The woman in the image was the man’s wife, George assumed. Just from how the picture was composed and the way he’d said “her.” The point is not her.
George had been married three times. He and his first wife, Jenny’s mom, had planned to inhabit the world together, a small world shaped by small-town ideas. He was nineteen and goosed up on youth, and he thought that marriage was like having a girlfriend but without having to sneak around, without having to fuck quickly in the back seat of cars or in cornfields. (They’d grown up together in southern Illinois, outside Carbondale.)
Sure, it was stupid. But that was how he’d seen things at the time. They had moved to Chicago and got an apartment, and he’d taught rudimentary math and reading to women in a Job Corps program. The women were there by court mandate. They painted their fingernails in class. They went into an uproar when he said that California was a state like any other and not a foreign country. The women were unwilling to learn. Most of them had what their social workers would label “innumeracy.” They ran circles around George, getting him to sign various forms for their court appearances and their parole officers. He quit before too long, but the truth was he took a lot from those women, in terms of how they talked. What they talked about. They bent language like glassmakers, folding and molding it to custom uses. That was when he started taking notes, writing song lyrics, with the encouragement of Jenny’s mother, who believed in him.
He wrote a bunch of songs and sold two. He went to Nashville to meet with music publishers. He got a little work, but, more important, he got an idea of what kind of person he wanted to be. George was staying in a bare-bones weekly-rate place. He went to clubs every night, caught glimpses of songwriting legends like Ray Price and Harlan Howard. It was 1974 and the director Robert Altman was in town, making the movie “Nashville.” George and some younger musicians and songwriters more or less lived off the food they stole from the craft tables of Altman’s film set. Jenny was six months old. He did not return home to her and her mother.
He saw Jenny sporadically, took her on a trip here or there, when she was old enough that she didn’t need much minding. As a teen-ager, she stopped talking to him. She didn’t give a reason. After her mother died, of cancer, she was more open to his company. Her mother had been “Mom.” He was “George.” If he had to describe the relationship, he would say it was more like two friends.
That photographer he’d picked up in eastern Arkansas had asked him to pull over every now and then, which was how George absorbed that the man had a taste for the Atlantis-like quality of certain roadside scenes, of what had been and was no longer. A closed gas station. A boarded-up snack bar. A cinder-block building with faded script: “Watermelons, red meat, yellow meat.”
“You don’t see the yellow-meat watermelons much anymore,” the photographer said. “And no one calls it meat.”
He told George that he built stereo equipment as a hobby. The photography was not a hobby, he said. George said he wrote songs as his not-hobby. They talked about music a bit, and the man started describing technical aspects of tube amplifiers, which George could not follow. When the man saw that George was lost, he backed up, changed register.
“I met this guy who did everything single,” he told George. “I mean, he had one speaker connected to his stereo. He only listened to mono records. Rode a B.S.A. Gold Star, single cylinder. Lived alone. Everything was ‘one’!”
“You might say I’m like that also,” George said. “I mean the ‘one’ part.”
“You know what Pascal said.”
“I don’t,” George replied. He never had any hangups about his education, never felt that knowledge would make him look better or that he should pretend to have more of it than he did.
“A king alone, without distractions, is a man of misery.”
“So it’s fine to be alone,” George said, summarizing what he took from this aphorism. “So long as you have your distractions.”
The man said that sounded about right.
When he’d arrived at Jenny’s place in Nashville, five years earlier, after the awkward confrontation at the woman’s apartment and sleeping in his car, he’d been a day late. He explained that he’d been delayed because of the storm. He himself never cared if people were late, even several days late. He worked with musicians. They lived on their own time. He figured Jenny was the same. He told her about the old woman in her tight pants at the bar, because it was a funny story. And about the young woman who’d kicked him out when he said he didn’t want to burn her with a cigarette, because it was a strange story. (She hadn’t kicked him out so bluntly—it was more like she’d ruined the hospitality—but he was simplifying for Jenny.)
