldn't notice that sort of thing. But he's seen the same mix of fury and heartache before. In his own eyes, behind the glitz and the stage smile and the practiced nonchalance. 

She knows about old days. About Joe. As much as anyone knows who wasn't part of the incestuously tight-knit, dysfunctional bunch of fuckers that they used to call a band. He thinks she might have been a fan once. He can see her as a punk. Punkette. What-the-fuck-ever you call it. He's never asked, though.

"Rough night?" she asks, pushing the glass of scotch across the bar.

He shrugs noncommittally. "Long night."

"I hear you there," she sighs, scanning the near-empty room with a jaundiced eye.

Billy downs the scotch, and cradles the empty glass in calloused, long-fingered hands. She refills it without prompting.

"So you've got kids, right?" he says finally, incongruously.

In response, she pulls out a battered black leather handbag from below the bar, and rummages through it. She rifles through receipts, clipped coupons, and miscellaneous scraps of paper until she finds a wallet-size photo, and lays it on the bar in front of him. It is a cheap studio portrait, carefully encased in a plastic sleeve.

 A gangling teenage boy scowls at the photographer. He's fair-haired, with his mother's sharp features. The younger, towheaded boy perched in front of him beams.

"Trevor just turned fourteen." She points at the scowling teenager. "And Robbie's seven and a half."

"Cute," he says, squinting at the picture.

Billy has his own photo in his wallet. It's Billie's school picture, this year's. He knows it's this year's because Mary told him so. She gave it to him tonight, backstage, and made him sign the papers that said he wouldn't try for custody. He doesn't know why the fuck she thinks he'd try. He wouldn't know what to do with a kid.

"I've got a daughter, y'know," he says abruptly. "I didn't even know it until, uh, a couple of years ago, I guess. I think she's six. Only met her once. Got a picture, though. Got it from her mom.

"I think she's pregnant again," he adds, after a moment's thought. "Mary, not Billie." He picks up the glass and takes a long swallow.

"She's got the same name as you?" She's wiping the sticky counter as she talks.

"Nah, she spells it different."

"So she'll have a little brother or sister." The wet cloth moves back and forth in a swift, practiced motion.

"Yeah," he says noncommittally, staring down into the half-full glass.

When Billy gets drunk on alcohol, he gets morose. In years gone by he would have been violent. Now, he just sits. And broods.

"Never had any brothers or sisters," he adds. "Joe did, though."

But when he's drunk and punchy on adrenaline and exhaustion, he sits, and in that soft-spoken, achingly matter-of-fact way he's got, he talks. It's the only time you can get him to talk about the old days 

"Bet you didn't know that. Had a sister. Couple years younger than he was. Krissie. She was a scrawny kid, all scabby knees and stringy hair. Followed us around a lot. Joe ignored her, let her tag along for a while. Then he'd tell her to get lost. Fuckin' creepy, really, 'cause they'd do it all without words. I mean, there she'd be, tagging after us like some kinda grubby shadow. And he'd just stop, and they'd look at each, and he'd jerk his head. And she'd pout, and take off.

"Last time... last time I saw her, she was, what, fourteen, fifteen. Still a kid really, but wearing lipstick that was way too bright, and black bras under those thin cotton t-shirts. Joe didn't go in for the big brother sort of protective shit. Not much. He didn't care who she dated, or who she fucked. But make her cry, and he'd beat the shit out of you.

"It was just one of those things everybody knew. Joe Mulgrew was trouble. Krissie Mulgrew was easy.

"There was just something about it, y'know? The way he put himself between her and, I dunno, any kinda threat. Not the usual Joe posturing, but, y'know, just stepping in. There's Joe, between her and what-the-fuck-ever. Just standing there, with that mean squint of his.

"Then there was their dad. Well, her dad. Right bastard. I, uh, never asked what went on at home. The bruises... Joe was always picking fights anyhow. Hell, we used to beat the crap out of each other all the time when we got bored. But... I never asked. What happened at night. Wasn't something that got said out loud. But Joe just kept… stepping in.

"She left to go live with their mom when we were seventeen. Pawned Joe's guitar for bus fare. Didn’t hear anything from her until two years later. I knew there was something wrong when Joe got the phone call.

"We were sharing a one-room apartment in North Van back then. It was a dive, and it was all ours. That was the best part."

*** 

There was nothing in the back of the fridge but something bluish green and slimy. Joe got to the last beer before Billy did, the fucker. First his smokes, then the beer. Joe always was a pushy bastard.

"What happened to the goddamn leftover pizza?"

