There it was, that cross. It haunted Walter’s Tuesday afternoon like the empty drink that sat beside him. “Nothing lasts forever, even my motherfuckin’ birthday,” he drunkenly sang to the tune of “November Rain” on his front porch while picking his backpacker guitar. It felt fitting as he imagined Slash kicking down the door of the old Catholic church across the street from him, wielding a guitar in a grand solo like in the “November Rain” music video. Reality, however, was less dramatic: The door opened peaceably and a wedding procession filed out while that t-shaped shadow kept creeping ominously closer.
The bride’s wedding dress was a luminous white against her dark Hispanic skin. Her hands were tucked under a bouquet of red roses, her figure shaded in an aura of fragile purity. It was her last still frame of innocence and the crowd excitedly snapped away to capture it.
As she edged the sidewalk, her face met Walter’s eyes, and she smiled at him. Her crimson lips were flared like the rose petals above her hips; a rich river of black hair rounded her face like a stone, the smooth curves advertising an age of still-budding beauty. The shadow of the cross affixed to the top of the church then, at last, touched his feet, and for a pregnant moment they were alone in that shadow.
“Mon Amour,” he whimpered as she cast the bouquet to the crowd behind her. She then smiled again, turned, and abandoned him. His heart only further crumbled as his “Amour” stepped into a limousine with a groom twice her age and size.
As the car honked goodbye, Walter waved to them with a dumb smile and tears on his cheeks. He’d been left alone with his madness for too long, and now it was beginning to devour him.
The day began as almost all days began: at the Sit Stay Café, half a block north of his home, with a banana and peanut butter bagel sandwich called “The Elvis.” There the previous night’s scribblings were deciphered into a more legible and cohesive being, but there was still nothing of meaning. He’d lifted every stone within himself in search of a story and thought a bag of mushrooms might help find some he’d missed; however, the only stones and stories he found weren’t worthy of being lifted or put on paper. Drugs, depression, and desperation can reveal a person’s sickest perversions, and he was very sick. Around eleven, the first wedding began, and by four, he’d fallen in love with three brides. The day was February 14, 2012. It was his twenty-fifth birthday—and, of course, Valentine’s Day—and he was miserably alone.
Walter had a simple home in Huntington Beach, California within earshot of ocean waves on, in his opinion, the city’s best and most historic intersection: Tenth and Orange. His favorite restaurant, bar, and café were all within a few blocks. Catty-corner from him were the houses of the city’s first mayor and judge, and directly across from him, a hundred-year-old Catholic church whose attendees always seemed oblivious to the singing lunatic across the street. Families, college students, vagrants, and billionaires lived harmoniously around him, and more bicycles and surfboards fed past his porch than cars, along with year-round posies of half-naked people so long as the sun was out. There were Sunday drum circles by the pier, Tuesday night street fairs, and the largest Fourth of July parade west of the Mississippi. Huntington was a beach city, tourist destination, and small town swaddled into one.
It also had crime, seedy citizens, and plenty of assholes, but that only added to its charm in Walter’s eyes. It wasn’t as pristine and out of touch with reality as so many Orange County coastal communities were. It had attitude, authenticity, and just the right amount of gravel in its gut to stay grounded.
After the last wedding of the day, he began cleaning up the empty beer bottles and snubbed-out joints festering his porch from his birthday celebration with himself that began the night before. It started innocently enough with a few marijuana joints and a full bottle of merlot. But after discovering the shrooms he’d stashed away in the back of the liquor cabinet for a special occasion, he decided to eat them all, being as there were no more special occasions.
The rest of the evening was then spent in nudity, surrounded by candles, Jim Morrison spoken-word poetry, and crumpled-up pieces of his manic thoughts. Other than this, his two-bedroom cottage was empty except for a camping cot, a patio chair, and a portable stereo. All his furniture had been sold, and anything remaining was in his grandmother’s garage awaiting his arrival. Tomorrow he was handing in the keys.
Feeling the onset of a headache, Walter set out on his regular walk to flush it: a stroll down Orange to Main Street to the end of the pier. He was going to sorely miss his walk. It had been midwife to many ideas and decisions, including his recent one to become a writer, which he hadn’t told anyone about yet. No one would understand and most likely no one would be happy. Not even he was happy. But writer is not a vocation most people choose; it’s an incurable affliction, only made worse by the tragedies of life.
ENDEAVOR RENTAL CAR LAX AIRPORT RETURN LOT, CHRISTMAS DAY 2010
Walter hated Christmas. It was why he didn’t mind spending the first eight hours of it on the graveyard shift isolated from the world in his unheated green, glass, and metal booth, just large enough for him and a backed barstool chair. Filled with unwelcoming florescent light, it burned like a ghostly lighthouse on the black bitumen plane supporting a sea of sleeping rental cars. He had also managed to sneak in his backpacker guitar as he would be free to fondle her most of the evening undisturbed. No one was returning a rental car on Christmas, especially not at the ungodly hour of 3:00 a.m.
There was something holy to him about being in a place normally inhabited by noise and people. The holiday rush had already come and gone and was now at their transient homes with their transient families or with their intoxicants to forget their families or tucked into bed with Santa Claus and Christmas morning presents on their minds.
Walter only had depression on his mind. Not because he was depressed beyond his normal draping, but because it was the subject of his new, half-created song. While depression had often been motivator, this was its first time as subject.
“Yesterday I felt like I could do anything…” he softly sang into his booth, its flimsy, metallic materials shaking with the perfect tinny reverb. “But today I’m just struggling not to kill myself. But if tomorrow I feel like I, I could do anything, it only would be to escape, escape this hell, without you, baby blue.”
This was as far as he’d gotten in articulating his feelings perfectly. Even in expressing his flaws, he wouldn’t allow anything other than perfection. Nothing was immune to his perfectionism, which was why it was catalyst, trigger, and savior of his melancholic schisms.
“Nice singing,” a female voice scared Walter out of his head and back into his body; however, it was too late to save the former as it bashed against the back of his glass and metal capsule. He had had his chair leaned back and the unexpected voice sent just enough of a tremor to tip it backwards.
“I’m so sorry!” the female voice said as she bent down to meet him. Folded over himself and wedged between the chair and the backside of his booth, Walter couldn’t see the voice’s owner, his crotch blocking the view. The chair was then carefully pulled away and his legs unfolded, revealing the kindest face he’d ever seen. Even in the harsh light of the booth, it shone softly, reminding him of the church girls of his youth. The full contours of her plush lips and cheeks embellished this glow and drew him into her button nose, so lovely he wanted to lick it. Her deep-set eyes and long, wavy hair were earthy brown, accented by her pastel pink business coat and dress.
“Are you okay?” she asked, her left hand reaching to the back of his head with a diamond wedding ring so protruding it nearly clawed his eye.
“Yes,” Walter replied. “Luckily this shack isn’t well built and the walls are deceptively lenient.”
“Well, there’s nothing deceptive about this bump on the back of your head,” she said, rubbing it. “I’m so, so sorry.”
“It’s okay,” he said, smiling and unable to blink. “When it comes to anyone but myself, I’m very forgiving.”
She looked at him curiously. “That’s a strange thing to say to a stranger. It’s also very brave.”
“Not brave,” he said, “I just have a bad habit of being overly honest in situations I shouldn’t.”
She smiled and it melted Walter further. It had the gentle quality of both the caring mother and the caring lover he’d always longed for but never had.
“Bad habits are in the eye of the beholder,” she said. “I think it’s admirable.”
“But you’ve never been a victim of my bad habit,” he said and smiled back at her. “Are you new here?” He realized she was probably his coworker here to lunch him. No one else around his age in formal business attire (a requirement of Endeavor) had reason to be there. His coworkers came and went so frequently and there were so many that an unfamiliar—although not always unwelcoming—face was nothing new.
“Yes, it’s my third day,” she said.
“What a shitty time to be called to the ETP,” Walter replied.
The “Executive Training Program,” or ETP, was what Endeavor called the four-month hazing period at their LAX airport branch. A term at the airport was required by all new executive-trainees in the greater Los Angeles area in their first six months and was where they became acclimated to working ever-shifting ten-hour shifts five to six days a week on the holiday schedule of a Jehovah’s Witness.
“I know, they never give you any warning beforehand,” she said. “Needless to say, my fiancé wasn’t happy. He told me to quit over it, but he’s been telling me to quit since I started. But where else am I supposed to find a job right now? This one was hard enough to get. Secretly, though, I don’t mind. I’ve never been a fan of Christmas. When you hate most of your family, it’s not a pleasant holiday.”
Walter smiled again. “That’s a brave thing to tell a stranger,” he said.
She shook his hand firmly and said, “Hi. My name is Amber. Amber Evans-soon-to-be-Sinclair.” She then helped him to his feet.
“Hi. My name is Walter,” he said, shaking her hand again. “Walter Huxley.”
“Walter. That was my late grandfather’s name, one of the few family members I loved.”
“Yeah, I get that a lot. Not too many Walters under sixty.” Walter was again rewarded with a smile.
