The Laurel Leaf, Part 3: A New Empire in Rags

Arthur returned to his apartment, after spending hours at the Williams residence and considerably less time finally hunkering down to get groceries, with the sun just setting behind him, and his front door unlocked. 

He put the bags down beside the door and tiptoed inside, making his way to the safe, where he warned Kessler before he kept his gun and now ready to show him he wasn’t kidding. A few moments of this allowed him to confirm there indeed was someone in his apartment, and that person wasn’t rummaging through his files, or his safe, but rather his kitchen cabinets. Calming down, he headed toward the ruckus in the kitchen and found his daughter, ironically causing her to jump in fright. 

—Uh, sorry… I saw the door open, I…

The kitchen was a mess, paper bags all over the place, every pantry open. Cath also had tears in her eyes, and while a quick scan of the kitchen revealed a small bag of red onions on the countertop, Arthur couldn’t help but notice that they were not yet chopped. 

—You only had peanut butter… I got you some things… I’m going to make dinner.

Without a word edgewise from Arthur that dinner tonight wasn’t necessary, let alone that taking care of him whole-cloth like this was unnecessary in general, Cath got to work. Most people, when they hear devastating news, curl into the fetal position on their couch or bed and weep the whole day. Cath, not at all like most people, instead made pasta. 

This time, it was a simple affair of sautéed zucchini, fresh peas, and stewed diced San Marzano tomatoes tossed in farfalle with only a little butter, a handful of parmigiano, and the juice of the tomatoes coaxed out by a little salt and heat, to hold it all together. Arthur had had it from her before, and liked it then just as much as now, but as they ate together on opposite sides without saying a word to each other, Arthur could tell this time, as he could others, that the meal itself indicated her state of mind. She was already rushed for her show that night, and she no doubt in preparation for that show heard the news from Rafa, and all that together in her mind made her decide to use canned tomatoes rather than briefly boil real vine-ripened heirlooms in salt water and gently peel off the skins, which she usually did with a calmer mind. 

He could see how it all played out. Rafa let slip that Mr. Parker visited his dad, and his dad gave him the old Louis the fourteenth. Why did he visit your dad, Cath would have reasonably asked, to which Rafa would have tried to evade it with a non-answer, which he was horrible at doing, which would have made him finally give up and tell her the whole truth. 

—How is it?

—It’s good. It’s real good.

—I used canned tomatoes. 

—I know, I could tell. 

—I’m sorry. 

—I didn’t mean it like that. It’s okay…

—Everything else was fresh…

—Really, it’s fine. It was delicious… 

Cath reached for the bottle of chianti and made it a little less than halfway to her glass before slamming it on the table and breaking out in fresh tears. Arthur rose from his seat, bringing the chair to his daughter, and sat beside her.

—I really did not want you to find out that way, sweetheart. I’m so sorry. 

—I remember… all those years ago… I had her ashes, I… I can’t stop thinking about it now.

—I know. Me too. I thought about it almost immediately when the man told me.

—And this… this film? It’s horrible, those people who just… they just wanted to see mom sing. And they… and this man wants us to… how could anyone want to use mom to hurt people? How could we ever let him… 

Arthur gave her some time to cry in his shoulder for a while before he answered her question.

—Cath, listen. I want you to understand something. Your mother always wanted to play the Laurel Leaf. Even when she was in college, she wouldn’t shut up about it. It drove me crazy. I mean, it’s the whole reason she came to America, that theater, it’s the whole reason why we’re all here together, if you think about it. And that night, even after that big aria, she called me at one in the morning, she was just ecstatic. She couldn’t sleep. And the last thing she ever told me was how much she wanted us to see it. And what was strange was, she didn’t just mean me. She said she wanted everyone to see it. Me, you, Ian, Rafa, and… yeah, even Sherwood. It seemed strange for her to say that back then, but I know now that she wanted us all to see this now. Okay? That is the only reason I am tolerating this man in my life, government or no. Because I am sure that this is what she wants. 

—But what if he’s right? What if the performance… what if it makes us…

—Cath, it’s your mother. There is no one in the world who knows her better than you and I and Ian. You and I both know she would never do anything to hurt you. 

—I know, but, what if she didn’t know? What if she did it on accident?

—Then we’re all going to watch this last performance, in accordance to your mother’s wishes. And if it does happen, then we’re all going to see her again. And when we do she’ll tell you just how proud she is of you, just as much as I am now. 

He paused for a moment and looked into Cath’s eyes. 

—It’s true, you know that, right? I’m so proud of what you and Rafa are doing. 

She meekly nodded as she wiped away tears from her eyes.

—Speaking of that, I really hope this didn’t ruin your show for tonight.

