From outside the coffee shop across the road, Julia watches Charlie Miller leave the diner. It starts to snow again and if she narrows her vision to exclude all else, she can almost believe that she is looking at an idyllic scene. Snowflakes drift softly through the golden glow emanating from the diner window. Waitresses move about inside with coffee pots, amid the chattering, happy diners. Charlie Miller, in jeans and cowboy boots, plaid flannel shirt poking out from a nondescript brown jacket, completes this perfect portrait of nostalgic Americana. But then he pauses outside the diner and crosses his arms in a tight knot across his chest. He stares straight ahead, as if he is viewing hell. The image of blood and clotted brain-matter leaps up before her eyes. She stuffs it back into the box too small to hold it, only to wait for the demented jack-in-the-box to spring again.
Her cell phone vibrates in her jeans pocket. When she sees that the call is from her dad, she jams the phone back. Charlie Miller starts walking away from the diner. She can’t steel herself to follow him, not yet. She chucks her uneaten fruit smoothie atop an overflowing trash bin. The smell of grease and fried flesh from the diner nauseates her. She can see Charlie stop at a red light. His arms still clamp around his body. Had he been able to eat his fried eggs and fried bacon and fried potatoes, or had he left it all untouched? Had he sat with the rest of Afton Blake’s band, who usually eat at places like this when they were on the road—or did he sit in a corner by himself? Because Julia has been with the group such a short period of time, she frets that she doesn’t deserve the rock lodged in her throat. She imagines Charlie’s rock to be a boulder—he and Afton had been musical partners since the beginning of her career. He is old, like, maybe fifty. She lights a cigarette, and when she looks up, she can’t see him. Her stomach seizes in panic. Her body jerks into a couple of agitated steps, until his head reappears farther down the street. She takes a deep drag on her cigarette and exhales into the frigid air, afraid she will break apart like ice.
Her phone buzzes again. What can she possibly say to her father? She will be incapable of articulating how she feels, and he will be disappointed. And she will be responsible for his disappointment.
“Hey,” she answers, with a deliberate angry edge to her voice. And yet, when she hears him speak, homesickness washes over her.
“Yeah, I’m okay.”
The wind lashes her cheeks and stings her eyes.
“Yes, I ate.”
The smoothie is dripping to the pavement and freezing with the falling snow.
“No. I am not smoking.”
She tosses the butt into the pink slush. Charlie has finally disappeared from view and she has an uneasy sense of him being swallowed whole.
A huge black dog plunges toward her, weaving and pulling his stumbling owner after him. As it occurs to her that in some other life this would be comical, she realizes that her father is asking about the weather—the probability of a premature snowfall—only early October—blah blah blah. She has to force herself to go back to the theatre, to hopefully find that the clean-up crew has finished erasing the remains of Afton Blake from that oh-so-small room, and her father is talking about the weather.
“It’s fine, Dad. The weather is fine.”
She could ask him if it seems fair that a suicide is handled like a crime scene. Or if he has ever seen a dead body. Outside of a funeral home. A horrifically, violently dead body.
“Yes, I have a coat.”
She yanks the hood of her sweatshirt up over her ears.
“Dad, I’m twenty-five years old. I know I have to make sure I get paid before I leave.”
How have Julia’s musical aspirations led her to this tired, shabby, wanna-be city with its smallish wanna-be skyscrapers? The cheap neon has a befuddled quality to it, illuminating a noon that is as dark as evening. It is October, the month of Indian summer and apples and foliage. It is supposed to be beautiful.
“I love you too, Dad.”
Julia listens to the emptiness for a few seconds after he hangs up. Then, she crosses the street, passes the diner, and follows Charlie into the void. The snow spits like angry leaden bullets.
“Afton is dead,” someone barks into a cell-phone and rams into Julia so hard she almost stumbles into the room. He doesn’t even flinch, just keeps barking and walking. She bristles about the shove, but what chills her is the way those words have been uttered—completely devoid of human feeling, as if this death is nothing more than a colossal inconvenience, as if the speaker is actually angry with Afton for shooting her head off.
Julia braces herself and looks in. The room isn’t much to begin with—a simple holding room or dressing room where an artist can wait before performing. Now it has a naked, unnaturally sterile appearance. The cinderblock on the far wall with the tiny window has been scoured to a less dingy white. The posters from years of music festivals and the autographed photos have been removed. She wonders if Afton planned it that way—to splash bits of her brain across the faces of Bob Dylan and Jack White. The case of water bottles that had not yet been put in the small fridge is gone, as is the overstuffed chair. Two metal chairs remain, oddly prominent. The table still stands, but in a different position. Before she can stop it, a vision of that table invades Julia’s mind—the vase tipped over, drip-dripping water on Afton’s body, gerbera daisies and baby’s breath and a sickly pink rose spilled over her as if on purpose, making a gruesome design with the pattern of her gypsy skirt and the pools of blood. A bouquet intended to wish her luck.
