The Music of Your Life: Storiesby John Rowell
Drawn from the emotional well of a young man who grew up in love with the glittery,/i>
With a voice that is both sophisticated and deeply Southern, first-time author John Rowell evokes the memory of the great Truman Capote in this wonderful collection of short stories, peopled with unforgettable, endearing characters and filled with wry insights.
Drawn from the emotional well of a young man who grew up in love with the glittery, glamorous world of music and movies and theater -- far removed from his own more prosaic life in North Carolina -- and informed with honesty and compassion, the seven short stories that comprise The Music of Your Life mark the impressive debut of a remarkably gifted writer.
Compulsively readable and always accessible, each story takes the reader into the mind and heart of its central character, whether a young boy suffering from Lawrence Welk damage and teetering precariously on the edge of puberty ("The Music of Your Life") or a not-so-young-anymore man for whom fantasy and reality have become a terrifying blur and who finds himself slipping over the edge toward total meltdown ("Wildlife of Coastal Carolina").
Nostalgia plays a part in these stories as a somewhat jaded New York film critic looks back on his life and the movies that shaped him ("Spectators in Love"), and an aging flower-shop owner ruefully assesses the love he found and lost when, as an eighteen-year-old, he embarked on a Hollywood career that never soared but did include one particularly memorable appearance on the I Love Lucy television show ("Who Loves You?").
Sex and sexual identity are also major factors in these stories, as a choir director finds one of his altos trying to play matchmaker for him with a recent divorcée ("Saviors"), and a group of forty-something men find themselves in the awkward company of a lusty bunch of twenty-somethings ("Delegates") and reflect on how surely they were never that age.
These stories, along with "The Mother-of-the-Groom and I," a wonderfully wry look at a failed New York actor who has come home for his brother's wedding and who is given the task of helping his mother find the proper dress for the event, all create entire worlds within which the characters live and struggle to find their way.
Funny, touching, serious, and tender, these are tales sure to appeal to anyone who has ever known the awkwardness of being "different," and while life is often harsh for the stories' characters, the bold determination with which they persevere offers inspiration to all. Crafted with affecting sincerity, The Music of Your Life marks the beginning of what is certain to be an extraordinary career.
Stephen McCauley In the world of John Rowell's wonderful stories, movie soundtracks and Lawrence Welk's "champagne music" play in counterpoint of some of life's more difficult passages. Rowell's compassion, humor, and love of telling stories never falter, whether he's writing about schoolyard bullies, a very gay weekend in the country, or Lucille Ball.
Mark Childress John Rowell's debut in the world of fiction is completely remarkable. While the first thing you notice about these stories is their highly polished comic tone, it's the undertow of sweet sadness that lingers after you've read them.
Susan Cheever These are wonderful stories they go right to the heart of things. Vivid in detail, and rich with feeling, each story encompasses a whole world, complete with imperfections. A remarkable and impressive debut.
Lee Smith John Rowell wears his heart on his immaculate sleeve in this impressive collection. Stylish, smart, and frequently hilarious, these stories are deeply touching as well. I can't imagine a more auspicious debut.
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Read an Excerpt
The Music of Your Life
You're ten years old. It's summertime. And you have Lawrence Welk damage.
You are, in fact, America's biggest little fan of The Lawrence Welk Show. You can't get enough of him, of him and his weekly television variety hour. Lawrence Welk: "Mister Music Maker," the leader of the band, a fussy, exacting man who sports a red or pastel blue polyester blazer that gives him the look of, say, the president of your father's Rotary Club, but that could never be, because this man is famous; Lawrence Welk belongs to America, to American living rooms, like some eccentric, musically inclined uncle from another state who suddenly appears in front of you -- "Hello, son..." -- bearing an undertaker's freeze-dried smile, lifting his baton and welcoming you to his show in a speaking voice that sounds eerily Transylvanian: "Good-a evaning, everybody, I'm-a Lawrence Welk..."
But you are eager for it, eager for him, because Lawrence Welk brings music into your home. From the television screen, Mr. Welk lifts his pencil-thin baton to conduct his big band -- "here we go, a one-a and a two-a..." -- and he might as well be conducting your heartbeat, because your little-boy heart accelerates with the thrumming of the tympani and the brassy blast of the horn section; it keeps tempo, marks time, this junior-sized metronome in your chest, and your entire body pulsates with the rhythm of the music; you can't help but be carried away by it as you listen and take it all in. You are mesmerized, you are utterly fascinated, you are Lawrence Welk's Number One Fan. Is it love? Are you in love with Lawrence Welk? Maybe; or maybe it's the show you're in love with. Yes, you're in love with The Lawrence Welk Show, if such a thing is possible. And it's not the dancing or the stars or the costumes or the sets that have stolen your heart away...
It's the music.
And because you love it too much, it has damaged you.
"Wunnerful, wunnerful," you say to no one in particular, appropriating Mr. Welk's curious accent and employing it like an actor. You whisper it under your breath to your mother as you watch her prepare dinner. As she places the Sunday-night special of Salisbury steak, green bean casserole, and mashed potatoes in front of you at the table, you say: "Ladies and gentlemen, tonight's dinner has been brought to you by Geritol -- good for what ails you."
"Just eat, please," says your mother, Connie.
Behind his sports pages, and without looking at you, your father, Ray, says: "That'll be enough of that, son."
Yes, you're damaged, but no one seems to notice. Or: they notice, they just pretend not to.
It's the Summer of Love in America, but for you it's the Summer of Discovering the American Popular Songbook, courtesy of the musical selections on the Lawrence Welk program. You've taken to joining Connie and Ray in the family room, plopping in front of the new Zenith console television set, for an hour of what Mr. Welk refers to as "champagne music." You've come to know all the regulars on the program: the dancers Bobby and Cissy, the accordion player Myron Floren (his upright, high-swinging rendition of "Flight of the Bumblebee" was a big highlight on last week's "Songs of the Great Outdoors" theme show), Joe Feeney, the Irish tenor whose signature number is "Danny Boy," and the silvery-voiced, heavily hair-sprayed soprano Norma Zimmer. (Connie: "I wonder if she uses Adorn or White Rain..." You: "'Adorn. To give you that natural look -- all day, and all night.'" Ray: "That'll be enough of that, son.")
Lawrence Welk calls Norma Zimmer the "Champagne Lady." Before the summer started, you knew nothing about champagne -- now you pretend to drink it on a daily basis. Your grandmother gave you one of her champagne glasses after she quit drinking last year -- a "flute," she called it, and then she said, "No, a magic flute," and this caused her to laugh uproariously, a smoker's hacky laugh, a laugh that seemed both happy and furious at the same time...you'd never heard anyone laugh that way before.
So you have taken to tossing back ginger ale in a magic champagne flute and then asking, or maybe even commanding, your mother to refill it, and repeating a phrase you recently picked up from a Dialing for Dollars afternoon movie: "Hit me again, baby, and don't be stingy."
And then you laugh throatily, uproariously, in your best smoker's hacky laugh.
In your Underdog shortie pajamas and striped white crew socks, you sip ginger ale on hot August Sunday nights with Connie and Ray as Mr. Welk and company serenade you, and when the program breaks for advertisements of Martini & Rossi ("on the rocks...say ye-e-es!") and Pall Mall cigarettes, you inquire of your mother, whom you have dubbed "Iced-Tea Lady," "Madam, is there any caviar in the house?"
"Can you talk like a normal person?" Ray asks, as Iced-Tea Lady serves the two of you her best version of caviar on a moment's notice: Ritz crackers topped with discreet orange dollops of pimento cheese. "How come you like all this old-people's music, anyway?"
"I don't know," you say. "It has style." You must have read that somewhere.
"Style," Ray grunts, flipping back pages.
"I think he has good taste," says Connie, hostess perfect in a pink and mauve sleeper set with matching short silk robe and mules topped with feathery puffs. Connie: tall and occasionally thin, blond enough, but blonder with a little help from Miss Clairol, not a former southern beauty-pageant beauty, like her sisters were, just always the "cute" one.
"And we know good taste comes from my side of the family," she adds, winking at you and gingerly tasting her own spur-of-the-moment Ritz cracker creation.
