Broadside #36 (Fall 2014 / 14.20)
An ex-girlfriend once asked me to look after a baby. This was years ago. She never came back to take it away. So I raised it as my own. I think it was my own. I think that’s why she dropped it off with me. I never asked. It didn’t matter. I now had a child, a little boy named Richard, and I had to make do. Richard was cute. He was a happy baby. He might have been a little over dependent on his bottle, and I had a hard time ripping the pacifier from his mouth, but on the whole he was very easy, went down without a problem, slept through the night, started walking when he was supposed to, starting talking when he was supposed to, hit all his marks, never sick, just good, good, good. When he was seven he asked me where his mom was and I told him the truth. I said, Your mom abandoned you. I said, I have no idea where she went. I said, She told me she couldn’t take care of you and that she wasn’t ready to be a mother. Richard seemed to take it well. Of course, I was worried that this whole mother thing was going to manifest itself when Richard hit puberty, but again, he was a model citizen as a teenager. He got good grades, was a star on the basketball team, acted in some plays, had a girlfriend, graduated high school, and got into an accredited four-year university that offered him a very generous amount of financial assistance. I can’t remember a day during the last thirty years when I haven’t been anything less than a proud papa. I was especially proud when he graduated with a degree in Business Administration and then got a great job as a Financial Analyst with this tech company that does, um, something, with, uh, something. Then he met a beautiful young woman who worked at his company and together they bought a comfy little condo near the water. One day Richard calls me and tells me he’s asked his girlfriend to marry him. I couldn’t have been happier. Richard was doing so well moneywise that he didn’t even ask me for any help with the wedding. He planned and paid for the whole thing himself. All I had to do was show up. The wedding wasn’t a grand affair, but it was impeccably decorated. I would say there were about fifty people at the wedding, and one of them was Richard’s mom, Denise. I was sitting in the first pew when someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around and had no idea who I was looking at. The woman who had tapped my shoulder was emaciated, her complexion was sallow, and her head was wrapped in a pale peach scarf. It looked like she was dying (and she was. I mean, she did. Denise had Stage 4 cancer. She wasn’t going to subject herself to chemo, but when she found out Richard wanted her to come to the wedding she did it anyway. It extended her life by about six months. She died three weeks after the wedding). It turns out that Richard had contacted Denise during his first year of college and had been conducting a sub-rosa relationship with her because he didn’t know how I would react. After the ceremony I thought about asking Richard why he had invited his mom to the wedding, but it seemed like a silly question, so I didn’t ask. Towards the end of the night Denise sat down next to me. She asked me if I wanted to dance. I said okay. The DJ was spinning some of Richard’s soft rock favorites. We slow danced to David Gates’ “Goodbye Girl.” We didn’t say much to each other. As the song was about to end Denise took my face in her hands and thanked me for taking Richard. She said I had done a good job. I asked her if she had any regrets. She said no. She said she did enough fucking and drugging and drinking and partying for three lives. She said she wouldn’t have had it any other way.
I was watching De Palma’s Carrie with the sound off and listening to David Gates’ “Good-Bye Girl” on repeat when for some reason the two things melded with each other and I had this image of a sickly woman wearing a peach colored head scarf slow dancing with a man to the aforementioned song while my camera-eye circled around them in a counter-clockwise motion. It was a riff on the prom dance between Sissy Spacek and William Katt. I didn’t know who the woman was and I did not know who the man was, but I wanted to try and figure out who they were and how they got there. There has always been something about the music of the 1970s that has struck me as excessively melancholic. It doesn’t matter what genre of music from the era I’m listening to – hard rock, disco, pop, soul – it’s like I can hear this elegiac buzzing underneath the melody. I don’t know whether I’m just projecting my own feelings onto the music, or whether there really was something in the air in the 1970s, but I feel like it’s there. I remember being at some weddings when I was a kid and standing around and watching everyone dance to K.C. and The Sunshine Band and thinking that I couldn’t understand how they could dance to music that was so sad. So I wanted to write a sad little story, but have, as counterpoint, a tone to the story that also played into that “It’s Alright With Me” attitude that was so prevalent in the 1970s as well. I wanted the story to be mournful without being schmaltzy. I don’t know if I really succeeded, but that’s what I wanted to evoke with “Soft Rock.” I was only a child in the 1970s, but my experience of that time is that everyone was kind of sad, and kind of okay that they were sad, as if they deserved to be sad. I keep hoping for a return of that kind of self-reflection in our culture, but, I don’t know, I don’t think it’s coming back. To me the 1970s were a time of collective humility. It seems healthy in retrospect. I think we could all stand to be a little more humble. It wouldn’t hurt. However, it also wouldn’t be very American, now would it?
Chris Okum lives in Los Angeles. His work has appeared at McSweeney’s, The Olentangy Review, Metazen, Opium Magazine, The Alarmist Magazine, deComp, and others. You can find him here.