Book Cover of Conquest, by Vik Rubenfeld

I‘M ABOUT TO TELL YOU two stories that are inseparable. One led to sorrow and heartbreak. The other led to joy and triumph. I never would have thought my life would hold so much of both.

People always ask me how it got started. It was a little spooky. I remember the day so well because my girlfriend had broken up with me that same morning. She was fun, she was hilarious, she was a good friend, but she was also excitable. I wasn’t excitable, and it was the way I wasn’t that finally she couldn’t take any more. I’m a get-up-every-day, get-the-job-done, don’t-get-distracted-by-stuff, keep moving-forward kind of guy. I feel like a tank on a battlefield. I just keep going. Stuff can be blowing up around me—I don’t care. I’m still going ahead.

She felt I was a snail, going along too slowly and getting nowhere. She started getting crazy about it, hysterical. Which didn’t faze me because I’m not excitable the way she was—and that drove her even crazier. So it was that same morning that she said she was breaking up. Well, even to a tank, if a bomb goes off right underneath you, you’re going to feel it. So I was trashed and in no mood to go anywhere—much less to an audition.

I’d heard about this audition Barry was having out in an old barn or shack or something. I wasn’t planning to go. I’d met him once or twice and my impression was that he was a little frayed around the edges. A little flighty. Not serious enough. Tanks don’t wait for guys like him. We run guys like him over. So, the hell with it was basically my approach to the subject.

I was in no mood to see anybody. Then my phone started to blow up. So many calls were coming in. People were asking me to come out and have a drink or to go to a party or to hear a band. Some of them already knew about the breakup and wanted to cheer me up, and some had no idea. Finally I had to go out just to get away from the phone calls. I took off for the bar to play pool.

So now I’m out, and my cell phone starts ringing and ringing—far more calls then I usually get. I don’t answer it. I’m not in the mood, as you can easily imagine. I’m playing pool, having a beer, and trying not to think about anything. The misery is sitting on me like a wrestler that’s got another wrestler pinned. I can’t do anything about it and I know it, so I’m trying not to think about it.

And then this guy walks right up to me out of nowhere and says, “Hey man, can you give me a lift to Barry’s audition?” I don’t even recognize this guy.

“Dude, I’m not going to Barry’s audition.”

“Aren’t you Reid Taylor?”

“Do I know you?”

“I’m Travis. I saw you sit in with Sammy Marshall at Harry’s a month ago.”

“Yeah, well, I’m just hanging out here tonight.”

“Everybody says you’re going.”

“Everybody? Who?”

The guy looks around vaguely. “I don’t know. People.”

“People? Who? Who said that? What’s the name of the person who said that?”

“It wasn’t one person. It was at least two people.”


“That guy over there.”

He looks over at somebody, and at that exact split second, before I can see who it is, the guy he’s looking at turns and walks out of the place.

“’Scuse me one second. I want to say hi,” I say.

I turn and head out of the bar to the parking lot. The guy is walking away towards his pickup, and I call out, “Dude.” He stops and looks around. I’ve never seen the guy before, and I swear to God I already don’t like him. I immediately feel confronted, as if he’s competing against me for something. He has dark curly hair, cut very close to his head. He has a short beard and a mustache trimmed in neat straight lines. He’s tall, my height, around six feet, with strong arms and biceps that look like they could have been built up from years of hammering on a drum kit.

“Yeah, what’s up, Reid?”

“You know me?”

“No, some guys in there said you were going over to Barry’s. You want a lift?”

At this point I actually think, Screw it, I might as well go. I mean, why not at this point? It’s either go or hear about it all night. It’s turning out to be the path of least resistance—the easiest way to not have to think about going, is to head over there. I can already see that if I don’t, I’ll spend all day tomorrow answering people who want to know why I didn’t go.

“Yeah, sure, why not,” I reply. I get my axe out of my trunk, get into his pickup, and we take off.

The guy says his name is Clay Hicks.

So now I’m heading off on a mission to be in some band. They’re going to be judging everybody and I am going to be not even beginning to care. At this point, I am way beyond caring about anything any of these guys is going to say to me.

On the plus side, I have to admit it is a welcome distraction from this misery I can’t shake.

After a while Clay starts driving too fast. Way past the speed limit. He’s taking curves at roller-coaster speeds. I’m looking at this guy. I’ve never seen him before, and I’m wondering, is he testing me? Is he waiting to see how I’m going to react? Is he trying to rattle me so I can’t audition? I watch the road out my window to see how he’s doing. He’s skidding—driving outside the lane. I look back at him, and I’m sure he’s in control of the car—or at least thinks he is—and he’s doing it on purpose—just to scare me. So I don’t say anything.

We’re driving way outside of town. The streetlights are getting farther and farther apart, and finally we pull up in a parking lot outside of a big old run-down-looking building. I grab my axe and get out of there, because there’s no way I’m talking to this guy, since I’d only tell him that no matter how proud he is of whatever he thinks he’s doing, he’s like one of those comets heading down through the night sky that burns bright while it’s burning itself up. I think, chances are, when he crashes his car, I won’t be in it. 

