by Michael Cocchiarale
“I’m sorry,” I said, hand to mouth, raising my voice against the jukebox din. “Did you say, ‘whore house’?”
Mirabella, the woman to whom I was speaking, moved winter-split lips within inches of mine. “Orr House. As in, Benjamin Orr.”
“The musician?” Years before—a bookshelf of selves ago—I’d been faintly acquainted with the world of popular music. “The . . . He was in The Cars?”
As she took a long drink from her tumbler of gin, it occurred to me that I should feel sorry for Mirabella D’Amico, this tipsy slip of a woman I’d not seen since high school, when she’d flirted with invisibility, her frame shapeless beneath the voluminous concert t-shirts she wore every single day. Soon after she transferred to our school, Rick Krieger—my closest approximation of a friend—sought her out at her locker to say, “Ni hao, China Girl, you my favorite Wock and Woller!” From her knees, she looked up, smile thin as a string. Inspired, having the time of his life, Rick belted out a few lines from “Everybody Wang Chung Tonight!”—an insidious earworm that had been inching up the charts. As usual, a step or two behind, I drew textbooks to my chest, cast eyes to the floor, and kept right on going.
“Local rock star deserves a house,” Mirabella said. “Don’t you think?”
I nodded. In the awkward pause that followed, the pap from the overhead speakers swirled together with the melodies of dimly remembered performers: Blondie, The Clash, Bowie, Madness. The Cars. In my state—at my age—one had become much like the other.
“You want to go see it?”
“The Orr House? Is it open to the public?” I finished my wine. Behind the register, the pincers of the bar clock were coming together at the two. “At this time of night?”
“I’m the curator—it’s open whenever I say.”
“I don’t know. I’m . . . It’s been a long . . . Is it—?”
“Right around the corner.”
Fifteen minutes earlier, I’d been enjoying a final drink alone when Mirabella lurched against the bar, my name like a charm upon her lips. Although disturbed by the assault, I managed to blurt hers out in return. Pleased—overjoyed—she slid onto the stool beside me to calculate the number of years since we’d seen each other last. Now, with this surprising invitation, I suspected she might be looking for something more than just another patron for her strange museum. Vaguely, I was flattered. On the street, she might have been called attractive more often than not. However, I’d known for years that I was not the kind of man to leave a bar with a woman, regardless of her allure. I escaped to the bathroom to figure a plan. When I returned, excuses upon my lips—grieving a sudden loss, needing rest for an early flight out—Mirabella stood before me in a pert leather jacket, hands out for mine, eyes like a pop song that refused to release the brain.
“I have to settle—”
“You’re all paid for.”
“No, no.” I reached for my wallet. “I can’t accept—”
“It’s on me.” She dismissed my bills with a fling of fingers and weaved toward the door.
What I craved was quiet—the pristine anonymity of a well-appointed hotel room; however, I saw now that I had no choice but to do as she desired. A half hour, a few encouraging assessments—that, I vowed, would be the extent of my service for the night.
To my surprise, The Orr House was no kitschy ruse, but a sincere labor of love: there were album covers and signed concert posters; a sprawling collage of ticket stubs from Boston to Los Angeles; glossy, blown-up shots of the dimple-chinned heartthrob in every tilt and mood. I paced the room, appreciating artifacts, all the while thinking that Mirabella, although quite unusual in her obsession, was not unlike most natives of this hapless city of my birth. To counter the negativity—the burning river, the racial tension, the corrupt politics, the chronic failures of sports teams—Clevelanders clung to their few well-known stars. Anyone who’d spent formative years here was claimed: Paul Newman, Langston Hughes, Bob Hope. There was that actress too—the African American, the one who never appeared to age. As Mirabella spoke about recent acquisitions—Mr. Orr’s diamond studded earring, his department store credit card—I noticed all the tell-tale signs of the typical Cleveland booster: the nervous eyes, the apologetic tone, the quickening of speech in direct proportion to the assumed indifference of her audience. For the second time this evening, I thought I should pity her. “Why don’t we take a break,” Mirabella said, waving me into a checkerboard tiled room cramped with a vending machine, a pair of plastic tables, and a handful of folding chairs. This, I was informed, was Panorama, the Orr House’s “spectacular” snack bar. She opened a cabinet above the sink and brought down a fresh bottle of bourbon. “Nightcap?” she asked, snapping the seal.I nodded. One quick drink: What had it ever cost me to be generous in this regard? “I’ve probably had enough,” Mirabella said, although this did not stop her from pouring a stiff one for herself.