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I’m supposed to be better than this. I'm supposed to have a tenure-track job teaching music history to undergrads, writing papers about Bach, and proving to kids like me that you can work your way out of Harlem. I'm not supposed to be following a rock star around the country, fetching his mail, making sure his groupies are of age.
I'm definitely not supposed to be sleeping with said rock star, who claims to be the Greek God Dionysus. At first I thought it was a load of crap. Nik's fans might think his music captures their hearts—and souls—but I knew better. Until one of Nik's orgiastic concerts gets out of hand and I don’t know which is worse: that he might be a god after all, or that he has a body count.
Nik doesn’t care what I want or what I should be. He wants to tear down the world I've built, warping all I am, until his music is all that's left of me. I can't let him do that. I shouldn't believe in him. I've seen what happens to the people who believe in him.
But I can't get his song out of my head.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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May 13, 2011
Departmental commencement is a robes-and-hoods occasion, and it’s far too hot for the honor. Hertz Hall is air-conditioned, at least, but it’s also packed, and I’m sitting too close to the front and the middle to catch more than the faintest artificial breeze, filtered through five hundred people or so, none of whom are here to see me.
“And one last round of applause for the UC Berkeley Music Department Class of 2011!” the chair commands, and of course he’s obeyed. I’m not immune. “Now, for the graduate program, beginning with those who have completed their master’s.”
The eight master’s recipients are packed in on the left side of my row, and filter out into the aisle. They aren’t giving us our bona fides today, or even tomorrow at the main ceremony. Photo ops and pageantry, that’s compulsory, but the real document comes in the mail in three weeks. I find it amazing that people still do the calligraphy by hand.
Tomorrow will be hours of sitting in the sun with only a ridiculous tam hat for protection, waiting for thousands of undergrads to receive their fake degrees; today means something, to me and the people I’ve toiled beside for the past seven years. Knowing Uncle Paul, he probably thinks tomorrow is the more important ceremony. Then again, he’d texted, Will contact you on Friday when I arrive, which is today, and there’s been no word since, so it looks like he won’t make either. That’s the most recent message in my queue. I’ve been checking for the last fifteen minutes. It’s bad enough that I’ve got my phone in my lap during my own PhD acceptance. I shouldn’t check it every five seconds like I’m waiting for water to boil.
The applause never quite dies down, only swells and diminishes for the clearer sound of the chair reading a name, a field, honors or no honors. They’re almost through calling the master’s. There’s a chance that Paul hasn’t texted me because he’s expecting me to be polite and not answer. He might be here.
“And it also is our privilege to honor four new PhDs,” the chair says, and that’s my cue. First in line: the alphabet has always been on my side. I hold on to my phone but hide my fist in the billowing sleeve since I can’t reach my pocket through the robes, sidle into the aisle, and file down to the stage. “Please welcome, Doctor of Musicology, Anthony Brooks.”
The acoustics of the concert hall are built to send sound out from the stage, not up to it, but applause is always an exception. It starts just before I make it to the short flight of stairs up to the stage and ascend. Despite the handshaking and the genuinely proud smiles, it feels like a rehearsal.
My phone buzzes at center stage. Thank goodness it’s in my left sleeve, and Professor Taruskin is shaking my right.
I wait until I’ve made it through the receiving line and the next name has been called to look out at the audience. It’s always easy to spot Paul in a crowd like this, where almost everyone else is white or light-skinned. By extension, it’s easy to spot when he’s not here, and doesn’t take me long to ascertain it. He’s not.
In the relative obscurity of my seat, I check my phone again.
Work emergency, it says. I won’t make it out tomorrow either. But you have my congratulations and my respect. Call Sunday.
Well, at least I have other people to applaud for.
The Rock Band version of Mozart’s “Rondo alla turca” cuts out all the repeats that the song usually has in concert performances. It’s as jarring to hear as it is to play. Julia’s managing to approximate it on the controller, but then, she isn’t a pianist. Thank god no one’s passed me the guitar yet. I suck.
“Stop brooding, you’re making me look like a bad host!” Elise Morgenstern whirls by and sits on the arm of the couch, wrestling with a corkscrew and a bottle of red wine. Her hair—a color that I’m embarrassed to know is fuchsia as opposed to just pink—clashes with the gold trim on her master’s robes, which she’s still wearing, even though everyone else at the party has taken them off. “Everything okay?”
I take the hint and tilt over my empty glass, just in time for Elise to wrangle the cork out and Julia to finish the most difficult section of the song. The applause, canned and live, stacks up with the hiss of the cork. That’s vaguely interesting.
Elise pours, first into my glass, then someone else’s, then her own, and laughs. “Are you waiting on your turn? I can check if anyone else is ahead of you.”
Everyone else, it seems. But she means Rock Band, not my life. “I’m not drunk enough.”
“Ha-ha, I know I’d be getting drunk too if I was really done.” Elise reaches over awkwardly, sets the bottle down on the coffee table, and clinks her glass against mine on the way back. “Rondo alla turca” is almost done. Julia’s score isn’t embarrassing, “Congrats!”
I don’t toast, just nod the glass, then drink. This bottle is better than the last. It’s an acceptable compromise between brought-by-way-of-thanks beer and are-you-sure-I-can-drink-this tequila. Grad students can’t be choosers—then again, I’m not a grad student anymore.
