A Cold and Broken Hallelujah
The bathroom door banged open and Lucas was fully awake. Shower steam rolled out. The moist cloy of Kendra’s flowery body spray was tinged with her pre-shower shit. She slapped on the overhead light and thumped her bare heels around the room as she dressed for work. Before going downstairs, she said, “Mow the lawn today, before the neighbors vote us off the block.”
Lucas rolled away from the light.
“Are you awake?”
“Yeah,” he said. He sneezed. “I’m awake.”
“What did I just say to you?”
“Jesus,” he said, “I’m awake.”
“Repeat back to me what I just said.”
“Mow.” He threw his arm over his eyes. Three days without a shower—he reeked like a train hopper.
“How was the gig?”
“It was fine.” They had fired their bass player several weeks ago and Lucas had been playing bass himself. Then their drummer Randy’s wife had gone into labor, so he was out and they couldn’t even be pissed at him for it.
“So you have gas money for the week?”
He and Seth had played two sets, just the two of them with their guitars. The bar owner was expecting the full band, and was pissed. He only paid them one third of the agreed upon $300. Out of his $50, Lucas had drunk four beers at $6 apiece, and left a $6 tip.
“Yeah,” he said. “I have gas money.”
“Don’t forget to mow the grass.”
“Jesus, I won’t.”
Out she tromped, and down the hardwood hallway. She left the hall light on. Downstairs she banged around interminably in the kitchen. Finally she was gone. On the driveway below their bedroom window, her car engine started with a short purr and went silent. He imagined her backing out of the driveway and faded toward the city, and fell back to sleep.
A couple hours later Lucas woke again and reached for the book on his nightstand. He was reading Don Delillo’s Underworld for a second time and enjoying it more than the first, but he felt guilty.
Yesterday evening, Kendra, in a frustrated outburst, had yelled at him, “You just fucking sat there and read all day?”
“Pretty much,” he’d said.
She’d stormed around the house the rest of the evening. A few times in passing, he’d glanced longingly at the book. It called to him there on the coffee table in front of the day bed among his cluttered stack of Harper’s, Rolling Stone, and New York Times Magazines open to the crossword puzzles he’d mangled with an ink pen. He dared not pick the book up again. He made dinner, did the dishes, cleaned the kitchen. Got some laundry started.
“I’m worried that your depression is getting worse,” Kendra told him.
“It’s not depression,” he said. “It’s just me—it’s who I am.”
“You do nothing all day every day. Something’s wrong with that.”
“I do stuff,” he said.
“You need an interest that will actually get you moving, make you go out and do something in the world.”
“I have interests.”
“Besides music and reading,” she said, “which are fine, but you can’t make a living with them. You have to do something.”
“I am doing something.”
“You know what I mean: something productive.”
When they’d met, Lucas was lead singer in the hottest band at Wesleyan. She’d approached him between sets. She was waiting for him after the final set. They had gone out to IHOP for coffee. She asked him all kinds of questions, and eventually he said, “I have this intense longing to know something.”
“To know what?” She drank from her silver can of Bud Light.
“I don’t know,” he told her.
She thought it was cool at the time. “You’re different than other guys,” she told him. “You’re not all about competition and being all macho.”
It was probably not unusual that everything she’d loved about him then were the things that pissed her off now.
Last week she had told him she’d been reading about existential depression, doing research, and she was convinced that this was what he had. She asked him to see a doctor about it. “Or at the very least,” she said, “go online and spend some of your reading time on it.”
“Who is Stuart?” he asked her. A death mask moved across her face before she regained control and pursed her lips.
“A friend,” she said. “My paralegal—not mine; several of us share him.”
“Ever date him?”
“He’s married and has six kids,” she said. “They’re right-wing Christians.”
“Is he cute?”
“They homeschool all those poor kids,” she said. “I think it might be a good idea for you to see someone. A counselor. I’ll figure out a way to pay for it out of my flex account.”
“I don’t need a counselor,” he told her. “I have music. I have stories.”
“Stories,” she said. She polished off her glass of wine and said, “I have a story too, and it’s not going to have a happy ending.” She put her glass in the sink and went up to bed.
