Chuck and his wife owned and operated a bed and breakfast in one of the oldest houses in town and Chuck spent his time working on the house, trying not to drink, trying to get into golf, and reading an enormous fantasy series that, thus far, had sprawled over thirteen huge novels and showed no signs of approaching a conclusion. He was a man from whom all the celebrity had been drained long ago and he had come to terms with that.
One frigid, late January day as he was pumping gas into his truck and contemplating running inside for a bag of spicy corn chips, Chuck noticed a woman in a knee-length coat and fur hat pumping gas into a black Mercedes at the pump next to his and staring at him. When Chuck looked at her she broke into a wide grin and said, “Are you Charlie Brostle? You are, aren’t you.”
“I am,” said Chuck. It had been a while since anyone had called him “Charlie” and it sounded strange to him. He didn’t hate it.
“Oh, I am such a fan,” said the woman, clasping her gloved hands under her chin, her eyes wide and bright. “‘Lovely, So Lovely’ is my favorite song of all time! I used to listen to it over and over again in my room and my brothers would get so angry and pound on my door and yell at me to shut it off!”
Chuck smiled. “Well, thanks. It’s been a long time since someone recognized me. Reminds me of the old days a little bit.” The pump clicked off and Chuck took the nozzle out of his gas tank and screwed the cap back on.
“I know everyone talked about ‘Lovely, So Lovely’ the most,” the woman continued. “And rightfully so! I think it’s your best song. But I loved every song on The Name’s Charlie. I really did. It’s my favorite album ever. Sometimes I’d think that maybe ‘Little Old Me’ was my favorite, actually, but no, in the end, I always had to admit that ‘Lovely, So Lovely’ was the best.”
“Yeah, I suppose there was a reason it was the hit,” said Chuck.
“Do you still play?” asked the woman. “Surely you do.”
“No,” said Chuck. “I haven’t played in years. I moved here six years ago and my wife and I run a bed and breakfast now.”
“That’s too bad,” said the woman. “I never got a chance to see you in concert. Your tour never came to my city.”
“That’s a shame,” said Chuck. “I always thought I was better live than I was in a recording studio.”
“Oh, don’t say that,” said the woman with a laugh. “You’ll make me resent my dad all over again for not driving me to see you!”
“Nah, I wasn’t that good,” said Chuck, opening up the door to his truck. “It was nice to meet you. Thanks for being a fan.”
“Wait, wait,” said the woman, rushing over to Chuck and putting her hand on his arm. “My daughter Gwen’s seventeenth birthday is this Friday and she’s having a party at our house. I would love it if you would perform at the party.”
“I’m flattered,” said Chuck. “But, like I said, I haven’t performed in years and I really don’t think a bunch of teenagers would want to hear me play all those old songs.”
“What are you talking about?” asked the woman as if he had insulted her personally. “Your songs are timeless, Charlie! Gwen loves your music! I’ve been playing it for her since she was a little baby! We still listen to The Name’s Charlie in the car all the time! She’ll be thrilled to have Charlie Brostle playing at her party! It’ll blow her mind when I tell her.”
“I can’t,” said Chuck. “It’s been too long. I’m not a musician anymore.”
“I’ll pay you a thousand dollars,” said the woman with an intensity that made Chuck uncomfortable.
“That’s too much,” said Chuck. “I’m not worth that.”
“My husband is a multi-millionaire,” said the woman. “A thousand dollars is nothing. In fact, I’ll give you two thousand and you only have to play a few songs. Please? Please!”
“I don’t have a band,” said Chuck. His voice sounded weak in his own ears and he could tell that the woman had already sensed that she’d won. “It’d just be me and my guitar.” He wanted to feel irritated at this woman’s persistence, but he couldn’t. A tiny fragment of pop star vanity still existed somewhere inside of him, apparently, hibernating until this woman’s resolute fandom had roused it.
“Perfect,” said the woman. “You and your guitar. I wouldn’t have it any other way.” She extended her hand and said, “I’m Millie Grandeere, by the way.”
“You can call me ‘Chuck,’” said Chuck, shaking Millie’s hand.
“I’d rather call you Charlie,” said Millie.
After giving Millie his phone number and agreeing that she would call him later in the evening to discuss specific details about his performance at the party, Chuck got in his truck and drove home. His wife Tracy was baffled by his story.
“It’s just weird,” said Tracy, sitting at the dining room table and drinking a mug of hot tea through a straw.
“I told you it was weird,” said Chuck. “That’s the first thing I said. I said, ‘A weird thing happened to me at the gas station.’” He stood by the dining room window and looked at the shed in the back yard. It either needed a new roof or it needed to be replaced entirely. His regret at painting it black had become such that he was leaning towards replacing it entirely.
“Why’d you agree to it?” asked Tracy. “We don’t need the money and I haven’t seen you play the guitar in years. I don’t even remember the last time.”
