Fiction Saturday – “Haight Street” Part Twenty – Four
It was already 65 degrees at 7 A.M. With a high-pressure system out in the Pacific and a warm wind coming down from the High Sierras, it promised that things would be heating up in San Francisco. This Sunday would be a day for shorts and a tank top.
Marlee was up and feeling invigorated by a restful night’s sleep and a hot shower. She had already started her wash in the basement laundry room and had a few minutes to kill until it was ready for the dryers. The vague memory of last night’s dreams led her into the bedroom. She got down on her knees, reached under the bed and slid out the black, hard plastic cello case protecting, at one time, the most important thing in her life.
Marlee carried it onto the sunny living room. It never seemed heavy to her. She had been toting around her cello since high school and she liked its heft. It had a substantial quality that carried over into her playing.
Over the years audiences and critics alike, upon seeing this slim young woman take the stage, had dismissed her off hand as an ornament. It was when she played, coaxed and cajoled the music from the strings and wood that they fell under her powerful spell. Many reviews commented that she handled the cello with the tenderness of a lover and the brute strength of a longshoreman.
When Marlee was onstage people believed that the music came from her and that the cello was merely an instrument of transmission. She was in total control and never wavered or hesitated.
She got one of her dining room chairs and set by the bay window so that the sun would wash over her as she played. Seated in the chair she stared at the case, sizing it up like a boxer waiting for the bell to ring.
The sun played off the varnished wood and it flared into her eyes. She slid the bow from its place and the small tuning fork as well.
She lifted the cello out of the case and adjusted the tail spike. The neck felt hard and strange in her hand. She had not played in months and both she and the cello were out of tune.
Marlee opened her thighs and welcomed home her first love. The varnished curves of the fire-blasted Maplewood felt warm and clinging against the skin on her legs and she wondered why more women didn’t take up the cello.
She tapped the tuning fork on the windowsill and checked to see how much tuning would be necessary.
“Not bad,” she said with a smile and made some adjustments to the tuning pegs and left the fine tuners alone.
She picked up the bow again, tightened the hair and began to do some simple scales and arpeggios. It felt good and sounded comfortable and “at home.”
Tonic, Dominant, Sub-dominant. Triads. Yampulsky’s Exercises: scales in four octaves, chords and harmonics. Faster. Louder. She heard the overtones as her fingers danced up and down the carved wooden neck of the 80 year-old French instrument.
She also heard a scraping sound and then a loud thump from the apartment above. Her fingers froze in mid-arpeggio. Dennis was home.
In her hunger to play again, she had forgotten that it was still only a little past 8:00 A.M. on Sunday morning. She would have to find a practice space.
Marlee waited, and hearing nothing more from up above, resumed her exercises, but softly. She fought the urge to tear into some Baroque Period piece by J.S. Bach, just to feel it in her hands. She resisted because it would have gotten raucous and also because she was out of practice and would not have done it justice. Another time. Today was a day for getting reacquainted with the instrument and for it to do the same with her.
As they age, fine musical instruments take on a patina. The highly buffed varnish on hers had an almost 3-dimensional quality and glowed as if there was a fire inside the F-holes, shining through and heating every note.
Such quality does not come cheaply. Marlee’s cello cost her over $32,000, the bow was over $3,000 and a decent set of four strings was at least $100. Someday she hoped to step up to a first-class kit. At the top there were those made by Stradivarius. The genius from Cremona made more than just violins, but those were very rare and far beyond Marlee’s credit line.
It felt so natural and right to be playing again, even if it was so muted that she could barely hear it, but the vibrations were there.
Leaning in close to the strings, embracing the cello, Marlee poured out her emotions, hopes and fears through the silver tipped bow. Bach, Vivaldi and Mozart responded to her touch across the centuries.
She had worked up a sweat, but it was the sweat of sweet accomplishment. A quick wipe with a towel and a glass of juice would get her ready for another round of exercises. She could already feel the burn in the muscles of her arms.
