Every once in a while I'll meet one, after a set. Even now, after all these years. I'll be cooling down, drinking my grapefruit juice and packing up my stuff, and I'll see someone angling over toward me and there's just this instant flash of recognition— oh shit, incoming—before they even open their mouths. Something about the way they don't look like they belong here in the Tampico Lounge with the Lone Star Beer crowd. Or about the way they look at me—like they're trying to remember something, and it's not coming back to them the way they thought it was going to.
"John Oxenberger?" It's never just John, never Ox. "John Oxenberger?" And by then they're close enough to take in the grey hair, the tics and twitches, and you can see them slow down, the confusion—but having made it this far, they push on, and I could sing the chorus in harmony with them. "Hey, man ... aren't you the guy who / weren't you the one that / didn't you used to play with Hard Core Logo?"
That's my cue to give them the shiteating grin and the agreeable nod and turn and get the hell out of there. I learned the hard way not to get into conversation with these guys. I can't ever give them what they want—what they want is a time machine, a ticket back to the Days of Young and Stupid—and nothing they have to give me does me anything but harm.
One time—I remember this one time, a guy got backstage, a big acne-scarred guy with piercings all over everywhere and a receding mohawk—he came up to me, spit on my lizardskin boots, and started in yelling. "You fucking sellout, you pathetic little whore." He had his face all twisted up, and for just a second it felt like the old days, like a whole bunch of old days. "You make me wanna puke, you fucking weasel! Playing this suck-ass cowboy shit for a bunch of lard-assed, pig-fucking, line-dancing—" He waved his arm for a moment, groping for an epithet harsh enough. "—SUV-driving douchebags. And I tell you what, you wanna know something? If Joe Dick was here to see you doing this? You know what he'd do? He'd kick your fucking teeth in, that's what he'd do."
I couldn't help but laugh. "Yeah, well, Joe kind of kicked his own fucking teeth in, don't you think?"
Just then Larry and Chico came up behind the guy and took him by the elbows and started hauling him toward the exit, him screaming about fucking sellout and you suck the whole way. They'd almost gotten him to the door when I yelled after him, "Hey. You know something? You're an asshole, but for what it's worth—you're right, that's just exactly what he would've done." And the guy turned around, grinning—grinning—and jerked his arm free and shot me the finger, just before they shoved him on out the door.
And it was ... it was nothing, no big deal, a little Hallmark moment is all, but I didn't sleep for three days and nights after that one, because once the memories begin stirring, once they start ripping off the chains and crawling up the basement stairs and clawing at the door, it's hard to lock them down again.
I used to be afraid of forgetting. I didn't know how hard it would be not to remember. Sometimes I look at this roomful of middle-management beef in their Dockers and their Tony Lama boots, sitting quiet and nodding along while we sleepwalk our way through "Jambalaya," and it's so hard not to remember, not to remember the fury John would've felt at the sight of them, hard not to think of what it would be like to be John again, to be up here with Joe and Billy and Pipe alongside me, screaming and spitting and raining down fiery brimstone on their heads, making their legs shake and their ears bleed, chasing them whimpering out into the night.
Sometimes I want it all back, so bad, all of it. The dressing rooms that stink like beer and piss, the raw bleeding throat from three packs a day. The kids ... the spikes, the leather, the metal, the tattoos, the razors, the boots, the rage. Wild dogs, taking everything we could give them and throwing it all back, howling back at us, at our noise. The noise that we made, that owned us, the noise I could hear crackling in my ears hours after the amps were turned off. And the energy—fire from heaven, frying my nerves, like ECT would be if God was running the controls. The electricity that ran through us in one unbroken current, welding us together, that current of pain that for once in my life connected me to something, made me belong. That made me belong by burning out my sick brain, with only my body left to leap and jerk to the current, and play harder and faster and louder.
I don't want to remember it. I sure don't want to fucking reminisce. I want ... either I want to have it back completely, give myself up to it and be lost forever, or else—I want it to be gone. And usually it is gone; usually I keep it locked away so deep I don't even recall where I put the key.
But ... sometimes it's hard. Not to remember. Hard not to remember. A hard knot, to remember. The knot that held it all together, that couldn't be untied, that could only, in the end, just—finally—be cut. The knot got cut, and we all went spinning off into space, and those of us who made it back didn't come back the same.
I'm not the same. I'm Ox, now, and I live in Austin, Texas, in a two-bedroom rambler on a quiet street, with prickly pear in the front yard and a patio in back. With my wife, Mattie, and the dog. With a steady gig and a big bottle of pills that's always kept in exactly the same place on the countertop. With a propane grill, and a savings account, and a Braun electric toothbrush to keep away the plaque and gingivitis.
And I finally got a handle, yup. It's too perfect, the way they think it fits me. The Ox, big dumb Ox, the lummox, dumb as a box of rocks. The Ox who don't drink, don't smoke, don't chase around, just goes home every night right after the set, to his little rambler on the quiet street. To his wife—my wife. My Mattie, who never comes to the club and couldn't give a shit about the music.
Which only makes sense, after all. Mattie—she's deaf, deaf from birth. I met her down here in a coffeehouse, not long after my last gig in the hospital, after the thing with Joe went down and Celine told me she wasn't going to take it any more. I'd got out and headed south, only knowing that I had to get warm, had to get warm, had to go somewhere warm, and I went straight to her like a salmon that doesn't know why it's going up this one stream, to this one spot. And there she was.
It was so amazing, to have the company of someone I didn't have to talk to, and I think she liked being with someone she didn't have to try to understand. We spent a lot of time that first day in the coffeehouse looking through magazines together, pointing at pictures and laughing. That's still one of our favorite things to do, look at pictures, photographs, reproductions of paintings—she'll point to something, with her stubby little finger, some detail that I hadn't even noticed, trace some line showing how the whole thing ties together, the lines of energy that I swear I never would have seen. She's got some power of seeing—it's one thing that makes her so good at her work, that she can look out at a bare piece of land and see how it'll be with a tree here, a hedge there, where the shade will fall, how it'll look when the pampas grass fills out and blooms.
We drive, sometimes, too. Just get in the car and take it out on the interstate and push it up to 85, 90, 100. It's like playing with knives, firewalking, sticking a fork in the socket. Not real smart, that is to say, and doing it alone would be suicidal. But Mattie's there with me, staring out the window—I think she likes the speed as much as I do, though she shows it differently—and her being there keeps me between the lane markers, keeps me in orbit around the city, gets me back to the off-ramp, finally, and back down the city streets to our own driveway, safe.
Safe has some meaning to me, that's what's different these days, although it still doesn't get me within eyeshot of normal. I still have the hallucinations, oh lord, yes, although nothing like before. There's a little animal, like an otter maybe, that's always slinking around the baseboards in the house. Sometimes I still hear the megaphone, telling me awful things about Mattie, that she's taping me, following me, that she's got the knife under the mattress, what she's going to do to me with it. Things I've learned to put aside.
And sometimes—sometimes I hear Joe talking, just like he was right in the room with me. Like if I turned my head I'd see him, slumped down on the couch, with his greasy black coat and his stupid haircut and his sad, wise eyes.
I wish I could see him. Apart from being a fuckhead, Joe was never really bad company when he was alive, and I can only believe that death would have mellowed him out some. I wish I could make out what he's saying, wish I could talk with him. Although I don't suppose he'd listen to me now, any more than he did before.
Sometimes I think I smell a cigarette, but that's just old smoke on my clothes, from the club. Mattie's got a rule about no smoking in the house, and I make sure no one fucks with it, not even a ghost.
I try not to bring too many ghosts into the house, and she tries not to lay any rules on me beyond the few she needs. It's a good marriage, though most wouldn't see it that way. For one thing—well, for most people it'd be a big deal that there's no sex. It's the meds, partly—what with one drug and the other drug and the interactions and the christ knows what all, it just—it isn't happening any more, for me. I tried—I still try sometimes, when I'm at home alone, just me and the hand lotion and the hottest fantasies I can pull together, and ... well. Christopher Reeves ain't walking again either, any time soon, and life goes on. I can still walk, at least, and not walk myself right over a cliff, which is what matters.
And as for Mattie—I think someone fucked her over real bad, long ago when she was a kid, out on that lonely ranch in the Hill Country where she grew up. She won't ever talk about it, but if you move on her wrong, she'll go frantic, thrash around and make this little strangling noise.
So I've learned how to hold her right, wrap myself all the way around her and only touch her in the safe places. She's short and round and furry all over—silky fur on her arms and legs, soft curly fur that runs in a line from her navel on down her belly, thin wiry fur around her nipples. Eyebrows thick as my finger, and soft black down on her lip. It felt weird at first, with her—I always used to like 'em tall and smooth and pretty. Like Celine. Like Billy's wives, all—what's it been, three of 'em now? The backup singer, and the lingerie model, and the sitcom actress ... Women like that, that's what I used to think I wanted. But Mattie's just Mattie, and everything about her is just the way it is, and it's just what I need, whether I want it or not.
Most of the guys think I'm a hell of a sport, a hell of a nice guy to have married her, that she must need me so bad, poor funny-looking little deaf woman. They have no idea how backassward they got that one. Every woman I've known has been after either my music or my cock, and she's got no use for either one. All I can guess is that she must like me—something about me. She shows no signs of leaving yet.
Or throwing me out, I should say—the house is hers, after all. She just seems to like having me around. She doesn't need me, that's for damn sure.
And maybe that's what makes it work. I've seen need. I've seen it up close, personal, a box seat for the long-running road show. I've seen the damage done, and I know I couldn't live with that hook set in my throat, not now, not ever—no more than Billy ever could. Weird to think that he and I would ever have anything in common besides the music.
For all the years and all the talking, we never had a lot to say to each other, me and Billy—not from day one, when he found me in the hospital, where he'd been renting his body for the drug tests, found me and brought me home to Joe, like you'd drag home a broken chair you found in the dumpster. Could be fixed up, maybe. Could be useful. I was a bass player, after all—maybe a part for the machine the two of them were putting together in the basement. And as it happened, the music, theirs and mine, slid together and clicked into place like pieces cut from the same die. Not a whole lot else about me ever fit with them—not the way I dressed, or the way I talked, or the way my brain worked, or the way I kept writing stuff down. The only words of mine that interested them were the songs I wrote, and that was the way we really talked to each other, me and Joe, me and Billy.
The conversation we made when the machine was plugged in and fired up and pounding on all cylinders—in those moments, I could talk, I was heard, I could hear something, something outside of the crazy noise in my head, something perfect; the roar of the machine that made me, for just those moments, part of something.
And when the machine blew up—then it all went silent. Broken. I went to the hospital, Joe went down into the ground, Billy went south, Pipe went—somewhere, I never knew. I never heard from any of them again. I never heard again. Nowadays, I play the stuff with the band, and I watch TV, and I pass the time of day with Mrs. Rodriguez when I'm out walking the dog. But inside it's all been just silence, ever since.
Until I came home from just another Thursday-night gig at the Tampico, and found a message from Billy on the answering machine.
It was unsettling to find any message on that machine —I almost never get calls, and Mattie runs her landscaping business off a separate TTY line. I stood for a while, watching the light blink, red ... red ... red ... red, until I realized it was starting to make a noise in my head with every flash, and I moved my hand over and made myself punch the button.
