“What do you mean I’m running out of time?”
“You ran out of time. Sorry to mince words. You ran out of time.”
“But I- I- I had no warning! No notice! How could you do this to me?”
“Actually, the multiple late notices you received would indicate to me that you were well warned and I’m not doing anything to you. I’m just schlepping into work every day like everyone else.”
“Ugh, sorry. You’re right, but look. I couldn’t pay that bill. I just couldn’t.” The male voice emitting from Carla Cafaro’s receiver had begun frantically, but was slowly grasping at justification.
“Well Sir, the way you budget money is only of consequence to you.” Carla remained firm.
“But it’s not just me. I have responsibilitie-"
“You mean like the responsibility of paying off your credit cards?”
“I don’t just have to take care of me, OK?”
“I don’t see any dependents listed here,” she was hitting a snag, confused.
“No. It’s not that.” The man’s newfound controlled and defensive demeanor broke entirely. “It’s my cat!” It was the falsetto he applied to the word cat that broke through her resolve. It was so pitiful.
“Your cat,” she repeated the words, trying to deadpan.
“Yeah, Man.” He had begun to full on sob into the phone, the ugly cry of auditory communication. “She had all these complications. Her kidneys blew out and she went blind. Next thing you know, she falls down the stairs. Broken leg. Just like that. Have you heard of kitty wheelchairs?”
“No? I mean no. No, I have not. I assume they’re costly.”
“So. So much.”
“Well, I’m sorry to hear that.” Shit. She should not be sympathizing with him.
“No you aren’t. I can hear it in your voice. You don’t care about Guccibear, and why would you?”
She at least still had him in the phone. He must have been lonely, and clearly lacked experience with debt collectors. They never lasted this long. “Have you ever considered relocating Gu- Guccibear? To a relative maybe?” She knew engaging further was taking her down a dangerous road.
Carla tried to recalibrate, though her heart wasn’t in it. “Hey, Buddy. Cats live twenty years; bad credit is forever.”
“Fuck you!” With that, the receiver clicked and he vanished like a ghost.
Carla plopped her receiver down with a clunk. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow,” she said to no one in particular.
It wasn’t exactly a shock. Carla’s initial gusto with which she had accepted the position had faded slowly over the last eight years, and with it, her success at nailing down her skips. Now, Guccibear and Guccibear’s dad were just the latest examples in a recent string of failures.
The upside though, was that her day was over and Arthur, her boss, wasn’t even in on Fridays during the summer time, ensuring that she wouldn’t have to go full stealth mode and sneak out. She could hold her head high as she marched out with her comrades, an army of pasty, doughy, polyester-suit wearing coworkers.
Outside, muggy July air greeted her and treated her hair in the way a stylist with an eggbeater might. She tried to shove it into a bun on top of her head, but the unruly brown-black curls were difficult to contain and tendrils haphazardly popped out all over the place. Headphones were her next priority, and all of a sudden Grouplove ignited her and stimulated her brain. Though the humidity pierced the woven plastic pants and seemingly refused to leave, a veritable Hotel California of work wear, she tolerated the swamp that had formed in her trousers and chose to walk home from Downtown Boston rather than brave a sardine-like subway car. She made her way through the Common and down Charles street, passing the stressed-out masses going home from work and the carefree jubilation of college students on break. She absentmindedly thought, I’ll be chatting with all of you in a few years.
Once she made her way beyond the midpoint of the Longfellow Bridge and pierced the tech barrier, suits magically became t-shirts, and briefcases turned into backpacks. She was getting closer to home. Only a couple miles now.
It occurred to her that she was awfully hot, and Summer’s bookstore was awfully close by. Rather than torture herself by sitting in a non-air-conditioned studio apartment, maybe she could just pester her best friend for a minute or two.
“Hey good lookin, whatcha got cookin?” The upbeat sound of Summer’s voice cut through Welcome to Your Life and Carla’s train of thought.
“Oh you know, same old same old. I finished my day by having a back and forth with some guy about his cat.” Carla entered in through the doorway, in a rush to close it behind her.
