THE SAINT OF THE IMPOSSIBLE by David Levinson
WE CAME HERE TO SING, didn’t we? That’s what I said every morning and night, right before the warm Texas sun and colder Texas moon broke through our curtain-less windows. We lived in a small apartment downtown, a large room with a bed smashed up against the stucco wall, a stained, red-topped dinette table we’d inherited from the last tenant, a Southern Comfort drunk, and a couple of potted plants Galaxy arranged in the windowsills. It wasn’t cheap for what it was, but we’d needed a place quickly. Not that we were on the lam, but we were, I suppose, on the run and, for better or worse, we’d landed here at Las Breezes.
A sheet of rules was laminated and tacked up inside the closet door and even though I read them out to her, Galaxy still had trouble with them: she wasn’t supposed to light candles, but she did; she played her music too loud and well past eleven; she unscrewed the smoke detectors and lit up cigarettes any old place she pleased.
Our windows looked onto Sixth Street and an energetic parade of college boys and girls dipped into bars, their voices reaching us there on the seventh floor. I’d chosen Las Breezes especially for this, for Galaxy, who missed the chaos of the city. The rumble of company, an echo of New York, where we’d been and where we’d left.
I was wild with hope, of falling in love all over again (even deeper) with Galaxy and as we hung out the window that Saturday night, I wasn’t sure why we’d come or if we’d stay. But that’s where we were, as Galaxy, my girlfriend, blew smoke into the cool night, pointing out one middle-aged man after the other, and I shook my head, straining to find my father among them, because I was on the lookout for him, too.
Monday came, obliterated the weekend, and the morning opened up in a subdued busyness that bounced at the windows. Austin in motion: the sluggish pace of this city so unlike our other one, which broke our banks and spirits as easily as its light silvered our hair. Early March, our bodies shifted under the sheets, Galaxy so close when she opened her violet eyes, shook ash from her raven’s hair and reached for a cigarette. I crawled out of bed, sweaty and chilled, and threw open the windows. The air frigid and daunting, the sky was cloudless and devastating.
“She lives across town,” Galaxy said of the landlady. “Sometimes, you’re such a girl,” but she smiled that toothy smile I couldn’t resist.
So all I said was, “I just don’t want to get evicted again, that’s all.”
She met me in the pool of sunshine that warmed the room by degrees and there, we kissed, as the cigarette burned to white ash and the water rumbled through the pipes above. Her cold, flat feet on top of mine, one arm dangling over my shoulder, our breaths blended and hotly sour with whatever unresolved words that had followed us here.
There was so much I left unsaid those days. We loved each other, this I knew, but love had carried us away. I wondered then if we’d run out of things to say, if I shouldn’t have just left her on that stage, singing her eyes out.
“We’re starting over,” I said, softly. “Remember?”
Galaxy twisted away from me and went to her pack of cigarettes, but she was out and crushed the pack, emitting a tiny, defeated sigh. She threw on some clothes and at the door, said, “You’re starting over. I liked it exactly where we were,” and with that, she was gone, down the rickety stairs before I had a chance to remind her that here people expected her to pay for what she wanted rather than an autographed promise, an I Owe You.
I got on some clothes to go after her, but she returned before I could, furious and winded. A long strand of dyed, black hair was caught in the corner of her lips and made her look disheveled and vulnerable, a demeanor she often cultivated for audiences. That face: a white, startling achievement of Black Irish and Japanese, the skin pulled tightly across the hollow gulf of bones, wide, ovular blue eyes that revolved in silent distrust of the world and me.
“I was short,” she said, as I slipped fingers into my dirty jeans and turned out the pockets.
“We’re empty,” I said, though she didn’t believe me. I was her manager and lover, not her habit and certainly not her shylock.
“Damn it, Daniel,” she said. “I’m just not ready yet.”
I went to the bed and kneeled down, pulling out her guitar case and handing it to her. She stared at the guitar as if she’d never seen it before, running her thin, blue-veined hands along the smooth elegant wood. She plucked a string, and winced. She hadn’t played in months, not since that night in New York, when all the major labels came to hear her and she’d stalled, right there, under the dripping lights. “Go on, baby,” I said. “Sing me one of your songs before I go.”
Galaxy looked at me from across the room, her violet eyes darkening as the sky darkened beyond the window. I knew then that it would take more than blandishments to tune the world for her, that if Galaxy were to sing again, I’d have to make her believe that I still believed. And I did believe in her, more than I believed in anyone else, myself included. “Go on,” I said, but she set the guitar back in its case and went into the bathroom, where she’d stay until she heard the door close and know I’d left her a few crinkled bills, the apartment hers again to fill up with smoke.
