It would have been nice to watch MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball in our living room. My parents had been doing pretty well, financially, in 1988. Having bought a pretty large TV to preoccupy the time my brother and I spent at home, waiting for them to get off of work.
And although my brother was five years younger, his potential, short tempered, violent outbursts forced me into my parent’s bedroom while he watched cartoons in the evening. There, above my parent’s dresser, I’d twist to the end of the dial’s spectrum, somewhere within the sea of cable channels, and wade through the 120 minutes allotted, waiting to see what Iron Maiden video would premier that week.
At this point in my life, such an anticipation was the only thing that mattered to me on television. And for that matter, one of the only things that mattered to me in my entire adolescents.
My older brother loved The Police. Their post punk and reggae fusion. Stewart Copeland’s crisp drumming.
And Adam Ant. A Lot of Adam Ant. His anomalous music, his makeup, his swagger, his “dandy highwayman” aesthetic.
Coming out of the new wave scene, Iron Maiden was a much heavier, aggressive extension of that. And they lassoed my brother right in, and anything he felt important was important to me.
He gifted me with Iron Maiden, but soon after, was recruited to college up north by a soccer scholarship. I was left to my own devices, picking up on anecdotal information about the band through this special time slot. I craved it. Their sound, their connection to history, and their macabre way of telling a story through their mascot, Eddie “The Beast.”
Being close to my older brother, was my first connection to a tribe. Because of he and his friends, we listened to weird music, not heard on the radio, and that was my identifier.
And on the day we took him to the airport in mid summer, to see him take his first major trip out of town on his own, to actually move away, was like losing apart or myself.
Like losing my identity.
I stared out the window, onto the line of docked commercial airliners, hiding the tears streaming down my face. When it was time for him to board, I quickly hid my sorrows, turned around, and like the most formal 11 year old, apathetic young man, I shook his hand goodbye.
Left alone, I had to perpetuate that tribal identity. I immediately confiscated my older brother’s room, moving out of a shared space where my younger brother and I had two twin beds.
On the next trip to the mall, I had my grandmother buy an Iron Maiden, “Aces High” tee, with a matching poster. This song was amongst a vast catalogue of their hits, and this song in particular, was mine. On getting home, the poster was strategically thumbtacked right above my bed. It was the center piece to my room: For a solid year, the only thing on any of my bedroom walls. On my side table, next to my pillow, sat a mini boom box my brother had left behind. Iron Maiden’s album “Somewhere in Time” was on repeat.
My biggest fear was wearing the actual tape out from listening to it so much.
In December of 1988, after being gone for 6 months, my older brother was to return for the Christmas holidays. Like a hero’s welcoming committee, my step-dad, younger brother and I, got into our Chevy conversion van and headed to Tampa International to deliver him home. On our rendezvous, my brother looked much older, confusing for me as he had only spent a short period of time away. The college life had set in, of late nights studying, but mostly partying after playing soccer most afternoons. But there were some new, foreign attributes to his look that caught my eye. As I sat behind him in the van as he reported recent events to my step-dad, I stared at his long hair.
My brother complained about the food options in North Carolina. The lack of diversity which was never an issue in Tampa. His cravings were for Cuban fair, of pulled pork,black beans and rice, and cuban bread. Cuban bread being almost impossible to get anywhere else in the South.
Though, for some reason, we ended up at the lowest tier, most budget option in town.
Rolling into a Taco Bell, the four of us unloaded out of the van. I was left last in our our queue to order.
Fixating, again, at my brother’s long hair, I wondered if it was something that I too would have to commit to. And panning down, his shirt was now in plain sight. A white tee, and instead of something playfully macabre like the many Iron Maiden albums, Eddie the Monster as British colonial cavalryman, or Eddie as a fighter pilot of a World War Two English Spitfire, there were four, fat faced, overly humanized caricatures. The four of them smashed into the hammer of a gavel.
Inside the restaurant, my brother was at the head of our group. My step-dad, younger brother and myself listened intently to his stories covering the last six months. Of school, of soccer, of the assimilation into temperature shifts during winter that a native Floridian wasn’t prepared for. As he turned to address us in line, I saw what was on the front of his shirt: “Metallica” written in some electrified font. “And Justice for All” written in what looked like graffiti below it.
I was taken aback.
This was an alien aesthetic to me.
Less playful, less objective. Political.
Something that adults were much more in tune to. Something, much deeper, that I couldn’t identify with.
It hit me that my traitorous brother had sold out our unsaid, mutual pact within connected musical tastes.
He had betrayed me.
He had betrayed Iron Maiden.
And this foreign genre, thrash metal, existed for the
next couple years of my life as a cultural bogeyman, the root of all evil, lashing out with its discordance to destroy my identity.
My living room was soaked with rain water. The shitty, grey, inexpensive carpet smelled a mix between wet dog and mildew.
It was 2003, I had just moved into my first house six months prior when Hurricane Ivan dropped a seven story pecan tree across its roof. We knew it had to be rebuilt, and after the day of shock eased over, the initial step was to try to salvage as many personal belongings as possible before the house was levelled and built anew.
