First and worst, there was her name. Fret.
Who the fuck names their first kid Fret? Even being bussed to a school where a lot of the kids seemed to have made up names, Fret stuck out. Fret’s mother stuck out, too, at least she would have if she’d ever bothered with a PTA meeting or a bake sale or a class trip. That wasn’t her speed, though, and it fell to Daddy to show up for that stuff.
Then there was not being allowed to call her Mom.
Fret got so sick of trying to keep track of when to say Mom and when to say Stark that she finally just quit mentioning her mother. Long before this Fret had figured out how to do the laundry and had delegated Gauge to kitchen duty. When Daddy got sick of pancakes and canned soup, he’d take Fret and Gauge out for pizza. When his favorite blue shirt got mixed in with the whites and came out blotchy from the bleach, he went to Sears for a new one. They all just adjusted to blue splotchy dish towels and underpants.
Stark was out late most nights and hungover and mean during the days.
Once in a while Fret would hit the sweet spot, usually around 4 in the afternoon, when her mother was semi-approachable and she’d find Stark fiddling around with her guitar. Fret lived for these afternoons. Stark had all these wild stories about playing CBGB’s and the Pyramid Club back in the day in New York City. Fret was careful with her questions. She never knew what was going to piss Stark off. Sooner or later something always did and Fret would be exiled again.
Sometimes Fret would sound Daddy out about those days, but he’d just shrug and say it was all a blur.
She began digging through back issues of obscure music ‘zines that she could track down online. It was like hitting the power ball lottery the day she found a grainy old photo of Stark, snarling and beautiful, wielding a guitar like a weapon on some unidentified stage in a pdf of an old issue of Smegma, the Magazine. The fact that she couldn’t find anything else just reinforced her idea that her mother had been on the raw, ripped edge of punk back then.
Clearly Stark had been doing work that was way ahead of the times.
It was a fight in the cafeteria that sent Fret over the edge. Kaneesha started it by smirking about seeing Stark coming out of some dive in Highland Park. Fret stayed cool at first; she knew Stark wouldn’t give a shit what these children thought. But when several other girls chimed in with stuff they’d heard about who Stark was sleeping with, that was it.
Fret wound up in the principle’s office but that first shot was going to leave a nice scar.
Daddy looked so sad that night that Fret wanted to throw up but didn’t bother with empty apologies. Gauge high-fived her on his way to smoke dope with his crew. Stark, of course, was out. When Fret woke up in the middle of the night, she knew what she had to do. She knew it was time for her mother to ditch Detroit; it was nothing but a stupid, half-empty city anyway.
Now was the time for Stark to get back to where she belonged.
So that’s how she found herself on a Greyhound to New York on Devil’s Night, just about the time that Daddy would be sitting in the dark with a third glass of bourbon and Gauge would be heading out to light fires with those asshole friends of his.
All night long, as the bus bounced along I-80, Fret imagined the new life she was making possible for her mother and for herself. When she was bumped awake in time to see the skyline of Manhattan rise from the roll of the freeway, instead of being scared or anxious, Fret rode into town on a majestic wave of certainty. After rooting around Stark’s stuff, she had a phone number, an address plus fifty bucks she’d lifted from Daddy’s wallet.
It was still kind of early when the cabbie dropped her off on a grimy street in the west 30’s. Once she’d found 447 West 37th Street, she went back up to 8th Ave looking for a payphone. Satisfied with how she’d come across on the phone, she went on back to 447 where she was buzzed in and rode up to the fourth floor in a slow, jerky elevator.
“So you know where Stark got to, eh?” A skinny, kind of creepy guy was waiting for her at the end of the hallway in an open door. He had an unlit cigarette hanging out of the side of his mouth.
“Yep.” She cocked her hip and met his stare head-on.
“And you’re here to do what besides waste my time?” He eyed her suspiciously.
“Got some coffee?”
“This look like some kind of diner to you? Let’s get this over with.” He turned away and suddenly Fret worried that she was losing him.
“She’s recording a new album in Detroit and I’m here to book some shows.”
“That’s nice. I’m recording an album, too, and I’d like my hair to grow back.” He tossed this over his shoulder. “What’s your name again?”
“Call me Fret.”
They walked down a crooked corridor to a large room filled with instruments and a refrigerator and sink in the corner. There were several questionable looking old couches slumped around. He went over to lean against the window frame, lighting his smoke.
Fret hadn’t known what to expect, but this was not it. A nasty realization was beginning to take shape; one that she was all set to smack down when it was immediately followed by an oddly appealing thought: Stark wasn’t going to be able to throw that shit about being a punk rock goddess around anymore. Just like that Fret had the upper hand and it felt great.
Her new friend waited, not unkindly, but with indifference.
“Look, Fret, you got balls, I’ll give you that, but no one’s been interested in Stark for years. She wasn’t all that even back in the day. You say she’s in Detroit now? That sounds about right; no one there is gonna care much if she can play or not and she can probably milk that little act of hers for years.”
Fret felt surprisingly steady. So, this was it then.
“You knew her?” She needed to make sure.
“Yeah, I knew her. And let’s just say that she was better known for her other talents than for her musical abilities.”
“Thanks for your time.” She stood up and got her coat, already calculating how things were going to be a little different now back in Detroit.
“How do you know her?”
“She’s the crazy lady next door and I heard she’d once been the shit here in New York.”
“So, like, she didn’t send you?”
“No. She doesn’t know I’m here.”
“It’s probably not a good idea to let her know you were here or what I said. It won’t get you anywhere.” He stubbed out his smoke on the window sill. “You know how to get back to the Port Authority from here?”
“I can manage.”
“I’m sure you can. Come back when you got something of your own going on.” He put his hand on her lower back, just above her butt. “I can probably help you out some.”
He walked her back to the elevator. “Happy Halloween, Fret.”
Photo by Phil Dolby on pxhere.