Kicking the Box
In architectural terms, Skye has toured the house of Rachel, has seen her bay windows, her crown moulding, but has also found a single dark room in the back, its door firmly locked. They will be at a concert, on a ferry, in a bookstore (often in a bookstore), and he will find the black eyes sparkless, the brows immobile, her hands dangling in space. She kick-starts at his voice, seemingly unaware of her previous state.
Long Island aims its alligator snout along the undershelf of New England. A hundred miles away, Massachusetts turns its back, crooks an elbow and gives Great Britain the finger. The fingernail? That’s Provincetown.
If Rachel is, at times, an interior, the autumn sunshine of P-town turns her inside out, throwing tendrils, dealing blossoms. Her curls are contained by a gray knit cap that brings her broad-cheeked face into radiant clarity, laughing at each small amusement of the sea-shantied street. A squadron of blond children slalom the tourists like a New Year’s dragon, squealing like seabirds. A man painted completely silver stands on a crate, perfect as a statue until a dollar in his hat triggers a dance. They pass a long display of flowers, and Rachel demands a single purple aster.
Skye goes for the tease. “You want it so bad, buy it yourself.”
“It has to be a gift.”
“The immutable laws of poetry.”
He makes the purchase and hands it over. She snaps the stem with her teeth, feels for a tiny hole in her cap, and inserts the aster so that it perches over her right ear.
“That is pretty fuckin’ stylish. Oh! I smells garlic.”
She raises her nose. “Absolutely.”
“Bruce told me I would smell the restaurant before I saw it. There!” He nods at a shack on the bay side, next to a long counter of diners on stools. A worn blue sign reads BUCKETS.
“Don’t look now,” says Rachel, “but one of the natives is waving at us.”
The native in question has a thick head of salt-and-pepper hair, a Mediterranean hawk’s-nose and an animated grin. He walks their way on limbs that seem to carry independent charters.
Skye calls “Bru-u-uce!” and storms over, ignoring his extended hand and wrapping him in an embrace that sends his arms flying out like a squished spider.
“Hey buddy,” he says. “Good to see ya.”
Skye turns to make the intro. “This is Rachel, a genuine New York City artist.”
“An artist!” says Bruce. “What medium?”
She answers with some hesitation. “Collage.”
Bruce’s voice has a nasal quality, like an old-time sportscaster. When he’s excited (which is often), it gets high and breathy.
“Collage! I love collage. One time, in high school, I covered an entire wall with all my favorite rockers. The problem was, I glued them on with some serious shit, so when my parents re-did my room, it took off half the drywall. Ha!”
Rachel giggles. “I, too, have done damage. I used to cut up my mom’s magazines before she had a chance to read them.”
“Did your mom say anything?” asks Bruce.
“Ha-ha! That’s a mom.”
The exchange hits a sudden speed bump, so Skye jumps in.
“I’m famished! Shall we make to the bucket?”
The gimmick is fairly straightforward. They settle at a round table, each of them fitted out with a bowl of melted garlic butter, a small baguette and a bucket of steamed shellfish.
“Okay, so the artiste got razor clams and oysters, I got clams and mussels. What did you get, Bruceski?”
Bruce answers in song: “In Dublin’s fair city, where girls are so pretty…”
“Cockles and mussels!?”
“They’re not just for Saint Patrick’s Day.”
Rachel uses a shred of baguette as a pointer. “So how long have you scoundrels known each other?”
“College paper, twenty years ago. Bruce was the effete rocker, so naturally he was the sports editor.”
“And the high school jock,” says Bruce, “was the effete arts editor.”
Skye laughs. “The ironies continued after college. The seemingly stable arts editor has had a gazillion different jobs, whilst the overtly weird sports editor has had precisely one employer.”
Bruce raises a finger. “The Provincetown Monitor! Wrap your fish in nothing else.”
“And a lovely wife and three girls. A bas-tee-ohn of Cape Cod society.”
Bruce releases the machine-gun laugh. “Heh-eh. Which provides the perfect cover for my secret life as a pervert. By the way, the wife still hasn’t forgiven you for the bachelor party.”
“Damn.” Skye dips a clam and chews it down. “Mmm. Anyway, Bruce graciously hired me to write an article on Peter.”
“Hey buddy, any chance to get your golden prose into my rag. So am I gonna like this guy?”
“Yes. And here’s why. Awesome sense of humor.”
“Primary influences are Neil Young…”
“And John Mayer.”
