Greet the Ragged Stranger at the Gate

Aztec Serpent Goddess
An Aztec Serpent Goddess

You must always remember, Drin tells himself, to greet the old man at the crossroads in the morning. Acknowledge the crone at the railroad crossing.

It’s always surprising, the results you get when you do.

And even more so when you don’t.

When you forget.

Worse yet, if you were rude, or hasty, or hostile, for some reason.

That leads to…troubles.

The symphony has an over-abundance of weird old ladies who…watch things.

He’s sneaked up through the folding chairs. He’s listening to a rehearsal go badly. The conductor calls a break, and the noise shifts over to the seats where the audience sits.
The musicians aren’t talking much. Dance is going through the sheet music steadily, marking things, with his jaw set in a perfectly neutral position. The other first chairs are muttering over theirs.

The folding seats are hard. Drin picks a seat next to an aisle, where he can come and go without making too much fuss. He smiles and nods at the clump of older women in jogging suits and sweats and sneakers. Some of them know him, and smile back approvingly, but most of them are busy waving their hands and overriding each other’s conversations. Most of them have wild hair dragged up in scrunchies. They’ve clearly come from the gym down the street, and they’re just as clearly going to gossip their way leisurely through the rehearsal, and then they’re going out to dinner. There’s comments about committees. It’s unclear which of the musicians, if any, will be going with them. There are diamond tennis bracelets flashing on mottled wrists. It’s not like they need to be anywhere.

man's shoulder with bag strap
shoulder strap

“My goodness,” she says, blinking up at Drin in a deceptively old-lady way as he sits down. “Now that is a man-purse!”

Just in time, Drin remembers her name is Joscelyn. He shakes hands with a few of the others too, only those who offer. He heaves the strap off his shoulder and gives a little shrug. “Work, you know how it is.”

Always greet the rude old goddess at the crossroads.

Always.

It’s stood him in good stead before, and got him in more trouble than he cares to remember.

“You just go ahead dear, don’t mind us yelling at the top of our lungs,” Joscelyn advises him.

She turns back to her knot of friends, and waving her blue-veined hands in a vast gesture, she says, “Anyway, so Gladys just gets in, puts her stuff down, and totally forgets she still has her driver side door open. She backs out of the driveway like a shot–” there are groans from the other ladies, as of people who know Gladys and her lead-footed ways, “–and she hits the mailbox.”

There’s a groan. The old bitch points her forefinger at them, warning them there’s more to the story. There always is. The finger gets used for this a lot. It bears a huge Navajo ring with a turquoise. Her other hand bought Zuni, entire pavé sheets of tiny turquoise chips, beautifully set. Emma could glance at it and tell him where it came from and who made it. She gets annoyed sometimes at galas, growling when she sees stuff she knows was stolen from some museum back in the forties.

Drin opens up his leather bag, pulls out the work, finds his place, and listens with one eye cocked to watch. He can do sums without thinking on these, he’s done it so much by now. He’s brought work with him a lot lately, reading and taking notes while he waits through protracted rehearsals. As a conductor, Maestro Young is one of those who fancies himself in the model of Georg Solti or Herbert von Karajan, taskmasters with hearts of flint when it comes to getting musicians to make the sound balance right. Richard Young intends, some day, to get somewhere better than the Metro, and he’s been showing his true colors now the party is over and it’s time to work, but Dance wasn’t there to mediate for the other first chairs. Or to soften the man’s abrupt changes of direction. Dance was off seeing caves, with Emma. Three days off, that’s all, is enough to make everyone scream for his help when he returns. They’re not grateful at all, just demanding his time. Especially Richard Young, who had no idea of the true size of Dance’s shoes.

frustrations

Dance refuses to say a bad word about Young. “He knows his stuff,” Dance says, with that grim little line to his mouth that means, God help us all.

And by God, they all hate to say it, but this is helping the performances. Dance has been working his ass off, and hitting the older scores he hasn’t looked at for awhile. The other night Dance made them both laugh when he read out an old clipping he found: “Explaining why he preferred conducting the Berlin Philharmonic to the Vienna Philharmonic: ‘If I tell the Berliners to step forward, they do it. If I tell the Viennese to step forward, they do it. But then they ask why.'”