Paul would chastise me for having expensive taste. Paul isn’t here. And the wine is free.
“Did any of your family make it out in the end?” Elise asks. Wow. I’m not sure how her timing can be this incisively bad, this consistently. She always seems to know the wrong question to ask. It’s as annoying as it is impressive, but what can I say, it’s grown on me.
“No,” I say. “I heard from Paul on the way over. Work emergency.”
“What about your— Oh. Ha. Sorry. Brings back memories.” She laughs uncomfortably into her glass. One of the first things Elise ever found out about me was that my parents have been dead since I was ten. It made the Welcome, New Graduate Students Luncheon two years ago weird for all concerned.
She laughs about it. I don’t. Par for the course, that. “Mine asked after you, that’s all. They wanted to say thanks for helping me with the whole Boardwalk Empire thing.”
It’s tactless to say You could have thanked Paul for that if he were here, and I’m not drunk enough to be tactless any more than I’m drunk enough to play Rock Band, so I hold my tongue. It’s an effort. Maybe if the Ivory Tower wasn’t leaning, I’d have something other than that to feel accomplished about.
“Any word yet from New Mexico?”
“They rejected me this morning,” I sigh.
Elise winces. “That sucks. But least you still have Indiana and the others to hear back from. Simon hasn’t heard back either, so. Yeah. Don’t give up!” Before I can answer, not that I’m certain what else to say, Elise jumps to her feet. “That reminds me! I promised to show Chuck and Simon something, just give me a sec,” and she scuttles away from the couch to take the Rock Band controller. “Sorry everyone! Just trying to make a point, this’ll only take five minutes.”
Being alone at a party with thoughts of my lack of economic prospects isn’t my preferred means of celebration—Well. No shit. I finish my glass of wine in time to deposit it on the nearest countertop, and apologize to a few people on my way into the hall. Elise’s apartment is nicer than mine, but then again, she’s living outside the city with two other people paying rent. The nearest bedroom is closed, and there’s a group of master’s students in front of the bathroom pretending not to wait for it, but oddly enough the door to the study is open, and the foamcore soundproofing looks more tempting than it should. It would be quiet in there. I wouldn’t have to answer any further questions about where I’m going, or how I can scrape together enough money to stay. I could just spend the rest of the party on the piano and be done with it.
Well, if the door’s open, the room’s open, and Simon and Elise have given me explicit permission in the past, so that’s implicit permission in the present as far as pianos go. The study is arranged with the computer station on one side and the upright piano on the other with a window and writing desk on the far wall. The near wall is covered in mattress pad soundproofing, with an unplugged external computer mic and a keyboard setup disassembled on a shelf. I shut the door just in time to cut off the rush of laughter at whatever’s on YouTube, and once I do the soundproofing turns out to be fairly, if not completely, effective. Relative silence. Finally. Silence itself would be better, but doesn’t exist, not really. John Cage proved that.
I sit down at the piano, careful not to disturb any of Simon’s drafts, and play.
Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor belongs on an organ, not a piano. It loses most of its ominous majesty without that requisite screech and sustain. But maybe after having spent most of the morning in Hertz with the pipe organ in view, or maybe since I feel as comically isolated as a villain in a tower—and this piece has been used, or parodied, in every vampire movie ever—that’s the first piece that comes to mind and what I settle into playing, whether the instrument is right or not.
It’s a hard piece, hard even for me, but Bach is predictable: pattern, math, a perfectly constructed, seamless flow from one tonality to the next. I can’t exactly abandon myself in it—it’s too difficult—but good luck getting me to think about anything but what my fingers are doing. The prelude ends, segues into a fugue, and my hands follow the old jumps and crosses and skips, three separate voices winding through ten fingers. It really should be on an organ. It’s harder than it has to be. But it’s necessary, absorbing to play.
So the sound of the door swinging open, unknocked, might as well be a gunshot.
“Whoops,” Julia says. “Sorry.”
I’d stopped as soon as she opened the door, but I don’t start again. “It’s fine.”
She smiles, leans on the jamb. “I heard the Bach, figured it was you. Do you mind if I stick around?”
“All right.” There should be a chair for her somewhere, so I don’t move from the bench. Julia leaves the door open—whatever was on YouTube is still occupying everyone’s attention, so there’s no music, just chatter and laughter and one canned voice cutting through the rest—and pulls over the desk chair. Julia is in the habit of wearing impractically high heels even to teach in, and tonight’s no exception, so they pitter on the studio floor, and I wait until she has sat down to turn back to the keyboard and start playing again. From the beginning of the fugue, since it’s hard to pick up from the middle.
She recognizes the piece, laughs. “You should set up the synthesizer instead. It’s got an organ tone.”
“It would be rude.”
“Maybe, but they wouldn’t mind.”
I shrug, as much as playing a fugue this brisk allows. Once the left hand takes over, I—Huh, the door’s still ajar. And a half-dozen undergrads whose names I don’t know are either waiting for the bathroom or listening in. Probably both. I could blame them when I miss the next trill, but it’s my mistake at the end of the day. I keep going.
“Are you staying here or going home?” Julia asks, swiveling on the computer chair.
