"...been wadin' through the high muddy water"
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Works in Progress
Fiction by Will Brennan

A police siren screamed quietly outside somewhere far away as I sat there more or less content, hand wrapped around the thick white cup. Flashes of headlights ghosted over the windows now and then as cars careened the corner. Up behind the counter the red and white neon Coca-Cola sign reflected down into the dark circle in my cup and I watched the slow swirl of black and white and red.
I was just passing time, really. Thinking. I liked the place. It was comfortable, had this unmistakable smell of grease, like the walls were freshly painted with it. They stayed open until three in the morning, then opened again at five-thirty for the delivery trucks and cabbies and such. It was past midnight and the kitchen was down, but you could get a sandwich and coffee, a slice of pie. Nadine, the regular night waitress, sat in the corner behind the counter reading some trashy little romance paperback with a glossy cover, stopping to chew the polish off her nails when the prose or her brain went dull.
There were several reasons I was parking myself in the Avenue Diner nearly every night. One was because I'd quit drinking and MARY ANN'S, my bar, had wretched coffee, and besides, it'd had gotten to be too depressing to be in sober on any regular basis. So I moved it on down to the Avenue, sat and drank coffee, and due to the caffine effect, I'd been painting again. Usually went home and worked till daylight. Had the easel set up in the corner of my new digs, a furnished room in Central Square. Moved in a month before. For seventy-five bucks a week you get a bed, chair, bureau, lamp, and a hot plate. The decorator, TIME, had the place done in a dirty brown, including the sinks. But I couldn't complain. I'd painted quite a few new ones there, things I could look at without having too many negative comments rattle my brain.
So at this point, I could segue into my troubles, into Yvette, tell about how this was the first stuff I've been able to work on after her painful departure. Then I could get righteous, say how she was difficult, hard headed, selfish. How she was dooming herself, running off to marry a corporate lawyer from Connecticut. Security, they all want security. That she didn't know what she left behind.
I could go on and turn it on myself, get all wounded, say she was beautiful, the only one I'd ever feel anything for, say how I blew it big time and blah blah blah but I've heard this tiring crock of shit come out of my mouth enough to bore me to tears and besides, there's two sides to every story, pass it on.
So here's the other. The only security I was offering was that of a fairly decent if I say so myself thirty-two year old struggling artist trying to make a living selling the occasional canvas and working part time at a Photo Stop for some daily living cash and because, when I was alone, I could make free slides of shots of my work on the sly, to give to the galleries.
Yvette hung around for a respectable stretch though, I'll give her that. What with profiles about me coming out in the local rags after a succesful show at some little gallery or interest from the music boho's when they let me do a show at The Middle East, this restaurant/rock club where all the hip young folks hang. The club kids generally knew dick for art, but if you got something decent on a canvas they figured right away you might be the next Jasper Johns, and under their ripped jeans and baggy Goodwill sweaters those secretly privileged fuckers knew exactly how much his American Flag paintings finally sold for.
So, hey, maybe they were right, you know, who says I couldn't be the next whoever, right? So, I'd stroll through the crowd and get serious handshakes, fawning conversation, cheap adulation. And let's say some a hot young band, rising stars about to break big time, slotted soon, supposedly, for the cover of Spin or Rolling Stone, play their heavily promoted last local gig, the one you just had to see before they head off for fortune and fame and the singer/guitarist tromps off the stage when they're done, all hot and sweaty and incoherant and tries to make it to the bar for a beer amidst bothersome fans who are either up-front pushy or else are so very extremely blasé and cool they pretend he isn't there, and he sees me sitting with Yvette, calm, composed, above it all, sipping my French wheat beer and Yvette, as I may have said, was gorgeous, so... he of course saddles up next to me and says he thinks my stuff is "brilliant, man, art like yours gives me very hip ideas about music..."
Then he smiles at Yvette.
And I smile back.
So see, I had my high mark there for a while, when it was all working. She stayed while it was.
