The woman in the picture was the man’s wife, George assumed. Just how the picture was composed and how he’d said “she.” The point isn’t her.
George had been married three times. He and his first wife, Jenny’s mother, had planned to inhabit the world together, a small world shaped by small-town ideas. He was nineteen and ecstatic with youth, and he figured marriage was like having a girlfriend without having to sneak around, without having to have a quick fuck in the back seat of cars or in cornfields. (They had grown up together in southern Illinois, just outside of Carbondale.)
Sure it was stupid. But that was how he had seen things then. They’d moved to Chicago and rented an apartment, and he’d taught women rudimentary math and reading in a Job Corps program. The women were there on behalf of the court. You painted your fingernails in class. They went into an uproar when he said California was a state like any other and not a foreign land. The women were not ready to learn. Most of them had what their social workers would call “numberlessness.” They ran around George and got him to sign various forms for their court appearances and their probation officers. He quit shortly after, but the truth was he took a lot from these women in terms of the way they spoke. what they talked about. They bent language like glassmakers, folding and shaping it for individual purposes. That’s when he started taking notes, writing lyrics, with encouragement from Jenny’s mother, who believed in him.
He wrote a few songs and sold two. He went to Nashville to meet with music publishers. He got a little work, but more importantly, he got an idea of what kind of person he wanted to be. George lived in a sparse apartment at weekly rates. He went to clubs every night and caught glimpses of songwriting legends like Ray Price and Harlan Howard. It was 1974 and director Robert Altman was in town to shoot the movie Nashville. George and a few younger musicians and songwriters more or less lived off the food they stole from the craft tables on Altman’s film set. Jenny was six months old. He did not return home to her and her mother.
He saw Jenny sporadically, taking her on trips here and there when she was old enough not to need much attention anymore. As a teenager, she stopped talking to him. She didn’t give a reason. After her mother died of cancer, she became more open to his company. Her mother had been “Mama”. He was “George”. If he had to describe the relationship he would say it was more like two friends.
The photographer he’d picked up in eastern Arkansas had asked him to stop every now and then, so George decided the man had a penchant for the Atlantis-like quality of certain street scenes of what had been and was longer. A closed gas station. A boarded up snack bar. A concrete block building with faded writing: “Watermelons, red meat, yellow meat.”
“You don’t see the yellow-fleshed watermelons very often anymore,” the photographer said. “And nobody calls it meat.”
He told George that he built stereos as a hobby. Photography is not a hobby, he said. George said he writes songs as his non-hobby. They talked a little about music and the man began to describe technical aspects of tube amps that George couldn’t follow. Seeing that George was doomed, the man backed away and changed register.
“I met this guy who did it all by himself,” he told George. “I mean, he had a speaker plugged into his stereo. He only listened to mono records. Driven a BSA Gold Star, single cylinder. lived alone. Everything was ‘one’!”
“You could say I’m like that, too,” said George. “I mean the ‘one’ part.”
“You know what Pascal said.”
“I don’t,” George replied. He never had problems with his education, never felt that knowledge would make him look better or that he should pretend he had more of it than he actually had.
“A king alone, without distractions, is a man of misery.”
“So it’s okay to be alone,” George said, summing up what he took away from that aphorism. “As long as you have your distractions.”
The man said that sounded about right.
When he arrived at Jenny’s in Nashville five years ago, after the embarrassing confrontation at the woman’s apartment and sleeping in his car, he was a day late. He explained that he was held up because of the storm. He himself never cared if people were late, not even several days late. He worked with musicians. They lived in their own time. He thought Jenny was the same. He told her about the old woman in her tight pants at the bar because it was a funny story. And about the young woman who kicked him out when he said he didn’t want to burn her with a cigarette because it was a weird story. (She hadn’t kicked him out so bluntly — it was more like she’d ruined the hospitality — but he simplified it for Jenny.)
He thought Jenny would enjoy his reports from the road. But Jenny said she didn’t want to hear about it. “I don’t need this,” she said. “That’s bullshit. I’m trying to let you into my life. Which you don’t deserve. And I’ll sit here and wait for you all night while you seem to be in some bar dancing with strangers.”
“I’ve done far worse to strangers than dance‘ said George, smiling, hoping he could get her to relax. He and Jenny, they were cut from the same cloth. The two were wanderers and chroniclers. People trying to summarize things – complicated and painful things – in verses and choruses. Something like that. But Jenny didn’t laugh.
Instead, she went into the kitchen and took a hammer out of a drawer. She went outside and threw it at George’s windshield, which shattered where it struck, in a large radiating web on the passenger side. She certainly knew how to use a hammer.
“It won’t even hurt you,” she said. “Because you don’t give a shit. About everything.”
He knew he had to stay calm. She went back inside. He followed her. They sat down and she started talking. She told him that for years she had wondered when he would decide to meet her, but that moment never came. She started talking about her childhood. Her mother had worked full-time as a secretary at an agricultural wholesaler to support her. That was in Carbondale, where her mother had moved back to Chicago when Jenny was a baby. At sixteen, Jenny got a weekend job at the local utility company. She rode with a crew in a van. She was the only girl. She was already a tomboy at this point. One afternoon the crew decided to make her a real girl to show her that she was one.
As she began to go into the details of what was happening, George found he couldn’t listen to her. couldn’t hear it He stood up. Of course, leaving wasn’t the right thing to do. But he had to.
“See? See?” she yelled after him. “I knew it. You have your stories and I have mine. I don’t want to hear your stories just like you don’t want to hear mine.”
He left her apartment and drove all the way to Austin in this stupid car with the partially broken windshield. That was their last interaction. At home he could have taped the windshield to be cheap and preserve the damage as a form of insistent penance, but he ended up having it replaced.
George meandered from western North Carolina into Tennessee. He stopped picking up strangers after the amputee and the young hiker. He grilled alone.
He thought of calling Jenny to let her know he was coming. But if he did, she might say, don’t come.
He arrived in Nashville at 10 a.m pm He knocked on the door of Jenny’s house. He heard a baby cry. He felt confused. Was this the right place? He was sure it was. His memories of that street, the dead grass and the small walkway that led to a brick triplex, Jenny’s only front facing door, and what had happened between him and Jenny were vivid, although he had tried to forget her.
A woman answered, holding a newborn. A man stood behind her. They showed no reaction when he said Jenny’s name.
“We’ve been here three years,” they said, “and we don’t know your friend.”
George said, “It’s my daughter,” and they looked at him and he felt their judgment.
He went to a bar where people were drunk and rowdy and he stayed separate and a stranger. He slept in a motel and drove around Nashville the next morning feeling dizzy. As if his daughter was lost out there. But she wasn’t lost. She was a woman of forty and she lived her life. She could be anywhere.
He went to a few studios on Music Row where people might know his daughter. Nobody had heard from her. Some of these people knew him at least vaguely, knew his work as a songwriter. George was starting to get the feeling that Jenny had told her not to tell him.
He left Nashville. He drove west along the Kentucky border. It was the same route he’d taken when he’d stopped in this one-bar town to shelter from the storm, but in the opposite direction. He went back to this city. Retracing his steps was a habit of his, a way of managing his life.
This time the only motel was free. He paid for a room. It was late afternoon. He walked down the street to the bar and ordered a beer. As ordered, he wanted to ask the bartender about the young woman he had met there. He remembered her name—Merle—because it was unusual. But he hesitated, thinking the bartender might know Merle’s preferences. She’d probably asked every guy in the bar to burn her with cigarettes. But then he went ahead.
“Is Merle still coming in here?”