The fathers came home from work, set their briefcases on the polished floors of their split-level homes and doffed their hats in anticipation. But the daughters did not rush down the stairs, sleek ponytails trailing them, to kiss the fathers hello. The mothers were in the kitchen, where they belonged, seasoning roasts, and the sons were outside, running, kicking, roughhousing, as they should have been. But the daughters, the entire young female population of idyllic Sweet Apple, were shut up in their bedrooms with him. Notes like soap bubbles swelled from the deepest grooves of their 45rpm records and slid gracelessly through the cracks in the door, down the mahogany railing, and into the fathers’ aching ears.
The fathers shrugged, muttered, “What’s the matter with kids these days?” Each poured himself a drink from the liquor cabinet. And poured another. Years ago—before they themselves were fathers—the fathers’ fathers had plugged their ears to the fathers’ swing records, had rolled their eyes at the hand painted ties their sons proudly sported, and the fathers had managed to come out of adolescence good citizens, their sprawling Ohio suburb a brilliant Technicolor pinup of American values: a television in every living room, a Life magazine on every coffee table, an automobile in every garage. But there was something about this singer. The fathers refused to speak his name. The daughters collapsed at its merest utterance, a carnal sigh escaping their trembling lips as the backs of their hands brushed their foreheads. Once or twice even the wives had fallen unconscious, though upon awakening, they blushed hot as irons and blamed the episodes on “female trouble.”
Female trouble was right, the fathers thought.
The daughters carried the singer’s records home from Gimbels in nondescript paper bags that crinkled against their chests as they ran past the fathers—without even saying hello—upstairs to their rooms. They pored over glossy teen magazines, memorizing every word, turning the pages with more reverence than the Bibles they’d studied for Confirmation. They blew sweet breath into plastic receivers, cords coiling their wrists like Cleopatra’s snake, and whispered secrets to each other for hours; phone bills arrived in envelopes so thick that the fathers owed the postman three cents. They spoke in a code of giggles and shrills, kicking up their legs as they lay recumbent on living room floors. When they referred to the boys from school—the sons, the fathers’ boring, unfashionable sons—it was always in implicit comparison to the singer. They constructed shrines on the periwinkle walls of their bedrooms, carefully arranged photos and lipstick-kissed album covers set against a candle’s shivering flame, which they kneeled before each night in supplication. The voices of the fathers and the mothers and the teachers and the public officials admonished them, but the daughters only tilted their heads mercurially and shrugged, offering no indication that they would indeed sit up straight or make their beds or pay attention or quit scowling.
The daughters danced the way some spontaneously combust: fiercely, without warning, watusi fireballs whose sparks coalesced into something atomic and wild. And yet, too, in flawless unison, their feet slapping the ground in precise harmony like the booted legs of a cartoon centipede. They danced everywhere, and on their way everywhere, leaving no damage in their wake but an incessant melody that gonged deep within the caverns of the fathers’ ears. They danced without practice, closed-eyed, offering no invitation. The fathers, the mothers, and the sons could only watch. The mothers, their breasts sagging and heavy, their hips creaky and slow, released their envy on beaten eggs and pounded dough. The sons elbowed one another and held their schoolbooks by their waists, saving images of the daughters’ legs in their minds for later use under bedsheets. And the fathers. The fathers clenched their fists, lines of sweat streaking their shirts, and averted their eyes. The daughters only laughed and continued to bop.
The fathers had been betrayed. The television host had allowed the singer, with his rough, black voice and arching pelvis, to penetrate, over the airwaves, the fathers’ very living rooms. As if to taunt them, the singer was shown only from the waist up.
Meanwhile the daughters, sprawled across the floor or on the couch clutching pillows between their thighs, easily imagined what they weren’t being shown. As the singer slapped the neck of his guitar and licked his girlish lips, the daughters’ squeals deepened into hollow moans that rose like smoke from the backs of their throats. As if in response, the singer, in the beat between verse and chorus, smiled and released a wordless, high-pitched growl. The daughters exploded inside, their hormones hurtling them instantly into womanhood. Breasts rose like yeasted dough. Curves rounded every boxy frame. The daughters danced then, clapping their hands and circling the furniture, stumbling in their new clumsy bodies. From their chairs, the fathers looked up from newspaper sports pages and sighed. The sons continued to watch the program with feigned disinterest, occasionally sneaking glances at their sisters. When the daughters caught them looking, they held pillows in their laps and stared shamefully at the floor.
