Allegro, poco a poco accelerando
A truck backs up to the end of a dead-end road, loaded with shipping flats. A squad of workers toss them down to the beach below. Two hours later, the bonfire is hitting its prime, orange flames licking up from the sand and coloring a ring of partiers in hues of pleasure. It’s a birthday party, Stacy’s thirtieth. My backstage pass is the result of my membership on the softball team and nothing more, but after three beers I have convinced myself otherwise. Rough-hewn ropes connect my movements with those of the guest of honor. After all, we have a future together. Only, according to Kenny, I am not supposed to act like we do.
I am trying with all my energy not to seek out the villain, the burly Italian guy with a beer in his hand and an arm around a buddy. I have information that he’s here, and I am wondering if I should leave. But, according to Kenny, I need to be around. I am a soldier for Kenny’s book of etiquette.
For a minute or two, my right fielder, Toby, supplies some small talk, but after a while I feel the need to separate. I leave the ring directly after the traditional off-key cantata of “Happy Birthday” and head toward the waves, a dark, empty slate lying in wait for the chalk marks of a tolerant god. This is a good spot. If not for the fantasy of the birthday girl coming out to join me, I would be fine. But that’s not going to happen. My job is to stand square with the Pacific Ocean and watch one star straight out, blinking on and off as it is buried and unburied by passing waves. A chunk of black boat moves over the water like a chess piece, peering ahead with one glowing red eye. My turn is coming. My turn is coming.
The next scene takes place at the Hind Quarter, a bar about as classy as its name: phony gas fireplace, varnish an inch thick on the tables, bevy of olding girls hiding behind blonde caps with arrow-straight hinges of dark roots. The men lean T-shirted bellies against the wooden bar, dodging their neighbors’ heads, watching Monday night football.
Our heroine sits strangely alone in the center. She looks as weary as the sojourner, and her needs are more, because she is thinking of what she needs and what he can give her. When he walks in, it is as if she had typed out a purchase order and some remarkable bureaucrat had flashed by two minutes later with three of everything.
The sojourner is surprised, as well. He is tired of the wait. He is ready to strap on the chute, set the stopwatch, and walk out on the wing. He greets her with a hug and sits down. The two football teams happen to be his favorite and her favorite, so he scoots next to her and watches. Our heroine’s team comes back with a startling last-minute drive and beats his, but he is winning the battle of breaths, nudges, the music of fabric against fabric and one bold kiss. Right there in the middle of the Hind Quarter. They talk and laugh and whisper about nothing in particular, but the words gather force and draw them to his apartment.
His room is small. His bed is small. Headlights flash by across his drapes. They pull off their clothes with urgent, clumsy fingers. They are unlettered freshmen in the art of each other, have no notion of how their bodies fit together. The sojourner nestles himself into our heroine’s body, sketching out her shadow. The feeling is as warm as the color of toasted bread, but he suspects that they have made a mistake.
Ah, home. Tear off the tie, pull out the shirt, kick off my shoes, fall into my chair thinking, Thank God. I could have stayed pleasantly supine till rehearsal, but there was my round orange friend under the dresser, pleading, “Bounce? Bounce?” Poor little guy was slick as a watermelon. My little brother stole him from a playground ten years ago. I rolled him out and took a few swipes with my bicycle pump, then spun him up on my finger, reborn.
My Thursday ritual was a session of hoops at this Catholic school a few blocks down the road. (Some Hungarian friend told me once that if a parish had to choose between renovating the altar or buying new backboards, he’d have to flip a coin.) The sun is out and I am the only soul on the asphalt. My basketball ritual is a numbers game: a few warmup shots, then sink a long one and off to the free throw line. Sink seven out of ten, and on to the next step. The next game is, sink a shot, let the ball bounce three times and shoot from that spot. Ten in a row, it’s on to the next step.
Don’t get sucked in by the mathematics. Basketball is music: you can analyze it and toss the geometry around forever, but you can’t define that last leafy touch of the rhythm. You hit a certain righteous flow, sometimes on a single shot. Hop out, ring up the ball, top of the key, slap it behind you, switch it around falls in your hands just right, loose, on a string, gather the spring up from your toes, limber, nudge it off the tips of your fingers. Curve high, arrow off the bow, no doubt, not a thing but net, and the strings let out a sigh: Fwip! Aaaaahh… Some shots are not attempted but imagined.
I imagined a little too much, however, because the sun was dipping toward the horizon. I gathered my orange friend and trotted off down the street.
