It began with a challenge as they left Memphis, and now Caroline and Davis were playing the Kevin Bacon Game, with their own modified rules, as the car made its way through Mississippi and into Louisiana.
“I bet I can connect him with Clark Gable,” Caroline said.
“In seven people or less this time,” Davis replied.
“Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe in Misfits...Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot...Jack Lemmon and Michael Douglas in The China Syndrome...Michael Douglas and Darryl Hannah in Wall Street and—” Caroline’s speech slowed, and she looked out the window as if the answer would be on a billboard. The billboard they were approaching advertised an adult bookstore off exit sixty. The last few billboards had featured busty women in lace bras, glossy lips agape, looking from their billboard perches at the motorists with heavily lined eyes luring them to their gentlemen’s club like an interstate siren’s song. She found the sexy signs entertaining and not disturbing like the one in Byhalia that looked to be fifty years old and said, “Prepare To Meet Your Maker” in calligraphy that looked as if it came from a Gutenberg Bible.
“You’ve run out of steam already,” Davis said, “you only have two more links and then you’ve run out.”
“Darryl Hannah and Julia Roberts in Steel Magnolias—”
“Shit, it’s always Julia Roberts...she’s your kingpin.”
“I love her. She’s beautiful.”
“Go ahead, go on and finish.”
“Okay, for the win. Julia Robert and Kevin Bacon in Flatliners. My work is done here.”
“It always comes down to Flatliners,” Davis said, scowling behind a pair of cheap sunglasses he had found. They were gold frames with amber tinted lenses, the type Elvis wore during his later years that were handed out at parties and bars during Elvis Week back in Memphis. She knew he was not wearing them to be ironic, but because he needed sunglasses, and yet somehow could pull it off.
“Are you upset?”
“You’re pissed at me because I used Flatliners?” She reached to the passenger side and shoved his shoulder with her hand, trying to be playful and hoping he wasn’t mad. She didn’t know how to read him yet.
“You use it every time.”
“Then let’s take Flatliners off the table. It can be off limits.”
“Do Clark Gable without Flatliners. You can’t do it.”
Caroline considered this.
“Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe in Misfits...Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot...Jack Lemmon and Darryl Hannah in Grumpier Old Men,” Caroline paused.
“See, it can’t be done.”
“Hush,” Caroline said, and continued, “Darryl Hannah and Tom Hanks in Splash...Tom
Hanks and Elizabeth Perkins in Big.”
A smile spread across Caroline’s face as she turned her head to him and said, “Elizabeth Perkins and Kevin Bacon in He Said She Said.”
He grinned at her, and she was relieved that he wasn’t angry about her win. His hair was dark and wavy, grown out in a shaggy yet fashionable way; he tucked some of it behind his ear and revealed his cheekbone, which was so pronounced it reminded her of last summer when she finally got to go to Rome and glance upwards and at The David, his chiseled features highlighted by the light streaming in through the skylight of the rotunda that housed him. Davis looked back at her and she returned to watching the road. She leaned up to, almost over, the wheel and knitted her brows together in concentration. She recalled her friends saying that she drove more like a grandmother than a twenty-two-year-old and leaned back from the wheel.
“So how do you know this stuff?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she shrugged. “I’ve always loved the cinema but never really watched many old movies…just read until a couple of summers ago when I got really sick and it kept me in bed for a few months. Having the TV on was reassuring. I liked Turner Classic Movies and just let it run day and night and by the time I was better I had grown accustomed to it, so I keep it on still, even when I’m not home.”
“What was wrong with you?”
“What? You mean back then? Nothing romantic, just mono.”
They were driving the five and a half hours from Memphis to New Orleans because Davis was playing an impromptu gig at a small bar. It wasn’t Caroline’s job to drive Davis around to gigs, nor to guitar tech outside of the studio, but she was being paid extra for this road trip. She worked for the studio as a secretary and audio engineer apprentice where he was recording his second album.
