Sunday Pages: "Perfectly Broken"

An excerpt from the novel by Robert Burke Warren

Dear Reader,

First, I’d like to thank you for the generous support of my work. I draw inspiration from this, and I’m deeply grateful.

What a week. I’m not even going to discuss the whackadoodle events of the last seven days now, because they are too crazy, too Trumptastically rage-inducing, and the point of this feature is to celebrate the world of fiction. Rest assured that Tuesday, I will sound off.

Last night, we were supposed to go to a performance at The Colony in Woodstock. My friend Robert Burke Warren was reprising his one-man show, Redheaded Friend, which debut we saw at the Phoenicia Playhouse last year. We were blown away by how good it was. I’m bummed we didn’t get to see it again.

Warren is a fascinating cat. In high school, he played bass in a band fronted by Ru Paul, toured the world in various rock bands, and played the eponymous role in the West End production of Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story. He’s done all kinds of things since then, showcasing his many talents. In 2016, he published a novel, Perfectly Broken, which is a story about music and celebrity and fatherhood and love and loss, and just a damned good read. It is excerpted in today’s “Sunday Pages.”

Stay safe, and enjoy!


Beth elbowed me. “There’s the band,” she said.

Four guys were ambling in, all contrived dishevelment, radiating a gang vibe. Three members of Six Ray Star headed for a booth while the fourth approached us. He was lanky and tallish, with a greasy blue-black pompadour-gone-to-seed, jeans ripped at the knees, engineer boots, and a snug Michael Jackson Thriller-style red leather jacket. As he homed in, nodding to admirers, accepting backslaps and air kisses, the lines around his eyes deepened. I realized he’s older than me, which was kind of a relief. Although I’d not yet seen them live, I knew Six Ray Star had been on the rough indie road for a few years, sleeping rough and playing dives, and it had taken a toll. He extended a hand to Beth. His abraded lips parted in a nicotine-stained smile with a missing eyetooth.

“So you’re the one that nabbed us the press in Spin, they tell me.”

Voice dry and textured as an autumn leaf, husky-blue eyes expressing admiration for my wife with a peripheral intensity.

Beth nodded. “You’re Paul, right?”

She knew this was Paul.

“Yeah, and you’re . . . Brenda?”

“Beth.”

“Bess?” He bent down, offering his thrice-pierced ear.

“Beth!” she shouted into the slicked side of his head. He nodded, pulled back to his full height, and reached into his breast pocket for a cherry-red pack of Marlboros. He held out the pack to Beth. She hadn’t smoked in years, but she reached for one. As he lit it, she dragged deep and long. I offered my hand.

“I’m Grant.” Paul’s head jerked back in surprise, as if I’d suddenly materialized. He gave me a limp shake, his hand small and fine. Beth seemed to wake from a daze, encircling my waist with her arm. She shook me, frowning.

“Oh, I’m sorry.” She laughed. “This is my husband, Grant.”

“Ah. Your husband.” Paul proffered his smokes, raised his eyebrows at me.

“No thanks,” I said. Although I wanted one. I didn’t want to be excluded from the naughtiness.

“So you’re married,” Paul’s eyes tracked from me to Beth and back again. “How long?”

“Almost three years,” Beth said. Then, for some reason: “No longer newlyweds. Can’t get on The Newlywed Game now.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Cutoff for The Newlywed Game is two years, you know.”

Paul nodded and pursed his lips, playing along with the “sad passing” of that milestone.

“Well, I’ve got you beat by one,” he said. “That one over there is my Melora, wifey and masseuse. Four years coming up.”

Paul pointed to a corner of the bar, where a slender-faced, kohl-eyed, dark pageboy-ed woman was in deep conversation with Christa. A study in contrasts: round, large-nosed Nordic fertility goddess and spectral shadow waif.

“Wifey is talking that rich bitch into a massage as we speak.”

“That’s Christa,” I said.

