At a distance, a secondary expositor,
A being of sound, whom one does not approach
Through any exaggeration. From him, we collect.
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.
“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.”
“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.
A huge, red-faced man in a Nike sweat suit cupped his hands around his mouth and bellowed, “Jailbait on the compound! Jailbait!”
The GIs in the gym laughed, most of the doors down the hallway were flung open, and the faces of several more GIs peered out, Nately’s among them. A chant was beginning: “Jail-bait! Jail-bait! Jail-bait!”
Lucinda was overwhelmed at the immensity of her miscalculation. What had she been thinking? She felt as if the blood in her veins had suddenly begun running in the opposite direction, backing up against her heart like a tidal wave. She waved at Nately, becoming suddenly aware of her white mittens flying above her head like a surrendering flag and seeming so little-girlish. Mittens, for chrissakes.
He strode toward her, looking surprised and embarrassed.
“Hi, Nately. I just brought some more blank tapes and was wondering if you could tape some more music for me.”
“Holy shit,” he said, shaking his head. Around them the chant was giving way to whistles and a teasing refrain, “Nately’s got a girlfriend.”
“Fuck off!” Nately bellowed. “Come here, Lucinda.”
She followed him to his room, where he waved her in impatiently. He closed the door and stared at her.
“I just wanted some more music,” she said, “and I had some questions. I guess I didn’t realize what a big deal it would be. I’m sorry.”
Lucinda felt like a character in one of the Pink Panther movies, in one of those scenes where stealth gives way to farce, and people trying to accomplish some simple act of subterfuge wind up swinging from chandeliers and sailing into fountains through plate-glass windows.
Nately grinned at her. “I guess you come by it honestly,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“Your dad kind of does whatever the hell he wants, too, doesn’t he?”
It was true: Her coming to Nately’s barracks the second time was just as brazen, if not more so, as the way her father had brought her the first time. She didn’t want to be like her father in this way that had caused her so much embarrassment over the years. She resolved to be circumspect forevermore, to paint a circle around herself and never step outside it.
“You gotta get out of here,” Nately said. “Seriously. But let me see your list, since you’re here. What are your questions?”
He sat down on his bed and again slid his record crates out into the middle of the floor.
“At the beginning of the live version of ‘Rhiannon,’” said Lucinda, “Stevie Nicks says, ‘This is a story about a Welsh witch.’ What’s she talking about?”
“No idea. Next?”
“That song they’re playing out in the gym, ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’—that’s a great song!”
“It’s brilliant, but that’s not a question.”
“I can’t hear all the lyrics—what’s he saying after ‘She was the best damn woman that I ever seen’ and before ‘knockin’ me out with those American thighs’?”
“Oh,” Nately said, blushing. He began bobbing his shorn head. “Let’s see. ‘She was a fast machine, she kept her motor clean, she was the best damn woman that I ever seen. She had the sightless eyes, telling me no lies, knockin’ me out with those American thighs.’”
Although it was clear to Lucinda that the woman in the song was being compared to a car, and that there was something sexual about it, she didn’t really see the point of the comparison. “So, if she doesn’t keep her motor clean, does it slow down?”
Nately fell over sideways on the bed laughing. He grabbed his middle and shook with laughter.
“Usually not,” he said finally, “but it would be better for everyone if it did.”
Just then the door opened, and Snowden walked in. He was in uniform and stood in the doorway with his hands on his hips like a mother who has just caught her son with one leg out the window in the middle of the night.
“I know,” he began, pointing his finger at Nately, “that I am not seeing what I think I’m seeing, and that all this ruckus I’m hearing up and down the hallway is just crazy talk. I know a little white girl is not in my room. I know that I am not seeing that, because that would be flat-out insane.
“And yet,” he said, extending his arms wide to encompass Lucinda standing amid the crates of records, “a little jailbait-white-girl-officer-spawn is in my enlisted-black-man’s room. And that is how I know that my life is over. What the hell are you thinking, Eddie?”