The buzz, and some crackle, and then "John? Hey, John, is that you? Hey, is this thing on?" and then a thunderous TAP-TAP-TAP and a little giggle. "Hope that moron of a manager you've got gave me the right number, and if this isn't the right number and you're not John, then fuck you for listening in on a private conversation, whoever you are." A quick whispery sound—drawing on a cigarette, or a joint maybe. "Hey. Been a while, blah blah blah blah. I hear you're going to be in LA for that Belle Baylor requiem, you and the Cactus Cocksuckers or whatever you call yourselves. Listen, give me a call when you're in town, OK? Let's get together. Got something I want to talk to you about, some old business." He gave me a phone number, and ended with "Call. OK? You better not stand me up, you little prick. It's been too long, right? Later."
When it finished, I hit the button and listened to it again, and then once more through, and then I just stood and stared down at the phone for a long time; the light was a steady red glow now, evil eye in the dark. Finally I turned and went to the kitchen, opened up the freezer and pulled out a cigarette. I keep a pack in there, in a ziplock baggie, and every night before I go to bed I take one outside on the patio and light up and smoke it, looking up at the sky. This late-night hour between work and sleep used to be a very bad time for me, not a safe time, with the music done and Mattie asleep and everything shut down and dark, so having that one smoke gives me something to hang onto. It's my way of reminding myself I can keep things under control. People tell me it's a poor idea, it'll just get me back up to pack-a-day again in no time, but so far it hasn't.
I smoked that one down to the filter, thinking about the call. It had only been on the third listen-through that I'd realized Billy had never identified himself. Little fucker just assumed I'd know who he was, as indeed I had, even though I hadn't seen him, hadn't heard from him, since Edmonton.
No one had called me "John" since Edmonton, no one but the doctors. John was gone. He was gone, and Billy couldn't bring him back.
I was sweating where I stood, soaking my shirt. A hot August night, muggy as hell, with the cicadas screeching like a bandsaw going through sheet metal—and that was not a good thought to have, because inside of the screech the megaphone started talking to me about the saw, the saw, the chainsaw Mattie keeps in the truck, telling me I need to go get it, get ready to defend myself, that she's got a bad plan for me, that she's been meeting with Billy in secret, that she told him to call me, that ... All kinds of insane shit. I put it aside, but I was still shaky, realizing the cigarette wasn't enough to hold me here this time, realizing that I really, really wanted to go, right now, head north, get in the truck and hit I-35 and just keep going. Twenty-two hours to the Canada border, sixty gallons of gas ...
So I went inside instead and didn't even waste time brushing my teeth or taking off my clothes, I just crawled in with Mattie and curled myself around her. She gave me an elbow in the side for having woken her, but it didn't hurt, and she was back asleep in a minute. I held her all through the rest of the night, listening to the air conditioner mutter and the electricity whisper in the walls.
The next Thursday morning I flew out to LA. The Belle Baylor Celebration was going to be Saturday night, and we'd booked in a couple of other gigs as long as we were going to be out there anyway. Belle had had a bad stroke, earlier in the year, and some producer thought it'd be a nice thing to hold a special concert for her, and sell the broadcast rights to TNN. I'd never met her myself, but Larry LaFleur, our lead guitar, wrote the music for her big hit What A Woman's Got To Do, and had fronted her backup band those years when she was zooming up from the small-city beer joints to become diva of the country scene—about the same time, I suppose, that I was playing Ten Buck Fuck in the Vancouver thrash clubs. I knew I was going to feel totally fraudulent, being there at all, but she'd wanted Larry to come, and it was a chance to get the band some national exposure.
I'd really wanted Mattie to fly out with me, I'd booked seats for both of us and then dug into savings and booked the third in the row as well, so we wouldn't have a stranger jammed up against us. But her Xeriscape Garden Club had its monthly meeting Thursday night, and since the chair had lined up a sign interpreter for her she felt some obligation to show up. So she was coming out for the weekend, and I was alone on the plane, and even though I had breathing space around me the plane was still way too crowded, and the air was full of toxins, and the megaphone was talking to me through the engine noise all the way out, even though I had my earplugs in.
It isn't the fear of crashing that frightens me about flying. I know already exactly what that would feel like, I've lived through it so many times in my head that it's as much a familiar comfort to think about as anything. What scares me is everything they do to try to make the whole thing seem un-scary. Normal. The pretzels, and the pillows. The happy movies on the little midget screens, that's frightening, and the way they let you choose from all those stupid drinks, to delude you into thinking you're in control of a single thing that's going on. And the smiles, of course, but that goes without saying—skull smiles, dead grins, the coverup of people who've got something truly major to cover up, dismembered bodies in the cockpit or a bomb in the drinks cart.
I held it together till we got to LAX, and I didn't actually knock anyone down getting off the plane. Once I was in the terminal I found a deserted gate and sat on the floor beside the window and watched planes taxi back and forth until I got some calm back.
I love watching planes almost as much as I hate being in them. They way they move, on the ground—they seem to be very intelligent beings, not graceful, but sure of themselves, and powerful. No wasted motion, nothing on them that's not essential—except the silly paint jobs, of course, and that's just make-up, I understand about that. So purposeful. It wouldn't be a bad life, to be one of them.
I watched until I'd siphoned enough confidence off of them so I could face the crowds. Then I stood and made myself start down the concourse, with my face right out there on the front of my skull for the world to see. No make-up, no masks, no hiding.
It sounds strange to say that I stay out of the spotlight, being a performer as I am, but these days when I'm on stage I always find a shadow to stand in, I turn my face away from the lights. But here in the terminal the flat hard light shone down on us all—no getting away from it, and no getting away from what it shows me in other people's faces, when they see me—the unease, the fear, the pity, the disgust.
Back in my old life, I used to see kids go to amazing lengths to be outrageous. It had to have taken a huge investment of time and imagination to get that little payback of seeing shock in people's faces, seeing that little flinch and shiver, so I guess I could consider myself lucky that that's not an effort I have to make any more. I can be dressed just like anyone else, with my plain old aging-hippie long hair, no piercings or dye or chains or make-up anywhere, and still I can see that look over and over, as often as I want.
Not all the meds cause tardive dyskinesia as a side effect—just the ones that work for me. The doctors tried a lot of different stuff, changing the dosages and taking me off one and putting me on another, but in the end what it came down to was this: I could live out my life sane, or sane enough to get by, but making these spazzy faces, twitching and ticcing and rolling my mouth around like I have an eternal bad taste in it—or I could stay entirely crazy, without the meds and without the TD. And die fast.
I thought it over before I made my choice, and as much as I'd like to have had other options, I've found my own way to be at peace with it. We all get marked as we go through life, we pick up scars and stigmata, souvenirs of the journey. Some of them we choose, and some just happen to us, and all of them help us remember where we've been and who we are, when we're naked and everything else has been taken away from us.
The TD—it's my tattoo and my scar, my own, my accident and my choice, and I can only be grateful for it. If I ever came to hope, like a coward, that there was some way to fit in, some way to back the car up to the crossroads and turn off onto the road marked "Normal"—well, it could never happen, that road's not on my map any more. Even if some miracle occurred and my mind got fixed and I never had to take the meds again—or even if I changed my mind about my decision—either way, it's too late already. The TD can never be taken away from me; sane or crazy, I'll be a freak the rest of my life. The only time I'll stop twitching is when I'm dead.
And in the meantime, people steer clear of me in airports, just like they do the Moonies. Shit, if I was them I'd do the same thing. For all that coming-to-peace stuff, I don't like the sight of me either, particularly.
I didn't pay much attention to the people anyway, they went by like fenceposts past the car window. What I was noticing were the banks of phones I kept passing. I'd planned to wait and call Billy later, take some time to think through what I wanted to say to him, write it out, but as I walked down that endless concourse I kept seeing phones drifting past, almost as if a signal was being sent, and my hand kept jangling the change in my pocket. I put some in a vending machine and bought a soda I didn't even want, and that didn't stop the urge, and finally I found myself angling over to the wall and dropping coins, and dialing the number I'd already memorized.
A woman answered, which somehow I hadn't factored into my mental script, and it took me a minute to pull myself together and say, "I, I, I'm calling for Billy. B-Billy Tallent?"
"Just a moment." She sounded dubious, but she set the phone down and I could hear some shouting in the background. I took a couple of deep breaths and then the loudspeakers cut in, right over my head, with some incomprehensible blatting, a litany of passengers needing to use the white courtesy phone, a megaphonic Satan tolling the names of the damned. I was helpless, waiting to hear my name, waiting to hear that there was very bad news waiting for me, and by the time the voice finally shut up I realized Billy was already there, and I was not in good shape to talk to him.
"Hello. Who the fuck is—"
"Hey, hey Billy. It's me. John. Oxenberger."
"John?" He didn't sound surprised. He'd expected me. "Well, all right, good to know you're still in the land of the living."
"Yeah. Uh, I'm, I'm, I'm sorry about that, s-sorry about the noise. I'm at the airport, I probably should have waited to call till I was at the hotel, but—"
"You called me from the airport? Soon as you got in? That's touching, John, I'm really—really touched." He sounded amused.
I couldn't do small talk just then. "I wanted to ask—I, I'd like to know what it is you want to talk to me about, Billy. I mean, it's been how many years, and, and, and nothing, just nothing, and n-now, you want to talk to me and I just, I just want to know what this is about, and—"
"John." That was loud enough to get through, and I stopped. "John, shit, would you calm down, it's no big fucking deal. I just need to check something with you."
"Old business." I switched the receiver to the other hand, wiped my palm off on my pants. "That's, that's what you said before, on the phone."
"Yeah, old business, what other kind of business would we have to talk about?" He sounded like he was trying to decide if it was worth the effort to switch from being amused to being pissed.
"Yeah. Um." I put a hand to my forehead and squeezed my temples as hard as I could. "So, if we're going to get together—"
"I didn't know you were getting into town this early."
"We're playing at the Corral tonight and Friday, but I could see you afterwards. Or before, I guess, if it's something quick."
"Can't do those nights, John, make it Sunday. Sunday at 8 or so, how's that?"
"I was going to fly back Sunday."
"Well, change your flight then, that's no big deal." No question it was Billy, that wheedling charm I'd recognize anywhere, but there was something new and hard-edged behind it, and I felt myself tensing up again.
"If I come over Sunday, my wife'll be with me, she's coming out for the weekend."
"Celine? You two finally get married?"
"Jesus christ, Billy, Celine left me years ago. No, this is—"
"Yeah, well, whoever, I don't think this is anything she'd likely be interested in. Just—like I said, some old business. Leave her at the hotel, OK?"
"I'd like her to come along." My stomach was crawling with nerves, and I was suddenly sure that I needed Mattie with me for this, whatever it was.
"I don't want anyone else in on this particular conversation. Is that so fucking hard to understand? What is it, she got you on a leash or something?"
"She won't be in on the conversation. She's deaf." A little silence, and I added, "And she wouldn't be interested anyway."
Billy wasn't listening to that part, he'd started laughing. "Deaf? Shit, John, you sure can pick 'em, can't you?"
"What?" He was still laughing.
