The Dialtones by Robert Boucheron

     A report card for David Gooch from Hapsburg Elementary School bore this handwritten comment by Mrs. Lang:

David is happy, intelligent and well-developed for a boy his age. He reads at or above grade level. He refuses to apply himself, however, in subjects he dislikes, such as spelling and arithmetic. Occasionally, he disrupts the class.

     What a harried teacher saw as disruption, her students saw as live theater. A born entertainer, David made up songs and skits which he acted out during a lull in the school routine. He also liked to draw people. Some all-too-recognizable caricatures offended humorless teachers and school administrators.

     In response to criticism of her son, Winifred Gooch was quick to defend him on the grounds of a difficult early childhood.

     “David was seven years old when his father Arnold was struck down by a freak accident involving a golf cart. This loss, which I share, may have reinforced a tendency to dote. But I ask you: under the circumstances, what mother could resist?”

     Observers said that the boy was spoiled. A lively, talkative cherub who enjoyed perfect health, he grew into a handsome young man, careless of his appearance. Coasting through high school, he picked up more knowledge through casual reading than some did in class.

     His sister Jane struck everyone as a sensible girl who worked hard and did not call attention to herself. Two years younger, by the time she entered high school she was a serious student, the best in her class. She was attractive enough, but she was not about to pull punches when it came to academic achievement. That was her ticket to the future. But brains, like an invisible shield, repelled boys. Jane had a best friend, Emily, the daughter of a bank president, and she was courteous to adults. Her only fault was that she adored her wayward brother.

     Winifred struggled to raise her brood, as she called them, with generous advice a brother-in-law and limited financial help. A life insurance policy paid a small pension. Ladylike, she did not ask for more. When the children were older, she took a job as secretary at the architectural firm of Banister and Picket. The wage was low, but the crotchets of old Mr. Banister provided inexhaustible material for grumbling.

     David graduated under the proud gaze of his mother. His grade average meant that college or university was possible. He could attend a Virginia state school, with its low tuition for residents. He could apply for a scholarship and work part-time. As for scholastic work, he would have to buckle down.

     Winifred left none of this to chance. Accepted at a campus some hours away, David enrolled, signed up for courses, got a job in the cafeteria, and bought the appropriate textbooks. Then, away from home for the first time, he tasted freedom. Temptation lay in the young man’s way, and he followed it with zest. By mid-semester, feeling a twinge of guilt, he tried to study, but he was too far behind to catch up. He went through the motions of writing papers and taking exams. The faculty who read them scratched their heads in bewilderment.

     Without waiting for the result, David crammed his belongings into a used car and drove back to Hapsburg. He wore a prodigal grin as Jane watched him arrive.

     “Down in flames?” she asked.

     “Crash and burn, with no survivors.”

     Thrilled to have her brother back, she helped him carry clothes, sketchbooks and a guitar to his old bedroom before their mother got home.

     Winifred did not have the heart to throw David out, as Uncle Irwin said he deserved. She did insist that he find a job. The same uncle steered him to a place in the Hapsburg Iron Works, generally known as the foundry, where Irwin Gooch toiled in accounting. As unskilled labor, David lifted heavy boxes, swept floors, took out garbage, cleaned toilets, and sorted through scrap metal. The routine was irksome. He amused his coworkers with impressions, including one of the president of the company, and got himself fired.

     David felt that he had scored against the bosses and had no qualms about the future. No longer on speaking terms with Irwin, Winifred turned to Jane.

     “I’m at my wit’s end.”

     “Paying bills again?”

     “That brother of yours! All the common sense in the family went to you.”

     “Relax, Mom. Leave him alone for a while.”

     “All he does is play guitar in his room and sing. He draws cartoons and scribbles poetry. He listens to something on headphones.”

     “You left out the cigarettes.”

     “I hope that’s all he smokes.”

     Jane knew better but let this remark pass.

     “Can you talk some sense into him?”

     “Take a deep breath. You pushed a prodded and did what you thought was right. What happened is not your fault. College is not for everyone, and it wasn’t for David, not at this time in his life. The foundry job seemed like a good idea, too. It didn’t work out.”

     “I hate that expression. Go on.”

     “You may not realize it, but David is an adult.”

     Winifred’s brows shot up.

     “Let me rephrase that. He’s trying to become an adult. Let him work it out.”

     Winifred winced.

     “Oops. You know what I mean.”

     “David can’t stay in his room forever. He has to earn a living, get on in life, meet people, all of that.”