The daughters shimmied. They shook. They slapped their hips with their palms. As the song chimed toward its conclusion the singer curled his lip and brought his hand into the television frame like a wave. His fingers shaking as if nervous, he took a step back, swung his arm rapidly up and across like a baptizing preacher, bowing his head as the guitar struck its final note.
The daughters stopped, their muscles clenched. Streaks of blood crawled out from beneath their skirts and ran down their legs, a few drops settling into the cotton of their stockings. The fathers folded their papers and exited the room, pulling the grousing sons by their ears. The mothers appeared a moment later clutching boxes of sanitary napkins. They patted the daughters on their shoulders and explained what the daughters already knew while the TV host shook the singer’s hand and thanked him for appearing on the show.
The fathers were concerned. The daughters’ skirts were getting shorter by the day. They only stopped dancing to eat or sleep, and sometimes not even then. No matter where the fathers were—driving in their automobiles with the windows rolled up, drinking in the dank basement of the Shrine Club, out in the yard with loud, snarling lawnmowers—they heard, however faintly, the singer’s music, wafting down from the daughters’ bedroom windows or spilling out from parked cars, or merely being hummed by passing swarms of teenagers. The fathers could no longer remember silence.
The sons were enlisted to tame the daughters. They were no more fans of the singer than the fathers, they said. The singer had stolen their women. In their nightmares, images of a wifeless generation tormented them: coming home evenings, parking their cars in driveways and ascending porch steps in unison, fedoras clutched against their chests, briefcases pinched in their arms, to be greeted only by hat racks and empty houses. They awoke bound in tangles of sheets.
They asked one another’s sisters out for Friday night. The daughters shrugged and nodded, then met in the school’s courtyard, where they whispered through cupped hands while the sons looked on, unhearing, unknowing. In the days following, the fathers bought the sons gaudy outfits approved by the mysterious and capricious arbiters of teenage fashion. The sons were embarrassed, skittish. Was a gold-sequined vest really the thing to wear to a drive-in movie? The fathers showed them how to shave, assisted in applying just the right amount of aftershave, though the sons could grow only a few whiskers. On date night, the fathers called the sons into their studies and closed the doors. Reaching into desk drawers, they removed rolls of prophylactics and, winking, slipped them into their sons’ pockets along with their car keys.
Hours later the fathers glanced at their watches. It was late. The mothers, in nightgowns, brought the fathers their pipes and lit them, then went upstairs to bed without a word.
The doors creaked open and the daughters rushed in. The fathers greeted them, but the daughters quickly stretched their arms, yawned, said they were too tired to talk, and disappeared into their rooms. The fathers puffed on their pipes thoughtfully. What they’d seen was promising, the daughters’ hair mussed, their skirts torn, fuzzy thread on their blouses where buttons had been.
The fathers were pouring themselves celebratory nightcaps when the sons arrived home moments later. They reeked of hamburger grease and candy-scented perfume. Their chins sunk into the necks of their letterman sweaters. The fathers poured themselves another nightcap and beckoned the sons, but the sons blushed and shook their heads. In the back rows of the drive-in, they told the fathers, the windows dense with fog, they’d lubricated blouse buttons with charm, shared amber liquids pilfered from liquor cabinets the fathers had conveniently left unattended. Skirts were ripped and brassieres unsnapped. Imprints from the cars’ upholsteries marked the sons’ forearms, and their necks were bitten, bruised with lipstick. The fathers nodded proudly and downed their nightcaps. But no, the sons shook their heads. They’d offered promises and pledge pins, but it was the daughters who had pinned them, straddling their waists as they lay helpless in the backseats of the fathers’ cars. And as the sons drove them home they chewed bubblegum and sang along to the radio, shrieking after each Baby! Oh! and Yeah!
The fathers sent the sons to their rooms and poured more nightcaps. They wondered if they should have trusted the sons in the first place. They’d noticed the way they gazed at the singer as he crooned on TV, gently tapping their toes, near-silent sighs escaping their barely parted lips.
The fathers organized a record burning. While the daughters were at school, they went from house to house and ransacked each periwinkle room, filling paper grocery bags with every suspicious LP, EP, and single they found. The mob smashed open the jukebox at the malt shop and intimidated store managers till they relinquished their stocks, and when they thought they had collected all the singer’s records in a twenty-mile radius, they dropped them in a great pile in town square and doused them with gasoline. The conflagration shot up over the trees, a great orange beacon that drove the daughters to the scene the instant school let out. The blaze casting cruel shadows over their faces, the fathers gathered in fraternal circles to pat one another on the back and shake hands.
