Tuesday, April 29, 2014

"Makeover" Part 2

When he got home the house was empty.  The guys had taken him out to dinner.  One more quick lesson from Ramos on camera about how to behave in public and the cameraman had left them to the rest of their dinner.  Ramos never did have any advice about how to deal with his wife but he did tell him to hang in and admitted to working for barely more than minimum wage just a year ago.  “And look at me, I’m almost 50!”  It did make him feel somewhat better.
But the Jack buzz had long since been replaced by a paler wine-at-dinner buzz and he was lonely in the house after a week of too many people around.  Cath and the kids were put up in a nearby hotel, forbidden from seeing him till tomorrow night when he’d have cocktails and appetizers in his new studio – which had been re-keyed so even he couldn’t get in to see what they had done – and then off to the bar where he and the band would play a set for the cameras.  He couldn’t get to his guitars, couldn’t talk to his wife.  No comfort left but more booze.  He decided to go to the bar and have a drink even though it would ruin the surprise for Randy, the manager.
When he got there it was almost empty.  Randy poured him a shot and drew him a beer as he walked in.  Am I that predictable, he wondered.  He sat down and took the first sip of his beer before Randy really noticed his hair.  When he did all Randy said was “Wow”.  Keith wanted to ask if he thought it would affect the way people perceived his playing in the band but then it occurred to him that that was a pathetic question to ask.
He looked around and Lila was seated in a booth almost in the back.  He was about to look away, avoid her, when she looked up.  She didn’t recognize him at first, unless she’d done this so many times she’d gotten good at fake surprise.  He nodded when she wide eyed pointed to her head and mouthed ‘hair’.  She gathered up her papers and came over to him.
“My god. That’s good, really great haircut. Can I?” and she touched his now slightly wavy hair atop his head.  “I barely recognized you”.
“What are you doing here?”
“Just having a drink. Going over some stuff. We’re put up in the hotel next door”
“Oh. I didn’t know”.
“Yeah, right. Why would you?” she said without irony. “What are you doing here?”
“Drink. This is where I play. This is where the…”
“Right. Duh.” She ordered another drink and offered to buy him one and though he didn’t often turn down a free drink he turned down this one.  Age had taught him at least one useful thing and that was his limit on alcohol.
“Why weren’t you there today?” he asked after her drink arrived.
“What? The haircut? It’s sort of the guys’ thing. I don’t like to hover too much. Plus I had a phone interview this afternoon. I’m looking for a new job”.
“You don’t like this one?”
“Oh, it’s fine. I like it. It’s actually my first producing gig. It’s just, I’m 36. If I’m going to do anything with my life I need to get a move on.”
“What do you want to do?” he asked.
“Features.” Not quite sure what she meant he nodded anyway.  “I love your wife. She is so cool.” He wondered if she was trying to get the message across that she was not trying to hit on him.  Her eyes had that dreamy look that most guys mistake for amorous but is really just drunkenness. 
“Yeah. I pretty much haven’t accomplished anything I set out to do. I was supposed to have at least one Emmy by now. An Oscar would be fine, but I like television better. And be married, two kids. But I have a great dog, so… I guess I’m not a total loser.”
Keith couldn’t help but laugh.  It seemed ironic that she called herself a loser.  It occurred to him that Joe was right, his wife and kids were the one thing that would always have been the gage to who he was, even if he was the leader of some mega band.
“What would the difference be if you got this new job?” he asked.  Probably good to focus on someone else for a while.
“Uh, I’d work more probably… but it’s not reality TV so that’s good. I dunno. I guess I just feel like I have to keep scratching at it. Keep climbing or something. Like, that’s why they call people in Hollywood sharks. You have to keep moving otherwise you die.”