I got to the choir room door and checked my watch – 8:15, break-time in fifteen minutes. I turned an ear to the crack and heard the Magnificat of the Mozart, Amy calling instructions: “You’ve got to float this one, tenors. If you can’t hit it light, then just carry it into head voice. It’ll come through, don’t worry.”
The tenors muttered among themselves like, well, bachelor ducks, then she started them through again. Our section sounds pretty damn fine on the high soft ones, even with one of their finest stranded outside.
I didn’t want to cut into class now and get ninety pairs of eyes. I slipped out the back door and looked for Sam the Cat. The night was getting cold, and in my rush I’d grabbed my thinnest jacket. I needed coffee.
“Say-eeh,” Sam called. “Ain’t you one o’ them Kwy-ah Boys? Where’s yo’ compan-ee-uns?”
“Uh, yeah, Sam. I’m kinda runnin’ late. Ah’m afraid the resta them boys won’ be outchere for a while.”
I’m a terrible mimic. Sometimes I don’t even know I’m doing it. Sam didn’t seem to notice.
“Well, what’d yuh want, uh…”
“Michael,” I said.
“Mike. Okay. Whadjuh want there, Mike?”
“Just a coffee.”
“Okay, Mike. Ah’ll do that.”
Sam filled up a cup while I fished around for my wallet, which wasn’t there.
“What? You foget yo’ money?”
“I’m afraid so. I…”
“Hey! Foget it! This one’s on the house, Mistuh Mike. I know how these things go.”
“Well, thanks Sam. That’s… that’s great.”
“Jus’ tip me real good next time. I know you Kwy-ah Boys. You’s good kids. Enjoy.”
I took the coffee from his hands, and I noticed Largo next to the cart, tonguing his fur like maybe he could get that gruesome color out of it.
“Pet Minestrone for me.”
“Well, huh!” Sam laughed, rubbing his whiskers. “Thass the fust time one ah you Kwy-ah Boys evah got that cat’s name right.”
I headed for the fountain. Maybe Alex would come out after he’d called his wife. I sat and sipped my coffee and got to thinkin’ (thinkin’ in Sam-talk), it’s so easy to make people happy sometimes. Free cup of coffee. A cat’s name.
“How are you, Mr. Moss?”
I’d expected a tenor. This was an alto. Where was my tongue?
“I… hi, Amy. Fine… um… late, I guess.”
I set down my coffee and pocketed my hands to keep them somewhere I could find them. What was she doing here?
“Um… I’d explain myself,” I said. “But you’d never believe me.”
“Try me,” she said. She sat down next to me and reached back to dip her fingers in the water.
“Had a basketball game. Got carried away, you might say.”
“You did say.”
“I did. Uh…” Why did she care? “Why do you care?” Did I say that?
Amy pocketed her hands, too. Aviator jacket, mall-bought. Hazel eyes, islands of green opal in a light brown sea. She watched the choir men troop across the courtyard, then came back to me.
“Why is it none of the women go over there?” she asked. She’d given up the subject. I was glad. “I always see the men, but never the women. Do you guys look at dirty magazines over there? Or smoke cigars?”
She smiled: no harm done, no explanations needed. Mozart, lips, olive skin. Magnificat. Come back, Michael.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess the guys were just there first. The women are probably sick of us anyway.”
“That sounds about right,” she said, distracted. Amy stretched and looked skyward, twin puffs of cloud billowing back the yellow suburban light. Her legs swung up and kicked back against the bricks. She placed a hand on my shoulder. “Michael. Look at me during the Mozart, okay? It distracts me when you don’t.”
“Oh, I know. Choir veteran like you, Mozart’s a little boring. So logical, so four/four, six/eight, no tempo changes, no Hebrew. But this is important to me, Michael. I need your eyes on me. Would you do that?”
“Sure, Amy. I’ll try.”
“Thanks, Michael.” She ruffled a hand over my hair, then stood up and smoothed down her pants. “I better head back in and talk to Mr. Stutz. Post-game wrapup. See you later?”
I caught a breath. “Yes. You will.”
She smiled at me. Mozart. Lips. Chestnut hair.
“Good.” Amy headed back, hands in her pockets. Alex came out and met her at the door. They talked for a moment, then he let her through and came out to me.
“Hello, Mr. Moss, sir.”
“Hello, Alex. Sir.”
“You look a little pale.”
“It’s… cold out here, Mr. Blanche.” I reached back and dipped my fingers into the water. “Like some coffee?”