For January, we have a ghostly story about a young woman who finds information about her deceased brother in the most unlikely of places — a karaoke bar.
-- Karissa Chen, Senior Literature Editor
Maybe she was on the run from her ecstasy pusher of a boyfriend Wally, or perhaps avoiding her Chi Delt sisters who’d gone clubbing at Red Dragon; or possibly, as Maxine would later believe, it was fate. One way or another she’d ended up at the Music Box Karaoke Lounge in Rowland Heights, where she’d talked to the music host behind the counter all night—a cute and well-tatted Taiwanese guy whose nametag said Brock.
The first thing she noticed—before his sleeve of tattoos; before the black plugs stretching his earlobes—had been his large hands and his long, bony fingers. His knuckles popped out and looked like they could inflict serious damage, though he didn’t strike her as the type who got into fights. By her third Sapporo she’d complimented his hands, to which he told her they were cumbersome for his other job as a house deejay. Large hands and turntables were a bad match. “What’s your DJ name?” she asked. He said it was Broccoli. “Like the vegetable?” He told her to wait till she heard what his last name was.
“Well, what is it?”
He gave her his card. On the front was a pink broccoli wearing headphones. On the back was his name and phone number.
She repeated this as if it needed testing. “Brock Li. Brockli. Broccoli.”
Right then, a group of rainbow-clad teens entered through the double doors. They were the HK type, all smiles and popped collars, laughing and humming the latest singles on the Cantopop charts. They loitered around the lobby couches, a string of gaudy chandeliers casting floating orbs over their heads. It didn’t appear that anyone was in a hurry to sing. Then a girl with short peroxide-dyed hair decided to take the lead. As the girl made her way toward the counter, Brock told Maxine not to go anywhere. Not that Maxine had anywhere to go. And so she waited while the peroxide blonde spoke to Brock in Cantonese, Brock asking her how many hours she wanted to purchase.
It had been this way all night. Just when the conversation got interesting, Brock would pause to distribute tokens or assign a group to one of five color-themed karaoke rooms. Music Box attracted a younger crowd, and more than once an individual or a group reminded Maxine of her high school days as a candy raver. (This was before the Asian druggies ruined the scene, the ones who went to raves only to get messed up and didn’t care about keeping PLUR alive.)
Speaking of Asian druggies, there was still the question of where Wally was. The last Maxine had heard he’d run into trouble with his distributor again, a scenario that played out so often Maxine suspected it was code for Wally screwing other girls. But she didn’t feel like second-guessing Wally tonight, and halfway through calling her pledge sisters Maxine had no longer been in the mood to party. Instead, she hopped into her Mini Coop and drove east on the 60. She wore green plastic wayfarers despite the dusk, cruised the carpool lane despite the law. She drove till she spotted the lights of the Rowland Heights Plaza off the freeway, calling out to her like a candy wonderland. As she would later recall the night, it was the neon signs of Music Box that drew her in. She’d never heard of the place, but she wandered in anyway.
Tonight was the anniversary of her brother’s death, and Maxine was determined to get through the night without thinking of it. Maxine had been ten when Bryan died. Bryan was sixteen. He’d been part of a street racing crew known as the Rocketeers, back in the early nineties when everyone in the scene drove an import. Now, more than a decade later, the Rocketeers were best known for the serial suicides they committed the summer of ’94, when each member of the crew took turns speeding off a cliff. They raced to their deaths week after week, in different parts of the San Gabriel mountains, until none of them remained. Each time, the boy whose turn it was to take his life painted his car a bright glowing color, fine-tuned the engine, and souped up the body with all kinds of mods. Only to be discovered the next morning in a canyon thicket, tossed in the ravine, or in Bryan’s case, piled atop the Los Angeles River.
