by Beth Keegan
Tonight she wore a tight black shirt with an open neck, the sleeves a little too short, as always, her bony wrists sticking out beyond the cuffs. He caught sight of a white bra strap beneath her shirt collar. Why was she wearing a brassiere? God knows she didn't need one, she hardly had a centimeter of flesh to spare anywhere on her body.
She adjusted her mic, slung on her guitar. Her band, her men, assembled behind her. She leaned over the keyboard to fiddle with the controls on the soundboard. No other human being could have performed this impossible maneuver, leaning sideways and over and around while wearing a big hollow-body guitar, but her long, thin legs in those tight blue jeans were like stilts and she was in her element on the tiny stage, moving with unthinking grace through sprouting mic stands and swarming cords.
He sat on a wooden chair by himself, on the side of the stage, under the arch with the big white moon. This was the best place to sit, in spite of the steady parade of patrons back and forth to the bathrooms. From this spot her face was lit perfectly, and that too-long stray lock of hair framing her jaw and chin glowed gold and amber. From here he could study her every expression: the mock-shy grin, the big smile, the toothy laugh, the innocent wide eyes, the raised eyebrows, the I'm-so-cute-and-I-know-it look.
She turned around, talking to the bass player, and there was that incredible ass in those tight jeans. The tiny allotment of padding for her body had all gone where it counted. Her hips were so straight you almost expected a square boy butt, but then they bloomed into that perfect ass, cute and round and tight. Her jeans were so tight they must be riding right up her crack, but she was so thin there was probably still room for a hand, his hand, between her pants and her flat, trim belly. If anything was perfect in this imperfect world, she was it.
Now she was bending over, flopping a cord into place. Her shirt rode up in back, and the tattoo just above her hip peeked out. It was a Celtic design in a circle. He'd seen it up close once. Six weeks ago. He was drinking scotch in a bar on the other side of town and she was performing solo. He fell in love the moment she stepped on stage, and then when she opened her mouth it was all over, he could never love another. Toward the end of the set, after she'd had several dark beers and smoked a dozen cigarettes, she sat down on her high wooden stool, hooked the heels of her boots onto the rungs, and sang a slow ballad. Her cheeks were flushed and there was a mist of perspiration on her face. Her eyes were wide and gazing at nothing, her face soft. This was how she must look in candlelight, after hours in bed, after being opened and explored, coaxed and cajoled into doing the one thing she'd never dared to do, after being entered and possessed and led to the center of her soul. This was how she must look after the layers of pretense and defense had been stripped away and she was a child begging to be held and cherished, sitting up in the blankets cross-legged and facing him, the moment before she confessed her love in amazement and confusion, the moment she allowed herself to feel her love for him.
After her solo set, he bought her a drink and then another. He showed her the picture he'd sketched of her. He tried to tell her about bliss. He knew she would understand, because all of her songs were about loss. Loss came first. When you had nothing left to lose, you found bliss. Once you experienced bliss, nothing mattered. You couldn't want anything anymore, because there was nothing left to want. But then, not wanting anything made it hard to do anything. So there wasn't much to say.
She smiled and nodded. "So you're always in bliss?" She asked.
"No," he said. "I kind of crashed that party and they kicked me out."
She took his hand. "Hey, maybe that wasn't the real party," she said. "You know how sometimes you go to a big party and the real party is going on in another room?"
He nodded. Her hand was warm and moist.
"Maybe you were in the wrong room. Maybe you need to find the right room where the real party's going on," she said.
Outside, he kissed her and touched her hair, knelt in the wet grass to hold her hips while she leaned against her car. He saw her tattoo up close and put his face between her legs while she stood before him. He told her he loved her. She'd stiffened, then laughed, said she had to get up in the morning. "Goodnight, Mr. Bliss," she said. He went home alone. It didn't matter. There was nothing left to want. But why did it still have to hurt?
She wasn't drinking tonight, just a glass of water with a tea bag floating in it. She hadn't even lit a cigarette yet. She was trying to quit. He'd read it in an interview. He turned his chair around backwards and leaned his arms and chin on the back of the chair to study her better.
She and the bass player tested their mics. "Hi, Pepper," they said, high and low, loud and soft. "Hi, Pepper, hellooo, Pepper, Pepper, Pepper." Pepper laughed, everyone laughed. The bass player was balding, wearing a wild print Hawaiian-type shirt. He was already half drunk. Certainly no competition there. The drummer had a girlfriend. No, it was the keyboard player, he was the one to worry about. He was the one she wrote all her songs about. They'd broken up, he'd read it the interview, but how long could that last? They were in a band together, they saw each other all the time. The keyboard player was quiet where she was loud, shy where she was a ham, steady where she was flighty. He could just tell. He played guitar when they needed another guitar. He was her rock. That's what she needed.
