Bobby has been standing outside Quinn’s bathroom door for most of his thirty-nine years. Quinn won’t allow the skinny little twits who intern at the venues to witness her dressing room ablutions.
“Five minutes, Ma,” he warns, to which Quinn groans, before ripping a long, ruffled fart, uplifting in its initial pitch, then whining into F minor and giving way to peeing. She doesn’t seem to care anymore about hiding her noises, her odors, her idiosyncrasies from Bobby.
The dressing room is old and musty, but the lavish carvings on gilded fixtures hint that during the time before television, when theaters were something great, this one was too.
Bobby kneads his palms, stretches, and warms his fingers. He reverses his phone camera and, spying a new trespasser at his temple, he uses the long nails of his strumming hand to tweeze the offending gray before gathering the rest of his chest-length black hair and binding it with a rubber band. He filters his selfie with “Reyes” for that vintage look, posts, and waits a few seconds for his faithfuls to comment. “Hottie,” from @sylviasteinmangolf, and, “Handsome!” from @rayjay68, both ladies of a certain age—really Quinn’s fans—who treat Bobby like a mythical mash-up, half sex symbol, half grandson.
He distracts himself by scrolling an article entitled “17 Stars You May Not Know are Dead,” and he’s about to grant the founder of Jefferson Airplane a few seconds’ memorial, when Quinn calls over the flush, “Okay, Boo-Boo, I’m all set!”
The opening door wavers as she leans on the knob for leverage. Her perpetual costume—peasant skirt and blouse, love beads, mirrored gypsy shawl—only changes in size as her body morphs, making the extra hundred pounds she’s gained over four decades look Photoshopped. Quinn was once anorexic—she’s told many an audience over the years—owing to being molested at a tender age by Bobby’s great Uncle Ralby. Bobby has never met this uncle or heard of him offstage.
She clutches his arm, waddles the few paces to the lit vanity, and plunks into the makeup chair, heaving from the effort and sweating her aroma of coffee, tobacco, and nacho cheese.
Onstage she will glow and hot flash, rather than profusely perspire, be a gal who likes her food and is more to love, rather than a chain-smoker who pounds Boston crèmes for breakfast in the minivan while Bobby drives.
It takes twenty minutes to clip on Quinn’s salt-and-pepper “falls,” tease together the real hair and the faux, wrap and pin it all into the Neo-Victorian, loose-piled bun-crown that’s been Quinn’s signature hairstyle since 1968, when she went from playing Bleecker and Thompson for dimes to touring with Bob Dylan, with whom she tells every single audience (just before introducing Bobby) she carried on for a spell.
“Looks good, Boo-Boo,” she tells Bobby, and reaches up. He hands her the Aqua Net and steps back and averts his lungs as she drains the can. “Do I look like Me?” she asks through the mirror. She could gain another hundred pounds and anyone north of sixty would still take one look at that fossilized, chocolate-vanilla twist on her head and know it was Quinn, even if they no longer cared.
Ronit’s deep, velvety voice precedes her entry. “Almost show time!” Ronit is tall and blond, with a strong jaw softened by pancake makeup and bright turquoise jewelry. She’s trans, but far more feminine than Quinn. She books Quinn every summer at an Adirondack venue, this year the Abenaki in Lake Champlain. During Quinn’s introduction, she always tells the audience that when she was closeted and confused in Kansas City in 1977, she borrowed Quinn’s record from her library and took great solace in Quinn’s lyrical affirmation, “We are all of us just brothers and sisters in a world where the love’s not free / We are all of us hurting and all of us hating and all of us scared to agree / We are all of us, just all of us, wanting all of the love of you and me.”
“Ready, Sugar?” Ronit (who named herself after the heroine in Quinn’s little-known Holocaust song, “Hiding Star”) asks as she dusts a few crumbs from Quinn’s blouse.
Quinn pats Ronit’s forearm. “Look how blond you got!”
“Sun-In!” Ronit chuckles. “Can you believe that stuff’s still around?”
Ronit’s tip makes Bobby think of Daniel and the 1993 Dutchess County Fair. Daniel’s dad played bass for one of the other bands. Bobby had been too young to care which, or to ask Daniel’s last name. Daniel was smart and sarcastic, and he kept a bottle of Sun-In in the side pocket of his cargo shorts that he used here and there to spritz his brown hair. Bobby had barely been introduced before the two boys set off with their instruments to jam. They wrote half a song before hunger set in and they took advantage of the fair food via Bobby’s Velcro wallet, bursting with go-make-yourself-busy cash.
“Showtime!” Ronit says and leaves with a flourish of perfume.
