A year or two after John Lennon was killed I started writing a novel about a group of seven interconnected people — three sets of siblings and the mother of the youngest two. The book opens with each one’s reactions to John’s murder — instant emotional characterization I was thinking at the time (cheap shot!). I never finished the book, though I return to it from time to time. As a tribute to John on his 70th birthday, here’s the first chapter.
All The Lonely People
Loretta sat in front of the TV, immobilized. Her churning gut cried out for something stronger than the bourbon she’d been drinking: she wanted to poke needles of sweet soothing syrup into her veins. From time to time she wiped the tears from beneath her eyes.
Naturally, every station had pre-empted its regular schedule of late-night talk shows. Talking heads were outdoing each other with emotion and verbiage: it was the hottest story since the Iranian hostages.
Over and over flashed Yoko’s big-boned face, the huge sunglasses hiding any emotion; when she wasn’t on screen, John’s eyes peered out over the famous Granny glasses. It was a face Loretta knew as well as those in her own family. She picked up the phone to call Pasha, started dialing, imagined Pasha in a deep sleep, and her possible response: “You woke me at two a.m. for that?” she might holler. Or might not. Loretta didn’t know Pasha well enough to have a sense of how she’d react–but she was sufficiently cowed by Pasha’s unpredictable rages to not take the chance.
Still. There must have been a reason she’d thought of Pasha, even before thinking of her brother Jack, who was of course the person she called.
His number was busy. Probably talking to every musician he’d jammed with in college. Loretta felt a stab of envy: she had no college friends to call, she’d had no college. Had no friends from the 60s, the way everyone else seemed to. Had no 60s heritage, unless you counted shooting up in the swamps of Florida with a bunch of derelicts, or the halfway houses where they’d woken her in the middle of the night to scrub floors. Nothing in Loretta’s past connected her to the present — certainly not to Pasha with her faded hippie wardrobe, sprawling house bursting with plants and paintings, and her two raised-on-politics children. No, nothing connected Loretta to her past, except for that face flashing on the TV screen. That, and the music.
Jack was startled when the phone rang: it was almost two. He was sitting by the window staring blankly at a snow-covered meadow, a cigarette in one hand, the other lying across the sound hole of his guitar.
It must be Loretta. Shit. He hoped she wasn’t in some bar, drunk and in trouble again. He didn’t relish the thought of putting on his boots and jacket and rescuing her, making amends with the bartender or owner–who were, for all practical purposes, his employers, as he occasionally performed in their clubs.
On the fifth ring it occurred to him that it might be Pasha. It had been weeks since he’d seen her, longer than she normally stayed away after one of their fights.
Nah. Pasha never stayed up this late. Gotta rest up so that come morning she could buzz around her drawing table, whip out a cartoon or two before breakfast. He looked down at his idle fingers resting on his idle guitar and wondered for the zillionth time what made Pasha run.
On the ninth ring Jack faced the fact that the caller wasn’t going to quit. Slowly he rose and dragged himself across the room, tripping over a pile of sheet music on the way.
“Jack? Is that you?”
“Yeah?” The voice was vaguely familiar.
“It’s me, buddy,Ace.”
“Ace Balodino?” What had it been–12, no, 14, years?
“Yeah, it’s me. Say, Jack, haven’t you heard?”
“Oh boy. I hate to be the one to tell you, of all people. Turn on your television.”
Jack leaned forward and hit the power switch. Some old footage of John Lennon and Yoko Ono leaving a courthouse appeared.
“What’s goin’ on?” Jack asked, half to the TV, half to the phone.
“Some nut shot him,” Ace said. “He’s dead.”
“Oh Jesus.” Jack felt his body slowly sag. His belly pooched out over his belt; his shoulders slumped; his jaw dropped; the lines in his 36-year-old face turned down. This was his customary response to emotional pain; it had aged him prematurely.
“You still there? Jack? You okay?”
“Yeah. I’m okay.” Jack’s naturally somber voice became even more so. He shook a Camel out of the pack and lit it, his eyes on the TV, his ear tuned to his old college buddy.
“I can’t believe it,” said Ace. “Remember when they were our idols?”
“D’you remember the night we played only Beatles songs?”
“And Marty at the club asked us to come back the next night to do it again?”
“And we told him it was a one-shot deal, a spontaneous artistic decision that could never be repeated. God, were we that pretentious?” Ace laughed.
The TV commentator reported that Lennon’s assassin was someone named Mark David Chapman. John had been giving him an autograph.
“So who’s this Chapman guy?”
“A fan, they say.”
“Right. Ten years from now they’ll tell us it was the fucking CIA.”
