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The Salt-Shaker and the Truck: Picturing Prince at 85

On the one-year anniversary of Prince's death, author Ben Greenman shares a piece of unpublished short fiction imagining Prince's life as an 85-year-old man.

by Ben Greenman
Apr 21 2017, 6:47pm

Ben Greenman's new book on Prince, Dig If You Will The Picture: Funk, Sex, God, and Genius in the Music of Prince, is a personal account of fandom: part criticism, part hagiography, part non-sequential biography. It's a fittingly sprawling and lyrical tribute to the often confounding late artist, who died a year ago today, April 21, 2016.

Greenman originally intended to conclude the book with a short fiction piece, imagining Prince as an 85-year-old man. "In the end, the story wasn't the right way to end the book," he told Noisey. "His death had a finality that couldn't be rolled back. But the piece stuck around, on paper and in my head, and now, a year later, I'm ready to share it."

The piece stems from what Greenman saw as an inevitable restlessness on Prince's part. "Someone asked me the other day about his religion. 'How could this profane guy become religious?' You're talking about decades of personal evolution," he said. "The seeds of that were always there, but you're also talking about someone who grew up[...] And yet you're trapped. No one wants to draw you past the age of 26."

"How do you get older?," Greenman asked. "If you look at a lot of photos, his dad dressed normally at first. But when Prince became an entertainer, his father would start to dress like an entertainer. You could see him with Prince and he would be wearing some fancy thing. It started me wondering how prince, as an older man, might dress or act or think. I just thought at the time again how weird it is. Prince never got to be that old. But what happens?"

You can read the piece in full below and click here to read Noisey's interview with the author.

***

One morning, he was almost hit by a truck. But the more he thought about it, the less important it seemed. It wasn't as important as the salt-shaker, at any rate. That had lasting resonance. It was a mistake, he believed, to have brought up the truck at all.

The incident with the salt-shaker happened the morning he had started the song about the sky. He was in his recording studio, which he still thought of as the new place, though he had owned it for a decade. He had sold the old place, which had been appointed like a sultan's bedchamber, and taken a storefront downtown that had been an accountant's office. The front room still looked like one: walls decorated with lithographs of old post offices, front windows had full gray drapery. The door in the back, big and oak, looked like a door from another age. Instead, it was a door to another age: when you passed through it, you entered the studio, filled with the most modern and expensive equipment. The song had come to him as he slept, and he had sketched it out quickly: a skittish drum track, swooping keyboards, a rupture of guitar. 

But when he couldn't quite round the bass the way he wanted, he set off on for the diner. He had only been walking there for a few years. Before that it would have been impossible, with two bum hips and sharp pains knifing his knees and back. He would have had to take the car, and if he was taking the car, the diner would have seemed like too modest a destination. But for his sixty-eighth birthday, he gave himself new hips as a gift and learned to live with the rest of the pain. That let him walk, and he became a regular at the park near his house, at the small kiosk that sold sandwiches and coffee, at the diner across the street. He wasn't recognized, at least not for the most part. He had passed across some invisible line, and now when people looked at him all they saw was a skinny old man who favored dapper suits and hats. That's what they called him, the Cat in the Hat, or sometimes the Hat, even the people who knew who he had been before that. He moved freely in that state.

The song about the sky stalled, he made his way across town through cold air. The food at the diner was mediocre, and the back of the dining area smelled like bleach, but the place was always full. Most of the crowd was paired off—young couples recovering from dramatic evenings, older couples with children in tow, and even couples of couples, quartets of middle-aged friends who talked politics in total agreement with one another. The Hat was among the rare solitaries, along with a man with a long beard and dirty jacket jittering a cup of coffee, a stout man with glasses who held his newspaper too close to his face, and an elegant older woman with ribbons in her hair. She was reading a book with flowers on the cover. He sat near her, along the window.

He ordered a waffle topped with strawberries and suffered through stale toast and a bad cup of green tea while he waited, and that's when he noticed Maurice Breedlove sitting across the way from him, on the far side of a large empty table. He was wearing a black turtleneck, across which was draped a thick silver chain. Maurice Breedlove was something of a celebrity. As a child, he had been the star of a television sitcom, and when he aged out of the role he had begun a second career as an entertainment manager. He handled top talent, and constantly said so. But, as he hastened to add, he was hardly a run-of-the-mill businessman: he owned and operated a theater in the neighborhood, where he put on both classics and original work, much of which he wrote himself. The Hat had not been inside the theater. He had never had any dealings, personal or professional, with Maurice. The first time he had heard Maurice's name was in his lawyer's office. It was during a time when the pain in his body, and the pills he was taking to fend it off, had separated him from his music. His lawyer was asking for a new record that wasn't coming. He had reasoned with him, on both a creative and financial basis. Finally, he had opened his palms and begged. "You have to come back," he said. "You should have this young guy manage you. He could put things back on track."

