by David W. Landrum
Though Eliot Lamberton had always liked the Rolling Stones, he never thought of writing anything on them until after a conversation with Orion Treacle when he was driving her to Lansing. They were listening to a CD and Orion commented on the song, “I Got the Blues.”
“It’s a brilliant song. Contrast that with the Beatles’ ‘Yer Blues.’ ‘Yer Blues’ is nothing but a lot of sarcasm. ‘I Got the Blues’ is genuine wit and brilliant parody. It’s very postmodern.”
“How is it postmodern?”
“It simultaneously mocks and praises the blues. It’s like what Linda Hutcheon says about historiographic metafiction—remember McFadden’s class? Hutcheon quotes John Fowles saying something is ‘Simultaneously a tribute and a thumbed nose at a very old tradition.’ Listen.”
He listened. The exaggerated guitar riffs Keith Richards did and the over-the-top keyboard solo were certainly parodic, as were the lyrics Mick Jagger sang:
And I’ll bust my brains out—
I’m gonna bust my brains out over you
And I tear my hair out,
I’m gonna tear my hair out over you.
And if you don’t believe what I’m saying,
At three o’clock in the morning, babe,
I’m singing this song for you.
He smiled. Orion was right. The two of them had attended graduate school together. He had become a professor and a writer. Orion (who pronounced her name OAR-e-un) hacked out a tenuous living as a blues player. It seemed, at times, she remembered more than he did about what their instructors had said in the many courses they had taken together. Thinking of Orion’s career made him ask, “So how are you doing?”
“Not really well, to tell you the frank, damned, shitty truth.”
“You need some cash?”
Orion did not reply.
“Come on Orion, you know I’ve got money, you’re my friend, and I love you. You can buy me a drink.”
Orion nodded. This was a code they had developed years ago. When Eliot gave her money to tide her over, he would hand her a wad of cash and say, “I’m going go to take a leak. Buy us drinks. I’ll meet you at the bar.” The money he gave her, of course, was far more than the cost of the liquor, and she kept the change. He had done this for her through the years.
“How much is this place paying you?”
He jerked his head so quickly the car swerved. “Seventy-five! What a bunch of cheap-asses!”
Orion shrugged. “You can’t always get what you want,” she smiled. The two of them broke into a duo of the song by the same title. Fun to sing, Eliot mused, but it veiled the problem they needed to talk about.
Orion’s career had gone nowhere. She lived a hard-scrabble life trying to make enough to live on by playing bars, clubs, state fairs, and weddings. She barely got by. Eliot knew Orion loved music and admired her dedication, but increasingly he worried about her.
Upon graduation, Eliot chose what he had also assumed would be a hard-scrabble path. Professors had preached sermons to him about the dire state of academics: no jobs, tenure fading, budget cuts at universities, a glut of PhDs fighting for a scant number of positions. More than one of them had counseled him not to go into English but to choose a more viable career. He plowed ahead and, before his diploma had lost its crispness, had four interview offers. He accepted a tenure-track position at a respectable university, settled in, and began to “farm” his dissertation for ideas that could be turned into articles for the academic market. Success came once more. He eventually wrote a book-length study of the poetry of Stephen Crane, and eventually earned tenure.
As the years marched on, though, he grew weary of academic writing. Like Orion, he played guitar and, on a trip to England, started taking notes on the British guitar scene. He met several top-tier guitarists and interviewed them. His notes suggested a book, which he began to write for fun, going over the history of British instrumental acoustic guitar and playing along with guitar greats he met in the process. On two occasions he had taken Orion with him. After a year-long search, he found a publisher.
The book was an unexpected best-seller and catapulted him into the literary spotlight much like Neil Gaiman’s biography of the rock group Duran Duran won him fame and admission to the corridors of the popular writing industry. Three years later he quit his job as a professor and became a music critic and a novelist.
They came into Lansing, took a trip to Elderly Instruments, and went to a bar to get supper before she went to her concert. The two of them had been off and on lovers. He had once talked about marriage to her, but she said it would interfere with her career and his. He had not been involved with her in the last year. They ate fish and chips and drank beer. Eliot would give her the money after her show and ask her to buy him a drink.
“Did the reference in Billboard get you anything?” he asked as they ate.
“It brought on a surge for a while. I actually had money to spare. Didn’t last, I’m afraid.”
He had written a long article on the pop and blues scene for Billboard and had mentioned Orion as an exceptionally talented local star. He had hoped it would get her somewhere. Apparently, it had not.
“We’ll keep trying.”
“Do you see Janelle anymore?”
