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Bird’s Nest In Your Hair

Chapter Ten

Leaning forward to support the full weight of the books on his back, Jeb swung open the door of Queequeg’s and sauntered past the front desk on his right and a potted palm tree on his left. He melted a little as went into the bar and saw Diana standing there, pulling glasses out of the dishwasher and putting them on the shelf behind her. There were three guys seated at the bar at the moment, and he chose his second favorite seat, right next to the garnish tray. He preferred to sit at the end of the bar. There he wouldn’t be close enough to watch her as she prepared drinks in the well, but it also meant that if she had the time to wander over to the other side of the bar she would be able to give more attention to him. Frequently there were dusty bottles from the shelves there, or fruit that needed to be cut, or the beginnings or remnants of one of the many chores that needed to be done in a bar, so it was an area of somewhat greater privacy. Relatively speaking.

Here in his second favorite spot he was able to watch her as she prepared drinks, but it also meant that he had to listen to and even participate in the general conversation at the bar, which was usually about sports. Jeb had liked hockey well enough when he as younger, although he didn’t follow the stats and standings of the pros as closely as he used to. No one in Seattle seemed all that interested in hockey either, even though it was clearly the best sport ever invented. He was amazed at how much Diana knew about sports in general, especially baseball, about which she could teach Jeb a thing or two. He was trying to fill her in on hockey, but she still seemed more interested in football and even (this he really couldn’t understand) basketball.

Just as Jeb was sitting down, the man at the far end of the bar asked Diana to turn the channel to news. The management allowed this only during the slow hours of mid-afternoon, when political discussions wouldn’t rile up too many patrons and spoil the generally good mood that usually prevailed at Queequeg’s. He looked in the mirror behind the bar and saw the familiar crack, and wondered who had been stuck with seven years’ bad luck. By leaning a little to the left he could split himself right down the middle, but with one side turned ever so slightly askew.

He turned his attention to the television behind the bar. CNN was featuring fresh footage from the trial of a 22 year old who had murdered his parents and several of their servants in an exclusive neighborhood of Los Angeles. Naturally, they were showing footage of the murder scene itself from more than a year ago. The parents were wheeled out on stretchers, completely covered in white and surrounded by officials in orange vests. The house looked pretty big. Jeb sat there and wondered how the kid had gotten it into his head to do such a thing. As if on cue, the news anchor said that the boy had famously been arrested without a struggle. Apparently he had sat waiting on the front porch until the police arrived. He was reading a Stephen King novel as if he were waiting for a bus. One of the anchors was interviewing a psychologist, who was decrying the promotion of violence in popular culture.

“Seems like the whole world’s going psycho. I’d like to know when this country started turning into a Stephen King book,” said the patron to Jeb’s left.

“Hmm.” said Jeb, noncommittally. He counted himself as a fan of the author, having read several of King’s books in high school, and resented the implication that the novelist could somehow be implicated in the actions of a deranged reader. He had read several of the author’s books and certainly never dreamed of taking the kind of stand this deranged kid had taken. Never imagined that the dark half could be quite that dark.

The boy’s parents had evidently been very wealthy; could that have been it? But then why call 911 and wait for the authorities to arrive? He must have known he would be arrested; maybe he even wanted to be arrested. Jeb turned his attention from the television to Diana.

She was talking sports with two guys seated in the middle of the bar. One was wearing a light brown shirt and a tie diagonally striped in red, black and white. The other had on a blue shirt and a dark blue tie. The striped tied had been tucked into the shirt between the second and third buttons, the blue tie had been slung over the man’s left shoulder. They were talking in a general way, since the football season had ended and spring training was only just beginning for baseball. Since they hadn’t found anything specific to talk about, the subject had turned to the question of which sport was in fact the greatest.

“Football,” said the man in the blue shirt. “The last Super Bowl was evidence enough of that.”

“Soccer,” said the man tan shirt. Who now seemed like sort of a suspicious character to the other. “It’s played all over the world.”

“Baseball,” said Diana. “Everybody knows it. It’s the American game.”

“Hockey,” said Jeb, thankful for a subject in which he was the most knowledgeable, as well as for the opportunity to get something off his chest.
“Hockey?” asked the blue shirt. “Why hockey?”

“Yeah, the best sport ever invented?”

“Well, think about it: it’s the fastest. And it combines elements of all the other sports.”

“Whaddya mean?” asked the tan shirt.

“Well, like basketball -”

“Can’t bounce a puck.”

“No, but the goal has a net. And now they’re often played in the same arenas – Key Arena here, and the Fleet Center in Boston.”

