The following conversation occurred in that stage of a friendship where, after you meet someone who might become a friend, you enter a period of distrust or suspicion that the other fellow is going to turn out to be untrustworthy, or a mooch. You get glimmers of what’s going to be unlikeable in him, and wonder if you can get used to it. When that phase passes you’ll be better friends, if you’re lucky. For Ed and Joe, that hadn’t happened yet. They’d meet at bars, clubs, their apartments, at the movies where they complained about the uncomfortable seats in City Cinema, but they hadn’t developed the habit of dropping by each other’s place unannounced. Until today, and by today is meant the section of fiction that follows.
There usually would be some dialogue about what led up to what you’ll read, but why bother? That’s extra work for no reason. For those who want a summary, it’s enough to say that Ed stopped by while Joe was making lunch, it was a normal ho-hum day, a “mundrum” day as a native said in my earshot one day, and Ed was describing what happened the night before at a restaurant he liked. (Whatever food you crave, he had it.) Now, that leads me into talking about dialogue tags, adjectival colouring, metaphors, sensitively balanced statements, those bells and whistles in fine writing that too often are the equivalent to bread-and-circuses. What do you need to know to know?
But if directions and pointers make you happy, I can oblige, for today I feel generous.
Ed heard them say that there was something to be said, that is, revealed, about the beautiful, leggy young cellist and her attachment to a cello that lay busted in argentina. They said, he said to Joe while looking out the window over the sink at the sun dappling birch and oak, that she said that said cello, usually gripped firmly between her thighs, might be irreparably damaged, to which his friend said, —They said that, thighs? Or you said that? —She said, Ed repeated, —but not thighs, no, that was me saying that. But never mind, the rest is all hearsay, if you get down to it, not quoted speech. —Huh, Joe commented, or coughed. —You think otherwise? asked Ed a little tetchily. —Naturally, it’s not what she said, it’s what they heard her say, or rather, they interpreted her as saying she said that, when she could have said something else, and then it’s what you said they heard her say, or interpreted her as saying. Joe had never spoken this way since arriving in C-town, and found the words a complete surprise. He wondered if it would last, like a disease.
—Or it might be that what she told them was a complete fabrication, that she never said what she said she said. Ed eyed the kettle, waiting for it to boil.
—Let’s not waste time on what can’t be proved, Joe concluded sagaciously, performing a blatant circumcision on a salami placed on a wooden cutting board that lay on the counter. (An island in his kitchen would tip him into suburbia, but as Joe’s in a small apartment, possibly downtown on Dorchester or maybe Spring Park, he can’t have an island, for exhaustive research has proven that no member of his economic class–for he rations his money, doesn’t live the swell life, lives like people who have a modest amount–would have an apartment with such a feature.) —Besides, what else could she have said?
Ed considered, not grimly, what could be said about the beautiful cellist whose features made men’s members dilate with thoughts of the good life, then out came the beginning of his encapsulation of the previous night’s roundtable international-setting tale. —They said, and here I mean they said, he emphasized with a needless straightening up of his posture and a tap of his expectant mug on the cool counter opposite Joe, —that she said that the cello was in the arms and hands and, well, mind I suppose, of an acclaimed but humble cello repairman in buenos aires, or maybe it was montevideo, and that, they said, was an expensive proposition, as the airline, in their own rendition, declared that the damage –
—You mean the airline said, interrupted Joe, hating himself for being rude.
—wasn’t their, fault – yes, of course, they said, the people at the table from whom I overheard this story, they said that the airline men and women, those people, said that no, the cello was in perfect shape when it left the plane, and that their position, which they said to lawyers and her parents and the beautiful cellist herself, their statement stated that the damage was instilled after the luggage had been taken off the plane, it –
—Instilled doesn’t seem like what they’d say. The kettle had begun to whistle.
—This is argentina. There is the language barrier, spanish and portuguese or portuguese or spanish, whatever’s spoke in argentina, then into english.
