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"Way better than a firm no," I said.
We ordered from the grill and, after we had eaten, Andrea called her office and told them she was taking the rest of the day. We switched from martinis to red wine, and we talked, we laughed, we got silly, we got drunk. The sounds of the bar folded around us and I started to remember how it felt to be in love with her. We wobbled out of McGuigan's around four o'clock. The sun was lowering behind the Bittersmiths, but shed a rich golden light; it was still warm enough for people to be sitting in sweaters and shirts on park benches under the orange leaves.
Andrea lived around the corner from the bar, so I walked her home. She was weaving a little and kept bumping into me. "You better take a cab home," she said, and I said, "I'm not the one who's walking funny," which earned me a punch in the arm. When we came to her door, she turned to me, gripping her briefcase with both hands and said, "I'll see you next weekend, maybe."
"That'd be great."
She hovered there a second longer and then she kissed me. Flung her arms about my neck, clocking me with the briefcase, and gave me a one-hundred-percent all-Andrea kiss that, if I were a cartoon character, would have rolled my socks up and down and levitated my hat. She buried her face in my neck and said, "Sorry. I'm sorry." I was going to say, For what?, but she pulled away in a hurry, appearing panicked, and fled up the stairs.
I nearly hit a parked car on the drive home, not because I was drunk, but because thinking about the kiss and her reaction afterward impaired my concentration. What was she sorry about? The kiss? Flirting? The divorce? I couldn't work it out, and I couldn't work out, either, what I was feeling. Lust, certainly. Having her body pressed against mine had fully engaged my senses. But there was more. Considerably more. I decided it stood a chance of becoming a mental health issue and did my best to put it from mind.
Kiwanda was busy in the office. She had the computers networking and was going through prehistoric paper files on the floor. I asked what was up and she told me she had devised a more efficient filing system. She had never been much of an innovator, so this unnerved me, but I let it pass and asked if she'd had any problems with my boy Stanky.
"Not so you'd notice," she said tersely.
From this, I deduced that there had been a problem, but I let that pass as well and went upstairs to the apartment. Walls papered with flyers and band photographs; a grouping of newish, ultra-functional Swedish furniture—I realized I had liked the apartment better when Andrea did the decorating, this despite the fact that interior design had been one of our bones of contention. The walls, in particular, annoyed me. I was being stared at by young men with shaved heads and flowing locks in arrogant poses, stupid with tattoos, by five or six bands that had tried to stiff me, by a few hundred bad-to-indifferent memories and a dozen good ones. Maybe a dozen. I sat on a leather and chrome couch (it was a showy piece, but uncomfortable) and watched the early news. George Bush, Iraq, the price of gasoline…Fuck! Restless, I went down to the basement.
Stanky was watching Comedy Central. Mad TV. Another of his passions. He was slumped on the couch, remote in hand, and had a Coke and a cigarette working, an ice pack clamped to his cheek. I had the idea the ice pack was for my benefit, so I didn't ask about it, but knew it must be connected to Kiwanda's attitude. He barely acknowledged my presence, just sat there and pouted. I took a chair and watched with him. At last he said, "I need a rhythm guitar player."
"I'm not going to hire another musician this late in the game."
He set down the ice pack. His cheek was red, but that might have been from the ice pack itself…although I thought I detected a slight puffiness. "I seriously need him," he said.
"Don't push me on this."
"It's important, man! For this one song, anyway."
"A new one."
I waited and then said, "That's all you're going to tell me?"
"It needs a rhythm guitar."
This tubby little madman recumbent on my couch was making demands—it felt good to reject him, but he persisted.
"It's just one song, man," he said in full-on wheedle. "Please! It's a surprise."
"I don't like surprises."
"Come on! You'll like this one, I promise."
I told him I'd see what I could do, had a talk with him about Jerry, and the atmosphere lightened. He sat up straight, chortling at Mad TV, now and then saying, "Decent!," his ultimate accolade. The skits were funny and I laughed, too.
"I did my horoscope today," he said as the show went to commercial.
"Let me guess," I said. "You're a Cancer."
He didn't like that, but maintained an upbeat air. "I don't mean astrology, man. I use the Guide." He slid the TV Guide across the coffee table, pointing out an entry with a grimy finger, a black-rimmed nail. I snatched it up and read:
"King Creole: *** Based on a Harold Robbins novel. A young man (Elvis Presley) with a gang background rises from the streets to become a rock-and-roll star. Vic Morrow. 1:30."
"Decent, huh!" said Stanky. "You try it. Close your eyes and stick your finger in on a random page and see what you get. I use the movie section in back, but some people use the whole programming section."