Still in bed after she’d gone, he pulled his bookmark, made from a torn strip of newspaper, out of Underworld and started at 634, where he’d clipped the book shut when he heard her pulling into the driveway the previous evening. In the story, Delillo places a random book editor—not so random, Lucas was sure; almost certainly someone Delillo knew; “Hey dude, I gave you a cameo in my novel.”—into a discussion, and this book editor rattles off the entire cast of a Hitchcock movie.
A little over one page later, Delillo, in describing the character of New York City, uses the word vertigo. Realizations dropped into Lucas’s brain like shaped blocks clacking down in the right places. Delillo had researched Hitchcock for this list of actors he put in the editor’s mouth, and had seen a list of Hitchcock films, and the word vertigo entered his head, roiled around, and resurfaced in his writing one page later.
Delillo had probably done more research on Hitchcock, or was just a huge fan already and knew the shit. Maybe he re-watched some of the movies. Lucas imagined an earlier draft of the novel in which this book editor rambles on for pages, saying things Delillo himself thought about Alfred Hitchcock, but then the actual book editor—on whom this fictional one is based?—cut the monologue down to this paltry list of actors.
Lucas rubbed his eyes and smelled his sour stink again. His intestines groaned, he noticed the pressure building inside his gut and headed for the bathroom.
After two more hours Lucas dragged the green and black Lawn-Boy out of the gray plastic tool shed. He pulled the mower rope—pulled and pulled and pulled—and the goddamn thing chortled and chugged as if laughing at him, and refused to start. The smell of raw gasoline pooled into a pain bubble behind his eyes. He straightened up and surveyed the neighbors’ backyards, all groomed and neat. His yard was mangy and had tree sprigs popping up among the purple clover.
“Fuck you.” He kicked the green and black mower, walked to his 98 Civic, and cruised out of the neighborhood through the gauntlet of crisp lawns bathed in their green-gold tree shade. At the end of the road, the trees gave way to bright concrete and asphalt. Rows of store signs blocked the horizon like an obstacle course of nothing but gaudy, plastic climbing walls.
He stopped at Starbucks and broke his last $20 on a tall black coffee. His account was down to $6.40, and the bank had revoked his overdraft protection. The tank was down to 1/8th. He drank his coffee slowly but no one he knew came in. Couldn’t even go online—his computer screen had gone out, and he knew it was a connection problem so he took it to this guy who had a shop on Summers Street. The guy called and said the hinge was broken, it needed a whole new screen, $360 to fix it. He said, “I can’t pay that,” and the guy said, “I understand,” and when he went to pick it up it was still apart. “I can’t put it back together without a new hinge,” the guy told him. He had to pay $50 to get the thing back.
After his coffee, Lucas drove to Seth’s house. Seth watched his kid while his wife worked. She was a nurse and he had a master’s in philosophy so it made sense she be the primary earner. Lucas carried his Pevey T-15 in from the Civic with him, slid it out of the gig bag and tuned.
He strummed riffs on the unplugged guitar, and shot the shit with Seth. Seth’s little girl ran around the house playing in nothing but Dora the Explorer panties. This cartoon called “Adventure Time”—not half bad; the jokes were winking at him and Seth over the kid’s head—played on the TV.
By the time the toddler announced she had to go pee, piss was already running down her leg. Seth had to give her a bath. While he was gone, Lucas started strumming a simple Em, Am, D, G progression and sang out lyrics as they came into his head: “The same old crowd, the same old scene, No one’s changed anything, but I don’t ever see you anymore. I’m not living in the past, I’ve broken free at last, and I don’t even see you anymore.”
He played it to Seth when he came back and they moved down the hallway to Seth’s studio/study. Seth grabbed his blue Ibanez and plugged it into his Fender Vibro Champ, Lucas plugged into the little Kustum amp, and they played the progression repeatedly while Lucas sang and resang the lyrics, making small changes, writing them down on a yellow OfficeMax legal pad. His day bloomed into a wide, timeless space of happiness and music.
Seth broke into a G, Em, B, C, D progression for a chorus, and sang, “Everywhere I used to look, you were in my eyes. You blacked out my world, you filled my skies.”
