ONE

To the players

 

PART ONE

“Those are no good, the Ladies there.” The woman stressed the arms of the plastic lawn chair as she lowered into it, quarrying its legs into the ground. Mel rubbed her thumb on an apple and replaced it with another from the crates, ramparts of dank cardboard and fleshes of primrose and peach. The woman reposing into the earth widened her legs and pressed the lap of her dress to dry the sweat from them.

“I like the sweet ones,” Mel said.

“Do what you want. I’m just telling you they’re on their way out.”

The heat coaxed the musty smell of over-ripeness to the noses of heat-blotched faces and to soak into the nylon belly of the gazebo. Mel sorted through the crate again.

Early morning had waned to a later one that she liked less, so she pulled six Pink Ladies, spoiled and sweet, and packed them into the pockets of her slack overalls. The woman behind the crates took her money, and asked that God bless her, shifting little in her reclination.

Mel walked westward from the market, departing from the obscurity of palm leaves and blowzy willows, and the sun took quickly to scuffing her shoulders. The street quieted, and she walked on the yellow lines, spitting the soft bits of an apple into the curb.

The sun had rouged the skin under her eyes and on the back of her neck, her shoulders cascaded by soot-black, loosely dreaded hair that brushed the pockets of her bibs as she walked. She laughed out loud when juice ran down her chin, and she wiped it away with the back of her hand.

No one but the sun lingered on Queen Street in the day. The delivery trucks pulled close to the doors and their drivers shuffled quickly in and out, shaking sweat from ruddy faces. Mel lived easterly, near the wharf, where the buildings were oldest and kept secrets. They housed mostly bars now— given reign to see most of the sun and most of what is done in the dark.

Nocturnal rain cleaned the air, but it had thickened again with heat and the sea. Shower stains on the pavement dispersed early into mist that was soft, but over-ripened into the afternoon. Mel closed the drapes over a small open window. She surveyed her apartment as she had left it, much less sanguine with the midday, whose lighting left little for romance. Shaking the straps from her shoulders, the overalls dropped around her knees, and wearing only the dampness of her body, she left the apples to roll across the floor as she disappeared into the bedroom and back to sleep.

Cowering decidedly from the perversity of afternoon in air cooler, but smelling like old smoke and damp wood, Paul ground his elbow into the bartop and pressed pennies into the residue of spirits and poor souls, lifting them free with his fingernail.

The front door was pried open and daylight slivered the lounge, lifting dust to somersault in its casting, and yellowing the sage tabletops, parading their staunch water-rings. Will grappled through the entrance with a hard case, the light made stroboscopic, the dust, the water-rings blinking in and out of existence. He closed the door behind him.

Demi-jour softened the lines around Paul’s mouth and smoothed his silver hair so that he looked timeless and less like who he might be, if not for this place. He harvested sap from his fingernail and pressed the coins again into the film.

“You all right if I leave this in back until tonight?” Will asked, clipping the legs of stools and high-tops peppered around the bar. “I need the room in my car.”

“Yeah. Go on back.”

The sun was still muddy on Will’s eyes, but the hunched figure remained pronounced by a low, indecipherable maundering and the sound of pennies falling on the bar floor.

“What’s your problem? You getting too old for this?”

“You know, I’m only half as old as I look.”

“That right?” Will asked. He wedged the case against the wall with the dry storage and made his way back to the bar.

Paul lifted his eyes upon his return, donning a wry, puerile grin that would have been convincing if not for the way it creased his cheeks.

“No shit,” he said. “But ya’ spend enough time with the shady and you start to pick up its flavor. Turns your bones brittle”. He laughed. “Between it and the women, life becomes short-lived. Plagued with late nights and sorry mornings.”

“Sorry mornings? Will asked. “Is that from the late nights or the women?”

“You wouldn’t think it,” Paul said. “But I’m not but about your age. Just on an accelerated track. Don’t you laugh. Before you know it, hanging around here like you do, you’re gonna wake up tucking your balls into your socks. A few more years for me, who knows what’ll happen.”

“I’m not buying it, man. You’ll live forever,” Will said. “There’s no Gato without Saint Paul. We’d all be lost without you.”

“Broke is what you’d be,” Paul said. “But maybe you’re right. Maybe it works on a cycle, and in a few years I’ll look like Pietrocarlo, yeah? You know, from next door.” He laughed, grabbing hold of his knees.

