Friday, September 16, 2005

Two Voices, Overheard

One of these days it will soon be all over, cut and dry
And I won't have this urge to go all bottled up inside
One of these days I'll look back—and I'll say I left in time
Cause somewhere for me I know there's peace of mind.

“It really is Emmylou!” Madeline exclaimed.

“Wow. Wow!” I nodded. “Let’s follow the voice.”

We had clean forgot that there was a concert in the park that night.

While planning for Madeline’s trip, we found that Emmylou Harris and Elvis Costello would be playing Summerstage in Central Park on her last night in the city.

We were excited until we noticed the ticket prices—seventy five a pop, with a sold out crowd certain—and decided that even so promising a concert as this was not going to separate us from one hundred and fifty dollars.

As we drew closer, I wondered if that had been a wise decision.

The pairing of Elvis and Emmylou was quirky and irresistible.

At first blush, they appear so different. When I was a kid, Emmylou was the voice on my parents’ radio (I am from her red-dirt hometown, where she is revered), whereas Elvis came only from my turntable and eight-track player.

Radio wanted nothing to do with the songwriter who bit the hand that feeds, but after my friends and I saw his spastic performance on “Saturday Night Live,” we were buying albums and passing around cassettes.

Elvis and Emmylou made sense together, now. Their voices were two sides of the same coin in the seventies, as both have an appreciation of popular song that is at once instinctual and learned, with shared roots in country and blues.

It seems obvious in retrospect. Hell, George Jones knew it back then; he performed with each of them.

I pressed closer, peering through the trees, past the bleachers. Emmylou was fifty yards away, alone on stage with her guitar, singing.

“We are staying here,” I said.

“We’re not going anywhere,” Madeline replied.

We spread our blanket on an incline under trees and sat, just listening and watching the leaves turn orange in the setting sun.

In time, Elvis joined Emmylou onstage.

They bantered before trying harmonies on a few songs.

Emmylou can harmonize with anyone. Her voice floated up and above, sure and steady.

Elvis stammered, faltered.

His voice seemed cockney and unfocused by contrast to hers.

He would pursue a line then lose the harmony. Each time, he apologized. Emmylou would continue, quietly assuring him in asides that it was all right, keep going, you’ll get it.

They struggled through her songs with Gram Parsons. They were good together in “Love Hurts.” They were awkward in a traditional ballad.

The sound check concluded without fanfare.

“Fuck,” Madeline said. “That was amazing, the way they worked on that ballad.”

“Think they got it?”

“I don’t know . . .”

“Think we should stay to find out?”

“Oh yes, we have to know.”

The concert would begin in two hours, time enough to take care of dinner. But we were exactly where we needed to be, and loathe to give up our spot.

I proposed that Madeline stay with the blanket, while I foraged for food.

I kissed her goodbye, leaving her with her book and water.

I walked home quickly, mentally raiding my refrigerator for picnic options.

When I arrived, the door was unlocked.

The lamp was on. There were two bags on the floor by the bar. I heard “The NewsHour” playing in the back.

“Hello?” I called.

“Jefferson!” a voice called back.

It was Bernard, my father in law.

I mean, my ex father in law—I’m still getting used to that.

Bernard and I are close. I’ve known him for nearly half my life. When he is in New York, he stays with me.

Just after Madeline had purchased her tickets for the trip to see me, Bernard wrote an email to say that he would be in the city for a few days. The first day of his trip overlapped with the last of Madeline’s.

I never, never want my family life to mix with my dating life.

It’s a good guideline for my life now. It helps me to protect my kids from dealing with a shifting roster of daddy’s girlfriends. Their lives should be stable, not troubled by concerns that total strangers are being considered as possible stepmothers.

This rule also protects my privacy. I do not want to have my kids, my parents, my ex, or her parents—or anyone else, for that matter—involved in conjecture about my romantic life.

Madeline knows this.

She did not want me to be in a bind over this schedule conflict.

We talked over the various options.

She could cut her trip short, and eat the cost of changing the reservations.

We could rent a hotel room for the night, leaving the apartment to Bernard.

Viviane offered her place; we were welcome to crash with her.

It was up to me, Madeline said. I was the one troubled by the conflict. She didn’t care one way or the other if Bernard was in the apartment, but she did not want me to be uncomfortable.

I thought about it, long and hard. I did not want to complicate my life, or those of my loved ones. I just wanted this time with Madeline, as easy and simple as possible, and I wanted to sleep in my own bed.

I thanked Viviane for the offer.

I told Madeline to leave things be.

I told Bernard I would have a guest when he was in town.

“Hey Bernard!” I followed the sound of the television. I smiled at the sight of him. He stood and we embraced.

“You’ve lost weight—it’s not cancer, is it?” I teased. “How’s the foot?”

“Eh, much better, thanks, thanks. Let’s just say I’m walking and leave it at that.”

“Hey, so long as you are walking, you ain’t pushing up daisies.”

“This is the much better option.”

“How was the flight?”

“Exhausting, exhausting. I’m jetlagged—its six hours earlier at home, you know. I’m turning in soon.”

