Because when you’re on fire, you’re on fire. My brother and future science fiction writer “Adam Vance” was born this morning with his own Gmail and WordPress existences. Our sister Angelina, as you know, didn’t do so well in her literary efforts, so she became a Buddhist monk and disappeared into a remote Himalayan monastery, never to be seen again. We wish her well!
I’ve already got a strong outline for Episode One of the SF-serial-to-be. And I’m feeling good about Rocky and Dex, too. I’m producing, but not “rushing,” blabbing out words just to get it done. I’ll do what I can for the next two weeks, and then Adam gets control of the computer for a while.
Having this new, totally different non-romance project has been the best thing FOR my romance, seriously. I’m realizing that I DO LOVE to write the sweepin’ feels, even if they aren’t that lucrative. I reread “Given the Circumstances” yesterday and cried my eyes out. Because I’m that good, dammit, that I can even make me cry – me, who hates to feel the fuckin’ feels! 🙂
But, and this proves I’m an American, I have a Six Thousand Six Hundred Dollar out of pocket coming up on my health insurance in January, which I have to meet all too quickly on medications, so…yeah. If my romance ain’t sellin’, I’ve GOT TO get something going that will put up the buxx for that. In no other country would a writer’s biography include the line, “but, because he had to fork out a ton of money for his health care, the direction of his creative ambitions had to be totally rethought.”
Anyway. MORE of Rocky’s backstory, for your Sunday pleasure!
Rocky’s first day of class at UGA was also his eighteenth birthday. He was officially an adult in the eyes of the law. But he’d never felt more like a child.
Any small town kid going off to a big university gets a culture shock. But for Rocky, it was even more intense. Kids wore t-shirts with sayings he didn’t get, quoted from TV shows and movies he’d never seen.
He quickly learned not to ask questions about them, either. In his freshman English seminar, he’d tried to strike up a conversation with the guy next to him. He looked pretty cool, Rocky thought, like an art student or musician. Rocky had read his t-shirt and had no idea what it meant.
“The Dude Abides?” he asked. “What does that mean?”
The guy looked at him, startled. “It’s from The Big Lebowski.”
Pause. “A movie.”
“You know, Jeff Bridges?”
He heard the snorts and giggles around him – the ridicule of the insecure, when they’re relieved to find that they’re not the lamest ones in the room.
In Art 101, the young teacher asked if they’d done the pre-course reading. Silence. The professor shook his head. “I was elected to lead, not to read,” he said in a weird accent.
Everyone laughed but Rocky. Then, spontaneously, other kids in the class started spitting out quotes. “Underachiever and proud of it, man!” “Every time I learn something new, it pushes some of the old stuff out of my brain!”
He realized there was a pattern – the chain was running up and down the rows of desks, and soon it would get to him. They all turned to look at him when his turn came. He had no idea what they were talking about, but he knew that to guess or make something up would be the wrong move.
“I got nothing,” he said. “You guys beat me to it.”
“Now he knows how George Washington felt when he surrendered Fort Necessity to the French in 1754!” the guy in the Dude shirt said, to even more laughter than the other lines had garnered.
Rocky’s face turned red. He had no idea what anybody was talking about. The professor terminated the game then, and Rocky was able to bury his face in the syllabus as the professor discussed the class requirements.
“Where’s he been living,” he heard one girl stage-whisper to another. “Under a rock?”
He was at a school with over 30,000 students, and he’d never felt more alone. His shame and embarrassment turned to anger soon enough. How could his family have done this to him – how could they have left him so totally unprepared for the outside world!
He went to the library and Googled “lead, not to read.” Oh. The Simpsons. He’d never seen it. Between the ban on “satanic” popular culture at home, and the single-minded obsession he and Korey had shared over music, TV just hadn’t been a part of his life. He’d never minded, never missed it, and knew that most of what passed for popular culture was junk anyway. And besides, he’d thought, why waste time watching someone else’s idea of entertainment, when he could draw and play guitar and make his own?
Now, here, he finally felt the loss. It was as if he’d been raised by wolves, he was so out of touch with what everyone around him took for granted. Yeah, he thought. I have been living under a rock.
His roommate situation didn’t help him feel less alone, either. Somehow he’d been put together, through a well-intentioned and ill-executed bureaucratic attempt to spread diversity and understanding or something, with Harry Pierce, a hulking jock and Accounting major, a soldier in the Bro Army. So much The Bro, in fact, that Rocky actually saw Harry shield his eyes from the sun with his hand, rather than just, you know, turning his forever backwards baseball cap around and using the visor.
