After Hours

Rain is coming.  The humidity sends the odor of sage gusting into the crowded club, drafting off the ravines above the big parking lot. Chaparral oils mix with skunk and tar.  Perfumes and smokes cling on the sweaty clothes of patrons returning from the patio.  Drin feels like his brain is all twitching dog-nose.  He holds his breath sometimes.

Audio signals are turned up high too.  Customers are playing Beer Pong.  Speakers shake the walls with a retro mix of piano and sax and drums.

“Yo’ mama talking trash…let me tell you what we’re gonna do… we gonna have some fun, c’mon, let the good times roll…”

While the band is on break, the bartender has no time to chat.  He’s a machine chopping ripe melon, coconut, citrus peel, tomatoes, chilis.  Wait staff hand out big daiquiris by the trayful; the smell of fruit is sticky sweet, acid, almost brassy.  Too much on an empty stomach.

Drin sips at a chunky tumbler, retreating into the warm brown-sugar complexities of Tennessee whiskey.  It’s dimly lit by the side door.  Useless to sit waiting like some spoiled prince, expecting homage.  But his pride kicks at sending a business card backstage.

There’s no sound. Just the smell of the man, a familiar dusty, piney odor.

He turns.

Dance was looking tired when he left the Metro’s doors four nights ago.  Now, he’s as sweaty as a bluesman, with dark hollows around his eyes.  In that setting, the irises glow, they’re so pale.

“So sad, no yelling boo at our Mister Drin, who is too quick for us.”  Dance gives a big sigh, sticking out his lower lip like a kid.  Looking for the laugh.

So Drin gives it to him, but he isn’t fooled.  Those pale eyes don’t blink.

“Was it a good trip?” Dance asks.

Drin offers his hand.  “Oh yeah, the trip was okay, but I’m damn glad to be back.”

“We are too.  So glad our Mister Drin came tonight, we were not expecting—”

The handshake Dance gives him is dry, hot, all callouses.  Up close, Dance’s smell is downright medicinal, even odder than usual.  Greek retsina, mushrooms, vetiver.  Bay laurel thrown on a campfire.  Mixed pleasure, that–the last few fishing trips had too many noisy guys from work, not enough quiet to sleep, not enough river time.  Burning rabbit smells just like it did in the dry pines of Afghanistan.

“Did I miss your first set?”

“Yes, but just in time for our second, and we will have another.”  Trickles of water run off Dance’s brows, down his neck.

“Something to drink?” Drin asks, rising from his seat.

The man hesitates, nods.  He surveys the crowd while he rolls his shoulders in his black jacket.  Then he stretches his arms, knots and unknots his hands.  He arches backward, stretching his spine in the dim light, and his long hair hangs low, nearly knee-level.  When he pulls up again, he tightens and loosens his abs like a dancer.  The belly ripples look weird on a guy in a dress shirt.

Takes him back in time, that does.  Drin sees clumsy tourists, skinny limbo dancers, somebody laughing over music, dreadlocked hair whipping around.  A boat rocks under him while he is puking profound drunkenness into thorny brush.  Tin drums keep panging away rhythms in memory.

Chen Kun from fashion shoot with actress Zhou-Xun
moving

He waits it out, feeling the sudden ache from a couple scars on his shins.  Damn flashbacks.  But at least he hasn’t picked up any new blanks since the hospital, after his motorcycle wreck.  Plus, zero desire to get wasted again.

Dance has his jaw muscles clenched like a boxer.  Drin follows him, watchful.  The crowd clears away, eyeing Dance.  A little pool of space opens around them both.  Yeah, something happened tonight.

Dance thanks the bartender for a tumbler of water.  He mops his jaw with a cheap bandanna, slides it down his throat into the collar of his shirt, looking up at Drin without blinking, and Drin begins to feel a smile stretch his jaw–

But there’s a stir at the main door.  Somebody drops a tray.

Drin glances down, surprised.  Dance the martial artist has pivoted close, right at Drin’s elbow, poised with one arm up.  The man has his knees bent, the bandanna is wrapped around his knuckles on the back fist.

Drin hopes devoutly that he didn’t miss some cue.

The bartender has his head up too, searching over the crowd.  After a hung moment, he flicks a sheepish gaze at Dance.  Dance straightens again, nods back.  “It can get rowdy.  We should be alert for assault on our Mister Drin, who has money, and looks like it.”

“I do?” Drin says, untangling one hand from his loose shirt tail.

“It is no good, our getting distracted.”

“Well, I had my hand on my wallet.  How about you?”

That quirked smile.  “Our Mister Drin has been drinking in some rough joints?”

“Yeah.  Some bad enough where I’d keep both my hands up, ready to use, and to hell with the wallet.  Don’t worry about me.  But thanks, I appreciate it–” he’s interrupted, there’s some loud woman shoving between them, staggering, and a crowd is following her.

Dance twists, hands up, and the musician’s back smacks solidly into Drin, slams them both into the bar with a thump.  Dance shoves off again with sheer bunched force.  The muscles make quite an impression on Drin’s body. Not quite the sort of contact Drin had anticipated, getting bruised by the man’s ass.

His own fault, that’s what he gets for losing track of the general surroundings.

Dance diverts the leader away from Drin.  The woman’s hand is groping after Dance, flailing as if she’s about to fall down. Her flapping papers make the musician flinch, and then her car keys go flying, but Dance snatches them from the air and returns them to her.  More gusting laughter.  “Goodness, don’t you half smell of sawmill.  Takes me right back, my daddy was a sawyer all his life– hey Rose, come meet my favorite fiddler!”

She’s everybody’s loud, laughing buddy on a mission to introduce her friends right behind her.

All that effort gets a flicker of cool performer’s decision:  No.  Not for you.

Engerman was right about Dance, about his peculiar anti-charisma.  But it’s a choice– Drin can see it happen.  Dance goes stiff as a cat in a bathtub. Nobody’s ever been quick enough to see him do it.

The ladies react to it.  Only one of them shakes his hand, and briefly at that.  The nearest lady refuses to get any closer, her face closed down in the multicolored bar light.  The others draw back, restless.  Now they want to meet somebody who’s a lot more cuddly and warm, somebody who knows how to flirt.  Somebody who doesn’t… smell like that.

Ask them what that is, and the other women couldn’t tell you. Maybe something silent.

Drin thinks, something that doesn’t blink.

The crowd of women shift away to the bassist a few seats farther down the bar, who is much more laid-back and unruffled than Dance, and obviously doesn’t mind being engulfed in extravagantly bosomy hugs.  It’s quite a parade.

Drin finds himself halfway humming the words of another old pop song, “Money for nothin’, and your chicks for free…” which certainly dates his pop references.

“Yeah, that’s all his own hair, that faggot’s a millionaire,” Dance’s voice murmurs the next verse, startling him.  Jesus, sliding right up at his elbow, no warning.  Blink in this crowd, and you’ve lost him.

Drin chuckles, feeling a flush starting up his hairline.

The musician glances up at Drin, murmurs an apology.  Fresh lines of sweat run down the muscles jumping in his jaw.  Dance looks away, shrugs heavily in his jacket, which was never made for moving like that.

“It’s hot in here.  I could hold your jacket, if you like,” Drin offers, hand up.

Dance is a blur, out of reach, pure reflexes.  Then he flushes dark.

Drin rests his hands flat on the bar:  No grabbing, okay?

The musician looks at that, and then up at Drin.  The man’s irises go warm and dark.  He gives a grimace, pulls out a black elastic loop.  “Some night we go looking for great big scissors,” Dance growls, shooting a look around the bar while he twists up his hair.

“Oh, that’d be a shame,” Drin says.

Dance’s gaze jerks back to him.  Nervy, poised just out of reach.

“We should consult folks like Amalia, get somebody good to cut it right for you,” Drin advises.

Dance’s irises pale out again to a gold color.  Oh, he hates that idea.

