“Blue Venus,” a story by Rhonda Zimlich, was a finalist in our recently concluded 48th Short Fiction Contest. It is published with the permission of the author.
Gas lamps lined the street lifting their warmth out into the world to stave off the night. Their flickering orange reflected in the puddles along the curb and the cobble still shiny with rain long gone. A storm had passed. Leaves now settled in clumps along the gutters and at the feet of a slumped musician folded forward on a stoop. The curve of his instrument’s dark case towered above him, concealing an elegant bass within.
Brownstones framed the scene extending stoops from hidden entryways. A newspaper fat with rain hung over a wrought-iron rail, the upside-down words “Congress Overrides Veto of Taft-Hartley” visible even in the obscurity of predawn. A five-and-dime, closed for business until morning, hosted a shadowy window display advertising dry shampoo and bolts of canvas fabric. The movement of a cat interrupted the stillness as it crept from an alleyway behind Schaeffer’s Warehouse. She paused, stretching her long forelegs, pushing her slinky form into one low slope, a treble clef reclining. Then she leapt to a garbage can lid ringing a soft clatter before fading out. The sound sustained long after the cat slipped the windowsill, a fire escape, then darkness, and, finally, obscurity.
The second-story apartment window blinked awake with light and a shadow moved across the blind. A silhouette—shapely, female, perhaps with a night scarf over high hair rollers—paused to light a cigarette. She blew a jet of smoke across the white of the blind then moved off screen.
Now’s the time, Billy Jensen thought as he unfolded himself and pressed his palms into his soaked trousers to stand. The effect of his last few drinks won over his faculties and he wobbled. He shook it off along with the rain from his slicker; drops cascaded away as he steadied himself. The shape of the woman swayed with her cigarette, her opposite hand patting the hair rollers. Billy’s eyes remained fixed, his gaze steady on her. Reaching for the neck of his instrument’s case, the large frame of it never more than an arm’s length away, his fingers fumbled along the taut, wet leather. He clung to a dim hope that its cargo wasn’t saturated and ruined because of his drunken stupidity. That damned booze had rooted him there all night and he cursed himself recalling the storm that had passed. The gin sat in his gut churning with discomfort. But he knew it was more than the booze that had kept him fixed to that spot at the curb. True, a thick patience had riveted him during the deluge so that he would not budge—no, could not budge. The fact that she would be leaving soon was all he thought of between spinning from the gin and mentally plucking out scales. Billy wanted a shot to make things right.
He felt the case. The thin leather was soaked. Working with the fasteners that were slick and tough to handle with cold fingers, he managed to get the latches open. To his surprise, it was dry inside, the soft velvet offering its deep, welcoming luster. It beckoned him then, and he moved his fingertips to the pile so that he could enjoy the stroke and feel of the velvet’s nap and then the wood’s smoothness along the neck of the bass.
Something smooth, he thought as he pulled his baby from the box. No. Gerri likes something with a beat. Though slow, like our last kiss . . . slow and deep. He pulled his bass from its box and worked fast to set her upright. Billy plucked a scale that sounded as wobbly as he felt. He twisted the instrument’s keys to make her strings hum together with sweet agreement, satisfied with the way it sang if even a little tart, like Gerri. He sighed heavily toward her window and gave the old case a shove with his foot.
The alcohol burned warm in his blood and his stomach simmered. The shade on the second story window remained pulled.
He began low but loud and rolled up heavy beats of a ballad that he wasn’t sure he had heard before, or if it was just one of those moments that spontaneity tiptoed upon his soul and shoved its essence out into his song. Do, thum, thum, hum do. The beats of the bass grew louder and faster colliding with the bricks of the buildings hemming in the alley and reverberating back to him.
Billy closed his eyes and the world spun, though he steadied himself with the music. He plucked and rolled his fingers along the instrument. This was why he had come, why he had sat all night in the storm; this was how he wanted to say goodbye. This music was his all right, even if slightly out of tune. He swayed with his head lowered moving the neck of the bass as if it were her he held, and they were gliding, dancing to the beat as they made their way into a dim corner. A deeper sound bubbled up from the street itself, an echo unlike any acoustic effect he had ever heard. Dum, dah dah do dum dah thum thum thuuuuum. On a final note, he looked up at the window. The light there had dimmed, having been extinguished while his head was bowed.
