Issue 200, Spring 2012
Should he find he couldn’t work it there would still be time enough.
—Henry James, The Wings of the Dove
The grumblings of their stomachs were intertwined and unassignable.
“Was that you or was that me?” KC would ask in bed, and Dench would say, “I’m not sure.” They lay there in the mornings, their legs moving at angles toward each other, not unlike the ashes she could see through the window outside, the high branches nuzzling in the late March breeze, speaking tree to tree of the thrilling weather. Her dreams of eating meals full of meat, which caused her teeth to gnash in the night—surely a sign of spring—left the insides of her cheeks bloody and chewed, one saliva gland now swelled to the size of a raisin.
Shouldn’t they be up and about already? Morning sun shot across the ceiling in a white stripe of paint. She and Dench were both too young and too old for this close, late-morning, bed-bound life, but their scuttled careers—the band, the two CDs, the newsletter (turned e-letter turned abandoned cyber litter) on how to simplify your life (be broke!), the driving, the touring, the scrambling, the foraging in parks for chives and dandelions, the charging up of credit cards, the taking pictures of clothes and selling them on eBay (“Wake up!” she used to exclaim to him in the middle of the night, sitting up in bed, “wake up and listen to my IDEAS!”)—had led them here, to a six-month sublet that allowed pets. Still in their thirties, but barely, they had bought themselves a little time. So what if her investments these days were in pennies, wine corks, and sheets of self-adhesive Liberty stamps. These would go up in value, unlike everything else. Beneath her bed was a shoe box of dwindling cash from their last gig, where they’d gotten only a quarter of the door. She could always cut her long, almost Asian hair again, as she had two years ago, and sell it for a thousand dollars.
Now, as she often did when contemplating wrong turns, she sometimes thought back to when it was she had first laid eyes on Dench, that Friday long ago when he had approached her at an afternoon sound check in some downtown or other, his undulating tresses not product-free, a demeanor of arrangement and premeditation that gussied up something more chaotic. Although it was winter, he wore mirrored sunglasses and a thin leather jacket with the collar turned up: 150 percent jerk. Perhaps it was his strategy to improve people’s opinions of him right away, to catch an upward momentum and make it sail, so when the sunglasses came off and then the jacket, and he began to play a song he had not written himself, he was on his way. He lunged onto one knee and raced through a bludgeoning bass solo. At the drums he pressed the stick into the cymbal and circled it, making a high-pitched celestial note, like a finger going round the edge of a wineglass. He smacked the tambourine against his head and against the snare, back and forth. When he then approached the piano, she stopped him. “Not the piano,” she said quietly. “The piano’s mine.”
“Okay,” he said. “I just wanted to show you everything I can do.” And he picked up an acoustic guitar.
Would it be impossible not to love him? Would not wisdom intervene?
Later, to the rest of the band, whose skepticism toward Dench was edged with polite dismay, she said, “I don’t understand why the phrase ‘like an orchestra tuning up’ is considered a criticism. I love an orchestra when it is tuning up. Especially then.”
From the beginning, however, she could not see how Dench had ever earned a living. He knew two Ryan Adams songs and played guitar fairly well. But he had never done so professionally. Or done anything professionally that she could discern. Early on he claimed to be waiting for money, and she wasn’t sure, when he smiled, whether this was a joke. “From whom? Your mother?” and he only smiled. Which made her think, yes indeed, his mother.
But no. His mother had died when he was a teenager. His father had disappeared years before that, and thereafter for Dench there was much moving with his sisters: from Ohio to Indiana to California and back again. First with his mom, then with an aunt. There was apparently in his life a lot of dropping in and out of college and unexplained years. There had been a foreshortened stint in the Peace Corps. In Swaziland. “I’d just be waiting at a village bus stop, reading a book, and women would pretend to want to borrow it to read but in truth they just wanted a few pages for toilet paper. Or the guys they had me working with? They would stick their hands in the Porta-Potties, as soon as we got them off the trucks: they wanted the fragrant blue palms. I had to get out of there, man, I didn’t really understand the commitment I had made, and so my uncle got a congressman to pull some strings.” How did Dench pay his bills?
