A normal American family
By: Alan Swyer
Hopeful that he was finally rejoining the living after losing first his job, then his girlfriend, Matt Kanter was prepping for two interviews – one via Skype, the other in person – when his iPhone rang.
Though tempted to ignore the interruption, curiosity led him to take a peek at the caller ID.
“Mom,” he announced upon answering, “this is not a good time.”
“You’re telling me?” his mother replied. “An ambulance just picked up Grandma.”
“What in hell for?”
“Swallowing an entire bottle of pills.”
“Knocked up a German manicurist.”
“At his age?”
“So what am I supposed to do?”
Though a move to Nashville was far from what he longed for, Kanter forced himself to appear ebullient on his Skype call, which was for the position of Marketing Director for a firm specializing in Country music, then rallied for the face-to-face with an indie record label in Hollywood.
Fighting his way through westbound traffic in the aftermath, he headed toward Santa Monica, where he found his mother pacing outside his grandmother’s hospital room.
“She okay?” Kanter asked.
“She’ll probably outlive all of us.”
“She must’ve been really hurt.”
“Try embarrassed,” Eve Kanter said. “Some biddy? Maybe. Even one of her friends. But a blonde in her twenties? And German?”
“And he’s set the fraulein up in a house near the Marina,” Eve added.
Kanter bit his lip while considering the situation. “So what am I supposed to do?” he asked.
“Give Grandma a kiss after they finish checking her vitals, then talk to your grandfather.”
When Kanter sighed, his mother frowned. “He’s not that bad.”
“Who’s he ever been nice to?”
“Me, when I was younger. And you.”
“And my father?”
Eve’s only response was a sigh.
“Grandma’s in the hospital, and you’ve been playing tennis?” Kanter exclaimed as he faced his grandfather in the bar at his country club.
“She’s always been melodramatic,” Stan Cohn said with a shrug.
“Grandpa, she tried to kill herself.”
“With an herbal concoction from the health food store? Give me a break.”
“But still –”
“Still nothing. Did you know she called the ambulance before she downed ’em?”
Kanter studied the imposing man in tennis whites, then shook his head. “Banging some young thing? Maybe. But knocking her up?”
“I thought you’d be proud of me.”
“And that’s news to you?”
“So what in hell do we do?” asked Eve Kanter as she and her son sat down at a coffee shop across from the hospital.
“How old is Grandpa?”
“The way he’s behaving? Seven.”
“Old enough to know better. He’s seventy-six, almost seventy-seven.”
“And are you worried about grandma? Or this girl being a gold digger? Or –?”
“All of the above.”
“Then one thing I’d suggest – if she’s really pregnant –”
“A paternity test.”
Eve took a deep breath, then nodded.
“Some collection of whackos,” Kanter then muttered.
“Everybody in our family’s cuckoo.”
“Then what are we?” Kanter asked.
“A normal American family,” answered his mother, causing Kanter to cringe.
The next morning, back in employment-seeking mode, Kanter was wrestling with setting up interviews, doing follow-ups via email and phone, and the uncertainty of his existence when yet another call came from his mother.
“Please don’t tell me that Grandma jumped out a window,” he said upon answering.
“It’s Aunt Abby.”
“Who jumped out a window?”
“Who promised her savings to some spiritual master.”
“I hope you’re kidding.”
“Do I sound like I’m kidding?”
“Want to tell me again about how we’re a normal American family?”
“Quit the cracks and talk to her.”
“Mom, I’m trying to get my life together.”
“This is a crisis.”
“Everything in our family’s a crisis.”
With the incense and essential oils in his aunt’s Pacific Palisades living room causing his eyes to water and his nose to run, Kanter gazed at a portrait of a man in Heffner-like pajamas hanging over the fireplace before facing the lady of the house, who was sitting in a lotus position. “Have you given this serious thought?” he asked, breaking the silence.
“Master Carl says thinking leads to confusion,” replied Abby Cohn, gesturing toward the likeness of her spiritual master.
“Did he add that not thinking leads to living in the street? You’ve always been a serious person,” Kanter said, willfully exaggerating. “Where’d this come from?”
“A longing for a connection with the cosmos.”
“So turn vegan. Go gluten-free. Join PETA.”
“What’s wrong with a quest for spirituality?”
“Nothing if we can turn back the clock to the sixties. You could drop acid, join a commune, let the hair grow on your legs. But know what? Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Jim Morrison are dead. Think McCartney and Ringo spend their time dreaming of the Maharishi?”
“You’re being negative.”
“I’m being real.”
“Why won’t you accept my spiritual growth?”
“Can I say something without hurting you?”
“Thanks to meditating, I am above embarrassment and pain.”
“With all due respect –”
“You’re a princess.”
Despite her involuntary wince, Abby did her best to muster a beatific smile. “That, dear nephew, is what I’m trying to change.”
Instead of attempting to inch his way out of the land-locked Westside at rush hour, Kanter set up a rendezvous with a friend at a funky Santa Monica coffee house rumored to be owned by Bob Dylan.
