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Jodi Angel, author of You Only Get Letters from Jail and Matthew Spektor, author of Amerian Dream Machine reading at Powell's Books Monday, July 22, 7:00pm
Fenestration Ideation: Bryan Hurt
Stolen from Inspired by the work of Matteo Pericoli, whose 2009 book, The City Out My Window, remains a favorite on all gift-giving occasions, we bring you Fenestration Ideation, a new semi-regular feature that has writers looking out windows and telling the stories behind what they see.
In today’s installment, writer Bryan Hurt remembers a window in Prague, the boy that jumped out of it, and what it all has to do with a Borders in Ohio.
Vodka Party/Drum Solo
When Mr. Holiday broke into our room to break up the party, the other Brian jumped out the window. Five stories down late-model Skodas, Peugeots, and Citröens pulled into and out of the parking lot. Brian’s fingers clung to the sill. I could see them from where I sat on my bed. The twins, Adam and Aaron, dove into the closet. All of the girls hid in the bathroom. They poured vodka down the toilet and flushed.
This was Prague, 1998, and my high school orchestra’s tour of Eastern Europe was ending the same way it’d begun: in Prague, in a Soviet-era tenement building turned hostel, where American teenagers in every room were drinking gallons of vodka. We were the Medina “Battling Bees”—bees on account of our town’s most famous citizen, the revolutionary beekeeper Amos Root—and for two weeks we’d been touring the European countryside, playing concerts in elementary schools and concert halls in Budapest, Bratislava, and Brno. In Brno we’d recorded a CD that would be sold for years afterwards at the local Borders in Fairlawn, OH, where, if you wanted, you could go to one of the listening stations and hear me botching the same drum solo again and again.
For most of those two weeks I’d been staring out of windows—bus windows, boat windows, car windows, hostel windows—feeling bad for myself, an activity for which being fifteen and in the post-Soviet Czech/Hungarian/Slovakian landscape was particularly well-suited. Outside of every window were gray skies, gray buildings, gray cows grazing in wet fields, telephone poles connecting no one. Every window was spit upon by rain. I was feeling sorry for myself because the girl I loved, a violin player, didn’t love me back. She was in love with one of the twins, who was in love with someone else. Adding to my Young Werther-like sorrow was also the fact that the orchestra’s good drummer, Pete, had skipped out. He was back home, in Medina, and I was forced into being the orchestra’s lead drummer, a role for which I was not suited and did not want.
It wasn’t that I was a bad drummer. I had plenty of talent but none of the will. Pete had both. He wanted to be a great drummer. Not only did he play in every orchestra, honor band, and jazz combo that the high school offered, but he practiced for hours each day after school. Each day when I got home from school I ate Chips Ahoy! and watched Total Request Live. During the weeks leading up to the tour, Mr. Holiday seemed to become more resigned to his fate than determined to do anything to change it. The orchestra was going to tour Eastern Europe without its first-rate drummer. There was nothing he could do. We barely practiced the piece that I was supposed to solo, some old-timey, diluted, Americana-style jazz song that’d been adapted from Porgy & Bess. When we did practice the song, Mr. Holiday rushed everyone through it. He’d beat his wand against the podium. He’d glare at me while I fumbled behind the drums. Even when we weren’t practicing, I’d catch him sometimes staring at me. He’d sigh a depressive’s sigh. The week before we left on tour he stopped trimming his beard.
One of the main reasons why I was never the world’s best drummer is that I followed when I should have led. I preferred playing the more atmospheric percussion instruments—the timpani, the bass drum, and once, memorably, the anvil—instruments whose musical presence was felt more than heard. A good drummer is supposed to be super-confident. You set the beat and charge ahead. Me, I always felt exposed behind the kit, as if the violin player and everyone else in the orchestra was looking at me, which, in fact, they were. What I recall most, when it came time for me to perform my solo in the Brno concert hall for the orchestra’s CD, is the fist I felt in my chest. I spazzed out, hit a few cymbals, hit a few drums. Mr. Holiday stopped me and told me to do it again. I did it again but worse. When the CD eventually went on sale, my parents bought a copy, though I don’t think they ever listened to it. They are, mercifully, not the kind of people who are often moved by the urge to listen to a high school orchestra’s rendition of a John Phillips Sousa march. I, on the other hand, listened to the CD all the time, though I never had the courage to listen to it at home. I’d slip away to Borders, put on the big headphones, skip past all of my good bass drum and timpani work, and listen to my drum solo. That same damn drum solo, over and over, again and again.
A few years ago I was back in Ohio, visiting for the holidays, and my parents and I drove past the strip mall where that Borders had been. Before the whole company had imploded, when it was still hoping that it could downsize to survive, our Borders had been one of the first to go. The windows were dark but inside you could see all of the empty bookshelves, the empty bins. I was sad, of course, because like a lot of people who’d grown up in a certain time, in a certain suburban place, who were not immediately talented at music or sport, I’d spent a lot of time there. Identity, I guess, is what you call it when you build up a relationship between the idea of yourself and a place. So the idea of a place that no longer sold Bradbury or Vonnegut or Dungeons & Dragons manuals? A place that no longer sold my drum solo?
Sometimes I think back to Prague in 1998, to that moment when Mr. Holiday walked into our room, while the girls were flushing vodka, while the twins were in the closet, while Brian was hanging out the window, while I was sitting on my bunk, drunk and stunned, and wonder what the scene looked like to him. After all he’d been a teenager once. You could see the evidence of it, the acne scars on his cheeks. He never told the school, our parents, or anyone else about the party. He never spoke to any of us. When he saw Brian jump out the window, he straightened his shoulders, walked across the room, reached out, and pulled him back in. Then he left. For awhile after that it didn’t matter about my drum solo, or about the girl who didn’t love me, because there we all were drunk and young in a hotel room in Prague, and there was still vodka, unflushed somehow, left to drink. That night we drank and drank and continued acting stupidly. It was one of the last nights we’d have like that, a night before the world around us really would go out the window, the world before the fall.
Bryan Hurt‘s stories have most recently appeared in Joyland, TriQuarterly, and the New England Review. He lives in L.A. and on nice days can see the Pacific Ocean from his living room window.