Elisabeth Lanser-Rose is the author of the novel, Body Sharers (Rutgers University Press, 1993) and the memoir For the Love of a Dog (Random House 2001). Body Sharers placed among the top five finalists for the 1993 PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award for Best First Novel. She teaches in the International Baccalaureate Program in Palm Harbor and is writing a collection of dating stories, The Naked Australian and Other First Dates. Recent publications include fiction and creative nonfiction in The Tampa Review Online, Sweet: A Literary Confection, Sugar Mule Literary Magazine, and Ascent Literary Magazine.
I landed in Kansas City for a three-day writers' conference, haggard, lonely, and in bad need of some good blues. “We're in Kansas City! We have to get the blues,” I said, but my friends weren't willing to leave the bright hotel lobbies to go out on a chilly night and connect with some live music. At conferences, I always drink too much coffee, which might be why I started inviting strangers to come with me and lose themselves in the blues.
Finally, when a woman lined up for coffee turned me down, some guy behind me said, “I'll go.” Steven was nice-looking, if formidable. He had a shaved head, a black leather jacket, and diamond-cut muscles. His look was Matrix-cool: the jacket was black calfskin soft as melted butter, his shoulders and chest seemed health-club hard, and the corners of his eyes crinkled with middle age and acute wit. “I was going by myself anyway,” he shrugged. He knew of a club, and we went that night.
In the cab, I said, “So, are you a dockworker or a hit man?”
“A poetry professor,” he said.
I gestured toward myself. “I write prose,” I said. But he hadn't asked.
When we arrived, Kitty and the Harem Cats had started their first set, but nobody danced. Kitty was the real thing, her voice raw from smoking and singing and sobbing too much. I studied the crowd. In this part of Kansas City, my fellow blues lovers were white-soft faces, dutiful haircuts, cotton khaki, sturdy shoes. They'd filled the house and parked themselves on crooked folding chairs in tight and teetering rows. They had one aisle to lead them from their seats to the bar and back and rickety tables on which to set their plastic cups of beer in the slim hope they wouldn't spill. They regarded the band as if musicians were meant to be watched and not heard. Herself a middle-aged white woman in cowboy boots, Kitty tried to overpower their scrutiny with her rhythmic despair. Yet they did not dance.
I had to shout straight into Steven's naked ear. “What's wrong with these people?”
“So go dance!” He shouted without turning his head, a dead-end reply.
I folded my hands in my lap. He was an inscrutable shadow of a man, incapable of a smile, and he was adding to my insecurities right when I needed the courage to jump up and shake my tush. If I danced while Kitty sang, I'd hear my sorrows line up and rhyme. I'd feel my worries jump in my bones and let go. For a moment, I'd belong to a roomful of sisters and brothers swaying and suffering in a gorgeous way. With Kitty's blessing, I could forgive myself for my failed marriage and for failing to provide a comfortable living for my daughter. I was the sole grown-up in the house and not getting any better at it: the breadwinner, the cook, the housekeeper, the disciplinarian, the nurse, the storyteller, the homework tutor, the family accountant, the handyman and mechanic and the one who knew how to hook up and operate the receiver with the remote. We had moved away from my daughter's father to a new town, far from friends and family, so I had no help and no sympathy and no time to find any. I had grown weary of packing lunch, racing to work and home and out again to Pony Club or choir practice, making myself so busy I kept my checkbook and bills in the glove box so I could write checks at red lights. I needed friends, I needed a helpmate, and I needed more than one night's relief. Tonight, gazing at Steven's ponderously adult profile with its grim cheek, I knew I'd failed at being a better grown-up, too.
I'd be more comfortable if I could make him smile. What would it take? I could tease him. “They should make special garments for the ears of bald men,” I wanted to say, “some kind of knit,” but the music was too loud. Instead, I tried to figure out how bald he naturally was. I decided the baldness was a style choice. He had shaved it to a cue-ball luster, which he highlighted with the black leather jacket that he apparently never removed. He'd have to take it off on the dance floor. “If we dance! They'll dance!” Already my throat ached.
