I stared back into my warped reflection locked inside the crumpled gramophone, the gold plate scruffed from its recent travel by air. I’m sure my head had been the intended target. The angled tube of the neck now bent doubled, pinched at the impact site. The sharp rim of the horn now blunted in a few spots. I think the miniature record had flown off somewhere; most likely under the couch, far enough back where I’d be able to just nudge it with my fingertips.
I think we got that one in 1986, when we hit the billboard top one hundreds. No Sweeter Dream Than You, that’s what did it. One of the few ballads our producer Wayne managed to coerce us into. Fucking terrible song, really. They sure loved it back in the eighties though.
I honor the broken award’s passing with a few more moments of silent eulogy, the jaws of grief latching on to my throat. I summarize that a lot of good things have passed worthy of this newly acquired mourning. I look up from the gold hued commemorative piece and note that another moment of loss is in the process of occurring.
My wife Shannon, hands on hips, dark eyes smouldering fire, her mouth clenched in a rictus, galvanized into hateful action against me. Not how you want your wife to be looking at you.
“Uh…” I say stupidly in response to her hard low pitch of my music award. It’s been a coin toss between monosyllabic noises or stammered apologies this entire argument.
“Exactly Mark. You never have anything good to say anymore.”
“That’s not true.” I counter, not really disproving her point. She puts her hands up in surrender, pausing to take a deep breath.
“I don’t fucking want to hear it. I’m so tired of your shit excuses. I don’t even know why you try to hide your whores from me anymore; we both know how long that’s been going on.” She turns away, indicating the tabloid unfurled on my desk with a weary gesture that had precipitated this most recent fight between us. The front page frames myself and a female friend of mine in Jamaica, chronicling another instance where the shitty press was waiting to prosper from my misadventures.
“C’mon Shannon, you know she doesn’t mean anything-”
“Fuck you Mark! I’d say fuck her too, but I’m sure you did that plenty enough, you piece of shit!” She spun, swiped the tabloid from the desk and flung it at me. Pages loosened from the weak glue of the spine floated about the extent of my home office. We watched each other over the fluttering pages gliding lazily to the floor.
“I’m done. I want a divorce.” She says quietly, though it carries across the sudden stillness like a shout. Like a silent knife stealing into my heart. Or what I would feel if I had a heart left. More like I could feel the hand stealing into my wallet.
“Wait, baby-” I say stupidly.
“No, no more. Not another word Mark.” Her still pretty face scrunches momentarily; smooths back to peaceful repose under her steel willpower. “I’ll have my lawyer contact yours. I’m getting my things. Goodbye.” Shannon does a quick turn about, heading for the door. I stand there slightly in awe among the detritus of the scattered tabloid papers. I think about saying something, until she suddenly turns around in the threshold of the open door.
“And one more thing; I want you to know,” She says, probably ramping up for another swing at my deflated ego, when she suddenly arcs up and slightly back, like as if she’d just stepped on a live wire. Her eyes go a diffused white that makes her irises vanish, and in a commanding neutral tone interrupts herself, uttering a charged proclamation.
“BEWARE THE SIGN.”
Right away, she’s back to her normal, furious self. Eyes normal, shoulders hunched in confrontation. I just continue to stare, awestruck at the rapid change in her manner, and the strange voice and words. She snorts contemptuously and walks out, as if her point once again had fallen on my deaf ears. I just wonder what the hell happened, wondering what type of sign I had to watch out for.
Initially I had thought Shannon had to have been playing a morbid practical joke, one final opportunity to push me in an unexpected, quizzical direction. Maybe it had been intended as a warning: like watch out for the call from her sleazy New York lawyer. Whatever the reason, it had certainly been weird, and stuck out in my memory. I visually replayed it in my memory time and again for days after she left, attempting to riddle out her motive and capability to do such a stunt.
