The Uneasy Deal

**April 5th, 2014 was the 20th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death.  I wrote this short story thinking about him, his death, and the deaths of many other musicians at a young age.**

The Uneasy Deal

by Kim Barton

 Jeremy grabbed his guitar, slung it over his back, and headed out the door.  He wished he had a car, but without money, a car was an impossible dream.  Jeremy owned thousands of dollars’ worth of music equipment, all of it necessary.  A car, although nice, was not essential.  His guitar, though, was.  Jeremy didn’t think he could breathe without his guitar.

Outside the sun burned bright and Jeremy put on his sunglasses.  Sometimes he wished he lived somewhere a little more gloomy.  The music he listened to and played screamed anger and angst.  Unfortunately for Jeremy, his environment defied him—blue sky, sunny, birds chirping—and surrounded him with another beautiful day in the desert.  He slumped trying to avoid the brightness and cheerfulness.  The sun burned through his black shirt, making him feel like he was cooking in the oven.

It only took 10 minutes to walk to the bus stop, but by the time he sat on the bench he was drenched in sweat.  People shouldn’t live in places this hot.  It isn’t right.  He scowled.  Jeremy hated taking the bus to band practice, although band practice was the highlight of his week.  Twice a week he played with his band, Voices in My Head, as the lead guitar player and back-up vocalist.  Jeremy knew he was exceptional.  The guitar came to him easily; singing too.  He’d always been good at it.

Finally, the bus pulled up with a puff of smoke.  Turning his head away from the exhaust, Jeremy picked his way onto the bus, found a seat, and sat down near the back.  It was air-conditioned and blessedly cool; he could feel the sweat drying and cooling his body.  Ahh, he thought, that’s more like it.  He placed his guitar on the seat next to him.  He hoped no one would want to sit there.  Jeremy dug his iPod and ear buds out of his gig bag, sat back to relax and enjoy the cool air.

Jeremy thought about his most recent song, written about an odd character he saw regularly on the bus.  Jeremy had to admit to himself that he wasn’t great at writing lyrics.  He was still working at that.  But, he could write a wicked guitar riff.  “Bus Ninja” had a killer riff and was one of the band’s most loved songs.  Voices in My Head played locally just about every weekend, and was becoming one of the more popular bands among the metal teenagers.  The group had a steady core of fans, mostly friends, girl-friends, and family.  Jeremy and Gunnar, the drummer, really wanted to make it big.  So did Tommy, the rhythm guitar player.  Jeremy wasn’t so sure about the other guys.  Their bass player, Ethan didn’t seem to care one way or another.  Ethan didn’t really care about much of anything except getting high.  Mateo, the singer, seemed to like it because it was a fun thing to do on the weekends.  He liked the girls too, like some old 80’s hair band lead singer.  But Jeremy couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

The bus jolted to a stop.  Jeremy looked up as a creepy man got on the bus, muttering to himself and when he sat down he pulled his hat all the way down over his face.  Weird, thought Jeremy, so many freakin’ weird people on the bus.  He thought again about getting a car.  Or maybe a van or truck so he could haul his gear around.  It would be a lot more expensive, but then he wouldn’t have to ride the bus with guys who sat with their hats over their faces.  When the band gets big, Jeremy thought, I’ll never take the bus again.

Jeremy rested his head against the window and looked out.  A few dark clouds were starting to make their way into town.  A monsoon; it would blow in quickly, rain furiously for about an hour, and the wind would knock down tree branches and blow debris around the city.  Then it would blow out as quickly as it had come.  Jeremy loved the rains.  They were a break from the oppressive heat.  When he was a little kid he’d always run to the front door to watch the rains.  He loved to watch it pour down, sometimes raining sideways, and seeing the river that had previously been his street flow down to the corner.

The bus pulled up to Jeremy’s stop and he stepped from the refrigerated bus onto the burning sidewalk.  The heat hit him like he had just opened the oven door.  He adjusted his gig bag, looked around, and started walking towards his drummer’s house, where they had their band practices.  Right now they were still the cliché garage band, but Jeremy hoped that one day they would have a proper place to practice and record.

Jeremy turned the corner when he saw the man.  Jeremy pulled up and stopped walking.  The man had stringy, shoulder-length hair the color of dirty straw and was wearing a tattered green cardigan and jeans with rips in the knees.  He slouched when he walked.  He looked just like…Kurt Cobain.  Jeremy stood still and watched the man as he turned a corner and headed in the direction of the nearest coffee house.

Jeremy closed his eyes and shook his head to clear it.  It couldn’t be Kurt Cobain, he thought, Kurt Cobain is dead.  Long dead.  But it looked just like him!  Jeremy knew what Kurt Cobain looked like, had read about him and watched countless Nirvana music videos.  And that man looked like him.  Maybe his death was a hoax, Jeremy thought, maybe he wanted to get away from his fame so badly that he faked his death.  But what would he be doing here?  Kurt Cobain had killed himself nearly twenty years before, shot himself with a shotgun.  Jeremy decided to follow him, thinking that a closer look would identify him for sure.  After all, what if it was Kurt Cobain?  And he, Jeremy, could talk to him?  How amazing would that be?