Ray makes a playful swipe at Connie, then grabs her and pulls her into his lap. You sit cross-legged on the floor and study them. It thrills you to see Connie and Ray like this, playful and affectionate; you imagine you're living with Rock Hudson and Doris Day from one of their romantic comedies, the ones you've seen on Dialing for Dollars. It's the final reel: obstacles surmounted, no more resistance, in love, together forever. From the TV, Mr. Welk's special guest, Miss Jo Stafford, sings: "Look at me, I'm as helpless as a kitten up a tree..."
"That's one of our songs, hon," says Ray, half-whispering in Connie's ear, pushing a few strands of her hair away with his nose.
Connie giggles and rests her head on Ray's big, round shoulder, running her fingers through his military-looking brush-cut and cupping his strong, shadowy jawline. In her moderately well-trained church choir voice, she sings along, something about left hand and right, something about hats and gloves; you don't quite follow it all...
And Ray joins in, and then so you won't feel left out, so do you, singing as high and as loud as your boy soprano will allow. What a trio: you're misty, they're misty, everyone's too much in love.
parAnd what a fabulous night. Great American standards perfume the air, Connie and Ray are in love like movie stars, and you have a front-row seat, an insider's view, an aficionado's appreciation, for all of it. Even all the recent unpleasantness about your grandparents' divorce seems to have vanished for now. This summer, you and your grandmother have spent hours together, reading her movie magazines, Photoplay, Movie Mirror, Modern Screen. You feel as though you could be photographed, right here, right now in this very setting, for Photoplay's "Movie Stars at Home" section. You imagine that you are a child star, perhaps the youngest vocalist ever to perform a standard on The Lawrence Welk Show, and you become instantly famous, you become what Photoplay calls "an overnight sensation." You are photographed in your pajamas, brandishing your champagne flute aloft, and you consent to a few photographs with Ray and Connie, though you make sure the photographer doesn't snap Connie doing the ironing or Ray reading the sports page. You grant an accompanying interview in which you say you like it here in this house, but, really, it's too small, and the three of you will soon be moving from North Carolina to Beverly Hills, California, where you will be neighbors with Lucille Ball and Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. Once ensconced in sunny southern California, you are sure to attend your neighbors' smart cocktail parties, where you will stand in the crooks of their grand and baby grand pianos and sing, and everyone will recognize you from your appearances on Lawrence Welk and even Miss Jo Stafford will ask if she can sing with you, shyly revealing that it had always been her dream to perform a duet with an Overnight Sensation.
"Hey, sport, change to the channel for Batman," Ray says, rattling the ice cubes in his tumbler, the finish of his second gin and tonic. He knows he'll get no resistance from you on this: you love Batman, too. In your hierarchy of entertainment, it is second only to Lawrence Welk.
And so: Batman...
Watching Batman is a different experience altogether: no one sings from the American Popular Songbook, no one dances in chiffon dresses and high heels. But Batman has something Lawrence Welk could never even begin to supply: men -- handsome, grown-up men who live together in the same house, men who are each other's best friends, men who look out for each other in all sorts of strange circumstances. Also: men who wear tights. Men in tights! So why do the other boys in your class love the Batman show, too? They certainly don't like Lawrence Welk. But you're aware they watch Batman -- you've overheard them talking about it in groups on the playground -- and they watch it with their dads, too. You don't usually have much in common with the other boys in your class, and, for that matter, not much in common with Ray, either. So why Batman? Why is Batman common male ground?
It doesn't matter why, because you, being you, see it differently. Ray looks bored until the action breaks out into violent fights and scuffles (POW!!!!! THWACKK!!!!!!!!! BAM!!!!!!!!), but you're hooked way before that. You're hooked in the setup, at the woozy-music entrance of the villainess, Miss Eartha Kitt as Catwoman. You have memorized her lines, even practiced them in bed late at night, when no one could hear you. With the covers pulled up over your head, gazing down at your rolled-up pillow, you whisper: "You are purrrrfect, my little Boy Wonderrrr!" But no one hears you, of course; some things you must keep secret.
Watching Batman with Ray, you maintain a blank face so he won't see how you really feel about it. It's an acting exercise, this art of making your face Go Blank at key moments, and you've mastered it. And going blank doesn't work just for Batman: it's equally useful when you're caught in the middle of an angry argument between your parents, or the time you watched your grandmother tumble suddenly to the floor after too much wine, nearly hitting her head on the coffee table. Go Blank, and no one will know whose side you're on. Go Blank, and you can be as neutral as Switzerland. Go Blank, and you won't make enemies within your own family.
But this summer, for some reason, it's not as easy as it used to be to go blank in front of Batman, especially when a villain ties the Caped Crusaders to a plank, where they struggle against each other, bound, helpless...in their tights. You keep watching, but you keep reminding yourself: Ray is here. Go Blank, Go Blank, Go Blank...
"No more music?" asks Connie, in the other room now, where she is spraying Niagara onto a shirt collar and steam-pressing whoosh! She pokes her head around the door: "Oh, I can't stand that Batman show."
"We watched all your girl shows, hon," says Ray, draining his third drink. "Gotta have something manly for us men now. Right, sport?" He doesn't wait for your response, he just shakes his tumbler in Connie's direction, which means: "Get me another one, babe?"
In tonight's opening segment, the Dynamic Duo are being lowered by a thick rope from a large ceiling pulley, which will slowly submerge them into a pool of hungry, snapping alligators. Batman and Robin are tied together, back to back; their legs, their calves, their feet kick together, their heads slide and knock against each other; if they were tied face to face, it seems to you, they could quite possibly...kiss. Batman and Robin kissing each other...the way Connie and Ray kiss? The way Rock Hudson and Doris Day, in the movies, kiss? Why would you think about such a thing? Why does your head suddenly feel light and balloony? Why does Ray have to be here? Why is Going Blank not working?
"Lawrence Welk is on the other channel," you offer quickly, turning to Ray but keeping the TV screen in the corner of your eye. Much as you want to, you're too afraid to watch it straight on. Oh, wouldn't it be great to have your own television set in your own room? Memo to Santa Claus...
Connie returns with Ray's freshened drink.
"Wouldn't you rather see Lawrence Welk, Mama?" you say. It's a rally cry; you have to change this channel.
"Well, yes, I would," she says, sitting down.
"Oh, for God's sake," Ray says. "Just change it then, and stop talking about it."
And that's your cue at last. You twist the channel dial on the Zenith back to the music. It's better this way; you'll just have to imagine the conclusion of Batman later for yourself, after you're in bed. You can do that; already, you're an expert at coming up with alternate endings.
What a relief to be back with Lawrence Welk and his orchestra! Mr. Welk is leading his musicians in the love theme from A Summer Place. You glance over at Ray -- he's starting to nod, as he usually does after a few gin and tonics; perhaps it didn't even matter that you switched channels. You're listening, Connie is listening, Ray is half listening. The three of you sitting there, doing nothing but breathing and staring at the set, listening to an old romantic movie theme. And even though there's music filling the room, no one is commenting; there's just silence between the three of you.
And you're not a fan of silence. You prefer to keep conversation going, as if at a cocktail party; if you can keep your parents talking, and talking about themselves, they won't have as much time to notice you and ask you questions. You ask the questions, you get them to reminisce about themselves and the old days. These are the skills of segue, and you possess them in abundance; you have studied at the feet of Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas. Merv and Mike have taught you how to move guests along, how to fish for information, how to prompt a certain response. Also: How to cut to a word from the sponsor. How to thank everybody for watching. How to say good night.
"Does this song remind y'all of Chapel Hill?" you ask. You're aware that Connie and Ray would never recognize that query for what it is: a prompt. They don't watch Merv and Mike as often as you do.
"It does," says Connie automatically. Connie has no idea that ten years ago she gave birth to a small variety-show host, that she has a variety-show host living in her home. "Doesn't it, Ray?"
"Sure. I guess," he says.
The music on The Lawrence Welk Show often has the effect of making Ray and Connie nostalgic for the days when they first started dating as students at the University of North Carolina, and you've learned how to encourage that. It thrills you to hear the story of how they first met at the Autumn Ball where Kay Kyser and his orchestra provided the evening's entertainment. You have listened over and over to the tale of how Ray stood nervously behind Connie in the punch line, she in a blue-green taffeta party dress with sweetheart neckline, he in a white dinner jacket and waxed crew cut. Their first dance: "When the Red Red Robin Comes Bob-Bob-Bobbin' Along," and this number was also recently featured on Lawrence Welk's "Great Outdoors" show. You know it by heart now; quite possibly, you think of it as one of your signature songs.