The sterile chairs and the little table in the stripped room make Julia think of an interrogation room. And how life is like sitting in that room—with a harsh light irradiating your face and a voice in the shadows firing challenges at you, waiting for you to slip up, to say the wrong thing, to give yourself away, to expose you as a weak failure. Shortly after Julia had been hired, Afton drilled her about every one of her visible tattoos. Afton was strangely cold during those questions, as if her interest was purely clinical. Julia had felt like a scientific specimen under a very hot, yet brilliant gaze. Now, she imagines Afton as the insect—pinned to a piece of cardboard, being poked and prodded and burned with a magnifying glass of judgment. Julia had perceived an I don’t give a damn attitude from Afton that didn’t seem to be about rebellion or narcissism, but rather about being done. She has no way of knowing if Afton had always been the rather caustic, aloof person that she had briefly known. Maybe Afton simply did the best she could until she couldn’t do it anymore.
As a teenager, Julia frequently felt, with genuine passion, that she could no longer go on living. This real suicide, however, holds no romantic melodrama. The terrible finality of it smites Julia. The bustle of business and of people marching on strikes her as coldly callous. The clean-up crew will store their hazmat suits and drive their van through a drive-thru for burgers. The police officers, back at the station, will resume their debate about whether the Red Sox or the Yankees will go to the 2004 World Series. The theatre people will continue to harass Afton’s road crew about the van of equipment. Afton is dead. And Julia has to eat, gas up her jeep and head east. And so, she must search out someone who can tell her how to get a final paycheck.
Julia finds several people in the theatre. Charlie sits on a crate on stage. He leans forward with his elbows on his knees, his face arranged in a bland mask. Afton’s upright bass player, her manager, and one of the sound guys sprawl out in the seats. Julia realizes that she has walked in on a discussion about a memorial service. The atmosphere is askew, somehow, and it immediately makes her nervous. The bright house-lights almost blind her, and highlight every flaw in the theatre. The gilt paint on the ornate ceiling is flaking. The red velvet of the seats is frayed and faded. Julia wants to crawl into a cocoon where she doesn’t have to see how ugly everything ultimately ends up being.
“Man, we should have something,” says Joe, the bass player, visibly exasperated. Julia likes Joe. He has been on a mission to expand her musical horizons. It will now be unlikely that they will ever discuss King Crimson.
“Who would come? Fans?” Afton’s manager scoffs. He resembles a squirrel with his beady eyes and jittery face and sandy-red, bushy hair.
“Well, yeah, she has no family, but there is us, isn’t there?” Oh Joe, thinks Julia.
“Who’s gonna wanna hang around this crummy town?”
“It wouldn’t have to be here.”
Squirrel rolls his eyes. Julia thinks this conversation warrants a more serious attitude. Where is everyone else? Shouldn’t they all have a say in this?
Rick, the sound guy, throws his legs over the arm of his chair and says, “Hey, maybe old Charlie wants a service. Hey, Charlie, you want to memorialize dear old Afton?” He laughs, nastily. Rick the Dick.
She glances at Charlie to gauge his reaction. His face has transformed into stone. Julia guesses that no one but she can see that his deceptively casual posture hides a deep tension. His jaw pulsates and he rhythmically opens and clenches his hands. Bluish bruises stain the skin under his eyes and his shirt is buttoned crookedly. He stays silent, with what looks like extreme effort. Julia doesn’t understand his silence. She assumes that, of the lot of them, Charlie would have desired a service for Afton. Julia has often puzzled over the nature of Charlie and Afton’s relationship. She never saw them act like friends in the usual ways. They hadn’t even talked all that much, and yet, they had an ease with each other, a synchronicity. Contrary to what she has previously believed, Julia now wonders if mutual need is sometimes enough.
“Okay, fine. You guys don’t want to do a service—whatever. But, Christ, could we have a little respect?” Joe hurls at Rick.
“Oh come on. We all know she was a psycho freak. A goddamn circus side-show. And here we all are without jobs and with her mess to deal with.”
Julia watches Charlie jerk forward—as if he is going to get up—and then, immediately, sink back down. A red flush sweeps over his face and the vein in his forehead bulges. He appears ready to implode. Julia tries to will him to defend Afton. He does not.
The venom in the air since she walked in the building confounds her. Despite the weird vibe she had got from Afton about the tattoos, and despite all the gossip about her breakdowns, Julia had not disliked her. She hadn’t minded that Afton wasn’t an earth mother figure with her. Julia was, after all, there to work—to learn the basics of travelling with a band. She was willing to do anything—sell cds, clean, put those water bottles in the fridge—just to absorb some of Afton’s genius. Have they forgotten her genius? Aren’t they supposed to be sharing memories or something? Isn’t that what you do when someone dies? Like when, a few towns ago, Julia had bought sandwiches for the homeless man who was camped out by the hotel. When some of the guys wouldn’t stop heckling her about it, Afton stopped the barrage with a single stare and a firm, Shut up. Afton scrutinized Julia, as if she was, finally, truly seeing her. Julia is unsure now what to do with the pride she had felt then.