Downtown, I drove past the outposts of my childhood, those places my mother and father used to take me: Town Lake, cool and lapping; the hike and bike trail that wound its way for miles; Santa Rita No. 1, a defunct oil well at the edge of the university’s campus; and the capitol building, its pink granite cupola billowing like a puff of cotton candy under the sun.
A light wind lifted the hair off my forehead and neck, this blond hair of mine I’d been growing since I left home nine years before. Girls liked it and so I kept it, often tied in a ponytail, though lately I’d had visions of Mohawks and skin fades, of disrupting my appearance with Galaxy’s black dye, of caking my eyes with kohl, of picking up the guitar again and playing for crowds as I often had in Washington Square Park. But I’d given up the guitar for Galaxy, who’d smashed it to smithereens one night during one of our more potent fights. I was sure that it was our neighbors who’d complained about us, our shouts, the sad curdled cry of the crippled guitar as she battered the walls and windows with its corpse, threatening to leave me again and again until I promised she could go, that I wouldn’t look for her.
It was I who left that night and I who returned and I who arranged her gig at Mercury Lounge, where the labels showed up and dispersed thirty minutes later into a whiskey disappointment and regret: another hopeless case, another waste of time. Call us when she’s serious and singing.
Around noon, I knocked on the door of Traveling Fool, a happening live-music venue across the river on South Congress, a place that featured small names who often hit big later on down the road. Galaxy was starting over, whether she wanted to or not, and I pictured her at that moment, sitting in bed, the ashtray burning with her morning endeavors. She might water the plants or wash the dishes or clean the grime from the windows, minor gestures of love and devotion, the star sapphire of her eyes turned to homemaking. What for? What could she hope out of potted ferns and peeling linoleum?
The place gave off last night’s smoke, cheap beer and cheaper cologne and reminded me of every single dive we’d ever played in, nights of busted bottles and mosh pits and boys with scraggly hair and the girls who flocked around them.
“I’m here to drop off a demo,” I said, moving toward the figure at the far end of the bar. The impact of my words brought a tense blankness to the woman’s face. She’d probably heard this line a million times and there I was, making it a million and one.
“Absolutely,” she said, brighter and cheerier than expected. In a red peignoir, black fishnet hose, red leather skirt and white patent-leather boots, she wasn’t a pretty woman, if she were actually a woman at all, which I couldn’t quite tell in the dimmed overhead lights. Her getup aside, I liked her and didn’t think twice when she said I looked familiar, asked me if I’d played at the Traveling Fool, and flirted in the way someone will before she finds out who you aren’t.
“Not me,” I said, “but check out the demo. Gemütlich, that’s us. Our number’s on the case,” and I pointed to the bold digits, a telephonic service I’d ordered when we first got to town. We lived without a phone, as we had in New York toward the end, when bill collectors flooded the answering machine, growing more and more hostile. Sometimes, I played these messages while Galaxy and I had sex; they lent an easy aggression to our passion. We were fucking against a world that wanted to collect us.
“Gemütlich,” she said, staring down at the case where Galaxy’s face pushed out of the plastic sheath, eyes brilliant blue-purple. “Are you sure we don’t know each other?”
“I’m Daniel, her manager,” I said. “We’ve been around a while.”
“Valerie,” she said. “I’ll be in touch,” a line she produced with disaffection, used no doubt on thousands of others who came through the door. She let loose her toothy business smile, her body rounding out the impersonal afterglow of authority.
I extended my hand and her large fingers curled around mine and squeezed, that pressure lingering on my skin, even after I left her to her pink appointment book. Through the window, I watched her pick over a stack of demos, turning them over as she spoke on the phone, dropping them into the trash, slim, shocking love letters she’d never care to read.
Galaxy told me some people she knew fell in love in high places, across penthouse rooftops in dying afternoon light, on crowded, elevated trains that rode the rocky waters of the East River, on jumbo jets that trembled out of JFK. These stories usually sounded mawkish and unreal, far too romantic for our age. They were uncommon, this I knew, and all the more stunning for their rarity. Like Lisa and James who met during a lightning storm in a stalled elevator in midtown Manhattan. Like Henry and Claudia whose unknowing convergence at a twelfth-floor Chelsea gallery—they were a week late for a mutual friends’ show—would lead eventually to marriage. Perhaps the heights Galaxy referenced weren’t heights at all, but facilitating yawns of time, thresholds of welcome. These were the stories Galaxy took with her and I indulged the whimsy in her voice when she spoke of them, even as I indulged her more opaque parts.
