Excerpt

Lonesome Lies Before Us

Don Lee

June 8, 2017 
The following is from Don Lee’s novel, Lonesome Lies Before Us. Yadin Park is a talented alt-country musician whose career has floundered―doomed first by his homely looks and lack of stage presence and then by a progressive hearing disorder. Don Lee is the author of four novels & one story collection. He has received an American Book Award, an O. Henry Award, a Pushcart Prize, & numerous other awards. He teaches in the MFA program at Temple.

They met in Raleigh in the late 1980s. Yadin had been kicking around the Triangle for several years by then, bussing tables and washing dishes at the Rathskeller and the Circus Family Restaurant and doing construction work to support himself, sacking out on coworkers’ couches, occasionally squatting in abandoned buildings or empty houses or renting trailers or storage lockers and showering at the Y.

He subsisted mostly on tomato sandwiches, a staple in the South. He’d get a bag of ripe, juicy heirloom tomatoes from a farmers’ market or a roadside stand, cut them up, and lay them between slices of cheap store-bought white bread (Merita was his preferred brand), sprinkled generously with salt and pepper and slathered with Duke’s mayonnaise–no substitutes allowed. All the while, he was trying to sharpen his guitar skills and write songs. He went to dive bars up and down Hillsborough Street–The Comet Lounge, Kisim’s, The Brewery, Sadlack’s Heroes, Boo’s Hideaway–to listen to music, and along the way befriended other aspiring musicians.

There was a lot of talk then that Raleigh and Chapel Hill would be the next Seattle, a hotbed for new grunge acts. Punk bands like Superchunk abounded, but the Triangle would soon become more famous as a breeding ground for alt-country groups like Whiskeytown. Yadin was there for the first intimations of the genre, and gradually he found his affinities sliding from noise rock to alt-country. Nearly every free night, he participated in informal jam sessions at people’s apartments and houses. One coterie in Raleigh called themselves the Siesta Club. They’d drink cans of beer and grill burgers and hot dogs and get stoned and play horseshoes until the sun set, then sit on the porch or around the kitchen table and strum guitars and mandolins and banjos and sing. They’d do covers, but more and more, they challenged each other to present their own compositions.

Yadin was too shy ever to take a turn with one of his songs. It was only after Mallory began showing up to the sessions that he collected the courage to perform one. He had seen her around, and desperately wanted to impress her. She was a double major in music and drama with a minor in English at NC State, and worked as a clerk at Schoolkids, the record store on Hillsborough across the street from the campus Bell Tower. A frequent browser at the store (he could never afford to buy much there), Yadin had overheard her talking to customers, and her knowledge of music, all kinds of music, her references and technical insights, had staggered him. She had learned the viola through the Suzuki method and had taken up country fiddle for fun. A multi-instrumentalist, she was better at guitar than Yadin at that age. Yet it was her fiddle that made the Siesta Club sessions soar. She had a wonderful voice, too, a sweet, ethereal keening.

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Yadin waited for a night with a smaller turnout. At last, one rainy evening at a house in Five Points, just six of them in attendance, he took out a crumpled napkin and, sitting on an ottoman, laid it on his denimed right knee. “Key of G?” he said to the others. “It’s 1-6-5-4.” He was a bit chagrinned. I-VI-V-IV was one of the most banal, hackneyed chord progressions in music. “Chorus is 5-4-1.”

He started strumming his guitar. He was trembling, and the napkin on his knee–the ink of the lyrics bled felt-blue–fell to the floor. He left it there, toeing it with his boot so it was readable. He sang the first verse, playing G, Em, D, C:

We weep for lost youth
And we weep for lost love
We weep for old memories and
Fallen stars

Tediously, every line in the song contained the phrase “we weep,” even the chorus, with slightly harder strums for D, C, G:

Oh we weep
All we can do is weep

It was verse-chorus, verse-chorus, verse-chorus. No bridge. Not long enough. Dull and unimaginative. He did a quick outro, picked up the napkin, and stuffed it into his back pocket. He never looked up once during the song. He still didn’t. The others in the room clapped politely. “That was nice,” he heard someone say. A girl. Mallory.

They didn’t speak that night. Not for several days, until he walked into Schoolkids. He had been coming to the record store every afternoon, waiting for her to be behind the counter again.

“Hey, there he is–Mr. Forlorn,” she said. “I hope you’re not still weeping.”

He felt his face warm. “I know, it was a piece of shit, that song.”

