Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
From beside an upturned metal milk crate, a black cable coiled across the carpet, ending with a pretzel-like flourish in a silver plug poised below a silver socket.
From beside an upturned metal milk crate, a black cable coiled across the carpet, ending with a pretzel-like flourish in a silver plug poised below a silver socket. A black leather biker’s jacket hung off the seat of a soda fountain stool. Two drumsticks lay parallel to each other in a diagonal across the skin of a snare drum like a knife and a fork after the completion of a meal.
Planted in front of the drums and at the center of the room was a microphone and cocked against the wall was a fire-engine red Fender Stratocaster. The walls and ceiling of the room were patch-worked with foam and honeycombed with egg cartons that had been tacked on to provide insulation and to improve acoustics. Scraps of carpet had been used for a similar purpose on the floor, a collage of one faded oriental rug, a discarded runner of worn red pile, and a square of tattered shag. Over the door was an oval plaque, a refugee from some suburban den, made of cheap cherry wood and shellaced shiny. Burnt into its surface in charcoal black cursive script was “R and R Room,” a monument to countless middle-class cellars where basement bands practiced and where a hobby, rest and recreation, turned into a ruling passion, rock and roll. Or in the least, it was a reason to escape the pressures above ground and to leave as soon as possible.
Framed in the angle formed by the half-opened door of the practice room, was the zigzag of one leg hoisted over the arm of an old stuffed couch. The bottom of the tapered black chinos exactly met the top of a spike-toed black leather boot. The boot looked like a canoe, but had the personality of a submarine. Above the point of the toe hovered a haze of smoke. From off to the side, on the couch, came the repetition of a sequence of sounds—the sucking sound of a deep inhalation, the stifled choking of a withheld breath, and the gust of the expelled breath. The cycle ended with a sigh as one puff of smoke moved from behind the wall and merged with the cloud. Wisps of smoke snaked around each other in calligraphic patterns, a mirage of three-dimensional Chinese characters spelling out a fortune no one present could decipher.
From somewhere behind the door, in the tone of a drill sergeant, a voice yelled, “Okay, break’s over. Let’s go.”
The response to the order came quickly: three moans, the assorted creaks of bodies readjusting in chairs and then silence.
“Come on, you guys,” the authoritative voice pleaded, turning whiny and, still getting no response, stern. “Brian.”
The leg in the doorway jackknifed up, scattering the smoky oracle floating above the boot off babbling in the wind.
“The break’s over. Let’s get back to practice.”
“Sure thing,” the voice attached to the boot said. However, the boot remained attached to the end of the leg which remained positioned over the arm of the couch.
“All of us,” came the other voice with a glare attached to it. Then, in a stage whisper to himself, “Maybe it’s time to instigate fines for certain infractions against the band.”
“What’re you going to take it out of? Our salaries?”
Voices guffawed and bodies shifted their positions, the one behind the door stomping across the floor peevishly. When Lowell came to Brian’s boot obstructing his passage into the practice room, he plowed right into it, jamming Brian’s calf against the frame of the door.
“Ow,” Brian yelped, raising himself off the couch to rub his hand over his calf. “What’d you do that for, you jerk?”
“To make sure you hadn’t OD’d,” Lowell said turning on the microphone in the middle of the room.
“You can’t OD on grass, wise ass.”
“You just go catatonic. Huh, Brian?”
Brian raised his body off the couch and tried to stand defiantly in the doorway. As he stood, his red-rimmed eyes started spinning like the digits of a slot machine. His consciousness rolled down off his neck like a roller coaster, bounced at his feet and finally repositioned itself in the vicinity of his head. Brian giggled. “It’s a good thing I’m feeling so good, otherwise…” he trailed off.
“Just plug your guitar in, will you?” Lowell said disgustedly. “If you can find the hole.”
From the other room chairs squeaked sighs as bodies removed themselves. Sets of feet shuffled across the floor. A poptop was ripped off of an aluminum can and there was the fizz of carbonation, a splat as it hit the floor and an “Oh, shit. Who the fuck shook up the beer?”
Brian had bent over in the doorway to rub his leg, waiting for Lowell to look over at him. Jeff came up behind Brian and goosed him with the neck of the bass he was carrying. Brian jerked up and with one hop landed in the room. Now he had his hand protecting his ass.
“Fuckin’ perverts around here.” He shook his head and brought the small brown wad of paper between his finger and thumb up to his mouth. It glowed briefly and then went out.
