2008 Submission by “Lang und Kurtz” (Kate Weikert and Mark Flatt)
The hungry crowd had settled into a rapturous lull as nominee Samuel Joseph shifted into his proposed economic resolutions, a topic near and dear to the gray, depressed city. From fifty yards out, Cole thought he could see the presidential candidate’s passionate expression subside as he settled in to toe the party line. Another bad day to try to quit, Cole thought, touching the tobacco bulge in his jacket. Pushing his way against the tense stares and the fleecy coats and plastic rain jackets, he snaked away from the sea of musty bodies to the knoll at the back of the park where he could smoke but still hear Senator Joseph. He fingered through his chest pocket, brushing past the hard metal of his tiny digital recorder before finding the warmer packet of Bali-Shag.
There was a fellow a few yards away in a leather jacket, scribbling notes. Cole assumed he was from the downtown weekly, known more for issuing intriguing and relevant stories than dependable paychecks. Well, wouldn’t this be a nice story to cover, Cole thought, licking the cigarette paper and sealing it with a roll. His interview a few hours previously had gone about as well as could be expected. Minor league coaches generally weren’t known for their loquaciousness; he could still smell the pudgy man, chewing on a rancid cigar, giving nearly monosyllabic answers to every detailed question he’d thrown at him. Cole thought he’d deciphered enough body language, however, to make a decent article. Decent enough for his newspaper, anyway. It demanded perfection while firing copy editors and pinching every penny until Abe shat. A rotten beat for a washed up paper, perhaps, but the checks never bounced.
The crowd came alive again and drowned out the red-faced coach and the deadline in his mind. Cole smelled his own pungent tobacco against the mid-autumn air: cold, crisp, slightly deceptive. He reached into his empty jeans pocket for his lighter. “Damn.”
He turned to the closest person. She was some five feet away, and he studied her in the dimming light: lithe, graceful movements, a shoulder bag so heavy it could cause back problems, straight dark hair. Young, but not too young. He fixed an easy smile on his face and stood up straight as he approached.
She turned with an open expression when he touched her shoulder, and didn’t seem surprised to find a stranger. His smile deepened. “Pardon me. Do you have a light?” He held up his sad, cold roll-up.
Her smile was big and cheerful on well-pampered lips. “I’m sorry, I don’t smoke,” she replied over the sound of another rallying cheer.
Cole kept his grin. “Thanks anyway.” He strolled slowly over to the fellow in the leather jacket, wondering if her eyes might follow. “Hey, got a light?”
“Sure do, man.”
“Thanks,” Cole said, taking the lighter. “You covering this for the Sound?”
“Yep. Hey, didn’t I see you in the press box at the playoffs last week?”
“Yep,” Cole responded from the side of his mouth as he lit up.
“You on the sports beat for the Daily?”
“For now. Hey, thanks,” Cole said, handing the lighter over and casually glancing over to the girl. He noticed her nodding at the senator’s inflections, her legs shifting back and forth from one tall boot to the next, finally putting her big leather bag down on the ground and rubbing her shoulder. Long day, her gestures said. Tired.
“Me, too,” Cole agreed aloud.
“Uh, nothing,” Cole said distractedly, and slowly walked toward her.
The air electrified again as the senator reached a billowing crescendo, sending the supporters into raucous applause as the misguided selection of Fleetwood Mac escorted him off the stage. Her eyes seemed bright to him against the darkening sky as she shouldered the bag and turned to work her way out of the park. Her moves were quick and purposeful. Cole pinched out the rest of his roll-up as he measured his footsteps to catch her, tucking the remnants into his tobacco pouch.
“Great speech, wasn’t it?” he asked across the small space that separated them.
She looked up again with a bright and surprised smile of recognition. “I just love that he’s so supportive of the arts, I mean, after all the budget cuts in the last four years.”
“So you’re an artist?” Cole asked as he paced his footfalls to land closer and closer to hers.
“Musician,” she enunciated with a tiny toss of the head, a certain sophistication and inherent scorn making him certain she did not mean in a rock band.
“Oh, hey, I’m a writer,” Cole replied with a smile, hooking his thumbs in his pocket and looking innocuous, beating back the boring red-faced coach in his mind again. He noticed her ‘Joseph’ button and asked, “Are you a volunteer in this district?”
