Anita’s Busker

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“Well, there you go! You never know who you’ll bump into. See that guy over there? The busker. Blue shirt and sharp little cap? I knew him once. Yeah. He played around. Anywhere there was jazz of some sort, he’d hang around the edges, inching his way in so that by the end of the night he’d be sitting in. You know, when everyone else left and the real music started up. I wonder what happened to him?”

Anita pulled her sweater close around her. It was sunnier than it had been in days. She and Chilla met at the park on Saturdays. Chilla brought the donuts, Anita brought the coffee.

“I might know him,” Chilla said, mouth full, lips rimmed with powdered sugar. He ducked when she tried to wipe it off.

“Naw, you don’t  know this one. Right before your time. You came- when? Nineteen seventy-nine? This was when I was just twenty-two. When I was starting to make money. I was with Zero to Ninety. We’d made our first record and I was busy. Making the rounds, getting into good joints like suddenly we were something hot. Always hot, always something. Took some folks off guard but I had it goin’ on.”

Anita added more sugar to her coffee, blew across the top so that the steam floated away, ghostly feathers. She listened hard. The man sounded pretty good from where she sat under the aspens.

Chilla shrugged. “You had it, I had it, we were smart and bustin’ out. ‘Course I was particular about my tunes; you were about whatever you needed to be.”

She turned sharply to face him. “What do you mean? Versatility! I had chops. Fluidity. Yeah, sang anything you wanted.” She took a gulp, frowned. “How would you know, anyway? You were a drummer. You were so full of sound when we played together you could barely hear me.”

“Oh, I heard you. How could I not? ” He smiled. “Want a chocolate creme? Or maple log?”

Anita took a bite of the maple log, then watched the busker. Two couples had tossed money in the coffee can. She smiled. She liked that, liked him more. Coffee cans were hard to find these days. Maybe she should edge up closer, sit so she could catch all the notes. The tunes were a mix, old and newish. His shirt looked fresh; he was clean. Where had she last heard him play? Was it with Smithy Levin’s band? Forty years ago…

“You know I don’t think about all that much.” Chilla leaned against the bench, put his arm around Anita. “What’s the point? I can’t play, anymore. Even if I beat five minutes on one of my drums, the landlord would set me free in the world and no, don’t want that again. Did enough travelling once. I like my place. Like my peace.”

“So you say. I like remembering. Cheers me up. What’s going on now, Chilla? We watch the pigeons sneak up on every crumb. Watch the kiddies endanger their lives on monkey bars. You have your t.v. shows. I have my books and fish. Well, that’s nice. Oh and we work together–too much. I’m so glad we don’t live together, anymore. I can’t abide television on every day. What about more fun? Music was fun!”

He looked out over the street. Chilla didn’t care so dearly about music. It used him up, spit him out, so he was done. Maybe it was mutual. No matter. Anita knew all that but she had to make a fuss about the past, anyway. It was true she was good. She made the room hold its breath sometimes. She managed to acquire admirers faster than decent money. That came later, a good ten years of success. And then. A car accident, months in the hospital: her voice on its way out. She said she’d sue the EMTs who did the tracheotomy but, really? They saved her life. So he got it. She was still sorry it all ended. He’d played for thirty years but everything ended sooner or later.

Now they did alright with their part-time tax business. Musicians had a talent for math.

He brushed away the dusting of sugar on his lap and looked at her. Lines around her eyes and her deepening dimples made him want to plant a kiss on her cheek.

Anita raised her hand, as if reading his thoughts. “Wait, listen. That’s ‘Stairway to the Stars!’ Oh, I do love that old big band number.”

She sang along, the tune rolling out, voice rough but rich in timbre. Closing her eyes, her face tilted in amber sunlight, she was transported. Her long grey hair flew off her shoulders in the breeze, then caressed her face.

Chilla shut his eyes and was back in the blue smokey depths of Night Cap Lounge, his beats sure and deft, underscoring a grand design of sound. His hands were so limber they belonged to a superman. He felt the thrill of liberation. Anita was making a statement in a blue and silver dress, her voice grabbing them all with its saucy beauty. She was dangerous, that woman, her warmth a beacon, her vocalizing a bearer of adventurous messages. It was another world and it was theirs for the asking.

