Time to post another one of my near-miss flash fiction competition entries. The prompt on this one was to have the narrator be an inanimate object. I went through multiple iterations in a short span. I started out writing from the perspective of a rear-view window, and he was going to be in a mafioso’s car and would occasionally see the crimes and fights and whatnot happening behind the car, but he would never see what was in front. Oh, and everything was going to be reversed. Probably woulda been a cool story, but about two hundred words in, I realized there was no effing way I could crank that out over one weekend.
Then I decided to go with a bottle of wine on a restaurant table, because I was listening to a lot of Billy Joel Radio. Then I was about halfway through the story when I decided I actually wanted it to be from the music speaker’s POV. Because I was listening to a lot of Billy Joel Radio…
This one didn’t win. I present you:
The Ear in the Sky
Unmistakable chord. Yeah, I know this song. This is my jam, man.
A bottle of white. A bottle of red.
Billy Joel. “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.”
Fitting. This may not be an Italian restaurant, per se. But we’ve got plenty of pasta on the menu. Pasta goes great with wine. Forget the white. A complex red to go with a meaty pasta sauce, like a Bolognese.
We’ll get a table near the street. In our old familiar place. You and I, face to face.
Jeff and Karla have been here a number of times before. They’ve probably heard this song plenty of times before. The playlist here isn’t too long, standard repertoire of seventies and eighties easy-listening. This song is actually a little upbeat compared to the normal fare. Not this part of the song. This part, the part about the wine and the restaurant, is pretty standard, but it picks up. Turns into a song about a couple getting a divorce. Maybe not the lyrics you want playing in the background at a nice restaurant. More fitting for one of those red-and-white checkered, calamari-appetizer kind of a restaurant. Probably why we do an abbreviated version of the song here. Straight from the beginning to the end. Fits the ambiance better. Fits what people like Jeff and Karla come here for.
Let the bottle breathe a little bit. No need to speed through the wine. It’ll be here all night, sitting in the middle of lucky table seven. The table in the corner with the view of the river. The wine bottle can look out over the entirety of the place. Take the whole scene in. Frankie, the fancy waiter in his white shirt and long blue tie, both tucked into the black apron tied around his waist. He has a white cloth napkin tucked into the back of the tie rope, ostensibly to wipe his hands, keep them clean, but most of the time he just tucks his hands there, behind his back, out of habit. He pulls on the two sides of that napkin, checking to make sure they’re even with each other, more often than he actually cleans his hands. It’s a nervous disposition to stop him from hovering over his tables, of hanging his hands limply in front of his customers. If he doesn’t have pen and pad in his hands, they’re tucked behind him. The bottle of wine knows that about Frankie. I know that about Frankie. We all do.
If you’re going to be a vital piece of an operation like this, like I am, you need to know the idiosyncrasies. Frankie and his hands. Jenny’s worse with her hands. They shake. Whoa to the full bottle of red that she has to pour for a tasting. Many a nice cotton tablecloths have resembled a red-and-white checkered, calamari-appetizer style tablecloths after Jenny’s done a tasting.
You’ve got to know the back of the house, too. Luis, the sous chef, hates doing desserts, so when Luis is on the line, expect the desserts to come out slow. Joshua, the line cook, is dating Katie, the expediter. Well, I suppose you can call it “dating.” Let’s just say that the peppercorn steak might not be the only thing coming out spicy when the two of them are working together. But watch out if there aren’t any tickets up at this particular moment, those two might disappear into the walk-in refrigerator and whoa to the next tickets coming up. Better hope a nice long song comes on to bridge that particular gap in the service. Better hope the wine is pouring well, and not by Jenny.
You’ve got to know the customers, too. You’ve got to be able to read the room. Predict what each table, what each set of individuals with their individual goals and desire for the evening, want. Table three has tickets to the show tonight. They want to go fast. Table twenty-two isn’t quite a bachelorette party, but it might as well be. Raspberry mojitos, all around.
Jeff and Karla are taking their time tonight. They haven’t even sipped from the bottle of wine yet. The bottle senses that. I sense that. Frankie senses that. Jeff and Karla want some time to reminisce. Or at least one of them does.