On rainy afternoons this summer you have opened up Ray and Connie's wedding photo album, which contains in its broad binding a tiny music box that plays "Here Comes the Bride" if you stick a penny in the slot and twist it all the way around. You've studied the photos of your aunts and grandmothers in taffeta party dresses and sparkly jewels; you're especially fond of the ones of Connie in her big white wedding gown and Ray in his tuxedo. There they are, frozen in glossy, black-and-white Olan Mills perfection: Ray and Connie kissing at the altar, hurtling down the aisle, dodging rice, feeding each other cake, the cake where the tiny bride and groom dolls stood. (They now reside on your comic-book shelf; you're convinced this lends your room a touch of glamour.) Connie and Ray are the handsomest couple ever, everyone says so, and the fact of that makes you so proud.
Other photos in the album seize your attention, too: the snapshots -- or are they portraits? -- of Ray's groomsmen and ushers, his former fraternity brothers. You've memorized the photos of the "boys" grinning drunkenly at the camera, their ties gradually becoming more and more loosened with each subsequent flipped album page, the expressions in their eyes growing glassier and glassier, as they loop their arms around each other, shag each other's hair, corral one another in jokey chokeholds. There's even a shot of one brother pouring champagne down the throat of another brother. Their raucous, prankish spirits jump off the page at you from the slick Fotomat surfaces; if only some fairy-tale genie could grant you your wish to jump into the pictures as if by magic and enter those black and white scenes, to become instantly twenty-two, instantly one of them, an accepted, popular member of a good-looking boys' club, a prized VIP guest at Ray and Connie's wedding. You would be their instant new/old buddy, and you would suddenly share their entire history of friendship and fraternal brotherhood. You know all their names already anyway, and even their nicknames, the way they're described alongside the class photos in Ray's yearbook: Kip Carruthers "Esquire," Johnny "Meet Y'all Round the Corner, Girls" Armstrong, Hutch "What's Your Handicap, Fella?" Hutchinson. You've memorized these, too. You recall them more quickly now than Ray does.
But Connie and Ray always say: "That seems like such a long time ago." Perhaps it was. Yet in the photo album, it seems like it could have been yesterday. What you love about photographs and movies is that in them nothing changes; no one gets older, the images stay frozen and preserved between the album covers. You know you can always look at a photograph and plug yourself into that moment. You understand the lure of nostalgia. One day, you may even be nostalgic for Right Now: for these intimate evenings at home with Connie and Ray, for these hot August nights of Batman and Lawrence Welk which the three of you share; you look forward to someday reminiscing with Connie and Ray about these days and nights, in the manner of old friends gathered at a reunion. By then, you'll be old enough to knock back gin and tonics with them; the three of you will toast to your good old days.
For August will soon be a memory, and September will come along to carry you back to school. Oh, how easy it is in the depths of July and August to forget about school! These nights spent with Connie and Ray have nothing to do with fourth grade, fifth grade; these nights are the anti-school. How natural it is for memories of the last school year to fade out over the summer, even for a highly academic child like you. On these humid late-summer evenings you don't dwell on the rejections and slights and hurts of the playground, the frustration of math (language arts are so much more important to you), or the rides home on the school bus when you sit alone, or maybe with one of the unpopular little girls.
Yes, you are damaged, but in the safety of your Early American family room, you are also one swinging little romantic guy, you with your upstanding, church-going, Good Neighbor parents, you in your beloved Underdog pajamas and crew socks, with your champagne flute and makeshift canapés, you with your ability to turn the family living room into the studio of your very own variety show, in which your guests for the evening are the glamorous Connie and Ray, the closest thing you have to Rock and Doris, perhaps even to Burt Bacharach and Angie Dickinson; Connie and Ray are the icons who happen to live in your home.
You can even dance. On the Zenith, Mr. Welk and his orchestra have begun to swing into a sassy, up-tempo jitterbug, and you recognize that it is time to offer your hand to Connie, to Iced-Tea Lady, which she girlishly, blushingly accepts, and the two of you jitterbug with great enthusiasm to that old favorite, "Cow Cow Boogie." Your steps aren't accurate, and there's the height discrepancy, of course, but the performance is, as always, genuine in its eagerness to please and entertain, and you are exhilarated by it. Any chance to perform. In the background, on the TV screen, you and Connie are shadowed by Bobby and Cissy, the professionals, the Fred and Ginger of the Lawrence Welk program; they're the dream dancers now, you and Connie are the real live ones.
And Ray is the audience.
Ray, your father, but also a dashing and good-looking former fraternity boy, is your audience of one, and he looks on, as audience members do. What perhaps you don't see, however, in the frenzied rush of your hard-working dance act, is that he doesn't so much look on at you and Connie -- dance partners -- but rather studies you, as if you were up there by yourself, as if you were a solo act and she was a prop. He doesn't need to study Connie, he knows Connie. But he studies you, and as he does, he sports a difficult smile, an aging fraternity-boy smile that endeavors -- really, it does -- to beam out delight and encouragement in your direction. But at the corners, the smile turns down, and that encouragement evaporates, and soon that smile, indeed his whole expression, morphs into something that is distinctly not a smile. It is a horror movie face of open-mouthed, frozen panic.
You and Connie bow, out of breath, of course, but flushed and beaming, and you look to Ray, confident that he will gratefully applaud, as audiences do, certain that he will bequeath that mysterious approval that audiences give to performers. The two of you wait, panting and watching: Is Ray a satisfied ticket buyer? Did he get his money's worth for this evening's show?
But after more beats of silence than an audience usually holds for, Ray only gives a couple of halfhearted claps and stands up, shakily, to get another drink, brushing past the two of you and turning off the television set as he makes his way to the kitchen.
"Go to bed, sport," he says, under his breath, looking away.
And that's what you get for all your hard work. Ray is not only a disgruntled audience member, he is a surly talk-show guest. He didn't even give you the chance for the sign-off, the exit line that is always reserved for the host, which is:
That's our show for this evening, folks. Good night!
You are the host, right?
But it's OK with you, really, to be packed off to your room by yourself; in some ways it's a relief. You close the door behind you and stand looking around at your dimly lit room: alone at last. You remember reading in Photoplay something Judy Garland said: "An Oscar doesn't keep you warm in bed at night." You wondered what she meant by that; you weren't aware that Oscar winners took their Oscars to bed, though you're sure if you had one, that's what you would do. Of course, you don't need an Oscar to keep you warm; you have parents for that, parents who make sure you're covered up with blankets, safe in your single bed, in your darkened, hushed, boy's room.
No need for protective blankets now, though; no need for extra heat on an August night. Under a thin summer bedspread of generic cowboy-and-Indian scenes (Connie's choice, not yours), you lie awake, and you hear the faint sound of your mother's and father's voices in the living room, the occasional clinking of ice in their glasses, and from outside your window you hear the rumblings, skids, and honks of cars passing on the road, punctuated by the occasional whoop of rowdy teenagers, possibly fraternity boys, in convertibles, no doubt, approaching in the distance, then close, then loud, then farther away, then distant, then gone.
You turn over on your side, basking in the small, flattering yellow glow of your Rocky and Bullwinkle nightlight, a pin spot. Their bug-eyed cartoon faces intertwine around each other with the same Saturday-morning grins that grace your favorite cereal's box top; you had to collect four of those box tops, in fact, to send off in the mail just to get this very nightlight. Rocky and Bullwinkle stare at you all through the wee hours. You close your eyes and try to go to sleep, but what you count instead of, say, sheep, are Ray's fraternity brothers, and your mind jumps back to the image of Batman and Robin tied up together, stretched out, straining, twisting against each other, and then the Joker -- was the Joker tonight's villain? You didn't watch long enough to find out...
Fine. Create it for yourself.
It's the Joker, standing over them, laughing, hysterical, as if he were himself a crazed, mischief-minded fraternity brother in weird costuming at the Campus Halloween Ball. And Batman, struggling against the Boy Wonder, implores the Joker to be released, begging him with his eyes but begging none too convincingly, and Batman begins to sing in a raspy, desperate baritone: "Look at me, I'm as helpless as a kitten up a tree." You toss and turn underneath the sheets, unable to sleep under the big burly cowboys and Indians. You kick the covers off. You are still dressed like Underdog, and Rocky and Bullwinkle still stare at you, unblinking and unanimated. And somewhere in the background, on a distant Hollywood soundstage, but also in your living room, a vocalist has stepped up to a microphone to thunderous applause and has begun to sing. You can't make out the words to the song, but the music is lush and dreamy, and you thrash around and listen...and think...and conjure up pictures in your head...and thrash some more, until, well...until you can actually imagine what it would be like to be a real, live Overnight Sensation.