“Here” means in San Francisco. I wish I didn’t have to say this, again and again. It gets easier, and easier hurts because hey, failure. “As long as I can,” I answer. “I’ve got enough saved up that I can handle rent for the summer. I’d rather find a job by July though.” Thinking about this is entirely counter to the reason I came in here, but there’s no point in telling Julia that if she can’t already tell.
I do love this part of the fugue: right when it winds to a climax, all the threads coming together to one powerful chord. It feels right to play.
Outside, everyone else laughs at whatever’s on-screen. Maybe not everyone else, if those undergrads are still listening to me. Elise’s voice cuts through the rest, tells them they have to wait, there’s something in the sidebar that she needs to see right now, and fuck, pounding out notes isn’t sufficient distraction after all. I can stop soon, even if the next resolution isn’t in the right key.
And just as soon as I stop, the television speakers overclock and grate, and I have to wonder if that’s supposed to be music at all.
Whatever it is, it’s loud enough that if I were playing it in my own apartment, the super would call the cops. There’s a guitar under there, winding and discordant, and a bass, drums, a keyboard, coarse vocals so distressed it’s impossible to make out the words, and everything is dampened by cheering and pounding feet and the sense that this happened somewhere else and no smartphone can preserve it. I barely remember to cover the keyboard when I get up. I ought to see what I’m hearing.
There’s no point in trying to identify who’s playing: even blown up on a television screen the video quality and resolution are crap, and besides, the camera isn’t focused on the band. It’s on the riot in the crowd: mostly naked, some bloody and bruised, but still dancing, and making the mistake of trying to pull the cops into the mosh pit.
For one terrifying moment, I have to wonder if I’d do the same thing if I were there.
“The hell, Elise,” someone says. Me, it turns out, since she’s looking.
“It’s just Nik, sorry!” She fumbles with the controller, but whatever she does doesn’t pause the video. Everyone in front of me is short enough that I’ve got a clear view of the screen, of the focus on the camera choking in and out until it’s not on the riot anymore. The lead singer, a skeletal man with black hair, is on the lip of the stage, still singing like there’s nothing wrong.
The singer licks his chops. No, not like nothing’s wrong. Like everything’s right.
The video pauses, the screen minimizes, Elise apologizes again and flails and starts going on about a paper topic for next year and how this video ties into it and isn’t it great that ethnomusicology means people like Nik exist.
I think some of that song’s lyrics make sense. They’re only hitting me now. Insidious. “Once you get in there,” or something like that. There’s a tune to it too. Maybe. I could—
“Quit it with the papers,” Simon says. “I’ve still got revisions to do on my diss.”
Elise sticks her tongue out, but laughs. “I’m serious, though. It would be awesome to do a paper on Nik. There’s not much work on the rocker persona—”
“Outside of Hollywood,” Chuck says.
“—and Nik’s so cool. I mean, he’s Dionysus.”
That statement effectively shuts up about half the room, and the half that doesn’t shut up is talking about the latest Giants game.
“Dionysus,” I say, at the same time as at least one other person. That’s weirdly harmonic. Dionysus, in two parts.
Elise grins. “Yeah. I mean, literally. God of Drunk and Disorderly. And his music holds up to it too.”
Oh for fuck’s sake. “Have they run out of marketing tools?”
Julia laughs. “Well, David Bowie already took the alien idea.”
“And only Lady Gaga can be Lady Gaga,” Simon adds.
“Seriously, guys,” Elise says, fiddling with the controller. “But yeah. He keeps Dionysus up 24-7 and markets the concerts as bacchanalia, makes everything over-twenty-one only, the works.”
Chuck scoffs. “Is that legal?”
Years of trailing behind Uncle Paul confirm that, so I answer, “Yes, if you have the right representation.”
That gets a few laughs, and Elise flashes me a smile. “Anyway, I think he might be a diss chapter if I can fit him in.”
We’ve all heard some variation of this phrase out of Elise before, so it means jack-shit at this point. Simon’s the first to get a dig in at her though. “Isn’t your dissertation on Battlestar Galactica?”
She tosses the controller at him, and he catches it reflexively.
“No, I condensed that to a conference paper. I still don’t know what my diss is going to be.” It’s a surprisingly mature answer for Elise. Maybe the MA thesis put her a little more on track. Good. “Besides, comps first.”
“No shit,” Chuck says, and Julia says “Good luck!” and Simon throws me the controller and says “Hey, Anthony, as long as you’re going to play I think I’ve got Toccata on easy mode.”
“No way,” I say, and that’s the end of that discussion. There are other things to argue about, and maybe not dwelling on my lack of a future will make it bearable.
Or maybe playing Rock Band will remind me how much I suck at it.
And until Simon clicks into Rock Band, that grinning skeletal face is on the television screen, mocking me from half a world away. “Nik,” Elise called him. Dionysus.
I glare right back.
November 6, 2011
Everything I couldn’t part with is at the mercy of the postal system, probably somewhere in Nebraska, on its way to New York City. Baggage fees being what they are, it was cheaper to ship via media mail than to take more than could fit beneath the seat, and as long as I’m throwing myself on my uncle’s mercy, I might as well throw the rest on his doorstep.
