Monday, September 3, 2012

Chapter Sample

In the upper levels of a building just blocks away from Boston Common, men and women in business suits bustled about their cubicles. Mouse and keyboard clicks could be heard at the computers, phones rang, pens scribbled, papers were shuffled and measured voices carried through the many halls down to the main offices. The largest and loneliest of these rooms displayed a plaque engraved with the words "Editor" and inscribed just below that, Paul Lewis. Behind the door and opaque windows there stood a man, one arm sunk deep into the pocket of his slacks, the other resting against the window as he peered out over the city.

His young, handsome face reflected his thoughts; his brow was furrowed and an unintentional frown captured his lips. He looked sad, and his eyes were affixed, staring at something or nothing, not taking in or appreciating the view that lay before him. His eyes were kind, intense and an ice-cavern blue. His hairline suggested that it was receding early, but the short, well-groomed muff did nothing to distract from his overall demeanor. His obvious beauty. A thin, trimmed beard made the man look a few years older than he actually was. The gray suit which he wore was tailored precisely to his build, and helped to accentuate his distinct jawline. A knock at the door brought the editor back to reality, and a bit of light returned to his visage.

An older lady by the name of Madge entered the office, her gray-blonde hair had a very Hilary Clinton-esque shape to it, and golden jewelry adorned her appendages. Her tan-colored dress-suit accentuated the curves in her figure, which despite her age, still hadn’t failed her. Madge was the comic relief at Rhodalyn; her witty comments and vivacious flirtatiousness were nothing to match her expertise as a literary genius, however. Prior to being an editor she had worked as an independent agent, often in conjunction with Rhodalyn. As far as most people were concerned, she had been the best in the country. Madge specialized in the genre of Romance, and therefore bestowed upon herself the role of "matchmaker" for everyone in her acute life. She was stern when she needed to be, efficient, sage in her advice and thorough in all of her dealings. She was classy, occasionally crude and wholly delightful.

When the man spoke his lips barely moved, but his voice was enough to make any woman weak at the knees. He had a distinctive English accent, each word rolled from his tongue like honey and his wry smile and twinkling eyes were somehow reflected in his tone, so that even if he were facing away, you'd know that he was smiling as he talked. But Madge was immune. And however much she adored him, the age-difference was astronomical. When it came to Paul, her mothering instincts had always kicked in and all she wanted, truly, was to see him happy.

"What news today, Madge?" 

"No news, just business." She waved her hand dismissively and pursed her wrinkled lips together. "I lied; this has nothing to do with work and everything to do with you and your love-life.” Paul rolled his eyes and his head followed as he muttered under his breath,

“Not again.”

“Which we both know,” continued Madge, “doesn't exist."

Her voice was aged but quivered only the slightest.  Paul sat down in the leather chair behind his desk and leaned back looking amused. He rested his elbows on the arm rests and clasped both hands in front of him while his index fingers met to point upward. He twiddled his thumbs patiently.

"I appreciate the gesture, Mum, but really, I am quite happy with the way things are."

"Oh please, that's a bunch of hogwash! You are lonely and lonely never was happy. I don't know how you've made it this long without a real relationship! I just don't understand what you're waiting for." Her hands were on her hips now.

"I'm not, in all honesty, waiting for anything," He said quickly and gracefully, "but I'm not going out looking for it either. I've tried that and it's pointless, complete rubbish, actually. Most girls are a waste of time, for that very reason—they are girls. Not ladies, but young, cheap, American girls." His words were not bitter, but full of honesty. It was unlike him to sugarcoat the truth. Perhaps that was one of his greatest assets as an editor, and perhaps too, why at the age of 35, he was still very single.

"You've been saying ‘no’ to me for years, Paul, but I won't have it anymore. You are going to take my niece on a date, or so help me I will have your head on a platter! If you take her once, just once…" She lifted a finger to hush him and gave him a warning look, "I will never bother you about it again. No more matchmaking. No more prying or hinting, my lips will be sealed and you can live the rest of your life in peace. And I can finally rest knowing I did all I could."

His provocative eyes met hers as he considered the plight. If there was one thing he could depend on, it was Madge keeping her word. He was smiling genuinely, and then looked down as he chuckled. Paul rested his hand over his mouth and stroked the stubble down to his chin a few times before sucking in air and scowling up at her.

"You'll never bother me about it again?"
"Never" Madge confirmed.
"And if it doesn't work out... You won't hold it against me?"
"Not for long." She rested her hand on her heart and raised the other in a pledge.

Paul straightened in his seat, crossed his legs and extended his open palms in a gesture of compliance.

"Done." He said simply before spinning his chair and standing up. They shook on it, and Madge slipped him a small piece of paper with her niece’s digits written carefully on it. She had never looked so pleased with herself as she practically danced out of the office.

