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Authors: John Rowell

The Music of Your Life

BOOK: The Music of Your Life
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Critical Acclaim for
The Music of Your Life

“The stories of John Rowell's crafty first collection, each of which combines the antithetical qualities of weighty novella and teleplay, aren't really all about the same thing. Rather, they're all about several things, and as we move from story to story, the way Rowell revisits and reconfigures his pet themes over and over draws us further and further into “The Music of Your Life”….
The Music of Your Life
is David Sedaris meets Raymond Carver. It's touching and funny and odd and just a wee bit camp. And, like any good nostalgia, it's as bubbly as it is bittersweet.”

—
Los Angeles Times Book Review

“… [L]ove at first paragraph. Rowell blends comedy and tragedy with excellent effect … [his] ear for Southern phrases is as unfailing as the late Eudora Welty's”

—
The Fayetteville
(NC)
Observer

“John Rowell wears his heart on his immaculate sleeve in this impressive collection. Stylish, smart, and frequently hilarious, these stories are deeply touching as well. I can't imagine a more auspicious debut.”

—Lee Smith

“Perfect harmony … John Rowell's is a moving and hilarious new voice. His new story collection … concerns itself with the minutiae of everyday life, but into those small, intimate moments he folds details and memories so universal that every reader will recognize each of these characters—mostly transplanted southerners and gay men—in themselves…. This is a book for every reader: metropolitan or rural, northern or southern, rich or poor, gay, straight, or unsure….
The Music of Your Life
is a piece of great, big, unafraid writing.”

—
Metro Weekly
(Washington, D.C.)

“In the world of John Rowell's wonderful stories, movie soundtracks, and Lawrence Welk's ‘champagne music' play in counterpoint of some of life's more difficult passages. Rowell's compassion, humor, and love of telling stories never falter, whether he's writing about schoolyard bullies, a very gay weekend in the country, or Lucille Ball.”

—Stephen McCauley

“Though John Rowell's voice is new to the literary public, readers are in the sure hands of a master. The voice in this collection isn't laced with humor, it's saturated with it … there is poignancy hidden within every laugh…. Rowell's exploration of themes of gender and identity transcend any attempt to pigeon-hole it as simply a comedy about ‘gay' issues. The themes Rowell investigates are painful for all of us, because they are universal.”

—
The Bloomsbury Review

“Epiphanies and never-fail entertainment … a masterful debut collection of short stories…. [A]ll seven stories gathered here are written with intelligence, sensitivity, and mastery.”

—
The Charlotte Observer

“The past is not another country in John Rowell's first collection of short stories. It's just around the corner, never more than a memory away…. The tone is confident, casual, typically direct, barely hinting at the poignancy and measured grief to follow. Rowell can do short, sharp, and snappy as well as lyrical and seductive, but whatever he does, his writing has an immediacy.”

—
San Francisco Chronicle

“John Rowell's debut in the world of fiction is completely remarkable. While the first thing you notice about these stories is their highly polished comic tone, it's the undertow of sweet sadness that lingers after you've read them.”

—Mark Childress

“Accomplished, energizing, and rewarding…. If, as is often said, fiction can be healing, then John Rowell's new collection of stories should be widely prescribed. Mr. Rowell's debut publication reveals a unique and honest voice, a wonderful sense of character, and the ability to use detail and emotional fearlessness that make each of the stories rich, resonant, and extraordinarily literate … reminds one of the way that masters John Cheever and John Irving can create an entire world in one moment…. Mr. Rowell is a very welcome new voice in contemporary writing.”

—
Gay City News

“These are wonderful stories—they go right to the heart of things. Vivid in detail, and rich with feeling, each story encompasses a whole world, complete with imperfections. A remarkable and impressive debut.”

—Susan Cheever

“… [L]ushly written … almost perfect in scope and tone … the author is especially good at invoking the ambivalence and alienation of coming into your sexuality, and the awkwardness of gay youth. Read
The Music of Your Life
if you like beautifully written, well-told stories that transport you into the character's lives.”

—
Out in the Mountains

“… [T]his debut collection of short stories proves to be one of this year's most engaging and deeply felt books…. Mixing poignancy, hilarity, and a decidedly Southern sensibility, Rowell emerges as a voice to be listened to.”