     “David has no trouble meeting people, you have to admit. And he’ll get on just fine. We don’t know what shape his life will take, and neither does he. If you can’t afford to let him stay here, be honest. You have a life, too.”

     “I do?”

     “In theory. Sooner or later, he’ll leave the nest. For that matter, so will I.”

     “Oh!” Winifred stopped to consider this idea. “What will I do then?”

     “It’s up to you, Mom.” Jane was about to add “work it out” but caught herself in time.

     Winifred shook her head doubtfully.

     “This mother-daughter chat is fun,” Jane said. “We should do it again.”

*

     Lionel Small was the proprietor of the Catharsis Café. A short, energetic man of color, he had bought the moribund Rialto Lounge on Main Street and transformed the interior. Gone were the fishing nets hung from the ceiling, the candles stuck in wine bottles, and the antediluvian juke box. The pressed tin ceiling was painted black, classic film posters decorated the walls, and a tiny stage encouraged live performance. Tuesday was comedy night, Wednesday was country music, Thursday was rock, and jazz ruled the weekend. Monday was dark. 

     With a bar and a basic menu of snacks and sandwiches, the place won a reputation as the place to be among those who wanted to be somewhere. Always on hand like a master of ceremonies, Lionel dressed for success. He greeted each customer like a long-lost friend—every man was his buddy, and every woman was a special lady. He let it be known that he came from the big city, where he did interesting things including theater. What role he played was left to the imagination, but he picked up the vocabulary. “Café” conveyed the image of a swank nightclub. “Catharsis” suggested the experience one might have there.

     David passed much of the time outside his room at the Catharsis Café. There he could talk to anyone—people with years of experience, people his own age, men and women, successes and failures. Underage, he did not drink. The atmosphere alone was intoxicating.

     When a vacancy developed in the wait staff, Lionel easily persuaded David to wear a white dress shirt and black bow tie. He had no trouble remembering orders, he was courteous and prompt, and he gladly worked late and irregular hours as business demanded. Without a resume, without networking, and without even looking, David found a job that suited him.

     Winifred was deeply ashamed, first that her darling was a waiter, and second that his boss was black. Unable to admit that her attitude was racist, she found other reasons.

     “Lionel Small is shifty-eyed. He talks too fast, and he wears shiny suits. No one knows where he came from.”

     “Mr. Small is a businessman,” Jane said. “You don’t have to like someone to do business with them. Have you ever met him?”

     “No, not to talk to.”

     “Let’s go to see the place, check it out.”

     “Some time, maybe.”

     “You could go incognito—dark glasses, head scarf, ratty old sweater. Like Jackie Onassis.”

     “Not like her. But some time.”

     In no time, David revealed his gift as an entertainer. He sang and clowned between sets and before the regular program got underway. His humor was innocuous. His tenor voice quavered in a way that sounded authentic. Patrons listened politely and laughed without knowing why. The fresh material caught them off guard—no one expected spontaneity in Hapsburg.

     One night, a man at the bar asked for a telephone. He dialed, listened intently for a minute, then slammed the handset down in disgust. David happened to be standing next to the man, holding a round tray. With his free hand, he picked up the phone. To the tune of “The Shadow of Your Smile,” he sang:

          The number you have dialed no longer connects.

          Please hang up and consult your Rolodex.

     David gave the impression that he was making up the words as he went along, or that he was repeating what he heard as he pressed the handset to his ear. It was a thrilling performance. Applause was as thunderous as the early birds could make it. Lionel took notice, and a career was launched.

     “Can you put together an act?” Lionel asked. “Bring your guitar and ten minutes of material. You’ll be the warm-up.”

     David’s songs and patter were well received, and word got around. To give the act more weight, Lionel asked a couple of musicians who were regulars at the cafe to play along. Slim Oliphaunt, a pale, skinny boy, played banjo and sang baritone. Gabby Wilson, a mean-looking black man who seldom said anything, played saxophone. The three hit it off. Lionel booked them on a weeknight, and the audience was appreciative.

     “The Number You Have Dialed,” arranged for the group, became their first hit. David followed it up with other telephone-related songs, such as “So Glad You Called,” “Alone with My Cell,” and their next hit, “Please Hold.” As yet, the group had no name. Lionel wanted to call them Dave and the Dialtones. David felt that their appeal was greater as an ensemble. They agreed on the Dialtones.

     Lionel started to pay them as a house band. He booked them in a regular Friday slot. David continued to work as a waiter, and the other two musicians kept their day jobs. The gig was promising, but as Gabby said, “Can’t eat no promise.”

