The Cure

Note: This is the full version of Aftertaste, located in the Flash menu

Tulsa, Oklahoma, Mid-May, 1977

Harper woke up like he had almost every morning for the last two weeks. In his underwear, under a plain white hospital sheet on top of the bumpy fabric of a twenty-year-old rectangular couch that was just short enough to make him bend his knees. After he’d made a cup of instant coffee, dealt with all the morning issues, brushed his teeth, pulled on his jeans and stuck his feet in some old canvas deck shoes, he sorted through the nasty gold-tone aluminum ashtray on the coffee table searching for a roach from the previous night.

Late every evening on the mostly perfect spring nights the small house hidden across the creek and behind the hedges was filled with people. Musicians, artists, writers. UFO chasers, incense burners and crystal gazers. A doctor, a lawyer or two, a promoter, small business owners, men and women who worked with them, knew them all or wanted to know them all.

He found what he was looking for in the ashtray and took the short walk to the gazebo at the back of the art museum grounds, said “good morning” to the goldfish as he passed. They followed him down the side of their terraced ponds as always like he might have, or be, food.

He’d gotten the divorce that he’d blown off for two and a half years, finally. Hadn’t seen her for months except when he’d asked her if she wanted her maiden name back. Every morning for the last week, since he’d found out it was final, he’d sat in the copy of Marie Antoinette’s gazebo, hit the roach, sipped his instant coffee and thought about how now that anything that had anchored him to anything else was gone and he should be getting gone himself. Today was getting gone day. One of those women from the late night Bohemian rhapsodies was coming to pick him up later this morning to get them both gone.

This morning was different in another way as well. Aside from being his last in Marie’s gazebo, he had a letter in his hand from someone else he hadn’t seen for a while. In years, not months, except when he’d stopped to see how she was doing a week ago, the day he found out the divorce was final. She’d been wearing a suit, an apprehensive girl cloaked in a woman’s demeanor. She told him that she’d graduated, was maybe headed for a masters, was getting married whenever whoever he was graduated doing whatever he was going to do. And intimated, by way of half-asked questions, that whoever he was might be a couple of light shades of jerk. But the man had a plan, got things done and she was on board. They talked about very little of substance, forced a laugh about the divorce he’d drug his feet on. She didn’t care. Neither did he, really. Telling her was a simple touchstone to a kind of life he’d turned his back on, just as she’d turned hers on him. Before he left he’d looked her in the eyes, told her how special she was, in so many words, and not to worry. She could handle the demands of a possibly lightweight jerk and run his plan like she was born for it.

He knew he was holding what he’d always wished had just been a short conversation between them, years ago when it needed to happen. Two younger people standing under a tree in a park somewhere, hands in their pockets. They’d say the words that would hit the ground between them and wobble off like a drunken Frisbee and they’d walk away. For some reason she wouldn’t give him that one, not even now. Put the stray dog back on the porch, “See ya around, dog,” don’t leave food out, hope it gets the message.

The letter was handwritten on light blue note paper. Two pages, but they were small and she wrote like a Seventies girl, large and loopy. He read it twice before he tore into small pieces. Not methodically, or geometrically, just into pieces that came off between his finger and thumb when he pulled.

***

She rolled to a stop on the grass and gravel next to the greenhouse at the end of the service lot, saw him standing on the bridge between the public grounds and the groundskeeper’s house hidden behind the shrub wall to his left. The house where they’d met and laughed and eaten and partied like a wayward Methodist potluck supper among loosely knit friends with casseroles, leftovers, bags of deli sandwiches and burnt, grilled whatever that got thrown on the rusty grate over the brick fire pit. They’d stand around, talk until midnight or after then go out on the grounds somewhere and make gentle or crazy or wild love. Grass stains, mosquitos and all.

She’d been collecting men for a while, in short spurts one after another, looking for someone “worth it.” She knew worth, the way she measured it, and after a week-and-a-half she knew it was worth splitting a U-Haul trailer with him, loading what was left of her life after selling her antiques and going wherever they ended up. She walked the thirty feet to the bridge and continued to watch as he dropped bits of paper the size of dimes that fluttered out of sight. She knew they would find the creek at the end of their flight and continue to float and flutter on the water until they disappeared, which looked to her like what he was after.

When he squinted, the morning sun that forced its way through the oak tree canopy wove a blanket of diamonds on the ripples of the creek. He thought of the refracting sunglasses someone had given him as a gift, and how they would have made the creek diamonds explode into color, then made him lose his balance and fall off the bridge like he’d fallen off a median and into traffic the first time he wore them. There was some irony in almost being wannabe-hippie roadkill in “rush” hour traffic.

He rolled the dead roach between his thumb and forefinger and she saw that drop away with the other bits of paper. He’d waited long after it was useful before he walked down to the bridge and gave it to the creek every morning. He thought it unfair to drop it on the unsuspecting fish. At least any fish he considered neighbors.

He turned to greet her when she arrived at his point of reverie in the center of the bridge and received a big, warm, cheerful kiss for his effort. She was still wearing her sunglasses, squeezed his butt with both hands, pulled him to her, kissed him again before she let him go.

“Hey babe. What was that?”

“Arrogance.” He gazed at the creek where the paper bits had landed, floated away.

She raised the sunglasses, let her eyes ask the next question.

“Nice to see you but not really, beat it, don’t ever call, come by or anything ever again.Forget you know me, get lost, stay that way.”

“Yeah?” She stood beside him now, put her hand in his back pocket, grabbed his butt again one-handed. “Anyone I know?”

“No, you wouldn’t. Grown up sorority girl from the City I knew a long time gone. Getting married sometime. It’s cool. I should have expected it.” He sent the butt of a Marlboro menthol spinning toward the creek in pursuit of the pieces of arrogance.

“You’re nothing but a long, hard weekend a sorority girl couldn’t talk about, buddy. You should know that by now.” She turned him, draped her arms on top of his shoulders, kissed him again. She’d been to the lake already this spring, had the dusting of freckles to prove it. “You know the lady could just be protecting herself.” She grinned with a hint of girlish blush behind the freckle dust. “You look a lot like a serial fornicator I know.”

