Small Lives

     [A short story for you this evening. Not everyone aspires to greatness. Quite a lot of us have no ambitions of that magnitude. But think about the children of a family of great wealth and power. Think about the pressures that might be put on them. Not all of them will respond the way their greatly accomplished and admired relatives would like. – FWP]

     Jack’s playing was as blazing as ever. The Black Grape crowd was mesmerized by the guitarist’s endless fresh improvisations. Rolf had backed him for three years, yet he was as impressed by the skills of Onyx’s star guitarist as he’d been at their first encounter. He strove to concentrate on his own role: keeping a steady, solid foundation with his Schecter six-string bass against which Jack could spin jazz-rock arabesques from his dazzling white Gibson Les Paul.
     Hal, at Rolf’s left, strove with equal effort to maintain the percussive thunder that undergirded the jam. It was just as invisible as Rolf’s bass, and just as vital to the support of Jack’s virtuosity.
     It was the trio’s two hundredth performance for a paying crowd, and it was special. They were locked together as tightly as if they were a single instrument. The crowd seemed to sense it just as sharply as Rolf did.
     The jam had been going on for nearly twenty minutes when Jack played the agreed-upon phrase that signaled the wind-down and the conclusion. Twelve bars more, and it ended to a thunder of applause. Onyx’s star stepped to the mike, said “we’ll be back in a little while,” unslung his guitar and set it down. Rolf and Hal did likewise. The three stepped off the dais with Jack in the lead.
     Hal ambled off to the men’s room, whether to relieve himself, have a smoke, or whatever. Rolf merely took a seat at the far corner of the bar and asked the bartender for a tap beer. He was sipping quietly mere moments later as the crowd converged on the guitarist for autographs, questions about appearance dates, or whatever.
     Bet there’s lots of whatever tonight. There were three girls up front who couldn’t tear their eyes from him. Two of them had wet spots in their jeans. Ten to one he doesn’t go home alone.
     “You look lonely.”
     The observation came from directly behind him. He set down his beer and half-turned to confront a tall, very pretty blonde who looked to be some years older than he. She wore a subtly probing look that was not at all invasive or threatening. Reflexively, he looked her up and down.
     A dress and heels? Here?
     “Good evening, Miss.” He extended a hand, and she shook it.
     “So far, anyway,” she said. She took the stool next to his and waved to the bartender. “White wine, please.” Presently the barman set a glass before her. She raised it to Rolf. “Skoal.”
     He grinned and hoisted his stein in reply. “Salud.” They clinked and sipped.
     “Sarah,” she said.
     “Rolf,” he replied.
     “Why no crowd of fans around you, Rolf?”
     He shrugged. “Sideman.” He nodded toward Jack and his cluster of admirers. “The star does the shining. Hal and I just bask in the glow.”
     It elicited a chuckle. “You’re all right with that?”
     “I couldn’t do what I do if I weren’t.”
     His phrasing seemed to pique her. “A man who knows his subjunctives!” She clapped perfunctorily.
     “Thank you, thank you. I’ll be here all week. Try the veal.”
     A second chuckle. “Yeah, right. So what do you do when you’re not backing up Mister Wonderful?”
     It was his turn to take particular note of her words. He looked her over a second time, more carefully.
     She carried herself with a relaxed, unaffected poise that seemed completely natural. It gave her a presence that went beyond mere good looks. Other women he’d known who shared her beauty and self-command had been more focused on their own images than on anything around them. Her attention was entirely on him.
     He took a moment to collect his thoughts.
     “Well,” he said, “not much of importance. I work in the lumber mill in Laurelton five days a week. I do yard cleanups on weekends for extra cash. Friday and Saturday nights I do this, if we can get a gig.”
     “Sounds…regular,” she said.
     He nodded. “Unexciting, but quiet.”
     “Like it that way?”
     “I do. It’s the life of a regular guy in a regular little New York backwater. Uncomplicated, undemanding. Pays the bills with a little left over. I can go on doing it as long I don’t slice off a finger or tick off my bosses. Maybe I’ll make supervisor someday and watch other guys slice off their fingers.”
     Her gaze flickered over to where Jack was entertaining his fans.
     “Like him?”
     He shrugged. “He’s okay. Pretty good guitarist.”
     “But you don’t pal around.”
     “Nah. There’s always a hubbub around him. I prefer the quiet.”
     Her smile quirked. “And yet,” she said, “you’re a rock musician who plays in noisy nightclubs and bars.”
     “I guess that’s how I fill my hubbub quota.” He finished his beer, rose, stretched, and reseated himself. “What about you? On your way to fortune and glory?”
     The smile vanished. “No, I’m sort of hiding from them.”
     It was curious enough to elicit a reciprocal probe. He wondered if it would be welcomed.
     Only one way to find out.
     “Are you—were you a performer too?”
     He could feel her gathering her courage.
     “No,” she said at last. “I’m a Forslund.”