“Well, yeah, but the net’s actually more like soccer,” countered the shirt.

“True, it is a little like soccer, except that it moves more quickly and it isn’t boring. It has the same kind of goals, absolutely, and goalies as well. But the scores are almost always higher than in soccer.”

“OK, what else?” he asked, now smiling.

“Like curling, it involves sliding, but without all that bogus sawdust.” Jeb realized he was reaching a little on this point.

“Bogus sawdust?” questioned Mr. Blue Shirt.

“I know what you mean,” said Mr. Tan Shirt.

“I don’t,” said the other, “but who cares about curling?”

Jeb ignored the question and continued: “You need pads and helmets, like football, and in fact it’s even rougher than football. And faster. For individualists who prefer golf or tennis, the goalie is pretty solitary. Except it’s faster. And like baseball, where you also have to use a stick, and the puck is (very roughly speaking) about the same size as the ball. Except hockey is a whole lot faster.”

“It sounds to me like it all boils down to being faster,” said Diana, returning to the note of skepticism. “What about Nascar?”

“Well, Nascar may be faster, but hockey is quicker. And of course they don’t need cars. But the biggest difference, what truly set it apart as the sport of all sports, is the penalty box.”

“Why the penalty box?” asked one of the two, happily setting him up.

“Think about it: of all systems of punishments in sports it’s the most just. It’s like jail: break the rules and you somehow ought to be set aside for public ridicule. And the truly great, like Gretzky, are almost never seen there. Compare it to basketball, which is a total mess. The endings of basketball games are terrible because of all the fouling. Stop, start, stop and start… it goes on forever. In hockey the game keeps moving, and the ref just sends you off to the box. If the game does stop, it’s because of a fight, which isn’t boring. In football you don’t notice the stoppage as much, but that’s only because it’s all stop and start anyway. With soccer you’re actually thankful for a break in the monotony; I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those fouls weren’t committed out of sheer boredom.”

“Got a point there,” said the tan shirt. “But they do that in soccer, too.”

“Well, I’m sold,” said the other.

“Nope. I stand by baseball,” said Diana. “Hockey doesn’t have anything like Spring Training. Or at least nobody cares.”

That remark was met with a moment of silence. Of course it had helped that Spring Training had been in the news lately, but who would think to argue such a point? Everyone slowly nodded their heads in deference to Diana’s judgment, including Jeb, recognizing in it an incontrovertible truth.

“All right, I’m done,” said the man in blue, slipping a twenty underneath the coaster and his empty pint jar. He pulled the tie off his shoulder and stretched his arms above his head.

“Yeah, this oughtta cover it,” said the man in tan, standing another ten up on its side by his glass.

“Thanks guys,” said Diana from the well, where she was filling a couple of tumblers with ice. See ya next time!”

On the television behind the bar a news report showed that a bomb had exploded somewhere in the Middle East. Crowds of people rushed around in front of the camera, which, from the look of it, had been hoisted up so that the cameraman could run in search of a vantage point. Sirens were going off and people – real people somewhere in a real street – were running to and fro, yelling and screaming. The man at the end of the bar sat placidly with his head propped up on his chubby hand, gazing over his beer at the set.

Jeb sat there happy with a full beer in front of him, happy and a little nervous that he now had Diana to himself. Of course his feelings were a little more complicated now, having recently spent the night with another woman, but he assumed that he felt much as he had before. Not that he was thinking much about her now, but he did feel like he had to test himself.

Looking at a break in the mirror, he saw himself as divided as he felt. He felt the same as he always had about Diana, but the simple fact was that the recipient of all his (no longer quite so devoted) attention didn’t exist in a vacuum. While he wanted to believe that he felt about Diana much as he did before, and though the actual time spent with her was about the same, he had also spent time with this other woman, had moreover slept with this other woman, and now could no more sit near Diana and not think that he was somehow betraying her – Diana. Not for the first time, he wondered whether the attraction might have something to do with her name – a vague, fantasy he’d perhaps unwittingly fashioned out of an anachronistic association he’d made with her name. She had become Artemis in the flesh, that flesh somehow regrettably elusive, perhaps unwillingly evaded. It was a fairly complicated, possibly even conflicted collection of desires that he felt towards her. But it couldn’t be his idea alone; some of this had to originate with Diana herself. He also felt that Diana herself could straighten it all out, much as she’d put all that business with sports to rest with her final statement about Spring Training.

