Locked Out

“Pretzel, Neeko?”

Neeko eyed the plastic wicker-look basket on the bar, full of nothing but miniature pretzels. “No ChexMix?”

“Nope.” Lamar smiled more with his eyes than his mouth, raised his chin a little toward the bartender who stepped to her left, reached under the counter and held up a small bag of miniature pretzels with a chip-clip on top. “Low sodium. She likes me, I can tell.”

“Like she likes her grampa. You always have been able to talk to women, Lamar, I’ll give you that. What’d you say?”

“She came down, stood right in front of me after you left last time. I was startin’ to get up, thought I’d mine the last of the pretzels from the ChexMix before I followed you out. She puts her hand with the towel in it on her hip, puts her other hand on top of mine, locks it in the bowl, cocks her head a little and says, ‘That’s not really playing fair. You know that, right?’ I was trying to dust off my talk to a strange woman chops when she smiled, like to have knocked me off the stool forty years ago. ‘You don’t like my ChexMix, or what? It insults a girl when you dis her snack baskets.’ And now it’s worse because she’s got a deep, movie star voice to go with the rest of her. So I say ‘It’s got nothing to do with you. You’re a lovely, attractive woman and I’m sure your heart is in the right place, but I’m a pretzel man, always have been. I’m not gonna sell-out now for a potpourri of crunch and flavor all goin’ off in my mouth.’”

“Jesus, Lamar. You can still spread more shit than a whole crew of landscapers. So that ‘lovely, attractive woman’ business netted you your own bag of pretzels?”

“Nope. She snort laughed some, said I must have been a real pain in ‘attractive women’s asses’ when I was young. She did that quotes thing with her fingers when she said ‘attractive women’s asses.’ I denied that and she called bullshit. Said she could see it in my eyes I was lyin’, so I told her that it never goes away, all that pretty girl shit. The only thing that happens is the box it’s in gets beat up like something fragile for your wife in a UPS truck at Christmas time. She laughed then, told me all she wanted last Christmas was one of those big-assed Vitamix blender things like the one here at work and she cussed a streak because it showed up in about forty pieces. See she free-lance bartends and caters some not-too-big weddings and graduations, business receptions. Charges a small fortune, and I can see people payin’ it because she wears a nice, tastefully sexed up evening gown and a push up bra, looks like a million bucks, and knows just what kind of music to have playin’ on this Bluetooth thing from her phone. Got a complete little set-up. Showed me the pictures, has a website and everything. She’s a single mom, her kids come along and help. That Vitamix and some more work blouses like she’s wearin’ is all she wanted for Christmas and had hell gettin’ either one.”

“She told you all this over a plastic basket with a disproportionate amount of missing pretzels?”

“She did.”

“She’s not old enough to have helpful sized kids, is she?”

“Thirty-one. Kids are fourteen and twelve. Boy and a girl. Got knocked up as a junior in high school. Boy’s parents were dicks about it, she said screw him, she shouldn’t have fallen for the tall, shallow blonde with sideburns thing in the first place and kept the baby. She had three sisters who didn’t shun her for having sex and they all pitched in and got her through high school. She got pregnant again first guy out of high school, married and divorced before the baby got there. Went histrionic for about six months then took the kids off to New Mexico, sat on a rock for almost a year while she worked at a hospital with free daycare and pulled her shit together. Been around some, no men because of the kids. Here she is.”

“You tell her your life story, too? I guess not, you’d have been here three days just for the Reader’s Digest version.”

“Nah. The funny thing is that all came out because of some sexist trash Fontaine and I threw back and forth about high school.”

“Not more Jaclyn Werther nonsense. Neither one of you went there unless going there was sacred and God froze your tongues after, because both of you jokers would have let that out.”

“No, none of that. Watch your bartender down there bend over.”

“Shit, Lamar, I’m too old for –”

“No, I don’t mean check for camel toe or groove on thoughts of her ass, watch her as a person, check out her clothes.”

Lamar watched Neeko get that serious look he got about everything when he thought it might be against some moral code while the bartender reached for glasses, bent over the ice bin, squatted, reached way over the bar to drop an extra cherry or olive or take a credit card handoff.

“So? Come on, Lamar, this has to do with Fontaine how?”

“Gettin’ there. Bend over, pull up your socks. Not like an old fart, Neeko, bend over, all the way.”

“Goddam, Lamar. Ow. What is this? Stupid stunt Tuesday?”

