Roger didn’t ask Sebastian if he was sitting down. That would have been the customary thing to do, and nothing at Seraglio, not even grim duties, was done by custom: Roger himself had seen to that. As it was, Sebastian was indeed seated, at the desk Roger gave him four years ago. So it was right there, in the ergonomically designed chair, underneath the broad panel window looking out at the Venice Beach boardwalk, at ten o’clock on a sunny morning otherwise indistinct from all the other L.A. mornings, that Sebastian got the news that Rey Dekko had offed himself.
Offed: that was Roger’s blunt and colorless word. No euphemisms for him, nothing subtle or mystical, just a binary view of life and death, black and white, doings and undoings. There had been a switch at Rey’s disposal. Yesterday it had been on, and Rey had been privy to shape, color and light: all the components of consciousness were his to arrange. This morning, guided by nothing but his own inner dialogue, Rey had grabbed the switch and thrown it. Now it was off and so was he. There would be no new music from Rey Dekko, no more guitar chords and smiles for devoted fans, no more funny haircuts and casual wit and wisdom by the master. Show’s over; clap all you want, no encore tonight.
Sebastian took a moment to breathe and listen to his heart thump. It was a horrid shock, a chicken claw stuck inside his throat, a radical upending of the contingencies of his own life. Rey had grabbed the tablecloth and pulled it, and now there was wine all over the place. The news was, what, ninety seconds old, and already he could see the stains sink in. Not that he’d ever worried about it happening, but it seemed so shockingly plausible. Because Sebastian felt he needed to register some protest against a galaxy that had allowed this to happen, he probed for an answer to a question that had, so to speak, already been put to bed.
“Hell yes I’m sure it’s true. Look, Seb, we’re going to have to talk about this. But for now it can wait. Get some air. Go out and stare at the fucking ocean. Go home if you have to. You got me?”
He did. Sebastian lifted himself to his feet. All the pale yellow wood furnitures and floors and silver discs and arty posters of vintage pop-rock bands on the walls of the Seraglio satellite office felt like pieces of a set assembled for a movie about somebody else’s life in which he was a bit part actor at best. Part of the crowd scenes, maybe. He tried to reason himself through it — this defamiliarization of surroundings, he thought, was no doubt typical for those confronting suicide for the first time. He didn’t know if it was common, but it seemed like it ought to be common. Later, perhaps, he’d do an internet search to discover the appropriateness of his reactions.
At the elevator he met Maxie the intern. She, too, looked slightly unreal: like a mannequin wheeled into the office and positioned by the front desk to signify youth and attention to fashion. She’d dyed her hair the pale orange color of baby aspirin.
“Didja hear about Dekko?” she asked Sebastian in a suppressed voice.
“Looks like I was the last to know.”
“Break for you, though, hey?”
“Oh, man, there’ll be tons of interest in him now.” Maxie attempted slot machine noises: ch-ching, and all that. As a decidedly nonmetallic person, these were unconvincing. She pulled an invisible lever and grinned at him.
Sebastian did not make it to the boardwalk. Instead he crouched between a pair of convertibles in the car park. If he was going to be sick, better here where the maintenance people could clean it up than on the street where it would obstruct the forward path of some rollerblader. Could he had done something?, he wondered, mostly because he felt he was supposed to, that’s how the script went. Though the business of Rey made up the better part of his day, every day, it had been a couple of months since they’d last spoken, and even that was a fleeting exchange over nothing. Sebastian had some licensing opportunities they had to discuss; Rey wanted to talk about Buddhism, and a sage remark made by his yoga teacher. Like all Rey’s representations of received wisdom, it struck Sebastian as inane, and poorly tailored to meet the contingencies of Los Angeles and show business as he understood it. Rey, it seemed to him, was receding into the same twilight that engulfed all stars and would-be stars. It was Sebastian’s job to make impending irrelevance as comfortable as possible. If anyone had been in position to recognize the warning signs, it should have been him. He let the memories of the days sift through his fingers like sand. They all ran together into a single signal of distress. Life, he decided, is a warning sign.