Her name really was Yvette, no joke. From France, had that unmistakable French actress look that makes men melt like a chocolate bar on a radiator. Parted her light brown hair on the side the way a schoolgirl might, hanging down to her chin, bound to fall forward in front of her eyes at exactly the right moment like a veil, a dramatic little curtain of mystery, which she'd then pull back casually with two fingers so as to gaze at you with those penetrating cool cola-browns, serene, under her dark eyebrows. She'd part her lips then, smile a smile like in the song by that band I like, Morphine, 'A smile that swerved all over the road.'
So I ask, what painter could expect more? Irresistable. That's what you'd say about her if you were a guy. I did dozens of her. Portraits, nudes, realistic, abstract. A natural beauty. Cheekbones from Maine to Florida. A chameleon. All I needed to do was tell her what look I wanted and she'd rummage through her clothes, put some make up on or take some off, then I'd put her in a pose, and there it was. Ragamuffin child, society bitch, virgin on the brink of flowering, crashing neurotic, enigmatic modern Mona Lisa, you name it, she was it.
The thing was, she wouldn't let me show any of them. Wouldn't budge, and threatened to leave me if I did. I was pulling my hair out. I'd poured my soul into those portraits, worked in different styles, but she was the unifying factor. I knew I could get them into a good gallery and move them if she just let me.
"You will not sell me!" she screamed one night while I was making my pitch once again, pushing her harder.
"Sell your own paintings! You paint me for you. To sell them, to me, this is vulgar. Where am I to keep my pride?"
She pouted, plopped down, draped herself like tossed silk over the ratty burgandy salon divan she loved.
"It's like a whore."
"Look, Yvette. Sweetheart," I tried gently, "some of these people do understand art, you know, they live in nice big sunny houses with white walls. They put paintings up like it was a gallery, very, very classy, believe me. You'd be admired, worshipped. Like Boticelli's Venus. Come on, please, Yvette. Please."
"Je ne veux pas être le Vénus d'un inconnu! Non."
Which, roughly translated, meant 'Stuff your Venus.' When she kicked back into French, that the end of the discussion.

So there I was in my diner, mourning my losses, alone, drinking coffee past midnight. Call me Mr. Pitiful. A quarter
in the juke. Sing it, Otis.
I tapped my cup on the counter. Nadine looked up, sighed, pulled herself off the stack of milk crates she used as a stool and trudged down the line to get the pot. She walked it over and set it down in front of me on the counter.
"Knock yourself out," she said.
"Thanks, darling," I said. "You knoooooowwww what I like!" I half sang it, like the Big Bopper in "Chantily Lace," because all the songs on those jukebox things in the booths were oldies so that's what got played in the place all the time. She was a little chubby but sort of cute and I figured it was worth a shot, what the hell. She decided it didn't deserve even an attempt of a smile, kind of snorted and trudged back to her spot.
I was pouring my lonely java when this couple came spilling in the door, two young scruffy punkers. They sat a few stools down, huffing and moving sugar cannisters and ashtrays and throwing their coats off like they were in scene from a Wharhol movie.
The guy looked particularly nasty, skinny, his head shaven Auschvitz style. The uneven crop he'd allowed to grow sprouted up dirty platinum white. He had three rings in the side of his nose and a hard glint in his eyes. Looked to me like he was smart enough to know what he wanted but not smart enough to get it and not particularly happy about that twist of fate. But I figured he was probably vocal enough to let the whole world know exactly what he thought about all his slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. I hated him on a cellular level, right off. I could feel it in my teeth.
The girl was different. She looked tired like they all did, and hard, but there was something else. I tried to see past the black eyeliner, pasty white skin and red lips but I couldn't. Her hair was nice, though. Lustrous brown, to her ears. Looked like she paid it attention.
The guy started banging a sugar shaker.
"Yoo-hoo. Hey Doris! Earth to Doris." Nadine looked up, not exactly startled, but edgy.
"Doris!" The guy stood up on the stool and started 'eeeping' like an ape, then sat laughing. The girl looked to some indistinct spot in front of her, no reaction. Nadine got up sullenly, ambled over, leaned across the counter and stared the idiot down.
"Listen up, you maggot, the cops, they like me, see? I give 'em coffee and pie and they come here every night and they don't appreciate me having to take crap on the graveyard from little shits like you, so they worked it out. 911 and a code word." She said it all calmly and evenly. "Thirty seconds, cops. Understand? The name's Nadine. No grill, grill's shut down. Sandwiches, pie, coffee, that's it. Milk. Coke. Order or get the fuck out."
