‘Round Midnight (19. Road tripped)

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I should have stayed in Urbana. I’m overnight in St Louis with Akira. Separate rooms to prove a point. Akira is my agent, not my lover. She’s very good at both.

Tonight I’m channeling Yorick.

Akira was a chatterbox on the way down. She’s a little like Pagan, but not as philosophical, having never understood the magic of sex magic. She was just in it for the sex, and she wasn’t as lucky as me. She fell pregnant twice. Her daughter is 14 now and lives with her mother. The second pregnancy was terminated.

Motherhood never suited her.

She didn’t stick with a single partner, eventually settling on a preference for women. She can only guess who her daughter’s father was. There are three possibilities, but she looks so much like her mother that there is no trace of any of the possible fathers in her appearance.

Akira loves talking about sex.

She loves everything about sex. She was dressed down, but everything about her was on display. Her coat was off in the car, and her blouse was unbuttoned two more than propriety defined. Sexy satin bra meant to be shown off. Tight jeans, heels. At the wheel, I wore a maroon parka, black tights, and Uggs.

Prude.

Akira sat twisted in her seat, preferring a view of me to the boredom of I-55. Where was I on Monday? She’d been trying to phone me all day. I was in bed with Pagan from noon Monday to noon on Tuesday, breaking only for pizza. I don’t remember sleeping, but I must have. I felt rejuvenated when I left. I had confirmed my sexuality.

I didn’t tell her that. I would rather she guessed.

I’m guesting on trumpet with Gus’ regular quartet for a concert, rather than my usual bar gigs. I’m in shiny black tights with a loose satin blouse, white with a grape hyacinth print, unbuttoned to reveal the top of a lacy blue camisole. At least, that’s how the concert started. The blouse didn’t make it into the second set, nor did my flats. I just can’t play with shoes on.

Pagan is in the audience, aisle seat, row eight. I mentioned the gig to him yesterday, and he hasn’t heard me play in 8 or 9 years. He catches my eye with an overtly sexual gesture related to my breasts, one that only I would recognize. Like Jimmy, he is obsessed by them. He wants to suck on my nipples. Call me, he signals.

I call him as soon as I finish.

Come to my room.

Even in professional mode Akira oozes sensuality. I resolve to introduce them, so he understands what I’m up against. Our rooms are adjacent, and she will linger as long as I let her. At my door, she’s dressed down again, one more button seems to have popped. Metallic lippy. Barefoot. Arms around me and on fire. Pagan knocks.

Any friend of mine is a friend of Akira’s. They hug. She whispers something in his ear. Another button pops, only one left. Did she do that herself? He has champagne. He knows it goes right to my head.

He pours three glasses. We drink. We laugh. We laugh a lot. Akira’s last button has gone. She whispers something to him.

I’m tired, I think I’ll turn in, she says. Hugs all around. He’s unhooked her bra, and it only loosely covers her breasts. Well! She doubles over laughing. It isn’t covering much anymore. Nipples. More laughs. He’d won a dare. She leaves.

He undresses me, sucks on my nipples. We roll. He likes me on top. He likes it noisy. I oblige.

That’s all. He has to go.

I crawl back into the still warm bed. Heavy breathing. Moaning. Akira, next door. Yes, oh, yes, she pants. Yes. She’s not alone. Pagan gasps. Oh fuck. Akira squeals in ecstasy. Pagan growls. He’s never done that with me. It passes. I close my eyes. Cry a little.

A rhythmic noise wakens me. Not again. Headboard banging. Akira must know that her headboard is up against the wall by mine. I think she orgasmed twice this time, the second time with him. I cry a little harder. They talk, not quite loud enough for me to hear. They must have been inches away from me through the wall. They are talking about me, about fucking me, I think.

Are they comparing notes?

I stop trying to listen. It’s late and I need to drive home in the morning. I dose off.

They wake me again. She’s on top. I recognize Pagan’s familiar purring, but he’s lit her fire. Her deep alto groans bleed with ecstasy, enough even to arouse me. She climaxes. I don’t. Then Pagan. They talk more, something about her breasts, her legs. Me. They aren’t just talking. She’s sitting against the headboard. It shudders. I know what he’s doing. He’s done that to me.

She wants him to stay. I hear her door click shut around 5 am. I cry until my alarm goes off. Breakfast at 8 and then drive. She reeks of Pagan, even after a shower. In the car, she seems uninterested in me, wearing a short skirt, tight T, no bra. Quiet, but not asleep. She glows.

He’s entered her.

I’m alone again. Pagan has left the building.

‘Round Midnight (15. A Kiss, and more, Stolen)

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Ba-dom ba da deet da
Ba-dum ba da doot da

Yorick kicks off Bird week with A Night in Tunisia. I should have thought ahead more, as I’m too distracted for a whole evening of bebop, ridiculous tempos, chord, chord, chord, chordity, chord, chord.

… this is npr news with Dave Mattingly …

Someone set an alarm for an ungodly hour this morning. I was spooned with Aoki, in her underwear, cotton, prudish, bun was in my face. I was sans jeans. I don’t remember taking them off. The other couch was empty. Someone was in my bedroom. I was too sleepy to care.

O’Leary plays a stonking solo, and I’m up. Unlike this morning.

Next thing I knew was that someone kissed me. Asami? No. Aoki. Asami was back in my arms hot and sweaty, asleep. Silk underwear, no bun, tousled hair. Another kiss, Akira, she licked my lips. That was so fucking sexy. She kissed Asami on the forehead. I could smell my shampoo in Akira’s hair as it brushed my face.

Concentrate Cassie!

Chords are flying by. There goes one, and another. Play a single line solo and catch up with the left hand. O’Leary will notice all these foreign substitutions. Cover up those mistakes.

Shit.