Back at his desk Sebastian was greeted by voicemail from his mother. Aunt Merry was gravely gravely ill. Would he please do her this one favor of visiting his terribly ill aunt? She always loved him. Sebastian had fielded this call several times in the last few months, always promising his mother that he’d make time to see Aunt Merry, but never following through. Not today, he thought; certainly not today. He couldn’t handle it: there’d already been enough death. If his momma wanted to comfort Aunt Merry, she could get on a plane. All the best planes flew to L.A.; even those in Indiana, he imagined. This is where everybody wanted to be — the gaudy orange end-goal of an otherwise colorless nation.
He ran his thumb through a stack of printouts. Here was his task for the day: he was looking to place “Happiness,” Rey’s only bona fide hit record, the one place where his enormous discography intersected with popular culture, in an Internet commercial for a travel service.The song’s smoothness, the cake-icing sweetness of its harmonies, the gentle worldliness of the Latin beat, all of it made it a nice match for marketing departments interested in imparting sophistication to their service. Some wiseacres were, he imagined, already writing somewhere on the Internet that the ubiquity of the song in promos had driven Rey to end his life, which meant that it was all Sebastian’s fault.
This one was easy to dismiss: Rey would never have heard any of those commercials. As far as Sebastian knew, he didn’t even own a computer. Also, Rey Dekko never turned down a check, that was for sure. There’d be no note — that wasn’t his style. How had he done it?, had it been final as a gunshot, or the long poison of an overdose, or had he thrown himself off of a bridge, chasing one final zero-gravity thrill? The pistol, the rope, the razorblade, in the library with the lead pipe. Police your thoughts, Sebastian, don’t be morbid, what’s the matter with you.
Contrite, Maxie put her hand on Sebastian’s arm. The backs of her fingers were tattooed with tiny skulls. Nice work; intricate, very ladylike.
“I’m so sorry about what I said before, Seb. That was insensitive.”
“Roger upbraid you?”
“No! I just, I’m sorry, I don’t know how to react.”
“I forgot he was your friend.”
Was he, though? He didn’t quite know. It was Sebastian who had lured Rey to California — Rey, who would otherwise have wasted his talent and vision in the small clubs of Fort Wayne, drunk bar patrons talking over him as he sang, chucking darts and swilling beer, demanding dumb covers from the band, tossing spare change into his ratty guitar case. That was the future for Rey Dekko, or Dexter Ramón, as he’d been called when Sebastian first met him, the big kid in the neighborhood, the strummer at block parties, provider of Beatles songs to the blue-haired, good student, good athlete, handsome on the balance beam, a vision of All-American teenage virtues marred only by his apparent Mexican heritage. His home life sedate and boring with an all-too-common undercurrent of anger and anxiety. Like the other boys, he’d gathered in Rey’s basement to watch him work the four-track, magically layering sound upon sound, building songs from a base of bongos, decorating the tracks with twelve-string filigrees and Radio Shack synthesizer run through an old flanger pedal, and gracing the whole thing with his tenor, his lyrics, sometimes in English, sometimes in Spanish, always captivating.
Sebastian brought Rey to L.A., to Seraglio, out of the cold and into the dream, the life he’d always said he’d wanted, one of quarter-inch cables and stagelights and constant motion and plenty of opportunities to muscle through depression with the force of activity and acclaim. That he’d gotten: Sebastian had seen to it. He wished it had been enough. His inadequacy to the task aggressively demonstrated, Sebastian got on his bicycle and rode, however unsteadily, home.
About one thing at least, Maxie had been dead wrong. Downloads of Rey’s records did not spike. Articles galore, especially in the independent press, tributes from other musicians, yes, quotes from insiders, including many from Roger as head honcho of the famous Seraglio imprint (nobody interviewed Sebastian), but no appreciable uptick in sales. Apparently everybody who wanted a Rey Dekko recording already owned one.
It could be cognitive dissonance, thought Sebastian — nobody can accept that the author of “Happiness”, with its summertime ease and feather-light drums and chorus of acceptance, could have done himself in. That was exactly the angle that the journalists worked, trading in easily digestible ironies, deadline-beaters, lede magic. The long-form pieces that came later attempted to tease out the undercurrents of sorrow in the song — those mournful notes that the devoted Dekko fans always heard, and that were, in fact, key to his success at connecting with the audience he’d had. Some deep diggers unearthed rarities, dejected b-sides and outtakes, unfinished versions, and presented these as circumstantial evidence, explanations of the private darkness that had driven him. One article told Sebastian that the original title of “Happiness” had been “Happiness Blues”.
