Excerpt From War On Sound
Well, I Mean, Listen
Thrillsville is a skinny Ninth Avenue café that serves martinis at night and houses a bellows organ no bigger than a stand-up piano. Scott comes here late weekday afternoons when the coffee crowd is over but Happy Hour hasn’t begun. While business is quiet, the bartending baristas don’t mind if he slides a paint-drizzled canvas off the organ and sits blocking the men’s room.
He plays Paul & the Patients and the Dodos, singing along at a coolly low decibel at first but usually losing his head by the bridge. He plays Foreign Born and Free Energy (“…you said there’s nothing to wait for, there’s nothing to know…”), but all those numbers are very three years ago and when any woman comes alone into Thrillsville, he switches to the new Shins single, pumping the foot pedals, slapping the single row of keys, and thinking how quirky and attractive and retro he must look.
Today he watches an unfamiliar dark-haired woman step in out of the cold. Yes, for her he plays “Simple Song,” and tries to make himself feel electricity coming up through the D-A-D-A-G-A-G-A, but he messes up the B-minor leaking into the chorus and it’s no good, he’s honking like a seagull. He hates himself and stops, and sees the woman sit alone at the bar; she’s broad and tall in a dark pea-coat, and announces that she’s returning from her grandmother’s funeral.
Mark, the hairy bartender, says, “Oh, geez. Sorry, Gabby.”
“I just got off the train from Bellmore. And it so happens I also just saw my birth certificate for the very first time.”
“Wow,” Mark says, working a dishrag inside a highball glass. Scott can’t help standing up and walking over. Gabby unfastens her coat, hoists a big velveteen purse—embroidered with Some Like It Juicy—onto the bar, and scoops her thumbs under curtains of hair.
“Yup,” she says, “apparently I’m adopted.”
“Holy crap,” says Scott.
She looks at him, but carries on. “My mother died when I was five. What I thought was my mother.”
“You’re in shock,” says Mark. “Let me get you a drink.”
“There’s something else,” she says. “Something.” She starts to sob.
Mark pours Campari into soda and Gabby draws down half the glass. Scott sees a song in these proceedings: the overcast winter light fuzzing the edges in here, the young woman scrabbling through her bag, the bartender and his liquid comfort.
“On my birth certificate. There’s no father’s name, but there’s a mother. Here it is. ‘M.L. Ciccone.’ I looked it up on my phone.”
“No shit,” Scott says. “No shit. What year were you born?”
Mark’s eyebrows rise.
Gabby empties her drink. Scott finds her features vaguely Asian, maybe Latina. She’s not beautiful, but she’s cool, underwhelmed even as she’s overwhelmed. She grins, her eyes are sad and wet, she sighs or burps into the back of her hand.
“I don’t get it,” says Mark.
Everybody looks at everybody with a secret in the air. The fact that nobody speaks seems orchestrated. Scott finds many moments like this in New York: pauses where young people seem about to express a well-worn truth by way of comfort and recognition—a secret code, a speakeasy password, the name of God—but veer away with averted eyes and dumb hushes, missing one another.
But Gabby is apparently desperate, because she puts the lie to Scott’s calculations. With full throat, she says, “I think my biological mother might be Madonna.”
Somebody outside honks a car horn, which triggers five or six other honks, then a jackhammer, then a siren, and as that finally abates Scott hears the kick drum in his chest.
“The fuck?” Mark says.
Gabby almost laughs. “How insane would that be?” she says.
“I mean. Wow.”
“You have money problems?” says Scott. “Of course you do, everyone in the city has money problems. Poof. There they go, bye-bye.” Then he thinks the financial aspects of this situation are obviously beside the point, and bringing them up has painted him crass. He tries to smile with complicated irony.
“My grandmother raised me, and now she’s gone. But instead of just being sad, this is what I get. Why do it to me now? Today the lawyer comes up and hands me an envelope with a birth certificate in it.” She looks at Scott. “Do we know each other?”
“What’s this like?” says Mark. “A Disney story. Born into poverty.”
“You know we weren’t poor,” she says. “My grandfather owned that boiler plant.”
“The princess and the something. You want a freshener?”
Gabby drops her head onto her folded arms and weeps. She shouts formless vowels, stuttering as she refills her lungs. Mark touches her shoulder. Scott is impressed by the volume of her contralto vibrating his skin.
