Michelle ordered a Jack Daniels. It was a Thursday night at the Viper Room, the bartender a girl with extraordinary tattoos and a blue streak in her black hair. Michelle felt ridiculous in her jeans and high heeled boots, false eyelashes glued to the outside corners of her eyes, a trick she’d seen in Allure but hadn’t possessed the nerve to try before this. She would have ordered red wine, but it seemed too old-lady. Jack Daniels was the thing to drink in a dark nighclub on the Strip.
She perched on the barstool, pretending to be interested in the first band–mediocre, with a screamer, not one word intelligible–pretending everything was cool. She tried not to make eye contact with anyone. She had never, ever been to a bar by herself, not in her forty years on this planet.
She would normally be getting ready for bed at this hour. But she had promised Dustin she would come.
Dustin Jakes. A tall, lanky boy with tribal tattoos and dreadlocks she’d found on a flyer:
Guitar Lessons With Dustin,
from the band The YoYos
I will teach you the
Secrets of the Universe
Electric, acoustic, 12 string, also mandolin U name It!!
CHEEP AT TWICE THE PRICE!!
He was, in fact, $25 an hour. Not exactly CHEEP but within the realm of the possible. Her ex refused any part in the project–it was Michelle who bought Chloe the guitar–slightly used, off Craigslist–and Michelle who paid for the lessons. She didn’t make much money as a history teacher at John Burroughs Junior High, but she was good at saving money, stashing a little here, a little there, ready to splurge on something really important, like a pearly black Stratocaster and a little Fender amp for her daughter’s thirteenth birthday. And Dustin Jakes, to teach her the Secrets of the Universe.
She was paying him when he invited her to come see his band. At the Viper Room.
Instantly, images arose of a talented young star dying on the sidewalk as soulless young people stood around him in a modern day version of Day of the Locust. “Thanks,” she said. “But I don’t think I can. School night.” But it sounded lame, even to her. Like she was 12. What was she afraid of? The Viper Room? Or Dustin, his gold-dusted dreads, his mocha skin, his clear green eyes. He’d already asked her out once for a beer, she’d been both charmed and terrified.
“We’re the second band. Nine-thirty, ten o clock max. Come on, you’ve never seen what I can do.” He gazed at her reproachfully.
“Oh, maybe,” she said. thinking, not in this life. What would she wear, for god’s sake? Squeeze her fat ass into a pair of jeans and high heels like an idiot? She was too old for the Viper Room. She was too old for Dustin by about 20 years. But even as she was saying no way she was thinking, who she could get to go with her? Mary? Helen? She should see him play. Or whatever else it was he was asking.
“I’ll put you on the list, you’ll just pay to park.” Smiling his goofy-ass smile. Chloe in the other room, practicing a Jack White riff. That child hadn’t been as excited about anything since the divorce.
And so, Michelle found herself walking up to the Viper Room box office and giving her name, and there it was, on The YoYos’ list. And now she was propping up the bar, terrified to look to the left or to the right. The place was half full, boys and girls, more boys than girls, and God, they were all so young. She did not belong here. Where did they all get the money to come to the Viper Room on a Thursday night?
She never felt so old, so out of place. Would the band never come on?
Three loud boys stood at the bar next to her, looking at their cell phones and laughing about some text message. She felt invisible. She felt like a junior high wallflower all over again–ignored, ridiculous, hopeful, despairing. Finally an older group came in–two whippet-thin men with gray hair, and women with those expensive choppy haircuts, who sat in a reserved booth in the corner. They looked like people from the music business. Maybe she could pretend that’s what she was. I’m from the record company. The ‘label,’ isn’t that what they said? Or an agent. Or a backup singer from the House of Blues up the street, dropping by to see what was new. A ‘friend of the band.’ Something that would make it cool to be old, or at least plausible. Actually, I own this joint.
At last, The YoYos came on. A fat drummer with a goatee, skinny-ass bass player with a cap, intense, intellectual keyboardist in hornrimmed glasses, and Dustin, astonishingly handsome in a Bob Marley t-shirt, dreads bright in the darkness. They had a psychedelic sound–the keyboardist sang, a reedy voice, and Dustin was indeed a remarkable guitarist, he played with a warm, honeyish, Hendrixy tone that was thrilling, almost like a human voice, and Michelle could feel that voice inside her, warming her. She had not dated since she and Jeremy divorced. and could not silence the fantasies of Dustin. She had had them since Chloe started taking lessons. That smooth skin, the goofy macramé necklace with the simple beads woven in, his sensitivity, he picked up on her vibe, she knew it, but not in an awful way. Just–he knew.