Galaxy Haze was really a slight, overeducated Jewish girl from Darien, Connecticut. We’d run into each other underground, at Outer Space, an after-hour’s club, which, later, helped explain her obsession with the way other people met. She’d come singing and strumming to New York “oh so long ago,” though when I asked her how long ago, she quickly drew an indecipherable number in the air, eight or eighteen, I couldn’t tell; the one might’ve just been an exclamation mark. She didn’t look any older than I was, though in the black lights and smoke and strobes that bounced off her pretty face, her age meant nothing.
Because I was house-sitting for a rich advertising exec on Sutton Place, I took her there, as the Manhattan sun pushed its yellow burden through the smog and we flew uptown. The surly Dominican doorman nodded his approval and when I pressed PH, Galaxy let out a wilting sigh. “I love balconies,” she said. “I love being dizzy, don’t you?”
The moment we stepped into the breathy wind, the sun caught her inky hair, the fine lines on her face and the youthful, ageless coat-check girl I’d met in Outer Space vanished. But it was okay. I was happy; the irrelevance of her age pleased me. At one point, in a careful whisper I would later long for across the telephone and those vast towers that separated us during the day, she asked if I was gay: girls were always asking me this. We were pressed up against the parapet, our bodies angled like parentheses, and when I laughed, she took my hand and said, “I didn’t think you were. But I had to ask, didn’t I?”
Sometime later, I left Galaxy under the rushing spin of the ceiling fan that cooled her sleeping body and went to the hall closet, where I’d hung her weathered leather coat. I fished for her wallet, not as proof against distrust, but as confirmation of some fiercer truth. Who was she? But there was no wallet, just a single silver key, a wad of cash, maybe $70 in singles and fives, a pack of cigarettes, a guitar pick, and an unused, one-way train ticket to Connecticut. I went back to bed, to Galaxy, and didn’t think of her age again for a long, long time.
I rolled up to Las Breezes as the sun was setting, throwing its orange heat against the windows. I sat there, checking off all the places I’d dropped Galaxy’s demo, while Sixth Street filled with tight-faced businessmen and women, all of them headed into the lazy oblivion of happy hour.
For a moment, I longed to join them, as I had as a boy, when my father brought me along with him to check on the bar and I’d sit on a stool, eating my way through a ramekin of maraschino cherries. I thought of my father somewhere out there, living his new life without me, without my mother, who’d taken off one afternoon with a tattoo artist. Back then, we lived on the east side, in an apartment above a tattoo parlor, which burned down right after my mother left. My father, a consummate entrepreneur who’d never finished high school, collected the insurance money—he owned the parlor—and we moved to Colorado Street, right across from a gay bar, the Boat House, which he’d won in a poker game. All of this is to say that my father’s stamp spread across Austin, in properties and shadowy deals, and that it was only a matter of time before I ran into him.
Upstairs, Galaxy sat on the floor in a circle of pink votives, painting her toes, a towel turbaned on her head. I expected the air to smell of smoke, but it didn’t.
“I’ve been thinking,” she said, and turned her violet eyes up at me. “What if we don’t do this anymore?”
“What if we don’t do what anymore?” I said, going to the window. Below me, the street ran with slow-moving headlights as crescendos of music vibrated against the glass. I wanted to be down there, among the riffs and melodies, standing in all that decadent harmony and discord, while Galaxy plucked the strings of her guitar and sang her first hit single and our future leaked out in gold and platinum.
“I want a real life,” she said, rising, cotton between her toes. “What about you, Daniel?”
“I want you to want what we have right here,” I said.
Galaxy opened her mouth, closed it again, and reached for a cigarette, as I opened the window. “I’m ready to jump into a different me,” she said at last and I smiled because it sounded so much like a line from one of her songs, a line I’d written for her.
And there we were, the two of us, she inside all that light and glitter and me beyond her, at the window, where I usually was, staring down into the circumstances of a world that had gone toneless and deaf to me or me to it, I couldn’t tell. The towel gave way and slipped to the floor, the candles shimmering up into my girlfriend’s new hair, no longer black but flaming-white. “I can live with that,” I said as she blew out the candles, lighting a cigarette.
“Are you coming with me tonight?” I said.