“Not a piece of shit. The lyrics could use a little variation, maybe. But I liked it. A lot. You have something.”

“What do I have?” Yadin asked.

“I’m not going to tell you yet,” Mallory said. “Maybe I never will. It’d give you a big head. Anyway, it’s intangible and ineffable.”

“Oh.” He made a mental note to look up ineffable in the dictionary.

“Two-line chorus,” she said. “Ever heard of Blaze Foley? ‘Picture Cards Can’t Picture You’?”

Blaze Foley–a good friend of Townes Van Zandt’s–was one of the singer-songwriters he revered the most. Like Yadin’s song, “Picture Cards” had a two-line chorus, but it was actually the same line, repeated.

“I saw daylight in your eyes,” Yadin sang quietly, and Mallory joined him for the second utterance, going high to his low. Without trying, they had melded in beautiful harmony.

“What’re you doing later?” she asked. “Want to get a Big Mike at Sadlack’s?”

He sat next door in Sadlack’s until she got off her shift. They ordered cans of Miller High Life and two Big Mikes, pastrami sandwiches with sweet peppers and provolone, melted in the steamer–a heavenly, welcome departure from his tomato sandwiches.

Tentatively, they talked about where they were from, their families. Her mother had been a waitress, her father a juvenile corrections officer who’d had a gambling problem. She was an only child, as Yadin was, or as he had ended up to be. She said she’d been introverted and unpopular in high school. No one had ever asked her out on a date, she told him, which he could not believe. She might have been a little overweight, without many curves or angles, but she was cute, and her shapelessness made her more appealing, less intimidating, to him. Indeed, he’d discover later that he wasn’t the only one who thought this way: she’d had a handful of boyfriends since arriving at NC State, and was hardly inexperienced.

“I was always fat and really straight,” she said. “A weirdo. Everyone in high school hated me because I won all the academic awards every year. All I did was study and take viola lessons and practice and do recitals. I tried a little theater, just to be social, but I wouldn’t go out for any parts with dancing. Boys weren’t interested in me at all. I was too intense. I thought for sure there was something wrong with me.”

He told her about dropping out of high school and leaving Norfolk, Virginia, where his mother had gotten her latest job as a phlebotomist, drawing blood from dissolute sailors at an STD clinic. He told her about hitchhiking south to the Triangle, lured by the music scene. He told her about living in Ohio as a kid, his little brother, Davey, dying of aplastic anemia at ten, his father abandoning Yadin and his mother a year after that. He had never told anyone about Davey before.

“That’s so sad,” she said. “So that’s where it comes from.”

Thereafter, Yadin spent every available moment with her. He followed Mallory to her classes, saying he wanted to improve himself, that he was fascinated by, say, Integrative Physiology, and sat beside her in lecture halls, moonily watching her take notes.

In her off-campus apartment, which she shared with another girl, they listened to records and talked about music.

“Lucinda Williams?” Mallory asked.

“Goddess,” Yadin said.

“Emmylou Harris?”

“Goddess.”

“Leonard Cohen?”

“Supreme Being.”

Once, they spent an entire afternoon trying to figure out the opening chord to “A Hard Day’s Night” on the guitar. Was it an Fadd9? A G7sus4? A G11sus4, or maybe a G7add9sus4? Yadin hadn’t known half the names to these chords until then; he’d learned everything by ear.

They sang together, just the two of them, in her bedroom, playing guitar and fiddle. They started with a trio of Blaze Foley songs: “If I Could Only Fly,” “Cold Cold World,” and “Picture Cards Can’t Picture You.” They did traditional gospel songs like “In My Time of Dying” and ballads like “Come All You Tenderhearted,” “Long Black Veil,” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” Straightaway they had a special vocal chemistry, her harmony sweetening the upper register. They never had to spell out the arrangements in advance. It was as if they were having a conversation–a conversation they’d had all their lives. They’d exchange a look or a nod, and they’d go up an octave, ascending together in perfect pitch.

She helped Yadin hone his songs, his lyrics. “You can be vague in a verse, but never in a chorus,” she told him. And: “Audiences like to anticipate rhymes, trying to guess them. There’s comfort when they do, but they also like to be surprised once in a while.” And: “It can’t be buckets of tears, down by the muddy river all the time. You need to avoid those kinds of clichés like the plague.” She laughed. “So to speak. Get it?” He didn’t. “You need some originality, some complexity.”