—
Encore

S
IMON
& S
CHUSTER
Rockefeller Center
1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2003 by John Rowell
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.

S
IMON
& S
CHUSTER
and colophon are registered trademarks of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

The Library of Congress has cataloged the hardcover edition as follows:
Rowell, John.
The music of your life : stories / John Rowell.
p.  cm.
Contents: The music of your life—The mother-of-the-groom and I—Who loves you?— Saviors—Spectators in love—Delegates—Wildlife of coastal Carolina.
1. Psychological fiction, American. I. Title.
PS3618.O875M875 2003
813′.6—dc21       2002045272
ISBN-13: 978-1-4165-8319-6
ISBN-10: 1-4165-8319-X

“Mein Herr” (John Kander, Fred Ebb) © 1972 Alley Music Corporation and Trio Music Company, Inc. Copyright renewed. Used by Permission. All Rights Reserved.

“Mein Herr” by John Kander, Fred Ebb © 1972 Trio Music Company, Inc., Alley Music Corp. Copyright renewed. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.

“The Lady Is a Tramp” by Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart. Copyright © 1937 (Renewed) Chappell & Co. Rights for Extended renewal Term in United States controlled by The Estate of Lorenz Hart (Administered by WB Music Corp.) and the Family Trust U/W Richard Rodgers and the Family Trust U/W Dorothy F. Rodgers (Administered by Williamson Music). All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.

Visit us on the World Wide Web:
http://www.SimonSays.com

For my mother and father

THE MUSIC OF YOUR LIFE

You're ten years old. It's summertime. And you have Lawrence Welk damage.

You are, in fact, America's biggest little fan of
The Lawrence Welk Show
. You can't get enough of him, of him and his weekly television variety hour. Lawrence Welk: “Mister Music Maker,” the leader of the band, a fussy, exacting man who sports a red or pastel blue polyester blazer that gives him the look of, say, the president of your father's Rotary Club, but that could never be, because this man is
famous;
Lawrence Welk belongs to America, to American living rooms, like some eccentric, musically inclined uncle from another state who suddenly appears in front of you—“
Hello, son
…”—bearing an undertaker's freeze-dried smile, lifting his baton and welcoming you to his show in a speaking voice that sounds eerily Transylvanian: “
Good-a evaning, everybody, I'm-a Lawrence Welk
…”

But you are eager for it, eager for him, because Lawrence Welk brings music into your home. From the television screen, Mr. Welk lifts his pencil-thin baton to conduct his big band—“
here we go, a one-a and a two-a
…”—and he might as well be conducting your heartbeat, because your little-boy heart accelerates with the thrumming of the tympani and the brassy blast of the horn section; it keeps tempo, marks time, this junior-sized metronome in your chest, and your entire body pulsates with the rhythm of the music; you can't help but be carried away by it as you listen and take it all in. You are mesmerized, you are utterly fascinated, you are Lawrence Welk's Number One Fan. Is it love? Are you in love with Lawrence Welk? Maybe; or maybe it's the show you're in love with. Yes, you're in love with
The Lawrence Welk Show
, if such a thing is possible. And it's not the dancing or the stars or the costumes or the sets that have stolen your heart away …

It's the music.

And because you love it too much, it has damaged you.

“Wunnerful, wunnerful,” you say to no one in particular, appropriating Mr. Welk's curious accent and employing it like an actor. You whisper it under your breath to your mother as you watch her prepare dinner. As she places the Sunday-night special of Salisbury steak, green bean casserole, and mashed potatoes in front of you at the table, you say: “Ladies and gentlemen, tonight's dinner has been brought to you by Geritol—good for what ails you.”

“Just eat, please,” says your mother, Connie.

Behind his sports pages, and without looking at you, your father, Ray, says: “That'll be enough of that, son.”

Yes, you're damaged, but no one seems to notice. Or: they notice, they just pretend not to.

It's the Summer of Love in America, but for you it's the Summer of Discovering the American Popular Songbook, courtesy of the musical selections on the Lawrence Welk program. You've taken to joining Connie and Ray in the family room, plopping in front of the new Zenith console television set, for an hour of what Mr. Welk refers to as “champagne music.” You've come to know all the regulars on the program: the dancers Bobby and Cissy, the accordion player Myron Floren (his upright, high-swinging rendition of “Flight of the Bumblebee” was a big highlight on last week's “Songs of the Great Outdoors” theme show), Joe Feeney, the Irish tenor whose signature number is “Danny Boy,” and the silvery-voiced, heavily hair-sprayed soprano Norma Zimmer. (Connie: “I wonder if she uses Adorn or White Rain …” You: “‘Adorn. To give you that natural look—all day, and all night.'” Ray: “That'll be enough of that, son.”)