“Hey!” says Skye. “This calls for a disappointment high five.”
The two of them raise their arms while producing a tonally ascendant chatter about all things good: Peter, Neil Young and Bob Dylan. They thrust their palms forward but stop inches apart. Their hands drop back down to disappointed mumbles, ending with Bruce’s phrase “…the general suckage of John Mayer.”
Rachel laughs so hard that she has to spit a razor clam into her napkin.
“Geez, Rache,” says Skye. “Company.” He turns to Bruce. “I really must apologize. She rarely gets out of the city.”
Bruce answers Britishly. “Oh! No bother.”
Rachel raises a hand and tries to talk. “You two… should charge admission.”
Their destination is Drift, a coffeehouse at the very tip of town, looking out over the calmer waters looped in by the Provincetown Spit. The main room is disappointingly orthodox, but once they sit down with their drinks, Skye spots an oversize copy of his article on a back door. What he finds on the other side is pretty astounding. Three broad tiers descend to a small stage, each of them hosting several tables. A window runs behind the stage, revealing the blue layers of sea and sky. The walls and ceiling are covered in tentacles of driftwood, bleached white by the sun, creating the impression of a living, breathing interior. Skye leads his trio to the front-center table. Peter arrives a minute later, looking roadworn but excited.
The crowd is different; Peter is different. An unfamiliar performer breeds skepticism, cautious patrons dipping their toes into the room. But Peter has been legitimized by newsprint, by a writer who had the luxury of saying, Yes, I’ve seen this guy, and here’s why he’s good. With his sense of humor, Peter comes off well in print – particularly the bit about the invisible labrador. The impression was furthered by an excellent photograph, Peter belly-laughing in Denver, the photo credit a revealing M. Santiago. Given a lively writer and a legit paper, the masses are easily led – which is why Skye only goes this far out on a limb when he knows he’s right.
The energy of the crowd feeds Peter’s ego; he responds by performing with confidence, and letting his wry humor spill into silliness. He sings half a song with the mic against his throat, just to see what it sounds like. He composes an impromptu blues tribute to Lady Gaga. (“I would rather sing in Raga / write an Ice-a-landic saga / sail a boat to Nicaraga / than mess with Lady Gaga.”)
At the end of two hours, the room has filled with a toasty enthusiasm. The audience stomps the floor until Peter delivers an encore: he thanks Bruce with a cover of Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl.” Bruce raises jazz hands like a testifier in church. Skye is so rapt by the festivities, he worries that he is neglecting his date. When he glances her way, Rachel is just as involved as he is, eyes wide, drinking the music. She catches Skye watching her, smiles and takes his hand under the table.
The post-concert festivities are in Truro, a few miles down the finger, where Bruce lives in a rather amazing stone house. They’re greeted by his wife Marit, a slim, sharp-witted redhead, and three blonde teenagers who are terrifyingly (from a father’s point of view) good-looking. They take a quick tour of the house (Skye roundly disappointed that the interior is not also stone) and retreat to the back yard. A long path takes them to the edge of a modest wood, where stands a genuine New England barn. Bruce gives a game-show wave and declares, “If you vanna buy da vatch, buy da vatch. If you don’t vanna buy da vatch, get avay from da vindow.”
Rachel turns to Skye. “I’m sorry. What?”
“It’s Bruce’s all-purpose non sequitur. He’s been using it since college.”
The rough exterior – aging shakes sauteed in white paint – gives way to a surprisingly modern interior, featuring a ping-pong table, beanbag chair, daybed and full musical setup: upright piano, Stratocaster guitar with amp, microphone and stand, and an old beater drum kit.
Peter’s eyes light up. “May I?”
Bruce laughs. “Heh-eh-eh. That’s why we’re here!”
Peter fires up the amp, straps on the Strat, checks the strings and rips into the intro for “Roll Over Beethoven.”
“Yeah!” yells Bruce. He hits another amp and waves Skye to the microphone.
Skye says, “Oh no I couldn’t possibly…” as he races to the stand, arriving just in time for the first line. Bruce reaches the upright on the second verse, pounding out chords in a wave of Jerry Lee Lewis eighth notes. Marit grabs a tambourine and smacks it on her thigh. As he finishes the chorus, Skye hears a drumbeat and turns to find Rachel flailing at the skins. Peter drops to his knees and heads into a guitar solo that is bound to last and last.
