|BOUNDARIES Home | Contents | Authors||Wordrunner eChapbooks | March 2017 | echapbook.com|
One of the owners of The Bean & Leaf, Barb, asks Neil if she can have a word with him before he goes on. They sit side by side near the big bay window that looks out on Broad Street. The wind out there is strong, shaking brown leaves off poplars and pushing around the streetlights so that hazy globes of light slide back and forth over the sidewalk like antsy ghosts.
“You’ve been terrific for us, honey,” Barb says and sips from a tall Starbucks paper cup—she half-owns a café but doesn’t like the coffee it serves. “All those sensitive songs of yours. Oh, I just love them, Neil. Sometimes I sit there and think, how does he come up with words like that? That’s a real, God-given gift, kiddo.” When she inhales, her dense, hefty breasts seem to lift to Neil’s eyes. Her shirt’s probably got too many buttons opened, and her jeans are probably too tight for a woman her age, but if that’s the way she wants the world to see her, who is he to judge? Barb’s got a big soul. Her broad, pale face is still pretty, especially her hazel eyes. Probably doesn’t need so much mascara and eyeliner, but so what? It must make her feel good to look this way or she wouldn’t do it.
“I’m really enjoying this gig,” Neil says. He smiles, takes a swallow of ice water.
“I know you are. I know it. But, well, look,” and she puts her hand on his back and rubs it, up and down, all the way to the crack of his butt, “Jack and I have talked, and we’re going to have to change things up after tonight. We’re going to have a jazz combo come in on Tuesdays starting next week. Neil, you’ve been terrific. We both like you so much. And we’ll have you again next summer and fall. We just like to switch things up for the winter months. You know: hot weather, cool music, cold weather, hot music.”
He didn’t see this coming, but it makes sense. Jazz in the winter just makes sense. Still, deeply ingrained politeness prevents him from asking if there’s any other reason. Are his songs maybe too weird, or sluggish? “No, hey, I understand,” he says. “I appreciate you guys letting me play for these, what, four months. It was more than I ever expected. And nothing lasts forever, right?”
“Nothing,” Barb says emphatically. “But, Jesus, you’re such a goddamned sweetheart, Neil. A hunk and a sweetheart. Even with those crazy dreadlocks or whatever you call them, you’re gorgeous. You don’t get sweetness and hunkiness in the same guy very often, let me tell you.” She shakes her head and stands up. “Come here. Give me a hug, you big dumb stud.” As her fleshy but strong arms envelop him, Barb murmurs into Neil’s ear, “If I was thirty years younger you’d be in trouble, bub. Hell, if I was ten years younger.”
Post-hug, Neil shoves his hands into his pockets. He never knows what to say when an older woman makes a remark like that. If he ever heard his own mother say something like that to some young guy he’d go shoot himself in the head. Luckily where she and his dad live down in southern Florida almost everybody’s old. Anyway, his mother’s not the type to flirt with young guys. She’d think it was undignified.
“So. You’re okay with this? You understand it’s not you, right?”
“Yeah, yeah. I totally understand. It’s all good.”
“Okay, good,” Barb says. “So, tell me, Neil, are you still going around with what’s her name? Oh, Jesus, I can’t remember a name to save my life anymore. Do me a favor, don’t get old.”
“I’ll try not to. Her name’s Felicity. And yeah, we’re definitely still together.”
“Felicity. That’s it. I had a girlfriend back in Boston named Felicity. Or Felicia. Pretty name.” Something strong is spiking Barb’s coffee, Neil realizes as a whiff of it escapes the lid. “But, look, let me not bullshit you, okay? Okay Neil? As someone you trust, let me let you in on something. As a woman who’s got some experience under her belt.”
This prelude makes Neil nervous. He finds that most people’s advice is not worth taking; not because it’s insincere but because most people don’t truly understand anybody but themselves. They tell you what they would do, based on their lives and their experiences, which is irrelevant because your life and your experiences are different from theirs. “You can tell me anything, Barb,” he says.
