Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Painting Tacoma, Chapter Seven: The Russian Princess

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Raw Sienna

Shelly had gone all out: a Rueben on Jewish rye, loaded with sauerkraut. Shawn spent half his lunch wiping the juice from his chin as he tried to tell a story.
            “So Ivy came to my apartment for a rehearsal.”
            “Oh!” said Shelly. “Any romantic possibilities?”
            Shawn laughed. “You cut right to the chase, don’t you?”
            “I’m old. I have to.”
            “No,” Shawn answered. “Ivy has an obsession for black guys with dreadlocks and round spectacles.”
            “So... she’s looking for Bobby McFerrin?”
            “Could I please get back to my story?”
            “Thank you. So we tried out the Tahoma thing with every last piece of my drum kit, but we couldn’t get the right sound. Ivy decided what we needed was congas – and said she had a friend who could bring some to the reading. Problem was, come Thursday night, Ivy’s friend failed to show.”
            “Did he have dreadlocks?”
            “Ivy’s friend.”
            “No. But he did have an old car, which broke down, leaving us without drums. We were pacing around the back room at Mocha Mountain when I picked up a cardboard box and started slapping it. It had a pretty good tone. I found a big aluminum spoon to add volume, and that’s how I made my debut.”
            “How beautifully primitive!” said Shelly. “Did it work?”
            “Yes. With one surprise. I failed to notice that the box was half-full of styrofoam packing peanuts. When I started applying the spoon with great force – about the spot in the poem when the volcano erupts – the peanuts started poofing out the top like little spurts of magma.
            “Hah!” said Shelly. “A multi-media performance.”
            “Poor Ivy. She had no idea why she was getting laughs in all the wrong places.”
            Shawn had worked on the kitchen for four days – although he had cut his work days to six hours. Shelly treated him like a houseguest, and could only maintain that level of attentiveness for so long.
            The project was pretty complicated. Houses near the sound were susceptible to settling, creating lots of cracks that needed to be spackled. Then he had to apply two coats of primer behind the stove, where the wall was stained by heat and grease.
            Shawn was fascinated by the rolling process – its sheer efficiency – but then came the windows. There were four, each with two sets of quarter-framed panes. Shawn painted them freehand, bending his body at odd angles to keep the brush from slopping on the glass.
            The final element was an old-fashioned telephone nook that Shelly had reserved for a porcelain angle inherited from her mother. Shawn had to yank out the old phone lines, sand down their tracks, then apply several coats of white semi-gloss until it gave forth a suitably sacred glow.
            Shawn stepped back to take in the whole kitchen, as white and clean as the inside of an igloo. He looked out the window to see Shelly, lugging some large object out of the studio, and headed out to help.
            “Go ahead,” she said, winded from the effort. “Open it up.”
            Shawn loosened the plastic covering and worked it over the sides of a conga drum – varnished blonde wood, stainless steel fittings, cappuccino skin tight across the rims.
            “It’s beautiful.”
            “It’s Richard’s,” said Shelly. “Now it’s yours.”

