Zelman was born and raised in a middle-class suburb of Philadelphia. His given name is Zachariah Elman, though as far back as he can remember, which is thirty years to when he was three, his mother and father and older sister and younger brother called him Z.
At Cornell, where he majored in Music, his name appeared on the dorm roster as Z. Elman, and during a mixer on his first night of college, his inebriated roommate called him Zelman, and forever after he has been known as Zelman.
His senior year at Cornell, Zelman fell in love with the beautiful Mimi Osterwald, a Drama major, also a senior, and the summer after they graduated, they got married and moved to Queens, Mimi to pursue her acting career, Zelman to play guitar and piano and write songs.
Eleven years later, living in an apartment in Burlington, New Jersey, barely making ends meet, Mimi told Zelman she was involved with Albert Rosenstein, a television producer, and was moving to Albert’s apartment in Manhattan.
Unable to afford the apartment in Burlington on his own, Zelman gave two-weeks notice at the hotel where he played piano in the cocktail lounge, and two-weeks notice at the pizza parlor where he worked thirty hours a week. When his obligations to his employers were fulfilled, he loaded his clothes and books and two guitars and two ukuleles and a conga drum and bongos and maracas into his forest green 1972 Volkswagen van named Miles, and headed west, his destination Los Angeles where he had a college chum who was a recording engineer and had space in his living room where Zelman could crash for a while.
Zelman at thirty-three has longish brown hair, wears wire-framed glasses, and is slender for the first time in twenty years. He was never obese, but from puberty until recently he was more than a little chubby. Starting a year ago, he began swimming fifty laps every morning at the Burlington Aquatic Center, lifting weights for an hour every afternoon at the YMCA, and gave up beer, potato chips, and ice cream, all of which led to the disappearance of thirty pounds and the appearance of muscles.
As Mimi said several times in the weeks leading up to the end of their relationship, “Suddenly you’re all svelte and handsome. What happened to the sweet soft guy I married?”
“The sweet soft guy you married stopped feeling sorry for himself,” says Zelman, cruising along in the slow lane on Interstate 64 somewhere in Kentucky in late September, his van averse to going over fifty-miles-per-hour. “The sweet soft guy you married decided to stop partaking of your sob fest every night, which was apparently just a cover for your affair with that slimy putz Rosenstein who is old enough to be your father. Well, not quite.”
Zelman sighs as he does after every outburst concerning Mimi, his sigh an acknowledgement that he misses her, though he knows their relationship was founded on the expectation that whether they succeeded in their chosen careers or not, they would always live as comfortably as they had as middle class children and teenagers and young adults attending an Ivy League college; and when they could no longer afford to live so comfortably, their relationship began to founder.
“Which means she never really loved me,” says Zelman, exiting the interstate to get gas. “So did I ever really love her? Or was I just obsessed with trying to win her love because she was beautiful and vivacious and I was chunky and wimpy and thought if by some miracle she would love me, I would be transformed into…what? Not me?”
“What town is this?” asks Zelman, handing a twenty-dollar bill to the middle-aged Pakistani man sitting on a high stool behind the counter in the gas station quick-stop store.
“Which pump?” asks the Pakistani man, taking the bill from Zelman.
“Witch Pump?” says Zelman, wrinkling his nose. “Why would anyone name a town Witch Pump?”
The Pakistani man gazes stoically at Zelman. “Which pump do you want gas from?”
“Oh,” says Zelman, laughing. “Number Four. And can you tell me the name of this town?”
“Frankfort,” says the man, tapping the requisite keys on his computer to activate Pump Number Four.
Zelman is cleaning his windshield when a shiny black Porsche pulls up behind his van, and a man wearing black cowboy boots and black jeans and a red silk shirt and a black cowboy hat and dark glasses jumps out and says with a southern drawl, “Hello there. You want to make a quick hundred bucks?”
“Are you speaking to me?” asks Zelman, smiling quizzically at the man.