“Gerri!!!” He yelled up to the window. “I know you’re there!”
What a stupid idea, he thought. Maybe he was just too drunk to hide from this heartache, using the music to find a way to make himself feel better. His resolve centered on how wrong it was for him to come.
Or she’s wrong; he tried this idea out but couldn’t be convinced.
# # #
“You’re making a mistake, Ger,” he had said to her last week, his heart thumping in his chest. “This was never just a fling, doll. I never meant what I said. We got something magic here. Sure we do.”
Her response in his memory was just as clear: “You’re a good boy, Billy. Find a good girl who matches you.” She’d said this in her matter-of-fact way, like her shipping out had nothing to do with their last fight. But Gerri was just talking crazy, like she didn’t have a care in the world whether she saw him again or not. All that mattered to her was the Navy and her adventures aboard.
“We got adventure, Ger. Don’t we?” Billy felt his eyes well.
“Listen,” she was stern then. “I told you I never meant to stay. Told you from the beginning, too. Three months ago. Stop your messing around now. You knew it along, Billy Jensen. You knew.”
Billy wrung his hands, looked her square in the eyes, forced a smile. No amount of gin could block the things he’d said to her during their last fight. Harlot. He had called her that word like it was the truest thing. This was her smooth way of sloughing it off. Well, he could play that tune, too. Better even.
“Sure, Gerri.” His heart walloped in his chest and his throat tightened but he swallowed it away. Billy knew he could give her that independence she so fiercely wanted. But he also thought she might change her mind if he let her be. Lots of women were settling down after the war. If anyone could convince her, it would be him. The word ‘harlot’ echoed in his mind.
“That’s a fella, there you go. We had good times, Billy. Real good. Let’s remember that; what d’yah say?” He thought he saw a rise of shine along the insides of her eyes, and, though he wondered about her placid strength, resented it even, he became afraid she might actually cry. He’d never seen her cry, not once. It was a thing of marvel for Billy.
“Sure Ger.” He crossed his arms and rubbed his elbows. “Before you ship out, though, let me take you out to eat one more time. Can I do that for you, doll? Can you give a fella a farewell?”
“Oh, silly.” She batted her eyelashes to blink away anything that he thought he might have seen and then a smirk grew across her face. “I’ll be here for a bit still. And we’re still friends. I still need that music of yours, right?”
# # #
Still. She still needs it, he reminded himself, from his place on the curb, staring up at her dark window.
Billy put the bass back into the case and carefully laid it on the wet cobble. He closed his eyes once more and bowed his head. He stood there thinking about the first time that he saw Gerri. She had come in to the club with some of her Navy friends—mostly men, but a very nice group of fellas, dressed in their Navy whites. In contrast, Gerri was dressed for the town. Her plum pencil skirt, wasp-wasted and elegant, made her seem waifish and frail. But it was her hat pin that he remembered most, a fat-bottomed pear on a silver post, the pin and, of course, her purple gloves. After the band’s first set, she had told Billy that she had come there looking for the type of jazz that makes good Catholic girls blush. She shook his hand with her gloved fingers before moving off to powder her nose. His desire to touch the skin beneath her glove became a palpable longing. When she returned she pinched him right on his bottom. He was not only caught by surprise, he was snared by her. He was so inspired by her fire and sass that he tore into a solo right in the middle of the next song. Familiar with Billy’s tendencies, the band gave him the floor, and he moved sharp notes through smooth changes and bent time. At the end of the show, Gerri went straight to him and exclaimed that she was no longer a Catholic. She was drunk, but indeed, that night, she was not a Catholic, at least not to the limited extent of Billy’s knowledge of Catholicism. And Billy was no saint to help her to her sin. But now he wondered if patience had really been the force that rooted him to that curb, or if it was stupidity that prevented him from leaving, or maybe a combination of the two. Regardless, no amount of music could set things right. No tune could offer the atonement she needed after all they had been through.