He grinned back. She was a take charge girl who left the feeling of a thrown party in her wake, would initiate sex often and enthusiastically, anything deeper than the surface was too deep. She asked for little emotional investment, only mutual gratification and someone willing to split the check and live in right now. It was nowhere near a forever deal, but it was going to get them both out from under some recent, claustrophobic anchored-to-a-futureless-past baggage.

She smiled, kept her eyes on his face. “Just like that, beat it?”

“She dressed it up. Wrote it by hand.”

“That was a nice touch. Personalized stationary?”

“Pretty and blue, no initials. Lipstick on a pig. Only one of those I’ve ever gotten.” He decided he liked the light freckles. Not usually, but on her they worked. “Have you ever been the most embarrassing thing that happened to someone?”

Her eyes got wide and quickly filled with humor before her voice dropped into a theatric “Noooo-ooo.”

Her? Of course not. Attractive, sexually predatory women in their mid-twenties who had been married, divorced, walked like they owned the pavement and were born to wear clothes embarrassed no one. Him? There was a good chance that he had been. He wanted to look off down the creek but kept her face in focus.

“Looks like I have.”

“That’s hard to believe.” She shook her hair back, her smile wouldn’t go away. “Were you a butt-ugly baby, or what?”

“A lot of stupid high school guy shit. Maybe a virginity thief.”

“You all do that to one of us, at least. You might have been a repeat offender. And you were all stupid and horny. So what? That’s the arrogance part? I’m different now, beat it, if I never knew you I’m a slightly used, unembarrassed arrogant virgin again?”

“In that pocket somewhere. Like I’m some love sick puppy whining and peeing on her door to get let back in, needed to be reminded where I don’t belong. I thought about sending her an ‘I’m not an idiot’ note back. You know, ‘Excuse me, it was hard to miss the first time I ate my ego in your driveway. I’m on my way the hell out of Dodge with a long-legged sex machine.’ The ‘last word’ is always a shitty gig, you know, so I’ll let it ride. It is what it is.”

***

She held the trunk open, her make up case in the other hand, waited for him to lift his soft-sided suitcase. “Long-legged I liked. Machine might grow on me. This one stays on top, drop yours, I’ll drop mine and we’ll blow this high-rent cab stand.”

“Drop yours, drop mine and blow I liked.” He checked the U-Haul chain. Checked her eyes as he stood.

“Done is done, babe. Now is now.” She let that land, wanted to be sure he heard it. “Understood?”

“Yeah. Six years done. It was about time.”

“Six years?” She dropped the trunk lid, stepped over the hitch and into him. “Okay, after that long, she’s not married yet, right, you’re not interrupting dinner or anything? You drop by to say ‘Hi,’ and you get a ‘beat it’ letter? Like there’s nothing going on in your world, and what, she thinks you’re all ‘Lucy, I’m home’ again? Some sisters…I didn’t want to before, you’re assholes when you get the word sometimes, but six years to drop ‘We’re done, beat it’ in the mail? I’ll give you that arrogance call now.” She didn’t light the cigarette in her hand, instead she set it on the trunk and tried to suck his tongue out. They were eye to eye. “Done is done. Done stays done.” Her free hand was in his back pocket again.

“I know. Like licking a penny, though. It’s the aftertaste.”

She was still right up in his face. The other hand she’d gotten trapped between them tugged on his shirt. It pulled them even closer and she whispered, right on his lips.

“I have a cure for that.”

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Aftertaste

This is the stripped Flash version of “The Cure” in Short Story Fiction

She rolled to a stop on the grass and gravel, walked the ten yards, watched a moment.

He stood in the center of the bridge over the creek, dropped bits of paper the size of dimes. She knew as they fluttered out of sight they would find the water for him, float away.

When he squinted, the morning sun that forced its way though the oak canopy wove a blanket of diamonds over the creek. He thought of the refracting sunglasses someone had given him as a gift. How they would have made the creek diamonds explode into color, made him lose his balance. He rolled the dead roach between his thumb and finger, set the paper free.

He turned to greet her, received a big, warm, cheerful kiss for his effort. She was wearing sunglasses, squeezed his butt with both hands, pulled him to her, kissed him again, let him go.

“What was that, babe?”

He gazed at the creek where the paper bits had landed, floated away. “Arrogance?”

She raised the sunglasses, her eyes a question mark.

“Nice to see you but not really. Beat it, don’t ever call, come by, ever again. Get lost, stay that way.”

“Yeah?” Beside him now she stuck her hand in his back pocket, squeezed his butt again. “Anyone I know?”

“No. Grown up sorority girl a long time gone. Getting married sometime.” He sent a Marlboro menthol spinning toward the creek in pursuit of the shredded arrogance.

“You’ll never be anything but a long, hard weekend for a sorority girl, buddy. You should know that by now.” She turned him, draped her arms on top of his shoulders, kissed him again. She’d been to the lake early this spring, had the dusting of freckles to prove it.

“It was way before Kama Sutra Judy and her waterbed.”

“Still…”

She was a take charge girl who left the feeling of a thrown party in her wake, would initiate sex often and enthusiastically, anything deeper than the surface was too deep, she wished no emotional investment only mutual gratification. She smiled, kept her eyes on his face. “Just like that, beat it?”

“She dressed it up. Wrote it by hand.”

“Nice stationary?”

“Yeah. Lipstick on a pig. Only one of those I’ve ever gotten.” He liked the freckles. Not usually but on her they worked. “Have you ever been the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to someone?”

Her eyes got wide, filled quickly with humor. Her voice dropped to a theatric “Noooo-ooo.”

Of course she hadn’t. Attractive, sexually predatory women in their mid twenties who had been married, divorced, walked like they owned the pavement and were born to wear clothes embarrassed no one. Him? Probably.

“I think I have.”

“That’s hard to believe. Were you a butt-ugly baby?”

“A lot of stupid high school guy shit I think. Virginity thief maybe.”

“You all do that. So what? Next. That’s the arrogance? I’m different now, beat it. If you vanish she’s a slightly used, unembarrassed virgin?”