“Hey, let me have a hit before it’s gone,” Jeff cried to Brian’s back.
Brian turned around to face Jeff and popped the roach back on his tongue and swallowed. He gave Jeff a big Cheshire cat grin. “It’s out, prankster.” He stuck his butt out at Jeff and, this time, pulled it in just in time to miss the swinging bass.
“Don’t get uptight, Jeff,” Brian said in a soft, level tone as he plugged in his guitar. “I’ve got another one we can smoke after practice. Just try and play bass better than you aim, okay?”
“What a burrrr-n,” Lowell said into his mike. He knocked on it twice with his finger and got two thuds in response. “Kim? Kim?” he whispered into the mic with the high far away voice people use to imitate the caw of a crow.
Kim came into the room in a three-piece pinstriped suit with a beer in one hand and a soggy dishrag in the other. From between the jagged points of bangs poking directly into her mascara outlined eyes, stared at the three of them. Finally she asked, “Which one of you lame brains shook up the beer?”
And, getting no answer, “You know you lose half of it with your half-assed jokes.”
“One pothead and one lush,” Lowell said to the room.
“It’s pitiful … ,” Kim said to herself, throwing the dishrag in Lowell’s face as she walked back to take her seat behind the drums. ” … a goddamn waste.”
Lowell spat twice as the dishrag fell off his face. Wiping his lips with the back of his hand, he leaned into the mic and announced funereally, “Ladies and gentlemen … ,” and after an expectant pause, solemnly, “The Rolling Stones.” Brian kicked his Strat into action with the opening chords of “Brown Sugar” as Lowell let lose with a banshee rebel yell, “Awl rat.” Like an insane round, Brian kept repeating the first seven chords of the opening again and again and faster and faster. Jeff struck random notes on his bass while Kim played dainty little flourishes on her cymbals. As the sound approached the velocity of heavy metal chipmunks, Lowell began speaking in the oratorial tones of a professional TV announcer, his pitch rising to denote his mounting enthusiasm.
“Not an impersonation. Not a simulation. An incredible… TRIBUTE. ‘Not the Rolling Stones.’ “
The noise stopped, everyone still. Brian walked over to Lowell’s mic and let loose with a giant raspberry. “Sppllll…,” his lips flapping like laundry in the wind and with big globules of spit flying off like the laundry hadn’t gone through the “spin dry” cycle.
“Thanka, thanka,” Lowell said Lawrence Welk-style. “That was just great, you guys.” His eyes went glassy, but he brought one hand up and slapped himself alert. “Hello? Okay, where were we?”
Everyone relaxed and started fiddling with their instruments in earnest.
“Let’s try that beginning where Kim starts it off by herself,” Lowell suggested. And without waiting for any sign of agreement, he pointed back at Kim and said “Go.”
She took the two sticks in her hand and hit the drum in front of her steadily. Kim played the drums like she was throwing knives at the wall. Her style was basic, no frills, percussive mumbletypeg. After the seventh stroke, Lowell motioned to Jeff who played three ascending notes for Kim’s every two beats and then three descending notes. The bass notes were a rumble you didn’t hear as much as feel. The Rhythm Orchids, as the band was called, played a music of jagged edges and deep empty hollows. They knew what they couldn’t do. They used the limitations of their musical ability to create a spare, economical music; sharp, pointed and succinct but not without the power to extend and transfigure.
Lowell nodded to Brian whose right hand was raised above his guitar in preparation to swing down over the strings. He struck and the collision of pick on strings caused the guitar to emit a sound with all the potential to curdle milk.
“Hold it. Wait a minute,” Lowell cut in as the remnants of the chord ricochetted off the walls.
“Where’d that come from?”
“Whadya mean, ’Where’d that come from?’ It came from my guitar, bimbo,” Brian said with his hand on his hip.
“Well, just because it came from your guitar doesn’t mean it belongs in this song. It sounded awful.”
Lowell picked at the electrician’s tape wrapped around the mic stand.
“I thought it sounded okay,” Jeff said quietly.
“I thought it sounded neat,” Kim said, using the interruption to gulp a few swallows of beer.
“It wasn’t even in tune, you guys.” Lowell’s voice was rising in pitch.
“So?” Brian said putting his other hand on his other hip. “I’m not interested in fuckin’ music. It’s the noise in the music I’m after.”
“Me too. But, at least, I like my noise to be in tune.”
