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Peekaboo Moon

by Wayne Gladstone

By Wayne Gladstone |
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Photograph: John Joh

RECOMMENDED: The best new fiction in NYC

Billy Fame and MLE took their pills and headed downtown. Billy liked the red ones. Called them lasers and ground them slowly between his teeth. MLE was partial to blues, and she swallowed them whole. They kept their pills in Pez dispensers because they fit and, more importantly, because their pills really were Pez. The Flash held lasers; Space Ghost for the blues.

But by Lafayette Street, Billy was really struggling. His long, thin arms weren’t built for a hard shell case, and he kept switching off between hands. Everyone else had soft gig bags. Some even had straps you could wear, but that seemed indulgent and lazy. It’s just no way to treat an instrument, his father would say.

MLE, bounced along with a backpack full of poems, and offered to help.

“That’s all right,” Billy said. “I got it.”

“Really, Billy. It’s okay.”

“I know it’s okay, Emily, but I said I got it. Is that okay?”

They walked a little further, past the only New York city gas station Billy knew.

“I’m sorry,” he said, coming to a stop. “I’m just nervous.”

“Me too,” she whispered, but it wasn’t true. She was still floating with Space Ghost, feeling the blue.

  *          *          *

They were headed to an open mic hosted by a bar on Avenue A just across the street from “One Hand Clapping” — the Vegetarian/Thai restaurant where MLE waited tables Mondays and Wednesdays. She was hoping for more hours because the restricted menu meant fewer special orders. At the last place, a ten-year-old girl’s throat closed up when MLE’s guess that the white sauce didn’t contain shrimp turned out to be very, very wrong. She wanted to blame it on the pills, but her boss would never understand.
Now, the only tricky part was memorizing the names of the dishes. She told a lady with a PBS bag that “The Stone of Eden” was a Portobello mushroom floating in French onion broth, but it turned out to be veggie meat loaf with mashed sweet potatoes.

The PBS lady pulled back in disappointment, patting the gray streak in her hair. But it was okay. She accepted her surprise, asking only that MLE find the name of the Portobello dish so she could order it next time. Unfortunately, “One Hand Clapping” didn’t make any Portobello dishes.

“I don’t understand.”

MLE clutched Space Ghost beneath her apron. “Yeah, I’m sorry . . . I guess I just saw a Portobello mushroom floating there . . . y’know, in my head . . . when you said ‘The Stone of Eden.’ I mean, doesn’t that sound right? Like that’s what it should be?”

The lady smiled the way they do. The clean and sober.

  *          *          *

They arrived on time for their debut, but MLE wouldn’t go in. She smelled smoke, and froze before the open door. No one was smoking, but it was dark inside, and the dark was wet and loud. She heard monsters and felt pinwheels the way she had since her mother first sat up in the hospital bed with happy smiles for everyone. Happy like a kitchen with no shattered dishes. Happy like a bedroom door that was never locked. Happy. But it didn’t look like her mom, and she had to leave to stop the pinwheels from spinning.

Billy switched hands and extended his white fingers, creased red by plastic. He waited for her little squeeze that let him know she was ready. He always waited, unless, sometimes, when the lasers had really taken a hold of him.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “There’s no cover.”

  *          *          *

They found a little round table at the front of the back room. It was crowded, but there was a candle on the table like a real date. Dreadlocks and bright hair colors added textures and accents to the crowd. Scrawny gay guys and chunky lesbians. Grown ups indulging hobbies. And all in the presence of “Fame 4 MLE.” Billy couldn’t help it. He thought about the Beatles at the Cavern Club, and he took pride in his hard shell case as it stood against the table in a room full of puffy bags and shoulder straps.

MLE swallowed two blues whole, and after a while, a small, balding man with Buddy Holly glasses emerged from the back with a veggie burger.

“Hello, and good evening.”

“GOOD EVENING TO YOU, ZENO,” said the twenty or twenty-five regulars in a crowd of forty.

“Well, that’s right. I am Zeno, and this is New York’s finest gathering of anti-folk songwriters.”

