Fall 2008, Volume 5

Fiction by A. J. Burge

Just An Average Man
Chapter 1

Jon leaned into the hotel door frame to steady himself as he poked his finger at the bell again. In his first attempt, he hiccupped and swayed just enough to miss it.

Above the muffled buzz of 2204’s bell, he recognized a series of Eugenie’s shrieks. Was it pleasure or a call for help? With a diva like Eugenie, it was hard to tell. Jon shifted his weight for another try to be admitted. He knew he was out of his league on the 22nd floor of the Marmette, one of the quietest boutique hotels in Manhattan, and his two days in the same wrinkled jacket, shirt and jeans didn’t enhance his image or his aura. 

Jon was pushing thirty, slightly hunched from years coaxing music out of a series of pianos mostly out of tune, his unruly brown hair hinting some loss near the crown. Tired and a little wobbly, his trip for the money had been a disaster in every way. Late plane, long line to get a rental, bank closed, life threatened and now behind that door, another Eugenie drama.

A couple in evening clothes glided off the private elevator and skirted soundlessly by Jon on the patterned carpeting. She gave him the kind of half-glance that said “you don’t belong here, peasant.”

Jon attempted a silly grin although the small scar on the right side of his mouth kept his mouth from adjusting to a full-lipped response. Usually he was the observer at the piano beyond the lights, and Eugenie was the focus of attention. He wasn’t certain the lady caught his low bow as she followed her companion through another of the penthouse doors.

Jon re-focused his attention on the present situation as the shrieking moved from left to right. The screamer was in motion. He was certain now it was Eugenie.

The frantic message on his cell phone from Stewart Collins, Jon’s and Eugenie’s booking agent, had offered no details. All Stew said was “Get here as fast as you can.” His voice snapped in frustration. “No bar stops on the way.”  

Jon didn’t need a reminder of the obvious. He had missed the audition, and they needed this gig. Nevertheless, he hadn’t exactly hurried. The commuter bus from JFK had left him a little dry. Jon made a proper detour for liquid reinforcement.  

Before he could hit the doorbell again, the door flew open. Stewart’s tight wrapped ponytail which reminded Jon of a carrot hanging down his pudgy back, flipped on his shoulder.

“God, it’s good to see you, in spite of how you smell.” Stew dragged Jon through the door as he rambled on. “I thought I told you, no stops.”

“Air turbulence. My seat mate’s brew tipped over on me.” Jon straightened his shoulders with a righteous shrug, but he knew Stew didn’t buy his story. He never did.

“Get in here.” Stew propelled Jon into an entry hall by his jacket sleeve. His blunt words were muted by his soft tone of voice. How Stew got them the gigs without shouting like the more aggressive agents, Jon never figured, especially an audition at a hotel like this one. Too bad Jon missed it.

Stew tried to rush him past a side table with an orchid flower arrangement and an opened fruit basket, but Jon stuttered to a near stop to grab an apple. He chunked it into his mouth as he let himself be pushed forward. At the opening to a large room, Stew released his hold. Jon stood in amazement with a mouth full of apple. “Wow.”

This suite was really something. A room two stories high with floor-to-ceiling windows exposed a wide swath of New York City skyline. A white baby grand stood in front of it. Jon eyed the arrangement of white, overstuffed chairs near an entertainment center surrounded by tasteful pictures and mirrors. To the left open double doors led to a bedroom with a massive bed of tumbled, blue satin covers. The remainder of the bedroom was almost hidden in soft lighting. He could hear Eugenie’s giggle coming from there.  To his right a dining room table waited with six chairs around it.

“Wow,” Jon said again. He took another bite of the apple.

“Wow? That’s all you can say?” Stewart’s face matched the red musical notes on his silk tie bulging forward under his tightly buttoned plaid jacket. “This is the last time I pull Eugenie out of a mess.”  

From the open bedroom doors Eugenie burst into sight, shrieking again. She headed his way but instead of stopping, she circled the dining table, pushed through the soft furniture and slowed down to giggle when she barely avoided the massive glass coffee table in the middle. While she caught her breath and waited, ready for a new evasive turn, She was underdressed in a black lacy bra thing that almost covered her bouncy chest. Below it, a very tiny crotch cover hid almost nothing. She now had a black mane trailing down her back where her long curly hair had pulled loose from the combs she used to keep it in place. His mind flipped back to enjoyment with her in earlier days. He whispered to Stew, “What kind of a gig is this?”

“Nothing I planned.” Stew’s broad disgust radiated from the turned-down corners of his mouth.