"Oooo, oooo. Nadine." The guy was deflated by her speech, but was trying not to let it show. He sat down and smiled weirdly.
"Ooooo, Nadine the tough waitress. Jesus, Marie, I guess I have been put in my place, huh?" He grinned over at the girl but she just rolled her eyes and looked away.
"We'll have green eggs and ham."
"I just said no grill. Sandwiches. Pie. Coffee. Milk. Coke." Nadine shook her head and sighed.
"Nadine. May I call you Nadine? Okay. We'll have egg salad sandwiches instead. On white. One with lettuce, one without. Extra mayo. Nix the green eggs in our egg salad sands, Nadine. Two coffees." He made his eyes buggy again, like Charlie Manson, then tilted his head down until it was on the counter.
"Thank you Nadine," he said, head bent horizontal, still the same look. Nadine eyeballed him sqinty, then tiredly ambled down to the sandwich board.
"You know, you're a first class goon, Derrick," the girl said, fishing a pack of cigarettes out of her black purse.
"Don't call me that in front of people," he snapped, sitting upright. "I told you. I hate it."
"What, you're afraid what Nadine thinks? Jesus. Besides, it's your name."
"My name's Day Tripper."
Marie lit her cigarette, inhaled, then exhaled down between her knees. She lifted her head up and turned to him.
"Try deluded fool," she said.
"What's the fuck's that supposed to mean?"
"It means..." she inhaled, blew smoke upward and looked away from him, "your band sucks. It's never going anywhere and neither are you."
Derrick looked stricken, like he took a sucker punch to the stomach. He went a little white and crumpled over the counter and sat hunched like that. The girl pretended to be unconcerned, or maybe was, gazed around the diner impassively like the only thing in the world that mattered was her cigarette and the fact that it was as inevitable as bad weather that Derrick learned a lesson here, one she was about to teach.
"You don't like the band!?" he said, loud. "You never told me that before," He mumbled the second part down into the counter, hurt. Genuinely, it seemed to me. Then he looked up at her, buggy-eyed like before, but this time with real confusion.
"I had to see the band enough times to judge," Marie said, "but I knew right off. I like the name 'Ficklehead,' but those guys can't play, Derrick, and you can't sing for shit."
"Yeah, but... that's why everybody likes us! They relate, because we do it anyway, even though we aren't that great musicians. We're on the same level as they are."
"The 'haven't got a clue, going nowhere' level."
Derrick curled his lip into a sneer. "Ahh, what do you know about music anyway?"
"How about that I play the cello?"
"Yeah, lame classical crap. But you said you're getting out of that, right, doing experimental stuff, right?"
"I don't know what I'm doing, Derrick. Obviously, I'm sitting here with you." She blew out some smoke. Nice full lips, I thought.
"So now you don't like me either, huh?!"
"No. Not particularly. Poor Day Tripper." She shook her head. "One day, in three, or five, or ten years, you'll wake up to find yourself working at a Copy Cop, or a supermarket bagging groceries, or maybe in a room in some stranger's house painting a closet and passing out from fumes. You won't have your nose rings in, of course. You'll have been in four or seven or twelve different bands, none of which will have gone anywhere, and you'll be bitter and lost and say to yourself, 'Why didn't somebody tell me, give me some advice way back when it might have done me some good?' So I am, right now. Doing you some good. Good medicine can taste bad but here it is. Some people have talent, Derrick. Not you. Sorry. Life sucks sometimes. Go and learn something useful. Computers. Cooking school. Archeology. Anything. But I know music, Derrick, very well, from Mozart to to Charlie Parker to Phillip Glass to the Sex Pistols, and you stink, on any and every level."
Derrick's eyes were hard pressed into slits.
"Who's this Charlie Parker, some country western guy? Who the fuck cares? Not me. You're a stone cruel bitch," he said.
"Oh, really?"
"Why you been hanging with me?"
"I like to shop, try things on, like new shoes. Didn't fit. Don't take it real personal."
"So what is this shit? You're breaking up with me? Now?!"
Marie lit another cigarette.
