Monday, March 31, 2014

Frozen Music, the Choral Novel, Chapter Fifteen: The Famed Awahnee

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Listen carefully. The land traversed by the water was filled with rolling hills and shallow valleys. But the two great bodies pressed against one another and lifted the hills into mountains. The water ran faster, cutting the valleys into canyons. The land fell from the sides of the canyons and exposed the rock underneath, great domes and walls of granite. The land grew chill, and glaciers came from the north. The glaciers carved the sides of the canyon, splitting the great domes and turning the canyon walls into sheer cliffs festooned with hanging waterfalls.

I was living in the Santa Clara Valley. Nancy had left her husband’s trailer and moved to a friend’s cabin deep in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The point between us was Castle Rock State Park, a hilltop spread of dry chaparral, oaks and great clusters of exposed rock. On weekends the place was people by rock climbers, scrambling freehand up the boulders, rappelling down the larger faces.

We met in a dirt lot just off Skyline Boulevard and hiked downhill into redwoods and ferns, our packs filled with bread, cheese and wine. We stopped at a spread of green grass to eat and watch the birds. After a while, we hiked to a wedge of sandstone looking out on the deep cut of Big Basin Redwoods Park.

“I’m going to give him another chance,” she said, brushing back her hair. “I’ve been with the poor bozo half my life. I can’t just leave without giving him one last try. He said he’d give up the marijuana. He said he would see a counselor with me.”

“You’re right,” I said. “If you don’t give him a chance, you’ll always wonder.”

“You don’t mind?” Nancy asked.

“It’s not my place to mind. He’s your husband. I’m just the guy you have great sex with.”

She laughed and lay back like a lizard against the sun-warmed rock, picking up her eyes in that peculiar languid fashion. “You’ve been great, Michael. You’ve taken me all those places I wanted to go. Have I been good for you? Have I helped you forget her?”

“I think I’m ready. I think I’m really ready. I’ll never forget our Christmas.”

“I wouldn’t think you would, you dirty so-and-so.”

“Or that card you sent me. Or your roommate’s three-legged cat.”

We balanced a smiled between us. The wine was having its effect.

“Come on,” I said, leaping back onto the trail. “Let’s see what else we have to see.”

By the time we rounded the hillside, we were down to a snail’s pace, stopping every three minutes to kiss. It reminded me of our first date, when I had to slow her down a little bit, to enjoy the smallnesses as well as the prolonged attacks. I held her atop a spread of bare dirt, feeling her breasts though her T-shirt. We stumbled past a throng of mythic extreme sportsmen, dumping themselves over the rocksides in neon clothing. As we walked out of earshot, I told her we were just going to have to find a private spot in the woods.

As fantasies sometimes do, this one regressed from a nasty idea to an awkward quest to a wish to just have done with it. We kept spotting hideaways but shying back, afraid of passersby. Finally I led her up a steep deer path to a clearing shaded by oaks. We left on our shirts and shoes but took off the rest, using our shorts as blankets. By this time, Nancy was feeling anxious. I picked up on her tension and kicked things into high gear, coming quickly. She was surprised, but I wasn’t. I had places to go.

I am driving Highway 120 near Modesto, headed east to the great shrine of the Yosemite, because that’s where this car is taking me. The Cowboy Junkies are on the stereo, a song called “Escape is so Simple.” I hope so.

I woke up this morning in a Silicon Valley cornfield, coated over by a dull headache and several bruises to my side and legs – and next to me, sheathed in the sequins of a butterfly, a beautiful, half-naked woman. I was not ready for this; I had not ben properly prepared. I found my jacket hanging from a cornstalk, ripped along the sleeve, covered with dust. I used it to cover up my companion, then stepped quietly down the row and up the street to my car.

I entered my studio in a panic. Soon Amy Fine would wake up. Soon Amy Fine would call to ask what the hell I was doing, or call someone else and ask them what the hell they thought Michael Moss was doing. The only thing that could save me now was to drastically alter my location. But how?

I pulled my wallet out of my pocket and tossed it on the dresser. It clanked against my jewelry box and flipped open, coughing up its shiny underside of photographs, driver’s license and the holographic image of a bald eagle. There it was – my invitation, an untested rectangle of plastic. The eagle spoke to me. It told me to Get Lost.

And so now I am covering the Big Valley, the endless straight shots of farm country turning into the rolling dodge lines of the Sierra foothills, then it escalates into mountains, snow-tipped almost into June. I pass a sign reading You Are Now Entering Yosemite National Park and begin scanning the roadsides. A brown sign with ranger yellow lettering announces Merced Grove – two letters from Mercy. The asphalt stews into rough dirt. The land grows darker as I ramble forward. The sequoias shoot from the earth like skyscrapers.

In sixth grade, I bought a tree at the hardware store and planted it at the corner of our yard. My parents seemed amused at this strange initiative, and said nothing. Over the years, I watched it grow, weird and convoluted, branches winding around with no sense. A silk oak. It was crazy, but I loved that tree.

The road ends at a gate – No Cars Beyond This Point, Merced Grove Trail, 1.2 miles. The trail breaks out of the woods and into a hot field of grass. The sweat beads up on my forehead. The woods eventually come back, bringing me into a cool twilight. A Steller’s jay squawks and buzzes my head. He jumps back across the trail and looks back at me, daring me to follow. So I do. But not for long, because there in my sights is the sequoia of my dreams, bathed in crisscross shafts of light.

I come to its wide, wide trunk, reach into my brown bag and pull out the stained-glass rainbow of a dragon tail. A dragon kite tail. I latch the end over a low stub and circle the trunk, wrapping as I go. It lasts two turns, and then I hitch the kite around a low limb. Perhaps someone will find it here and give it a spontaneous flight.

On the way back, I think, This is something – but this is not it. This might take a while.

The anticipation driving into the great valley of the Yosemite is a killer. You find yourself next to the boulder-strewn Merced River, then you’re off on a turnout eyeing the granite lighthouse of Half Dome, and next thing you know you’re standing in a meadow, straining your neck at the white waterlace of Bridalveil Falls and, just across the street, the big shoulder of El Capitan.

I drive past the wide meadows, the jam of weekenders going the other direction, and watch spire after spire come and go on either side. The logical endpoint would be the visitors’ center, but this trip is hardly about official recommendations. A friend of mine who is a Yosemite buff – note-taker, map collector, postcard sender – told me once that you have to make reservations at least a year in advance to get into the acclaimed Awahnee Hotel. So that is where I go.

The famed Awahnee sits like a scared but proud child at the bottom of a humongous pile of deathly granite, waiting for the right moment to be sledge-hammered back into its weak man-made history. I take my day’s growth of beard, dirt-stained tennis shorts, and grubby Oakland A’s T-shirt and parade them into the rustic yet elegant lobby of the esteemed Awahnee. After losing myself in the soundly official hubbub, I gravitate to a friendly-looking young woman at the registration desk.

“I’d like to stay tonight,” I announce.

She looks at me in consternation. Should I give him the party line first? Yes, I will give him the party line.

“You know, usually you should make a point of making your reservations at least a year in advance. The Awahnee is much in demand, and we wouldn’t want you to get stuck here this late without a place to stay.”

