Excerpt: 'You Don't Love Me Yet'
The band barely fit into its rehearsal space, formerly the living room of drummer Denise Urban, now with its floor triply carpeted and bay windows draped with a bedspread to insulate the band's sounds from irritated neighbors. Denise, muscular and nearly breastless in a scant white T-shirt, blue eyes half covered by her high hennaed bangs, balanced on a stool crammed between her kit and the French doors to her bedroom. On a couch of threadbare gingham, beneath bookshelves drooping on their brackets, sat Bedwin Greenish, the band's lead guitarist, lyricist, and arranger. Bedwin wore plaid shirts buttoned to his throat, and cut his hair himself, with children's scissors. He sat coiled around his black electric guitar, corduroyed legs tangled in themselves, one sneakered foot bobbing, head dipped so that his glasses neared his fingers, which spidered on the guitar's fretwork noiselessly.
Matthew stood at the room's center, leaning on his microphone stand with his back to the drums, acoustic guitar strapped across his shoulder but dangling untouched. Matthew knew only rudimentary chords, his strumming inessential to the band's sound. He turned and stared unhelpfully while Lucinda, arriving last, wrestled her enormous hard case through the kitchen doorway. The room was silent enough to hear Bedwin throat-humming the notes of an imaginary solo.
"Hey," said Lucinda.
"Hey," said Denise.
"Um?" said Bedwin.
Matthew nodded as Lucinda fitted herself into her accustomed spot at his left elbow. A bass player's stance, pivot between drummer and singer, the only player to absorb everyone's reactions. She'd face Bedwin too, if he ever looked up. But it was Matthew's presence to which she attuned now, his delicate eyes so firmly unglanced in her direction. She felt a kind of heat impression of his contour glow along the side of her body that was turned toward his.
The sensation, pleasant or unpleasant, was familiar enough to ignore. She plugged in and tuned her strings. "Somebody give me a G."
Bedwin plucked a note, unamplified, then turned himself up and plucked it again. Denise rattled her snare warningly. Matthew coughed.
Lucinda boinged her ill-tuned string, but her ear failed her. "Sorry, another G?" Matthew and Bedwin each replied with their guitars. This time she nailed it.
"So, Bedwin's got something new he wants to try," said Matthew, still not looking at anyone in particular.
"Great," said Lucinda. Bedwin himself didn't seem to register the discussion, his glasses still magnetized to the guitar's neck.
"Sure, but let's do a run-through first," said Denise. The heartbeat of their music, she was also the conscience of the band's claim to professionalism. They hadn't practiced in ten days. So, the four shrugged halfway through their set list: "Shitty Citizen," "Temporary Feeling," "The Houseguest," and "Hell Is for Buildings." Then worked a few times over the ending to "Canary in a Coke Machine," struggling with the elusive full-stop timing. The band possessed these five songs, and five more. It was enough to make a set which, crisply played, lasted thirty-five minutes. A credible duration, if you relied on between-song patter and false starts, plus a break after "Sarah Valentine" and, you'd have to hope, a round of applause calling them back to the stage to .nish with "Secondhand Apologies." Credible, except the band was sick of "Crayon Fever" and "Temporary Feeling." The oldest songs in their set, both felt embarrassing and slight. They all rooted for Bedwin to write more songs. He hadn't in a while. Not that anyone meant to start panicking about it.
Lucinda adored thumping the fat strings of her instrument, constructing with the stretched notes a physical bridge between Denise's peppery beat and Bedwin's chords, a bridge across which Matthew's voice could scurry or shamble or cavort. She felt she ought to hide her secret passion for rehearsal, the uncommon extent of pleasure she felt in simply generating the same figures over and over, those low, mumbling bass lines Bed-win had scripted with her capacities in mind. She wasn't the fastest, but she'd been assured by better players that she possessed all anyone needed: She swung. She had feel. Lucinda took solace in these notions without comprehending them fully. Bass players were a secret guild, each abiding with the ungainly, disrespected instrument for the thankless bene.t of music itself. Lucinda had read somewhere of the argument as to who derived the most pleasure from the sexual act, the male or the female. She felt certain the musical reply would be: the bass player.
