fiction

Idle in September. {fiction}

 

Doesn’t matter what you spend it on, the best way to start feeling better is to drop a little money. If only the magnetic strip on Jeremy’s debit card worked.

Stranded on that cold corner, where Christopher Street crosses Seventh Avenue, he swiped in vain, punched his code, and swore a torrent.

The last thing he’d do was call his brother. Not to borrow money again. Ari would give him the look, the lecture. Then he’d cough up his generous laugh and pay to paint the picture brighter. The whole scene was intolerably redundant.

Jeremy gave up. He swung his guitar case over his shoulder and dragged his rolling bag along the uneven sidewalk. The tote had a broken wheel. His arm strained, lugging his life across Manhattan.

In Union Square, he bummed a cigarette from another musician.

“What happened to your eye?” the hipster asked about Jeremy’s slow-fading shiner.

“Bar fight.”

“What can you play?”

“Bit of everything.”

“Let’s jam.”

“Sure,” Jeremy said, feeling he owed the kid for the smoke.

They claimed a park bench and got in tune. Then Jeremy plucked runaway nostalgia.

“That’s a hell of a riff,” his companion said. He lit them each another cigarette.

“Fall again,” Jeremy said, observing the colors on the trees.

“You playing any gigs?”

“I’m only back in the States a day. Haven’t lined anything up yet.”

“Now’s the time. Going to be a long winter.”

“What do you say we throw our cases open and see what happens?”

“You bet!”

Jeremy was the devil when he busked. He’d look strangers square in the eyes, daring passersby to get lost in his music. Desperate to turn a buck, he tapped into the old stuff with abandon — songs he used to play with Beth when they were touring.

They played an hour nonstop and split the proceeds. “Not bad,” his partner said, counting out his dirty thirty, “Want to grab a bite?”

“Can’t now. Next time?”

They shook hands and said farewell.

An hour of work shouldn’t hurt, but now Jeremy had a song stuck in his head. “The fire never idles when you’re near,” he hummed, but he couldn’t conjure Beth’s warm, soothing voice. He’d walked more than a mile before he decided to try Beth’s address. At Forty-Second Street, he bought a slice. Then he found the subway and ducked the turnstile for a free ride uptown.

Beth had a new phone number, but he knew from Ari where she lived — 109 and Amsterdam.

There were stairs. Jeremy sat down and soaked up the fleeting sun. He closed his eyes and dreamed melodic jet lag. When shadows fell, he grew cold and fished a tattered sweater out of his tote.

Countless times he cursed his plan. He figured he was wasting his time, but if he wanted a place to crash, the truth was he didn’t have a better option.

Jeremy ran a hand through his greasy hair, recalling memories of the tour — different gigs, the songs they’d sung, and his brother’s jealousy whenever he and Beth ran off together. He remembered the drugs, the mountain air, and the shimmering stars. Then a towering blaze, and bursting, firecracker pinecones spoiled his reminiscence.

Half-nine, Beth turned the corner. She’d cut her hair short. When she saw Jeremy sitting on her doorstep, her chin dropped. She plucked her earphones out.

“I gather Ireland was a bust?”

Jeremy nodded.

“What are you doing here?”

“I was busking in the park. Let me buy you a drink?”

“I don’t know.”

“You’ve got plans?”

Beth averted his gaze. “You’re looking for a bed, Jeremy. I’m not stupid.”

Jeremy stood up. He reached out to hug Beth as if no time had passed, no feelings hurt. She was stiff and kept her arms straight.

“The fire never idles when you’re near,” Jeremy sang in her ear.

Beth pushed him away.

“Damn it, Jeremy, you can’t show up like this.”

“Fine, I’ll leave. I’ll call Ari.”

“He’s out of town.”

“How do you know?”

“Jesus, Jer. You haven’t spoken to your brother?”

Jeremy looked down. “I didn’t plan on being home.”

“How’d you get the shiner?” Beth finally noticed his bruise.

Jeremy pointed to the little Italian place on the corner. “Let’s go in there?”

The restaurant was nearly empty. They sat by the window. Jeremy selected a bottle of Pinot. Beth ordered calamari and a bowl of minestrone to share.

“Don’t worry, I’ll chip in,” she laughed, watching Jeremy add the prices.

The waiter brought their bottle and poured two shallow glasses.

“To fugitives,” Jeremy toasted.

Beth sipped and licked her lips. The calamari came. They took turns spearing the gummy white circles with their forks.