“Yeah,” Ace said with little enthusiasm for Jack’s conspiracy theories. “Remember that kid who used to dress up like Ringo, what was his name, it started with a D I think?”
“Doug. Doug the Bug he called himself. Tried to join the band, even though he couldn’t play an instrument. Wanted us to call ourselves Raid, and kill Beatles.” Jack shuddered at what had once been a joke.
He lit another cigarette, poured some vodka into a glass, flipped the TV dial to another channel: the same news. All the while he and Ace kept talking, laughing, resurrecting memories. The pain of the images on the screen was in contradiction to the nostalgia of their conversation, yet the mix of emotions created an intensity Jack rarely experienced anymore; he missed it. That razor edge of feeling, whether of pain, sorrow, or joy, had dulled these last few years; as he entered middle age, nothing seemed as important as it used to, nothing was crucial. Most of his days were flat, routine. Except for periodic rescues of Loretta, his relationships were uneventful. Pasha’s mood swings made for erratic dips and climbs–most likely that’s what attracted him to her. Still, she could walk out of his life tomorrow and he would barely notice her absence.
“Man,” Ace was saying, “I remember how swift you used to be on those strings. Especially if we dropped some Black Beauties.”
Jack laughed, but it curdled in his throat, came out almost a sob. If it hadn’t been for the Beatles, for John Lennon, he, like most of his friends, would never have known that an ordinary kid could pick up a guitar. This death pierced him to the core; at the same time, he felt weirdly, intensely, alive.
Remember, an inner voice urged. Don’t forget this night. Hold onto these feelings.
“Shit,” Pasha yelled as her fist collided with the thin wall next to her bed. Shocked, she stared at her hand: it had reflexively sprung out in response to her son Jesse’s early morning shout. “They shot John Lennon!”
She heard Ellie and Joe downstairs, turning on the TV, murmuring to each other with that sibling intimacy that Pasha envied. She flipped the switch on her radio. Hearing the mournful overtones in her favorite DJ’s velvet voice, she buried her head in the pillows.
“ I won’t get up.” she muttered. “ I refuse to deal with this.”
She felt a hand feebly stroking her leg through the blanket. She peeked out from beneath the pillow to see l5-year-old Jesse gazing down at her, his dark brown eyes clouded with concern. Behind him stood his sister Sara, looking as if she couldn’t decide whether to suck her thumb or admonish her mother for punching the wall.
Pasha pulled the blanket over her head and groaned, trying unsuccessfully to expel the guilt that washed over her when she realized that, once again, her children were being called upon to comfort her, rather than the other way around.
Ellie’s clock radio went off at precisely seven a.m., just as it did every weekday morning. She kept meaning to change the setting to 7:05 so that she’d be awakened by music rather than the news, but somehow she never got around to it.
The truth was, letting go of a lifelong obsession with world events was proving to be a losing battle, despite her yoga teacher’s advice to detach and surround herself with peaceful vibrations. He’d be positively aghast if he knew that Ellie practiced shoulder stands and cobras to the backdrop of All Things Considered.
So it was not unusual for her sleep to be broken by the sound of tragedy. Yesterday it had been 400 dead in some natural disaster, the day before it was a child buried in a coal mine. War. Famine. Terrorists. To all these Ellie would roll over and groan, sometimes falling back to sleep. But when the newscaster announced that John Lennon had been murdered, Ellie jolted upright, pulled on her bathrobe, and ran downstairs to turn on the television. She stared, disbelieving, at a crowd of people gathered in front of the Dakota. Some were weeping.
She heard her brother’s footsteps on the stairs.
“Did you hear this?” she asked when he came into the room.
“What now?” Joe squinted at the TV, which had cut to a mug shot of the alleged assassin.
“Oh Jeez,” he said, running a hand over his blonde hair, still messy from sleep. “Who got killed this time?”
“John Lennon.” Ellie stifled a sob.
“John Lennon? Boy, that’s weird. What’d he ever do to anyone?”
Suddenly they heard Jesse yelling upstairs, then Pasha, then a loud bang that shook the ceiling. Ellie bit her lip. Joe chuckled. “I guess the lady of the house just got the news.”
“For godsakes, Joe! It isn’t funny!” Ellie stormed out of the room, the sound of Joe’s “Well, excuuuuuuse me!” trailing after her.
She sat on the edge of her bed, staring at nothing. She wished she was alone in the three-story house so she could focus on herself, impossible for her when other people were around. Having grown up as the eldest child in a motherless household with four younger brothers, she’d developed the habit of anticipating demands on her time and energy, and knew how to make herself scarce. Still, every sound seemed a deliberate attempt to distract her from her own thoughts and feelings. That was the trouble with this damn collective, or communal living–she hardly ever got to be alone. Here it was, l980, she was 38 years old, living as if it were l968 and she in her 20s.