"The fucking human garbage disposal happened, that's what." Joe smirked, and took another drag on his smoke. Billy’s smoke.

"Fucking Pipe."

"You are? Oh Billiam, when's the wedding? Is John your bridesmaid? I hope I get a, what the fuck do you call it, engraved invitation." He tipped the cheap vinyl chair back on two legs, and gestured dramatically with the half-full beer bottle.

"Are you trying to make me puke? Because I'll aim for you, I swear I will." Billy swung the fridge door shut and leaned over to try to knock the chair out from beneath him.

Joe just laughed, brought the chair crashing forward onto all four legs, and shoved Billy out of the way as the phone started to ring.  He picked up the receiver with his usual,"Yeah, what the fuck do you want?"

"Yeah. Yeah, that's me.

"What?

"How?

"Yeah, I'll be there.

"Okay.

"Yeah. Yeah. Me too."

He hung up the phone without saying goodbye, face pulled tight and still like a mask.

"Hey Bill, when was the last time I saw my sister?" he asked, out of nowhere.

“How should I know? I’m not your fucking secretary. When’d she leave? Two, three years ago?”

“She’s dead,” he said flatly.

“What? No. Shit. How’d it happen?"

“Bitch killed herself.”

"Fuck."

“That was some chick she knew, called.”

There was a buzzing echo in Billy's ears, and everything around him suddenly seemed very far away. The gritty, peeling lino was cold under his bare feet. He was cold.

He didn't know if he should put an arm around Joe’s shoulders, suggest getting wasted, or tell him it would all be okay. It seemed like a pretty fucking stupid thing to say, anyhow. None of it sounded like it'd be okay at all. So Billy just stood there.

What the hell did they know about death and funerals and tragedy showing up in the middle of the kitchen over the goddamn phone? All he could think of was that snot-nosed kid following Joe around.

"Funeral’s in Golden. Tomorrow," Joe added.

“You going?” Fucking lame-ass thing to say. Just brilliant, William.

“What the fuck do you think?” he shouted, and grabbed the neck of Billy’s t-shirt hard enough to rip it.

Billy didn't look away. It was dangerous to look away from Joe when he was in your face. “What time do we leave?”

Joe let go of Billy’s shirt and shoved, both hands on his chest, hard enough that Billy had to take a step back to keep his balance. They both pretended not to notice the way Joe’s hands were shaking.

“You’re not going.”

“Yes I am." This, Billy knew what to do with. "What the fuck, Joe? So she wasn’t my sister, but I knew her, I fucking knew her too. I knew her when she was playing fucking hopscotch, and you’re not going alone, Joe, you’re not fucking going alone.”

Joe threw the first punch, that time.

Afterwards, Billy tossed enough clothes and shit for the two of them into a bag. Billy booked tickets on the bus. Billy called Pipe and John and let them know rehearsal was cancelled.

(After, John sent a fruit basket. Joe, when he saw it, said “You’d think somebody fucking up and died,” and threw the apple at Billy’s head.)

Through all of it, Joe just stood there in the middle of their shitty one-room apartment, left side of his face red and puffy from where Billy had smacked it against the floor. Just stood there with this lost little-kid look.

It wasn’t like Billy was expecting him to do any of the work, or thank him. Buddies just do that kind of thing for each other. And his fucking sister had just died.

But... but Joe just standing there, it scared the shit out of Billy. Joe wasn’t supposed to shut down like that. Joe wasn't supposed to just stand there and stare at the wall.

The only thing he said was, “That’s my shirt.”

“I, uh, don’t have a black one.”

“Oh.”

He spent the entire time on the bus on the way there staring out the window. He looked at Billy once, when they hit the city limits on the way out of town.

“She had a fucking crush on you, you know.”

“What?”

“Yeah. When she was twelve.”

“Why didn’t she--why didn’t you tell me, you prick?”

“She was my little sister, you cunt. Besides, she can’t have you. You’re mine.”

Billy didn't say anything to that. That was Joe for you. Fucker always had something to prove, right there, in your face.

After that, he spent the next hour and a half staring out the window. After another hour, Billy gave up, balled up his jacket as a pillow, and tried to sleep. Eleven hours on the goddamn bus, what else was there to do?

They stopped in Kamloops and again in Revelstoke, and got into Golden at ten to two. The funeral was the next morning and Joe dug out the address of the funeral home, scrawled on the back of a matchbook, so they crashed for the night at a motel across the street from the bus depot.

It was your shitty hotel room like any other. It smelled like industrial cleaner and stale cigarette smoke, there was orange patchy carpet on the floor, and the bedspread on the double bed looked like technicolour vomit.

