At the Moment
It was hard enough for Josie to get a date these days, what with the economy being so bad. It’s not like she could afford to go out to bars, even if she wanted to. It was hard enough with the social networking and the dating sites that promised to find her one and only, despite the fact that half of the handsome and available young men messaging her were actually convicts or overweight married guys looking for some kind of treat that had less to do with love and more to do with a tragic spell-check error. It was hard enough with all of that.
She had grown accustomed to the playing, sometimes soft and steady in rhythm with her steps as they fell. But today he was playing louder, more boisterously than usual as she balanced on tiptoe, an up tempo number at full volume with little to no pause for breath. When the song was through, he would start it up all over again, the same tune over and over. Normally, her close-walking companion enjoyed changing it up a little, if not for her benefit for his own artistic sake, which was why today it was more than just an awkward annoyance to hear the song again and again. A little variation in his song choice, especially at this moment, would be welcome rather than what she’d been hearing on repeat. She was half-hovering under the oversized patent leather purse she’d suddenly felt happy about picking up last week at the consignment. It was functioning as more than a necessary umbrella. At this point it acted as her shield, a buffer blocking out the booming sound coming from right behind her.
Some days were easier than others. Some days he’d play the Carpenters or an old Viennese waltz, tunes suited for dentists’ offices and discount stores. Other times it was the sweet sounds of the sixties or the more traditional Scottish folksong. Today she wasn’t that lucky.
She wasn’t doing so well in the getting lucky department.
It’s not like she needed a date, not where she was going, but sometimes it would be nice to have someone on a day like this, someone to hold her elbow as she negotiated the slippery sidewalk, ducked under bobbing leaves, heavy from their surroundings, a nice guy in an overcoat with a large umbrella to keep the cold rain from plastering her hair to the side of her face, little black beads of seldom-worn makeup sliding down her face like slalom skiers.
In her hand the crumpled piece of paper read 3 to 6 p.m., the messy handwriting hanging on by a runny blue thread under the droplets that fell from the overhead awning just in front of the entrance, marked with the name written in scrolled script. The set of heavy, white wooden doors carved with swirls and squiggles could only mean she was entering somewhere formal, where the only thing colder than the temperature inside would be the small talk and uncomfortably forced smiles.
By the looks of it, she was unfortunately right on time.
“Are you going to stay out here, Fleming?”
The piper, swept away by strains of his own song, finished his tune and looked up somberly as if the question in itself were an offense.
Fleming had gone all out today. His kilt was pressed into perfectly crisp pleats matched exactly by his tunic which mirrored his bright plaid cross and waist belt. The scheme was quite deliberate. From his Spats to his hose and garters, all the way to his puffed up feather bonnet, he had made sure every stitch of him was in place, completely squared away. Not one color was off. As far as bagpipers go he was looking top-shelf.
“I didn’t think so,” she sighed, taking a moment to straighten the mess that had become her hair, wiping a blob of skier from off her upper lip.
“Here we go.”
As expected a rush of chilled, sterile air brushed her cheeks like an estranged lover’s kiss hello. She wished she brought a hair brush or, thanks to the unforeseen downpour, a beach towel to make some sense out of her sodden hair. As if he’d read her mind Fleming turned up the volume on the song that was now dictating the cadence of her heart.
He was standing close enough to provide her with some much needed heat at her back. From the front, all she was getting was ice.
An army of eyes shot down the corridor where she stood half-frozen by the small room where she’d reluctantly given up her coat. The black and white tiles on the floor suddenly reminded her of a dart board as she trained her stare downward, concentrating on an imaginary shot she needed to make; she would imagine this rather than give any attention to the angry peacock rump that was the group of lovely ladies dead ahead, or to think of how her hair had gone gooey from rain and products she’d never used before.
Fleming was still riffing on the intro to the song. He seemed to add more flourish and pizzazz this time. He didn’t seem to mind that she ducked into the bathroom. Bathroom stalls, showers and other private items of hygienic nature he had left just to Josie. It was either out of respect or complete disinterest. That she hadn’t figured out yet.
As far as her piper, he’d been with her for as long as she could remember. One day in elementary school when the boys and girls were divvying up sides for dodge ball she turned around and there he was, decked out in kilt, tunic and baseball hat. No one in her class seemed to mind his rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” By the time she was in high school folks had just grown accustomed to him, whether he be bleating out “Weird Science” during Chem finals, or free styling jazz licks as she sat munching a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at lunch. There was that brief time in junior high when Fleming just up and disappeared. That’s when he was suddenly and unexpectedly replaced by a robust and overtly affectionate Gospel singer named Yolanda who was good natured but arguably not Fleming. He was a silent partner, despite the bagpipes. Yolanda was something of an extrovert bidding praise and advice to all of Josie’s schoolmates. It was only then she realized how much Fleming had grown to be part of her. She was thankful when he’d emerged one sunny morning just a couple years later. Before she could even get out the first word to question what happened he’d jumped into a medley of pop songs that were dominating the charts. She appreciated his efforts to be relevant and hip as she got on the school bus for the first time as a high school student. It was somewhere between that day and his soft, seductive rendition of “Killing Me Softly” as she departed for her prom, she stopped questioning at all.