Shawn was so excited about his new toy that he called Ivy and insisted on a rehearsal. Previously, he had simply followed the peaks and valley’s of the volcano’s temper. Now he was able to work in some tricks. Ivy suggested a rim shot at Vancouver’s entrance, a questioning triplet at the first mention of the lahar. Shawn threw in three dramatic cutoffs for Tahoma’s stern asides. But the most powerful moment was already there – the final passage, when Shawn would work up a blizzard of beats then drop it off a cliff at Ivy’s signal. The silence would leave people holding their breaths and not knowing why.
            He had learned a few things about Ivy. She had just come home after earning a theater arts degree at NYU. Her dad was a doctor who played trombone in a jazz trio. Ivy worked at his office, saving up for an attack on Los Angeles.
            They decided to take their new “Tahoma” to Shakabrah, a coffeehouse diner in the 6th Street district. The place had a spacious side-room that hosted regular acoustic concerts and, every Saturday, an open mic. After their sound check, Shawn retreated to a table at the back wall while Ivy went to the door and hugged every other person who entered.
            With the side-room curtained off, Shawn had but a small square of vision into the street: through the coffeehouse door and over a table full of diners. This was where she appeared. A streetlight switched on across the road, hanging like a star over her shoulder.
            The most striking thing was the contrast of her features: a shroud of black hair, big dark eyes and scarlet lipstick on a canvas of cream-white skin. She held a navy blue overcoat against her neck and peered anxiously down the street.
            And then, she slipped from the frame. Shawn blinked, then returned to his newspaper. He looked up once in a while when a new figure entered the room: a poet with a fistful of papers, a guitarist lugging an amplifier. The room filled up fast. Ivy was content to roam, chatting up this table and that before settling at the side of the stage with a pageboy redhead.
            And she was there again, the square of window, only – in front of it. The only seat left was across from Shawn, and that’s where she went. She arrived with a shy but astonishing smile.
            “Would it be all right if I sat here?”
            “Certainly,” said Shawn. “Sure.”
            The long woolen coat gave her the aura of a Russian princess. She draped it over her stool and perched on top. Shawn could not even guess how to start a conversation, until she set down a book like a big fat cue card.
            “Nabakov! Are you far into it?”
            “Yes,” she said. “It’s downright scary how good he is. You find yourself almost rooting for the protagonist, and then you think, ‘Wait a minute. The protagonist is a child molester!’”
            “Not to mention, he’s writing in his second language. If I could put three words together like that in any language...”
            “Dostoyevsky’s my favorite, though. That sneaky sense of humor. I just finished The Brothers Kara...”
            “Really? I had a hard time getting through...”
            “Oh! It’s all in the translation. They get too academic sometimes and it dries right up. I’ll loan you my copy sometime.”
            Jesus, thought Shawn. She’s already loaning me books. He was about to introduce himself when the words came out of somebody else’s mouth.
            “Greetings!” It was Amy, the pageboy redhead, halfway swallowing the mic. “Welcome to this week’s edition of Shaaah-kabrah! Let’s begin with Angie, who will seduce you with songs of torturous, sadistic love. Applause!”
            Angie’s quiet guitar forced them into courteous silence, but they shared whispered comments during the applause. The nice part was having to lean his face so close to hers in order to be heard.
            “She’s quite good,” he said.
            “Yeah. But she sounds too much like...”
            “Definitely. She was better on that original.”
            “We should tell her that,” she said. “You know, in a nice way.”
            Two singers and a poet later, Amy introduced Ivy.
            “And I have it on good information,” she added, “that Ivy’s drummer has graduated from cardboard boxes to actual percussion instruments!”
            Shawn gave the princess a sheepish grin and headed for the stage, arranging his stool and conga as Ivy gave some introductory comments. Fortunately, he had an internal switch that shut out distractions, and he quickly became absorbed in the performance.
            Ivy was more electric than ever, causing Shawn to drive up the volume a little too quickly. By mid-lahar, he was pounding the shit out of his stick-soft hands. The final cut seemed to swallow the room, which then imploded in a burst of hoots and shouts. They were, officially, a hit.
            And what a great way to impress a woman you’ve just met, thought Shawn. He stood to absorb the applause, gave Ivy a pat on the shoulder, then returned to his table.
            Her eyes were flashing with raw sienna, and he realized her face came from another time: Claudette Colbert, or Marilyn Monroe.
            “Woo!” she said. “That was fantastic!”
            Thanks,” he said. “I suppose I should have warned you.”
            The next performer was a burly guitarist with a gravelly bass voice, a little like Tom Waits. Shawn didn’t hear much, because he was trying to work up his nerve. He just had to ask her out, but they really hadn’t talked much, and why was this so goddamned difficult? His muteness extended through the next two songs, after which the princess stood to put on her coat. Shawn experienced an immediate internal panic.
            She leaned over to talk into his ear.
            “I need to get up ridiculously early tomorrow. But here, give me a call.”
            She slipped a business card into his hand and left, stopping at the door to send him a wave, rolling her fingers against her palm. Shawn gave a courteous salute, and she was gone.

The American flag stood atop City Hall, in a spotlight at the center of his cityscape, snapping courageously in a fierce storm-front wind. Shawn knelt at his window, rubbing his sore hands, thinking, It must be glorious up there.
            He reached for his bass drum/nightstand and picked up the card for the fiftieth time that night. Tacoma Davenport. Perhaps this was how you fell in love with a woman, a little bit at a time.

Photo by MJV

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