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. 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 tripped over her in a store a week ago. After checking her watch she’d said, “You can come over, but you can’t stay very long.” He stopped by that afternoon, coincidental to the day he’d found out the divorce was final. She’d had on a plain, gray suit, an apprehensive girl cloaked in a woman’s demeanor. She told him that she’d graduated, was maybe headed for a master’s, 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 hoped the letter he was holding contained what he’d always wished had just been a short conversation between them, years ago when it needed to happen. Two kids standing under a tree in a park somewhere, hands in their pockets. They’d say 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. Sad.

The letter was handwritten on light blue notepaper. Two pages, but they were small and she wrote like a Seventies girl, large and loopy. He read it twice before he tore it 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 stationery?”

“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 lovesick 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 some 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’re invited to drop by, 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.”

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 scattered on and around it. 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 dropped by his mother’s before driving to this shade covered memory. He’d been homeless by choice, in that band guy way, since Christmas Day, but she’d gotten word though a network of his friends that he had some important mail waiting.

His divorce was final, that was what the mail was about. The Judge had asked him a month ago if he was sure, his ex hadn’t bothered to show up for court or contest anything, so he’d said “yes.” Bang. So granted, so decreed, and now final. Not that the girl who belonged to the leaf-covered driveway would care.

They hadn’t spoken in three years, 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.

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, most embarrassing young guy mistakes on his record. At the end were the embarrassments, the arguments, the car wrecks, all the things she let him get up to with her while she shagged her way through her senior class. The grand finale being where she’d said “help out, see you tomorrow” knowing full well she’d have a minion or two to do her dirty work in this very driveway “tomorrow.” Behaviors as predictable as the themes of a three-minute pop song. What a lousy way it had been to start his nineteenth summer.

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 ran the other way when she saw him. He thought he might be the only one who knew her before all 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? She sidestepped. Him? 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 again, 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 motes that floated 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.” she said, barely audible. “No one.” He held her eyes a moment longer, turned away.

“Of course they don’t,” he said silently through a shallow exhale that might have been a sigh before he thumbed the once familiar latch, closed the door on a long yesterday, rejoined the rest of the leaves that drifted across her driveway.

 

Cat Show

Lamar pushed the wicker mold plastic bowl 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 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 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 these days, 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.”

“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.’  That’s some shit, there.”

“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 she was 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 more 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. Idiot. 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…”

 

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.

I’ll Have a Malibu

“Saw a man die in here the other day, Neeko.” Lamar picked some more pretzels out of the bowl of ChexMix that was sitting on the bar in front of him, popped a couple in his mouth.

“You have an appointment or something? Bars aren’t your thing, Lamar.”

“Some kid architect, due any time. Art Deco restoration.”

“He think you were around for it the first time, or what?”

“Prob’ly. You not hear me?”

“I heard. You saw some guy die in here. Kind of a weird place to kick. Low stress, not much light, limp music.”

“Yep. Sittin’ right over there where the fat guy is sittin’ now. One minute he was there, next minute he was on the floor. Why I fuckin’ hate bars.”

“For a guy hates bars and saw a man croak out you’re back awful soon.”

casablanca1“People have to do meetings in these places now. Used to be restaurants, but they got too noisy or somethin’ I guess. Stock in martinis went up a while back, too. Posers, mostly. I’m waitin’ on fedoras to come back. Everybody under forty’s Bogart or Sinatra.”

“I thought it was the black and white version of Sean Connery they were after.”

Lamar let out a choked laugh. “Yeah. Pussy Galore is out there drinkin’ wine, three and four to a table somewhere, and these cats in here playin’ solo big boy. Fools. Women an wine are a lot more fun than hard liquor and business bullshit.” Lamar made a quarter turn on his stool, looked at the floor by where the fat man was sitting. “He coulda just gone out, you know. Quiet. Peaceful. Man was anguished.”

“You talkin’ the dead dude now?”

“Yeah.” He turned back to the bar. “Do I look like a priest?”

“Not so anyone would mistake you.”