“No,” She shook her head, one hand gracefully tucking an errant strand of dark hair behind an ear. “I just moved to town and hardly know where I am much less which district this is.”
“Hey, welcome to town!” Cole exclaimed, spreading his arms disarmingly wide as if he were the master of all he encompassed: trampled grass, a few sorry stunted trees, the ragged leftover crowd bundled against the late evening chill. “I’m Cole.”
He watched, charmed, as she flushed slightly and tucked the same strand of hair behind her ear before shaking his hand. “Becca.”
“Becca. Nice to meet you.” As if by pre-arranged consent they had stopped walking, but in the way of small people in a large space they drifted without purpose towards an anchor, a small and beleaguered tree that had only a slim chance of making it through the winter, until they were contained in the loose border demarked by the circumference of its brown, fallen leaves. “What brought you to town?”
She smiled easily again, back on comfortable ground. “I auditioned into the Symphony. I just moved in after the summer festivals were over to try to get familiar with the place before the season started.” She laughed lightly, both hands holding on to the strap of her large bag. “I’ve failed miserably, though; I’ve just been running a track between my apartment and the concert hall.”
“The Symphony, that’s great,” Cole nodded, “I love the Symphony.” He thought that could probably be true. “What do you play?”
“The French horn.” When there was no immediate spark of recognition in Cole’s eyes Becca made a swirling, looping motion in the air, starting at her lips and ending at her hips. “The brass one that goes like this.”
“Right! That’s the one.” He grinned becomingly, sheepishly. “I haven’t had much experience around musicians since my stint in a band during college.”
“Were you any good?” she asked teasingly.
He liked the look in her eyes: open, curious, friendly, promising. “We thought we were good. That’s gotta count for something, right?” But he thought that his days with the all-male All Girl Summer Fun band should be rapidly abandoned as a conversation topic with a classical musician. They weren’t that good, regardless of their inflated egos and devoted crowd of sorority sister groupies. “Do you like jazz? Have you been to Rollie Trippiano’s yet?”
“Oh, clearly you’re not from around here. Rollie Trippiano’s is the only place in town for good jazz. You like jazz, right?”
She laughed, flustered, and shrugged the shoulder that wasn’t connected to the bag. “Sure.”
“We should go. I mean, would you want to?” Cole steered himself down about three notches, from enthusiastic pursuer to what he hoped was suave connoisseur. “The band playing tonight, the saxophone player’s a friend, they’re just passing through for the weekend.”
“What kind of jazz?” Becca asked it as if her answer would depend on it.
“Of course. Absolutely Dylan pre-Newport.” When her eyes did not mark his reference, he simply added, “Yeah, acoustic.”
He watched as her eyes passed through phases he could easily read: she wanted to go, but she wondered if he were a crook or a pervert – would she have a good time with him or end floating in the canal? He attached the most open and unassuming expression on his face that he could muster and waited, knowing he could only wait. And then he saw her eyes turn warm and decided. “Sure, ok. Is it far?”
He shook his head and gently touched her elbow, his fingers barely grazing her soft wool sweater, guiding her in the right direction before letting her go as they began to stroll out of the newly abandoned park, strangely silent except from the sharp metal-on-metal sound of the roadies disassembling the stage and the rustle of the dead leaves beneath their feet. “No, we can walk. That all right?”
“I’ve got my boots on,” she answered, waving one foot in front of them.
She shifted the bag from the one shoulder to the shoulder closer to him, moving him that eight inches further away, as they exited park.
“Can I carry that for you?” he asked, the picture of politeness.
She shot him an amused, askew look anyway. “It’s got my score in it, I can’t afford to lose it.”
He cast her a slightly deprecating glance. “Well, now! You think I’m going to run off with your handbag?”
“Nope, but I did just meet you five minutes ago,” she answered, blithe in the face of his offense. “I’d be the dumbest girl in the world to hand off my bag to you at this point.” She seemed to consider this further for a moment as they crossed a street, traversed a dirty sidewalk past a putrid garbage bin, making her crinkle her small nose and pause in speaking until they passed by the stench. “I’m probably a little bit the dumbest girl in the world to go to a jazz place with you anyway, only knowing you for five minutes now. Where is this place again?”
They were only two blocks away from the park. He forced himself to laugh, his pride and his security in being a trustworthy person both dinged. “Only about five blocks further on.”
“I get lost pretty easily around here,” she admitted, ducking her head.
