The Sometime Man
(The First Part)
It's two o’clock in the morning and Joe sits listening to old CDs as he plays solitaire on the computer, not really meaning to, but drifting back in time as Emmylou Harris sings about not wanting to hear any sad songs and all he can think about is the memories those lyrics bring back to haunt him. His father watches from his perch on the couch and would comment about those memories and Joe’s tendency to get lost in them but before he can the front door bell rings and though they'd both like to ignore it, the lights in the living room are on so Joe can't pretend to be asleep. And when he opens the door, there's Ted with a half empty bottle of Jack Daniels in his hand and looking a little worse for wear.
"I knew you'd be up," he says. "You're the only one I know who sleeps less than me."
"Ah well...." and Joe trails off as Ted enters, looks around as if he is expecting someone else to be present but does not see Joe’s father since he is a ghost only visible to his son, then plops down on the sofa and sighs. "What a night," he says. "you don't know, but you're saving my life right now."
Joe gives in to the inevitable, ambles over to the liquor cabinet, pours himself a healthy glassful of Bushmills, ignores his father’s disapproving look, hands a glass to Ted so he doesn't have to drink from his bottle, and sits. "How?" he says.
"Women," Ted says. "Fucking women."
"Is that fucking an adjective there or a verb?"
"In my case," Ted sighs, "both."
Joe sighs, too, and thinks this will be a longer night than he anticipated. But at least now he's spared the memories and has his closest friend, who figures into many of those memories, instead. "I was at Wet Goods minding my own business, or at least trying to, when Karen walked in. And, of course, I couldn't exactly explain to her satisfaction what this other woman's hand was doing resting on my crotch."
"What other woman?"
"Sue something," Ted says.
"I thought you said you were minding your own business?"
"Well I was," Ted grins. "You know women are my business."
"Right," Joe nods. "I forgot."
"I mean apart from my music, that is. But hell, without women what would I sing about?" And he laughs. "Or what would you write about, for that matter, right?"
"I think I am at least open to other subjects, but you have a one track mind in that regard."
"And I'm not getting off the track, partner. I'm riding it to the very end."
And therein, Joe thinks, lies the difference between them.
"You know, partner," Ted says, as he lies back on the sofa and closes his eyes, "I'm sure glad you took that job at the college and moved up here. I needed an old friend like you here to get in trouble with."
Joe sighs, "I'm trying to reform," he says somewhat wearily.
"C'mon," Ted says, his eyes still closed, sleep creeping up on him as he speaks. "We're too old to reform." And then he glides off into a peaceful sleep that only those long accustomed to a way of life beyond their control achieve.
And Joe, his lifelong friend and sworn brother, admires that in him knowing full well he himself will never attain it while his father, shaking his head, starts to fade from the picture..
And life for the two of them goes on pretty much as expected.
The next morning Joe wakes to find Ted standing in his kitchen in his boxer shorts and a t-shirt mixing his famous bloody marys and singing to himself. It's a new song he has been composing in his head for over a week and he finally thinks he has it now. That makes him happy and it shows in the enthusiasm he puts into stirring the drinks. Joe, meanwhile, finds himself drifting in his mind and tries as hard as he can to concentrate on the tune Ted is humming which helps to anchor him in the present.
"Here you go," Ted says and hands Joe his drink. "To those not lucky enough to be here." And they touch glasses and each take a healthy sip.
"Also," Ted says, "to love, money, and health, and not necessarily in that order."
"Well two out of three wouldn't be bad."
"Go for broke, I always say," and Ted grins. "I mean, what's the point of getting on this carousal if you don't stretch for the brass ring."
"And what brass ring would that be?" Joe asks.
"Preferably a female one."
"One day some jealous husband is going to burst into a bedroom you've taken command of and blast you to whatever it is that awaits us after we close our eyes for the last time," Joe says.
"Ah," and Ted flashes that grin of his, "at least I'll go in the saddle. What better memory to take with me, hey?"
Joe shakes his head, amused in spite of himself, sips some more of his drink, and sits on one of the kitchen chairs as he watches Ted. "You certainly make yourself at home here," Joe says. "Watching you, one would think this was your kitchen, not mine."
"I have over the years learned to make myself at home in all the many places my wandering ways have led me." Ted grins. "And there have been many places I've wandered to and in."
Joe nods absently, the drink still not quite stimulating his brain cells, and sighs, then sighs again, remembering his first ex-wife dubbing him the man of constant sighs. He thinks his father would probably have something to say about that right now but thankfully is nowhere to be seen.
"How do you like it here so far?" Ted asks settling into the chair opposite him.
"I don't know yet," he says. "It's all so new and you're the only familiar thing around here."
"But it's better than that place you were at before, isn't it?" Ted says as he licks the celery stick after stirring his drink. "Where was it again? Kansas?"
"It's all Kansas," Joe says, "once you leave New York and before you hit California."
"Well you're back in New York now," Ted says, "even if it is upstate. But we're within striking distance of the city, if you consider a three hour drive striking distance."
"I thought it was a five hour drive."
"Not in my car," Ted says, that grin spreading.
"Right," Joe nods. "I forgot."
"Have we been apart that long, partner?"
"Well I was in Kansas for three years. Then there was somewhere else and then the time before that and I think I might have even done time somewhere in the West where people rode horses and the women yelled yippee in the middle of jazz concerts and sex."
"I could go for a little yippee right now," Ted says.
"As I remember, you could go for yippee anytime."
"You remember right."
"Anyway, being back in the East and in New York, even upstate, is a lot better than where I've been these last few decades." And he tilts what's left of his bloody mary Ted's way and adds, "And with you, old paint. It can't get much better than this."
"Well let's hope this gig at the college works out and you put down roots here. It would be about time, no, Cisco?"
"Yes, Pancho." And they both smile, tip their glasses toward each other and drink.
“And you know you got a pretty nice deal here,” Ted says. waving his arm to include not just the kitchen they are sitting in but the entire house provided by the university. “I mean you have the entire house to yourself. Usually there’s a visiting professor here with his or her whole family. Kids and all, pets, rooms full of furniture. Two cars in the driveway, with one being an SUV. And all this, four bedrooms, two full baths, three floors, not counting the finished basement, a yard with apple trees. Jesus, some sweet deal.”
“It is a bit overwhelming,” Joe concedes. “I don’t even go in all the rooms but thankfully it came furnished. I’m a little light in the furnishings department. Most of what I once owned now resides with one of my ex-wives or was left behind somewhere.”
“You still have your desk and chair, though, I noticed.”
“And my reading chair,” Joe says. “Can’t leave home without them.”
“Well now that you are home, what's the plan for tomorrow?" Ted asks.
"I have an orientation meeting to attend for new faculty. That's when I meet the rest of the English department and other faculty I hope to avoid the rest of the year." He sighs yet one more time this morning and says, "And you?"
"The usual bull shit week lies ahead but," and he winks, "this is the last year. Then it's retirement, baby, and the Islands call to me."
"And I just got here," Joe says, "on your last year."
"That's why we must make the best of it, no, Cisco?"
"So let's get your ass in gear and head out to the lake," Ted says. "There's nothing like skipping over the lake in a boat to forget all the shit waiting for us out there."
And they finish their drinks, Ted goes home to shower and change, and Joe stands under his shower for as long as it takes to wash away whatever sadness he feels hovering over his head. His father, having returned from the other side, watches as he dresses but elects to say nothing. After all, what is there to say to a son intent on self-destruction but to watch with mournful eyes and keep his opinions, for the time being, to himself.
Cruising the lake, Ted style, means stopping at every bar along the shoreline, having a drink, and seeing if he can line up a gig for any time in the future. Since he is well known in the area, this doesn't seem very hard to do and his play book starts filling up with dates while the two of them fill up with whiskey: Ted his beloved Jack Daniels and Joe any bottle of whiskey with Irish on the label. And somewhere in the fifth or sixth bar, they run into Sue something.
"Hi," she says. "Remember me?"
"Of course," Ted says. "How could I forget?"
"Well you left a little abruptly last night, so I wasn't sure you'd remember."
"Well I had some unfinished business to attend to."
"Yes," and Sue something smiles, "I saw her."
"Not that unfinished business," Ted says. "There were other matters at hand."
"Well I was at hand myself," she says. "Or don't you want me to finish what I started?"
"Ah," Ted goes, his eyes widening in anticipation, "we could see to that now, I suppose."
"Yes," she says, her hand straying a bit closer to his zipper and rubbing what it finds greeting her there, "we could."
And so Ted drops Joe off at his home and then goes off to finish what there is to finish and start something new. And Joe thinks some things in life never change as Ted fills up what amounts to dates in another playbook of his.
Ted mounts her from behind. She neighs and bucks but she can't throw him. She doesn't care, though, in the end.
And later, while he is pulling on his pants with one hand and finishing his Jack Daniels with the other, she says, "Now that you know the way, be sure to come back."
"Ah darling," and he winks, "never fear about that."
"Because," she says, "I have a lot more I can show you."
Ted looks at her for a long moment and then sighs. "This is going to be more complicated than usual," he says.
"What's usual?" she asks.
"Usual is married women. They're not complicated at all."
"I would think they would be," she says.
He shakes his head as he buckles his belt. "No, they're just in it for the novelty of the thing. You know, a little illicit sex, some adventure under the sheets. Variety, I guess you'd say. But nothing permanent. Hell," and he sort of laughs, "who in their right mind would leave the security of marriage with all the accouterments, the house, food in the refrigerator, a car of one's own in the garage, barbecues on the weekend, credit cards, regular trips to the beauty parlor, for an old reprobate like me?"
"I like old reprobates," Sue something says. "They're my kind of people."
And Ted looks at that twinkle in her eyes, puts the glass of whiskey down, unbuckles his belt, and gives her the part she likes about his kind of people the best.
Joe, meanwhile, stares at the dozen or so boxes of books he hasn't unpacked yet and sighs. This moving around from college to college, a writer-in-residency here, a writer-in-residency there, is wearing him down. He wonders why he never settled in one place, then thinks he really doesn't want to know the answer to that. Some things are best left undiscovered. But maybe here, living in the same town as his old college friend of 40 odd years is the best place to finally take root. Maybe it's time, he thinks, to stay in one place. He can't keep moving forever. He just doesn't have the wind for it anymore.
And his father, that specter who follows him from town to town not so much to remind him of his failings but to reassure him that something might possibly lie ahead to grant him peace, sighs as he fingers the pages of a book lying open in his lap and watches for the light that will eventually fill the sky.
And Monday rolls around to find Ted in a classroom again looking at the seniors that make up his honors English class and thinking one more year and he breaks free of this. The Islands beckon, those cool breezes, that sun, water lapping at the sides of a boat as he drifts out to sea. And the image stays in his mind as he calls the roll.
Joe takes his second glass of Scotch in hand and finally drifts off from the bar to attempt to mingle with the other faculty at this President's Greeting Party and soon finds himself engulfed in a discussion about the modern novel. The chairman of the English Department, who everyone calls Doctor Bob, is pontificating about the need to return to causality in fiction. “After all,” he says, “nothing happens by chance or accident. There is always a reason if one looks hard enough.” Then he turns to Joe and says, “What do you think about this?”
“Reasons?” Joe asks, blinking, and trying to remember his agent Gary’s warning not to become submerged in controversy the first year if he wants them to renew his contract for a second year, “These jobs don’t grow on trees, you know,” he had said at their last meeting in the city. “It was hard enough glossing over that last fiasco you were involved in in Missouri but I managed to sell them on the new you,”
Which Joe isn’t quite sure he believes in or would recognize if he saw him looking back at himself from a mirror somewhere. But he manages not to make a face as he says, “Well I have always tried hard to avoid looking for reasons. I find I sleep better that way.”