Jeremy hurried to catch up.  He rounded the corner, but the Kurt Cobain look-alike was nowhere to be seen.  Jeremy walked over to the coffee house and checked inside, but he was not there either.  He needed to get to practice, so Jeremy gave up the search, disappointed.  When he got to band practice, he told his mates about it as they were setting up their gear.

“Dude, you’re crazy.  Kurt Cobain is dead.  He’s not walking around Tucson, Arizona!” laughed Tommy absently as he plugged his guitar into its amp.

“Yeah, he’s been dead, for like, 20 years,” Mateo added, adjusting his mike stand.

“Maybe he’s a zombie—” Tommy said, holding out his arms like a movie zombie.

“And eats guitar players,” Gunnar said.

“So you might want to stay away from him if you ever see him again.  You know, so you don’t get your brains eaten.  Braaiiinnnsss,” Tommy joked.  He jumped on Jeremy and pretended to eat his brains.  Jeremy shook him off and they started wrestling.

They stopped in mid-wrestle when Gunnar said, “No!  I got it.  He comes back to steal the souls of guitar players.  So he can come back again and play.  He’s pissed he offed himself and wants to come back.”  He was fiddling with his drum kit, making sure the cymbals were tight, then leaning over to check the foot pedals.

The guys joked like this for a few minutes.

“Are you done?” Jeremy asked, laughing, flicking his hair out of his face.

Tommy took a moment to actually think about it and then answered that he was, indeed, done.

“Good.  We should practice,” Jeremy said.

Practice was a good one.  Jeremy’s story had put everyone in a good mood and they were focused and tight.  Tommy gave Jeremy a ride home, but had to drop him off at a corner near his house.

“Thanks for the ride,” Jeremy said as he pulled his stuff out of the back of Tommy’s truck.

“No problem.  Watch out for grunge zombies!”

“Uh…yeah.  See you tomorrow.”

Tommy drove off and Jeremy stood for a moment before walking home.  It was still hot even though it was nine at night.  But as he looked up he saw the moon was more full than he’d ever seen it before.  It was so full that it looked swollen.  Jeremy saw movement out of the side of his eye.  A man was crossing the street and heading towards Jeremy’s neighborhood.  It was the Kurt Cobain look-alike again!

Kurt Cobain look-alike turned into a parking lot that separated the street from the neighborhood.  But when Jeremy got to the parking lot, the Kurt Cobain look-alike was nowhere in sight.  He couldn’t have gone anywhere, because there wasn’t anywhere to go.  Jeremy wondered what was going on.  Was he seeing things?  He closed his eyes and opened them again.  He looked around, checking behind buildings and down walkways and streets, but still no sign of the man.  Finally Jeremy gave up and went home.

           Later that night Jeremy lay in bed listening to Nirvana on his iPod.  He couldn’t get the vision of that man out of his head.  He was sure it was Kurt Cobain, and yet he kept disappearing so Jeremy couldn’t get a good look at him.  He thought about what he knew about Kurt Cobain.  Jeremy knew that Cobain was not comfortable with his fame, a concept Jeremy could not understand.  He wanted to be famous!  He wanted everyone to see him play; he wanted fans, lots of fans, at his gigs.  The more people in the crowd the better.  He totally fed off of their energy.  He sometimes fantasized about what it would be like to be on a giant stage with thousands of fans in the audience, all screaming his band’s name, or screaming his name.  They’d put their hands up, reaching for him, when he played solos.  They’d sing along to the lyrics he wrote!  He remembers the first big concert he ever went to.  His mother had taken him.  It was an Iron Maiden show and Jeremy was blown away by the…hugeness…of it.  The stage, the crowd, the sound, the lights, even the band were big.  The lead singer flew around the stage, running from side to side, engaging the crowd.  The crowd got into it, singing along to songs that were well known and well loved.  The bass player owned center stage, while the guitar players shredded and played perfect rhythm.  Jeremy couldn’t sleep that night, the music still pulsing through his body, the lights and visions from the night overwhelming his mind.  He wanted to do that and only that.  He didn’t care about school.  He didn’t care about algebra or reading Lord of the Flies.  All he wanted to do was stand center stage with a guitar in his hands.

He couldn’t imagine not wanting that.  And not wanting it to the point that it made your life so miserable you wanted to end it.  Nirvana’s lyrics spoke of a deep unhappiness.  Jeremy also remembered reading something about Cobain having some kind of chronic stomach trouble that kept him in pain all the time.  He supposed that would make life miserable.  But to kill yourself with a shotgun!  It was awful even to think about.