—No, it’s fine. I mean it’s late-night, so we have a lot of time. We wanted to rehearse a little more because we’re doing this new song that Rafa…

—Then I want you to go right away. I want you to forget about all of this, don’t think about it even a little bit for the rest of the night. I want you to just play your song with Rafa and the others and make it the best it can be. Okay? 

Cath took a few deep breaths and nodded. After a few minutes she was good and ready to leave the apartment and go to her show. 

—I’m sorry I lost it. 

—I’m used to it by now. It’s my job to talk you down, Ian too.

—I can’t imagine Ian crying over anything. 

—He used to cry over abstract things, like at six years old realizing we’re all going to die one day, and at seven wondering if his friends in first grade secretly hated him. But you cried about real practical things, like… you had a lot of homework one day and you didn’t have time to finish the math assignment, and you bawled the whole night because you thought you were going to get expelled. 

Cath let out a laugh at this memory.

—I mean, to be fair, you and mom did enroll me in a real hard-ass private school. 

—If you knew how much they were gouging out of us every year, you would have never once worried about your enrollment on their part. 

Before she walked out of her father’s door for good, she hesitated and turned to face him one more time. 

—How are you going to tell Ian, by the way?

—Ain’t that the million dollar question.

Say what you will about Rafa and his Challengers, but despite his illustrious teacher from so long ago he still wasn’t the best living singer in the world. While his recorded material was impeccable and no one was writing popular songs like he was, his live performances would often betray written vocal parts with a tendency to exceed the range of his vocal grasp. Look no further than the climatic bridge (which happens twice!) in “The Laws Have Changed,” in which he inexplicably relegated singing duties to himself for the irresistible, and impossibly high-register, nananana hook (a technical term in music theory, don’t worry about it), when he had at his disposal at least three other Challengers behind him to pick up the slack. There has yet to be a single recorded live performance on record where he even hits that register, let alone does it like he isn’t dreading the moment that should instead be the moment everyone is looking forward to. 

No, though he took the words of his father to heart and made every song on his debut album impossible not to put on repeat, and though studio wizardry from technicians even better than he was at it did their best to hide that inescapable fact, he was not the best living singer by a longshot. That honor, short of sifting through every unknown and up-and-comer in the whole world, would have instead gone to his younger half-sister, Catherine Case Parker. 

Catherine, just like her full-and-half brothers, had such a strong musical talent that it almost seemed like she was born with it. Amedea once remarked to Arthur how much quicker Cath started singing as well as she could at five and a half, well before either Ian or Rafa started to show promise. From that moment on, anytime Cath opened her mouth to sing it was an event. Arthur and Amedea and even occasionally Ian would stop what they were doing to listen, as if she was blowing taps at an army base where everyone wasn’t merely required to salute but did anyway. 

That singing lesson so long ago, however, was the last time anything musical came easy to her. Where the sound of her voice once filled the house like a pleasant scent, it soon became an ordeal to get through once Cath started practicing the harder arias. She would trill her warmup exercises over and over again, she would then get going on a short song, right until she hit a hard spot. Like a big truck with wheels stuck in deep snow and mud, she would practice the part over and over, stopping and starting from the beginning every time, keeping the wheels grinding no matter how much they failed to surpass the snowy muddy hump. Ian was young enough back then to mock Cath’s repeated attempts to pronounce voglio correctly while they were all at the dinner table, but old enough to eventually figure out that the more he made fun of her sister the harder his mother and father would chastise him for making her cry.

A new vocal piece for Cath was a natural disaster, an illness, a stint of unemployment; in other words, something they all had to pull together and ride out while it lasted. Whatever joys they could all glean from her finally mastering one song were soon dashed into pieces upon receipt of another to get through, and no one dreaded this new difficulty in the house more than Cath herself. And the thing was, she was not at all singing badly. No one in the house told Cath she was a bad singer, only Cath ever told that to herself. She began to hate the opera as much as her mother used to when she was a girl, and she began to resent Ian for his ability to breeze through anything he set out to do, finish his homework in an hour from getting home from school, finish a polyphonic choral arrangement in half a week (not really a Palestrina arrangement so much as a pastiche of Palestrina, just something to do while I was bored, he said with a huff at the dinner table once), figure out a Chopin prelude the same day upon first seeing it, or maybe one more on an off-day. She always remembered with a shudder the day she brought her whole family together to hear her first entirely self-composed song. She sat down on the piano and sang maybe three bars or so of it before Ian interrupted it with loud raucous laughter. Why don’t you write something just a little more trite than that, he told her, braving all the shouts and smacks from both of their parents that were sure to come. Why not write something like, I’m sitting at my desk with a blank sheet of paper, and gee, nothing seems to come out, I wonder what should I write about? Why don’t you just make the whole overt text be about how you have nothing to say. He stormed off to his room and went back to his own work, later insisting that he saved all of them far more time in effort in being brutally honest within the first minute of hearing it than drawing out the mediocre experience with false flattery. 

