A Hilton Highballers Reunion
By Ray Van Horn, Jr.
"Matt Marcinko, how the hell are you, old friend..."
Her echo rings around the frosted-over farm, more omnipresent than the slosh of diesel gurgling down the cylindrical oil tank receptacle next to the oblique metal storm doors seldom used when we'd lived here. I'm beat, my knuckles are red and raw from the morning chill. My hands are chewed from the packing, purging, hauling and unpacking. I smell like the trucker's zone at a Flying J. To the plus, the move shaved a full belt size off my waist this week. I let Kyle sleep in this morning because the poor kid's been through a war, and not just staying up half the night playing that awful Fortnite game. Simulated stalking and shooting goes against what I stand for as a dad, but Kyle needed something to lash out with. He lost his mother. I lost my wife, and I want to lash out at something more tangible. Burning down this creaky, half-dead farm house with these canisters of diesel has crossed my mind three times already.
"My God," I say, nearly dropping the third of my four red plastic fuel containers. When I see her, I feel a rush of excitement restore my hands, along with the rest of me. "Bobbi Gibbs, wow."
"I've missed you, man," she says, her hands plugged into her pockets, much as she ever did. It's colder than that stupid metaphor about a witch's anatomy, so I can't really blame her.
I set the gas can down, restraining myself, since I want to bolt over there and hug the snot out of Bobbi. I stay put at first.
"You must've read the news if you're here, Bobbi. How am I? I'm a widower. Finally, something that beats the train wreck of our last tour."
She has on the same black leather jacket I last saw her in. We're talking eleven years ago. Same dark wash to her jeans--it's so Bobbi--though I'm sure those are a different brand and cut than the two pairs of high rise straight jeans she'd worn through thirty-two American cities on The Hilton Highballers' final run. Even in this blasted mid-March freeze, Bobbi's wearing crop sky highs. Her thighs and calves are a bit thicker than they used to be, stronger-looking, actually. She's gotta be cold in those things, since my Nike sweats are thick, but no real defense against the bitter air. The slouch behind Bobbi's plugged hands say she might be.
Speaking of cropped, Bobbi's trimmed her once-wavy black hair. More like taken most of the back off and swooped it all atop her head. It's sorta punky and sorta brunette Captain Marvel. We're both pushing fifty and that new do's spotted her an extra decade.
"I know," she says, and once the gas can plunks to the frozen ground, she's in my arms, crushing me in a hug meant to make up for the past decade-plus. I feel the first sense of warmth I've had this morning. Hell, in months.
"I'm not gonna cry, because I've done enough of it already," I mumble into Bobbi's ear. "Seeing you makes me want to."
"That's on me," Bobbi whispers, even though the only ones who could possibly hear us is the sheep in the McGruder farm down in the valley, and my now-former landlord, Mr. Rill, whose homestead is about four hundred feet away. "I'm sorry I never answered your emails and texts. No excuses, I suck."
"Yeah, you do," I joke, keeping my arms tightly around Bobbi. I feel one of her arms detach, however, and then a crack upon my butt.
"Jerk," Bobbi grunts at me with a laugh. "Don't read anything into that, by the way."
"I wouldn't dream of it," I say, adding a chuckle of my own. "How'd you find me?"
"Carl, who else?" Bobbi drones, rolling up her eyes before letting go of me. "Worst publicist ever."
"The worst," I reiterate.
"I can't tell you how many times he's green lit youngblood bloggers looking to do retro pieces on the band. Cookie cutter questions shot to me by email, can you stand it? Anyway, after he told me where to find you, I told Carl he was fired."
"Again," I add, and we blast out laughter that swirls all around the farm. I think even the sheep hear us, as they peal right back at us from the valley.
"Once I heard about Eva, well," Bobbi says, sliding her hands back into her pockets. "I figured it was time I come out of hiding to see if you were holding up alright."
"Since it's you and not my in-laws, co-workers or anyone I need to fake it to, I'm not alright, Bobbi."
"I'm so sorry, man. Ovarian cancer. Jesus, that's brutal."
"I thought our time as a band flew quickly," I return, looking into Bobbi's brown eyes and I just now see she's wearing a Hilton Highballers tour shirt from 2001 beneath her leather jacket. It features an illustration of a half-downed glass of bourbon, poured neat, and a distorted reflection of my Gibson Sunburst Les Paul through the empty portion. I used to play more than half our sets with that Gibson, split between my Epiphone and Ibanez guitars. I point at her chest. "Wow, Bobbi, where'd you dig up that old relic? I thought we'd sold out that year."
"I hoarded a handful. Roxy and I used to have a storage locker when we were together and I dug them out. You still take a large? I can bring you one."
"Sure, but you two broke up? I thought she'd been the one."