Poor man, the conductor is clearly trying to do the traditional style with unsuitable material. Robert, the pretty second cellist, has been coming in for very sharp remarks on his timing.

The audience is awfully rowdy too. Joscelyn is waving both hands. “Now, that’s bad enough, right? She takes down the mailbox, bam! But there’s the mailman’s truck right there, too, her door hits the end of the truck–” there’s more gasps than groans this time, “–and the poor guy in the mail van, he dives out the far side, you know those open doors they have. Dives right out on the street.”

Drin looks back down at the sums. Another saying that he’s been remembering a lot: Render unto Caeser what is Caeser’s. Pay effing attention, as Emma might say sternly, and get your bloody work done. Caeser is currently being a greedy landlord, as it happens, and Drin is not happy about all the work he’s taking home these days. It didn’t use to bother him. He’s got better things to do these days. Including nothing. Absolutely…nothing.

He doesn’t dare look up at the musicians. He braces himself to ride out one of those acute memories that live more in the body than in the mind. Remembering Dance moving under him.

 

man's torso muscles tensed
torso, muscles tensed

It still hits him hard, at the damndest times. Sometimes, if he’s careless, when he looks up, he sees Dance is staring at him blindly with exactly the same expression, and it’s incredibly hard not turn the both of them into slack-jawed idiots, right there in public. So he’s learned to be careful where he turns his eyes, during rehearsals.

“And she damn near drives up over him–” she holds up the finger to still the other ladies, “–because she’s still turning. Her car is still moving. Thank God, she told me later she panicked and swung the wheel round so hard the other way she’s skidding, but at least she missed him–” and there’s more exclamations of horror, “–so the poor man only had scratches and scrapes from falling in the street.”

Drin doesn’t get to sleep in late with Dance curled up in his arms every morning, the way he’d like. Dance is living at the Metro, working with young musicians who’ve been reduced to tears. He’s very patient. Drin knows what he has to do about that–he gets to live at the Metro too, if he wants to see more than an exhausted hug out of Dance. At least here he gets to wallow in Dance’s playing. And God, is it so much more worth falling into than he knew, than he had any idea, when he first started coming. This extended struggle has opened his eyes to entire other aspects of his lover’s personality. But here, he doesn’t even get to kiss him, not in front of people; it wouldn’t help the concertmaster and disciplinarian, to show his keeper.

He senses eyes on him. Automatically, he says, “So was Gladys hurt?”

“Oh no, a couple of bad scratches on her legs, that’s it. Can you believe it? Totals her car, the mail van, and the other car that she swung into, instead–oh yeah, there were two other fender-benders right there–bang, bang!–here’s the car door flung off into somebody’s yard like a goddamn Frisbee–and she walks away with a few scratches. My God, it’s always like that with her. I don’t know how she gets away with it. Strews wreckage in her way, and toddles along like some gray-haired little Weeble or something. You remember those?”

Drin nods. “Inflatable punching bag toys.”

“That’s what she makes me feel like doing!” Joscelyn the Queen Bee roars, shaking her fists in the air.

“You’re not the only one,” exclaims another. “Did you hear what she did to my poor old committee last week?” and they’re off.

He rakes his hair back out of his eyes. It’s hot in the hall, which is great for some instruments and not so great for others. The old ladies in their jogging suits love it, and given the aches they talk about, he can’t blame them. But it’s not so wonderful for the musicians who have to work hard and think about what they’re doing. Dance is wiping sweat from his face and hands with a rag, and drinking from a bottle of water. Drin glances up when some of the ladies nearby start leaving.

“You know, that’s a lovely shirt,” Joscelyn’s rings flash at him, and her departing friends wave their hands at her, and giggle in embarrassment.

Drin glances up at her. “Thank you,” he says.

“But it shows how your nips harden up when you look at your boyfriend,” she confides to him, not blinking.

He stares back. “Ah,” he says.

She taps him on the forearm. “It’s a little casual, let’s say. Lovely, though.”

“Thanks, I didn’t realize.”

“Goes with your eyes. Did Emma pick it out?”

He blinks again. “No.”