When Paul Lewis returned to his apartment that evening, he was visited by an urge to rip the paper to pieces. Instead, he half-tossed it onto the black stained coffee table between his cubic couches and stared at it for a long time. The name “Jen” burned a hole in his mind. Finally, Paul shrugged off his suit jacket and draped it over the armrest, then stretched himself on the cushions, his slacks rising to reveal dark socks betwixt his shiny black shoes. He gazed unseeing at the massive and lifeless flat screen TV on his wall. He rubbed at his eyes in frustration, and allowed the fatigue of the day to weigh him down. The room around him was posh, with high ceilings that displayed the ventilation and plumbing, all of which were painted a flat black. The entire outer wall consisted of one large window that overlooked downtown Boston. A string of contemporary lights hung from S-shaped fixtures, which were strung from the rafters above. The décor was simple and stylish. A modernized kitchen was accessible one step up from the den, and next to the window was a platform that housed a tall, square table and matching chairs. Just two. The kitchen shimmered from the prodigious amount of brushed-aluminum appliances, and the countertops were a jet-black marble. They sparkled even in the slightest amount of light. Every inch of the place displayed an incredible level of excellence and upkeep. There was no clutter, not a crumb to be seen and there were definitely no dank or mysterious smells. Paul’s taste was crisp and modern, and obviously pricey.

His head was spinning with the stress of the day; the responsibilities, the deadlines, the promises. Just one promise, actually. Paul couldn’t remember how many blind dates had gone awry in the past. The actual number was irrelevant because in all factuality, all of them had been disastrous. At a much earlier age his excuse had been that there wasn’t enough time to date while pursuing his career. But when he finally had the time, nothing went as planned, and eventually the desire had failed him altogether. He had become accustomed to the idea of being single his whole life, and planned accordingly. He lived accordingly. Paul was a superb bachelor.

“You are a complete pillock.” He groaned to himself. His hands were over his face so it came out rather muffled.

Paul pushed himself to a sitting position and turned on the tele, making a point to push the “mute” button so that only flashes of light and color accompanied him. He then made his way to a small table with two modular armchairs on either side of it. The surface of the table was a chessboard. He leaned over the current game in mild concentration and after some time moved the black knight, which put the white rook in jeopardy. Satisfied, the man then moseyed to the kitchen to conjure a meal. His mouth was dry and his appetite sparse, so instead he reached under the standing bar adjacent to the pantry and emerged with a golden bottle of tequila. He grabbed a small glass from the cabinet and poured himself a drink. Just as it pressed against his lips he froze, closed his eyes in deep meditation and then exhaled distraughtly. He set the glass back on the counter forcefully, it made a loud “smack” as it hit stone and the contents splashed out to form a tiny puddle on the marble.

“How bad could it be?” He said aloud. Paul was used to talking to himself.

 “Right.” He said clapping his hands once and rubbing them together. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” And he opened the fridge to find something decent to eat.   

That night he went to bed without showering. The spilled tequila was still on the counter. His suit jacket had fallen from the couch and was lying in a heap on the floor, collecting wrinkles. The TV was still on; the lights could be seen blinking from under the bedroom door, and Jen’s number lay untouched on the coffee table. Morning came too soon.

The handsome Mr. Lewis reached over to turn off the buzzing alarm. His eyes were heavy and the already-pronounced bags beneath them seemed to be weighed down dramatically by poor sleep. His hair was askew and he squinted painfully at the light shining through the bedroom window. His large California King had been embedded so that it lay level with the hard oak floors. Two steps down from this platform was luxurious carpeting that led to three doors; one that ran to the kitchen and den, another which opened into an enormous walk-in closet, and the third to a very covetous bathroom. Very covetous. Like something you’d expect from a filthy-rich celebrity.

Paul groaned as he rolled onto his stomach. He grabbed one of his many starchy white pillows and pulled it over the back of his head as he buried his face in the mattress. More muffled groans. Finally, he scrambled, uncoordinated from his bed, down toward the bathroom. Paul hesitated in front of a large mirror that reached to the ceiling and examined himself briefly.

“Bugga.” He said disapprovingly. And wiped his hand over his eye, which pulled half of his face taught.

He proceeded to the shower, which comprised of a gigantic robin-egg blue bowl and square showerhead that dangled from the ceiling. He turned the valve and water was let down in thick streams into the center of the bowl, LED lights shone from the origins so that the water appeared an electric blue as it fell. Steam filled the room and obscured the mirrors. Heat and moisture crept to every corner. When Paul emerged minutes later wrapped in a towel, he looked much more pleasant and lively, and began whistling as he got dressed. He walked sock-footed to the living room, working robotically on fastening a tie around his neck, still whistling carelessly, and then he spotted it. Paul stopped dead, frozen to the spot. He cleared his throat and deliberately turned his back on the small and menacing strip of paper, and headed for the kitchen. He did a very good job of ignoring it entirely as he ate a light breakfast and cleaned up his mess from the previous night. Eventually the bachelor went back to his chamber to style his hair and pull some shoes on. The man that stood as his reflection was unmistakably striking.  If only he felt as good as he looked. Again, that unintentional crease had appeared on his brow, but he wiped it away immediately and gave himself an approving nod.

The moment he got to work, Madge was by his side.

“Have you called her yet?” She poked.