A door slams shut at the back of the theatre, stalling the argument. The new lead guitarist saunters down the aisle, homing in on her, leering. The twenty-year-old is Afton’s manager’s misguided attempt to appeal to the younger crowd. However, to Julia’s young mind, Charlie’s virtuosity is enough.
She cannot understand why this kid is always messing with her. She is clearly not the type—big-boobed, blond, and fawning—that he hooks up with in town after town. She is small and reticent, and just recently added a purple streak to her dark spikey hair. Maybe he enjoys the thrill of the hunt and all that male rubbish. As he gets closer, she can read his t-shirt: Fuck you, you fucking fuck. At first, she thinks that her conservative Missouri upbringing is insinuating itself into a reaction of offense, but decides that the way he is wearing it—with a flamboyant surety of shocking—is what pisses her off.
“Hey, Julia.” He makes her name sound like something dirty.
“So, did you know your name is, like, a Beatles song?”
She wants to point out that Julia was John Lennon’s mother, but figures it would be a waste of time. What an idiot.
“So Julia, got any plans for later?”
Rage courses through her. What is wrong with these people, anyway? A woman is dead. By her own hand. She wants to scream. She wants to make him cringe. In your dreams, loser. Instead, she leans back and puts her elbows on the edge of the stage, and tries for a Charlie Miller stare, stony and impassive.
“Yeah, okay, whatever,” he laughs, not getting it, not getting her, not even getting the stupidity of his own shirt. He puffs up his t-shirted chest like a peacock and turns his back on her. Julia gives him the finger. FYYFF. The bemused grin that Charlie gives her makes it so worth it.
“What are you still doing here?” Squirrel has finally noticed Julia.
“I haven’t been paid.”
“Give me your address. I’ll mail it.”
Her father expressly told her not to agree to this, but the urge to flee overpowers her. Squirrel hands her a chewed-up pencil and a worn business card for a plumber. On the back of the card, she scribbles the address of the friend’s place where she will be crashing. He shoves it back in his wallet, and raises his eyebrows while jerking his head toward the door. You can go. After all, you are nobody.
One of the other sound guys walks out on stage carrying Afton’s blood-stained cello. “What should we do with this?”
The cello case had been found on stage, the cello in the room with Afton. In recent years, she had rarely played it. Squirrel had insisted on a new direction.
Squirrel says, irritated, “Jesus. I don’t know. Why didn’t they get rid of it? Must be unsanitary, right?” Julia can’t believe that with all they have been through, unsanitary is what he comes up with.
“We could put it back in the van with the other equipment,” sound guy responds, spinning the cello back and forth on its endpin, back and forth. Julia’s skin crawls.
Rick says, “It’s creepy, man. You guys know it’s creepy, right?’
“We should keep it with the other stuff,” injects Joe, stricken.
Julia reaches inside herself and asks, “Can I have it?” She locks eyes with Charlie. No one else has heard her. Louder, she repeats, “Can I take it? I’d like it.”
They all gape at her with varying degrees of outrage. Squirrel begins to say something, but Charlie cuts him off. “Let her have it.” He rises, strides over, takes the cello and lays it carefully in its case. The only sound is that of the buckles snapping shut. “You ready to go?”
Julia and Charlie walk in silence across the parking lot. It has stopped snowing, but the air is damp and smells of food rot from the dumpsters. She almost apologizes for the shabbiness of her jeep, but decides he probably won’t even notice. They manage to squeeze the cello in next to her guitar and duffel bag. Julia wishes she could find the words to say something profound to Charlie. She says, “Thanks. Thanks a lot.”
He holds out his hand, which confuses her for a second until she realizes he intends a handshake. For the few seconds that her hand is held in his strong grip, she wishes she could hug him.
He says, “Good luck, Julia,” his voice rich and warm, and then he turns back to the building.
While she waits for the jeep to warm up, she stares at the vacant lot on the other side of the chain-link fence. Life at that precise moment seems so incredibly hard, so far from her family in this god-forsaken city.
In the future, whenever she thinks of Charlie, she will remember the solid grip of his hand and the way he had said her name—how he had launched her safely back out into the world, with possibility, with music. When her memories produce blood and brain-matter, she will choose, instead, to imagine a story for Charlie Miller and Afton Blake—one in which neither one was lonely, one in which the snow always fell softly on each new town and they could always find a diner that served breakfast specials, hot turkey sandwiches and homemade apple pie, with ice cream.