Read the first chapter of Exiles on Main Street
Read the first chapter of Dancing with Mr. D
EXILES ON MAIN STREET:
Some blame the devil, some blame fate. I blame it all on rock 'n' roll. Because If it hadn't been for the music, chances are I would have lost the scoop—a matter of importance to me as a reporter for the local daily. I wouldn't have spotted the couple, or followed them along the crooked path into that murky territory on the edge of town, where souls are bartered, deals go down, and death awaits like a tiger on the hunt.
I had chosen the oldies station because I expected to hear something safe. Not this song. No, it was better to leave those old emotions buried. I didn't want to remember, but now that the music had begun, I was spellbound.
Delivered in a saucy, tough-girl taunt, the words hit me with two hundred joules of juice. So innocuous on the surface, they evoked so much.
"I'm riding in your car
You turn on the radio—"
Streaks of rose stained the frosted sky as the wounded sun sank behind the distant Berkshires. I pulled my ancient Civic—Honda's early boxy model, not the restyled sports-car wannabe—into a parking spot and gazed over the sprawl of one of the bleakest malls in Western Massachusetts.
I shut off the engine and sat listening in spite of the ache that had settled somewhere in the vicinity of my heart. That seductively straight yet sinister rhythm set by the bass and guitar, the relentless chink a-chink a-chink, sizzled with heat.
"You're pulling me close—"
In the dying light the vast lot merged with the surrounding farmlands, snow-blanketed and shimmering, and the present was momentarily extinguished by the past.
"I say I don't love you
But, you know, I'm a liar—"
Springsteen's "Fire," sung by the Pointer Sisters, with a sultry innocence that hearkened back to Ronnie Spector, was about sex, pure and simple. But lurking beneath the surface, a subtext spoke about a great deal more: about a young girl's ambivalence, about growing up, about fear, about resistance, about finally succumbing to the inevitable and letting go. Something I hadn't been able to do for a very long time.
What made the words endure was the ambiguity that all great rock lyrics shared. They provided latitude, space a listener could fill with her own private angst. As a teenager the love you reject, the love to which you are secretly and irrevocably drawn, is very often not romantic, but parental. That was the way it had been for me. "Fire" had hit the top of the charts when I was seventeen, the year my mother fell ill. More then fourteen years ago, yet the pain was as sharp as if it had been yesterday afternoon.
I'd been a runaway. Before I left, and even after I was lured back by the entreaties of my desperate father, I'd told her countless times that I hated her, but I was a liar. At the final moment, the last time I saw her, wasted and white, I had not been able to reach inside and find the generosity of heart to forgive her, to say, "I love you."
These were heavy feelings to be roused in this early twilight in my new hometown. As the final chords of the song faded away, I switched off the radio and gazed over the blur of cars in the packed lot on this last Tuesday before Christmas, I sat for a few moments, attempting to regain my balance, letting the present slough off the costly mantle of my past.
I had my own children now. I'd planned to spend a few moments doing last-minute shopping for their gifts before covering the Hallelujah Sing at the tacky central court of the mall. Such were the assignments I'd been getting as a rookie reporter on the small-town newspaper I'd been writing for since the spring, when Billy and I made a fast break from the fast lane and escaped to Greymont. It was a far cry from my glory days as a rock writer and Billy's as a musician, but that was what had attracted us to this sleepy college town.
We were refugees from rock and roll, and on most days the rewards outweighed the sense of loss. Sweet evenings with the fire crackling. Quiet. No more parrying with post-adolescent rude boys with guitars while I attempted to glean something that could be used in the reviews and short features I wrote for the rock press. No more lonely weeks with Billy out on tour and me in LA holed up with an infant, a two-year-old, a telephone, and a laptop. No more emergency calls from far-flung hotels and hospitals. No more glitter. No more frenzied search for the fountain of youth. No more all-night parties. No more bad contracts. No more last-minute tour cancellations due to sluggish ticket sales. No more lavish spending on borrowed time. No more creditors. No more lawyers. No more drugs. Yes, we had plenty to run from.
The mountains had melted into a washed-out smudge illuminated by one solo wisp of gold on the pale horizon. Most of the cars were driving with headlights on. The street lamps glowed like a string of pink jewels marking the highway that led toward Greymont's historic-landmark center. Last night's heavy snow covered the roadsides, and the plows and sand trucks were still out in full force. Snow was predicted again for tonight. It was time to let go of the past, to open the door to the frigid air of the future.
I had just turned my focus back to the task at hand, checking to make sure I had wallet, pens, reporter's pad, when I spotted the couple. An odd pairing, I thought, noting that they seemed middle-aged, the man dark-skinned, the woman white. But gesture, not skin color, was what sharpened the edge of my curiosity. The man paced hurriedly ahead, and the woman, in a frumpy green coat and blond fake-fur hat, slapped her hand to her mouth, shaking her head furiously. Neither noticed me as they beat a path in front of my Civic, where I was still seated.
