This time of year it’s easy to get cynical, get materialistic or so busy we don’t feel, put a happy face on sadness, miss people and places we loved. Miss the innocence and wonder of Santa Claus and flying reindeer and the baby Jesus. Miss the Norman Rockwell Snowman, snowball fights, being a teenager with a blush and a warm hand to hold not shopping in the mall. (Tough to hold the Amazon driver’s hand…) We might not get what we want or deserve, but if we make a friend, we might just get what we need.
Venice Beach, CA / Wednesday December 19, 1979
The girl with hair like black silk followed an oblivious Jackson all the way from their composition juries at USC and sat down to his left on the little grassy patch he’d picked just before the sand got started where the line between South Beach and Venice blurred.
“That’s a shitty guitar.”
He picked up a gum wrapper, absently flicked it toward the steel barrel to his right. “I’m a shitty guitar player. Works out.”
“Most shitty guitar players redeem themselves with their singing.” She tried to put on a smile she hadn’t felt like lately, missed it.
“I’m a shittier singer. I’m going to try to fix that in the spring. Next year sometime, anyway.”
“Oh yeah?” A laugh managed its way into her voice. “Remedial Singing with Summerford? She’s older than oil and her breath will peel paint. Good luck.”
“That sucks, about Summerford.” He looked up, threw her a surprise smile he wasn’t sure he had, either. “Hey, you’re Honey Muffin from the Dick Baits. I’ve seen your gig. You run a cello stuffed with diapers through a wah pedal and a phase shifter, play it like a big, fretless hollow body guitar into a cranked Marshall half-stack. Most badass. That girl drummer you have stomps.” He paused a beat, lost some enthusiasm. “You, uh, might need to fire the bass player.”
“I don’t need you, of all people, to critique –”
“I said the bass player sucked the night I saw you, that’s all. Like she started yesterday. Unless that’s the way you write that shit, then it’s your fault.”
“We had a gig and she’s never played bass before. She’s another cellist. We’re all string players, the guitars are just like, ‘Oh, right, frets’. Frets are for sissies, but it makes it easy to cross over. And easy? I checked out your comp piece. What was that? Music for ‘I saw a beautiful cloud?’ It was so simple I thought they’d expel you for pretending to be a student.”
“Simple is harder than it looks.”
“That’s what he said. It was beautiful. And simple. I’d almost go elegant, but since we’re critiquing, the trumpet part would sound better on cello. More air. If you go that way, make me your first call.”
“Ring. I have to record it after the first and I’m not married to the trumpet. If you can bring that girl who played classical guitar on your jury piece, I’ll try to find some more money. You get high?”
“Thanks for calling. Yes I’ll play your puffy cloud music, yes I’ll bring Yaz and before I say yes to the last part, what have you got?”
“I’m no junkie, it’s just some NorCal weed. I’ve been mostly straight for a couple of weeks working on this damn final. The cat who gave it to me claimed it’ll melt my face like the old ‘stages of a stoner’ poster.”
“I’m a NorCal girl, I can deal.”
“Gotta tell me your real name first. Just so I’m not another Muffin groupie.”
“I followed you, lonely one. Besides, we rant on men too much. Our groupies want us to spank them for being naughty.” She rolled a little to one side and pulled a Bic lighter out of her back jeans pocket. “Malika. Heinz. Make a ketchup or a mutt joke and I’ll crack you. I’m a Ninja.”
He lit the thin joint rolled in a Stars and Stripes paper, handed it off. “Jackson. That’s all there is. Whoa, shit,” he coughed, coughed again.
She coughed, looked around. “One name Jackson. I heard. Is it a gimmick or is there a story?”
“Story. Want it?”
“If there’s a short version.”
“Done. Parental brain fart, last name on first name line. Nurse came back with it, mom said they’d get a first name when they got to know me, never got back on it. According to legend the only thing she said to anybody in the hospital after that was ‘get me the hell out of here’. The nurse put my last name on the right line when they checked her out and here I am. Jackson Jackson.”
“Damn. Your mom had other stuff on her mind, huh?”
“Always.. She doesn’t like being told what to do, or when to do it. She’s a hard core womens worlder in suburban camo. High heels, pearls, and an opinion on everything she thinks she needs to share with everybody.”
“I know her. How’s your dad cope?”
“He sells paper, has a garage full of Kotex and tampon and paper towel samples, spends his days listening to grocery store buyers talk smack about women and their periods and how messed up it is they have to buy all that junk from him, comes home and listens to my mom talk smack about jerks with penises who talk smack about women and their periods. He says living with my mom beats the hell out of normal and keeping up with her keeps him from watching mind pudding on TV. Except for Porter Waggoner on Saturday at dinner.”
“That has to be about the behive blonde with the boobs, Dolly whatsit. Mom let’s that slide?”
“She likes it that Dolly’s getting over on Nashville with her assetts. Dad gets a pass for handing out free emergency lady gear to her freinds.”