Without looking up again, Billy picked up the bass in that strange, backward manner that only an upright bass could be carried, grasping the c-bout handle and tipping the head and neck back on his shoulder. He let the squat lower bout lead the way. Slowly, he moved down the street with the bulky vessel lifted out across his body, moving with a heavy shuffle, the weight and awkward shape of his instrument an ever-present burden.
He knew it would be impossible to get a cab at such an early hour and he would have an arduous walk home, but Steinie’s place was right around the Hotel Riviera and he might get a squat. He thought that if he hurried, he could cut through the hotel’s lobby during the doorman’s rounds. This would save him the long blocks around, especially if Steinie would put him up. He never understood why he couldn’t just cut through that lobby anyway, but he knew the place well enough to know that at this very hour, the doorman was more interested in doughnuts and pinup girls than keeping soggy characters out of his foyer. The doorman’s rounds were just a ruse to sneak off for a break, the perfect chance for Billy to skedaddle on through.
He hoisted his case farther up on his shoulder to hasten his step, the cadence of his stride now mocking his abandoned efforts to see Gerri, the lower bout of the bass bouncing in time with his step. The bounce reminded him of that bass solo that had changed everything on that first fateful night. The bounce, like a walk down the notes, ba’dom dom dom dom. The solo he played the night they met. That first night.
# # #
“It would appear, Mr. Bass Player,” Gerri’s eyes sparkled as she spoke. “That I am no longer a Catholic.” The memory stopped his feet and the bass swung with forward momentum before also coming to rest before him.
He sloped in his pause and held the thought in perfect stillness, a backwards-tilted figure supporting a heavy case extending out from his front side. Only his eyes moved then, shifting from bricks to cobbles to a manhole in the road glistening dark and damp with the past.
The stillness of the thoroughfare seemed to fix the soles of his shoes to the concrete. Only his ragged breath moved in time. Before him, the bass hovered motionless. Above him, neither raining nor parting, low clouds stuck like great gray ships in dry-dock hung without purpose. Even the gas lamps gave a steady shine instead of their irregular, dynamic flicker. Billy wondered if time had stopped.
Just then, a shadow moved from out of the recess of a stoop. To Billy’s astonishment, a woman stood there, on the top stair, a shabby coat and cloche hung on her sallow form. He could make out the look of middle-age, worn and tired, with sagging jowls and sunken eyes shrouded in obscurity.
“You want a date, Mister?” she said.
He set the front of the case on the ground and looked at her shoes. Through the shadows, he could see she was wearing weathered Mary Jane’s. One shoe looked as if the welt had come apart from its sole and he almost thought he could make out the toe of her sock beneath.
“No,” he said as his head cocked sideways. “No, I don’t want a date.”
She started to move slowly backward as if the shadow was pulling her back into the nowhere from where she had come when Billy had a thought, and then quickly added, “Can I ask you something?”
The woman’s retreat paused and she raised her chin with the slightest nod; Billy took the gesture as permission to ask.
“What can a man give a gal if she doesn’t want anything from him? You know, one of those real independent types?” He waited, anticipating her response, hoping for some wisdom, but the woman remained still. Billy could see her features then with more clarity. She had dark curls snaking out from under the bucket of her cloche. Her eyes, though dark, were pretty, yet sad and glassy. Pink rouge was buffed across her cheeks and red lipstick stained her lips accenting a crooked mouth that lay across her face like a broken string. He knew the look: disapproval of him or of his question, or both. But, being as he also knew she was a working girl, an independent gal like Gerri, he hoped she might impart some wisdom upon him, there in the darkness of the world.
The woman tut-tutted and ran her tongue along her teeth inside her upper lip, then made a sucking sound, and spat in his direction.
“Aw, come on now,” Billy implored. “No need to be an Able Grable.”
“You tell that gal you got you take your advice from Liza and Liza says, ain’t nothing ever independent. You hear me, squiddy?”
“I’m no sailor, miss.”
“And I’m no miss, swabbie. And if you don’t want a date, you best be moving on.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out a box of cigarettes. Billy stepped up the stairs producing a matchbook and he lit a match and held it out for her. The match light exposed her affronted look and she did not lean toward him to accept the gesture. Instead, she blew harshly toward the lighted match. As the flame shifted away from her, then was extinguished, Billy caught sight of a large scar, a gash that extended horizontally above her eyebrows then down across one eyelid, grim pink flesh stained red-purple and frozen forever across her forehead down to her left eye.
“I said, I ain’t no sailor. I got me a detached retina, is all. I never went over,” he told her, though he wondered why he felt like explaining anything to her. The woman said nothing but stood still, staring with a force that seemed to push at him.
Billy stepped back down away from her. “I’m sorry, miss—er, ma’am.” He nearly tripped into his bass. He turned toward the instrument and, without hesitation he gathered up the bass once more. Billy spun on his ankle and headed back in the direction he had come, back toward Gerri’s apartment. He was cold and tired and beginning to feel sick from the gin earlier that night. Still, he was compelled to return to Gerri’s window in the alley; he knew what he had to do. After all, she was still there, not yet on some boat sailing away to another port. He might be able to set some of it right before she left. She’d even thank him.
All the way back, more painful memories flew up at him, terrible things that had happened between them during fights and passion. Their bouts could rival those at The Garden. All of the many broken trinkets and gifts that had been hurdled across different spaces in fits of crazed anger . . . followed by old promises and new gifts—more things to eventually break and replace. The cycle was maddening. The payoff, passionate yet diminished toward the end.
“You’re a sot!” she screamed so many times he could barely pick one memory clean. But this one, this memory stood out. “You’re a sot and a fool and I never loved you!”
Billy grabbed her wrists as she twisted in resistance. “I never wanted your love,” he’d hissed, while the booze convinced him he meant his cruel words. “You ain’t nothing but a harlot and I only wanted one thing from you.”
He saw the words hit her, saw her double backward from their impact, then force herself upright and stiffen her shoulders. He knew she wouldn’t cry. Gerri didn’t cry in front of him then or ever, though her face gave the twisted recognition of pain. He knew that she waited for him to go to sleep that night before she let herself go. She was stubborn like that. Never once did she let him hold her while she was upset, even when he wanted to help. That night, he didn’t want to help. But there were other nights, too, when the inebriation didn’t soothe him and he’d felt the infliction of his own harsh words at her. He never physically hit her, but their fights had become increasingly mean. Somehow, though, Billy thought Gerri could take it. She was strong and independent, and she would lash back with the tongue of a banshee. No woman should speak to a man that way; it wasn’t proper. She’d had all of it coming when she dished it out; but that night, he’d gone too far. Though he thought at once he should take it back, he hadn’t. After all, he was a man, and wrong or not he could speak his mind, regardless of her stature in the Navy.
He admired that Gerri was in the Navy, the Navy Nurse Corps. She held the rank of Lieutenant, a high station for a woman, and in most respects, nurses were treated as officers. Gerri wanted this when she signed up; Billy knew the story well. She had decided to become a nurse because there weren’t too many things that women could do without raising an eyebrow or two from society, and she had so desperately wanted a career. Her mother died when she was young, and thinking that it wasn’t proper for a girl to be raised solely by a man, her father had sent her to Mount Saint Ursula in the Bronx. She told Billy often about the nuns and how she never minded being there, their simple skirts shuffling along the stone floors, cabasas shushing out a marimba in Billy’s mind. She told him she always loved the sisters and she admired their strength in faith and for being so dedicated to God. Gerri would have been a nun if it hadn’t been for her dad. She missed him an awful lot, she said, while she was away at school. When she told Billy about missing her father, he thought that she had given up on being a nun because she needed the love of a man. At four in the morning, car engines starting to idle and echo through the streets, Billy was thinking a lot of things, but a new thought had crept in. He wasn’t sure what to call it. Even atonement didn’t seem quite right.
Back in the alley again, he set the bass down, deciding that he would try another approach. With a quick, low cough to clear his throat, he began. “I came back!” He yelled up to the window. “Gerri! I came back—I had to!” The window remained dark.
“Keep it down, will yah!” an anonymous voice yelled out from around the corner.
“Damn it,” Billy whispered. He bent over and began collecting rocks. Seeing Gerri had become more important to him now since the walk, and he didn’t care if he broke the window at this point. She’s such a heavy sleeper, he sighed searching the ground for a larger stone. Wet outlines of pebbles described their size and he scooped the biggest he could find, dizzy with new purpose and old booze.
He rose up and tossed a rock. It hit the thin pane of glass with a quick thwack. He tossed another and this rock made a thud against the sash and then bounced straight up in the air before landing on the sill. The light came on. Before long, she was peering out through the vertical opening past the side of the blind. Billy dropped the remaining rocks. They fell like fat raindrops clattering along the cobble. Gerri rolled up the blind and squinted down into the dark street. She cupped her hands against the glass and leaned to, the shadow of the sill obscuring her face.
Billy pulled out a damp package of Lucky Strikes and lit a cigarette. The match flickered near his face as his hands cupped the flame to the cigarette. At once, Gerri’s window was opened.
“Billy Jensen! What on earth are you doing out there?” He could tell she was still half dreaming as her eyes scanned the street below unsure of his exact position once the match was extinguished. Maybe she was a little drunk too. Billy never knew her to be sober, not one day ever. The rain had started again in a soft mist, still her barely audible whisper found him, “why, I never. . .”
“I was here earlier, Ger!” He took a long drag of his cigarette. “I don’t think you heard me. I think I’ve been here all night now.” Billy looked around as if the alley might confirm this. He ran his hand over the top of his sodden head to smooth his hair.
“Why?” She yawned, propping herself up with one arm on the sill. Her other hand found her forearm and scratched at her wrist.
How was he supposed to answer her? He wanted to say something about loving her like he knew no one else could, say she didn’t have to be anything to the world as long as she was his, tell her he never meant to call her ‘harlot.’ He thought that he could climb up the wall and just kiss her and then she would know and he wouldn’t have to say a thing. Instead he offered, “I thought I might buy you breakfast. You know, before you go and all. Have us a nice farewell like we agreed.” He could’ve kicked himself for his own cowardice. Why didn’t he just say what was in his heart?
“Don’t be silly. It’s not yet five in the morning. . .” she turned away from the window then back. “Well, it’s almost five. I guess this couldn’t wait, huh?” She smiled a sleepy grin, and propped her head up on her other hand, shifting her form in the window. Her giant hair rollers popped out from under her scarf at odd angles, disheveled and wild.
In the gas lamp light, Gerri was just like the goddess mural that Billy had seen painted on the wall of a Manhattan night club where he played in his younger days. This wasn’t a new idea to him; she had looked like that painting lots over the last few months. He even told her he would take her there one day to show her, but they never did get around to it. The name of the club was Blue Venus, and the picture looked like any man’s dream girl, doe-eyed with milky skin all washed in blue moonlight. His whole band loved her. He wondered back then how an artist could achieve the same effect on so many men with one single painting. Billy chalked it up to magic, having no other explanation. It wasn’t so silly for a grown man to believe in such things. But when he met Gerri, he had another idea. Lots of men claimed to love her, just like that painting. She cast that effect on them all. If that was magic, it was black magic. That was exactly their problem: he could never trust a gal like that, all beauty and booze and spent morals, tossing out her religious convictions like her laddered stockings. Not like the pure magic of that innocent beauty painted on that wall at the Blue Venus, no Sir.
“Just get dressed and come on down here,” Billy pleaded. “It’s been raining, yah know, and I would really like to get going. I’m wet to the bone.”
“You tell me where we are supposed to go, Mr. Soggy Man.” She laughed at him. “Besides, I don’t want to come down. Why don’t you come up instead?” With that, she pulled the window shut and drew down the blind.
Billy took a last, long drag from his Lucky Strike. He wondered what the Catholic nuns thought of this woman once upon a sweeter time. Was she always so foolhardy, or was this just part of her adult charisma? Regardless, he was certain those ladies of God had their hands full with Miss Geraldine.
He left the bass at the foot of the inside staircase—this would not take long. Either they’d be off for breakfast or he would say his part and go. No cause of hanging about, since he had made up his mind.
She opened the door and gestured for him to come in, but Billy just stood on the mat.
“I don’t want to come in. I want to take you to breakfast, proper like. I don’t think I ever took you to breakfast proper that wasn’t after us shutting down some club.” He pulled at the inner cuffs of each sleeve with his fingertips and palms.
Gerri tugged the front of her housecoat shut near the collar.
“This is proper then?” She chided. “Four-thirty in the morning, headed out to Greta’s Café? I don’t think so. Come in, will you?” She stood aside and gestured again. Billy stood, rooted to the doormat, resolved to not budge. Gerri tipped her head, raising her thin eyebrows as if to emphasize her firmness. “I. Don’t. Want. To go out.”
Billy hesitated, his shoulders lowered a little, he let out a breath, then he stepped inside the entryway of the flat and prepared his speech. “I came back, Gerri. I want you to know. I was out there playing music and I left, like I was leaving for good. But I got to Steinie’s place, see. Well, nearly there. You know, just by the cobbler and the cleaners, outside the Riviera—”
“Can you get to the point, Billy? I know my neighborhood.” Gerri crossed her arms over her housecoat and knit her brows. Her eye makeup was smeared beneath her eyes and Billy could smell the booze, stale and wretched through the musty cigarette smell. His Blue Venus, imperfect up close, but still, somehow, his.
“I wanted just to tell you something . . . but I thought it would be better over breakfast.” He looked at the faded rug beneath their feet as he spoke. He looked around the hall. The velvet cushion of the telephone table, worn and stained, stuck out at an odd angle. “I guess here’s as good a place as any.”
“Well, make it fast, sheesh!” She shushed like a snare drum at the start of a riff, urging something to come and something else to go.
She uncrossed her arms and lit a cigarette. Billy pawed at the matchbook in his pocket but did not produce the lighted match for her. She was too quick to her Ronson Crown lighter that always sat on the telephone table in the entryway, a welcome greeting to guests as she’d once explained. Her exhale sent a swirling cloud right at him making him choke at the smell of whiskey permeating the thick smoke.
“Here’s the thing, doll,” Billy finally went on. “I—I was nearly to Steinie’s when I thought back to the night we met. You know, you had those purple gloves and all?”
“The mauve gloves?” She blew smoke at him again. “Did you come all this way to argue with me about the color of my own damned gloves, Billy? Don’t you think I know the color of my own gloves?” She offered another sugary smile.
“Yeah, see, that’s the thing, right there. We used to be real sweet, talk to each other like the birds and all, and—”
“What the hell are you talking about?” She snorted playfully but Billy heard menace in her guffaw like quick taps on a hi-hat.
“I just want to tell you this, is all. Can’t I just tell you this one thing without any more devil tongue?”
“Don’t you start with me, Mr. William Jensen. You came here and woke me up at this early hour, so let’s remember what’s what.”
Billy swallowed and relented. “You got a drink, Ger? I’m chilled to the bone. Was out there all night in that downpour.”
Gerri took a long drag from her cigarette and blew it up and away from Billy, looking him up and down. Her face seemed to soften. Even the streaks of black makeup below her eyes seemed to brighten. “Sure, Hon. One drink never hurt no one.”
She moved in a fluid motion to the sideboard where she kept a few rocks glasses and a bottle. Gerri danced a dance that he knew well, performed it a thousand times over—a thousand plus one—by the time she delivered the amber liquid cradled in the crystal glass, delivered it to Billy’s outstretch and trembling hand, and Billy delivered it to his salivating mouth. How could she ever be a harlot, sweet gal to bring such medicine for my tired head!
“Thank you.” He tossed the rest of it back. She took the glass and held it firm, the cigarette, a plank between her fingertips of the same hand, jutting out at him. She shifting her weight and stuck out a hip, settling into a posture that Billy took as listening. As if to encourage this suspicion, she raised her eyebrows inviting him to continue.