Feeling thirsty, Jeremy got up and went to the kitchen to get a drink of water.  The moon hit him again with its brilliance.  He felt compelled to go outside to get a better look at it, so he stepped out into his backyard.  He stood in the middle of his yard and tipped his head back to soak in the moon.  Even though he knew it was only light rays, he felt like it was enveloping him with its brightness, like he was glowing, shimmering.  It was then that he saw something glowing moving down the alley.  He strode over to the fence and looked out, knowing in his gut what he would see.  Yes, there he was again.  Kurt Cobain.  This time, though, he turned and looked directly at Jeremy.  They locked eyes for a brief moment, a moment that seemed to Jeremy to last a long time.  The man broke the stare and walked off down the alley towards the neighborhood park.  Jeremy watched him, but didn’t follow.  The other two times he had followed and got nothing.  This time he waited.  The man stopped again, turned and nodded slightly at Jeremy before heading back down the alley.  Jeremy understood he was supposed to follow.  He opened the gate and followed the man at a discreet distance.  The man did not stop and look back again.  It was clear he knew Jeremy was following him.  Jeremy noticed that none of the neighborhood dogs were barking.  It was odd, because the dogs always barked when someone or something went down the alley.  It must be the strange man, Jeremy thought, this is so weird.

The man continued down the alley until he came to the park.  He walked over to the play equipment and stood, waiting.  Jeremy came out of the alley and stopped, not quite willing to approach the man.  He looked at the man standing there with the moon shining down on him, the moon lighting up the playground as if under a spotlight.  Jeremy recalled spending much of his childhood playing at that playground with other kids in the neighborhood.  He looked around.  It was late and no one was out.  What did he expect?  To see the kids from the neighborhood leaving their houses to come join him to play tag?  They hadn’t played together in years, and the neighborhood grew quiet as fewer kids moved in.  The swings looked sad and forlorn, the slide patched and ratty, the paint on the monkey bars chipped with disuse.  It seemed a fitting place for the Kurt Cobain look-alike to wait for Jeremy.  He looked sad, patched, and ratty too.

Jeremy took a breath, gathered his wits, and walked over to the man.

The Kurt Cobain look-alike picked a swing and sat in it, his legs dragging in the sand, the swing swaying slightly back and forth.  He looked like one of the kids at recess who never got picked for sports and sought out the swings as solace, as a place of refuge.  His head came up when Jeremy approached him.

“Hello Jeremy,” the man said in what sounded exactly like Kurt Cobain’s voice.

Jeremy stood as if rooted.  His mind triggered on a time when he and the neighborhood kids tried to dig all the way to the center of the earth only to discover that the sand they were digging lay on top of concrete.  He felt like that, as if he had been sinking in a weird floating dream only to hit concrete.

“Why don’t you sit with me?” the man said, gesturing to the swing next to him.

Jeremy sat in the swing.  It wasn’t comfortable.  He was much too big for it; the seat squeezed his hips and the chains dug into his arms.  But the discomfort was oddly comforting.  It reminded him that he was alive even though he still couldn’t shake the dream feeling.

They sat in silence for a few moments, each seeming to wait for the other to speak first.  The Kurt Cobain specter seemed like he was willing to wait a long time.  He had the air of someone who had already waited a long time.  He sat gently shuffling back and forth on the swing, looking at the ground, kicking at the dirt with his scuffed up Converse.  From time to time he’d glance over at Jeremy.

Jeremy, for his part, was struck mute.  He’d started several times to ask a question, but the questions he wanted to ask seemed silly.  Are you Kurt Cobain?  Are you alive?  Why are you talking to me?

“Go ahead and ask me, Jeremy,” he said, in a quiet whispery voice.

“Um…OK,” he took a deep breath, “are you Kurt Cobain?” Jeremy asked and he could hear the incredulous tone of his voice.

“Yes,” the man replied, “sort of.”

“Sort of?  What does that mean?”

He looked sideways at the man.  Kurt Cobain turned to look at Jeremy.

“It means that I am Kurt Cobain.  But, I am not Kurt Cobain…anymore.”

Jeremy barked out a too-loud laugh.  “That’s helpful.”

“Kurt Cobain is dead,” he said.

“Yeah, I know,” Jeremy said.

“But I have come here to talk to you, Jeremy.  You could say it’s my mission.”

Jeremy laughed another uncomfortable laugh.  Kurt Cobain smiled slightly, but did not laugh.

“Your mission.”

“Yes.”

“Your mission is to talk to me.”

“Yes.”

“About what?”

Kurt Cobain paused and looked off into the distance.  It seemed to Jeremy that he was listening to something.  After a moment he turned to look Jeremy in the eyes.  Jeremy was struck by the haunted look of Kurt Cobain’s eyes.

“Do you love music, Jeremy?” he asked.

Jeremy was surprised by the question, “Uh…yeah.”

Kurt Cobain seemed unsatisfied by the answer.  He looked at Jeremy like a teacher disappointed in his student’s answer in class.  He took a deep breath,

“Do you love music, Jeremy?” he asked again, still swinging gently.

Jeremy took a moment before answering.

Yes,” he said, “I love music.  More than anything.  I’d…die without music.”

“That’s what I thought.”