Doctor Bob doesn’t seem to know quite how to respond but some other faculty member, Joyce according to her nametag, who he later learns is one of the other three faculty members that make up the entire writing program, says, “I think the lack of causality in the modern novel is what brings us back to existentialism. Don’t you agree, Mr. Bolta? Or can I call you Joseph?”
“Please do,” Joe says, and then adds, “I never thought we left it.”
“Left what?” Doctor Bob asks.
“Existentialism,” Joe says and tries not to take a sip of his drink even though he feels an urgent need to do just that. And though he knows he should try to stay in this conversation, he only wonders if there's enough whiskey at this shindig to see him through. And then between the groups of bodies engaged in small talk, he spies one woman staring in his direction with what appears to be a smile playing on her lips.
It's the eyes really that Joe has a hard time avoiding. They are so clear, so untainted by everything he has seen, has done, has been a party to all these long years that he almost feels slightly ashamed to be in the same room, yet he feels compelled to return the gaze. And there, in the distance between them, something transpires between those two pairs of eyes that make all the chatter, the movement, the tinkling of ice cubes in glasses, suddenly fade and though he does not remember later if he first moved toward her or if she moved toward him, but there they stand eventually before each other not knowing exactly what to say but knowing somehow words will come.
"So we finally get to meet Joseph Bolta," she says. "It is truly an honor."
"Well it usually starts out that way," Joe says. "Then it sort of slides into something else."
"Is that how you describe the trajectory of your academic life?"
"Well I'd hardly call it an academic life," Joe says. "This is, after all, just a way for me to keep the wolves at bay."
"Oh," and those eyes betray a twinkle he finds most becoming, "I think you should be careful who you say that to. Some of the people on the committee that approved your coming here might not like hearing that."
"Are any within hearing distance?"
"Besides me, you mean?"
"Of course," he says. "I would always expect you to be within hearing range."
"Would you?" she asks, that twinkle growing, he thinks, in intensity.
"Well, let's say I would hope so."
"And is there anything else you would hope for?"
"I think," he says, deciding to be a little cagey at this point in what he hopes he could one day refer to as their relationship, "it would be best not to hope for much more."
"Now that's a surprise," she says.
"How so?" Joe asks.
"Well judging from all the stories we've heard, I would have thought you would hope for all you could get."
"Well you can't believe all the stories."
"Can I believe some of them?"
"Yes, some of them."
"Which ones?" she asks. "Or is that privileged information?"
"Well I only divulge that to people I get to know better."
"And so I would have to get to know you better to hear them?"
"That's the idea."
"Mine," he says. "And I'm beginning to think yours."
And though the party rages on around them, they are only aware of the distance separating them, and the magnetic pull shortening it.
"You have a name?" he asks. "Or is that privileged information on your part?"
"No," she says. "I'm not secretive in that way. It's Rebecca Forte."
"Filed away," he says, pointing to his head.
"It shouldn't be too hard for you to remember," she says. "Didn't you have a wife named Rebecca?"
"Ruth," he says. "It was Ruth. My first ex-wife."
"You were married three times," she says.
"Well, technically," Joe answers.
"I only count two. That one, there in the middle of the other two, well, I never really count her," he says. "I would never have married her if I hadn't been so drunk. And it only lasted until I sobered up." He sighs. "It was the late 70s. I was pretty messed up in the late 70s." Then he ponders that for a moment while she stares at him somewhat skeptically. "Of course, I was pretty messed up throughout the entire 70s and the 80s, too, for that matter, until I cleaned up for a while before I lost it again in the mid 90s." Then he gives a helpless shrug. "I guess you could say I had a whiskey problem."
"But you were married over a year," she says.
"I was a long time sobering."
"And how is that problem now?"
"Well this isn't ginger ale in the glass."
"I see," she says, "that the stories are at least true in that regard."
"But I'm better than I was," he says.
"How much better?"
"Well I don't break things and get surly in townie bars anymore."
"Well that's a relief," she says but that smile is still dancing on her lips. "One could, I suppose, take you out on occasion without worrying about bringing you back in pieces."
"Yes," he says. "I even try to generally act my age."
"Oh, I'm not sure I'll like that," she says.
"You'd like me to act older?"
"No, younger," she says. "After all, I know how old you are and I'd like to see there's more life in you yet than that implies."
Joe can't help but smile at what that implies. "Well, I just meant in terms of maturity," he says. "In other regards, there's quite a bit of life left in me."
"Well, we'll see," Rebecca says.
"Well, what I mean is I'll see for myself."
"And just how do you propose to do that?"
"There are ways," she says. "You just leave that to me."
"I place myself in your hands."
"That's just what I was hoping you'd say.
And meanwhile, across town, Ted is trying to wiggle out of what could be for him a compromising position.
"You were where?" Karen asks, her eyebrow arched in the usual position it takes when her belief in his credulity is at stake.
"Visiting Joe," Ted says. "You know, helping my old friend get settled in."
"Till three in the morning?"
"Maybe," he says, shrugging and looking over toward her liquor cabinet for his trusty companion Jack Daniels. "You got any Jack?" he asks when he doesn't spy any.
"All gone," she says.
"Gone?" and he looks a little mystified. "I don't remember drinking it all."
"You didn't," Karen says. "I poured it down the sink when you didn't come last night and I couldn't reach you on your phones."
"You poured it down the sink?" he asks, incredulously, the thought never even entering his mind.
"Yes," she says, her arms folded against her chest, waiting for his reaction. "Every last drop."
"Now why would you do that?" he asks.
"To punish you, I guess," she says. "At least that was the idea at the time."
He looks at her for a long moment, steadily, carefully, weighing the words he is about to speak on his scale of appropriate responses. "Are we married?" he asks finally.
"Ah, no," she says.
"Have I given you any token of commitment, a promise, a vow stamped and notarized at the courthouse?"
She shakes her head slowly, knowing exactly where this is headed and, like a car wreck, unable to change the direction in her favor.
"So," he says, letting the word sound out in two syllables, "there is no reason for this kind of behavior, is there? This jealousy."
"It's just that I expected you," she says in way of defense.
"And I didn't come," he says. "I was elsewhere. Like I may be tonight or tomorrow or next week. I come and I go, like a sometime man, and you either must accept that, or else I'll stop coming when I come." And he raises his own eyebrows and adds, "Comprende?"
She nods, knowing, of course, if she has any hope of holding onto him, she must be willing to let go.
"Then," and he smiles his best Ted smile, "I suggest you run out quickly and get me a bottle of Jack. 'Cause, you know, I had intended to stay a while."
Joe finds he is totally unprepared for what follows but goes along with it nonetheless. And though he thinks he might be a little out of practice for this, he finds he can hold his own. And Rebecca seems to be more than willing to take the lead. And as they enter his house, she looks over the bookshelves as if she were thinking of purchasing and he finds he likes the way she handles books, as if they were somewhat fragile in her hands. And he watches her as she moves through the rooms, inspecting everything: the books, the paintings he's finally hung, the racks of CDs, the DVDs, the cabinets in his kitchen, the contents of his refrigerator, the knickknacks on his shelves, the pictures in frames along the bookcases. Coming here was her idea and now he finds she is absorbing him and it has him both thrilled and worried at the same time.
"See anything you like?" he asks to break the ice.
She nods. "I'm considering buying," she says. "That is, if the price is right."
"I'm negotiable," he says. "Just make an offer and we'll take it from there."
"How about a drink first," she says, and then settles on the couch.
"Anything in particular?"
"Whatever you're having," she says.
"Well at the moment Black Bush," he says. "But that could change if the bottle runs dry."
"Well let's see where that takes us."
And he pours two healthy glassfuls, hands her one, sits on the armchair opposite her, and raises his glass in toast. "To keeping the wolves from the door," he says.
"I'll drink to that." And she smiles as she adds, "Though sometimes it's better to let them in. Don't you agree?"
"It depends," he says, "if they're hungry or not."
"Aren't wolves always hungry?"
"Yes, but not always for food."
"Personally," she says, that sly look in her eyes, "I wouldn't trust a wolf that wasn't hungry for something."
"You like hungry wolves?"
"Let's say I understand them." And she winks at him as she adds, "Maybe that's why I think I understand you."
Joe begins to wonder if he might not be over his head on this one but can't stop himself from wading in a little deeper. "I never thought of myself as a hungry wolf."
"That's because you are probably thinking about wolves as big, bad creatures luring little girls in the forest. But there are many types of wolves and they hunger for many things apart from little girls. And you are one of those other types that interest me more."
"And just how do I interest you?" he asks, though a little voice inside his head keeps telling him not to ask that question, but, as usual, he ignores all little voices in his head.
"Don't you know?" she asks. "I'm trying to seduce you."
"Oh," he says.
"You've been seduced by women before, I take it."
"Yes," he says, "but not in a while."
"I thought so," she says. "I also think from reading your books that you like women very much."
"That's true enough."
"And they like you."
"Mostly," he says. "But then sometimes that changes after they get to know me."
"Those were the wrong women," she says. "But the right women are always going to like you."
"And you?" he asks, ignoring that little voice again. "Which type are you?"
"You know," she says, getting up and crossing over to his chair. "Now if you'll pardon me, I have to do something." And she sits in his lap, puts her arms around his neck, and attempts to swallow his tongue. And later, when they both come up for air, Joe thinks he just might be falling in love.
"You do love me, don’t you?" Karen asks. "You haven’t been coming here for the last twelve years just for the sex?"
And here Ted hesitates. He knows if he answers truthfully, he'll hurt her and yet if he lies he'll only prolong the inevitable so, as usual, he tries to fudge it somehow. "I like you," he says. "And I’m used to you. This is what I would call a very comfortable relationship.”
"Like?" she says, her voice a cry. And then he realizes he didn't fudge it enough when she hits him. "Comfortable?” And she bites her lower lip in what he surmises is an attempt not to cry. “You bastard."
This, he thinks, is not the best way to end the evening. “Look,” he says, “why do we have to ruin everything by trying to define things? What we have works for the two of us, doesn’t it? We both enjoy our company, have fun together, and leave all the negative things that bog us down in life outside the door. Isn’t this good enough for you now?”
“Now?” she echoes, and the word hangs in the air between them. Her eyes take on a distant look for a second or two, then she seems to shake it off and smiles a little ruefully perhaps but a smile nonetheless. “Yes, I suppose so,” she says.
And Ted, feeling somewhat reassured, reaches over and pulls her close to him. And as he holds her, he feels what he thinks might be a slight shudder rip through her body, but his arms, his lips gently kissing the nape of her neck, soothe that shudder away. And the night ends there, not quite like he had imagined, but close enough for rock and roll and for him.
Joe is looking up at the ceiling of his bedroom wondering how this evening got to this point for he feels he must have done something right sometime in his life to be given this gift of this woman in his bed. And as she stirs, gliding her hand rather tenderly over his abdomen and resting her thigh on his, he can't help but say, "I'm having a hard time believing in this."
"In what?" she asks, rather sleepily. And she runs her hand in a fairly possessive manner over his abdomen again as she adds, "You have a problem with this?"
"Not a problem," he says. "I just don't know how it happened."
"Oh," and she rubs her cheek against his chest and says, "First I sat on your lap, and then I kissed you, and then I started unbuttoning your shirt."
