By Ryan P. Kennedy
There were thirty-nine dates on Eugene Heartthrob’s 1992 North American tour. The band played stadiums and indoor arenas. Women wept for joy. “This is a miracle,” women said, weeping and dropping to their knees. The tour sold out in minutes.
Eugene’s assistant, Oscar Buckingham, was the designated flesh peddler, which meant he wandered the venue before each performance, handing out backstage passes to attractive attendees with whom Eugene would later get naked. An hour before the first show of the tour, Oscar found Eugene passed out backstage next to a woman and bottle of whiskey, three quarters chugged.
“Why aren’t you at sound check?” Oscar said.
“I’m doing sound check in my head.”
“How’s that working out?”
“We sound perfect.”
Fifteen years later Eugene, clad in a terrycloth bathrobe, frowned as he sat in the kitchen of his sixty-thousand-square-foot Orange County mansion. The mansion, built on a steep hillside, overlooked the city and beyond that the great blue ocean.
A chime indicated one o’clock in the afternoon.
Eugene, breezing through the daily newspaper at a seventh-grade reading level, struck his fist against the table in response to an upsetting news blurb. His bathrobe fell wide open, exposing a handsome bushel of hair on his chest.
Getting to his feet, he shambled over to the kitchen window and gazed down at the city below. Somebody below was probably jamming to one of his albums at that very moment. Eugene’s bathrobe now spread open wide. He was unapologetic about the way he displayed his body hair. His album sales gave him that right.
“Unanswered questions surround Vaughn murder-suicide,” he said to the city below. But the city did not say anything back.
Eugene knew Lesley Vaughn owned every Heartthrob album. She told him so when they met backstage on the 1992 tour. She had been hand-picked by Oscar back then, but today the news was harrowing: Single mother Lesley Vaughn, caving under the pressure of work and motherhood, smothered her fourteen-year-old son in his sleep. Then she quaffed a bottle of drain cleaner and flung herself through the glass doors of her back patio.
Eugene became so absorbed in the grim details that he failed to notice a seventeen-year-old girl stroll into the kitchen. Eugene met the girl last night. The girl, then out of her head with hormones and pharmaceuticals, had, for reasons still unknown, handed him her high school report card. She earned a seventy percent in geometry but was a complete failure at biology. Eugene, inspecting the report card as if it was an official government-issued document, thought a one-night fling with the girl might be all right. An ignorance of biology always worked in his favor.
“Do you have any pills?” she now said in the kitchen.
“You’re not lying, are you?”
“Pretty sure I’m not.”
“Well,” the girl said. “My mom had a c-section last month, and the doctor gave her some pills. They’re in my bedroom. But you have to put them up your butt and let them dissolve.”
After a long pause Eugene folded the newspaper.
“Do you want anything to eat?” he said weakly.
“What have you got?”
“Sausage from a pig I bought from the zoo. It’s delicious.”
“I’m not too hungry.”
Eugene chomped down on a sausage link, chewing with his mouth open. The food was a puffy mound on his tongue. So delicious was this pig that Eugene almost heard music in his head, almost forgot about Lesley Vaughn. Closing his eyes, he wanted to savor this moment, wanted to cram his mouth and body full of pig. This was serious stuff.
“Is it possible to get a ride home?” the girl said.
“I don’t have a driver’s license.”
“But you own about twenty cars?”
“They’re mostly for show.”
“To show who?”
“When I’m sad I like to look at them.”
“Can I have one?”
“I’ll just call you a cab.”
“Actually, I won’t. But Oscar will.”
“The best assistant I’ve ever had.”
“How old is he?”
“He sounds boring.”
Eugene took a moment by the window to gaze at the blue sky. He believed that when he dies there’s going to be an audience for him in heaven. Lesley Vaughn will be among them, as well as a lot of cute dead girls, all of them driven absolutely nuts by his musical talents. He knew his target demographic: Those young and tantalizing girls who died while partying hard. He’ll do a lot of acoustic work up there. Or maybe he’d rather not. Either way, when he gets there, he’s going to bring the roof down.