They talked a little more about Hollywood and Lila’s life there and how she wished she could find a chick as cool as Cathy to settle down with but that it was especially difficult in LA.  No one in the business really approved of lesbians even though technically they didn’t disapprove.  She asked him about his music and was impressed by his rock ballad that had ended up being a country hit.  She thought he ought to just go with it and write country songs.  He thought about the piles of finished and partially finished songs sitting on a bar stool in his studio.  And how, in his current band configuration was uninterested in practicing more than a couple hours a week, so his songs they never got tried out, arranged and played at a gig.  Why didn’t he just record them acoustic and sell them, Lila asked, and hinting at the new recording studio that they put into his studio.  She had tons of friends who were songwriters in LA who’d never had a song on the radio let alone a hit and who always seemed to have writer’s block.  She could introduce him to some managers who she knew were always looking for songs for their clients, she said.
He went home that night feeling filled up.  Not because of the conversation with Lila at the bar so much as the whole thing.  How impressed everyone had been with his kids, his wife, his life and the small successes in the business that he had always thought of as sure signs of what a pathetic, old wannabe rock star he was.  Maybe he should try to need less reassurance from everyone else.  Maybe he spent way too much time worrying about himself and what he didn’t have.  It seemed so stupid that he should have such a revelation after a weeklong makeover reality show shoot and not before in the stillness of some Fall night like this one, standing alone on his gazebo.
The next morning, the crew was late in arriving, well after ten.  The day went like all the others, both long and short.  It seemed like a week and an instant both getting to 10 pm that night when he was supposed to start his ‘gig’.  When they finally arrived at the bar there the crew were lighting and his family were waiting in the lobby.  Of course, the kids couldn’t actually come into the bar but they could listen from the lobby.  Randy thought they might make an exception for the actual shooting though, technically, it wasn’t legal.  Keith was not sure what to expect or what he would say.  He’d been up late playing – Nathan’s small, kid sized guitar, the only one not in his studio – and had written a sort of dedication as a surprise for his wife and kids.  He wasn’t even sure he was going to play it until the cameras started to roll.  His band was a little miffed, he could see out of the corner of his eye, but ten seconds into the song he, finally, for the first time in a long time, didn’t give a shit what anyone else thought and he didn’t need anyone to reassure him. 
When the song was done even his band were a little misty, though they tried to hide it with macho pats on the back and “Great song, man”.  He could see Lila in the back of the room and when he caught her eye she gave him a thumbs up.
He wouldn’t say that week changed his life.  Change takes a lot longer than a week when it’s self inflicted.  He’d gotten some contacts from Lila that had actually panned out. He flew to LA for several days, took meetings and was commissioned to write a couple of ballads for some new pop sensation whose name he couldn’t remember, only that she’d already been on commercials and his kids thought she was ‘pretty good’.  And a new young rock band was recording the song he’d written for his family for their new album… whether it actually ended up on the album, well…  He wasn’t sure if he cared much about that anymore.  In a funny way, doing the whole makeover for the show had made him recapture his youth.  Not the ambition part, but that part of music that had totally absorbed him, where he would disappear into the sensation of just playing and writing and time would pass without needing to eat or rest or even go take a leak.  He could play for 3, 4 hours in a row now and he hadn’t been able to do that in a long time.
Part of it was Joe and Lila and just meeting people outside of his world, and even Ramon a little bit.  And knowing that life is random mostly and ordered sometimes, and there is fate and there is hard work and really none of it matters one way or the other.  It was experiencing his own world just the way it was, he finally realized, that meant something to him.  And when Lila left a message on their machine telling them the show would air that weekend, and she’d gotten the job she had wanted and they should keep in touch, though he knew they wouldn’t, Cath had  wanted to throw a big party for the airing.  But nope, he decided that all he really wanted was a bowl of popcorn, Cath, Nathan and Tilda next to him.  It’d been almost six months since the taping.  He’d forgotten a lot of what happened and a lot of what he had said.  There was some embarrassing stuff.  But the thing that he had missed then, and the thing that made him know now that rabid ambition would never take over and control his happiness again, was when the camera caught his son at the bar, looking at his sister and saying “Dad is so cool” and she nodding her head in agreement.  What more was there really.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

"Makeover" - a short story by Daniela Ryan

He wasn’t sure how he had let her talk him into it.  But then he always would do just about anything for Cathy.  She was way prettier than he deserved and she knew it.  She’d kept herself up, just as a way to maintain her leverage, he thought sometimes.  But no, that was a mean thing to think.  She did always have his best interests in mind.  Maybe he didn’t have his own in mind.  He wasn’t sure what his best interests were anymore and maybe that is why it had been possible for her to talk him into it.
