After Mother died Father wanted to lay tracks for a demo tape. To honor her, he said, though Mother thought the Shivering Tommys were his excuse to get high and bike the salt flats. For thirty years they’d gigged in Old Town, the desert bars on Highway 63, the Hiccuppin’ Snake, the army base canteen. Father even quit his mail route and, for a year, just played. Then Mother said Carmel and I were growing fat off white bread, off cream-of-mushroom casserole. So he took a security job at Kinetico Gasworks. Soon the Tommys were playing just twice a month.
A studio in the Malavenda neighborhood would press two-hundred cassettes for two grand. I rattled off rockabilly bands who’d recorded there: Black Shores, Seppuku Love, Irma’s Decay. And now—about time—the Shivering Tommys. A student of history, Father said, then asked for a five-hundred-dollar loan. Don’t you dare take Gordon’s rent money, Carmel said. I told my sister I was investing in something bigger than rent. Father thumped my back, said, You’re invited to the session. If only your mother were around... What about that new swamp cooler? Carmel asked. Remodels can wait, Father replied. We’ll be the ones stuck with the bill when you’re gone, she said. Why, I asked, did she have to talk like that?
The day of the session the band gathered at Father’s. Bix Barnwell, lead singer, tipped his hat and said, Afternoon, Gordo. They drank beer, waiting for dark. Carmel cooked spaghetti while I snapped photos: Father, Bix, Iggy Magana, Chuck G. My kids are good kids, said Father, even though we’re in our forties. Bix stole sips from a bottle of cough syrup. Father said now they knew where he’d been the past two weeks. It was a woman, Bix replied, frozen pizza and love. And whisky. She was supposed to come today but was gone when I woke.
At dusk Iggy drove his van down Avenida del Rey. People lined the sidewalks. What’s going on, Bix asked, is everyone sick? I pressed my face to the window, hoping to spot students from the community college. People did look off: dehydrated, or drained of blood, men leathery, women ashen. A parade for the dead, Chuck G said. Father said, Everyone’s still upset about those cops who shot the boys in Old Town. He pointed. Squad cars idled down the block. Iggy took a bend too fast, drum kit crashing. Don’t screw this up, Father told him, a once in a lifetime deal. Iggy showed a shaking hand. It’s that syrup, he said.
At the Cash-and-Carry Father pooled money. Gordon, spot Bix a fiver, he said. Chuck G whistled. Getting a salary these days, Gordo? Father returned lugging beer. A blizzard of moths descended and swirled his head. We heard him cry out. The moths, briefly, covered him head to chest. He shouted again and the swarm spiraled off. No more drinks tonight, Dad, Carmel said in the van, but Father didn’t respond.
Unlike Old Town with its adobe-packed side streets, or Chivatown’s dusty lots, the Malavenda features pecan-shaded lawns, towering plane trees, ranch-style homes. The band sipped beers inside the van, peering at the studio house. Bix produced a second bottle of syrup, passed it around. Try it, Gordo, he said. Carmel said my name. Let him try, said Father. I sipped. Not like you’re sick, said Bix. Like you’re thirsty. I gulped, felt my lungs stiffen. Good one, Chuck G said. Carmel said, Enough. Everything softened. I heard Father clap his hands. Then he said, Time to meet the man who’ll forever preserve the past thirty years.
The producer, Juan Simon, was waiting at the door. Red carpet, chandeliers, strange furniture. He wore a kimono, had orange skin, told a story of seeing the Tommys many years ago at the Purple Time saloon. Someone’s pet snake bit a woman, he said. Father whipped it against the wall, crushing its skull. Juan Simon pointed. You wore it like a scarf the rest of the night, even onstage. That woman, the way she danced, the things we knew she’d show you backstage… Carmel made a sound but I was distracted: up and down the block people loitered behind trees, between houses. Voices, laughter, everyone murmuring. A block party? I asked. Will there be fireworks? Then I started laughing. Father said not to be stupid. Who cares about people? Juan Simon said. Our concerns are inside. Then he led us to his studio.
