Over My Shoulder
By David Sklar
20 September 2010
Part 1 of 2
When Ocean was old enough for school, I started playing in bars again. Within a couple of years I'd recorded a CD called Looking Back, with the old songs from when I had the chutzpah to call myself Orpheus. The Voice gave me two stars and called me "tired," but the Onion and the New York Press gave me three. I almost got a video on New York Noise, but the film student I hired to direct it wanted me shooting up on camera. I told him that wasn't me any more, and the argument scuttled the project. Still, the buzz from the CD got me a regular gig on Friday and Saturday nights, and I started writing songs for a second CD.
I was in the studio on a Thursday night, after recording the second track. The techs and the other musicians were packing up to go home, but I still wanted to tinker with the third song.
"You calling in sick tomorrow?" Carlos asked, looking at his watch.
"Casual Friday," I answered. "I'll say the bags under my eyes are Gucci knockoffs."
He tossed me the keys. "Make sure you lock up when you're done."
"'Night, Carlos. 'Night, guys."
"Good night," the other guys said, and they all headed out.
At half past one, I was still at it when I felt a vague unease, like someone was watching me. I looked around and saw no one, but it was late, and the shadows were heavy, and my reflection was a stranger who did not wish me well.
Which was kind of true. I mean, the worst stuff that ever happened to me wasn't done by shadows or strangers; it was stuff I did to myself when I was well aware of the risks. Now, of course, I had a wife and son—except that he wasn't my son, not exactly, and if he hadn't needed a father, I doubt she'd've chosen to be my wife.
I put the guitar down and said to my reflection, "I'm not afraid of you." My reflection mouthed the same thing but did not look as brave as it claimed. I breathed in deep and let the old craving flow through me. I breathed out again and let it go on its way, though a bit of it still lingered behind my lungs. I fed that lingering feeling into the song I was working on, melodic and jagged in a minor key, with drop-offs and sudden starts, and a melody that creeps up behind you while it's shaking you from the front.
I stood in the studio, listening as the reverb faded out, and I could feel the entire song stretched out behind me in a sinuous line carved into the air. I sketched around it where the instruments would go—strings here, oboe there, a snare drum, just for accent, here and here, and the instrumentation penciled itself in around the brightly etched guitar.
"That's a good song," said a voice behind me, and the guitar clattered onto the floor as I nearly jumped out of my skin. A low E string echoed through the speakers like a broken tightrope.
"Jesus," I said, and turned to face the man behind me. He was dressed all in black, and I wasn't quite sure where he ended and the shadows began.
"It's going to be a hit," he added calmly, in no hurry to get to the point. "Not number one, but it will get airplay. Someone will make a fair amount of money, and catch the ear and adulation of a small segment of American youth." It actually sounded dirty, the way he said it.
"Why are you here, Vespers?"
"You owe me."
"I never agreed to that."
He watched me with a hunter's merciless patience. Of course, I had made a deal with him, before Ocean was born, to get Helen's lover what he wanted so he would go away. Vespers had changed the terms halfway through, and might even have sabotaged his own plan to put me deeper in his debt—but I couldn't prove it. And now I was married to Helen, and raising her son like he was mine. So Vespers was right—I owed him. And now he had come to collect.
"So, what?" I asked. "You want the royalties?"
Vespers smiled like a serpent staring at more than most mouths could swallow. "No," he said. "I want the destiny."
"A piece of your fate, that's all. I want to reap what you have sown."
I studied his face. It did not tell me much. "You're joking."
"But there's no such thing as fate."
"Then it shouldn't be any problem."
"You can't . . . I mean . . . that's impossible—you can't do that."
"You have no idea what I am capable of."
"But . . . let's say it's possible, and you can do this—what would you do with it? Get up on stage in front of a thousand adoring fans? You live in the shadows, Vespers—what use could you possibly have for fame?"
"Perhaps I'll change. Perhaps I'll sell it for something else. Once it's mine, it's none of your business how I use it."
I briefly considered how hard I would have to swing my guitar to really hurt him. But I suspected he could react before I could pick it up off the floor, and I did not want to know what would happen then. I thought about running, but I remembered Helen, and Ocean. I thought about what an asshole I was for resisting this, for not wanting to give up something I didn't even believe in, when Vespers could have demanded so much more.
"I'll get back to you," I said, and picked up my guitar. I put it away, and I gathered up the guitar case and my leather jacket. "Don't take anything in here; it isn't mine." And it took all my courage to turn my back and walk away with a casual air, although the effort of not glancing backwards strained the muscles in my neck.