Billy had never heard of “anti-folk,” and he looked around for clues. As far as he could tell, anti-folk meant unfuckable.

“Hello to you all, and welcome. Welcome to the ‘Counter-Campfire.’” Zeno raised a dish in the air filled with crumpled pieces of paper, and people started gather around. Billy rushed for the front even though the line up was apparently random. He got a “6.”

“Good one,” Zeno said. “Name?”

“‘Fame 4 MLE,’ but Emily is spelled ‘M,’ ‘L,’ ‘E.’”

Zeno scribbled “Fame for Emile” on a pad, and Billy barked so unexpectedly that Zeno shot a look for the bouncer as a bar-bred reflex.

“No, I’m sorry . . . . I mean, I’m sorry, but, uh, no . . . it’s ‘M,’ ‘L,’ ‘E.’ Just ‘M,’ ‘L,’ ‘E.’ Get it? Emily? And the ‘for’ is just the number four.”

Zeno crossed it out and started again before stopping. “What?”

Billy tried to reach for the pen casually, but his fingers were shaking. Zeno handed it over, and Billy wrote “Fame 4 MLE” in the block print style he’d practiced on MLE’s notebook, where the “M” grew directly out of the “4.”

“Great. Welcome to the Counter-Campfire.”

Billy smiled. They would debut at number 6. He figured five minutes a song. Six times five is thirty. Factor in a miscellaneous ten. “Fame 4 MLE” would take the stage in less than an hour. He turned around to give the good news, but found MLE squeezing her eyes shut, trying to push something away.

“What’s wrong?”

“You didn’t even wait for me. We could have done it together.”

“I needed to hurry. There was a line.”

“It’s not first come, first served.”

She was right, and he looked down at Space Ghost clutched in her tiny hand, knowing the blues would never work for him.

  *          *          *

Their waitress didn’t have to wear an apron like MLE’s or a red polo shirt like the one Billy washed over and over each night. She could have been anyone.

“What can I get you two?”

“I’m good, thanks,” Billy said.

“Oh, okay, but uh . . . you know there’s a two drink minimum . . . ” She looked at MLE. “per person.”

Billy clutched his guitar case handle. “It says, ‘No Cover’ on the door.”

“There isn’t a cover, but there’s a two drink minimum . . . per person.”

Billy had seven dollars. That might be enough for two beers on Avenue A. Maybe they could nurse it until their number was called and then leave. “We’ll take two Buds.”

“Actually,” Emily said, all grown up, “I’d prefer a ‘Stone of Eden.’”

Billy had never heard of that, but it sounded more expensive than a Bud.

“I’m sorry,” the waitress said. “I don’t know what that is.”

“You mean, it’s not a real drink?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. You want me to ask the bartender?”

MLE pictured her father. “Better not.”

“Great. Two Buds then,” she said, and spun around.

Billy loosened his grip, and absorbed the waiting crowd, inspecting those who would be the first to hear “Peekaboo Moon.”

  *          *          *

MLE wrote the poem when she was nine after watching moonlight shoot out between passing trees along the road. It was the last trip her family took together. Billy loved the part that went:

Light off, on again, off, on, more
Are you hiding?
Make up your mind
Peekaboo Moon

Before he read that, MLE was just a girl who wasn’t. Who wasn’t spoiled. Who wasn’t trendy. Who wasn’t going to become a nasty creature. It had been so easy for him to imagine the girls in his high school growing up to be shallow and hateful, ignoring their latch key kids and ordering drinks at the club. But Billy had no idea who MLE would be, and when he read the poem, he saw something fragile and resilient already there.
He lay on the floor of her studio apartment, reading it over and over. Running his hands over the indentations a child’s pencil had made in paper.

“I think it’s great,” he said and tucked some fallen hair behind her ear. “I can’t believe a nine year old wrote a poem that didn’t rhyme.”

“What do you mean?”

“Y’know, when you’re a kid, you think poems have to rhyme.”

She took the notebook back from him and stared until she started laughing. Hard laughs that made her hair fall forward again. “What’s so funny?”

“I always thought it did rhyme.”