“Somebody's got to start it!”
He sipped his beer and shook his head. “Not me!”
I folded my arms and stuck out my bottom lip, but he didn't look. So I gave up and sat up straight as a meerkat to scout for another dance partner.
The man on my right leapt to his feet and convulsed, Joe-Cocker-style. In a loose white shirt and matching white pants, white socks, and Birkenstocks, he bellowed, “Yaar!” Then he dropped back into his seat, eyes closed, his gray head twitching side-to-side. The way he sagged in his chair made his outfit look like hospital pajamas. Dancing with him was not an option.
A young, black-haired woman on the other side of Steven caught my eye and shook her head. One glance at her glossy bob hairstyle told me she and I were well educated, middle-class women who shouldn't have to suffer drunken lunatics along with our blues. In my new town, I was the only over-educated, liberal female in a fifty-mile radius. I needed a new friend like Glossy Bob. Maybe she'd jump up, grab my hand, and run with me to the dance floor. She'd throw her gleaming hair. We'd sweat and laugh and hug before we sat back down.
Next to the mad dancer in white pajamas sat a woman who must have been his wife, hard at work maintaining a straight gaze and a pinched smile. She'd molded her gray hair into curler-curls. She was plain and fat and wore the clothing of a cartoon shrew-boxy shoes, knee-high stockings, a skirt of respectable length, a schoolmarm blouse with a floppy bow at the neck, and a threadbare wash-and-wear cardigan. If he were friendlier, I could ask Steven if he thought the woman had escaped from an Andy Capp comic. Then I could add, “I hope she forgot her rolling pin!” Maybe he'd even laugh.
Crazy dancing Pajama Man swung his stubbly face near mine. He shouted something, but I didn't understand. I leaned politely forward, and he repeated himself. He seemed to have praised the band, so I nodded. Eyes closed, lip curled in pain as though the music radiated from her bones, Kitty was begging the crowd, “Let me tell you what love is,” and she rode that guitar like a witch, rode it as if she had rocketed out of whatever suburban town she had come from and ridden her past so hard it went numb and there was nothing left of her except the music-no long-term lover, no money, no friends, no parents or cousins or old high school pals. She had lost everything because she had that habit of radiating music from her radioactive bones. I already admired, envied, loved her-she and her band could pick up our flabby lives and render them danceable, if only we'd let them. I took a sidelong glance at Steven to see how he liked the music. He wasn't moving, but he'd closed his eyes and raised his chin. I remembered he was a poet. I wondered what kind.
The saxophonist cut in, curling so high the crowd looked up to see that bird drop out of the sky and spill into a billion bits of confetti on a city parade. We just sat there, not dancing. What was wrong with us?
“Yaar!” Pajama Man leapt to his Birkenstocks. He scratched so hard you'd think his thigh either had guitar strings or scabies. His wife, Rolling Pin, ignored him. Other people glared. I slid my chair back as far as I could. Glossy Bob lowered her strawberry daiquiri, looked me in the eye, pressed her painted lips together, and shook her head. It was nice to have her sympathy, but under her mascara I could almost see a circular driveway, a new gabled Mac Mansion, and a privacy fence, behind which loomed a prefab swing set and jungle fort made of pressure-treated lumber-no termites, no splinters, a smooth life.
“Do you want to switch seats?” Steven said.
I lit up. Was he attracted to me? Was I to him? “No thanks,” I said. Pajama Man was harmless. He was just having rhythmic fits between the crowded rows, not caring whom he bumped or what any of us thought. At least he was dancing. I nudged Steven to share the fun of watching the crazy old man dance. Steven granted me a twitch of a smile, and I decided I liked how tall and scary he looked. I liked that he felt protective. Maybe he lived near my new city, and we'd marry. Or maybe we'd fall in love, but he'd be trapped in a loveless marriage and would just want to tryst at writing conferences, and my girlfriends would urge me to break it off, and, eventually, I would. Best not even think about dating.
