a short story
Gary baker, June 2012
(part 1 of around 12 total)
“And a five-three-four, she was walking out the door!” With a quick strum of the banjo, the lead singer slapped his band into a riotous upheaval of parade day new-age bluegrass. “She said: ‘Don’t let me go’, she jus’ wanna let you know!”
Watching from off stage, Elliot Nab smiled as the band kicked it up a notch and began rapidly fingering the banjo cords into a near-hillbilly version of improvisational street music with a gypsy vagabond twist. The man with the mic looked across the bobbing audience thoroughfare and waved at Elliot with a hat that reminded him of either the Of Mice and Men movie, or Oh, Brother Where Art Thou, and even a combination of both. The man singing, Elliot knew, was known around the area as Buzz “Barley” Benjamin, a fellow resident of Pelatama and a street music extraordinaire. He wore tight brown suspenders over a sweat-soaked white V-neck tee, and belted blue jeans with the rear right pocket worn enough to reveal where he always kept his wallet. Barley’s feet were bare, revealing black hair across his muddied feet, and the banjo in his hands looked just as dirty from the curbside view where Elliot was standing.
The other band members played along, often taking cues from the locally famous “Barley” as he strummed into new chords and over waves of sudden drops to silence as he practically chanted his way through songs.
Elliot smiled, knowing that the four of them had only just met under drunken circumstances the day before when the local band auditions were held. The mayor had expected them to have barely a single song ready, but could now be seen clapping along on the sidelines for the fifth song that hour.
As they played on with more cheers of locals and tourists alike, Elliot shook his head and waved to Barley before turning to walk down the west street to find another post-parade venue. As if on cue, a thin, warm tuft of wind brought the heavy taste of smoky, charred, and almost visibly-crispy bone-in beef and spun him around forcefully to face the river tents. Saliva tempted to breach the floodgates, his nostrils screamed for more, and his eyes finally came to rest upon a stout mustard-yellow tent propped up with white metal stilts where a blackened grill exhaled full breaths of deep charcoal clouds and wiry orange flames. On the thin bars clung bits of old tri-tip burned onto the grill itself, adding new flavors to the ribs as the husky chef switched across to sizzling burgers and steaks on the other end.
It was mere paces away, not even enough to be considered full tossing distance, but it took minutes of swimming through bystanders before Elliot was able to reach the white vending table. People crowded the street around the stalls with paper plates, small children careened out of control like lost jets with fluffy pink balls of cloud candy hovering in the air above their painted cheeks and noses, and just to the left of the grill tent others even loitered around a series of kegs with pints of ale and lager in hand.
Someone bumped Elliot from his right, and squeezed to the front of the line where he began to order with furious haste. “Necessito dos hamburgesas, un con todos y un con queso--” the black haired man in green turned to the crowd, leaning to and fro as if looking for someone, when his eyes lit up and he waved to a woman in a slim red summer dress, “--Mia! Que quieres mas de queso?!” Elliot looked to the blonde woman with a high ponytail at the order desk as she struggled to catch it all even as the wind threatened to remove her black ball cap. Her eyes searched the crowd for this ‘Mia’ as if merely to catch what she wanted before the man could turn, breath in, look to her, and speak the order as the pressing surge of bodies fought for food like humans in quarantine trying to flee a zombie horde.
“What do you want?” A hairy man with a sauce covered spatula impatiently snapped his bulky fingers in front of Elliot.
He shook his head “I’m sorry, what?”
The chef exhaled his annoyance, “I asked what you want? Burger or steak?”
Elliot nodded, removing himself from trying to translate with his level one Spanish lessons from now-distant high school years. “You, uh, got any-”
“Sorry,” the man shook his head apologetically “no tri-tip left.” His empty left thumb jabbed toward the restaurant just up the street, beside Barley’s stage. “What I have left is being made up for the bands and politicians, yonder.”
“So, what can I get you instead?” He leaned to the side and lifted his eyebrows slightly, “or should I move on until you’re ready?”
Elliot shifted his gaze across to a white-shirted man with a pale straw cowboy hat reaching for a steaming plate of thick sliced boneless rib-eye with just a hint of bloody crimson in the center, and a charred mask of seasonings making up the outermost edges. It set his mouth watering all over again, so he looked back at the chef and smiled. “I’ll get a rib-eye, cooked just like that guy’s.”