—Or uruguay. But I take your point. Go ahead. Joe’s stomach gurgled in unison with Ed’s, perhaps due to the meaty salami between them, perhaps for other reasons, but not due to coincidence.
—Thanks. They said that no, the damage, unlike what the beautiful cellist maintained in her statements to all and sundry–and by that I mean airline personnel, lawyers, her family–could have happened any time.
Here I’ll point out that I haven’t yet come up with a name for the cellist, and not even during revision did an apt name occur to me.
—What did she say to what they said? Joe had brought out bread, but to Ed’s quiet dismay he was ignoring the kettle. An immense cloud threatened to cover the sun forever in its gray-black folds. Ed gripped his spoon and reached for the sugar bowl, retracted his hand, then continued. —She said they said that just to piss her off, to get out of liability, to remove themselves, she believes, from the fray, the fracas, the rumble-tumble –
—She said that? Or they said she said that? A note of disbelief in his voice, Joe eyed his possible new friend, a butter knife poised over the lip of a mayonnaise jar, when he realized they were missing plates. Had he thought he would be making them lunch? If so, when?
—Actually, at this point it was a man at the table, he seemed to be saying most about this matter at this point in time. So he said she said that they said that there was no way the cello played by that beautiful cellist whose thighs are, let me note parenthetically, never seen except in dresses and high-end slacks, never seen bare, that is, so they may be splotchy or veined in an intriguing pattern, or absolutely drop-dead gorgeous, anyway, they said that the cellist might have damaged it herself.
—They never said that! I can’t believe they said that! Who’d believe that? They had it on the plane. They agreed to that, they never said it wasn’t! The matter of the forgotten plates had been eclipsed, like the sun by the cloud, by the sudden brute fact that Ed was an unexpected visitor for lunch, and Joe had to think quick to remain sociable and also competent with cutlery and dinnerware. Should he offer toasted bread or not, or make an executive decision?
—They said they had it on the plane, and that it was fine when on high, but once it was in the terminal it was not their responsibility, so her response was —Do you mean I, I, I was the one who broke it, is that what you’re saying to me? They said, or their representative said, that yes, it can’t be stated as such, but implicit, unsaid, is that it may have been broken by her, the cellist, who I know you have admired –
—Her playing, yes, but not –
—You’re not admitting to–very well, though Ed didn’t buy Joe’s evident discombobulation during this conversation, and wondered if he’d ever shut off that kettle with its irritating whistle. —Maybe it was just me thinking you were saying with the occasional glance and sigh that she, how to say it, affected you –
Joe looked up, hand hovering near to scalding, one eye looking for the toaster. —I said the music did, but she, well, have you seen her father, built like a stevedore, said to be able to bend metal sheets without breaking a sweat? Or so the story goes. I’ve never met him.
—As I say, it was my interpretation of what you did, but you say what I say isn’t right, isn’t correct, and isn’t at all proper, so I’ll drop it. There was a temporary relief in the air as the kettle was unplugged and its shriek died away, slowly, like a drowning cat’s cries. So it appeared to Ed, who may have had some history in that department, though my notes on him are incomplete and, frankly, you’re just interested in the simile, which is in appalling taste. —But she said that she could not in any way have done whatever was attributed to her, that if the airline, she said, wasn’t going to accept that they were responsible, then they had to offer proof that some celestial being must have snapped the neck and dinged the body, for what she saw coming down the chute or around the carousel in the terminal was the mangled cello in its dented and staved-in case –
—She actually used those words? Joe got out, the idea of toast versus plain bread taking up his thoughts.
