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Scott Southwick

#1

His mother always told him, you can be anything you want, baby. She didn't understand how she'd ended up with a husband she didn't respect in a town she didn't like, with no friends and a job she hated, she didn't know how any of this had happened, but she knew if her son would just make different choices than she had made—

Never forget you're my number one, baby, she said. You can do anything.

He started his first fire at the age of four: he threw one end of his blankie into the fireplace, then dragged the flaming blankie around the living room.

His parents took turns getting drunk, pushing each other, slapping each other, throwing scalding coffee at each other. He could never decide which parent was going to leave, or kill the other, or lose his or her mind and need Sue to take care of him or her forever.

His father said, hush. Here's a guitar. This is D minor. Hush.

His father had named him 'Sue', after the Johnny Cash song. But the other boys his age were named things like Dakota and Sunrise and Shawon, so it didn't really have much effect.

Sue's father had played in a country band, growing up in North Carolina, but had set it aside for a marketing degree, and a career in Indianapolis with a big pharmaceutical company. Sue grew up on his father's records, Everly Brothers and Buck Owens and Gene Pitney. By the age of eight he was a better guitar player than his father had ever been. And he could draw pictures of anyone, anything.

"But Christ, your poems are terrible," his dad said. "You can't even spell."

Sue had realized early on that when people said smart they meant smart with words. He was smart with pictures, smart with sound, which to his parents and teachers and the other kids was exactly as good as not being smart at all.

And when his mother whispered to him how he could do anything, it was because he was lucky or beautiful or God's favorite boy. She never said it was because he was smart.

A kid notices things like that.

On Sundays the family sang together, traditional songs like "Rose, Rose, Rose" and "By the Waters of Babylon"--

One Sunday when Sue was thirteen his parents called him into the kitchen. His mother was crying, his father was hunched over a bowl of soup. She said: "Your father has something to tell you."

His father said, ponderously, not looking up, George Jones playing in the background: "I have made it my intention to leave."

Sue had been planning for this contingency. "I'll accept this," he said, "with the following conditions."

His mother stopped crying. His father stopped eating soup.

They got him two matching '67 Telecasters, with two matching Superior amps. His father bought him a whole new wardrobe, and a set of furniture, all exactly matching what he had back at his mother's house.

In high school he and his friends would walk or drive around the winding suburbs of Carmel, talking and goading each other and calling each other names. One friend liked to drink. Another liked to smoke. Another liked to look for girls and parties. Some nights would consist of nothing but Sue driving them around: picking them up, searching for the things they wanted, then dropping them off.

One Friday night they just kept taunting him: "Sue's masticating," they chanted.

Sue pointed the car, stared straight ahead, I am not going to ask these bastards what that means--

Sue listened to these goons and felt his life slipping away.

When he got home his father was sitting naked in a folding chair in the front yard. Sue put him to bed, and then played the same scale for seven hours, until dawn.

Saturday night he just didn't answer the phone when his friends called. He stayed home and played scales all night.

On Monday he told them: "I'm not going to hang out anymore. I've got to work on my music."

They challenged him: "So your guitar's more important than your friends."

"Yes," said Sue, thinking they must not even know him, to ask that.

He could play the same note for an hour. Is it really the same note? He'd check the intonation, the attack, the decay.

He was the only boy in school who wore cowboy boots. The only girl in high school with green hair took him under her wing.

"All I want to do is play my guitar," he told her.

"You're mysterious," she said. They had some sex.

Afterwards he sat on the edge of the bed and played runs, the same five notes, over and over. At first she watched his fleet fingers. Then she leafed through some of his guitar magazines. Then she stared at the ceiling.

"I'm no longer finding you mysterious," she said, assaying a joke. "Or even particularly interesting."

"That's OK," he said, trying the run in B flat. "I'm not doing this for you."

But he had a long lean body and beautiful curly hair, and she kept coming back.

She told him, "It's like the story of the boy? Buddhist, maybe Confucian?"

He kept playing the lick.

"This boy goes to school, and on the first day the teacher teaches them the number one. And they all draw it, they all learn it.

"Then the next day they move on to the number two. Except this one little boy, he keeps drawing 'one'. The rest of the class moves on to three and four, and the boy keeps drawing one..."

Sue played the lick in six different keys, in rapid succession, hoping that the moral of the story wasn't turns out the boy is stupid.

"...and finally the teacher has to kick him out of class..."

He was wondering about the bottle of Bacardi 151 under the bed. Almost pure alcohol, the ideal beverage; you could drink it or you could set it on fire.