“So is there a room?”

She shrugs me off and turns to a drawer full of little index cards, flips through them, looks at one, flips past, finds another, and pulls it out. She sets it on the counter and etches a little mark on the side.

“Yes,” she says. “We have one on the meadow side. But it’s a suite with a queen-sized bed. Rather expensive, I’m afraid.”

“How much?” I ask.

“Three hundred,” she answers, firmly, as if to say, Don’t fuck with the esteemed Awahnee.

I grip my wallet so as not to shriek. This impulse buying takes practice. But the bald eagle on my virgin card calls out to me: Do it. You know you want it, why not buy it? I’m your friend. I give you power.

“I’ll take it.”

The friendly desk clerk checks another mark on the index card, returns it to its file, takes my credit card, and eventually hands me my key on a round of plastic.

“Your room is on the second floor, to the far side of the hotel. Dinner is served from six to nine in the main dining room.”

“Thank you,” I say.

“Enjoy your stay,” she says, and smiles. Ah, I am accepted. I am one with the historic Awahnee. I will steal a towel and as much hotel stationery as I can lay my hands on.

I eat the largest piece of beef I have ever seen for dinner, and I work off the extra tonnage wandering back through the rustic cottages behind the hotel. I circle around to the meadow side, past the lobby where some traveling opera singers are entertaining the guests. When I reach the far side, I look up through the gloaming, the cloaked silhouette of Half Dome, and I hear a scurrying above me.

I raise my eyes to find something racing through the pines and toward the hotel, slithering through the sky not quite like a bird but something more irascible. A bat! I look a little harder and spot three of them, gridlining their lumpy little figures over the darkening frame of the sky. Then I remember something a friend told me. If you throw a pebble into the flight of these little devils, they will attack them as if they were insects. You can play catch with bats!

I scratch around at my feet and find a few pebbles, then stand there waiting with a chunk in my hand. I catch the path of one of the winged rats screaming by through the light from a lamppost. Before it comes overhead, I flick the rock into the air. He veers on a dime, the rock vanishes from the sky and you can almost imagine the first bite: crunch! what the hell? fuckin’ tourists!

Two more come screeching across my ceiling. I roll two pebbles into my hand and squirt them upward, watching the bats veer off and almost hit each other in their eagerness to collect their foodstamps. One of them misses, the other catches his rock and deposits it elsewhere. Just over Glacier Point, next to the tall dark stranger of Sentinel Dome, a little more than a half moon peeks out at my nocturnal gaming. I allow the light to burn into my retina, then shake the sliver into a red line as I turn back and ready the bait for my next flying idiot.

Rocks. Bats. This fits, I thought. This is a start.

Photo by MJV . (See video version at YouTube.)

Frozen Music Re-Released by Dragonfly Press

Inspired by some unexpected feedback from long-time readers, I decided to rewrite my 1994 choral novel, Frozen Music, a few months ago, for a possible re-release on Amazon Kindle. As you may have noticed, I've been posting the chapters here on Operaville. The folks at Dragonfly Press, an award-winning publisher in California's Gold Country, read a few of the installments and decided that they wanted to publish it, first as a Kindle e-book and later in print form. I'm pleased to announce that the Kindle version went on line today at

Following are the synopses and bio info that you'll find there:

The more Michael Moss refuses to watch his conductor, Amy Fine, the more she becomes determined to make him watch. The ensuing battle of wills - and his curious flare for public soakings - threatens to pull Michael out of the deep freeze, and force him to exorcise Stacy Wilkes, the tempestuous alcoholic who turned his heart to stone. A 20th anniversary edition of the classic novel by the author of Gabriella's Voice and Operaville.

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of six published novels, a thirty-year opera critic, and drummer for the San Francisco rock band Exit Wonderland. As a tenor in San Jose State's concert choir, he performed all of the pieces featured in Frozen Music.

Based in Columbia, California, Dragonfly Press is the publisher of fine poetry, prose, and the award-winning literary journal The Montserrat Review.

Photo by MJV

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Frozen Music, Chapter Fourteen: The Big Night

Note: This novel will soon be released in a 20th anniversary edition by Dragonfly Press.


Allegro moderato maestoso

It was the first week of the new year. Nancy and I sat in the balcony of the Catalyst in Santa Cruz, watching David Lindley and El Rayo X, a wild Tex-Mex band. Nancy was scratching a fingernail along my thigh, peering over the rail, completely distracted.

“What’s the matter?” I said. “See a ghost?”

She looked harder, then held a hand over her eyes. “Omigod. It’s him. He’s here.”

Easy to guess who he was. I had carried this thought around all month: I am fooling around with another man’s wife.

“Where is he? Is he coming up here?”

She looked again. “No. I think he’s just waiting. But he looks like he knows I’m here.”

From what I’d heard about hubby, this was typical. I almost wished he’d come up. Something about being the spoiler in this little soap opera appealed to me; there was power there. But I knew it wasn’t the way Nancy would want it. She took a sip from her margarita, considering her next step.

“I’ll go down and talk to him,” she said. “You stay here.”

“Are you sure? Are you gonna be okay?”

“I’ll be fine. Mark’s a pussycat. A screwed-up, worthless pussycat.”

I sat back and tried to enjoy the band. The guitarist ventured out on a solo, kneeling at the front of the stage. Nancy returned a few minutes later, visibly shaken.

“I’m so embarrassed.” She laughed nervously, then put on a French accent. “She eez a wonton woo-mawn, out een zee cloobs with her jhee-goh-loh. Zen zee jealous huzzbawnd walks een. Merde! It eez zee beeg-time truh-buhl.”

I tried not to laugh too hard. “Hey, it’s okay. What do you want to do?”

She let out a nervous sigh. “I want to wait fifteen minutes, then I want to get the hell out of here. Then I want to go home. I… can’t sleep with you tonight, Michael. It’d feel too weird right now.”

“I understand. I feel a little weird myself.”

I was tearing into my filing work when somebody tapped me on the shoulder.

“Michael, can I see you a moment? Let’s go into Mr. Cunningham’s office. He’s out sick today.”

This was my boss, but I had a hard time remembering her name. Roseanne? Rochelle? I played it safe and called her Miz Cater, slurring the Z because I couldn’t remember if she was married or not.

“Please sit down.”

Mizzz Cater seemed pretty agreeable. But hey, I was just happy to have work – I’d almost caught up with my bills. She sat on Mr. Cunningham’s desk while I settled onto a chair.

“I’ve been pleased with your work this month, Michael. You show a high aptitude for the tasks we’ve given you. You’ve been especially helpful in cleaning out your filing system, and in doing so you’ve shown a great deal of initiative and perseverance.”

You could find no better indication of my mental state that I took this as a preamble to terminating my employment. Just another boulder in the avalanche.

“Well anyway,” said Roxy, “what I’m getting around to is – we’d like to hire you permanently, full-time. We can’t start you too high due to the inconsistencies in your recent work history, but you would get health benefits. Also, and this should give you a good indication of what we think of your work, I will be spending a goodly sum buying your contract away from the temp agency.”