The front door of the joint looks dusty. It doesn’t feel solid when I push it open. Inside it’s dark. I can barely make out the tables all around—it’s some kind of closed restaurant. There’s people milling around on the far side of the room, and that’s where the lights are on. A stage is set up over there. Beside it is Barry—long-haired, rattled-looking but cheerful, proud that this is his thing. He’s running it. Everybody’s there to win his approval. People drive all the way here, they get here, and they’re into it. Man, you can feel it! It’s electric. People want to be chosen.

I consider hanging out back here in the dark and watching, but that could look like odd behavior, and then people would ask me why I’m keeping away to myself. Besides, I need more distraction or I’m going to get swallowed whole by this wretchedness that feels like it’s eating me alive.

I head over to the edge of the light, where everybody is, and see a singer I know named Shawn.

“Hey, how you doin’?”

“Reid, all right, man, how are you?”

“Pretty good.”

“I heard you and Sharon broke up.”


“You okay with it?”

Some people have to ask the wrong question when you’re feeling bad. He’s saying it like he’s being sympathetic, but what if the answer is what it really is, namely that I’m anything but okay with it? That I’m miserable about it? Does he want to make me talk about that? Expose myself like a fish flopping around on a boat deck waiting to be iced? Is that like a friend? I bet that somewhere in the back of his mind, he knows exactly what he’s doing. When you’re suffering, it almost takes a saint to be your friend.

“No. I’m not okay with it. It sucks.” I’m not going to protect myself by lying, by hiding, by pretending to be something I’m not.

“I’m sorry, dude.”

I don’t say anything back. I move on.

Barry spots me and comes over. Barry has one of those personalities that combine things you wouldn’t expect to go together. He’s always expecting everything to go wrong any second, and he never seems to be able to focus on anything for long.  But at the same time, he’s great at getting people together and motivating them to accomplish something. He has long, straight, reddish-brown hair, piercing eyes that seem to be constantly flying from one thought to another, and a thin, wiry frame.

“Hey, Reid! Good to see ya’. Thanks for coming over.”

“Glad to be here, man.”

“I didn’t know how to reach you, so I just told people to let you know about it.”

“Okay, cool. It worked.”

“Excellent.” He moves on to talk to somebody. It’s like I said, the guy’s a little flaky. He didn’t know how to reach me, so he just told people. But it worked. I have to give him that.

“Hey, how’s it going?” A drummer I know has spotted me, a good guy, named Leon.

“Okay, man. How’re you?”

“I heard about Sharon, dude.”


“That sucks, man.” He says it like he’s talking about a coat that doesn’t fit. He’s not making a big deal out of it. He’s not acting like it’s the end of the world. Leon’s an okay guy.

“I appreciate that.”

“For sure. You think it’s really over?”

“Oh yeah.”

“You were with her, what, a couple of years?”


“Well, if it’s not right, it’s not right, huh?”

“Yeah, man. Thanks.”

“For sure.”

The action’s starting, and Barry gets up on stage. Leon goes to find out when he’s up. These encounters are taking too much effort, so I go sit down on the outer edge of the group, in the shadows but not like I’m trying to avoid people. Barry’s warming up, playing a sweet twelve-bar blues.

Sitting down, I feel there’s not enough distraction. I’m trying not to think about Sharon, but it’s too big to avoid. It’s like a yacht bearing down on a rowboat. You want to enjoy the beautiful day, but you see that yacht bearing down on you to cut you in half.

Then I realize I already got cut in half—when Sharon left. This misery is too big. I can’t avoid it. I’m going to have to suffer through it. I look for how to use the grief, how to make something good with it. Feeling it is helpful. It means finding out what you’ve lost, like a store owner taking inventory after a flood. It’s painful, but you have to do it so that you can keep the store going.

For a minute I don’t notice what’s going on around me. Then I start to hear new stuff Barry is playing. It isn’t blues anymore. This must be his own. It’s straight chord progressions, but these aren’t the same patterns I’ve heard a million times. I’ve never heard these changes before, and the chords he’s got sound great together.

I know what this means if it’s not a fluke, but I figure that’s got to be all it is. There’s no way he’s got a lot of these. But then he hits us with another one, and another. This is the DNA of songs that haven’t been written yet. This is what I’ve been looking for. Sharon thought I wasn’t getting anywhere. She didn’t see that I was looking and waiting for what it’s starting to look like just showed up here in this busted-up, closed restaurant.

I want to stand up and charge the stage. It’s an overwhelming mix of feelings—exaltation and excitement added to the misery that’s been filling me. I get the sense a person can hold an infinity of feeling. It starts to make me feel physically bigger than myself. It’s making me dizzy.

I move quietly over to a friend of Barry’s who has a notepad and get my name on the list. Then I sit back and watch what goes on, carried along on these sensations like a piece of a loose rowboat that got cut in half—atop monstrous ocean swells.

Bass players, drummers, singers come and go. Leon tries out on drums and does great. The bass players are just playing right on top of the same notes Barry’s got—only a few octaves lower. It’s driving me crazy. I can’t stand it. I can’t wait to get up there.

Finally they call me. I walk up, plug in my axe. Barry starts in, then Leon on drums.

A tremendous sense of power hits me. I was so full of passion over breaking up with my girl. Now it’s going into the notes I’m playing and the counterpoint I’m finding. It’s as if the whole day has been fated to put me on fire for this. I blow that room away so hard that my competitors all look at one another. They all see that the others feel it: I am the guy.