“Encountered Humans” by Penelope Breen
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Inside Dee’s head, a wasp buzzed. The mic looked like a hive. Every time she adjusted the violin under her chin, drew the bow, and pulled it toward her for a solo spot of Yidl Mitn Fidl, the apiarian tone echoed in the back of her skull. Everything felt very wrong. This audition was not going well, either. Only a few Klezmer Bands existed in Idaho. Maybe it’s more surprising that there was one, rather than more than one. But its name, Meshuggah, described how Dee felt of late. Crazy.
The clarinetist/leader shook his head. “Sorry. You’ve got a hesitation there, like you’re listening to something else other than us. Anybody ever mention that to you before?”
“What? I didn’t quite get that. There’s a background sound. You don’t hear it?”
Good thing her day job at the museum was a quiet one. She wondered if stinging insects slept until dusk.
“We need focus. You don’t have it. Thanks though. Wish it worked out. Sorry.”
Sorry. Now that’s a song she’s heard before: sorries from a local dinner theater, a couple of Coeur d’Alene quartets who did weddings, and Tag.
First time it happened, Dee thought a mosquito had woken her up. Instead, it was Tag whispering, “I got a job in Branson. Don’t get up. Wish it worked out. Sorry.” Dee pulled the striped pillow over her head like a lid so she wouldn’t let even one minor protest escape. She figured four months must be the life cycle of a sax player. Just the natural order of things.
Relationships have lives of their own. People said that. Easy for someone else to say, but at thirty-four, her cycles were getting mired and sticky. Tag left, but the tone in her head stayed to remind and annoy, like a monotonous drone, the way early TV stations near Mobile, AL sounded after sign off. TV broadcasts had a cycle of their own, back then. Dee’s mother slept to it on the living room couch for over ten years, after Dee’s father left. Dee would find her there and turn off the set, just as the birds started singing.
The urge of her women friends to live alone, bewildered Dee. Her one marriage, a decade ago to Jimmy Musca, lasted three whole years. A stand up bass player was less likely to roam. Harder to bum a ride to the next gig.
After Jimmy, Arjun moved in. At least he built Dee cabinets before he disappeared. When Hervé left, he took her pannini maker with him. Men went like that. Mostly musicians, a few writers, an engineer. Then Tag. Taggert “The Bullfrog” Radoscz. Gone. Only the buzz remained.
Sometimes it sounded like Tag just noodling with the mouthpiece late at night. He’d said, “By blowing the mouthpiece and reed, the reed will tremble very fast. Such a reed does tremble some hundreds of times in a minute. Can you hear it? Feel it?” Back then it was sexy. Now it’s a maddening haint.
When Dee looked up, the Meshuggah guys were just standing there. Had something happened? Oh, right. She hadn’t left. She’d been dismissed, but hadn’t managed to put her instrument back in the case. Dee thunked the side of her head a couple of times, as if to dislodge seawater in her ear. This time, instead of quieting down the sound, she got zapped from the inside. Her inner ear felt hot and stabbed. Bumbling with the clips on her case, she tried not to cry. They would think that she really was disappointed not to be able to play Jewish jazz at temple single mixers across the Northwest. She merely wanted nights full of music instead of a dial tone in her head.
“You OK?” the accordian player said. “You remember what door you came in?”
“Sizz, hisss, thrummmmm,” Dee said, as if clearing her throat. She rubbed hard at her eyeballs, impressing an image onto her lids like a rubber stamp. A picture of her brain dangled in front of her face. It looked like the mic, or maybe a sponge. Within the porous mass of interlacing horny fibers she could see little winged things crawling in and out of the colony. Busy, busy. Taking over.
“I think I’ve been stung,” Dee said. “Did you see anything? Sssssss. It hurts.”
The trumpet player said, “I’m a doctor. Do you have allergies? An epi kit?”
“I’ve got anti-itch gel,” said the drummer.
“I’ll walk you to your car. I’ve got to get back to the lab anyway, ” said the piano player, slamming the lid down over the keys. The crashing distracted Dee just enough so that she could look him straight in the eyes. He had nice warm honey eyes.
“Maybe I was wrong. Never mind. I don’t feel it now.” Her head was quiet for a change.
Their cars were parked next to one another in the lot. “I was just sitting in tonight,” he was saying. “I’m not the real piano player. No time. Sorry if you didn’t get it. If you wanted it, that is. It was hard to tell.”
“What’s your name?” Dee’s brain cells were behaving.
“Cooper. I’m tenure track at the university three months now. It’s a nicer place than Chicago.”
“What are you?”
“Perfect. Tell me what you know about wasps, sometime, will you?”
“Funny you should ask. I’ve got a grant working with paper wasps. No drones. No queens. No workers, as such.”
“Nope. They’re sort of hippie insects. Just males and females working together, raising their young. It’s cool.”
“Cool.” She felt a breeze on her face from the lake working like a balm on her brain.
“You sure you’re all right?” He put a soothing hand on her shoulder.
“Could I call you?”
“Yeah, sure. Give me a buzz.” As Dee wrote her number on the back of Cooper’s hand, she couldn’t help but picture making him breakfast: oatmeal, honey, and her very special jam.
Beverly Lucey has had work appear in Zoetrope All Story Extra, Vestal Review, Absinthe Revival, and Feathered Flounder. She was the winner of the Fiction Contest for Estonian Public Broadcasting (2013) Print anthology: Friend. Follow. Text. #storiesFromLivingOnline (fall 2013 release) “Voice Mail for the Living” in the anthology Up, Do Flash Fiction by Women Writers, (spring 2014). Landmarks: 2015 National Flash-Fiction Day Anthology (UK).