 In her darkest hour at nine years old, she tearfully confessed to her mother that she hated singing, hated opera, and hated that no matter how hard she tried she just couldn’t do it right. 

The other major difference between Cath and her brothers was her capacity for empathy, for compassion. While Ian was the firstborn of the Parkers and so received his parents’ unspoiled spoiling, Cath was the child born after Rafa, after the incident that, no matter how much they denied it, or perhaps without even noticing it, always wedged a mild rift of tension between the two. Cath could sense the gap between her parents that Ian at the same age never had to worry about, and to compensate for her parents’ tension she, for better or worse, compulsively acted in all things with an aim to please everyone, or at least as many as could be pleased. Her talent for singing was the same such concession to please, this time her mother. She could sense that, just like Ian and Rafa’s talents were a gift from Amedea to them, so was her voice such a gift that she owed to her mother to do right by. She thought that not only did she have to sing as well as she did, but also had to be as talented as Ian was in every other way, including in songwriting, arrangements, and production. Amedea could tell that this was how she felt and wanted to tell her it was not the case, that she would be proud of her daughter no matter what she decided to do with her abilities, music or no, as long as she did all things with the same intensity and drive as she brought to her music. 

Due to the fact that this occurred not long before Amedea landed her dream gig at the Laurel Leaf theater, she never got a chance to tell that to her daughter out loud, though maybe they both understood it on some level. It didn’t stop Cath from pursuing a straight opera career from middle school, from the time of her mother’s death, all the way up to nineteen years old. It was perhaps not so much an idea of Cath’s that she had to do exactly what her mother did because she really thought her mother expected it of her, so much as maybe that the burning question of what do I do with this voice had gone unanswered for so long that that was the only answer she could reasonably come up with by herself. Just like that embarrassing first song that Ian ripped apart and her parents half-heartedly told her don’t worry, it wasn’t that bad, it took more effort than it should have to get her opera performances off the ground, and when they did, be it The Magic Flute, Tosca, La Traviata, or Nixon in China, the reviews were mixed. It got to the point where even she had to admit that she had maybe two or three more performances tops where she could coast on the mere fact that she was the great Amedea Parker’s only daughter. 

This continued, as I mentioned before, until the Halloween of her nineteenth year. It started when on a whim Arthur decided to reinstate the cornerstone of all the Parker family traditions: for the first time since Amedea died, Arthur announced to his family, his friends, and his wife’s connections to the music industry, that the Parker Monster Mash was back. Halloween was always Amedea’s favorite holiday, and even more so than Christmas or Thanksgiving or even New Year’s she would throw a party at her place and pull out all the stops. Nothing could stop a Parker Monster Mash once it got rolling, no matter where Amedea was in the world, no matter where her children were, no matter how important her guest collaborator, no matter how deep into a world tour. In a holdover from parties at college, costumes were of course required, or no entry, no excuses, no whining. 

Well, eleven years after his wife’s passing, Arthur once again distributed the spooky invitations to the usual family members, friends of the family, and Amedea’s old colleagues. Since Rafa had just hit it big with the Challengers and “On the Table,” Cath invited him, which meant that Sherwood was also invited, no matter how much Arthur grumbled. They all agreed, per Cath’s instructions and just as they all did years ago when Amedea was alive, to wear costumes based on the old Universal monsters (though Arthur, even eleven years after the fact, was reluctant to call the whole thing “a graveyard smash”). That night, Arthur was Dracula, Rafa the wolf man, Cath the bride of Frankenstein, and Ian, who was supposed to be the invisible man, instead showed up an hour late wearing an authentic replica of a military uniform once donned by Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. 

Ian had a handful of hors d’oeuvres and an old fashioned he muddled himself before leaving without saying a word to anyone, but this isn’t about him. 

While making the rounds as the party was winding down, she found Rafa plinking about on the old family piano. He was playing this series of trills that sounded like orchestral hits in a sweeping film score. Cath took a break from being the bride of Frankenstein and helped herself to the space on the piano bench next to Rafa, asking him what that was. Oh, just something I’m working on, which is what he told anyone when they asked him that question, which more so than not was the truth anyway. 