No one spoke, the only sound in the room was the buzz of the amplifiers.
“Brian, do you ever practice?” Lowell said assuming a chit-chat tone of voice.
“Sure I practice.” Brian pulled a joint out from the cellophane wrapper of his pack of Marlboros and lit it. He took a puff, held it and after expelling the smoke said “Two hours, man.”
Brian sniggered. “You gotta be kidding. I don’t even fuck or eat for two hours a day. That’s in a week. Two hours a week.”
“I rest my case,” Lowell said looking at Jeff and Kim. He got no agreement from Kim.
“I thought it sounded neat,” she repeated. “Look Lowell, if you know what you want, why don’t you tell him. You don’t have to make a federal case out of it.”
“I told him what I wanted before the break,” he answered Kim, staring at Brian. “He’s too stoned to remember. I said I wanted it to sound ominous, but sort of … alluring, you know, appealing.”
Brian jeered, “Well for somebody who’s so concerned with music, you’re none too specific. How about saying F sharp or something.”
“You’re the guitarist,” Lowell shouted. “If I knew how to play the guitar I would.”
“Well you don’t so you can’t so you’re stuck now, aren’t you?”
“Boys, boys,” Jeff said like a third grade teacher. “Stop that this instant.”
Jeff had an endless repertoire of routines he went into to break the tensions that came up within the band. There was little he wouldn’t do to keep everyone happy or failing that, civil or failing even that, in a state of truce. He had stuck a lampshade on his head so many times to lighten up their moods, he was considering installing a rheostat.
This time, however, no one cracked in the face of sheer idiocy. In their stubbornness each turned to their particular vice for comfort; Kim to drinking beer, Brian to smoking pot and Lowell to simply pouting. Corniness having failed, Jeff was forced to resort to that other emotional warhorse changing the subject. “Look you guys, we’ve almost got the chorus down. Let’s just complete that and we can work through the beginning at practice tomorrow. We’re all too tired right now.”
Tired of holding both their physical and emotional positions, the other members of the band tacitly agreed by making tentative movements toward their instruments. Lowell coughed to clear his throat and Kim tapped on her snare. Brian put out his joint and carefully placed it next to his cigarettes and lighter on top of his amplifier. “From the bridge then,” he said sticking a silver tube on one of his fingers and sliding it down the neck of his guitar. Brian produced the teeth-grating, jaw-grinding wail of metal on metal as Kim and Jeff pounded out the thud-kerplunk of a boiler-room beat. Lowell sang in a voice so nasal his lips barely moved. Over it all, with full parts of sneer and whine, he chanted:
School’s just a way of killing time
and picking up a few facts
Here I am at 23, waiting and wondering
when they’re going to teach me to act
Yes, I’ve been to college
and no, I don’t know what or how to do
I’m just one of thousands of
white boys with the amotivational blues.
Without the next section of the song being sketched out, when Lowell finished his yelping vocals, the music just petered out lethargically. Nevertheless, Lowell was pleased with the sound of it all. “I think it sounds sufficiently ethnic in a post-modern way.”
“Gee, you should become a rock critic,” Jeff said. “I’d probably make more money.”
“If you made any money, you’d make more money,” Brian muttered. “We’ve gotta play again soon.”
“We will, we will. When we’re good and ready. Let’s call it quits for tonight. And Brian, try and come up with an opening chord that not only dogs can hear, okay?”
“Aw, fuck off. No one appreciates my artistry.”
Brian snapped the locks shut on his guitar case.
“Come on, Jeff, let’s turn off our minds, relax and float downstream.”
“Be sure and take a paddle with you so you make it to practice tomorrow night,” Lowell called after Brian and Jeff as they headed for the roof. The door had already slammed shut, but Lowell knew they had heard him because of the muffled grousing that filtered back from the stairwell.
“What time is it, Low?” Kim asked.
“It’s just 10. Are you working tonight? What time do you have to be there? Do you want some tea? Another beer?” Revved up after practice, Lowell needed to discuss what had occurred over and over again, until he calmed down and the velocity of the experience itself had slowed down.
