Excerpt

Vexation Lullaby

Justin Tussing

April 18, 2016 
The following is from Justin Tussing’s novel, Vexation Lullaby. Justin Tussing is the author of the Ken Kesey Award-winning novel The Best People in the World, and his short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Triquarterly, and A Public Space, among other periodicals. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and currently directs the University of Southern Maine's Low-Residency MFA Program in Portland, Maine.

When I find the street I’m looking for, I drive past a bunch of well-tended, modest houses. Each yard is ringed with a low-picket fence and inside the fences either there’s an oak tree or a maple or else there’s a concrete bird bath where a tree ought to be. Brown leaves gather by the curbs, but the yards all appear raked. It’s Monday.

The numbers on the mailboxes count down. Maybe the houses seem a little close to the road, but that makes sense—why would anyone in Buffalo want to deal with a long driveway?

I park on the street.

A raw wood staircase leads up the side of the garage to the second-floor apartment where my friend has told me I can stay. “Hang around as long as you like,” he said, but we both know that I need to be in Pittsburgh on Wednesday to see Jimmy Cross’s next show.

There’s an envelope taped to the railing:

Arthur,

Sorry I’m not here to welcome you. I had to get to work early and Cory was called out of town (let’s not talk about it). In the meantime, make yourself at home.

Gene

Gene and I met in person six years ago, in Syracuse. According to my ticket I had a seat reserved in the front row, but the concert was on the university campus and the students had decided that anyone who could afford a seat near the stage didn’t deserve it. A bunch of us grey hairs huddled in the back of the hall watching the kids. We didn’t entertain any illusions that we’d be welcome up front—most of us had children of our own.

The mob cheered while Cross played “Green Dandy,” which, among other things, is about the treachery of youth. I wondered if the kids cared about the music or if they were just hoping to bask in Cross’s fame? Basically, I stood at the back of the room, surrounded by old people and having old people thoughts.

A beer floated in front of me. I turned and there was this guy holding it out. He held a second beer in his other hand.

“I bought you a beer,” he said. He had a big oval face and these deep-set eyes.

We tapped our plastic cups together and drank.

“You’re Pennyman,” he said. He pointed his thumb at his chest. “I’m Badmonkeyfunker. We’ve emailed. Or you can call me Gene.”

He knew me through JimCrossCompendium, which is both my website and my life’s work.

We shook hands and I thanked him for the beer. Up near the stage, the kids batting around a beach ball.

“Fucking college kids,” Gene said.

I nodded.

“They come into your church and act like it’s a basement kegger. Do you know what I’m talking about?”

I said I got his point.

“Someone ought to go down there and pop that fucking ball.”

“Be my guest,” I said.

Gene chuckled. “I’m all talk.”

“Well, I’m no talk.”

I meant it as a joke, but Gene said, “I’m bothering you.”

“No,” I said, tapping cups with him again.

Gene drained his beer. “I’m going to get us two more.”

I enjoy casual fans, but we don’t always hit it off. People assume I enjoy the music on some different level (like I’m comparing that night’s version of “Shitheel” with the version Cross played in Oakland ten years before); I’ll catch them watching me instead of looking at the man on stage. Sometimes, instead of introducing themselves, they’ll step up to me and blurt out an arcane trivia question: Name the two drummers to have earned writing credits on Cross albums? When that happens, I point to the stage and explain I’m on the clock[1].

Gene came back with the second round.

In the lull between sets, we talked a bit. He told me he’d married his high school sweetheart. They didn’t have kids, but they didn’t think they’d missed out on much—they both came from big families; there were lots of nieces and nephews. He’d gotten turned onto Cross by his older brother—the brother had gone to Vietnam, come back, gotten messed up on drugs, made some bad decisions, etc., etc. “I prefer his earlier songs,” Gene said. “How about you?”

I told him I stood behind everything I said on JCC.

“You really like that Gospel-y stuff?”

“Even that.”

Maybe the kids had exhausted themselves because, when Cross came back on stage they seemed better behaved. The second set came and went. Gene offered to get me another beer, but I was done.

After the encore, I leaned over and told Gene that I was sorry about his brother. He nodded his big round head.

“Cross lost a brother, too.”

Gene said, “I know.”

I patted him on the back.

He gave me this goofy smile. “Here,” he said, handing me something.

It was plastic and rumpled. I teased it into shape: it was the beach ball.

****

There’s a little porch off the garage, with a café table and two rattan chairs. I’m sitting there, enjoying a mild October day, when Gene pulls in.

