Say-sos and the hiss-hum of fryers crowded the small shop nestled into a side street by overgrow and the loom of tired houses that grew and decomposed into one another. The damp faces that hung about the place collected grease that was smeared by the backs of gloved hands, and plastic lawn chairs and red checkerboard-dressed tables dirtied by the hands of those who had dirtied them in the days before. Baskets of shrimp and crab plunged into fryers, and resurfaced, spilled onto Styrofoam tableware.
She accepted the plate from the grinning man leaning greedily over the counter, and accepted the charity, promising to remember her wallet next time she was in. He said he didn’t mind.
She left and walked down to the promenade that looked over the water. She reddened in the unchallenged sun, but didn’t mind because of the coolness blowing over coast. Tourists ambled along the sidewalk, ignoring all the important things and photographing everything else.
Mel walked a while looking over the pregnancy of the sea, then shook off her shoes and sat on the edge of the seawall, dangling her feet over the water and feeling the spray of it on their soles. She rested her elbows on the railing, greasing her fingers, and sucking oil and salt from them as her feet pruned. The water sounded like water always does. Pedestrians talked insolently over it, and she scratched against her plate so that they might leave.
“What are you doing here, little one?”
She tilted back her head and smiled at the silhouette Lesan carved into the brightness. He was something good, she thought, like coming home, and she wiped her hands on the lap of her dress.
“I’m looking for Atlantis,” she said, turning back to the water. “You’ve thrown me off now.”
“Atlantis?” he asked. “Don’t you think it’s a bit further out?”
“Well, it passes the time,” she said.
They both looked over the water.
She laughed, boasting her likeness to her brother. He smiled at that.
“Are you coming on Friday?”
She brought the soles of her feet together, arranged her dress between her legs.
“Where?” she asked.
“Where do you think?”
“I was going to make a joke.”
She reached up and he pulled her to her feet.
“Was it going to be funny?”
She made a face.
“You look good in yellow,” he said.
“I’ll see you Friday then,” she said.
He noticed a bit of grease smeared over her cheek, but decided to leave it there.
“Until then,” he said.
She nodded and started down the promenade, stepping mindfully over the cracks in the sidewalk, barefoot until it became too hot on her feet.
That night, dew did not pine for the places of early morning, on flats and points of palm leaves, or for the pocked ground, wooing earth into mud and wetting the canopies of spider webs plaiting in healthy grass. It settled instead to adorn the hips of new drinks, its beads inching and embracing each other until their mass carried them to pool over the bar-top.
Cocktail laughs furnished the crowd that seemed to sway side to side and close together, adjusting to the room as it spun. Will and Nels meditated over their beers, watching the dew fall. Will brought the glass to his mouth, and rolled the liquid around in his cheeks, wiping his hands over his pant legs. Nels likewise took a small mouthful from his beer and returned it under his eyes.
“I’m sorry I keep bringing it up,” Will said.
“I don’t mind.”
“I just don’t have time, you know? I guess that excuse is old.” Will paused for condolence. He looked at Nels, then joined him in considering the contents of his glass.
“This is really terrible.” Nels said.
“I told you to get the stout.”
“Damn it. You did,” Nels said. He pushed the full glass away. “You’re right though. She didn’t get how much time we have to invest.”
“Yeah. I mean I’ve other commitments. Like, I’ve been getting really into pedals lately.” He sipped. “And she was kind of shit in bed anyways.”
“Hey, Paul. Can I get the stout?”
“Don’t think you’re not paying for this one,” Paul said.
“Like how is my music supposed to be any good if I’m not there with it, you know? Like really there. Not fielding angry calls because I’m late. It’s like, I’m at rehearsal.”
Paul poured from the draft, shaking his head.
“Shall I clear this up for you boys?” he asked.
“The problem’s that ya’ll already got a woman.”
“I think I would have noticed,” Will said.