It's September, you're a fifth grader now, and -- good news -- you got into Miss Kenan's class. She is the youngest and prettiest of the three fifth-grade teachers at Linden Hills Elementary, and, to top that off, last year a rumor went around the school that Miss Kenan had once worked as a trapeze artist with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus before turning to elementary teaching. You try to imagine Miss Kenan in white tights, busty and big-haired, with huge swipes of stagey blue eye shadow painted across her eyelids, swinging upside down over a net, dangling, then upright again, right arm high above her head: sexy, confident, and full of herself, while below her, a lusty, common crowd cheers in unanimous Big Top delight, greedy and hungry for all that she has to give them.
But now Miss Kenan is just pert and pretty in a simple white blouse and navy skirt, instructing you and your classmates to open up your tablets and, with your metallic red, tubey Number 2 pencils, write in big, blocky letters: "My name is -- -- -- -; Today is -- -- -- -; Our president is -- -- -- -; Our principal is -- -- -- -." This disappoints you; you resent the act of writing reduced to a mere exercise in penmanship. After all, this summer you authored a full-length play about your family, written in a week with ballpoint pen on yellow legal pads. You have never been one for pencils, preferring the look, smell, and feel of ink. It occurs to you that writing instruments, specifically pen versus pencil, are not something the other children in your class concern themselves with. Neither are they concerned with forging a special, secret understanding with Miss Kenan. But you are, and why not? You're a playwriting, champagne-loving ten-year-old, and she is a Teacher With A Past: loose-living, canapé-eating, martini-swilling, all woman. Miss Kenan is the type of dame -- yes, dame -- that you've read about in quick, secret perusals of True Detective down at the drugstore. You know, as the writers of True Detective would know if they laid eyes on her, what Miss Kenan really is: a shadow-dwelling refugee from the circus, a game-playing, lusty, busty babe, a juicy tomato, a hard-hearted mantrap. How many fifth graders are fortunate enough to have this for a new teacher? Miss Kenan may be outfitted conservatively in a plain blouse and skirt set, but you, and only you among the collective fifth grades, can see that that's really a disguise. You know this is not the true costume of swinging high-wire trapeze artists whose lives have been kissed by scandal...
You are so lucky. You and Miss Kenan will be a clandestine team. And if she doesn't comply with your request to be allowed to write in ink, you might even blackmail her with the secret information that you -- and you alone -- possess about her.
You develop a friendship with another boy, a new kid in your class named Eric Tuthill, who has moved to North Carolina from upstate New York. You suspect Eric would rather have been taken in by the popular, jocky boys, but they are selective and don't readily exhibit the gracious and welcoming ambassadorial skills that you extend to new schoolchildren. You figure Eric is probably glad anybody picked him to hang out with; plus you will talk to him about the state of North Carolina and reveal secrets of your town and clue him in on various shadowy intrigues of Linden Hills Elementary. He will feel, in turn, that he has been let in on something, guided, eased into his new situation by an unusually generous and giving host, and in gracious response, he will offer his loyal, lifelong friendship. What piqued your interest most specifically about Eric was his origin, upstate New York, which makes him something of an exotic in your area. It occurs to you that Eric's being from New York State perhaps means that he has had occasion to go to Manhattan, which, along with Hollywood, California, is one of your two favorite places in the world, despite the fact that you've never been to either.
"New York City is OK, I guess," Eric tells you in the lunchroom one day, over fish sticks and chocolate milk. "It's big, that's for sure."
"Did you go see Broadway shows?" you ask between bites. "Or the Rainbow Room, have you been to the Rainbow Room?"
"Nah, I never heard of the Rainbow Room," he says, which immediately disappoints you. "But we did go see a show once, for my sister's birthday."
"Uh...I don't remember. It was...something with a lot of kids in it. It was ok, I guess."
Your mind races. "The Sound of Music?" you offer. "Or Oliver!?"
"Maybe. I don't really remember. My dad used to take us to Yankee games, though. Those are really cool." This finally lights him up.
"Wow," you lie. "I wish I could have done that."
And Eric launches into a breathless description of a Yankee game he recalls in vivid detail, and you give him your undivided attention, ever the accommodating host and gracious ambassador.
. . .
The feelings you have for Miss Kenan probably amount to a crush of some sort; most days, she reminds you of movie magazine starlets, like Sandra Dee or Annette Funicello. Plus, it's obvious she likes you as much as you like her. You stay after school and help her with classroom maintenance, you dust the erasers against the sidewalk or on the sides of the Dempster Dumpster. You water the plant, you feed the turtle. And Miss Kenan seems to have intuited that you prefer indoor activities to outside ones; she probably realizes how much you dislike the playground. Late one morning, as the other boys are gearing up to play football, she asks you if you would mind staying in from recess to help her put up a new bulletin board.
"I think we'll do an orange background, with a black crepe paper border, for Halloween," she muses aloud. It's just the two of you -- alone together in the classroom -- which has suddenly become hushed and quiet now that all the other children have gone outside. It is warm too, with the heat from the radiators, turned on now because of the newly brisk fall days.
"Yes, ma'am," you say, and then you add something you heard a Hollywood guest say on The Mike Douglas Show: "I think that will look divine."
She smiles at you uncertainly; she holds her gaze for longer than a moment, then looks away again. You offer to cut out jack-o'-lanterns and back-arching, torpedo-tailed cats from orange and black construction paper. While scissoring ever so precisely, your heart begins to beat, and you start to breathe in quick breaths. Is now the time to bombard Miss Kenan with questions about her past? To finally find out all the things you've longed to know about? Her rumored days with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey? You want to ask aloud if she wore tight white leotards and smoked and drank with the other circus people in the off-hours, if she dated handsome, but possibly slippery, carny types. You want to know if she ever had her heart broken. But you're too afraid to ask anything, especially if it might mean finding out that none of it was true at all. You don't really want to hear the possible cold hard facts about Miss Kenan, about Miss Rosemary Kenan. What if she is nothing more than a nice North Carolina girl from a good middle-income home, raised Methodist, an A student in home economics, an elementary education major at Saint Mary's College in Raleigh?
You keep scissoring, pasting, taping, and watching Miss Kenan out of the corner of your eye, wondering...
But you don't speak. You decide it's better to keep pondering the rumors.
After Halloween, Miss Kenan and the music teacher, Mrs. Curtis, choose you to do a solo song in the December assembly program. You are thrilled and hope that they will ask you to perform "Misty" or "Winchester Cathedral" or "Melancholy Baby," one of the standards you've heard on the Lawrence Welk program. This is it, you decide, your big break, and on the Linden Hills Elementary cafetorium stage you will perform and the children and parents and teachers will whoop and cheer and you will become an Overnight Sensation. You are certain Miss Kenan, with her show business past, probably knows an agent or two, and will arrange for them to be there for your performance.
The song Miss Kenan and Mrs. Curtis eventually give you to sing is called "Long John," and it's a children's folk tune about a legendary, Paul Bunyan-ish explorer and hunter in the Pacific Northwest. This is a little disappointing; you can't quite imagine that "Long John" would be a selection on the Welk show, or that this would be the type of number you would be asked to do at celebrity-drenched parties in Beverly Hills or at the Rainbow Room. Still, you accept the task with gratitude, and it does genuinely excite you to think about performing a solo in front of an audience.
But already you hear some of the boys in the class start to snicker and jeer about your being selected to sing a solo -- even Eric -- and you realize, or should have realized, that it was only a matter of time before he would move on, what with his firsthand accounts of big-league baseball games and his burgeoning athletic ability. But it doesn't matter, you tell yourself; he couldn't remember the names of Broadway shows anyway.
Your grandmother, whose name is Agnes but whom everyone calls Perky, spends more time visiting your house now that she and Grandpa Joe have split up for good, but she doesn't seem sad or moody, as you expected her to be. Instead, she seems her typically happy, upbeat, good-time-gal self, living up to her nickname, bedecked, as always, in diamond rings and rhinestone bracelets, with upswept, beehivey blond-gray hair and jewel-encrusted cat-eye glasses, as though she is always on her way from the beauty parlor or the country club. Often, she is.