Well, it is a threat.  Last time, Amalia scolded Dance and trimmed split ends off into an office trash can, right in front of Drin.  He let her do it, too, astonishing them all.  Like a cross teddybear, she thumped him.  “And don’t you go weird and stubborn on me, either!”

There, in the back-bar mirror, is Dance’s blank face, sticking out his jaw like a pack mule.

Drin doesn’t dare smile.  He just shrugs.  “But you gotta ask her yourself.  I’m not gonna tattle on you.  Not my job, tattling to Amalia.”

Dance shakes his head.  Then he looks up at Drin’s image in the mirror, and there’s a crinkle lifting the corners of the man’s eyes.  The wry smile is almost too quick to catch.  His irises are brown again when he ducks his head.

He’s pretty good at hiding that color change trick, I wonder why? Drin thinks.  Maybe Dance knows that nobody really wants to see it.

The music on the speakers softens, allowing easier conversation.  A woman’s voice growls a rich baritone over horns.  “I never met a man anything like you in the universe… you must be from heaven…”

“Nice.”  Drin nods at the speakers.

dark brown upright piano
Bon Temps

The musician cocks his head, listening.  “We are hearing the blues and jazz vocalist, Annie Sampson.  Our bartender likes her.  We just say he has the picky ear.  He gives printouts to music reps.  They argue.  He has no soda-pop divas, he will tell you.”

“Will Annie Sampson be the next big thing?”

A shrug.  “The lady teaches.”  The musician gives that wry, one-sided smile again as he looks Drin over, rumpled hair to loafers.  His gaze skips around so fast it is impossible to tell what he thinks of the casual Hawaiian shirt, Drin’s faded old jeans.  Then the speakers get loud again.

At the first chords, Drin starts to grin.  He nods his head, tilts his body stiffly back and forth.  ZZ Top.  When he glances over, the bartender is grinning right back at them, and he’s tilting the same way, dancing and still chopping away at pineapple.

“…black shades, white gloves, lookin’ sharp and lookin’ for love…  They come runnin’ just as fast as they can, coz every girl crazy ’bout a sharp-dressed man…”

Dance shakes his head at the bartender, who just grins.  There’s a quirk to Dance’s mouth, looking up at Drin, but the line of his shoulders has relaxed.

A little trust, Drin thinks, pleased out of all proportion.  Another time, Drin might have dared a touch.  But no, the bartender is watching them closely enough as it is.  Give the guy space in public, he’s a performer, and he needs the money.  Those mutable eyes, too, that brings up alarm bells–but they’ve gone dark, smiling, nothing odd to see here.

“Some of the ladies here told me they liked the bit where you and the vocalist in red had a duet,” Drin says, rather than ask how many times Dance has stepped into somebody else’s fight here, the same way he does at the Metro.  Or if he’d fended off some kind of violence tonight.

Dance nods.  “Very kind.”  He takes two slow steps closer, giving Drin plenty of time to respond.  Apparently he wants something, in spite of muley looks.

He puts his hands flat next to Drin’s hands, stretching out his fingers, comparing his right to Drin’s left.  His fingers are longer than Drin’s are. His palm spreads wider.  The knuckles are scarred pale, the callouses on his fingertips are cracked, the nails ragged, as if he hasn’t had time to take care of anything.

That reinforces the stubbornness burning in the man’s tired face.  He’s not going away until he talks to Drin about whatever it is.  That’s irrationally flattering, too.  What’s odd is how close he is, how still he stands.

It’d be so easy to rest his hand on Dance’s, but no.  Not tonight.  Not with Dance as jumpy as this, in an insecure location.  Instead, Drin finds his glass, sips the last of his drink.  “Constancia was her name?”

“Yes, I can get you her card if you like–”

Drin shakes his head.  “No, no, it’s not like that, but thank you.  I’m sure it was really from the way you supported her singing.  The way you always do.”

Dance’s hands pull back, clench together, muscles bunch between the tendons.  “Thank you.”

Drin watches the hands relax a little bit. He says, “So when do I get to have some of that legendary chilihead hot barbecue chicken?”

The hands spread open on the bar, fingers relaxing.  “Oh, so people are telling our Mister Drin some stories, yes?”

“Threats, more like!”

“We give you a hint,” Dance says.  A little finger taps his nose.  “The pork is hotter.  We are making those pans first, so it goes marinating longer.  We call it galbi in Korean, I am using the sauce for dak galbi, that is chicken in hot marinade.”

“Galbi, is that how you say it?  Well, I don’t qualify for chilihead, but I gotta check out both of those.  Is that fundraiser next month?”

“In two weeks,” Dance says.

“If you tell me when you want to get the stuff, I’ll tag along and pay for it, help you move it into storage.  Maybe get that prosciutto you like.  Okay by you?”

Dance nods.  The hands go into a knot, huddled.  Perhaps they are consulting each other.

Just for a moment Drin’s skeptical working brain is drowned out by all the bits crowing, yes yes! But his dour auditor half surfaces long enough to say, Oh come now.  Something is up.  You know there’s something else.  Besides the eyes.  The hands.  The resiny odor.  What is it?

The happy bits fight back.  Yeah, maybe this is a guy with things to hide.  But it’s not like he gets a lot of time away from the Metro.  What possible mischief could he get up to?

Drin’s stomach growls.  Okay, maybe some of that dry, brushy smell is from the man’s cooking.  It makes Drin curious about what he’s using for soap.  Meeting those intelligent eyes, it’s too easy to see those hands sliding soap bubbles all over sleek skin… Drin can only strive to keep that out of his face.

Hastily, Drin asks, “You have a butcher you like?  Good cold storage?”

Dance nods, not looking at him.  The fingernails tap jittery rhythms on the bar.

Offer Dance money and hellfire, look at him scowl.  The guy is syncopating to the canned music differently on each hand while he’s thinking.  Men, generally, are forthright about what they want.  This guy is shy, buttoned back.

“Money can’t buy me love–” Drin hums the old Beatles words over music with the same time signature, drumming his index fingers on the bar.  “Caaan’t buy me luuurve–”

There’s the smile coming, coaxed out as Drin goes on.

closeup Hyun Bin
closeup face of actor Hyun Bin

“Money can’t buy me luuuuve–” Drin does drumrolls with his forefingers, clicking his tongue on his teeth, and finishes by chiming the water glass.

Dance is laughing.  “Our Mister Drin is so bad!”

“Oh, I am.  Blame it on my mispent youth.  We had to put the drum kit out in the garage, drove the neighbors crazy.”  He wipes off his forehead on his sleeve.  It’s hot in here.  “Okay, what’s bugging you about the whole deal?”

Dance taps the bar twice with a thick, rough thumbnail.  “Cooking nine kilos– yes, twenty pounds of meat last year, and we ran out.  Also, no big gear for cooking enough.”

Drin nods.  “Need twice that much just from the membership roster.  Caterer would cost more, I checked on that.  Find yourself good cooking gear, make me a list.  I’ll ask somebody on the Metro Board to check my donation papers.  Can’t ask Bud Innes, he’s in my direct chain of supervision at work, and that’s a conflict of interest.”

Dance nods gravely.  “You will have to explain it to them first.”

“Oh,  hell. Ever since Jenners left, nobody on the Board has any background–”

The man’s smile widens.  “We were hearing from a small bird that our newest member, Evans, has tax background.  Federal law enforcement.  Nobody said that in public, but he says very little, yes?”

“Wow.  That’s some bird.  Was it Robert who said that?”

“Ahh, Robert.  Well, these days he says what Bud Innes wishes will be heard,” Dance says, with those unflinching dark eyes.  “Our little bird says look for questioning from our new Mister Evans at the budget meeting next week about lost papers.  Maybe making Maestro Young yell at them.  At us, too.”  He shrugs.