“Nah. As long as you’re playing, that’s your woman.” Paul set the stout in front of Nels and leaned onto the bar. “And all these other broads are just broads, ya’ know? They’re just the mistress. And they can tell. When there’s another woman, they always know. Trust me.”
“Plenty of people have both,” Will said.
Paul shook his head.
“Everybody’s got their shit. For some, it’s women, or a woman. And they play decent, maybe.”
“So you’re saying I should resign now to celibacy?”
“You just got to find the ladies that don’t mind being a hobby. Celibacy ain’t going to be your problem.”
“Trust me. They do the same to you.”
“Oh, if I could be so lucky.”
“You say that now,” Paul laughed. “Until you wind up back in that same spot there, licking your wounds over some girl who don’t got time for you.”
Nels looked amused at both of them, his glass held up to his mouth.
“And what about you, gringo? Ladies not really an issue I imagine, pretty face like yours.”
“Did you just call him gringo?” Will laughed.
“I’m old. I can call him whatever I want.”
Paul turned to the tribe of middle-aged and low-cut women spilling on the lower end of the bar, calling out in desperation for his attention. He said something in response that made them laugh and Will closed his eyes because it was even worse than the stridency of their conversation.
“What do you think?” Will said, looking at Nels. “Is it always one or the other?”
“I don’t think I would know,” he answered.
“Yo, baby!” Paul shouted, huddled into the group of women. “Drummer boy! I think I found one for you. Says she’ll blow your horn for a shot of Jamo and a Klondike Bar.”
A few blocks east, Mel idled out her window, waiting for something to move her. She would have liked to talk about the full moon, but the night was overcast and its effect went amiss on the stucco roofs and doll-eyes. Still, it was romantic enough to suit her condition, and she smiled at the smeared moon and adjusted her hands on the window frame. Her tiptoes queried for the hardwood, and she slumped back inside.
“Glad you could join us,” Ransor said, walking in from the kitchen with three wine glasses between his fingers, and taking pulls from a bottle of red.
“If you’ll still have me,” she said.
She nested into her chair and accepted a glass. Ransor brought a chair from the kitchen, poured for Tike, seated on the floor, and then for himself.
“I still don’t really get it,” Mel said.
“He’s just going home.” Ransor reached for his glass between his feet.
“Yes, I got that much, sweetheart,” she said and sipped on her wine, trying not to let it rest too long on her lips. “But I mean he plays keys. The brooding all seemed very natural. I thought they were all supposed to be like that.”
“I’ll be sure to pass on your concerns to him. I hardly think anyone’s been around to inform him of his archetypal blasphemy.”
“A bass player, maybe. But even then, they’re usually too thick to have any genuine despair.”
Tike watched them talk. Mel grinned at him, and he slung back a mouthful of wine.
“He says he needs to collect himself,” Tike said.
“The hell with that,” Mel said and shimmied her shoulders deeper into the chair. “What good’s anybody that’s collected.”
“Hear, hear,” Ransor said.
“I think he’s just broke,” she said.
“Everybody’s broke,” Ransor said. “In some way or another.”
“Can I see your lighter?”
He handed it to her.
“So, either of you know this new guy?”
Tike shook his head, and Mel used the flame to singe the hairs she had missed on her knees.
“No. Will’s played with him though,” Ransor said.
“That’s what I’ve heard,” she said. She brushed her hands over her legs, then looked dispassionately at the lighter, and up at Tike.
He tossed them to her, and wedging one into the top of the lighter, she fiddled with the safety until she could yank it off, then slid both items across the floor.
“Rans, you’re really monopolizing that bottle,” she said. “Share the wealth, yeah?”
Ransor topped himself off, and handed it to her. There wasn’t much left, so she pointed it at Tike.
“You’ve been gypped,” she said. “I insist.”
He lurched onto his feet, and she poured for him, allowing for the last drops to fall staunchly from the bottle.