Barb lowers her voice. “Okay, then. Listen. You can do way better than this Felicity chick. Believe me. Everybody thinks so. It’s not only that she’s kind of a plain Jane, it’s that there’s something a little, you know, off about her. Neil, girls come up to me after your sets all the time; beautiful, sexy girls, and they want to know if the hunky singer’s available. I tell them, ‘Not at the moment.’ I also tell them, ‘Stick around, sooner or later everybody becomes available.’”
He doesn’t want the hurt he feels, the sense of violation, to show. She means well. “I think Felicity’s pretty much perfect for me,” he says with a smile and a shrug. “I guess she’s not, like, conventionally gorgeous or anything, but I think she’s beautiful.”
“Really, Neil?” Barb sounds mystified, which only confirms for Neil how people see things from such different points of view. “That girl’s been hanging around this place a long time. Long before she met you. She was with that thin guy, the cook. I forget his name, too. With him for years. I thought it was strange back then, because he’s a lot older than she is. But at least that was a more appropriate match, if you ask me. Two odd ducks finding each other.”
“Well, she’s found me now.” Neil smiles. Talking about Felicity is building his desire to see her. And he will, soon. And he’ll sing the new song for her. “I appreciate what you’re saying, Barb, but I think we’re a perfect match.”
The look on Barb’s face, like she’s conversing with a two-year old who’s just said something cute, is one he gets a lot. He must come across as naïve or dim. It doesn’t matter. People just don’t get him. That’s life. He accepts it. Felicity gets him, and that’s all that matters.
In the tiny storage room behind the kitchen, he looks over the set list and wonders if he should change it, now that he knows it’s his last night. He could do a couple more of his sad, soulful, goodbye-type songs. But no. He’ll stick to the list. Which includes the new song, “Neil Loves Felicity,” in the second set. He hopes it makes her swoon, even though she’s not the swooning type. Maybe she’ll swoon inwardly. And he’ll still close the last set with “Deepen the Mystery,” his other new song, which he wrote for his old poetry teacher, Professor Kamus, after he started showing up almost every Tuesday night, at first with his wife, but lately alone. Neil suspects something’s going wrong with their marriage, which is sad because Professor Kamus is a really good guy. “Go forth, dear students, and deepen the mystery” he used to say at the end of every class. Which, over the years, he’s come to realize is solid advice. Advice he’s willing to follow. Maybe even the best advice he’s ever heard.
Stepping up to the little makeshift stage, Neil turns to read the big poster directly behind him that announces that starting on Tuesday, November 13th, the jazz trio “Fuel, Fuse and Flame” will be performing weekly at The Bean & Leaf. It’s a good name. Makes you think something big’s going to happen. He’ll probably come down and check them out now that his Tuesday nights will be open. He wonders if Felicity likes jazz. He’s surprised that he doesn’t already know. Then again, it’s nice not to know everything about someone. There’s always more to be discovered, right? That’s part of the mystery, right?
He brings the mic to his mouth. “Hey, hi guys,” he greets the crowd of twenty-five or thirty familiar and new faces. Seated at small tables spread out before the stage, they clap politely. Twice as many women as men, but that’s always the case. He announces that this will be his last show for a while, and thanks Barb and Jack for a good run. Barb, standing near the counter with DeShawn, the black barista with dreads even longer than Neil’s, throws a wave to the crowd and winks at Neil. Jack, Barb’s ex, with his wrinkled face and small, sharp eyes, and wearing his customary jeans jacket and tight black pants, stands in the corner talking with his latest wire-thin, black-haired girlfriend. Neil scans for Felicity. Not here. No sign of Professor Kamus either. He feels, under his ribs, a ripple of disappointment.
Blowing out nervous energy through his mouth, he runs a pick over the strings to test the sound system, such as it is. A little staticky, like always. “So,” he says into the mic, “how’s everybody doing tonight?”
Some folks nod. A few say “All right” or “Pretty good.” Some go on conversing.
“Rhetorical question,” Neil says. “Hope you enjoy the music.”
Between sets, in the storeroom, he dials Felicity.
The phone purrs and purrs. At last: “Hey.”