“Dead guy sure did mistake me for one, going on. Confessin’ his life to me. Bartender said he’d been in here four, five hours that night. Wasn’t drinkin’ hard or nothin’, knockin’ back a few expensive scotches. Older guy. Nice suit. Had a job, accordin’ to his wallet. Company plastic, business cards. The emergency boys opened up all that, waitin’ for the cops. Not an Arab oil or age or salary downsize casualty. Makes you wonder.”

“Not really. I see it all the time. Probably divorced, or nobody to go home to, anyway. Or nobody he wants to see when he gets there. Burned all his gas and bridges getting to here, home life is worse than work for some guys.”

“That’s fuckin’ sad, Neeko. Nice lookin’, well dressed successful guy, sittin’ in a goddam bar five or six hours of an evenin’, payin’ retail for liquor. Bartender said he’s been a regular for a while now. No trouble ever, left the waitresses alone. Said he’d talk if somebody sat down, kept to himself otherwise. I know he wasn’t here to watch captioned CNN on four different screens and groove to that Pandora easy listening crap the bartender’s pullin’ off his phone.”

“Maybe he was looking at retirement, or somebody died. Wife, maybe. Maybe he got popped with a girlfriend, no place safe left to go. Maybe everybody at home, including the dog, was just tired of his shit.”

“Maybe. I don’t think so. Guys like him, you’d think he’d have a country club or somethin’. Somewhere besides a bar in the basement of a downtown bank buildin’. Someplace with some friends, other suits and briefcases. Loud nylon shirts and checkered pants, cigars. He was a local they said. And he was in big pain. Man pain, you know? Been carrying it a lifetime, sounded like to me.”

“You said anguished before. Now he’s got man pains? So you have something to say, amigo, or are we gonna sit here and wonder about his dead ass till your appointment shows?”

“‘Third rate.’ That’s what he said. ‘Third rate.’ Layin’ there kind of cross-eyed, man knew he was dyin’, kept sayin’ it. ‘Third rate.’ I was bent over him, getting his tie a little looser, everybody else standin’ back. ‘She said I was third rate. I was a fool to think I was anything else. Third rate. I’ve been proving I wasn’t for so long…I’m dying, right? Gaw-awddammit. Tell her I wasn’t third rate. If I was, then tell her I got over it.’ Grabbed my shirt when he said that last part. I couldn’t believe he kept saying that to me. ‘Third rate.’”

“Third rate? Like a loser third rate, or a has been? You sure it wasn’t ‘third base’ or something else? Him laying on the floor dying like that, you hanging over him, he coulda been looking up at your ugly old ass saying ‘turd face,’ Lamar. You have that effect on some people.”

“Nope, Neeko, it was ‘Third rate.’ He said, ‘She stood there on that porch, smiling, then followed me down to the driveway, told me my car was third rate, my dick was third rate, that clown standing right there with her, and I deserved it, however bad I felt. I was a loser and always had been.’ So I said to the man, ‘Bad divorces happen. People say things. They change their minds, we fuck up, shit happens. Ain’t the end of the world. Don’t mean you’re a loser or third rate or a quitter or nothin’. Just hang on.’ He said ‘Hang on? What for? I fucked my whole life up since I was a kid proving to some girl who’ll never even know that my third rate dick got promoted, or that I spent my life in hock up to my ass driving cars I couldn’t afford, all because of her.’ He was fading about that time, going in and out. I was keeping up CPR on his chest all this time and he grabbed my wrist, told me to stop. Said it hurt worse than dyin’.”

Lamar was slowly twirling a baby pretzel on the bar, a million miles away. Neeko let him sit, let Otis Redding and the clinking of glasses behind the bar wash over them, prayed the bartender’s Pandora didn’t let “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” sneak in like they did on every channel. He didn’t want to hear Lamar go off on that shit, not at the same time he was in the middle of feeling the pain of some stranger’s third rate dick, anyway. “So that was it? Lights out?”

