©Evan Nichols, 2012


She wanted to sing one of my songs. “Let’s do it together,” she said. I sat on a low stool, cradling my Gibson, while Janine sat cross-legged on the floor in front of me, bright-eyed and expectant like she’d just made a request at a campfire sing-a-long.

She’d heard me play for a month now – at the Catalyst Friday nights sitting in with various local bands; at a friend’s recital; in my living room or bedroom, but she’d only listened, never joining in, not even on a chorus. Occasionally, during a set, her lips moved inaudibly like a kid learning to read, but I’d never heard her singing voice. Now, she sat on my carpet, gazing up, eyes glistening, lips slightly parted, waiting for my cue.

Normally, I welcomed it. I jam with musicians all the time – singers, other guitarists, blues harp, sax, horns, piano – but with Janine I hesitated. Of course I knew we’d sing together, eventually. It’s more important than sleeping together in the long run. I wandered from chord to chord with great gaps in between, appearing to study the fret-board but looking beyond where the carpet met the wall, listening to my own heartbeat. Before we met I had considered retiring my guitar. No money, no audience, dried up at age 27, might as well stick to being a motorcycle mechanic. And then she appeared, dancing alone between the tables and down the aisles, and a new song was born.

The curtain had to open. She was waiting and I was hesitating. It felt like the first time we’d made love. After flirting for two weeks, I’d given up. Then I came home one night and found her tucked between the sheets. She took the lead, rolling on top, hands planted on either side of me, pushing up with her arms and lifting her head as if gazing towards the horizon, with eyes closed. I still had my shirt on. She reminded me of myself from another time and place. She came quickly, then sat upright, taking a commanding view. I covered her breasts with my palms, her stomach caved and she flattened on my chest. I eased her onto her back, face up. She smiled, amused, like we shared a secret, but also like she knew something I didn’t. “Music nurtures me,” she whispered, wrapping her arms around my neck.

“Which tune?” I asked. Janine’s lips parted and the tip of her tongue quivered between her teeth. Her fingers fidgeted with a fold in the hem of her blouse, a child with a free bill to spend. No make-up. Handsome face like an adolescent boy’s, hair cut short and combed back, wet, as if she’d stepped out of the shower minutes earlier. I never would have guessed that she was a marine biology senior at UC Santa Cruz.

“The new one,” she said in a husky voice: “You Dance Alone,” and I walked my fingertips around the opening chord as if I couldn’t find it. The loneliness of the woman in that song is like deep water. She might steer towards the coast, but she knows if she drops anchor it’s only safe until the first storm. The lyric began to write itself the day I saw Janine moving through the crowd, unselfconsciously, by herself. She might have been dancing on a mountaintop at sunrise or a beach at sunset when no one’s around as if she had no need to hurry and no time to waste. But I’d never told her all that, not directly, it just fit into the song.

“It’s not finished,” I said. I fanned the air above the bass strings and avoided looking directly at her. Janine perched cross-legged on the carpet, leaning forward, with me on the stool. “Love” is not in my new song. Having no faith in the word, I use it in lyrics only when I’m after a smile or a laugh. In real life I find it takes about a month to know how far a woman can go, then her limitation becomes a reference point like a reef on the horizon. She’s preoccupied with money, looks, or musicians; she’s shopping for a key to her new-age fantasy, a warm body, a roller coaster ride, a father for her kids, her happily-ever-after. If passions run high, the reef stays submerged and it’s easy to navigate. But then she’ll say something about shorelines and I feel the bottom scrape. Myself, I like to see the end of a relationship, especially at the beginning. Then I can enjoy myself while it lasts. That’s my ode to commitment.

“You could sell that song.”

“I’m trying to own that song.” I had also never told her that beyond being a muse, the right woman nurtures a song, nurtures a songwriter, becomes her own songwriter and goes out and nurtures the world.

Janine wet her lips. Soundlessly my toe tapped the carpet. The moment was naked, the stage lit. I’d traced the dead-end of more than one romance to the first duet.

I shot one last smile and my fingers picked up the tempo, working towards the down-beat, establishing eye contact. We broke the opening line and there was no stopping, no controlling it. We were like a river dissolving a logjam. Janine could not sing on key, could not modulate pitch or rhythm. Her voice was a warm drone that curled up in my ear. At first she dragged me off the melody line and I looked to see what was wrong, but there was no problem. I had never seen her happier, not even during sex. She had volume. I strummed louder. I tried to compensate, to sing off-harmonies, but the combination of tones rarely resolved, and seemed accidental and fleeting. I had to work to finish it. She was consistent only when she sang the hook:

Your head’s full of dreams

But your heart feels hollow

You can lead

But don’t expect her to follow.

She sang the hook a little differently each time but she got all the notes in the same key. There was no stopping till the end. Then I felt dazed, out of touch, almost dizzy. My arms dangled over the face of the guitar. For a moment I could not look her in the eye. It was not music we had made. I didn’t know what it was. I had tried. Janine was radiant, lips soft and open, eyes triumphant. I was in awe. The lines of her teeth parted and the tip of her tongue made electric contact with the roof of her mouth. My fingers trembled. The room shimmered. I could not take my eyes off her.

“Let’s sing another one,” she said.

©Bob Pressnall, 2012

Bob Pressnall retired a year ago. Now he’s learning to renew, like turning 18 again, except that a pension comes with repeating 8th grade thirty times. He’s slowly remembering, maybe, what he forgot. And, oh yeah, he still nurtures duets with that same person after thirty-three years. Bawptized in 1986.

2 Responses to “New Song by Bob Pressnall”

  1. theresasanders Says:

    Wow! I was just passing by and your piece snatched me and I couldn’t stop reading. Marvelous.

  2. Bob, this is a tender piece. Just lovely.

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