“She’s our friend.” Beth good-naturedly slapped Paul’s shoulder.

“Oh, sorry,” he said—not at all sorry—from a nimbus of smoke.

“She could use a massage, actually,” Beth said. “So your wifey is a masseuse?”

“Just got certified, yep.”

Paul was not interested in talking to us anymore. His eyes searched the room and widened as he caught someone else’s gaze.

Peppercorn’s great!” Beth said, standing on her toes.

“Yeah,” I said. “‘Kiss My Ring.’ Love that tune. It’s been in heavy rotation at the apartment.”

Heavy rotation, I groaned inwardly. MTV lingo. Somebody stop me.

“All right,” Paul said, pulling away. “Cocktail time.”

“Grant’s a musician,” Beth yelled, grabbing Paul’s sleeve. He let her pull him back into our space.

“Who you play with?” he asked, nodding to someone behind me.

“I used to play bass with Stereoblind, but I’m getting my own thing going.”

“Stereoblind!” Paul’s eyebrows arched. His genuine focus gave a dark heat. “I love those guys. My band thinks they’re lame, kinda white-boy funk-metal schlock, but I’m all about that. My dark secret. ‘What the funk is up? What the funk is up?’ Stellar tune. You’re like Aerosmith-huge in the Netherlands, right?”

“Well . . . they are.”

Beth jostled me. “Yeah, I went along once before Grant quit. It was amazing. Amsterdam.”

“We’re going over there next month.” Paul squinted at me. “Back to the grind, you know.”

“I miss that grind,” I said.

“So why’d you quit Stereoblind? Didn’t fancy a mullet anymore?”

“They wouldn’t record this song I wrote . . .”

“Yeah,” Beth said, “it’s called ‘Words Fail Me.’ It’s fucking great. I’ll send you a tape.”

“And I did not have a mullet, either . . .” I say, although this is a lie.

“Oh, I’m just joshin . . .” Paul said. “But yeah: gotta get your own songs out there. Gotta do it.”

“Grant’s got some great songs,” Beth said. “Some labels are interested.”

She was lying. No one was interested in my songs. I’d emptied my meager savings from touring in a one-hit-wonder eighties band, and was now more proofreader than songwriter.

“So,” Paul’s forehead creased, “how’s . . . that going?”

“It’s going great!” Beth said, a little too loud. Her drink now consisted of pinkish ice cubes. “You guys’ll be sharing stages before you know it!”

It was actually going disastrously. I’d placed ads and rented rehearsal space for band auditions at which I was stood up.

Paul seemed to sense these melancholy realities in the expressions passing between Beth and me.

“Glad to hear it,” he said. He fake-coughed, a throaty bark that propelled him away from us, putting a period on the conversation.

“Thanks again, Betty,” he called from the fray.

“Beth!”

But he was gone, dropping his smoke to the tiles. He sidled up to Melora at the far end of the bar and plopped on a stool beside her, disrupting her powwow with Christa. They made quite a pair, Paul and Melora, starved to flawed perfection, hipster bookends, basking in Christa’s unfashionable radiance.

Trip kept the champagne flowing as Christa reared back in wide-eyed appreciation of Paul. Melora jokingly made a grand introductory gesture, all fluid grace, like a silent film actress. Paul took Christa’s hand, held it to his lips, and kissed her knuckles.

It was quite a dance of gestures. The beauty of everyone in their prime so captivated me, I missed the chance to be mad at my wife for forgetting I was there for a few seconds.


RBW’s music appears on albums by Rosanne Cash, RuPaul, and rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson. He's written for Salon, AARP, Woodstock Times, Vulture, Paste, & the Bitter Southerner. His debut novel, Perfectly Broken, was published in 2016. In the mid 90s, he portrayed Buddy Holly in the West End musical Buddy: the Buddy Holly Story. Prior to that he traveled the world as a rock & roll bass player.

Photo credit: Jack Warren.