“Look at your shirt tail, brother.”

“Shit…I might need to unbuckle to fix this. Lamar, Jesus…”

Lamar drank some lemonade in his nonchalant way that always got to Neeko. “Hers didn’t do that. You missed it?”

“No, I didn’t know I what I was supposed to be looking for.”

“When you look at a woman, Neeko, you look at all of her. Taking nothing away from the memory of your late wife, but it’s no wonder you’re still single ten years on. I see your daughter at the bank all the time and she says you told her I was a player in the land that time forgot and she asked me would I please teach you some things sometime so you didn’t die droolin’, horny and alone. That was lesson one. Women are a whole thing. That’s how you talk to a woman, about all of her, you don’t just make some shit up and hope she buys in. We got to talkin’ because I asked her where she got locked out 2the body shirt. She gave me one of those ‘why was I looking so close’ looks like they get these days and asked how did I know. I said what was a real pain in the ass back then wasn’t me, it was going out with girls in those damn body shirts. I told her I thought they had to have been designed by some girl’s mother who was a ‘you’ll be a virgin till you’re out of my house’ Nazi.”

“How’d that go over, her getting pregnant in high school and all?”

“Didn’t know that yet. That’s when she said she wished they had them when she was in high school, she might be two kids lighter and a maybe psychologist, but that’s how it had played. That’s when her story started to come out. She said body shirts were hard as hell to find these days, mostly they were sexed up see-through things with matching underwear, useless as a steakhouse in a vegan commune to her right now, that she’d tried a couple of vintage ones from resale shops and the thought of where those snaps had been, well, she donated them all back. The other option was leotards but skin tight with her figure wasn’t where she was at. She found a specialty place online that had body shirts, kind of utilitarian looking, but they were okay. Notice she dolls them up with a scarf she stitches down. Thought she might find out where they were importing them from and design some for lady bartenders, casino dealers and other women who had to move when they worked. I told her like tuxedo shirts maybe, with those little skinny bow-ties gamblers always wore in westerns. She laughed and sketched a couple out on napkins. Place was dead, she was supposed to be restocking, but we talked about it for a while, let her work it out on me. That’s why the pretzels.”

“Fontaine was in this somewhere and now I’m lost thinking about body shirts and you shooting the shit with my bartender all afternoon about it, trying to get my head around how you watch women way beyond tits and ass which we all thought that’s what you were, you know, a tits and ass bullshit artist.”

Lamar smiled a little, kind of tight. “Fontaine writes to me about how we were back then. How the biggest problems we had were new-fangled front closure bras, stupid body shirts that snapped in you-know-where and zits. ‘Wash your face with shampoo’ he told me back then, I was on my own with the other two. I bought my girlfriend some matching sets of that sheer, stretchy lingerie that hooked in back and I wonder to this day what her mother thought ‘cause my wife would have lit up like downtown if she’d found that shit in my daughter’s laundry basket. Anyway, I didn’t encounter front closure until my wife. But that body shirt business? I promise you, those things cut me out of a lot of loose change because a girl could say ‘no,’ and you could try again, and no matter how hard you pulled all you were doing was giving her a front door wedgie and pissin’ her off because the shirt tail wasn’t coming out.” Lamar got a quick, faraway look and a grin like he’d just replayed that very scene on the big screen in his head, date complaint and all.

“So you know Fontaine, he’s like you, Neeko. Give him a puzzle, he has to work on it. We went back and forth with all these different scenarios, even found some old body shirts we sort of recognized on the internet. What we discovered, after a number of tries, was that there is no answer to the ultimate body shirt mystery. After all that obvious and impossible and what’s left over Sherlock Holmes junk and spreadsheets with countless possibilities, we had ourselves an unsolvable conundrum, and how all we could ever quantify was how much fun those damn things cost us.”

“Now I’m really lost.” Neeko had absent mindedly loosened his belt and was stuffing his shirt tail back in. “What’s the big damn mystery to body shirts?”

“Neeko, look here. You’re seventeen. Our bartender down there who is wondering why your pants are unzipped and who also has no real need for the push-up bra is seventeen, too, and she likes you. Not super likes you, but she’ll make out seriously with you, fog the windows. You roll up somewhere, maybe even the drive-in, you get friendly and she’s all about how nice you are to her twins, and you’d like to get to know them better. No buttons. Shirt tail isn’t giving it up. She likes you, you like her boobs, she’s willing to give you some northern exposure, but you’re not southern material, so how do you get to what you can get to if you can’t get to the lock that will let you in? You can’t. For as long as you’ve got that evenin’ you warm her up through the shirt, you can for sure tell how much better it would be without it and you are locked out like a dog that shit on the carpet. I hated those shirts.”