“That’s what you thought?  How would you know that?” Jeremy stood up, got caught up in the seat and the chains, and impatiently untangled himself, the seat bouncing, the chains jangling loudly.  “How do you know me?” he said, his voice raising, “Why have you come here?  Why are you talking to me?  Who are you?  What are you?”  Finally, the questions came spilling out.

Kurt Cobain sat motionless, completely unaffected by Jeremy’s outburst.  He merely watched Jeremy with those sad, blue eyes.

“I don’t understand,” Jeremy pleaded, kicking at the sand, “I don’t understand what the…ghost, or whatever you are…of Kurt Cobain is doing here asking me dumb questions like whether I love music.”

He started pacing, something he always did when nervous or thinking.

“I told you.  Talking to you is my mission.”

“I know.  But I still don’t understand what that means.”

Kurt Cobain extracted himself from the swing slowly and walked over to a park bench.  He gestured for Jeremy to join him.  Jeremy did not want to sit down so he continued to pace.

“Jeremy,” he said, “you said you’d ‘die’ without music—“

“Yeah,” Jeremy interrupted.

“You said you’d ‘die’ without music,” Kurt Cobain went on as if the interruption had not happened and Jeremy’s agitation were of no consequence.  “I get that.  I was the same way.  I started playing guitar when I was four.  Singing even younger than that.  Music was life for me.  To cut off music would have been like cutting off my supply of oxygen.”

Jeremy had stopped pacing.

“Yeah, that’s how I feel too.”

“I know.  That’s why I’m here.  To talk to you about music,” Kurt Cobain said.

“But—“

Kurt Cobain shook his head.  His straggly hair got in his eyes and he flicked his head to remove it, a gesture that Jeremy found disconcerting as it was something he did as well.  It was different than the way his lead singer, Mateo did it, who flicked his hair self-consciously and with the intention to attract girls.  This was an unconscious habit.

“Jeremy, you love music.  You’d ‘die’ without it.  Do you also want to do something important with it?  Change lives?  Make an impact?”

Jeremy flopped down on the grass at Kurt Cobain’s feet.  He picked at the grass.

“That all I want to do,” Jeremy answered.  He tossed a handful of grass in the air.  “Can I ask you a question?”

“Yes.”

“Are you a…ghost?” Jeremy asked.  It sounded so ridiculous.  The whole thing was ridiculous—him sitting here talking to Kurt Cobain about loving music.

“Not exactly.  Kurt Cobain, in his corporeal body is dead.”

“But you look so real.  You can sit on a swing!”

“Yes.  That’s because I’m not a ghost like you think of a ghost.  I’m not here to haunt you or this place.  I am here to talk to you…and only to you.  No one else can see me or hear me.”

“So, if someone were to come out here, they’d see me sitting here talking to myself?” Jeremy asked with a nervous laugh.

“Unfortunately, yes.  That’s why I waited until it was this late to talk to you.”

“OK.  You are on a ‘mission’ to talk to me about music.  Where did you come from?  Who sent you?  And…why me?”

“That’s more than one question.  Reminds me of interviews I did with the press, greedy bastards.  Always pushing for more than I wanted to give.”

“Sorry.”

“No, no.  It’s alright.  I can’t tell you where I came from.  Let’s just say it’s a place for musicians.”

“Like a musician heaven?” Jeremy asked, liking the sound of an afterlife where musicians all gathered to jam.  Jam Heaven.  Jeremy’s brain lit up with the idea for a new song, the lyrics already starting to form.  He could feel the familiar tingling in his fingers—he wanted to reach for his guitar, needed to create a riff.

Kurt Cobain brought him back out of it, “Something like that,” he said gently.

“Cool,” Jeremy added.

Kurt Cobain chuckled.  It seemed odd to Jeremy, like he wasn’t used to laughing, had spent too much of his life unhappy to laugh easily.  Jeremy remembered something his mother had said about a friend having an “easy laugh”, and he thought that Kurt Cobain did not have an easy laugh.

“You want to know why I am talking to you?  I made a deal once, a long time ago, that I would look for the next musician to have the potential to change the music industry, shake things up…you know…”

“Like you did?” Jeremy asked.

“Yeah, only it doesn’t have to be like I did.  It could be anything.  But…that person has to be talented and passionate about music.  Obsessive, really.  Not some slacker hack who just wants to be famous.  The chops have to be there.  As does the dedication.”

“And you chose…me?” Jeremy asked with hesitation.

“Sure.  You’re passionate, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Dedicated to music?”

“Yeah.”

“Passionate about it to the point where it drowns out all other interests?”

Jeremy let out a nervous laugh.

“Yeah.”

“And you’re talented.  Extremely talented.  I haven’t seen a guitar player with your chops in a long, long time, Jeremy.  And you’re only seventeen.”

Jeremy dropped his eyes so the Kurt Cobain specter couldn’t see the heat rising in his face.  He didn’t know why he was embarrassed.  He was usually not humble about his talent.  Jeremy knew he was good.  Only now the situation was so bizarre that his natural confidence was gone.