“In that pocket. Like after all this time I’m the love sick puppy peeing on her door. Again. I thought about sending her an ‘I’m not an idiot’ note. ‘Excuse me, your highness. I’m on my way the hell out of Dodge with a long legged sex machine. I made you and your trip years ago.’ The last word game sucks. So it slides.”

She held the trunk open, make up case in the other hand. “Long legged I liked. Machine might grow on me. This stays on top, drop yours in, I’ll drop mine and we’ll blow this high rent cab stand.”

“Drop yours, drop mine in, blow I liked.” He checked the U-Haul chain. Checked her with a look.

“Done is done, babe.”

“You’re right. Six years done.”

“Six years? Okay. For a won’t face you ‘beat it’ letter after six years I’ll give you the arrogance call. Didn’t want to.” She set the makeup case down, smiled. “Guys are assholes sometimes when they get the word, but six years late and a stamp? Some sisters…” She didn’t light the cigarette in her hand, tried to suck his tongue out instead. Eye to eye. “Done is done. Now is now. Okay?”

“Yeah. Like licking a penny. It’s the aftertaste.”

She was in his face with a handful of shirt, pulled him closer.”I have a cure for that.”

 

 

 

A Farewell to Gatsby’s Bride

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Early May, 1977

The shade was a relief. This had always been a shady driveway, and there were always leaves of some kind on and around it. All over the whole front yard, actually. The Crepe Myrtle barricade down the right side. Yeah, the shade was a good thing, spring was hot early this year. He rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands, wondered why the hell he was there, what he expected to find.

He’d just dropped by his mother’s before driving to this shade covered memory. She’d gotten word though a network of his friends that he had some important mail waiting. He’d been homeless by choice, in that band guy way, since Christmas Day. What was it now, early May? And this hot. Summer was going to be murder this year, but he’d be long gone by then.

His divorce was final, that was what the mail was about. It was quick, too. The Judge had asked him a month ago if he was sure, his ex hadn’t bothered to show or contest anything, so he’d said “yes.” Bang. So granted, so decreed, and now final. Not that this girl would care.

They hadn’t spoken in three years, at least, but here he was sitting in the driveway where’d they’d gotten up to more shit as teenagers, Jesus. Last minute gropes before curfew, arguments, make-ups, make-outs, getting their stories straight about why she was late. All the tire chirping in the driveway that she’d had to clean with a bucket and brush, and more in the street that netted him a ticket from a waiting cop. Probably her mom. Maybe her dad or her smirking brother. Maybe a pissed off neighbor. Somebody had set him up. He saw his own absurd testosterone driven stupidity and grinned. Too much sex and not enough dinners. The world’s worst high school boyfriend.

At the end were the embarrassments, the argument with one of his replacements that turned into a verbal sword fight about who’s dick was what. A year later and plenty, or so he’d heard, of variations on a theme for her to have correctly gauged and commented for any reason other than to boost the current and humiliate the past. Love you, hated them. Behaviors as predictable as a three-minute pop song. One of her contemporaries at the time had called her and the guy with his dick-o-meter “the shallow blondes.” What a great name for a band. What a lousy way it had been to start his nineteenth summer. A summer that fortunately turned much better than the events in this driveway portended.

That was one of the reasons he was here. There had never been a clear cut end, just a fade out. Her mother had broken up with him at least twice for her. “Get out, shut up, don’t talk like that in my house.” But her? She’d called him, said they should see other people, no more “just us.” She’d played him, let him make ‘love ya miss ya’ long distance phone calls when she could have cared less. Let him hang around to make several of the stupidest young guy mistakes on his record. Later she’d even shown up on his twentieth birthday with an offer he couldn’t refuse, but he had, mostly. And been an asshole about it in the bargain. Arrogance. That’s why he’d gotten angry that night, why he’d been angry. That was the other thing he was looking for. The girl he’d known before the arrogance. If he could see that one more time he could close the door on everything. He was three gigs and less than two weeks from beating it out for good and he wanted to see her, the real her, one last time. Not the arrogance, not the girl who turned and literally ran the other way when she saw him. He thought he might be the only one who knew her before that set in, before she started believing the smoke that got blown up a pretty girl’s dress. He laughed to himself, sure that she hiked that dress up a little now and then to help some of that smoke find its way.

It was too damn hot to sit in his aircraft carrier without the air conditioner running, and he knew he was stalling. He hoped what was wrong with the transmission hadn’t leaked. That was a lie, sure he wished it had leaked, just a little. He knew she wouldn’t be out there in a tank top and shorts to clean it like the tire marks he’d left in her driveway years ago, but it was worth the memory. He’d stopped by the day after leaving a serious set of those marks, seen her working, told her she was cute when she was sweaty.

“Girls don’t sweat,” she’d told him. “Cows sweat, men perspire and women glow.” That was the tell, right there. Who she was, where she was headed. And he’d missed it.

***

The spring sun stumbled through the southern windows of her mother’s kitchen, casting  awkward, partial shadows about the room. A metaphor for the two of them. She’d let him in, hesitantly, and walked herself into the corner, behind a chair, behind the table. Away and barricaded from the wrong man. Fully grown now, wearing a conservative woman’s suit, he saw in her face for the first time in years a flash of the schoolgirl he’d known. Her tension palpable, her gaze wavering, defensive, vulnerable.

He told her he’d stopped to take her temperature, that was all. How was she? His lost years spiritually and legally behind him. Telling an old friend his baggage was light before setting off on an uncharted life. It didn’t matter now if she had never cared for him, he was on his way. He wanted her to know, that was all. Wanted to wave goodbye, to say things that didn’t matter anymore. He saw the universal side of their old friendship. She did not.

His short tale told, their small talk came like an unwanted tooth extraction. Difficult. Forced. Painful. Good for you. That’s nice. Really? Congratulations. The wrong man still standing in her mother’s kitchen, his wrong shadow thrown against the wall beside her. She sparked them out of it, smiled, exposed an instant of her old self, relaxing slightly to rest her hands on the back of a chair, engagement ring teasing the sun.