“What were you singing before I interrupted?” she asked.
“A song I’m working on.”
“Oh…” she said, her eyes shifting to the side. “You must be the guy in the band.”
“So, you’ve already heard about me, then?” It had been happening a lot with the new people lately and Walter wasn’t sure how he felt about it yet.
“It’s mostly about your band’s shows and what a party they are,” Amber said. “Although…a few women have had some choice words.”
“None of them bad, I hope?”
“Not exactly,” she said, raising her eyebrows, “but I wouldn’t call them flattering to a woman who has a fiancé.”
“Well…” he said, raising his eyebrows back at her, “I don’t intend to flatter women with fiancés.”
“Just former sorority girls who don’t mind that you’re sleeping with all of them simultaneously?”
Walter cleared his throat uncomfortably. “I’m always safe,” he said. “We’re just trying to find a little fun in this hellhole.”
“I’m not judging you,” she said.
“Sure doesn’t feel that way.”
Now Amber became uncomfortable and looked away. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Anyway, I’m here to lunch you.”
“Hard to call it a lunch at three o’clock in the morning,” Walter said. “I’m not even hungry.”
“What are you going to do then?”
“Continue working on my song, but in that car out there,” he said, pointing to a large SUV.
“What’s the name of the song?” she asked.
“It doesn’t have one yet. Just a verse and a chorus.”
“Can I hear it?”
“I don’t know,” he said looking away. “It’s not a happy song.”
“It didn’t sound unhappy. It sort of cheered me up, in fact. Not that I was sad exactly, but my mood’s always more vulnerable in the winter.”
“You must’ve not heard the words then, because the song is about my depression.”
Amber’s pink-shadowed eyelids flexed open, the whites of her eyes looking like the headlights of an oncoming car.
“I’m sorry,” Walter said, “my bad habit again.”
“Don’t apologize. I wish I was brave enough to be so open.”
“Because…you also suffer from depression?”
Amber gasped and closed her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he said again. “It’s just that vulnerable isn’t a word most people use to describe their mood.”
“You’re awfully perceptive Mister Huxley,” she said, “but that’s not something I think we should be discussing. However, I’d still like to hear your song.”
Walter began playing, and somehow by the end of the first chorus, a perfect second verse magically came to him from phrases he’d been toying with all night.
“And today I woke up thinking you, you were my everything,” he sang. “But by tomorrow I know you’ll be somebody else. And I know it’s just me, me and my imagining, that you and only you can save me from myself. All of you, baby blue.”
The booth became noticeably warmer by the time he finished, the windows fogged by the thickening air.
“I thought you only had one verse?” Amber asked just above a whisper.
“I thought I did too,” he replied. “But now I have two.”
ONE MONTH LATER
“Pucker your lips as if you’re going to give a baby’s belly a raspberry kiss and blow while humming like this, bebebebebebeee… Now hum the scales with me…”
“Bebebebebebebebe . . . bebebebebebebebe . . . beb—” Walter’s phone vibrated in his pocket. A text from an unnamed number.
Are you in your car right now?
Yes, he texted back.
Be there in two minutes. I can’t see you after the show, so I want to see you now.
He still had an hour before he needed to be on stage, so he put his vocal warmup CD on pause, a CD that had not left his car changer since his first and only vocal teacher had given him it three years earlier. Before he had anywhere else to practice, he only had his car. So, despite his band’s once-a-month gig at the Hollywood House of Blues providing a green room, his car was still the only place that could calm his preshow jitters and where he could practice his preshow rituals uninterrupted.
But for her, anything could wait. He switched the stereo to the auxiliary channel, then scrolled through his iPod to Neil Young’s On The Beach, their favorite album to have fun to.
She soon appeared out of the clusters of cars around him in the parking garage, a few blocks away from the venue. He was careful to park on the basement floor, somewhere not too obvious but not too suspicious; not too crowded, but also not too empty. He wanted his 2002 unwashed, plain-gray Prius to look even more inconspicuous than it already was.
“See the Sky About to Rain” was playing as she opened his passenger side door.
“Ah, you queued up my favorite song,” she said as she climbed in and closed the door.
“Only because the sky is about to rain,” he said.
“I know. Hopefully I’m not walking back in it.”
Their lips then went at each other’s. Walter reached over her waist and grabbed the side seat adjustment, leaning her back while his body floated over the center console, landing softly upon hers. He wanted to hide their actions below the window line.
“I don’t think we’re going to have time for a full meal tonight,” she said. “I’ve got to go back soon.”
“That’s okay,” he said. “This is enough.”
“Enough to get you off?”
“If I focus hard enough, maybe.” He smiled.
“Here,” she said and pushed him up and back into his seat, leaning his seat back as he’d leaned hers. “Were you doing your raspberries?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said, “but I put them on pause for you.”
“Don’t do that. I want you…” she undid his pants, pulled them and his underwear to his knees, then firmly squeezed the base of his penis, “…and your vocal cords to be relaxed and ready for the show…Let’s start the song over and we can raspberry it through.”
They began raspberrying together—she performing while also sliding up and down his shaft, but a minute in they were laughing so hard they could no longer focus.
“I’ll just finish you with my hand,” Amber said. “The key to a good BJ is the handwork anyway.”
As she did and as they kissed, Walter couldn’t help but think what a blessing and curse she was. He’d never been happier, yet never felt more ashamed. The one person he could finally share his body and darkness with was practically a married woman, but she was the only woman who did not shy away when he showed her his black dog, since she had one of her own.
Amber’s depression was beyond the comprehension of her fiancé Greg. So, since she couldn’t share it with him, she began sharing it with Walter. But the danger of such shared secrets is the inevitability of them growing into larger, less concealable ones.
“Oops,” Amber noticed Walter was going and swooped down to swallow the seeds of her sowing. He moaned and bit his lips while his hips arched and her mouth and hands worked to get every drip. She rested her head on his lap with one eye looking up at him and half a smile.
“Thank you,” Walter said. “Mind if we just lay down in the backseat together for a few songs now?”
“I can’t,” Amber said. “I left Greg back at the venue with his friends. I said I needed to get some tampons.”
“You brought him?”
“How could I not have? Plus, he’s a big Guns N’ Roses fan.”
Walter shook his head then raised it above the window line. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Nothing,” he said after a while, then brought his head back down. “I just wish I didn’t always have to meet you like you’re some kind of hooker. I just wish… I wish we could have a real date together.”
“Walter,” she said, going back to her seat, “you know that wish can’t come true. This has to stay just fun.”
“I know, but this is becoming more than just fun for me. I…I think I’m falling in love with you.”
Amber became mute, her facial muscles tensed in-place as if someone had pressed her pause button.
“Amber? Amber?” He caressed her cheek, but she remained paused. “Amber!”
“What?!” she came back to life.
“You just froze like someone turned an off-switch.”
“I what? . . . You what? You…you love me?”
“Never mind,” he said, watching her wandering eyes. “I think something’s wrong. I’m taking you to a hospital.”
Amber brought her head up woozily as Walter adjusted her seat to catch it with the headrest. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, then stayed still for about fifteen seconds. When her eyes reopened, they had a new sobriety.
“No, it’s not possible,” she said. “I haven’t had one in over ten years.”
“You haven’t had what in over ten years?” he asked.
“A staring spell. I used to have them as a kid, but I grew out of it…I need to go.”
“No, I’m taking you to the hospital,” he said.
“No, you are not!” she shouted. “I’ll be fine. And even if I did need to go, that’s myfiancé’s responsibility, not yours.” She put her fist to her mouth and began gnawing the knuckle of her thumb, a nervous tick Walter was just becoming aware of. “Sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean it like that.”
“But you did,” he said softly.
Amber put the fist down and looked away as tears began falling on her cheeks. “Fuck, my mascara,” she said. “Do you have any tissues?”
“There’s some napkins in the glove compartment.”
She slid open his sun visor mirror and began dabbing her eyes to stop the flow of black tears. “We can’t keep doing this,” she said to her reflection. Then, she clicked the cover closed, opened the door, and left.
On stage with his guitar, Walter looked out to the crowd he was tasked with entertaining. Crowds used to be a lot scarcer during their originals set, but in the band’s last two years of playing, they had become nearly as full as their covers set.
His band, Perfect Crime, started solely as a Guns N’ Roses tribute, and because they weren’t middle-aged men like the six other Guns N’ Roses tributes in the Los Angeles area, they quickly became the go-to reincarnation in absence of the real thing, which was not Axl’s cut-rate version. Walter, however, soon realized he could turn this counterfeited notoriety into real notoriety if their original music—which, in all but name, was his music—became the opener. So while he performed with a guitar during the first set, by second set he passed it over to whoever their Izzy Stradlin was at the time (they never could keep a consistent one) and he became a singing stripper.
But tonight, he couldn’t care less about the crowd. Right now all he cared about was Amber. During his lifeless performances of the first two songs, he’d been scanning every corner of the venue for her, but it was obvious she wasn’t there.