Either way, the warmth of the ladies’ lounge was welcome. She loved how these fancy places did everything they could to disguise something as innocuous and potentially gross as a bathroom as something else -- a lushly furnished sitting area, an old timey room full of cabanas. She’d seen a few. This one was set up in toasty mauve velvets. It reminded her of a dressing room she’d see in a saloon in an old time western.
No matter, what it was dressed up as didn’t matter. So long as it served a purpose. It had enough light for her to see the mushy wreck that had become her face. How she was convinced to slather this stuff on in the first place had escaped her. She wiped at the mess under her eyes and slicked down her fuzzy albeit sopping hair so that she could push some of the stray pieces behind her ears. With her blunt, no-nonsense do half wet and done this way she could almost pass for someone who had done their hair this way on purpose, like the models in the old Vidal Sassoon commercials or in music videos with the serious ladies in the black dresses and wound-red lipstick.
It would have to do, this attempt to spruce up for the occasion. It wasn’t everyday she met up with her first boyfriend. And it only made matters worse that he’d become obscenely successful in the finance world, not that Josie begrudged him the success, but it made the crowd even tougher than what she was used to.
The original group of looky-loos had dissipated, leaving behind one or two stragglers who stood agog like nutcrackers moreso than smartly dressed professionals and suburban soccer moms. She just needed to get down that corridor. It emptied out into a larger room, a more open setup where the pipes wouldn’t reverberate in such a way that her bones seemed to shake. It wasn’t just in her head. She passed a large glass vase full of flowers that absolutely quaked as they walked by.
She turned back to Fleming with a pleading look as they approached the opening. There were overstuffed chairs on opposite sides of the room. They looked soft, sound-absorbent.
“Can you stop for just one second?”
He looked at her sad eyes and for a moment something happened that hadn’t occurred in the past two decades.
At the threshold of the room full of well-dressed people who shook hands, hugged and pretended to listen to each other, the piper freed his mouth from his music, leaving the room as close to silent as it had been since Josie’s conspicuous entrance.
“Thank you,” she half-sighed and smiled touching the small Scot’s shoulder. He didn’t try to ignore her but wasn’t a bit moved by the gesture, too busy with his own business. He steadied his tall, feathered headpiece so it stood perfectly erect, straightened his cross and waist belt that hung against scarlet tunic like raspberry stripes. He even took a moment to inspect his hose and garters, making sure his legs weren’t hiding any stray raindrops or wrinkles. His patent leather Spats looked like mid-life convertibles gleaming hot in the sun. He made sure he was spot-on before they crossed the threshold.
She didn’t see him puff out his cheeks as his lungs filled to capacity. She hadn’t guessed that he’d saved his loudest playing for this precise moment.
It was too late. The overstuffed chairs were deceptive, completely lacking any buffer ability. If anything, the loud blasts of “Stayin’ Alive” bounced off of the thick leather cushions and ricocheted across the room. The few people who stood in tight clusters loosened up their circles to get a look at whomever or whatever had just made such an entrance. Some looked disappointed that it was only a slightly familiar looking young woman in brown, slouching so far into her own shoulders she may have been able to pass for headless. They were, on the other hand, agape at the sight of Fleming who was so engrossed in his own music that it was he who did not notice. Even if he hadn’t been putting on the performance of his life the piper was one often unimpressed and unmoved by the opinions and musings of others. Staring, pointing, even thrown tomatoes were never so much as a distraction, let alone a deterrent for the one who played the pipes.
“Sorry, excuse me, sorry ‘bout this…it’s…I can’t help what he…Oops, excuse me….Sorry.”
She moved through the path of people that seemed to be carved into the small crowd and continued her apologies to herself, to no one, and to whomever would listen, as she stood in the greeting line.
By the third rendition of the song she could see that he waited there at the end of the line at the far end of the room. He was flanked by women she almost recognized, save one she knew straight out.
She wasn’t wearing the traditional white of the perfect catch, but she still smiled the same well-trained, Vaseline-slicked, lifeless grin she’d learned years ago when she was still doing dance recitals and her favorite accessory was a sash.
