“They Could Be Anywhere,” a story by Emma Deshpande, was a short-listed entry in our recently concluded 53rd Short Fiction Contest. It is published with the permission of the author
They Could Be Anywhere,
…..but tonight they’re here, on a street off seventh avenue, holding a thermos of coffee, following a jazz guitar. The music comes from a doorway beneath a brownstone on the next block. They always wait until the line files down into the club before they approach. There was a line before ten, when the doors were closed. The bouncers know them by now. They don’t like to brag, but they have their own deal: they bring the last pot of coffee from their parents’ diner, and they can listen for free outside the door for the half hour between closing and their curfew.
….. It’s Tuesday: Jackson’s night. They have a chemistry quiz every Friday morning, so they come listen every Tuesday. Jackson is the only bouncer who talks to them: they know that his parents met in America, he was born in India, and they moved back to America when he was five. Jackson doesn’t really remember India. He wishes his parents had given him an Indian name, so people wouldn’t look surprised when he introduced himself. They named him after the landlord of the building where they were living when they met.
….. I’m sorry I’m late, they say as they turn the corner. Someone came in right before closing and finished off the coffee, so I had to brew another pot. So this is fresh.
….. Thanks. Jackson opens the thermos and inhales. Shit. It’s strong. Very nice. He looks up. You know you don’t have to bribe me with coffee, right? I like hanging out with you. This place makes enough from the cover and drinks that one straggler won’t kill the business.
….. I don’t mind, they say.
….. Well, you have some too.
…..Jackson takes a long drink and passes the thermos back to them. They’ve never drunk black coffee before (Jackson likes it black, so they never bring cream) and it stings. They’re not sure what’s worse: the taste or the temperature.
…..They exhale and say, That hits the spot, because it seems like something a coffee drinker would say. Thank you. They hand the thermos back to Jackson.
…..He cradles the thermos against his chest. Why don’t you ever go in? Look at the schedule, pick an act you really want to see, and I’ll let you in for free that night. It doesn’t matter if it’s not during my shift. I’ll tell whoever’s on duty.
…..They shake their head. That’s okay. I think I like it better out here.
…..Jackson shrugs. Up to you. Have a look at the schedule, though. Just in case.
…..They won’t. They like it better out here because they know what to do. Bring the coffee, dance a little, wonder aloud what the name of the song is. They know most of the standards; Jackson is an expert. He can recognize any song within the first minute. They don’t know how he has time to get to know all that music. They listen as much as they can: as they fall asleep, while they get ready in the morning, during the commute to and from school. They work ahead on weekends so every weeknight, before their shift starts, they can listen to a new album. It’s not enough. There’s too much out there.
…..They can’t go inside. They’re sure that if they did, everyone would be able to tell that they don’t know enough about music. They’ve seen it during concert assemblies at school. The band and orchestra kids stand out even in the audience, for the way they react to the music. Those kids’ toe-tapping is more than moving feet, it’s moving feet to a specific rhythm that can be read on a sheet of music. They don’t speak that language. There’s no room for learning music in their schedule, between advanced classes and shifts at the diner after school. They try to learn the language in their own way, by listening to so much music that they think in it. Feelings, memories—they all become defined through songs.
…..It only works sometimes. Right now, the guitar sounds complicated. They wouldn’t be able to move their fingers fast enough to create that many notes in succession. That’s not a musical thought.
….. He tells her to dress up. Her fanciest dress is two years old; her mother bought it for the wedding in Vermont they never went to. The couple decided at the last minute that they needed to save money, and children were kicked off the guest list. The store where her mother bought the dress said their strict non-refundable policy had been made clear. Her mother said it hadn’t. The house was tense for weeks, long after her mother attended the wedding alone with “the gift they deserved.”
….. She hasn’t worn the dress since she tried it on the store. It’s a little tight on the chest, but it fits. And it doesn’t make her look fourteen again, which she was afraid of. She likes how classy the layers of silk and tulle feel, swishing around her legs. And with her leather jacket over it, she feels more than classy—she feels cool.
….. He doesn’t agree.
….. What are you wearing? he says when they meet at the subway entrance. You look like you’re going to the prom. Ten years ago.
….. You said to dress up, she says. You’re wearing a shirt and a jacket.
….. I meant to dress up for a club. This would work in a club.
….. There are, like, ten different kinds of dressed up for girls. And I don’t want to go clubbing, she says, stopping in front of the subway barriers. I don’t like using my fake since Nina got arrested. I feel like they’re on the lookout now.
….. The cops don’t know that you know Nina, idiot. He swipes through and smirks at her from the other side. It doesn’t matter. The place we’re going to doesn’t card.
