I Know How You Feel: The Sensate
By Nicole Minsk
Copyright 2012 Nicole Minsk
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~ Prologue ~
The garbage collector was a big man, and a big man can drink a lot of beer. He had drunk a lot of it last night, and this morning he was feeling it. As he backed up to the cul de sac where the city trash bin sat, the high-pitched beeping of the truck’s safety system reverberated off the surrounding buildings, making his head ache all the more. He turned the wheel and saw in his mirrors that someone had moved a big pile of crates in front of the bin, blocking his access. Swearing, he stopped the truck and got out.
“It’s always something, isn’t it? Either some asshole parks in front, or some hobo builds his new house there.”
He bent over to move one of the crates and the world spun a bit. He stumbled forward. As he stood inches from the bin, a compelling sense of familiarity struck him. Unable to ignore the strange sensation, he grasped the bin’s lid and threw it open. There, discarded among the beer bottles, the rotting food, and the plastic wrappers, lay a baby boy, naked as the day he was born, which, judging by the kid’s size and the umbilical cord still attached to him, might just be today. He stared at the child in disbelief, aching head and cotton mouth forgotten.
“Lord Almighty, little guy. Let’s get you out of there.”
His reflective vest was too stiff to use as a blanket, so he threw it to the ground and took off his shirt to wrap around the infant. Hands trembling, he lifted the baby out. The infant’s eyelids fluttered open for a moment, and he saw a pair of gray-green eyes tinged with yellow where they should have been white. The baby slumped—breathing, but unconscious. The kid didn’t look good. His breathing was shallow, his color yellowish, and he lay like a limp little heap, nestled in the uniform shirt.
“Who would do this to you?”
Hurrying to the truck with the boy in his arms, the garbage man radioed his dispatcher.
“Ramon, you there? This is Jim Tarlow in unit seven-six-four-two. I need you. This is urgent.”
“I’m here, Jim. What’s the matter? You need a tow or something?”
“No, an ambulance. I found a baby, a real, live baby in the Dumpster in the alley off the corner of Travis and Greer. He’s in bad shape.”
“Oh my God. You hang on, Jim. I’ll get help out there.”
He let the two-way radio mic fall from his hand.
“You hear that, little guy? Hold on. Help’s on the way.”
~ Chapter One ~
Eighteen years later.
Hani reached for the bar’s door handle. He made two unsuccessful attempts to turn the knob as it slid in his sweaty hand. Finally, he hitched the strap for his guitar case up higher on his shoulder, wiped his hand on his jeans, and got a good grip on the thing.
Relax. You’ve practiced hard, and it’s just an open-mic. The world’s not ending.
Taking a deep breath, he opened the door and stepped through it. A wall of cigarette smoke hit him. His grey-green eyes had recovered long ago from the jaundice Jim Tarlow had seen in them, but they watered in the acrid fumes as he took in his surroundings. The Cross wasn’t what he’d expected. Four, dilapidated, double-wide trailers met in a giant plus-sign where they’d been split open and welded together to create a white-trash-Frankenstein-Monster of a room. Nearby, a beer sign flicked so badly it generated an intermittent strobing effect.
A woman walked in behind him. She fanned her nose and screwed up her face in a comical grimace. Hani couldn’t smell the caked fryer, the furniture saturated with cigarette smoke, or the carpet mildewing from spilt, stale beer, but he crinkled his nose and nodded as if in agreement. He’d never smelled much of anything, but people got so upset for him if he didn’t pretend to smell and taste things, and he couldn’t stand to see people upset.
The woman moved into the bar, but Hani didn’t take another step. Should he go? The place was a real dive. On the stage, a guitarist played a country song Hani didn’t recognize. He shifted to try to get a look at the stage and caught the eyes of a woman in a scarlet dress. The fabric at her waistline puckered and rolled as she walked, stretched to capacity by her plump form. He gave the woman a broad grin. She flashed him a shaky smile and looked away. He liked that smile.
Okay. I’m staying.
Toting his guitar, Hani walked to the music stand that held the performance sign-up sheet and grabbed the clipboard. He checked the time on the digital clock stuck to the rusted metal clip and scanned down the list. The next slot was free. The pen shook in his hand, making a mess of his name, but he signed up and made for an empty table. The uneven floor sank with every step of his six-foot-four athletic body, but the groaning boards didn’t give way. A seated woman stared at him as he passed. Hani was used to stares. He’d grown up Texan, but he didn’t fit. His bronzed, Hawaiian complexion coupled with the dark brown hair falling to his shoulders didn’t have that local look, and the battered fedora didn’t help.
Hani sat. He leaned forward to drum his fingers on the table, but it was lopsided and sticky with beer. He drew his hand back and tapped his fingers on his thigh instead. He told himself that this was the wrong kind of bar for his music, but when he stood to go, his eyes searched out the woman with the scarlet dress. He sat back down, slid his guitar strap off his shoulder, and took off his hat.
The musician on stage finished. The emcee, a potbellied man in his forties, came on.
“Y’all having fun?” the emcee yelled into the mic. There was a lukewarm cheer. “Next up is a newcomer. He’s come to y’all all the way from Houston, so let’s go on and give him a big hand. Hani Kalua. Hey son, you know your last name’s a bottle of booze? Come on up here Mr. Liquor,” he said, pronouncing it lee-core.
Hani played two pieces. The first was an intricate classical guitar arrangement he’d slaved over called ‘La Catedral Allegro Solemne.’ When that flopped, he played a Nashville showpiece called ‘Flying Fingers.’ He even introduced the second tune as a favorite of the great Joe Maphis, but all he got were three seconds of subdued applause before the buzz of chatter resumed.
A blond man wearing a blue western shirt mounted the creaking stage.
“Nice”—the musician slapped Hani on the back—“but go with some more popular tunes next time. It’s not just about skill. Cheer up. Nobody gets it right the first time.”
The blond man launched into “Achy Breaky Heart,” to wild applause. Hani threw himself down at his sticky table and sat slumped over it, unable to get up the strength to leave. The man finished his set and walked to Hani’s table.
“Hani. Thanks for the boost before, Paul.”
“No problem. Where do I know you from?” He sat down.
Hani had never seen Paul before.
“Sorry. Don’t think we’ve met.”
A twig-like blond came up and asked if they wanted anything. Her black t-shirt, which read “The Cross” in white lettering, hugged the curve of her small breasts.
“Let me buy you a beer, Hani.”
“You don’t have to—”
“I can’t stand to see a man laid low. Besides, don’t often get a musician as good as you in here.”
“Two of the home brew, Tina.”
“Coming up,” the waitress said.
“Can’t kick this feeling I know you. You just seem so familiar. Maybe you played a bar or two in Round Rock?” Paul’s eyes lingered on Tina’s backside as she walked off.
“Nope. Don’t worry, though. I get that a lot,” Hani said.
It was true. Every person Hani met said Hani seemed familiar.
“The only time I’ve been out to Austin was to listen, not to play,” Hani said.
“So this was when you were in school?” Paul leaned in to hear, touching the table. He pulled a face, rubbed the tips of his fingers together, and wiped them on his jeans.
“Naw. About nine months back this girl drove me up from Houston for a sorority mixer. After the party, me and the sisters hopped bars and wound up at Rumors for an open-mic night. I’d never seen anything like it. I mean, my fosters would never have taken me to a bar. Found out today Rumors had closed. So, I swore I’d play the first open-mic I saw in Austin.”
Tina came back with the beers. Hani took a sip of his.
“Good, isn’t it? This bar looks like shit and smells worse, but people travel for miles around to get this bock they brew here,” Paul said.
The beer tasted like ground-up chalk in water, but Hani didn’t want to let Paul down.
“Yeah. Was going to say. It’s delicious.”
Paul smiled. “Speaking of.” He watched Tina’s ass as she leaned down to retrieve her notepad from the floor.
Hani could see that Tina was an attractive woman, but “attractive” was just a list of qualities he’d memorized. When other boys had started sneaking Internet porn, he’d wondered what the fuss was about. By the time those same boys had moved on to the real thing, Hani had figured out that he was different. It wasn’t that he was gay. It was just that, given the choice between a hot date and watching an old movie on T.V., Hani would pick the movie every time. Nonetheless, he leered at Tina’s narrow backside, clinked his glass against Paul’s, and said, “To delicious.”
Thanks for sharing all your best stuff with me, Paul. Wish I could enjoy it for you.
“So, you went to a mic-night at Rumors. I knew that bar. But that was downtown Austin. How the hell did you end up here?” Paul said.
“Oh, I pulled a Bugs Bunny.”
“You know how he’s always saying he should have taken that left at Albuquerque? I should have turned right at I-35 instead of left.”
“Yeah, okay, but when I asked about school I didn’t mean college,” Paul said. “I can tell you’ve had training and lots of it. Where’d you go to music school?”
“Never had lessons. Money’s kinda scarce, but after that night at Rumors I saved up, bought my first guitar, and got pointers from any guitarist who could spare a minute.”
To Hani’s amazement, Paul burst into laughter.