It was a reality show, of course, but not that one with the gay guys.  It was the same idea.  Anyway, they would redo his studio too and it really needed it.  Winter was a bitch.  It’s not like it snowed or anything but it got pretty cold in there.  Hard to strum when your fingers are half frozen.
They arrived at 6 am Monday morning.  Why it had to be so early he wasn’t sure but anyway Keith had taken a week of time off from JR Trucking.  It’s just that he was hoping to sleep in a little bit.  That was the beauty of vacation wasn’t it, sleeping in?  For the first few years after they had had children, till Tilda was, what, he couldn’t remember anymore, about 5 or so, they had to wake up at 7 am sharp.  You can’t have babies or toddlers wandering around the house by themselves, they start fires.  He knew that.  Their oldest, Nathan, actually had.  Started a fire.  Because Cathy had gone into the office early one morning and Keith, although he shouldn’t, went back to sleep.  So, 7 am it was - rain, shine, school day, weekend, vacation, whatever.  At least now the kids could be trusted not to destroy the house if he slept until 8 am on the weekends or later when he was on vacation.  Sometimes he took a personal day even when the kids were in school and Cath was at work, just so he could sleep in till noon, wake up, smoke some pot then practice till everyone got home that evening.  He loved that.  It reminded him… But what was the point of thinking about all that now.  Here they were at 6 fucking am.  Last night he had been excited but now… now.  What.
There was a style guy, a decorator guy who was Cathy’s favorite, a manners guy although that wasn’t what he was called.  He couldn’t remember what it was called.  Not a lot of call for manners during a gig or at his day job at the trucking company, he thought.  “I just want you to be able to clean up nice, that’s all” Cathy had said on more than one occasion.  It was usually around the holidays and it was her number one way of backing out of a skirmish that was close to becoming a fight, usually over his hair.  He couldn’t have told her why he wanted to, no wait, needed to keep his hair long.  He always just used his music as an excuse.  “But that isn’t even your real job” she’d always say, or something like that. It didn’t take many seconds for her to read his face and realize that that was one comment too many and to back out.  He’d taken a job because of Cathy of course.  He had been doing a lot of gigs when she got pregnant and she wanted him to have a more regular schedule.  He’d bristled but he didn’t expect to love the baby so much even before he was born and really he would have done anything that was good for that boy.  God, he loved that little guy.  Not so little anymore, Nathan was going to turn ten in a few days.  He apparently wanted Daddy to get a makeover too, according to Cath.  It’s not that he didn’t want to believe her, it’s just that he knew Nathan would say just about anything after a little gentle prodding from his mom.  The job was alright.  They guys were alright and the hours were regular and the pay pretty good.  He could always quit if his music career took off but… well, or he could always cut back on his overtime a bit if he needed to.  The mortgage was a couple years from being paid off and though they had talked about selling and getting a bigger place, she let him convince himself that if they didn’t have a mortgage he could go back to regular hours and then have more time to promote his weekly gig.  He had never wanted to get a second mortgage or it would be paid by now, except that his studio was in the detached garage and Cath wanted a real garage attached to the house which they built right in front of the old one.  But she liked it because she could bring groceries right into the kitchen and it was better than trying to bring in stuff when it rained.  It’s not like she was so in love with her car she had explained, it’s just that they needed somewhere to store stuff too… It seemed like a slippery slope to him at the time but he had agreed.  At least, Cathy wasn’t like some guys’ wives he knew.  She wasn’t shallow or heavily into her appearance, even though she always took the time to look good.  And even though she was a little wider in the hips than when they met she was still really attractive.  Of course, he would never say that to her face again.  That had been a miscalculated phrase during one of their ‘hair’ fights that he’d paid mightily for.  For a week. 