“Um…” Walter said to the already unenthused crowd, “this next song is a new one.”
“No Walter!” his bassist Brian “Squids” Squibbs said from the side. “We are dying right now and that song will kill us. Skip it. Let’s do Minerva.”
“No Squids. I need this song right now. It’s the only thing that will save this set.”
“I’m not playing it,” Squids said.
“Fine,” Walter said. “Then get the fuck off stage. This is my music and its mine to kill, not yours.”
“I was already on my way,” Squids said, turning off his amp and unplugging his bass. The other bandmates didn’t try to stop him as onstage spats between him and Walter happened regularly and Squids always eventually rejoined them a song or two later.
“Um…” Walter said again to the unenthused and now confused crowd. “I guess without further ado, here’s ‘Baby Blue Part 2’…Y-yesterday I felt like I c-c-could d-do anything, b-but, but today I’m just str… str… kill myself—or shit. I’m sorry. Let’s start over.”
But when the band started over, he couldn’t sing a single syllable, and he knew he sure as hell couldn’t get in a wig and perform as a singing stripper after this. So he left, exiting through the backstage door, and returned to the safety of his car.
Walter began driving—driving just to be driving. Rain began falling, his wipers wiping across the coppery streetlights and glowing green signs of Sunset, Santa Monica, and eventually the Pacific Coast Highway. He stayed on PCH, driving south with nothing but 100.3 The Sound quietly on the radio.
I’ll drive ‘til midnight, he thought, looking at the blue-green digital clock on his dashboard display reading 10:56. But when the clock reached its destination, time continued to flow south until just a little before 1:00 when Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Know How It Feels” came over the airwaves. Being a station staple, Walter thought nothing of it until the titular line cut into him.
You don’t know how it feels… to be me.
His eyes began to moisten. He grimaced and cleared them, but they only grew more saturated, rapidly overspilling onto his cheeks.
No longer able to see, Walter pulled alongside a parking meter on the side of the road just inside the Huntington Beach city limit. There he surrendered to sobbing; it was the first time he’d let himself since he could remember. As a child, he had learned to hold in his tears, but now he was repaying for those lost years.
He opened the door, still crying, and stepped into a heavy rain. He ran from the car over a large grassy knoll, over a beach bike path, and then onto the sand, where he continued running until he reached a lifeguard tower. He hoisted himself onto the empty turret’s slippery, plastic banks and tucked under its rattling eves. Facing the dark ocean and tempestuous sky, he began taking deep breaths, his lungs moving with the crush of the ocean waves. The rain then lightened and he allowed himself a smile. He was still mostly unhappy, but he found peace with it. But again, he was interrupted by his cell phone.
“Oh my God it’s Amber,” Walter said, recognizing her unrecognized number. “Hello? . . . Hello? . . . Amber, can you hear me?” Suddenly, the call ended.
His phone screen, having been unshielded from the rain and his soaked pockets, immobilized and shut off. He failed to resuscitate it, but accepted that it was a good sign she was trying to call him. Again his heart had hope.
After driving to his home in Torrance, which was also his grandmother’s home, he made a bowl of dry rice and dunked his cell phone and its battery in, hoping for the best in the morning.
When morning came, it came with success as his phone powered up as normal. There was a voicemail notification from the unrecognized number. He pressed play. First, he heard only crying, then a threatening male voice.
“Who is he?” the voice said. “Tell me who he is!”
“A-a-a friend from work,” Amber’s voice said, “that’s all.”
“What’s his name?”
“Why does it matter?”
“It matters because you went to see him when you were supposed to be getting tampons, but you’re obviously not even on your period.”
“I started earlier, b-but it was just light, so I took it out before we got home. I swear.”
“Amber, tell me who he is!”
“Walter, the singer of the band. I was just wishing him luck, that’s all. I swear it’s the truth.”
“Then why wouldn’t you tell me?”
“Because I knew you’d react like this. You react this way with every male friend I have—or had.”
“Have you slept with him?”
“What? No. Never. Our wedding is three months away, Greg.”
“Amber, I’ll ask you again. Have you slept with him?”
There was a silence.
“You have, haven’t you? I want you to tell him because he can’t hear you nodding.” Another silence. “Tell him, Amber! Tell him who’s been fucking my fiancée . . . Say it you fucking slut!”
“Walter! I fucked Walter Huxley! Okay?”
“Thank you.” The call then ended.
Love is a Loaded Gun
MARCH 2011, TWO MONTHS LATER
“Why are you wearing that perfume?” Walter asked as he weaved through traffic.
“I like it,” Amber said. “Why? You don’t?”
“No. It reminds me of the smell of rum. I’ve told you that. Why are you wearing it today of all days?”
“Because I like it, okay? I’m sorry. I’ll never wear it again. What’s the big deal?”
“The big deal is I can’t think straight because the smell is all I can think about. You know how much that smell bothers me—”
“Walter, watch out!” she yelled. His Prius jerked to the right, narrowly missing a stopped car.
“Dipshit should learn how a brake pedal works!” he shouted. “Asshole still had a hundred yards in front of him.”
“I should’ve drove,” Amber groaned. “Can you please slow down? They’ll understand if we’re a little late . . . Maybe we should just cancel. You’re in one of your moods where everything’s wrong with the world and no one can convince you otherwise. I’d rather not have my family meeting that Walter as their first impression.”
“No, I just…” he struggled to explain because he couldn’t tell her exactly how he felt. “I’m just nervous, that’s all. You were only engaged to Greg two months ago and I cost your mother thousands of dollars.”
“To cancel a wedding that would’ve been the biggest mistake of my life. It just took meeting you for me to realize that.”
“Not meeting Amber. Cheating. It took getting caught cheating. Let’s not forget that.”
She exhaled loudly. “Yes Walter,” she said, “it took an earthquake to wake me up. But none of that matters now. They’re my family. And if I’m happier to be with you, then they’re happier I’m with you. Besides, they never did like Greg. They could see I was pretending to be somebody I wasn’t for him. But with you, I can truly be myself because you accept all of me: the good, the dark, and the beautiful. And not only that…” she said, playfully caressing Walter’s face, “…everyone agrees I totally upgraded in the looks and intelligence departments too.”
“But not the money department,” he muttered.
Amber closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Please stop,” she said putting a hand on his lap. “I know this isn’t you. You have nothing to worry about. My mother is especially excited to meet you. You’ll have a lot in common with science and all.”
“She’s one of the nation’s leading cancer researchers. I’m a rental car agent. Yeah, we’ll have a lot in common.”
Amber bit her fist, and then the levee of her patience finally broke. “Goddamn it Walter! As kind as I know you can be, you can also be such a selfish prick. Forget what this day is to you and think about what it means to me. I was the one who had to take responsibility for the wedding, not you. I was the one who had to stay silent while his family mercilessly slut-shamed me to my face, not you. Yes, I cheated on him and I’ve had to pay for it every day since. But today, I finally get to move on. I finally get to introduce my family to the man I really love. But I guess he decided to stay home because he’s too much of a coward.”
Walter bent with shame. “I’m sorry,” he said, taking her hand. “You’re right. Please forgive me?”
“Of course,” she said, her anger quickly seized by that motherly-lovery smile. “I understand why you’re so nervous,” she continued, “but really this is a happy day, okay? I love you.” And again she reminded him of the real reason he was so uneasy.
“I love you too,” he lied. He hated to do it, but if she needed foma, now was the time.
Amber wasn’t the first woman Walter had prematurely given his heart to. If only his heart kept in mind what a whore it was, it would stop believing anytime a woman gave him affection it was love. But a heart can never be a mind no matter how well it pretends to be. The heart is great at weaponizing love for its own self-interests.
Although they shared their depression together, it was becoming clear to Walter at least there was much on which they differed. While Amber initially said she was also an artist—a novelist—she actually hadn’t written anything since college. Her depression and work were always the excuse. And although he empathized with both, he also tried to show her how he turned his depression into inspiration, but she insisted her depression was something different, something he would never understand. But he understood—or he believed he understood.
Walter believed the root of Amber’s depression was the same as his: perfectionism. Her perfectionism, however, just fed upon itself in much less productive and time-consuming matters than art, such as her constant need for new designer clothes, her applying and reapplying of makeup even though he told her he preferred her without it, her hours craned over her phone perfecting photos for her social media feeds and compulsive checking for reassurance of this perfection. Being valued no more than one of Greg’s over fifty Rolexes for the last two years had taken a toll on her psyche that Walter was only now beginning to see. So out of “love,” he told her he loved her even though he was unsure, because that’s what he believed she needed for the time being. He also said it in the belief that one day he would actually mean it. He just had to help her find the person he believed she could be.
“Amber tells me you’re the singer of a pretty popular rock band,” Amber’s mother, Doctor Catherine Evans, said. Walter felt shaky under the blade of her steel blue eyes and the brilliance contained beneath. Almost every advancement in cancer research over the past twenty years she’d had a hand in in some way.