Jane, a bartender early for the evening shift, enters the café and makes horrified eyes at the drama. But for some reason Scott is deep in this: maybe he’s drowsy from last night at the Grand Mal or maybe his head is still somewhere in the music, where characters in songs don’t let stories like this pass by. Anyway, he squints right back at Jane. When Gabby finally looks up again she’s a study in grief no cynic could forsake.
So they surround her, and one-by-one give her hugs. When his turn comes, Scott feels his libido kick in. He coughs and steps away.
“Show me the envelope, darling,” says Mark. “We’re gonna fix this for you.”
He calls Gabby darling—it comes out dwallin’ in his Long Island patois—because it turns out they used to date, which comes clearer to Scott when she tries to kiss Mark’s bearded cheek and he pulls away, pretending he hasn’t seen.
Gabby agrees to go home and sleep, and after she’s gone Jane says, “When was she born? My sister used to be, like, obsessed with Madonna. I saw Truth or Dare a hundred times when I was little. She put that DVD on after church and I used to think God must look like Warren Beatty.”
“Born May 2, 1991,” reads Mark. “St. Luke’s-Roosevelt, five blocks from here. Mother’s address on Central Park West. Baby’s weight: seven pounds. That’s it.”
Jane preps herself a coffee drink, raises her eyebrows at Scott to see if he wants anything. It’s unclear whether she’s offering for free, so he declines. “This should be easy,” she says. “Aren’t there, like, Madonna timelines?”
“I need a gasper,” Mark says, removing his apron, gesturing to Scott that he should follow him outside. In the cold they’re both already breathing smoke; Mark lights up and offers the pack, but Scott is paranoid about doing something to his voice. “We don’t want that one involved,” pointing through the window at Jane: her button-down sweater and horn rims. “Trust me.”
“Sorry, man. The way you looked at Gabby, I figured you were interested in her.”
Scott’s thoughts go to his songs. It’s a shame-calculus: first he experiences the shadow of what his life is supposed to be at 25—established career, serious relationship with a smart and beautiful admirer of his work—and in self-defense he leaps to what he considers the best part of him, the reason for his loneliness and posing, the thing for which he sacrifices. He tried playing a new song provisionally called “Garlic Whiskers” at the Grand Mal open mic last night. It sounded all right for a minute, then needed drums or something.
“You’re a smart dude,” says Mark. “What do you think? Check out the hospital? Try and call Madonna’s record company or her agent or something?”
“Well, I mean,” feeling a minor endorphin buzz for having been called smart. “I guess I wonder what’s the point.”
“The point is find out the truth for Gabby, let her decide. Everyone’s dead, but the grandmother gives her one last shot at family. From beyond the grave!”
“And if that family happens to take the form of a millionaire superstar.”
Mark tries to draw a dollar sign on Thrillsville’s window glass, but the steam is on the inside.
Scott says, “I’ve seen you carrying around a drum machine sometimes?”
“Yeah, hey you should come to one of our shows, dude. Standing gig every Wednesday night at Simplex up on East 83rd. Fun shit.”
Scott does calculations. Simplex is yet another new place where kids gobble ecstasy and hop around to EDM as loud as aircraft engines, so it’s easy for Scott to look down his nose. He says, “Well, all right. Cool, man.”
“Come on, help me figure this out,” says Mark. “I’m off work. What’s the first step, the hospital? I’m betting Gabby’d really appreciate it.”
Scott pretends to sigh. “I just have so much on my plate. I mean, all those episodes of ‘Judge Judy’? Plus my email won’t refresh itself a thousand times before dinner.”
“The address on Central Park West. I guess that’s where I’d go first, see if it’s Madonna’s place.”
So they walk north in slush and steam, first past mostly empty bars and restaurants, then up to Lincoln Center. The Philharmonic’s concrete bunker is bright with electricity, doing its best not to seem stodgy. The orchestra is away touring Europe; pennants portraying ductile ballerinas droop from light posts. 64th Street is a suffocated trench: double-parked trucks on each side, construction canopies shielding the sidewalks, metal tubing keeping pedestrians in line, so many impediments of such breathtaking variety that the idea of making eye contact with anyone is priceless. Scott and Mark are single-file. They catch momentary views of the lovely brownstones here, the scratching bare trees and wrought-iron window guards, but in New York beauty lays low behind its gates.
