It certainly looked like that,
anyway, as my vision slowly clouded into a swirling, opaque white
mess that stung.
Maybe somebody had turned off the
A/C and left us all to stifle in the heat radiating from our
bodies. Or, perhaps only I sensed the temperature shift and
suffered as a result. Nobody else in my diminishing line of vision
appeared affected by the sudden and perplexing change of
atmosphere. The band played on, obviously working around my
disorientation, while the crowed rocked right along with
Smokeâa fire in the house, reallyâformed my first conscious
thought when my dream took a sharp right turn toward discomfort.
One minute I was standing on a lighted, hardwood stage shredding
through âBack in the Saddleâ while Steven Tyler screeched and
preened at my leftâthe next, my breathing slowed and a heavy mass
seeped into my lungs. A dizzying sensation overtook me, forcing me
to kneel as the weight of my Gibson dragged me toward the cheering
throng of fans crowding the stageâs lip.
Nobody seemed to care that
I had been felled by the invisible tourniquet wrapped around my
neck, which squeezed me tightly. Mr. Tyler danced and strutted,
oblivious, and goaded the line of busty blondes in painted-on white
shirts jiggling against the stage.
âYaâll here to rock?â His
voice pitched close to a dog-wincing octave. Then he turned to me.
âHow âbout you, Lerxst boy? You gonna rock out for us tonight or
you gonna lie there like a worthless piece of shit
I gasped for breath, but
managed to squeak out an answer. The Gibson had become my
albatross. âTryinâ, man. Little help? Joe?â
Where the fuck was
The dream shifted to
omniscient vision, and I spied Mr. Perry standing far stage right,
lost in his guitar. Christ. What good was a dream about hanging
with great musicians if they wouldnât lift a finger to ensure your
Steven Tyler proved less
apt to assist. A spotlight darkened by a purplish gel turned his
weathered face into an eerie voodoo mask. He grinned ghoulishly at
me, shouting over the music and chaos. âYou gonna rock out for us,
Who could say no to that?
Coming from this diesel truck-faced grandpa swathed in scarves, the
question held more authority here than if asked by anybody
âYes, sir.â I barely heard
He leered at me. âYou gonna
die? You gonna die for me, you son of a bitch?â
* * * *
In seconds the smoke turned
black and scratched my face. Aerosmith and company faded into the
ringing noise filling my head. They had left me onstage to die.
Only seconds earlier the crowd had chanted my name and urged my
fingers to speed over my Gibsonâs fingerboard and guide them all
toward melodious orgasm. Now, nobody cared to even help me to my
feet as they apparently plummeted as one through some floor-wide
Not even the person holding
the pillow to my face gave a damn that I had awakened from my dream
squirming and scraping for something to grasp.
I thought at first Grandma
had let my friend Joel, also my bandâs bassist and lead singer,
inside to wake me. Joel, having barely passed the high school
sciences, likely couldnât make the connection between the existence
of oxygen and its role in the preservation of life. Either that, or
heâd decided to act like his usual dickhead self and used a free
hand to record everything on his phone for a planned viral laugh
among our friends and the rest of the free world.
As the pillow bore down
against my face, I managed to turn my head toward a shallow pocket
of air deep into the sofaâs cushions, and after a ragged inhale I
kicked my attacker away with all my might.
âShit!â came a surprised
curse, then the sound of a body hitting the carpet. I might have
stalled upright at the shock of hearing a female voice had not the
dream transitionâthe lingering tang of imaginary smoke, the urgency
in a leathery rock starâs evil glareâjuiced me into action. I
sprang to my feet, grounding myself in anticipation of another
assault, then happened to glance at the lighted clock on the DVD
Three AM, with only the
yellow glow of the streetlamps filtering in through the living room
window to reveal the intruder.
âWhat the fuck?â I cried,
looking down at her. Iâd fended off a burglar, and a wispy girl
one, near as I could tell from the narrow hourglass outline rising
before me. A dark ponytail bobbed behind her head as she righted
her jacket and raised her hands in some kind of quasi-karate
âDid you just ask me if I
was gonna die, bitch?â I demanded of her. She said nothing, and didnât move. So
far, I couldnât tell if Steven Tylerâs voice would come out of that
I side-stepped toward the
end table nearest the wall and switched the three-way lamp on to
the highest setting. There, I saw illuminated fear creasing her
brow and twitching, full pink lips marred by nervous chewing from a
slight overbite. Low-slung, green and brown plaid pants covered
lean legs, and her dark green hoodieâpull string missingâjust
reached her bare midriff.