“You’re new, you’ll get used to the place,” he answered encouragingly, and again barely touched her elbow, so far away, to steer her into a turn at the next block, approaching the old bridge over the canal.
“So, a writer,” she said nicely, as if trying to make amends for virtually accusing him of wanting to steal her handbag.
He watched their feet as they padded up the stone incline of the bridge, and glanced down at the small canal, a canal that was useful decades ago when the town had commerce, boat traffic. Now it reflected inky black in the fall of the night, empty, a shadow of better times past, the wafting, harsh scent of the stale water a pitiful reminder of what it had once been. “Of sorts,” he replied modestly, finally turning his eyes to hers and sharing an embarrassed little grin as they began to decline into the other side of town.
“Oh, come on!” she exclaimed, encouraged by his reluctance. “Fiction? Non?”
“Nonfiction,” he said, pulling his eyes away, back to the sable water cutting its line through town, no boats, no people, just silken bleakness reflecting no moon. “I’m working on a book about the history of jazz in town.”
“Really? How exciting!”
“It would be if someone wanted it,” he answered ruefully, again guiding her with a soft touch through another turn, past the first block of old stone buildings beyond the canal, the facades looming over them as if the open space of the water had never existed.
“But still, what a project! I didn’t realize there was so much music in this town. What an accomplishment.”
He couldn’t mention that it wasn’t an accomplishment, that it wasn’t done, that no publishing house was remotely interested. He thought it could be a break-through piece to adorn the halls of jazz history; nobody had considered writing about the jazz in this town. He would paint the predecessors of jazz, influenced by the hazy dens of mid-century industrial weekends, and the fervor and lust for something new and exciting, something real and full of soul, a new religion to latch onto, hope: it would break the paradigm of the local music history doldrums. It would have to wait, of course, as yet another crummy sports deadline loomed before the weekend. But he simply smiled at her praise and rebanished the banal coach. “Well, I expect good things from it, anyway. I’ve got chapters into a few of the major houses,” he added, failing to mention that cold-mailing a manuscript to a publishing house did not mean burning interest on behalf of anyone.
“Well, I think that’s wonderful. I mean, good for you for going for it. I bet it’s great.” She flashed him a warming smile, bright and light and personal against the grey and blue backdrop of the cold, empty town in the night.
He took it. And took her elbow, one more time, steering her towards a building front. The warm, bathing yellow light spilled out on the stoop of the early century edifice which had once been a warehouse; on one side of the secondary door a red velvet rope stretched with a well-heeled line of about fifty waiting beside it, trailing down the block, all looking cold and dreary as Cole led her straight to the high counter where the posh, snobby young woman dressed in sleek black checked IDs, tickets, approved or disapproved with the assistance of the silent beefcake next to her.
Cole flashed her his all-wins, charmingest smile, but did not feel her cold disdain subside. “Josh put me on the list.”
She only had to glance at the printed page in front of her before the haughty look down her nose suddenly turned into a warm, friendly, seductive smile, despite the fact that he, in jeans and sweater, was clearly underdressed for the establishment. The beefcake opened the heavy, thick wooden door, welcoming, beckoning them into the inner sanctum, the hallowed hall of music in the town.
The infinitesimal, intimate space didn’t seem significant enough to be the sacred place of music, the high cathedral of the religion, but looks were deceiving; there’d been nothing but worship since the place had first swung open its doors in the twenties, the tiny room carved out of the warehouse by an owner who was side-stepping Prohibition: it was the modest chapel of a castle with the most reverent patrons. The close walls barely afforded room for the small stage, to say nothing of the smaller wooden dance floor up front. The club was brought closer by the deep, rich folds of dark red velvet hangings on the walls, blocking out all light except from the stage and the glow of intentionally inviting soft lights from the ceiling and the flicker of candles on the small tables near the dance floor, lighting that whispered to confess your sins, be cleansed anew in the music. Attractive women in slender blacks smoothly walked from table to table, only discernable from patrons by their long black aprons and the occasional drink they carried, adding to the tension and the constant movement in the crowd, the nodding of heads to the beat, the sway of clinging bodies on the dance floor, the cry of approval at an exquisitely turned phrase. The air fell warm and moist on their faces, laced with tinges of alcohol, sweat and, faintly, the sweet cloying scent of cannabis, and the slow, sexy moans of the saxophone enveloped them all, drew them in, told them to stay, drink, listen, be saved.