He thought Jenny would enjoy his reports from the road. But Jenny said she didn’t want to hear about it. “I don’t need this,” she said. “It’s bullshit. I try to let you into my life. Which is something you haven’t earned. And I’m sitting here waiting for you all night while you’re apparently at some dive bar dancing with strangers.”
“I’ve done a lot worse things with strangers than dance,” George said, and smiled, hoping he could get her to lighten up. He and Jenny, they were cut from the same cloth. The two of them were ramblers and chroniclers. People who tried to condense things—complicated and painful things—into verse and chorus. Something like that. But Jenny did not laugh.
Instead, she went to the kitchen and took a hammer from a drawer. She walked outside and swung it into George’s windshield, which fractured where she’d hit it, in a large radiating web on the passenger side. She certainly knew how to use a hammer.
“That won’t even hurt you,” she said. “Because you don’t give a shit. About anything.”
He knew to stay quiet. She went back in. He followed. They sat down and she started talking. She told him that for years she’d wondered when he would decide to get to know her, but that moment had never arrived. She started talking about her childhood. Her mother had worked full time as a secretary at a wholesale farm-equipment supplier to support them. This was in Carbondale, where her mother had returned after Chicago, when Jenny was still a baby. At sixteen, Jenny got a weekend job with the local utility. She rode in a van with a crew. She was the only girl. She was already a tomboy by that point. One afternoon, the crew decided to make her into a proper girl, to show her that she was one.
When she started going into the specifics of what had happened, George discovered that he could not listen. Could not hear it. He stood up. Of course leaving wasn’t the right thing to do. But he had to.
“See? See?” she screamed after him. “I knew it. You have your stories, and I have mine. I don’t want to hear your stories, just like you don’t want to hear mine.”
He left her apartment and drove that stupid car with its partially fractured windshield all the way to Austin. That was their last interaction. Back at home, he could have taped the windshield, to be cheap, and to preserve the damage as a kind of stubborn penance, but he eventually had it replaced.
George meandered from western North Carolina into Tennessee. He picked up no more strangers after the amputee and the young hiker. He ate barbecue alone.
He thought about calling Jenny to let her know that he was coming. But if he did she might say, Don’t come.
He arrived in Nashville at 10 P.M. He knocked on the door of Jenny’s house. He heard a baby crying. He felt confused. Was this the right place? He was sure that it was. His memories of this street, the dead grass and the little walkway leading to a brick triplex, Jenny’s the only door that faced the front, and of what had happened between him and Jenny were vivid, although he had tried to forget them.
A woman answered, holding a newborn. A man stood behind her. They showed no reaction when he said Jenny’s name.
“We’ve been here three years,” they said, “and we don’t know your friend.”
George said, “It’s my daughter,” and they looked at him and he felt their judgment.
He went to a bar where people were drunk and rowdy and he remained separate and alien. He slept at a motel and the next morning drove around Nashville with a sense of vertigo. As if his daughter were lost out there. But she was not lost. She was a forty-year-old woman and she was living her life. She could be anywhere.
He went to a few studios in Music Row where people might know his daughter. No one had heard from her. Some of these people knew him, at least vaguely, knew his work as a songwriter. George began to get the feeling that Jenny had instructed them not to tell him anything.
He left Nashville. He drove along the border with Kentucky, travelling west. It was the same route he’d taken when he’d stopped in that one-bar town to shelter from the storm, but in the opposite direction. He went back to that town. Retracing his steps was a habit of his, a way to navigate his life.
This time, there was vacancy in the only motel. He paid for a room. It was late afternoon. He walked down the street to the bar and ordered a beer. As he ordered, he wanted to ask the bartender about the young woman he’d met there. He remembered her name—Merle—because it was unusual. But he hesitated, thinking the bartender might know about Merle’s tastes. She’d probably asked every guy in the bar to burn her with cigarettes. But then he went ahead.
“Does Merle still come in here?”