A room full of safe deposit boxes, like a mausoleum for money and documents. No windows. Odorless, except a hint of ozone. Artificial light. I imagined dad, with his claustrophobia, hurrying to get out as fast as he could.
Mom hadn't known he had a safe deposit box in this bank, and after the lawyer showed us the will and I was driving her home, she said to me, "Why did he leave it to you? What's in it?" I didn't know, so I invited her along.
"Is this the right box?" I asked. It was five feet high. I didn't know they made them that big.
The woman glanced at the card in her hand, and at the box. "This is the one."
She turned her key, and I turned mine, and we opened the door. Inside was a stack of three-ring binders, with a foot or so of empty space at the top of the locker. A white envelope with my name lay on top.
"I'll be upstairs," the woman said. "If you need anything, just call." She indicated a dial-less white phone on a long table in the middle of the room. She locked us in as she left.
There were six chairs. I took the envelope and sat at the table. Mom sat next to me.
It's strange to be writing this while I'm still alive and know that you
will be reading it when I no longer exist, but no more strange than the other
letters I'll have to write. I'm doing yours first because it
will be easiest. You were the only child who listened to me. You were the only one
who understood what I had to say. Your sisters didn't. And there are volumes
to say to your mother. Worlds. So I'm writing yours first.
I was never close to my own father, and I was afraid I wouldn't be close to you,
or that you would resent me as I did him, but we worked out okay, didn't we?
The time we spent playing music, or doing chores, or backpacking,
are among my best memories, as, I think, they are among yours.
You were a fine son, and you're a fine man.
If you haven't looked at the notebooks yet, they're my songs.
I know you've overheard me working on some of these; I've seen you outside,
eavesdropping. Do what you like with them. If you record them,
give as much of the royalties as you think fair to your mother;
I know I can trust you on this. And don't let the record companies screw you,
although they always seem to manage somehow.
You probably wonder why I never recorded these. It's because I didn't want to.
Not that releasing them, or playing them live, would have
been difficult. I mean that I didn't want to be famous.
These songs would have re-made my career. But I lost my ambition a long time ago.
Euphoria was a success, until we broke up, what felt like ten minutes after we hit it big.
My first solo album went double platinum. But the second was a disaster,
and after the disappointment at being a one-hit wonder wore off,
I got to liking the anonymity. No one showed up at my door at inconvenient
times asking for an autograph. I've always liked my privacy. And we had three
children. I didn't want to disrupt the family. I decided that I didn't need
the recognition, because what I enjoyed was the music and the writing.
I made good money as a sideman, recording and touring with other people.
It was indoor work and no heavy lifting. What did I do, to deserve such luck?
Supporting my wife and children was simple. Mine has been
a good life, a manageable life, full of interest and pleasure and
satisfaction. I've done what I wanted for a living, with time for my family.
That's all anyone should require.
So the songs are yours. If you decide to do something with them, feel
free to change them. Your abilities are greater than mine when I was your age.
That talent is a gift to use for others, not for yourself.
For the rest of it, you need no advice from me. Help your mother
and your sisters as you can, and take care of Julia. I have always loved her.
She has that transparent quality: everything affects her, and she
can't conceal how she feels. It's one of the things I love in your mother.
It's strange to be writing this while I'm still alive and know that you will be reading it when I no longer exist, but no more strange than the other letters I'll have to write. I'm doing yours first because it will be easiest. You were the only child who listened to me. You were the only one who understood what I had to say. Your sisters didn't. And there are volumes to say to your mother. Worlds. So I'm writing yours first.
I was never close to my own father, and I was afraid I wouldn't be close to you, or that you would resent me as I did him, but we worked out okay, didn't we? The time we spent playing music, or doing chores, or backpacking, are among my best memories, as, I think, they are among yours. You were a fine son, and you're a fine man.
If you haven't looked at the notebooks yet, they're my songs. I know you've overheard me working on some of these; I've seen you outside, eavesdropping. Do what you like with them. If you record them, give as much of the royalties as you think fair to your mother; I know I can trust you on this. And don't let the record companies screw you, although they always seem to manage somehow.