Maxine’s parents had made it a point never to talk about Bryan’s death. They were old-school Chinese, and believed his suicide shamed the family name. Maxine was too young to understand the circumstances at the time, and so her parents denied that she ever had a brother. They told her that Bryan had been an ancestor ghost who’d stayed with them during an extended visitation. He wouldn’t be the first ghost passing through—there was her auntie ghost who never made it off the boat to America; the railroad ghosts who lived at the Amtrak station—and Maxine had been taught that it was impolite to inquire about their past lives. Yet each year around this time she would notice something off-kilter—a red stain in the moon, or the tilting of mountains—taking these signs to be from her brother. Over time she’d made small connections between his disappearance and the Rocketeers, though it was always just a hunch. Most of her friends believed the Rocketeer ghosts still lurked in the mountains, and they were known to make appearances in their old hangout spots. “That’s why we call them haunts,” her best friend Jina once explained.
In high school, Maxine would venture out with Jina to clubs in West Hollywood, where they’d store their pills in a Little Twinstars pencil box and present their fake IDs and charm to the bouncers. Though most of her friends went to raves to blast out the boredom of suburban life, Maxine found solace in the electro-beats and flashing strobe lights. E loosened her up, and gave her the poise to approach strangers. This had been the case the night she met Wally, the LEDs orbiting his body like the Northern Lights. She would always remember Wally in this way: as a happy boy in a wool beanie, skater shoes with Day-Glo laces, topped off with a PLUR-eating grin. The first thing he’d said to her: “Wanna check out my toys?”
E had a way of opening you up, but this would never ring truer than the night Maxine lost her virginity to Wally. That night they’d sat on his bed, talking for hours. Somehow Wally had gotten on the topic of his parents’ internment at Manzanar and his resentment with their ongoing silence. Maxine nodded, perfectly lucid, as he described his turning point. One night after a warehouse rave in Santa Fe Springs, he’d gone home with the conviction that he needed to forgive his parents. “I realized we were coming from different places,” he said. “It wasn’t my job to judge them. Only to love them.”
As she listened to Wally’s story, Maxine had the opposite realization. She made the final connections out loud. Suddenly she hated her parents for denying her the few memories she’d had of Bryan. How could they erase his life like that? She could no longer remember what her brother looked like. She’d forgotten the sound of his voice.
“Whoa,” Wally said. He stared wide-eyed at Maxine, their toes touching beneath the comforter. “Your brother was a Rocketeer? No way.”
Maxine stared at him, open-mouthed, as if zoning out. “Pretty soon I’ll be his age,” she said. “I’ve always been his little sister. I don't know if I’m ready to be the older one.”
Losing her virginity had been one in a series of rebellions Maxine committed against her parents, but it was also her first step in tracing her way back to Bryan. Talking to Wally that night, she realized there was more to Bryan than the circumstances surrounding his death. After that night, she would push her rebellious streak even further, this time by seeking out his ghost. Using what she knew about the Rocketeers as a roadmap, she went from haunt to haunt—driving through the mountains, frequenting cafés, finding excuses to service her car—looking for any semblance of her brother. And yet, through all her searching, nothing could prepare her for the feeling of coming up short. Not once had she found Bryan’s ghost.
As soon as the teens left for their karaoke rooms—a mix of Ivana Wong, Rihanna, and Twins awaited them—Brock returned his attention to the girl whom he’d asked not to go anywhere. Most nights at Music Box carried on slowly, which was where this night was headed, until the girl—Mimi, was it? Maggie?—had stumbled in. She’d come through the doors with her jet-black hair, plastic sunglasses and a pack of Pall Malls, looking around as if she’d woken from a dream. She hadn’t come to meet friends. She wasn’t here to sing, either. But what kind of person went to a karaoke lounge and didn’t sing?
Brock wiped the counter with a rag, erasing the fingerprints left behind from tonight’s karaoke patrons. Maxine—that was her name, he decided—sat on a purple plush barstool, nursing her fourth Sapporo of the evening. Now that the teens were gone, she leaned in. “So if you’re a house deejay,” she shouted over the music, “how come I’ve never heard of you?”
Brock wiped his brow with his wrist. “You must not run in the right circles,” he shouted back.
