Jason looks like a little fascist in his Cub Scout uniform. Another battle I lost, though I didn’t put up much of a fight. Fred didn’t see my point and Jason was insistent. Julie didn’t care. I’m sure it was for the uniform that he wanted to join, not “to do my duty to God and my country.” Jason likes being like everybody else, doesn’t like standing out. The other boys joined and now they can all dress the same on Thursdays and Saturdays. When he was little Jason used to hide in the cupboard under the sink and the back of my closet. He likes tight spaces and making himself small. How did that happen? A changeling? His father’s son?
Julie’s more like me when it comes to rebelliousness, also taking up space and being loud. Unfortunately, the chief object of her vociferous rebellion is me, especially since she figured out about me and Daisy.
“How much do you send her?”
Julie’s view is that my songs, my success, are all wrong. Wrong as in dishonest; wrong as in those big words she’s just discovered. “It’s exploitative—no, it’s parasitic.”
“Parasitic?” I said.
“A parasite is like something that lives off something else. You live off Aunt Daisy. I mean, like we all do.”
Julie’s fifteen and she already she’s got that disdainful slouch down. She says “like” and “I mean” way too much.
“Soon it’ll be ‘you know,’ showing up like a comma,” I said to Fred. He found it amusing. Fred’s a happy man and has what they call a good sense of humor. Fred smiled down at me and said, “Yeah, darling’, like, you know, I mean.” But how can you criticize the diction of a fifteen-year-old who was assigned The Return of the Native by a throwback English teacher and claims her favorite writer is Thomas Hardy?
Julie’s not completely wrong about me and Daisy but she’s not altogether right either. Not all of my songs are made out of my sister’s awful life. The early ones were about our life together, all three of us kids, like my first semi-hit, “Growing up in the Hollow”:
No milk for our cereal
No shoes and no rugs
All went on Mom’s drugs
And when Billy kept coughing
At school all through the day
Two men and a woman
Took him away.
Julie hates that song, of course. Mawkish, she calls it, another addition to her vocabulary of disapprobation. In fact, she doesn’t like my songs at all, or any country and western. She’s just discovered Rachmaninoff, the Mamas and the Papas, Bill Evans, Nirvana. But then Julie’s never missed a snack, let alone a meal, or gone without the newest Nikes; she never had to walk more than twenty yards unless she wanted to and doesn’t know what it means not to see a dentist for a decade or to have to fight off an uncle with whisky-breath and a hard-on when you’re eleven years old. Julie and Jason and Fred and me, we’re rich; we’re secure. Fred has his own property development business and he’s making good money; I make a whole lot more, even when I don’t do shows. But I like doing shows. I like being on the road and, even more, I like writing songs.
Trouble is the songs have to be about bad things happening and bad things don’t happen to me anymore, or, thank Heaven, to Fred and the kids. Nothing song-worthy, not yet, anyway. And that’s where Daisy comes in: my parasitism or our symbiosis.
“I reckon we’re about equally jealous of each other. Took me a little while to see that but it kind of evens things out, doesn’t it?” said Daisy to me.
Her life is awful yet it draws me, at least the part of me that dislikes seeing my son in a scout uniform or my daughter taking everything she can for granted. I’m attracted by the chaos, the cascade of troubles, the casually destructive sex and substance abuse—all of which seems to me real while my life isn’t real or not real enough for a song. The “real” that is Daisy’s terrible life interests me mostly so that I can turn it into songs that will sound real, as though they come from me, from my painful life. If I wrote a song about my actual life—shopping for groceries, dropping the kids off, trying a new recipe I saw on PBS—it wouldn’t work at all.
When my fans think of my life, I suppose they are thinking of Daisy’s.
“He hit me last night, hit me a lot; but he was so drunk and high, I couldn’t do anything with him. Didn’t dare. Threw him out this morning, though.”
