The Rythym of the Road -
Bobby Pickering wore his handsomeness like an ill-fitting garment . If he was aware of it at all, it seemed accidental to him, a thing that had happened to end up on his face. Yet despite his handsome face, and his County Antrim accent that made everything he said sound like a question, Bobby lacked the hubris of heartthrobs, of other musicians who used their music to entice or torment. He lacked it even though he was the only member of Slow Emotion who was under thirty (or, for that matter, under forty).
Slow Emotion was an easy-listening cover band that performed every Friday night in the Tuxedo Lounge, an annex of the Better Ways Hotel, just off the A1 in Welwyn Garden City. Bobby played at the back of the stage, out of the spotlight and hard to see, like his own bass guitar; the drone beneath the melody.
If the older men were jealous, they hid it well. They chided him on his accent, his Irishness, his clothing. (Even his good leather jacket assumed the same sulky puffiness of the windbreaker it had replaced, tenting at his back rather than molding to his body.) Bobby's most vocal admirers were the wives and mothers of band members.
"Such a nice-looking lad," Dennis's wife would say every time she made a sandwich run to her garage, where the boys rehearsed on Sundays.
"Thanks a million, Mrs. Bradley," Bobby would say.
"Thanks a million, Mrs. Bradley" was one of the phrases Bobby used most, along with "Cheers, Mrs. McVeigh." Bobby liked the older women, the wives who brought him tea and Custard Creams and made him tea cozies. Sometimes, they brought their friends to gigs, pilfered from the bingo or bridge gatherings, to thicken the coterie of matrons who stood at the front to make plucky heckles and join in on the choruses.
Bobby did have girls of his own from time to time. One barmaid, captured by the shadows beneath his eyes, his unkempt hair and his large and gentle hands, sidled up to him after a gig, brought him drinks and crisps, and told him about her aunt in County Cavan. He took her home with him, but she did not come back to the Tuxedo Lounge again. Later, his only explanation was that nothing had happened. Nothing happening, it seemed, was enough to drive away a bold and lonely girl. After this, as though warned, his few fans admired him from a distance. There were odd murmurs in the ladies' toilet, confessions of intrigue or fear, as if there might be something dangerous in his sweetness, like hot wires smoldering in a damp pile of laundry.
Generally, however, young girls were sparse at the Tuxedo Lounge. Apart from wives and mothers, the room was speckled with commuters, on the slow route to villages in Hertfordshire or Bedfordshire. They usually came on their own and sat at the bar, their faces blank with the strain of trying not to think about the spouses who waited at home (or those who didn't). The Tuxedo Lounge was consoling with its smell of suburban tragedy.
"Welcome to Slow Emotion, for the fine 'n' mellow touch." Oliver, the lead singer, started every set with this, nearly kissing the mike to make it whisper, "where even in this difficult day and age, there are folk out there who like it nice and gentle."
Nineteen-year-old Rosalie Chapkis, an art student from Encino, California, was not one of them. Rosalie's hair was dyed black, teased to jut above her head and then down her back in a stiff plunge. Her ears were semicircles of studs, standing out against the shaved sections of her head. Rosalie was an assortment of big and luscious things: full lips, big tits and a big bottom, sewn together by a confining blackness, by spikes and chains and fishnets that strained at her legs like barbed wire.
Rosalie's favorite bar was the Batcave, and her favorite men were the ones who went to it: chalk-white Goths in groin-tight black jeans and hair gelled into furious points. It was her good luck to be going out with Rugg-Edd, a fellow student at St. Martin's School of Art and lead guitarist of Bastard Sex Canal. Fashionably emaciated, he looked as though he would either stab his granny or faint from an excess of speed.
In gigs, Rugg-Edd doubled over his guitar with a livid agility, shrieking songs he'd written such as The Wrath of Brixton and Mean Maggie T . Even offstage he spoke in lyrics rather than whole sentences, lyrics so inscrutable that Rosalie was sure they were incredibly clever.
"You can't enter the same river once," he said to her once, and she thought about it for a very long time.
And yet, one Friday evening, Rosalie found herself in a parking lot in a suburb she'd never heard of, glaring at a squat, rectangular building with the words Tuxedo Lounge in neon above the door.
"Remind me why we're here again?" Rosalie asked Louisa.
"Uncle Dennis plays in a band here."
And yet, it wasn't for the band that the girls had come. Uncle Dennis was also the unlikely provider of Louisa's hash.
Louisa was a fellow Goth, albeit a less committed one than Rosalie, for she couldn't bear to dye her hair and, for all her swearing, couldn't obscure her Home Counties accent. Secretly, Rosalie envied her friend. Louisa would always be a beauty, an English rose. Rosalie knew that whatever beauty she herself had was fabricated, a macabre glamour of paint and dye.
"We'll just stay for a bit," said Louisa. "Get the drugs, go. It'll be a laugh."
Thinking what a laugh it wouldn't be, Rosalie watched a couple climb out of their Ford Fiesta. The man wore a gray suit, the wife a Laura Ashley dress that looked like cocoa being stirred. Walking carefully across the car park, the man steered his wife's elbow as though he was still at the wheel.
"This looks like somewhere in the Valley," said Rosalie. It was true. From the outside, the Tuxedo Lounge could have been the restaurant where her grandfather had held his retirement party. The only thing missing were the Mexicans who parked the cars.