Unperturbed, the daughters walked one-by-one into the fire and emerged like monsters from a drive-in horror flick, flame-engulfed records cradled gingerly in their hands. They dispersed to their bedrooms and dropped phonograph needles over the melted vinyl slabs. The fathers stood in the daughters’ doorframes, grimfaced and sullen, while the daughters lay on the floor and bopped their heads to the clangorous sounds. “Daddy dearest,” they said, “these songs are hotter than ever.” And they laughed maniacally.
The fathers marched into the daughters’ rooms and kicked the plugs from the electrical outlets with their shined leather shoes. The noise groaned to a stop, and the fathers heaved the weighty portable phonographs into their arms and carried them to the garage, locking them safely in the trunks of their automobiles. They went back into their houses and surveyed each room, gathering up all the radios, which they also deposited in their trunks. They left only the televisions, for how could the fathers live without their televisions? Still, to protect their homes and families they removed their antennae and locked them behind bottles of vintage scotch in their liquor cabinets. Then they drove, headlight beams connecting their cars like chain links, to the dump, and stacked the appliances high atop the piles of refuse.
When they returned home, the daughters were sitting cross-legged on the living room floors, the records in their mouths, scraping the grooves with canine teeth, the music faintly buzzing through their heads. The fathers wrestled the records out of the daughters’ hands and cracked them into two, four, eight pieces. The daughters then constructed tall and intricate hats that resembled works of modern art out of wire coat hangers and tin foil. Wearing them perfectly balanced atop their heads, they claimed, allowed them to receive radio signals from as far away as Southern Wisconsin. They hummed and danced, their necks perfectly straight, the hats not slipping a bit. The fathers grabbed their coats and rushed out of the house. Meeting each other in the middle of the street, they straightened their ties nervously, not knowing where to go or what to do next.
The fathers were not seen for some time. The daughters bought new phonographs and new records with their babysitting money. The mothers were too busy with housework to be concerned. Presently they carried their laundry baskets into the daughters’ rooms and collected soiled clothes, weaving around piles of magazines and records, makeup kits whose powders had spilled into the carpet, schoolbooks with pristine and uncracked spines. The daughters were growing so fast now that their new outfits only lasted weeks, but a few vestiges of childhood haunted their rooms: stuffed cartoon bears, paint-by-numbers kits, plastic dolls with missing heads and limbs. One day they’d sent the daughters off to school and when they returned they’d thrown aside their hula hoops for phonographs, traded bobby socks for stockings.
The mothers made their ways back around their daughters’ messes but paused at the doors, leaning against the frames to steady themselves, their gazes drawn to magazine pages pinned to the walls. How had they never noticed it before? The glint in his eye, those smooth cheekbones and plump lips. The mothers reached out to stroke the photographs, the paper coarse against their dry fingers. They took the baskets to the laundry rooms and poured the clothes into the washers the fathers had bought them for their anniversaries. They initiated the setting for heavy loads, untied their apron strings and pushed their pelvises against the vibrating machines.
The fathers had retreated to the Shrine Club. They sat at the bar and passed rumors too terrifying to be true from one stool to the next. It was said that the singer, when he performed, wore a Coke bottle in his trousers so that as he danced it appeared that his member drooped down to his knee. It was said that his salacious tongue movements and distasteful wordless singing were secret incantations taught to him by voodoo witch doctors of New Orleans. It was said that the singer, still in his early twenties, had bedded more than a thousand women.
The fathers knocked back old fashioneds and whiskey sours and scotches on the rocks and wiped sweat from their brows. In the war they’d faced murderous Krauts and Japs, had stepped over the bodies of their comrades as they lay blown open across ruddy battlefields, had tasted the metallic bite of death and mortar. But none of that had prepared them for hips so frenetic, a voice that crept sinuously up the daughters’ skirts like a poison snake.
Dust and peanut shells accumulated on the club’s floor. Days and weeks passed, seasons changed, their beards grew thick and dark, their eyes pink and dry. They sat unmoving on barstools, pickled eggs and stale nuts their only nourishment, while outside the mothers, daughters, and sons surely struggled on without them.