“Naw,” Kim said. “I’ve got to be at … dig this … Frosty’s Brrrr-lesque … too much, huh? … pretty soon. ‘Let our gorgeous, gyrating gals melt your inhibitions with their body heat.’ I’m really getting sick of doing this, Low. It’s disgusting. Last night I was so bored I combined all these dance steps. One leg was screwing around doing the mashed potatoes, the other leg was boppin up and down doing the pony, my hips were doing the shimmy, shimmy shake, one arm was hitch-hikin and the other was doing the swim including the back stroke, breast stroke, and dive. I was a regular dance smorgasboard. It was like a cripple having an epileptic fit, real spastic. It was so sick-o and you know what? The old goats were lappin’ it up. It was disgusting. But the scariest part out of the whole nightmare-rama was that there I was up there being a real spaz and even I thought, Hey, this is a pretty cool dance step. I lost all reality. I’ve been dancing now for six months and it’s really starting to get to me. Plus, to top it all off, you know what? I haven’t even saved up any money to go to law school. I’m never going to get to go. Oh, but listen to me, Low, I’m turning into a real tragedy queen, aren’t I? I know you’ve heard it all before, but Low, I tell you, it’s really getting to me, dancing at those bars. The money’s good, but I keep spending it all because I feel so bad about what I had to do to get it. It’s my goddam Catholic upbringing. God, I’m really going off the deep end. Listen to me, will ya? I’ve just got to keep remembering, ‘Angels fly because they take themselves lightly.’ It’s true, it really is.”
Lowell knew Kim was drunk when she got loose enough to start bringing out some of her sayings. She knew it too. “Jesus, look what time it is. It’s been real, Low. Gotta go,” Kim said, snatching up the briefcase she used to tote the tools of her trades, drumsticks and leotards. In her three-piece pinstriped suit, Brooks Brothers button-down collared shirt, prep school tie and with her briefcase dangling from her fist she looked exactly like a corporate lawyer headed for his downtown office. Except, she had a beer in her free hand and as she trotted out the door and off to Frosty’s Brrrr-lesque she kept whispering to herself, “Angels fly because they take themselves lightly.”
With Kim gone, Lowell was alone in the practice room. The volume of Kim’s presence was countered by the void of her absence. And being there in that room alone not only reminded Lowell of his need to blow off steam about the practice but compounded that yearning. He walked around the room flipping switches off. Cut off, the luminous red lights of the amps reluctantly faded like hot coals that doused out by water reveal, when cold and harmless, how small they actually are. Switched off, the amplifiers no longer emitted the hollow hum they produced when turned on but idle. Not so easily terminated, a version of the same buzz reverberated in Lowell’s mind. Scanning the room one final time for unwanted sound or light and discovering none, Lowell turned out the overhead and quickly shut the door. He walked across the room and sat down behind a heavy mahogany desk which, positioned at one end of the long rectangular room, afforded a view of the entire room. He pulled the beady string hanging from the metal innards of the Tiffany desk lamp. Incandescent light froze his hands as they lay crossed on the green desk blotter. Through the lamp’s translucent colored panes of glass, a deep and ripe light filtered out into the room. It was not a light that illuminates or clarifies but one that coats the surfaces of things and smudges edges. It was the dusty light of loneliness. Staring out into the room Lowell’s hands began a fidgety dance. His eyes roamed the room but what he actually was doing was flipping through his mental Rolodex for someone to call, preferably to go to visit.
The room Lowell looked out on belonged in Wyoming, not Manhattan. As much as the practice room was a bleak testament to urban cold-water flat consumerism, a supermarket shanty created from discarded egg cartons and milk crates, this room was a relic from an earlier, rustic type of consumerism, a trapper’s paradise. The practice room was shabbily functional while this room was Lowell’s grotesque version of aesthetics which shared much in common with those of Teddy Roosevelt. The only discrepancies in this model of a low-rent hunting lodge were structural ones. There wasn’t an enormous fireplace composed of boulders or raw timber beams scaffolding the ceiling. However, the boggling accoutrements of Lowell’s decor made such potentially glaring admissions not only unnecessary, but unnoticeable.