Eventually the sting of the entire fight phased into the murmuring background of my life. I decided to leave it there, let the lawyers do what we pay them for and fight the good fight for us. Far grander endeavors were currently in the works. The band was coming back to together, and going on tour, one that would span from West to East coast for nearly three months. Daniel, Jacob, and I had made the effort to work through the dysfunctional kinks that had led to our permanent hiatus and break up. Tommy was the only one of us that couldn’t come to terms and at least make the deal, if not bury our latest hatchet. Fuck him, anyways, I figured. Drummers are a dime a dozen nowadays.
Naturally we would be headlining. Wayne patched me in on the teleconference of producers haggling and bickering over the fresh talent and classic oldie bands that would accompany us. Mainly who would open, then follow, etc. Wayne had the annoying penchant to include the band on his side of the job, as if any of us cared what input we had to offer. We just showed up where needed and made the music. As long as my bank account displayed a long string of zeros to the right of the one, and our fans loved us, I counted myself content. And man did we have a fanbase.
“So even after I tell him who I am, the big retard still has the fucking audacity to make a show of it by calling his boss, like he doesn’t get it. Twenty fucking minutes to get into the club; my lady was so pissed, I thought I’d have to call for another one for later.” I think that’s the Tour Exec Harvey, nasally regaling the phone conference about his night on the town. I thought musicians could be crass and piteous.
I alternated between blankly skimming through apps in my phone and observing the listless routes of dustmotes filtering through a sunbeam spearing through a gap in the window slats of my office.
“The bitch wouldn’t move for anything after the tray tipped over; but we got it sorted out. At least the bartender knew how to make a proper Old Fashioned. Best part, Robert DeNiro did eventually show with the blow! Oh man, it got pretty wild then, you s-BEWARE THE SIGN-”
The speaker on the phone flared with crackling static. I jumped up from my slouch; my office chair rolling back with the unexpected momentum and delivering me into the edge of a display case.
“And-wait, what was that? Did one of you fuckers fall asleep and fall off the chair?” Harvey asked over the conference call. I’d planned on being quiet and saying as little as possible that I hadn’t bothered to place myself on mute. I recovered enough to roll back to the desk and answer in a calm manner.
“Hey Harvey, this is Mark Reiner. No falling asleep over here man; I just accidently knocked my coffee cup over, is all. Please, keep going with your story. It’s really getting good!” I say, sure as hell sounding lame. I got a second confirmation on that as my phone signaled me with a text from Wayne: What the hell? Including a frowny devil face emoji.
I texted back a hasty apology, also making sure to place the desk phone on mute. I leaned back in my chair, rubbing the tender spot on the back of my head where it collided with the bookcase. What the hell indeed?
Somehow, it had to be joke. Did Shannon hang out with those Executive guys? I know she often attended the dinners and parties thrown by the corporate types that worked the business and legal aspect of our corner of the music industry we owned. If so, she was taking this entirely too far. And getting weird, to ask the top dog of the tour to do that. From there, I only descended into deeper realms of bizarre.
It occurred again about a week later, as I coasted out of the sky in a Delta airplane. The congenial weather of the West Coast awaited my arrival. The rest of the band had also flown in, including Wayne, all of us ready to lay down tracks and cement the finalization of the tour.
I considered myself lucky that I’d made it to luggage pickup without being recognized. Footsteps clacking out a hurried tattoo along the polished floor, I passed through the rancous crowds that ebbed and flowed through the airport terminal like roving ocean waves. I’d just spotted the line of black clad limousine drivers holding up signs in expectant boredom when I felt an insistent poking in my shoulder.
I turned about to face a young guy with long hair swept to the side in a bun, along with an assortment of piercing and maybe makeup on his face? Kids and their fads. But young adult men constituted nearly half of our fan base, so I figured I’d try to be polite before I told him to fuck off. I made to offer a greeting, though his action of holding up my wallet cut me short.
“Hey, I saw this fall out of your bag as you were leaving customs. I was behind you by a couple people so I didn’t know if I’d catch up with ya. Glad I did though.” He said, handing it over. I looked him and the wallet over dubiously for a second, labeling him as the sort that would have helped himself to some of the contents of the wallet. I let the look vanish from my face; he seemed decent enough to have went out of his way to return.