“Now the question is whether you want it bad enough—“

“Oh, I want it bad enough,” Jeremy interrupted.

“Bad enough to make a sacrifice,” the Kurt Cobain specter finished.

That shut Jeremy up.  A sacrifice?  Although something ominous was niggling at his gut, Jeremy decided that the sacrifice would be one he knew most artists who made it big had to make.  He’d give up comfort to hit the road.  He knew it sometimes took a long time and hard work to make it big.  That was OK with Jeremy.

“I’m ready and willing to make any sacrifice.  I’ll move out, move to whatever city I need to go to make it.  I’ll tour around in a shitty van and play at dive bars with people throwing bottles at me if that’s what it takes.”

Kurt Cobain shook his head, “That’s not the kind of sacrifice I’m talking about.”  He looked at Jeremy as if hoping Jeremy would figure it out.

Jeremy stood up and walked over to a tree and picked at the bark.  He pulled pieces off and threw them on the ground.  Kurt Cobain just sat and waited.

A few bats flew overhead and Jeremy stopped throwing bark to watch them.  He felt like they should be some kind of omen.  He tried to remember his mythology class; they must have learned what bats symbolized.  Probably death, thought Jeremy, or creepy visits from ghostsOr maybe they symbolize that I am going crazy, bat-shit crazy.  He laughed out loud, though he hadn’t meant to.  He looked over at Kurt Cobain to see if he had heard.  He didn’t appear to.  He was looking at his hands, a strangely sad gesture to Jeremy.  Jeremy wondered if Kurt Cobain was remembering playing guitar with those hands.  Could they all still play in Jam Heaven?  Jeremy really hoped they could.  The thought of never playing a guitar again made him feel sick.

Something jarred loose in his memory, “Are you talking about something like what that blues guitar player…what’s his name—“

“Robert Johnson.”

“Yeah, him.  He made a deal with the devil or something, traded his life for talent on the guitar, right?”

“Something like that.  Only he didn’t make a deal with the Devil.  He made a deal with one of us.  Someone like me.”

“Whoa,” Jeremy said, “so it’s true?  The story?  I figured it was a legend, made up to make him seem cool.”

“It worked, didn’t it?  It’s a good story.  I liked it too.”

“Hey!” Jeremy strode back over to Kurt Cobain, excited, “Do you see him?  Robert Johnson.  Play with him?  Where you came from?”

“He’s there.  But I’m not allowed to tell you more than that.”

“Oh,” Jeremy was a bit disappointed he couldn’t find out more.  He wanted to know about this place.

“Why can’t you tell me about this place?”

“It’s forbidden.  You only know about it when you get there.”

“Oh, that sucks.”

“Ha, yeah, it sucks,” Kurt Cobain replied.  “Back to you.  Do you know how old I was when I died, Jeremy?”

“Twenty-seven.  I looked it up yesterday.”

“Do you know Jimi Hendrix?”

Jeremy raised his eyebrows and gave Kurt Cobain an incredulous look, “Don’t make me laugh.  Of course, I know who Jimi Hendrix is,” he said dismissively.

“Do you know how old he was when he died?”

“No.”

“Twenty-seven.”

“Oh,” said Jeremy, “oh!  No way.

“Yes, way.  And do you know how old Robert Johnson was when he died?” Kurt asked.

Jeremy looked at him, eyebrows raised, “Let me guess.  Twenty-seven?”

“Yeah, twenty-seven.”

“So…” Jeremy asked, trying to get his head around this information, to piece together everything Kurt Cobain had told him.  “Is there a connection?  Does it have something to do with why you are here?  Talking to me?”

“It has everything to do with why I am here talking to you.  Sit down and I’ll finish explaining,” Kurt Cobain said.

“Can we walk?” Jeremy asked, “I like to walk, it helps me think.”

“OK,” Kurt Cobain said and he slowly got up off the park bench.  Jeremy was reminded of a video he’d seen of Nirvana doing an Unplugged session.  Kurt sat in a swivel desk chair, because he had a bad back.  Jeremy had thought between the goofy chair and the cardigan sweater Kurt wore, that he looked like an old man in a younger man’s body.  Kurt seemed so stiff and heavy, like he bore more weight than his soul could carry—a burdened soul.  A Burdened Soul!  Jeremy thought it could make another good song.  When he got home or woke up he’d have all kinds of new material.

They took off down the park.  It was a square park and they started walking around the perimeter.  The moon still glowed brightly overhead.  As they walked silently for a few moments, Jeremy looked up at it, wondering again if he was dreaming.  It didn’t feel like a dream.  He had to admit, that if it was a dream, it was a good one.  You couldn’t quite beat a visit from Kurt Cobain.

After they’d walked in companionable silence for a while, Kurt told his tale.

“I was your age when this happened to me, only it was Jimi Hendrix who came to talk to me.  He said he’d been watching me.”  Kurt Cobain stole a look over a Jeremy.  “Like I’ve been watching you.  He said he saw something in me, a passion that he didn’t see in that many young guitar players.  They all just wanted to be famous just to be famous, to get girls and do drugs.  Even though he’d done plenty of that, that wasn’t what he was about.  He changed music with his playing.  He thought I could do the same.  That’s why he appeared to me.”