"No," he says. "I know all that. I mean how or rather why are you here? I mean, we hardly know each other and I think at our age, or at least at my age, there should be a little more lead time. You know?"
"Well," and she smiles as she rubs her nose in his chest hair, "I know you. After all, I've been reading your books since I was a teenager and so know all I need to know about who you are."
"Since you were a teenager," he repeats. "And just how long is that?"
"Is that some subtle way of trying to determine how old I am?"
"Well, yeah," he says.
"I'm 44, Joseph. Is that old enough for you? Or am I too old?" And she laughs. "I mean, judging from some of the stories I've heard and read, you do like them young."
"You can't believe all those stories."
"Ah, we're back to that, are we?" and she pulls herself up against him to be eye to eye. "And just which stories can I believe?"
"Just the ones I will tell you."
"And when do you start telling me those?"
"In the morning," he says. "But first, tell me a little about you. Like are you married, engaged, have a boyfriend, children, doting parents, etc. You know, like fill me in on what I'm in store for."
She laughs, sits up, and Joe feels his heart breaking as he looks at that beautifully slender body in bed next to him. "I'm not married anymore," she says. "And my ex is happily married to someone else so you don't have to worry about him peeking in your windows with jealousy in his eyes. There's no other man currently in my life, my parents live in Indiana so how doting can they possibly be? There are no children, just a rather energetic dog who is probably sleeping on my bed right now, and who is, thank God, housebroken with a very strong bladder. I've been teaching at this college for 15 years and am a full professor in the English Department. I even teach a course called The Modern Novel and use one of your novels during the semester. I do not have herpes, which, by the way, I hope you're herpes free, too. Are you?" He nods, she smiles, then continues. "I am a good cook, like foreign movies, listen to jazz, classical music, and have a weakness for country music. I read on the average of a book a week and enjoy sexual intercourse, which I hope you noticed." Then she leans slightly forward, brushes her hand across his face as she says, "Is that enough for tonight or do you need some written references?"
"I think," he says, as he takes her hand in his, "I need to see how much you enjoy sexual intercourse again. I mean, if that's okay with you."
And she leans even closer as she says, "I thought you'd never ask."
Ted rises after exhausting Karen for the third time and lets her sleep. He wanders out to her living room where he had parked his guitar earlier, takes it in hand, and lovingly strokes its curves before he settles down to begin to play. It's a tune he can't get out of his head, though there are no words yet, just this melody that haunts him. And as he plays, he hums what will one day be lyrics, but now is just a sound: low, mournful blues in the early morning light.
Later that day, after Rebecca has left to walk her dog and then to prepare for the first week of classes, and after his father has given him a thumbs up in way of approving this newest lady in his life before fading back to wherever it is he comes from and Joe is returning to alphabetizing the books he has shelved on the bookcase lining his living room wall, Ted appears with his customary bottle of Jack Daniels in hand and a grin on his face. "Get your shorts on, Cisco. We're going boating."
"On the lake?" Joe asks.
"Well that's where they keep the boats," Ted says.
"Right," Joe goes. "How could I forget."
And so they spend the day zipping around the lake, going from bar to bar, drink to drink.
"I think," Ted says, "I may be cruising through smooth waters this last year." He takes another sip of his Jack and winks at the barmaid who flashes him a smile. "I got it covered on all sides without any storm warnings in sight."
"Well," Joe says, "at least you're being consistent with the metaphor."
"That's me, Cisco. The king of consistency." And he looks over at his brother in arms and says, "And you? You settling in here?"
"Well it does seem to be taking an interesting turn."
"Well there's this woman at the college," he says.
"Ahhh," Ted goes, "women. Ain't they a joy, though?" He is momentarily distracted by the barmaid's ass but recovers and says, "So you think you'll get laid there?"
"Well..." Joe says and then sort of drifts off to a memory he doesn't think he can share and do it justice.
Ted looks over at him, cocks his head, even squints, then says, "You got laid already, didn't you?"
Joe makes a helpless gesture with his shoulders, a kind of half shrug, and looks to the sky which is, of course, not visible since they are sitting on barstools in a bar. His mouth opens as if to speak but words do not come out.
"Shit," Ted says and grins, pats him on the back and laughs. "And you've only been here what, a little over a month? And the college hasn't even started yet."
"Well tomorrow is the first day of classes."
"Christ, this calls for another round," and he signals to the barmaid. "Another set for my blood brother and me. We are celebrating tonight."
"One should always celebrate," she says.
"My sentiments exactly," Ted says. "And I bet you are one fine celebrating lady, too."
"Yes, I am," she says. "But you don't remember me, do you?"
"Should I?" he asks. "Because if I should, then enlighten me because I must."
"Well it's been five years," she says, "but I was a student of yours."
"Really?" he says, looking at her closely. "In which class?"
"Your class on the poetry of rock music." And she smiles as she adds, "I just love rock music. I guess I'm just a born groupie waiting for a guitar player to follow." Then she moves off to refill a glass at the other end of the bar.
Ted watches her go, his eyes on her ass and says, "The face isn't familiar but you'd think I'd remember that ass."
"That the most memorable feature for you?" Joe asks.
"I love asses," Ted says. "Ride 'em, cowboy." And he winks. "Of course I love legs, tits, feet even. The body always comes before the mind for me."
"Sometimes," Joe says and sighs, "I just don't know where these conversations are going."
"Into the gutter, Cisco," Ted says and raises his eyebrows up and down, pretending to hold a cigar, and doing what he hopes is a passable Groucho Marx impersonation. "You know where my mind lurks."
Joe nods, not needing words here, and finishes his drink. It will be, he thinks, a long night, and watches as the barmaid refills his glass without his having to ask, and stays a little longer in Ted's field of vision before slipping him a bar napkin with her phone number and name on it. Ted pockets it as he watches her ass move further down the bar.
"You know," he says, "I think this is going to be a good year for both of us."
And Joe, never an optimist, can only sigh.
And later, the barmaid whose name is Alice, gets her wish to become a groupie as Ted gives her a private concert and finally gets to marvel at what is for him the perfect ass. And as he lies on his back in bed stroking it tenderly like a favorite pet, he asks rather casually to make conversation, "So what exactly have you been doing since my class?"
"College," she says. "I just graduated last year."
"And you studied bartending?" he asks. "Or is this temporary?"
"Temporary," she says. "I'm starting my MA this year."
"Ah," Ted goes. "You are an artist."
"Yes," she says. "Does that surprise you?"
"No," and he shakes his head. "Nothing in life really surprises me."
"I could, you know, design your CD covers. I have definite ideas on how to market you."
"Really?" he asks, intrigued. "And how would you do that?"
"First," she says, "I'd have to become better acquainted with your attributes, and your talents." At that point she slides down his body, licking his chest along the way. Then her mouth hovers over his crotch as she says, "Here's an attribute that needs further study."
And Ted, groaning slightly, succumbs to her charms.
Much later, Joe hears a knock at his door. When he opens it he finds Ted looking pleased but tired. "These young girls will be the death of me," he says as he crosses over to Joe's couch and collapses.
Joe, having been there once or twice in his past, feels some sympathy and brings a glass so that he does not have to drink out of the bottle that seems to be a part of Ted's hand. "I take it," he says, "you are speaking of your new groupie."
"Alice," Ted says and sighs. "I am in sore need of replenishment. You got anything to eat here?"
Joe thinks for a minute. "Some sardines," he says. "Sabrett hot dogs and peanut butter. And Saltines."
"You're kidding, right?" Ted asks.
"And bananas and oranges."
"You're a regular gourmet," Ted says.
"I eat out all the time," Joe says in way of defense. "I mean, that's why diners are open 24 hours and pizza places and Chinese take-out deliver all for guys like me."
"They had diners in Missouri or wherever it was you were before here?"
"I can always find an all-night place to eat," Joe says. "And a liquor store. It's a talent I have developed over the years."
"Well I think you might start thinking about stocking up on some real food," Ted says. "And not just for my visits but you are starting to see a woman now and believe me, they get hungry, too. And they do not necessarily want to go out to a diner after rolling around under the sheets."
"We really haven't gotten that far yet."
"What? Rolling around under the sheets or the hungry part?"
"The hungry part."
"Well it's coming, Cisco. Take my word for it." Then he sighs. "I suppose we can have a pizza delivered, though it'll take too long." He slowly rises and says, "C'mon. Let's go to the diner. I really need to replenish some red blood cells. At least I think it's red blood cells, though I could be mistaken."
The waitress at the diner whose nametag reads Liz seems to know what Joe will have without even asking him except to say “The usual?” to which he nods and slides the menu across the table in her direction. “And you, handsome?” she says to Ted who immediately brightens a bit.
“What’s his usual?” Ted asks.
“The cheeseburger special,” she says, shifting her weight slightly to the left and taking a deep breath that exaggerates her bosom for Ted to see.
“Looks good to me,” Ted says in reference to what is left open to interpretation.
And Liz departs with a smile on her lips while Joe sighs into his hand. After cheeseburgers, French fries, onion rings, and coleslaw, they both drink coffee as they gaze somewhat peacefully at the other local denizens at surrounding tables filling up after a night at the bars. "I could," Ted says almost dreamily, "be at Karen's now."
"And why aren't you?" Joe asks.
"Because I'm sitting in this diner with my best friend," Ted says. "You know, some male bonding time."
"Oh," Joe goes. "Right."
"Besides," he says, "I think I'm all played out. It's a good thing I didn't have any gigs this weekend. I never would have made it through two sets."
"I don't know how you do it," Joe says. "Three women now." He shakes his head. "I can barely handle one at a time. How you manage three is beyond me."
"Careful planning," Ted says. "Though I hadn't planned on three. I was quite content with two. But I couldn't resist the way those jeans hugged Alice's ass. I mean, it's downright criminal to have an ass like that."
"Well you'd better start eating your Wheaties for breakfast," Joe says. "You are entering Olympic competition."
"I'd let you have one of them," Ted says, "but you don't have the same kind of appeal I have to attract these types."
"I know," Joe says. "It's the guitar. Most women love the guitar. It takes a special breed to fall for a guy who writes fiction. Poetry is better, of course. Almost as good as a guitar, but fiction is low on the sex appeal chart. Unless, of course, you write best sellers."
"No chance there, I suppose," Ted says.
"No," Joe sighs. "I have trouble just staying in print."
"But you do manage to attract your fair share of literary types."
"Yes, but this time I may have outdone myself. She's really too smart to want to stay with me for too long."
"You think so?"
"Her whole life has been lived by a plan," Joe says. "I only had one plan: to write. Everything else just sort of happened."
"Ah, but it's in those chance occurrences where life really takes on a special meaning."
"If you say so," Joe says but without much enthusiasm. "It's just that we've both led somewhat eventful lives but you at least have a son, a house, two cars, two careers, a plan for your retirement, while I just have a long string of failures and debris. Nothing to leave behind, except some books that go in and out of print, and three ex-wives who probably only remember the mistakes and not any fleeting happiness I may have given them."
"I think you're being a little hard on yourself," Ted says. "You have two careers, too. Writing and teaching."
"I don't really teach," Joe says. "I hold seminars, conduct workshops, comment on student writing as if it might be profound when most times I struggle to stay awake while reading it. I am a phony when it comes to teaching. I just do it to pay the rent so I can continue to write."
"Well neither one of us really set out to be teachers," Ted says. "With you it's always been your writing coming first and with me my music. But teaching allows us to do that. And we both care about the students. You can't deny that."
"Yeah," Joe nods. "But if I could afford to stop teaching tomorrow, I'd do it in a heartbeat."
