Our work doesn’t bring us to the suburbs much. In my nearly six years with Containment, it’s mainly been recording studios, along with hotel suites and villas in Jamaica or the south of France, or an occasional surprise backstage at a nightclub when only the elite know that So-and-So is testing some new numbers. But on this bright summer afternoon, when Haines stops the van outside a three, maybe four-bedroom ranch that looks like all the houses around it except for the paint on the shutters, it’s like I’ve been transported to the neighborhood I lived in when I was in high school, where my biggest concern was whether I’d be platooning at end with David Dean or he’d play all four quarters.
Of course, I don’t tell Haines any of this as we exit the van. He’s got me beat by ten years in the Unit. He came on early enough to hear the stories from the first crews, those who’d been around when things were getting started in the fifties. I follow him down the sidewalk, silent, shading my hand over my eyes from the sun. Just like Fountainview Estates in 1984, the trees here haven’t grown to do much more than make navigating the push-mower difficult. An oil stain in the shape of Africa mars the driveway. We both avoid it, then step over the bike angled across the porch. I know little about Haines beyond what he’s told me about his life in the Unit and his life in it, along with what I can see in his wrinkled face, his high and tight that would still pass Corps muster, his gray suit, white shirt and black tie that match mine. Where was he born? What did he listen to when he was in school? Why is all this coming to me now?
Haines stops, holds a finger to his lips and points to the house. It takes me a minute but I can hear a guitar above the noise of squabbling siblings, wheezing garage doors, and roaring Weed Eaters. Just one guitar, playing the same few notes over and over, unaccompanied, sometimes cleanly, other times not. “Sounds like a Fender copy with a,” Haines pauses, squints. “Peavey. Definitely a Peavey.”
I nod, though I wouldn’t disagree even if I knew enough to. Haines is at the door in a blink, knocking. Not too hard. We aren’t the ATF or DEA. In fact, when this job came down from the head office, the recommended dress code was that we look like salesman. We needed to blend in and get to this street—what is it Cherry, Maple, Elm?—and get there fast, considering the potential of what was happening inside. I’m even carrying a sample case to complete the disguise, pretending to struggle though it’s empty.
Nobody answers the door, and the guitar keeps playing, now moving on to what sounds like the Stones or maybe the Who—I’m always mixing them up, which Haines can’t believe: “Do you even own a CD?” he’s always asking. Now the amp’s turned up a few notches and fuzzed out more than earlier. Haynes looks at his watch. I say, “Reminds me of home” and turn around to salute a rippling flag anchored to a house across the street.
“May I remind you that we’re on the clock,” Haines says, then knocks again, shifting from a couple of knuckles to a fist.
The guitar stops. There’s a hammering of feet on the floor. It sounds like laminate underfoot—surely no developer or homeowner would have laid hardwoods here. Locks get undone on the other side and the person who answers is just a kid. This shouldn’t surprise me. It’s a summer day. School’s out. Maybe he hasn’t got a job at McDonald’s or his shift doesn’t start until later. Still, we never see kids when we’re working. The youngest I’ve encountered was the twenty-two-year-old with the spiky blue hair and cheek tattoo who agreed he would, as Haines suggested, mute the power chords a little more on the next album. But he and his band had sold over ten million units and we were outside his Austin mansion with the swimming pool shaped like an angry fist flipping off the world. It was hard to think of years as the way to measure him.
Holding open the door now, though, is really a kid, maybe sixteen, his mustache scant and his eyes sleepy, his hair a tangled mess like he woke only minutes ago. In Recon, I was trained to size people up quickly, know everything from ethnicity to which is their strong hand or where might they hide a weapon. You expect everyone to be white in a neighborhood like this, like mine, but I can’t figure this kid out. Mixed, I’m thinking, though I can’t figure out all the parts. If he was the one playing the guitar, experience tells me he’s likely part white. But none of this matters for now. Haines has started his spiel: “We were wondering if we might interest you in a product guaranteed to make your life 100 percent easier.”
The kid’s hanging on the door, his arm elongated and his mouth open. He doesn’t say anything but he pulls the door wider and that’s all Haines needs. He’s through and I follow. We don’t need to get physical—the main reason I’m here—but I flex my biceps and swivel around my neck just in case. “What’s in the case, dude?” the kid says, and I pause, remembering to hoist it like something’s actually inside. The kid’s eyes close again.
