"Work in Progress" is not a linear story. It is told synthetically. The chapters are deliberately out of joint; they do not necessarily follow in chronological order.
In a world where nothing goes right, in a world where no one knows their names, where ill chance and loneliness are their closest companions . . . a guy and a girl meet.
We'll see what happens from there.
I remember the day I first saw her. It was the day that I'd demoted myself to the uber-hip coffee culture, the day I sold out my principles and found myself sitting in an armchair at Starbuck's. I remember the way the water dripped from the end of her nose; the way she brushed her bedraggled bangs out of her eyes. It was like one of those commercials--the ones where the young artsy guy looks up, sees the young mysterious girl with the mousy hair, their eyes meet, and they share a cup of coffee at a table, courtesy (roll logo) Starbuck's (tm).
Wait. That's my daydreaming cynicism. It wasn't like that at all.
What really happened was the door flew open when she burst in, admitting a bitingly cold blast of wind which conveniently blew out most of the candles set up around the acoustic stage, distracting the guitarist--who I hadn't been paying much attention to anyway. I glanced up, slightly annoyed at the chill reminder of the storm outside, then went back to my latest column, taking comfort in the soothing glow of my iBook. But a moment later I looked up again, just in time to see her slip on the tiles by the door. It really was wet outside, and it looked like she had dragged in bad luck along with the wind and rain. An old man helped her up; she held a hand to her hip, murmuring something. I couldn't read her lips from where I sat, but she looked profoundly embarrassed. The old man pushed past her and left the coffeeshop, shoulders hunched against the bitter weather outside.
The jangling music picked up again, earning a frown from the girl. She went to the counter and bought a drink, then turned and scrutinized the room, looking for a seat. There was plenty of room by the stage, but the only remaining chair farthest from the guitarist was currently occupied by my feet. Spotting the potential seat, she drifted toward me. I obligingly returned my feet to the floor.
She sat down across from me. Neither of us spoke. She ineffectually brushed her sopping hair out of her eyes. One fat drop of moisture rolled down her forehead, gathered at the tip of her nose, and hung there, quivering. She blinked, and the drop slid off, falling into the swirling brown brew with a distinct plip.
We regarded each other in silence, nonplussed. The corner of her mouth twitched.
I raised an eyebrow. "Don't like the music either, do you?"
She sipped her coffee and made a face. "It's not exactly what I'd play, no."
"You're a guitarist as well?"
"Yes, but I don't play what he's playing, and I never play at Starbuck's."
I was interested, now. A musician with similar anti-Starbuck's sentiment. I folded up my laptop and picked up my drink. "So what do you play? Wait, let me guess--they call you the 'indie hero', right?"
She smiled wryly. "If indie heroes write personal music with a homegrown style and play at small venues and read plays in their spare time, then I'm afraid so. But philosophically, a vehement no. I hope not."
I grinned. I was starting to like her. I slipped the laptop back into the bag at my feet. "Neither am I, though I'm a writer by trade and hobby. Hope to God I never become one of the angst-ridden, artsy types that come in lots of a dozen. And I read plays, too. Interesting."
"That memorable night in March at the end of the jetty, in the howling wind . . ." She looked at me expectantly.
". . . Never to be forgotten, when suddenly I saw the whole thing. The vision, at last." I finished and tilted my cup in her direction. "Samuel Beckett, Krapp's Last Tape. You'll have to do better than that."
"I think I can," she said confidently. "Tell me, what do you write?"
* * *
". . . And that's why I don't do 'art'." Her green eyes appraised me as I finished my narrative, and she snuggled deeper into her chair. I suddenly realized I hadn't heard the guitarist in some time. I checked my watch. "Wow, it's been more'n two hours . . ." my voice trailed off. We slurped our coffee for a few moments in companionable silence before she spoke.
"Do you have any desire whatsoever to touch me?"
I didn't bat an eye. "Neil Simon, The Star-Spangled Girl."
She smiled easily and set down her mug, leaning over the table. "How can you be sure?"
My muscles locked, and my stomach flip-flopped. My heart joined it a moment later. When I remembered to breathe again, she was still hunched forward, grinning. "I'll see you again, Jerald Thatcher." She stood and strode away with fluid grace, winding her scarf around her neck. Still stunned, I could only follow her with my eyes as she paused by the door and favored me with a wink. Then she was gone.
