The name (most) every string musician would love to see inside their instrument.
The name (most) every string musician would love to see inside their instrument.
Yeah…I think every telephone pole (Or at least every third one) in Rye is wearing this poster…dear lords above and below please don’t let Little Ben do anything silly before I figure out how to fix things…
(New Mexico red chili sauce went so well with these!)
It wasn’t just my desire to avoid a hangover on Wednesday morning that inspired me to pass the atypical copy of Nevermore’s Conventions over to Beatrice for her perusal – but also a little known fact about my roommate.
It’s no secret that Beatrice has dedicated the bulk of her adult life to the written word. Working at PULP, the West coast’s largest independent purveyor of glue, paper & string, she’s perpetually got her nose buried in one book or another. On top of her voracious reading, she pens blurbs, reviews, and reports for PULP’s patrons and bosses. Then there’s the small detail of her earning a doctorate in Medieval Literature at university. Owing to this continuous and long-standing immersion in printed material, Beatrice’s grammar, punctuation, and vocabulary are all top-shelf.
All of which makes her abominable penmanship kinda ironic.
Even Wood’s notorious chicken scratch, which he claims is the result of acing the elective ‘Calligraphy for Clinicians’ in medical school, doesn’t hold a candle to Beatrice’s scrawling hand.
I only stumbled across this quirk a few months back. Whereupon returning home one afternoon, I discovered a series of sinister symbols dashed across the cloudy glass of my bedroom door. Unsure if these unknown characters, scribbled in easy to clean red dry-erase marker, signaled the casting of a spell or a curse on my person, I sent a picture to Beatrice asking for a second opinion. She texted back a translation of the script, which to my eye, resembled the jumbled glyphs in no way, shape, or form.
(I returned her text with a picture of a great-horned owl dramatically swiveling their head with a caption – “Are U Sure?” and received an eye-roll emoji in return.)
Now unlike my handwriting-challenged roommate, the author of the unorthodox version of the Conventions probably won penmanship awards in primary school. The loops, flourishes, and slant of the script lends such an air of splendor and grace to its’ pages, your eye gets lost in the whirls, swirls, and flow of the midnight-blue ink.
And that’s the problem.
Our scribe favored form over function to such a degree it renders the unique copy of the Convention’s pages as unintelligible as Beatrice’s phone message to me. Indeed, our author was so committed to creating a gorgeous work of art they even deviate from the standardized spelling of words whenever a letter clashed with the overall flow of the page – thus making the book’s decoding that much more difficult…
…Unless you happen to have an expert on Penmanship Pandemonium on tap who possesses a competitive streak a mile wide.
Beatrice, the aforementioned expert, seemed to relish the battle of wits she was waging with a past Nevermorian penman. So much so she finished wading thru the entire tome by the time I got home from work on Thursday evening.
Stepping thru the front door, I called out, “Beatrice you home?”
Shedding my outer layers, I pattered on about my day before tracing the absentminded answer to its source.
“I hope you had a good day because mine was crap. Not only did Mr. Nowak manage to break a jar of sauerkraut in the Princess’s front seat this morning. Later a pregnant lady took a half dozen sniffs of the leftover fermented cabbage fumes and booted out the window – all over the passenger side panels of the Princess. The only upside is I’ve nearly finished my punchcard at Squeaky Clean Car Wash.”
Standing in the doorway of Beatrice’s office, I found her hunched over her desk, one hand manning a wooden ruler underscoring a line in the Conventions while her other pecked at the computer keyboard rhythmically.
“Nearly done here…”
“No worries, I’ll start dinner.”
Stepping into the kitchen, my mind on repurposing Tuesday night’s leftover arroz con pollo into scrummy hand-pies, I robotically clicked the radio on. Just in time to hear the headline leading KARB’s top-of-the-hour news segment, “Earlier today, community groups barricaded themselves inside two buildings in Nevermore to protest the Cemetary’s expansion plans. Said plans include the demolition of both clubhouses and the destruction of several acres of forested land…..”