“I am,” says the man, taking off his dark glasses and blinking in the bright sunlight. “We’re shooting a music video just up the road here and if you’ll drive your van back and forth real slow behind the action, I’ll give you a hundred bucks cash. Take a couple hours.” He grins. “That’s a helluva van you got there, buddy. Iconic. 1973? 74?”
“72,” says Zelman, gazing fondly at his van. “My father bought it new when he graduated from college, and then he gave it to me when I went off to Cornell.”
“That’s not the original paint job, is it?” asks the man, frowning.
“No,” says Zelman, wistfully. “I did this by hand the summer after my junior year of college. Seven coats. Hence the profound shellac effect. Did you notice the thousands of tiny gold stars on the dark green? An homage to Seurat.”
“I did not notice the stars,” says the man, taking a closer look at the paint job. “Beautiful. You want the gig?”
“I do,” says Zelman, both curious and low on cash.
The action behind which Zelman slowly drives his van is performed by a troupe of nine amazingly limber female dancers ranging in age from seven to thirty, dancing with shopping carts in the big empty parking lot of a defunct mall. The dancers are wearing artfully ripped T-shirts of various colors tucked into white jeans, their feet shod in pink tennis shoes.
Burt Carlton, the man who hired Zelman and his van, is the producer of the music video. Vivienne Bartok, the director of the shoot, is small and slender and Russian, her black hair cut very short. She is wearing a white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, faded blue jeans and red sandals. Zelman guesses Vivienne is about his age, though he also thinks she could be as young as twenty-five and as old as forty.
When Vivienne sees Zelman’s van, she gets very excited and says to Zelman with her charming Russian accent, “Here is what I want you to do. Drive by very slowly about ten feet behind the dancers, go out-of-frame, turn around, and then slowly return and stop right behind the dancers and stay there until they finish their routine. When the music stops, you will drive away and the dancers will chase after you with their shopping carts.”
The song for the video is five-minutes-long and features drum machines playing a syncopated rhythm over a great din of synthesized sound, the words of the three-note melody sung by a woman with a high screechy voice. For each of the takes, the song is blasted from a large speaker sitting atop the equipment truck. The first time Zelman drives by behind the dancers, he thinks the singer is saying, “You my slave.” When he drives back the other way and comes to a stop behind the dancers, he thinks the woman might be saying, “Glue my cave.”
In any case, Zelman loathes the song and hopes Burt and Vivienne won’t ask him to drive back and forth more than a few times.
After the third take, while the dancers take a break for water and to catch their breaths, Zelman gets out of his van and watches Vivienne direct her cameraperson to shoot close-ups of the golden flowers on the dark green.
“Is Zelman your first name or your last name?” asks Vivienne, pronouncing first fierce and last lest, which Zelman finds ironic and sexy.
“Both,” he says, looking around the parking lot at the dancers and the film crew and his old green van, and he is amazed to realize that just a little while ago he was driving along the interstate feeling as lost as he has ever felt, almost out of gas, and now he’s in Frankfort, Kentucky on a warm afternoon in early autumn, starring with his van in a music video and making a hundred dollars.
“What do you do, Zelman?” asks Vivienne, smiling curiously at him.
“I’m a musician,” he says, nodding to affirm this. “Piano and guitar and all manner of percussion. And I write songs. But I’ve had many other jobs to support my musical habit.”
“Have you got a demo I can listen to?” she asks, arching her eyebrow in a beguiling way. “Maybe this is why God brought you to me? I’m always looking for good songs.”
“No demo,” he says, shrugging pleasantly, “but if we can find a piano, I’d be happy to give you a concert.”
“We can find a piano,” she says, nodding. “But first, a few more takes of this dance with your van.”
Eleven more takes consume three hours, and dusk is descending when the assistant director finally says, “That’s a wrap,” and the film crew starts loading their cameras and lights and booms into the equipment truck; and the dancers get in their cars and drive away.