The icy hand clutching my uvula slowly relaxed its grip, and was replaced by something very similar yet much warmer. A huge, silly grin worked its way from one ear to the other. I was vaguely aware that my cheeks and feet felt quite hot.
Jerald Thatcher, she'd called me. Jerald Thatcher. Je--rald That--cher. Jer. Jerry. Thatch, Thatch, Thatch, Thatcher. I had a stupid name. Stupid way to spell it. Stupid to say it. But I really, really liked the way she'd said it. I'd give an ear to hear it again. I gulped down the rest of my drink. I was beaming. What a dope. If I was the babbling type, I would have been hauled off to the rubber room, cheerfully chattering until the end of my days. Prodded by mania, I floated out of my chair.
"Attention, neo-yuppie coffee culture!" I yelled. "In the headquarters of the evil, monopolistic bean-distributors, I have found a pretty girl who likes me!"
I snatched up my bag and fled into the downpour before the stunned mob could organize a pursuit.
- End: 01 -
"Hey, Jerr-o! Get your butt over here and play some cards!"
I sighed. Oh good, it was everyone's favorite neighbor, Stevie. So much for retreating to my happy place. I was annoyed, but mostly resigned. Stevie was like a persistent, pestering brother. He always showed up to these parties, which were always hosted at my apartment.
Most of my neighbors have known me since college (sometimes buddies can stay too close together), and their beer-athons have traditionally been held in my place. They figure that since I live alone in the smallest apartment in the complex, my roommates won't object to a wild bash. And of course, clean-up only inconveniences one person: me. And I have one of the better stereos in the complex. Sometimes I hate my neighbors and their logic.
I carefully slid my notepad under my armchair . Should be safe there. "Don't call me that, Stevie," I said automatically. It never worked. I hated being called Jerr-o. Hated my name. Stevie knew this, so of course it was the only way he addressed me. I made a face and rose to join the guys at my kitchen table, sending dark thoughts at the giggling couple that immediately fell into my freshly-vacated seat. Not on my La-Z-Boy. I slouched into a fold-up chair at the table as Stevie shuffled the cards.
"Hey, Jerr-o, whatever happened to you and that girl?"
I slouched deeper. My temples were beginning to pound. "Nothing. I told you. Deal the cards."
"Okay, Jerr-o, then let's see if you can put your money where your Romeo is." Stevie was cheerfully ignorant of the Bard. "Five dollar buy-in."
"You're charging me five bucks to gamble at the party being held in my own home?"
Stevie shrugged and gestured with the deck. "If you can afford that ugly lamp they're carting off, you can afford a few bucks."
I ceased rummaging through my wallet and twisted around. A few enterprising guests were moving my Swedish lampstand out into the hall to provide light for the rest of the revelers. I checked my watch: 10 PM. The party had spilled outside a little earlier than usual. "Bring that back by midnight!" I shouted. Hooting and laughter echoed back. Damn them for always appropriating my furniture.
"Aww, come on, Jerr-o, Tony always returns the lamp. He's the one with the beer cups taped to his chest."
"Your confidence is underwhelming, Stevie." I anted and examined my hand. Nine and a jack. "Fifty cents." The other five guys tossed in their own chips as Stevie flipped the first three cards. A seven, a ten, and a king. It's going my way, I thought, vindicated, and set out another fifty cents. The skinhead to my left chortled and pushed a small stack of chips into the center.
Stevie shook his head as the bet reached him, and dealt another card. A six. "If you can't keep a poker face, you shouldn't drink. Or at least, not at any table I'm not playing at. Your money's mine." Skinhead was about to throw in another ten cents, but Stevie slapped his hand and tapped the table. "Show some balls, huh? All in, everyone."
Skinhead suddenly seemed a great deal less sure of himself, but pushed in the rest of his chips. The rest of us threw in our piles with varying degrees of reluctance. I raised an eyebrow. "Feeling lucky tonight? Go on, burn and turn."
Instead, Stevie paused, and stared at me with a suddenly serious expression. "You know, Jerr-o, isn't it about time you got into the real world?"
I blinked. "What?"
"I mean, isn't it time that you gave up this half-assed attempt to write the perfect book, with the perfect character, and live a little? You're one crazy, obsessed man, in a sorta loose, casual way. Every day you go a little more nuts. You're too wrapped up in the life of an imaginary person."
Caught off guard, I glared at him. This had to be a ploy to distract me from the game. "What are you talking about? I am in the real world. I have a real job with a real column to write. But just because I want to do something else, when it finally comes around, doesn't make me crazy."
