Dina on the Verge

Girl-Playing-Guitar-600x375

She had been impressed by far less than this. A petal from a wildflower blown onto damp earth. A horned beetle inching its way across her path. Her old tiger cat leaping for a moth. Even the songs of the wind aroused her interest easily. But she felt strangely intimidated by this and unmoved. She stood at the end of the room and turned to meet their faces illumined by candlelight, registered their cheers. They found her worthy of attention, believed her success amid their failures was a boon for them all. Or so she guessed. It all seemed like someone’s else’s story.

Two years ago she was just the girl who could be seen found sitting on the back porch of Harper’s Inn rather often, sipping a lemonade in the harsh glare summer. She worked at Harper’s Inn as a hostess at the dining room and when she had ten minutes she escaped, ear cocked for the brass bell that customers rang when they arrived and the desk was unmanned. Her disappearance was tolerated because when she was at her post she was good.

It took exceptional good humor and flexibility to greet people for eight or more hours, to inquire of their well-being and offer them a distraction if the wait was long. Most of the girls had quit after six months. Too many diners treated you like you were their servant, like you weren’t smart enough to do anything else or too pretty to be doing such a job. So they said. It was true you got propositions and complaints and you had to smile, nod, write names down as though it was a king or queen needing assistance.

But Dina made it seem a privilege that they found Harper’s Inn.

“My, what a long trip. I hope we don’t to wait more than fifteen minutes!”

The woman was halfway through retying her scarf when she dabbed her perspiring forehead with the blue and white checkered fabric. It looked neater against her white shirt. Her companion had his lips set like an unbroken horizon. His face was pink and veiny and reminded Dina of raw shrimp.

“Why, I can get you iced water while you wait,” Dina said, reaching for a pitcher. “And there’s a place on the bench. Have you been on the road a long time?”

And from there things would move along, the woman enthusing about her new grand-baby, the man stating his opinion about Iowa, both relaxing under the light touch of Dina’s congeniality. She welcomed people. She brought what mattered most to them at that moment. It wasn’t just food or drink. Mostly it was about getting and staying comfortable in an inhospitable world. Or so Dina felt it must be. That’s what mattered to her. And people commented on how nice an atmosphere Harper’s had even though it was pricier than a place on the other side of town.

So when she ducked out back for a few, putting finger to lips when she passed the kitchen, no one complained. Kenneth, the manager found her there after a few days and was about to complain when he heard voices at a table in the garden.

“How about that Dina? She moved here to finish her senior year, then must have gotten stuck here. She should get out. Such a good way with people. Classy but down to earth. Well, Harper’s needed that touch.”

Dina had looked up when Kenneth touched her on the shoulder.

“Hey, just wanted to let you know you’re doing a nice job here.”

Dina shrugged. It was bread and butter money. It helped out at home and in time her measly paycheck might contribute to a better guitar. Because that’s what she thought about out there. Her songs. They skipped about in her brain even when customers were talking to her. People often inspired her. One might have deep forlorn eyes and place a protective touch on a child’s head. A man would wistfully look at the black and silver matchbooks in the little silver bowl as though they reminded him of some place or someone. She saw the expensive women’s footwear and was drawn to high heels even though she didn’t like them for herself. They seemed barbaric. But tasteful. How could she sing about that?

Every person who came in had a complicated history, held close their desires and dreams, had been places she had never seen. So she took them home in her head and got out her guitar and paper and pen. And the best part of her life began. She had written more than eighty songs by the time she was eighteen, some forgettable, many that were better or getting there, a few that stood the test of repetition so far.

Marva, for one, liked them. She was a waitress at Harper’s Inn but knew Dina’s mother. She had heard Dina play and sing up in her room, so asked her to come join them on the porch swing and serenade the neighbors, too. She did so, but quietly.

“Why on earth have you not been promoting this child? Why, she has a voice to rival Dolly’s.”

Dina winced. She hadn’t meant to sound that country but there it was–it sneaked in from southeastern Missouri where she was born. The place they had left.

Helen, her mother, laughed. “Yes, she’d going to make a mint and take us all to Paris! Marva, don’t encourage foolishness.” Her face turned hard, the way Dina knew it to be in general. “She’s a damned dreamer, this child. She sings rather than cooks or cleans and I don’t know what to do with her since I don’t have the money to send her off to the state college.”

“Well, our little music maker,” Marva winked at Dina, “stay late on Saturday night and sing a long with Max and the crew. We have some good times.”

Helen rolled her eyes and rubbed lotion on her hands that smelled of slightly rancid lilacs. Her mother feared things, like getting old, but acted otherwise.

So that’s how it started. Marva had come from a bluegrass family; her great-grandfather had taught his children banjo and tunes and it just kept going. Her friend Cap was a piano player and played nearly anything on week-ends to entertain the guests. Carter and Phil were singers from way back, on the other side of thirty, itching to go to Nashville, just four hours from there. They needed more money so they could survive awhile, they said. And more nerve. Far greater pitch would have helped, Dina noted silently.