"Yeah, well, I never was good at relationships. You, of all people, know that."
I fall silent for a moment, not sure if I should let this potentially painful route as part of our reunion go where it's bound to. Bobbi makes the decision for both of us.
"I should've been more straightforward with you, Matt. You had a right to get mad."
"Dropping your bomb upon me at the Fayetteville Waffle House on the Precision tour made things a bit..."
"Awkward," I repeat with a laugh. "I haven't eaten at a Waffle House since."
"I know, man, I know. Matt, I didn't want to lose you as my guitarist, much less my friend. Everything else between us...I can't help what happened."
"All of its time and place," I tell her, and I mean it. Seeing Bobbi right now, sure, I'm thinking about the physical intimacies we'd shared, like holding onto each other in the top bunk of the bus and walking around cities, holding hands like a bona fide couple before gigs. We used to shops for books and albums together. We did museums. Bobbi and I wrote the entire Precision album together. Of course, there was the superbly spontaneous sex we'd have anywhere and everywhere.
All before she'd hopped the fence on me.
I want to tell Bobbi how I'd felt humiliated then, burned. The sneers from our bassist, Kim O'Dea and drummer Tommy Boula, hell, we'd earned them. When Bobbi made the abrupt decision to explore her changed-up sexuality, they'd treated it like a triumph, since we'd inadvertently created divided camps in the band. Kim and Tommy had a right to their entitlement and we'd all had the right to lay The Hilton Highballers down, even with Precision putting Gear Grind Records in the black and us enjoying a tidy four-way split of the road profits.
"Right on," Bobbi says, and I leave her off the hook.
"So what've you been doing with yourself, Bobbi? I figure you would've been the most logical one amongst us to carry the torch."
"I did for a little bit," she says, looking down the valley and nodding. I see something that looks sentimental stitching across her facade. "Yeah, I did the solo thing. Funny thing is, I thought you knew and were just staying away. So I did likewise."
"No, Bobbi," I tell her, and I feel bad. "I've had no clue. I met Eva a few months after I left the band and well, she changed my life. I sold most of my hardware, though I still have my Seagull acoustic."
"Aww, say it ain't so, Marcinko."
"Okay, so I jumped the shark. I married Eva and sold the guitars when she'd grown pregnant with Kyle. We needed the money and I was about to become a dad. I have no regrets other than my soulless job taking claims at the unemployment office. It's been a depressing gig, but it's paid the bills."
"Not enough to keep you out of this old haunt," Bobbi says sarcastically. "Yeah, I'm judging."
"Let's just say we fell on hard times before Eva got sick. The rent was cheap, but I won't miss the window units blowing their fuses in the summer. I sure as hell won't miss the aluminum roofs that played hell on our sleep many nights. This is a working soy bean farm on elevated ground, and the winds played a meaner drum over our heads than Tommy on his best day. Then there's the mouse turds, snake skins and rat traps all over the attic. If anything smells worse than this damn diesel, it's the mothball slings I rigged all over the attic and the earth floor basement."
"Makes me sick just hearing it," Bobbi mocks and I chuckle along with her.
"It's been an odyssey."
"Well, the solo thing didn't pan out for me as you can probably tell," Bobbi says, shifting direction. "I guess it wasn't really solo, since Roxy recorded Flowers and a Pill with me on Pro Tools seven years ago. She did the guitars and bass. I did the vocals, programming and drum machines. Obviously Carl didn't give you the press release."
"No," I say with an embarrassed grin.
"He's so fired. Anyway, I couldn't land a label, so I sent the album to die at Bandcamp. When you tank on a freaking download site, that's just an incentive to do what I did, which was become a real estate abstractor. The work's cyclical to whatever the interest rates are doing. The fed just dropped them a quarter of a percent, so I've been hopping lately. I've learned to sock away what I can when business is hot. I mean, you see what our royalty checks from The Hilton Highballers' catalog amounts to these days."
"Eva and I used to laugh at them. We actually burned the check for seventeen cents, it was so insulting."
"I shredded mine!" Bobbi chirps, and again we laugh. It feels terrific, like the old days. "Can't believe they wasted the postage to send those out. Kim actually cashed hers, but man, I'd give anything to see what Tommy's reaction was."
"I told Eva about what a hothead he was."
"How much did you tell her about the band days?"
"A lot, actually. She used to gush all over our video for 'Feelin' the Fire,' but it was so corporate."
"So not us," Bobbi groans, with every right to.
"She was fascinated by it all, so I gave her the war stories. She'd always wanted to meet you and Kim. Tommy, not so much."
"She had good taste. How much did you tell her about us?"
"Only that we'd grown close on the road, and we'd been an item for a blink. I told Eva you were my closest friend and collaborator. I left the gory details private."
