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They sat in the back seat of the Cadillac. In front were George and his current girl friend, a State employed social worker he had met in a bar. George had put a Johnny Paycheck tape in the deck, and the rough voice and course lyrics worried Mason, who had tried to reassure Gail that it would be a pleasant (meaning discreet) evening. She had never actually said she did not like George, but she had always treated him on the phone and in person with the kind of politeness usually reserved for someone else’s relatives. Mason had told her about some of George’s exploits, before he realized that tales about George did not improve Gail’s regard for him. She had responded by characterizing George as “flamboyant.” Mason thought she made an interesting choice of a word to describe George, describing a quality he presumed she chose to avoid sounding too critical. Still, to Mason it sounded wrong, too feminine.
Mason had never taken her anyplace with George. Both he and George had occasionally suggested it, but there always seemed to be conflicts in their schedules. George also, on his own, had once told Mason that he did not want to spoil Mason’s relationship with a “nice” girl by his own desire to have what he considered a good time. That seemed to mean doing something without any bounds, as though his clock was running down and everything possible had to be sampled before he went to his grave. Mason had subscribed to a similar concept until the past few years, when he had begun to impose limits on himself. He understood that George was not being critical of Gail, but George’s reluctance was merely a measure of the integrity of his long friendship with Mason and of his compulsion to achieve the fullest possible experience in any situation.
Now as they rolled along the freeway in the great spongy car, Mason remembered George’s remarks about the “nice” girl and thought that George may have been correct in warning him off earlier evenings together. George would try to behave, but the tape of Johnny Paycheck singing “Take This Job And Shove It” suggested that it would not be easy.
They were headed for Meriwether, a small town just across the State line that was named for one of the leaders of the Lewis and Clark expeditions. The town was a pretentious little place, as much of a parasite of the big city as any of the other bedroom communities. Speaking loud enough to be heard over the car stereo, George said that Meriwether depended on customers from across the State line, which in his opinion caused the “locals” to be noticeably unfriendly to strangers.
The four of them were on their way to a new jazz club that had just been opened by a man for whom George had done about $3,000 worth of dental caps and crowns. George said that the man, John Malinatto, had promised to waive the cover charge for them and buy a round of drinks. With that inducement – and because George wouldn’t have minded getting another $3,000 worth of work from Malinatto or his friends – they were now driving to a destination almost twenty miles from home. Mason knew the distance because Gail had just asked and George had told her.
In the front seat, the social worker, Tina, who had explained that her real name was Christina but that she didn’t use it because it sounded religious, was sitting very close to George. Mason thought she might be playing with George’s genitals because her right shoulder moved sometimes in a subtle way that may been been describing strokes by her hand. Gail looked out the window away from Mason and remained quiet, except for occasionally commenting that a store or restaurant they passed was one she had been in or would like to visit some day. There was no point in trying to talk. The music was too loud. Mason experienced the same dispirited sense of fatalism that swallowed him up every time he got on an airplane, the sense of it being too late. For whatever.
He wasn’t looking forward to the evening and thought it wrong not to be. Ten years ago he already would have been to a couple other places and would not even have been thinking about where he was going next. Now he found that avoiding complications had become a big consideration. He knew what kinds of trouble he might anticipate from his acts, and that level of anticipation had now become inseparable from the act itself. He was getting older; in a few years he would be fifty, and each day passed more quickly and with less significance than what he recalled from his earlier years.
He reached over and took Gail’s hand in his. She smiled at him so sweetly that he felt his chest tremble with the urge to cry. She looked back out the window and his own eyes went in the same direction, wanting to share what she saw. But while the places she admired were lined up along the edge of the freeway, Mason saw only the cars in the adjacent lane, hurrying along with the Cadillac, the occupants somber silhouettes, secure and anonymous in their personalized artificial environments. None of them looked back at him. It was not polite to look into someone else’s car. It was like examining their laundry. But he kept looking anyway.