“A guy I was chasing after for money.” She walked to the back where Summer sat behind a cash register.
“And he told you about his cat?”
“Yeah, the poor thing’s kidneys blew out.”
“I can definitely tell you that my day wasn’t even half that interesting.” Summer looked around her parents’ bookstore.
“Might as well be stopped. We need something to draw people in here.”
“Today, I learned that the cat needed a kitty wheelchair. I feel like cats in kitty wheelchairs would attract people.”
“Uhmmm…. No.” Summer’s voice hit a flat note. “I was thinking more along the lines of like a coffee shop.” She brightened once more as she indicated to a set of bookcases that were particularly dusty up at the front end. “Look.” She flounced over to the area. “Like, no one even likes the romantic period anyway, right?” We can just shove these somewhere else. And then we can put in a couple of those cute little round tables, and I already make coffee anyway. So maybe offer some pastries too, and there you go!”
“What about lattes and stuff?”
“Well, foofy people who hang out in coffee shops banging away on their keyboards at that novel that’s never getting published always want a cappuccino or a macchiato or something.”
“What’s even the difference?”
Carla shrugged, “Beats me.”
Summer’s mouth twisted around in a contemplative moment. “Well, maybe if people stick around for my coffee and all the pastries I buy in bulk from Costco, then I can get an espresso machine.”
“Sounds like a plan to me.”
“And then,” Summer, Carla’s ever hopeful friend always signaled the beginning of a wishful thinking tangent with an excessively long pronunciation of the word, ‘then,’ “maybe some live entertainment can come on in.” She raised her eyebrows up and down.
“Oh, so like Jas?” Carla wasn’t in a mood to play.
“No, you fool, like you!”
“Doesn’t sound like the people who come here to drink crappy coffee and read your books for free are gonna like hearing me bang away on my guitar to the top forty from the seventies.”
“I mean there’s always the option to do something a little more current…”
“The Red Hot Chili Peppers aren’t nearly as satisfying on acoustic.”
“I was thinking like now.”
“What? You want like Kygo on there or something? I mean, I guess? Sure?”
“No! You, you moron. Just play your own stuff.”
“I don’t have my own stuff.”
“No. No, no, no, no. I have my feet firmly planted in the seventies, eighties, and nineties.”
Summer walked back to the register once more with a sigh, “You have your feet planted firmly in the guitar version of karaoke.”
“Oh, hey now,” Carla followed Summer back to her perch. “There’s a difference between karaoke and covers.”
“Covers at open mic nights aren’t gonna pay the bills.”
“Neither are originals at open mic nights.”
“Have it your way. Collect debt for the rest of your life.”
“Well, see, now once upon a time I was good at it.”
“Mhmm, but it’s looking like now we’re in the time of you being a therapist for your skips.”
“True, true, I s’pose I could’ve first finished at Berkley, built up some student loans and then spent the rest of my life with a degree in music… while I chased skips.”
“Anyway, speaking of open mic nights, you wanna head down to Purple Salmon?”
“Yeah, I haven’t heard anyone murder Oasis in at least a couple nights.”
“Watch the store for me for a minute while I close up the back.” Summer slid from her stool.
“Oh, I don’t know, I may not be able to hold off the hoards trying to get to the front.”
Carla took up her own place on the stool and balanced her head on her hands. Her job was boring beyond belief, but it had to be better than this. She looked around at the completely dead space. The only sign of life came from the speakers Summer was beaming music into from her phone.
It was this rhythmic rolling of calypso sounds that mingled with harmonized la la las which always sent Carla backward in time.
She was six and wobbling around outside as her sister had tuned their boom box to play Sweat. That summer was a hot one and she was perpetually bored. Josie had attained the level of cool that most ten year olds on the precipice of sixth grade aspired to, and playing with her little sister was no longer one of those things.
Carla watched her lay there in a fold-back lawn chair on the cracked pavement in their back yard, which her mother, in vain, had painted green, an attempt to recreate the foliage that existed on lawns in the far-out suburbs. Josie was trying once again to tan, also an exercise in futility as there weren’t nearly enough patches of sun large enough for such a venture. The shadows from the houses all around continued to creep into the line of UV and she would inevitably have to move once again.