I woke again pinned under Asami. Her bra had unhooked, or someone had unhooked it while she slept. Skin on skin, well, no. I was still tidy in my t-shirt. My bra was off, though. Someone had removed it.

Damn, I lost count. I have to fake it back in after Zip’s drum solo. Play the head, and get our of here. Ornithology is next. I’m so fucked.

Someone kissed me. A long one. I give her a hug, and I’m out again.

Click.

That was Asami leaving. The clock said 8 am. I roll over, someone has put a blanket on me. I’m alone. Off to my bed. Musky. I only just washed the sheets on Monday. Damp? I don’t know. At that point, I didn’t care. I needed at least two more hours of sleep.

Booba dooba deedle dodalyoodo,
booba dooba doobat deet, ba doodah, dee ah-da

Struggle through that piano break, finish the head. Solo. I’m up first. Damn! So many chords. More single line solos. I wish I had my trumpet tonight. Akira’s here, sitting at the table by my bare feet.

That was some kiss. She stole part of me, my inhibition? My shortest black mini is on (barely), serious skin tonight. As much cleavage as I can muster. (Strappy crop halter, maroon.) Shoes off. Both Aoki and Asami have gigs tonight.

Akira had sex with Asami in my bed. Aoki was with me. I’m jealous. Am I? Should I be?

Pay attention, O’Leary is killin’ it. Keep up, idiot! I glance down at Akira. She’s rocking cleavage tonight, too. We seemed to be thinking alike, laced up corset (scarlet satin), sexy black slacks. Our colors clash.

Shit, wrong substitutions in Yorick’s solo. I’m stepping all over them tonight. A quick look out in the crowd. No VIPs that I can see. Scrapple from the Apple is next, not so fast, but still up-tempo. I so need a ballad, or a break, but not yet.

Asami in bed with Akira.

Did Aoki know? She must have, since she was with me. Did she approve? Who undressed me?

Akira had to. I’m a light-sleeper most of the night. I’m surprised I didn’t awaken. Asami wouldn’t have dared. Akira was making trouble. That kiss. That corset.

Aoki? Not a chance.

It is so hot on the floor tonight. Sweaty, or is that just me? Akira dangles a pinkie along her cleavage. She did that on purpose. Why do I care?

Me het.

Me distracted, disturbed. Horny.

Yuck! That didn’t work. Strange substitution, stranger voicing. More like Scrambled Eggs. I suck tonight. Just make it to the break, Cassie, and go have a wank in the ladies. The tie falls out of my hair. I’m such a mess. I’m raw.

Pan-sexual, pandemic pandemonium. Panda.

Panda? He’s a famous baseball player, standing in the wings with Jimmy. I think he’s with the Giants now. They go way back. He’s a VIP. Maybe we should be playing some salsa tonight instead.

The set ends. I run to the bar for a beer. Akira follows. She stands close. Way close. She’s fucking with my head. Arm around my shoulders. What’s up? You seem out of it tonight. Not enough sleep last night. She pulls me tighter, her breasts hot against mine. Don’t worry, she says. Hugs me, stroking my mostly bare back. I can still smell my shampoo in her hair. She squeezes. One of her legs is between mine. Erg, there, up against me. Ooh!

Do not have an orgasm. Do not have an orgasm. Do not … not here.

Fuck.

Back on stage now with damp panties. I suppose that was better than pleasuring myself in the ladies. At least, I feel a little more relaxed now. She knew exactly what I needed, even if it wasn’t her place to give it. I hope nobody noticed. Damn! Michael Columbine is sitting in the back. Did he hear that travesty of a set? I don’t think so. No drinks on his table. Who is he sitting with?

Of course, the next set begins with Anthropology, and we take it at lightning speed, even faster than Parker. Fly through the head, live in O’Leary’s brain, anticipate, deliver. My turn, ultra-chromatic, slithering substitutions, stay in the moment, go nuts a bit, go nuts more, bring it down low for Yorcik, who starts with a splattering of harmonics, I paint back a few coloristic chords in the stratosphere. He’s like playing in half-time while we speed along, then rips into a sublime walking wonderland, clearing the way for Zip, who hints at half-time for a chorus on his cymbols, I throw in a chord change or two, then he’s full speed ahead, quotes some Louis Prima, but a lot faster, then we are back into the head to close it out.

Welcome back. O’Leary whispers in my ear. Yes, I’m back. All of me is on stage and in the moment. Fuck Akira.

I look down at her. She smiles.

I want to take my clothes off.

(For me. Not for her.) Reason prevails.

The piano bench is slick with my sweat. (At least, that is what I’ll admit to.) Michael and his guest stay for the third set as well. He made sure that I knew he was there, but didn’t make a move to introduce me to his companion.

Who was that with him?

Akira drives me home. We don’t speak of what happened, and yes, she did undress me last night, but Asami insisted she leave my t-shirt on. Maybe she was right. I was vulnerable.

Tonight, Akira took that advantage.

‘Round Midnight (14. Sleepover)

Late for lunch, not a good impression.

Am I trying to impress Aoki?

Prairie Moon moved a block away, and I hadn’t been there for a while. Round and round she goes, where she stops … couldn’t find a parking space. The old place had their own spaces.

Nobody knows …

… the trouble I’ve seen
Nobody knows my sorrow

A hug … a long one. Didn’t expect that. Sorry, couldn’t find a space. No problem. Black wool sweater, tights, tartan skirt. If that is her dressed down, I’m hopeless. Blue 501’s, Michael Brecker T, unbuttoned floral blouse, hanging loose.

When I dress down, I really do dress down. At least I wasn’t wearing a ripped up T with paint splotches. That would have been me on Monday.

I like your hair that way. Hanging loose. It gets in the way when I play. Hers was in a tight bun. I don’t really like buns, but I wasn’t going to say that. It looked good on her, and that is what counts. Buns, braids, pigtails – not my scene. Something to drink? Tea. Two teas. I needed the caffeine. I hadn’t been up long, home at 3 am last night. That’s why I rarely bring the Rhodes to Jimmy’s.