Was this accurate, or were writers just combing the odd corners of graveyard for clues? Sebastian thought he knew the first version of “Happiness”: he’d heard it take shape many years ago in Indiana. The original draft had been about chasing girls. Only after Rey had come to California did Eastern mysticism trickle into the words, rewrite by rewrite.
Aunt Merry had sent congratulations once the song had hit. She was the only member of his family who’d noticed — most of the rest of the clan were engaged in responsible pursuits in Fort Wayne, and didn’t pay attention to popular music or his meagre part in it. Merry had been a wild child, a rock fan, lured by stories of the Sunset Strip. She’d followed a rocker to Los Angeles, been left flat, and found herself adrift in Fairfax, getting old. She saw Sebastian as a kindred spirit, and sent him music-themed presents for his birthday and for Hanukkah: a three-ring binder with a treble clef on it, a penny whistle, a trashy history of the Rolling Stones. Every time she encountered “Happiness” in a cable television show or on a commercial, she dropped him a delighted note, as if he’d been responsible for the song. Each one was a brutal reminder that he wasn’t. Sebastian had no musical talent. He could barely carry a tune at a karaoke bar.
Once, he’d caved and allowed Aunt Merry to take him out. They’d actually had a nice time. He’d met her at the Farmer’s Market and they’d walked together to Canter’s, a deli on Fairfax Avenue. It hadn’t been the quickest going: Merry had been bitten on the shin by a dog the week before and the wound was infected. Her whole life had been like that: an accumulation of petty indignities and misfortunes.
Sebastian feared that she’d spend the afternoon complaining about this and that; instead, she’d been in a very good mood. She wanted to know all about his adventures in the industry, and about Rey, especially Rey. She’d startled him with her exhaustive knowledge of his catalogue. Once Sebastian began working with him, she explained, she made a point to follow his comings and goings. Very exciting, very exciting. Was he queer, a faggoteer, she wanted to know; so many of the best ones were. Across the table her eyes were lively. He didn’t mind her faded sundress or her sandals with thick leather straps, or that she ate her patty melt with her mouth open. Saying mmm mmm between bites.
It is our enthusiasms, Rey would say — for a favorite nephew, for Elvis Presley, for lunch — that makes us fully human and therefore worthy of love. Sebastian had accompanied Rey on a few of his excursions, as he called them, on Wiltshire Boulevard: he’d printed up and laminated cards, each one with the words YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL: BELIEVE IT printed on the back. He’d distributed one to anyone who looked lost, or just absorbed in circular thinking. Sometimes he’d bring tulips. It seemed so invasive, borderline coercive. Sebastian was amazed that Rey never got punched in the face.
People are naturally good, the star would protest; all they needed to regain their buoyancy was a little encouragement. After “Happiness” hit, Rey stepped up his ministry, dispensing advice, and positivity, through a column he submitted for publication on the Seraglio website. How to patch together guitar effects and whether Scritti Politti was better than Prefab Sprout, the challenges of growing up Latino in the Midwest, where to start with the Upanishads and the Tripitaka. A certain sort of intellectual pop fan ate it all up. The rest of the planet wouldn’t touch it.
In bed, staring at the ceiling once again, Sebastian reviewed the facts as he knew them. Then he re-arranged them, treated them like an anagram and searched for a different spelling, tried on some fresh hypotheses, fished in deep waters for a motive and dragged up another flat tire. Rey might have been so full of illumination that physical existence had become intolerable to him; this, he thought of as the Bananafish theory, after the Salinger story. It was, he realized, just a gussied-up version of the belief, held among some fans but considered by Sebastian to be an unforgivable cliche, that Rey Dekko was simply too good for the world. The failure of all his subsequent singles had to have eaten at him, hadn’t it, although he never showed the sweat. Then there were the cultural factors: Rey’s sense of alienation, the feeling of rootlessness that had to have accompanied his relocation to California, his transplanted identity, scars he’d carried from his encounters with prejudice. Sebastian had never seen any evidence of this, but who was he to say? Or were the journalists right? Had his commitment to happiness, if not “Happiness” itself, wavered under the pressure of a depression so vast and broad that its undulations exceeded the width of his field of vision?
“Or maybe he was just an asshole. No regard for nothing but his own myth. Motivated by a black, vicious, vicious desire to fuck the rest of us up for good.”