The conversation then went to “On the Table,” as it tended to those days with the journalists as much as Rafa’s close friends and family. He humored Cath for a while and played the gently lolling piano counterpart to his hit, and Cath surprised him by helping herself to his lead vocal part, memorizing every word and singing it with more power and intensity than he could have imagined himself doing it. A grueling match then ensued between the two, a knock-down drag-out match to see who could be more self-deprecating while deferring more to the other’s great talent. Wow, you have such a great voice. Thanks, but it’s just the song. You should hear me try to screech out Tosca. “What an actor” indeed. Ah come on, it can’t be that bad, and besides, you didn’t even have to try to sing my song, and you did it perfectly. You should see me live, if you want to talk about screeching. Rafa played a chord while howling like the namesake of his costume, which elicited a laugh from Frankenstein’s monster’s bride. It’s all thanks to studio wizardry that I sound so good on the record. That can’t be true, not if mom taught you too like they say. 

Why don’t you try your hand at a rock song? They’re easier to write and sing than arias. Oh no, not for me, she blurted quicker than she meant to, remembering Ian’s harsh treatment of her last composition those years ago. I’m ah… I tried once, and I was told I don’t have anything to say. That’s nonsense. Everyone’s got something to say. It just starts with a melody. Oh, I could never write music either, that was always Ian’s thing. And… I guess your thing too. 

Rafa bet Cath that night that they could come up with a song that very night. He coaxed and prodded and begged her to sing just anything, just one little ditty, the first thing that came to her mind. She hummed out a small thing, a small melody that ascended to a tense climax, walked down a couple steps and ended on the same tension, repeating it three more times before finally resolving. That’s fantastic, Rafa said, adding his trills he was working on before. I’m obsessed with this idea, you see, it’s what my dad’s been telling me all this time. It’s the song that’s important, it’s not you or anyone else, it’s not your feelings or whatever. They all have to work for the song. The lyrics have to mean something, but not something specific. I’ll tell you a secret, I wrote “On the Table” about my dad. Really? Yeah, don’t tell anyone, and definitely don’t tell him! But my point is, the words are about him to me, but they are written in a way that the words can be about anything to anyone. 

Rafa technically lost the bet. It took them that night and the following day to finish the song. Cath needed a little more time to think of some words that fit Rafa’s criteria. The one thing she could think of when she left that party was Ian. Ian, who like a smartass wore that Pinochet getup to the Monster Mash and didn’t even so much as say hello. Ian who told her she had nothing to say. Ian who spent his days recording in his own studio and almost never letting the sun so much as shine on his face. 

When Cath took Rafa up on his invitation to come to his studio the next day to finish the song they started, they cranked out what would become a minor hit but nonetheless a staple of the new Challengers’ live show. “Colossus of Rhodes,” with Cath’s simple soaring melody in the verse, with Rafa’s odd violin flourishes bolstering it underneath, with Rafa’s electric guitar part walking on the off-beat, and most importantly of all, for the first time in her life, with Cath’s words:

There is no booze left in the house

There is no air left in the room

But still some fuel left for the fire

Colossus of Rhodes

There are no signs of struggle here

There are no signs of forced entry 

Could have been you, might have been me

Colossus of Rhodes

Cause we’ve had break-ins before

We’ve had break-ins before

She thought back to the last time she visited Ian, the first time he allowed anyone to visit him in his home studio. It was a pigsty. If she didn’t know better she might have thought he was squatting in a condemned studio because that was all he could afford. She saw someone devoted to his work, for sure, but also far more concerned for his privacy against threats without than threats to his safety within. She imagined him like the famous statue of old, a towering thing, a work of art and beauty to be sure, but grim and humorless and alone, and destined to erode away in time like anything else, immortal or no. 

There is no point in trying to run

The calls are coming from the house

I changed the locks on every door

Colossus of Rhodes

Cause we’ve had break-ins before

We’ve had break-ins before

Almost every line in the song, except maybe “Colossus of Rhodes,” was either said verbatim by Ian during that visit, or she could have imagined him saying any of those things for real. He showed her the new locks on the doors and windows, he actually first told her upon entry that there was no booze left. She could have sworn he shouted to her “we’ve had break-ins before” at least once. The space was just another thing Ian could speak to her about instead of anything that mattered to either of them, a way to fill space and time with sound before she got the hint and excused herself and left him to work. 

I’ll point the way to my front door, to the exit lights

It’s not too late to get there, it’s not too late to kick you out

And after all these lifetimes, to see it all go south

If the party’s over, it’s not too late to kick you out

The first half of that bridge, of course, was Ian, but the second was how Cath felt about it all. A strange thing was happening with her and Rafa. While she never felt as far apart from her flesh-and-blood brother as she did then, with this person she barely knew growing up as her sort-of brother she was sort-of never allowed to speak to, who randomly just took a chance on her one day, she began to open up, to allow her talent twist and morph into something that could actually bring her joy for once. 

