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Dance the Eagle to Sleep
By Marge Piercy
PM Press Copyright © 2012 Middlemarsh, Inc
All rights reserved.
Shawn's Reality Trip
At age eighteen, Shawn was officially loved by sixty thousand four hundred and eleven girls registered in his fan clubs. His parents found this bizarre and in questionable taste, along with the change in spelling of his name from Sean. If they had been less permissive, they would have stopped the whole episode. Shawn was the second generation born out of the Church, and his name was a sop to the quarter Irish in him. His father was a partner in a prestigious Philadelphia law firm. His mother owned buildings, had studied psychology and been analyzed by Jung, and was still beautiful in a gaunt silvery way. For a rock singer, Shawn was enormously protected and counseled and underexploited.
All three members of The Coming Thing — Frodo and Shep and Shawn — went to the same prep school, where they roomed together and kept up their grades to acceptable levels. When they had to miss exams, they made them up as a group. Their concerts were scheduled inside the rhythms of the school year, and they recorded intensively over vacations. Of course they had their share of bad scenes — oversold concerts in dingy halls with mushy acoustics and twitchy lightshows, and now and then a producer would try to chisel them out of their take. But on the whole, they were exploited as a careful investment, not as a quick-turnover commodity.
Falmouth was ossified in comparison to the primary school they'd all gone to as kids. That was a school almost without walls, a beautiful place with human teachers, and they had played mathematics and music and rattled on in French and German together since they were fat sloppy toddlers.
I am not an ice cube or a stone,
I am not an ice cube or a stone.
Honey, even teddy bears don't like to sleep alone.
At Falmouth, they were popular but aloof. Frodo called it the Pimple Farm. The lead guitar, Frodo was small and squat and mean-looking and by far the most talented musically. He saw the world as a series of references to earlier rock and rhythm and blues. He was rough with the groupies sometimes, and perhaps Shep and Shawn could only remain in contact with him because they had had that common childhood. Shep was slender and fair with long fine brown hair, as much dandy in his dress as he could get away with at any given time, the only one who ever took an interest in their finances.
At Falmouth, the other boys had hang-ups. Shawn was at ease with his creativity, at ease with his brain, at ease with his body. His first sex had happened with Melanie Clinton, whose father made airplanes. She was a year older but in the same language group: they had no formal grades. They got undressed under the sprinkler in the garden of the Clintons' summer home on the Jersey shore. Melanie was as blond as he was, and they had both just begun to have pubic hair, golden under the sun as tiny wires from jewelry making. She had no breasts, and they were both coffee-tan and fishbelly-white.
"It's so cunning," Melanie said. "I wish I had one like it." They both laughed, because they understood she was saying something the school psychologist would seize on. They tried to perform what they understood of the sex act. The water made her slippery, and there really seemed to be no extra room. Still, it was pleasant and exciting as he lay on her cool slippery body with the droplets from the sprinkler and the sun on his back, warm and cool, warm and cool.
He finally accomplished it with her later that summer on the shore. In the twilight, their bodies were pale and warmer than the air, though the sand was still warm under them. He tried kissing her but he was awkward. It seemed silly, faking it, as if they were pretending to be adults. It was better to play with each other. He stretched her with his fingers, and finally he got his prick to slide in. They moved around and worked out the ways that felt good. He kept at it till she got sore.
He was too young to go out with her, and anyhow they were both very busy. A liberal school didn't mean an easy one. But they were both in band, and sometimes after rehearsals they would hang around and screw on their nested coats. Melanie did not like the word fuck. She said it had negative connotations. He thought fuck but said screw to please her. He was playing drums then, and she played clarinet. Sometimes when they were rehearsing, he would get a hard-on looking at her and hoping. In the middle of the spring her periods started, and then she was afraid to, so that ended that.
Nights spent alone you're better dead,
Nights spent alone you're better dead,
I need you, gal, to hold down the dark half of my bed.
My back gets cold, I might come down with flu,
My front gets cold, I might come down with flu,
Don't want no electric blanket, all I want in bed is you!
He didn't like going to a boys' school, but his father had gone to Falmouth, etc., and Shawn had a girl in town. He heard the boys talking all the time in the house about how to make girls, and the talk choked him. A girl will let you know, she knows what she wants, he would have said, but they didn't ask him. They were shy of him about sex.