Awkward silence.

How long have you lived around here? Thank God! I grew up in Wilmette, moved back to Evanston after grad. school, what about you? Lived in Tokyo until I was 10, then Seattle, went to Julliard, and then settled here when Asami landed her job at Lyric. We are both teaching at Northwestern. That’s how she knew Freddie.

And what would you like to eat. Saved by the waitress. I like their burgers. Aoki is a little more adventurous, choosing something Tex-Mex.

More silence.

I think we are too much alike, she says. I laugh. She’s so right. Too shy one-on-one. We have completely different backgrounds, but we have ended up in the same place, both the hopeless love interest of gay women. Akira is smitten by Aoki. I could see the connection, but it was a much more mature relationship than mine with Asami.

That loosened up the atmosphere, and we chatted non-stop through lunch, about Asami, their string quartet, Akira, and their accidental hot and heavy fumble after a party. They have been like sisters ever since.

It will happen. Expect it.

I’ll try anything once. Well, not drugs, or skydiving (afraid of heights), or … yes, there are probably a lot of things I will only do once. Sex with Yorick. That will never happen, not even once. He tried it once with Ophelia, and never again. She ruined him. She ruined me.

Aoki goes to Yorick’s church. They have good music there, and he is a good preacher. I’ve never been. It would be too hard. Playing four gigs with him a week, as well as rehearsals, is already too much for my fragile self-esteem. He’s a great bass player, but he may have to give it up someday. That will be tough on both of us. For now, his pastor indulges him. Alas, Yorick is the love of my life. Aoki knows my darkest secret now, more than Asami.

Perhaps that is something I should keep from her. Aoki agrees. What if I fall in love with a man? I ask. She doesn’t have an answer. We are in the same predicament.

We fight over the check. Aoki wins.

It’s half-past-three and the place is empty, except us. May I see your apartment, she asks. It’s a mess, I say. Doesn’t matter. It really is a mess. I’m too busy to keep it clean. It’s a two bedroom apartment in a small block just off Dempster. I’ve been there since I moved to Evanston. I could probably afford to upgrade, or even buy a place, but I don’t have time to look.

At least the living room is relatively tidy.

May I look around? Knock yourself out. I’m a slob, mustn’t hide it. She receives a text, and sends a quick one back. Asami is coming. (I didn’t have any choice in the matter.) Maybe we could all have dinner. My music is all over the dining room table. We’ll call out for pizza, and eat in the living room.

Is she trying to embarrass me?

I’m getting Asami over here under neutral pretenses, she said. Reading my mind.

In private Aoki is a chatterbox, after she accepts you. She’s intrigued by all the keyboards in my second bedroom. I practice there, with headphones. I couldn’t get a piano up to the second floor, and it wouldn’t fit easily into the apartment anyway. I’ll get a baby grand when I buy a place. For now it’s just a Yamaha electric. The Rhodes stays in the car. It’s too heavy to move on my own, and wouldn’t be easy to steal. I also have to describe my array of trumpets: Bb, C, D, Picc., German Bb, Flugelhorn, cornet, as well has a closet full of mutes.

Asami arrives, another embarrassing tour, more explanations. A hug, but she never lets go of my hand. I’ve got to learn Japanese, if I’m going to keep up. I’m a spectator, once they get started. They are clearly talking about me. Another text. Akira’s off from work. She’s going to join us.

Better order some pizza.

More hugs and kisses. Akira arrives, and she demands they speak English. Her Japanese isn’t fluent. She’s a Chicago native. Besides, it isn’t polite. We eat, we drink, we chatter, Asami is asleep in my lap, Aoki in Akira’s. We whisper a little.

We are comfortable.

Akira nods off. Asami shifts. I can reach the lamp, so I can switch it off. Asami envelops me.

It’s a sleepover.

‘Round Midnight (12. Obsessed, under-dressed)

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45 minutes late, no time to change. Asami’s string quartet CD release today.

I’m late, I’m late
for a very important date.

Wow! Um, wait, that’s not Asami. It’s her identical twin. Sorry I’m late. Nice to meet you, hand shaken, shaky hands. Clammy hands, mine. Never been to Asami’s house before. Dare not take off my Parka. 6 degrees outside, hot within.

I’m not talking about temperature, nor of separation.

Asami takes my hand, my coat. Recording session today, no time to stop. She hugs, reassures. Mortified. I should be wearing a dress, like Aoki’s little scarlet number, or a power suit, like Asami. I’m casual, man. Tight black cords, white halter with blue unicorns. (I like unicorns.) I should have at least worn a wrap over it.

She takes my arm, meet my mum. (She introduces me in Japanese.) Mum is polite, demur, shakes my clammy hand. Disapproves, mildly more than Aoki. Asami puts her arm around my waist, as if to prove a point. That’s her mum, alienated on first meeting.

Agent next, Akira, tall, beautiful, little black number, legs for miles, almost as long as mine, but not thin like my toothpicks. Friendly, she wants to talk to me, but Asami wants to show me off. I’m not her lover, but the house is full of beautiful women, mostly Asian, a few men. My gaydar stuck on a low rumble.

Asami touches everyone, hugs a few, keeps me in tow. Aoki stares. At me. Daggers? She’s not a toucher.

How did my session go? What? Asami asks, finishing the introductions.

Amazing, I’ll tell you about it later. Can you come to my gig tonight? After hers. She always has a Friday symphony concert. Maybe second set. Hopefully. Aoki still watching, she plays in Asami’s quartet, first violin.

Can I come? Akira whisks Asami away. Yes. Gaydar activated. Come for the second set, I say. I’ll come for the whole evening. I’ll bring Aoki, too. Aoki and Akira? No. Aoki full-blooded het. Aoki is curious about me.