“Boy, I like you plenty, but don’t you try an’ con an ol’ con man. Tain’t a man livin’ could pick up the guitar like that in nine months from nothin’, no matter he worked every hour God gave. Ya look ’bout eighteen, so ya been at it from the tender age of ten. But don’t fret yerself. As one musician t’ ‘nother, that was some mighty fine pickin’. Mighty fine. Butcha gotta give ‘em what they wanna hear. An’ if that means playin’ Rawhide over an’ over, then that is what ya play.” He winked. “But I ‘magine they don’t teachya that at Julliard.”
Hani looked at Paul’s smirk and tried to make sense of Paul’s words. Rawhide over and over? That was a Blues Brother’s reference. Paul was a movie fan too. Con man? Was that why Paul’s accent had gone all redneck? It was part of his performance? And he thought Hani had put on a stage persona too?
Just then, the woman in the scarlet dress walked up. Hani’s breath hitched.
“Um, I was hoping maybe I could get your autograph?” Her words came out in a rush. Then, she froze in place, staring at Hani.
“Well now. Ya see? Ya got it where it counts.” Getting up, Paul leaned over Hani, clapped him on the shoulder and whispered, “Just work on your patter a little. The part about growing up in foster care was good, very natural.”
Paul left, but not before pausing to ogle the woman, who gave him a nervous smile. Hani watched this exchange with fascination. The man did know how to put on a show. Hani had to give him that. If Tina-the-stick was Paul’s type, there was no way he was interested in this full-figured woman.
“That’s so sweet of you. Anything you want me to write?” Hani smiled at her.
“I understand you’re all incognito and everything,” she whispered, “but I won’t tell anyone if you write “‘To Allie, my biggest fan’ and sign your real name.”
“My real name?”
“You know. Sign it ‘Arlin.’”
“Yes, Mr. James.”
“I know you sometimes hit your old hometown and use a false name. Please? I won’t tell anyone. I promise.” She turned her eyes to the filthy carpeting and moved her foot to avoid a duct-taped rent.
Hani feigned interest in the banjo player on the stage to cover his shocked silence.
You think I’m Arlin James?
Sure, Hani had dark hair and a strong jaw; he was even the right height, but any resemblance to Arlin James stopped there. Arlin was a country sensation; he hadn’t climbed the charts on Hani’s native-Hawaiian complexion and long hair. Factoring in the twenty-five pounds of muscle Hani had on James, the ten-year age gap, and the comparably minor detail that Hani’s eyes were green, not blue, it seemed impossible that anyone would ever confuse the two men. But, the impossible had happened.
One person. One person liked his performance and only because she thought he was someone else. Why had he gotten out of bed today? And she would be heartbroken when he told her that he wasn’t Arlin. He didn’t think he could stand her disappointment.
She pushed a pen and an autograph book toward him, brushing her hand against his.
Hani’s world shifted.
Suddenly, he felt desire. It was so intense, so heightened in comparison with anything he’d ever experienced, that his knees nearly buckled. Thank God there was a table between him and the woman. He didn’t know how to control desire; he’d never had to. Had it not been for that table, he would have grabbed her. Her hand passed over his, and the sensation ceased, but the experience left him gasping. Struggling for air, he realized that it wasn’t just the intensity of the desire that was new. There was something else.
What the hell just happened? It was the touch. Wasn’t it?
He couldn’t believe what he’d just felt. He’d had sex, lots of sex, but he’d never found it exciting. Women practically beat down his door to go out with him, and he simply didn’t have the heart to say no, but, perhaps because he’d only had sex to please, he’d gotten quite good at it—very, very good, in spite of his youth. But he didn’t seek sex out, no. This, though. This was different; this was a compulsion.
He reached forward and took Allie’s hand in his. The passion came rushing back. He sat there, mute, holding her hand and basking in desire for a full ten seconds before he noticed the impossible: he wasn’t hard.
Hani strained to concentrate. Thinking was difficult. His head spun from sensations he didn’t understand, including the nauseating smell of the fryer in the kitchen, which had set his stomach churning.
He tried to focus on something, anything. He caught at a sound. The banjo player. He could hear the banjo player singing about getting a little bit sideways.
Good job. Now let her the fuck go.
Hani released Allie’s hand. Her chest, which had been still the entire time, expanded. It took a while before he could speak.
She lifted her face. Her mouth stood open, her chest heaving and her gaze fixed.
“Obviously, we can’t talk here.” He glanced around as though legions of maddened fans were about to burst from the grimy wood paneling. “Do you have some place we could talk?”
Her reaction would have made a less distracted man laugh. All at once, she shivered, gasped, and bounced backward, clutching her hands to the center of her ample bosom.
“No, of course. I mean, yes, I have a place to go. But, what about Joleen? Isn’t she here?” She craned her neck, peering round, then stopped. “Oh. Shouldn’t do that. Sorry.”
Who the hell was Joleen? She had to be Arlin’s girlfriend. Hani cleared his throat.
“We’re not together; it just … it wasn’t working.” He tried to look deeply distraught.
“But I thought you always traveled with your daughter.” She stared at him.
“Not when I … go incognito,” he said.
“Right, too much of a giveaway.”
He smiled to let her know that she understood him perfectly, picked up his guitar, and walked out into the night with Allie in the lead.
~ Chapter Two ~
Though it was less than a mile, the ride to Allie’s home was agony. Why had he asked to go with her? Why hadn’t he told her he wasn’t Arlin?
But he knew the answer. It wasn’t just that she’d be devastated when she learned the truth, though the thought of her tears made him shake with anguish. It was that he had to unlock the mystery of what was happening to him, and she was the key. Still, he couldn’t trust himself to touch her. He kept his hands clasped together. His knuckles whitened. Finally, she stopped the car in the driveway of a one-story house on Monarch Drive.
She took him in the back door and into a dark kitchen. A night-light over the sink provided the only illumination. She reached for the light switch.
No. Not yet. I’ll tell you, Allie, but not yet.
“Allie, do you mind if we keep the lights low? The smoke from that bar has really gotten to my eyes.”
“Um. I’ve got candles. Would you like that?” The pitch of her voice rose with every word.
“How romantic,” he said, taking off his hat.
She flashed him a brief little smile then stared at the floor before taking a deep breath and crossing the kitchen. Hani watched as she bent down, opened a kitchen cabinet, and lit an astonishing array of partially-burned candles. She left a couple of them on the peach tile countertop and several on the room’s three window ledges, but she didn’t put any on the rough-hewn table. It was a wise decision. Books and papers crowded the table.
In the dim light, Hani could see pine cabinets with rustic iron handles and a peach and white checkerboard linoleum floor. Dishes filled the sink, and magnets holding business cards covered the refrigerator door.
“I know what you mean about the smoke. It was crazy bad. And the smell from that fryer.”
“Huh,” he said. “Must have been the smell from the fryer that was starting to get to me too.”
“Ah, you’ve got a strong stomach. I’d been holding back from being sick since I got there.” She put her hand to her mouth, her eyes wide. “Sorry, that’s not what you call polite conversation. Momma taught me better. Sorry.”
Hani lunged forward to brush the tears from her face. When he touched her this time, he didn’t feel desire. He felt jittery and queasy. He trembled and jerked his hand away in shock.
What the hell is going on?
“Speaking of manners, where are mine?” She brushed the back of her hand against her eyes. “Would you like something to drink? Maybe a beer?”
“A beer would be great.” He didn’t want one, but he didn’t want to refuse and add any more tension to the moment.
She turned to the fridge and pulled out two beers, prying off their caps with an opener stuck to the door on a magnet. She turned to hand him his bottle then pulled away.
“Oooo. I bet you’d like a glass.”
“No. In the bottle’s great.” He grabbed the bottle by its back end, steering clear of her hand. He looked at the bottle. It had a strange green label.
“What kind of beer is this?”
“Oh, yeah. It’s called Pliny the Elder after the Roman author and, um, naturalist. I brought some back when I went to California for a convention. It’s my new favorite,” she said.
“Really.” He leaned against a cabinet and took a sip of the beer, which was like every other, chalky water with fizz. “What sort of convention?”
“Oh. I went for business. I’m an artist. I draw illustrations.”
“What do you illustrate?”
“Books of all sorts, and I do some fantasy artwork.” She sighed and looked away, though there was nothing on the refrigerator to hold her attention. “It was a science fiction and fantasy convention.” Her tone sounded like that of someone confessing a sin.
“So, you’re not my typical fan, are you?” he said with a smile. He realized he’d made a serious mistake the moment the words left his lips. Her face fell and she took a long pull on her beer.
Anxious to comfort her, he forgot to avoid touching her. He leaned in to pat her shoulder and tasted flavors he’d never tasted before. There was a caramel-esque sweetness, then pine and pineapple, grapefruit and orange—each flavor clear but quickly replaced by its successor. Finally, a whole palate of earthy and floral flavors hit him, followed by a crisp hops kick. He drew his hand back again.
That was weird. It felt like I drank something. Did I just taste beer? But, I wasn’t drinking beer. I wasn’t drinking anything. How could I taste beer? And that sure wasn’t the beer I drank.