George exited the freeway, made a few turns and drove a short distance on surface streets before he bounced up the driveway into the parking lot of a place called “The Jazz Works.” They all got out and stood expectantly around the car for a few moments. Gail asked George if he wanted her to lock the car door. He told her not to bother. She shrugged her shoulders and slammed the door.
There was a male greeter just inside the front door. The man had put something shiny on his hair. George approached him confidently and told him that he was Johnny’s dentist and that he had brought three friends. The man told them to go inside and said he would tell Johnny they had arrived.
They took a table near the back because Tina and Gail agreed that it would be too noisy up closer. A record was playing while the four members of the jazz group, waiting to begin, fussed with their amplifying equipment. Mason didn’t know much about jazz but remembered that the Modern Jazz Quartet, Dave Brubeck, and George Shearing had not used amplifiers. He didn’t think that most contemporary jazz musicians did either, but he was not as sure because he couldn’t think of who any of those might be. The place was not so big that anyone would have trouble hearing without the amplification, but he supposed that was not the point. He liked the amplified country and rock bands he had heard at other places, but he had expected jazz to be different – more pure. It caused him to feel he was still living in the past.
“What kind of name is that, anyway?” Tina asked.
George asked her what she meant.
“Malinatto. The guy you said owns this place.”
“It sounds like a Mafia name to me,” Gail interjected and both women chuckled.
George attempted to speak in Malinatto’s defense with more earnestness than any of them sought, so the two women started to talk about their jobs, establishing their credentials with each other.
George was excited about the club and encouraged Mason’s approval almost as though it were his own place. “This is nice, the way they laid it out, with the band sort of in that corner there.”
Mason agreed, if only to support George. But George didn’t seem to need any support. He added, “Pretty good crowd for this group’s opening week. You know, before the word had gotten out.”
Mason agreed again.
A waitress brought them their drinks and George paid her without saying anything about knowing the owner.
“You think these guys will be any good?” George asked.
Mason thought George seemed unusually nervous and solicitous of support. Was he always like that when he was with a new girlfriend? Mason only noticed it, he realized, because it made George something less than what Mason had imagined him to be. After all their years of friendship, it had been a long time since they had gone out together with a woman in whom George showed any serious, enduring interest. George’s cavalier attitude with his one-time dates had represented to Mason a degree of confidence in encounters with women that Mason thought substantially exceeded his own. Now he saw that women brought to both of them the same fears and concerns. In that regard, maybe all men were equal. It seemed comical to Mason that men, for whom dominance was so important, could be made weak by the mere presence of women whose affection they desired.
“What are you smiling at?” Gail asked.
Mason said “nothing”, and just then the musicians started playing, so Mason’s answer was lost except for the movement of his lips. Gail squinted, either trying to figure out what he had said or maybe just unhappy with the brevity of his answer. He shrugged and nodded toward the musicians. She said something more to him. He shrugged again, indicating he didn’t understand. She looked away, clearly unhappy with his response. Mason felt inadequate in not only failing to make her happy but in not knowing exactly how he had irritated her.
All four of them kept their eyes on the musicians, whose volume made any conversation impossible. When the music stopped, they all agreed that the group was good, and George ordered another round of drinks. The next selection began quickly, again precluding any talking. Tina cupped her hand around George’s ear and said something into it. George smiled and nodded back at her. Mason put his hand on Gail’s leg, expecting her to knock it away, but she let it stay. He looked at her, intending to indicate by some expression how grateful he was, but she sipped her drink and kept her eyes on the musicians. Did she not care about his hand on her leg?
Mason remembered the scene from the movie “Shampoo” in which a drunken Julie Christie crawled under the table at a reception, intending to give Warren Beatty oral sex. Mason wished that someone would do that for him. Warren Beatty, he remembered, had acted embarrassed and had stopped her. As Mason felt the alcohol warming his veins, he doubted he would make an effort to stop any woman who right now would want to give him oral sex under this particular table. He knew there was no state of mind that Gail would ever get into that would lead her to do it. Tina, he decided, was a real possibility. For that, he envied George.
By the time the musicians had reached the end of their first set, Mason had decided that Gail wanted to go someplace else. He spoke for her. “You want to go anyplace else, George, or just listen to some more of these guys?”
“This is really great,” George said, not recognizing subtleties. “Let’s have another round.” The waitress, who happened to be passing by at the time, said “Another round?” and George said “Sure, sure, let’s do it.” The waitress drifted off with the order. Mason, who was also getting a little tired of the same music, wondered if George was staying on because he had not yet been acknowledged by the owner, Johnny Malinatto. In fact, they had not even seen him.
Gail pointed out that customers at some other tables were eating, so Mason immediately summoned a waitress and got a menu which they passed around. It was primarily fish dinners.
“You can buy salmon here,” Gail said. “I love salmon.”
“You want to order a dinner?” Mason asked hopefully.
“No. I’m not really hungry. I just thought it was interesting that you could buy salmon to take with you. You know, uncooked, to fix at home.”
“No kidding?” Mason said.
Tina then added, “I don’t like salmon. It’s so… oh… fishy.”
They decided on a couple orders of fried onion rings. When they had given the waitress their order, they talked about inconsequential things, the distance they had traveled to get to “The Jazz Works”, the rarity of live jazz, the possibilities of success or failure for the club, and whatever else anyone thought would help pass the time until the music started again or the food arrived. The onion rings were brought to their table just before the musicians started their second set.
By the end of that set, liquor had emboldened all of them enough to present nearly simultaneous demands to George that they leave. Gail, trying unsuccessfully to make it sound like a joke, said “Honestly, George, wouldn’t you like to get a little variety into the evening?” Tina simply demanded, “Let’s get out of here while we’ve got a chance.” And Mason suggested another place closer to home, although he did it only for Gail’s sake. For him, one place would be like another, and he was becoming tired. George gazed upon their faces as though he had been betrayed.
“Well, Jesus,” he said, “I think this is really a nice place. And this guy’s a friend of mine. I’d at least like him to know I was here.”
“Leave a note, George,” Tina said, starting to put on her coat. “If this guy was such a great friend he would have stopped by before now to pick up a round of drinks, like you mentioned.”
“He’s probably busy. The place hasn’t been open long.”
“He’s probably not even here.” Tina managed to make it sound as though she regretted it, presumably for George’s sake.
George looked around intently, leaning forward to see better. Some of the customers at the other tables glanced back, but anyone who might be owner Johnny Malinatto was nowhere in sight. Mason saw that George had wanted to impress them, particularly Tina, and was obviously feeling now that he had been cheated – just as Mason knew he himself would have felt in George’s place. In Mason’s mind the only thing left to do was to slander Johnny Malinatto.
“Come on, George,” Mason said with a tone of encouragement. “You put a gold mine in his mouth, and now he’s busy thinking about himself.”
George picked up the thread viciously. “The sonuvabitch is probably making out in the back room with the grease-ball who was at the door when we came in.”
Gail looked at Mason, all her expectations fulfilled. Tina laughed discreetly.
The exit they chose took them down a short passage off the kitchen. They had to skirt around a chest freezer from which an open padlock dangled. George lifted the lid and they all looked inside. “It’s the salmon,” Gail said. The frozen headless fish were stacked inside like pieces of firewood. George casually reached in, extracted one and let the lid fall shut again.
“What are you going to do with that?” Gail asked, eager to disclaim any responsibility for anything George did.
George used the frozen fish to rap on the top of the freezer. “Do? Nothing until it thaws.” he said. He stuck it under his arm like a newspaper and directed them toward the outside door with a sweep of his arm.
They had gotten all the way back to the car and were already seated inside, ready to depart, when a man dressed like a cook ran up and began yelling at them and pounding on the window next to Tina. It was a surprise to all of them. They had not considered that anyone either had seen them at the freezer or cared so much about one dead fish. George hit a button on his door and the door locks electrically snapped down together.
“I think he wants his fish back” Tina said, recoiling away from the swarthy man raging next to her window. He wore a white tee shirt and pants and a white cook’s hat on his head.
George said “Fuck him” and started the engine.
The cook ran around to George’s side of the car and started rocking it by pushing on the top. To those inside, it almost seemed plausible that he could push over the Cadillac. Most of what he yelled was incomprehensible through the thick tinted windows, but they could make out the word “police” being repeated.
Tina tugged on George’s arm as he tried to shift into drive. “Give it back, George. You’re gonna get us all arrested.”
George twisted around to talk to Mason. “What do you think?”
“As your attorney, I would advise you to give the fish back and get the hell out of here fast. If he’s already called the police and they find you here, they’ll arrest you for theft. If you return the fish and can get back across the State line it’s unlikely the police will do anything.”
The cook had started to pound on the roof of the car, threatening to smash it down on top of them.
“OK,” George said to Mason. He lowered his window only enough to be able to slip the fish through. The cook grabbed it immediately and hugged it to his soiled tee shirt. For a confused moment he even petted it reassuringly. George shifted the car into drive, smoked his tires across the parking lot, bounced out of the driveway to the street and roared around the first corner so fast that the car fishtailed wildly before he got it back under control. His passengers were too unnerved to speak. He ran through a signal that had just changed to red and then barely slowed to make a right turn through a stop sign. He hit the freeway approach at about seventy and didn’t slow down until he passed a sign welcoming them back across the State line. They had not seen any police.
George was so elated with his escape that he turned off the freeway at the first opportunity and pulled into a Holiday Inn. “They probably have a bar and some food,” he said. “Let’s celebrate.” He was out of the car an on his way in before any of the others could object.
In the back seat, an angry Gail licked her lips and told Mason, “I won’t ever do this again.” She slammed the car door when she got out and marched on without waiting for anyone else.
Mason and Tina followed her in. Tina told him she was sorry that Gail was upset. He replied hopelessly, “So am I.”
“That’s what I mean,” she said. “I can understand how tough it must be on you seeing her angry. Some guys don’t care, but I can see it bothers you. It’s all George’s fault.”
Mason sighed. “No. Regrettably. I don’t think so.”
Gail was nowhere in sight when they got inside, but they found George sitting alone at a table and giving an order to a waitress who seemed to be standing deliberately beyond his reach.
“Where’s Gail?” George asked as soon as they sat down.
“She’s probably in the lady’s room,” Mason said, still trying to cover his failure to steer the evening into something Gail did not detest.
George looked from Mason to Tina and back. “I’ll bet she’s pissed, huh?”
Mason said he didn’t know, but it was not convincing. He was tired. More than anything else he wanted to take a nap. Maybe when he awoke this entire event would be forgotten and everybody would be happy again.
“Are you pissed?” George asked Tina.
“I was worried. That was a lot of unexpected excitement.”
It was obvious to Mason. They had avoided arrest and the evening had been for her what it had been for George – thrilling. Ignoring Mason, the two of them began to recount it in detail, describing aspects of the cook’s rage that could now safely be regarded as humorous. Mason’s mouth was forced so rigidly into a polite grin that his cheek muscles began to ache.
When Gail returned from wherever she had been he tried to check her eyes to see if they were red from crying. He couldn’t tell, primarily because she wouldn’t look at him. She took a couple big swallows from the drink that George had ordered for her.
“That’s the spirit, Gail,” George said. “Take a little of that and you’ll feel better. I’m sorry I really got things pretty well screwed up. But it’s all gonna be peace and tranquility from here on.”
“I’m not mad at you,” she told George. Mason thought that she stressed the “you” part. He tried to convince himself that he was becoming too paranoid, but it was useless. He saw sitting around him a friend he had enjoyed since high school, drunk now and as crazy and irresponsible as when they were eighteen; a girl named Tina, also drunk, who would probably make love with a kangaroo if she ever got curious about what the experience might be like; and Gail, whom he loved but could not keep happy. They all looked like strangers to him. He did not know what motivated them, what pleased them, what worried them, any more than they knew those things about him; and he saw that none of them, including himself, were bold enough to try to determine those things about each other.
He tried to imagine what he appeared to be to the others, but it was too difficult to think of such things. Instead, his mind drifted into considerations of wasted time, of the accumulation of all the wasted times, of the desire to be home alone watching TV or reading a good book. He tried to remember what he was currently reading; but the author, the title, even the plot, escaped him.
He saw those around him talking and joking, even Gail beginning to smile a little, but he regarded them all as though they were on the other side of a one-way glass that allowed him to observe but prevented them from seeing him. He imagined that if he got up and walked behind them, tapping each of them on the shoulder, they would not be able to figure out who was doing it. It was a fantasy, but to have imagined it so vividly was almost as good as having done it.
George ordered another round of drinks. Mason saw when his was delivered that the glass from his first drink was empty, although he did not remember drinking it. A moment of panic tingled over his skin as he wondered if he was losing his mind. He looked to the faces of the others for any sign, but there was none.
“Mason, are you all right?” Gail asked.
“Yes. Why?” He thought he had answered too abruptly.
“You have sort of a funny look on your face and…”
George interrupted. “That’s only because he’s drinking so fast.”
Mason regarded that as an unfair judgment until he looked at the glass that he thought had just been delivered. It too was empty.
Is this what my life is coming to, he wondered – empty glasses in alien places with people who want me to share their superficial appreciations? It was an unfair assessment of the others, at least of George and Gail, the ones he knew best. He regretted it. “Let’s have another drink,” he offered as a kind of apology for what he had only thought about and not spoken.
This time it was George who declined. “I’ve had plenty. Don’t forget what we already put away at the other joint. I think I’m ready to haul ass out of here.”
“Ah, come on,” Mason urged. “Tina, what about you?” She pretended to think about it before saying “No, I think I agree with George.” Mason turned to Gail, covering her hand with his own. “Gail, whaddya say, honey? One more?” He realized his speech was becoming slurred, and that he had referred to her as “honey”, a term he had not used before with Gail.
“Let’s go, Mason,” she answered, pulling her hand out from under his and picking up her purse to leave. There was a scraping of chairs as the others all got up, following Gail’s lead. Mason looked up at them from where he still sat.
“Hey, come on,” he implored them. “I don’t wanna leave us in dis… disarray. This is a nice place. Let’s just have one more. I’ll buy. Look.” He pulled his wallet out of his back pocket and got out a dollar bill before dropping the wallet and the rest of its contents on the floor. George scooped it up and started for the door.
“Come on, Mason” George said over his shoulder. “I’ve got a plan.”
Mason struggled up out of the chair and followed, telling Tina, “He’s gotta plan. George has a plan. Do you know what it is?”
“No,” she said, “but I guess we’ll find out if we go with him.”
“Did I ever tell you that you look a lot like Julie Christie?” Mason said to her. She laughed, clearly not making the connection to the movie “Shampoo.” Mason looked at Gail and had a hard time getting her face in focus but he was sure she was not smiling and he thought she probably hated him. He couldn’t remember what he had done wrong but he had no doubt that it must have been something selfish and contemptuous enough to leave him at that moment full of self-loathing.
“Gail’s pissed at me,” he whispered loudly to Tina. “And I don’t blame her.”
George held the door for them as they left. Gail was the first one through and beat them all to the car. Once into the back seat, she pressed over against the far side, leaving as much distance from Mason as possible while still remaining in the car, and folded her hands together over the purse in her lap. In the front seat, George and Tina spoke only occasional words in hushed tones.
Mason became even more depressed, certain that he had ruined the evening for all of them. The lack of conversation only increased his discomfort. He wanted to tell them all something, but he couldn’t manage the words. He finally mumbled “I like you all,” to which none of the others replied.
After an extended period of silence, Tina turned toward him from the front seat and said, “We like you too, Mason.”
To him, it sounded as though he was finally being told to just remain silent. He was drowsy and sleep seemed to offer the easiest way out. Later, he was aware of George helping him into the house and an indistinct female voice saying – from what seemed to be a great distance off – “He’ll be all right.”
