Fiction Fiction Issue

Running Out of Music

Lucinda felt like a spy, trading dangerous information with Private Nately that could end the Cold War in one fell swoop—and she really wanted that Rolling Stones album.
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At a distance, a secondary expositor,
A being of sound, whom one does not approach
Through any exaggeration. From him, we collect.

—Wallace Stevens

Lucinda had been surrounded by men in green all her life. GIs were part of the background on military bases, but she had never thought much about them and certainly had never visited where they lived. As her father pulled his Audi into a parking space in front of the Kaison Barracks on a Saturday morning, she began to imagine for the first time what it would be like to be a GI here in Grafenwöhr, West Germany, only 30 klicks or so from the Iron Curtain at the Czech border. She knew that most of them were 18 or 19, which, now that she was 13, didn’t seem so incredibly old anymore. What, she wondered, did they do when they weren’t being told what to do?

Apparently they listened to rock and roll, same as she—or at least Private First Class Nately did.

“I’m not really supposed to bring you here, you know,” her father said, handing her the two six-packs of blank 90-minute TDK cassette tapes they had just bought at the PX. “Just follow me and keep quiet. Don’t be a smart-ass, OK? What will my troops think if they see my authority undermined by a little girl? I don’t even want to think about it.”

Lucinda grabbed the tapes. She also had, folded in her jeans, a list of albums she wanted Pfc. Nately to tape for her if he owned them. Her appetite for rock had begun to exceed the limits of her allowance, and her parents were unwilling to add further subsidies. When her father had discovered that Pfc. Nately, a clerk in his office, was a real rock aficionado with a vast record collection, he had seen an inexpensive way to satisfy his daughter’s burgeoning habit. Nately couldn’t very well say no, and so here they were on a Saturday, about to intrude upon the leisure time of one of her father’s men. Nately lived in a grim, gray building with a number, 2047C, stenciled in black on the corners. Small, uniformly spaced windows lined all four floors. In fact, the building didn’t look much different from the family quarters where Lucinda lived with her parents and her little brother and sister.

Her father had told her that Eastern Bloc architecture was horrifyingly ugly, and that everyone would have to live in its squared-off cheerless buildings if Americans didn’t fight the spread of Communism, but Lucinda couldn’t imagine anything uglier than the barracks the U.S. Army had erected here on the western side of the Iron Curtain.

When she had first arrived in Germany three years earlier, she had taken her father’s first explanation for their presence in Germany too literally, and thought that the uniformity of the architecture was what he meant by the “domino effect”—the windows, she pointed out to her father, looked like dots on dominoes. She tried to imagine the buildings all falling, one against the other, tipped by some gesture from across the border, but she was unable to convince herself that this was likely.

Her father’s second explanation seemed much more plausible, covering not only why she and her family were in West Germany but also why the Cold War had developed in the first place: “It’s just a job.”

Her father strode ahead of her now, hands in the pockets of his jeans. The backs of his ears were bright red from the cold. She pressed her white earmuffs harder to her head and tried to stay behind him so that his body blocked the piercing north wind tearing across the compound.

Sitting in a metal folding chair at the front desk was a rail-thin black soldier whose identification tag read “Snowden.” He rose when Lucinda and her father walked through the doors. “Hello. Can I help you?”

Her father looked annoyed. He expected to be recognized and saluted, even out of uniform.

“I’m Major Collins,” he said, “and this is my daughter Lucinda.”

Snowden duly saluted. “Major Collins, sir. What can I do for you, sir?” he asked, peering at Lucinda.

May,” her father said, rocking back on his heels.

“Oh, God,” she thought. “Here comes the grammar cop.” Lucinda realized, from the smirk on Snowden’s face, that she must have given her father a look of unaffected scorn.

“Sir?”

“What may you do for me—that’s what you meant to say.”

“Yes, sir. What may I do for you?”

Snowden smiled at Lucinda and pulled a clipboard off the olive-drab-painted cinder-block wall in front of him, preparing to look up whatever room assignment Major Collins asked for.