The fathers watched the news on the club’s television, not sure whether the blurred picture owed to bad reception or their own bleary eyes. Pictures of crazed teenaged audiences and a succession of media headlines flashed on screen while the anchorman narrated the singer’s swift ascension to fame. The fathers shifted in their seats but no one rose to turn the dial. The anchorman continued, looking out into TV land with a knowing smile: “But today comes the announcement that the popular entertainer is trading in his signature rock ‘n’ roll beat for the tempo of hut-two-three-four.” The fathers pushed themselves off the barstools and their legs collapsed underneath them, their muscles atrophied. They dragged themselves across the dirty floor with their forearms and patted each other on the back, grunting happily.
The singer was 1A. He’d been drafted.
The daughters, meanwhile, swarmed the streets of Sweet Apple carrying picket signs:
Don’t draft’â€we love him too much!
Leave us our leader
Spare him, take me.
And they chanted, a simple protest melody that rhymed “love you” with “we’re blue.” But for the first time, they were too somber to dance. They wept instead, ceaselessly and uncontrollably, taking breaths only to refill their diaphragms and continue their tear-soaked song. They wept and pricked their fingertips and palms with pinback buttons. They wiped the blood on their blouses and streaked their hair red, the identifying marks of martyrdom. A few climbed Macintosh Hill, the highest point in Sweet Apple, and threw themselves from the ledge. They tumbled down, scraping the rocky incline, and collapsed on a bed of jagged stones but emerged unharmed, their lithe frames quaking as they wept for the burden of their unwanted lives.
The sons stayed in their bedrooms and practiced the same three chords over and over on unplugged electric guitars they’d bought from the junkshop. When the singer was gone, they figured, someone would have to fill his leather boots, don his slick coiffure. Just as the singer had been conscripted to serve the country, the sons now drafted themselves to take up the mantle the singer would leave behind.
The fathers regained their balance and walked stiffly out of the Shrine Club and into the streets. The unfamiliar sunlight blinded them. They cupped their eyes and tilted their hat brims forward. Watching their shadows creep across the sidewalk and grass, they missed the posters and banners and TV sets in the windows of appliance stores that advertised the thing they’d dreaded most.
The fathers entered their homes and once again doffed their hats in anticipation. “Oh, Dad, were you gone long?” the sons wondered sincerely. “Did you pick up a gallon of milk from the store?” the mothers asked without even a peck on the cheek. The daughters opened their bedroom doors, firing out a blast of wretched rock ‘n’ roll, and galloped down the stairs. “Hiyee, pop,” they said. “How’s about an advance on my allowance.” When the fathers demanded to know what the daughters intended to spend the money on, they snorted and said, “Concert tickets, natch. Didn’t you hear, daddy dearest? He’s coming!” Beads of sweat rolled off the fathers’ cheeks as the daughters’ hands hung palm-open before them. It was true, they explained. The singer had been granted a deferment and embarked on a last farewell tour. The next stop was Sweet Apple’s town square. Tomorrow night.
In a fearsome daze, the fathers froze like statues. The daughters reached delicately into the fathers’ coats, removed their wallets, secured the necessary funds, returned the wallets, and dashed to the telephones to spread the good news.
After the daughters, sons, and mothers had gone to bed, the fathers met in town square. They had a plan. Working through the night and employing every toolkit they had, the fathers built a grand contraption, an intricate series of deadly devices that, once initiated, would rid them of the singer once and for all. First, a series of hydraulic tubes would shoot a small dagger from the ceiling of the performance pavilion that, if timed and positioned correctly, would slice the strings from the neck of his guitar (and nick his wrist, too, if they were lucky). Landing on its point, the blade of the dagger would puncture the mechanism hidden in the floorboard that triggered the stage’s trapdoor. The singer, suffering a surprisingly deep fall, and perhaps breaking one or both of his legs, would land in an extra large aquarium tank, his buttocks hitting a big, red button in the center that activated a chute that unleashed a steady, avalanching stream of wet cement into the container, effectively sealing the singer’s body into an anonymous 8′ by 8′ cube, never to be seen or heard from again.
Having finished the construction, the fathers wiped handkerchiefs across their brows and clapped their hands. Then, gliding the handles of their hammers into the loops in their pants, they strolled home whistling.
The daughters preened for the concert. In their bedrooms the singer’s records spun and spun as they painted their fingernails and toenails, as they brushed their hair in slow strokes, as they paged through magazines searching for the perfect look. Entire bottles of Aquanet were exhausted and discarded as phonograph needles etched deeper into the grooves of the records.
Finally, the concert only hours away, they slipped on skirts and dresses, which they wore without underwear. They wanted as little between the singer and themselves as possible. They checked the mirror one last time and slid down the stair railings, past the frowning fathers and the mothers, and marched to town square.