“No.” He said flatly.

“That’s what I thought. What’s it going to take to get you to call her before next year?” Paul smiled and continued to walk casually down the hall to his office. His eyes fluttered slightly as he said,

“I’ll call her tonight. I promise.”

“Mmm hmm.” She said skeptically. “And I’m a monkey’s uncle.” She gave him a blasé glance and veered off as he kept walking forward.

“You’re like a vulcher.” He called after her. “Stop circling me like I’m a piece of meat!” But he was smiling.

u u u u u

It was Friday night when he picked Madge’s niece up for dinner. At her request, they were going to a small restaurant in the east part of town called “Maggie’s.” Paul wasn’t exactly thrilled by the prospect because it was an unfamiliar atmosphere to him, but wanting to keep on good terms with Madge, he consented gladly. On the way there, he discovered that Jen worked at the Boston Opera House as a special affects coordinator for live theatre productions. She loved her job. She also talked non-stop.

Upon reaching their destination, Paul guided Jen through the doors with one hand lightly touching the small of her back. A gentlemanly gesture: also a precautionary gesture, as she seemed to have two left feet and was constantly catching her heels on something. They took their seats near the front windows. The setting was small, diner-like and local art was being displayed above each table. Adjoining the small eatery was a poorly-lit room with exposed brick walls and a small stage; a large painting of Kenny G and his saxophone served as the backdrop. The room was filling with an assortment of comers for open mic night, which according to the sign outside, had just started up again after a long discontinuity. This place was a little down-scale from what Paul was used to, but his date seemed quite at ease.

“They serve breakfast all day.” Piped Jen conversationally. “And they have the best French toast in the world… their clam chowder is a favorite, too.”

“Do you come here often?” He asked in his rich British accent.

“Not anymore. I used to come a lot for open mic when I first started singing. It helped me build my confidence, I guess.”

“So you sing, then?”

“Oh yes.” She said matter-of-factly. “That’s how I started my career in acting, I performed in musicals. And probably the only reason I won Jr. Miss in high school.”

He thought she was being a bit pompous, as if the only motive for eating here was to produce the perfect circumstance in which she could easily mention this bit about herself. And on she went about her days as a drama queen. Paul doubted that she was much good at singing, mainly because most people who think they are usually end up being bosh. That had been his experience, at least, and Broadway just wasn’t his style. And also taking in to consideration that she was now a special effects coordinator, and not a performer, the odds were definitely not in her favor.

“So, are you planning on singing for me tonight?” He interjected, not comprehending a word she had just said.

“No” she waved a flattered hand at him. “I haven’t sung in ages. I thought it would be fun to come and reminisce, though.”

“Mmmm, yes. Fun indeed.” He made a wince of a smile that seemed to fool her. The waiter had finally come with a little notepad and pen to take their orders.

“Could I try some of the—the clam chowder then?” Paul asked politely, to which the man indicated a chalkboard sign with the tip of his pen. “Soup du Jour” and just below it, “no soup for you!”

“We’re out of soup.” He said wearily.

“Ah, I see.” Well then, I would like to try your French toast.” He glanced at the menu. “With the buttermilk syrup, please.” Paul gave a weak smile.

“French toast with buttermilk syrup, got it. And for you, Miss?”

“The same. Thanks.” She said daintily. Ditsily. At that very moment a homeless-looking man entered through the door and it jingled madly. He was large, had a massive, matted gray beard and Coke bottle classes that magnified his clammy eyes. The shirt that he wore was stained over his beer belly and the raunchy smell that wafted in their direction suggested he hadn’t showered in days.

“Rockin’ Rob is in the house!” He roared, showing off a toothless grin. A few people standing in the entryway to the other room cheered genially and greeted him with a handshake.

“Rockin’ Rob, uh?” Paul asked, looking positively fascinated and thoroughly amused by the newcomer. On the other hand, Jen looked slightly appalled.

“Yeah, he’s kind of a living legend around here.” She said dimly. 

“I can see why.” Laughed Paul in his unmistakable throaty chuckle. “I wish I had some sort of label like that, and the audacity to announce myself to the public. Popping Paul doesn’t quite have the same affect though, does it?” He jested dryly to Jen.

Unfortunately she wasn’t joining in the amusement; she was staring at the place Rob had just disappeared through after clomping into the attached room. She had a curious look in her eyes. Jen was obviously in her own little world.

“Right.” Paul said quietly, feeling a lot less comfortable than he had just moments before.

He leaned forward onto the table and started fidgeting with the salt and pepper shakers while trying to ignore the constant glances he was getting from a woman at a neighboring booth. He brushed the end of his nose with a finger and sniffed absent-mindedly, then rested his chin on his palm, his fingers bent upward to his lips as if he were a nail-biter. He felt embarrassingly over-dressed and out of place.

Not nearly soon enough, their food was brought to the table and the uncomfortable silence was replaced by scraping forks and knives as they started to eat. Paul took one bite and his eyes widened to the size of dinnerplates. He pointed to the syrupy mess on his dish with the fork prongs,

“These are actually quite delectable! This syrup is positively the best I have ever tasted.” Jen was nodding and smiling.