"Whatever," she said wearily. "You want it on a billboard? But hey, it'll make a good heartache song, right? Consider it a gift, free material for you and the boys to butcher."
Derrick dramatically pushed himself off the counter with both hands, thudding his heavy black boots on the floor and worked his face into his best Charlie Manson of the night. He seethed while Marie smoked impassively. Derrick raised a crooked finger, his face twitched, but in the crucial moment, his body started shaking convulsively, then his whole head burned bright red from the neck up. I like the way it looked, contrasting with his dirty white hair and smudged eyeliner. He looked like he was going to cry, poor kid, but he saved himself, spun around dramatically, then stomped out the door.
Nadine was leaning back watching, in her corner.
"I think you can cancel those egg salad sands, Nadine," I said. I saw she hadn't started them yet.
Marie turned to me.
"Am I gonna have another problem here?"
"No, sorry. None of my business. Hard not to notice, that's all."
She eyed me through cigarette smoke.
"Yeah, well, Derrick, he loves a scene."
"Seems to."
"He's quite childish," she said.
"Kind of pathetic," I said, chancing it.
  She sneered in agreement. "Very. A little pretend star."
"Yeah well," I said, "everybody wants to be a star but nobody wants to shine."
She did this squint thing at me.
"Maybe I should introduce myself, right?" I said. "Marcus. McKeen. You can call me Mark."
She didn't say anthing.
She shrugged. "Sure. Whatever."
She dragged again on her cigarette and regarded me carefully as I pulled the coffee cup and pot down the counter and sat.
She had an interesting face, nothing outstanding, nose a little strong maybe, but everything symetrical, overall. It was her eyes that did it, they were so steady it was frightening, this penetrating brown surrounded by black, then the pale white skin.
"Marcus McKeen," she finally said, staring me down. "Why's your name familiar?"
"You go to the Middle East Club?"
"Christ, I've practically been living there, last half year or so."
"I did a three week show there, in June. Those pictures of local storefronts, done mostly in browns, black, sepia wash."
"Right, right, yeah, I remember now. Those were yours?
Wow, I liked those a lot. Very dreary."
"I was going for that, the run down feel."
"You got it."
"Thanks. I sold one. To the owner of the Middle East. Hundred bucks. The one of his place, of course. A pity buy."
"Tough to be an artist is it?"
"Life, art, same thing. What should you expect?"
"Bitter are we?" She smiled, a cheshire cat. "Tell me more, tell me everything. I find the subject fascinating."
"Bitterness you find fascinating? Funny girl."
"Why? Why's that funny?"
"Well," I said, careful, "just seems like a strange thing to find fascinating."
"Why? What's strange? Everybody's bitter someways these days. It's dear to my heart."
"So, I guess Day Tripper's well of bitterness must have run dry."
"His was all fake."
"Ahhh. So you want to hear my real and genuinely bitter tale then? The dark woes of a tortured artist?
"Yes, yes!" It was weird how really excited she suddenly was. She sat back content as a cat in a patch of sunlight.
"Begin..." she said.
"Unvarnished truth?"
"Of course. Spare me all niceties." Those steady eyes were stuck on me in some perverse caricature of adoration. What the hell, I thought.
"Well, I had this model I was working with, my girlfriend too, and I lost her, she left."
"How awful for you. Boring so far. Why did she?"
"Rent control."
"Well, it goes something like this - struggling artist, me, can just about pay for rent on his tiny studio apartment, which he's sharing with his beautiful girlfriend slash reluctant model."
"I have a question," she broke in, leaning forward, brandishing her cigarette for effect, like Bette Davis. "Why are all the women that men talk about from their pasts inevitably either beautiful or ugly? Never in between."
"But she was. Beautiful."
"Of course."
"No, really. I did these paintings of her..."
"Oh, so the next thing you'll say is you could prove how beautiful she was by showing me your paintings of her? That's new."
Sharp girl, I thought.
"Actually," I said, "I can't show you any of my paintings of her."
"Then you have no proof how beautiful she was."
"Why? You sold them all?"
"No. Look, can I go on here? We'll come back to it."
"Whatever..." she sighed. 