In New York, Galaxy often kept me company as I traveled the length of the island, dipping under and over the rivers that squeezed our beautiful city. Sometimes, if the day hadn’t gone well, if we needed extra cash, Galaxy sang to my passengers, who sat in awe, as her a capella brought tears to the eyes in the backseat. She sang for tips, for fun, because she couldn’t stop herself. And I loved her for that, for the pleasure and horror that sat in her throat, those lyrics that fermented in her mouth and turned into a melodious gas the moment they passed her lips. Her talent an enviable organ, it held us together even as it threatened to break us apart. Her dark, energetic music and raw, uncorrupted voice stung and salved even the most unmovable.
“Not tonight,” she said. “I’m going to check out Beau Regard at Ohm.” Galaxy had opened for the band in New York, her first real big break. She’d slept with Clyde, the lead singer, on and off for years, though ultimately had thrown him over for me. Sometimes, during our more tortured arguments, Galaxy liked to bring him out and set him up between us. When we’d left New York, I thought she’d left him as well. “He’s only here for a couple nights, Daniel, so please don’t get all funny. Apparently, he just signed with Virgin. La-di-dah.”
“Give him my beau regards,” I said, smiling.
“That’s cute,” she said. “You ought to write jingles.”
“Does he need a manager?” I said.
“Even cuter,” she said, lifting up on her toes to graze my lips, her mouth tasting of smoke and peanut butter.
“I’ll see you in the dawn,” I said, moving to the door, my voice lost to the rising, drunken shouts and blaring horns that pushed through the window, which Galaxy now turned to, staring off into this little city where musicians came to live and die.
Nine years ago, just after my sixteenth birthday, my mother left, taken up in a flurry of tattooed love, her body a wrecked temple of marriage gone rotten. And my father—I rarely saw him, except in passing, when he slipped in after another long night of work. I’d hear his heavy footfalls along the slanted corridor and often, not only his. I’d poke my head out of my room and catch his thick, wide back, the glint of his gold chain, his giant arm clutched at the waist of another sinewy, tan skeleton with blond hair. In my more daring, stupid moods, I stood at the open door, his flabby, hairy ass in the air, the woman on her back, her eyes roving the ceiling. Sometimes, she curled a large hand into a wave and I knew then these were no ordinary women.
Occasionally, when our passing did coincide, we’d find each other in the kitchen and my weary, sleep-deprived father would say, “You think this is bad, Daniel. You should see the other guy.” The fridge’s harsh bulb reflected off his bearded, oily post-coital face, his blue eyes puckered against the missing eggs, juice, milk. “Good damn,” he’d mutter. “Out of everything again,” and glare at me.
I was less afraid of his enormous, physical presence than the other, which he donned in my mother’s absence, an imaginary black suit of loneliness. His nude body—he was always naked those days—never surprised me, but it was difficult to have a serious conversation with him. His was an ugly, unnatural undress.
“Maybe that’s why she left,” I said once and turned away from his saggy chest, tumescent belly, drooped penis and balls, the tattoo of my name in black script on his shoulder, my mother’s name—Rita—in fiery orange flame around his heart. I’d meant his predilection for women who weren’t women, but he took it differently and clocked me hard in the mouth.
The next day, I was gone.
I shuttled out to the airport a dozen times that night, hauling bleary-eyed travelers from garishly lit terminals to downtown hotels. Back and forth like this, until midnight rolled around and I radioed my dispatcher that I was on break. If I’d been in New York, I could’ve flipped on the off-duty sign and sailed down the avenues, passing businessmen in suits and briefcases, ties flapping in my wake. But this wasn’t New York, this was Austin, a place I never thought I’d see again.
The chill air seeped through the rickety vents and I cranked up the heat. If Galaxy had been with me, she would’ve nestled her head in my lap, blown her hot breath on my fingers, in my ear. She would’ve sung to me as the city melted around us in charming, ephemeral blurs. She would’ve wanted to see the other airport then, the small, abandoned runways and single terminal, to climb the derelict tower, peer out over the wash of lights. “I like it here,” she would’ve said, in her new haircut, but I wouldn’t have recognized this different Galaxy, who’d given up smoking and singing. She’s the reason I put socks on in the morning, why I moved us from the ravishing skyline of Manhattan to the squat diminutiveness of Austin. If she really didn’t want to sing anymore, could I blame her?
At a 7-Eleven, I bought gas and a Big Gulp, then dropped a quarter into the lonesome payphone. We had one new message and though I couldn’t quite place the voice, she sounded familiar and for a moment, my heart sped up, thinking it our landlord, that she wanted us out, that it was my mother who’d somehow tracked me down. Such improbabilities! Like living in bus shelters and on park benches, panhandling in the subway, playing guitar on the A train. Sleeping with men for a hot meal, a hot shower and women for the company.