“I told you they were good. I never get sick of them, myself.” She concurred.

At least the food was good, he thought. Before long, Jen excused herself for a bathroom break and Paul was left alone. He watched the thick, black ringlets of her up-do bounce as she walked away. The door jingled again and a skinny black man in a royal blue dress-shirt walked in, followed by a dark-haired girl who seemed to be arguing with him. It wasn’t a rowdy argument, just small bickering. Perhaps a petty disagreement. The door stayed open behind them as it hit something hard. As the two persons continued forward, Paul saw a short, petite and exquisitely beautiful ginger girl at the entrance with a black guitar-case wedged in the door. She tugged on it awkwardly and it followed her in, the door shut with another jingle and she exhaled, looking exhausted. She was wearing a dark grey knitted beanie, the oversized kind that drapes down the back of your head uselessly. Pointlessly. At least, usually Paul thought it was a pointless fashion statement, but it was actually quite cute on her. The girls’ attire was simple, she looked comfortable, and her face seemed to beam with happiness and ease. Paul blinked and looked away, it’s impolite to stare, he reminded himself. She looked so young. Too young.

Suddenly he heard a soft, kind voice say,

“Do you mind if I sit here for a second?” He looked up to see the mildly freckled face and deep brown eyes of the read-head. She had a shy smile across her lips as she indicated one of the four chairs at his table.

“Not at all, please do.” He stammered. Her eyes shot up at him like darts. He looked startled.

“Holy smokes, you have the coolest accent.” She said seriously. “Where are you from?” She sat down and peered at him in interest. They weren’t prying eyes, though. She was sincerely curious. Innocently curious.

“Liverpool, originally.” He said, pausing a moment with an “uuuh” sound stuck in his throat, which then melted into extremely beautiful and articulate words.

“You know, I usually tell people I’m from New York just to shut them up, because once I tell them I’m British they ask me to say silly phrases for them, like I’m a dog trained to do tricks.” He peered at her casually.

“Well,” said the girl apologetically “I can’t blame them. I could literally listen to you all day every day for a year and it still wouldn’t get old. But I’m sorry,” She added understandingly, “I know it gets old for you. I totally get that.” And she rolled her eyes. “I mean, my name’s Boston. How do you think that goes over every time?”

Paul laughed. “I’ve just met a Boston in Boston.”

“Every time.” She smirked, shaking her head.

“I apologize. It’s a beautiful name and a beautiful city. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Boston, Paul Lewis is my name.” He extended a hand to her and she shook it. 

“You can call me Bee, that’s what all of my friends call me.” She smiled sweetly. Bee made him feel comfortable even in this shoddy environment.

“I just need to tune my guitar really quick,” She chatted as she pulled the instrument from its case. “It’s been years since I’ve used it. In public, that is.” And she fastened a fancy gadget that Paul took to be a tuner to the neck of it. He watched her keenly with his legs crossed and his hand cradling his jawline, looking thoughtful.

“I’m assuming you’ll be playing, and—” He searched her face, “singing tonight?

“Yup.” She said simply.

“Are you any good?”

“Not really.” Her expression was unreadable.

“Brilliant.” He breathed. Paul supposed immediately that she was most likely decent. If she was indeed terrible, though, then no harm would be done. But if she was good… well that would say even more about her character. He was impressed by her unpretentious modesty. Either way he’d take it over Jen’s bubbly gloating and glam. And then he saw it. The unmistakable glint of a wedding band on Bee’s left hand.

“You can’t be married, can you?” He exclaimed, aghast. He straightened in his seat. Bee shot her dart eyes at him again, but then they softened as she smiled.

“I am, actually.” She said to him.

“But you can’t be more than… Oh I don’t know, seventeen or eighteen. Am I wrong?” Bee laughed out loud at this, an honest, velvety, laugh.

“No, I’m not seventeen. I’m 23, and I’ve been married for three years now.” Paul looked stunned.

“You got married when you were twenty?” He reiterated.

“That’s right.”

“That is so old-fashioned and ludicrous.” He said blatantly. I mean, you’re just a girl, a very young and beautiful girl… but a girl nevertheless.” He looked perplexed. His voice was incredulous. Bee’s face became very serious as she looked Paul straight in the eyes, and she seemed to grow a foot or two.

“I think there is very little you can determine about a person’s character based on their age. I was ready for marriage even before that, and there is no one in the world that I would rather spend my life with than my husband. I’m not an ignoramus, I knew exactly what I was getting into and I have never, not even for a second regretted it.” She affirmed boldly.

Based solely on her mannerisms and speech, it was obvious that she was not a teenager, and Paul felt sheepish and humbled by her. He had, in fact built up a pretense founded entirely on her youthfulness. But he guessed that, even as a teenager, Boston had undoubtedly been quite level-headed and mature. She was not fuming, nor even angry, but firm in her opinion. Paul blinked in concentration several times before formulating his next sentence.