"Other people do this? Not just you?"
I did as instructed and landed on another movie:
"A Man and a Woman: **** A widow and a widower meet on holiday and are attracted to one another, but the woman backs off because memories of her dead husband are still too strong. Jean-Louis Trintignant, Anouk Aimée. 1:40."
Half-believing, I tried to understand what the entry portended for me and Andrea.
"What did you get?" asked Stanky.
I tossed the Guide back to him and said, "It didn't work for me."
I THOUGHT ABOUT CALLING Andrea, but business got in the way—I suppose I allowed it to get in the way, due to certain anxieties relating to our divorce. There was publicity to do, Kiwanda's new filing system to master (she kept on tweaking it), recording (we laid down two tracks for Stanky's first EP), and a variety of other duties. And so the days went quickly. Stanky began going to the library after every practice, walking without a limp; he said he was doing research. He didn't have enough money to get into trouble and I had too much else on my plate to stress over it. The night before he played the Crucible, I was in the office, going over everything in my mind, wondering what I had overlooked, thinking I had accomplished an impossible amount of work that week, when the doorbell rang. I opened the door and there on the stoop was Andrea, dressed in jeans and a bulky sweater, cheeks rosy from the night air. An overnight bag rested at her feet. "Hi," she said, and gave a chipper smile, like a tired Girl Scout determined to keep pimping her cookies.
Taken aback, I said, "Hi," and ushered her in.
She went into the office and sat in the wooden chair beside my desk. I followed her in, hesitated, and took a seat in my swivel chair.
"You look…rattled," she said.
"That about covers it. Good rattled. But rattled, nonetheless."
"I am, too. Sorta." She glanced around the office, as if noticing the changes. I could hear every ticking clock, every digital hum, all the discrete noises of the house.
She drew in breath, exhaled, clasped her hands in her lap. "I thought we could try," she said quietly. "We could do a trial period or something. Some days, a week. See how that goes." She paused. "The last few times I've seen you, I've wanted to be with you. And I think you've wanted to be with me. So.…" She made a flippy gesture, as if she were trying to shade things toward the casual. "This seemed like an opportunity."
You would have thought, even given the passage of time, after all the recriminations and ugliness of divorce, some measure of negativity would have cropped up in my thoughts; but it did not and I said, "I think you're right."
"Whew!" Andrea pretended to wipe sweat from her brow and grinned.
An awkward silence; the grin flickered and died.
"Could I maybe go upstairs," she asked.
"Oh! Sure. I'm sorry." I had the urge to run up before her and rip down the crapfest on the wall, chuck all the furniture out the window, except for a mattress and candles.
"You're still rattled," she said. "Maybe we should have a drink before anything." She stretched out a hand to me. "Let's get good and drunk."
As it happened, we barely got the drinks poured before we found our groove and got busy. It was like old times, cozy and familiar, and yet it was like we were doing it for the first time, too. Every touch, every sensation, carried that odd frisson. We woke late, with the frost almost melted from the panes, golden light chuting through the high east windows, leaving the bed in a bluish shadow. We lay there, too sleepy to make love, playing a little, talking, her telling me how she had plotted her approach, me telling her how I was oblivious until that day at lunch when I noticed her loneliness, and what an idiot I had been not to see what was happening…. Trivial matters, but they stained a few brain cells, committing those moments to memory and marking them as Important, a red pin on life's map. And then we did make love, as gently as that violence can be made. Afterward, we showered and fixed breakfast. Watching her move about the kitchen in sweats and a T-shirt, I couldn't stop thinking how great this was, and I wanted to stop, to quit footnoting every second. I mentioned this as we ate and she said, "I guess that means you're happy."
"Yeah! Of course."
"Me, too." She stabbed a piece of egg with her fork, tipped her head to the side as if to get a better angle on me. "I don't know when it was I started to be able to read you so well. Not that you were that hard to read to begin with. It just seems there's nothing hidden in your face anymore."
"Maybe it's a case of heightened senses."
"No, really. At times it's like I know what you're about to say."
"You mean I don't have to speak?"
She adopted the manner of a legal professional. "Unfortunately, no. You have to speak. Otherwise, it would be difficult to catch you in a lie."
"Maybe we should test this," I said. "You ask my name, and I'll say Helmut or Torin."
She shook her head. "I'm an organic machine, not a lie detector. We have different ways. Different needs."
"Organic. So that would make you…softer than your basic machine? Possibly more compliant?"
"Very much so," she said.