The message went on for a couple minutes and at the end of it, she said, “Oh, this is Valerie, in case you didn’t know. Call me back,” and left a number.
In the taxi, I thought of Galaxy, all those glorious afternoons of practicing, the rehearsals that kept us up into dawn, and Mercury Lounge, where the crowd stood mesmerized, the reps glazing over minute by minute the longer she held her breath; and I’d seen it even then: the wrinkled creases around her mouth, the gray that ought to have been her hair, the nose ring that didn’t quite fit anymore. I saw the woman she tried to conceal under layers of pancake and kohl and lipstick. My Galaxy.
I headed for Ohm, wondering if Beau Regard had gone on yet, how the set had panned out. If they were smashed up in some tight little booth, chewing over his latest successes, while Galaxy told him no.
Pulling into Las Breezes, I parked the taxi and walked down the neon corridor, full of drunken mobs, rowdy frat boys and sorority girls. The air was nothing but beer, the streets a litter of empty plastic cups, bright orange globs of vomit oozing off curbs, splattered on car hoods. Rock poured and pumped out of every available window and door and the sidewalk under my feet vibrated with an apocalyptic bass. And there was Ohm, one of Austin’s most prestigious venues, with a black door, black windows, and a gaudy pink neon sign that flushed the faces beneath it and made them ghoulish.
The room long and narrow, it opened up into a yawning cavern with a tiny, jerry-rigged stage. A single cone of light fell from the industrial ceiling—a purple bulb, diffuse black light—and I felt immediately at home. Here was my mother’s most beloved venue, the only club she ever sang in, would ever sing in. It’s where she met my father after a gig and they swayed to Deep Purple’s “Smoke on The Water” and kissed to Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue.” She liked to tell me I’d been conceived here, in the solitary, cramped dressing room, though after she left, my father said, “She lied about everything else. Why not that? One day, I’ll tell you about your mother.”
I thought of him then as I looked for Galaxy, our apartment on Colorado Street just a few blocks away, and the women who were not women he brought home. I wondered if he still owned the Boat House, Traveling Fool, if he knew I was home. I wondered if the circles I’d walked these last several weeks had included him in their circumference or if he hung just outside them.
Neither Galaxy nor Clyde was there and when I asked after him, the bouncer told me that I’d just missed Mass. “He’s the opiate of the masses, Dude,” he said. A moment of reconnoitering, then he screwed up his face and added, “Hey, wait. You’re that guy with that song, aren’t you?” I was a guy with a song and yes, at one time, I’d been THAT guy with THAT song, but this was many years ago and I was about as far from that guy as the song was from me. “Hey,” he said, grabbing a fistful of shirt, the first available shoulder, and spun this shoulder around. “We’ve got royalty in the house tonight,” but the face just held a starchy blankness and I hurried out the door into the cold night, my chest stiff and eyes singed from the squall of smoke.
I felt breathless and weak, pushing my way through the mob of frat boys and matching sorority girls skipping at their sides. I broke through their chains, eyes on the back of a guy’s head in the distance. A disembodied head, it bobbed through the drunken sprawl and hung a left and my insides shifted, went hot as the coiled pipes in our apartment. I picked up speed, dodging puddles of beer and hopping a pair of athletic thighs attached to a passed-out coed. I thought of stopping to make sure she was okay, but a few of her friends appeared and encircled her, their laughter reminding me of Galaxy’s. I expected her at the drunk girl’s feet, that when I finally got home, I’d find her in our bed, Galaxy wiping down her cold clammy forehead. I looked for Galaxy among these girls—this was her trip, after all; the booze, the lights, the music—but she was nowhere. And the laughter swelled, went up like fireworks around me, until I rounded the corner and found him again.
He marched unsteadily, if not assuredly, as though he owned each passing doorway. Maybe he does, I thought, winding around trucks that rushed out of spaces, jerked and stopped, horns going. Another Friday night and the sidewalks burst with smoke and drawls, the twang of an entire state brought to life. And then I was on Colorado Street, pursuing this figment, my father in tight-fitting Wranglers and his hallmark—handmade ostrich-skin boots, size fifteen.
Close to two o’clock and the Boat House was mostly empty, except for a dozen men who stood against the mirrors on the outer rim of the dance floor. They peered at the dancers like delicate birds, their eyes in the strobes wide and darting. One man smiled at another and in it, I felt the night explode inside of me, a thousand possibilities.