     Throughout Onyx’s second set, Rolf felt compelled to split his attention between his bass and Sarah. She remained at the bar despite it putting her sideways to the dais. Her eyes remained upon him, not in a demanding way, but simply companion to companion. She seemed to have linked herself to him in some way that extended beyond their half-hour of conversation.
     He fancied he could feel the link. Its weight was simple and comfortable, like a handclasp.
     I like it.
     He forced himself not to think beyond the moment. He was there to play, not to preen or strut.
     Or fantasize.
     The duel in his head made a forty-five minute set seem three hours long.
     The crowd was just as appreciative as earlier. When they put down their instruments for the night, the swarm that followed Jack was as large and ardent as before. Rolf slipped through the crowd gracefully and beelined for the corner of the bar, where Sarah had remained.
     “Doing all right?” he said.
     She nodded. “Just enjoying the music. I’m glad you came back this way.”
     He smiled. “I’m glad you’re still here.”
     “Say, why a six-string bass?”
     “Well,” he said, “the extra range is nice, and Schecter makes a good one. But in my case it’s more that I started out as a guitarist. I tune the Schecter to a standard guitar tuning and play a sort of combined bass and rhythm guitar. Jack suggested it. He says it gives him a lot to work with. Besides, it fills in our sound.”
     “Do you and…Hal, you said?” He nodded. “Do you two always do what Jack wants?”
     He shrugged. “I guess. It keeps the tensions down. Besides, he’s the draw. No one comes to hear Hal and me.”
     “I have a lot of trouble with that.”
     “Hm? What part?”
     “Doing what I’m told.”
     That pricked his curiosity. He peered at her.
     Forslunds mostly tell other people what to do.
     “You never said what you do for a living,” he said.
     “I work at Albrecht’s.”
     “Doing what?”
     “Selling women’s clothes.”
     “Does it suit you?”
     “It’s fine.” Her smile twitched. “I run the department. Anyway, the Forslund Trust is the majority shareholder in the company.”
     He wondered at her offhanded consent to a position in a service industry.
     Her family’s wealth would allow her to do whatever she pleases.
     “What were you thinking just now?” she said.
     “Hm? Oh, just that you must enjoy it.”
     “I do,” she said. “It’s not a big deal, but I’m good at it, and it lets me live on my own instead of at Forslund Manor. Besides, I don’t get a lot of petty little orders from people with brassy titles.”
     Without thinking, he murmured “Or other people named Forslund.”
     Her eyes flared wide.
     “What?” he said. “Did I offend you?”
     “No,” she said, and looked a little away. “It’s just…I didn’t expect you to be so sharp.”
     He tried to lighten the tone. “Never underestimate a sideman. We could be just pretending while we await our moment to strike.”
     She looked him full in the eyes, her expression utterly serious. For a moment he became afraid.
     “It’s okay,” she said. “It’s a long story, and it would probably bore you.”
     For a moment they sat in silence. He reflected on the strangeness of the encounter.
     A Forslund in a working-class bar. A beautiful woman worth a ton of money, all alone…except for me.
     Why me?
     He turned to find Hal standing behind him.
     “Gleason wants us out. Jack told me to get our stuff into the van,” Hal said.
     “What, Jack doesn’t plan to be involved?” Rolf said. “Has he suddenly lost the use of his hands?”
     The drummer shrugged and indicated the guitarist with a nod. At the other side of the tap room, Jack was flirting aggressively with two very attractive brunettes. Each of the girls had an arm around the other, They looked enough like one another to be sisters, and neither seemed to be trying to edge out the other.
     He’s in for an interesting night.
     “Moment please, Hal.” He turned to Sarah. “Sarah, this is Onyx’s drummer Hal Fraser. Hal, this is Sarah Forslund.”
     Hal’s eyes went wide. Sarah extended a hand with perfect aplomb. Hal took it hesitantly.
     “Pleased to meet you, Miss Forslund. Apologies for interrupting your chat. Rolf, we’d better get busy. Gleason wants us out of here before midnight.”
     “Sarah,” Rolf said, “would you like to continue this conversation?” She nodded. “Then please wait here while I engage in a little manual labor. It shouldn’t take long.”
     “You’re coming back?” she said.
     “Yeah. Wasn’t that sort of implied?”
     She nodded. “Okay.”
     He slid off his stool and ambled toward the dais.