“You look like shit,” Holly Robbins said as Kanter approached her table on the patio.
“Nice to see you, too.”
“Things that bad?”
“Want to talk about it?”
“If I did, you’d think I was making it up. How’re you?”
“Aside from my agent not returning my calls and feeling like I may never work again? Peachy. So what’s bugging you? Work or the lack thereof? That Wendy dumped you? Family?”
“In other words,” said Holly, “another shitty day in paradise. Wouldn’t it have been easier if we’d chosen to be doctors, lawyers, or maybe dental hygienists instead of wanting to be creative?”
“We’d be bored to death. I’d say my life these days is about waiting for the other shoe to drop, but I’ve already been clobbered by boots, loafers, running shoes, and moccasins.”
“You and me both. With no love life either.”
“Ain’t that the truth.”
“If I didn’t think it’d ruin a friendship,” said Holly wistfully, “I’d almost suggest we bounce on each other’s bones.”
Early the next morning, while contemplating what calls to make, what texts and emails to send, and whether or not to jump off a bridge, Kanter was shaken from his reverie by another call from his mother.
“Please don’t tell me that grandma joined the circus, that grandpa tried to rape Beyonce, or that dad somehow rose from the grave.”
“Always so funny.”
“So what is it this time? That my cousin Mark flashed a school bus? That dear cousin Suzy got busted turning tricks?”
“It’s Uncle Phil.”
“I’m hoping he didn’t kill somebody or rob a bank.”
“You won’t believe it –
“Enough suspense –”
“They busted him for insider trading.”
“Insider trading on what?”
“Stock on grandpa’s company.”
“What’s that got to do with you, me, or anybody else?”
“My portfolio will probably be worthless.”
“Well at least you won’t have to be lonely.”
“What that mean?” Eve shrieked.
“You and Aunt Abby can share a Kelvinator box.”
“That’s not funny.”
“Neither is our family.”
At 3 the next morning, Kanter woke up in a cold sweat. The insider trading charge, he realized, could wipe out not merely his mother’s holdings, but also whatever chance he had for an inheritance.
He tossed and turned for what felt like an eternity, then suddenly had a revelation. After years of embarrassment about his grandfather’s wealth, he was potentially free. Jobless, and close to being broke, but in some ways liberated.
Exciting but daunting, the realization gave Kanter the incentive, once it became time for the work day to begin, to hustle as never before.
When his iPhone rang at 8 AM, Kanter hoped it would be about employment. Instead once again it was his most constant caller.
“What now?” Kanter asked.
“Is that how you greet your mother?”
“Who’s always the bearer of good tidings? Out with it.”
“Paulina threw him out.”
“The German slut. Once she heard about the insider trading, he was no longer the golden goose.”
“So that’s the bad news?”
“No, the good news. The bad news is that she got a restraining order.”
“What’s bad about that?”
“What if your grandfather does something crazy?”
“Think it’s likely?”
“Think the sun comes up each morning?”
As he was waiting for his morning cup of green tea to steep, Kanter’s phone rang again – with a Nashville Caller ID.
“Matt?” asked the voice at the other end.
“Clyde Hastings here, following up on our Skype call from the other day. Got a moment for a couple of questions?”
“Will you answer truthfully?”
“Where does Country music stand in your hierarchy?”
Kanter nearly froze.
“Still there?” asked the voice at the other end.
“Well,” mumbled Kanter. “Ray Charles’ ‘Modern Sounds In Country & Western’ is one of my favorite albums.”
“And I love Hank Williams… Jimmy Rogers… Johnny Cash… Dolly –”
“And Chris Stapleton? Carrie Underwood? Luke Bryan? Kelsea Ballerini?”
“Yes, please –”
“I’m not all that familiar with their work.”
“Not like Merle Haggard or Gram Parsons?”
“Not like Merle Haggard or Gram Parsons,” Kanter acknowledged.
“Well, I do appreciate your time.”
Ten minutes later Kanter was still stewing when Holly Robbins called. “Whatcha up to?” she asked.
“Thinking about going to a gun shop.”
“Blow my brains out.”
“Then how about killing yourself with cholesterol instead? Pastrami at Langer’s on me.”
“They’ve always been crazy?” asked Holly once their pastrami sandwiches and sides of cole slaw were served.
Kanter nodded. “But now they’re crazier than ever.”
“Which proves my ‘more so’ theory.”
“Gimme that in English.”
“I believe that people don’t change, they become more so. So somebody who’s nice when young gets even nicer when older. Someone who’s nasty gets even nastier.”
“And nuts get nuttier?”
“Bingo! Know what we ought to do?” asked Holly.
“I give up.”
“Write a movie or a sitcom about your family.”
“C’mon, my ass. Isn’t all humor about a man in pain?”
“Any update on your grandfather?” Holly wondered aloud.
“But you’re suspecting –”
“More like I’m convinced –”
“That something’ll happen?”
Kanter took a bite of his sandwich, then nodded.
“And your uncle?” Holly continued.