"Thank you. Okay. Now. Tragedy, you see, strikes the struggling artist in the form of this rent hike from his evil and avaricious landlord, who, by the way, never fixed squat in the apartment all the time the struggling artist lived there, which was about four years. Rent goes from $270 to $750 a month, overnight. Happens three weeks after that referendum passed that abolished rent control. You heard about it, right?"
"Duh. I was hanging out with musicians, remember?"
"Right. So, see, the artists' model slash girlfriend is for all practical purposes penniless, since she's going to school to study library science. Now, she is not too happy about living in this cramped little studio apartment to begin with, except for a ratty burgandy divan which she loves, but that's getting off track. Anyway, this turn of events causes her to see the handwriting on the wall, the forest for the trees, the dead end she's in, or at least that was how she saw it."
"You never took pictures of her?"
"No, I work from life."
"And no pictures of the paintings."
"I usually make slides..."
"But not this time. And not even a casual sanpshot of her and you?"
"No, which is kind of weird, now that you mention it. But anyhow, the struggling artist, who's been painting all these canvases of the girlfriend, has an idea to help pay the rent. He insists the girlfriend let him try to sell some of the paintings he's done of her, which were great, even if the struggling artist says so himself, but she refuses adamantly, as she always has, because she's very peculiar about people seeing her image. She's French and for some reason the struggling artist can't figure out that has something to do with it, because you'd figure the French were cool about that sort of thing, but this is getting off track too. The struggling artist had been living under the assumption that she'd one day change her mind and let him sell his paintings of her."
"Ahhh. Delusional."
"Desperate. So one night, he says, 'I don't care what you want or what you say, I painted them, I'm selling them.' The next day when he comes home with muffins and the morning paper, he finds all the paintings he's done of her, seventeen to be exact, sliced to bits. In tatters. Ruined way beyond repair. Horribly."
Marie inhaled. Air this time, as in a gasp of.
"Son of a bitch, right? And she's gone, for good. Left a short note in French which the freaked out struggling artist tears up without trying to translate. Bewildered and crushed with this turn of events, the struggling artist goes out and does what any good artist would do, he buys a fifth of bourbon. Then he comes back to the apartment he can no longer afford to live in, weeps over the paintings he poured his whole being into which lie in shreds on the floor. Eventually he passes out. Then he wakes up in something like a bad nightmare."
"A binge."
"This is pretty good, I must say, so far."
"I'm pleased it pleases you. So for the next two weeks, the struggling artist is in a state of near constant drunkeness, adding liquor store charges to his overcharged credit card. I have to say in retrospect, though, it was kind of worthwhile. It's good to suffer now and then for your art. Anyway, in the midst of it, with the little money he's got saved, the struggling artist finds himself a furnished room, moves in with his easel and a few other things, including the burgandy divan. He doesn't know why he keeps the divan, but he does. He continues drinking, often at his favorite bar, MARY ANNE'S."
"That cruddy hole down the street?"
"Yep. Strictly Bukowskiville. He falls into a deep depression for reasons you might imagine. He maintains his job, though, at Photo Stop, somehow, because he needs his money and because he's not so far gone that he's going to throw his career away, and he needs to be able to make..."
"Free slides of his work," Marie shoots in.
"Good call," I say. "Very perceptive. Yes, he needs photo slides of his work and they can be expensive. The struggling artist manages to keep his job since he has erratic shifts and schedules his drinking in between, he wanders in and out of this alcholic haze for a few weeks until one weird awful afternoon he finds himself having insane hallucinations and sucidal thoughts and the bleakest feelings of depression he's ever felt, helped immensely, no doubt, by the entire bottle of cheap vodka he drank starting that morning at daylight. The struggling artist sits on the burgandy divan, staring at the dirty green carpet in his furnished room and feels like he's standing over a pit and there's nowhere to fall but in."
"Wow, a true existential moment. Very cool."
"Yeah, it was groovy... but this particular existential moment scares the living shit out of him. However, by some miracle of life which the struggling artist doesn't understand and cannot account for, he's able to pull himself back from the abyss in that moment and split the universe open, just like in those ads for the Rosicrucians in the back of magazines, you know? And he sees the vast universe in all it's glorious pulsating eternity sitting in front of him, up for grabs, to be part of or not. He decides he wants to be part. No way is he going to go flying headlong into eternity drunk, rudderless, blacksouled and spinning willy-nilly toward the great abyss, no siree Bob. He decides right then and there, in a flash of shitfaced clarity, that when he goes, he's going to be in control. Of himself anyway."
