a short story by matthew webber
I wait for him at a sidewalk café.
This is my first cover story.
He's the biggest rock star in the world, but you already know this. But you might not know this: He likes his coffee like he likes his fingernail polish. Black, of course. As black as the content of songs like "Black Tattoo," "Read, Forget, Erase," and "For Violet." Hell, as black as his entire debut album, Shattered, the number one album in the country, in case you've been living under a Bible for the past three months.
Did you know he doesn't drink coffee; he gives it the evil eye?
He's forty-eight minutes late for his cover story. I haven't slept in forty-eight hours. Under the table, my knees bounce as if they're epileptic. The cute, freckled barista asks me if I want another cup. "No thanks," I tell her, "I'm on a three-drink limit." Nobody laughs, of course. The barista, who is wearing khaki, and her willowy arms slink away. Her hips and her ponytail swish from side to side. I can't help but stare at the curves of her butt, like a lyric in one of his songs, like a body to be violated metaphorically or actually. That's something I'm going to ask him about, sullen, stirring coffe;, he who hasn't said a word, no hellos, no obscene lyrics. I'll ask him about the violence. When I do, he'll roll his eyes (I think; I can't see them behind his sunglasses), exhale smoke, and say he's "only as violent as the most peaceful member of society" - exhale - "like the woman who dreams of killing her boss but bottles up that hatred which consumes her so completely that she shrinks to the size of a prune" - exhale. I'll tell him I've memorized all his lyrics. I'll ask him what inspires him. I'll ask him why he's so great. If the interview goes well, I'll ask for the barista's number. I hum the melody to "Black Tattoo." Somehow, the sound of suicide slows my knees.
I start: "Okay, let's…" talk about your sold-out concerts your thirteen-year-old girlfriend your congressional subcommittee on your lyrical content--
He waves the questions away. Spits into his coffee.
"You'll never understand me," he'll tell me later. "What I do can't be condensed into your word count."
He stares into his coffee, the color of his fingernails.
I'm singing his lyrics in my head. I guess I don't know what they mean. Do his fans? Do you? Later, he'll tell me they're about the acceleration of time, or maybe the deceleration of space, or the way a corpse expands at the bottom of the ocean. "That one?" he'll answer me later, when I ask him what "For Violet" means. "That's easy. It's about the time I carved some girl's initials into my forearms." No matter how I ask, he won't show me.
I watch my barista, bending to pour a cup of coffee for some old guy. Her butt, in khakis, is curvy and delicious. It's the type that inspires pimply-faced, voice-cracking, Midwestern teenage boys to clumsily pluck guitar strings and slop together power chords as they sing about "rain" and "pain." And "love" from "up above." (If I knew how to write songs instead of music reviews I'd be writing her album now. If I knew how to write poetry, I wouldn't use words like "curvy" and "delicious." I know this doesn't matter, as this story's not about me. But there's nothing else to write about.) He, so goes the legend, used to be one of these boys. He used to have a love, and he used to have pain. I guess her name was "Frances," but he liked to call her "Frannie." The only thing he'll tell me is, "Don't psychoanalyze me."
Mr. Black Fingernails licks his silver spoon. His nose is bleeding into his swirling, black coffee. It's turning the color of clay. I want to ask him about Julie Newman, the allegations, the abortion, the lawsuit, my abhorrence. I want him to talk. I want him to look up at me, or at least look at that barista, or at the very least, the leastest, to take off his black sunglasses - the color of his leather pants his steel-toed boots his overcoat; the opposite of his face, which, although it is absent of its usual clownish color, is pastier than my belly. As I write this in the hospital, I want to take back my desire to prod him. But since he didn't sing to me so much as a syllable, I'm writing about the butt of the barista instead, the last girl to smile at me before the thing you might have read about happened.
I wave to her and order another coffee.