“Here to see Nately.”

Snowden looked surprised.

“Oh, yes, sir. He’s here. He’s my roommate, matter of fact. He’s in 109. That’s right down the east hall, sir. Let me call him.”

“At ease. We’ll go knock on the door.”

Lucinda saw an expression of grim fear settle onto Snowden’s face.

“Um, um, sir?”

Major Collins, who had already started down the hall toward Nately’s room, turned and looked at Snowden. Lucinda knew that her presence in the barracks was against the rules, and she knew that her father intended to pull rank to get her in to see Nately’s record collection. Normally this would have made her feel ashamed and embarrassed, but the prospect of quadrupling her rock library all at once had made her willing to take advantage of her father’s inexplicable conviction that rules were for other people. Still, as she watched her father staring at Snowden, daring him to say they couldn’t go to Nately’s room, she felt that all the records in the world weren’t worth the kind of scene this might become.

“Dad,” she said, grabbing her father by the elbow, “I’m going to wait in the car. Just whatever Nately thinks would be good sounds good to me. Ask him for his favorites.”

Snowden looked relieved and jumped in to endorse her plan.

“Thank you, Miss Collins, that’s great—because I was just saying, or fixing to, that we can’t let you past this desk, you being a girl. I know it’s not fair, but those are the rules, and we’ve got to follow them. My boss, Sergeant Stinson, he won’t be happy if he finds out.”

Lucinda’s father shot her a look that told her to stay put.

“Snowden, I’m glad to see you’re upholding standards. But this is a different situation than the one that the rule about women in the men’s barracks is meant to prevent. Or does my daughter look like a cheap German whore to you?” he asked, gesturing to where Lucinda stood, growing mortified in her powder-blue parka and white earmuffs.

The look of dread was back on Snowden’s face. He held out his hands pleadingly. “No sir, of course not. That’s not what I meant.”

“I didn’t think so. I’m glad we’re in agreement. Come on, Lucy,” he said, turning his back on Snowden and striding down the hall without looking back.

Lucinda touched Snowden’s sleeve and whispered, “Sorry—I’m so sorry. We’ll be out of here fast, I promise.”

“It’s cool, just go on,” he said, snatching his arm away from her and waving her off in the direction of her father’s fast- moving form.

No one answered the first time Major Collins knocked on the door of room 109.

“He’s supposed to be here,” he said. “I told him we were coming today.”

She couldn’t tell if her father realized he’d made a scene just moments before. She didn’t think he did, but she could never be sure.

He knocked again, this time more loudly. Finally the door opened, and a tall, skinny boy with a quarter-inch of bright red hair and pale, nearly invisible eyelashes stood looking down on Lucinda and her father. He ran a large, freckled hand over his scalp and straightened his posture, becoming even taller than he had been when he was leaning against the door. “Major Collins, hi. Come on in, come on in—what’s your name?” he asked, extending a hand to Lucinda as he moved out of the way so she and her father could enter the small room.

“Lucinda,” she said, grabbing his hand. “I don’t mean to bother you. My dad said you didn’t mind, but he’s your boss, so I don’t really see how you had much choice. But you can tell me if you’re too busy to make these tapes for me, don’t worry.”

Her father reached out and palmed the top of her head.

“My daughter,” he explained to Nately, “is a smart-ass.”

Nately grinned.

“No problem,” he said. “It’s hard saving up your money for a new album, always having to pick one out of a dozen or more that you’d like.”

When Nately spoke, Lucinda could not keep her eyes off his Adam’s apple, which seemed to her awfully pronounced, probably because he was so thin. She wondered if it ever got cold. She hoped Nately owned a good scarf. As he spoke, he ran his fingers lovingly across the slick surface of his turntable/ cassette player, which took up all the space available on his small metal end table.

“A Philips,” he said, beaming. “Can’t get this model back in the States. It was almost worth joining up just to get my hands on this baby. I’ll have to find a decent voltage converter for when I take it home.”

