Opera Buffa at the Blue Note Tavern
by Dennis Vannatta
Calamity struck in the second movement of Schubert’s “String Quartet No. 14 in D Minor.” The problem was that although Ted claimed to enjoy the Chamber Orchestra Concert Series—“It’s so civilized,” he’d say to friends, who, unable to picture him there, would cant their heads doubtfully—he couldn’t stay awake through an entire performance. He’d never liked Schubert anyway. Schubert was way way overrated in his opinion. Still, he’d fought sleep manfully throughout the stupefying entirety of the first movement before feeling his eyelids grow heavy in the second. Then he was gone.
He was jolted awake by the most fiendish toe-cramp in history, shot his leg out in a purely involuntary reflex, kicking the support brace of the metal folding chair in front of him so hard that the brace buckled, followed by both rear legs of the chair.
This might have been less than catastrophic if the chair had been occupied by someone not quite so corpulent as Mrs. Harris Templeton—“a real pachyderm,” as he subsequently described her to the happy few in attendance at the Blue Note Tavern. A younger, sprier woman probably would have just sprung up, startled but no harm done. But Mrs. Harris Templeton was neither young nor spry. Elderly and elephantine, that’s what she was. The fortunate thing was that she didn’t come straight back, which would certainly have resulted in grievous bodily harm to Ted. No, she somehow rolled boulder-like to her right and took out the petite, fragile, blue-haired person of Mrs. Ralph Whiteside.
Wails ensued, punctuated by one bellow of no garden variety Anglo-Saxonism but “Merde!” because Ted was amongst refined society.
Pretty funny, really, especially if you describe it as Ted was to do later, richly embellishing the two-to-three-second affair in a sort of faux-formal syntax and diction, comically inappropriate to the actual event.
Robert Undset, for one, didn’t see anything funny about it. Robert was chairman of the Chamber Orchestra Concert Society. In addition to heading fundraisers and keeping the society books, Herr Undset took upon himself the duties of audience overseer, on the lookout for any sign of discourteous behavior. Coughing, popping gum, checking cell phones, etc. Ted had had more than one run-in with him, mostly for snoring during performances. This latest contretemps knocked snoring into a cocked hat.
As soon as he was able to extract Mrs. Ralph Whiteside from under the heaving and wailing person of Mrs. Harris Templeton—both rich old bats being major supporters of the COCS—Undset pounced on our Ted: “You’re out, Spencer! You’re done! You’re hereby banished from the Chamber Orchestra Concert Series, banished!”
Ted pounced right back: “Toe cramp! Haven’t you ever had toe cramp, you fatuous turd?”
“I’m calling the police if you’re not out of here in ten seconds. You’ve destroyed Schubert. Schubert!”
“Schubert sucks. I’d rather listen to Dolly Parton.”
“Blasphemer! Out! One, two, three . . .”
Ted probably would have battled on, but the string quartet—a real plucky bunch, real pros—was already warming up, fully prepared to do that Schubert thing again. So Ted allowed himself to be led out of the First Baptist Church youth activity hall, which the COCS rented at a very reasonable rate, by his main squeeze, the lovely Lana Paisley.
Back at the door of her condo, Lana put her hand on Ted’s chest, not a gesture of fondling, which she was pretty good at, but restraint.
“No, don’t come in. Not tonight. I have to think about tonight. Think about us.”
“But couldn’t you think about us, you know, afterward?”
“No. No cattleya tonight.”
“No. Not tonight.”
Lana was an aficionado of Marcel Proust, among whose virtually endless pages cattleya was, as best as Ted could make out, a pet term for sexual intercourse. Although in an attempt to get in Lana’s fetching pants Ted claimed to also be a big fan, big, of Proust, he’d never managed to amble more than a dozen pages down Swann's Way. Can you imagine what seven volumes of the stuff would be like? Mon dieu!
Well, no use fighting city hall. When Lana was in one of her moods . . .
Ted drove on home where he found his wife sitting on the sofa wearing a survival-orange facial mask.
“You’re early,” she said accusingly without even looking up from the TV where by the look of things some bachelor was about to have his horns sheered by one or more bachelorettes.
Ted began telling her about “the Schubert second movement disaster,” as he called it.
Ann didn’t so much as crack a smile. How’s a fellow supposed to live with a woman with absolutely no sense of humor?
In fact, he hadn’t even gotten to the denouement—his confrontation with that supreme ass Robert Undset—before Ann heaved herself off the sofa and headed to the bedroom. Ted followed.
At the bedroom door she turned and put her hand on his chest, a gesture he’d experienced once this evening already and so wasn’t surprised by what followed.
