"Why, of course the rock industry is highly profitable. My son, he's made so much from it and sends it to me to fund my lifestyle. He promises he'll send more one day. He's changed so much since he picked up his first guitar, my little boy..."
That is what the blond makeup-cake-faced woman says to me as I wonder how she survived the first flood of peroxide to her head. It is not healthy stuff.
Never mind. I've worn so much makeup I felt suffocated, as if under a new layer of skin, and I have no right to look into this woman's idea of beautifying herself too critically. Demurely I lean in and pretend to listen more intently to her mousey voice over the pleasant clatter that composes the bed and breakfast's living room. You never get more personal, this domestic with another in my life as you could get in a B&B off Nowheresville in the middle of Nevermind County, U.S.A.
I like to hear what this woman says because she has obviously never been to Denmark, she does not do my makeup, she does not see most of me through a camera or a television screen and I don't see her face every day. She's fresh. I'm using her, yes, maybe, but isn't that we all do when we sit down and talk to a complete stranger?
"My son, Harry, you know, he's made a lot of promises to me these last days, but none of them top the one he made, a year and a day now, that he'd make it in the music industry. He says things about how he has been sighed?"
"Either way, a company loves him, him and his friends. He tells me, he tells me-" flecks of red flush her face where the makeup has failed to cover skin as she speaks faster and faster, "he tells me someday, I'll go home and turn on my television and I'll see him and millions of girls, masses, screaming his name. That's how my son talks," she says fondly.
"Frontman?" I ask, biting into the stale-tasting eggs. Need salt. I search over the lurid tartan tablecloth spread over the hall for that precious sodium chloride to save my morning; it denies to make an appearance. They never were so condescending with salt in India, I think bitterly. Not when they had to soak so much meat with it, not when they marched in blazing heat and stayed alive because of it; nope, sodium chloride never had the injustice of being taken for granted when you were running dry. Too bad Nowheresville is the textbook example of 'temperate climate'. I iterate, "You mean, he's the front man."
She just looks at me like I've asked her when Cthulhu will rise.
"The frontman. The face of a band. He-" I pause, seeing the look on her face, this blank lack of incomprehension I never like to see, "or she- is usually the one all the girls and boys go for, because he-or she- is what everybody sees." I stifle the cough of my system rejecting the egg. I need salt with this piece of bland squish. "Well, if your son is the frontman," I continue, trying to get some more smooth rhythm going as I did before. It's never quite the same after you've been interrupted, "he's the voice and the face. He's the first thing girls see. And usually the last."
There's a silence. Polite stuff, silences, when put in the right places. "Why, and here I was thinking I was going to lecture you on the industry, young man!" the woman titters amusedly. I can tell she has not taken my words to heart, but I don't mind. Let her enjoy herself. "This rock and roll business escapes me most of the time, I admit," she says.
She's drawn in now, leaning across the table towards me with her pyjama sleeves dipping into her breakfast of hard-boiled egg and bacon. Maybe it's just that we, two strangers, have connected and broken down the glass wall that most people only just peer past, and now our roads are side-by-side like two cars on a highway heading at the same place at the same speed. Or maybe it's just me.
"But I remember days when I was twenty, young man," she now looks at me sharply, beckoning me to listen as intently as I can because apparently she has something to say. Maybe it's a parable I can share with my friend in Ukraine next time I drop by- she loves those. "I turned on my television and I would soak. Literally. I would sit back, like this-" she flattens her back to the wooden frame of the chair, stares open-mouthed, wide-eyed to the ceiling, "and sponge up everything I could gather. There was this man, back then, this- frond man-"
"Why, he was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen."
I nod, finishing the egg disconsolately and pushing away my plate. By now, the sun is sweating to ascend above the mountains and beams of its effort is warming the table, and people are drawing away to their own affairs, but we two remain. The odd couple, the makeup-and-pyjamas woman and the young skeleton who looks like he belongs anywhere else but in Nowheresville. The only thing we are missing is the poignant piano-and-strings to back up our personal indie movie.
"I absorbed the most about him. He and his band, the Nonames, why, they were the most psychedelic things I'd ever seen, and this was a day when drugs were rolling," she says 'drugs' like a hush, like if she was saying 'cocaine' she'd hesitate a second and find it vulgar and she'd think she'd alleviate the impact of the word 'heroin' by pronouncing it like 'heroine'. "This man, I must say my son will never touch him. This man was the type, who was forty when I was twenty, yet could have been twenty just the same. That was what made me soak him up- because he was strange and intriguing."
"The sort of man who is probably still twenty today," I say, nodding.
"Well, maybe," she smiles wistfully. "But he faded away. You know they all do. They just get lost in the records of those pop singers, those teenagers with bouncy voices, and you can't find them again, not in twenty, thirty years. But the last I saw of him, he still looked twenty, still beautiful."
"There are people like that," I admit. "But most of them keep their portraits in the attic."
This is a polite, humourous end to our lovely camaraderie. I will leave Nowheresville that day, packing up my bag and smiling at the woman as I pass her on my way out, a little of a wall still between us as my car speeds up and leaves her behind. In twenty years, she will be, what? Seventy-something? He'll come again for her, whether he's in Ukraine or Denmark or maybe just Nowhereseville again, and she'll press her finger to the screen, saying, "Oh, Harry, that's him! That's undeniably him!" risking messing up her makeup when she contorts her face with happiness, still in her pyjamas.
Harry will probably sigh and shake his head. Maybe he will have gotten really signed, and perhaps performed interstate, but he will know he's not television quality, and definitely not the man on the television. Even if his mother is now senile and mistakes every rocker on the television for her frontman. Or, bless him, maybe he really will make it and he'll be in a place like Chicago performing for his rabid fans and happy with his rolling life.
If so, he'll meet me. Maybe he'll even ask me what my secret is- if he recognises me. After all, his mother missed me. Maybe it just happens to people after a while- faces are distorted by your memory, even though you've told yourself you'd never let something so beautiful pass you by, even as it sneaks beneath your powdered nose and talks to you over breakfast.
But I'm going on. I'm saying, in the case that he does recognise me under my ever-fluctuating layers of concealer, does make some joke about the portrait in the attic, and then secretively lean in and ask my secret? Ask, who do I go to for that good a job on my face and what do I use to keep my skin like that when I'm not buried under stage makeup?
I guess I'll just tell him outright: It's in the salt, Harry. Say hello to your mother for me. I always do love the loyal ones.