The Trouble With Recording Joy

The band hailed from upstate. Davis heard them for the first time underground one morning at 34th Street Station, a few months after he arrived in the city. He was living in the back of a British expat’s apartment, a space accessible only through a hobbit-sized door from the bathroom off the main stairwell. The good thing about the place was how it cost only a few hundred dollars per month. The bad thing was almost everything else. But he forgot all that when he heard the guys playing their songs about drinking, outlaws, and close scrapes, with only a few dollars in your pocket and the companionship of a woman who, when it came down to it, just might be the one behind the barrel. The band performed with a restive, anarchic energy, one of the singers, a hefty guy in a fedora, coaxing strains from an accordion while the rest seemed always on the brink of fisticuffs or ecstatic vision. Late in the summer, Davis saw a notice about the band online and marked down the date of an upcoming show.

Since moving, Davis had achieved a stable of temping buddies to go drinking with, but none that he knew well, and sometimes in lieu of making a social effort with half-strangers he elected to go places on his own. He had let his hair grow long. He spent an obscene amount every five months for a stylist to cut it short, exactly proportioned so that when it grew out again, it would continue to look like a real style. If he were the sort of guy to blog or write a self-help memoir, the title he imagined was How To Get By on Two Expensive Hairs Cuts Per Year and Not Look Like a Total Deadbeat. An asterisk beside his name. * Brother of Movie Star.

Luke’s face appeared everywhere: high-end fashion ads, an out-of-date movie billboard over the B.Q.E., and, inevitably, the internet. People wrote that Luke was a Lothario or they wrote that Luke was a closeted homosexual, and wherever Luke showed up, it always seemed to be with a different woman. Davis glanced at a few of these links with mild amusement, like a shared joke between him and his brother, but never mentioned any of the shit he read—that is the word Luke used, so that was the word Davis had come to use—the few times per month when he e-mailed. Calling was a much rarer occurrence given the odds against success: Luke was hopping from one project to the next, one continent to another, without breaks. If he responded to an e-mail he tended to respond with an immersive account of his day, and whether Davis would hear back from him was always an unknown. They may have spoken on the phone for hours the week before, seeming to augur a more constant approach to keeping in touch, only for Davis to find the next time he wrote, an e-mail would go unanswered for two or three weeks by which time he had forgotten exactly what it was he had written.

The basic facts remained. Their father was alone in his never-to-be-finished house on the shores of Torch Lake, Michigan, while their mother had moved with Maria to Sarasota. Luke, after being nominated for a number of best actor awards for his part in a Kennedy biopic had taken on the bodily proportions of a super hero in a summer flick promising a long tail of sequels. For the part, Luke gained untold pounds in muscle mass, existing on a force-fed diet that required he wake-up once in the middle of the night every night to consume bowls filled with beef strips and eggs whites doused by olive oil, then immediately begin the next morning with almonds, and another micro-meal every three hours. His personal trainer also was named Luke, a Hawaiian native, and Davis and his mother would receive photos by e-mail of their Luke’s lean frame morphing under the guidance of the other Luke into a ripple-veined stack of knots. Until shooting began and his figure became the center of attention, Luke had a sheepish smile as if he, too, could not believe how he appeared, the raw might his image commanded, and this from someone who always shied from physical confrontation.

“I thought I was a jock in high school,” wrote Davis, “but looking at you, whoa, just dreaming.”

The night of the show in August was heavy with humidity, and Davis wore his gray windbreaker over a black t-shirt and khakis frayed along the seams. The show was spirited, the crowd hurrahing, beer flowing from the taps and lassoed outward in a spray from the stage as the set reached its climax. The keyboardist and the front-man dueled to see who could command more attention from the crowd as they took turns promising “salvation in this church of rock ’n roll.” Even if there was no church, or not really, Davis got how that is what drew the crowd toward the stage, all these watchers, a spirit of reverence for the frangible thing that was the ambition of a single group of musicians. Never having attended religious services as a child, not for his mother’s suburban Judaism or his father’s small-town Catholicism, the outlaw fracas strain of spirituality appeared as apt as any—not untrue to the way Davis felt when exploring traditions that ordered the paths to righteousness. He would one day cease to be, sure, and so would every one else despite the ever-hectic bustle. Their father was an exemplar of what could happen when ambition turned on itself. Having witnessed Luke’s ascent to fame, Davis told himself that he was fairly levelheaded. He told himself he was disillusioned.