“Wouldn’t that be something?”

“That happens, you call me,” Will said, turning toward the door.

“What? Just in for a little touch and you’re out?”

“I’ve got to, baby. I’ve been beckoned.”

“Ah,” Paul smiled and pulled at the corners of his mouth. “Give her some love for me.”

Sun opened and shed over the streets, furrows in the tableland of leaden, leaning buildings. It crinkled on pious water, its body lapping at the thin fold of blue where earth ends and the sky falls. Mel rolled over, puckering the sheets. The yellow light from the bathroom caught only the peaks of folds in the cotton and uncovered limbs, the sun kept safely behind heaving drapes and an intemperate disposition. She could hear footsteps on the corridor stairs and she counted them, rising when they had reached the top before the short stretch of hallway and her cracked door. She drew a sundress off the floor and pulled it over her head and arms, arranging herself cross-legged and quickly tucking the sheets under her knees.

Will pushed open the door into the apartment. Dim and high-ceilinged, its walls were colored like the stripped facades that peeked through the window in the evening when the drapes were drawn. An armchair stood alone in the center of the room, covered scantly where it didn’t fray, and kept only the company of apple cores left on the floor beneath it, still wet in an air that never dries.

He walked quietly and all was quiet, into the bedroom that crawled from its confines, silk and stiff fabrics petting his ankles as he stepped in the places where the wood was undressed. It effloresced like earth, in clothing and working projects, abandoned things, the bodies of pinned dresses, a flowerage of those stitched in thread, and he stepped carefully.

“Morning, Rosy,” he said.

“Don’t you scold me. I’ve already been out and back.”

“Have you?”

She took his hand and unfolded her legs. She felt over the calloused tips of his fingers before letting them go, and together they used small allowances to step through the room.

“Did you see the moon last night?”

“Why, was it any good?” he asked, and she picked an apple from her overalls on their way out, leaving the door unlatched as she always did.

The peninsula drifted into eastern water, its body, narrowing into the sea. Shoulders bore docks and the shallows raked with tide-hands to bring earth into infinity. The head, its hair, sea grasses and the trees in the park by the water, the weeds that solicited sky from the coarse sand. Things grew older eastward— the faces of buildings and their foundations, unto the sapient trees that saw truth become fable, and the infinite water remained new.

The houses on East Queen, the ones near Mel, were near enough to the water to smell the salt and find sand in the flowerbeds outside the windows. The northern side softened into the continent, and there, the streets widened and broke, and the people cared less about broken streets and rarely made noise complaints. That’s where the boys lived.

Mel teetered from the window of Will’s car trying to touch the leaves of low trees and traffic pylons. He watched her casually and drove just near enough to the trees that she could brush them with her hands without catching the branches.

“Your dress is inside out,” he said, noticing the knotted underbellies of embroidered flowers.

“If I come back inside, you’ll put the child locks on.” She grinned over her shoulder at him. “Promise you won’t.”

“I won’t if you come back inside the car.”

And so she did.

“What did you say?” she asked.

“Your dress is inside out.”

She laughed and pulled it over her shoulders.

“Jesus Christ, Mel.”

“Oh, please. I think you’ll survive this encounter.” She climbed back into the dress, and shuffled it down over her knees. “What do you think happens if you take it after three days?”

“Are you worried about it?”

“Oh, no. I’ll be fine.” She pulled her hair around on one shoulder. “I was just curious.”

“I’m sure you can ask them that when you’re there.”

“Yeah,” she said and reached back out the window.

They rode quietly for awhile before pulling up outside a strip mall and Mel leapt out and into a building with tinted windows. Birds flew overhead, but Will didn’t notice and kept watching for her. A few minutes passed and she returned.

“Where is it?” he asked.

“I took it in there. They’re all so nice. You know it’s free if you’re under twenty-one?”

“That’s lucky.”

“That’s what I said.”

They took the long way back and drove along the water. The tourists leaned over the railing looking onto the coast, talking over the whispers of the sea as it met the earth.

“You know, I’ve got more freckles on this side of my face.” She looked closely in the side mirror. “I think it’s because you always drive, and I’m always in the sun on this side.”

Mel had her legs folded under her on the seat, and she pushed back her hair that fell relentlessly over her face.

“I think you just have more freckles on that side,” Will said.

“Look.”

“Yes, I see.”