“Hey, little man,” Harry said their first day, “so you know about the tie rule, right?”
Harry nodded, his physical presence overwhelming. He was the sort of big dude who was already going to fat from too much beer, his bulk increasing but losing its firm contours.
“That’s okay. See, if you come back to the room and I’ve got a tie on the door, that means I’m with a lady, a’ight?” he said, the last word copped from the African-American hustlers on “The Wire.” When Rocky finally saw that show years later, bingeing it on a tour bus, he had to explain to his band why he was laughing so hard at the slang, at the discovery of just what a tool Harry really was.
Harry nodded, his eyes fixed intensely on Rocky. “Cool, man. High five.”
Rocky reluctantly let Harry slap his hand, too hard of course, and then grab it in a fist shake that squeezed his fingers painfully.
He found himself spending a lot of time at the library. The tie was on the door most evenings. Harry had a few years yet before he lost his charm to alcoholic bloat, and he was making hay while the sun shined.
Rocky soon discovered that Harry would forget to remove the tie from the door, after he was done with “the lady.” One night he came home at 2 am, booted out of the library when it closed, to find the tie still in place.
The girl across the hall, Annabelle, was a bookworm who kept her door open all the time – mostly so she could complain about how loud everyone was being, but also, Rocky decided, because she was a future nosy neighbor who couldn’t stand not to know what was going on.
“She’s gone,” she said, surprising him. “Left two hours ago.”
“Um, ok, thanks.” Rocky put his ear to the door. He could hear Harry snoring to beat the band. He slipped inside, undressed quietly, and went to bed. It took a few weeks before he gave up on blocking out Harry’s snoring with his mental powers, and got some airport-quality earplugs.
But some part of him didn’t mind the exile. Some part of him, a lot of him, really, was relieved that he “had” to spend so much time in the library, far from the madness in the dorm. Homework was a breeze, really, which left oceans of time for what he really loved.
The library was the most amazing thing at the whole school. There were so many art books, oversized editions with lavish plates and fascinating articles and stories to accompany them. Rocky set himself up in a corner where he could prop up a book and sketch copies of the pictures on his drawing pad. He had time, and space, and silence, and what felt like unlimited art supplies, thanks to Faith’s steady investment in his future all these years.
The “other” library where he spent his time was just off campus. Wuxtry Records was a musical shrine in this musician’s town. It was where Peter Buck met Michael Stipe, and Danger Mouse had worked behind the counter. Young people with a sense of their own impending legends would stand around, scowling seriously as they weighed the lasting cultural value of a Replacements album, ready to meet the Lennon to their McCartney. And the damn thing was, they just might.
He’d developed a nodding acquaintance with one of the guys behind the counter, whose name tag said “MR. PEABODY.” He looked like a musician – long black hair, black fingernails, black mascara, lots of silver necklaces, and tight black pants on his incredibly skinny legs.
Rocky looked up Mr. Peabody on the web, and discovered another cultural reference. It was an appropriate name, he thought – the dude’s encyclopedic knowledge of music was similar to the cartoon dog’s mastery of history.
Rocky didn’t buy much at Wuxtry. His grandmother’s money had to stretch as long as he could make it last. He knew he had to get a job soon, but knowing how much time that would take away from his art just, well, made him sad. It was bad enough he didn’t have anywhere to play his guitar, what with being locked out of his own room and all.
One night, though, he found a treasure in the discount bin. Cristina’s “Sleep It Off” was one of those records released in the 1980s that would have made it big had it been released ten or even twenty years later. Cyndi Lauper, it was not. More like Alanis Morissette, lyrically, a woman who could express her hurt and rage with dark angry humor. Its cynical, funny tone about a woman living the fast life and despairing of it just didn’t catch on in the bubbly, carefree 80s.
Mr. Peabody nodded approvingly at his purchase.
“That’ll be a dollar, please. You know this album?”
“Yeah, a friend of mine has a copy. I love it.”
The other guy working the counter (whose name tag said, appropriately, CHUNKY MONKEY) snorted, his chins wiggling as he did. “What’s with that shattered glass thing on the cover. Looks like a fucking Grace Jones record.”
“Same designer,” Rocky said. “Jean Paul Goude.”
“Synth shit, man.” He waved at the speaker. “Now that’s a song writer.”