They find the right building, which has a courtyard sign that reads “All Visitors Must Be Announced” and a rent-a-cop in a booth. They tell him they’re looking for Madonna and show him the birth certificate; for some reason the guy holds it up to the light. Then, instead of shooing them away, he reluctantly phones upstairs. Mark elbows Scott’s ribs.
A giant black man in sunglasses comes down. Mark brandishes the certificate, and the man takes it.
“This is some shit,” he says.
“Go ahead and keep it,” says Mark. “I’m sure the hospital can make more copies.”
“Not if I burn the fucker down.”
“She’s really up there?” Scott says.
The bodyguard is noncommittal.
“How old were you in ’91?” Mark says. “I was six. How about you, Scotty? Anyway, I’m guessing maybe you didn’t guard Madonna’s body way back then. So maybe you don’t have what they call first-hand knowledge of the situation.”
“Have a good day, sir.”
“That’s it?” says Mark. “Your next visitor could be some reporters asking about how come she won’t admit her love child.”
The bodyguard folds his arms.
An idea occurs to Scott. He says, “What kind of singer is she, really?”
“I mean, you’re around her. There’s a bunch of production there, obviously, maybe some Auto-Tune. But maybe she sings in the limo. Maybe you catch her doing Adele in the elevator, right? You’re blown away?”
“Man, I ain’t talking to you.”
“Right, why would you? Unless she’s amazing, then I guess you’d probably defend her. If you didn’t say anything, that would kind of be an answer in itself.”
From behind his sunglasses: “Most talented person I ever met, dog. It’s ridiculous.”
“We’ll wait here,” says Mark. “C’mon, man. Just show her the paper.”
The bodyguard frowns and inhales. “Y’all dudes don’t get it. You know the shit she gets hit with every damn day? Y’all ain’t even the first to camp out here today.”
“But they didn’t come with documentation,” Scott says, thinly, he thinks, in the underdog’s voice that’s his by choice, the pose that fends off achievement.
“And gosh,” Mark says, “are we ever harmless. Look at us. No cameras.”
“You boys have a good one,” says the bodyguard, and he keeps the certificate and nods at the rent-a-cop in his booth, he’s gone, Scott looks around and Manhattan is huge again, the park over there, the cars, the noise. One side of his personality is maybe something of a mercenary. But it’s attached to the sad suckling at his core, happy to obey, sycophantic nodder, brow furrower, inventor of fake texts (so ladies at the Grand Mal—who are almost assuredly not eying Scott—might feel jealous about his profligate life), the one who finds an excuse to take late-night strolls up from 42nd to the Penthouse Club but never inside, instead maundering past the glass-enclosed lean-to out front and making innocent eye contact with the cigarette-smoking strippers, you can do better, look how easy it is to walk on by, can’t you see how the clean life of showing those magnificent breasts only to me would simplify things, we could wander together past the Intrepid and forget everything.
But what does Scott have to forget? He’s under glass himself. Life hasn’t quite begun.
“What do we do?” says Mark.
“There’s lights on all up and down the building. Let’s wait a few minutes. Maybe he’s showing it to her.” They cross 64th and sit on some short office stairs, out of the rent-a-cop’s sightline. Mark fidgets with his phone.
“What’s your band’s name?” says Scott.
“For a while we were The Failure. Now we’re Beta Synth, mostly because our DJ calls himself ‘Beta X.’”
“Axis of influences.”
“Hm…Daft Punk? Swedish House Mafia? A little Zedd mixed in? I mean, hopefully we’ve got our own thing. I used to have a guitar band: we covered Decembrists, Old 97’s, Blue Mountain, but playing for ten kids on somebody’s deck, y’know?”
“And the plan for Beta Synth is?”
“It’s three of us, we started out as a joke. Now we have this regular gig? X thinks we’ll get a tour, really start earning. But he’s kind of a dick, and if you want my secret opinion we’re not ready. But anyway, what about you? You got chops on the keyboard, man.”
“Me? No. Thanks, but no. I’m okay with a six-string. It’s actually stupid how many instruments I used to have. French horn. Wheatstone concertina, bass clarinet. Never got a good-enough-sounding keyboard, like, the organ in the coffee shop pretty much rules.”
“Wow,” says Mark.