The first time she sang with the gang her reservations dissipated. It felt good to blend into a group. She’d waited to sing with them for weeks and here it was. A few songs in, Dina closed her eyes and harmonized awhile, then wove back to the melody, letting her voice establish its place while the others filled things out. They quieted down after the third verse and let her have the room. She didn’t notice at first, the piano playing so good and happy, her guitar releasing rhythmic chords like they were scrappy creatures set free.

And then she stopped in the middle of a phrase, confused.

“What are you all doing here? Trying to embarrass the heck of me?” A look of  horror passed over her face and she covered it with a free hand, letting the plastic guitar pick fall to the floor.

Marva clapped, then the rest joined in and hooted and whistled.

“I told these boys how much you had going for you. That was primo singing!”

Marva gave her a hug, bosom squashed against Dina’s thin frame and taking the breath from her. But she joined the ragtag group every Saturday night after work, eleven to midnight. And finally, after a few months, she sang for customers a little, and dared sing a few of her own songs.

“Walk a Winding Path” was one of her favorites, about a boy from Missouri she’d left. She had practiced it a long time, adding here, erasing there, til the chorus sounded right:

I can’t find the sweet end of day
without your hand fitting mine;
you roam the far ends of this world,
and I’m lost without your light.

She knew it was simple but really, life was. She hadn’t hit twenty yet but knew from watching though not completely experiencing it that it about boiled down to love or at least lust, loss, pain, joy, and hope. And God. Everybody needed God sooner or later. Simple.

It was the tune that hooked them, she saw, well, maybe the way the words crowned the melody. They were twins of inspiration. The full room cheered her on. And she sang the next week and the next. Things just happened until she made more money singing three nights a week than hostessing so she quit hostessing.

It all added up to this. Leaving to make a record. A producer had stopped on his way to Nashville and liked what he heard, came back for more and offered her a contract. It was ridiculous, really, how songs made on her bedroom floor, in the empty basement, on the porch swing could be important enough to reveal to the faceless many. Maybe there would be nice money and Paris. But she wondered what would happen to her songs. If they would hide away from her. If it mattered how many people heard them. Harper’s Inn was one thing, a country another. Far less had beguiled her and it had been enough. Sunrises from a hilltop and iced tea with her mother on a balmy afternoon. But her music had found its way out there. She was going to have to follow it all the way. If things fell apart she could come back. Welcome guests. Make more songs.

Anita’s Busker

Pic of busker-

“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.”

Before the Time of Vespers

collectionneuse1

(Image from La Collectionneuse)

She had gone out one afternoon and come back another woman.  She’d cut her hair. He’d followed her into her apartment, then to her bathroom where she drew a brush through what was left. Dean tried not to look directly at it. Instead he studied her face as she talked while his peripheral vision gave him a picture. He’d become attached to the length of bright auburn. It was as if a lovely tree had lost its final fiery adornment in the span of a few hours. Now Kelsey stood there in all her compactness, looking spare, arrestingly so, and more self-determined than ever.

Valiant was a word that came to him, he didn’t know why. Valiant and maddeningly attractive as she talked about her decision to have it shorn off.

But Dean felt alarmed by her action, as though she’d told him she had decided to become an entomologist or drive all the way to Nova Scotia alone. It didn’t make sense to him. She knew it affected him–she tracked his reactions like a fox, that one–but kept on talking, a jaunty lilt to her speech.

“I’ve been thinking about this a long time. I’m drawn to that life and want to explore the possibilities. Before its too late, you know? I need to simply and cutting my hair is a start. I’m thrilled with it. I wanted to tell you all this later but you barged in and here we are …you always have thought my space was semi-public. Or partially yours.”

Kelsey chortled, ruffling her cap of hair.

“I was surprised when it sort of looked like yours! Funny, huh? Modified pixie, the stylist said. Not sure how I feel about that. Well, Dean-o, imitation is the best flattery. But look, the point I’m trying to make is that I want to discover what will happen if I…”

Her voice faded even though her lips kept moving on and on. Dean leaned against her bathroom wall and thought of reasons he ought to pay attention. That voice was like water falling over him, soothing yet powerful as the music she made.

He first liked her face because it reminded him of someone he knew before, a girl he used to chase around the fields in Iowa. He hadn’t imagined being a dancer before ten. He was broad of shoulder even as a toddler, and was husky, strong as an ox, his dad bragged. Dean shrugged and smiled obligingly. His mother knew something else was fated as he grew tall, lean and dreamy-eyed. Hannah, the girl he thought of when he met Kelsey, heard his secret hope of dancing and murmured it was strange; he was a third generation farm boy. They parted ways shortly after.

ID-1007939

              (Image Courtesy of Tom Curtis/FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

The two shared the same small, pouty mouth even when happy but Kelsey had a laugh that was a shock of  delight. Her eyes were close to sapphire blue in strong light. Hannah’s were middling grey, like her, somehow.

