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I DON'T KNOW when Stanky and I got married, but it must have been sometime between the incident with Sabela and the night Mia went home to her mother. Certainly my reaction to the latter was more restrained than was my reaction to the former, and I attribute this in part to our union having been joined. It was a typical rock-and-roll marriage: talent and money making beautiful music together and doomed from the start, on occasion producing episodes in which the relationship seemed to be crystallized, allowing you to see (if you wanted to) the messy bed you had made for yourself.
Late one evening, or maybe it wasn't so late—it was starting to get dark early—Mia came downstairs and stepped into my office and set a smallish suitcase on my desk. She had on a jacket with a fake fur collar and hood, tight jeans, and her nice boots. She'd put a fresh rasberry streak in her black hair and her makeup did a sort of Nefertiti-meets-Liza thing. All I said was, "What did I do this time?"
Mia's lips pursed in a moue—it was her favorite expression and she used it at every opportunity, whether appropriate or not. She became infuriated whenever I caught her practicing it in the bathroom mirror.
"It's not what you did," she said. "It's that clammy little troll in the basement."
"Do you have another troll? Stanky! God, that's the perfect name for him." Another moue. "I'm sick of him rubbing up against me."
Mia had, as she was fond of saying, "been through some stuff," and, if Stanky had done anything truly objectionable, she would have dealt with him. I figured she needed a break or else there was someone in town with whom she wanted to sleep.
"I take it this wasn't consensual rubbing," I said.
"You think you're so funny! He comes up behind me in tight places. Like in the kitchen. And he pretends he has to squeeze past."
"He's in our kitchen?"
"You send him up to use the treadmill, don't you?"
"And he has to get water from the fridge, doesn't he?"
I leaned back in the chair and clasped my hands behind my head. "You want me to flog him? Cut off a hand?"
"Would that stop it? Give me a call when he's gone, okay?"
"You know I will. Say hi to Mom."
A final moue, a moue that conveyed a soupçon of regret, but—more pertinently—made plain how much I would miss her spoonful of sugar in my coffee.
After she had gone, I sat thinking nonspecific thoughts, vague appreciations of her many virtues, then I handicapped the odds that her intricate makeup signaled an affair and decided just how pissed off to be at Stanky. I shouted downstairs for him to come join me and dragged him out for a walk into town.
A mile and a quarter along the Polozny, then up a steep hill, would bring you to the park, a triangular section of greenery (orange-and-brownery at that time of year) bordered on the east by the library, on the west by a row of brick buildings containing gentrifed shops, and, facing the point of the triangle, by McGuigan's. For me alone, it was a brisk half-hour walk; with Stanky in tow, it took an extra twenty minutes. He was not one to hide his discomfort or displeasure. He panted, he sagged, he limped, he sighed. His breathing grew labored. The next step would be his last. Wasn't it enough I forced him to walk three blocks to the 7-11? If his heart failed, drop his bones in a bucket of molten steel and ship his guitars home to McKeesport, where his mother would display them, necks crossed, behind the urn on the mantle.
These comments went unvoiced, but they were eloquently stated by his body language. He acted out every nuance of emotion, like a child showing off a new skill. Send him on an errand he considered important and he would give you his best White Rabbit, head down, hustling along on a matter of urgency to the Queen. Chastise him and he would play the penitent altar boy. When ill, he went with a hand clutching his stomach or cheek or lower back, grimacing and listless. His posturing was so pitifully false, it was disturbing to look at him. I had learned to ignore these symptoms, but I recognized the pathology that bred them—I had seen him, thinking himself unwatched, slumped on the couch, clicking the remote, the Guide spread across his lap, mired in the quicksand of depression, yet more arrogant than depressed, a crummy king forsaken by his court, desperate for admirers.
On reaching the library, I sat on a middle step and fingered out a fatty from my jacket pocket. Stanky collapsed beside me, exhausted by the Polozny Death March he had somehow survived. He flapped a hand toward McGuigan's and said, hopefully, "You want to get a beer?"
I fired up the joint.
"Hey!" Stanky said. "We passed a cop car on the hill, man."
"I smoke here all the time. As long as you don't flaunt it, nobody cares."
I handed him the joint. He cupped the fire in his palm, smoking furtively. It occurred to me that I wouldn't drink from the same glass as him—his gums were rotting, his teeth horribly decayed—but sharing a joint? What the hell. The air was nippy and the moon was hidden behind the alder's thick leaves, which had turned but not yet fallen. Under an arc lamp, the statue of Black William gleamed as if fashioned of obsidian.
"Looks like he's pointing right at us, huh?" said Stanky.
When I was good and stoned, once the park had crystallized into a Victorian fantasy of dark green lawns amid crisp shadows and fountaining shrubs, the storefronts beyond hiding their secrets behind black glass, and McGuigan's ornate sign with its ruby coat of arms appearing to occupy an unreal corner in the dimension next door, I said, "Mia went back to her mom's tonight. She's going to be there for a while."