“Spicy,” Beth said.

Jeremy squeezed a lemon wedge over the plate. They each took another bite.

“Remember that gig we played in Jackson Hole?” Beth asked.

“That was the grand finale.”

“I always think about the fire in the fall. We might as well talk about what happened.”

Jeremy refilled her glass, this time deeper. “What music are you playing these days?”

“Don’t change the subject.”

“What’s to say?”

“We set the woods on fire, Jeremy. We ran away.”

“That was a long time ago. It’s all forgiven.”

“You mean, we never got caught.”

The plate was empty. Jeremy scooped the last of the sauce and looked hungrily toward the kitchen. “I’d love to hear your sing again,” he said.

“I put my mandolin away after you left.”

Their soup came. The bowl steamed.

“You’ll burn your tongue,” Beth warned.

Jeremy drank down his glass and filled another. “Don’t tell me you haven’t played a gig in two years?” he asked, tasting the soup.

“Time flies when you’re working, Jer.”

“I meant to send you some songs I recorded.”

“I wouldn’t have listened. Were you really deported?” Beth asked.

“Now you’re changing the subject.”

“How long did you overstay your visa?”

“Nine months.”

“Only you, Jer.”

The candle on the table flickered. Beth blew it out. “I don’t know why I did that,” she said.

Jeremy had a lighter in his pocket. He relit the wick.

Beth rolled her head, stretching her neck. Then she explained how Ari drove her back East when the tour finished. “We acted so shadily,” she laughed, “We gave fake names and paid cash at motels. I never felt so paranoid.”

“Did the fire make the news?”

“It burned for a month.”

“How many acres scorched?”

“Thousands.”

“We’re lucky we survived.”

“What were we thinking, lighting that campfire?” Beth said, taking her fill of broth.

“Where’s my brother?” Jeremy asked.

“He’s in the Adirondacks with his girlfriend.”

“Didn’t work out between you two?”

“How could it?”

Their waiter returned. “Coffee? Dessert?” he asked, clearing their plates.

Jeremy traced a grease stain on the tablecloth with his pinky.

“Check, please,” Beth said.

The waiter bowed and finished the bottle with an equal pour in each of their glasses.

“It’s good to see you, Beth,” Jeremy said, dreading her answer.

“Don’t get mopey. You can sleep on the couch tonight.”

“Are you sure?”

“We’re fellow fugitives. Isn’t that what you said?”

They walked back to Beth’s apartment.

“Let’s go on the roof?” Jeremy suggested as they climbed the stairs.

“It’s late. I’ve got work tomorrow,” Beth said, unlocking her door.

“Come on, let’s jam. Some of the old songs.”

“You’re jet lagged.”

When Beth turned on the light, she gasped, and pulled at her too-short hair. The studio was messy. A pile of fresh laundry lay across the couch. Rolling papers and marijuana crumbs cluttered her coffee table, and there were dirty dishes stacked in the sink. She started tidying up.

Jeremy cleared space on the couch, smiling when he handled her fresh-scented bras. He swept up the buds on the table and rolled a tight joint.

“Please don’t smoke,” Beth said.

Jeremy set the joint aside. He took out his guitar and started strumming that song he had stuck in his head. Beth continued washing dishes. Jeremy played louder until Beth couldn’t help humming along. When Jeremy sang the refrain, she turned off the water. Then she went into her bedroom and brought out her mandolin.

Beth dimmed the lights and sat down next to Jeremy. For a long time she listened to him play, tapping her feet along. Then she caught the beat and plucked sweetly on the twanging double strings.

“The fire never idles when you’re near,” they sang together.

***

Jeffrey F. Barken is the author of ‘All the Lonely Boys in New York’. Based on the unsolved terrorist attack that damaged the U.S. Army recruitment center in Times Square, March 6th, 2008, this gritty political thriller suggests a conspiracy among former Marines, and portrays the beginning of the global financial crisis in New York. Uniquely, Barken’s short story collection, ‘This Year in Jerusalem’, plants the seed for his novel, launching several reappearing characters in a series of inter-connected travel-inspired shorts. For both projects, the author collaborated with Irish artist Diana Muller to illustrate his fiction. Barken is the founder and Chief Editor of Monologging.org. This colorful publication connects writers with artists around the world, encouraging collaborative multimedia projects and providing regular arts-related reporting. The author received his Bachelors in English from Cornell University. He also has a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Publishing from the University of Baltimore. You could contact him via his website or Twitter.

***

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