“So did Mr. Orr really live here? Is this where he came of age?”She handed me a glass. “Did Ralphie live in the Christmas Story house?”I nodded, vaguely aware of the reference. The strong ones, the fortunate ones, I supposed, never had to worry about what actually happened in a given place. Selective memories, careful purchases, a healthy imagination—these were quite enough to make any house other than what it was.Drinks in hand, we went down glow-in-the-dark stairs into the basement. In front of us stood a long black-draped case resting upon a ping pong table. “It’s not what it looks like,” she said.I did not doubt her. However, that did not keep me from remembering this morning: the frigid chasm of the church, the sparsely peopled pews, the brittle priest swinging a censer over the casket. Through the cloud of smoke, I spied Father twitching in his wheelchair. “Mine,” he seemed to mumble. Or was it “Crime”? I turned away and raced the zipper of my coat up to the chin.Mirabella counted to three and whipped away the dark cloth with a magician’s flourish, revealing a glass case inside of which sparkled the body of a well-preserved guitar.“Stingray,” I said, after moments of silent appreciation.“Are you a musician?”“Me? Hardly. I just read the plaque.”Mirabella smiled into her drink. “Was this one of his?” “Of course.” She tapped the glass with a broken nail. “See the signature?”“A pretty penny, I imagine.”“Gobs. But when do you not pay through the nose for what you really really want?”Embarrassed, I shifted attention to the faintly familiar song that had begun to fill the room. It was a brooding melody, punctuated by strange laser beams of sound. Then came Mr. Orr’s voice—the cold, spare, staccato lines I’d not heard in years. In an instant, I was my seventh grade self on Rick Krieger’s unmade bed, a Cars album dangling before my eyes. On the cover was a startling figure: a redhead in a dark yet see-through suit, her eyes closed, arm flung across brow, body stretched across the sloping hood of a sports car. I’d been drawn first to the woman’s belly button, but after a few stunned moments dared to look further down, between scissoring legs, at what first appeared to be only an errant line of the sketch. “Hard yet?” Rick asked, the record dropping onto the turntable behind him like a fist into a palm. “It’s a fucking cartoon, but one look and I’m stiff as a board.”The vinyl spun. The needle drew the bouncy sounds of the first track into the air. “Hear that?” He tipped back on his chair to punch me in the thigh. “Like bedsprings? It’s the wang wang wang of people doing the nasty!”I nodded, as if this were common knowledge. Even then—young as I was—I knew Rick was bullying me into a world that would demand more than I’d ever be able to give. Later, at his front door, he stacked albums in my hands. “You don’t know this one? Here. Mary and Joseph, are you a homo? A Russian spy? Here,” he said, shoving another at my face. “And this one—all the way.”“Shall we continue?” Mirabella said.I nodded, following her to a doorway over which a glittery banner cheered: “HEY LET’S GO WITH THE UPBEAT SHOW!” “This place is my favorite,” she said with a sigh. “The innocent early years.”By the entrance of the dim, closet-sized room, Mirabella pushed a button and a surf-inspired number splashed through the speakers. I moved toward the centerpiece—a blown up black and white photograph of a group of sharply dressed musicians. These, the plate below informed me, were The Grasshoppers, the house band for The Upbeat Show, the local program I never knew existed. Immediately, my attention was drawn to the right side of the frame, where a striking young man stood in suit and tie, mouth open before the mic, immaculate white guitar high against his body, a suave comma of hair above the eyes. Benjamin Orzechowski.“His nickname was Benny Eleven Letters.”I nodded. I could appreciate the fact of words that simply could not be pronounced.“A lot of big acts appeared on this show,” Mirabella said, hand guiding my eyes toward photographs of a variety of other performers. “You see The Who there. And Stevie Wonder. The Rolling Stones . . .”I studied all of these fresh-faced boys. I admired their energy, their fire, their uncanny ability to seduce an audience. What had each endured in order to make it to this stage? What secret burdens had they carried with them into their even more famous future lives? “You know, The Cars really should be in the Rock Hall. Cheap Trick is, for God’s sake. And Joan Jett.”“Maybe someday soon.”“It would definitely mean more visitors.”“Is business poor?”“The Orr House could always use more customers,” she said, her wink less flirtatious than fatigued. Nervous, exhausted myself, I looked for a place to lay down my glass. “I really should call a cab.”