With the refrigerator door wide open, she stood there drinking straight from the carton. Nobody else was there to scold her. The cold air felt good on her skin. She shivered.
As she put the half empty carton back on the shelf next to some white grapes that were getting too ripe, the doorbell rang, quickly followed by several short raps on her apartment door.
“Oh, get real. It was so low I couldn’t even hear it myself.”
At the door she looked through the security peephole, but couldn’t see anyone.
“Who is it?”
“Marlee, it’s me, Dennis Thayer.”
“Please, I need to talk with you. I have to apologize.”
“Apology accepted. Now, go away.”
“Marlee, please. I have behaved badly.”
“Behaved badly? You attacked me.”
“You’re right.” He had his face up against the door. “I was way out of line, but I have to explain.” Marlee stood silently, glaring at her side of the door. “I have a medical condition and I’d rather not discuss standing out here in the hallway, if you know what I mean.”
“I don’t know, Dennis. I’m still very angry.”
“I know and that’s why I need to talk with you face to face. Please, let me in and I can explain everything.” He lowered his voice, forcing her to move closer to the door.
“I’m really a nice guy, a pussycat even. Meow.” Unseen by Marlee, he rubbed up against the door and licked the wood. “Meow.”
Marlee smiled at his cat impression and leaned against the door, thinking. Dennis had gotten out of line, but she had been able to handle him easily. He was a strange one, but also charming and witty.
“Marlee? Are you still there?” His voice was soft and pleading. “Meow.”
“OK, Dennis, but know this: any funny business and I’ll toss you out the window in front of a bus.”
“No funny business, I swear.”
Despite the hard bits of foreboding in her stomach, she turned the deadbolt and opened the door to a smiling Dennis Thayer.
He stood there in her doorway, dressed in chinos and a bright green Polo shirt. With his blonde curls just touching his eyebrows, he looked like a Preppie leprechaun.
The man had a twinkle in his eyes that made people want to invite him into their lives. In one hand he was holding a pot of steaming coffee and in the other, a rose colored plate piled high with croissants.
He gave Marlee a nod. “I hope you have some cream and some jam.”
He walked past her, into the dining room. “I hope you like croissants. They are so melt in your mouth delicious. And these are still warm. Honey, they are to die for.”
She followed him into the room. “Dennis, I don’t want breakfast. You said you wanted to explain why you attacked me when I was trying to help you. Get on with it. What should I know about the man living above me?”
He set down the coffee and reached for the cups and saucers on the built-in buffet next to the table.
“What should you know? Well, let’s see. Oh…you should know that I usually like to sleep late on Saturday mornings.”
Marlee took a deep breath as he reprimanded her.
“I’m sorry about that, Dennis. I forgot about the thin walls and floors in this old building. I’m sorry I woke you.”
“That’s OK, but it makes a lousy alarm clock. Some of the people in this building might complain, but not me. I’m in a good mood this morning.”
She caught his non-complaining complaint about her music, but since she felt that it was deserved, she let it go. His cheerful mood relaxed her. Her agitation and anger ebbed as she went into the kitchen for some utensils, plates, butter and the half pint carton of half ‘n half she had picked up across the street the night before.
“I don’t have any jam. Do you like sugar for you coffee?”
“It’s in the kitchen. I couldn’t carry it all. On the shelf next to the microwave.”
“I’ll get it.” He went into the kitchen as Marlee arranged the place settings. He picked up the sugar bowl and a few paper napkins from the top of the refrigerator. Marlee moved a small vase filled with Sweet Williams in from the living room.
“A centerpiece. How elegant, Miss Marlee.”
Marlee tensed a bit when she realized that he was standing behind her. He had a habit of silently entering the room. It unnerved her.
He pulled out her chair and, even though a bit uneasy, she allowed him to play the gentleman.
“Shall I pour,” he asked.
Over the clink of knives, plates, cups and saucers, Dennis carried on a nonstop monologue about how happy he was, the weather, anything, but the reason he said that he needed to be there.