There was a girl close to the stage glancing over her shoulder at him throughout the show, shaking off from the spray of beer and sweat, and running her hands through her curly reddish hair bunched in a chignon. He leaned against a pillar. She could have been the subject of his stare, or it might have been the band. His face would not tell.

The guys left the stage. The girl clapped and her friend did too. Davis clapped. The guys came back and played three more songs and again filled the room with their voices saying thank you and repeating their names before disappearing with nods and half-curtseys, except the keyboardist who looked ready to wave live snakes above his head while beseeching his audience to speak in tongues. The rawness, the up-from-the-depths feeling was palpable as he wavered there, branded on his feet, and Davis thought of Luke stumbling drunk from John Sternow’s truck into the house during high school and meeting his eyes in an unrestrained way that said he wasn’t afraid of his older brother anymore and that Davis wasn’t any more to be reckoned with than was Luke himself. It was an affront to Davis, a misguided one, he had thought then. He had believed the structure of their family absolute. He was the older brother.

Well, in Los Angeles, things changed. Davis milled within the diminishing crowd until certain the girl had reached the stairway to the street and then followed, footfalls quickening as he mounted the steps two at a time for fear she and her companion might keep on walking to the corner, any corner, beyond which point they could turn and be gone forever. Outside, the temperature had cooled and there were the street noises, woorshes of machines pushing by and expressive honks delivered in idiosyncratic rhythms. Grown-up kids on the sidewalk gave shape to their chosen fashions, detaching and recombining in circles like the subjects of a curious osmotic waltz—only less ordered than all that, or ordered in a way Davis couldn’t comprehend. Faces neared, registered an impression, spoke to each other. Only not the face Davis wanted. Then a group of shaggy haired kids parted, and he saw her standing there with her friend by a sapling planted in a perfect square of soil.

He felt totally exposed: way too obvious that he had been looking for her. He kept walking down the sidewalk and away from the club.

And as Davis walked he thought about inertia and how objects tend to continue on the path they have set for themselves and how easy it was to do except for the fact that his thoughts would eventually have to resolve themselves to wherever he actually ended up and where he was going to end up if precedent meant anything was the back of the British expat’s apartment. That is, if he kept going to the subway. Meanwhile, the question his thoughts were obsessively worrying over was of the girl in her low-necked yellow dress with a navy top on beneath it, the girl who had looked unabashedly into his eyes when he walked by, expression adamant, and what Davis did was get to the corner where a stop signal lit up for the crosswalk, and once stopped, he managed to turn around.

Both of the girls stood where they had been before but more closely together, having closed ranks after he walked by, no longer looking at anyone except each other. The girl he wanted to know about spoke animatedly, the shoulders of her yellow dress heaving. She turned as he neared and her eyes had an out-of-focus quality as if impatient with the show people put on in the street just by being themselves. But, maybe, thought Davis, he had sparked that impatience himself by blowing past like a goof. Was that conceit on his part? Her eyes came into focus and she appeared less like a brooding atmosphere than a woman standing on a sidewalk finishing a cigarette. The friend, brown-skinned and apple-cheeked, gave Davis a good stare.

“Any chance I can get a smoke?”

The girl looked at her boots, which were green with a swirly drawn couple at the toes serenaded by a whimsical sky.

“I think I’m out,” said the friend, patting her corduroy jacket.

“I’ll spot you a dollar,” Davis said.

“It’s not that,” said the friend.

“Here,” said the girl, rooting through her tote bag.

