Short stories by the author of Men Under Water show thoughtful, conflicted protagonists pushing for balance in their personal relationships and finding hints of meaning in the acutely perceived oddities of contemporary American life. Living primarily on the fringes of academia, media and the arts, the characters are not quite comfortable with either their surroundings or the times. Lisa, a classic-rock disc jockey in small-town Vermont, plays blues songs to get over her ex-husband, an Elvis fanatic. Walter, an actor by trade, writes copy for industrial videos in Boston and discovers the miracle of birth against a backdrop of high-tech laser pranks. Karl, a moderately famous composer back in the 1950s, now labors over a piece inspired by his heart arrhythmia and grumbles as his young protegee/lover heads to New York to pursue performance art. Hoping to escape her drug-addicted son and head for Florida, Josephine buries an icon of St. Joseph in her lawn to expedite the sale of her house.
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Make Me Work
By Ralph Lombreglia
Dzanc BooksCopyright © 1994 Ralph Lombreglia
All rights reserved.
ONE-WOMAN BLUES REVIVAL
As Lisa drove to the radio station, it started raining again, a cold, prickly rain that made her windshield look like a special effect on TV—the world dissolving into something else, one luminous dot at a time. And not a moment too soon, she thought. Cut. Fade to sunny seashore scene. It had been raining now for more than a week, and this was mud season to begin with, when the snowmelt came down from the mountains. The mantle of the earth was mush. Struggling to open the hood of her quixotic car this morning, she'd stepped on her front lawn, and it sucked the boot off her foot. Water stains were etched on her ceilings, like antique maps of her craggy heart.
She left the wipers off and turned on the radio instead. Milo Puccini, who had the show before hers, was playing a new cover of "Over the Rainbow" by Brain Bandage, a group of cyberpoppers from Secaucus, New Jersey, whose music featured hostile military drumming, phase-shifted guitar fuzz, drugged boys chanting, and—you had to hand it to them—a Chicano trumpet section, which took you by surprise. But Chicano trumpets or not, it was still robot music, reveling in its own soullessness. Lisa didn't get it—kids and their trips these days. When she was in college, she'd taken a cultural-history course with a professor whose favorite phenomenon was the "sunset effect"—the tendency of things to get most garish just before they disappear—and that was how she explained pop music to herself now: a tremulous thing glowing weirdly in the dusk, like phosphorescent lichens on fallen trees.
It was Lisa's job to defy the darkness, to keep the old light shining, however thin and ghostly. She did the classic-rock show on WWHY in Hollyfield, Vermont—ten in the morning to four in the afternoon. She'd done it for seven years. She played all the great stuff on her show, with emphasis on the tunes you would have heard when the station was founded, twenty years before—back when the whole town wore Guatemalan peasant blouses and ate umeboshi plums. She didn't personally go back that far. But neither was she a newborn like Milo here, fresh out of Hollyhock College on the hill.
The sopping landscape was disappearing nicely. She shivered and turned up the heat in her old Toyota. It was a homely little stump of a car from the early nineteen-eighties. You still saw a lot of them on the road—never-say-die vehicles, which usually came in blue, orange, or white. Lisa had found one in metallic mocha. She was lucky that way. But hers was saying die. It had taken twenty minutes to get the thing going this morning, and every time she hit a puddle it almost conked out. It didn't like to be wet. Neither did she. She had an image of Mitchell, her husband, somewhere warm and dry, with some little someone, enjoying her misery. It was a thoroughly irrational thought—Mitchell wasn't aware of her misery and, as far as she knew, he wasn't seeing anybody—but at least it was more rational than her sleepless conviction at 3 a.m. that Mitchell was somehow making it rain. It was a strange thing, estrangement. And she'd left him.
