Fall2009

Previous Table of Contents Next

New Thoughts On Old Music

Fiction

Where We Go

By Harry Parks

To Danny Francis, who had no formal expertise on the subject, the cases of missing girls were spiraling out of control. Having spent all of his twenty years within the suburbs of Des Moines, he believed the phenomena wholly unique to the Midwest, and shouldered an odd sense of responsibility for their eventual resolve.

The most recent girl to go missing was a seventh grader from Harding named Tricia Thomas. One day last fall she stayed home from school sick, and when her mom came back from work that evening, she found her daughter gone. The story had died down after a few months, but now and again resurfaced with some new development, the latest being a body found in Gray's Lake, which would take a few days to properly identify.

"You think it's actually her?" Elaina said. Elaina was Danny's girlfriend of eleven months, a petite over-achiever, a good girl with a wild streak about her. She kept one hand on the steering wheel, while squeezing a clear plastic bottle with the other.

"Probably," Danny said, trying to block the image of a water-logged body from his brain. This was the problem - he knew too much. His daytime interest in crime was coupled with an inherently fearful nighttime disposition. While fighting off images of rotted blue flesh, punctured with holes and other debris marks, he attempted to change the subject. "Where are we going?"

"It's a surprise," Elaina said, flashing a quick smile.

Danny hated surprises almost as much has he hated the passenger seat (he also detested the phrase "riding shotgun,"), where every capacity of his mind, except his ability to observe the obvious, shut down. But lacking money, choices were limited.

He played with the radio presets while looking around, and maybe it was his general obsession with rock music, combined with the approaching cornfield and a momentary forgetting of hopeful sexual encounters that made him think of Guns N' Roses. Since they released the double Use Your Illusion albums four years ago, they had been his favorite band, and, next to Elaina, pretty close to his favorite thing in the world. He couldn't wait for the new album. He guessed it would probably be back-to-basics rock like Appetite for Destruction, but he didn't care either way. He wasn't one of those idiots still trapped in the 80's. It was 1995. The way he saw it, as long as the threesome of Axl, Slash and Duff stuck together, whatever they came up with would be spectacular. Just the thought of it - the harmonious blending of the truly unique sounds those three guys made - got his heart pumping faster. His favorite Axl adjective was "mercurial"; his favorite Slash pronoun, "mad-hatter."

Danny stared at the side of Elaina's face, her puckered lips and her black hair tied in pig-tails, her t-shirt and black jeans. "You know - my parents are still gone," he said, resting his hand on her thigh, feeling the rush of blood to his own. The thought came to his head as quickly as the words, to his mouth - why shouldn't they go spend the evening at his empty house? It seemed so obvious! What surprise in the dark outside could possibly be better than the comfort of the twin bed in his childhood bedroom? Who wouldn't want-

"Maybe later," Elaina said, reaching over to pat his hand like a school teacher. "This will be better."

Danny doubted it, and felt annoyed, alongside the beginnings of a vague knot in his stomach.

They took Hubbell Avenue west past the new K-Mart (which by now was four years old), past the Indian Crossing subdivision, and the one at the border of town where that blond kid who sold Jesus bracelets lived, and kept going until the scenery receded into nothing but fields. Elaina didn't say much, but stayed focused on the drive, making a few quick turns down back roads, so that before long Danny found himself completely unaware of their location. From the corner of his eye, he watched her dedication to the route, and wondered how she had come to know these places when he didn't, how she seemed to just know so much more than he, despite their being the same age. He imagined the two of them driving around when they were forty. By then, he would be in the driver's seat with Elaina next to him, and they would probably be somewhere far away. He wondered if there would be kids in the backseat, or if they'd be like some hip couple who refused to divide their affections by more than one. Danny and Elaina. Elaina and Danny. In his mind he had already placed them alongside all his favorite twosomes.

"Do you think Axl and Slash ever think about breaking up?" he asked.

"Huh?"

"Nah, nothing."

"Maybe," she said. "Slash is a junky. And Axl is a jerk, right? So, yeah, maybe."

The words flapped around Danny's ears like bats, but he didn't meditate on them. Elaina said some crazy things and loved getting him riled up.

He fidgeted with the radio, settling for "More Human than Human". "Maybe you should put your high beams on," he suggested, squinting into the darkness.

"My what?"

"Your high beams."

"You mean my brights?"

"A lot of people call them high beams. It makes sense. You'll see, in the future everyone will probably call them that."

Elaina paused for a while, as if considering something. "I thought you were going to say, ‘You'll see into the future,'" she said. "I don't want to do that."