Rafa invited Cath to be a permanent member of the Challengers, and she accepted. He would figure out arrangements to have her sing along to songs from his first Cath-less album, and from then on they would write songs together. Rafa and Cath did all things with the Challengers in service to his philosophy, his father’s philosophy, of the song needs what the song needs. Rafa knew that what the songs needed were someone with Cath’s voice to cut through people’s short attention spans, to grab their hearts and never let go until they cried uncle. 

Rafa agreed to figure out arrangements for the songs on his first, Cath-less album to give her something to do in live shows before the co-written songs in the setlist, and some of them leaned more on her vocals than others, “Table,” for example, being a still fairly Rafa-heavy cut. One of these such newly-arranged songs, “Letter From an Occupant,” was in its first iteration a mere b-side on the first album, a not-bad-at-all track if not the most hotly requested at the shows. When he gave the vocal reins to Cath, however, it exploded into a monster hit song that needed to be re-recorded and re-released on subsequent pressings of his debut. When the big anthemic bridge came up, where’ve all sensations gone, where’ve all sensations gone?, it was in Rafa’s hands previously a pretty neat little tension builder that led to the strong chorus pleasantly enough. But when Cath sang where’ve all sensations go-ho-ho-hone with the usual power and ferocity at her disposal and with just a little bit of her husky voice cracking, it could have stopped the earth from rotating for a minute to come up with an answer. 

The song almost stopped the new recording session right in its tracks. At the peak of the bridge, right before they go into the chorus again, right at the part where she holds gone, spreading her arms out like she was singing an aria to her mother years ago while Rafa and the Challengers riff on for the love for the love for the love of a god you say, then all in on not a letter from an occupant, before ending it all with the meager ooooo hook that Rafa doled out for himself, it was all anyone could do to stop the song in mid-recording in utter dumbfounded shock. This is the one, they all said to each other with astonished laughs as Cath basked in their adulation as modestly as she could. 

It was this recording of “Occupant,” with a candid behind-the-scenes shoot of the re-recording serving as the music video, that Sherwood eventually showed to Arthur, in a rare breach of their original agreement to never speak to each other. When Arthur heard the news that his daughter and Sherwood’s son were going to permanently collaborate on a new project and became predictably miffed by the news, before he had a chance to have a stern talking-to with Cath and forbid it over his dead body, Sherwood showed Arthur the video of Cath taking the lead, singing with the same commanding authority of her mother, but in the service of a song that even a famous opera-hater like he could have maybe gotten into, and most importantly, finally, for once, enjoying herself all throughout. Arthur saw his daughter singing beside Rafa with a smile, with a countenance of pure joy, a joy that rivaled his wife’s when she sang at her best. If you want to tell your daughter she can’t have that, Sherwood told him at the end of the song, then I’ll go ahead and tell my son he can’t either. It’s up to you. 

To date, not counting the reworked songs on his debut, Rafa and Cath have recorded three platinum-selling albums together as the Challengers. 

Arthur meant it when he told his daughter that he wanted her to do her very best for that night’s show, and he fully intended to watch it. It’s just that it had been years since he owned a television with access to strictly-speaking cable access. A couple subscriptions to some fancy classic-movie channels and I dunno maybe Netflix or some other thing and he was fine, but he never really did show much interest in what the big tv execs thought America needed to see. Well, that night’s performance made him do something he hadn’t done in years: he left his apartment, taking care to bring the precious film with him in his satchel, and sought out a local bar that played that particular late-night show on one of their large TVs, and thought maybe he could wield his power and influence and money to see if the bartenders couldn’t maybe turn up the sound on it. 

There was a lot more riding on the show than Cath let on when she first told her father about it, more than even she was aware. As far as she knew, as far as any of the music insiders and crew and show leaders knew, the Challengers were merely going to debut a new single. It surprised her as much as it did the audience and perhaps Arthur at the loud Irish pub he stumbled into when Rafa delayed the performance of their “new song” to announce that he was dedicating it to the song’s sole author, his father, Sherwood Williams. 

Only two people knew the secret then, both Williamses. Weeks ago, when Sherwood was  first sentenced to house arrest for the latest crime, and when it became incumbent upon Rafa to assist his father through this difficult time, the reality of the situation hit him harder than perhaps it ever had before. Whereas on the day that Arthur paid a visit to his house and he was raving about dying on his bed like Brian Wilson with a sort of macabre self-deprecating sense of humor and theatricality, it was that first couple of weeks where he might have said similar words to Rafa and meant them to his core (Rafa wasn’t messing around when he told his father on that later day that he had seen him in a sorrier state before, as he only had to go back a few months). It was his chance to make something of himself, you see, he rambled to Rafa, to be something other than this silly, flamboyant, drunk and violent has-been. Every time I get even a little bit of self-confidence to pick myself up from the gutter, the world just shoves me back into it. How could you even think to do something so foolish, the world tells me as it pulls me back in. Don’t you know your place?