“Oh, then it was Dance,” she says, nodding in satisfaction. “Such a strange young man, so serious. Nobody knows what you see in him. He gives me the creeps, frankly. You should have seen Brian Ericson yesterday. My God, he storms in, accusing Dance of seducing his wife, says there’s pictures, my God–he swings at Dance–”

“What?” Drin says, focusing both eyes on her. Brain Ericson, second violin, his tired mind supplies the information.

“Oh yeah,” she says seriously, nodding and touching his arm again. “Poor little Brian, he gets these rages, you wouldn’t believe. Every month, you can tell when his wife’s on the rag, he loses it. So, hey, we’re all used to it, you know, except faux-Solti Mister Young there, who gets all wound up, just makes it worse. Everybody’s shouting, and Brian squares up like a damn boxer, he comes around and tries to punch Dance, right in front of everyone. Doesn’t work, of course. Never does. I don’t know why he always goes after Dance, who’s maybe the one person in the building could handle it without somebody getting hurt.”

“Maybe because he knows Dance can handle it?” Drin says, and Joscelyn laughs. Dance has said it’s a huge advantage to a concertmaster to know some kind of martial arts. He just hadn’t realized how literally Dance meant it. But then, Dance is often more literal than the laws of physics should allow.

“So yeah, then he has to go drag Brian-boo off and have a nice long talk where the guy screams like a girl–we all heard him start crying, my God, try to run a rehearsal through that–especially without Dance to make them pull themselves together–and Dance comes back with his shirt all ripped, and he tells everyone the second violin is going home because he’s ill, Dance apologizes to everyone, and he sits down and he gets out his music and that’s it. Is he going to press charges?”

“I don’t know, I haven’t seen the shirt yet.” It sounds weak; he has to clear his throat before he can get the words out.

She cackles, and pats his arm, and settles back to pay attention to the rehearsal, leaving Drin thoroughly unattentive.

Things don’t improve when time winds on and other people settle around them.

One of the younger men who sits down near Drin leans close, introduces himself–making it clear he’s the younger son of somebody important in a law office that does pro bono for the symphony–and he nods significantly toward Dance, and he confides, “You know, you really could update the poor man’s training methods. Drills to Locatelli, can you believe it? So Eighteenth Century. I mean, I realize the organization is strapped, but surely we could afford more modern training than that. Not the best fingering, is it?”

Having helped with the annual audit that very month, Drin knows that no, the symphony can’t afford to send their strings for more modern workshops, not for some time to come. They can’t even pull themselves together well enough to send Dance by himself. Emma’s tried, God knows. “I’m not sure any of the instruments are fingering well when they put in these kinds of hours.”

Which is a joke on the demands of the conductor.

The younger man smiles, simpers, and taps his arm. “Naughty!” he says, as if he’s been flirted with. “I like it!” and he moves on to chat with the next person, just like that.

Drin looks back at his work. If he flirted with anybody, by God, they’d know he was doing it when he got done with them. He’s annoyed. He knows it’s going to get back to Dance, and he can see how it will get there, and he knows he may have to explain. Well, if Dance bothers to worry. Drin’s not sure if he will or not. Which is a strange sensation. In his mind, though, he hears the thunk of Dance’s bedroom door — and he knows that there is one thing in his life he’ll never doubt. Which is, also, a strange sensation.

Dance is flexing his wrists oddly in the car on the way home, grimacing. His jacket is soaked, his hair is as spiky as if he’s been sprinting, and he’s clearly unhappy. He hunches in the passenger seat, which is not like him.

“Do we need to take you in for tendonitis or anything?”

“No, no, it’s just bruises from–”

Drin lifts a brow.

Dance looks guilty. “I saw Joscelyn giving you an earful. I assume she told you about poor old Brian going berserk yesterday. Poor guy loves his bloody stupid twit of a wife, and that’s how he proves it to her, that’s all. God. True love.”

Drin lifts the other brow.

“Oh, not you. That’s not what I meant.”

“Oh,” Drin says, neutrally. “How come I never saw Brian going off on you when I was mooching around, watching things?”

“Because nobody does stupid shit like that while money is in the house.”

“Oh,” Drin says again. “And Joscelyn isn’t money in the house?”