“Yeah,” Lucas said. He swung back his guitar and jotted down what Seth was singing.
“Now the sun it shines on me,” Seth sang. “I can see everything. Because I don’t even see you anymore.”
Lucas played through the verse chords repeatedly while Seth noodled out a solo. After a long time of this, he glanced up, Seth nodded, and he went into the chorus, repeating the chorus chords once more through while just singing the last lines, “I don’t even see you, I don’t even see you. I don’t even see you anymore.”
They resolved on D, and Seth said, “It has potential.”
“Working title?” Lucas asked.
He jotted it down and flipped to a blank page.
Seth started strumming a rough bluesy progression. Sounded like a Black Crows riff, but it was original enough to work with. Lucas noodled around the progression. “Any lyrics?” he called out.
“Not yet,” Seth said.
Lucas nodded, and sang what came into his head: “Once I was free. Living waters I drank with the beasts. Running through the streets, with the wild things that ran there with me.”
They broke it down: “Then I saw her by the stream, she bared her breast and smiled at me, took me down and tamed me with her love.” He sang, “What do you do to stay free, I don’t know I’m asking you.”
Seth hit a note and held it as Lucas churned through the chord progression, and the tension rose and rose as he bent it sharp. Just when it felt the tension was too much, was about to erupt and deflate the song, Seth collapsed it into descending arpeggios that fell two octaves, and then scooped up into an improvised solo that wailed and moaned and moved in and out around the melody.
This is when it happened. Lucas lost himself for a few seconds of soul orgasm, his glimpse into the mystery. Here it was, the thing he sought, but how to describe it to you? Something is struck, or plucked or strummed. Vibrations are created that move air particles, which move more air particles, in waves of fluctuating pressure, across the room at varying frequencies. These waves are caught by the outer ear, directed down the ear canal where they cause the tympanic membrane to vibrate. Those tiny bones, the hammer, anvil and stirrup, amplify the vibrations, change their movement from air to the fluid of the inner ear. The fluid in turn moves tiny hairs that translate the vibrations once more into electrical impulses that shoot to the brain.
What is it? How does it happen? He lost himself. Once, Kendra had asked him to go to yoga at the YMCA with her. “Music is my yoga,” he’d told her.
As the end of the progression approached, Seth nodded without looking up, and Lucas started another verse, “She hung me in a tie. Sent me off to work under florescent lights. Gave me mouths to feed. Made me slave to the man all through the week…” He hummed the melody for a while, and ended with, “What do you do, to stay free, I don’t know I’m asking you.”
They stopped playing.
“Holy shit,” Lucas said.
Seth lit a cigarette.
“That was magical,” he said.
“It’s a start,” Seth said. He took a long hit from his cigarette and held the smoke in like it was weed.
“What happens from there is the mystery,” Lucas said. “There’s the mystery.”
“I hear you, dude.” Seth ashed his cigarette onto a piece of scrap paper on the coffee table.
“You ever read 1984?”
Seth shook his head, hung his cigarette from his slack moth and looked down to noodle on his fret board.
“There’s this scene, and Orwell has Winston standing at a window watching a poor washer woman hang up clothes in the garden below. She a song that was composed by a soulless machine over at the Ministry of Truth. Winston listens to this woman sing it—a simple melody written by a machine. Sung in a human voice it moves him, makes him hold out some hope for humanity.”
“How’d that work out for him?” Seth asked, still fingering at his fret board, squinting his eyes against his cigarette’s smoke.
After they had worked like this for a couple hours, they took a break.
Seth asked, “You heard the new MGMT?” He said, “I like it, all but the last song.” Out in the hallway, Seth peeked in on his daughter, who was still asleep. In the kitchen, they grabbed two Harpoon IPAs out of the fridge, and sat out on the back patio. “My favorite is still Congratulations,” Seth said.
They sat out back on an uneven patio made of crumbling, moss-covered bricks. They drank two beers each and listened to the new MGMT.
Eventually Seth’s wife appeared at the door. “Mindy’s not up from her nap yet?”
“No,” Seth said.
“You’re getting up with her tonight,” she said. She closed the kitchen door.
Seth waited through a couple minutes of music, and then told Lucas, “Dude, I have to get started on dinner. You’re welcome to stay.”