Roxy perched higher on the desk and crossed her legs. “So. What do you think? Will you stay on?”

I was so unfamiliar with good news that I didn’t know what to say. I felt like kissing her.

“Umm… Ungghk!” (I had to clear my throat.) “Um, yes! I’d like to work here. It’s… why, yes.”

Roxy rubbed her hands together. “Great! I’ll have the paperwork ready for you by the end of the week, and you’ll be official by Wednesday. Oh, and I’ll have some new responsibilities for you, too. I think you’ll enjoy the challenge.”

Roxy gave my shoulder a little rub as she walked out of the office, a motion of reassurance, but she had already done more to reassure me than anyone or anything in a long time. Nothing speaks so clearly to the soul as cold, hard cash. Our little conference ended right before closing time, so I went to my tiny corner desk to fetch my jacket and switch off my lights. I took the elevator to the ground floor, stepped out the front doors and took in a lungful of fresh air.

This morning, after she shower, I toweled myself off and I was dry, but for how long I did not know. Women would come and throw water on me. It was my destiny. I might have lost my job last night. It probably depended on how drunk Roxy Cater was, but I knew that dozens of others would remind her of the details. I tried to console myself with my Saturday ritual: a bona fide cooked breakfast of sausage and eggs, a load of laundry, and then, after the shift to the dryer, a walk to the community center.

I crossed the street in front of an impatient-looking cab and, in my hurry to get to the curb, landed sideways and rolled my ankle. I hopped over the sidewalk in pain and fell on the grass. In a couple minutes, the pain subsided, and I limped past my kite-sculpture to look out on an empty pond.

What?! Water everywhere but here? My former illusion of lake held nothing but a plain of off-white concrete. I padded downhill until I could read the sign: THIS POND DRAINED TO FACILITATE SUMMER DROUGHT CONDITIONS. WE APOLOGIZE FOR THE INCONVENIENCE.

Bloody hell! I sat on the rim of the pond and gave the park a good scan: buildings, elm trees, a group of kids with a whiffle ball – and Bachelor Ducks! Confused as an elephant in a subway, but there they were. They milled around the large oak, quacking and squawking, obviously confused. The big black ugly one with the albino bill scouted out what used to be the edge of the water, took a look around and, in a moment of admirable executive decision-making, raised his wings and took off. The rest of them reared up their webbed feet behind him, and soon they were shooting down the length of their former home, off over the car dealerships. I was on my own.

I had no idea what fate St. Joseph’s held for me that night. Once Amy Fine trained those deadly hazel eyes on me and told me to sing, I would not be the same. With all its rhythms, its give and take, its dependence on breathing and the diaphragm, on sounds so close to ecstatic moaning, singing is too much like sex. It should never be done in public.

“Tonight,” said Mr. Stutz, “I want to be an organist. I want each of you to be a key, and I want to play you with my fingers.”

Am I right?

“I’d like to warm you up tonight by running through the entrances to each movement of the works.” Uh-oh. More accents. “This is not to check parts, this is simply to get into the flow of things, to know where we are all headed together. I want you to sing only loud enough that it’s comfortable. Don’t strain yourself.

“But before we do that, I want you to look around at this place, this incredible meeting of art and architecture. I want you do this place proud, and to sing beautifully, and to give this audience an evening they will not forget. Go ahead, I’ll shut my trap, look around.”

My gaze went to the ceiling and arches, the stained glass and statuary. Even without a congregation, the cathedral has hundreds of people in it. Between the evangelists on the corners of the cupola are other saints, performing religious-looking, beatific acts: St. Lucas, St. Joan, St. Francis (with the requisite animals), St. Ignatius. Each is attended by devout-looking young followers, holding the edges of their master’s robes, assisting in prayer. Altars to Jesus and Mary stand at left and right, little Italian marbles bracketed by deep rectangles of stained glass.

Behind me is King Jesus, thirty feet high, sitting on a throne, looking happy and glorious, a parade of saints, popes and bankers on either side, lesser people, commoners, congressional pages and children fading off behind. I look down and discover more paintings chronicling the voyage to the cross: Jesus is Taken from the Tomb, Jesus Falls for the Third Time, Jesus Stripped of his Garments. The Catholics had this thing covered better than the Super Bowl.

“A last word,” said Mr. Stutz. He set his baton on the podium and flexed his fingers. “You will spend very little of your time here on Earth listening to the sound of applause. Taken to its basics, it’s a rather strange idea, whacking your appendages together to show appreciation. But it represents affirmation, an audible stream of praise. Eat it up! And smile, try to look like you’re enjoying yourself. I have seen many too many stone-faced choirs in my life.”

He picked up his baton, important part over.

“Now, when we bow, I want you to follow my motion downward, and when you reach bottom, I want you to whisper the words tutti vivace and then come back up. Watch me.”

He cut us off as if we were at the end of a piece, then turned and bowed to the audience. Then he smiled in our direction, held out an arm and, in a grand sweep, invited us to face the floor. You could hear the choir whisper tutti vivace (“everyone, lively”), and we came back up as one. Mr. Stutz beamed.

“Great! Now, let’s get down to our entrances. Bring out your Chichester…”

We had an hour between the warm-up and the concert; I had to be as alone as possible. I descended the front steps and followed Market Avenue south, and stopped at a little Italian restaurant, Vendini’s. I ordered a Coke and sat on the balcony, which afforded a splendid view of the church. I sat there and watched the early arrivers: suits and floral ties, evening gowns, sweater vests, skirts, trickling in couple by couple.

I got through the warm-up just fine. Amy was up there for ten minutes. I looked straight at her the whole time and none of my internal organs blew up. I sang rather well. Who knew, this could be a whole new thing, maybe I’ll be just fine. I checked my watch and headed out, but before I left I saw a photograph on the wall, an ornate German-looking cathedral. The artist’s note read St. Martin’s Church, Salzburg, Austria (birthplace of Mozart).

For some reason, I remember very little from the first half. I had the honor of leading the choir onto the risers (no biggie, just the result of my odd placement). The only problem I noticed were the sustained notes in the Bernstein, written in 10/4. What I most remembered was the final Allelujah! of the Te Deum, left to stand there breathing hard while the orchestra finished up, an eighth note/eighth note, full, hold it, bring it up, let it go, bow off the string, strike the timpani, cut! And that tiny nickel of silence as 500 people waited for the conductor to lower his baton. The applause rained down. I recalled Mr. Stutz’s words and smiled, then followed everyone into our tutti vivace bow.

We filed off the stage and out the back of the church, me last, and headed for the rehearsal hall, a brand-new addition with trendy wallpaper and a shiny baby grand. The Mozart soloists were warming up, ringing out their superior voices while the rest of us gathered in our seats. If you ever need an evening of cheap entertainment, I highly recommend halftime backstage at a choir concert. The energy of the pieces just sung, the piece yet to come, roils everybody right up.

The rookie tenor with the Alfalfa haircut does some impromptu tap-dancing with a theater major soprano. The hipster quartet from the jazz department sits in the corner and works a doo-wop, Charlie the bass boom-bah-booming like he could lay down the stripe all night. The soprano section is one big stock exchange of yammer and faux opera – LAAAAAAA! – did you hear this and did you see that and do you think we ought to… And of course, our personal vaudeville act, Frank and Frederick, on the baby grand, playing the theme to All in the Family, the castrated female goat and the five-pint Irish baritone.