     A band without a drummer was unthinkable. But for a band as unusual as the Dialtones, not just any drummer would do. Lionel put out feelers. A young Chinese with a savage manner surfaced, a demon on drums who went by the single name of Wu. Eyes closed, black hair tossing wildly, Wu improvised with brilliance, then dropped into synch with Gabby, Slim and David. When Lionel heard them jam in the empty café, he turned inside out with glee.

     “Paydirt! These boys are going to be paydirt in the right hands. Namely mine.”

     Always on the lookout for upbeat stories, the local newspaper jumped at Lionel’s suggestion of a weekend arts feature on the Dialtones. The Vindicator sent its sole reporter-photographer to the cafe one afternoon. Jimmy Lense was a recent graduate of journalism school, eager for new stories and apt to repeat whatever people told him. David provided terrific copy. The group photograph, with a Mickey Mouse telephone in the foreground, was as slick as an album cover. The article burbled:

It would be hard to imagine a more diverse foursome. But when they play, it sounds like they all grew up together on the same block. Dave Gooch plays lead guitar and sings his own songs as well as modern favorites in a reedy tenor. The talented nineteen-year old is also an artist and a side-splitting comic. Slim Oliphaunt plays old-time banjo and sings harmony. These two white boys are joined by Gabby Wilson on sax, a big black man with a jazzy, big-band style. Chinese drummer Wu rounds out the group, with riffs seldom heard in this hemisphere.

     The spread in the Vindicator resulted in calls to do charity events and benefit concerts. The group could ill afford the expense of travel. Lionel urged them to take advantage of the exposure, and he helped with small amounts of cash. He got in touch with club owners in nearby towns to arrange paying gigs. That spring, the Dialtones played up and down the Shenandoah Valley, with forays to Lynchburg and Charlottesville.

     On college campuses, they acquired a cult following. To students, David seemed to be one of them, and indeed he was the same age. His lyrics appealed to their sense of irreverent wit, as something they might have written in their spare time. The left hand held to the ear, with thumb and pinky extended, became the in-sign for the Tones. Pirated recordings from their concerts circulated. It was essential to bring a cell phone, the more antiquated the better.

     Telephone paraphernalia appeared as a sight gag onstage. In the course of a performance, Gabby or Wu would pretend to receive a call, flourishing a handset with an absurdly long and tangled cord. David used touchtone sounds in one song, along with a busy signal, electronic beeps and computerized voices.

     The Virginia Telephone Company got wind of the band’s antics. Executives and their lawyers disapproved. A letter reached Hapsburg, care of the Catharsis Café, urging them to cease and desist. Lionel drove to Richmond, where he sweet-talked the marketing people in their sleek, glass tower overlooking the James River. He emerged with an offer to sponsor a statewide tour.

     “I made it clear,” he later said to the group, “you are in no way selling the rights to your songs, your name, or the concept.”

     “Concept?” David asked. Slim stopped fussing with a guitar string, Wu opened his eyes wide in astonishment, and Gabby sat up.

     “You know, the phone thing. Plus this whole multicultural show you got going.”

     “So that’s what we got,” Gabby said. “And I thought it was juice.”

     “I signed you up for a tour this summer, towns big and small, playing in memorial halls and high school auditoriums. Eight weeks, all expenses. And a modest stipend.”

     “Say what?” Gabby was skeptical.

     “He means a paycheck,” David said. “Can you get away from your regular job that long?”

     “Maybe.” He turned to the others. “What about you two? Oliphaunt? Wu?”

     “Long as we stay in Virginia, I’m good,” Slim said.

     Wu nodded agreement, and the tour was on.

*

     David moved out of his mother’s house to an apartment. He shared the rent with Wu. Winifred was torn by this development. On one hand, she was relieved by David’s success, however little she understood it. On the other hand, she had to release her son to the cold, cruel world. How would he survive without her? 

     She need not have worried. Food ran chronically short at the apartment, as did heat and hot water. In any case, it was only a brisk, ten-minute walk away. David popped in continually, as did Wu and the other band members. They adopted Winifred as a den mother.

     “I haven’t lost a son,” she said. “I’ve gained an entourage.”

     Jane continued to do well in school. She stuck to her goal of attending an Ivy League college, or maybe a school like Williams or Swarthmore. She would need a scholarship, but with her grades she was in a good position to win one. She sang in the school chorus, played clarinet, and joined the debate club, where she competed well against nerdy boys who wore white socks. She thought of becoming a socially responsible lawyer.