Bobby’s pre-gig duties are done. He got Quinn to the venue on time, fed her the happy pills, glued her false eyelashes on straight, and flossed the Doritos out of her fucking teeth, stood by while she crapped, and made her look like “Me.” Now he chats to her about the set order and covertly releases the pinched bits of her blouse and vest from the pesky folds of her back as he ushers her down the hallway and up the few steps onto the platform stage.
Patrons (two-fifty max, though the Abenaki holds six hundred) pick at their appetizers and sip at their drinks as he arranges Quinn onto the foam cushion they bring with them everywhere. A few people notice, and pepper tentative applause. Four songs in, Quinn will mention that she stole the cushion from the Waldorf Astoria, because it keeps her mushy tushie warm and cushy, and Bobby will lend a complicit smile.
He pats away her perspiration with the batik scarf Bob Dylan actually gave Quinn for her twenty-fifth birthday. Still winded from the stairs, she motions for him to nestle the body of her guitar on her second to last belly roll, where she can reach to strum. He checks that the pick-up is snug in the sound hole, levels the mike, plugs her in.
Every audience adores Bobby’s doting on Quinn, who named him Bobby Dylan to permanently couple herself to the Nobel Laureate who fucked around with her for three months in the sixties, but did not sire Bobby, a chore left to the handsomer but far less esteemed Ira Buschevsky, who hung around to glimpse his son in the hospital nursery before ghosting, leaving nothing but his phlegmatic surname on Bobby’s birth certificate. “You have his dimples,” Quinn likes to mention when she catches Bobby digging a great song or making eyes at a pretty girl. “Boy, was he an asshole.”
Bobby’s inheritance garners the occasional mention in print:
Bobby Dylan’s masterful dimples and musical chops do little to mask the apparent loss of Quinn’s once-glorious voice.
The array of vintage instruments Quinn’s son expertly played, along with his endearing dimples, made sitting through her woeful performance last night at the Blue Rooster almost worth it.
But Bobby’s erstwhile dimples have over years elongated into curved lines, cupping the sides of his parenthetical life. Please give a warm welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the mighty Quinn (and Bobby).
But Quinn’s “Trans Fans” and the baby boomers in Tulsa and Johnson City don’t read the “Arts and Leisure” and “Goings On” sections of the Berkshire Eagle or Asheville Citizen Times. And thankfully, neither does Quinn. She doesn’t read papers, or have a cell phone, tablet, or laptop. Bobby handles all social media and bookings. When rarely she wants to call someone, Bobby dials for her and hands her the phone.
Quinn flutters her fingers across the strings, in signature style. “Totally in tune?” she asks. She always fucking asks.
“You bet,” he says kindly. “Totally in tune, Ma.”
When last year in Petaluma, he snarked, “No, Ma, I left it sounding shitty just to embarrass you,” her hazel eyes pooled with tears, and they went on twenty minutes late to accommodate her sobbing. Bobby is a true journeyman, who, not for nothing, also plays the banjo, fiddle, sitar, balalaika, and antique sarod lining the stage, all, always, totally in tune.
“Thanks, Boo-Boo,” Quinn says, intentionally too close to the mike, soliciting applause and approval from another audience delighted by the apparent mother-son bond. Bobby’s simpering smile is so contrived it literally hurts his face. He considers dumping Quinn out of her chair, ripping off his humiliating, embroidered peasant blouse, and pounding his chest to celebrate their break-up. For they are a couple, a platonic, rotting pair of has-beens.
“Is that her?”
“Shhh. She’s starting.”
“We love you, Quinn!”
“Aw, I love you, too, hon,” Quinn says a ways from the mike, acknowledging the anticipatory energy of another audience wholly dedicated to defibrillating the 1960s, but making it clear she not yet begun.
Quinn sips her tea (actually two parts bourbon), arranges her accouterments: mug, picks, capo, and the bookmarked journal she insists on reading mid-show, inspiring patrons to take solace in their lava cakes or hit the bathrooms.
Just before each performance, Bobby fanaticizes about leaving her. Getting out of dodge and letting someone else deal with wrenching Quinn from her pitiful cushion. He’d grab his vintage Martin, and the cash they stash in the lockbox for which he holds the key. He’d clean her crud and coffee rings off of the passenger seat, leave her stuff on the curb, and drive fast with the windows down, blasting his music and airing out her stink.
He almost split last winter when one of his post-performance interludes leaned toward becoming a thing. The girl was twenty-two and so alive, and his night with her helped Bobby remember himself. They planned to ditch for some cool California town where they could live a chill, unorchestrated life, but he grew frustrated when his references and in-jokes went over her head, and irritated by her gaping lack of conviction and thousand questions about Bob Dylan.
