As David Lee Roth straddled a giant inflatable microphone, Alex Van Halen banged out the staccato drum opening of “Hot For Teacher.” Soon, his brother Edward Lodewijk “Eddie” Van Halen turned his back to the arena for the opening guitar licks, glancing up as his past and present frontman dry-humped his way around the stage. “Whattya think the teacher’s gonna look like this year?!” Diamond Dave asked. The crowd roared. The lights came up. “Whoa-oh!” he screamed, rollercoasting his voice up and down the scale as he leaped off the polyvinyl chloride cock-mic into the swell of noise and light and mayhem.
October 24, 2007: the fourteenth date of the first leg of a ten-month tour. David Lee Roth had not joined Van Halen on stage in over twenty years. In that time, he and his former bandmates had aged into veteran rock legends. And though they had gained some weight—ditched the leotards and sparkle—Van Halen was still filling arenas, playing to sold-out crowds who had aged along with them, fans who had turned into parents who had not looked so different than the sequin-suited rock stars they once knew and loved, boys and girls who had seen their 8-tracks and LPs digitize and minimize into CDs and MP3s. They were all around me, these aging rockers—a little older, a little heavier, with receding hairlines and less eyeliner, less hairspray. The music sounded the same, but it was 2007; fans raised phones instead of lighters, illuminating the crowd in trailing tendrils of neon phosphorescence as they waved their hands to and fro.
The show was good, but I’m not sure it was great. David Lee Roth howled about as well as he ever could, though he should have kept his shirt on. The brothers Halen were impeccable, as fast and loose and practiced as they’d once been. Wolfgang Van Halen, Eddie’s 16-year-old son, was on bass, wielding an instrument styled after his father’s famous cross-hatched Frankenstrats of an earlier generation. Hearing “Runnin’ With The Devil,” “Panama,” and certainly “Jump,” it’s hard to know if Wolfgang was able to process what sort of legacy he was heir apparent and party to; according to an interview in Guitar World, he didn’t really know his father was famous “until I started picking up CDs and saw his picture on them,” he said.
But I knew who they were, and that was enough. I was with Kyle, an old friend from high school. When I first met him, Kyle had metal hair, head-banging hair, long thick stuff flowing past his shoulders, much longer than my own has ever been. We called him Cobra Kye. He played guitar, lived in his parent’s basement, wore t-shirts with snakes and wolves and lightning on them, tucked those shirts into his jeans. In high school, stocky and strong, he tended to stride rather than stroll, and kept his hair out of his face with a simple black tie in the back.
When we had seen Def Leppard and Guns N Roses a few years earlier, he had some righteous locks for maximum head-bangage, but by the time we saw Van Halen, Kyle had finished several years with the Air Guards, and that long hair was long gone, so neither of us had much to throw around up there in the cheap seats we overpaid for in the Target Center of Minneapolis.
Like the crowd, like the band, we were a little older too, with different sensibilities, different lives and lifestyles. He had been to Iraq, twice, as an aircraft armament technician, while I had studied literature in Ireland. He competed in bodybuilding competitions; I joined a tennis league. I don’t play much anymore, but in high school, I had taught Kyle how to hit a decent forehand, and he had taught me how to drink. So before we were old enough to legally buy it, we mixed scouring cocktails and chugged bad beer in unfinished basements at night, “rockin’ out,” as we called it, with other friends and acquaintances, tooling around Duluth in Cobra’s black T-top Firebird. We are both the oldest siblings in our families, so it was our friend Aaron’s older brother Eric who bought for us, coaxing us all into those years when you defined much of your life by its alcoholic eras—before and after, mix or straight, beer or liquor, whatever. Over the phone and in public, in the last years before everyone had a cell phone, we called any sort of booze the Ted Nugent Box Set. “Hey,” we asked Aaron over the cafeteria table, over our parents’ landlines at home, “did Eric pick up that Ted Nugent Box Set we talked about?” enunciating every word as if it could possibly be heard as anything else. It was a perfect code.
We didn’t have any Ted Nugent Box Set at the concert that night—too expensive, too not-worth-it for a few hours at the Target Center. And because it wasn’t terribly late by the time the last cymbal crashes died, we decided to drive back to Duluth instead of staying with friends. We hit I-35N out of Minneapolis, driving fast and easy, ears ringing from the music.
We hit a deer. Almost as soon as we cleared the northern suburbs, we clipped a deer at nearly 80 miles an hour. It flashed out of the darkness like a stilted flip-book caricature, like a cartoon, illuminated in flashes by the headlights of the car. Its back legs (maybe just a leg?) glanced off the front right bumper in front of me in that silent, terrifying way that animals endure pain. “Fuck!” one or both of us yelled, expecting broken glass, broken bones, some kind of highway trauma, but all Kyle did was swerve a bit, staying in the lane, and the deer disappeared into the darkness behind us, already lost as the feet turned to yards turned to quarter miles. I don’t remember if we thought to call the DNR—is that even necessary? do people do that?—but we were fine and the deer was gone, so we kept driving. In Hinckley, halfway home, we stopped for coffee and to check the bumper of Kyle’s car. No blood; no hair. Nothing so much as a scratch.