"Three days, Orpheus," he told my shoulder blades. "You have three days."
I wondered, if I took my family, how far I could run in that time. I let the door click shut behind me, and I walked down the stairs.
I was trembling when I stepped out the door to the street, though it was not cold outside, and the touch of the night air reminded me just how much tension I was keeping in the muscles of my face. I put on my jacket so that I wouldn't have to carry it, and I wondered whether Vespers could really do what he said—and, if he could, what chance I had against someone who operates that far outside of the way the world works. As I walked home, that tune reasserted itself in my head, and the orchestration grew more foreboding, more intense.
Helen was asleep when I got home, but Ocean was sitting up in bed. "Hi, kid," I said, putting down the guitar case in the corner.
I got him water from the fridge in a plastic cup, and while he drank it I sat him on my knee, and with that tune that would not leave my head, I sang him into a sad sleep. I could see why Vespers wanted that song. I cradled Ocean gently off my lap and laid him down on his own bed, though I felt it, all the way down my back. He was getting too heavy for this, or I was getting too tired. Either way, one of us was getting too old. I pried the empty cup gently from his little fingers and tucked him in.
I brought the plastic cup to the sink and went to bed. Helen was facing away, toward the window. I wanted to lean in close to her and cry into her hair, but, burdened with the weight of tonight's events, I curled up in bed alone beside her, facing the folding screen that separates our futon from the rest of the room.
The next morning I called in sick to the office after all, and I went to see Dragonfly for lunch. "What do you know about destiny?" I asked, over something kind of like sushi but not quite.
I think she must have noticed the worry in my eyes. "Oh shit," she answered, "is Helen getting fidgety again? She has to know that Ocean needs a dad."
"What?" I said. "No—it's just . . ." I paused here a moment to take in what she'd just said, and to wonder when the again was that she meant. "It's just, can a destiny be sold? Or transferred? Or traded?"
She put down her chopsticks. "Who have you been hanging out with?"
"You don't want to know."
"Oh. . . . Are you OK?"
A pause. "You're still clean and sober?"
"I had a rough night."
She looked at me, worried. "Is there anything I can do?"
"Can you find out the answer to my question?"
She popped a rice ball into her mouth and chewed it over. "I think I saw something about it once, in a book I have at home. You can pick it up tonight when you drop Ocean off."
"Uh-huh. Um, Spider?"
"You know he needs a dad too, right?"
"I mean it. We're not just comets hurtling through space; the decisions we make affect other people in a big way, and sometimes 'I can't control it' isn't a good enough excuse."
We finished our lunch and Dragonfly picked up the check, even though I'd called her. "Stay strong," she said, and hugged me before we left.
I took my secondhand acoustic—the one Firefly'd nicknamed Red Velvet because of its habit of shedding red varnish on my clothes—down to Union Square and played the new song outside. I'd closed the guitar case, but strangers still threw money at my feet, and a small crowd gathered to listen. A gray-bearded black man in a knit skullcap came by with a saxophone and blew the notes I had wanted an oboe to play. We played it through a second time, and worked through some more of my repertoire, and some of his, and when we were done I split the take with him.
"I'm Spider," I told him, when the song was done.
"Elijah," he answered, and shook my hand.
"Would you like to record with me next week?" I asked.
"Sandpiper Studios, in Brooklyn."
"You play any oboe, Elijah?"
"No, but I've got a soprano sax that'll haunt your dreams."
My dreams were haunted enough. "Rock on," I said, and we exchanged info. I sold a few CDs before I told the crowd, "I'm playing tonight at Hugo's—every Friday and Saturday night."
I called Helen on the cell and told her I'd pick Ocean up today, and I got on the subway and rode to his school. We had a picnic in Bryant Park, and I let him run around on the grass until he started trying to climb in the fountain, so I took him over to the Fly Girls' two-bedroom loft off Pavonia. Firefly must have just gotten home, because her heels were off but her stockings were still on, and she had one earring in her ear and the other one in her hand. "Hi, Ocean!" she said with an exaggerated smile, putting her hands on her knees and crouching down a tiny bit, even though, carried in my arms, Ocean was already above her eye level.
"Hi, Fire-Fly-Girl," he answered.
"Hey, Spider," Firefly said, and did that air-kiss thing at my cheek. "So Dragon has a book for you. Hang on a sec."