“I don’t know why I said ‘yes,’” said Chuck. “She just overwhelmed me. It seemed like she wasn’t going to let me go. She was just going to keep shouting figures at me until I gave in. Two thousand dollars is embarrassing enough. Please don’t tell anyone I’m getting paid that much, OK?”
“I won’t,” said Tracy. “Trust me, I’m embarrassed too. I just don’t understand why you said ‘yes.’ This woman can’t force you to perform at her daughter’s party. You can still tell her ‘no’ when she calls up tonight. Tell her you changed your mind.”
“No,” said Chuck. “I’ll look weak. It’ll seem like I only agreed to do it because I couldn’t say ‘no’ to her face.”
“That’s exactly what happened,” said Tracy.
“I’m doing it,” said Chuck. “It’s too late now. I need to go practice.” He watched Tracy warily, trying to determine whether or not she’d figured out how much he wanted to do this, wondering if she’d perceived his efforts to conceal his excitement at being idolized again on any scale.
Tracy stood up and stalked into the kitchen. After a short pause, Chuck heard her rinsing out her mug. It sounded like a needlessly thorough rinsing. She’d perceived something.
Chuck was impressed by the size and elegance of the Grandeere’s house when he arrived a little after 8 pm on Friday night. It was a house befitting of a multi-millionaire. All the kids who were attending the party had been asked to park on the street, but Millie had told Chuck he could park his truck in the driveway. He walked up to the front door with his electric guitar case in hand and heard a clamor of excited teenage voices coming from inside the house. He rang the doorbell and waited. Chuck liked teenagers OK. He knew a lot of people his age who hated teenagers, but he’d never had a problem with them.
Millie opened the door, already beaming at him, and said, “Come inside! Everything’s all set up for you!” She was wearing a knee-length white dress and her hair had been fashioned into an ornate pile on top of her head.
Chuck stepped into the front hall and Millie continued to chatter as she closed the door behind him. “Byron – that’s my husband – set up a little stage for you upstairs like we talked about. There’s an amplifier and a microphone, oh, I don’t know, everything you need. Byron took care of it. He’s a bit of a musician too, but really it’s just a hobby. He certainly never had a hit on the charts like you did!”
Chuck was stunned by the noise the teenage party-goers were generating. Though he hadn’t seen a single one of them yet, their shouts and laughter seemed to come from all sides and fill the front hall making it difficult to hear Millie’s gushing.
“Wow,” said Chuck. “The kids sound like they’re having a good time.”
“Oh yes,” said Millie. “When you get this many of them in one place it can get noisy.”
“How many are there?”
“I think Gwen invited around 150 or so,” said Millie. “But of course you have to expect more.”
“150?” Chuck hadn’t been expecting this kind of a turn-out. He’d thought maybe thirty kids at the most. The fact that there would be so many gave him an adrenaline rush that felt familiar, though it had been decades since he’d last experienced anything like it. Would the kids really like him? A catchy melody, a strong hook, fun lyrics: Chuck had once believed these things to be timeless. Maybe he still believed. He still had them at his disposal, ready to be deployed, ready to re-ignite his star if only for an evening.
“Gwen’s very popular,” said Millie. “Our parties here are somewhat legendary.”
Millie led Chuck up a wide staircase to the second floor. As they walked down the hall, Millie kept looking over her shoulder and smiling at Chuck who soon grew weary of returning the smiles but didn’t know how else to react. The noise of the party had receded to a distant roar and Chuck surmised that thus far the party had been contained to the lower levels of the house. Millie stopped in front of a set of large double doors and, opening one of them and stepping through, said “This is where you’ll be performing.”
Chuck followed her into the massive, high-ceilinged room and found it empty except for a 6-by-8 foot riser that had been set up against the far wall in front of a bank of windows that looked out over the house’s expansive back yard. The riser was slightly less than two feet high and on it there was an amplifier and a microphone on a stand which was wired into two smaller speakers resting on the riser’s front corners. Just inside the door on the left hand side, a slim man in a gray track suit and a fishing hat stood behind a sound board and fiddled with the knobs.
“Charlie,” said Millie, “This is my husband Byron. Byron, this is the Charlie Bostle.”
Byron came out from behind the sound board and shook Chuck’s hand. “Pleasure to meet you, Charlie. I respect your success as a musician. I dabble in music a little too, but Millie always tells me I could never compare to you.”
“Byron, don’t embarrass me!” said Millie with a gasp even though she’d said the same thing in almost the exact same words to Chuck in the front hall.
“You have a beautiful home,” said Chuck.
“You wanna do a quick sound check?” asked Byron.
While Chuck stood on the riser and tuned his guitar and Byron stood behind the sound board making inconsequential adjustments, Millie stood right in front of the riser and gazed up at Chuck. “Oh my goodness, is that the guitar from the cover of The Name’s Charlie? Is that the same guitar?”
“It is,” said Chuck without looking at Millie. Her behavior towards him made him even more uncomfortable with Byron in the room. Chuck leaned toward the mic and said, “Check one, Check two. Sounds fine to me, Byron.”
“Charlie,” said Millie. “Can you play one song before we bring the kids in?”