"You know, I think I may be reading you pretty well myself." I leaned across the table, grabbed a sloppy kiss, and, as I sat back down, I remembered something. "Damn!" I said, and rapped my forehead with my knuckles.
"What is it?"
"I forgot to take Stanky for his haircut."
"Can't he take care of it himself?"
"Probably not. You want to go with us? You might as well meet him. Get it over with."
She popped egg into her mouth and chewed. "Do we have to do it now?"
"No, he won't even be up for a couple of hours."
"Good," she said.
The Crucible, a concrete block structure on the edge of Black William, off beyond the row houses, had once been a dress outlet store. We had put a cafeteria in the front, where we served breakfast and lunch—we did a brisk business because of the mill. Separate from the cafeteria, the back half of the building was given over to a bar with a few ratty booths, rickety chairs, and tables. We had turned a high-school artist loose on the walls and she had painted murals that resembled scenes from J. R. R. Tolkien's lost labor-union novel. An immense crucible adorned the wall behind the stage; it appeared, thanks to the artist's inept use of perspective, to be spilling a flood of molten steel down upon an army of orc-like workers.
There was a full house that night, attracted by local legends The Swimming Holes, a girl band who had migrated to Pittsburgh, achieving a degree of national renown, and I had packed the audience with Friends of Vernon whom I had enjoined to applaud and shout wildly for Stanky. A haze of smoke fogged the stage lights and milling about were fake punks, the odd goth, hippies from Garnant College in Waterford, fifteen miles away: the desperate wannabe counter-culture of the western Pennsylvania barrens. I went into the dressing rooms, gave each Swimming Hole a welcome-home hug, and checked in on Stanky. Jerry, a skinny guy with buzzcut red hair, was plunking on his bass, and Geno was playing fills on the back of a chair; Ian, the rhythm guitarist, was making a cell call in the head. Stanky was on the couch, smoking a Camel, drinking a Coke, and watching the SciFi Channel. I asked if he felt all right. He said he could use a beer. He seemed calm, supremely confident, which I would not have predicted and did not trust. But it was too late for concern and I left him to God.
I joined Andrea at the bar. She had on an old long-sleeved Ramones shirt, the same that she had worn to gigs back when my band was happening. Despite the shirt, she looked out of place in the Crucible, a swan floating on a cesspool. I ordered a beer to be carried to Stanky, a shot of tequila for myself. Andrea put her mouth to my ear and shouted over the recorded music, "Don't get drunk!" and then something else that was lost in the din. I threw down the shot and led her into the cafeteria, which was serving coffee and soda to a handful of kids, some of whom appeared to be trying to straighten out. I closed the door to the bar, cutting the volume by half.
"What were you saying?" I asked.
"I said not to get drunk, I might have use for you later." She sat at the counter, patted the stool beside her, encouraging me to sit.
"They're about to start," I said, joining her. "I've only got a minute."
"How do you think it'll go?"
"With Stanky? I'm praying it won't be a disaster."
"You know, he didn't seem so bad this afternoon. Not like you described, anyway."
"You just like him because he said you were a babe."
I took a loose cigarette from my shirt pocket, rolled it between my thumb and forefinger, and she asked if I was smoking again.
"Once in a while. Mainly I do this," I said, demonstrating my rolling technique. "Anyway…Stanky. You caught him on his best behavior."
"He seemed sad to me." She lifted a pepper shaker as she might a chess piece and set it closer to the salt. "Stunted. He has some adult mannerisms, adult information, but it's like he's still fourteen or fifteen."
"There you go," I said. "Now ask yourself how it would be, being around a twenty-six-year-old fourteen-year-old on a daily basis."
One of the kids, boys, men—there should be, I think, a specific word for someone old enough to die for his country, yet who can't grow a proper mustache and is having difficulty focusing because he recently ate some cheap acid cut with crank—one of the guys at the end of the counter, then, came trippingly toward us, wearing an army field jacket decorated with a braid of puke on the breast pocket, like a soggy service ribbon. He stopped to leer at Andrea, gave me the high sign, said something unintelligible, possibly profane, and staggered on into the club.
It had been Andrea's stance, when we were married, that episodes such as this were indicative of the sewer in which she claimed I was deliquescing, a.k.a. the music business. Though I had no grounds to argue the point, I argued nonetheless, angry because I hated the idea that she was smarter than I was—I compensated by telling myself I had more soul. There had been other, less defined reasons for anger, and the basic argument between us had gotten vicious. In this instance, however, she ignored the kid and returned to our conversation, which forced me to consider anew the question of my milieu and the degradation thereof, and to wonder if she had, by ignoring the kid, manipulated me into thinking that she had changed, whereas I had not, and it might be that the music business was to blame, that it had delimited me, warped and stunted my soul. I knew she was still the smart one.