You probably wonder why I never recorded these. It's because I didn't want to. Not that releasing them, or playing them live, would have been difficult. I mean that I didn't want to be famous. These songs would have re-made my career. But I lost my ambition a long time ago. Euphoria was a success, until we broke up, what felt like ten minutes after we hit it big. My first solo album went double platinum. But the second was a disaster, and after the disappointment at being a one-hit wonder wore off, I got to liking the anonymity. No one showed up at my door at inconvenient times asking for an autograph. I've always liked my privacy. And we had three children. I didn't want to disrupt the family. I decided that I didn't need the recognition, because what I enjoyed was the music and the writing. I made good money as a sideman, recording and touring with other people. It was indoor work and no heavy lifting. What did I do, to deserve such luck? Supporting my wife and children was simple. Mine has been a good life, a manageable life, full of interest and pleasure and satisfaction. I've done what I wanted for a living, with time for my family. That's all anyone should require.
So the songs are yours. If you decide to do something with them, feel free to change them. Your abilities are greater than mine when I was your age. That talent is a gift to use for others, not for yourself.
For the rest of it, you need no advice from me. Help your mother and your sisters as you can, and take care of Julia. I have always loved her. She has that transparent quality: everything affects her, and she can't conceal how she feels. It's one of the things I love in your mother.
Underneath, the handwritten word "Dad".
I passed the letter to mom and she read it.
"I'd like a copy," she said. "He had that voice, didn't he? That Wyatt way of writing." She sighed. "I wish he'd gotten around to the other letters. He couldn't know how little time he had." When I didn't move she asked, "Aren't you going to look at the songs?"
"Not yet." She couldn't read music, and she would get bored while I turned the pages. I didn't want her looking over my shoulder. Besides, going through the books would be a massive job. There must have been hundreds of songs, maybe thousands. Reading them could take months.
"I'll drive you home," I said. "I'll come back later." I picked up the phone and called to be let out.
I wanted to burn the damn notebooks -- too much responsibility -- but my curiosity got to me. They were in chronological order, with the oldest on the bottom, all of them three and a half inches in size, all labeled with the month and year of the oldest and newest songs in them. The first book started in 1972. Each song was preceded by a handwritten page or two of notes: the beginning and ending dates of composition, the song's origin, suggestions on how to record it, singing style -- all sorts of things.
I set the binders on the table there in the vault, and started flipping through at random. The detail was staggering. When he wanted feedback, he wrote it out like an instrument. If he wanted two guitars, one of them in Nashville tuning, he specified it. There were directions on how live performances should differ from recordings. I didn't hear written music in my head as well as he did, but I could at least listen to the melodies that way. There was something baroque about some of them; they had a cheerful energetic headlong quality. There were a few somber ones in minor keys. And one or two in weird modes I'd have to play, to hear. Sometimes he specified unusual instruments: pairings like harmonica and bagpipes, banjo and sitar, theremin and harpsichord, hurdy-gurdy and harmonica, zither and sax. I wondered how he'd decided on the combinations, whether he could imagine the sound clearly, or whether he'd been guessing. Then I read the first binder front to back for a while. That took too long, so I switched to reading the first and last songs in each book. The writing and music were consistently well crafted. Nothing was brilliant, but most of them were good, some very good.
Then it changed. The year was 1985. The last song in the binder was better than anything he'd recorded, even better than "Weightless". I couldn't understand why he hadn't sent it around. I would have sent a song like that out to every singer and band on the planet, until I found a taker. I looked at all the others in the book, and several were just as fine. I flipped through the later binders. The next ten years were brilliant, although I could tell some of them were better on the page than they would be in the recording studio -- either the underlying ideas weren't always fully realizable, or they'd need experimenting before they sounded right. But there were dozens of extraordinary songs. Then they started to get sort of inward and eccentric; I figured that he hadn't had the reality check of playing for audiences, or even for other musicians, and he took a wrong turn about that time. I'd probably have to stick to the 80's and the first half of the 90's.
I read the music until the bank closed. Then I took the 1985 binder with me.
I was up until dawn. Some of the songs didn't work for me, and I only played them once. Others I had to play several times before I decided I didn't like them. There was a deep uncanny quality in one that disturbed me. I quit after twenty bars and turned to the next one. One song was like circus music: a lot of notes jammed together at high speed, mostly brass, sounding like background music for something exciting. I skipped it. But there was a handful of others that I knew I could do something with. This was like having the great fakebook from the sky, because no one had ever heard the songs.