My would-be murderess
looked as though sheâd stepped off the set of a fad teen
The expression on her face
mixed confusion with angerâsoft kelly eyes appraised my height,
then widened. She should have finished the job when she had me
unawares, she no doubt realized. Pressed harder against the pillow,
or bashed in my skull with the fireplace poker. I guessed, however,
that sheâd chosen suffocation to make death appear more natural and
Then came four words I
didnât expect. Instead of hand over your
wallet, I got, âHow old are
âWhat?â When another
dizzying sensation attempted to topple me I grasped the sofa arm
for support and pulled myself straight again, shaking away the
disorientation left from the aborted suffocation. âHow about
I ask the questions?
Like, who the hell are you and why are you in my house?â
Her hands remained high and
prepared to chop, slicing into my view of her pretty, angular face.
I could take her easily, being heavier and carrying more muscle.
That she chose to stay put rather than try to run amused me, I had
âIs your name Matt
Johnston?â she asked.
I didnât expect that,
either. What burglar checks credentials?
Anyway, I havenât gone by
my given name in years. Everybodyâfriends, my pupilsâ¦even my
grandmother calls me Lerxst, the nickname given me in junior high.
Why did this girl care? âYes,â I said cautiously. âWould you prefer
we be formally introduced before you kill me?â
That question quickly
twisted her face into a kind of queasy frown, and her hands dropped
to her sides. âHoly shit,â she said on a heavy breath, âI was going
to kill you, wasnât I?â Her eyes glazed over with unshed tears,
shining in the lampâs glare. âWhat are you, twenty?â
âTwenty-five. What does
âOh, God.â She staggered
back a step and her calf caught the edge of Grandmaâs rocking
chair. She fell into it, leaden and morose, and the oak creaked
under the force. Only then I remembered my grandmother was away
with her Red Hat Society friends until late Saturday morning, so at
least sheâd been spared this drama.
I considered my next step.
I saw nothing in the immediate vicinity I could use to restrain
herâno electrical cord that wasnât attached to a lamp or some other
bulky appliance. My phone sat in the kitchen plugged into its
charger, but I didnât want to leave the room. She looked
comfortable now, but sure enough Iâd take one step out and sheâd
bolt for the front door.
After all, she had my name,
I didnât have hers. I envisioned the reaction of the cops when I
revealed thatâWhy didnât you serve her tea
afterward? Iâd probably hear.
I waited, and watched. The
girl curled her hands over the carved ends of the chairâs arms,
instinctively rocking back so that her heels rose. She held that
position for what seemed like a full minute before speaking
âYou are Matt Johnston?â
she asked again, with greater uncertainty in her voice. âNot
Johnson or Johannson or St. John or anything like that?â
I no longer felt
threatened, and I sensed she wanted to talk, so I perched on the
couch opposite her. âI said yes earlier. Now, who are you?â I
asked, yet she ignored it. Instead she pulled a wrinkled envelope
from her back jeans pocket and handed it to me.
âDid you write this?â she
I didnât need to study the
yellowed letter for long. Who writes letters anymore? Back in the
dark ages before the Internet, the most anybody could get out of me
was an illegible five- or six-word missive scribbled in a greeting
card. This typewritten essay, complete with the addressee block and
proper salutation Iâd been taught in Mrs. Kowalskiâs fourth-grade
language arts class, assuredly surpassed any effort I might have
âNo.â I handed it back.
âFor one, we donât have a typewriter, and I rarely used one except
for school assignments. I hated them. For two, that postmark is as
old as I am.â Who knew that burglars delivered, twenty years late?
âPlease tell me who you are and how you got in here, and why you
tried to kill me.â
She fingered the faded ink
address, sniffling. âIâm looking for Matt Johnston,â she said. âHe
killed my father.â
* * * *
Iâm a sucker for a pretty
face and a slender buildâand dark red hair, too. Iâd hit the
trifecta with this one.
At any other place, on a
weekend night in some club at the beach, I might have seen this
pretty auburn-haired girl in her tight pants and peek-a-boo top and
mustered the courage to make conversation. Left-brain logic nagged
at me to pin her to the ground and scream until somebody called the
cops, but somehow my inner compassion had overpowered
Besides, anybody checking
the picture window might see me on top on her and give me the
thumbs up rather than assist in her apprehension.
