Ted is setting up the speakers with Al who he sometimes plays with and who is the best guitar player Ted has ever heard, but for reasons no one quite understands, stays in this small upstate town wowing the locals and subsisting on just enough money to get by instead of taking his talent elsewhere. But Ted is grateful to play with him and they both work silently hooking up amplifiers, speakers, tuning their guitars, while the crowd in and around the bar settle down to hear them play.
Joe is at a corner table with Rebecca who fondles his foot under the table while he tries rather unsuccessfully to pretend he doesn’t notice it. He is, instead, trying very hard to concentrate on reaching that moment in time when things click into place, which is, for him at least, only attainable through the ingestion of large amounts of whiskey. And though he seems to have separated the two stimuli crying out for his attention–Rebecca’s foot and whiskey–it all seems to go awry when Ted whispers in his ear that he needs to speak to him in private out in the parking lot.
“You have to help me, Cisco,” Ted says. “I’m outnumbered three to one tonight.”
“Come again,” Joe says, the whiskey having dulled his brain enough to make it difficult for him to follow nonlinear dialogue.
“I’m outgunned tonight,” Ted says. “All three ladies are due here momentarily.”
“All three?” Joe echoes.
“Yes,” Ted nods. “And I can handle two at a time, you know keep them distracted enough to not pay attention to each other, but three, well three’s another story.”
“And?” Joe asks, not quite sure how this involves him.
“And I need you to take one off my hands for the night.”
“Take one off your hands?” Joe echoes again and feels the desired numbness he was so patiently cultivating with the whiskey evaporating before his eyes.
“Yeah,” Ted says. “Just one and just for the night. Unless, of course, you both feel there could be some mutual understanding reached as to sharing her.”
“Well one of them,” Ted says. “I think perhaps Alice, or maybe Sue something, because Karen is definitely a one man woman.”
“Am I getting this right?” Joe finally asks. “You want me to take one of these other two women off your hands tonight?”
“Right,” Ted says. “And you can choose whichever one you want.”
“That’s very generous of you,” Joe says, “but what will the women think?”
“They’ll go along with it. I’ll convince them.”
“Well let’s just say for argument’s sake that one does agree,” Joe says, “but I’m with Rebecca tonight. Won’t that be a bit awkward?”
“She loves you, right?”
“Well, yeah, it would appear so.”
“So then she’ll understand. It’s for friendship, Cisco. Women love the idea of friendship.”
“Well friendship and procuring are two entirely different things.”
“No one says you have to sleep with her, just take her off my hands for the evening. I mean, Cisco, even I can’t handle three at once.”
“Well it’s nice to know there are limitations to your prowess, but I’m still at a loss as to how to explain this to Rebecca.”
“You want me to talk to her?”
Joe sighs. “I think that would only further complicate things.” He looks to the heavens but all he sees is a dark sky which offers no help at all.
“So I’ll send her over to your table, okay, Cisco?” And Ted has that look in his eyes that suggest a friend in need which Joe has always had a hard time ignoring.
“Okay,” Joe says, and then he tries to explain to Rebecca what friendship is. “It’s a bit complicated,” he says, “but he always gets a little over involved with women and this time he’s not only outdone himself, they have all come to hear him play the same night. So it will relieve the pressure he feels if I pretend one is with me.” He twists his mouth into what must look like a half smile and adds, “You understand, don’t you? He’s my best friend.”
“And I am?” she asks, that right eyebrow of hers slightly raised.
“The woman I am falling head over heels in love with.”
“Ah,” she goes. “So then I must understand, mustn’t I?”
“That’s what I’m hoping.”
And Rebecca sighs, Alice comes over after getting a text message from Ted, and sits at their table somewhat embarrassed. “I hope,” she says, “I’m not intruding.”
Joe doesn’t know how to answer that, and looking over at Rebecca whose face wears an expression he finds impossible to read, does not help. So he shrugs, says, “No problem,” and hates himself for being so cliched.
They listen to the music through the first set, not really talking, just listening and the women sip their wine while Joe has three whiskies with Rebecca watching him out of the corner of her eye. He knows he should feel guilty somehow, but can’t seem to conjure up that feeling. And when the set is over, Ted comes by before stopping off at Karen’s table to pretend to say hello.
“You’re my man,” he says in Joe’s ear, then asks the ladies if they enjoyed the set. Rebecca nods and says yes, but Alice uncrosses her legs, runs her hand along the inside of her right thigh and murmurs that she’d love to see him play in a smaller venue.
“Well,” Ted says, “I’m sure I’ll let you know when that can be arranged.”
