The Grandest Illusion / Throw Some Flowers

The Nutcracker

The remarkable thing about The Nutcracker is that it does with music and dance what we, as a global society, often cannot. It transcends religion and geography and tells a story full of cross cultural fantasy and spectacle and fear and joy and when it’s over everyone throws or delivers flowers to the stage where it happened. How cool is that?

Here’s the deal. The Nutcracker is supposed to be about Clara, a little girl who dreams her dreams of faraway magical lands that she shares with a brave, handsome prince. But what makes the music come to life, what makes the principle dancers from the best ballet companies in the world look so spectacular, what makes people cheer year after year is that the stage where it happens is packed with ageless little girls’ dreams, not just Clara’s. Dreams so big and real they fill up a theater with their hope and that inexplicable magic of belief in something bigger than reality.

So if it’s your neighbor’s kid or your kid or grand kid or your wife, or even if no one you know is in The Nutcracker playing in your part of the world this year, go see it. Talk to a stranger in the lobby, toast the season. Take some flowers with you and give them to a dancer who might be famous, might have been famous, might have been hurt, might even be a grandmother. This season, no matter what you believe, make yourself part of something bigger and better and more magical than what the nightly news would lead you to believe is our world.

 

In North Texas? Chamberlain’s Nutcracker at the Eismann Center is my choice. My wife is in it.

http://chamberlainperformingarts.org/

So is Fire a Real Problem?

There’s nothing wrong with the car except that it’s on fire.
auto racing announcer Murray Walker

I got a calendar for Christmas full of stupid comments people that weren’t me have made. That one reminded me of a story.

This is what I travelled with as a synthesizer “Prophet” in 1983 (maybe ’84) except for young Nana Ballet. And a couple of cases that were out on loan. Airlines weren’t busting us for excess luggage back then so film and video crews and musicians could take a butt load of stuff. Fortunately time marched on, gear got smaller and smarter for all of us and modelled versions of what’s in all of those cases will run on an iPad Air. Also know that the “portable” MIDI equipped Commodore SX-64  had the distinction of being the first full color “portable” computer with a whopping five inch 16 color display. “Portable” was BS. Carrying it for any length of time would dislocate your shoulder.

I flew into the Midland International Air and Space Port, with these cases and a few more. I was afraid they would make me a little ostentatious, until I checked out the new, quarter million dollar Rolls Royce sitting in the airport lobby. 1983 dollars. Six hundred and twenty grand today. Ouch. Oil and money have been friends since the dinosaurs died. Long haired guys with flight cases were insignificant.

I loaded up, took the long walk to National, always the furthest rental car counter before the end of the world, to pick up keys for my not six hundred grand Cutlass, and grab a one page map. (Remember those?) Nobody wants to be lost in the Permian Basin.

The rental car gal was a true West Texas kinda girl. Tanned and a little leathery and bottle blonde, curious about the cases. I said “Electronic Music” and she made a face before she told me where “everybody” went dancin’ and drinkin’, if I was interested. Because most people were interested in that, you know, where to have a good time line dancin’ and drinkin’. I wasn’t interested, but thanked her anyway. I needed some of those drinkin’ and dancin’ fools at a synthesiszer clinic to cut down on what I feared was going to be a tumbleweeds and dust evening, with a few pocket protector guys thrown in for good measure. She handed me the keys, said “Honey, even if you can get all that stuff in a Cutlass, I’m not sure it’ll haul it. Good Luck.” She gave me the keys and a professional, not invitational, down home Texas gal wink.

The damn car caught fire before I was out of sight of the terminal. I mean right down the divided road on the way out. I stopped, pulled all the cases out and stacked them in the median about ten yards away. So they’d be safe in the event the Cutlass decided to go big BANG. I mean there was one of two existing prototypes in that pile of cases. Nobody was coming or going at the Space Port, so I hiked back to the counter. The rental girl didn’t even look up.

“Somethin’ wrong with your car, honey?”

“Yeah. It’s on fire.”

“So is fire a real problem?” Like people complained about her cars all the time looking for a discount or a free upgrade on a flimsy excuse. A dirty ashtray or gum on the brake pedal, sticky hair products on the headrest. She finished what she was doing, looked up and I pointed out the window to where the Cutlass was belching flames from both sides of the hood. “Well if that don’t beat the bugs out of a Motel 6 bedspread. Thought I’d heard every whiny ass complaint there was. Honest to God car’s on fire is a first.” All hell broke loose on the radios for a minute before she handed me the keys to a new Lincoln.