Her face was tilted downward and to the side, cast in profile, her visible eyelid averted in a manner that appeared a secular cousin to penitence: This Is Something We Do, Although We Know We Ought To Do Better. Her earlobe was large and drooped with the weight of a silver earring shaped like a leaf. The all-night lighting from the commercial signs fell across the crown of her head. Then she was looking at Davis, features doubled, and she said, “There you go, man,” placing cigarette and lighter in his extended palm. Davis had prepared a line and was ready to deliver it when she added, stepping back with an air of studious evaluation, “Pardon my saying so, but I’m pretty sure I’ve seen your face before?”

He lit the cigarette and responded without looking up, “I get that sometimes.”

“Do I know you?” she asked with a laugh poised to release.

He placed the lighter in the girl’s open palm and smiled. The wariness lifted from her green eyes. Davis introduced himself, stating only his first name. A quilted pattern along the fringe of her neckline seemed to speak of ancestral knowledge.

“Anne-Marie,” said the girl. “And…” gesturing at her friend, “Farrah.”

“I’ve seen you somewhere before,” said Farrah.

“I have that effect,” said Davis.

They started talking, Davis minding Anne Marie’s guarded body language with care. They talked about the concert, pagan festivities, and those guys. “They’re all brothers,” said Anne-Marie, “except Stevey, and he’s the one you want to take care of the most.”

Her posture opened up a little. Stevey had looked in bad shape, like he was not present on stage while playing the washboard but lodged somewhere on a boat traveling a remote river into an ever deepening night. Davis figured that that is probably what Anne-Marie meant about wanting to take care of someone, the sort of personal appearance that would prompt such a feeling. Davis spoke the names of other bands he loved in various tones, and Anne-Marie spoke her own in response. Farrah seemed momentarily cool with acknowledging that Something was Happening.

How long in New York? About a year. About the same for him. Anne-Marie hated her job, personal assistant to some finance douchebag. What about Davis? How did that pay? What was that like? Davis wanted to be a lawyer, an advocate for underdogs. Anne-Marie? She wanted to do something else, that’s why she had moved to New York from Vermont. Davis went to college in Vermont. Oh? Smiles. How amazing. Because she grew up there? Where? Farrah said they really ought to go do that thing. Davis stepped back like, shit, he understood about that thing. He said, hey, if you want here’s the number for the paralegal outfit that gets me work. Call and say you’re a friend. Oh, and did she want to go for a drink or something sometime? Well, yes, she’d like that. Alright! He got her number. He’d call! Hey, he was wondering: what was the ‘something else’ she wanted to do?

Painting, Anne Marie called out from down the block. “I’m an artist!”

Davis felt roused and clear of purpose and unassailable on the ride back to Park Slope. A man asked him for change on the train and he gave all the change he had in his pocket. The speakers announced it was illegal to panhandle on the subway and Davis nodded at his outlaw complicity in the window glass opposite him. He would contact Anne-Marie mid-week. He’d ask her to a gallery show. He could see how well it was going to go. He jaunted to a bar on 5th Avenue and ordered a few beers to contain the feeling of how well it was going to go, and people looked at him but he didn’t give a shit. The bar was dimly lit. Over the exposed brick on one side hung a dusty map of the Great Lakes. Davis had never noticed before how taken in sum their contour was kind of like that of an upside-down brontosaurus. Or was it called something else now?

He was on the sidewalk again, then mounting the shoddily carpeted stairs to the bathroom. Though lacking any architectural feature to categorize it as such, the interior felt gothic in its stark decay. On the top floor, above where Davis slept, lived a screenwriter, and the screenwriter would wander the hallway late at night to call old friends or conduct business in a deep voice. Davis might have kept walking up those stairs and introduced himself to the man, then handed over Luke’s contact information in the way a conscientious spirit might water a plant. But the guy was not there—only coatings of dust—so Davis opened the bathroom, ducked through the hobbit-door, and passed out without removing his shoes.

He awoke not long afterward, immersed in darkness, to the blaring of a television from the British expat’s bedroom across the apartment. The digital clock-radio read 3:48 a.m. The space was laid out with Davis’s bedroom separated only by floor-to-ceiling curtains from the home office on her side of the apartment. At the far end of the office glowered the door to her bedroom.