"Bummer." He had squirreled away a can of Coke in his coat pocket, which he now opened.
"It's normal for us. Chances are she'll screw around on me a little and spend most of the time curled up on her mom's sofa, eating Cocoa Puffs out of the box and watching soaps. She'll be back eventually."
He had a swig of Coke and nodded.
"What bothers me," I said, "is the reason she left. Not the real reason, but the excuse she gave. She claims you've been touching her. Rubbing against her and making like it was an accident."
This elicited a flurry of protests and I-swear-to-Gods. I let him run down before I said, "It's not a big deal."
"She's lying, man! I.…"
"Whatever. Mia can handle herself. You cross the line with her, you'll be picking your balls up off the floor."
I could almost hear the gears grinding as he wondered how close he had come to being deballed.
"I want you to listen," I went on. "No interruptions. Even if you think I'm wrong about something. Deal?"
"Most of what I put out is garbage music. Meanderthal, Big Sissy, The Swimming Holes, Junk Brothers.…"
"I love the Junk Brothers, man! They're why I sent you my demo."
I gazed at him sternly—he ducked his head and winced by way of apology.
"So rock-and-roll is garbage," I said. "It's disposable music. But once in a great while, somebody does something perfect. Something that makes the music seem indispensable. I think you can make something perfect. You may not ever get rock star money. I doubt you can be mainstreamed. The best you can hope for, probably, is Tom Waits money. That's plenty, believe me. I think you'll be huge in Europe. You'll be celebrated there. You've got a false bass that reminds me of Blind Willie Johnson. You write tremendous lyrics. That fractured guitar style of yours is unique. It's out there, but it's funky and people are going to love it. You have a natural appeal to punks and art rockers. To rock geeks like me. But there's one thing can stop you—that's your problem with women."
Not even this reference to his difficulties with Sabela and Mia could disrupt his rapt attentiveness.
"You can screw this up very easily," I told him. "You let that inappropriate touching thing of yours get out of hand, you will screw it up. You have to learn to let things come. To do that, you have to believe in yourself. I know you've had a shitty life so far, and your self-esteem is low. But you have to break the habit of thinking that you're getting over on people. You don't need to get over on them. You've got something they want. You've got talent. People will cut you a ton of slack because of that talent, but you keep messing up with women, their patience is going to run out. Now I don't know where all that music comes from, but it doesn't sound like it came from a basement. It's a gift. You have to start treating it like one."
I asked him for a cigarette and lit up. Though I'd given variations of the speech dozens of times, I bought into it this time and I was excited.
"Ten days from now you'll be playing for a live audience," I said. "If you put in the work, if you can believe in yourself, you'll get all you want of everything. And that's how you do it, man. By putting in the work and playing a kick-ass set. I'll help any way I can. I'm going to do publicity, T-shirts…and I'm going to give them away if I have to. I'm going to get the word out that Joe Stanky is something special. And you know what? Industry people will listen, because I have a track record." I blew a smoke ring and watched it disperse. "These are things I won't usually do for a band until they're farther along, but I believe in you. I believe in your music. But you have to believe in yourself and you have to put in the work."
I'm not sure how much of my speech, which lasted several minutes more, stuck to him. He acted inspired, but I couldn't tell how much of the act was real; I knew on some level he was still running a con. We cut across the park, detouring so he could inspect the statue again. I glanced back at the library and saw two white lights shaped like fuzzy asterisks. At first I thought they were moving across the face of the building, that some people were playing with flashlights; but their brightness was too sharp and erratic, and they appeared to be coming from behind the library, shining through the stone, heading toward us. After ten or fifteen seconds, they faded from sight. Spooked, I noticed that Stanky was staring at the building and I asked if he had seen the lights.
"That was weird, man!" he said. "What was it?"
"Swamp gas. UFOs. Who knows?"
I started walking toward McGuigan's and Stanky fell in alongside me. His limp had returned.
"After we have those beers, you know?" he said.
"Can we catch a cab home?" His limp became exaggerated. "I think I really hurt my leg."
Part of the speech must have taken, because I didn't have to roust Stanky out of bed the next morning. He woke before me, ate his grits (I allowed him a single bowl each day), knocked back a couple of Diet Cokes (my idea), and sequestered himself in the studio, playing adagio trumpet runs and writing on the Casio. Later, I heard the band thumping away. After practice, I caught Geno, the drummer, on his way out the door, brought him into the office and asked how the music was sounding.
"It doesn't blow," he said.
I asked to him to clarify.
"The guy writes some hard drum parts, but they're tasty, you know. Tight."
Geno appeared to want to tell me more, but spaced and ran a beringed hand through his shoulderlength black hair. He was a handsome kid, if you could look past the ink, the brands, and the multiple piercings. An excellent drummer and reliable. I had learned to be patient with him.
"Over all," I said, "how do you think the band's shaping up?"
He looked puzzled. "You heard us."