Just to be certain, he took another sip from his bottle. It was as tasteless as a toddler pageant. He looked at her. What had he been saying?
“I mean. I meant. I meant that you seem … I could tell when we met that you were special.”
“Really?” she said, and he could hear the longing in the words.
He’d made her cry. He’d insulted her. He wasn’t doing well. What could he say to fix this?
“I could be with anyone I want, right? I picked you.”
The corners of her mouth turned up, but the smile didn’t reach her eyes. How could he make her happy again? Maybe he could complement her work?
“You know, I’d love to see what you can do, as one artist to another,” he said.
“Don’t be shy. You’re a professional. I’m certain your artwork is terrific.”
“It’s not that. It’s that my drafting room is near my bedroom and there’s some pictures of you, in my bedroom and, well, I don’t want you to think I’m totally insane.”
Uhgh. Pictures? She’s sure to notice. She’ll be heartbroken. Plus, she’ll kick me out and I’ll never figure out what the hell is happening to me.
“I’ll tell you what. I’ll go look at the pictures first. It’ll calm you down when you see I don’t care.”
She looked at him with wide eyes, her lips pressed together.
“Honey, you think that a man gets to my position and hasn’t seen a picture or two? Point the way.” As he spoke, he swung his beer bottle around for emphasis, causing it to foam and slosh over.
She led him into the living room and pointed down a hallway. For the look of the thing, Hani took a candle. It sputtered as he walked with it. He passed by the drafting room, noting the large table and the mass of books, papers, and clipboards on the floor surrounding it. He could see the bedroom across the hall. He walked into the bedroom, put down the candle, and turned on the light.
To say the room was a tribute to Arlin James would have been kind. She had plastered the walls with press releases, magazine articles, countless pictures, and a number of short letters that the man had penned himself (though not one of them had been addressed to Allie). The spaces of white wall between were smaller than most teenagers’ attention spans. Hani felt creepy standing amidst the jumble, but not because the room looked crazier than Ted Kaczynski. No, he felt that way because he was angry with himself. She worshiped Arlin James. He needed to bite the bullet and tell her he wasn’t Arlin.
He walked back down the hallway, determined to tell her. When he saw her terrified face, though, he lost his nerve again.
“Shoot, little miss. Don’t tell no one, but I got a room just like that for Joe Maphis, only much, much bigger.” He tried to look deeply embarrassed. “Really, I’m just thrilled that a woman like you would think of me like that. I am just a man, after all. Now, how’s about you show me your work?” Hani said.
She beamed at him, her eyes crinkling at the corners, and led the way to the drafting room. Though his legs were longer, he had to work to keep up. When they arrived, she held her candle up to a large poster. Hani strained to see the framed print in the flickering light.
“Beautiful. So intricate. Looks like you do calligraphy too.” He turned back to her.
She was close, very close. She stared at him, stared at his face.
“Thank you, Arlin. Yes. Thank you. I, um. I love fonts and trying different handwriting styles. I even practiced yours. I’m a dab hand at it if I do say so myself.” She put the candle down on a small table.
Hani reached for the candle, but she pulled him to her and kissed him. His mind declined beyond the capacity for rational thought. In partnership with his body it fixed upon a new mantra:
It was as though a starting gun had gone off. They caromed off the walls, grappling in turns with the buttons of her dress, the zipper of his jeans, the hooks of her bra. They only made it to the bedroom because the mess on the drafting room floor left them no place to lie down.
He moved her toward the unmade bed. A floral comforter trimmed in crocheted lace sat piled in a heap at its foot. The candle he’d left twinkled on the white wicker dresser nearby. She sat down on the bed’s edge and Hani leaned in toward her, pushing her onto her back as she looked up at him.
“Holy hell, Arlin. You must be working out. You are so damn fit.”
Even in the meager and sporadic light provided by the candle, Hani’s body was clearly that of an athlete. Slender and covered in ropy muscle, he had the lithe form of a true wrestler. The long washboard of his abdominal muscles sloped gracefully down into a sleek, elongated triangle, which started at his hips and ended in …
“And my God. I knew that you were a gifted musician, but, Lord. You are gifted in every way. Every way. Wow. Check out that package. I gotta see you.” She pulled away and took the candle to get a better look at his body. Hani’s head cleared.
Oh, thank God she stopped touching me. Better hurry.
“Allie, I have to tell you something. I’m not—”
“No. Listen,” he screamed. “You don’t understand. I’m not—”
“Calm down. I mean I know. I was finishing your sentence for you. You’re not Arlin.”
Hani stopped breathing for a moment. “You know?”
“Yeah. When you came back from my bedroom, something seemed different.”
Hani’s eyes widened as she continued.
“I didn’t know though until we were looking at my work and you got close to me. Your eyes have this unusual sparkle to them, so maybe that’s why I didn’t notice that the color was wrong, but honestly, I don’t know how I ever mistook you for Arlin, and I was sure too, so sure. Maybe it’s just the depression, or the pills the doctor gave me to treat it. I’ve been real down.”
“I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry I added to that.”
“You didn’t add to anything. It’s my cheating, soon-to-be-ex-husband. He’s coming over tomorrow afternoon with the final divorce paperwork, and I think it’s hit me hard.” She looked away. “That’s why I was in that crappy bar. I wanted … some companionship. I’ve never done anything like this in my life. Got married straight out of high school to my sweetheart. Never thought I’d end up like this.”
“You’ve got nothing to be ashamed of. I’m the one pretending to be someone I’m not.”
At this, she burst into tears. “I liked that you were willing to pretend to be Arlin just to get me into bed. Is that crazy or what? I mean, it’s not like I’m a bikini model here,” she said, gesturing at her well-rounded body. “What man would want me?”
That was what she’d thought? That he’d pretended to be Arlin to get her into bed? Of course it was. What else would she think? That he experienced something weird and supernatural every time he touched her? That he couldn’t stand to see the hurt look in her eyes when she discovered he wasn’t her hero? Hani’s conscience stopped him cold.
So what if she thinks you lied to get her into bed? You’re standing naked in her bedroom and she just asked what man would want her. Tell the poor girl that you’re that man.
As he held her gaze, Hani hunched his shoulders, pursed his lips, and raised his hand like he sat at a desk in fourth-grade classroom.
She laughed through her tears.
“My husband sure doesn’t want me.”
“Yeah. You should be really devastated over losing him. He sounds like prince charming.”
“He was, once, a long time ago. But you’re wrong about me. I have plenty to be ashamed about. My feeling flattered you pretended …” She stared at him for a long moment. “It’s …” She closed her eyes and sighed. “It’s just that wasn’t the only reason I went along with the Arlin thing after I figured it out.”
Hani raised his eyebrows and nodded his head. When she said nothing more, he raised his left hand and spun it in slow circles from the wrist in time with the nodding.
“All right, you’ve been honest with me. Truth is, I liked the idea that maybe you might not want to see me again,” she said.
Hani stopped nodding and fell back on the crumpled sheets.
“I’m sorry. It’s just I haven’t even finalized my damn divorce. I don’t want to get into anything long term, or maybe I do, I’m really not sure. I’ve never had sex with a man and not wanted something long term, but I think my judgment is probably off, and I shouldn’t try.”
Hani took a deep breath.
“I can understand that,” he said.
“So, you want me to drive you back now?”
“So, where do we go from here then?”
“I’m thinking,” Hani said.
“Okay.” Wiping away her tears with the back of her hand, she grabbed a pillow and squeezed it.
“How about this? I don’t know any good, cheap diners in Austin. I bet you do.”
She nodded, squinting her eyes and pursing her lips in puzzlement.
“Great. Tomorrow, I’ll go to that diner. If you want to see me again, you drop in. If not …” he shrugged.
“That’s, that’s great, but it should be Thursday, not tomorrow. It’s too soon.”
“Okay, but I’m gonna go there tomorrow too. I was serious about the part where I didn’t know any good diners.”
She laughed. She laughed so hard tears fell again. “Ray’s,” she said, through heaving breaths. “Ray’s place. Near the intersection of Courtin and Mesa. I can’t remember the name of the little side street it’s on, but you’ll see it. It’s great and cheap as dirt. It’s definitely what you want.”
She stopped talking and took some deep breaths.
“You are so funny.” She looked him over, taking in the details of his naked body. “And handsome. What are you doing here with me?”
“Hoping to get laid.”
She laughed again. “Seriously?” she said.
I’ve never wanted anyone but you. It doesn’t get more serious than that.
“Oh, I’m pretty darn serious.”
“Is that ‘wow’ as in yes? Or ‘wow’ as in get the hell out?”
“As in yes.”
He moved beside her on the bed, took her in his arms, and kissed her. She melted at his touch. If anything, the kiss felt better than it had before. He lowered her onto her back and moved down her body, kissing as he went. Doing it felt strange, but wonderful. There was so much pleasure, and it seemed to be coming from everywhere. He couldn’t understand what was going on, but he didn’t care. He felt too good to care. Slowly, he ran the tip of his tongue around the areola of her left breast. He went mad with desire.
“Suck it. Please, please suck it,” she said.