A guy with a shaved head and full arm tattoos was standing behind the microphone, tuning his acoustic guitar. He was going first, and Billy would have to investigate. He hadn’t seen the guy even pick a number.

Zeno shouted out from a soundboard to the left of where the stage would be if there were a stage. “All right, everybody. How ‘bout a big “Counter-Campfire” welcome for our first act: Stevie Steve Stevenson, Jr., III!”

There was some applause, particularly from a dwarf drawing caricatures in a sketchbook.

“That’s not my name tonight.”

“No?”

“No. It’s a toss up between Dr. Steve Stevenson, Esq. or Stevie Ray Gun.”

Billy could hear his father again. How are you ever going to get famous, if you keep changing your name? The people need to know who you are. Billy agreed. Stevie was foolish.

“I don’t know, Stevie,” Zeno said. “I think those kind of suck.”

“I know,” he said, and started pounding away on his acoustic guitar. He cemented a three chord progression before screaming about how the village wasn’t the village anymore. It was solid enough. He was murdering the top three strings, and his voice had the proper growl, but Billy didn’t know why Stevie was alone. Wasn’t there a bassist and drummer for him somewhere? Even as a new guest, Billy felt pity, and pictured Stevie checking “Craig’s List” each night to no avail. But that was before he saw the crowd bopping. They were digging it. And when he finished in just under three minutes, it was done. Stopped on a dime. Flattened like a truck, and the place exploded.

An overweight girl with black and white, thigh high, striped stockings jumped up and down with quick, spastic, flipper claps, while a forty year old guy wearing torn Dockers rapped his fist on the table like a pleased Victorian.

“Yee-ha!” Zeno exclaimed. “Tell everyone when your gig is.”

“Here. Tomorrow at nine. ‘Kill the Whales’ will be opening.”

“That’s right folks, Stevie and ‘Kill the Whales’ tomorrow night. Check it out.”

The waitress came back with the beers, navigating the difficult array of protruding chairs and people. Impressive, considering she had several other drink orders. MLE was good at that too, but she never took more than one order at a time anywhere. Billy timed multiple orders to be brought out together. All about efficiency. But when the spills happened, they were huge. He dropped a tray carrying six orders his first week at the “8 Track Diner,” and Ken had stepped up, apologizing to six different people. Yes, I appreciate the inconvenience, I’ll make sure your orders are redone right away, I’m sorry, Billy is new here. He would have fired Billy right there, but he liked how seriously Billy took the job and how hard he seemed to work even if he weren’t any more productive than the other waiters. Aside from MLE.

MLE had first noticed Billy filling out an employment application two weeks before that spill, and watched Janice drop it in a box with the others for Ken’s review. But it was MLE who brought the box to Ken with Billy on top, and some of the other, better qualified, applicants missing. They met in the back room his first day. MLE was scribbling in a notebook, and Billy liked her right away, feeling a certainty he wasn’t used to. No make up or perfume. Just a couple of gumball machine rings and a button on the lapel of her denim jacket reading, “The Fonz is Cool.” But that was okay here. There were action figures and album covers on the walls.

“Hi. I’m Billy,” he said. “I like your button.”

“Thanks,” she said without looking up. “I like yours too.”

Billy waited. For once, he could wait. And, after a moment, MLE’s head shot up with shock laughter.

“Oh! You’re not wearing one!”

The laughs kept coming, and she waved at her mouth, slicing them to pieces and turning red. Then she stopped, unhinged her button, and pinned it to his chest. There was just the slightest bit of contact as she pulled his T-shirt to create a piercing space. Billy was an energy that made her do things.

  *          *          *

The waitress laid down the Buds with the fingers of one hand grasping two necks. It came to six dollars, and everything was going to be all right. Billy handed her seven, glad he could tip even if he couldn’t afford a second round. But she took the money without even noticing because something new was at the microphone.

Two guys in their mid twenties: a very thin and overtly gay lead singer, and a somewhat more butch guy on acoustic guitar.

Zeno continued his duties. “Ladies and Gentlemen. Tommy plus Robbie —plus some KY— equals ‘Be a Man!’”

