Tommy rubbed his guitar strings with a lint-free cloth after practice.
He was always concerned about their condition, knowing that the sweat
in his hand could cause them to rust after awhile, and lose their sound
to be careful with these,” Tommy said to Ray, the drummer of Ockso, the
band they were in. “You never know when one of these could snap at the
yeah,” nodded Ray.
“You just make sure you stay in tune, for once,” admonished Ryan, the
bass player and lead singer of their three-piece set.
They had graduated
high school two years ago, thinking they would be rock stars, but it
hadn’t panned out … yet. The South Florida local scene was a little
rough on up-and-comers. Over the course of time, they had learned to
win people over by playing cover tunes and mixing in their songs when
the crowd was most receptive. They had sold 1,500 copies of their first
CD, and had written three new tunes.
Even harder than building a loyal fan base in Fort Lauderdale was
shopping their CD to record executives in New York and L.A. Writing
query letters wasn’t getting them any response. This lead Ryan to fly
to L.A. and impersonate a messenger boy — he got all the way to the
administrative assistant of the V.P. of Sales for Sony, where he laid
the CD on her desk before security showed up.
The V.P. never listened to the CD. However, the story of Ryan’s act of
desperation spread around town quickly, eventually drawing the
attention of the Realtor. He had been to South Florida previously –
realities were bought and sold so easily down there. Of course, it was
also the site of his greatest
At any rate, he was intrigued by this band’s persistence, and decided
to see if there was a potential market to be tapped. Using his sources,
he tracked down the number of one of the band members — Tommy.
“Hi, I’m Richard Manolo – President of Jazz recordings at
awestruck. Had Ryan’s scheme worked?
“Actually, he’s been the talk of the town.”
“Really?” marveled Tommy.
“Yeah, but one problem: no one’s listened to your CD.”
Tommy was disappointed, but then the Realtor built him back up.
“I’ll tell you what – I think your lead singer is very
courageous, and I’d like to hear your music. Live.”
“Live? In person?”
“Well, that would be live, wouldn’t it?”
Tommy stuttered his way through explaining that their next show was
Friday night. The Realtor promised to be there.
Friday night, the
Realtor approached Tommy after Ockso’s performance at Rudy’s Sports Bar
and Tavern. The crowd had been particularly supportive tonight, and
Tommy was beaming.
“Hello, son,” said the Realtor, as he extended his right hand, which
stuck out from his black Armani suit and white dress shirt underneath.
“We spoke on the phone. You were great tonight.”
“Thanks,” said Tommy. He was riding high, and now Mr. Manolo was here,
in person! What else could go right tonight?
“You guys really have your act together. If I was in the position to do
so, I’d sign you on the spot.”
“I’m going to
talk to the sales Vice-President. I’m sure we can work something out
for you. Here’s my card. We’ll stay in touch.”
Tommy never felt so confident in his life. He had been told by a record
executive that the band he was in was great, and that they would be
looked at by a major record label. He told the other guys the news, and
showed them the business card. They all thought they were about to make
it big, live their dreams….
later, Tommy stared at the ceiling of his cramped dorm room. Winter had
arrived at N.C. State, and he was cold. He thought of warmer climes …
his home, which he would be seeing in two more weeks, after finals. And
he thought of his ex-bandmates — they had been so close … everything
came and went so quickly….
He recalled the events after the meeting with record exec. The storage
unit they used for practice sessions had caught fire, destroying Ray’s
drum set and forcing them to cancel shows for two weeks.
No big deal, normally, but they got a call two days after the fire from
Sony. Some execs from MTV would be coming down to see them at the end
of the month. They still attempted to practice together at Tommy’s
parents’ house, with Ray playing some buckets, but it just
wasn’t the same energy or feel.
They finally got the new kit three days before the set, but had nowhere
to go full out. They continued their subdued practices for the next two
finally arrived. Tommy remembered he never felt better on stage. It was
like the three of them had been released from a cramped prison cell –
and they had all this energy to let out.
After the 30-minute set, one of the MTV guys approached Ryan. Tommy
wanted to walk over, but then remembered no one had interrupted his
meeting with Richard Manolo, so he left them alone. After about a
minute, the MTV guy went back to his table.
Tommy walked over and said, “Well?”
Ryan sighed and shook his head. Ray had joined them, and he too asked
what had happened.
“Well, he said we sounded good. Maybe a little too energetic, but very
“Great!” said Tommy.
“I’m not done yet.”
“Then … he
said even though we sound good, we needed something more.”
“Something more … like?”
“He wouldn’t tell me. I mean, we sounded great, we were tight, but we
still needed something more — whatever that means.” Ryan was clearly
bulls***,” Ray chimed in. “Those guys don’t know what they’re talking
about. F*** them.”
“Wait, we’re going to play another set,” said Tommy quickly. “Maybe….”
“Forget it, man,” Ryan said. “They’re already leaving.”
Over the next few days, dissention quickly hit the ranks. They weren’t
angry at each other — they enjoyed practicing — but every time they
saw one another, the words of the MTV exec would come up.
“I wonder if this is the something more they’re looking for,” Ryan
would say sarcastically as he slapped out a new funk rhythm on his
seemed they were haunted by “something more.” Whatever that elusive
quality was, none of them could put a finger on it. As cool as their
new songs sounded to them, it never seemed to satisfy the “something
more” standard set by that MTV executive. And, as spring turned to
summer, they all began to think about the rest of their lives.