Cole leaned closer. “Thelonious Monk,” he whispered close to her ear, making her jump, then smile at him, flushed.
“Let’s sit down.” He waited for her to check her bag at the coat check, then guided her to two tall stools opposite the stage with a good view and the velvet to their backs.
“A chilled Tuaca seems perfect right now,” she mused, crossing her legs and playing with an earring.
He said nothing about her abominable choice of drink, though he wanted to, and hooked his ankle around a cross bar and signaled a passing waitress, ordering a Glenfiddich for himself and a Tuaca on the rocks for her, only commenting, as the waitress left, “Sweet.”
The slow song closed languidly, and as the room erupted in cheers far more passionate than those at the political rally, she leaned in and asked, “Which one is your friend?”
He turned, finding her face closer and smiling warmly into it. “The sax player.” They both faced the black man with extraordinary dreadlocks. “We were roommates in college. He said that he had come here from the old country…where his family had been herders for centuries.”
She looked fascinated. “Which old country?”
He snorted. “Probably New Jersey. That man has never been any closer to sheep than I have. He may be a creative pathological liar, but he knows his way around a Coltrane.”
Which was what the pathological liar was announcing as their next song just when Cole said it. He was pleased and excited as the band threw themselves headlong into something fast, furious, and hot; the crowd gave a collective shout, and Becca threw her head back in a silent laugh, pleased, thrilled, energized. The pathological liar had introduced Cole to the Way of jazz so many years ago; if Cole had a spiritual leader, this was as close as it got.
“Are you from here, then?” Becca called to him over the strains.
He grinned. “Born and raised. This is my town.”
“I can tell,” she answered, but did not elaborate.
Near the end of the piano solo, he flagged down the waitress again, gesturing for refills. When they arrived it was the end of the song, a flaunting and livid coda that lasted too long for his liking. But Becca yelled uncouthly in good cheer like everyone else and applauded with one hand on her thigh when the pathological liar finally made a jabbing motion that cut the sound like a raw, rough hemp rope. While he told the crowd that they were off for a twenty-minute break, don’t go anywhere, feel the groove, Cole leaned closer to Becca while patting his breast pocket. “Do you mind if I go have a smoke?”
“No, go ahead,” she urged, “I’ll hold our seats.” As he smiled, starting off his perch, she flashed him a fierce, unabashedly enamored grin: a convert to the faith of Rollie Trippiano’s. “Thanks for bringing me here. Really.”
He grinned back with a different grin, surprised, happy, delighted, and said, “Anytime.” And meant it.
She watched his back as he wove his way to the door, the crowd here both more personal and open, shoulders brushing, skirts breezing, leaning across tables to each other and laughing, the red glow making strangers into intimates, a flash of hot, passionate life in a dead city. She’d had nothing like this since she’d moved, no connection, no friends, no places to belong, but suddenly she felt in motion with the place for the first time, with the town and the red room and the velvet glow and the laughing faces, though they weren’t paying attention to her, and with the man just outside smoking a roll-up. She glanced towards the closed door and thought of him, and when the beefcake opened it she could see him for a brief moment, his back to the building, phone to ear, elbow wide, gesticulating madly with his cigarette hand. Then the door shut and he was gone. Two minutes later when the plank opened again he was no longer on the phone, in profile, cigarette to lips, eyebrows pursed, looking blankly into the dark distance that she couldn’t see.
By the time he returned the band was entering for the second set and she was sedately sipping her dessert on the rocks. His face was closed as the band launched into their first song, a fast, genial Cannonball Adderley that he could have told her about if she’d asked, but his face did not warrant any immediately unnecessary conversation. She put a hand on his knee. “You ok?”
He looked up, surprised; she had interrupted the running dialogue in his head, or the dialogue as it should have been, but his face relaxed at the sight of her. “Sure. Sorry, I had to get out of a previous engagement to stay longer with you. It took me longer than I expected, so you have to forgive me.” He could feel his face melting into relaxation, his thoughts simmering at low-level but simmering nonetheless, and he covered her hand with his own, squeezed it, and playfully kissed it shortly but softly before releasing it, and it fluttered back to her own thigh as she blushed again – or maybe it was that red light – and looked towards the band.