“Say,” Haines says, “what was that CD you were listening to before?”
This gets the kids eyes open. He gazes at my sample case, but doesn’t notice it’s just about as tall as he is. He says, “What CD?”
“Sounded like some pretty good guitar on it.”
Haines knows what he’s doing. I’m surprised. You deal with rock and roll guys as much as he does, he might have lost his touch with someone this young. The kid’s smile is brief, but I see it, and I wish I’d seen the color of his gums to have a better idea just what he is. He says, “That was me.” He digs a hand out of his pocket, wipes his mouth. “I was playing.” He cocks his head. He nods at the sample case. “What are you trying to sell?”
“I don’t believe it,” Haines says. “That was you?” He shakes his head. A smile as false as a promise tightens his creased face. He says, “Prove it.”
The kid’s smile is back, as legit as Haines’s isn’t. “Follow me.”
It doesn’t take him long to get to the room, which is as messy as mine was when I was his age, only instead of dirty clothes, shoulder pads and a helmet and Sports Illustrateds with Elway and Marino on the covers, his mess is made by heavy metal magazines, occasional rap ones, too, and jeans that all look like they’d fit Haines and me at the same time. I loosen my tie, undo a button, blocking the doorway while Haines clears off some space and sits on the unmade double bed. The kid plugs back in. I’ll be damned if the guitar isn’t a Fender copy and the amp has PEAVEY spelled out in silver on the front. And he’s banging out those same few notes, futzing a few of them but starting to get his timing down, and then, on the fourth try, playing each note so it rings like a coin dropped in an empty can and staring at Haines as if to say I told you.
Haines is off the bed and clapping before the kid can say anything. “Man, that’s good stuff,” Haines says. “Too good.” Then he stops clapping and turns to me, nods. The kid still smiles when I grab the neck of the guitar but his mouth and eyes both widen when I yank away his instrument. Next it’s his skinny arm, and I spin it behind his back. “Don’t resist,” I say. “It’s easier that way.”
On the drive back to the airport, Haines apologizes for the rough treatment and the short time the kid spent inside the sample case. He gives him the history during the flight, how, back in the fifties, the Unit was formed with the belief that this crazed teenage music, rock and roll, was not just a passing phase but a serious threat to social order that had to be contained. Not eliminated, Haines emphasizes, as there were individuals and corporations even as early as fifty-eight who’d figured out ways to profit from all the screeching, while containing it in a way that keeps it from becoming a truly transgressive moment in human history. Haines likes that last phrase. He’s said it every time we’ve been on such a call, and there are times when I think he believes it. But as he goes on, and the kid finally seems awake enough to understand, I stop listening. I’ve heard it before, plus I’ve never quite figured out how it’s all supposed to work or why it was determined around sixty-two that, by having British bands play essentially the same music that black guys did in the fifties, there would no longer be any of the interracial mixing that had frightened so many. I mean, I do and I don’t understand, for here’s exhibit a, the kid, of people of different races getting together. Yet there’s my own recollection of every concert we’ve gone to, Haines and me, and how the only black people at rock and roll shows are security. Things might be a little different at the rap and R&B concerts, but that’s not my area. I’m also confused about how the Unit operates, being both, as Haines says now (so I am listening, after all), above and within the government, here and abroad. Whatever the case, the checks don’t bounce so I do what I’m asked, which on this afternoon is to secure this kid’s transit to somewhere no one would know how to find him.
Haines is done with his story. I look at the kid and he’s nodding but in the way I used to nod to older people, hopeful that doing so would make sure this endless story was over. Haines pats him on the knee. “Understand what I’m saying then?”
The kid nods but as quickly shakes his head. He says, “This is about music.” He looks my way, flinches. His hand rises to knead his right shoulder. “Right?”
A signal flashes above the door to the cockpit. We’ll be landing soon. Haines says, “Shit, I don’t even know your name, buddy.”