"Shut the fuck up." That sent him off even harder, and I struggled to come up with that shoulder-punching tone, that two-guys-bullshitting-around tone that I used to have solid but hadn't used in years. "You got a hell of a nerve giving me shit about women, I mean didn't what's her name, Ylang-Ylang, dump you for that basketball player, like, two months after you got married?"
"Dump me, hell, I kicked her lying ass out. Slut." Quick, contemptuous—I'd forgotten how Billy used to talk about women—but anger was in there too. Then I could hear him change subjects, like the gears were grinding. "OK, then, Sunday night, make it about eight, I'll courier a map over to you—where're you staying?"
"The Marriott, by the airport." I said automatically. "A map? I can find my way around town, Billy, I've been here before, you know."
"Not this part, you haven't." Smug. "Later, John-boy." And he hung up.
I stood for a while holding the receiver so it covered up my ear and made that side of my head quiet. Across the concourse from me was an advertising poster, with a big photo of a guy in a business suit hanging from a parachute, clutching his briefcase, a surprised look on his face. What must it feel like, those minutes after you jump out the airplane, before the parachute opens, free-falling through the empty sky? I knew what it felt like.
I turned and put the receiver back on its hook and slowly tilted forward, resting my head on the phone, shutting my eyes. I could hear a woman on one side of me speaking Spanish, fast and level. On the other side a man was saying something about golf. I let my forehead rest against the phone, all that circuitry so close, separated from my brain only by its steel shell and my skull bones, and I could feel the hum in the wires and switches, the orderly metal and plastic ganglia, so close to my scrambled shorted-out mess of wet protoplasm. Just a little closer, one hard slam and I could break through the barrier, I could merge, and then be free to send my brain waves anywhere in the world, I could connect to anyone else in the world, I could—just connect, just connect, some voice, not the megaphone, was telling me—and suddenly I realized what I wanted, urgently, was to call Joe. Dial him up and hear his voice and ask him what the hell's going on. I straightened up and actually had my hand on the receiver before I got that one under control.
I was able to autopilot myself out of the airport, get myself to the hotel and checked in and up to my room. Once I had the door locked behind me I sat down on the bed and just rested there for a while, arms crossed on my knees and my head hanging down. I had a couple of days until Mattie arrived, and nothing to do but make it to the gig each night. I had a lot of hours to fill. Inventory; time to inventory the resources. I had books, a couple of books I knew already I wasn't going to be able to read. I had the TV, which I knew from experience wasn't going to be any help at all. I had—well, I had all of LA, right? Except I already knew I wasn't going to be able to leave the room for anything but necessity.
I also had a few things I'd dug out of storage and brought with me. Some of my old notebooks, the ones I hadn't burned. A stack of old photos. Old things, old things for old business. I'd thought maybe they'd help me get myself ready. I could tell, though, that they weren't going to be enough to get me there. I was still too deep in Ox-mode, nice medicated comatose Ox, playing harmless music for the boot-scootin' crowd. Billy didn't have any use for Ox. Old business. He wanted to talk to John.
There was a pad of hotel notepaper next to the phone, and a pen. I sat down and began writing out a list, and when I was done I called the desk and asked them if there was a big record store anywhere nearby. They gave me the number for Sam Goody, up in Culver City, and I phoned them and put in an order on my credit card and asked if they could send someone around to deliver it.
I tipped the kid a twenty when he finally got there, and then I shut and chained the door with the Do Not Disturb sign on the outside knob. I sat down on the floor with the bag and closed my eyes and took the CD's out, counting them with my fingers. Twenty-one. It seemed like a lucky number. Eyes still closed, I shuffled them around like cards, playing cards, tarot cards, and then made three stacks of seven each and arranged the three stacks to make a triangle, a pyramid, on the floor, and then I reached out and touched the one on the top of the stack at the apex of the pyramid, the top card on the deck ... just touched it for a moment and then picked it up and held it in front of my face and opened my eyes.
It was one of ours. One of ours, an omen, some kind of a cosmic portent. I stared at it. Hard Knock High. Twenty years old, give or take, and here it was, looking shiny and brand-new, sealed up in plastic and so clean that you'd never know how messy it had been in the making, like a cut of meat at the butcher's that'd had the blood rinsed away before being shrink-wrapped. The cover—you'd think that maybe we'd meant it to be that simple, that plain black and white lettering we'd ended up with only because Joe and Billy couldn't stop fighting over the artwork.
I used my thumbnail to slit the cellophane, tossed it aside, and opened the jewel case. Jewel case, a name that I love, that resonates with the ceremonial nature of this moment, this ritual like the sacraments of lighting up, or shooting up. I pulled out the disc and tilted it around it in the light, admiring the iridescent sheen, gasoline on a pond. Gasoline I was ready to throw a match on. I popped open the Walkman and snapped the disc into place and put on the headphones and hit the button.
It was hard to listen to at first. It hurt. I'd play maybe fifteen, twenty seconds before I'd have to hit "pause" and take the headphones off for a minute. Then I'd put them back on and listen again, and then more, and then a little longer, a little louder, until I could take a whole song, then a whole song loud, and finally I made it all the way through the album. When it ended I took the headphones off and lay there on the floor for a while, listening to the silence throb in my skull.
I haven't yet gotten up close to a tornado in Texas, as much as I'd like to, but I can only imagine they'd feel like that music felt, the power that could lift me, rip me loose, slam me around like a twig blown through steel siding ... and then leave me broken in the aftermath, with my brain flattened, and my nerves torn loose, twitching and sparking like downed power lines, helpless and lethal.
I'd been there. I couldn't really remember it, but I'd been in that vortex, that was me, that was John, that was—someone I couldn't remember being, couldn't believe I'd been. I'd helped to make that music. The thought made me shake. How had I come out alive?
How had I lived without it?
I reached over and took the next one off the pile. Black Flag. Right. My hands were wet and shaky as I tore the plastic off, pulled it out of its case, and I realized I'd moved from pain to tolerance to craving, a nice smooth addiction curve in one afternoon. I should have been charting it up for the doctors.
I hadn't played—I hadn't listened to music like this in years. Not since Edmonton. Hadn't thought about it. But they say some drugs are so powerful that after even one taste, the receptors in your brain are reset permanently, and for the rest of your life you'll be craving that drug, you'll never be the same. I was never the same, not since the day that Billy took me home to Joe, not since I was plugged into the machine, not since I got my taste of what it was like to be part of something, just enough of a little taste to keep me captured forever, orbiting.
I listened to the albums all afternoon, one after another, loud, until my ears were so shredded that even when I took the headphones off I kept hearing things, until my brain was so scrambled that I started making bad sense of the things I thought I was hearing. Memories were hammering at me through the music, hard enough to crack the barriers, and I started thinking maybe I was back on the road again, back with the band, that if I listened a little harder through the swashing crashing sounds in my ears I could hear them next door, Joe and Billy, that maybe for once I could tell what they were up to over there, on the other side of the wall. Just the way I used to try to, just as I'd listened, all my life, for the noises in the next room, on the other side of the wall, where life was going on, people living, other people, not me. Noise, anger, talking, yelling, laughing, and all I could do was put my ear against the plasterboard and wonder.
In the middle of it all I heard a noise that sounded different, a noise that seemed to clearly be in this room with me, and that scared me until I was able to figure out that it was the telephone on the bedside table, ringing and ringing. I stared at it for a while, really not wanting to know who was calling me up, but it didn't stop and I finally lifted the receiver and put it against my head and made some neutral noise, not wanting to commit to words. I almost dropped it again when somebody started jabbering at me, loud and fast. "Ox? Hey, Ox, man, what's up, you asleep or something? Man, we got to get going, got a gig to play, car's out front, c'mon, vato, we're late."
It took me a minute to pull up his name. "Ch-Chico? That you?"
"Ox, you really out of it, huh, you shouldn't sleep in the afternoon, 's not good for you." He was talking almost too fast for my ears to handle; it would have been a lot easier to have had Mattie here signing it out for me. "Vamanos, pal, we're runnin' late, traffic's so fucked up in this town I can't believe it, let's get moving, OK? Ox? You hear me?"
"I'm ... I'm coming, be right down." I took the phone away from my ear before I could get any more jangled and sat for a moment getting my head sorted out ... Chico, the car, the gig, LA, the band, this band. Getting myself into Ox-space. Finally I stood up and found my shoes and wiped my face with a wet washcloth and went down to the lobby.
I ended up scrunched up next to Duane in the back seat, hoping no one would look at me or talk to me. There seemed to be about three conversations going on at once and between that and the traffic and the unfamiliar scenery shooting past, it was all I could do to hold it together. At one point Duane looked over and said, "Ox, you OK? You don't look so good."
"I, I, I ..." I made myself cough for a moment, to buy a little time. "I think I maybe had some bad airplane food. On, on the airplane."
That got them talking to each other about how shitty air travel is these days, and they left me alone for the rest of the trip, and once we were at the club and getting set up I was all right, just sitting in a corner and tuning my bass, over and over. The gig was odd, though; even though the place was pretty crowded I felt like I was playing in a big empty room, a giant aluminum can with bad acoustics and thin air. It was a different sensation for me, not the distorted sound of the old days, the bad days when the meds weren't working and the notes would slide around in my head like oil, and not the thick stupid sound of playing drunk. Just—empty.
When we were through and they dropped me off back at the hotel I realized I couldn't remember my room number and I had to go ask at the desk. It seemed to take a very long time to get up there, in an elevator that was full of young people in dress-up clothes, smelling like perfume and cigar smoke, back from a night on the town. They gave me the look, the usual fast look-and-away, and I smiled, a grin that I could tell even from inside was coming out wrong, and said "I'm a m-musician," and then they looked away even harder.
I got off at the right floor, but even while I was going down the hall the megaphone started muttering at me, about how Billy'd bugged the room, how there was a bomb under the mattress, and I kept turning the volume down, turning the volume down, but still when I got in the room I had to take the bed apart and look inside the light fixtures and the toilet tank, and wrap up the telephone in towels.
Once I'd done all that I felt safer, and I knew it was time to try the connection again, try to get John back on line. I didn't think I could take any more music just then, my ears were still very strange, and instead I dug out the photos, the pile of photos I'd brought along, and started flipping through them, one after another. They weren't in any particular order, jump-cutting across years, cities, hair styles, clothes, like somebody'd shuffled the deck of twelve years of our lives.
None of that mattered, because as soon as I started looking through them I could see the pattern, the same pattern, over and over, across all the years and the changes. Pipe in back, working away on his drumset, cheerful, ferocious; John, off to one side, doing his thing; and always, Joe and Billy, off to the other side. Heads together at the mike. Facing toward each other and flailing away on their guitars. Watching each other, pushing each other, daring each other, building the energy higher and higher between them, flying, soaring, while me and Pipe chuntered along underneath. It was like being the pony in the circus, plodding round and round the ring, steady, head down, while up above the daredevils danced, risking their necks every minute, in the spotlight, in focus, in a world of their own.
It was always like that, I could remember that now, like they were on a planet of their own, and Joe would come over and visit me once in a while, but he always circled back to the other side of the stage like gravity was pulling him. The energy was always over there, that side of the stage, their side, not mine.