The studio was a part-time job that she obtained for the purpose of living off campus in an apartment, for which her parents refused to pay the rent because they worried she was becoming antisocial. However, the owners of the studio, Jerry and Vic, found that she had a good ear from years of music lessons. They taught her to set up the studio, mic the instruments, tune drums, and tech guitars. Now, slowly but surely, she was learning to use the boards and check levels, and Vic let her record the hobbyists that came in to record something. Vic called them “trust fund musicians,” but after hearing Caroline’s mix of her first session he had told her, “You are a wizard of sound…you actually made this shit sound decent.”
Surprising herself, she loved working in the studio. Everything about the process: the placement of the instruments and mics, the levels on the boards, restringing guitars, even tuning drums. Caroline had won many awards in college, and had applied to several ivy-league schools for her masters in the Classics, yet she thought she might defer a year, if accepted, to work more with Vic and Jerry. She did not know if academia was for her, with audio engineering at least she would have a skill set. Caroline had yet to mention this to her parents.
Caroline thought the studio had a seventies feel, wood-paneled walls (both in the studio and out), carpeting that was probably once the color of an avocado, now dull and brown from being endlessly exposed to a constant stream of cigarette smoke. Gold records hung on the walls along with framed copies of the respective album covers. All of them were recorded here, some she recognized.
She answered the phones, made coffee, and rarely had to type up invoices (the studio wasn’t all that official and the invoices were simple), but, since the studio wasn’t that busy, mostly she just read. There had been a buzz among the musicians when Davis arrived in town, but then again, there were a steady stream of famous musicians that chose to record here over the years. As Vic and Jerry had reminded her numerous times as a selling point when people called about booking time, they recorded things the old way, the way they recorded Elvis or Johnny Cash down the street at Sun to get that rough and muddy Memphis Sound: all the players playing on a two track, no overdubs, with a slight tape delay that produced that quick slap-back doubling sound.
Davis was from New York and didn’t have a car, even though the label he was with would have probably provided one. Instead, he rode a bike around Memphis. Caroline was the only support staff in the studio, and Jerry and Vic worked the boards as engineers when legitimate musicians came into record. She’d overheard them talking with one another about Davis before he arrived to record, and gathered that his first album was a cult favorite, popular among other musicians, but his songs were too long for radio play and the label wanted the second album to be more commercial. He chose to come to Memphis so they couldn’t spy on his progress. Davis had insisted twelve mics for all the players and instruments as well as live recording with the other players. Essentially, he wanted to record one track with no punch-ins or punch-outs. This album would take a while. When she had heard his demands, prior to his arrival, she decided he was a pain in the ass.
When Davis walked in for his first session, she was sitting at the reception desk reading and didn’t see him come it. He startled her when he asked her what she was reading, and she looked up, confused because she was still thinking in Latin and not used to being disturbed. He was attractive in that mystical and grubby way that most of the musicians were; they
had a certain Parisian or Continental quality, but perhaps a bit more so in Davis’s case as there was a light and intelligence behind his eyes indicating that he was not impaired as most of the musicians were that darkened the doorstep of the studio.
“It’s Virgil,” she replied, and looked back down at the text. He stood there in front of her desk and she felt his gaze upon her head. His presence was warming, like one of those red lamps they keep fries under at a fast food joint. Her cheeks felt hot and flushed.
“The studio is back there,” she said, not looking up and pointing vaguely to the back.
He leaned over the desk closer to her and whispered, "Oh Muse, recount to me the causes," then walked away. She stared after him with a surprised glance, her head slightly tilted as if she were a dog trying to understand its owner’s words, and her gaze followed him as he walked into the studio. She got up quickly to follow him into the studio to check the mics.
She went to the record store and bought his CD on her way home from work. The liner notes gave a simple bio: he was raised on the outskirts of Los Angeles, no formal music lessons, and after high school he moved to New York and began to gig. He was thirty.
When her bosses not so much asked, but told, her to drive him to this gig, she was upset.
“Yeah, I guess this means no reading yourself Greek on our dime,” Jerry said. “You’re gonna have to actually work the rest of the week.”
“Unless they have Greek on tape for the car ride,” Vic said and spit some dip into a plastic Coke bottle. Jerry belly-laughed at Vic’s comment.
