John Nichols was the best classical guitar player in Willow Glen. He was also quite possibly the best classical guitar player in the entire city of San Jose, California, or maybe even in all of Santa Clara County. He was pretty sure he wasn’t the best classical guitar player in the State of California. There were a few classical guitar players down in Southern California who could strum John’s socks off.
John played his six-string, classical guitar Friday evenings from 8:30 to 10:00 at the Three Sisters Bookery in The Pruneyard shopping center in Campbell where they sold baked goods and good books. He drew a respectable-sized crowd, mostly couples in their mid-fifties who’d been coming to listen to John for the past thirteen years. John kept a tip jar up on stage, nestled next to his wooden stool. He wasn’t there for the tips, but he felt that contributing to his tip jar allowed his fans to participate more fully in the experience.
John’s real job was working days as a Mainframe Systems Programmer for IBM down at the intersection of Monterey and Cottle Roads in San Jose. John knew he was a dinosaur. Most of his peers had either taken early retirement or had gone on to become webmasters in the brave new world of cloud computing. Mainframe Systems Programmers were a dying breed. The job paid well, though, and John wasn’t sure he could convert his arcane skills to the new technology. Besides, he was a mere ten years away from retirement himself.
John had never married. It wasn’t that he didn’t find women attractive. Some of the women John dated were downright gorgeous. But John had never come across a woman who fit the bill. The long-term bill, that is.
Weekends and trips to Tahoe were one thing but John was reluctant to share his space with another human being. Other human beings tended to be messy or fussy or cranky or a lethal combination of all three. On balance, one might say that John Nichols was a happy guy.
The third Friday in February didn’t start out well. John got rear-ended on his way to work. The accident was caused by patchy fog, unusual for this time of year but not unheard of. By the time he and the other guy had exchanged insurance information and driver’s licenses it was obvious that John was going to be a good fifteen minutes late for work anyhow, so he stopped on the way at a Panera Bread place for one of their egg souffles.
The breakfast crowd had thinned. John was the only patron in line. The lady behind the cash register was new. Her name tag read “Rita.” Rita looked to be a comfortable forty, but she’d aged well. The top button on her taut uniform had unaccountably come loose. Nothing under her blouse looked forty. It looked lovely. In the spring a young man’s fancy turns to you know what. You know what else? It isn’t only in the spring, and it isn’t only young men. It’s every man’s fancy from puberty to Alzheimer’s and after Alzheimer’s it only becomes slightly less focused. John tapped in his phone number.
“Mr. Nichols?” Rita smiled warmly, glancing at the screen on her cash register. “Which egg souffle may I get for you this morning?”
“Which ever one you think looks breast,” stammered John. “Sorry, looks best.”
“Breast works for me,” she whispered softly. “I’ll bring you one that’s nice and firm. Do you want anything to go with it?”
“Coffee,” he replied shakily.
“Cream?” she grinned, handing John the sensual souffle on a plastic tray.
“Are you free tonight?” rasped John, enthralled. “I’m playing classical guitar at the Three Sisters Bookery tonight. It’s a bookstore at The Pruneyard. I’d love for you to come. I’ll save you a front row seat.”
“I’d love to come, John,” she said, flashing a furtive peek at a perky nipple. “I’ll sit in the front row, but I refuse to wear panties. That’s $8.37 including tax.”
John handed Rita a twenty with a trembling hand.
“Keep the change. See you tonight. You know how to get there?”
“I’ll just follow the music. See you tonight, John.”
John had a hard time keeping his mind on his work. The image of that elusive nipple teased him right up to lunchtime. He was tempted to go back to Panera Bread and have soup and a sandwich for lunch, but he was afraid Rita might not be there. Nor did he want to appear too eager. He didn’t want to lose the upper hand. Dang she looked good enough to eat.
At 5:00 John clocked out. He had plenty of comp time on the books, so he didn’t feel bad about putting in a leisurely seven hours instead of his usual ten. To be honest most of the seven hours had been spent in a fog. And the fog was named Rita.
John got to The Three Sisters Bookery at 7:30 to set up. Friday night guitar selections were performed in a section of the bookstore where they usually hosted author readings and book signings. The author podium had been replaced with a slightly raised, portable stage. John’s favorite wooden stool with the tip jar nearby was positioned toward the front of the shallow stage. Three rows of folding chairs had been set up to accommodate the audience. John deftly hung a Reserved sign on the middle chair in the first row, just in case.
Tuning the guitar before a performance in February wasn’t much of a chore. In the mid-summer heat, they sometimes held performances outside in the courtyard. The blazing heat of the day that lingered well into dusk raised havoc with the tension in the nylon guitar strings. But inside the bookstore, the strings were docile, compliant, subdued. John was anything but docile. He felt tense as a tightened nylon string.
For the evening’s entertainment, John had chosen several selections from the Andrés Segovia songbook. In his early period Segovia performed mostly flamenco pieces. John was in an uncharacteristically flamboyant mood. Nonetheless he drew the line at bolo ties and silk shirts, let along those castanets and wicked dancing boots. He did opt for a Western outfit. A striped shirt with snaps down the front and faded blue denims. No Stetson though. John wasn’t a hat guy.
