Lukas Tallent: Burnt

  1. In twelve songs, the kid tries to capture what he feels about life, love, and lack of. There is this girl in his 7th period drafting class (accidentally, a scheduling issue) who punctuates her sentences with swabs of chapstick across her bottom lip. And the chapstick girl, he discovered after many long and winding conversations, doesn’t believe in dancing in the rain or making out on the hood of the car or in guys who audaciously meet her in the Walmart parking lot on Christmas Eve with purloined glasses of champagne.

“Why does every guy believe that after one drink a girl is gone enough to hop into bed with him?”

“But we have no bed,” the kid said, as cars raced down highway 411.

“Not you,” she told him.

The kid doesn’t believe one drink would be enough. But music, he knows, can operate in ways drinks and smooth lines and fancy cars cannot. So, he adds all the greatest: Bon Jovi and “Love Drunk” and Alabama Shakes and “You Wreck Me” and many others—well, until he reaches twelve.

His dad’s laptop takes half an hour writing them to a blank CD, across which he scribbles with a black sharpie, for the rain and the hood and the champagne.

  1. Nervous is the chapstick girl as she slides the kid’s CD into her dad’s old red Maserati. For two hours they will be in the car until they reach her mom and stepdad’s place way on top of Monteagle Mountain. Even if they listen to all twelve songs, they will still be able to catch most of NPR and consider all the things with Terry Gross (their usual listening fare).

But a two, three, four! and “na, na, na, na, na” has horror on her dad’s face.

“What is—what kind of kid is this anyway?” he says.

But the guitars and choruses and his daughter’s complexion like a shipwreck drown his reaction. Even more mystifying comes track two, with its call and response and will you offer your throat to the wolf with—

“Jesus Christ,” her dad says, but, but… “I remember this…”

“I’m sorry,” she tells him, not looking anywhere but ahead at the long black road into the dark. She might’ve popped the CD free, but his fingers start to tap the steering wheel, and the brass horns shake loose the tension in her shoulders. By track three’s “don’t worry, sweet baby,” she wasn’t worried, no, no, no—she thinks she understands the kid, she thinks it’s … sweet that he put himself into twelve songs, in all their mortifying vulnerabilities, and when she gets to her mom’s, she resolves to call him—but, wait, she’ll text him now. You win, she writes.

  1. To taste the win, the kid kisses her behind the vending machines on their last day of school and the chapstick girl puts her hands on his body, entranced by the way his muscles rise to meet her like faithful, fleshy waves.

And that summer, on their second date, they are stranded with his dad’s truck at the drive-in, where they have their rough, awkward, and often giggly sex. For them, it is the beginning of that time in life where you sort of fall into the other, the same way one runs too fast, and slipping, falls into the swimming pool, the world deafened around you in one loud splash.

But songs and even summers have to end. When the kid leaves for college in the way up northeast, they agree it’s for the best for them not to talk anymore. It’ll be easier that way. So the chapstick girl tries to put the rain and the hood and the champagne behind her. She must move on. Through preps and jocks and rednecks and losers, she moves for another year until she must pack for college.

To this end, her cousin, whose mouth is full of metal, enters stage left. The Maserati has to be packed for New York, the college, the far away the chapstick girl will make her own. And nothing can be accomplished without music, metalmouth says, punching the boombox on the chapstick girl’s dresser. What issues forth, however, are summer boys and knowing it would last forever and the moves of the night.

“I didn’t think you listened to this old crap,” metalmouth says.

“Uh huh,” the chapstick girl tells her, though her lips are dry and cracked, and no bees of Bert are anywhere in sight. She wipes her eyes and doesn’t tell her cousin about where the CD came from or what is unintelligibly scribbled across the front in sharpie. To speak his name, go over why he left, where he is now, think about who he might be burning CDs for and why—well, that can wait until she has moved through strangers and done alcohol and has term papers to write.

Metalmouth, in her ignorance, never learns of the CD’s importance, which allows her to swipe it from the boombox without any guilt whatsoever.

  1. The next few years move on from them. The kid goes to school, gets a degree, and starts studying the law. There are girls, and guys, and tough scrapes and starving nights, and very little music in his life. No time for music but words. And words without music have no magic.

The chapstick girl is good at college. She’s better at moving through the college guys, better at term papers, better at acting—like a goddess, a detective, a drug addict, and a battered housewife—than most of the others. She has a future, they say, and upon graduation, she’s moving on from guys and gallons of liquor to Manhattan.

But back in Tennessee, with the metal stripped from her mouth and the power to paralyze boys, smileyface shares the CD with her boyfriend, the redneck, in his red ’97 Chevy Silverado.

“Goddamn,” he says, “this old crap gets me.”

To recompensate her sharing, he passes the needle to her, and smileyface, out of love and fear of losing love, slips the needle under her skin. Together, they drift away. The redneck’s Chevy is parked aslant on the side of County Road 229, its backend hanging into the middle of the road. But no one ever comes down here so late at night, especially someone paying as little attention as the redneck. So, they ease into paradise, which waits patiently at the other end of the dashboard’s light…until the light glows brighter, comes closer, and they can’t feel anything, not the glow, the heat, nor the impact of the oncoming forty tons of steel and chrome.

After the EMTs and the cops have had their way, A & J Body Shop comes to remove the wreck. There is not much left but crumpled metal, slick and red on the inside as well as the outside. A week later, the families find nothing salvageable from the wreck. The music dies.

  1. So how, pray tell, does one come to an end? To look at the twenty-nine-year-old kid, devoid almost of all kidness, sitting alone in a bar, part of a factory of cheesecakes, at the base of an urban mountain in the middle of an island?

So it was, after ten years, too late for a real table, the kid waits for his coworkers at the bar. He sips a Mai-Tai, and halfway through, his fellow suits arrive with a conversation he cannot hold. From above, comes “Right Here Waiting” which fades into “The Boys of Summer,” and wait . . . the secret chord that David played to please the—

“Who is controlling this music?” one of the suits says too loudly.

When this unseen controller plays “Born to Be My Baby,” the kid, with the past ten years on his shoulder and a thin stream of alcohol in his veins, abandons coincidence. This is his music, scrambled, rearranged, but still the same. His eyes turn to the white shirts and ties, stained with sweat and cheese and grease, their black pants faintly dusted with crumbs and flour.

“Where are you going?” the suits say as he leaves the table.

The kid shuffles through each of the four dining rooms, three of which are completely empty. He finds no one near the bathrooms, though he is not drunk enough to investigate the ladies’. A long hallway separates the kitchen from the rest of the place, where he stands and watches waitress after waitress carrying plates of half-eaten avocado eggrolls and massacred French fries, freshly arranged porkchops and seafood pastas, to and fro.

“Are you okay, sir?” one, but not the one, asks.

The suits are nervous now, as their friend walks back to the bar area. And yes, the kid has almost given up, but there’s someone at the front of the restaurant, the host’s stand, where no one is waiting for a table. As he dodges patrons and coats and tiny tables, he sees her.

The chapstick girl—exhausted from the night, the low tips, the aching feet, the too many defeats life has doled out to her on the path to stardom—she does not understand, at first. She does not know who this kid is, not in this hell, not after moving on through so much and many others.

The guitar strings bow and moan. “I’m leaving the table,” Leonard sings, “I’m out of…”

But these eyes, how changed, the blue and the hazel, no longer hear. Once more the world does not matter so much. He offers his hand, and she lays hers in his palm.

Verily, verily, I say unto thee, my friends, do you believe what they saw?

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