Since the station’s news desk hadn’t reported anything new on the situation since seven this morning, I flipped off the mellow voice of the newsreader mid-sentence. Staring into space and tapping my fingernail against the plastic housing of the radio, I tried to figure out how this development fits in with the outline of events I’d started the other night.
Before I got very far in either my brooding or dinner prep, my cell started ringing – the name on its display sending my heart into instant palpitations.
Hands shaking, I managed to answer the call on my fourth swipe of the screen.
Little Ben (hesitantly): “Hey, Morticia.”
Squeezing my eyes shut, I struggled to keep the disappointment out of my voice. Finally, an Abernathy calls me, and it’s the wrong one.
Me (walking over to twist a knob on the oven): “What’s up?”
Pithy equals politic at the moment.
Little Ben (babbling): “I was hoping I could swing by on Saturday and talk with you.”
Me (yanking the necessary ingredients for dinner out of the fridge): “About?”
Little Ben: “I’d rather not get into it on the phone. Are you free around one?”
Me (slamming the microwave door on the leftover arroz con pollo): “Yes.”
Little Ben: “Can we meet at your place? There’s too much going on in Nevermore right now….”
I let his understatement roll right by.
Me (unrolling the premade pie dough on the counter): “Sure, do you need directions to the apartment?”
Little Ben: “No, I know the way.”
Me (cutting the dough into perfect circles with a rim of a bowl): “Cool?”
Little Ben: “Okay, see you then.”
Staring at my phone, I hit the red disconnect symbol, striving to fathom Little Ben’s sudden enthusiasm for my company – and I mean enthusiasm – he sounded downright giddy at the prospect of coming over. Beatrice, who apparently came in at the tail end of the call, fetched the container from the microwave and joined me at the counter.
Whilst mixing a prodigious amount of queso fresco into the warmed leftovers, Beatrice addressed the frown on my face.
“No? Frankly, I’m not really sure. Little Ben called to ask if he could stop by the day after tomorrow.”
“Well, at least you’ll have something to talk about besides the protests.”
Beatrice’s offhanded comment made me reel back slightly and inadvertently drop a dollop of cheesy filling onto the linoleum.
“You found something?”
Walking over to the now enthusiastically annotated copy of the Conventions Beatrice, after wiping her hands on a tea-towel, slid several sheets of paper out from under the front cover and held them out to me.
“Oh, yeah, I found something.”
(Perhaps Elmo’s transformation was spurred on by the rock’n’roll and drink beyond these doors…)
Leo (tossing a chicken bone onto his plate): “What a bench.”
Robbie (looking trepidatious): “What happened next? Please tell me you didn’t stick your fingers in your ears and hum…”
Me (laughing at Robbie’s allusion to my failed schoolyard strategy): “Just keep listening. This is where things get interesting.”
This is also the moment I’m supremely relieved the microphone sticks strictly to audio cues…Not only on account of how foolish it feels to admit, even to myself, that I had a Tickle-Me-Elmo inspired epiphany at my age. But also due to the serious bender, my subconscious sent that Little Red Menace on to secure said epiphany. Because not only did he pop into my head at that moment but in a blink of my mind’s eye, that sweet little giggling red muppet bopping around Sesame Street transformed into a lanky, scruffy, hedonistic beasty cavorting in an enchanted forest… Setting fires for fun or at the Goblin King’s command…Goblin King…O’Goblin King….damn I always forget that line….
The multitude of buttons on Josie’s jacket tapped softly against the center console, e-brake lever, and my half-empty coffee cup as she opened her coat. Our eyes briefly met as I rotated back forward and put the Princess into drive. I’ve no clue what expression my woefully poor poker face wore as my neurons flickered and fired during my Elmo inspired epiphany, but whatever it was prompted her to pull out an old chestnut.
“Dear Lord, I had no idea you were still so sensitive. How on earth do you manage? Would a generous tip smooth those ruffled feathers of yours?”
She has no power over me.
The sudden insight came and went in a flash and left me feeling lighter than freshly whipped meringue.