"Well I only have this one more year left," Ted says. "Then it's retirement and the Islands calling me every winter, here for spring through fall. A perfect life."
"I admire your plan," Joe says.
"You always have to have a plan," Ted says. "Even if you don't follow it, you need one there in place anyway. It helps to give the impression that you are, at least, in control, even if you aren't."
"I think that's too logical for me," Joe says. "Or else I'm so screwed up it seems to be logical even if it isn't."
"Logic isn't all it's cracked up to be," Ted says.
"I think now we are entering that phase of the evening when a drink is preferred over coffee," Joe says somewhat wearily. "What do you say?"
"I say I'm right with you, Cisco."
"Then let's go, Pancho. I know you know the perfect place to go."
"I'm still new in this neighborhood so I'm relying on your knowledge of the terrain to instruct me."
And so they end up at Wet Goods where a band Ted used to play with is performing and, of course, he can't refuse when they coax him to join them on the stage for a few songs. And Joe gets pleasantly drunk listening to his best friend sing. And the night fades, Ted drifts off to Karen's and a very warm bed, and Joe manages to drive home without hitting anything.
Later, at home, Joe receives a late night visitor.
"You weren't expecting me, I take it," Rebecca says as they stand facing each other in his open doorway.
"Uh, well, no," he replies.
"And why not?" she asks.
"I don't know," he says. "I guess I just didn't think about it."
"But aren't you glad I'm here?"
"Yes," he says. "Of course."
"Then shouldn't you move aside so I can enter?"
"Right," he says and moves to the side.
Rebecca moves inside as if she owns the place. Then she turns to face him. "So, are you going to give me a big smile, a big hug, and a kiss to take my breath away?"
Joe thinks for a second and says, "Well I could do two out of three, I suppose
And he pulls her inside his arms, covers her mouth with his, tongue to tongue, and kisses her longer than she's ever been kissed before. When they finally part, all she can say is "Wow."
Then he leads her back to the bedroom where he manages to put smiles on both their faces that last beyond the morning.
Ted rises early, has a cup of coffee and a buttered roll, showers, shaves, brushes his teeth and combs his mane of golden hair, then fills his travel mug with more coffee, and heads out for school. And as he surveys the girls sitting in his first period class, he wonders just how many will grow up to be like Alice, and that sort of allows him to get through the day with a smile on his face and hope in his heart.
Joe knows he's in trouble when he has a shot of whiskey before starting out to teach his first class. And though he manages to get through it undetected, just nodding to Doctor Bob from a distance in the hallway and avoiding conversation with Stacey, the departmental secretary, meeting Rebecca for lunch is another story.
"Do I smell alcohol on your breath?" she asks, sniffing the air around his mouth. Then she kisses him rather passionately, tongue to tongue, and after releasing him adds, "Yes, whiskey kisses all right."
"Ah, I felt the need to fortify," he offers in way of explanation.
She can't help but smile even though she doesn't exactly approve. But having read all his books, she does not really expect any less. And though, as head of the department’s writing program, she should admonish him, she thinks it might be better to turn a blind eye for now and hope for the best.
Ted loosens his tie as soon as he walks through the door leading out to the parking lot and breathes fresh air. It's not that he feels trapped in his job, it's just that he'd rather be doing something else: making music in some bar with people out in front dancing. This life, though guaranteeing him a comfortable retirement, is just something to live in order to make the other possible. For he can play when he wants, where he wants, without having the pressure to subsist entirely on his earnings from making music. Instead he makes the music he wants to make on his own terms, and that is what he figures life has always been about. And this tie, like this second life, is a small price to pay to do that.
Joe settles into the office they have provided for him, their new writer-in-residence, and puts his feet up on the desk, leans back in the swivel hair, closes his eyes, and tries to nap. There are papers from his one undergraduate creative writing class lying in a stack off to the side of the computer they have furnished him with, and he knows he must attend to them eventually. But having quickly scanned them, he doubts there will be any surprises awaiting him there. Maybe in the graduate seminar he is scheduled to conduct tomorrow night there might lurk someone with talent. But what can he expect from this small university in Upstate New York with an equally small, newly established writing program? He had his chance at more prestigious universities but for one reason or another, though mostly for the one reason of his drinking, he never lasted more than a few years at any of them. This is, as Gary, his agent, pointedly told him, probably the last stop. And the only reason he accepted was for the chance to live in the same town as his oldest, closest friend. What irony, he thinks. To end it where he probably should have begun it. Ain't life a kick in the head?
Sue is, Ted thinks, slightly crazy, only because she is so obsessive in her emotions, so extreme, as to not be quite balanced. It should scare him, or at least give him caution, but Ted has for so long flirted with destruction that he only views her as just another leg on a journey that cannot end in any other way but badly. So he ignores the wildness in her eyes, rolls her over, and mounts her doggy style which is the position she seems to prefer. And as she twists the sheets in her hands, moans, and lets out those little whoops he knows signals yet another climax, he feels utterly disengaged with it all, as if someone else is pumping what's left of their manhood into her, not him. He is not in the same room, but thinking of the expression in Karen's eyes earlier that day.
And later, after she has showered, dressed, called a taxi, and gone home, Ted stares at the drink in his hand and wonders just what he is doing. It can only be another step in what can only be the wrong direction of his life and yet where else, at his age and in his condition, should he be going? It's only crazy, desperate women living some fantasy in their minds in his bed or else a step toward even more dangerous territory: love with someone young enough to be the daughter he never had.
Joe sits in the dark, Roberta Flack's The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face on repeat mode on the CD player, a glass of whiskey held loosely in his hand, and a faraway look in his eyes.
His father, who occasionally visits him from somewhere in the great beyond, sighs as he looks at his wayward son and says, “I should have raised chickens.”
“We would have both been better off if you had,” Joe answers.
“I did have hope looking at you in your crib,” he adds. “But then you grew up and I died disappointed.”
“Think how I felt,” Joe says. “I had to live in places like Kansas.”
“There are worse places you could be,” his father says. “There is no happy hour here where I am. And God knows how you could survive in a place you couldn’t get a drink.”
“Well I never figured on making heaven anyway,” Joe says. “Unless they don’t look too closely at new arrivals at the gate.”
“You never know how forgiving they may be at the time,” his father says. “After all, you haven’t done any major sin except behaving badly at social gatherings, drinking too much, and squandering your talent, but those are all lesser sins as they say around here. And your mother, bless her, has been petitioning the powers that be on your behalf with her prayers and all those candles she lights and masses said in your honor. But if I were you,” he advises, “I’d try cleaning up my act a bit beforehand. You wouldn’t like the alternative to here, believe me. Remember, you win, you win. You lose, you don’t win.”
And on that note, with a slight wave of the hand, his father fades from sight leaving Joe alone to contemplate that last piece of wisdom with his drink and his memories.
Ted sits in his boxer shorts in his favorite chair with his Martin held like a lover in his hands as he works a melody out on the strings. The words fight him, straggling in mid thought in his throat, but the progression of the chords is there and for now that is enough. He stops to take a sip of his trusty Jack Daniels and then plays it again. This process is what he has always lived for and though his son is his proudest accomplishment, this comes in a very close second. And as his fingers slide along the strings, his eyes close and he sees the images. Now he just needs the words.
Joe is dreaming: his first ex-wife Ruth is going to walk the dog wearing only her bikini panties and a t-shirt that barely covers her ass. He says, "Shouldn't you put on something else?" and she smiles and says, "I'm just walking the dog," and goes down the stairs and is out the door leaving him in a mild panic as he tries to find a pair of shoes to wear so he can accompany her, thinking of all the guys out there who will be ogling her and not sure the dog is up to protecting her but the phone keeps ringing and people are asking about private tutoring which it seems she does and while he is trying to get the phone numbers so she can return the calls, the connections keep getting lost, and those shoes just won't slip on his feet, and by the time he finally gets a pair on, and is halfway down the stairs, the door opens, the dog comes running in, and Ruth is on the stoop talking to someone totally oblivious to the stares of the dozen or so men in the street and Joe coaxes her back inside, gets her upstairs, and takes her in his arms and suddenly is kissing her, his tongue down her throat, and his pillow in his mouth as he wakes.
Jesus, he thinks. What was that all about?
Ted’s son young Philip calls from Key West where he lives with his girlfriend Patti. "Dad," he says, "why don't you retire here. It's wide open for a guy like you and there are chickens and cats everywhere. You'd love it."
Ted wonders why his son thinks he'd love chickens and cats roaming freely everywhere. It's an image that perplexes him long into the day but for now he just says, “I’m still set on the islands.”
“But here you could have all the islands offer. There are plenty of bars like the one Patti bartends in that you could play in. Maybe even at the restaurant I manage during happy hour, though now they seem to favor piano players. But I bet you could find lots of work here if you wanted.” Then, with a tinge of the old resentment creeping into his voice, he adds, “Besides, it would be nice if you were actually around for once in my life.”
Ted never knows quite how to respond to these moments of self-pity on his son’s part since he has always thought he has done the best he could in raising him. And if he wasn’t always around, it is because he has been divorced from his ex-wife for over twenty years now and young Philip was shuffled back and forth between them for most of his formative years. Still, there is a slight residue of guilt which is uncharacteristic of Ted and he always has an awkward time dealing with it.
“Well I promise to come down for a visit,” Ted says, “after I retire. Maybe spend a month or so there with you.”
“That would be great, Dad. I know Patti would like that, too.”
And though Ted doesn’t say it, he feel lighter in spirit somehow and closer for this instant to his son than he has felt in a long, long time.
Joe’s agent Gary calls to check up on him. “You’re not fucking up yet, are you? ‘Cause if you are,” he says, “there’s no life preserver I can throw you.”
“This is just what I need,” Joe says, “a pep talk.”
“I’m all out of pep,” Gary says. “”I used it up on you two colleges ago.” He thinks for a minute, then adds, “Or was it three? When was Kansas anyway?”
“Why do people keep bringing up Kansas?” Joe asks.
“Because dropping your pants at a dean’s party is not something you live down quickly.”
“I didn’t drop my pants,” Joe says. “At least I don’t think I dropped them.”
“That’s the rumor floating around whenever I bring up your name,” Gary says. “And supposedly you were not wearing your boxers. So how you got this gig is beyond me. Pure luck, I call it. Someone there was cheering in your corner.”
Joe sighs into his drink and notices his father giving him pitiful looks from across the great divide.
“You’re not drinking, are you? Or should I ask, you’re not drinking any more, right?”
“I’m not drinking any more or any less,” Joe says. “After all, I’m an alcoholic and so must keep up appearances.”
“Why,” Gary says to the heavens above him though Joe can’t see that since this is a phone call, “you turned out this way? There was a time, I remember, when you behaved yourself. Or at least you pretended to behave yourself, which is good enough for me and the rest of the world.”
“I could never seem to be too concerned with what the rest of the world thought,” Joe says. “It always seemed like a saving grace to me.”
“A cross,” Gary says. “You are the cross I bear. It must be some form of karmic punishment I inherited.”
“And I thought it was the notoriety I brought to your roster of clients.”
“It’s certainly not the money I earn from your book sales.”
“You really know how to cheer a fella up,” Joe says. “Remind me to call you if I ever feel depressed.”
“You want cheering up?” Gary asks. “Try not to lose this job and I’ll buy you an anniversary present. And whatever you do, keep your goddamn pants on.”
And on that note, Gary hangs up leaving Joe with his drink to contemplate and his father’s fading sigh.