I was out of music paper, so I pencilled my changes on the originals. I left the rhythms alone, because I couldn't improve on them -- mine never had the catchiness of dad's, mine were too steady. In the end, I changed some of the bridges and added instrumental breaks here and there, and tinkered with the wording, and brushed up some of the melodies. At dawn Julia touched my shoulder and I looked at the clock. I took a shower and went to work at the hardware store. It was my day to open. My eight hours were long and sleepy, and I was thankful that business was slow.
That was a Wednesday, and I had to work at the store through the weekend. I couldn't get back to the bank until the following Tuesday. I spent the nights practising, on as little sleep as I could get by on. Julia would come out of the bedroom at two a.m., blinking and saying, "Shouldn't you come to bed?" I wouldn't go. She sat on the couch one time, listening. I wanted to know what she thought. She fell asleep before I could ask, before I'd finished playing the first one.
The band had a gig Saturday night, at the old movie theater on Massachusetts. I played two songs solo. The reaction from the crowd was less than I'd hoped -- polite applause and a few whistles. I told myself they hadn't come to listen to solo keyboard.
Sunday was a practice day, and then we didn't have another date for a couple of weeks. We rehearsed four or five more times, until we'd mastered three of the songs. Verne's voice was best for them -- best in general -- but I insisted on singing.
Our next venue was a strange three-level bar in the old part of Wichita, and the reaction was a little more favorable than it had been in Lawrence, but still disappointing.
We were driving back in the van, somewhere around Matfield Green, when "Werewolves of London" came on the radio.
I turned it up. I said, " 'He's that hairy-handed gent who ran amuck in Kent. Lately he's been overheard in Mayfair'." I was sitting in front, with Don, who was driving.
"Maybe we should cover that instead of your songs," Rake said.
I hadn't told them yet that the songs were dad's. I wouldn't until we were committed to cutting a CD. "They're good songs," I said.
"They're the wrong kind of songs."
"They're better than anything else we do, including covers."
"I mean -- "
Verne spoke up. "You mean they aren't the kind of songs you play in bars."
"Yeah," Rake said. "That's it."
They were right. I'd picked songwriter's songs, the kind that would fit on an album. A bar crowd didn't want to hear those. They were partying. They didn't want to think about the words, or hear a pretty melody. They wanted thump-thump. They wanted to rock. All right, then. I chose several, and we all worked hard, separately and together, to make good party music. From the first time we played them we got requests to play them again. Bootleg tapes started circulating, a good sign. We worked up more songs.
We cut a homemade CD and started selling it at our dates, and from our website. The first batch sold out in three weeks and we cut more. College radio gave us airplay around the midwest, so we mailed the CDs to every college radio station in the country that we could find an address for. The hit count on our website jumped, and we had to pay our internet service more money, but we didn't care -- we were making plenty more than the extra cost. Fans started putting up web pages about us. We had to spend too much of our time answering e-mail and updating the page with excerpts of new songs and posting schedules of where we would be. I thought it was a waste of our time and effort, because I didn't want to be a webmaster, I wanted to be a musician, and Don and Rake and Whitey were getting too wrapped up in it, and losing practice time. I hired a kid from the University, one of our fans, to take care of it. After they realized how much time they'd been wasting, they thanked me. All but Verne and Leo, who as usual had been coasting, not doing their share.
The big record companies heard about the CD and started calling, but we turned them down. Instead we arranged distribution with an independent label, just to get the disc in the stores. I made sure they only got a fixed per centage, and no rights, and no charges for office costs and overhead and all that shit, remembering what my dad said about not letting them screw us. I was glad I did it that way, because when we hit the charts we got a lot more money than we would have from a standard deal. We arranged a national tour -- ten weeks on the road. We quit our day jobs and went.
It was a repeat of dad's life in L.A. The band started to fracture. Rake and Verne were getting big egos, and Don and I were having a hard time because one of those two was always threatening to quit. Leo and Whitey tended to withdraw when the arguments started. It was six corners in search of a shape. The royalties were a problem, because I took twenty-five per cent for me, and twenty-five for mom, and there was resentment over that, even though I pointed out that they were all making a ton more money now than before. The only thing that kept us together was that we all knew we owed our success to someone else, so we couldn't resent each other. I didn't say anything, because that would have rubbed the sore spot. Dad's songs were uncredited on the album -- no writer listed. That became sort of a mystique. We got a lot of publicity because of our refusal to talk about authorship. I was ambivalent about all this -- I'd been ambivalent from the start, jump-starting my success on dad's songs. Felt like a thief. But I wanted the success, and I wanted to honor him. I never did resolve all the feelings, but with time I got easier with them.