Carla had made a feeble attempt at trying to get Josie to chase her around with the hose, a fruitless venture, and while she was perfectly comfortable with jumping in and out of the puddles she made on her own, it really just didn’t have the same effect as when you were with someone else. On one particularly amusing occasion, Carla had come up with the brilliant plan to simply spray Josie. Surely the reason Josie wouldn’t play with her was because she wasn’t in the mood to get wet. The obvious answer there was to just foist wetness upon her and the problem would be instantly solved. A wet Josie would have to play with her. She was already wet! As it turned out, Josie didn’t have to play with her at all. In fact, Josie then screamed at her and called for their mother as she ran back inside, leaving Carla to her own devices.
That particular day, as she wobbled and bounced to the sweet sounds of this man who, for some reason, wanted to make you sweat, she tried a different tactic.
Josie, wearing a day-glow one piece, as their mother still wouldn’t allow her a bikini, lifted her head up in irritation, “you don’t have to yell, Carla. What?”
“Wi- wi- will you play with me?”
Josie’s head plunked down again, “No, Carla. I’m working on my tan.”
“But. It’s summer.”
“I don’t want to. Can’t you just splash in the puddles or something?”
“But it isn’t as much fun alone… Wanna spray me with the hose?”
“No. Buzz off.”
Carla sighed and picked up the hose on her own and let the cool water run down from the top of her head. Then she pointed it in her mouth, spitting out all the excess water and trying to sing at the same time. “La glog la glog gla gla gla la.” She coughed and giggled as she couldn’t keep up with it all.
“Shhh Carla, God.”
First she had to play by herself and now Josie wouldn’t even let her sing.
“Okay,” she giggled.
“What?” Josie was looking up in irritation once more.
Carla laughed one more little giggle and then pointed the hose at full force at Josie, all the while scream-singing, “A la la la la long, a la la la la long long li long long!”
“Ah! MA!” Josie shot up, completely soaked. “You brat! MA!” Carla could only keep laughing at her as she ran back into the house. And through her laughs she heard an accompaniment of giggling. She turned to see someone her height who looked out at Carla from behind the chain link fence that separated their properties. For a moment, the pair continued in a duet of chuckling, until Carla walked up to her side of the fence.
“Hi, my name is Summer.”
“I’m Carla. That was my sister, Josie.”
“Summer? Honey?” A deeper voice came in from behind. His ratted old sneakers walked towards them and he crouched down. “Well now, who is this?”
“This is Carla.”
“I just sprayed my sister with a hose.”
This older man let a hearty chuckle escape his lips. “Well Carla, it’s nice to meet you.”
“You too. Are you the new people?”
“Yes we are. I met your dad just yesterday.”
“Cool. Wanna come over and play? I have this hose.”
“Well, I’m a little busy, but Summer and her brother can, if it’s alright with your parents.”
“Okay!” And without a second thought Carla turned and went splashing through her man-made puddles and into her house to make sure that her new friend, Summer, could come over and play. Josie was still angry, and their mom, exasperated, but Carla didn’t care. She had a new friend, Summer, and together they had the best summer.
It was in moments like this, when Carla was devoid of distraction, that she opened her ears and listened to what was playing. That way, she could always teleport herself to a different place and time, leaving it up to someone in her present to bring her back to reality.
Today that person was adult Summer, snapping in her face. Carla looked up and around, suddenly alert to the fact that she wasn’t alone any longer. The cracked green pavement and water droplets that glinted in the sunlight evaporated from her view. “Sorry! This song always just reminds me of summer as a kid.”
“And, like, torturing Josie?” For a minute two full grown women cracked into laughter as their childhood made a brief reappearance.
“Something like that. You wanna go?”
They exited the bookstore and Summer locked it behind her. “It’s even dingy from the outside,” she sighed and the pair set off.
“You could paint it turquoise.”
“Or Fuschia. Or Liquid Gold.”
“Liquid Gold? That’d definitely be a talking point.”
“Naw.” Summer and Carla turned a corner that would send them down the road leading to Porter Square. “It isn’t even gold. It’s just the name of furniture polish.”
