Friday
Aug092013

Jukebox

Kate Petersen


 

I only have opening lines in winter. Don't know why that is. The other three seasons, I guess I just wing it.

I realized this while fording snowmelt at the crosswalks in Fishtown, headed to a place I hadn't been before. I swerved around this guy's bag, thinking it would bark.

Turned out it was just a bag.

But when I see a duffel nowadays, I assume there's a pet inside.

 

The duffel bag thing—that was going to be my opening line.

 

It didn't used to be that way. With the pets, I mean. There was a time when no one's bag had wheels, and no one's pet went in a bag. Pets went in those hard-sided crates with the holes that look like a Connect Four board. That time was the Eighties.

It's my nature to be nostalgic.

It's my nature to be in conditional perfect love.

Notice I didn't say choice.

Here's choice: I got to pick the place. The man I was meeting wrote and said: Pick a place.

But then he wrote back and said the place I picked needed a jukebox. So not really.

All this was done by typing letters to each other with our thumbs, words that my phone recognizes and others I have to tell it to recognize.

 

For instance, this man. My phone recognizes his name. I don't know why; it came that way.

What my phone doesn't recognize is 'duffel.'

 

We met in a different city a few years ago. A trade expo our companies sent us to. By chance. Chance being his bar stool and my bar stool. Chance being, no one had to be anywhere next; no one had rings. Midday then, the sky strange and colorless as water taken from a chlorinated pool. This time dusk, the very last part, when everything, no matter what it was before, goes blue.

 

I know: you've heard this one before.

And I know what you're thinking: there are too many stories that take place in bars.

I'm thinking that too, how there are too many stories like this. How I've been in too many of them. Versions of this story. And bars.

Of course, I could set this one somewhere else—one of the more interesting elses where people are putting stories these days. An abandoned city in the future, say. Or the forest.

Except not the forest because our companies would never have sent us there.

And not the future, which neither of us really believed in.

And not in a house, mostly because he's got one and I don't, and he's married and I'm not, and it's not that kind of story.

You'll see.

 

Anyway, I got there first.

Anyway, this isn't even the beginning.

This is a middle that looks like a beginning.

This is the second verse I missed because I didn't see the repeat sign.  

 

And this is the end: We stand. We go outside. And he looks at me and says, "In another life, Brooke, I think we would have been that couple. The one that sends others to bed, out of envy."

What bed, I thought. Show me the nearest bed.

 

I've only played one jukebox in my life. It was at the back of the mall restaurant where I worked in college. We were home of the Rock'n'Eggroll, served chips in stainless steel ten-gallon hats. If you said it was your birthday, we were required to sing. A big sign over the staff bathroom read NO STAFF MAY PLAY JUKEBOX AFTER 5 PM NO BUTS NO MAYBES, so on nights I worked I'd get there early for my 30-percent-off meal and wear out Dolly and Merle. The mall also had one of those penny machines that looks like a jukebox, but instead you put in a couple quarters and a penny and the machine churns out a flattened penny with a picture on it and some words so you'll know exactly where you were when you were dumb enough to spend 51 cents to get one.

 

: ||

 

The bar was called the Drop Inn, and I'd picked it for its name off a list called Philly Throwbacks. Empty when I got there, just two men at the far end. A string of Christmas lights was tucked in between the bottles of rum and other things I don't drink, and over the till a jackalope was gawked, a pair of antlers sprouting from its cowlicked skull like jinx. The back wall was a shrine to Elvis and also, it seemed, NASA.

No jukebox.

But my grit-soaked shoes and I were staying put. I ordered a beer. Figured how to sit on my coat and put my bag over my knee and still look unencumbered in the mirror behind the bar, where I kept an eye on the door.

Not him.

Not him.

Not him.

Him.

He stood in the doorway, taking off his coat in stages. Shoulder One. Shoulder Two. By Shoulder Two, I'd forgotten my lines.  

"No jukebox," I said.

"I forgot my quarters, anyway," he said, folding me in to Shoulder Two. Like hello. "So we meet again." Like it's fate or something and we're in Monument Valley. He tucked his bag beneath the bar, and when the bartender came, he pointed to my beer. "I'll have one of those, and a Jack." Like, again, you pick, but not really.

 

I'm not going to tell you every word that got said; this is not that kind of story. But I will say that narwhals came up. He'd seen a girl with a narwhal hat. At least, he said, he thought it was a narwhal.

"Could have been a unicorn. But here's the thing." He touched my arm. "Until a year ago, I didn't think narwhals still existed."

"Me neither," I said, eager for my doubts to be unfounded. "Or sloths, actually."

He sipped his whiskey, nodded. "But then I read they do. Not just on hats, either."

Over us, the jackalope cocked its head like, How stupid were we?