"Hello, dah'lin," she rasps, kissing you on the lips (something Connie will never do), and blowing big smoky puffs of her Virginia Slim, bracelets jangling and sliding up and down her arms. This fall, Perky has indulged wholeheartedly in the current fashion trend of paper dresses. She features many different styles: a big white one with a red geranium pattern, a purple short one with yellow polka dots, a hot orange above-the-knee number. Connie has said be careful when you hug Perky that you don't tear her dress or go near her with a Popsicle because paper won't hold up in the washing machine. (Ray: "Connie, if you ever start wearing paper dresses, I'm leaving out the back door. I swear. Stupidest damn thing I ever heard of.")
One evening, as you and Perky sit side by side on the love seat in the family room, she tells you: "Dah'lin, the Capitol Department Store wants me to model my paper dresses for a photo spread in the newspapah. Isn't that wuunduhfulll? At my age?"
You agree with her that it is wonderful, wunnerful, wunnerful, and you're thrilled that your classmates, and especially Miss Kenan, will see what a mod, trendsetting grandmother you have. You and Perky sit together and thumb through new issues of her movie magazines, which she has brought over just for you to see, since Ray won't allow Connie to buy them for you directly.
"Which movie star hairdo do you think I should get for myself, dah'lin?" she asks, as you flip the pages.
"Like Elizabeth Taylor," you say, fixating on a page with the headline: Liz and Dick: The Jig Is Finally Up. "Or like this," you say, pointing to a raven-haired Natalie Wood, posing coquettishly in a "Toni Girl" flip, a publicity still from one of her old movies, Sex and the Single Girl.
"Sex and the Single Girl, oh my goodness," says Perky. "Well, dah'lin, that's what I am now, a single gal."
"Hey, Mother, why don't you take him out to the yard and throw baseballs with him?" Ray bellows from his tilt-back relaxation chair. "That's what he needs."
You look down quickly, pretending not to hear him. You know he's right; you probably should be trying to get the hang of throwing and catching instead of feeding eagerly on tales of Hollywood. You pretend to be engrossed in an article about how Doris Day's last husband has squandered all her money and left her penniless. The caption reads: America's Sweetheart Turns Beggar Woman Overnight!
Perky pulls a Virginia Slim from her ruby lips with carefully manicured, orange-lacquered nails, and narrows her false-eyelashed eyes at Ray.
"Now Ray-Boy..." she says. "He's just being a good little Grandma's helpah to give me his opinions. Don't say nothin' bad about my grandbaby." Ray eyes you both and goes back to reading his own magazine, the alumni journal Tar Heel Pride, smoking his newly acquired pipe, formed in the shape of a ram's head, the mascot of the North Carolina Tar Heels. This was a recent gift from the alumni organization as a thank-you to Ray for successfully chairing a local fund-raiser. Connie has confided to you proudly that Ray is moving up, "way, way up," with the alumni group.
"Honey, tell Perky what Miss Kenan has asked you to do in the assembly program," says Connie from the kitchen, cleaning off the dinner table and noticeably troubleshooting through Ray's mood.
"I'm gonna sing a solo," you tell her proudly. "'Long John.'"
"Oh, dah'lin, that's wuunduhfulll," Perky says, blowing smoke. "When is that?"
"In two weeks. On a Friday."
"Well, you can give me a special private performance, in case I can't make it," she says. You know that Perky goes to the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings every day, trying to be very involved, though you've overheard Ray say that he suspects she still has a nip or two late at night before going to bed, and that she's just going to AA for the social aspect.
"Why don't we go in the living room and do that now?" Connie suggests. "Perky, you can play for him."
"Dah'lin, I can't read a note of music, and you know it," she says, and it's true: she can't, she plays completely "by ear," and by ear her fingers fly over the keyboard in a way that reminds you of your other favorite pianist, Miss Jo Ann Castle from the Lawrence Welk program, who always plays on abundantly decorated "theme" pianos. (Connie has nixed your ideas for doing this in her home.) Whenever you place a piece of sheet music in front of Perky at the piano, she stares at it blankly for a long time, then finally manages to plunk out a few notes. Soon enough, she stops to light up a cigarette.
"But maybe I can read enough to pound out some chords for you, dah'lin."
"Ray," says Connie, standing in the doorway and drying her hands on a dish towel. What she means is Will you please join your family in the living room and try to show some enthusiasm while you're at it?
As usual, you set the sheet music on the music holder at the piano for Perky. She adjusts the bench for height before sitting down to play, and pushes her jangly bracelets up her arm. She does, in fact, manage to pound out some prompting big chords, and you stand next to her, singing: "With his shiny blade, got it in his hand; gonna chop out the live oaks, that are in this land..."
You haven't perfected it yet, of course, but there's plenty of time for rehearsal; the assembly program is still two weeks away.
"Real good, sport," Ray says, looking bored.
"Yes, honey, you're absolutely wonderful," says Connie, visibly excited. "You're a natural. As good as anybody on TV."
You love her for that. You love her for everything. You'd run and throw your arms around her right now, but you know that would look like you were playing favorites.
"Now how about playing something else, Mother?" Ray asks. "Let's have some real music."
"Well, lemme see," Perky says, flicking the flame of her gold lighter against the tip of a Virginia Slim. "I just know my theme songs, you know." She launches into a medium-tempo drag of "Red Sails in the Sunset."
"I'll never understand how anybody can play the piano simply by ear," Connie says admiringly, bringing you over to the couch, and positioning you between herself and Ray. They are both drinking gin and tonics, which always seems glamorous and movie starish to you, but you wonder if it makes Perky feel bad to see them drinking, since she can't join in.
"I swannee it's true, it's the only way I know how," says Perky, into another chorus, her tough, shiny nails clacking on the keys, as if to add percussion. Perky, a one-woman band. Ray has told you she once held a steady gig playing cocktail piano in the Capri Lounge of the Rembrandt Motor Inn on Highway 301, "before it went to seed and she was ashamed to be seen there, as who wouldn't be?"
"'Up a Lazy River,' Perky," you say, wiggling away from Connie and Ray, and pouring ginger ale for yourself into the magic champagne flute.
"Don't you know any other songs?" Ray asks, looking agitated.
"Ray," says Connie.
"Sing with me when I play it through the second time, dah'lin," Perky barks to you from the piano bench, and of course you will. You'd obey any command that came from her noirish cigarettes-and-scotch voice. Perky pounds the keyboard hard, her head thrown back and her eyes closed, hands flying and bracelets jangling, high heels pumping the pedals below. You imagine her in her musical heyday on Highway 301: "The Capri Lounge takes great pride in presenting for your listening enjoyment, the one and only, Miss Perky!" How you wish you could have been one of her regular ringside customers, shouting song requests above the roar, and emptying change out of your piggy bank to tip her in the double old-fashioned glass on top of the piano.
"Here we go," she says, and you are ready; you know just when to come in. She has taught you, and all your instincts are musical anyway. The two of you do a bang-up rendition of "Up a Lazy River," complete with hand gestures you've created to indicate paddling, slow-moving river water, and an old mill run.
Even Ray applauds at the end, with more gusto than usual, which gives you a surprising little electric charge in your chest. The two of you meet each other's gaze, and he gives you a little nod and smiles, but then he cuts it short, as if catching himself, and you look away too, embarrassed.
"Y'all ought to go on the road, honey, you're so good," Connie says, beaming.
"Yeah, you might could reopen the Capri Lounge," Ray says, and snorts at his own joke.
"Oh, Ray," says Connie, with a sigh. "Now will you please go and see your son off to bed? I've still got a mess to clean up in the kitchen." She winks at him, and then she kisses you good night, and Perky kisses you good night, and you wonder why Ray has to see you off to bed.
It makes you feel nervous, almost embarrassed, to have Ray traipsing up the stairs behind you, neither of you saying anything. You open the door, and he follows you into your room . He rarely comes in here...what does he want?
He walks over to your closet and opens it. From a high shelf he pulls down a brown paper bag; in big letters on one side, it says Nash's Sporting Goods. Ray looks at you and makes a silly little "surprise" face. A surprise face? You don't really know how to react to that, you've never seen him make a surprise face before, so you just stare at him, with no reaction. After a second or two, he drops the surprise face and then glances away from you.
"Um...I have something for you, sport," he says.