"Yeah, right, you don't even know a good thing when you have it. Or, maybe you think it's a good thing, but you're missing the forest for the trees, Jerr-o."
Abruptly, it clicked. "Stevie, if this is about that girl again--"
He took another long pull at his bottle. "See, I figure that once she knew you were a writer and an arty guy--"
"I'm not arty, Stevie."
"--she knew her best interests lay elsewhere. Well, she might have gone for you, even though you're a writer, if only you weren't crazy."
I winced as Stevie banged his beer onto the table. My nice hardwood table. "Face it, Jerr-o, girls are too levelheaded to get caught up with some crazy, arty guy. They've got too much brains for that."
I studied my cards and casually remarked, "Yeah, but have you seen what that one's doing to your jacket?"
"What?" Stevie stiffened and spun around, but it was too late. The girl, her face rather red, made a distinct hork sound which was muffled only slightly by the jacket's leather. "Aww, fer chrissakes, Jerr-o!" He angrily pushed back his chair and stomped off to the scene of the crime. The other players gave me wicked grins. I gazed back, the very soul of innocence. "I was just saying. . ."
My halo rested quite comfortably on the horns beneath.
- End: 02 -
Gravel crunched softly underfoot. Overhead, a million glittering diamonds burned fiercely, illuminating the trail before us. The crisp air was just cold enough that I could see my breath appear in tiny white clouds.
I gazed at her, entranced. "But not as beautiful as you," I decided. That earned me a smile.
She tipped her head back and stretched up with both hands. "They go on forever, but seem almost close enough to touch."
Perfect. I shifted the bundle under my arm. "C'mon, over here." I moved a little way off the path and spread the thickest blanket over a reasonably flat bit of ground. As soon as she sat down, I wrapped the other blanket around her, then dropped down beside her.
I checked my watch. Any minute. I laid back and folded my hands beneath my head. Together, we gazed into the moonless evening.
She broke the silence with a wistful sigh. "When I was a little girl, I thought I could trap a star and wear it around my neck. I even had a locket to put it in--" her voice caught in her throat.
Now. I glanced over to see her face upturned, rapt with wonder as the first meteors streaked across the heavens, their bright lines flaring and quickly disappearing. I rapidly lost count as the dazzling display continued for more than half an hour. Eventually the shower diminished, and only a few points of light occasionally raced through the midnight sky. I stretched luxuriously and stood up, feeling my stiff muscles slowly unknot. "I liked it," I said. "You?"
She was silent for a long time, then rewarded me with a smile that warmed my entire body. "Thank you for bringing me here, Jerald."
I couldn't keep the delight from my face. I reached down and helped her to her feet, but she didn't let go of my hands immediately. A bolt of excitement shot through me, and it had everything to do with her proximity and the soft heat of her skin. We stood for a long moment, unmoving, then she relaxed her grip and folded her arms under her breasts.
"I guess we got lucky that no one was at this end of the park tonight," I said.
"You did pick the right spot. Have you been here before?"
"Once," I admitted, "about ten years ago. I carved my initials into a tree."
Her eyes sparkled with amusement. "Do you remember which one?"
I glanced around the clearing. At the end of the trail was a squat boulder, and across from it . . . I pulled a penlight from my pocket and flicked it on. "That one. I bet they're still there."
She gave me an impish smile and sauntered toward the tree. Bemused, I followed, playing the beam over the trunk. Sure enough, a much-weathered J T was scratched into the gray bark.
She studied it for a few moments. "Hand me your knife." My heart jumped a little, but I obliged her. Did she know? Was she thinking--
She reached up and firmly etched her own initials just below mine. She moved back and handed me the knife. "Well, Jerald, what do you think?"
I scanned it with a critical eye and rubbed my chin. "I think it's missing something," I mused.
"And what might that be?" She watched me carefully, laughter in her eyes, but with a trace of something else. My heart beat even faster. I placed the tip of the knife against the rough bark. I took a deep breath and quickly scratched a large + between our initials.
I pocketed the knife and penlight, then turned. Her eyes seemed quite large and luminous, filled with starlight. The sounds of the night faded away; I could hear only the blood rushing through my ears.
"What do you think? Do you like it?" I was dimly aware that I had stopped breathing.
And then my tension melted away as she reached up and wrapped her arms around my neck. "I love it," she whispered.
- End: 03 -
- End: 04 -