“No,” Lucas said. “I have to mow the lawn.”
Kendra’s car was in the driveway when he pulled in. He turned down Radiohead’s “Lotus Flower,” and his ears were buzzing. It was not his ears, but a lawnmower. The buzz pitched up in tone and volume as Kendra appeared around the house still in her work clothes and heels, pushing the green and black mower.
She saw him in his car and let go of the handle, which made the motor die. She stalked to where he was getting out. He closed his car door and did not glance toward his guitar and amp in the back seat.
“How’d you get that damn thing running?” he asked.
She wiped her forehead and glared at him. “I pushed the button that starts it.”
“There’s a button?”
She put her hands on her hips and stared harder.
“I worked hard today,” he said. “Seth and I worked up some promising new tunes.”
Her angry scowl drooped into sadness. She was growing jowls. She had mentioned wanting plastic surgery, but didn’t want to take the time off work.
“Baby,” she said, “it’s time for some tough love.”
He lowered one eyebrow and raised the other to convey what the fuck are you talking about.
“I know you have this creative temperament and all, and I know you just want to write music and play music, and I wish you could, I really do. I wish you could make a living doing what you love.”
“It’s a sad thing—a tragic thing—when somebody’s talent doesn’t match their temperament.”
“Talent isn’t what makes you financially successful.”
“Look at fucking Coldplay for Christ’s sake.”
“Lucas,” she said again, holding up her hand for him to stop talking.
He didn’t say anything.
She walked to her car. She opened the door and leaned in. She backed out with a packet closed the door, and walked back to where he stood with his hands in his pockets beside his ancient Civic with its sap ruined paintjob and back doors that no longer opened.
She handed him the packet. “One of my clients owns a restaurant.”
It was a manila packet held closed by a red string wrapped round and round two red circles like a vacuum cleaner cord. The words interagency and departmental mail were printed in black across the top. The first of three rows of boxes for names was used down to the sixth box, which had Kendra’s name in it. The box above her name was Stuart, crossed through with two black Sharpie swipes.
“You want me to do food service?”
“It’s better than that. You will work in the kitchen, but you’ll be learning to cook, not just doing dishes.” She said, “It’s creative work, Lucas. This is how creative people find their outlet and avoid starving to death.”
“I don’t want to work food service.”
“I’m done, Lucas,” Kendra said. “You take this job. Otherwise, I’m done, I can’t do this anymore.”
“I know you’ve seen that guy Stuart,” Lucas said.
“No,” she said. “You’re not doing this. He has nothing to do with this.”
“Have you or haven’t you?”
“He has nothing to do with this,” she repeated.
Lucas untwirled the red twine and pushed gently on the sides of the packet. The top opened like a frog mouth and revealed a W-1040 form. “So this is a done deal without my even applying.”
“Take this opportunity.”
He tried to hand her the envelope back. “I’ll finish the grass,” he said. “Show me where the start button is.”
“I’ll finish the lawn. You go in and fill out the paperwork.” She strode away from him across the yard toward the mower. “I mean it,” she said over her shoulder. “It needs to be completed by the time I come in for a shower.”
The lawnmower roared to life behind him as he walked to the front door. He entered the cool, dark house. It smelled of the cinnamon potpourri on the entry table. Through the hallway and kitchen, Lucas could see all the way into the sunroom. Lucas got himself an iced tea and carried it to the junk drawer where he dug around for an ink pen. He carried the tea, pen, and red-stringed packet to the day bed. On the table there was the novel, a Given’s Bookstore receipt folded lengthwise and marking his spot. A big physical thing, Underworld, huge, inert—a doorstop novel. Someday it would be pulled dusty and unread from a shelf at Thanksgiving to use as a booster seat under some toddler’s ass.
VIC SIZEMORE'S fiction is published or forthcoming in StoryQuarterly, Southern Humanities Review, storySouth, Portland Review, Connecticut Review, Blue Mesa Review, Sou’wester, PANK Magazine, Silk Road Review, Reed Magazine, and elsewhere. His fiction has won the New Millennium Writings Award, and been nominated for Best American Nonrequired Reading and two Pushcart Prizes.