He reaches into the bag and pulls out a brand-new baseball glove, stiff and shiny, tan-brown, the color of Sugar Babies. He holds the glove himself for a minute, looking it over and punching his fist a couple of times into the center of it; then, with a big smile, he hands it to you. You stare at it, in his hands, for a second or two, then, realizing that it's a gift and you should accept it, you do so. In your hands, it feels large and cold; the mild, aromatic scent of new cowhide leather fills your nostrils.
Ray clears his throat. "I know they've started to play softball in your grade at school this year, at recess..." he says. "Your mother told me...and...I thought...well, I thought you should have your own glove, sport. So...there it is."
"Oh..." you say, looking down at the glove, and not at him. "OK. Thank you."
"We can practice sometime, if you want to, out in the backyard."
He clears his throat again. "OK," he says.
He picks up the Nash's Sporting Goods bag from the floor, and holds it. The two of you stand there; from the light socket, Rocky and Bullwinkle stare out, watching, unblinking. You hold the glove, it's still in your hand. Should you put it on your hand?
"Oh, and there's this. I got you this, too." He reaches into the bag again and produces a small 45-rpm record in a slick-surfaced envelope with a photograph of a baseball player in mid-swing. The song title is written above the picture: "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."
"They had this there, too, so I...I know how much you like music and all."
He hands you the record, which you take in your other hand and you say again: "Thank you."
"OK, sport," he says. "Well...good night."
And you remember to give him a hug. And he lets you.
On his way out of your room, he flicks off the light and shuts the door behind him, leaving you standing alone and still in the middle of the floor. The low, muted beams of the corner streetlamp filter in through your window, forming a silvery pool of light on the floor. You stand completely still in the circle of light, in the full-moon shape of it; you stand in it as though it were a spotlight, clutching the baseball glove in one hand and "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" in the other. Your room glows with the bluish, watery light, and suddenly you feel like you're living inside an old black-and-white movie, you're like a kid character in an ancient two-reeler. But you're another kid -- a kid who carries a prized baseball glove, a kid who plays baseball with his dad, a kid who makes his dad proud of him...
And you stand there in the spotlight, holding your props, staring out the window at the streetlamp, not moving, as if waiting for your cue to begin the scene.
. . .
In November, a visiting music professor from the local college explains symphonic orchestration to the collective fourth and fifth grades in a special assembly in the Linden Hills Elementary cafetorium. You note that the man refers to himself as "Maestro" several times during his speech. He explains how instruments "come in" at a certain time during a given orchestral work; you think of Perky cueing you to sing after she's played her song one time through. The music man explains "vamping," how a certain musical phrase will repeat over and over until it is time for a more significant passage of the music to begin.
And this is how you feel: that you have been vamping for almost ten years, repeating the same phrases ("I hate math." "Can I stay up half an hour later?" "But I don't want to go to bed now..."), writing the same shopworn sentences ("My name is -- -- -- - ; Today is -- -- -- - ; Our president is -- -- -- -"), living in your dull, non-Hollywoodish town, with its one tall structure, a fifteen-floor combination bank and insurance building commonly referred to by citizens as "our skyscraper." Eagerly, you have looked up New York City in the World Book Encyclopedia, you have looked up Hollywood, you have memorized the photos and imagined yourself into them. You see yourself thriving in the middle of a bustling crowd on Fifth Avenue, well-dressed and strolling with adult chaperones; you see yourself taking bus tours of the movie stars' homes, saying to the tourists on the bus, "That was where Doris Day lived before she became penniless," things like that, juicy tidbits the official tour guides would be too ashamed to reveal. You actually begin to pepper your conversations at home and school with references to Bonwit Teller and the Chrysler Building. You pretend your school cafetorium is the Automat, or the Brown Derby. You instruct your mother and Perky to pick you up "at the corner of Sunset and Vine." The other schoolchildren treat you, when they treat you at all, like a weird, exotic animal in the zoo. Sometimes, they seem to decide that the animal you are should be made extinct.
"You're a faggot, you faggot!" hisses Bully Number One on the playground.
"I'm gonna kick your ass someday, you little pussy," growls Bully Number Two.
If other bullies are around, bullies numbered three through thirty-two, they laugh and jeer derisively, conspiratorially; they are one.
You rationalize: Perhaps they hate you because you're not only talented, but because you're a good student too. Also: good in music, expert at spelling, accomplished and meticulous with arts and crafts. The teachers constantly praise you...And these are things that make the other children bristle in your presence. You feel their mistrust, their jealousy; you can practically see the venom rising out of their little fifth-grade bodies, rising like vapor, like unleashed, unsettled spirits belonging neither to this world nor the next: swirling in the air, hissing, monstrous, looking to attack. But they can't attack you in the classroom, because you rule the classroom, you deliver the academic goods, you have every teacher -- language arts, visual arts, music, all librarians -- in the palm of your hand. You sing, you draw, you spell, you write, you are a good ambassador for new children from other places.
But then there's the playground.
And this is where they get you. Other children thrive on the playground, they know how to navigate its terrain and use it to their advantage, but to you, the playground is a cruel, barren wilderness for which you have never had a map or guide. It's a desert where no one has thought to build a Holiday Inn. This is where your precious knowledge of Doris Day, arts and crafts, and all things Californian (Californian!) carry no weight. And just by running out so far into right field that you've practically exited the schoolyard won't protect you from their vociferous evil.
But it helps.
You can even sing out there, though not too loudly, you with your stiff, new, still un-broken-in baseball glove, a glove that covers your hand so unnaturally it's as if some monstrous, extremity-enlarging cancerous growth had formed there. You wait for a bell to ring, and you daydream and sing, all your favorite songs about lazy rivers, about red red robins, about getting misty...
"You're a big music fan, aren't you?" asks Miss Kenan one afternoon, after school, as you assist her with the daily eraser dusting against the side of the Dempster Dumpster. She is dressed in beige pedal pushers and a white peasant blouse, the kind of outfit you imagine a Hollywood starlet might wear on her day off from the set. You think Miss Kenan is like Barbara Gordon on Batman: dressed by day in casual, unassuming clothes, then one spin-around of that closet and: Instant Kinky Wardrobe. You feel you know exactly what Miss Kenan's closet must be filled with at home: go-go boots, discarded trapeze artist costumes (tattered but still spangly), real human-hair wigs, lacy bras from Frederick's of Hollywood like you've seen advertised in the back of Photoplay. You imagine she has a boyfriend named Dale or Travis who lies around on the bed late at night in nothing but cutoffs, sweaty and horny, smoking a marijuana cigarette, and saying things to Miss Kenan like, "Swing upside down for me, baby. Let me see what you got."
"Yes, ma'am, I love music," you say.
"I know. You did a great job with your solo. And you like grown-up music, too, like 'Moon River,' things like that. I've heard you singing by yourself out on the playground."
You feel your face go red-hot. You never meant for anyone to hear you; when did she hear you? Did you get carried away and sing too loudly, forgetting for a moment that you were on the playground and not the Lawrence Welk program? You suddenly feel like diving into the Dempster Dumpster and never, ever coming out, a crazy, misguided child who died in the discarded remains of the lunch food from the Linden Hills Elementary cafetorium, food that went unchosen and unconsumed by other children, a perfect metaphor.
"Yes ma'am. My grandmother and...uh...my parents...and I watch the Lawrence Welk program."
"Well, I think it's wonderful," she says, and puts her hand on your shoulder, setting off instant shooting firecrackers in your chest. "I bet I know something you'd like. Have you ever listened to the Music of Your Life station on the radio? The one that plays the Saturday Night Ballroom?"
"Oh, it's great, you'd love it. It's broadcast out of New York City every Saturday night. They play all the wonderful old songs...it's so romantic..." Miss Kenan suddenly touches her hand to her cheek, averting her eyes from yours and gazing off into the distance, and instantly you know -- because you understand her -- that she's recalling a lost love, enjoying a brief reverie about a man that got away. Of course. You were right all along: Miss Kenan has been damaged by love, victimized by romance. Someone from her circus days, no doubt. A heartless ringmaster? An indifferent elephant trainer?
On a sheet of your tablet paper, she writes down the radio dial number for The Music of Your Life, and you place it between the pages of your MacMillan level-five reader, keeping it crisp, pristine. You hurry home, full of anticipation and purpose, brimming with the thrill of a new discovery, the reader in one hand, and the hopelessly uncreased baseball glove in the other.