He gets out of his car and aims a finger pistol at me. Bang! “You found the place.”

“Gene Machine!” I say. He put on weight. He must have packed on fifty pounds. It’s the first thing I notice.

He stops at the bottom of the few stairs. “Get down here,” he says, “you skinny fuck.”

We hug and he pounds me on the back. His body is warm and moist.

I thank him for letting me crash at his place.

He fans away my words. “Listen,” he says. “I don’t want you thinking I’m depressed or something. Corinne got fat, too. Last winter we went on this cruise. It was ten days and they treat you like veal calves. They don’t let you do anything for yourselves and they stuff you with food. Would you believe me if I told you I have more energy now? Counting calories, working out, we walked away from the battle. Anyway it’s a big change—har har—and I don’t want you to feel like you have to ignore it. If anything, you might have to tell me to stop talking about it, because I’m sort of evangelical.”

I tell him I think it’s great—what else can I say?

“It’s not like I eat out of a trough. You and I haven’t talked much about our parents, but mine did a job on me. I internalized a lot of that Calvinist shit: clean your plate; babies are starving in Africa; no peas, no dessert. Cory and I had enough of it.”

“Well, there you have it,” I say.

He wraps me in his arms again and almost lifts me off the ground. He tells me how happy he is to see me. “Let’s go inside,” he says. “I need to sit down”

As I turn to climb the stairs back to the apartment, Gene says, “Where are you going? I invited you into my home.”

****

When we get inside, Gene hands me a bottle of wine and asks me what I think. For a moment I’m afraid that he’s mistaken me for one of those people who can’t let a penny pass between their fingers without pronouncing it good or bad. I confess that I don’t know much about wine.

He spins the bottle in my hand and taps a finger on the label: Bottled in Chaseburg, Wisconsin.

Chaseburg’s most famous export is a 5’8” musical genius.

“I’ve never seen this before.”

“Don’t get too excited.” Gene takes the bottle from me, cuts the foil and uncorks it. He splashes a little into two glasses. “I saw it online. The reviews say it’s terrible, but I still wanted to drink it with you.”

I make a toast to thoughtful gestures. The wine tastes like blueberry pie. We ought to pour it out, but we don’t.

Gene explains that the Greeks believed wine helped artists get in touch with the muse.

“The muse of hangovers,” I say.

“The muse of living the life you want to live.”

“The muse of getting fat and happy.”

“Speaking of…” Gene pulls an ice cream sandwich out of the freezer. “Care to join me?”

I say, “I take my sustenance from music and conversation.”

“Spreading it on thick.”

“And love.”

Gene wipes his mouth with his sleeve. “Since you brought it up, is that what keeps you out there? Are you boffing groupies?”

“Most of Jimmy’s groupies are past their boffing days.”

“Cory has a whole theory worked out.”

“Please tell me your wife doesn’t wonder about my love life?”

Gene walks over to the counter and tosses out the wrapper from his ice cream sandwich. “Forget I said anything.”

Here’s the thing: even with the wine and the food, there’s a voice telling me to get back in my car and drive. There’s nowhere for me to go, but I feel the urge all the same. “So, where is Cory?”

“I’m the one that brought her up, but let’s not talk about her.” He turns to fiddle with the oven.

I say, “If you wanted to talk about something, I’m just saying…”

He raises a hand to let me know I’ve said enough.

“You okay?”

He presses his palms against his eyes and holds them there. “I’m good. I’m alright.”

We stand at the kitchen counter, drinking the miserable wine. When a timer goes off and Gene’s hand comes down on it so hard that I hear it crack. He slides open a trash bin and drops the alarm in. “We haven’t talked last night’s show. In your post you said Jimmy looked lost.”

Cross had opened playing keyboards on “Big River” and “Crow Alley,” before moving on to covers of “Jolene” and “When I’m Sixty-Four.” He wore a narrow black suit with silver cord embroidered on the lapels[2]. He picked up his battered Gibson to lead the band on a quick shuffle through “Rumpelstiltskin Delicatessen Blues.” While the boys sat on their hands, he plumbed the depths of “Delilah on 7th Avenue[3].” He’d wandered to the edge of the stage, his harmonica hanging around his neck like a millstone. How long had he stood there?

“I read he stopped playing—he was sort of catatonic.”

“Did I say he stopped playing?”

“That’s what they said on CrossTracks.” Before I can respond, Gene says, “I go sometimes for a different perspective.”