And right now, I’ve thrown myself into Uncle Paul’s waiting room at Pantheon Talent. It’s been refurnished since I was last here, and the sound system is invasive enough that it must be new. In addition to worrying about my luggage, I’ve been flirting with the idea of putting in my earbuds for the last half hour. Which also means I’ve been waiting on Paul for the last half hour.
Not blocking out his office soundtrack is an act of politeness that Paul will probably never remark on. But it’s better not to give him any excuses, all things considered.
Paul’s receptionist taps her heels to the beat of whatever song this is. She must be musical if she can keep it steady on the off-counts for this long. Since I’m still being too polite to put my earbuds in, I notate the song in my head. This particular song’s hook is catchy as hell, but there’s only just enough flow in the rap to make it interesting. And even on the hook the singer milks that syncopation for all it’s worth, but only enough that it might be unintentional. I could do better, maybe. Or at least assemble a song that’s not as haphazard. But I’ve never thought of myself as a composer, not even an arranger, and changing careers takes time I don’t have.
“Anthony,” Paul says, tripled semiquavers against the beat.
“Uncle.” I nod, get up from the bench. It must look more like a casting session or an interview than a family coming together the way Paul leads me into the office, not even a handshake, let alone a hug. And especially since my mother is—was—white, Paul and I have never looked as alike as people seem to think we should, so if the receptionist assumed anything, it’s almost certainly wrong.
Paul looks good for his age. His suit’s definitely more expensive than the last one I saw him in, and he wears it like he wants the world to know.
“Thanks for having me,” I say.
Paul nods, opens his office door. “How was your flight?”
“Flights. I couldn’t get a direct so I transferred at LAX.”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t make it out there to watch you walk.”
“It’s another color on the hood.” I can let it go no matter how much it offended me at the time. Six months of water have passed under that particular bridge. “But I guess you can call me a doctor of music now.”
“No more pesky undergrads calling you ‘Professor’?”
“No more pesky undergrads calling me anything, and you know it.” Now that the door is shut, and the Top 40 has been reduced to posters on the wall and files on the desk, I should be calmer. Should be, anyway. I’m not calm, and it better not show more than it already does. “You said you had a job for me.”
“I just hope you’re desperate enough to take it.”
“Which is less demeaning: cleaning toilets or sitting around doing nothing with three degrees?”
Paul pauses to laugh, just once, before he settles into his desk chair. “Last year you’d have said they were one and the same.”
“Last year I wasn’t sixty-eight thousand dollars in debt.”
“Yes, you were. You just didn’t have to pay it until you got out.”
Is he trying to piss me off? If he is, I can’t let it work. I’ve come this far to be professional and polite.
“So I’m out,” I say, and shut my eyes, stop my fingers from tapping on the arm of his chair. It’s the meter of the rap from the waiting room. It’s Bach’s Invention in A minor. “And I’m here because you said you had something that isn’t cleaning toilets.”
“I do,” Paul says, “and it does. The trouble with this industry is that some artists are full-time jobs. You have the time for one. I don’t.”
“Handling,” he corrects. “He has a manager. But he needs someone day-to-day to make sure he keeps his bookings.”
“Is this like I used to do?” Paul dragged me on the road with his clients for years, and while I’ve never worked anywhere in the music industry without him, any summer I haven’t been taking courses I’ve shadowed the bands. He started actually paying me for it when I was seventeen.
“No. This is the real deal. You’ll move in with him, take care of his correspondence and his records. You know these creative types, some of them don’t know a bank statement from a takeout menu.”
“So he needs a butler.”
“More than he needs a musicologist,” Paul says, and at least he doesn’t make an outright jibe of it. “And he’s interesting from a musicological perspective, anyway. You might find an article in him.”
“I’m not an ethnomusicologist.” Shit, there goes that veneer of calm. Honestly, I never thought I’d have to correct my own family on that front, the way I’ve had to do every time the registrars forward me to the wrong office, ask if I’m familiar with the work of Dr. Akin Euba or whoever else.
“I know,” Paul says. “But I still think you’ll get some work done with Nik.”
“Just Nik, and just with the K. You’ve heard of him, I hope.”
Teeth. The graduation party. The cops in the mosh pit. Dionysus.
“You’ve heard of him. Good.”
“I shouldn’t be surprised that he can’t tell a bank statement from a takeout menu.” And I shouldn’t be surprised that I’m drumming the arm of the chair again. Stop. Now. “But I am. And I’m surprised he’s one of yours. I thought no company would want to be held liable.”
“No company does,” Paul says. “I took him on privately, long before I started working here. Before he was Nik, even.”
“Before he was Nik? So he’s repackaged the act? Or don’t tell me you buy into his Dionysus bullshit.”
“I don’t have to buy into it. All I have to do is give you five of the fifteen percent commission I take off all of his profits.”
I shake my head no, since I have nothing to lose. “I want all fifteen.”
“Ten it is,” Paul says. “Ten, for however long you can handle him.” There’s a contract on the desk, and Paul turns it around to face me without lifting it. The scrape of the paper on the glass is like a bowed bell, almost ominous, and I reach for it. “Take as much time as you need to read the fine print.”
I lean forward in my seat, look the contract over. It’s all official, but the header’s wrong. “Funny, this isn’t a company contract.”
“I told you, this isn’t through Pantheon. His contract with me is private. You won’t be on the books here and you won’t have to account for it in your taxes. I’ll take care of it. It’s my pay. I’m just transferring it to you.”