The school said he was undermotivated, meaning mostly Bs. They blamed it on his success. He always had money, but it flowed in mysteriously and invisibly and went away to make more of its own. Specialists bred his money like trainers taking care of a racing stable. When he was seventeen, he insisted on buying a blue Porsche he sometimes drove fast. Otherwise, the money was a process negotiated among his lawyer and agent and the record company and impresarios of tours and the corporate package that was the group and the trust funds that silently siphoned it off.
The truth was that in classes, just enough juice flowed to light a few circuits; but when he was working with the group, every switch turned on. All the adults he knew outside the music business might imply and coerce and assume that English history and physics were real and rock was frivolous, but he knew what engaged him all the way through and what just tiddled along in the front of his brain and caused his tongue to repeat empty phrases. Besides, his future yawned like an immediate pit, like the future of everyone else his age. The Nineteenth Year of Service was coming. Since Congress had legislated it into being two years before, it had sat there like a tollbooth across his way. He knew that for him those eighteen regimented months would not be dangerous, of course, but they would be a drag.
Two things were real. Two things gave off energy: one was making the music, working it on out together; finally recording, though that was something else and already into another specialist's scene, who could mix you into his kind of salesroom baroque. The other real thing was connecting with an audience — promise and delivery into that hot maw. Yet all draggled off into bad smells. For instance, at first they'd read their publicity: what they came to call Yetch Comix, or Three Clean Boys to Cream Over. They couldn't take it. They were weak, and it was strong — the godawful commerce of manipulating acne-fears and wet dreams. They pretended it didn't exist. They pretended that their concerts were conspiracies between them and kids almost like them. But the serious promo fizz was poisonous too, twaddle about the sonic revolution and the great significance con. They tried to keep each other sane. They tried to remember for each other who they were. The groupies were sometimes human, and at times it all seemed nothing but a clever way to get laid a lot. Then they went back to school and crept under the damp covers of Falmouth.
Well, girl, you put me down
cause you don't know who I am.
Behind these glasses and this nose
Look out! Stand back! Hold on! It's captain wham!
I'm the shocking electric man.
Just let me at your socket.
Baby, I got the juice to turn you on.
Then it came, the Nineteenth Year of Servitude, shit on wheels. Right at the beginning of the White Knight's first term, his task force on youth problems had come up with The Plan, presented as a great victory for the peace groups and the public-spirited and the draft protesters. Most guys still ended up in the Army, and a great many went into the street patrols and the city militia. But a number were channeled into overseas aid and pacification corps, the rebuilding programs in the bombed-out ghettoes, and the pollution cleanup corps. Girls who weren't pushed into the nursing corps worked in the preschool socialization programs in the ghettoes or as teachers' aides or low-level programmers for the array of teaching machines. Of course, students in medicine, engineering, and the sciences just kept trotting through school.
School records, grades, and counselors determined some of the channeling, but the prime tools were the mass exams everyone took, separating out levels of skill and verbal intelligence, and locating potential troublemakers. Anthropologists praised the Nineteenth Year of Service for providing a rite of passage, and sure enough, everybody could tell the nineteen-year-olds from their younger brothers and sisters, because they all had their hair cut and wore uniforms. There was an absolute gap between kids and adults, a before and an after that could never meet. The sexes were segregated and sharply differentiated in function. The elders had no more trouble telling the boys from the girls and keeping them from joining their small differences. Sex officially ended at eighteen. For two years now, the Nineteenth Year had bottled up the so-called Youth Revolution. Now it was bottling up him.
Of course they weren't going to ship him off to Guatemala to stand guard over the embassy and United Fruit. The Coming Thing were assigned to the Youth Services Bureau in Philadelphia, which meant they played for teenage functions at schools, settlement houses, or in the park, and got sent to other cities for similar use. They played at the big assemblies where spokesmen (called pigeons by the kids) from the different forces made pitches. He had to put in an appearance at the bureau five days a week. He was supposed to punch in and punch out for a nine-to-five day plus performances extra — they were big on discipline — but the office manager was a good scene, and after a while she took care of that.
Mrs. Kapp was twenty-six. She'd been married and divorced, and running an office full of privileged kids made her nervous. Mostly, they treated her like a warden or a piece of nasty equipment. She wasn't pretty — she had a small, pug -nosed face, and she wore glasses too big for it — but she had good solid bouncy breasts and her hips curved out like a cello. He saw right away that she was shy of him and expecting to be ignored or put down. He sprawled in the visitor's chair, while she gave him those quick looks and went on stabbing at the blotter with a letter opener. "A woman my age trying to manage this circus," she said about five times until he gave her his slow grin.
