by Michael J. Vaughn
“A stone is frozen music.”
For Dr. Charlene Archibeque
Prelude, presto agitato
Sadness underpins everything, nudging at you, circling your eyes like a summer gnat. Swatting at it does no good, because it is small and light and vents off along the wind created by your hand. Am I a lunch-bag lunatic, or is this what happens when you grow up? That is, after all, what I’m counting on – that this is a process, that these are just the hard steps on the way to adulthood.
My life back then had a great tragic focus. That one overpowering situation wiped out my minor sadnesses like a black hole sucking in asteroids. I might have even preferred it that way. The main thing? I wanted. I wanted intensely, I wanted her, and I lived. Today, I am a cow in a pasture. I do not smell or hear or taste the world; I just lower my head and graze.
I begin with a bit of prehistory. Before I made my entrance, an event I can only imagine made what was to be a large dent in my life. By now I have cut it apart, thrown in details that may have never existed, and inserted myself into all three roles just to understand why this pathetic bit of melodrama would have such an effect on me.
A California businesswoman attends a week-long series of meetings at corporate HQ in New Jersey. By Friday noon, the meetings are over, so she switches her tickets to an earlier flight and takes a cab to LaGuardia. She lands at San Francisco International at five in the morning. By the time the shuttle delivers her to Santa Cruz, the sun is lifting over the coastal hills. She unlocks the door to her condo and stumbles in, throws her bag on the couch and heads upstairs.
Her live-in boyfriend is a dark, burly Italian guy who is always the hit at parties, beer in hand, arm around a buddy, East Coast born and bred like our heroine, pleasantly rough around the edges. She looks forward to lunchtime, when she will tell him stories about the old home territory, but for now she is dead on her feet and wants only to hop in bed next to his big warm body and sleep.
Our heroine enters the bedroom quietly so as not to wake her beau, but as she removes her second black pump she counts one, then two mounds under the sheet. The picture hits her right in the diaphragm, and before she can stop herself she lets out a high-pitched gasp. The larger of the two mounds rolls over and peers at her.
At this point, the average Hollywood hack would have the big galunk chasing her down the stairs in his briefs, saying something like, “Honey, it isn’t what it looks like,” and the comedy would be under way. But not here, not in the real world. Our heroine stares at him in shock; he stares back, his big dark eyes as empty as a dog’s. For three seconds the frame freezes. She leaves her shoes where they are and escapes out the door.
The burly Italian guy stares at his face in the dresser mirror until he realizes that what has just happened has just happened. He nudges his bedmate awake and tells her he’s sorry but she needs to leave right away.
As for our heroine, as for Stacy, she is downstairs at the kitchen table, drinking a strong cup of coffee because she knows this day will not end soon. They have been together for seven years. They bought this condo, and a sailboat, and her car and his truck and the timeshare in Tahoe. They are not married, but these next few months will be as thorough and harrowing as a divorce. She will lose her sense of security, she will lose sleep, she will lose weight. She will lose money and time during long afternoons in a therapist’s office. And she will meet a gullible, insecure young man and change his life in dramatic fashion.
Tonight, done with my weekend rituals, I girdle myself in this hunk of old oak and varnish, sweating over the desktop, grinding out flashbacks to clear my mind. The sun soaked into the ground all day and now the heat is back up, tearing at my pores. But it’s not just the heat. Outside, two tomcats are staging a fierce tete-a-tete in the echo chamber of the parking garage. The sound is something like a lyric soprano being slowly tortured to death.
A half-hour ago I gave up and stormed outside, frustration prickling at my sides. A sonic lightning bolt rolled in from space number sixty-five. I stopped at the small rock garden outside my studio to gather projectiles. And then I discovered them atop a mint-condition red Porsche. Damn. With Plan A no longer an option, I ran in their direction and yelled, “Hah! Get outta here! Whattya think yer doin’?!” Lame, but effective.
Between the adrenaline of the hunt and my third cup of coffee, I wasn’t ready to so much as think about sleeping, so I just sat at my desk wiping sweat from my brow, trying to fight off this big side-of-beef lonely. Then I heard footsteps.
It was Brownie, my next-door neighbor. Brownie is an alluring young woman with a sweep of chestnut hair that bobs when she walks. I watch her every morning when she leaves for work. She has great legs, and likes to wear miniskirts. I’ve lived next door to her for three years but have never had the nerve to introduce myself.
Brownie clicked across the porch and opened her door; the stripping made a distinct sucking sound. I lay sideways on my bed and held my ear to the wall. The lock clicked as she shut the door. Dishes in the sink, then the scraping of furniture against tile – a stool. Then voices. One voice was Brownie’s, the other belonged to a man, not a low voice but definitely masculine. I figured it was that guy that I see her with sometimes. I think they’re engaged, they sort of act that way. By now I was having a hard time keeping my ear to the wall; my neck was stiffening up.
Mr. Brownie was engaged in some real smooth-talk. His sentences dipped around and down, then fluttered at the ends, a poetic roller coaster. I wheeled my arm around then reattached myself to the sheetrock, pressing harder to see if I could make out actual words.
The next thing I knew, Mr. Brownie turned on some music, an old jazz tune played from a tinny-sounding record. I couldn’t be sure, but it sounded like they were dancing in the kitchen. Sliding, shuffling, a tap. Lord knows how they were doing it in such a small space. And it seemed like they had real good rhythm, each step firmly in the flow, even a unison clap at the end of a phrase. At this point, I assumed they were working up a routine for their wedding day.
The music dropped off mid-song, and I heard Brownie giggle, followed by more talking from Mr. Brownie, lower, softer. By this time, my ear was going numb, so I turned all the way around and tried the other ear. The sound was clearer, sharper. I could make out the consonants, and I realized that I had heard Mr. Brownie’s voice before.
Mr. Brownie was Fred Astaire. Brownie was Ginger Rogers. And Brownie’s TV was right up against my wall.
Photo by MJV