“You’re going to be fine,” Irma told the clearly horrified Horace when they stepped through the door.
He stood looking around the massive lobby, and Horace immediately got cold inside. The American Dental Association was having some sort of conference here, and they were everywhere. His teeth began to ache.
The lobby was like a cathedral. It had its own marble waterfall that cascaded all but silently to the floor below. A sweeping staircase led down there, but there was no way Horace was going to see beneath the surface. He just knew there were even more people there, and the distance between himself and the music would be greater. The lobby included its own outdoor patio, and the music was audible there. But he could no more smoke there than in the vestry of a church. He would have to go past the Valet Parking into a corner about 50 yards from the door where the Smoker’s Outpost was located, so the healthy people could walk by and stare at the smokers contemptuously.
“I need you to put that over by the water.”
Horace was still reeling in a quiet terror. “What? You mean downstairs?”
“No.” She pointed to a spot halfway across the lobby. “Literally right beyond the water.”
“Oh! Okay.” He took a deep breath and walked in the direction she pointed, carrying some sort of stand for her little mini computer on top of his clipboard. He set them down on the ledge next to a pool of water. He sat down next to them, and told himself he was a roadie, working for Jackson Browne, so it was all right for him to be there. Irma walked past carrying her keyboard. “Okay… not so much of a roadie, I guess,” he whispered, surreptitiously in the noise of the the busy lobby.
A woman of about 40 walked by, speaking perfectly audibly to the man next to her.
“Have you hatched the second season?”
“How can someone speak in typographical errors?”
Irma looked up from the cords she was connecting. “What?”
“The lady that just walked by. I have no idea what she meant, and she was too close for me to misunderstand her.”
“What did she say? Is it important? I mean, you know, I’m kinda busy here.”
“Would you like me to help you set up your stuff?
“Would you like me to hit you?”
“No,” he said thoughtfully. “That wouldn’t be in my best interests, I don’t think.”
“Then let’s assume it’s not a good plan.”
Horace sat and thought for a moment about the woman. They were gone before he had the chance to hear the man’s reply. What could she possibly have meant?
Horace got off the ledge, and found a table as close to Irma as possible. He sat down in a chair that belonged in a wealthy person’s living room, and tried to fade into nothingness.
December 27, 1992
A ringing phone was the last thing Horace wanted to hear. Christmas was over. He’d already called Winnie to say happy birthday. This needed to be his time.
The phone rang again. “Goddammit!” He set his little plastic bong down behind his antiquated recliner, pulled the lever to release the foot rest, and got his feet to the carpet. He moved the book from his lap to the floor next to his bong, and sighing, stood up. He walked to the phone on the peeling pine desk. “Hello.”
There was music and laughter coming from the other end of the phone. There was a crowd obscuring the voice trying to communicate with him. Her words were indecipherable.
“What?” He was more irritated now. “Who is this?”
“Horace! I went out.”
“Who? Oh, yes, me! Yeah. So, I went out.”
“You sound a little drunk.”
“No, I’m not. Not, you know, like really drunk or anything. It’s my birthday!”
The noise behind her was growing louder. A small crowd laughed.
“Cut it out! I’m on the phone…” She lowered her voice to the point it was almost indistinguishable. “… with my boyfriend.”
“You found the only bar in Iowa?”
“No, I’m not in California, Horace. I’m in Iowa. I’m a long way from you.”
“Yes, dear. I know. I went out to visit you last week. Did you forget that already?”
“No, not you.” The voices of young men overpowered hers, but she kept talking anyway. “I just wanted to call you. I saw this phone booth, and I thought I should call. Aren’t I a good girlfriend?” She was giggling.
“Winnie, please don’t drive home. Okay?”
“Someone here will give me a ride. Thanks for thinking of me.” Hooting and hollering filled the phone line for a moment. And then…
The line went dead.
Horace was not naive. He could feel his blood physically heating up. He went to his 6 disc CD player, pulled the cassette, and emptied it somewhat obsessively. The discs lay neatly piled on top of the entertainment center. He stormed to the CD rack standing on the wall to the right of the TV, and he began searching. He knew that only music could help him right now.