“But I’m working for him. His name should be here.”
Without a word, Paul stretches across the desk, waves my hand away from the top page, and turns to the last. There, at the very bottom, is one handwritten line, in an angular and nearly illegible hybrid of print and cursive:
Congratulations. You’re next. I’m game. — Nik
“Oh, come on.” I push back in the chair, far enough that if there were a wall behind me I’d probably hit my head against it. “He can’t be fucked to use his own fucking name on a contract.”
Paul raps on the table. Just once. I’ve known that signal since I was a kid: shut up and pay attention. “You don’t talk to me like that outside of a recording booth, and I don’t see you on either side of the glass, so watch your damn mouth.”
“What am I, twelve?”
“No, you’re twenty-eight, and you’re still an ungrateful brat.”
“It’s a legitimate fucking concern.”
“You know what’s a legitimate concern? How you’re going to live when you can’t slam your school for handouts. Fact is, you’ve been getting something-for-nothing for the last seven years, and guess what? Something-for-nothing only works in academia and welfare, and you’re not qualified for either.”
For however many seconds I take to register those words, I don’t even hear the clock in the corner ticking. I should stop gaping. He actually said that.
“Now, you can bite the damn bullet and sign, because I’m sticking my neck out for you,” Paul says, in the same tone he used when I used to pretend I didn’t know the rules, “or you can wait outside my apartment until all your books arrive and then figure out what you’re doing with them.”
The and with yourself goes unsaid, but it’s clear as a bell.
I swipe a pen out of the box on Paul’s desk, and take the time I need to read the fine print. The clock ticks, the office soundtrack plays.
I sign, right there under Nik’s insulting scrawl.
Being Dionysus pays: Nik’s apartment in the East Village, on Seventh between First and A, takes up an entire floor of its building. There’s no doorman, and the buzzer is predictably out of date, but after some wrangling with the keys I figure out which opens the front door, which opens the inner, and which triggers the elevator. Two more key tests get me Nik’s mail slot, full to bursting, including two outdated package notifications and last month’s Rolling Stone. None of the mail is addressed to Nik. He’s Tenant 8F, Current Resident, or c/o Paul Brooks.
I need my hands free and there’s room in my carry-on, so I stuff all the mail in there for now and key up the elevator to the eighth floor. The elevator door opens to another door, which takes the last key, and I brace myself for the inevitable reek of rock star.
Well, consider me surprised. It doesn’t stink. In fact, it smells no worse than any other apartment I’ve lived in, except maybe Paul’s first bachelor pad in Harlem. It hasn’t been recently cleaned, but there’s nothing worse than cigarette smoke pervading the air. And it isn’t nearly as sloppy as I expected either, at least not in the foyer; not neat by any definition, and books are piled in the corners instead of on the shelves, but it’s not a coked-out garret or a sty. The hardwood floor is tracked with boot rubber and pinprick spatters of the red-orange paint from the walls, but it’s not filthy, and the mirrors and masks on the wall are only slightly askew.
A lot of masks. The front hall and the media room it opens to are lined with them: hollow-eyed and, frankly, more unsettling than any stench or wreck would be. Venetian masks and Commedia masks with shapeless eyes and curved noses, Greek stage masks with gaping amplified mouths, lacquered Noh masks and feathered French masks and sub-Saharan dance masks with fans of hair. There are over fifty on this wall alone, and if they curve around that corner, there might be more than a hundred.
I set my bag down on the arm of the couch. The nearest mask at my eye level—a gold-plated one, almost featureless except for minute nostrils like a plaster cast—I’m not sure I can place where or when it’s supposed to be from, but fuck if it isn’t creepy. Maybe there’s a label on the other side. The surface is smooth to the touch, too heavy to be plastic—
“Like him?” someone asks in my ear, soft and close enough to create an echo in my skull.
So much for first impressions: it’s a good thing I already put the bag down, because I would have dropped it on Nik’s foot when I backed into him, and then he might not be laughing. It’s a laugh without meter, and my spine tenses all the way up to the base of my skull. The mask settles back into place on its nail in the wall, skittering.
“Hi,” Nik says. He claps a hand on my upper arm, turns me around. “You’re Paul’s kid.”
“Nephew,” I correct.
“Blood enough,” Nik agrees with a shrug.
There’s only so much he can look like his concert videos, the way that a piece of music can sound like its score. All of his basic framework holds true: he’s tall and attenuated, that Mediterranean mix that may or may not be white, and the hand tightening on my jacket is long-fingered and guitarist-nailed, both sets painted gray. But he’s taller than I, which I hadn’t expected, and his razor-cut hair isn’t black like in the video Elise showed us at the party. It’s in loose staggered chunks of red and gold now, colors that would match the paint on the walls if he mixed them.
And he still has a smile that can slice through 360p on an iPhone screen.
“Make yourself at home,” Nik says. He moves his hand from my arm to the small of my back, and I’d have shoved him off if he hadn’t shoved me off first. “Are you expecting a tour?”
Not if it involves looking at more of these masks. “Are you giving one?”
Nik laughs, that same meterless laugh, and opens his arms. In the fluorescent light, his eyes look more gold than light brown. “You are where you are. You’ll know which room’s which. What’s mine is yours unless you try to auction it off. That’s about it.”