By the end of the first month every date was the same sea of waving arms and screaming faces, and sometimes I almost threw the keyboard at them. I wanted to be at home. I was tired of dirty laundry and long bus rides and shitty food and never being outdoors and never enough sleep. I remembered dad telling me how people sucked up -- men offering you drugs, women offering themselves. Acting like idiots. Now I understood that he'd been warning me, so I'd be ready.
I hated the radio stations for running contests so people could win backstage passes. Backstage was a party, the kind of party I've always hated, with people toadying and trying to be wild and everyone fake fake fake. I finally understood the reasons rockers turned into assholes. But I wouldn't do that. That was the road to notoriety and resentment, and worst of all, more publicity. I smiled and nodded and tuned out. I could usually find a place to take a nap, and Don would wake me when the time came to leave. At the end of the tour, in Florida, instead of taking a week to rest and hang out in Miami with the rest of them, I flew home. I had no desire to watch Rake blow his money on coke and whores, anyway. We'd had the R&R planned from the start, and they were pissed when I bailed. Their problem. The tour was over, and I was going home. I missed Julia, and rubbing her neck and shoulders, even if she did tend to complain about her boss while I worked on the knots. I missed her spaghetti and meatballs. I missed the curve of her jaw, and the mole at the corner of her mouth. I missed her nipples when they stood up like thimbles. I missed her beautiful delicate feet, and her wondering face, and her sudden, unpredictable enthusiasms, and her uncontrollable hair. I missed the way she loved her friends, and helped them, calling them when they had troubles, and sending them cards, and dashing over to their houses to offer a hankie when their boyfriends walked out. I missed her weird shaggy-dog jokes. Most of all, I missed the way she saw me. No one else ever looked at me, into me, that way.
I'd planned to surprise her, but she wasn't in the apartment, and I couldn't get her at work, or on her cell phone. I waited all afternoon and evening. She walked in the door at eleven p.m.
"You're home early," she said.
"You're home late."
"What a romantic homecoming. No flowers, no kiss. Just 'You're home late'."
"Yeah. Romantic. No flowers, no kiss. Just 'You're home early'."
She threw her purse on the couch. "We don't need to get married. We already act like we are."
"Are you confusing us with your parents again?"
"I suppose." She headed for the bedroom. "Wow I'm tired. What a day."
"Yes. I've been in the machine room the last twelve hours, working on a VPN issue."
Whatever that was. I went to the bathroom and reached up under the sink, in the crook of the pipe, and pulled out the stash. I rolled a two-paper joint and lit it and took it back to the living room. I called her and in a minute she joined me.
We had white carpet and nothing handy to put the ashes in, so we flicked them into my shoe. Neither of us had smoked in months -- we saved it for special occasions -- and she fell asleep on the floor. I snuffed the roach with wetted fingertips and lay there looking at the ceiling, so far away impossible to reach, as the moon came out and silvered the room. When Julia woke up we went to bed. She wanted to sleep. I wanted sex, and besides not having had any, I thought we needed it, to start glueing us back together.
"Now?" she asked. "So late?"
She sighed, and rolled over on top of me and I rubbed against her. I was ready in seconds. She sat partway down on me. There was a split second of resistance. She lowered herself the rest of the way. I groaned.
"That's the word I like," she said. "You say it so well. Just plain 'oh'."
"Finally," I said. "Why can't I stay here for the rest of my life? No food, or going anywhere, or doing anything. Lie here with my dick in you. It's better than heaven."
She rose and slid down.
"Slow," I said. "It's been two months. I'll pop in a minute." I put a hand on her hip. Her birth-control patch was under my palm. "I have an idea. Let's go away for a couple of weeks. A beach. You like beaches. Pick one."
"Can we afford it?" She leaned forward and kissed my chest.