I made a loop, climbed the stairs, and looked out over the room, wondering where my father could’ve gone. And then, I spotted him at the bar, a scotch in one hand, a reedy, wigged woman in the other. There they were, the boy too young to have been there, my father too old not to have. And that’s when I realized what the Boat House had become, if it hadn’t always been, and something inside me broke off and withered.
I thought of my poor father, the nights he spent there, the nights with women who were not women. I thought of the boy, how easy it was to go from this to that, a familiar park bench to an unfamiliar double bed. It hadn’t taken me long to figure out the variables—hunger, desire, hatred, warmth, loneliness, love, deprivation. I’d sealed them off one from the other and that’s where each would’ve stayed, had I never met Galaxy, never given up the guitar for her.
“Last call,” the bartender sang and some of the men pushed off the mirrors, while others pulled their jackets on and fled.
I fled as well, rushing outside to find the man in boots—leather, not ostrich—and jeans—Levi, not Wrangler—climb into his Miata—far too small a car to fit my father—as the drag queen, a fraternal smile on her face, glared at me as if to say, Better luck next time, hon’.
I jogged back to Las Breezes, the street gone quiet, and looked up at Galaxy in the window, music and smoke pouring around her. She strummed the guitar, her face in silhouette. Again, I felt it, that ugly, mean withering, and I banged up the stairs. Our door ajar, I pushed into the room, expecting Clyde, the lead singer, his drummer and keyboardist, but there was no one, just Galaxy and the stereo, her voice, the speakers, the candles and guitar.
The ferns lay in dirty clots on our bed, the terracotta pots smashed, the bits littered across the floor. Galaxy was naked, her white skin whiter than her hair, and I hate myself for this but she looked old, there in the window, older than I’d ever seen.
“Galaxy,” I said, moving closer and she flinched at my voice. “Stop,” I said. “Please,” I said, listening for the holler of our neighbors, the broom raps. Yet she played on, oblivious, in time with her own recording, and the two guitars blended into one gigantic sound, and honestly, if I can say anything at all, it’s this: either on stage or on tape, Galaxy Haze was amazing.
When the needle slipped and the song ended, Galaxy turned in the window, teetering between inside and out; and for a moment, I thought she might do it and I plucked the guitar from her frozen fingers and set it on the floor. Then, with a gentleness I usually reserved for soft-boiled eggs, I spooned her up in my arms and carried her to the couch. “We got a gig,” I whispered, though I had no reason to believe this. “They loved you.”
She looked up at me and said, “But do you? Do you love me?”
“Of course,” I said and wrapped her in a blanket.
“Then let it go. Don’t call back,” she said, and paused. “We tried our old duet. I just couldn’t.”
“You wouldn’t,” I said, my own voice startling me. Sharp-edged, more mean than I’d intended.
“I’m forty-eight years old,” she said. “I had a good year once, Daniel, but a good year doesn’t make a good life.”
She glided to the bed, climbed under the blankets, ferns and dirt and all, and switched off the light on the night table. I shut the windows, went to the closet and opened the door, reading over the rules again. How many had we broken? How many more would it take? Right before I left, I kissed Galaxy goodnight and headed downstairs, toward the taxi and my dispatcher’s angry voice.
It was early, when I rolled into Las Breezes and climbed the stairs again. I’d had a decent shift, more than I’d made in weeks, and when I stepped into the room, I smiled at the money in my pockets.
Galaxy lay curled up naked on top of the covers; the pipes above gave off a scalding heat. Sometime during the night, she’d cleared the ferns and dirt, the terracotta chips. Still, the air smelled earthy and unkempt, less of smoke than jungle. I dropped my clothes and slid in beside her, grazed her breast, kissed the nape of her neck, which roused and aroused her and then I was inside.
“Galaxy,” I said.
“Julia,” she said.
When I awoke several hours later, she and the guitar were gone, my pockets next to empty. Okay, there was that, but there was also this—a renewed hope she was out in the warm spring dusk practicing. Something we’d liked to do in New York. I remembered the night I stood on stage at the Beacon and sang my own beautiful songs. And the claps and screams afterward, that unparalleled thrill, that kind of appreciation and magic. So long ago and far away and I pictured that boy again, nineteen years old, three years of park benches and bus stations and shelters, the backs of taxis.
I roamed the quiet blocks, bought a coffee, and headed to the payphone across the street. The air brisk, a light wind caught my hair and shuffled it about my face. I hadn’t showered and I reeked of last night. I called Traveling Fool and when Valerie answered, I said, “She’ll do it. We’ll do it.”