“Yeah. I’m so great.”
“Naw, dude. You played on anything I’ve heard?”
Scott is flying now. “Shit, no. I’m not ready either, man,” knees jouncing, fingers playing chords on these cement stairs. Oh, he’s ready.
“Sounds like you live it, though. I go through periods where I try. Leave work, go straight home, make everyone get together and practice. But X’s girlfriend is having a baby, and my weakness is that I really, really like to get high.” Mark is bushy-haired, thick-bearded, muscled, streetlights now reflecting off his tinted glasses. He licks his lips and looks plaintive, jailed by his own social adequacy. “You play a lot, right? How do you eat, man?”
“You know those new apartment buildings on 42nd between 11th and 12th? I live in one, my brother’s got an extra bedroom. They give it to him as part of his pay, he superintends. I just intend.”
“Grow up in the city?”
“Boston ’burbs. Came here after college.”
“All day, nothing but music? I’m jealous, man.”
It’s been nearly two years. Scott’s parents and his brother are mostly patient, because they’ve seen dozens of musician biopics that reveal how rough the business is. Scott has worked his current rung on the ladder to a fine polish. He listens to old rock songs and writes lyrics and melodies and walks to Thrillsville and puts in time at the Grand Mal when basically nobody’s watching. He picks up a few dollars every month tutoring rich kids for their SATs. At holidays his parents offer patronizing smiles and occasionally his brother comes upstairs with torn fingernails shouting at him to get a job, and he imagines the judgment of former classmates and girlfriends, compares his stasis to his dreams.
“Then again,” Mark says, “if I had all day to play guitar, I’d probably wind up hooked on crack just for something else to do. I’m a fucking great one for not fucking playing guitar.”
“Hey,” says Scott, because there’s still enough light across 64th to see that the bodyguard has reemerged, and is looking around for them.
“Yo!” Mark says.
The bodyguard’s sunglasses are off, and he looks beleaguered. He says, “Baby, it’s your lucky day.”
“She wants to see us.”
“No. Y’all motherfuckers are about to look a gift horse in the mouth. Get it out of your head, you ain’t goin’ upstairs.” He hands back the copy of Gabby’s birth certificate. “It was one of her dancers.”
“She paid the bills, and put her name on there so the lady’s family wouldn’t know. She takes care of her own, man.”
Mark says, “Weren’t all her dancers gay dudes?”
“What’s the mother’s real name?” says Scott.
The bodyguard shakes his head, looks at the sky. “Well, I best be gettin’ back.”
“What, you want money for the name? Jesus, who the hell has money?”
“Son,” the bodyguard says, “I think what you learned today is you boys ain’t got any idea how any of this here shit works.” And he waddles back into one of the city’s most recherché addresses.
Mark gets in a cab and asks if Scott wants to come party out in Brooklyn. Scott knows he should. He’s lonely, wakes up some nights weeping over the long-departed family dog, gets his sleep schedule screwed up and then for twenty-four hours fails to see another human being in a city of nine million. But tonight he goes home and sniffs around the Internet. It takes half an hour to find the names of Madonna’s four female dancers circa late 1990.
One is a reality-show judge in Los Angeles. Two have Broadway careers. The last died in 2005. Scott finds the Twitter account of the reality judge, follows her, and sends: “@brillsheila - mission of mercy. trying to track down madonna backup dancer who gave secret birth in 1991 NYC. is it you?” and then he goes to bed. His brother Frank is either out wringing cocktails and female accomplices from the Meatpacking District, or else is fixing someone’s garbage disposal. Scott closes his eyes and counts backwards from a hundred, restarting whenever his cadence bobbles. It’s only 9:30. The high-quality windows in this luxury tower baffle highway noise, and blackout curtains cover those windows.
But his bedroom’s nighttime ceiling displays the songs he’ll never write. He panics, just lying there. Things are supposed to be better by now. He’s not supposed to be scrambling for open-mic time, competing against teens with laptops. He’s supposed to be efficient. Why can’t he write a song a day? What the hell else is he doing? These thoughts terrorize him and yet the experience is also tiresome, because he does this to himself every night, by reflex, as though to see how badly he can scare himself.
He finally falls asleep, then at 3 a.m. he wakes and the reality judge has written back with a direct message: “@scotttungsten - if this is for real, and I have my doubts, DM me a number where I can call you.”