For all the years I was there, on the Planet of Joe and Billy, I was never more than a resident alien, with a work permit and a green card that could be revoked any time. Their planet. They set the rules, they decided when to break them. It was a dangerous place to live, that planet, with an erratic climate, unstable geology—sudden earthquakes and eruptions, every now and then an ice age freezing things down without warning. It was a place I never belonged and that I couldn't leave, and so I circled like a moon, cold and dead.
I'd forgotten how much it hurt, to always be orbiting that world and never belonging there. It was as outside as I'd ever felt in my life, even more than the times when I was a kid and I'd listen to my parents fighting, or fucking, on the other side of the wall, after they'd locked me in my room. Even worse than the time they took me to the hospital and left me there. Worse, because the music had made it feel so real while it lasted, made it feel like I was connected, like I belonged.
The photos didn't help. They just reminded me what it felt like to be outside, and I already knew that. What I wanted to know again, to remember, to get back, was what it was like to be part of it. All the photos did was tell me that was a lie, just another one of my crazy fantasies. I was never more than a wetback, a guest worker who didn't know the language and had the wrong kind of money and kept breaking rules he didn't know had been passed the day before. Who never knew the secrets, all the secrets, all the code and the charades and the words that said one thing and meant something else, just like mom and dad used to talk to each other so I couldn't understand.
What I couldn't keep from wishing, what would have helped more than anything else would have been ... and it'll never happen, I know, never in my lifetime, but if I could only have seen ... if I could see the film. All those miles of film that Bruce shot. I know I'm on there, or rather John is, crazy John doing his last big swan dive into the cesspool of insanity. I know Joe's on there, a lot of Joe, a lot of Joe talking about the music, and about the band, and about him and Billy. Billy's on there, and Billy and Joe together. Clues, there had to be a million clues on those millions of frames.
And all of it, all of us, locked away in a vault in Toronto, shackled down with miles of legal papers. For years afterward they kept sending me copies of injunctions and declarations and affidavits, and after the first few times I wouldn't even open them, just took them out to the backyard grill and burned them. It had terrified me every time to see that line: "The Estate of Joseph Mulgrew, deceased." I didn't know who or what that was; I knew that Joe, the Joe I knew, had left nothing behind but some bloodstained clothes and a bottle and a gun. Nothing else. Not even a body, in the end. If there was anything left behind in that empty grave I didn't want any part of it.
I can't even remember who all was wrapped into those shackles at the end—Joe's parents for sure, they're the ones who filed the first lawsuit to get the film locked up, and then Laura Cromartie, and a countersuit from Ed Festus and the production company, and even Bucky had his attorneys get into the action, after a while.
They called me once, some law firm, to see if I wanted to jump in. I told them to go fuck themselves, that I might be a schizo but I'm not a hyena. And I tried to call Bruce, a couple of times, just to see if he had any of it, any of the film at all, that he'd managed to keep hidden away somewhere, that maybe I could see, but he never called me back.
So that's all gone too. All that's left is the music, and it doesn't give me any answers I can use. All it does is make me remember something I probably never really had in the first place.
I tried telling myself that, as I lay on the floor among the litter of photographs, that it'd never really been that way, that I'd just been a hired hand, just like Pipe, no different, that any part of me that thought otherwise was just another fucking delusional system at work, no different than the one that saw Joe in my living room in Texas. It had just been a band, a gig, a job of work. That I didn't need to know anything more than that, I didn't need to understand, to understand what Joe and Billy said to each other in code, what the noises were on the other side of the wall. I could let it go, I could lock John back in the basement.
I knew I needed to sleep. I hadn't slept well in a week, since the phone call, but even though I'd put the bed back together I didn't feel safe in it, and the floor was too hard, and I kept feeling little tremors, shivers in the subfloor, just the ventilating system, I told myself, just the elevators, but I kept thinking about earthquakes, things breaking up out of the ground.
Finally I got up and found my little meds bag in my suitcase. I had a bottle of sleeping tabs in there, pills I hate to take because they mess up my mind, but that seemed like a moot point by then and I was desperate for a time-out, at least.
They must have done the job because at some point things shut down, and the next thing I remember was waking up feeling like I was underwater, under tons of clear water, soggy and limp. I lay on the floor for a long time, looking at the swirling shimmer of light on the ceiling, the reflection off the swimming pool—at least I hoped to god it was just the swimming-pool reflection I was seeing—and thinking about nothing with my soggy no-brain. I'd done my usual oriented-times-three check on awakening, the who-when-where, and anything beyond that seemed too hard. I felt entirely like Ox, lummox, box of rocks.
After a while I got up on the bed and spent some time watching the soaps with the sound turned off, trying to practice lip-reading, reading crazy dialogue into the movements the actors were making with their mouths and faces. It went on and on, getting stupider and goofier, me feeling heavier and thicker, until I couldn't stand it another minute.
I got up and took a cold shower, feeling it sharpen up the edges where my skin met the water, willing the drug out of my system. I called room service and ordered a sandwich and some sodas. I went through the CDs and sorted them into stacks, those that helped, those that didn't. When the sandwich came I tried to eat a little of it, and then I set it aside and found the Walkman and started listening to the discs, the ones that helped, one after another. With every song I could feel John coming a little closer, I could feel him slowly fitting himself back into my skin, but—he still wasn't there, not quite, it was like trying to remember a dream that floats around at the edges of your mind and can't be looked at straight on.
After I'd gone through about half the stack and the room had gotten dim, I heard something that wasn't the bass line in the song that was playing, an arrhythmic heavy thumping. I took the headphones off. Someone was at the door, banging on the door, and all of a sudden I was sure it was Joe out there, hammering away, with his big solid fists, telling me to shut up, telling me to cool it, telling John to stop being so fucking crazy.
The fear of those fists had entered into me the very first time I met him, the day Billy dragged me home from the hospital, and it had never really left. He was so much bigger than I'd expected—I thought somehow all musicians were like me and Billy, stringy skinny guys. But Joe was so big, solid, blunt, with a beefy swagger about him even then. He looked like every guy who'd ever beaten me up in locker rooms and playgrounds and vacant lots my whole life long, left me bleeding in the weeds and the broken glass. I used to look at his hands, big meaty hands, and I knew just how they would feel slamming into my belly and my face. Heavy boots, boots that could break ribs.
He never did hit me, not seriously. I never stopped being afraid, just a little, that he might. It wasn't that he didn't hit, I saw him light into Billy more than once. I was never worth the effort, I guess. Never mattered that much.
If he was pounding away out there now, looking for me ... but there was a voice, not Joe's voice, someone else that I recognized from somewhere else, calling out some name that I recognized from somewhere ... and then it came back to me with a whump like waking up, "Ox," that was me, "Ox, open the damn door, man," that was Larry, Larry from the band, the other band, Ox's band, not John's.
I got up and opened the door and Larry was out there, pissed off, and someone down the hall was looking out their door, glaring at us.
"Hey, Larry, I-I'm sorry, man, I had the—" I pointed toward my ears. "Had the headphones on, listening to some m-music, I kind of lost track of time, sorry, man—"
He took me by the elbow and pulled me out and walked me down to the elevator, with Ox making little apologetic excuses the whole time, and John snickering and snickering in the background.
And during the gig it struck me for the first time—I'd known it before, but it struck John for the first time, I realized just how smooth and shallow the music was, how little effort it took, like paint-by-number — and for the first time I felt too impatient with it to stay in the lines. During Tucumcari Mary, I threw a few unexpected riffs into the bass line, shook it up a little, and I could see how it startled the others, the way they gave me and then each other uneasy looks, so that I couldn't help but do a little more of it, an old lick from Bitch Slap and then one from Snakes in My Head. John was running my fingers, getting off on it, and he was as much a misfit here as he'd been anywhere but that was what he was used to by now.
During the break Larry took me aside to a corner and made me sit down. He looked worried. "Ox, level it out, man. Don't fuck up here. You just settle down, do it the way we rehearsed it."
All I could do was shake my head.
"Ox. You OK, man?" His voice sounded strange, and I looked up at him. Scared, fear behind his eyes and in the way he held his head. He'd heard the stories, of course, they all had—and they'd talked about me, the megaphone had told me exactly what they said about me when I wasn't there, told me about the guns they kept behind the amps and in their pockets to protect themselves, for that moment when I would snap ... but no, that's Joe who has the gun, right? In his pocket, on stage, in the van, and it's not for me, he doesn't give that much of a shit about me to even— No. He's dead, I told myself, he's gone and there are no guns here, and I'm OK.
Larry was still watching me, waiting for something, and I pulled up a random sentence, trying to explain. "I don't like LA."
He took an awkward grip on my shoulder and squeezed. "It's just one more day, guy. Mattie'll be here tomorrow, right? She'll take care of you. Just hang on. Hang loose."
"I-I don't belong here, do I?" I didn't know who was talking, Ox or John.
"Hell, none of us really belongs in this fucking city," he said, with a forced heartiness. "We'll be back home soon enough."
"No, I mean I don't belong here." I was trying to find words for what my hands were saying, gesturing around at him, at Chico and Duane, at Larry's mandolin and the cowboy hat sitting on the piano. "I don't belong with you."
"Ox—c'mon, man, don't get all—"
"I don't know where I belong," I told him.
"Don't—just play the notes, man, don't worry about this other stuff."
So that was what I did for the rest of the set, played the notes and kept everything else shackled down. Afterwards Larry asked, hesitantly, if I wanted to maybe bunk in with him, but he seemed relieved when I said no. Once we got back to the hotel he walked me up to my room, talking all the time, low-level music gossip about people I didn't know, and when we got to the door he waited while I got it open, and then he took hold of my shoulder again. "OK, now. Keep your head on straight, guy. Get some sleep. Tomorrow's the big time, national television. You need to have it together. Right?"
"Sure thing, Larry." I could tell my mouth was ticcing worse than usual, but I got a smile pasted on. "I'll be there."
He gave me a hard look, and a quick shoulder-punch, and then he was gone, and I went into the dark room and shut the door.
The rest of that night was bad. No way I was going to take another sleeping pill, and no way I was going to get to sleep. I had the headphones on probably before Larry got back to the elevator, like a junkie who couldn't wait to get out of the alley before shooting up, and I went through all the CDs for the third or fourth time. Every time I heard them they came through clearer, purer, a clean fix with no filler.
I don't remember a lot about that night. I remember dancing around the room, feeling the music pulling me further and further into orbit, a trajectory that was taking me fast and dangerous into the past, a hundred miles an hour on a hard turn and accelerating. I remember singing along, singing along with John, harmonizing with John and Joe on Something's Gonna Die, all raspy and off-key; the meds give me cottonmouth and dry throat so I can't sing worth a shit anymore, but I didn't care.
I remember that at one point, later, I was in the bathroom, kneeling in front of the toilet, with the lid and the seat up and my big bottle of pills in my hand, pouring them out into the palm of my hand and rolling them around and putting them back in and then pouring them out again, over and over, looking down at the quiet little pool of water and thinking about how it connected with the drain pipes, and the drain pipes with the sewer system, and all of it, in the end, with the ocean, and that I could just pour the pills away, pour them all down and send them away, out to be lost at sea, lost forever, and my sick mind with them.
