The Middle of Nowhere

This conversation is one of many between Joe and Alice when they go on the road with the band towards the end of the book (between chapters 29 and 30). And there’s a bit more with Angel.

Alice had wrapped the fossil fish in a dirty t-shirt and slid it down into the middle of her pack so it wouldn’t get broken. Joe tried not to wonder if a stone fish would be the best part of the trip for her.

At least she wasn’t unnerved by the wide open spaces—no trees, no houses, just hills dotted with scrub. Alice said she liked being able to see for hundreds of miles. She gazed out the window entranced, as if leaving everything else up in the air was perfectly natural and fine. As if the main thing was that they had a full tank of gas and a pound of grapes, and the rest of their life didn’t matter.

“What if the band takes off?” he said. “I could be gone all the time. Quit the warehouse for good, come home spaced out and cranky.”

She glanced at him, curious. Like what brought this on?

“I could stop thinking about firing Stringer,” he went on. “Because a band is a business. And Stringer’s a good performer.”

Alice plucked a grape and ate it.

“I could start writing songs that would sell. I could start thinking like that, thinking about the audience instead of the song.”

“You could turn into a pretentious asshole, surrounded by sycophants,” she suggested, like this was one of those games you play on a car trip. “Or worse.”

What could be worse? he wondered. She said: “You could dry up and have to fake it with technique. The curse of facility.”

“My technique’s not that good,” he said, putting his hand on his chest for the absent piece of wood. He was starting to wish he hadn’t brought this up.

She was still gazing out the window at the sky. That’s pretty much all there was to see out there, sky. She kept working on the grapes, turning the perfect bunch of fruit into something skeletal.

“Gee thanks, Al,” he finally said. “You’re really making me feel better about this whole thing.”

She cracked a smile. “I can’t believe you sat there and listened like I was the voice of god. You looked sick.”

“Well it’s plausible. It’s possible.”

“Do you want to do something else?”

“What do you mean?”

“I keep thinking of your friend Brad and his endless dissertation. He’s not interested in it, but he doesn’t know what else to do. Is that what’s happening with you?”

“I’ve always wanted to make music. I still do, only—”

“Then you’re mindfucking.”

He was glad she had so much faith in him, but he thought she was missing something.

“Anyway,” she said around a grape, “being terrified of fame is a good way to have a fantasy about it without having to admit that you really want it.”

I don’t want it, he thought. Do I?

“When I first got into that art show,” she said, “I thought my ship was coming in, I had arrived. I imagined being interviewed by this glossy art magazine and talking about staying true to my art, drawing whatever I found compelling and the hell with fame and fortune or even credibility, if I didn’t define my work for myself. Of course the whole reason I was being interviewed was because I’d gotten the fame and fortune. That’s what I mean by mindfucking. I secretly like the idea of being a big deal, of getting to have my say and have people listen, instead of having to fight to get a word in. I want to add my two cents.”

Joe cracked the window and lit a cigarette. “Steve used to talk about writing songs like he was Everyman. That was his two cents. He meant it too. He got a recording contract, he got good reviews for his first CD, and he hasn’t changed at all. He didn’t turn into some pseudo-intellectual hipster. He’s writing good stuff.”

“So—”

“But I’m not Steve. All through high school I was either a target or totally invisible. I think about those people back then – they were Everyman, Al, and they sucked. I’m sure as hell not writing for them. But I’m not sure that . . . I don’t know.”

“You want all those people who treated you like dirt to kiss the hem of your robe?”

No, he thought. I want to be able to ignore their worldview.

“It’s just, it’s hard to keep other people’s expectations from fucking with your head. No matter what you think of them.” He hated to admit this, but Alice was nodding. She had a grim smile, like she didn’t like admitting it either.

“I’m free now,” he said. “I can write whatever I want, without anybody’s expectations fucking me up.”

But free was not how he had been feeling. Trapped was more like it. He wasn’t sure that if he rode off into the sunset tomorrow he would feel any freer.