"Wow.... cool."
"Yeah, it was, actually. So the struggling artist has no desire for alchohol from that point on, abruptly quits drinking. It does take a week to get over the shakes, headaches, edginess. He begins to hang out at a certain late night diner..."
"And voila."
"... voila, there he is drinking coffee, for the caffine, for his late night painting."
"You paint every night?"
"Yeah, sure. But wait, there's more. Recently, the struggling artist got a letter in bad English from the former girlfriend slash model, explaining that she's living in Connecticut with the lawyer she used to go with, the one she ran away from a year ago, and is quiting library school. She says they will probably get married. She says she is sorry about the paintings, she was angry. She knows the struggling artist will create more and better paintings. Then she says she always will have a tender place in her heart for the struggling artist. Finally says she hopes he figures out that people can't always be struggling. The struggling artist reads it and says yeah yeah yeah fuck you, and since he doesn't know how to do anything else, he continues struggling. So, I guess that's it. The end. Nothing else."
"I play the cello," Marie said out of nowhere. "But not every night. Not that much anymore at all, actually."
"I heard Mr. Tripper mention that you played."
"I struggled with it, for a real long time."
"Struggled, as in past tense?"
"Recent past. " She stubbed out her butt. "Feel," she said, turning on her stool, giving me her left hand.
"The fingertips."
She had short, neatly trimmed fingernails, painted black.
I felt the tips. They were like flesh mallets, hard as shoe leather. Tough, flat stubs.
"That's incredible," I say.
"Six hours a day practice, miminum, since I was nine.
I started too late. Good cellists start at four or five. Something to do with neurons and synapses. My fingers are pretty hard, but bassist's finger are even harder."
"Can you feel anything?"
"That's the question of the day."
"With your fingers, my dear. Don't get morose on me here when we were just starting to have fun."
"Whatever. The answer's no. When I touch something, I feel hardness, that's all."
I let the onward metaphor slide.
"So I take it you went to school."
She nodded, sliding back her hand. "New England Conservatory. I grew up in Andover, played in our high school orchestra. They thought I was great. Featured me a lot. My senior year, we won some local competitions, got into a national one, and so, on one wonderful afternoon I played first cello with the Andover High School symphony orchestra in Carnegie Hall, New York city. I don't think I've been as thrilled by anything since."
Her face went childlike, it even came through the make-up, but then she threw an indifferent mask over it, a sour smile.
"But big deal, right?"
"It is a big deal," I said, a bit gratuitously.
"It got me into the Conservatory on a partial scholarship, that's seemed like a big deal at the time, anyway. But I found out pretty soon I wasn't so big, not there. They didn't think I was as great as they did in Andover."
"Little fish, big pond."
Marie's eyes flared, hurt, then bore on me like a laser.
"Hey, gee," I said, "sorry. Where'd the tough girl go?"
"Parts of me are tough, okay, but not all of me."
"That's true," I said, "only half your fingers."
Marie half smiled. I was maybe half in love.
"So what? That's it. You fill in the rest. You got it just right with your 'little fish big pond' remark.
"I said sorry."
"Yeah yeah yeah."
"Look, I told you my worst."
"So now I gotta spill it all? Okay, yes, I was intimidated. The women cellists had these sweet, fake smiles and good postures and beautiful long hair and they mostly all came from Cutthroat County, Conneticut. I never seen so much hidden, ruthless ego."
"And talent?"
"Yeah, and goddamn talent," she said, looking hurt again, frowning. She lit a cigarette. "Amazing talent." She almost smiled, shook her head slowly. "I got good marks in theory and arrangment and compostion. But for performance, I had a cello teacher who used to pound on me, relentlessly, told me how I had to 'find my lyricism,' but she was too much of an unhelpful bitch to show me what she meant, so I started getting paranoid about every note I played. And... pretty soon it just started to stiffen, until it got to be this endless austerity. No fun, no reward, no joy, no nothing but just sawing away and hearing it sound worse and worse. Like some torture out of Dante, some room in hell designed for me and my pride and my mediocre talent."