—So they said, or he said that she said, and why not? She’s an intelligent, lively girl, prone to laughing and smoking and drinking late at night and talking to men and women equally, with friends, or acquaintances, who are also musicians, and saying this and that –
—You forgot to say a beautiful cellist. You need to say that, now that you’ve gotten into the habit. For some reason, catching Ed out meant something to Joe, now that it had been decided toasted sandwiches would be what the guest would want, and that was a little more trouble than he had anticipated taking over a simple lunch for one. Then he added —But it’s not me saying that, due to her father, you know. Just to be clear. I have other women to look out for, and they’re not at all like her.
—Look, this is supposed to be about the cellist, the beautiful cellist, and what she said. Where was I? Starving, Ed’s tone turned snappish for an instant, and the spoon in his hands, next to the still empty mug, its edge caught by an emerging, or was it finally fading? glint of sun seemed to be a rough-edged shield.
—You said that since most of the drinkers she hangs with are musicians, she talks –
—Exactly, she says this, she says that, and why can’t she be sharp-witted, and occasionally sharp-tongued, like anyone –
—Like you or me.
—Exactly, like us. Ed wasn’t taken in by that irenic remark, considering instead as he went on that this new supposed friend, Joe, would likely be as intrinsically forgiving as a Pentecostal on Judgement Day. —So we say, I suppose, that she can say, as the man at the table said, or else they said, I forget now, oh yes, Ed was bothered, exceedingly, by the shot he’d been given, then the balm, and things were now as tense in this kitchenette as they are meant to be in early Pinter plays, —that unless a demon had visited earth at the precise moment her cello was caught between the one leg, so to speak, of the outdoors, meaning the airfield, and the other leg, in a manner of speaking, of the indoors, meaning the terminal, then in that dark region between these two legs, so to say, her instrument was gripped by this devil or imp and its body wrenched and twisted in a paroxysm of fury or contempt or carelessness. His spoon clattered down on the counter as far as possible from the greasy pork-and-beef-stained board. I could eat the leg off the Holy Lamb of God.
—He said she said that, all that, said that to the airline officials? Joe swung the kettle to a position over Ed’s mug, then stopped, realizing there was no tea bag in it. Damn, damn my vacuity of thought, he swore to himself, its outward manifestation a covered burp. He replaced the kettle on the stove and moved to a canister situated at the farthest point of the seemingly endless counter.
—To the airline officials, repeating an image or metaphor which she had already said to the people at the counter, after her perhaps irreparably damaged cello finally rolled or swung or swirled around to her ready grasp, only to feel different, even through the case, as a lightbulb sounds broken when you hear the tinny tinkling sound within. Where was he going with that kettle, do I have to get something to drink myself? Who’s talking the most here?
—What a girl, to engage in that kind of conversation with those bastards, in a foreign country nonetheless, that’s what I call moxie.
—No one ever said she was shy, not the man at the table, or his companions, or anyone I know, and here Ed was perhaps implying that if Joe had cajones he would have gone up to what’s her name after one of her recitals and asked her out, instead of moping about it and denying that he had been attracted to her right off. —Instead, she gets admired, at various levels, respected at a few less, men being base, a jab here, —women being envious, and no one ever said she’d not say something, stand up for herself, when forced. Even among foreigners. They related that she said someone told her to go to the counter and speak to the woman, not a particular woman–and she’s a woman, by the way, not a girl, I don’t know if you want to retract that word. But then the tea bag was deposited in his mug, followed by the boiled water, and cream, cream of all things, appeared from the fridge. Ed felt sandbagged.
—I said girl, did I? Well, that’s a compliment, like we say about a man: what a guy. Nothing wrong by it. No, no retraction. Joe had been stung by drops from the hot water springing up from his possible friend’s mug, but didn’t make owowow sounds.
—Very well, Ed conceded, conceding more than Joe might know, admitting to a deity above that yes, he had been looked after, and the tea did smell good, and he’d taste it in a moment and the pain in his stomach would diminish. —If her father was here, though, and heard you say –
—If he heard me say woman, well, then, there’d be heck to pay.
