Vexation Lullaby, page 1
Also by Justin Tussing
The Best People in the World
Published by Catapult
Copyright © 2016 by Justin Tussing
All rights reserved
Catapult titles are distributed to the trade by
Publishers Group West, a division of the Perseus Book Group
Library of Congress Control Number: 2015951150
Printed in the United States of America
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A.J.T. and R.A.Z.
If you’re hired, then they want you
To do what they don’t want to.
—from “Bucolic Song” (1965)
That tow-headed tyrant marched into my shin.
He was pretending I’m invisible,
Or maybe it’s him.
— from “Best Enemy” (1977)
In the center ring the murderous cats
Pirouette on their perches.
I saw you holding your breath
While high up, near the canvas ceiling,
A family performs perilous reunions.
We were all holding our breath.
— from “Acrobat Daredevil Circus” (1979)
See the man on stage. He’s been called a genius, a lovable misanthrope, a national treasure, a fraud. The backlights make a halo of his famously unruly hair—a well-known poet, his former lover, called it “a pubic pompadour.” For five decades he played the enfant terrible; now, at seventy, he is suddenly ancient. While the final note of “Last Second Coming” snakes through the crowd, he steps forward. The upturned toe of a cowboy boot juts over the black edge. He’s a statue begging to be toppled.
The audience members—he calls them his “bloodthirsty attendants”—try to steady him with their piercing concentration. They owe him everything. After all, he’s the one who urged them to leave the dead-end towns where their parents raised them. When they drove from here to there, he rode shotgun, through the purple night, beneath the magnesium sun. When they were careful, when they were conventional, he sang to the reckless selves inside them. If not for him, would they have believed in the righteous joy of heartache? Never. His lyrics and his likeness are inked beneath their skin. Clever allusions serve as the basis for their children’s names and the passwords on their Roth IRAs. Their wills instruct that “Wayward Satellite”1 play as their bodies are lowered into the raw earth.
Look, he’s not even playing. He’s staring into the audience, or through them. Can he perceive anything beyond the spotlight’s white amnesia? Another inch forward and he’ll fall. No one has ever looked so alone as he does when he’s surrounded by people who love him.
Curls of steam rise from his head. He’s a candlewick. He’s a fuse.
A woman in the front row stretches out her hand and (no!) touches the slim ankle of his boot. His lip curls as he yanks the plug from his battered blue guitar. And then he’s gone.
Even after the houselights come up, the audience keeps chanting his name. They can beg all they want, but he’s not coming back.
Peter Silver sat in his living room watching Swim, Bike, Die, a movie about a female serial killer who targeted triathletes. The lead actress had a rather large and angular nose, not unlike Peter’s ex-girlfriend’s. He might share his observation with Lucy, if only they were still speaking. Like the killer, Lucy excelled at compartmentalization. She had broken up with him in May, despite a tacit understanding that they were nearly engaged. All summer he’d anticipated their reconciliation. More recently, he felt a kinship with the solemn folks who stood in front of the Unitarian church holding signs no one bothered to read. What Peter needed now was an exit strategy, a way to stop waiting that wouldn’t feel like he’d given up on waiting.
His phone rang. Peter felt a twinge of shame. The caller ID showed a blocked number, which meant he couldn’t rule out that it was Lucy. He willed himself to answer, lest she assume he was depressed. If she wanted to talk, he could tell her he had company. He wasn’t exceptionally depressed.
An older male voice said, “I’m trying to reach Judith Silver’s son.”
Peter was Judith’s only child; all his most effective nightmares began with an unexpected phone call. It served him right for thinking about Lucy—Judith would probably call it karma.
Judith cohabited (her word) with Rolf Stieger. The two of them shared an old prospector’s cabin in an arid canyon twenty minutes above Boulder, Colorado. They’d been together for a decade. Judith didn’t believe in marriage; she believed in coconut oil and probiotics. Rolf was Austrian—he believed in himself.