She was the one who wrote him the letter, the one that said he’d be happier with her and that Josie would understand. It was years ago, petty high school tragedy that means nothing, literally and existentially. It was stupid nothing stuff that was more than under Josie’s bridge, but for a split second she thought that Fleming was going to break into a more sinister tune. For a tiny tick she thought she could hear a beat of something ominous break into the loop she’d forgotten was still going.
People were stopping to talk to her, holding her hands and patting her on the shoulder as she smiled back nodding, speaking softly and demurring her head to the one Josie could call her first. He didn’t say much. He sat there, reclining, really, with a changeless look on his face. Out of everyone there he seemed to be the most genuinely at ease.
At least he was happy where he was. She had to believe that.
At least he wouldn’t have to deal with the nonsense anymore that she dealt with everyday, the senseless dating anxiety, performing like a circus clown, the pretending, the meeting people and number exchanging, that stupid first time conversation fodder that is so rooted in what seem to be questions that are already written for us. He wouldn’t have to act like a game show host or ask the standard twenty questions everyone wants to hear and no one wants to answer, truthfully at least. He wouldn’t have to wonder if he’d be spending his nights alone or get all caught up in that dopiness and romancing that always ends up in some sort of inquiry about forever. Now none of that would be an issue ever again. After today, he’d never have to worry at all.
Josie was glad for him that he had found that peace.
Fleming was booming now, really wailing. Out of the corner of her eye she could see someone fighting the urge to join in on the chorus. Most people are put off by a steady soundtrack of bagpipes but she’d been waiting so long in this line it had seamlessly become an accepted component of the occasion.
The main squeeze, letter girl, the giant tube of extra-whitening toothpaste, stood there gleaming. Her makeup had been applied expertly, not a hair on her head was out of place. She held a small handkerchief that she apparently did not need in her left hand and blotted at phantom scourges on her face that posed no threat to soiling her cheeks the way Josie’s had.
It was interesting to watch her pretend that she couldn’t hear Fleming, or better, that she couldn’t see Josie approaching three people back on the line. It was obvious that she could. She’d flinched noticeably only a second ago. But now she was back to nodding at whoever spoke to her between saintly looks and alternating folding her hands in front of her then serenely at her sides. On downtimes she’d motion to the man next to her or touch his arm or cheek all virtuous and better than everyone in the room. It was her right to act that way, Josie supposed. In a way it was her special day, after all.
Fleming dipped his volume as they approached the head of the line without having to be told or given the pleading look of a person driven half-insane with desperation. Josie gripped at the satin lining of her only business suit. It was brown and utilitarian, but she didn’t exactly have a closet full of formalwear and this was short notice. She squeezed at the jacket lining pretending to reach for something in an inner pocket that did not exist and attempted to nonchalantly wipe away the clammy layer of cold slick that coated her hands. The song ended. Her time was up. Before Fleming started up again, she cleared her throat.
“Hi, Cherie, you look, uh, good.”
Fleming slowed his tempo and quieted into diminuendo.
“I’m, uh, I’m sorry for your loss.”
Her smile was fake, but far less strained than Josie had expected. Her well-trained voice was level and even. She could moonlight as a GPS if she ever needed extra cash, though Josie doubted that would ever be the case.
She didn’t quite know what else to say to the tanned woman who smiled for no apparent reason. She was fresh from a wedding and even fresher from a honeymoon cut short due to some freak heat lightning and an ill-chosen spot for a siesta.
“Thank you, Josie. How very thoughtful of you to come and pay your,” she paused to look at Fleming who was just about sitting piggyback during the exchange, “respects.”
“No problem at all.” Fleming’s music began building again. He’d finished the first chorus at a respectfully slow volume at a lullaby’s pace, but that reprieve was clearly over. She continued to speak and resisted the urge to raise her voice over the song. No one could compete with the piper when he was charging up, so she leaned in closer than comfort would naturally allow.
“I’m not that far away so it wasn’t a big deal to come. So, um, I’m sorry about your honeymoon. And all this.”
She had already taken a step back from the casket and the too-soon widow. Fleming was on a roll again and she had never been a good closer.
“So, okay. Have a good day.”
The rain had let up a touch as the duo walked to the economical car that looked more like a small amphibian. Josie’s hair stuck out in rusty-brown hunks of hair products and humidity, her suit clinging to her in all the wrong places.
Fleming had let up on the volume so that it faded with the sight of the funeral home in the distance. He sat next to her in the cramped car looking way too big for the space, even without the feather hat. It sat on the floor in front of him sprouting like a giant red Allium between his knees.
Josie peeled a piece of wet hair from her face and questioned why she’d even gone in the first place.
She looked over at her quiet friend and exhaled a warm breath, her companion shrugging thoughtfully when she spoke the only words to break the silence of the ride home.
“That went better than I’d imagined.”