Oscar Buckingham returned to the mansion after driving the girl to her home in Newport Beach, a twenty-minute drive each way. He found Eugene, fresh out of the bathtub, making faces at himself in the bathroom mirror. The bathtub behind him was full of dirty water.
“What could you possibly have had in common with that girl?” Oscar said.
“She liked cigarettes.”
Eugene met the seventeen-year-old girl last night at a party thrown by a French film director. The party was noisy and there was a band playing on a small stage. Everybody was drinking liquor from big glasses and smoking menthol ultra-light cigarettes.
“I’m a professor,” a woman in a long dress said to Eugene.
“Where do you teach?”
“I teach at a couple city colleges here in L.A.,” she said. She sipped her drink. “I’m not really on staff anywhere. All I do is drive back and forth. My car is my office.”
“Why not settle on one school?”
“I’m meant to work with gifted children.”
“What’s that even mean?”
“I need to be around kids who can meet me intellectually. I’m teaching a class full of geniuses right now, and they love me, but it’s tough to find full-time employment when you’re this smart.”
“That must be hard on you.”
“Jesus, is it ever,” she said.
“You here by yourself?”
“I brought my niece. But she’s only seventeen.”
“What does she do?”
“Nothing. Except bore me. She’s not even in honors classes. We have nothing in common. It’s kind of a shame. Her mother and I have such great minds.”
“I should introduce myself.”
“A plebeian like her would probably enjoy that.”
“Be right back,” Eugene said.
But Eugene never came back. And after three more drinks and a marijuana cigarette the woman started speaking with a columnist for an alternative weekly newspaper. Conversation was lively. And later that night the columnist got some spermatozoon in her hair.
“I should give these to you,” Oscar said to Eugene in the bathroom, presenting him a stack of folded papers. Eugene had spaced out for a minute. It was difficult for him to believe Lesley Vaughn would suffocate her only son. He remembered her having more class than that.
“What are they?” Eugene said.
“They’re letters from children dying of cancer.”
“What do they want from me?”
“Their final wish is to see you perform.”
“People make crazy demands sometimes.”
“People look up to you.”
“Indeed,” Eugene said. “How many kids wrote?”
“Seems like everybody has cancer nowadays.”
“How do you want to handle this?”
“I’m thinking of not visiting them.”
“Okay,” Oscar said. “Then what are you thinking?”
“Bottle my dirty bath water and send it to them.”
“What do you expect them to do with it?”
“They can splash it on themselves or drink it.”
“For good luck,” Eugene said. “Little guys got cancer.”
“They certainly do,” said Oscar.
Oscar offered to dry Eugene off with a towel. As far back as Eugene can remember his body was always met with fresh linen. If Oscar were to retire tomorrow, somebody would have to teach Eugene how to use things like washing machines and ironing boards.
Oscar dropped the stack of cancer letters on the countertop and retrieved a towel. The bathroom was a nice place to be, big and bright with a flat panel television mounted in an ideal location.
“Be a friend and send a massive floral arrangement to the Vaughn family. For both the mother and the son.”
“Did you know her, sir?” Oscar said, patting him down.
“A little bit.”
“I never heard you say anything about her.”
“We kind of lost touch over the years,” Eugene said.
A piece of paper slipped from the stack of cancer letters. Eugene picked it up, studying it closely. It was a photograph of a family. Each family member wore a matching red sweater. A dog wore a red scarf around its neck. Eugene wondered which one of them was dying, if only for the fun of guessing.
“Am I a good man, Oscar?”
“One of the best.”
“Would I be a good father?”
“You would be the best.”
Eugene stared at himself in the mirror, confident he would be a better father than the young man in the photograph. He would make his children so excited to be alive that it would scare the heck out of them. A champion father! Or maybe Eugene already received enough love and admiration through his virtuosity and allure? Would raising the boy have been worth it? Either way, it was impossible for Eugene to admit to himself that he didn't understand what fatherhood meant. And until the newspaper came this morning, he didn't even care what Lesley had named it.
About Ryan P. Kennedy