When they reached the end of the row, the woman pointed to a big boat of a car, heavily laden with last night's snow, parked all the way at the outer perimeter of the lot. That was interesting, I thought. The automobile was the only one with such a heavy cover; clearly it had been there overnight during the storm. Something inside the car made the man spring back when he stepped up to the front window, dusted it off a bit, and peered inside. The woman, who hung far behind, put her gloved hands over her mouth.
They weren't too for away, but dusk veiled my presence as I watched from the Civic. The man drew a walkie-talkie from his pocket and spoke into it. The woman collapsed in sobs and shrieks. The man turned, glancing in my direction. but not seeing me, then took the woman by the arm.
Slowly they walked back toward the mall. As they passed under a light, I recognized the man as Dennison Brown, the security guard I'd used as a source on a car-theft story over the summer. I didn't know the woman. When they were only a few feet frorn my car, she grabbed Brown's arm and shouted something I couldn't quite make out.
"Get a hold on yourself, ma'am," I overheard Brown say.
When they were well down the row, I exited my car and locked It. Instinct told me not to be too conspicuous, so I slunk between two facing lines of autos as I made my way toward the snow-covered behemoth the security guard had inspected. When the two of them disappeared into the mall entrance, I made a beeline to the window on the driver's side and pressed my face to the glass.
A woman stared out at me through the frost. A trickle of blood had frozen at the corner of her mouth. I gaped, transfixed, into her blank eyes, and then realized with a start that she was dead.
© 1999 by Lisa Kleinholz. From Exiles on Main Street, published by HarperPaperbacks, a division of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.
DANCING WITH MR. D:
Some blame global warming, others blame El Niño. But I blame all my troubles on rock 'n' roll. Because when the rhythm starts to sizzle, I'll be with all the other divas vogueing down the frying pan handle right into the fire.
I'll admit I felt a twinge of panic at the idea of welcoming my husband's ex-lover for an extended visit. That the fling between Vivi Cairo and Billy Harp had been over years before didn't ease my anxiety.
Neither did the fact that Vivi, at forty-six, was fourteen years my senior. She had enough attitude to upstage the entire Lilith Fair tour with barely a tilt of the chin. At least, that's what I heard through the grapevine.
You don't maintain a twenty-eight-year career near the top of the charts without titanic talent, drop-dead looks, and the drive of a squadron of fighter jets. Not to mention an ego the size of Vesuvius and a temperament just as explosive.
I had crafted a counter-strategy. I'd play the role of perfect wife—at least for the three weeks she intended to stay. That meant getting home on time, which wasn't always easy. I'd whip up gourmet meals every evening. I figured she couldn't cook. What diva could? I'd chosen my wardrobe weeks ago: Hollywood with a dash of innocence that I didn't think she could match. After all, in Annie Lennox's words, divas were "born in Original Sin."
I'd be nurturing and Madonna-like as I put the kids to bed. Then I'd sit in with Vivi and Billy to keep an eye on them while they discussed their upcoming album. This collaboration, growing out of her success with tunes Billy had written for Vivi the year before, would give my bass-playing husband the comeback vehicle he craved.
Billy was a refugee from rock 'n' roll, but lately he'd been yearning to take another ride on the glory train. Much as I resisted. I'd begun to realize Billy needed to follow his dreams, even though we still hadn't recovered from the nightmare finish that ended his first dance with fame—that most dangerous diva of all. No drugs, Billy had promised, and no tours. And I'd relented. As a former theater brat—my dad, Bobby Szabo, had been a Broadway song-and-dance man—I was a believer in second and third acts.
So, I convinced myself I had Vivi's visit under control. Then fate, namely Whit Smythe, my boss, intervened.
At five P.M. on the dot I turned off my Discman. I'd been listening to Live Through This, Courtney Love's CD released just after Kurt's death. Before that it had been Alanis Morissette.
I'd been listening to divas, old and new, for the past two weeks, soaking up the persona the way you'd prepare to go into snake country—by injecting diluted venom to build up an immunity, so a bite from the real thing wouldn't kill you.
Vivi and her boho entourage were scheduled to land at eight-thirty. Billy intended to meet them at the airport, an hour's drive south. I'd planned a late dinner for the whole crew. And it was going to be fabulous.
I'd just shut down my computer when Whit caught me. Owner, publisher, and editor-in-chief of the Greymont Evening Eagle, Whittimore Covington Smythe III is a thin, serious New Englander. Since he's not the demonstrative type, I've learned to read his code of subtle expressions and gestures. A slight lift of the eyebrow. A tap of a thumb on a desk.
