ALT. COUNTRY - 014
The job talks in Berkeley were a formality, with L.A. a light year behind them and the water surrounding the peninsula doubly blue from the radio station parking lot. Kooper held the glass door for Carrie and it shut behind them with a digital chime, and they were standing in a lobby with a techno-white reception counter, three walls of award plaques featuring art-deco microphones, and a square pale coffee table the size of an average launching pad. The corporate inhumanity was overthrown by daylight from the parking lot and assorted handcarts loaded with shipping boxes. A tall girl about nineteen years old had tottered in from somewhere to ask about a package and to flirt with the young rocker dude manning the phones. On a pink cloud of brotherhood, Kooper jumped right in and announced Carrie to the desk. The young guy straightened up. “Everyone’s been looking forward to this. Are you . . . her manager?”
“Only as long as he sleeps with his clients!” Carrie sang. In her twine bracelets she looked just young enough to joke that way.
Emily someone, wearing a men’s black shirt and bifocals, came in (“Is that them?”) and took both Carrie’s hands, congratulating the newlyweds. To Kooper she added, “You’re a god, by the way,” slunking miserably from his eyes to get the fan’s mortification over with.
“Just ‘a’ god?” Kooper drawled. Then he nudged her shoulder. “I told my manager a few months ago that I was giving up worldly success, and he said: In advance?”
Outside a corner office, a man half Kooper’s age stood in his socks, motioning the two women in. There seemed to be a moment’s hesitation over what to do with Kooper, but he released Carrie before she could have a chance of feeling torn.
The waiting room was quiet then. Kooper sat next to the coffee table and touched a stack of Rolling Stones—suspiciously, as if they were a controlled substance. Now and then he looked up if the front door chimed. An old, funky Pontiac cruised the parking lot throwing warm sunlight off its chrome across the lobby walls. The receptionist seemed in a blissful snooze. Kooper tried to imagine this office, this life, from the point of view of someone who’d worked there too long, who’d seen its promise turn bad—someone who wasn’t as certain of the future’s goodness as Kooper felt today. He couldn’t do it, and he gave up on the project. He felt happy. Happiness was going to be simple, he decided, without exactly being easy. It would be his whenever he risked himself in some new, all-abandoning way.
He was thinking, for instance, that he might try teaching music to kids with learning disabilities. The sad and exasperating kids, the kids teachers hated teaching. The whole idea thrilled him. They would teach him more music than he taught them. He would gorge himself on art, take chances, follow one duty after another toward his dream. And then Kooper would die happy, so long as he stayed on the flashpoint of each new day, and each new day after that.
It occurred to him that art had led him far from what he used to think of as art. It had led him to an attitude of total fidelity. The artist’s sacred contract. He could no longer just compose songs that paid tribute to an instant of conscience. He felt as if the soul that in his past had floated as high above him as a kite or a cloud was now almost on his shoulders, so that from way up high someone might see Kooper weaving around, trying to stay within its dancing spot of shade. This was freedom! And in a funny way it was captivity too, because he could no longer settle for anything less. The temptation he needed to resist—the temptation buried in the pile of Rolling Stones—was the impulse to slip into vanity and pride again, and believe the standards of a public that wanted to buy freedom secondhand, admire it from afar, without ever being tugged to sea by the great white whale that freedom was.
That was when the door chimed and Kooper looked up from the masthead of the Rolling Stone to see what amounted to a coincidence. It was Rolling Stone reporter Isaac Diehl, rumpled and suave. Without seeing Kooper, he lobbed his valise up on the counter. “I was told I could meet Carrie Termino sometime this hour?”
The receptionist rubbed his eyes. “Their meeting just started. But they’re bound to break before noon.”
“You can speak to her husband, the lunatic!” Kooper called out. “If you can forgive me for how I broke off the last time.”
“You!” Diehl accused with a long finger. “You have to forgive me,” he smiled nervously, and patted his satchel of files. “When you write about people, you have all kinds of discussions with them that they never actually hear about. I was thinking about you all the way up here.”
Kooper looked at him cordially. The reporter’s eyes seemed to have aged into a kind of exhausted peace. There had been, back at the CD release party, some germ of this potential, a warm, slightly stricken humanity—the Long Strange Trip begun if not concluded.
“There’s no way you’re still working on my story,” said Kooper.
“Well, no, not entirely.” Diehl helped himself to a seat on one of the couches. “It’s the other one, the Alison Navey assignment. But you and Carrie are both sort of in it. I played you Navey’s demo that time.”
Kooper corrected him. “I don’t think so. I heard her at my apartment. After Carrie had introduced her on the radio program.”
“Actually, I’m the one who introduced her to Carrie. I sent her the demo,” Diehl said, matter-of-fact. He looked too tired to be one-upping anybody. “But musicians’ lives always intersect, don’t they? I could center any story on any one of you.”