Four bottles of wine later, Bruce perches on a stool with an acoustic, finishing an old joke. Skye knows all six verses of “Miss American Pie.” The joke is to watch everyone else try to sing along as the lyrics get more and more obscure. They generally end up resorting to nonsense syllables. But Skye keeps going, and Bruce interjects the identities of the rock stars hidden in Don McLean’s words. “That’s Mick Jagger.” “Janis Joplin – duh!” And laughs like Woody Woodpecker.
When finally they reach the end, everyone applauds. Marit says, “Please! Honey! We need to sleep.”
“The man is a human jukebox,” says Skye. “More than once have I seen him play on the back porch of some frat party until he was quite literally bleeding.”
“Ha!” says Peter. “Take that, George Harrison.”
Marit rises to a teacherly posture. “If you want, you may simply sleep out here. There’s a small bathroom next to the piano. That little red door beyond the ping-pong table leads to a cozy bedroom.”
“Thanks, Mom!” says Peter, who seems content to pass out on the beanbag. Rachel heads for the bathroom. Bruce sings “Goodnight, buddy!” and wanders toward the main house. Marit takes Skye by the arm.
“How long have you been with Rachel?”
“There’s a pond between here and the golf course – out the door, trail to the left. Take her there.” She lowers to a whisper. “It’s enchanted.”
And she’s gone, replaced by Rachel, who wears a devilish look.
“Is Bruce’s wife hitting on you?”
“Quite the opposite. Put on your coat, dollface.”
They follow the path, pressing each other for warmth, and come to a pond ringed by cattails. They stand on a small pier and find lily pads in the trail of a full moon.
Skye grips Rachel by the waist and lifts her onto a wooden storage box. They scour each other’s mouths like a pair of teenagers; Rachel’s hand wanders south.
“Wow! I must have this.”
She undoes her coat, hikes her dress to her waist and opens her legs.
“Honey! You are underwearless.”
“No shit. Now off! Off with your pants.”
He is barely unzipped when she grabs his dick and pulls him inside.
“Oh! That is… Wow.”
Skye laughs. “Your eloquence astounds me. But not as much as your drumming. My god I love a woman who drums.”
Rachel is lost in the stars over Skye’s shoulder. “Garage band… high school. Love your singing.”
“In a really weird way, my singing is what got me to New York.” He ends his sentence with a thrust, then laughs. “Kicking the box.”
“Beginning Shakespeareans learn to speak all the way through their lines by placing a cardboard box on the stage and kicking it on the fifth… beat!”
He finishes with a thrust and Rachel squeals. Skye slows the pace. Rachel gazes up at him, the moon melting in her eyes.
“You are… the best thing I’ve had… in a long time.”
“That’s one of those rare sentences where you can call someone a ‘thing’ and turn it into flattery.”
Skye senses the presence of the locked room but pushes on past, determined to give Rachel as much pleasure as possible. He speeds up. She kicks her legs into the air, a rider spurring a horse, and punctuates her arrival with a howl. As she drifts back down, Skye hears a rustling. He knows exactly who it is.
Bruce and Marit burst from a nearby bush and run, giggling all the way.
“Scoundrels!” yells Rachel, and laughs deliriously. “Ooh! It’s even better when I laugh.”
Skye works back to an easy pace. “These two gynecologists walk into a bar…”
“Do you always talk this much?”
“When I’m happy, yes.”
She scoots forward. “Talk all you want.”
“Hypothermia here we… come!” he says. And kicks the box.
The ferry dock at New London, Connecticut makes an impressive setting. The harbor is pencil-thin, banked by a high, long ridge. The ridge is covered in rich lawn and a line of trees showing their October best, particularly a tall ash on the point, bathed in yellow.
Skye exits the ferry’s interior with two cups of hot chocolate. He pauses at the sight of Rachel at the railing, staring into the icy gray overcast. It’s the locked door, the single dark room, and he wonders if he has earned the right to ask about it. He stands just behind her until the smell of the chocolate brings her around.
“Oh! You kinda snuck up on me there. Gimme.” She takes a careful sip. “Mmm. So where’s our friend Peter today?”
“Headed to Baltimore, then on down the coast.”
“No New York?”
“Couldn’t get any interest.”
They stand for a while, exhaling trails of vapor.
She turns with an amused smile. “Skye.”
“I have noticed that your attentions sometimes go to a faraway place. Is there something troubling you?”
First, nothing. Then a twitch of the lips, a promising intake of breath. Then she stops.