I lean in closer, hoping to hear a name like LaMarcus or Jesus or Ban. “Jake,” the kid says, which even a bachelor like me knows is a popular boy name of the last decade. I quit. This is why I’m in Containment, not Inquiry, like Haines’s buddy Rothschild, who tipped us off about this one in the first place. The plane’s begun its descent, and I see Jake start at the angle. I wonder if it’s his first time on a plane.
We rarely get this far. Most of the performers in the business, they’ve been indoctrinated by somebody—a manager, record exec, a fellow performer—and we’re reminders, not enforcers. Oh, there’s been a few I’ve heard of who wouldn’t turn it down or switch to country or gospel or movie soundtracks. There’s a famous left-hander from Seattle, Haines says, who everybody thinks is dead but is really hanging out in this very unit, ordering pizzas from Domino’s and getting fat as a tick. But Jake’s too young, which is why we’re this far into the call. He doesn’t know enough to know better, and Haines tells me now, as we watch the kid sitting in an interrogation room that looks as swank as a hotel suite in Manhattan, that’s what makes this particular job so difficult. “I can’t tell,” Haines says. “Which way he’s going to go.” On the other side of the glass, Jake picks up a pack of Marlboros—which seems to me a sign that he’s mostly white—then looks around and pockets the pack, as if saving them for later.
“What happens if he says no?” I say.
Jake’s probably a lazy little fucker who regularly slept past noon, talked back and kept up his family by playing too loud and too late, but he had to have people who might miss him. “Jesus, Haines,” I say. “What about his family?”
“They get this.” And he pulls out of the inside pocket of his jacket a folded piece of paper, which has, “Dear Mom and Dad,” at the top and “That’s why I don’t want to come back home,” right before his forged signature. “Kids go missing all the time. For real,” Haines says when I hand back the letter. He smacks the paper against his hand. “And Christ, did you hear that riff? It was going to blow shit up.” I wonder who turned Jake in, if it was a friend or a neighbor or a teacher or a family member. Or maybe the Unit already has the monitoring device Haynes keeps talking about on every guitar sold. “I guess so,” I say, but I’m not convinced. Then again, what do I know about music? Haines is right. I don’t even own a CD. On the radio I recognize a song or two, mostly ones on the oldies station that we listened to before games to get riled up. Stuff to chant and bang on shoulder pads to, but little else.
“I’m going to need you inside,” Haines says. He looks right at me. “It might get to that point.”
That point is a place I’ve never been in this job, at which I’m more than just the threat of being physical. I might actually have to cuff the kid around or make absolutely certain that he won’t ever be able to do anything on the guitar again. I stare at my hands. They’ve been there to take out who knows how many enemies back in the Gulf, but haven’t been one on one since I was trying to beat out David Dean for starting defensive end. “Just look,” Haines says, and sure enough Jake is walking in the direction of the guitar and the amp. They’re not hidden, exactly, but kept in a place where someone would have to look for them. This, Haines tells me, demonstrates just how important playing is to the person involved. That alone isn’t dangerous, but what Jake does next is: he plugs in and bangs out that riff, which, now that I’m listening, is pretty catchy. Haines says, “Follow me,” and I do.
It’s probably the best guitar that Jake has ever played. The Unit never scrimps, and coming through the amp that’s nearly as tall as the lanky little fucker—I had to tuck his legs to fit him in that sample case—I’m really hearing what the kid’s playing and catch myself humming along as we walk in. Haines shouts, “Jake, could you turn it off for a minute?”
Jake nods but he rakes the volume knob higher and smacks the fat blue pick against the strings once more, really knocking it out. The sound is filling the empty spaces in me—between my ribs, behind my kneecaps—and moving me forward more than I am. Haines yanks the amp’s plug out of the wall. “That’s better,” he says. He’s smiling again, though Jake’s probably figured out enough to mistrust it. “How did you come up with that riff?” Haines says.
Jake needs a second to realize the volume is gone. He keeps playing and I wonder how loud the sound is in his head. He pockets the pick—little klepto—and rubs his chin against the torn collar of his t-shirt. “I was trying to play La Bamba,” he says.
“Why play that spic music?” Haines says, and I wonder if he’s trying to figure out the same thing that I am. I stand near the door, even though it’s locked, my knees bent slightly, my hands damp and pressed against my sides.
Jake says, “That’s not cool.” But that’s it. Nothing more. No curse words in Spanish or defense of his mother or father’s race. “Your generation is so out of touch.”