I find only one non-performer, alone in the corner, his feet up on a chair, writing something on the copyright page of his Mozart.

“Hi Alex.”

Alex finished a line and looked up.

“Mr. Moss. Sir.”

“Can we ix-nay the sir stuff?”

“Sure. Something different?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Me.”


I scratched the back of my head. “Yeah.”

“About singing?”

“About Amy.”

Alex swiveled his feet to the ground. “You have to watch her, you know.”

“Yeah. I know.”

“It’s blasphemy not to. You’re a good singer that way. You’ve got rules.”

“Yeah. I just hope I’m all right.”

“You will be. Do you love her?”

His bluntness surprised me. I changed the subject, and Alex didn’t fight me. “What’re you writing?”

“Poem,” he said.

“Your wife?”

“I should hope so,” he laughed. “I have my rules, too.”

“That’s nice, Alex. Hey, let’s knock ‘em dead with this fucking Mozart, okay?”

“Yeah.” He smiled. “Let’s do that.”

By this time, intermission was over and we had to wait for the madrigal group to finish its fifteen-minute set. After a stern warning from the choir president, the singers backstage were down to a dull roar. A minute later, we filed behind the sacristy, the choir lined up behind us all the way back to the rehearsal hall. The madrigals were finishing up a delicate Byrd motet, accompanied by hand chimes and a small drum. The final chime rang out and the applause began. I waited for the stage manager to cue me in. Some of the madrigal singers stayed in their spots as we filed in around them. My eyes drifted to the brass section, specifically the odd, reverse-plunger stands they use for their instruments.

I’ll be okay. I’ll be okay.

I looked out on the audience, and they broke into a golf-clap. That would be Amy, coming in with the soloists. I slanted my eyes to the right, picking up the singers: short, stumpy tenor and tall, thin bass in white bow ties; soprano in royal blue, the alto blood red and dazzling. All four were masters candidates from San Jose State.

And then… Amy. She strode up the steps and bowed devotedly – thank you, your gracious servant. She wore a conservative skirt of black velvet and above that a monarch butterfly, splashed across the back of her blouse in sequined rows of gold, black and orange, its wings extended to her sleeves. When Amy began to conduct, the monarch would fly.

She turned to greet us with a small smile, then picked up her baton, checked her score and lifted it to starting position. From there, it all began.

Her hands are separate from her body, doves flying in loops, the creatures meet at the middle and divide, one hand portioning out the beat as the other dances in scoops of half-moon, sculpting the air, softer, softer, down to the grassland chirps of piano. Until the chord change, a minor third pulled from the air, teased forth from the strings.

Her eyes brighten and flash as she leans across and coaxes us into a waltz. She breaks into two on the maestoso, the pit for the pendulum. Calm, strong, but when the time is right she will light a fire at our feet, the opening strikes of a fugue that whirls around the church and carries us higher. I am drilled in on Amy’s eyes and simultaneously aloft, hovering in the grottos of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, pitching my song to the cherubim and back to the choir loft.

By the end of the piece I am near death, of one sort or another. I close my eyes and let the applause settle me back down, then watch as Amy Fine follows the soloists up the steps for her bows, a bouquet of red roses from the usher, and then she turns and sweeps us into our chant: tutti vivace.

Then she is gone. And they are gone. I stand in a square of lawn behind St. Joseph’s and stare at Orion’s Belt. I feel a hand on my shoulder. It’s Alex.

“You all right?”

“I’m incredibly all right. Would you believe?”

“You learned something.”

“Yeah. I did.”

He smiles. Twice in one night. He looks good smiling.

“Come on,” he says. “We’re going to a party.”

For a post-concert party, simply take the energy of a backstage intermission and draw it out over four or five hours. Paula Meyer’s house was packed with glowing, smiley-faced creatures from some Mount Olympus where the natives wear used tuxedos and black gowns. Frederick grabbed Frank by the neck and threatened to throw him into the fireplace.

“I’ll be sendin’ ya down to a fiery hell, I will. The river Styx, boy, whattya say? Ya gonna put that horz-dee-orves down or ya gonna roast for all eternity?”

Frank flapped his arms like a trapped bird. “All right!  You can have the damn pizza roll!”

The choir lecher, Steve Gilbert, had poor Rosy Oakland leaned up against a wall in the hallway. Rosy was barely out of high school and naïve even for her age.

“The marines, huh? Wow, was that dangerous?”

A boy-girl-boy-girl quartet was strewn across the couch, playing some Babylonian form of hand jive against their knees, growing in complexity until they inevitably burst into laughter and collapsed into the cushions.

The kitchen was one big roly-poly, a mob so tight you had to crowbar your way through – but crowbar I did, because these fine people stood between me and a punch bowl that I hoped for God’s sake was spiked. I broke into an Australian crawl, popped out of the undergrowth and looked back to see Amy, in the her butterfly top, holding a carrot stick like a cigar. Tonight she is a celebrity, surrounded by well-wishers and hangers-on.

I ladled a full cup, chugged it down and ladled another. I detected rum. A pair of hands reached around my face and fluttered over my chin, scent of wisteria, nails polished white. I turned and she was there. I stood stock-still, watching her hands, waiting for a downbeat.

“Hi.” She flicked a finger in a C motion across her bangs. Pink marble. Chestnut hair. Salzburg.

“Hi,” I replied.

“You have beautiful blue eyes, Michael Moss. I’m glad you decided to use them tonight.”


“I don’t think you looked down once. You knew that piece almost by heart.”

My face was feeling very warm. I stared into my punch glass.

“I’m so sorry,” I said. “If I had known… You were terrific. And that blouse…” I ran my hand down her back, ticking my nails across the sequins. She shuddered. Did I do that? She broke into laughter

“I’m so sorry, I…dunked you. I hope it wasn’t too bad.”

I extended a hand. “Let’s call it even. Amy the Baptist.”

She took my hand, pulled me closer and gave me a kiss on the lips.

“You are a sweetheart, Michael. And sometimes I’m a little too… passionate.”

We were close to something awfully nice when Frederick and Frank began their expected riot in the living room. Frank perched high on Frederick’s shoulders and spoke like Chico Marx. “Ey! Ev-ah-ree-body! We’s a gonna have a game a tag inna da cornfield!”

Flashes of black and white streamed out the front door. I looked at Amy. Her eyes grew wide.

“You want to?” she asked.

I chugged the last of my punch and felt the tingle of booze-burn. “You betcha,” I said, and took her hand.

Paula’s house lay in the middle of a standard sixties tract, but between her house and the expressway stood the city’s major anachronism, a five-acre square of cornfield. Developers had been bidding on the thing for years, hoping to turn it into condominiums, but the owners, an old Portuguese family, kept fighting them off, content to sell their wares at a roadside stand called the Corn Palace.

For our purposes, we headed for the tallest section, about six feet high. Amy and I started next to the southwest corner and hesitated.