This, Drin thinks, is what makes successful concertmasters.  That sliding angle of riposte that diverts you onto something more important than the original question.  Here it comes. “Lost papers? What do you mean, lost?”

“Yesterday evening after performance, big fourth floor mess.”

Drin stares into the direct warning.  The hair is standing up on his neck. “Oh, crap, don’t gimme that look.  What happened?”

“Broken water pipe at the top of the building.  Fans are now running to dry the office.  After we are speaking with Metro’s insurance company, we call our nice office ladies.  They are upset about their computers and puppy pictures.”

The pictures? On the walls? Some leak!”  Drin rakes his hand through his hair, trying to think.  “We can get duplicate billing records from the invoicing companies. I was just making audit file copies, those files got put away safe, that’s some help.  What about the storage boxes, the music scores, are those okay?”

“Only a few damages.  Pipe is off at other end, above.”

He catches the man’s solemn expression.  “Oh, dammit, what else?”

“Drill marks, somebody cutting the pipe.  We hear the plumber reporting this for stupid unskilled vandalism.”

“And you have an idea who did it,” Drin says grimly.  No wonder the guy looks tired.

Nod.

“Let me guess.  If you say the name, everybody will think you’re making it up.  Trying to get somebody in trouble.”

Dance tips his chin up, closes his eyes.  “Well, we are smelling this, but we think nobody will believe, especially if this nose is saying so.”  He taps it.

Drin snaps, “I believe you.  I completely believe you have a nose that tells you things like that.  Tonight, it makes perfect sense.  Wish I’d got back sooner.  Dammit, nobody called me about that.”

Dance spreads his hands wide.  “Because we know our Mister Drin is away on his trip with many meetings.  Apologizing deeply–”

Drin peers at him.  “Are you okay?”

Dance nods.  “We are good.  What did they call you about? These persons called you about something else?”  Dance has a truly grim tone there, the man’s shoulders are bracing up for more bad news.

Drin rattles melting cubes in his glass.  “Mid-week, Young demanded I fly back the same day. I should talk the Board into confirming that big hall for his fancy downtown concert.”

“After their management sued us for defaulting last season?” Whoever said Dance has no grasp of politics just wasn’t following the volleys fast enough.

“Him and his handshake deals. He didn’t remember the lawsuit.”  Drin shrugs.  “Hey, sorry, didn’t he get the rescheduling note? No quorum.”

Dance nods. “Too many Board members or their proxies are sick.  So many are in their eighties, half are in the hospital.”

Drin sighs. “Well, they can get a few things done.” They both know how long it takes to get a written review of contracts by the Metro’s volunteer attorneys.

Dance nods.  “Thanking you. Sadly, the nice drunk lady used all our time.  We must be going.  Also, we very much like leaving our jacket safe with you, Mister Drin.”  He puts one finger down, ever so gently, on the back of Drin’s wrist.

Drin can’t stop the smile.

But the man is gone, retreating.  A shrug of his body and he’s flinging over his cheap jacket, not even checking if Drin has caught it.  Distracting, but Drin can’t miss the outline of the prick standing hard against the man’s thigh.  Before he can drag his eyes off that, Dance turns away and he is vanishing into the gloom.  Running away.

Drin blinks at the backstage door.  Tells himself not to be silly.  Hard-ons happen, set off by all kinds of things, even the threat of fighting.  The flare of amusement warms his belly more than the whiskey did.

He looks at the jacket.  It’s damp inside.  That makes his dick throb.  Forget dignity, he’s no better than the rest of the groupies.  He perches on a bar stool and drapes the musician’s damp jacket open across his knee to let it dry out. Talk about physicality in performance–it’s made of cheap stain-resistant plastic fiber, grinding away in months of performances.  The lining is coming apart.  A big shred of it comes away in his hand.  Most musicians would refuse to take it off and show it to him, afraid to reveal poverty.  He knows Dance will crack a joke about it.

Kind of touching, sad and funny, like discovering that the beautiful actress is wearing pink flipflops under her fancy gown.  It makes him want to drag Dance to a decent tailor, and spend indecent amounts of money on him.  Which is ridiculous.

Expect nothing, he told himself sternly when he first got in the car tonight.  Dance didn’t ask him to come.  It was Engerman who told him the quintet would be here tonight.

Now he’s holding a wet jacket, smiling like a fool.  He strokes the lining into place, finding spots of sticky sap, red clay stains.  Yeah, the kind of marks you get from fighting, rolling around in the brush, ducking guns, something.  Which makes his inner auditor just keep getting more wound up.  It wants to find out more about those eyes, and the odd hands–do the kind of digging that can get unpleasant. His nose doesn’t care, or his balls. He sniffs a shred of lining, puts the scrap in his own shirt pocket.

If he was courting an opera diva, would he get silly over a ratty corset?  Well, yeah.  Who wouldn’t want to see what’s under Dance’s suit?  Get his mouth onto all that warm skin, feel those muscles tighten.  He wants to give pleasure, he wants to see extravagant things happen.  Get that line of tension in the guy’s jawline to relax.

Dangerous impulse, he knows.  Simpler to push Dance into a restroom wall, make things clear.  Stop talking. Hell, if it was nothing but a weekend romp, he’d be happy to give the man anything he asks for.  But that won’t happen.  Dance might warn him, might ask for help in answering Evans.  But this?  No, thank you, and Dance will coolly extract himself.

Damn shame, too.  He’s been wanting a calendar shot of Dance licking cream off those long fingers, with that laughing expression in his eyes.  Get those shoulders into a clingy shirt that catches light on every last contour.  Show how those eyes shift color when he’s provoked.

After all, what better way to hide things than right out in plain sight?  And isn’t it nice to learn that Dance has a helluva method for breaking bad news?

Vandalism, hell.

The torn piece of lining might as well be burning a hole through his pocket.  His dick is certainly trying to.

He orders another drink during the next set, while the dutiful auditor inside is tallying up more questions. Incredible that the Metro has never checked on any of their full-time employees or their tutors for the music outreach school programs.  Never checked on criminal convictions. How could they fail to fulfill one of the most basic requirements for insurance?

Watching Dance play perfectly ordinary pop music is not reassuring the Doubting Thomas inside,  the part of him who keeps revising the research lists. Hell, after a routine due-diligence employment workup on the man, now he suspects he hasn’t even begun.

It’s all tossed to confetti bits when the band shifts positions.

singer actor Chen Kun holding mike
At the mike

Dance rests the violin on one knee, and picks up the microphone, and sings.  Something by the Pogues, nostalgic lyrics with plangent accompaniment from a penny whistle and the pianist;
“And so we walked when day was dawning
The small birds sang, the leaves were falling
Where we once watched the rowboats landing
By the broad majestic Shannon.”

Of course he doesn’t have an Irish accent, but he articulates crisply, his meter is just fine.  He manages to sing tenor descants without going nasal, as if it’s no strain at all, there’s lung capacity to spare, it’s perfectly easy to hit his fast notes.  Not the kind of whooping gospel pyrotechnics reportedly committed by their earlier alto soloist in a red dress.  No, not a diva.  Just the kind of voice you’d hear purring from the next pillow, maybe, if you were a very lucky man.

“…take my hand and dry your tears babe…”

Drin can feel the tingling down to his toes when Dance lifts his chin and looks around the room, nodding to the applause, flashing that white grin when his eyes meet Drin’s.

Then he’s handing the microphone to the pianist, who sings the next one, and passes it to the saxophone.  Each musician sings something different, playing off one another’s lyrics like conversational jazz, until the crowd gets restless.

They pick up their instruments to play “Stormy Weather.” Dance’s violin goes cool and regretful, that remote voice in the fog, fading to smoke.  Farewell in a film noir, perhaps.  Time to take their bows.

bass and sax player in smoky spotlight
“…you went away, the blues walked in and met me…”

The sight of the musicians walking away makes Drin’s chest squeeze, old aches pull sharply all across his old burn scars.  Vandalism, hellfire.  He should have gone to last night’s performance, he knew it at the time.  Catch an earlier flight back.  Something.  They needed him there, picking up the pieces, helping Dance lock it up, get some damn proof what was going on.  He can’t stand the idea that he wasn’t in place.  He’s never been able to abide that feeling.