I went into the apartment with Ocean, and Fire went up into the back and returned with both of her earrings off and a book called The Walk of Fate, which she handed to me. The cover showed a round labyrinth, with ivy winding around the outside. I glanced at the back. "Erdekian elucidates the impossible with her discussion of fate, transcendence, and transference. Always a pleasure to read, she . . ." sounds like someone Helen would be into, I added in my mind. "Thanks," I said. I squatted down next to Ocean. "Daddy's gotta go play music now, but Mommy will be here later to take you home, once the restaurant closes."
"You take good care of the Fly Girls, tonight, OK?"
He nodded, enthusiastically.
"Love you too, Daddy."
I hugged him and stood up to go. Firefly air-kissed my cheek again, and I went to my gig.
The bar was kind of crowded, even for a Friday. Some of the people from the park had showed up, and they'd brought friends. I played the new song in the first half, and I sold out of CDs in the break. People asked if the new song was on the CD, and when I told them it wasn't, one guy looked so doe-eyed sad I wanted to slap him just for reminding me of Ocean's natural father.
By the time I was done with the second set, I was getting used to the adulation, and in the end I replayed the new song as my encore—something I normally wouldn't do, but I felt like this crowd would lynch me if I didn't.
I passed the mailing list around, answered people's questions, declined several offers of drinks from strangers and a couple of other offers from young ladies who didn't notice my wedding ring, or perhaps didn't care. When the bar closed down, I hopped the subway to the old neighborhood and went to the all-night diner to see Doctor Good.
His face had developed a smoker's lines and his hair was one of the nondescript colors that dishwater passes through on its way to gray. It looked like it was receding, too, though I couldn't tell, because he still wore the tweed cap turned backwards with the red caduceus pin that quietly advertised his business in under-the-counter pharmaceuticals. "Why, Orpheus, as I live and breathe," he said, looking up from his Irish coffee as I approached the corner table. "Are you turning into a cicada, Orpheus? It seems I see you only once every seven years."
"I guess I don't need you as much as I used to," I answered.
He flashed me a cynical smile. "Have a bad day?"
"Not that bad," I answered.
"Pity." He looked down at the guitar case in my hand. "You brought your instrument, Orpheus. Is that a good sign?"
"I don't know."
"You probably shouldn't carry it in a neighborhood like this."
The waitress came to the table while I was still standing. "What can I get you?"
"Coffee. Black. And whatever he's having, that's on me."
"In that case," said Doctor Good, "I'm having a slice of pecan pie."
The waitress looked at me. I nodded. She scribbled it down and turned and walked back to the kitchen.
I leaned on a chair. "I need you to tell me some stuff about Vespers."
Doctor Good wrinkled up his mouth. "If you'd started with that, I would've ordered the steak and lobster."
I looked around at our surroundings. "Here?" I asked.
He snorted and pointed to a chair.
I sat down.
"I'm not making any promises," he said, "but what do you want to know?"
"The things he talks about—how much of that can he actually do?"
Doctor Good pondered this a moment. "Enough," he answered.
"Enough for what?"
"Enough that I haven't wanted to test it. And you know me, I'm a limit-testing guy. But I've seen some serious shit. And I've heard of worse. And I don't see much point to finding out what's the worst he can do to me. Why?"
The waitress brought my coffee, and Doctor Good's pecan pie. I waited for her to leave, and only after she was gone did I realize I hadn't thanked her. "He wants my destiny."
Doctor Good stopped to look at me, his fork poised over his pie. "The whole thing?"
"Look, I know it's ridiculous, but . . . the dude creeps me out, alright? And I've seen a lot of shit that doesn't make much sense, so I don't know if he can do this or not, and I've got three da—" I instinctively looked at my watch, though it didn't display the date "—two days to figure it out."
"It was a serious question."
"'The whole thing'?"
"I don't know. I mean, I don't know how it works. Dragonfly—you remember her—gave me a book, but I haven't had time to read it. I'm writing a song, and he wants the future that song will get me, but—"
Doctor Good laughed. "Vespers? On stage?"
"That's what I said. He said it was none of my business."
Doctor Good raised an eyebrow.
"I don't want to give up the song, but I also don't know how this works, what connects to what. If I do give it up, do I lose other songs in the future? Do I lose the fourteen years I've kept myself clean? What about my wife and kid?"
Doctor Good smiled sardonically. "I've seen your wife."
I was not sure I wanted to know where this was going. "And?" I asked.
"And she was never in your destiny, Orpheus. Guys like you and me, we get a woman like that for a night, maybe two if we're lucky, until she sees what we're all about, and then she's gone. There are ways to keep her longer, but in the end whatever you liked about her is gone. So if Vespers had a hand in making her yours—did he?"
Doctor Good twitched the side of his mouth.
"He changed the terms halfway through. And he didn't tell me this was the new arrangement."