“So I am, so I am,” Haines says. He sits down on the sofa across from Jake. At last, the kid takes the guitar off and leans it against the amp. Haines says, “You understand then that my friend here and I aren’t just music lovers. That we’re here to make sure that you and that riff don’t go anywhere where you might do some serious societal damage?”
“Why do you care?” Jake says, defiant.
“Why don’t you just make it easy on yourself, Jake,” Haines says. “Just put the guitar down. Go back home. Have fun and dick around with your garage band or whatever. Just don’t play that riff in G any more.” He leans closer. He’s not smiling now. “Ever.”
“This is a joke, right? This is, like, totally un-American.” He looks at me and winces again. My palms grow even damper, like they’re feeling the guilt the rest of me is trying to ignore.
“Listen up, Jake,” Haines says. “You’re not the first person we’ve had here. You won’t be the last.”
His eyes glaze over as Haines mentions some of the people the Unit has silenced or convinced to invest their efforts elsewhere, but a few make the poor kid wince. He’s shaking his head by the time Haines mentions that famous left-handed player, and Jake says, “He’s dead, man. I read two fucking books about him.”
“Oh no, he’s right in here. Blows away everybody in Rock Band, on drums and vocals, too. You can meet him right before we leave. After you promise to quit playing that riff.”
For a long minute, Jake just stares at the guitar leaning against the amp. It’s cherry red and shines so bright I can see the blurry reflection of Jake’s long face. His fists bounce on his shaking knees. I still don’t know just what he is and won’t until I ask him, but the way he seems now and with his memory of my sleeper hold, why would he say anything to me. When he stands and walks toward Haines, I relax, pretty certain that, like all the rest, he’s about to say that, in the end, a few cool notes don’t mean that much. And after Haines stands and extends his hand, Jake nods. Their hands get pretty close before Jake wheels around, plugs in the amp, straps on the guitar, and jacks every knob up to such a volume that my teeth are rattling before he even strikes a note. Which he does, of course, hammering that riff out so cleanly it sounds like a recording from the most up to date studio around. Only this time, he’s got more. Rather than playing the riff over and over, he slides into a little solo, then some chords, his fingers forming the shapes while he stares directly at Haines. If he’s got words yet, he’s not sharing them now, but Haines has this to say to me: “It’s that time.” And my hands free themselves from my sides before I even think. Yet I want to watch this kid play. “Goddam it,” Haines says. “It’s time.”
I don’t remember a single moment like the one when I learned my football career would end. No members of a covert agency visited me to make that clear. There was just this moment when the lack of recruiting letters from even the tiny colleges and the shrinking playing time made it pretty certain that soon I would be turning in my equipment for a last time. When I take the few steps toward Jake and he keeps playing, I know I should have in mind the fracture of a couple of fingers on both hands so they’ll never glide so easily over these strings again. Yet I can’t. Haines says my name twice and slaps me on the shoulder but he quiets when I get his left hand behind his back—I knew he was a portsider after our first five minutes together—and it’s almost like he knows what I’m doing when I put him in the hold, like he maybe approves. The sight of Haines crumpled on the couch finally gets Jake to stop playing, but before he says a word I hand him the cash in my wallet and combine that with what’s in Haines’s. “Eight hundred,” I say. “Plenty to get back home.”
“Why?” Jake says, the guitar still strapped to him, like it should never come off.
I shrug, say, “Get out of here,” and guide him back to my empty sample case. It’s a tight fit, sure, but when we’re off the base and he’s on his way to the airport to fly home I finally feel as though I come to, thinking that I have a decision of my own to make now and need to get moving. But already I can hear Jake’s song in my head. I don’t know if he’s got words of his own or needs to meet the person who’s going to supply them. Either way, it’s playing in my head now, like it’s on the radio, on the way to a Friday night game, when everything seemed on the verge of changing for the better.
About Tom: Tom Willams is the author of two books of fiction: The Mimic’s Own Voice and Don’t Start Me Talkin’. He lives in Kentucky with his wife and their son.
Tom Williams is co-author of Cobalt Press’ debut full-length book, Four Fathers.
Click here to learn more about the collection of fiction and poetry.