The music cut off midsong and I heard Rudy Bowen, my friend and partner in the Crucible, on the mike, welcoming people and making announcements. On our way back into the club, Andrea stopped me at the door and said, "I love you, Vernon." She laid a finger on my lips and told me to think about it before responding, leaving me mightily perplexed.
Stanky walked out onto the stage of the Crucible in a baggy white T-shirt, baggy chinos and his trucker wallet. He would have been semi-presentable had he not also been wearing a battered top hat. Somebody hooted derisively, and that did not surprise me. The hat made him look clownish. I wanted to throw a bottle and knock it off his head. He began whispering into the mike. Another hoot, a piercing whistle. Not good. But the whisper evolved into a chant, bits of Latin, Spanish, rock-and-roll clichés, and nonsense syllables. Half-spoken, half-sung, with an incantatory vibe, scatted in a jump-blues rhythm that the band, coming in underneath the vocal, built into a sold groove, and then Stanky, hitting his mark like a ski jumper getting a lift off a big hill, began to sing:
"I heard the Holy Ghost moan…
Basically, the song consisted of those two lines repeated, but sung differently—made into a gospel plaint, a rock-and-roll howl, a smooth Motown styling, a jazzy lilt, and so on. There was a break with more lyrics, but the two lines were what mattered. The first time he sang them, in that heavy false bass, a shock ripped through the audience. People looked up, they turned toward the stage, they stopped drinking, their heads twitched, their legs did impromptu dance steps. Stanky held the word "moan" out for three bars, working it like a soul singer, then he picked up the trumpet and broke into a solo that was angry like Miles, but kept a spooky edge. When he set the trumpet down, he went to singing the lyric double time, beating the top hat against his thigh, mangling it. The crowd surged forward, everyone wanting to get next to the stage, dancing in place, this strange, shuffling dance, voodoo zombies from hell, and Stanky strapped on his guitar. I missed much of what happened next, because Andrea dragged me onto the dance floor and started making slinky moves, and I lost my distance from the event. But Stanky's guitar work sent the zombies into a convulsive fever. We bumped into a punk who was jerking like his strings were being yanked; we did a threesome with a college girl whose feet were planted, yet was shaking it like a tribal dancer in a National Geographic Special; we were corralled briefly by two millworkers who were dancing with a goth girl, watching her spasm, her breasts flipping every which way. At the end of the song, Jerry and Geno started speaking the lyric into their mikes, adding a counterpoint to Stanky's vocal, cooling things off, bringing it down to the creepy chant again; then the band dropped out of the music and Stanky went a capella for a final repetition of his two lines.
Applause erupted, and it was as idiosyncratic as the dancing had been. This one guy was baying like a hound; a blond girl bounced up and down, clapping gleefully like a six-year-old. I didn't catch much of the set, other than to note the audience's positive response, in particular to the songs "Average Joe" and "Can I Get a Waitress?" and "The Sunset Side of You"—I was working the room, gathering opinions, trying to learn if any of the industry people I'd invited had come, and it wasn't until twenty minutes after the encore that I saw Stanky at the bar, talking to a girl, surrounded by a group of drunken admirers. I heard another girl say how cute he was and that gave me pause to wonder at the terrible power of music. The hooker I had hired to guarantee my guarantee, a long-legged brunette named Carol, dish-faced but with a spectacular body, was biding her time, waiting for the crowd around Stanky to disperse. He was in competent hands. I felt relief, mental fatigue, the desire to be alone with Andrea. There was no pressing reason to stay. I said a couple of good-byes, accepted congratulations, and we drove home, Andrea and I, along the Polozny.
"He's amazing," she said. "I have to admit, you may be right about him."
"Yep," I said proudly.
"Watch yourself, Sparky. You know how you get when these things start to go south."
"What are you talking about?"
"When one of your problem children runs off the tracks, you take it hard. That's all I'm saying." Andrea rubbed my shoulder. "You may want to think about speeding things up with Stanky. Walk him a shorter distance and let someone else deal with him. It might save you some wear and tear."
We drove in silence; the river widened, slowed its race, flowing in under the concrete lees of the mill; the first row house came up on the right. I was tempted to respond as usually I did to her advice, to say it's all good, I've got it under control, but for some reason I listened that night and thought about everything that could go wrong.
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Copyright © 1998–2008 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide