Apostate Blues – By Jordan Eudy
I sat there for quite a while, watching all the people walk past, sipping my tea. Some guy, pants dangling from the middle of his butt, shouted as he stomped past, and his fellow loper, similarly dressed, laughed loudly. This startled me a little bit, so I compensated by clutching the lump of keys in my pocket, and shifted in my seat to check that my wallet was secure. A fine pair of legs tip-toed by on a set of brittle heels. She had a decent figure, but her face seemed stretched, and her puffy lips stuck out like an over-ripened fruit on a barren plain. Nevertheless, I watched the show come and go. I examined my watch again.
I went there early; not for her, but because I had some thinking to do. So when seven o’clock came and went, and she was late, I didn’t mind.
Meanwhile, the speaker above me played that song from a movie I couldn’t place. Light from the setting sun cast arched and fuzzy shadows across the top of the building, leaving jagged points of light along the stucco. The coffee shop door opened every so often, and the chill of air-conditioning came with it. Real glass ash trays-some filthy, some unused-sat in clumps like lily pads on the tables. A few people were huddled around them, smoking their ultra light cigarettes with cool satisfaction. All of them, first- and second-handers, were clutching their favorite blends of multi-syllabled delight. None for me thanks, just tea.
A car pulled into the lot, fan belt wailing in protest, and, for a moment, I thought it was her. But it wasn’t. A weed-addled teen stumbled out instead, mainstream punk spilling after him. He got about halfway to the door when he realized that he’d left his car on. This kid, who had been driving a few seconds ago, just stood there, apparently deciding between coffee and car. I guess he figured that he could have both: weaving but determined, he managed to kill the engine, shut the door, and find the entrance again. Making a mental note to separate our departures by a healthy amount of time, I examined my watch once more.
She had called me the night before and told me she had something to say, but not over the phone. I knew that this could be one of two things: either she was pregnant or she wanted to break up. Whatever.
A young couple sitting a few yards away were making eyes at each other and playing footsie under the table. The textbook before them lay open and forgotten. The breeze played with the pages and I saw a pie chart flit into view and disappear. I think I might’ve looked at the book more than either of them that evening.
Suddenly, she was standing in front of me, her eyes bleary and her face free of makeup, looking positively gorgeous. She didn’t look angry. Or pregnant.
“Hi,” she said. Her gaze wasn’t meeting mine.
“I’m gonna get something. Want anything?” she asked. I smiled and picked up my tea. She tried to smile back, but it showed up more like a grimace, and walked inside. I wanted to feel distracted, so I glanced at my watch again, a pastime which gave me no comfort now.
In the seat just beyond the love-struck students, that stoned teenager had set up shop, cradling a beaten guitar. Despite the palpable drug haze, he was pretty good. He hadn’t come here to pick up girls; he was playing the blues. My mind drifted away to those old songs, grating a popping on the record player. My grandfather loved that music.
When I was a kid, I had always enjoyed visiting the boonies of Kentucky, where my grandparents lived. Usual fair: cookies and milk, stories that always hit the imagination in black and white, and the disappearance of bedtime. But what I remember best was the hour or so after dinner when-my stomach bulging with the extra piece of cake Grandma would always let me have-Grandpa would drag out his old six-string. From Leadbelly to Woody Guthrie to the stuff that grandpa had written himself; I loved it all. I was too young to understand what the words meant-the beauty of rambling across the country, the sorrow that grew in the Dust Bowl-but it didn’t matter. It was the sound that captivated me. The way it would growl out of the wooden frame, carrying a feeling that went beyond words. Even as a child I could hear the weight of the world being played on those strings. Grandpa heard it too.
He had spent his younger days working in a factory-the class-typical 9 to 5 during his time-and his younger nights playing in local bars. That’s how he met Grandma. She bussed tables and he played shows; eventually the got married. Again, usual fair: they both quit the night scene and found Jesus. But Grandpa never stopped playing music. He found a steady gig at the church they went to, playing hymns and other religious stuff, and continued his affair with blues and folk on the side.
Several children later, and a few grandkids after that, I showed up. By then he was, by any measure, a damn good guitarist. I think that’s how it works: the people who are the best at what they do go virtually unknown for their entire lives, and fade away with the same amount of prominence under their belts. I was lucky enough to get to know this man, to learn to play from a real master.
But I grew older, and things changed. I watched him age, as diabetes tore away at his fingers, at his happiness. With his ability to play, went his faith. God became a guy who snatched his music away. Grandpa didn’t like that, so he took his business elsewhere. And, eventually, God retaliated in fashion.
I thought about what he said that night, while grandma watched her TBN special-probably hoping desperately that one of those televangelists would recapture my grandfather’s soul-and the dusty, out-of-tune guitar sat in the corner. He told me that if everyone was the same, life would be predictable and understandable, but so boring that no one would care. “That’s why you’ve got to find what you’re good at,” he said, “what you love, and go after it with everything you got until the day you die, because that’s all you have to make you stand out from the rest.” On that day, I got his guitar.
So now I’m an insurance agent.
She came back with a cup of coffee and eased down into a chair, almost tentatively, like it was a new experience for her. Those big, green eyes kept bouncing around, never looking into my own. I don’t know how long we sat there, drinking often to make an excuse for the lack of conversation. Presently, I ran out of tea, so I resumed my old standby of checking the time. I finally caught myself staring at my watch.
“So, what’s up?” I asked.
“Nothing important. I just got off a helluvah shift. Pretty much spent the day getting yelled at by every customer.”
“That bad, huh?” I tried to sound concerned.
“Yeah. I was this close to quitting on the spot,”-she raised her hand and held her fingers about an inch apart- “but I pulled through.”
“How was your day?”
“Decent enough. I managed to sell a policy, but other than that, same old same old.” I said. She fell silent again and I wished I had more tea.
I had lied for convenience’s sake. The truth was more interesting, but I was distracted by my own thoughts.
Earlier that day, my boss’s boss had stopped by my cubicle to have a word. It turned out that a pretty big potential client was coming in, and the agent that was supposed to court this giant had gone missing the night before (this isn’t common, but it happens more than you’d think: insurance has a less glamorous postal side). My job, at the time, was to pick up the smaller accounts that the top agents didn’t want. The biggest one I had gotten so far was worth about 500 thousand, but this new assignment blew that record out of the water. Six million. More money than I would ever see in my life. I got a quick profile of the client, got the typical ‘you can do this’ pep-talk, and he left me with a thick folder and a paternal-looking smile. Sh*t.
I thumbed through the pages quickly and saw that the meeting was in two hours. The guy’s name was Dean Marsh, and he wanted to insure a basement full of expensive instruments and rare records. The spreadsheet for the pricing was already there, as was the finished contract. I sighed and felt a little less nervous.
Noon came and I headed down to the lobby to meet Mr. Marsh. He was younger than I had imagined, but his demeanor added about ten years. Tall and fair, his long face produced a casual smile when I approached him. We shook hands and exchanged pleasantries and I invited him up to the fifth floor conference room. When we sat down in the large, empty room, things started off poorly.
“So, what’s happened to Mr. Lorrin?” he asked.
“Ah, well,” I scrambled, “he’s, um, very ill at the moment. I’m his representative; more of an assistant, really. I take care of his accounts when he can’t.”
“Or when he doesn’t want to?” Marsh prodded, but with a friendly grin that set me at ease.
“Of course not,” I replied, feeling more confident, “You’re an extremely valuable and important client. We wouldn’t dream of doing less than our absolute best for you.”
“Potential client,” he reminded.
With that, I launched into the official selling spiel. I got more comfortable as I worked through the numbers with him, going over handling contingencies, projected inflation indexes, and other business epithets for ‘more money.’ I was surprised by how much he understood, bringing up questions that only a well informed person would think to ask. Most of the people that I had dealt with only possessed a faint clue about insurance. But this guy was sharp.
When I was done, I leaned back in my chair, trying to conceal how smug I felt. He tilted back as well, and his face drooped in a slight frown.
“I don’t know if I like the final price.”
“Well, Mr. Marsh, as you can see, all the cost have been assessed, and the final price, I think, is the lowest we can offer you,” I said.
Brows still furrowed, he said, “That’s a sizable chunk of change. I’ll have to think about it.”
I was getting desperate, so I went back to the numbers. He waved me off. “Look, you seem like a good guy, and you definitely know what you’re talking about, but I know that you’re trying to get this thing signed and sealed as fast as possible. Just give me a few days, and I’ll get back to you.”
“If you don’t mind, Mr. Marsh, I’d like to say one last thing,” I asked.
He sighed a little and nodded. I don’t know what I was thinking, but I went for a new approach.
“It’s obvious that you love music, Mr. Marsh. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have all of these priceless reminders. I also have a soft spot for music, and, to be honest,” I added jokingly, “I’m kind of upset that our meeting didn’t take place in your home. I bet you have some records that I would give my right arm to listen to.”
His face relaxed into a glowing smile. I continued, “And it’s also obvious that you would find it unbearable to lose just one of these reminders. That’s why you would even consider paying such an admittedly large (though, again, I believe fair) amount. I would do the same thing if I were in your place.
“People like us, Mr. Marsh, are often misunderstood by those that don’t truly enjoy music. They don’t see the sense in buying archaic records or ancient guitars. They think it’s just nostalgia. They can’t see the beauty of it, the incredible power of the things that remind us of the people who dedicated their lives to the pursuit of the perfect sound; those things that can lift us to the highest peak, or commiserate with our most intimate sorrow.
“But we see it, Mr. Marsh. We know the nature of these things. And that’s what I can offer you. I ask that you not just consider this as a preparative, but as a relationship with someone who knows the true value of what you love, what you simply can’t live without. And I think that’s more than any other company can offer you.”
I was sitting in my cubicle an hour later, after I had dropped the signed contract off at processing, staring at the grey carpet divider, trying to realize what had just happened. The Vice President of Customer Relations dropped by in person to congratulate me on a job well done. Words like ‘promotion’ and ‘raise’ were tossed around, but I wasn’t really listening. I just nodded and said things like ‘yes, sir’ ‘thank you, sir.’ He clapped me on the back and left. Upper management must take courses in paternal smiles, because I got the same one that the other boss had given me. I sat there for the rest of the day, thinking about what I had said.
“What are you thinking about?” she repeated, pouting.
“Nothing,” I summarized.
There was an awkward pause that always follows such exchanges. She drank some more coffee, and I propped my tea back against my lips, forgetting that it was empty. I feigned drinking the last dregs and got up to throw the cup away. Between sitting and standing, she pronounced, “I think we should break up.”
I sat back down. She was looking directly into my eyes, a faint curve of her lip betraying an insuperable resolution. The drugged-out guitarist nestled in his corner broke a string and cursed loudly.
“Alright,” I said flatly.
She gaped. “Oh, um, okay.”
“Alright,” I said again.
“So,” she stuttered, looking both hurt and surprised, “you don’t really care?”
“Not really. Sorry.” Men always share their emotions at the wrong time. Little diamonds began to form in the emerald settings. I went over to the trash can and left my contribution. Stopping by our table on the way to my car, I said goodbye.
“Wait, where are you going?” she asked. Her tone was almost begging. I smiled and brushed the hair from her face.
“Where I should have been all along.”
And I walked away, humming the blues, happier than I’d ever been before.