Struggling Artists

“What’s the matter?” Emma asks, opening kitchen cabinets and pulling down tins.

actor Kim Jae Wook, kicking
actor Kim Jae Wook, kicking

Dance flings himself into a chair with a thump and sits looking at the floor, with his hair fallen over his face, and only part of one eye showing. “I’m doing crap tonight.”

“Ahh,” she says, and fills the kettle. She was pretty sure of that already, given that he hadn’t done anything about dinner, he hadn’t made tea, and when she first stepped in the front door, she could hear the violin protesting Maestro Young’s latest selections of repertoire from the back of the house.

“So playing stopped,” Dance says. “The bow, the instrument, me, we are all at cross angles.”

“Well, you tried for a good long time. Some days, that’s all you can do. Would working out at the dojo help? I could drive you, if you want.”

Dance pushes his hands over his face, and sits with his head propped in his palms, elbows on his knees. “We are not knowing. We tried extra time jogging, trying to calm down.”

“What happened at work?”

“Amalia and me, we don’t think Young really wants to be here at all,” his voice says from behind his fingers. “Amalia thinks Young has signed the contract some place.”

“He’s certainly made it abundantly clear why he hates things out here,” she says, getting out a cutting board and pan. She looks at him more carefully. “You think he’s trying to get his sorry ass fired? Go back home to white-bread land? That’s good news, right?”

“Not quite. He is trying to provoke us. Create legal grounds for breaking contract.”

Emma blinks at him, surprised.

“Amalia thinks it is probably Nebraska.”

“They’re smaller than we are!”

Dance spreads his hands out in puzzled agreement.

Emma starts cutting onions. She says, preoccupied, “Why would any conductor want to go back to Nebraska, anyway?”

“Maybe there are nice things there we don’t find here,” Dance says. “Amalia said it is much more small town, people know each other more, there would be more accountability when people are known to each other, right?”

She sighs. “Stop trying to be fair!”

He blinks at her in surprise.

She looks up at Dance and sighs. She used to get that puzzled look from him all the time, back when he was still learning what kind of rules came with strange new words and phrases. “They probably can pay him more than we do, that’s all.”

Dance says, “Do you think they would not be fair to our Miss Emma? I mean, the kind of people one meets in Nebraska?”

“I meet people from Nebraska all the time, for conferences. Librarians and music people and extremely tough-minded charity fund-raising folks. Both liberals and conservatives, you know. I am in total awe of their guts, let me tell you. No, what you’re talking about is the stereotype of small-town Nebraska, narrow-minded Scripture literalists and bigots. But they don’t all believe like that. That’s just the annoying loudmouths anyway. Just like we have all kinds of annoying loudmouths. And none of these loud puffballs are fair to their so-called ‘enemies’, are they?”

He tilts his head slightly, thinking about it. “Well, they may play at it, to give the appearance of fair, but then they just knock down the straw targets? Push over the scarecrowman, yes?”

She smiles. “God, Dance, I love talking to you, you’re so fun.”

He looks at her. “Well, they usually don’t even have very good aim at those poor sitting targets, do they?”

Which makes her laugh, and that’s probably what he meant to do.

She points at him. “What kind of badly acting happened tonight?”

Dance looks away, hugging himself as if he’s cold.

“Okay now, cough it up, it won’t kill you, it’s just a hairball–”

“Mister Drin and Mister Bud Innes, they walked out. Young said things to them.”

She puts her hand down on the counter, bracing herself, and stares at him. “Oh love, that won’t do. That damn fool!”

“It was… it was bad. About how.. sluts like… Robert … behave. Before he was with Bud.”

“Was Robert there?”

“No, that was part of the problem. He wasn’t… Robert wasn’t scheduled to be there. There was no reason for the cello section to be there. But Young had us call them up, and about half of them made it. He gave Amalia hell for being late, and she gave it right back to him for being a… stupid arrogant prick.” The words are short, bitten-off, as if he’s having a hard time making them come out at all.

Emma scowls. Amalia does not lose her temper prettily. For the hundredth time Emma goes over lists of names of possible candidate conductors again in her mind. They can’t get Artois for love or money since he hates living in town here, too close with his relatives. Gaglioni is prone to temper tantrums at sub-professional performances. “Gags” might be fine if they had a decent budget to pay for topflight sections, but they don’t. It was that gangster Shura Korachevsky who warned her and Amalia away from Whiteley’s bad habits with finances. There’s a good dozen more to look at, but it’d take money to go listen to their practices and performances and really find out.

Young is a vindictive prick, too. He must be trying to leave the Metro a shambles. Now the damnable man may have put two of their best patrons at risk, not to mention salaries for at least four first chairs. Somebody will have to go talk to Bud Innes about that.

God help her, she knows who gets to go, cap in hand, begging Innes to interview conductors while he’s in various cities on other business. From what Emma’s overheard, Innes is tight with S. David Smith, the oh-so-trendy conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Perhaps he could call in a favor or two when he’s out East, and get the names of a few likely candidates. Besides Drin, Innes is practically the only patron with a decent enough ear for both the music and leadership ends of the problem. Goodness knows he travels enough; Dance is very patient on the endless panicky calls from Robert. Poor guy has panic attacks whenever Bud is out of town for too long.

Dance scrubs his eyes with his knuckles. She’s seen him cry before, and not just while they were going through the Months of Being Alone, as he called it. He says sometimes he just gets too full, and when it overflows he gets angry, he shouts, he cries, he vents it off safely here at home. But Young is overloading the tolerances too far. Dance is beginning to react aggressively at Young’s bullying of other players. He’s starting to stare down, not to look away when Young challenges him.

She looks at him. There’s something else going on there, she thinks. Young insulting patrons is a only little unusual these days; Young really hasn’t been the same since the party where he was seen screaming at Dance and that poor little pregnant violist.

“You called Bud right away?”she asks.

Dance nods again. “He told me not to worry, he understood, he said he and Drin left because they didn’t want to provoke things any worse. He says he wants the list of conductors to interview in London and Salzburg next month.”

“Have you called Drin?”

“No.”

“Okay,” she says, and starts rummaging in the fridge for things to chop into a stir fry. “Talk to me.”

“When Young said insulting things to them, when he looked at Mister Drin like that, we just… ” Dance makes a wave with his hand. “We just… got too close to…” he makes another wave.

“Why Drin, and not Bud?” she asks, washing vegetables. “Yes, of course he’s very likable, very supportive, comes up with great ideas, everybody adores talking to Drin. Everybody must be furious on his behalf.”

Dance puts his face back into his hands. “Young gets to all of us with what truth we do not want to admit, yes? The icky, sneaky truth.”

“Oh yeah,” Emma says, grimly.

“The queer slut, that was his insult to those two patrons. They’ve been more helpful in two months than most patrons in years, but he says things like that to them. To drive them away, yes?”

“If he’s trying to ensure the patrons are all hetero, then yes, he’ll make those sorts of insults. So what else is new?” Emma corrals the chopped bits of loose celery.

“Young said things like, ‘Going out to pick up beardless boys in clubs every night.'”

Emma winces. “Oh yeah, that’s grounds for us dumping his contract, all right. You’re right, that was really bad.”

“This made us…made me… so mad… It’s not true, the idea that Drin… that he’s… flighty. A tomcat.”

“Oh?” Emma says. That’s what everybody assumes of great big charismatic guys like Drin, though nobody seems to have any evidence about who Drin goes out with, or how often he picks up new partners. Give the guy credit for that, Drin has kept his personal life far more private than the Roberts of this world tend to do.

“He’s not, we don’t care what Young says he saw.”