“I’ll take care of the contract, honey. You hurry back out there and load up your electric music things before the fire trucks have the whole damn road blocked off. You won’t be going nowhere for a while if that happens.” She grabbed another radio and added a little twinkle to the professional wink when she hip bumped the employee door open. “Told ya one of these new Cutlasses wouldn’t haul all that crap.”

The early Eighties were a terrible time for American made rental cars, except for Budget’s $29 deals on Lincolns. Trust me. Air and Space Port is the actual name of the Midland Airport.

Now Where

Tulsa, Early January 1979

Harper stepped over the icy patch on the single step down from the peeling, whitewashed veranda porch, turned right into refrozen, crunchy wheat-colored dead grass and stopped at his van parked in the gravel driveway. Shit. Locked. He shoved the box against the side, held it with his hip while he fumbled with the frozen sliding door latch. She tried to reach around him to get the van door and he elbowed off. The door slid back and when he bent to set the box inside she leaned in, looked over his shoulder.

“Where’re all your cases, Harper?” She was freezing, holding her arms across her body. No cases meant he wasn’t staying.

“In Lando’s garage. Lando’s girlfriend’s garage, down in the city.”

“He better not get in another fight with her.” She smiled. She was trying.

“I thought about that.” His patience was too far gone for any of her commentary on the complexity of living the way she’d set him up. “I asked her not to connect us if she threw his shit in the yard again. You know, as a favor to the homeless.”

He set the not much bigger than a banker’s storage box full of crap on the floor where the middle seat never was, and the keyboards coffin lived. Pathetic. Fucking pathetic. The woodgrain alarm clock with the blown speaker, a couple of pairs of socks, the Avon cologne his mom gave him that he never wore, a small orange ceramic pistol-grip bong he didn’t want. A couple of no reason empty picture frames, his dresser top cookie tin full of single cufflinks and dead watches and mismatched collar stays and guy junk he rarely had a use for. A couple pairs of not too ratty paisley boxers. And the used twice Mr. Coffee that he’d asked for, that his mother had shipped to him in Houston as an early birthday present. It had arrived two days before he found out he had to pack a one bedroom apartment in his van and figure out where he was going to live in twenty-four hours. In Houston. On Halloween weekend. The day after his ex-girlfriend Becca had vanished back to Tulsa with the rent money and thrown it all at three month’s rent on a cheap, refurbed duplex next door to a friend and down the street from crackville.

“You’re not mad, are you, Harper? I just asked about your cases. I thought you might stay for a couple of days. You never brought the rest of your stuff up from Lando’s, so I didn’t know what –”

“Shut up, Becca. Just…Fuck me. Where my cases are is the wrong question. Where all the shit is that should be going where they usually are is the question.” He stared at the box surrounded by beige carpeted emptiness, dropped his head. “So this is Becca’s vision of ‘I’ll keep your stuff safe?’ Where are my Cobra loaded monitors? Where the fuck are my Vega bookshelfs? No shit, really, where’s my amp rack?”

“Archie came over right after you left the first time and took the blue case on wheels. It’s in his living room.” She shivered, looked at him like he should have a hug or a coat she could borrow but all he had on was a flannel shirt and jeans. And the small box of junk had left any remaining hugs out in the cold, just like her. “Tommy.” She stalled. “I gave the monitors, if you mean those big black speakers I guess, I gave them to Tommy. You know, um, he’s –”

“He’s the guy you fucked for the bong I didn’t need that you gave me for my birthday. I know who Bong Builder Tommy is.” He wondered if the fog from his breath was the weather or if he was on fire. He felt like he was. “How does that cretin end up with my monitors?”

“I don’t think he has them anymore. He traded them for…Something. You know…Something. I felt sorry him, and —”

“Sorry? He gets my monitors because you felt sorry for him? You fucked him for a bong last time, what’s that whiny little fuck got going on he gets seven-hundred dollars-worth of monitors I know he traded on down the road for some blow that’s already up both your noses?”

“I didn’t do it for the bong. Tommy has MS, okay, and he’s sick. And that’s why I felt sorry for him the first time, and he just gave me the bong after because he felt sorry for me because he knew you weren’t coming back and I was sad and I…And I gave it to you because…I don’t know…”

“Because it was my birthday? Because I drove back here from Little Rock in the middle of the night so we could figure something out for you because no shit I’m not coming back here to live. Because I got out of the van and the first thing Archie tells me is about you and fucking gap-tooth Ronnie.” He wanted to shove his finger right through her chest. “And then he told me what part of you got stuck between Ronnie’s front teeth in the back bedroom and about you screaming their house down. So, after a midnight run across Arkansas behind a gig I get ‘Oh, we can’t talk or fuck on your birthday because something happened down there and I’m numbed out on Percs. Sorry. Here’s a bong?’” He saw his hands in front of him like he was holding a giant basketball and wished they were shaking the shit out of her, maybe strangling her. “Aww shit, Becca. Jesus.” His hands turned into fists that landed on the top of the van before he turned back and they were face to face again, inches away.

