“Gillian,” he said to me, and pushed his long, baffling cornhusk hair out of his eyes, “I need a latte with some heart in it.”
“I promise nothing,” I said, and hooked my arm through his. “They do make some mean scones, though.”
The place was threaded with a distinct hum when I opened the door. It was the hum of discerning tongues with freshly cultivated tastes. The walls were hung with pictures that didn’t look like anything I’d ever seen, but which must have been good, because they were hanging on a wall in a coffee shop. Tim threaded a path through some wayward tables and up to the counter, whereupon arriving, he crossed one leg over the other and clasped his chin in his hand.
“Good evening,” he said to the moon-eyed, blue-haired barista. “Tell me, would it be possible for me to get an eight-ounce latte with two shots, and the milk steamed to one-hundred-and-sixty-five degrees, Fahrenheit?”
Uninterested in this particular brand of snobbery, I turned to survey the décor on the walls.
A series of collages hung around the room, formed from newspaper clippings, coloring book pages, magazine ads, candy wrappers, and Polaroid pictures. Some were fashioned into silhouettes of recognizable objects, and some were formless, with no structure at all. As I turned my perusing glance about the room, I saw a skeletal middle-aged man in a yellow t-shirt standing under a frame, wherein roosted the outline of a chicken made from moist towelette packets. His thinning hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and he looked up at the chicken, and then down, past his spindly jean-clad legs at his right shoe, the toe of which was making a little circle on the hardwood floor. I recognized Charles directly. I was on the brink of deciding whether or not to approach him, when from the coffee counter there was a cry of, “Cappuccino, extra-dry, to go!” Charles was collecting his drink in an instant.
“Charles!” I said, as he approached the exit. He seemed to hesitate. “Charles!” again. He stopped for a moment at the door, and looked slightly to his left, shifting his weight between his feet. Then he looked back down and continued out the door, into the flood-lit parking lot. The room’s track-lit glare made a haze on the windows to the outside world, and my pride concluded that the man simply didn’t hear me.
“This milk is scorched,” said Tim from behind me, “but it’ll do.” I turned to watch him sip, demure as an Austen novel, and his eyes lifted up to the ceiling.
The first time I saw Charles, he was late to class the first day of Music Theory. He was carrying a coffee cup, though a sign on 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’m Ms. Henley, 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.”
Tim and I ate dinner with my parents that night.
“Gillian,” my father said with a chicken wing between his left thumb and forefinger, “how was the weather up there?”
“Freaking cold,” I said, and my mother’s hand reached out from the left and connected with my arm.
“Don’t say the ‘f’ word!”
“That…is not the ‘f’ word.” I looked across the table at Tim, who only smiled.
My parents’ house, and the house of my growth into maturity, sat at the pinnacle of a cul-de-sac. It dwelt squarely in a suburb of tourist Florida, where resided pastel colored attractions and lodgings for both spring break-bound twenty-somethings with no couth, and warmer-climate-bound seniors with no time left. The dining room table was flanked by two curio cabinets; one filled with dishware, and the other with ceramic angels of various shape, size, and ethnicity. My mother’s collection had expanded drastically since my move northward, toward culture and colder climates. My father sat on one end of the table, and my mother at the other, as was tradition.
“How was the semester?” My father reigned the conversation back in. “Did you do well?”
“Pretty well,” I said. “But I’m thinking about taking a semester off. The band might go on a little tour in the spring.”
I saw my mother throw her head to one side from the corner of my eye. She made a two-syllable noise with her mouth closed, so that the sound came through her nose, the pitch dropping from high to low. Loosely translated, it meant, “I disagree with such a choice.”
“Who was that you were yelling at when we were getting coffee earlier?” Tim materialized in the conversation suddenly, though whether because of a sensitivity to the spreading fog of tension or a total blindness to it, I could never be sure.
“Oh. That was Charles. He used to be in my music classes the year I was here for school.”
Tim stirred his iced tea with a bendy straw (a specific request he’d made of my mother when she set the table for dinner). “He looked kind of old.”
“He is, I guess. I don’t know.”
We made small talk with my parents, and inched closer to the door. Finally, we begged leave of dessert, pleading our stuffed bellies, and a strict itinerary which required us to be at my old friend Erin’s house within the half hour. In point of fact, Erin was not expecting us at any appointed time, but small talk, not unlike cross-country hiking, is exhausting. My father shook Tim’s hand, and my mother pulled me aside and handed me a scarf.
“Keep your neck warm. You know, Gillian, if you’re going to take a semester off, you could always come back here and stay with us for a while. No rent. We miss you.”
I looked into my mother’s round face, and saw, held behind it, those ancient reserves of worry. The home I grew up in was comfortable, and my stomach was full, and my mother loved me. It was warm outside. But the town of my birth, like all birth-towns, was a box snapped shut.
