by Peg Alford Pursell
My own words woke me up the way it sometimes happens. Manny sat on the edge of the bed, shaving crème stripped away in swaths on his left cheek, razor still in hand. The water still trickled into the sink basin and the fluorescent light glowed miserably over the mirror. I turned away toward the windows. Between the crack in the motel’s heavy drapes the day was bright sunny.
“Active night,” Manny said. The mattress jounced when he stood and returned to shaving. “It sounded like your dad had a harem or something.”
I wasn’t sure I understood what he said, his words were garbled from the way he stretched the skin over his face to hold it taut. I rolled back over, and his eyes in the mirror contacted mine before flicking back to his own face, watching the razor move close to his mouth. Damp hair clung to his nape, a towel wrapped around his beautiful torso. He adjusted the water, rinsed the razor, and finished.
“Do you remember your dream?” He sat on the bed again, all clean soapy smell. I shook my head. Manny looked off, repeated musingly, “My father and his slim beautiful brunettes.” His hands roamed his knees, fingers absentmindedly tracing the kneecaps, his eyes taking on that look of concentration fixed somewhere distant, ephemeral.
“You get the idea of a ring of nymphets frolicking on top a round hill,” he said. “There’s moonlight, deliciously licking their bodies white against a midnight-blue backdrop.” His hands massaged the flesh above the kneecaps—his knees always gave him trouble, were stiff and sore, and it worried him, went against his image. “Picture mermaids, swimmy seductive scallops, long hair languidly flowing.”
“Sirens singing,” I said.
Female country singers, guitar straps looped over pale, shapely shoulders, blossoms of pink mouths crooning into microphones tucked into elegant, lissome fingers—my father in a trance helpless before their images on the TV screen, the volume blaring their songs.
Manny licked his forefinger and took it to my eyebrow, straightening the wildness that my thick brows woke up with. “You don’t see my mother in her wedding dress, fists of anxiety, nesting, hidden among the white-netted folds,” I said.
“No.” He shook his head in agreement, working on the other eyebrow.
Did or didn’t my mother know that sirens drew men to their destruction?
Manny and I sat quiet and still for a bit, thoughts following thoughts. He gave me a tentative, small smile. I’d always been defenseless before that smile. On stage when I hit certain notes he’d catch my eye, turn that smile on me, while he played some kind of razzledazzle on his guitar.
I returned the smile. We spent some last motel time together in one another’s arms before I prodded him into going out and loading the band equipment on the truck with the other guys.
“It is going to get hot pretty soon,” he agreed. In the hush of the room after, I felt drowsy, my bones heavy on the mattress. My eyes wouldn’t stay open. Images from the biography series I’d watched all week at 7 pm while Manny was out calling his wife swam in my mind’s eye, the female country singers swathed in fluid, sequined gowns that cinched their waists. Slim hips undulating like mermaids might during those last strained moments on land before they had to go, their watery home calling them back. Beauties with that whining pain in their voices, seemingly as natural as silvery bubbles trailing in the mermaids’ wakes. Watching the footage, I’d seen how it could have seemed to my father that they sang those notes just for him, how that feeling grew to overwhelm him. For it didn’t seem possible that there could be anyone else anywhere more full of yearning, longing, and needing than he.
My father was my James Dean before I knew who James Dean was and why to desire him. He carried his Lucky Strikes in his white T-shirt sleeves rolled up over his bicep, just like you would imagine, his thick hair dark as the night we sliced through. Eight years old, I hung on behind on his motorcycle, making my eager arms around his solid middle unconcerned, not too clingy. Once after we’d gotten home and he parked, when I scrambled down from the seat, sneakers crunching into the gravel driveway, he turned around, surprised, and said that he’d forgotten I was there. We took curves and corners fast, the bike dipping sideways dangerously close to the road.
My hair was dark like his but Mother clipped it short, my bangs like the fringe of an eyelash. I was light; Mother, in the kitchen washing up supper dishes while we rode, weighed close to two hundred pounds. My father didn’t like being weighted down. He liked speed in the night and its freedom enough to pay. Me the fee, stuck like a postage stamp on the envelope delivering him.