“He felt sorry for you? Why? Because he couldn’t believe you were stupid enough to drop a pity fuck on a seriously wrong line of shit from a guy with a dick, according to you, that was like a rubber fishing worm? For a second time? And MS? Come on. That’s for Master Shitweaver. He’s not sick, he sniffs paint stripper and bong glue all day. You didn’t see that coming? He asked you about my gear, Bec, he didn’t ask you to come back over because he felt sorry for you. And you couldn’t tell me ‘Oh, maybe Tommy has his eye on your shit and he’s trying to work his way through my pussy to get to it? Goddammit, Becca. So they’re gone. Gone, gone. Seven, eight-hundred bucks. Gone.” He flashed his fingers open, opened his hands to the giant basketball again, leaned into her face. “Fucking poof, Becca. Vapor.” He backed off, put his hands in his jean’s pockets to control them. “My Vega bookshelfs?”

She leaned into him, full front, and he backed up more. “I gave them to Rick, B.D.’s brother? Because he wanted to play guitar in the house with the baby, but that big green amp he has set them on fire and that set off the sprinklers and the fire alarm. And then the firemen took what was left outside with them.”

“Rick and a fucking rock take an I.Q. test together and they score a minus two between them. Those were studio monitors, Bec, not guitar cabs. You know better. You didn’t spot that one, either?” He put his arms around her, loosely, felt her shaking. “Is this whole town in some sort of stoned-stupid time warp or is it just around these two houses and anybody who gets near them?” She was probably close to hypothermia. Thirty-one degrees in some new guy’s baggy cutoffs he’d never seen and a yellow tank top. No bra, probably no panties.

“Go inside, Bec. Get warm. Ask Archie for a loan, or find somebody who likes what you’re giving away enough to pay the rent on the first. I can’t help you this time. If you’d watched my gear we could have worked out another month until you got something going on. You could have fucked Tulsa down and moved on to Broken Arrow for all I care and we’d be square. But that didn’t happen. I already picked up three months here I didn’t want off the one month you pocketed in Houston. That routine left me in the slush in Pasadena on New Year’s with a dead van and no options, and now I’m the homeless dude on the couch again. You’re gone, all the real shit I left with you is gone…So am I.”

“I told you Archie has your blue case next door.”

“I’ll go roll that when you go inside or freeze to death standing here.” He dropped his arms, gave her a light shoulder spin back towards the duplex.

She shook him off and turned back. “Is that it? ‘Done’ and that’s it?”

“Becca, before we took off the first time you said, “Done is done. Now is now” There it is. George Riner told me the day I met you not to get caught up with you to the point of getting hurt ‘cause sooner or later you’d get bored for fifteen minutes and be history and off sport fucking again. We had a no strings deal, Becca. We split it and dealt with it. I figured sooner or later you’d fuck me over with someone else and split. But I never saw you fucking me this hard.”

“You’re going to say all that shit about me fucking everybody after I pulled your ‘I’m Harper, and I’m bummed out, so I’m just here to fuck ‘em and forget ‘em’ ass out of here in my car? And I took our money, not just yours, to rent this place so we could get out of that humid hell hole and away from all those crazy, queer, plastic bitches I worked with and back to people we know. You can fuck yourself and your money sermon on that one because I was tired of it. Tired of you and all your too cool, leave me at home alone while you played bullshit. Maybe I gave your shit away, or maybe I sold it, and I did stick it up my nose, but you left it here like you left me. Just another case full of your shit. And now that’s it? That’s all you have to say to me, after two years, ‘I’m done. Go in the house Becca, warm up so you can fuck somebody for your rent?”

He wanted to correct her down to the actual year and five months it had been, and back to people she knew, watched her shiver and try to glare through whatever she was feeling and decided against it.

“‘Thanks, Becca.’ How about that?”

“Thanks? That’s shitty. What for?”

“Thanks for not being, or knowing, a coffee drinker. Wherever I finally end up, I’ll have good coffee and a new waterbed. Because when you went bitch and stuck a fork in the old one? Wiggins got me a new one, in the box, under warranty. I may not be able to piss off the neighbors without my monitors, but I’ll get a good night’s sleep and wake up to a decent cup of coffee. So, ‘Thanks, Becca.’ If I’m ever off somebody’s couch long enough to use either one I’ll be sure and blow a kiss in the direction of your ass.”