"Sure. This was just the first tour. We're planning another one. For real money. We'll be playing arenas. We can put the beach on your credit card and I'll pay it off real quick."
"Gabe, honey, you can't go away for months and then come back and be romantic. I don't turn on and off like that. Give me some time."
Repeating my dad's life, I thought. Mom used to complain to dad about always being gone. "What, am I supposed to sell insurance? I want to do what makes me happy."
She stopped moving. "But you're not happy. You're happy when you play music. You're not happy on tour. You sounded depressed every time you called me."
"Not depressed. Lonely. You were here and I was there. But that's my job. I have to make money now. That was the mistake dad made."
"Make up your mind. Do you want the music, or the money?"
"Both, but you most of all."
She leaned down and looked at my face. Her eyes filled with tears, and they dropped into my eyes. I blinked, and brushed them away. She climbed off me and rolled onto her back. "I don't deserve you," she said. "You're too good to me."
"Let's finish what we started here," I said. "Climb on."
"Do we even have anything in common any more? Why do you want me?"
Because I'm as horny as buck in mating season. I said this instead: "You're going to have to get over this. It's just your mom talking in your head. All those demeaning things she said when you were a kid. All those times she hit you."
"Why do you stay with me? Why are you so patient?"
"Because I have so much invested. So do you. Think about it. We've been together since before we were teenagers... Remember the foxes? The canoes? Sharing a locker? Reading the same books and seeing the same movies and listening to the same music? That archeology dig? Sneaking around having sex, hoping mom wouldn't find out? That old Dodge van we fixed up? Camping trips? The time you thought you were pregnant? Helping Buzz build his house? Who else do I have all those things with? When I talk to you, you always understand exactly what I say. When we have sex, you're exactly -- you're a perfect fit. I don't mean physically. I mean, you're -- you. I never get tired of you. You're open to everything. You're the least fake person I've ever met."
"I'm not worthy of you," she said.
Shit. What did I have to do, to get her mom out of her head? Every once in a while Julia got on one of these jags, mostly when she felt she'd done something wrong to me. Generally it meant four days of hell, until she got over it and everything was okay again. These rough patches always smoothed over in less than a week, tops. I just wished she'd picked a better time than when I came back from being gone on tour. I wanted sex.
I wasn't sure she'd let me hold her, but she didn't resist when I pulled her against me. She clutched at my shoulders.
"I know I don't make sense. Sometimes I think I should be alone." She paused. "Then I get frightened. I'm terrified I'll drive you away. I feel bad for being so mean to you. I watch myself acting like a shrew, and I think, this isn't me, and it feels strange, like watching some other woman talking through my mouth."
I should have been listening, but all I could think about was the sex. My hard-on had subsided, and I wondered whether I could get her back in the mood.
I didn't. In the end, she said, "I'm too tired. I have to sleep," and rolled over, facing away. She settled her head in the pillow and I nestled behind her, spoon style.
We slept through the alarm in the morning and she was late to work. As soon as she was out the door I called a florist and had a dozen roses sent to her desk, eleven red and one yellow, with a note that said Forever.
The phone woke me an hour later.
"It's me," she said. "Thank you for the roses. I love them. What did I do for them?"
There it goes again, I thought. "You didn't have to do anything."
"I'm sorry, I'll be late tonight. There's too much to do. I'm eating at my desk." When I didn't answer, she said, "Really. It's an emergency. We have to estimate the Ohio software development all over again. The design changed. It has to be done by tomorrow morning."
"What time will you get here?"
"Late." She waited. "Don't worry. We'll do something this weekend. Maybe we can drive down to that little B and B in the Flint Hills. Anything you want." She waited again. "I'm sorry about last night."
"Yeah. Me too. I think things will be better when you quit that job."
"I don't have time to talk. I have to get this work done."
"We'll talk this weekend. I promise."
I went for a bicycle ride, aiming for Lawrence on old highway 10. Maybe I could even look in on mom. Maybe she'd give me a ride back, if my legs were too tired, or maybe I could stay over. I hadn't seen her since well before the tour. Besides, the old floodplain, and the forest on Fifteenth street, were calling me, and I wanted to check the rookery. The birds should have abandoned it by now; water birds usually don't keep a nesting area more than a few years, and this one had been going much longer. The foxes might or might not be gone, too.