“Oh really?” Maxine said. “And what circles would those be?”
He was trying to be playful, but now he’d given himself the task of backing up his claim. Of course Maxine had never heard of him. He was no longer much of a deejay. He’d gotten into deejaying after graduating from college with a music composition degree, as one of the many night jobs he held in order to focus on his music during the day. At the time he’d been giving piano lessons to six and seven year olds, but gave that up one night when he stormed into a Radio Shack, bought a turntable and mixer, then came up with a deejay name he never really liked. He dabbled in the electro scene for some time, opening deejay sets at up-and-coming venues, looping and sampling the latest mash-ups, though these days his gigs comprised mostly of Chinese wedding banquets and family reunions (his trilingual skills in heavier demand than his taste for house and electropop). His latest contribution to the scene came in the form of trading pirated mixtapes and B-sides—a side job he’d taken up after college—which meant most people who turned up at Music Box for reasons other than karaoke were looking directly for him.
Brock pointed to his card, which Maxine was now examining. “You should look me up sometime,” he said.
“Maybe I will, DJ Broccoli.”
“Just Broccoli,” he corrected her.
“DJ Brock, or Broccoli. It’s on the card.”
Brock continued wiping the counter, while Maxine sipped her Sapporo. He was still trying to figure out what her game was. There were better bars in the area. If she wanted to watch people sing, he could suggest a nearby jazz club. The thought crossed his mind that she was here to inquire about a mixtape, though she would have done so by now. Then he wondered if she was here to buy a ghost track—the most obscure of underground tapes he traded—though she didn’t exactly seem like black market material.
“Okay, Broccoli,” Maxine said, swiveling off her barstool. “I’m getting another drink. What are you having?”
He told her there was no need for that. He’d call his buddy over from the bar as soon as he didn’t look so busy.
Maxine grabbed her wallet. “I’ll have to surprise you, then.”
Brock had discovered the world of ghost tracks during his final semester at USC. A composition classmate had bet him fifty bucks that he could scare the living shit out of him. Jason Yu—violinist by day; emcee by night—was always calling up Brock for the latest underground novelty. If it weren’t for Jason, he would have holed up in his apartment all day. Brock was working on his “silent concerto,” a composition he’d been tinkering with over the last four years, where each piano solo was meant to illuminate a different type of silence. What a silent concerto actually sounded like, Brock couldn’t say. His peers assumed he was too superstitious to dabble in the details—they referred to his project as his “silent mistress”; his apartment his “lair”—but the truth was, he’d been making little progress. These were his final months at the Thornton School before entering the real world with a useless degree, and all he had to show for it was a pile of vapid compositions he’d completed to make deadlines. His senior recital was quickly approaching, which meant he was busy working around the clock, arranging musicians and scheduling rehearsal times. He got by on coffee and Red Bull alone, devouring crates of Ramen noodles to break up the time. As far as a social life was concerned, he’d forgone any hint of one.
The night Jason called, Brock didn’t have plans as usual. He’d hit another creative block, and he knew that staring at Finale all night would only make things worse. He’d planned to sleep it off, but the amount of Taurine in his system prevented him from even blinking too long. And so, when Jason called and promised a worthy diversion, Brock figured why not. It took some convincing on Jason’s end, but eventually Brock said he was game.
They met on campus after midnight. Brock was locking up his Schwinn at the Raubenheimer bike racks when Jason appeared. “I’m surprised you showed up, man,” Jason said, hopping off his cruiser. “How’s the mistress? She giving you a hard time?”
As they crossed the quad—the tall building shadows looming over them—Jason snuck a flask from his down jacket. He took a swig, then passed it to Brock. “To help with the nerves,” he said. Brock knew Jason was all talk, and taking a sip, he told him so. They passed the flask a few more times, and in due course arrived at Ramo Hall. There, Jason fumbled with a set of keys. He struck out twice trying to get them into the building, then on his third try he kicked the door open.