“That’s very admirable.  I’ve never wanted anything like that, and probably never will.”

“So you’re just a ruthlessly honest and attractive bachelor with a killer accent and expensive shoes who likes flying solo and who won’t settle down.” She proposed lightheartedly.

“Apparently so.” He grinned, amused. “Except I’d say I’m pretty settled.”

“Jeez, that’s just as unfathomable to me as marrying young is to you—”

“Marriage in general.” He corrected her.

“Ok, as marriage is to you.” She shot him an unconvinced glance. “And I don’t even feel that young…” Boston continued, “However it feels to be forty, I probably feel like that!” Her voice was bright and humorous.

“It’s probably impossible to get in a fight with you.” Paul interposed unpredictably.

“What do you mean?” Asked Bee in interest.

“You had every right to be angry with me—shame on my wicked tongue—but here you are now, smiling and making a mock of me like we were best mates. How do you manage that?”

She smiled mischievously but didn’t answer. Paul watched her test every string till the notes rang true. Bee unexpectedly gave him an uncertain look.

“You don’t seem like a psychopath to me.” She said thoughtfully.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Asked Paul taken aback.

“Well, psychologically, psychopaths are incapable of feeling empathy or remorse, and have very shallow emotions, so basically they aren’t capable of truly loving for that matter.  You seem pretty normal to me. Which means that somewhere in that callused heart of yours there’s a part of you that really does want to find a girl and settle down. Unless you’re gay.” She said suddenly, looking frightfully apologetic. “Then I suppose you’d want to find a man and settle down…”

“No! No, I’m not—haha—” He chortled, “I’m not gay.” And he itched his lips a little embarrassingly.

“Okay.” Said Bee, a smirk appeared on her lips.

Paul deliberately avoided picking up where they had left off, and Boston didn’t pursue it, which he was grateful for.

“So, where’s your husband tonight?” Paul queried in his delicious accent.

But before Bee could answer, the slender form of Jen appeared behind the redhead. She was back from the lavatory.

“Oh, I see you’ve been meeting the locals.” Jen said in a falsely sweet tone, and Boston jumped from her chair immediately, looking alarmed.

“I am so sorry, I didn’t mean to take your seat. I was just tuning my guitar; I’ll get all of this out of your way.” And she hurriedly shut the stringed beauty in its case and pulled it up to her side. “I’m so sorry.” She repeated naturally. It was really nice to meet you, Paul.” And she extended her slender hand to Jen, “I’m Bee, by the way. Sorry to interrupt your—”She glanced at Paul again, “Uhh date. Are you both staying for open mic night?”

“Yes.” Said Paul, just as Jen had said “no.”

“No, I mean.” But this time Jen had said yes.

“Ah, there seems to be a bit of a blip.” Paul laughed faintly. “You decide.” He said directing to Jen, who didn’t look happy about being put on the spot.

“Yes, definitely. We’ll stay for a bit of it, why not?”

“Great.” Chimed Bee “I’ll see you in there, then.” And she left them. Paul watched her as she edged through the doorway into the red-flooded light. When he looked back at Jen, she was scrutinizing him suspiciously. He kept his face emotionless and let his eyes pry back. She looked very displeased.

After emptying their drinks and paying the tab, which Paul made sure to pay, they made their way to the band room, where music had begun to deluge from the open doorway. It was pretty crowded, and soon Paul had spotted Boston, sitting with the black man and dark-haired woman he had seen quarrelling earlier. He and Jen sat on the other side of the room from them.

Everyone was serenading to a groovy beat. There was a small band on the stage; a drummer, trumpet player, guitarist and lead singer. The vocalists’ eyes were heavily-lidded and barely open… Paul thought he looked drugged, but his voice was phenomenal. Paul didn’t know much about music, but he liked what he was hearing. The trumpet was an odd addition, too, but before long it had grown on him. As their last song ended, an uproar of applause followed the group off the stage. Paul joined in heartily, though he couldn’t keep from glancing around him uncertainly. He hadn’t been a part of something this informal since his teenage years.

Next up was Rockin’ Rob, and what a character he was. He had a gruff voice, and his words seemed to slur from alcohol, or perhaps it was actually a speech impediment. No, he must be drunk. Rob asked to borrow a guitar and stumbled loudly up to the mic. He looked childishly happy, standing there with a wide grin across his face, completely silent, gazing over the crowd with his enlarged eyes. From one side of the room to the other, he surveyed them but said nothing, smiling stupidly all the while. After about 30 seconds of this, people started to giggle uncomfortably and whisper to each other. Then, just when the tension seemed it would break, he started his thick fingers at the guitar strings. They fumbled across the instrument until finally a tangible tune could be made out. Then he started to talk, completely out of sync with the music he was playing.

“I’m not much of a singer, a singer-slinger HA-HA!” He opened his mouth over the microphone and gave a hearty laugh and stopped playing the guitar altogether. Everyone laughed, too.

“I do all of my songs adlib style, improvised, stuff I think about and experiences I’ve had.” Paul realized the real reason for the slurred speech as Rockin’ Rob gave another grin. He had no teeth to formulate words! And he was most definitely drunk. He had to be.