Now, the girlâshe called
herself Dianeâsat across from me at the kitchen table at three in
Stop thinking with your
dick and reach for the phone, Lefty
cried. The fuck are you doing, sitting
with her in the room with all the knives?
My dick offered nothing for
Diane tapped a corner of
the letter against the Formica surface of the table, ignoring the
soda can Iâd set before her. âI am such a fucking idiot,â she said,
I sipped from my own can.
Sleepless nights and early mornings I could handle, but I needed
the caffeine boost in order to think clearly. âHow did you get in
without my knowing?â
âYou were zonked out on the
couch,â she said, annoyed, then shrugged toward the side kitchen
door. âAnd the door was unlocked. Iâd been watching the house for a
few days to get a feel for everybody coming in and out. When I saw
the old ladyââ
âMy grandmother,â I broke
in. Grandma might not have minded the âold ladyâ crack, but in
truth she wasnât that old. In fact, people often mistook her for my
mother. It happens when the women in your family hold fast to the
tradition of giving birth in their teens.
âRight.â She sighed. âI
tried the side door first. Actually, I didnât know what Iâd have
done if it was locked.â
âNot murder me? Go home and
forget about it?â
Her lower lip
âLook,â I told her, âI
donât know you, but I donât believe youâre an idiot. You just
didnât think this whole plan of revenge through. You managed to
case the place without my knowing, and as I consider myself
somewhat observant, Iâd say thereâs a point in your
Easier spoken than
practiced. It then occurred to me that I should have checked her
person for a gun or some kind of weapon. Of course, had she a gun
she could have used it on me and been out of here without needing
to smother me.
Unless, she truly had
planned to make my death look accidental, just another hapless
drunk who didnât flip over in time. If only Iâd spent the evening
Christ. Too many thoughts flooded my brain at fucking three in the
morning. I just wanted to go back to sleep and finish that set with
âIâm sorry,â she said, âI
forget what name you go by again?â
âLerxst.â I tried to sound
it out as best I could for a guy about to drop and snore.
She tried it on her tongue
a few times, then finally shook her head. âWhat kind of weird name
is that? Like a Dungeon and Dragons thing?â
I had to laugh. âI take it
youâre not a Rush fan.â
âIâm not into talk radio,
or politics,â she said.
âNot that one.â Jesus. âI meant the
âOhhh.â She nodded and
pinched her face into mental research mode. âItâs a song,
âThe guitarist, actually.
Back in junior high my hair was a bit longer and I sort of
resembled him from his shaggy seventies days, so my older brother
christened me Lerxst, which was the guitaristâs nickname. I guess
itâs fitting, since I play and teach guitar now.â
âReally? Are you in a
I nodded. Why couldnât I be
this smooth in a bar on a Friday night? âA cover band, mainly. Me
and two friends and the entire Rush and Grateful Dead catalogs. We
hit the local bars and sometimes the Outer Banks in the summer. We
call ourselves Dead Barchetta.â
I saw it immediately, that
quizzical brow displayed only by one who didnât get the play on
words. Women mostly.
âRush has this song, âRed
Barchetta,ââ I began, and watched clarity dawn quickly, âandâ¦weâre
getting way off track here.â Much I love talking shop, this wasnât
the time for it. âWhat made you think I killed your father? I have
never done anything like that.â Seriously. Not even a traffic
ticket. I couldnât recall refusing anybody a kidney in recent
weeks, either. âI donât even know your father, I donât
Diane pulled out a second
crinkled letter, this time from the front pocket of her hoodie.
âYou remember this TV show from the late eighties, called
âNo.â How the hell could I?
I was born in 1985. During the late eighties I was trying to pick
out Big Birdâs greatest hits by ear on the replica Stratocaster my
grandfather got me. What surprised me, too, is that she somehow did
recall it. âDoes it rerun on Nick at Nite or something.â
Diane rolled her eyes. âIt
wonât rerun anywhere, and you wonât find it on DVD because there
werenât enough episodes made. It was canned halfway into its first
I finished my soda and eyed
hers. As though sensing my need for more caffeineâI had a feeling
Iâd need it for this roundabout verbal odysseyâshe pushed the can
in my direction.
âMy father was the star of
that show,â she said. âHis name was Alan Peterson and he was a New
York-based actor. Until he got this series, he mainly did guest
star work and bit parts.â
âOkay.â Relevancy, at last.