This was Caradoc, Rey’s drummer, on shot number seven at the Satellite in Silver Lake, back to the bar, lights down, dance music blaring on the stereo. He was a skinny guy; Sebastian didn’t know how he was still standing. It was Sebastian who’d introduced him to Rey — he’d seen him hitting the skins with a stiff pop combo bereft of ideas at a room not unlike this one, admired the stateliness of his groove, and had an urge to spring him free. He’d played on “Happiness” and all the rest of them; Rey, he told Sebastian, had been readying a comeback, talking about it, anyway, a sharp turn from the electrified meditation chants of his recent records and back to the sizzle and flash of his original Latin-indiepop fusion. It was going to make them all. Caradoc veered between frustration, fury, and indignation — his bandleader had been misled by Roger, he’d been misunderstood by the world, he’d been a self-inflated jerk who’d gone out the window without a kiss goodbye.
“Here we are, we’re still talking about him. Sleepless like he wants us. Obsessed with his nihilist suicide ass.”
“I’ve been obsessed with his music since I was fourteen and he was seventeen,” admitted Sebastian. “I still think of him as the best songwriter anywhere.”
“It’s because he never sold. We never sold and it drove him crazy. It must have. He saw all these bastards selling music and he had to take it. Beaten by the bastards.”
“Look around, Doc. Throw a stone in here and you hit thirty, forty guys who’d kill for the success Rey Dekko had.”
“A failure. A one-hit wonder forever. He couldn’t deal.”
“Doesn’t sound like Rey.”
“You don’t know shit. About what he was like. You were never in practice with him and all his snide comments, don’t go to the ride, hit the side of the snare like this, you must not know much about Latin pop, you provincial, you came in late, late again. Always late, always thought he knew better than the rest of us. The savant. Look at him now. A corpse.”
Dark as it was, Sebastian could tell Caradoc was crying. I’m soft suicidal too, brother. Never thought about suicide ever until this. It’s like — and here the drummer grasped for words, and paused a long time before finishing his sentence — it somehow validates it as a choice, you know? Like if Rey Dekko doesn’t think it’s worth it, who am I to disagree. Caradoc fished around in his messenger bag until he found a jump drive. He had something for Sebastian, something so good, and, hey, had he seen Roger recently.
“I work for him, Caradoc.”
“True man, true. This is something me and the guys have been up to in the past weeks. Since it happened. Our reaction. Think he’ll listen? Didn’t want to send a cheap MP3, this is a big file.”
“I’m sure he’ll check it out.”
“He won’t. That dickhead! What a total fuck. Hey — tell him he has to turn it up loud. Bottom end. Up loud.”
Back at his place, Sebastian poured milk into a bowl of Frosted Flakes, stared at it, didn’t eat it. Rey would say that Caradoc needed a period of mourning — that he wasn’t thinking straight, and that no music he or his former bandmates made while overwhelmed with grief would have the proper grace. But then again, why would he care what Rey thought?, any wisdom he had to pass on was now automatically suspect. Once again, Sebastian had to pull himself out of familiar patterns of thought. Rey had poisoned the reservoir of wisdom that his songs, writings, and stray comments had always provided. He’d never realized how many of his daily experiences were filtered through Ray Dekko lyrics, and asides, and big-brotherly opinions. By habit he still made recourse to it all. Seconds later he’d realize he had to throw it out. Rey had kicked Sebastian’s crutch away. Maybe Caradoc was right. Maybe Rey did hate them all for not making him a star. Musicians: the audience can never clap loud enough.
Aunt Merry, Sebastian’s mother told him on the phone, had been moved into hospice care. Hospice: that’s it, the end of the damn line. She’d begged him to visit. His cousin had flown to L.A. and checked Merry into a facility attached to a synagogue on Pico. There was a door to get in but none to get out. Well, that was reasonably close to Seraglio headquarters. He’d been ducking Roger since the suicide; he knew they’d have to talk eventually. Sebastian could drop Caradoc’s demo off and then perform his family duty. It would be a difficult day, but they all had been, had they not. He stretched his memory back far before Rey’s suicide, and still couldn’t remember the last breezy one.