Lawrence Welk calls Norma Zimmer the “Champagne Lady.” Before the summer started, you knew nothing about champagne—now you pretend to drink it on a daily basis. Your grandmother gave you one of her champagne glasses after she quit drinking last year—a “flute,” she called it, and then she said, “No, a
magic
flute,” and this caused her to laugh uproariously, a smoker's hacky laugh, a laugh that seemed both happy and furious at the same time … you'd never heard anyone laugh that way before.

So you have taken to tossing back ginger ale in a magic champagne flute and then asking, or maybe even commanding, your mother to refill it, and repeating a phrase you recently picked up from a
Dialing for Dollars
afternoon movie: “Hit me again, baby, and don't be stingy.”

And then you laugh throatily, uproariously, in your best smoker's hacky laugh.


Hahahahaha
…”

In your Underdog shortie pajamas and striped white crew socks, you sip ginger ale on hot August Sunday nights with Connie and Ray as Mr. Welk and company serenade you, and when the program breaks for advertisements of Martini & Rossi (“
on the rocks … say ye-e-es!
”) and Pall Mall cigarettes, you inquire of your mother, whom you have dubbed “Iced-Tea Lady,” “Madam, is there any
caviar
in the house?”

“Can you talk like a normal person?” Ray asks, as Iced-Tea Lady serves the two of you her best version of caviar on a moment's notice: Ritz crackers topped with discreet orange dollops of pimento cheese. “How come you like all this old-people's music, anyway?”

“I don't know,” you say. “It has style.” You must have read that somewhere.

“Style,” Ray grunts, flipping back pages.

“I think he has good taste,” says Connie, hostess perfect in a pink and mauve sleeper set with matching short silk robe and mules topped with feathery puffs. Connie: tall and occasionally thin, blond enough, but blond
er
with a little help from Miss Clairol, not a former southern beauty-pageant beauty, like her sisters were, just always the “cute” one.

“And we know good taste comes from
my
side of the family,” she adds, winking at you and gingerly tasting her own spur-of-the-moment Ritz cracker creation.

Ray makes a playful swipe at Connie, then grabs her and pulls her into his lap. You sit cross-legged on the floor and study them. It thrills you to see Connie and Ray like this, playful and affectionate; you imagine you're living with Rock Hudson and Doris Day from one of their romantic comedies, the ones you've seen on
Dialing for Dollars
. It's the final reel: obstacles surmounted, no more resistance, in love,
together forever
. From the TV, Mr. Welk's special guest, Miss Jo Stafford, sings: “Look at me, I'm as helpless as a kitten up a tree …”

“That's one of our songs, hon,” says Ray, half-whispering in Connie's ear, pushing a few strands of her hair away with his nose.

Connie giggles and rests her head on Ray's big, round shoulder, running her fingers through his military-looking brush-cut and cupping his strong, shadowy jawline. In her moderately well-trained church choir voice, she sings along, something about left hand and right, something about hats and gloves; you don't quite follow it all …

And Ray joins in, and then so you won't feel left out, so do you, singing as high and as loud as your boy soprano will allow. What a trio: you're misty, they're misty, everyone's too much in love.