Later, while sitting on the couch in Joe's living room nursing his Jack Daniels and trying to reconcile pictures in his head with names he cannot seem to forget, Ted asks, "Do you remember the name of the woman I was with at the time you visited me in Utica? I can't seem to recall it."
"Now why should I remember her name or any of their names for that matter? I mean, I maybe remember the names of the ones I met, but there were others I did not meet who I shouldn't be held responsible for remembering. Why don't you keep a journal, or a scrapbook, or something where you write down their names, the dates you were involved in whatever way you were involved with them, the color of their hair, eyes, bra size, whatever else you think appropriate? I mean, wouldn't that be much more practical than expecting me, with my suspect memory, to recall?"
"Well you're the writer," Ted says, "and, as I remember it, you were always borrowing things from people's lives for your books. Maybe you borrowed her name."
"Ah, well that's possible, but trying to remember which name in which book is the real problem here," and Joe sighs.
"Well if you can't remember what names you used in your books, how can you expect anyone else to?"
"I don't," Joe says. "Sometimes, though, someone surprises me. Like this Rebecca at the college. She knows the books maybe better than me."
"That must please you," Ted says. "I know I like it when someone knows my songs, can even sing along 'cause they know all the words."
"That happen often?"
"Often enough," Ted says.
"Karen know them?"
"Yeah," Ted grins. "Every single one."
"Perfect," Joe says. "A match made in heaven. The only one you really need."
"I wish that were so," Ted says. "But I seem to need more than one. It's just in my genes."
"And your jeans, too, no doubt."
"Yes," Ted goes. "In those, too." He studies his old friend for a long moment, both sipping from their drinks, though Joe's mind is off somewhere to some past association while Ted keeps his grounded firmly in the present. "That's one thing I could never understand about you, Cisco," he says, finally. "Your ability to go long periods without a woman in your life."
"Ah, well..." and Joe trails off, not knowing exactly how to respond to that observation.
"I just never understood why you'd do that. Don't you miss it?"
"Of course I miss it," Joe says. "It's just that I look for more than that in a relationship. Otherwise I get bored."
"You get bored of sex?"
"Not of sex," Joe says. "I get bored of a relationship that is just sex."
"That's where we're different," Ted says. "I look at each relationship as unique unto themselves. Some satisfy me intellectually, some emotionally, some are just for laughs, and others are just for sex. But I always have to be getting my share of that somewhere. Otherwise I'm just not happy and I go looking for it wherever I can find it, with whomever can supply it." He shrugs. "It's just basic biology to me."
And therein, Joe thinks, lies a basic difference between them.
Ted feels a slight tinge of guilt when he does not answer Karen's call but instead goes to see Alice. If it weren't for that ass, he thinks, he could perhaps be a bit more faithful to the one woman who is faithful to him but he finds that line of thinking will ultimately confuse him more than make things clear. After all, he reasons, a man can't change his basic character just to satisfy someone else's expectations of him. No, he concludes, one can only be true to oneself. That is the main thing. And following his little head is perfectly okay as long as his big head is in agreement with it. So when Alice opens the door to her apartment wearing the flimsiest of nightgowns, he knows there is no room for guilt in what remains of the evening for him.
And both heads make themselves at home in Alice's bed after what is a prolonged workout.
"Would you like a drink?" she asks as she sits up rather abruptly in bed.
"I thought you'd never ask," Ted says, grinning.
She gets up and leaves the room, leaving him sighing as he watches her ass disappear from view but she is back pretty quickly with a Jack Daniels and water mixed just the way he likes it and he thinks there are more attributes here than previously guessed.
"This is perfect," he says after taking that first sip.
"I'm a bartender, remember," Alice says. "And good bartenders always get to know their regular customers' drinks."
"And I'm a regular now, am I?"
"At least here in my private bar."
And Ted finds that pleases him more than he had anticipated and begins to wonder if maybe this is turning into more than a physical pastime with a marvelous ass. Could he be feeling something more? At his age that could be dangerous, especially when the object of his possible affection is young enough to be his daughter. But he does know this is different than it is with Sue something and quite possibly be bordering on what he feels for Karen. And life starts getting even more complicated for him than he had planned, or, to be more accurate, than he hadn't planned, and therein lies the problem to be sorted out, perhaps, when he is sober.
It was the drinking, really, that caused the loss of the jobs, the missed classes, the angry outbursts, the occasional brawling in townie bars, the mumbled insults to administrators at faculty luncheons, the smell of whiskey that permeated from his pores during seminars he would fall asleep at. The drinking. Always the drinking. And he wants to tell this to Rebecca but can't think of a way to work it into a conversation that would seem natural to anyone but him. And as he sips his whiskey contemplating his problem, Rebecca watches him from across the room.
"You know you drink too much," Rebecca says.
"Funny," he says, "but I was thinking the same thing."
"And?" she asks, waiting what seems an appropriate time for a reply. But he just stares at her, not quite sure how to proceed. "And?" she says again, this time stretching the word out to two syllables and widening her eyes in anticipation of an answer.
"And I don't know what to say," he says, almost helplessly. "I thought I wanted to talk to you about this but I don't know what to add."
"You are speechless when it comes to discussing your drinking?"
"I am speechless trying to explain it to you."
"Is it to me or to yourself?" she asks and here Joe just stops doing whatever he is doing, which isn't much besides trying to drink in peace, and stares at her.
"You have the uncanny knack of saying things that are more perceptive of me than anyone else I've ever known, even though I hardly know you."
"Does that worry you, big boy?" she asks, a slight smirk on her face. "You think you can handle it?"
"I don't know," Joe says, finding it difficult to be anything but honest with her. "But I think I'm getting ready to try."
And Rebecca laughs then, a laugh from deep inside her, full of mystery, of sex, of courage, of love. And Joe thinks he's never heard anything quite like it. And ready or not, he knows deep in his heart, that he wants to hear it again and again in every corner of his life.
Ted is setting up the speakers with Al Poole who he sometimes plays with and who is the best guitar player Ted has ever heard, but for reasons no one quite understands, stays in this small upstate town wowing the locals and subsisting on just enough money to get by instead of taking his talent elsewhere. But Ted is grateful to play with him and they both work silently hooking up amplifiers, speakers, tuning their guitars, while the crowd in and around the bar settle down to hear them play.
Joe is at a corner table with Rebecca who fondles his foot under the table while he tries rather unsuccessfully to pretend he doesn't notice it. He is, instead, trying very hard to concentrate in reaching that moment in time when things click into place, which is, for him at least, only attainable through the ingestion of large amounts of whiskey. And though he seems to have separated the two stimuli crying out for his attention--Rebecca's foot and whiskey--it all seems to go awry when Ted whispers in his ear that he needs to speak to him in private out in the parking lot.
"You have to help me, Cisco," Ted says. "I'm outnumbered three to one tonight."
"Come again," Joe says, the whiskey having dulled his brain enough to make it difficult for him to follow nonlinear dialogue.
"I'm outgunned tonight," Ted says. "All three ladies are due here momentarily."
"All three?" Joe echoes.
"Yes," Ted nods. "And I can handle two at a time, you know keep them distracted enough to not pay attention to each other, but three, well three's another story."
"And?" Joe asks, not quite sure how this involves him.
"And I need you to take one off my hands for the night."
"Take one off your hands?" Joe echoes again and feels the desired numbness he was so patiently cultivating with the whiskey evaporating before his eyes.
"Yeah," Ted says. "Just one and just for the night. Unless, of course, you both feel there could be some mutual understanding reached as to sharing her."
"Well one of them," Ted says. "I think perhaps Alice, or maybe Sue something, because Karen is definitely a one man woman."
"Am I getting this right?" Joe finally asks. "You want me to take one of these other two women off your hands tonight?"
"Right," Ted says. "And you can choose whichever one you want."
"That's very generous of you," Joe says, "but what will the women think?"
"They'll go along with it. I'll convince them."
"Well let's just say for argument's sake that one does agree," Joe says, "but I'm with Rebecca tonight. Won't that be a bit awkward?"
"She loves you, right?"
"Well, yeah, it would appear so."
"So then she'll understand. It's for friendship, Cisco. Women love the idea of friendship."
"Well friendship and procuring are two entirely different things."
"No one says you have to sleep with her, just take her off my hands for the evening. I mean, Cisco, even I can't handle three at once."
"Well it's nice to know there are limitations to your prowess, but I'm still at a loss as to how to explain this to Rebecca."
"You want me to talk to her?"
Joe sighs. "I think that would only further complicate things." He looks to the heavens but all he sees is a dark sky which offers no help at all.
"So I'll send her over to your table, okay, Cisco?" And Ted has that look in his eyes that suggest a friend in need which Joe has always had a hard time ignoring.
"Okay," Joe says, and then he tries to explain to Rebecca what friendship is. "It's a bit complicated," he says, "but he always gets a little over involved with women and this time he's not only outdone himself, they have all come to hear him play the same night. So it will relieve the pressure he feels if I pretend one is with me." He twists his mouth into what must look like a half smile and adds, "You understand, don't you? He's my best friend."
"And I am?" she asks, that right eyebrow of hers slightly raised.
"The woman I am falling head over heels in love with."
"Ah," she goes. "So then I must understand, mustn't I?"
"That's what I'm hoping."
And Rebecca sighs, Alice comes over after getting a text message from Ted, and sits at their table somewhat embarrassed. "I hope," she says, "I'm not intruding."
Joe doesn't know how to answer that, and looking over at Rebecca whose face wears an expression he finds impossible to read, does not help. So he shrugs, says, "No problem," and hates himself for being so clichéd.
They listen to the music through the first set, not really talking, just listening and the women sip their wine while Joe has three whiskies with Rebecca watching him out of the corner of her eye. He knows he should feel guilty somehow, but can't seem to conjure up that feeling. And when the set is over, Ted comes by before stopping off at Karen's table to pretend to say hello.
"You're my man," he says in Joe's ear, then asks the ladies if they enjoyed the set. Rebecca nods and says yes, but Alice uncrosses her legs, runs her hand along the inside of her right thigh and murmurs that she'd love to see him play in a smaller venue.
"Well," Ted says, "I'm sure I'll let you know when that can be arranged."
Joe avoids Rebecca's eyes and gazes into his drink. He thinks he could live in a bottle of whiskey. It would certainly be one way to lose oneself and right now that doesn't seem like such a bad idea.
Ted leaves then to set-up for the next set and Alice looks over at Rebecca and smiles. "I just love that man," she says.
"Do you?" Rebecca says, then looks at Joe again who keeps his eyes on his whiskey and his thoughts a thousand miles away. "It would appear you're not alone in that."
Alice avoids looking over at the other women but says, "It's something I haven't adjusted to yet and something I hope to change."
Rebecca, being more worldly wise when it comes to men, pats her arm affectionately. "One can only hope," she says.
And the set begins, some people get up to dance, and Rebecca stands, holds out her hand to Joe who realizes the importance of the invitation, and rises to his feet, finishes the whiskey in his glass, and lets her lead him out to the dance floor and dances.
Later, at the table, after Rebecca has excused herself to visit the ladies' room, Alice says, "You dance pretty well for an old man. It's kind of a sixties' thing, huh?"
"Are you referring to the decade or my age?" Joe says. "Either way, though, I must warn you, you're treading on thin ice."
"Both, I guess," she says and smiles. "But it's a compliment really. I like old things."
"Well that warms my heart," he says. "And it explains your attraction to Ted. He is, you know, as old as me."
"I know," she says. "He was my teacher once, you know."
"And who's teaching whom now?"
"I'd say it's mutual."
"God bless democracy."