After the music stopped he sat still. The wind picked up; the trees answered each other with rattles and sighs. When his eyes blinked open he saw Anita walking rapidly toward the guitarist. He pushed off, eased onto his aching feet and followed.

“Why, Griff Baxter! Of course! I was saying to Chilla–I know that man. How long you been around here?”

They were chatting it up like old friends. Chilla held out his hand.

Griff looked uncomfortable. “Not so long. I was in Baden Baden the last big gig but then had some problems. The last three years, see, I’ve had two hip replacements and then medical bills came in and now, well, I’m staying with family, a daughter. Just for awhile, though.” He took off his cap and turned it in his hands, then resettled it with a nod.

Chilla felt embarrassed for the guy and looked down. Anita put her arm through the crook of Griff’s and grinned up at him with her toothsome smile.

“Well, imagine, you in our neighborhood. You ought to come by. We have two apartments, both in the same building. We could have dinner. I have a piano, old upright. We’d share a modest feast and then play a little.”

“Or not,”Chilla said. “I was a drummer.”

Griff laughed. “Or not. Yes, it’s not quite the same in a small room without the blue haze and ice cubes clinking and talk so thick we could barely hear ourselves sometimes. Right?”

“Oh,” Anita laughed, “we can light candles and make some drinks with little umbrellas and have a go at it.” Then she put her other arm through Chilla’s. “Or not.”

Griff chatted amiably and then took a request from passersby. Anita and Chilla left him their phone numbers and started home.

“Now who was he? I really don’t recall that name,” Chilla said. “Seems I’d know of him, Baden Baden and all.”

Anita shrugged. “Me, neither! He’s younger than I thought, but that face…had a head of wavy hair once, I think. Thing is, he sure can play, Chilla. Beautiful soul in those fingers, right? Just got to love how good music compliments a sunny day.”

What Hud Did

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                               (Photo by Alessandro Imbriaco)

When Hudson Quinlan left town in late September, Jenisse was given use of part of his warehouse. It held his party store merchandise and was 8,000 square feet, not so big for a warehouse but not small, either. Hud owned this property outright. She suspected he’d used it for other business dealings, but she preferred to not think about it. He was her brother, eight years older. His reputation wasn’t one hundred percent stellar. He was a man of many skills and talents; she knew only a few. She didn’t think they were close but they had been as kids and she missed him more than she’d admit.

In the voice mail Hud indicated he’d be back eventually but in the meantime she could use it if she wanted. There was a key left in her glove box; he’d gotten in and out of her aged Pontiac without leaving a scratch.

Jenisse gave notice at her apartment building and moved into the westernmost quarter of the building. She’d been saving for months to find studio space she could rent to work on her painting. If Hud had said he’d be back in a couple months, she wouldn’t have bothered but “eventually” meant as long as a year. However long he wanted or needed to be gone. It wasn’t uncommon that he took off for parts unknown, sending an occasional postcard to her or their parents with alluring scenes of beaches, mountains, cities far away. They weren’t clear if it was business (he owned a big party supply store, a parking lot and, they thought, more) or pleasure, but Jennise knew it was both, ultimately. He attracted lively people and events without trying, and that meant good times and bad. Her brother trusted Jenisse enough to say his life was going well or less than well (never poorly, according to him), and held opportunities or was momentarily stalled. This time he’d said he needed inspiration so she assumed it was important. She might never know what. He didn’t talk shop around family.

Everybody said she was foolish. Hud was a man with some power and more money but his connections were less than commendable. They worried about her being alone. There could be thieves and rodents; Hud’s warehouse workers would come and go five days a week. She was told the industrial district was dirty, gritty, and frequented by petty criminals. Jenisse had visited the spot with Hud a couple times and over a few years the area’s commercial properties became valuable and condos started to go up nearby. Hud had made a savvy investment.