"Same with the sloths," I said. I pointed to the middle of my coaster like that was where I lived. "The internet says I live 60 miles from SlothWorld."

He put a finger on his coaster and raised his eyebrows like, this SlothWorld?

I figured we had the scale about right. "So not extinct. Not all of them, anyway. And it took the internet telling me."

He put the rest of his whiskey back. "It's a damn smart internet."

 

The damn smart internet wasn't what it is today when the first boy told me he was in would-love with me, so I had to look up the verb tense he used in a book. Danny. Conditional perfect, it turns out.

We were sitting in his car in the employee corner of the mall parking lot before our shift. Me in my server jeans vest, him in his matching denim tie. Just Friends in the age of carpooling. Danny was a year younger than me, but finishing his Bachelors in three, and engaged to a girl who worked at the bamboo kiosk by Sears. She came in sometimes and left the lucky bamboos she couldn't sell on the bar, which pissed off our manager, who made Danny walk them out to the dumpster himself. I never figured out why Danny didn't talk to his fiancée about it. Or maybe he did and she left them anyway. Shotgun, everyone was saying.

Danny had taught himself—I don't know where—to say my name so it sounded like he picked it. Like he'd been handed a big menu of all the names in the world and run his finger down it till he got to mine: "Brooke." He was still buckled up, but sort of swiveled toward me. "If we'd met long ago, I would have loved you so fast."

"How long ago?" I said.

"Like the Nineteenth Century." He waggled his tie like we were part of this big joke about time.

"Fuck you." I was younger then, and better with words.

"What?" he said. "Nineteenth was a good century."

"Cholera," I said. "What you would have done is gotten cholera."

"What if I meant yesterday?" He was still looking at me like he'd said something beautiful.

"Why would you say that?"

"I meant yesterday."

"Because you can." I got out, locked my side like I was supposed to. "You said it because you can."

 

I didn't elaborate on the sloths; I didn't want to bring more of the past into this than we had to. But before I saw those SlothWorld videos, I believed all sloths were extinct. I'd heard this news story as a kid about scientists who found a giant sloth in South America, perfectly preserved deep in a cave. And when they went to pull it into the present using their very delicate machines, the sloth crumbled to dust. Ruined. I remember crying when I heard this. I must have thought it was the only one.

But I guess it wasn't.

It was a matter of being the wrong place in the story, see? I thought we were at the end of the story for sloths, but we were really in the middle.

 

Last Christmas, my parents got me a suitcase with four wheels to replace the one I had with two. It wasn't wrapped, but I acted surprised anyway, and hugged them, and peeled off the bow.

 

Second round, the place filling in around us, he asked how my family was.

Good, I told him, but far away.

"I don't know many people who adore their folks the way you do," he said.

I thought of all the bows I'd peeled and affixed. He may have been right.

"Like I do mine," he said, staring into his bottle carefully. "I think we're the same that way."

"You seem like you would make a good adorer." I stared into his bottle with him.

"I am," he said. "I mean, I do."

 

I am trying to say more of what I mean. If Say and Mean are circles in a Venn diagram, I am trying to get them to almost stack, like when you stare at something too closely, how first you see two things and then you see one.

Which is kind of what he was doing, I guess. Trying to see the two of us as one thing.

Or maybe he was doing the opposite: staring into something until he saw double, to see if he could make the one life he had into two.

Things I was good at staring into in the Eighties: supermarket lobster tanks. And those big jars at school someone filled with pennies and then we all had a week to walk by, to consider circumference and surface area and cylindrical volume and, when we were ready, to guess. I got within nine cents one year. Blue ribbon and a pizza coupon, that's how close I was.

But those probability questions gave me trouble.

If Conrad flips a coin 50 times, how many times will he get heads?

I always thought the answer was 25. Total flips divided by two.

But the equation we learned said that each time Conrad flipped that coin was a completely independent event, its outcome uncertain, unrelated to the last.

 

With all due respect to Conrad, that has not been my experience.

 

The bartender asked if we wanted another.

"Don't you have to leave?" I said.

(Nostalgists think about the end a lot because that's when they can start missing things.)

It was the bartender who answered me. "Not until 9:30 he doesn't." She brought us another. Rhetorical bartender, I guess. I looked at my watch. We were nowhere close.

So some things I get close and some things I don't.

 

I asked if he knew anyone in L.A. He was living in I-forget, Ohio then, but said he did.

"Someone I could take to a wedding?"

"Oh, hell no." He took my beat-up coaster away from me.

"Yeah," I said. "Figured." I told him I was trying to find a date to one near there using Six Degrees. "If you hear of anyone who knows anyone who knows Kevin Bacon, let me know."

"So you're not seeing anyone?"