“I work plenty around here and you both know it. Why can’t you get one of the session players to do it?” she asked.
“Who in their right mind would want those drunks driving them around?” Jerry said. He and Vic looked at each other and laughed like they hadn’t heard a joke before. Caroline rolled her eyes.
“Besides, our college girl has a dependable car,” Vic said.
“He’s the one who’s paying and he wanted you,” Jerry added while raising and lowering his eyebrows several times.
“I mean, the best stories have already been written...long ago. The Greeks. Man, the Greeks. We still only have stories that operate on a number of plots, like thirty or forty, some guy wrote a whole book about it and the Greeks and the Romans are responsible for most of those. English Lit people argue Shakespeare, but c’mon. Poetry, too, it’s all from epic ballads. Doesn’t that bother you? While you are writing lyrics? Singing your songs and knowing that the best stuff has already been written?”
She looked at over at him. Davis was looking back at her, a half smile on his face, and he was not wearing his Elvis sunglasses. His eyes squinted from the afternoon sun, his hair fell in dark waves around his face and neck.
“Well...does it?” she asked, forcing herself to look away from him and back to the road.
“I’m sorry, what are you asking?”
“Hand me that Twix out of the bag,” she said with a sigh and paused as Davis retrieved then handed it to her. She opened the candy bar, took a large bite, and then said with a mouthful, “I mean, Virgil...he’s my favorite. He’s the shit. He must be a tough act to follow.”
As she finished the candy bar the cadence of her car’s tires slapping the causeway over the Pontchartrain signaled to Caroline that the drive was almost complete and Caroline felt a pang of regret about this. The drive and the city was familiar, her uncle lived in New Orleans and her family usually visited once a year. She hoped her knowledge of the city would impress Davis.
She glanced over at him as he looked out the window at the lake and the small fishing camps, houses on stilts, with fishing boats parked on the water nearby. The scenery alongside the interstate became the suburbs of New Orleans which was a strip-mall haven, and then came the above ground cemeteries that reminded Caroline of miniature cities, the crypts in neat rows like houses lining streets stretching across the green ground for acres upon acres. Concrete angels and crosses taller than the cemetery walls decorated the rooftops of the crypts.
“Okay,” Caroline said, “where is it again that you booked our rooms?”
“La Pavilion, but I promised a friend I’d drop by and say hello, so I guess head toward Uptown to their place,” Davis pulled a scrap of paper from his pocket and read the address, “Jefferson and Magazine.”
Caroline noted his odd use of nouns and pronouns and suspected that the friend was a woman. Caroline tried to think of something to say but managed only to nod. The pit of her stomach hurt, and she told herself this was because of the Twix.
Fourteen blocks later, Caroline parallel parked on Magazine and immediately pulled a book from her bag.
“Sure you don’t want to come in with me?”
“Nope, I’m good. I’m at a crucial point and haven’t read this translation yet,” she waived her copy of The Aeneid at him without meeting his eye.
Her eyes drifted over the words of one line repeatedly and without comprehension. After five minutes she saw Davis emerge from the front door of the peach shotgun house with a long-limbed woman with a dark bob and translucent skin the color of cream. Caroline stared, taking an inventory of the woman’s appearance. She wore short shorts with a tank top and a pair of sandals and carried a large straw handbag. She looked artistic, sophisticated, and close to Davis’s age. Like Davis, she looked grubby and Parisian as if she belonged on a beach cruiser bicycle with a baguette and bouquet of flowers in the basket on the handle bars.
The woman got into the backseat and Davis returned to his front seat.
“We’re going to drop Ilene off at work, I think it’s on our way.”
“It’s on the twenty-four-hundred block of Magazine,” Ilene added.
“Sure,” Caroline said, and began to drive.
“Are you the girl that reads all the time?” Ilene asked, and Davis shifted a bit in his seat at this.
“Yes,” Caroline said, watching the road.