My father liked my high school girlfriend Cathy Miller. Though often I was grounded—I was hopeless, wild, bad, defiant—with Cathy by my side, spending the night, I could do anything, go anywhere. She took ballet lessons, played the piano, smiled a lot. She looked like Loretta Lynn. Cathy didn’t like the things I did, most of which she didn’t know about. I don’t know whether she liked me all that much. But I stuck to her, my alibi. Instead of spending the night at Cathy’s, I was in the boys’ dorm of the nearby college with Professor Miller’s students—her father taught history—singing at the raucous parties while Cathy was home in bed, tired after a ballet practice or study for a civics test.
When Cathy came to my house, my father, trying for a hobby that would keep him home, made fudge. He used marshmallows and nuts, his special ingredients. He gave Cathy the wooden spoon to lick clean after he poured the fudge into the pan. He liked to watch her lick the spoon and liked how she said, skimming her long, brunette hair back over her perfect shoulders, “Mmm.”
Once Cathy’s mother, a busy businesswoman, picked Cathy up from my house to go shopping. “Come along,” she said. Briskly, no-nonsense, she led us into Ausdale’s where she bought two summer dress suits, and then in the junior’s department a bikini for Cathy. The crocheted bathing suit was orange and yellow. In the dressing room, Cathy looked sensational in the bikini: slim, long-legged, arms all sinewy, sculpted grace.
She made me try it on. I supposed she needed to fulfill some sense of equanimity between us. After some coaxing I did, to please her; I stood looking in the full-length mirror, feeling her looking, hearing the surprise and admiration in her voice. “It looks better on you! Perfect, you’re perfect!” I knew, at that moment, that were my father to see, he would think it a lie somehow. Illusion. And I knew that there would never be another moment I would see myself as a slender, beautiful brown-haired girl and hear you’re perfect!
“Not my style,” I told her. Today, Cathy Miller is probably still slender and shapely, preparing perhaps to become the mother of daughters with long dark hair, all career and schools, clubs and activities, a cozy breakfast nook, a husband who admires her from across the room at social gatherings. Her years since high school haven’t been a rollercoaster, a series of apartments in one city or another with planters of compacted arid soil and desiccated poinsettias, stage clothing left in suitcases.
My father and his beautiful, slim brunettes.
Charlotte was married to his boss’s son. At the boss’ insistence that his son learn the ropes from the bottom up, Benny was to apprentice under my father to learn the business that he would take over. But Benny did not learn how to measure, cut, hammer, install kitchen cabinetry. He was not at my father’s side. In the office, he talked on the telephone to Charlotte, who’d been popular and happy in high school just weeks before. A classic high school romance turned sour by pregnancy. Charlotte finished her senior year privately tutored mornings at home. She took lunch to Benny in the shop, and soon her bags included home-baked goodies for my father, too.
My mother said nothing about this when my father reported what Charlotte had brought to the shop that day. Later on, my parents socialized with Charlotte and Benny, after the couple’s second child and third on the way, going to their house to play cards, taking with them snacks, peanuts and potato chips that they bickered about, the chips in all the different varieties, flavors, brands, textures good for long squabbles. I kept out of the way, stayed up in my bedroom until after they’d gone, and emerged downstairs into a silence echoing with its own intoxicating fullness. Those were some good nights; the pleasure of sprawling on the living room floor alone reading, undisturbed. Not needing to go anywhere. Of course it didn’t last. The card parties ended and a siege of fights filled the household, Charlotte reverberating from the instruments of their mouths.
Charlotte and Benny went out, and I babysat. Daniel and Rachel were good little kids. They watched TV and ate ice cream, brushed their teeth—I had to help Rachel, who wasn’t yet two—and went to bed without complaint. Daniel was fair and blonde, pale and thin, so quiet he seemed not of this world. Asleep in his bed, he didn’t seem to even use any air. I positioned my face close to his to make sure he breathed. Rachel had large interested brown eyes and dark brown hair, hair like mine, unsmooth and wild. She was beautiful, she would always be. Once I brought with me a photo of myself as a tot and held the picture next to Rachel’s face. She blinked her eyes like she was winking at me and reached for the photo. When I gave it over, she pressed it to her mouth. I watched her fall asleep in her crib. She didn’t try to chat, didn’t appeal to my presence: she sang to herself, her baby voice clear, the photo close to her mouth. When I knew she was sleeping, I untangled the snapshot from her fingers and worked it under her mattress.