“Just in the L.A. area, and only because we’re also an even more popular Guns N’ Roses tribute band,” he said, still trying to comprehend his surroundings and company. A greasy Irish pub called McCool’s wasn’t what he expected when Amber said she wanted him to meet her family for the first time for dinner. And her family was just as unexpected. Sharing the large pub booth with them and her mother was a longhaired and bearded uncle, “Uncle John,” and Catherine’s best friend whom Amber referred to as “Aunt Tilly,” both of whom worked in the same lab as Catherine. This was Amber’s entire family. The rest of her relatives were either dead, arrested, or estranged, including her alcoholic father who moved to Oregon when she was six and became a nonentity she never liked to talk about.
“But you’re also getting label attention and have a two-week tour coming up, I hear,” Catherine said to Walter.
“Yes,” he said with a flattered smile, “but no serious offers yet. That’s why we’re touring the West Coast to build up a following outside of L.A. The tour’s taking up all of my savings and vacation time, but I think a dream is a worthy investment.”
“It certainly is…” Catherine glanced at Amber. There was an awkward silence.
“Guns N’ Roses, eh?” Uncle John said, topping off Walter’s half-empty glass with one of their two pitchers of beer. “Are we going to hear some Axl Rose then?”
“I’m sure you will if I keep drinking like this,” Walter said. “Remember, I have to drive later.”
“No you don’t,” Amber said. “Especially not after the way you drove here. I’ll drive. You just drink and relax.” She kissed him on the cheek and patted his back.
“What’s your band’s name?” Aunt Tilly asked Walter.
“Perfect Crime. It was the name of the band when we were only doing covers, but we couldn’t think of another name, so we just kept it.”
“Yeah, but tell them about your stage name,” Amber prodded.
“No, it’s so embarrassing. I wouldn’t even go by it if it wasn’t what everyone knows me as. But I’m kind of stuck with it now.”
“Come on, they’ll get a kick out of it.”
“All right.” Walter sighed. “Quinn Quark. No, not a dorky superhero, but my winning choice of stage names that only a twenty-two-year-old physics undergrad would think to dub himself.”
Everyone began laughing except Catherine. Instead she locked eyes with him with a smirk that felt like an autopsy. A thick, silver ribbon of gray hair played with her cheek from a jet-black mane of waterfalling curls. She was definitely the source of Amber’s good looks; looks that drove Walter to commit adultery against his better judgement.
“So is Quinn Quark an up, down, top, bottom, strange, or charm quark?” Catherine asked.
Walter delighted with a smile. It’d been a long time since he’d heard someone crack a physics joke.
“I guess he can be all six flavors at times,” he replied. “But I also hear he’s quite charming.”
“Sounds like Quinn Quark is a little full of himself, like he fancies himself a Higgs Boson or something.”
Everyone laughed now but Amber.
“What?—oh forget it,” she said. “I probably wouldn’t understand anyway.”
“It’s not that difficult,” Walter said. “Quarks are elementary particles, which just means you can’t get any smaller than them. However, their mass has to come from somewhere and it’s believed that the Higgs Boson gives it to them. Each quark has a unique behavior profile called flavors, and depending upon these behaviors and the interactions of the quarks, some of the most essential components of matter are birthed. It’s how we get existence from nothing, in a sense.”
“Huh?” Amber said mockingly. “I told you I wouldn’t understand. Definitely wasn’t blessed with my mother’s scientific aptitude.”
“Science doesn’t require an aptitude,” Walter said, “just an interest. Anyone can learn it. It just takes some time to warm up to because it can seem enigmatic and unfeeling at first. But the more familiarity you gain with its characters, the more comfortable these universes within our own open up to you. Science can be just as endearing as a good novel.”
“I’ll just stick to my novels, thank you,” Amber said. “Don’t need science mucking up the only thing I find pleasure in. And you know me, I’m just more on the artistic side anyway.”
“You do write exceptionally well,” Catherine said to Amber.
“So does Walter,” Amber said, patting his back again.
“No, not like you,” Walter said. “You were a creative writing major and wrote novels in college; I just write lyrics and poetry.”
“I wrote really bad novels in college,” Amber said. “The only decent one I never even finished.”
“I really wish you would finish it,” Catherine said. “Writing was good for you. You need an outlet from the stress of work.”
“When, Mom? During my day-and-a-half I get off from my sixty-hour work week? I don’t have time to sleep, let alone write.”
“Walter has the same schedule and still manages to play in a band. I know that can’t be easy.”
“Walter doesn’t work at the airport anymore. They moved him to a branch that’s only open five days a week after—actually, can we just stop talking about this? For once can we not talk about my writing, Mom?”
“Okay, but you know if you ever wanted to quit and finish your novel, I would support you.”
“Thank you, but I don’t need your support just like I didn’t need Greg’s. I’m a grown woman fully capable of surviving on her own. Yes, rental car agent wasn’t what I had in mind when I graduated college, but in these times, I’m lucky I even have a job. For now, I’m just going to support Walter while we both wait for the job market to recover, or he hits it big with the band. I just have this feeling he’s so close…”
“So, you also had a hard time finding work after college?” Catherine asked Walter after a brief silence.
“Yes, but I can’t blame it all on the economy. I graduated with a physics degree, but barely. And if you can’t get into grad school, well, a physics degree’s kind of pointless.”
“That’s not true—well, maybe in this economy it is, but not normally.”
“Yes, talk about 2009 being a shitty time to graduate. But I had to start paying off my student loans somehow, and luckily Endeavor hires anyone with a degree. So yes, it’s not ideal, but hey, I never would’ve met Amber otherwise.”
Again the elephant in the room plunged them into an uncomfortable silence.
“Um, hey Walter,” Catherine said, “want to take a shot with me at the bar? Karaoke’s starting soon and we’ll need them before we put our songs in, right?”
“Uh… sure,” he said, looking to Amber.
“You don’t mind?” her mother asked her.
“No, not at all,” Amber said, smiling. “I’ve been wanting to get you two together for some time now.”
“What kind of shot do you want?” Catherine asked once at the bar.
“Truthfully, I’m not much of a shot person,” Walter said, “but how about Jameson on the rocks?”
“Good answer,” she said and ordered two. “It’s not like the purpose of coming over here was shots anyhow . . . Cheers,” she said after the drinks arrived.
“Cheers,” Walter said, tensely clanking his glass against hers before taking a sip. “So, what did we come over here for then?”
“To tell you you can relax. Don’t worry, we already like you so much more than Greg. In fact, we’re elated she’s no longer with that asshole. I won’t get into it, but the guy was a piece of work. So often I tried to tell Amber he wasn’t good for her, but you know Amber—she always sees the best in everyone, and you ultimately have to support your daughter. But thank God you helped her see the light. She’s an artist at heart and should be with another artist.”
Catherine took a long sip of her drink and Walter did the same. “But you’re kind of a jack of many trades, aren’t you?” she asked.
“Not really,” Walter said. “Music’s the only thing I can say I’m somewhat exceptional at, but I’ve still yet to prove that.”
“Well…” Catherine said raising her eyebrows at him, “I saw some of Perfect Crime’s videos online—sorry, I was curious—and I have to say, you have some serious stage presence and talent.”
He smiled bashfully, then put his face to his glass again.
“It’s a unique sound, too,” Catherine continued. “I can’t put a finger on it, but it’s like an amalgam of Guns N’ Roses, David Bowie, and The Clash, sprinkled with some Queen and Pink Floyd. But it reminded me of something even more heavy metal at times too, like Metallica.”
Walter laughed. “You’re good,” he said. “You pretty much nailed all my influences.”
“Okay I’ll admit,” Catherine smirked, “I might’ve seen that somewhere online. But it’s true. I also read you write all the songs?”
“The other guys have a part in fleshing them out, but yes.”
Walter then began fidgeting with his paper coaster, unable to look her in the eye for more than a few seconds.
“You still seem anxious,” she noticed.
“Sorry,” he took another drink. “I was just expecting… expecting something else tonight and I guess I’m still adjusting. While I’m pleasantly surprised, I’m still very surprised. I just wasn’t ready for karaoke and corned beef.”
“What were you ready for, then?” she asked.
“I’m not sure, but not this. It’s just so hard for me to imagine someone like you at an Irish pub, taking shots, drinking beer, singing karaoke. I mean, don’t get me wrong, this is right up my alley, but you’re Doctor Catherine Evans, one of the forerunners in cancer immunotherapy. It’s hard for me to imagine you anywhere outside a lab.”
Catherine chuckled. “So you’ve done some homework also,” she said. “And most of the time I am in a lab, but when I’m not, I’m still a small-town girl from Tennessee, fond of her dive bars, whiskey, and, admittedly, country music—but real country, not that shit Nashville’s been churning out lately. Knowing Amber, though, you probably never knew she had a rednecky mother.”
“Never. I mean, Amber’s nothing like that, and on paper you—well, I guess no one’s ever just what they are on paper, are they?”
