By: S.D. Lavender
Before I ended up here, I played piano four nights a week at Fong’s Chinese joint on the north side. I was pretty good, but nobody really cared. They came for the food. It was good food. I practically lived on the Moo Goo Gai Pan. During the day, I was a claims adjustor at Shelton Risk Management. Most Sundays I’d have dinner over at Mom’s apartment in Schaumburg. The day everything changed, me and my brother were over there chowing down on roast chicken when Mom started in on me.
“You’re what now, Gary? Thirty?”
“So, you going to get married or what? Your brother has already made three trips to the altar, and you don’t even have a girlfriend.”
“He’s too picky,” said Mitch, buttering up a roll.
“Some of us have high standards,” I shot back. Mitch snorted.
“All right,” said Mom. “Standards are fine. I just don’t want you to end up like me, old and unmarried.”
I said, “Why don’t you ask Mitch what’s taking him so long to find number four?”
Mitch laughed. “I guess the word’s out on me.”
“That’s not funny,” said Mom. “Marriage is a sacred institution, and you have
made a mockery of it—and without even giving me a grandchild.”
Mitch said, “Don’t you worry, Mom. I’ve been thinking about settling down for real. Look at this.” He ran his fingers through his helmet of Elvisian hair. “Look at that.”
“What?” Mom asked, squinting.
“I’m going bald.”
Mom stroked his head and said, “You’re gorgeous man. Just lay off the bimbos and find a girl with some brains this time. That’ll make all the difference.”
“That’s the plan, Mom.”
Mitch looked like Mom. I looked like my father. He was a piano player, too. I had no idea where he was. I still don’t.
After cheesecake and coffee, while he watched the Blackhawks on TV, I helped Mom with the dishes. To this day I don’t know why I didn’t keep my mouth shut. Maybe my whole life would have turned out different. But I had to tell her about the girl. She had only been working at Shelton’s a week or so and we hadn’t really spoken––she had asked me where human resources was and gave me a really nice big smile and––well, if I was going to try and describe her I’d say she looked like Julie London from the Lonely Girl album––long blondish-brown hair, kind of sleepy blue eyes, beautiful and soulful, not a party girl like the ones that go for Mitch. I’d say she looked the way Theolonius Monk plays—simple, honest, something you never get tired of. But, like I said, I had to open my big mouth.
“There’s this girl.”
Mom gave me her full attention. “Oh?”
“She’s a temp—and—”
“She’s a tramp?”
“No. A temp. You know. A temporary employee.” I was already sorry. We hardly ever heed that little voice because it never shouts, only whispers.
“Tell me more. What’s her name?”
“Well, her name is Marla and yes, she’s very nice looking and I’m thinking of asking her out.”
“What are you waiting for? Don’t procrastinate, Gary. You take after your father in all ways but one. He went after what he wanted. Boy, did he ever.
I shrugged. “She probably has a boyfriend.”
“You won’t know until you ask her, will you? If she is the least bit attractive, don’t think for one minute there’s not a handful of men ready to make their move. I know what it’s like. I was once young and attractive, you know.”
“You still are, Mom.”
She waved off the compliment. “What are you going to do about this girl? You seldom confide in me, so I know she must be something pretty darn special.”
“I don’t know if she’s special or not, Mom. We haven’t really talked much. I know nothing about her. I just thought she’d be someone I might want to ask out. That’s all. Please, let’s not make a big production out of it.”
She studied me, her index finger pressed to her lips. “Invite her over for dinner next Sunday.”
“I don’t know.”
“Yes. Invite her over. Is she ethnic? Never mind. I’ll make spaghetti. Everybody eats spaghetti.”
“I’ll think about it.”
Then she began the usual monologue about Dad, what a talented but totally irresponsible guy he was, but I heard very little of it. My mind was on the Marla. When the monologue was over, I went into the living. Mitch was in the lazy boy, blowing cigar smoke at the TV.
“When is this town gonna get a decent hockey team?” He hated losers. When I didn’t answer, he looked over and said, “And when are you gonna get smart and start making some real money and stop farting around selling insurance?”
“I’m a claims adjustor.”
“Come work for me. I’m going to be expanding.” He owned a limo business.
“I’m fine where I’m at.”
“You’re nowhere. I’m telling you.”
One of the Blackhawks went down from a high stick to the back, and Mitch let out a howl. As I was leaving, he called out, “Maybe I’ll come around this week, take you to lunch.”
“Sure,” I said. “Just give me some warning.”
I rode the Metra to Union station and then the el to my apartment. Mom had given me some leftovers in Tupperware, so I put them in the freezer and looked around at my little kingdom. It was a dump: green pastel walls covered with jazz festival posters; a loud and frightening still life of a fruit basket Mom had painted during one of her forays into self-expression; industrial-strength metal shelves filled with LP’s, many of them collector’s items still in shrink-wrap. I selected Art Tatum’s “Cocktails for Two” and put it on my RCA turntable. I poured my cat Jelly Roll a saucer of milk, a ginger ale for myself, and sat down at the kitchen table. As I drank and listened to Tatum, I surveyed the room: the garage sale couch and the unfinished cable-spool coffee table. There was no way I was going to bring Marla to that dump. No, she was going to get the royal treatment. The InterContinental or The Palmer House. She deserved nothing less.