Within less than a minute, he was totally frustrated, and his face was turning red. He knelt to the records neatly organized beneath the entertainment center. He skipped over classical, jazz, and rock. He moved into soundtracks. Max Steiner’s Casablanca was neatly wedged between Caddyshack and Close Encounters. He took it out, stood up, and put it on. His breathing got heavier, and his heart was beating far too rapidly.
As Dooley Wilson began to sing, Horace turned on the little desk light, turned out the overhead, sat back in the recliner, and loaded his bong. He blinked the tears out of his eyes.
The First Set
“I left the house tonight,” Horace typed into his Facebook on his phone, “which is something I rarely do, in my slightly overlarge jeans and my freshly washed blue shirt. I had hoped they would act as camouflage. They didn’t. I needed a name tag for that.” As the people continued to flow in and out of the lobby, he began almost to quiver. Fortunately, Irma had begun playing by now, and when he could connect with the music, and the people could be expelled from his mind, it helped calm him.
“So, why am I nervous as hell? There are people here. They are all light years out of my social class. They have vastly more wealth than I have ever had. Many of them are wearing name tags. They are all better dressed than I am. If nothing else, their clothes all fit them properly. One of them, a man 20 years or so my senior, just sat down at my table in the lobby. I may well perish from People.” He hated writing straight to Facebook, but he used it it like a journal. It had become an outlet for his stress. And people seemed to approve. His stress was off the scale.
Horace looked peripherally at the man to his left. He wondered if he ought to ask him to leave the table. There was something in his demeanor, though, that Horace recognized. Horace knew he needed the music. He kept staring at the elevator, as if waiting for someone to appear.
“But… the music is mine. Yes, I’m sharing it with dozens of other people, but mostly it’s mine. Irma is playing a unique version of Elton John’s “Your Song,” and there is something comforting in a new version of an old broken-in shoe. I can breathe.”
If it had been a woman who had sat down, Horace would have felt obliged to leave.
Evidently the man was getting uncomfortable sharing the table with a stranger. He walked through the lobby, out the door, and he turned to his left before he vanished from sight. That was a man who needed a cigarette.
The elevator opened, and the blonde woman who had thought seasons of television shows came from eggs stepped, somewhat clumsily, out of the elevator. She looked around a moment, as though searching for someone, and then all but ran across the lobby to a handsome, well dressed man in an expensive suit. He was waving at her. He reached to hug her, but she stopped him, looking nervously around.
Irma began playing again, and Horace turned to watch her. When he turned back, the couple were gone.
July 10, 1993
“Oh for God’s sake!” yelled Winnie. “Can’t you even do this right?”
“It’s nowhere near as easy as it looks in the movies,” Horace grunted as he tried to balance Winnie in his arms while fighting with key to the hotel room door.
“Jesus!” She jumped out of his arms. Her wedding dress snagged on his ring. “Fuck!”
“We’ll get it fixed.”
“Yeah, but on my Wedding Day? Seriously?”
Horace finally turned the key. He opened the door. “All right. Let’s try it again.”
“I think we should go get my Mom to do it.”
“You’re a genuine romantic, aren’t you?”
Winnie rolled her eyes. “Let’s just get it the hell over with.”
Horace lifted her into his arms, carried her across the threshold, and laid her carefully on the bed. “I love you, you know.”
“Just close the door before bugs get in here.”
Horace had given up writing on Facebook, and he was scribbling on his clipboard.
“I feel like the other people here are all the same people who strolled passed Joshua Bell playing in the subway without ever noticing. And, as much as I fear them, I pity them even more. What must it be like to be unable to feel music? Dostoevsky said, “Fathers and teachers, I ponder, ‘What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.’” I think the inability to feel music must be the Second Level of Hell. I wonder what Dante would think? When you can’t feel music, when you can’t let it grab you and demand your attention, how much less catharsis must you feel than I do? And without catharsis, how can you love?”
He went to the Men’s Room. It was twice the size of his living room. The paper towel dispenser said “Tork.” He thought of The Monkees. He was sad for a moment.