“This is so weird,” Alice said. “I’ve been green with envy because you have an audience. People who can’t wait to hear your next new song. Even the band is your audience. I was thinking how they help you get to where you’re going. Like, you get a riff and an idea and you can fool around with those guys until you have a song.”

“It used to work like that,” he admitted. “With Angel and Steve.”

Alice said, “So why don’t you work with Angel again?”

He laughed, startled. Then he thought about it. Why didn’t he? “Dunno,” he finally said. He meant, I’ll think about it.

There was a harsh, edgy song from a few years back that had been Jen’s favorite – interesting, because Jen was one of the kindest, sanest people he knew. (Of course Angel had loved that song, but so had Steve, who also got points for sanity.) The love song he had written for Donna, on the other hand, had been dropped from the set right away. Angel and Steve had never liked it, they had submitted to Joe’s bullying. It was a pretty little ditty that didn’t cut deep. It wasn’t about how Donna had made him feel, but how he had thought she would make him feel, how he wanted to feel. Like I’ve got it all together, now I’m set for life. It wasn’t about altered states or being put through changes or hanging in there when the woman turned real. It wasn’t a love song at all.

“The songs that work best for me in the long run,” he said to Alice, “are the ones that go deep. And then I don’t care how many people get it, although it’s great if somebody does.”

“Does ‘somebody’ usually get it?”

“Yeah. But even if I’m the only one to get it, it’s okay.”

“Then what are you worried about?”

He was worried that he would get hugely famous, people would get him all wrong, and the pressure of their expectations would turn him into someone he did not want to be. How likely was huge fame, anyway? It was like worrying that he would wake up tomorrow and be handsome.

At the next stop he let her drive and climbed into the back of the van to work on his song, secure in the thought that huge fame was simply a fantasy. But leaving a mark would be good. Even a small mark. He wanted to do that. For the rest, he would cross bridges when he came to them. What else could he do?

Well, he could keep right on worrying about it. But with Alice driving the biggest worry was getting to the next gig in one piece.

When he took a break from working on his song it was Alice’s turn to bring up a topic. She seemed to think it was a new topic; he thought it was more like an underlying theme.

“When I saw my dad,” she began, “I realized I can’t want anything from people, or I lose my balance. I do better when I have no expectations.”

Joe grunted.

“With Angel, I always knew I had to stand on my own. I knew that if I expected things from him, then he would leave. But—”

“That’s not why Angel left,” Joe interrupted. “He left because you fooled around with me.”

What?”

“If you’d slept with anybody else, he could have handled it. He would have been pissed off, but he would have gotten over it. Come on, Al, you must have figured that out. You and me, it was the ultimate betrayal.”

She didn’t like that. “He did get over it,” she said. She meant, he had gotten over her.

“He was gonna marry you,” Joe argued. “He’s never wanted to do that before so don’t tell me it was nothing.”

“That was about his father. And his sister’s wedding and the fact that he was raised Catholic and we made a baby.”

“So what? Maybe it was a foolish dream, but he still wanted it, and you busted it up. You’re not the only person who got hurt. Everybody in the world isn’t your parents, over and over again, doing things to you. You did something too. You slept with me behind his back and that hurt him. I hurt him and you hurt him.”

Jesus, he was starting to sound like Josh. But Alice was staring at the mountains in the distance. She went away in her head, trying to absorb this strange new concept, that she had hurt Angel. She’d completely forgotten her do-it-all-on-my-own theory. She kept having this same realization; she’d already come to this conclusion at least five separate times.

He couldn’t say, straight out, stop feeling hurt about me. Stop feeling like I’ve abandoned you and your kid. He’d said all that and promised to shut up. So he was saying it every other way he could.

****

            Angel gave Joe and Alice a wake-up call every day, without fail. He didn’t hear any more fights, not that he stuck around to listen. Usually all he did was knock, yell “It’s me,” wait for Joe to yell something back, and leave. One morning he knocked and the door pushed open. Had they left already? He stuck his head in. The room seemed empty, so he came the rest of the way in.

Alice was asleep, curled up on her side, her hair in her face. No cowboys and Indians on this bedspread, it was a red satin comforter. It had slid off her shoulder.