Glossy Bob's mate had black hair and a baby face. Baby Face caught my eye and frowned; if he were my man, he would've insisted we switch seats. For the first time since my divorce, I felt taken care of. These cable-knit men and women were my brothers, sisters, uncles, and aunts. I was going to be okay. I let my head rock on Kitty's sound waves and thought maybe I'd move to Kansas City. Maybe Glossy Bob and her husband had kids who'd play with mine, and Steven and I would get together, and with our dual income we could buy a quirky anti-MacMansion and have the Bob-Faces over for vegetarian barbecue. Then I remembered that Steven the Dark Poet was staying at the hotel, so he didn't live in Kansas City either. It ruined the relocation fantasy, but could I ever really love a man who didn't like to dance? I'd need to find a strong, mysterious, leather-clad poet who loved blues and dancing.
“Oh, yeah!” Pajama Man dropped onto his chair, panting. He had small eyes and sumptuous gray hair-I wished it were on Steven's head. Pajama Man caught me looking at him, put his hand on my shoulder, leaned in conspiratorially, and said something about someone named Slim Harpo. His speech had a Cajun jump I couldn't understand. He slapped his thigh, leaned back, and gave a smug nod. How did I like them apples?
“How nice,” I said in that distracted, high-pitched tone women take with small children. I tried to catch the eye of Rolling Pin, Excuse me, ma'am, is this your little boy? She had her eyes fixed on the band, straight over top of all those nice people balanced in their folding chairs, not one of them dancing. I sought Glossy Bob's sympathy, but she was busy yakking with the woman next to her. I took a swig of beer.
Back in his groove, Pajama Man jiggled his fingers on his upper thigh until the waitress in a black tank top, a tight mini-skirt, and heels teetered past. He stopped her, and Barbie Butt squatted before him with her tray of insipid beer. Considering the plastic cups, I thought the cover for this place shouldn't have been so high, but before I got too indignant I remembered I hadn't paid-Steven had. My cheeks burned. If he hadn't paid, the cover would've kept me out. Years of single-mom struggles got me used to a life in which I could rarely afford restaurants, movies, or blues clubs, especially not while I was paying for my daughter's saxophone lessons and buying extra boxes to jack up my Girl Scout's cookie-sale numbers. I squirmed in my seat. Old-fashioned gentlemen like Steven made me feel grateful, but flared my feminism. I should've skipped the blues, gone up to my hotel room, and let a television give me ready-made friends and family. Instead, I'd gone out in the cold with Steven the Dead Poet only to find myself lonely and frustrated, as usual.
Barbie Butt finished taking Pajama Man's order. As she stood up, back turned, he held his palms close to her body and traced her curves-her soft white arm, the dip of her back, the black fabric taut over her firm bottom. He grunted at Steven. “Eh?”
Steven froze; then, after a pause, nodded-the young waitress was, indeed, luscious.
“I'm gonna drive by your place one more time,” Kitty sang. She jumped back and forth in her snakeskin boots, and I wanted to tell her, “Girl, stop stalkin' that bum. He's not worth a restraining order.” But Kitty couldn't help herself, and we understood each other, Kitty and I.
Pajama Man staggered off. Now just an empty seat stood between Rolling Pin and me. Clutching her handbag in her lap, she sipped her wine. She was as alone as I was, maybe more. Would I end up married to a drunk who lusted after waitresses right in front of me? There had to be a better life. The song ended, and in the quiet, Steven turned my way, opened his mouth, then closed it, as if obligated to make small talk but bereft of a banality. Maybe chitchat was too tough for poets. I helped him, “Who's Slim Harpo?”
“You don't know?”