She stepped up to the front of the stage. "Hi, I'm Nicky Hawkins, and these are my friends the Souvenirs." She started with a song from her most recent CD. Her voice was a shock, each time -- high and pure and strong, rough and tough and tender. He felt his mouth drop open and didn't care. She turned to joke with the drummer, and there was that ass again, swinging in time to the music, and when she turned back around, there was that face, those eyes, so quick, so ready to shine and laugh, so real. He hadn't seen anything so real in so long. He drew quick sketches of her on the backs of band fliers.
On one of her slow songs, the band quit clamoring and she played a guitar solo, just a few bars, nothing too complicated. Her jaw was squared in concentration as she plucked and strummed, then she turned away and the band took up the song again, and then it happened. Her face changed and she turned into someone else entirely. He'd seen it before. Suddenly she was old, a haggard Appalachian housewife at the kitchen sink, but all the more beautiful because here was something that wasn't part of her act, some part of herself she wasn't even aware of revealing, a part of her only he could see. He tried to get it down on a napkin, but then she smiled and she was beautiful Nicky again. She could be 20, 30, or 40, or 16.
When the song was over she joked about her lousy guitar playing, then lit a cigarette. She squatted down to put the pack on the floor of the stage, then up, then down again, the lighter on top of the pack of cigarettes, all the time that wonderful ass flexing. After all that work, she only took one drag, set the cigarette in the ashtray, silver rings on every finger, and started another song.
He watched her hands. He wanted to hold her sweet bony wrists, so tiny and vulnerable, hold them down on the bed above her head. He wanted to squirm through the hole in her guitar and curl up in the hollow body, her body, so close to her body, riding on her hip like a baby. She would stroke him, stroke him, stroke every string, and make him moan and cry and sing. He did want, he could want, and this was what he wanted.
They did a couple of covers to get people up and dancing. Four young women hugged and giggled and swayed together near him, then pulled a guy into their group. In the middle of a Stevie Wonder song, Nicky forgot the lyrics. The band played on, the bass player jammed, and Nicky rolled her eyes and shrugged helplessly. She leaned over to consult with the keyboard player, the ex-boyfriend she wrote all her songs about, but she still wasn't singing, and the band went through another four bars alone.
He sprawled in his chair, his drink almost empty and the glass sweating in his hand. What were the words? He knew the words. He had this album at home. He knew these words. He sat up, leaned toward the stage. He called out, not loud to embarrass her, just loud enough so she could hear, to help her out. "Wash your face and hands. Keep me in a daydream." She nodded and smiled at him, sheepish and grateful and good-natured, and she stepped back up to the mic and sang with confidence. He could be there for her. He could be her rock.
They finished the song and she said, "Thanks y'all," in a sarcastic saccharine drawl. Always on stage, always laughing at herself laughing at herself.
"Pee party," a girl behind him giggled, and a line of women headed for the bathrooms. He roused himself from the crippling little chair. He could talk to her now, before anyone else distracted her. He went over and she leaned down, still on stage.
"Hey, Mr. Bliss," she said. She thanked him for coming to her rescue with the lyrics, made a joke about it, and he made a joke too, and then she was about to turn away, so he asked to buy another CD. She squatted down and leaned over her box of CDs, a miniature black treasure chest with a metal handle, and he leaned over too. Their heads were close to touching and he was looking down her shirt. She fingered the CDs, held one up.
"I already have that one, remember?" He said. He put his hand out, put his hand over the box, and together they were riffling through the CDs, and their fingers touched once, twice. "Don't you have your very first CD?"
"That's out in the van, let me go get it," she said. "I'll be right back." She stood, and the keyboard player walked behind her on the stage. She reached her hand behind her back and the keyboard player's hand was right there for her. They held hands, slowly slid their hands apart as the keyboard player turned to talk to the drummer. Then Nicky was walking away toward the back door, the parking lot, the van, and her boyfriend the keyboard player was following behind. They went outside. She was gone.
He did want. He could want. She couldn't take that away. His hand was still on the box of CDs. The bass player swaggered towards the bathroom. The drummer was laughing with a woman. He clicked the box of CDs closed and picked up the little treasure chest, held it close to his own chest, and walked through the bar and out the front door. It was raining lightly. Carrying the treasure chest under his arm, he jogged in the rain through the block of old brick buildings that was like a movie set at the edge of the world, ran off the movie set, off the edge of the world. He stopped at the freeway. The overpass roaring above him and the freeway flowing before him, he held the treasure chest by its handle. When he heard the voices and running feet behind him, he climbed up onto the freeway wall. They saw him silhouetted in the streetlight, like a hitchhiker with his suitcase, before he stepped down into the river of traffic.
About the author:
Beth Keegan tries to play guitar sometimes but she should probably stick to writing. She lives in Portland, Oregon.