“He was whisperin’ it by now, you know?” Lamar was still twirling the pretzel. “Quiet. Squeezin’ the shit outta my wrist. I know why they call it a death grip. Man was hangin’ on till he unloaded all his pain. He said, ‘No matter what a woman says to you, how young or old you are or how much you think you’re in love, let it wash. Don’t carry it around.’ He went out some then came back sayin’ ‘I’ve been so pissed off, for so goddam long, it was just part of my life. It got in the way of everything. Couldn’t enjoy what was right in front of me.’ I told him ‘Man, women have said some shit like that to me, and maybe they were right, maybe they felt justified some way sayin’ all that. 55f1f65c2c00004e00aaf755Some just walked away and didn’t say a word. Those are the worst, when you don’t know what you did wrong.’ I tried to smile, lighten him up a little. Told him at least he knew her problem, and if he was to see her again he could show her his car and how he’d worked out that third rate dick problem. Maybe show it to her goin’ through the car wash in his fancy ride. Like I was jokin’ with a dyin’ man about women. That’s some shit, right? He said he finally realized he’d let her give him a third rate life by not letting her go, letting her get in the way of everything, be a part of everything he did. He was cryin’, then, I think. Eyes were waterin’. ‘Third rate,’ he said. ‘I fucked my life up over a gold digger tellin’ me I had a third rate car, and a third rate dick? How fucked up was that for a life?’ I said I didn’t know and he said ‘I hope there’s a heaven. I hope she shows up one of these days so I can ask her what the hell? Third rate car. Third rate dick. What the hell? Huh? What…the…hell…’ That was it. Gone. Successful. Nice guy, so they said. Bet he had a hell of a car. And miserable. Just plain miserable, layin’ there that way. All down to how he caught one from a woman that left him sideways. Can you imagine, livin’ your whole life believin’ you’re third rate because some girl got over on you when you were young, rantin’ on your car and your dick? Jesus, man. ‘What the hell’ he kept askin’ me. That one question of his, how messed up a life was that? Hard to answer that one…I keep tryin’ but I may never, you know?”

“Sorry, Lamar, but you need to let him go before his pain gets to you. He’s not hurtin’ anymore, that’s for sure. Looks like your appointment’s here, bro. Stay out of bars for a while. Make them meet you for dinner, forget their martinis. Fedoras make a comeback you should buy one. Us old guys look better in ‘em. They need a face with some character underneath. Like give DeCaprio Bogart’s or Harrison Ford’s fedora? No way. Swing low, aim for the deep bleachers, buddy. I’m gone.”

“You got it, Neeko. Stay loose.” Lamar turned back, looked at the young guy standing next to him. “Evening, Angelo. What’re you drinkin’ tonight?”

539fcaa55c511_-_cos-09-martini-recipes-de-mscn“I’ll have a Malibu, please, Lamar. Pomegranate and pineapple juice martini. Been here long?”

“Not long. Eatin’ pretzels, waitin’ on you. Fuckin’ hate bars, you know that. Saw a man die in here the other night. Sittin’ right over there where the fat guy is now. Next time we do Corner Bakery or La Madeline to talk Art Deco if it’s okay with you. A Malibu? What’s wrong with you, Angelo? Some kind of fruit juice martini? Next your gonna tell me you’re shavin’ your nuts and readin’ Cosmopolitan to keep the women happy.”

“Maybe I should, Lamar. My GF just walked. Told me I had a piece of shit for a car and a third rate dick and she’d already found a better one, I’d never amount to nothing and I deserved being in business for myself and by myself because nobody else would have my sorry ass. You believe that? The shit they say when they leave?”

“Yeah, I believe it. That they say it, anyway. Don’t you hang on to it, though. Let it go. Words like that, carry ‘em around too long and the weight of them gets to be enough they can kill a man.”

“Not me. I say the hell with her, she feels that way.”

“Good. ‘Cause I saw a man who forgot to say that die in here the other night. Malibu. Jesus, Angelo. Like the car or the beach?”

Cross-eyed Cupid

Now most times when I tell this story I try to be clever with how I start it. I’ve tried lots of ways, but lately my favorite is callin’ it The Cross-eyed Cupid. Like this one time he got his bow and arrow out and hit a couple of people in the shoulder. Close enough, but no cigar. It goes like this.