Perhaps something happened to both of them? Driving those narrow roads, a house-sized chunk of rock might flatten their car. Or they could miss a turn and wind up in that icy cataract someone named Catastrophe Creek. During Peter’s last visit, Judith’s smoke detector emitted those cricket chirps that signaled the batteries needed changing; how long had that been going? Rolf spent his days around table saws and nail guns—he couldn’t discern anything quieter than an explosion. What was Judith’s excuse? She’d always been able to shut things out. Why hadn’t Peter replaced the batteries? If his mother died in a house fire, his cheap heart would be to blame.
“Is my mother okay?” Peter had already concluded that Judith was not okay—people didn’t call about your mother when she was okay. The airport was closed for the night, but as soon as it opened he would beg the booking agent to show him mercy and put him on a plane. On the television, the killer prepared to transition onto her bike.
The caller coughed. When he spoke again, his voice sounded smaller, tentative. “Is this Peter?”
“You’re the one I’m looking for,” the man said.
Peter walked to his sink. Earlier, he’d poured a whiskey and Coke, but the drink wasn’t sitting right. He felt jittery. “Are you with a collection agency?” This wouldn’t have been the first time someone called asking him to square his mother’s debt.
“I’m a friend of Judith’s. She told me you’re a doctor.”
Peter looked back to where he’d been sitting. His wallet and his drink kept each other company on the coffee table—the caller would make him reach for one or the other.
“Who am I talking to?”
“This is Jimmy.”
The name meant nothing, but Judith subscribed to an inclusive definition of “friend”—a friend could be an intimate confidant or a person she’d spoken with at the grocery.
“Is there something I can do for you, Jimmy?” Practicing medicine conditioned a person to ask lots of obvious, almost imbecilic questions. If Peter didn’t ask the most basic questions, his patients assumed he could read their minds.
“I’m in Rochester,” said Judith’s friend Jimmy. “I was wondering if, maybe, you could set me up with a house call.”
“Did you say ‘a house call’?” Peter had never done anything of the sort, but he didn’t want to embarrass Judith’s friend.
“What’s your time worth?”
“Five thousand dollars.” In the movie, a forensic expert had just told the lead detective that the killer rode a five-thousand-dollar bike. The nightcap had been quite strong.
“Tony Ogata doesn’t charge that much.”
Tony Ogata did health segments for one of the morning shows, plus he had a call-in program on cable. His books—30 Second Cure and the one about sex, Passionate Lifing—were perennial best sellers.
Before he’d noticed the actress’s nose, he’d barely thought about Lucy all day. It was hard for a wom
“I met him in Berkeley, back when he was dosing Red Rose with amphetamines and packaging it as Focus Tea.”
“I thought you meant Tony Ogata the doctor.”
“Enough about him. You’re the guy I’m speaking to.”
“If this is because you don’t have insurance, you should know the hospital won’t turn you away.”
“I’ve got too much insurance.” Jimmy cleared his throat. “What do you say? Can we do this face-to-face? This feels a bit too Catholic for me.”
The green LED on his microwave told Peter it was nearly midnight. “I’m just trying to save us both some time.”
“Me, too. Here’s my offer: come see me and I’ll pay you Ogata’s rate. I’d consider it a personal favor.”
If Jimmy was willing to pay him, what was the purpose of the favor? And if he wanted a favor, why had he offered to pay? “How do you know my mother?”
“You could say personally and historically.”
It was not the answer Peter expected, but it was the sort of answer a friend of Judith might give. Another thing: Peter felt elated. Despite the threat of rockslide, runaway trucks, and the improperly vented kerosene space heater that glowed all night in her kitchen, his mother was almost certainly okay.
Peter had been home since six with nothing to show for it except a dent in the sofa cushion, a sofa—tufted, tan leather—he’d selected because it resembled one he recalled Lucy pointing out in a catalog. “Okay.”