“Well, you can forget the direction of my ass now, Harper. Today. ‘I’m Done. Go fuck somebody.’ You sorry asshole. I hope you wake up alone, freezing your horny ass off on your fucking blob of Jell-O bed, by yourself, for-EVER!”

“After you and all this shit that’s gone down right here? I’d call that a gift.” He watched her shivering self-hug take its long-legged stride back into the little yellow 1920’s duplex and slam the door.

He walked next door, wrestled his amp rack down the steps, rolled it across more crusty dead grass and into the van. Becca’s best friend’s husband had seen the “if it pees standing up fuck it and give it presents” train wreck coming and salvaged the most expensive part of Harper’s live rig for him. That had been a cool gesture. But all the rest of them next door…The ones playing pool or on the couch hitting the big bong. The ones in the kitchen debating the way a bag of weed looked as opposed to what the scale said, laughing at each other’s choices of records to play. They hardly looked at him. All of them, they’d been part of the crowd to have seen this shit coming before it got off the ground, and none of them had said a word to him. Maybe they saw him as the big city guy again. Maybe it was out of some hope they had for her that had kept them silent. He’d stepped into their world, briefly, through her, and now he was out again. So, it was hope for her, not hate for him. It had to be. He’d have to believe that because it was the only humane way for him to leave it.

Harper looked over the little yellow duplex while he rubbed his hands together and waited for the van’s heater to come back to life. It was cute. Girly, if a house could be that way. The woman who owned it had done some work when she heard who was moving in. She’d updated the kitchen with a new fridge, put down new vinyl, cleaned up the bathroom. She’d even put lacy curtains in the windows. He could see Bec liking it for what it was, not because of where it was. Could see her making fried egg sandwiches for every guy who stood in her kitchen in his underwear. Becca’s kitchen. The one place in her world where free range man business wasn’t allowed.

Man. Godammit. He hadn’t wanted to be an asshole. He’d expected to load his gear, maybe buy her dinner, drive over and pay her cheap rent for another month so she could get her shit headed for together. She was a nice girl when proximity to staying stoned and guys who would keep her that way for a piece of her weren’t in the mix. She deserved whatever it was going to take to make her happy because she had been right about one thing. She had helped get him gone the first time and had played it straight with him until she broke. As fucked up as it looked from the outside, he was still way better off than he had been.

He looked up, watched the smoke curl from her chimney for a few, knew she was sitting on the floor in front of the fireplace. The van heater finally kicked in, he took a deep breath and tried to let it all go. Seeing the smoke from her fireplace, feeling the heat in the van. He felt a little better for both of them because that was all he could do.

There wasn’t a damn thing he could do about her getting played like a hand crank Mousegetar that had gotten them both ripped off. By a weasely, greasy haired, coke snorting, glue sniffing antique refinishing, bong building half-assed wannabe slick who knew Harper wasn’t going to be there to stop it or do shit about it once it was done. Gone. No trail, never happened, just gone. The little fuck was sniffing bong building glue, banging his old girlfriend, stealing his gear and thumbing his nose at him while he stood in the slush in Pasadena. Happy New Year. He checked the mirror, put the van in reverse, wished life had a gear like that sometimes.

The rusty silver Chevy Luv pickup that slid into the curb as he was pulling away looked like the rent showing up. Or a fried egg sandwich. Either way, she’d be warm and distracted soon enough. Harper grinned, hoped for her sake the guy had grown up knowing a dentist.

He pulled into a U-Totem by the freeway for gas and a travel Pepsi where he chunked the cologne, the woodgrain alarm clock and the pistol grip bong in the big can between the pumps, and adjusted the paisley underwear to keep the coffee pot from rattling. He climbed back into the driver’s seat, sat with his face in his hands, listened to the muffled sounds of life going on around him, and waited for the pump to signal it was done. It was starting to snow again. Like it meant it this time. Damn. He hoped it was blowing in from the north. Almost two hours south to Lando’s place and another night on the floor in a nylon sleeping bag that made him sweat, and then freeze, and sweat again. The homeless Okie freeze and thaw cycle. He rubbed his eyes a few times, pulled down on his cheeks to open them wide, looked at his distorted face in the rearview and scared a couple of high school girls in plaid skirts standing in front of the store who had been checking him out through the windshield.