Nice to meet you. âSo heâs one of those âyou probably remember me
from such films asâ¦â fill in the blank actors.â
From the soured look on her
face, it probably wasnât the way she would have put it, but then I
knew nothing about the man she initially thought Iâd
âHe could have been much
more than that,â Diane said, with an edge of irritation to her
voice. âCode Blue had received all this critical acclaim during previews, and
talk of awards, and there were nominations eventuallyâ¦yet the show
still got pulled thanks to some letters from viewers that
complained about the showâs content.â
Again she handed me the
letter from the other Matt Johnston, and I took care in reading it
this time. Apparently this guy didnât take kindly to issues
presented on the urban cop and EMT drama, such as drug abuse and
homosexualityâtopics one might see on Sesame Street these days.
Clearly Code Blue had been a show ahead of its time. Ahead of me, most
I looked at the return
address. âThis guy lives in Lynchburg,â I said. âYouâre a bit
âLived,â Diane said. âHeâs
not at that address anymore, I checked. When I found the listing
for Matt Johnston in Virginia Beach, I figured he moved. Made sense
to me at the time.â She shrugged.
Entirely probable, in a
mind like hers.
âIâm sorry all that
happened, but weâre talking twenty years ago here.â I returned the
letter. I had to admit I felt a bit insulted that Diane would
mistake me for a much older man. Assuming this other Matt Johnston
had been a teenager when he filed this complaint, adding twenty
years would still put him close to forty. Yes, Iâm a musician, but
Iâm fairly clean. Iâm not on the Aerosmith hard-living, rapid-aging
She seemed to just catch
that, too, but with it being three-fifteen AM now I figured I
shouldnât fault her.
âAre you a junior, by any
chance?â she asked, raising an eyebrow.
âNot that it makes a
difference, since I didnât kill your dad, but my dadâs name was George, and heâs
âNo worries. I was a kid
then, and I couldnât tell you what he watched on TV. I still donât
get why youâre upset about a twenty-year-old letter. Didnât your
dad find more work after the cancellation?â
âHe did, but
Code Blue was to have
been his big break. I mean, everybody was into blue-collar drama
shows then. He could have worked five or six seasons,
spring-boarded into feature film roles or even headlining Broadway
during the summer hiatusesâ¦â The letter crinkled and twisted in her
grip. âA long first run can also mean a decent syndication package,
too, and residuals from that and video sales. But, after the show
was pulled, it was like somebody put a curse on him. Dad couldnât
get anything beyond walk-on parts and commercials after that.
Tears brimmed in her eyes.
The second letter slid in my direction, and I pulled it from the
envelope to read. Three sentences in, I realized Diane had handed
me her fatherâs suicide note.
âI donât think common
people really are aware of how much power they leverage in the
industry,â she said, her voice breaking. âFour letters of complaint
took Code Blue off the air and cost a lot of people their jobs.â
Four? Hardly the avalanche
of protests Iâd conjured in my head earlier, but seeing Diane so
distraught I elected to just read.
Alan Peterson likely had
more demons than he cared to admit in his farewell, but he named
one specifically. How or when the actor got a hold of the mail he
blamed for torpedoing his career seemed irrelevant now, anyway.
This girl broke into my house, unprovoked, and tried to kill me. I,
the sympathetic dolt, gave her a soda and place to sit. She should
be sitting in jail.
âWhen did your father
âAbout two years after the
show went off the air. My mom discovered after his death that she
was pregnant with me.â Dianeâs gaze panned everywhere but in my
direction. Searching for an escape, too guilty to face me, who
knew? Apparently three-twenty
in the morning had that effect on her.
âYou never even knew the
man and you want to exact revenge anyway?â I tossed the letter
âHeâs still my father,â she
snapped and rocked in her seat. Her mouth dropped open and I waited
for words to justify her actions.
âI always felt like
somebody had to pay for this, you know? For robbing me of my
family.â She looked at me, pained and confused, then gazed around
the kitchen again as though taking in the surreal moment. It
troubled me, too, to accept this wasnât a detour in my dream, but
the kitchen remained cold for early May in Virginia
âMy mother hung onto this
until she died, and I keep this letter with me everywhere I go.
Figured if I could get Matt Johnston to realize how many lives heâd
ruined, my father could at least rest in peace. So I hopped the
Chinatown bus here; itâs sixty bucks round trip.â
âThere were three other
letters that got your dad fired. Did you plan a spree?â
Diane twined her fingers
into a knotted ball, resting them on the table. âI only found two
addresses,â she said. âMatt Johnston and one other lady in New
Jersey. Sheâs already dead.â
âIâm sorry this all
happened, Diane,â I said. âIâm sorry some asshole felt it was his
duty to get a show cancelled when he could have just not watched it
if he didnât like it. But, I donât see how killing me, anybody,
would benefit you or your father.â
âI have to watch his stuff
on YouTube, when I can find it,â she said, ignoring me, âto get an
idea of what he was like. Mom said he drank a lot before he died.