Burt hands Zelman a hundred dollars, ruminates for a moment, and gives him another hundred. “Woulda cost me at least three hundred to rent something like your van for the day. Thanks again.”
“Thank you,” says Zelman, shaking Burt’s hand. “Much appreciated.”
“Gotta run,” says Burt, winking at Zelman.
“Of course,” says Zelman, watching Vivienne talking to a crewmember, a handsome guy with a baseball cap on backwards; and as he watches her, he decides she was only making small talk when she said they would find a piano. Even so, he lingers a while longer in case she really does want to hear his music—and the longer he lingers, the more invisible he feels.
Now Burt pulls up beside Vivienne in his shiny black Porsche, she gets in, and they zoom away.
Zelman sighs, takes a moment to let go of his disappointment, climbs into his van, and starts his engine. And as he depresses the clutch and puts his hand on the 8-ball-knob of the stick shift, he sees a small peach-colored envelope affixed to the door of his glove compartment with a piece of pink duct tape.
So he kills his engine, opens the envelope, and finds Vivienne’s elegant gray business card with a note written on the back in the smallest neatest hand he has ever seen.
Z. Sorry for subterfuge. I’ll explain later. I’m at Brown Hotel in Louisville. Supper? My treat. Call me. V.
They partake of a delicious room-service supper in Vivienne’s plush suite on the third floor of the beautiful old hotel in downtown Louisville, the windows open, the evening warm and sultry. Vivienne is wearing a red T-shirt and pink sweat pants, Zelman a black T-shirt and baggy brown corduroy trousers, both of them barefoot. Vivienne has spicy prawns and mashed potatoes and a beet salad and two beers, while Zelman has fried chicken and mashed potatoes and string beans and a half-bottle of red wine.
They interview each other. Vivienne gets a quick overview of Zelman’s life, and Zelman learns that Vivienne is twenty-nine and emigrated to Los Angeles from Russia with her mother and father and younger sister when she was fifteen. While her father drove a taxi and her mother worked in a bakery, Vivienne suffered through a brief stint in high school before she landed a job as a gofer on the set of a movie produced by the father of a young man she met at a dance club. The gofer job led to more film production jobs, and she’s been in the movie biz ever since.
“I’m very ambitious,” she says, loading a small brass pipe with a glistening bud of marijuana. “I aspire to make feature films. But I actually have scruples, believe it or not.” She holds a match over the bud and takes a hit. “I don’t use sex to get what I want. I use my talent.”
She hands the pipe to Zelman, he takes a little hit, and hands the pipe back to her.
“You don’t smoke much pot, Zelman?” She arches a quizzical eyebrow. “Afraid you might say something you’ll regret?”
“No,” he says, shaking his head. “I just…a little goes a long way for me.”
“Me, too,” she says, taking another hit and handing him the pipe again. “This is very mellow stuff. Good for talking and music.”
Zelman has another hit. “Your note said you would explain later. Explain what?”
“Oh Burt is in love with me,” she says, shrugging. “I give him no hope, but he has big crush, so…I have three more days working here and he would be jealous if he knew I invited you, so it’s better he doesn’t know. It will make the next three days less hassle for me if he doesn’t know. Unrequited love is one thing, but jealousy wrecks everything.”
“Whereas unrequited love inspires love songs,” says Zelman, finding her surpassingly lovely.
“Exactly,” she says, laughing. “He’s not a bad producer. Look how he found you and your van.”
“I can see why he’s in love with you,” says Zelman, gesturing as if presenting her to the world. “You’re a darling.”
“This is famous Chekhov story,” says Vivienne, nodding slowly. “The Darling. I am opposite of this character. Do you know the story?”
“I don’t,” says Zelman, shaking his head. “How are you the opposite?”
“She takes on ambitions of the men she marries. She cannot exist except as an assistant to powerful men, one after another. I have my own ambitions and I like being the boss. I like to collaborate, but not give up my power.”