Kelsey had determined what he felt for her way before he knew it. She’d kept it playful. They’d been living in the same apartment building for a year and becoming friends was so easy he felt right at home with her. Then he began to feel a shift.

“I see you hanging over your balcony when I go to work,” she’d said, “and you might as well shout out your intentions to the neighborhood.”

He’d been irritated. “What intentions would those be, know-it-all?”

She’d blinked a few times, her jewel eyes flashing across the hallway. “Really? Could anyone mistake your looks for mere platonic wishfulness? Let me get a camera.”

She’d gotten her Nikon and started to shoot away, defining something though he wasn’t sure what. Then they were side by side, his arm around her shoulders. She deleted them all except for one, with their foreheads together, eye-to-eye, a big hug keeping them close. He’d pulled her closer.

“I’ve got to get to the studio,” he’d said, “but send me that!”

Later, when it was closing in on midnight, he checked his email and there it was. They looked bright and close as tulips in a vase. He was looking at her as though at the sun. He was going to be distracted for awhile, he’d thought ruefully. But it got harder, not better or more exciting or fulfilling. He danced every day and auditioned in between and when he saw finally saw her she was working on music history or composing or singing some song. He’d sit on the floor outside her door and listen to her sing. The landlord saw him and asked if he was in the doghouse. Dean got up without a word and entered his apartment. She never knew he did that. She didn’t know a lot of things. But she did know how much suffering his body endured, how auditions robbed him of sleep and what his favorite classic movies were. And how he berated, perhaps hated, his competition. She was patient with that. She “got” him while most did not.

Kelsey knew he wanted to be with her. She clarified her viewpoint by calling him “my best friend since seventeen when I shared my love for both Hesse and Kierkegaard with Marie Solis.” He was often thanked for being there when she was driven crazy by the second movement of a musical score she was writing. Or when she had vicious headaches that only eased with a head and shoulder massage. Dean was entrusted with tales about her parents that confounded him and he told stories about rural life that scared her. He thought they’d crossed into an unguarded place and it felt better than most things in his life. He imagined more.

ID-100186891             (Image Courtesy of Pat138241/Free DigitalPhotos.net)

But she didn’t love him. Not like that.

Kelsey paused now; it seemed she was waiting for an answer or question. Dean leaned toward her so he could gaze into the three way mirror. They looked back from three separate pictures that appeared identical at first, but then Dean had the unnerving sensation they were different, and turned toward him with twelve questioning eyes. He recognized fear. What had she just said?

He stepped away and clamped his lower lip with his upper and breathed in through his nose. Exhale slowly. Be calm.

“What are you telling me?” he asked. “Did you say something about moving or did I imagine it? Is that what the hair thing is about? Women cut their hair when they are about to do something drastic, my dad used to say. So–changing things up or what?” He crossed his arms over his chest.

Kelsey sat on the three-legged yellow stool by the tub.

“Yes. I said: I’m going to stay in a monastery for three months. I want to study the music. The chants. Everything. I need solitude, to be fully integrated into music. I want to compose something much, much deeper. And God has always been a burning spot deep within. You know this, or some of it…”

Dean dropped his arms and slid to the floor opposite her.

“Hang on a minute! Monastery? With monks?”

“Benedictine monks.”

He peered at her from under bushy eyebrows. “You want to be a religious person, like a nun, someday?”

Kelsey’s laugh pinged off the tiled walls. “No, I want to experience music in a different way. Sacred music has its own forms and delivery. It would be as if you decided to take a break from jazz dance and studied modern dance, maybe. A different path of creative development. For me, spiritual development, too.”

Dean flexed his feet and watched her ruffle her hair. She was still breathtaking to him,  a woman who had ways and ideas that stunned him. He was surrounded by vanity and ego and aggressive competition. Yet he loved what he did. It had called to him  just as he music had called to her. And now it was taking her to a different level, a divergent path. He felt his core contract; he wanted to say it aloud.

“Have I told you how much–”

But Kelsey started to hum, then sing a wordless melody. He closed his eyes as a song took shape, lifting to the ceiling, dancing on the walls, reflecting off the mirrors and making its way across the distance between them. Into his chest. It was like a journey with prayer and yearning intertwined. It was her language; he listened and tried to hear her. It was like the ring of crystal. Pure. True.

He held her afterwards, calm only on the outside. Then she drifted to the living room and stood with her face to the window. When Dean left it was getting dark. He had to accept what was, didn’t he? He needed to walk, let his arms swing and his head empty out. He entered the park where they liked to picnic. If he had turned around he would have seen Kelsey in the distance leaning over the balcony, her gesturing hands saying wait, her face blurred by twilight but he was carried by the rhythm of his feet. The tempo: a brisk, solitary dance.
Laurelhurst, gkids11-8-10 038