The chef nodded and turned to a small African girl with black ringlet curls barely contained within her black cap, standing next to a small 90’s era cash register. “Johnny Boy wants a rib-eye--no extras. It’ll be done in five.”
As Elliot swam his way across to her, she looked up and smiled with dark lips and a broad mass of freckles, “that comes to eight-fifty, even.”
A quick exchange of cash, words of kindness, and a short wait later Elliot was ambling his way to a set of benches by the riverside docking basin. Gulls speckled the drifting currents and ship decks, with more than a few handfuls of sailing yachts moored against the decent small town river dock. Each was unique, set with their own symbols and emblems emblazoned upon the stern walls, and in the same regard each was the same, complete with the single-mast group placed neatly beside the dual-mast group. At the far end, Elliot noted, was a sight to be seen for sure: a lone triple-mast schooner with deep amber sails and a bright cherry flag billowing in the warm and playful winds. Its hull was white, the decks polished with an orange lacquer, and a series of rails made of what looked akin to rich redwood.
"Wow!" Elliot gaped, making a mental note to check it out much closer later.
“Ladies and gentlemen, if I may have your attention, please.” Elliot turned from his stare and found himself looking north along the rear of the riverfront businesses and wine rooms. Placed perfectly between two wine tasting room windows was a stand framed with dark gray beams on all sides boasting the four letters of the local jazz radio station, KJZY. A dark-skinned man with massive headphones on and a short black microphone held in hand stood with a thick woman in an ostentatious yellow blouse--not her color, Elliot noticed glumly. “We are about to begin the hourly raffle, my friends,” he continued, “this time for a cask of locally prepared vegetables and fruit from this summer’s harvest!”
Cheers went up amongst the vintners and passersby in perfect unison with the clock tower’s one o’clock toll.
“Now, remember,” the woman added, “especially if you don't win this round when Jazzy calls the winner’s name, more tickets will be sold until the last drawing at nine tonight for the low cost of five dollars each. Once again, all proceeds go to the Cotati Children’s Care foundation located just ten miles north of here, where kids in need of financial assistance are given a second chance at living long, healthy lives with monthly donations made possible by local people like you!”
“Alright, then folks,” the man piped in and lifted his blind man shades with a dramatic flare “lets get to business, now, shall we?” A roar went up across the turning basin, echoing shouts of “we love you, Jessie” to the ears of those beside the DJ booth. With a toothy grin, Jessie “Jazzy” Jossman lifted a hand to the crowd beyond the bridge. “But first, my friends, give a hand for my wife and daughter--who manage to find me at every event I work-” he flashed his famous ‘guilty’ Cheshire smile, revealing perfect white teeth from ear to ear “-no matter how hard I try to lose them.”
Elliot choked on the last few bites of buffalo-seasoned steak in a fit of unexpected laugher, and had to grab a gulp of water from a bottle in his open backpack.
“No, seriously, folks,” Jazzy went on enthusiastically, “as always and forevermore, I love them more than all you drunk people.” More laughter led into a near heartbeat's sudden silence from the crowd nearest the booth as the woman drew out a single burgundy ticket.
As a cheer went up from a small child with the winning ticket, applause echoed around while she skipped ecstatically to the DJ.
It was then that Elliot decided to make his way south again in hopes of finding a local apple booth. It seemed the right enough time for Gravenstiens to be peddled somewhere around here and the prospect of biting off a crisp white chunk of semi-sour, semi-tart, red and yellow fruit drew him like a moth to a nighttime bonfire.
But where he would find something like it was something he had yet to decipher.
He stood and began south once more, dropping the juice-smeared paper plate into a metal bin along the way. As Elliot passed through the festival's food sector, he passed vendor stands wafting thick waves of spicy pork sausage oils, spicy Chile peppers, chili beans, hot dogs and corn dogs alike; hamburgers, veggie burgers, hand pies made in miniature pie pans, roasting Cornish hens, pheasant, duck, and full cow legs searing on rotating spits beside full sections of ham and chickens lined up like savory bubbles. He could taste the gaseous hickory smoke, could feel the fiery blasts of heat from the miniature bonfires on either side, and could hear the animal skins sizzle as he walked by, all while moving like a log caught in a lost river current made of squirming bodies from one end of the street to the next.
