Spring 1990, Volume 7.1


Ann Beattie

The Sweetest Songs

Ann Beattie was born in Washington, D.C., in 1947, the only child of James A. and Charlotte (Crosby) Beattie. She lives in Charlottesville, VA, with her husband, Lincoln Perry. After the publication of her first story, "A Rose for Judy Garland's Casket" in the Western Humanities Review in 1972, Beattie became a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and a number of leading magazines. In 1976, Doubleday published Distortions, a collection of short stories, and her first novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter, both of which immediately established her critical reputation not only as a writer but also as the voice of the "Woodstock generation" of the 1960s. Her published works include three other novels, Falling in Place (1980), Love Always (1985), and Picturing Will (1989), and three more books of short stories, Secrets and Surprises (1978), The Burning House (1982) and Where You'll Find Me (1986). Alex Katz, a commissioned book on Alex Katz, the painter, was published in 1987. She has held prestigeous lectureships at the University of Virginia and Harvard University. Her awards include one in literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (1980), Distinguished Alumnae Award (1980) and Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree (1983) from her alma mater, American University, and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1980.

Read an interview with Ann Beattie in this issue of Weber Studies.

"Baby's on Fire" has been found. It was scrawled on the back of a brown paper wrapper a gardening catalogue was mailed in. Gardening tools laid out like an aerial view of a Busby Berkley movie. More trowels than Habe had ever seen.

On the first day's attempt to find the lyrics Habe went to the dumpster behind the building and lifted out bags until he got to theirs, all the way on the bottom. Then he went through the bag to see if the envelope had disappeared somewhere between sections of the Sunday paper. For all he knows, she requested the gardening catalogue.

Back when he was really rolling he'd had a garden and an aspiring songwriter cousin who kissed ass by watering seedlings and pulling weeds, to say nothing of answering the phone, getting groceries, and doing any other required errands.

And now life is this: two days of searching for "Baby's on Fire" in an apartment so small even the bugs' hiding places are predictable.

He calls Ed to say that the song's been found. Next he leaves a message for Helene at the department store. Helene was supposed to be there half an hour ago, the person who answers tells him. She asks if he know where Helene is. He doesn't. Doesn't at all. Maybe she tried to press her luck and get an oil change at Jiffy Lube before work. At any rate, he leaves a message that the baby turned up.

The phone rings the minute he hangs up, before he can call Cakewalk, who plays sax, to hum him the song. It is a woman who says her company is out of hummingbird feeders, but that they will be back in stock and can be shipped January third. Is that all right?

He gives it a moment's thought. His beard is two days old. His skin prickles when he rubs his hands over his jaw. It's all right, he tells the woman. "These are very complicated times."

He calls Cakewalk, but he's out. He probably spent the night with his new lady friend. She's one of those ladies with eyes about as fiery as mush. Smooth skin, nice hair, but eyes behind which the light has dimmed.

He puts on his down vest, pockets his keys, and heads out to the Bluebird for breakfast, wondering whether—when you plunge your hands in deep pockets—it reminds you of being a kid because you turn up lint and a penny, or if it's just the feel inside the pocket itself.

A little ditty Cakewalk sings goes through his head:

Oh Randy Newman, do you think all day?

Do you think your gum needs chewin'?

If I ran a finger up your spine

Would you ask me, 'How ya doin?'

"Baby's on Fire" gets a first work-over. Ed improvises sax on kazoo because Cakewalk can't be found. Ed never minds going over to Habe's because Habe's place is overheated and his place is always freezing. Ed sits on the windowsill. This window is cracked open, and flames of cold shoot up his back.

"It's in the tradition of all the great 'baby' songs," Habe says. "It's plaintive, it's power-packed, and it rocks." He flashes a big smile to Ed. He has fished a Tampax tube out of the trash and is using it as a slide for his guitar.

"We've got to figure out what we're going to call ourselves," Ed says.

"Maybe we should call ourselves 'Baby's on Fire,'" Habe says.

"Get serious," Ed says, hopping off the windowsill. "We've got to get on it if for no other reason than Cheryl's never going to pipe down if we don't have a name so her boyfriend can be a something. Unemployed musician just won't sit with Cheryl."

"I was serious," Habe says.

"You were not. Would Elvis Presley have made it if he'd been 'Blue Suede Shoes?' You think Diana Ross would have washed if she'd been up there as 'Baby Love?'"

"Why doesn't Cheryl think of a name?"

"She did," Ed says. He's drinking a non-alcohol beer. Winter or summer, he wears short-sleeve shirts because he gets tired of unbuttoning cuffs and rolling sleeves. He has been working with Habe for one and one-half months on the idea of developing a band. Before that, he drove a delivery truck.

"And what does Cheryl think we should call ourselves?"

Ed puts the beer bottle on the window sill. "She thinks we should call ourselves 'Cakewalk and the Contortions,'" he says.

Habe laughs. "Not really," he says.

Ed nods.

"Well, it's dead wrong," Habe says. "That would make it sound like we were going to move around a lot. Jumping around on stage went out with the Sixties. Electrocution's out and lethal injections are in."

"Then what do you want to call us?" Ed says.

"I think we should call ourselves something that's got the ring of sincerity to it."

Ed closes his eyes and rubs his thumb and first finger over his eyelids.

"Let's delay a decision," Habe says. "The afternoon's going to slip away if we don't get on it."

"You mean to have me honk that kazoo while you get off on the good part with that loooooong guitar break?" Ed says.