“Winnebagos!” Rob roared. “I wanna Winnebago!” Paul couldn’t help but join in the roars of laughter. It was so outrageously unexpected.

“The other day…” Rob continued in his growl of a voice, “I went to a hotdog stand and can you guess what I bought?” Everyone wanted to hear the answer, and he kept them hanging for a very long time before grumbling.

“A hot dog.” And the strum-strum of the guitar was drowned out by more hoots and chuckles.

“Yessir-ee! I bought a hotdog and ate it with some beer. But nevermind all that… now I’m going to sing you a song, HA-HA!” He wheezed his slow-motion laugh again. “The only song I know.”  He began jamming the guitar hard and loud. He had to yell to be heard over the noise.

“As I grew up in this world, I soon became a man. I tried and tried to be the do, and do the best I ca-han. I didn’t really need a job, I couldn’t feel alive, I couldn’t really be the man but I try to do what’s right—yes I do!” There was a break and he played the guitar with every ounce of soul he had, and then started in on the chorus.

“Been workin’ all my life, to be the best I can. Workin’ all my li-hi-hife, a down to earth a MAAAN!” And the rest of his words became indistinguishable as he hollered into the mic, his voice shook and thundered and growled just like Strongbad from Homestarrunner as the story of his life echoed humorously, sentimentally and powerfully over them. Once he had ended, the claps were once again tumultuous as he stepped from the spotlight, giddy as a schoolboy.

Paul felt a twinge of guilt as he considered the judgments he most definitely would have passed towards this tattered old man if he had met him in any other setting. On the street, Rockin’ Rob would have appeared to be just another hopeless soul. Dirty and depraved. A black fly in the chardonnay. Instead, Rob was a battered ruby; rough to touch and look at, but a ruby nonetheless.

Just as he thought this, he noticed the fragile and insecure-looking form of Boston making her way to the front of the room. Paul suddenly felt a squirm of nervousness for her, and shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Next to him, Jen had started to talk as if to distract him from the redhead, and he tried to act indifferent to the fact that Bee was now sitting on a stool under the stage lights. He heard her sweet voice introducing herself as “Bee Hayes.” And her guitar’s name was Evelyn. Whatever else she said was drown out by Jen’s over-exuberant conversation.

Paul’s heart nearly stopped when he heard the voice. His eyes shot automatically to where Bee sat singing, an unnatural hush had overcome the crowd. Even Jen seemed at loss for words. Paul sat attentive as everyone held their breath collectively, involuntarily, not wanting to miss a note.

“She’s good.” Jen whispered to him.

What a profound understatement. The sweet, deliciously pure sound was effortlessly high and velvety low, true and controlled and yet raw and untrained. The guitar was just an afterthought, as Boston Hayes’ voice was rapturing, unexpected, unique and addicting. When she ended no one wanted it to be over. She poured a kind of peaceful sunlight over the listeners, over Paul. He was transfixed by her.  And then she began her second song. The title tugged at Paul in a distasteful way. “All You Need is a Girl.” He suddenly thought bitterly that she was singing it specifically to unsettle him. And unsettled his was.

There was a strange prickling sensation down his neck as he listened. Each word stung like acid rain. It felt like an eternity before it was over. The applause ceased and several too-eager looking men leapt to greet Bee as she stepped delicately from the stage. One particularly scruffy, black-haired fellow approached the red beauty; his five o’clock shadow made him look unkempt and quite frankly, sleazy. He appeared to be masking his age by wearing clothes too young for his era.

Jen was trying to enroll Paul in small-talk but her voice became a distant buzzing noise as he listened in on Bee Hayes’ conversation. She had stopped just close enough so that he could hear every word.

“All I could think while you were singing” began the greasy man, “was how? How could you possibly know that? It’s like you got right into my head, and put all of my experiences, my thoughts and feelings into words…” More words of praise. Bee blushed lightly and Paul was surprised at the sincerity he had heard in the man’s voice. It was not meant to sound flirtatious, he was really in awe, thanking her for shedding light on his life. Paul barely made out the words that slipped from Bee’s lips.

“Everyone needs companionship. It’s the one thing that can’t be replaced. A lot of people get distracted by the ‘fluff’ in life, but when all is said and done, what any normal human being wants is to be loved. You and I aren’t so different,” She pointed around the room tentatively and her eyes met Paul’s, they lingered only for a moment before turning back. “And they aren’t so different from us. I think it’s safe to say that everyone in this room has that in common.”

The hot sensation around Paul’s collar and ears could easily have been mistaken for some form of rage, but he couldn’t bring himself to dislike Boston, nor would he admit that he was thoroughly enthralled by her. There was no way to explain the interest. The attraction. The loathing. An unfamiliar emotion was bubbling up inside of him and all he wanted to do was run. Escape.

He became aware that Jen was still talking. He cleared his throat and tore his attention away from Bee with serious effort. He pressed his fist to his mouth and leaned toward the drama queen, looking apologetic and raising his eyebrows high.