Ma pauvre.” I swallowed and adopted a nonchalant attitude. “We’ll be quiet when we come in. You remember I have a guest tonight?”

“Yes, right. What do you want to do about the sleeping arrangements? You want to give him the room? I can take the couch.”

I looked aside—casually, I hoped.

“Well, she will stay with me, in my room.”

“Ah,” he smiled. “Of course, that’s fine. I will be asleep, this we know.”

He followed me to the kitchen and we chatted as I put together a picnic.

I chopped a roast chicken, cut watermelon into wedges, and gathered crackers. I mixed a pitcher of gin and tonics.

I babbled to keep the conversation in my hands, to avoid questions.

“Some friends and I are seeing Emmylou Harris and Elvis Costello in the park,” I offered, alluding to fictional picnickers that may be implicated in some future white lie. “Or rather, we are listening, as we are set up just outside the concert.”

“Emmylou Harris? She is still working, huh?”

“New album last year, in fact. All songs she wrote.” I packed a corkscrew, two plastic cups, and a bottle of wine Viviane had given us.

“I met her, years ago. Lovely woman.”

“Have you seen her lately? She’s stunning.”

He chuckled. “Some of us age better than others.”

“As long as we are aging, right? Sure beats the alternative.” I tucked some napkins into the bag.

“So long as there are alternatives,” he nodded. “Frankly, eh, I’m not so sure how many remain.”

“Well, Bernard, you just keep that foot in the grave, you hear?”

My picnic was packed.

“Okay, mister, I am out of here. Get some sleep and I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Have fun,” he waved. “Another hour meditating on the impending collapse of civilization as we know it, and I’m done. Iraq . . . another car bombing. It’s not pretty.”

“It’s fucked, as predicted. Sleep well!”

I hit the elevator button and paced, annoyed.

Why can’t it just be easy? God damn it.

I talked myself back into a high as I walked to the park.

The plan was brilliant.

Our blanket was now surrounded by dozens of others. A long line of ticket holders snaked down a sidewalk.

Madeline sipped a cup of wine that had been proffered by an adjacent group.

That’s what happens when you leave a pretty lady unattended, I thought.

“Look at those suckers, “ I nodded toward the line, dropping my bag to the ground. “So much money for bench seats . . .”

“And we have a lovely picnic,” Madeline smiled.

I unpacked, explaining that Bernard was already at the apartment.

“You’re okay with that?” she asked, opening the watermelon.

“I’m fine. Whatever.” I pulled out the thermos of gin and tonics. “Shake, shake. Pass the cups.”

We talked as we nibbled.

The gin and tonics gone, I opened the wine.

The concert began.

The decks of two thirty-year careers were shuffled, and shuffled again with the music they admired.

Emmylou performed alone.

Elvis performed with the Imposters.

They came together.

They shared Larry Campbell, longtime accompanist of Bob Dylan, who switched from mandolin to pedal steel to electric. Punk to country and back again, they took us from song to song, genre to genre.

We were sweating, just listening.

Emmylou was transcendent. Elvis took the lead, exuding the bon homie of a bandleader at the Copacobana.

They pushed over two and half hours before they hit that troublesome traditional tune.

Elvis took it over, pressing out the soul, seeking out the edges.

Emmylou chased him down, tossing the heartache back and forth.

Two voices reached, intertwined, and found salvation.

The sky echoed, awed.

And then the voices brought us home.

Love hurts, they reminded us.

What’s so funny ‘bout peace love and understanding? they asked.

As the final chords kicked back from the trees, picnics were disassembled. Concertgoers trudged down a path behind us.

Madeline and I looked up at the leaves, lit now by street lamps.

We were quiet.

“They nailed it,” she finally said.

“I’m just floored,” I said, flat on my back.

“Over here,” a park worker shouted to the crowd. “Towards Seventy-Second Street, Strawberry Fields. Fireworks this way.”


The sky exploded.

If fate were designing a romantic last night for us, this was too much, utterly gratuitous.

We kissed to fireworks, ears numb, minds alive, the skyline clear and electric beyond the trees.

“I love you,” I said.

“I know,” she smiled, eyes welling. “I love you.”

I packed the remains of the picnic as Madeline collected our things.

We held hands as we walked home.

“Shh,” I reminded her as I opened the door. “Meet me in our room.”

I dropped the bags in my kitchen and washed my hands. I poured two bourbons.

Madeline was in the bathroom. She soon joined me, undressing next to the bed.

“I’m just not sure about sex,” I winced. “You know, with the old man in the next room.”

“You do what makes you comfortable,” she said.

We talked.

We kissed.

We made love, keenly aware that our time together was ending.

Our bodies joined, our voices mingled as we talked.

Other ears asleep, so close.


ThreeOliveMartini said...

you always paint a delicious picture.. this one is no less..

Viviane said...


Anonymous said...

What a perfect day in the city to end a great visit for Madeline. Things like stumbling upon Emmylou & Elvis can only happen in NYC!

Freya said...

absolutely beautiful.