"No," I said, and took my coaster back.

"But you were?"

"Would yes help?"

"Yes," he said.

I drank down and slow right then, like I was filing away the booze, the answer.

 

Had I thought of his shoulders a few times, over the years? Yes.

And yes, I'd learned to sieve those little clots of longing through enough noise and days that they became cool and fine—distilled down to a single wish, thin enough for a letter: I hope this finds you well.

 

So maybe you won't believe me when I say I was there without want.

You don't have to. Just like the sloths were doing fine without my believing in them.

But for the record, I was not there to touch anyone's arm. To go anywhere between a bar and a westbound train.

At this point, it wasn't about how long it had been since someone touched anything besides my arm. It was more the fact that at my age, I still couldn't get coins to act like coins, like life to act like everyone else's life. I was trying to figure out how people did it.

 

I should have said: Show me.

Show me how many times you have to let something fall and pick it up again before you get what everyone else gets. What the universe says you're supposed to get when you throw money on the ground.

 

The next day I found a dime while wheeling that multi-directional suitcase of mine to my own train. Maybe this is the real ending: a dime. And a girl who stops for ten cents.

Or someone will say to me, I like your sweater.

And I'll say: I found it on the side of the road.

In the case of one sweater I own, this is actually true.

 

On the train to the airport, like every train, there's this question of where to look.

We each had picked our little nowhere to watch, except the female hockey team to my right, whose members were taking turns coughing into each other's faces.

"At least we're all sick," one said happily.

I held my breath and the handle of my evolved suitcase. The train lurched us ahead. When a woman tapped me on the knee, I took my headphones out.

"It's rolling away from you," she said.

I know! I wanted to say. Isn't it a horrible feeling?

But she meant my suitcase. I meant everything else.

 

This woman was fancy: sunglasses underground, stitched leather driving gloves, and a perfect white coat, groomed as a poodle.

My coat is brownish and vintage early Bush Administration—Two—and the lining is torn so sometimes when I stand, I have to unhook the lining from my back trouser pocket. Despite all that, I have never claimed that I found it in the street. I paid good money for that coat.

 

As the train started again, one of the hockey players sent my suitcase back my way. I grabbed it again, smiled apologetically, and wrapped both my arms and feet around it, like I was its mother. Mother of a newborn suitcase.

See, I am always carrying too many things.

Even in another life, I suspect this would be true.

When I'm carrying the amount normal people carry, like one bag that doesn't hurt my shoulders, I feel like I'm missing something and I start patting my pockets like I'm looking for a light.

The only time I need a light, though, is every other year, when I see this man and he rolls me an elegant little cigarette at the bar while I fuck with my coaster. He clicks the lighter before I can ask, before I even have the thing between my lips.

 

We could have sent others to bed out of envy. What do you say to that?

 

When a boy is telling you about the beds in another life, there's this question of where to look. Me? I was looking across the street. I watched a man pick up his dog and carry it over a puddle. When man and dog had gotten safely over, I looked back at him.

"I think I put my coat on over my handbag," I said.

Because in this life, I am that person.

This is that story.

A story that's all about order.

Coat first, then bag.

If we'd met first.

He was done with his cigarette, but I was still working on mine, and I handed it to him to hold. I rolled my shoulders out of my coat and he held that, too.

His train was coming towards us from wherever it had been last.

I set my handbag down. Then he helped me back into my coat and passed my cigarette back.

"Thank you."

"You don't mean that," he said.

"I do," I said. "I will."

He went back inside to pay, and when he came back he had his bag again—one duffel, no pet—and I was sorry, and it was time to go.

 

In another life, I would have said: Don't say that.

In another life, I would have kissed him.

Do first, ask forgiveness later, an old boss of mine told me once.

But here's a trick: if you never do, then there's nothing to forgive.

 

I found a dime and a sweater in the same street.

This isn't a coincidence.

A man found two women to adore in the same life.

Then another man did.

So what.

The street's a big place.

The coincidence is that I kept them.

The coincidence is that they both told me.

 

I should have said: And this one here?

Meaning, this life.

Meaning, this life where we hug, bags over shoulders, and the train comes for him like a good parent, and I'm left standing on the platform in my old brown coat like it's the nineteenth century or something, thinking: at least he didn't say love.

 

I should have said: If I had a dime for every time I heard that.

Which would have sounded like a line.

If I had a dime.

If I had only dimes.

If we'd met in another life and the only things anywhere were dimes and us, we would need a specialized jukebox. We would make a beautiful burden of coins and arms.

 

And no one would have to tell me that something of mine had gotten away, because I'd know: I'd be the one to do it, to let go: uncurl my fingers and watch the thing roll heavy away from me, just to see who it chose to crash into, just to see how far it would get without me holding on.