My hair was not becoming my parents said, Mother sometimes pulling it for emphasis when she let me know just how bad it looked. They didn’t know what they were talking about: I’d seen pictures of Janis Joplin, and, though no one said she was pretty, she had presence, and no one could deny her that voice. Out of the house I junked myself up like Janis, working feathers and beads into my hair. I stacked rings on my fingers, bangles circled up my arms, chains roped my hips and glittered around my neck and down my front; I wore anklets with tiny jangling bells. Boys admired me, bell-bottoms riding low, singing at their parties, letting my voice sound their yearnings, the way that Janis would have done it.
At home, I sang in our cavernous bathroom, the acoustics making me shiver, and one day my brother, who had his own problems, bounded up the stairs to hit me, thinking I was playing his album he’d forbidden me to touch. After Mark checked his stereo in his room and realized that it was not Janis who’d been singing but me, he nonetheless burst into the bathroom, where I smirked, admiring my smirk in the mirror—ironic and knowing and sophisticated—and “Groovy, man,” I whispered-growled like I’d heard Janis say, followed with her raspy laugh on the Dick Cavett Show. I laughed, and he punched my arm. He was just ill tempered because my father had his car again. My father drove his beautiful brunette in Mark’s red Mustang because he liked speed in the night and it was past motorcycle season—and no doubt he felt that what was his son’s was his.
Mark was through with it, he said, done with cleaning my father’s pecker tracks from the backseat. Sickening phrase, “pecker tracks.” I could have vomited. Mark smiled. “Come on, let’s walk uptown,” he said. I preferred going uptown by myself; Mark was critical of every boy. No one measured up to him. But when my father had his car, Mark was cheated on nights with girls, and I felt sorry for him—the one thing he liked besides his car was girls—well, that and his hair. Mark’s smooth, glossy dark hair rained down his back, hair for which my father called him a girl, had once held him down, trying to cold-conk him so that he could shear him. I went uptown with Mark, deprived of his girls.
Mark always wanted to talk about our father and his brunette. Mark described her, the things my father did with her in the backseat of the Mustang parked on the edge of town by the lake. “We ought to go there, surprise them in the fogged-over windows,” he said. Anger crammed into Mark’s voice jagged its edges, a voice hard to hear. He drew fiercely on cigarettes, chain-smoking his way uptown, the red tips quick furious dots in the dark. Those were my cigarettes he sucked down, but it wasn’t worth speaking of.
We reached the park where boys gathered around the bronze statue, a memorial in tribute to the veterans of World War I. Maybe it was World War II, but the important thing was that the immense cast soldiers were good for hiding behind. You held yourself tight and compact behind their impervious forms, or squeezed beside them, in front of them—any direction opposite of the slow-stalking police cruiser that circled the park.
While I smoked with the boys, I assessed their behavior, what they said, how they looked when they said what they said, evaluating and deciding on the one I’d pick. Rarely were other girls there, except maybe Lucy, Denny’s girlfriend. When Lucy was there with Denny, they were both off-limits. Mark and some of the other guys would get stoned, talking about where to go get girls, about getting up the balls to steal somebody’s parent’s car—whose? How?
I don’t know how, once they left, they got girls. Maybe other towns, dances, skating rinks. Mark slept in late the following mornings and appeared in the kitchen at a late hour, smiling and happy.
Me and my boy hung around the statue making out, or went back to his house if his parents weren’t home, or were the kind that stayed in their chairs in front of the TV when we went downstairs into the den or upstairs to the attic, or into the boy’s bedroom, if it was that kind of house. Rich assholes, Mark called the boys from that kind of house.