"Years later the teacher comes across the boy in the woods. And the boy takes his staff, draws the '1' in the dirt, and there's a flash of fire, and the earth splits open."

She had a thing for New York, and played him bands like the Velvet Underground and Television.

"It's so sloppy," he said, skeptically.

"You're a prude. Keep listening."

George Washington, as a young man, wrote a handbook for young men, a guide to discipline, cleanliness. She found a cheap reprint in a used bookstore and gave it to him. He kept it by his bed, as a joke. But he found himself re-reading it before bed almost every night.

"Keep a close counsel. Whenever possible prefer to listen rather than speak."

"Shift not yourself in the sight of others, nor gnaw your nails."

Sue took the wooden model ship, stuffed it with tissue, doused it with lighter fluid, went out to the woods, set it afire. The underbrush caught. He ran around, stomping out little patches of flame, gave up, fled, and for the next two hours watched from the second floor of his father's house as the firefighters contained the blaze.

His eyes wide open, feeling the movement of his heart, in his chest.

Sue played in front of a mirror, checking his hands, deciding where he should hold them during the pauses; a little flourish, but nothing too gaudy.

After he learned to play the licks perfectly, he backtracked, and learned to play them feathery, tentative.

Sue had it calculated. You need talent, and you need something else, cojones, sense of entitlement. He approached his father:

"I'm going to quit school and play guitar for a living."

His father, exhausted from a hard day at work, asked: "What if you're not good enough?"

Sue didn't know what to say because he didn't understand what his father meant. So he repeated the declaration, just like he'd practiced it:

"I'm going to quit school and play guitar for a living."

His father, exhausted from a life of drinking, his thumb hovering over the mute button: "And why do you think I'm going to support you?"

Sue knew the answer to that one. "Because you owe me."

He kept a special steel trash can in his room to burn his notes and songs.

Once he decided he was ready, he began driving down to Nashville for the open mic nights. He had long flowing hair and looked good on stage, looked good with a guitar. Women liked him. His technique dazzled, his youth raised eyebrows. But after a few gigs an old geezer guitarist pulled him aside, bought him a drink, and said:

"Son, you sound exactly like Albert Lee. You've got talent, but you've got no style. And you can't force style."

Sue thought: that's obviously not true. That's the kind of superstition artists use to protect the whole 'artist' mystery. He went to his room and thought hard. He thought of all the different kinds of guitarists. He lined them all up in his mind, thought about what made them unique. He thought: this style is covered. This other style is covered. This is covered.

Eventually he thought: does anybody sound like Albert Lee crossed with Tom Verlaine? Does anybody in Nashville even know who Tom Verlaine is?

He stayed inside for six months, working on his new act. I'm young, he thought; I've got time; and he knew as he thought this, that it was not the way young people thought.

Rather than hold a note, he'd flutter his pinkie just so, breaking the note into several, so you'd hold your breath, worrying if he'd make it, consummate.

His dad had always said, Nashville.

The old geezer in Nashville said, the kids are having better luck in Los Angeles.

A beach! It had never occurred to Sue that he could actually live near a beach.

Sue sold one of his amps and one of his guitars, and then packed the rest into his old Taurus wagon and headed west.

Everyone in LA was so friendly! Within a week they knew his morning order at the donut shop. He found a hotel in Santa Monica that seemed to double as a crackhouse; a clean room, no phone, five hundred a month. The kids who hung out waiting in the parking lot all called him 'Texas'. The workers at the donut shop called him 'Texas'. Total strangers on the street called him 'Texas'.

"Hey, Texas!" everybody said.

It felt like small-town living to Sue. Hollywood is a smaller town than Nashville. Santa Monica is also a smaller town than Nashville. If it weren't for the drive between—

Sue learned his new town by prowling the alleys, setting fire to heaps of garbage. He was careful, responsible, mature about it: no brushfires, no wooden structures--

Sue got a job as the lead guitarist for one of the flashier retro swing outfits, and this got him an agent from William Morris, who got him a tryout with Buddy Lear.

Sue said: "Isn't he that new-wave guy?"

"That was twenty years ago," his agent groaned, over a quick lunch at Patrick's. "Now Buddy Lear is the Cole Porter of our time."

Sue stopped at Tower Records on the way home and got some Buddy Lear, and also some Cole Porter.

Buddy's real name was Devon McHampshire. He could fill a small auditorium with a polite crowd, or a club with salivating middle-aged critics.