“Now what? Huh? It just keeps getting crazier, doesn’t it? Crazier by the fucking day.” He let his face go, gave it a few seconds to normalize. “What’s next, huh Harp? Where you gonna go now, bud? Huh?”

He unhooked from the pump, turned the key and let the van roll up in front of the store. He winked at the high schoolers on his way in to buy his Pepsi. They were gone when he came back out. He flipped the switch, knocked the snow back with the wipers, checked himself in the rearview again, lingered for a moment.

“So…Mirror mirror on the glass, tell me. What the hell does start over look like this time?”

Gone

What if where you were
When you were who you were, before
Who you are now
Was gone

My father grew up here
So did I. There were signs black and bold
The family name,
What else was sold

I painted them one summer
I was eight, it was hot as hell, alive
With beat up trucks
Colorful men

Grampa built this, no one now would know,
Looking you’d think the name was “closed”
In pen on yellow paper
Audible emptiness

Flowers grew where dead grass
Tries behind railroad ties and on gravel
Where memories of dead men once
Parked cars

If where I was
In all those yesterdays
Is full of weeds and emptiness, did I ever
Even belong

Or with the signs am I, too,
Gone

It’s Instant, Okay?

Houston, Texas. On and around Valentine’s Day, 1979 

She was sitting on his knees, maybe the top of his shins, he knew that, and she was totally involved in whatever she was talking about. He wasn’t alert enough to make much sense of it. She either thought he was awake, or needed to be awake, or at least she needed to be talking to him because she was awake. What he noticed was the lavender bathrobe loosely wrapped around her small frame and on a hair-thin gold chain hanging below her throat a tiny cross and diamond caught the morning sun and splashed her walls with rainbows.

Her big blue eyes sparkled under a morning-esque cascade of dark waves while she emoted and asked him, “This way…or…this way? Which one is more believable?” She had somehow rolled modern dance from a class she’d been to before he arrived last night, theatrical and everyday body language along with linguistics into a single thought that needed to find a way out of her head at six-thirty in the morning. He was pinned beneath her and her bedspread while she let that thought and everything it brought along with it out into the bright sunrise of the day after Valentine’s Day Gulf Coast morning. Her voice was light, she was completely engaged with herself and her audience of one and it was important to her that what was on her mind got worked out, and that he heard it. He let her voice wash over him and tried to participate.

“I’m not sure,” he said, thinking that safe and maybe he’d get an explanation or a repeat that would bring him up to speed.

“Of course you are! Subjectively. You know what’s sincere and what’s contrived. Now that you’ve thought about it, though…” she looked down at her hands on his thighs with an air of disappointment, didn’t let it stop her. “Here. I’ll do it again.” She emoted and said “I love you” three different ways. She was playing with him and thinking about something deeper than messing with him at the same time and he couldn’t keep his eyes off her.

“Well, one was just TV phony, you know.” He thought a few seconds.  “And the other two might both work. It depends on what sort of reception you wanted.”

She looked at him, he thought to gauge his comment for bullshit factor. “How do you mean?” Yep.

“Well, one of them is romantic and the other seemed more substantial. Infatuation, hearts and flowers. The other was like maybe you were sitting on a park bench or the beach somewhere and wanted to let someone know you just got eaten up with the fact that you loved them.”

“So in one it’s partners and in the other it’s sort of one-sided?”

“No. Sort of.” Shit, girl. It’s too early. “Like in one you hope they’re listening and in the other you know they are, so there’s more of you and less Hallmark moment ‘love’ drama getting tossed out to see what comes back.”

“Of course! One is completely fake, we knew that. One is mooshy and one is like, ‘Hey, you. Love ya.’ But which one was which?”

“Does that matter?”

“Of course it does! We play games with each other all the time. And dance, everything really, needs to be authentic. That’s what we worked on last night, where I went that you had to wait before you could…come over.” She seemed to get flustered a little with “come over.” “She talked to us about the need to be authentic last night, so if it’s anger or love or whatever the choreographer wants, it has to be believable, unless it needs to look contrived, and as dancers we need to know the difference. Did you know that most people think the most contrived is the most believable and that the real one isn’t emotional or theatrical enough? That’s pretty bad. So if I danced ‘I love you’ and wanted everyone to get it I’d have to do the fake version. Anyway, that’s what we worked on last night. Before you, and…I have a teapot, or maybe a saucepan and instant coffee, I think. It’s A&P. When I was a little girl in New Orleans they’d grind it at the A&P right on the counter. It smelled so-o good.”