Twenty minutes later, they pulled up on the side of the road, their gray Cutlass facing southward. To the right was a thin line of trees running parallel to the road, and beyond them, as well as on the left side, lay wide stretches of farmland that had still to be cleared for the new season.

Elaina turned the engine off, but kept the radio running. She leaned over Danny and grabbed at the seat lever next to his door, sending him back into a full recline. Danny expected her to get on top of him, but instead she leaned back and reclined her own seat. Together, they laid there and looked out through the moon-roof at the sky.

"This is it," she said.

"It's great," he said, staring out his window at the field that went on forever.

Faces and facts came at random, in dreams or awake. The Melissa girl from Wisconsin was about five or six. She had black hair and a blue dress in the school photo. She was one of the first he could remember. The news showed dogs and an overhead shot of fresh dirt, near a clearing in the woods. Danny couldn't remember what her connection to Iowa was, other than the fact that it was all over the news for weeks. Before her there was that ten-year-old girl Jacklyn from Windsor Heights. She was the first he could remember. They found her too, just a day too late. It was always a race with time.

There was that day when the doorbell rang during dinner and Tommy Sullivan's older brother Mark asked if anyone had seen Tommy, but no one had. And for Danny, suddenly, all the TV news stories came pouring into the neighborhood. Someone's missing in our neighborhood he thought to himself, as his entire family rushed through dinner and jumped into the Chevy wagon to help with the search. Danny had stood up behind his father's seat, peering out the windows on the left side of the car, imagining helicopters overhead broadcasting the image of his front yard, his driveway, his basketball hoop to everyone who watched the news. An hour later, Tommy turned up, emerging from inside a garage, just a few houses away from his own, unaware that he had even been missing.

But Tricia was no Tommy. She was from the other side of town, with duplex houses and apartment buildings and divorced parents, and she had been gone for way too long.

"I wonder if they really found her," Elaina said, as if reading Danny's mind.

"Yeah," he said, "I was just thinking that. That would be crazy."

They both stared out in silence, allowing the word to take on more meaning than originally intended. Danny didn't mind, as in addition to a crime expert, he fancied himself a quasi philosopher-poet, and constantly sought opportunities to deepen a moment. Elaina leaned towards him, slowly repeating the word, "Crazy."

Their faces met in between, inches above the automatic gear shift. Danny closed his eyes and momentarily felt the weightiness of their conversation, lifted.

"Don't move," Elaina said, breaking off the kiss to reach into the backseat.

Afterward, Danny would wish he hadn't moved. Instead, he leaned back in his seat and turned his glance towards his own open window - out beyond the trees, into the vast blackness of the spent field.

As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, the many shades of sky slowly became visible, ranging from nothing to charcoal to navy. It was early enough that the moon's effect was negligible, and his vision came into better focus within the span of - how long was it - five, ten, twenty seconds? It couldn't have been much more. And yet, he would never know, as in his permanent memory the moment had unzipped itself, opening into a limitless black hole that sucked the life out of everything that came after (or so he preferred to imagine it).

For, just as Elaina retrieved whatever she had been looking for and slipped it into the stereo, just as Danny was about to turn his head and look at her, to smile and kiss her and inherit what was to be his joyful fate, he saw someone, a large, hunched figure, moving in the darkness, less than a hundred feet away from the car. It was only for a couple seconds - a shadow form, taller than the dried, leftover stalks, darker than its backdrop, that seemed to freeze in the scrutiny of Danny's gaze, before backing away and disappearing from view.

Danny let out a noise approximating a gasp and looked back at Elaina's face, but instead of speaking, he tried erasing the thought from his head. Had it been any other time he would have screamed Let's get out of here!, but something about the excitement on Elaina's face made it unthinkable to ruin the moment. He looked at the fingers of his left hand, which she had taken in hers, as they wilted into stiff, cold twigs.

A second later, like an emergency siren, the first notes of the Guns N' Roses song "Sweet Child O' Mine" rang from the car speakers, piercing the silence and sending an instant chill down Danny's spine. The sheer volume froze his body, and amidst his paranoia, Elaina bolted out the door. Danny watched in horror as she ran around the front of the car and over to his side, tearing open the passenger door with one hand and grabbing his goose-bumped arm with the other.

"Let's go!" she said.

"I don't want to," he began to say, but the guitar was too loud.

Elaina pulled him away from the road and managed to get him as far as the trees. He looked back at the car - with its doors open and inside lights on, and his favorite band screaming out of it. She looked back to see what he saw.

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing."