"Too hard. Too critical. I bet you're actually very good."
"Ehhh. Anyway, I couldn't stand to touch it. I figured I'd never get into a symphony anyway. So I quit, senior year, last year. My parents freaked. I stayed around here. Started going to clubs and hanging with idiots. I tell all those fools I'm just passing through, but the truth is, I'm like them, just as lost and not going anywhere."
"Man," I said, "this generation, I don't know. How old are you?"
"Twenty-three and you've got no hope. You ought to give yourself a decade or so, so you can earn having no hope."
"Spare me a pep talk, huh? Hey, don't pretend you suddenly care about me, I met you twenty minutes ago."
"Ummm, you're right, we're strangers. Nothing particular in common. If you don't care, I guess I'd be a fool to, huh?"
She stopped. Shook her head like she was rattling loose nuts and bolts around, stubbed her half finished cigarette out, fished into her bag, drew out another, defiantly flicked her lighter and torched it.
"Look," she said, "you think I don't care? You think I haven't thought this through? I didn't just drop it one day, you know. But hey, what's it matter if I do or don't play the damn cello? What's it gonna do? The world is fucking crumbling down in case you haven't been paying attention - militias and the ozone hole and crime rampant and homelessness and illiterate kids and the Republican congress but the world needs my cello, right? My music is gonna save things. That must be why I have to keep playing because there's some godamnned holy purpose out there in the world for me and my cello, huh?"
I sat a minute. Then I shrugged.
"Yep," I said. "Sure is. Got to be."
Marie dragged so hard on her cigarette I could see the red glow in her brown eyes. I swear.
Then she started shaking, just a little, then a trail of black came down off one eye, then she did that thing, the air sucking, moaning thing, then the floodgates opened.
I wasn't ready. I knew caused it, but I wasn't ready.
"Hey hey," I said, "hey, take it easy." She had one hand over her eyes and the other on the counter so I took it and she let me. She leaned in and I hugged her a little.
I said, "Hey, you know what Shakespeare said about music?"
She caught her breath, slowed down the sobs until she'd stopped crying, was breathing in in staggered little breaths, took a napkin from the silver dispenser and wiped her eyes, put it down, crumpled with black smudges.
"No," she said, finally. "What?"
I had it a minute before but I lost it.
"Well, Shakespeare said so many things," I said. "But listen, I had this thought. Maybe we help each other out here."
"How..." she said, weary, defensive again.
"I need a model."
"Yeah. Sure. Why not?"
"Me be your model? I'm not pretty is why. I'm ordinary."
"No, you're not. You're other than ordinary. Stranger than pretty. I don't want paint surfaces anymore anyway. I want to work on some other level."
"Oh yeah, and what level's that?"
"The ‘I don't know yet’ level."
"And you figure I’ll help you find out."
She sighed, ground the napkin into her eye.
"This sounds incredibly promising, I must say."
"Look, just think about it. I'm here most nights."
"Well, I'm nowhere most nights."
"See? Perfect. All you gotta do is sit in a chair."
"And if I did sit in your chair, what would I get?"
"When I'm done, I sit in the chair, you play your cello."
"Jesus," she said shaking her head, "a bonified romantic. Look, I better go. Hey, I liked talking to you. Really. I'll see you around maybe, huh?"
She lit one up, smiled, took her handbag and walked out, just like that. Sashayed across the window. Gone.
I sat there a minute. Then started fishing for change.
"Hey Nadine," I yelled down the counter, "I think I oughta go chase after that girl, whattaya think?"
Nadine lifted her head up from her book.
"Who the fuck knows, Romeo?"
I slapped coins down on the counter.
"Exactly, Nadine," I said. "Exactly!"
I ran out the front door, I could see her just up ahead, a grey shadow about to disappear forever.
"Hey Marie!" I yelled. She turned, stopped, stood there.
Haloed by the streetlight, the shadow that was Marie grew brighter as I got closer and by the time I was near enough to see her just about smile, I could've named you every shade of the pallette that she was.