“Thanks, mom,” I said. “I’ll think about it.”
Tim and I sat in the car, stationary. I looked past the curb and the yard
and back at my parents’ house, the light from which turned the white drapes in the window a glowing yellow. They would be discussing, I was sure, the nuances of my posture, the subtle notes of meaning in my intonation. Was I happy? Was I eating well? Should they have sent their newly-retired vacuum cleaner back with me? I saw, through the space between the two drapes, a flash of sweater and jeans, where one of them crossed in front of the window. My heart, for them, was full. But still I couldn’t help releasing a sigh of great proportion, and letting my head fall back on the seat.
“So I guess I didn’t know you took music classes before?” Tim put the key in the ignition and turned it.
“Yeah,” I said.
“So why’d you switch majors? I guess you didn’t like it?”
“It was just hard. I figured I could still make music, if I wanted to, without knowing my tonal scales or how to transfigure chords.”
Tim drove down to the end of the street, and took a left at the stop sign. The flush of the headlights, rotating, cast a speculative glance on the suburban corner houses, as they were settling down for the evening. “So you quit because you were lazy.” Tim looked at me, sidelong. I laughed; a concession.
“I guess,” I said. “That sounds about right.”
There was a guy in our sight-singing class who sang louder than the rest of us on a regular basis. Most of us made sure never to sit directly in front of him. 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 our teacher Ms. Henley 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?”
After knocking at Erin’s door for a good seven to ten minutes, Tim and I finally decided on breaking and entering. Luckily, the door was unlocked, so no breaking was necessary. We walked into the living room, past the off-white futon draped heavily with afghans, and the coffee table, resplendent with plastic cups and cigarette butts. Across the wooden floor our shoes made our arrival apparent, so that when we crossed through into the fluorescent yellow of the kitchen’s light, I was surprised to see Sandra, Erin’s roommate, eating a bowl of cereal at the bar. She seemed unsurprised. “Hey,” she said. “Erin’s out on the back porch.”
The back porch was a marvel of light and gaudy taste. Two strings of paper lanterns ran the perimeter of the screen windows, dark from the outside, and a multitude of melted down candles encompassed the patio table, where Erin sat smoking. Since my earliest acquaintance with her in our pre-teen years, Erin had been blessed with small frame, and a sprite-like face. On this particular night, with the back of her boy-short, dark hair to us, with the orange end of her cigarette bobbing in the half-dark, she still looked like magic, but of the ominous kind.
“Erin?” I said.
She turned around quickly, and the spell lifted.
“Oh my god, you ass, you scared the doo out of me!” She smiled, dropped her cigarette into the open, pouting mouth of a half-burned candle, and stood up to hug me.
“Who’s this?” she asked, and pointed to Tim, who was looking up at a faded poster of Pat Benatar.
“This is Tim. He’s my…drummer.”
We all took a seat around the ashen patio table. Erin’s fingers, I could see in the little lights from the screen, were mottled with paint. A perennial artist in every imaginable realm, she had been a fellow student of music with me in my short tenure at the local community college. Her interests, it seemed, had shifted once more.
“Hey Erin, do you remember Charles?”
“Which one? From summer camp?” Erin spoke around the cigarette between her lips.
“No, from school. You remember? He used to be in some big west coast band.”
Erin’s dark eyes opened wide. “Yeah yeah! That guy with the long hair! I totally remember that dude. He was pretty funny, yeah?”
“I think so.”
“What about him?”
“I saw him earlier tonight, when Tim and me were getting coffee.”
“Hmm,” Erin said, and leaned back in her folding chair. It was winter, but balmy, and I heard a mosquito’s whine near my ear, and slapped at the air next to my head.
“So he was in a band?” Tim asked from my left.
“Yeah,” I said, and took the cigarette Erin had placed on the table in front of me a few minutes before. “They were supposedly a big deal like, five or six years ago. I listened to them a few times, they were pretty good.”
“Wonder what he’s doing now,” Erin said, her head thrown back in her chair.
I shrugged. “What are you doing these days, lady?”
Erin blew smoke threw a demure part in her lips. “Oh, you know. Just whatever. Painting. Still working at the bookstore. I broke up with my, uh, “drummer” last week.” She looked at me and smiled. “How’s your band going?”
“Pretty good. We’re thinking about a tour in a couple of months.
“That’ll be cool.”
The following quiet came in on a breeze, through the tiny punctures in the screen door and windows, and flickered with the candles. We smoked.
Finally, Erin mashed the finished butt under the toe of her shoe and said, “Let’s look him up.”
The three of us marched in through the back door, and made for the kitchen. Erin and I dropped into chairs in front of her computer. The desk, veiled in a corner of the kitchen, was populated heavily by little people made from pipe-cleaners, in various primary colors. Tim stood behind us, with his hands on the back of my chair. We Googled Charles.