“It was a complicated night, that CD party.”
“No, this wasn’t at the party. It was Magic Mountain.”
“Gee,” Kooper said at last.
“You were pretty drunk.”
“I know. I honestly don’t remember it. But I’m sure you must be right.”
Diehl laughed. “Well, maybe it was a stroke of genius, keeping a journalist around to record your blackouts.”
“I bet you’ve covered stars who would’ve done that. If the thought ever came to them.”
Diehl reflected, “More so twenty years ago, really.”
“So did I love her?”
“Did you love who?”
“Alison Navey. When you played me her tape.”
“You wept. And I liked you on account of it. I was going to use the anecdote in my article.”
“Well, feel free, I guess.”
“Thank you,” Diehl said, but he looked uncertain.
“When does the article run?” Kooper felt a flash of vanity.
“God knows at this point. It’s kind of spiralling outward. And she’s fading from the center. You know what? If you try to write anything well enough, it’s changed before you can finish it. I don’t know how the young writers do it. I don’t know how I used to do it!”
“Well, I’d give you some good quotes on her now. Except I may have given you the same ones before.”
“On the other hand, you hadn’t seen her in person back then. Seeing her—watching her look straight into you, all by herself—it’s a whole new thing.”
Kooper winked. “You like her that way, huh?”
“Yes and no. I fall in love with everyone I write about. I can’t tell my musical crushes from my own imaginings anymore.”
“You’re not that old. You don’t need to apologize,” Kooper said. He felt euphoric. “That’s it right there, man. That’s the secret heart of rock and roll!”
Diehl laughed. “When you put it that way—”
“I ought to write your story for you!” Kooper slapped the coffee table between them.
“Oh, no you don’t. She’s my mystery, and I have to keep her a mystery so I have something to write. It doesn’t matter if you know what my secret feelings are. Just so long as I don’t.”
“Girls with basses,” Kooper said, remembering a remark from one of his parties.
“It’s partly that. It’s innocence and weight, and independence . . . but it’s all wrapped up together.” Diehl looked sad again. “The closer you get to understanding anything, the worse you sound. But I find that if I can just keep her far enough away while I’m writing, then I don’t fall inside of her.”
“Do you know what?” Kooper thought for a moment. “There’s a reason, seriously, that I’m glad I haven’t seen Alison Navey play twice. What if the early memory turned out to be wrong? And then to have to revise that memory of perfection. Or even her perfect—imperfection—”
“Bingo! Yes! That’s totally more like it—”
“That one song of hers—‘Thankful’—“
“’You make me so thankful—like a pirate!’” sang Diehl.
“It was going to be ‘Like a pirate who’s found his treasure.’ But she saw that it was more innocent, and made more sense, to just mangle the sense. And blurt it out!”
“That did it for you too?”
“Are you kidding? I’m writing a book, for god’s sake.”
“Oh, now it’s a book?”
Only for a moment did Diehl seem capable of answering; then he dropped his shoulders all at once. When he looked up, it was with a burden. He reached across the table and took the Rolling Stone, and opened it like an atlas and set it down again.
“It was supposed to be an article,” he said. “But I think what’s more interesting is to follow things afterward, after the flash in the pan, see how a phenomenon plays out. How it touches the world and then dies out. Affects other people’s lives. People like you. You’re a perfect subject for me. I’m so dead tired of stories about musicians on the way up!”
Kooper forced a smile.
“Sorry, but it’s really a compliment. I’m the poison in everybody’s cocktail. I was the last voice you heard before you flipped off your career. I’m only joking a little bit. What’s on your plate nowadays, anyway?”
“Well, I might want to be teaching music at an academy near here. And be a married man. We’re expecting, you know. Twins, we just found out.” He smiled broadly. Whomever you share such news with is your brother.
“You look happy about it.” Diehl agreed, and began searching his pockets and digging through his valise. “I left my tape recorder in the car.”
He was back in his role as paid voyeur, and he looked both frustrated and grateful for the distance. Kooper liked Diehl. Kooper liked almost anybody who showed flashes of taking life harder than he did.
“Want some air?” Diehl asked.
Beside Diehl’s old Pontiac, in the brilliant East Bay breeze, welfare-housing heat with a frigid ocean whisper behind it, Kooper shared the details of the wedding, and Diehl pulled out Kooper’s copy of A Moveable Feast, having borrowed it at Magic Mountain. “Look how things grow,” Diehl said. “You talked and talked about Hemingway’s marriage, and here you are, married. I really should have returned this, but it went to a good cause. It helped me understand your—back story....” He hesitated. “I did wonder, you know, aren’t people going to think Hemingway is a bad choice of hero?”