Horace’s heart jumped into his throat when he returned to his table to see four women occupying it. They would have taken it over entirely, but he had his clipboard and pen on it, as well as the soda the bartender has been refilling for him gratis. One of the women, who was distractingly attractive, said, “Sorry,” and lifted her drink.
Horace calmly replied, “No worries.” He considering throwing up.
“I don’t know how I managed to sit down, except that, since my knees wanted to buckle under me, I thought it was probably the least embarrassing move available to me at the moment. I am, without a doubt, the least coordinated person you will ever meet. Falling is exceptionally painful, now that I’m 56, and my body can’t change positions without a significant effort. Either standing or sitting always requires a reasonably unpleasant grunting sound. How I wish the crowd could make a little more noise, or that Irma would return from her break and start playing so I could sit without attracting unwanted attention.”
With a reasonably unpleasant grunting sound, he sat in the beautiful chair. None of the women looked over. His gratitude was without bounds. They were either being polite by ignoring him (which is a feat in, and of, itself), or the universe was giving him a break, and they hadn’t heard him.
He picked up his clipboard. He began to write rapidly, almost as though he could outrun his discomfort by writing intensely. Faith healers say when they fail, it’s because someone didn’t have enough faith. Writing healers will tell you when they fail it’s because they weren’t writing well enough.
He went to refill their sodas for the third time, and the bartender, with whom he had become as friendly as possible for him with a stranger, said, “Why is there lipstick on both straws if one of these is yours?”
“I don’t know. I’ll have to ask Irma if she’s been drinking out of my glass. You’d be surprised how little lipstick I wear.”
She laughed a little too much at that. He wished he could tip her. Poverty, he decided, had distinct disadvantages.
He heard the elevator ding, and he looked toward it. There stood the man who had shared his table. The worried husband didn’t get on. He was waiting for someone to get off.
November 27, 1997
Horace paced the hallway, almost frantically, holding the phone receiver in his left hand. How the hell long did she need to stay out with him? She would be stepping out of the elevator any moment, he reassured himself.
“Fifteen hours I drove!” He realized he was yelling into the phone. He brought his voice down to avoid disturbing other guests. “Fifteen fucking hours!”
“Well,” said his mother on the other end of the phone, “at least you didn’t make the trip alone. It was nice of Marc to go with you. I didn’t worry as much.”
“He’s been out with her for four hours now, Ma. Come on!”
“Is getting angry likely to change the situation?” His father’s voice was completely calm.
“It seems unavoidable to me.”
“I think you can control your feelings a bit better. Explain to me, please, exactly what you and Winnie, and… what’s this guy’s name?”
“Marc. His parents owned the house Winnie and I bought.”
“Marc, then. What are you three doing in Colorado, exactly?”
Horace sighed. Mom knew all this. They talked about it every night. Dad’s discussions were limited to Art and philosophy. Personal lives had little meaning for him. “Okay. Winnie lost her teaching license. There was some test she was supposed to take. She can’t teach out there, anymore, so we decided to move to Colorado. She was tired of California, anyway, and I thought that was fine. She came out here first, with much of our stuff, and she worked out buying a house. The house won’t be ready until next week, so she has this hotel room. I drove straight from Hesperia to bring the rest of our stuff.”
“So, why is this Marc person with you?”
“Hal, I don’t want him driving all that way alone. It could be dangerous!”
“Okay,” said his dad. “So, what’s the problem tonight?”
“I drove fifteen hours straight. I did all the driving. When we got here, I was beyond exhausted. I wanted to sleep. Winnie wanted to go out. I went to bed. She and Marc went out. They’ve been gone 4 hours.”
“Do you have a radio in your room?” Hal wasn’t changing his tone in the slightest.
Horace took a deep breath. “Yeah. I think so.”
“Then this is what you want to do. You go back to your room. You find Colorado Public Radio. They will play music deep enough to pull you in properly. Did you bring any books on the trip?”
“Just the Salinger.”
“Yeah, of course.”
“Then you read The Laughing Man while you’re listening to the radio. Do not read A Perfect Day for Bananafish. Also skip Teddy.”
Horace laughed. “You don’t want me emulating Seymour?”
