So the doctor says he's sterile. Who fucking cares? Besides, even before he found out that he was shooting blanks, Gooden thought babies were pretty much worthless. There's really no point in worrying about conceiving one of them. What's he supposed to do? Ask God for a little Gooden Jr. to crawl around the cottage, for a little bundle of joy to cramp his style with soiled diapers and 4am wake-ups? Fuck that. Gooden hates kids. He calls them "constant needs for worthless shit." Gooden kind of relates babies to those little, unusable, porcelain women, actually. The kind he met at college parties or at coffee shops in his later adult life. Always whining, begging for something he can't afford… only, instead of diamond rings and concert tickets and mocha lattes with soy-milk and half the fucking froth, babies want stuff like ponies or toy trains or those little, shiny windmill things. Fuck babies, Gooden thinks. He skips a stone on the river and watches it lick the top of the slow current until it spins to a stop halfway across. Fuck babies, he repeats. The ripples from the stone wane into larger, less defined undulations. He laughs a little at his insensitivity for babies, at the impossible chance at becoming a father. He skips another stone on the river and watches it spin and sink.
And kids, too. Fuck kids. They aren't any better. His sister Gracie has three of them: James, Joanie and Jeffrey. Gooden sees them every now and then, Christmas and family weddings and such. They can't be controlled. James-a chubby 13-year-old-is quiet, though. Newly pubescent, Gooden thinks, that accounts for a lot. He talks to James about fishing, about cars, weight lifting and football. That's about it, though. James isn't old enough yet to confidentially talk about girls or sex. Gooden has tried before, to bring them up. This came to little success.
"Those Terrapin girls are the best," he once said to the kid. They were watching a University of Maryland volleyball game on John's big-screen during some family function. The camera had zoomed in on a little blonde girl's red-covered ass. It looked undoubtedly, unquestionably round, sexy. Gooden finally had to ask James, "Don't you think Terrapin girls are the best? I mean, look at that ass!"
James squeaked, "Yep. They are."
Their conversations always became boring quickly; still, it was nice to have a kid around and not have to worry about screaming or sudden death or whatever Gracie worries about.
Gooden takes a pen from his dirty shirt's breast pocket, licks the tip and writes on his hand, "I'm sorry Gracie." He looks down to the bank of the river and sees an oriole hopping near the waterline. A boat's wake comes in and douses the bird. Gooden laughs, then makes it a point to put this in his long-term memory. Someday, he'll need it.
Gracie's always worried about something, actually. Report cards. Getting the twins into pre-school. The nutritional information on pudding cups (the sugar content of all snack foods, actually). Gracie has always been a worrier. When they were kids, Gracie followed Gray and Gooden to an old farmhouse out around this river and the boys had looked inside. It was a spooky, abandoned thing, with moss growing on the doorstep and a deer cranium tacked up on the rotted-out portico. Inside, it was empty aside from a bale of hay and a big spool of barbed wire. Nothing as exciting as the façade advertised. When Gooden and Gray came back out to look for their sister they saw that she was sucking on the end of her inhaler, leaning against a big, dead maple.
"Are you going to die?" Gooden had asked her, honestly fearful. "Sissy?"
"No. No," Gracie replied, gasping, sucking again on the inhaler's steroids. "Just. Worried. About. You."
Now that Gracie's got a mortgage and three damned kids to worry about, Gooden guesses that his sister probably sucks on that inhaler at least twice a day. And with good reason. Unlike the oldest, Joanie and Jeffrey are fucking terrible kids. This could be (according to Gooden's latest child development theories) because they're too young to be broken by hormones like James, or too innocent to be quelled with the insatiable desire to fuck. Hell, isn't that why Gooden settled down and got a nine-to-five at such a young age? He wanted to impress Miranda.
No. That's not it. Those kids are brats because they're twins-two, spoiled blonde hellions. Twins, identical in the most literal sense. They look exactly alike, aside from their respective blue and pink get-ups that Gracie insists upon them wearing at all times. Gooden has thought that his sister does this so she can tell one from the other, but recently he's taken to the more affable idea that a mother's knowledge of her kids is surprisingly similar to that of an expert chess player‘s understanding of the rule of en passant. She probably thinks it's cute or something, Gooden assumes, to dress them in their gender-color.
Once, he had called Joanie by her brother's name. She had snuck a blue pair of shorts from his drawer. Gooden wasn't embarrassed, though. They're both very skinny and pale, like Gracie. And they're both obnoxious and loud like her husband. Not to mention those two kids both have trouble controlling their shit. They're always running up to Gooden or James and asking either to change their diapers or to wipe their asses. They're both six goddamned years old. It's a shame, really… if they can't control their shit, Gooden reckons, they won't be going to college. They'll probably end up working with the PPG or the rubber factory, getting married, having stupid, shitting kids. They'll dogmatically attend some little church with a Sunday brunch and a basketball court. Just like their parents. It's a bothersome cycle to Gooden. Why America is going to be passed by the Chinese or the Japs. At least their kids know how to use a goddamned toilet by the age of six!
On the river, the sun has begun its descent and gold reflects into Gooden's eyes. He hates the sun. Its harsh morning light is the main reason he wakes up at four in the afternoon and does all his fishing at night. "Goddamnit," he says and lays back, looks up. Through a thin canopy of green leaves, he can see the first star of the night shining. It's very large, perhaps Venus or Mars. Perhaps not. Stars are much more tolerable when they are at a greater distance, Gooden thinks. He sighs. If only this cottage was forever his.
