Holding a gun to my head, a kid with a black stocking over his face demands I hand over my cassette radio. The kid is flanked by another standing behind him, a stocking covering his head, too. My best friend Lan is only a few feet away.
I am fifteen; Lan is one year younger.
We’re in the projects on one of the walking paths that border the rectangular grass area. The summer moon casts a silver light on the black tar of the pavement.
All I can hear is my father’s voice in my head. They’re going to steal that radio if you keep taking it out. And then images of beautifully illustrated rock album covers flash across my mind. Yes’s Close to the Edge, Santana’s Abraxas, and the Allman Brothers’ Eat a Peach.
“Give me the fucking radio!” the kid shouts louder this time. He is at least a foot taller than Lan and me, trapping us in his shadow. In the dark of night, our souls have fled from us, seeking sanctuary. Our bodies have aged and shriveled between heartbeats.
I stare back blankly, like there is only wind between my ears.
The kid with the gun is motionless, holding the nozzle to my head; the stocking on his face rises and falls with his breathing.
If I run, he’ll shoot me in the back. If I swing my fist at him, he’ll likely beat me to the quick and shoot me in the face.
I hear the plaintive screaming of angels in my head.
And now, instead of handing him the radio, I take off. Out of savage instinct, I bolt at full speed across the grass field. I wait for the bullet to come at me and punch me into another realm. I run as if I’ll evaporate into mist, like a sheet of rain or a cloud in the sky.
But nothing happens. I glance back. To my inexpressible relief the kid isn’t coming after me. I’m now a good fifty feet away.
“Dumb motherfucker,” the kid yells, as he and his friend take off in the opposite direction.
Lan runs after me and soon catches up.
“That was fucked up,” says Lan, out of breath.
Still running, I begin to slow down, my chest heaving.
We both stop running now. We’re facing each other. Lan grabs me by the shoulders. We look at each other, our eyes wide and watery. This isn’t an ordinary night.
“Are you all right?”
I nod affirmatively. In truth I’m shaking to the bottom of my fifteen-year-old soul.
I say yes silently, incapable of speaking. I’m somewhere else, having an out-of-body experience.
For the rest of the night, Lan talks to me. It’s a nervous kind of talking. He tells me about his favorite groups, the albums he loves most. He doesn’t expect me to talk back. He’s talking for both of us now, his words like an umbilical cord, nourishing me with oxygen and blood.
My bones still rattling, we smoke cigarettes on the park bench, not far from where the gun was held to my head.
Lan only stops talking at the end of the night when we finally say goodbye in the elevator.
I open the elevator door to the third-floor landing.
“You going to be OK?”
I nod yes.
“I’ll call you first thing in the morning.”
The elevator door closes. Lan continues to the sixth floor where he lives.
I swing the door to our apartment open then rush into my bedroom. I don’t even say hello or goodnight to my parents. They of course have no idea what just happened.
The next afternoon, sitting in Lan’s bedroom, passing a joint back and forth, he and I look out the window. Words have returned to me.
Lan’s bedroom window has a view of the parking lot in the back of our project building. Being on the sixth floor, it’s like we’re on top of the earth. From Lan’s window we can see the distant rooftops of other project buildings. At this moment, it’s as if our project complex is a chunk of Earth floating out in space, surrounded by a million years. The trees have a bright green shimmer as they sway in the gentle summer breeze.
We’re listening to Yes’s Close to the Edge. It’s one of the many albums that are lined up on the shelf near the window where the record player sits. The title song blares out of the speakers. Lan’s brothers listen to music at full volume, so this isn’t unusual in his house. My father would probably call the police if I played music this loud.
Close to the Edgeopens with the sounds of birds twittering. The music conjures up a distant world: we’re on another planet, sitting in a valley between mountains, there are spaceships flying overhead. In the sky on this planet there are two suns and a gigantic purple red-colored moon, even visible in the day.
Suddenly the band’s music comes blasting out of the speakers, like a Titanic-sized UFO is crash-landing on our project building. The room shakes, as the music comes screaming out of the walls.
“Yes is my favorite band,” shouts Lan over the music.
“They’re my favorite band with Bill Bruford as drummer,” I say, leaning into his ear to be heard. It never occurs to us that we can lower the music.
“I know, I know. You like Bruford.”
Lan likes the Yes configuration with Alan White on drums. I like Bill Bruford. Bruford is more of a jazz drummer, he plays offbeat rhythms; he’s unpredictable. White is more of a straight-ahead rock drummer. Lan likes the live Yes albums, and I prefer the studio ones.
