Words and Music: Middletown Dreams

The damn blinds were jammed again. It seemed to be a sign of something, the fact that a couple of years ago, they would have been repaired straight away. Now, it was on a list of things which Services would get to eventually. Then - Roger had seen this before - they'd send up some kid on a subcontract who didn't know one end of a screwdriver from the other, and he'd almost fix it.

Meantime, he could still just about get them to close by banging firmly on the glass just so, and the screen between him and the sales floor would be closed enough for him to have his privacy. The guys - the ones still young or foolish enough to be here past six - would recognise the bang, and the sound of Roger's door closing, and know to leave him alone. The only danger was a visit from a VP, but as far as Roger knew, they were all at some conference in Arizona.

If Roger had occupied this office even ten years before, there would have been a drinks cabinet, for entertaining customers, and a secretary outside to look after Roger, but things had apparently moved on. There had been an edict that customers were not to be offered alcoholic drinks on the premises, and the provision of computers - and, more recently, laptops - meant that Sales Directors were expected to do the work a secretary would have done before. Roger had held on to his secretary for longer than most; she had been a kind and thoughtful woman, who always seemed to him to have some kind of sad secret in her life. He knew that she had been widowed young, and had raised a kid on her own, but he had never thought to inquire beyond that; a small gift on the child's graduation - it was a daughter, he remembered - and the occasional comment on a photograph on Emily's desk were as far as he felt he could go.

Emily had been a constant in his working life until she was finally let go - early retirement, they called it - four years before. She had been in the typing pool when he first arrived, had become his favourite for her quiet deference and her appreciation of his humour - less acidic then than it was nowadays. As he gradually acquired seniority, Emily came with him, as a senior typist, then as a secretary. And now, he was expected to do all this on his own. All the customer contacts and reports; all the figures and memos - emails, they called them now - all the presentations.

Roger smiled thinly at the thought of doing his own presentations. When he first went out to visit customers, he had a few hand-drawn pages and a professionally printed brochure. The Art Department - another victim of the changing times - had crafted anything you wanted in a matter of minutes, and Roger had worked hard on his own skills with coloured pens and even those transfer letters which usually only lasted a few days before beginning to fade or rub off. There had been a long period when everyone was convinced that computers were the answer, but to Roger, they seemed to produce something half as good as the old handmade pages in twice the time. Now, of course, the technology had caught up with the desires of the younger breed, and everything was done straight from the laptop.

In spite of the edict, Roger kept a couple of bottles in his bottom desk drawer. One, the 'cooking whiskey', was for those customers he had known for many years, and who could be relied upon to expect something, even if it was served in plastic cups these days, and a bottle of The Macallan, reserved for important occasions, celebrations, and increasingly for Friday evenings such as this one.

He bent for the bottle, and in passing wondered just when he had begun to grunt every time he bent over. He hadn't noticed it beginning, but now he couldn't remember not doing it. He was tired; tired all the time these days, and there still - even with grown-up children and a wife who seemed to have a life more or less separate from his - wasn't enough time to keep up with life and get as much sleep as he seemed to need. He settled back into his expensive leather seat, and wondered as he poured where the paunch had come from, and why he didn't seem to have the energy or the willpower to shift it.

He played less golf these days, to be sure, and the more vigorous sports had gone many years before. Roger's athlete's frame had simply seemed to shift and sag over the years, and there was nothing he could do about it now. He poured himself a generous measure and leant back in the chair. Recently, he had noticed an alarming tendency to drift close to sleep when he was in this kind of mood, and he wondered if being found asleep at your desk by the cleaners would be seen as a sign of someone who was working so hard he had no time to rest, or of someone who was ready to be put out to pasture.

He surveyed his desk over the rim of the plastic cup. There was the obligatory family photograph, of course - Mary and the boys on a fishing trip when the boys had been on the verge of their own lives; one at college, one about to graduate High School. He smiled at it; it was a happy memory; perhaps one of the last. Roger had just been promoted to Director level, and given this office and a bigger car; the trip had been part of a holiday paid for with his last salesman's bonus - bonus payments for Directors were in stocks and options, which often left Roger feeling worse off than he had been before.