Rafa had heard all this before, and spent years and wasted breaths trying to placate him, trying to tell him it wasn’t so bad, that something would turn around, that maybe this time you shouldn’t, you know, deliberately break the law. It never got Sherwood anywhere before, so there was no need to repeat himself this time. Instead, a strange idea occurred to him, and at that moment he decided to go for it, thinking that if it didn’t work at least it wouldn’t have made things worse for either of them. 

Where do you want to be, he asked his father. What do you want when you do rise up from the gutter? I want what I had. With you, with Amedea. With… just someone, anyone willing to take me seriously. What would you need to do to convince someone to take you seriously? I don’t know… I mean I need to crank out some arrangements, I need to… Dad. Why not try writing a song? What? No, no… No, I never, that’s not what I… You write the songs, I just… Dad, listen. You spent your whole life thinking you needed mom, or you needed me. Why don’t you try and create something completely by yourself? Oh, and what if I do? I’m an old man. What, I’m going to start a band? Shaking my wrinkled freckled ass on stage? Even if I could leave here, no one wants to see that… 

That almost nipped the whole thing in the bud, until once again, an idea came to Rafa that was crazy, but so crazy that it just might work. 

How about this? You write me a song, and I’ll perform it. What? That’s right, you’re going to write the next hit song by the Challengers. I don’t understand… It’s easy. You write a song for me, I make it a hit, and all the royalties go to you so you can pull yourself together. You would… you mean you would… It’s no big deal dad, people do it all the time. When Iggy Pop was broke, Bowie covered “China Girl” so the royalties would go to him too. You mean… and then Sherwood finally cracked a smile at the proceedings… you mean you really think so little of me, your own father, that you’d compare me to Iggy Pop? 

All throughout the house from that day well up to the slated late-night performance, it was Rafa’s turn to hound his father as a father should hound an insolent son. When will it have an end, Rafa might have yelled to his father in another time, to which he would have gotten the same grunted response, when I’m finished! 

It was the night of the big show, and there was no time to delay now. Arthur at the pub, anyone tuning in, having processed the big news, now saw Rafa standing before them, hesitating, as if muttering to himself come on, dad… 

And there was his dad, in his own studio, the house arrest thing itching his ankle. He had an idea, but he had no idea how to go about it, where to even start. It seemed like the audience watching Rafa and Cath were all waiting on Sherwood, months before, to get cracking, but all he could do for a while was plunk down on some random keys to pass the time.

Rafa told him to write something by himself, but he cheated a little. Years ago, the success of producing Amedea’s debut popular album gave Sherwood the confidence he needed to propose the opposite concept, Amedea being a guest vocalist on album full of his own original work. On that fateful night, before they created Rafa together, Sherwood sidled up to a nearby piano and pounded out the beginnings of his first song in a while, a real Wall-of-Flowers tune for the new millennium. It started with him gently arpeggiating the chords to each line, imaging a soft baroque French horn part playing that melody Amedea would always hum when she was around him. 

Under your wheels, the hope of spring

Mirage of loss, a few more things

You left your sorrow dangling

It hangs in the air like a school cheer

He remembered Amedea telling him she hated poetry, which shocked him at the time. Her official policy, she told him, was that if it was poetry by someone she cared about, then it was automatically the greatest poetry she had ever read and she was lucky to know that person at all. If it was poetry by a stranger, that poet was automatically a coward who should make that poem into song lyrics or shut up for the good of everyone. Even if Arthur wrote poems, he asked her with a laugh. Even if Are-tour wrote them (she had recently picked up Sherwood’s annoying habit of calling him by his full name, and the more time she took rolling both r’s the more it made him grumble). Anyway, she told him then that that last couple of lines in that stanza, the moment she read them, made her stop reading and gasp out loud. No other poem she had ever read in her life had done that to her. 

Complex notes inside the chords

On every wall inflections carved

Deepest lakes and darkest stars

Remember we were the volunteers

Sherwood, as we learned earlier, read the reviews and watched the interviews just the same as anyone else, and he was well aware that Rafa wrote a mildly deprecating song about him that became his biggest hit. No reason not to lightly allude to it now, none at all.

Oh, courts knew this and nothing more

Oh, but now it’s my rights versus yours

And then came that bounce, the Wall-of-Flowers bounce, that “Daydream Believer” bounce that let everyone know Sherwood was in the room, but this time tinged with a strange melancholy. It was hard for the studio audience to hear it coming out of Rafa for the first time, months later.

Under your wheels, your hopeless reign

You fell too hard, we’re up too late

We hang suspended from the heights

Until it’s safer to walk here

Under your wheels, your chances with

The easy calls, the called-off search

The medicine it still won’t work

But there’s dangerous levels of it here. 