He didn’t think they ground instant coffee at the A&P, and he usually drank a Coke or Pepsi, nuked one of those local apple fried pies at the U-Totem by the video studio where she was temping and he used to work. The same at the Totem in Tulsa, down in the Montrose or Del City. Coke or Pepsi and a fried pie were ubiquitous. You could find all three in places that were hours from an Egg McMuffin. It was a road food breakfast habit he’d developed since his first band guy homelessness years ago.

“Sure,” he said, rubbing his eyes. “Coffee is coffee.”

“Me, too.”

He was trying to discern how “Me, too” was an answer or even a response when she hopped off his legs and disappeared through the bedroom door, the loose lavender robe flowing but never getting too loose, the dark waves bouncing on top. Where the hell was he? Her apartment?

***

Yesterday. He’d played a show-and-blow hard hat soundtrack gig at a video studio in southwest Houston. He’d been late, something that never happened. In the parking lot he’d talked to the girl with the Porsche from GDL&W and they’d bitched about VW engines vapor locking in Houston. His van, her Porsche, same engine, same problem. She’d been a daddy’s little rich girl cheerleader in Tulsa, a last stop hippie holdout town they’d joked about, a place he’d escaped from once already. Now the people who had failed him in Houston and run home were trying to suck him back. He’d thought about hitting on Porsche girl a couple of times, she was friendly and receptive enough, but things were never in sync. Nothing was in sync lately.

Commuting between Tulsa, OKC, Pasadena, Montrose and Southwest Houston. Occasional Little Rock and Dallas trips thrown in. Living on couches, floors and in a van just to play music, smoke free pot and be a one man soundtrack machine was getting out of hand. He’d fucking had it with everything but the live soundtrack guy in a van. His old girlfriend quit her job and cancelled the lease on their apartment in Houston without telling him and that had lit the fuse on his “fuck it.” She’d gone back to fucking everyone in Tulsa with a dick and a heartbeat, giving away his shit she’d said he could store in the duplex he wouldn’t move into with her. All because he never said he’d marry her except once when she’d fed him ‘ludes and sexed him to the edge of consciousness. He’d have admitted Disco was his fault that night and he’d told her as much. Then there were the festival stage managers, caterers, dealers. All wanting to hang, talk shit, shoot pool, get high, ask him to improvise his one-man Tangerine Dream shtick or restaurant air cheese new age gig. Or play prog rock for Jesus one night and high heeled guitar band for topless dancers the next. Fuck it. All of it. All of them. Except his bass player. And GDL&W Porsche girl and he didn’t even have time to work that because they’d both vapor locked and were running late. Happy Valentine’s Day! He’d felt the same on New Year’s only now his van would start before it vapor locked. Slush in Pasadena, Texas and a dead van in front of a Jack in the Box for New Year’s Eve. His bass player had told him it had to get better, hang in. Right.

***

She was temping at the front desk when he walked in. Way pretty. Too pretty for this gig. Blue eyes the size of quarters, long, wavy dark hair. A small framed, tan, blue eyed gypsy movie star looking girl in a summery dress. He was toast the second he saw her. His keyboard rig got wheeled in from the van past her desk with a few theatrical bumps with the dolly, and he did the gig. Didn’t hang for touch up or additional drops in the control room. He left his gear set up, waited out his audio to video marriage approval in the guest chair in front of her desk where he pretended to read a leftover newspaper and flirted his ass off. He tried musician, office guy, professional guy, cool guy, nice guy. She wasn’t buying. Plain old conversation that he used as piano bar guy was up next.

He turned a page of the paper he wasn’t reading, shook it. “So you’re new?” Lame, lame, lame.

“Yes. Kind of. I’m a temp.” She kept typing. “I heard about you coming today. You were late. Jan sure seemed glad to see you.”

“Who’s Jan?” Smooth.

“Jan. From GDL&W? The blonde with the black sports car thing? You talked to her in the parking lot?” The parking lot comment came out wrapped in “duh?” and the typing never slowed.

“That’s her name? I call her the GDL&W Porsche girl. We were talking about how her expensive little car sucks as bad as my big cheap one in the heat.” He thought for half a beat, added “My VW van has the same Porsche engine in it as hers. Can you believe that? Like a Porsche van, with the wrong logo.” He wasn’t sure it bought him any cool points but he was clutching at straws. She was way too cute, smart and disinterested.

“Mmm.” She checked a page she was typing from with her finger. “I guess. That’s why you were late? My car overheats sometimes.” She continued to type. He flirted. She answered the phone, got instructions from the regular receptionist and office manager who glared him out like always. He flirted more. He talked about what was in the paper, what she was doing, where she’d gone to college, worked in all the are you married or have a boyfriend questions. She answered no to them all and worked questions of her own along the same lines into those answers, typed like Bach at the harpsichord on crack and didn’t have to look at the Selectric while she did it.