Said losing that show was the worst thing to happen to him, and how
things could have been much better for us if they went a few
seasons more. There would have been money and more workâ¦he would
have lived to see me being born.â
âCan you honestly say that,
about the work?â I asked. âHow many TV shows are produced in a
year? It might be more now than back in the eighties, but even
if Code Blue lasted ten seasons do you think film roles and the A-list
were guaranteed for your dad?â Anybody know what the cast of
Ally McBeal is up to
these days? I sure as hell donât. âWhat if heâd ended up doing
commercials and bit parts afterwards regardless of the showâs
Diane didnât answer. Struck
me that Alan Peterson had been the type to blame others for his
misfortunes rather than work to overcome them. Iâd say this to
Diane, but the risk of provoking her loomed large in my
Besides, I was the one
pissed at her. I needed to remain the angry one here.
Finally I stood. My chair
nudged the linoleum underfoot. âI need to make a phone
Her tear-filled eyes
pleaded with me. âI donât want to go to jail. I didnât kill you,
âAm I really? Some chick
breaks into my house and tries to smother me in my sleep, and I
offer her hospitality instead of tying her up so she wonât get to
me again. Clearly Iâve been deprived of some oxygen to display such
a lack of common sense.â
âIf Iâd wanted to kill you,
Iâd have done it by now. Please!â she cried. Her hands played with
the frayed hem of her hoodie. Fidgeting usually spoke to me as a
sign of planning, restlessness. Gears worked in her head that she
didnât want me to seeâher silent perusal of the kitchen could have
been a plan to reach for an unattended knife or corkscrew to finish
the job. She had plenty of time before sunrise.
âWell, youâre obviously not
all there,â I said, and reached for the phone to detach it from the
charger. First mistake, I turned my head. The second she left my
line of vision I heard a deep scrape of chair legs.
She got to the side kitchen
doorâthe same unlocked one sheâd used to get inâbefore I could
move, and hit the pavement running. Even though a shot of
adrenaline boosted me out to the dark sidewalk in seconds, sheâd
had enough of a head start. Not a trace of her under the
lamplights. Where the house sat, so close to the ocean, she could
have quickly slipped down the public beach access walkway and
started a brisk run down the shore, or else ducked through any of
the fenceless yards into the thick brush dividing the neighborhoods
from Shore Drive.
Whichever route sheâd
taken, she hadnât looked back.
I left her to the dying
night and went back into the house, setting the chain this time.
What sleep I managed before my alarm went off filled my head with
visions of Steven Tyler chasing me around the stage with a pillow,
screeching for me to die, son of a bitch!
One fine spring day in
1990, my parents left my older brother and me to the care of our
paternal grandparents while they embarked on a long-delayed
honeymoon. They never reached their destination, and years later I
would learn that what remained of their car after the semi-truck
operated by a sleep-drugged driver hit it could have filled a
shoebox. An exaggeration, I now realize, but the memory of hearing
that sobering metaphorical revelation instilled in me the
importance of a good nightâs sleep. Thanks to some
vengeance-obsessed runaway, I wouldnât be in top form for work, and
I seriously considered canceling my appointments.
Yet, even as I burrowed
deep into the sofa cushions and crushed a pillow to my face to
block the light of morningâand yes, I was aware of the irony in
doing that, thank youâI couldnât relax. It wasnât so much the lack
of sleep bothering me as the subconscious guilt trip taking on my
grandmotherâs voice, seeing as how she allowed me to remain under
her roof until such a time I could support myself completely in my
By day I teach classical
and rock guitar to precocious children, and try to do the same for
a number of love-starved cougars seeking a diversion from their
withering marriages. At least some of the women coming on to me in
my cramped studio are easy on the eye, if I squint.