The British expat was in her fifties and wore a leather jacket when she went out. Two different men had come up to the office to dine with her since Davis had moved in, necessitating earphones or flight for Davis. Her manner was typically brisk but proper, the impression of politeness clarified to Davis’s ears by her accent. He had never so much as glimpsed the inside of her bedroom, but now he crossed the apartment to knock on her door. After a second knock, he waited. The television kept blaring, the game show announcer’s relentlessly cheerful voice, hill-and-valley enunciation. Davis knocked again.

“What is it?” she shouted over the television.

“Hey, Penny,” he said. “Trying to sleep.”

The studio audience applauded and some kind of awards bell rang. Then Penny shouted, “Get earplugs!”

Davis was going to shout in response, then thought better of it. He padded back over to his side and poured himself a glass of water to sooth the chance of hangover. Trying to forget the confrontation, he decided to see if he could find Anne-Marie online. He would use her telephone number. He turned on his flip-phone, set it down on the narrow desk, and opened his laptop. He tried typing her number from memory into the search field. Nothing came up, and when he looked again, he noticed he had typed only nine digits. He cleared the field. His hand darted for the phone again to make its screen light up, striking the glass of water. Instinctively he snatched the laptop up as water streamed from the tipped glass in rivulets into his lap. His phone was resting on the desk in the middle of a puddle. Its screen flashed, then flickered, and went dark. Penny, Davis noticed, had turned off her television. It was quiet again.

Three weeks later, Anne-Marie showed up with two other fresh faces in the conference room where Davis and fellow temps were sorting through documents from discovery over a mahogany table. As Regina, the brisk first-year associate, pointed to where she should sit, Anne Marie exchanged a glance of commiseration with Davis, noticeable enough for Regina to pause. “Oh, do you two-?”

“No,” said Anne-Marie. “Well, yes. But no.”

“Encounter session!” chimed Regina with a workplace smile, indexing the moment in order to shoot past it.

Ten young people were configured around the conference table. Mostly, they welcomed these daily gatherings: Ben, an aspiring actor; Kyle, an aspiring musician; Leisl, an out-of-work, aspiring reporter; Alina, who wanted to go to grad school for city planning; Clayton, an out-of-work banker currently performing guitar gigs at Irish bars; Spence, a performing DJ; then Davis, Anne-Marie, and the new people. Once Regina left the room, banter resumed. They went around the circle with introductions and when it reached Davis he said his name in a hangdog way and professed himself a believer in the church of rock ’n roll.

“I lost my phone,” said Davis after cornering Anne-Marie in front of the noodles at lunchtime across the street. She wore a lime-green shoulderless top. Davis had on a robin’s egg blue button-down and red tie. “Well, no. Actually I didn’t lose it. I gave it a bath. Which the phone didn’t appreciate.”

The clean bright interior of the eatery was organized like a super-market, myriad dining choices faintly glowing. Anne-Marie gauged his expression with moderate amusement, then stepped to the side to find the dish she wanted.

“If you decided not to call me, you can just say so. I did take advantage of the number for the agency, so it isn’t like I’m at a loss.”

“A loss of…?” said Davis.

“Psssh, I don’t know!” said Anne-Marie. “What would you call it?”

“Post-concert randomness?”

“Or fate?”

“Not a subscriber to free will?”

“I mean, yeah, but doesn’t it all become fate in time?”

“Sure. But a sad one if you don’t let me take you out for dinner.”

“Hmm, do you think coworkers should really go on date-like functions?”

“Are we really coworkers?”

“I’ll have to look in the manual for what they say about that.”

“Just dinner. We’re barely even here. I need your number again before the forces that be...”

“Let me think about it,” said Anne-Marie.