“Thank you, lass,” he said.
She held on to his wrist.
“You know you might be the best thing on earth,” she said.
He shook his head so that she might not see his face, the color spreading onto his neck.
“Put on a new record?”
“What would you like?”
“Put on Atlantis,” Ransor said uncorking a bottle.
“Absolutely not.” She said and looked back at Tike. “I’ll leave it in your hands. Just make it something good. It’s a full moon.”
The slight bodies of flies singed in the crystalline catalyst and drove unremittingly into the window pane, the want of rampancy dampened neither by injury nor nonsuccess. He wondered if lunacy reduced the virtue of their resilience, or if creatures so inconsequential could warrant virtue. He watched their able, disastrous bodies, overturned by their resolution, and questioned aloud to himself if they did not all crash blindly into window panes in some way. He then remembered that he was blazed and he laughed and hugged his knees into his chest so that he could grab his big toes. The front door of the garage opened, the brazen sun entering first into the room, and the flies dispersed.
“We practice here too,” Will said.
James followed him inside. He looked much like they all did. Ransor made observations between his knees.
“Those are some tight pants, man,” he said.
Will brought his hand over his face, and a giggle sounded from the floor.
“Ransor, yeah?” James asked.
“That’s okay. I feel comfortable at this distance,” Ransor said.
“God, you’re such a dick,” Will said.
“I’m just evaluating. Give me a moment.”
Ransor grinned and smoothed his hair under his head.
“What have you got so far?” James asked. He sat down on the couch against the back wall and pushed his disarrayed hair from his face.
“It’s still very early, you see. Not much has been corroborated. Merely presumption.”
“C’mon. Let’s hear it,” James said.
“You look white.”
“You look dirty.”
“I am,” he said, the corners of his eyes were wet, laughing and rolling on the floor.
“You’re completely scorched, aren’t you?” Will said.
“Body and soul.”
“Oh, I accidentally opened your mail. It’s from your mom,” Ransor said.
“And?” Will asked. “Can I have it?”
“I’m fine where I am.”
“You’re ridiculous,” Will said and started up the stairs.
Allowing for him to disappear, Ransor released his hands from under his head and disentangled a joint from the hair behind his ear. He lit it and held it out to James, lips curling over his teeth.
“Welcome to the jungle, man.”
James took a drag and crossed his ankles, reclining comfortably into the failing material of the pullout.
“So what’s your piece?” Ransor asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Your piece,” he repeated. “What’s your purpose, man?”
James uncrossed his legs, then crossed them on the other side.
“Play some music. Do that the best that I can.”
“Yeah,” Ransor said. “Me too.”
“I guess you just hope that that’s enough to do some good.”
“Man we’re all flies, aren’t we?”
He pointed to the window.
“Banging our heads, hoping we might get to something better. Just to die on the window pane, seeing that the door was open.”
“Maybe it’s not about getting out,” James said.
Ransor reached up for the joint.
“Anyway, I’m not a fly,” he said.
“No, I’m a cat. We don’t got nowhere to be.”
Mel played footsies with the legs of her bar stool and tousled a cherry stem with her tongue and teeth. Paul kept his eyes on her when he could spare them. His hands moved on their own accord, the kind of knowing that the body keeps long after the mind does.
She felt little wings in her belly, warm on her face, and she rested her elbows on the bar because it wasn’t moving.
“Fixing for a spin?” Paul asked her.
She pulled the knotted cherry stem between her teeth and smiled.
The moon was high, bright and impartial, skimming somewhere on sky-black water, and she knew it was the time of night when most of the room was drunk enough to dance. She made prayer hands over her heart and walked through the company of damp, blushed faces. Her hands rose and parted over her head, her eyes, her mouth, laughing, and her hands fell to her sides.
She always danced, singing parts of the songs when she knew them, and was always best when she forgot that people were watching.