I remember that—I don't know why, but I looked up then, with my pills in my hand, looked up at the big sheet of mirror, and that was when I saw him. I saw Joe, there, in the mirror, standing behind me, looking down at me. He had his long black coat on and his arms folded, a cigarette in his mouth and a little smile around the cigarette, and he was looking at me, looking at me. I knew that if I turned around he'd be there for real, and I couldn't do it, couldn't look. I closed my eyes and bent my head, gripping my pills as tight as I could, and said, "Joe—what does he want? What does he want with me?"
I wasn't even sure who I was talking about, if I was talking about Billy, or about John. I waited, listening to the words echoing around off the tile and glass, and when I made myself open my eyes again he was gone, and I was alone.
I put the pills back in the bottle, all but one, and that one I put on the back of my tongue and swallowed it down with some water. I shut off the light and wrapped myself up in a blanket and crawled under the desk, in the little kneehole space, and sat there, waiting.
That's where I was when it got light, when the world woke up, when Mattie arrived. I'd been listening to people go back and forth in the hallway, on the other side of the walls, voices, laughter, the maids wheeling their cart and chattering in Spanish. When I heard her open the door I wasn't afraid, I knew who it was, but I didn't feel quite ready to come out from under the desk yet.
I watched her walk in and set down her little carry-on bag and take a long careful look around the room. It was as if, with her there, I could see it clearly myself, for the first time in days, and I was suddenly a little abashed. At some point I'd ordered up a big roll of duct tape, had it delivered to the room, and I'd taped over the ventilator grills to block the air they were pumping into the room. I'd taped towels over all the mirrors, and over the TV screen, and taped one of the blankets over the windows at some point when I'd decided the light-shimmer on the ceiling wasn't a reflection from the swimming pool after all, was something far more dangerous and had to be kept out. I'd taped stuff on the walls, pictures I'd torn out of the magazines I'd bought at the airport, and the inserts from the CD cases that were strewn everywhere on the floor, among the dirty socks and shredded magazines and the big bags of pretzels—I like things that crunch, when I get nervous.
She surveyed it all, and finally she looked down and found me, in my cubbyhole under the desk. She didn't look upset, particularly, or worried, just a little tired. A tired human being, with sweat-marks under the arms of her t-shirt and her hair all awry. She stood there, clear and whole, in the middle of the crazy mess, and everything came into focus around her, and suddenly it was safe to come out. I hitched my way out from under the desk, and shed the blanket, and looked up at her, feeling the world wrap itself around her and start to make sense again. Like a jar in Tennessee, I signed to her, and she frowned, not getting it. I didn't care; it was such a relief to sign again, to come back into the language of silence. I tried to smile, tried to make it an apologetic smile, and went on, Did you have a good trip from your planet? How's the weather there?
It's one of our running jokes; I told her not long after we met that she was clearly a space alien, a visitor from a saner species, which she thought was pretty hilarious, and ever since then I'd ask her sometimes about the customs of people on her planet, tell her about stupid earth customs that people on her planet would surely find bizarre.
Now she just shook her head and signed On my planet we don't decorate with duct tape. She reached down, grabbed my hands, and hauled me up to my feet. Then she bent to begin picking things up, but I touched her shoulder and signed Show you some pictures?
She looked at me another minute, and then shrugged, and sat down on the edge of the bed, the one heaped with photographs. I sat beside her and gathered them together, shuffling them into a messy stack, and handed it to her.
She'd never seen them before. I don't believe she even knew for sure what the others looked like, Pipe and Billy and Joe. She knew the history of the band in general terms, what had happened and how it'd ended, but she'd never shown much interest in knowing the details. Maybe it had been that she was waiting for me to be interested in showing her.
It was unsettling, it made me shiver all over, to see her seeing them at last, to see my two worlds coming together, in this Los Angeles hotel room.
She went through the photos methodically, one at a time, flipping past some quickly and pausing over others. She held up one, a 5 x 7 of me up on stage in '86, the east coast tour, and with her fingertip she touched it, tracing little squiggly lines spinning off my head, the same lines she draws in the air when I'm getting wiggy, and then she looked at me with her eyebrows up, and I had to laugh, and nod, and I signed to her, Yes, hospital, two weeks later, and she nodded back.
She picked out another from a different tour, later, and I looked over her shoulder at it. It was another concert photo; at the top was the drum set, with Pipe flailing away behind it, but his head was cut off and only the blur of his arms was visible. In front were three mikes; I was at one, off to the side, turned away and looking down at my bass, and Joe and Billy were together by the middle one. Joe had one hand wrapped around a bottle, and the other hand hooked into Billy's belt. It was clear that at the moment the photo was snapped he'd just given a jerk and pulled Billy off-balance, toward the mike, toward him, because Billy was in the middle of some fluid motion, halfway between falling over on top of Joe and recovering his own balance, flailing with his guitar and yet somehow you knew he wasn't missing a note in what he was playing. It was like a stop-action photo of a cat in mid-fall, twisting itself over to get its feet underneath it. Mattie smiled, looking at it — it is a funny photo, I guess, although I'd never seen it that way before.
She looked through the rest, promo shots, snaps from backstage parties, and then at last she came to one she looked at for a long time, one I didn't remember, from some concert in some city I'd forgotten, some year toward the end of things. A smoky close-up of Joe and Billy, faces together, shoved right up to the mike. Billy's possessed by the music, rapt, sweating, ecstatic, head thrown back and eyes half-closed, looking partly at Joe and partly at nothing, and Joe—Joe's looking at nothing but Billy. His mouth is snarling, but his eyes ... his eyes give it all away.
She touched the photo with her fingertips, circling round the two faces, tracing the lines of energy swirling between them, until I could almost see them glowing in the emulsion, burning, electric, alive. I did see them; I saw.
I never knew how I knew the things I knew back then. I was never sure if I'd seen what I'd seen. There was no trust in me anywhere for myself, my eyes, my perceptions, no way to be sure of my knowledge. To be sure that I wasn't just making it up, just listening to the megaphone telling me stories again. But I'd known, though I hadn't known how I knew. And now, with Mattie—she'd shown me, let me see what had been in front of me but that I'd never been certain I'd seen. Let me see through the wall.
She pointed to Joe, touching his face so gently, and then raised that finger to her temple—a quick jerk, pull of a trigger—and she looked me a question.
I nodded. In turn, I pointed to Billy, and signed to her Meeting him tomorrow night. Come with me?
She looked at me a minute, and then looked around at the crazy mess I'd made of the room, clearly starting to figure things out. Looked back at me, nodded, signed With you. Yes.
Then she shuffled the photos back into a stack and got up. She began pulling duct tape off the walls and the vents, wadding it up in a big sticky ball with the pictures I'd taped up, ripping the towels free and piling them in a heap, gathering up bags of pretzels and setting them neatly on the dresser top. She gave me a little shin-kick in passing, pointed at the heaps of CDs, and I started putting them away. When she was finished picking the last bits of tape off the walls, she opened the curtains, wincing briefly at the flood of light. She set the room-service menu down in front of me and pointed emphatically first at it and then at me and then at the phone, signed going to the Getty, back later, have a good show, and headed out the door.
And in fact the show went fine. I was waiting in the lobby when the car arrived, and to Larry and Chico's obvious relief, I played exactly the notes I was supposed to and no more. I was introduced briefly to Belle, and she didn't look at me too oddly, which was only fair considering the whole right side of her own face was sagging down from the stroke. The TV lights were disturbing, but I managed to find a spot where they didn't hit me too squarely in the face, and I could tell the cameras were keeping away from me. The crowd was large and bovine, and the megaphone didn't say a word to me all evening.
When I got back to the hotel, Mattie was asleep, as I expected—she's up at 5, most days, and crashes out before 10. She'd left me a note on the bathroom counter: "You looked solid, but tell Chico that jacket is a mistake on camera, the weave reflects too much light. The best moment was when that guy with the really bad comb-over, whoever he is, leaned over and gave the guest of honor a big kiss on the cheek and you could just tell that if she could move her arm she would have clobbered him. If I ever have a stroke, please kill me." From anyone else that last would have been a joke, but I know Mattie well enough to know it was an honest request, one I'd feel compelled to honor if the need arose. She's got a few similar requests from me that I'd trust her to carry through on.
It warmed me up so much, to think of her watching the show, that when I slid into bed I fell asleep almost instantly and slept through the night, no noises, no dreams.
Next day I woke to her getting dressed and we had breakfast down in the cafe and she told me about the Getty, at considerable length. She had lots of choice words for the landscape architect and his plant selections, and I learned some interesting new sign-profanity. She was heading back, to look at the art this time, and after she left I spent the day mostly sitting by the pool, not thinking about much of anything, writing in my notebook, nothing at all about John or Joe or Billy or the past, just descriptions of Los Angeles and the concert, letting the sun toast me and working my way through a pack of cigarettes and several pitchers of iced tea. The hotel was filled with conventioneers, traveling in herds, name tags hanging around their necks, people whose identity and place in the world was so secure. I thought about making myself a nametag, but restrained myself. In any event, I wasn't sure if it should say "Ox" or "John."
And after what felt like a week or so evening came around. Mattie came back with the rental car, we had some dinner in the hotel, and then we drove off to look for Billy's house, me breathing deeply and trying not to think about anything but the traffic, Mattie studying maps and directing me with hand signals and giving me the occasional smack on the arm when I made a wrong turn. As we climbed up into the mountains, I could see the sun melting into gold and purple and orange puddles over the ocean, and then the sky turned deep velvet blue. We got lost a few times, in the winding back roads in Topanga Canyon, but finally the headlights caught the marker sign at the turnoff and we pulled up in front of a steel gate and I took a deep breath and buzzed the intercom.
A pause, and then "Yeah?" It sounded so much like the megaphone voice that I was scared speechless for a moment, and then, stammering like I fool, I said, "It's m-m-me." I tried to add "John," but it just degenerated into a bunch of hissing sputtering sounds, and the intercom said, "Shit, J-J-J-John, I'd know you anywhere, settle down. Come on in."
The gate swung open and I drove through, trying not to panic as it closed behind us, making myself breathe. Mattie rubbed my arm, took my hand and held it. She never seems to need to understand what I'm afraid of, when I get freaked, just what to do about it.
The road curved around a little berm covered with some kind of low sculptured shrubbery, and then the house came into view. For a moment I didn't know if it was a house, or—I don't know what I thought it was. A surrealistic bubble of glass and steel, blazing with light, that had touched down on the side of the hill. Below it was a paved patio alongside a pool, bracketed with palms, and below that a series of formal gardens terraced into the hillside, all surrounded with a high stone wall. A Disney jungle, with an ice palace in the middle.
I parked randomly and got out of the car, just staring at it all, and then Billy appeared at the door, and gave me a little wave, and it was—it was just Billy, looking about fifteen, as usual, skinny as ever, wearing a t-shirt and jeans. Seeing him there—the whole thing was so completely bizarre, so ridiculous, so familiar, that the fear and the shaking suddenly left me and I started laughing. It took me a minute to get my breath back and when I did I yelled, "You, kid, you better watch it, if security sees you they're gonna throw your punk ass out of here."