Even better, my silence only lasted a few heartbeats and was entirely overshadowed by Josie’s sharp squawks of protest when I stomped on the brake and shut off the Princess’s engine in the middle of the Happy Planet parking lot.
Allowing her outrage peter itself out, I let the peace and quiet unspool between us for four or five seconds more before dropping the stack of claim slips in her lap. “Josie, you’ve got two choices, either I can engage another FLYT driver for you this evening, or I can drive you home. Choose one or the other. It doesn’t matter which, but one way or another, we’re done.”
Robbie (fist bumping me): “Hooray!!!”
“You heard me.”
In an all-business tone, she picked up the claim slips off her lap and crumpled them in a tight fist. “That’s not going to work, I’ve too much to do before dad’s big party.”
“Not my problem.”
Jerking open her purse, Josie yanked out and unsnapped her wallet. “What’s it going to take?”
Staring her in the eye, I let my distaste shine in my reply. “Let me make this crystal clear Josie, I am not for sale. So either give me your address or get out.”
Shoving her wallet back into her bag. “Fine, take me home.”
As our voices were equally vehement and firm, neither our words nor tone was lost in the tumult of my tugging the phone free of its dashboard perch.
“You know where I live.”
“I’d say under Iron Creek Bridge, but that seems a little too on the nose.”
“Seriously, you’re going to play dumb?”
“You’re claiming not to know where I live after you practically Moon Bathed on my front doorstep the other night? That’s rich.”
“Fantastic, you live near Remembrance Park. Now a hint about your house number wouldn’t go amiss right about now….”
Her retort was rendered nearly, but not quite, unintelligible due to my tapping and swiping around in the FLYT ap. Followed by my phone resuming its roost and the unmistakable sound of the engine turning over.
“Am I supposed to believe you weren’t spying on me?”
“For the love of Peter Parker, I was there on a lark, eating good food and trying to contact Edmund Wynter using a spirit board. Not trying to catch a glimpse of you what…drunk as a skunk? Cheating on your boyfriend? Howling at the moon? Get over yourself, you’re not that interesting.”
The rhythmic bounce of her leg told me my barb hit home, as did her ceaseless fiddling with the claim slips during the tense silence that reigned supreme until I pulled against the curb of Remembrance Park a few minutes later.
“Hopefully, this is close enough for government work, since you’ve still not given me your address.”
Deliberately gathering her things at a snail’s pace, Josie took full advantage of her extra time in the Princess. Speaking in a voice carefully modulated into a convincing counterfeit of warmth and sincerity… “Speaking of work, yours not mine, don’t count on any further business from myself or my friends.”
Continuing on as if I hadn’t spoken. “It’s obvious you’re still holding onto hard feelings over a few minor pranks, and I can’t in good conscience expose them to your profound negativity.”
“Yeah, my refusal to listen to your steady stream of bile tonight must stem from that time you persuaded Sylvia Hershel to sprinkle itching powder in my gym clothes sophomore year.” In an attempt to expedite our parting, I slipped the Princess’s key out of the ignition and into my vest pocket. “Now that that’s all cleared up, let me grab your laundry, and we’ll settle up. Shall we?”
Unfortunately, the recording picked up neither Josie’s scathing look nor her rigid smile, though it did register the simultaneous squeak of the Princess’s doors as we exited the car. Followed by my seat moving forward, and the swishing sound of silk sliding inside diaphanous plastic dry cleaning bags as I removed the dazzling dresses from the Princess’s backseat.
The last words picked up by the mic was my automatic, “Have a good night.”
Me (turning off my phone): “The recording pretty much peters out at this point.”
Robbie: “Did she say anything else outside of mic range?”
Me (wryly): “Not a word, I do believe she thought her hair flip and three-cent tip rebuttal enough.”
Leo (interjecting): “Were you in the park to spy on her, Boss?”
Me (shaking my head): “Hand on heart, no, no, I wasn’t.”
Ira (looking thoughtful): “But isn’t it interesting that she accuses you doing so…”
Me (swirling my lemonade in my glass): “Not as interesting as the fact she didn’t actually think I was.”