When they got out on the third floor, Jason led Brock down a corridor and into an unlocked studio room. Despite the lack of heating, the studio felt stuffy and lived in. A Roland sound mixer had been installed next to a stereo system; opposite stood an old Steinway piano. Brock took a seat on the piano bench, noticing the black and white portraits of Thornton composers all around him. Meanwhile, Jason was busy messing with the stereo system. He dumped out the contents of a black fanny pack, pushed a cassette into the tape player. Without much warning, he pressed play. Then he took a step back.
Brock didn’t know what he was listening for. The speakers crumbled with a white static, punctuated by the occasional loud pop. A B-flat scale on the piano came on, followed by the strained alto of a young girl. On cue, the girl began to sing what Brock recognized as “Ave Maria.”
“It never gets old,” Brock thought out loud.
Jason mimed for him to shut up. “Shhh,” he said hastily. “Just listen.”
If Jason’s bad manners offended him, Brock didn’t show it. In fact, he was more struck by how awful the girl’s voice was. Her tone was pitchy, her phrasing awkward. Brock considered the possibility of a practical joke, one in which Jason was making fun of a classmate of theirs, but it this were the case, he couldn’t identify the voice. He waited for an explanation, but Jason gave him none. Brock followed the bars and measures in his head, transposing the notes by habit. He must have been no more than six measures in when he detected the changing pressure in the room. The more he listened, the more airless the studio felt. The girl’s voice was thin and taut, with a heavy strain behind it. It no longer felt as if the voice was coming through the speakers, but somehow through the cracks in the walls, as if gasping for air. Brock inhaled deeply. He felt all the oxygen in the room being sucked out, tiny particles clinging to his hair and clothes. Then the lights turned off. The recording stopped.
Brock got up to flick the light switch. The power stayed off. He went to the window next, and found the buildings outside still lit.
“How’d you do that?” he said, turning around.
Jason stood there, half grinning.
Brock checked the window again, this time noticing the sodium glow of the lampposts; a couple lingering arm in arm.
“Seriously, man. What did you do?”
Jason ambled over to the tape player with practiced calm. He ejected the cassette, slipped it back in its case, into his jacket pocket. “What you just heard, my friend, was a ghost.” He patted his jacket pocket. “This is called a ghost track.”
Now Jason paced the room, slowly, as if for dramatic effect. “Her name was Clarissa Wu,” he said. “Jumped out of Fluor at midnight. Brains splattered on the concrete and everything.” Jason did a doubletake, as if Clarissa might be lurking behind him. Then he said softly, “This was her last recording.”
“She wasn’t very good,” Brock said.
“Shush!” Jason said. “Never insult a lady ghost to her face.”
Jason continued. Playing the tape, he explained, had summoned Clarissa’s ghost into the room. If you paid enough attention, you could find swirling patterns, flashes, thin paper-like shadows. “The thing is, our friend Clarissa has a bit of a temper,” Jason said, pushing up his black horn rims. “Not all ghosts are as testy, but our girl never liked the sound of her voice. She spent her whole life training to be a singer, but it just wasn’t in her genes. You know, this was before auto-tune.” Here Jason paused, sounding truly remorseful. “Anyway, with all that pressure, she decided to fling herself out of the window. Now if she hears anyone listening to her sing…”
Brock stood up from the piano bench.
“What, man, you don’t believe me?” Jason said. He got up too. “I saw you shaking there.”
“So?” Brock said. “It’s cold in here.”
“That’s just you getting chills,” Jason said. “Have you never heard a ghost story before?”
Brock looked at his watch.
“Okay,” Jason said, and held out his palm. “You owe me fifty.”
“No way,” Brock said.
“I know you shit your pants. I can smell it on your face.”
But Brock wasn’t about to get duped by a college prank, no matter how well executed it was. He could already see Jason going back to an engineering friend, resetting the circuits.
“I don't have time for this,” Brock said.
“Pay up, man,” Jason said.
Brock headed for the door.