He slept fitfully.
Mason slipped the french toast out of the pan and onto two plates, which he then delivered to the table. George set aside the magazine he had been randomly flipping through. It was their first meal together in over a week, partly because George had spent several nights with Tina after the evening when the four of them had visited the jazz club.
“Um, great groceries,” George commented as he poured a thick coating of syrup on his breakfast.
“George, do you ever think we’re too active?”
“Too active? Whaddya mean?” George asked, without taking any time to think about it.
“Doesn’t it sometimes seem to you that we’re compulsive about being busy all the time?”
“I don’t know. What else is there?”
Mason chewed on his french toast and tried to think of equally satisfying alternatives. “How about reading more? Or taking walks? Or just sitting around and talking with someone else?”
“We’re doing that. Talking.” He took another mouthful of the french toast and washed it down with some coffee.
“I didn’t mean just you and me,” Mason said, discouraged by George’s lack of interest.
“So where is this coming from? You and Gail got some kind of problem? What’s all this stuff about walks and reading? I mean, sure we’re busy, active. That’s because we want to be. You can’t change what you are.”
To Mason that seemed like a dismal prospect. “Sometimes I feel that I stay so busy that I don’t have time to reflect on anything. And if you can’t appreciate what you’re doing, what’s the point of doing it? Every birthday comes sooner than that last one. I don’t know what’s happening to the time.”
George smiled and shook his head regretfully. “It’s passing, that’s what’s happening to it.”
They finished their breakfasts without further comment. George put one hand on his stomach and tipped his chair onto its back legs. He scratched his ear contemplatively. “You sound like someone who’s trying to make a big decision. I’m thinking something along the lines of ‘settling down’. What we’ve got to do is get you convinced that life is not an all or nothing deal. Now watch my lips.” He returned his chair back to its usual position, so he was closer to Mason. “You do not have to be married to be happy. Got that?”
“I worry about using people.”
“No. That’s not right,” George said with such certainty that Mason was surprised. It was rare for George to sound so serious. “You use people all the time and you love it. We all do. We use others and they use us and we like it both ways. Using satisfies needs, and being used provides the excuse for doing it to others. Besides, sometimes it feels good to be used. It can enhance our self-image.” He leaned even closer to Mason. “What you meant to say was that you worry about using certain people.”
Mason took a breath and realized that he was nodding affirmatively. “Okay. I understand. And I guess I agree that I’m focused on one person, not the world at large. What do you think I ought to do.”
“You’re asking me? Jeezus Mason, you’re the more reasonable one of the two of us. You’re supposed to be giving advice to me, not the other way around.” He thought for a moment. “Look, I can tell you what I’d do, but I can’t see how that would be helpful for you.” He waited for Mason’s response.
“What? What would you do?”
“Oh shit. Forget that. It wouldn’t make any difference what I’d do. It wouldn’t be the same for you.”
“No. What?” Mason prodded, hoping there might be a simple solution to his problems.
George sighed and scratched his ear again. “Not to change the subject, but what would you think of me moving in with Tina?”
“We can talk about that, but I still need an answer. What should I do?”
George ignored the question. “The last couple weeks I been at her place so much I figured I might just take some of my things over there.”
“She’s a nice girl,” Mason said, unhappy that the conversation had taken an abrupt turn.
“I suppose,” George said. “She’s got a few funny opinions, but I guess I can handle that for awhile. I already told her I was an asshole and that I might all of sudden just get tired of her for no obvious reason.”
“You told her that? In those words?”
“She said she understood, that she knew that much about me. So I guess I’m clear to move in. I figured I’d leave most of my stuff here for awhile, if it’s OK with you. That way I don’t end up having to move stuff around a lot. Of course, if you’d like me to get it out of the way – maybe so Gail could move in or whatever – then just say so. It wouldn’t be any problem.”
“Wait a minute. Is that what you were working toward – Gail moving in here? That’s your recommended solution to my problems. I don’t want Gail to move in here. The only thing left after that would be marrying her.”
George got a big grin on his face.
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