ALT. COUNTRY - 013
The next day was as strange and new as the first morning after his divorce. He wasn’t sure how long he’d slept, but it was good to be alive and with the novelty of having eaten. Like the first morning on earth. That too was a morning after.
He had decided to have a swim before groundskeeping, and now he felt dry in jeans and a short-sleeved shirt, but the last coolness of morning still hung softly at the corners of his eyes. You could tell it was going to be one of those Indian summer days when the Valley feels raw—light and exposed, like a dancing skeleton.
Someone’s radio sounded from upstairs, post-hypnotic, deep speech in the walls. Keeping company with the birdsong. More than one tenant was sitting out school.
Toluca had phoned from a courtyard motel in Van Nuys, not the same motel as Tanner’s but close. She didn’t seem endangered. Even Carrie seemed satisfied of that.
And now Kooper had the luxury of waiting for his girlfriend to return from a day of womanly errands. He felt bonded to her across hills and skies. He pictured her as a pigeon released that would return at night by bird radar. Then they would eat—how new was that? They would spill crumbs in his bare apartment, birds in a belfry.
He swept the staircases and hosed off some chaise longues by the pool. Vaporous heat rose from the deck, searing his ears.
It was a good day and as it took hold, he cared less and less that his fasting experiment seemed to have expended all its desert-floor mystic clarity. He felt his second chance at life was now coming into focus—one in which he would learn to enjoy common pleasures and let the future come, and live with those dark-horse riddles unresolved. He phoned both his grown sons that afternoon and caught up on their lives, and they laughed as if they’d all survived some old hazing together, or lost a monumental contest that they now realized they were better off losing. Regret was futile, and there was so much freedom to be had. Was it selfish to enjoy your time on earth as if it belonged to you alone?
So for several weeks Kooper and Carrie still welcomed the neighbors to the Friday-night fasts, but Kooper ate a nice big meal beforehand.
“I don’t feel bad, I feel great in fact, but I never felt finished,” Kooper confided to the young neighbor, the one who’d been so panicked about his homework at UCLA. They were mingling in the roped-off parking lot of Kooper’s church before the sermon, coffee urns on folding tables, signup sheets for prayer groups, and Kooper felt he could cash in a chit for having been kind to the boy once. Instead, the boy marched him to an elder of the congregation who wore Dockers with a cellphone on his belt, and here Kooper was again, trying to explain to a stranger this whole dimension of feelings he couldn’t name. He wished he hadn’t come.
“Well, I don’t suppose any one of us is ever finished on our journey,” the church leader said.
Kooper shook his head to show that he was failing to get something vital across. “This is what I mean—as just one example. I looked recently at an old song I wrote. It was a sort of wise-ass serenade to a neighbor who’d complained about my noise. I was feeling pretty big, you know. But I don’t feel anymore like it was just a kid’s mistake. It’s a blotch—I mean the songsheet, when I looked at it, was a blotch, and it kept spreading in my gut like ink when I thought of it. Like I’d dropped my oil filter in someone’s swimming pool. Have you ever felt that? I mean, you think you see what I’m talking about, but it’s not just guilt, I’m saying, it’s not just doing something wrong, but having been proud of yourself. Pride. It’s pride!” Kooper brandished this souvenir of truth. “Of course it is.” He calmed himself. “Or you see those civil rights photos, sometimes, of a lynching. Or even just the first black girl, when they integrated the university in Alabama, how there’s always some righteous heckler in the background having the time of his life, or her life. Those witchy Southern belles. Where are these kids today? What do they see when they see themselves in the photo? Do they look and say, Who did I think I was! and Just shoot me now—” Kooper struck himself in the forehead. “Laughing, jeering fuckheads!”
He had just said the word fuckheads at church. The elder lowered his eyes, prayed something under his breath, and then reasoned, “Wherever those guilty children are, one day every knee will bow.”
“Fuck your right-wing church,” Kooper replied, and the man looked straight at him. He laid hands on Kooper’s shoulders and prayed somewhat louder. Against all reason Kooper burst into sobs.
Some congregants had overheard, and glanced with guarded concern as Kooper leaned and then sank toward the shoulder of the elder. “It’s a good thing, let it come,” the man announced. Kooper could smell the man’s chambray shirt and a lot of cologne.
Kooper jerked away. “Let what come?” he said in a deranged whine. He freed himself a step backward and hitched his belt. “I know, I’m too hard on myself.” How the hell had he gotten himself into this?
“No, you’re probably not,” said the elder, serenely. “I think this is what it’s like to begin to see clearly. It’s a sign of growing up. What man could stand a real look at himself?”