That got him laughing too, so it wasn't as tense as it might have been when he came up to me. "Hey. John." He gave me quick arm-over-the-shoulder half-hug, but I was still distracted, staring in through the wall-of-glass windows at the grand piano and leather sofas and Persian rugs. "Jesus christ, Billy."
He seemed a little sheepish, and a little genuinely, naively proud. "I know, I know. It's Maya's place, really, she got from her dad. We just manage to cover the taxes on it."
"Uh, yeah, I can tell you're hurtin' all right." When I finally made myself look away from the house and back at him I could see him staring at me with an odd expression. Up close he didn't look fifteen any more.
"What's with the—" He made a gesture toward his own mouth.
"Side effect of the meds. No big deal."
He shrugged, and said "Bummer," in a perfunctory voice. Then he turned to Mattie, who'd finally gotten all the maps folded up and herself untangled from the seat belt and out of the car. I watched him hard, watched his reactions and his expression—looking for the worst, hoping for it, maybe, for some excuse to write him off—but Billy's always been smooth with people. When he got a good look at her his face went blank for just a second and then he put on that cover-girl smile of his. I said, "This is my wife, Mattie," and when he made a tentative move as if to hug her she stuck out her hand and he shook it instead. The light from the house was shining full on him; I could see the lines in his face when he smiled, and could see that when he stopped smiling they didn't go away.
He took a breath as if to say something and suddenly halted, awkward. "Um. Uh, hi, uh ..." He looked at me. "I don't know how—can you tell her I'm happy to meet her or whatever?"
I signed to her The earth being sends greetings to your people. She gave me the little fuck-you gesture that's only in our lexicon, and then signed I don't think I'm the alien here. Damn house looks like a spaceship.
"She's pleased to meet you too," I told him. She was, in fact, giving him an openly curious once-over, which is unusual for her—people normally don't interest her all that much.
He led us over to some chairs on the terrace, next to the pool, and got us drinks from the wet bar —a beer for Mattie, juice for me. I watched him pour himself a half-tumblerful of gin, and splash a little afterthought of tonic on top.
"So." He settled himself into a chair, tipping it back, giving me a smug look. "Not bad, eh?" He gestured with his drink, at the pool, the gardens, the view out over the glittering spread of the city.
I still was having a little trouble taking it all in. "I tell you one thing, Joe'd sure be surprised to see all this."
That comment clearly didn't please him. He lost the smug look, and let his chair thunk back onto the pavement. "Yeah, well, fuck that, I made it without him." I didn't get more than a second to enjoy the sense of putting him off-balance before he went on, "Hey, sorry I didn't get to catch your set while you were out here." He didn't sound sorry. "Down at the CO-rral. You like that boot-scootin' music, eh?"
"It's a job. It pays the bills."
"Uh-huh." He gave me a sweet nasty smile and then let it go, smoking and looking out over the dazzle of the valley far below us. In the old days he would've been relentless about something like that, he would've played it till he got bored with it, which would have been a while. His boredom threshold seemed to be lower now.
"So—how about Jenifur? How's that going for you?"
He just moved his shoulders a little.
"I heard your latest." I'd ordered it along with the others, in fact, and had listened to it in the hotel room. I think it would've bothered me under any circumstances, but hearing it right after listening to our old stuff had been shocking. Technically proficient, cleanly produced. A pretty plastic shell with nothing inside but stale air, the smell of profit and expediency and bad faith.
I was ready to start giving him shit about it, about the reviews I'd seen—"Jenifur grows up," "Angry kids mellow out." But I was having a hard time talking to him, hearing him, getting him in focus. He'd always had the knack of disappearing even when he was still in the room, but now something was missing that had always used to be there even when he'd done his disappearing act, even when he was bored, or passed-out-drunk, or giving everyone the silent treatment, even when he was sleeping. I didn't know what to say to him, and I finally ended up just saying, "Didn't sound like you."
"Yeah, well ... Jenifur, they're ... they're not taking me anywhere any more." It was the way a man might muse about trading in his car. "I'm thinking about trying something different."
"Maya was saying she could get me a guest spot on the show." He sounded dreamy, the way he always used to sound when he'd talk about the band hitting the big time.
Maya Miranda Price, wife #3, was the star of a sitcom about an idealistic medical student whose pop-music-mogul daddy had died and left her his business to run. People seemed to think that the fact that Maya's real-life daddy was in fact a pop-music mogul made the whole idea audacious or insightful or something. I'd tried watching it once and hadn't made it as far as the first commercial.
He was going on. "Actually, I've been thinking about switching over to acting. Now that I got some connections. Tell Jenifur to go buy themselves a new guitarist. Fuck the music."
That rocked me back as hard as if he'd hit me. The one thing I'd never expected from him. "Billy—for christ's sake, you c-can't—what the hell do you—" I stopped and clamped my teeth together, and then I reached over and picked up his pack of cigarettes, lit one, inhaled. Mattie was watching me, watching us both, with dark sharp eyes. Feeling her there calmed me enough so I could finally say, all in one smoky breath, "You're not an actor, you're a musician, you have a gift, don't fuck with it."
He didn't say anything for a moment, seeming to be far away. "It's not the same anymore. The music. It hasn't been ..." He let that trail off, staring out over the city. Then he looked down at the table, picked up his drink and took a swallow. "Acting, I figure, you know—" He shrugged. "What the hell, how hard can that be?"
Mattie signed to me, quick clean movements, and Billy gave me a slantwise look. "What's she saying?"
It took me a moment to try to figure out how to put it into English. "She says, uh, if you had a, a hierarchy—" My hands echoed hers, more slowly, more clumsily, two vertical lines and steps going down between them. "Like, a ladder, if you were going down a ladder, you'd have, uh, prostitution, and then below that popular music, and then below that you'd have acting."
He gave a little wince/grin, the same look he used to get back when Joe would launch one of his harangues about the thieving scumsucker pimps in the music business, and then his face suddenly blanked. "Uh. Wait. How'd she know what—"
"She's pretty good at lipreading."
And at that Mattie got to her feet, gave Billy a cheerful look that had just a bit of apology in it and picked up her beer. She gave me a quick one-handed sign—zombie—and tipped her head at Billy, and then she was gone, heading off toward the walled gardens below the patio.
She thinks quite a few people are zombies, actually, and when we first knew each other I wasn't sure what she meant by that, or how literally to take her. When I finally asked, she'd only said Zombies. Dead, walking around. That's all. And shrugged. I still wasn't entirely clear on her criteria, but turning back to look at Billy, I realized that I knew what she meant in his case. What had felt off since we'd arrived.
Billy was looking after, his face a mix of betrayed and pissed-off. "So then I guess living off someone who makes his living in popular music, that's ... what would that make her?"
"She's not living off anyone. She's got her own business. Landscaping. She pays her own way. Not that that matters."
"That always matters, John, don't try and kid yourself."
In silence, we watched her move like a shadow among the thick tropical foliage, squatting down to poke in the mulch, examine a leaf, yank out weeds. Billy said, "Landscaping, huh?"
I took a sip of my juice. "Xeriscaping, actually, that's what she does. She's kind of an expert on it."
"Xeriscaping." He pronounced it zero-scaping, and gave me a sardonic look. "What's that, is that like, uh, landscaping for nihilists or something? No scape at all? Hey, I can see that, you just cover everything with cement, and paint it green. Punk gardening. I like it."
"No, xeriscaping is—it's like—when you live in a dry climate. Desert. People who end up in the desert—usually, they try to have a normal garden, a lawn, 'cause that's what they know. It looks normal to them. But what they don't understand, they don't get it that once you're in the desert you don't get to have that anymore. I mean, you can, but it's—the minute you stop dumping water on it, it dies. Because it doesn't belong there. But if you just go with what you have, if all that'll grow there is cactus and buffalo grass, then that's what you plant, you deal with it, that's the kind of garden you get to have. That's xeriscaping. It's just—" I could see him tuning out, I knew I needed to shut off the words. I couldn't let myself get nervous. "It's just playing the hand you're dealt. That's all. "
"Mm." He took a swallow of gin. "Gardening, that's Maya's thing. I don't know shit about it."
"You ought to tell her to look into it. This, I mean, where you're living here, this is desert, pretty much. It's not supposed to look like this." I waved my hand at all the lush greenery. "And the minute you hit a bad drought this'll all die. If you used native plants, and—"
He cut in, flat-voiced, sounding utterly bored. "John, this is truly fascinating and I'm so glad to be learning all about it, but I really didn't get you up here to talk about the fucking petunias. I need to ask you something."
I took a breath, reminded myself to feel how the earth was holding me down, solid and steady. "Yeah?"
"I need something from you."
I held myself still, not saying anything because words didn't feel safe.
"Just a few words. On a piece of paper. That won't put you out too much, right?" And he gave me the innocent-charm look, all Bambi-eyed.
Words. Words. "Just tell me what you want, Billy."
"I want you to write up a statement. Get it notarized." He lit a cigarette, not looking at me. "I want you to say that what you told Mary, back in Regina, that that wasn't true. That you were lying. And a letter to her. Same thing."
"What the fuck are you talking about?" Whatever I'd been expecting, that wasn't it. "Mary? Mary who?"
"In Regina, shithead. After the last concert there, when we—the tour, the last tour. We were in the dressing room, and—"
"Regina ... M-Mary the groupie? Is, is that who you mean?" I was trying to put it together, but my head had been knocked off the tracks.
"You were talking to her, god knows why, you shouldn't've been talking to anyone, you were out of your mind, and you—"
"I'd lost my pills," I said softly. That part I remembered. "I must not have recognized her."
"You'd lost your fucking pills, and you went batshit-psycho on us, and you told Mary some kind of freaky bullshit." He looked at me hard, and I think he could see that it wasn't coming back to me. "About me and Joe."
"I told her ..." Lost, looking at him for a hint as to what I was supposed to be remembering.
He gestured, expressively, eloquently, making a little motion with his head, dipping it to one side, looking at me, willing me to me to understand, willing me to not be a crazy clueless fool for once, to for christ's sake remember something without having to have it written down in front of my face ... but whatever I'd said, it wasn't coming back to me, only a quick image, a picture in my mind, Mary's face looking shocked, and — the photograph, the photograph is what I kept remembering, the photograph of Joe and Billy, with Mattie pointing to it like an oracle, and what I saw ...
It must have been clear on my face how helpless I felt; Billy gave me a strange look, disgust and sadness and impatience all mixed together, and said "You really don't remember a fucking thing about it, do you?" He leaned back, took a deep drag on his cigarette, blew it out hard. "OK. All right then."
He set down his cigarette, reached into his back pocket, and pulled out a piece of paper that was folded up tight into a little rectangle. Held it up with that sweet-nasty smile, talking in that sweet-nasty singsong voice he uses sometimes when he needs to clearly convey that you're an idiot. "Letter. From Mary. Came a couple of weeks ago. Allow me to share, as we say here in California." He unfolded it, smoothing it flat with his palm, and started reading in a whiny little not-quite-falsetto voice. "Dear Billy, Before anything else, I should tell you Fred doesn't know I'm writing this.'"
I held up my hand. It seemed essential to me to get every detail tacked down. "W-wait, who's Fred, is that her husband?"