“Hey, where are you, sweetie pie? I’m between sets already. I have a surprise planned for you for the next set.”
“I’m still here. I don’t know if I’m going to make it tonight.”
“What? No? Why not?”
“Kenny came over. He’s all depressed.”
Kenny and Felicity went out together for almost five years. When the relationship started, he was twenty-nine and she was seventeen. She finally broke it off last spring. When Neil asked her why she ended it, she said “It got to the point where everything I did either made him pissed off or sad. I couldn’t stay on the rollercoaster anymore.” Kenny works as a cook at The Olde Fish House, across the street from The Bean & Leaf.
“You okay with him at your apartment, Lis?”
“Yeah, it’s okay. He’s just really needy, that’s all.”
“He’s not scaring you or anything?”
She makes a slight scoffing sound, and Neil’s ribs feel the ripple again.
“I didn’t know he still came over there.”
“Only once in a while,” she says. “When he’s depressed. Look, if he leaves soon I’ll come to the gig. It’s just I don’t want him to do anything stupid to himself.”
“You think he would?”
“Stupid? Are you kidding me?” Her sigh blows through the line and into the canal of his ear; he’s not sure what such a deep sigh could mean. “Just don’t make a big deal about it if I don’t get there, okay? Okay? Please.”
Felicity hates when she thinks Neil’s putting pressure on her to do or say something; telling her that this is his last gig will definitely make her feel like he’s putting pressure on her to show up. He decides not even to say that he hopes she makes it, just tells her that he loves her and that if he doesn’t see her at the gig maybe he’ll come by her apartment when he’s done. She lives ten minutes away, above the Indian place on Liberty Street. But whatever she says in reply is drowned out by Kenny’s voice telling her to please get the hell off the phone and get back in here.
“Why is he talking to you like that?”
“Because he’s Kenny, Neil. Because he’s an asshole. I gotta go.”
He puts off singing the new song in case she shows up for the last set. He plays the other songs on the list, but something, his mind or his heart, feels wobbly. His guitar sounds slightly out of tune and his voice sounds like a bad imitation of his voice. He thinks the audience looks bored, like they’re judging everything he sings as lame; he thinks they’re looking at him with pity. When the set ends, he promises to be back for one more, and this one will be special.
It’s going to feel like pressure, but he calls her anyway.
It takes a lot of rings before she finally answers. “Neil, I told you I’m not going to make it.” She breathes like she’s jogging, which isn’t something she does. “And I really can’t talk right now.”
Neil assures himself that it’s okay. Felicity doesn’t like to show it, and she can come across to people who don’t know her as emotionless and harsh, but the truth is she’s got a huge heart. Right now she’s focused on helping an ex who’s in bad shape. Which only makes him want her more.
The way they met is funny. A woman with sort of messy long brown hair was crossing Broad Street with a six pack of Buds in her hand. Ten feet from the curb, she tripped. The six pack flew out of her hand, arced in the air, and exploded in the gutter. Neil happened to be coming out of Remillard Music, where he’d bought a set of Martin acoustic light-gage strings and a new capo, and saw the bag sail toward the concrete. Slow motion, he remembers; remembers waiting for the shatter. When it came, the woman looked so upset that he went over to see if he could help. She said there was nothing they could do now. Neil leaned down and began to pick up pieces of glass to throw in the trash, and one of the shards cut him pretty deep on the tip of his left forefinger. Seeing all the blood, the woman asked him if he wanted to come to her place to clean it up. As they walked toward Liberty Street introducing themselves, Neil had two thoughts: that he was not going to be able to play guitar for a few days, and that he wanted to make love to this woman as soon as possible.
They didn’t. She cleaned up his finger and put a couple band aides on it, but then she had to go meet somebody. She said they should get together sometime, and she wrote her number on a napkin. Two days later, when he called, she told him she’d just broken up with a boyfriend she’d been with for way too long. That night they made the most passionate love Neil’s ever experienced. It’s a cliché to talk about finding your soulmate, but that’s what he knew had happened. She still is his soulmate.