"Thank you. You know I love you, and I am so sorry for doing what I did to you, Matt. I meant everything we did together. I promise you I wasn't faking it."
"You had a change of heart and you had to follow it," I tell her, pushing away the momentary pain in recollection of that moment which drove us apart. "I'm not saying it was easy to get over. I was madder than hell at you for a while, but I get it now, Bobbi."
"We're still friends, I hope," she says more than asks.
"The hug said it all, I think."
She smiles with a single, satisfied nod.
"So, you seeing anyone right now?"
"Yeah, dude," Bobbi says and I can see the relief washing over her. "I've dated a number of ladies, nothing serious, but there's Adaya. She plays bass. We jam a little, we go drinking, there's a little action here and there. Dude, Adaya's a spitfire, she has such energy. She picks me up, keeps me young."
"Um, how much of an age difference are we talking, Bobbi?"
Bobbi and I used to have such a way with our bantering, we could just say whatever was on our minds without offending the other. I feel it coming back.
"My heart's not into it, though, you know what I mean?"
"She's not Roxy."
"Nobody is. Matt, we're both getting up there, and I'm hurting thinking about losing everyone I've truly loved. You especially."
"Don't tell me that's why you're here. You been pulling fouls from the other side of the plate and you're ready to switch back."
"Eff you, Marcinko," Bobbi snarls, but I know immediately it's all pretend. It's how we would've talked on the road, even before we'd hooked up. "Truthfully, I'm feeling dead inside. I don't want any romance, because I've lost a part of myself that I want back. I want to write music, to sing again."
"Then go for it, Bobbi. Don't let Bandcamp dissuade you. We all have a framed gold record to brag on."
"You and I wrote some pretty stellar stuff together."
"We did," I agree. "So what're you saying, you wanna get the band back together? I mean, retro's in these days, Bobbi, but I'm not sure the market's ripe for a Hilton Highballers reunion. Did you talk to the other guys?"
"No. I get together with Kim once a month for lunch, just girl talk, you know? We seldom bring up the band, since I can tell she's burnt out from the music life. She's got a nice husband, Rich, and two kids, the prototype Nuclear Fam. Tommy, you can just forget him period."
"I haven't played in a few years," I tell Bobbi and I see her hands squirming inside her pockets. The anticipation must be killing her, much as it probably felt working up the courage to come out here. "I stopped when Eva was first diagnosed. My life then was work, fatherhood and trying to keep my wife propped up in a losing battle."
"I wish I'd been a better friend to you through all that," Bobbi says, and I see her pushing hard on her thighs inside her pockets. She's wracked.
"You didn't know," I say, trying to relieve some of the guilt I see her tangling with.
"Ghosting you was a bitch move on my part, Matt, but I was pissed you'd left the band, pissed you'd left me. I was pissed you never came to my solo shows, nor reached out to me about the album. It dawned on me only recently, you didn't know."
"No, I didn't," I say, and I reach out to place a hand on her shoulder. "We'd drifted apart, and this became my life, not grit rock."
"Female-fronted grit rock, the newbie journalists would call it," Bobbi moans.
"Right. Pretentious farts."
"We got a lot of miles between us, Marcinko. A lot of miles separately, too, but I'm here for you, if you need me."
"I do," I say with all the warmth I can project.
Bobbi hugs me a second time. I remember what the body wrapped around mine had felt like all those years ago. Not much has changed and the familiarity is much needed. It's not the sex I'm thinking about, but the nurturing, the support and the love we'd given each other then. I can feel her heartbeat moving fast and frantic. Funny enough, so is mine.
"I'm working on a couple of songs that could use your edge," she says after letting go once more. "I'm going for a pro-estrogen punk feel. You know, PJ Harvey without ripping the lady off."
"Your new look warrants it."
"Age 48 can kiss my ass," Bobbi quips.
"Look, I'm a single dad now, so I'm limited in what I can do."
"I understand, man. I was just hoping we could..."
"Let me finish," I cut her off, grabbing both shoulders to quiet Bobbi down before I release them again. "Let me get this diesel dumped and you can follow me to my new place. We'll have lunch, maybe a couple beers, and we'll take it from there. You're gonna have to occupy my kid while I shower, though. He'd love to meet you. He listens to our albums frequently and he says you're a great singer."
"Sounds amazing," Bobbi tells me with the contentment she used to have whenever we took the stage as The Hilton Highballers. "But tell me, Matt, you planning to set this heap on fire? We go back a long time, but I'll be damned if I'm going down with you for arson."
"You ever live in an oil heated house?"
"Thank God, no."
"Be thankful. Diesel's pretty much what you're paying for and I've been gouged enough by the oil company. Cheaper to honor the lease terms this way. I'm glad you came, Bobbi. This feels good."
"If this goes anywhere, we get a new publicist, right?"