“Club sandwich,” I said. “No. Hamburger with the works.”
“Fuck the hamburger, Tom,” said Keira, picking up a cleaver. “It’s our last night in Boston. Can’t you take the teeniest risk?”
“The lady has the right idea,” the Mayor said. “Go out in style. Have a porterhouse.”
“I need more potatoes,” Keira said. “Where are the spuds in this goddamn kitchen?”
“Dirty talk! You are the dog’s dinner, you know that?” Chortling, the Mayor dug out a couple of raw potatoes from who knows where and tossed them to Keira.
“A porterhouse?” I said. “Really? Can I?”
“My kitchen. My restaurant. Boston’s my city,” the Mayor said. “You can have the whole steer with the prairie oysters.” Opening a huge stainless steel refrigerator, he removed a thick slab of cow and tossed it on the fire. He seemed about to explode at any minute, a big, boisterous, red-faced man who laughed after every sentence. I could tell Keira liked this.
“Keira’s right, Tom,” Bart said, fiddling with the seal on a wine bottle. “Go ahead and rebel.”
“Against everyone who wants you to be bold and different. Insist on your right to make the timidest, most conventional choice. Have the burger.”
Bart knew me well. After twelve weeks on the road with Keira, promoting our new album, he and I had evolved fast food stomachs, a Darwinian adaptation to the conditions of travel. Since it was already 2:30, our visit to the Mayor’s restaurant wasn’t really our last night in Boston, it was our last morning. In six hours we were due to leave for Buffalo, followed by Charlottesville, D.C, Philadelphia, Boston once more, then a few more notches on the rust belt, before we could see our wives again. A grueling schedule, yet you never saw us sloppily dressed or reporting late for a show or playing off-key. We made destination jazz, not Sunday-brunch jazz, therefore our album was going places and we along with it. So the pressures were real, but so was the fun, the surprise, the delight, if you will, of life on the road. The time Bart went AWOL for 48 hours till I located him hiding out in his bedroom in Hoboken. The way Keira began this evening.
“Everybody can stick it tonight,” she proclaimed in our dressing room, a few hours ago. “I hear the Mayor’s in the audience. I wonder if I should insult him. No, I’ll talk about the Big Dig.” The thought of a romantic balladeer making jokes about a highway-and-tunnel project plagued by cost overruns and shoddy workmanship aligned perfectly with the spirit of this tour. I looped a tie around my neck.
“He deserves it, doesn’t he?” she continued. “I mean, fifteen billion for a fucking hole in the ground? Then a passenger gets killed when the tunnel ceiling collapses?” I pulled up the tie knot, considered whether my beard needed a trim. “I’ll definitely say that tonight,” Keira went on. “If the Mayor’s here. If he’s not, I won’t.”
He was. She did. He seemed to love the idea of a diminutive, sewer-mouthed blonde with perfect, Tinker-Bell proportions who taunted him between the lines of songs without breaking her rhythm. Something about his heft, perhaps, versus her tininess. After we wrapped, he sent an aide backstage to invite us out. We spent the shank of the evening cruising Boston in his chauffeured car along with Ed and Maya, a couple of the Mayor’s friends who’d accompanied him to the club. We drank his scotch, took drags on a joint, wound up in the restaurant he owned, trying to make ourselves useful while the Mayor and Keira bustled around making snacks. Chopping, measuring, pouring, stirring, he moved with the professional ease of a man who’d spent his life in the restaurant business.
“Keira, watch yourself,” I said as she stood at a prep table slicing potatoes for French fries.
“There’s a reason I’m doing this,” Keira said. “I would never let you or Bart touch a cleaver.”
“The singer can lose a digit or two, no problem. The pianist and bass player can’t.”
“One digit, two -— no problem,” the Mayor said to Keira. “I admire that sense of responsibility.” She and the Mayor seemed to fit each other like subject and verb, as if they’d been waiting all their lives to meet and tantalize each other this way.