The waitress gave a wolf whistle and the regulars hollered.

The singer took no offense. “Thanks, Zeno. Actually, we’re partial to ‘Astro-Glide,’ but more importantly, we have a new song.”

“New song applause! New song applause!”

Everyone complied. MLE was really happy.

“Great. New song. What’s it about?”

“What Robbie tastes like.”

Zeno shouted, “Damn,” and there were more whistles while Robbie gently strummed the opening and Tommy sang in a lilting falsetto about the bulge in Robbie’s pants. It was, quite deliberately, the gayest song ever written. But just before it degenerated into a more saccharine sequel to REM’s “Everybody Hurts,” Robbie distorted his guitar through a pedal and scratched away in double time. Tommy had a piercing death metal scream, and if you didn’t pay attention, you’d think the song was an all-American fast cars and women cock rock anthem. But Tommy was belting out homoeroticism, eating you up, never spitting you out, taking you in, always reaching around, and everyone loved it. Everyone. Not just their few gay friends who exchanged knowing whispers and smiles, but the entire room. And when they were done, Robbie shook Stevie’s hand and gave back the guitar he’d apparently borrowed.

  *          *          *

Both acts had killed. This is what they liked. But “Peekaboo Moon” was just a little girl’s words set to music. A quiet song with no ironic twist. Billy had kept it in a minor key for the verse, saving a change to A major for the chorus. There was hope, and MLE’s voice smiled over the chords as Billy knew it would. There was something about the way she spoke. Everyone always asked where she was from even though there was no discernible accent. Her words just took longer to reach their recipient, lingering in the space between.

“That’s really pretty,” she said. “But you know I can’t sing.”

Billy didn’t listen. “Here. Like this,” he said, and creaked a little flip of a melody into the room: “Peekaboo Moon.”

“Ooh. That’s nice. Do you even need me?”

Billy waited until she tried.

“‘Peekaboo Moon’ . . . like that?”

But it wasn’t like that. It was better, and Billy asked her to write the rest of the melody over his chords, content just to play a part in something beautiful. Besides, the music dictated the melody to a certain degree. She sang it over and over making changes and it was fun. Even after it settled, they kept playing it like a favorite CD.

But that was in their studio apartment. Now, Billy would play and MLE would sing and the Counter Campfire would stare back, waiting for the punch line. It would be worse for MLE because it’s always worse for the singer, and because she hadn’t asked for any of this. Billy’s foot was going, and he started swigging his beer, forgetting his plan to nurse it. He brought it down too hard when he remembered, and suds foamed up and over onto the still shaking table. The Flash’s head almost came off in his hands. And even MLE was startled when Billy spilled the lasers out onto the table.

“What are you doing?”

“We can’t play ‘Peekaboo Moon,’” he said, crunching and cracking.

“Whaddya mean?”

“They’ll hate it. They’ll kill us.”

“They will not. They’re nice.”

“We have to play something else.”

“We don’t have anything else.”

“Then we have to change it.”

“Oh,” she replied, or maybe that was just the shape of her mouth as she started demurely depositing blues. She spoke only when they were all gone. “Well, I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” she said. She’d heard that once. The words sounded nice in space.

Another guy, nearly seven feet tall, got up and sang a song about watching Teletubbies on acid, while his twin brother juggled rubber chickens by his side. Apparently, they were “Kill the Whales,” and everyone clapped in a surprised and supportive fashion, the way you laugh at a kid who makes a grown up joke.

“The chickens really work,” Zeno offered.

Billy kept talking because MLE was only reflecting outward now. “So we’ll play it faster? A little tougher. Okay?” He was trying to break in.

“Look,” she said, pointing. “ A xylophone!”

Billy turned and saw the black and white stocking chick standing behind a stool with a child’s toy placed on top.

“I don’t really play,” she said. “But I had this idea for a song, and I figured, what the hell?”

“Emily, listen. We need to do it different. Faster. Harder. Do you think you could scream it?”

But even the word “scream” was painful, and she went further away.