He doesn’t play Felicity’s song in the last set; he’ll sing it to her in bed tonight, and then they’ll make love like they did that first, surreal night. By the time he gets to “Deepen the Mystery” there are only a dozen or so people still in the audience. One of them is Professor Kamus, who’d slipped in just as the last set began and took a seat in the nook in the way back. He looks strange back there, thin, kind of hunched over, completely alone.
Neil fingerpicks an A minor-D minor-C progression and blows an extended, reedy note on the harp.
Lots of things we may never know
He sings three more verses, all intended to do what the title asks, his voice like a hissing fuse. He finishes with
Some things you can only see at night.
Set over, gig over, long run at The Bean & Leaf over, feeling mixed pangs of relief and melancholy, Neil thanks the audience for sticking around and waves shyly. He’s only three steps off the stage when two women jump up from their table and corral him. Both are pretty, early-to-mid-twenties, one dark-haired and one reddish-brown. In their tight little dresses, high heels and bright lipstick, they look made-for-sex. Neil, though, has come to prefer the peasant look; the long flowing dresses and flats and scarves that Felicity favors. He likes that she doesn’t wear make-up. The women begin to ply him with questions: where’d he go to school; where does he live now; what does he do with himself when he’s not performing.
He’s polite. He tells them he works in a computer store, shares a small apartment with his brother in Waterville, hangs out with his girlfriend a lot. “Sorry I can’t talk more, but I have to say hi to someone before he leaves.”
“Aww,” the women whimper.
Professor Kamus looks wearier, older and thinner than he did even a week ago, but he smiles when Neil takes a seat at his table. “Hello, Mr. Mystery.”
“Thanks for coming down again, Professor. Always good to look up and see your face in the crowd.”
“It’s good to be here,” he says. “But I thought we agreed a month ago that you’d call me Evan. It’s been a few years since I’ve been your professor.”
“Right. True.” Neil doesn’t want to stop calling him Professor though; it doesn’t seem right. He thinks it fits. “Soon, I promise,” he says. “So, how are things going?”
The professor lifts his mug and peers into it. His eye sockets are purple-black. His brown-turning-gray hair looks more gray than brown. “I’ve been better,” he answers. “Rough couple months. But, you know. Still kicking.”
Neil waggles his head. The professor’s marriage is fucking with his head. He’s made vague remarks about it over the last month, when Neil’s come to sit with him after shows. “I’d listen if you want to talk about it.”
Professor Kamus half-smiles. “I know you would. But I really don’t.”
“You were the most important teacher I ever had, you know that right? I took it all seriously, everything you said. How much poetry matters. The ways it can save our souls.”
“That’s flattering. Thank you.”
“And I’m with you, you know, that it’s all pretty mysterious, like you always said. How much we don’t know, but how beautiful the not-knowing can be, if you dive into it. Embrace it.” He opens his hands and gestures at the window, at the windy night out there, at the universe of unanswered questions.
“Sometimes that’s true,” the professor says. “And sometimes it’s murder.”
A gauzy desire to help this man waves through Neil. “Do you mind if I ask if everything’s okay with your wife, Professor? I know she used to come here with you and, I guess lately not so much. And I know you were concerned about some dude she’s working with.”
The professor emits a small, sad chuckle. “Did I tell you all that? God, I don’t think I should have laid that on a former student. How much did I say?”
“Not much. I wish you’d say more. I mean, it’s good to get things off your chest, right?”
The professor’s shoulders drop a little. Sadness seems to pulse out of him. Sadness, but, weirdly, some kind of power, too, as if his sorrow, because of who he is and what he believes, sooner or later is going to blow open the doors and there’s going to be some amazing, beautiful new experience waiting for him there. “Maybe some other night?”
Neil nods. “Any time.”
“So how’s Felicity?”
“Great. She’s good. She couldn’t come tonight, which kind of bummed me out, but, oh well.”
“Yeah, too bad. She working?”
“She’s actually talking her ex-boyfriend off a ledge, I guess you could say.”
The professor lifts his eyes. “Is he suicidal?”
