Any Other Way

By Brandi Megan Granett

Relief filled him when she sequestered herself in the back bedroom of the rental house, which smelled like moldy old books and stale pot smoke.  Sal didn’t want to have to see Lynn’s eyes glistening perfectly with tears or hear her questions about the waitress from the place on Wilshire Boulevard.  He wanted to be done with it all.  But the rent was paid on the house, and if they could just get one fucking thing together, the suit, the music guy with the business cards printed on thin sheets of metal, said he would take a look.

With that in mind, they tried to practice, testing out new ideas, new paths, old standbys. They kept their instruments set up in the front room with the picture window so that if the breeze shifted the palms right, you could sometimes see the water, and if they played loud enough, they couldn’t hear her crying into the phone with some girlfriend back in Encino or the strumming of her out of tune acoustic guitar.

After a few weeks of pretty much nothing more than that, just their regular eating, playing, sleeping, and her crying, she emerged from the back room with a sheaf of songs.  Anthems really, anthems for lovesick record-buying girls and top forty executives, as the suit called them.  Sal looked over the lyrics and saw his shame and all her tears. But he also saw dollar signs in the ways the cords and melodies could float up and away from them, taking them from a band that plays in bars to a band that sells out stadiums.

Sal stayed with the band.  And Lynn stayed with the band only more so.  Her voice, her face, her body—she was the band.  Her.  They played with her, stood around her on press junkets like flunkies while she giggled away questions about the songs.  They always asked, so are these songs about anyone in particular?  Her doe eyes, neatly rimmed in black eye liner and fake eyelashes would flutter in his direction.  He’d look down, cover his lips with a fist, and she would giggle.  With him in the room, the interviewer invariable lost verve, the words catching in his or her throat with a cough or a guffaw, before stuttering on to the next question.

This album led to the next and the next and now, they could put out just about anything they wanted to and expect to be paid handsomely.  But the suits wanted a little bit more.  Edgier songs.  Stage shows.  Dancing.  The pressures from the brave new world of the Internet pushed hard at the dollar signs.  And the pressures of life in the big city often got in the way.  Try getting photographed in your gym shorts coming out of your apartment every other damn day.  Try buying groceries.  Or heaven forbid getting laid.  You could barely think your own thoughts let alone try to write a song.

So the suits gave them an ultimatum.  Get something new together or find another label.   Get out the limelight, they said, meaning get your shit together. They recommended the affordable and remote Mitchell, South Dakota. The Corn Palace to be exact.   “The better to get away from it all and work out some new material.”  End quote.   Sal considered getting a new tattoo of the word exile on his left wrist.

But he went.  Why wouldn’t he go?  You would go, too, wouldn’t you? If it meant keeping your job you would. You might like what you do.  You might not.  Mostly, though, you just get up and go out of habit.

The fame hit Lynn more than them.  She got photographed more.  Downright stalked.  But she seemed to like it.  You could tell by the way she smiled in the pictures he saw on the Internet.  They way she tilted her head and let the sun catch on the red gloss of her favorite lipstick.  She kept her hair just so.  Even when going to the dry cleaners.  But they didn’t hold it against her.  She was their girl.  The one that started it all.  Sal tried not to mention that he actually started it all, what with the waitress from Wilshire Boulevard and all, but no one wanted to be reminded of the time before the crappy, stinking house.

 

“Holy shit,” Abe said.  “It is actually made out of corn.”

“Not the whole building?” Jax asked.

“No,” Sal and Lynn said at the same time. “It’s just for decoration; they change it every year.” he finished.

“Sal, how do you know shit like that?  Lynn, man, she reads, but you?” Abe asked.

“I read,” Sal said.

She looked at him and smiled.  “True,” she said.  “I’ve seen him.”

And she had.  Before all this band nonsense, before, when it was just him and her, he would read aloud to her from books of poetry while she banged out melodies to match them on her parents’ old upright piano.  It took a lot of concentration to read in those days, back when all he wanted to do was extinguish his lips against hers like a cigarette in an ashtray.  He looked at her lips now, all done up in their trademark way, and missed the thin pink they used to be.

Despite the corn façade and corn paintings everywhere inside, the building was just a regular concert hall the record company booked, so they could get the feel of that “elusive something new, something catchy, something to drive the next million in sales.”  End quote.  “Play like its alive again,” the newest suit said.  “Pretend there’s a crowd.”  But they didn’t want or need a crowd.  Much like their time in the house, they settled into a schedule of eating, playing and sleeping, that only broke for an occasional tour guide interrupting their session to show the tourists the corn painting around the stage.

It was a shit tour from beginning to end, bringing people in to see pictures made out of corn. In the auditorium, the pictures flanking the stage compared the white pioneer to the Native Americans and then merged in the middle with them shaking hands.  “As if that ever fucking lasted,” Sal said to Lynn one night as they ate pizza from a box in the seats opposite the stage.