“This kind of thing keeps you and Fontaine up nights, doesn’t it?”

 

 

 

 

 

View-Master

Staying Married Secret #12 – It pays to sit on your Smart Ass commentary when they’re frustrated.

The Professor, sometimes known affectionately as Mrs. Magoo, doesn’t like to wear her glasses. Which is another discussion, women over forty and their glasses that they put on and take off thirty or forty times an hour. Anyway, she must have gotten reading-glasses elbow and ordered the wrong thing off a menu she couldn’t read one too many times, because she opted for contacts and a new morning ritual a few weeks ago.

“I’m not sure I’m going to like this whole contacts idea. They take forever to go in and now one of the progressives tore in half. I was just trying to put the stupid thing in my eye.” The frustration oozing out of the cracked open bathroom door was tangible.

“Do you have another one?”

“No, they were the test ones. She gave me these mono-visons when I started, to get used to having them in my eyes until she got my test prescription in. I didn’t like them at all. I feel like I’m walking around blinking to see what’s close and then what’s far. My eyes never do it right like they’re supposed to.”

I knew she was making big, theatrical winks in the mirror while she said that. “Mono-vision is why I finally gave up on contacts.” I’d told her that probably a thousand times, with variations. It was my only support line for contacts, so I had to use it even if it was tired. I turned off the talking heads news readers and could hear water running on her side of the bathroom, along with some low-key, mumbled profanity.

“I guess I’m going to have to wear these mono-vison things then, and be the winking lady trying to decide which eye looks where. I get to spend all day today with a confused brain.”

I let it sit. So did she, for a minute or two.

“I said I’m going to have to spend the day with a confused brain.” She said it a little louder that time.

I bit my tongue. Hard. A few minutes later I heard her heels going across the living room into the kitchen and caught a glimpse of color. “Is that one of your new dresses?”

“Yes. It’s not too tight, is it? I get so self-conscious.”

She looked great and it wasn’t too tight and by now I was talking to her back. “No, you look great. It is a pretty dress and you’re the perfect girl for it.”

“Stop. I’m not a girl, I’m an old lady and I feel like one today.” She rounded up professor paraphernalia while the K-cup finished spitting. “I don’t have all day to wait for it, Mister Man.” I could see her twisting the lid on her to-go coffee cup. “Okay, I’ve gotta go, I’ll do it for you. ‘What do you mean confused brain today, dear? I thought that was your natural state.’ Feel better?”

“It really is a pretty dress. Kiss?”

“Yes. Thank you. Have a nice day at work. Do I have everything?”

“Phone?”

“Mmm…Yes. Four-thirty, probably. Thanks for making me a sandwich and being sweet when I went off about my contacts. Bye. Love you!”

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.”

Nana Ballet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sold Out

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Early October, 1976

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

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

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

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

“You could play something,” she said.

Harper tried a light smile. “I am.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yep. It’s a Harper.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Story of my life.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women Don’t Talk Enough

I’ll take the heat for that. It could have read, “Women don’t say enough when they talk.” And that would be true as well. Now I admit, there’s a stereotype qualifier and it is this; all of the Betty and Suzie and Julie and Crissy and LaTeesha too, and all the stupid and wonderful and awful and competitive bitchy things they do is, well, what it is and for the most part out of this discussion. Also out are the discussions and the Pinterest pins and the websites where it would be so nice to remodel the kitchen with one having slightly more square footage than the footprint of the entire house. What is in this discussion is asking a woman about pointed, personal history, and how we have to pry that out. Even when we do, what we get is female haiku. If you slow down and really listen to it, that’s almost enough.

In a relationship, we, as men, are expected to expose ourselves. “Who was she? What was she like? Why did you/she break up? Did you ever go here/there/anywhere? Have any fun? Beat her, get arrested, wreck her car? Well there was some reason you were together.” Women drill down for detail.

“Where did you go?”

“I stopped at the store for lettuce.”

“Oh? How was that?”

“I dunno. Like buying lettuce?”

“That’s all? That’s it?”