“I used to have a xylophone,” she said, and ran her finger blindly down the length of Space Ghost’s neck.

“Emily?”

She was probing the empty. Pushing down on the red bouncy spring.

“Jesus, Emily. What the hell is wrong with you? Can’t you hear me?”

But she couldn’t because now there was only the violence of sound. She laid her head on the table, and Billy felt sick. He rocked back and forth, hugging himself, and hoping it was only the lasers, as he waited for her return. But MLE was gone, and Billy was scared because there were so many secret places she could go.

  *          *          *

Before their last night at the 8 Track, they had almost never worked the same shift. But on that Tuesday, it was just them — plus Ken, and a seventeen year old with Doc Martin’s who kept clearing his throat as he sat in the window booth. His sharp bangs and jean jacket safety pins were meant to validate his retro-neo-punk-credentials, but if it were 1950, he’d just be another virgin in the A.V. club. MLE, standing guard at the counter, didn’t notice him, and Billy was on his knees, sweeping up another broken glass. Ken looked up from the books and shouted.

“Hey! Sleeping beauty! Ya got a customer.”

“Huh? Oh, I know. I’m waiting for his order.”

“Isn’t that it right there?”

“Hmmm?”

“Christ, you’re just standing there. What’s wrong with you?”

“Nothing’s wrong with me.”

He sucked in his gut to clear the table, and approached the counter. “Nothing’s wrong with you? Isn’t that his tuna melt two inches in front of your face?”

“Please don’t yell at me,” MLE said, trying to keep her color.

“Well, don’t waste my time. You’re in a different world.”

“You’re yelling,” she said again as if it were proof of something. Her knuckles shook white on the counter.

“Yeah? I’m allowed to yell. I own the place.”

Billy stood up, gripping his broom for support. “Hey, take it easy, Ken.”

“Oh, here comes your hero. Spaz in shining armor.” The neo-retro punk laughed, but no one looked at him. Ken was glaring over MLE like a toxic sun lamp. She wasn’t breathing, and Billy could see her tiny roots grasping for safety in the poisoned soil.

“I said lay off, Ken.”

“Just mind your business, Billy. I’m talking to the space cadet here.” He didn’t break focus.

“Ken, lay off, or . . .”

“Or . . . ?”

“Or I’m gonna quit.”

“Aah, gee, Billy, where am I gonna find another guy who can argue with customers and drop dishes?”

He was still staring, and MLE covered her head.

“What the hell is wrong with you? Are ya gonna pick up that tuna melt or what?”
Some spit flew, and Billy’s broom came up like a bat.

“Ken.”

“Jesus, Billy. Are you still here?”

Billy waved his broom like the baseball players his father reprimanded on T.V. You keep your bat still at the plate, Billy. No busy bats. No busy bats.

“Ken.”

Busy bats ruin your timing.

“Ken!”

“What? I’m talking to the retard here.”

“That’s no way to play the game!” Billy cried and swung away. His father was right. The broom flew forward, out of his hands, and over Ken’s head, crashing against the opposite wall. It unhinged one end of a shelf, and sent the 70’s tumbling down. Ken turned to watch it fall, and MLE’s lungs finally scrambled for air with a scar-inducing rattle. He was livid, but not so much by the damage done. The implication that Billy could hurt him, even with a weapon, was unacceptable.

The neo-retro punk ran out without paying for his Coke, and within a second, MLE was on the floor gathering up the memorabilia, building a modest, placating pile. Ken wasn’t moved. He charged Billy, grabbing him at the middle and running him into the wall. Billy fell to the floor in a mess of twitching angles. The monsters were loose. MLE ferreted through the clutter, hearing them approach. She saw Ken bring his foot back for a kick. And Billy’s ribs waiting. She grabbed a Pet Rock from the pile and hurled it as hard as she could, missing Ken’s head, but shattering a mirrored ball, instead. Tiny crystals fell down anointing Billy from above, and a shard flew back across Ken’s right cornea.

“You crazy bitch,” he screamed, clutching his eye.

She had another rock, and this time she was aiming.

“I’m not crazy.”