His laptop and cell phone sat in one corner - Roger often felt they were scowling at him for some reason - untouched for much of today. He supposed he should open up the computer and read whatever messages had been left for him during the day. No doubt there would be a dozen or so requiring his urgent attention, but he had no energy or enthusiasm for the task after the day he'd just had. He considered the stack of paper in the middle of the desk; all of it probably equally urgent. He could see a revision of the next brochure waiting for his signature of approval, but he was beginning to feel actively uncomfortable about putting his name to designs which seemed less and less to be about informing customers, and more about confusing them and delivering an idealised vision of a company he no longer recognised. He was a salesman, for God's sake; what was wrong with talking face-to-face with customers, telling them what was what, and asking for an order? All of that seemed to have gone by the board.

If you stood and faced uphill, you could almost be in the countryside. It was like a field of corn or something, except Luke wasn't entirely sure what a field of corn actually looked like. If you spend your whole life in the city, and your parents' lives are basically fucked up, you don't get to see many fields of corn. Luke said something about this to Zach, who laughed at him.

"What? What now, Frogbreath? Fields of corn? Look behind you - just the regular nothing-to-do, nowhere-to-go shithole. Back to your dreams, frog"

Luke resented Zach, but still counted him as a close friend, the way it often happens at 14. Frog and Frogbreath had come from a biology class the year before, when Luke had somehow managed to make his dissection project explode all over his face; for a while he had laughed about it, but it was now beginning to get kind of old and tired. Not for the first time, Luke wondered what he was doing here.

Another reason for resenting Zach was that he already had the rockstar name - a simple change of spelling turned him into Zakk Ryder; perfect for the band Luke had in mind, although Zach had no interest in playing anything, Luke had always assumed he could be the drummer, but now he was beginning to wonder. The more he listened carefully to things, the more it seemed that drummers actually had to be proper musicians. This was a bit of a problem for Luke. Not only did he have the name to deal with, he had his friend's inertia and lack of interest in anything beyond failing to be in school, and, increasingly of late, girls.

Luke's own name irritated him greatly. Not only was he clearly named after a Star Wars character, he had been saddled with his father's last name, which was not only not particularly rock and roll, but was also close enough to something extremely rude to be obvious to even the least bright of his classmates; when he wasn't being called Frog, he was constantly worrying that teachers, or worse, girls, would be able to hear what he was called in the corridors and the yard.

His latest decision, therefore, was to rechristen himself with a rockstar name. The current favourite was 'Jake Cutlass', but the fact that he couldn't bring himself to mention it to Zach probably told him something. He sighed, and sat down in the long grass - he knew enough to know it was actually just grass - and immediately closed his eyes and began to play air guitar to the song in his head. Zach laughed, and produced a pack of cigarettes from somewhere.

"Want one, Frog?" Luke snapped out of his reverie and shrugged - he had smoked a couple of times with Zach, but he was not particularly keen on the idea. One of his teachers was always going on about being 'too cool to smoke', and while Luke knew it was a transparent appeal to the vanity of teenagers, he still felt there was something in it - he didn't like the way Zach smelt, and he was, even in his 'immortal' stage of life, frightened of something. Perhaps it was simply his father's temper.

"No, Zach. Not today. Don't feel like it."

"Suits me - more for me." There was a pause while Zach fumbled inexpertly with the lighter, then a soft sucking noise and a loud cough. Luke smiled - Zach was not quite as experienced as he liked to think - although he knew he might pay for that smile in some way later in the day.

Luke lay back and looked at the sky. It was what the books called a 'perfect early summer's day'; the sun was warm and the biting insects still hadn't emerged. He began to relax - they had been gone from school long enough now to know that they weren't going back today; if they had been missed, the consequences would be felt tomorrow, and tomorrow was a year away.

A year away - he'd be 15; almost old enough. Almost. He had read about some 15-year old kid who had auditioned for a local band who then turned out to be one of the biggest in the world. He couldn't remember the details, but the idea had stuck with him. 15 was old enough, although some days it felt like he was old enough now. He shook his head slowly. No, that wasn't right - he didn't really feel old enough now; he still followed Zach around, for instance; still did what Zach wanted to do. Luke never quite felt in control enough to explain that he quite enjoyed math, and he'd like to stay in school today. Zach wasn't exactly a bad guy, but he had bad guy tendencies, Luke thought.

