Pop Song

Published in the anthology What To Read in the Rain (Seattle, 2009).

    The dark night, the light coming up to the house, the transitions among the people, the points from point A to point B, the moments of smell and light, the shadows on driveways, the scent of trees and leaves, the number of people there and what they were wearing, the movements of hands in the small rooms. All of it happened, not all like I’ve said. But most of it would be no more possible to change than it would be to alter the flight patterns of birds. The motives of the guys, the things that happened in the house while I was on the beach, the strange music, the incomprehensible talk in the kitchen: too much of it came without a shape and it seems to me that recording it the way it happened is the only way to do it. I think of the stories of desert gods, the figures that appear in tent flaps (“and they stood there”) and they produce new action, though no one comprehends why or what it means. If they are gods are their feet visible? If they are, and if their feet are bare,  do they feel the discomfort of standing so long on sand?

    I heard most of this from Jason, who I am calling Jaime here, and from Todd, who seemed to know things no one else did. Lana, the flight attendant, is Sylvia, and the guy with the hippie face is Luke, not Timothy or Anthony (I forget). The fight was, in a way, more dramatic, more visceral than the way I am describing it because so much of what happened was interior to it. So much of it seemed to have to do with people turning their heads to see a wild sudden flesh of fists in combination with yelling emotional things. Luke kept saying, defending himself (for example), “I’m honorable, for Chrissake.” What did that mean? So that was it: a party at the turn of the year, the smell of beach air, pre-party swimming, alcohol, Brazilian something, Air Supply, the midnight swinging of fists, a woman with a way of moving in rooms and cars, as Jaime said, that made men lose their train of thought. And shouting about love.

    My name is Rich. It’s not my real one, though my real one is close to this. I am like the guy I portray myself to be. I teach at a small college in Seattle. I wear sweaters with holes in them. I have an over-abundance of comfortable shoes. At parties I eat potato chips out of my hand. I sometimes talk as if I’m worn out from being a war correspondent for the Victorian novel, too, which is what I teach to 20 year-olds. I tell them that the subterranean romantic alliances in The Mill on the Floss have stakes that include all of England. I believe what I say, and I understand why they can’t download all of it. In my spare time I get together with friends and watch Taiwanese films about blowing curtains. And sometimes, at particular dinners, I am capable of shutting down conversation with animated talk of “the self’s blind spots,” of “Althusserian lacunae.”  Needless to say, I can sometimes be hated on sight.

    But the story starts before, with the other guys.

    I heard about them from Todd. They were on the viaduct in shining night rain listening to the Flaming Lips, heading to the West Seattle ferry dock. Clayton, driving, cranked the music, and as he sang along his long blond hair must have moved like a thin shirt on the line. The song was about evil-natured robots and the sound had a sunburst romantic/LSD joy in it. During the chorus Robbie, who was in the passenger seat, yanked on the hand-strap over the door as if he were struggling to free himself from his captors, and he made grunting, teeth-baring ape sounds from 2001: A Space Odyssey to the music as he did: arngh, arngh, arngh, arngh! Neither of them, I can guess, usually sang to music. But the events of the day must have unleashed something in them. I can see Clayton letting the song go through him as he drove. I can see it lifting him, the thought of being one with Yoshimi, who knew it would be tragic if the robots won. Robbie probably took on the other available role: angry, vaguely simian back-up singer – in his mind taking the song to the next level.

    The music dialed up their adrenaline and dulled the sting of the circular, Bulls-eye-like tattoos they had just gotten, which made it easier to anticipate meeting Sylvia, who had invited them to the New Year’s Eve party over on Vashon, at the beach house. They had met her in the coffee line up on the Hill when a barista slipped on some spilled soy and the shorts with rooms and the double talls went into hangtime for a few moments. Todd said that Robbie was telling Clayton about a skateboard blog where he had read about a friend of theirs who had been videotaped doing his thing at the Ballard skate bowl. Once the video had been e-mailed around awhile he had decks flowed to him by a company called YouWho? Sylvia turned and lifted her face up to them in a way that was like freshly made pie and said to them that this – meaning this line -- was a far cry from the friendly skies. She’d just been in Sydney, if they could believe it. She had lost a day and then gained it. She was tired but pretty – that was Todd’s line – and curious about their friend.