Growing up under my
grandparentsâ supervision, my brother and I were permitted to
pursue âone sport and one instrumentâ throughout our school careers
at their expense. Despite my shortcomings as a team player, I chose
soccer, thinking it offered the least amount of risk toward hand
injuries so I could concentrate on my music. Chad, five years my
senior, chose the saxophone and tennis, got a full scholarship to
play the sport at University of Virginia, and is now an investment
banker in New York. His boss is a jazz lover who once worshipped at
the altar of Bjorn Borg. Yes, some people are just that
I lay silent for a few more
minutes, trying to block the myriad of morning noises from outside
until the pounding in my ears proved too much to bear. After a
quick shower and a microwaved breakfast sandwich, I headed to the
studio in Virginia Beachâs downtown area where I rented space to
meet my first student. My friend and bandmate Jack Klineâpiano,
organ, and percussion when we do live gigsâhad just seen off an
early pupil and now lounged in the waiting room, appraising me with
a crooked smile.
âYou look like hell. What
was her name?â
I set down my guitar case
and slumped into an opposite chair. âDiane. She tried to kill me
last night. Rather, early this morning.â
âHot.â He leaned forward,
elbows on knees. âI want every last filthy detail.â
âIt wasnât like that,â I
said. Nice as it would be to brag about a night of raging monkey
love, and Jack loved a good story, I just wasnât in the mood. After
much prodding, however, the tale of Diane, the pillow, and the dead
actor spilled forth in a rambling monologue that inspired a
multitude of facial expressions from my friend, most of which
bordered on amazement.
Finally, he sat there for a
second, digesting. Then, âYouâre making this shit up.â
âI donât have the brain
capacity for that now, Jack. After I left the house, I got halfway
down 264 before I realized Iâd forgotten my guitar.â Today Iâd have
to use the spare I kept in my studio. Bleh.
âFine, so it happened. Was
âTo be honest, I didnât
concern myself with that.â I thought about all that pretty red hair
and those long legs, wishing I could at least have seen the back of
her better as she ran from me. Yes, Iâm a pig.
âThe chick tried to
suffocate me, Jack!â I stood and lurched forward to the coffee
âWell, she must have been a
looker, right?â he asked. âI mean, if sheâd been a real troll youâd
have called the cops first thing.â
My senses perked up with
the strong aroma of whatever generic price-club roast had been
brewed. âI donât know that.â Yet, deep down, maybe I did. I
recalled Dianeâs gentle face, the soft curves of her cheeks, and
the rosy tint to her skin. I could even remember how the pull tab
on her zippered hoodie jacket had lodged near her collarbone, and
Iâd wondered if she had the habit of sliding it up and down along
the teeth when she was bored or nervous.
Iâm a romantic pig at
I flicked three packs of
sugar together to clump it at one end before adding it to my mug.
The stir stick must be able to stand to attention on its own before I can
drinkâthatâs how I know itâs right. âWhatâs her looks got to do
with anything, anyway?â
Over my shoulder I saw Jack
shrug. âPlenty. She apparently charmed you enough not to let you
tie her upâ¦but, if she were really
âLook, forget I said
anything, okay?â I broke in. âItâs over, she got away. I donât
think sheâs going to try it again.â Moving toward the unoccupied
reception desk, I checked the dayâs calendar. My nine oâclockâMrs.
Laila Cook with the too-long fingernails and the too-short
skirtsâwas late yet again. No doubt sheâd arrive twenty minutes
before my next pupil and expect the full lesson time. Iâd move her
back, but Iâd long ago figured her for the chronically tardy typeâI
tried once to set another time, and she showed up late for that
one. Jack might suspect itâs a tactic to get me to agree to
after-hours tutoring, on her time. A tempting proposition worth
pursuing, if only Mrs. Cook werenât A) still married to Mr. Cook,
who is B) a retired Navy SEAL and lifelong member of the NRA, who
very likely can C) kill me with only his thumb and enlist a few
government higher-ups to dispose of my body in some remote corner
of the Iraqi desert.
âSeriously, guy,â Jack said
when I joined him again, coffee in hand. âYou gonna look for
âDonât know where she is.â
Another lie, sort of. Sheâd mentioned coming down on the Chinatown
bus on a roundtrip ticket. It wouldnât take much to place a call to
the cops and tip them. Or, I could head over to the makeshift depot
around midnight to see if she were stupid enough to escape that
Part of me wanted to do it,
too, in the event she had tried to do another dumb thing and dig
the hole further. The other half just wanted to forget her, and
lock all the doors at night from now on.