Over in the corner, Scott has an exhaustive bootleg and soundboard CD collection of Spoon shows, probably the world’s foremost assemblage acquired via week after week of horse-trading and downloading. Leaning against the wall is his attempt at creating an Infinite Guitar—there are supposedly only three actual Infinite Guitars in the world, though Kramer and Fernandes both produced knockoffs—for which Scott spent a month learning about circuits and coils and soldering. On a table is his sculpture of Clearwell Castle, the gothic English mansion where Led Zeppelin recorded, made of hundreds of guitar picks painstakingly fused together by a hot-melt glue gun. And so it’s not a stretch to say that Scott recognizes his obsessive nature, though he excuses it as part of his artistic temperament. Tonight there’s a comfortable click in his skull, because a new quest lies before him. He types his phone number into Twitter and sends it across the continent.
She calls him at nine. She says, “If you’re recording this.”
“Well, if you are, for the record. It wasn’t me.”
Scott pictures her in a stainless-steel kitchen, looking out over the Pacific and drinking a kale smoothie.
“Hello?” she says. For a moment something is weird with the connection, and her voice sounds like a bee in a jar.
“I promise, I’m not your mother.”
“Oh, I’m not the baby,” says Scott. “It’s a friend of mine. Not really a friend, I just met her. We all saw the name on the birth certificate and started fantasizing about a reunion. And massive extortion plans, maybe.”
“Hwell. That’s honest. But y’know Madonna’s got kids. Anyway, I was there that whole entire tour. Multiple tours. What’s your name?”
“As long we’re being honest, Scott, when I got your tweet I was pretty sure you were TMZ. I dated one of our contestants and it got out of hand, well, I mean listen, they follow me around. But hearing your voice.”
“How old are you? You don’t sound like someone doing a money grab.”
“That’s because I’m not.”
“So this girl just wants to know who her mommy is.”
Scott paces his bedroom. “I don’t really know,” he says. “I don’t know her at all. She doesn’t even know I’m calling around like this.”
“So you want to…get with her?”
“Well that’s convincing. What, you’re gay?”
“I’m fascinated,” she says. “You’re fascinating me at six in the a.m., Scott.”
“I’m circling in on Madonna. I mean: on Madonna. I have this need to be near celebrities. I mean, I need it. Like, I dumpster-dive just hoping to see their used tissues.”
“Come on. I can tell you’re kidding.”
“What kind of singer is she?” says Scott. “You’re standing ten feet away, and she just knocks you over with the power and perfect pitch?”
“Yeah,” she says, “I mean, it’s been a long time. But sure: Madonna’s the real deal. She’s genuinely amazing. I’m having a hard time figuring out what exactly you want here, Scott. You said it was a mission of mercy. Mercy to who, if the girl doesn’t even know?”
“Just: none of the other dancers were pregnant either?”
“Not that I knew of. I remember one tour we lost a girl, but I can’t remember when that was. We’re talking twenty years ago. This is just curiosity with you?”
“Well,” he says, “I’m a musician.”
“Ah. Now I get it. Looking for a foot in the door. Looking for an audience. You don’t really believe there was a secret pregnancy. You’re manipulating this poor girl into a career move. I apologize, Scott, I misjudged your game.”
“Well, you can cross me off the list kiddo. What, the plan is catch the all-powerful Madonna in a lie, and that means the baby has to be hers? Then you spring into action and go, ‘Ah-hah! You owe me a recording contract!’ It’s funny, because I just went for a walk with my puppy this morning and we saw this toad on the street that had been flattened by a bunch of cars, and its arms and legs were all spread out like a cartoon character run over by a steamroller, and I was about to say that’s just what your voice sounds like. But now I know better.”
The weekend goes by. Scott tries not to pursue his line of inquiry any further. On Monday evening he gathers up his blue Ovation acoustic and walks past the 11th Avenue construction craters to the poor old Grand Mal on 46th. It’s a sunken brick room with a deep stage and a good p.a., which excuses the short barstools and the cinnamon/antiseptic bouquet. Stephanie is the owner’s girlfriend and the keeper of the open-mic list, and she sees Scott coming.
“Sorry you’re here,” she says.
“You’ve conquered us. There are better planks you could walk.”
Stephanie shrugs and scrawls his name.