And now the song starts for real. The drums pick up the Sherwood bounce, and months later when the Challengers perform, Cath’s ooohs sound a little louder, a little more pronounced. 

Oh, same thing as the other time

Oh, but now it’s your rights versus mine

The truth in one free afternoon

Here comes the part where Sherwood, barely able to contain himself those years ago, told Amedea that this is where she comes in. It starts with his voice, then she comes in and they sing the bridge together twirling around each other like coffee mixing with cream. It’s the part where Cath gets into it on the late-night stage with Rafa. It’s the part where, months earlier, Amedea sat beside Sherwood and placed a gentle hand on his shoulder as he played the piano, singing along with her just the way he showed her years ago. 

Under my wheels, the chances held

Gave me to save me from myself

Spectacles painted with my shaking hand

Sherwood started to tremble at the piano, knowing full well that even though the words might not have meant anything to anyone else, they meant everything to him. Amedea was the chance he had to save him from himself, and he, ever the charming self-deprecator, regarded his work as a spectacle painted with an unconfident, shaky hand. 

Fingers in paints, in paints we brought

Thinking we’d need them when we’re not

Flying the flags of new empires in rags

A new empire in rags

The truth in one free afternoon

He remembered at that moment when someone described to him what their favorite song was like. At a mere under-two-minutes, it was so perfect it was like their dead beloved grandfather come back to visit as a ghost, but that spirit only had the less than two minutes to stay. That memory burned in his head suddenly, as tears welled up in his eyes and his hands on the piano faltered.

A new empire in rags

The truth in one free afternoon

A new empire in rags 

The truth in one free afternoon

He would have stopped the performance if Amedea hadn’t squeezed his shoulder just a little harder, taking up some of the vocal slack but also gently encouraging him to keep going, acknowledging that it was hard but he had help from people who loved and cared for him.

A new empire in rags

The truth in one free afternoon

A new empire in rags

The truth in one free afternoon

This is the part where Amedea completely takes over the vocals, and so does Cath from Rafa during the performance months later. To be honest, it was an accident, but after his little mid-song breakdown and Amedea’s help he realized how much better, how more symmetrical, it made the song. 

Under your wheels, the fits and starts

The time to dabble in the arts

To tease the packs of dogs in charge

But kid, it’s all wasted on me

Again, a verse Sherwood had written about himself, but something magical happened when it came from Amedea’s mouth. If Sherwood had a knack for making any statement whatsoever have a negative connotation, then Amedea had the opposite talent, anything could be made into a genuinely positive sentiment. All the fits and starts, she sang to Sherwood, kid it’s all wasted on me. 

Under your wheels the hope of spring

Mirage of loss, a few more things

The medicine it still won’t sing

But there’s dangerous levels of it here

All in for the outro as the Challengers sang backup like an old Renaissance choir directed by Palestrina himself, while Amedea and Sherwood months ago, and Rafa and Cath now, repeated your rights over my rights now against a gentle oooooh. Then the studio audience clapped and cheered as they were supposed to do, not as though they wouldn’t have anyway. They just didn’t know what to make of it, and it probably made more sense than not in the end that Rafa warned everyone that it came from his father’s head.

Amedea, before he left Sherwood for good, let him weep in her shoulder as he caressed the back of his head and shushed him quiet. This was his last chance to back out, to just shrug and tell his son he had nothing for him, nothing left to say. This was his last chance to deny that a thing of beauty could come from within his own heart, with all the flower petals and warts that came with it. 

Later that evening, he hobbled over to Rafa, who had his feet up on the coffee table in the living room watching a weird Japanese movie called The Pornographers (which a few days later he struggled to explain to his father was a lot less perverted than he assumed, no really, he assured him in vain, see, it’s on the Criterion Channel, they wouldn’t just put actual pornography on there, they only screen like artistic foreign old… ah forget it), and slapped a bundle of scribbled musical staff paper on his lap. Rafa didn’t say a word for a while as he perused the lyrics and music to himself. I gotta say, he told his father, it really took you long enough. Well, son, it’s like I’ve always told you, a song is a special thing, you can’t just treat it like a twink and bang it all out in one go. That… that was the most revolting thing you’ve ever told me in my whole life. I’m gonna make myself a mule, his father said, with his unrivaled talent of ignoring any elephant in a room, want one? And like really, considering what I’ve been up against all these years, that’s a goddamn serious claim. 

Sherwood ignored his son’s voice as he sauntered over to the bar and plunked the first few ice cubes into his copper mug. 

