This was my hometown: Northampton, Mass. NoHo, the yuppifiers called it, trying to hip it up like some Big Apple of the north, but we changed it to No hos, as in you couldn’t get laid even for money, or No ho ho, as in this town’s punch line sucks. I was seventeen. Weekends and the odd school night I bussed tables at Woody’s Music Hall.
It was my first job, not counting shoveling for old ladies after snow. It wasn’t all bad. They had shows which they served dinner during sometimes jazz, sometimes folk, sometimes blues so you could groove while you were clearing people’s mess.
Different music, different mess, FYI. A blues crowd, if the act was say Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson, was beer and nachos, beer and nachos, all night long. It’s hard to snatch bottles without clanging up a storm, but that music? it’s not like you could tell. Jazz nights were all tiptoeing, hush hush hush, clearing salmon in filo dough, et cetera. Wine glasses, then cappuccino mugs. My favorite were the folkies. They’d have their dirty plates stacked and ready, their silverware gathered in a pile, ’cause they’d worked themselves in the quote-unquote food service industry, ergo they empathized.
One Thursday it’s a singer/songwriter, never heard of her, Cecilia Mays. “Sensuously smart,” claims the poster blurb, according to some paper from Topeka. Her CD’s blah title: I’ll Call You. I walk in as they’re doing the sound check, and there she is, I assume it’s her, on stage.
I’d gotten pierced a month or two before. It was all about distraction.
The hair is what I noticed first ’cause I thought it was a trick of the lighting, this electric force field halo sort of glow but this was sound check, they hadn’t done lights yet. She was tall and stretchy-armed, you could maybe say cowgirlish, like she’d know a thing or two about hogtying. Legs so long I thought of antidisestablishmentarianism.
Her age I had no idea. Parts of her looked totally grown-up, even motherly, but she had pink barrettes in her hair and a Boy Scout thingy tied around her neck. It was like if you took a full deck of people’s fantasies and shuffled them and dealt them all at once.
“Again,” called the techie at the soundboard.
Ceel she told me later to call her that leaned up and kissed her lips to the mike. Clenched her eyes like flinching from a shot. “Mary had a little lamb,” she sang, “little lamb, little lamb” the dumbest song of all time, but her voice, zam! like someone’d struck a match. Raspy to start, then clean blue perfect flame. “Mary had a little lamb, its fleece was white as snow.”
“Hold it,” the sound guy said, tweaking his knobs. He had a mustache and he tweaked its left tip, too. “Okay, again?”
When Ceel looked about to start she saw me. Me, tying on my busboy’s apron. She paused like just an eighth note, then she sang: “You make me so very happy, I’m so glad you came into my life.”
Fuckin’ A! This was a levels check, she was just doodling, but I’d never heard a human sound so good. It was how my own voice sounds inside my dreams.
“Once more,” the pinhead techie said.
Even ballsier this time, she belted it. “You make me so very happy, I’m so glad you came into my life.”
She looked right at me when she sang, and I know this’ll sound dumb but I had a feeling I couldn’t have told it to you then, but two months ago they did this thing to my dad, angioplasty, where they stuck a tube into one of his arteries and inflated it to make more room for blood. That’s what Ceel did to me, just with her eyes. It hurt a sec, then my heart was twice as wide.
Most folks don’t think I’m good-looking, okay? Not unless they like geometry problems. By high school I was used to jokes about combing my hair with an eggbeater and being the one who inspired Picasso to cubism. We did this poetry unit in English, and one exercise was pick a word to describe yourself. It stumped me, then I finally said that I don’t know which exactly, but it’s one of those wig-out words in Czech or Welsh a mess of consonants all jammed up with too few vowels.