I can feel her eyes boring into my back.

What? Akira still talking to me, hand on my elbow. Who represents you? Booking service? You’re going to need an agent, slips her card in my hand. Asami has spoken about me. I’m about to hit it big.

Asami didn’t know half of it. We recorded three of my charts today as possible fillers. The band decided to make Breathe the title track. All will be on the album. Gus said bring three, we might put one on. We’ll play two of them in the second set tonight.

Etienne Boissart on bass, Jamar Williams on drum, international stars. We are getting equal billing. “Rumor” has it that they will show up and play in the second set tonight.

BREATHE

Gus Ferrante  Cassandra Sommer
Etienne Bossart, Jamar Williams

It’s nominally a quartet (not the Gus Ferrante quartet, as I expected), but I’m playing piano on everything, trumpet on 5 charts, and singing on two. (There are two of me.) That was a surprise. The decision was unanimous, and it was Gus’ suggestion. That why I was delayed. We needed the producer’s blessing.

I’ve got to go, Asami says, a demolished plate of food in her hands. Hug, kiss. See you later. Have some food. Plenty to go around.

I’m alone in a crowd. Akira still at my side. I don’t know anyone else in the room. I should. I’ve played opera gigs with some of them. I’m not really part of this scene anymore.

Do you want a lift tonight? Aoki appears, didn’t see her approach. I’m not on until 9. She insists. Akira will come with us. Do you need to change? Was that a suggestion, or a legitimate question? If anything, I needed less on. Jimmy’s heats up with a full house. The regulars would expect a mini and lots of skin.

Be Cassie, Cassie.

Gus said that to me ten minutes into yesterday’s session. I was trying accompany rather than be myself.

Dare to be Cassie, Cassie.

Yes, I’ll need to change. They are picking me up at 7:30. Sweats to keep warm; they’ll come off when the show starts. Tighty whitey on top with loose tank, which won’t last the night. Flowery on the bottom. That’s for Asami. Matching blue panties. (They will need to match if I play some trumpet on Gus’ piece. Stacey will be there, just in case to play keys.)

Jimmy’s is seething when we arrive. The word spread like wildfire. I find Aoki and Akira a table near the stage. Warm up a little on the piano, and Yorick lets it rip: A Night in Tunisia. O’Leary is a God, magic flows everywhere in anticipation. Gus was his teacher, so O’Leary doesn’t mind him sitting in. Aoki and Akira diggin’.

Set over, still no Asami. She hasn’t heard me with O’Leary yet.

We start the second with Green Dolphin Street. Asami squeezes into the front table. Hey, look who is in the audience tonight. O’Leary points out Gus, Etienne, and Jamar, inviting them to the stage. Just out of the studio today, would you mind playing a couple numbers for us. The cameras flash. That was the cue for Gus to wail out the intro of Breathe.

La Me La Mi

Gus is sublime tonight, perhaps better than in the studio, and the band sizzles. My solo incandescent. Asami in tears of joy. We are straight into Aftershock, and we hit the stratosphere, my ultra-chromatic solo drives the inferno, Jamar and Etienne feed the chaos, and Gus shocks us back into the key with the head. This went about twice as long as the recording and it was worth it. O’Leary is back on stage, Stacey takes over the keys, and I pick up my horn for Gus’ Irreverent, which isn’t on the album, but we’ve all played it. That’s the end of the set, but the crowd won’t let us go. Jamar kicks off a lightning fast version of Airegin, and then we are done. The crowd is on its feet. Jimmy is electric. The is the best publicity he has had in a while.

The tank comes off for the final set. Nobody has left, not even the guests. They are sitting with Asami & co. We kick the final set off with ‘Round Midnight as usual. O’Leary weaves his spell, but tonight I take a trumpet solo. O’Leary sits down at the piano for some rudimentary comping. We finish with the head together, accompanied by just the bass. I motion for Stacey to come back to the piano, so we can play my original, Blitz. It’s another lightning quick burner with lots of solos.

It’s time for my solo spot. I take a seat back at the piano. I was going to improvise on a standard, but instead I decide to make it all up as I go, intensely chromatic, with a driving rhythm, I double the time and modulate up a half-step and let it rip. I’ve found a cool four chord pattern and Yorick picks out my bass line. Zip joins the fray. O’Leary plays a note to find my key, we burn the house down with solos, and I’m on my feet boogie-ing to a climax (literally I’m nearly there), and we explode into more chaos, and I wind it up on my own.

Be fucking Cassie, Cassie!

Time is up, so I pick up my trumpet again for a rousing Straight, No Chaser to close out the night, again with a wacky solo, since the piano bench is empty. Again, they won’t let us go, so we give them Chick’s Spain to send them home.

Asami can’t contain herself afterwards, throwing herself at me. Akira embraces and reminds me to phone her. Have I convinced Aoki? She shakes my hand, but smiles this time. Asami drives me home. Had I asked her up, she would have come.

But I knew better.

‘Round Midnight (7. So What?)

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It’s Commando Tuesday again, and I’ve brought my trumpet. Must not forget myself and dance too hard or too suggestively while I’m playing. Then it really would be X-rated. It may be alright uptown and fully clothed, but flashing here needs to be an accident.

I haven’t done Eye of the Hurricane in a while. The keyboard part is simple once we get to the solos, so I can play some trumpet at the same time.

Now is not the time to go nuts. Yorick is back, but Pete Cimbalest is on drums. He’s a muthafucka, as Miles would say, and there is some Miles coming up next. After the head, an acoustic piano solo, with clavinova accents.

Pete’s tasty, in more ways than one, but he’s married. I’m referring to his playing. We are flying.

