From the novel Jackson Soulfire
By Mike Hasler
Alex Slater could command a room. His best friend, Kalen Marsdale, watched as the charismatic and handsome frontman of Krysis, recently voted Universe City’s best indie band by Teen Rage Magazine, had The Golden Caf, Universe City’s trendiest cafe, in arms-extended-to-the-heavens worship of the energetic four piece. Or maybe it was just worship of Alex. But that was fine. Kalen loved it when Alex stopped playing because of the guitar freedom it gave him. Legs spread triangle stance in defiance of all jobs cubicle, Kalen attacked the strings of his Howlitzer, spanking out a funky rhythm using the cleanest tone one could get from Humbucker pickups. Now having sole guitar duties, Krysis’ second guitarist, co-frontman and support songwriter watched as Alex put his Velvetone guitar on the stand, then walked off the stage and into a crowd of cheering young women, microphone to his mouth, his free hand out to touch all the hands wanting to touch him, his huge smile and overflowing confidence engaging everyone fortunate enough to be born with estrogen in their body. It was an act begun when both guys were fourteen; high school was boring, guitar lessons were looming and the two Universites were eager to get real life going. Alex had been perfecting this act since then, on and off stage, and now, at age 22, after cycling countless bassists and drummers, building a following and adding to that every time they played live with a show crafted to the express intent of pleasing the fans and not pleasing the band, Alex employed this persona easy as breathing.
It was fortunate Alex had forced Kalen to learn to perform without looking at his fretboard hand; head-up audience engagement instead of eyes-to-the-floor hair hanging not only made for a better show and much better video, but as Kalen banged out the backing for Alex’s crowd wooing, his no-look playing approach allowed him to track the bleach blonde waitress he had enjoyed looking at all set as she sashayed into the Golden Caf’s kitchen, a wobbly tray rocking on an open palm and ninety degree elbow.
Shaela Kirkpatrick, waitress at the Golden Caf, aspiring actress and amateur kitchen dancer, bounced and bopped as she dropped the tray on the stainless steel counter, shifted direction and backslid to the staffroom, spun to the beat and entered the back room, swept the table with one hand to grab her purse, twirled a tress of bleach blonde hair with the other hand all while spinning onto a padded stool and rolling around to face the sticky table. Smitten by the dark haired guitar player who had watched her watch him since Krysis pulled in for sound check, Shaela wanted information on the man; what was his favorite color, Blonde or Brunette? Did he work out? Did he have a girlfriend? Did he want a new one? She dipped her hand into her purple leather purse and drew out her mobile device, ambidextrously swiping at the screen with her left hand and employing a right hook to swing to her lips the tall beer she had gotten free last break.
As she read about Alex and Kalen, Trent and Adrian’s bass and drums battered the kitchen walls, threatening to punch holes in the partitions. Shaela poured salty beer down her throat and developed repetitive strain injury as she swiped the glass screen of her device to get to the article, and more importantly, information on…his name was Kalen. She liked that. She wanted to tell her mom it. Okay, the good stuff. A girl had to prep fast when the interview was coming quick.
The article reported Krysis’ current popularity in Universe was due to the strength of the album recorded in the basement studio of Alex Slater’s family house in Lower Galaxy Ridge. The reporter also mentioned that when taking ‘Take Breaks’ in the studio, the band is known to host pool parties topside in the Slater’s backyard pool, no boys allowed. When asked in interviews who writes the words and who writes the music, Alex reports he generally writes the songs but relies heavily on Kalen for inspired guitar and keyboard instrumentation. Kalen says, Alex who? and lightly punches his friend in that friend’s tanned and quite defined bicep.
