THREE

Little rose with midmorning. The air did not move, nor the bodies, lain prone with arms pinioned under slight bellies, their faces distorted by their pillows, the covers of which collected stains at the discretion of gaped mouths. The dress was yesterday’s.

One body stirred. He wavered to his feet, accompanied by the crack-pop reproach of a body resigned to the floor. He took a primitive gait, avoiding the entanglement of discarded limbs, and came upon the stairs, which went slowly. Pasty, bow-legs pegged from boxer shorts, and each accomplished step awarded a reprieve in which the shorts were rearranged.

Settling into his sea-legs, he made his way between the mattresses narrowing the room upstairs, and into the bathroom. Once relieved, he rinsed a glass in the sink of the butler’s kitchen beside the stairs, filled it with water, and returned downstairs to drool onto the Oriental rug.

By early afternoon, Lesan and James, who lay on the floor, had roused and repositioned. With their hands pillowing their heads against the hard floor, they looked over magic marker inscriptions that had been made on the plywood ceiling, the impressions of the rug withdrawing from their faces. Tike sprawled over the couch above them, his white sneakers descending towards the floor, sampling the stale taste of his mouth.

“What’s Will supposed to be?” James asked, pointing to a section of the adorned ceiling. “Is he an otter?”

“He’s a manatee,” Lesan said.

“But then what is Tike?”

“I’m a narwhal.”

Lesan looked proudly over at James.

“The horn.”

“Of course.”

“What time it is?” James asked, looking up to Tike but seeing only the dangling shoes.

“Hard to say,” Tike peeked through the black drapes behind him. “It must be late. The kids are out of school.”

“It’s Saturday.”

“Oh, right.”

The shirt pasted on his back, Lesan sat up and stretched for his feet that avoided him. Grains sprouted on his face, and he pulled at them with his fingertips.

“I think we’d better get to it then,” he said.

James groaned, and buried his face into the wilted floral rug.

“Let them have five more minutes,” he said.

“It’s the middle of the afternoon,” Lesan said. “You think they’d notice five minutes?”

“Maybe.”

Grinning, Lesan reclined and settled back onto his plaited hands.

“Then again, maybe the spirit of our benevolence will rouse them.”

A body shifted upstairs, upsetting the springs of a mattress.

“Jesus Christ,” said a throaty voice.

“See?” Lesan said.

A brief quiet followed, then the harrowing of another innerspring, and upstairs Ransor quietly, sleepily asked, “Did you piss yourself again?”

Nels lodged his shoe against the bass drum of his vintage club date kit, unknowingly smearing a fresco of Doublemint over the black-laquer. He pulled the fingers of one hand toward the back of his wrist, and then the other, the sounds of creative division pattering through the space around him. The back of his throat offered remnants of the evening, moiling in his soft belly, and prompting fumes into his mouth. He belched quietly.

Will had his hands over his face, palpating the bags under his eyes with his fingers.

“What exactly is the problem?” he asked.

“It’s not so much a problem, as it seems to be a difference in vision, really.”

Ransor paced the seedy carpet in front of the kit. His cord, which caught on the leg of the crash stand each time he passed, was relieved by Tike who periodically pocketed his horn against his side and disentangled it.

“How would you like us to see it?” Will asked.

“I can’t paint pictures for a blind man,” Ransor said.

“Ignoring that,” Will said and adjusted himself on the corner of the bass amp. “Can you please give us anything else to go on?”

“Needs more grove.”

“Ah, yes. That clears up all ambiguity,” Will said.

James abandoned the keyboard and collapsed into the pullout, its mattress influenced little by him, congealed into a thin surface, collecting dim impressions of bodies and food stains. He adjusted the closure of the shades behind him, the material saturated by the heat of afternoon.

“I think the B section should be less defined.”

“Can you even define what less defined means?” Will said.

Ransor rolled the toothpick in the crook of his mouth with his fingers.

“Now you’re just fucking with me.” he said.

“Really, only a little.”

Lesan switched off and joined James on the couch.

“Is it always like this?” James asked.

Lesan chewed on his lip, interrupted in his reply by an outburst by Ransor.

“It’s like, if I’m fucking a chick, I’m not gonna be like, hey sweetie, what you’re doing is real nice, but you think maybe you could try some syncopation?”

Lesan laughed.

“Absolutely always,” he said.

“I got that feeling,” James said. He reposed his head on the failing upholstery and nodded toward the drawings on the ceiling. “So, why isn’t Will’s sister up there?”

“Mel?”