Davis and Ilene discussed the people they had in common, people Caroline did not know, and places Caroline had never been. They spoke about Ilene’s paintings and her newest gallery show and her creative process. At red lights she watched Ilene in the rear-view mirror and noted her flawless arched brows and crimson painted lips. Once, Ilene met her gaze in the rearview mirror and something about the way Ilene looked at her was both curious and apologetic.
Caroline knew then that Ilene was Davis’s lover or had been at one time.
Lover. It was such an adult word. Caroline had been with several guys, one in high school and three (maybe technically four) so far at college, but the thought of referring to them as her lovers was absurd and, well, pathetic. When she thought of those sexual experiences, she thought of them as close encounters. Like the time her family went to Mexico and swam with the dolphins: it was okay, the dolphins were nice enough, but it wasn’t like it was on Flipper and that was what she had expected it to be, wanted it to be.
Yet she didn’t think of her sexual exploits often. When she wasn’t at the studio, she led a life of quiet and solitude in the study carrels of the library, the glow of the green banker’s lamp illuminating Virgil, Ovid, and Homer, surrounded by the sweet scent of the decaying books in their stacks, a smell that made her salivate. These past few years in the library with her books and her few friends, most of which were either library workers, professors of classics, and, of course Vic and Jerry, were fulfilling and happy.
Working at the studio this summer or, more specifically, seeing Davis at the studio this summer, confused her. That day she first met him she tore open the excessive packaging of Davis’s CD, Found Melodies, while still in the parking lot of the record store and sat in her running car, AC blasting, listening intently. It was as if John Keats and Virgil had somehow gotten together to write lyrics and found the male equivalent of Edith Piaf to sing them. At her desk at work, her mind wandered from the dactylic hexameter of The Aeneid to the door of the studio and, in it, the artist. He was both bard and songbird. Her life no longer felt as full and her underarms never seemed to be dry anymore.
“Okay,” said Ilene, “this is it, up here.” Ilene leaned forward, sticking her arm in between the front seats to point to where Caroline was to drop her off. Her arm was hairless and slender like a vine. As the car pulled to a stop, Ilene whipped a scarf from the straw bag and, without effort or aid of a mirror, tied it around her head, making a perfect turban. Davis and Ilene kissed one another, but once on each cheek, to Caroline’s relief, rather than on the mouth. Caroline told her goodbye and Ilene smiled at her. This time she was unable to read what Ilene’s smile was telling her.
Ilene got out of the car and walked down the sidewalk, disappearing as she entered a storefront with a window that featured a sad-looking mannequin wearing a yellow dress. There was a heavy silence as the car pulled out onto Magazine and onward toward the hotel.
“Ok, do Greta Garbo.”
She couldn’t look at him.
“She was in movies with Clark Gable,” Caroline said and added, “I don’t want to play anymore.”
One night the previous week, Caroline had been doing her daily routine for closing up the studio office. It stayed light so late in Memphis in the summer. The front door of the studio faced west and the late evening sun, beginning to set above the Mississippi, cast the office in a bright-colored haze of pink and orange. The light streaming through the front windows made the dust in the studio office appear and dance in the air. She had traveled many places in the world and yet it always seemed more beautiful here at home, the summers here were like no other on earth: hot sun with the fuzz from the cottonwood trees, white and resembling snow flurries, blowing in the breeze.
She watered the sad potted plants that she had resurrected during her tenure at the studio. In the room with the boards it was dark and she scrunched up her nose as she emptied all the ashtrays, which were filled by the end of the everyday by Vic and Jerry alone with both cigarettes and occasionally the burnt-out ends of joints. The window over the board looked out upon the recording studio and the lights were on, Davis was still inside strumming his guitar, singing and jotting things down on a piece of paper balanced on a music stand. He wasn’t using a mic and she couldn’t hear him playing or singing, it was like watching television on mute. She remained unseen until, leaning on the control board, she hit a button, causing an amp or mic to squeal inside the studio.