Gooden wonders why Gracie and her husband decided to keep up with his parent's insistence on cutesy name alliteration. He, his brother Gray and Gracie all hated being called The Gory Gs of Hadwood Street when they were kids. Had she forgotten so quickly? Not to mention, that J-J-J bullshit can't possibly make those kids feel like separate, distinct people. Especially the twins. Those two probably already have identity crises that their future psychologists won't be able to imagine. Then again, kids are more like little robots anyhow. Who really cares what they do until they hit puberty and can do something with their lives?
But then what? Gooden realized a long time ago that he doesn't even like grown people. He's been at his cottage for about seven months now, all alone. It's a great feeling to be solitary, concentrated on making music, getting the proper amount of wood for the fireplace, fishing, doing whatever he feels like doing without the meddlesome interruption of other grown people. He writes to tell Gray about it once a week, whenever the mail comes around. In a letter last February, Gooden put his isolation like this: he could see a beached carp one night on the riverbank. Alive, mouth agape and breathing painfully, something four-feet long and fat, a helluva catch. Heavy. He could take it home, gut it, cook it up with onions and some sassafras tea and have nobody tell him not to eat a fucking mudder. He would never do that, he wrote to Gray, because mudders always taste like shit, no matter what spices one adds to them. Still, it was nice to have the option. He could roll around on the fucker like a dog if he wanted to. He could grab it by the gills and skull-fuck it. "Alone time is my time, Gray," he wrote, "I encourage you to do the same."
For the next few weeks of their correspondence, Gray always replied with something about how Miranda missed Gooden, how she never really got her bearings straight after he left. Gooden warned Gray that he'd stop replying to his letters if they continued to contain any mention of his ex-wife. So now, Gray only answers with terse praises about the music Gooden has been sending him on cassette. They're all half-hearted compliments, though. Gooden can tell. Why, the last letter Gray sent was only 39 words long:
You know well that I don't got an ounce of education on the matter. But your stuff is always great. I think you'll go far with it.
P.S.-Seen any sexy young mackerel out there in your cottage?"
Gray always puts some snide little joke hinting that he's worried Gooden is becoming sexually attracted to fish. This only started recently, and Gooden doesn't like it. Little brothers always know how to get to the oldest, he recognizes. It's still difficult to ignore stupid fucking jokes like his. But life's too short to let it get him too angry.
Gooden closes his eyes and hears the birds in the trees above squawking nervously. He says to himself, "Storm's a-coming." He waits for a long while, hums "Fur Elise" then opens his eyes. The sky is clear and not much darker from when he last surveyed it. He makes a bet with himself about the possibility of a storm. Gooden gets on his feet again, raises his hand to his teal baseball cap and feels the golden hook clasped at the tip of the frayed visor. Why do people think it's okay to eat road kill and not beached carp? He wonders. He shrugs it off and starts up the steep hill towards the cottage. Feeling a little tinge of pain as he walks, Gooden looks down at his bony, bare feet and notices a small cut on the knuckle of his big toe. It's bleeding. "How the hell'd you get that, Gooden old boy?" he asks himself.
"Probably a rock or something," he answers, "better put some rubbing alcohol on that one."
He remembers then, that when he was in college, a psychology professor-a slovenly walrus of a man, named Prof. John Clark-had joked to Gooden that asking questions to himself was a sign of genius, but answering those questions was a sign of utter insanity. Gooden has tried like hell for the last few years to break himself of the habit, but he's sort of proud of being regarded as one of those mad scientist types now. It all makes complete sense, given his past.
Gooden walks beyond his large, ugly basin and a new, blue-metal faucet he recently had installed above it. He stops and walks back to the pair. A mad scientist-that's how true musicians ought to be perceived, he thinks. He draws the faucet's skeletal rubber nozzle to the right. A loud, gurgling sound follows, then finally, water. Gooden cups both hands together, catches a little water from the faucet and then sips it up from his dirty palms. It feels cold and good. Like a plum or a nose full of river water.
Gooden places a pair of red and brown argyle socks across his bed's musty old comforter and turns on the old AM radio on his nightstand. "Moonlight Sonata" has just begun. Gooden loves the song. He sits in a flecked orange tweed chair and runs his fingers over its wooden arms. The slick wood reminds him of a boat his father once owned-the Nautilus, he called it. The boat held ten people easily, had white leather seats and a fine, oak trim. They'd get up early on summer days and scrape barnacles from the hull. It was a grimy, disgusting job, but he missed it. Gooden listens, wonders about his father; they haven't spoken in years.
Rain is coming down in buckets outside Gooden's window, patting the top of his roof. Lightning strikes, thunder muddles over the river. Besides the faint red dial on Gooden's radio, the cottage is completely dark. Beethoven feels more powerful than ever. He's always related to this song, for some reason. It spoke of a man incapable of filling some very important need within; it was an address to some doomed, fruitless character.
Gooden raises a finger to the air and conducts the piece. Tears well up in his eyes but are slicked away as the song ends. "Malaguena," a piece by Ernesto Lecuona begins to play on the radio. Gooden sits his arm down, waits through the piece for a moment, then gets up and clicks the radio off. He lays down on the bed, awkwardly angles himself to put on the socks. Like last night, he prepares to fall asleep just before the sun rises on the river in a few hours. In the storm, he waits himself out.