Solo Artist – Miles Coleman
October 26, 2022
My old high school sweetheart and I were making love, or remaking it. She looked like she’d aged about twenty years since graduation. But we’re in our mid-thirties now, so –
“Babies,” said Loren, and clawed. “Lots and lots of babies. Let’s do it. This could be our last chance. Come on, Nate. What do you say?”
“Babies?” I said, and kept up the humping pace.
“Yes, lots,” she said. “Remember what we used to talk about? Our pact?”
I had a bad memory for teenage years. Words slipped and what stuck were feelings, clouds of cold fear and quick joy. I remember her father, for instance, roaring at me after she’d been poisoned by vodka. I remember a vein in her nostril that I learned to love. I remembered the old abandoned beach house where we’d light candles and grope over ancient sheets. There was nothing about babies, but that sounded all right to me. My prospects were dim or burned out. My life could use some luster, maybe a kid or two.
“Yes, absolutely,” I said.
We moved each other across the bed. This was during the lonely part of my life when every touch felt like a promise. “Nathan, yes!” she said. I told her it was Nathaniel now. Things had changed, but mostly just the names. Music used to be my “passion,” now it was my “paycheck” or a “gift card.” I hauled gig bags to dive bars and happy-hour eateries, set up shop in dark corners and makeshift stages, watched conversations deaden in the soft muffle of my talents.
I was a solo artist. I penned my own verse and set it to song.
“Fill me up, Nathaniel,” she said. “I want all your life.”
It seemed reasonable.
“We’ll move to Mexico,” she said. “You bring your guitar and croon on beaches. We’ll have a hundred children. We can collect clams and oysters and suck them raw. Shuck and suck, Nate. We can lie on a hammock and listen to the ocean curse. We can garden tomatoes and avocados, bottle our own guacamole – oh!”
I spilled into her. I’d never let loose inside a woman before. It felt like I’d polluted something beautiful. She held me close and patted my back. She was kissing my chin and neck and forehead.
She had a nice apartment. From pillows, I admired the potted ferns and covered balcony. I rented a studio with foam walls I’d glued up myself. I had rugs on rugs. I could get used to a place like hers, but I had a gig at Doolin’s.
“Hurry back,” Loren said. “We’ll have another go.”
She was half asleep already. A few faint wrinkles dressed the corners of her eyes. Most of our peers had married by now, bore children and happy-seeming lives. I pulled her close.
“Why did we ever break up?” I asked.
“We fought all the time. We beat each other up. Bottle rockets, remember?”
“We lit up the sky.”
I kissed her between the eyes and slipped to the street.
I went downtown. This was the late crowd. Go-Go girls flicked ash. Yuppies tried to bum cigarettes for a buck. I hauled gear and pedestrians yielded. The drum rested over my shoulder and I kept my gig bag in hand. I squeezed past strangers, pinched shakers and pedals between my hip and arm. Cable cords dragged over pavement. Police were overseeing addicts and collecting dirty needles. A woman sat down on a hot dog. I stopped at the liquor store and picked up a six-pack, popped one off for a homeless man like a citizen, a father to the people.
Backstage, I unfolded a folding chair, cracked a beer.
“Nathaniel,” said Fey, the manager. There was no Doolin. “Jesus, you’re late.”
“The band’s still on,” I said. “Relax. Have a beer.” I popped her a warm one.
“Did you bring that in? You know we’ll comp your drinks, right?”
“I like to earn my pleasures.”
Thomas came over. “Table twelve just dashed and puked.”
“Tommy Boy, guess what?” I said. “I might be a father.”
“You?” he said. “The solo artist? The un-collaborator? I hope she’s rich.”
“Thomas, get the mop. Nathaniel, you’re on deck. None of that slit-your-wrist shit. I want upbeat. I want Friday.”
I gigged up, plugged in. The crowd was thin and youthful. Years ago, I had yearned to comfort the disturbed, disturb the comfortable, but now I was stuck coddling the cozy ones. That was all right – I didn’t mind softening our wealthy, moony youth. I could fill them with hope before they became lawyers, make a more sentimental courthouse. I stomped the drums and sucked the harmonica. My voice was deep like Leonard’s and ugly like Bob’s. One foot kicked bass one kicked snare. I strummed. My guitar was steely and rich. I stroked it with a bare thumb, finger picked some showy bits.