“In his marriages, you mean?” Kooper asked. “Or his life?”
“What’s the difference? Isn’t he batting zero for two?”
Kooper chose his words with precision for the immortal cover article. “Well, I think what reached me about the Hemingway book was the same beauty that was his messed-up life. Because he was doomed to fail at his principles and to fail his wives too, but he was always true in a way, by writing about the thing he’d ruined and how he knew that he’d ruined it. You know what I’m saying? But I prefer to remember him young. I don’t think he was saying, Do as I do.”
The building behind them moved, door opened, voices, door shut, and there was Carrie strutting toward them. When she arrived, she leaned into Kooper and rested one heel on the bumper of Diehl’s car. Kooper said, “This is—” He had forgotten Diehl’s first name, now it came back. “This is Isaac Diehl from Rolling Stone. He was here to see you, technically.”
“Actually, I was introduced to Carrie for half a second in Indianapolis. I was writing something on the only band she didn’t manage.”
“I was famous for not managing someone?”
“Other things, too,” Diehl said. “I remember a Zine.”
Kooper watched a half smile sweep over Carrie, fast as flight, something like shame converted to pride at having been seen in a private way, before she turned deliberately toward Kooper. “There was this bump in the meeting just now,” she said. “They wanted me to be on call for the July 4th top-500 countdown.”
“No,” Kooper said. “That’s not you!”
“I think it’s so cool that I married a guy who gets that,” she explained to Diehl, in a confiding tone that aged Kooper somehow.
“Well, it’s true,” Kooper repeated. “And you’re not being unfair to say so. The product you sell is a show about never playing songs you don’t care about. That’s why your listeners trust you. Let someone else do the countdown.” To Diehl: “Nowadays sanity has to have its own radio hour.”
Carrie said after a moment, “Boy, I’m hungry.”
“You two aren’t fasting anymore!” Diehl realized.
Kooper jostled Carrie. “I’m proving I can stand happiness. You look disappointed,” he told Diehl.
“No, no, it’s just—well, the story was more simple before, of course.”
“The story!” Kooper had to laugh. “You should have written the whole thing from the germ of your first impression. You’re a dead man now. You see? You should’ve seen Alison Navey only once.”
“Can we do this at the apartment?” Carrie suggested. “I’ll make some eggs and bacon. Isaac can follow us back.”
Diehl nodded, beleaguered, sliding into his car.
In the rearview mirror, Kooper watched Diehl: a haunted detective, living on the vapors of another man’s life. It made Kooper feel important. Once in a lifetime everyone should have a biographer if he could manage it. He felt sorry that Diehl was having such a hard time getting anything published, but the sympathy felt jovial, as if the mere ability to sympathize held enough optimism inside of it to lift the other guy up with him.
The bad parts of Berkeley passed by like hard times, laundromats and pawn shops and parts stores, and then came some sporadic improvements like bookstores and juice bars. Before things got too well improved, the Koopers hung a left turn and led Diehl to their new apartment, a low-roofed Spanish duplex covered in beige stucco.
They ate standing in the kitchen, and then they showed Diehl the budding garden, stakes of new ivy set to climb up bare cinderblock walls—a future from scratch—and then they seemed to have fallen into some longer catching up at the dining room table.
“Your picture frame too?” Diehl asked. “What about that? You promised yourself you would never remove it.”
It was another embarrassing mental gap for Kooper. He said slowly, hating the irony, “You’ll have to tell me why I promised that.”
Diehl placed both palms upon the table, showing that this whole thing was a little awkward for him too. “You said it was some abortion from when you were in high school. And you said you’d talked about it before. It wasn’t news, but you said you really saw it clearly all of a sudden and you wanted a picture frame and you wanted the picture to be blank.”
“Well, okay. That figures. That’s not a great surprise.” Even Carrie knew about that ghost from his past. “That adds up.”
“Some people do terrible things in blackouts.” Carrie stole a sip of Kooper’s coffee, then rubbed his shoulder. “He tries to confess his.”
Diehl pushed his recorder aside confidentially—not that he turned it off—and said, “I think what happened was that I’d been talking over beers about all my Rolling Stone pieces that had died on the vine. And songs from the Game that you only vaguely remember having ever existed. Do you see how all this connects? All three of us, I mean.”
“Incidentally, can I use that—?” Diehl asked. “About the abortion?”
“Oh, I guess so. It’s all right,” Kooper said.
“I’ll tell you, Carrie, that one of the lost stories I would have killed to write was the rise and fall of your magazine. I mean—the love story behind it. That boy Tanner was kind of a purist too. Sorry—I still think of him as just a boy. Girls loved him or they hated him, didn’t they?”
Carrie said sternly, “I can’t tell if you’re making fun of me.”