"If you've got a better idea about what sounds like a saxophone, I'm happy to hear it," Habe says.

"Why don't you try Cakewalk one more time?" Ed says.

"I need new strings," Habe says. "Let's go over to the music store and stop off and have a real drink, and then we can come back when we're both feeling more creative and take it from the top."

"If I go home smelling of alcohol, my assis grass," Ed says.

"We need to loosen up," Habe says, holding out a pack of Lucky's. Ed takes one. Habe has been standing in his stocking feet. He walks over to the chair and slips his feet into his shoes. "I can't help it if Cakewalk's pie-eyed over some new honey and can't be found," he says.

"I've got to make some money," Ed says.

"Well pardon me for stopping you," Habe says. "Should we go see Frankie Fountain and tell him to put us up on stage this weekend for five thousand dollars?"

"He's dead," Ed says, putting the unlit cigarette on the table. "You've got to get the new guy's name right. It's Vern. Frankie's brother-in-law."

"Since you're so well informed about the business, maybe I should let you go your way and I'll go mine. We can convene again tomorrow if you feel inclined to work on the material."

"Don't be like that," Ed says, sitting in Habe's chair. He picks up the cigarette and taps it on the table. Then he snaps it between his thumb and first finger.

"All I said was that I didn't see much point in going to find Cakewalk," Ed says. "For one thing, it's about twenty degrees outside."

"Yeah," Habe says, looking out the window. "I don't guess Cakewalk's romancing her in the park the way he was this summer."

Ed laughs. "Man that age in the park," he says.

"Helene and I still do it in risky places," Habe says.

"Yeah, well, Cheryl and I haven't done it but once since I quit my Sears job," Ed says.

"What was the one time?" Habe says.

"That's what you want to know? I tell you how bad my life is going, and you want to have a laugh about the one time Cheryl made an exception?"

Habe nods. "I want to hear about that, and I also think we ought to stop by the bar and write out two more copies of this song so everybody has one. What do you say to my standing you to one drink while you tell me one story, and then we call Cakewalk?"

"Okay," Ed says, leaning back in the chair. He pockets the kazoo. He puts Habe's cigarette pack in his breast pocket and pats it with his fingertips.

"It just about kills me that Roy Orbison's dead," Habe says.

"Three octave range and only fifty some years old," Ed says. "I can hardly think of anything else myself."

There is a tinny taste in Habe's mouth when the phone rings and wakes him up. In his dream he was on the road, heading to a big town for a gig. Ed and Cakewalk were with him, but in the dream nothing came clear about what they should call themselves. He wakes up wishing there had been a marquee in the dream.

The information he gets on the phone is terrible. On the way to work, Helene was mugged. A man threw her down and took her purse. Her nose bled all the way to the hospital, and she has a broken wrist.

Now get this: Helene doesn't want to come home. Helene's friend tells him all this very haltingly, saying that she doesn't think Helene is quite herself. That after she took a Percodan pill she fell asleep, but not before insisting that she not be driven home, because she had no home.

Hazily, he sees that there are two copies of "Baby's on Fire" on the floor. One of them is crumpled. Ed's copy must have fallen out of his pocket when he helped him home, though why it would be damaged that way is a mystery.

The friend is named Charlene, and she says she has known Helene about three weeks. She used to work at the store.

He asks for Charlene's address. She hesitates, and says that maybe it would be better if he came for Helene in the morning.

"I'm her husband," he says.

She says that she doesn't mean to cause trouble, and that she hardly knows Helene. It came as a surprise to her when Helene called from the hospital. She thinks that Helene must be in some sort of shock.

He writes Charlene's address on the crumpled copy of the song with a pencil that was on the floor, thinking that it is so rare, when little things come to you: a pencil when you need it; sudden inspiration. Probably, if he had dreamed on, the band would have a name.

Charlene lowers her voice. She says that when she told Helene's supervisor that she wouldn't be coming to work, the supervisor had wanted her to know that her child had been found.

There is an uneasy pause in the conversation.

Charlene says that when she mentioned this to Helene, Helene didn't know what she was talking about. And (long pause) what Charlene wants to know is whether they have a child, because Helene is certainly in no shape to take care of a child.

"It's the song," he says suddenly. "I called the store to say that the song I thought I'd lost had turned up."

Charlene is as quiet as an audience when a song falls flat.

"This was something about a baby," Charlene says.

"That's it exactly," he says. "My song's called 'Baby's on Fire.'"

There is a nervous little snort over the telephone.

"You've known her for three weeks," Habe says. "Did she ever say that she had a child?"

There is a very long silence.

"She never said to me until this afternoon that she had a husband," Charlene says.

A roach freezes on the table leg, its shine making it almost invisible against the dark veneer. Habe pokes his toe at it, but it gets away. Also on the floor is a business card some clown gave him in the bar—a lawyer who said he could help out if either of them ever had a personal injury claim.

He thumbs open his wallet. Empty, because he picked up the tab for drinks.

He can just hope that there is gas in the car.

That Helene was just shook up.

Because something tells him that his next song will be a shoe-in for the Top Ten. That luck is going to be with him. That the kiss he'll plant on Helene's forehead will be a perfect, added grace note.

Balancing on one leg, he slides his foot smoothly into his shoe. Then, on the second try, he slides his other foot in his other shoe.

So thank you, ladies and gentlemen, he's thinking as he starts off across the floor. Thank you, and this special song is being sent to everyone who's ever had a baby, and to everyone who's ever had a dream, whatsoever that dream may be.

Out the window, the sun is rising with the intensity of stage lights.