Arthur couldn’t help but chuckle a little bit when he found his apartment door unlocked once again. He was willing to give it at least one or two more instances, allowing for Cath’s state of mind in light of this family emergency, before he’d gently let on to her that he’d much rather prefer she shut the door behind her. Those plans all evaporated from his head, however, when he went further in to his place and found most of the lights off. He went on, not having much time to allow his eyes to adjust to the dark, before he heard a familiar voice coming from one of the chairs, lurking in a corner for what must have been hours in exactly the way government spooks in spy movies do.

—You’re taking way too long. 

Arthur fumbled around for a light, because unlike Agent Kessler he was no government spook in a spy movie.

—I remember you saying before to take as long as you need. 

—Obviously I didn’t mean it at face value.

To be fair to Kessler, it had been a week and a half since he told Arthur the big news, since before Rafa and Kath’s performance, since the news of their new modestly-successful single. Kessler took out a lighter, pulled out a cigarette from a pack with his mouth and lit one.

—Did you seriously just wait all day for me to arrive before you…

—I smoked three others while I waited. It took you long enough to get home too.

—Look, I don’t really appreciate you just thinking you can come in here and…

—Frankly, I don’t care what you don’t appreciate. I need to make sure you haven’t forgotten what all this is supposed to be about. 

—I really think I’m doing the best I can here. I mean, do you realize what we’re up against? This is my son here…

His mind flashed back to earlier this morning. Sherwood, Rafa, Cath, and he payed a visit to Ian’s apartment, the first time in several years he had done so, and certainly the first time ever with such a large crowd in tow. He had Cath do most of the talking at first, but even then he could see right through it. Who are you with, he asked through the intercom as they all waited outside the door to the building. Just me, she told the voice box, just as bad a liar as Rafa, maybe worse. Catherine. If you say you’re alone and I find out you are not, we will have a problem. With not much of a choice, the others chimed in, Rafa, Sherwood, and then Arthur. Taking over for the group, his father told him that it was about his mother, and that he knew he was a very private person and he had his reasons, and that they wouldn’t all be there if it wasn’t absolutely important. 

Ian was silent for a long while, which Arthur had to admit was a major breakthrough after all the other times he tried to speak to his adult-age son, which had not been successful since indeed his last day as a member of the ‘Woods. Sadly, the next sounds that came out of the intercom made it all too clear that nothing had changed. An instantly recognizable keyboard riff in E major that in others would have maybe inspired indifference, maybe a fist-pumping shout-along in others, but in Arthur inspired pure apoplectic rage. 

He always does this, he screamed to the others. For fucking years, any time I try to speak to my only son, he just sits there and plays Don’t Stop Believing, over and over again, until I leave. 

—Well, what did you expect? You brought everyone else along with you, stupid. You brought yourself, too, an even worse mistake.

—How else could I have made it clear to him that this was…

—You could have just made your daughter go. 

—Cath? Why would that have made a difference?

—She already speaks to him in private. At least once a month. 

—…she does? I didn’t know that.

—Of course you didn’t. She’s the only living human being he doesn’t despise, why would he have told you? Anyway, if you lean on her a little more she could at least get an audience with him.

—I don’t understand why we’re holding you up, anyway. You’re the government, if this means so damn much to you can’t you just… you know, kidnap us and lock us up on a black site or…

—You’re thinking of the CIA. We just extract the information to give to them to kidnap you and keep you on a black site. And since they are not cooperating in this matter, we sadly don’t have that option available to us. Not a bad idea otherwise though… 

—Well, okay… I’ll give it a shot then. If we’re done here, I’d like you to leave now.

—Not until you put away the film.


—You took the film with you today. 

—Well, of course I did. I had to show him what this is all about.

—That film is government property. When you carry it with you, you run the risk of losing it.

—I keep it my satchel, how do you think I’m going to lose it?

—Do you really think I’m the only agent interested in that film? Do you really think the United States is the only nation with your eye on you?

—Are you telling me we’re in danger?

—Maybe not so much now… but the longer you take, the more you will be. 

—How am I supposed to tell my family the government has a hard-on for my wife’s last performance if I can’t show them the copy of the performance in question?

—That sounds very much like a you problem. Put it in your safe, right now. I won’t go until you do.

Arthur sighed and sauntered over to his safe and pulled out the film from his bag.

—So what, is there like a camera in your lighter and you’re going to record me entering my combination so you can…

—Again, Mr. Parker, CIA shit. We don’t install little cameras when we can just look through your phones. 

With another sigh Arthur opened the safe and popped in the film. 

—Good. You have twenty-four hours. 

Pfft, fuck off. Twenty-four hours or what, Ethan fucking Hunt?

—Well, if we can’t open the container it won’t be the first time a government project failed, to be honest. But more importantly for you, if you all do indeed fail to view the film together, you would be privy to a major government secret and… well, let’s just say we would very quickly begin cooperating with another agency after all. 

Continued in Part 4: All This Sound From a Single Tone

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