     Meanwhile, Jane was her brother’s biggest fan. She pasted press clippings in a scrapbook. She went to as many concerts as she could, hitching rides with friends who might be less passionately loyal but who owned cars. In her senior year, with studies, extracurricular activities and the band, she had no time for a social life.

     David teased her on this point. It was September, and the Virginia Telephone tour was a recent triumph. He lounged unshaven and in need of a bath on the sofa.

     “So, who are you dating?”

     “If you must know, I’m not dating anyone at the moment.”

     “Wu is available. I think he has a crush on you.”

     “Right.” Jane rolled her eyes.

     “Come on. Don’t you think Wu has a certain something?”

     “Cute, but I’m not interested.”

     “Maybe later?”

     “Much later.”

     “Sore subject?”

     “No, just tiresome. Let’s change it.”

     David turned an imaginary page in the air.

     “What about this trip to New York?” Jane asked.

     “Mom told you?”

     “In a confused way. She got the story from Slim and Gabby. Something about an audition, a recording studio and a tape. She’s all wound up about the tape.”

     “Nice. Lionel wants us to make a recording that he can peddle. It’s called a demonstration tape or demo, and it has to be made in a sound studio for quality. You pay by the hour, and you pay big bucks. He thinks we’re ready for the big time.”

     “Do you?”

     “I don’t know. The music is fun, but it’s hard to take seriously. It happened so fast. One day, I’m a bum with no future. The next day, I’m the star of a hot new band. Some days, I’d like to go back to drawing and writing poetry, or just being a waiter.”

     “What about college?”

     “What about it?”

     “Do you want to go back?”

     “A college degree isn’t very useful in this line of work. You’re the smart one in the family. Go for it.”

     “It’s only a year away. I’ll miss you.”

     “For a week, a month tops. Then you’ll be caught up in the varsity whirl. Like a rose cheeked, dewy eyed varsity girl.” David tried to snap his fingers and missed.

     Jane made a face. “What comes after the demo?”

     “A contract, I guess. Or we disintegrate. Gabby is making noises about too much time on the road. Did you know he’s married? Slim is terrified of New York, of setting foot in it. He’s a country boy at heart. Richmond was a stretch, and New York might push him over the brink. Lionel is talking personnel changes.”

     “Is Lionel capable of dealing with New York?”

     “Good question. We’ll see when we get there. It’s funny. He thinks he’s using us, but I think we’re using him. Like we might ditch him, if the opportunity came.”

     “Whatever happens, it looks like you’re moving on.”

     “Who would have thunk? I met a lot of people in the past two years, and I learned how small this town is. I know what I want to do, now, and I can’t do it here.”

     “So away we go.” Jane remained slumped in an armchair.

     “What about Mom? A year from now, she’ll rattle around this old house. Will she clean obsessively, take in stray cats, talk back to the radio?”

     “David, she has a job.”

     “With crusty old Mr. Banister. She can’t wait to quit.”

     “So she says, but she never misses a day of work. And she might fill the aching void of your absence sooner than you imagine.”

     “Oh? This sounds interesting.”

     Jane realized that she had said too much and tried to wave it away.

     “Tell!” David caught her arm. They wrestled, and he fell off the sofa. Jane got the upper hand as they rolled on the carpet. Panting, she kneeled on his chest and pinned his arms. He was weak with laughter.

     “You know, David, you stink.”

     “Is that a moral judgment?”

     “No, you stink.” Jane wrinkled her nose.

     “The water heater at the apartment is busted. I came here to wash up.”

     “No wonder. What about Wu?”

     “He gets into cold showers. Maybe it’s a Zen thing. Does this mean you’ll go out with him?”

     Jane shook her head, as if at a hopeless case. She rose to her feet and brushed herself off. David lay on the floor. He straightened his legs and crossed his arms over his chest, like an Egyptian mummy.

     “I’m off,” Jane said, “shopping with Emily Clough.”

     Staring upward, David began to hum.

     “Toodles.”

     “Oodles.” David resumed humming.

     Jane lifted a seat cushion to search for spare change.

     “I beat you to it,” David said. “Two life savers and a peanut. I ate them.”

     Jane dropped the cushion on her brother and ran for the front door.

 

 

 

About the Author: Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His stories, essays, poems and reviews appear in Bangalore Review, Bloodstone Review, Conclave, Digital Americana, Gravel, Grey Sparrow Journal, Lowestoft Chronicle, Milo Review, NewPages, North Dakota Quarterly, Poydras Review, Sheepshead Review, Short Fiction, The Tishman Review, and other magazines.