Joe stretched out across the puke-themed bed, boots still on, and tucked his hands behind his head. “I’m good, and where’re you sleeping?”

“Fuck off, and shove over.” Billy kicked the door shut and dropped the duffle bag on his stomach. Fucker didn’t even flinch.

“Fuck off and over?”

“Asshole.” Billy had tried to sleep on the bus but all that did was leave him with a godawful crick in the neck and feeling like someone had stuffed his skull with sawdust. “Feels like something crawled into my mouth and took a piss before it died. I need a fucking shower.”

“Don’t drown while you’re jerking off.” Joe sat up and leaned over close enough to pull Billy’s smokes out of his jacket pocket.

“You fucker!”

“Who gave you that joint last weekend?”

“That was two weeks ago, and you still owe me a pack.”

“When we’re big-shot rock stars, I’ll buy you a dozen,” Joe promised, exhaling. He held out the cigarette, and Billy leaned down to take a drag.

“A dozen. You’re too kind.” Billy shut the bathroom door in his face, stripped down, and stepped into the shower, water cranked as hot as it would go. The greasy bar of hotel soap had the usual sickly-sweet flower scent. It wasn’t enough to cover the persistent smell of mildew that clung to the cracked tiles. The shower ran hot enough to scald for the first minute, and then settled into a steady lukewarm flow.

Joe was good. Joe sounded like Joe again. Sure, they were off to a goddamn funeral tomorrow, but then it’d all be over.

Billy stood under the pounding spray until the water started to get cold. He stepped out of the shower and his pasty reflection looked back at him from the mirror. The florescent lights made him look hung over before he’d even started drinking.

Joe was sitting on the edge of the bed, staring at the butt-ugly carpet when Billy got out of the bathroom. His cigarette had burned down to a long column of ash.

“Hey,” Billy said, reaching over to shake his shoulder.

He whipped around, eyes wide and unfocused, and swung wildly. Billy ducked, and Joe just caught him a glancing blow across the side of his face.

“What the fuck!”

Joe stared back at Billy, colour draining out of his face as his eyes focused. “Oh fuck, Billy. I...”

“Suck,” Billy said, and let it go at that, his hand on Joe’s shoulder like an anchor. “You suck.”

Joe reached out, fingertips hovering over Billy’s cheekbone. Billy could feel the heat from Joe’s fingers, or maybe it was just the bruise coming up, hot and tight under my skin. “I’ll go get some ice.”

“No, I’m good. You got ashes all over the bed, goddamn freak.”

He stared back at Billy helplessly. “What the fuck do you do at a funeral anyhow?”

Billy’d never been to a funeral before. He hoped they kept the coffin closed. Looking at a real dead person wasn’t cool. Looking at Krissie, he remembered, and his stomach clenched.

“You go and you stand around with your thumb up your ass while the priest talks about heaven and everyone cries,” Billy hazarded a guess. Joe clenched his fists on his knees and stared at his knuckles. “Okay, you can leave your thumb out of your ass if you want.”

“I’m pretty tired,” Joe said in a dull monotone.

“Oh. Okay.”

Joe kicked off his boots, and lay down, facing resolutely away from Billy.

“Get under the covers, Joe.”

He sat back up mechanically, pulled off his jeans, and crawled back into bed, puke-bedspread gathered tight around his shoulders. Billy stripped down to his t-shirt and boxers and got into bed next to him.

“Shove over.”

He shifted over an inch. Billy pushed back against him until he had enough room to curl up.

The sheets were scratchy and the pillow was too thin. The air conditioner rattled. But Joe was a warm, solid weight at Billy’s back, and Billy was asleep between one breath and the next. Joe lay there staring at nothing until the grey curtains turned pink as the sun came up.

It was almost noon by the time Billy woke up. The light filtered through the grimy curtains and nope, the room didn't look any better in daylight. All it did was make the air thick and soupy and the air conditioner gasp and thump even harder.

Joe straddled the single straight-backed chair in the room, chin on his folded arms, watching Billy silently.

"God." Billy threw off the sheets, sticky with sweat, and hauled his sorry ass into the bathroom. The heat made his head spin, and his mouth was so dry that his throat rasped raw when he tried to swallow. He turned on the tap as cold as it would go, and rested his head against the counter top until the water ran cold instead of lukewarm.

He stuck his head under the tap, and the icy water that hit the back of his neck was so cold in comparison that it hit him like a physical blow. It felt better than anything that wasn't sex, drugs or rock and roll should ever be allowed to feel, and he just stayed like that, water running down his scalp and soaking into his hair, and dripping into his open mouth.