 Around the mahogany table, the DJ Spence, who was seated nearest Anne-Marie, began to flirt, and Davis tried to hide his jealousy by concentrating on the work in front of him, which everybody in the room knew was the most boring possible, photocopies of photocopies he had to sift through to ensure that one set of photocopies exactly matched a second set of photocopies. There were hundreds of thousands of pages. The only possible interest was if the photocopy in question contained some piquant exchange. It was a godlike but deeply fractured way of zooming down on a person’s life, most of the subjects in question being present or former employees of the corporation whose legal straits had compelled it to talk to lawyers whom it could pay to care. The case revolved around bankruptcy and the concealment of that bankruptcy, plus the dumping of stock by corporate executives as best as Davis could tell. Multiple corporations were involved in the end, along with these weirdly named housing loans, all of it having something to do with interest payments for modular housing, but really, for Davis, right then, it was just a lot of words to look at while feeling anxious.

Then Anne-Marie brought Davis into the conversation with Spence—it was about how the joys of gardening related to those of DJ-ing—and, at the end of the day, she paused in front of the elevators and gave Davis her number a second time. Their forearms brushed. She took his number this time too.

They went out for dinner that Friday, a French restaurant in Park Slope. She wore a long-sleeved black shirt that accentuated her figure and pulled the ends of the sleeves down over her fingers when she let go of her fork. Talk hinged on movies they had seen and videos online. Davis made passing reference to the St. Louis he had grown up in. Anne-Marie spoke of the middle of the country as a great unknown and an online video clip of a guy with two rifles across his chest that he called his babies. “It’s a very strange world,” she said, “and I often feel worried by it.”

Stopping along the sidewalk on a quiet block, Davis pointed out architectural features of the houses, a series of brownstones followed by a Tudor, a Queen Anne, and one that was kind of Queen Anne but also fairly Beaux Arts. The breeze picked up. Davis inhaled deeply and said it was a lovely night, perfect temperature, and Anne-Marie said she didn’t know how many of those nights they would have left before autumn arrived in earnest.

They undressed each other in the bathroom, and Davis turned on the showerhead in the claw-toothed tub, lifting Anne-Marie and depositing her under the warm spray. The kissing was rhythmic and hungry, and Davis watched her hair come undone in the spray after Anne-Marie reached behind her head to remove a rubber-band. Her breasts in the shower-spray absorbed him and she watched what he was doing as if she knew that that was what he was going to do. She started to breathe deeply and let her eyelids down. On the foldout sofa that was his bed, he kissed her belly button and the inside of her thighs, then asked whether she had any cooties.

“Not the kind you mean,” she said.

When Davis kissed her lips again, he felt a pubic hair on his tongue and separated his face from hers to pluck it out. They talked late that night after she had brought Davis off to weird interior thought. He had thought of Cynthia in Los Angeles with whom he had not spoken in over a year. How crazy was all that? He needed to restore sanity to his life, structure. He needed to do something of lasting account. He didn’t know whom Anne-Marie might have been thinking of, but, someone, he was sure.

She asked Davis if he was a Jesus freak.

She mused about the fantastical creatures that lived in her head, how painting was a way for her to manifest all that. She told Davis he looked cute when he pretended to concentrate on documents at work.

They made out in dark corridors of the Midtown office-tower and sat together in the cafeteria on the top-floor where they spoke in crisp professional tones under the eyes of the lawyers, including several partners who gushed from the next table about the doings of a TV gangster who only wanted to live an upper middle-class life free of federal hassle. Anne-Marie told Davis about her father’s family, the Hendrys, enterprising French trappers from Canada who had been on the continent since the late 1700s and of her mother’s side, one generation removed from centuries in Prague, and Davis told her about how he was Russian and German and English and Italian, and probably Welsh, definitely American, and a few nights later they did again what they had done the previous weekend, only this time in the Red Hook apartment Anne-Marie shared with Farrah, her best friend since college, and Davis fell asleep quickly on Anne-Marie’s plush bed and awoke the next morning with an eye pressed to her nipple. They kept going to the office and affecting a cool distance betrayed only by the fact that they usually ate together, and a few weeks later they were screwing with such force and abandon that Davis could not help wondering what Farrah was hearing through the bedroom wall she shared with Anne-Marie, once all their energies dispersed in hot breath and sheens of sweat.