“It was just a song. I used to get away with far worse things.”
“Trust me, you still could. You could again.”
After the sermon, the church people were twice as friendly to Kooper as they’d ever been before: hugging him, shaking hands with the man who’d screamed fuckhead. It was a terrible slip on his part, and he attributed it afterward to the onset of a late-summer flu, which wound up keeping him in bed for three days after the incident. To have gone from such freedom to breakdown overnight seemed insane, and he returned to his earlier resolve to let things be. What kind of masochist yearned to feel more guilty? Getting up from his sickbed when the fever broke, he laid his picture-frame chain in the back of a drawer, demonstration of his will to move ahead. He went out walking and passed the house at the end of the block, and wished the owner would buy himself a curtain.
The weather turned autumnal, a new stately light fell on Dickens Street. At night you could see candles burning in the windows and hear the drums of a high-school marching band. On the radio, The Game had found its legs without Toluca. “What do you hear from her?” a party guest would occasionally ask. One of the boys, a comic-book geek named Julio, had lots of questions.
“No, they’re not father and daughter,” Carrie explained as if repeating a legend.
“Does Toluca know that?” the young man asked.
“But does Toluca know?”
To Tanner, on the phone with his long-ago girlfriend, it seemed senseless to argue now. Clearly she felt grief about the miscarriage. So he would live with the facts. At least he had stood up, belatedly, for the daughter he ought to have had. Surely something good would come of such an error of the heart.
But there seemed no way to tell Toluca the truth about his mistake—not in any terms that she’d value as much as his willingness to believe in a nobler untruth—and she cut him off when he tried.
“Imagination,” she told him. “We can be anything. You need a kid, I need a father figure. If you prove the facts to me one way or another you’ll kill it.”
Tanner listened—amazed, certainly, but not entirely disapproving. When you gave a very young person credit, her thoughts took on a frightening brilliance.
“I’m not insane,” she said. “I’m choosing how to live.” There it was: a sort of Game within The Game.
After finding separate apartments in Hollywood, the two started having dinner once a week, Wednesdays at the Apple Pan, Toluca texting her friends, Tanner silently chewing, sometimes prodding her to use a fork, as though they’d run out of dinner talk eight or nine years before and his day job consisted of having his soul sucked out through his eye sockets.
Then he took a real job, or more real, as a substitute teacher. He gave Toluca money every first Wednesday and she folded it into her handbag, with an elaborate and ironic British schoolgirl’s smile.
Kooper’s party life receded, and a new domestic reality replaced it. The towers in New York had been hit—he’d thought, at first, that plane #2, entering the frame, was a taped replay of #1, only why was that tower burning in advance?--and more than one student had enlisted to fight in Afghanistan. The event had a dual effect on Kooper: chastening (there’d been no place for certainty or arrogance or even analysis, especially analysis, in those first days of balletic disillusion) but also steadying, soil in which to grow the things that mattered. By Christmas, Kooper and Carrie began talking about marriage. “You’d think we were married” became “We could be married.” He couldn’t remember who spoke the word first, which strongly implied it was Carrie, though if anything she was more cautious and responsible than he was. (“Everything depends,” she wrote him, “on you being as brave as you’ve been for as long as I’ve known you, and I’ll hold you to it.”)
One day, word reached Dickens Street that Toluca had been appearing regularly in a nighttime soap opera, playing a troubled daughter. Someone brought a laptop TV to Kooper’s living room, and a small crowd gathered watching. She had lost weight, and the camera loved her style: a certain heartsick wit, the orphan’s convergence of brokenness and charm. No one knew quite what to make of it. They distrusted this glamour, and vaguely missed her. She looked at once so sisterly and removed.
It was March when Kooper and Carrie found a courthouse on Route 66 in Rialto, where they married, each helping the other with their handwritten vows. “You’re the girl I was fasting for,” he told her. Carrie replied that he was “every male I hated for not being there sooner.”
His older twin brothers, Frank and Bill, made the trip from Bakersfield (then left early for an AA convention in Palm Springs, where they could smoke freely). Kooper’s sons ignored the no-gift request, mailing a framed print of a famous painting: vectors of sprinkler mist in front of a suburban stucco house. The scene seemed to recall a past the three had shared, while at the same time casting it all into myth—it was a complicated gift, Kooper suspected. He was touched, though, and he hung it proudly.
Carrie had already moved in with him on Dickens Street, and at first nothing about the old routine changed; then, as if overnight, everything had. Which was to say: They no longer fit there. They’d never really outlined a common goal as married partners; they’d never felt they had to—it made sense that for a season their common purpose might be each other. But now the students visited less freely, conversations on the staircases were stilted. The marital bed felt surrounded by hidden microphones.