“What would you…I dropped an ice cream cone…a white couch on display… how would you…Never mind, it doesn’t matter.” The wrong man, the wrong questions incompletely asked, the wrong almost sharing. Something old and now unnecessary had opened slightly and slammed quickly shut.

Almost questions posed to the wrong man truly irrelevant. Her own life, unlike his, mapped and before her, staring her down. Enveloping her. Owning her. “I’m getting…we’re going to be…I’m not sure if I can do this.” Her eyes took her face away. Tangible uncertainty replacing postured composure.

He walked the table’s barricade until her face and cast down eyes were in front of him. He hadn’t touched her in years yet his first two fingers appeared, lifted her chin. “Hey…” Spoken as though he’d breathed it. His eyes found hers. Soft, moist, frightened, guarded against the wrong man. They were the color of the spring sky, and were momentarily filled with clouds of lost. His eyes studied hers, her right first, across the bridge of her nose to her left. Neither of them blinked. They might not have breathed.

“You can do whatever you need to do.” He searched her eyes again, they dropped their guard, opened. “You can do anything. You know that.”

Silence danced with the sun on the dust particles floating in the wrongness between them. The angle of the sun, the wrong man’s shadow. His fingers, his touch, his eyes. The strong, frightened, unsure, determined little girl in the guise of a woman.

“No one ever talks to me the way you do. No one,” she said, barely audible. He held her eyes a moment longer, turned away. Before he thumbed the once familiar latch he said silently through a shallow exhale that might have been a sigh…

“Of course they don’t.”

Cat Show

Lamar pushed the plastic bowl with the molded wicker pattern to his left. “Neeko?”

“No thanks. You could eat the ChexMix, Lamar, ‘stead of digging out the pretzels. They reload that and you’ve been digging through it. You wash your hands after you took a leak?”

“Pretzels and you are the only reason I set foot in this place, Neeko. I wash my hands before ’cause I know where my dick’s been. My hands, before they get ahold of it, that’s another story. Shake hands with a man, who knows if he just did a reach and rearranged his junk, scratched somewhere dark. So I wash them first. Lamar junior hasn’t got any funk. You think my DNA all over these puffy baby Triscuit looking things is a public health hazard?”

“Not knowing if you had some splash guard like they put on gasoline hoses, I’d be suspect of that entire bowl.”

“How do you know it’s a gasoline hose? Somebody tellin’ my secrets?”

“Even if they had been I’d know they were lying. Only reason your wife keeps you is because you can cook. Saw her at the store the other day, she was looking fine as always.”

“She does look good. That’s a woman thing. Even if she looked like hell you’d say she looked good. That’s Neeko’s glass is half full philosophy right there. If you saw me and then somebody who hadn’t seen me in a while you’d say “I saw ol’ Lamar the other afternoon. He looked good.”

“Does that make me a bad person? Telling people we’re all looking good?”

“No,” Lamar sort of laughed. “It makes you about a lyin’ motherfucker though. Not all of us have that magic that women have these days. I watched some old black and white on TCM the other night, and the way they showed old women, and I mean old women who  were way younger than our old women, they looked like old women. Like those National Geographic pictures of Russian women hangin’ out laundry in the Sixties. Boxy dresses and that old woman hair, figures like whiskey barrels with tits. Not anymore.”

“I remember in some of those TV shows how old the women looked, and you Google it and they were thirty-four. Going on a hundred. Like once they hit about thirty they looked the same. They got that helmet hair and the whiskey barrel you were talking about and turned into nanny’s and housekeepers. Our women look better now than a forty-year old housekeeper on TV in the Seventies. Or a thirty-five-year old nurse in the Fifties. I think it’s down to the hair.”

“More than that. They work out, have organic hair dye that looks like a color found in nature, hormone therapy. We don’t get any of that. Used to be men looked distinguished when we got older, and being ‘robust’ was a sign of success. Now the doctors want us to weigh what we did when we were twenty, hormone therapy will kill us and all that hair junk for men looks like shoe polish. If we have enough hair to use it. I don’t care how chiseled a look you put up, even Clint Eastwood would look messed up with his head shaved or with jet black hair. I say wear what you have how it is. If all you can grow is ear warmers and a collar cover, let it be. I see men with that skin skull cap and a wispy gray ponytail and I want to smack ‘em for making us all look stupid.”

Neeko hit his iced tea, shot Lamar a sideways glance. “I thought about that hormone therapy for men. Actually looked into it. You get a shot every couple of days or some implants or cream. It might make you crazy before it killed you, but what a way to go. Walk around with a coat hook in your drawers like you were seventeen again for a couple of days before your heart exploded. Go find a couple of hookers I could wear out. Like a personal holy week of testosterone before you check out.”

“Your wife has been gone these ten years, rest her soul,  and you’re still banking on hookers? You’d need to find a couple of ’em drunk enough to take your money, Neeko. Speakin’ of bein’ seventeen with a whopper, I was sittin’ at a light the other day and next to me was this girl in a little maroon Mazda that needed a paint job. She was a carbon copy of Jaclyn Werther. Down to the hair. Hadn’t seen or even thought about her in forty years. There she was.”

“She have a tribe of guys following her like Jaclyn used to?”

“No. Car wasn’t daddy issue, either. Shame, a girl like that drivin’ around solo. I don’t think they talk to each other, Neeko. Like in this place. They get jobs and if the college romance doesn’t stick they stand around and pose because they forgot how to talk to each other without a phone in their hand.”

“If you recall, we didn’t know how without a bong in our hand, Lamar.”

“At least we were in the same room talkin’. Since you started this with that seventeen-year-old coat hook, and me seein’ that girl looked like Jaclyn, I heard from Fontaine the other day.”

“Fontaine? Damn. Now there’s your real half full glass man.”

“Yeah. We went back and forth a little. Jaclyn came up some.”

“Bet she did. Bet y’all came up some talking about her. Long time down the road for all of that. What’d he say?”

“Sounded like you, Neeko. He sees somebody, he says they look good. Now I know for a fact Morton looks like hell and went through two rough divorces, with a handful of near-grown kids in there somewhere. The last wife of his, that woman was a hurricane of bat shit crazy. Fontaine says ‘Saw Morton over the weekend. He was looking pretty good.’ Shit. Worse than you.”