“Uh…” So we invent an emotional and experiential travelogue or shrug and slump away lost like there’s more to shopping for lettuce that we missed and somehow we’re stupid for missing it. However, even a busy woman will answer;

“Well, first I had to move the man with the all the vegetables on the cart, and that took forever because he didn’t speak English but that’s okay, he smiled and I finally got him moved but then the stupid sprinkler thing with the fake thunder? Well, it went off and if he hadn’t been in the way I could have just grabbed the lettuce first and I wouldn’t have a wet sleeve. And they had the cutest cookies. Little round ones with strawberry filling? I got some for the kids when they come over next time. And you wouldn’t believe it. The snottiest girl in the world was checking on express. Would I like a bag? Like I want wet lettuce rolling around in my car. Really? Just put it in the bag, silly girl. So she had to drop it two feet into the bag but by then I was tired of dealing with it. And that parking lot is the absolute worst. No one knows how to drive anymore. They’re all messing with their phones, they don’t look, they just point and go…”

When I bought lettuce, maybe all that happened, but I didn’t care. I got lettuce, got out, maybe gave somebody in the parking lot the finger, got home, got the third degree, let it go. Lettuce, in the bag. Done.

That was facetious on the face of it, but pretty accurate. My point is, if that was buying lettuce, then the next time your wife, girlfriend, significant other female glosses over a question, call her on it. Find a picture of an old boyfriend, her prom, some picture of a beach in an old book she has in the closet, ask her about it. “Oh, that was awful. I hated that trip.” Done. Next. Whoa. Why? “I just did. You know what happened after. He was a real jerk.” No, I have no idea what happened. Why? Exasperated we hear, “What is it that you want me to say?” Okay, right here is the break point between men and women. This is where a guy will say, “She was crazy, she was lousy sex, she cried all the time, her cat peed on my shoes, she was jealous of her own shadow, she was a kleptomaniac, insomniac, nymphomaniac, alcoholic, shopaholic…” We will invent things to say just to get off the topic. Women? Ask them why was it awful? “It just was, alright?” Female communication haiku. Maybe they’ll tell other women a whole story. Us? No way.

So I learned, after a very long and difficult time, to read the novel between the sparse words that women say about things that hurt, or were embarrassing. Things they’ve “forgotten.” I’ll buy some of that, but I’m no genius and I remember things. Good and bad and embarrassing. This is where I go back to that ladies lettuce moment. They have some stories in there and unless estrogen automatically shreds memory after a given amount of time, we’re not getting the stories. Because they don’t want to let go of them. They aren’t part of their lives anymore, they aren’t relevant. I say they’re wrong. Anything formative, anything that makes or made them who they are is important. Not just the fun and funny things, but the embarrassing things, the foolish things, the things they want the kids, and us sometimes, to believe they never did.

One afternoon not long ago I leaned pretty hard on a grown woman with three college degrees when, after about a tenth of a story, I got an “It’s not important.”  Headlines. No substance. Like the female mastery of soundbites and verbal haiku was enough for the simple minded male. She fought me all the different ways I tried to ask, and I was being one of those psych profile tests with a heartbeat so she was having to work. It was maybe half an hour before she finally said, “We’re all girls like that once, alright? All of us. For a summer, for a semester, for a month or a year or at some party summer job we had maybe, and any girl our age who tells you she wasn’t is lying. Alright? Jesus. Are you happy now?”

Hell yeah. No details, okay. Access to the female mindset? Priceless. Because I thought there was a magic word or phrase or coolness factor and I find out they’re just people. And they hate to give that up, let us know they’re human. To give us a chance to know a little more about them, so we can care a little more about them.

Why should we care? Because women and their stories are valuable and they sell themselves short with all of the dodgy answers. Because they think we’re men and we don’t or won’t get it and there’s something judgmental or Neanderthal going on in our heads when they talk. Like if they’re talking about Twelfth Century poetry we’re thinking about beer and booty and that red bra in the top drawer. Not always. Personally, I love to hear my wife talk when she has something to say because there’s music in her voice. Beer and booty is saved for all that office politics and people you never heard of and their cute babies and so-and-so’s such a bitch stuff. Then? Yes, ladies, we surf our brains for pictures of you naked, or at least in that red bra, so we don’t kill you.

