:: Article

A Record Called ‘American Woodworking’

By Tobias Carroll.

In Birmingham, Dorman’s phone was screaming.

In Queens, I’m conversing with Avery. He says, “Didn’t we visit the Jazz Age together?” I nod, his necessary affirmation.

I say, “We visited the Jazz Age together. Flapper girls and ragtime and powdered drugs.” Avery winces. “Sorry”, I say. “No powdered drugs. A sort of lemon spritzer instead. Okay.” Avery nods, his drift over. We’re good, I think.

The Jazz Age”, he says, and laughs, “and I feel better now, no further offense inflicted.”

Avery says, “William, didn’t I tell you about that night? About making things known? Sounds that lose and sounds that got lost?”

I nod again. Avery’s in a spell, a polymath with whiskey in his system. I’ve seen him in this mode before, a convocation of memories, suppositions, and third-hand anecdotes serving as case studies and formal evidence. Avery with whiskey in his system is not an unusual occurrence, but tonight’s context provided cause for concern. A call from Alison had come to me an hour earlier and I’d taken a car here, not trusting the late-night behavior of the 7 to convey me to this corner of the borough with any sense of immediacy. If I see him, she’d told me, we’ll fight. It’ll be the end of us. She’d asked me to go over in her stead. That I could understand.

Avery had ceased his drinking by the time I’d arrived. This was a good thing, but knowing Avery I suspect he’d felt sober when he’d stopped. Now the full measure of the drunk was blossoming out, had been doing so since I’d arrived there. He’d set down the bottle and suddenly wondered why his ability to sit had come into question, why laying on his futon was now no different from tumbling. He’d been pacing when I’d arrived, tracing a rectangle along the apartment walls. Upon my arrival, he said that he’d been trying to avoid curves, keep the dizziness away, but that his feet wouldn’t walk in straight lines. I poured him a pint glass of water and bade him drink, then poured him another.Avery has ceased speaking of the Jazz Age. I’m relieved; I was frightened, unsure of where that was leading, if it led anywhere at all. He’s seated now; deep breaths, I say. Deep breaths. He says all right and I say all right. He reaches for the remote and triggers the stereo. Massed acoustic guitars and echoplex vocals. I’m familiar with the record, and I have to say it’s calming me down and I think it’s doing the same to Avery. The rare song with no nostalgic tethers at all. Avery’s hand is steadier as he reaches for his water.

“Have a drink, William. Bottle’s on the shelf. Single-malt. Couple of old straight edge fucks downing a drink.”

I tell him he’s in no position to imbibe.

He says, “No, I’ve had my share already,” and almost laughs. So I give up a smile as well, because why not, really. I stand up and walk to the kitchen and don’t take my eyes off Avery. Uncork the bottle and take a glass from his cabinet. Pour it in on the four-count and match it with water. I glance from Avery to the clock and hate myself for being too aware of the time – and then I think that Dorman would’ve called blasphemy for this, despoiling Highlands whiskey with Croton water. I shake the glass and hope I’m blending it well. Now it’s me feeling the need to move, and I haven’t let drink cross my lips yet this evening.

I think to myself, almost say, that we should raise our glasses, but we’d done enough of that the week before. The whiskey hits like a blizzard on sweat.

I’m a crap one for grief. About the best you can say about me is that I never say the wrong things. I’ve heard the wrong things said at wakes, funerals, the restaurant after the memorial, the bar after you hear the news. I say what’s expected and do my best not to fuck up the rest. Cryptic deterrents, I’ll admit, but functional.

Next to no one had stayed in touch with Dorman, but Avery had. They’d tomcatted every six months or so, their work or leisure synchronously depositing them in identical cities, leaving nights & weekends free to raise icons and raze ceremony in their wake.

Avery powers off the stereo. “Headache”, he says, and I nod. He takes a half-assed swing at midair.

“Drink again, William,” he says, his eyelids lulling closed, momentarily and inexplicably wearing a contorted expression, what I can only imagine is Avery’s sex face. The imp in me thinks I should take a photograph to remind Avery of this on later days — then I remember why I’m here, why he’s there, the rationale for my arrival. My role of restraint, of conveyance — monitor Avery to ensure he doesn’t tread in Dorman’s wake. And I firmly remind myself that, when sobered, with sunlight on his face, Avery will not seek anything else relating to this night.

I hear a foul rattle coming from Avery’s coffee table. It takes a few seconds to hone in on its source: a silver phone, illuminated and shaking on the tabletop. Avery’s not noticing it, his eyes loose, staring at the window but not looking at the window. And I think, he’s had no trouble looking at me all night. Or the booze, my glass, the door. And the rattle’s not something you miss: that irregular vibration on hardwood sounds like an iron lung lost to spasms.

I say, “Should I get it?” Avery waves me off, shakes his head, his head seemingly weightier now than it had been a moment earlier. Avery with a brick atop his neck. I glance down at the phone and see that the ID bears Alison’s name. You’re there, and we’re all there. I wish he’d left the music on; Avery’s a void right now, and all that I can hear is my own breathing, my heartbeat suddenly echoing through my neck. The call ends and I give Avery a look. He’s still eyeing the window, tallying scratches on the glass. I wonder how to get a reaction from him, how cohesive his thoughts are. Cohesive enough, I think. “She’s checking in on you,” I say.

“I figured,” I say.

On his last night, Dorman had paid many a bar a visit, Avery had told me. From bar to bar, shots & beer and whatever else was made available. Avery had done the forensics at the wake while I’d been drinking and trying to call up memories of late-night drives, highway before the interstate, the clamor of guitars and a record called ‘American Woodworking’.

Avery says, “Phones always sound like pain. About the last thing I remember was we were outside this bar called Speakeasy and we decided to make Dorman’s phone ring like a scream. We did and it was great and… we had some beers there and a shot or two and we got tossed. We were calling up screams every minute or so, I think. Joke got old, but not to us.”

I did the walk back to my hotel and he went off somewhere else; I think. We were already far from sober when we got there. Early morning flight the next day; nothing like flying with a hangover. He was off somewhere else, and that was it.

I feed Avery some water. Dorman had stumbled or had walked onto the highway in some other city, and that led to the central question that none of us asked about, the question for which none of us would have an answer. Avery says, it was that central ugliness. I called him earlier that night and he didn’t pick up. Been thinking about it and wondering if that was what pushed him.

“The screaming,” I say.

He looks up at me. He says, “If you were having a bad night, bugfuck and lost, wouldn’t that turn it tragic?”

And because I hadn’t seen Dorman in years, I can’t say anything to respond. “It’s all right,” I finally say. “It’s all right.” I see him to bed and call Alison. “Should be fine,” I say, “he’s sleeping soundly,” with whiskey spirited away in my bag. She thanks me. I walk down the boulevard, considering it all. I check my watch and set my sights on the inevitable bar on the corner, a long way from last call.

# # # # #

TC: ‘American Woodworking’ is the name of a seven inch released over a decade ago by a New Jersey-based posthardcore band called Policy of Three. A good friend of mine designs and builds furniture, and so woodworking, and the record in question, have been on my mind frequently in the last few years; from there, writing about aging straight-edge kids came naturally. Speakeasy — the bar in Birmingham, AL mentioned in passing in the story — is a fine place to have a beer, incidentally.


Raised in central New Jersey, Tobias Carroll spent much of his formative years editing a zine and running half of a record label. He currently lives in Brooklyn, New York, where, among other things, he writes a column on books for the music website Paper Thin Walls and tries his best to drink eight glasses of water per day. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in THE2NDHAND, Death + Taxes, Little Engines, and elsewhere.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, March 29th, 2008.