The thought prompted him to sit up and find out what his friend was doing - Zach was notoriously unable to sit still for more than a few minutes, and, true to form, he was actively investigating whether the grass was dry enough to catch fire from a spark from his lighter. Luke coughed; not quite brave enough to tell his friend what he actually thought. Zach looked up: "What? It's fine - too wet anyway."

"What if it catches?"

Zach laughed "What if it does, Frog? We can piss it out, or we can just run. Be kinda cool, don't you think - watching the place burn down." He set about his task with renewed vigour. Luke, from some hidden urge of self-preservation, got up and walked back down the slope, toward the city and the smoke from the mills on the far side. He did what he always did in these situations; occupied himself with remembering the chords to the song he was learning, stretching his fingers out by his side as he tried to remember the fingering.

His guitar was the one constant in his life; he loved it - a present from parents guilty in some way they probably didn't quite acknowledge about what their lives had done to his. When he wasn't at school or out with Zach, he was in his room, learning and practising song after song. Without an amp, the sound was tinny and thin, but in his head it all sang and wailed. He imagined himself on stage in front of thousands of bobbing heads - all of them awed not by his charisma, but by his technique.

Emily was used to being feted - she had been a late bloomer, like Georgia O'Keeffe, she liked to say - and felt that the admiration and critical praise she garnered were her due for all the years spent in drudgery. The O'Keeffe remark amused her, because it tended to sort out the connoisseurs from the dilettantes; because most images of O'Keeffe showed her as an older woman, there seemed to be a perception that she was a late starter as an artist, whereas - as Emily knew full well - she had been a celebrated painter in her twenties.

Emily's work was not particularly O'Keeffe-like; she painted realistic and gritty urban streetscapes which, she said, came to her in dreams. It seemed more likely to her that they would come to her from TV cop shows, but that wouldn't excite the critics as much, or do a lot for her mystique, so the dreams stayed in the story. She liked to talk at length about how her years in the typing pool engaged only a small part of her brain, and allowed the remainder of it to flourish, since she didn't play the office politics, or engage in the cattiness of the other women.

This, she felt sure, would make her seem somehow 'other'; not of the mundane world, and, as far as she could tell, it worked - she had a reputation as a mysterious, almost other-worldly, figure and she did nothing to discourage talk of her apparent ordinariness concealing great depths which were only glimpsed in her painting.

The paintings themselves had been discovered almost by chance by a New York gallery owner in town for a family reunion. He had been driven, he said, to distraction by the endless bickering of his cousins, and while trying to walk off his frustration, had been stopped in his tracks by one of Emily's paintings hanging in a local restaurant window. There had been a certain amount of almost comic misunderstandings before dealer and artist were brought together, but once he had established that Emily was the genuine article, he had taken responsibility for her career - her real career, she liked to call it.

Her apparent middle-aged dowdiness had been subtly tweaked - her hair was allowed to grow unruly, and was often left untended for days, the better to reflect her artistic temperament, and her formerly obsessive neatness was gently encouraged into something more approximating a bohemian carelessness - all, it was explained to her, for the benefit of the public who would lap up this image - the undiscovered genius living in the heart of a Midwestern city whose artistic vision could move the hardest-hearted of critics to tears.

She was often asked about her previous life as a secretary -'personal assistant', she would insist with a gentle smile - and she managed somehow to cultivate the appearance of being reluctant to talk about it while allowing carefully chosen nuggets to become public knowledge.

Her profile in Time had dwelt at length on her relationship with her old boss, hinting subtly that it might have bordered on the abusive; she let slip details of his tendency to lean over her - 'I'm sure it wasn't deliberate,' she said, 'but I'm certain he could see more than he was meant to, if you know what I mean.' - and tell off-colour jokes which she would laugh at, knowing that there would be consequences if she didn't - being forced to work late, or to fetch and carry his dry-cleaning, or to cover for him with his superiors when the whiskey fumes from the corner became a little too obvious. Many times, she claimed, she had tried to get away from him, to be reassigned, but he kept her close, almost smothered her, and in the end she thanked him for it - "I wouldn't say 'forgive', but it comes close", she would admit, smiling. "Without his presence, my art would never have taken root - he kept me in that dormant frame of mind which allowed my creativity space to grow."

