In a list on a website Jim had never heard of before, number six instructed grieving partners to “carry on with usual activities.” So, one night, he showered, put on his black jeans and boots, buttoned his denim shirt with the milky pearl buttons, let his sister watch Owen, grabbed his guitar, and drove down to The Barrel. He sat in the parking lot for a while, watching neon signs shining on snow banks. Smokers huddled beneath their dense clouds. Couples, so many of them, walking up and down the sidewalk, arms hooked. Laughing. Laughter was a tonal language, the kind you have to immerse yourself in if you ever hope to understand it. Through the window, Jim saw the mic stand in the corner.
A crowd of wool hats and fingerless gloves, skirts and boots in the hazy glow of Christmas lights. Jim put his name on the list and pointed to one of the taps. The bartender slid a beer across the bar. She squinted at him. He left five bucks and moved to a high table against the wall. He sipped. A woman was talking to him. He watched her until she stopped, until she scrunched her face and walked away. A man in a backwards baseball hat stepped up to the mic and started telling jokes about celebrities Jim never heard of. A group of women in their early twenties got up next and sang “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” holding on to each other and laughing uncontrollably.
When it was Jim’s turn, he carried his guitar up to the mic and faced the crowd. He felt his mouth open slightly. Red faces staring at him. A cough. A laugh buried in a gloved hand. Let’s go! someone shouted. Jim looked down at the strings: tight ropes taught across a dark hole. He squinted at the crowd, and just before he got to the door, the amp cord resisted for a moment, then ripped free.
The next morning, Owen sat in his high chair smearing pureed apples and sweet potato across his tray in wide pukey rainbows. He sucked his fingers, then dipped them in again. Jim had only had a few sips of beer, but he felt hungover. When he turned his head, the kitchen slipped at the edges, then righted itself. Behind Owen was the pile of papers Jim moved from room to room. Most of Leslie’s things were in storage – clothes, jewelry. Her presence reduced to paper. Stacks of it. The mail keeps coming. Circulars. Coupons to a fried chicken place they’d never been to. Ads for an online MBA claiming it’s never too late.
A lifetime ago – which isn’t an exaggeration in terms of Owen’s life – Jim and Leslie would get drunk and watch “Where Are They Now?” on VH1. The show was mostly about one-hit wonders, rock and pop stars whose skyrocket to fame lasted about as long as the Space Shuttle Challenger. Bands the average idiot couldn’t name, but whose lyrics they knew by heart, artists who wrote the soundtrack to so many of their aimless teenage drives, their basement parties, their losing-their-virginity-on-the-bottom-bunk-in-someone’s-kid-brother’s-bedroom memories. A few beers in and Jim was talking loudly about all the ungrateful people who consumed this music, who lived by it, in it, and then moved on to the next fad, the next gimmicky pop song. And what was left? A group of flabby, middle-aged white dudes sitting in folding chairs on a TV show, talking about their sad, post-stardom lives. It scared the hell out of him.
Leslie always took care of everything behind the scenes. Oil changes and water filter replacements and dentist appointments. Jim never had to think about any of it; they were all just neatly-printed notes on the refrigerator calendar. It reminded him of an interview with someone he watched late one night after Leslie died, a musician, not one of the Jackson 5, but someone similar, someone who’d been famous longer than they hadn’t, and he was saying something about how it had been so long since he handled money that he forgot a transaction of any kind had to take place. He got used to walking into a room and everything was just there. No wonder these people don’t write their own songs, Jim almost said out loud. How could they?
Now the weight of minutiae pressed on his skull like a steel-toed boot. Pediatrician appointments and kitty litter and recycling; watering plants and paying the heating bill; planning meals and food shopping. It wasn’t that he never helped with that stuff before, but somehow knowing he was the only one left to do it all, that if he skipped one thing it would never get done, made each task crucial. Writing a check or running the dishwasher became load-bearing beams. Perched on top of Jim’s flimsy structure, like a weather vane, was Owen, cooing and smearing.
Stand in a room of 467 people. 467 beating hearts. 467 pulsing brains. 934 lungs inhaling, exhaling. 467 soon-to-be mothers smiling and glowing, petting their stomachs, sharing baby names and breast-feeding tips. 467 partners massaging the smalls of 467 backs. All of them thinking of paint colors and crib models and sleep machines. Not a moment, not a single thought wasted on bacterial infection. Not a second. Not a blink.