“Not that I don’t care, but fuck what Fontaine had to say about Morton. I heard something about Jaclyn?”

“You’re still snowed over that business, huh, Neeko? Said he saw her, thought maybe she even got a divorce and she was still gorgeous. Must have been about fifteen years ago.”

“Well hell, Lamar, I looked good in my forties. So did you.”

So we did. But you were never gorgeous. I’d heard she got a divorce myself. Fontaine said he figured no matter how good looking you are or what you got going on, a couple of kids and a divorce had to tear your heart and your life up just like one of us.”

“I wonder sometimes about people like that, Lamar. How their dreams went. What they wanted, what they got. If they had a script, did it play as well as it read, or feel like it was supposed to going down? Was it as smooth as an Italian highway and full of poetry or all fucked up and broken in the middle like a Texas Interstate. Did they make it or give each other the finger and throw in the towel. I’d like to meet a few of them in here some afternoon, ask them what kind of ride their dreams took them on. Jaclyn’s one.”

“Well, Jaclyn’s dream took her to a cat show. That’s where Fontaine saw her.”

“No shit? What the hell was Fontaine doing at a cat show?”

“Showin’ some lady his domestic compatibility side. He said the woman loved cats and was looking. They breed those things, did you know that? They don’t just show up under the neighbor’s house and end up in a box in the front yard that says “FREE KITTENS.”

“We had a cat one time, Louisa and the girls had to have one. That cat shit like an eighty-pound dog. And left it on top of the litter box like she was proud of it and we should all want to go in the laundry room and check it out. Why anyone would want to get a specific model of cat is too deep.”

“Then it’s a good thing you never took up with Jaclyn because cats must have been her thing or Fontaine wouldn’t have run into her there. He said at the time he thought that might have been the most embarrassing moment of his adult life, seeing her like that. His only cat show and getting busted that way by the prettiest girl he ever knew.”

“Might have gotten him some points, her liking cats and both of them being divorced.”

“Naw, Neeko. You know how things look different dependin’ on your state of mind. You feel stupid at a cat show, somebody sees you and you feel stupid, figure they think you’re as stupid as you feel.”

“One shot at Jaclyn Werther or whoever she is now, and he blows it feeling stupid at a cat show. He say anything else?”

“One thing. Made me worry about Fontaine a little. He was talking about that cat show? He said he hated seein’ Jaclyn there, bustin’ him at the only cat show of his life. Said it felt just like seeing somebody you knew that one time you thought you’d try on a dress…”

 

Nana Ballet

I asked a three-year-old what I should put on a Facebook page when I was considering it. I thought she’d be a good barometer. Without hesitation, she said, “Nana ballet!”

“Well, I thought it might be about, you know, me.”

“Not you. Me an’ Nana ballet!” “You” was said like someone would say it if they’d just stepped in used dog food. “Not poo!” I haven’t won an argument with a female in thirty-seven years, I’m not going to start today. Nana ballet it is. The one on the left has been three once, and to two Nutcrackers already. The one on the right has been three *ahem* times and I quit counting Nutcracker and Snow Queen rehearsals and performances in the Eighties. The two of them, together, brings me to an old saying; Grandchildren are parents’ best revenge.

There are a lot of those sayings about spoiling grandkids and sending them home full of sugar, how nice it is that they go home, even after a (very) long weekend. How you get to love them and not have to take them to the pediatrician unless they develop projectile vomiting while you have them over spring break. That’s all okay, and understood, as far as the grandparent one-liners go, but what about your kids and those grandkids of yours?

ava bWhat if one of those beautiful grandchildren of yours is your child’s worst nightmare? My daughter’s daughter is my daughter’s mother. Seriously. As well as my son-in-law’s. How messed up is that for them? How could that happen? Those two kids are the pragmatic children, the very antithesis of their Fine Arts and Liberal Arts tree hugging middle-class Last of the Romantics type parents. Parents who dance and play music and still “bust a move” with students when Michael Jackson blows out of the pit at the student center. My daughter was reasonable, talented, smart. Self-motivating and very little trouble until she got Senioritis in high school and started driving by braille. Still nowhere near as much trouble as me, or, I’m sure, her mother. She got over it and turned into an attorney. Just like my son-in-law got over couch surfing and skateboards and became a school principal. They are organized and prepared and scheduled. But their first kid? God help them. My granddaughter is a clone of my wife.

As they run to meet each other “Nana, Nana! Are you going to ballet, too?” bounces off the walls of the studio lobby. The child will dance at the drop of a hat, just like my wife and, I am told, just like her other, now deceased, grandmother. It doesn’t matter if it’s kiddie songs, ZZ Top piped into a restaurant or classical. Gotta move. And read. And imagine. And talk. Talk, talk, talk. Princesses and tutus, fake eyelashes and costumes, all day long.

Nana is actually aBG Denton Ballet on point on Stagen English professor who puts on leotards and tights and becomes ten years old again at least three times a week. Now she has real, kid-sized company. She can even be three now, if she wants, which she does very well. Princesses and coloring books and fairy tales and all that magic you can believe when you’re three that some people, like Nana, have never put away or stopped believing. I told my daughter one day that if she ever wondered how to deal with her daughter, just think about how she dealt with her mom, with maybe a little more patience.

I have heard my granddaughter’s parents say things while rolling their eyes, like “here comes little Nana now…” and my favorite “Will somebody please go get both three-year-olds?” They are inseparable when they’re together. Nana will brave weather she wouldn’t go out in otherwise to see her granddaughter. Stay up late, get behind, go without sleep catching up, make herself sick for a little more time to be ten or three or Belle or Cinderella. To drink tea on the ceiling or hide from a dragon or a wicked witch, dance with a magic scarf or a giant flying stuffed sheep.

girls and nutI used to believe that innocence was the province of children, and that all of our youthful fairy tales from daydreams of ballerinas and pirates rescuing damsels in distress to the sanctity of first true love, were destined to end in heartbreak. Like one day we all get our moment to be Puff when he becomes the un-magic dragon and slumps off to his cave like a big, sad, scaly fire breathing Eeyore. Now, even when I’m tired of crayon bits in the remote control and TV shows laden with songs about everything from “be nice to your brother” to “flush the potty,” I see the magic in my child’s worst nightmare.  The pure, unapologetic logic of Nana Ballet. And I go re-write the last verse of Puff the Magic Dragon.