“He’s lawyering up.”
“I’m telling you, a movie or a sitcom. So no callbacks on jobs?”
“Only the one from Nashville that I screwed up.”
“Did you want to go there anyway?”
Kanter shook his head. “But is it wrong to want to be wanted?”
The next morning, thanks to coaxing and cajoling an exec he knew casually, Kanter was headed to an interview with a label that focused on reissues when yet another call came in from his mother.
“Unless it’s an emergency,” he told her in no uncertain terms, “I don’t want to know.”
“It’s an emergency!” Eve Kanter insisted. “Grandpa got arrested!”
“For armed robbery? Breaking and entering? Kiddie porn?”
“Such a wise guy! Know how with his diabetes he doesn’t have much feeling in his feet?”
“Well, he was driving past the place he rented for the girl when he saw her with another guy.”
“He went to hit the brakes, but floored the gas pedal instead.”
“Drove through the front door!”
“And with the restraining order –”
“They locked him up?”
“You nailed it,” said Eve. “When can you deal with it?”
“After my meeting, and probably a stiff drink.”
“Text me the info,” stated Kanter, hanging up.
Two hours later, Eve Kanter was standing outside the West Los Angeles Police Station with a silver-haired man in a three-piece suit when up stepped her son.
“How bad does it look?” Kanter asked.
“It’s not like he’s headed to San Quentin,” replied Attorney Sid Nussbaum.
“That’s comforting,” said Kanter.
“But it’ll cost him his license,” added Nussbaum.
“Plus a small fortune.”
“When it rains, it pours,” said Eve Kanter.
“Did you just make that up?” teased Kanter.
“This is not the time,” stated his mother.
“You folks have been through it lately,” said Nussbaum.
“Us?” replied Kanter. “We’re just a normal American family.”
The look Eve Kanter gave her son was anything but warm and cuddly.
Had he been a drinker Kanter might have gone on a binge. Had he been a stoner, he might have hit the 420. But since neither of those paths held much appeal, he drove to one of his cherished only-in-LA spots, a Persian ice cream place on Westwood Boulevard. There, after tasting date and cucumber, he treated himself to two scoops of his tried and true favorite: a combination of pistachios, saffron, and rose water.
Then off he went to the beach town of Venice. Turning off his iPhone, he took a lengthy stroll down Oceanfront Walk, past the skaters, surfers, peddlers, musicians, and oddities. All the while, he contemplated the strange trajectory of his life. With a rich grandfather, it was assumed by others that his path was golden. But in truth, due to Stan Cohn’s disapproval of the saxophone player his daughter Eve chose to marry, money in Kanter’s house was never abundant, and was at times in short supply.
But it was his father’s influence that steered Kanter toward music – first Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Bud Powell, Monk, and Coltrane, then the likes of Ray Charles, Muddy Waters, Slim Harpo, Bessie Smith, Solomon Burke, and Nina Simone.
Though considered a prodigy on piano as a youngster, by the time he was finishing high school Kanter realized that though he might wind up being good, or even very good, greatness would likely never be his. So instead of winding up a 45-year-old hustling gigs like his father, it was into the marketing side of the music business that he ventured.
Kanter rose quickly. Only when, due to office politics, he found himself out on the street, did the fact that in many ways the record business was dying impact him. And when it did, it hit hard.
Not until Kanter got back to his car did he at last turn on his cell. Reluctantly checking messages, he was startled to find not one, nor two, but three messages from Clyde Hastings in Nashville, the last of which asked him to return the call no matter what the time.
Hesitantly, Kanter dialed the number.
“So why,” asked Clyde Hastings upon answering, “would a young guy who doesn’t know shit about today’s Country music interview for a job in Nashville?”
“Answer the damn question.”
Kanter hesitated a moment before speaking. “At first it was… I don’t know… a shot in the dark.”
“What do you mean, at first?”
“I was out of work so I figured why not.”
“Not quite fair to us, is it?”
Kanter took a breath. “Can’t argue with you.”
“So what’s changed?”
“My family –”
“Your family what?”
“Kind of went off the deep end.”
“Kind of?” asked Hastings.
“More like totally fucking bananas.”
“But now –?”
“But now what?”
“If you were to come to Nashville, would you stay?”
“Right now,” said Kanter, “if I were to go to the moon, I’d stay.”
“And sign a contract?”
“Why in the world are you asking?”
“You might say I’m offering you a job.”
“B-but –” mumbled Kanter.
“When you asked what I knew about Keith Urban and the others –”
“Listen to me,” said Hastings. “Each and every goddamn time I hired a fanboy, it blew up in my face. So here comes the million dollar question. You want it?”
“You bet!” screamed Kanter without hesitation.
“And your family –”
“What about ’em?”
“They really that nutso?”
“Not according to my mother.”
“What does she call ’em?”
“A normal American family.”
“Know what? Sounds a whole lot like mine,” said Hastings with a chuckle. “How soon can you get here?”
“How soon do you want me?”
“I’m on my way,” said Kanter.