“Do you have more on your left?” She checked him, reaching across to tilt his face. “Nope. You don’t. You don’t get freckles like me.”

“I have freckles on my arms,” he said.

“The ones on the backs of your arms?”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah, they’re the light kind though. They’re like mom’s. Mine are always dark when I get them.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Yours are.”

She smiled and looked over her arms and at the back of them.

“So are you done with Sam now?” Will asked.

The water was changing into the non-blues of dusk, though she thought the clouds that clustered thinly over the sun was bringing it around a bit early.

“Do you really want to have this conversation?” she asked.

“I never want to have these conversations.”

“That’s why we don’t have them.”

Mel nestled her face into her shoulder, her arm outstretched and reaching from the window. She opened and closed her hand on the breeze, and what was left of the suncast gilded the slope of her neck and face.

“He’s leaving.”

She looked up.

“He’s what?”

“He’s going back home to New Hampshire,” Will said and lifted his chin to coax the glare out of his eyes.

“So who’s going to play?”

“We’ll find someone.”

He turned from the water and onto Queen, and they sat quietly.

“Why?” she asked.

“Says he just needs to get out of this town.”

She nodded and pulled on a couple of her fingers.

“It smells like piss in this car, by the way.”

“Yeah,” he agreed. “It’s pretty terrible.”

They parked outside her apartment and he followed her upstairs.

“You want some tea?” she asked.

The kitchen was plain, the cabinets empty because she never kept any food. Will looked over the books on the counter and asked if she actually read any of them. Outside, what was the day sank into skyblue and water, and buried below the rooftops, changing red brick into balefire, and she turned to make a face at him.

She filled a saucepan with water and set it to heat on the stove. A round table under the window was dressed in orange silk, ornamented by the small, red bulbs of straight pins. Her hands, well-acquainted with pin pricks, folded the fabric and Will rinsed two jars from the sink while dusk peaked.

“Rosy, where’s the tea?”

“I’ve got it.”

She held a small box over her knees and drummed on the cardboard with her fingers. He brought the water from the stove and sat opposite her. She thumbed through the box, selected a bag, and filled the small of her hand with its leaves, dropping them into the pot.

“You working a lot?” Will asked, pulling at the stubble over his lip.

“I’m a seamstress in the era of BOGO sales and poly blend,” she said. “I’m never working a lot.”

They smiled, and she looked down at the fabric in her lap.

“I’ve been picking up some alterations though, from some older ladies. And I’ve got a girl who wants some things made. This is mine though.”

“I love the jacket, by the way,” he said.

She laughed.

“You’ll never wear it. You should give it to Rans if you’re not going to wear it.”

“I’ll wear it,” he said.

“No, it wouldn’t fit him. Lesan, maybe.”

She poured the tea from the pot, damming the leaves with a butter knife.

“I’ll wear it.”

“You better.” She smiled again and they looked alike.

He wore his hair short and smoothed back so that it wouldn’t fall over his eyes or stick to his forehead. It was fine, and his sister thought that he was handsome, like their mother, soft around the edges like faces in old photographs.

“Do you have any food?” he asked.

“I could run down to BG’s for something.”

“That’s all right.”

“I’ve got some fruit, but it’s not very good,” she said. “Let’s just go out.”

“It’s all right, Mel. I was just curious.”

She touched her fingers to the small bumps on the back of her arm, then put her hands in her lap.

“How’s everybody?” she asked.

“Good.”

“Ransor was over the other night.”

“Was he?”

“We went to Wiley’s.”

“Jesus,” Will said and shook his head, laughing into one of his hands.

“He’s my adventure guy.”

“You can always count on Rans for the very best parts of town.”

“Especially if there are titties,” she said.

“Oh, always if there are titties.”

“And you?” she asked. “Kitty Coo getting any touch?”

He laughed and shook his head.

“I’m about as blue as it gets.”

“What about the lovely Makayla?” she asked.

“Mackenzie.”

“Yeah.”

Will shrugged.

“She seemed a bit thick anyway.” Mel said and poured herself more tea. “You need to stop going after girls with side ponytails. I think it upsets their center of balance.”

“You’re such a brat.”

“You know I’m right though,” she said.

“Of course I do. You’re always right, you little shit.”

“I do what I can.”

“Is this that Yerba stuff?” he asked.

“Yeah. You don’t like it, but it’s good for you.”

He picked at the leaves that stuck to the sides of his cup.