I had to turn around before the half-way mark. I was out of shape, after being on tour, and if I kept going, I'd be immobile the next day. I called a masseuse, and she worked me in after her regular appointments. Sleep came easily and early, and I was still out when Julia came to bed. She tried to get in quietly, but I half-woke, and reached for her, nuzzling her neck. She was wearing one of her knee-length tee shirts. I recognized it by the texture. She was doing something with her hair, pulling it back with a band or clip.
"Take that off," I mumbled, tugging at her shirt.
She moved down on me and kissed my balls and the top of my penis. It started to rise.
"Take it off," I repeated.
She ignored me and took my penis in her mouth. Now I knew why she'd been tying her hair back -- she did that to keep it out of her face, whenever she gave me a blow job. She was slow and gentle, but I came so quickly I didn't completely wake up. She got out of bed and went to the bathroom. She always spit and gargled afterwards. I heard the sounds and must have fallen asleep again, because I don't remember her getting back in bed.
I woke alone. She must have got up early; she'd been out to pick up muffins, and left them on the counter, and coffee in the thermos. I dialed the phone.
"How about lunch?"
She hesitated. "Okay."
"No. I have to be available in case Dayton calls. I'll change my voice mail so they can reach me on my cell."
"Can't we eat without the phone?"
"It's just in case they have questions."
I knew what would happen. We went to Lulu's and the food wasn't on the table two minutes when the phone went off. She spent the next half hour explaining something in foreign English, every other word an acronym. She flipped the cell phone closed, and holstered it. Our meals were cold.
"You didn't have to wait," she said. She picked up her chopsticks.
"I've been home two days. I've seen you for maybe three hours, and we haven't fucked once."
"What do you call the other night?"
"What do you call last night?"
"A blow job."
"My friends say their boyfriends like those."
"I'm not their boyfriend. I'm yours."
"I was tired. You were sleepy. It was late and I needed to get up early. Next time I won't."
"It's always one extreme or the other with you."
"Cut it out." She rotated the noodles on her plate with her chopsticks. "My life doesn't start and stop when you come and go. I can't turn things on and off for you. I don't have any control over my work load." She pinched some noodles with the sticks and lifted them.
I watched. She always managed to eat noodles so none of them dangled from her mouth. "How do you do that?"
"Eat without the noodles hanging out your mouth. You have the most perfect manners. You look like a Victorian lady when you eat." She never made a blunder. She could take a chicken bone from between her teeth and look graceful.
"I could teach you."
"No. That would destroy the mystery."
"I thought I didn't have any mystery left, you had me all figured out."
I took the package of gum from my shirt pocket and unwrapped the four pieces that remained. I pushed the pieces of gum to the side, then carefully smoothed out the pieces of foil. They were still a bit wrinkly, so I fished a quarter from my pocket and used it to smooth them better. I was careful not to press too hard, so I didn't tear them.
"What are you doing?" she asked.
I shook my head. A minute later I had all the pieces of foil flattened out and folded over and woven end to end like a single long, narrow piece. I wrapped it around a finger, then took it off and narrowed the diameter a bit, and twisted the ends around and flattened them in place, hoping the whole thing would stay together. "Give me your hand," I said. She held out her right hand. "Other one. Left hand." She held it out. I fitted the foil around her ring finger. "Marry me."
She stared at her finger, mouth open.
"Okay, okay," I said. "I wasn't prepared. Say yes so I can get you a real one."
"Hey," I said. "Come on. I'm serious."
She laughed harder, and shook her head. "Too... funny... "
When she finally stopped she pressed her fingers against her cheeks and said, "Too perfect. Oh, Gabe. I love you so. You do these things, and they're so wacky, and then I remember again how charming you are."
"But what about my question? Are you saying yes?"
"No. I mean -- someday. If that's what makes you happy, I won't be afraid of marriage forever." She took out her phone and hit the speed dial.
"Not that damn phone... "
She ignored me. "Lorene?" she said. "Tell Doug I won't be back. Stomach. My lunch didn't agree with me." She winked at me. "He can handle it. He's a big boy. I'm turning off my phone. 'Bye."
I threw money on the table. We stood.
"Let's go," we said together, looked at each other,
and hooked our little fingers for a second,
the way we used to do when we said the same thing
at the same time. The foil ring touched my finger.