His tone annoyed me, and the band started up again, so I just shook my head and drew my pack of cigarettes out of my purse. I rarely smoked. Cigarettes were bad for my lungs and my wallet. At home, I kept a pack in the back of my freezer so they lasted the long months between one grown-up occasion and the next. I'd thrown it in my suitcase for my big blues night in Kansas City. Steven had at least treated me to a night out by myself. In return, the one gracious thing I could do was offer him cigarettes, so I was glad I'd brought them-until I opened the pack. There were only two smokes left. I took one out, snapped my lighter, dipped the cigarette tip into the flame, puffed, and thought, I never seemed to have enough of anything to be confident and smooth.
The song ended. Steven leaned toward me until his shoulder almost touched mine. “Slim Harpo is a blues singer. Plays amazing harmonica,” he said. “I saw him a few years ago in Houston.” He was putting away his own lighter-he'd been too slow on the draw.
“Wait.” I gave him my last cigarette.
He thanked me, lit it, and regarded me with his squinty, skeptical eyes. “Is that old man telling you he knows Harpo?”
“I think so.”
So, the old man was nuts as well as drunk.
Barbie Butt brought us two beers; Steven was running a tab. She had brought Pajama Man's drink too, but he was still shouting somewhere in the back of the room. She bent primly at the waist, and Rolling Pin lifted her husband's pink Zinfandel off the tray and paid. In a moment, he was on his way back, lurching and working his air guitar while Kitty sang, “If I had any pride left at all.” I wanted to tell Kitty, don't worry about losing your pride; I still had mine, but it was probably just getting in my way. Clouds in my beer rolled across my mind. I shivered.
As we shifted our knees aside so Pajama Man could pass, Steven made actual eye contact with me: progress-for a second we were partners, equals, a team. Pajama Man dropped himself into his chair like an overgrown child. Rolling Pin gave him his pretty pink wine and his cigarette. He calmed down.
“Hush now, don't explain, just say you'll remain,” Kitty sang, as if she knew exactly what I needed.
“We used to do this tune!” Pajama Man bounced to his feet. “Once with Leadbelly!” He sat down as if hit with a thought of grave importance. With a trembling hand, he offered me a cigarette. Touched, I showed him I already had one. Then he burst out of his seat and twitched as if to prove that tune yanked his marrow. Some of his wine sloshed out of the glass. Contrite, he patted the heads of everybody within reach.
Now people's glares grew fierce, and I was afraid for my crazy new friend. “Somebody's gonna hit him,” I said, but Steven had closed his eyes and lifted his chin. In his face I saw stanzas, line breaks, titles, italics, dashes-what did they say? Would I like his poems?
Pajama Man staggered against my leg and lurched toward Steven, who caught his arm to steady him. Then, in an agile flash, Pajama Man was gone. In his wake, the crowd's eyes met mine. My brothers and sisters nearby sympathized, but strangers a row back were laying heavy blame on me, as if I ought to have better control of the mad bastard. To show I was with Steven, not Pajama Man, I put my hand on Steven's shoulder and my mouth to his ear, “We have to do something. Somebody's going to feed that guy his teeth.”
I let my hand rest on his shoulder a moment and felt his body heat rise through the calfskin into my hand. There was hope for me, if not with Steven and this crowd, then somewhere. I cocked my eyes toward Rolling Pin to let her know the Pajama-Man problem was all on her. That's when the genius of her stony gaze hit me-only people close by could see her give him wine and cigarettes and slip the waitress money. Anyone three seats away never saw them interact. They saw Pajama Man lean over and talk to me. They saw me smile and nod, and maybe they saw on my face a look of pity they mistook for affection. He was dancing near the stage, where I wanted to be, having inspired seizures. When I lowered my hand, Steven shrugged-what could we do?
My new friend, Glossy Bob, asked, “How do you know him?”
“But he patted you on the head.”
“He patted every-”
Baby Face cut in, “Who's the old woman?” and nodded at Rolling Pin, who stared straight and sipped her wine.
“His wife?” It seemed like a stupid question.