Whapwhapwhapwhap went the cleaver, sending up a little fountain of raw potatoes. Without thinking, I balled up my fingers to protect them as Keira began fooling with the lyrics to some song: “One little maid is a drunken bum. Two little maids are a football scrum. Three little—”
“Nobody’s responsible for this group,” I said to the Mayor as Keira swung the cleaver a couple of times in a wide, careless arc. “Officially it’s the Keira Stewart Trio: Keira Stewart, vocals; Tom Reichenbach, piano; Bart Wolff, drums and bass. Really, we just make music and have fun. We’re the biggest thing since Gershwin.”
“Doesn’t have to be Gershwin,” Bart said. He opened another wine bottle and made a showy display of sniffing the cork as Ed and Maya began kissing and petting in an annoying way. “A tour like this would finish off Janis Joplin — oh, wait, she’s dead already — I meant Jim Morrison. No, I meant Robert Johnson, no, Donny Hathaway, no Al Bowlly—”
“Are we back to the dead musician list?” Keira said.
“If I can count ‘em I haven’t joined ‘em yet. I should have studied cello. Casals lived to old age; it’s only the popsters who die young, ever notice that?”
I needed moments like this. I needed to forget my wife and eight-year-old daughter patiently waiting till we had enough money to fix the plopping sound our Tercel made when it accelerated. I needed moments like the shuttle-bus to the rental car lot at Dallas Ft. Worth Airport, two weeks earlier. The vehicle was bouncing over the access road, business-suited executives staring into space, when Keira began humming the melody to “Yellow Rose Of Texas.” Softly, but enough to turn heads.
“Are you going to do something?” a little girl in an orange polo shirt said.
“Magic tricks, how’s that sound, sweetie?” Keira said. “Would you like it if the wind carried this bus up into the clouds?” The van clunked over some railroad tracks past acres of identical new sedans in candy colors, their metallic bodies glinting in the Texas sun. Keira was already playing with lyrics: “Rose is a rose is a yellow rose. A mellow rose. A callow rose. A compass rose.”
“What?” said the girl.
“We can do it. We can dream it up into the sky, this whole bus.” Her phone rang. “Can’t talk, we’re having fun,” she said, snapping it shut. She was already in the grip of the music, as pixilated as a little kid drunk on Froot Loops. “Sing with me now: ‘The yellow rose of Texas / Is the only one for me—’” Damned if some people didn’t join in. We’d landed an hour late, hadn’t checked our gear, hadn’t seen the house or the inside of our hotel. You savor these moments with Keira when they happen. The executives, the little girl, even the driver, were goofing on the lyrics now:
You may crawk and flout your turpentine,
With a jello bellow nexus,
“Hold on,” Keira interrupted. “I’m thinking. I’m theorizing. Fun is fun, but we have to show these people how to feel fear. That’s its own fun somehow.”
The bus swung past the old rental building, now shuttered, toward the new one, suavely kitted out in yellow and gray. We were nobodies; there was nothing special about us except what we could do with music.
Keira stood up. “Ladies and gentlemen! And children of all ages! Wow! Have I got the balls to say that a second time? Young lady, could you restrain me? Don’t let me do it in the name of all that’s merciful and decent.” She dropped down on one knee before the little girl, who was crying by now. “Please, your honor,” she implored. “Don’t send my father to the chair! Don’t let him fry! I’M CHIQUITA BANANA AND I’M HERE TO SAY–!”
Her phone rang again. “Yes?” she said into it, then, “Bruce!” to the president of our label. “Oh, not too bad. And you? How are sales? How’s the album moving?”
I listened, marveling at the bright business-chatter, the perfect imitation of normal, while everyone waited for the fun to re-commence. The little girl had stopped crying and sat in her mother’s lap playing with a toy.