Snowden’s reaction to her presence shocked Lucinda. She felt that she and Snowden had something of a bond from her first visit. Hadn’t they shared a moment when her father corrected Snowden’s grammar? May and can? Now he stood before her, enraged and talking to Nately, whose first name was apparently Eddie, as if she weren’t even there. Her feelings were hurt. The seriousness of her presence in the barracks was being impressed upon her a little too strenuously, she felt. Everyone was a little hysterical. She just wanted some new music.
“Yeah, yeah. I’m sorry, Jay. She’s on her way.” Nately stood up and nodded to Lucinda.
“I’ll make your tapes,” he said. “Come on, you need to go before Snowden here starts crying.”
“Crying? Crying?” Snowden reeled back as if he had been shot. “Black people’ve been lynched for less, back in that great country of ours. Now I’m serious, snowflake, you gotta go.”
“How will you get the tapes to me?” Lucinda asked Nately, as Snowden stood outside in the hall, holding the door open impatiently.
“I’ll meet you by the water tower Friday at five o’clock. Can you do that?”
“The Nazi water tower, or the new one?”
“The Nazi one.”
“OK, yeah. Five o’clock. Thanks, Nately.”
Snowden, in a parody of a white newscaster’s voice, delivered his version of the nightly update aired by the American Forces Network: “And so the white people have arranged a delightful rendezvous for Friday afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. It’s four o’clock in Central Europe. Do you know where your children are?”
"I feel like we’re spies,” Lucinda said, shivering in the rounded wooden doorway of the old half-timbered Nazi water tower, “trading dangerous information that could end the whole Cold War in one fell swoop.” They were a stone’s throw from the general’s quarters Hitler had used when he visited the training area. A broad sidewalk passed between the structures, providing a shortcut through the wooded area between the residential neighborhood where Lucinda lived and the PX/commissary compound and library.
“Be careful,” Nately said, leaning forward conspiratorially, “my bow tie is really a camera.” His pale pink skin was red from the cold, his green eyes watering. “What’s that from?” he asked.
“Oh,” Lucinda squinted in concentration. “I know those words. Hang on.” The melody began to come to her. “Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, they’ve all gone to look for America,” she sang. “Simon and Garfunkel.”
“Good call. It’s a great song. Great album, Bookends.”
“It’s not one of my favorites,” Lucinda said.
Nately smiled at her. “I was about your age when I first heard it. I found it in my big brother’s collection. I listened to it because of the cover. Those two guys, and all that gray around them. They looked like they knew something they were afraid to tell you. I didn’t much like it then, either. I didn’t really understand it, what it’s about.”
“What’s so hard to understand?” Lucinda asked, thinking she had caught a dig at her age.
Nately’s eyes were still smiling at her. “You’re just not far enough away.”
“Away from what?” She felt herself getting angry. Nately was acting like a big brother. She didn’t like it.
“Home?” She looked up at him. “We’re at the end of the world here, Nately. Don’t tell me I’m not far enough away from home to understand stupid Simon and Garfunkel.”
Nately reached out with his freckled hand to touch her shoulder. Lucinda shook it off.
“Look what you’ve got here, Lucy. You’ve got your mom, your dad, your little brother and sister. Me, I’ve got Simon and Garfunkel.”
“Oh, cry me a river.”
“I’m just saying the lyrics might mean a bit more to somebody who’s away from everything he knows, like the guy in the song. And one of these days it’ll mean more to you, too. That’s all, dear Prudence.”
“That’s your new nickname,” he said.
She loved it.
“I brought a few more blanks,” she said. “And a list.”
“You’ve got a bad habit, sister.”
The next Friday, Lucinda waited at the Nazi water tower for Nately to show up with her new tapes. Her parents thought she was at ballet class, so she’d had no trouble getting away, and in any case she didn’t have far to go—she could see her own quarters from where they stood. She knew she would have to stop bothering Nately, but she couldn’t. She didn’t even have time to listen to all the music she requested of him. She just kept asking so she could see him. She hadn’t told her father that she was meeting Nately, and she knew, somehow, that Nately hadn’t mentioned it either. She wasn’t sure why their meetings were a secret, but she knew that they exhilarated her, a secret door in the center of her life.