Glossy huffed. “Why does she put up with him?”
“I don't know.” I had to set the record straight. “Look, I-”
Steven bent forward to snuff his cigarette stub on the floor. “They need each other,” he said, as if he knew them well. I wanted him to go on, but he brushed a bit of ash off his lap and leaned back, end of story.
“Well, I don't know how she can keep buying him drinks,” Glossy said.
Steven snapped, “Hey, you know what? I don't feel like talking.”
We recoiled. I'd only met him earlier that day, but his words stung. He'd treated me as if I'd joined a gang of cruel children poking a sick cat with a stick. Who did Mr. Damned Poet Society think he was? I shouldn't have let him pay for my cover and beer. Can you really just announce that you don't feel like talking and make everybody shut up? I swore I'd reimburse him and get my own cab back to the hotel. He was probably married or living with one of his Daddy's-girl graduate students in a hell of his own making.
He pulled the corners of his mouth to let me know he simply had no patience for gossips like Glossy. Me, he liked.
I liked him. I wished I were strong enough to say, “I don't feel like talking,” whenever I wanted. I was glad Steven had shut us all up-what if Rolling Pin could hear us? What had her old man done to hurt anyone? He was only loving the music. If I got up to dance, would they condemn me too? Steven had set them straight. I wanted to dance, and thanks to Steven, it no longer mattered that the crazy old drunk was the only one grooving. I didn't quite have to courage to go up to the stage by myself, but I let my hair fall in my face and danced in my chair, trying to fall in deep with Kitty and her Cats.
Rolling Pin had put one hand on the seat of Pajama Man's chair and leaned full at me. “Mah George used to play for Slim Harpo. His last gig was three years ago, N'awlins.” That said, she withdrew to her handbag, her wine, and her untold tale.
I wondered why she'd chosen me-because I tolerated him, because I seemed lonely, because I had a New Jersey accent? George's silver hair made him easy to spot; he was wobbling his way back in his mental patient garb. He squeezed past me with a bleary smile, then stopped in front of his seat, broke out his air guitar, and joined Kitty in, “You lost your man, you lost your job, and now you're on the road, girl!”
“What did she say?” Glossy and the Instant Villagers hunkered to hear my answer, Steven among them.
I wanted scatter them like sea gulls, but I said, “He used to play with Slim Harpo.” That didn't seem sufficient. I added, “He's the real thing.”
They watched George. They studied the fingers of his left hand, which twitched in the air, and compared them to Kitty's on her guitar frets while she crooned, “At least half of these hearts have been broken in two.”
“He knows what he's doing,” Steven declared. Everybody sat back, believing it.
Glass smashed near my feet. George the Pajama Man of Harpo Fame had dropped his wine. “I'm fine! I'm fine!” Fumbling, apologizing, he waved away the concern he wasn't getting. No harm done, he settled in his chair with a bit less wind, but only for a moment. “Yaar!” he roared, because Kitty had confided in us that she had lost everything, everything. He slid me a cigarette from his plump new pack, winked at me, and placed the pack under his chair with a nod, as if inviting me to help myself. I shared the cigarette with Steven. We three sat in a row, smoking slowly, nodding in time.
The music stopped. “Ladies and gentlemen, that was Desiree Fasulo on the drums! Jack Aberdeen on bass! Cindy MacDonald on the horn! I'm Kitty Martin, and we're the Harem Cats. We're gonna take a little break, but we burned some CD's if you wanna take a Harem home with you. It's from our last tour, all original. C'mon up, say hi, check it out.”
As the musicians stepped off the stage, conversation swelled the way summer crickets pipe up when you stop talking. Steven had twisted, like a gorilla doing yoga, and strained his black jacket to discuss George with Baby Face and Glossy Bob. I took a couple extra drags on George's cigarette, then tapped Steven on the arm for his turn. George argued with his wife, then rose, sluggish, and headed for the bar. I held still, wondering if his wife would go oracle on me again.