“So a temp, huh? Like Manpower? For girls?” Ouch. “Is that like Girlpower? Or Womanpower?” He followed that with a weak laugh. More ouch.

“No. Lollie Lowe. They’re small and specialized and pay more for college degrees. And they get me better jobs and nicer clients.” She looked at him, never stopped the blaze typing. “Usually.”

He caught that one, grinned in spite of himself. “Where’d you learn to type like that?”

“In high school, first. My mom went to a secretary school in New Orleans, before she and my dad started having babies, and said I should learn. And I worked as a medical transcriptionist for a while. With the Dictaphone things? That’s where I learned to type fast for real.”

“Like typing boot camp? I need to go. I play keyboards and I still can’t type for shit.”

She snarf laughed, caught it with the back of her hand. It was beautiful, though. Just what he needed and it dropped him right back in the toaster.

“Some of that medical stuff was pretty bad.” She made a small yuk face. “I learned to type really fast so I could get through the gross body parts stuff, I think.” She was getting lighter, Valentine’s Day started to look up.

***

 Two weeks later, after making almost daily and nightly phone calls from wherever he was and two one night trips to Houston between rehearsals, gigs and Hotel Oklahoma floor and couch surfing to see her, she stopped him in the little alcove between her bedroom and bathroom. She had mastered the loose, but not loose enough for exposure, unintentionally sexy robe wrap. She was nervous, her hands started talking before she did. When she did start talking she was more serious and worried than he’d ever seen any girl, but she had a rare depth, and her emotions were right on the surface. On top of that she seemed almost apologetic for being about to let go of her real feelings. Again. She let them go whenever she felt them, didn’t sit on them. He always listened, fascinated by her. This was something way more than dance and music and poetry and wine and love making.

“We,” she unfolded her arms, held her hand between them, took a deep breath, sighed big. “We can do this. If you want to.” She looked at him, big blue eyes wide open. “This…us. What we’re doing.”

“Okay.”

She put one hand on his flannel robed upper arm, stared at it while she caressed his arm with her fingertips. “Because of you,” she looked up at him again, nodded towards the bedroom, “and that. I mean really be usIf you want to.”

“Look, I’m not driving ten hours to see you and then turning around just for sex. There’s more going on.” He wanted to say something about how relationships, including a marriage, had always been a dead end pain in the ass, how sex was an equational, simple tap and go most of the time. But that she wasn’t tap and go, or simple, and was the uncommon kind of girl he wouldn’t, or shouldn’t say that to, so he left it.

“Alright. But… ” she was lost in her fingers and his arm again.

“But?”

She squeezed his arm, looked him in the eye, let it out in a rush. “When I want to get married I want to get married, and when I want a baby, I want a baby, okay?” She paused, the worried seriousness ramped up. “Or we can’t…do this.” She looked off toward the bedroom again. “I can’t. Not with you.”

“That’s okay, too.”

For the first time in nearly ten years he put his arms around a female because he meant it. He didn’t try to kiss her, distract her, ignore her, heat her up. He held her. This wasn’t the game he’d been playing since a girl taught him when he was seventeen that really caring was a deep hole of one way stupid in the female culture of opportunistic, reward based convenience. This girl? The looking for herself college graduate video studio temp out of nowhere? He’d never met anyone like her. Passionate, talented, smart, caring, spacey. Sexy, pretty, petite and shit free. With a classical sounding name. Self-admittedly she wasn’t much of a cook or a housekeeper, and her laundry skills were laughable. All of her white undies were light, “Don’t laugh, it works out for ballet tights” pink. She liked real wine better than Mateus, shrimp pizza with Alfredo sauce and veggies, books and dance and classical music. Could play the violin and dance and write, hated nail polish and plants grew when she walked past them. She’d said she loved him. He wasn’t letting her go unless she broke both his arms.

“You have to mean it.” She pushed back, coy, sparkling and ridiculously feminine.

“I do mean it. Pick a day if you want.”

“How about July? The fourteenth?”

“Fine.”

“You mean it? I just made that up, the July thing. We don’t have to use it. Really?”

“Really.”

“Good! Us is us.” She hugged him back before the loose lavender robe and dark, unbrushed morning waves stepped around him, flowed and bounced their way to the kitchen. “Coffee? It’s still instant.”

“Sure.” He followed her, his hands on both sides of the kitchen entry. “I need to go back, get some things. It’ll take me a couple of days. There’s not, um…I don’t have much left. How do you feel about waterbeds?”