"You're teaching at the college," she says.
"Yes," he nods.
"I have a friend taking your graduate workshop. She's an MFA candidate."
"Oh?" he says. "I only met with them once but no one stands out as of yet."
"She missed your first class because she wasn't back from Spain yet." Alice's smile grows a bit broader. "But you'll know her when you see her."
Joe has no idea what that means, nor does he really care. Talking to young people always tires him, and so he drifts off, letting the whiskey linger in his mouth before swallowing it, and watching Rebecca walk back to the table, walking without thinking about it, those long, slow strides that cause a mumble of excitement in the bar and always give him pause, as if the purpose of his existence is to wait for this woman to join him wherever he is.
"What?" she asks as she sits and looks at him.
He gives his head a little shake as if to clear it and shrugs. "Nothing," he says, then after a second or two. "Everything."
She watches him carefully, a science project that can go either way, then puts her hand on his left hand which is not holding the whiskey glass and gives it a little squeeze. Joe wonders about gestures like that. Wonders why they seem so meaningful. Wonders about life outside on the streets beyond this bar, this upstate town, this land he has traveled a little too often and yet has rarely been above ground even when he thought there was terra firma beneath his feet. And wonders if he could live without the whiskey in his glass and with a woman like this one squeezing his hand and trying to keep him grounded in the here and now. And if the here and now is really the one place he truly wants to inhabit at this stage in his life.
And Ted plays his guitar, sings about love, life, and the deep blue sea, winks at his ladies and grins that grin that lights a room and dazzles all that are blessed enough to see it. And Joe envies him because he truly owns the moment while Joe can't seem to grip anything that isn't 86 proof and golden brown in color.
Later, with Rebecca fast asleep next to him, he slides out of bed and drifts out to the living room, pours himself a glass of whiskey, and sits in his favorite reading chair trying to lose the fear he feels building inside. Because Joe does not believe in happiness, cannot see any future that does not contain pain and sorrow, and thus that is the reason he envies Ted so much, his ability to be satisfied with his surroundings, comfortable in his own skin, no matter how bizarre his circumstances become, Ted finds only pleasure in his existence while Joe keeps looking over his shoulder expecting disaster to appear at any time catching up with him. He scratches his beard, sips his whiskey, thinks this will probably not last beyond the winter, and is surprised as Rebecca's arms encircle his shoulders, her hair falling over his face as she leans forward to whisper in his ear, "What are you doing, big boy? Don't you want to come back to bed with me?"
And his heart melts there in his chest, there in his chair, and he lets her pull him back gently, yet firmly, toward the bedroom and her arms and love once again lasting all night long.
Ted meanwhile can't help thinking he would rather be in Alice's bed right now rather than Karen's but as fate would have it, that will just have to wait until tomorrow. But the fact that he thinks of Alice now, after a prolonged lovemaking with Karen makes him think that perhaps his world is about to come crashing down around him a little sooner than expected. And he's not quite sure just how he feels about that. Which, if he thought about it, could concern him. Thankfully, though, he doesn't think about anything but just falls back asleep.
Alice is on his mind all day long and he finds he is actually imagining her there, in the front row of each class, those long, shapely legs spread apart just enough for him to spy that spot he so longs to penetrate, and as each girl gets up to leave his class at the end of each period, it is Alice's ass he sees sashaying out into the hall.
Ted thinks this is quite possibly becoming an obsession and finally texts Joe in the afternoon asking him to join him for drinks later that evening knowing full well what bar he will be going to and just what bartender will be pouring his Jack.
Joe's graduate workshop is later in the week but the material submitted for discussion waits for him in his mailbox. And as he peruses the stories a new piece by a late arrival, Maria Arias, catches his eye and finally, he thinks, he may just have some real talent in his class.
Meanwhile Dr. Bob’s secretary Stacey calls him to say that Dr. Bob would like to speak to him in his office if he is free now. “Sure,” Joe says, thinking if this is when the axe falls, and trying to remember if he did anything yet to offend these people. He stands, tucks in his shirt, runs a hand through his thinning hair and mostly grey beard and wanders down the hall to the chair’s office.
“Ah, Joseph,” Dr. Bob says, “so good of you to come. I’m not pulling you away from anything important, I hope.”
“No,” Joe says. “Just reading the usual material up for workshop.” He thinks another word than “material” almost slipped out of his mouth but thankfully he self censored himself before it reached the airwaves.
“And how are the students in your grad workshop?” Dr. Bob asks, his eyes alight with hope. “Promising?”
“That’s as good a description as any,” Joe says.
“We are trying to attract a better caliber of student into the MFA program. It is relatively new, as you know, and our first writer-in-residence wasn’t as well-known as you are, nor,” and Dr. Bob chuckles here, “as colorful as you.”
“That’s one way to describe me.”
“Yes,” Dr. Bob says, though not quite sure of how to proceed from there. “Rebecca is, as you know, the one who was most responsible for getting the department to create the program and though it is small now, we hope to watch it grow. And having someone with your reputation is a selling point for us.”
Joe isn’t quite sure of which reputation he is referring to but decides this is not the best time to ask. After all, one doesn’t look a gift horse in the mouth for fear it will bite off one’s nose.
“So we thought perhaps you could give a reading on campus soon. And with Rebecca’s help, arrange student readings to follow on say a monthly basis.”
“Sure,” Joe says.
“We’d also like to film these and create a link to them on our website.”
“Ah,” Joe goes. “I’d better comb my hair then.”
“Yes,” Dr. Bob says and then laughs.
And Joe smiles affably all the way out of the office
The bar is crowded for a weekday night and Ted and Joe have trouble finding two stools together so settle on just one, Ted giving Joe the seat while he stands leaning against the bar trying to get Alice's attention. And then, as if they are somehow connected telepathically, she turns in his direction and smiles, bringing a bottle of Jack Daniels in one hand and Bushmills in the other.
"This is a surprise," she says. "You thirsty?"
"Always," Ted says. "And not just for Jack, either."
Joe turns his head so they don't see him roll his eyes and pretends to cough into his hand. Then he turns back and says, "I'm always thirsty, too. And as Antonio Machado once said, 'It's good to know what a glass is for, but better to know what thirst is.' Or something along those lines anyway."
And it's then that a voice near his left ear quotes the lines in Spanish which almost startles him. He turns back and finds himself staring into the dark eyes of a raven haired woman of what could only be called exotic charms. Loop earrings hang from her ears, a rainbow colored scarf is around her neck, and though he can't see them, and is too discreet to look, he just knows she stands on legs that mount horses and has big dark nipples on her breasts.
"This is Maria," Alice says to Joe. "She's the friend I was telling you about that's in your graduate workshop."
"Ah," Joe says, though he thinks that isn't very clever but the smile lounging on her lips unnerves him. "I, eh, saw you have a piece up for Thursday."
"Yes," she says. "I think you should like it."
"Well we'll see," he says. "I haven't read it yet."
"You'll like it," she says. "It's very good."
Joe doesn't really know what to say in answer to that so he says nothing.
"She's a great writer," Alice says. "And she's excited to be in your workshop."
"And she's your friend?" Ted asks. "You know each other long?"
"We were roommates freshman year," Alice says.
"Ah," Ted goes. "Joe and I go back to our undergrad days, too."
"Isn't that a coincidence." And Alice seems to be implying more with that statement then is apparent to all concerned, but Ted, always open to hidden meanings, nods in agreement.
"I've read your books," Maria says to Joe.
Joe looks at her as if she just arrived, his mind having temporarily drifted off chasing that click that whiskey gives him but has so far this evening eluded him. "Really?" he says, though is once again astounded by his lack of witty repartee.
"The campus bookstore has a few in stock now, but I found a few others in a used bookstore in Manhattan before coming back up here."
"Manhattan?" Joe echoes.
"We have a good used bookstore here in town, too," Maria says. "He had two of your books there."
"Really?" Joe says, then thinks he should find another stock answer. This "really" business is getting repetitive.
"I have seven now," Maria says. "I've only read four, though."
"That's probably four more than most people."
"You'll have to sign them for me sometime."
Joe thinks there's another conversation going on that he is only dimly aware of, just under the surface of this one, because her eyes seem to be saying something altogether different than her mouth. He turns to see if Ted notices this but Ted is in a whispered huddle with Alice which probably means Joe may have to find another way home.
Ted, meanwhile, has worked out how he will spend the rest of the evening as soon as Alice gets off work. And that leaves him almost giddy with anticipation. "I can take you home now," he says to Joe. "But I'll need to come back here for Alice."
Joe sighs and starts to finish his drink when Maria interrupts by saying, "You don't have to hurry. I can give you a ride, if you'd like. I was planning on leaving soon anyway."
"Perfect," Ted says. "You're in good hands, Cisco." Then his attention shifts back to Alice leaving Joe alone with Maria.
Joe finds his life is not always under his own control but rather than resist, he lets it be guided by others as long as whiskey is close by. So after finishing his generous refill from Alice, he follows Maria out to the car.
The ride home is quick, mainly because she not only seems to know her way around town but has a heavy foot on the gas pedal. Joe thanks her before getting out of the car but she says, "Can I come in for a drink?"
Joe hesitates for a second, warning lights flashing in his brain, but, as usual, he does not pay strict attention to them, says, "Sure" and leads the way. And once inside, Maria gravitates toward the bookshelves while Joe moves to the liquor cabinet to pour them both a drink. "You'll have?" he asks.
"Whatever you're drinking."
"Irish whiskey," he says. "You want water or ice?"
"Ice would be nice."
And he opens an ice cube tray into his ice bucket and pours the drinks. Then he joins her in front of the bookshelves.
"Have you read all these books?" she asks.
"These, yes," he says. "I have some others in what is my den that I haven't gotten around to yet."
"Which is your favorite book?"
Joe laughs, a little sadly perhaps, and says, "I've read too many books over the years to be able to answer that."
She looks at him closely. "No favorite?"
"It changes with age," Joe says. "Different books speak to us at different times in our lives."
"And what speaks to you now?"
"Nothing as of yet," Joe says. "I'm in a period of transition."
"From what to what?" she asks and Joe gets the feeling this young woman can keep on going asking questions till he runs out of answers and then ask a few more.
"How about we just have our drinks and you tell me about what you're reading," he says, and moves toward the living room chairs.
She follows him, sits down opposite and as she crosses her legs, he realizes she has very nice ones indeed. He wonders how he didn't notice that before but then thinks it was probably better he didn't notice, might not even be a good idea that he has noticed now, but he can't help thinking it's too late. "I'm reading you," she says, settling in her chair.
"Ah," he goes.
"I did notice, though, that your books didn't seem to be on these shelves. They are alphabetically displayed, aren't they?"
"Yes," he says.
"So how come you don't have your books here?"
"They're in the den," he says. "These shelves out here are reserved for better authors than me."
"You're the first writer I've ever met who is so modest."
"It's not modesty," he says. "Just an honest appraisal."
"Well I really like your books and think you're very talented. I also think I could learn a lot studying under you."
"I'm not sure anyone has learned a lot studying under me," he says.
"You're being modest again. I've heard different."
"Well don't believe everything you hear."
"And we all hear lots of stories about you," she says.
"Ah yes," and he sighs. "My advance publicity." He sips his whiskey and looks off somewhere beyond this room, this house, this moment in time.
"Do you really get into barroom brawls?"
He sighs again. "Not in a long time."
"I guess you were pretty wild at times. I mean, if you can believe the stories and the books."
"The books are works of fiction, not my personal history, and not all those stories are true."