Emma raises her brows. “How would Young see anything? Why would he know anybody’s tastes in boys, if he’s as straight as he claims to be?”

Dance looks up at her, shocked.

She gives a little shrug, julienning zucchinis that Dance brought in from the garden. They need to be used. “If Maestro Young is so damn straight he can’t stand hearing all that icky stuff, where would he have heard it? Why would he even bring it up?”

“Because either Bud or Drin are the manly man when they’re not even trying, more than Young on his most puffball loud day?” Dance says.

“Puffball loud,” Emma repeats, grinning. “That’s a good word for it. Hellfire, Dance, come right down to it, you’re a helluva lot more macho yourself. You get things done and you don’t make a parade of it.”

“What? Oh, Our Miss Emma has more of the machisma. Miss Emma is a much tougher customer than Young.”

“That isn’t hard! Young goes to pieces over schedules.” She rolls her eyes. “I think he’s got some minor disabilities on the fiscal and calendrical front, if you want the truth. But that’s nothing to do with mental toughness. Admit you have a problem, move on, get some help, right? He could have the balls for that.”

Dance grunts, shaking his head.

Emma says, annoyed, “Somebody taught Young to get out of work by throwing tantrums.”

“We must make it clear that he can turn things over to Admin people who like doing those schedules, make it easier for him.” He stands up, stretches. “You want the broccoli stems peeled?”

Korean dish bibimbab
Korean dish, bibimbab in a stone plate, photo by Korean Kitchen

“Yeah, that’d be great. And peel some onion for me.”

“Needs garlic too,” Dance says.

“Gonna load up on the garlic, just to tick off Young and his touchy nose?” Emma says, grinning.

“We seriously considered asking Drin to go to dinner with our Miss Emma, and Miss Amalia and her sister, and having pizza with extra garlic,” Dance says gravely.

“That’s a great idea!” Emma says.

“Can’t afford it until next month,” Dance says. “All that extra copying. We just found out the Metro isn’t going reimburse any of us for that. We can’t ask people like Amalia to cover an extra fifty bucks she doesn’t have.”

“Oh Christ, and I’m skint this month too, the way they raised the rent on us,” Emma says.

“We know,” Dance says.

“You should call Drin,” Emma says.

“What can we say?” Dance says. He sounds a little panicky.

“I don’t think you’ll have to say much of anything. Just mention his friend Bud. I bet he’s mad on Bud’s behalf.”

Dance chops broccoli stems distractedly. “Mister Bud is Mister Drin’s boss, but they do enjoy talking at events, they seem like friends then.”

“It’s reasonable for him to be concerned when somebody’s insulting his buddy, right? Give me the knife, love, before you cut yourself. Let me get started frying this up, you go call him. Everybody will feel better.”

Dance nods, and leaves the bowl of chopped broccoli and onion by her. She can hear him talking, as the food sizzles in the wok. She pours in some soup stock, quieting the noise.

“…Too tangled up to play very well..” she hears, which is a remarkably trusting thing for him to say to anybody.

Then there’s long silences interrupted when he says, “Oh yes, Mister Drin is right,” or things like, “Is our Mister Drin thinking we could do that for the next concert? That’s a very good idea,” and she can hear his voice relaxing as the conversation goes on.

Dance is smiling when he hangs up, and he comes back to Emma and puts his arms around her in a big hug and kisses her on the cheek. “Thanking our Miss Emma, who is very wise,” he says.

“You’re welcome. Also, you need to crush some more garlic for me,” she says, shifting the broccoli about in rapid dips and flips of the spoon. Dance taught her how to do stir fry, and he’s very patient about what she does to things like curries and dirty rice.

“Here’s some canned water chestnuts,” he says. “It’s cheating, but the best we can do.”

She looks at Dance, who is busy being her sous-chef. He starts mixing up the spices and cornstarch into sauce for her.

Hmm, she thinks. Young was zeroing in on some live signal there.Trying to poke through the armor.

She isn’t going to open it up again now that Drin’s got him calmed down, but she’d bet that the needling wasn’t aimed at Drin or Bud Innes. He was jabbing at Dance. The cooler and calmer Dance is, the more Young wants to poke at him. It’s like a teenager pushing and pushing until somebody lays down the hard boundary line, and then they kick up a squall just to be sure of it.

Why would Young want to see Dance go all to pieces, anyway? The Metro has never seen Dance lose his temper, not once. She has. Talk about goddamn scary. That’d take the Metro to bits all by itself. Hell, nobody wants to see that. It makes them all crazy nervous enough when the second violinist goes off, being jealous about his wife and tries to get Dance to fight with him–and he does it nearly every month, like clockwork.Young tried to provoke the usual competition between first and second chair, but he only succeeded in making Brian’s tantrums worse. It didn’t get to Dance at all. Dance is always cool as ice through those encounters. But Dance likes Brian Erickson, even with all the competitive violinist prickles and the jealousy problems about Brian’s ridiculously rude wife. Treats him just like a squawling pet cat who badly needs a flea dip in spite of the waving claws.

What was Young zeroing in on? she thinks. She pours Dance’s sauce into the wok to thicken it, stirring it in rapid flicks of her spoon. “Maaaan, that smells good, I always love your spicing.”

Dance smiles. “Mister Drin said he’d dare eat my hot barbecue next time. He heard rumors he might have to use tongs to eat it.”

“They’re quite right about that, love!” Emma grins. She’s not in the same class when it comes to eating chilies at the level of heat that Dance can handle, but she’s learned that she likes chilies with a range and depth of good flavor. Dance’s Korean-style barbecue has a sticky sweet tang something like Japanese tonkatsu. He labels the pans with warnings. For the hot pan, he adds lots of mustard and garlic and hot radish, and a long, slow, killer heat from three different kinds of chilies. He’s warned her to be very careful if she ever handles the little glass jar in the fridge with the marinating Scotch bonnet chilies.

If Young starts messing with Dance about his buddy Drin, she thinks, then the poor sap is gonna be in a world of hurt. Getting Scotch bonnet chilies dumped in his underpants will be the least of the guy’s worries.

And that’s just talking about Dance.

Bud Innes may be amused by all this fuss. He doesn’t feel the need to intervene in politics very often. He has a scary level of trust in people’s instincts for self-defense.

Not Drin. Drin is not going to tolerate Young’s games. Drin is hands-on, a whole different order of possessive, a totally different style of ownership. Drin’s plans are affecting the whole damn symphony through Dance as the concertmaster. Drin has laid claim on Dance’s time and interests in ways that have nothing to do with picking up beardless boys in clubs.

Young knows it, too.

Jealous sod. Picking on Drin’s foremost pet musicians? That’s tiny politics from a penny-ante operator. No patron with money and political savvy likes seeing that.

Drin hasn’t bent any kind of revenge onto the man yet–certainly not the way Bud Innes will, when he gets a hot new conductor with a name in there for the Metro, somebody who totally eclipses Young. They’ll have a hard time remembering who whats-his-name was. Eventually. Trust Bud Innes for that.

Drin is more short-term, up close, bare-knuckled. She’s uncertain what Drin will do if Young starts attacking Dance or Amalia so bluntly.

So far, Drin is civil to the man, he addresses Young calmly, nodding when Young says things, paying attention as much as he does with anybody in the orchestra.

But Young doesn’t get the time and care and interest that Drin directs to Dance.

Hell, Drin puts in more time and effort talking to Amalia, the first cellist and Dance’s best buddy in the Metro.

Young knows that too. Hates it.

How pathetic is that?

Emma squints against a gust of highly-spiced steam. She knows Drin and Dance have had some fun conversations about chilies. Ahhh, that could be useful, she thinks. She’s going to have to find some way to thank the man for how he got Dance to calm down and relax again tonight.

That’s some leadership, she thinks. That’s what they need in a conductor, dammit.

===

from another googledocs collaboration!