If I hadn’t already had the clearest possible example of Nik’s unprofessionalism, I’d probably hit him for this one, or at least call him out. I don’t. I’ve already bounced one check at the bullshit bank: another overdraft fee might wreck my credit.
“Sure.” I try not to be sarcastic. I’m not sure it works. “I’ll just leave things where they are.” I take his pile of mail out of my carry-on, hold it up pointedly for one beat, and set it down on the couch. The paper rustles, a pitchless glissando. “Yours.”
“Good,” Nik says, grin widening across his jaw. “You can answer it after I buy you dinner.”
“You do eat, don’t you? As long as I’m your meal ticket, I’ll buy you a meal.”
We still haven’t found a restaurant. It’s been an hour. Nik’s looked at about twenty different menus at twenty different storefronts on the way. We’re going to walk clean into FDR Drive if he doesn’t choose soon, so I drop a few this looks all rights and how about heres, which results in vaguely affirmative responses and distracted maybes from Nik.
Is this a test? I thought I gave those up when I got the doctorate.
Whatever. I bite the figurative bullet outside an Italian restaurant on Avenue B. “We’re eating here.”
Nik just grins ferally and says, “Sure.”
Ordering, equally surprisingly, isn’t as much of a chore: Nik doesn’t even look at the menu, lets the waiter rattle off the specials and says sounds good after the entrée sold with the most enthusiasm. I order lasagna. I’ve never seen a restaurant fuck lasagna up.
“Anything to drink?” the waiter asks.
I’m about to say no, but Nik’s already tapping his fingernail on the wine list. He pronounces the name of the wine in appreciable Italian, and clarifies, bottle, not glass.
“What if I didn’t want to drink?” I ask once the waiter’s gone with the menus and there’s nothing but an expanse of table, olive oil without bread, and the restaurant’s soundtrack of alternating pseudoclassical and questionably Mediterranean solo guitar.
“More for me,” Nik shrugs.
“But you do want to drink.”
After everything else that’s gone on today? I’ll give him that. “Yes.”
“Good.” Nik stretches, tilts his head as if to crack his neck. “So, how’d you get roped into this?”
“Uncle Paul offered.”
“Yeah, but you don’t take every job offered to you. Unless you do. Do you? What do you do when you’re not doing what he tells you to do?”
This is the second figurative bullet I’ve bitten in the past fifteen minutes. Another chomp and I’ll be able to taste gunpowder. “I’m a musicologist.”
Nik seems genuinely amused, if not impressed. “So what, you’re studying me?”
“No.” Frankly, the wine can’t get here soon enough. Is he making a joke, or does he actually know what a musicologist is? “I said I’m a musicologist.”
His eyes crinkle when he smiles. It shouldn’t be attractive. “What, I don’t write music?”
“No, but you’re still alive.”
“So only dead people write music.”
“No. But I’m not an ethnomusicologist.”
A busboy comes by bearing bread and a pitcher of water. Finally. I nod a terse thanks to him for good timing before turning back to Nik. “Someone who studies ethnic musicians.”
Nik laughs. “So I’m not ethnic.”
“No, but you write popular music. Popular music falls under the auspices of ethnomusicology. I work on Bach.”
“Bach,” Nik spits out with the backwash. “I thought it’d be something more suited to you.”
“What, like Tupac? For fuck’s sake, Beethoven might have been as black as I am and you don’t see anyone calling him an ethnic musician.”
Nik laughs and breaks off a slice of the bread. “They did back then.”
It’s not the usual response I get when I drop that particular phrase—which I have, several times, to an almost universal Beethoven was black? Honestly, he probably wasn’t, but it weeds out the chaff. People have been arguing about Beethoven’s alleged Moorish ancestry for a century, it’s not just a Buzzfeed hoax. If it was true and he’d been born in Georgia instead of Germany, he’d have written working songs instead of symphonies. But any musicologist worth the ink on their résumé would at least know what side he’s on.
And Nik does. He’s cavalier about it, firmly on Team Alleged Quadroon. Which means Nik does think about music, and he has the background, and even if he’s wrong, he’s tried.
I need a drink. There’s only water, but it’ll do, and the glass is cold.
So I drink. And I remember that this must all be part of Nik’s Dionysus act.
“Right,” I say, deadpan, putting the glass down, “you were there.”
“Mm-hmm,” Nik says around a mouthful of bread.
“And what were you writing back then, invisible cantatas?”
Nik swallows and shrugs. “I write what I write. Guess you don’t want to see the opus numbers.”
The waiter brings our wine. Evidently this is a classy enough place that he pours a sip for Nik to savor and approve before he fills up both glasses. Just Nik, though, not me. Guess we know whom the dominant personality is at the table. Then again, Nik’s the one who ordered, so I can give the waiter the benefit of the doubt for assuming he cares more.
I hold my tongue.
Nik raises his glass in an unvoiced (but not soundless) toast that’s almost a challenge. I just drink. The wine’s good, worlds better than the canned orange juice I drank on the second plane. Fuck, I haven’t had anything to drink since then? No wonder I’m on edge.
“I don’t,” I say, bringing the conversation back to where it was. “I’m sure you’ve put a lot of work into your persona. Ziggy Stardust would be proud.”