“She’s into girls,” said Anne-Marie. “Sometimes ridiculously beautiful, girlish guys who don’t tend to hang around? We’re happy for each other mostly.”

They listened to rock ’n roll from Anne-Marie’s computer on the glass-topped desk. They listened to songs of the band from upstate. Then Anne-Marie asked Davis about his brother.

It was almost as if Davis had forgotten he even had one.

He had seen his brother’s face in passing during the month that he and Anne-Marie followed each other everywhere but the ubiquity of that face looked to Davis more like a ridiculous accident of fate and not the imprimatur of a pop cultural conspiracy dedicated to making him conscious of his exclusion from all the fun in life, all the meaning.

Luke’s poster image, it occurred to Davis, was ephemeral to almost the exact degree to which the ephemeral could be measured. Anne-Marie said that she really, really had been crazy about Luke’s sitcom Bits & Pisces, especially the episode where he dances alone in his room. Then Davis spoke about his time in Los Angeles, leaving out any mention of Cynthia Melero, and with only distant interest, as if seen from the greatest heights of the sky, the chutes and ladders by which his brother had arrived in public consciousness. It seemed to Davis that this is probably much the same light in which Luke saw his own rise to fame: happy accident, not plotted inevitability.

“You are close, though?” asked Anne-Marie, her voice vibrating through Davis’s chest, one ear monitoring his heart.

“Yes. And no,” said Davis. “We’re two very different guys. We’ve each gone our own way.” After he said it it felt much truer than before.

“What’s your path, Davis Gambier?”

He shifted around in bed and she shifted around in bed until, again, they were driving against each other in a way that Davis was totally certain Farrah could hear, although he did not really know whether she was even in there—it was a question that could go either way: maybe the room on the other side of the wall was occupied, maybe not: only the closed door knew for sure—and when Davis came with great ecstatic gulps he tried sneaking an “I love you” into Anne-Marie’s uplifted ear to see if that felt true too. The assignment at the first law-firm ended, and they kept seeing each other, and Penny asked Davis to move out because he and his friend were “far, far too chirpy,” and they kept seeing each other, and one night, on the roof of the building where Anne-Marie lived, Davis delivered an improvised speech about how he was the great Davis Gambier, Brother of a Movie Star, and nothing, nothing, had ever seemed funnier to him in his entire life. Anne-Marie laughed too, maybe a little more warily, as she recorded his speech on her phone and told him to “please be careful please.” He was balanced on the parapet and starting to sway with his laughter.

“My name will be heard through all recorded time,” Davis said with a flourish, waving both hands in the air.

Anne-Marie gasped.

Davis was assigned to another firm. The DJ Spence was there. They took turns staying late, as the firm regularly requested materials be prepared by the following morning, and one night, as Davis sorted papers in the office of an associate who had gone home, he glanced through the window to the hotel across the street and noticed three girls in their late teens in one of the randomly lit quadrants, dancing to unheard music in their underwear. Instead of arousal, Davis felt hilarity, the girls’ zest, little knock-kneed birds: to have a body on this earth and be able to do exactly what you wanted to do, and then to be frustrated when you spent all of your time not doing what you wanted to do. Davis imagined the other lawyers or paralegals or temps throughout the building, that night or any night, who might look out a window to catch a scene possibly prurient in its composition, and he thought of the isolated darkness of those who could only stare, stranded in their staring, while recognizing that not very long ago the person stranded staring had been him. Then he felt enormous kinship with all the starers and a desire, were it possible, to lift his present joy from his head and disperse it into as many of those staring as his joy could reasonably cure—if that was it?—and as he thought this he became conscious of his heart beating in his chest and the twinned pages turning in his hands, photocopies of photocopies, records of some wayward corporation’s vacant interiors spilled under a glare. 

Contributor

J.T. Price

J.T. Price's fiction has appeared in or is forthcoming from The New England Review, Post Road Magazine, Joyland, Construction Magazine, Opium Magazine, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. More at www.jt-price.com.

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