So what? That was best. Comfort, no concrete, a bed, no cold; you could remove clothes; there were blankets. Music. The stereo’s luminous green dial in the dark. A black light was nice.
Fair or not, I went first for boys coming from a house like that. I mean, any boy could eventually get that we lived in nowheresville, but these boys already knew a world was out there. It was pictured on the album covers scattered in their rooms. They had the evidence of a world where there was Janis. A world where girls longed like her, and went where they wanted to go themselves.
Then Mark’s beautiful slim brunette girl was pregnant. My father kicked him out for a while, long enough for Mark to drop out of school and start working at the cannery. When hubbub died down the girl that was Mark’s wife came to live in our house, too, and my father found that even with her swollen abdomen she was a beauty, smiled a hell of lot like June Carter Cash, and they got along pretty well.
Cheryl went into my bedroom, stole my underpants, ruined them stretching the elastic over her stomach; she read my boys’ notes and lied about it. I tried to feel sympathetic: the best thing that had ever happened to her was Mark—I felt sorry for her for what was going to be her life.
But it grew to to be too much. Cheryl carrying cups of coffee, chocolate-chip cookies arranged in a circle around the cup on the saucer to my father where he reclined in his chair watching TV. Him smiling at her. Him out of the blue telling me that my hips were beginning to roll when I walked and I’d better watch myself or I’d wind up looking like my mother.
Seventeen is not too young to be on your own. If you have something, like a voice. And luck.
My favorite gigs were weeklong bookings at hotels. Less time on the road in the beast of a truck I spent too much time in, tired and bored, physically aching, my lumbar complaining from the hard seats. Setting up and tearing down was reduced to only once in a week. Minimal sound checks each night were all that we needed. I woke up in the same bed with no rush to get anywhere. I took baths, ate regularly.
Manny fretted about these hotel house-band gigs, about the lack of exposure, which we needed in order to make it. He perched on the bed, plucking at his guitar and fussing. I always wished he’d shut up though I knew that he was right. So the temporary contentment of the house-band jobs was tainted with guilt. It had taken years to get this far, to enjoy this level of comfort, and that was mostly to Manny’s credit, to his drive. He deserved loyalty.
Ironic that we were at a Ramada Inn in Buffalo when the label asked to sign us.
It wasn’t immediately clear who they were, two bland guys with thinning hair and the builds of middle-aged men that said that they believed playing golf once a week kept them in decent shape. Dressed in khakis and loafers, they ordered expensive drinks. If there was any betrayal of their identities it was in the intensity of their watching us play. But then there were always those kinds of guys—they often stood right at the lip of the stage—mourning lost chances that they’d convinced themselves had included being rock stars. The two agents stared like that.
We were playing our hearts out, different from the way we usually treated a Tuesday night, which was more like practice, oblivious to the scattering of happenstance listeners, a handful of drinkers at the bar, maybe a person or two at a table, drinking, no one dancing.
It was a good contract; in our room, Manny read it over briefly. He’d studied all this, knew everything there was to know, we’d never needed a manager, he was that good at the business side, though we’d all agreed when we reached this point we’d hire someone to take over this part of the work load. We were at that point. We all sat, edgy, containing our excitement while he went through the pages, nodding, a huge grin spreading over his face as he flipped over the last page. “It’s all here,” he said. “All really really fucking good.”
The agents waited for us in the bar, and we returned with the mocked-up contract, where Manny pronounced we’d be signing, and a time was set on Friday morning when we’d bring our lawyer—Manny had had him lined up for some time now, the best of the best, he said—and meet with the execs and their lawyers at label headquarters in NYC. It was going to happen. Manny’s eyes were bloodshot, stratified with excitement and pride, and like the other guys’ too, lit with disbelief everyone pretended wasn’t that.
Hotel staff brought trays of drinks, shots, and beers, and a spectacle of food: omelets, specialty sausages, mangos, kiwis, other nameless exotic fruits, sad caviar. Bottles of champagne popped. We were used to eating after shows that ran to the wee early hours, after all the expenditure of energy on stage, and the added labor of tearing down and loading up of equipment on single date gigs, but this was a feast like we’d never had. A huge slab of roasted pig with glazed pineapple rings appeared, a disgusting sight, really, but the guys dug in.