Today I keep a copy of Dead Ocean inside my cassette deck, plus two in the closet where, last December, Carmel found him on his back, arms across his chest, little orange bottle on the bed. My copies must last: when Bix vanished from town he stole the lone reel, evidence of that session that stretched until dawn. He’d possessed an endless supply of syrup that night; while the band laid tracks in just one or two takes, Bix sprawled on a sofa, dozing, waking to tip his bottle to my lips. My God, he said, you are getting big. You were just a boy... Carmel, across the room, watched. Father emerged, said, Get your sister a beer. Then: Can’t you two, for once in your lives, relax? They laid down “Sweet Seventeen,” “Midnight Mesa,” “Horse in the Well.” Bix stumbled up, entered the booth, sang his strange lyrics. During a break Juan Simon brought enchiladas: chicken, beef, cheese, green chile. Carmel took my plate, said, Enough, Gordon, let others have some. “Foothills” proved the tune they couldn’t get right. Middle of the fourth take, Father cursed out Iggy, shook his fist, face purple. He’ll have a stroke, I heard Carmel whisper. Then his shoulders slumped, his body shrank. As if waking from a trance he glanced around, mumbled something, left. Juan Simon shouted that I’d eaten all the enchiladas. Bix jolted awake, asked, What’d I miss? He passed me his bottle, said, Drink up, young man.
Next we were outside looking for Father, spring night warm, Carmel guiding my arm. Careful, she kept whispering. She spoke about Father, the future. After tonight, she said, we’ll start taking shifts, divvy nights of the week. On weekends we’ll stay together, I don’t mind the recliner. You’re letting him slide, Gordon, you’ve got to do more. Then, nearly shouting: I can’t do this without your help! The Iglesia Catolica de Cristo Rey’s bells blanged twice, two a.m., yet people still shifted amidst lawns. Do you see them? I whispered. You’re not listening, Carmel said. Ahead draped a desert willow rippling with breeze. Goodbye, I told my sister then stumbled ahead, parted the curtain, slipped inside. Here the leaves glowed. A sweet smell like water. I rubbed the tree’s bark and heard myself call: You’re wrong, everything’s fine, your diet’s helping him, tonight’s a special night, that’s all. Carmel shifted beyond the branches. Gordon Everett, she said, come out this instant. We’ve got to find him before he makes it to Old Town. In the months since Father’s death, since we moved together into his house, this same scene has occurred. Only now Carmel pauses outside the pantry where I’ve hidden to enjoy cookies or Cheez-Its or saltwater taffies. Are you in the pantry again? she’ll ask, sighing, pacing about. Then, sick of waiting: This is why they gave you that nickname.
That night we made it to Calle Rosario, lawns going from grass to gravel. Footsteps crunched in the shadows. Nearby applause. Ahead, alongside a house, a face glowed amidst a jungle of trumpetvine, pasty-white—a man’s or a woman’s? Who’s that? I asked. It vanished into vines. Carmel tried to grab me, whispered my name, but I was in that tunnel of trumpetvine, air close and hot, footsteps ahead, Carmel’s behind, the tunnel impossibly long. I stopped. Silence. I whispered Carmel’s name, heard music ahead, followed. A backyard party, lanterns throughout, people shifting. Suddenly, beside me, a woman in a Hawaiian-print blouse, the kind Mother wore. She smiled for several seconds, hands behind her back, then squinted and said, You’re an Everett, yes? I heard voices in the dark but saw very little, asked if the woman had seen my sister. Carmel Everett, I said. All of us, she replied, grabbing my arm, we loved your father’s band. Then, as if speaking another language, she called her friends one by one. They emerged from the dark, seeming to smile, hoisting their drinks but nobody spoke. Some seemed familiar though I couldn’t be sure. Slurring a bit, still stunted by syrup, I shared the good news: the Tommys were making a tape down the street, all the best songs from back in the day—the Circle Bar, the Hiccuppin’ Snake! Still nobody spoke. Ocotillo quivered in the breeze. A chalky whiff of creosote. At last a woman asked, And you Everetts—how are you holding up? Your mother, such sad news ... Then somebody else: And those troubles with the young men and women at school—surely that only added to your grief. Then a man, very softly, asked whether the issues with police had sparked further violence. The woman in the Hawaiian shirt: Your father, we see him at night, the Avenida... Should he be out like that, all on his own?