There’s a tinge of wine on Nik’s lower lip, and it accentuates the line of his smirk, darkens the left corner as it climbs his cheek. “You don’t believe in me.”
No, but, “Whether I do or not doesn’t matter as long as I get your work done.”
“That’ll do.” Nik takes another sip of his wine. His smile shines through glass the same as it does on flat-screens. “You don’t seem too happy about it.”
“Just because I’m not happy doesn’t mean I’m not thankful,” I say, because if I don’t turn this conversation back onto a polite path, no one will.
“That’s almost worse,” Nik laughs. “You know, gods used to kill people for not accepting what they are.”
“I’m sure you were there too.” My sarcasm’s so thick that if I had to eat my words I could swallow it, and this conversation is utterly unsalvageable. Shit.
Nik puts his wineglass down. There’s no grace to it, no bracing to protect the stem, and the sound on the tablecloth is the kind that a film score would magnify, would pay an effects team hundreds of dollars to test and augment and get just right. He says nothing. Canned tinny guitar music threads through the restaurant’s speakers and into the score in my ears, and Nik drums his fingers on the vertex of the table, like I tend to do but out of time.
I need this job. I need something. Putting my future in someone else’s hands hurts. So does breathing, but that I actually have to do. “I’m not sure I can work for you—for your persona. But I do need a job.”
“Fine,” Nik says. “You want to work for me, then I’ll put you to work. I’ll even make a rule in my house for you: don’t play your math on my instruments.”
“Your Bach. How’s that?”
God, that’s juvenile. But, “Fine. I’ll deal.”
Nik toasts again, and drinks. “Sure you will.”
November 7, 2011
I’m still on California time, but I’m forced awake at 8 a.m. EST thanks to the magic of smartphone alarms. There’s no clock in this room. I take my usual morning run and keep the address of Nik’s apartment on repeat in my head in case I get off track while I sprint around Alphabet Soup. Even when I lived in New York, I wasn’t in this neighborhood and I had no reasons to come here except the occasional concert at NYU or one of Paul’s errands, so thank fuck for street view.
This is new. I find five or six independent coffee shops but no Starbucks, the nearest branch of my bank, the laundromat, and the post office on Fourteenth Street, all of which I’ll need to visit again today once I change out of my running clothes. I have an easier time with the keys to Nik’s place this morning, and there’s no new mail and no UPS notification of the packages arriving from Paul’s place, so I take the elevator otherwise empty-handed. It’s ten o’clock by the time I get back in, and either Nik’s still asleep or the soundproofing in this apartment is exemplary, so I take a shower without interruption. Nik didn’t set out any towels, and there aren’t any in the linen closet across from the main bathroom, but as long as I’m washing the rest I can appropriate this used one, which smells clean enough. I throw on a shirt and slacks, and riffle through the kitchen cabinets for something that will pass for breakfast.
It’s not that there’s no food; it’s that there are a lot of components but nothing that fits together. Butter and jam, but no bread and no eggs; cereal (nearly expired) but no milk; coffee beans and sugar but no grinder. Great. So I pour myself a bowl of dry cereal and eat it while I search on my phone for the nearest supermarket that won’t charge me out the ass, and add a visit there to today’s errands. Hell, as long as Nik’s paying for food, I might as well stock up.
Nik emerges from the studio at about ten thirty, in yesterday’s pants and no shirt. He stretches, checks the oven clock (which hasn’t been changed off of daylight savings). “Morning, Carl Philipp Emanuel.”
“It’s Anthony.” I could have been less snide, but hey, jet lag. And given the context, being dubbed one of Bach’s composer sons isn’t meant to be a compliment. I can practically hear the name as Boring Derivative Mathematician. “Good morning. What’s the wireless password?”
For fuck’s sake. “Are you twelve?”
“No. But I wrote it down somewhere.” He takes a glass out of the dishwasher (leaving the rest of them in it), and fills it with water from the sink. “Going to bed. Wake me if you want me.”
I thank the dry Frosted Flakes in my mouth that I don’t have to answer. I just wait as Nik downs the water like it’s nothing but air and leaves the kitchen, yawning. The tattoos across his shoulders and back, a labyrinth of black and rust abstract grooves, seem almost to shift on his skin. That’s more attractive than it should be. It’s been too long. And he’s not my type. And he’s probably showing off to fuck with me anyway.
It’s ten thirty in the morning, and apparently I have my work cut out for me.
Well, first things first, I should get the lay of the land. All the rooms are on the one long hallway, which is full of masks. The studio’s the deepest room in, and Nik’s room is next to it, then the bathroom, then my guest room and the kitchen. Presumably, Nik has a bathroom of his own, or a half bath at least, but that’s barred to me at the moment, and none of my business anyway. The foyer, its walls lined with more masks and instruments and piles of books, is probably the most prudent place for me to start earning my keep.
There must be about five hundred books on the floor: a perfectly respectable amount for someone who isn’t a scholar, and a deceptive amount for someone who might be. I’m not surprised to find a few titles I know, some scores I’ve heard. Nik likes Ligeti. That makes a world of sense. No scholarly journals, but there are a smattering of biographies, and a couple of books I haven’t seen outside of music-exclusive libraries. So he’s done his homework. That just substantiates what he told me yesterday at dinner.