“Don’t know. If you like them we can try one, I guess.” She was opening drawers and cabinets and then closing them like the coffee had sneaked off somewhere new since the last time he was there. It might have, the way she used and cleaned a kitchen. “Do you really have one? A waterbed I mean? I’ve never really…” Slam. “That’s okay, the waterbed. You can bring it if you want to. Something new. Have you seen the fucking coffee?” Slam. “No, I guess not, huh.” Slam. “Well, shit.” She stood up, glared tight lipped around the kitchen, landed on him. “Where’d it go?”

“Someplace.” He got a knitted eyebrows look. He was laughing at both of them, not out loud. He’d already seen it. “If I were instant coffee, I’d be on top of the fridge. Don’t ask me how I got there.” He got a quick waist high hug and more of a kiss than he deserved for finding coffee. “Sorry I got all sailor mouth, but some times, you know?”

Yeah, he knew. He’d said “Okay.” To married. To baby. Those hadn’t been on his calendar, but then he didn’t have a calendar. He had a front pocket full of business cards and bits of paper with notes on them. It was her first gift. His was no shit going to be the barely used Mr. Coffee he’d left sitting in his bass player’s girlfriend’s garage.

Fathers Day

If you’re a father you know how this goes. “Happy Father’s Day!” Maybe it’s wrapped, probably not. Then you go out to eat. You’ve gone out to eat somewhere kid or grand kid friendly for as long as you can remember, you get the check. Or someone with joint account privileges makes a nice gesture.

I got this one yesterday, Father’s Day Eve, which was okay because everybody is busy and “Dad doesn’t mind.” I tipped this guy the max. Twenty percent. In a Taco place with Formica tables and grand kid proof tile floors. Because you never know. I almost put the receipt in the charitable donations file because I’m still not sure if it was a tip, or a tithe. The scary thing? He kinda looked the part.

And that really got me to wondering. You know, what does that guy give his dad for Father’s Day? Did he wrap it?

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…”

 

Not Too Deep or Wide and Kind of Slow

You could fish here with your Grampa. Or stand by the rail and think about Route 66 a long time ago. Walk across and feel the wood move, hear it creak and groan. You could park just off the road in the shade and blow an entire afternoon with the stereo off and nothing but the music of the breeze and the birds and the creek to serenade you on a hot, Oklahoma summer day. You could share it with a friend or your true love, lean on the rail and watch the leaves land on the water and get carried off into nowhere like your thoughts. You could think about who you are, where you’ve been and where you haven’t and how you might correct that. You could think about nothing at all and let the movies your mind wants to play for you run until the sun starts to set and twilight says get home before they eat without you. You could bask in the simplicity of your not very deep thoughts and be all the better for it. Because simple isn’t always as easy as it appears and navigating shallow waters is often worse. Which is why we should enjoy all of our moments with our not so deep thoughts. Because they pave the way for deeper ones.

Not far from this peaceful bridge in Catoosa, Oklahoma, a man shot and killed a police officer. The man convicted of it somehow seduced, from prison, a girl who was at the top of the list of girls most likely to be somebody. She became the somebody in a story full of tragedy who helped him escape from jail and they moved to nowhere in the Dakotas. Years later they were both recaptured, and she died of an overdose and a broken heart at forty-nine, the love of her life back in jail until he turned to dust. Her house could have been on your paper route. Maybe her mother made you talk to her through the screen door. She might have made fun of a record you took to a swimming party once, but your name wasn’t on it so you dodged that one. You could watch a leaf kiss the water and float away and make it almost any allegory you wanted.

Oklahoma trip 039You could stop here after taking a picture of your lover in that Route 66 Blue Whale, laugh, drink a Coke and talk about all those people who splashed in that mud hole like it was fun, watch another leaf kiss the creek and wonder where memories go, and if they really live forever.

One day no one will stand here because the bridge out of Catoosa will have rusted away. All of the dreams dreamed by dreamers with the top down on their MG, the travelers with their tired kids who needed a place to pee right now, the people who crossed this bridge daily or only once, all of those will no longer have a home. Did the girl who escaped with the murderer cross this way? Will their memories all die with the bridge?

Lord Byron begins his ode to Venice with,

I stood in Venice on the Bridge of Sighs

and ends with,

There are some feelings time cannot benumb,

Nor torture shake, or mine would now be cold and dumb.

All of our dreams, all of our crossings travel a Bridge of Sighs. A bridge of memories that once made, cannot collapse or die. They merely fall like leaves in the breeze, kiss the water and float off into forever.