Jul/Aug 2010 Nonfiction

Hey Nineteen

by Joseph Gross

Artwork by Costel Iarca

I give my hips a little boogie move, just a little shimmy or the step stool might collapse, but even with the new light fixture held over my head, up against the ceiling of the room the baby will sleep in someday, I feel like I've got to do something because the beginning of "Hey Nineteen," is just so undeniably fucking sexy. I sort of grind out my hip on the upbeat and snap it back for that deep, rich snare hit. The thought occurs that I should practice even more restraint in the company of our unborn daughter's crib, the mobile of the balsa wood moon and stars, the map of the world Angela pasted to the wall, the gigantic stuffed monkey. But I've got to resist that kind of thinking. That kind of thinking will slip you toward the grave. I boogie that shit back.

A dull burn settles into my deltoids, a burn that feels like work, the burn of accomplishment, the fixture no closer to functioning than when I took it out of the box a few hours ago. In fact, I'm just holding the whole unit against the ceiling the way it might look later, wires connected and coiled, apparently in a metal box that seems much too small for the job, and it looks pretty good—the frosted glass of the dome Angela picked out, the brushed pewter band around it, but its potential only adds to the insult of my confusion.

The shimmy works its way up to my head, which I rotate in circles to the beat. I look down at the instructions laid out on the top step. They are almost completely pictorial, a series of hieroglyphs except for two lines, the first of which says, "The above diagram illustrates the installation of your new Lighting fixture. " So much so good, but there are five different pictures of five different products and three of them look like the thing I bought. There follows a second line—"This is a representative drawing and is not intended to match the style of your fixture."

There are four Sam Adams in the refrigerator downstairs, standing guard by some kale and organic two-percent milk, and I swear I can hear those little soldiers clink together like small, soft bells. My shoulder joints ache. I sing along with Donald Fagan, "She thinks I'm crazy, but I'm just growin' old."

I guess the guy in the song's got a young girlfriend, and he feels some kind of gulf between them, some disconnection that lurks behind velvety tequila drinks, pool-parties, easy friends like the ones I remember crowding around my guitar amp during breaks, offering joints and maybe more during the golden half an hour before breakdown. After hundreds, maybe thousands of replays, I wonder for the first time what the father of the girl in the song might feel about the situation.

I decide she's an orphan.

Or her father is a Republican or something. My arms are killing me, but bringing them down means having to look at the wires, so I keep holding, and as I do, I hear the thud of a car door, amplified by the concrete garage. When I turn my head to hear better over the music, I notice a smell coming from my left armpit. Not quite my usual smell—richer, more fertile, with a hint of the seashore, at least if you haven't been to the seashore in a million years, and I remember a moment from high school, under the gym in the dark green painted locker room. I was by my locker, the green paint chipped and pocked, dark rust where there wasn't paint, and it was probably after track, the only sport I was ever good at—I quit football after Junior High, after the shock of how tough the players were, after my sense of my own grace, my dream of tucking the rock under one arm and spinning effortlessly toward the goal line was interrupted by the ferocity of other kid's shoulder pads.

The locker room was always dimly lit with a couple of plain light bulbs that hung from cables, but in my memory it's like the edges creep into the black of an early photograph and in the center of the photo, standing on a bench, Jimmy Flannery thrusts his armpit at the room and joyfully yells, "My armpit smells like a pussy!"

Jimmy Flannery's armpit was thick with hair, which seemed to fit his thick, powerful body, his aggressive head that lunged forward when he talked. He had a girlfriend named Jen Castle; sweet, lovely Jen Castle, who played flute in the school band where I would watch her from the drum section, her straight brown hair swaying as she played and gestured from her shoulders and nodded like she really agreed with something. She liked to wear turtlenecks and a thin, graceful chain on the outside with a tiny gold cross. There was no way Jen Castle was letting that shithead smell anything down there.

The other guys on the track team sort of lined up and took turns smelling Jimmy's armpit, agreeing that yeah it did, man, it did, and Jimmy was triumphant—nodding, grinning, accepting high-fives. "Check it out, Gross," he called to me over the heads of the rest of the team. "Come check this shit out." I remember that he had unusually long canine teeth and that my refusal to check that shit out drew some scorn from him and the other guys, but my memory runs out there, with Jimmy stopped in mid-grin, one stocky arm still raised, fangs glistening in the light of naked bulbs.

I let one of my own arms drop and feel my hand tingle and fill and warm with blood and the physical relief feels a lot like happiness. I look at the crib. I wonder what I'm going do about all the fucking Jimmy Flannery's out there, not to mention the desperate, somewhat honorable, nice guys, among whom I considered myself but who, of course, aren't to be trusted, either. I wonder how the outraged high school kid I was, the rocker that crawled out of that skin for almost twenty years, and now this worried guy stuck on a step stool could all be me. I wonder if the three of us can stick together.

We're going to need Angela, who must've gotten off work early. Despite the unfinished job, my main job for the day, I'm glad to hear the familiar way she slams the door from the garage into the kitchen, the tinkle of the beer bottles; to feel the house with its familiar shudder, even through the step stool and up into my tired arm, up through my extended fingers and into the fixture. I'm holding the entire ceiling like a waiter with a cocktail tray. I pick the directions up off the top step and throw them on the floor.

I understand that I have not prepared for this life. I trust that I'll love my daughter with a force equal to or greater than that of my fear, but my preparation for fatherhood may be called into question. While I practiced Led Zeppelin riffs and mooned over my own lyrics, other guys learned how to properly strip and connect electrical wires. While I drank comped draft beer and played foosball before gigs, other guys mastered the intricacies of the miter saw. Those guys can remodel a kitchen.

I hate those guys.

Angela's footsteps make more of a thump on the stairway than they used to and I hear a small grunt as she pulls herself up the last couple of stairs. She sings the bridge that comes so late in the song: "The Cuervo Gold, the fine Columbian, make tonight a wonderful thing."

Just before she gets to the baby's room, I switch hands on the fixture and try to look nonchalant. Angela stops singing and smiles. She is as bewitching as on the day I first saw her, dancing at my brother's birthday party to Kool and the Gang. "You're my hero," she says, her hand reaching for the light switch. We both look at the frosted glass like it might begin to shine.


Previous Piece Next Piece