I noticed a slogan over the bar. IF YOU CAN’T DRINK IT, FONDLE IT, OR SPEND IT, YOU DON’T WANT IT said the burnished gilt letters. The place was a joint, a real joint, with the hearty, ballsy steakhouse look that attracts guys with money and clout seeking some place to unwind: heavy on burnished wood paneling, carved columns, jeroboams of wine, expensive sprays of flowers. I knew that sign didn’t necessarily reflect the mayor’s personal views. Still, it seemed crass, sexist, and in extremely poor taste.
“Tell us how you keep your decisions from becoming boring,” Keira said to the Mayor.
“Always do the least probable thing,” the Mayor said. By now he’d taken off his elegant suit jacket, carefully folded it, and rolled up his sleeves.
“But what if a lot’s at stake?” Keira said. “A giant public works project, like, say, the Big—”
“I know what’s going to happen next,” Bart interrupted. “I can smell it.”
“For example,” the Mayor continued. “Suppose a community delegation shows up at your office–”
“Unannounced?” I said.
“Sure, they want to catch you off-guard, right? So–unannounced. And they demand you do something about a dangerous traffic intersection,” the Mayor continued. “One little girl killed, another injured.”
“I knew it – what a surprise!” Bart said. “Did this really happen?”
“I just put the death in to make it fun,” the Mayor said. “The demonstrators are carrying photo blowups of somebody’s dead daughter Kayla. She’s smiling out at you from the picket signs with her sad brown eyes.”
“Kayla?” I said, thinking of my eight-year-old.
“Whatever she’s called. And they’re chanting, ‘How many more, Mr. Mayor? How many?’ What do you do?”
“Announce another Big Dig,” Keira said.
“Gold star. The announcement has to be big and so surprising that it crowds the protestors off the front page. If you’ve got another mammoth project in the works, announce it that very day.”
“We’re getting close to something,” Keira said. “How does everyone like their guacamole, coarse or creamy?”
“But you need a couple of first-rate deputy Mayors with all the unannounced projects at their fingertips,” the Mayor said. Keira smiled as he poked a knife into the steak, revealing a blood-rare interior. His face shone with sweat and purpose, reflecting the fire and the kitchen lights. “The timing’s tricky on these things; can’t look like you’re fumbling. Am I boring you with this?”
“No way boring,” Bart said. “You know what’s boring? Eight cities in fourteen days, that’s boring. Eight Hyatts, or were they Hiltons? One serves Cobb salad in the dining room while the other serves Cobb salad–”
“Bart, come with me please.” After leading him to the darkened dining room, I grabbed him in a ferocious hug. “Four more weeks, buddy. You can do that, can’t you?”
“What I said about hotels?” Bart said. “That last one? Where we filched those little soaps from the maid’s cart? Shameful! But not undeserved, wouldn’t you say? We’ve earned the right to those soaps so we can lob them at each other during that ten-minute wait for our bags to come puking out of the carousel. We get turndown service and two chocolates on our pillows at night when others get only one, because you need that jolt of pure cacao at 2 a-m after a gig. There’s a plan. There has to be a plan, doesn’t there, Tom?” He choked out the last words as if a few were missing. “A flying — Shuttle bus? What’s that even mean?”
“Oh, that. Keira was having fun, that’s all.”
“Fun, you call it?”
“Don’t you think we play better when Keira has one of her episodes?” I wasn’t sure it was true for Bart, though it frequently felt true for me.
“She’s going to get us all arrested. Did you see the little girl crying?
“Keira did that; didn’t you even notice?”
“Doesn’t that make you sad?”
“Sure.” Moments like the singalong actually seemed to me a delight so pure I knew no one could possess them but us. With his squat build and bullet-shaped head, Bart was the least likely of bass players. He sometimes struck me as the most frightened adult I’d ever met; certainly the most frightened musician. “Sure,” I said again. “But you know what? I think we better get back to the kitchen.”
The day before the Dallas jaunt, I took my family on a window-shopping excursion to Whole Foods in Manhattan. Thick, pricey cuts of meat in orderly stacks glistened through the butcher’s display case: porterhouse and T-bone steaks, London broil, butterflied leg of lamb expertly trimmed of fat, slices of pink scaloppini, plump chicken breasts. “How about veal chops for dinner?” I fantasized as we approached the meat counter.