“Wow, thanks for doing that. I’m sure you just saved me a lot of trouble.”
“No problem bro…hey, I think I know you! Yeah, I thought you looked familiar…Mark Reiner from Stainless Steel, right?!” He asked. I nodded, eyes shifting back to the row of sign toting drivers, ready to make a hasty exit.
“Wow! I’m super stoked to meet you man! I’m a big f-BEWARE THE SIGN.” Just like with Shannon, his eyes appeared to roll up, presenting stark white shock. He arched back and away from me, like I’d just delivered him an electric shock directly into his spine, the large gauges in his distended ears swinging back and forth with the momentum. I moved back myself in surprise, then rushing forward in reactionary response to catch him.
Instead of wrapping my arms about a kid beginning an epilithic fit to prevent his fall, my arms only close about air as he jumps away.
“Whoa! What the hell are you doing? Are you high on something, like they say online? This is really not cool.” He says.
“I…I…are you ok?” I’m caught between adrenaline and an animal driven fear to run away from yet another prenatural happening.
“Yeah, I”m fine. What about you? You’re the one acting messed up? I’m not into hugs; I’d settle for a handshake though.” He said, tentatively holding out a hand as if he expected me to make another grab.
“Uh, I gotta go. Bye.” I turned about and fast stepped for the terminal exit, no doubt leaving him as bewildered as I felt.
The frequency of the ‘dire warning’ only increased after the airport incident. It occurred again the following day at an Indian restaurant in Los Angeles that Wayne, Daniel, and Jacob, and I were fond of. I’d managed to soak in a goodly portion of the mini bar in my hotel room after the scare with the hipster kid the night before, and currently rode the buzz train. Imbibing on drink after drink, the day had taken on a pleasant tincture: the salty tang of the ocean breeze stirring the part in my hair; the murmur of conversation rose and receded in the confines of the restaurant; the four of us took turns buying rounds. I could already tell we were headed for an old fashioned Stainless Steel style doozy of a night. All these elements of the evening unified to evaporate the line of tension that had been holding my shoulders in a rigid half shrug of worry. I finally felt at ease since the day before.
We all discarded cash into the center of the table to adequately cover the tab plus tip, making ready to leave for the next stop of the night. I pumped my fist into Jacob’s shoulder over the last raunchy joke he’d delivered, getting energized for the night ahead.
The waitress stopped over just as we began to file through the tables towards the lobby. I noticed immediately that she was very cute, and thought to work some of my worldly rock star charisma on her. One of the few upsides to Shannon leaving me meant I no longer have to conceal any prospective plays.
“Hey. We paid in cash. It’s all there, plus tip. You must see a lot of other celebrities come through here. You handled our picky requests with aplomb.” I say with a dazzling devil may care smile. She reciprocates with an attractive grin, though I could tell by her lack of focus that she was more interested in the money than myself. Kids these days just didn’t know what good music was anymore.
“Yeah, we get some pretty big stars in here…I know, I feel like I’ve seen you before.” Ah, yes, let it slowly dawn on you. “Are you the singer from the big metal band, uh…”
“Stainless Steel you mean? That’s me.” I said. I can tell she really doesn’t know, but the recognition of stardom certainly shows. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what you’re known for, as long as they know you’re a brand name.
“Yeah, that’s right! I thought I recognized you guys.” She says, errantly lifting a hand to push back a strand of dark hair behind one ear, her smile becoming more inviting. Hook, line, and sinker, like my old man liked to say. I bet my grin resembles a wolf’s toothy smile as I invite her to hang with us after her shift.
“I’m stuck here until at least ten.” She says with a pout of her lips. “But, let me write down my number for you. It would be huge to hang out with you guys, and you seem really cool.” Oh, yeah, I think I’m a winner here. We exchange numbers, with a promise that I’d here from her later.
“I will for sure. I heard on the radio that you’re doing a new tour? That’s exciting! BEWARE THE SIGN.” She utters in that terrible deadpan tone, smoothy interrupting herself. I jump back a bit and bump again the edge of the table, causing our empties to clink; I didn’t realize I’d been nearly leering over her, hanging on every word and gesture. Jesus. The waitress babe had failed to notice my sudden knee jerk reaction, and continued blithely on.