Just then Baby Face shouted, “He's gonna hit that guy!”
We watched as, in slow motion, George, vulnerable as a toddler in his white pajamas, pulled back a groggy fist to strike an incredulous man on a bar stool. So slow was his swing that he hung in the air, one arm drawn back, the other thrown forth for balance, as stark and splayed as the doomed man in Goya's Third of May. So he hovered like that, crucified against the backdrop of bottles, until a bouncer came up behind him, pinned his arms behind his back, and transported him to the exit as smoothly as if he rolled him on a hand truck. George made some soggy protestations. The bouncer nodded, all patience, and then left him outside.
Shutting him away from the music seemed too cruel. I said, “But he's too drunk to hurt anybody!”
As if she'd learned to pace herself long ago, George's wife settled her bill with Barbie Butt, clicked her handbag shut, buttoned her cardigan, slipped her coat over her shoulders, and strode past us without a glance. She might as well have passed the evening alone in her dowager apartment, waiting by the window for a ride to Bingo.
Fifty people stared at me.
“You knew him,” Baby Face accused. “He kept talking to you.”
“I never saw him before.”
“Think of what he's lost,” Steven said. “Leave him alone.”
“His wife should leave him altogether.” Glossy Bob was well into her third daiquiri. She'd hate herself tomorrow-those things were loaded with calories.
Steven drew a patient breath. “They need each other.” He elbowed me, “Don't you think?”
I had spent the last few years trying not to need anyone. I said, “It's an effort, but I can imagine they do.”
“Well, she shouldn't be bringing him to bars,” Glossy said. “He needs rehab.”
Her husband agreed and reached for her daiquiri.
“I bet I saw him in Houston when he was somebody.” Steven squinted into the memory. “Now he's all fucked up.” He patted me on the knee. “Right?”
Just then, I had the nerve to say, “At least he knew how to have fun.”
Glossy scoffed. Her husband slurped the last of her daiquiri.
“May old George jam in peace,” Steven said, and before we quite felt it happening, the Harem Cats picked us back up, easy as a hammock on a hot day, and started swinging us slow, singing, “Kansas City . . . here I come,” and there was no reason to talk anymore. On the floor under the folding chair, George's pack of cigarettes stood like a tiny mouse mausoleum. I decided out of respect, I'd leave the pack where it lay.
Steven said, “You ready to get out of here?”
“Not just yet.” I lay back in Kitty's hammock, but just couldn't relax. Maybe all night, while I was feeling sorry for George, he had been feeling sorry for me. Maybe if it weren't so loud in here, I'd have heard him tell me I was a fine, spunky woman and shouldn't be so hard on myself. Maybe he told me I'd never be alone, for where two or more are gathered, there we were in their midst-child, lover, musician-one after another, roles to play, chairs to fill, songs to sing, stages to strut upon, until we were done.
Hadn't George winked? He'd left those cigarettes for me. I dove and grabbed them. Then I knew what to do.
A thunder crack of drums broke and the band stormed, “You gotta hit the ground runnin',” and I said, “Let's start it, Steven!” but he wouldn't let me haul his naked head up to the stage. For the first time in my life, I went up alone. I hid my face in my hair, stepped back and forth, and tried to look relaxed. If Kitty hadn't given me an appreciative nod, I might have slinked back to my seat, but by the second refrain, a couple girls joined me, and then a few more managed to beguile their men to dance. Steven watched us. I beckoned, but he shook his head. When the waitress came by, he settled his bill slowly, as if he'd learned to pace himself long ago. I knew that later that night, when we returned to the hotel, we would hug goodbye in the lobby and never write, never call, never meet again. That would be fine-we weren't one-night-stand types. During a slow tune, I went back to my seat and saw that Glossy Bob and her man had left, but plenty of others had gone up to wiggle their chinos and toss their respectable hair. I wondered what the hell we'd all been waiting for.