    They told her about him, then about the Z-boys in Dogtown and the skateboard moves from Alan Gelfand’s original Ollie Pop -- the Loop of Death, the Nosebone, the Caveman, the Indy 720.  They demonstrated some of the moves there on the carpet, their shoulders and arms moving. Clayton said he was working on a Salad Shooter. Sylvia said Come on, he was making that one up. But he said no and told her about the websites where she could see footage of people who could do it. Robbie said he was working up to working on that one. Then the line was moving again, and they introduced themselves. Sylvia turned around to order.

    “Do you fly much?” she asked, when she had her coffee. 

    Neither had.

    “Most people fly during the day. I just came back from a night flight, though, and boy is it better.”

    Then they ordered and when they were done Robbie asked why. “You feel it then,” she said, a little dreamily.

    It was the end of the year, the days were small, dark squares on the calendar. The idea of “flying” came to Robbie and Clayton as an idea about the future. The morning had been the opposite of that. Grey rain came down like small, soft needles and gave the whole city a slightly greasy shine. It was the dark transit of the year, and from the window of the copy center at Park and Ferry where they worked they could see people shuffling past, many carrying bags of take-out or just moving in the maze-y body language of the emergency room.

    When I heard from Todd that they worked at a copy center I wondered if Clayton and Robbie, both blond, had the same anxiety about copying and duplicating that I did. I didn’t trust the process, didn’t trust all the copies would be the same. It was too fast for me, like sleight of hand. Each copy, I thought, as less real. I knew all about the fetishization of the “original,” yet I had that idea. It was stuck in me, a loop. Did Robbie and Clayton, who looked like each other a little, have it, too? Something, in any event, made them lie to their boss, Melissa, about flooding in their apartment, and at 4 o’clock they ditched work for Donnie Darko at the Egyptian, the Director’s Cut, emerging at 6 in an excited funk about falling jets, worm holes, and the end of the world.

    They bought burritos and then, coming on the large window of a tattoo shop, they took five steps down an brightly-lit half-basement with five tables and a couple of heavy guys behind the counter. They flipped through books of images, made decisions, and got tattooed. Then, bodies on fire, they walked into the coffee place where Sylvia turned and tipped her face. They were in their late twenties, young enough to have a sense that there was something they ought to be driving toward, but not old enough to know that they could miss it if they didn’t mark it now. 


    I got to the house more or less when they did. They were scruffy, bad-haired, small-legged, and they both had marsupial eyes. I was coming late because coming off the ferry I found myself stuck behind a timber truck with freshly cut trees stacked on it, scabby bark and all. On the back were two signs, left and right. One read “Passing side,” the other, “Suicide.” I stayed behind it and finally took a right down a road that descended, and instantly the windshield was littered with pine twigs. At the bottom I got out, thinking I’d found it – but it was just a scrubby beach with soft inlet water with the moon on it, a glinting orange sign nearby looking ominous and governmental. It read, DANGER CABLE CROSSING.

    “Trees, darkness, and cable,” I said to no one, thinking that the triumvirate before this was bears, trees, and fear.

    I went back to the car, drove to the main road and took the next turn. Shadows passed over the windshield and I felt the ocean air this time before I saw water. A tangle of heavy, wild berry bushes and weeds to the side began to run into bigger trees, then I saw another beach and, over there, a large house with a rundown look.

    I felt jaunty. There was still an hour and a half to the new year. I parked on the grass between cedar trees and got out and saw the other two. We introduced ourselves. I thought, “Trouble,” then wondered if that’s what they thought of me.

    Inside were about 28 people including Sylvia, who I’d met a month before with Jaime. They were, he said, “sort of going out.”  She was greeting the two guys and then us.  There was a double party tonight, she said, one here in the main room and another in her place, which was upstairs and in a separate apartment. Jaime came in through an aluminum door in the back going down to the beach. His hair was wet, he was barefoot, and he greeted all of us like a weary philosopher. “Swimming,” he said, smiling, and padded past us to his room. Sylvia was wearing a coat with a fur-trimmed hood she had pulled up. It framed her face in a northern Renaissance portrait look. Todd was there, with the crushing handshake and the gentle, enlightened look of someone who was signing up for diving lessons in your soul. Some people were huddled out by the back door Jaime had just come through, smoking. Three guys were playing acoustic music.