“Wow,” Jeremy said.

“Yeah, wow.  He offered me a deal.  We talked for hours, like we’re doing,” Kurt Cobain waved his hand at Jeremy, knowing that he was about to interrupt his story with a question.  Jeremy kept quiet.

“I would be given all the talent I wanted.  I would change music.  I would be a revolutionary if that’s what I wanted.  Fame would come, but it would come because I did something different.”

He continued, “I didn’t want fame, not really.  I wanted to be famous only so that my voice could be heard, so that my music could be heard—“

“That’s what I want too!” Jeremy shouted.

“I know.  Only you want to be famous too.”

Jeremy nodded and looked away.  It seemed crass to him to want fame in front of Kurt Cobain, the one musician he knew of who didn’t like it.

“If I made the deal I’d be given the talent to make that happen.  The timing would all work out.  My music and my voice would be heard,” Kurt Cobain said.

Kurt Cobain went silent.  Jeremy waited.  Finally, Jeremy could stand it no longer.

“What was the deal?” he asked.

“A deal like the one I’m going to offer you.”

They had stopped walking.  Kurt Cobain faced Jeremy.

“It’s not an easy deal to make.  Well, not for some people,” he laughed that strange, sad laugh.

Jeremy felt a tinge of fear in his gut.  What kind of deal?  Did he even want to ask what it was?  He could just walk away.  He looked away from Kurt Cobain and down the street.  His house was down that street.  His parents were asleep, unaware that he was here talking to a dead man.  He could go home, climb into bed, and wake up tomorrow to go about his life as it had been before.  It would be as if this never happened.  But Jeremy didn’t believe that he could forget this, didn’t believe he could wake up tomorrow as if this hadn’t happened.  It was too strange.  Besides, he had to know the deal.  He suspected Kurt Cobain had not even hesitated when told of the deal.

Jeremy took a deep breath and then the plunge, “What’s the deal?”  He spoke the words quickly, scared that if he hesitated even a little, that he’d run down the street and dive into his bed.  It was like getting into a cold pool or pulling off a bandage—you had to do it quickly, while your nerve was good, and so the shock would come and go quickly.

“The deal is…you will be given all the talent you could possibly want.  You will rise quickly and become famous.  Your music, your voice, your words, will be heard.” Kurt Cobain held up his hand when he saw Jeremy’s eyes light up, saw him about to accept the deal.  “But, there is more to it.”

“I don’t care,” Jeremy said, not thinking.  All he heard was talent, his music being heard.

“Yes, you do.  Let me finish.  The rest of the deal is the most important.  This is the sacrifice, Jeremy.  Remember I asked you if you were willing to sacrifice for music?”

Jeremy nodded.  Then the whole conversation started to sink in.  Robert Johnson, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, deals, sacrifice, dead at…twenty-seven.  Feeling like he’d been punched in the stomach, Jeremy reeled back, away from Kurt Cobain.  He ran his hands through his hair roughly.  He couldn’t breathe right.

“Yeah, you figured it out,” Kurt Cobain said gently.  “You’ll get all of that, everything I said and probably more, but you will die at twenty-seven.  Like me.  Like Jimi.  Like Robert Johnson.  Only you will die on your 27th birthday.”

Jeremy still couldn’t breathe right.  He looked up at the moon again, hoping its constancy could help him.  This was all too unreal.  He’d been sitting at the park talking to some specter of Kurt Cobain as if it were a pretty normal thing to do, thinking it was something cool he could tell his band about and turn into songs.  But this deal.  It brought all the strangeness of the evening back to Jeremy.  This wasn’t normal.  He was talking to a dead man and this dead man was offering him great talent and fame, but the price was that he had to die young.  It seemed like a cruel choice to Jeremy.

“Yeah, it’s a hard choice isn’t it?” Kurt Cobain said, as if reading Jeremy’s thoughts.

Jeremy just looked at Kurt Cobain with wide, disbelieving eyes.  He put up his hands and shook them at Kurt Cobain as if to ward off some evil.

“I could make it on my own,” Jeremy said, turning his back on Kurt Cobain.  Just as suddenly he faced him again, “Like you said, I’m talented, I’m dedicated, I’m passionate.  I should be able to make it without this,” he flung his arms around in distress, “…deal.”

“You’re right, you could, sure.  Lots of people make it without this deal.  But, lots of talented, dedicated, passionate people don’t make it either.  It’s a hard business.”

I could do it,” Jeremy thumped himself on the chest.

Kurt Cobain just shrugged.  He couldn’t influence the decision.

Jeremy thought of all the artists and bands he’d heard of who, while wildly talented, had never made it.  Or they had made it, only to fall again into obscurity.  Jeremy didn’t know what would be worse, never making it at all, or making it big and then falling all the way back down.  Was he willing to take that risk?