Before it became the ubiquitous radio presence, the bar staple and karaoke favorite all around the world, before its opening notes became known and recognized by all people born roughly within the decade following 1972, before it became a top ten single and secured its legacy as a timeless classic, "Sweet Child O' Mine" was simply the third song on Side B of Danny's Appetite for Destruction cassette. It was as such that he first discovered and experienced it, and since this fact made him feel it belonged to him before it belonged to most of the world, he still had an untouched place for it in his heart.

The song always made him simultaneously happy and sad. It was all contradictions, the proverbial rainbow in a storm - "Now and then when I see her face, it takes me away to that special place, and if I stare too long, I'd probably break down and cry" - and as a child listening to it, Danny had imagined his life going forward. He dreamt of a future love that would propel his life out of the suburbs, into some undefined greatness, and the sadness of leaving, of letting go of one thing to grab onto another. Outside his own reality, he never bothered thinking about what the song was about or the fact that he was living it in reverse, that Axl Rose, or whomever the I was, has fallen in love with a girl who constantly takes him back to childhood ("She's got a smile that seems to me, reminds me of childhood memories, where everything was as fresh as the bright blue sky,"... Her hair reminds me of a warm safe place, where as a child I'd hide,....").

As a kid, Danny had always found it confusing who the child actually was, but as Elaina pulled him against her body and moved with the verse, mouthing the words in his ear, she left little doubt who the she could be.

Watching Elaina dance had for years been another of Danny's favorite things. It was the thing Danny believed she had been put on earth to do. He knew it was that way with a lot of girls, but it was the way this girl danced one night on her way back from the jukebox, in a knee-length black dress, drunk on Miller Lite bottles and Jäger bombs, that made him first fall in love with her. He wasn't the only one that night, everyone in the room - the girls, the boys, the men - watched her and smiled, wondering whose girl she was, as she moved in a way that just seemed so natural, her eyes closed, oblivious to them all.

But this was different. This was ridiculous - they were in real danger. What good was dancing to a song, if the next moment you were going to be kidnapped, or dead?

For the first time the thought occurred to Danny that Guns N' Roses didn't care if he died, or if some man took Elaina away and added her to the list of missing girls. Neither Axl nor Slash, nor the rhythm guys, would ever hear about it. They would go on rocking and making great records for the rest of the world to enjoy for years and years, whether Danny and Elaina were still alive or not.

"Let's go back," he said, as the final guitar solo began, with still half the song to go.

"Why?"

"It's cold out here. And dark."

"Shut up," she said, her eyes still closed.

"I'm not kidding," he said, unable to take it anymore.

Elaina stepped backward and opened her eyes, as if finally awoken by a pestering annoyance. She fixed her gaze on Danny, and when she finally realized he wasn't going to change, she turned around and walked back. As they reached the car, the song had reached the part where the words "Where do we go now?" are repeated. Elaina turned it off.

They sat there for a few minutes, Elaina's stung eyes stretching out far into the darkness. Danny considered telling her about the shadow, but heard the words I saw someone in his head and knew it was no use. He tried reasoning with himself. Isn't it a man's job to protect? Isn't that what I'm doing? Why doesn't it feel like that now? But it didn't feel like anything except his same old self and his same old fears.

Years after she had disappeared from his life, when their time together had shrunk to nothing in proportion to the duration that followed, the mention of a missing girl on the news, or the passing sounds of the song on some radio or bar jukebox still dragged Danny back to that night. The kidnappings and disappearances had kept up - a girl or woman every few years it seemed, and for a long time he imagined that shadow to have been some drifter who waited on the outskirts of town and preyed on local females. He read the Sun articles and followed the police reports, but they always pointed at someone intimate with the missing, a stepdad or ex-boyfriend, and never considered the idea of a repeat offender, which perplexed Danny and sent his theories adrift. Sometimes he wondered if the figure might have been Tricia Thomas, whose body was never found, perhaps lost or hurt, or even just some harmless voyeur.

Other times his thoughts wandered like a low night fog, sluggish yet direct in their focus, and, aided by sleepless nights and a bitterness he had become fond of, he imagined the saboteur shadow to be that of Elaina's future husband, the man she would go on to marry a few years later, watching from afar, waiting.

Only on a rare occasion, when all other possibilities exhausted themselves, and the song's ending was followed not by another, but by silence, did he imagine the lone figure staring out at them to be his own - ten, twenty, thirty years later - an adult propelled backwards through time to his own warm, safe place. Watching her hips sway with the beat, her lips breathing the lyrics into his ear, and realizing it was he who was, and had always been, the child.

Previous Table of Contents Next