The main Seraglio offices were shoehorned into one of the many architectural anomalies that dot the Los Angeles neighborhoods between Beverly Hills and the Downtown. The building looked like a great concrete teepee, complete with a glass-ceilinged penthouse where a smokehole would be. The iconography suited Roger fine: he’d always believed there was something shamanistic about his approach to the music business. Sebastian preferred the look and feel of the satellite office in Venice Beach. It was far less aggressive. He always felt suffocating pressure whenever he was within a hundred yards of Seraglio headquarters; if he believed in energy fields, which he did not, he’d have called Roger a disruptor. And there he was, the big boss himself, waiting for him at the reception desk with his arms crossed and his leather jacket on, and a silver belt buckle in the shape of a palomino.
“Sebastian. You still work here? I still pay you for something? Remind me what.”
“Sorry. I’m sorry. I’m still shaken up about Rey.”
“Oh you too, huh. There’s a lot of that going around. Dekko derangement syndrome. It seems to prevent the afflicted from doing a fucking lick of work.”
His hands were quivering. If Roger had been near a paperweight, Sebastian would have ducked. Roger had sensitive eyes; all the interns agreed. The rest of his face was an amorphous mass of misapportioned tissue. Roger’s top lip, for instance; Sebastian thought it was as tall as a typical forehead. His squarish nose ended far too high on his face and left a swath of negative space that Roger refused to mar with a mustache. Some former Seraglio employees spread the rumor that Roger had burned off the balance of his schnoz with cocaine. Sebastian knew better. His boss was far too enamored with total control to do drugs. With a sudden swipe of his paw, he ushered Sebastian into his office. Then he closed the door and glowered.
Sebastian felt he’d better start; serve one up hard and fast and try to survive the volley.
“Caradoc gave me this drive. He says it’s worth your time.”
“Shit. Caradoc. This guy plays drums on one fucking hit and he thinks he’s a fucking institution. He wants a big wet kiss on their ass. Lingering in perpetuity. Tell Caradoc he yoked his wagon to a for-shit horse.”
“Can’t hurt to listen. Three minutes of your time.”
“Sebastian, my esteemed A&R man, you’re a professional music aficionado. As absurd a career choice as there is under the sun. Tell me what you know about the Significant Figures.”
He didn’t know anything.
“Existed 1985 through 1992,” said Roger. “Put out some pretty good records. Six, actually; six and a couple EPs. I think you’d like it. Really I do. Not because I played bass guitar in that fucking outfit and toured the Midwest in shit vans for seven years, no, because we had a solid guitar sound. Jangly, as was the fashion then, lots of jingle jangle bullshit for the kids. All we’d ever wanted was a hit — one hit we could hang the old hat on, maybe go on the late night TV shows, press the flesh with the President and Billy fucking Crystal or whoever. Never happened. Now this boy of yours, Rey Dekko, people think he’s so fucking great. What did he have that we didn’t? I ask you.”
“I expect you want me to say he had Roger behind him. In an administrative cap-”
“No, wiseass, what, you think I’m so full of myself? Shit. Luck, that’s what he had, dumb luck, the same luck that sprung that hick from an Indiana shithole and landed him in the most colorful city the world has ever seen. Then he goes and pisses it away. Fucking ingrate.”
“I don’t think it was luck, Roger. I think Rey had a specific songwriting sensibility that was singular to him, and which can’t be reproduced. By Caradoc or anybody else.”
“God! Spare me from pop geniuses who are not actually popular.”
Now that Sebastian’s sole ostensible rainmaker was no longer in the position to produce any fucking moisture, as Roger pointed out, it was due time to discuss the terms of his employment here at the famous Seraglio imprint.
Bruised and reeling from the encounter, Sebastian hit the road. He wanted to go straight home, but what was there?, a record collection, some plates. It was a beautiful day on La Cienega — the traffic was heavy as ever, but the stretch he was on was nice and flat and perfect for an accelerating bicyclist with less reason to live than he’d had a few hours ago. Yes, this was a fine place to ride. L.A. had a terrible reputation for congestion, but it was a joy to cycle around if you knew what you were doing. Pleasantly brutal glass boxes framed the street on both sides. Indian restaurants, software design shops, centers for thoracic surgery, all behind the same panels. Sebastian saw the reflection of his chassis in each — a blue streak. He pedaled harder.