The Hat just shook his head. "I'm not even getting back on the train," he said. He did, slowly, over the better part of a decade, during which time Maurice came onto the scene. But the two of them never crossed paths. Now Maurice was famous and the Hat was no one, just a dapper old man who liked to sit by the window. The owner of the place, a tall, fat Greek man whose mustache was dyed black, came bounding out of the back. He rushed by the Hat and stood alongside Maurice's table. "Is everything good?" he whispered conspiratorially. Maurice nodded: a lie. Nothing was good about the way the owner orbited Maurice, the way he clasped his hands and bent forward in helpless pleasure. The Hat had a memory of people orbiting him, clasping and bending and whispering conspiratorially. His knee twinged. He was relieved when a large group of teenage girls came into the restaurant.

There were six of them and they took their seats in a precise arrangement: the lighter blondes on the left, the darker blondes in the middle, and the brunettes on the right. The three shorter girls sat with their backs toward him, and the three taller girls faced him. All six spilled over with energy. They had no fear of the other diners, and perhaps no awareness. A waiter came by with his pad, and he did his best to take their orders, though his best was not nearly good enough. Most of the girls were pretty, but the tall brunette on the far right corner separated herself. Some women are so striking that when you look at them everything fails you: cleverness, descriptive power, context, everything but your awareness of their beauty, which hits you like a fist in the chest. Not only was this girl's appearance different, but her behavior distinguished her as well. The other girls fussed and spoke past one another. The short blonde's sleeve was frayed, and she kept looking at it with hostility. The short brunette took the salt shaker from the middle of the table and tried to balance it on its edge. The tall brunette held herself away from all of this, instead turning her chair just a few degrees away from the table and looking into middle distance. The Hat stared at her, and she noticed him staring. It couldn't have been the first time that a man looked at her, and it certainly wasn't the first time he had stared at a girl. There was a time when the attention would have been welcome. But he was old now, and he felt ashamed. His tea was on the table in front of him, lukewarm and soapy. He didn't want it. But he had to do something, so he drank it.

Soon enough, others in the diner were talking about the girl. Or rather, they were talking about a girl, and he knew that it had to be the tall brunette. "Her mother is a luggage heiress," he heard a woman say. "She was in a movie when she was younger. She's named Lucy: the daughter, I mean. She did a TV show last summer, one of those high-school melodramas." The tone tried for disparagement, but got caught up in awe.

Someone on Maurice's side of the restaurant must have also recognized Lucy, possibly even Maurice himself, because the Hat saw that Maurice, too, was focused on her. There was appreciation in his eyes and something else, too, that the Hat couldn't quite identify. It wasn't lust. That wasn't Maurice's reputation. Maybe he was aware that the energy in the room was suddenly flowing away from him. The owner had left Maurice's table. He stopped to tease a regular about how he liked his omelets, paused to give two little boys lollipops, and then arrived at the girls' table. "Good afternoon, ladies," he said. The girls fell into a variety of behaviors. The shorter of the lighter blondes giggled. The taller of the darker blondes nodded. The shorter brunette, clearly the leader in some sense, answered for the group: "Good afternoon to you." But Lucy, whose answer was the only one the owner had wanted, stayed silent.

The Hat's food arrived, and he ate it, letting the sound of the girls' conversation wash out against the broader noise of the restaurant. The strawberries were wilted and pinched, but the waffle was extra thick, the way he liked it. When he looked up, he noticed that Maurice was standing next to the girls' table. Sunlight caromed off his silver chain. Lucy was too beautiful to notice him, the Hat thought, and he was excited by the prospect of his comeuppance. There was a round clock mounted on the wall over his head, and he concentrated on the sound of the time passing, writing a melody in his head to the rhythm of the second hand. It sounded like a metronome, but it also sounded like the tick of a pilot light, and then Maurice cleared his throat and leaned in, and then Lucy's smile went up like a blue flame, all at once.

"I know you," she said to Maurice.

"And I, you," he said. His voice went down in volume but up in everything else. "Or at least your work. I am pleased to meet another local luminary."

"I live just a few streets away," she said. "I'm here with my friends."

"These are your friends?" He frowned at the girls, especially the salt-shaker. "Can I speak to you?"

"Of course." Her fingers were very long, and they unfolded and folded and came to settle on her lap.

"Years ago, I worked with your mother in a film."

"You know about my mother's movie?"

"Of course," he said. "I was a young actor there, fresh from television and trying to make my way onto the big screen. That movie, sadly, did not accomplish what I hoped it might. Have you seen it?"

"Yes, sir." Her politeness would have been easier to endure if it had been insincere.

"It is not a very good film, and I am partly at fault. Your mother bears none of the blame. She was exquisite."

"I have seen photographs from the set," she said.

"None of me, I hope," he said. "But I did not come over here to discuss my past. I'm more interested in your future. Have you ever thought of acting on the stage?"

"My mother is always telling me that I should," she said. "She says that my television work is all well and good, but that there is no substitute for stage training."

"I must say that I agree," Breedlove said. "I don't know if you are aware that I own a theater just a few avenues over. I would love for you to consent to appear in a play one of these seasons."

"Maybe," she said.

He bowed slightly. "I could even write something for you."

A teenage boy wandered over. It took the Hat a minute to recognize him as the owner's son. He had the same features as his father, and large pale hands he had not yet grown into. He refilled the water glasses of some of the girls and then tapped Lucy on the shoulder. "Lucy," he said.