“She’s around a lot, isn’t she? Why isn’t she up there anywhere?”

“I don’t know,” Lesan said. “I guess I wouldn’t know how to draw her.”

“I get the feeling she’s kind of a handful.”

“Sometimes,” Lesan said. “I think she’s got a lot going on in her head though.”

“Yeah?”

“Not just like that though. Though, I’m sure there’s plenty of that too.” He thought for a moment. “It’s like, I think she can’t decide who she is supposed to be.”

“So she drinks a fifth of bourbon and screws the entire band to make things are crystal clear?”

“Naturally.”

“She is fucking gorgeous, though,” James said.

Lesan laughed.

“Yeah, get in line.”

A sigh passed deliberately over Nels’ slack mouth. He lowered his feet on the ground and arranged his coiffure as best as could be done with the back of his hand.

“ How about we take it just before the B section, and I’ll switch something up? See if you can fit in with it.”

“At least that way we can get somewhere,” Ransor said, and noticing that he was stuck, he pulled on his cord. Nels caught the crash stand on its way to the floor.

After fingering some knobs on his pedalboard, Ransor broadened his legs, his center of balance converging somewhere between his pelvis and his Les Paul. He looked down his nose, then askew at Lesan and James on the pullout. 

“You ladies want to play some music or what?”

  

Ransor urged purple-green wads into the flaccid end of a cigarette, and wiggled deeper into the couch. He lit up and offered greens to Will and Lesan, then to Tike who also declined.

The front door opened and pulleyed their heads. Billowed cheeks expelled a plume of smoke once the shape silhouetting the glare from the entry focused into familiarity. Brightness and the chirping of girlish voices buckled around doorframe and washed over the lax, wan faces panelling the couch. Apple stood close to Mel as she always did so that she could feel her words on her face, sometimes touching the warmth it left on her cheek, as she did just then, idling in the doorway. Mel narrowed her eyes, and the shapes on the couch squared into bodies and faces that she recognized. She squeezed Apple under her arm.

“Are you guys done rehearsing?” she asked.

“God, I hope so,” Will said.

Ransor peeled himself from the couch, and received them with an unapologetic once-over, fingering the hem of Mel’s dress.

“Is it still okay if I work here for a bit?” she asked.

“For sure,” Will said.

Ransor let go of her dress.

“You’re working here?” he asked, and remembering himself, offered the spliff to her. She shook her head.

“She doesn’t,” Will said.

“I don’t,” she confirmed.

Pinching it in his lips, Ransor grinned around it, shaping fissures in the corners of his mouth.

“Yeah, I know. One of these days though, you’re gonna fold. And I’m going to be there when it happens.”

“I’m working on something for her,” Mel said, playing with the blunt hair on the back of Apple’s head. Apple watched Tike, curious, and turned quickly around when he noticed her and made a face. Mel settled her things behind the couch, and slumped into the space beside her brother.

“Of course,” she said. “I couldn’t possibly do any work right this instant.”

“It’d be far too industrious of you,” Will said.

“Indolence is the stain of true genius, brother dear.”

“You’ve got powdered sugar on your nose.”

Her arms cruciform across her chest, Apple stepped gingerly through thicket of cables and cords, rough, velvety boxes and guitars, and lingered over the upright piano.

“No, the place on Third,” Mel said. “They do pâte à choux on Saturdays.”

Will growled and rubbed his stomach.

“Where’s everybody else?” she asked.

“Out,” he said.

“You always sound so bitter when they’re gone. They are allowed to do that.”

“I want to see what you’re working on,” Lesan said and reached for her things. She was quickly on him.

“Don’t you dare,” she said. “It’s not finished.”

“I won’t hold it against you.”

“That’s not the point.”

“You shouldn’t be so sensitive,” he said.

“At the very least, but alas.”

A yellowed piano key plunged below the others, submitting to the will of a thin brown finger, her hand idling over the keys before being hid behind her back. Apple looked directly up at them and changed color. The room smiled and Tike joined her over the piano.

“You should show her something,” Mel called to Tike. “She’s always too scared to ask.”

“I really do want to see it,” Lesan said.

“Then you’ll really have to wait,” she said. “It’s not ready.”

“Nothing’s ever finished. Doesn’t always mean it’s not ready.”

She smiled and pushed him gently.

“You’re full of shit,” she said.

“But it sounds good.”