Her parents, unsurprisingly, came knocking on her door after she’d relayed her news. They loved Hud from arm’s length.

Her dad stormed in. “Why are you doing this? We could help you find studio space. You know Hudson and his associates! You don’t know who might show up. My vote: stay here!”

Her mother was out of breath from trying to keep up with him. “Jen. Really. No good. Will come of this. Stay put. You’ll regret this. So will we. Just think!”

Her parents, dancing beams of sunshine. Why couldn’t they give Hud a chance–and her more credit? They had two smart kids.

Jennise stood with arms crossed over her chest. “I’m half-packed already, as you can see. He’d never do this if he didn’t think I’d be fine there. He knew I’ve been scraping together the savings to get a studio space set up. I am going to work on my painting.”

“He’d have done better to just give you money! Now I have to worry about both of you?” He flexed his right hand as though he was getting ready for fight but it was old-fashioned parental nerves.

“Sorry, but I’ve been handed an opportunity I can’t turn down. I’ll invite you over for pizza sometime.”

So she moved. During the day Jennise worked at the art store, which gave her a break on art supplies. It was nothing she’d wanted to stick with but somehow she had been there for three years. She liked being with other artists, walking up and down the rows of paper, ink, paint, and a hundred other common and exotic tools of visual artistry. But it could get dull on slow days.

At night, though. Oh, at night, it was a far different story.

Jenisse had never had the right circumstances to support her creative vision. She’d always wanted to do big work, paintings six feet tall and wide. Maybe panels of paintings. Or constructed paintings, three dimensional. So she got busy making things happen that she’d only dreamed. Between seven and ten or eleven o’clock she painted. Some nights it was after midnight before the weight of sleepiness rolled over her.  She’d turn on Arvo Part or Bill Evans or Gregorian chant–whatever suited her–and it ballooned in the space, adding to her energy, encouraging new calmness. Never had she felt so free of distraction, even when she heard forklifts and men shouting if they worked overtime. At night she ignored random noises and street people with their carts. But Jenisse wasn’t much bothered even when she got cold due to the space heaters barely keeping the chill at bay. Or hungry, since she often forgot to eat as she dabbed and layered, smoothed the colorful textures on each canvas that she had framed and stretched herself. Afterwards, a hot shower and bed, drifting off to the muted cacophony of night’s secret doings. She began to feel at home.

Her parents remained shocked, so they came over with a casserole or took her out to the new Thai place across the street. Her mother had the mistaken assumption that Jenisse needed her help to decorate. Two more lamps for the mammoth living area. A picture and scented candle for the rudimentary bathroom Hud had put in when he set aside an office space. For the cruder kitchen with its tiny stove, microwave and mini-frig and small sink, she brought rooster-adorned tea towels and a basket full of fruit. Jessine was grateful for the fruit.

If there were rats–her only real fear–they didn’t bother her. The workers left her alone. The foreman, whom she had met and was memorable for smooth skin and crooked nose, knocked on her door one morning.

“Doing alright by yourself?” He ground out a cigarette on the cement floor, then picked it up and thoughtfully tossed it outside. “Hud says to keep an eye on you.”

“Okay, all is well. Thanks. Have you heard from him?” She didn’t want to say she wondered where he was this time.

“Naw, you know he’ll show up as needed.” He turned to leave then swiveled around. “Let me know if you need anything.”

So Hud had made sure of her safety, just as she’d thought. She worked even longer, easier hours, her body moving from paint to canvas to paint with a blood-deep rhythm, the music on her stereo a chorus of encouragement.

By December, Jenisse had nine paintings lined up against the cinderblock wall, most of them as big as she had hoped, a few smaller and oddly delicate. She had loosened up; her landscapes had morphed into undulating swaths of color and motion. The small ones were of watery iamges. It had been taxing to develop a quality of light that had long been elusive but she saw it was beginning to emerge, paint illumined from within, rich hues vibrating. She took photos for her portfolio and posted them on her website, hopeful.

A couple co-workers she enjoyed were spontaneously invited over to see them. They stood with hands to chins.