I believe that the very best thing you can hope for the granddaughters you can spoil and send home is that someday they too will give birth to a nightmare who becomes that very special place where their mother’s magic stays alive.

 

Sold Out

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Early October, 1976

Harper knew he was already a little too close to getting fired to tell the father of someone he’d dated a while back that requesting “If You Leave Me Now” just made him look stupid because the woman in the booth with him wasn’t interested in how up to date he was on shlock ballads. A girl not much older than his daughter was interested in what he could do for her, what she’d do for him if he did and anything else he tried to play into the arrangement, including improving his cool factor, was misguided. The man, oblivious to anything besides not breaking that tenuous might-be-getting-laid spell failed to even recognize him and dropped a five in the jar, so Harper kept his mouth shut and gave Chicago a pass. It was early, he’d get over it. He banked the man, though, so if he ever saw his daughter again he could tell her he once romanced her dad while her mom busted ass at home.

His eyes followed ‘dad’ back to the booth and as soon as he looked away in disgust from the visage of sex jacking an old guy as a promotional tool he was transported into the worn-out paperback detective novels one of the old drunks at the Kerr-McGee station down the street was always reading.

“She walked in and pointed a pair of thirty-eights at me. Then she pulled a gun.” Jesus, that bunk was real. It wouldn’t have mattered how dark the bar was or if he’d been blind, he wouldn’t have missed her. The red dress that almost hit the floor, slit up the side to beyond where heaven probably started, red sequins everywhere. One of those ladies with her own spotlight. Probably had an invisible orchestra that followed her around like Rita Hayworth, in case she decided to bust out a ballad dripping with dumb lyrics and sexy boom-boom hips in a gown that stayed up by a miracle, not straps. Even the men deeply ensconced in their perimeter booths turned to look. Harper grinned a little because he knew checking out the red dress babe would put a dent in their somebody else’s wife’s friendliness accounts. He’d seen married women get bent about that even when they were cuddling with another woman’s man.

Red dress weaved her way through the darkness spotted with tabletop candles right up to the piano bar with the ratty old Baldwin baby grand under a piano shaped table. She dropped her red sequined evening purse on top before she slid the back side of her slit dress onto the bar stool closest to him. She wiggled side to side a couple of times to find the stool’s sweet spot and sighed. Long black hair cascaded across half of her face and down the front of her dress, curled right under, and almost around, a perfect, red sequin covered breast. The dress itself wasn’t risqué at all. The neck was high, sleeves to the middle of her forearms, hem to the floor, but it fit like someone sprayed her with red sequined paint. The whole package, including the sequined evening clutch, screamed high-class hooker. Maybe. He’d seen a lot of those purses downtown. Just enough room for a pack of cigarettes, a lighter, I.D., three condoms and some cash. High-class this high was way too high for Daddy’s Hideaway, though. The Hide was convenient, suburban, close to home and where uninventive upper middle-class husbands met their other-people’s-wives mistresses to set up where and when they’d hook up in a less public venue, write off the check as a “business meeting.” And to sneak in a little sly “watch the lipstick and don’t wrinkle my clothes, darling” romance before moving on to report in with the “loved ones” at home. The place was full of illicit sex, but it wasn’t a “real” hooker haven or pick up bar.

“You could play something,” she said.

Harper tried a light smile. “I am.”

“You could play something I might like to hear.”

Harper nodded toward the far wall. “The guy in the booth over there, having dinner with his daughter? He asked for this one. I don’t like it either, but he dropped a five for it.”

She shot a glance at the wall while she ran two fingers down the edge of the hair in her face, made no attempt to move it. “She’s not his daughter. Sticky sweet love songs should net you a twenty from fountain of youth seekers like Robert, or a ‘no.’”

Her voice was woodfired and charcoally. Gravel and honey. Like she’d smoked Camels and drunk Jim Beam since she was born. If sexy ever needed a voice, here she was. And she knew the Chicago request guy, too. Small world.

“I’d offer to buy you a drink but I’ve already pissed you off with this tune. Two strikes this early would shut me down waiting for the third.”

“Piano players make enough money to flirt it away these days?”

“Lonely piano players will throw money at classy company all night long if they think any of it might stick.” He watched her do all of those lady things. The hair shake, little shoulder rolls stretching her upper back out, flexing her fingers, touching the dress, her sleeves, pushing the clutch around trying to find where it belonged. Small movements, big presentation.

“And you?” She still was looking down, side to side, like a cat had jumped in her lap or the stool was playing lightweight grabass.

“I’m lonely and I’m drinking lemonade with a half a shot of tequila in it. I can’t drink very much or I start to play Carpenter’s tunes. And I do a bad job of it because they make me cry. Old heartbreaks die hard.”

“A flirty, cornball, heartbroken crybaby. My lucky night. Flag the waitress and I’ll join you. Lemonade and half a shot. What a great idea. You make that up?”

“Yep. It’s a Harper.”

“I like Lynzey better. From now on they’re Lynzeys.”

“I tell her that and the bartender won’t know what to do, so she’ll pee in a glass full of ice and stick an umbrella in it. Your name Lynzey?”

“Yes,” she spelled it for him after she rolled her eyes. “I had to work it in, you weren’t going to ask. You’re not much of a flirt.” She glanced back at the wall where he’d said the request had come from, wiggled a little and pulled on her dress. “Now you can play something I might like. Daddy-o over there has a lip lock going and a hand in his lap that’s not his own. And you’ve beat that chorus into tomorrow just like Chicago did. He got his five buck’s worth.”

Whoever she was, she had a good eye and a sense of humor drier than July. “You a ‘Popular Hits for Piano,’ ‘Easy Listening,’ ‘Peaceful Easy Feelings’ or a Standards girl?”