“Hey!” Jason said. “Hey! Where’s my money?”
Maxine brought back two shots of soju, passing the Purple Room on her way back to the lobby. The eggplant-colored door pulsed with a steady thump, and from the sound of it the room was occupied by wannabe Faye Wongs and Edison Chens. The time was past midnight, and technically another year had gone by since Bryan’s death. Maxine tried to push the thought away, thinking of what she’d say to Brock instead. She watched as he stood behind the counter, glowing in an ultraviolet fluorescence.
“Okay, Broccoli,” Maxine said. She placed a soju shot on the counter.
“You really didn’t have to,” Brock said.
Maxine shrugged, then tossed down her shot in one quick motion. As Brock gulped his down, she glimpsed the tattoos hiding beneath his shirtsleeves: a tiger wrapped around his bicep, and rigid staff lines running down his other forearm.
“So if you don't mind me asking,” Brock said, setting his glass on the counter. “How’d you end up here of all places, if not to sing?”
“Is it that weird?” Maxine said.
Brock leaned onto his elbows. “Hey, I’m not complaining.”
Maxine couldn’t tell whether he thought she was desperate, friendless, or just bored. Any of the groups passing through must have thought one or the other. If only she’d waited for Wally, maybe he’d have his arms around her now, their bodies moving in sync to the beats at Red Dragon. There was a level of comfort to that hard-won familiarity, how they knew each other’s rhythms so well.
“I’m glad you came here,” Brock said, taking his elbows off the counter. “You wouldn’t know it, but I’ve got the loneliest job in the room.”
Maxine had the sudden urge to say something. My brother liked to sing. It was one of the few things she’d known about Bryan. She wondered what he would he have made of a place like this. Glancing up at the pear-shaped clock, she thought of all the nights she’d spent at the Phoenix Café, a popular hangout spot Bryan must have frequented. Every night she sat at the same corner booth, ordered a plate of chicken wings with spicy salt. She’d eat slowly, peering around for any paranormal movements. The waiters were all too familiar with her story, the closing staff wishing her luck as they wiped the caked sweat off their faces. “Don’t worry,” a white-aproned waiter would say as Maxine got up to leave, swinging an arm around her shoulder. “There’s always tomorrow.”
Maxine tried everything in the book. Ouija boards. Mirrors. Channeling. She would light her drugstore candles, sit in the dark, but all she would see were the patterns and serifs on the board, the magnifying glass, never Bryan. Alone with her thoughts, she found her memories of Bryan blurring together—confident singer… melancholy soul—until she could no longer distinguish his traits from her own. On nights like these, she would feel lost and isolated, and she would wonder how much of Bryan’s discontent she’d taken on herself. Now that she’d surpassed him in age, she wondered if she had the same qualities in herself that had driven him to end his life. The more she sought to understand his death, the more afraid she was to find him. Was she capable of repeating the same act? Could she really go to the same dark places herself?
“So,” Maxine heard herself say, the lights of the lobby dimming to signal a change in mood, “Are you a good singer?”
Brock laughed at this. “Not at all.”
“Somehow, I doubt that.”
“It’s the truth,” Brock said. “You’re looking at someone who can’t hold a tune.”
“So you’re saying you never go inside one of those rooms and belt out your favorite song? Isn’t that, like, a perk of the job?”
“It could be for someone.”
“But not you.”
Brock shrugged. He’d become insecure about his musical talents, Maxine could tell, embarrassed about his inability to sing. On another guy she would have found this unattractive, but on Brock it was somehow endearing. She could stay here all night, if only to watch his big ears turn pink.
Then, just as quickly, she knew something else was on his mind. She could tell by the squint of his eyes, the crinkling of his brow. Out of nowhere he said, “You’re not here to…” He paused a beat too long, as if expecting her to complete his thought. When she didn’t, he said, “Never mind.”
What?” Maxine said. “I’m not here to what?”
Brock tried again. “…to buy a ghost track?”
“A ghost track?”