Shaela’s thoughts merged with the words under the screen, both entities combining in her mind to form a single thought line. Alex and Kalen, both 22 years old; Shaela would have to catch up a year. Both boys no girlfriends. What? Why not? Oh, no time for them. Rock Superstardom was apparently too demanding to lock down a relationship whilst still in the throes of. Both guys have a public or noteworthy parent. Nice. Kalen’s family: one much younger sister, parents still together, Dad Kenneth a city councilman. Kalen likes chocolate, pizza, beer and technology, skilled with image editing software – perfect for Hades Armchair! – loves movies and the theatre. Shaela, same! Too good to be true. Alex: only child, well-off, apparently his mother is a famous author in…the spirituality market or something. Cool. Alex loves mountain biking on the trails behind Mount Virgo, would go to the gym twice a day if he didn’t also have one in his basement, right next to his recording studio! Needless to say, he loves exercise, easy to see that he loves girls, they love him – a lot – is generally praised as a strong songwriter and musician and for having a shrewd business mind for his young age but is probably most revered for his great looks and fit body. Apparently there are reported cases of women literally melting at Krysis shows.
Bassist and drummer….aw, who cares.
Shaela slurped the bottom of her beer, glanced at the clock, dipped the device into her purse and stood up to check the staff mirror. Make-up was still where she put it, hair needed a hand run through it, check teeth, lick teeth, good to go. Time to go to work.
From the corner of his eye, Alex saw the blonde waitress emerge from the kitchen as he was making his way back to the stage. He felt a hand pull at his shirt rim and gracefully swiveled to gently lift it off while still in transit. Alex was immediately taken by the face at the far end of the arm holding that hand: the woman obviously had an African parent somewhere down the line but got her facial features from a willing white relative, and a pretty one at that. Alex didn’t want to leave but the show must rock on, so a warm smile to the offending fan served as reliable public relations band-aid and Alex was in seconds strapping his guitar over sculpted chest, adjusting the shirt collar on his left where it inevitably wrinkled under the strap, was spinning his volume knob all the way up and stepping on a foot pedal to change from clean tone to dirty, was counting the remaining beats in the bar in his head before looking up and striking his Velvetone a second after Kalen finished bringing Trent and Adrian to a close on the set’s penultimate number.
Alex let the powerful chord ring through the room while locking his sight on that pretty coffee cream-colored face and raising his pick hand to the ceiling to conduct the rise in cheering volume with it, then, places everyone, the band slammed into their set-ending song, not an original but a medley super mega mash up of the radio’s best current hooks. Krysis had a deep supply of originals -Alex and Kalen had been writing together from the beginning- but Alex instinctively knew the key to standing out in the troubled modern music market was to forsake indulgence and appeal to the best motivator in the business; self interest. This fusion of hit songs was sure to get the already excited and invested crowd surrendering their blood flow to the beat, their bodies to the breakdown, their hearts to the hooks and their cheers to the chorus, a super song designed to cause dancing uncontrollably, and limber the reluctant and rhythmically challenged limbs of all the jealous boyfriends in the Golden Caf to join their LADIES ON THE DANCE FLOOR. Most of all, Alex had Krysis put these together so that their girl fans felt free to do what girls loved best; sing their hearts out to eternal boy meets girl surreal romance pop. Hook the heart, secure the sales. Done.
If pyrotechnics had been allowed in the cafe, they would have nicely accentuated the thundering train wreck ending. Adrian pushed his kick pedal into drum skin double time while splashing his crash and ride cymbals simultaneously. Trent aggravated a blister on his right hand’s forefinger pedaling a single note, and Kalen blazed over the highest regions of his guitar neck showing off what mindless finger memory remembered. Alex caught each member’s eye, sent power into his quadriceps then jumped high and brought his guitar shooting to the stage. Like the pros, Krysis came to a polished dead stop, and the cheering exploded.
Alex was nearer the guitar stand so he put on his roadie hat and took Kalen’s guitar to put both on the bracket. When he turned to face the human autograph session pushing the stage, his sight went right to the girl who had touched his shirt. He reached over another girl and took the mocha beauty’s hand, leading her through the three girls blocking her. Alex pulled her close, pretending it was the only thing that would make the reach work. She looked up at him with warm and searching deep brown eyes, then gave Alex the greatest surprise he could ever find in a local girl: she spoke with an English accent.