Lan and I have this discussion for hours while smoking weed. We talk about the worlds that Yes weaves with their music. Worlds of bucolic beauty. Mountain landscapes floating in space. Visions of a future in which humans have become spiritually and socially advanced. But Lan and I don’t use words like bucolic. We don’t know those words, though Lan writes reams of poetry that he sometimes shows me. But we’re drawn to the poetic lyrics in Yes’s songs. And we’re fascinated by the interesting sounds of the instruments: mandolins, church organs, harpsichords, pedal steel, nylon- and twelve-string guitars. There are also a lot of futuristic sounds in Yes’s music: Moog synthesizers, Mellotrons, and Hammond organs. The mix of ancient and futuristic makes Yes’s music sound timeless. That, along with the legato singing and polyphonic harmonies, as if their vocals are sung by all the angels and saints in heaven.
Lan’s mother bangs on the bedroom wall, as she shouts over the music, asking us to lower the volume. She must have been banging for a few minutes. Lan turns the knob on the stereo to lower the music.
“Thank you,” we then hear from the hallway. She doesn’t sound angry; she practically sings her thank you. The music must have been at rock-concert levels.
“I can’t believe what happened last night,” says Lan in a hushed voice.
“I know; I totally freaked out.”
“Why didn’t you hand him your radio?”
This is not an easy question to answer. Sure, I was panicked, the black-metal gun to my head made me go blank. But there’s much more to it than that. I had begged my dad for months to get me the radio. It’s a Panasonic with a cassette player. Top of the line. We saved up for months to get it. Then he insisted that I shouldn’t take it out so it wouldn’t get stolen. So there’s that.
But this little plastic box with knobs brings voices from another dimension. It tunes into frequencies on the electromagnetic spectrum that only initiated beings can hear. Or so we think.
“I mean, just running away like that from the kid with the gun, that was crazy,” says Lan, lighting up the joint again.
Now the song’s chorus rings out over the speakers.
I know Lan knows what I’m thinking. Despite the events of last night, the music calls to us. We’re just kids, unable to explain that the music transports us to a safer place, a more beautiful place. A place less dangerous than the projects. Not as filthy. No dead steel factories or abandoned buildings in this world. In Yes’s music we journey to places with mountains, rainbows, and rivers.
“This might be my alltime favorite album,” Lan finally says.
“Even with Bruford on drums?”
“Maybe,” he draws out slowly. He’s patting his head with his fingers. “I might put Yessongson the same level with Close to the Edge.”
I nod along with him, pleased.
“Do you think that guy would have shot me?” I say, suddenly changing the subject back.
“What?” Lan says. He always asks whatwhen asked a question he’s not sure about. There is nothing bitter or mean in Lan. He loves the crazy shit I do, but he wouldn’t be the person to do a crazy thing. And he doesn’t want to upset me.
“Do you think that guy would have shot me?”
“But he didn’t shoot you.”
“He put the gun up to my head.”
“But he didn’t pull the trigger.” Lan smiles. “Maybe because he knew you were a sick motherfucker.”
“But he was one click away.”
“He was.” Nodding now, he adds, “It would have been over in one second.”
It’s Lan’s quick answer that gets to me. I think of how my body would have looked, splayed out on the concrete, a puddle of thick red blood pouring out from my head, like gas gushing from a busted fuel tank. I shiver for a second, but Lan doesn’t notice.
“But you, you were a madman, running away like that. I mean, the guy could’ve shot you if you simply flinched.” He waits a few beats. “You must have known that, right?”
I don’t have an answer for him.
The joint between my index finger and thumb has gone out. I light it up again.
Wishing he hadn’t asked his question from a moment before, Lan adds “I’m just glad you’re here and we can listen to music together. No one else hears music like we do.”
I’m choked up by his words, but I don’t say anything. We both know how close that call was. How close to death I had come. Close to the edge.
I take a pull on the joint and pass it back to him. We both try to avoid looking at each other’s watery eyes.
Then Lan reaches over to make the music louder as the final chorus plays on the stereo. The refrain on the title song of Close to the Edgereminds me of how I traversed the border of life and death, at one instant being both dead and alive. Suddenly, I hear the ghost echo of a gunshot in my brain. My blood feels cold and still in that moment.
Lan’s mother bangs on the wall again, yelling, “Lower that damned music, I said!” taking me out of my trance. Her tone is exasperated, but playful. Then, for a split second, her voice sounds electronic and alien, as if it’s been mixed through one of the Hammond organs in Yes’s music. How did that happen?
Lan and I quickly glance at each other, doubling over in laughter.
We’re both totally fucking stoned.