When she couldn't see the painted line on the road, she chickened out and flipped the wipers to high, and something better happened than the mere reappearance of the world. The wipers were exactly in sync with "Over the Rainbow," hitting it right on the backbeat, fitting in fine with the android groove. More than fine: they were the most happening thing on the tune. And when, bit by bit, the wipers went out of phase, Lisa kept time with them and let "Over the Rainbow" deconstruct itself. Brain Bandage would have liked that, and for that reason she arrived in the station parking lot liking them more. But she couldn't account for the drive that got her there. She'd flown the whole trip on autopilot, something she'd been doing more and more these days. So far, nothing bad had happened. Maybe her shrink was right, and it really was her subconscious mind she was supposed to trust, even for the allegedly conscious things.
She should have seen the end coming when she started conducting her marriage through the dog. But it began innocently enough; even Mitchell had found it amusing at first. The dog was a black Lab named Jesse, which Lisa had bought two years ago. She'd always wanted a puppy. Mitchell had always opposed getting one. He didn't really care for living things; it was all he could do not to kick her cat. Lisa was suspicious when he finally relented, but she hoped his heart had opened to the concept of family. She didn't deny that Jesse was her surrogate son, and soon she was talking to him that way. When Mitchell came home after work, she'd say, "Look, Jesse, Daddy's home! I wonder if Daddy got those groceries the way I asked him." If Mitchell was in a good mood, he'd say, "Yes, Jesse, I got the groceries. They're in these paper bags your mommy can see perfectly well I'm carrying. And now I wonder if Mommy's planning to cook my dinner for me." They had some yuks doing the communication riff with Jesse. But then Lisa started doing it more and more, for all the stuff that was really pissing her off. "Well, Jesse," she might say, "I thought your daddy could sit and talk to me for a while, but I guess he'd prefer to catalogue his record collection some more." Or, "What do you know, Jesse? Daddy's in another one of his crummy moods." By the end, she wasn't saying anything to Mitchell except by telling it to the hound. It was confusing for Jesse, poor beast, especially when the screaming started.
Mitchell, a mercurial man, owned the record store in Hollyfield. Four months ago, Lisa had left him after eight years of marriage. He hadn't been abusive, exactly. He was just a self-centered goon whose charm of a decade before had dissolved entirely in his mania for collecting artifacts and memorabilia of the history of rock 'n' roll, in particular anything having to do with the life and career of Elvis Presley. Mitchell had come into this world as a normal Presley fan, but he'd evolved into one of those people who buy black-velvet paintings of Elvis, and bourbon bottles shaped like the King in Vegas, and don't see anything funny about it. He attended rock-nostalgia trade shows. He corresponded with other collectors. For eight years, he had pretended to be preparing himself—mentally, financially—for the child Lisa wanted to have, and then he announced that he thought a dog and a cat were sufficient.
When Lisa decided to move out, she got the notion of a cabin in the woods—just she and Jesse and the cat, away from Hollyfield and everyone who knew her and Mitchell together. She would purify herself with a winter alone and then start her life again in the spring, reborn with the bees and the daffodils. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Now, after that winter in the woods, analyzing her life, she was at the edge of the map, where it says "Here be dragons." She should have sampled some other opinions—Milo's maybe. You'd never catch Milo falling for the old bucolic fantasy. Or Brain Bandage. Brain Bandage would have stayed right there in town with the empty mill buildings and the crowded bars.
She found an early-nineteen-sixties ranch-style house for rent five miles into the country—a joyless little box that in any location but the redemptive woods of Vermont would have bummed out the Buddha. The house had a redwood deck overlooking the back yard, and that had clinched it for Lisa—standing on the deck with the realtor, looking into the evergreens. The realtor was a matronly woman named Louise, who said the woods were full of wild pink dogwoods in the spring. A yearning possessed Lisa to see songbirds land in the salmon-colored blossoms. She wanted to sit on the deck with her coffee at dawn and watch bunnies hop in her parcel of lawn. She dismissed the long, cold months she'd have to spend inside the house, which had been rented for years by two old-time hippie couples who'd left the four simple rooms in terrible shape. They'd left other things, too, including a plastic bag full of pennies on the kitchen counter, like an offering to something or someone (the Maharishi, perhaps, whose image adorned a lapel button stuck to a corkboard by the phone), and a note, pushpinned to the basement door, that read, "Peace be on this troubled place."