The doctors called it puerperal sepsis. One of those narrow percentages you don’t worry about until they include you. Then you find out how spacious that percentage really is. Big enough for online communities. Support groups. Underfunded nonprofits. They comfort you, initially, because no one else understands. But after a few months, you begin to wonder if your partner’s death is your new identity. You worry if any of this is seeping into your child. You change course. You retreat.
For months after Leslie’s death, Jim and Owen spent their nights watching YouTube clips of old concerts. Joe Cocker. Aretha Franklin. The Who. Owen was mesmerized by Keith Moon’s drum solos, or at least that’s how Jim interpreted the boy’s rocking and kicking. They watched the sweaty kid in a white t-shirt, stringy black hair stuck to his cheeks and forehead, flailing like a free-falling octopus, pushing harder and harder until the beat teetered on the edge of chaos then snapped back. No matter how many times they watched the same clips, Jim was certain this time Moon would lose it. But he never did. He always landed.
What really got Owen kicking was the end, when Moon stood up, grabbed his high-hat and swung it down like an ax across his bass drum. He drove his fist into the top of his snare, then picked it up by the stand and threw it at the crowd. Then he threw his bass drum and cymbals, and as he started kicking his toms off the stage, the crowd threw pieces back at him. Moon stomped and bashed and screamed. He quickly looked behind him, snatched his stool, and smashed the remaining pieces of his drum kit. Whatever song they were playing was reduced to echoing feedback.
Owen started making sounds. “Mmmaaah, mmmaaah.”
Jim decided he was trying to say “Moon.”
Before Owen, before Leslie, Jim kept his guitar in his bedroom. He didn’t have a choice. His studio apartment jammed everything into one room – stove, futon, television – with only a thin door separating the bathroom. In the mornings, as the coffee pot gurgled, he sat in that cramped bathroom, knees nearly touching the door.
Living in the studio made him understand why cats hide under beds or crawl behind the couch the first few nights in a new home. Comfort in confinement. If a giant kicked his apartment building down a hill, Jim could probably tumble a few times before falling off the toilet. The sink and tub and door fit around him like a custom mold. He sat and flipped through the paper, glancing at photo captions. Jim was living that “struggling artist” act of his future biopic – those scenes when the musician is poor but brimming with integrity. When he’s still working nights at a gas station or bussing tables or mopping floors at a porno theater. When he’s wearing his one pair of jeans, his one leather jacket, his scuffed boots. The scenes of him walking by an iconic venue on his way to work, some hotshot band blaring out to a packed house, the same venue that will one day spell out his name in black letters on the marquee. The scenes where he walks anonymously through the city that will eventually list him on Wikipedia as one of its notable people, will refer to him as the “warehouse worker turned rocker.” All he needs now is that eureka scene, the moment when someone at the restaurant or gas station or theater makes an off-handed comment: “Jim, you a dime a dozen” or “Plenty of talent out there, not much endurance.” And then one night, Jim stays up late, takes his guitar onto the fire escape, strums one slow chord, and the lyrics to “Dime a Dozen” or “Ya Gotta Endure” come pouring out and that’s all she wrote. Rocket to fame.
Jim flipped the newspaper. The full-spread of the Challenger explosion, in blazing color, held his attention. A tunnel of thick white smoke streaking across the sky, forking at the end. In the middle, a lumpy red tumor of an explosion. Jim hadn’t been following the story, but the story followed him. Followed everybody. Weeks after the explosion, the death of the story followed everyone, too. Fished out wreckage off the coast of Cape Canaveral to be studied, preserved, and displayed. That band of astronauts and one school teacher reduced to fire and smoke above a screaming crowd. What would they have seen? What would the teacher have shared with her students if she returned? How would a civilian describe space to a child?
Jim folded the paper in half and tucked it between the toilet tank and the wall. It remained there for weeks, the last photo of seven lives sandwich between car ads and the funny pages.
Jim traced Owen’s eyebrow, over and over, slowing down just a little each time, until the boy’s breathing steadied. His mouth slightly open, his head sunk deep in the pillow. He looked like a brand-new boy in his original packaging. Jim was trapped. Owen’s crib – sheets and blanket tucked with military precision, pillow full and cold as marble – was in his room across the hall. Jim’s bed was the only one Owen would sleep in. And he would only nap if Jim was in the bed with him. Once Owen fell asleep, if Jim so much as scratched his chin, Owen’s eyes would peel open like a frog’s, blink vacantly once or twice before returning, full bore, to the waking world.