It was in the evening, and without electricity, the living room was getting too dark to sift through. Calling it a day, prepping my supplies in order to leave, there was a knock at the front door. On opening, my neighbor from across the street greeted me. A taller man, I would often see him working in his yard but I’d never reached out for conversation.
He asked how we were doing? If we needed any help? He then offered me a random gift–A CD to work to. It was Iron Maiden’s freshly released Dance of Death.
I wondered if this was an odd test for conversation?
Or, in hindsight, had he a telepathic inclination to our common bond?
By March of 2004, my house had been completely gutted and rebuilt. And as the structure was just over 1,000 square feet, the property it sat on was not much bigger. During the four month rebuild, the yard was ripped to shreds by contractors resurrecting the house.
Working in the yard, which consumed most of every weekend, Chris, my neighbor and new friend, would always join me in deep musings on Maiden’s history.
Although I was really into music, and at one point specifically Iron Maiden, I’d never met anyone who dedicated their life to an in-depth knowledge of such a specific microcosm.
Luckily, I retained enough from when I was young to keep up with the conversations.
He’d detail their chord progression. Which song’s themes parallelled certain events in US history. And their obsession with the World Wars. From this is where I learned about Passchendaele, one of the most brutal battles fought in Belgium with upwards of two hundred and forty thousand casualties.
In addition, I discovered that their drummer, Nicko McBrain, had a BBQ rib restaurant in South Florida.
During our time in the yard, Chris’ dog would often lurk on the outskirts. “Stormy” was her name, a mid sized, all black chow mix.
She had a bright purple tongue. And she only got along with Chris.
On days when I was caught off guard by her lurking presence, when she was out, making her rounds alone, she would growl menacingly towards me. Eventually, having enough of a standoff, she’d slowly retreat back to Chris’ property.
There were no other dogs in our neighborhood. Stormy ruled the roost.
I discovered that Chris was a workaholic. I’d often find him in my yard trimming brush before he started working on his own property. This was mostly after ten to twelve grueling hours spent elsewhere in the Florida sun.
Chris never took breaks, never seemed to take any vacation either, being a landscaper by trade.
So it came as a surprise when he stopped by one morning to tell me he booked a flight on Ed Force One. The trip would only be for four days, from the US, to the UK, to Central Europe, for a single, Iron Maiden Arena show in Portugal.
Ed Force One, I discovered, was a repurposed 747, lent to Iron Maiden by Air Atlanta Icelandic. The jumbo jet was repainted each tour with the theme of their current album. Bruce Dickinson (the vocalist) serves as the pilot, and the remaining members of the band, often made guest appearances as stewardesses.
If there was a single, imperative life goal for Chris, this was it.
After revealing the news, Chris asked for help during the long weekend he was going to be out. To keep an eye on his house, to make sure his animals were fed and their litter changed. He had a surfeit of descented skunks, seven total, living in a spare bedroom all to themselves. And, lastly, there was Stormy, for which he had the strongest affinity.
That facet of the deal made me beyond nervous.
We prepped that week prior to his trip. Inviting me in, it was actually the first time I’d ever been in his shotgun house- -visiting other’s living spaces has never been something I ascribe to. Chris went over very specific feeding times, and each room of his house served a detailed purpose for the animals. In addition, each room was fully decorated with Maiden paraphernalia subject to its own theme: From Killers, to Powerslave, to Somewhere in Time.
Chris flew out on a Thursday. And by thursday afternoon, I was checking off the list for his pet maintenance. The ferrets came first, easiest to handle and closest to the front door. Each was cordoned off in its own wooden sectional, delicately taking food as I handed it down. After feeding the seven ferrets, I could feel my blood pressure increase as I turned into the living room. From there, it was a straight shot leading to the kitchen. And in the kitchen, I knew, was where Stormy took shelter.
As I walked slowly from corridor to corridor, I could hear Stormy’s guttural, and unusually extended growling. I was used to her reaction, having heard it often, but this, this had an unusual cadence.
Something was different.
Making it to the kitchen, I looked to the far corner where she tended to hide. In the shadow of the cabinetry, I saw no lump of black fur. Backing out, slowly, the growling continued. I stepped into Chris’ office, his bedroom, no sign. Then, finally into his tiny bathroom where, behind the toilet bowl, wedged between the bathroom wall and the water supply line, lay Stormy. Her head sitting flush on the floor as both of her pitch black eyes glared up at me.
Walking back into the kitchen, I scooped kibble into her bowl, and delivered it to the bathroom threshold. Placing it on the floor, I turned and walked towards the front door, locked the house, and effectively cut the tension off for the evening.
She would eat, I assured myself, trying to not let the situation stress me out.
Driving home from work the next day, I tried my hardest not to let my anxiety simmer over the hour commute. Arriving to the house at dusk, I quickly went to Chris’ to fulfill my duties. Upon unlocking and opening his front door, Stormy’s low, persistent growling resonated as if it had never stopped. I made my way through the living room and paused, again, at the threshold of the bathroom. Beside the door laid Stormy’s bowl, her food untouched. And behind the toilet, wedged in the same position as the day before, lay stormy. Her growling intensified. Her deep black eyes, focused on me as if I were the one causing her some mysterious pain.