One day, almost in synch with compressing her mouth to tone her lipstick, Carrie was examining a pink instrument that looked like a thermometer, holding it to the bathroom light, and she was pregnant.
“Wow,” Kooper kept saying, dazed, and her smile maintained the dimensions of joy while she computed: What sort of wow was that exactly? Wow: ecstasy? Or wow: am I up for this? Of course it was both. It was Gratitude/ Age/ Doubt/ Gratitude.
They embraced, a nervously joyful kind of outtake embrace. Not perfect.
The only royalty check for Kooper’s CD had already been deposited and spent. After Kooper refused to tour, the label took its best shot at promoting the CD as a work so pure it was above being promoted. But the concept never gelled.
Meanwhile, just in time for the jacaranda blossoms, opportunities to relocate began to fleck the landscape. The most interesting of these was an invitation for Carrie to bring The Game to an FM station in Berkeley for three hours a day and develop it into a brand name for the station, with compilation CDs and blogs and a tie-in to cable TV.
All this was going to be very new for Kooper.
The bride of his youth had been a different type entirely: submissive, a fan. Sara Lee Kooper, named like the pastry queen, selling rye loaves at the farmer’s market. You deeply trusted the wife who chose you.
For a while it had almost been perfect—apart from the faint, superstitious fear that sailed behind. An almost sensual knowledge that if he lived for the treasures of the world, he would probably die by them too.
They’d had two boys possibly too soon. On top of which, the first one wasn’t theirs. They’d inherited him from Kooper’s sister-in-law, who’d given birth on a commune before falling in with junkies. Earlier that same week, Sara Lee had beckoned Kooper into condomless sex. It was a hot, vacant day—the kind of day Kooper had always associated with the mystery of free will. She was menstruating, and he’d supposed that a menstruating woman could not conceive.
Even so, he’d felt a warning to pull out—but at the crucial moment, decided not to. It was like watching a burglary, only he was the burglar and the victim both at once.
Kooper bonded instantly with the natural son. The adopted son was gregarious, eager, and foreign: Kooper had to work to understand him. One day, during a family walk, the boy dragged a fallen branch against the roadside just for noise. Kooper bristled: “If I trip on that, Jake, I will take it away!”
His natural son had been chanting an obnoxious lyric, mistaking it for the whole song:
“Here we are now—entertain us! Here we are now—entertain us! Here we are now—entertain us! Here we are now—”
Kooper didn’t mind this song one bit. In the epic clash of irritations, he was rooting for this song to prevail. Maybe by sheer rudeness, his son would be left alone by bullies. Maybe there were good pheromones in it.
But the scrape of the branch kept interfering.
So Kooper faked tripping. He pulled himself up, seized the stick belonging to Jake and flung it over a hedge.
And he would feel worse about that incident today, except that over the years, Jake managed to graft himself to Kooper after all. Against all odds, they shared a psychic link. When Kooper dreamed of falling from a bike, this was the son who tumbled from bed. Whereas Sal became easy to blame for his own indifference.
In any case, when both sons reached their teens, it didn’t matter—Kooper became the object of ridicule that most fathers are, and he welcomed the defeat. The problem was that something had gone wrong with his work. The songs he was performing sounded too young for him now. Or they were wistful for the clarity of youth:
I was an Aztec King
She was my Aztec Queen
Riding Spanish ponies in the sun
Running through the jungle green
Now she’s the dairy queen
Now I’m the burger king...
He looked toward the past to recapture his muse, and when he looked forward again he saw that he had fallen behind the opportunities age had given him to change with his family.
Hemingway became a parody in middle age. Paul McCartney wrote jingles. Jim Morrison was a corpse. The way to be an aging artist was to tell the truth in a plainer way than a younger artist dared to, and if you had the chance to do that, you might as well live instead of write it. You might as well get on with being a man and surrendering youth, and showing just how many things of youth a man could lose, if he could find someone to lose for. Kooper remembered praying during his week at Magic Mountain: Father, do you care? He had stood beside an empty bandstand, lifting the storm of his expression to the night sky. And as he prayed, a snapshot of memory surfaced; the face he’d been picturing as his own merged with Jake’s, looking up at him with the forbidden stick, and he knew that the boy was a piece of the messy art of Kooper’s life. It was as if the two of them had been planned to need something from each other, which at the same time seemed too beautiful a thing to plan. Maybe Kooper didn’t know how to make art anymore.