Ten minutes later he locked up his thick-wheeled Trek outside the synagogue. It had been years since Sebastian had seen the inside of a temple, and the sight of the six-pointed star made him uneasy. There was nothing strange about a Jew in Los Angeles — synagogues were strung all along Pico, each with its own congregation, and, judging by their glossy exteriors, handsome endowments. In Fort Wayne it had been another story. He’d been the only Jew in his grade, and he’d been made to feel that by his peers, who liked to call him the bagel. Many times he’d wondered if his initial attraction to the half-Mexican kid in his neighborhood didn’t have something to do with their shared sense of alienation. If Rey even felt it, he’d never made any noise about it. Once again, Sebastian caught himself projecting, right on the back of a friend who was not actually a friend.
The inside of the hospice facility was clean and quiet. The only sound was the intermittent chirp of birds. Sebastian watched a thick-ankled nurse carry a single cage into each room. He offered to help. She looked askance at him and asked who he was there to visit. Sebastian gave her the name and her eyes widened.
“Oh. Oh. You’d ought to hurry.”
She nodded. Would you like to carry the birdcage, she asked him; it’s an initiative by the temple to raise the spirits of the dying. Some liked it, some didn’t. Some very close to death couldn’t stand the sound of music. Even birdsong. Your aunt, sir, she’s nearing the end. But you could try. Would you like to try?
He did. He took the domed cage and its resident: a green bird that flapped against the bars of its cage as he walked to the end of the hall. Twenty paces in the quiet, past heavy doors like those in a cellblock, and then a right hand turn to a blunt corridor with a black arch at its end. He straightened up, held the cage aloft, and stepped through to the far side.
Aunt Merry lay face up on a slablike mattress, eyes shut and lips hanging open, tongue lolling off to the side. Gunk puddled at the corners of her mouth. A thin, pale blue blanket covered most of her torso and her legs, but one gnarled foot, itself bluish, stuck out of the bottom of the comforter. Kicking the bucket, thought Sebastian, and then scolded himself silently for such a crass reaction. Her skin seemed thin, as if it had been boiled off from beneath, and made a wax paper wrap around her narrow skull. The face was recognizably hers, but so much more gaunt, her nose fallen in deeper to her face, her face crashing in to the back of her head, everything collapsing to terminal flatness. No intravenous wires, no machines, nothing but the body on the bed, like a small boat that had been cut free from its parent craft in the middle of the ocean. For a few seconds Sebastian inspected the unmoving limbs, the petrified neck and diamonds of cracked skin on her wrists, and he thought he’d come too late. Then her lids lifted, and Aunt Merry looked at her nephew with something akin to recognition.
“My showbiz success story is here.” The voice wasn’t much more than a whisper, but Sebastian could tell she was trying to smile. Make the audience happy, that was her aim. She should have been a performer. If he’d been a visionary executive, rather than a bum, he could have found a show to suit her talents.
“I brought you somebody. To keep you company.”
“A bird! A bird!” And now she really was delighted. Sebastian placed the cage on an end table, and the little prisoner did its part, chirping away and looking as demure as possible.
Sebastian fixed Aunt Merry’s blanket. High light from a narrow window threw an arc of illumination on the patient’s sunken breast.
“I’m dying,” she said to him. She couldn’t believe it. Then she said it again. Astonished that it could happen to her, that it all could be seized from her, that the blackness could repossess what she’d been lent, that it was never hers to keep. There was outrage written in the crooked wrinkles at the corners of her eyes. How could this be? She’d heard the rumors, but always thought it was talk and sensation; you know how Hollywood is. But here was Death: the big one, tapping her on her shoulder, asking for undivided attention, dragging her away from the California sun and into the long hard cold.
He appreciated her resistance. He told her so. Sebastian took her hand and it was stiff as a branch that had fallen from a tree in a Midwestern October.
“And how is the other boy? Dekko. The happiness boy.”
“Oh, he’s doing fine. He’s great.”
“That’s wonderful, Sebastian.”
“He’s got a new project coming and I know you’re going to love it.”
“Here everyone lies. To me. You too. I guess it’s natural.”
She still got the entertainment papers, see: Variety, People, and the alternative weeklies. Every day she made the nurse read the news aloud. It must have been very difficult for you, Sebastian, she said. You must have felt betrayed. All your hard work. But don’t worry. Don’t worry. I know you. You made that boy. You’ll make another boy.