“We’ve been coming here a long time, huh?” Jeff says.
“We have,” Karla answers. “A long time. Since the beginning, really.”
“What was it, our second date here?”
“Was it? I know it was early.”
Karla looks off into the air. Perhaps in thought. Perhaps absorbing the Billy Joel.
“I guess you’re right. It’s hard to keep track of stuff that long ago.”
Something seems a little off between Jeff and Karla. It’s hard to put a finger on it. Not that I have a finger. But it seems like Karla would usually be the historian in a conversation like this. Maybe they’ve just been traveling a lot. They haven’t been at table seven for quite some time.
Is it too early for a little Barry Manilow? Trick question, of course. It’s ALWAYS time for some Barry Manilow.
Karla’s ear ticks her eyes back toward the table when the piano melody starts. “Speaking of our early dates.”
Jeff looks confused. His brows meet in the middle, then his eyesight follows the direction of Karla’s ear, so that he’s looking up into the ether. Looking right at me.
“Who is this? Barely Man-enough? How would he remind you of our early days? Jason Mraz, maybe. Not Barry Manilow.”
“Not the singer. The song. “Weekend in New England.” About a couple that’s always apart from each other. Always traveling. Missing each other.”
Jeff doesn’t look all that interested in listening to the lyrics, but Karla’s now looking up at me. The conversation is over until the lyrics get to the part she wants to hear.
And tell me, when will our eyes meet? When can I touch you?
Jeff grabs for the bottle of wine. Pours a little bit in Karla’s wine. Turns it back to his. If the conversation isn’t going to highlight the evening, maybe the wine will.
And when will I hold you again?
“I guess I traveled a lot,” Jeff finally opines when the crooner moves into his signature key change. Man, nobody can signal an upcoming quarter-octave change better than the Manilow.
“We spent a lot of nights on the telephone. Me whispering sweet nothings from my heart, you dictating a porn diary of what you’d do to me when you got home.”
Jeff smiles. “Those were from the heart.”
Karla should smile at that. Her last comment should have been said with mirth. But there was a bit of pain in it. Her lips didn’t twitch upward at Jeff’s response. Instead, the muscles in front of her lower incisors contract. Not quite a frown, but a set.
I notice it. The bottle of wine notices it. Frankie notices it. He starts to swoop in, one step forward, hands untucking from his back-napkin.
“A little farther south than the heart,” Karla says.
A retreat. A joke that is not quite a joke, but carries the illusion of civility. I can relax. The bottle of wine can relax. Frankie can relax, which is good because there wasn’t much he could have done. Jeff had just filled their glasses and neither of them have touched the menus. Sure, he could offer up an apeasatory appetizer, list off some specials that neither of the regulars would be interested in. Thank you, Karla, for keeping things civil.
No thanks to you, Mr. Manilow. Maybe it’s time for a change.
“Deperado?” Really? The Eagles? The playlist has a mind of its own tonight. Not sure if it’s the best segue from the travelin’ man in the last song. What’s next, some U2 song about wild horses?
If I had my choice, I’d but out a little Yacht Rock here. Some Air Supply. “Every Woman in the World” or “Two Less Lonely People in the World.” Oh, how about Kenny Loggins’ “Danny’s Song?” Even though we ain’t got money, I’m so in love with you, honey.
Not that I have any say over the playlist. I can’t pick the tunes, but I can make you hear them. Probably a metaphor in there.
All I can do is let the sounds be heard. The ear in the sky. Probably closer to mouth in the sky, but I like Ear in the Sky. Closer to a song. “Eye in the Sky.” Alan Parsons Project. And I don’t need to see anymore to know that I can read your mind.
I don’t think Alan Parsons Project’s ever made it onto this playlist. Not sure why. It would totally fit the mood. Maybe not the lyrics, but the tune. Instead, I do my workman’s best to the likes of…
Desperado, why don’t you come to your senses? You been out ridin’ fences for too long, now.
Still, Karla tamed the Desperado. Pick up that thread if you know what’s good for you, Jeff.
Instead, he sips a little bit of his wine. Not good, buddy. Not good.
Karla follows suit.
Don’t you draw the Queen of Diamonds, boy, she’ll beat you if she’s able. You know the Queen of Hearts-
“Hey, remember the lyrics that the pastor said at our wedding?”