“My girlfriend will be there with some other girls,” the big guy said. His name was Jeff and he was the second string football center at OU. We were workin’ this summer construction job, I guess that was the summer my old high school girlfriend and her mom shut that down between us. I mean lookin’ at it, they were right. A lot of us got that year, year and a half, maybe two in high school with a regular date, some finding out about sex in awkward places. But it’s always got a sell-by date. Just when we’re kids we don’t see it, can’t hear our parents sayin’ it. Like we think we invented all that, the same way we tell our kids they didn’t. I’m sayin’ that because when something ends and you think it’s the end of the world some other thing has you in the headlights like a slow deer on a country road. For some reason we’re so blinded by whatever happened we don’t see that train a comin’. Or maybe, like me, just a little dumb-blind. I think we all are, a little. Dumb-blind. Me, I’m some kind of poster boy for it.

The big guy and his tall, skinny friend with the pickup, they’re from Edmond where we’re doin’ this work, where they went to high school. So the girlfriend, or girlfriends, they’re like a year behind and they haven’t put a stop on it yet like what happened to me. I still don’t know why we’d be working and these girls were in school unless it was summer school, or maybe Christmas break but it was hot as hell, so I guess summer school. I followed them, my Edmond partners, in my own car. I still had that orange POS, the one that looked cool once I got all the wheels on it to match, with the six-cylinder stick and my name on the back in chrome letters where the Chevy sign went. It was bad-ass to look at and ran like a tractor and to this day I don’t why I was so damn proud of it.

Anyway, these extra girls they said would be there were from Edmond, some place I’d never met a girl from, so I thought, you know, twenty, thirty minutes up the road, how different can they be? I’d met this girl from Kansas and a couple from San Antonio, one even from this little town called Washington, in North Carolina. That girl, her name was Melody, like a song, and she coulda read the phone book with that voice of hers and people would have listened. I would have. I’m just sayin’ girls seemed to be girls back then. Just without that regular once or twice a week-end sexing it up, I was kinda frustrated. Getting to know somebody, blind dates, double dating, hoping you’d find a girl on your own, smoke a joint, get that way with them. Seemed to happen to everybody else. But lookin’ back I think a lot of those jokers were lyin’, like young guys do about sex and weed and how fast their car is.

We pull in to the Bonanza right there on the extension. I know the place. In high school I went to a yearbook how-to at that junior college, ate lunch there with this girl, we did the yearbook together. We made out in the parking lot after, and a couple of other places before we made it home. And she was driving. That sort of thing went on a lot. Thinking on it now I guess I knew in the back of my mind my old girlfriend and her mom had read my book, knew what I was up to and them deciding once I graduated and wasn’t underfoot all the time she’d protect her baby from me. Gget me off the tit, so to speak. At least hers, anyway. It worked to some extent, but I wonder sometimes if girls’ parents realize it takes two to tango horizontally. Moreover, did they know that a guy didn’t need to be regular bowler to be knocking the pins over as history proved out to be happening. Parents of daughters listen up right there.

In the Bonanza the girls, maybe five or six, seems like one or two guys, I may be wrong about that, all sittin’ on one side of a long table. Now there’s only three of us, the big guy, his tall, skinny friend and me. By this time I had longer hair, got some looks from the Edmond boys in their polo shirts. I got used to that look, but it took me forty years till I just didn’t have much hair. Anyway, we’re all dusty and crusty, dried sweat and that sandy red dust you get north of the city, and it was expected we sit across from them. I supposed for the sake of sanitation. I don’t know the players in this game so I wait. The big guy sits across from his girlfriend, the skinny guy next to him across from this other girl he seems to know. I’m not going to sit by them, across from some girl looks like the church lady and scowls me out, so I skip a chair, knowing this is a long nowhere lunch for me. One in a long line of them.

The girl across from me, she’s cute. I’d say pretty. She smiles, kind of shy. She’s got the biggest brownish-hazel eyes, the kind of hair we’d all kill for. Thick, a little wave. Miss Breck ad hair, that perfect ski jump nose. I could have picked a lot worse chair. But she’s shy, or disgusted. I never really could tell with girls and me, and she doesn’t talk much.