***

Something that I found almost always inextricably linked to women and their stories is their mothers. I have no idea why, but if you’ve ever lived with a mother-daughter combo you’ve seen it. If you’re smart you stay out of the middle of it. I don’t care if a girl’s mom was a crackhead or a dentist or civic leader or a man-chasing drunk. She’s mom. I asked some women when I was doing research one time to tell me about how they got where they were, what happened. All of them, mom was in the picture. “Mom died, my family imploded and I got lost.” “Mom decided she wanted to re-career and moved us, and decided against it, and then moved us back and I felt kind of lost.” “Mom did this when she empty nested, and when that happened to me, I followed her.” “Mom did me a favor when she committed suicide. Because my sister and I didn’t need what she’d become in our lives. I don’t get mad, I thank her for that.” “Mom let my brothers feed me dog food so I’d learn not to listen to everything a man said.” “I live with her now, she’s on disability with cataracts. She was messed up a lot when I was a kid, but we always lived someplace okay, she made me go to school and she never made me do anything weird or be like her. She was a good mom.” “I wish my mom had known what to do with me.” “I wish I still had my mom.” “I wish I could ask my mom what to do sometimes.” “I really miss my mom.”

I was asking questions of grown women roughly my own age because I wanted to know what made a girl tick. I’m not one, so I had no idea. Every one of those answers, even paraphrased as they are, contains a novel in between the words. When you can get in between them, the words and the fences around them, there’s beauty and wisdom and insight and laughter and tears. If you look closely there’s an entire story in every one of them. Hopefully not many about desperation and loneliness because I found a few like that, along with the headstones of the women those kind of stories belonged to.

***

Women, for the most part, seem to be blessed with a “now” gene that somehow supersedes memory and pain and even us men and puts the immediacy of what’s important now in their lives right in front of them. It makes shopping for lettuce more than a couple of plastic bags and transacted commerce, makes a weekend  with the grandkids a return to being three years old instead of just bruised thighs, bad TV, a sore back and unknown but colorful sticky stuff on everything. It makes what they want from life and for their kids more important than flowers and poetry and romance. It’s amazing that they can manage all of that, be all of that, with whatever suitcase of blues they keep in their attics. It seems simple from the outside, like if they are loved and allowed to love they flourish like flowers, often in spite of the quality of the soil. Their answers may sound simple as well, but they are actually very poetic, and tell remarkable tales.

So make your girl talk to you. Dig out the real story. You might have to work for it, you might have to listen to her , but you’ll learn something fascinating about her you didn’t know. Something that might make you smile, maybe make you a little jealous or even really proud of her when she shows you where her strength, her humor, her judgement and her heart came from. What made her who she is. That for sure trumps hearing about what that bitch Audrey did at work today, right? Or that bag of lettuce and kitchen remodeling you don’t want to talk about. Some more.

 

Way More Than MIDI

For some reason, MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) seems to be getting more attention on its thirty-second birthday than it did on its thirtieth. I’ve read more misinformation than I thought possible until I realized I was reading things on the Internet. Did you know, according to RedShark, the Yamaha DX-7 was the first synthesizer to support MIDI? Strange. For those of us lucky enough to be standing in the Sequential booth at the Anaheim convention center to see it work for the very first time we saw a Sequential Prophet 600 and a Roland JP-6 play each other, and miscommunicate program changes by one number. That’s not what this is about, though. This is about celebrating more than MIDI. It’s about celebrating a little company on North First St. in San Jose, California that could see into the future.

On MIDI’s thirtieth birthday I sent Dave Smith a note telling him I’d just purchased a MIDI interface for my iPhone, and how cool was that? That same 5-pin DIN plug hadn’t changed. Of course, the 30-pin on my iPhone was doomed, but not MIDI. Dave reminded me that MIDI was still at rev 1 after all that time, and that hardware was more fun than software, cheers. And that is one of the legacies of Sequential. The resiliency of good design. When something works and people can use it; when it’s simple and elegant and deep enough to hang for a long time, particularly in the world of technology, it’s a good idea. Look at Dave Smith’s instruments now. They are sleeker and faster than the originals of 1977, and incredibly similar. Dave has always designed and built performance instruments, and thirty-two years ago MIDI was designed primarily so that physical musical instruments could discuss making music together. Yet MIDI is the defacto standard for hardware and human interfaces to discuss the making of music with pretty pictures of instruments captured under the glass of a computing device’s monitor. It doesn’t matter if it’s a USB cable or that thirty-two-year-old 5-pin DIN, the language spoken is MIDI.