Ira (brow creasing): “Then why was she trying to goad you into admitting you knew where she lived?”
Me: “Because, if I knew where she lived, then she’d know I’d seen Sarah leaving her house.”
This statement was met by a torrent of questions, all starting with the letter ‘W’ from Robbie and Leo. Ira no less curious, let them take point, mostly because getting a word in edgewise would’ve been well-nigh impossible. Beatrice, having already helped me piece together the whole rigmarole, stood and started gathering up everyone’s silverware into the empty drumette dish.
Beatrice (exchanging a smile Ira while absconding with his fork, interrupted Robbie): “Phoebe, why don’t you read everyone onto the same page while I clean up? The worksheets and papers are next to the radio under the Conventions and my laptop.”
Robbie (collecting everyone’s napkins and placemats): “Worksheets?”
Leo (standing stock-still in the middle of the kitchen and thus in nearly everyone’s way): “Forget the worksheets, you found a copy of the unabridged Conventions?”
(I tried to get pics of the rest of the food – but it went so fast I only managed to get pics of the tuna noodle casserole!)
Opening the front door, I found Ira and Leo standing on the welcome mat, holding sweet-smelling bundles.
Ira (chagrined smile decorating his face): “Sorry we’re late, but the Missus wanted to send along a casserole, and it took longer to finish baking than she’d anticipated….”
Me (relieving him of the cloth-covered dish): “Ira, anything your wife cooks is more than worth the wait. Come on in.”
Leo: “Hey boss, I brought cupcakes…”
Me (my stomach fluttered in response to his words – Leo’s knitting needles are talented, but his kitchen skills are infamous): “Did you make them yourself?”
Leo (lips twitching): “A dozen of the Alter’s finest.”
Me (quietly releasing the breath I was holding): “If you’d like to hang up your coats on a hook, we’re back in the kitchen.”
Leo (eyebrows rising in surprise): “We?”
Me: “I needed help. Don’t worry, I kept it in the family.”
The next few minutes were taken up with hellos and how-do-you-do’s as everyone introduced and/or reacquainted themselves with each other over wings, dumplings, and a scoop or two of casserole. (Which if eaten individually – was wonderful, but taken together? Tuna-and-noodle casserole, garlic-soy-sauce wings, and maraschino cherry & pumpkin seed cupcakes did not exactly meld well on one’s pallet. Despite that small hiccup, we still managed to do the dishes justice.)
Robbie (hand suspended over my phone): “You want to start the tape from the beginning?”
Ira (tilting his head at me): “Tape?”
Me (leaning back in my chair): “This last Monday, Josie Reville ordered a ride thru FLYT, from me specifically, and I sort of recorded our entire trip on my phone.”
Leo (laughing): “Sort of?”
Me (lips twitching): “Not the critical take away here, what is, is our conversation.”
Since we weren’t too far into the recording, we agreed to start over. When we reached the audio gap, where Robbie, Beatrice, and I left off earlier, I filled them in on the action occurring outside the range of my phone’s microphone. Until the recording resumed spitting out something more interesting than me shifting in my seat or the occasional blare of a car horn.
(I did think about sticking my phone out the window, but I judged that a bit overly keen.)
Drycleaning in one hand and phone in the other, Josie’s forward progress towards the Princess abruptly ended a yard from her front bumper. At which point, Josie attempted to fuse her cellphone to her skull, by simultaneously pivoting and tilting so her entire bodyweight appeared to rest against her right ear – and the phone firmly pressed against it.
My spidey senses (augmented by the naked vexation adorning her face and underscored by a light amount of finger-pointing) told me Josie’s trenchant heart-to-heart wasn’t going well.
Losing interest in Josie’s unusual but not unprecedented outburst of temper, my attention wandered onto her handful of long shimmering frocks. Frocks that rapidly bewitched the eye with their twinkling dance. Ignoring the fact the glittering display owed its origins to passing headlights and Josie’s intermittent finger jabbing, I continued to enjoy their sparkle and shine. So much so it took a minute for me to realize Josie had shifted her gaze off the ground, thru the windscreen and onto me.