Davis stopped playing and shielded his eyes from the house lights while looking at the control room window. Caroline darted out of the control room and to the kitchenette sink and began to rinse the coffee pot out. As usual, Vic had left it on when it was almost empty, cooking the dregs of the coffee into a black soot that stuck to the bottom of the pot. Hearing footsteps, she cleaned this pot as if the task fascinated her; she became a scientist of the coffee pot, scrubbing it and holding it up to see that her work was progressing.
“Was that you at the boards?” he asked.
“Yes, I had to dump out the ashtrays...apparently Jerry has been hitting the ganja again.” She felt him move closer to her, the nerve endings in her body felt as if her hands were on one of those static balls, the type at museums for children that made your hair stand straight on end like a dandelion, rather than on Vic’s nasty coffee pot.
“Are you still reading The Aeneid?”
“Yes,” she said as she put the coffee pot on the rack to dry, then turned from the sink, “when
Jerry and Vic aren’t busting my balls about...”
She looked up and his face was inches from hers. He put his hand on her cheek, cupping it, and she nuzzled her face against his palm. As if it were a reflex, she put her hand on top of his and moved it from her cheek to her mouth and kissed his wrist. Then, as if snapping back from a hypnotic state, embarrassed by her own bravado, she bolted from the kitchenette, grabbed her book bag, and walked out the door into humid dark.
They had not spoken of it since.
At the gig, Caroline set up the amps, making sure the Rickenbacker and the Fender were restrung and tuned. After talking to the man running the sound, and listening to the soundcheck to make sure nothing was too hot, Caroline went outside into the balmy air as people streamed inside. She pulled her book from her bag and forced herself to focus on the words, highlight passages, and take notes in the margins, yet every few minutes her mind worked its way back to Davis. There seemed to have been an unspoken understanding between them, an energy between them, an intimacy, and she felt foolish to have thought so. How would she know it if there had been?
She had not known hardship in her life and yet she had not known intimacy of any form, either. Many privileges had been afforded her by her parents and yet she was raised by television and books while her father sold bonds and her mother played tennis at the club. Her only company at home was the housekeeper who smoked Kool cigarettes in the backyard when she wasn’t scouring and scrubbing the house with a rightfully vindictive fervor, and a brother who was into golf, jam bands, and the Republican party. Neither of them spoke to her very often.
When her parents did speak to her, it was to criticize. She hoped each time they approached her that it was to tell her that she had been adopted and that her real parents were the hirsute bohemian couple from the illustrated sex book that she had found in her mother’s scarf box in the seventh grade, but that conversation hadn’t occurred yet. The response to her attempts to connect to them was always a reductive soliloquy by one of her parents, the sole purpose of which to let Caroline know that she was a mistaken fool. For instance, a couple of years ago, Caroline read a book for college orientation, the one that had been chosen for all entering freshman so they would have something to discuss together while doing ice breaker games and trust-building exercises in the quad. It was a memoir about growing up in the shadows of the nuclear generators of Three Mile Island and being a closeted lesbian. Caroline was unable to put the book down, she found it “honest” and “relevant,” just as the blurbs on the cover described it. After reading it, she gave it to her mother to read. Her mother read the book jacket and introduction where the author talked about her current life, living in a yurt in Colorado with another woman, then handed the book back to Caroline. Her mother shook her head and sighed, “This is emotional exhibitionism.”
“It’s about the environment,” Caroline replied.
“Everyone nowadays has to compete with each other over what all they’ve overcome,” her mother said, making apostrophes in the air with her manicured fingers. “It’s the goddamned pain Olympics.”
And yet she pitied her mother, who had her own “pain Olympics” in Caroline’s plain sight. The summer that Caroline was twelve, the turntable at their home was in constant use and her father, a bond trader, was out of the country for work. Her mother compulsively played the Carpenters’ Close to You, with special attention to the title track and “Baby It’s You” while moving the needle past the sad songs like “Another Song.” Caroline endured this with eye rolls, as the album was so dated, but soon knew the words to each song and warmed to it. She loved the country twang that was placed in “Reason to Believe.” The album bothered her in a way that she didn’t know how to explain then. Now she would describe it as being over-produced. Caroline longed to hear Karen’s voice; she felt that the horn sections and strings took away from it. It was almost as if the producer attempted to candy-coat her voice. Karen’s voice soothed her as the drama unfolded around her, but there was something else there, a subtext to that saccharine sweet voice that added depth. A sadness maybe?