“Speak for yourself,” Catherine said, tipping her glass at him. “What you said earlier, that didn’t sound like someone who barely graduated with their physics degree. How could someone who has such a visceral enthusiasm for science have done so poorly in it?”
“There are many reasons. But mostly because at heart, I’m just a simple Arizona boy with foolish dreams of becoming a rock star and I’ve never let anything take priority over that, including school.”
“But what if being a rock star doesn’t work out? Will you regret not taking school more seriously?”
“I’m not thinking about that for the moment,” Walter said and took another drink.
“I see…” Catherine said and did the same. “What brought you to California then, school?” she asked.
“You could say that. I went to your alma mater too, UCLA. But my maternal grandmother, who I live with now, has always lived in Torrance. So I’ve always considered California just as much my home.”
“Are your parents still in Arizona?”
“My dad. My mother passed away.”
“I’m sorry to hear. When?”
“Um…” Walter cleared his throat. “She died giving birth to me.”
“Oh,” Catherine said, caught off guard. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay, something I’ve obviously dealt with my entire life . . . My parents, it was just a one-night stand. My father was working as an IT consultant at the time and was traveling in L.A. when he met my mother while she was performing at an open mic night. She was a songwriter like me. Anyway, they hit it off, and she got pregnant after. She told him she was going to have an abortion since he had a wife back home, but she couldn’t do it in the end. My father only found out after I was born and she was already dead, so he did what he thought was right and took me in . . . I’m sorry.”
Walter shook his head, suddenly aware of what he was saying. “I didn’t mean to tell you all that,” he said. “I haven’t even told Amber all that . . . I don’t know if it’s the whiskey, or if it’s just easy to talk to you.”
Catherine grinned. “Must be the whiskey,” she said and finished her drink, “because a moment ago you were having trouble even looking at me.”
“Must be…” he said, grinning back at her, then finished his drink.
“About time to put our karaoke songs in,” she said, standing from her seat. “Will Axl be making an appearance?”
“Perhaps if Dolly Parton does.”
Catherine laughed and shook her head. “I knew I’d like you.”
à La Recherche de L’amour Perdu
MAY 2011, TWO MONTHS LATER
“‘You are what you love, not what loves you.’ Do you think that’s true?” Catherine asked as credits rolled on their second Saturday movie night. Movie night used to be on Mondays when Walter didn’t have a show, but Perfect Crime’s residency at The House of Blues had recently been promoted from first Monday every month to every Monday every week. Also, since the success of their West Coast tour, they no longer had to do covers.
“No,” Amber said, little-spooned into Walter on her mother’s chocolate brown living room couch. “Love exists between people, not between yourself. It’s just clever wordplay pretending to be substantive—a lot like this movie. Mom, I know you’re just starting to explore film and have taken a liking to Kaufman, but I think you’ll eventually realize his films are for hipsters who pretend to be intellectuals because they can understand irony, and Adaptation is the epitome of it. Strip away all the ‘irony’ and this movie is nothing. Just wasted time. Inserting yourself in your own story is such a creative cop-out.”
“But isn’t that pretty much what Proust does in In Search of Lost Time?” Catherine asked. “And that’s your favorite novel.”
“He didn’t insert himself literally in the story. And In Search of Lost Time is actually a story—one of the all-time greatest, not Proust’s story of the story. Unless you’re Vonnegut, who Kaufman is nothing but a poor man’s version of, writers shouldn’t be characters in their own story, and a story shouldn’t be a story of a story.”
“I beg to differ,” Catherine said. She paused, as if trying to restrain herself, but couldn’t. “Also, if Proust is one of the all-time greatest storytellers, I don’t believe he should need over a million words to tell a story. But since I’ve honestly never been able to make it through even Swann’s Way, I’ll give you the benefit of a doubt. However, no matter how beautiful the music, you can’t deny Proust is also one of the all-time greatest windbags.”
Walter felt Amber’s body tense and heard her throat swallow.
“But regardless of story,” Catherine continued, “you still have to admire the cleverness of the film.”
“He resorted to using every cliché he believed against,” Amber said. “How is that clever?”
“Because beliefs can turn against the principles they profess to hold sacred when taken too literally. That’s the message I took away from the film, not so much irony.”
“I think that’s your Buddhist leanings authoring that message Mother…” Amber said as she nodded to her mother’s bronze Buddha sitting on the Cocobolo coffee table in front of her, “…not Charlie Kaufman.”
“Perhaps,” Catherine said, “but that’s the beautiful thing about art: interpretation, not meaning. Everyone has the right to be right because they are right. So, can we just leave it at that?”
“Yes, but as a writer,” Amber continued the argument, “I can tell you Kaufman just took the lazy, solipsistic approach every amateur writer eventually takes, and irony doesn’t excuse it. Creativity is supposed to be inspired by life, not copied from it.”
“Yes…” Catherine again tried to restrain herself, but again couldn’t. “But creativity sometimes can’t compete with the master, and isn’t life the master of all creativity? Is it not drawn from the setbacks and successes of life? Creativity always feels copied to me, even prophetic at times. However, that usually just means I’m on the right path.”
“Because creativity in science works by Mother Nature’s rules!” Amber nearly shouted. “But in art, there are no underlying rules.”
Catherine sighed and chomped her lower lip, but a muffled jab still crawled out of her mouth. “So why are you trying to make them then?”
Belly laughter blew against Amber’s back. She threw her elbow back at it. “Ow,” Walter said.
“Why do you always take her side?” Amber said to him.
“I’m not. She just righteously checkmated you. You’re not going to beat your mother in an argument. Logic is her day job.”
Amber glowered back at him. “Oh right,” she said, sitting up, “what was I thinking? Logic trumps anyone else from expressing an opinion.”
“I didn’t mean it like that,” he said, sitting up and putting an arm around her. She pushed it off.
“Yes you did,” she said. “But both of you have never tried writing a novel, have you? What help is logic when there’s nothing to checkmate?”
“Amber, I’m sorry,” Catherine said. “I didn’t mean to belittle you. I was just also trying to express an opinion. And you’re absolutely right. I don’t have the same type of creativity you have. Creating a story long enough to fill a novel seems impossibly complex to me, let alone making it something people would want to read. But you’re truly gifted at it. You know it. I know it. All your teachers and professors knew it. That’s why…” Catherine started and couldn’t help herself, “…I wish you’d finish your novel so the world can finally know it.”
Amber exhaled and rolled her eyes. “Here we go again,” she said. “Can we go one day without you lecturing me about my unfinished novel?”
“Then can I go one day without you complaining about it? Talking about a novel isn’t writing it. Writing it is, and that’s the only way you’ll ever finish it—I’m sorry, I need to stop.” Catherine stood from her armchair and began walking out of the room.
“No, I’m sorry Mom,” Amber said, walked over to her, and hugged her. “I’m sorry, you’re right.”
“No, I’m not,” Catherine said, shaking her head. “This isn’t an easy time for you and I need to be more sensitive of that. It’s just difficult when you haven’t lived here since high school, and sometimes you can be so stubborn for no good reason.”
Walter cleared his throat. “Kind of like her mother?” he said lightheartedly.
Catherine smiled at him. “Yes,” she said, “exactly like her mother.” They all laughed, then sat back down.
“So Walter,” Catherine said again in her armchair. “Have you made your choice on a label?”
“I have,” he said, “but I can’t tell anyone yet. Also getting my bandmates on board has proved more difficult than I assumed. Really, it’s just one person, but without his approval, it’s hard to get the others’. Ultimately, it’s still my choice, but I would like their support. I’m hoping the showcase will make things clear once they actually meet the reps in-person.”
“What’s the hang-up?” Catherine asked.
“Hang-ups. But I don’t want to talk about it. I’ve been ‘talking’ about it all week. Another beer, anyone?” he asked, standing up.
“I’ll have another if you are. But let me get them,” Catherine said, standing. “You guys stay comfy on the couch. You want another glass of wine, Amber?”
“No thanks,” she said. “Remember, I have to work at a decent hour tomorrow now that movie night is on Saturday.”
“Oh, that’s right,” Catherine said. “How much longer are you at the airport again?”
“Indefinitely for the moment. I should’ve been done a month ago, but with so many new hires at the local branches they’re keeping people in the ETP longer than ever before because they don’t have anywhere else to put them.”
Amber stood and stretched her arms. “But I’m exhausted anyway,” she said. “I’m also in the middle of a good book I’d like to get back to before I get too sleepy. I need to cleanse my memory of that movie.”
“Okay,” Walter said, kissing her. “I’ll be joining you soon.”
“Okay, if I’m asleep, love you and goodnight. And really, just one more drink Mother. I don’t need him stumbling in at 3:00 a.m. and snoring all night like last week.”
“No worries,” Catherine said. “I learned my lesson. That hangover last week was the worst I’ve had in some years.”
“Me too,” Walter said. “I think we just got carried away because it was the first movie night we didn’t have to work the next day. I promise though, just one more beer. And maybe a little more weed too.”