Figuring this was my cue, I cracked open my door to relieve Josie of the hangers cramping her efforts at a more emphatic style of gesticulation. No sooner had I set foot on the pavement, Josie made me aware of my misread cue.
“I’ll let you know when you’re needed.”
Allowing Josie’s autocratic tone to roll off my back, I stiffly dipped my chin and retook my seat. Deciding to adjust my focus off Josie and her enthralling dry cleaning, I pulled a narrow notebook out from under my seat.
Pointedly keeping my eyes off of the glimmering gowns, I flipped to the correct to-do list and sent my pencil whooshing across the page. Crossing off the names of the novelties I’d placed on layaway at the Toy Shop this afternoon felt satisfying and unexpectedly nostalgic. The first time I ever took my life into my own hands was participating in a holiday toy craze. Not only did I drive two states over and nearly ended up engaging in fisticuffs with a desperate mum – the Princess received her first dent!
All so I could secure a Tickle-Me-Elmo for a four-year-old Robbie. (Worth it.)
Scarcely had the memory of that giggling scrap of red fur finished pulling a genuine smile from me, Josie’s tight voice moving past the Princess’s front wheel-well dimmed it considerably. “What’s so hard? We made sure there were only two options…Get him on board!”
In the midst of secreting away my notepad, Josie reached my door and hung up her phone. Apparently concerned I’d missed her arrival, she started tapping her acrylic nail against my half-opened window – thus extinguishing the remnants of my cheery reverie.
“Are you going to help me with this? Or do I need to do this myself as well?”
Plastering on a smile that probably looked as sincere as it felt, I once again exited the Princess and found myself immediately in possession of Josie’s fancy-pants laundry. Due to her shoving it into my arms. Taking a deep breath of the crisp air, I closed my eyes and counted the clicks Josie’s sky-high heels made against the asphalt. I’d reached the count of twelve when the squeal of the Princess’s passenger side door opening obscured her footfalls and most everything else, except her voice.
“Whenever you’re ready.”
The only upside to Josie slamming the door was it cut off the condescension of her words.
Leaning into the Princess, I slipped my seat forward and gingerly hung/laid the gleaming evening dresses across the backseat. After climbing behind the wheel, I engaged the engine and shifted into reverse. “Where would you like me to drop you off tonight? Back at the garage? Work? Home?”
“What?” Transferring her frown from the black screen of her phone to me.
“What’s our final destination? I need it to plan the most efficient route for your chores.”
Neither the faint squeak my seat made as I swiveled in place to see out the rear window or the increase in engine noise as I depressed the gas pedal detracted from the unadulterated derision Josie embroidered into her answer.
“O’Phoebe, always going the extra mile when no one asks you too.”
I never thought anyone, much less the Josie Reville, would ambush me using FLYT…
…the colors of the sunset would’ve hung in the sky a bit longer (and taken my mind off my FLYT fare).
(Technically this is the Diner on the Corner’s biscuit and gravy spread – I forgot to take a pic of the chipped beef before I ate it!)
“It was a dark and stormy night.”
Beatrice (arching an eyebrow): “Was it, though?”
Robbie (brow furrowed): “Where? It’s been clear as a bell at the house for over a week. Not that I’ve been outside much…”
Me: “I’m trying to set a mood.”
Watching them roll their eyes in unison, I hastily moved on.
Me: “Okay, it wasn’t stormy per se, but it was dark.”
“My last arranged fare of the day, Mrs. Kim, called it quits on her Christmas shopping thirty minutes early…”
Robbie: “Shirt. Have you started making your presents for the gift exchange yet?”
Me: “Yes. I’m assuming you haven’t?”
Robbie (shifting in his seat): “Do you think sticking googly-eyes on condiments counts as homemade?”
Me (suppressing a grin): “If you have to ask….”