He was late, and she had almost decided that he had forgotten about her. Just as she was about to leave, feeling sadder than she should have for not being able to pick up her new music, he appeared over the top of a rise, trotting in a long, black leather coat that she had never seen before—a Russian overcoat—and dark shades.
“You look like KGB,” she said.
“I’ve been to Amsterdam,” he said, as if this explained his new look. “Things are happening there, Prudence. The music scene there is wired. One more year and I’m out of the Army, and that’s where I’m going. I’m going to start a band. I had a feeling about the place.”
“One more year,” Lucinda said.
A wave of excitement and longing washed over her. She would need five more years before she could think of moving to Amsterdam, or anywhere else, without her parents. She realized that in five years she could be anywhere. Nately would be a memory.
She had always envied people who stayed put, who had one constant place to tie their memories to. Her memories seemed to her entirely fabricated, because she could never return to their sources to verify them; other people, she imagined, had traces of their own lives everywhere around them, in their neighborhoods and towns. Lately she had begun to feel that she had an advantage over these people: She knew where her self stopped and her environment started, because she was so frequently torn from her environment. But, more often than not, she still envied civilians who were bound to where they lived until the place became a part of their personality. This experience of being grounded was a mystery that she wanted to experience, and she felt its absence as Nately stood before her, poised to fly, not home but to another outpost of his own choosing.
He was breathing hard from his run, his breath crystallizing and falling on the air. Lucinda concentrated on him. She could tell that their meeting was for her one of those moments that shine out from the continuum of moments, a luminous freeze-frame that would later be all she would remember of the entire month—or perhaps the entire year—that the moment belonged to. He reached into his new coat pockets and withdrew the tapes she had asked for. London Calling, Station to Station, Disraeli Gears, Exile on Main St., Darkness on the Edge of Town, Bella Donna. All there.
“Do you spend all your paycheck on music?” she asked.
“Pretty much. Here, I got you something from Amsterdam.” He pulled one more tape out of his pocket, a store-bought tape. Unbehagen, by the Nina Hagen Band.
“Uneasiness,” Lucinda translated. By sheer coincidence she had run across the word in German class that week. “Thank you, Nately. Wow. Thank you for thinking of me.”
She stared down at the cassette in her gloved hand, Nina Hagen’s theatrical face staring back at her, offering the promise of a new sound like a new room, but one she could carry with her, unaltered and unalterable. Music sounded the same wherever you were. You could be startled by the toy cop whistle at the beginning of “Highway 61 Revisited” or hear Mick Jagger’s voice become the texture of ground glass for “Ventilator Blues,” whether you were in any of the 50 states or thousands of feet above the ocean in a plane or sitting in a small room an hour from the Czech border. Music lived in time like she did.
“I’ll bet you’ve got a new list for me, haven’t you?” Nately asked.
“Depends. I don’t know if you’ll have all this,” she said, handing him her list.
“Shoot Out the Lights, how did you hear about that? But have no fear. I’ve got it. I just got it, but I’ve got it. I’m going to Amsterdam again next week, so I don’t know if I can get to everything, but I’ll try hard. Let’s meet here same time two weeks from today, and I’ll give you what I’ve got.”
She watched him trot off in his heavy coat.
“My KGB agent,” she said.
Two weeks later a heavy snow was falling, and Lucinda could hardly make out the figure standing in front of the heavy wooden door of the Nazi water tower as she approached. She felt as if years had passed since she had seen Nately, and she reviewed all her insights about Nina Hagen and Richard and Linda Thompson as she walked. She didn’t want to forget anything. She saw him pacing in front of the door and figured that he must have been freezing, so she began to run. As she drew closer, she realized that the tall, thin figure was not Nately but Snowden. He had stopped pacing and now stood with his hands deep in his front pockets, staring at her. She stopped running and waved. “Nately must have the flu that’s been going around,” she thought. Yet she was pleased to see Snowden—his presence showed that he didn’t hate her, in spite of her white-jailbait status.