He took her nipple in his mouth, sucking it gently, but gently wasn’t enough. He sucked harder.
“Oh my god. That’s perfect. Do the other one.”
But he didn’t think that was what she really wanted. Instead, acting on an impulse, he moved up and tickled the areola of her right breast with the tip of his cock. He went mad with need.
“Holy, shit. You are so kinky. I love it. I could never get my husband to do stuff like that.”
He wasn’t listening, though. He was lost in the pleasure. He sucked the left breast too, hard, like the right. She’d be raw in the morning if he kept this up. He couldn’t believe she liked it. But he couldn’t believe he liked it either. He’d never enjoyed any of this. Acting on another impulse, he kissed her neck and scraped his teeth along her. She screamed; she loved it. He shivered with sensation. It was … Was it like he was? No. He did the teeth thing again. The moment his teeth touched her he felt pleasure and aching and longing and deep sexual hunger and … And then it all clicked into place.
He was feeling her. He was FEELING through her. It didn’t matter that it was impossible; it was happening. This connection with her, it was why he had FELT desire in the bar, why he had FELT jittery and queasy when she had thought she had embarrassed herself. When he had TASTED beer before, it had been the beer she drank. He had TASTED what she had tasted. He had FELT what she had felt. It seemed he FELT, TASTED, even SMELLED whatever she did when he touched her. After all, hadn’t he suddenly felt sick from the smell of the fryer when he had touched her hand? Things usually had little or no smell. He had never smelled anything strongly enough for it to make him sick.
As she lay there on her back, he sat up beside her and reached between her legs, longing to give her pleasure. But when he stroked her with his fingertip, the sensation didn’t FEEL right. He moved his face down between her legs and gave her slow, gentle licks. From the moment he started, was lost in NEED. He licked her and licked her. He couldn’t get enough of it.
She squirmed. He tried to hold her in place so he could continue, but she pushed him back and drifted down to return the favor. She took him into her mouth. He was annoyed at the interruption of her pleasure. Her pleasure was what he wanted; it was so good. He had to have more of it. He rolled and went back to licking her. He kept licking until she trembled with need. She tried to stroke him with her hand. He took her hand in his and kissed it.
“No,” he whispered. “I’m enjoying what I’m doing. It’s what I want.”
She had to catch her breath before she could speak.
“But I want you to have fun too,” she said.
“I just told you. I am.”
“Yes, but I—”
“Listen. I’ll tell you if I want something. I promise. Just let me take the lead in this dance. Okay?”
“Okay. I um, I went out and bought condoms. They’re in the drawer.”
Holy crap. I hadn’t even thought about birth control in all this. Thank God you did.
“Oh. Oh, yeah,” he said. He reached into the nightstand drawer and rolled one on. He was glad to have it, and not just for birth control reasons. It deadened his sensations a bit so he could concentrate better on hers. When he was done, he circled her clitoris with the tip of his finger. The pleasure he FELT made him pant with need, and she cried out. He flicked her clit, and she screamed again.
“Good Lord, woman, you’re more pent up than the Colorado at the Hoover Dam,” he said with an accentuated southern drawl.
“Is that your Arlin impersonation? Lord you’re a funny man. Maybe you’re an angel. You’re kind of too good to be true.”
“Oh, I’m far from an angel. I might just be from that other place. I’ve already corrupted you. You’re having sex with me and I bet you don’t even know my name.” He flicked her clit again.
Her words came only after a long pause for breath. “Handy something.”
“Wrong. Gonna punish you now.”
“It’s Ha-Knee. Ha, like ha, ha that’s funny. Knee, like the body part. Say it,” he said.
“Very good. I want you to know what to scream later.”
She ached so badly he couldn’t wait a second longer. He slid into her missionary style, simultaneously FEELING her body take him in and feeling his own body filling her, but his body’s sensations were completely uninteresting, even more so than usual. He had enough feeling to be aware of what he was doing, but no more than that, and he was glad of it.
She wanted him to go deeper. He grabbed at her plentiful backside and sank himself into her. There was a spot, a little bump at the back. He needed to reach it, to rub it. It was deep inside. He put his full weight on her, crushing her beneath him. He hit it.
“Got it,” he whispered aloud, a millisecond before the scream.
He rubbed it in the steady rhythm her body wanted, not rushing, just letting her pleasure build.
He moaned. He usually made no sound during sex, but he couldn’t help himself. The pleasure was the most intense thing he’d ever felt. It was like the sensations were under a magnifying lens. As he moaned, the pleasure increased. He moaned again and FELT another surge of it.
“You like the sound of my voice, don’t you?” he said.
“You want me to talk to you? Is that what you like?”
“What I like? You’re fucking kidding me. You’re better than anything I ever imagined. You’re perfect. You’re giving me everything, everything I fucking need,” she said, pausing for breath between the words.
“Oooo. Dirty girl. Is dirty what you like?”
This time, the pleasure came as a spasm.
I can’t imagine why you want me to talk filth at you, but I’ll give you anything you want. Anything for you.
“Yeah. You want me to talk while I stroke your hot, wet cunt with my big package?”
It wasn’t. A rush of NEED followed on the heels of his words. He could FEEL her body straining with its effort to get him to increase the pace, but he kept his strokes slow, making her wait for her release.
“Oh, this pussy is sweet. Worth the wait, you know? Really choice, class ‘A’ fuckhole here.”
He FELT the pleasure that forced a moan from her lips.
“Jesus. You just love this. Yeah. You love having a stranger in your bed telling you how slick your pussy is. And you couldn’t even say ‘dick.’ It was my ‘package.’ So, this is the real you. Tell me, did you fuck your husband in this bed? Your pathetic fool husband who likes his sex vanilla? A woman like you is too damn juicy for that.”
She pulled at him in a panic. She NEEDED him. She NEEDED to feel him driving into her. She NEEDED to come.
No. Slow boil. Almost there. Gonna make you boil over, Allie.
He kept the slow, steady pace. She kept trying to get him to increase it.
After a few more minutes of slow pounding he said, “So, the only place you got what you wanted was in your sleazy little fantasies. Well, you’re gonna act them all out tonight. I’m not letting you out of this bed until we make every fantasy real. I’m gonna fuck you raw.”
The words hit her harder than any thrust he could give her, and she came. They were both in heaven. The orgasm went on and on and on. He rammed himself into her again and again and ground against her clitoris with his pelvis to draw her climax out longer. Her body jerked, shook, and quivered with the pleasure. When the orgasm ended, and she lay still, he wanted to cry. Then, he FELT the heaviness of sleep start to drift over her.
“No,” he said. “No, no. You’ve got more in you.”
He tried to stroke the same place again, but at some point his body had come without him noticing. He was as limp as a dishrag.
He wanted to touch her there. He could FEEL that if he did, he could light her on fire again. He could SENSE the rhythm that she needed. It was beyond frustrating. He lay still, holding her and imagining what he needed to do to her. He could practically FEEL it happening.
“Oh my God. You are so hard. You are so hard,” Allie cried out suddenly. “You really know how to use that thing. You really fucking use it. You’re the best thing I’ve ever fucking felt.”
He concentrated on the image of his body rubbing her just how and where she needed it and FELT his senses expand. Though he lay perfectly still and completely flaccid, in his mind he tickled that little bump inside her with his tip over and over. He focused hard on making her feel pleasure. He wanted her to have ecstasy. He had the most extraordinary sense of power, like it was flowing out of him. She screamed and screamed, much harder than she had before, and he rode her waves of lust and need.
The ride lasted for sixty sublime seconds. Then, a tsunami of pleasure wiped him out, and blackness took him.
~ Chapter Three ~
Stalling, Skills, and a Big Red Truck
Golden morning sunlight crept over him. He awoke, horrified to discover himself trapped, once again, in the confines of his own body. He cried out with the pain of losing Allie’s sensations. Realizing what he’d done, he leapt from the bed, staring at Allie. He didn’t want to wake her. He wasn’t sure she wanted him there.
He stood over her, watching her sleep, but the ache in him wasn’t satisfied with watching. He gave up the fight. He was sure he could talk her into a little more fun. Last night had ended too quickly.
“Allie. Ahhhh-llie,” he sang.
No reaction. Maybe she was pretending to be asleep. He should go. He took a step backward and right onto the heel of one of her pumps. The arch of his left foot met the point of the stiletto heel. Leaping into the air, he yelled, grabbed his injured foot, and collapsed onto the bed. Allie did not stir.
Okay, Allie. Now you’ve got me worried. No one could have slept through that.
Hani limped to the other side of the bed, reached down to give her a shake, and found himself sprawled on the floor. He had blacked out. Why had he blacked out? The clock on the dresser told him he hadn’t been out long, but something strange was going on. He watched her chest. It rose and fell.
You look fine, just deeply asleep, but I think I can’t touch you without passing out.
Should he call an ambulance? If he did that and she didn’t need it, she would be pissed as hell. She didn’t look like she needed it. But what if she did? While he thought, he walked around the room collecting his discarded clothing. Every time he reached for something his hands shook and twitched. He couldn’t find his shirt and one shoe. He moved into the hallway, located his shirt, and walked to the drafting room. He found his other shoe under a collapsed pile of books.