Before she’d even had half a second to absorb the news of John Lennon’s death, she’d been assaulted by Jesse screaming and Pasha banging on the walls. Joe, of course, was useless: all her life he’d made her feel like a basket case for being “too emotional.” She almost preferred Pasha’s histrionics–at least they generated an atmosphere of permissiveness.
What did she feel about John Lennon’s death — he whose music had helped sweep her out of the confines of her New England family and into the teeming streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side? She turned her attention to her breath and heartbeat, as she’d been taught in her yoga class. Still, she was bombarded with the sounds of other people, other lives. If she heard anything inside herself at all it was a thundering roar of rage, directed at them.
Joe stood in front of the TV set, stunned–not by the news, but by Ellie’s outburst. What had he done wrong? They always joked about Pasha’s excessive displays of emotion. What made today any different?
Oh hell, Ellie’d baffled him all his life, even more so lately. Ever since they’d become roommates, it seemed like she was always mad at him. Maypbe it was Pasha’s influence. He shrugged and turned his attention to the television just as Jesse and Sara came down the stairs.
“Did you hear?” Jesse asked. His face was flushed with excitement.
Sara didn’t say a word, just went into the kitchen and made herself a bowl of cereal.
“Good morning, Sara,” Joe said, sauntering into the kitchen.
“Hi,” she replied, not looking at him. Her long brown hair partially curtained her face, but he could see that her lips were turned downward, and almost trembling.
“Isn’t it something?” he asked. “I mean, John Lennon.”
She looked at him, pinning him to the spot with her nutmeg eyes; they glistened with unshed tears. At 13 she was already a stunning girl, with her dark olive skin and faint air of tragedy. “Yeah, well,” she said, her voice pitched high with false apathy, “the world sucks.” She clamped her lips together. Everything about her, from her staring eyes to her half clenched fists, challenged him to respond. It was as if the world sucks was the opening salvo for a debate. He frequently felt that Sara looked to him for guidance, something that was sorely missing from her life.
He pondered his reply. Should he say, no, this is just a fluke, in which case she’d laugh and call him a dork? Should he agree with her, and further contaminate youthful innocence? If he told her the truth–that he’d seen far worse assassinations in his lifetime–he might be seriously screwing with her head. He no longer felt like Joe Forster, he felt like a symbol: Grown-Up personified, standing in for the rest of his generation, expected to say the precise words that would move the human species in a positive direction. Christ, what a responsibility! Living with these kids had made Joe simultaneously want and not want children of his own.
“Yeah,” he finally sighed. “Things like this sure do make it seem that way.”
Sara’s lips curved upward, smirking with contempt. Joe shriveled inwardly.
Jesse came into the room, excitedly delivering an updated bulletin: Chapman called himself “The Catcher in the Rye,” he’d been reading Salinger’s book just before shooting John. “I read that book last year!” Jesse exclaimed. It was, Joe knew, one of the few novels the kid had ever read, much less enjoyed. Suddenly Jesse lowered his voice. “I’m worried about Mom,” he confided.
“Oh, hey, she’ll be okay,” said Joe.
“I don’t know. She’s acting the way she did when her father died. She says she’s not getting out of bed.
“Tuh!” Sara spat. “I guess we’ll hafta do all the shopping and cooking again.” She got up and took her bowl to the sink, washed it, dried it and put it away. She was the only one in the household who consistently cleaned up after herself.
There was a scratching on the front door. Joe opened it and his fat tortoise shell cat, Chichi, slunk in. Joe lifted the animal onto his head, letting the cat’s body hang draped around his neck and shoulders. Holding the paws securely around his face, Joe jogged around the kitchen chanting “Catskin cap, catskin cap.” Sara did her best not to laugh, but finally gave in, calling him a dork. Jesse began wandering around the hall and living room.
“Look, Jess, it’s a catskin cap,” Joe called, jogging after him.
“Yeah,” Jesse said with a small smile. He was roaming around the room in that confused way of his, like an old man who’d forgotten what he’d been looking for. Was he having one of his brief petit mal seizures? About to go into a grand mal? Or just worried about his mother?
Suddenly it was all too much for Joe: Lennon’s death, Sara’s confusion, Jesse’s epilepsy, Ellie’s anger, Pasha’s breakdowns. He let Chichi jump to the floor and turned his thoughts to the much simpler area of work: he had a grant to get out today, and a meeting with the Town Supervisor. He’d better get going.
“See ya later, pal,” he said as he went upstairs to shower. Jesse didn’t answer.
- The Best of the John Lennon Tributes (rollingstone.com)