Nik doesn’t seem the type to care about alphabetizing, so categorical shelving is the way to go, and it takes me about two hours. There are more than enough shelves, so some of Nik’s antique instruments can stay out here. I gather up any instrument that looks like it’s seen action this century to move into the studio. The door is open, and this room is better lit than most of the apartment, enough that I have to shield my eyes.
It’s beautiful in here, enviable. Nik’s definitely serious about his craft, respectful of his instruments. Everything is well kept, if not necessarily well organized: the electric keyboard has a plexiglass cover, the upright piano is free of coffee stains and water rings, all four acoustic and electric guitars are nestled into their stands and the drum kit is covered in a tarp. Even if I felt comfortable cleaning this place—which I don’t—I wouldn’t have much work to do except dusting the keyboard and gathering up the stray paper, and I’ve been around enough composers to know that’s a horrible idea no matter how much apparent trash there is. So I only set the instruments from the foyer down on one of the almost-empty shelves next to the computer workstation in the corner. I’ll let Nik deal with it his own way later. I could stay in here all day. Well, I could if I didn’t have work to do. I haven’t played in too long—forty-eight hours at least.
Dry cereal doesn’t really cut it, and it’s about one in the afternoon, so I take my laptop and Nik’s unanswered mail out to a coffee shop and sort it over a sandwich. Fuck, it’s as expensive as San Francisco down here. I set up online payments for all the bills I can—Nik’s electric bill is exorbitant, which isn’t at all surprising—and give the landlord a call just to introduce myself. Nik’s wireless password isn’t in any of his correspondence, but I’ll find it later, after the bank and groceries and everything else.
Fuck, I really am a butler. But the more time I spend thinking about it, the less work gets done.
By the time I make it back to the apartment, it’s after four, and there’s a new round of unanswered mail, but that’s much easier seen to than left undone, and the only real problem is carrying it at the same time as the groceries and keying the elevator. It’s not awful, just menial—if I repeat that to myself a couple of times, maybe it’ll stick—and by the time the apartment door opens I’ve convinced myself enough to last another hour—
“What the fuck did you do?” Nik’s standing in the center of the living room, gaping at the bookshelves.
“My job,” I say without missing a beat, sidestep Nik to drop the groceries off in the kitchen. “You’ve got too many rare books to leave them on the floor.”
“But now I don’t know where they are,” Nik says, and in spite of his low resonant voice, he sounds so much like a petulant child that it’s almost comical.
Almost. “They’re on the shelves.” I unload the perishables into the refrigerator. “Books belong on shelves.”
Nik snarls. “Fuck you. I can’t find anything.”
“I’ll walk you through it later. They’re just by subject. And if you don’t like it, you can move them back.”
“But I knew where they were.”
I manage to stifle the sigh in my throat, shut my eyes, and crumple the empty plastic bag in my hands. I shouldn’t get angry. I need this job. “I’m sure you can figure out where they are—”
And I walk into Nik’s arm, hemming me in. Is this sudden coil of ice at the base of my spine fear of Nik, or just fear of losing this job? Probably the latter. It had better be the latter.
“Fix it,” Nik says. “If you’re so good at remembering things, fix it. Put them back where they were.”
Of all the fucking things, he wants to make a scene of this? Fine.
“Not on the floor,” I tell him, around the bar of my teeth. “As long as I am living here, books belong on shelves.”
No, that chill was all about Nik. Something in his eyes makes it climb higher, sublimate, slow the world around me down until there’s no doubt he’s in control of it.
I don’t know which I hate more: him, or myself for needing him and this goddamn job.
With one shove of his palm, Nik slams the refrigerator door and stalks out of the kitchen. A few seconds later, the studio door shuts, and maybe the soundproofing isn’t as good as I thought because I can hear the strains of an acoustic guitar, an atonal whirl that sets my skin crawling.
Pyrrhic victories aside, the battle’s won. I can put my earbuds back in and go about the rest of the day’s work without any further trouble. I think.
Posted to http://asbrooks.com on November 7, 2011
“Ostensibly Safe in New York”
I’m still stealing someone else’s wireless since I can’t find the password here, but for those of you concerned, I am, as the title of this entry posits, safe. And, as you can also infer, I’m not staying with my uncle, which is for the best.
Instead of pursing my education and the education of others, I’ve spent the day paying another man’s bills, doing his grocery shopping, and cleaning his house, for a percentage of his earnings instead of a fixed salary, and in a position I inherited from my uncle. You can imagine what it looks like. This is the part where all of you laugh in my face.
I know I’m not supposed to look a gift horse in the mouth, and I should be thankful to have a job at all. But is it too much to ask for one that doesn’t invalidate everything I’ve done for the past ten years? That’s not a rhetorical question, I actually want to know. If this were the eighteenth century, I’d have maybe fifteen years more to live—if I was lucky. Have I wasted ten of them?
Tomorrow looks like more of the same, but if any of you are in Manhattan and want to get together (or better, have any job leads), just let me know. My phone number’s the same.
**Starred Review** The fascinating mix of raw power, modern popular culture, and potent interpersonal drama will leave readers hungry for more.
[V]ery well written.
[A] thought provoking read with twists and turns.
Dionysus, the god of pleasure, starting orgies and riots as modern day musician with a cult-like following. How could I resist?