We eat, there’s enough talking from the people who know each other, dating each other, their friends chipping in with some comment. The shy girl doesn’t talk that much, she has a nice smile, not too big. Her voice, she’s no life-timer in Edmond. Turns out she has some boyfriend, he’s her age, still in school, plays football. My luck.

Her name is Deb, Debbie. She said it’s Debra, De bra, not like she’s talkin’ underwear, just sayin’ it, how it is. I ask “Deborah, though, spelled the regular way?” And she says “Yes, but say it like I said.”

Here it gets interesting because Debra, she has a bent earring. It was a gift from the boyfriend. She has to see him later, doesn’t seem all that excited, and really wants that earring fixed. Maybe he’s the kinda guy will thump her, she screws up the earrings. The bent earring, it goes all the way around the table, the clean guys, my two work guys, the girls. Everybody sayin’, well, no, need some needle nose pliers, need a clamp, can’t bend it, need this tool or that. I’m no mechanical genius but I get geometry, always have, so when the earring makes it to me, last call, I see the problem. I ask Debra, I called her that properly, would she unroll that extra red napkin and hand me a clean fork and the knife. She wants the earring fixed more than she wants to ignore the sweaty shaggy guy, so she gets them for me. The fat part of the fork at the back of the tines is just right, so I open up this one part of her earring with the knife, park it over the fork, squeeze the snot out of it, and there it is, no needle nose pliers. I see why they wanted some, they were just seein’ it as a man-handle it project and I applied some finesse. Probably used my lifetime supply of it right there in that Bonanza in Edmond, Oklahoma.

I said, “Here ya go,” hand Debra her earring back, my hands are clean, it’s okay. Now I’m some kind of hero, even for the girls down the table. The big guy Jeff, and the skinny guy, they’re suddenly glad they know me, the clean boys not so much, but they have to be good sports, the girls down on that end liking me a little. The guys knowing they get jerky they’ll be dry and lonely like me this weekend. Debra is flustered a little, maybe I’m not the guy should have fixed it for her, maybe all the attention from her friends. Anyway, she knows it’s fixed, keeps being distracted and can’t stick it in her ear. For the second time I say, “Here ya go,” like I did when I gave it back fixed, only this time I get up, we’re almost at the end of the table, and I walk around and say, “Pull your hair back,” and she does, looking at me as far sideways as her eyes will go. She’s got it in, the little thing in the back isn’t cooperating is all. I’m not a moose, so I don’t rip her ear off like I’m sure she’s thinking I might, you know, me being all dusty and shaggy. I say, “I got it on there now, but you should push it tight. I don’t want to be the stranger who smashed your ear.” I’m being funny, the other guys laughing, the girls with that worried look. “I’ll hold your hair back, you do it.” I hold it with a finger of my left hand, she gets it right this time. I ask “Okay?” She says, “Yes,” I let go. She brushes her hair out with her fingers, not like I got it dirty but that way girls do getting it back together.

Down the other side this girl says, “Well tell him thank you, Deb,” and a couple others say something, she looks at me, tries it, gets flustered. I say, “It’s okay, don’t worry about it,” offer her my other hand for a girl handshake, take her fingers, a light squeeze. She squeezes back, looks at me with those big eyes like she has something to say but doesn’t. I know that look, the girl wants to talk to the shaggy guy like maybe he’s not like the boyfriend or somebody else, but you know, mom and dad, her friends, not this guy. Mostly for younger girls back then. Give it a couple of years when they want ‘em out of college, out of the wallet, I’d be okay. A pretty senior in high school, republican parents, horses. I was the plague in jeans.

Here’s the kicker. Two years later I’d go on a blind double date with this same earring girl and end up marrying her. She confessed to me before the wedding how her cute, perfect little ski-jump nose wasn’t really stock, and showed me the place where she was kneeling when the horse kicked her in the face. Told me she had a real shnoz, kinda like mine, so we made “we’ll have kids with clown noses” jokes. Hell, I was nineteen and dumb-blind. Closest idea I had to marriage was a couple of apartment weekenders. Pizza and sex and too embarrassed to hit the toilet hard until they went back to the dorm, or in her case, Stillwater. Clown nosed kids was funny if you didn’t have some idea of what that was really all about.