Halfway through teaching the band his new song—he'd stepped to the drums and quickly set a rhythm figure for Denise to play, shown Lucinda a bass line by playing it on the upper two strings of his guitar, then strummed chords for Matthew to follow—Bedwin seemed to lapse into glazed discouragement at his spot on the gingham cushions. The song was sprightly and appealing, its changes easy to remember and play, and the band cycled through several choruses hopefully, waiting for Bedwin to further enlighten them. But rather than suppling lead lines on his guitar or offering Matthew a lyric, he fell to silence, then issued a faint moan. The players ground to an incongruent halt.
"Hey, Bedwin," said Matthew. "You okay?"
"Sure . . . sorry . . ."
"Bedwin," said Denise, more sharply. "Did you eat anything today?"
"Um, sure, yeah."
"Tell me what you ate."
"I, uh, defnitely had some raisin bran."
"I mean any dinner or anything, Bedwin. Before coming to rehearsal."
"I can't tell you exactly when it was," he mumbled defiantly.
Sighing, Denise slid from behind her drums. "I bought some groceries today, all the stuff you like. How about some ginger ale and a baloney sandwich? I got some beer, too, if anyone wants one."
Bedwin shifted his guitar to one side, expending minimum effort in freeing himself from its weight, then ambled behind Denise into the kitchen. Lucinda and Matthew were left alone. Matthew ducked his head under his guitar strap and parked his instrument against an amp. Lucinda unloaded her bass. Accompanied by the faint music of Denise's refrigerator, which began chortling and whining the moment its door was opened, and the tinkering of a blade in jars of mustard and mayonnaise, the two moved to the empty cushions. The ramshackle couch saddled obligingly, dipping their bodies into contact at elbow and shoulder.
"I'm in trouble," said Matthew.
"I quit on Tuesday. Dr. Marian was so pissed she won't even let me into my locker. Shelf is dying of ennui and nobody will admit it."
"The kangaroo. You remember."
Lucinda and Matthew had sworn not to speak on the telephone. The ten days since their breakup had passed without those chance encounters for which, heart tripping, she'd braced at the entry to each of his regular haunts, the Back Door Bakery, Hard Times Pizza, Netty's. Their abandoned intimacy dwelled like a rumor between them, independent and charged.
Lucinda put her hand into Matthew's hair. He leaned his skull into her hand. Lucinda spotted a tiny nesting of dandruff grains in the blazing red cup of his ear, as usual.
"You'll be back in a week," she said.
"I don't know this time."
"Did you leave something important in your locker?"
"More I'm worried about Shelf."
"Shelf's probably just a little depressed."
"Shelf's fucking inconsolable."
"You see aspects of yourself in the kangaroo," Lucinda said gently. "But you're not dying."
"I might be suffocating slowly, who knows, it's hard to tell. Like all of us. We're turning thirty and we haven't done anything. Look at Bedwin. He can't even feed himself, and he's our genius."
"The song's good."
"It's not a song yet," said Matthew. "He hasn't got any lyrics, he told me."
Inside the kitchen, Bedwin choked, wolfing his food. A kettle rattled on its burner. Denise went on puttering at the stove and refrigerator, allowing them privacy.
"Anyone can write lyrics," suggested Lucinda.
"Anyone can be in a lame band, anyone can scoop up the hair shed by a depressed molting kangaroo, anyone can wipe the tears from the infected eyes of a bandicoot, anyone can put a monkey in handcuffs," said Matthew savagely. "For that matter, anyone can answer telephones in fucking Falmouth's stupid pretend gallery, or work in a porn store—"
"Denise doesn't work in a porn store," whispered Lucinda. "Keep your voice down."
"Masturbation boutique, whatever it is."
Lucinda saw she'd roiled Matthew by touching his hair, by breaching the distance. If he'd been the one to speak consolingly she'd surely now be in his role. Abjection and solace switched between them as lightly and easily as electric current.
"Bedwin's the only one of us who actually lives for his art," said Matthew, more evenly. "And see where it gets him."
"Maybe you really should quit the zoo."
"I can't abandon Shelf."
"Is Shelf a male or a female kangaroo?"
"What's a flyer?" Lucinda, suddenly in the grip of an absurd jealousy, felt certain she knew the answer.
"That's the word for a female. A lady kangaroo."
"Of course," she said bitterly.
Denise and Bedwin emerged from the kitchen. Matthew and Lucinda fumbled apart on the couch.
"What about one of those beers?" said Lucinda.