“Well, like I said, I was almost to Riviera and I was thinking about that damned doorman. I was thinking about you and them nuns, and all. Then it finally all made sense, doll. It finally clicked for me, the thing about you and me. See, you are a Catholic. You are!” He paused but Gerri just stared at him, cigarette smoke curling up and over the rollers on her head, and so he pressed on. “You can be again. You can be a good Catholic girl again, Ger,” he offered and waited for her to understand. Billy imagined her in her nurse’s uniform, her white cap emblazoned with a perfect cross, her bright eyes smiling at some poor sap lying in a bed or on a gurney. He imagined himself there, on that gurney doing the thing that the United States government said he could not do on account of his eyes. But in his mind then, he was there removing her cap and pulling her down to him. Then the hospital walls fell away to stained glass and organs and a priest reading them their vows. But no. Instead, he saw that priest handing her the habit and robes, the fat book he’d never read. And Billy was there delivering her to that place of innocence from her girlhood dreams. No more dark clubs, no booze or brawls, no cardrooms and distilleries, or wherever else she went that removed her from that purity, that perfect Venus. This was what he could do for her before she left. He could absolve it all.
The warmth of the booze hit his gut and Billy grew bold. He stepped forward half a step and said, “The thing that never made it work for us is that you gave all that up, Ger. You didn’t need to give that up for me or no one. No one, Ger. Don’t you see, doll? And everything that happened since you stopped being a Catholic, I can forgive that. I can forgive you.”
Gerri stood motionless. Her cigarette, still pointing accusingly toward him, had grown an ash at least an inch in length. A slight vibration of her hand shook the ash free from the cigarette and it fell silently to the carpet. Gerri’s eyebrows sank under heavy creases and a frown grew across her mouth. When she finally spoke it was in a menacing whisper: “Get out, you stupid putz,” she hissed, and the cymbal of her sizzle reverberated before it fell silent.
Billy took in the hush before he continued. He was not quite certain of her emotions. Maybe she had misunderstood him. “I forgive you for leaving the church and for leaving me. That’s what they do, right? Forgive? I don’t want nothin’ from you, Ger. I just want you to know you can go now. Really go . . .all the way back to God. Back to Jesus or his mother—that’s right, ain’t it? And I forgive you for working and wanting to make up for your lost dream—”
Suddenly Gerri’s voice bellowed as Billy had never heard it before. “Get Out! Get Out! Get out!” As she yelled, she shoved him out the door with her empty hand, tossing her lit cigarette at his jacket before slamming the door in his face. She continued to yell “get out” through the closed door, and Billy could hear the unmistakable sound of the rocks glass hitting a wall and shattering. More clatter arose. The loudest thud, he imagined, was the Ronson Crown cigarette lighter.
Billy stood at the door for a moment longer. He was certain he had done the right thing but could not figure her response. He didn’t know much about religion but he knew that bit about forgiveness; of that much he was sure. If Gerri was leaving, she was leaving forgiven. She needed that, and Billy owed her that. As he stood there, he glanced sidelong down the stairs at his upright bass case. A new tune sprang up in his thoughts, one where all of the bent sounds of jazz fell back into some mundane four-four measure to find a simpler peace before settling into a waltz-resolved rhythm. No, maybe not so orderly. After all, the clatter that was coming from Gerri’s apartment was much more interesting than the earlier silence. She’s no harlot, Billy thought finally. She never was.
He tramped down the stairs and heaved his bass up on his shoulder once more. As he made his way up the street, splashing shallow puddles with measured and sure footsteps, the bulk of the giant instrument lead the way. Long rays of sun lit up the boulevard and bounded off the windows and a few cars that had just starting to idle out small bursts of steam from their tailpipes. The gas lamps dimmed against the budding morning light.
Billy let her go. It was his duty as a man.
Rhonda Zimlich writes fiction and memoir. She holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared (or is expected) in publications such as Brevity, Acorn Review, and Ink Stains Anthology. Rhonda lives in Eugene, Oregon with her husband, twin daughters, a shaggy rescue dog, and two feisty black cats–all subjects of her writing. More at www.rhondazimlich.com
Read “Icarus”, a short story by Ian MacAgy