The sons did not join them. The singer would be gone in days and they needed to practice. They stayed in their rooms and struck chord after chord, letting each one ring out until the last tiny reverberations faded. They were onto something, moving beyond simple open chords to a sound both new and vaguely familiar. Still, they fumbled; guitar strings broke, their fingers bled, they had a hard time getting the A chord right. They’d been at it for so long they couldn’t remember the last time they’d left their bedrooms. Their hair had grown down to their shoulders and their clothes were dirty and tattered.
At the town square’s performance pavilion, the fathers and mothers sat in the furthest back rows of seats. A sea of immaculately styled hairdos rippled before them. The mothers stirred wooden spoons in mixing bowls held in their laps. The remote control triggers weighed heavily in the fathers’ coat pockets. They hadn’t wanted the mothers to witness the assassination, but the mothers had stopped them on their ways out. It had been so long since the fathers had treated them to a night on the town, they’d said.
The lights flickered to life, a radioactive glow turning the audience to silhouette. At first the fathers didn’t recognize him, for his gilded jumpsuit shone even brighter than the hot yellow beams that blinded them. The daughters, their screams deafening, trampled one another to reach the standing room—dresses torn, hair pulled, faces scratched with the cruel precision of manicured nails. The singer reached for his guitar and, with a movement so swift that the fathers’ eyes could scarcely follow it, struck a minor chord that rained its undulating reverb upon the crowd. Tenuously, he moaned a note as thick and black as the twirl of hair that fell over his eye.
The mothers threw down their mixing bowls and spoons and began to rock their bodies disgracefully. The fathers fingered the smooth metal of the remote controls. The singer struck another chord and sang a few more words and the mothers fainted, their skirts billowing like freshly laundered sheets in the wind. The singer carried the note until the snare drum sounded three times and the song picked up pace.
As if in a trance, the fathers’ grip on the trigger mechanisms loosened and their helpless arms fell to their sides. The singer swung his hips, shuffled his knees. The way he sang, it was as if he were right before them, whispering in each of their ears. Even in those back rows the glistening dew of his warm breath settled on their necks. The fathers couldn’t remember crying but when they touched their faces they were wet with tears. They hated the singer, hated everything about him, but god, he was beautiful. As he struck the final note the mothers regained consciousness and stood, cradling their bellies in their arms. They were each now pregnant with the singer’s child.
He paused to tune his guitar, a vacuum of silence where the rock n roll had lingered, and the fathers shook their heads clear. They’d come here to kill the singer and, doggone it, that was what they were going to do. They reached into their pockets and removed the controls. Each father had to press his button at precisely the same instant as the others or the machine would malfunction. They nodded in a silent 3-2-1 countdown, but as their fingers hovered over the buttons, they felt an unexpected pity for the singer, who looked out at the abandoned town square—suddenly empty save for the back rows of fathers and mothers—and hung his head, crestfallen.
The daughters were gone. They’d become bored with the singer. He was neat and all, but just so same-old, same-old. There was always something new out there, they thought; it was one of the great things about being a teenager.
They’d left town square in a great cluster. They walked, though no one could be sure of who was leading, past the malt shop and the record store, the football field and the drive-in. In the distance, the fathers could see them by the glint of the moonlight in their hair. Eventually they reached the peak of Macintosh Hill, where couples had once parked on Saturday nights. They stood and looked up at the stars and glanced shyly at one another. They shrugged their shoulders and popped bubblegum bubbles. The sound of motors buzzed in their ears and neared rapidly. The fathers’ cars parked along the cliff’s edge, but the daughters could tell by their reckless speed and screeching brakes that the fathers weren’t at the wheels. The sons left the cars running and stepped out, guitars strapped to their backs. No one spoke.
The sons carefully wrapped tinfoil around the cars’ antennae and twisted coat hangers over the ends, straightening the curved tips so that they pointed east toward England. The static broke from the chorus of radios; unfamiliar accents and abrasive, vaguely melodic reverberations filled the air. The daughters began to giggle hysterically. The sons danced fitfully. The sounds and movements had no precedent. They may as well have been listening to signals from the moon.
The daughters and the sons kissed and hugged. They kicked their feet up giddily. They tore off their clothes and rubbed their bodies against one another. They’d never go home again. The fathers had thought the singer was bad. Soon, they’d think: It could have been worse. Soon, they’d think: At least he was American. The fathers were so naive, so square. The British were coming and the fathers had no idea.