“I’m sorry, what’s that you were just saying?” Jen shot an annoyed look at Bee before continuing. Rubbish, is all Paul heard. He was inside his own head, arguing with his past, but he nodded and agreed whenever Jen paused for breath.

Finally Jen narrowed in on him till he had to look her straight in the eyes. She looked intense and purposeful.

“You like her, don’t you?” She interrogated.

“No. I don’t like her. I don’t even know her. It’s more that I’m completely and utterly provoked by her. And that song… It’s nonsense, don’t you agree?” Jen shook her head.

“You’re not the relationship type, are you?” She asked smugly.

“Ohhh yes, like you don’t know already.” Paul smirked keenly. “I have a hunch that Madge has been sharing the details of my life with you for a while now.”

Jen gave her first authentic smile of the night and didn’t bother denying it. She was actually a beauty herself. What, with that long, slender face, porcelain skin and black hair. It was stunning, once he had actually taken her in. She pulled off red lipstick magnificently, probably because she whitened her teeth. No, they were too white. It wasn’t a real kind of beauty. And her black lids shadowed drastically made him think of something unnatural and wicked.  He wondered briefly what she would look like completely void of makeup. Pretty, probably. But he doubted he would ever see her again after this night.

“I think she likes you.” Jen said almost bitterly after a long silence.

“No.” Paul chortled. “No, that’s impossible. She’s married.” He said, as if to settle the point.

“That doesn’t mean anything these days, most marriages don’t last anyway.” Jen said impassively. Paul was suddenly filled with a resounding anger toward her, and his respect for Jen plummeted drastically. It even made him feel sick with disgust.

“It may mean nothing to you, but it means everything to me.” He said in a deeply measured voice. 

His eyes were cold as ice. Jen was looking wary as she shifted her weight to lean away from him and there was a tense silence between them. It didn’t make any sense. Why would Jen try so hard to draw attention away from herself and onto another woman? Was it a test? More like a trap. No matter what Paul said she seemed to distrust him. He wondered what her reaction would have been if he had told her that yes, indeed he was infatuated with Bee. Paul smiled in amusement as he imagined Jen marching distraughtly out of the restaurant to call a taxi cab. It’s not like it hadn’t happened before, although the idea of it did make him feel like a bit of an arse. Paul didn’t know how to recover from moments like this, and was left feeling bewildered. He would never understand a woman’s mind.

“I never took you to be a marriage advocate… especially from what my Aunt Madge has told me about you.” Jen finally spoke up in a wary voice. This took Paul off guard. A marriage advocate?

“Well,” Paul said carefully, his British accent became more pronounced as he spoke slowly. “Ihh—It’s just that I respect the commitment that people make to each other, and I think it’s my responsibility not to meddle. I won’t be responsible for causing a rift between them—between anyone.” His voice was still edgy, but Jen smiled satisfactorily. Apparently he had said the right thing this time.

“And yet you’re still single.” She cooed a little too flirtatiously.

“Yes. I’m still single.” He said uncertainly. He had a pretty good idea of what she was getting at, and he didn’t like it. He cleared his throat and drew his attention to the very un-talented musician on stage. What was Madge thinking? Pairing them up.

Paul kept stealing glances at Boston, who was smiling and glowing as individual after individual approached her. He used every ounce of self-control to keep his composure, but when he saw that Boston was making to leave, he became increasingly unpleasant. He wished boyishly that she would, at the very least, acknowledge him in some way. But she did not. And as the red beauty exited the room, he felt guiltily jealous by the thought that he would never see her again. It angered him how hypocritical he was being. Suddenly he turned to Jen and said shortly,

“I’ll take you home now.”

“What?” Countered a confused-looking Jen.

“I believe it’s time for me to take you home.” He repeated firmly, and rose from the bench.

He didn’t bother to usher her out chivalrously. She followed after him sulkily and her heels clip-clopped loudly to the car. He opened the door for her and she climbed in, and then he made his way rigorously around to the driver’s side. Paul settled behind the steering wheel and shut the door abrasively; they drove to her apartment in silence. When they arrived, Jen stepped out and shut the door without a word, and although Paul did not leave immediately, he didn’t watch her ascend the stairs to her complex.  He sat for a long time, gripping the wheel, wondering where to go and what to do, trying to keep his emotions in check. But to no avail.

Before he knew it, Paul was speeding home, completely unaware of his surroundings. When he reached the flight of steps up to his apartment he took them by twos, and after hastily getting through the door he found himself feeling dissatisfied with everything he owned. With everything he was. Restlessness made him pace; his thoughts were at odds with themselves. Paul took long, heavy strides toward the kitchen and he seized a bottle of unopened scotch from under the standing bar. He started to take heavy swigs of the burning substance, and winced at the pain in his chest. Eventually, the burning seemed to ease his hurt. The emotions were raging but Paul was completely incapacitated. He drank the night away; mumbling to himself madly. Anger turned to grief. Grief turned to tears. Tears turned into fatigue, and after hours of self-loathing, pitying, discouragement and senselessness, he rested his head on the counter and fell asleep.