“Janelle and I are finished,” he said, more bitterly than he had intended. “
“Too bad, she’s pretty,” Orion said. Then she smiled, “But, of course, you’re a superstar now—just what I’ve always wanted to become in music. You’ve probably got groupie girls who follow you around.”
“The only women who follow me around are fifty-something women who like my novels and stalk me at book signings.”
They laughed and went on eating. Despite his attempt to mute the effect with humor, mention of Janelle put him in a bad mood. He ate with a crunching violence. Orion knew him well enough not to try to talk to him.
“I’m considering a book on the Rolling Stones,” he finally said. “Your little discourse on ‘I Got the Blues’ got me thinking about them again. Their music has a lot more going on in it than most people realize.”
“Write my name on the acknowledgements page. Maybe it’ll help me get some gigs.”
He had already been planning of the outline and the approach and rhetorical style he would take. They finished their food and drank beer. Orion wanted to get to the venue for a sound check. She was scheduled to play in an hour.
They drove to the bar. A lot of the places Orion played were small and nondescript. This one seemed classier. He liked the name of the place, Sir Edmund Spenser’s, and thought it looked more like a wine bar than your average joint where people went for a Miller Lite after work. Mozart played on the sound system. The placed was carpeted. Racks of wine bottles lined the walls, though the bar did have beer on tap and liquor, not just wine. The beers, he noticed, were specialty brews. Rather than posters of busty women holding up bottles of Budweiser, he saw posters of Janis Joplin, shots of Paris and of New York, the familiar Chat Noir poster by Théophile Steinlen, and other pieces of hip, iconic art. The tables and chairs were wood, not formica. The bartender gave the impression he could talk to you about literature or art (at least pop art).
Orion went off to check the sound system and meet up with the manager. Eliot wondered if he should say something about the paltry fee the place would pay her for the performance. Orion was good—a better guitarist than he was, and she knew her blues. She could play pop and ambiance music and play it well. He bought a double shot of whisky. He did not want to drink too much, since he had to drive back to Grand Rapids after the show, but memories of Janelle punched at his insides and he needed the liquor to quiet them down.
They had dated, off and on, for six years. Janelle Faber taught at a small, private school across town. Scholarly events brought them together. She broke the stereotype of the female professor. Tall, willowy, pretty enough to be a fashion model, she had swept him off his feet and knew she had. He pursued, she kept a distance from him. Finally she let him into her life and her bedroom, but not into her plans for the future. She had an agenda for her life and he would not be a part of it. Ambition drove her. She wanted to succeed in the academic world, and nothing would stop her or slow her down. Eliot had made the mistake of falling in love with her.
He could think of several songs that expressed his experience: “Mean Mistreater” by Grand Funk Railroad, “Dammit” by Blink-182, “Pictures of You” by the Cure, U2’s “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses?” He also remembered an obscure song on one of his Dad’s Monkees LPs called “She.” He remembered the lyrics: “And now I know just why she keeps me hanging ‘round: / She needs someone to walk on so her feet don’t touch the ground.” Songwriters Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart must have known Janelle, he thought, because that number contained a perfect description of her. “She always did me wrong,” the refrain said. “I’m better off alone.” He was better off without her, but, like the narrator of that particular tune, still loved her.
“Shouldn’t have mentioned Janelle,” Orion said when she returned to the table and he did not immediately speak to her. “I didn’t mean to make you sore.”
“Sorry I reacted to it. I shouldn’t. Is the sound system good?”
“It’s good. You said you brought your guitar?”
“It’s in the trunk.”
“You want to do a couple of numbers together, just for some variety? We’ll do some thirty-six bar shit-blues. Easy enough, and we’ve done that a lot.”
“How about ‘Give Me My Coat and Shoes?’ I’m suddenly in the mood to sing that one.”
She laughed. “Sure thing. I do a version of that in E.”
“E is my singing key. Let’s plan on it.”
She nodded, finished her beer, and went to tune up. Her show started in ten minutes.
He ordered another double. He would get drunk. If he got too drunk, Orion could drive back to Grand Rapids. Or maybe the two of them could get a motel room. He had not slept with her in a long time and she had seemed friendly tonight. He needed love and companionship and she might be the one to supply it.
Orion came on stage. The crowd, thankfully, was pretty good-sized. The people there looked a little more high-class and possibly more affluent than the audiences she usually played for. She would probably do well on tips. He would throw some cash in too. She looked thin and seemed weary—no doubt from living on the edge for so long.