Up ahead he spotted a giant red and purple castle-themed jump house that towered high above everything in sight, set with a deafening helicopter whirr of the intake fan and generator along its back. It was hard not to muse at the irony of its proximity to a thin lane of ales, cheap wines, import lagers, and beers which loomed not ten feet further south of the jump house entrance. Inside the balloon castle, young children with white and orange streamers in their hair jumped as if thinking of spaceflight, and their parents leaned against white cordoning gates with bright yellow and orange glass-contained pints in hand. Laughter reverberated over the chopping fan while the screams of excited youth at toddler age passed at every edge of sanity.
Elliot trudged on, pausing only when he realized a passing voice had spoken Dutch and English with what sounded like the same sentence. Then more music reached his ears from around the bend of a tall red-brick bank.
A shirtless young man with a jet black clarinet bounced floppily to the beat with two standing male percussionists, a female accordionist, an attractive female trombonist, and another shirtless man with a gleaming gold saxophone. “Chicky-chicky-baa-baa” they sang, enticing the crowd to gather in and join as they all danced like frantic circus clowns. A clap of the percussionists mallets against the steel sides, and the clarinet player stepped forward in a sudden silence from everyone else, “achicky-chicky-baa-baa” he chanted, then once again as the beat picked up, and began to twirl with his fingers wildly over the finger holes of his flute.
Elliot found himself clapping along, and bouncing slightly to the beat, with women in tight pink shirts and even tighter black shorts. Another drop of the song, which he’d expected this time as the players stopped with hysterical facial expressions, and just as suddenly was picked up again with Elliot shouting along “aChicky-chicky-baa-baa!”
Time passed, Elliot’s apple craving forgotten, and the street performers led from song to song with each new tune reaching greater and greater heights as their open violin case filled higher and higher with ones, fives, the occasional ten, and heaping handfuls of coins.
At one point they even recited the full Spanish version of She Bangs by Enrique Iglesias, with the topless clarinetist acting the suave lead singer. He walked around holding his instrument in sexual poses and rocking his chest muscles to and fro to the beat towards the girls dancing hardest. “Todo la mujeres se lugar y poner!” He called with raised voices and bouncing heads to answer him.
Elliot smiled as the band then told their audience of an upcoming underground album on sale for “ten bucks a pop!” then stepped back to the curb and looked to an Ale Works booth to his right. The older woman at the table beamed a kindly smile and bowed her head lightly as he approached.
“What can I getcha?” She asked over pink bubble gum smacking between her teeth.
Elliot looked over the chalkboard listing of beer at the rear of the stand. “Got any good lager?”
“Sure do, hun!” She then proceeded to recite the various names of lager that she sold from kegs behind the booth tent, as Elliot dropped his ID to the browned oak tabletop.
“Gimme a pint of Shock Tail, then,” he nodded and placed a ten on the table for her.
“You got it, babe!” She turned to the rear of the tent and lifted a hand to her face before shouting “One shocker, Bobb-oh!” A moment’s hesitation later, a thick hairy arm thrust a clear plastic cup filled to the brim with a resplendent fizzy yellow beverage through a window to the back section.
Elliot grabbed the drink loosely in his right hand, while slipping his ID away with his left, and shrugged as he stepped away calling “keep the change” over his shoulder.
The first foamy-white sip was everything he had come to expect and more. Ice-cold beer hit his tongue with a blast of fermented barley and hops and the final added kicker that Elliot loved so much: orange. It was as if the beer had been made specifically to only generate the orange taste when it contacted one’s throat, leaving an aftertaste akin to drinking fresh squeezed orange juice. The brand was a Belgian import, he believed, and often used only certain kinds of plants when making their beers, in this case using something that added a fresh orange taste to each and every last gulp.
As he sat down on a cement bench surrounding a bean-shaped planter of wildflowers and sunflowers, once again wondering how his plans had changed from apples to oranges in a matter of high-strung moments, a furious shout rang up. “Elliot, you dumbshit!”
Elliot startled to see Barley jumping and skipping his way through lines and masses of more festivity-goers in his way. “I thought you’d be singing for another hour at least, by the way things were going back there!” he responded.