When we did get married the preacher must have gotten into the champagne a little because he put the date on the marriage license a day off, and scratched through it. It was hard to tell what day it was. One time I looked it up, to see what day it really was. It wasn’t like we celebrated it much. Maybe once or twice, if, you know, so I wouldn’t have it committed to memory. That marriage wouldn’t last but a couple of years, both of us not having any idea what the hell we were doing. Victims of that classic line from our parents, “You can be anything you want to be, get good grades, stay in school.” That was a great line, got them off the hook. But for a lot of us, what did we want to be? We’d take tests, talk to vocational counsellors about civil engineering or law school or biology, journalism, psychology. I didn’t give a damn about any of that. Thought I should, tried for three years. She was the same, taking art history, art, wanting to be a sculptor maybe, or work in a museum. We got stoned, and married, and lost our way in the culture of be somebody, be yourself, when we didn’t even know who the hell we were, much less who we should be. When it was all over she went crazy, I went to Texas. I wonder sometimes were they interchangeable, crazy and Texas.

Even more crazy than that earring and then the blind date and getting married and the license being off a day? Our Social Security numbers were the same, reverse the last two numbers. After I got her out of bed with this fella who sold me pot once in while back then to sign the divorce papers, then got an arrogant Dear John letter six years too late from someone else, I gave my home town the finger. She did the same and within six months she headed north and we lost touch. Well, truth be told we both let that touch go. I talked to her once maybe five or six years after all of that, but she didn’t make a lot of sense, kind of scared me for her. I think she said my mother gave her my number which was crazy, mom never seemed to like her much but then she never liked any of the girls I did, but mom was polite. At the beginning of that marriage some words or knowledge I was never told passed between the set of parents. Whatever it was it should have been something they shared with us. Might have been the answers to a lot of questions. Might have been she’s allergic to cheese. I’ll never know.

Years later I learned that she had gone up and down the roller coaster I’d experienced from her a few times. Heard she vacillated between Artsy types of men like me and rugged, bearded Mountain Man types like that pot salesman. She’d met a new man in a bar when she was down one time, got married and they went on cruises together. I was told she and her hubby that rescued her drank their way all around the North American Continent on boats. She got pregnant, and there’s some other stories in that, and she went clean. No smoking, stopped drinking, which was something we never did much of, and I never understood happening to her later, and turned into a good mom and wife. Went all the way up to living in a post card in Southern California not far from where her horse ranch folks retired. Could almost throw a rock from her place to the ocean, had two young barely teenage kids. Woke up one morning, got drunk and took a handgun to the condo swimming pool. Bang! She was fifty.

That divorce we got was final on a May 4th. She died on a May 3rd. One day off, one number off, one more step, this time her last one, just a little out of sync.

Now I know better than to think either of us put all those one number, one day off things together intentionally, but there they are, clear as can be, and I find that as fascinating as I do frightening. I fixed that earring, though, and I knew, but didn’t know, a pretty, artsy, and interesting if secretly big nosed and unpredictable girl for a couple of years. That earring, I always thought of that as being one of the only one of those things to happen to me, the future being telegraphed so obviously. Of course I didn’t see it, but there it was. Dumb-blind, like I said. But I’d be wrong sayin’ that about it bein’ the only one. There’ve been other times, the “here’s your story in the blink of an eye” times. Missed a few of them, too. We all do.

There are those moments when we are told the entire story, in a flash right before our eyes, if we only had the power to see it unfold. The signals as plain as the sun in the summer sky. Like that sun, they’re so bright and obvious they momentarily blind us to their significance. Or maybe it’s just because it’s easier to ignore them and live like we don’t see that train a comin’. Unlike that train, which you probably can’t avoid, if you ever see that cross-eyed cupid fella comin’ you’d best get up off the tracks and haul ass the hell on outta there and wait for one that can shoot straight. Trust me on that.