In 1982 when I’d walk by and see Dave in that corner office with reams of green-bar paper and teletype pages covered in hex I had no idea. I don’t suspect that he did, either. Or he might not have given it away. That’s right, the MIDI protocol is free. A very Northern California concept. Hippie engineers making the world a better place for synthesizer players, free. Imagine. MIDI was conceived to foster a sense of modern musical community. That’s some pretty serious save-the-future tree hugger engineering for you right there.

Now for the other really important “seeing into the future” thing that rarely gets mentioned. Barb Fairhurst. What? A female vice president and business manager in 1977? In a couple of male dominated businesses? Not just technology and engineering, but the music business as well. Back in the old cigar smoke, big talk and “what can I do for you, little lady” times. Back when women were usually the vice presidents of the laundry room and the grocery store run, at Sequential we had a lady boss. Who gave this long haired kid from Oklahoma a shot at seeing the future, a coffee cup with my name on it, and made us sign things in a specific color of ink as a “standard.” Barb dealt with the business end of things, the banks, the vendors, the dealers. Us. She even handled the great “we’re not galley slaves” revolt in manufacturing when it was decided they should use anti-static wristbands that were attached to their workbenches. Walk from the “carpet” to the “tile” at Sequential back then and you got an earful from someone about indentured servitude until Barb calmed the waters.

Sequential was the heart of a romantic music-meets-technology ideal in a pragmatic world, and, as a result, is no longer with us in that little building on North First Street, but it is still with those who make modern music every day. I would like to suggest that instead of just wishing MIDI a happy thirty-second birthday we also celebrate the programmable polyphonic performance synthesizer, vector synthesis, multi-timbral workstations, the insight and wisdom of female executives and the spirit of a global musical community that rides for free on the three hot wires of that 5-pin DIN plug. That’s the real reason to be nostalgic and celebrate Dave, Barb and Sequential. To celebrate the little company so small and long ago that showed us the future.

How Old Guys Get Lucky

I got lucky the other day. I didn’t win the lottery, don’t have a fat retirement portfolio or a ranch with a vineyard or a golf course out back or a luxury foreign car. I don’t vacation in the islands or the keys or ski anywhere and none of the twenty somethings at Trader Joe’s winked at me. But stay with me, and I’ll tell you how I got lucky.

If you’ve been married a while you know all of your wife’s names. Nana, Gramma, Mom, Professor, Doctor, Executive, Boss, Volunteer, Nurse, Conflict Manager. All of them and more. I’m telling you, if you want to get lucky put all of them in the top of the linen closet. Here’s why.

Our wives carry all of our sins in a big ol’ bag around their neck and seeing them, sometimes I think we see all of that. The missed opportunities, our failings and faults. We see the girl who keeps us even when we fart the covers off at two A.M., who knows our hearts, our dreams, even our pain. All of it in that albatross around her neck, the one we made. It’s not all bad. Our successes, our wins, the BG Denton Ballet on point on Stageones that counted, when we remembered to love them. Read that carefully. Not the flowers or the gifts, but when we remembered to really love them, the girls we married. Take that necklace away from her, put it up there in the closet, too. Now stop. Look at the girl. Not what you’ve been through, kids and jobs and houses. Just look at the girl you married.

My wife still goes to ballet class three times a week, Pilates streams from the living room ROKU, she says “Hey you, want to do some yoga with me?” Some red lipstick, jeans and a t-shirt, I’d still follow her home if I didn’t have to. Professor, Nana, Ballet, Pilates, read, write, teach, learn go, go, go. She may be all of that, but what is she really?

The Box of photosother day my wife was out of town and I was rummaging around looking for something. I was up in the top of the linen closet and pulled down a cardboard banker’s box. Inside, not whatever I was looking for, but what I needed to find. There, in a toe-shoe box full of photographs, was the beautiful girl I married.

Nothing says pretty girl to me like a pretty girl in a summer sundress. There she was. Man. Think of a sleeveless summer dress. It fits her figure, it’s soft, it’s not naughty or short, it’s meant to catch the breeze and make her grab it before oops! She can twirl around in it, put her arms around my neck, and she did. She’s just a girl. That special, flirty innocent girl I married. Her hair barely under control, her big blue eyes, smart and pretty. Strong and passionate, shy. She still runs me off and closes the bathroom door. She dresses in private, or shoos me away unless she’s got her ‘hey, sailor’ working. I used to be a major pest. Semi-exposed girl parts, she would be fixing her hair, defenseless. I learned better, but what a pain in the ass I was, thinking I was cute and affectionate, honking her boobs, pinching her butt.

