What She Said
When he was out on tour with his band, surrounded by gullible strangers, Rock liked to tell the fans that he’d died right after he was born and was visiting them from the beyond. It was true that he’d popped out of his mother bright blue and not breathing, putting the delivery room into hysteria—his parents weeping, the obstetrician barking orders, a whole team of medical professionals repeatedly coaxing Rock back to life and then losing him again. He was Code Blue for twenty minutes before they got him stabilized and sent him up to infant ICU in an oxygen tent. Rock always wished he had a snapshot of that day, but it was before cell phones and no one had a camera. He told people that he remembered being alive and then dying, and what it was like where he went—a place of perfect peace and whiteness. He’d seen it and come back to this world, and that gave him the serenity to do everything he’d done ever since.
It was all bullshit. He didn’t remember a thing about it. For twenty minutes he’d gone without breathing for thirty seconds at a time, like someone holding his breath under water. It could have been multiple baptisms and he wouldn’t have glimpsed Heaven. And Rock serene all these years? Ask his wife about that. But not right now. Rock was in the hospital again and his wife was looking down at him, and something about his mystical state must have been pretty convincing, even if the doctors kept calling it “having no affect.”
Assassination, take one.
He’d always had excellent peripheral vision (going back to boyhood when he’d been the only Junior Scout to notice the mother bear hurtling through the woods toward his blue-uniformed troop-mates kneeling on the forest floor petting her cub), and so, while playing his comeback gig at The Bowery Ballroom, he’d registered out the corner of his eye that a man had risen in the theater audience four or five rows from the stage, wearing a formal white shirt with French cuffs and raising his right arm as if addressing a rally or hailing a cab. Rock turned to Dunk Dunkle, his lead guitarist, to see if Dunk knew him. Apparently not. Rock turned back, saw something in the man’s hand flash, and the bullet entered his head.
“Repeated micro-concussions could explain it,” said the man beside Rock’s bed.
“No, the stroke in your brain.”
“Are you a doctor?”
“Yes. We’re wondering if you undergo many of them when you’re on stage.”
“Many of what?”
“Insults to your thorax and cranium from sound concussions. It seems reasonable that over time there could be an effect.”
“On the stability of plaque in your arteries.”
“When was that discovered?”
“About a minute ago when I thought of it.”
“A man in the audience shot me. I didn’t have any stroke. I’m thirty-nine years old.”
The doctor looked at his clipboard. “That’s correct. Thirty-nine. Very good.”
“Am I gonna make it?”
“We’re predicting a complete recovery.”
“Unbelievable. Did you take the bullet out?”
“That wasn’t necessary.”
“What’s this in my arm?” said Rock, half sitting up to look at his IV tube.
“Something good,” said the doctor.
Assassination, take two.
Rock Nova—born Rocco Dellanova thirty-nine years ago in New Jersey—was aware that a man had risen to his feet in The Bowery Ballroom audience, four or five rows from the stage, a man in a formal white shirt with his arm raised from the shoulder as if addressing a political rally or hailing a cab. The man’s hand flashed for a second like a sparkler on the Fourth of July, and Rock felt the bullet enter his skull at the bottom of his jaw and travel up to the top of his head just as he played his favorite chord on the guitar—E7#9b13, a voicing he loved, which was a good thing because if the bullet had killed him he’d be listening to that chord forever.
“When your brain dies your mind has to go somewhere,” said the angels, “so it fast-forwards to the end of time.”
Rock would have thought the absence of time would mean the absence of sound, but what they were saying made sense. Everything did. He was floating above it all and not caring. It was the state of mind he’d been trying to achieve his entire life.
“If you’re saying I’m spiritually dead, that doesn’t bother me. I’ll just go to a cabin in the woods and come back with songs that will blow your mind. But if you’re saying the other kind of dead, I’m not so sure. I’ve been to Heaven and it wasn’t like this. Am I in Hell?”
“Neither. You’re in a hospital.”
“You’re not really angels, are you?”
“We’re robots from the end of time, but it’s a common question.”
He looked at the technology surrounding his bed. It had the air of an advanced civilization. “Are we in a laboratory of some kind?” he asked, but suddenly the robots were gone and it was just him and the doctor.
“When you fell down, you got a nasty knock on the head.”
“It’s a bullet wound,” said Rock.
Beyond his peripheral vision, which was less expansive than when he was young, the doctor was conferring with someone he couldn’t see. “He’s a rock star," Rock heard the other person say. “Reality is whatever he says it is.”