She gave him a dirty look with the half of her face that wasn’t covered with hair, picked at the chipped Formica on the piano bar top with a red fingernail. “These piano cover things are always the shittiest piece of furniture in a bar. What do you think? About me.”

“I think you’re an old fashioned Standards girl. And the piano underneath this piece of shit isn’t any prize, either.”

“Story of my life.”

Harper tried not to laugh but couldn’t stop himself. “Being under a piece of shit or not being a prize?”

“I was starting to like you. I’m always the prize, no matter what piece of shit I’m under.” She threw some of the hair over her shoulder but not out of her face and watched him while he flipped through the fake book and hit on “The Man I Love.”

“I wasn’t giving the waitress the peace sign,” he said. “She’ll bring us both a Harper here in a minute.”

“They’re Lynzeys now, remember?” She smiled, leaned up off her stool onto the piano bar top trying to look at his hands. “You have a fake book down there? You aren’t even a real piano player?”

PH Rockin Cal 1981 a“I’m a between bands rock n roll keyboard player. I was washing dishes in here for free food and some cash when the old drunk who usually does this fell off the bench. Alcohol poisoning. They used to light his breath, drag him around to light all these candles.”

“Flirty, cornball, heartbroken crybaby comedian. You keep raising the bar. Between bands? Why?”

“Creative differences. I don’t like light-footed drummers, especially a dumbass who gets the clap every weekend screwing shit he should leave alone, but he and the other two guys were all brothers. And I just can’t do the platform shoes guitar band thing anymore.”

“Really high heels make my back hurt. Men walk like they have a broomstick in their ass in those things anyway, so it’s good you saw the light. Did you at least go to piano player school long enough to find ‘All the Things You Are’ in that book?”

Harper played his way out of where he was and flipped to the index, and back to the page with her request. “This is two.” He nudged the tip jar and grinned. “’Man I Love’ was on the house.” She gave him a tight-lipped eff-you smile, stepped off the stool, walked like sex with feet all the way around behind him and put her hand on his shoulder. “Slow down a little, Harper. Let a lady make love to a song.”

He slowed down, and what she did with a song, several songs, Harper figured was probably illegal in forty-seven states, including the one they were in. She’d left her hand on his shoulder, bent over and put her head right next to his, let all that perfumed hair fall all over him while she flipped through the fake book one handed. When she’d find one, she’d tap the tempo on his shoulder, then squeeze him a little when she wanted him to let it drag, tap him with her index finger when she wanted him to pick it back up. He played wide and close to the ground, left her a lot of room. She filled it like blue smoke in a giant bubble. After five songs Lynzey slid back on her stool to light applause from the darkness. When that calmed down he noticed through the hair that she was flushed.

“Nice job of being there and staying out of the way, Harper. That was unexpectedly perfect.” She picked up the red candle holder wrapped in plastic netting, tilted it to get the wax away from the wick so it lit up the top of the piano, and him, then finished her Harper. Or Lynzey.

“You know when it’s that good? It’s better than sex. All that room you made for me, my God. I felt like I was rolling around on a huge bed in loose satin sheets. Enough room to be coy, enough to fall a little bit in love…” He watched as she drifted off somewhere and stayed.

He almost agreed. Almost. Maybe she’d been having sex with the wrong people, or needed to fall a little bit in love with whoever it was. She wasn’t all that old to be bumming on it. Harper was almost twenty-four and only last week a dishwasher turned lounge piano player, once again, this time by having a particular skill set in the proximity of need. He put Lynzey at just over thirty. Eyes and skin and smile or laugh lines were how he guessed women’s ages. And women telegraphed it if you tuned in. But he wasn’t concerned with how old she was because when she sang it really was almost as good as sex. Almost.

He was stuck on that sex with a side order of being in love thought when she came back from wherever she’d gone and said, “I was thinking about you in platform shoes.” She tossed her hair and he saw her face before it fell again. “I think you’re lying.”

“Gospel. I have pictures. I was thinking about you as the Phantom of the Opera. I thought there was a reason for the hair, like you were halfway ugly. Now I think you’re hiding.”

“Don’t play shrink, play the piano and be nice. I’m just another girl in a red dress.” She pinched the fabric of a sleeve with her thumb and forefinger. “Put this on half the housewives in a square mile of here, take the crap out of their hair. There I am. Or here they are.”

“Unless it’s magic, that dress doesn’t help you sing. I’m almost a half bad guitar player, too, if you’d like to try this in the park with me tomorrow.” That one made her laugh out loud but she caught it quick.

“Was I going to wake up in your bed before we skipped off holding hands to play troubadour and muse? Did you just leapfrog the big question and go straight to an ‘after we’ve slept together’ suggestion?” She snarkled a choked laugh again. “God, if you did, that’s new and very good. Intuitive assumption. When you get tired of playing miserable songs for miserable people, you have a future in sales. Don’t ask them if they want whatever it is, just ask them how they’d like to pay for it.”

“I hadn’t really thought of any of that. It was an honest proposition.”

“An honest man?” She looked at him again through her phantom mask made of hair. “Don’t take this personally, but I could never do what you asked, even if I were tempted. Since we’re being honest with each other, I’ll tell you what you’re wondering about me. I’m not a hooker, I’m a singer. I have a two-year-old son at home, with a sitter.” She barely lifted her hand from the wrist, made a small movement from left to right with it. “My husband is one of these men, in a bar a lot like this probably, only halfway across the country. More than likely sitting with another man’s wife or a starry-eyed intern and paying too much for drinks while someone quite unlike you entertains them. He’s ‘important,’ and gone a lot of the time. I see the receipts, the places on his expense reports, the guest golf club memberships. The matchbooks and keys to hotel rooms he was never registered in. I smell his shirts sitting in the passenger seat of my car before I drop them at the cleaners. I come in here occasionally and sing to forget, just like people who come in here and drink and replace their emptiness with a little alcohol and stolen romance. I heard about Kingsley passing out and was curious who they’d found to replace him. And I needed to sing.”

“So why just occasionally? You’re a slammin’ singer.”