Dianeâs face returned to
me, pathetic and distraught, missing her dad. I could relate to her
thereâhow many times had I said I hated the man who killed mine,
even though it wasnât intentional? Things happen, sometimes to good
people, and it took a while to accept that. This other Matt
Johnston, Iâm sure, wasnât thinking of the welfare of
Code Blueâs cast and
crew when he wrote his letter. He just didnât like a TV show and
thought his life was better off without it on the air. You lose a
job in television, you get another one in dinner theatre. Ob-la-di,
ob-la-da, Iâm familiar with the dance myself.
The bell on the door
sounded, interrupting my train of thought, and in sashayed Mrs.
Cook with her blood-red nails and matching, equally sharp high
And, as plain as day,
holding no guitar. The black pencil skirt and loud kimono blouse
combo she wore suggested anything but anticipation of a morning
spent plucking through chords.
Jack rose and, with a
knowing leer in my direction, retreated to his private
âMrs. Cook, how are you?â
he greeted. She didnât give him a second glance, which no doubt
annoyed the crap out of him. Piano instructors got little old
ladies with support hose wanting to learn gospel hymnsânot my fault
he chose to pursue the wrong instrument for seduction worthy of
reenactment in a Van Halen video.
âIâm free for lunch if you
want to go somewhere, Lerxst,â he told me. âWhat are you in the
I let Mrs. Cook take my arm
as I escorted her to the back. What the hell, Iâm on the clock
* * * *
No sooner than I crossed
the threshold into my studio did I hear the door snick shut, then
the lock. I never bolt my door during a session; because a number
of my pupils are underage, there are obvious reasons for that. As I
have one of the few studios without a window looking out into the
hallway, Iâm not averse to having parents sit in on sessions if
they hang aroundâwe make the room despite the eighty square feet of
working space. Luckily, many have chosen to trust me with their
young ones, and in turn preserve their hearing for the year-end
With Mrs. Cook, Iâm not
sure if sheâs the type to favor an audience now and then, but as I
didnât feel like having my life threatened twice in the space of
the coming weekend I spun on my heel and flipped the deadbolt
âIf you donât mind,â I said
pleasantly. âThere is a safety code to which I must
Mrs. Cook shook her head a
bit to brush back her long, wavy blonde hair. Every move seemed
rehearsed, calculated, as though cameras recorded us for some lame
reality show. âOh, Matt, I wonât tell,â she said, her voice soft
and suggestive. âIâm a big girl. You donât have to worry about
appearances with me.â
I was more concerned with
keeping my dick attached to my body. Donât think Mr. Cook wonât try
to force feed it to me as my jeans stain dark red with fresh blood.
People here love their gossip, too. It wouldnât take much for
somebody to see me disappear behind a locked door with this
man-eater and broadcast it on Facebook.
Lerxst is banging that Cook
broad in his studio, I know it.
You and six other people
I maintained an armâs
length distance, no small feat in this former utility closet, and
reached for my acoustic guitar. âWell, since youâve once again
forgotten your instrument, Mrs. Cookââ
âLaila,â she corrected. I
ââweâll have to make do
with the spare.â The spare is a nylon-stringed Hohner that Jack
picked up in a Goodwill for ten bucks. There is residue from
stickers that didnât make it all the way off spotting the body, and
the bottom pin is cracked, otherwise it works well enough to get
through an hour-long lesson. Yet for Mrs. CookâLailaâI always
started the meter spot on her appointed time. You enter my studio,
youâre on my clock. Her tardiness had cost her ten minutes of
valuable learning time.
âI donât like that thing.â
Mrs. Cook soured as she took one of the plastic chairs, the one
closest to the Spinet piano that remained here when the other piano
instructor left. She crossed one leg over the other and the skirt
slid back far enough to give the morning an NC-17 rating. âWhy
donât you just give me a ukulele?â
âWhy donât you remember to
bring your guitar to the studio where youâre supposed to learn to
play it?â I tried to keep my voice level, but we were going on four
consecutive weeks of interrupted lessons and innuendo and unwanted
flashes of thighs and thongs. Mr. Cook, apparently buying some
story about his wife wanting to explore creativity at the midpoint
of her life so she wouldnât die with regrets, had laid down at
least two grand on a sweet, mahogany-necked Taylor acoustic for
which I would have traded bone marrow or a kidney. I could think of
dozens of places where she could pout and preen and play the
dissatisfied, desperate housewife and get results. I get paid for
these lessons, make no mistake, but I take music too seriously to
With Diane weighing on my
mind, it left little room to put up with Laila Cook. I handed her
the guitar, took the opposite chair, and positioned my fingers on
the fret board of the Yamaha beater spare I keep in my
She let the guitar wobble
on her lap a bit before realizing I meant business. Both feet on
the floor, she draped her right arm over the body and toyed with
the strings while moving her other hand into position for an actual
chord. âBefore you ask, yes, I do practice at home. It took
forever, but I managed that transition you showed me last week.â
She drove the point home by strumming an A, followed by a C. It
sounded very fluid.