I don’t ask how some kid pasting Jimmy’s face onto a llama counts as a “perspective.”

“Don’t take it personal.”

Some people, when a red car drives past they say, “Red car.” They can’t help themselves. It’s always taken me a long time to cut one idea from the herd. Maybe that’s why Gene looks surprised when I blurt out that a doctor visited Jimmy’s hotel last night.

“You serious?”

I aim a finger at my face.

He pours the last of the wine into my glass. “You think it might be related to that business on stage?”

Is this the question I’ve been avoiding? “You want to see his picture?”

Gene points a finger at his own face and winks.

After I fetch my camera, we sit on the living room sofa, studying the images on the camera’s three-inch screen.

“What makes you think he’s a doctor?”

I ignore the question.

“I know. You’ve got sources.”

Gene has me zoom in on the knapsack the doctor is carrying. He pulls up a browser on his phone and does a quick search. “That’s a European backpack,” he confirms. “You think he’s European doctor?”

I finish my wine. “Like a specialist?”

“He looks a bit like Jimmy.”

“At one time or another Jimmy has looked like everyone.”

The oven beeps.

“I hope you’re hungry.”

I tell Gene I’m always hungry.

“Yet you never eat.”

“Maybe I like to stay hungry.” I never talk this much. It must be the wine.

****

The dining room table is already set. I sit with my back to a crude oil painting of a three-masted schooner in a storm-tossed sea. I almost ask about the picture, but I decide, in case it has sentimental value, I don’t want to talk about it. Plus, I haven’t eaten anything all day and I’m hungry. Gene swaps out our old glasses and pours us each a glass of California red—I study the new bottle, but it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with Jimmy.

He sets the casserole on the table.

“What do you think? Shall we do this?”

****

It’s been ages since my last home cooked meal. I eat beyond all reason.

When I push back from the table, Gene asks, “You ready for the salad?”

“I wouldn’t have pegged you for one of those salads after dinner kind of guys.”

As he heads back to the kitchen, he says, “It cleans the palate.”

I stare at the salad: red lettuce, sliced red cabbage, paper-thin radish discs, and pomegranate seeds, all dressed with balsamic vinaigrette. “Is it an allusion to lyrics or something?”

“What do you mean?”

“Everything’s pink. Is that on purpose?”

“Hmm,” he says. “Did I tell you I’m color blind?”

I feel embarrassed for both of us—me, because I’d tried to read meaning into a salad, and, in Gene’s case, that he can’t tell red from green.

Gene asks if I want to stick with wine or if I’d prefer fifteen-year old Scotch. I say he’s the boss. He comes back with a crystal decanter and two Baccarat rocks glasses.

“No cigars?” I ask.

He winks at me and disappears into the family room. When he returns he’s carrying two aluminum cigar tubes.

I feel a guest’s responsibility to play along.

I start gathering the dirty dishes. I pile the plates and forks and knives, leaving the clean spoons on the table.

Gene looks at me. “There’s an apple and raisin tart in the fridge. That’s what the spoons are for.”

“I can’t do it.”

“You give up?” He puts his hand on my shoulder. “Don’t sweat it. I told you, this is a guilt-free house.”

****

We carry the Scotch and the cigars outside. After the food and the wine, I’m grateful for the brisk autumn air. We climb the stairs to the little porch off the garage. He reaches a hand inside the apartment and flicks on the porch light then turns it off again.

“You okay with the dark?”

I tell him I am. All I want is to brush my teeth and slip into my borrowed bed.

He finishes his drink and pours another. “My head isn’t here.” He pats his pockets down, finds a lighter, and fires up the cigars. He hands me one, then tilts his head back so his cigar points directly above us.

At the end of his driveway a neighbor walks past with a dog.

“Cory’s staying at a hotel.”

“Oh,” I say. “Is she alone?”

Gene leans over and spills more booze into my glass. “She’s my wife. Of course she’s alone.”

“She could be with a sister. That’s all I meant.”

“We never went to bed angry—that’s the kiss of death.” Gene lifts his drink to his lips, then puts it down again. “Did you and your ex ever go to bed angry?”

“I’m not sure.”

He taps me on the knee with the toe of his shoe. “It’s the kiss of death.”

“Okay.”

He kicks me a little harder. “You look like you’re falling asleep.”

I force myself to sit up straight. “I was relaxing.”

He sips from his glass, but it’s empty. “Let’s play a prank.”

“On Cory?”

He shakes his head and the cigar’s ember leaves a zig-zag trail in the air. “You’re not allowed to say her name again. Get your laptop.”