“No,” she said. “Please.” Before I could say another word, I was being moved through a door into another close, dark space—this time a miniature theater with two chairs facing a bright square moon of a screen. In the near-dark, I was transported to spring of senior year, when Rick decided it was high time that my eighteen year old self enjoy the proximity of a girl or two. “You ready at last to be a man?” he asked, clapping me on the back. I nodded, and he made all the arrangements; for him, it was a real public service. What followed for me were long, damp-armed nights of anxiety—Father’s front door leer, the dreadful drive to the girl’s house, the crippled conversations, the humiliating isolation of bucket seats. In between journey and return, there were the awkward hours in dark theaters, where I had neither courage nor much desire to try for a hand or knee. Years later, during the brief, plodding courtship of my wife, there’d been dates in other dark spaces. From the beginning, she—unlike the others—has been charmed by my diffidence, by my exemplary reserve. “You’re the perfect gentleman,” became her ecstatic refrain. It was a sentiment with which her parents heartily agreed. Those days of “perfection,” however, had been gathering dust for years on my shelf of selves. For better or worse, there was only right now—this small space, this relative stranger, the flicker and flash not of a romantic comedy but of a low-key interview with the members of The Cars years after the group had disbanded. The leader, the long, gaunt songwriter whose name I failed to recall, was doing most of the talking. He wore dark sunglasses and periodically wiggled a finger in his ear. When he said he liked to hide inside his lyrics, I thought with great sadness about how all kinds of words—either by accident or intention—could elude even one’s most fervent attempts to unpack them. Eventually, the camera panned to Mr. Orr, who sported yellow-tinted sunglasses and a Cleveland Browns jersey that looked three sizes too large for him. Mirabella said, “This, of course, was when he was dying.”I nodded, even though the musician’s death was news to me. “How about I put on something else?” No, that’s okay.” “Well, I really think it’s . . . spoiling the mood.”What mood? I wondered. I had not known there’d been a mood in the way she seemed to be suggesting. I glanced in her direction and saw that her eyes had very little of the bedroom about them, unless that bedroom part meant covers and an eye mask and eight hours of undisturbed rest.“You remember Fast Times—the movie?” she asked. “Phoebe Cates climbing out of the pool in that red bikini?”I crossed my legs. “I was not that kind of boy.”“Sure you weren’t.” “Please believe me.” “Come on. Remember the song in that scene?”“I’m going to assume it was The Cars.”“‘Moving in Stereo.’ You want me to cue it up?”“No, no. I believe I’m good.”A few moments later, Mirabella slapped her lap and stood, moving behind a dark, poorly hung curtain. Left alone, I studied the doomed man in the Browns shirt until I drifted back to the evening before, sitting far from so-called family and friends at the funeral home, arms crossed before a slick slide show my aunts had lovingly created. There were Mother and Father, Brian and me. Over and over, in all manner of poses and combinations. Interspersed throughout, there were several photographs of me alone throughout the years, grinning with whatever teeth I had beside a birthday cake, on a banana bike, before a tinsel-laden Christmas tree. Taken together, the show told a cozy, wordless tale of familial love that brought nearly everyone to tears. Afterwards, I was accosted by aunts and uncles and cousins, all of whom said that we’d been such good, good boys. And they were right. Brian and I were good—respectful to elders, uncommonly unspoiled, grateful for all we’d been given, like, for example, the crisp new dollar bills Father would pin beneath the hooves of our identical piggy banks sometime while we slept. One night—I believe I was six—my brother whispered through the bamboo screen between our beds: “You do more, you get more.” I glanced at the curtain and saw Mirabella’s body moving behind it. At any moment, I expected Mr. Orr and his bandmates to be replaced by the beautiful young girl rising from the pool to the ponderous, ethereal beat of the song that had been seeping back into my brain. Instead, there was another sound—a familiar thrum, a domestic roll and ping. It was three o’clock in the morning, and Mirabella was drying her clothes. For a third time that night, I thought I would do well to pity her. When she reappeared, I cleared my throat. I swallowed. “Did I ever call you names?” She raised her brows.“You must remember. China Girl? Wock and Woller?” “I was Vietnamese,” Mirabella laughed. “Still am as a matter of fact.” “A few years after graduation, I finally figured that out.” “My mom told me I’d been on the first copter out of Saigon—you know, the one that went down and killed all those babies. Her tuck-in pep talks were all these variants of, ‘You’re a survivor!!’ Of course the years didn’t add up . . .”“Maybe—”“I know, I know. To her credit, maybe she just wanted to make me special. Unique beyond all doubt. Well, the thing is, I already was special—and beyond my wildest nightmares! The ugly Asian with the outlandishly Italian name. I tell you, it was a long childhood, a long adolescence, of one stupid double take after the other. Years of ching chong, bing bang bongs. Then we moved here, and even though I was a senior with acne and brown skin and strange, slanty eyes, I thought, okay, this is the ‘big city’ now, more or less. Maybe it’s not the end of the world. Maybe I’ve got a second chance. A clean slate. A new self. I could fit in if only I had a plan.”“And the plan was . . .?”“Pop music. Dive deep into the local stuff. Declare my love for Benjamin Orr, the blue-eyed hometown star. I was a freak, but music is the universal language . . . or so I thought.” She touched lips to her drink. “Well, you saw how that worked out. Or you would have, had you ever dared to look up from your books.” “I do apologize.”Mirabella shrugged. “Anyway, I was too late . . . for The Cars, I mean. By the time I became their number one fan, they just weren’t so popular anymore. People were moving on.” Over the ping and hum of the dryer, Mr. Orr spoke again, summing up his thoughts about his rock and roll life. “It’s been great fun,” he said, his voice soft and full of sadness. He expressed a deep pride in being a part of the group. He called his bandmates, “Great people.” Then he swallowed hard, raised his brows, and added, “About it . . . .” This was his simple, inelegant goodbye to the world.“You know,” Mirabella said after a time, “I really don’t remember you being so damn stiff.”I became short of breath. My underarms prickled.“And dour. You’re like some actor from PBS. I mean, I could totally see you standing in the doorway of an overstuffed drawing room and fingering the brim of a hat in your hands.”The dying man vanished from the screen. “Well . . . the truth is I am in mourning.”“Oh, I’m—” “It’s the reason I’ve returned.” “I’m so sorry.” She squeezed her hands between her knees. “You want to talk about it?”I was sorely tempted. From far away, often-mulled but never-muttered words began to gather, finding the ones next to which they knew they belonged. However, before I could open my mouth, the image of the closed coffin hurtled through, scattering the words in all directions. Behind came Mother, unsteady between her sisters, eyes melting out of sockets, and Father, alone in his wheelchair, mouth like the stretched neck of a shirt, right hand a gnarled scoop against his chest. A week before he died, Brian had called me from his trailer by the lake to tell me that he’d “done the math” and concluded that life was “ninety-seven percent not worth living.” In recent years—even when he remembered to take his medication—Brian had made many grim speeches to that effect. Always, and with great verve, I refused to acknowledge his melodramatic view of the world. That night, however, when he went on to say that “someone needs to make a statement,” I lost my temper. Perhaps misunderstanding his intent, I told him to be quiet. I told him not to breathe a word. “Oh, I can’t bear this anymore,” Mirabella said, standing up to turn off the interview. Immediately, the room went black. Moments later, I heard the light thump of stockinged feet. There was soft breath, a haunting creak mere inches from my crossed legs. My hands wrung the arms of the chair. “I’ve got another idea,” she said. I fully expected the worst. Instead, there was only another curious sound: the twang and plod of a bass guitar between deep, suicidal chasms of silence. Then, out of the void, the lonely voice of Mr. Orr. “This is ‘All Mixed Up.’ You know it? All the other tracks have been removed.”Stripped of instrumentation, the dead man’s voice had a purity I’d never known. By the second verse, my shelf of selves, disturbed without pause these last two days, began to tilt. I closed my eyes against the inevitable slide and crash. When her soft hand squeezed mine, I thought I wanted to die. “What are you after?” I asked. “Ha! What was I before?”Between stretches of silence, the singer’s voice returned to remind the world that he was all mixed up. “What am I supposed to do now?’”There was a sniff—a hint of tears. “It’s okay: stay or go,” she said. “The customer’s always right.”At that moment, the dryer sounded. My hand was released, but it proved too late. All of these former versions of me slid down the length of that shelf, dropping one after the other into my already crowded head and heart. As Mr. Orr laid bare his soul again, I wondered how many of these selves I’d have to sift through to find the one that might have a clue about how to be touched.