"Did you agree to it when he changed it?"
"Kind of. But . . ."
"He said I owed him if the plan went south. Then he sabotaged his own plan. But I can't prove it."
Doctor Good laughed. "Who ya gonna prove it to, Orpheus?"
I had no answer.
"There's no court for this kind of thing. If Vespers says you owe him, then you owe him. And it sounds like you owe him more than just a song."
I stood up and tossed a twenty on the table.
"A lot of stories will tell you," the Doctor went on, "how some young hero wins out over someone like Vespers, just by being pure of heart. And the thing is, they're just stories. Being pure of heart doesn't help; it only stacks the deck against you—and believe me, the deck is already stacked against you."
I turned to leave.
"Do you even want that destiny?" he asked as I walked away. "Think about it, man," he said as I went for the door, "Orpheus loses everything in the end!"
I stepped out into the very late night and did not know what to do. I walked past the usual subway stop, kept on walking, and went underground at the next. I tried to read Dragonfly's book on the train going home, but the back of my head was humming and the print would not sit still.
Ocean stirred when I got home but did not wake up. I stared out the window at the full moon and I wondered what I could give up, if there was anything important in my life that I could stand to relinquish forever. The sky outside showed just a rim of pink when I lay down in my clothes and did not sleep. When Ocean wandered over to our bedside, I squeezed Helen's hand to wake her up.
She looked me over blearily. "Did you sleep in your clothes?"
"I didn't sleep."
She grumbled and got herself up, stepping over me. "It's OK, honey, Daddy will be up in a little bit." She threw on her robe and led him out around the folding screen that closed off our futon from the rest of the room.
I listened to them playing as the sunrise faded to blue. Mostly it was Ocean playing alone as Helen struggled to wake herself up. I heard the crash of a wastebasket toppling over, and Helen chastising Ocean as she ran to clean it up. I wanted to get out of bed and help, but my eyes didn't want to stay awake.
That song came back, unbidden, to my head, and the adulation of strangers in the park and at the bar. If Vespers was telling the truth, then I would have to give that up, because I had traded it, years ago, for my life with Helen and Ocean. A good deal, I knew in my rational mind—in the mind that knows there is nothing to fear in the darkness and that none of this is possible anyway.
Only Ocean wasn't mine. Not really. And neither was Helen, if what Doctor Good had said was true. Every day I had with her, I cheated fate. And the one thing that truly belonged to me was the melody that was weaving itself through my mind as I lay in bed. It would not go easy.
The melody in my head lulled me off to sleep and dragged me down to the deepest depths of a dream about drowning. Not struggling or gasping for breath, but accepting the ocean into my lungs and becoming still, a quiet, peaceful death underneath the sea.
I slept most of the day, and when I awoke they were both gone, and I was alone in the apartment. I picked up the book Dragonfly had lent me and started to read. It made more sense, now that I'd slept, but it still didn't do much good. The book described a ritual with a path and a burning thread, and how to prepare yourself inside and out, but it didn't say anything about how to protect yourself, or how to pass along a song when it refused to leave your head. The author assumed that whoever took part in such a working did so without coercion, and only gave up destinies that wanted to go away. There was nothing there to address my situation. Nor, for that matter, to convince me that it was real, or that it was not. I sort of suspected the author didn't believe in it herself.
There was a chapter on sorting out the strands of fate, and how to separate one from the rest and keep it from taking the others with it. I read it the best I could, though the concepts were vague and squishy, and when I was almost halfway through, the new song reasserted itself so bad that I had to put down the book and pick up the guitar. After appeasing the muse, I went downtown by subway and took the PATH train to the Fly Girls' loft, where Helen would be dropping Ocean off after the park so that she could work at the restaurant and I could play my gig.
"They're not here yet," Dragonfly said when she answered the door, "but you're welcome to come in and hang if you want to wait."
"Actually," I said, "I came to see you."
"Oh," she said, looking worried. "Are you OK?"
"Yes—no. Maybe. I don't know. I was hoping you could take him again tomorrow night."
"Is something wrong?"
"Kind of. Maybe. But Helen's working at the restaurant again, and I don't want him underfoot. I need my own space for a bit."
"I'd rather not say, not right now."
She nodded but looked concerned. "Remember what I said yesterday. We're not just comets hurtling through space."
"Even comets affect one another. They call it gravity."
Her eyes worried into my face.
"Can you take him?"
She nodded. "Take care of yourself, OK?"
When I went down the stairs, I saw Helen and Ocean out the front window, so I went out the back, where they wouldn't see.