That night I had a dream about her. In the dream I was at Shelton, at the water cooler, and suddenly she appeared. Though I’ve read somewhere that you don’t dream in color, I swear her eyes were so bright and blue it almost hurt to look at them. She gave me a shy little smile and said, “They tell me you play the piano.”
“That’s right,” I said coyly, resisting the urge to take her face in my hands and kiss her until one of us passed out.
“I must hear you play,” she said. As I struggled to speak, she floated away in all her radiance, turning to look back at me several times before disappearing down the corridor. Next, the dream moved to Fong’s, and she was sitting at a table near my Steinway, gazing at me, mesmerized by my artistry, falling more deeply and passionately in love with me with every note I played.
But upon waking, I found myself alone in my little box of a bedroom, inside my bigger box of an apartment, trying desperately to reconnect with the dream, but I couldn’t, so I got up and ate a bowl of corn flakes. Later, while shaving, I experimented with different smiles and found that if I tilted my head in a certain way and raised only the left side of my mouth I looked almost provocative — but I quickly reminded myself that it was not my looks that would win her love; no, she had to hear me play.
A few hours later, at Shelton’s, I was at my desk shuffling papers when she appeared wearing a navy blue blazer and matching skirt, carrying a brown lunch sack, headed towards the break room. Snatching up a slip of paper upon which I had written Fong’s address, I hurried to intercept her as she came out.
“Excuse me, Miss, can I — may I speak with you for a moment?”
“Yes, of course,” she said with the sweetest southern accent I had ever heard. I immediately thought of Dinah Shore. I started to say more, but then I saw someone approaching. It was Claude, the accountant, whose twenty-cup-a-day coffee habit caused tremors in his small chubby hands. I waited for him to pass, but instead he stopped, looked down at his feet, and then dropped to one knee. For a moment, both the girl and I watched as he struggled to tie a shoelace.
Afraid of losing momentum, I quickly handed her the slip of paper, and making sure Claude heard me, said, “That’s a really fine restaurant. It has very good food. I practically live on their Moo Goo Gai Pan. But they have many other fine dishes as well. My mother loves the sweet and sour shrimp, and my brother Mitch — well he likes just about everything on the menu. Many people eat there. It’s a very popular place. But not at all crowded. There’s never a crowd. It’s — It’s just right. It’s a delight.”
“I see,” she said, a hint of fear in her eyes.
Thankfully, Claude finally finished tying his shoe and sauntered off, whistling — no — butchering “But Not for Me.” I looked around to make sure nobody else was coming, and when I was confident that she and I were alone, I held out my hand. She took it with some hesitation. “My name is Gary Boxberger. I’m a claims adjustor here.”
“I’m Marla Schifler. Nice to meet you.”
There were several moments of awkward silence. I pointed to the scrap of paper.
“I play piano there.”
“Oh?” she said, her eyebrows rising.
“Yes, in the lounge and and — uh — and — uh –– ” I realized that I hadn’t taken a breath in a while, and when I did, I was mortified by the little wheezing sound it made.
“I was wondering, if you weren’t too busy, whether you might like to come and hear me play.”
She smiled for real then, as if relieved to finally understand what the hell I was getting at. I noted at this time that her teeth were not as perfect as in the dream. One of the front ones was slightly turned, but this could be easily corrected. Also, I noticed that up close she looked older, not substantially so, but enough to make me wonder how much she had been around — how many men she had succumbed to.
“Do you sing?” she asked.
“No, I don’t.” I hated it when people asked me that. I couldn’t imagine anybody ever asking Oscar Peterson or Theolonius Monk if they sang. Of course, Nat King Cole had been both a phenomenal pianist and singer, but he had, in my opinion, terribly neglected his playing once he became famous.
“When would you like me to drop by?” she asked.
“Well, Friday nights are usually good. Would this Friday be all right with you?” I smiled big — a little too big for comfort. I caught myself rocking and stopped.
“Sure,” she finally said. “I just moved here from Carbondale, and I really haven’t had a chance to get out and do anything. I’ve been so busy job hunting. A day job, I mean. Actually I’m trying to be an actress “
“Oh, really?” I said. An actress? Mitch was always consorting with actresses — girls from Detroit, Des Moines, or Milwaukee.
“Ah. A fellow artist. Well, we have to pay the rent, don’t we?”
“Okay then,” she chirped, “I guess I better look busy.” She slipped the paper into her purse. “I’ll see you Friday then.”
“Fantastic,” I heard myself say. I watched her walk away, very proud of myself. I spent the rest of the day in a kind of whimsical trance until around quitting time — when Mom called.
“Did you ask her?”
“Ask who what?”
“That girl. About Sunday dinner.”
I fiddled with my stapler. “Well, I was thinking that it might be better if she came to Fong’s first.”