“It’s one big magic trick,” he said. He liked to get high before dinner, and seemed never without a joint in his wallet or in a drawer. He ate his chicken—the wings and the drumsticks, the arms and the legs—clean down to their purple bones.
And so, though she could not tell an avocado plant from flax (he had both), and though she had never seen any grow lights or seeds or a framed license to grow medical marijuana from the state of Michigan, KC began to fear he made his living by selling pot. It seemed to be the thing he was musing about and not saying. As she had continued to see him, she suspected it more deeply. He played her more songs. Then as something caught fire between them, and love secured its footing inside her, when she awoke next to him with damp knots in the back of her hair like she’d never experienced before, the room full of the previous night’s candles and the whiff of weed, his skin beside her a silky calico of cool and warm, and as they both needed to eat and eat some more together, she began to feel okay that he sold drugs. If he did. What the hell. At least there was that. At least he did something. His sleepy smiles and the occasional flash of a euro or a hundred-dollar bill in his pocket seemed to confirm it, but then his intermittent lack of cash altogether perpetuated the mystery, as did his checks, which read D. Encher, and she started to fear he might not sell drugs after all. When she asked him straight out, he said only, “You’re funny!” And after she had paid for too many of his drinks and meals, as he said he was strapped that week and then the week after that, she began to wish, a little sheepishly, that he did sell drugs. Soon she was close to begging. Just a little sparky bark, darling.
Instead he joined her band.
It had been called Villa and in the end it had not worked out—tours they had paid for themselves with small-business loans, audiences who did not like KC’s own songs (too singer-songwriter, with rhymes—calories and galleries—of which she was foolishly proud—dead and wed), including one tune she refused to part with, since briefly it had been positioned to be a minor indie hit, a song about a chef in New Jersey named Jim Barber with whom she’d once been in love.
Here I am your unshaved fennel
Here I am your unshaved cheese
All I want to know is when I’ll—
feel your blade against my knees.
Its terribleness eluded her. Her lyrics weren’t sly or hip or smoky and tough but the demure and simple hopes of a mouse. She’d spent a decade barking up the wrong tree—as a mouse! Audiences booed—the boys in their red-framed spectacles, the girls in their crooked little dresses. Despised especially were her hip-hop renditions of Billy Joel and Neil Young. (She was once asked to please sing down by the river, and she’d thought they’d meant the song. She told this sad joke over and over.) Throughout the band tours she would wake up weeping at the edge of some bed or other, not knowing where she was or what she was supposed to do that day or once or twice even who she was, since all her endeavor seemed separate from herself, a suit to slip into. Tears, she had once been told, were designed to eliminate toxins, and they poured down her face and slimed her neck and gathered in the recesses of her collarbones, and she had to be careful never to lie back and let them get into her ears, which might cause the toxins to return and start over. Of course, the rumor of toxins turned out not to be true. Tears were quite pure. And so the reason for them, it seemed to her later, when she thought about it, was to identify the weak, so that the world could assure its strong future by beating the weak to death.
“Are we perhaps unlovable?” she asked Dench.
“It’s because we’re not named, like, Birth Hearse for Dogface.”
“Why aren’t we named that?”
“Because we have standards.”
“Is that it,” she said.
“Yeah! And not just ‘Body and Soul’ as an encore. I mean we maintain a kind of integrity.”
“Integrity! Really!” After too many stolen meals from minibars, the Pringles can carefully emptied and the foil top resealed, the container replaced as if untouched back atop the wood tray, hotel towels along with the gear all packed up in the rental truck whose rear fender bore one large bumper sticker, with Donald Rumsfeld’s visage, under which read does this ass make my truck look big?—after all that, she continually found herself thinking, If only Dench sold drugs! On hot summer days she would find a high-end supermarket and not only eat the free samples in their tiny white cups but stand before the produce section and wait for the vegetable misters to come on, holding her arms beneath the water in relief. She was showering with the lettuces.
She and Dench had not developed their talents sufficiently nor cared for them properly—or so a booking agent had told them.