I wondered if I’d ever touch a girl. There was this one, sophomore year, who I thought liked me in terms of, you know, “like.” Her name was Cass and she stared at me in chem. While magnesium strips were flaring and Bunsen burners were Bunsening, she stared with just-a-snitch-too-wide-set eyes. When I looked back she didn’t look away. Cool, I thought, she’s dispensed with all the girly-girl charade, maybe here at last I’ve got a shot. One day we were assigned to be lab partners. We gabbed and gabbed, distilling ethanol, and I said something about her stares. She laughed just like the gurgle in the test tubes.
Quick like a snake she came at me, sealed her lips around my nose.
Turns out she’d been watching me ’cause I was “off-kilter.” That’s the word she used. I had an “interestingly off-kilter countenance.” Said I reminded her of a basenji, which I had to look up and which turns out to be some sort of dog. Thanks a lot, Cass! That’s not even a metaphor. “You’re a dog.”
What she was referring to I guess was my ears, which basenjis, according to the little picture in the dictionary, have big ones and so do I. I thought for a while it was a growth spurt thing, that my ears were too big for my skull and my feet were too big for my legs and my nose was too big for everything, but eventually I’d catch up to myself. But now I’m twenty-three, and I’m still all disproportionate. Which in only one way that I can think of is a bonus.
When the techie said “Thanks, Ceel, you’re all set,” I was on my way back to the kitchen. Shaky, sort of, ’cause of that sudden open-sesame rush of blood, wondering had this lady seen the basenji resemblance also, or had she possibly noticed something different? Shaky, too, to be honest, from the three Vivarins I’d chased with Robitussin, ’cause this kid said it makes you roll like Ecstasy. It’s the drugs talking, I told myself. No way she’s flirting.
Busboys at Woody’s set the tables: silverware, salt and pepper, candle lamps. We folded napkins and married ketchup bottles, and if time was left chipped in premaking salads. I saw Luke, my manager, and asked him what was down. He said ketchup, and I was like psych! ’cause you can make believe it’s a Guinness Book contest, balancing the most Heinzes of all time. The crowd goes wild, et cetera. But shaky like this would I be able?
I had grabbed the tray of ketchups when I heard “Hey.” I turned and there she was. Her hair still had this eerie northern-lightsish sort of shine. She stood a good three inches up on me.
“Hey,” she said again. “What’s your name?”
My name, which now I think is pretty cool, but back then used to drive me nuts, is Shem. People always get it wrong. They guess “Shame?” or “Jam?” or just knot their eyebrows and ask again. But Ceel, she nailed it off the bat.
“Shem like ‘name’ in Hebrew, right?”
I mumbled something about yeah, sort of, like what you call God since his real name can’t be spoken. Goofy, but my folks thought it was cool. And that’s when I asked her if she’s Jewish.
She made a joke about the Lost Tribe being a bunch of blond chicks from Indiana. Then she giggled and said, “Nope, I’ve just hung out with lots of Jews. And studied some. Call me a Hebrophile.” She rubbed her thumb down the ridge of my nose, real slow. “And what,” she said, sticking out her tongue, “is this all about?” She tapped the tip so I’d know she meant my stud.
I pulled the fabric down. My fingers shook. I didn’t know what to do.
I’d gotten pierced a month or two before. What it was all about was distraction, so people would have something to focus on besides my face. Distraction for me, too, since playing with a stud is more acceptable than fooling around down south, which at that age, and still now if you’re asking me to be honest, I was wanting to do like all the time.
“It’s new,” I said, dodging her question. “Newish.”
“So you haven’t put it to good use yet?” she said.
“Well, we’ll have to do something about that.”
Luke appeared behind her giving me the hairy eyeball, like, The help shouldn’t mingle with the guests. But at Woody’s the performer’s always right was their big rule, so I eyed him back, like, This was her idea.
Still, I said, “Ms. Mays, I’d better get to work.”
“Cecilia,” she said. “Just call me Ceel. And can I ask you to do something for me, Shem?”
I nodded. There was lots I’d do for her.