Nemesis

Everyone has a nemesis, real or imagined. A sneaky co-worker you’re sure wants your job. A personal or professional competitor who wants to crank up your materialism envy, run off with your wife or your “big idea” or your market share. Or all of those. Health can be a nemesis, too. Holy crap. Allergies? I’m sure ragweed is good for something, but I would gladly volunteer in a ragweed eradication project starting yesterday. Even bad habits. I won’t try to name them all, but they can be adversarial and out to get you just like a living, breathing nemesis with a face. Just ask anyone who’s quit smoking.

I’ve noticed that some of them hang with us for what seems like almost ever. Allergies since childhood. Bad habits since who knows when? Most of the really scary things, monsters under the bed, Zombies in the closet, the Blob; those are long gone. However, the reality of a nemesis and the fact that they often haunt us, follow us around like a ghost’s shadow for most of our lives and pop up when we least expect them was made clear to me the other day.

The first insidious nemesis that gave me bad dreams for a long time wasn’t a person, allergy, habit or even anything living. It was inanimate. Dangerous. A Don Juan and Lord Byron with four wheels. A formidable, treacherous, wicked, unstoppable suitor. The Chevelle SS396. They sat in parking lots like Tritons, calling away the fair damsels of my youthful heart. No kidding.

First there was Betsy. Being young and stupid I should have known that a girl who was an officer in the local Tom Jones fan club had something on her mind. Of course I missed it. What was Tom Jones selling, anyway? His finely honed operatic tenor? No. Tom Jones was selling sex. Duh. Me? I thought how stupid. Tom Jones? Please. I thought I could maybe do without Betsy for a while in the summer, and maybe find a girl who liked Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull, so I let her down gently. Figuring unwisely the Tom Jones girl would be jonesing for me pretty soon and things might heat up a little more, her missing me so much and all.

redchevconvBetsy’s turnaround time on returning my calls was getting longer and longer, and when she did call she was brusque. Yes, no, bye. Oh well. A few weeks later I showed up at a party with my cruising friend because I couldn’t buy a date, and I for sure didn’t want to call Betsy and ask her because she would know I was a chump. We pull up and there she is, sliding out of a Garnet Red SS396 convertible with Mr. Underwear Model. The baby fat went somewhere, she’s got a tan and looks great.

I wait until she’s inside then get out and investigate the pretty boy’s car. Horrors! What a loser! It had split bench seats, not buckets. In retrospect I now realize that he was no loser. He had my girlfriend, an SS396, Tom Jones tapes and a big slab of vinyl real estate where Betsy could lay on her back and look up at the stars. Ouch.

She was nice to me at the party. Really nicer than she had to be. He was one of those guys who was way too pretty and more into himself than anyone else and I don’t think she was laying on her back all that much in his front seat. Betsy and I got back together for a while toward the end of the summer but it was never the same. She saw right through my new Tom Jones tapes. Plus, my Camaro was smaller, had bucket seats and a hard top. And she was never sold on the blanket in my trunk and a private picnic table.

Jackie was next. She had a Firebird the same color as my car and we used to trade them at lunch, much to both of our parents’ chagrin. I thought we had more in common than that, particularly since every time we ran into each other at a varsity sporting event we left together holding hands. We went out a few times, but her father was a crazy conservative and hated me almost as much as their little rat dog that bit me on the ankle. That was okay because I was always kind of afraid to get too friendly with Jackie. She was a classic waif. Thin as a pencil, long, strawberry blonde hair and light golden freckles. She was bluessalmost translucent. Ephemeral. Even to someone of my unintimidating stature, she seemed fragile. A real-life Tinkerbell. But I ran out of history class anyway one Friday afternoon so I could ask her out. Our lockers were almost next to each other, it was a sure thing. Bam! Big guy, big sideburns, letter jacket. I walked right on by and dumped my books. Sure enough, in the parking lot after school on the other side of her car, Senior Jock  was waiting in his Le Mans Blue with black vinyl top SS396. Shit! He was no dork, either. Black buckets, fake woodgrain console, Clarion tape deck. Jackie and I hardly spoke after that until a year later when I was at a different school and we saw each other at a drive-in. We traded phone numbers and then cars a couple of times again, but the magic was gone. I asked her about the jock and she just shrugged and looked at the ground. Way to go Chevelle. Love ‘em and leave ‘em. Deflower my Tinkerbell, put another notch on the console and move on. Can you call a car an asshole?