“Dennis, stop it!”
“Stop what?” he said as he paused to take a big bite of his buttered croissant.
“You said you needed to talk with me. You begged to be let in. I don’t think it was to give me a weather report.”
“I’m just making sociable chitchat.”
“Dennis, you said you came here to apologize for pawing me in your apartment. Let’s hear it.”
He looked at her, unblinking. He wasn’t used to being spoken to with such directness, especially by women. From women he expected reverential doting, like from his mother, polite helpfulness, like the girls who bagged his groceries at the Safeway, or eventual, fearful surrender to his will. Marlee’s controlled quiet was unfamiliar. One side of him found her strength arousing, while another part of him thought it was too masculine and unattractive.
When he didn’t speak, she went on.
“Let me show you how it’s done. ‘I apologize for playing my cello this early and waking you up.’ There, now it’s your turn.”
“Oh, Miss Marlee, there’s no need to apologize again about the music. It was really quite lovely.”
“Get out of my apartment.” She stood up and looked down at him.
“I’m sorry. You’re right. How stupid of me. Please sit down. You’re making me feel so small, like a boy being scolded by his mother. That hurts and you’re not a hurtful person. Are you, Marlee?”
She sat down.
“You have five seconds to start this apology business or I’ll throw you out of here.” She looked him in the eyes, hoping her nervousness didn’t show. It did.
“Marlee, you’re right, as always. Please allow me to sincerely and deeply apologize for my behavior. You offered me nothing but kindness and hospitality and I acted like a boorish jerk.
“I have a chemical imbalance in my brain and it can throw me for a real loop. On top of that and the pain killers, about which you already know, the night before your beautiful and delicious brunch, at which, incidentally, you served some of the best hollandaise I’ve ever had. I’d love to get the recipe from you. Do you use fresh lemon juice? I think that’s the key, don’t you.”
“Oh, sorry. The night before your brunch I couldn’t sleep from the pain and I took a couple of Vicodin. One used to do the trick, but not any more. And, when I drank that champagne, well it just hit me like a moving van.
“I needed your help getting home, obviously, and I guess that my barbaric and uncivilized nature came out and I…Oh, Marlee. I am so sorry. I am not that kind of man at all.
“From what I recall, you put me on my ass. I don’t remember the details, but I’ll always have the pictures. What did you do to me? I could barely walk for two days.
“I know that what I did was wrong and it was stupid and I swear that I will never, ever, do anything like that again. Please forgive me. I feel like I should be doing an act of contrition. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.” He tapped his heart three times as he chanted.
He looked at her, not knowing what else to say to convince her of his regret.
“Am I forgiven?”
Marlee didn’t say a word. She took a sip of coffee and stared at him over the lip of the cup.
“Marlee? I apologize. Please forgive me.”
“I forgive you, Dennis, but you have a problem with those pills that needs addressing.”
“I know. I’m going to the Free Clinic about that. They’ve assigned me a counselor.”
“There’s one more thing I need to bring up before I can feel comfortable with you again.”
“The pictures. All those photographs on the walls of your bedroom.”
“Its ‘The Haight.’ I take pictures of the neighborhood. It’s my Art.”
“You told me you were a sculptor.”
“I am. I take the photographs and mold them onto forms. ‘Photographic Sculpture’ I call it.”
“You had a picture of me on your wall. A shot of me and Luco Reyes.”
“Well, aren’t you part of The Haight now?”
He waved his hands in the air as if to say, “I thought that was self-evident.”
“I’m sorry. I never meant to offend you.”
“I took it down, Dennis, and ripped it up. I’m sorry too. I was just so shook up by what had just happened. I saw that picture and I felt…”
“Yes, violated by that picture.”
He nodded. “It will never happen again. I promise you.”
Marlee refilled both their cups.
“You know, Luco warned me about you. He said that you were trouble. He called you a ‘bad egg.’”
“He and I have had our problems. It was all my fault, but I bumped into him last night and I think that my problems with him are a thing of the past.”