“How about PIZZA!” said Eva.
“I vote for pizza,” Lesley said.
Eva raced to the seafood counter then raced back with a wicked smile. “I didn’t see any penises or vaginas,” she said in a loud voice.
“Eva!” I screamed.
“How do they tell the male fish from the female fish if they don’t have any– PENISES AND VAGINAS!” she shouted, glancing slyly around as several people grinned.
“Excuse us,” I muttered. “It’s a stage she’s going through.”
“It’s a stage I’m going through,” Eva parroted at top volume.
Lesley and I had met in music school and married two years later, her degree in music education, mine in piano performance. She found a job teaching music in an elementary school while I played weddings and hustled for gigs. Settling in Brooklyn because a growing child made Manhattan rents impossible, we found the streets teeming with artists and musicians. New galleries and restaurants opened almost daily in Williamsburg and Ft. Greene. The neighborhood seemed fun, hip, and so forth. More restaurants opened, driving rents almost to Manhattan levels. I thought Brooklyn might sink into the ocean under the weight of so many creative people. We moved to a third story walkup at the end of Red Hook, two subway stops from where the good bars were. On hot summer nights it could have passed for the Kramdens’ tenement.
In the evening, after we’d cleaned up the pizza crusts and sat Eva in front of the TV, my wife took a bath while I stacked the dishes in the sink, filled it with hot water and squirted in some Joy. I was sloshing my fingers in the suds when I felt Lesley’s damp hair behind me. A second later her terrycloth-swaddled arms wrapped around my waist.
“My department chair knows of an opening for a piano teacher.” Lesley put her head against my back, her long hair tickling my neck. “It’s a private school in Boerum Hill. You don’t need to get your teaching license.”
I pulled my hands from the water and let them drip. The wrinkled fingers throbbed pleasantly. “Why was Eva showing off in Whole Foods?” I said.
“She only does it when you’re around.”
“Misses me, you mean.”
“You’re tired these days, aren’t you?” Lesley said. “I could hear it in your voice when you called from the airport on your 33rd birthday.”
Some birthday, I thought. There was no point saying it, though, with my flight for Dallas due to leave at 8:20 next morning. Have you ever played for a live audience? It isn’t fun, it’s concentration, timing, sustained effort. You can’t see a thing but lights in your face. But comes the moment when you’ve got a groove going and start drawing energy from that blackened, breathing, shifting mass of bodies out there. The night of the shuttle-bus singalong, the crowd at the club joined Keira on some of the lyrics, boogieing in the aisles, laughing, jumping up and yelling for more, sailing paper airplanes over our heads. What the hell, we thought and glided through another hour, buoyed by that nonchalance. The more we played, the more the crowd liked it, till the audio tech finally pulled the plug on us. Keira ended the evening by leading the audience to Krispy Kreme on upper Greenville Avenue just as the glazed sugar doughnuts emerged from the oven. Tipsy with fatigue, we smiled and watched the mobs shuffling in and out, buying boxes of treats. One TV station sent a crew to film the shenanigans; a minute or so made Good Morning America.
“Back up,” I said to Lesley.
“I have to reach the dishtowel. If you want to hold me you’ll have to back up with me.” In tiny steps, we both inched toward the towel rack. From the next room Eva squealed at something on TV.
“I have a message for you,” Lesley said, picking up her wine glass and scrunching down under the table.
“C’mon, it’s lonely down here without you.” She slapped her hand on the floor beside her.
Mystified, I crawled under the table too.
“Kiss me,” she said. “That was nice,” she added when I complied, and I had to agree. She tasted of pizza in a satisfying way. “Do it again.”
“Just what I said: go ahead and kiss me. That shouldn’t be too hard; can’t you follow instructions?” She cradled my head in her arms and reached out for my hand. “You’re the greatest,” she said after I’d kissed her. “Why don’t you just quit the band?”