One of the agents snapped pictures and the hotel management, anxiously laughing, posed as they served us. I could imagine the stories that were mentally forming— conjured pieces already glimmered in their eyes—for telling at home that night. Characters more important than they’d been in reality, though perhaps they’d believe their own hype. They, too, had produced cameras, and flashes were constantly popping. Manny and I were careful not to locate ourselves near one another. We’d always been prudent; we’d seen no reason to complicate our lives, especially Manny’s. He did love Sheila, and I knew her only a very little but enough to understand why.
The agent with the camera was swarthy dark, soft, his hair thinning at the temples. He tried to catch my eye over the course of the night, and drank down a fair number of shots of J.D. Ours wasn’t a drinking band, not really. But we’d have eight weeks off before going into the studio and the champagne went down easy. Yeah, Manny would drive us to practice, practice, practice, but we’d be home. Girlfriends, Manny’s wife, family, friends day in, day out—the guys were high on that. I could find myself a new apartment, sunny and spacious where the quiet sparkled and seemed like a choice, where the stillness wasn’t dank, evidence of deeper poverty.
Manny returned to the room, out of breath. They’d loaded the truck in record time. He hurried through the room throwing his things into his bag though he tried not to look as if he was in a hurry, and he urged me to get packed. “Come on, darling, let’s get on the road.” He must have gone into the bathroom six times, swinging the door wide open and checking the back to make sure nothing had been left hanging on the hook. When he swept open the shower curtains, I said, “You know, you can always buy new shampoo. You can afford it now.”
Manny collapsed onto the bed beside me. His sweat reeked whiskey. He wrapped himself around me, his shoes heavy on top the covers, one thunked painfully onto my ankle. I shifted us around until we were the most comfortable I was going to be, and I squeezed him. Manny deserved it, this feeling that he was on top, everything peaking. He’d worked hard, fretted, herded, pushed, championed. Sometimes, exasperated, the guys called him “Dad.”
I felt in his body how he was really zinging, barely able to be present, so ready for going. I gave him some more solid squeezes. “Oh, honey,” he said, getting it then, that I wasn’t going to ride back with them in the truck.
I held him hard. My mouth registered his neck’s salty sting. His long fingers combed through my hair, taking the time while I felt his whole body wanting to be gone, to be elsewhere. The effort it took for him to remain. “She’s going to be really proud, Manny, really proud and excited, you have to get going, go tell her.”
He pulled back and lifted his head at my words, and he gave me his shy-happy grin, one I knew well. The bashful radiant one that he couldn’t hold back when pleasure was about to be his, when things were going his way.
I could have told him right then and there that it was over, and some part of me wanted to, the part that obsessively held the image of my dark empty room up in my mind’s eye. But I was proud that I was a female who shunned drama. Who didn’t need to be the center of attention in anyone’s life. I got all the attention I needed up there on the stage. So I’d believed.
A shadow crossed Manny’s face as if he knew my thoughts. We’d always been able to read each other—the basis for songs we’d written together. Let it go, that voice inside me urged.
“Be careful on the road,” I said.
The cue he’d been waiting for, Manny stood, and retied a shoe, and made sure I had enough money, taking bills out of his wallet. After Friday, after NYC, this would never happen again, I thought, a complex surge of emotion rattling me.
The door shut loud, and I clamped the pillow over my head. Images of Manny and Sheila post-coital bombarded me, they’d be dreaming their new house, their new baby that Sheila had been patiently waiting for. The images flooded in, and something else. The pillow became soaked, my face wet with tears.
I slept maybe twenty hours or more. Arose in a new day, the past already behind me. I put my things together quickly, leaving a lot of stuff. I figured I’d then be forced to celebrate the luxury of being able to buy new things.