After the show, a kid approached me at the bar. “That was a tight set,” he said. “I dig the feelings. Where’s all that pain come from?”
“Dreamed it up.”
Two girls joined him and bought me something clear and vicious. They leaned in and spoke like earnest pupils. “Your song, ‘New Ennui.’ It rings very true for Gen Z. I played it for my parents and they hated it.”
“Your parents are wise,” I said. “It means nothing.”
“Preach,” the other girl said.
“I am preaching. And while I’m at it, you should listen to your parents. Age is wisdom. How old are you? Were those IDs fake? Listen, don’t listen to me. Don’t listen to music. Or if you do, listen to someone moral, like Bach.”
“You sound like my dad. It’s kind of hot.”
“We’re heading back to my place. Come with, Daddy?”
It was late, early. They weren’t pretty, but they looked vital enough. The fixable things were in good order – teeth, skin, noses – but the untouchables were iffy. We shared the backseat of a SUV. Their perfumes made a sex of the air. The boy went by “Ev.” The girls were Gwen and Whitney. When I asked how they knew each other they giggled. It was impressed upon me that they all had slept with each other, created a kind of erotic clique. Their giddiness bored me. I asked if they had any coke.
“Upstairs,” said Whitney.
We entered the lobby of a ritzy hotel near the harbor and took the elevator up. Whitney hit “PH.” Ev asked if I’d ever been to a penthouse before.
“Ev. What’s that short for? Evan?”
“That’s a bad question, Evander.”
Upstairs, the place had lights that beautified. At this height we were angels, though the drugs might have helped. Whitney dumped moguls over marbletop and we made queues. Ev fussed with the bar, measured out shots of oaky spirits. We got wasted on the good stuff. Through the windows the street was way down.
“This is your place?” I asked Whitney, and lit something smokable.
“My dad’s. He’s out of town.” She wrestled off her heels. “Bermuda. Bosnia. Something like that.”
Gwen lifted her shirt and showed us where she’d stick-poked something unintelligible. The ink had bled over her ribs. “I’m old!” said Gwen. “My God, in a month I’ll be twenty! I’m nearly dead – what do I have to show for it? A few bricks in a Nigerian school? Tremendous credit score? Tight abs?” Ev slipped a book off the shelf, quoted Camus. I told him to put that away. “Think with your ears,” I said, and fed some Mozart through the speakers. Whitney threw her legs over my lap. The moguls flattened and vials emptied. Medicine circulated. I confiscated the tube that was going around. The prescription was for a Roger Warschuk. There was no Roger here, but they all had his disease. Gwen had it bad. She was grinding her teeth now, her hair.
I tapped Whitney on the knee. “Your friend looks bad.”
“You’re going to be a good dad. You’re very fathering.”
This was a difficult time. I felt between worlds, or maybe just otherworldly. I was either crying or sweating, dreaming or burning. I was either going to settle down or die. We thumped along to Wolfgang’s fortieth. Two months later I called up Loren.
“Nate?” she said. “What time is it?”
“I love you. I am the ocean pearl.”
“Nate, are you OK? Where are you? I’ve been trying to call you. Let’s talk.”
I told her to meet at the old beach house. It wasn’t a beach house anymore, just a tiled patio beneath a mansion that owned the cliff. The ocean was still around, spitting up over beached logs. Loren was seated over the rocks in a sweater when I arrived. She looked older than I remembered. I sat beside her and tried not to shake.
“Let’s do it. Lock it up.”
“Nate,” she said. “Listen, don’t freak out. But I took a test.”
“Don’t freak out.”
She told me she was pregnant. I drove an elbow into her stomach. She folded over and spat up. She coughed and cursed, called me things I hadn’t heard in a while. I stood up and walked to the next cove and smashed my fist into beachrock. I could feel the pain through the painkillers. My hand turned mangled and raw. I passed out under a playground. When I awoke I found knuckle bone poking through the skin. A cop told me to move. I was frightening the school children. It was morning or afternoon. I went home, swallowed a hundred pills and went to sleep for good.
In this dream, my hand never heals right. There’s no feeling in the fingers and I can’t hold a pick. I’m backstage working lights and audio. I aim the big gold beam at the lead. My good hand steadies the spotlight and I keep the botched one hidden up my sleeve. Tommy Boy calls me “Hook,” though there is no hook. A sweet girl is telling me it’s endearing. She’s telling me it’s OK. It’s not love, she says, but it’s not nothing.