“Huh uh. No. Not tonight,” she said.
“Not to worry. I have no intention of inflicting myself on your gorgeous person.”
“That much I know without being told. It’s been so long since you inflicted yourself upon my gorgeous person that I can’t even remember how it’s done.”
“Well, then what…?”
“I mean I don’t want you in the bedroom for any reason, not even to sleep. You reek of alcohol.”
“Me? You’re talking about me? I haven’t been drinking. You’ve lost all touch with reality now, Honey Buns. I haven’t been near alcohol in days.”
“Damn right, right. I swear I haven’t had a drop. Go find a Bible and I’ll swear on it. I’ll swear standing on my head on it. That’s how serious I am. I’m so sober I could stand on my head,” he averred, his voice shaking in righteous indignation.
He was lying, of course. He’d taken a bottle of Red River Merlot—$10 for two and or $5.99 for one at Liquor Warehouse—over to Lana’s condo earlier and demanded she drink a glass with him before heading to the concert. Lana could be moody, and a glass of wine had been known to make her more “agreeable,” heh heh, when the time for agreeable rolled around. Hadn’t worked in this case, obviously. No cattleya tonight.
It was possible he’d had two glasses of wine before the concert, now that he thought about it. Still, it was damned unfair for Ann to go all Southern Baptist on him after the night he’d had. And on the threshold of their bedroom!
Ted wasn’t the man to put up with such treatment. If he couldn’t find succor at home, there were bars all over town where he’d be welcomed with open arms.
At the door to the garage, he turned and bellowed back into the house, “Farewell, my lovely!” Then to the beckoning night: “Prepare to be amused, friends of mine!”
He’d already parked in the gravel lot and was inside the Blue Note Tavern before he realized he was in the wrong place. He’d meant to go to the Blue Note Bistro downtown, a toney place of steel and chrome frequented by youngish-to-middle aged professionals like himself. It had Cal on the piano in the corner, but Cal played softly enough that you hardly knew he was there, so Ted could go on his comic riffs undisturbed.
This place, this Blue Note Tavern, was on the access road to the interstate leading to the airport. Not the best part of town, the clientele a scruffy match for it. Currently, other than the bartender, the only people in the tavern were four tired-looking specimens sitting at a table near the juke box, which glowed in shifting shades of red and throbbed—THRUB thrub thrub THRUB thrub thrub THRUB thrub thrub—like a heart murmur. Blues.
Well, he was here. Might as well make the best of it. If life gives you lemons, squeeze them in enough alcohol and you’re good to go.
He asked the bartender what was on draft, and chose Bud over Bud Light and PBR.
He turned to the dour four at the table and leaned back with his elbows on the bar, tall cool one in his right hand.
“A cheerful looking bunch,” he sang out jovially.
Two of the four actually looked over in his direction.
“Think you’ve got it bad? Let me tell you about my night. Well, I was at the Chamber Orchestra concert, trying to stay awake through some Schubert crap when…”
Right about that point, mid-sentence, it occurred to Ted that this might not be the right audience for Chamber Orchestra references. But he forged on. Why not? He liked a challenge. Converting those indifferent looks into grins and then guffaws, there’s a consummation devoutly to be desired.
But it was a tough audience. No guffaws. Nary a grin. The two who had been looking his way turned back to their brewskis. One of the others pulled the bill of his Black Cat ball cap down over his eyes as if to avoid even accidentally looking his way. But Ted forged on.
He’d just finished recounting his near-fisticuffs with Robert Undset and was all set to segue to the cold shoulder administered by his wife—shrewish wives being good for a laugh at least as far back as Chaucer—when he noticed a guy with a red beard wearing one-piece canvas work overalls stalking toward him from the far side of the tavern. The four at the table, then, weren’t the only customers in the place. Had the others—in addition to Red Beard two at a table in the corner and one at the end of the bar to Ted’s right—been there all along and he just hadn’t noticed them? Or had they entered after he began his routine? Maybe word had spread through the community that Ted Spenser himself was appearing at the Blue Note Tavern, and now they were flocking in. It’d be SRO in no time!
“Now, you’d think that after an evening like that a man could expect to find some consolation in the arms of his loving wife, but—”
The man with the red beard came on until he was right up on him. Right in his face. The man grimaced as if he smelled something foul and said, “What makes you think you’re so funny? What makes you think that? I hate to break the news to you, but you’re not funny at all. You’re really not.”
Ted tried to edge back, but, already with his back to the bar, there was nowhere to edge. He averted his face so that the blow wouldn’t land flush on his nose or chin. But there was no blow. The man just shook his head as if Ted were a sad case, not worth expending more breath on, and then turned and went back to his table beneath the big plate glass window at the front of the tavern. Arcing across it in hot-pink neon was a cursive BLUE NOTE TAVERN, which pulsed on and off, on and off in jarring counterpoint to the THRUB thrub thrub THRUB thrub thrub of the juke box.