“Between sets I’m going to want two shots of Cuervo Gold. Actually, doubles. Could you bring them down to me?”
There’s like a hierarchy, so I said, “That’s usually the waiters. To be honest, it’s not part of my job.”
She stroked my nose again. “Tonight it is.”
My high was nothing much, more of a middle. By showtime it was like a roulette wheel unblurring and you wonder where the ball is going to land.
From the food orders I called the crowd as two parts folky, one part jazz, which I therefore guessed would be Ceel’s playing style. She came out with a battered old twelve-string guitar, and fired up this kickass instrumental. Weird unheard-of half-breed stuff, an Irish jig going down on Charlie Parker. Everyone in the place forgot to chew.
When she started singing there was that voice again, not so much a sound as just a feel, vodka burning your throat, or sun bringing tears to your eyes. She made me think thoughts like that, goofy poem thoughts. Bussing, I couldn’t pay attention to the lyrics, but there was something about “the bloodshot sunset of your stare,” and then a chorus that went, “You’re so mean, you’re so mine, hit me perfect every time.” She sang like there was a knife held at her neck.
Okay, the performers’ lounge? Downstairs, near the bathrooms. A grungy old couch and a thin remnant rug and a sink with a mildew-zitted mirror, which if you ask me is like rich folks wearing jeans with holes and shit. Like, We’re so loaded it doesn’t matter how we dress. At Woody’s it was, We’re so cool we never suck up to the stars. Not that stars per se were on our concert circuit, but there were photos of Lyle Lovett and Tracey Chapman on the walls, plenty of folks who later hit it big.
I’d only been down there after shows, sweeping. But I told Luke about Ceel’s asking me specific, so here I was, two Cuervos on my tray. Fraidy-shaking, Richter six-point-nine.
“Knock knock.” I said it, since both hands were on the tray.
She opened the door and zam! shut it behind us. She took both of the glasses from the tray. “Here,” she said, handing me one and clicking hers against it, like dice in someone’s palm before they’re rolled.
“We’re not supposed to drink during shift,” I almost said, or “I shouldn’t,” something equally good and lame, but she called “Go!” and down the hatch it went.
She looked different now. Her skin? Performing had done something, how a hot shower opens up your pores. Her shirt was undone three buttons, and I wondered was she going to change for the second set? Sweat streaks at her sides had the shape of lightning bolts. I smelled the smell of something breaking free.
“Has anyone told you how beautiful you are?” she asked.
“No,” I answered honestly.
“You are. You’re so fucking beautiful.”
Quick like a snake she came at me, sealed her lips around my nose. She covered up my mouth too with her hand. I couldn’t breathe and yanked at it, but she was strong from strumming. She had me muffled tight, shrink-wrapped with skin.
“No,” I yelped it came out more like “Wow.”
I’d used up all my breath; my lungs were crisp. I reached up to her hand and tugged again. But something in the heat of her mouth said just relax. Her tongue felt like “Shh, it’s okay.” I let my fingers loose and tried to chill. Somehow then she breathed for me, blowing air into my nose, letting me exhale into her mouth. Our breath made figure-eights, infinities.
When she let go I thought it would be a relief, but it wasn’t. Breathing on my own had sort of lost its point. She moved up to my ear and, like maybe she was sleeping, she made these long slow silky in-and-outs. “Beautiful beautiful beautiful,” she whispered as she blew, “beautiful,” like that was just her breath.
“The whole time I was singing,” she said, “I was watching the way you move. You’re so unaware of your stunningness, aren’t you?”
Her hair spilled all around me, prickly. I felt like I was on a bed of coals, voodoo-walking.
“This girl said I look like a basenji,” I tried to say, but Ceel pushed me down and made me kneel. “Open them,” she said, meaning her jeans.
I unzipped her and pulled the fabric down. My fingers shook. I didn’t know what to do.