Wee doo wee do wee
Do ba dot do ba do-wee
ba di do dil a doot
ba-dot di-dot do-dot squee

sklibble di do-scarittery slooda lobby robby do … chord .. chord, chord

Yorick’s walkin’, but Pete’s like playin’ a melody with his cymbals, hot! The crowd is digging it. Gotta answer. That’s it, this is going crazy, modulating all over the place. It will be a trip to find a way back to F minor, but I get there, just in time for Yorick’s solo.

Relax, let them do the work. Warm up the horn a little. Watch it! They are pushing the tempo, and it is already fast. Play a few chords on the piano to bring Yorick home. Man that was a hot fill, Pete! My turn, start in the stratosphere and quiet down, but Pete’s not letting me. That’s not time, it’s like outer-space, even Zorick’s walking is other-worldly, and it is so heating up. This is like Miles’ Bitches Brew, it’s like bitchin’, and I can’t help but throw my body around.

Back up in the stratosphere, twerking away, giving the audience a show. Don’t face them. Don’t do it! No! This is so fucking hot. The audience explodes.

I did it. Fully exposed undergrowth. Slam a few chords down on the piano. Jimmy’s in the wings. I hope there weren’t any police in the house tonight, just military, just on fire. They are still roaring, and I can’t stop.

This devil has taken hold, and I’m on autopilot. Will this solo never end? Pete’s pushing me through another chorus and Yorick’s eye’s are firmly shut. My mini is glued to my sweating hips in the back. That’s why Pete’s driving so hard. I’m giving him a private show.

I have a recording of Herbie doing this live for a half hour, and we’re pushing that right up to the minute.

Sklee ba diddle-e do scrawba do ba doo, rickety kat kattery jiggery dooba do, ba doo

Another notey stratospheric blistering note dump to make the turn. Please let me hand it to Pete, but he pushes me for one more chorus, bringing it down to nothing. He starts his solo almost silently. The audience draws a collective breath. I sit down at the piano again, straightening my mini, drenched in sweat, my cammy leaving little to the imagination of the gawping crowd. Pete, in turn, builds his solo masterfully to a fiery climax, with Yorick and me joining in at the turn.

I give the signal, and we are back in the head, but Pete won’t let it go, Yorick follows, and Pete points to my trumpet. The crowd roars. Nobody has drunk a drop during this excursion. I repeat the head on my horn this time, and we re-enter the inferno, with me twerking, dancing, jumping around and exposing myself for all to see.

Shit. Did I just have an orgasm?

It’s hard to catch my breath. Yes, I did. In full view. The mayhem subsides. I’m spent. I’m not just soaked, I’m raining, glistening with sweat as if I’ve just run a race. The tie has fallen out of my hair.

I’m a mess.

35 minutes, not time for a break yet. Maybe I should just strip down. It’s not like they would see anything more … well … maybe my breasts … yeah my nipples are so hard they hurt … they aren’t missing anything.

Gasp.

OK, what’s up next? Miles. Yorick starts the bass riff.

I’m a fucking exhibitionist. Great! I start this one off on trumpet, too. Maybe if I just stick with Miles’ solo, I’ll be able to control myself.

I stand. The crowd roars, and I haven’t even played a note. Yes, and my skirt is sticking to my belly. Should I give them a little belly dance? I shouldn’t have, but I did, and Jimmy saw it all. I’m toast. That freed my skirt.

At least, he is smiling, and the crowd is drinking again. Time for Miles to give his exquisite eternal shrug. My favorite piece.

So What?

Alice in my dreams

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I remember the first time I saw her. I was six, and on my first visit to London. My mom had taken me to Hanleys in Covent Garden to buy me a toy. Now, I can’t recall what it was, but on the way back to the hotel there was an emergency on the Underground train.

She was so beautiful with shoulder length red hair and a slight curl. She wore an almost shockingly demur shoulderless scarlet dress and carried a discreet briefcase. I say shockingly because it should have seemed sexy with her bare shoulders. It was elegant rather than sexy. She was a princess rather than a floozy.

She delivered a baby. A girl. They were right in front of us in the car, and the baby was very premature. I only know that because it was on the news. My parents were obsessed by the BBC and it was on all the time we were in the hotel room.

Concert Pianist Delivers Baby in Tube.

Her name was Penelope Spring. My mother was also a pianist and knew her vaguely. They had both played at a competition as accompanists a few years earlier. She was tall and thin, and probably on her way to a gig, or a rehearsal. She reminded me of one of the angels in the proscenium of Wigmore Hall. Mom had played there the night before.

Mom tried to shield me from the scene, but I saw it all. The water, the blood, and the tiny baby with goo all over her. It put me off having babies a little. I haven’t really had the chance to test that, since one requires a man’s involvement. No, I’m not a virgin, but even at 26, I haven’t been with a man longer than six months.

I was devastated when she died in a plane crash a couple years later. The plane lost pressure and plunged into Lake Erie.

I saw it.

I was living in the east suburbs of Cleveland at the time, right near the lake shore, not far from where I live now. During recess, there was a boom, and I looked up, only to see the plane disintegrate on the way down. No one survived. A few days later, it was announced that she was on the flight. I’ve been obsessed with her ever since, especially when I learned that we had the same birthday. I own all her recordings. Some are out of print, but my mom had them. There is something eternal in her playing, something that moves the soul. Transforms it.

Now that I’m a working pianist, too, I listen to them anytime I need inspiration. I wish there were more.

Why is this important to me now? She saved my life when I was 12. It was a simple thing. My parents were taking me to a Cleveland Orchestra concert and I had become separated from them. A young woman stopped me from stepping into the street just as a bus careened past. I would surely have been dead.

She looked younger than before, but it was surely her. Maybe she was 15 or 16. She told me off for trying to go into a busy street without looking and helped me find my parents who were actually quite nearby. It was unmistakably her, although mom said she saw a resemblance, but it couldn’t be her.