This was someone in charge of his care? Rock closed his eyes and shook his head on the pillow. He wanted to write a song about this whole experience, maybe a whole concept album. He’d call it You’d Better Fucking Watch Out.
“Why do you think you’re here?” asked the doctor.
“Because I died and came back. This is my second time. The first time was when I was born. They re-transduced me back into reality then too. My video started playing again, but with some of my creative bits transposed.”
“You’re lucky it was just the creative bits. Is the chord still playing?”
“You know about the chord?”
“You told us about it this morning when you woke up.”
Rock stopped to listen. “No, actually, it’s gone now.”
“I was shot by one of my fans.”
“In the head.”
“I meant where were you?”
“In New York City, The Bowery Ballroom.”
“Excellent,” said the doctor, writing on his clipboard.
“Have you notified my wife and daughter?”
“They’re here. I think they went down to the café. You haven’t answered my question. Who’s the President?”
“Of what? The United States?”
“I know what he looks like. I can see him in my mind. I just can’t think of his name.”
“Hmmm,” said the doctor.
“I know what you’re writing on. It’s the papers doctors always have. Their chart or whatever.”
“It’s called a chart.”
“That’s it! I knew it. So that means I can go home, right?”
“Not until you tell me the name of the President. And a few other things.”
And then Rock remembered. “It’s that jackass with the fake blond hair! The phony-ass billionaire bastard.”
“My mother sent me a birthday card in the shape of his head. Yesterday was my birthday. Or wasn’t it yesterday?”
“Yes, your birthday was yesterday. Excellent, Rocco!”
He opened his eyes and saw his wife and daughter beside the bed.
They took his hands and he smiled. “They’re saying I had a shock.”
“A stroke,” said his wife, whose name escaped him.
“Shock, stroke, it’s all a mistake. A guy with a gun tried to kill me.”
“Daddy, you were being non-compliant.”
“Come give me a hug, darling.”
Rochelle wrapped her arms around him and gave him a kiss. “If you’d been taking your cholesterol pills this wouldn’t have happened.”
“Who taught you about me being non-compliant?”
“I’m afraid it was me,” said the doctor.
Rock hadn’t noticed him walk into the room. He was holding a large piece of film. “This is the infarct in your left basal ganglia and corona radiata.”
“The path of the obstruction, like the trail of a tracer bullet.”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”
“The trail is necrosis from interrupted oxygenation. Fortunately, the obstruction dissolved and blood supply was restored before serious damage was done.”
They stared at the film for a minute. Finally Rock said, “I knew this moment would come.”
“How did you know that?”
“I’d been feeling terrible anxiety, and anxiety is an imbalance in the universe that demands to be corrected.”
“I see. Who are these people?”
Rock looked at them. “My family.”
“What does it mean to have a family?”
“They’re the people who are always there for you, like a movie you can still see even though you’re out in the lobby buying candy.”
Michelle started crying.
“It’s common with this kind of trauma,” said the doctor.
“He’s only thirty-nine years old!”
The doctor squeezed one of Rock’s feet through the blankets. “You’re going to be a good boy and take your pills from now on, aren’t you?”
“Will it make her stop crying?”
A ravishing young woman came into the room with long hair on one side of her head and the other side buzz-cut to half an inch long.
“Did they get it all?” asked Rock. “Are you gonna be okay? I can’t even see your scar.”
“You can’t see it because this is just a haircut. My name is Allison. I’m a speech therapist here.”
Rock thought it was unprofessional for a hospital worker to have a haircut like that in a brain unit. “Who needs a speech fluh fluh?”
“You, I think. You were completely aphasic when they brought you in. Don’t you remember trying to speak and having nonsense come out?”
“I do. It’s how I knew I was shot.”
“Yes, I heard about that. I’m here to give you a comprehension test.”
“My comprehension…” he started in, but then he had no idea what he was going to say.
“Never mind. I’m ready.”
He was going to ace this test and show his wife and kid he was fine. But he failed every question. The therapist showed him a picture from a zoo, and Rock knew perfectly well what it was, but he couldn’t for the life of him remember the word.
“It’s a hippopotamus, Daddy!” said Rochelle.
“They said he’d have a complete recovery,” said his wife.
“These things take time,” said the therapist.