“Oh, she loves it, she eggs him on. Gotta feed Joscelyn something for her adrenaline, or she’ll find something to make up. Drama is her business.”

“Yeah, I got that,” Drin says. “Funny as hell. Provocative is her middle name. Is there one in every group of humans?”

“We have at least four of them,” Dance says, in comic despair, and he finally lets his head sink back into the support of the leather, and he sighs, and closes his eyes.

“The sound of success, as Emma would say.”

“What, that we’re large enough to support that many vampires?”

“Exaaaactly.”

“Jesus Christ on a pogo stick fucking a koala bear. As Emma would say.”

Drin laughs. “Better him than me. You ever see the claws on one of those bears?”

“Yes, I have,” Dance’s hand slides across the gearbox to rest on Drin’s thigh. “I still need to take you to the San Diego Zoo. I have cycads to show off.”

Drin glances over at the sharp angles of exhaustion in that face. “How bad is the shirt?”

“I’m not showing it to you, I threw it away,” Dance says, opening his eyes.

“You threw away a good dress shirt?”

“Yeah,” Dance says, with a sort of fury. “I damn well did.”

Drin smiles. “Good.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know, you’ve been trying to rip me out of my ratty old sweats, you see what bad habits you’re getting me into now,” Dance says, and looks at him.

“Joscelyn says this shirt shows off how my nipples tighten up when I look at you,” Drin says.

Dance opens his mouth wide, in disbelief. “She didn’t.”

“Oh yes.” Drin smiles. “Maybe I should keep this shirt for more … personal moments.”

“I liked looking at you in that shirt!” Dance says.

“And now we all know why,” Drin says, grinning.

Dance tightens his knees together and hugs himself, as if he’s in pain. “Oh God, maybe she’ll forget,” he says. “In a few months. If we behave ourselves.”

“That seems very unlikely,” Drin says. “She saw the illustrious Mister Eldred Charles the Nineteeenth or whatever it is sit down confidentially with me and get his flirt on, too. I assume you’ll hear about that.”

“He doesn’t do it very well.”

Drin cocks up the brow again.

“He leaves slime behind, like the snails on the sidewalk,” Dance says, austerely.

“Oh no, snails still have quite a lot of structure to them. Shells, all that. I’m thinking slugs.”

“Yes,” Dance says slowly. “Yes, you are right. You ever get tired of being right all the time?”

“Do you?” Drin flips it back at him. “Drills on Locatelli are so much work, my boytoy of the week is all tired out. It’s time to replace him– with a lawyer’s son.”

“Slimier than slugs,” Dance says.

“Makes me wonder what Charles the Eighteenth ever did to deserve a child like that,” Drin says. Hey, he can be a bitch with the worst of them, when it makes his musician laugh like that.

Dance squints upward at the soft interior of the car’s roof, and says, “Not pretty enough for sea slugs, not smart enough for octopus or even squid. Hmm.”

Drin says, “Dearie me, are we down to the liverworts?”

Dance opens his mouth, and Drin holds up a hand briefly, knowing he’s going to say something incredibly rude about Eldred Charles the Nineteenth, and he doesn’t want to miss it.

“Hold the thought,” he says. “We’ve got a bad-tempered archivist to pick up here.”

“This late?” Dance says, blinking at him. “She was working this late? Oh Jeez. Potty-mouth is in the house.”

“Fucking believe it,” Emma says, banging open the car door, and slinging her cloth grocery bags of books in the back seat. She always has groaning armloads of them. They trail around after her, Drin finds them everywhere she’s been, in neat tidy little piles. Emma-spoor. At one point Drin asked if they mew and ask to be fed, and she yelled at him. “Move your ass, Dance,” she says. “You’re gonna sit in my crotch, and I’m getting my hands all over something good for a change, and then Ima gonna get my–”

Dance doesn’t sigh, or grunt, or complain. He just gets out, lets her in, and lowers himself gingerly, settles himself between her thighs in the nice wide seat. It takes her about twenty seconds to find the bruises on his forearms.

“What the hell?”

“It’s okay, love, just sparring.”

“My ass, Dance, you haven’t been at the dojo in a week, what happened?”

“It’s normal concertmaster wear and tear,” Drin puts in.