“Excellent,” she said. “You go on at ten. We’ll discuss compensation later?” She paused, lowered her voice. “Oh, and one more thing. You’re the spitting image of your father.”
“Yes, okay,” I said into the air and hung up the phone, a terrific nausea breaking through me. Nine years later and there I was, reduced to the boy I’d been and all I could think about was Galaxy, getting to her.
I jumped in the taxi and raced to the Driscoll Hotel, where all the celebrities stayed. At the desk, I asked for Clyde of Beau Regard and the clerk, a mousy-faced boy with spots of acne racing across his oily brow, said, “Family, friend or otherwise?”
“I’m ‘otherwise,’” I said, as nice as I could be.
“Your name,” he said and I told him who I was: Daniel Minkoff of Minkoff Representation for Artists.
“I’m his manager,” I said, peremptorily. “I just flew in from New York. Now, if you’d just be kind enough to ring his room and tell him I’m on my way up—”
“The Rough Rider Suite, third floor,” he said, backing down, away. He lost the grimace, brought out a grin, big teeth and all. He shifted his eyes back and forth, though the lobby was empty. “I sing, too,” he said. “New York. Now, that’s where I should be.”
I wanted to tell him to go slow, that big or small, a stage was still a stage, just as a coffin was still a coffin. I wanted to tell him to enjoy these quieter moments, to care for his voice, his heart, because one day, he might end up where I was, at the end of all possibilities.
Close to eight when I banged on Clyde’s suite, I heard whispered voices, coded and sharp, and they came to me like my father’s grunts and his women’s moans and then Galaxy stepped through the door, armed with a cigarette. She wore a white terrycloth robe and her hair was freshly washed and smelled of lavender. The face of the night before was gone and in its place, a new face, and I wondered whose it was, because I’d never seen it before. Her eyes glassed-over and tired, a tiring that traveled straight through her to the bone.
“Have you been here all day?” I said. “Are you planning on staying here tonight?” She shook her head and finally looked her age. “Are you going to speak to me?” I said, as Beau Regard, all of them, filed out, Clyde in the rear.
More pretty than handsome, I hadn’t seen him in ages. Time, distance and Galaxy had further severed whatever friendliness might’ve been between us, whatever respect might’ve once existed. As he strode past, he let out one of his smiles, a cheap, gaudy smile that annoyed and pacified me. I knew the smile; it was the smile of lousy sets, scant crowds, faulty mikes. Terrific reverb.
“Galaxy, babe, see you later,” Clyde said, his thick British accent as precise as his lyrics were not. “And take care of that voice, innit.” He gave her a European kiss, and then smiled that smile again at me, though if in victory or surrender I couldn’t tell which. “I hear you’re opening for us, mate. Just like old times.”
But it wasn’t like old times at all. Clyde had contracts, gigs all over the globe, a limousine, girls, fancy hotel rooms. All the things I thought I’d wanted until that moment, until I realized what my wanting had done to Galaxy. How I’d taken her voice and squeezed it, trying to wring out of it platinum and gold. And I hated my selfishness, for moving us here, away from those minor miracles of collaboration, when the music we wrote was ours and no one else’s.
I thought of my mother and father, the last time I sang, every single time, when I only heard him, though it was her voice I’d inherited. And this was the real reason I’d given up the guitar, given up singing altogether—I couldn’t bear to hear them, anymore than I could bear to hear myself. Galaxy had always known this and I loved her all the more for it.
She pulled the door shut behind her and, hesitating, turned to me. The pleated skirt hung just above her knees, the blouse was buttoned all the way up and fastened at the throat with a brooch I’d never seen. She looked—professional, a businesswoman I might’ve collected from the airport. She’d shaved her legs, brushed out her blond hair. Her face held a new story in it and though she couldn’t speak, I understood: I want to go home.
We made for the stairs, and right before we crossed into the lobby, she stopped and leaned into me. “I’ll pay you back, Daniel,” she said, the words strained and hoarse, painful for her but even more painful for me; and I knew that, although she might’ve lost her voice, I was about to lose something far more important, the first and only woman I’d ever loved.
I stood on the tiny stage, where Galaxy should’ve been, with her guitar in my hands and her voice in my throat. I sang our songs, the ones I’d written, the one we’d written together as the Traveling Fool fell quiet and my chest filled with the hot, sticky air and the words came out of me in smooth ribbons, as amber as the whiskey I’d downed just minutes before. I kept my eyes on Galaxy at the first table in front and I sang to her, as she’d sung to me all those nights ago on the telephone, across the towers and skyscrapers of New York. And I didn’t hear my mother or my father, like I thought I would, but someone else, the boy I’d been and the man I thought I was becoming. And as I sang, I did think of my mother and how, before a show, she’d slip away for a while. She took me with her once—it would be her last show—and when we stepped out of the car and I saw where we were, I said, “Why?”