"Yes. I know what I think. I'm interested in what you think."
"Oh…okay." He scratched the side of his neck, the habitat of a red and black Chinese tiger. "It's very cool. Strong. I never heard nothing like it. I mean, it's got jazz elements, but not enough to where it doesn't rock. The guy sings great. We might go somewhere if he can control his weirdness."
I didn't want to ask how Stanky was being weird, but I did.
"He and Jerry got a conflict," Geno said. "Jerry can't get this one part down, and Stanky's on him about it. I keep telling Stanky to quit ragging him. Leave Jerry alone and he'll stay on it until he can play it backward. But Stanky, he's relentless and Jerry's getting pissed. He don't love the guy, anyway. Like today, Stanky cracks about we should call the band Stanky and Our Gang,"
"No," I said.
"Yeah, right. But it was cute, you know. Kind of funny. Jerry took it personal, though. He like to got into it with Stanky."
"I'll talk to them. Anything else?"
"Naw. Stanky's a geek, but you know me. The music's right and I'm there."
The following day I had lunch scheduled with Andrea. It was also the day that my secretary, Kiwanda, a petite Afro-American woman in her late twenties, came back to work after a leave during which she had been taking care of her grandmother. I needed an afternoon off—I thought I'd visit friends, have a few drinks—so I gave over Stanky into her charge, warning her that he was prone to getting handsy with the ladies.
"I'll keep that in mind," she said, sorting through some new orders. "You go have fun."
Andrea had staked out one of the high-backed booths at the rear of McGuigan's and was drinking a martini. She usually ran late, liked sitting at the front, and drank red wine. She had hung her jacket on the hook at the side of the booth and looked fetching in a cream-colored blouse. I nudged the martini glass and asked what was up with the booze.
"Bad day in court. I had to ask for a continuance. So.…" She hoisted the martini. "I'm boozing it up."
"Is this that pollution thing?"
"No, it's a pro bono case."
"Thought you weren't going to do any pro bono work for a while."
She shrugged, drank. "What can I say?"
"All that class guilt. It must be tough." I signaled a waitress, pointed to Andrea's martini and held up two fingers. "I suppose I should be grateful. If you weren't carrying around that guilt, you would have married Snuffy Huffington the Third or somebody."
"Let's not banter," Andrea said. "We always banter. Let's just talk. Tell me what's going on with you."
I was good at reading Andrea, but it was strange how well I read her at that moment. Stress showed in her face. Nervousness. Both predictable components. But mainly I saw a profound loneliness and that startled me. I'd never thought of her as being lonely. I told her about Stanky, the good parts, his writing, his musicianship.
"The guy plays everything," I said. "Guitar, flute, sax, trumpet. Little piano, little drums. He's like some kind of mutant they produced in a secret high school band lab. And his voice. It's the Jim Nabors effect. You know, the guy who played Gomer Pyle? Nobody expected a guy looked that goofy could sing, so when he did, they thought he was great, even though he sounded like he had sinus trouble. It's the same with Stanky, except his voice really is great."
"You're always picking up these curious strays," she said. "Remember the high school kid who played bass, the one who fainted every time he was under pressure? Brian Something. You'd come upstairs and say, 'You should see what Brian did,' and tell me he laid a bass on its side and played Mozart riffs on it. And I'd go.…"
"Bach," I said.
"And I'd go, 'Yeah, but he faints!'" She laughed. "You always think you can fix them."
"You're coming dangerously close to banter," I said.
"You owe me one." She wiggled her forefinger and grinned. "I'm right, aren't I? There's a downside to this guy."
I told her about Stanky's downside and, when I reached the part about Mia leaving, Andrea said, "The circus must be in town."
"Now you owe me one."
"You can't expect me to be reasonable about Mia." She half-sang the name, did a little shimmy, made a moue.
"That's two you owe me," I said.
"Sorry." She straightened her smile. "You know she'll come back. She always does."
I liked that she was acting flirty and, though I had no resolution in mind, I didn't want her to stop.
"You don't have to worry about me," she said. "Honest."
"So how talented is this Stanky? Give me an example."
"What do you mean, I don't have to worry about you?"
"Never mind. Now come on! Give me some Stanky."
"You want me to sing?"
"You were a singer, weren't you? A pretty good one, as I recall."
"Yeah, but I can't do what he does."
She sat expectantly, hands folded on the tabletop.
"All right," I said. I did a verse of "Devil's Blues," beginning with the lines:
"There's a grapevine in heaven,
I sailed on through to the chorus, getting into the vocal:
A bald guy popped his head over the top of an adjacent booth and looked at me, then ducked back down. I heard laughter.
"That's enough," I said to Andrea.
"Interesting," she said. "Not my cup of tea, but I wouldn't mind hearing him."
"He's playing the Crucible next weekend."
"Is that an invitation?"
"Sure. If you'll come."
"I have to see how things develop at the office. Is a tentative yes okay?"
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Copyright © 1998–2008 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide