The only things that had really ever changed in Alex’s room were the color of the walls which had gotten darker over the years like dried blood, his posters and a black computer desk he had stolen from the neighbor’s bulk garbage pickup five years earlier. He had meticulously steam cleaned the exterior and used an exacto to remove stickers bearing the likenesses of Justin Timberlake, Beyonce and Usher. He lay in his twin bed gazing out the screened window and listened to the whoosh of maple leaves that signaled a coming storm. He could not see the stars anymore. They had cleared the wild meadows near his house to put up a new subdivision – “Whispering Willows”- and the street lights, along with the ever growing population of outdoor shopping plazas (strip malls) had stained the night sky that he grew up with. It was black now. And that made him nervous.
It annoyed him that he knew there were stars in the sky, but he couldn’t see them. Though he had spent most every night with eyes squeezed shut listening to wind and crickets and the sound of Nightline blaring from his father’s office, he had suddenly realized that he absolutely must see the stars… or he would do something drastic. It slowly became a compulsion, but he did not realize how severe the itch to see the stars had grown until one night he burst out of his room, ran to the car and started the ignition all with the intention to drive far into the countryside until he could see the Big Dipper. That was the plan. But once he put the car into reverse, Alex blacked out and awoke to paramedics slapping his face. In the corner of his eye he saw his Dad’s car neatly tucked into the side of the neighbor’s Suburban. The white steam slid into the night air and he thought how nice it would be to go to a sauna tomorrow. Just get all the toxins out, sweat out the pain and the chemicals and the crap he had been breathing in that disgusting room over the garage.
The next day, he had forgotten all about his night terror. He had blocked out all conversation with others throughout the day until it seemed he had only been awake for an hour or two. He was a stoic genius waiting. He knew that he had been born for a reason, and that all was not lost for his lack of work, ambition or focus these last few years. He discovered, during his blackout, that he was waiting for an idea. Just one, simple, exquisite idea that would shoot him out of this house forever. Maybe it was a household invention. Or a mathematical equation. Or an engineering breakthrough. Or something to help babies or dogs. He didn’t know. But he felt good knowing that it was just a matter of time until something happened.
Alex’s confidence soared while he shaved, clipped his toenails, washed his face and applied his topical ointment to the eczema on his feet. But for all the fantasizing about getting his due someday soon, his anxieties returned once the lights were out. He tried to focus on the crickets, but they would not chirp to the rhythm that was in his mind playing over and over. Ode to Joy. He had to quickly abandon the crickets. The trees were no better. Where there was wind last night, tonight it was as still as death. It seemed everything he wanted wasn’t there.
Alex felt his heart racing. His body was one large itch that could not be scratched. If he didn’t hear the crickets play Beethoven or see the hidden stars or hear the song of the trees that was soothing and sweet, he didn’t know quite what he would do. His mother had the only key to the liquor cabinet, and he was fresh out of the two liter plastic bottle of vodka he had finished the day before yesterday.
Alex reached over to his clock radio and looked at the time. It was 10:33 p.m. He tried to hold his breath for a full two minutes. If he could do that, he could do anything and everything would be OK. After 45 seconds, he let out a deep gasp followed by an alarming squeal and burst into tears. Alex’s hands darted toward the clock radio to hurl it against his bathroom door. It fell to the floor and the crackling volume pierced the air. He went to grab and adjust it, but he inadvertently tuned to the Co-op station. He heard the unmistakable voice of Kate Bush and felt that at least he had been thrown a piece of driftwood tied to an old boat on a tumultuous sea.
Alex pulled himself together, crawled into bed and tuned the station in so it was clear and uncluttered by static. He adjusted the volume. Not too soft so he couldn’t hear it, but not too loud that he couldn’t go to sleep. He lay flat on his back, palms up and spread out, face relaxed and he listened. He couldn’t remember when or if he had ever heard a Kate Bush song on the radio. Her voice was an instrument. He wished that Kate was actually his sister or cousin or aunt. Mostly, he let her birdly voice sing of a lonely woman waiting for her long lost love to return from the sea. It was haunting, and he fell asleep just as Ava’s voice pushed him into a dream… “thank God for Kate Bush. I’ll be back tomorrow. Until then, I’m Ava and this has been Pop Candy.”
It hadn’t always been this way. Once, he was one of the top three tennis players in his class. He had a good group of friends. About 43% of them, he had calculated one day, went away to college after high school– Brown, Duke, Stanford, Bryn Mawr, Vanderbilt. His two closest buddies, Johnny and Damien, told him that he was the smartest guy they knew. One of them ended up at Harvard Law. The other one was an adjunct professor of American Studies at some school in Paris. He forgot which one. Alex, however, still had four credits to go in his philosophy degree from the state university. Sure, he could’ve ended up in a think tank somewhere, but what was the point, really? He could breeze through “Notes from the Underground” in an afternoon, but he preferred playing a round of frisbee golf with a six pack and some valium at the course two blocks from his parent’s house. When Johnny and Damien would come home for the holidays, they happily slipped into Alex’s world which was a constant and true respit from adult life.
“Alex… take that $50 on the side table in the foyer and take the boys to El Patio for some margaritas,” Mrs. Whitney would say. Alex would stuff it into his neon orange and green velcro wallet and the three would head out to suck down some drinks and coat their stomachs with tortilla chips, salsa and piping hot queso. But the last time they hung out, there was no more talk about this or that chick. They stopped talking about the road trip to Belize or the t-shirt business/beer joint they would one day start together. Alex had worked up logos for it just before the guys had arrived. He took a whole night while he listened to Ben Lee on “Pop Candy” and made a business plan. It was two pages.
Since then, the trips to the outside world had become fewer and farther between. There was no phobia, then. Just a lack of motivation. He got an e-mail from Damien that he had met a French girl in Thailand. It just so happened that she lived only two miles from him. When they both returned to France, they got engaged. Johnny was steadily climbing the ranks of the law firm where he worked– was it tax law, or something sexy like being a prosecutor? He couldn’t remember, and he didn’t really care. He knew that his boys were sell outs. He knew that they really wanted to be entrepreneurs and bachelors just like him. They were pathetic. Maybe he could start the bar on his own. But his parents wouldn’t go for it. They were stingy and ridiculously frugal and they would never part from their money to feed his dream.
“Why don’t you support me?” he would ask them one night at dinner. Mrs. Whitney got hammered and decided that she was a chef and poured everything she could find into a crock pot. She used a bottle of wine from her wedding forty years earlier to make stew. It was terrible.
“We support you. You have a room. You have dinner. Everything else is up to you.”
About the time Alex was scheduled to pick up his parents at the airport, he realized that the girl he had been admiring from afar, Ava, would be starting her radio show, “Pop Candy” on the local co-op station. Before he could get going, he had to check that the tank was full, and the car did not smell of cigarettes or pot. Chrysler LeBarons were not hip cars, but Alex and his Dad had managed to put in a sweet stereo system— sort of a father/son project- last summer. During all hours he liked to sit in the car and read magazines or listen to music and drink a beer or two. Even if there were traces of trust-breaking evidence, his parents usually turned a blind eye to them. For the trip home, he would climb in the back seat and make sure everything was kosher, and no beer cans were left floating and banging under the seats. God forbid Dad would let Alex drive the family around, anyway.
He started slowly down the interstate at a reasonable clip and turned on the radio.
“I’ll be with you until 6 o’clock, and coming up we have Spoon with ‘I Turn My Camera On.’ Let’s check it out,” Ava announced.
Just what he wanted. Knowing that her voice could be instantly called up at the touch of his finger gave Alex an immense sense of joy. Long before Alex discovered “Pop Candy” and Ava, he really never had an interest in alternative pop music. Music was music, but he thought that the idea, even the whole genre of alternative pop was a ridiculous oxymoron. Naturally, he was most encouraged to give the show a chance when he heard Ava’s voice. On the radio, she sounded sweet, smart, passionate and mostly just very cool. Possibly, he would meet her one day at a café downtown, or maybe in the lobby of an old movie theater. Question was, wouldn’t that be sort of a stalker fantasy?
“Rolling along,” Ava said, “that was Spoon for everyone trying to find some decent tunes for that summer soundtrack. Speaking of summer, it is hot as hell which is good for me because apparently that keeps you guys indoors, or in your car, for your daily dose of alternative pop music. Today we have some Voxtrot, Beirut, The Rumours, followed by some of the bands that started it all like the Velvet Underground. You know Lou Reed has a special place in my heart– I got my first kiss from a guy named Ray when “Sweet Jane” was on the radio, but I always think of Lou.”
She sounded relaxed and happy today, Alex thought. Tonight, he would go to her website and see if she’s posted any new pictures. Unless, of course, his Dad hogged the computer again, which he probably would, because no access to e-mail for four days makes his Dad pretty anxious. Virtually every time his father came home, Alex was reduced to spending most of his time in his bedroom—the same bedroom he’s had for the last 31 years. When his mother comes in with the classifieds, or phone messages or mail, Alex usually asks for a tuna melt with Fritos, banana pudding, a Diet Cherry Vanilla Dr. Pepper, and that’s about it.
Xenophobia, agoraphobia, even a brief stint with arachnophobia almost had gotten the best of Alex. Yards away from the driveway, then a street block, and now the straight ten minute bi-weekly car ride to the airport.
“Bjork is coming up next,” Ava cooed. “And this one’s going out to Alex.”
JK Rowling: Hello?
Me: Hey JK– its JH
JK: Why hello, Jennifer! How’ve you been?
Me: Actually, I’ve had a bad throat infection the last few days and I’ve been coughing up the grossest stuff.
JK: Sounds awful.
Me: Yep… sorry my voice is so hoarse. It’s sexy, though, don’t you think?
JK: Definitely. You’re getting enough tea, then? Just hot herbal tea and lemon and a splash of honey. Does wonders.
Me: Oh yeah. I’ve been doing that since last week.
JK: Good girl. Right, so I got Benjamin’s birthday party invitation in the post just yesterday. It was adorable! Little animals with party hats. Brilliant.
Me: Yep– I printed them out myself. But, of course, you have people to do that sort of thing for you right?
JK: You’re mad.
Me: OK, OK, Sorry. I won’t start. (pause) So how’s the castle?
JK: It’s NOT a castle!
Me: I’m just KIDDING, geez. So, anyway, can you come? I have an opening for a storyteller for the kids and you’d be the obvious choice.
JK: No, I can’t make it. I’ll be in Japan and…
Me: Oh, sure, that’s OK.
JK: No, really, I want to be there it’s just that…
Me: You don’t have to explain.
JK: OK… sorry.
Me: Look. I’ve been meaning to tell you something for the longest time and now is as good a time as any.
JK: What is it?
Me: I just don’t even know how to say it.
JK: C’mon, then. Just spit it out.
Me: Promise you won’t get mad.
Me: Well… OK… here goes. I’ve never actually read any of your books. There I said it.
Me: I mean, I have them all. Well, most of them. And I saw the first two movies, but I never actually got around to reading the books.
JK: I am absolutely gobsmacked. May I ask why?
Me: Um… the thing is is that there was just SO much hype, it really rubbed me the wrong way.
JK: Uh huh.
Me: Then I started noticing that all my friends on Livejournal and at the office were huge fans, and I was impressed. These are smart people.
JK: Well, they have compared me to Lewis and Tolkien, Jennifer. That might not mean anything to you, but…
Me: See. Now you’re mad.
JK: No, I’m not mad. I’m just a little confused. I mean, you’ve read all the classics, and those were wildly popular. How do you explain that?
Me: I don’t know. I just started to seeing all the marketing and the hoopla and it just made me angry. I rebelled.
JK: That’s so juvenile.
Me: I know. I know. I’ll just say it outright. I’m jealous.
JK: Of course you’re jealous. You wouldn’t be a human being if you weren’t a little jealous of my success.
Me: OK, now you’re just being arrogant.
JK: No I’m not. Let me ask you this. How is your young adult trilogy coming along? Are you EVER going to send me pages?
Me: Yeah, right.
JK: Well, have you written anything?
Me: Yes… I mean when I can make the time I…
JK: You’re pathetic.
Me: I know. Listen, you know what I’m going to do?
Me: I’m going to give Benjamin a Harry Potter birthday party. And I’ll even read, like, the first two books if I have time and then I’ll send you my pages next month. Oh, and you do NOT have to feel guilty about Japan. We’ll just call it even, OK?
JK: Deal. That all sounds lovely.
Me: Yes, quite. Well, have fun storming the castle…
JK: Very funny.