So.  Here they were.  Joe – style guy, Ramos – etiquette – that’s what it was called – guy, and Mick – decorator chap.  He was British.  And Lila, the producer.  Those were all the people he was supposed to remember.  All the other 20 or so crew he was just supposed to ignore, like they were flies on the wall.  The guys were cool.  And none of them were gay.  He was pretty sure.  He had good gaydar.  It was from being raised in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Lila was a trip though.  Really high strung, heavy smoker, smart and quick, but man, she looked like she could use some sleep.  He wondered why they didn’t make her over.
Almost as soon as they were introduced the guys disappeared. 
“You guys have seen the show right?” Lila said. “Is there somewhere I can smoke? I don’t want to smoke near your house.”  Cath led her to the gazebo and Lila explained how the week would go.  The crew were already loading, dropping cable and stomping over the lawn – shit, he had just reseeded last weekend.  Lila must have noticed the worry on his face.  She snickered just a bit at him and told him not to worry, they would repair any damage they did, including lawns. 
“Cool.  This is cool.  What a great view” Lila exhaled smoke through her nose.  “You don’t want to go in there yet, anyway, for a bit until they get set up.  I always end up getting in their way.” 
A skinny kid, all of twenty, lomped up to the gazebo carrying wireless mike packs for him and Cathy.  Keith couldn’t help thinking, that’s the age I was when I started playing.  It bothered him a lot now to see these young guys in their 20s - everyone seemed younger than him.  It didn’t seem like so long ago when he was the young one and everyone else was older.  This kid with the mikes, it’s like his voice hadn’t changed yet.  He was quiet and respectful putting Cathy’s on and blushed when she asked if he was the one who would do this everyday.  But with Keith he made small talk.  Cath and Lila kept talking.  Women could find anything in common. 
“I swear if women ran the world there would never be any war.  They could all relate to each other on some level” Keith said, feeling old in front of the sound kid and regretting it even as it spilled out of his mouth.
“I know” the kid said, “My mom can talk to anyone. I mean, anyone.”  He fiddled with the pack a bit and then said, “So, you’re a musician?”
“What do you play?”
“Cool.  Do you, like, have a lot of guitars?”
“Yeah. I’ve collected a few” and added inadvertently “over the years”.  He wondered if the wince he felt inside showed on his face.  It probably didn’t because the kid had an expectant look and when Keith asked if he’d like to look at them he actually jumped up into the air a little bit.  Keith hoped, as they walked to his studio, the kid wouldn’t be disappointed.
When he showed the kid his guitar collection he kind of got a little well of pride over him, like he had made them or something.  He played them anyway.  When he pulled out his prize, a guitar that Cath had gotten for him for his 40th birthday to prove that she really didn’t hate his music or his ambition, Keith hoped the kid would know who Syd Barrett was.
“No shit! Aw man” he said.  So, that was good.  But then, “That’s the way to go, huh?  Just fuckin’ create the shit out of something and then go home to the roosters.” 
“Well, he didn’t actually die. But yeah, he was really young when he left Pink Floyd and sort of disappeared from music” Keith said.  He hadn’t really answered the kid’s question.  He always hated it when he did that.  But it was probably rhetorical anyway.
“Dude.  OK, man.  Well, back to work” and shook Keith’s hand.  “Thanks for showing me your collection”.
“You play?”
“Naw. Just a fan. I’m a film dude. But I love music” and he lomped out of his studio off to do more sound guy stuff somewhere inside the house.  Keith thought to ask him to his regular gig later in the week but then his cheeks flushed red.  He was too young, probably wouldn’t like the kind of rock that Keith and his band played anyway.  Too many covers, not enough original stuff.  Most of their audience was around his own age anyway.  Fat, middle aged, balding.  Which brought his mind back to his hair.  Shit.  They were going to want to cut it, he knew.  It had been so stuck in Cath’s craw for so many years, he was sure it was the entire reason she wanted this whole makeover thing in the first place.  Now he was just feeling embarrassed and shitty.  A middle aged lo… He couldn’t even make himself think the word.  He decided to hide out for a while, see if he could practice away the blues.  He picked up the Syd Barrett.  What the hell.  He never really played it.  Mostly just left it on display on the wall for when his friends came over, to admire. 
The camera people came in about an hour later with the obnoxious director. 