* * *
It was after midnight by the time we returned from the concert. My family had just moved from the home where my brother and I grew up to a large condo complex my father had built as a general contractor, and then sold as the live-in expert on the site, the city, on all the units themselves. In the condo, we had left our neighborhood a few blocks above the shoreline and relocated far up the Duluth Hill, overlooking the harbor and the blue-black expanse of Lake Superior, where we could see anchored shipping freighters winking in the night, floating like rusty, old-world leviathans, sitting outside the piers and the port as they waited for daylight and the lift bridge to rise, the foghorn to call them in. We saw quite a bit from up there, on top of Thompson Hill—the closed fist of a cold front barreling across the lake; flocks of geese, honking north and south; speedboats and sailboats, cutting white frothy Vs in their wakes; rescue helicopters (we called them Death Stars) landing on hospital rooftops, imagining the fates of those inside—would they live? Would they die? We saw it all. It was often beautiful, but it wasn’t home.
Kyle pulled the car to a stop outside the front entrance, the only car in an otherwise empty lot.
“Later, Cobra,” I said, popping out of the front seat. “Good concert.”
“Yeah,” Kyle said, “see ya, Jordan.”
I let myself in through the front door of the condo with the exterior key, then jangled through the rest of the keychain for the unit key as the elevator rose to the third floor. In the dimness of the hallway at night, it was even more lonely than usual. Only about a third of the units were occupied, and though ours was nice, it was still alien to me, an odd, unfamiliar place, a home-that-wasn’t-a-home-not-far-from-the-home-I-knew.
In front of our unit, I dropped the keys. I picked them up, squinted in the dark until I found the one I needed, and tried the lock. Missed. Tried again. Got it. Tumbled the lock home. Reached for the handle and swung the door wide.
A towering presence in front of me, a black splotch, a shadow in the shadows. Something in its hand, gleaming in the dark, catching what little light the windows threw from the street lamps below, the city beyond. A gun, levelled at my chest.
“Whoa, Dad,” I said, backing up, hands raised, heart hammering. “Whoa, it’s Jordan, back from the concert.” The gun lowered.
“Jordan,” he said, “Christ. Why didn’t you call?”
Didn’t wanna wake you up.
Thought you were sleeping.
No reason to.
Is that a gun?
What the fuck?
Go to bed.
Is that a gun?
Is that a...?
I don’t remember what I said. It doesn’t matter, really. And it’s impossible to know what kind of danger I was in. It’d be easy to think, lots. By this time I know better than to trust the easy memory, though, give in too much to imagination, to the sexy and violent. Was the gun loaded? Was it unloaded? Was there one bullet in the cylinder, or two, or six? Was his finger resting on the trigger guard, or on the trigger itself? I am torn by two versions of my father, two of many versions of him as he was, as he is, as I am.
I am torn by what anybody who grew up around firearms knows, what anyone who’s really been threatened knows. We know to keep the bullets away from the firearm, always. We know to keep them in separate drawers, separate rooms. We also know an unloaded gun is as useful in an emergency (in a break-in; in a disturbance) as an old camera without any film, or a book without any pages. All form. No content. No power to change.
Nothing incendiary about it.
I never looked for the gun. I never looked for it because it didn’t go off, so it became irrelevant, a non-gun, a farcical, snub-nosed thing, a vacuum in my memory where a gun may have been. And we never spoke about it—not the next evening when my father returned from work, not after, not now. I’m not sure there’d be much to say, or that anything even has to be said.
* * *
“Words are like bullets,” Dad told my brother and me when we were little, “they can never be taken back.” At the cabin, he once asked us to take aim at a blue jay with the .22, steadying the rifle in our hands to find the jay in our sights. “Breathe,” he said, “in, out, and squeeze the trigger—don’t just yank it.” We each tried. I went first. Take a breath, squeeze, release.
I missed, but my brother hit it, knocking it off a stationary birdhouse. We watched it flap to the ground until it flapped no more. “Go look at it,” Dad urged us, so we did, toeing it with our boots as it lay on the ground. “How do you feel?” he asked us. He wanted us to understand what he was saying, to bear the consequences of our actions. To understand danger, for us and for those around us. It was a good lesson.
So the concert, then. The midnight drive home. The keys; the gun. I’d like to kaleidoscope backward, to stay a bit later, maybe make that phone call, to be somewhere or somewhen besides that dark hallway. I’d like the lights to go up, streamers to fall, the other residents to throw open their doors and spill into the hall in their slippers and PJs, and the chambers of that gun to fill with sawdust, with ice cream, with those tiny plastic sticker stars cheerleaders wear at the corners of their eyes.
But that’s not what happened. The more I think about it, the less sure I am about what happened, what could have happened, less acute the memory of that night becomes, a blurry highway marker receding in the distance, some once-familiar song echoing in the breeze. The truth is I know what I heard, but I don’t much remember the concert. And I know what I saw—the deer in the headlights, the gas station, the absence of blood and fur—but I don’t much remember the ride home. Only this: my father, myself, the gun, darkness.