“Yeah, I’ll have a little more of that myself,” Amber said, picking up the pipe on the coffee table, the bowl still loaded with mostly green herbs. She lit it and inhaled, then unloaded the hit into Walter’s mouth, something that was becoming an affectionate ritual between them since he found it sexy. Greg had forbidden her from even smoking.
“Love you,” Walter said.
“Love you,” she echoed and kissed him again. Amber kissed her mother, then went upstairs to her bedroom.
“I didn’t want to say it in front of Amber…” Walter said to Catherine as they sipped on their beers, “…but the hangover last week was so worth it. I haven’t had a volley like that since college, or maybe even ever. And it takes a lot to blow my mind.”
A grin stretched across Catherine’s face. “Hey, you blew my mind a few times too,” she said. “And I’m just as hard to impress, if not harder. I haven’t debated someone like that since probably college myself. But let’s keep track of the drinking and time tonight. It doesn’t look good when Mom gets the boyfriend shitfaced drunk after being left alone with him for the first time. I was so embarrassed. Amber hardly spoke to me when she came home from work the next day. She didn’t say anything about it, but I could tell it bothered her.”
“Yeah, she gave me an angry earful of silence also,” Walter said. “I finally just apologized, but she acted like it wasn’t a big deal, even though I could tell it was. Sometimes I just wish she’d say what was on her mind instead of—” He bit his lip. “Let’s not talk about it.”
“Yes. Limiting our time tonight to just one beer is going to be difficult enough,” Catherine said, shaking her already halfway empty can.
“Yes. And last week left me with so many questions, questions I never thought I’d be having about religion . . . What was that Hindu concept again? Broman?”
“Brahman,” Catherine corrected him.
“That’s it. Refresh my memory on it again? It’s a little fuzzy.”
She laughed. “Brahman is the source of all things in the universe, including reality and existence. According to belief, everything comes from Brahman and everything returns to Brahman. Brahman is uncreated, external, infinite, and all-embracing.”
“Wow, it really is just the first and second laws of thermodynamics,” Walter said. “But instead of energy, it’s Braham. The world’s oldest religion had a grasp on them thousands of years before ‘science’ did.”
“Hindus also invented the number zero,” Catherine said, “so you could also argue they had a handle on the third law before anyone else, too. But it’s not surprising, in my opinion. Religion and science are just offspring of philosophy, and at one time, they all coexisted in ‘relative’ peace until salvation came into the game. But even then, cooperation between Christians and Muslims, especially when it came to science, was common in the beginning. Many of the principles and techniques we still use in science and medicine today are a result of that cooperation. Science owes a lot to religion, or in a wider context, God.”
“But is that reason enough to believe in him?” Walter asked.
“Or her. Or it. I can’t imagine God having a defined sex just because the culture I grew up in told me so—although ‘God’ definitely has all the hallmarks of a man. But truthfully, I don’t know. I just find a deep sanctity in the rich diversity of the world’s creators as much as I do in the scientific observations of it, because no one captures humans quite like their gods. But like with Brahman, I also think some clues to answers science seeks can be found in religion if science is openminded enough to look. For instance, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if dark energy turned out to be past lives from reincarnation.”
Walter scoffed. “How so?” he asked.
“Because quantum mechanics proves it’s possible to have an infinite number of paths exist within one,” Catherine answered, then finished her beer. “Unfortunately, however, I’ve reached my time limit for tonight, so we’ll have to pick up on this next week.”
After turning out the living room lights, Walter and Catherine went upstairs together, then separated at the top to go to their separate rooms at separate ends of the hallway. Before opening their respective doors, their eyes turned to each other.
“Goodnight Catherine,” Walter said. “And I don’t know if it’s too soon to say it, but love you.”
She smiled at him. “You should never be ashamed of love,” she said. “Goodnight Walter, and love you too.”
They both then opened their doors and separated.
Amber stirred when Walter’s body rumpled the mattress. She awoke in a rather horny mood as one sometimes does in the middle of the night, so they did the deed and before she went back to sleep she said, “I love you.”
“I love you too,” Walter said, and for the first time it felt in no parts foma. Maybe he really was beginning to love her.
They kissed, and then she cradled her lovely tushy onto his hips and was quickly snoring—adorable, baby cooing type of snoring. She then farted, but that too was adorable and baby-like. So this was love, Walter thought, for making snoring and farting adorable and baby-like. Walter loved Amber’s snoring and farting.
THE TROUBADOUR, WEST HOLLYWOOD, TWO WEEKS LATER
“So here it is, boys…” Lola’s voice boomed in the empty venue as she smacked a stack of stapled papers, “…Perfect Crime’s record deal—a copy for each of you.” She threw each one like a card dealer to Walter and his bandmates as they sat on the front lip of the Troubadour’s stage, two hours before doors on their label showcase.
While small in size and sweet in face, Lola Roxy was a legendary but rebellious rep in the music industry, and the only one who came ready with a contract before they even played. In the nineties, she’d been the front woman of an infamous, all-girl, punk rock group named Malicious Creatures, who were notorious for onstage sex acts, drug use, and self-mutilation. However, after everyone but herself self-destructed from suicide or drugs, she turned to the business side of things where she quickly made a name for herself and put Cirkus Records on the map.
“Take all the time you need to read it,” she said, slowly pacing in front of them, her fuchsia mohawk waving like a fin atop her tattoo-covered body. “It’s not long, and I believe Walter has already told you most of the details. At Cirkus, we value simplicity and transparency unlike the big record labels we formed in response to—the same ones who will also be here tonight. Yes, we can’t offer you their big label signing bonuses, but those bonuses will most likely lock you into a contract as cross-collaterized as a company store with at least a three-album commitment. With us, it’s one album, and you keep your publishing, recording, and merchandising rights, so long as you deliver on your one album. After that, you’re free to go. However, my track record speaks for itself, so I doubt that will be the case.”
It was true. Almost every act Lola signed had risen to some sort of stardom.
“We’ll still give you modest bonuses to get by until the record’s out,” she continued, “but you’ll no means be living like rock stars—at least not yet.”
“But you’re giving Walter a beach house,” Brian “Squids” Squibbs, the band’s bassist, said.
“We’re not giving him a beach house; we’re renting him a small cottage near the ocean to finish writing your debut album. Yes, Walter’s getting a little more out of this, but don’t you think that’s fair?”
“Well, it’s just no wonder he’s pushing this deal over the other ones. Why can’t you rent a beach house for us all to write in together?”
“Because when have we ever written together?” Walter said. “And do you suddenly have songs Squids?”
“Yeah, maybe I do.”
“Then let’s hear a song. Go get your bass or whatever you need to play it and let’s hear it.”
“They’re works in progress. Just some ideas, like riffs and stuff.”
“Oh, fuck off.”
“Come on guys,” Seano, their lead guitarist and natural Slash lookalike, said. “Squids, Walter has always written the music alone. You know that. And if he doesn’t write the album, we’re out of a job.”
Jimmy Stokes, their drummer and not one for words, nodded in agreement.
Finally, Walter was getting through to them without Squids. Since Jimmy hardly spoke and Seano never wanted to be involved in band politics, it was always Squids who Walter had to deal with on everything, and everything was always a fight.
From the beginning, Walter saw Squids as a lazy and unnecessary liability, but like a marriage, sometimes blind eyes and compromise are required to keep a band afloat. Seano, who was irreplaceable in Walter’s opinion, founded the band with Squids, and they’d been best friends since the third grade. Also, as Walter discovered at the two shows they tried to do without Squids, when Seano didn’t have his best friend, Jack Daniels became his best friend, so much so they couldn’t leave each other alone enough for Seano to make it to the end of a show before passing out. So, for Seano, Walter put up with Squids. Not just his unreliable performances, playing, and risky drug use, but also his mouth.
“But we already have two EPs worth of songs written,” Squids said. “Those are the ones the fans know. We should be rerecording them for our debut album.”
“Why?” Walter said. “So we can give them more polished and inauthentic versions of songs they already know? Besides, my songwriting was still developing on those EPs.”
“Well, if development means more songs like ‘Baby Blue Part 2’ or ‘MagPi Song,’ we’re fucked.”
“Then quit. You’re always threatening to, but never have the balls to. Go start your own band where you write all the music and make all the rules because I’m done arguing the same points over and over again with you, Squids.” Walter leapt off the stage and began walking to the bar. “I’m just done.”
“Walter!” Lola shouted at him. “You’re done when I’m done. Until then, sit your ass back on the stage.” She stared at him until he did so. “While I understand the new material isn’t your old material,” she addressed his bandmates, “what great artist wants to repeat themselves? With time, I think the new material will grow on you. I believe it’s something special, so special I’m not only ready to sign you right now, but have you open for the biggest artist on our label on their U.S. summer tour this year.”
“You mean… Jester?” Squids asked.
“Yes, the all-mighty Jester,” Lola said. “That way, before heading into the studio this fall, there will be an audience waiting. I think their fans will take to you. What do you think?”
“We’re going on tour with Jester?! Gimme a fucking pen, I’m in!”