“Let’s break up!” she said. “I’ll find you later.”

“Okay,” I said, and she was gone. Jeez, I thought. Five minutes and we’re breaking up already.


I thought that came from me, but it was Chester and Johnson, fighting over who was “it” in their particular game. Johnson loosened his bowtie.

“Come on! Let’s have some goddamn rules here.”

“Hey, don’t swear,” said Johnson. “Julie’s out here. You know how she feels about that.”

“Julie can kiss my…”

“Hey guys,” I broke in. “New game – I’ll be it.”

Chester laughed. “You got it, bay-bay!” He high-stepped down the row, ducking under the larger ears. Johnson squeezed between a pair of stalks and was gone.

I let them get a head start then ran all the way down, thinking Chester would be the slower of the two. Through my quickening breath I could hear shouts and laughter in the air, a whole crop of spring loonies just begging for trespassing citations. Fuck it, I thought. Fuck it all. This is fun. Isn’t this fun?

I slowed up at the end of the row and looked around, finding Chester, hands on knees, blowing out breath. I snuck in behind him like a Cherokee scout, slapped him on his upturned butt and shouted, “You’re it, bay-bay!”

“Ah shit,” Chester wheezed. “I’m it.”

I spun my wheels and took off, corn leaves slapping against my arms. I found one-half of a moon above me and reared back to howl, not giving a damn where I was going, nearing the end of the row at a full clip.

What hit me next must have had sixteen wheels and a driver named Rölf. The sound went something like Whack! Higigagiga thump! Roll roll hummmph! Something like a good James Brown tune. I ended up on my back, checking the whereabouts of my limbs while some sort of woodland creature screeched and howled next to me.

“Ah-hahahahahaha! Oh! Ay! Ah-hahahaha!” She rolled on the ground like a brown bear ridding herself of honey bees, grabbing her ribs. She tumbled around in the corn leaves, then finally lifted herself to a sitting position and pulled the hair back from her eyes. When she saw it was me, she exploded. “Michael! It’s Michael! No! Ohgh! Michael Moss! Hahahaha! Ooooh!”

She rolled backwards, delirious, a jumble of sequins and hair and skin. Despite my pain, I thought it was pretty fucking hilarious myself, but I had other ideas. I pulled myself up by the base of a cornstalk, crawled over and took Amy Fine by the shoulders. When she saw what I was doing her laughter huffed to a stop, and her eyes came to mine. I took her hand in my face and brought my lips to hers, the smell of the earth and the cornstalks and the muffled shouts of our mates. I pulled back to set a duck on my trail.

“You’re magic, Amy. You have music shooting from your fingers. I want in.”

I’m not sure what I meant, but just saying it was something. I opened up Amy’s butterfly wings and reached inside, smoothing my hands over her pink-tipped breasts. She leaned to my ear and sang.

I dreamt the Lacrymosa that night. Lacrymosa means “tears” in Latin. It is the seventh movement of Mozart’s Requiem, the last thing he wrote before he died, and it will only make you cry if you are human. On the night of his death, Mozart beckoned three of his friends to his bedside to sing the parts, but he couldn’t go on. He dismissed them, then turned to the wall and breathed his last.

Making love to a butterfly in a cornfield with a song of death playing through your head. If you are not careful, there is something about this that will change you.

Photo by MJV

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Frozen Music, the Choral Novel, Chapter Thirteen: Wetter



There are Christmas light strung around Stacy’s tree, strings of popcorn and cranberries, and underneath a gaggle of gifts from friends and far-off relatives. It is Sunday evening, our favorite time of the week, and we are back from a movie, Casablanca on the big screen. She makes blackberry tea, steaming cups of melancholy that I have grown to love.

But it’s the lights I will remember. Insect spots of color, just out of the plane as my eyes come in on her face, and her sweater, a skin of soft white fuzz. She is the picture of an old-time movie, where the men are always sharp and clear, the women dipped in soft-focus gel, as if they could only be beautiful if they were slightly unseen.

And I knew what was coming. Buried in paper mountains of self-delusion, I could not prevent myself from picturing this scene ahead of time. It would in fact be a relief, because it would unlatch me from all the terrible pounding anticipation of bad things to come. It would also help my stomach.

“Michael, I need to tell you something, and it’s not going to be easy… so I’d better just have out with it.”

Hold your breath.

“I need to stop seeing you so much. I need you to release me from this… arrangement we have. I love you, Michael, I really do, but the time just isn’t right for us.”

I could’ve said something hostile, or defensive. I could’ve broken down and not been able to say anything at all. But I knew it was coming, and I was stronger than I expected. I took a sip of tea and swallowed.

“So… you’d like for us to break up?”

Calm, like a lawyer negotiating a settlement.

“I still want to see you,” she answered. “But I need to be my own woman. I don’t want to feel like I’m… answerable to anyone.”

Sometimes the only truth you find in a romance is when it’s ending, and sitting on this lovely woman’s couch in a calm blue ocean of truth, how could I not honor such a reasonable request? She wants to be her own woman. She’s entitled.

“Okay,” I said. “I think I understand.”

“Oh, Michael.” She kissed me, and held my head in her hands. “I’m so glad. I was so scared of hurting you.”

Oh, you have, I thought. But it’ll come later, when I get home, and tomorrow at work, and tomorrow night, lying in my bed, searching the ceiling for little magic checkmarks. And every time I smell a cigarette on someone’s breath.

I got a new temp assignment that week. The job wasn’t much – answering a telephone for a computer maintenance center – but it was a nice place, and the pay was a couple more dollars than what I was getting the week before. I took my breaks on the unreal perfect lawns of the company parking lot, leaning against a white maple dropping perfect yellow leaves, and wrote a letter to Stacy that grew and grew. By the end of the week, I had 23 pages. I saved the letter for two weeks, then I burned it.

And then I met Nancy. Or discovered Nancy, because actually I’d met her long before. She was one of the production workers at the Coastal Times. I would see her on Monday nights when I came to punch in my theater reviews. She’d be in the next room pasting up advertisements, blaring the radio, singing along, laughing, acting generally like a production person, and sparking only the faintest bit of interest from the theater critic in the next room. But the light provided by 23 burning pages had forced aside my blinders, leading me to ask some questions. Where was that smile, those green eyes, that silver satin jacket, two months ago? Not to mention that great ass?

The great ass had something to do with her aerobics class, but the rest had mostly to do with a recent separation from her husband. The only thing left was for me to ask her out. We were in bed by the second date, and Lord was she deprived. She had married at eighteen and not slept with anyone else her entire life. Now, after fourteen years with a man who came to their trailer every night and smoked pot until he passed out on the couch, she was discovering just how much time she had wasted, and, inversely, just how much time was still left.

Nancy and I became a beautiful case of mutual use. I employed her wonderful body and enthusiasm to drown my memories, and from me she desired only desire, and the willingness to answer questions: How does that feel? Have you ever slept with two women? What’s it like when you first enter me? Are you sensitive there? Where should I put my tongue?