When the pathological liar welcomed them back from the set break, Cole turned to her and spoke low in her ear. “Do you live around here?” He noticed her delicate silver earring dangling from her lobe, bouncing as she turned her head slightly and tucked that same hair behind her ear, her perfect ear that felt his breath and caused a chill through the delicate skin of her neck.
“Close by, I think.”
“What’s your address?”
When she told him without hesitation he smiled. “You’re only two blocks away, you know.”
She turned to him fully, delighted. “Really? I’ll come here all the time, then. I love it.”
“I’m glad. We can meet here for drinks, you know. I’m here a lot.”
“We’ll have to do that,” she answered softly, casting him a shy, inviting look.
The band struck up a slow tune he knew well; he placed his hand on her arm. “Want to dance?”
She looked up at him, enchanted, captivated by the breathing music, the smoky warmth, the red hue, him. “I’d love to.” She took his outstretched hand, her own burning, and he led her to the tiny dance floor between the tight tables.
He pulled her close, perfectly close for the small room, the tiny dance floor. The pathological liar wove a mournful wail feeling deep and guttural and more like a dirty blues than jazz and they were enclosed, encased, her forehead near his neck, his nose buried in her hair, which smelled like mangoes from only millimeters away. He could sense the warmth of her body, hear the rustle of her skirt, feel the nervous movement in her throat as she swallowed, her own breath shallow and sweet from the liquor and tickling at the base of his throat; he could just barely catch the scent without moving but he looked down a little bit anyway, dropping his cheek against her forehead as she leaned into him, feeling her length through thick and awkward autumnal layers of clothing: beneath it all was their rosy skin, flushed and damp with sweat in the close space, vibrating with the hum of the music, the nearness of each other. He felt it. He knew she did too.
When the song was over they merely stood for a moment, still close, the crowd appreciating the music, their bodies feeling vibrant and humming with each other. He clung to the small of her back; his needful hand stretched to take her in as much as he could, his thumb feeling her bra strap, his little finger resting just above the curve of her, only a fingertip away from inappropriate but still resting on the side of right. As his hand spread just slightly he heard her sigh, a small sigh, a giving sigh, and for just a moment she held on to him, her only connection, her only reality, a union consecrated in the hallowed hall.
She kept his hand, as she had for the whole two blocks to her apartment building, when she turned to say goodnight and retrieve her bag from him.
“See?” he chided, gently, handing over the shoulder bag. “I didn’t run away with your scores. You should be more trusting.”
“I guess I should,” she answered, laughing, the sound dancing through the otherwise silent, cold air of the fall night.
“I’ll know better next time I see you.” “Then you should give me your number so I can call you.”
“Here, let me write it down.” She fumbled in her bag, but he simply pulled out his phone.
“Go ahead,” he encouraged, and as she haltingly recited her new and unfamiliar number he typed it in, committing it to memory.
“We should do this again sometime,” she advanced, her eyes wide and whole and curious as they searched his.
But she found nothing at fault; Cole smiled again, and the smile lit up through his eyes. “Definitely. We have jazz, right?”
“Of course.” The moment hung long and weighted, fraught with suggestion and memory, and when Cole thought he’d gauged the moment just so, he leaned close, slowly, taking in her eyes as they drooped shut, her mouth as it came slightly open, and as he breathed the scent of her again she swerved at the last minute, placing his lips against the base of her jaw, almost on her ear. His kiss landed confidently, firmly, gently, lightly. “See you soon,” he whispered, his breath brushing her skin as seductively as his lips had the moment before.
He swallowed hard and watched her up the stairs, fumbling with her keys, her eyes aglow and hazy. He was pleased to note her turn just before the door shut behind her, looking for him and at him, and waving her fingers in a goodbye, a promise.
Cole smiled as he started towards his own building.
He shut his apartment door softly behind him but the cat still heard, padding up on careful feet and lunging its front paws up to Cole’s knees. He absently rubbed the top of its head and the cat gave back a silent meow, mouth opening but without sound, before swishing off with a brush of its bushy tail.
The bedside lamp was on, even though he’d told her a million times he didn’t need it, and he could see her form under the covers though only a spill of blonde hair was visible beyond the quilt. He undressed, tossing his crumpled clothes at the foot of the bed, turned off the lamp, and climbed into bed. Still asleep, she moved to curl around him.
© 2008 Kate Weikert and Mark Flatt
Filed under: 2008 Submissions |