Stuffing was at a premium. If an object’s purpose was to be sat upon, it was invariably stuffed. All the furniture bulged and absorbed sound. There were two leather couches and a horsehair chair with matching horsehair footstool. Mounted on the walls were glassy-eyed mementos that marked the hours and hours Lowell spent stalking the wilds of musty backrooms of taxidermists and furriers. Poking their flecks out of plaques were the heads of antlered deer, moose, and antelope. A squirrel perched on a tree limb, his head cocked to the side and jaws clamped around an acorn. More exotic and functional to boot was a blow fish lamp. A barracuda stretched across the wall, mouth agape and exposing an ordered forest of treacherous teeth. The spots of a leopard skin were tacked next to the stripes of a zebra skin, examples of nature’s Op Art. In the middle of the floor rested a mangy bear skin rug, its head attached but flattened a bit from being stepped on accidentally and danced on deliberately. The end table featured an ash tray centered in an elephant’s hoof. And from a rough-hewn tree stump coffee table, an erect kangaroo held court with small pieces of dry scrub brush arranged around its sturdy rear legs. Within this room the tones of the lumber and carcasses supplied a fiesta of browns, beiges, sepias, and tans in shades ranging from dull to dingy. If one’s aunt had been Ernest Hemingway, she would have decorated a room like this. Like Lowell, the room was rococo in an American way, prissily macho, aggressively trophy-oriented under the guise of proving oneself a representative of Manifest Destiny. Except that all that remained of the experience for Lowell in his time was a vague concept of some ideal that once existed and an intense, campy nostalgia for the trophies that once represented those ideals.
At his desk, thumbing through the bits of paper he had intended to enter into the ledger he used to document his life, Lowell came to a piece of paper with a telephone number printed beneath the name “Brad.” He dialed the number.
“Hello, this is Lowell. I don’t know if you remember me, but we met several months ago at the Terminal Bar.”
Brad, caught up in trying to remember, responded with an insecure but encouraging, “Yes?”
“I’m a friend of Morgan’s. I had asked him for your number so that I could invite you to see my band,”
“Oh, yes.” A broadly drawn, cartoon-like face surfaced, bowing at the waist. “When are you playing?”
“Oh, we’re not. I just thought if you weren’t busy I might stop by and introduce myself.”
Brad was flustered by such forwardness presented so formally. “Well, alright … .”
Brad was shocked at how little time had elapsed between Lowell’s phone call and the ring of the doorbell. He had been working in his black book and assumed he had enough time to finish and clean up the after effects of his clipping, pasting, and writing before Lowell’s arrival. Wrong in his conjecture and irked by the abruptness of the visit, he just left the mess as it was and opened the door. Lowell stood in the hallway, plain-faced and in a cumberbund.
“Hello, Brad.” Standing stiffly, he stuck out his hand. “I hope I haven’t inconvenienced you by my visit.” He bugged his eyes out to encourage a response. Brad remembered the simple features to which Lowell applied such ornate expressions.
“Oh no. Not at all. Please come in. I was doing something however, which has the place in a bit of a mess.” Brad found himself patterning his response after the syntax of Lowell’s question. He had made a very overt effort to stop it. “In fact, it looks real shitty.”
“Oh it looks fine. It looks … exciting,” Lowell said pushing aside a stack of magazine clippings to sit down on the couch. “What were you doing?”
“Oh, just working on a little book I keep. Would you like some tea or coffee?”
“Either is fine.”
Brad hated making decisions for others almost as much as he hated making them for himself. He decided to make tea and coffee because it would take longer. “I’ll be right back,” he said, turning to walk into the kitchen. He put the water onto boil and prepared the pots and cups before reentering the room to talk.
“Quite a cozy little apartment you’ve got here,” Lowell said gesturing out with his hand. “Does your girlfriend live here as well?”
“You can tell by the little details.”
“Right, like the long hairs caught in the drain and the toothpaste tube squeezed in the middle.” Brad went back into the kitchen to pour the hot water, wondering if Lowell had taken what he had said as a quip or as defensiveness. Brad wondered himself. He placed the pots of tea and coffee on a tray with cups, spoons, a carton of milk, and a bowl of sugar and went clattering back into the living room.
“Wonderful,” Lowell said choosing to pour himself a cup of tea.
Brad admitted to himself he did find Lowell an interesting character and chose tea too. He cleared his throat and took a sip of the tea before asking, “Were you in the neighborhood?”
“Well, it’s not too far from where the band practices which is also where I live. I just felt like taking a walk and canvassing new fans.”
“I’ve never seen your band. I don’t even know what they’re called. Are they going to play soon?”
Lowell leaned back, pleased that the purpose of his visit should surface so spontaneously. “The Rhythm Orchids we’re called. I’m the lead singer and we’ve got Brian, the diplomat’s son turned guitar terrorist, Jeff the Long Island contractor’s son on bass and Kim, US Army brass’ brat drummer.”
“And what’d your parents do?”