Schools Of Leadership

Drin finds himself staring at a pair of backsides. One man has long curly golden hair; the other’s is long, straight, and black.

Dance hands Robert a plate. “Go make deadly smile mojo. Take food so people don’t start feeling neglect, yes?”

Robert looks over at Bud. “But I’d rather be in here with you,” Robert says.

“Don’t pout,” Robert’s Papi admonishes him. “I know you would, sweet. It’s the burden of being so pretty, you’re one of the faces of the Metro, we need you cheering people up. I’ll be in shortly to rescue you.”

“Promise?” Robert says, but he goes.

The gentleman who seems to have brought Robert to heel sips his champagne, and leisurely eats some of the rolls, and some of the smoked things. “Dance, your balance of herbs is superb,” he says.

“We must thank you,” Dance says gravely. “We find shaved ice and fruit syrops for dessert. Is Mister Bud of the same school of leadership as Drin?”

“What school is that?”

“The kiss, not the kick,” Dance says.

“Well, I happen to know that Drin has a damn fine kick on him too. We just don’t employ bodily harm as our first ploy out of the box. So how did you knock Robert down?”

“Step on Mister Robert’s shoelace. He walks on–” Dance’s hand diagrams the comic disaster.

Bud cracks up. “I gotta make him pick out loafers instead!”

“Many kissings, not oops,” Dance agrees.

“You and Amalia are gonna have to keep on kicking him, poor boy,” Bud says.

Dance nods. “Our job, making Robert want to work hard.”

“Speaking of work, Drin, did you ever hear back what happened on that Rarebon Corporation audit? The one where the subcontractor and the estimator shared some really dumbass kickbacks?”

“Oh, that was the unmanned drone system, dummying up old Russian military surplus for emergency service functions. We’re waiting on sentencing. How were you involved in testifying on that court case?”

“My goddamn due diligence. I had to fess up what I learned about their operations beforehand, why we dropped their offer after we bought the company. I don’t like wasting time in court. Hell, it’s not new, we’ve kept an eye out on that bunch for years. So do the feds. Stupid games, anything with ‘dumbshit mobster’ stamped all over it. No thank you.”

Drin nods. “Just as a matter of public interest, my section got involved as independent witnesses on which records were altered and which files just disappeared.”

“Yeah, the way you start pulling line on a snarled fly cast, and pretty soon you got yourself a monster fish you can’t get rid of. No game for amateurs.” Bud turns slightly toward Dance, tells him, “Drin’s bunch of auditors pulled so many cute tricks they might as well run around court on unicycles with toy horns and rubber clown noses, I swear to God.”

“Don’t give them any ideas!” Drin says, horrified.

Bud just grins. “That answer your question, Dance?”

“Yes. Our favorite patrons believe in avoiding any need to kick. When our Mister Bud and Mister Drin do swing at them, get out soap, it is mop-time,” Dance says. Then he brings out another plate. “Does that save fuss?”

Bud grins wider. “Yeah, later on. Usually. At least, I think so,” and he pops another lump of prosciutto in his mouth. “Mmm, I do like these, Dance.”

Drin nods, mouth full.

“We shall make more, next time,” Dance says, and he’s pleased enough that he smiles.

“Don’t take any shit off Young,” Bud says to the concertmaster. He indicates Drin, and himself. “You let us know. Robert’s gonna tattle on you anyway at Board meetings, so you might as well give it to us when it happens.”

“Oh yes, Mister Bud,” Dance says, and he’s still smiling.

Bud looks at him. Looks at Drin, winks, as if to say, ‘Let me show you something.’ Bud says to the Concertmaster, “So how did you figure out Young might go ballistic on poor little Twill?”

“Miss Twillzer is prompt, she comes early always, nobody here, it comes her turn as catnip toy, yes?” Dance gives an embarrassed little shrug. “My temper runs off leash. Sneak attack on poor Twill, of all girls! I let him provoke me, that was not wise.”

“Oh, you mean you’re a fucking human being?” Drin says.

“Shocking,” Bud agrees.

“And very unwise,” Dance says, looking at them. “But very grateful.”

“Well, we’re dismissed,” Bud says, grinning. “I’ll just go rescue Robert, that bitch Amanda probably got her claws into him.”

“Give me some more plates, Dance, and I’ll circulate,” Drin says.

“Too kind,” Dance says. “These have olives, these do not.”

“Oh, I just like to gossip. Make sure the spin goes the way I want.”

Bud Innes has indeed rescued Robert, and just as briskly detailed Robert to babysit a whole set of new patrons, where the pretty boy is telling them stories and basking in their praise. Bud’s no dummy.

Bud sees Drin coming with loaded plates, and grins, and resumes talking to the three even older men who are nodding gravely at what he says. Drin passes around them like a waiter, and moves on to the next little knot of people.

He finds himself watching the raconteur in that group. This storyteller is a younger woman, waving her hands and bending her head around and imitating noises, and speaking in an growling alto. She has an Aussie accent that she’s tamed down for company. He’s a total sucker for accents of nearly any kind, can’t help himself, but this one is killing him.

The nuances get buried because Young is holding court in the next room, getting loud. She pauses, as she might for a loud jet. Drin heads dutifully in that direction.

He and his plates get a glare from Young. Quite a few patrons sit listening to Young giving them all puffery about what the symphony will be able to do in six month’s time, when Young has no intention of staying that long. No wonder many of them look puzzled. Defying the union agreement, blowing up the public relations budget without a new source of funds, doing big pieces with fewer musicians and fewer administrative bodies to support it all–puffery, all of it.

Drin is suddenly impatient with the pretty soapsud lies. When he returns, he can see Robert’s patron is, too. He tilts his head toward the kitchen, and they both stroll away. Bud chooses a route where they can be seen from both rooms.

Is there anything more delicious than feeling Young’s gaze on their backs?

“Well, that was fun, been wanting to do that for days.”

“We’re being bad, and somebody else may get to pay for it,” Drin says.

“As always,” Bud replies.

Robert brings them both fresh flutes of champagne, and then a plate of lovely little smoked things with toothpicks. Then stools, and they perch at Dance’s counter.

“Mmm, artichokes and herbs,” Drin says. “Who made those?”

“We always ask Dance to bring those,” Robert Goldstein confides, stroking Bud’s arm lightly. In a stage whisper, Robert says, “He’s never got enough money to buy much of the really good prosciutto, so we only give it to people we really like.”

“So we’re being bad that way,” Dance says, and his dark hands twirl a plate of fragrant herbal things on home-made rolls out of the microwave, setting it gently in front of them.

Drin takes a big sniff, sighs happily, and glances up to see Dance’s eyes gravely considering him. Then Dance smiles, just a little, and his shoulders relax.

Drin thinks, Dammit, it doesn’t take that much to help him out. It’s not like he ever asks Young for a damn thing.

 

sandwich on baguette seen end on
You had me at prosciutto

 

“Give me another load to distribute, please,” Drin says. A strand of black hair falls over Dance’s shoulder. It is starting to come loose from his severe black ribbon, the same way it does when he solos. He’s about to twist it up impatiently into a knot. Drin has seen him do it in rehearsals.

The hair makes Drin want to pull it, just to see what Dance will do about it.

Maybe another time; but not tonight, not after Young provoked the guy. Drin escapes into the crowd. Well, not so much of an escape, when he hears that Aussie accent tugging on him again.

When Drin swings by that group, she’s still got them enthralled. She pulls off a hoary old joke adapted for new use by making the bad guy a saltwater crocodile, and she smiles as people laugh. Eats a nice chunk of cheese in one gulp, nods her thanks, grabs extra pieces, and conveys them to one of the guys who can’t see so well. “Try that, see if you like it,” Emma says.

Emma something. Librarian who coordinates events at various branches with the Metro. The way she conducts the group, a little tap of her hand here and a flash of the eyes there, it makes Drin wish she was organizing the musicians the same way. Hell, the way Young ought to be doing. The way Dance already does, as far as he can.