There you go, Jeff.
But Karla is the confused one now. Jeff didn’t get the Barry Manilow connection, and now she’s at a loss. The only difference is she remembers. She makes the connection. She just doesn’t really get it.
Wrong Kenny, Jeff.
Really, Jeff? I don’t know what’s worse. That you used “The Gambler” in your wedding vows or the fact that you think it’s appropriate here.
“Yeah. Every gambler knows,” Jeff is singing nowhere near what The Roaster can do. It would be painful in its own right, but it’s even worse against the Don Henley I’m spouting. Or is this a Glen Frey song? “That the secret to survivin’ is knowing what to throw away, and knowing what to keep.”
Okay, I’ll give it to you, Jeff. Or maybe to your pastor. It’s got a little bit of flair. But you know the gambler, like, dies in that verse, right?
“I suppose he’s right,” Karla says in response.
Oh, damn! Red Alert. Red Alert. Frankie, what are you doing just sitting there with your hands behind your back. Get in there and do something. There’s dead silence down there. All they can do is listen to the Glen Frey. Or maybe Don Henley.
It’s hard to tell the nighttime from the day. You’re losing all your highs and lows. Ain’t it funny how the feeling goes away?
Where’s the Air Supply? I need some Air Supply, stat!
“I was never really sure you wanted to be tamed,” Karla keeps going. “You were always the gambler, the traveler.”
“Until I met you.”
And now Frankie moves in. A verse too late, but Jeff seemed to recover. Sure, Frankie, refill their glasses. Talk about the specials. Ask if they want any appetizers. No? Okay, grab them some bread and butter. Great. At least it’s long enough to get this godforsaken Eagles song off of the Ear in the Sky.
Jimmy Buffett. “Coast of Carolina.”
Kind of a crapshoot here. Buffet wrote it as a sequel to “Come Monday,” yet another song about long-distance love. Man, I never really realized how many of those songs there were. But still, if the couple survived “Come Monday,” this sequel song has to be happy, right? Give these two something to focus on.
I live this dream and still it seems I’ve got you on my mind. From the bottom of my heart, off the coast of Carolina. After one or two false starts, I believe we’ve found our stride.
“What are we even doing here?” Karla asks.
And here it goes. I wish I had a record to scratch the needle across. No Frankie to jump in this time. The wine bottle can’t just tip itself over. And anyway, it’s halfway done its job. That’s a dangerous place, being halfway into a bottle of wine. Just far enough down to yank on the thread, but not far enough down to lose the thread.
“What do you mean? You love this place.”
Jeff just looks dumbfounded. He wasn’t connecting the dots up until now. I guess none of us were. Not the bottle of wine. Certainly not Frankie, who should be swooping in. Save a marriage to save a tip. But instead he’s in the back somewhere, putting little pats of butter in a tiny blue plastic ramekin. He’s probably hitting on Katie, the expediter, totally oblivious to the fact that he’s got no shot because she’s already been into the walk-in freezer with Joshua tonight.
So instead Jeff is here to fend for himself in this world that nobody was prepared for. While Jimmy Buffett does no help in the background.
These days I get up about the time I used to go to bed. Living large was once the deal, now I watch the stars instead.
No fault to Jimmy, really. These words could go either way. If Karla was in the mood to reminisce, if Karla was being her usual self, she’d eat these lyrics up. She’s usually focused on the fact that she’d tamed the wild horse, instead of how much work it was to get him to this point. Most people hear the Beatles sing “When I’m Sixty-Four” and think it’s a wonderful, forever-and-forever tale. But right now, Karla would just say, “Really, Jeff? You want me to wait until I’m sixty-fucking-four before you’re going to be a part of this fucking thing?”
And that’s the problem, really. Their roles are reversed. Jeff is usually the aloof one. He loves her, sure. That much is obvious, and always has been. He always came back. To Karla. To this restaurant. And he was always happy. But he isn’t always emotive. He isn’t always the one who can hear a lyric in a song and use it as a springboard to explain how he’s found his soulmate, his anchor, the one that puts his whole life in order. Bryan Adams. “(Everything I Do), I Do It For You.”