She took my index finger like a pen between her own and moved it in small loops inside herself. The word autograph popped into my head. “There,” she said and suddenly quit tracing. It was just the size and shape of my piercing’s silver ball. “There,” she said again. “Now use your tongue.”
And so my mouth was on her and I flicked the metal stud. I tickled it against its little twin. I blew out while I did it, whispering “beautiful” just like her. She pinched me on the neck until it killed.
When she was done she lifted me up and licked my lips all clean. “See?” she said. “You see how good you are?”
Then she smiled wide and knelt and undid me. “Oh yes,” she said, pulling it out. “Yes yes. I had a hunch. The nose knows.”
She used her lips and tongue and her hot breath. Her hair spilled all around me, prickly. I felt like I was on a bed of coals, voodoo-walking. Like I was getting away with murder. Like I was holy.
“You’re perfect raw,” she said. “Raw just the way God made you.” She took a bite that left marks on my skin.
I was close, which I guess she knew ’cause she spun me toward the mirror. “Watch your face,” she said. “Are you watching?”
I hate mirrors, but said yes and forced myself. When it went way down her throat, way way past impossible, I swear I felt her fucking voice around me, that crazy wildfire wicked breakneck voice. I was where her songs came from, her livelihood. Thinking of that that she’d let me in the place that made her her I knew I couldn’t hold it in much longer.
She paused for air. “Watch,” she said. “Keep watching!”
As she swallowed me again my eyes unfocused, then snapped back. All the sudden I was facing a new face. Like she’d dunked the empty page of me in some developer until zam! the invisible ink came through. The secret that had been there all along.
“See?” she said after. “Beautiful.”
She’d done this kickass thing to me, this revelation thing, but I felt like I’d done it to myself. I was seventeen. I thought I’d just been born.
“Five minutes, Ms. Mays,” Luke said outside the door.
We zipped up quick and splashed our faces clean.
There was Cuervo on my breath, which I worried Luke might smell, and something sharp I hoped would always stay.
She walked to him and planted a big kiss smack on his lips, a kiss that must have tasted all of me.
“Ceel,” I said.
She raised a stop-sign palm.
“Don’t forget,” she said. “Just don’t forget.”
She opened the door but Luke was gone. A different guy stood staring at the floor. He looked up, and this saying of my dad’s came to my mind, “throwing good money after bad.” He’d bought high then sold low was how he looked.
“Evan,” said Ceel. “You said tomorrow.”
“Dinner was cancelled. I thought I’d drive when there’s no traffic.”
“Well, great, then. Well, what a nice surprise.”
She said it in a businessy politeness sort of voice, and I figured he must be her manager. But she walked to him and planted a big kiss smack on his lips, a kiss that must have tasted all of me. “I missed you, babe,” she said. “I missed you hard.”
His face woke up, a brand-new-penny gleam. “You’re so mean, you’re so mine,” rang in my head. I was wondering would she introduce me but she just kissed him again, then started up the stairs holding his hand. She stopped after two steps and turned to me. “Hey Shem, can you have them put some seltzer on the stage? I think I feel a tickle in my throat.”
It was the last thing I’d ever hear from her.
She looked at me, or close to me, sort of hard to tell, a couple of times during the second set. But afterwards I had to turn the chairs all up and mop. By then she was long gone with what’s-his-name.
I snuck her number from Luke’s Rolodex. I called and left my pertinent info. And called again, every few weeks, even though she never answered, just to hear the voice on her machine.
The last time I tried was a couple of years later, when “His Name Was Shame” was climbing up the charts. Some PR-sounding lady picked up on Ceel’s end, and I was too embarrassed to explain. She offered to send a photo. I said nah.
But none of that, to be honest, really mattered. Not anyway as I watched Ceel from the doorway of the lounge, tasting my own future on my tongue. She had said not to forget, and I wouldn’t. Every time I saw a mirror, I’d remember. Tick tick, went the silver of the stud against my teeth, like a clock keeping some new kind of time. n°