"Lawyer." He rattled the paper, impatiently, and went on. "Let's see, I can skip all this shit about her therapy—as far as I can tell she plans to be in therapy for the rest of her life, with Adriennnnnnne." The name was a sneer. "Oh, hell, let me give you a taste of this. I've been going through some very deep and intense processing lately. It's incredible—I'm learning so much about all the ways I've been wounded, on the soul level, my whole life, and how much healing I have to do." He stopped. "Wooouuunded," he said, in a snivelly voice, and then spat on the patio.
"I ... I wish you wouldn't do that. Read it out loud just, just to make fun of her. I—wish you wouldn't, Billy."
He looked at me for a minute, neutrally. "OK. Let's see ..." He scanned, muttering the words "Most importantly, I've become aware of how powerfully I've been attracted, over the years, to those who are also deeply wounded. That surely was what drew me to all of you in the band, and to you and Joe especially. Let's see, blah blah blah, dysfunctional relationships with women, blah blah chemical abuse, blah blah fucking blah." He looked up at me. "I guess after all I can't give you too much shit about how you pick 'em."
It suddenly struck me that I didn't know if Mattie had ever been to a therapist. It seemed utterly unlikely.
"OK. Here we get to it. Um ... I know now should have put the pieces together much earlier, but I was so deeply in denial that I just couldn't see it until it was pushed right in my face. I can't tell you what a shock it was, how much it hurt, when I learned the truth, that horrible night in Regina, when John told me—" Looking up at me, nailing me with his eyes, as he ended the sentence, apparently from memory. "—about the sexual assault that Joe perpetrated on you."
He gave me a hard little grin, tipping his head to the side. "Yeah, that was kind of my reaction too." He ground his cigarette into the ashtray, sat back.
I put my hands over my eyes. It's one of the worst parts about being crazy, this feeling that I've left land mines strewn all over my life and everyone else's, and I never know when I'm going to step on one that I don't even recall setting and I'll be blown to shreds.
"So where did that come from, Johnny?" Billy's voice was tight and hard. "What part of your fucked-up head came up with that shit?"
"I ... I never ..." Nothing about that night was coming back to me. "I don't know what she's talking about."
"Just for the record, what the fuck did you tell her?"
"I don't ... I c-c-can't remember." I held out my hand. "Look, can I just see that?"
He hesitated, and then leaned over, holding it out. "There it is, John. Black and white."
Mary has a loopy backwards handwriting and it took me a minute to locate the words. Sexual assault. Sexual assault. I read it over and over ... horrifying truth. John told me. Sexual assault that Joe perpetrated on you. John told me. John told me.
Finally I made myself jump on to the next paragraph. I tried to forget it, to bury it, just as I'm sure you've tried to bury the entire trauma, but I've learned better now, that you can't repress such things without doing further harm—to yourself and everyone around you. They have to be worked through. That's what I'm hoping you'll do, Billy. That's what I need you to do, before I can trust Willa to your care again.
I looked up. "Willa?"
"The kid. Mary won't let anyone call her 'Billie' any more, that was the first thing to go when all the custody shit started." He picked up his drink. "Identity confusion," he said in a plummy academician's voice, and took a deep swallow of gin.
I read on. I'm enclosing the names of some excellent therapists in the LA area, on Adrienne's recommendation, and I need to know that you'll start seeing one of them. I can't let you continue in denial any more, Billy, it's too painful for me to think of you being trapped where I was for so long. And knowing how patterns of sexual abuse repeat themselves, I certainly can't allow you any unsupervised contact with Willa until I know you've begun working through your own abuse history. I'm going to be very assertive about setting that boundary, and with Adrienne's support I know I have the strength to take it back to court if necessary. I don't want to do that, but I'm going to trust that you know deep down this is for your own good, that you can't keep things buried forever. Billy, I'm so sorry, I know this must be very painful. I realize it probably all began with your own parents, and if at any point you want some support in confronting them, let me know and I'll be there. I do care for you, as a fellow rape survivor if nothing else.
I put down the letter. "She's nuts."
He gave a hard little laugh. "Well, good to have that verified by the expert."
I held on to the letter another moment, just looking at it without reading the words. It was pretty stationery, cream-colored with a deckle edge, but Mary's handwriting looked dangerous, snaking around over the paper. Finally I handed it back to Billy.
He took it, refolded it and stuck it back in his pocket. Shook his head, giving me a more-in-sorrow-than-anger look. "Sometimes I just can't believe you, John. But—" He pointed a finger at me. "Luckily, you've got a chance to make it right."
"Uh. And ... so ... you want ..." I was adrift, his words echoing around in my head but not making any sense, slipping away from me. I almost asked to have the letter back, so I could read it once again, but I knew that would piss him off.
"You weren't listening, John. Pay attention." He spoke with the exaggerated patience and volume of one talking to a farm animal or a small child. "Letter. Deposition. You lied. That's all. Got it?"
"I lied," I said slowly, staring at my hands, trying to feel my way into the truth of things. "About the way things happened ..."
"About everything." I looked up at him. "Nothing happened." He was giving me his blandest, most guileless look, the choir-boy face.
I must have looked as bewildered as I felt, because he sighed, loudly, and started again. "Nothing. Happened. That's what you're going to tell her. You were crazy. You made up some shit. You were joking around."
"W-w-wait. Wait, wait, wait. You want me to tell her nothing happened?"
He looked straight at me. "Nothing happened."
It floored me. Of all the scenarios I'd imagined ... "Billy—"
"John?" Innocent, blank, teflon.
"It—you—" I gestured feebly, meaninglessly. "Things happened."
He hadn't taken his eyes away from mine for an instant, but now they went softer, full of treacherous sympathy. "John, look, hate to say it, man, but you were fucking out of your mind a lot of the time back then. I was there, I saw you. You don't remember how bad it was. Do you? You made up a lot of weird shit, didn't you, John? Staring out the window of the bus all night, writing all that stuff in your notebooks ..." He lit up another cigarette, never looking away, holding me like a cobra. "You saw a lot of things that weren't there, didn't you? You know you did. You were crazy. I was there, I know you were. So do you."
"Don't do this." I put my hands against my eyes, trying to break free. Pressed hard. "I didn't. Not that. Not that. I didn't—I couldn't have made that stuff up. I, I, I ... I heard things."
Billy went on, his voice just a little harder. "All you heard, John, were your hallucinations, and I'm not blaming you, you couldn't help it, but—
I put up all the walls, trying to shut him out, reminding myself about the time Billy'd convinced a motel manager that it was some unknown biker gang who'd broken in and trashed the room, the time Joe had OD'd and Billy'd persuaded the Kamloops paramedic that he was just hypoglycemic, the times he'd told Joe he'd never leave the band ...
He was still talking, trying to wrap his words around my brain and tie them in a knot and then tighten it up, and I didn't have the time to get my own words straight, all I could do was just open my mouth and let them run before they were strangled. "Billy, Billy, shut up, shut up and let me talk, cause I know, I know what I heard, I know that—in the, in the hotels, those cheapshit hotels we used to stay in, you'd stick me and Pipe in one room, and you and Joe would be in the other one, next door, and I could hear, I could hear you, on the other side of the wall—"
"You used to eavesdrop, John? What, you put a glass up against the wall or something? That's fucking pathetic, you're telling me that—"
"I couldn't help it, you think I wanted to hear? I didn't have to do anything, I couldn't help it, the walls, those places, they were so—" I was waving my arms— "you could hear anything. Anything. And it was like, it was just like back home, just like that house I grew up in, when I was a kid, and the walls, they were like cardboard, and they'd lock me in and I didn't want, I didn't want to hear anything after I heard the door lock, cause I knew, I couldn't keep from hearing it even if I put my fingers in my ears, I couldn't stop hearing it, the noises, and I could tell—"
"John, would you just settle the fuck—"
"I could tell she was getting hurt, I was so—I was so fucking scared, Billy, just from the sounds, the noises she made, I couldn't tell what was going on but I knew it wasn't good, it couldn't be good, she was getting hurt, and I couldn't do anything about it, I couldn't help, cause you'd locked me out, and that's not family, Billy, you and Joe, it was never family, just another one of Joe's fucking lies, I don't know what it was but you locked me out and you were on the other side of the wall and—and someone was getting hurt. And I heard it." I was panting, staring at him. "Don't tell me I didn't hear it."
He was staring back at me with that look, that look I'd seen on Larry, on the people in the airport, that fear, that revulsion. The look that says You are Out There. You are Over The Line. You're not one of us. I swallowed, and swallowed again, trying to get my breath back. When he finally spoke, his voice was like knives. "What you heard, John, what you heard were the fucking voices in your fucking head. Freak." There was nothing but hate in the word, no affection at all, not at all the way it was when he threw it at Joe.
"Mr. Honesty." He picked up his glass and drained the last half-inch of gin in one fast swallow. "Mr. Nothing But the Fucking Truth. You lied, John, and you're going to tell her that, just the way I told you to. Right? You're going to—" and then he stopped abruptly, looking off to one side, looking at something. Someone. Someone was there. I was afraid to turn and look myself. Certain that Joe would be standing there, watching us, carrying truth in his eyes. Some truth that neither Billy nor I was ready for. But when I made myself turn and look, at last, it was Mattie, come back up from the garden, Mattie, small and fierce and solid as a tree stump. I had to blink several times to get her into focus, my eyes didn't seem to be working. I lifted my hands, clumsily, and signed to her On your planet ... on your planet it's very quiet. Can I go live there?
She was staring, not at me and not at Billy, maybe at the space between us, whatever was swirling around there, dark things. I wanted to see it, I wanted to see the swirls, wanted to see them gather and focus and swirl to her and be grounded, taken down into the earth and buried.
Instead she signed to me I'm going outside this fucking wall. Take a look at what grows here, where they haven't fucked it up. Then a hard solid stare at me. You're sitting right here on planet earth. You're OK. You settle this. And then she turned and walked off past the car, down the driveway.
I turned back. Billy was staring after her. "Where the hell's she going."
"She's ..." I made a vague circling gesture, toward the outside world. "She'll be back."
He picked up his empty glass, frowned down at it, set it back on the table, and sat back, rubbing his face. I kept looking around; it seemed all wrong, suddenly, that Joe wasn't here. I couldn't believe he wasn't here. Billy looked so alone, I realized, alone and tired, deep lines in his face, smaller than he used to be, hollow, empty. All of a sudden I could see how he'd get old, shrivelling down into a wizened little jockey of a man. A lizard, scaled over. Lizard on the dry rocks, in the dry land.
I opened my mouth to say something and was surprised at what I found coming out. "We are the hollow men," I told him conversationally. "We are the stuffed men, leaning together, headpiece filled with straw. Alas!" I was snickering, all of a sudden.
"John, what the—"
"Our dried voices, when we whisper together, are quiet and meaningless as wind in dry grass, or rats' feet over broken glass in our dry cellar." I could feel the rhythm of the words, the vibration in my spine, like the music used to feel.
"Those some new lyrics you're working on?" He took out a cigarette, lit it. "I don't think those'll work in country-western, Johnny, you just stick to your bass lines."
I reached over and snatched the cigarette out of his fingers, grabbed his wrist when he reached to snatch it back, took a drag, blew the smoke out in his face, and told him, "Those who have crossed, with direct eyes, to death's other Kingdom, remember us—if at all—not as lost violent souls, but only as ... the hollow men, the stuffed men." I knew it was my mouth saying the words, my breath, but the voice I heard—it was Joe, Joe talking through me. Joe's voice. I knew it was the last time I would hear it, that it was goodbye.