Lola and Walter smiled at each other. He had negotiated the tour in knowing Squids wouldn’t be able to refuse; Jester was his favorite band.
As Jimmy’s lone, plodding, double-bass drumbeat beat the air during the breakdown of “Minerva Doom,” the third song of their showcase set, the world felt wrapped around Walter like a warm bath of balance and harmony. He was in a place where he could make no mistakes; a place he could only find on stage—that is, if it was a good show. If it was a bad show, the stage was a sucking whirlpool of chaos and self-hatred.
Although Perfect Crime had already decided who they were going to sign with, the label showcase was still the music industry’s formal acknowledgement of their arrival to the big leagues, an event even more talked about because they were a rock n’ roll act, a genre thought of as all but gone by the industry. But with Marshall full stacks, fuzzily distorted guitars, and stories of wild shows, sometimes filled with unpredictable drunken debauchery—mostly exhibited by his bandmates but Walter played along too—Perfect Crime played rock n’ roll saviors well. Walter’s face also swelled genitals, so that helped too—or at least it helped in attracting the big record labels back to rock n’ roll.
“A sick man’s lying in my head no doubt…” Walter sang with his guitar slung over his shoulder as the crowd clapped along to the beat, “…it’s a wonder people think it’s me. I try to keep him down but he always comes out for everybody to see. I mean that’s why you’re paying me…”
Clap, clap, clap…
“…The stage is blessed as a sovereign state from accountability. So every time I cast my name on the marquee pane, we celebrate the death of me. I mean, that’s why you’re paying me. Great cemetery with personality!”
In a well-practiced move, he spun his heavy Les Paul back to his front and pick-slid into a grand power chord which re-introduced the chorus:
“Glory Hallelujah. Glory, glory friend! Glory Hallelujah, and I’m frying myself again. Lying to myself again!”
The band broke into a double-time chorus and the crowd went into a frenzy of not exactly moshing, not exactly dancing. The dance floor became a gigantic fun pit of crisscrossing bodies, many of whom were “Quarkians,” Walter’s most-dedicated fans who were mostly teenagers who distinguished themselves by the bell bottoms they wore in emulation of his.
On stage or off, other than when he used to dress up as Axl Rose, Walter’s bottom half was always seventies. And his top half, always nineties: a plaid flannel and shaggy, unkempt hair. The only wardrobe item that changed was his ceaseless supply of nerdy science shirts. Tonight, his shirt had a picture of the physicist Richard Feynman with the caption “DICK!” written underneath it.
Grinding Minerva’s second to last chord over his strings, Walter took a full swinger before hitting the song’s stinger. A roar blew back at him from the crowd like wind from a blowhole. Just behind the blast, Amber clapped with a proud smile and blew him kisses from the merch booth she’d been dutifully managing ever since the West Coast tour, the tour which had been key in taking Perfect Crime from local sensation to unsigned phenomenon. Because of this, one of Walter’s pet names for Amber had become “lucky charm.”
“I know you weren’t planning on hearing any covers tonight, but I’d like to do one,” Walter said to the crowd as he set down his guitar and began walking to his new Wurlitzer electric piano, a secret gift from Lola, a secret between only them. “It’s not a Guns N’ Roses cover, however—it’s a Neil Young song, and it’s for my girlfriend, Amber Evans…” The crowd awed and clapped. “I won’t point her out because she’ll hate me if I do, but I love you, lucky charm.” He sat at his piano. “This song is called ‘See the Sky About to Rain.’”
“I love you so much,” Amber said after the show.
“I love you too,” Walter said, his hand undoing her pants. Dim, auburn light from a streetlamp twenty yards away drizzled onto her bare stomach stretched across his car passenger seat. His car along with all the bands’ cars were parked in the Troubadour’s side alley since it was where they had to load their equipment in and out. Currently everyone and their equipment was in for another twenty minutes while the closing band, personal friends of Perfect Crime, finished their set.
With his bottom half already de-clothed, they joined their bodies together and made wordless love for two songs on the radio until commercial break.
“I don’t know why it didn’t click until I was on stage tonight…” Walter said, his mind still racing from the excitement of the night, “…but this is the greatest day of my life. My life will never be the same after. Today is the beginning of life 2.0. And best of all, I never have to wear that monkey suit for Endeavor ever again.”
“I know,” Amber said, grinning. “I can’t believe we’re finally quitting.”
“Wait, what? You’re quitting?”
“Yeah. Not right away. But once we go on tour. Someone has to manage the merch booth, right?”
“I think the label will probably have someone for that now.”
“But what else am I supposed to do on tour?”
“Well…” Walter made a dry swallow. “…truthfully, I didn’t figure you were coming because I didn’t know you were quitting your job. And maybe the label might pay you, but I don’t think it’s going to be enough to pay rent, even if it is just to your mom.”
Amber’s eyes began blinking rapidly. “But I thought…” she started, “I mean, I just figured we’d be moving in together since Cirkus is paying for a house. I know how badly you’ve been wanting to get out of your grandma’s, and you know how badly I’ve been wanting to get out of my mom’s. I thought that’s why you had them put it in the contract.”
“No, not at all. I put it in to be left alone. I have to finish writing our album.”
Her body paused, stopping their lovemaking. “Okay…” she said, “but where do I fit in in all this? What’s your girlfriend supposed to do for the six weeks you’re on tour, then for however long you need to write the album?”
Unprepared, Walter struggled for words so only the crude truth came out. “I guess I was so caught up with everything else, I didn’t think about you,” he said.
“Y-you…you didn’t think about me?” Amber’s breath began quickening. “I put my heart and soul into this band too.” She pushed him off of her, then started rummaging the dark floors for her clothes. “Your dream has been just as much my dream, Walter. How could you not think of me in its future? How could you not think of your lucky charm? Or was that just onstage bullshit? I can never tell if you’re really being real on there or not. Because right now, offstage, I’m really beginning to doubt if you actually love me.”
He remained silent, searching for answers on the dashboard, but the only answers he found were all those little doubts he thought he’d gotten over.
“Say something!” she yelled.
“I never asked you to share my dream,” he said at last. “When I first met you, you had a dream of your own; you wanted to be a writer. But once we got together, instead of finishing the novel you always said you would, you just began making excuses until you convinced yourself it would never happen.”
Amber sighed and took a long pause. “Because I realized I don’t have the same gift for writing that you have for music,” she said. “That’s the truth. After seeing the dedication you have—the dedication it takes to make art a career—I just came to terms with the fact that I’m not cut out for it.”
“But dedication is different from being gifted,” Walter said. “Dedication is something you could change if you didn’t let your depression have such a stranglehold on it. Depression is a part of your gift, and it can either work against you or for you. Let me show you how it can work for you, but I can’t do that if you won’t let me read your writing. And from everything your mother has said, it seems like it’s worth reading.”
“Of course she’s says good things,” Amber said, annoyed. “She’s my mother. It’s decent, but not exceptional—not like your music. If you read my writing, you’d know what I mean. Plus, I told you. The story was inspired by the death of Greg’s dad our first year together. You don’t want to read about that, and I’m not sure I want to write about it anymore either.”
“For God sake’s, just let me read it!” Walter said, losing his patience. “I don’t care if it was inspired by Greg or if you don’t think it’s ‘exceptional.’ I don’t think a great majority of my art is good, let alone ‘exceptional.’ But still, I share it all with you, even the stuff I’m most uncomfortable about. How can we share our hearts together if you’re not willing to share your art? Are they not one and the same? In fact, there’s a lot I wished you’d share with me more, like when you’re angry with me, or when something I do bothers you. But instead you swallow it inside and just pretend everything is perfect. Why?”
Amber hugged her knees to her chest and began sobbing. “I’m sorry!” she cried congestedly into her knees, making her sound as if she were speaking into a paper lunch bag. “If you want to know the truth…” she said, making a long sniffle, “the truth is, I’m terrified to lose you. That’s why I don’t say anything. Because I don’t know what I did to deserve you, but if I didn’t have you, I don’t know what I’d do.”
“But hiding your true feelings—hiding your true self—is exactly how you’ll lose me,” Walter said. “I don’t want you to feel like you can’t express yourself honestly. Why would anyone want that in a relationship? And why would I be with you if I didn’t think you deserved me?”
“Because you feel guilty.”
It slapped him in the face because it was true. It had always been true. His heart, however, had convinced him that he was in love with Amber because Amber would someday change into somebody who wasn’t Amber. But that Amber, he was realizing, only existed in his head.
“Amber, don’t think that,” was the best, most consoling comment Walter could come up with without lying. He was fresh out of foma. “However, what are you supposed to do now if my dream is coming true and you don’t have one of your own? Are you going to sponge off me and my dream for the rest of your life? How is that any different than the complacent housewife you refused to be for Greg? I just don’t understand. I thought . . . I just thought you were someone with your own dreams—a love outside of just me. That’s what I want, because that’s what I have with my music. I don’t want a sponge.”
“A sponge?” Amber said. “Is that what you really think of me?”