We made love in my rented room, old jazz on the turntable, her taking me into her mouth as soon I doffed my pants, searching my eyes for signs of stimulation, testing, probing. We made love in the driver’s seat of my car, parked in front of an elementary school near midnight. Two minutes after I came inside of her, a security guard rapped on the window. He smiled. “Don’t worry. Happens all the time.”

She played her favorite tape one night as we steamed up the windows, parked next to the beach. We drove around the suburbs on Christmas Eve, checking out home lighting displays. Then I drove her back to the house. My housemates were gone to the mountains, skiing. Nancy microwaved some leftovers from a Christmas party, then after dinner I laid a blanket under the tree and unwrapped her.

The list goes on and on. Nancy gave me my first book of erotica, Delta Venus by Anais Nin. She introduced me to the wonders of phone sex. She sent me a card with a drawing of a female tongue about to enter a male ear, with the caption Thinking of you. She would even listen to me when I spoke of Stacy, even went so far as to ask me what she was like in bed.

“You’re so much better, Nancy. So much more eager, much more attentive. But love always gives sex a rare kind of intensity.”

There came a weekend when I made love to both of them – Stacy on Saturday, Nancy on Sunday. I told Nancy about it, and once more she was just interested, and asked more questions. Apparently, I was her postgraduate course.

“Is it confusing that way? Does it make it difficult to focus on the woman you’re with? Do women feel different inside?”

What Nancy didn’t know was, the night before, I had taken a courageous action. Fueled by Nancy’s lovemaking, I told Stacy I couldn’t see her anymore. I needed a complete break, or I would never get my life back together. Stacy was taken by surprise. The news about Nancy had her suffering a strange bout of dumper’s jealousy.

“But can’t we see each other at all? Doesn’t that seem kind of extreme?”

“You have too much of a pull over me. Please, if you do love me, do this for me.”

I wrote that night into a poem.

I retreated for a candle,
passed up the new pearlescent wands for a
wick near death, stale snub slipping its sheet
ready to drop in level darkness

I told you I could love you as a memory but not a fragment.
The flame drowned in its oily waste
scarred love in strands of gray

Later, on a bed of one last night,
you whispered to me in the sighs of a child
of your dream
two ends of a box that would not meet except in our kiss

The poem devastated her. It was meant to. We made desperate love that night, gripping each other, hanging by our fingers from slick walls of granite.

The next night, Nancy took off our clothes and straddled me on the sofa. The television sent murmurs of light across her ivory white hips, working up and down, just for that moment an organism removed from Nancy’s body, or mine, or anything. And how odd, a minute later, that I would find myself watching the television instead.

I hate weeks like that. I had too many things going on, traps at every corner, lion pits holding spiked poles with my name on them. I kept forgetting things. That morning, I forgot I didn’t have clean socks – except for the ones I’d worn the night before, fountain-washed and draped over the heater, crispy like pork rinds.

Fountain-washed. I didn’t know what I was going to do about that. The Mozart was maybe twenty minutes long, and there was no getting around it. I had to look at the woman. I may swim in the scummy shallows on other issues, but no veteran chorister worth his salt would neglect to watch his conductor. Besides, if I didn’t watch her, this time she might drown me.

So I crunched into work on my French toast hosiery and counted the steps to my cubicle, flipping hi’s and howareya’s to anyone nearby. When I got to my desk I was overtaken by the desire to stretch. I leaned forward with both hands on my filing shelf and let the thing draw me out – uuunngh! – opening my eyes on my Van Gogh calendar. A look down and I found a photograph, placed square in the center of my desk like an offering.

She had that dark Mideastern look, bronze skin and big, black eyes. Assyrian, maybe Indian, a strong, thin face, prominent nose, thick black curtains of hair. She stood in a garden, rose bushes with sprays of yellow and white blossoms, smiling shyly.

“What do you think?”

Naomi. She grinned Cheshire-like over the partition.

“Of what?”

“Of Joanna! That’s my friend I wanted to introduce you to.”

“Oh,” I said. “Cute.”

“Cute?” (Wardrobe Report: white lace dress, puffy shoulders, red velvet bow in her hair.) “I have yet to meet a person who doesn’t think she’s gorgeous!”

Just what I was afraid of. Accent marks. And you can’t have your cubiclemate mad at you.

“Yes,” I said. “You’re right. She has beautiful…” I re-checked the photo “…eyes. She has beautiful eyes.”

“So do you want to meet her?”

I looked at the picture again, falling a little.

“It’s kind of bad timing.”

“Well! That’s what I get for helping.”

Oh God, now she was going to be miffed.

“See if I try to improve your love life, Mr. M. Michael Moss. Bad enough you can’t see beauty right in front of you, but now you won’t even meet her, I mean, my God…”

“Naomi! Please, please…” Accent marks! “If I agree to meet her, will you stop?”

She granted me a Sunday school smile. “Certainly.”

I laughed. “Okay, okay. But not until next week, all right? I’m having a hellacious week right now.”

“Oh,” she said. “Um, okay.”

Naomi had something up her lace sleeve, but I didn’t have time to investigate. Roxy and her assistant, Maria, were zipping up and down the rows, herding accounting department types toward the lunchroom. “Meeting!” Roxy called. “We’ve got doughnuts!”

‘Nuff said! I managed to get there first and make off with the prize, a humongous bear claw. I retreated to the back table and placed it in the center of my napkin.

The accounting department was mostly female, especially with Mark and Vijay out sick. Larry Coulter and I were the only males to be found. He came to sit with me – a survival strategy, no doubt – escorting a luscious piece of cherry cake doughnut.

“Ostentatious display of culinary finery,” he said, waving toward my bear claw.

“Indubitably,” I answered.

Larry and I had this running joke. He was about the only other specimen in that moron shop who could match my vocabulary, so we spent our conversations bartering twenty-dollar words.

“Quite an awe-inspiring plurality of feminine representation this morning,” I said, stuffing a bear-toe in my mouth.

“Just on happenstance,” he answered, “and on testimony of the present visual evidence, I would seem to have no alternative but to concur with you, lest my perceptual capabilities be drawn into censure.”

“Mm-hmm,” I mumbled around my mouthful. Larry sat back and watched me try to swallow in my haste to answer. Naturally, I got a piece stuck in my windpipe and started to cough. Larry pounded me on the back, perhaps more forcefully than necessary.

“Michael? Are you all right?” Roxy, perched up front, showing her fifty-but-not-finished legs under a mid-length blue skirt.

“Yes! Mm-HEM! Yeh, I’m okay.”

She smiled. “You don’t have to rush, there are plenty of doughnuts.”

The feminine plurality certainly enjoyed that. I’m apparently only here for their entertainment. Larry smiled. I sipped some coffee to soothe my throat, and Roxy proceeded.

“This morning, we have a company video. Now, I know most of this is geared toward the sales department, but I would like you to pay attention, anyway. As employees, you should know what direction the company is headed. Lucille, could you push the play button? Thank you.”

Maria flicked off the lights and pulled the blinds, cutting out the glare on the television.

It always amused me how our company refused to hire professional speakers for their videos. Their little faux newscasts began with all these slick graphics – the kind you might see on a national football broadcast – then proceeded to ill-suited vice presidents with ten-dollar Nebraska haircuts who read each line as if it had nothing to do with the line previous.