Had they not listened? I heard myself shout. The Tommys, that instant, were making a record! Someone materialized from the dark, announced the flowering had begun. The group, whispering, hastened to a corner lined with pots of cacti. The cacti’s fleshy bulbs, already opening, flashed feather-like flowers. I asked what was happening. No one responded, swaying and smiling and looking up at the night. I grabbed a woman’s arm and shook. Only when I shouted did she seem to awaken. Smiling, she said, Don’t tell me you haven’t heard... Others giggled. She said, It’s been the talk of town for weeks! The plants, a hybrid breed, were flowering for the first time in years. Everyone’s out, there’s even a parade. Impossible, I replied, cacti flowering simultaneously. How strange, a man said, I thought your father would be out, he lived for these things. You’re wrong, I replied, Mother was the one with the green thumb. Again people giggled and the man said that Father’s marijuana, the stuff he grew in the foothills, was the best they’d ever known.
I began to feel sick, syrup receding. Goodbye, I told the partygoers, if you won’t acknowledge my news there’s nothing I can do. These flowers—it’s nothing, you know, compared to what’s happening at Malavenda Studios. I re-emerged from the trumpetvine and saw, to my surprise, Carmel gazing at the dawn. You were gone so long, she said but didn’t sound mad. Are you crying? she asked.
At Juan Simon’s we heard music, the cavernous drone of “Pollen House,” Father’s jangling cords, Iggy’s drums. Reunited, they played their best song. Then two more. The first, “Funnel of Love,” Father dedicated to our mother. May we meet again, he rasped. Bix, asleep on the sofa, jolted awake. Juan Simon whispered, We can edit that out. The band looked halfdead. Bix, chugging syrup, insisted on single takes. On the second song, “Reservoir,” their encore—how audiences used to howl!—he forgot the lyrics and mumbled about a goblin living underneath his house. Father packed up. You can’t leave it at that, I said. But he shrugged and said, Close enough. They all shook hands and lugged away cases. Juan Simon returned and found me on his sofa. Big boy, he sighed, what are you still doing here? Soaking it in, I said, the infamous Malavenda Studios—the Black Shores, Seppuku Love, Irma’s Decay. Sighing again he said, All those bands are dead, then went to fetch Carmel to retrieve me from his house.
I recently found a fourth copy of Dead Ocean, a thrift shop in Old Town, trinkets clinking on the shelves as I ran to show Carmel. Calm down, she whispered. Mrs. Esterhazy, the proprietor, scowled from her perch. Yet my sister seemed surprised. We ought to drive to Blint, I declared,shaking the tape. You know how much they loved the Tommys in Blint! Carmel straightened her blouse, said, That’s four, Gordon, do you really need more? She’d forced happiness from her face, her frequent technique, as though hoping to erase those days of the Tommys. We once, before he vanished, spotted Bix Barnwell fumbling down the Avenida, but Carmel wouldn’t stop. Best leave him be, she said, adjusting her rearview mirror. Nothing we can do now. Another time, in Old Town, we found Iggy Magana offering rhythms to strangers. The song, I realized, was “Reservoir.” Let go, I cried, Carmel dragging me outside. I needed to know: who was on rhythm guitar?
Whenever I mention Blint, or that night in the Malavenda, Carmel abolishes her smile. Her standard response: You weren’t the one to find him. While we cleaned out his house she paused at the door to his—now my—bedroom. I can’t go in there, she gasped, please don’t make me! I gave a little push, she dug in her nails. So I let her be. Afterwards, at dusk, we went outside. Dust had aggravated her allergies—strange, I said, little tiny bits of him, his leftovers. Again that look, her eyes pink, nose dripping. We walked, yuccas clacking, clouds red. The air went still. A car backfired. Distant dogs barked. At Nevada and Tompa we paused beneath a mess of telephone wires. That’s when I heard it. Listen, I said. We looked. Wires swayed. A hum. Rancheras on someone’s radio. We listened and watched, waiting for something to happen, until Carmel touched my arm and said we had to go back.
Jeff Frawley’s fiction has appeared in or is forthcoming from South Dakota Review, Portland Review, Crab Creek Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, Storm Cellar and elsewhere. After receiving an M.F.A. from New Mexico State University, he served as a Fulbright scholar in Budapest, Hungary, performing research for a novel. He now lives and teaches in the mountains of southern New Mexico. “The Malavenda Session” is taken from his novel-in-stories, A Visitor’s Guide to Casagrande at Night.