As he slowly pulled his shoe on over his injured foot, he noticed a colorful rendering of a fairy holding a ball of light. A complex array of sigils, runes, and miniature illustrations covered the ball, making it look like a glowing, three-dimensional, illuminated manuscript. He glanced at the signature on the print and saw Allie’s name. Hani was no artist. He could barely draw stick figures. He boggled at the idea that her hands could do such a thing, and for a moment, he lost himself in the memory of feeling her.
Maybe he should stick around a while. He had to make sure she was okay, right? Deciding he would wait, at least for a little while, he inspected the drafting table. He had hoped for the excitement of a half-finished piece, but an empty sheet of paper taunted him with its blank face. Ironically, it was the only clear space in the disheveled room.
There was a small table with a glass top at the side of the drafting table. On the table sat a cup full of pens and the remains of the candle from the night before. Now that he had enough light to see it, he laughed aloud. The table’s pedestal was a dragon. The creature’s head and folded wings supported the glass top.
No, you’re really not Arlin’s typical fan, are you Allie?
Hani reached into the cup, pulled out a pen, and unscrewed its cap. The pen had a strange, chisel-like tip. As he had nothing better to do, he hunched over the drafting table and attempted to draw one of the simple runes from the picture. Drawing the rune was strangely easy. He compared his version with the original. They were interchangeable—not identical. The two runes looked as though they had been drawn on different occasions by the same hand. He tried another, more ornate, rune—with the same result.
Astonished, he attempted a copy of one of the complex miniature illustrations (which he recognized as a tiny self-portrait of Allie). Instead of looking at the picture, he closed his eyes and drew from memory, imagining Allie’s face lit by the sun, as he’d just seen it. The result was better than the original illustration.
He dropped the pen and fell into the nearby chair, which squeaked in complaint. He hadn’t had enough shocks in the last twenty-four hours? Now he was an artist? How could this be?
Okay, no idea how I can suddenly draw like an artist, but I shared her pleasure. Maybe now I’m sharing her talent?
How could he test his idea? He picked up the pen and signed his name. The words looked like his signature. He signed his name again, but concentrated on how Allie had felt to him. The words were unrecognizable. Excited, he concentrated as he had before and wrote Allie’s name. His efforts produced a perfect replica of the signature on the fairy print.
What else could he do? He’d seen some calligraphy. He used the same technique and wrote a florid, scrolling version of his name.
He had to use his new-found talent. He unearthed a sketchpad from under one of the teetering piles of books and walked into the bedroom.
There lay Sleeping Beauty. He sat on the edge of the bed and sketched every facet of her face. When he finished, he wrote “Allie” across the top in the most elaborate font he could compose. The resulting picture was masterful, but it still didn’t seem to do her justice.
Oh, man. You’ve got it bad. You know she’s fine. You’re just looking for an excuse to stay.
He knew his conscience spoke the truth. He sensed she was not in danger. Something in him was certain, but he still didn’t want to leave without saying goodbye. He’d be sneaking out on her.
Another excuse. You’re supposed to go. That was clear. She liked your sense of humor. Write her a funny note if you’re worried about sneaking out, but get the hell out.
Yes. Something funny. But what? His heart sinking, he stared at the Arlin covered walls with their pictures, their tabloid clippings, and their letters to other women. Letters to other women. Hadn’t she bragged that she could do Arlin’s handwriting? If she could, he probably could too.
He turned to a new sheet in the sketchbook and copied the first letter. She was right; she was good at it. He couldn’t distinguish his attempt from the original.
Damn, Allie. Arlin better watch out if you ever get his checkbook. Back to the kitchen.
Once he’d walked across the checkerboard of the linoleum, he couldn’t stop himself from opening the door to the fridge. He’d wanted not to take anything of hers, but he couldn’t fight the hunger any longer. He helped himself to an apple and polished it off in under a minute. He was still hungry, but he could manage now. He dried his hands on a peach kitchen towel and began his search. There it was on the countertop, the autograph book she’d pushed at him last night. It was brand new; he flipped from empty page to empty page.
Good, I won’t be spoiling any other autographs.
He sat down, shoved aside a pile of mail, and wrote.
It’s hard being a super, mega, country star, especially when you’ve only been one for a few hours. Sorry I had to go, darling, but I do have a reputation to uphold, after all. I can’t afford to make exceptions. I mean, once word leaks out that a country sensation has gone soft, people begin to disobey you, and then it’s nothing but work, work, work all the time. Thanks for the restaurant tip. I hope they make good omelets. I usually like an omelet on Thursday mornings.
Dirty Little Kisses,
Arlin (though I’ve taken to spelling my name Hani now)
There. He thought it set the right tone. It was funny, it made no demands, and it told her that their deal was still on. True, he had plagiarized The Princess Bride shamelessly, but he felt certain a woman with a dragon pedestal table would recognize the reference. Who knows? It might even win him points.
Opening the book to the letter he’d written, he propped it up on the kitchen table. He sighed. Maybe just one more look at her before he left. He walked into the bedroom and watched her sleep.
Okay, time to go.
Ten more minutes.
But ten minutes later, he hadn’t left, or ten minutes after that. It was nearly nine A.M. when the doorbell rang. Thinking whoever it was would go away, he ignored it. Within moments though, someone hammered on the door.
“C’mon, Allie. I know you’re in there. Your car’s out front. I don’t care you said afternoon. I got things to do and I want to get this over with. You can goddamn well get the hell out of bed,” a man screamed.
Shit. It’s her husband.
“Answer the fucking door, Allie. Don’t make me use my key.”
Oh, this isn’t happening.
He ran to the kitchen. Tearing away the top two pages of the sketchbook, he jammed on his hat and slung on his guitar. The front door opened. He rushed out the back. Hurrying down to the street past a huge red truck parked on the driveway, Hani risked a backward glance. Allie’s front door stood open. He waited across the street, but no one came out. Sighing, he began the hike back to the lot where he’d parked his car. As he walked, he wiped away tears with the back of his hand.
~ Chapter Four ~
Concert in a Kitchen
Hani had never intended to return to Houston. His “plan” (if one could dignify his actions with such a word) had been to try his luck as a musician in Austin. He had surrendered the keys to his first apartment, packed what little he had in the trunk of the old Chevy Cavalier, and thrown his blanket and pillow in the back seat. As far as his plan went, he was right on schedule. He’d survived an open-mic, and here he was, driving into Austin for breakfast the next day.
Ray’s was easy to find, as promised. Everything was tidy and clean, but the place looked a bit down-at-the-heels. The decor featured cracked linoleum, mismatched silverware, and red-leatherette booths patched here and there with duct tape. Unusual for Texas, a coat rack stood by the front door. Hani hung his hat on it.
Since the restaurant was empty, he took a four-person table and sat down in one of the scuffed chrome tube chairs. He ordered an omelet and a fruit plate from a tired looking waitress in a dowdy uniform who spun her pen around the thumb of her right hand. Afterward, he sat back with his flavorless black coffee to stare at his portrait of Allie.
Hani couldn’t even try to puzzle out what was happening to him. He just kept thinking about Allie and sharing her pleasure. Within moments, he’d lost himself in memories. It jarred him from his trance when the waitress came over to top off his cup. His eyes focused on her. Though the uniform was dowdy, she wasn’t. True, her shoulder-length, chestnut hair needed the attention of a brush, and there were small circles under her brown eyes, but her smile, when she turned it on Hani, was warm and welcoming.
“Pretty picture. You draw it?” she asked.
Hani nodded again.
“You two break up?”
“You could say that.”
She gave him a long look then said, “How’d you like some pancakes with blueberries in them, on the house? They’re extra good that way, my favorite.”
Hani’s feet hurt and he was exhausted. He’d been feeling fine a minute ago. It hadn’t been that long a walk to the car. Why was he so tired?
Hani looked down. The waitress stood patting him on the forearm.
“You know, I’ve never been big into pancakes, but I could use some company. I don’t suppose you’d care to sit down”—he looked at her badge—“Roberta?” His heart thudded as he fought to catch his breath.
Her lip quivered. “Well, I do have a break coming to me.” She walked toward the kitchen, whistling “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” on her way.
“Johnny, it’s dead in here. Can you fix me a blueberry stack? I’m taking my break,” she yelled as she walked off.
Just to prove to himself that he could still do it, Hani fished out a pen, shoved the silverware across the table’s chipped Formica, and sketched Allie on the back of the paper place mat. He put the finishing touched on Allie’s chin and stopped to admire her. Roberta reappeared with his omelet in her left hand, his fruit plate balanced on her left forearm, and her pancakes in her right hand. She put the pancakes in front of the chair to his right. Rather than setting his plates on the portrait, she placed them to his left.
“Huh. You twirl your pen too.” She pointed at his hand.
Hani looked down. While marveling at his new sketch, he’d been spinning his pen around the thumb of his right hand without knowing it. It was rather odd that he hadn’t noticed this, seeing as he’d never spun a pen before in his life. She picked up her pen and spun it. They did this in stereo for a few seconds.