Larry leaned over and whispered, “Brazenly amateurish hokum.”

I readied a return salvo but caught Roxy’s eyes across the room. She wasn’t watching the video; she was watching me. Not in a scolding way. Just watching.

Another guy came on-screen, bald, overweight, thick eyeglasses, company blazer, looking like a refugee from the corner hardware store, but at least he was more natural in front of the camera. I checked out Roxy, still watching. Oh, the hell with it. I leaned over to whisper to Larry.

“Mr. Amos’s capacity for oratorical verisimilitude is vastly superior to that of his colleagues.”

“I concur,” said Larry. “A detectable improvement.”

Roxy, still watching. I stared back and winked. She smiled, just a little, and crossed her devil legs. The credits came on. Maria switched on the lights. The accounting department lifted its hands as one to shade its eyes.

“Umm, I don’t actually have a lot of business this morning,” said Roxy. “Remember, we’re changing to new credit slips next week. Be sure and throw out all those A-7s by tomorrow. Carolyn, did you have anything?”

Carolyn was the matron of the collections department, schoolmarm type, cotton print dresses with high collars, plain white stockings. Rumor had it she was only a year older than me, but I’d want to see that birth certificate.

“Just come to me if you have any audit questions. Oh, and double-check on bankruptcies. We’ve had a few go through the cracks in section five.”

Roxy waited to make sure Carolyn was done.

“Okay,” she said. “One last thing. I know everyone’s busy, and I don’t want to cut into your social lives too much, but please do come to Fred’s party at Sneaker’s tonight.”

A silent unison groan spread through the room like an oil spill.

“Now you know, Fred made a tough decision in transferring to Fresno. He’s been at this branch almost twenty years, and this is quite a stressful time for him.”

What she couldn’t say was that Fred’s wife ran off last year with her lesbian lover, an overnight flight to Denver while Fred was at a car show in Reno. Not that Fred didn’t deserve it. You could find mitochondria with more highly developed social skills.

“Anyway,” said Roxy, “please come by, if only for a few minutes, just to at least say goodbye. I would personally appreciate it very much.”

Roxy targeted the word “personally” in my direction. I was surrounded.

All social needs at National Auto Credit are fulfilled at Sneakers, a mile away on Wolfe Road. Hanging onto the corner of a supermarket shopping mall, the club nonetheless maintained a wholly separate identity once you were inside. The active current was a sports-bar rowdismo reminiscent of your average halftime beer commercial. It was also dark enough to make everyone vastly more attractive, with walls cluttered up like a yard sale: dog-eared pennants, team photos, ancient baseball gloves, wood-shaft golf clubs with rusty heads – and a Day-Glo sailboard hanging from the ceiling.

The furniture was comfortable faux-wood, chairs with big cushions and booths with red upholstery, tall round stools and tall round tables gathered around a rectangular dance floor they called the pit. Legendary sports figures romped across the walls in acrylic paint – footballers making fingertip grabs, baseball heroes winding themselves out of home run swings. When the music came on – a gorpish slab of Top 40 old and new – the folks danced while the big screen flashed a loop of extreme action idols: skateboarders in swimming pools, cliff skiers, bungee-cord divers.

I went to the bar and ordered a long-neck, even though I knew they’d all be drinking from pitchers by now, managers and small-time execs throwing down twenties just to show how big and magnanimous they were. But I wanted my own bottle, all to myself. That’s how desperate I was getting. The first person I encountered was Brad, a tall, wiry cuss from Oregon who chewed tobacco and played a decent brand of softball when he wasn’t drunk. Brad’s welcoming horse laugh seemed like a good first step. He was playing bar basketball, and was up to 54 points with five seconds left, which is pretty impressive.

“Shit!” He missed the last shot off the rim. The timer hit goose eggs and let out an electronic raspberry: HUUNNNN!

“Goddamn piece a… Hey, Mikey! You ever try this thing?”

“No. But why’re you so mad? That’s a great score.”

“Yeah, but if I sank that last one I woulda gotten ten bonus seconds.”

“Ah. So how’s the party goin’?”

He wasn’t buying my change of subject. “Here, go ahead. I’ll put in the quarters.”

He popped them in the slot and spat some reddish brown ooze into a cup. I wasn’t ready for competition, but once Brad hit the flashing button, the mini-basketballs came at me like marauding huns and I was right back out on the schoolyard. Brad stood next to me and coached.

“Off the backboard, yeah, like that, try one-handed. Hot damn!”

I was in a rhythm. I hit twelve in a row, striking that perfect impact point six inches above the rim. Just before zero, I hit one last shot and reached the bonus round. Brad was going nuts.

“All right, Mikey. Do it, do it!”

The adrenaline surged, spilling over the rim of my tanks. I overshot a couple, then paused to recalibrate. Baroque. Metronome. I sank the last five, swishing one at the buzzer.

“Holy shit!” Brad shouted. “Seventy-six! You hustler! Here, let’s do another.”

“Nah, rather quit while I’m ahead.”

“Hey, but let me buy you a beer. Shit, man – score like that’ll get you laid!”

Brad hopped off to the bar. I scooped up the two remaining balls and hook-shot them dead through the rim. This could be all right, I thought. This could turn into a decent party.

“Here you go, buddy,” said Brad. “Let’s take off.”

We quick-stepped to the far corner over the dance pit. We think of it as our own little office annex. The head table was manned by Michael Cunningham, Fred Glynn (headed for Fresno) and the femme fatale of accounting, Miz Roxanne Cater. Roxy was licking her lips, first sign of impending drunkishness. Mr. Cunningham and Fred were into some glorious repo saga from days of yore.

“…and that ratty little sucker tailed me for half a mile,” said Cunningham. “On foot, screaming like a banshee. I had to run a red light to lose him.”

“Y’sure run into lottassholes in repo,” said Fred, raising a finger toward some notable spot in the ceiling. “I sshure miss it.”

“I’m gonna miss you, Fred. Hey! Look who’s here, my young compadres Brad and Mikhail. How’re you doing, fellas?”

Cunningham shook my hand, almost squeezing my fingers out of alignment, but I was ready for him, deep into the palm. These auto guys were dangerous with their handshakes.

“Mikey here just skunked me in bar-sketball,” said Brad. “He’s got hidden talents.”

“I know, I know,” said Cunningham. He turned to Fred. “I was trying to get young Mr. Moss for your department, Fred, but he would prefer to chase all those tender young skirts in accounting.”

“Issashame,” Fred drooled. “Dirty shame. Coulda used ya.”

Roxy gave me a look of pure candle glow. “Mr. Michael Moss is a hundred-watt bulb in a room of night lights,” she said. “He is a bona… fide… sweetheart.”

“Oh-hoh!” said Cunningham, who, I’m sure, had designs on Roxy himself. “No wonder I can’t pry you from Roxy’s iron grip.”

Brad spat some tobacco and leaned in. “Did I tell you about that psycho case last week, Freddy? Told the guy I was gonna come get his old heap, came around the next morning to find it penned in by ten other cars!”

“Nooohh!” Fred blurted. He picked up a napkin and wiped his drool. “How dee doo it?”