“I’m sure I can twist my boss’s arm and get out before then. Where do you all plan on going to? I can grab an Uber and be sure to meet you wherever.” She rocks forward toward me with hands eagerly clasped behind her back, excitement etched on her features. “So what do you think?” She says.
“What the hell were you doing in there?” Jacob asks as I drop like a stone in the back seat of the limo.
“Bet he was trying to pick up a girl…or two, or three.” Daniel jokingly probes. I just glare at the two of them. Assholes. Suddenly I’m no longer interested in this tour gig. Or stardom. Or tail. I just want the ominous queasy squish of my guts to stop seething around in me. I don’t really understand what’s going on; if it’s the culmination of years of hard partying and drugs, or this is the beginning slide down into a nervous breakdown over Shannon divoricing me, or some other messed up shit — the problem is, I don’t know.
“Yeah, something like that…I’m going to head back to the hotel. I’m feeling pretty beat. You guys go out and burn the town down without me tonight, alright?” I say. Jacob and Daniel protest loudly and forcefully against my early turning in. Wayne appears mostly surprised; he’s known me for years and just comes to expect my inner party animal to always be prepared. I wave a listless hand at them in supplication. Finally they obliged my odd behavior and had the driver make a stop at our hotel.
I climbed out, feeling as weary and old as my age. I grunted a goodbye to the band, hauling myself from the car.
“Hey Mark!” Daniel called from the limo’s open door. I turned about, bracing for whatever smart ass comment I’m sure he’d been saving during the trip to the hotel. Instead he just smiled at me through his goatee and said: “Hope you BEWARE THE SIGN, buddy.” His voice transitioned without a hitch from his rough smokers scratch to the bleached out doomsday shout and back again.
His open smile bent into a quizzical frown as I stood there, silent, eyes probably bugged out, staring into a void. He started to say something else; to which I responded by turning around and heading for the hotel.
I was going to need another mini bar.
And that ended that. Those three fucking words ended the tour prematurely. Even absolutely sloshed on alcohol I could not escape encountering more instances of the eerie forceful pronouncement, as if it was using random people as a speaker to direct its dire warning into my path again and again.
What was it I was supposed to beware? Not a single damn person could tell me. They only had the message to deliver, and beyond that the rest was up to me to interpret.
I heard it the next day, punching through a greeting from a passing bellboy as I dragged my sorry booze soaked ass about the hotel foyer. Again, later from a cashier while I bought cigarettes, the first pack in nearly a decade. The imperious warning clawed out of her throat right in the midst of the transaction. I knew I had to be going nuts; there’s no way those near shouted buzzing words would have been ignored by the line of people gathered behind me. I turned about to stare at the rest of them, seeking a reaction. I only got a curious glance from two of the crowd.
And as if due to my failure to acknowledge the warning, it became more insistent over time, as if it’s pressing need to communicate grew as time dwindled towards whatever it forewarned.
The following day I heard it three times echoed about the cavernous granite plaza of the Music Arts Center where the bands and their sharp dressed managers gathered to discuss tour details.
I had decided to just ignore it; you can’t go crazy if you don’t paid heed to the voices. I kept my head down and marched straight for the conference room, not caring if I received any weird glances. In the meeting, the voice began to proclaim itself: during Wayne’s spiel, when Harvey did his intro and the projected earnings that would generate from the tour, even when we took a break it shouted out from the general murmur of casual conversation about the table. That blaring phrase made me bite down on my tongue to prevent a shout from leaking through.
After another forty minutes of random bombshells of BEWARE THE SIGN sizzling into my ear like a vibrating knife, I concluded that I couldn’t handle it anymore. I had to stop pretending it wasn’t a total assault upon my now shredded sanity.
My anxiety peaked. I’d had enough. I needed a drink. Christ, I needed all the drinks. I stood up to say so.