“I have to ask, do we know each other? You seem so familiar,” she said.
Hani laughed. “You’d be surprised how often I get that. No, we’ve never met.”
She nodded. “So, what kind of boy don’t like pancakes? You got to at least taste these; Johnny is a pancake god.”
She pushed the chipped plate toward him. He set down the pen and took a bite. The pancakes were hot, soft, and sticky, with a cloyingly sweet, doughy flavor.
“Wow, they are good, but I’ll stick with my egg-white omelet, thanks.”
“Suit yourself.” The old chrome chair squeaked against the floor as she pulled it out and collapsed into it.
He scooted in closer and let his arm rub against hers so he could FEEL her.
Yes, you needed to sit down. I’m glad your feet are getting a little rest. What is? Oh, oh damn—
She took her first bite, and his brain shut down. The TASTE was incredible, a fluffy cloud sprinkled with little pinpricks of sweet-tart, lingering, blueberry flavor, which burst like bubbles. He put his hand to his mouth to make certain he wasn’t drooling.
“You forgot to get yourself a coffee. Have some of mine.” He pushed the cup toward her.
“Maybe just a little sip. I’ll get you more in a minute.”
The aroma which he SMELLED as she drew the cup closer was mouthwatering. She took a sip. His coffee TASTED rich, and dark, and nutty, and slightly bitter.
“Thanks for joining me. I’m glad not to be alone,” he said.
“Handsome boy like you gonna find another girl. Don’t you fret. I know it seems like the biggest thing in the world, but that’s just because you haven’t lived much yet. You can’t be more than, what, seventeen?”
He FELT her chest constrict and her eyes struggle to stop from overflowing.
“Tell me what’s wrong, Roberta.”
“It’s nothing.” She pulled away.
“C’mon. Told you mine. Only fair.”
There was a long pause. Her words, when they came, were a whisper.
“I was gonna go to college, but I never made it. I had a son. He’d be your age. I … I was only seventeen. I was on my own and”—she closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and exhaled in a burst—“I gave him up for adoption. I made sure he went to a good couple with plenty of money to take care of him, but he grew up calling someone else momma.” She looked shocked, as though her own mouth had betrayed her.
“Then you did better than my mother. She left me to die in a Dumpster. A garbage man found me and fished me out. They figured I was in there quite a while. I got just about every infection there is. Was sick for most of my childhood, too. They could never find a family to adopt me because I took too damn much care—went through more than a dozen foster families and special care facilities. I only know my name and where I’m from because they found her and arrested her. I never had anyone to call momma.”
“Oh my God. I am so sorry. Of all the people in the world to blab to when I’ve never told anyone all these years. It’s just … I guess it’s just you seem so familiar somehow. I got all comfortable and thought to myself it would be so good to finally tell someone and …”
Hani took a deep, steadying breath. He reached …
and patted Roberta’s hand on the table. He didn’t like what he FELT. Roberta was a mess: racing heart, tearing eyes, clenched stomach.
“Roberta, I wish my mother had done like you. I would have had a home and a family. I would have gotten to go to school with other children instead of in a special care facility with other sick kids. You did the only thing you could. You were a kid yourself. But you didn’t leave your boy to die.”
She covered her face with her hands and mumbled, “Thank you. Really, thank you. After all these years. You’ve got to be just about the only person in the world except the boy himself I’d believe that from.”
Hani smiled. “Eat your breakfast. It’s your favorite.”
“It is,” she agreed with a wisp of a smile.
They ate in silence. When they had cleared their plates she said, “Johnny is a pancake god all right. I gotta get as many of them as I can before he leaves.”
“Yep. In about a month he’s leaving for six to ten months on a tour of duty. His last I think. His brother, Ray, owns this place and Johnny’s been helping out ever since Ray had a heart attack. You wouldn’t happen to be a short-order cook, would ya? We’re still looking.”
“I’m …” He was about to say, “I’m no cook,” when he looked down at the place mat and saw his sketch of Allie. He hadn’t been a pen-spinning artist either, until today.
“I’m a fast learner. Would Johnny give me some training? I am looking for a job, and I’m not picky about my hours.”
“Well now. Let’s go on in and ask him, why not?”
Hani reached over and held out his hand. She shook it. The tight feeling in her chest was gone.
That’s better. Even if I go up in flames, you got something out of that.
“Let me just set this up.” She hurried into the kitchen, returning ten minutes later.
“I talked him into giving you a go, but he’s kinda demanding,” she whispered. “That’s why we’ve been having so much trouble finding a replacement, and you gotta know we don’t pay like Denny’s or anything like that.”
“I could do with a good ass chewing. Would round out my morning.”
Roberta laughed. “That’s the spirit. Good luck to you. I got to get back.”
“Wait, I gotta pay for my breakfast.”
“Nah. You’re staff. And even if you ain’t, your money’s no good. Get on into the kitchen before you get on Johnny’s bad side.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He hunched his shoulders and cowered, making Roberta laugh.
Like the dining area, everything in the kitchen was well-worn. Dents covered the stainless steel sink, as well as many of the pots that sat around it, and the rubber gaskets on the spray hose looked torn. The grill also showed its age; it had a bent hood and faded knobs—someone had taken a magic marker to them to touch them up.
“You must be Johnny. I’m Hani.” He held out his hand to the clean-cut black man wearing jeans, a t-shirt, and a white apron and standing at the grill. The man frowned.
Okay. Is this gonna work?
He had to admit to himself that it was a risky, stupid plan. He lowered his hand.
“You a cook?” Johnny said.
“I can cook, sir.” (It was a lie, of course. Hani’s talents did not extend to cooking; Hani could burn water.)
“Roberta, she tells me you think you can learn what I do. Son, I cooked in the army. You don’t just pick this up and do it ‘cause you can make yourself breakfast.”
“I’m only asking for a chance, sir.”
Johnny came closer. His expression softened. “I feel like I know you. You hang out in the blues bars round here?” Johnny said.
“Love blues.” It wasn’t a complete lie; Hani did love blues; he just hadn’t been actively loving them in the bars in and around greater Austin.
“You a musician?”
“Got the empty wallet to prove it.”
Johnny laughed. “I hear that. All right, Mr. Musician. I’ll give you your chance. But first you gotta play me some blues to prove you ain’t lying to me.”
“Shake on it?” Hani extended his hand again.
Johnny wiped his hand on his apron and shook Hani’s. Hani FELT the handshake from both sides and relaxed, slightly.
“I’ll go get my guitar.”
“You do that.”
Hani came back with his guitar slung over his shoulder.
“Got a little Ragtime Blues for you. I’m sure a blues man like yourself has heard this one before. Gonna play you Blind Arthur Blake’s Diddy Wah Diddy.”
Johnny nodded and smiled. Hani began. The twanging tune bounced merrily along as Hani sang about how a girl asked him for more ‘Diddy Wah Diddy,’ and he became known as Mr. ‘Diddy Wah Diddy,’ and he was thrown from Church for talking about ‘Diddy Wah Diddy,’ all without ever finding out what Diddy Wah Diddy meant. Hani’s voice was wholesome and unaffected, the perfect counterpoint to the happy nonsense of the lyrics.
As Hani played, Johnny stood over the grill cooking scrambled eggs, hash browns, and bacon—tapping his foot to the beat and singing “I sure wish someone would tell me what Diddy Wah Diddy means” at the chorus. It was good that the place was close to empty; Johnny lost track and had to remake the eggs because they overcooked.
“Sweet Jesus. With a talent like that, you need a record label, not a spatula,” Johnny said.
“You give me a label, I’ll take that. Otherwise, the spatula will have to do.”
Johnny laughed again and set to teaching Hani how he liked his pancakes made. Hani watched, trying to memorize the motions, but knowing he couldn’t do it; he had to count on the handshake. How could it be enough? He was insane to have even tried this, but after his performance at open-mic night he realized how badly he needed a job.
Relax. You only touched Roberta a few minutes ago and now you’re a pen spinner.
“All right now. Flip me some cakes. You make me some pretty ones, we’ll try an omelet.”
Hani took over the grill and his hands just seemed to know what to do. He built a short stack that looked like an IHOP menu picture. Johnny nodded at the pancakes and taught Hani how to make an omelet. Again, Hani watched. Again, he produced a perfect replica of Johnny’s work.
“Now, I’m gonna have to teach you my recipes. Gonna take time to do that. And the blueberry pancakes are a specialty. Gonna have to promise to keep it secret.” Johnny paused.
“And I’m gonna keep my eye on you. Just ‘cause you can do one order don’t mean you can handle a full house.”
“Does this mean I’m hired?” Hani said.
Johnny smiled. “Can’t let a talent like that starve, can we?”
Hani pumped the air with his fist.
“All right, all right. Now put your guitar away and grab yourself an apron. We got work to do.”
Hani got rid of the guitar and came back to tie on an apron, noticing himself whistling for the first time in his life. He spent the rest of the day standing over the grill with Johnny. By six o’clock, his feet really did hurt him. By ten, when the diner closed, he was completely drained. He stumbled out to his car and fell asleep in the back seat.
