Posted by: patti | March 6, 2009

Friendship (Fiction Friday)

The bell chimed when Tess and Ed entered the music store, but the three behind the counter did not acknowledge them.  The woman sat on a low stool with her back to the store, hunched over a desk cluttered with tools.  The two men, one white, one black, each took up a front corner of the counter.  The white man  took up more room; he appeared, to Tess, to be older and somehow more substantial than his partner.  His cowboy hat revealed graying sideburns and white hair turning yellow.  Tess struggled to keep her face from registering her surprise when she realized the brim of his hat held two snake skulls, spiky and pale.  She tried to look, instead, at the limp feathers and violin-shaped pins that adorned the crown, at his skinny rope tie, at his knobby hands.

The black man nodded at Tess and Ed and sipped from a large cup that had three tea bag tags hanging from it.  An empty instrument strap sat on his neck and sweat dotted his scarred forehead, as if he’d just finished a very long session.  The men did not speak, but Tess still felt like they were interrupting something.

Tess looked around the tiny, dusty shop and wondered why Ed had steered them in here.  They had wandered the city without purpose for most of the day, and this choice seemed deliberate.  But then, Tess reflected, most of what Ed did, even spontaneously, was deliberate.  Like contacting her last spring, making it clear in his short, surprising message that his feelings for her had not changed in the nearly twenty years they had been apart.

She stepped closer to him and pressed her shoulder into his, to let him know she wanted to stay close.  They’d developed a habit in stores, to browse separately and bring each other their discoveries.  She normally loved the freedom of that, but right now she felt she was in a foreign country and needed Ed to translate.  Ed snaked his arm around her waist and tucked his thumb into the waistband of her jeans.

Gently, Tess touched a finger to the reed on the shelf in front of her, leaving a mark in the fine dust covering the wood.  She knew nothing about music, knew only from solving crosswords that a REED was something one inserted in an OBOE.  She was not sure she even knew what an oboe sounded like, and, looking up at the rows and rows of instruments hanging from the ceiling, she realized she only knew what one looked like from the pictures in the books she sold in her failing bookshop. As Ed pointed and explained, matching reed to instrument, Tess felt again the sharp difference between them:  Ed’s knowledge of the world came from touching, from doing, from playing, but hers came from reading.

Ed stepped away from her and Tess felt cold where his body had been.  She turned to see where he was going, and she saw that his movement had caught the attention of the black man.

“Har-ley!”  The man exclaimed, making it two long, distinct syllables.  Tess laughed in surprise, knowing Ed would be pleased that someone in Manhattan had finally noticed his brown Harley Davidson T-shirt.  And yes, there it was, that slow, satisfied smile she was starting to love.  In her New York, in the small cafés and wine bars and art galleries, Ed was the only one in a Harley T-shirt; she had wondered if Ed was starting to feel like the only biker on the East Coast.  She understood now why they were in this store: the day was shifting, and Ed was going to show her parts of her city she did not know.

The black man was shaking his head and reaching for the older man’s sleeve.  “Mmm-mm-mm.  Harley, Harley David-Son!  David David Son, yes sir!”

The cowboy hat turned.  “What you scatting now?”

The younger man nodded in Ed’s direction.  “Man here to see you, no doubt.”

Ed was leaning on the counter behind the two men, watching the woman work.  She was the only color in the place: her neon green shirt was a sharp contrast to the rest of the drab grays and browns of the store.  Even the brass and metal of the instruments and attachments were dull instead of shiny.

The older man adjusted his cowboy hat.  He had his mouth full, but Tess couldn’t see food anywhere on the counter near him.  Talking through whatever filled his mouth, he squinted at Ed.  “I dreamed you here.”

Tess laughed nervously.  The black man also laughed, dismissing him, shaking his head.  “Fool, what you mean?”

“I did, I dreamed about my bike got took last night.  I dreamed you here, Harley.”

Ed finally shifted his gaze from the woman in the green shirt and looked at the cowboy hat.  “You ride?” Ed asked.

“Used to, used to, long time ago.  That was the dream.  Dreamed the bike was right outside, went out looking for her, she was gone.”

“Oh, that’s because I put it away for you.  It’s in you garage, you go look,” the black man said, slapping his knee.  As everyone started laughing, he added, “That’s how good a friend I am, that’s how good, you see, I put it away for you, don’t you worry.”

Tess laughed too, but she didn’t quite get the joke.  She had been watching Ed, whose eyes had returned to the woman.  Tess couldn’t tell if he watched because her work was interesting or because she was pretty, but either way, Tess didn’t like the little knot that was forming in her chest.  She thought she had heard every word of the exchange between the two men, but she must have missed something, a word or a tone, that was the key to the belly laughs around her.

Ed and the cowboy hat began swapping stories about stolen bikes, and Tess let her face settle into a neutral, listening smile.  She wished she could trace the exact line that had brought her here, to this cramped music store on West 48th Street, on a bitter cold February Saturday, with Ed.  She never would have entered such a store, never would have heard the dreams of a man with snake skulls on his hat, before Ed.  Before Ed, her life, her apartment, had been quiet and uncluttered.  He was filling her spaces with the energy and gadgets of a little boy, and Tess liked how young she felt when she was with him.  Tess liked how, even though he was interested in everything, had hobbies and connections and work that took him all over the world, when they were alone together, he made her feel like nothing else was as important and no one else existed.

Suddenly, Ed looked across the counter at her and smiled.  He winked, something she’d never seen him do before, and she smiled back, shyly.

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