She looks at him with interest, then sips her own drink. "Mmmm," she says. "This is good."
"We aim to please here at Joe Bolta's Bar and Grill."
"You serve food, too?"
"Why?" he asks. "Are you hungry?"
"Well let's see what I have," he says and stands and goes into the kitchen. Maria follows right behind. And once he opens the refrigerator, they both stand side by side studying the contents.
"Hot dogs," she says. "You have two packages so I guess this is a staple for you."
"They're breakfast usually," Joe says. "And sometimes dinner."
"I eat out for lunch," he says, "if I eat it at all."
"Well we could have hot dogs," she says. "I like Sabrett which is what you have."
"I have eggs, too," he says. "Hot dogs and eggs are a good nighttime meal. Kind of between dinner and breakfast, if you know what I mean."
"Sounds good," she says.
And so they cook, eat, drink some more, and Maria even takes charge of his CD player and plays music. And Joe thinks, watching her, that he had better watch himself around this girl or else he could complicate his life the way Ted complicates his and he just doesn't think he has the stamina for that.
Ted meanwhile is having the kind of meal he prefers and Alice is the main course. And the dessert. Afterwards, he lies half asleep with her in his arms and almost forgets the rest of the world is outside his bedroom. But that world, whether he wants it to or not, will soon come crashing through the door and life won't ever quite be the same again. And the crash comes in the person of Sue something who comes calling unexpectedly. And when he hears the knocking on the door, he first tries to ignore it, holds on tightly to Alice as she shifts in the bed, the knocking disturbing their peaceful repose, but the knocking soon turns to pounding and even Ted cannot hold back his better impulses so he rises to answer even though he knows there can be no good news on the other side of the door.
And Sue something stands, her fist half raised to pound some more, a look of angry surprise on her face, her mouth open as if to howl in the night, and Ted, in boxer shorts and a baseball bat in his hand, asks, "What the fuck is this?"
"Why didn't you answer?" she asks suddenly regaining what are for her her senses.
"The real question," he says, his grip on the bat tightening, "is why are you pounding on my door?"
"I want to see you," Sue says.
"At four fucking o'clock in the morning?"
"I was lonely," she says in what is for her a justifiable defense.
"Get a dog," he says, and starts to close the door.
"Don't shut me out," she says, her voice rising to a feverish pitch. "I'll start to scream."
"I'll make a scene!" she almost shouts. "I'll wake up the whole neighborhood!"
Ted glares at her, the bat just itching to let fly, but he controls the impulse realizing it will only make the situation worse, and says, "Just what are you trying to do?"
"I want to see you," she says, her voice almost calm, her eyes, though, ablaze.
"Well this isn't a good time for that," he says. "Call in the morning, much later in the morning, and make an appointment like a good girl."
"No," she says. "Now. I want to see you now."
"Well this is not a good time," he says again, and then, as if to prove that point, Alice comes out of the bedroom rubbing her eyes and wearing just her bikini panties and his shirt. Sue's eyes bulge slightly and Ted thinks this night may never end, but if it does, it may not end the way he would have liked it.
"Who's that?" Sue says, pointing.
Alice stops, looks at this seemingly mad woman standing just outside the door and asks, "Who is that?"
And Ted, trying to make the most of the situation, introduces them to each other. "Now," he says to Sue, "as you can see, I'm presently occupied, so call later and we'll talk. Okay?"
"You're cheating me," Sue says. "My god, you're cheating me."
Ted thinks at this point that perhaps using the bat earlier was the best option but this has gone beyond that point now since Alice would probably not be a friendly witness at the trial, so he gives up and asks in his most reasonable voice, "How do you figure that?"
"Her!" Sue says, pointing to Alice. "What's she doing here?"
"Well," Ted says, "up until a few minutes ago, she and I were sleeping rather peacefully in my bed but now, thanks to you, that moment is lost. But why that or anything I do should be your business is the real question here."
"We're involved," Sue says. "We have a relationship!"
"First," Ted says, adjusting his position in the doorway and though not letting go of the bat, relaxing his grip, "we are not married nor engaged. And second, whatever we have, or had, is not what you think it is. As a matter of fact, if you don't back off and leave this minute, I'll call the police and report you as a prowler."
'You wouldn't dare," she says, her voice rising again.
"Lady, you have no idea what I'll dare." And with that he closes the door, moves toward the phone and says to Alice, "Perhaps you should get dressed. The police will be here momentarily." And he picks up the phone and dials 911. Alice runs to the bedroom, Ted sighs, and after a brief explanation to the officer who answers the phone, gives his address as the pounding increases and life, as they say, takes another twist and turn in what was a life he thought he had under control.
Joe meanwhile listens as Maria reads Lorca in Spanish to him and thinks as her voice rises and falls with the syllables that if he isn't careful this could lead him into troubled waters. But here it is four o'clock in the morning and half a bottle of whiskey later and this young woman is still here reading to him as he feels his resistance fading and the click he so longs for nowhere in sight. He thinks he is too old for this, that his life is already complicated enough with Rebecca and young people belong with other young people not in his bed even though he senses this young woman would willing go there, but where could it lead, and what would he lose if he let it lead him there?
And so he does nothing but drink some more, listen to that voice, those poems in their native tongue, and wishes morning would come so he could finally see her leave for her own bed and he could retire to his.
The cops are somewhat amused but do their best not to show it as they lead Sue something off to wherever it is they will take her and the neighbors' lights go back off while Ted turns to the bar, fills a glass with Jack Daniels and takes a healthy sip. He then looks at Alice who is sitting on his couch and says, "I hope you don't hold all this against me."
She just smiles and says, "How about pouring me a drink, too, big boy, and then let us go back to sleep."
And Ted thinks there is a god after all and silently thanks him or her as he pours her a drink and lets her lead him back to bed.
Rebecca comes by the next morning with her dog, bagels, cream cheese, lox, and a quart of Tropicana Orange Juice for breakfast and finds Joe looking somewhat worse for wear. "What time did you get to sleep?' she asks him as he tries keeping his eye lids from closing.
"What time is it now?" he asks.
"Ten," she says while making the coffee.
"About three hours ago."
She stops pouring boiling water over the grinds and looks at him. "You were up the entire night?"
"It's a long story," he says, sitting down a little too carefully at the kitchen table as if he is afraid of breaking something which is not the chair.
"Well maybe not so long."
"How short then?"
"Well not short but not long, either."
She finishes pouring the water over the grinds into the carafe and they both watch the water seep its way through the grinds and slowly fill up the pot. "Maybe you should drink a cup of this before you tell me."
He sighs and rests his weary head in his hands. The dog meanwhile lies down at his feet and sighs. "I know exactly how you feel,” he says to it. The dog raises its head and wags its tail, thinking perhaps there is a romp in the yard in its future. Joe ignores him and looks over at Rebecca. “I wouldn't mind some of that lox," he says. "I love lox."
"Somehow I guessed that," she says. "I'll make you a bagel, okay?"
He nods, looks at her slicing two bagels, spreading cream cheese, layering on the lox, and pouring both of them two mugs of coffee and two glasses of orange juice. She moves around his kitchen as if she belongs there and Joe has to acknowledge the fact that he likes that about her, the way she takes charge of things in his life. He knows he's teetering on the edge of what could be dangerous ground for him--a relationship--and that would normally give him pause enough but now, after watching Maria take charge of his evening last night, he begins to feel trepidations bubbling up inside his chest where his heart should be. He can't allow himself to start falling for one woman when he's already fallen for this woman because he cannot, like Ted, juggle more than one ball in the air at once. He is made of simpler stuff, and one at a time is hard enough to handle, so two would be impossible. Besides, he reasons, Rebecca is more than enough for him, and thankfully she is more than adequately up to the job of handling him, so why tempt fate? And then, of course, there’s the dog.
Rebecca holds the bagel out to him and says, "C'mon, big boy. Wrap your mouth around this."
And he smiles, takes it in his hands, takes a big bite and chews slowly as he watches her nibble at hers. He thinks he may be happier at this moment than he has been in a long, long time, and silently prays that he doesn't somehow screw it up, which, for him, is always a possibility.
Happiness is something Ted is experiencing as both he and Alice giggle over last night's escapade with Sue something. The sight of her being led away by the police causes convulsions and Ted thinks there is probably at least a song in this, and probably a chapter in a book Joe could write once he relays the story to him. But relaying the story will have to wait till later, much later, since it is a Saturday morning and he has nowhere to go, Alice isn't due at work till 6pm, and there is much yet to do here, in this bed, under these sheets, with her. And so he gets to it because he is a firm believer in not wasting the precious time he has.
Rebecca decides to cook him dinner but when she looks into his refrigerator and in his cupboards, she sighs realizing this will require more effort than she had first thought. "You have absolutely nothing here that I need," she says.
Joe strokes his beard as if that act will somehow produce the proper response but nothing comes to mind. "But I have things," he says finally.
"Hot dogs, peanut butter, tortillas, butter, mustard, cans of tuna fish, these are not the stuff from which healthy dinners are made."
"Well," he says, "it's a start, isn't it?"
"Joseph," she says, giving his name three syllables, "I have some shopping to do." She squints his way and asks, "You want to come along or are you just going to stay here, watch the dog, and drink?"
"Ah," he goes. "A choice."
She shakes her head. "Why did I even bother to ask?" She gets her bag and says, "You wait here and try to stay out of trouble until I get back." She looks him in the eye. "You think you can do that?"
"Yes, ma'am," he says.
She pats him on the head, then pats the dog in the exact same place, and says, "Good boys." Then she leaves.
He stares at the door for a minute wondering who the “good boy” was in reference to and just where all this is leading. Then he elects not to think about it. Instead he pours another drink, puts on Lang Lang's CD of Chopin, lays back on the couch, and closes his eyes. He is waiting for his click and though it hasn't come yet, it doesn't worry him. He knows it will eventually.
Ted goes to Karen's after Alice leaves and before he goes to his Saturday night gig. She has dinner prepared for him and he eats a little but not too much because he does not like to perform on a full stomach. She watches him without saying anything for a while and then asks, "Will you come back afterwards to eat more?"
"I don't know," he says.
Karen starts to say something, then stops, just watches him with tired eyes. There seems to be a weariness about her, and Ted suspects there's an inner conflict raging inside. He knows he is being unfair, that she has been faithful, supportive, not just a good lover but a better friend, and he wants somehow to show his appreciation of that but Alice keeps cropping up in his mind and he knows he shouldn't be distracted but he is. There is conflict inside him, too, and for a man who has always been able to compartmentalize his affections, he feels he is losing his grip. He is no longer able to control his passions. They are now controlling him.
Rebecca is making a salad, chopping up carrots, shredding lettuce, adding olives and cherry tomatoes, and he thinks this is all very healthy but if he had his choice, he would just as soon grill a hotdog and be done with it. Food has never been a priority for him because, he thinks, he has spent so much time eating alone. Even when he was married, or at least the last two times he was married, the first time being a little bit vague in his recollection, he usually ate out more often than he ate at home. He just always felt more at ease in a diner or small town restaurant where the waiter or waitress knew his name, to bring a glass of red wine over without being asked, and to know what he wanted to eat without having to look at the menu. That always seemed ideal to him and so this bit of domesticity is unfamiliar. And though he has to admit he likes watching Rebecca putter around his kitchen, rearrange his shelves, straighten the covers on his bed before enticing him to join her under the sheets, it is a bit unnerving to think he might be headed for another relationship when he knows just how bad he is at maintaining one. The last thing he wants to do is lose the presence of this woman in his life but the longer she stays and the deeper her involvement, the more difficult it will be for him to hold onto her.