“Don’t stand me up.”
“I’m a doctor.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I’m on my way.”
The hotel’s glowing white marquee read: Welcome 14th Annual Helping Peoples Conference.
Neon letters inside a neon arrow spelled Garage. Peter followed the sign around a corner and down an alley. A white gate barred the entrance. Beside the control box, a big guy in a yellow Windbreaker, a lineman gone to seed, stood sentinel. One of his giant hands pinched a walkie-talkie and a D-cell flashlight.
Peter opened his window. “I’m here to see a guest. I’m a doctor.” He patted a backpack on the passenger seat—its contents: a first-aid kit Peter had put together years earlier in preparation for a hike through Wyoming’s Wind River valley. That trip, a reward for finishing medical school, was to have involved white-water rafting, packhorses, and a bear-proof plastic barrel he would suspend from a tree each night. Planning the trip had been the most adventurous thing he’d ever done. In his closet Peter kept a pair of glossy Italian hiking boots that had only known tile and carpet.
The guard barked something into his walkie-talkie. “They’re expecting you on the top floor,” he said, turning to feed a card into the machine.
A ball of light exploded against the passenger-side window. Peter’s attention jumped to a gaunt figure in an ankle-length duster approaching his car; the man held a camera out before him like a dowsing rod. The flash detonated again.
“I told you to get lost,” barked the watchman.
The camera lens clacked against the window, like a lover’s teeth. A capacitor released its charge and the xenon gas painted the doctor with white light.
“Somebody about to get a camera up his ass,” said the guard.
When the gate lifted, Peter goosed the throttle. Checking his rearview mirror, he expected the photographer to chase after him, but the man was nowhere.
He corkscrewed his way up the structure. Fluorescent bulbs gave off a jaundiced light. Emerging from beneath the low ceiling, Peter reached the top of the garage and parked.
A small glass atrium, like a miniature greenhouse, connected the garage to the hotel. Inside, a man in a black-satin bomber jacket frowned at Peter’s fifteen-year-old Subaru.
The man slapped a blue pad on the wall, causing the atrium door to yawn open.
“You Peter?” The man was short, oval-shaped. An overturned bowl of black hair (or was it a toupee?) cupped the top of his head. He had to be sixty.
“I am,” Peter said, grabbing his backpack. “Some weirdo took my picture.”
“That’d be Pennyman. You know ‘Jerkwater Blues,’ the ‘tangle of Coney Island jetsam’? Supposedly that’s Pennyman. He thinks he’s Jimmy’s biographer.”
“You’re not Jimmy.”
“I’m Bluto,” the man said. “Pennyman’s at every show. It’s not clear if he’s following us or if we’re following him.”
Bluto pushed open a fire door, into a quiet hallway where a custodian in a blue jumpsuit agitated a section of carpet with a steam cleaner.
Peter sifted through what the man had said. Only after a solution occurred to him did he realize he’d been trying to solve a riddle. The answer was absurd, but acknowledging the absurdity didn’t dismiss it. “The person who called me, that wasn’t the singer Jimmy Cross.”
“Folks don’t usually accuse him of singing.”
“But, that was him?”
“Did you think you were going to see some regular shmuck? ”
“What’s he doing in Rochester?”
“Shit, Jimmy loves this place. He’s crazy about your cinnamon rolls, middle-brow architecture, and perchy tap water.” Bluto reached up and patted his own hair, as though soothing a pet. “Why do you think he’s here? He played a show.”
Up ahead, a door opened and a guy emerged wearing a narrow tank top, leather shorts, and a neoprene knee brace. “Bluto, don’t forget I need a king bed in Bowling Green. Moira’s meeting me there.”
Bluto held his BlackBerry out, tapped a finger on the screen. “King-sized bed for king-sized appetites. I sent you a confirmation half an hour ago.”
The man assessed Peter. “You the new Kev?”