“Give me a minute,” Jeremy told Kurt Cobain.

“Yeah,” Kurt Cobain said and he walked back over to the park bench to sit down.

Jeremy paced around the play equipment, muttering to himself, stopping suddenly as if inspiration had hit, and then pacing again.  Although it seemed to Jeremy that time had stood still that night, he saw that the sky was lightening to the east.  Morning was coming.  He knew he had to make up his mind and get back home.  He had to go to school.  His parents would notice him missing.  But, as soon as he thought of home, school, parents, and all of those mundane pieces of his life, his mind was made up.

He walked over to Kurt Cobain who had been sitting patiently the whole time.  Kurt looked up, his blue eyes questioning.

“I’m going to do it,” Jeremy said.  “I want the deal.  I want to change music. I want to change people who listen to my music.  I want to be that guy.”

Kurt Cobain simply nodded.

“I do have one question,” Jeremy said.

“OK.”

“How will I die?”

“You won’t know.  You…can’t know.”

“Why?” Jeremy asked.

“Simple.  If you know, then you can change it.  You can work to make sure it doesn’t happen.  If you don’t know how or when it will come, then you don’t know what to do to stop it, if you change your mind.  You can’t change all possible outcomes.”

He continued, “the one thing you do know is that that it will happen on your 27th birthday.  But you won’t know what time or in what way.”

“Oh,” Jeremy took a deep breath and looked at the dawning sun rising on the horizon.  “OK.  I’ll still do it.”

“OK,” Kurt Cobain said.

“So…now what?” Jeremy asked.  “What happens now?”

“Nothing that you will notice,” Kurt Cobain said.

“Nothing?”

“That you will notice,” Kurt Cobain said again.  “It will just happen.  The songs will just come to you.  That’s it.  The rest will happen on its own.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah.”

They both looked at the sky.

“It’s a new day,” Kurt Cobain said.  “I have to go.  You won’t see me again.”

“Oh, that sucks.”

“You won’t miss me.  You’ll be busy.” Kurt Cobain smiled that sad smile.

“Good-bye, Jeremy.”

“Bye, Kurt.”

They held each other’s eyes for a long moment.  Then Kurt Cobain started walking away.  When he rounded the corner, he was gone.  Jeremy knew that even if he ran after him, Kurt Cobain would be gone.  Jeremy slunk down onto the park bench, reeling from his decision.  What had he done?  He was both excited at the prospect and terrified at the eventual outcome.  Was this even real?

He hurried home.

 

Jeremy ditched school that day.  He had so many new songs forming in his head, he could hardly contain them.  They spilled out as fast as he could write them down.  By the end of the day his fingers were bleeding and his head buzzed from lack of sleep, but he was so excited by his new songs he couldn’t stop.  At band practice that night he shared his new songs.

Jeremy’s band mates sat in silence after he was done.

“What’s the matter?  Don’t you like them?”  Jeremy hadn’t considered that maybe these new songs wouldn’t go over with his band.  He started to panic.

“F*&k, man.  Those were the best songs ever!” Tommy said.

“Wow.  Just, wow.”  Mateo shook his head in disbelief.

          “We’re going to be huge,” Gunnar said and he gave Jeremy a strange look.  Jeremy knew Gunnar was wondering how he came up with his new material so quickly, but Jeremy couldn’t tell him.  How could he?  He couldn’t explain the strange and uneasy deal he’d made with Kurt Cobain.  No one would believe him.  He could only continue to make music and take it where it lead.  He had made the deal.  Now he had to ride it out.

 

10 Years Later

Jeremy sat in his hotel room, his guitar in his hands, and wrote a song.  It was his 27th birthday.  Even ten years later, the songs just kept coming.  A day without music was like a day without air—it didn’t happen.

Voices in My Head had their first big hit one year after Jeremy’s meeting with Kurt Cobain.  The song, Uneasy Deal, went Number One.  The album, with the same name, also hit Number One.  Voices in My Head became famous, just like Jeremy had wished for.

Jeremy picked up a copy of Rolling Stone magazine and looked at.  His face was on the cover, and not for the first time.  The first time he’d seen himself on the cover he couldn’t believe it, and he’d stared at the picture for a long time, picking it up time after time, as if to make sure it was really him on the cover and not a counterfeit.  That time he was on the cover with his band, and they were being shouted out as the “next big thing.”  They were hailed as changing music, destroying the old way of writing and playing, and being a breath of fresh air.  Music had become old and tired, they’d said, and Voices in My Head with Jeremy Daniels (or J.D. as he came to be known by his fans), as main songwriter had smashed the old guard and blown in with his new direction.  Jeremy laughed thinking back to the early days.  Wild.  Every cliché about being a rock star had come true.  They’d lived through it all.  They were still together and still going strong.

But not for long, Jeremy thought, the idea crushing him.

He wondered what would happen to his band after he was gone.  He was their main songwriter.  They could continue, but they wouldn’t be the same.  The thought made Jeremy so sad he wanted to cry.  He put the feelings into his song, finished it, and began packing up to leave.