“I don’t know if it’s quite to that extreme, but he seems to need to talk to her a lot. Rehashing their relationship, you know? He’s obsessed with talking and talking and talking about it. Don’t ask me what purpose it serves. She says he needs to process what happened between them. I guess I understand that. To a point.”
The professor stares hard into Neil’s eyes.
“What? What are you thinking?”
“Look, I don’t know that I’m qualified anymore, if I ever was, to talk about anything that has to do with women, so just dismiss this if you don’t think it has any merit, okay? Are you sure it’s the best thing, if they’re broken up, for her to keep meeting with him? Wouldn’t it be better if she told him to get himself a therapist or a friend to help him ‘process’ the relationship? The two of them continuing to get together just doesn’t seem like a situation that can come to any good.”
Neil’s open palm slaps his heart. “I definitely trust her.”
“Okay,” Professor Kamus says, and nods a few times. “You really do love the woman, don’t you? Tell me some of the things about her that you love.”
He thinks about Felicity constantly so it takes him aback that an answer isn’t right there on his tongue. “So many,” he says. Somebody’s beginning to click off lights. “Maybe the biggest thing is how different she is than everyone else. How she’s totally her own person. Doesn’t follow any fucking trends, doesn’t care what anybody thinks.” With a laugh he adds, “Doesn’t even care what I think.”
The professor scratches his jaw, peers into his mug again like there’s a little man floating around in it. “You feel like she understands you, Neil? When you’re with her, do you feel felt by her? Do you feel known by her?”
“I think she understands me better than anyone. Yeah, she knows me. I know she loves me.” Neil ventures, “Do you feel like your wife understands you, Professor Kamus?”
The professor’s eyes fall to his folded hands. “I think she’s allowing herself to be seduced by a man she’s working with. A very accomplished guy, a researcher from Yale. He tells her things that make her feel good about herself: how competent she is; how creative; what a great team they make. He seems to know how to push all the buttons. I wouldn’t be surprised if by now he’s told her how badly he wants to sleep with her. Of course, she hasn’t admitted to any of this. It could all be in my head.” He looks up and laughs. “That wasn’t your question, was it?”
Neil shrugs. “I feel bad that you have to go through this, Professor. But it is possible that it isn’t as bad as it seems? Maybe she isn’t even falling for his lines? Or maybe there is an attraction but not so strong that they’re doing anything about it? Could you live with it if it’s that?”
Before Professor Kamus can respond, the two women in the little dresses approach the table. “Sorry to interrupt, guys,” the redhead says to Neil, “but we’re going over to Mister Tripp’s for a drink. Want to join us? Your friend can come if he wants.”
“Not me,” the professor says. “I’m going home. You go, Neil. Have yourself some fun.”
“I’ve got someone waiting for me,” Neil tells the women. “Maybe next time.”
They stand frozen in their puppy-dog disappointment. The redhead bends slightly at the knees, asks if he’s really really sure. When Neil says he’s really sure, they frown and shimmy away.
Professor Kamus stands and shrugs his arms into his corduroy jacket. “I know,” he says. “I’m a walking professorial cliché.”
“Far from it.”
“I’ll see you around, Neil.” Taking a few steps backward, the professor says, “I hope you hang on to whatever that sweet quality of yours is. It’s rare. It’s beautiful. Don’t let the fuckers rip it out of you.”
Neil’s body feels watery. “No way,” he says. “You take care, too, Professor. And thanks for all the mystery. I’m sure we’ll see each other somewhere.”
Barb asks Neil if he minds sticking around while she closes; she doesn’t like to be alone in the place late at night, which is understandable. Neil’s anxious to get over to Felicity’s, but he’s got to help Barb, especially after all she’d done for him.
As she locks the front door and pulls on it twice, Barb quips, “Jack’s so hot to get laid he couldn’t even think about helping me close. Ah, hell, I don’t hold it against him. Get it when you can, right? Because you never know.” On the sidewalk, in the wind, she says, “Hey, kiddo, you want to come over to my place and have a drink? A drink and a good, long chat? What do you say?”
“That’d be fun, Barb, but Felicity’s expecting me.”
“Jesus H. You and that Felicity.”