—Then I’ll go on. The sun had come out again, or else the fat menacing cloud and its evil-minded brethren had gone their dismal way to wreck the plans and moods of people in other communities, maybe other provinces, though it might be that the winds of the gulf or the north atlantic would simply tear them apart, merge them with other clouds similarly sundered, and they would head eastwards. Ed was relaxing, though the knife and, now, fork in Joe’s hands were swirling in the air, low over the still empty plates. —She spoke to the woman at the counter, they had a conversation, she in english, and the counter woman in english of some form, and they spoke, then a manager came and talked to them, then her friend who was picking her up and spoke spanish or portuguese came up and met her and he joined in in english, they all spoke, they said this and that, the people at the table said, so she said this, the manager said that, she said something else, her friend said another thing, and very soon it was all chaos and shouting between the manager and the counter woman who was yelling not so loudly as the manager, the beautiful cellist later said, on account of her studying to be a lady at night she later told our mutual friend, but she did speak very clearly, and Ed waited in vain for Joe to pick up this allusion, so carried on —in portuguese or spanish or whatever they speak in montevideo, or whatever macaronic form of english she may have been using, due to her training to be a lady in which elocution was an important component, though come to think of it I don’t know if that would apply to her english, and so, they said she said, her words were very clear, when she could be heard under the shouting of the manager, who didn’t realize right away that the male friend understood –
—Let’s agree it’s spanish, Joe said, eager for the toast to pop up.
—Very well. Or portuguese, Ed countered, concerned the cream might be off.
—One or the other. That was almost a plea, and Ed relented. —Fine. He didn’t realize, so she said, or so said the man at the table who was telling this part to the others, that her friend, name unknown, could interpret everything, which later got the airline in trouble, or made their trouble more trouble, as the lawsuit contains, now, testimony that there were racial epithets and ethnic slurs and disparagement of her class, i.e., musicians, of which the male friend, exact relationship to the beautiful cellist undetermined, was also one, and which he took as personally as she did when she was told, by him, what the manager said, though the counter woman never said these things. But he, the manager, as a representative of the airline, was speaking in an official capacity, and now, as I said, or rather, as the man said that our cellist said, to the table companions, this loose speech has complicated matters quite a bit for the airline, though the legal matters in other countries are often tricky and unpredictable. No, the cream was not off. How unfair he had been.
—And her cello? Will she get it repaired, did he say? The toast had finally popped up, thanks be to Jesus, Mary and Joseph, for Joe had been around Catholics long enough to pick up their quaint paternostrums.
—They seemed to think that it will take a long time, and that she will pay, and her family will pay, then the airline will get their insurance company to settle this nuisance suit, which may sound different in portuguese or be called something else under uruguayan law, and then reimburse the beautiful cellist. The smell of almost but not quite burned bread entered the light-imbued room, expanding it, pushing out its walls, greeting the street from a two-story height, startling the sparrows and starlings and other birds with s in their name. —But the cello itself? It’s in the hands of an expert. And that ends that story.
—There’s nothing else that was said on that matter? Joe smeared mayonnaise on the four slices.
—Not by the man, or by those others he was with, about her, or saying what she said or the manager said or her male friend or the family, so yes, there’s nothing more to be said about what I overheard last night. Ed watched as the mustard went on, and felt satisfaction at the hotness and sweetness of the tea and the communal breaking of bread, a quaint feeling, he realized in the deepest snack breaks of his soul.
—If indeed any of it’s true, Joe remarked, rapidly rotating the top of a pickle jar, securing two dills with a second fork, and depositing them on their plates.
—Well, she is a beautiful cellist, with graceful legs and a fine laugh, that much is true.
—No one could dispute any of those things.
Jeff Bursey is an exploratory author and a literary critic. His books include Verbatim: A Novel, Mirrors on which dust has fallen, and Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews. The excerpt is from his latest fiction manuscript, Unidentified man at left of photo, a satire set in Charlottetown, Prince Edward island, Canada. You can watch Bursey read another excerpt here.