She taught him about music theory and song structure. She had him listen over and over to “Down by the River,” “Cowgirl in the Sand,” and “Cinnamon Girl,” all three of which Neil Young wrote in a single day. “You hear that?” she said, as “Cinnamon Girl” spun on the turntable. “Alternating four-on-the-floor. How brilliant is that? Those riffs in double drop-D, the minor 7th harmony. And no chorus! Just a middle 8.”

They began performing duets at the Siesta Club jam sessions. They’d stare into each other’s eyes and sing, a blissful, swooning collusion. After one session, a guy named Ross said to Yadin, “Why don’t you guys get a room already.”

“Huh?”

“The two of you are practically having sex up there, doing those songs.”

Yadin was twenty-two, and a virgin. He’d only made out with a few girls. Once, he’d almost had intercourse, although he was fairly certain it had been an accident, that in the dark basement of a party, the girl who had thrown herself on him–plowed–had thought he was someone else. As a teenager, he’d had bad acne, and even now, as a putative adult, he had yet to completely outgrow it, still getting occasional cysts. Sometimes he could stave them off by wrapping an ice cube in a paper towel and pressing it against the nodule, twenty minutes at a time. Once in a while, though, it’d keep growing and swell into a massive pus-filled lesion. He would have to perform surgery. He’d sterilize a sewing needle with a lighter and lodge it into the cyst until it pierced the underlying abscess. Then he would pinch and squash and mash it between his fingers, often leaving a huge boil and scab. He would affix band-aids to his face and lie that he had walked into a tree branch or collided against the corner of a cupboard door.

Ross had access to a house on the Outer Banks. Owned by his parents’ friends, it was in the town of Avon, on Hatteras Island, a four-hour drive from Raleigh, and he invited whoever was able to come one October weekend. There ended up to be nine of them, piled into two cars: Yadin, Mallory, Ross, Thorton, Charlie, Alicia, Esmé, Paul, and Laura. The three-story soundfront house was built on stilts and nicely appointed, with a wraparound deck and a hot tub on the second floor. In all, there were four bedrooms and four bathrooms. Several sofas folded out. The couples–Charlie and Alicia, Paul and Laura–got their own rooms, and Mallory and Esmé took dibs on the master. Ross and Thorton agreed to share the room with two twin beds, which left Yadin to sleep on one of the sofa beds in the living room. He didn’t complain. Agonizingly, he felt a cyst emerging underneath his right cheek–such rotten, predictable timing–and he would likely have to do a few surgical procedures during the middle of the night.

The days were still relatively warm, in the seventies, and most of the group went swimming on the ocean side of the barrier island. Yadin and Mallory were too bashful to expose themselves in bathing suits. They sat on chaise longues on the deck of the house, fully clothed, smoking cigarettes and talking, looking out at Pamlico Sound, enjoying the sun and water and sky and each other’s company. He had never felt so relaxed.

Paul was a cook at the Rathskeller. He made chicken and sausage jambalaya and cole slaw for them the first night, a bouillabaisse with clams, mussels, shrimp, and striped bass the second night. He also baked fresh baguettes, and Yadin used piece after piece to sop up the broth.

Late into the night, they played music in various ensembles. For Yadin’s work, one lineup was particularly sharp: Ross on an acoustic bass guitar (they were unplugged that weekend); Charlie on an improvised drum–a five-gallon plastic bucket flipped upside down; and Thorton on lead guitar, running off riffs and licks on his dobro, with Yadin playing rhythm. Combined with Mallory on the fiddle, they brought Yadin’s songs to life.

Thankfully, he was able to ward off the cyst, applying ice cubes throughout the first night to his cheek. On the second night, he was dead asleep on the lumpy sofa bed when Mallory joined him under the covers.

“Wake up, Yadin. Wake up,” she whispered. “You ever hear the story about how Gram Parsons stole David Crosby’s fiancée? Her name was Nancy–a knockout, by all accounts. She was living with Crosby in LA, engaged to be married to him in three weeks, but someone brought Gram over to Crosby’s house for a drink. He was smitten with her. He knew Crosby was leaving that afternoon to go on tour with the Byrds, so he came back to the house that very same night, knocked on the door, and when Nancy answered, he told her, ‘I’ve been looking for you my whole life, and I’m taking you with me.’ Yadin, it’s been months now. I’ve been waiting for you to take me. But I’m tired of waiting, so I am going to take you.”

She didn’t know then (and would never know) that she was taking his virginity, too.

 

From Lonesome Lies Before Us.  Used with permission of W. W. Norton & Company. Copyright © 2017 by Don Lee.




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