He picked her out to spend time with because she gave off unhappy vibrations but not hard ones. Most of the kids were on jackhammer ego trips of their own. The only other human in the place was a black girl from a trio, The Sharmonts. She was their lead singer, a little girl with a big sexy voice. She cried a lot, and she was bitter and mean as a fist. Her whole family had been wiped out when the Army shelled Bedford-Stuyvesant during the bloody summer of the last year of the King of Clubs, when the president had announced his policy of "limited disciplinary retaliation" for uprisings. She hated whites and she let him know it.
Mrs. Kapp, he found by looking in the file, was Denise. He began calling her that when they were alone. He stopped by her office when he was bored and asked her questions and made her talk till she opened up like a daisy. He wasn't out for anything, except maybe to keep himself as comfortable as he could, to ease the bite of discipline on him. And he had to stay human. So he made her talk. First about the office and then about herself and her bad marriage and her crappy family and her loneliness. He liked to watch her come slowly to life. She showed him pictures of her kid, Stevie. Did it shyly. She had to be asked everything twice, because she didn't believe anybody could be interested. They had really got to her and begun to grind.
Shawn was bored for the first time in his life for most of every day. He felt cut off from the kids they played for. It had been their thing, and they did it because it felt good. Turning people on. Now their group was part of the pacification program — caught themselves. They even had to have their programs approved beforehand. So they stayed cool and detached.
Frodo said that it was no different, that they had always been selling something, or what did they think was the name of the game anyhow? Frodo affected a sudden severe cynicism. The only thing that bugged him, he said, was that they were being taken. They could be making piles, and instead they were being used to sell somebody else's product. Yes, they were used. Rock meant liberation. It meant opening up your head to those sounds. It meant blowing their minds. It meant rebellion, freedom, sex. Now they were selling Today's Swinging Army. The coming thing for these kids was being channeled into servicing the empire and then back to school for training and then into a niche. It meant co-optation, manipulation: it meant the rest of your life doing Their Thing. It meant, if you don't fit we'll snip off the pieces that stick out, baby, and then you'd fit just fine.
So there they were, they played the music, and the kids screamed in sort of the same old way and shouted for their old songs. But it felt meaner. It felt like the kids knew they were being conned and were even more determined to rip off a piece of flesh. The Coming Thing were organ-grinder's monkeys, but the organ-grinder was the state, and they were showing the other little monkeys how groovy it could be to work for the organ-grinder, too. They all felt the pressure, the deadness, and they shrank from each other.
Her eyes were hazel, sometimes brownish, sometimes greenish. He would sit on the desk while they talked. Shyly she would touch his arm, retreat. Nothing more. It was taking forever, he thought, then listened to himself and realized he had decided to go to bed with her. Why? Why not? Because she wanted to and never would. Because he wanted to take off her clothes. She would look better that way. It seemed like something nice.
So one afternoon he slid off the desk, picked her up out of her swivel chair and kissed her, taking off the owl's glasses. She went soft and woozy in his arms and then grabbed him hard. Let go all at once. Stared at him with her mouth slightly open. He reached for her again. "Not here." she said.
She gave him her address and instructions. She had to draw a map for him. She was flustered and clumsy. She would not look at him and then she would stare hard, her glasses back on, trying to read his face. Are you fooling? Are you teasing me? What do you want? Aw, come on, Denise. He felt gentle and sure with her. His big soft goose.
He was a ridiculously long time driving around and around before he could park his Porsche. Dingy narrow noisy streets. A little three-room walk-up flat over a drugstore. He could hear kitchen noises from the next apartment. There was a lad, a real live lad — Stevie, aged five. They sat at a metal table in a corner of the kitchen and ate hamburgers and instant potatoes and overcooked frozen beans and store-bought layer cake. Denise was embarrassed and tried to make Stevie mind his manners at the table.
Afterward, she gave Stevie a bath in a tub full of sailboats and submarines and a red and blue Noah's ark that floated. Stevie slept in the box-sized bedroom. When she had put Stevie to bed, she came back and turned on the television. They sat on the couch staring at it. Funny how he could hear people stirring all over the building. He put his arm around her, and she began to tremble and look suffocated. He pulled her onto his lap. At once she began to kiss him back passionately and all her soft full flesh to move against him and quiver.
Excerpted from Dance the Eagle to Sleep by Marge Piercy. Copyright © 2012 Middlemarsh, Inc. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
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