He sat down on his bed, a metal cot covered with an Army-issue wool blanket pulled tight from corner to corner, and reached under it. Sliding out, one by one, came five wooden crates full of records.

“Have a seat,” Nately said, indicating the cot opposite his. “Welcome to my castle.” The crates filled the two feet of space between the cots so that, once Lucinda and her father sat down on Nately’s roommate’s cot, they couldn’t get up and walk around.

“I have a list here of what I’d like you to record for me, if you have these records,” she said, drawing the list out of her pocket and handing it to Nately.

“That you in the middle, son?”

Lucinda’s father was holding a picture he had taken from Nately’s dresser. Lucinda leaned toward her father and looked. The picture showed a family of five—two young parents with red, weathered skin, one girl, and two boys, one of them with long, shaggy red hair and a black leather jacket.

“That’s what I really look like,” Nately said, touching the top of his nearly bald head and pointing at the photograph. “That’s the real me. One more year of this, and I’ll be home.”

“Maybe nobody told you, son, but you weren’t drafted. Why did you join up if you didn’t want to?”

Nately looked embarrassed.

“I got in trouble in my hometown, sir, Gainesville, Florida. I had some trouble with getting in fights, and then with some illegal substances. The sheriff is my uncle, and he talked to the judge. The deal was, I go in the Army for 18 months or I go to jail. They thought the Army would make me grow up. Sense of responsibility and all that, sir.”

“Is it working?” her father asked.

“Oh, yes, sir. I’m all better.”

Much to Lucinda’s surprise, her father stood up and made to leave the room.

“You kids have fun,” he said as he walked out.

She supposed he couldn’t resist the chance to poke around the private quarters of some of his troops. He had told Lucinda that he could always tell a soldier was smoking pot if incense burners were lying around, and he could tell a soldier was gay if no porn was on the walls. Nately didn’t have any porn on his walls, although Lucinda noted a risqué poster of Wendy O. Williams in bondage gear in front of her band, the Plasmatics, and another poster of a scantily clad blonde astride a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Lucinda knew that Wendy O. Williams was a singer whom a music aficionado like Nately would know about, and she imagined that Nately probably just liked Harleys.

Nately unfolded Lucinda’s list and began reading it. He made disapproving sounds and a few approving ones as he read down the list.

“OK, let me make a suggestion,” he said, raising his green eyes and taking in Lucinda in a teacherly way. “You’ve got some good stuff on here—Beatles, of course, Hendrix, of course, Fleetwood Mac, yeah. Blondie—good for you. That’s showing some promise. But then you’ve got some stuff that’s just wrong. You don’t really want the Eagles. No.”

“I like that song ‘Take It to the Limit,’” Lucinda said, startled that Nately would cast aspersions on her list.

“You don’t really. You just don’t know any better yet. And Journey? Foreigner? I wouldn’t let those records in the same crate with my other records. So here’s what let’s do: Let me make a list that makes sense, that puts things in context for you. I promise you, you’ll love it. You don’t even have any Zeppelin on here, for chrissakes. No Dylan! And you need to know what’s happening with punk. The classic stuff is great—it’s essential—but this is 1982, and the times they are a-changin’. Where’s the Clash, where’s Elvis Costello, where are the Sex Pistols, the Slits, Patti Smith, the Dead Kennedys, Siouxsie and the Banshees?”

Lucinda felt ashamed. “I don’t know,” she said.

“Exactly.” He pointed a finger at her excitedly and Lucinda saw something of the long-haired boy he had been six months earlier.

“Nately,” her father said, reappearing in the doorway. “Did you say ‘the Sex Pistols’?”

Nately looked abashed. “Yeah—sorry, sir. I wasn’t thinking.”

“That’s a great name,” Major Collins said. “What a name—sex and violence all rolled into one. Rock’s a great tool—you can take a sluggish, demoralized bunch of guys and get them to kick ass if you let them get all jacked up on their music.”

“Radio Free Europe,” Nately said cryptically. “Spreading the love.”