“When I’m finally banking some money?” I said. “That’s a good thing, right?”
“It would be a good thing,” she said in a low voice, “if we went shopping and bought something.”
“Which is the whole point I’m on the road.” A blast of laughter from the TV was followed by silence, making me realize I’d raised my voice.
Lesley continued in the same affectless tone, as if the interruption hadn’t happened. “What’s wrong with this life? Teaching, being home every night. And there’s nothing to prevent you from playing too.”
“A minute ago you said it wasn’t about Eva. You talk about money but when I’m finally making some, you nag me to come home. What’s this about, Les?”
“Momeeeeee!” Eva said, starting to push open the kitchen door. “I just–”
“In a moment, sweetness,” Lesley said.
“But mommy, I just saw—”
“Eva, stay in the living room,” I said. “Your mother and I are talking.”
“What do you do with that woman in those bouts on the road?” she said. Which I knew was coming. How to explain the notions that flew into Keira’s head during “those bouts?” Like the time we crashed the grand opening of an old flour mill in Minneapolis that had been converted into a museum. We’d spotted it driving in from the airport. Impulsively, Keira decided to talk her way inside by pretending to be the hired entertainment, though our actual booking was at Dakota’s near Nicollet Mall. I say “impulsively” as though Keira normally kept her impulses under control. The place looked like a convention of foundation executives: hundreds of beautifully and conservatively dressed middle-aged men and women holding champagne flutes. Within 20 minutes Keira was holding a mike, the foundation executives had hoisted her onto their shoulders and were marching her around the floor while she sang song after song a capella, at one point unhooking her pearl earrings and flinging them into the crowd. We stayed two hours and made our booking just in time for a sound check and tune-up.
“Is it a sex thing?” Lesley said. “It is, isn’t it? If that’s what you’re after, I can match her. Right here, right now, if you want.”
Your jealousy is misplaced, I thought. Life with Keira isn’t about sex, it’s better than sex, like a movie musical version of life, like breathing pure oxygen.
“It’s true about sex on the road,” I said. “We come back from gigs, play Nina Simone albums, then Bart and I take turns with Keira.”
“Don’t flimflam me, Tom.”
“No, really. Nina Simone gives such grave, serious pleasure —- like good sex.”
Eva burst in just as Lesley drained the last of the chianti. “What are you guys doing down there?”
To which I had no answer. Lesley put the glass on the floor and turned to Eva with the sweetest smile. “C’mere, honey,” she said. I put my free arm around Eva as she sat at my feet. It felt good and so did the silence, just the three of us together. Why can’t we go on like this, I wondered. Don’t I already have everything I ever needed right here, right now, under this table?
A few minutes later we packed Eva off to bed. Eight hours after that, I was at LaGuardia, boarding the plane to Dallas.
By 3:30, the air was close and stagnant, filled with the fumes of good things on the fire and the Mayor’s cigar. Bart rolled a discarded wine cork between his fingers, still murmuring the names of dead musicians.
“So tell me,” the Mayor said to Keira, while spreading mayonnaise on slices of toast. “Do you customize your material to the venue you’re playing in?”
“We do. We tell Blago jokes in Illinois, Schwarzenegger jokes in Sacramento.” I was dazzled by this lie, the ease and speed with which Keira slid into it.
“We can use you in this town,” the Mayor said. “How’d you like a job at City Hall? Doing that stuff you do.”
Everyone laughed but Keira and me. “Have you ever visited a doughnut shop when this lady’s in town?” I said, then explained the near-riot at Krispy Kreme.
“Was that your stunt, little lady?” the Mayor said. “The one that got on TV? Ed, call the media. There may be news made here tonight.” He and Maya were still making out, oblivious to the rest of us, but he wrenched free of his self-indulgence long enough to speed-dial someone. I realized I’d failed to explain that Keira refused to come out of her room for an hour next morning, claiming she could taste her lipstick and it was a quarter-note off key.