“Um,” said Chuck, wondering how much right he had to argue considering how much the Grandeeres were paying him.
“Go ahead,” said Byron from the opposite side of the room. “It wouldn’t hurt to play a whole song just to get the levels as close to perfect as we can.”
“What do you want to hear?” asked Chuck, looking down at Millie’s eager face.
“Do you really have to ask? I want to hear ‘Lovely, So Lovely.’ I need to hear it.”
“All right then,” said Chuck, giving his guitar a few introductory strums. “This is ‘Lovely, So Lovely.’”
Practicing at home, Chuck had struggled to patch together a set list of eight songs with which he could do a reasonably good job, but “Lovely, So Lovely” had not been a problem. Even though so much time had passed since he’d last played it, his fingers seemed to remember what to do on their own. It was as if “Lovely, So Lovely” had become a part of his DNA, a character trait that he’d never be able to shake.
Now, as Chuck sang “Lovely So Lovely” with only Millie for an audience, except for Byron who continued to tinker with no audible results, Millie clapped her hands to the rhythm of the song and sang along in a voice that, without amplification, Chuck thought sounded at least as loud as his did. In his heyday, the crowds had loved him, yes, but he’d never experienced adoration in such a concentrated dose before. He’d seen glimpses, maybe, as he was being hustled through mobs of screaming girls to his tour bus, but he’d never had to stare directly into one of those ecstatic faces for the length of an entire pop song and he was finding the experience deeply unnerving.
Millie’s reaction to his playing of “Lovely, So Lovely” forced Chuck to consider it in a new light, forced him to consider whether or not it was worthy of such a heartfelt display of emotion. He examined the song as he sang it, sifting through all of its extraneous elements to find its heart, its core, whatever it was that had sustained the song for this woman for so many years, something of value. There was nothing. The song was nothing but extraneous elements, piled up and strung together. Chuck remembered having realized this before, but it had been so long since he’d thought about the song at all that he’d forgotten. He’d forgotten why he’d never written another hit, stopped touring, married a woman who couldn’t have cared less about his momentary fame, moved to a small town, opened a bed and breakfast. But now he remembered. “Lovely, So Lovely” was dumb.
Chuck was embarrassed for Millie, embarrassed at how shameless she was in her devotion to such a trite, manipulative song. Chuck, better than anyone, knew how dumb the song was, knew how little thought or effort had gone into it when he wrote it, and he couldn’t help but think that someone who liked it as much as Millie did must also be dumb.
As he let the last notes of “Lovely, So Lovely” trail off, Chuck saw that Millie was crying.
“OK then,” said Byron. “I think that’s as good as we’re gonna get it. Millie, you want to call in the kids now?”
“Hold on,” said Chuck. “I’m not doing it.” He pulled the audio cable out of his guitar and unhooked the strap, kneeling to return the guitar to its case.
“What?” asked Byron. “What are you doing?”
“I’m not performing,” said Chuck. “I’m sorry, but I’m not a musician anymore. I’m not a performer.”
Millie was dabbing euphoric tears out of her eyes and off of her cheeks with a handkerchief in order to preserve her make-up as much as possible.
“If you go now, you’re not getting paid,” said Byron. “And you’ll be ruining a little girl’s seventeenth birthday party.”
“Give me a break,” said Byron. “Your daughter and her friends don’t care about me. They’d rather keep doing whatever it is they’re doing now than watch me butcher a bunch of my old songs.”
“What, are you scared?” asked Byron, his voice rising. “You lose your nerve?”
Millie whirled around to face Byron and shouted, “Byron, leave Charlie alone!” Then she turned back to Chuck and in a lower voice said, “Can you at least play ‘Lovely, So Lovely’ one more time? For me?”
“Sorry,” said Chuck. “No. I’m done.”
“I’m going to bed,” said Byron, punching the power button on the sound board and storming out of the room, his fishing hat crooked on the top of his head.
Chuck stepped down off the riser and immediately felt more at ease with the world.
“Here,” said Millie, holding a check out to Chuck. “Don’t worry about Byron. I already had this filled out and it was worth every penny. If you’re ever willing to do this again, I’ll happily pay.”
Chuck accepted the check and folded it in half, putting it in his jeans pocket. He didn’t feel like arguing over an amount of money that probably meant nothing to the Grandeeres.
“I’m not going to perform again,” said Chuck. “But if you want to see some of my recent work, you and Byron should come stay at our bed and breakfast for a night. I did a better job with the bathroom tile than I ever did writing songs.”
“It’s so sad to hear you say that,” said Millie. She looked sincerely crushed.
At the front door, with the party noise crashing around them again, Millie said, “I hope you’ll change your mind, Charlie. I’ll never stop hoping.”
Chuck didn’t tell her how pathetic she sounded. There was no need to be cruel to his biggest fan. “Good night,” he said.
As he drove home he realized that with the check in his pocket, he’d probably have enough to take care of the whole shed project as soon as the weather got nicer. It was something to look forward to.