“No worries, love,” she growls at another one of her really aged admirers, smiling and touching his shoulder. The poor old guy flutters like a shred of translucent vellum under the impact of it–and that voice! Drin can feel his eyes trying to roll back in his head in exactly the same way.

Well, it’s also the body. Her proportions aren’t slowed down by the unhappy lines of a cheap silk dress. But nobody’s hanging off her arm. Very odd. Usually a woman like that will have an entourage trailing around after her.

It takes him awhile to realize why.

She gets more done if she’s open to anybody who comes up to her. So she’s working alone. They’re lining up to get a look and a little kiss on the cheek, a pat on the arm, and a husky word of thanks whispered in their ear. She doesn’t forget to go around and thank people who’s helped out before, and yes– there she goes– talking them into re-upping. She’s enlisting volunteers.

It’s something to see.

actress Emma Watson in turquoise silk
Who’s Next?

“No sugar-coating there,” Bud says in Drin’s ear. “That’s all just the solid goods. Talk about leadership! God, I love dames.”

“It’s a rare model,” Drin says wryly.

“Two more seconds of staring like that, and I couldn’t save you, man. She’s gonna zero in,” Bud warns him. “She can sniff out bi-guys like you in nanoseconds, and she has no mercy.”

Drin winces. “What was it, the drool, or the cross-eyed stare?”

Bud laughs. “Oh hell, man, you love everybody.”

 

Jokes From Dance

hand on mug on dark table with food
A nice lunch

His name is not Ha Neol Ahn. Not any more.

It rattles her. That name came out of the research she did before their prizewinner showed up, when she was trying to get some grip on where their first chair might take the Metro Symphony. From what she’s heard so far, it’ll be somewhere a lot more crisp and professional and technical.

Amalia’s email last night commented that Walstadt simply doesn’t hear the subtle problems. He rushes through when he is there. He’s busy feathering for his next nest. Naturally, says Amalia, he was perplexed and annoyed by the things that Dance of Knives recited carefully to him from scribbled notes, after their very first break. But the other first chairs were muttering a lot. The good ones were nodding, triumphant.

The email devolved into all caps with exclamations to say that Dance was absolutely right. It mentioned that he didn’t forget anything she warned him about. As an exercise in pure memory, Amalia said, he stunned half the orchestra into submission right there. She wrote that she was going to be happy as a clam to work with him.

“So how do you feel about work so far?” Emma asks.

“We are sorry to miss talking Metro Symphony with Amalia at night,” Dance says, tugging out paper napkins with careful precision, the way he does everything. “Sharp wit, yes? Advise us. We are being–” he takes a breath, smiles, “I am– grateful for so much generosity. Amalia is helping members of sections who struggle in this repertoire. She wants change for accommodation. Metro must train younger musicians.”

“We were lucky Walstadt brought in some funding to hire them at all,” Emma says.

Dance looks at her solemnly over the plate full of sticky bear claw. “Walnuts?” he ask, holding up some of it.

“Yes, these are a bit old, but–”

bearclaw pastries on white and blue plate
Which Kind of Walnuts?

“Can we be telling if these are Persian walnuts or black English walnuts?” He says it with a distinct rhythm, articulating with care. “We– I– read these two trees look different. Black walnuts grow sticky husk?”

Emma pauses and blinks. “Yeah, they do. Can’t tell in pastries, but we can try to find something that does show the taste.”

“We will be liking that. Liking plants too,” he says. His eyes catch the light, turning a warm light brown. “We never live long enough with one place for planting trees.”

Emma grins. “Well, then you’ll go nuts–sorry!–you’ll go crazy over my weeds. I know what most of the weeds probably are, but that doesn’t make it any easier to bend over and dig the darn things out.”

“Can we give you digging help? Good, helps thinking. Good like jogging.”

“Oh, you do whatever you like out there, it can only improve things.”

“What is Miss Emma liking cooked in satay?” Dance asks then, and licks sticky cinnamon sugar glaze off his fingertips, wasting none of it. That reminds her of cats. Not a fluffy and sweet-tempered cat like her own, but something a lot more powerful. Perhaps with spots or stripes hidden in that sleek black coat. Feral as hell.

It’s just not on, she tells herself crossly, to project such patronizing nonsense onto somebody she barely knows. But the whole orchestra saw Dance being gently evasive. Walstadt likes to grab people, push them about, turn them to face new directions, when he gets aggressive or excited or carried away. Dance doesn’t accommodate that. He is too quick on his feet. Right now, he’s watching the gears grinding slowly in her head. He’s used to waiting for people to catch up.

“Oh, use anything in the fridge, whatever’s in there. I think there’s onions. I’ve got no idea if I have any of the spices or whatnot that you might want to use.”

He smiles then. “We ask if our third and fourth thing be good to our first two things, yes? When we have one thing only, we use. Pickles. Eggs. Odd things.”

Emma wipes sugar off her mouth, and his eyes follow the sugary napkin. Oh yes, that boy’s been hungry.

He does that head-tilt again. “Is Miss Emma liking carrots and celery with peanut butter?”

“No, but that’s what I can stand to snack on in a hurry, when my tum is all riled up and tossing round.” She pats herself.

“Is tum all tossing now? Is Miss Emma’s job giving upset?”

Emma whooshes out a breath. “No worries, I’m all right now. You made me settle down and eat something and laugh! But don’t get me started whingeing about work, we’ll sit here all night!”

“And that is bad?” he says, with a little quizzical smile. He waves his hand at the crowded little donut shop. “Yes, sit here in a warm place, eating sugar bombs with beautiful woman who has such wonderful laugh?”

“Oh, lord luv a duck, did you say pretty things like that to Amalia?”

“Oh, Amalia is pretty, but also such jammin’ awesome musician. But Miss Emma, yes! Miss Emma is jawdropper steaming hot, I know this before. Our section says this. They can’t say it to Miss Emma, all straight boys, no, no. But we are queer, so we can say whatever if we like. Right? So straight boys kid us. We say it, Miss Emma punch us out, we must go to rehearsal all black-eye, and Maestro Walstadt asks who hit us, and they all laugh at us a lot.”

Emma finds herself cracking up and laughing very hard. When she winds down, she reaches across the tiny table and gives him a little push on the shoulder. “Flattery!”

He smiles. He’s letting her push him, too. “That is, flattery is to say pretty things?”

“Yes! Silly things that you only say to make somebody happy!”

“But is not just silly,” Dance says. He puts out his two hands, and takes hers, and grips them gently. “Miss Emma impresses people, lots smartness, so quick, Miss Emma does not stop to visit a mirror who says Miss Emma is the fairest of all, yes?”

She grins. “Why? Do I need to brush my hair or something?”

He lets go of her hands, reaches up, and plucks a tangle of little twigs from the curls tousled by her right ear. “As we say, no worries, please. Leaves fall on the head coming in. Do not wish to surprise Miss Emma.” He frowns, smoothing the disordered curls above her ear.

“Oh damnitall,” Emma growls, looking ruefully at the twigs. She puts up a hand and adopts a silly dramatic pose. “Oh, I shall just have to play as if I’m really a wood nymph or water fairy or something terribly Shakespearean.”

He gets up, laughing, and puts the twigs in the can along with their paper trash. He’s still chuckling as he sits down. “Ha! Amalia tells stories on Miss Emma. Miss Emma plays Puck with tricks.”

“How do you– oh, of course! You’ve learned the music for plays and ballets, right?”

“Yes, we read translations to understand…how do we say… mood. Correct phrasing, style of bowing. But that old man Falstaff, that is nasty in Korean. Older village people don’t like actors yell those words where child might hear. Very sad. Old sad clown.” He touches her coat sleeve just enough that she can feel it. He’s so used to being cautious, it makes her want to reach out and arm wrestle him, teach how to do silly fingersnaps, or just maul him about while quoting silly movie lines, and hear him laughing some more. Of course she won’t do that, which is a shame.