Passionate. Oh hell yes. About many things, but best of all, about us. We could piss off  the neighbors. The lady upstairs thought I was killing her, the one next door smiled. Back before baby or business that sweet smiling girl stole my heart and gave me hers. Sometimes I think if I’d known then what I know now I’d have said “Run little girl, as fast and far as you can.” But I was selfish, how could I not be? I’d found a mainstream girl. Beautiful, artsy, a college degree. And she liked me. Go figure that.

She was angry, mostly at men and the things we do. How some men treat women like objects, culture trophies, how pretty you are, look at what I raised, look who I was screwing when your back was turned. She was mad at all of us but she let me in, told me how it was going to be if I was going to stick around. Beautiful and standing in a deep hole of insecurity that I never saw. How could I? I saw everything else and she loved me anyway.

There she was, sitting on the porch surrounded by the plants that loved her, playing Scrabble. She always won. She had an English degree and I’m not an idiot. Warm afternoons we’d drink cheap Chardonnay and talk, eat Triscuits and cheese, read, play Scrabble, make love.

One day we sold it or gave it away, put what was left, including a noisy cat, in aPH w vw van htown VW van and a trailer, headed to the San Francisco Bay. I was going to be the next big thing. We know how that turned out. On the way I got tired and said “You can drive.” Through those narrow mountain passes in the dead of night, a tin can van and a trailer. The big strong man curled up in the back, sleeping through it, secretly scared to death knowing we were a fireball down the mountain in the making. When the sun came up and the desert loomed I took over again. The van blew up at Pea Soup Anderson’s on the I-5, got fixed in Modesto, twice what they said it would be. She was a trouper. My dream, my adventure, this girl who loved me right there.

The day after we got there she hit the temp agency with her Houston creds and Liberal Arts degree, went right to work. I drug my feet for a week. She handed me a phone number with her foot in my ass, asked what was I scared of? Rejection, working, paying the rent? A short time later when she said she wanted a baby, I said get some insurance we can’t afford it. The big chip company hired her, baby insurance included.

To this day she thinks I wanted her to wait to tell anyone when she got pregnant thinking maybe I thought I could talk her out of it. My long haired, no suburbs, no station wagon, no republican rants. The truth was that guy was back, the scared one, curled up in ball. Whatever could go wrong, would go wrong, don’t tell anybody it will mess it all up. I hadn’t had an adult thought in my life and Ash w mom and bottle 2that precious, innocent girl I married had a baby to carry. And me. Two babies to carry. The things we do when we’re lovers, the things she said, making a baby. I heard the words. I didn’t grasp their meaning.

Here she is, pregnant as can be in that purple maternity dress. We had a king size waterbed frame that looked like real furniture, but we lived upstairs so we put an air mattress in it. The last two months she was pregnant I slept on the floor on a couple of giant pillows we got at a flea market the size of a small town. Why? I was on that air mattress without baffles, she came in after work and flopped. I was up in the air and on the floor before I knew what happened. A nice five foot five girl, eight or nine months pregnant can own a king size bed, and I let her. I did it to her, that small, tired girl. It was the least I could do.

She worked right up until she gave birth to our one dollar insurance daughter. The best thing about my girl being pregnant? Junk food. Well, our daughter, but junk food runs second. Never before would she darken the door of a fast food joint with me, her shaggy rock n’ roll husband. But on the way home from Bradley birthing class, Tuesday night was Taco Bell night. It was only for a couple of weeks, and our daughter turned out fine. And yes, I know better now. But I can get her to eat some things. Burgers have always been no. No red meat. Something happened before my time and never again she said. She meant it. Chicken or fish or fresh and leafy. You should see the pizza I have to order.

EH w PH and Ash after mastersI’d forgotten how I marveled at her, her masters, her doctorate. Our daughter in tow, me in tow. Her ethic and tenacity. Her strength. Fearless and frightened and determined. I found her in a toe-shoe box in the linen closet, the amazing little girl I married.

If you want to get lucky, put Nana and Mom and all the other things she is and has been in the linen closet where that box was. Go find the beautiful young girl you married, dust off your heart, tell her how you feel. Tell her how empty your life would have been without her, open the windows and piss off the neighbors. If you can get any luckier than that, send me your lottery numbers.