“Snowden, hey! You order this weather?” She reached him and ducked under the narrow awning over the door.
“Hey, Prudence,” he said. His face was grim and tight.
“You know my nickname! What’s the matter? What’s got you out today doing Nately’s dirty work for him?”
Snowden puffed out his cheeks and said it: “Nately’s dead. Got killed in a bar fight in Amsterdam last weekend. Wasn’t his fight—he was trying to break it up and he stepped in front of somebody’s knife.”
Lucinda stared and stared at Snowden. She watched his exhaled breaths crystallize then fall. She watched him blink. “Is he … where is he?”
“Shipped home already. He’s going to be buried in Gainesville, where he’s from. I can’t believe it. I’ve already been assigned a new roommate. Every morning I open my eyes and I have to remind myself that Nately’s not the one breathing across the room.”
“No,” she said. She felt her face become a mask of ice as tears fell and froze on her cheeks.
“He had marked his calendar. I thought I ought to show up in case your dad hadn’t told you what happened. Here,” he said, handing her a plastic sack. She could tell it contained the tapes she had given Nately to record with the last time she had seen him. Snowden patted her on the shoulder. “He put so much time into making those tapes for you. You were a bright spot for him.”
He hesitated for a moment, then said, “You know, he never had any girlfriends.”
Lucinda looked up at him. “Thank you, Snowden.”
She walked home slowly, the cold seeping through her clothes and her boots. Her father hadn’t said anything. Not a word. Of course, her father didn’t know that she and Nately had seen each other more than once. “For a week,” she thought, “Nately has not been in the world, and I didn’t know it.” She reached into the bag and drew out a tape. Still blank. She reached in and pulled out two more, both blank. Then she pulled one out and saw Nately’s handwriting. Shoot Out the Lights, by Richard and Linda Thompson.
She stopped and stared at his handwriting. Black ink, because she had convinced him that his color-coded tripartite system didn’t work. She thought about his hands, the freckles on the backs of them, how they had written these words, and where they were now, his hands. She was colder than she had ever been, the cold going all the way to the center of her. She wondered that her heart didn’t stop.
As she walked past her house, she saw her mother’s shadow moving in the kitchen. She picked up her speed until she had covered the three additional blocks to her father’s office. At 5:10, the building was still bustling. She could see the light on in her father’s second-floor office.
“Hello, little Collins!”
Three NCOs who worked across the hall from her father were coming down the stairs. They separated to let her pass. She climbed the stairs and pushed open the door to her father’s office without knocking. He looked up from whatever it was he was reading, then stood up when he saw her.
“Lucy! What brings you here? I thought you had ballet.”
“Is Nately dead?”
She didn’t know why she phrased the information in the form of a question, except that part of her wouldn’t accept the news as true until she heard it from him.
“Yeah, he sure is. News travels fast on this little base. Got himself killed, the poor dumb bastard. It’s a shame. He was a good boy. That time he made all those tapes for you—that was good of him, didn’t you think?”
“That reminds me, sweetie, I keep forgetting to tell you. Yeah. When I heard he died, I went over and got these for you.”
He pointed to behind where Lucinda was standing. In the far corner of the room, under the windows, sat Nately’s crates of records, lined up against the wall.
“I didn’t try for the turntable—it looked like an expensive piece of equipment, so I thought his folks might want it. But these would have probably just been thrown away, or all the other GIs would have divided them up. I thought you should have them.”
Her father was standing beside her. She went down on her knees in front of the crates. In the first crate she saw the honey-colored photo on the front of Shoot Out the Lights, along with all the other albums she had most recently asked him to record. As she thumbed her way through the records, she realized that he had separated those he had already taped for her from all the others. He had been keeping track so he could tell, she supposed, how many he had yet to record for her, how close he was to running out of music.
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