Neil grins. “Yeah, me and Felicity.”
“Well, you know where I live. In case she’s asleep or has a headache or something. I’ll be up. I don’t sleep much anymore. I doze off, wake up. I take naps in the afternoon. Anyway, I want to hear all about your life, kiddo. One of these days, huh?”
“One of these days for sure, Barb.”
Barb’s big white Buick is parked right in front of the café. “You want a ride over to her place?”
“No thanks. It’s just on Liberty. I’ll walk. I like walking after a gig. Decompress.”
“Okay. Look, Neil, you’ve been terrific. We love you.”
When she hugs him she lets her fingertips brush across his ass.
“I love you guys too,” Neil says. “Thanks for letting me sing.”
When he knocks and says through the door that it’s him, Felicity says, “What are you doing here?”
“I told you I’d come after the gig.”
“No you didn’t.”
No sense in repeating that he did. “Well, anyway, here I am. Can you let me in?”
He hears footsteps rushing, then Kenny’s voice saying, “Get the fuck out of here, asshole. You hear me? She’s done with you, dude. Sorry about the news, but that’s life.”
“Jesus Christ, Kenny,” Felicity hisses. “Go back inside. I’ll speak for myself.”
“Well do it, then. I’m not gonna stay hard forever.”
“You total jerk. Go back inside.” To Neil, through the door, she says, “Don’t listen to what he said. He’s drunk and stupid.”
“What’s going on in there, Lis?”
“Look, it’s complicated, okay? Don’t worry about it. We’ll talk later. I have to go.”
“No, why don’t you let me in now?”
“I’ll call you in the morning,” she says. “I’m trying to help him.”
“I don’t think this is the right way to help him, hon.”
But when she doesn’t reply, Neil lifts his guitar case and turns. He turns back. “We need to have a serious talk, Lis. This isn’t right.” He doesn’t want to leave on a negative note, though, so he leans close to the door and says, “I love you, babe.”
They talk about the ups and downs of love. Sometimes, Barb’s saying, you just have to take a deep breath and let things roll. Can’t try too hard to control a situation or it’ll backfire on you. The Beatles said it best: let it be. In the end, you’ll wind up with the person you deserve to be with. Neil likes her attitude; she’s right. He knows that Felicity is who he’s meant to be with, and he knows she knows it, too.
After Barb throws back her head and finishes off her second bourbon, she leans forward on the sofa and, with a big effort, lifts herself to her feet. She waits for her balance, and when it comes, says, “Back in a sec, honey.” Gingerly she walks into the bathroom and closes the door. Neil lifts his own glass of bourbon to his lips—he’s barely touched it—and takes a tiny sip. He’s never had a taste for hard liquor; it feels like it’s burning though the lining of his throat, ruining his vocal chords. He likes wine, but Barb’s out of wine. His guitar case leans against the wall near the front windows. He’s tempted to take out the instrument and play his new song for Barb, see if she thinks Felicity will like it.
Before he can retrieve the guitar, the bathroom door opens. Barb’s standing there, naked, a coy smile on her rouge-painted lips. From her neck to her thighs, her pale, folded flesh reveals moles and blotches, and her big, heavy breasts, with their dimpled nipples the color of prunes, sag proudly toward her belly. Etched into her lower abdomen is a three-inch long pink, slightly raised scar. Her legs, though mapped with purple/blue veins, look strong and toned.
Neil takes in the sight of her, not sure what to think or do. Then, suddenly, he is sure. Beautiful, he thinks. In her way, beautiful. He’s going to make love to Barb. How about that?
As he walks slowly around the sofa toward her, Neil feels like he’s passing through some invisible boundary. It’s easier to do than he imagined.
Barb’s fleshy arms lift to him. “You are one beautiful boy,” she says, and presses her lips hard against his.
The mystery never ends, Neil thinks as he adjusts to the feeling of Barb’s thick, aggressive tongue and not Felicity’s reedy, hesitant one, as it plunges into his mouth. It only goes deeper and deeper.
|© 2017, Steven Ostrowski||Go to top ^
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