Her relationship with her daughter was another fertile area for profile writers - she was unsure herself exactly what she wanted the relationship to be. She often hinted at illegitimacy, although that was not true, and at a much harder time in the early years than her daughter would have recognised. Emily occasionally felt bad about this, but reasoned that there was a certain artistic license allowed, in the interest of keeping up the image. Florence, the daughter in question, had moved to the west coast after graduating High School, and Emily was glad that there was enough vagueness in her descriptions that no media outlet had yet caught up with her. The revelation that Florence was now a highly-paid litigator with a famous, if not infamous, Los Angeles firm, might have dented the artistic sheen a little.

In truth, Emily didn't see Florence any more, and wasn't always certain why this should be - they had not, as far as she could recall, fallen out in any major way. Florence was probably too busy, she thought to herself, and in any event, an artist's life does not always allow too much distraction.

Distraction was, or seemed to be, Emily's enemy these days. She had the clear impression that something in her life was missing; that she had either forgotten something, or had somehow yet to discover it. The art must come first, she kept telling herself, but perhaps it was the public life she was expected to lead which distracted her from what was important. She really must cut back on public appearances, she thought, and made another note to remind herself of the fact.

The notes piled up on every available space in her cramped apartment, and seemed to complicate her life further. She knew that there had to be something not quite right about living like this - she blamed her artistic temperament, but there was more to it than that - but she lacked the will to do anything about it. She picked up the telephone to call her neighbour down the hallway, but couldn't for the life of her remember the number.

Emily felt the energy begin to drain from her again - the artistic energy was as volatile as any other kind, she felt, and had to be preserved. The best way of doing this, she had discovered, was simply to lie down and close her eyes until everything else went away and she was left with the clear vision of her next canvas. She settled down where she was, just behind the front door, and waited for inspiration.

Luke was most of the way back down the hill before he thought to turn and look for Zach; his friend was engrossed in his task and hadn't noticed Luke slip away. Suits me, thought Luke. I'm going -

He paused. Where was he going? Home was out of the question - his mother would be there, and he didn't feel like facing her again after this morning. School was a possibility, but if he had been missed, he would have to face up to his misdemeanour alone, and without Zach's lightning conductor to deflect blame, he would feel horribly exposed - one of Luke's guiding principles in life was to be as inconspicuous as possible - the reason why the frog incident and his last name rankled so much - and he decided he would rather face up to things in the morning in Zach's shadow.

He walked on, not looking back in case Zach had either succeeded in setting fire to the hill or was running after him with some other scheme for passing the time. On an impulse, he decided to cut across the vacant lot beside the grocery store and go past the apartment building where he lived - if there was no sign of life, he might just go up and collect his guitar. He might even take it back up the hill later - Zach would be bored before long, and would find some other outlet for his restlessness. Luke walked with a new purpose in his stride; alone, he could indulge his fantasies of the future; walking down this street shadowed by a documentary crew following him on his triumphant return to his hometown, eager to find his inspirations. What he wouldn't be telling them, of course, is how his inspiration mainly consisted in his desire to leave.

He swung happily around the corner of his own block, lost in his dreams, to be confronted with a large white paramedic vehicle outside his building. A small part of him looked at this dispassionately; all valuable material, the rock star in him thought, before his instincts took over and he broke into a run.

Luke knew all the things that were wrong in his mother's life - he knew she suffered at his father's hands; he knew that she drank too much, and that she had bottles of pills in her nightstand, but somehow he could never quite fit it all together to form a coherent picture. He simply knew that he had to find a way of living around the maelstrom that was his parents' marriage without getting too involved. He knew as he ran that he could be running toward a medical emergency which directly affected him, but he seemed unable to take that idea in; he just wanted to know what had happened.

The back doors of the ambulance were open, and there was a steady crackle of radio noise from somewhere within, but no sign of people; no sense of the urgency the TV shows gave you. Luke paused at the entrance to the apartment block; he looked quickly up at his mother's window - funny, he thought, how it's her window; we all look out of it at different times, but I only ever see her there - and, seeing no clue in it, ran in to take the stairs three at a time.

He rounded the last corner to find his mother, more ashen than even her normal pallor, leaning against the door jamb and staring at him. She nodded briefly, as if to a passing acquaintance in the street, then turned to go back in to the apartment. Luke followed mutely; his imagination spooling down and leaving him wondering how to explain his presence, mid-morning on a school day.