At 8:15 the patrons of the art began wandering in. The Reserved sign on the folding chair in the middle seat of the front row drew furtive glances but the chair remained unoccupied even after the clock had struck 8:30. John began to play his signature opening number, “Sheep May Safely Graze” by Bach in the key of G.
At 8:37 a slight disturbance rippled through the hushed room. Rita delicately picked her way to the front row, tugged her tight, black leather skirt down and sat on the chair sporting the Reserved sign. Her white cashmere sweater didn’t do a thing to mask the fact that she was braless. The damp chill outside had perked up her generous nipples. John was a hog for generous nipples. She spread her knees slightly and two pair of lips smiled up at John. John flubbed the ending chord for the first time in his illustrious career.
Andrés Segovia had never performed his songbook better. A fifteen-minute intermission at 9:30 allowed Rita to approach the stage and slip a ten-dollar bill inside John’s tip jar.
“Are you enjoying the evening so far?” she asked.
“If you don’t have any plans for later, I know a place on Bascom,” she said. “You’ll have to drive. I took an Uber over, but I didn’t schedule the return trip. There’s a bar named First Impressions across the street from the light rail station. It’s dark and smoky inside. I hope you don’t mind dark and smoky places.”
“Dark and smoky works for me,” whispered John. “God you’re gorgeous.”
“I hope you like First Impressions,” she murmured. “Sometimes they’re the best kind.”
At 10:00 on the dot John struck his final chord of the evening, stood and bowed to a smatter of applause from the dwindling crowd and stowed his instrument in its case. He stepped off the stage, Rita slipped her hand through his waiting arm and they sped off through the night to the bar named First Impressions.
The bar was everything John had hoped for, including almost empty. They sat at a table in the rear. A scantily clad waitress came over and put coasters on the table.
“Hi, Rita, the usual?”
“Hi Myrna, yes please. The drink that bears my name. Margarita on the rocks, no salt. And I believe the gentleman will have a Dos Equis. You’re a beer drinker, right John?”
John nodded. The waitress departed.
“I loved the concert,” Rita smiled, taking John’s hand in hers. “You’re incredibly talented. How long did it take you to master the guitar?”
“I’ve been playing since I was eleven. Not classical at first. At first, I wanted to be a rock star, but my parents wouldn’t hear of it. They’re way too conservative. Dad was an engineer at IBM. He retired ten years back. Love your sweater.”
Rita pulled John’s hand across the table and leaned into it gently. The cashmere felt soft. The firm flesh under the cashmere felt heavenly. The drinks came. John almost came as well.
“To a lovely evening,” said Rita, releasing John’s hand and raising her glass. “Let’s make it last.”
Rita was extremely well read and surprisingly articulate. It turned out she’d traveled all over the world, living in a small village in Italy for three months after she graduated from college with a degree in Romance Languages. She had a rich sense of humor and she held her liquor well. She was on her third Margarita when suddenly her mood turned serious.
“Are both your folks still living?” she asked.
“Mom died three years ago,” John said softly. “It was the cancer. Dad’s healthy, but he misses her a lot. I try to see him on weekends. It’s not always possible. I’m his only living relative.”
“My own Dad passed on Wednesday,” Rita said, dabbing at her eyes with a tissue. “He was a retired insurance executive living in Omaha. I can’t afford to fly to Nebraska so I could attend the funeral on Monday. My older brother’s executor of Dad’s estate, but he won’t send me the airfare. I promised to pay him back out of my share of the inheritance, but Franklin won’t budge. He’s a tight assed son of a bitch.”
“I might be able to help out,” said John. “Airfare to Omaha can’t be too bad.”
“Trying to book a seat this late in the game is awfully expensive,” said Rita, shaking her head. “I called United after I got home from work. That’s why I was late to your concert. The cheapest fare is $537 round trip. That’s in coach. The plane leaves San Jose tomorrow morning at 11:00. They only had three seats left. I’d pay you back, of course. If you wouldn’t mind me sleeping over at your place, you could drive me to the airport in the morning. It would mean the world to me, John.”
Suddenly the front door banged open.
“Hey, cowboy, what’re you doing with my wife?” barked a gruff, baritone voice. “I thought I’d find you here, Letitia.”
The big man strode over to the table where John and Rita were sitting. Rita was furious. John was dumbfounded.
“You come along home now,” the guy demanded.
“Get the fuck out of here, Roy,” snarled Rita. “This ain’t none of your business.”
“I’m making it my business,” said Roy, grabbing Rita by the arm and dragging her up out of her seat.
Roy frog walked Rita out the door into the foggy night. Suddenly there was a squeal of brakes and a loud crash. John rushed to the door. The San Jose light rail train stood on the tracks outside. The bodies of a man and a woman lay crumpled on the tracks. Police sirens wailed in the distance.
“Do you know what happened?” asked a passerby.
“I have no idea,” said John, shaking his head. “I was about to head home myself. You have a nice night. Hear?”