“Oh, no. Don’t get up. We’re just shooting B-roll for the show.”  The director barked.  “That’s great that you’re playing. Just keep it up”.  The name for the show, they always had some cutie name, was Modern Rocker.  It seemed innocuous enough, though he knew he’d get some ribbing from his friends and all the pictures of his brief “Flock of Seagulls hair” period would surface at the next get together.  He couldn’t help it if his hair styled that well.  They’d all been jealous then.
But, suddenly, lit and hovered over by a camera and crew three feet away from him, he was uncomfortable playing.  Back in the 80s when he’d first started they had shot a video.  But that band broke up long before the thing even got edited.  He had an impulse to tell the obnoxious director this for some reason, but he squashed it.  Maybe he was trying to validate his discomfort.  He was a live performer, not some TV actor.  How do you concentrate with all these people right in your face?  That had been one of the first things Cathy asked him when they met backstage.  “How do you play with all those people staring at you?”  It was his first, and as it turned out, only tour.  He was 28, 29, something like that and had finally – in between bands – gotten a gig as an additional musician on a ZZ Top tour.  As it happened the opening act’s lead guitar had OD’d that afternoon and was still in the hospital on the night Cathy came to the show though she assured him she would have noticed him anyway.  So, she actually got to see him perform, whereas on most nights he just huffed guitars on and off stage, tuned them and waited to be needed.  It’s sort of the way his whole life felt at this moment.  He was needed for a few moments here and there and then off to the corner again.  He thought this just as the obnoxious director booted him out of his own studio for more B-roll, told him they would let him know when he was needed again.  He put the Syd Barrett back on the wall.
He had felt the same way with his children.  They needed Cath and rarely wanted him.  He tried to be nurturing and a good dad but he couldn’t help feeling unnecessary sometimes.  Until they got older, of course, but even still it was always “Mom, where are my socks” and “Mom, can I go to Rick’s after school”, never Dad.  Cath assured him that he did have an influence and was important.  He wondered if this was why men disappeared from their families so readily.  He couldn’t think of one friend who’d had a good relationship with his dad.  Except Cathy’s brother Edward, Jr.  Ed, Cathy’s dad, was the coolest old guy Keith knew and when Ed assured him that men are meant to be the providers and would be called upon when needed and in the meantime they should just go golfing he’d felt better.  Ed had taken Ed, Jr. fishing a lot and this accounted for their close relationship Keith was sure.  He tried to take Nathan and Tilda fishing but they had both been grossed out.  They took up hiking instead.  Keith didn’t know if it made the kids feel any closer to him.  His own father hadn’t been around much and spent a lot of time bowling and drinking.  But it sure did a lot for him.  Cath told him to be patient, that someday they would remember those hikes as their fondest memories.  Seemed like someone was always having to reassure him.
The week clipped along.  Twelve hours seemed like just a few.  The crew would arrive in the morning, set up.  Spend about an hour talking and eating bagels and coffee and then Keith would be whisked off somewhere.  With Joe, there were new clothes.  A whole new wardrobe, in fact.  With Mick, there were new furnishings for his studio – mostly stuff he didn’t think he’d actually use, stools, chairs, ottomans, stuff like that.  Did they think he just hung out and read Rolling Stone or what?  He didn’t spend much time with Ramos who seemed to have some other agenda.  Ramos gave him a few pointers one day for a couple hours on how to hold a fork, order wine, pull a chair out for a lady.  Shit like that would only be useful on Valentine’s Day and anniversaries.  How about some pointers on how to tell your wife that you’d really like to have another baby or that you want to book a three week tour of California to see if you still have it? 
He liked Joe the best.  He seemed the most ‘there’ of the three.  And it was Joe that he was able to talk to.  It was the day of the haircut.  Thursday morning.  The whole week seemed to go fast but slow too, like one week was really three and he couldn’t believe that ‘the day’ was here already.  Joe could tell that he was on the fence when they had shot a conversation about ‘the hair’ the day before.  The conversation had suddenly gone south when Joe brought it up and all Keith could do was hem and haw and um and oh.  It was pathetic.  Lila had called cut, something he hadn’t heard her say all week. 