Ryan went in search of a steadier music scene in New Orleans. Ray
decided it was time to get his CDL license, and become a long-haul
truck driver like his father. Tommy decided to accept a long-standing
offer to go to school out of state. It was more expensive, but he felt
like he needed to get away from his parents, his old life and South
For Tommy, it
had been a tough semester — his roommate was part of an on-campus
religious cult, and was constantly prostalatizing. He couldn’t sleep
because fire alarms were being pulled or people were running up and
down the halls all hours of the night. He couldn’t study because he
wasn’t used to it – two years had passed since he graduated
high school, and that was much easier than college. He was barely
getting C’s in his classes. On top of that, he was running out of
money, even though he was on the campus food program. He knew he would
need a job to survive.
He thought about forming a new band, but was afraid. They had been so
close before, only to fall short. It still hurt.
He thought about trying Mr. Manolo’s number again … to see if he
needed a studio guitarist. When he finally did muster the
courage, he found out that the record executve had died in a plane
accident two months back – another door permanently shut.
So, he lay in his room, when he should’ve been studying, daydreaming
about what could’ve been, resigned to what was.
Ten years later
… Manhattan. Tommy was an account executive for one of the world’s
largest banks. He never had married, but had a son he saw during the
summer and winter holidays. He had stopped playing guitar a long time
ago, focusing instead on getting his degree and pursuing his career.
Tommy had some buddies, and he had a favorite hang out (a little Irish
pub on Broadway in the Upper West side). He had a beautiful studio
apartment that he called home. He was the epitome of the Manhattanite.
A homeless man approached. Tommy hoped he wouldn’t ask for money. He
quickened his pace, hoping to reach the 42nd Street subway steps before
he had to cross paths with this babbling fool wearing coke bottle
glasses and carrying a grimy blue Mets duffle bag.
“We’re oil droplets in the machine. That’s all we are,” he heard the
man say, over and over. Tommy was surprised he wasn’t carrying a “The
End is Nigh” sign.
made eye contact and glanced away. The man walked towards him, fixated.
Tommy felt his stare, and began to sweat in the 40-degree weather.
The man grabbed him and pushed him against the railing of the subway
entrance. He tried to get away, but the homeless man pushed his stocky
bulk against Tommy’s wispy body, pinning him.
a droplet! Don’t you understand?”
“No! I don’t!”
bought it, didn’t you? You think you’re somebody, but you’re not –
you’re just a droplet that oils a cog in the machine!”
“F*** you. You’re not getting any money from me.”
“Money!” laughed the homeless man. “This isn’t about money! It’s about
your life, and the reality you bought.”
Tommy managed to squeeze out of the man’s grasp. He grabbed the railing
and swung himself over and unto the stairs, nearly knocking over a
short 42 year-old Puerto Rican woman carrying two brown bags full of
groceries. He ran down the stairs.
From the entrance, the homeless man yelled, “Was his name Robby
Heifinger? Or Richard Manolo?”
Tommy stopped dead in his tracks.
“How about Elton Campbell?”
Tommy turned and climbed the stairs. “How do you know Richard Manolo?”
he asked as he reached the homeless man.
“Cause he f***ed with me once.”
“He goes by many
names,” the homeless man explained, “but there’s only one name that
counts: the Realtor.”
The two sat at a Mexican fast food restaurant owned by Chinese
immigrants, eating tacos. Tommy could tell that the homeless guy was
deranged — he just kept rambling, never allowing him to get more than
a few words in.
“Wait,” said Tommy. “What about Mr. Manolo?”
“Don’t you get it? That name doesn’t matter. It’s just a cover, a
character he plays to fool people like you.”
Tommy had wanted some answers, but he didn’t like what he was hearing.
homeless guy grabbed Tommy’s arm. “Listen to me. He sold you on how
great you were at something, right? And then it all fell apart?” Tommy
sat back down. “He sold a reality to you. It’s what he does.”
“Why does he do that?”
“The Realtor has been around for a long time — thousands of years. No
one knows where he came from, but we do know that he buys, sells, and
trades realities on a Reality Exchange. When he sold you the rock band
reality, he took a profit. When your dream crashed, you took the loss.”
“Look, I deal with numbers everyday. I know what a stock exchange is,
okay? You’re not going to tell me he sold me anything. He was just a
record exec. Besides, I don’t remember paying for this reality that he
all right. The currency was your soul.”
“What? No. That’s not possible.”
“When your stock crashed, you invested what was left of you in
something safe: a standard corporate career.”
Tommy shook his head. “No. I’m listening to a homeless guy. No way.”
“You can’t deny the truth.”
“I suppose he never sold you.”
“I had created my own reality, but he stole it from me.”
“Maybe you should get it back.”
“And neither can I.”
“But you can make a difference! Do you want others to go through what
you did? You’ve got to be willing to speak up — he can’t stop all of
us, but he can pick us off one at a time.”
Tommy didn’t care about making a difference — not anymore. He felt
like a fool. What had he hoped to discover from this homeless guy? Just
because the guy knew Mr. Manolo’s name meant nothing — a lucky guess
from a clearly insane individual. He left his unfinished taco behind
and walked out of the restaurant. The homeless guy, a.k.a. the
Nihilist, followed him for a few blocks, and into a subway station,
before finally being stopped by the metal bars of the fare payment
station. As Tommy blended in with the crowd of evening commuters, he
could hear the Nihilist yelling, “Why would you want to be an oil
droplet? Are you insane?”
Tommy chuckled to himself — he may be insane, but at least he didn’t
look or sound crazy. And, in the end, wasn’t that what really mattered?