Tike sat down at the piano. His hands loitered on the keys, his knuckles scuffed from being habitually shoved into his pockets. He made room for Apple to sit beside him on the bench, but she shook her head, her hands still clutched behind her back. Tike jested himself and turned back to his hands. He played four notes and looked at her, blushed again, and finished the phrase. She smiled when she recognized it and sat down with him.

The day was gathering itself together to recede into sea, the air turning cool so that the breeze whet the dampness on their backs. Ransor whispered to Mel, and she laughed over the deliberate clinks of piano keys.

Apple fiddled with her fingers while she watched Tike play, then pressed her hands in the lap of her dress and clasped them between her knees so that might might sit still. Her dress was one of Mel’s, and it fell just above her ankles and the thick, plastic sandals that hung off her small feet. She wore a yellow camisole under the dress with twisted straps that rouged her shoulders, and the sleeve of Tike’s T-shirt tickled her arm but she didn’t move.

Mel grabbed Tike by the shoulders.

“I want to show you something now,” she said.

“Let him be, Rosy,” Will said, contorting his position on the couch. “He sounds pretty good.”

“Oh, calm down,” she said.

She led Tike away from the piano and opposite herself, cursorily clearing the floor with her feet while holding onto his arms.

She looked up at him.

“You afraid of me?”

“No ma’am.”

“And will you dance with me?”

“Yes, ma’am. I will.” He laughed slightly. “I’m afraid I might be a tragedy, though.”

She brought roses to the room on the rounds of her cheeks, and gave him her hands, then looked at her brother.

“Piano’s not going to play itself, sweetheart.”

Tike’s hands were damp, so she wiped them over the skirt of her dress, hunching him forward. She toyed with the arrangement of her mouth, arresting his hands again under hers, and whispering something that loosened his shoulders.

Will settled himself on the piano bench, shook the hair from his eyes, and reacquainted his hands with the arrangement of the world. He straightened moderately then lowered his hands over the keys, nudging Apple who had spun around to watch the dancing. She twisted back and played her notes, which Will sustained, scooting closer to the piano, and continued.

“You know you’re her favorite, don’t you?” Mel said.

Tike looked up from her hands, trying to memorize them.

“You’re starting to get it. Now just look up. It’s easier if you look up. I promise.”

Lesan rose from the couch, moving carefully through the flight of audacity and negligent limbs, and grabbed his guitar.

Apple forgot the piano, and giggled unabashedly, clapping her hands together when they did something she liked. She heeded no notice of Will’s attempts for her attention when the section she knew came around, and he fought with a smile, forgiving the disregard of a girl because of the nearness of her.

Tike’s white tennis shoes began to move more easily, and gradually he looked up from them, drawing his eyes down only to hide the red on his face. Mel’s face flushed also, but mostly from the blood in her head and the flask tucked with her things behind the couch.

She bowed at the end of the song, and left Tike briefly to kiss the back of her brother’s head.

“Can you play another one like that?” she whispered.

She wrestled with Apple to peel her off the piano bench, and finally getting her to her feet, she kept her locked in her arms.

“Now you’re going to teach her, all right?” Mel said.

She kissed Apple’s cheek roughly.

“Don’t be a wimp,” she said to her, and Apple scowled as best she could.

Mel sat down on the stairs and pressed her face between the posts of the handrail, creasing her cheeks, and smiling in spite of it.

Tike and Apple smeared the floor with wide, uneasy steps, and their chins planted into their chests. Apple held on to his wrists, the hands too far apart, and Mel bit her thumb to keep from laughing.

“Now if nothing ever changed,” she said to herself.

“Hey, Rans. You want a go?” Will asked.

Ransor nodded. He killed the spliff and ground it into the ashtray, then walked over to the piano.

“All right, get up.” Will fetched his sister from the foot of the stairs.

She followed him to the center of the room.

“Oh, don’t give me that face,” he said. “You’re not the only one mom made do this stupid dance.”

“I would have never thought you remembered it,” she laughed.

“That’s your problem, you know,” He twirled her. “You convince everybody else that you’re the only person that knows how to dance, so nobody ever asks you.”

She grinned.

“You’re doing that part wrong.”

TWO

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.

“All right.”

“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.”

“That’s harsh.”

“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.

“Keys?

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.”

Ransor laughed.

“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.”

James laughed.

“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.”

Ransor smiled.

“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.

“Maybe not.”

Ransor reached up for the joint.

“Anyway, I’m not a fly,” he said.

“No?”

“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.

“Melrose.”

“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.”

He laughed.

“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.

“What?”

“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.”

Ransor laughed.

“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.

“What?”

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.

He smiled.

“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.

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.”