    Then Jaime was back out, in baggy pants and his hair pushed back. He took us into the kitchen and introduced us to a few people in sleeveless fleece jackets who had been with him on a recent retreat. I asked them about it and they started to talk about “electrics” and the body, and something mysterious about the Taj Mahal. My mind wandered. The kitchen was large, with an old, car-green refrigerator, dirty-looking butcher block counters and lamps with comically small shades. Sylvia had gone over to the sink with Robbie and Clayton. They were mixing rum and cokes with mint leaves for people who were coming in from the back door, seemingly on signal, one at a time, for them. Robbie and Clayton fetched glasses and ice and did quick finger-stirs that made Sylvia tip her head back and laugh. I came back into the conversation again just as Todd came up. “Did someone just say ‘dreammouth’?” I said. Todd’s eyes widened and he took me in for five beats. “No, ‘Gemrod.’” he said and smiled, pointing to his spine.

    “I unfortunately have back trouble,” I said.

    Todd stared at me. “Your spine isn’t your back,” he said and then laughed in a slightly stoned way.

    The started another song. There was a guy on nylon-stringed guitar, another on bass, and one on accordion. They played a song I didn’t know, with words I couldn’t get – something about Mark and Luke or Martin Luther or marsupial. The singer sang slowly and brightly and with earnest.  Then they played a cheery version of “Sympathy for the Devil.”

    “I’ll shout it out, who killed the Kennedy’s?” the singer sang brightly.

    Todd said, closer to my ear, “One of these days we’ll get you there,” he said with a sort of Brian Wilson look on his face.

    “That song before, what was that about? Martin Luther? Marking time?”

    “None of your fucking business,” he said, and then laughed. “How are you, man? What are you reading these days?”

    “Everything,” I said.

    Clayton came up. “Dude,” he said to me, “are they playing James Taylor. Is that what I think that is?” He drank from a bottle, moved his hair, but he wasn’t looking at me.

    “Sounds like it,” I said. “But it’s the Stones.”

    “The Stones who?” Clayton said.

    “What is ‘everything’?” Todd asked.

    “I think their next song is called ‘Yonder.’”

    “What’s wrong with yonder?” Todd asked.

    “I just don’t know if I can afford it,” I said. Then I turned to Clayton and stuck out my hand. “I’m Rich,” I said.

    “I know. We met outside.”

    “Oh yeah.”

    “Sylvia says you’re smart. Are you a knowledge worker?” He looked down, snickering a little. A couple wedged between us going back to the kitchen.

    “In a way I am,” I said. “I’m an assistant professor at the U.”

    “My friend here is a carrier of knowledge,” Todd said.

    “I guess that takes a lot of money,” Clayton said. “To do that and all.”

    “Kind of more brains,” I said.

    Then Robbie was there. “You guys probably know what these mean, then” Robbie said. Each picked up his shirt to show painful-looking circle’s around their navels, which made them look like bull’s eyes. 

    “Wow,” I said. The tattoos were raw.


    The band started a slow of “Around and Around,” and I left all three as they were starting to talk about tattoos and the history of ink, which Todd seemed to know about. Other things happened after that. I talked to other people as midnight crept up. There was some dancing upstairs in the second party, more smoking, more talk of spines and what next year was going to bring. Sylvia mixed drinks, people kept coming in to take them from her.

    The fight wiped away a lot of the detail for me. In a way it was probably supposed to. It started with a broken glass, or bottle, the shards of it being nearly stepped on before being swept into an aluminum dustpan. I know a glass was there, I know Jaime bent to sweep it up with a shaving brush – he was drunk on rum and cherry coke – grumbling. I know I accidentally kicked it and that Clayton said, “Hey, what the fuck,” and Jaime said, slipping on the linoleum but not falling, said, “Help me, man,” which made Luke say, “I don’t know if anyone can help you, Jaime. You’re drunk and bleeding.” Then he hoisted his glass and said “Happy New Year, man.”