A few days later, Lucinda’s father knocked on the door of her bedroom and handed her the dozen TDKs, no longer blank. She lined them up across her dresser, sliding her ballerina jewelry box to one end and leaning the tapes against the cassette player at the other end. The Velvet Underground and Nico, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, the Doors. The Band, the Allman Brothers, Janis Joplin. David Bowie, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Roxy Music. Black Sabbath. Steely Dan. She needed a full week of afternoons after school just to hear everything once. Nately had started with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, and worked forward from there, tracing three lines of development like a genealogist tracking a population from its original ancestors. The tapes were chronological and color-coded—blue ink for Beatles descendants, red for Stones descendants, and green for Dylan’s children.

The window in Lucinda’s room had a wide ledge that she covered in pillows and sat on, staring out the window at the medieval-looking, half-timbered Nazi water tower that rose above all the other buildings on the base. Its red-tiled roof and traditional Bavarian shutters drew her eyes as she concentrated on the music.

Soon she began to have questions: How were the Velvet Underground related to today’s punk rock? What were the boundaries between rock and country, rock and blues, rock and jazz? Why did lyrics by the Police always refer to works of literature? When did Jefferson Airplane become Jefferson Starship, and why did they begin to suck immediately afterward?

She also began to doubt Nately’s tripartite approach. It seemed too simple, and it left out other threads of rock that didn’t seem to Lucinda, from her newcomer’s perspective, to fit in under any of the three big umbrellas Nately had laid out. What about Elvis? Simon and Garfunkel? Sly and the Family Stone? Where were John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, considering all the other bands—Cream, Blind Faith, the Yardbirds—that included some of the same members?

She resolved to go see Nately with a new list of records she wanted him to tape for her and another long list of questions. One evening her father knocked and came into her room. She was listening to Three Dog Night sing “Shambala.”

“Who sings this?” her father asked. When she answered, he said, “Now that’s a song.” He stood listening, arms crossed, until the end of the song, then he nodded and walked back out of the room.

Maneuvering freely in Grafenwöhr was always something of a challenge for Lucinda, whose parents constantly warned her never to walk anywhere alone. The actual base was tiny, with a permanent population of 400, and only about a dozen kids near her age, but with a fluctuating GI population of around 100,000 troops. The area around the base, however, was the largest training area in Europe, and a huge percentage of troops from all NATO nations came through on six-week training exercises. A 13-year-old American girl stuck out. Lucinda felt acutely the restrictions on her freedom, and resented the increasing amount of lying she had to do to get around her parents’ groundless fears. Fortunately in the winter months, night fell at three in the afternoon, about the time Lucinda got home from school after a 45-minute bus ride from another base, Vilseck. One dark Tuesday afternoon, having told her mother she would be studying with a friend, she lit out for Nately’s barracks as soon as she stepped off the bus. She reached the familiar gray exterior after a brisk 10-minute walk through biting cold and realized that she couldn’t go through the front door. Whoever was on duty would turn her away immediately. So she circled the building until she found a side door that opened onto the east hall, near Nately’s room. It was locked. She knocked.

A short, muscular Chicano guy in gym shorts and a gray Army T-shirt opened the door.

“What the fuck?” he said, drawing back in amazement. “We don’t want no Girl Scout cookies, chica,” he said and began to close the door.

“No, wait.” Lucinda held out a hand to keep the door open. “I just need to drop something off for Nately. I’m Major Collins’s daughter, and he asked me to come. Kind of an emergency. Quick errand.”

She slipped through the small space under the soldier’s arm, feeling him close the gap between himself and the door just quickly enough to pinch the back of her coat. But as she propelled herself forward, the coat came with her, and the GI, who seemed to decide immediately against the idea of laying hands on her, let her go. Lucinda found herself standing in a sort of gym area plastered with posters of naked women, where half a dozen soldiers were working out on the gym equipment stationed around the room. The windows were steamed over, and the whole room reeked of sweat. AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” was cranking full blast. They all stared at her.

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