Oh, he’d seen her! She waved, a small wave, and he smiled, dipped his guitar. And what if… What if she just gave in? Wasn’t that really why she was here? In adult’s-only territory, minus the 13 year old chaperone? She gazed at Dustin in his luminous pool of spotlight, the liquid tone of his guitarwork. For once, she would not chicken out. She would not let tonight slip away without seeing what this was. She would be insane not to find out. She had not slept with anybody in a year, a whole year…. she had worn her red lace underwear, just in case. And had slipped a condom into her wallet–though boys knew what to do now, it was de rigeur. She wondered what his place was like. She hoped it wasn’t full of dirty clothes and pizza boxes, moldy. But she was sure he would make her feel just like that sound, honey and warm and thrilling.
Finally, the YoYo set was over. She waited anxiously. Was he ever going to come out? Oh, yes, here he was! Golden, still looking like there was a spotlight on him. Pushing through the crowd which had thickened during the set. He saw her at the bar and swam over to her. “Michelle! You came!” He hugged her, and kissed her on the cheek. His shirt was soaked with sweat. “Thanks for coming, it means a lot. Did you like it?”
“Amazing. So glad I finally heard the whole band..” He kept his arm around her shoulder. She assumed he was going to join her for a drink, but a pretty girl in a baby-doll vintage dress and striped tights squeezed in, and he seemed equally delighted to see her, and the other people he knew. He was just delighted to see everybody, like a big Golden Retriever puppy. Just a world of delight, embracing them all, wrapping them in his glow, and letting his friends lead him away. “Thanks for coming!” he shouted back over his shoulder. “See you Tuesday!”
And she realized that was all there was. All there’d be. She had seen him play. That was all he’d wanted. Just for her to come and see the show, after paying him all these weeks. To see what he could do. He hadn’t promised anything, she’d just read him wrong. She was stunned, that she could be so stupid, such a silly, ridiculous middle-aged sentimentalist, she should have stayed home and read a Harlequin Romance. To think that a boy like that would be interested in her– a pupil’s mom, who sometimes let him stay to dinner when the lesson ran late. She wanted to drop into the floor. She wanted to disappear in a flash of sulphurous smoke. She grabbed her purse, dug around for a Kleenex but of course there was never one when you needed it.
The bartender slapped another Jack Daniels on the bar.
“I didn’t order this,” Michelle said.
The tattooed girl nodded down the bar to a man with a little beard, glasses, a leather jacket. Pleasant looking, rosy cheeked. He held up his bottle of beer. Cheers.
She’d seen this in movies, but it had never happened to her before. Well, she would drink it. She was forty, not twenty two. She toasted him back, drank. Let it loosen the tightness around her ribcage, the grip of shame upon her throat. What was she out? The price of a drink, $10 parking. What was self respect, anyway?
“So, you’re friends with YoYo guitar player.” The little man with the beard had edged down the bar, and now stood next to her.
“My daughter’s guitar teacher,” she said matter of factly. Not even trying to look like a backup singer or a music industry professional.
He tipped back his Newcastle Brown. “How old’s your daughter?”
“Thirteen,” she said.
“Yeah, she’s good.” She sipped her fresh Jack Daniels. “You know, I’ve never been here before. Driven by a million times. It used to be owned by Bugsy Siegel in the Forties.”
He grinned. His teeth were small, with an appealing gap between the front two. “Well you better watch out, you might end up with a musician, and then you’ll be here three times a week. At least she’s a guitar player. My son’s a drummer.” His glance went to the drum kit being set up on stage. “If he’d played the harmonica, I could have gotten a sports car. He’s in the next band, The Free Thinkers. You staying?”
It was midnight. If she left now, she could be home by 12:30, and tucked up in bed ten minutes later. Across the room, Dustin stood with his lanky arm wrapped around the girl in the striped tights. She couldn’t leave now. It would feel like slinking out with her crushed little party favor of a heart stuffed in her handbag.
“Sure, why not. It’s almost the weekend.”
The Free Thinkers were better than the YoYos, the songs less cliche, the singer’s voice was strong and clear, and the man’s kid, the drummer, was insanely good. She leaned back against the bar and thought, she hadn’t really needed Dustin after all. She’d just needed something.
Maybe this was one of the Secrets of the Universe.
Cheep at twice the price.
Part of a semi-weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word. “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”
Next week’s word is: FOLD