As he walked out of the hotel, Jeremy saw a kid, about 16, wearing a Voices in My Head t-shirt, sitting in the lobby, probably some fan wanting to get a look at the band.  Well, today was his lucky day.  Jeremy walked over to him.  The kid looked stunned and speechless.

“Hey,” Jeremy said.

The kid stammered, “Uh…er…hey.  I’m a big fan.”

They all said that.

“I saw your shirt,” Jeremy said as he nodded his head towards the kids’ shirt.

“Oh…yeah.”  He smiled nervously.

“What’s your name?”

“Connor,” the boy answered.

“Hey, Connor, I’m Jeremy.”

“Yeah, I know!”

Jeremy laughed, “yeah, I guess you do.”  He sat down on one of the couches, gesturing for Connor to join him.  Connor looked around as if trying to find a witness to his good fortune.  “So, what’s your favorite song, Connor?”

That brightened the kid up.  He jumped right in to his favorite Voices in My Head songs.  He told Jeremy about why he liked them, what they’d done for his life.

“I play guitar too,” Connor offered.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.  I love it more than anything.”

“I know how you feel.”

Connor smiled.  They talked for a while about music until the bus driver came over, “time to go, J.D.”

“Right.”  He got up off the couch and reached for his guitar case.  For some reason, even though he had roadies and a guitar tech (the best guitar tech, in his opinion), he carried his old guitar, a beat up Fender Stratocaster, with him wherever he traveled.

“Bye, Connor, it was good to meet you.”

“Bye, J.D.!”

Jeremy followed the bus driver when the guitar case began to feel heavy in his hands.  He stopped half-way across the lobby.  He looked down at the case.  I won’t need this anymore, he thought.

He turned around, “Hey, Connor!”

Connor hadn’t moved.  He was still standing where Jeremy had left him, watching Jeremy leave, still looking like he couldn’t believe his good fortune.  His fortune was about to take yet another turn for the better.

Jeremy walked back to Connor.

“Let me hear you play,” Jeremy asked.

“What? Really?  You want to hear me play?”

Jeremy was already unlocking the case and getting out his guitar.

“You want me to play your guitar?”  Connor’s voice actually squeaked a little he was so excited and nervous.

“Yeah, why not?  Do you have yours?”

“No.  Wow.  That would be amazing…playing yours.”

Jeremy smiled and handed Connor the guitar.

Connor accepted the guitar like it was a holy relic.  Jeremy laughed again.

“It’s just a guitar,” he said.

Connor looked up.  “No, it isn’t.  It’s your guitar,” he said reverently.

At that moment Jeremy understood what his uneasy deal had been about.  It was about this moment.  His music meant something to this kid.

“Let’s hear you play,” Jeremy told Connor.

Connor sat down and started playing.  His talent shone through even these odd circumstances.  Jeremy could hear it, feel it.  Jeremy felt himself becoming choked up, because the song Connor played was “Uneasy Deal”.

When Connor finished he looked up at Jeremy, a little embarrassed.

“Yeah, that’s it,” Jeremy said.  “Nice.  Good choice of songs too.”

They laughed.  Connor handed the guitar back to Jeremy.

Jeremy put up his hands, “You can keep it.”

“What?” Connor gulped, his hands fumbling in shock,

“You can keep it.”

Connor looked down at the guitar, then back up at Jeremy.

“Really?”

“Really.  I don’t need it anymore.”  Jeremy said, sadly.

“Keep playing.  Good luck.  I’ll be keeping an eye out for you Connor,” Jeremy added and he strode out of the hotel as quickly as he could, not looking back.  He imagined Connor still standing in the lobby with the guitar held out from his body as if in offering for days to come.  Jeremy smiled to himself, let the kid have it.  The smiled faded quickly as he thought about the day ahead.

He walked out of the hotel into a cold wind, snow swirling around him and making his coat billow.  He grabbed it and wrapped it around himself.  He looked up at the gray sky and breathed in the frigid air, relishing the cold.  How different from the night he met Kurt Cobain, the heat still radiating well into the night.  Jeremy strode over across the lot and nearly slipped on some ice.  He grabbed the side-view mirror of the bus to right himself.

Today is my 27th birthday, Jeremy thought looking around.  I don’t want to die.  He stepped onto the tour bus.

This entry was posted in Fiction, life, Music, Stories, Story and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Uneasy Deal

  1. Carole Treese says:

    What a beautiful writer that Kimberly Barton is. Great Kim – brought tears to my eyes. That really was a personal one – don’t want it to end that way tho.

  2. Steve Walker says:

    Great story Kim! I love the modernized take on the crossroads thing. I couldn’t stop reading, even though I was so tired my eyes were burning!

  3. Jill Walker says:

    A super story Kim! The ending was handled beautifully. The fact that you had Jeremy start “paying it forward” on the day he was going to die without the “deal” was great. It made me wonder how many others he might touch before his death. Keep writing!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *