Wednesday, February 16, 2011

CHAPTER FIVE: "Jesús Just Wants to Play Guitar"

The HuffPost has revolutionized journalism by taking over the news business. Is fiction next? My new novel, Seeing Red, is being serialized three times a week on the Huffington Post. Here's the latest installment of the book.

"Jesús Just Wants to Play Guitar"

When she finally opens her eyes, he is right there, right beside the narrow hospital bed. One knee raised, he has the custard-colored guitar cradled beneath his chin.

For an instant before she is fully awake, before she can make sense again of what's happened, she is scared. His bearded face, the guitar, the music, all of it is so illogical, a mirage, a dream that she dare not let herself believe because it is bound to disappear.

But then she hears the sound of strumming, the squeak and twang of the strings coming alive beneath his fingers as he begins humming the tune she loves more than any other. "Ronda Marie," the one he wrote for her, the one he gave her, the night after he performed it in Boston last winter, wrapped up in a black velvet box with a red satin bow.

His eyes are buttery brown, as soft as chocolate left out in the sun. His voice swells, wraps itself around her, warming her more than the blanket, comforting her more than the pillow beneath her head.

"Querida," he whispers when he's finished the song. Sliding his chair closer, he leans over the guitar, so far that his face is only inches from hers. He feathers her cheek with his long fingers, the fingers that gallop like the lean legs of a stallion over the plains that are the guitar strings. So fast do his hands move that sometimes all she can do is watch in awe, focusing on the blur of his hands playing.

"They let you in?" she frowns, stretching her hand toward his face, only to find the clear IV line binds her from reaching him.

"Of course they let me in. 'She needs me,' I told them. 'She needs my music. I will play and she will feel better.'"

He rises, leans over her. A cloud of lime cologne descends. She feels the soft press of his lips, the brush of his new mustache.

"I, I can't believe you've come," she says, biting her lip. A single tear leaks out of just one of her eyes, begins inching down her temple.

"You were hoping for somebody else maybe?" He flutters his fingertips along the inside of her arm, then bends and kisses a spot just below the place where the nurse inserted the IV needle and taped it in. He leaves his face there, lets his mustache graze up and down her bare arm, tickling her, stirring her instantly into gooseflesh.

"Don't," she pleads. "Please don't tease me, Jesús. This isn't easy you know."

"I'm not teasing, Ronda," he says. And after a pause, "You want me to go?"

"No, no," she says, weaving her fingers into his. "Stay. Please. Play for me."

Her lids drift shut. Sleep covers her like a warm blanket, urging her back into the swell of blackness she has inhabited ever since Karen brought her here in the middle of the night some vague time ago. One night? Two? Who knows.

He is playing. She inhales and smiles weakly and sighs as he begins coaxing magic from metal and plastic strings. Soon he is singing, very softly, the refrain from "En la puerta de la luna." She rolls to face him, lets her eyes come to rest on the muscled place above his jaw, a rippled spot that fills with tension when he plays.

Her eyes flutter shut again and she knows that she is on the edge of a vast sleep. The last thing she sees is his hand wider than a claw, stretching across the wooden neck, each of the fingers extended farther than fingers can possibly reach. A single lock of hair falls like a dark arrow straight down from his brow.

All of a sudden she is sailing, but still her mind wonders one last thing: how is it she never noticed before that this single lock of hair, as chocolate as his eyes, boasts a streak the color of straw, so bright it seems threaded in light?


They met five months ago at Enrico Carcellar's wedding. A twilight service held on Valentine's Day in the Williams College chapel. Carcellar, a professor of literature in the Spanish department and an old friend of Ben Fallon's, had invited Jesús to come up from New York to play for the service.

Ronda wasn't fond of Enrico. She told Ben she preferred not to go to the wedding. But Ben said he would be embarrassed if she didn't go. Enrico, an old world guy, a highly traditional sort, would feel insulted. Finally, Ben insisted, so she went.

The evening of the wedding came, and Ronda couldn't decide what to wear. She knew most women would be in short cocktail dresses or long skirts. She decided to wear a new pair of tight black leggings, and a sweater covered in rhinestones.

Her sharp heels clattered as she crossed the wooden floor of the kitchen.

"So don't you look sexy tonight," Ben declared, staring. He was standing at the counter, filling a stem glass with white wine.

Ronda squirted a coin of white cream into one palm and rubbed it briskly into both hands.

"How about we make a deal?" she said, keeping her voice light. "I won't say a single thing to you about what you drink or eat tonight. But you in return have to promise not to make a single comment about my clothes or my hair."

Ben sucked thirstily out of the wineglass, eyeing her the whole while over the rim. "I guess that's fair enough." He kept staring. "But I'd be remiss if I didn't tell you how incredible you look tonight. I mean, I can compliment you, can't I?"