“Oh. Well, you could probably afford it then!”
“Ahh see? That’s why I keep you around. Creative problem solving.”
“I thought it was my unending sense of positivity.”
“I just need to convince my mom to change some stuff. I dunno why she fights it. It’ll just be me running it all eventually. If it stays open, that is. I doubt Arlo is ever gonna come back from California.”
“That’s gotta be nice. Right?”
“California? Yeah, if you wanna spend everything you make on rent.”
“…So you mean like we do here? But to live in a shitty, snowy place?”
“I bet you can get her to let you change it all around. You aren’t even asking for much.”
“You know, she doesn’t like change.”
“Yeah, but it’s your problem to manage it, and it wasn’t like it was ever your idea to open a bookstore.”
“You know, you make good points.”
“When you aren’t talking about yourself.”
They had plodded their way to Purple Salmon and they looked it by the time they had arrived. The sticky moisture of July had collected in dew drops that clung to their brows. Carla could feel her hair had frizzed into what was now most likely a giant brown snarl, topped, of course, only by the sweaty layer that had affixed itself to the back of her neck. The day had begun promising and in air conditioning.
Both women sighed in relief as they assumed their positions at the far end of the bar, away from the windows and hopefully away from the constant opening and shutting of the door, each time ushering in more heat and humidity.
“Hey ladies.” Frankie, the bartender, sauntered over to them and smiled at them. “What can I do ya for tonight?”
“Ahem, excuse yourself?” Carla quipped at him. “That, Sir, is sexual harassment.”
“Ahh shoot, don’t tell on me now.”
“First round’s free and we’ll call it even?”
“I think you’ve failed women everywhere,” Summer piped in.
“What would you like, Carla?”
“Gin and tonic, please.”
“You got it, my friend.”
A minute later and they were nursing their drinks. The mic up on the slightly raised stage was live and crackling as a middle-aged man took hold of it. He would be the first of the night. He strummed away at his guitar and began warbling out a halfway decent rendition of Sister Golden Hair Surprise. After he concluded and no one seemed to want a turn just yet, he went in for round two, once again by America. The sound was mellow and allowed for Carla and Summer to continue to ponder the return on investment of paint colors and mass produced pastries for the bookstore.
Several drinks later and several singers as well, Carla pulled at her polyester pants, which grew ever more uncomfortable. She sucked down her gin and tonic through the straw. “The problem here is that the pants make me hot and this drink is very cool, but the alcohol is also very hot. I’m like a big pile of deceptive hotness.”
“You sure are a big pile o’ hotness.”
“You get what I’m saying… The drink. It’s cool, but also, it’s hot.”
“Better drink more of that cool drink then.”
“No, no, that’s not how the math problem goes. I’m hot because of the drink.”
Summer leaned forward in silent laughter. “I’m kidding, chill out.”
“No. See that’s the problem. I am very, very hot right now.”
“You think too much,” Summer giggled uncontrollably.
The latest and greatest in guitar karaoke stepped forward. He wasn’t alone though; there were other pieces who accompanied him.
“Stare much?” Summer’s giggling continued.
“Whatever! He’s cute!”
“Yeah, you know. I guess.”
“Except… The suspenders. Kinda scream late century douche.”
Carla absentmindedly nodded an affirmative through her haze. Indeed, he most likely was a late century douche, but damn if he wasn’t a cute one. His hair was slicked back into a knot so you could see protuberant blue eyes looking out through the small crowd that had accumulated through the hours. He wore a basic white v-neck T and grey, raggedy jeans. He had a guitar slung low. A repetitive drumming pattern rang through the tiny bar, a bass giving off warm tones shortly followed and then there he was, not playing, not yet. He let a forced low husk escape his lips as he began the opening lines from "Come Together."
“Oh, how original,” Summer snorted.