Rock watched her ass as she was leaving, which was how he saw his bandmate lurking at the door waiting his turn to come in. It was obvious that he’d just witnessed Rock’s failure on the test, and Rock’s first thought was, Who gives a shit? But then he detected himself giving a shit.
His bandmate came to the bedside. “I’m sorry you ended up here, man. We didn’t know how to help you. You fell down and couldn’t talk, right in the middle of the show! Why didn’t you tell us you were epileptic? I could have carried pills for it.”
Michelle said, “He’s not epileptic, Dunk. A piece of plaque broke off and went to his brain.”
That was his name. Dunk.
“Oh, God. Isn’t he too young for that?”
“He wasn’t taking his cholesterol pills,” said Rochelle.
Rock smiled and squeezed her hand. She loved to tell people he wasn’t taking his pills. Inside he was thinking, We don’t call him Dunk for nothing. “How did the audience react?”
“At first they thought it was part of the performance. Then they freaked out.
Security had a tough time keeping them off the stage.”
“Did they catch the guy in the white shirt?”
Dunk looked at Michelle. She said, “You heard what the doctor said, honey. Nobody shot you.”
“The guy in the white shirt stood up to salute you,” said Dunk. “He was giving you the high sign and then you fell down.”
“And you don’t see any connection between those two things?”
He thought of all the poor bastards who’d walked the earth over the centuries, deemed insane by their peers. They were his brothers and sisters. “Where’s the rest of the band?”
“They took the gear home. I’d told them I’d let them know how you’re doing.”
“Tell them I’m fine.” The other members of the band were recent additions who didn’t go back into the past like Rock and Dunk. “What’s the band’s name again?”
Rock’s wife said, “Your band is The Snow Pussies.”
“That’s right. I invented that name.”
“Is he really gonna be okay?”
“Don’t I look okay? They said I’d have a complete recovery, right, honey?”
“In time,” said Michelle.
“Anything else you want me to tell the other guys?”
“Tell them my mind is the universe in intensely packed form, like a diamond.”
The doctor came in again. “I’m going off-duty and you’re going home, so I wanted to say goodbye.”
“Going home? What about my wounds?”
“Remember the scan of your brain I showed you? That’s your wound. There’s nothing we can do about it except be grateful. We’re setting up some speech therapy appointments and a follow-up.”
“So I’m just gonna walk around scarred?”
“Same as the rest of us. You’re a lucky man.”
“You keep saying that.”
He was pared down to a fraction of his emotional self. No sadness, no fear, no worries. It was like being permanently high, without the high part. He sat staring into space while people talked about him.
“His normal personality will seep back in over time,” said the doctor.
“Does it have to?” said Michelle with a laugh.
“How do we make this not happen again?”
“That’s a tough one. Make sure he takes his pills every day and try to keep his blood pressure down.”
“You said his blood pressure wasn’t high.”
“That’s true, it’s not, which is the strange part. We’ll never know what caused it. Maybe the sound concussions on stage, maybe just bad luck. Try to keep him calm and hope for the best.”
That part registered with Rock. “Fuck me,” he said.
“That reminds me, I’m not much of a music fan—”
“Really? That’s surprising. Why not?”
“I’m the only thing that’s any good.”
“Ah. My kids would agree with you on that. They’re crazy about your stuff.
They can’t believe I’m taking care of you. Would you mind signing something for them?”
The doctor gave Rock a marker and an empty page from his chart. He told Rock the names of his kids, but they disappeared immediately. Rock signed it, “To the loved ones.”
The nurse wheeled in a cart with his lunch. “You’re in good shape, mister. Your wife can take you home as soon as you eat something.”
“You know, I really am in good shape,” said Rock. “I don’t even have a headache.
It’s hard to believe I’m here. Except my ribs hurt.”
“You fractured them when you fell down. We don’t tape ribs anymore. They think it’s better to do nothing. You can take ibuprofen a few times a day.”
“No prescription painkiller?”
“You haven’t heard about the opioid crisis?”
Rock ate a turkey sandwich and got dressed. His ribs were killing him. They waved goodbye at the nurse’s station and took the elevator to the parking garage. From the passenger seat he watched the edge of New York City stream by along the West Side Highway. By the time they crossed the water and left Manhattan, Rochelle was making sleeping noises in the back seat.
“I guess this has been hard on her,” Rock said.
“Not as hard as our divorce is going to be.”
“I wasn’t aware we were getting one.”
“I already left you, Rock. You pleaded with me to fly back from California and give it another shot.”
“I’m glad you did.”