"Sure." She smiled at him. But the smile didn't last. "You can do that any time." She started to stroll away, but he caught her arm, leaned into her shoulder. Before she could pull away, he had left a kiss of cold white wine on her bare neckline.

"I almost wonder if you've got yourself a date after the wedding," he mumbled, taking a second long swallow from the glass.

She had swiveled out of his grasp, and now her eyes narrowed.

"Let's get going," she said hotly. "The wedding's at 5:30."

And yet, when they arrived, a few minutes after five, and she saw that the chapel was only a third full, and the music hadn't started, and the candles up front on the altar weren't even lit yet, and everybody was still milling around, a bit aimlessly, she turned to Ben and told him that she would be outside. "To look at the stars," she told him. "To watch the evening sky."

In the old days, Ben would have gone with her. They would have stood together, despite the frigid cold, holding each other to keep warm. They would have stared upward, scanning the sky, waiting for Venus and Jupiter, or Mars, to pierce the zenith. They would have made bets between them, trying to pinpoint exactly where to expect Orion to rise.

But that was a long time ago. Ben wasn't much of a sky watcher anymore, at least not in winter. He claimed that it was too cold and he was too old to see the way he used to. "It's just not the same," he had told her recently, "when you can't keep stars in focus."

In any case, standing in the chapel the night of the wedding, Ben was focused on people.

There were dozens of old friends and academic colleagues he hadn't seen in years. Like Dan and Brenda Beecher. Dan had been a junior professor at Williams before he went on to a position at Harvard. Brenda had been one of Ben's all-time favorite students, "B.R." -- "Before Ronda." Dan, tall, slim and graying, was walking towards Ben now, extending a hand in greeting. Would he be so enthusiastic, Ronda wondered, if he knew that Ben had slept with Brenda several times, even after she and Dan were a couple?

"Just don't stay outside too long," Ben whispered into Ronda's hair, before pivoting and giving his hand over to Dan.

Pulling the belt of her long wool coat tighter, Ronda descended the stone steps outside the chapel and walked a few feet beyond the sidewalk into the snow-covered lawn. The heels of her boots sank. She lifted her eyes, gazed into the sunset color splashed across the sky: the milky blue overhead gradually turning pink and yellow, and finally coming to rest in a fiery yolk squashed into the rim of the dark mountains.

Tipping her head back, Ronda inhaled the cold evening air. Her arms rose, and her head dropped to one shoulder and she began a slow turn to one side, spiraling unsteadily around the corner of the building.

She was moving slowly over the snow, eyes locked skyward, trying to predict where in the clear space overhead Orion would appear. She had almost decided on a spot when suddenly, her left arm smacked something.

"Ohmygod, I'm...I'm so sorry," she mumbled, turning. Somehow, out of nowhere, she had gotten hold of a man's arm, a soft sleeve.

Later, she would tell him that his face was glowing that night. That his skin was the mellow reflection of the heavenly color of the sky.

"I thought for some reason I would be safe out here in the snow but I see that is not the case," he said, holding a joint between his thumb and first finger. He had his other hand over hers, to steady her. Later, she would remember how the warmth of his hand sent a bolt of electricity straight up her arms and into her head. A moment passed when absolutely no movement occurred, when he simply balanced her.

He was smirking, but when he saw how flustered she was, his expression melted, gave way to a full mocking smile. "I must say that never today did I expect a beautiful woman to appear, going in dizzy circles around me, trying to knock me to the ground." He laughed and the soft sound of it snaked right inside her coat, slid into her blouse and shivered across the bare skin of her back and shoulders. He dropped her arm. But immediately took her hand. "Are you steady now?"

She nodded, conscious only of the blood rushing into her face. She stood gazing at him, confused. His eyes were level with hers.

"I...I'm fine." And then, when she realized what he might be thinking, she stumbled on. "I...I haven't been drinking. If that's what you're thinking."

He laughed harder. Shrugged. "I think everyone ought to drink a little, or a lot, depending on what it is they've got to do." His English was thick in accent. He paused, took a hit from the joint and then, holding the smoke in, he offered it to her.

"No, thank you," she said, shifting uncomfortably. "I really am sorry. I was looking at," she motions upward, "...the stars. I love them as they first appear. It's so beautiful out tonight, so clear, it made me want to dance."

He nodded and exhaled and a sleepy smile crossed his face, mellowed from smoking. His eyes narrowed and he inhaled again, and again he held the smoke inside. The tip of the joint glowed orange. All the while his eyes held hers, until finally, she turned her gaze away because, she would say to Karen later, "I couldn't take him looking at me like that anymore, the way his eyes bore into me. As if he could see right through me."

"It is a beautiful night," he said, dropping the joint and squashing it with one boot into the snow. He looked up at her. "And you are beautiful too."

He stood there, grinning. Her heart was hammering inside her chest.

"You are absolutely right to dance at sunset. If I had time, I might ask to join you, as you are glowing, and you are every bit as pretty as the sky."


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