“But, he’s good.” He kept the even pattern of the verses and gave it momentum as it rolled into the chorus, and that’s when he gave into his guitar, picking at it in clean lines and sweeping motions. Carla felt right on the edge as he careened over each note and word, like it would almost get away from both of them, but it never quite did. Each pick at every string landed just when it was supposed to. It was during this final riff that he looked up and across the bar; he was scanning the room. And of course, he found her eyes looking right into him; how could he not? Everyone else there that night was fixated on whomever they came with. But it was the right mix of alcohol and music. Carla was aghast; she couldn’t look away, but eventually, he did. His guitar was calling, as was the microphone.
Once the spell was broken, instinct took over. “I need to go to the bathroom.”
Summer shrugged, “Okay, I got your drink.”
Carla slid from her stool, trying to inconspicuously de-cling her pants from her butt. She was loathing them more and more by the minute. She ducked back into a hallway and then the bathroom.
The music from the front of the house, yet another Beatles selection, was now drowned out by Michael Jackson’s falsetto as he instructed everyone to not stop until they got enough.
Carla went into a stall and peeled her pants down her legs. She plunked down on the toilet with more thud than she wanted and rubbed her eyes. Surely they were red now; she was drowning in gin and positive it had to be coming through her pores.
The electric of the eighties was getting caught in her mind though. It called her to a time when she was in a similar state. Her sister’s wedding. It had been held a function hall roughly four miles from the house they grew up in. Josie had just married Nick Papas. They had kissed at the alter, they had smashed cake in each other’s faces, they had finished walking around and thanking the two hundred and fifty family members who just had to be invited, and now they had collapsed in their chairs, too tired to even eat.
“Josie!” Their mother was stomping toward her in a pink confection. “You didn’t even say hello to the Cassanettis!”
“Ma, I did say hello to them. And all your other friends.” Carla watched from a few tables away as Josie very deliberately and despondently spun the full champagne glass around on the table, but didn’t drink from it.
“Well,” she said to her newfound friend Paul, “that’s why someday, if I ever get married, I’m doing a destination wedding.”
“Hah!” Paul shot her a blue-eyed look, his grinning cheeks boasted a dimple. “Destination wedding? Those don’t exist.”
“Well, not around here they don’t. It’s that.” He gestured to the unhappy couple as Carla’s mother dragged them across the floor to go say hello to some people they didn’t know and wouldn’t ever see again, for the second time. “It’s all the Cassanettis and the Masciarellis and the DeLucca’s need to be invited! It would be a personal insult if they weren’t! And BAM! You’re nailed down for a two hundred plus, three ring circus that your cousin Joey has to DJ.”
“You got it all figured out?” She smiled at him.
“You have no idea.” He stood up. “Wanna go for a walk?”
“Yeah. That’d be nice.”
They meandered outside so that only the traces of Build Me Up Buttercup were sneaking their way outside. In the small, grassed area masquerading as a courtyard, they sat on a bench, and Carla, not knowing what to do in any case, looked up at the white lights, while Paul just looked at her. “Cigar?”
“Have you ever smoked one?”
“Do you wanna?”
“I don’t see any. Euphemism?”
“No! They’re right here,” he pulled one out from the box that sat on the other side of him. “Get your mind out of the gutter.”
“Oh well, I guess you’re right. You do know what Freud said.”
“I know what he said about everything else.” Paul lit the cigar and inhaled slightly letting the smoke escape from his mouth almost instantly.
“Well, this time he said, ‘sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.’” She tried it, but inhaled too deeply, choking a bit. “Ugh! God, that’s terrible.”
“In that case, this time Freud was wrong.” He let the cigar fall to one side, pulling her mouth to his and they kissed.
As Carla was currently not sitting on a bench in a faux courtyard, but in a bathroom with a questionable level of cleanliness, the magical spell that had been cast was easily broken as the toilet auto-flushed before she had even stood up. She snapped to in a lame attempt to avoid splash-back. Getting her sweaty work pants back on was already enough of a chore.
She banged around in the stall, trying to unlatch it, and eventually gave up. Throwing all her weight against the door, while jamming her hand against the slider, she fell out of it and found herself practically colliding with Summer.
“Woah there, you okay?”
“Yeah, I just got a little stuck.”
“Did you need the stall?”
“No, I just came to check on you. That singer guy is done; he’s a couple seats down the bar from us.”