“You doing all right?”

She looked blankly at him for a moment, then softened and looked down at her lap.

“Yeah. Better than last week.”

“You seemed good on Monday.”

“Colorful is the word you’re looking for.”

He grinned.

“That’s one word for it.”

She grinned fiercely at him.

“C’mon.” He said, standing up. “Let’s get a bite, yeah?”

Mel turned up at the Gato not long after Paul had opened. The rain was passing, conceding dying light, and by the early mark of night, drained into cups and red eyes.

She negotiated her legs around her barstool, letting her knees rub together and her dress inch up her legs. The moving parts began to arrive, all bedroom eyes and sharkskin, and moved in and out of focus in the obscurity of mood lighting, while Mel sucked idly on the lip of a martini glass.

“Feeling better, sweetheart?” Paul asked, kneading the inside of a pint glass with a dishrag.

“My heart was beating so fast,” she said.

“I know. You made me feel it.”

“It’s weird, isn’t it? Sometimes that happens at night, though and I get all patchy, here on my chest.” She gripped the stem in with both hands, and slid it forward. “It was so fast, though. My face was red.”

“It’s still red,” he said.

“That’s the drink.”

Paul laughed.

“Well, at least you had enough sense to still come down.”

“I never miss Wednesdays.”

“No. You don’t,” he said. “You’re a saint like that.”

She shook her head, and her hair, which she’d left loose, shook about her face.

“That’s you,” she said.

“I just keep them fed.”

“That’s saintly.”

He smiled.

“Maybe so.”

“I just keep them honest,” she said.

“Well, I think that’s saintly too.”

She leaned over the bar to kiss his forehead.

“Well,” he laughed. “Speak of the devils.”

The boys filed in the front door with mellow, unhurried walks, exchanging private words and the grace of assumed primacy, and began setting up on stage.

Tike found Mel at the bar, tapping her shoulder, his hands quickly retreating back into his pockets. He was tall and flat and wore hearing aids in big ears, and she collected him in her arms.

“Hey, Melly.”

“You’re all wet,” she said.

“Yeah, I walked. You been here long?”

She slid off his shoulders and took his hand, interlacing their fingers.

“Why, who’s asking?”

Making a lean-to hung off his waist and coaxing her feet along with her, Mel whispered into his ear, honeyed-tongued and tongue-tied, and he lifted modestly under her arm to lighten her feet as they walked to the stage. The drum set was arranged, and Nels shifted pieces closer, then farther away, then closer. The amplifiers spoke preludial odes, and Will fiddled with knobs, seated on the corner of one, smiling at her as they approached.

Ransor fixed his long, thin hair behind his ears and when he could reach her, tugged Mel so close to him that she stepped on the tops of his shoes. She leaned back to look over him properly.

“You’re like a dream,” she said and kissed his face, long neglected a shave.

“They say it’s too much.”

“Of course it is. Nothing else would suit you.”

He fingered the stiff collar of his jacket.

“Oh yes,” she said, considering him again. “You do me very proud.”

“You hear that, assholes? The lady loves the suit.” He ignored them and turned back to Mel. “They all look like a bunch of cocks anyway. How you been?”

“Bored.”

He took a sip of her drink.

She laughed and steadied herself on his arm.

“Monday was good, though.”

“It was alright,” he said.

She smacked his hand away and finished the drink.

“So who’s the dish?” she asked.

“Hm?”

“Talking to Lesan.”

Ransor looked over his shoulder and nodded.

“Key player. He plays with Nels on that bop gig.”

“Does he have a name, or just key player?”

He shrugged.

“Is he the guy replacing Sam?”

“No, that dude gets here in a couple days. He’s just filling in for tonight.”

“That’s promising,” she said. “Introduce me, yeah?”

He offered his arm.

“You know, one of these days you’re going to bring me home,” he said.

She laughed and pulled him close to her.

“Never gonna happen, sweetheart.”

“Don’t be so sure.” He smoothed over the patches on his cheeks. “Persistence is wearing.”

“You’re incorruptible,” she said, shaking her head. “It’s just like with Nels.”

Lesan spotted her and waved.

“What about Nels?” Ransor asked.

“I’d never sleep with him.”

“Why not?”

“He’s too good of a drummer.”

“Why’s that a problem?”

She stopped just short of introduction and looked up at Ransor.

“Because I respect him too much.”

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