Joe avoids Rebecca’s eyes and gazes into his drink. He thinks he could live in a bottle of whiskey. It would certainly be one way to lose oneself and right now that doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.
Ted leaves then to set-up for the next set and Alice looks over at Rebecca and smiles. “I just love that man,” she says.
“Do you?” Rebecca says, then looks at Joe again who keeps his eyes on his whiskey and his thoughts a thousand miles away. “It would appear you’re not alone in that.”
Alice avoids looking over at the other women but says, “It’s something I haven’t adjusted to yet and something I hope to change.”
Rebecca, being more worldly wise when it comes to men, pats her arm affectionately. “One can only hope,” she says.
And the set begins, some people get up to dance, and Rebecca stands, holds out her hand to Joe who realizes the importance of the invitation, and rises to his feet, finishes the whiskey in his glass, and lets her lead him out to the dance floor and dances.
Later, at the table, after Rebecca has excused herself to visit the ladies’ room, Alice says, “You dance pretty well for an old man. It’s kind of a sixties’ thing, huh?”
“Are you referring to the decade or my age?” Joe says. “Either way, though, I must warn you, you’re treading on thin ice.”
“Both, I guess,” she says and smiles. “But it’s a compliment really. I like old things.”
“Well that warms my heart,” he says. “And it explains your attraction to Ted. He is, you know, as old as me.”
“I know,” she says. “He was my teacher once, you know.”
“And who’s teaching whom now?”
“I’d say it’s mutual.”
“God bless democracy.”
“You’re teaching at the college,” she says.
“Yes,” he nods.
“I have a friend taking your graduate workshop. She’s an MFA candidate.”
“Oh?” he says. “I only met with them once but no one stands out as of yet.”
“She missed your first class because she wasn’t back from Spain yet.” Alice’s smile grows a bit broader. “But you’ll know her when you see her.”
Joe has no idea what that means, nor does he really care. Talking to young people always tires him, and so he drifts off, letting the whiskey linger in his mouth before swallowing it, and watching Rebecca walk back to the table, walking without thinking about it, those long, slow strides that cause a mumble of excitement in the bar and always give him pause, as if the purpose of his existance is to wait for this woman to join him wherever he is.
“What?” she asks as she sits and looks at him.
He gives his head a little shake as if to clear it and shrugs. “Nothing,” he says, then after a second or two. “Everything.”
She watches him carefully, a science project that can go either way, then puts her hand on his left hand which is not holding the whiskey glass and gives it a little squeeze. Joe wonders about gestures like that. Wonders why they seem so meaningful. Wonders about life outside on the streets beyond this bar, this upstate town, this land he has traveled a little too often and yet has rarely been above ground even when he thought there was terra firma beneath his feet. And wonders if he could live without the whiskey in his glass and with a woman like this one squeezing his hand and trying to keep him grounded in the here and now. And if the here and now is really the one place he truly wants to inhabit at this stage in his life.
And Ted plays his guitar, sings about love, life, and the deep blue sea, winks at his ladies and grins that grin that lights a room and dazzles all that are blessed enough to see it. And Joe envies him because he truly owns the moment while Joe can’t seem to grip anything that isn’t 86 proof and golden brown in color.
Later, with Rebecca fast asleep next to him, he slides out of bed and drifts out to the living room, pours himself a glass of whiskey, and sits in his favorite reading chair trying to lose the fear he feels building inside. Because Joe does not believe in happiness, cannot see any future that does not contain pain and sorrow, and thus that is the reason he envies Ted so much, his ability to be satisfied with his surroundings, comfortable in his own skin, no matter how bizarre his circumstances become, Ted finds only pleasure in his existence while Joe keeps looking over his shoulder expecting disaster to appear at any time catching up with him. He scratches his beard, sips his whiskey, thinks this will probably not last beyond the winter, and is surprised as Rebecca’s arms encircle his shoulders, her hair falling over his face as she leans forward to whisper in his ear, “What are you doing, big boy? Don’t you want to come back to bed with me?”
And his heart melts there in his chest, there in his chair, and he lets her pull him back gently, yet firmly, toward the bedroom and her arms and love once again lasting all night long.
Ted meanwhile can’t help thinking he would rather be in Alice’s bed right now rather than Karen’s but as fate would have it, that will just have to wait until tomorrow. But the fact that he thinks of Alice now, after a prolonged lovemaking with Karen makes him think that perhaps his world is about to come crashing down around him a little sooner than expected. And he’s not quite sure just how he feels about that. Which, if he thought about it, could concern him. Thankfully, though, he doesn’t think about anything but just falls back asleep.