“Gorgeous,” the guy said. “Really good stuff.”

“I didn’t know you did all this.” The woman looked around at the huge space. “I didn’t know you had all this!”

It was then, three weeks before Christmas, that Jenisse got the idea for a public showing of her work along with the other two. They would put a sign outside, post a few ads in weeklies, announce it at the store  and online, and see if anyone came. A holiday art sale might bring in some appreciative persons–and they could mention the store to stir up interest in business.

Jenisse had worn her short fake fur coat for warmth with good black slacks and silvery sweater. She stationed herself with the others at the entrance. She’d cleaned up the area and set the paintings against the walls. Coffee carafes and cookies were at the ready. The lighting was great thanks to the foreman. Her parents were studying their work along with a few curious souls, a couple on their way to the next thing down the street. Some of the store’s staff were chatting amiably.

It was seven-thirty, a half hour into the show. Nothing had sold. The street was dead. Disappointment bubbled up even as she told herself it didn’t really matter, they made art for love, after all.

At seven-forty she could hear a low murmur with a few laughs, and then she saw them come down the street, some in twos and threes, some in larger groups. They were coming to the warehouse in elegant dresses and suits, high heels clicking on the street. To their little painting show. As the first woman passed through the door she smiled, tossing a mane of ebony back from her burnished face, then leaned in to Jenisse.

“Hud said this is just the beginning for you, darling, so let us in to see!”

Then she handed Jenisse a postcard with a picture of the lustrous Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Jenisse flipped it over to read. The name he called her was the one only he could use when they were kids.

“Merry Christmas, sister/artist Nissey! Get ready for a fabulous New Year! Later/love/Hud.”

(Photo prompt supplied by Patricia McNair.)

A Letter from the Hinterlands

DSCN0774It peeked out from the mail pile like a lost missive, a thing out of time like a telegram. Who wrote longhand anymore? It belonged to a woman, perhaps. She studied the letter a good long moment, then slit the sturdy flap with her jeweled letter opener. It annoyed her that her hands trembled but this was no ordinary communique. Regina couldn’t read it yet. She sat on the bench by the door and closed her eyes.

Kat and Frederick, who all knew and touted as Derick the Great or just Derry then, had moved after they’d married. All the way to New York, upstate as evidenced by the postmark. Regina had been glad of their exodus, so relieved that she had thrown a small but lively party, inviting all the people she liked best. She didn’t say why she was cooking Cornish hens for eight at eight; she didn’t have to. They drank a lot of wine and danced to music that each person brought, then sank into the sofa and chairs, quiet. Regina didn’t whine or snivel and make a scene. The gathering was too good for that. But they saw that Derry’s photo was turned face down on the mantel, his small bird paintings studies removed from the wall between the windows. When everyone slunk out, smiles drooping, Regina changed into her pine green fleece robe and stoked the fire. There was nothing too wonderful left, she had thought. There were only days of stressful, possibly meaningless work. And nights that hit her like an anvil upon flimsy silver.

He didn’t write but once, a long year after the move, a brief email that told her he had found a better job, a curator position. All  because of the recommendations she’d slipped him at Kat and his wedding.

Derry had worked with Regina at the Montblanc Gallery for over a year before they became more than friends. Then, fireworks that ended with a jackknife dive into love. When he wrote, she’d deliberated for days what to say, how to stay neutral, how to not feel as though she was being mauled by a cougar again in the middle of a wasteland. She changed her email address.

After that, she felt better. It showed her she was strong enough to avoid his reach or better: she no longer felt compelled to love him. It was a choice to say “yes” when you know it has to be “no” and she had a strong will. Regina was not going to let it soften and fail when the man did not even live within her orbit any more. Did not need her now. He had Kat, his childhood buddy. She was rather high-handed, a reasonably decent patron of the arts and became his most adoring wife. They had made a pact as children, he’d told Regina once, but never did he expect her to show up and finally make good on it. Nor did Derry expect to be torn between two women so different that it made his want to split into two men.