Seven minutes of my sipping and his swirling later he describes his new song. Every fourteen-year-old goth kid out there should love it. It's about a vampiric exorcist who crucifies the ghosts of werewolves. Or else it's about the love of his life, whom he tells me is some girl who keeps his heart in a vase, except she never waters it, you know, so thorns grow instead of roses. I don't know what to believe. He's either the brainiest rock star I've ever interviewed, the most mentally ill, or the most charismatic. Maybe he's all three. He talks for six minutes and I don't understand a word. Everything he does, he does like a rock star. Like, when he smokes a cigarette he inhales it like a rock star. He scratches his armpit like a messianic ape. As he thumbs a crumb out of his eye - he's a god. When He tells me He's Christ I believe Him. Jesus, his music is good!
"Ants," he says, a punchline. He never tells me the joke.
Sometimes he speaks in one-word sentences. Sometimes he speaks in books. He says his soul is black, pointing a black finger at his torn, black, gauzy-looking shirt for emphasis, then he elaborates for the length of his album. My tape recorder stops, and at some point I stop taking notes. But my knees never stop shaking.
"Love is… what?" he's saying. "What the fuck is love? Would my songs be better if either of us understood it? I understand hate, and I can see that you understand fear, so why should I sing about a concept that no one knows anything about anyway?"
I don't know if I love the barista or not. I don't know why I remember her. I don't even know her name. I don't know if it was she who called the police. I know she never visited me.
"…I'm interested in Rasputin, in Machavelli, people like that…"
The interview lasts forever, and somehow it's not long enough. I know I have to ask him about Julie Newman. I know this is my first cover story.
"…conquering death by murdering life, the sound of broken glass, in the key of E minor, the tonal qualities of blood…"
Later, on my second tape, when the counter of my tape recorder reads 883, after I pretend to go the bathroom so I can ask a guy in an olive-colored business suit if I can borrow $3 for another coffee, after he shows me his trackmarks and his own "Black Tattoo" of a dagger, after he berates the most beautiful barista in the world for wearing her hair in a ponytail (or really for wearing a burgundy scrunchie), I get to it. He's been talking about love for minutes. Then he tells her she should love the air she breathes tomorrow, because the fact that she'll wake up is a gift he's kindly giving her. He mimes strangling her with a coffee-stained strand of her hair. He spits at her pink painted toenails. I hate him.
Me: "Hey, okay, stop that. What if it happened at a show?" But this isn't what I really want to ask.
Him, dropping her hair at my feet: "What if what happened at a show? The fucking service in this place."
I try to ignore the last comment and fail miserably. My knees are like jello. "What you sing about, 'the forcing,' 'the man who walks the streets.' Your fans take it seriously. That guy in Philadelphia…"
Here, my voice sounds frantic. I know I'm losing him. He even gets furious like a rock star. His raised voice sounds like a song. I remember the barista standing there. I remember her looking like she wanted to cry. I remember her looking like she knew who he was. I remember her bending over and showing him her goods. Now, she is definitely crying.
"I'm not talking about that. That guy in Philadelphia was deranged. Fuck him if he can't separate entertainment from reality." To her: "Why don't you get the fuck out of here?" It's like he's demanding a backstage blow job.
I remember the old man and the guy in the olive-colored business suit staring at us. Am I screaming or is he?
"He was listening to a walkman. He was playing your tape." It's still not what I want to talk about. "You simulate a rape with your speaker on stage."
"That thing," he waves it away, "was an isolated incident. It happens everyday. What the fuck does that have to do with what I allegedly do at my shows?" Not to me: "Go away before I strangle you!"
Everything. Nothing. I'm asking you, so it's important. It's what the kids want to read about. It's what we know will sell. Talk about the violence; ask him about the misogyny. Ask about Julie, Julie, Julie…
"Bitch, if you're gonna stand there, can you bring me more coffee? Black? These fucking questions anger me."
The thirteen-year-old girl. I ask about the thirteen-year-old girl.
"Can you talk about the lawsuit? Can you talk about Julie Newman?"
"I simulate the end of this interview. I'm done. Bitch! More coffee!"
When I listen to the playback I want to try to harmonize. I also want to slit his throat.
"Why the British accent? Can you say more about the drugs?"
Here it comes…
Ten black fingernails rocket towards my face. The next thing I remember is the black pavement, then white bedsheets. There's nothing else on tape.
I'll never know if my barista screamed. Or if she owns his CD.
As I write this, Shattered remains at number one.
And I'm hiding under magazines.