He took it back immediately. “Sorry,” he said. “… I must have mistook you for someone else.”
But now Maxine was curious. “Well, go on,” she said. “You can’t just say something like that and not explain it.”
Brock glanced up, checking the clock on the wall. From the nearest karaoke room, a new track started, the catchy bass line instantly familiar. Maxine stared at him; he appeared as baffled as she. Then, with a hint of hesitation, he said, “I’ll tell you. But you have to keep an open mind.”
Brock had gone a week without speaking to Jason. By then he’d been skipping classes to work on his recital, managing to avoid Jason altogether. Jason probably thought he was avoiding his payment, which was exactly what Brock wanted him to believe. He would rather let Jason think him frugal than admit he’d given more than a passing thought to Clarissa’s ghost.
Brock had been struggling more and more with his recital pieces. He lay supine in his apartment for long stretches of time, stacks of sheet music piling up on the floor, and crumbled compositions overflowing from his waste bin. He knew what his advisors would say. Get lost in the music. Immerse yourself. But this only reminded him that he hadn’t immersed himself in four years time, that he’d somehow gotten off track in the process, that somewhere between all the seminars and courses and theory workshops, he’d lost sight of why he wanted to compose in the first place. Not long ago, all he’d wanted was to capture a moment of quiet: his first kiss, or the shock of a California hailstorm.
By the end of the week, everything had turned on its head. Out of nowhere, Brock completed several pieces, the notes practically arranging themselves on the page. He tested out his concerto, and for the first time in months the notes coming from his keyboard didn’t feel like an assault on his ears. Putting the final touches on his first piano solo, he named it Clarissa’s Ghost. He couldn’t explain it logically, but there was something about that night at Ramo he’d recaptured in the piece, something about Clarissa’s silence and the way it haunted the room.
A few nights later, he reached for his phone.
“I want to go back,” he demanded when Jason answered.
“Oh, look who decided to return my call,” Jason said. “You still owe me fifty bucks, you fucker.”
“Sure. Okay,” Brock said. “But we need to go now.”
“I’m in the middle of something,” Jason said.
“How long will that take?”
Jason sighed into the phone.
When they met at Ramo, Jason demanded payment right away. Brock handed him a crumpled fifty. Then they went to the studio room, and Brock took a seat on the same piano bench as the last time. When Jason unzipped his fanny pack, Brock said, “Maybe we shouldn’t scare her away. I’d like to observe more this time.”
“What are you talking about?” Jason said.
“Clarissa,” Brock said, embarrassed to say his muse’s name out loud.
“Clarissa?” Jason said. “Sorry, bro. I don't have it. I sold it to someone.”
“Chill out, man,” Jason said. “Be cool. Besides, I have something entirely better. Trust me, you won’t even remember old Clarissa after this.”
Brock was decidedly not cool about it, but he wasn’t exactly in Jason’s good graces either. He waited as Jason moved to the stereo system, put in the cassette tape, pressed play.
Brock heard the mechanical sounds of the gears changing, the magnetic strip being read. Jason grinned with silent anticipation. Brock waited for the piano scales, but to his surprise he detected the beat of ‘80s synth pop instead. At first he thought it was a tasteless joke. What he heard wasn’t “Ave Maria”—not even close—but instead, a pop song. “Walk Like an Egyptian” by the Bangles. It wasn’t a professional recording, but more like a recording of a recording. Then, where Brock envisioned a voice like Clarissa’s taking on the first verse, a chorus of adolescent male voices greeted him instead. They sang the song lyrics in Cantonese, occasionally switching to English for the American idioms. Whoever these people were, they were in good spirits at the time, possibly drunk. They goofed off in the background, laughing as much as they sang.