When Billy lifted his head, blinking the water out of his eyes, Joe was leaning against the door frame. The blood rushed to his head, and took a minute for the dizziness to fade. He needed a smoke and a cup of coffee so bad he could all but taste them both. Billy grabbed the neck of Joe’s t-shirt and pulled him over so they were eye to eye.

“Coffee. Smokes. Now.” Billy’d never been good with mornings.

 Joe smirked, and the fucker licked the side of Billy’s face.

“Goddamn freak!” Billy swiped at the spot Joe had licked, and hissed when his fingers found the bruise Joe’d left the night before. It was swollen and hot to the touch, and hurt like a son-of-a-bitch already.

Billy pushed past him and started pulling shit out of their bags. “What the fuck did you do with my smokes?” Then Billy spotted the empty package sitting crumpled on the bedside table, beside the overflowing ashtray.  “Goddamit.”

Joe shrugged unapologetically. “C’mon,” he said hoarsely. He stopped, coughed, and tried again. “Coffee and smokes, right?”

Billy headed for the door, only to be brought up short by Joe’s hand on his wrist. “What?”

He looked Billy up and down consideringly. “You might want to put some clothes on first.”

Billy looked down. “Shit.”

Five minutes later, he was dressed in yesterday’s crumpled jeans, and one of Joe’s black t-shirts, tucked in and loose across the shoulders. “What time’s the... what time’s it at?”

“Two.” Joe held out the matchbook with the address on it between two fingers.

“Oh.”

They found a cigarette machine in the Denny’s across the street. Billy had three cups of coffee and Joe just pushed his pancakes and sausage around the plate, watching the grease congeal on top of the syrup.

Then they spent an hour walking in circles trying to find the church.

When they finally made it there, the funeral was bullshit. Catholic bullshit. It was all some old priest guy talking about how lucky Chrissie was--and she would’ve tore him a new one for calling her Christine--that she got to be in heaven with baby Jesus.

Although Billy didn’t know what he would have said if he got a chance. To him, she was still the scrawny little girl with the dirty knees following them around. Hey God, she was kind of a slut, but she didn’t do it on purpose. She was just a mixed-up kid who got smacked around at home and never got a decent break. Even her funeral sucked.

Billy had to hold Joe back the first time when they started communion. “C’mon, you fuckhead, you’re not even Catholic,” he hissed, much louder than he’d meant to. Everyone around them pulled just a little bit further away, and priest-guy glared.

“Neither was she! It’d serve the fucker right if I drank all the wine! I bet it’s just fucking grape juice,” Joe whispered fiercely, but he didn’t try to jump the pew and make a break for the altar.

Somehow, Billy managed to keep Joe seated and his goddamn mouth shut for the rest of the service. It was when they were shuffled towards the door, following the casket out that the trouble really started.

"Joe? Joe Mulgrew?" The voice was female, young and hesitant, and belonged to some blonde chick. Billy guessed it was one of Krissie's friends. Her teased hair was starting to wilt in the heat, and the mascara that wasn't tracked down her skinny face was smeared on the bedraggled piece of Kleenex she was shredding nervously between her bubblegum-pink nails. "I'm Allie, I'm Kr--" She stopped and swallowed hard. "I was Krissie's best friend. We talked on the phone.

As she said all of this, she was looking at Billy.

When Billy thinks it through afterwards, he can see why. He's small, blonde, and got the same lanky frame as poor Krissie Mulgrew. He and Joe must have been the only two faces she didn't know. And Joe, to be honest, looming grim and silent behind Billy, was a scary-looking fucker.

"No, uh--" Billy cleared his throat and started again. "No, I'm Billy. Billy Tallent." He reached out and squeezed her nervous fingers, and smiled. Girls always liked Billy. "This is Joe here."

Joe, mouth set in a tight, hard line, didn't say anything. He wasn't even listening. Billy followed his line of sight across the crowded hall.

Shit.

It was too late, Joe was already pushing his way through to the door.

"Hey. Mom."

Billy didn’t hear the first part of the conversation, but everyone in the church heard Joe’s parting remarks.

I was supposed to look after her? You’re her fucking mother! You didn’t take care of either of us. You were too drunk or stoned or high, so don’t you fucking blame me! So fuck you, too." 

Billy elbowed his way through the funeral procession muttering apologies, edged past the casket and the pallbearers, and stepped out of the church with a sharp sense of foreboding. Joe was halfway across the parking lot, heading purposefully away. No blood, no broken glass, no cops. Good. When Billy hit the walk out front, he started to run to catch up.