“And then I found that woman in our AirBnB.”
Rock knew the woman she meant, the one whose car had flattened tires and no license plates. But because of his problem with nouns, he had no idea what her name was.
“I don’t know who you’re talking about.”
“Sure you don’t.”
“I don’t. What was her name?”
“I don’t know her name. One of your groupies, running around with no pants on. She said she knew you.”
“People are always saying they know me. I spent one night in that apartment—alone, and that’s the truth. The next morning I went to…what’s it called? The place that seceded from the Union?”
“Yes, Alphaland, thank you. And that’s when they raided the park and I got arrested, and Dunk had to come bail me out.”
“And you don’t know how this woman got there?”
“No. I checked out.”
“Your stuff was still there.”
“I intended to go back for it. She must have rented it after me. I told you I was going to stay at the whatever it’s called.”
“Yes, The Roxy. Jesus, I hope my memory comes back.”
“It might be better if it didn’t.”
They rode in silence while Rock watched video of himself on his phone, captured and uploaded by audience members at The Bowery Ballroom. There he was, standing on the stage, staring at the man with his arm in the air, no sign of any gun, no sign of any problem whatsoever, and suddenly he staggered back with his Stratocaster and fell down on an amplifier. He remembered it so clearly, the stunning luminosity of the man’s white shirt in the black lights they used in the theater. He read the many comments of the real-time historians in his fan base. The world was getting dumber so quickly you could almost watch it grow, like bamboo. The only upside was that it finally brought Rock, geezer that he was—thirty-nine, fuck!—to the realization that almost everything people say is complete crap. He would have felt blessed to have this confirmation, except that he’d based all of his major life-decisions upon things people say.
He laughed at himself, but he laughed more at his fans. The next time he went back on the road he was going to tell them they were idiots and charge them a fortune for the privilege. People were too stupid to place value on anything unless it cost them a ton of money.
His phone rang. It was Dunk.
“It wouldn’t cost you much to just stay home and enjoy life.”
Cost him much? Was Dunk reading his mind? If he was, at this distance, Rock was impressed. “You’re saying enjoy it because there might not be much left.”
“What if the next time you fall down you can’t get up? What if you can’t talk again? What if you can’t walk again?”
“And I suppose I should forget about music?”
“No, you should play music. More than ever. Write songs, make albums. Just do it at home in your studio. You’ve always had doubts about touring anyway. And this way you won’t be tempted to fool around.”
“You say it like I’m known for that.”
“You know, before this whole thing happened, I was thinking of breaking up the band.”
“You never said anything.”
“I said I was thinking about it.”
“Well, I’ve thought about it too, and I think it would be for the best.”
“Things change, Rock. But we’ll always be friends.”
He hung up. Michelle looked at him. “It was Dunk. He wanted me to know he loves me.”
“That was nice.”
“We never told the doctor about the state of our marriage.”
“You think it’s relevant?”
“How could it not be relevant. He can’t figure out why this happened. He’s talking about sound concussions from the PA. But there was a great source of stress in my life that he didn’t know about.”
“There’s always a great source of stress in your life, Rock, including this comeback gig at The Bowery. You’re just bringing up the one you can blame on me.”
“No, I’m not. I take all the blame.”
“I’m glad to hear it.”
Rochelle woke up in the back seat. “I have to pee.” They stopped at the same easy-on/easy-off gas station they always stopped at on this ride. Michelle went to the bathroom with Rochelle while Rock bought a big bag of candy and chips and juice. He showed it to the girls when they came out. Rochelle grabbed her favorites and ran to the car.
“I’m not sure you should be eating any of that,” said Michelle.
“As if you cared.”
“I care, you bastard. I’m here, aren’t I?”
She kissed him violently against the concrete wall.
“Hey, watch my heart rate. That made me feel dizzy.”
“Did it really?”
“You ass. Did you know that woman in the apartment?”
“I told you no.”
They spent the remainder of the trip competing to see who could spot the most cars that were the same model as the one they were driving. Because Rock was sitting in the car, he didn’t know what it looked like and lost. Michelle pulled into their driveway on the lake in Dutchess County. Their next-door neighbor was outside working on his lawn. Rock got out and struck up a conversation over the hedge between their properties. The neighbor was surprised since Rock had never spoken to him before.
“Is he religious?” the man whispered to Michelle.
“He’s just grateful to be alive.”
Rock heard what they were saying. “What she said,” he said.