He had no opportunity to speak, however; his mother stared at him, then began to recount her tale:

"They found her in the hallway, just lying on the floor. Just like that. Could have been there for a few days, they said." Luke stared blankly at her.

"Old Mrs, Andriewski. You know; her girl - Florrie or something - used to sit for you. Oh, you don't remember." Luke did, but the idea of something happening to Mrs A. seemed somehow anti-climactic. An old person; one who had taken to wandering around with her hair like a scarecrow, and who frightened Luke sometimes - although he would never admit it - with her muttering and raving, had passed out in her apartment, and presumably, given the lack of urgency there seemed to be, passed away.

He shrugged, and turned toward his room without interrupting his mother, who had now embarked on a lengthy explanation of how the daughter had been such a nice girl, but how she had gone off the rails - his mother's favourite expression for everything from flunking math to serial murder - since she left home. Luke could smell alcohol, and guessed that it was not unusual for this time of day. He shrugged and mumbled something about having work to do.

He closed the door behind him, and lay down on his unmade bed. For a time, he could still hear his mother expounding to no-one in particular, and then she gradually stopped. A short while later, he heard her banging doors in the kitchen, then she evidently went out - whether to interrogate the neighbours or on some errand which would probably involve the liquor store at some point, he couldn't tell.

Luke found his guitar and lay back down with it. Almost without any conscious effort on his part, he began to play - simple scales and chord patterns, things he had taught himself, and as he played he closed his eyes and dreamed of the future.

Roger was fond of saying that you should never go back. He had always applied it to business; if a salesman left the team, he should never try to come back in to it - it never worked out; if a sale fell through, he would find a different way of approaching the problem - never go back over the same ground, he would say; find a new avenue of attack.

Increasingly, however, he wished he could go back, just a little. He didn't romanticise his childhood particularly - he felt his was a dull, but worthy upbringing, but he romanticised his twenties and thirties - he had been vigorous, capable and charming - he had the world at his feet, but had failed to see it. If only, he thought, he could go back then with the experience he had now. He would be a world-beater. But you can't go back; you should never go back.

He topped up the plastic cup again, and thought of Emily. His day had been hard enough without the news - he no longer sold things to customers, it seemed; he spent entire days sometimes selling his decisions - the discounts he allowed his department to give, for example - to the company and arguing with baby-faced accountants over a tenth of a percentage point here or there. At around three in the afternoon, he had taken a call from a detective, which had alarmed him slightly until he reasoned that detectives don't telephone you with really bad news; they send uniformed cops round. He answered one or two perfunctory questions about Emily, of all people, and almost hung up before he had the presence of mind to ask exactly why he had been called.

Poor Emily, he thought. To end your days like that - undiscovered on the cold floor of your apartment for almost a week. He wondered who had reported her absence - too late, he tried to stop himself wondering if a neighbour had noticed a smell.

It seemed that Emily had gone downhill quite quickly after retiring - her apartment had been full of scribbled notes and child-like sketches, mainly of the building where she used to work, and she seemed to have stopped taking care of herself some time ago. Roger's name featured in several of her notes; the detective wouldn't go into more detail, but explained that they were the reason he had called; just to establish that Roger did in fact know Emily, and could confirm that she wasn't, in fact, a famous but eccentric artist.

This, once he had gotten over the momentary fear that he was going to be asked to come down and identify her body, had made him smile - Emily used to confide her dreams in him from time to time; she had always wanted to learn to paint, but her husband dying so young had meant that she had spent her life behind a keyboard rather than an easel. Roger sighed and drained his cup. He thought of Emily's daughter, who - again, according to the detective - had dropped out and was living in some kind of squat in San Francisco; he wondered if her mother's life had driven her to be completely different, and if so, whether she would remember her mother fondly and grieve for her, or would feel glad to be free of her shadow. He thought of his own boys, taking their own paths, but ones not so different from the one he had walked.

He resolved, as he closed down the office and walked to the elevator, to call both his sons that weekend, and see if he couldn't involve himself just a little more in their lives. But, at heart, what he knew he wanted was to have his own life again, and to live it more.

As his expensive German car crawled out on to the freeway, Roger thought again of Emily's life, and of how he could mark it in some way. He felt he should make some gesture which she would have appreciated - perhaps even something as drastic as taking a different exit, and just driving on until he found his dream.

But however hard he looked that evening, he couldn't see the exit marked 'The Past'.

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