Here is where I have to disagree with the old adage that familiarity breeds contempt. Shake your nemesis’s hand, look it in the eye. Hang out with it. Ride in it. Think you understand it? Forget that. When I swapped schools, I made friends with a guy who had another Le Mans Blue, black vinyl top SS396. I spent a lot of time in that car. But it was always something. I was making out with a girl in the back seat when my buddy who was driving failed to say “railroad tracks” and I chipped a tooth. Those damn cars knew me, I swear they did. I had a hot date with a hot girl and we were going out in that car because a double date was the only way she’d go. After about three hours of making excuses about why I was late because the damn muffler welds wouldn’t hold, the girl bailed and rejected any offer of a do-over. There I was, dumped before I even got a chance. Hosed by an SS396 I mistakenly thought was my friend. It knew. I know it did. The SS396 was no longer a nemesis. It was now a superstition.

greenssFor about three weeks when I was a senior in high school I was head over heels in teenage boy love with a girl I’ll call Darla. When I was supposed to have a girlfriend or two already. But Darla was like a primo girl drug. A real back-up-on-the-freeway, sneak out, sneak around, lie to people about it girl. She wasn’t Miss America or anything, but she was plugged in electric. Cute, fiesty, smart. Sexy. It wasn’t going anywhere, and I knew that. But still. Friday night of week three she said that she was just going somewhere with this guy, she’d be home at 9:30, come by and get her. I tell any of my regular obligations I’m sick, and about 9:20 I’m on the way to the rendevouz. One more time, two years after my initial confrontation with a Chevelle, there I was again. What do I see idling in front of her house? An SS396.  Nine-thirty comes and goes while I sit a block away with my lights off, waiting. That’s something I should have known better than to do. Me, a girl and someone else’s SS? Just go on home, call the girlfriend and tell her it was a twenty-four-hour bug. Kiss her ass a lot and offer her Steak and Ale on Saturday, hope that smirking brother of hers doesn’t know anyone with an SS396.

I retained all those lessons the SS396 taught me when I was young andimages7VA3X18Y impressionable. Which is a good thing, because where I live now I have this neighbor who likes my wife a lot more than all three of the ones he’s had. Guys can tell, and my wife is cute. He’s not a real nemesis in an amorous way because he’s as old as I am and he’s a dork. He’s a grown up dork with money from somewhere, but he’s a for-sure dork who drinks too much sometimes and listens to whiny Americana too loud in his garage just to look hip and trendy and makes eyes at my wife. My wife would eat him alive the first time his eyes glazed over when she brought him into one of those “that’s poor scholarship” arguments about Beowulf with an editor from Harvard who wasn’t even there. Anyway, he throws some of that money of his at restoring things. Old boats, old furniture, old jukeboxes, old houses. And old cars. He offered me a beer the other evening and invited me over to see his latest project even though my wife wasn’t home yet to join us.

primerssIn his garage, sitting on jack stands, was a stripped, sanded and primer coated 1969 Chevelle SS396. He even pulled out an original 1969 sales brochure, handed it to me and asked, “What color d’ya think?”

I wanted to sell him on the pukey butternut squash color like my father’s ’68 Impala wagon. But no matter how much I sometimes dislike my dorky, letchy, posey neighbor, and those damn cars, in my heart I knew that SS deserved better. I told him I was always partial to Le Mans Blue.

I’m also more than a little partial to my wife, so she was surprised when she came home that evening to find me escorting an attractive, over dressed, overly made-up and overdone young woman out our front door. I got the quizzical look that comes from her knowing how old I am and being married a long time.

“And that was…?”

“The girl who sold the house down the street in like ten days.”

“Why?”

“Don’t ask, just start packing. And stay inside.”