“That’s why I love music,” says Zelman, itching to play a song for her. “I can play alone or share the magic.”
“There’s a piano in the ballroom they are not using tonight,” says Vivienne, having a last puff. “They said we could use the piano.”
Zelman is awestruck by the Steinway in the ballroom, a superb seven-foot grand in perfect tune, and being blissfully stoned, he launches into a jazzy bluesy improvisation full of longing and mystery that leads seamlessly into his song Nothing Anybody Says, his smoky tenor riding on glorious waves of notes and chords.
Now he looks up from the keys and sees Vivienne swaying to the music, her hands clasped, her eyes closed, a sublime smile on her face, and seeing her so enthralled by his music inspires Zelman to sing the last verse especially for her.
“What just happened?” she asks, opening her eyes and gazing wide-eyed at him. “You hypnotized me.”
“I played for you,” he says—a boy again, delighted by this enchanting girl who loves his music.
“Was amazing,” she says, resting her hand on his shoulder. “Come back to my room. We have much to discuss.”
In Vivienne’s room again, Zelman gets out his guitar and plays a rollicking samba-like tune with lyrics about the blurry line between love and lust, while Vivienne dances around the room with joyful abandon.
“Okay,” she says, collapsing on the sofa, “here is my idea, Zelman. Yes, we are high and I must hear you again when I’m not stoned, but I know we can have big success together. First we will create videos that get hundreds of millions of views and then we make a feature film.”
“Videos of my songs?” he asks, sensing that isn’t quite what she means.
“Yes and no,” she says, picking up the hotel phone. “Hello. This is room 321. Can we please have coffee and cookies and French bread and butter? Yes, chocolate chip is fine. Thank you.”
“How yes and how no?” asks Zelman, trying and failing to imagine being married to Vivienne.
“The songs are important, of course,” she says, growing serious. “And your songs are wonderful, but without imagery they cannot prevail. Not today. The movies, the totalities of imagery and music, these are the songs now. Do you know what I mean, Zelman? If the Beatles came today and not sixty years ago their songs would be presented as soundtracks to little movies, otherwise we would not know of them. But more to the point, their songs would be designed to support the images. Songs now are subservient to imagery. Whether this is good or bad, I don’t know, but this is how things are. And this is what we can do together. Design music for movies and make those movies together.”
As he listens to Vivienne speak, Zelman realizes two things: he would love to be in a relationship with someone as straightforward and optimistic as Vivienne, though not necessarily with Vivienne, and he has absolutely no interest in designing music for movies.
The cookies and coffee and French bread and butter arrive, and after Zelman has two cups of coffee and a big piece of bread slathered with butter, he declares, “I’m going now, Vivienne. Take advantage of the caffeine high and eat up some miles on the empty interstate. I loved spending time with you. You’re wonderful. Thanks for everything.”
“Zelman?” she says, walking with him to the door. “I really like you. And I love your music. You will call me when you get to LA. Please? I really want to see you again, and I’m not just saying that.”
“I will call you when I get to LA,” he says, looking into her eyes. “I predict great success for you, Vivienne.”
“What about you?” she asks, taking his hand. “What do you predict for you?”
“A dog,” he says, embracing her. “I’d like to get a dog.”
“I like dogs, too,” she says, holding him tight. “Someday when I have a house with a yard, I will have a dog and our dogs will play together.”
“Nothing would make me happier,” he says, letting her go. “See you in LA.”
The next afternoon, Zelman stops at the FourWay Café in Cuba, Missouri, and as he peruses the menu, a woman wearing a billowy white blouse and a long rainbow-colored skirt enters the café, looks around at the twenty or so customers, sees Zelman, and crosses the room to him.
“Excuse me,” she says, her voice deep and warm, “is that your Volkswagen van out there? The green one with the gold stars?”