We were at the skeletal remains of Santa Rita No. 1 and my mother told me to shut my eyes and imagine a well that shouldn’t have given oil, but did. “She’s not Santa Clara or Santa Ana, Daniel. They gave her the name Santa Rita for a reason,” but what that was, she never said. Even in the car on the way home, even after I asked her one last time before she left for the club.
My set finished, I cleared the stage to whistles and applause, as Valerie thanked me again, and announced that drinks were on her husband, Stuart Minkoff. I pictured them together, my father and this woman who hadn’t been born a woman, with her not-quite-feminine-enough figure and her large, mannish hands. I thought of his nakedness, my name on his shoulder, my mother’s above his heart. I searched the crowd for him, but it was Galaxy I found and Galaxy who knew me well enough to take me outside. “What time’s your flight?” I said and she gazed at the stars, then back at me.
She held up two fingers—two hours—and I wondered then if her voice, like her love, had ever been there in the first place or if I’d summoned it up out of my own desire for her.
We didn’t stay at Traveling Fool, but drove back to Las Breezes. While Galaxy packed up her suitcase, I packed up her guitar. There is a natural end to certain events, the fading out of chords. Here we were, in our little apartment, with the heat too hot and the floor too cold and this last slow song between us. I wanted her to stay, but we can’t ever expect this of someone else. I knew this, just as I knew that my singing that night was just that—singing. I was a one-hit wonder, fresh out of oil.
I drove down Sixth Street with a deliberate slowness, but Galaxy kept her eyes ever ahead. She wouldn’t miss this, not like I had, and I thought back to those first few days, when we’d arrived and gone from bar to bar. I drove east, under the highway, through the poor, gloomy neighborhood of my youth, where chain-link fences penned in children who played in patchy yards.
“What will you do when you get back?” I said, though she couldn’t answer me and the question was irrelevant anyway, since we knew the answer already; her old job at Elektra, an apartment in Brooklyn.
I drove east, while Galaxy smoked, our fingers enlaced on the seat, and when we came to the other airport, she turned to me and mouthed, “Oh.”
I parked the taxi and we scudded through the hole in the fence and strode across the scarred tarmac to the abandoned control tower. The door padlocked and chained, we squeezed through and rode in the dark and then we were off the ground, inside with the rusted radios and splintered desks and rotten flight manifests. The place stank of mildew and beer and waterlogged paper and when we looked through the grimed windows, the city spread out in a circuitry of lights, as many lights as satellites above us. And I realized then Galaxy had brought me back here, not the other way around.
We stood there for a few minutes in this place we shouldn’t have been, with the uncluttered view of treetops and sky and I hugged her because I loved her, even if she was leaving at last, because I finally saw how far we’d climbed to be with each other, what that climb had done to her. A voice she no longer cultivated or cared about. A guitar she would sell. We hadn’t met in an elevator or an airplane and I asked myself, then, as she headed for the stairs, what if we had? Would she be going? Would I let her?
I thought again of my father’s tattoos, which I’d always held as proof against love’s fickle dispatch. How could I not? For there we were, my mother and I, written on his shoulder and across his heart. And Galaxy, her name over and over again, not on me but in me. A set of rules tacked up in the dark.
We stood high above the clots of trees and broken runways, while off in the distance planes filled and emptied and faces lit up in welcome or went dark with goodbye. These same gestures Galaxy and I’d been putting on and taking off for years, so much so it’d become impossible to tell them one from the other. The ground hard and crumbled, the weeds pushed up through a multitude of cracks and then the fence, the hole, my taxi and Galaxy at the door, in the seat, just another passenger that night in a hurry to get where she was going.
DAVID SAMUEL LEVINSON is the author of the forthcoming novel, The Force And The Flaw (Algonquin Books, 2011), as well as the story collection, Most Of Us Are Here Against Our Will (Viking UK, April 2005). He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and won an award for fiction in The Atlantic Monthly. His stories and poems have appeared in The New Penguin Book of Short Stories, The Brooklyn Review, Prairie Schooner, The Toronto Quarterly, and West Branch. He likes the sound his computer makes when he gets e-mail, so send him some at email@example.com.