“You know, to sort of break the ice.”
“I see.” I could tell by her tone of voice that she was wounded. “Well, I can’t wait to meet her.”
“If things work out, then you’ll see plenty of her, believe me.” I didn’t like the sound of that, but I had to say something. When I finally got off the phone, I went to the water cooler and drank myself bilious.
On the walk home I started believing that Marla might really be the one. There was something familiar about her, like I had known her all my life. I had heard of it happening like that. A girl walks into your life, you exchange a few words and you end up spending the rest of your life together. I wasn’t like Dad, and I wasn’t like Mitch. I would never leave her.
I got a pen and paper and sat down at the table and worked up a special song list, asking myself what kind of songs Marla would like. “There’s not a woman on the planet who isn’t a sucker for romance,” I told Jelly Roll, stretched out before me. “Let’s see. She’s an aspiring actress — so maybe some show tunes and movie themes.”
I finally decided on a medley consisting of “The Impossible Dream,” “My Favorite Things,” “Tonight,”and “Matchmaker, Matchmaker.” Then I would go into some slow, sensuous songs like “Sentimental Journey” and “One More for The Road.” That way she would see that I was not only cultured, but soulful as well.
I felt good, but still, a question nagged at me. What if nice, thoughtful, romantic guys bored women to tears? Perhaps I needed to be cold and cruel, at least in the early stages of the relationship. For the rest of the week I avoided contact with Marla so as not to jinx the whole thing. Besides, it could only help matters to keep her guessing about me, be kind of a mystery man. When I passed her in the hall I nodded and smiled but made like I was in a hurry to get somewhere and couldn’t talk. At night, I studied my dog-eared copy of the Kama Sutra, as well as Stanislavsky’s An Actor Prepares. By the time Friday rolled around, I was beginning to feel that before the night was over she would not only fall in madly in love with me, she’d be begging to bear my children.
On Friday evening, I began my first set promptly at seven. At the table where I had wanted Marla to sit, a gaggle of secretaries were laughing and talking too loudly. I played my usual set, stalling, waiting, watching the door. At break time, she still had not arrived, so I went to the restroom to splash some water on my face. She’s not going to show, I told myself. She stood me up and was probably laughing at me. The nerve of that guy, she was probably thinking— as if I would go out with him. That poor pathetic slob in the mirror– how I wanted to smash him. He had given me life, and then ruined that life.
He told me to be a professional. Get back to the piano.
I returned to the keys and took a drink of ginger ale, resigned, but looking over the rim of the glass –– there she was, standing in the doorway. She smiled and gave me a little wave and I waved back. Nancy Fong showed her to a table and took her drink order. I rubbed my hands on my pants, stretched my fingers, and began to play. God! I hit a wrong key, right off, but luckily nobody seemed to notice. “Settle down,” I told myself. Take Your Time. I had to keep my eyes on the keys. Focus. I had to play like I was already making love to her. Nice and slow, like I had all the time in the world. Thinking that way helped, and soon I was playing better than I had ever played in my life. It felt like, for the first time, there was no chatter, no clatter, no clinking of ice. Were people were actually listening? What did that matter? It was just me and Marla.
My eyes stayed closed until I had stopped playing and when they opened and–she was no longer alone. There were two people sitting with her—a man and a woman. They looked familiar. Mom and Mitch! All three pleasantly applauding, but Mitch and Marla engaged in lively conversation. He was no doubt regaling her with accounts of his business success, or airing his knowledge of the Chicago theatre scene, bragging about his connections, dropping names — reeling her in. I felt vomit sting the back of my throat. I wanted to go back to the restroom and kneel in one of the stalls and puke out my guts, my lungs, my brains –– but I knew I had to go over to their table. Had to show them I didn’t care.
“Very nice,” said Mom.
“Wow,” said Marla, smiling big. “You’re really good. I wish I could play piano.”
“So,” I said, in a miserable attempt at nonchalance, “you two know each other?”
“Oh, yeah,” said Mitch. “I stopped by the other day to take you out to lunch and ended up taking out Marla instead.”
“I tried to tell you,” she said, “but you always seemed so busy at work.”
“Yeah. I’ve been pretty busy.”
“Sit down,” said Mom. “Did you eat yet?”
I just stared at her.
Mitch was sitting close to Marla. I couldn’t see their hands. I stood there, watching my brother with the girl of my dreams, knowing that Marla would be wife number four and I would be best man at their wedding. I excused myself and went back where I belonged — at the piano.
Moments later Mom came up behind me, started rubbing my shoulders.
Mitch and Marla were still gabbing away, their foreheads almost touching.
“Your father would be so proud of you,” said Mom, tightening her grip.
That was a long time ago. I still play piano in the little shows we put on here in prison. I wasn’t about to be best man at their wedding, and when he asked me, I lost it.
Before I knew what I had done, he lay on the kitchen floor spurting blood, Marla and Mom screaming. I thought I had accidentally knocked over the spaghetti sauce. One thing about prison: they never serve Chinese. I miss my Moo Goo Gai Pan.
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