The Who’s Live at Leeds. Otis Redding at The Monterey Pop Festival. Hendrix at Fillmore East. While Owen slept, Jim stuck in his earbuds and time traveled. Sweaty, sweetly stoned, his internal temperature the same as the air around him. The womb of the crowd. Even though he’s from the future and knows that this moment will be etched in stone, he’s there, he is completely there, so when the singer delivers a call to action, Jim has to bite his lip. When the drummer claps and the crowd obeys, Jim has to restrain his hands under his thighs. And when the band slows down, leads the audience through a long and winding ballad, Jim’s eyes pool with tears.
Sometimes the music warbles, amps sink into an ocean and fade to whale songs. Jim on stage, Leslie the only one in the audience. But she doesn’t act like she’s alone. She sways with her eyes closed, thick folds in her leather jacket as she sips from the little red straw in her gin and tonic. She drinks with her eyes closed and never stops swaying. Bleached jeans just below her hips. Red boots. Her lips moving around Jim’s lyrics.
He never knows what song he’s singing in these visions. He’s not so much performing as he is transmitting. Brain wave synced to brain wave. A feedback loop. They could be in Boston or New York, Nashville or New Orleans. That night in Chicago when he used the house’s beat-up acoustic and cut his finger on a frayed string and his thin blood mixed with sweat and ran down the guitar in streaks. Those day beers at The Barrel after his meeting with the record company, pitcher after pitcher on an empty stomach and the best pool game of his life and the stumbling, hooked-arm walk to the diner and how the month after felt like their entire lives were perched on the tip of a rumbling spaceship in perpetual countdown. And then the months turned to years and the countdown froze on “1.” Their focus shifted inward. Nesting, she called it, even before she was pregnant. And though Jim entertained hazy snapshots of fatherhood, as Leslie’s due date approached, his anticipation faded to dread, the volume of everything turning down, down, down.
Years vanished. Frozen dinners. Life insurance claims. Unemployment checks. Owen at Jim’s sister’s house twice a week, then three. Jim tried on personalities, identities. Gardened for a while and gave up. Renovated half of the basement and gave up. His bedroom wall a rash of different colors, tiny sample paint cans with dusty lids underneath his dresser.
Would he even know if he was crazy?
He imagined the eye of a hidden camera capturing him in a sleeveless shirt and sweatpants, sitting on a stool, hunched over his guitar, big black headphones clamped on his head. The cord snaking behind him, the amp’s glowing red light. A steaming cup of coffee. A granola bar with its wrapper peeled back like a banana. The camera doesn’t see what Jim sees, what he’s trying to see. All the camera finds are Jim’s fingers slowly plucking up and down the strings.
More like letting go than holding on. More like gripping a rock in a river until his arms ache, and then surrendering to the current. That’s what it was. Not a giving up, but a giving in. Without understanding how, Jim’s curling fingers and tapping foot and nodding head pulled him down stream. Astronauts describe zero gravity the same way: weightless, how once the push/pull of the Earth is gone, it’s difficult to sense the position of your limbs, to even feel them at all.
The creaking floorboard. The sniffling. The door between the garage and the house squeaked. Opened.
Rage. Molten anger gurgling in Jim’s chest each time Owen disturbed his mornings. If the playing was going well, Jim could temper his response. If he got in a good hour or two, he had the strength to smile at Owen honestly, put away his guitar, and start making pancakes. After those moments, he sometimes imagined Owen decades into the future, maybe long after Jim was dead, answering interview questions for a music magazine, Owen referencing those pancake mornings, the vision of his father hunched on the stool, strumming. The interviewer presses Owen. Owen gets choked up, says something like, “That’s when I knew. That’s when I knew I’d devote my life to music.”
That’s if the playing was going well.
When it wasn’t, Jim teetered on the stool like a mangy circus bear. Every note do or die, could save or kill. When the Daaa-daaa? came, Owen, whether he understood it or not, was stealing food from a gobbling dog.
Jim stared at Owen. Five years old now. Blonde wiry curls that have never been cut. Two green gems for eyes. He dragged the plastic feet of his dump truck pajamas along the cement floor, clutching Joy by the throat. A stuffed unicorn he named himself. The kid’s quick, can read books most kids two or three years older can’t, uses words like “literally” and “peculiar” correctly.