Their pool house had been rented that summer by an artist named Hopper Williamson. He had a mattress on the floor and used the rest of the small space as a painting studio. His uniform: jeans and a white undershirt covered in paint drops. He ate canned ham from the can. His only belongings were his art supplies. Caroline’s friends thought he was a “stud,” and Caroline could see why they would say that, but she would never agree.
As Karen sang “We’ve Only Just Begun,” Caroline’s mother would hover at their house’s back window watching Hopper’s shadow paint on a large canvas. Her mother also took sudden interest in swimming in the pool, and traded her one piece for a string bikini. At first, Hopper would briefly came out to talk to her Mother when she swam, kneeling at the poolside, usually with smears of paint on his face. He wore a black bandana on his head. After several weeks, he began to join her in the pool.
After their daily swims, her mother would drape herself in the towel, come inside, and Karen would begin to sing from the turntable. Her mother would make lunch or start to prepare something for dinner in some sort of odd daze, smiling in intervals at nothing. For Caroline, this was disgusting, yet more intriguing than MTV.
One morning, Caroline woke earlier than usual, just after dawn, planning to use the pool before her mother claimed it. She looked out her bedroom window to the backhouse to see her mother kissing Hopper at the door of the pool house, then quickly made her way into the main house. Caroline made a beeline downstairs and nonchalantly poured herself a bowl of cereal. Her mother was startled when she saw her. Caroline smelled cigarette smoke and alcohol on her mother, but the glow on her mother’s face was something she hadn’t ever seen. She hadn’t ever really seen her mother happy. At that moment, Caroline decided to play along.
“We are out of Cheerios. Could you put that on the grocery list?”
Her mother’s shoulders relaxed and she said, “Of course.”
The summer of Karen continued like this until Caroline’s father returned at the end of August. Her mother became distraught, but still swam daily with Hopper while Caroline’s father was at work. From the back window, Caroline could tell that their conversations were becoming serious, tense even.
Hopper moved to Marfa, Texas two weeks later. Caroline’s mother never played music in the house again, and Caroline took the turntable and the vinyl to her room to listen to through headphones. That winter, Karen Carpenter died, and soon Caroline found out what all was hidden in that voice. That voice was art and it prevailed over the attempts to hide the emotion behind it. Her mother returned to her bitter state, but every once in awhile, Caroline would see her mother return from the empty pool house with her lashes wet and eyes rimmed in red.
It was nearly three in the morning when they loaded his gear into the trunk of her car and made their way back to the hotel.
After changing into a T-shirt, she sat on the edge of her bed, the hotel linens stiff beneath her thighs. He was in the adjoining room and she wondered if he would go back out or if Ilene would come over here with her straw bag and wrap her milky limbs around him. It was all for the best. Caroline did not want to end up crying into Vic’s ashtray. She immediately began digging in her bag for her Discman and headphones. After dumping the contents of her bag and realizing she did not have her headphones, she belly-flopped onto the bed and covered her head with a pillow that felt as if it had been heavily starched. The pillow crunched as she pressed it around her head. She decided that this arrangement would work almost as well as the headphones as long as she kept the pressure on the pillow throughout the night. As she set the pillow aside to peel back the bedclothes, she heard a rumple as a piece of paper slid beneath the door to the adjoining room.
Caroline walked over to the door and picked up the paper. It was a note scrawled on hotel stationery.
“Virgil opened up for me tonight. He was a tough act to follow. Did he ever work with Kevin Bacon?” it said.
She wrote on the bottom of the page, “I’m sorry I missed that (Virgil I mean, not you). He was responsible for the screenplay of Footloose, so yes, he worked with Bacon.” She slid the paper back under the door and after a moment she heard the lock on Davis’s side of the adjoining door unlock.
Caroline took a deep breath, then exhaled slowly as she unlocked the latch of her door and found Davis on the other side. He held out his hand and she took it.