"Sure." Denise grabbed one from the fridge. Lucinda twisted off the beer's cap and pulled a long sip from its neck. Matthew frowned, turned his back to the band. They reclaimed their instruments and, at Denise's prompting, encored "Tree of Death," probably their favorite among their songs if they were honest with themselves. Bedwin, restored by the sandwich, managed a plinking, gnarled solo. Matthew lowered his voice to a whisper during the bridge, seducing an audience that wasn't there.
Outside, a moonless night had fallen on the terraced apartments of Landa Street and Kenilworth Avenue, shadow swarming the concrete steps, bushed with jade plants, that wended up from the silence of parked cars, so distant from the blacktop heat and scurry of wheels on Silver Lake and Hyperion. Beyond the band's windows something four-footed crashed in the under leaves, daring itself to raid Denise's garbage bin. Inside, the quartet was complete for one instant, rollicking in the embrace of the sound they produced themselves, free from time and hesitation. If only it could go on forever. Bedwin wrote short songs.
The band didn't have a name yet, though they'd discussed it hundreds of times.
The whatever-it-was got into the garbage, whining as it ravaged a foil-lined takeaway bag.
"Let's play the new one," said Lucinda, after the band stuttered to silence. "I can't get it out of my head." She slugged the last of her beer, went to the fridge and found another.
"I already told Matthew and Denise," said Bedwin. "I really don't have any lyrics."
"No problem," said Lucinda, wiping her mouth. "You'll write some." She set the new bottle at the base of her amp and retook her place, expectantly.
"I've been trying. I'm having a sort of problem with language."
"What do you mean?"
"With sentences . . . words."
"We know what language is, Bedwin," said Denise, not unkindly.
The three had turned to Bedwin now, half consciously, as though reaching out to support someone freshly released from a hospital, a man tapping down a ramp on crutches.
"My problem is I don't believe in the place where the sentences come from anymore."
"Lucinda says anyone can write lyrics," said Matthew.
"Go to hell," said Lucinda. "Let's just play it. I'll make up some words, sure."
"I didn't mean—" began Matthew.
"No, you're absolutely right," said Lucinda. "Pick up your guitar."
Lucinda plumped at her bass strings, jump-starting the song, and planted her thighs in a new stance, facing Denise, demanding the drums' reply. Denise met the call, ticked the beat double-time. The sound was sprung, uncanny, preverbal, the bass and drum the rudiment of life itself, argument and taunt, and each turn of the figure a kiss-off until the cluster of notes began again. Who needed words? Who even needed guitars, those preening whiners? Lucinda felt violently unapologetic. And when the guitars wended in she wasn't any sorrier. Meeting Lucinda's challenge had stirred even Bedwin, who now confessed with his lead line that the wordless song had a melodic hook.
Denise sped up and no one cared.
The thing that rooted in garbage heard them. It dropped the chicken carcass it had plucked from the foil bag and bayed its own song into the tops of the trees.
"Monster eyes," Lucinda called out at the peak of the chorus. The others turned and gaped.
"Get you out of range of my monster eyes," she sang atonally at the chorus's reprise. "Best thing I ever did for you, was get you out of range of my monster eyes—"
Then she fumbled her way into the verse's start: "Before my eyes destroy you, better run, better run—" She hummed to dummy another line: "Nuh nuh huh feel my eyes abhor you, dunna nuh, dunna nuh—"
Matthew, not looking at Lucinda, grabbed the lyric at the next pass. He pigeoned his toes and shouted it at the draped windows as if to press it out into the night, then dropped register, incanting the lyric as a warning instead, his hair falling forward, gorgeously, into his eyes. Bedwin nodded. He quit playing lead .lls in favor of the raw chord changes, chiming the riff on the downbeat. Denise thwacked her cymbal incontinently, railing above the sound the band was making. The words were freighted with a righteousness and panic each player felt as a confession. A voicing they couldn't have sanctioned alone, only collectively. They chanted it in murmurs together the next time through, the now-already-inevitable chorus, inseparable from Bedwin's chords:
out of range
Their hearts huddled around the fledgling song as if it were a tendril of bonfire in wild darkness, something they nurtured which fed them in return.
Excerpted from You Don't Love Me Yet by Jonathan Lethem Copyright (c) 2007 by Jonathan Lethem. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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