I believe in manners, that they shouldn’t be ignored for the sake of convenience. So I set my cigar on the edge of the table, walk into the apartment, turn the lights on, stare at the bed, then grab my computer and go back outside.

“We’re going to put together a dream setlist,” Gene says.

Anyone who has ever loved a band has played this game. The lazy strategy is to list your fifteen favorite songs in ascending order, so that each number is slightly better than the one preceding it.

“Where do you want to start?”

Gene chews on his lower lip. “How about ‘Queen of Kansas’?”

While poking fun of Cross’s voice is something of a competitive sport (Willie Nelson said Jimmy had a voice like “a yard-sale caulk-gun”), “Queen of Kansas” is one of the few songs he trusts enough to let his real voice emerge, deep and vulnerable and pure. “Good choice.”

“Then ‘Grease Fire.’”

“You’re two for two.”

I see Gene’s white teeth. “You’ve already done this, you son of a bitch. Let me see your list.”

When I joined the tour I would compose a setlist before every show. Once, in East Lansing, Michigan, my list paced Cross for the first five songs, until he played “Whistle Hound” instead of “Toast and Sorrow.”

“Well,” Gene says, “are you going to show me yours or not?”

I tell him how, eight years ago, while stopped in gridlock outside Little Rock, a list came to me that I recognized immediately as perfect.

“Enough stalling. Give me the goods.”

It only takes a second for me to locate the file. I double-click and it pops open on the screen.

Gene pulls the computer out of my hands. He squints at the list. Looks down at the keyboard to figure out how to scroll. “This is your list?”

“That’s it.”

He reaches over and lifts my cigar off the table and places it beside his own in his mouth. He draws on both and they pulse like brake lights.

Finally, he says, “It’s okay, I guess. There’s nothing recent on here. You have to have ‘The Lake Song,’ or ‘Fifth of April.’”

I take the laptop back from him and look at it again. The setlist still seems perfect to me.

Gene flips one of the cigars over the railing; it falls in a long arc, down to his yard. “Have him close with ‘Purple River Serenade’”

P.R.S. isn’t a song. It’s a ghost. When Cross released Midnight at the Bazaar there were eleven cuts on the album, but the liner notes on the first printing listed a twelfth track, titled ‘Purple River Serenade.’ Some of Cross’s fans claim that song—the theoretical song, since Cross has never played anything called “Purple River Serenade”—represents some Platonic ideal of music. They regard it as a masterpiece.

“I think it’s time for me to hit the hay.”

“We’re not done,” Gene says. He splashes two more fingers of scotch into his glass.

When he reaches the bottle toward me, I cover the glass with my free hand, but he pours the booze just the same and it runs through my fingers.

“Post your silly list on your website,” Gene says. “Say he played a private show. It’ll drive people nuts.”

JimCrossCompendium is the site of record.”

“That’s what makes it’s a prank!” He says this loud enough that I’m sure his neighbors can hear.

I open my laptop and press a few keys.

“You do it?”

I shake my head.

Gene snatches the computer from me. “Where is it?”

“Sorry.”

He grabs the collar of my coat. I feel his hand at my neck. “Where’d you put it, Arthur?”

“I erased it.”

Now he’s shaking his head. “Why would you erase it?”

“I’m going to go to sleep.” I hold my hand out toward the laptop.

“You’re a sociopath, Arthur, seriously.”

Gently, I put both hands on my computer. He releases it to me.

“Do you remember what was on there?”

“You were probably right. It was dated.”

“You’re a fucking loon,” Gene says, raking the top of his head with his fingernails

I thank him for dinner.

Gene grabs the decanter and lurches toward the stairs.

I see him start to fall forward, but he seizes the railing, catching himself. There’s a high and final noise as the decanter detonates on the garage’s cement apron.

“Are you okay?”

Gene looks over his shoulder and glares at me. “Why was a doctor visiting him after the show?”

There are lots of people capable of asking the right questions, but very few who are willing to follow those questions to where they lead.

 

[1] Frederick Tate and Moses Colchester.

[2] Like a cross between a bullfighter’s Traje de Luces and a Nudie suit. Cross gets them from a Mexican tailor in L.A.

[3] How does a man who has everything know so much about a person who has nothing, a girl who divided by zero the sum of her days/ in cardboard high heels and a petroleum dress?

 

 

From VEXATION LULLABY. Used with permission of Catapult. Copyright © 2016 by Justin Tussing.


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