Billy staggered forward before she could throw it. She craned her head around him.

“Monster! I’m not crazy, you . . . MONSTER!”

Billy pulled MLE outside, away from danger and Ken’s ranting. “Get out and forget your paycheck! You won’t get anything from me. Nothing!”

But it wasn’t true. MLE had taken lots. About half the things Billy had knocked off the wall had found their way into her apron. Billy noticed the bulge as they took cover in an alley. It was a surprise for MLE, too, who reached down into her pocket like it was a Christmas stocking. More Pet rocks, a tiny “Magic 8 ball,” a Planet of the Apes action figure, and about six different Pez dispensers. She pulled each one out in surprised alarm, dropping them like contagion.

“You don’t remember taking those?” Billy asked.

MLE started crying.

“Whoa, easy, easy.”

“What’s wrong with me?”

“Nothing. Ken’s a prick.”

“They can’t all be pricks, Billy. I don’t remember things. I don’t see things.”

“There’s nothing wrong with you.”

“There is. I can’t keep a job.”

“So? I’ve lost tons of jobs.”

MLE didn’t pretend to understand what that proved, and Billy quivered, getting down on the ground. He never thought the rest of the world could be right about him or that someone could love him anyway. He sorted through the Pez dispensers on the street until he found the two he liked most.

“Billy, I’m serious. What are we going to do?”

“Nothing. We’re okay.”

“Then why does this keep happening?”

“It’s not our fault.”

“Whose fault is it?”

“We have things to deal with.”

“What things?”

“Some bad habits,” he said, and handed her Space Ghost, keeping The Flash.

“What’s this?”

He didn’t know, but he needed to do something. Make her laugh. Something.

“Got it really bad, Momma. Poppa’s on the Pez again.”

“A Pez addiction?” MLE asked.

“We can’t deny it any more, babe. Acceptance is the first step in recovery.”

She wasn’t laughing, but there was a smile. “We’re Pez junkies?” Both her hands were now wrapped around Space Ghost.

“Pez Junkies? Yeah. But under different circumstances,” he said, “we’d be stars.”
Billy pushed the few remaining lasers off the table so he could clearly see MLE’s face. She was humming “Peekaboo Moon,” but he wasn’t sure if that was a good or a bad sign.

“Y’know, I had a xylophone when I was a kid, too,” he said. He lowered his head so people wouldn’t think he was talking to himself. “It had a string. I could make music just by pulling it along, but my dad said I should learn to play something on it myself.” She stopped humming.

“Emily, I’m sorry. There’s nothing wrong with you. I’m sorry. I just had too much.”

She opened her eyes, but that was worse, because he knew she still couldn’t see him.

“Emily, look at me. Please. I’m not the one who hurts you. I can’t be.”

  *          *          *

Billy came into focus, and she could see that he was sweating. That he was crying. That he loved her.

“Don’t cry, Billy.”

He pulled his chair closer, and she rested her head on his chest. Her hair was soft against his cheek, and they sat there for a moment, waiting for more.

“I’m sorry I yelled.”

MLE smiled and raised her arms up the sides of his back, bringing him to her face like a warm towel.

  *          *          *

Zeno called out for number five, but no one answered.

“All right, then,” he said. “They snost, they lost. Let’s head on to number six. A new act here at the Counter Campfire . . . I hope I pronounce this correctly . . . ladies and gentlemen, ‘Fame 4 MLE!’”

They were surrounded by tremendous applause, warm enough to feel. It was wonderful to be something new, but Billy was scared for both of them. He opened his hard shell case too dramatically, letting the noisy metal buckle ring out.

Bright lights shone down from above. They couldn’t see anything but each other as they stood side by side, waiting for permission.

“Does that guitar have a jack?” Zeno asked.

“Hmm?”

“Your guitar. Does it have a built-in pick-up?”

“Oh . . . no.” Billy forgot about that. He needed to run through the board.

“Well, do you have a pick-up?”

“No . . . .”

“I can sing without the microphone,” MLE offered.

“That’s all right,” Zeno said. “You can use mine.”