Most of the articles mentioned him in passing, eager to spend paragraphs and paragraphs rambling about the lead singer of the band, a man with no hair. In pictures, Hairless Man stared straight into our faces. Hairless Man was a “visionary,” he “redefined the face of power pop.” Hairless Man edged his way to the front of most of the photos.
“Okay, this one says there’s a documentary about the band. You want to watch the trailer?”
“Go for it,” I said.
We watched the thing through twice, but never saw a glimpse of Charles. I sat in my wheely chair with my hand folded under my chin, and watched 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 looked underfed and sat in one corner, her electric bass silent in her lap. There was no ghost of Charles in the other corner.
The last page we visited was Charles’ personal music page. According to his own hand, he was performing in several bands all over town, from blues acts, to Brazilian, to lounge and cover bands. A long list of musical artists he’d played with over the years was meant to be impressive, but I shifted in my seat.
“Here’s his e-mail address,” said Erin. “You want to send him a message? Maybe we could get together and find out what’s going on with him and stuff.”
“We know what’s going on with him,” I said. “It’s right here on this page.”
“Come on,” said Tim. “I want to meet the guy, he seems cool.”
“I’m sending him one, and I’m giving him your address,” said Erin, with the light of the monitor in her eyes.
“Whatever,” I said, and made for the refrigerator to get a drink.
Eventually our interest in the humming computer monitor faded, and Erin and I made for the back porch. Tim hung back. “I think I’ll go lay down,” he said. “The futon?”
“It’s all yours,” Erin said, and grinned over at me, tactless and overt as a small dog. I pursed my lips, shook my head once.
Tim looked back and forth between the two of us. He put his hand on my head for a moment. “Good night, ladies.” He disappeared through the kitchen door.
“Nice,” I said, and followed Erin out the back door, who laughed.
We sat in the quiet for a while, though the wind blew a bit of chill through the protective mesh of the screen windows.
“I wonder what it feels like,” Erin said, a coffee mug between her small hands, and her feet pulled up into her patio chair. “To like, know that you used to be part of this great thing, and now you’re living in a crappy town and going nowhere?” She took a drink from her mug and looked over at me, gumption coming off her in waves.
“Well, I mean, I don’t know. Maybe he just didn’t like the band. Maybe he was tired of it.”
“I doubt it pretty seriously. Who quits the band to move back to
My ears and cheeks were warm. “Well. I heard him play, you know, and he was pretty good. Like, really good. I’m just saying.” I looked down at my feet. I recalled that I asked him, after hearing him play, how he got to be so awesome. “Years of practice,” he answered. “Or I was born that way.” He shrugged. I asked him if he’d ever been in a band before. “A few years ago, back in L.A.” I asked him if they were any good. He looked at the ceiling. “We were quasi-famous.”
“All I remember,” said Erin, fidgeting in her seat, “was he kept missing his timpani cues in orchestra rehearsal.”
My face was hot, and my fingers tingled. “Well,” I said, “a timpani ain’t a trapset. That’s all I’m saying.”
The pangs in my heart, generally reserved for beautiful instruments and dark-haired boys across the room who would never know my name, were my companions in the dark. That night, on Erin’s bone-thin futon mattress, empty chip bags and an open party size pack of Skittles on the floor, and Tim, warm beside me, it was time that made the tightness in my chest. I got out of bed and tiptoed down the hallway, to sit in the blue-white light of Erin’s computer monitor.
In his reply e-mail, Charles said he remembered me. I was the “brown-haired girl” that used to “crack everybody up with my funny voices”. He was living on the beach, he said, and gave me his address. “Come by for a visit some time,” he said.
I climbed back in bed. With Tim’s heavy breathing close to my ear, I held my fingers up to the yellow light seeping in from the kitchen. I turned my fingers in the fragment of light and imagined I could feel time, like a spool of ribbon running through and between my fingers, continuously. If I had time, immeasurable, at my disposal, I thought as I looked at my fingers, I would write my own news articles. I would film my own damn thought-provoking documentary, about how success is probably, I don’t know, in the eye of the, whatever, and how sometimes people fall through the cracks, and sometimes it’s on purpose, maybe. Anyway, me and Tim can do the soundtrack.
I repeated, in my head, the numbers of Charles’ address.
He lived thirty minutes from my old home, but I didn’t take myself down to his doorstep. I didn’t linger outside the front door, which was in need of a painting. The plants on the porch were dying. I did not peer through the window on the right, my fist raised, but halting. I didn’t see my old friend Charles as he moved through the kitchen, the walls papered with trudging lines of ducks, the avocado appliances. He was moving a knife slowly over a piece of bread, and his hair was longer. I didn’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 there in that town where old people come to grasp at the sun before they die.