Ronit gives Quinn’s introduction.
Bobby plugs in and noodles his favorite warm-up, the rousing, fecund opening bars of “Catavina,” and sizes up the audience, searching for the lit eyes of a true fan, or at least a good face to play to.
Ronit’s group has the front table, stage right, eight older women, mostly trans, lovely and elegant. Quinn used to be lovely. She looked like Katharine Ross and sounded like Joan Baez, but that was three decades and ten thousand cigarettes ago. Now she looks and sounds like Elvira ate Stevie Nicks.
“Evening, you beautiful souls. I’m Quinn,” she says, basking in the applause until it fades. “And this is ‘Here We Go Again.’”
Bobby opens and Quinn picks up the rhythm on her acoustic, and the crowd extends the conceit of their love and expectation, reflecting the apron light in their pale faces and white hair. They know all the words to the song Quinn wrote in 1971 just after her little brother got killed in Vietnam, and they sway and sing along, “Who decided for us / Was it Uncle Sam / Fools to think a uniform / Makes a boy become a man.” Some fidget and grimace when they register that she sounds like a walrus with strep throat. Bobby pedals up his volume and harmonizes to carry her through. And miraculously, by the song’s end, the fans seem to forgive Quinn as they’ve forgiven themselves for all they’ve lost along the way, and a group spirit arises, enveloping everyone like one of Quinn’s velvety shawls. For this hour, they’ll be a family.
Bobby never claimed his “family” from Quinn’s twelve-year marital tour stop in the McMansion on Hardscrabble Road. Quinn married the man she called The Straight—the implication being that she and Bobby were The Funkies. She had his twin half-siblings when Bobby was eleven.
The Straight pushed Bobby to play football, lacrosse, basketball. Just give it a try, Bobby... Here, catch! He was too busy working when Bobby wanted to teach him Dungeons and Dragons, too busy mowing to listen to Bobby’s new song, too busy golfing when Bobby lost his virginity, got his ass kicked by a bully, failed trigonometry… So Bobby sunk beneath his radar, morphed into a teen-specter skulking between his bedroom, the school bus, the basement, the park, and back to his room, until Quinn indoctrinated him as a working musician to back her at local theaters, community events, and county fairs.
When the marriage broke, The Straight kept the house, the twins were sent to boarding school, and Quinn took Bobby back on the road.
The twins still think of Bobby as the family fuck-up, and he barely acknowledges them. They call Quinn on special occasions, send her pink bouquets on her birthday and Mother’s Day, sometimes with photo books from vacations taken without her or crayon drawings of purple butterflies and yellow suns signed in the preschool scrawl of her alien grandchildren. They dutifully mark time, but they don’t seem to understand about death, how it strikes like a toe stub, a gut punch, like lightning in the dark.
Quinn rifles through the lyrics, eventually locating the key, and Bobby plays, hang-gliding along the beautiful bits of melody. Ronit wolf-whistles, and Quinn giggles, making the crowd share a laugh with that weird magic that compels people to be amused whenever a performer breaks, even if nothing’s funny. After the song, Quinn tells the story about finding a place to poop at Woodstock.
They play two more.
Quinn tells another story about her wardrobe malfunction on Regis and Kathie Lee. The crowd varies in its amusement depending on who is paying attention. No one attracts his eye tonight. It’s a phone-in.
Bobby played in a movie once, a biopic about world-famous classical guitarist Abel Carlevaro. And while Quinn and The Straight carried on their divorce and fought over the twins, he spent a summer as a roadie on the Breathless tour with Kenny G, mostly tuning the instruments. One night, in Dubai, they met and jammed with Prince, who leaned over at some point during the session and told Bobby he was gifted.
During those years, Bobby wrote hundreds of songs, mostly scrawled on napkins and in spiral notebooks. He keeps them all in a storage bin in the back of the van. Occasionally, after one too many with the stage crew or a fan after the show, he pulls out a notebook and plays a few. Most suck. Some are fantastic.
He self-produced an album in ’04 with a loan he took from a reluctant Quinn, his ten best songs, mixed and remixed until each note moved him closer to his real self. He tried to market it through a producer at Quinn’s old studio and his well-tended MySpace page, and it garnered scant but rave reviews. Quinn postured pride, but wouldn’t plug him in her shows, and gave him the same allotted five-minute solo he gets now, when she rests with her “tea.” And so his big debut yawned into a culture fraught with Napster and 9-11, and when he ran out of cash, his future got foreclosed, along with the condo he’d bought with an earlier loan from Quinn.