Beatrice (tipping her cup of earl grey my way): “Anyways…”
“Mrs. Kim’s early night meant I could eat a warm meal before my second shift started. I’d just polished off my plate of chipped beef on toast with the works when the lights flickered crazily as my FLYT ap popped.”
Beatrice (her tone dry as dust): “Warning our heroine, she should’ve stayed at home…”
Robbie: “Who has S.O.S. on their menu anymore?”
Me (responding in reverse order): “The Diner on the Corner had it as their Throwback Monday Special-of-the-Day and I take it you’re looking for less extravagant descriptions?”
Beatrice: “They do drape your story in a certain amount of distortion.”
Me: “Actually, they won’t.”
Robbie: “Really? How?”
Pulling my phone out of my back pocket, I placed it between the serving plates on the kitchen table.
Me (sheepishly): “I recorded the entire ride.”
Robbie (incredulously): “Isn’t that against FLYT regulations?”
Me: “Yes. However, in my defense, it was an accident…though when I did remember, I didn’t bother shutting it off….”
Beatrice (eyes sparkling with suppressed laughter): “You know, Ms. Hettie will have a fit if you get fired. She likes her tenants gainfully employed…”
Me (shrugging helplessly at the end): “Seriously, it was an accident. I was recording a voice memo while I was driving. When I hit the parking lot, the FLYT prompt superseded the phone screen. When I figured out who ordered the ride, the phone was the least of my worries.”
Robbie: “Don’t keep us in suspense, who was it?”
Pulling the Princess into the ill-lit lot of Hudson Brother’s Garage, I scanned for a man befitting of the name J.R. It took a moment for a silhouette to detach itself from the inky shadows and saunter towards the passenger side door. Passing through a pool of light issuing from the office window, the shade’s profile resolved itself into a dame.
A dame who I knew was nothing but trouble.
Me (holding up my hands under their twin glares): “Okay, okay, I’ll stop.”
Without meeting either Robbie or Beatrice’s level (and unamused) looks, I wiped the soy-garlic-glaze off my fingers, picked up my phone, plugged in my password, pressed play, and set it back amongst our dinner plates.
The strains of the Greensleeves Tango played for a second before KARB’s musical selection muted, allowing both the ambient car noises and my voice to shine through. (Entertainingly, describing the dinner we were currently eating days before we actually sat down at the kitchen table in the Lavender Lady.)
“Frozen peas, yellow pepper, water chestnuts and corn sautéed in garlic and onions for the dumpling filling. Need to get a red pepper, some bean sprouts, snow peas, julienned carrots, cilantro, and rice noodles for salad. Plus, a couple of limes, ginger, Serrano chilis and chili oil for the sauces. Need to marinate the chicken wings for at least a day….”
The soft tick of the turn indicator and an increase in rustle cloth accompanied my preoccupied voice. “Okay J.R., I’m here where are you?” Silence descended in the Princess as her wheels roll to a stop, thus allowing the phone to pick up my sharp gasp.
“Oh, holy forking hell. You’ve got to be kidding me…”
Beatrice (putting her chopsticks down): “What’s that thrumming noise? I forgot to ask before.”
Me: “My fist bouncing rapidly off the bottom of the steering wheel, I was debating whether or not to set the Princess’s tires on fire peeling out.”
The vibrating stopped a moment before the squeaky passenger side door opened. “Phoebe! I’m so glad you’re finally here! Oh, and look, you’re wearing another charming hat. It’s not as eye-catching as the octopus, but the plastic holly does lend it a certain je ne sais quoi.”
“I’m well within the pickup window, you…Josie.” I finished lamely, ignoring both her dig at Squiddy and my festoon chauffeur’s cap. (I’d found a small vintage fairy-cake topper and tucked it in the band of my hat – I rather liked the effect it created.)
Robbie (grinning): “You almost called her a Brownie Stealing Bench, didn’t you.”
Me (mouth twitching): “Maybe….”
Beatrice (her eyebrows puckered together): “Why did she use just her initials instead of her full name?”
Me (shrugging): “I’m guessing she knew I wouldn’t have accepted the fare otherwise.”
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