This angered Breedlove. "Please," he said. "We are having an important discussion."

"Oh," the boy said. "I just need to ask one quick question."

Lucy turned toward the boy. "Hi, Sam," she said.

"Hi," he said. He revealed none of his excitement, revealing all of it. "Are you going to that party Saturday night?"

"I'm not sure."

"Well, let me know," he said. He filled the rest of the glasses and then headed back to the kitchen.

Breedlove had been bested, at least for a moment, and he took his leave from Lucy Merritt's side and followed the boy into the rear of the restaurant. The Hat decided to go, too. He could always sense a backstage rumble. Breedlove and the boy were in the narrow hall by the restrooms, and Breedlove was lecturing. "You need to show more respect," he said. "We were doing business."

"I'm sorry," said the boy, without much surliness. He almost seemed to mean it.

"Sorry, sir, I think you mean," Breedlove said. "And an apology is hardly the issue. You need to show respect, as I say."

Breedlove's tone had started off in sternness and hardened into something crueler, and the boy—for he was only a boy—was almost in tears now.

"Excuse me," the Hat said. "I need to get by to use the bathroom." To the boy he said, "Your dad's too angry. He's going to have a heart attack."

"That's not my father," he said.

"Well, then, I don't know what business he has yelling at you like that."

Maurice turned on the Hat. All at once, his face flushed dark with recognition. "Oh," he said. He shrank back against the wall.

"One side," the Hat said, and pushed past. He did not need to use the bathroom, but he stood inside there and let the water run for a minute or so. On the way back to his seat, he saw that Maurice was talking to the owner, who was pointing toward the boy. "That's my son," the owner was saying. "He is a wonderful musician."

"There are no wonderful musicians any more," said Maurice.

The owner laughed, as if at a joke. "If you know of anyone who could help him."

"There are always people. But I must say, your son was insolent to me." The Hat was settling down at my table now, and Maurice looked over to make sure that he was not going to interfere. "Nothing extreme," Maurice told the owner. "But nothing that would make me want to help him."

The owner went off to speak to his son. His big hands were angrily slack at his sides. The party of girls had broken up, and Lucy was standing out on the sidewalk. A big black car pulled up, and she leaned in the window. Maurice hurried outside to renew his appeal. When Lucy's mother stepped out of the car, he took her hand and bowed. She crimsoned and covered her mouth with her hand.

The Hat turned back to his meal and finished up his waffle. He even forced himself to take another sip of tea. When the owner's son came to clear his plate, his eyes were cast down. "I know you're not allowed to spit in food," the Hat said, "but I think you could have made an exception in his case."

The boy laughed. "No, sir," he said.

"You're a musician?" the Hat said.

"I am," the boy said. "I play guitar."

"Me, too," the Hat said. The boy cast his eyes up. They had no recognition in them other than the recognition of a fellow player. "I have a studio around here," the Hat said. "You should come by some time. Would you be interested in that?"

"Yes, sir," the boy said. This time he didn't laugh.

He passed back by the woman with ribbons in her hair, tipped his hat.

"Ma'am," he said.

"Damn," she said.

***

More than a year later he was almost hit by a truck. He was on the way to spend the evening with a friend of his when he became distracted by the beginnings of a song, just a little string part he thought he could build upon, and stepped into the street against traffic. He heard the blare of a horn and hurried back onto the curb. His heart thumped in his chest.

He could not continue directly to his friend's apartment. He needed to be perfectly sedate to see her. He was old enough that any shakiness would have been read as weakness. He gave himself a half-hour to calm down, and spent it looking in the windows of the shops on the avenue. The first one was a gift store. The second one was a bookstore. The third one was an appliance store. There was a huge curved television showing a replay of a recent awards ceremony. Actors, actresses, and singers went gliding up the red carpet. He remembered the days when he would glide up the carpet as well. The reporter's face was flushed as she tried to keep up with all the stars. A beautiful young woman came up behind the reporter. She was in a sheer white dress that reached down only to the tops of her thighs. She looked unsteady on her feet and her eyes were tired.

The reporter shoved a microphone in her face. The starlet laughed, swayed, caught herself before she fell. The Hat revised his earlier impression. Her eyes were not tired. They were dead. Suddenly in the background, he saw Maurice. He looked just as he had looked in the restaurant the year before. He might have been wearing the same turtleneck. The Hat looked again at the starlet. It was Lucy Merritt, almost unrecognizable but for her perfect mouth. She said something that confused the reporter, and then something that confused herself, and then she was gone down the carpet. Breedlove followed, a look of concentration on his face. He had written something for her.

The Hat watched the screen long after the picture had changed. The energy had gone out of the air. He no longer remembered the string part that had been in his head, though he remembered its beauty. That made him remember his friend, and the fact that he was running late. He hurried along down the street, steps growing lighter as the evening darkened, the sky a song about the sky.

Lead photo: Rico D'Rozario / Getty

Ben Greenman's Dig If You Will The Picture: Funk, Sex, God, and Genius in the Music of Prince is available now via Henry Holt & Co. Follow Ben Greenman on Twitter.