It crushed Lisa's spirit to step through the glass doors of WWHY's one-story bunker, but at least it wasn't raining in there. If she'd been paying attention in the past year, she'd have seen that bad architecture was enveloping her existence like the aura announcing an epileptic attack. For twenty years, the station had been housed in a funky old Victorian on the campus side of town, a former Hollyhock women's dorm that contained the whole essence of WWHY. But six months before Lisa left Mitchell, the struggling station was bought by a speculator named Otto, who also owned this concrete abomination out on Route 100. So far, he'd done nothing to his new acquisition but rip it up by its roots and drag it across town. Lisa doubted he'd ever mess with the programming. Musically, Otto was at the plaid-pants end of the dial, and some other local descendants of Lawrence Welk already had a station up there, wallpapering their assigned frequency with easy-listening goo. If Otto believed in anything, he believed in markets, and everybody knew what WWHY's market was—Hollyhock College and the bands of hippie leftovers living all through these beautiful green hills of Vermont.
Another glass door gave onto the hallway, its cinder-block walls made to resemble nougat candy by a thick coat of pastel-speckled rubberized paint. The whole building belonged under the earth—a genuine bunker, where you could stare at soft-serve concrete till you ran out of water, ate the cat food and then the cats, and finally climbed out to see what was left. We should be breathing through tubes, thought Lisa, walking down the hall. Milo was in the announcer's booth, his Eraserhead haircut partially obscured by the big white headphones adorning his ears like landing lights. Lisa made a face at him through the glass, but he didn't see. Rodney, engineering in the opposite booth, opened his mike and spoke into Milo's phones. Milo turned and saw Lisa, and began slapping his watch. I know, I know, she answered, mouthing the words. She was forty minutes late.
Rodney beamed through his dusty wire rims as she entered his booth. If you needed a techie in your life, a man with a nice wad of keys on his belt, you wanted it to be Rodney. He was the original engineer of WWHY and its chief engineer today—the only member of the staff with an actual license from the FCC. He resembled the young Thomas Edison, right down to the shoes, though he wasn't really young anymore. Nobody was, except Milo.
"How about these great sounds, Rod?" Lisa said, plopping into a chair.
"Milo's music upsets me," Rodney replied.
"Really? Some mindless dolts using a million bucks of studio time to make stupid, pointless ugliness? What's upsetting about that?"
He looked up from the clump of audio cables he was untangling. It seemed as if he'd been untangling them for a while now. "I guess it's just me," he said.
There was a sad story you always heard about Rodney, and if you hadn't heard it he would tell you himself, with the most heartbreaking earnestness. Owing to some boyhood mishap, he had a metal plate in his head. That wasn't the story. The story was that one night in the early seventies, some d.j.s at the station talked Rodney into smoking marijuana with them, something he'd never done before. The pot interacted with his plate in some unprecedented neurometallurgical way, shifting valences or unleashing ion fields in his brain, with the result that he never came back down. The fun-loving d.j.s laughed when he told them the next night. They assured him that he was imagining it. But he wasn't. He waited a few more days, then a week, and nothing changed. He never touched a reefer after that night, and he'd been stoned for two decades now.
"What are you doing here?" Lisa asked. Rodney rarely officiated over particular radio shows—twiddling the knobs and watching the meters. The transmitter itself was his sphere of operations now, out in the hills. Lisa thought of it as a furnace that Rodney stoked, heroically, all by himself.
"We got a bone in our throat around 4 a.m."
"No kidding. Did we die?"
"Got any bigger bones?"
They laughed. On the other side of the glass, Milo was wearing a pink T-shirt that said "Elvis Came From Mars" below a picture of the young Mr. Presley singing from the side of his horsy, carnal mouth. The T-shirt troubled Lisa out of all proportion to what it said. Quite possibly Elvis had come from Mars—she'd had the thought more than once herself, in connection with the King's possession of her estranged husband's soul. But this apprehension went beyond Mitchell and her marriage; she felt it coming from further down. For weeks she'd been this way, plunging into deep anxiety over the slightest things. It was partly the relentless rain. She wheeled her chair over and put her cheek on Rodney's shoulder. He smelled musty—mildewed, in fact—but so did everything these days.