“Oh, I’m glad to hear that. I know only two men in San Francisco and I don’t want them hating each other.”
Dennis wiped his hands with his napkin and extended his hand across the wooden table. “Friends again?”
Marlee looked at him, her head tilted and her eyes, slits. Just as his smile began to fade a big grin appeared on her face. “Friends again, and I hope forever.” She took his offered hand and they made an exaggerated shake.
“Oh, this is silly,” bubbled Dennis as he got up and came around the table. “Give us a hug.” They gave each other a big bear hug and exchanged “Hollywood Kisses.”
“Miss Marlee, I am so glad we are friends again because I already got you a little gift to celebrate.”
“Dennis, no. I don’t want you spending your money on gifts for me.”
“Don’t worry. It’s nothing. Let me go get it. I’ll be right back.” He hurried out of the door and took the stairs two at a time. Marlee moved over to the door and listened as he quickly came back down from the third floor. He was carrying a large cardboard box. She had to move so he could get it through the door. He set it down on the living room floor.
“Dennis, you crazy nut, what in the world is it?”
He grinned like a circus clown and with a flourish, lifted off the lid.
“Oh, my God, Dennis. What have you done?”
Dennis squatted down, reached into the box a held up a small, yellow kitten.
Marlee put her hand over her mouth to stifle a scream of delight.
“Good Lord. It’s a kitty cat.”
“I know that, girl. I brought him here, remember?”
They were both laughing. The past was seemingly forgotten.
“Miss Marlee Owens, I’d like you to meet Mr. J.P. Cat. Marlee, J.P., J.P., Marlee.” She reached out and shook the kitten’s tiny paw.
“J.P.? What does that stand for?”
“I think it stands for ‘Just Plain’. He is ‘Just Plain Cat’,” said Dennis as he put the cat down.
Marlee got down on the floor and petted the animal as he hopped around inside the box.
“He is just the cutest little thing, but I can’t accept him. I love him already, but I’ve never had a cat before. I don’t know anything about cats.”
“There’s nothing to it.”
“Is he housebroken?”
“Already done. Momma cat teaches them the proper etiquette. Wait here, I’ll be right back.” Again he bounded up the stairs. She could hear him running around his apartment.
Marlee lifted J.P. Cat high overhead as he mewed and pawed at the air. She was definitely smitten with the tiny, yellow ball of fuzz.
Inside the box was a red foam rubber ball the size of a small peach. She set J.P. on the floor and then rolled the ball toward him. He watched it roll by and scampered after the bright red toy, losing traction and sliding into the side of the steamer trunk coffee table. Marlee was fascinated by this furry little bounce of life.
“Isn’t he sweet?” Dennis was back and holding another cardboard box. “I’ve got a few of the necessities here.” He set it down and J.P. scurried over to investigate.
“All right, here are a few things that you and J.P. will need. It’s not much.”
“Dennis, I have to tell you, I am so in love with this little guy. J.P. is so precious.”
“Ain’t he though? I got him from a friend who just got transferred to Terre Haute, Indiana of all places.
“Anyway, here we have the most important item – the litter tray. I’ll set it up for you.”
For the next ten minutes Dennis and Marlee sat on the floor like two kids on Christmas morning going through their toys. They held each item out for the little kitten to sniff. He was learning about his new home.
“Dennis, I am just flabbergasted. I’ve never thought about getting a cat, but now, after just a few minutes, I can’t imagine life without him, Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
“You’re welcome. I thought you two would make a ‘Love Connection’.”
“More coffee? I think it’s still hot.”
“No, thanks. I have to go. You know, places to go, people to see. Maybe later.”
Marlee walked him to the door.
“Dennis, I am so glad that we have things worked out between us.”
“And J.P. will be here whenever you want to come down and play.”
She gave him a hug and kissed him on the cheek. Dennis smiled from ear to ear. His smile didn’t disappear until he closed the door to his apartment, leaving Marlee behind.