The crowd is mostly other musicians, and it’s a kind fraternity. Nobody has made the mistake of being successful, so it’s easy for everyone to be generous. Just sitting here, Scott feels the others watching him. He’s been coming in longer than anyone and rather than producing comfort, this embarrasses him.
He’s seen the Hold Steady and Fountains of Wayne half-fill this place, and in crowds for such older bands he feels young. But not tonight. Everyone else in here now is just starting out; their faces don’t seem fully formed. Scott knows they’re probably scared, and aren’t judging him. He gets onstage and plays his crowd-pleasingest number, “Sliding Around In Socks,” to get everyone on his side. It’s a wimp move.
When it’s over a couple kids shake his hand and slap his back.
“Man,” says one, “that was a fucked-up level of awesome.”
“Thanks,” Scott says. “Thank you.”
“They should let you do a whole set. God, some of this shit is just painful.”
Scott smiles. He wants and wants.
“What’s your day job?” says a different child.
“Oh, just this.”
“That’s awesome. Are you in a band? You want to play with us sometime?”
“Well,” Scott says, “Thanks. You boys headed up next?”
“We got a drummer tonight,” the first kid says. “They’re finding an old kit to set up.”
Scott sits with these two moppets and drinks their beer; up on the stage a kid is plugging in his computer. The Grand Mal is an old-fashioned rock dive: one speaker cabinet is on top of a piano, another is perched on a larger, non-functioning amp and squeezed under an asbestos-looking duct, the place has old guitars affixed to its walls, plus an “In Utero” handbill from the Roseland (July 23, 1993: Scott was seven) and an outsized Jimi Hendrix silk-screen poster. But these days the Grand Mal is teetering toward bankruptcy, and only makes its rent when it can lure famous DJs Scott has never heard. The open mic isn’t all rock-and-folk anymore; onstage now, the kid drops a loud beat and dons giant headphones. He swirls in a Kelly Clarkson song, speeding it up to match his own rhythm. Scott sees several faces in the audience light up, sees many arms pump the air. The boys here at this table make gagging expressions.
“Congratulations!” one of them says. “You can click a mouse!”
But there’s still a way to do it playing actual instruments, isn’t there? Get discovered, get signed, get huge? Looking around the room, it’s an easy sharks-and-jets comparison: the players versus the samplers. But surely the pie is still big enough for everyone! Playing guitar is still a path to fortune and love! Yes, in here, Scott sees enough people bored by this DJ wannabe that he can imagine himself part of a majority…though he’s read dozens of veteran rockers complain that concert sales and contracts are drying up. You just have to be that much better, Scott thinks, that much more organized, that much more ruthless. It’s still possible.
The Kelly Clarkson remix ends, and the two young guys and their drummer jump onto the stage and plug in. They plink and plunk, tuning for several minutes, until the drummer—a full-figured woman with a pixie hairdo—gets impatient and taps out a rhythm on her rims, reaches around to grab a mic, and sings an off-key impromptu version of “Somebody That I Used To Know” which these days is on the radio every seven seconds. People sing along and it’s a little bit thrilling. Scott looks over at Stephanie, and she winks and makes a kissy face. The room is now inviting and magical, a home; tension leaves Scott’s ribcage. Onstage the trio finally plays and it’s terrible, the guitars can’t keep up with the drums, they miss notes and fumble over chords, but Scott sees the Grand Mal through happy eyes he wishes he carried around all the time.
When the night ends, he rides the chilly way back down. He politely declines an invite to drink at a warehouse club next door, packing up the battered old roundback Ovation like someone who has somewhere to be. He’ll eat something and work on a song.
But cold air shows him the truth: there’s an itch in his head he can’t scratch, and he exhales through gritted teeth as his phone sends him to the Wikipedia pages of Madonna’s other two surviving female dancers.
He meets the first on Tuesday morning. She’s a wiry lady in her forties he lures to a Times Square Starbucks by claiming to be the reality judge’s son. When he tells the truth she gathers up her giant handbag.
“I’ve never had a child,” she says. “It’s one of the compromises we make. The idea someone would go to these lengths just to get halfway close to a famous person, it’s pathetic. Do you kids really need to get close to fame that bad? Here’s a news flash: your every whistle and fart isn’t worthy of YouTube. You don’t wake up in the morning and deserve to be famous.” As she delivers this speech, she touches Scott’s arm. The contact makes him improbably lightheaded.