Imagine for a moment that you're not you, that who you are is Ray. Ray: a good-looking, strong-jawed man nearing forty, with a pretty, attentive wife -- your college sweetheart no less! -- an excellent job as an insurance executive in a warm, friendly, big-enough town in the home state you love, and have always loved. You've got good friends and golfing buddies, all of whom remember you in your college days, when you reigned on campus in your flashy four-year career as an All-American baseball player, and you've just, as of this week, been named chairman of the North Carolina chapter of the UNC Alumni Association, a prestigious honor, and an opportunity for statewide social advancement so vast and far-reaching it's practically obscene. You have a lovely, well-kept home, the trim of which you must now paint Carolina Blue and white in keeping with the tradition of becoming alumni chairman.
And you have a recently divorced mother, a loving but irresponsible woman who, at last, has finally given the whisky bottle a rest, despite your suspicions that she has a lapse every now and then. And, of course, you have a child, an earnest and intelligent little boy who you know loves you, a fact you try to brush off, not dwell on, because you'd rather not be loved by a child you don't understand. Or: maybe you do understand him, and wish perhaps you didn't. Which makes you not want to deal with him at all, even though you recognize that he is what teachers and other parents have labeled as special, bright, social, a little grown-up. You grudgingly acknowledge that he possesses unique talents other children probably can't even begin to comprehend; you think perhaps he may even do something on a grand scale someday, find some degree of fame, some kind of acclaim. And you know these are things that you, as his father, should be proud of. But you usually manage to seem busy and preoccupied when he tries to talk to you, even if you're not, and you make only the most cursory, duty-bound attempts to share activities and time with him.
But then: you buy him a baseball glove which he seems completely indifferent to, so...well, you do try, don't you? You even went to the store alone to buy it, rather than asking him to go with you, because you knew -- somehow you knew -- how much he'd hate being forced to go to a sporting goods store. So you stood in the store and watched other fathers and sons there together -- and together they were picking out gloves, baseballs, footballs, everything. Alone, you bought him the best baseball glove you could buy, the one that reminded you of the one your father bought you when you were ten years old. God, how you loved that glove. How you loved him for buying it for you. And, well...well, you failed again, didn't you?
You sometimes think: How can he be mine? How can he be my child? Because your child -- yes, Ray, your child -- does and says things in a way that you despise in boys, in any male of any age; he hints at behavior you want no part of, nor want to see exhibited. He keeps you awake at night, this problem son, and you bite your lip and shut your eyes and regret bitterly that you even feel this way, because you see that other people, other relatives, strangers even, appreciate things about him that you can't/won't/don't. And you're aware that this makes you a villain, perhaps, because what you want to do is to slap the specialness out of him, get rid of this...otherness, knock it out of his little body, by force if you could, knowing still -- and this is the worst -- that he would keep loving you even if you did. You wonder: Does he know you have these thoughts? Does he sense it? Is that knowledge the thing you see reflected back at you in his little blue eyes that stare intensely at you from across the dinner table, and then dart away? Or, while watching television, when he tries to catch quick looks at you when he thinks your head is turned? What about when he says good night to you, when he tries to hug you -- God, that's always so awkward! Why does he wrap his arms around your waist like that and hold on? What does he want? A dance?
Maybe that's just your imagination, though.
But the eyes...God, the eyes. Those eyes that everyone says he got from you -- "He has your eyes, Ray," people say. "Have you ever seen a little boy look more like his daddy?"
And his eyes carry your secret, don't they, Ray?
Because what he sees is that you don't love him. And that's like a refrain from some sad old standard, a duet, maybe, playing over and over on an ancient, broken turntable that only the two of you can hear:
You don't love him.
You don't love him.
You don't love him.
And you, Ray, are haunted. You are haunted in the way someone who has gotten away with a crime is haunted, haunted like someone who fears a certain diagnosis is haunted. Daily, hourly. It chases you. It hunts you down. You are haunted. r
And so you should be...
That seems fair, doesn't it?
You, being you, have resigned yourself to the fact that on Saturday night you are the only one interested in listening to the Music of Your Life station. Oh, Connie and Ray might have listened, but today is Ray's big alumni association day, and officials from Chapel Hill have come to visit your house, to photograph Ray and Connie and even you for the newsletter (putting you in a "Carolina Baseball" sweatshirt and making you hold your glove up high, as if to catch an oncoming ball) and bestowing gifts upon your home and family. Cans of light blue paint sit in the carport; Ray looks so proud and, you must admit, handsome, in his Carolina Blue blazer with a navy pocket patch bearing the university insignia and the lettering: N. C. ALUMNI CHAIRMAN. Connie has proudly placed in the middle of the kitchen table one of the alumni association's gifts, a new lazy Susan in the shape of a large foot -- the Tar Heel symbol of the university -- in which the indentations for the toes and heel are designed to hold condiments like relish and ketchup.
Perky is out on a date (Ray: "Just hope she doesn't get knocked up." Connie: "Ray!"). So while Connie and Ray busy themselves with the alumni people, you actually get the chance to watch Batman by yourself on the small new TV in the family room, another gift of the alumni association. Nothing much has changed since the last episode: the Caped Crusaders triumph, as always, over evil, flattening the villains and knocking their henchmen out cold. THWACKKKK! POW! BAMMMMM! At the end of tonight's episode, Batman and Robin aren't tied to a plank or anything like it. They have landed the villain behind bars; they have won; they are free. Free to go. Free to go back and live together as best friends in their beautiful, well-appointed manor house.
But soon it's time for you to head into the living room and turn your attention to the stereo console. You're so excited about the Music of Your Life that you don't even mind that you'll be listening to it by yourself. You like being alone in the room of the house most often used for parties and entertaining, a formal, hushed, and quiet place now, isolated from the everyday activity of the other rooms. And you do so admire the way Connie has decorated: plush couches, deep-pile blue-and-green wool carpeting, flattering, low-level lamp lighting. You, in striped flannel pajamas, roll the red and yellow light dial on the radio console until you find what you're looking for. A man's sexy baritone voice says:
"You're tuned to the Saturday Night Ballroom and The Music of Your Life. Yesterday's standards by the great singers of today and yesterday, coming to you live from the King and Queen Room of the beautiful Hotel Astor in midtown Manhattan. Tonight's sponsor is Consolidated Edison, and the good folks over there want us to remind you that they're the ones who 'keep the lights on in the city that never sleeps.' And we do thank them for that. I'm your host, Eddie Edwards, you're in the Saturday Night Ballroom and this is...the music of your life."
You lean your small head against the console and close your eyes, and imagine the ballroom in all its splendor. Just the thought of such a place makes you happy, and not just happy, but relieved, relieved that it actually exists. That is where you want to be, in the King and Queen Room of the Hotel Astor, in the center of Manhattan, and, thanks to the lavish illustrations of the World Book Encyclopedia, volume N, you know exactly what the center of Manhattan looks like. You wish only that you were decked out in a child's-size tuxedo, instead of new flannel North Carolina Tar Heel blue-and-white-striped pajamas. You picture in your head the photographs of New York City that you've so lovingly memorized from World Book. Beside you on the floor sits one of Connie's silver serving trays on which you have placed canapés: Ritz crackers with little dots of peanut butter on top, and the magic champagne flute filled to the top with fizzy ginger ale. How you wish someone, your grandmother, perhaps Miss Kenan in a glittery evening gown, or -- yes -- Doris Day, were sitting beside you, whispering throatily: "Darling, will you pass me one of those divine hors d'oeuvres?"
The host says: "Tonight we begin with the wonderful sounds of the great Miss Peggy Lee. But first, I just have to tell you...the King and Queen Room looks particularly soignée tonight, folks. Mr. and Mrs. Astor have stopped by this evening, some of the Rockefellers, Mr. Sinatra...Just another Saturday night in New York City, and isn't that a grand place to be? And believe me when I tell you that Mr. Sinatra personally gave me special permission to play anything of his I wanted to this evening. Oh, folks, I gotta tell you...what a nice guy, and what a great artist, the one and only Frank Sinatra. A living legend, folks, a real living legend. But now here's another one of our great treasured artists, Miss Peggy Lee, singing the Rodgers and Hart classic "The Lady Is a Tramp." You're in the Saturday Night Ballroom, I'm Eddie Edwards, and this is the music of your life. Miss Peggy Lee!"
There is nothing for you to do but listen as Miss Peggy Lee, after a great, lush symphonic fanfare (no vamping) sings about some kind of stew, something about dining on turkey, something about traveling around by hitchhiking. Then she sings:
"Alas, I missed the Beaux Arts Ball,
And what is twice as sad,
I was never at a party
Where they honored Noël Ca'ad."
You open your eyes. "Noël Ca'ad" you recognize as Noël Coward, whom you recently saw being interviewed on the Mike Douglas program. He smoked from a cigarette holder, and said things like "Simply dashing!" and "Can you imagine?" and kept Mike in stitches. You were fascinated, but Ray didn't seem to care for him, so you didn't say anything. You wish you knew what the "Bo Zarts Ball" was, because you're sure it sounds like something you'd enjoy being invited to.
Peggy Lee starts to really swing her big number, and, knowing you're alone in the living room, alone in your own Saturday Night Ballroom, you get up and start to dance around the furniture, champagne glass held as high aloft as your little arm can hold it. You swipe a candle from the candelabra on the piano and pretend to smoke from a cigarette holder. Everyone around you in your Saturday Night Ballroom is simply dashing and clearly having a wonderful time. Even Connie and Ray are there, waving to you, happy, dancing, Ray looking Arrow-shirt handsome in his college white dinner jacket, and Connie resplendent in a blue-green taffeta party dress and matching high-heel peau de soie pumps. Satisfied that your guests are enjoying themselves, you wander over to the window of the King and Queen Room of the Hotel Astor and peer out on to the twinkly, glittery lights of New York that have been brought to you tonight by the good folks at Consolidated Edison, whatever that is, and from the console Peggy Lee belts out the line: "I'm all alone when I lower my lamp. That's why the lady is a tramp!" It doesn't matter that it's only Connie's gauzy, silky sheer curtains hanging in the window; in the absence of a tuxedo, the sheers turn into something even better, they make a decidedly stunning evening gown for you, as you twist your little body a couple of times so the material wraps around you and drapes, hanging, leaving your shoulders exposed, a fashionable gown, strapless and backless. You hold the curtain/evening gown in place, feeling very sophisticated, feeling like both Cinderella and the prince, and Miss Peggy Lee repeats one more time: "That's why the lady is a tramp!"
And through the clear champagne glass, brandished aloft, still wet and fizzy with ginger ale, you see the dark, backlit, silhouetted figure of your father standing in the doorway, watching you, only watching you, watching only you, and saying nothing. Just watching, his arms folded across his chest. You want to suddenly throw your champagne flute at him, and scream out that he doesn't belong in the Saturday Night Ballroom, that in his tacky UNC alumni jacket he isn't dressed for it, and who in New York café society would want a local yokel like him at their swank parties anyway?
But the two of you just stare at each other. And you say nothing. And he says nothing.
He just turns and walks away.
You drop the sheers and stand there in your pajamas. You're Cinderella and it's the stroke of midnight, and your beautiful dress is only ragged curtains again. And your champagne is only ginger ale, after all.
And from the console, the orchestra swells, the song ends, and the audience in the Saturday Night Ballroom bursts into wild applause.
Though it is deep into autumn, winter almost, in the Mid-Atlantic states it is still warm enough for children to have recess outside during the middle of the school day, so the girls go off together to play hopscotch, and the boys are sent out to the baseball field to play softball. This means, to ward off even more ostracism, you still have to carry the hateful baseball glove to school every day. You've been sitting on it while watching TV to give it the more acceptable folds and creases you've noticed in the other boys' gloves. It was the only way you could think of to break it in. ("Oh yeah," you even once heard yourself say to one of the bullies who questioned the suddenly used-looking glove, "my dad and I play every Saturday. He pitched for Carolina, you know.")
But now you're deep in the outfield, way out, where you always go. A few weeks ago, Eric Tuthill was out there with you too, but recently the other boys have caught on to his athletic prowess and he is now playing second base. They recruited him away from you; he seems happier. Sports skills are so much more important to other ten-year-old boys than the kind, welcoming ambassadorial skills you have, which only adults seem to appreciate. Besides, Eric told you recently that the other guys thought you were a sissy for singing the stupid "Long John" solo in the assembly program. You knew that already, of course; you wanted to tell Eric he was behind the times, the bearer of yesterday's news, but you said nothing. He liked you for a while, after all. Instead of responding, you merely went blank and walked away.
But none of this really matters, because you're just happy to be way out in the outfield by yourself, away from the immediate softball activity and the all-consuming, nothing-matters-but-this-game aggression with which the boys play. Quietly, and with a minimum of what would surely rate as telltale movement if they could see it up close, you pretend you're in the Saturday Night Ballroom with Eddie Edwards and assorted Rockefellers and Astors and Sinatras. You are into a second chorus of "When the Red Red Robin Comes Bob-Bob-Bobbin' Along," in fact, when something as foreign and unknown as a softball comes crashing through the roof of the King and Queen Room, landing at your feet.
"Oh my," says Noël Coward, with whom you've been hobnobbing. "What is that?" He peers quizzically down at the ground through his monocle.
"Perhaps it's time for a word from our sponsors," says Eddie Edwards, still dulcet, still soignée, but suddenly uncharacteristically nervous. And then he is gone.
You pick up the foreign object, and look about you at other schoolchildren. What are they doing in the Saturday Night Ballroom?
Three boys are running gleefully around the field, shouting, cheering, clearly winning at something, but what?
Other boys, non-cheerful ones, start to walk toward you, throwing down their gloves: angry. Immediately, you sense that you've held the ball too long, and you throw it to them, but it doesn't go far, it just kind of plunks on the ground like a thudding piano chord in the lower keys. It doesn't seem to make any difference anyway; they are close now, a mob.
"Oh, dear," says Noël Coward, and disappears.
"You stupid little pussy!" says Bully Number One, close upon you now, in your face.
"You stupid asshole!" says Bully Number Two. "What the hell do you think you're doing out here, faggot?"
And it's a silent but menacing Bully Number Three who throws the first punch, directly into your arm. THWACKK!!!!
"Can you fight back, faggot?" asks Number One, rhetorically. "Huh? Can you fight back?" And he shoves you down to the ground and kicks your leg, hard.
You struggle back up, but Number Two is there with a blow to your chest. POW!!!!!
You feel the tears heat up in your eyes, stinging, full, overflowing. You wish someone would come help: Perky, your savior Miss Kenan -- Where is she??? -- maybe Eric, but you see him hanging guiltily back, not really joining in but not doing anything to stop it, either. Or Ray. You wish Ray were here! He would push aside these bullies, Mr. All American Baseball Player of 1957, he would make hash of these uncultured, alien children, these ingrates who don't even know what standards or ballrooms are, who don't know where Manhattan is -- they can't even spell it. But they can kick, and kick hard BAMMMM!!!!!!!!, and you need Ray to save you. And he would save you, you tell yourself, he would scoop you up in his arms, and wipe away your tears and protect and hold you and love you like all fathers do their sons. He would, you know he would.
The kicks and the punches are almost rhythmic now -- perhaps the Bully Orchestra was merely vamping -- and you're down on the ground and then up, and then down again, and then up, and the kicks and punches are like rhythm, they are like percussion, a different kind of "hit parade." THWACKK! POW! BAMMM!
And this...is the music of your life.
"You gonna lose another game for us, pussy? Huh, sissy? You gonna lose another game for us?"
And somewhere, in the distance, a bell rings. A bell...does...finally...ring.
A bell. A tone. It's music!
Or C sharp?
Copyright © 2003 by John Rowell
Meet the Author
John Rowell is a native of North Carolina who now teaches and writes theater criticism. He is also currently studying writing at Bennington College in Vermont, under the tutelage of such luminaries as Jill McCorkle, Susan Cheever, and Amy Hempel. He lives in New York City.
- New York, New York
- Date of Birth:
- September 10, 1964
- Place of Birth:
- Fayetteville, North Carolina
- B.A., The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
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This is one of my favorite books. These stories represent different times throughout the lives of gay men. From the childhood realization that we are different, through later years when we realize we aren't what we once were...these stories show a warmth of humanity and subtlety for the lives of it's characters. Don't miss out..buy this book.
This is a fine book of short stories that made me laugh and cry. While it certainly reflects a gay sensibility, it is universal in its depiction of disappointment, loneliness, yearning and love. As such, it demands a wide audience. Its characters are memorable and reminded me of many people I know- including most surprisingly - me!!!!!! I really hope that Mr. Rowell continues writing. I would love to see what he does with an extended work. Read and enjoy!!!!!!!!!!!!!!