Rocky and Mr. Peabody looked at each other. The song was David Gray’s cover of “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye.”
“That’s a cover version, actually,” Rocky said. “Of a song by Soft Cell. A synth shit song.”
Mr. Peabody chuckled, while Chunky turned red. “You’re wrong. Trust me. I work in a record store, man. I think I know what I’m talking about.”
“Shall I do the honors?” Mr. Peabody asked Rocky.
“Please do,” Rocky smiled.
He jumped over the counter and went directly to the S bin, where he picked up Soft Cell’s “Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret.” He went to the turntable, lifted the needle off the David Gray record, and replaced it with the Soft Cell record, putting the needle on the original version of the song.
Rocky loved this song. Marc Almond’s voice was so much more appropriate to the subject. In David Gray’s hands, it was a sad song, but the weariness Almond brought to it, the decadent “Weimar” feel the synthesizers created, just couldn’t be beat.
“Fuck you guys,” Chunky Monkey said, stalking off.
“I’m Sam,” the former Mr. Peabody said, extending his hand.
“I see you in here a lot.”
Rocky shrugged. “Guitar, a little.”
Rocky nodded. “Cool.”
“So I’m about done here, man, you wanna go hang out? Get a coffee? Form a band?”
Rocky laughed. “Sure.”
Sam’s roommate was Jet, a big friendly dude whose life consisted of working, sleeping, occasionally going to class, and playing drums. Their last roommate, the guitarist, had gone off to Nashville to try his luck in the business.
“So let’s hear you,” Jet challenged Rocky the first time he came to their house. He gave Rocky an electric guitar.
“I’ve never played one of these. I only had an acoustic.”
“Well, okay, hold on.” Jet rumbled out the door to visit the next door neighbors.
“You like him?” Sam asked Rocky.
“Yeah, he’s a nice guy.”
“I mean, like him. I’m just asking because you’re gay, he’s gay, maybe you guys wanna date or fuck or something, so you know, you should get it out of the way before we become a band.”
Rocky laughed. “Is it so obvious I’m gay?”
“No. Well, yeah. I mean, I see you checking out guys at the store. Big, hunky dudes. So I thought maybe…”
Rocky smiled. Jet was a big dude, not unlike Chad Smith from the Peppers – good looking in a friendly, shaggy kind of way. But not…not what pushed Rocky’s button.
“Really? I check out the big hunkies, huh? I grew up with a crush on Chris Cornell, I mean, he’s not big, but he’s tall… Anyway, no, Jet’s not my type.”
“Good,” Sam nodded. “Nothing like interband relationships to fuck shit up.”
“Not a problem.”
Rocky was a little stunned by both Sam’s certainty that they were a band already, and the speed at which it was happening. Maybe he’d thought of forming a band as some kind of long, drawn out process of tentatively feeling out other artists until discovering your creative soul mates. But instead, Sam seemed content to let a happy accident at a record store drive the action.
It was freeing to Rocky, to think this way. Everything in his life had been so regimented, the idea that these things could just be “random,” just…happen impromptu, startled him.
Jet returned with a guitar case in hand, its owner in tow behind him. “Rick here wants to get a look at you before he hands over his baby.”
Rocky nodded, shook Rick’s hand. Jet opened the case and Rocky gasped, suddenly realizing why Rick was being so careful. The Gibson Hummingbird was worth thousands of dollars.
Rocky picked it up reverently. Chris Cornell played one of these. What more did he need to know?
He knew exactly what he wanted to play. How many times had he performed this song, how many times had he stretched his voice, discovering his own vocal range? The notes of “Like a Stone” flowed from his fingers in a waterfall, the words a flock of birds flirting with disaster just above it.
He came to the end, the roaring finish, his eyes closed as he sang the epic cascade of notes in the last word of the song, “alone.”
He’d only ever played it with Korey, who was no cheerleader. Korey would nod, say, “Good job.” And then tell him where he missed.
When he was done, he finally opened his eyes. His new friends were speechless. “Was it okay?” he asked doubtfully.
“Holy fucking great mother of God,” Rick gasped. “Who the fuck are you? Where did you come from?”
Rocky smiled. “Under a rock. I’ve been living under a rock.”
And it was funny now, because he knew that part of his life was done. His new friends clapped and patted him on the back and (after sealing the Gibson safely back in its case) toasted him and their new band with one beer after another. And only then, now that his exile was finally over, did he realize how terribly lonely he’d been.