Finally, the man reached his friend, and leaned onto his knees with heavy panting breaths. “No,” he began, struggling to catch any air, “we would've, but Geoffrey-” Elliot pulled an inquiring face “-the drummer?” Still Elliot scowled, trying to remember. “Ah, who needs your memory, eh?” Annoyed and not the least bit amused, Barley sat down and grabbed his friend’s beer to gulp down almost half of the remainder. “Anyways, Geoffrey lost his lunch--all over the stage, that damned weasel! I mean, the mayor was there-” he turned to face Elliot with a grimace “-and she was piisssed. Kicked us off stage and everything.” Another swig of Elliot’s beer, “and you know what? Not one person called an ambulance! I mean, admittedly he didn’t exactly need one, but who’s to say that he didn't actually have some kind of horrific blood disease that requires an ER every time he hurls, eh?”
Smiling, Elliot took back his beer and dropped the rest back with a heavy gulp, then shrugged. “Do you really think he would have been drinking booze with a blood disease like that, though?”
The singer rolled his eyes, “No, but that’s not the point, now, is it?”
“Then what is? Because it sounds like you are more annoyed at him than at Miz Madame Mayor.”
Barley paused, as if finally thinking it out. “My point, my man,” he clapped Elliot’s shoulder hard and stood up to scan the surroundings with hands held at his hips like some vagrant superhero, “is that I am hungry as fuck!”
“All hail the mighty hamburger craving?”
Grinning broadly, Barley lifted a wavering finger to Elliot with a laugh, “that’s my boy!” He began forward and shouted over his shoulder “come on, Nab, time’s a-wastin! We've got burgers to see, and beers to be--well drinking, that is.” With that, he was scuttling off with Elliot once again finding himself trying to fight the current alone.
Moments passed, streamers shot into the air from party poppers everywhere, and sweat dripped like rainfall from the heat of midsummer air as Elliot fought to keep up with his tank of a friend who left a small wake in the crowd. It was then that another voice rang through the resounding clamor to reach Elliot’s ears with his own name.
When he turned, he saw a familiar golden haired girl with a heart-shaped face and long eyelashes, wearing a small lacy white tank top over a black sports bra and denim shorts. And as unlikely as he believed it to be, she was waving at him, not some football star back from an Ivy-League game won in the final seconds by a single touchdown, “Elliot, over here!”
He raised a hand to signal a hold for her words, and stood on his toes to see Barley again. “Hey Barley!” He shouted. No response, as the big man just kept on going. “Yo, Buzz Benjie!” This time the singer did turn, and met Elliot’s gaze with a grin, “I’ll meet you back here, Barley! But get me somethin' good!” He then turned back to the girl on the wooden park bench, and easily slipped from the crowd to her side where he flopped down with a sigh.
“Busy day?” She asked.
“Like you wouldn't believe…” he scowled, knowing that he knew her and had known her for a good while now, but couldn't seem to place her name--not that I can just look her square in the eyes and say “oh, yeah, and because I've always known you to be way out of my league, I've never bothered to learn your name so I wouldn't get my hopes up for nothing.”
“Well, Mr Nab, I'm Abby,” she didn’t miss a beat, it seemed, and her hand came up to shake his own. “Abby Morgan.”
Still holding her soft, thin, and slightly moist fingers, he pulled a curious face “like the fashion line?”
Her eyes were wide instantly, “you know of that?”
“Meh,” he shrugged, “I work in retail, what can I say?”
She sighed bemusedly and leaned forward to rest her chin on her upraised palm. “Yeah, my great uncle owns it and named it after me-” she winced slightly and looked to Elliot from the corner of her eyes making her unblemished forehead wrinkle slightly, “not exactly the greatest way to show gratitude if you ask me, but I will admit that the benefits of being the first born grandchild are nice.”
A leggy Irish-brunette in short denim shorts and a small polka dotted pink belly shirt walked up beside Abby and sat on the armrest to her right. “Hey Abby,” she looked Elliot over with lashes painted Egyptian-style over deep purple shadow, making her eyes look like that of a vicious serpent, “who’s your friend?”
Stunned, Elliot found his hand reaching forward slowly, “I’m Elliot.” The woman’s eyes dropped to his hand as if he held a full wallet just needing a body to spend it all on, then let her hand fall into his like a damsel princess to her heroic knight in gleaming silver armor. If ever there existed a person more like Jessica Rabbit, Elliot doubted he'd ever see them in person.