She began with a couple of lively numbers. He marveled at how expressively she could play blues. The guitarists he had written about in his book mastered speed and precision in their playing. Guitar gymnastics were their stock and trade: blisteringly fast runs, special effects like harmonics and tapping, chord solos, playing two lines. Blues was different. You didn’t rely on guitar effects so much. You played a lot of it in standard, familiar forms. But you felt the blues. They were a matter of emotion and not so much of technical skill on the guitar. You played them from the gut and heart, not from the mind.
As he listened, someone tapped on his table. He looked up. A woman he did not know stood there, smiling down at him. Her oval face framed a pair of large, dark eyes, a straight nose, and a nicely shaped mouth. Her dark brown hair fell to her shoulders. She wore a tight white blouse and a short blue skirt.
“Are you Eliot Lamberton?” she asked.
“You don’t know me. I’m a fan of your books. I’m Fressia Tompkins.”
He shook her hand. “I’m happy to meet you, Fressia,” he said, a little nonplussed. “Would you like to sit down?”
She slid into the seat next to him. “I came here to get a glass of wine. Can’t stay long. I’ve got a conference call tonight, but sure. I’m a fellow academe. I teach at State.”
“English and Writing. I’ve read your book on British guitarists and The Purple Dog on Ice. Loved them both. I’ve taught The Purple Dog a couple of times.”
Purple Dog was a satirical novel. It parodied the style of fiction the New Yorker favored, creating situations where the characters met with disaster because they behaved like New Yorker story characters rather than real people. Eliot felt flattered, as any author is when someone says she enjoyed reading his work. This woman reminded him of Janelle—not as pretty, but bright, able to speak well because she was a teacher, and proficient at academic discourse. A middle-aged man requested that Orion do “Fields of Gold” by Sting; it was his girlfriend’s birthday, he said, and that was her favorite song. Orion led the crowd in a chorus of “Happy Birthday” and then sang the requested song. Appreciative applause followed. The man put money in Orion’s tip jar. She smiled, nodded, and went on to her next number.
“She’s good,” Fressia said. Eliot decided not to tell her they had come here together.
“I like the way she plays. So what projects are you working on? Creative stuff?”
“I teach Creative Writing, but I’m actually in the English Department and they want scholarship. I’ve just had an article accepted by Emerson Review.”
He raised his eyebrows. Emerson Review was high on the food chain of academic journals. “What’s it on?”
“A story from American Salvage.”
Eliot had taught American Salvage by Bonnie Jo Campbell, a Michigan writer. It was one of his favorite short story collections, a compendium of tales about Michigan and its broken people: the unemployed, marginalized, meth addicts, people with dysfunctional families, bad jobs, messed-up relationships. He smiled.
“One of my favorites. Which story did you focus on?”
“’Bringing Belle Home.’”
He knew this tale. Dysfunctional home and messed-up marriage. Still, within the story, a faint hope of salvage, recovery, redemption.
“That’s a good one. My students liked it a lot.”
“We had been reading Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, which is about how we understand and often misinterpret the past.” Eliot had read that book as well. “‘Bringing Belle Home’ has an identical theme. The main character’s interpretation of his relationship to Belle when they were teenagers is the opposite of her interpretation. He saw himself as her savior and champion in those early days; she saw him as someone who sexually exploited and took advantage of her—kind of like Tony Webster’s misinterpretation of the past in Barnes’s novel.”
“Sounds fascinating,” Eliot said, glancing up at the stage.
“Well, Emerson Review liked it. I hope it will help me on my tenure hearing. That’s coming up next semester.”
Eliot barely heard her because he was having an epiphany.
As a teacher of literature, he often matched experiences he had with literary texts. As realization crept over him, he thought of James Joyce—his story collection, Dubliners, where the characters in the stories experience a moment of realization, an instant where they see themselves as they really are, when delusion and false self-images fall away and the characters suddenly face, at last, the truth about themselves.
He looked up at Orion. She was playing, again by request from a member of her yuppie audience, the old Rolling Stones song, “Backstreet Girl.” He listened to the lyrics:
I don’t want you to be high
I don’t want you to be down
Don’t want to tell you no lies
Just want you to be around
Please come right up to my ear
You will be able to hear what I say
Don’t want you out in my world.
Just you be my backstreet girl
He felt sweat on his lip. He hoped Fressia did not notice. Luckily, she was finishing her glass of chardonnay, not looking up. She sat her glass on the table and turned to him.
“I’d like to stay, but I have an important conference call tonight. Do you get over to Michigan State much?”
“Now and then.”