Sue listened to Buddy's albums non-stop for five days before his audition. His songs had characters, and the characters did terrible things to themselves and each other. Sue thought of the little songs he'd tried to write--

Sue's audition was in Buddy's room, a cottage at Chateau Marmont. Buddy had put on weight since his glory days in the eighties as a skinny sharp-dressed man. He sat in one of the wicker chairs, a bottle of gin clutched between his legs, and directed Sue to the amp, asking: "So what do you know about me?"

"I know you're the greatest songwriter alive."

Buddy snorted. "And what do you know about songwriting?"

Sue shrugged, unpacked his guitar, plugged it in, set up a strong 4/4 beat with his boot, and began riffing.

"I've never heard anything like it," Buddy said. "It's like Albert Lee mixed with--"

Buddy hated LA, and it made him carouse wildly, casting about for the club or pub that might reform his opinion. He took his new guitarist with him.

Sue, drunk, confided: I always wanted to be George Washington.

Buddy said: You're a freak.

They were practicing one of Buddy's new songs, Sue was watching Buddy sing, shout, really, and Sue was trying to follow the words, thinking I have no idea what this song is about, and then his left hand knotted around the entirely wrong chord, and it came out sqwaronk. Sue finished up the song staring at his frets, thinking, holy shit, my entire life I've never missed a note that bad before.

"That thing you did, back in the second verse?" Buddy said. "I liked that."

Sue stayed up late that night, working to reproduce the slip, the missed note that Buddy had loved. By dawn it was in his repertoire.

Out on the town, Buddy would talk about politics, about books, about women. Remembering Washington's advice, Sue tried to stick to business.

Sue said: "We need to talk about the bridge to 'Terrible Mess'."

"You're a pest," Buddy said. "Can't you think of anything besides music?"

"I'm comfortable being one-dimensional."

"That's why you'll never be a songwriter," Buddy groaned, lowering his head to the bartop in mock despair. "You can't even use English properly. You mean two-dimensional, like a cardboard figure."

Sue stood up, tall. "I meant one-dimensional. I meant that I am to be measured by one thing only. By my music."

Buddy propped himself up on an elbow and considered him anew, as if thinking, that just might work.

Then Sue sneezed, suddenly, into his sleeve.

"No," Buddy said, shaking his head. "No man is an arrow."

"What about the bridge," Sue said.

"What?"

"The bridge. To 'Terrible Mess'. Right now it's just so..." He trailed off as he realized he was about to say 'messy'.

"Jesus," Buddy said, with something that sounded like admiration, "you're a stupid sod, aren't you?"

Sometimes Sue took a woman home. He was developing a theory, that you have to feed all the parts of a person. Sex, food, music, starting fires--

The label called in a studio hit-man, a producer who'd had a string of hits polishing up eighties alternative bands.

When it came time for Sue's parts, he tried to keep his head down, and get in and out as fast as he could. Buddy tended to stand in front of him, staring, arms folded, while he played.

The producer: "Sue, I'm nicknaming you one-take."

Buddy: "How about one-note?"

But Sue knew he had Buddy hooked. The way Buddy stared, Sue just knew, he was wishing he could play like that. He was wondering what the secret was.

Sue stayed up in the recording booth with the producer, instead of down in the room with Buddy, mostly because the whole thing had Buddy in a mood.

The producer cooed encouragingly over the speaker: "Smoother this time, Buddy."

"Perry Fucking Como isn't here," Buddy said, swiping at the mike stand, knocking it over.

"He's just not cut out for selling out," the producer sighed.

"Excuse me, Mr. Hack Producer?" Buddy was hollering up at the booth. "Who did you think you were hired to produce? Britney Fucking Spears?"

Sue wondered: how can somebody with such little self-control make so much art?

"Jesus, One-Take," the producer said, pushing back from the control board. "It's too bad you don't write songs. I could work with somebody like you."

Sue reached into his jacket and handed him a tape.

They went on Buddy's usual large clubs/small theaters college-town tour. Sue would step to the front of the stage for his solos, his head bowed, to huge applause.

Before the encore, at the Blue Note in Columbia, Missouri, Buddy grabbed him by the collar, and pulled him up close. "This is my show," he spat, bad teeth and whisky on his breath. "Quit stealing my show."

"I don't do anything."

"The way you move your hands."

"You can't play guitar without moving your hands."

"Don't try to smart me," Buddy growled. "You're not smart."

Sue set a fire in the dumpster out back and watched it burn. A dumpster fire is a good controlled fire, he thought, a really satisfying fire. The flames might be thirty feet high, but you know it's never going anywhere. And then it's over.

When the producer called Sue, Sue called Buddy.

"I'm staggered," Buddy said. "I can't believe you think you can make an album."

"I know my limitations."

"No you don't."

"Yes I do."

"Don't."

Buddy called back at two in the morning, from some bar, and tried to talk him out of it. He said the tours would probably conflict, that Sue wouldn't be able to be in both bands.

Sue said, fine.

When Buddy came over the next day he told him, "You should call the album 'Hubris'."

Sue shrugged. "It's a pretty cool word."

Sue and the producer assembled the band and recorded the album. Buddy's label put it on the fast track.

Sue thought: I know this is what I wanted, but it was all too easy. Am I missing something?

The single, "Zig Zag Ding Dong", became a hit. Then it became a really big hit, and then it became a phenomenon: nonsense lyrics, novelty song, played at parties, dances, football games, adapted by marching bands. It was a round, played at ever-increasing speed, with Sue's guitar looping ever more tightly--

Buddy didn't call him for months, and then called him at five in the morning. "It's the worst song I've ever heard," he moaned. "And they play it everywhere. The door to the bus opens, there it is, it's the new bus company jingle."

Sue said: "You can open for me."

Buddy snorted. "You can blow me."

Rolling Stone asked Buddy what he thought of Sue's album, and he said, you know you're in trouble when the producer co-writes six of the songs.

The critics were nonplussed:

Sue (and his producer) write serviceable mid-tempo rockers that allow the guitars--
Like an unholy mixture of Albert Lee and--
Two stars: one for the guitars, and one for the dizzying cover (parody?) of ex-boss Buddy Lear's--

They'd also written and recorded nine other songs, so they could fill the album. Hubris got him nominated for Best New Artist, but he didn't win.

Sue set fire to the drapes in his hotel room, and the label paid for everything.

He went on a date with the supermodel ____. Her skin was waxy, it clung to the touch like silly putty. Or even serious putty, like tile grout. This was a feature of her body not readily detectable from the movies. He pressed his palm into her belly, her thighs--

"What are you doing?"

Maybe it wasn't her skin. What if it was his hand?

On tour, his band played capably, and on the bus and after the shows, they mostly kept to themselves.

Standing on stage at the sold-out Merck Arena, Sue thought: this is not particularly intoxicating. Most people live their whole lives trying to avoid having people stare at them like this.

For an encore, he did Buddy's "Terrible Mess", and savaged the guitar solo, lost himself in it, like falling down into a deep black pit.

Pyrotechnics.

His dad showed up. "You do everything wrong, and it still works out." He looked old, tired. "It's a good thing you never listened to me."

After the tour, Sue bought a place up in the Hollywood hills. It was a good place to practice scales. He found himself reading a lot, not starting so many fires. He wondered if that meant he was depressed.

After a couple months, Buddy called.

"I finally listened to your album. The guitars, on that one song, they're really nice. But I'm so sick of that fucking single."

"Me, too."

"Now I suppose you're going to write the obligatory follow-up, 'Blah Blah Blah Blah', which will peak at #78, to serve as the ironic dénouement in future VH1 'Where are they now?' documentaries."

"Naw," Sue said, loving as always the sound of Buddy's voice.

"Naw, Texas? You mean your next single is going to be good?"

"Hey Buddy," Sue said, "Why'd you really call?"

"Oh, piss off."

"You called to ask me to play guitar on your next album," Sue said, looking out over his balcony to where he thought the ocean might be, "and I will be happy to."

When Buddy came over they walked up the ravine and sat overlooking the Hollywood Bowl. Buddy complained about his wife and George W. Bush for a while, and then sang some old Holland-Dozier-Holland tunes, stopping to laud or annotate sections for Sue.

Sue told Buddy the story about the little boy, and the number '1'.

Buddy considered it. "I don't think people work like that," he concluded. "That little boy, when he wasn't drawing the number '1', he probably spent the rest of his time looking for prostitutes. Or nursing his smack habit."

Sue thought about telling Buddy about the fires.

Sue thought: basically, he already knows.

He started dating the counter girl from the donut shop. Audrey liked to come over and knit while he played guitar. In bed, he touched her belly with his fingertips and his palm, and pressed his cheek up against the various parts of her.

"I'm new at this," he warned.

"Naw, Texas," she drawled. "You don't say."


Scott has stories in the current issues of Gettysburg Review, Quarterly West, and Glimmer Train. He's the founding editor of Fictionline (www.fictionline.com).

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