On the verge of panic, I stepped closer to her to see if there was an ailment that was causing her to hide. Stormy raised her head off the tile, parted her lips, and gnashed her teeth.
Stepping back put me in a different position, gaining a perspective over to the other side of the toilet bowl. There, wedged as well, between Stormy’s haunches and the tub, were too unmoving brownish-black orbs the size of soft balls.
In addition to hiding, Stormy had shit herself.
From what little I knew about animal behavior, these compounded events gave me a strong, unwelcomed inclination that she was dying.
Locking up, and heading back onto our dead end street, I took a breath to gather my senses. Chris was thousands of miles away with no cell service, with no access to the internet. Considering I couldn’t get to Stormy to help, I also felt devoid of power to call animal control to rescue her from that tight spot.
All I could think about was Chris’ return and his reaction to my hands off decision.
He, having always given me so much help, was returned the favor by my offering up his beloved dog, dead.
For the remaining two days, I waited, and hoped that Stormy would suffer as least as possible.
On that Sunday, Chris was to return. In a state of stressful shock, I unlocked his front door and began the regimen of my final feeding scheduled for that morning.
Walking into his house, I passed through the living room. On those walls were multiple portraits of Eddie, The Monster. On each album cover, Piece of Mind, Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, Eddie’s eyes seemed to follow me into the Ferret room, watching my every move, passing judgement.
On feeding the ferrets, each one–curled up into a ball in their respective corners–barely stirred. Even the ferrets knew I had done wrong.
Walking towards the bathroom, as if on cue, Stormy’s growl began to rumble from behind the threshold.
And there on the adjacent wall, a final portrait in the house’s Feng Shui: Eddie as portrayed on the cover of Iron Maiden’s most startling album, Number of the Beast.
He, lurking in the backdrop of some otherworldly maelstrom, his right, skeletal arm reaching out, puppeteering satan as he walks upon fire and brimstone.
Out of guilt, mixed with an overwhelming cocktail of fear and anxiety, I chose not to enter the bathroom.
Chris would be home that afternoon.
Locking up and heading home, I would wait there, as patiently as possible to hear the verdict, and to accept whatever blame fate dealt upon me.
Daily, at around 6pm, the inbound flight on British Airways lands at Tampa International. Chris was on that plane, and with minimal baggage from such a short trip, was quickly en route home.
Across the street, I ran through a mental list of potential ways to break the news.
Should I start from the beginning, telling him the most detailed story so all anecdotal bits of memory were thrown on the table?
Maybe from this complete mental review, something would come to light to guide a rational explanation.
There is never enough time in moments like these.
The knock came quick. Three soft knuckle blows to the door.
I got off the couch. Took a deep breath inward, and then a slow delayed exhale as I reached for the door.
Chris was there, as expected, in the threshold. His eyes wide, and his lips withholding at least an hour’s worth of details, covering quite possibly four of the best days of his life.
Of being flown over the English Channel, the western coast of France, skimming, finally, above the Bay of Biscayne and into Portugal.
Flown by Bruce Dickinson: Larger than life, his absolute hero.
Of seeing Maiden live, thousands of miles from home. Singing along to every seven minute composition in their two hour set. His voice, I’m sure, hoarse even before the encore.
Then flying thousands of miles home, in an absurd, circuitous route, simply to be able to tell such an incredible story to anyone who had the slightest connection to the monumental band.
Chris’ lips parted to allow those flood waters of reminiscence to open upon me.
Stammering, quick, I cut in, curbing his first words.
“Chris…I think Stormy is dead…”
My wife and I began making dinner.
It had been an hour since meeting Chris at the door, then watching him quickly, silently hustle back to his house to attend to his dying (or possibly dead) dog.
The image of Stormy’s diminutive, shaggy black frame stuffed behind the toilet, and her growl, an animalistic reminder of my wrongdoing, haunted me.
Over the stove, I stared into a pot of boiling pasta, the steam rising to my face, pulling sweat from my pores in a makeshift ritual of atonement.
Overwhelmed and spaced out, I failed to hear another knock.
This time, my wife answered the door, and as it opened, the incoming light on the periphery yanked me out of the guilt trance.
Beside her, in the doorway, Chris had returned.
Mustering up nothing more than a sincere apology, I met Chris once again at our front door.
And before I could say anything, he in turn, cut me off…
…I have gifts for you…”
Unwrapping his arms from behind, he revealed two brownish-black, furry balls that completely filled up the cupping of each of his hands.
And there, I realized that what I had seen was not incontinence.
Those nebulous forms were neither piles of shit, nor biological indicators of a dog’s death spiral.
Chris, The Neighbor of the Beast, holding two tiny puppies, beat me to whatever reaction I was conjuring.
Lifting up the miniscule canine in his left hand, he addressed my wife:
“…I’ve named this one, the girl, ‘Ariel’…”
“And this one…” reaching out his right hand to me, to reveal a wet, squeaking male puppy,
“…this one I’ve named ‘Matt’.”