And what a fabulous night. Great American standards perfume the air, Connie and Ray are in love like movie stars, and you have a front-row seat, an insider's view, an aficionado's appreciation, for all of it. Even all the recent unpleasantness about your grandparents' divorce seems to have vanished for now. This summer, you and your grandmother have spent hours together, reading her movie magazines,
Photoplay, Movie Mirror, Modern Screen
. You feel as though you could be photographed, right here, right now in this very setting, for
Photoplay
's “Movie Stars at Home” section. You imagine that you are a child star, perhaps the youngest vocalist ever to perform a standard on
The Lawrence Welk Show
, and you become instantly famous, you become what
Photoplay
calls “an overnight sensation.” You are photographed in your pajamas, brandishing your champagne flute aloft, and you consent to a few photographs with Ray and Connie, though you make sure the photographer doesn't snap Connie doing the ironing or Ray reading the sports page. You grant an accompanying interview in which you say you like it here in this house, but, really, it's too small, and the three of you will soon be moving from North Carolina to Beverly Hills, California, where you will be neighbors with Lucille Ball and Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. Once ensconced in sunny southern California, you are sure to attend your neighbors' smart cocktail parties, where you will stand in the crooks of their grand and baby grand pianos and sing, and everyone will recognize you from your appearances on
Lawrence Welk
and even Miss Jo Stafford will ask if she can sing with you, shyly revealing that it had always been her dream to perform a duet with an Overnight Sensation.

“Hey, sport, change to the channel for
Batman
,” Ray says, rattling the ice cubes in his tumbler, the finish of his second gin and tonic. He knows he'll get no resistance from you on this: you love
Batman
, too. In your hierarchy of entertainment, it is second only to
Lawrence Welk
.

And so:
Batman
…

Watching
Batman
is a different experience altogether: no one sings from the American Popular Songbook, no one dances in chiffon dresses and high heels. But
Batman
has something
Lawrence Welk
could never even begin to supply: men—handsome, grown-up men who live together in the same house, men who are each other's best friends, men who look out for each other in all sorts of strange circumstances. Also: men who wear tights.
Men in tights!
So why do the other boys in your class love the
Batman
show, too? They certainly don't like
Lawrence Welk
. But you're aware they watch
Batman
—you've overheard them talking about it in groups on the playground—and they watch it with their dads, too. You don't usually have much in common with the other boys in your class, and, for that matter, not much in common with Ray, either. So why
Batman?
Why is
Batman
common male ground?

It doesn't matter why, because you, being you, see it differently. Ray looks bored until the action breaks out into violent fights and scuffles
(POW!!!!! THWACKK!!!!!!!!! BAM!!!!!!!!)
, but you're hooked way before that. You're hooked in the setup, at the woozy-music entrance of the villainess, Miss Eartha Kitt as Catwoman. You have memorized her lines, even practiced them in bed late at night, when no one could hear you. With the covers pulled up over your head, gazing down at your rolled-up pillow, you whisper: “You are
purrrrfect
, my little Boy
Wonderrrr!
” But no one hears you, of course; some things you must keep secret.

Watching
Batman
with Ray, you maintain a blank face so he won't see how you really feel about it. It's an acting exercise, this art of making your face Go Blank at key moments, and you've mastered it. And going blank doesn't work just for
Batman:
it's equally useful when you're caught in the middle of an angry argument between your parents, or the time you watched your grandmother tumble suddenly to the floor after too much wine, nearly hitting her head on the coffee table. Go Blank, and no one will know whose side you're on. Go Blank, and you can be as neutral as Switzerland. Go Blank, and you won't make enemies within your own family.

But this summer, for some reason, it's not as easy as it used to be to go blank in front of
Batman
, especially when a villain ties the Caped Crusaders to a plank, where they struggle against each other, bound, helpless … in their tights. You keep watching, but you keep reminding yourself: Ray is here.
Go Blank, Go Blank, Go Blank
…

“No more music?” asks Connie, in the other room now, where she is spraying Niagara onto a shirt collar and steam-pressing
whoosh!
She pokes her head around the door: “Oh, I can't stand that
Batman
show.”

“We watched all your girl shows, hon,” says Ray, draining his third drink. “Gotta have something manly for us men now. Right, sport?” He doesn't wait for your response, he just shakes his tumbler in Connie's direction, which means: “Get me another one, babe?”

In tonight's opening segment, the Dynamic Duo are being lowered by a thick rope from a large ceiling pulley, which will slowly submerge them into a pool of hungry, snapping alligators. Batman and Robin are tied together, back to back; their legs, their calves, their feet kick together, their heads slide and knock against each other; if they were tied face to face, it seems to you, they could quite possibly … kiss. Batman and Robin kissing each other … the way Connie and Ray kiss? The way Rock Hudson and Doris Day, in the movies, kiss? Why would you think about such a thing? Why does your head suddenly feel light and balloony? Why does Ray have to be here? Why is Going Blank not working?

BOOK: The Music of Your Life
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