Joe stopped dead in his tracks half a block from the church, staring at the newspaper box by the curb. “I need a paper.”

“What the fuck?” Billy wheezed.

“I wanna read her, what the fuck do you call it. Obituary. Got any quarters?” He shook the metal box, but it didn’t budge. 

Billy turned out his pockets. Three pennies, a pack of matches, broken guitar pick, ten dollar bill and some lint. “No, I used ‘em up buying smokes.”

“God-fucking-dammit!” Joe roared, and kicked the box. People were starting to stare. Fuck ‘em.

Billy waited until he was off-balance, hopping up and down, clutching at his foot, to grab his arm. “C’mon, Joe. C’mon. Let’s get some change. I’ll buy you a drink.” He needed a drink. Hell, Billy needed a drink. Or two. Or ten.

So that’s what they did.

***

Billy falls silent. There's a story behind the story that he isn't going to tell, no matter how tired or drunk he is. About two stupid kids, and how all the harsh truths they thought they knew hadn't prepared them when they came face to face with cold, hard evidence of their own eventual mortality. About a cheap motel room, one double bed, and what had happened under the threadbare sheets.

The years when they were In A Band Together fall into two kinds of memories. The first are one long night after another of bars and gigs and mornings-after all blurred together. Most of the time, they stay comfortingly distant and vague. The second are a handful of moments painful in their clarity. These, he wills out of existence. Sometimes, it even works.

No matter what else he forgets about those years, he always remembers this: How they had stayed out drinking until the bars closed, and then they'd taken a six-pack back to the motel room and finished it off in the cold, grey light that you only ever saw just before dawn. How Joe had crawled into bed with his boots on, and Billy had doggedly pulled off the boots, and his jeans. Joe started to shiver, then, and when pulling the puke-green bedspread up over his shoulders didn't help any, Billy crawled into bed and curled up behind him.

He remembers exactly how he'd felt the heat of Joe's skin when he pressed his forehead between Joe's shoulder-blades, and how Joe had turned and reached blindly for him. He remembered just how Joe's mouth had tasted like beer and his cock like salt, and how it wasn't until he came, fingers twisted painfully into Billy's hair, that he had started to cry. How the shuddering, wracking sobs made Billy afraid that he was never going to stop.

He remembers Joe clutching desperately at him even after he fell asleep. But then again, he also remembers how Joe tried to hold onto him when the band split, and how he'd tried to hold on again with the goddamn fucking reunion tour.

“I hadn’t thought of Krissie in years." Billy slouches down further and stares at his hands cupped around the empty glass.

"Well, you've got a little girl of your own now..." The bartender is still wiping the counter top, waiting for the end of the story and the end of her shift.

"What, Billie?" He shakes his head. "Nah, she's not like Krissie, thank god... looks nothing like her, either.

"Y’know, I thought at first she might be Joe’s. But she’s got my eyes, the same mouth. I always thought that was a fucking stupid thing to say, she has your eyes. Thank fucking god she doesn’t have Joe’s. Dunno what she’d see with them 

"Joe’d make a shitty father anyhow. Can y’see that, Joe, somebody’s dad? He’d get all fucking stubborn and go for custody, too. Dunno what he’d do with a kid, drag her out on the road like some kinda mascot or what. If he hadn’t shot himself in the fucking head."

This is where all of Billy’s stories come back to. This is where all of Billy’s stories end.

"Got me a girl named Eleanor Pearl, daughter of my dead wife Jane..." he mutters to himself. His calloused fingers tap out the chords sporadically on the scarred counter top.

"I think that's enough for you, Mr. Tallent," the bartender says as gently as she knows how. "You've had enough and I have to close."

Billy picks up on the caustic edges impatience brings to her voice, and hears a dead man behind her words.  Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. William fucking Tallent. We're gonna be rock stars, Billiam.

He tosses down the last of his drink, and grimaces. The ice is long since gone, and what's left is mostly water. There's a full bottle of good scotch, and the dregs of some cheap whiskey waiting for him at home. He'll drink the whiskey, damn Joe's ghost, and call it a night before the sun rises.

He stands, shoulders his jacket, picks up his guitar case, and drops a twenty on the counter. " 'Night, Lisa. You take care of those kids." He can afford to tip well these days.

"What do you know, the bastard knows my name after all." She shakes her head, locks the door behind him, and goes to cash out. And then she goes home to a sinkful of dirty dishes, a pile of unpaid Visa bills, and to her own mundane tragedies and small victories, one of whom is still waiting up to say goodnight.