His head was pounding. The room was being illuminated by daylight. He wanted to turn out the lights. He needed to turn off that glinting sphere and soak in darkness. The man felt stiff, his whole body ached, and his limbs were unresponsive and weak. As he squinted around, he saw two empty bottles of hard liquor, tipped on their sides atop the marble counters. A shot glass stood next to them, along with his phone, wallet and keys. His tie was on the ground, his shirt unbuttoned and hanging uselessly over his frame.  Paul blinked, trying to remember the events of the previous night. Disappointment replaced confusion and he covered his face with his hands and groaned loudly.

Paul bustled moodily about to find a remedy for his migraine, but as his vision had been compromised and he wasn’t feeling very coordinated, he just ended up knocking things over and making more of a mess. He made his way to the bathroom and started running cold water at the sink. He bent low over the rushing pool and splashed his face several times before meeting his own gaze in the mirror, drops slid off of his chin and rolled down his neck to his chest.

“Well, it’s finally happened, Paul.” He told himself.

“You’re back in the game.” He took a deep breath and tottered his head from side to side in consideration.

“You’ve just got to get out there and—and be yourself. Your frank, charming, egotistical self. Every girl’s dream.” He raised his eyebrows.

“What nonsense.” Paul shoved himself away from the mirror and sneered dubiously, shaking his head and realizing too late that that was a bad idea. He winced at the pain in his temples.

“I must be mad.” He made an arrogant smile at himself in the mirror and started a mock conversation.

“Hello, my name is Paul. My personality is rubbish, I have no idea and couldn’t care less what you are interested in, I can’t control my tongue, I’m self-centered and independent, balding, sarcastic and satirical, lonely, handsome, extremely successful and quite frankly—a cock.”

This was his idea of a pep-talk, and for whatever reason, it was working. Paul felt a sense of satisfaction and pride. After years of obscurity, he was finally seeing himself clearly. And suddenly he was terrified. He was wandering into unknown territory. He knew he’d have to work through the fear.

“That’s it fellow.” He chimed in a popping British inflection. “Onward to bigger and better things.”

Paul arrived fashionably late to work. About 5 hours late, if truth be told. There were several missed calls on his phone, most likely from Madge, and his insides were tied in knots at the thought of her scolding eyes. He slipped passed the cubicles as inconspicuously as possible, down to his office, but just seconds after the door had closed, Madge entered in after him. She looked stern and reproachful, but as her eyes fell upon his pitiful state, her countenance changed dramatically and she said aghast,

“Oh, Paul. You look terrible!”

“Mmm.” Was his mild reply. He lifted a hand as if to hush her, and winced. This seemed to bring her back to her senses.

“You couldn’t have at least tried to be a gentleman?” She cut straight to the chase.

“I did try, I assure you. I probably could have tried ever the slightest more, this is true, but overall I’d say I was quite a chap.” He said with a pleased smile.

“Paul…” Madge began, but Paul cut her off. “You said you wouldn’t hold it against me.” He said in good-natured reprove.

“For long.” Interjected an amused but still perturbed Madge.


Madge took an impatient breath and continued, “Jen said it was going fine, but then you just snapped and took her home without another word.” She gawked in disbelief. “What on earth happened?”

“I just didn’t see the point. Of leading her on. There was no future for us, no spark.” It was a fabricated response and Madge was not fooled.

“She thought you were too repulsed by the idea of commitment.”

“I can see how she could gather that, but it’s not entirely true. I’m just repulsed by the idea of being committed to her. And please don’t look at me like that.” He asked pleadingly.

“I think she pitied you a little. She still likes you.” Madge looked a little discomforted.

“Oh, that’s brilliant.” Paul hummed sarcastically. “That’s precisely what I need; a girl bent on rescuing me from whatever peril you both think I’m in.” He was sounding unpleasant now. Madge stayed quiet for a while and chewed her tongue. She was tapping her toe anxiously and then it escaped her.

“She mentioned that you seemed pretty taken with another girl there. A pretty little red-head, is that right? Jenny is the jealous type, so she may have been exaggerating…” Her voice trailed off hopefully.

“You know, Mum.” Paul’s demeanor had changed and he looked deflated. He struggled for words. “I’ve never really felt that way about anyone—Bee, was her name. I was truly intrigued by her. But it’s useless.” He shook his head regretfully.  “She’s married, she’s young, she’s happy with her life. It’s pointless even to consider her.”

“But you have considered her.” Affirmed Madge a little too understandingly. She was looking at him with those sad, pitying, motherly eyes.  Paul said nothing for a long while.

“For the first time in my life I’m willing to admit that I hate being alone.” He murmured quietly, his brow furrowed. He was staring at a spot on his desk, his hands deep in his pockets. How vulnerable he looked. How defeated.

“And for good reason, dear. Loneliness is an epidemic, it’s a plague. And the only remedy is to go find love. And now that you’re open to it, you’ll find it.” Madge reassured.

“What a damned fool I’ve been. A damned fool.”

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