Angel pulled it up to her neck, and Alice opened her eyes.

“Hey,” he said. “You’re awake.”

She blinked.

He squatted down so their heads were on the same level. “The door was open,” he said. “I thought you guys had already left.”

“Joe’s taking a shower,” she said.

Angel hadn’t said much to her since he had picked them up at the airport, Joe carrying her suitcase and backpack, Alice in a dark green duffel coat, her belly leading the way like the prow of a ship. Angel had given her a big hug and told her she looked great, she looked like a million bucks. Without missing a beat she had said, “I thought it was only a hundred.” So she knew about his bet with Dan.

“Can I see?” he said now.

She lifted her arm and the comforter and let Angel look. She looked too. Her breasts were larger, her belly was kind of lopsided, a football shape under the giant t-shirt she wore to sleep in.

“She’s moving,” Alice said.

He put out his hand. Alice took his hand and set it on her lopsided football belly. She was so warm; like she had a motor in there. And then he felt something nudge his palm. The baby was giving him high-five.

Someone came in the room and shut the door. Alice’s head shifted on the pillow, twisting up and around. Angel didn’t turn to look. He had a right to sit here and do this, feel this little being that he had helped create. The bed creaked, Joe sitting down behind Alice and against the wall. Then Joe leaned forward, looking too.

“Is she awake?” he asked. He meant the baby. What were they going to do if it was a boy? Joe was keeping his voice normal for Alice, Angel figured. So she wouldn’t be upset.

“Yeah,” Alice answered.

Angel looked up. Joe’s hair was two shades darker, wet on his shoulders. One of his eyes was red, like he’d gotten shampoo in it. “She’s usually asleep now,” Joe told Angel.

“Not a morning person,” Angel said.

“Not so far,” Joe said. Maybe it wasn’t only for Alice that Joe was acting like it was okay. Who knew, maybe it was okay.

“She’s on lunar time,” Alice said.

“We’re not,” Angel said. “We’re due for sound check at seven.” He stood up and used his exit line. Didn’t want to wear out his welcome.

But later that day Angel sat with them for awhile in the student union where they were having a meal before showtime. Angel had gotten up for more coffee and a piece of blackberry pie with ice cream; he passed their table and Alice said, “Hey, what’s that?”

“I heard the pie was homemade,” he said.

Alice eyed it with yearning; it seemed only natural to sit down and offer her some. She dug in. After three bites she put her fork down so she wouldn’t eat it all.

“I can always go back for more,” Angel said, and they went at the pie with two forks. Three, even Joe had a bite. Joe and Alice had been talking about Jeannie’s songs, about women in rock ‘n’ roll. They brought Angel up to date on the conversation so he could join in. The only thing that was strange was that it didn’t seem strange at all for the three of them to be sitting around shooting the breeze, scraping up every last smidge of blackberry pie and vanilla ice cream.

Angel started having a meal with them now and then. Their three-way conversations were not like tiptoeing through a minefield—they said what they felt like saying. Well, why not? They all knew each other. Once they even discussed the baby’s name. Alice wanted to name the baby Luna if it was a girl. She couldn’t think of a name for a boy. Could they? Joe rubbed his mouth and didn’t say. Angel tried to look blank. What did she expect him to say? Name it after me?

Then Joe said that Luna sounded like “loony” and a kid with a name like that would get a lot of grief on the playground. On the basis of his experience with a name you had to live up to, Angel agreed with Joe.

It was two against one; Angel could see why Alice got pissed off. She accused them of being unimaginative.

“I tell you what I imagine when I hear the name Luna,” Angel said. “I imagine an Italian restaurant.”

Joe gave her an I-told-you-so look, and Alice, who had steam coming out her ears, said, “Oh fuck you both.”

Then she realized: she had fucked them both. She pretended her face wasn’t giving her away. Joe raised his eyebrows at her; Angel grinned.

“Sue me,” Alice said. Her face might be red but she was unrepentant. Angel had to laugh. Then Alice did. Even Joe cracked a smile.

This section came before Angel and Joe started to write songs together again.

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