Dench took offense. “You forget about the prize perplexity, the award angle—we could win something!” he exclaimed, with Pringles in his teeth.
The gardenia in KC’s throat, the flower that was her singing voice—its brown wilt must be painstakingly slowed through the years—had begun a rapid degeneration into simple crocus, then scraggly weed. She’d been given something perfect—youth!—and done imperfect things with it. The moon shone whole, then partial in the sky, having its life without her. Sometimes she just chased roughly after a melody—like someone kicking a can down a road. She had not hemmed in her speaking voice, kept it tame and tended so that her singing one could fly. Her speaking voice was the same as her singing one, a roller coaster of various registers, the Myrna Loy–Billie Burke timbre of the Edwardian grandmother who had raised her, a woman who had trained at conservatory but had never had a singing career and practically sang every sentence she uttered: “Katherine? It’s time for dinner” went flutily up and down the scale. Only her dying words—marry well—had been flat, the drone of chagrin, a practical warning: life-preserving but with a glimpse of a dark little bunker in a war not yet declared. “Marry well” had been uttered after she begged KC to get a teaching certificate. “Teaching makes interesting people boring, sure,” she had said. “But it also makes boring people interesting. So there’s an upside. There always is an upside if you look up.”
Dench’s own poor mother couldn’t leave him—or his sisters—a dime, though he had always done what she said, even that one year they lived in motels and he obligingly wore a nightgown identical to his sisters’ so that they might better be mistaken for a single child, to avoid an extra room charge, in case the maid walked in. His young mother had died with breathing tubes hooked right to her wallet, he said, just sucking it all up. Dench made a big comedic whooshing sound when he told this part. His father’s disappearance, which had come long before, had devastated and haunted her: when they were out for dinner one night his father announced that he had to see a man about a horse, and he excused himself, went to the men’s room, and climbed out the window, never to return. Dench made a whooshing sound for this part of the story as well.
“I can’t decide whether that is cowardice or a weird kind of courage,” Dench said.
“It’s neither,” KC replied. “It has nothing to do with either of those things.”
Motherless children would always find each other. She had once heard that. They had the misery that wasn’t misery but presumed to be so by others. They had the misery that liked company and was company. Only sometimes they felt the facts of their motherless lives. They were a long, long way from home. They had theme songs hatched in a spiritual tradition. There was no fondling of the gold coins of memory. The world was their orphanage.
But when they moved in together he had hesitated.
“What about my belongings?” he asked.
“It’s not like you have a dog who won’t get along with mine,” she said.
“I have plants.”
“But plants are not a dog.”
“Oh, I see: you’re one of those people who thinks animals are better, more important than plants!”
She studied him, his eyes large with protest or with drugs or with madness. There were too many things to choose from. “Are you serious?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” he said, and turned to unpack his things.
Now she rose to take the dog for his daily walk. She was wearing an old summer dress as a nightgown, but in the mornings it could work as a dress again, if you just tossed a cardigan over it and put on shoes. In this risky manner, she knew, insanity could encroach.
The sublet she and Dench were in now was a nice one, a fluke, a modern, flat-roofed, stone-and-redwood ranch house with a carport, in a neighborhood that was not far from the hospital and was therefore full of surgeons and radiologists and their families. The hospital itself was under construction and the cranes bisected the sky. Big-jawed excavators and backhoes worked beneath lights at night. Walking the dog, she once watched as an excavator’s mandibled head was released and fell to the ground; the headless neck then leaned down and began to nudge it, as if trying to find out whether it might still be alive. Of course there was an operator, but after that it was hard to think of a creature like that as a machine. When a wall was knocked down and its quiet secrets sent scattering, the lines between things seemed up for grabs.
The person who owned their house was not connected to the hospital. He was an entrepreneur named Ian who had made a bundle in the nineties on some sort of business software and who for long stretches of time lived out of state—in Ibiza, Zihuatanejo, and Portland—in order to avoid the cold. The house came furnished except, strangely, for a bed, which they bought. In the refrigerator they found food so old it had dust on it rather than mold. “I don’t know,” said Dench. “Look at the closets. This must be what Ian was using. With hooks this strong maybe we don’t need a bed. We can just hang ourselves there at night, like bats.”