When we were about twelve, Daisy and I tried marijuana together, smoked it out in the woods. I hated it—the smoke, the taste, the smell, the way it slowed down time—but Daisy loved it. Well, of course she would, wouldn’t she?
I was careful about boys; Daisy wasn’t. She got pregnant junior year of high school, dropped out, moved in with the boyfriend, lost the baby, also the boyfriend, but didn’t come back either to school or home. Daisy had the figure, so she became a cocktail waitress. Big tips. Parties. New drugs.
“I don’t get it,” she said to me once.
“Why Fred stays. Why you stay.”
“Well, Daisy. Fred and I, we’re like those kids who build blocks out and not up. We like stability.”
Daisy scoffed. “Fred does. Not so sure about you. You couldn’t write those songs let alone sing them that way unless. . .”
There was no need to finish the sentence.
Daisy did a stint in the county jail; she had a baby boy and didn’t bother about the father; she was in a car accident that broke her jaw; she got her boy a mutt that got bitten by a raccoon and the raccoon had rabies. Twice she got married and divorced in under a year. She got evicted, had her old car repossessed, both more than once. I sent money and I’d have gladly sent more but Daisy was proud: “No more than five thousand every three months. Gotta draw the line somewhere. You got that?”
But lately, things were going pretty well for Daisy, ever since she hooked up with this trucker/cowboy type named Dale. Once, when I phoned Daisy, Dale answered and we had a little chat. He was very polite, said he loved my stuff almost as much as he loved my beautiful sister. A charmer, that Dale. He even sounded lean and strong.
Then, two days ago, Daisy called crying inconsolably so that I could hardly understand a word she said. Then she dialed it back to weeping and I could picture her rubbing the tears away with the back of her hand.
“He just took off. No note, nothing. That was mean of him—just to go like that before sunup with his stuff and his pickup and no explanation. It’s not like anything bad happened last night. We did argue a little, but nothing much.”
With her experience, Daisy knew he wouldn’t be coming back.
Fred made us all waffles and bacon this morning. He’s going to play golf with three of his buddies after he drops Julie off at the Mall where she’s meeting two girlfriends. Jason’s got a Cub Scout hike and he’s walking to the church with his new friend Omar. So, I was left alone to try imagining my way into Daisy’s life yet again. But this time it was different. I kept thinking not of Daisy but of Dale and his deep, courteous voice with just that hint of a twang. I pictured a lean man with the lean voice, a man who might have stayed but didn’t, who might have settled down but couldn’t. The song I’ve written isn’t one Daisy will like, and I’m sure Julie won’t, and maybe Fred, if he took an interest, might see something wrong in it, even though the tune is sweet and wistful and kind of old-fashioned. But it’s not a song I can sing because it’s really a man’s song, a cowboy’s. Cowboys get restless; they ride off into the sunset in their battered pickups. If they have two kids, they’d feel bad about it but they’d leave anyway. Cowboy songs are about freedom and lonesomeness and disappointment. Cowboys don’t have entitled teenagers at the mall or little boys in uniforms; they don’t stay home and watch Netflix with somebody who snores.
“Cowboy Song”—that’s what I’m going to call it.
I left in the morning
when the whole world looked new.
I closed the door softly
and I didn’t tell you.
I would love to have stayed,
though you won’t believe me.
Guess I thought I’d fail you
or that you’d deceive me.
The highway led nowhere,
except further from you.
The morning didn’t last
and the world wasn’t new.
About the author:
Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published five fiction collections, Life in the Temperate Zone,The Decline of Our Neighborhood, The Artist Wears Rough Clothing, Heiberg’s Twitch, and Petites Suites; two books of essays, Professors at Playand and The Posthumous Papers of Sidney Fein; two short novels, Losses and The Derangement of Jules Torquemal; essays, stories, and poems in a variety of scholarly and literary journals, and the novel Zublinka Among Women, awarded the Indie Book Awards first prize for fiction. A collection of Chinese stories, Hsi-wei Tales, is forthcoming.