He smiles, as if he read the thought anyway.

Emma taps his arm. He permits this, too. “We should get you a proper haircut. I’ve a buddy who wants new clients who won’t mind being experimented on.”

He pushes his untidy mop into a rooster comb like a bad mohawk, and makes a silly face. “Oh, sad again, not enough tats and earrings.”

“Amalia didn’t warn me I’d be laughing all night!”

He leans in close, opening his eyes very wide. “Amalia tires, we don’t joke at her all night. But Miss Emma! So glad Miss Emma is Miss Amalia’s friend!” He grins, with very white teeth.

“So am I,” Emma says, and gives him another mild push on the shoulder, which only makes the grin widen. He pats her arm, too. Emma is beginning to think that only a damn fool would chase Dance round the house. She’s certain that he’ll be underfoot all the time, alongside her cat.

===

written from a challenge on bjd_30minfic with the prompt of “stairwell”

We Begin the Beguine

“Does our Miss Emma believe in fate?” Dance asks.

Emma rubs her eyes, looks up from the stack of grant application paperwork. “What are you talking about?”

“Does Miss Emma ever pray for good luck, as some of the ladies of the Metro do before a performance?” Dance asks. He is reading sheets of music, and marking changes in careful details from his scribbled session notes. He has a lot of them. Conductor Richard Young must have been on a roll that afternoon.

“Nooo,” Emma says, amused. The sardonic editor in the back of her head remarks, Only because it takes too much to make you ask. You haven’t been on hard times that bad in the last two years Dance has been living here. She blinks it away and says, “What brings this up?”

“Maestro Young was yelling when somebody new walked in on our practice. This guest waved hello at us and sat down to watch. Of course Young has his instinct for patrons. But this one witness simply shut off Young’s temper. There was much speculation.”

“What’d he look like, this new guy?”

“Oh, we didn’t see him very well. Not well enough to gossip. Tall,  big.  Freckle, red hairs, sports guy with a beard, going gray. Good-natured.”

“Probably not one of our regular patrons. I’ll check it out,” Emma says absently, her eyes going back to her papers. She doesn’t look at Dance again until she’s sure he’s preoccupied with his notes. But she smiles a little. So Dance doesn’t think he got a good enough look?

When he glances up with an inquiring gaze, she blinks innocently at him. Maybe Dance isn’t as preoccupied as she thought. “Not luck,” she says, dead-pan, “I believe in planning.”

Jigs in the Stairwell

The stairwell is no longer pleasantly echoing with Irish jigs and reels.

“It’s drowning frogs out there,” Emma says, crossly, shaking out her umbrella. Her shoes are soaked. “Did you hear the thunder going?”

“Yes, I did, and just look at you!” says her buddy, Amalia Mortkowicz. Amalia speaks quietly because their voices echo so much in the concrete surfaces of the stairwell going up to the next floor. The open risers of the stairwell won’t stop either loud noises or a wet, skidding foot.

“Well, I’m not going out until it eases up, I’ve got that damned old cello case of mine to get home. Here’s the books. It took a month for our professor to decide the Greek folk music really wasn’t. Greek, I mean. Which made him such a grumpy old man. All worthless except for your local historical collection. You know that’s a very fast review for him, don’t you?”

Emma groans as she puts down the cloth bag of lumpy objects handed to her. “I owe you. I’m sure it’d be easier to pull teeth. So, how is it working out with our newest immigrant?”

“Oh, Emma, I wanted to ask you– Is there anywhere else for him to go?”

painting of woman cellist by gacquet
A Substantial Cellist

“You’re tired of him so quickly?”

“No, he’s a dear! But my sister is coming home day after tomorrow.. And he’s very self-contained and tidy, and my old sofa… Well, things are worse than when you stayed with me. The trip didn’t go well. She’s deep in one of those horrid rebound situations.”

“I remember you were worried about it,” Emma says, giving a little warning gesture upward.

Amalia murmurs, very soft, “I can’t fault her taste, but her comments last night! I’m sure she’ll try to seduce him, no matter what I told her. She fusses now about people who only talk in gerunds! It’ll drive them both mad. I just can’t see me letting her maul him about and demoralize him like that. He’s a lovely player. Well, I’ll see you later, girlfriend, I’ve got students to bully.”

The door slams after Amalia’s stout, fast-moving figure. There’s a brief echo in the stairwell. Then the hush of rain on the walls.

“I heard you doing jigs and reels up there at lunch time. You might as well come down and talk to me. I know where you work. If you help me get her cello home tonight, we can haul your things to my place.”

There’s a little rustle up there.

“I’m Emma, I’m a librarian on the fund-raising and symphony coordination committees. Amalia might not have bothered to explain. And trust me, you do not want to risk Amalia’s sofa or her sister,” says Emma. “I’ve got more room than she does. How are you on carrots and celery sticks and peanut butter for dinner?”

There’s a brown face peering down over the rail. “Much better in satay sauce with onions,” says a soft tenor voice.

Emma gazes upward. “You cook?”

“Liking much when finding pans,” he says. “And onion.”

“I have a few pans, I just never use them.”

“Amalia is very much nice lady, but all boxes, no pans,” he says.

“You’re on, Mister Ha Neol. Come on down and I’ll show you the cat and my digs and my pans, and we’ll come back later for Amalia. I want out of these wet things. Do you have a plastic grocery sack for your violin case?”

“No,” he says.

She props her purse on a rail, it weighs a ton, and rummages. “Zip ties, no, scissors, no, tape–I was mailing things in this weather, silly of me–” She pulls out a couple of wadded plastic sacks and waves them aloft. “Do I know how to rescue musicians and librarians, or what?”

“Miss Emma does!” he says, and then he’s edging down silently. He’s a foot shorter than she is. He has dark skin and eyes that look more Mongol than Korean. “Miss Emma was hearing us? Miss Emma came to our rehearsal?”

“I did,” she says, holding out the plastic in his direction with one hand while her other hand is rearranging the oddments that should stay stuffed in her purse, and are trying to fight back. She doesn’t stare at him. She knows better than to spook shy guys who play instruments and never use ‘you’, or ‘I’, those rudely direct pronouns, only the politer ‘we’ or ‘us’. If she’s not careful she’ll start doing it herself, as if she’s mocking him. “Mister Ahn Ha Neol–Mister Ahn, isn’t it?–you’re going to be the best damn concertmaster we’ve had in years, trust me.”

She’s surprised when he turns away, puts up one hand, and wipes at his eyes. “We are thanking Miss Emma.” Not for the first time, she silently rues the day the Metro signed a contract with Hovannes Walstadt, conductor. The old guy is like a bull in a china shop. Ha Neol’s other hand is clutching his violin case to his chest. The odd scars on his face are pale in the cold. He’s all angles, skin drawn hard over bones– far too thin, Emma thinks.

“Right,” Emma says, frowning. “Let’s get some coffee and sugar bombs into both of us first. My treat because you’re going to carry Amalia’s cello tonight, and I’m starved, and I don’t want to wait.”

“So kind,” he says, gazing up at her.

“Nonsense, I’m selfish! I like intelligent company.”

“We are not,” he says, following her down the stairs so the she has to stop and turn around and face him. This time he’s taller, since he’s three steps higher. He looks somehow larger at this angle. The skinny is muscular. The shift of his angular head reminds her of a large praying mantis staring at her, fascinated.

“I’m sorry? You’re not intelligent?”

“Not Ahn Ha Neol, not our name,” the violinist says, smiling at her. “Our name, it is now becoming Dance Of Knives. Amalia helped get our papers to start this changing.”

Emma bites back her first word, which would have been “sweetheart,” and merely says; “Of course, how silly of me!” and rushes him down to the door by sheer force of will.

(originally written Apr 16, 2009)