“What’s up, bud?”
Owen looked down at the cement. His eyes followed the crack in the foundation to the middle of the garage, where it branched out in oily tributaries. The same crack Jim noticed every time he walked in, the one that reminded him of that Bruce line from “Hungry Heart” about a river taking a wrong turn.
Owen’s pajamas slip-slapped across the concrete. He curled up into a little ball on the deflated leather couch, bear-hugging Joy. Jim shook out the camouflage blanket and draped it over him. Owen cooed and snuggled deeper. His breath settled into a rhythm. Each exhale parted his lips gently. His eyes wide open. Somewhere – a documentary or a book – Owen learned that the average person blinks about 20,000 times a day. If you add up the amount of time spent blinking over a lifetime, it comes out to years, years of waking hours with our eyes closed. Combine that with sleep and we’re blind for a long time. Owen began slowly reducing his blinks each day. He counted them. He kept a notebook. A Blink Book. Little prison notches in chicken scratch handwriting. Like most obsessions, it was impressive and worrisome.
Dr. McNally called it a “coping mechanism,” something kids do to feel in control, which was kind of funny to Jim because if you want to talk about power, Owen is supernatural. Most kids are. Jim couldn’t think of another person in his life who could walk into a room and make everyone else stop what they’re doing and serve them. One time a mother at the playground was talking Jim’s ear off and referred to her son as her “little prince.” It was creepy, and that term lodged itself in Jim’s brain like a jingle. Sometimes his brain repeated it so many times he had to mouth the words or whisper them quietly to himself, just to scratch the itch – little prince, little prince, little prince.
When Owen was an infant, Jim set up the white noise machine Leslie had bought a couple of weeks before the day he was born. The day she died. Owen slept soundly until he was about three years old, then one night he woke screaming. Jim rushed in and found him sitting up in bed, palms squeezing his head like a vice. Too loud! Too loud! Owen fought for air, his breath sucking and slurping like a clogged kitchen sink, and when Jim reached out to rub his back Owen jerked away. Jim ran into the hallway, fumbled with the switch in the dark, Owen’s screams devolving to a primal octave, grabbed the sound machine by the cord and swung it to the floor, shattering it in one blow. Owen kept screaming, gasping. Jim eased one of Owen’s hands away from his ears and let the silence in.
Days go on and on. Disturbing thoughts. Questions trespass through his brain as he’s making coffee or tying the kitchen garbage: Would I think this much about Leslie if she had lived? If they were simply divorced, would her face appear each time he closed his eyes? Would her expressions flash behind Owen’s – the curve of a lip, the wrinkle of an eyebrow? If she had left him, would she still be trapped inside his head?
People tell him it gets easier, but what if it doesn’t? What if the next forty years are exactly the same?
One night, Jim stays up late, sticks his earbuds in, and lets YouTube lead the way. He gets up for another beer, then another, and on the last trip grabs the rest of the twelve-pack and drops it on the couch beside him. When he drinks the last one, it’s still cold.
A clip of Keith Moon throwing his sticks leads to Moon filling his bass drum with dynamite leads to an interview days after the explosion, cymbal shrapnel buried in Moon’s arm. Jim types in “explosion challenger” and watches the space shuttle burst from multiple angles. Then “mother die child birth” and he’s in what he assumes is an African country as a white doctor walks through a village spouting statistics about maternal mortality. It isn’t until Jim looks up and sees Owen standing in the hallway that he realizes he’s been holding his breath.
He shuts the laptop, takes out his earbuds, and waves him over. Owen slides the twelve-pack box out of the way and lays across Jim’s lap. They don’t talk. For a few moments, they just breathe together. Then with an urgency that surprises him, Jim tells Owen about his last concert before Mom died, then he tells him about Moon’s exploding drumkit, then he’s rambling about auto-destructive art, that these musicians destroying their instruments aren’t just defiant punks, but intentional artists and by wrecking their equipment they’re gifting the audience a singular experience, a moment that can never be re-created. And though Owen nods, it’s impossible for Jim to know how much he understands and even twelve beers in, he has the sense not to say it out loud, not to show Owen the dots and connect them for him. Jim can’t talk about “legacy” and “myth” without talking about death, so he stops and hopes when Owen unwraps his thin arms from Jim’s neck, takes his tiny steps back up the dark hallway, that the right words are ringing in his ears.