“Yes,” says Zelman, smiling at her. “Don’t tell me. You’re making a music video and want the iconic vehicle as a prop in your homage to the halcyon days of yore.”
The woman laughs and Zelman is struck by several things about her: how beautiful she becomes when she smiles, the jingling of her multi-faceted dangly silver earrings, the pleasant clacking of her three necklaces made of small chunks of turquoise, the sparkle in her blue eyes, the reddish hue in her long brown hair, the subtle Asiatic quality of her facial features, and the music in her laughter.
“I’m certainly dressed for such an homage,” she says, looking down at her billowy white blouse and rainbow-colored skirt and old leather sandals, “but I’m not making a music video, though I am a musician. No, I’m wondering about getting a ride with you to Arizona.” She pauses to see how Zelman reacts to that idea, and when he continues to gaze at her not unkindly, she adds, “For me and my daughter and our dog and our stuff. Our car blew up yesterday and I can’t currently afford the bus or the train or even to rent a car, but I can pay you three hundred dollars when we get to Arizona, assuming you’re heading west, which you might not be, but I thought I’d ask.”
“Are you and your daughter hungry?” asks Zelman, looking into the woman’s eyes and liking what he sees. “I would be happy to buy you lunch and we can see how we all get along. Or don’t.”
“We could use a meal,” says the woman, nodding thoughtfully. “But somebody’s gotta stay with the dog, so…”
They get their sandwiches and smoothies to go and dine on the tailgate of Zelman’s van.
The woman, Grace, is forty, a massage therapist, herbalist, and musician. Her daughter Teresa is fourteen, tall and slender with dark blonde hair in a ponytail that falls to her waist. She, too, is a musician. With them are two guitars, two violins, and two dulcimers.
The dog, Maurice, is a large seven-year-old Golden Retriever-Chocolate Lab mix, friendly, and keenly interested in food scraps.
They banter about this and that, enjoy each other, and Zelman is on the verge of agreeing to take Grace and Teresa and Maurice to Arizona, when Grace says, “We’re kind of in a hurry. I could trade off driving with you and we could go day and night without stopping.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” says Zelman, shaking his head. “I wouldn’t want to do that. For one thing, Miles, my van, can’t go over fifty and has to have a good long rest every seven or eight hours. With two more humans and a big dog on board, and all your stuff, forty-five would be the best we could hope for. Miles-per-hour. And then there’s me. I don’t like hurrying. Makes me anxious. I need to not be driving every other day or so. And also, though I’m headed for Los Angeles, I’m not keen on getting there any time soon, so hurrying is the exact opposite of what I want to do.”
Grace looks at Teresa, looks at the van, looks at Zelman, and says, “But if we go as slow as you want to, you’ll take us with you?”
“I will,” says Zelman, looking at Teresa and Maurice and Grace and their pile of instruments and suitcases and knapsacks and sleeping bags. “Assuming everything fits.”
On the evening of his fifth day of traveling with Grace and Teresa and Maurice, Zelman sits by the campfire in their camping spot in Lake Scott State Park in western Kansas, listening to Teresa play her dulcimer and sing a song about a girl with hair of spun gold. Grace is walking Maurice on the path that goes around the little lake, hoping the dog will poop before bedtime.
The fire makes a loud crackling sound as Teresa sings the last note of her song, and Zelman hears the crackling as God applauding, and he applauds, too.
“Get out your guitar, Zelman,” says Teresa, her voice half a girl’s and half a woman’s, for she is still a girl though fast becoming a woman. “Let’s do that one you wrote about the guy going to the party.”
“You get out your fiddle, I’ll get out my guitar,” says Zelman, turning at the sound of Grace returning with Maurice and unhooking the leash from his collar so he can rush to Zelman and rest his snout on Zelman’s lap.
“Hey you,” says Zelman, petting the love-hungry dog and watching Grace and Teresa fetch their instruments from the van; and he knows he has never been happier than he is now.