Aside from the rabbi and the body, there were six people present at Aunt Merry’s funeral: Sebastian, Sebastian’s cousin Andrea, a friend, a landlord, the nurse-birdkeeper from the hospice, and Sebastian’s mother, who’d arrived from Indiana for the services. Afterward, he took her out to Canter’s on Fairfax; he didn’t eat, but she did. Then she’d flown back to Fort Wayne.
Sebastian never officially resigned from the famous Seraglio imprint. He stopped going in, and they stopped sending checks. What little Rey Dekko business there remained, all that could be handled by Roger. Licensing opportunities for “Happiness” had vanished – no company wanted to be associated with a suicide. It was too soon. Rey had unraveled the tether that linked Sebastian to his employer. How long the money would hold out he couldn’t say – he didn’t have anything salted away. To buy him some time in Los Angeles, he pawned his guitar, the only one he’d ever owned, a Gretsch hollow-body he’d purchased on the day he’d managed to get Rey signed to the label. One day he’d learn to play it, he told himself then; maybe he’d even convince Rey to give him a lesson. But he’d never even gotten to chord number four, and now he felt like the sands had run out.
His insomnia worsened. Suicide: he couldn’t stop thinking about it. The alterity of it, the meaninglessness, the vacillations between bravery and cowardice, all of it. What had Rey’s last thoughts been like? Had he regretted his choice, in the air halfway between the bridge and the water, in that split-second between pulling the trigger and the deadly discharge, the point of no return with the poisoned pill, the pause between the kicked chair and the crack at the back of the neck? Was he flooded with regret, or had he been decisive to the final blackout? And what about consciousness, that awful transmission: did it go black in an instant, like a television switched off in disgust, or did it ooze away bit by bit, or slowly fade like a reel damaged by time? He was furious with Rey, he loved Rey, he wanted him back, if just for a day, to explain himself.
Much as he hated to admit it, he could see the appeal: suicide, its finality, yanking the plug and leaving others to clean up the mess, registering one final, decisive protest against stupidity, and cruelty, striking the set once and for all, getting the last word. Sebastian began taking long bicycle rides at night, huffing up the verticals in the Hollywood Hills, crashing down into the traffic of Franklin Avenue. He felt like a missile: something spring-loaded and due to detonate on contact. If he got hit by a car, he’d leave a dent in the grill. As he rode, he thought, also, of Aunt Merry and the life she’d led, here in the land of dreams, a different sort of dead end than the one she’d escaped in Indiana. A trade paper reader to the very end, caught up in the glamour and the gossip, never minding the insignificance, holding the aperture open as long as she could, until her arms broke down, and somebody got the cane around her neck and cleared the stage.
It was on one of these rides – a tuck and nose-bomb from the Heights to Hollywood Boulevard and all stars – that he passed the club and heard the melody. “Happiness”: the gentle arc of the chorus, the tug of the island drums. Yet this wasn’t Rey singing; it was someone more conventional, pedestrian, sweet but shallow. It occurred to Sebastian that the journalists were correct: there really had been a note of desperation tucked into Rey’s delivery, hidden there, a siren audible only to the like-minded. Sebastian put on the brakes, dismounted, and headed over to the little club to investigate further.
Maxie worked the door. She was startled to see him, and a little alarmed by her presence, as if he was a wanted man dawdling in front of the police station.
“I never – oh, it’s so nice to see you. I was a little worried about you.”
“I’m a little worried about me too.”
“Well come in. Come in. I mean, you’re the reason we’re here, in a way.”
It was a Dekko tribute night. A bit sparsely attended, but it was a Tuesday, after all. Not an official Seraglio event, no, it had been organized by a group of independent musicians who loved Rey’s music and wanted to honor him. But Seraglio, Maxie explained, had gotten involved. Roger had to. He’d gone crazy for Rey Dekko, it was all he ever listened to around the house.
“Around the house?”
“Oh”, Maxie tittered. “Yeah.”
There was Caradoc, onstage, behind the kit, looking thinner than ever, empties over by the snare stand. No wonder the drums had sounded good; that, at least, had been authentic. The kid singing and playing guitar, though, he was a pale facsimile. But his enthusiasm won Sebastian over. He waded deeper into the crowd, and found himself cheering through the verses. The writing: so good, so characteristic of Rey. Roger, he noticed, was on a corner microphone, adding his falsetto to the refrain. Once the song ended, he threw his big hips over toward center stage and began to ramble about Rey, his talent, his sainthood, his belief in humanity, what a loss this was for those to whom the music mattered. How soon the torch of brilliance is snuffed out by this world of shit. Each word was a rock he coughed out of his mouth. Chatter in the room, not all audience members were listening; many, Sebastian realized, had no idea who Roger was.