With a broad smile of her own, Abby looked to her friend, “we’re classmates at Robinson State.”
“Aha,” the girl smirked deviously, “well I’m Holly, Abigail’s best friend…” she stood suddenly and trailed her hand across the back of the bench until she sat with seductive grace at Elliot’s left side, “…but perhaps we can be-”
“Forgive her,” Abby interrupted quickly, leaning in front of Elliot to catch his attention back to herself again, “she’s an… assertive drunk,” she shot a harsh glare at her friend, and sighed, “to say the least.”
“Me?!” Holly gasped, “I am no-”
“So Elliot,” Abby interjected once more, “what are you up to ‘round these parts?”
Feeling like life had finally done him a favor, Elliot looked to the country girl with more confidence than he had felt in a long time. “Well for starters, I got off work in time to enjoy the last of the parade, so I came down here only to find a friend of mine still playing on the Mac O'Reilly stage.”
“Oh?” Abby exclaimed curiously, “who do you know?”
Elliot let his teeth show in a broad display of glee. “I’m guessing you’ve heard of the infamous ‘Barley’, right?”
Holly grabbed Elliot’s left shoulder and turned him enough to see his face. “You mean, you know him? As in--you’re friends with the ‘Buzz Barley’?”
Elliot frowned, getting ready to risk the moment, “Yeah,” he played excitement, “and he’ll be here any minute now to meet up with me but-” he swiftly looked to Abby with a hopeful smile, “-I want to take Abby somewhere, if she doesn’t mind?” At that she stood and held out her hand to help him up. He stood, then, and looked back to Holly who now had a blue hard lemonade, though from where Elliot had no idea, and laughed, “can you tell him I’ll talk to him later, for me?”
Holly blew him a kiss and quickly began to position herself as if to make the best impression when Barley came. “You got it! Now leave--quickly, before he gets here!”
Elliot moved passed the bench and began walking with the beautiful golden-haired woman in tow. “So,” he turned, walking backwards while watching her follow, “what do you say we grab a bite to eat while they... chat?”
Abby blushed suddenly, “yes, of course!” She stopped, then grimaced at her spoken haste and tried to retract it by saying more. “I mean, sure-… I mean-…” a long sigh, then a nearly whispered “sorry.”
She let a portion of her lips quirk to the side as if tasting something weird. “Let’s just say that I’m not exactly used to guystotalking--” her eyes went wide suddenly, and her pink-fingernails reached to cover her almost gaping mouth, “I-I mean ‘talking to guys’! I didn’t mean to say it like that!” As Elliot began to laugh, Abby went on even further in an attempt to save face. "You may think I've always been the popular gal, but ever since we graduated I've been around horses left and right with almost no contact with guys my own age."
With a laugh of gentle amusement, Elliot nodded. “Well how about this: I know the owner of Graziani's Trattoria--we can grab a bite or two there and not make you talk too much, if you’d rather it that way?”
Her cheeks darkened even more, as if rose petals were trying to breach the surface of her skin from the magnanimous core where Elliot was sure her perfection emanated from. “A-as in a-a ‘date’?”
“Only if that’s what you want to call it,” he couldn’t help but grin like a cheeky little kid. Life just seemed to have whisked him to a magical alternate reality, where all his dreams could come true. Colors were brighter, children laughing seemed more like the most intimate sound of the universe, flowers blowing in the gentle breeze appeared to dance with each other, and gulls in the air must surely have been singing a song of harmony specially made for him and his loudly beating heart that thundered in the center of his ribs. “But I won’t call it that if you don’t want to.” By the gods, I’ve never felt this awesome! He screamed in his head, letting the raw energy of a thousand suns run through his veins like fire and ice making planets of gleaming diamond in their wake.
Suddenly she grabbed his collar and pulled close to him, her soft nose and lips just inches from his own. “I’d love to go out with you!” Just as fast as she’d grabbed him, she let go and stepped away with sudden shyness as if embarrassed. “Sorry, I don’t know what came over me, I-”
Elliot let loose the energy within, hailing for the galaxies to come see the awe that he felt. Suavely--or as suave as he could manage with such a beatific expression plastered across his face--he nodded as if acting ‘cool’. “And here I’ve been thinking that the crush I had on you was bound for disappointment!”