Zeno got up and worked his pick-up into Billy’s sound hole, just behind the strings. A tiny black wire ran down, attracting dust bunnies along the floor, before rising back up to the soundboard. Billy had never played with a pick-up before, and he didn’t like the way it rested so closely to the strings.

“Can I get a level?”

Billy strummed a little, but not “Peakaboo Moon” — Don’t ruin the surprise, his father said. His guitar had never sounded so forceful, but there was an odd, distracting clicking.

“That’s your pick hitting the pick-up,” Zeno said. “Try to strum a little in front of the sound hole, closer to the neck . . . . Good. So. Whaddya gonna sing?”

“Peakaboo Moon.” MLE announced, speaking into the mic too deliberately.

“Well, all right. Take it away.”

Billy closed his eyes, clicking the tempo in his head, before starting the five chord progression. A bright flourish on the “one” accomplished by running the pick stiffly down the strings near the bridge. The notes rang out before fading into the strum. Good tone. Good tempo. A space had been made for MLE who waited for the progression to come around again before singing. She addressed her plaintive words to her newly vacant chair. The moon was sitting there now, receiving her small solid sounds wrapped in cotton.

It was just as Billy had hoped, and he opened his eyes to detect the crowd’s reaction, but he couldn’t see past the light. He didn’t know what they were doing. Then MLE slipped and sang “spying” instead of “hiding,” Billy hit the pick up way too hard, and someone said something. MLE stopped singing for a moment, and when she returned, she was a phrase behind. The clicking got worse, and Billy started strumming faster, louder. That was all right. It was building.

MLE refused to compete with the commotion, and lowered her voice to a whisper. Zeno tried to adjust, dropping Billy’s guitar in the mix, but Billy compensated by strumming harder. He broke his high “E” string. Maybe that was okay, too. Rock n’ Roll. Anti-folk. Whatever. Now it would be on purpose.

Eventually, the pick-up gave way and fell completely inside the guitar, but by then, Zeno had shut Billy off, and it didn’t make a sound. All that could be heard was the friction of a pick against five strings beneath the amplified breeze of MLE’s vocal.
Some people didn’t even clap when it was over, and it only took one step forward to leave the glare of the overhead lights and see who they were.

“Well, all right, guys,” Zeno said. “Nice start. Maybe we can work out some of those difficulties next time. Up next, number 7. Nicole Pearson. And hey, Number 8, ‘Douche or Consequences,’ you’re on deck.”

Billy’s broken string made it easier to fit his hand inside and fish out Zeno’s pick-up. “Thanks,” he said, leaving it on the stool and pulling MLE behind him. He didn’t wait for her squeeze, but MLE was anxious to return to her seat, anyway. Billy spotted the waitress approaching for round two. He closed his case quickly, snapping just one latch to keep it shut. MLE sat down for more music.

“Em’ we gotta go. I don’t have cash for a second round.”

MLE pulled a ten out of her pocket and laid it on the table. Billy remained standing and the waitress walked past their table.

Nicole Pearson was a tiny girl, even smaller than MLE, with jet black hair and pale white skin. She got up with her head down and sat at the piano alone, playing her small, frail song. Something about memories on a red balloon. Just a few chords with a quiet five note hook at the end of every third phrase.

“MLE. Let’s go. This was the wrong place for us. They want gimmicks. We don’t belong.”
“They’re nice.”

“C’mon. We need to go. We’ll find a better place,” he said, gently reaching for her hand. MLE didn’t want to leave, but it had been a big disappointment for Billy. She could see his monsters rising, and, still, he was speaking in a whisper, using all his strength to stay calm and kind. She appreciated the effort, and after another thirty seconds, she squeezed his hand.

Nicole’s song was still audible in the doorway, and MLE stopped for a moment. “It’s so pretty, Billy. Are you sure we shouldn’t go back?”

Billy kept them moving. “Someday,” he said.

“When we’re clean?” MLE asked.

“Yeah. Maybe then.”

They walked further down Avenue A. Far enough for the music to disappear, and the sounds of erupting applause to be denied.

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