“They’re harder to follow than your puffy cloud music. My mom is Vietnamese. Don’t say something stupid like ‘I’d never have guessed’. She’s the same way. A heart of gold as big as the sky, but on her terms. Her main thing is making sure everybody eats because we might forget. I have relatives on her side that go on for like centuries. Some of them, I have no idea who they are or how they’re related and they’re so old I don’t think anybody else knows, either. But they all come for Christmas and mom feeds them. The house smells like fish and cabbage and old people who smoke for a month. Vietnamese women run their world, so if she has forty old people no one has ever seen before in her kitchen you can’t ask her like ‘Mom, you know, why, and who are all these people?’”
“I know that ‘don’t ask questions’ mom. I used to have to iron the tablecloth, just in case. That was my mom’s wear clean underwear rule for housekeeping. What’s your dad do?”
“Dad is a white ex-surfer dude, who for real surfed all over, even Hawaii, and played surf guitar. Until he saw what happened to old surfers wasn’t the dream he wanted and became an aeronautical engineer. Mom wanted me to be a pianist, dad wanted a country singer. Cello was my compromise. Neither of them understood it and whatever I told them was little Melika’s ‘isn’t she smart’ gospel. That’s how my first wah-wah pedal came to be in my Christmas stocking when I was twelve.”
“You told them you had to have it? Like it was a mandatory orchestral accessory?”
“Fact, Jack.” She pursed her lips, shook her head, stared at the dead joint between her fingers. “So now you know I’ve been stroking big, hollow wood between my legs since I was five.” She stuck the joint in the sand beside her. “Tell me your heartbreak story before I start to like you, or I have to leave. I know you have one, it’s written all over your music, so give it up. I need to ride on someone else’s shit ticket.”
“There’s a song somewhere in Shit Ticket.” He leaned into his knees and told her about Deanna, the almost year of silence, mostly his own fault being out of it, and her unexpected letter. The phone call looking for help she wouldn’t explain. Her poetic memories, the “beautiful lies.” He rolled sideways and pulled Deanna’s folded letter out of his back pocket. “My comp piece was about us. So I kept it for luck on the jury performance.”
Malika opened the folded letter, read it slowly. “Ouch, dude. You lived together. That gets intimate. Morning breath and showers where somebody just pooped. Cheap Aunt Flo panties in the laundry basket, soapy whiskers in the sink, tampon tubes in the wastebasket and dental floss on the floor. If I was by myself it would make me cry, hearing your piece and reading this.” She folded the letter, handed it back. They sat for a while, feeling the breeze off the ocean, the people-traffic noises not so loud on a weekday so close to Christmas.
“So what’s really happening, Ms. Heinz. You didn’t follow me because I’m cute.”
“I followed you because, word up, you’re the biggest musical anomaly in the system right now. You show up from the dust bowl, nobody gets what you’re up to. Out of nowhere Doc Hartmount dropped that air freshener music of yours in a no-money, no-body chick flick and I thought you might be interesting. Someone else who knows how, but has other ideas. And you shaved. That really helped. The homeless druid look was tired.”
“Come on. Rasputin the grunting piano string scraper was all the rage in Malibu for the fall art with wine and moldy cheese season. Made me some money. Mostly it kept me occupied instead of dreading the day that letter showed up.”
They sat for a while in a world of their own, watched the sun kick grays and golds and pinks over the Pacific’s vanishing point.
“I just lost my honey.” She sounded concerned, let it hang, as if she’d crossed an invisble intimacy line. But he’d shown her his, and he hadn’t recoiled. “After almost three years. But he’d never move in. He was a real cowboy from Wyoming and said my place was ‘too fragile’ for him. Old high school bedroom NorCal hippie chick stuff from Pier One. And that’s too fragile? His place was in a frat house, so that wasn’t a happening move for me.” She spaced for a minute before she pulled what was left of a crushed pack of Kool Super Lights from her other back pocket and lit one.
“He was about your height, only beefier. Hands like sandpaper, and like born to be in the army. The way he walked, you know,” she rolled up from her butt to her knees and mocked a stiff, elbows out shoulder-swinging military walk. “He was my bassist before Zuki. His dad let him get his music degree because everyone needs a hobby, right? Now he has to earn this deforestation business degree at some bullshit Ag college back home in Bumfuck. You know what he said when he left? After almost three years he says, ‘Well, Leeka, I’m gone. You were a hell of a little number.’ His senior juries were five days ago, and when he was done he walked straight out of the hall to his loaded pick up and drove off. ‘Hot little number’?” She turned towards Jackson, leaned back on her right hand, her eyes glowing. “I mean what hot number? Two, five, twenty-seven? Six thousand? The asshole.” She reached for the guitar. “Give me that piece of shit. I wrote him a get fucked song.”
Jackson traded the guitar for her Kool. She got through a rough verse before she started to snuffle and he saw a metaphor in trading for her ‘Kool,’ left it alone. He pulled a couple of long strands of black hair that had stuck to her cheek with tear glue back behind her ear, took the guitar back.
“You think too much.”
“It’s a girl thing.”