Today, although his face betrayed nothing, the fact that he'd come looking for me instead of picking up the phone spoke volumes.
"Zoë, what's on your agenda tonight?" he asked.
"I've got a problem. The Environmental Commission is voting on the Plaza project, and Barbara can't be there."
"Is she all right?"
"Fred went into the hospital an hour ago."
"Oh. I'm sorry."
Whit handed me a sheaf of notes. "You're going to have to take this and run. I don't think Barbara's going to be back for a while. We agreed you're the best person for the job."
The shadows under Whit's eyes deepened. Barbara Warwick was an old-timer. She had started writing for the paper during Whit's grandfather's reign. Her husband, Fred, suffered from chronic heart trouble. Judging from Whit's expression, Fred was seriously ill.
A tiny drum in my ear went thump a-thump bump. I wondered if I could manage somehow to dash home for an hour to get the buffet ready before Vivi's arrival. At the same time, I felt concern for Whit, who looked upset. "Tell Barbara I hope Fred feels better soon."
Whit nodded brusquely and plowed on. "I called Craig Detweiller. He says he's sending in bulldozers the minute the decision comes down. Tim Boudreau decided to withdraw his opposition last night. He and Craig worked out some kind of a deal."
Tim was a high school biology teacher who headed the local Sierra Club chapter and served on the Environmental Commission. Craig, a developer, was a big man in town.
"Who else is fighting this thing?"
"Cassandra Dunne." Whit barely concealed his distaste. "She called a few minutes ago in a rage. Threatened to chain herself to a tree. As far as I know, she's the last holdout."
The project, proposed for a site at the north end of town, was embroiled in controversy. Though I hadn't paid close attention. I'd been aware of the ongoing dispute since Billy and I had moved here a year and a half earlier. Imagine the animosity between the antagonists in, say, Star Wars, transplanted to a New England college town, and you might get an inkling of the ferocity of the emotions involved. With the exit of Tim Boudreau, the struggle promised a face-off between the two major players: Craig, who headed the Plaza consortium, and Cassandra, a.k.a. the "Green Queen." People in town really hated her.
Darth Vader versus Princess Leia. Only central casting had got things backwards. I'd seen Detweiller a couple of times, and he seemed like a nice enough guy—a youngish forty, relaxed, smooth. Cassandra, on the other hand, was a well-known crank, and she'd definitely moved past the ingenue stage. Imagine a ranting, menopausal Princess Leia, single and childless. No Luke Skywalker or Han Solo waited in the wings to come to her rescue. She'd have to wage this battle alone.
The drumbeat fragmented into a complex pattern of cross-rhythms and syncopations. Forget rock 'n' roll. I began to think opera: Brunhilde versus a well-mannered Siegfried, who might fight dirty for his right to party.
No. No more late deadlines, I'd promised myself. At least not till Vivi Cairo left. It was obvious I couldn't get out of this, but I might be able to get help.
"I have a slew of, guests coming from California," I stammered. "Is there someone I could share the byline with, at least for tonight? Billy's counting on me doing this dinner." In spite of my attempt to hide my emotion, I was dismayed to hear the pleading in my voice. I was desperate.
Whit's mouth twitched at one corner. "Can't Billy take them to Chinese? The meeting's bound to be over by nine, nine-thirty."
I reflected. Billy, Vivi, and the others couldn't possibly get back to the house before ten. I swallowed. There were my kids. My two little Wookies.
Whit reached for my phone.
"What are you doing?"
"Dialing Cassandra. She's planning some crazy action. She was raving. Everyone else is on assignment, Zoë. Tomorrow I can take Mark off sports. But tonight he's covering a big game."
Mark Polanski was my archrival on the paper. As Whit well knew, the mere mention of his name was enough to make me leap unto the breach. I could also read between the lines. As a rule the quieter Whit's demeanor, the more acute his irritation. At this point his voice was barely a whisper.
"I'll take care of it," I said.
He handed me the phone and walked off without another word.
"Ms. Dunne? This is Zoë Szabo from the Eagle. The Plaza site? Fifteen minutes? I'll be there."
The music I'd listened to earlier flooded my ears, the sound of Courtney screaming in "Violet":
"Go on, take everything, take everything. I want you to.
Go on, take everything, take everything. I dare you to."
The rhythm wasn't complex anymore, just that old rock 'n' roll taking everything. Later, I'd remember, I asked for it.
© 2000 by Lisa Kleinholz. From Dancing With Mr. D, published by Avon. All rights reserved.
Fish photo credit: Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
© 1999-2023 by Lisa Kleinholz.