Behind the glass, Milo was scowling at her while some head-banging travesty whacked away on the monitors. "Hello, Lisa," he said, his voice floating over the music like the Wizard of Oz's. "Thank you for coming to do your radio show this morning."
Lisa and Milo agreed on only one thing in life, but it was something so fundamental that it made them friends—the vileness of "mellow." She leaned into Rodney's mike. "Milo, give me a break, will you? My car wouldn't start in the rain, and then it kept conking out all the way over here. I got about two hours' sleep, because my bedroom smells like a landfill and a monster raccoon runs through my floor all night. My dog wakes up and howls at 3 a.m., my cat starts yowling, and my shrink is now pushing survivors' groups and light meds."
"What kind of light meds?" asked Milo.
"Survivors of what?" Rodney asked.
"Marriage and downers," Lisa replied.
Milo stared at her, gnomelike beneath the big phones, while his ravagers of beauty finished their song. Then he opened his mike to the world. "All right, everybody," he announced, "our very own flower child, Miss Lisa, is finally here to do her show. Please be nice to her today. Her car won't run in the rain, so she parked it at the dump and lives in it now with her dog and her cat and her raccoon. They take bad medicine and never go to sleep. If her husband is listening, she's not coming back. It's a sad story. But the old girl can still rock 'n' roll, so let's segue into those classic moldies with the new one from Lizard Euphoria, a little thing they call 'Want Slash Need.'" Then Milo spun the tune, if tune it could be called, and pried the headphones off his head.
Which somehow caused Lisa to figure it out. It wasn't really about Elvis at all. The picture of the King on Milo's shirt was taken in 1957—the year her father threw her bottle in the sea. She'd been thinking about it in the shower this very morning. It happened on a Jersey-shore vacation with her folks when she was three years old. She was playing beside her parents' beach blanket, dropping her bottle in the sand and then crying because it had sand on it. Her mother cleaned it off for her four or five times, and then the next time she dropped it the old man leaped up and flung it into the waves. That was how Lisa was weaned. Thirty-five years later, a T-shirt was making her feel bad about this. So it was true: she was hysterical. All the stray garbage-signals of the world had found their satellite dish, and its name was Lisa. Her father was dead now, meaning he was truly alive. Alive forever. Leaving her husband had brought him back; she thought about him every day.
Milo poked his head into engineering. "I'm playing the long mix of this," he said. "Seven minutes."
"Milo," said Lisa, "promise me something or I'm gonna worry. Don't go in Mitchell's store wearing that shirt, O.K.? He's weird about Elvis."
"Mitchell weird?" Milo said. He looked down to see what shirt he was wearing. "Lisa, I drive all the way to Brattleboro to buy music, just so I won't have to set foot in Mitchell's store, ever, for any reason. No matter what I'm wearing."
Lisa shot him with a gun-shaped hand that meant "Good thinking."
"I don't shop at Mitchell's store, either," said Rodney. "He yelled at me once, and all I was doing was looking through the bins."
"Yeah, but how many hours had you been looking?" Milo asked.
"I don't keep track of things like that, Milo."
Lisa wheeled her chair back to look at Rodney. He was really a very sweet man, she thought, far sweeter than most. But he'd shaved himself badly the day before, leaving a patch of brown-gray stubble under one nostril, and several more on his neck. No, Rodney was not the answer. She stood and kissed his cheek. "You're not the answer, either," she told Milo.
"What's the question?"
"What is Lisa doing for the rest of her life?" she said, and gave herself to the fluorescent hallway, the shining linoleum path to the coffee machine.
"She's doing the classic-rock show on WWHY!"
Excerpted from Make Me Work by Ralph Lombreglia. Copyright © 1994 Ralph Lombreglia. Excerpted by permission of Dzanc Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsOne-Woman Blues Revival,
Late Early Man,
A Half Hour with God's Heroes,
Can You Dance to It?,
Piltdown Man, Later Proved to Be a Hoax,
This Is a Natural Product of the Earth,
Every Good Boy Deserves Favor,
Make Me Work,