“Well sometimes,” she said.  “Some people call a truce.”

“And some people just try to ignore things and pretend they are better than they were.”

“Like you?” she asked.  The lid to the pizza box snapped loudly shut; it echoed a bit around the hall, which had quality acoustics.  The suits really did research this stuff.

“Like you,” he spat back.

“Really?  You’re going to say that.”

“Yeah.  I am.  Just think about those songs.” His bravado faltered.  Some conversations were better never started.  “Never mind.”

“What songs?” she asked.

Her voice seemed softer to him. So he inhaled.  “You know, the first album, those songs.  About us.”

“Us?” she asked.

“Yeah, us,” he said.  “Not that you’d ever admit it in an interview. But you know, you wrote those right after all that shit.  And then you just pretended like it didn’t fucking matter and all this happened.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

“It is a bad thing.”

“What? All this?”
“No the shit before all of this.  The stuff between us.”

“That,” she said, “was inevitable. Waitress from One Twenty or no.”

“Wilshire Boulevard,” he said.

“Oh, Wilshire Boulevard.  So now you confess?”

“No, it wasn’t like that.”

“Why?”

He tried to be still.  Tried not to fucking say it, but she could do that to him, make him say anything.  “She said no. Said she knew your fucking sister and that there was a code of honor among girls.”

Lynn laughed so hard she almost slipped forward out of the plastic chair.  Despite the acoustics, they clearly didn’t believe in upholstery in this palace.  “Nice.  You were shot down.  Good. But still inevitable.”

“What the fuck?” he said.

“We were kids,” she said.  “It was time.”

“You didn’t make it sound that way; you made it sound like I ripped your heart out and used it to wipe up the mats in my truck, Lynn.”

“Those songs weren’t about you,” she said.  “Not all the way anyway.  They were, I dunno know, bigger than that.  I liked you and all, but please.”

“What about the crying and the locking yourself away?  What were those theatrics about?”

“Sal, I was eighteen, what the fuck do you expect?”  With that she stood up and flounced away from him down the aisle and toward the door.  When she got to the door, she turned and blew him a kiss.  The red of her lipstick left a mark on her hand. As she passed through the doorframe, she pressed her palm on the wide white woodwork of the door frame, leaving a perfect lip print there.

Something like anger rose up in him.  He left the mother fucking pizza box there.  Let the suits charge them more for the rental.  It was only numbers on a print out anyway.  He left the palace through the front door.  He stalked up the main street lined with businesses that didn’t seem to do much in the way of business any more until he found the bar.  The door swung open to the dark shell of the place, the smell of beer and cardboard hitting him along with the sounds of Tim McGraw on the stereo.  Country frigging music, he thought, ironic.

He ordered a beer and sat there awhile staring at it.  He didn’t really like beer.  He didn’t really like bars.  He didn’t really like her.  And he knew that last part wasn’t true.  “Not true,” he said aloud.

The bartender wiped his rag across the counter, moving up slowly towards him. “What’s that?” he said, cocking his head to one side.  “I’m hard of hearing.”

Great, Sal thought.  But words filled his mouth anyway.  He hadn’t even drunk the beer, and he still couldn’t stop himself.

“Do you know the band Free Fall?” he asked. Then he asked again, only louder.  The bartender didn’t know, so he told him the whole story from the beginning, starting at the piano and working his way to today, finally putting an end to twelve years of fucked-up guilt because of an eighteen year old girl’s theatrics that oh, by the way, didn’t mean anything at all.

The bartender nodded and then drew back from the bar.  “Well,” he said, “would you really have wanted it any other way?”

He thought back to that crappy, pot smelling house.  It had a nice garden outside, and before the shit with the waitress and the crying and the pop-rock anthems, she and he sat there, guitars in hand, playing some games, racing each other through different chord progressions.  She smiled and tilted her head concentrating on the song she plucked out, one he wrote.  The sun caught the shimmer of her delicate pink mouth that matched the roses that grew along the fence beside her.  He could see her there so clearly in his mind.  So much clearer than the person he just argued with at the hall.

Sal looked down at his Rolex to check the time; it was one of two he owned, both the same only one was real and the other a copy.  One night after a little too much, he set the two watches next to each other on the nightstand.  In the morning, he couldn’t remember which was which, the real or the fake.  Both worked just as well.  Only one of them cost him a whole lot more.

* “R” quotation: Article 19 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948.

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William Morrow published Brandy Megan Granett’s first novel, My Intended, in Spring 2000; her short fiction appeared in Pebble Creek Review, Folio, Pleiades, The Literary Review and several other literary magazines under her maiden name, Scollins-Mantha. She writes a blog for the Huffington Post.

She earned a Ph.D. in Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University and holds an mfa in Fiction from Sarah Lawrence College and a Masters in Adult Education with an emphasis on Distance Education from Penn State University. She is an online English professor for a variety of colleges. When she is not writing or teaching or mothering, she is honing her archery skills.


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