She couldn’t play, and understood less than she admitted, but she knew that God was this, and sometimes she would take off her shoes and forget the tacky floor and the people watching.
The song finished, and the boys shared words she couldn’t hear. Will teetered from the bass amp to say something, and the band laughed. Mel laughed and clapped her hands over her third eye, meeting both of Paul’s high above the bar when she returned. He poured her a drink.
“And let’s follow that one with a water,” she said, palms on the bar.
He brought her one with a plate of cherries.
“Now you can stop sticking your grimy fingers in the jar.”
She smiled, and her head drooped to the side. He tugged on her ear to straighten her out.
“You’re getting silly a little early, aren’t you?” he asked.
“That one was a bit heavy on my head. Empty stomach is all.”
“I’ll cut you some slack then. Anyone else though, it’d be a weakness of character.”
“A lightweight or the empty stomach?” she asked.
“No, belle,” he said. “Empty stomach is never a weakness ‘less it’s self-inflicted.”
She looked at her hands and then brightly up at him.
“Always the adherent for the starving artist,” she said.
“If they’re honest for it.”
The boys finished their set. Men waded about the floor below the stage, wide-gaited with dank, boozy breath, and took turns to tell them about the instruments they played in high school and that they understood it all, and the boys shook their wet hands and thanked them for it. All were Kings that kept a generous tab and tipped the band.
Libations preceded them at the bar, beside the patrons that lingered, growing louder as there became less of them. The boys alighted into place, hands cuffed onto brown liquids, heads somewhere between their shoulders, though Ransor left on walkabout, accompanied by a double neat of bourbon, giving bulk to his thin mustache with a puckered upper lip, and greasing the works of much older women.
Will sat next to his sister and rested his arm around her.
“Thanks for dancing,” he said.
“I always do.”
“Afraid I didn’t know your poison, so I was left to presume,” Paul said. “Can I grab you something else?”
“This is great,” James said. “Thanks, Paul”
“We call him Saint Paul,” Mel said.
“James, have you met my sister?”
“I haven’t had the pleasure, but I saw you dancing.”
She reached across to him.
“Nice to meet you.”
“I’ve been briefed on you,” she said before letting go of his hand.
“Yeah? Well, I’ve been briefed on you too.”
“We all have our notorieties, I guess. As to your own, I’ll have to agree with the general consensus.”
“And what’s that?”
“You can play.”
“That’s generous of you.”
“I’m a giver,” she said.
“That’s what they say.”
She narrowed her eyes for a moment, then laughed and brought her glass to her mouth.
“Well they talk out of their ass.”
Beckoned by a bevy of tiny suns and the prospect of being foolish beneath them, they walked out as well as their legs would take them, into the mild, new air that comes when the sun is forgotten and the brimful, birth-marked sky has shaken the sea from it.
Vesper’s avid patronage lolled over Queen, stained lips and chemical madness in eyes that served better in twilight and in double, finding company to bed and old reveries, a thickness of waiting bodies, and Mel and the boys took the alley because it was quiet.
Ransor walked ahead, just far enough to seem peculiar, and kicked clumps of dirt with his hassle loafers. Tike and James, the companionship between whom had enriched by the third drink, joined Nels and Will in a lax chorus line, stepping all to the left, to the right, to the left, their pockets pillowed by beers to-go.
The moon was dispassionate to the earth just then and kept to the sky and on the water, their company secret movers but for their fulsome sound. Mel and Lesan followed behind them, and she could have been smiling, but it was too dark to see.
“The house after that backed up to a lake. And the neighbors had a raft they didn’t ever miss much.”
“I’d still take the one with the apple trees,” Mel said.
“Yeah, well my aunts lived by the cherry orchards out there,” Lesan said. “And my mom and I would sometimes go with them. We’d pay the guy some and he’d let us have at it for a while. And then we’d go back to the house and make jam.”
“You’re making this up now.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.”
“I might,” she said. “I love cherries.”