She recognized me, too. I am sure of it.

That was 14 years ago. I can’t be certain, but I feel like I have seen her again several times. Never close up until today. I was out running in a Metropark, when I started approaching a woman running ahead of me. She ran with a weird gait, almost silently, as if she was struggling to keep in contact with the ground. I could tell that she could run much faster than she was. I thought I was bold with my running attire, but she was wearing about as little as she could without being obscene: a purple running bra with matching tight shorts. She was perfectly muscled, lightly tanned, and her red hair was pulled back in a ponytail.

I was training for a 10K trail race, so I was pushing hard, but she made it look so easy. Our builds were similar, although I was a little taller, not quite a Nordic amazon, too thin, with blonde hair and blue eyed, and I tanned a more golden color. I was the image of my mom in her twenties.

I think she heard me coming up behind her, because she took off, apparently not wanting to be passed. I was pushing a little harder than I should trying to catch her, and not paying much attention to the terrain. We were running through the forest along a cliff edge, when I tripped on a branch and rolled towards the cliff.

She caught me.

I don’t know how she reacted so quickly. One instant she was 20 feet ahead of me, the next she was between me and the cliff.

She flew. No, I don’t believe it either, but that is the only explanation short of teleportation.

Alice, she said her name was. Alice Forlaine.

“Emily Dewhurst,” I gasped, still in shock. She was the same girl who had saved me in Cleveland.

She remembered me. “I have an eidetic memory,” she explained. “I remember everything.”

“Alice,” I started. I remembered something vaguely. I had heard of a girl named Alice when I was in high school who was an amazing pianist, but had never taken a lesson. She could read anything at sight and memorize it. Alice Forlaine. She was a few years ahead of me. “You aren’t the pianist from …”

“I’m not a pianist,” she interrupted. “I do play, but not professionally.”

“I’ve heard about you. We went to the same high school.”

“Maybe.” She obviously didn’t want to talk about it.

“Did you know you look just like Penelope Spring?”

“Who?” I could tell she was lying. She knew.

“The pianist who died in a plane crash about 18 years ago. My mother knew her. She was the body-model for Lana Forlaine – from the video game. You must have heard of her.”

“Actually, my name is Lana Alice Forlaine, but I go by Alice, so people don’t ask me about the game. I’m rubbish at it. My old housemate played all the time.”

“You look amazingly like her.”

“Lana, or what’s her name …?”

“What happened to your eidetic memory?”

“Penelope Spring. If I look like one, I look like the other, well, without the digital breast enhancements. Are you OK? If so, I need to get on with my run. I’ve got 15 more miles to do before it gets dark.” She had told me too much and was trying to get away.

“Do you want to have dinner together? I owe you. You just saved my life … again.”

“Do you like pizza? Do you know Luigi’s?”

“Yes. How about 8 o’clock? That will give me a chance to shower.”

She sprinted off, almost not waiting for my answer. Luigi’s seemed like an odd place. The pizza was good, but one didn’t normally eat in there. There were only three tables, and I had only ever sat at one while I was waiting for a takeout. It also wasn’t in a great part of town. I finished my run, rather more carefully than I had started. I’d had only a couple more miles to run, then it was home for a shower and dinner. I didn’t know what to wear. A dress was too formal. Tights and a black sleeveless blouse with ties at the top. A little cleavage, which was about all that I could boast anyway.

Why was that an issue? I was having dinner with someone who looked exactly like a person who I adored, that had died 18 years earlier. I wasn’t on a date.

I arrived early and sat at the table furthest from the counter. I didn’t want to be overheard. It also gave me a good view of the door. Alice arrived, looking even more apprehensive than before. She was even more beautiful than Penelope was the first time I saw her. We had almost dressed to match, although her blouse was shoulderless, much like the scarlet dress. Simple, but this time, hot. She didn’t want to be there. We ordered drinks and a pepperoni pizza to share. We seemed to have like tastes.

I didn’t know what to talk about while we waited for our order. I knew she didn’t want to discuss Penelope Spring or Lana Forlaine. I couldn’t remember what sequel the game was in. I recalled that they were casting the role for a feature film. But that wasn’t a topic she would want to discuss.

“So what do you do?” I blurted out, searching for something, an awkward conversation starter.

“I own a small farm,” she said looking around agitated. “We have … I have some horses.” She tapped her fingers nervously and looked around again, not at the counter, at the door, as though she was expecting something to happen

“Who is ‘we’? Are you married?”

“My old housemate,” she replied. “She died about six months ago. The horses were hers.”

“I’m sorry.” I’d stepped in it already.

“No, she had been dying as long as I knew her. Cancer. I knew what I was getting into when we bought the farm together.”

I heard a loud noise outside. A pop, like gunfire. And another. Not too close, but not far enough away for my liking. Alice froze. She reached out and squeezed my had as if she knew what was going to happen next.

What happened next was, a boy, probably 16 or 17, staggered through the door clutching at his bleeding chest. I could see the family resemblance with the owner, a 40-something Italian with a paunch. He might have been Luigi’s son. The boy spilled onto the floor. He was losing way too much blood. Alice looked around, twitched, and what followed, I don’t understand.

I felt Alice let go of my hand. I blinked, and in the fraction of a second that my eyes were closed, Alice had transformed into a scantily-clad angel with beautiful large burgundy wings the color of her hair, dressed in the same shade of purple that she ran in, but with a huge jeweled sword with which she turned and cleaved the soul out of the boy’s body. She had a brief word with his soul before my eyes opened again with Alice still clutching my hand, a solitary tear dribbling down her cheek.

As the owner, cradled the boy’s lifeless head in his arms, crying and beseeching God to save the boy, Alice calmly pulled out her phone and called the police and ambulance. “We should stay until the police come,” she said flatly.