He snort laughed. “That’s some no shit truth right there.” He took the first line of her song and a couple of her ideas. “I hope you miss me, when you kiss her, when she moans your name. I hope you miss me when you love her ‘cause she’ll never be the same. I hope you miss me when she leaves you for calling her my name. Anything down that line, but keep it organized.” He offered her the guitar back. “That’s your hook, ‘I hope you miss me…’ You could work ‘it’s a shame’ or ‘lame’ in there somewhere. That’s what you were trying to say the whole verse. Tell your ‘how you fucked me’ story in the verse, dump your ‘godammit I hate your guts’ in the chorus. That’s a Fifties heart breaker if you’ll back off the two million chord changes. That killer tune of yours about Gozzadini I heard at Transit is the same. ‘Dress like a man’ is the chorus, not the whole story. When I heard you guys play that live it was like four minutes of a great chorus, but where’s the song.”
She wiped her eyes with the back of her wrists, snuffled again and gave him a sideways look. “At least you dress it up and don’t just come right out and say it sucks. I don’t have another verse. Let’s talk, and I’ll play guitar.”
They sat on the grass for three hours, until the December sun started to set, and wrote four songs together. She had an accident with the ice cream cone they split, dropped the top ball right in her lap. Jackson dared her to let him eat it. After a lot of laughter “Pussy Flavored Ice Cream” became song number five.
She smiled, finally, stared out at the ocean. “When you take the voice class you might be the guy to get even with Summerford for all of us. The dude with the voice to match her breath.” She stretched out her legs, leaned back into her hands “I know where we can eat real food, space cowboy, for free. But you have to let me borrow this little acoustic to finish thinking about what we did today.”
When he looked again she was staring at the sand, a million miles away. Already finishing the songs, or eating something worth eating. He stood, reached out sideways with his left hand and pulled her up.
“Deal. It might do that little guitar some good to hang out with someone who can play it.”
She shook her legs out, brushed the sand off her butt. “Ground rules, Jackson. I’m not ready, or even looking, for some guy to jump me. But I want to do this again, the songs and all, as often as we can. I still can’t believe you know who Gozzadini was.”
“Women’s history 101. Right now I’d be worse at bone jumping than I am at singing, so your love canal is safe with me.”
“There’s another one. Damn, you’re a freaking goldmine.” She dug a pen out of her purse, wrote “love canal” on her palm. “I have a bigger idea for our girl band than Honey Muffin and the Dick Baits. Skanque, with a Q, U, E. Like the biggest girl band gimmick ever. I want to shred these songs you and I wrote, and I want us to fix a couple of the others. I can hear them. All I’ve been needing is simple-minded pop with depth. You have the simple mind, I have the depth. What do you think? Classical cellist forsakes cut-throat symphonic career for fame and fortune as a cooch rocker?” She let off on the full speed ahead, thought for a few seconds, elbowed him on the arm. “Nobody can know I wrote men are just stupid and fuck us up man hate songs with a simple minded man. How would it look?”
“I know exactly how it would look. I used to prep a would-be feminist for speeches. I stayed home and did the dirty work, she got to travel and party and get awards.”
“That’s the job I want, the travel and party and awards part. You stay home, keep the kitchen clean and come up with more ideas. What do you really think about Skanque?”
“I like it better because The Dick Baits isn’t really you or what you’re about. The Skanque thing is a gimmick itself, so you might want to lean on your guitar and only stick that cello between your legs as an extra gimmick, no matter how badass I think it is.”
“Yeah? well, right now I think I like a gimmicky cello better than that phony lumberjack who offered me his undying love for this hell of a hot little number until daddy waved the checkbook.” She stared at the sandy grass between her feet and he saw her start to tear up again.
“Goddammit.” She kicked at the patch of grass, looked past the palm trees and the kids playing with a Frisbee that lit up like a flying saucer. “It was the half -Vietnamese part, I know it was. His dad is a hardcore ‘nuke the gooks’ vet so I was never going home with him. I didn’t want to see it is all. Sorry, I keep girling down on you. It just hurts, you know?” She looked down, toed the sand again. “Did you pick up that roach? ‘Cause where I’m taking you, honest to God, has the best seafood quiche in California and way awesome deserts. They only speak Vietnamese, so I’ll talk and won’t order you anything slimy or gross. They’ll call my mother up north about us being there and bring me the phone and she’ll want to know when we’re getting married. I’ll tell her you’re my pimp and you drive a nice car and we went to a wedding chapel in Nevada and not to worry, I’m still on the pill. Smile and nod at everybody.”
“She’ll know those are all lies. Us getting married, and my primer gray pimp-mobile that one side of is sitting on chunks of railroad ties.”
“No, she won’t. And since I know you’re not going anywhere else she’ll a set a place for you at Christmas dinner ‘cause you’re family. Hope you like fish. We’ll pick it up fresh in a cooler off the pier, from another relative in San Francisco.” She took his guitar, walked him to her yellow ‘75 Dart Swinger decked out with plastic flowers and decals of flowers and all kinds of beads hanging from the mirror. And a “Real Musicians Play Cello” bumper sticker. “I’m about to find out where you live, Jackson, so be sure that’s where we really go. A week from today, Christmas Eve, I’ll pick you up in the same place I drop you. You can drive and I’ll sing and we’ll write songs all the way up the Five.”