“I’m done. I’m leaving.” I said, viewing it all abstractly as I pushed out of my chair and turned away without a glance back.
“Mark, what the BEWARE are you THE SIGN?!” Wayne shouted in disbelief. Great, now it sounded like a skipping record.
I left, and without a care, returned to the hotel room, where I booked a flight back home and proceeded to empty the mini bar. I prayed the third time would be the charm, as it goes.
Last time I’d checked, the notifications on my phone had tallied over forty missed calls. Half of those were from Wayne, with nearly as many voicemails. I could imagine the mounting panic that progressed from bafflement to outright anger with each passing hour he rang me. A dozen from the band, a couple scattered about from other friends and family. One from Shannon that was seventeen seconds long. I’m sure she’d left something trite and scathing.
They could keep them coming. As long as I avoided all of them, I wouldn’t have to hear it. Christ, I was surprised it didn’t translate through text messaging too. I didn’t bother to even glance at any incoming texts; I deleted them right into the void of cyberspace as soon as my phone pinged one at me. I didn’t need their concern, or questions, or even their anger. I just needed to be left alone, away from another human’s voice and the sinking surety that I was going bug fuck bananas.
I narrowed down the universe to me, several cases of beer, a couple bottles of hard stuff for good measure, and the heavy drapes of the bedroom windows completing my entombment from the world. I was even too terrified to turn on Netflix, for fear that it would reach me in the middle of a bingeing of all ten seasons of Friends. I reasoned that the couple millions I was worth would see me through to the end of my life, cloistered away with alcohol and Pappa Johns to keep me company. It didn’t work though. It sure as hell made an effort to shatter right through the vault.
You ever fall asleep by a beach? As you start to unwrap from the thick cotton stands of sleep, the noise is almost a rocking susurration that winds up into consciousness. A mother rocking a baby back to awareness. That’s what it felt like at first. I was out. Probably beer cans all about me, pizza boxes interspaced like cheap monoliths of the graveyard of my sobriety. At first there were no words, just a buzzing. Like gnats whining on the other side of a window. As I became more aware, I realized that it WAS whining, right outside the window.
I lifted my head out of the crater of the pillow embankment I’d made on one end of the mattress. Slowly, horror rising like bile in my throat, dread numbing my extremities, I comprehended the noise. The random bits of washed out sound coalesced into audible sound bytes. Sounds I recognized.
“SIGN! SIGN! SIGN!”
Ok, that was coming through clear now. It was a multitude of voices, a chorus of demanding sound. Planitative and compelling, it shocked me right out of my hungover stupor like a bucket of ice water. I jumped off the bed with all four of my limbs, slowly creeping towards the shuttered curtains like a wary animal.
“BEWARE….SIGNNNNNN…..THE……BEWARE THE SI…….” Several distinct voices bleated outside the window. Was this real life? Were there a group of carolers right outside the window, standing on tiptoe to peek their heads over the railing of the porch, trying to scream in unison?
“THE SIGN! THHHHEEE SIGN! BEWARE! SSSSIGN!”
My hand trembled as I reached for the cord, my body amped to eleven on jitters. I swallowed a scream, and pulled back the drawstring. And was greeted by half the woodland cast of a Disney movie.
Deer, birds, a bunch of squirrels perched on the porch railing met my half crazed disbelieving stare. And they continued to scream, utter those words. But not like the people, no, their voices jumped out of their furry little throats sounding like actual human voices. From actual people it always sounded like they were using a distortion device, like a Darth Vader machine. They didn’t break stride with my sudden appearance. Instead they started to get their shit together.
Initially as I woke they were all yelling at different frequencies, awkward pauses, and everybody overlapping one another. As soon as I had drew back the curtain, they started to synchronize. WIthout missing a beat, not even a twitch of an eye or a tail, the large assortment of animals screaming ‘Beware the sign’ got a rhythm. Like a group of dim witted kids, they cohesively hit a tempo together, and after a seconds pause of indrawn breath, they were ready to perform.