Unless the lyric is from “The Gambler,” evidently.
And so now that Jeff’s in this position, he doesn’t know how to respond. He can’t take the initiative. He’s figured out a way to be Newton’s equal-and-opposite reaction, but Karla needs to be the action. Karla’s not being the action. Karla appears to be done being the action.
All he can do is open and close his mouth. Knowing something needs to be said, but not knowing what it is. Open. A sound escapes. A “whuh” sound. Closed. Open. A “Kuh” sound. Closed.
The song changes. Oh no, playlist. Not this. Anything but Neil Diamond and Barbara Streisand.
You don’t bring me flowers. You don’t sing me love songs.
“I love you, Karla. I don’t know what else to say.”
Jeff is trying, I’ll give him that. I think he might’ve even noticed the song choice. Desperation. Hail Mary here. And honesty is a great policy. Especially if you’ve got no other viable policies.
“No, you know what, Jeff? I don’t know that-,”
“Did you guys want to hear about our specials tonight?”
Oh, Frankie. I applaud the effort, but you’re a day late and a dollar short. Actually, with this going on at one of your prime tables, you’re going to be much more than a dollar short.
“Sorry, Frankie,” Karla says, sticking her hand out at a forty-five degree angle. The universal sign for not-being-rude-but-stop. “Can you just give us a minute?”
Frankie backs away, his hands fumbling through the metaphorical tail no stuck in his legs. He’s going to try to be sneaky, slink off to the back to tell Katie and Joshua and Luis and all the others to take a wider berth around table seven. Oh, and to keep an eye on table seven.
“Like I was saying, Jeff.” It used to be so natural (used to be) to talk about forever.“I don’t think you know how to love. I think you only know how to pursue your own interests.” But used-to-be’s don’t count anymore, they just lay on the floor till we sweep them away.“And, yeah, I know that I have, invariably, been part of your own self interests. But the only reason we’ve stayed together this long is because I was always something you could come back to.”
“Dammit, Karla, that’s not true.” Baby, I remember all the things you taught me. “You weren’t just what I was coming back to.” I learned how to laugh and I learned how to cry. “You were the whole reason I was going in the first place.”
Oh, Jeff. I know what you mean. You mean that she helps you experience the world. That she’s what grounds you. That you’ve learned how to love and you’ve learned how to cry. The lyrics were right above you. You only had to grasp them. But instead you said… Are you aware of what you said?
The wine bottle can’t help anymore. Even if Jeff or Frankie had the wherewithal for a pregnant pause while pouring, it wouldn’t do any good. The bottle’s empty. That’s the thing about wine bottles. Everyone considers them quintessential to a dining experience. The first thing you order. But wine bottles usually don’t last the night. Four glasses per bottle. With two people dining, that’s only a couple glasses each. The wine isn’t there when the dessert rolls around. Or when the opposite of a dessert happens.
You know who’s still here? Who’s always here? I am. The Ear in the Sky. And I know what you’re thinking.
I just wish I could do something about it.
So you’d think I could learn how to tell you good-bye.
Karla attempts to flag down Frankie.
“It’s fine,” Jeff says. “I’ve got it.”
The only response he can give. Pay the tab. Slightly misogynistic, but well meaning. Kind of like Jeff. And, to be honest, half the gentlemen that reserve table seven. If they can’t come up with the nice words or the sweet sentiments, they can at least bust out the wallet for the nice view.
But whatever Jeff was hoping for, Karla’s taking him at his word. She stands up to leave.
“I’ll send the paperwork over tomorrow.”
And just like that, one of table seven’s most distinguished couples is done. Jeff is left footing the bill, both literally and figuratively. Frankie’s swooping in to drop off the literal.
Oh, hey, I hear a distinctive Australian duo coming up. Probably a song too late for you, Jeff. Not that I think it would’ve worked, either way for you tonight. But it’s the thought that…
I’m lying alone with my head on the phone, thinking of you till it hurts.
Ouch, playlist. Of all their songs, I feel especially bad for playing this one right now. Sorry about that, Jeff. I’m a speaker. I can only play the music, not pick the songs or when to play them.
Air Supply. “All Out of Love.”