With Dench she knew, in an unspoken way, that she was the one who was supposed to get them to wherever it was they were going. She was supposed to be the GPS lady who, when you stopped for gas, said, “Get back on the highway.” She tried to be that voice with Dench: stubborn, unflappable, keeping to the map and not saying what she knew the GPS lady really wanted to say, which was not “Recalculating” but “What in fucking hell are you thinking?”
“It all may look wrong from outer space, which is where a GPS is seeing it from,” Dench would say, when proposing alternatives of any sort, large or small, “but on the ground there’s a certain logic.”
There were no sidewalks in this wooded part of town. The sap of the stick-bare trees was just stirring after what looked like a fierce forest fire of a winter. The roadside gullies that would soon warm and sprout pye weed and pea were still just pebble-flecked mud, and KC’s dog, Cat, sniffed his way along, feeling the winter’s melt, the ground loosening its fertile odor of wakened worms. Overhead the dirt-pearl sky of March hung low as a hat brim. The houses were sidled next to marshes and sycamores, and as she walked along the roads occasionally a car would pass, and she would yank on Cat’s leash to heel him close. The roads, all named after colleges out East—Dartmouth Drive, Wellesley Way, Sweetbriar Road (where was her alma mater, SUNY Binghamton Street?)—glistened with the flat glossy colors of flattened box turtles who’d made the spring crossing too slowly and were now stuck to the macadam, thin and shiny as magazine ads.
hospice care: it’s never too soon to call, read a billboard near the coffee shop in what constituted the neighborhood’s commercial roar. Next to it a traffic sign read pass with care. Surrealism could not be made up. It was the very electricity of the real. The largest part of the strip was occupied by an out-of-business bookstore whose plate-glass windows were already cloudy with dust. The D was missing from the sign so that it now read borers. In insolvency, truth: soon the chain would be shipping its entire stock to the latrines of Swaziland.
Cat was a good dog, part corgi, part lab, and if KC wore her sunglasses into the coffee shop he could pass for a seeing-eye dog, and she for a blind person, so she didn’t have to tie him to a parking sign out front.
The coffee shop played Tom Waits and was elegantly equipped with dimpled cup sleeves, real cream, cinnamon sticks, shakers of sugar. KC got in line. “I love this song,” the man in front turned to say to her. He was holding a toddler and was one of those new urban dads so old he looked like the kidnapper of his own child.
She didn’t know what she felt about Tom Waits anymore: his voice had gotten so industrial. “I don’t know. I just think one shouldn’t have to wear goggles and a hard hat when listening to music,” she said. It was not a bad song, and she didn’t feel that strongly about it, only sorry for her own paltry tunes, but the man’s face fell, and he turned away, with his child staring gloomily at her over his shoulder.
She ordered a venti latte, and while she was waiting, she read the top fold from the uppermost paper in the stack below the shrink-wrapped CDs by the register. When she finished, she discreetly turned the paper over and read the bottom fold. This daily, fractured way of learning the front-page news—they had no Internet connection—she had gotten used to. Be resourceful! So their old newsletter had advised. This way of bringing Dench his morning coffee (she drank her half while walking back, burning her tongue a little) and getting the dog a walk was less resourceful than simply necessary. Sometimes she missed the greasy spoons of old, which she had still been able to find on the road when the band was touring and where a single waitress ran the register, the counter, all the tables, calling you “honey”— until you asked for soy milk, at which point all endearments ceased.
Now she walked back via Princeton Place, a street she didn’t usually take, but one that ran parallel to her own. Taking different routes fortified the mind, the paper had said today. This street contained a sprawling white-brick house she had seen before and had been struck by—not just its elegance and size but the magical blue sea of squill that spread across its sloped and wooded lot. She had once seen two deer there, with long tails that flicked like horses’ and wagged like dogs’. Only once before had she seen a deer close-up, along the road’s edge on Dartmouth. It had been hit so fast it had been decapitated, and its neck lay open like a severed cable bundle.
Cat nosed along the gullies and up the driveways, whose cracks were often filled with clover.