“Sebastian!, holy balls, Sebastian is here, appropriate,” he bellowed. Roger had spotted him from stage. “Sebastian, would you get the fuck up here. People, people, you don’t realize, this guy, he is so so key. This is the motherfucker who brought me Rey.”
Now people were looking at him. He felt summoned. Caradoc, too, pointed and beckoned. A path through the crowd opened. Sebastian rested a tentative foot on the top step leading to the stage. Then he felt the big arms of Roger on his, lifting him up. Roger grabbed him and squeezed him hard, thumped his back, nodded his sweaty head on Sebastian’s shoulder. It’s tough. It’s tough, he said. Roger pressed the microphone into Sebastian’s hand. Tell ‘em. Go on and tell ‘em all.
The room was hardly silent. Everywhere Sebastian could hear the clinking of drink glasses, side conversations, the chime of incoming text messages. Still, a few dozen rapt faces awaited his first word. A few people held phones aloft and snapped pictures. Sebastian had been to hundreds of pop shows, but he’d never stood on this side of the divide. This must have been how Rey felt nightly, this curious, cold calm, the lights in his eyes, the challenge of meeting the expectations of those listening and roping in those who weren’t; that was the job. Send them home happy. As a boy Sebastian had fantasized about all of it: the power chord struck and held under stage gels, the refrain shouted back to him by hundreds, the flashbulbs, the first thunderous snare hit and the high kick in tight leather pants, and all the rest of it. How he’d wanted to be onstage. Funny that it took Rey’s suicide to get him there.
Sebastian cleared his throat. Inappropriate, ugly. Rey Dekko, he told the crowd, had been his hero. He was still his hero. Always. Cheering, clapping, more attention. Stillness under the spot.
“I’ve thought a lot about Rey – about, um, why he did what he did. Why he didn’t want this, why the gift wasn’t enough. About depression and suffering, and anger, and wisdom. And did I let him down.”
Roger, in his black leather jacket, sat on a monitor and dangled his legs off the edge; Caradoc, behind him, sucked a longneck and nodded at him. Continue.
“But I want to say something about somebody else – somebody who you don’t know, who nobody knew. My, uh, my aunt died. Recently. She was 56.”
“Who cares?,” shouted a drunk in the crowd.
“Yes, yes, who cares, exactly. She had been sick for eighteen months, horribly sick and getting worse every day. For the whole last year of her life she was on a feeding tube. She couldn’t eat. This was a woman who liked to eat. Who liked everything. She lost her voice. She couldn’t walk around. I, I wasn’t there for her. Nobody was. Nobody asked her to go on another minute.”
He could feel the pressure leak out of the room. That bond between the man on the microphone and his listeners, so taut when he began, slackened with every word. His impulse was to tug harder.
“Nobody threw any tribute concerts for her, you know? Do you know what I’m saying?”
Roger, regretting his decision, looked down at his hands and shifted around on his ass.
“So if nobody knows the tune, but you go right on singing, you’re my hero.”
The front of the audience had thinned. The next band, ready to go, tuned their guitars in the corner. Even Caradoc seemed to be losing focus.
“If nobody is reading, but you go right on writing, you’re my hero. If nobody wants to listen, but you go right on talking, you’re my hero. If nobody is dancing,” here Sebastian looked over his shoulder, “but you keep the beat and never drop a stitch, you’re my hero.”
In the back booth, a watchless soundman pointed to his wrist. Universal signal, at least until we all go digital.
“If there’s no god-damned reason to be happy, but you go right on smiling, you’re my hero. If God’s got nothing for you, but you go right on praying, you’re my hero. If nobody cares if you live or die, but you go right on living, you’re my hero.”
A crash of glass and a gush of liquid. A bartender had knocked over a bottle.
“If you got up this morning, if you got out, if you answered the fucking bell, you’re my hero. I mean it. And I thank you.”
Some applause, but not very much of it. Sebastian crouched down and carefully placed the microphone on the lip of the stage. Then he slung himself to the floor, left the club, unlocked his bicycle, and headed for the hills.