~ Chapter Five ~
The Big Picture
Morning came. There was banging. And sun. Lots of sun.
Should be a law.
More banging. Hani sat up, about to give his full and uncensored opinion of the drummer’s rhythmic efforts, when he noticed Roberta looking in at him.
“Don’t tell me you slept here in the lot. You can’t let Johnny know that. He’ll kill you, talent or no. Get yourself some new clothes and hustle in before he turns up. It’s a damn good thing he asked me to open.”
Threatened with losing his new job, Hani leapt from the car, grabbed a clean shirt and jeans from the trunk, and did a quick change in the back seat, applying a fresh layer of deodorant as a half-assed concession to decorum. He bolted from the car and ran in the back door after Roberta.
“We’ve probably got twenty minutes or so. Come with me.” She took him by the hand and led him to a crowded notice board on the wall near the restrooms.
Hani could FEEL a rock in the pit of her stomach. Business cards and fliers for painters and handymen covered the cork board. Roberta flipped through the cards, sifting.
“Why didn’t you tell me that your girl tossed you out? We could have done this yesterday. I know I saw a couple of ads for apartments around here.”
“What kind of person uses a cork board these days? I mean, it’s all Internet,” Hani said.
“The kind that doesn’t use the Internet and has to take what she can get. Bet you she’s middle-aged or probably even older. Here’s one.”
She came up with a couple more then disappeared to set up the kitchen while Hani made calls. Only one of the numbers answered, but it was dirt cheap (Hani could just about afford dirt—not topsoil, but dirt was within reach of his budget). He made an appointment to see the apartment at lunchtime and scurried into the bathroom to wash his face, just as Johnny came in.
Johnny jumped back into teaching him. Hani worked up a good appetite by lunchtime, but ran out to see the apartment instead of eating. He had to walk back in to talk to Roberta when he realized that he didn’t know where the hell he was going.
The place was a walk-up over the second garage of an old house, and though it was small, it was clean and furnished. Just as Roberta had predicted, it was the house of an older woman. Jeannette was delighted to get a response to her ad from someone she already knew. When Hani insisted that they really hadn’t met before, she decided he reminded her of her son.
The path to the apartment’s front door meandered through a flower-filled garden to the back of Jeannette’s house. Standing on the path, Hani shook her hand on the deal (as soon as she did he SMELLED a heavenly mixture of flowers she told him were jasmine and petunias that had been confused into blooming by the warm weather). He had just enough for the deposit and most of the rent, promising Jeannette the rest tomorrow when he got paid. She handed him the keys with a smile.
Back at the diner, it got busy at lunch, and Johnny let Hani handle a few orders the third time Frannie, a cute, blond waitress, reminded him that she needed the pancakes for table three. Hani put in a full day and drove home to his new place bone tired. On his way home, he saw a drug store and stopped in on an impulse to buy some poster board and colored pencils. It was the very last of his money, but he’d eaten at the diner, and he’d get paid tomorrow, so he’d have plenty then.
He parked in the driveway and unloaded his stuff: plastic trash bags containing his clothes and soft goods, the twelve-inch T.V he’d bought used, a box with his kitchen stuff, his guitar. He set the kitchen box down on the counter near the microwave. The rest he dumped on the floor as soon as he walked in. Once everything was upstairs, which took no more than fifteen minutes, he luxuriated in a long, hot shower. It was the first time he’d had to himself since he’d started his new job.
His new job. He thought about how he’d sealed it with a handshake. What was happening to him? As far as he could remember, he hadn’t been bitten by any radioactive spiders lately. So, what the fuck?
He tried to arrange the puzzle pieces. A girl had touched him, and when she’d touched him, something had happened and suddenly he could FEEL her, FEEL her from the inside out …
“And sideways, and slantways, and longways, and backways, and squareways, and front ways, and any other ways that you can think of.”
Yeah. Pretty sure that’s not what Willy Wonka had in mind. Besides, you’d touched lots of girls and you never felt any of their sensations. Not until you met Allie.
What was it about Allie? Try though he might, he couldn’t answer that. He decided he’d skip that for now. Back to the basics. He’d FELT Allie, and not just her either. He’d FELT Roberta. He’d even FELT Johnny, though Johnny hadn’t been tired, or tasting food, or experiencing anything out of the ordinary at the time.
So, number one, he could FEEL, TOUCH, and TASTE exactly what a person he touched felt, touched, and tasted. Number two, once he’d FELT a person, he seemed to be able to use that person’s physical skills. He’d gotten talent in art from Allie and talent in cooking from Johnny. Oh, and whistling and pen spinning from Roberta, but whatever this thing that was happening to him was, it only increased his physical capabilities. It hadn’t made him smarter. If he’d been borrowing brain power from the people he touched, he knew he would have gotten some from Allie. She’d been plenty smart, though she’d tried to hide it. Number three, at least with Allie, he’d been able to change what she felt, to make her feel what he wanted her to feel, though what he’d wanted her to feel hadn’t been real. Dammit. This wasn’t getting him anywhere, and the water had gotten cold.
There’s no way I’m solving this tonight. I’m so tired it feels like I’m buzzing all over.
He got out, dried off, and wrapped a towel around his waist. In addition to the bedroom with its closet-sized bath, the apartment had a room that served as a combined sitting area and kitchen. The room was just large enough to hold an aged tweed couch on the one side of the tile kitchen counter and a table with two chairs on the other.
After pulling on a pair of sweatpants, Hani sat down at the kitchen table with his purchases and the first portrait of Allie he’d drawn. He opened the pencils and began a large-scale version of Allie’s portrait on the poster board. He drew for hours, pushing himself to finish before he slept. The finished product was sublime. He’d captured Allie just as he remembered her. He pulled a chair from the kitchen table into the bedroom and propped the picture up on it.
The bedroom contained a queen bed, a particle-board dresser, and a matching nightstand holding an ugly lamp (by some ludicrous twist of fate, the lamp was a Hawaiian hula girl, the lampshade blossoming from the center of her head like a flower in a pot). Hani didn’t own any queen sheets, so he pulled a flat twin from his trash bags and laid it over the mattress then climbed in with his blanket and pillow. After reaching over to the nightstand and setting his digital alarm clock, he lay in bed looking at the new picture of Allie in the light of his bedside lamp, but he couldn’t keep his eyes open. He gave in and felt up little Miss Hula until he hit her switch.
~ Chapter Six ~
The alarm went off and Hani levered himself out of bed. He smiled at Allie. He needed to put her up on the wall. He leaned over her, admiring the light he’d caught in her eyes. Something was missing. Yes, Allie’s signature. That was it. He smiled to himself. This was her work, after all. He was just the artist’s hand. He got out the pencils and chose several, deciding to try the colors on a separate sheet and put the best on the poster.
A blue, maybe.
He selected one and signed Allie’s name, or rather, he tried to sign it. He realized with a wrench that he couldn’t FEEL her talent anymore. Crushed, he tried over and over. Finally, the pencil broke in his hand, as shattered as he was.
And he remembered the night before. He’d pushed himself. He’d raced to get this portrait done. Had he known? Had he sensed on some level that Allie was about to leave him? Yes. He hadn’t understood at the time, but yes. He’d known. Somehow, he’d known. There’d definitely been a “VIBE.”
He compared the mess on the page to the portrait. There was no remaining trace of Allie’s talent. Its loss was unbearable. He’d thought that even if he never saw her again, at least he’d always have that piece of her. But now it was gone. He’d shared her gift for a mere forty-eight hours, two glorious days. He cried for a long time then realized how late it was. He ran into the bathroom and threw water on his face and clothes on his body.
A tiny, functioning, part of his mind reminded him that this was the last of his clean clothing and he’d have to do some laundry soon. Jeannette had given him a key for her garage laundry, but he didn’t have any soap. He’d have to go grocery shopping when he got paid today. He got into the car; it was good that it was a short trip. There wasn’t much in the tank, more money, and he still had to pay Jeannette what he’d promised her.
Heartbroken over the loss of Allie’s skill and worried about his expenses, Hani raced to Ray’s Place. Johnny was in the dining room. He looked upset.
Please don’t fire me. I’m only five minutes late.
“Something up?” Hani tried to keep the fear out of his voice.
“I’ll say. Roberta’s off today and we’re in Trouble (yes, you could hear the capital “T”) cause Colleen just quit and Frannie’s sick. Can you wait tables? I got no one to do it till the shift change. You’ll get your regular pay plus tips.”
“Sounds good to me. Can use the money,” Hani said with relief.
“Thank the good Lord I got you. This shit always happens when my best waitress is off. I don’t know. This place has been nothing but heartache—” he paused, hurt by his own choice of words. Well, Ray’ll make his way back when he’s well enough, and we’re gonna get through, you and me.”
“Whatever you need,” Hani took the opportunity to pat Johnny’s bare upper arm (the last thing he needed was to lose Johnny’s talent). Hani had to work not to jerk his hand back. As he touched Johnny, he FELT like there was a hole where his stomach used to be.