“Like hell it is!”

“Brian Ericson is having his period,” Drin says.

Of course she knows exactly what he’s talking about. She never forgets anything. “Sparring, hell, last month he brought a knife in–”

“Sparring,” Dance says gently. “Like Don Quixote. He knows I’ll win.”

There’s a silence that has quite a lovely texture. After awhile Drin turns on the radio. Civilized things caress their ears. Until Dance says, “Shit, did you hear that b-flat?”

“Shut up, you bitch, I was liking that.” Emma growls, holding Dance around the neck, and shaking him gently side to side, and he lets his head roll as if she’s strangling him. They seem to find this amusing. They’ve played like this since they first met, Drin knows. Dance lets Emma smack him, twist his arm behind his back, wrap her hands around his neck. It was how they could touch. “Give me some excuse to beat you up. You think you’re getting away with this? You diiiirty raaat–”

“You tattled,” Dance says.

“Did not,” Drin says.

“I’ll tell on you about Joscelyn liking your shirt,” Dance says.

“You know, that’s what I like around here, a nice grownup conversation–” Drin begins.

“I don’t see any grownups, do you see any grownups? Where’s the grownups?” Emma says, rather wildly. “I don’t have any grownups at work, why should I have them at home?”

“Don’t tell me, it was Tour Day,” Dance says, letting his head flop back into her shoulder. Drin hears him sigh. Then Drin feels Dance’s hand slide onto Drin’s thigh, come to rest over his knee, tired, just resting there as he’s driving, and it feels… damn good.

“Why, how’d you guess?” Emma says, in that crisp brittle voice, fragile as some lacy glass confection from a lampworker. “There were quiet, well-behaved little children with bladder issues. There were large children with beards starting, who go, ‘duuur hur huur hur’ a lot. There were screaming children. There were children with communicable diseases, there were–”

“You know, it’s kind of hot to be laying on your boobs and hear you say, ‘commmuuuunicable diseases,’ like that,” Dance says.

“Hell, it’s kind of hot to see you laying there getting words like that out of her,” Drin adds, because he knows it’ll make her happy.

Her voice is getting louder. “–there were children with psychological handicaps, there were children with sociopathic tendencies, there were children who touch inappropriately and giggle in the stacks, there were children who look at you and tell you wierd shit that you were thinking anyway– what are you laughing about, dammit?”

“You can go on, if you like,” Dance says politely.

“Like you’d effing stop me!” Emma growls. “Like you effing could stop me from–”

Dance looks over at Drin. “Oh yeah, I could,” he says, smiling that little smile.

Drin says, “And her diseases are catching.”

“I like sharing Emma’s communicable diseases,” Dance says, making no effort to stop her talking. She’s saying something that Drin thinks may in be German, something rude about Freud. It is staccato and throaty. It doesn’t quite come out fluid enough for Italian.

“Hell yeah,” Drin agrees, and pulls the car into the driveway of the house. Their house. The house with Dance’s garden in it. The house that is still nowhere near big enough for all of them. There’s no place to put a bed big enough for three people. He’ll bring up the possibility of renovations, soon.

3 figures with open mouths, Trio by Ruta Elze
trio by Ruta Elze

“What about her weird shit?” Drin says then. “You like Emma’s weird shit too?”

“Well, you don’t have to go looking for extra, got enough of your own to stock a couple warehouses,” Dance says calmly.

“How about you?” Drin says.

“Oh, me? C’mon, look at this gorgeous front yard. Look at this stuff. You want the weird, I got it. I got enough wierd shit to hand it out for free.”

Dance and Emma go up the path on each other’s heels, stumbling and squabbling. Drin walks behind, watching through weary eyes. Those numbers he works on are leading him to some conclusions he’s not real happy about. Joscelyn’s comment rings in his ears; “Nobody knows what you see in that boy.”

Wierd shit, indeed.

===Challenge: respect/disrespect
Writers’ notes: Well, this chunk started off from the prompt, anyway. This is part of a story begun off some prompts in doll photography. It’s gotten completely out of hand by now…It was also run through more collaboration, and definitely much the better for it!

me=Nagasvoice, and GreenJudy, Kiyakotari, and Stella_Omega

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