“BEWARE THE SIGN. BEWARE THE SIGN. BEWARE THE SIGN. BEWARE THE SIGN. BEWARE THE SIGN.” It became an endless litany. I just soaked it in for an undetermined period of time, until I realized this was the craziest shit I’ve ever seen, and should act appropriately.
“SHUT UP! SHUT THE FUCK UP. Enough, I can’t fucking do it anymore. What you want from me? Fuck your sign! Fuck it! I’ll give you anything. JUST. PLEASE. FUCKING. STOP.” I screamed back against the ceaseless tide, with no result. They just stared and screamed those fucking words. I yelled, punctuating each word with a hard slap of my hand against the window. I had the whole wall shaking with the fury of my voice and assault of my fist.
“Dad, what the fuck?!” I heard Bryant rattle the bedroom doorknob. I ignored him and continue to plead with the fawns and birds, the joints in my fingers registering a dull ache with each hit on the window. The spastic rattling of the bedroom doorknob evolved into a pounding, then terminated with a kick to crack the lock that slammed the door into the wall. I turned away from the window, hand outstretched to offer him a glimpse of the absurdity happening outside. My sixteen year old son stared on at shock.
“Dad, what the hell are you doing? You’ve been in here for days. Mom’s kinda freaking out. Are you ok? Is there something going on outside?” He asked. I didn’t really have answers. I turned back around to just catch a glimpse of the retreating backsides of the deer. The birds were just shadows gliding away. At least one of the squirrels had the nuts to stick around on the tree branch, though he’d gone eerily silent.
“I…I think I need help.”
Help I did get. Even though the breakdown occurred within a few weeks, the impact and implications took months to overcome. I found a great celebrity psychiatrist. I worked through the ending of my marriage with Shannon. Turns out we made better friends than spouses. I got my shit together for the tour. My..troubles..caused the tour to be postponed until the next fiscal year. Eventually Wayne got it back off the ground and into the air again, with everybody on board. Even our estranged drummer Tommy got over his butt-hurt and joined the cause. I had met a 20’s something Playboy model at a party who I started to see regularly. It was all on the up and up.
Most telling, I no longer received any warnings. The sibylline message no longer shouted at me from the woodworks of my life. It appeared it had scattered itself to the winds along with the final performance of the animals outside my bedroom. Or as my Dr. Driscoll told me, that was when I finally acknowledged my mental disorder. Breakthroughs are great!
The sun kicked prismatic sparkles off the sheet metal, the words Stainless Steel etched in glittering chrome. Today’s promotion would herald the start of our concerts. After they finished erecting the billboard in Los Angeles here, we would perform our first show tonight, then on to the next city. My girl Cammie and I watched as the crane slowly eased the ad into the docking fixtures of the billboard column.
“Great way to promote the start of the tour, huh guys?” Wayne said to nobody in general. We stood around underneath the tower of grey metal, waiting for the crane guys to finish their job so we could get some pictures in.
“What do you think, baby?” I asked Cammie, nuzzling the crown of her platinum blonde hair.
“It’s…it’s…” She started and then trailed off.
“It’s what?” I asked. She stood still, silent for some time, then pushed back away from me. She pointed up at the billboard, and in that deadpan robotic sizzle, she looked right at me and said it.
“BEWARE THE SIGN.” And just kept repeating it, over and over, an endless looping that made my palms leak sweat and my balls shrivel up. Oh, fuck no. Not again.
“Uh, what’s wrong with your girl, Mark?”
“She ok? This might not be good for the publicity man.”
The one solace I had was at last, another living person was also witness to this. I started to take a step towards her; whether to give her a hug in concern, or a slap to make her stop, I couldn’t say, when a ripping screech froze me in place.
We heard a metallic crunch, bolts protesting in death theros. The crane tipped forward, wiring swinging around like wind whipped vines. I saw the Stainless Steel sign tip away from the billboard, arcing out over the sidewalk we crouched on. Everybody around us started to yell at once, Cammie still insistently warning of the impending fall. It tipped, suspended for a timeless moment, and then fell. I couldn’t help but make a comment.
“Oh, for fucks sake. Beware the fucking sign. Of cours-”