If only that were true. Unfortunately they could all talk about sports in public, while love was exactly the opposite. Hard enough to talk about in private, it was absolutely out of the question here. At least for Jeb. Sure, there were jokes, like those that older guy was so good at telling, but jokes were different. Jokes were what you used when you couldn’t take something head on. Sports were probably somewhere in between. He thought his feelings for Diana were the real thing, but it was still laughable was that for all he knew all of this was happening only in his own head. Diana was nice enough, he realized, but then she was nice to everyone.

As he neared the bottom of his glass he realized he’d be better off in the long run by leaving on a good note. He’d been the life of the party there for a minute or two, and if left now he might be remembered that way. So he drained his glass, followed their example by putting a bill under the coaster, and stood up to leave.

“Off to study,” he said to Diana, who was busy cleaning the back counters. “Wish me luck”

“Yeah, good luck with that,” she said. “Try to think of it as hockey.”

Chapter Eleven

Jeb decided to take the long way home by heading up to the supermarket on Capitol Hill. This early in the afternoon there were almost always free samples of various kinds of food available for shoppers. Although almost all of the shopping done by Jeb was for free samples; he took his share of whatever was being offered, and then some. After the beer at Queequeeg’s he decided that he’d be better off with some bread, so when he got to the grocery store he immediately made his way over to the bakery. The bakery department of this rather expensive store was something to behold. Employees dressed in white uniforms and chef hats worked at stations meant to be as visible as the glass display counters between themselves and the shoppers. Jeb looked through the curved glass counter and eyed the cheesecakes greedily before finding the standard, large glass platter fitted out with a doily and free samples. These probably would have been better as dessert, but there he was, and with his self-consciousness kept firmly in check he grabbed a couple of oatmeal raisin cookies as big as the palm of his hand.

“My favorite. . .” he mumbled through a mouthful, earning a smile and a nod from the stout young woman rolling out pie crust on a powdery counter.

Brushing the crumbs from his face with the sleeve of one arm, he slipped the cookie into the pouch of his sweatshirt with the other and wandered off in search of more substantial fare.

From experience he knew this was to be found in the deli area and that Monday was always a big day. Sure enough, he saw two stations set up at either end of the long counter and had only to decide which one he would approach first. The closer one felt natural enough, so he sauntered over to a card table with a tablecloth draped over it, where a cutting board full of cheese had been set up. In front of a big block with the label prominently displayed was a pile of little cubes with toothpicks in them. The woman behind the table gave him a knowing smile and asked if he’d care to try any.

“Would I ever,” said Jeb, grabbing a couple of toothpicks together with his expert fingers.

“Extra sharp white cheddar,” said the woman. “Some people say it tastes a little like Parmesan.”

“Hmmm. . . let me see there,” said Jeb, taking two more toothpicks. “Yeah, I see what you mean.”

“We have some right here, and then there’s some over in the refrigerated bins if you decide later,” said the woman.

“Yeah. I’ll do that,” said Jeb. “Thanks a lot.”

The woman smiled back as Jeb moved on towards the other end of the long counter.

There another woman was standing by with a pair of tongs and paper plates. “Chipotle Seasoned Chicken today,” she said, giving Jeb the same knowing look. She had half a chicken breast on the hors d’oeuvre plate by the time Jeb reached the table. Jeb pulled a plastic fork from the cup and dug in.

“Goes well with the cheese,” he said, nodding back towards the other table.

“Hadn’t thought of that!” said the woman.

“If only they served a little white wine to go with it,” said Jeb.

“Well that wouldn’t be legal, strictly speaking,” said the woman, laughing.

“How’s school going?” she asked, nodding towards his backpack. “Or is that where you keep your shopping,” she added, smiling.

“No . . . er, fine,” said Jeb, putting the rest of the chicken into his mouth. “Think I’m going to go look for that wine.” After dropping the plate and the fork into the trash basket provided, he strolled off down the aisle.

There wasn’t any wine, but he found samples of grape juice being handed out on aisle six. Cranberry-Grape – not one of his favorites, but good enough. 100% juice. Two little dixie cups weren’t really adequate, so he afterwards made his way over to the refrigerated section hoping that orange juice might be handed out as well. There his luck ran out, but he continued wandering the aisles in search of other sample stations, but usually staring at the floor as he walked. Since he wasn’t able to avoid the cracks entirely, he contented himself with stepping on intersections of four squares. This made for slightly exaggerated steps, which didn’t bother him much even when he noticed other people looking at him. After a while he decided it had been long enough for him to go back for seconds at the bakery. Another fresh plate of snickerdoodles had been put out, so he grabbed one for himself and one for the road, replacing the one he had by now taken from his pocket.

As a gesture of good faith he bought some tic-tacs at the check out counter and went outside to face the day, now fading back into the dark, and made his way over to his bungalow under the bridge.

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