“If you’re around, drop by. I’d love to talk when we have time to talk properly. Here’s my card. Give me a call.” She scribbled something on it with a gel pen, smiled, and made her exit.
He turned his eyes back to Orion. She gave him a look. A shock of fear ran through him because he thought she might be reading his thoughts. Then he realized she was indicating he should go get his guitar. He gave her the okay sign and headed out the door.
April had been cold. A raw wind blew as he opened the trunk of his car. Thoughts cascaded through his head. Emotion battered his insides. As he picked up his guitar case, he realized how he had exploited her—yes, he told himself, exploited described it perfectly. In graduate school he had depended on her for emotional support when he was fatigued, discouraged, or overwhelmed—frequent occurrences for graduate students. More than once she had typed papers for him. She had always been willing to sleep with him when she sensed he needed it. She stuck with him when he was down and as a “friend” when Janelle was cutting him to pieces. She had always been there. Through the years she had borne his whining and condescension like a patient mule. She had supported him emotionally.
And how had he responded? He had screwed her, given her money when she was broke, attended her concerts—and when he attended her concerts, they usually ended up in bed together. Exploitation—flat out, no way to sweeten what he had done with a euphemism and no excuse for it. He came back inside and sat down. She finished another song, one of her originals, and then told the audience an “old friend” would join her for the next three or so numbers. He walked up to the stage, almost ashamed to look at her. She caressed the back of his neck, introduced him, and asked the audience to give him a round of applause. He smiled, waved, and, on impulse, leaned over and gave her a fast kiss on the lips, which surprised her and delighted the crowd.
They went into the Buddy Guy song. She had put her harmonica in the holder hooked to her collar and played it over his riffs. The audience shouted and clapped. They did Robert Johnson’s “Steady Rolling Man” and Ledbelly’s “Hello, Blues.” The crowd seemed to love them.
He started to step down from the stage, but shouts of “More!” made him play one additional number with her. When he finished, he held up his hands to show he would not do another song, and then pointed to her and gave a thumbs up to indicate she was the real blues player. The people whistled and cheered. He almost said, “If you like her, give her tips,” but decided to say so would be patronizing. They didn’t need him to tell them that. She didn’t need him to say it for her.
Eliot listened as Orion finished out the show. He wanted to hide in shame from her. His more rational self told him that would be cruel, but he knew at the same moment he could not just act as if everything were the same and begin to change his behavior toward her. He would apologize. He would ask her to forgive him for using her and tagging her along all these years; for his patronizing, self-seeking, chauvinistic, shithead behavior. He would do it tonight. He would not put his head on his pillow until he had sought her pardon. The moment of academic prophetic realization—stimulated by Fressia’s mention of Campbell and Barnes—bore down on him like a heavy weight.
When the show was over she came down from the stage and hugged him.
“I got good tips,” she beamed. “And the manager gave me another fifty for playing. This is a classy place.”
Eliot smiled and nodded. Emotion churned in him so badly he felt he would cry if he tried to speak.
“Who was that woman who sat down with you?”
“Someone who teaches at State. She’d read my books.”
“I knew she couldn’t be one of those fifty-something women you said stalk you at book signings. She was dressed too hip for that.” She caught the look on his face. “Eliot, are you okay?”
He shook his head.
“What? Janelle didn’t call you, did she?”
“Janelle is irrelevant.” This did not sound convincing given the way he had acted earlier at the mention of her name (though now he saw she was irrelevant and that he should have let go of her long ago). “Orion, we need to talk. You know this town better than I do. Is there a place we can go? A quiet place, maybe a coffee bar?”
“I can think of a couple of places,” she said, looking at him like she thought he might be going off the deep end. “Why?”
“Like I said: we need to talk. I’ve got some things I have to say to you.” When she stared at him in fearful bewilderment he added, “Good things—stuff about you and me—things I really need to let you know.”
She nodded. “Okay,” she said, her voice still uncertain. “Let me get my money and pack up my equipment. I know a coffee bar that’s open 24/7. We can talk there.”
She went up on stage and snapped her guitar into its case. Eliot knew she would deny his exploitation and mistreatment of her. She would deny it but deep inside she would have to acknowledge it because it was the truth and, unlike the shallow, self-centered bastard he had let himself become (or perhaps had always been), she was a woman of truth, a genuine, loving person. He had taken advantage of her uneven circumstances. He would make it right. If she would have him, he would show her his love. He only hoped she would forgive him and not close the door and leave him outside in the dark—even though that was probably what he deserved.
When she had packed up her equipment, collected her tips, and taken a check from the owner, the two of them walked out the door into the windy night and headed for his car.