“My father’s a lawyer in Boston. I think he’ll run for some kind of political office soon. He’s got all the money he needs so I think he’s going to go after power in a more formal way. Like father, like son. I don’t have his money but underneath I think we’re really after the same thing—mass popularity. The Rhythm Orchids are just my form of politics. And just like politics you spend more time and energy getting people to agree on something than you do actually doing it. Slow death by committee. It’s infuriating. I just spent almost an entire ‘practice’ arguing with Brian, our guitarist, over whether a chord he came up with for my new song belonged in the song or in a kennel. But listen to me whining. You might think we weren’t good or something. It’s just that it’s hard to work with people.”
Brad looked over towards his desk. “It’s hard to work alone, too.”
“We’re both right,” Lowell said.
Both Lowell and Brad raised their teacups, clinked them together and said, “It’s hard to work. Period.”
After Lowell expressed his frustrations with practice, he was able to turn his interest to Brad. Taking another sip of tea, he began, “Where’s … now, what’s your girlfriend’s name?”
“Susanah.” Brad raised his teacup which covered his mouth. He was uncomfortable under Lowell’s scrutiny. “Is she … away,” Lowell guessed.
“She had a dance class after work and then she went to her acting class. So when are The Rhythm Orchids going to play?”
“Soon, soon. Quite driven.”
“She sounds possessed.”
“No, no. She’s just very active, energetic.’’
“Does she want to be an actress?”
“Well, she’s taken her modeling portfolio around and I guess that’s her immediate goal. And it’s useful to have studied acting. Not only for the skill but for the ability to be comfortable in front of people.” Brad suddenly got up out of his chair. Standing up, he said, “Do you want a beer?”
Lowell brought his napkin up to his mouth and laughed. “No, the tea’s just fine.” Brad began walking into the kitchen as Lowell continued, “I’m sorry if it seems like I’m…shall we say, ‘intensely interested’.”
Still walking, Brad said, “Oh no, that’s alright. I just feel like a beer.’’
In the kitchen, Brad rinsed out the glasses that had been sitting in the sink all day, sponged off the counter, wiped the scum out of the drain, cracked ice cubes into a bucket and refilled the icetrays. Taking one beer out of the refrigerator, he pulled a six-pack from beneath the sink and, after rearranging the contents of the refrigerator so that the unchilled beers would be separate and less accessible than the cold ones, he wedged the six-pack in.
“Anything I can help you with,” Lowell shouted over all the clattering issuing from the kitchen.
“Uh…no, thanks,” Brad said walking back in with a beer in his hand. After sitting down across from Lowell again, Brad noticed he hadn’t opened the bottle and went back into the kitchen for an opener.
The discomfort that arose for Brad when Lowell turned his attention towards Brad had propelled Brad into the kitchen for an agitated session of KP. And although Brad’s newfound and even manic interest in kitchen cleanliness bodily removed Brad from Lowell’s observation, it also allowed time for Lowell to carefully examine Brad’s surroundings. Noting the black book, Lowell was bent over the opened page when Brad once again returned from the kitchen.
“This is a very elaborate scrapbook.”
“Oh that. It’s just something.” Brad was mortified. In a continuation of his flurry of tidiness, in one fell swoop he scooped up clippings, paste, pen, and book, tossed them in a desk drawer and shut it. If Brad’s reality had been a blackboard he would have erased it.
“It’s very nice,” Lowell said searching for an uncharged compliment.
“I’m embarrassed you saw it.”
Lowell tried again to make the situation better. ’’It’s very well done. Is that what you…do?” Lowell blanched at how that sounded.
‘’I suppose so. It is the only place I do actually write and I consider myself a writer…well a potential writer…so I guess that’s my work.”
“I thought it really looked good.” Having had enough time to realize exactly how intrusive he had been, Lowell was appalled by what had happened. He felt foolish. “You should…do something with it,” he began and immediately realizing how lame that advice sounded, started babbling off the top of his head. “Like you could…you could…l know, I’ve got an idea… you could…” Finally, something came into his mind. “You could start a newsletter for a band, a fan club type of thing for some band. Like us. That’s it. Just do something like what you do and print it up. Start a newsletter for The Rhythm Orchids.”
As juvenile as the idea seemed, Brad applied himself to the suggestion because entertaining such an abstraction got him off the hook of talking about the reality of his work. “But I’ve never seen The Rhythm Orchids.”