     Rolf shoved the last of the amplifiers into the van, closed and locked the twin doors, and wiped the dust from his hands. “Good gig, as always.”
     “Number two hundred,” Hal said.
     “Well, goodnight guys. See you tomorrow night for number two-oh-one.” Rolf started back toward the Black Grape.
     Jack looked at him curiously. “You’re not going back with Hal?”
     Rolf shook his head. “I’ll beg a ride from Sarah.”
     The guitarist looked at him levelly. “You know who that is, don’t you?”
     “She told me.”
     “So…then what if she says no?”
     “Onteora Taxi is still in business, isn’t it?”
     “Geez.” Jack shook his head in disbelief. “I thought I was doing well.” He glanced behind him at the brunettes who awaited his attentions.
     “You are,” Rolf said. “Have fun.” He returned to the bar.

     Rolf found Sarah where he’d left her.
     “Sorry, I didn’t think it would take that long,” he said. He remounted his stool. “Where were we?”
     She merely looked at him. Her expression was opaque, unreadable.
     “Sarah? Everything okay?”
     “What…” She paused and visibly gathered her forces. “Rolf, what do you want out of life?”
     He gaped.
     “Yeah, I’m all right, just…give me a minute.”
     It’s not a question I spend a lot of time on.
     “Well,” he said after a few moments, “essentially, just to live it. Quietly. Peacefully. I want to be able to meet my bills and save a little. I want to keep getting better at what I do. But I don’t have any grand ambitions. I love music, but there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy that.” He waved at the dais, now cleared of Onyx’s trappings. “I’ll enjoy it while it lasts, but it’s bound to end pretty soon. Jack’s good, but he’s not Marquee quality. When it’s over, I’ll just…live.”
     “You’ll keep playing, won’t you?”
     “Well, yeah. Probably not the bass, though. If I’m with people I love who want to hear me play, I’ll play for them. Otherwise, I’ll play for myself.”
     She locked eyes with him again. “Would you play for me?”
     He held back the reflexive assent and studied her face.
     Of course I would, but…what else? What’s she really asking about?
     “Sarah,” he said deliberately, “what do you want out of life?”
     She closed her eyes and drew an audible breath. He waited.
     “I want,” she said at last, “what you want. What you already have. A quiet life. A small life. Inconspicuous. Unimportant to anyone but those who I love and who love me.”
     “That would…satisfy you?”
     She nodded.
     “From what you’ve told me,” he said, “it seems like you already have all of that.”
     “I do,” she said. “Except for one thing.”
     He closed his eyes and strove to slow his heart.
     “Sarah,” he said, “I will play for you whenever you ask.”
     She gazed at him for a long moment. Presently she nodded, stepped off her stool, and held out a hand.
     “Come home with me,” she said.


     Copyright © 2024 Francis W. Porretto. All rights reserved worldwide.

1 comment

  1. A lovely vignette.  I always enjoy the insights related to the non-main-characters in your work, both into their life and from their own mouths.  (Kevin Conway when he was first introduced, for instance.)  This is no exception.


    It’s also interesting to me to see how Sarah Forslund has possibly matured since her younger days in Polymath.  She still sounds very confident and self-aware, but may have possibly scaled back her ambitions somewhat.


    All in all, another nice piece of work, and a nice addition to the Onteora canon.  Fans have no right to put expectations on authors, especially those who provide their blood, sweat, and tears in exchange for so little payment.  That said, I hunger for a box-set of all the Onteora-verse – hardcopy that is.  I understand the economies of scale in printing make this tough.


    Your universe is one that lies close to my heart, right up there with the big names (Tolkien and Asimov for example).


    Thank you.


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