Billy wrenched his arm away and sat back, breathing hard, eyes narrow. "Crazy. Crazy fucking schizo." He rubbed his wrist for a minute, and then suddenly grabbed his glass and walked away, over to the bar, and poured himself another triple shot of gin, not bothering with the tonic this time.
He came back and sat down. "So. Enough of this shit, John, I don't have time for—"
"Why are you doing this, Billy?" I was sitting on planet earth. I knew it, I pushed my feet down hard against the ground to remind myself. Settle this.
"I told you, asshole, it's—"
" It's not the kid, is it? I mean, jesus christ, Billy, you have no more use for a kid than for a—a Russian wolfhound. And it's not even Mary, I mean, I know you can't stand for her to win a round, but you didn't need to do this to beat her. No court in the world is going to pay any attention to some crazy shit that some board-certified psycho told her after a rock concert five years ago."
I paused. He didn't say anything.
"No. It's Joe. It's Joe, isn't it? You're trying to get rid of him, aren't you? All this bullshit with Mary and the kid and the letter and whatever else, that's just—smoke. You're trying to get rid of him." A little flinch. "Cause he won't go away, right? You can't fucking get rid of him, and so you want me—you want me to kill him for you. Do your dirty work."
"Shut up." He said it almost absentmindedly, staring off over the valley, the sprawl of lights, his hands, those quick sure guitarist fingers, fumbling, fumbling with the pack of cigarettes.
"Revisionist history, right, Bill? Make it so that it never happened. You're good at that, you're good at rewriting, Billy, always were. So I'm thinking—if you needed me to help, that must be—one—big—fucking—rewrite."
"Fucker won't stay dead, will he? It's OK, Billy, I know that—I know zombies walk the earth, did you know that? Joe's not in his grave, you know that, Billy, and—"
"John, I'm fucking warning you—"
"—and so where is he, you ever wonder that? Late at night? You ever wonder? I'll tell you what, Billy, I saw him, I saw him here in LA, just the other night. Maybe he's got some old business with you, Billy? You think so?"
He moved then, so fast he knocked his glass over, I heard it smash against the pavement, and he grabbed my wrists, hard. "I'm not listening to any more of this crazy shit."
"You want to listen to the truth?" I could feel myself grinning, so hard my face hurt. "Not anything out of my head, Billy, no craziness, just black and white, documented fact, certified reality. You ever read the police report, Billy? About that night? In Edmonton?"
He went quiet, still holding my wrists. "What're you talking about?"
"I got hold of a copy, cause I had to see—I wasn't there that night, you know, body only, not really there, and I had to know—I had to know how it'd gone down, I had to know what happened. You were back down here before his body was cold, I know that much, and I bet you never—you never knew ..."
"Never knew what?" He let go of me, slowly, sank back down in his chair.
"You never wondered about it, did you? You never knew—" Evil snaky truths that had slithered around in me for years, finally making their way out. "Two bullets. He had two bullets. In that gun, that night. You never, you never knew that, did you? You didn't know."
I wasn't sure if he'd understand, but Billy's never been dumb. I could see it hit him, and before he could even think he blurted out, "So why didn't he—" Then he shut down again, picked up his pack, shook out a cigarette, lit it. I could see his hands shaking. When he spoke again, he sounded calm. "So what. He only needed the one."
"Sure, he only needed one, one for himself. He had two. Two. That whole night, during the whole set, all the time we were up on stage, he had that thing in his pocket with two bullets in it. You didn't know that, did you? You wonder why he did that?"
"Who knows why that asshole did anything he did. I don't waste my time thinking about shit like that." He reached out with his foot, kicked a glittering shard of broken glass, hard. It spun across the flagstones and fell with a plop into the swimming pool.
"You want to tell me who that second one was for? You want to tell me what it means, that he had two and he only used one?" My head was pounding, that familiar birthing pain of something I didn't even know I knew, forcing its way out. "Means you're living on borrowed time, Billy. Means you shouldn't even be here." I tried to slow down, take some breaths. "Every single thing you've had since that night, Jenifur and this—" I waved a hand at the house— "this fucking spaceship, and the music, and those three poor bimbos who married you, and that cigarette, and all of it ... all of it comes to you courtesy of Joe Dick. You owe him. You'll owe him every single fucking thing you'll ever have for the rest of your fucking life." I was laughing. "Shit, he owns you, man. You belong to him. You'll never get away from him now. Every single breath you take—"
I was expecting him to hit me, I was really prepared for that, it's what he used to do sometimes when I got out of control. But he didn't, and it was then I knew that this wasn't really Billy any more, any more than this was John sitting across the table from him. Something had broken in both of us. Something was gone.
He shoved his chair back with a screech, and walked fast over to the bar, and stood there a minute looking around at his house, his pool, his view. Then he got out a new glass and poured it full of gin, started to put the bottle back, hesitated, and brought bottle and glass back to the table with him, set them down.
He lowered himself slowly into his chair. I could hear bits of glass grinding under his sneakers. He took a drink, coughed a little, and then put his elbows on the tabletop and put his face in his hands. We just sat for a while, in silence.
"So. Why didn't he?" His voice was muffled by his hands, I could barely hear him.
"Why didn't he? Use 'em both?" He moved his hands away, looked at them, set them palm-down on the table. "You're so fucking smart, John, you have so fucking much—insight, into human nature. You tell me that."
I looked at him but all I could see, in that moment, were the photographs, as if the Billy in front of me, the living man with the lines in his face and the slumped shoulders, was less real than those ghosts in silver nitrate. "You know why he didn't."
He said nothing at first. He picked up the dwindled butt of his cigarette, knocked the ash off, used it to light up a fresh one. For a minute I thought he was just going to let things go at that. But then he said, "Yeah. I know."
Silence again. I had no words left to say, and he didn't seem to either. We sat while he smoked down that cigarette and started to put it out in the ashtray, and then suddenly seemed to change his mind and tossed it in the pool, after the broken chunk of glass. A phone started ringing somewhere in the house, faintly, but he didn't seem to hear it.
And then I saw movement, out of the corner of my eye, and turned to see Mattie, striding up the driveway, signing vigorously and throwing in a few pungent gestures. Billy looked at her without interest. "What's she saying?"
I couldn't help but laugh. "Says that first of all your gardener's a stupid prick who's wasting hundreds of gallons of water, and that if he was here she'd kick his ass."
Billy didn't laugh. "Fuck, it's just water. I can pay the water bill, I mean, we can afford it, what the hell. Maya likes the garden the way it is, what's the big deal?"
I didn't sign any of that to her; she could read his lips just fine, and she kept going, hands moving sure and fierce, talking about critical levels of creosote in the manzanita underbrush outside the fence, and the inevitability of fire, come the next lightning strike or careless idiot with a cigarette, and Billy jumped in, "Translation, hey, John?"
I told him, "She's a little concerned about the stability of the hillside, your house—" while trying to follow her hands, which were flying, prophesying fire, and then rain, mudslide, and then this stupid phony house smashed to shit at the bottom of the canyon. Tell him that.
"—in the next, uh, flood, it could—it could wash away, and—you'd be, you and Maya—"
He waved it away. "Shit. Who cares. Who fucking cares." A moment's hesitation, and he added, "I probably won't be here then anyway."
I nodded. Mattie let a moment of silence pass between us, and then she tapped me on the shoulder and signed You done here?
I picked up my glass of juice and drained the last of it. My throat hurt. "Billy. I'll mail you a signed release of information. You want the psychiatrist to certify I was crazy back then, fine, he'll certify it. Do whatever you want with it." I paused. "And then we're through."
He didn't look at me, didn't look at Mattie. He picked up his glass and bottle and cigarettes, and then got up and walked back to the house. I heard the door close behind him. I put a hand on Mattie's arm and stood there a while longer, watching the lights go off in the house, one after another after another, until it was just a dark shell of ice glittering faintly in the moonlight. Then we went back to the car and drove away.
Four hours later we were on the plane back to Austin. We'd gotten a three-across to ourselves, and as always I took the window seat, while Mattie pushed up the armrests and lay down with her head on my thigh and fell asleep. Most of the cabin lights were out, and the stewardesses were mercifully leaving us all alone.
I had my notebook out, not writing anything much, just notes about things to do when I got home, take the dog to the vet for his shots, get the car tuned up. Mail Billy the information release form. I thought for a minute that maybe I'd slip a postcard in there too, in the envelope, with a note written on the back: You can't ever have it back and you can't ever lose it. Live with it. And a picture on the other side, a photograph of the desert. I knew I probably wouldn't, though.
The moon was hanging at the top of my window, a lopsided, just-past-full moon. It looked pale and dry as bone, and didn't seem all that far away from me. I stared at it until I could almost imagine myself on it, walking in the moon-dust, breathing the no-air. Then Mattie shifted her head on my leg, sighing, and I looked down at her. She was frowning in her sleep, thick brows drawn together. "My little Ewok," I said to her. I call her that sometimes, and if she knew, she'd clobber me good. But she can't hear it, of course, and fortunately "Ewok" is impossible to lip-read.
The Ewok and the zombie ... it had taken a long time—in fact, it wasn't until after we were married that I'd gotten up the nerve to ask her if she thought I was a zombie. She'd looked surprised, and then grinned, and said Sure. Difference is you know you are. No problem.
I turned to the window again, looking down. The sight of the desert sliding by, far below me, reminded me of my old friend the flying dream. I haven't had that one in a long time; I guess I don't need it any more to scare myself with. I know that someday I'll fall for sure and for real, someday when the TD spreads and gets worse and takes my hands, gives me the finger-spazz that will take away my music for good and keep me from being able to sign to Mattie. When that happens—then it'll be time to let the orbit decay and to re-enter the atmosphere. I don't dream or worry about hitting ground, though, not any longer. I think I'll burn up on re-entry, and turn to gas and ash long before I reach earth.
When the knot was cut, the knot that held us all together, we broke apart, we spun away, in all directions, each alone. We spun away ...
Pipe dropped like a rock, he fell to earth I know not where. Joe ... Joe flared out like a nova, a beautiful bomb going off, one huge explosion, a bloom of flame, and then blackness. Billy spun out into deep space, the long trajectory into the dark cold place, and he's burning out slowly there, all the time, a cold blue flame with no heat to it at all. It burns low but it'll burn him away, long before he ever makes it back.
And me—I'll never make it back, either, I'm still out in orbit. Ox is planted safe and sound in the dry land, in his little house, with the cactus in the yard, but John is still out spinning through the stars.
Let him go. I can let him go. Mattie's head on my lap holds me down, safe and solid, makes me safe on an airplane, for the only time in my life. This, this hanging between the moon and the desert, it's as much space travel as I need. I left the CDs in the hotel room, I put the photographs in a dumpster. Tomorrow I'll be back at the Tampico, doing the set, and Mattie'll be back to telling her next client you can't grow dianthus in Austin. I hear a ping on the airplane loudspeaker—not the megaphone, not this time, just the pilot. I know what he's about to tell us. We're beginning our descent.