“Did you know …” I began, wondering how she could remain so calm.

“No,” she interrupted, as if she didn’t want me to voice the question.

The police arrived and cleared the scene as the ambulance approached. The boy was dead. There was no hope for him. We gave our statements and the police guided us from the building.

“I’ll give you a lift,” Alice insisted, pulling me to her car, right next to mine, which was blocked in by the ambulance. She didn’t ask where I lived and pulled out in completely the wrong direction. I waited, but she knew where she was going. “I’m going to cook for you,” she finally explained. “And I want to hear you play.”

I hadn’t told her I was pianist. “How did you know?”

“I’ve seen your name on concert programs.” Of course, and she didn’t forget anything.

It was about a 10 minute drive to her farm, and the silence in her car was palpable. Alice was no longer nervous. This seemed more like dread. When she arrived, she showed me her piano, which was a Steinway concert grand, overkill for a “non-professional” pianist. The room was large, a converted barn with a high ceiling adjoining the main part of the house. It was like her own little concert hall, but with couches rather than chairs for seating.

“Take some time to get used to the piano,” she said, “while I cook some dinner.” She didn’t ask what I liked or if I had any food issues. I was mildly allergic to shellfish, but nothing else.

It gave me time to decide what to play for her. A bookcase held a variety of music scores, all pristine. Of course, she only needed to look at them once. They weren’t dog-eared like mine. I’m horrible at memorizing pieces. I do it physically rather than visually. I know what a piece feels like, but that means I have to play it a hundred times. If the rumors were true. Alice only needed to see a piece once, and she could play it perfectly.

I resolved to play something for her from memory. I was about to premiere a new piece by a composer who I studied with at university, and it would be nice to give it a dry run with a small audience.

Alice summoned me to the dinner table. She had made an artichoke lasagna, which was my favorite dish that my mother made. Alice had made it with homemade pasta. It was delicious, and I told her so, but what I didn’t ask was how she could make it 15 minutes. She’d had to prepare it for about an hour and then cook it in the oven for 45 minutes.

“How did you know?” I asked.

She shrugged her shoulders and smiled for the first time. We talked about nothing in particular: food, her horses. She wanted to teach me to ride and thought she had the perfect horse for me, a gentle gray mare.

Then it was concert time. I played the new piece: Gavin Beamish’s Rising Moon. I played it well for the most part. There were a couple of small inaccuracies, and one section that was a little slower than I had planned. Alice was ecstatic. She loved hearing pieces she didn’t know.

“Would you play for me?” I asked boldly.

After feigning annoyance, Alice relented. Was her choice of music a coincidence? Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, my favorite recording of Penelope Spring. She didn’t play it exactly the same, but it was equally exquisite.

Afterwards, she turned to me with a serious look in her bottomless blue eyes. “You’ve witnessed something that wasn’t allowed.”

“You playing beautifully?” I asked, confused.

“No. At Luigi’s.”

“What did I witness?” I asked. I needed her to explain it to me.

“You saw something no living human is allowed to see … and live.”

“Does that mean you are going to kill me?” I asked, suddenly terrified.

“No,” she answered, “not necessarily.” The dread from earlier had turned to a quiet confidence. “I need something from you: an unconditional commitment.”

“What?”

“I can’t tell you what it is. You have to agree or not.”

“What if I don’t?”

“That remains to be seen. Let me assure you that what you are doing is expressly for me, at no personal cost to you. It’s not, strictly speaking, illegal or immoral.”

It was as if I was on trial.

“I’m the one on trial,” Alice said, as if reading my mind.

“I am,” she said, answering my thought. “What I did was illegal and premeditated, and you are an innocent, but you saw what only a dying person may see. I should have freed your soul on the spot. I didn’t. Now I have to pay the consequences. I should also say that we aren’t alone here. I’m just the only one with a human form.”

“Can you answer one question?” Was she Penelope?

“Nto yet. I would need your answer first.”

Did I have anything to lose? Would I lose my life if I didn’t agree?

Alice didn’t answer that. I had to assume that all the beings in the room could hear my thoughts.

“And you would be right,” she said.

“Who is in the room?” I asked.

“Answer first, and I can explain everything, well, most everything.”

“Okay, I will do whatever you want me to, unconditionally.” She was wrong. I had everything to lose, if I said no. I could lose my life.

Alice paused and looked out into the room. “I’m giving her my unconditional trust. You know someone has to do it. Why not her? I’ve known her most of her life. She won’t let me down. She knows what the penalty is.”

I had guessed right, I presume.

“There was one alternative,” Alice said to me. “You could have been made to forget it, but that might have had other consequences.” She paused, and added, “Everything has consequences, and not all are predictable. For example, you might have forgotten how to play piano, or just the piece you were learning.”

“So what do you need of me?” I asked.

“First, I’ll tell you who is in the room. Michael, the archangel, Gabriel, also an archangel, Pistus-Sophia, my guardian angel … and friend … and one other, Obediah, who could make him or herself known to you … and will, someday, but I’m not at liberty to introduce to you now.”

“I can tell you first,” Alice continued, “that I am your … well, part-time guardian angel. Not everyone has one, but you are special even to have me part-time. I am also an angel of death. I reap souls. That is what you witnessed today. I lured you there to see it. I needed a friend and you were the logical choice. Only my best friend can do what you are going to be called on to do. My best friend died six months ago, and I am finding it difficult to make new ones and keep out of the public eye at the same time.”

“So you are Penelope Spring,” I interrupted.

“I was, but her body died and I was reborn as Alice Forlaine.”

“But you would only be 18.”

“Alice Forlaine didn’t exist before she was ten years old. Her life was … um, backdated. Technically, she doesn’t exist now. Which brings me onto your commitment. This body will die someday. When it does, whoever I become will need to take over the … let’s call it wealth … that I will need to live without relying on earning a living. That would be too public.”