“Well then, do it for some band you do like and have seen,” Lowell blurted out. Lowell was so disconcerted that he was momentarily wilting to suspend his own assertive competitiveness in his band’s behalf for another band’s benefit. “Like Johnny Germaine. You like his band, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I don’t know though. It sounds stupid but it might be fun.”
“What do you have to lose?” Lowell was relieved that Brad had taken Lowell’s grasping-for-straws idea even half-way seriously. On his part, Brad was glad for the straw. And once Lowell’s thoughts shifted from his embarrassment with himself to the idea that had popped into his mind to distract both he and Brad from that embarrassment, he was astonished to discover that the idea wasn’t a bad one at all.
“You know, there are enough bands that play the Terminal Bar who are good enough that they really need publicity. And even if some aren’t what you could term musically proficient, at least they’re interesting. We’re all tired of being ignored by the record companies and press. Just because you play in a bar doesn’t mean you’re just a bar band. We’re treated like amateurs, no-talents. Just because kids like to go to the Terminal to have fun, it’s not taken seriously. They’re missing the point. That is the point. It is fun and we are serious and its time to be recognized.” With Lowell’s experience at being a lead singer, stepping up onto a soap box came naturally to him.
“Do you think there’s enough interest, Lowell?”
‘’Do it to create interest. You’re interested in those bands, right?”
“Well, so are other people. Even ones that don’t know it. Rather than waiting for the press and record companies to wake up and come in from the outside to discover what’s going on and misrepresent it, do it from the inside and represent it the way it is.”
“But it sounds like ‘Pollyanna Goes Into Publishing!’ You know, like, ‘Hey, I’ve got an idea! Let’s start a newspaper!’ Everything’s said with an exclamation point at the end of it.”
“Is that the way those things happen?”
“Yes. How do you think I formed my band. I said, ‘Hey, I’m forming a band!’ And I said it with a big enough exclamation point that other people believed me.”
“It sounds too simple. And, simple minded.”
“Well saying it’s the easiest part obviously. Doing it’s another matter altogether. But saying it is a start.”
Brad felt silly in the face of Lowell’s enthusiasm. He said giddily, “Well, I was the editor of my high school newspaper.”
“See, you’ve already done it,” Lowell’s arms were flailing in the air with jerks like marionettes make when controlled by beginners. The faux pas which instigated the discussion had been absorbed by the quirkiness of Lowell’s movements and the dizziness of his spontaneity. “And,” he said, the protectiveness toward his band resurfacing, “your idea is much better than mine.”
Brad had forgotten his beer during their interchange, but instinctively reached for it and stuck it in his mouth in order to give himself time to think. Finally, after holding the beer in his mouth as long as he could, he had to gulp and ask, “What idea was that?”
“Rather than a fan club for one group, start a newspaper covering all of them. That’s exactly what we need. And once you’ve discovered what’s needed, you have a responsibility to do it.”
“Who me?” Brad said in a high-pitched voice, the mock innocence of the phrase and intonation disguising the seriousness of the intention, the challenge. The question mark resounded like an exclamation point.
Outside the door Susanah fumbled with her keys, twice missing the lock before aiming successfully. Sitting at his desk, Brad was preoccupied with looking through the Black Book and was oblivious to the scratching sounds at the door. Although he failed to notice the muffled indications from the hallway that Susanah was entering the apartment, it was impossible to ignore the melodrama of the entrance itself. Susanah shuffled in with the dull-eyed and long-faced expression of a pack mule and was just as burdened with bundles. Playing the last few steps of her walk of weariness for all they were worth, Susanah stumbled up next to a chair and let her load drop to the floor. As her fingers unclenched, purse, briefcase, gym bag and portfolio plopped to her feet, their four flat thuds the audible equivalent of her spirits. Keeping her feet where her last step had positioned her, Susanah fell rigidly backwards into the chair. Sitting in the chair like a plank would and with all the expression of a two-by-four, Susanah’s posture and personality were stiff to the point of catatonia.
Brad, the sole witness of her entire somnambulistic spectacle, had turned his head from his reveries when Susanah entered the apartment. The whirlwind of his own inner dialogue of possibility and impossibility coupled with the audience member’s role as silent spectator rendered Brad speechless in front of Susanah’s speechlessness. They both just sat there, one poised in mid-thought and the other poised in mid-performance, until finally Brad’s thoughts turned to Susanah and the perimeters of Susanah’s performance included Brad.
“I’m ex-haus-ted,” Susanah said closing her eyes and tilting her head backwards so that her nose pointed to the ceiling.