“I just told you, Harper. I’m a sell-out. From the walls in, this little cavern of moral treason is a sell-out. I used to sing opera, on a scholarship. And I’m a better pianist than you are. Or I was. Well, you have those hands that make it so wide, harmonically, but…Anyway, we don’t have a piano in our house, and when I argue he just walks away. He says the noise is distracting. I made a huge mistake in college and here I sit.”

Harper was having trouble getting behind “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and listening so he went back in time a little and found some four chord classics, caught her eye a gave her half a nod.

She picked up the cue that he was really listening and smiled behind her hair while she made rays of water come from the condensation ring her glass had left behind. “You’re listening. I’m not used to that, other than about who and where and when and how much did it cost. Do you find me fascinating?”

“Yes.” Shit. There was a better answer, a cooler answer. He knew there was.

“That’s marvelous! I haven’t been fascinating to anyone in the longest. ‘Specially with my clothes on!” Harper had already gone to imaginary no clothes Lynzey in his head and had to force himself to come back. Fully clothed she was still fascinating. And she’d quit making the watery abstract sunshine and wiped it all away with a paper napkin.

“In college I smoked pot at a party with my future husband. I mean I’d done some mescaline a couple of times and Quaaludes once and all the required college party drugs, but I’d never trashed my throat smoking anything. I told him ‘no,’ he knew I never smoked anything because of the heat and ash and junk in my throat. He said this bong thing of his roommate’s was full of water and cooled it off, it would be okay. I’d always wanted to see what the big whoop was so I smoked it. A lot of it. I decided to show off and tried to be Janis Joplin as loud as I could and woke up with a shredded throat. It’s a muscle like a football knee or a tennis elbow and I blew it out, just like one of those. So I messed my everything all up being a one-time pot party girl. I wouldn’t have married him if it wasn’t for the money and his master plan ‘we’ discussed for my life after I couldn’t do what I wanted. And I doubt he would have proposed if he hadn’t felt guilty.”

“Drop that shit right on down a deep hole, Lynzey. He’d have proposed. He wasn’t guilty. You had to be the hottest chick he knew, or will ever know. The guy may be an asshole but he’s not stupid. Or Blind. Just lucky. That’s not an ass kiss. You can believe it or leave it, but you need to see it from this side before you start backing up on yourself.” He was surprised how pissed off he’d gotten about her selling herself short like some sort of bar-fly loser. More surprised that in his instantaneous deep infatuation he’d used her name and barked at her.

“Thank you. Not for the sweet bullshit or the sermon, but for listening. And caring.” She shot him a small smile full of irony. “This has all been…different tonight. To be heard. I told you, I’m a sell-out. Everyone in here is a sell-out. Get the bartender’s story. Go ask the man over there with his ‘daughter.’ I know half of these people and none of them is with who they should be. Junior League, Charity presidents, chairperson of the board of this and that. Parading their misery and sadness with themselves like badges of success. I want you to listen to me. When Kingsley comes back, even if he dies and doesn’t ever come back, get out of here. No matter what happens, don’t learn to drink, don’t learn to hide, don’t buy into it. Don’t sell-out.”

He let her words hang in the air between them, raised his eyebrows. “Trading sermons?”

“Shut up. I’m only home inside myself when I sing, Harper. What happens in here or out there doesn’t matter when I sing. It doesn’t matter that I hurt myself being stupid for a man and traded who I could have been or who I thought I was for a pretty hostess with some good looking kids gig. I’m a ‘wife,’ I’m a ‘mom.’ I’ll be a ‘mom’ again soon and he’ll be gone again and I’ll keep coming in here or somewhere and singing to keep my head from exploding until I can’t sing anymore and then I’ll learn to drink or play golf or chit chat like a pro, like I care about my fucking ‘civic responsibilities’ and really be one of them.” She paused, almost out of breath, looked at him through the hair again, and then pulled it all away so he could see her.

“I’m sorry. I…I made the mistake of feeling how it felt when someone listened.” The hair stayed back, her eyes angry, tired, the blue gone gray. She looked defiant for a moment and then let it go. “The lemonade cuts phlegm and that’s just enough tequila. Thanks for that one, Harper. I’ll always remember you for naming a useful drink after me and being the last man who listened. Isn’t it nice to make lasting memories together, fully clothed? To know you won’t be forgotten like a one-night stand with a wakeup song in the park?”

“I’ll never forget the Phantom of Daddy’s that renamed my drink, or wore that dress.” Shit. He wanted to say something else, something with substance, something poetic, not just some lame crap, and he couldn’t find it. He did find the simplest, most open version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” he’d ever played.

She sang it from the stool, softly, like she owned it and was giving it to him as an ephemeral gift, as if she’d ridden that rainbow to the dreams she’d dared to dream and wanted to share them. He found himself wishing even one of whatever they were would come true for her. When they finished she checked the delicate, diamond crusted watch on her wrist.

“Harper, do you remember what I said about when it’s good?” She took his Harper-Lynzey from in front of him and drained it. “I’ve had more good sex tonight than I ever had to make a baby. With my clothes on. With someone handsome in an unkempt, youngish and easily impressionable way who appreciated the simplest me. Remember what I said about getting out.”

She slid off her stool, nodded slightly towards the bar. “Do both of you favor. Take that little waitress who can’t keep her eyes off of us with you when you go home tonight. She needs a ‘good guy’ break.”

“Not going to happen. She and the manager –”

“Manager?” She snorted, said it like the lemon she’d bitten had stuck in her throat. “You must not have asked. Yet. Just be like the best music, Harper. Slow down. Give a lady a chance to make love. To a song. To you. You might be surprised.” She pulled herself up perfectly straight and smoothed her red second skin across her abdomen to her hips with the palms of her hands. “See you, between gigs piano player. Not in the morning, and not in the park.” She smiled the small irony smile again, the hair fell back in her face when she picked up her purse. She turned away and weaved her sex with feet walk toward the door.

For the first time, all evening, he knew what he wanted to say, and why words always seemed to fail him where music didn’t. “Unforgettable” followed her through the candle stars dotting the darkness of Daddy’s Hideaway. She stopped under the fake arch over the doorway with every eye in the place on her, tossed her hair, blew him a kiss. Mouthed “get out” as she let go of the door.