âNot bad.â I nodded. âWeâll
be seeing you at Bonaroo soon.â
I got a look for that
remark. âYou know,â she said, âIâm beginning to suspect that youâre
I worked out the tablature
to the âItâs Raining Menâ chorus as best I could. âNow why would
you think that?â I asked, not looking at her. She didnât catch my
âWell, youâre not very
attentive, are you?â From under my lashes I could see her roll her
eyes and look about the room, presumably for somebody else to favor
her with a cartoonish, eye-bulging stare.
âI always focus on my
pupils during lessons. Youâre no different.â
âThatâs the point. You
focus on my hands, and everything I do wrong.â
âAnd youâre not doing that
so much lately, which is good,â I said, and stilled the vibration
of the strings. âTells me youâre actually paying attention, and I
can accept your husbandâs money without feeling bad.â
Mrs. Cook snorted. âItâs
nothing to him. Sometimes I think heâs happy to have me out of the
Here, of course, I needed
to watch my tongue. Normally this would be my cue to gasp in
disbelief and assure Mrs. Cook that, were she my woman, Iâd want nothing more than
to roll around in the sack with her all day at the risk of losing
my job due to chronic truancy. Then sheâd come back with, hey, that
piano bench looks sturdyâ¦
Yet I couldnât manage a
suitable comeback, trite or otherwise. All I could think about was
Diane, and wonder where she was now. I replayed three-fifteen in
the morning in my mind, pondering what I could have said or done to
keep her at the table. Iâd scared her, of course, with the threat
of a phone call, but what more could I do? Sheâd posed a threat to
me, and she had to answer to that.
I watched Mrs. Cookâs
ice-pick heel twist in place on the floor, as though trying to
puncture it. I looked up to see her staring expectantly at me for
some kind of response, and here Iâd completely tuned her
I shook my head. âMrs.
âLaila,â she sang, as
though she got me on my knees. Not a chance.
âWhatever.â I set down my
guitar. âYou were late, and my headâs not into it this morning. I
apologize for that, so what do you say we just scrap this session?
No charge, and Iâll prorate your next appointment.â
âThatâs next week!â she
said a bit too loudly for the room. One would think Iâd refused her
oxygen in the interim.
âI know,â I said. âYou can
use the time to perfect that bridge and some of the other things
weâve been working on.â
âWe canât do a full hour
now?â She pouted. âI can wait if you need to clear your head. Iâm
in no hurry to get home.â She reached for her purse. âYou need a
cigarette? I have a packââ
âI donât smoke.â
She winked. âSomething
else, then? You partake?â I saw a flash of rolling papers between
the wallet and lipstick.
âNo comment,â I said.
âBesides, I have a full docket on Saturdays. Looks bad in front of
all the kids.â
âUh huh.â She smirked. âSo
your head will be in the game for them, but not me?â
âWhat can I say?â I offered
as charming a smile as I could manage. âSometimes you make it hard
for a guy to concentrate.â
She liked that answer, I
could tell. The shoulders rolled back and out thrust the ample
âSpeaking of hardâ¦â she
I broke in, âI have an hour
free this coming Monday at eight, if you donât mind getting up
early. Youâll have two lessons next week instead of one.â Ugh. How
many more involuntary innuendos could I pitch?
I didnât need to twist her
arm. Laila shrugged and stood. âMight as well. I donât know what
Iâd have accomplished on this Fisher Price toy,â she said, her
nails flashing in my line of vision as she held the guitar out like
it would bite her. âSince you have some free time now, how about
âI had a cup earlier, but
feel free to help yourself in the lobby.â I just wanted her gone so
I could decompress.
âYou know thatâs really not
what I wanted.â
Of course not. She really
meant how about I bend over this piano
bench with my skirt upturned?
I held open the door, a
move thankfully timed to the appearance of Jack with his next
pupil, strolling down the hall. Perhaps we could end this
appointment sans drama.
âI wish I could take you up
on that, but I have a full day ahead of me as it is,â I told
Out came the hand, and the
door pressed shut on Jackâs knowing nod, and nearly on my fingers
had I not moved them away so quickly. I sighed.