“You still owe me three hundred grand, Boo-Boo,” she likes to remind him, usually when he is perusing opportunities in the trades.
“Folks, I’m gonna take a little rest now and turn you over to my oldest son, a fine musician, with a finer name,” she says, and then tells her Dylan story. Bobby imagines lacing her mug with arsenic, little bit each show for an undetectable decline… “My son, Bobby Dylan!” she repeats, staking her claim, reminding the crowd that Bobby is another of her stories, an extension of her, and his solo is anything but.
Bobby accepts the polite and predicable round of applause from the mothers and fathers of adult children who laud how Quinn supports her son, and how he seems to love her. Quinn likes for him to cover her B-side “Peace Pipe Blues,” which she wrote after Dylan dumped her, Bobby’s classical take, but not too flowery.
Relieved to be standing, he searches the crowd once more, and coming up empty, he pictures Daniel standing in back, and starts to play the opening arpeggio of a different song, an existential rebellion, sweeping away the dust bunnies in the apron lights, before The Straight and the twins painted him a misfit, before the private eye found his father living in Boulder with a new wife and kids and not returning Bobby’s calls, back to his day with Daniel at the fair.
He is fourteen again, and making heart-music in a drafty wing of a temporary stage, his musical future a lit marquis way in his unformed future. Daniel walks up in camouflage shorts and an Alice in Chains T-shirt, bass guitar on his back. They play for hours, tiring themselves crafting the beginning of this very song. They gorge on corndogs, funnel cakes, and Daniel’s favorite cheese fries, swish their Chuck Taylors and Doc Martins high over the shed roofs and grounds as they whirl through the violet sky on giant swings. They toss rings onto milk bottles, squirt water into clown-mouth bull’s-eyes, rejoicing when Bobby’s balloon pops and sirens blare, and Bobby wins a tiger-striped stuffed guitar he gifts to Daniel. They flirt with some girls in line for the Ferris wheel, and while they’re stuck at the top, they pass the time confiding: Bobby French-kissed two girls so far, and Daniel fingered a fifteen-year-old at sleepaway camp. Both hate their dads (but Daniel gets to tell his), both can’t wait to drive, like pot, love Zeppelin. They dare each other to go on the Fireball.
Bobby keeps playing. His calloused left hand batters the frets and he strums hard with his right, cramping as he summons every smidgeon of his talent to finish this song.
He and Daniel board the Fireball, strap into the carriage at the bottom of the ring. Bobby feels the V-bar come down and lock at his navel. The car rises. Falls. Rises higher and falls faster, rising, rising, higher and higher and falling faster still, until it reaches the top of the ring where it holds, hanging them upside down for the length of a scream.
Bobby’s guitar is burning. He picks the strings until they make sparks that scald his wrists and knuckles.
In Bobby’s periphery, Daniel’s V-bar flips open. Fast and silent, his weight tears the seatbelt and he drops, headfirst, before Bobby’s eyes can tell his brain to see. And Bobby doesn’t know what is real. He’s lightheaded from the force, people rush and shriek all around. His eyes clamp shut, his body boils, and his fingers clench white until the carriage rocks to a stop.
When he turns to look, the seat beside him is empty. The lights and sounds, the bustling, ringing, fluttering fair snuffs and narrows to white silence, a static tunnel of all attentions trained toward Daniel’s body, limp and splayed facedown in the grass, and Bobby can’t blink before the lifeless boy is overtaken by a huddle of panicked strangers. Staggering and then falling down the grated metal steps to the ground, he notices for the first time in his life how hard-packed the soil feels, how unyielding. All he can think to do is run, back to the main stage and Quinn where he has nothing to remember Daniel by but this song that he now plays to the finish, for his friend.
Bobby stops playing and the audience gives him a standing ovation, not loud enough to revive his or Daniel’s fallen lives, but far too earnest for Quinn, who signals the engineer to bring up her lights, liven her mic.
Quinn concludes with the song she co-wrote with Dylan. And while she scavenges for good notes in the wreckage of her voice, Bobby realizes he finally gets it. The music is salvation, Quinn’s only way to feed her starvation, discharge her from the hospital where she was abandoned with a newborn, reconcile a failed family, and revive her brother from his violent, jungle death. Maybe it can help Bobby forgive his father’s refusal, The Straight’s disappointment, and to let go of his anger at Quinn for using him and at himself for letting Daniel fall away.
The show is over. Bobby takes Quinn’s arm to help her bow to the applause and, deep in his gut, he feels a rising hope that he will have at least one encore.