“The band’s second album is a solid effort; a commendable follow-up to the first, which emerged on the L.A. underground scene in late 1997.” I read aloud to myself here on the sixth floor. “It is due primarily to Charles, the band’s excellent drummer, that the folk-pop record contains elements of rock and jazz.” Charles’ picture stares up from between his band mates: a slight woman with red hair, and a large man with no hair at all.
Charles was late to class the first day of Music Theory. He was carrying a coffee cup, though the door had clearly warned that no food or drinks were allowed. He had boots with zippers on the outside, and he was maybe 35. Maybe 45. He took a desk on my left. His mouth was a decided line, and it turned down on both ends. Cold, recycled air radiated up from the gray tile, and we were in the clutches of community college.
Our instructor wandered around the room for several minutes with a dull, slow-spreading smile. She introduced herself and insisted that we play a rollicking game of “Getting To Know You.” A girl sitting behind me suggested to our instructor the fact that we were all grown-ups, really, with real grown-up jobs and skills of communication. This notion was shooed away with the wave of our instructor’s hand.
“I’ll go first,” she said, momentarily dragging the tip of her pinky nail through the crack between her front teeth.
“I’ll be your instructor for all of the classes you’ll take here in the music department. I love turquoise jewelry. I have been teaching music classes here for seven years, and I love to sing. And I have nine cats.” She looked left at Charles. He shifted in his seat.
“Well, I’m Charles. I play percussion.”
“Anything else?” Our instructor scratched the space between her eyes.
“I guess that’s it.”
“There’s nothing else you’d like to share?” She moved herself in small circles over the floor. She was a grinning sheep.
Charles put a thin hand to his chin and rubbed for a moment. “Well, he said, “I once crippled a man with a milk crate and some duct tape. Don’t ask how.”
I rip the page carefully from Rolling Stone. I fold it and place it in my back pocket. I heave stacks of scholarly publications back onto their shelves, and I take the elevator down.
This is a town with a big, big school. The courtyard is considerably populated today, and I amble down the library steps. People run around throwing plastic things at one another. People lie on blankets in very little clothing. People hold impertinently small phones to their ears and stare at the ground. At our tiny school in the past, we moved about the grounds like shadows and shades.
I wake my way to coffee. The place is threaded with a distinct hum when I open the door. It’s the hum of discerning tongues with freshly cultivated tastes. The walls are hung with pictures that don’t look like anything you’ve ever seen, but which must be good, because they’re hanging on a wall in a coffee shop. Heads are bent low over books with severe titles.
The girl behind the counter does not know what a breve is. She is unconcerned when she gives me something else. I take it and say “thank you” and auspiciously avoid the tip jar. Here is a table with one chair. I take my seat, take out what I’ve stolen. Charles’ face is creased down its right side, and it makes his frown all the more pronounced. I sip my drink.
Charles couldn’t get a grasp on figured bass any more than the rest of us. From these small notations were magically to grow entire chords, whole pieces of music. We would sit with our hands in our faces. “Figured bass is crushing my soul,” Charles said.
There was a guy in our sight-singing class who sang louder than the rest of us on a regular basis. We made sure never to sit directly in front of him. He opened his mouth wide and closed his eyes. It was supposed to be sight-singing.
Charles had the gumption to sit next to him. One day he decided to match the guy note for note. Charles followed the other guy on a vocal marathon, from exaggerated falsetto to plunging baritone. Where one would crescendo, the other would do so in double, so that the rest of us were drowned, and eventually stopped. By the end of the piece, both men’s voices were suspended in a note somewhere high above our heads. They held it for one count, two, three and four, and—Charles’ voice cracked. There was nothing to be done. We laughed.
We held our stomachs, as the instructor and Charles’ foe grinned, the joke flitting past them. Charles was shaking his head, his ponytail whipping from side to side. He shrugged and wiped his eyes. “Oh my god,” he said. “We’re never getting out of here, are we?”
I swing the door of the apartment open, and it’s dark. We need new light bulbs again. The hall is quiet and the bedroom doors are open. My roommates are gone.
I drop into a chair with wheels, truly the best chair of all. I lay my fingers on the keys. I write out Charles’ name in a little box that says it can tell me everything there is to know. One, two, a hundred blue lines of text say Charles’ name, articles about the band.
Most of them mention him in passing, eager to spend paragraphs and paragraphs rambling about the lead singer, the man with no hair. In pictures Hairless Man stares straight into your face. Hairless Man is a “visionary,” he has “redefined the face of power pop.” Hairless Man edges his way to the front of most of the photos.
One article says that Charles left the band in 1999. I read it over again, and once more, but it doesn’t say why.
The orchestra director put Charles on xylophone. Charles did not read music. He practiced his parts every afternoon in the practice hall, holding the little mallets with gusto. We stayed and listened and helped when we could.
One day he threw up his hands and said, “I’m taking a break.” He turned his music over on its stand and walked to the trap set on the other side of the room. He picked up the sticks and churned out an earnest, astounded block of sound. The rhythm was angry, and his face was pulled tight. His hair, not in a ponytail, took to the air around him.
When he finished, he dropped the sticks to the floor and let his arms hang down. We asked him how he got to be so awesome. “Years of practice. Or I was born that way.” He shrugged. We asked him if he’d ever been in a band before. “A few years ago, back in L.A.” We asked him if they were any good.
He looked at the ceiling. “We were quasi-famous.”
On the night of the orchestra concert, Charles missed his first cue for xylophone, and later lost the count, and dropped one of his mallets. One of the other percussionists said something rude, but the clarinet section was at his aid. Charles stuck with the triangle after that.
They are making a documentary about Hairless Man and his band. He is an underground pop god, and now they’re going to sing his praises on film. I watch the trailer seven times, just to make sure. There is no Charles.
I sit in my wheely chair with my hand folded under my chin, and watch the man with no hair speak about how he tempered his voice, his delicate instrument, and how he worked and struggled for years to say important things. The woman with the red hair looks underfed and sits in one corner, her electric bass silent in her lap. There is no ghost of Charles in the other corner.
I spend the afternoon staring at his address on my computer screen. He lives thirty minutes from my old home, but I won’t take myself down to his doorstep. I won’t linger outside the front door, which is in need of a painting. The plants on the porch are dying. I won’t peer through the window on the right, my fist raised, but halting. I won’t see my old friend Charles as he moves through the kitchen, the walls papered with trudging lines of ducks, the avocado appliances. He’s moving a knife slowly over a piece of bread, and his hair is longer. I won’t see him move to the refrigerator and open the door, and stare into it, wondering how he arrived at this cold gate, how he lost his name and his footing, how he came to be so comfortable here in this town where old people come to grasp at the sun before they die.
Or maybe he is wondering what happened to all the damn pickles.