“Wouldn’t you just go to heaven?” I asked.

She chuckled, and it is my guess that the whole room laughed, since Alice took so long to continue. I didn’t get the joke. “You, Emily Dewhurst, will be the caretaker of this fund until it passes on to me in my new life. At some point, someone named Penelope Dewhurst will reveal herself to you as the heir to this fortune. That will be me. I don’t know how old I will be. Six? Okay, that’s what they tell me. Only one of us in this room is omniscient.”

“I shouldn’t have said that,” she added. “Don’t think about what that might mean.”

She shouldn’t have said that. Now I will think about it. She intended that. Alice isn’t very good about keeping rules. “Dewhurst. Is that significant?”

“It may make proving it to a lawyer easier. It will appear that we are relatives.”

“Is that all I need to do?” I asked.

“And keep my secret.”

“I can do that,” I said. “It won’t be easy. Could you do me a favor?”

She knew what I wanted. “I can’t show you myself as a death angel. I would have to kill you. Once is too many times. As a guardian angel … Okay, they have given me an option. It is against the rules. The problem is that if I’m touching the ground or anything man-made, I’m human, but my wings are invisible. If I’m not, I’m invisible. But there is one way. We must go outside though.”

We went out by the stables, and Alice stripped down to bare skin. I heard a celestial choir above me, and I looked up to see a host of robed angels. Then came the trumpets from the rooftop, or above the rooftop to be exact. Alice stepped gracefully into the air and shown like the sun with great burgundy wings. Awestruck, I fell to my knees.

“The heavenly hosts salute thee, Emily,” proclaimed Alice, “and it will come to pass that you will have a daughter, and she will be called the clever one, the red angel, Penelope.”

“How will this be since I do not know man?” I asked, echoing the bible. Penelope Dewhurst, significant?

“You have been blessed by the Holy Spirit, Emily,” she said. “In nine months you shall bear fruit.”

Alice looked beyond beautiful, effortlessly flapping her great wings to remain aloft. Hers were larger than the others. I struggled to see her in the light. Eventually, I had to look away. The trumpets sounded again and the choir faded into the distance. When it was all quiet again, I peeked up to see Alice’s bare feet, legs, everything.

“Sorry about that,” she said. “That was the only way I could do it. I had to give you a proclamation, to portend a miracle. I’m sorry I didn’t have a robe with me. I don’t do those very often, and you didn’t give me enough notice to have a new one fitted. The last one was a bit too racy.”

“A miracle?” I asked. I had stopped listening at that word.

“You are now pregnant.”

“Oh. Thanks. Another virgin birth. I would have preferred the old-fashioned way.”

“You asked, and that was the only option. Think of it this way, you’ve been knocked up by the Holy Spirit. That’s an honor. I told you that you were special.” She didn’t hide her cynicism very well.

“Penelope Dewhurst? Does that mean you have only seven years to live?”

“I’m destined to live forever. I just need to change bodies once in a while. I guess it will be sooner rather than later. It’s a pity. I liked this one.”

“Did you plan this?” I asked.

“They don’t tell what my proclamation is until I give it. I was as surprised as you were when I uttered it.”

“And you expect me to be your best friend now?”

“For the rest of your life. We had better get used to it. We have seven years to get to know each other before I become your daughter. It means I can come out of the shadows instead of stalking you. Besides, I’ve got some matchmaking to do. We need to find you a Joseph. Can’t have a Mary without a Joseph.”

Cynic. “I think I would rather pick my own husband.”

“And how has that been going for you?”

Double-cynic. “What about the fact that I’m not a virgin?”

“It’s irrelevant. Hey, I want to show you something. Let’s go inside.”

It was a little off-putting that she made no move to clothe herself.

“Sorry, I’m used to it,” she explained, still not clothing herself. “If I’m flying, I’m nude. I fly a lot.” She jumped in the air and disappeared, only to reappear at her front door. “See?”

“Don’t you get cold?”

“It’s one of the perks of being an angel and human at the same time. I don’t feel the cold unless I want to.” She opened the door and led me in. On top of the piano was an imposingly large book. It wasn’t there before. “I want you to read something.”

She opened to a seemingly random page.

Was it good for you? It was for me.

“What is this?” I asked.

“It’s my Pan-Angelica. All angels have one. It’s basically the Holy Spirit, our spiritual guide. It’s your man.”

“So I’ve had sex with a book.”

“That remains to be seen.”

“What do you mean?”

She shrugged. That was an annoying habit.

“It means that either I don’t know the answer or I can’t tell you even if I wanted to.”

“Which is it?”

She shrugged again. “It is getting late, and your car is still at Luigi’s. I have a number of spare rooms, if you want to stay the night. You can even stay in my bed if you want. I’ve got a meeting.”

“Now?”

“I don’t need to sleep, if I don’t want to.”

“Where is this meeting?”

She pointed up and winked. “Actually, I’ve got to dash. Make yourself at home.” She ran out the front door and disappeared into the sky, not telling me where the bedrooms were.

I took a look in the Pan-Angelica.

Down the hallway on the left. The first room is the best. Penelope won’t awaken you when she returns.

I turned the page.

Take Misty for a ride in the morning.

I had never ridden a horse before and didn’t know which was Misty. I turned another page.

Sleep well, your bathroom is across the hall.

I was suddenly very tired. The bathroom had a new, unopened toothbrush in it, as if I was expected. I could barely brush my teeth before dragging myself to bed. I slipped off my clothes and before I knew it, I was enveloped by exquisite silk sheets, dreaming of the most incredible sex I’d ever had. I couldn’t remember what the man looked like, but every cell of my body shivered with ecstasy. I awoke in the morning drenched in sweat, more relaxed than I had ever felt in my life, with the smell of bacon frying in the air.

I had to admit. It was good for me, too.