“Look, I know this is probably the heavy part for you.  It is for women too.  But we have to keep this upbeat” was all she said.  Joe took him aside in the bathroom and assured him he wouldn’t look like a fool.  They were shooting wardrobe stuff in the bedroom but looking like a fool wasn’t his worry.  When they came back, turned on the cameras, Joe changed the subject and that was that.
Keith was strumming his nerves away when the sound kid came to get him.  They chitchatted about rock a bit as he miked Keith up and then it was into the SUV and off to the salon.  Ramos and Mick were there too along with a camera guy in the passenger seat.  It was all upbeat and jokes and “Are you nervous?” type questions until they got to the salon.  After his hair was washed and put in a tight polytail the stylist made some excuse about sharpening scissors or gel or something and suddenly he and Joe were sitting alone in front of the mirror.
He was, for the first time, uncomfortable with Joe.  And he all of a sudden realized too that Joe was gay.  But that didn’t bother Keith.  It was the intensity with which Joe looked at his reflection in the mirror.  He didn’t say anything at first and then he stood up, walked behind him and picked up Keith’s hair.  Keith flinched, Joe saw it but didn’t say anything.  Joe sensed it wasn’t personal.  
“What does this mean?” Joe asked as he dropped the ponytail Keith so often held his hair in, especially at work or around the house.  He only ever really let it down on stage.
“Well, it’s my image on stage.”  Joe let him go on.  “I don’t know.  I’m just so used to it, I guess”.
“Dude, that’s the answer for the cameras.  Come on.  What is it?”
Keith couldn’t think of any words.  It wasn’t really something that could be put into words anyway.  He felt like he was going to cry.  Joe sat down and for a moment Keith thought he was going to hold his hand, but didn’t.
“I came into this business late you know?  I was twenty before I ever picked up a guitar.  Before that I was… I dunno, just wandering around my life.  But I picked this up and just… something clicked.  It’s all I wanted to do from then on.”  Joe measured his face, looked and waited for an uncomfortable length of time.
Finally, Keith couldn’t hold it back.  It came, just one tear, but humiliating nonetheless.  But considering the entire length of his adulthood so far this was pittance to pay, one small tear for twenty plus years of embarrassment and failure and unfulfilled expectations.
“It’s the one thing that makes me feel like there might still be a chance that I’m not… a loser.”
Joe looked at him for a long moment and then couldn’t help himself, he hugged Keith.  Keith was really glad the cameras weren’t around but he was glad for the hug too.  When he released him, Joe was crying too.  He patted Keith firmly on the back and then sat back down.
“Well, you got to stop thinking that any of this has any real meaning.  Your wife and your kids are, and always would have been, the only thing to prove that you aren’t a loser.”  Joe went on to say that it was all a fluke anyway, that hard work meant nothing.  Keith desperately wanted to complain, to tell him how he’d had a string of bands where one or other of the members would be lazy or an alcoholic or have girlfriend problems and how everything would just fall apart.  How he’d only ever been picked up for that one tour he met Cath on, even though guys emailed him and came up to him in the bar all the time telling him how much they admired his playing.  Maybe he’d picked a field too packed.  Who wants to be anything but the pitcher?  Why hadn’t he learned to play bass too.  And he wanted to point out how he was really dedicated and despite all the years of rejection he was still at it, still hammering away trying to make something of himself.  He wanted to tell Joe how he’d had one hit that actually was played on the radio and had caught on, on country stations across the U.S. despite the fact that it was a rock ballad.  And some people had told him that song had influenced country in a way no other rock ballad had before.  But it all seemed such nonsense now.
Ramos broke the silence by thrusting a shot glass under Keith’s nose.  The familiar and welcome sting of Jack Daniels reached his nostrils before his eyes even registered the hand and glass.  After he drunk it down another appeared and another before Keith could get himself to look up.  When he did Mick, Joe and Ramos each had a shot in hand as well and sympathetic expressions.  They drank to life sucking and living it to the fullest anyway.  Finally he was ready.
“Fuck it. Cut it off!” he said, the Jack starting to take hold.  He was thankful the stylist hadn’t had any.