Late in the afternoon, he puts in his earbuds and stands outside a ballet school between Broadway and West End Avenue. The final dancer is a part-time teacher therein. Scott has no guarantee she’s here, but waits anyway. He listens to Spoon:
I know it could be worse
I’m not standing here
I’m not standing here
He doesn’t know what he wants. Well, he does. He wants out of this stupid maze he’s built. He has these routines and when he breaks them, as now, it’s some wild signifier. The only part of him that doesn’t want to keep waiting here is the part that’s still reluctant to start a conversation with a stranger. Britt Daniel sings, “Some people are so easily shuffled and dealt.” Little girls stream out of the ballet school.
Here come two female teachers down the stairs, enjoying some lively debate. Scott steps forward and says, “Sophie Vickers?” They tell him she’s inside.
He finds her alone writing something at a desk. She’s curly-haired with a cleft chin and well-defined bare shoulders. He tells her everything he knows.
“I haven’t seen Madonna for ten years,” Sophie says. “What a ridiculous time I had. I’ve never worked harder. It sounds like you already know what I’m going to say. I mean, I’ve never been pregnant. You’re on a wild goose chase.”
“There was one dancer who died,” says Scott.
“Yes. Miriam. Much later.”
“But I’m starting to think you’re all just a cover. I’m starting to think it really was the great lady herself. Who had the baby.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t spend enough time around her when we weren’t touring. I wouldn’t have known for sure if she was pregnant.”
He sits. This room is dust-moted, creaking like a wooden ship. Sophie wears a wedding ring and a sympathetic white smile. He puts his foot up on a table support, his elbow on his knee, his hand over his eyes. His fingertips are long since callused over from the guitar.
“You’re not recording me,” she says, “not writing anything down. You’re not a reporter.”
“But you’re chasing leads like a detective who wasn’t hired. You can see that’s a little troublesome?”
“I mean, don’t talk to me like I’m crazy.”
“No,” she says. “No, you’re not crazy. You’re in pain. But what do you have to be in pain about? You barely know this girl?”
“So what’s the difference who her mother is?”
“I think it’s really Madonna.”
“So what?” says Sophie. “So what if it is? You want to meet her?”
“No,” he says. “I don’t care about that.”
“Then tell me. Why are you in pain?”
Because the closed system of hard work is self-eating. Because to be judged is a knife in the side. Because when he’s clear-headed and honest, he’s not exactly sure what his dreams even are, whether he wants fame, whether he cares. Because he actually does try hard to be liked, and often isn’t. Because reaching out doesn’t work. Because he needs an excuse to try.
“I’m not,” he says.
“Well. Good luck with your case.”
He looks at her collarbone, which is symmetrical and deeply indented. He feels desire for her, that sinking hopelessness. He imagines the brownstone to which she’ll return, the well-hung husband, the clean kitchen and plentiful closet space. Meanwhile he knows exactly what will constitute his night, down to the smallest detail, now that there isn’t time to get to Thrillsville before Happy Hour.
“Is she a great singer?” Scott says.
“Who, Madonna? Yes. Of course.”
“What a strange thing to ask.”
“What’s really going on here?” She stands and crosses the room. She grabs the back of his chair and shakes it. “Should I be calling her up and warning her? Should she be on alert?”
He’s enough of a puzzle to himself that he envisions some parallel track, where he reaches up and kisses her. As it is, he looks away, to her painted toenails. Her finger is in his face.
“Seriously! If you hurt anybody!”
“Okay. Okay!” He snaps his neck around, trying to get away from the finger.
Sophie shoves his chair. “I’m sorry. You’re not here right now. I’ll leave a message at the beep.”
“It means get out.”
He rises, feels heaviness in his chest. “I just thought if she’s really Madonna’s kid.”
“Then what? You’d marry her and be rich?”
“No.” He steps to the door. “Jesus. No.”
“I thought…. I thought we could be in a band together.”
Sophie squinches her eyes, places her hands on her hips, thumbs forward. “Why couldn’t you be in a band with her anyway?” she says.
His heart is breaking for some reason. He feels like crying. For the millionth time he promises himself he’ll change. Now is his big chance.
Copyright © 2016 by Christopher Harris
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.