“The new Kev’s meeting us in Buffalo. This is a friend of the Big Man.”
“I thought you were someone else,” the man said, retreating into his room. “I’m Fletcher. I’m in charge of sound.”
“Be sure Moira leaves that dog at home,” Bluto said, sliding his phone back in his pocket.
The guy responsible for sound looked stricken. “She can’t go anywhere without that dog; it’s for her anxiety.”
“Not my problem,” Bluto said. “No pets. No companions with pets. It’s in your contract.”
“She won’t come without that dog. You never heard of the Americans with Disabilities Act?”
“We’re not going down the pet road, Fletch,” Bluto said, dragging Peter away.
When the two men had turned a corner, Bluto said, “Fletch is sober now, but he’s the only guy Black Sabbath ever fired for partying too hard. One time he passed out in the monkey enclosure at the Berlin Zoo.”
Bluto stopped next to a door and held up a finger. He knocked. The door opened partway and an Asian guy in a yellow knit hat stuck his head out. “I need you to pull Fletch’s contract and make sure we put in a ‘no pet’ clause. If there isn’t one, add it and backdate it.”
“You got a baby in there?” the man asked, pointing at Peter’s backpack.
Peter hugged his bag. “Diagnostic tools.”
“Excuse Wayne,” Bluto said, “he doesn’t have a filter.”
Wayne said, “I’m just pointing out how he’s carrying it in front of him instead of, like, on his shoulders. You know those fathers in Brooklyn who bring their babies to a bar, order Belgian beer, and play Dolly Parton on the jukebox? That’s the way you’re presenting yourself.”
Bluto shook his head. “Dr. Silver is here to see the Big Man.”
“No offense meant,” Wayne said, tugging his hat down over his eyebrows. “I figured you were someone else.”
Bluto repeated that the new Kev would be joining them in Buffalo.
They passed another elevator, turned a corner, and ran into a giant, pumpkin-faced man in a navy pinstriped suit.
“Cyril, meet our mystery
The large man stepped toward them, eclipsing the overhead lights.
“You the doctor?” Cyril asked.
Peter said he was.
Cyril sucked on a lower lip as dark and plump as a plum. “I still got to wand you and look in that bag.”
Bluto clasped Peter’s hand. “If you need anything, let me know.”
A white plastic paddle maneuvered up the inseam of Peter’s pant leg, tapped his left testicle, retreated.
“Sorry ’bout that,” Cyril said, peering in the front of the doctor’s backpack. “Follow me.”
Bluto had disappeared, but Peter discovered he was holding the man’s business card:
“Mr. Cross knows your mom,” Cyril said, heading down the hall. He didn’t turn around; he might as well have been talking to the fire sprinklers in the ceiling.
Peter meant to say, “There’s been a misunderstanding.” Instead, he said, “I think there might be a misunderstanding.” “Might” was the strongest resistance he could muster.
Cyril stopped and tapped a key card against a door frame. A lock clunked open. Pushing the door in, Cyril said, “Wait in the back bedroom. The Big Man will find you.”
Peter ducked beneath the arbor of Cyril’s arm.
I have an ex-wife in California and a daughter in Tennessee, but for more than twenty years I’ve been without a home. In that time I’ve traveled to thirty-nine countries. I’ve slept in five-star hotels and on park benches. I’ve squandered two fortunes and I’ve let myself go. I’m not a great man, but I possess a greatness of determination. My name is Arthur Pennyman and what sets me apart from the other seven billion souls on this earth is this: since July 27, 1988, I’ve attended every one of Jim Cross’s public performances.
Dominick Moretti, Jimmy’s bassist, has been with the tour since it started in 1986, but I’ve seen more shows than he has, thanks to two protracted leaves of absence. No one else has even lasted a decade. Dwight Sutliff and Albert Blunt, Jimmy’s current instrumentalist and percussionist, have only been around for a couple of years.