“What do you think I can get this guy to do?” Keira said. “Or confess to?” Then she tossed a couple of fries the Mayor’s way. He caught them neatly in one hand as she lobbed another fry toward me. It was perfect, crisp on the outside, creamy and chewy within. Two more fries whizzed past my ear toward Bart. Miraculously, he caught both and threw them to the Mayor, adding, “Good catch,” as the Mayor grabbed them both, stuffed one into his mouth and round-robined the other toward Ed who actually caught it between his teeth. Bart and I ducked as great splats of guacamole flew, along with cherry tomatoes, crusts trimmed from the club sandwiches, stuffed grape leaves, cheese sticks, and green olives from a big jar. Ed grabbed Maya from behind and began to kiss the back of her neck. They seemed alone with their passion once again, and fries and pickle chips flying past.
“You’re all drunk,” Bart croaked. “You’re nuts too.” And I recognized that the Mayor and Keira were two people who made their own paths in the world. Perhaps because their food fight didn’t involve the rest of us, it took a while before they realized there was nothing more to throw. The Mayor wobbled, then sank to the floor and leaned his head against a prep table just as four Boston cops walked in the service entrance. In the alley, before they closed the door, I glimpsed the floodlights of video crews jostling for position.
“Tell me,” Keira whispered as she slid slowly down by the table.
“Are you alright, Sean?” one of the policemen asked the Mayor. “Can you stand up?” Another officer unlatched the rear door, letting in a scrum of reporters and camera crews. They crowded around the prep table, oblivious to food scraps on the floor, bits of meat sizzling on the grill.
“How much–” Keira’s murmuring seemed as grave as a priest in the confession box. “How much did you really make off the Big Dig?”
The Mayor smiled. No sound at all but the hum of the great stainless steel refrigerator.
“I hear some of you guys got over a million.”
“That’s right.” His foolish grin.
Observing the floor shiny with lettuce leaves and trampled food, I thought this might be our last fun for a while. The immediate future was a lot of flights in tiny, noisy planes that bounced through the air on their way to grim northeastern towns. Harrisburg, Binghamton, Scranton, Schenectady, Altoona. Even the names seemed permanently mired in the industrial revolution.
“I can now announce,” the Mayor said to the assembled reporters as he rose to his feet, “that starting tomorrow, this lady begins a term with my administration as Deputy Mayor for civic morale. Sing, Keira.”
“Keira, don’t take it!” Bart shouted.
“Save your energy, Bart,” she said. Following the Mayor’s cue, she slowly intoned the opening notes of a ballad, hyperventilating a little as cameras rolled. Her eyes were focused beyond focus, body so brittle it might have been held together with wood glue.
“Pretty cute,” one of the reporters said, scribbling in a notebook. “That fake confession, then the song. When did this act close on Broadway?” Keira was wrapping up by now, the press smiling like passengers on the shuttle-bus.
“We’re back in three weeks if you want more,” Bart said, grabbing Keira around the waist. Before he could drag her off, she swung a punch that would have connected firmly with his left cheekbone if some synapse in me hadn’t fired, making me leap at them and pull Bart away. I thought about ten years of marriage, the veal chops, our family visit to Ikea, touching and bouncing on the medium-priced furniture we couldn’t afford. I thought of Lesley tasting of oregano every time we kissed, and tasting of oregano and tasting of oregano to the point of exhaustion. I wondered if I could abandon the family, the apartment in Red Hook, for a chance to travel and grow old having fun and making music with Keira. And I thought maybe I could. Marriages ended, after all, as did families — but music? Music went on forever.
About the Author
Tony Van Witsen is a 2004 graduate of the fiction writing program at Vermont College and has been writing fiction for about a deacde, specializing in short stories. His stories have appeared in such journals as Valparaiso Fiction Review, Crosstimbers, Square One, and Serving House Journal. He lives in Wisconsin.