“What on Earth do you mean?” His mother was confused.
“In A Perfect Day for Bananafish, Seymour shoots himself, Marie.”
“Oh! Right. I remember now.”
“And make sure the swimming pool has water in it before you go diving in.”
Horace laughed a little harder. “Yeah, I will, Dad. That’s not where I am right now.”
“I know. But you can’t change the world; only your corner of it. In your corner you’re going to relax now. You’ll deal with Winnie when she gets back.”
“Yeah. You’re right. Okay.” He took a deep breath. His blood had cooled. His skin was returning, slowly, to its natural color. His heart was slowing down.
The elevator bell chimed. Horace looked over to it. “Gotta go,” and he hung up the phone.
Winnie stepped off the elevator, her makeup smeared, her hair something of a mess, and a look in her eyes that told Horace the entire story. The marriage, Horace knew at once, was over.
The Last Set
The crowd had dissipated. The old man had returned to the table that commanded such an excellent view of the elevator. Irma was playing so well that Horace had finally gotten to connect completely with the music. He paid little attention to his companion.
Between songs, Horace glanced over at him. He was texting as passionately as a man in his seventies possibly can. His face was red now, and it was clear he was trying to contain his emotions.
Irma began singing again. “You’re overthinking it; what else is new?” Her voice wasn’t smooth, but it soothed the soul. “These thoughts will be the death of me and you.” She had an edge that gave greater depth to the words. It made the melody less the stuff of pop music, and more in the style of an independent jazz artist. She was forging her own musical path.
The old man looked up and put his phone down. The music had finally broken through his stress. He was beginning to feel it, now, too. In a few minutes, there was a hint of a smile on his face. It had lightened. The redness was all but gone.
Irma finished, made her regular announcement of who she was, and thanked everyone for coming. The old man looked back to his phone.
Horace grabbed Irma’s purse, got up and all but ran to Irma. “So, I hate to ask, but I really have to.”
She unplugged her mic and looked up at him. “Ask what?”
“First, I need to borrow ten bucks. I need to buy that guy a scotch.”
“I know you’re not gay…”
“No. He’s having a hell of a night. His wife is cheating on him.”
She looked over to the old man, staring at his phone. The look on his face told the entire story. “Oh. Yeah. I see that.” She plugged her mic back in. “You have my purse, yet, right?” He held it up. “Go get him his drink. I’ll do one more.”
“Cool. That was going to be my second request.”
Horace scampered across the lobby to the bar.
“So,” asked the bartender, “was Irma drinking out of your glass?”
“She denies it vehemently. It was probably Rhiannon.”
“Never mind. Could I get a scotch please?”
“Sure. On the rocks?”
“That guy’s wife is cheating on him,” he said nodding toward his table. The man stood up slowly.
“I think that would be appropriate.”
The piano began, and Horace looked over and saw the old man stop, turn to Irma, and then sit down at the table again.
“You must remember this,” came Irma’s voice floating confidently across the bar. As Horace returned to the table he saw the man’s eyes begin to water.
“We’ve decided your name is Rick,” said Horace sitting down at the table, putting the drink in front of the old man. “Sam played it for him. Irma can play it for you.”
The old man smiled lightly. “That’s mighty kind, son.”
“The fundamental things apply, as time goes by…”
The old man brightened nostalgically. In a moment, his eyes flickered shut, and he knew a quiet bliss.
The blonde woman opened the outer door and drifted quickly across the lobby. Her hair was a mess. Her makeup was smeared. Horace looked at the old man, his eyes still closed. He thought, for a moment, he wouldn’t see her.
But, as though he had felt some sort of electrical shock, his eyes flew open and he spotted her heading toward the elevator. He stood up, and he shouted across the lobby. “LISA!”
The woman froze in her tracks. She turned slowly.
The man glared furiously, then said, “Here’s lookin’ at you, kid,” lifted his drink, and downed it. He set it on the table and walked out calmly.
“It’s still the same old story, the fight for love and glory, a case of do or die…”
The woman paled, watched the man leave, and then went to the elevator. She stepped inside and disappeared.