    But that wasn’t the fight, that was just the preamble to it. The broken glass, the weird erotic tension around Sylvia, who seemed to enjoy promoting it. The fight was after midnight, after the toasting, after the band’s “Jungle Boogie”/Jimi Hendrix sequence. I went out the aluminum door and Sylvia was there, sloshed and holding a champagne bottle. She said something about being “attrasha” to me, but when I went towards her she pushed me away, the grit of sand  blown onto the patio giving her some slip under her shoes. When I asked her if she wanted to go for a walk she looked at me for a moment, said, “Just a sec,” and kicked off her shoes and ducked past me inside the house. In the porch light she turned, her face circled by the fur, glowing a little, and turned back. A minute later she still hadn’t come back so I started walking toward the water, following some dark, patchy grass past a Weber grill to concrete steps that led down to sand and seaweed and the beach. A little ways away I could see black water moved, slow and white-edged, lapping softly. The sky was black plaited straw.

    Clayton was there, throwing twigs and other debris into the tide. He looked around when I came up. “Yo,” he said and moved as if to give me room.

    “Something’s going on up there,” he said.

    “Everybody’s drunk and the band is probably playing Burt Bacharach now. That explains some of it,” I said.

    “No, man -- people are weird there. They are talking about God or something. They have that look on their faces.” He looked at me with small, worried eyes.

    “It’s New Year’s eve,” I said. “No one ever knows what to do.”  I didn’t know what to say. He was kind of right.

    “Something happened to the city in the past ten years, anyway. Things were cool for ten minutes, but then we weren’t again.”  He threw something more stuff.

    I felt like he was giving me something rehearsed.

    “I think the city was always just a bunch of depressed gardeners,” I said. I bent over and picked up some stuff too. “What’s with the tattoo, if you don’t mind me asking?”

    “Circle,” he said, looking down. He moved his hair. “It’s supposed to symbolize perfection.”

    “If it’s around your belly button it’s more of a funnel, though.”

    “Hey, you are pretty smart,” he said, looking down.

    The water moved away from us. Somewhere nearby fireworks started going up. We heard a lot of tea-kettle whistling, strings of caps going off. 

    We walked back and slid open the screen door again and then there was the fight. Robbie and Luke were at it, pulling at each other’s clothes, their faces hot and distorted. Sylvia was off to the side, her fur collar down. Luke had an earnest bearded expression, and just behind him Jaime stood looking moon-faced, frightened and balding. Then his shirt was off and he was grappling with the other two, pulling off Robbie’s long-sleeved waffle undershirt and revealing a sunken chest and a modestly pregnant lower belly. The fight was nominally about who had lied about the broken bottle, pieces of which still lay in the dustpan reflecting everything in narrow glints of flesh and teeth. Then Jaime was in it, suddenly breathing hard, and Luke was saying to him, or to Robbie, in a dreamyelling voice, “Just tell me. Just tell me. Just tell me about it.” Luke waved his Jesus hair out of the way. He pushed Robbie away easily but with some panic. Sylvia was behind Luke now, her silver hair flashing in the glass and along the old refrigerator chrome, and I wondered if she had provoked it, somehow, after she left me. She stood still, something radiating from her. The men in the group were starting to set down their bottles, the women calling out the names of each man. The musicians stopped playing. Robbie and Luke slipped on some spilled drink and they were down, Jaime with them. Each was calling the other fucker or son-of-a-bitch. Todd was grinning. Sylvia touched her fur collar. In the loose circle around the fight everyone looked beautiful, bright. I looked at the bare chests and the beer bellies of the guys wrestling. Around the room everyone shone a little, wondering what came next.


    That was seven years ago, and it doesn’t make any more sense now that it did then. The fight was suddenly over – some of us pulled the three guys off each other and held them for a couple of minutes while they lunged with a singe leg and arm, breathing through puffy red faces. Someone swept all the glass onto a piece of cardboard (more light and flesh moving over the broken surfaces) and then, when it seemed to be over  Luke, who hadn’t spoken much all night, said, “Why don’t you love me, Jaime?” It wasn’t that kind of revelation, but I put it together in my mind with what people were saying about “electrics” and stars earlier, the retreat that so many of them had been on. But then I looked at Sylvia and thought that even with her fur hood down she gave off the hot, primal something that makes men fight. But what did Luke mean? What there something about the uselessness of the occasion, the nearness of the trees, that made him say it? I went back to my car, brushed the twigs off the windshield, and drove to the ferry, and for days, back in the city, before Todd filled me in and reminded me about the copy center and Robbie and Clayton all I could think of was the fight I saw, it seemed, first in the broken glass, Luke crying out, the scrubby beach, the silhouettes of trees that all looked alike, all around us, all gazing at the same thing.