They neared the water, and heard it pressing itself to the earth in want. The park was empty save those who made a home in it. The entourage fragmented and hurried onto the railing. Will lingered, returning to his sister, and collected her under his arm, then collected Lesan.
“Well hello, kitten,” she said.
“I love you.” He rolled his head over to Lesan. “I love you too.”
“You’re my one and only, sweet pea,” she said.
He kissed her forehead.
“You want to race?” Lesan asked.
“I bet I could beat you to the dock.”
Will pushed out his lips in a dispute, a dribble of spit falling onto his chin. He corrected his equilibrium quick-stepping forward and back.
“You’re so charming,” Mel said.
“How about it, bud?”
Will wiped his mouth.
“Oh, you’re on.”
Delayed by his arm still clasped around his sister’s neck, he detached himself and started after Lesan, betrayed by his limbs that felt foreign to him.
Mel walked on and climbed onto the railing beside Tike. She stepped down and kicked off her shoes, then back up. The metal was wet, the night windless, and the pendulant waves turned regardlessly. She looked back for her brother. He hung broad-legged halfway to the docks, his hands on his knees, decorating the ground with his take of the per diem. Lesan laughed soundlessly beside him, his hand on Will’s shoulder.
“Will’s in rare form tonight,” James said.
“Yes, I do believe you have already expedited his undoing,” she said. “I haven’t seen him this liberated in a while.”
“Labor Day,” Ransor said.
“Christ. Yeah, we’re not there yet,” she said. “Still, it’s always unnerving to be the sober one.”
“Well, sober respectively.”
“I don’t think sobriety is graded on a curve,” James said.
Mel shook her head.
“There’s so much wrong with the world.”
James had a good face It was the kind that lends itself to good fortune and sympathetic eyes, and she watched him while he looked for something in the water.
“You’ve got a tic.” she said.
She laughed and covered her mouth.
“I probably shouldn’t say that.”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“That’s not something you say,” she reminded herself.
“You’ve sure got a touch, don’t you?”
“I’m not sure I know what that means,” she said.
“My guess is you probably do.”
Mel looked at Tike who was listening and wrapped her arm around his waist.
“I think it’s time for me to go home.”
“Want me to walk you?” James asked.
“I know the way.”
“I’m sure you do,” he said.
She gave around her love and goodnights, and the moon changed its disposition to give her a limelight home.
Stepping lightly through her bedroom and savoring the touches of fabrics against her ankles, she dropped her shoes into the makeshift foliage, lilac and discarded, and moved into the bathroom. Bouqueted yellow roses hung to dry on the wall beside the medicine cabinet. The room was sparse otherwise, old fixtures and yellow light. The lifting tiles were littered in yellow petals. Mel arranged her hair behind her back. She brought water to her face, posing her shoulders so that her hair would settle between them. Beads dropped from her chin and in the mirror she watched them darken the neckline of her dress, then she dried her face.
She left the door ajar and the light on and climbed into bed, swathing the sheets and crawling out of her dress once they surrounded her, kicking the dress out the foot of the bed. All wanderers had retired, lain in beds and on streets, the fortunate beside lovers that slept also. She listened to her quiet breathing, something of which she found to men to be incapable.
Drowsiness had relented, too long disregarded, so she lay with open eyes, fingers on her stomach. She felt over the soft parts of her body and thought of no one. The skin on her shoulders was warm from the sun and the sheets were warming to her. She listened for the sea.
Ransor tipped his hat, near to his nose, knowing only of the moon that bleared in the leftover rain, trembling in the pocks on the road under his brim. The boys walked flat-footed in the street, and even the restless kept sleepy eyes. Each mediated on nothing in particular and walked on, upsetting the moon with their shoes. They slumped into themselves and slightly side-to-side, wavered by metronomic arms. The night was melodic as the world always was around them, the crooning of dogs, the sounds in their heads, and they followed it home.