Jason was right. Brock had forgotten all about Clarissa. It took a while for anything resembling a ghost to materialize, but gradually Brock felt surrounded by a spectral presence. As the strange alchemy of voices took over the room, he thought he heard laughter slide through the vents of the old building, and what sounded like car exhaust shooting up from the floorboards. The voices were sublime, each one unsticking from the recording then deviating from the melody as if in counterpoint. A feeling of vertigo swept through him, as if he were speeding on an empty highway. Swirling patterns congregated by the speakers, and obelisk shadows two-stepped to the beat.
Then the recording stopped. A lengthy silence passed through the room, the sound of a nervous system one is suddenly made aware of. Jason stood still, as if holding on to the aftershock. “Was I right, or was I right?” he said.
Brock felt a momentary paralysis, his arms gone limp.
As he went to eject the cassette, Jason explained to Brock that they’d just heard the Rocketeers, the notorious import racers who’d once sped off cliffs. Brock was vaguely aware of the phenomenon, remembered seeing a story like that in the papers. The story was even more bonkers than what the papers claimed, Jason said. Apparently the Rocketeers were karaoke fanatics, known to frequent karaoke lounges for impressive hours. When they tired of one lounge, they’d drive over to the next, singing and chanting all night. They’d bring tape recorders with them, recording track after track (though many tapes had been destroyed or erased over before the suicides). “Rocketeer tapes are a level-ten rarity,” Jason said. “Think of it this way. Any ghost can scare you, but a happy ghost is a rare find. And if you can get a bunch of them in the same room, there’s nothing in the world that comes close.”
Brock wanted to know where Jason had gotten his tapes, if they were so rare. As it turned out, Jason had met other rookie traders in chat rooms and on Internet message boards, and he was now working his way up to the more serious dealers. “Of course, all trades happen on the black market, and you can’t just walk up to a guy in a karaoke lounge and ask to hear a ghost track. Keep in mind, you can’t play them whenever you feel like it, and geographically speaking, you’ve gotta do it within their place of death. The last thing you wanna do is wear out a ghost. Wake ‘em up too many times, now that’s just obnoxious. You’re lucky I haven’t played this one in like a year.”
“It’s like a drug,” Brock said.
“I’m warning you now,” Jason said. “It’s downright addicting.”
Brock felt the urge to sprint to his apartment, fire up his laptop, put everything down before he forgot it all. But he couldn’t get himself to move just yet. All he could do was sit with Jason a while longer, the two of them surrounded by the uncanny silence.
In all her years of hearing Rocketeer stories, Maxine had never come across one like this. She was starting to wonder who this Broccoli guy really was. She still hadn’t grasped the concept of a ghost track, but whatever it was, it gave her an uneasy feeling. She’d never felt possessive over Bryan, at least not the way she did now.
Brock was winding down. In his final weeks at USC, he said, he’d become more attuned to his work than ever. He finished his recital pieces in record time, submitting Clarissa’s Ghost as his entry piece. The music jury graduated him with top honors. After graduation he stuck around in the area, and by the time he signed on at Music Box he was already dealing ghost tracks on a semi-regular basis. He owned a few himself. He kept some in circulation, others in back rooms and supply cabinets, and on the rare occasion he might play one after hours in a karaoke room. Over time, he began to notice the way each tape ended. He couldn’t ignore the absences that remained. Each track was a labyrinth in its own right, but the path pointing out always led to a deep melancholy that haunted each song.
“Listen,” Brock said. “Tonight might be a good time, if you want to hear one.”
Maxine shivered as the AC in the lobby hummed on.
“We don’t close for another hour,” Brock said, “but you’re more than welcome to stay.”
Right then, the bartender came up to the counter, interrupting Brock to tell him he was heading out for the night. Brock grabbed his master key, told Maxine to hang on. “Be back in a minute,” he said.
As Brock left with the bartender, Maxine turned around on her stool. She stared through the open glass doors, the neon lights of the plaza reflecting back at her. Hands shaking, she considered leaving. Outside, groups of people loitered around the doorway to cool off, while others sat curbside munching on bags of shrimp chips and chocolate Pocky. As she watched the lights of the marquee buzz, she wondered if it was possible that Bryan had once been in this spot, staring out these doors and captivated by the same lights. She’d never known what she’d say to Bryan when the time came, but now she knew. When he took that final drive in the mountains, she would ask, did he feel as lost in the world as she did now? Had he found solace when he sped off that cliff? What had filled his heart before it stopped beating?