“Just called all his friends and had them drive on over. But he didn’t count on me towing every single car in the lot!”

“Oh God!” said Cunningham. “That must have been a sight.”

“Lov’t see th’look on… guy’s face when gotbek,” said Fred.

“Oh Brad!” said Roxy. “You’re ee-vil!”

All during Brad’s story I had the feeling my name was being called. I finally located the source: Naomi, leaning over the railing. “Yoo-hoo! Mii-chael!”

Wardrobe Report: gold lamé blouse, white matador jacket studded with red and orange rhinestones, and a black leather mini with fishnet stockings. I waved back, hoping she would disappear. Instead she yelled at me, like a mother scolding her three-year-old.

“Michael! Get over here!”

“Sounds like you’ve got a fan, Mikey!” said Brad. “I’d get over there quick before she cools off. I told you, man – seventy-six points, man.”

“I guess you’re right,” I said, flashing my best phony smile.

“Save me a dance, Mikey,” said Roxy.

I picked my way through the mob like a running back, finally reaching Naomi, seated next to her friend with the deadly onyx eyes. Oh shit.

“Michael, this is my friend Joanna. Joanna, this is Michael Moss. He’s friendlier than he seems.”

Not having any recourse, I faced the enemy and took her hand.

“Hi, Joanna.”

Joanna’s lips quivered into that shy smile from the photo. Oh God.

“Naomi’s told me a lot about you.”

“Naomi, I thought I…” I stopped when Joanna brushed her hair back. It settled onto her shoulders in slow motion.

“Let’s all dance!” said Naomi. The word spread and our co-workers massed toward the pit.  “Joanna’s a great dancer,” Naomi whispered.

Joanna unleashed a blinding smile. “Well. I can keep a beat.”

Oh God. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a face falling into a Manhattan.

“I’m sorry, Joanna, but I promised to dance with my boss.”

“Oh,” she said. “Okay.”

“Nice meeting you.” I dodged my way back to the Round Table and found Roxy wearing a dazed expression.

“Roxanne. Would you care to dance?”

Roxy set herself into the oh-I’m-too-old, I-need-to-be-coaxed posture. “Oh, I shouldn’t, I really…”

“Nonsense, Cater!” Mr. Cunningham growled. “Get out there and show those young punks how it’s done!”

“Oh… Okay.” Roxy hopped off her stool and grabbed my hand, dragging me down to the pit where the office’s younger members were moshing it up.

The song was some heavy funk tune, metal guitar, wicked downbeats – not anything Roxy was probably used to. But she was good! She ground her hips while drawing out a circle in the air, then moved forward and ground her hips against me. Cunningham and Fred leaned over the railing, cheering her on.

“Get him, girl! Yow!”

The music switched to a retro rockabilly number. I thought about bowing out, but Roxy had a full head of steam and besides, out here at least I was safe from any further Assyrian hookups. She went into a classic twist, then slid forward, her blouse dangerously unbuttoned.

“You know how to touch dance, Moss?”

“Umm, yeah, sure.”

“Then spin me.”

I took Roxy’s hand and motioned her around, then she yelled for another. I whirled her around and caught her by the waist, passed her side and let go, sliding off a hand then reaching behind my back to take the other, spring back, a step forward, release, slide into a spin, rolling along her arm till she was about to fall, then I stopped her with a hand, worked her into a double spin, and finished by pulling her in close and walking us around in a tight circle.

“Whew!” she exhaled, eyes lit up. “You’re good, Michael. Can you do that shoulder slide thing?”

“Sure.” I let her back and pulled her forward, curling a hand over the back of her neck and sliding it along her arm, catching her hand and spinning her back my way.

“Where did you learn all this?” she asked.

“Mom and Pop. Best jitterbuggers in the state of Indiana.”

The tune was about to end, so I dropped her into a dip, touching her hair to the floor. Our two-man peanut gallery went nuts. Roxy covered her face in triumphant embarrassment. A sexy Motown thing started up. I looked along the railing and saw no Persian girls.

“Well, thanks, Roxy, I’d better…”

“Come on, Michael. Let’s slow dance. It’s been so long.”

“No, I really have to…”

Roxy leaned toward my ear. “Dance with me, Michael.” (CC: Board of Trustees, National Auto Credit)

What could I say? I did need to pay the rent. I took hold of Roxy around her sexy little former nun waist and took an extended hand. Roxy closed her eyes and swayed. Her legs were inside mine. She pushed her breasts into me and spoke in a trance.

“I used to dance to this song in college, with my beau.” She giggled. “Boy, is that an old expression! He was a tall man, and boy could he dance. You’re like him, Michael, you’ve got that bloodflow.”

Now was the time for panic. Had I not been placed into enough terror-filled situations for one week? In movement three of my laments, Roxy Cater cuddled up against me, craned her neck over my shoulder and inserted her tongue in my ear.

“I think we should go to my place for a little after-party.”

Holy shit! I tried to keep dancing, maybe lull the idea back out of her head, send her back to her Long Island iced teas.

“Now Roxy, I…”

Her next step was to take her hand off my shoulder and move it to my crotch.

“I know you’re not ever going to give me your mind, Michael, but can I at least have your cock?”

“Roxy, come on now, stop that.”

I tried to take her hand back, but she eluded my grasp and slid her fingers into my pants.

“Anyone who dances like you must be a terrific fuck.”

Now I was pissed. If I had no way out of this, I would damn well take the worst way out of this.

“Roxy, get your hands off my dick!”

Funny what adrenaline will do to your volume control. At that moment, the population of Sneakers did two things: sat frozen at their tables, staring at Roxy and Michael on the dance floor. And two: realizing what they had just heard, broke into gales of laughter. Roxy flushed so badly I thought she was going to stroke out right there. She turned and stormed up the steps, followed by me, walking bow-legged around my erection, blurting out the beginnings of apologies.

“Roxy. I’m sorry, I… I didn’t… Please…”

As we re-entered the lounge area, a waitress walked past with a pitcher of ice water. Roxy grabbed it, pivoted with the smooth coordination of a point guard, and deposited the contents over my head.

I lost my erection. I couldn’t breathe. Chunks of ice clattered to the floor. I was snapped back by the roar of the crowd, fifty-some co-workers standing and whooping and slapping their knees. Brad would tell the story and have Roxy dumping five pitchers of mai-tais over my head. “And then she stuffed three jars of maraschino cherries down his pants!”

It took me one long second to decide what to do. I surveyed a path between myself and the door and I took it, like a baserunner breaking for second. I sped forward, churning my legs, dodging tables, and burst out the doors, narrowly missing three girls standing outside, then skidded down the sidewalk to my car. I thrust out my key, hopped in and revved the engine, ready to go, when someone rapped on the window.

Cheese it! The cops! It was Larry, giving me a quizzical look. I rolled down the window.

“Michael! What the…”

“Larry!” I said, smiling deliriously. “It’s been a pleasure working with you.”

I waved and burnt out of my spot, zipping across the lot and onto Wolfe. I saw Larry in the rearview mirror, invisible question marks dancing over his head.

Photo by MJV