“Stacy,” she said, sounding immediately and undisputedly brilliant as she extended a long slender hand covered in the same exotic skin applied to her face.
Alex took what was offered and pressed his fingers around it in a gentle squeeze. “I’m A -”
“Awesome. Yes, I see that,” Stacy said, showing teeth straightened and whitened by a powerful dentist. “Do you have representation?”
Alex nodded slightly, shifting his chin but never removing his sight from Stacy’s big brown eyes. “No, I do everything.”
“Oh,” Stacy said, her fuller bottom lip reaching up to bite her thinner top lip before forming an O shape around her impression. “Well then, you’re doing quite well for yourself.”
“Yeah, we actually just won Best Live Show in the City, and before that we won a couple of national Best Album awards and a Best Song award in the Tyler Scott International Songwriting Contest. So yeah, things are going great.”
“Have you heard of Skyrocket Records?” Stacy said, cutting Alex’s résumé off.
Alex wasn’t sure at what point he had taken Stacy’s other hand, but suddenly realized she was letting him hold both her hands between them. He let them go and placed both of his hands in their respective denim pocket. “Yeah, it’s out in the Rings, right?”
“I meant more the institution than the actual building.” Stacy crossed slim arms over the top of her abdomen, a practiced pose that tilted the horizon of her small shoulders, opened the left side of her neck to the stage light and forced her left hip out to stay balanced. Alex thought she had very nice jeans, and he loved the way she said ‘building,’ with the first syllable rising in pitch and the second bottoming out.
Stacy continued, “I’m a recording artist with them, I do top forty pop but I’ve been bugging them to let me move into more of a rock thing. You know, dirty up the guitars, mix those bloody keyboards back a bit. Anyway, they’ve been very good to me and I think they’d appreciate you and your mates. Do you have another set?”
Alex raised brown eyebrows. “Of friends? No, these guys are all I got.”
Stacy smiled but intentionally kept her lips from laughing. “I meant another set of music.”
“Two more,” Alex said, enjoying the electricity of the unplugged conversation.
Stacy stood slightly taller and inhaled noticeably and audibly. “Would you like me to call my friends to come see? A couple of reps live nearby at Emperor Village. If they’re free I’m sure they’d love to see you.” Stacy glanced back at the informal lineup of autograph seekers and groupies behind her. “You’re obviously quite smashing but I’ve never heard anyone around Skyrocket drop your name before. Crisis, is it?”
Alex smiled, crossing sinewy, bulky forearms over his black t-shirt and standing to his full height of six feet plus one more inch. “What gave it away? That giant banner behind the drums?”
Stacy smiled and dipped her chin a bit, letting Alex think he was funny. “Just making sure I pronounce it right when I call my high-ranking-and-able-to change-your life-forever executive friends to tell them I’m looking at someone they absolutely must meet.” Stacy pulled a slim phone from her pocket, pressed a speed dial button and held the microphone end of the device to her glistening lips. Alex watched them shift, rise and split over Wales-accented words as she spoke to a woman named Jaclyn about a band named Krysis.
The art show exhibiting at Stacy’s face from now until age forty was interrupted by the seemingly twentieth time Alex had felt his phone vibrate in his pocket. It had started nagging his leg almost as soon as their set started, but this was the first time Alex could do anything about it. He pulled it out, along with some stowaway guitar picks, and checked his Call Display. The caller was his father. Alex frowned at the annoying and seemingly unnecessary invasion to his pocket’s privacy; Patrick knew Krysis had a gig tonight, and that Alex wouldn’t be home until it was officially tomorrow. What did Dad want?
Alex raised his thumb over the return call option, but then Stacy ended her call with Jaclyn and announced happily that Skyrocket Records reps Jaclyn Sequoia and Ryan Sharpe were in the neighborhood, were free, could make it to the Golden Caf in half an hour and were expecting something great from this great band they’d never heard of.
Alex flirtatiously smiled and nodded at Stacy, his face bright and used to attention. “Oh, they want Awesome? No problem.”
Alex’s phone buzzed again at the side of his leg. Now this might be a problem.