Johnny gave him the kind of smile that would have sent da Vinci running back for more paint and nodded. Johnny reviewed the table number chart with him. There wasn’t time for much more; the customers poured in. Hani dove in and hustled his ass off, grateful for the distraction from losing Allie’s talent.
Finally, the morning rush seemed to be winding down. His last table was a mom with an infant girl and a boy of about seven.
“What can I get you?” Hani said.
“I want a Denver omelet with hash browns and fruit, and what do you want Jeremy?” The woman turned to the boy.
“How do you do that? I watched you while we waited for a table. It’s awesome how you keep it going all the time. Can you teach me?” Jeremy said.
Hani looked at the boy’s outstretched finger, which pointed toward Hani’s hand, in which spun a pen.
“Jeremy, it’s not polite to point, and you haven’t told the nice man what you want for breakfast. I know you from somewhere, don’t I?” Jeremy’s mother said.
“Um. I’m Hani, but I don’t think so, ma’am. And it’s okay about the pointing; I don’t mind. You know, Jeremy, I’ll try and slow it down so you can see, but I just kinda picked it up. I’m not even sure how I learned it in the first place.”
You don’t know what I’d give to know how I learned it.
He leaned over Jeremy to demonstrate the pen spinning technique then took the order in to the kitchen.
“Johnny, I’ve got the order for the last morning table.”
Hani couldn’t agree more. He had made fantastic tips, but the shift change couldn’t come fast enough. When it did, tired though he was, he worked the grill for an hour so Johnny could take a break. At the day’s end, he walked out with (for Hani) a huge stack of cash.
He got gas, did some grocery shopping, and slipped an envelope with the cash for Jeannette under her door. That left him just enough for cover and a few drinks at a bar tomorrow night, the night before his day off. He made himself a perfect egg white omelet, marveling at his new skill in cooking. Next, he scaled mount laundry.
Through all these routine chores though, something nagged at him. It was as if a tiny bell were ringing, but he could only sense its vibration, not its sound. Also, there was a sense of loss. It felt as though he’d lost his keys. No. It felt as though he were about to lose his keys. Well, that made a lot of sense.
Okay. It feels like when you put something somewhere special, hoping you are not going to lose it, but knowing that you probably will anyway.
Yes. That was exactly how it felt.
He puzzled over the nagging sensation while he washed the dinner dishes. He was so preoccupied that he dropped one of his few plates and it shattered. As he bent to pick up the pieces, he thought of the shards of the pencil he’d broken that morning. Was it something to do with losing Allie?
But I already lost Allie; there’s nothing left to lose. What about Johnny’s skill?
No, he’d touched Johnny several times today because he was so afraid of losing Johnny’s skill (and, therefore, his job). Did it feel like it did last night? No. That “VIBE” had felt more like the tolling of a great church bell. So, what was it? There was only one other person’s skills left: Roberta’s. He did a careful calculation. It had been almost exactly two days since he’d FELT Roberta and borrowed her skills. That was it. He would wake up tomorrow unable to whistle or spin a pen. Big deal. Pleased that at last he’d figured something out, he went to bed, favoring little Miss Hula with a wolf whistle.
~ Chapter Seven ~
The Gypsy and His Price
The first thing Hani did when the alarm when off was to try to whistle “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah.” He couldn’t.
Great. Now at least you know. You get two days and that’s it.
He avoided an internal discussion of the future of his career as a fry cook and headed to work. Hani started the day on the grill. Johnny was delighted with Hani’s cooking.
“It’s almost like havin’ another me around,” Johnny said.
But Hani wasn’t happy stuck in the kitchen. Today was Thursday. He showed everyone his place mat sketch of Allie and made them promise to get him if she came in, but he kept running out of the kitchen. Breakfast came and went, though, and no Allie. He managed well behind the grill, but he spent his break sobbing in a bathroom stall. During lunch, Hani waited tables. He jumped every time the door opened, but it was never Allie.
It’s okay. She’s just got her own problems, that’s all. You gotta let her go. You’ll go out tonight, hear some music. It’s what you came to Austin for.
A couple of hours before quitting time, he stood in front of a customer who couldn’t decide.
“Should I could come back, give you a moment?” Hani said.
“No, I don’t want you to disappear on me.”
“The blueberry pancakes are awesome.”
“I don’t want breakfast. I’m sorry. I can’t read the menu with you doing that. Could you stop it, please?”
“Your pen. You never stop. Could you quit fiddling it?”
Hani dropped his pen. “My pen? Of course, sir. My apologies.”
He took the man’s order to Johnny and ran into the bathroom. He looked at his right hand. It wasn’t possible. He’d been certain Roberta’s skill had slipped away. He tried to touch her skill. He couldn’t. He knew he’d lost the whistle; he’d tested it. He tried to whistle again. He still couldn’t. He tried to spin the pen. He managed it perfectly. If he concentrated, he could even add an extra flip of the pen to Roberta’s original technique.
What the hell?
Johnny opened the door to the bathroom.
“There you are. Quit practicing that. You’re good enough at that shit an’ I need you out here. We just got a table of eighteen in.”
“Sorry, Johnny. Coming. I’ll just wash up.”
That was it. Johnny was right. He’d been practicing. Hadn’t everyone told him he’d been spinning his pen nonstop? He’d practiced it until the skill was his. His own hands could do it now. In fact, he could do it better. He’d lost the whistle because he hadn’t practiced it.
This changed everything. If he could “practice in” spinning a pen, maybe he could “practice in” Johnny’s skill. Rejoicing in the possibility, he went out and finished up the day.
At last, at long last, he was headed out on the town for a night of music. He was so excited he even made a point of putting on his brand new t-shirt.
He threw his guitar in the back seat but resisted the temptation to drive to The Cross. Allie didn’t want to see him, and he had to respect that. He set out to wander Sixth Street. He started in a blues bar, listened to a set, then decided he was in the mood for some rock.
It was still early evening when he climbed the stairs over Katz’s deli into Momo’s. The indie rock band onstage was good, and he decided to stay. Steering clear of the packed open-air patio, he sat down at a table inside; it was closer to the stage anyway. This half of the rooftop bar featured black walls and a gray stone floor. He ordered a soft drink (they’d denied him the coveted drinking age wristband when he walked in) and sat back to listen.
He could feel eyes on him; a blond and a brunette at a nearby table were the source. They rewarded him with twin smiles when he glanced in their direction. The blond stood up and weaved her way over to his table. There wasn’t much in the way that she needed to weave around, but she didn’t let that stop her; she weaved anyway.
“Hi. I’m Monica.”
She stuck out her hand. She was about twenty-two, five foot eight, slender, and tan. She looked like she’d probably worn a cheerleading uniform in high school and made it look good. All Hani could think was how he wished she were Allie.
“Hani.” He shook her outstretched hand and FELT an absolutely perfect buzz. This woman was happily drunk.
Wow. Drunk without a wristband or having to spring for a single drink. I bet I won’t have a hangover either. There are definite benefits to this feeling thing.
“Hani, you are smokin’ hot.”
“Thank you, Monica.”
She stared for a moment. “Do I know you from somewheres?”
“No, we’ve never met.”
“My friend says you have to be gay to be this hot. Are you gay Hani?”
Hani laughed. “How much did you two bet?”
Monica giggled. “She was too chicken to talk to you. I said I would.”
Hani looked over at her friend, the brunette, who hid behind a menu. The thing was, Hani was not attracted to Monica, not in the slightest, and it wasn’t because she was drunk. No, something was … Missing? Warped? Underdeveloped? He wasn’t sure what it was. After all, he didn’t know what it was about Allie that had brought out his new gift. But, he knew he didn’t FEEL the kind of desire he’d felt with Allie. In fact, he could FEEL that Monica wasn’t the least bit attracted to him.
I’m just bragging rights for you in front of your friend.
“Monica, I’m not gay, but I am waiting for someone. I’m sorry. I hope that wins you the bet.”
“Maybe next time, Hani. See you around.” She batted her eyelashes, finally let go of his hand, and weaved her way back.
“Next time.” Suddenly cold sober again, he went back to listening to the band. The lead singer stepped up to the mic.
“I just found out that a friend of ours is in the audience tonight, Serafima Maksimushkin. Yeah, I know it’s a mouthful, but she really hates it if you call her Sara. She came here from New York City and from Russia before that, and she is one hell of a violinist. She’s been touring all over the country and she’s in Austin to play a concert at the Butler School of Music tomorrow, but maybe, if we all give her a big hand, she’ll come jam with us. Help us to get her up on stage to play you a song.”
The audience clapped and cheered. A plain woman with straw-colored hair climbed on stage, her violin case in hand and a frown on her face. Dressed in loose-fitting black slacks and a sleeveless shirt, she was well under five feet and looked even younger than Hani. She hung her head and stared at the stage’s floor.
“Serafima, I know this isn’t where you’re used to performing, but how about you play Charlie Daniel’s Devil Went Down to Georgia with us?”
She bobbed her head. She was mouse-like, round-faced, and seriously chubby, but when she played, it was like a laser seared its way through the darkness. Her passion was palpable. By the time the song had ended, and “Johnny” had beaten the devil at his game to win the fiddle made of gold, Hani burned to get close to her.