Summer rolled her eyes at Carla, “Just come on.”
Carla followed Summer back out to reclaim their spots. Just as she’d said, there the singer sat, two seats away. “Frankie, can I get another?” she asked.
“Sure can,” Frankie took stock of her empty glass. “And what can I get you, boss?” he looked in the mystery singer guy’s direction.
He was lounged back in his chair, looking through his phone and Frankie’s voice caught him off guard. He looked up quickly, “Uhmm, what going in there?” He pointed at Carla’s glass.
“Gin and Tonics,” she replied.
This got a smile out of him, “Tonics? Huh, I’m gonna go with Jameson on the rocks.”
“You got it.” Frankie went to work, leaving Carla and Jameson on the Rocks with open air between them.
“I usually only drink whiskey.”
Carla rarely knew what the right thing to say in any situation was. On this occasion, she went with, “I usually only drink clear alcohols.”
“Oh, okay,” he shrugged.
“Nico,” he held out a hand.
“Carla,” she took it. “Have you been here before?”
“Only a couple times. I just moved out of Allston to this part of town.”
“Gotcha. You work around here?”
“Actually, Berkley, for grad school.”
“Oh,” Carla pushed the words from her body, “nice.”
Summer, as if on queue, spurted out, “Carla used to go there!”
“Oh, you did!”
And here came the back track as Summer realized the words had left her lips too soon and Carla gave out her well-rehearsed elevator pitch style explanation as to why she had never finished. “Yeah, I studied music,” was all that left her mouth though.
“Oh really? Sick, what do you do now?”
Carla had to once again take stock of herself, “I work Downtown.”
He smiled sheepishly. “Yeah, well, are you gonna lug a drum kit to an open mic night?”
“As it happens, I’ve always felt that Cuban hand drums were the one element The Beatles were always missing.”
“Naw, but I’m four gin and tonics in and I’m doing my best.”
Nico let a small laugh escape through his smile and he stood up. “I should get back to my friends, but it was nice meeting you, Carla.” With that, he disappeared into a small crowd of people that had been slowly building.
“It was nice to meet you. How about that?”
“How about what?” Carla said, wide eyed, despite knowing exactly what was being referred to.
Summer’s eyes were fully bloodshot and she rocked back as she smiled gleefully. “You know,” she erupted in gales of laughter.
“Stop. Just don’t, he probably meets, like, a hundred people a night.”
“I saw you looking at him while he played, you creep.”
“I’m not a creep, you’re a creep.” Cara guffawed back. “I think maybe we need to make these drinks our last?”
“You don’t sound committed.”
“I’m a very committed person. I’m committed to not wearing these crappy pants.”
‘I want to take off my pants!” It was at this declaration, Carla realized just how loud she was speaking, and how some people happened to be staring, “Hey, Summer?”
“What do you think the over-under is that Nico just heard me?”
“Probably pretty good, he’s walking over now.”
“Lighten up, Nerd.”
“Hey,” Nico said to the back of Carla’s head as she continued to look straight forward.
“We’re all taking off, but I was looking to see if I could get your phone number.”
Carla spun around, aghast anyone would’ve asked such a question. Such a pedestrian request and there it sat before her. She had met a human man in a bar and he wanted her number. How old fashioned. “Yeah. Here, call yourself.” She handed her phone over to him and watched with great interest as she internalized the fact she had met a man outside of the world of Tinder.
“Cool.” He handed her phone back over to her. “I’ll see you around.” Nico walked off.
“Yeah, see you.” She looked at Summer. “Did you see that?”
“Nico getting your number?”
“Yeah, I think I might be having an out-of-body experience. It’s like the olden days.”
“Like how our parents met?”
“Yeah.” She finished the rest of her drink in one gulp. “I think I’m officially cooked.”
“I think you’re officially cooked too.”
And with that, they duo dumped some cash on the bar and slid from their stools. The air outside now was far cooler than before, despite the atmosphere still retaining a good deal of clamminess. Carla’s face, however, was screaming with heat. It could’ve been the alcohol. It could’ve been the Nico.