The car rental place offered coffee, and I poured a large cup to go. I was hungry, but I would have to stop somewhere. Within a few miles I pulled into a gas station with a convenience store, where I cruised the aisles looking for something palatable. Nothing really, but I grabbed a package of animal crackers and refilled my coffee. I decided to top off the gas while I was there, and then felt idiotic when, returning to the register to pay, the cashier raised his eyebrows and said “A dollar-seventeen.”
Traffic was light on the highway, and I refused to play music. I needed the drive to stretch, to feel like the pilgrimage it was.
But it wasn’t a hundred miles before I arrived, and I hadn’t even finished drinking the refill. My father answered the door. His musculature was softened with age, and he wore silver-rimmed glasses.
Silence first, like I knew there’d be. No astonishment in him, and I realized then that earlier when I’d been imagining his surprise, I’d forgotten how he was. I experienced a tiny breathless charge of shock at the grasp of how long it’d been.
While he studied me standing in the doorway, I comprehended that he was, after all, surprised somewhere inside himself—that was why it was taking him so long to ask me inside.
Then I saw the truth of how it was: he didn’t have to ask me in; he might not. His hand wormed around in his shirt pocket, digging into the cigarette pack there and searching the slight space for a light.
I tried to think of something to say, an ending, so that I could head out of there, go home, with ease. When he spoke he startled me, and I hated that I jumped visibly at his voice.
“I expect you think that I’ll comment on your hair”— it was just growing back in, peach fuzz, bleached white—“you probably thought that I’d say something about it, but I won’t.”
He opened the door for me and turned in the direction of the den.
I slipped into the kitchen. My mother, round-shouldered, turned from where she stood at the sink rinsing a cup. Her eyes went over me, shocked at my boney frame, my ninety-something pounds. I’d forgotten everything about me until then, when my parents made it visible in their faces. She turned the faucet off so hard that the pipes underneath the sink clunked. “Welcome back,” she said, her voice sheltering bitterness. I don’t think she looked at me again.
I followed her to the den. She walked slowly now. My dad sat in his recliner, eyes averted, and Mark’s face clenched at the sight of me. He’d cry except that he was too angry. I’d gotten away. “Long time no see,” he said. He returned his attention to his son, maybe seven or eight—I wasn’t good with pegging kids’ ages—who sat not at all comfortably in his father’s lap, holding an old storybook. I gathered that the kid had been charged with reading aloud. My entrance had given him a reprieve, but now the pressure was back on.
The TV volume hid some of his soft mewing protests.
Mark threatened the boy with a father voice he’d learned, so the kid began in a small voice. His lonely sound quivered; you wondered what he heard of himself.
But there wasn’t time for that because Mark said, and Mother said, “I can’t hear you!”
“We can’t,” Mother repeated.
The little boy sucked in his breath and started over.
Mark interrupted. “Your aunt can’t hear you.”
Not once did my father lower the volume on the TV.
The boy again collected himself. His fingers worried the hem of his jeans, his face ashen.
I took that small pause. I told the kid that I’d heard him loud and clear, and then, I told him to tell the truth, I didn’t want to hear the story. “Everyone knows the story.”
His solemn blinking like Rachel’s. Me zipping up my jacket. Everyone in the den like just another audience who happened to be in a place where I also happened to be. The remote on the arm of my father’s chair like some venerable icon, his power ring. Some superhero. I felt nutty laughter cracking up inside me. I took his little plastic box of sad control from him. Shaking, I was shaking with wanting so much to say some one right thing, the exact words. I wanted words that would ring so true that they’d be undeniable for everyone.
My mother would be forced to admit Oh, how foolish we’ve been! Everyone would begin talking at once, confessing that they’d always known something wasn’t quite right, and everything would end in agreement, that they—we—could leave it all in the past.
The nerves inside my head felt like sandpaper was scouring over them. I pressed my thumb down, sending up the TV volume.
What I remember about leaving the den was seeing in my peripheral vision something new and raw on the little boy’s face that, later, as I recalled it, as I often did, I liked to think was a spark of an idea about how he could be.
It’s a slow day at the office and you need to liven things up. You convince all your coworkers to write anonymous confessions on slips of paper, toss them in a hat, and read them out loud. Which confession do you drop in the hat?