Brad looked at the ceiling. “Lowell came over and…”
“I’m un-be-lievably tired.” Susanah’s head tilted even further back. Her nose now pointed at the wall. Brad looked at the wall. “and we were talking and the idea came up that I begin…that I edit a newspaper…or at least, a newsletter, so…’’
“I’m just beat. I’ve never heard you babble before, Brad,” Susanah said, her voice strangled in the right angle formed by her neck and head.
“…I’m considering mimeographing, xeroxing something maybe laid out like my book…maybe offset…”
Susanah snapped her neck taut and her head bobbed back into place. “What are you talking about? I’ve never heard so many maybes coming out of your mouth. Are you on something?” She finally looked in Brad’s direction.
“No, you’ve never seen me excited before. If you’d just come down off stage, Sarah Bernhardt, you might…” Brad knew mentioning how Susanah had been acting since she came in was a big mistake, particularly in the manner in which he had done it, but the temptation to tell the truth was too great and he began telling the truth in almost the only way he knew how, sarcastically. There was relish in his voice as he began and a regret as he paused. Brad was so certain of the logistics of the fight that he even stopped talking a few seconds before she had the chance to interrupt him. On her part, Susanah rose to the occasion, expressing new facets of one of her favorite dramatic emotions, indignation.
Knowing Susanah’s preference in roles, Brad expected a classic line and was not disappointed when she stood up, stamped her foot, glared and shouted “How dare you?” He even whispered along under his breath. Then according to the game plan, Brad leaned back in his chair, gave Susanah the floor and waited for her to hang herself in the web of her own emotion.
“After all I’ve been through today, you have the nerve…you, who just lays around all day…you, lazy son-of-a-bitch, have the absolute gall to make fun of…to ridicule me…ME…for something I do. When you do as much as I do in a day, then and only then will I even consider you in a position to criticize me.’’
Brad’s logic, the spider, saw Susanah stumble and moved forward. The opportunity to pounce had come. Sooner than he had expected and so Brad hadn’t quite enough time to calm himself down to the point at which he sounded level and rational. He began by sounding more like Susanah than he liked, but quickly enough shifted into reason’s serene tones.
“Wait a minute. If you would…if you could have just listened to what I said, Susanah, you might have heard that what I was attempting to discuss with you was about doing something. If you’re so interested in my doing something why don’t you encourage me in that direction? Why don’t you support me in doing something other than constantly watching your act. Or is that, in fact, what you really want—a personal captive audience?’’
Susanah didn’t fight like Brad did with sharp, quick kidney punches of logic. She didn’t hear the words, the accusations, the questions and even if she had, her response would not have been in keeping with the lethal combination of high school debate and dirty pool that Brad used so effectively against her. Susanah became more flustered and more irritated until finally, rubbed raw in exasperation, she started crying. “You don’t understand me or what I’m going through.”
“Now take the situation, flip it over and make it my fault. Nice try, Susanah.”
Brad knew being sneered at drove Susanah crazy and, sure enough, she made fists with her hands and her arms went rigid. Her neck flushed and her eyes were pinpointed in rage. Slightly tilting her head back, her tears diagonaled across her cheeks and flowed down her neck and into her hair, rather than dribbling past the contours of her nostrils and mouth to drip off her chin. “Asshole,” Susanah fired towards Brad with enough velocity to puncture. Turning away, without waiting to witness the accuracy of her aim, she swept herself toward the bedroom door. “Cunt,” Brad spit back at her as she slammed the door shut. He knew she hated that word.
Brad stonily turned back to his desk and began leafing through his book again. In the bedroom, Susanah sat propped up in bed crying, vigorously rubbing at her fingernails with cotton balls drenched in fingernail polish remover. All in all, the mechanics of the fight had run smoothly.
Brad remained at his desk for another hour considering the pros and cons of establishing a newspaper. He finally stopped himself at a point when the pros outweighed the cons. Satisfied and excited, Brad could now afford to feel guilty at having made Susanah cry. He walked around, switching off all the apartment lights except one. He cracked the bedroom door slowly and silently and the light fell in and arced across the bed. Brad shyly peeked around the door. Susanah was sleeping peacefully, her hands carefully positioned flat against the sheet so as not to disturb the new coats of fire-engine red polish that lacquered her nails, ten lustrous stains mounted on sheets as white as camphor.
from the forthcoming novel, Too Smart to Have Fun.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.