Suddenly a teen-aged kid darted after Eugenie from out of the bedroom. “Gonna get you,” he called out. He raced by Jon wearing nothing but a broad-brimmed Stetson and a pair of fancy boots. He was swinging a soft lasso after Eugenie. She shrieked again at her pursuer and waited for his rope to come closer to her.

While Jon was still trying to make sense of this, the kid’s loop lowered on Eugenie to reel her in.

“Jon-nee!” Eugenie’s eyes were glowing Jon’s way.

So she was doing her Russian accent. Jon nodded to her in response.

Eugenie giggled, flapping her fingers his way from under the rope.

The kid reeled her in close, raised his arm holding his broad-brimmed hat while he bent her backward into an energetic kiss. When he put his hat back on, Jon saw Eugenie’s face. She had that wild look as she rubbed her tongue against her lips, a sign she enjoyed what she was doing. The kid swaggered, showing his pride at what he had accomplished.

“This is Jesse,” she informed Jon with a tilt of her nose as the boy unwound her from the rope and lifted it over her head. “We play thees game. He’s big cowboy and I’m helpless—” she looked at the kid to make sure she said it right, “duggy.”

“Doggie,” Jesse corrected her. “Who’s this, another cousin?” He was looking at Jon with a certain amount of curiosity.

Jon stared back at him. “I play the piano for Ms Eugenie.” So Stew was her American cousin. Jon responded in his usual casual way when he wanted to convince Eugenie’s latest conquest he was not part of the action. “We aren’t related.”

Jon studied the kid as he gathered the rope into loops. Jesse was lanky tall, good shoulders, strong calves, definitely ample in the man department. Late teens, Jon judged. Really young for Eugenie to play with although she liked games that didn’t include any heavy subject matter. If a man liked her and she liked him, that was enough to get her interested. Once in a while she would tangle with an angry girlfriend or a wife telling her to leave her man alone. Usually Eugenie would agree and move on. Her attention span wasn’t too long. 

“Play something sweet, Jon-nee.” She looked at the kid and grinned. “Mooo.” She began an evasive run toward the bedroom plunging toward the big bed. Lace pillows skittered aside to pour down on the carpeting.

“Got a round-up to get to.” The kid explained over his shoulder. “Hoo-ee!” He lengthened the loop on his rope and swung it over his head while he galloped her way. Eugenie was screaming and bouncing on the bed when he caught her. He twisted her up to him then called out to Jon. “Play something nice and interesting.” The boy hopped off the bed to strut over to shut the doors part-way. From the bedroom side, he added, “Thump it good.”

House parties, boat parties, it was what Jon got paid for. He shrugged his shoulders and headed to the piano. A gig was a gig in spite of what shenanigans Eugenie was up for. Besides, how often did he get the opportunity to play on a grand that looked intact?

His salivary juices responded to the set-up of glasses and bottles on a portable bar adjacent to the dining room table. “Stew, why don’t you fix me a drink while I get to work

He lowered himself to the padded piano bench and slid the lid back to survey the spotless black and white keys. With his hands extended, he ran his fingers over the keyboard. Just a few opening runs impressed him how good the instrument was. And in tune.

He buried himself in some Chopin, not the whole pieces, just schmaltzy excerpts he knew Eugenie would like. The kind of music he played in the bars before closing when couples were about to leave to get laid. He was resigned to his piano role and his on-going, semi-buzzed condition. He could make it sizzle for some other guy who would show his gratitude and leave cash in the tip jar.

He added some grace notes of his own invention for Eugenie while he absorbed the scene over his left shoulder. Beyond the terrace, New York was turning on lights. His fingers found easy combinations, and like many other times at a piano, he could ignore whatever was going on around him. Even on this night when he heard Eugenie’s familiar, obvious enthusiasm coming from the bedroom. He sighed into the next staccato run while Eugenie screamed and moaned. Jon played on, lost in the piano’s response until Stew set a glass filled with a smoky amber liquid on the piano.

“Enjoy yourself, but don’t stop playing while I tell you what’s happening.” Stew brought some grapes on a plate for himself, balancing them in his lap after he lowered his ample body beside Jon.

Jon played with his left hand as he sipped the drink.

“All that shrieking she does!” Stew popped a grape in his mouth. “We gotta problem.” His words were slightly louder than the music. He chewed and swallowed fast, worry dominating his face.  

“So talk. I’m listening.” Jon played with more chords with his left hand while he raised the glass in salute. The amber juice slid down his throat and made a warm glow inside.

“This kid’s grandfather is sleeping in the other bedroom,” Stew continued. “He drank his dinner and went away to sleep it off.” Stew pointed to a closed door to his right beyond the dining room table. “I’m not sure how the old fart will take to this Eugenie thing.” Stew was plainly not happy. “Might come out mean.”

“Don’t go looking for trouble, Stew. Maybe it won’t find you.” Jon stopped to appreciate another swallow of the liquid in the glass before he began a new melody strain. “Want to tell me how we got here?” Jon progressed into another key. “Try to be as happy as Eugenie.”

“You make a joke out of everything.” Stew slumped closer. “The audition downstairs was a fucking bust without you. They weren’t interested in Eugenie’s act. She had a fucking meltdown. I did my best to smooth it over, but she went on and on. . . ”

“You’re such a smoothing over guy, Stew.”

“Don’t shit me.” Stew had that pained, little boy look. “I thought we were alone in the lounge, but when I looked around, an old man and the boy were walking toward us. The old guy talked real sweet to Eugenie, and she started to calm down. He explained they were new in town, had money to spend, and would the lady care to show him and his grandson around? She answered, 'Let’s take a bus tour. See the city from on top of a leetle bus.'”  

“So she brought out her accent when she heard the magic phrase, money to spend?” Jon leaned forward to play with one hand as he sipped. “Don’t tell me, she picked up on the kid.”

“Not really, she concentrated on the grandfather. You know her spiel with a new listener. How she came from Russia. Living with her American cousin, the usual shit.” Stew interrupted himself, “Poor little girl with only a great voice, trying to find her place in this big world.” Stew rubbed his forehead. “I’m not sure he believed her. I suspect he’s more than just a good old boy, but I don’t know what he is.”

“We are in a penthouse and the booze is excellent.” Jon began a purring version of “Yesterday. “Tell me the rest of the story—”

“We got off the bus, and she led us to a “quaint leetle bar.” She needed to quench her terrible thirst with a “lady” drink, a Cosmopolitan.” Suddenly she remembered all the beautiful things at Saks they absolutely must see. Pops bought her a leather purse right away. Jon, you can’t believe what that buckle and leather thing cost!  Then she herded us into an elevator for a stop at the floor with the lacy things, like the one she’s bulging out of now.The kid was completely bug-eyed when she held the black lace thong under his nose.”

Jon used the pause to run through dramatic chords.

Stew frowned, but he continued. “Pops used his plastic and we started off again. By the end, Pops told me to call him by his name, which is Granger Roberts. He invited us back here for dinner.”

“So you set and et.”

“Something like that.” Stew took charge of a heavy sigh as he set the plate on the piano. “Granger ordered food, wine for Eugenie and bottles of whatever he was drinking. That’s when I started calling you.”

“Too bad you never learned to drink with the big boys. Maybe you wouldn’t worry so much.”

“Yeah, like you do.”

Jon deflected the remark with his reply, “Having an enforcer ready to break your bones is a little different than Eugenie’s capers.”

Before Stew could reply, Jon heard Eugenie’s call to him, “Jon-nee, play my favorite. You know what I like.”

Jon took a deep breath, stretched out his fingers then began slow and soft with his left hand on the bass notes. Bolero rhythm. It was her big climax piece. He began to build. “Stew, enjoy the music. Eugenie does.”

“You’re good!”

Jon looked up. The words came from a booming voice in the doorway of the bedroom to Jon’s right. A barefoot man stood with his generous belly protruding over his white undershirt and flowered boxer shorts. He seemed half-awake as he scratched his crotch. His curly grey hair had matted to his head everywhere except where it stood away from his ears. He rotated his head to the sounds from the other bedroom, then back to Jon. “You’re the pie-an-o man?”

Jon nodded. He had responded to a lot of colloquial definitions of what he did for a living.

“Keep playing.”

Jon played, but he wondered about the old man. His face seemed familiar, yet he couldn’t quite place him. Maybe his face reminded Jon of western movies he saw on Saturday matinees when he was a kid in Milburg.

Jon’s fingers moved easily over the keys. He still had a lot of repeats to go. Variations he had invented to please Eugenie. With all her crass behavior she had been trained as an opera singer, kept on pitch and knew how expertly Jon moved the melody around. While she recognized his talents, she took all the credit for the applause. Jon’s bolero variations were so rich with his inventions he wished he had a larger audience. And big tippers present. He was tapped out after the futile trip to Milburg.

Stew bounced to his feet to face the newcomer. “I’m to blame, Granger. Things may have gotten a little out of hand here.” In his own back-pedaling way, he was trying to defuse what he thought was the situation. “Maybe we had too much celebrating.”

“You worrying about Jesse or the bimbo?” Granger Roberts leaned back and rolled out a belch. “We come to New York to do something special. It’s my grandson Jesse’s eighteenth birthday in a few hours.” He cocked his head toward the bedroom. “I guess he’s doing okay.” He slapped his forehead. “She ain’t got no diseases, say?”

“Other than no sense, Eugenie’s fine.” Jon interjected his words as he built up to the ending. He added new flourishes to the pounding sounds leading to the final crescendo. When he finished it brought a loud response from the bedroom followed by snuggly sounds then quiet.  

“Then, you’re OK with this?” Stew’s interjected words had caution and hope within them.

Jon waited for the reply, relieved for Eugenie. At least the kid wouldn’t be a legal problem with horsey behavior.

“Jesse made himself a problem at his high school.” Granger’s fat toes dug into the carpet as he walked to the fruit basket at the entry then back into the suite. “That’s part of why we’re here in New York.” He rubbed the skin of a pear over his front. When he bit off a big yellow chunk, the juice ran down the stubble on his chin. He caught it off with the back of his hand. Mouth full he said, “Figured in a new school he might settle down and do proper learning. Now he’s got something big to brag on.”

“You make Eugenie out to be a bad woman.” Stew sputtered in Eugenie’s defense. “She’s not evil, only impetuous.”

Jon remained silent. He had a better word in mind. Eugenie loved sexing it up, especially with a partner who enjoyed it, too.

“I seen what I seen.” Granger’s tone didn’t seem to indicate malice. He turned his head toward Jon. “What about you, young man, want another drink?”

Jon assented eagerly with a firm “Yes, sir.” The invitation would give him more time before facing the grim reality waiting at his hotel. He poised his hands over the keys to noodle some soft background music while he waited for the old man to pour.

“Give your hands a rest.” Granger handed Jon a drinking man’s glassful. “You must like this stuff. I’ll phone down for another bottle or two for you. Me, I like a man’s bourbon.” He smacked his lips. “Something to eat, too?”

Jon gulped it down. “Sure. Anything.” He tried to justify being here. Protecting Eugenie, however, if anyone needed protecting, it wasn’t Eugenie. 

Granger was dialing when he said, “I don’t mean nothing, but why don’t you take a shower?” He sounded more honest than meant to offend. “There’s one a-them white bathrobes hanging in the toilet room.”

Jon didn’t feel put off. A shower sounded good, however he couldn’t shake the disappointing outcome of his unrewarding trip. And, what waited for him at his own hotel. 

On his way to Granger’s bedroom, Jon heard laughter from the big bedroom, followed by “Mooooo” in Eugenia’s voice.

Granger called out, “Jesse, want me to order up some ice cream?”

“Yeah, Pops. I’m pretty hot.” Jesse mumbled something before he added, “Miss Eugenie wants a strawberry parfay, whatever that is. Make mine a sundae with lots of chocolate.”

Stew hesitated, looking from one face to the other. “I have an early appointment. I’ll leave now.”

“Come back for cake tomorrow,” Granger responded without encouraging Stew to stay. “We don’t get throw’d out until twelve. Jesse’d be pleased to have company for his eighteenth birthday.” The old man’s gravelly voice filled the room. His face exploded into a grin. “Bet they don’t care a hoot or a holler if we’re a spit late moving out.”

Stew bolted across the room and out the door.

Granger’s order completed, he collapsed his frame on the soft sofa and reached for the remote. While he flipped channels, he asked, “Jon, you play checkers?”

“Sure, I play, but it’s been a while.” He hadn’t had a board out since before he left for college. It was a game he enjoyed as a child with his mother.

Lately, the only game Jon played was poker. He hadn’t done that very well.

$70,000 owed and the clock still ticking. His fingers started to hurt.


BIO:  "Presently, to keep the juices going, I participate in both a poetry workshop and novel workshop at Long Beach City College, Long Beach, California. My name is on a neat little plaque in the English workshop room as a symbol of the Drury Fiction Award in 1998. Published a short story in their writers’ workshop journal, Music From a Farther Room, in Spring 1998 and the Humorous Poetry Award from Writer’s Workshop West the same year. Poem included in the Summer/Spring 2006 issue of Pearl. In earlier lives I wrote a weekly newspaper column, and in the outside world, various policy and procedures manuals."