Inside, the Tuxedo Lounge fell short in its American theme. American lounge bars were tacky, but they tended to be big. They had booths to sit in, carpet rather than linoleum floors, and bowls of olives and maraschino cherries at the bar. This was a poky room of clashing colors - red and orange and purple. A low platform passed for a stage, strewn with stray wires and a cheap, undersized piano standing to one side. On each of the tiny tables a fake red rose in a vase held up a menu with a color promotion for a steak meal, complete with a jacket potato and a pint of lager, all for £2.99. (Chips could be substituted for the jacket potato.)
"Any place that has pictures of food on the menus is bad news," said Rosalie.
"Do you want a drink?" asked Louisa.
"Anything. Just as long as there's a lot of it."
Louisa came back with two pints of lager. Lager was the one thing that Rosalie didn't like. All of that fluid made her feel bloated, and she didn't see the point of something that took so long to get the high from. It depressed Rosalie, reminding her that she would have to travel five thousand miles to find someone who knew what she liked to drink. She went to the bar to get her own.
The band was starting up. Uncle Dennis sat at the piano, a broad-chested man with strands of red hair combed over his big, pink head. The lead singer, Oliver, was short and skinny with fine, yellow hair. He wore a peach-colored sweater that made him look like a shrimp. He patted the mike, recoiled from the feedback.
"Hello, ladies and gentlemen," he said, "Welcome! First-timers, new-timers, and old-timers! To the beautiful Tuxedo Lounge of Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire. We are Ollie, Dennis, and Bobby: We are, in short, Slow Emotion, your fine 'n' mellow sound."
Rosalie ordered a double whiskey.
The guitar let rip; the chords were long and syrupy. Rosalie recognized the song instantly, along with something sour in her spit. They were singing "If You Leave Me Now."
Was it 1975 or 1976? Rosalie was thirteen, being driven home from school in the back of a Datsun that stank of hairspray. The seats were hot and burnt her thighs. Who was on carpool? Fran Moskowitz's mother? Lisa Patterson's mother?
Dougie Feinstein's mother. Of course! Driving down Lankershim Boulevard, tapping her fingers on the wheel and singing as if the band Chicago itself was backing her on a big, bright stage. Dougie Feinstein's mother, who wore tight jeans with rainbows on the back pockets and had big blond hair like Farrah Fawcett -Majors and didn't look Jewish but was. Who, for a treat, would stop at Dunkin' Donuts, where Rosalie would buy a white doughnut with colored sprinkles on it. Dougie Feinstein would say, "Do you think you should be eating that?" and his mother would say "Leave her alone, Doug. What she eats is none of your business," though she never bought a doughnut for herself.
The song ended to a sprinkle of applause. Rosalie did not applaud, but neither did she look away.
Uncle Dennis played a few high notes, his face contorted with pathos. Ollie spoke low into the mike before singing: "I had a row with the missus today. It was my fault, I know it was. And yet - do you know? I can't seem to tell her I'm sorry. Sorry always seems to be that one thing I just can't say...
Uncle Dennis tinkled down the sad scale, and Ollie began to sing: "Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word."
Rosalie was walking to Taco Bell during school hours. She was twelve, her body on the verge of shape, soft like a lump of dough that hadn't found its form. She walked past a clique of girls her age, tall and leggy, a chemical smell of berry lip gloss stinging the air between them, Elton streamING from their ghetto blasters.
The band went into "I'm Not in Love."
Rosalie ordered another double.
She was surprised to find she knew all the words, and that they stung her, down in the fleshy bits where puberty still lurked. Rosalie was fourteen. She was at the summer camp disco, wearing a T-shirt with a shiny bolt of lightning on it and the word Zoom! across her chest. She played Truth or Dare outside the disco walls, away from the patchouli-smelling counselors who ignored them anyway.
Rusty Edelman was dared to kiss Rosalie. He wiped his mouth first and wiped his mouth afterward and said ugh and ran off to brush his teeth.
When had this stopped happening? When did boys stop saying ugh to her? Did they still say it, behind her back?
"He isn't bad, is he?"
Rosalie jumped. She had forgotten where she was. She tried to focus on the pretty blonde beside her. Rusty Edelman would never have said ugh to Louisa.
"Who's not bad?" Rosalie glanced up at the stage. "They all look as though they should be on a golf course."
"In back. The younger one."
The bass guitarist stood in the back, all slouch and shadow.
Rosalie shrugged. "I can't really see his face."
There were no encores at the end of the set. Oliver said "Thank you, Welwyn Garden City, and goodnight," and they started packing up.
Uncle Dennis sidled up to the girls. "Enjoy yourselves, ladies?" His voice was rough and gravelly, nothing like his niece's.
"That was smashing, Uncle Dennis," said Louisa.
As if to reward her for her praise, he slipped something into her hand.
"Dennis?" It was the bass player, calling from the stage. "Dennis, have you a wire cutter handy?"
"Do I look like I have a fucking wire cutter handy?" He turned to Louisa and Rosalie. "Will you look at that Irish pratt! Don't get me wrong - heart of gold - but look at him. Not a bad-looking bloke, but see how he puts himself together, he looks like old luggage."
The lights came on; stark, white light that turned the room into a lunchroom. Dennis ran onstage, shouting at Bobby, showing off for the girls.
"That last song was in G, Pickering. Not E minor. Must you always be the saddest bloke on earth? You and your fucking minor keys."
"You could have said it was in G."
"I do say it. Every fucking time."
Rosalie tried to get a better look at the Irish boy. She wondered if he was from Southern or Northern Ireland. She hoped he was from Northern Ireland. The Implications were Northern Irish, and she loved them. This guy was nothing like Conor Morrow or any other of the Implications, but she could see now that he wasn't, as Louisa said, bad. She tried to catch his eye, but he was lost to some inner world of tangled wires and minor keys.