“I’m sorry, but if you don’t have a job or a dream and you’re moving in with me, then yes. I’m sorry, but you know I sometimes have difficulty with sugarcoating the truth.”
She was silent for a while. “So…” she said quietly, “what are you trying to say then? You don’t want to be with me anymore?”
“I think…no, I am.” Walter began crying. “I’m so sorry. I love you, but you still need to find yourself. I can’t be your surrogate dream.”
Amber looked at him dumbfounded as she burst into tears. She began groveling and clawing at him. “No-no-no…” she pled. “Please. Please. I’ll begin writing again. I just need time. Please, not right now. I had plans for us. Something that might inspire me to write again. That’s what I need. Fresh inspiration. Please.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, “but you need to find that inspiration on your own. When you do, then maybe we can try again. But it’s the best for both of us right now, okay? I really am doing this out of love.”
“No, no…” she put her left fist to her mouth and began gnawing her thumb’s knuckle. “You don’t understand. I had plans for your birthday.”
“My birthday? That was over three months ago.”
“Next year. I had something planned for—” Amber’s face froze into the blank stare Walter had seen in this car before. Her thumb then began bleeding from her clenched teeth cutting into it.
“Amber!” he said, trying to pull the thumb out of her bite, but she clenched harder. “Amber stop! Amber!”
“What?” she finally came to and released the thumb. Looking more disoriented than before, she didn’t seem to notice her bleeding hand or the blood in her mouth.
“You had another staring spell and you almost bit your thumb in half. Are you okay?” he asked, gently taking her injured hand and showing it to her. It wasn’t permanently damaged, but the top layer of skin around her thumb’s knuckle was almost removed.
“Of course I’m not okay!” she shouted and pushed the bloody hand into his chest. “You’re leaving me!” She flung the car door open and took off down the alley.
“Amber, stop!” Walter yelled, running after her, catching her by the arm just as she reached the sidewalk of Santa Monica Boulevard.
“Don’t touch me!” she screamed, pulling her arm away. “Get away!”
He attempted to keep hold of her, but she kept screaming bloody murder, attracting a nearby hotel security guard.
“Should I call the police, miss?” he said, stepping between them. He then noticed the blood around Amber’s mouth. “Did he hit you?”
“No, no,” Amber said. “But just keep him away from me until I get my car from the valet.”
“Amber, you shouldn’t be driving,” Walter said. “Please come back and talk to me . . . You don’t understand,” he said to the security guard blocking him. “She shouldn’t be driving right now.”
“Is she intoxicated?” he asked.
“Are you intoxicated? Your breath smells like whiskey.”
“Yes, I just had a glass not that long ago, but—”
“Then don’t make another step toward her until she’s in her car and gone, if you don’t want me to call the police. You understand me?”
Walter stood helpless on the sidewalk. “Catherine,” he said, and then ran back down the alley and into the back door of the venue.
“What do you mean you broke up?” Catherine said. “Why?” After being unable to find her downstairs, Walter finally found her playing darts in the upstairs bar. He told her what happened, but it was loud and she was buzzed, so only some of the story sunk in.
“I’ll tell you later,” he said. “But right now, we need to stop her from leaving.”
“Amber’s leaving? She’s my ride home.”
“Yes, and she just had a staring spell.”
“Oh my God!” Catherine said, finally getting it. “She shouldn’t be driving.”
They ran downstairs, but by the time they made it to the valet, Amber was already gone.
“I should’ve stopped her,” Walter said as he loaded his gear into his Prius’s hatchback. “I tried, but she just kept screaming like I was trying to kill her.”
“You did everything you could,” Catherine said, pacing with her phone to her cheek. “Damn it, she’s ignoring my calls now.” She took her phone with both hands and began texting.
“Why did I break up with her?” he continued, mostly talking to himself. “And why tonight of all nights?”
Catherine put her phone down and went over to him. “Because change brings things like this out of nowhere sometimes,” she said putting a hand on his shoulder. “But to be frank, I thought this might happen once the band took off. I didn’t think it would happen the night you signed, but still.”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Well, I could just see… see that you and Amber were on different paths, that’s all. I was just hoping—maybe foolishly—you might help her to yours.”
“I was too, I think.”
Catherine sighed and gave Walter a one-armed hug. “And you had the best intentions,” she said. “But I guess the lesson learned is everyone has to find their own path on their own. You did the right thing by leaving. It wasn’t a healthy relationship. I know because I left her father for the same reason.”
She then gasped and quickly moved away. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t have said that. Honesty just has a way of spilling out of me sometimes, even if I don’t want it to, but especially if I’ve been drinking.”
Walter smiled. He wanted to hug her again, but didn’t. “No,” he said, “I’m glad you did. And strangely, I feel better because you did. Thank you.”
Catherine’s phone buzzed in her pocket. “Oh shit,” she said, taking it out. “It’s Amber . . . At home. Don’t worry, I’m safe. Just need time alone. Going to bed now. Talk to you in the morning.”
When they arrived at Catherine’s house, Amber’s dark green Civic was parked in the driveway.
“Looks like she’s here,” Walter said, pulling in front of the house and putting his car in park.
“Yes, it does,” Catherine said, looking at the driveway. “So happy that’s over.” She turned to him. “Well…” she said somberly, “I guess it’s goodbye now.”
“Yes, I guess it is,” he said just as somberly. “Goodbye forever.”
“No, not forever. We still can…No, we can’t. We can’t ever again, can we?”
“No,” he said after a moment. “I don’t think we can ever see each other again, or at least not for a long time. But everyone says that and it never happens. So yeah, it’s probably forever.”
“You’re probably right…”
There was a long silence, then Catherine began weeping.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “just a little emotional right now. I was so worried about Amber, I didn’t have time to process this was goodbye for us . . . We’ve sure had some great times together, haven’t we, Axl?”
“Yes we have, Dolly,” Walter said and began weeping too. “I don’t think I’ll be able to sing ‘Jackson’ with anyone else.”
“And here I thought ‘A Whole New World’ was your favorite duet? Or maybe it was just mine because you always insisted on singing Jasmine’s parts.”
Laughter began soaking up their tears.
“I’m going to miss your ‘dirty pictures’ from the lab of HeLa cells and mutated DNA,” Walter said.
“I’m going to miss our late-night debates after movie night,” Catherine said. “Who else can I discuss the laws of thermodynamics and the concepts of Brahman with until three a.m.?”
They laughed again, then became silent. The air became warmer and the windshield began to fog. The fog slowly grew, and so too did a realization in Walter’s mind.
He turned to Catherine but said nothing. She also said nothing, but their eyes began telling each other everything. The heat continued to grow, then something pulled his hand to hers, resting atop her lap. She clasped it. The hands began to caress one another.
“I…” Walter said, but before he knew what he was going to say, his lips were saying it on hers, and his hands, her body. He tore under her clothes and into her soft flesh, as her hands began doing the same, grazing up and down his chest. His mouth found its way down her neck and to her breasts as her hand found its way down into his pants. His hand then went into her pants, and after a great storm of panting, she began to spasm and came greatly, soaking his hand and the inside of her pants, causing him to spasm then reciprocate just as quickly and strongly over her hand. Looking down at the mess, it was only then that they both comprehended what was happening.
With sweat pouring over their faces, they sat back stiffly in their seats, still breathing heavily and looking wide-eyed at the now fully fogged windshield.
“I’m so sorry,” Walter said, wiping his hands on his pants.
“It was just as much my fault,” Catherine said, doing the same, then wiped her forehead on her sleeve. “I need to go.”
“I understand,” he said. “We probably shouldn’t hug goodbye.”
“Yes, we probably shouldn’t . . . Goodbye Walter.”
The next morning, Walter awoke in disbelief of the twenty-four hours before. Surely it had been a dream—or a nightmare. But the phone ringing on his nightstand was a reminder it was not. It was Catherine.
“Hello,” he said.
It was her weeping again.
“Catherine? What’s wrong?”
“Walter…” she mumbled.
“Yes? What is it?”
“I’m not sure how to say this . . . Amber passed away last night. She had a grand mal seizure and asphyxiated in her sleep.”
His eyes lurched back and his gut compressed as if gravity had suddenly been strengthened.
“No, no, no…” he said and began bawling. “I killed her. I killed her!”
“Stop it. You didn’t kill her. Please, don’t blame yourself.”
“How can I not?”
“Please, just don’t, Walter. It’s not your fault…” Catherine dwindled into more crying.
“Catherine?” Walter said.
“I need to see you. I can’t handle this on my own. You’re the only person who understands.”
“And that’s exactly why we can’t see each other. No good will come of it . . . I’m so sorry, but we can never see each other again.”
“No, please Catherine.”
“It’s for both of us, Walter. But don’t let this stop your dream. Go on tour, record your album, put this pain in your art. That’s all I can say . . . I’m sorry, but I’ve got a lot more people to call—you were the first.”
“I can’t say goodbye.”
“Then I’ll do it for you . . . Goodbye Walter.”
The call ended.