Trouble is something Ted has been courting all his life even when he wasn't aware of it. And so he does not heed any warning signals on the road of life but plunges along taking the good with the bad and doing his best to turn whatever misfortune comes his way into a welcome addition to his life experiences. And now, with Alice, he chooses to ignore the age difference, the complications it will place in his relationship with Karen, the ramifications it could have in his life. It feels good so he will continue to savor it. And like his beloved Jack Daniels, it is becoming an acquired taste he finds he cannot live without.
Alice, for her part, basks in his attention. She had always had a crush on him when he was her teacher and now, in his bed, it is as if a wish has been fulfilled. She cannot think of any place she would rather be. When she was with younger men, her own age or slightly older, she always felt as if something were missing, some sense of her own importance, as if she wasn't the most important thing in their life but just another charm on their sexual bracelet. But here, with Ted, she knows just how desirable she is to him, that he is beginning to think beyond the sex, to consider more than the physical, and this is becoming as necessary, as special, to him as it is to her.
And Ted finds he thinks of her even when she is with him, that his mind travels in time to a time when all he will see is her, and this is more than he bargained for when he first spied her ass. This is beyond lust or infatuation. This is what passes for love in his heart.
"I'm in trouble, Cisco," Ted says, as he walks past Joe into his living room and takes possession of his couch. "I need some advice here."
"From me?" Joe asks. "And in regards to what?"
"Woman, Cisco." He sighs. "I need your take on the women in my life."
"Ted," Joe says, "I think I'm the last person you want to ask advice from. I'm not exactly a success when it comes to dealing with women in my own life."
"Which is why I'm asking you," Ted says. "People who can't do often are great at giving advice to others."
"That's a sort of twisted logic, don't you think?"
"But it is logical," Ted says. Then he waves his bottle of Jack Daniels in the air and asks, "You got a glass for me. I’m not that far gone to start drinking out of the bottle yet."
Joe gets glasses, takes the bottle of Irish whiskey from his cabinet, and hands a glass to Ted while he uses the other glass for himself. He settles in his armchair opposite the couch and looks at the liquid in his glass before taking a large sip. "Okay," he says finally. "I'm listening."
"Well," Ted goes, making some vague hand gesture for lack of anything better to do, "I'm in love, I think."
"Well, maybe I know."
"Okay," Joe says.
"And it's with Karen, of course. I mean, you know that, right?"
Joe nods but elects not to say anything yet because he knows this isn't the end of it.
"But I also seem to have fallen in love with Alice, too."
"Ah," Joe says. "Well at least it's not with Sue something."
"No," Ted laughs. "Give me some credit, will you." Then he sighs. "Just Karen and Alice."
"Well," Joe says and can't think of anything else to add that would sound remotely intelligent so he opts for a question. "And you see this as a problem?"
"Well I think they will, don't you think?"
"Probably," Joe says. "Most people tend not to want to share the one they love with someone else."
"That's what I think, too."
Joe nods, does a little shrug of his shoulders, a sort of tilt to the side with his head, then takes another sip of the whiskey in his glass.
Ted watches him for what seems like hours but is actually less than a minute and then asks, "So?"
"So?" Joe echoes.
"So what's your advice?"
"Ah, well..." and Joe looks to the ceiling but there aren't any clues there. "I think you'll probably have to choose," he says finally. "I mean, I don't see any other way out of this."
"I can't," Ted says. "I just can't."
"Well if you can't, they will for you."
"I know," Joe says. "And I don't see you coming out ahead if they do."
"But I can't choose," Ted says. "I love them both." He looks helplessly at his friend as he says, "What would you do?"
"I wouldn't let myself get in a situation like that."
"You've never loved two women at once?" Ted asks, finding the thought inconceivable since he falls in love all the time.
"Well..." and Joe's thinks of Maria, then Rebecca, and finds he stands on morally shaky ground. "Not willingly."
"So you have then?"
"I don't know," Joe says. "Maybe I haven't yet but maybe I could one day."
"You mean hypothetically or actually?"
"Can I answer that question in the morning?"
"Aw you fucker," Ted laughs. "You've fallen for two women yourself."
"I don't know if that's true," Joe says, a bit more defensively than he wants to. "But there might be that possibility in the future."
"The near future?"
"Maybe," Joe concedes.
"Ah ha!" Ted beams having won some contest in his mind's eye. "So if that's true, then what do you say?"
"I say we both could be royally fucked."
"Yeah," Ted nods. "Ain't that a kick in the head?"
They both sit for awhile, neither speaking, just staring off into space while occasionally taking sips from their respective glasses.
"So," Ted finally says, "tell me about this possible dilemma you may find yourself in." He grins. "Who's the other woman?"
"Remember that friend of Alice's at the bar Friday night?"
"Yeah," Ted says, his memory reeling back two nights.
"Well, her," Joe says.
"Ahhh," Ted goes and laughs. "That's great. We can double date."
"I don't think I can visualize that even with the aid of alcohol."
"You lack the imagination, do you?"
"I lack motivation," Joe says.
"Then it's time to motivate you," Ted laughs and pulls out his cellphone to call Alice. There are those hushed tones that people have when they speak to someone they love, or are at least sleeping with, and Joe finds himself wandering out to his kitchen to stare out the back door. There isn't anything worth looking at there but he looks anyway. After a while, Ted joins him.
"Get presentable, Cisco," he says. "We are going boating."
"On the lake?"
"Well neither one of us has a tub or pool big enough to boat in so the lake will have to do."
And Joe finishes his whiskey to fortify himself.
They arrive at Ted's boat to find both Alice and Maria waiting for them with what appears to be a cooler of cold beer and soft drinks. Somehow Joe knew this was going to happen so he is not surprised. Ted meanwhile is grinning as if it's Christmas and these are their presents just waiting to be opened. "I hope you have a bottle of Jack there, too," he says to Alice. She holds up a bottle for him to see. "That's my girl," he says and begins ushering everyone onto the boat.
Maria looks over at Joe and says, "I have a bottle of Irish whiskey for you, too." She smiles a bit coyly. "I didn't want you to feel neglected."
Joe thinks his troubles are just beginning but sees no way around them. "Well," and he sighs as he takes the bottle in hand and pours himself a drink in the glass she offers him, "when in Rome..."
And so they cruise the lake, Alice steering the boat under Ted's instructions, and Joe wondering how he can get out of this without succumbing to temptation. And Maria, though subtle, is obviously interested in more than skimming over the lake. But Ted guides Alice to the dock of one of his favorite lakeside haunts, they tie up, and saunter over to an outdoor table on the bar's deck. Drinks, fried calamari, and onion rings keep their hands and mouths busy for a while, but Joe notices one of Ted's hands strays under the table and doesn't need much imagination to figure out what it is doing or why Alice squirms slightly but is obviously pleased.
"This is the life, huh Cisco?" Ted says and winks.
Maria looks at Joe and asks, "What is this Cisco business?"
"A reference to an old TV series," Joe says. "Cisco, Pancho, the Old West." He gives a helpless shrug. "Something we've been calling each other since college."
"Compadres," Ted says.
"Yes," Joe nods. "Now and forever."
And they both hold up their glasses in a toast.
"You've been friends since college?" Alice asks. "Wow. You're so lucky. I hope that will be true for Maria and me one day."
"Well luck has nothing to do with it," Joe says. "Friendship, like anything else worth having, takes effort, and we've made that effort so it has survived."
"Amen, brother," Ted says.
"How did you meet?" Maria asks.
And then Ted goes into the story of freshman orientation at a Midwestern college, of the two of them being the only people with bellbottoms on, of a conversation on a stone bench, and the rest, as they say, is history. And there are the stories, the artistic lives they both had, the group of mutual friends they shared, the parties, the music, the trip to California, sleeping under the stars, their first wives. Joe occasionally corrects a detail here, a detail there, or at least gives his version of what happened when, and they act out different anecdotes, amuse the girls, there is laughter, there are more drinks, there is a touch on the knee now, a hand brushing against an arm, and the girls talk about their undergraduate days, nights, ex-boyfriends. Facts, figures, summations of lives lived, and the four get to know each other, even Ted begins to discover things about Alice he did not stop to ask before, and the afternoon drifts by toward dinner.
"I don't know about you three," Ted says, "but I'm hungry. How's steak sound?"
And so they end up on Ted's backyard deck, grilling steaks and corn on the cob, drinking Ted's famous bloody mary's, and getting pleasantly high, even Joe finding himself numb enough not to care what happens next. And what happens next is Ted and Alice disappear into his back bedroom after dinner and Joe finds himself with Maria staring at the night sky.
"I love the night sky here by the lake," Maria says. "You can actually see the stars."
Joe looks up but having lived for many years in different parts of the country, he's used to seeing the stars so it doesn't really impress him anymore. Then he begins to wonder if maybe that's a bad thing: to lack that sense of wonder when looking at the natural world. Has he become so jaded, he wonders. Is there nothing that makes him want to say wow with conviction?
"You can't see anything in the city," she says. "But you're from the city, aren't you?"
"Originally," he says. "Ozone Park, Queens. But it's been many years since I could call any borough home."
"Where do you consider home?"
Joe thinks for a minute but can't come up with anything. "Nowhere, I guess," he finally says.
"I just haven't been anywhere long enough these last 30 years to think of anywhere as home."
"But what about New York?"
"I've been away too long to feel anything for it, either."
"That's sad," Maria says.
"Really?" Joe asks, a bit surprised by that comment.
"Don't you think so?"
"To tell you the truth, I try not to think about it."
"That may even be sadder," she says, and a look comes into her eye that Joe thinks just might be tenderness. And though he doesn't want to admit it, he is almost touched by her concern.
Ted, meanwhile, is in heaven, or at least the closest possible proximity to it for him on this earth. And it isn't just because of Alice's body, which still has the power to leave him almost speechless, or the sex, which he cannot get enough of, but by her sheer presence in his life, in his bed. He watches her mouth as she talks about a dream: it was about a dog she had as a child, how she was chasing it through a field, a garden, then suddenly it took wings and flew into the sky, and she woke crying, feeling an immense loss. And there are tears in her eyes as she tells it, a slight quiver to her voice, and he holds her there, in his arms, under their sheets, her body soft, and hard, in all the right places, and so warm and alive, he wants to hold her like this, and live forever.
Later, Maria drives Joe home and stops in his driveway. "You still have hotdogs and eggs in that fridge of yours?" she asks.
"I always have hotdogs and eggs," Joe says. "They're like staples for me. And peanut butter."
"And whiskey, I bet."
"That goes without saying."
"Can I come in and have some?"
He thinks she is asking for something else but pretends he doesn't think that, is all innocence as he nods yes. And she turns off the ignition, follows him inside, and watches as he slices hotdogs in the kitchen and beats eggs, heats some tortillas for this late night meal. She, meanwhile, goes to his liquor cabinet and pours them both a drink. And they eat at first standing up in the kitchen, then go to the living room to continue drinking. And he watches as she puts on some music, Pat Metheny, and they don't talk for a long time.
Finally she finishes her drink, and stands. "Thanks for the food," she says, and he nods, she sort of smiles, then turns to go. And as he listens to her car back out of his driveway, he feels regret, and relief, in what passes for his soul.
And his father, looking at him from across that great divide, shakes his head sadly and sighs.
“I know,” Joe says to the ghost of his father, to himself. “I know.”
And finally to Ted who lies awake breathing in the scent of Alice's hair as she sleeps peacefully in his arms.