“Every artist has a dark side. I believe it’s required.”
She concludes the subject with a return to her hot chocolate. The ferry grinds forward, sending them both into a stumble-step.
“Back to New York,” says Rachel. Skye lifts her hand and kisses it.
They’re on 495, cruising the long stretches near the eye of the gator. Skye finds it fairly amazing that a place so close to a world capitol could be so devoid of people.
“When I was a sophomore in high school, my friend Maurice told me that I was not cool enough to be in the men’s glee.”
He waits for a response. “Okay,” she says. “Are you going to explain?”
He smiles. “If you insist.”
“The glee club had 125 members. Half of those members were on sports teams. Half the varsity football team was in men’s glee. We used to perform at other schools – one time in Reno, Nevada – to encourage the boys at those schools to sing. Along with the women’s glee, the choir and the orchestra, we gave Christmas concerts that included 600 performers out of a student body of 1500.”
“So you went to school at Disneyland.”
“That’s how it seemed. The director of the men’s glee was Mike Patterakis, a wiry little Greek guy who could be alternately high-strung and supremely cool. With the glee club, I think he realized that, just by their numbers, the group was already impressive. So he kept it simple. Broadway tunes, folk songs, Sinatra’s ‘My Way,’ would you believe, with maybe one or two harmony parts. He didn’t sweat the small stuff, and he tried to keep it fun.
“The ultimate example was our rendition of ‘Winter Wonderland.’ Over the years, the guys slipped in a number of references to sex and drugs. The final verse was…” He stops to remember the lines and bursts out in song. “‘Later on, we’ll get higher, as we drink by the fire, to face unafraid the chicks that we laid, walkin’ in a winter wonderland.’”
Rachel laughs and slaps the dash.
“Brilliant wit, right?”
“Oh! Give ‘em a Pulitzer.”
“But here’s the key. With our murky diction, the audience was none the wiser, and Mr. P was too busy on the piano to play bad cop, so he let it slide. He would slyly admonish us not to sing the naughty version, we would enthusiastically ignore him, and afterwards he would smile and wag a disapproving finger. And once in a while, a friend would ask, ‘Is there something different about that song?’”
“I didn’t come from a terribly musical family. If it weren’t for that freakish high school, and that amazing men’s glee, I might never have been drawn to my life’s work. I might never have learned the great old songs. I might never have sung one of those old songs in a pizza parlor in Bridgeport, California, and I might never have met the spectacular Rachel Grossman.”
Rachel’s expression is a combination of flattered grin and puzzled squint.
“Not quite sure I’m getting the part about the pizza parlor.”
“Oh, um… Met a guy there who convinced me to drive across the country.” He stops to recall the end of his story.
“Last spring, I got an invitation to a wake, at a Greek restaurant in Modesto, which featured the subject of the wake. Mr. Patterakis had terminal cancer, and he wanted to see some of his old students while he could still get around. He was atrociously skinny, but he still had that sparkle in his eye, that lightning grin.
“I found myself in an odd position. I was nothing special in high school. I doubt if I ever even had a full conversation with Mr. P. But I’m sure that teachers understand this idea about their students: you plant a lot of seeds, but some of them don’t germinate till years later, and the size of the blossoms might surprise you. So I sat down with him for maybe thirty seconds, offered a simple thank you, and gave him a copy of my book – a book that was dedicated to him.
“At the end of the party, they handed out scores, fired up a recording from one of our old Christmas concerts, and sixty of us stood up in this Greek restaurant and sang the Hallelujah Chorus. A couple hours later, driving home into the sunset, I imagined what that must have been like for the other patrons, eating pasta with your wife when the freakin’ Hallelujah Chorus breaks out. I like to think I would have been delighted. For us, of course, it was enough to see the look on Mr. P’s face. He was glowing.”
Rachel finds the spot where Skye’s neck meets his collarbone and gives it a rub. She realizes that they’re driving into the sunset, and wonders if this is what triggered Skye’s story.
“This morning, while you were in the bathroom, I got a text from an old schoolmate. Bill. He was the drum major. Built his own recording studio. He specialized in a capella groups, became very successful, and last year he won a freakin’ Grammy! How’s that for…”
The sudden stop indicates a man who is trying not to cry while driving into the sunset. Rachel takes his hand and kisses it. They drive in silence, until the lights of Manhattan sprout from the night like a diamond tiara.
Photo by MJV