Ted had a headache.
He turned around and extracted a buck-fifty from his two-fifty change on the bar—he bet the one-dollar tip was the barkeep’s biggest of the night—then turned back for the door.
Standing right there in front of him was a man—not the man with the red beard but the guy who’d been sitting at the end of the bar. He had one of those faces where it was hard to tell if he was young or old. In that light his close-cropped hair could have been gray or blonde. His eyes could have been green or blue. Whichever, they were cold, cold eyes. Still, the man was grinning expectantly.
He reached out and tapped Ted on the breastbone with his index finger.
“Tell the one about the bathing suit,” he said.
He prodded him with his index finger. “Tell the one about the bathing suit.”
Puzzled, Ted looked around for help.
The man with the red beard called over, “The bathing suit one is funnier than that piece of shit about the concert, but it’s still not very funny.”
“Tell it,” the man said, grinning encouragingly and poking him with his finger.
“Stop that,” Ted said, swatting at the finger, but the man was too quick for him and jerked his hand away, then immediately shot that finger forward again.
“The bathing suit one. Tell it.”
“Now look, I—”
Then it came to him. “Oh, you mean when I was shopping for swim trunks in Target.”
“Yep, the bathing suit one. Tell it.”
Ted had been trying on swim trunks in the fitting room at Target. He’d put one foot through the leg hole, but when he tried to put the second foot through he caught his big toe on the waist band, lost his balance, and crashed against the fitting room door. When he told the tale later, he embellished a bit, of course—bursting through the door, hopping on one foot clear through the clothing section and only when careering amongst the mothers and children in the toy department realizing he had no underwear on. Funny stuff, especially when he was in the mood to act it out, hopping around like a crazed rabbit.
But that had been years and years ago, so long that Ted had forgotten all about it until now. And yet this man remembered it. The guy with the beard, too.
“I guess I must have been here before,” he said, “if you heard me tell it.”
The man didn’t say anything, just stood with that expectant grin, but one of the old boys at the table next to the juke box rolled his eyes and shook his head as if he’d suffered long and expected more was to come.
“Well, OK, if you want to hear it again, OK. It was like this. I was in the market for a new set of swim trunks…”
He didn’t really feel up to a performance, but like the trooper he was, he did his best and in fact was sort of getting into it when he came to the part where he pantomimed putting his foot through the leg hole, did in fact catch his shoe on the bottom rung of the barstool, and went down.
He must have hit his head because when he came to he was on the floor.
He didn’t know how long he’d been out, but it must have been quite a while because the tavern was empty except for the bartender, who was sweeping the floor. When he got to Ted, he carefully swept all around him. Ted imagined that when he finally did get up, there’d be a silhouette on the floor like in a crime scene only in dust instead of chalk.
The bartender, now broomless, came over to him.
“Time to go. I’m closing up.”
“If you don’t mind, I’ll stay right here. It’s surprisingly comfy here on the floor. Besides, the truth is I don’t really have anywhere else to go tonight.”
“Hundred dollars,” the barkeep said without an instant’s hesitation as if he got requests like that all the time.
Ted rolled over far enough to extract his wallet from his rear pocket. He counted five twenties into the barkeep’s hand.
“I’ll have to turn out the lights and lock you in,” the bartender said.
“Turn ‘em out,” Ted said. “Lock away.”
But then when the bartender reached behind the juke box to unplug it, Ted reared up and said, “Wait. How about leaving that plugged in? I’ve had enough of Schubert and that shit. It’s going to be the blues for me from here on out.”
“Hundred dollars,” the bartender said. Ted told him he only had forty left, and the bartender shrugged and held his hand out.
It hurt to move, so Ted lay there on the floor awhile after the bartender left, locking the door behind him. Then he eased himself up and walked groggily between the tables to the juke box. He studied the playlist until he found one that seemed appropriate—“Love in Vain.” But then he discovered that the juke box took quarters only, and he had not a one. So the joke was on him. No biggie. He wasn’t used to performing with musical accompaniment anyway.
He turned away from the juke box, thought a moment, then cleared his throat.
“There was the time,” he began although there was no one to hear him. But what difference did that make?
Dennis Vannatta is a Pushcart and Porter Prize winner, with stories published in many magazines and anthologies, including River Styx, Chariton Review, Boulevard, and Antioch Review. His sixth collection of stories, The Only World You Get¸ was recently published by Et Alia Press.