These were the questions she would never find answers to, Maxine thought, as Brock made his way back to the counter. Swinging around, he dropped his master key into a drawer. He wiped his brow, looking a bit flushed. Then, noticing Maxine’s expression, he said, “Hey, are you all right? You look a bit pale.”
Maxine touched her face, as if to add some color. “I’m just fine,” she said.
Brock closed the drawer. “Glad to hear it,” he said. “So are you sticking around?”
At closing time—just shy of two a.m.—Brock made the final announcements over the intercom. Ten minutes left, and later, Five minutes. Maxine had gone out for a smoke, and by the time she came back Brock had begun to shut down the karaoke machines with his master switch. He blinked the lights off and on, a signal to all straggling groups to finish their sets, to try and squeeze in one final song before calling it a night. Maxine pulled up a barstool. As she took a seat, she could hear the muted chatter inside the rooms before the bodies associated with those voices trailed out dizzily. As they made their way outside, Brock stood at the door, saw each group out. One after another, he waved goodbye. “Drive safely,” he said. They saluted him back. Out they went into the night.
After the last group left, Brock locked up the front doors. Maxine noticed that the lounge looked much different than before. The gaudy chandeliers, the color-themed rooms, they now seemed to lack a sense of purpose.
Brock swung around the counter. He blew into his palms. “Just give me a sec—”
“Listen,” Maxine said, and tried to keep her voice from shaking. “There’s something I should tell you first.”
Brock looked up.
“I considered running out on your earlier,” she said, surprising herself. “Honestly, I’m a bit shaken up right now. I’m still not sure I should even be here, but something told me I should stick around.”
And then she was telling him everything: about Bryan, the Rocketeers, and the significance of today’s date. How she thought she was done searching for Bryan, yet here she was.
Brock nodded, paying close attention. She didn’t mean to spill everything out, but once she started she couldn’t help it. When she finished, Brock said, “I had no idea.”
Without missing a beat, Brock rummaged through a file cabinet behind the counter. He produced a black cassette tape. It was an old IBM 4-track—the type that went extinct in the nineties—which he handled with care. Maxine hadn’t been closer to Bryan since before his death. She wondered if she could spot his soul in that magnetic tape.
Brock held out the cassette. “Only if you want to.”
“Pick a room.”
“Orange,” she said. “It was his favorite color.”
In the Orange Room—amid the kumquat curtains and peach leather couches; the potted hydrangeas resembling golden suns—Maxine sat. Brock restarted a karaoke machine. “Sometimes these machines get temperamental,” he explained, then rambled about the switch from VCD to automatic playback, though of course they were only concerned with audio tonight. Then he pushed in the cassette. Maxine worried that she’d made a mistake, but she calmed herself by focusing on his hands, watching those steady fingers hit the play button.
“Okay,” Brock said.
“Do I have to do anything?” Maxine asked.
“Just sit tight. When it happens, you’ll feel it.”
But all she could feel was gratitude—gratitude mixed with a touch of darkness—and they hadn’t even started yet. No one would believe her when she told about her night of ghost karaoke, but she’d hold on to the memory, replacing the black shadow over her heart. Brock hadn’t offered to give her the tape yet, which he would by the time they parted ways. The tape meant a lot to him, he’d say, putting it in her hands. But it meant more that the right person had it. At this point Maxine wouldn’t know what to do but accept.
For now, he joined her on the couch.
“What’s happening?” she whispered. “Am I supposed to see him yet?”
“Shhh,” he said. “Just listen.”
Mori Walts is a queer Nikkei multimedia artist based out of Santa Rosa CA who is currently focusing their art on processing the imaginary Japan within the western imagination. They hope to pursue a career in animation.