“No, I’m not. You have to believe me! I’m trying to go deep. You’re the only people in the world I feel I understand—”
Kooper caught a glimpse, just then, of himself and Carrie—both of them sitting looking ransacked, like in a desert-island cartoon. One day you will know your partner’s whole errant past and see if it makes them less lovable, or more. He clasped the shoulder of his bride, trying to include her in his golden-years vision.
“Let’s face it,” he said. “Only a young person is open enough to fall in love with the one who drives them absolutely nuts. The one they hate but can’t resist. And not talk themselves out of it, I mean. And then they have no tools to keep the passion from self-destructing. That’s my belief, Isaac. I say wait till the torch is burned low! A first love is just biology. Marry maturity!” he exclaimed, as Carrie hissed. He squeezed her shoulder.
Feeling sure of himself now—romantic even—Kooper gave some life advice to Diehl too. “You kind of pushed me over a ledge one time, Isaac, but it’s only the same one you’re drawn to yourself. You and your questions about what Jim Morrison would be doing if he lived.”
“I recall it was a window sill,” Diehl said.
“Yes, it was, and you’re still holding back. But I can see why. You haven’t surrendered to aging. I’ll tell you something else. It’s not the getting older—it’s the getting older still. You get swept along by a current, and you grab the shore of fifty, and it turns out fifty’s a moving log. You might age a lifetime tonight!” Kooper was gleeful. “Time just goes faster and faster, and by dark it won’t matter what you were talking about in the morning, because it won’t apply. I’m telling you, I’m over the falls, I’m on the other side. Isn’t that what Jim Morrison wrote? Break on through! Join the retirement party. Read the Bible.”
“What happens at sixty?”
“At sixty,” Kooper said, “the moving log is a crocodile.”
Diehl had nothing to parry with. “You’re a good interview, my friend.”
“Well, you could probably fool me that I am,” said Kooper.
“No, you are. Don’t start thinking I regret this. This is life on life’s terms. Kids are hungry for this stuff—you know. The full journey of a former artist! You belong on the cover of Rolling Stone.”
“I can see how you might’ve had a few minor problems at the magazine, Isaac.”
After dark, when the air cooled and the quiet between houses was probed by the ringing of neighbors’ phones, Carrie got busy stocking a medicine cabinet in the add-on bathroom, Kooper handing up one thumb-sized bottle of makeup or nail polish after another. From the side she was plainly beginning to show; her breasts were painful in a good way (she said, meaning sexy), and she had a new funny habit of scratching them. The room was close with paint fumes and he was maybe a little annoyed that they were working instead of calling it a day. “Did I handle all that okay? With Isaac Diehl?”
“I thought you handled him fine,” she said.
“Maybe it would be more professional to have him go through my manager and stuff. It was supposed to have been your interview anyway.”
She didn’t answer. Kooper handed her a small box of baking soda and some homeopathic allergy pills and a laminated card emblazoned 9-1-1, from when that shorthand had first been invented—a time capsule’s treasure in his hands. Carrie eyed the pill bottle and laughed with an annoying air of secrecy. “These vegan guys I knew used to live on this stuff in Indiana, because of the Bermuda grass. We called them snot thinners—and these guys would hoard—well. They were such a crackup! I can’t believe you’ve never gone there. There is no place greener. This one time we all hitchhiked—”
“Yeah, to Hannibal,” Kooper recited.
“I told you that already?”
“Yeah, you’ve told everyone.” He knew the remark had an edge, but he watched himself say it.
“Well, I guess I wanted you to like the person I was back then. I was different in my twenties, you know—surer of myself. People looked up to me. I knew less, of course. I was a radical—I was always destined to be a radical something. But in a way I might have liked myself better before.”
Kooper looked at her, and then he saw her. “I’m sure I couldn’t have liked you better than I do now.” He really meant it. He felt sorry that he had been so insecure as to lash out. It isn’t a good sign when your wife likes herself better in a former life, and he was glad that it was only a passing doubt. He felt confident knowing that to the extent he really cared, his wife responded. She was smiling now, blooming under his gaze again. “You’re blooming,” he said out loud.
“I bloom where I’m planted,” she teased, and her smile was X-rated and silly.
Misunderstandings were so quickly repaired in early marriage, and the bed was a place where nights began as much as ended. He fixed her a cup of tea and they read out loud from a marriage manual he’d found at a church rummage sale (“One pilot’s wife who resented her husband’s occupation learned to fly herself. Today they are closer than ever.”) The visit from Diehl was all but forgotten. In those first months of marriage Kooper felt like an old immigrant discovering it’s never too late to learn a language; he felt a sort of invisible laurel laid upon him, and he’d have offered anything, to keep learning and to be tested all the more.