“I see,” she said.

She had just had dinner with him, so unsuspecting had she been. But he’d brought here there to tell her about this decision: engagement to Kat.

She cleared her throat to avoid choking. “You chose a well-trained, sweet little creature when you could have had a wild girl, a changeling sort that you seem to like a lot, a crazy adventure that could still take you to the edges of mind and body and bring you back howling and happy. You could have had me and we might have made all things possible.”

She put her fork down very slowly.

He’d studied his red napkin squashed beside a silver-rimmed plate. Derry had splurged on her with great food before rotten news.

“Yes, I know, I know. I know! But Kat and I want other things–they make good sense to me. They add up to a life that’s familiar and solid and that’s good, too. Different than what you and I’ve had but still good!”

“But better? Better than us?” she’d asked, the words verging on a harpy’s screech.

She could feel diners glance at her as she stood up. She pushed her chair back under the table with a delicate movement, patience and kindness registering on her exotic–that’s what Derry said–now sadly uneven features. Regina decided that moment that he just didn’t have what it took, the verve, the spontaneity, the capacity for the sort of love she had to share. It helped her to leave the plush room and him without shedding a tear or stumbling, without leaving a mess.

After the wedding, to which she’d RSVPed “that’s a negative”, she’d waited on the church steps behind a few of their friends. She could almost touch him as the photographer took a hundred pictures to immortalize his decision. He was surprised to see her but Kat didn’t even register her presence

“Reggie,” he said, although he didn’t say it aloud, just shaped her nickname.

She’d reached forward and gave him an envelope which enclosed her letter of recommendation for further gallery or museum work, or whatever he felt utterly sensible. And then she left her heart teetering on a ledge somewhere she couldn’t name. She thought she might scream but it dissipated as she drove the long way home, past woods and the river path they’d walked and the osprey nest.

Regina watched tree branch shadows interrupt the stream of light that fell on her feet. The letter felt cold in her hands. She took it to the dining room table so she could lean on it, then opened it before it froze in her shaking fingers. She’d not stop until she was done.

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Dear Regina,

It has been a long while since we have communicated–three years, is it?–and I am compelled to reach out. I am hoping you will see fit to read the entirety of this; it isn’t long and I get to the point now.

Frederick is ill. In fact, he’s more than ill, he’s become heartsick…a respiratory infection visited its wrath upon him two months ago, but he recovered eventually. 

No. It’s you, Regina, that’s stymied his return to a full and happy life, and so, I am asking you this one favor now.

He is not creating work anymore. He must have your counsel, needs your great hope in him. He won’t listen to me, says I don’t understand. Please come and see him. Show him he can paint again. Convince him he is worth more than a good paycheck. Explain that he’s just lost his way like artists can and do sometimes–you know how it is, but I do not! I so hope you can find the compassion to come, to remind him of his true nature.

I will be forever indebted to you for this. I know it will be hard for you. He has too much pride to ask for you but he needs you before he falls into further despair. I will fly you out as soon as you can come.

With hopeful anticipation,

Katerin

Regina stood up.

“Well.”

She walked around the living room, into the kitchen where she got a glass of water, then circled back to the letter and picked it up and read the last two paragraphs. She went to her desk and took out a pen and paper with a grey and burgundy chevron design on the edges.

Derick/Frederick, known to we who know you as Derry!

Get ready because I’m coming. You just hit a nasty snag. I’ll give you three days to pick up that paint brush and make one stroke on paper or canvas. After that you’re on your own in the great wide wilderness. We all have to test our survival skills sooner or later. Ultimately, alone–but luckily I’m offering absolutely free assistance this one time. Consider it a delayed wedding gift.

Ever Reggie

She tore Kat’s careful letter in half. Kat had Derick and far better handwriting but she, Regina, had some moxie and forgiveness. She could possibly be an urban warrior of the heart. She went to the hall closet and reached behind her coats until her fingers found Derry’s two small bird paintings. Two ospreys in flight and a heron at watch over the river. Regina thought it time to give them back their spot on the bare wall.

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