….. Really? You’re sure?
….. Of course I’m sure. He steps right up to the metal guard and kisses her. I asked around. I did a ton of research. I wanted to make sure tonight was special. Will you come on, please?
….. Okay. She swipes through and they walk to the downtown platform. What kind of club?
….. He bumps his shoulder against hers. It’s part of the surprise. You’ll see when we get there.
….. Jazz? I didn’t know you were into jazz.
….. I’m not, he says as they slide into the booth at the back of the room. You are. And I’m into the fact that they don’t card.
….. Her hands flies up to cover his mouth. Don’t say that. They’ll hear us.
….. He pushes her hand away. We’re fine. It’s so crowded in here. We can barely hear each other.
….. She leans back and exhales. I guess.
….. That’s right, he says. Sit back and enjoy the atmosphere. You’re in your first real-life jazz club. How does it feel?
….. She smiles. It feels pretty good, she says. Look at the pictures on the walls. I bet, like, really famous people have played here. Can you see if any of them are signed?
…..He cranes his neck. Not from here. We can walk around after the set and look closer.
….. Cool, she says. Thank you. She leans over the table to kiss him. This is really nice.
….. You’re welcome, he says. I’m glad you like it.
….. When the waitress walks up to their table, the music has started, and she’s so happy she almost forgets to be nervous.
….. He ordered first. What kind of light beers do you have?
….. We only have Sam Adams.
….. That’s fine, he says. Thank you.
….. And you?
….. She freezes. She doesn’t want a beer. She wants something that matches this place, and her dress. I’d like a whiskey, please.
….. Single or double?
….. Double. The more the better, right?
….. Which whiskey?
….. Uh— She didn’t expect so many questions. She scans the bar for a name she recognizes. Jack Daniel’s, please.
….. On the rocks or neat?
….. Neat. The word feels better in her mouth than on the rocks. A whiskey, neat.
….. Great, the waitress says. I’ll be right back with those. She walks back to the bar.
….. He shakes his head. You idiot. On the rocks means with ice. You want to drink straight whiskey?
….. She shrugs. She drinks straight vodka, so how different can it be? Sure, yeah. I like it.
….. You like it. When have you ever had whiskey?
….. Tons of times. I steal it from my dad.
….. He nods. This is a believable reason. Oh, okay. Cool.
….. Relief that her lie worked makes her cocky. You’re the one who ordered a light beer, she says. Isn’t that, like, the lamest kind of beer?
….. He winces. Yeah. I couldn’t remember the word for not-light beer, and I wanted to ask a question to sound like I knew things.
….. You could’ve just asked her what kind of beer they have. Not light, not anything. What kind of beer do you have? It’s that simple.
….. He reddens. Whatever, okay? We got served, so it worked. I bet you’ll hate that whiskey you ordered. You won’t want to finish it.
….. I bet I’ll love it. She clears her throat. I mean, I know I love it, since I drink it all the time. So, joke’s on you.
….. Yeah, whatever. He crosses his arms and angles away from her. He won’t even fight with her. The club is so crowded that they look like two strangers who shared a booth by necessity. She doesn’t care what whiskey tastes like. She needs to get drunk, so she doesn’t have to deal with this night.
….. She feels his eyes on her as she takes her first sip of whiskey. She can’t help shuddering as she swallows. He laughs loudly enough to be heard over the music, and a few people look back at them. She puts her glass down and forces herself to laugh, too, so they can meet eyes, both laughing, and silently agree that they aren’t fighting anymore.
….. He smiles. Her shoulders relax, and she eases back into the leather seat.
….. We can switch if you want, he says.
….. Oh, you like whiskey?
….. No. You like beer.
….. She bumps her knee against his. Uh, yeah. Thanks. Let’s switch.
….. Cool. He pushes the beer to her and pulls the whiskey towards himself, leaving two streaks of condensation down the middle of the table.
….. He takes a sip of whiskey. Without shuddering. Light beer is better for girls, anyway.
….. Ha, she says. Her cheeks are red because of the whiskey (yes, even one sip), and all the people in the room. Not shame. Okay?
…..Near the end of the set, the waitress comes up to their table and drops off the check. He looks at it and nods, then shows it to her: fifty dollars. He nods. Thank you, he says. How does he stay so calm?.
….. She waits until the waitress is back at the bar before she turns to him. Fifty dollars? Is she serious? We had each two drinks. It already cost fifteen each to get in here—
….. Shut up, he says. Stop freaking out. She’ll notice.
….. She takes a breath.
….. Put on your coat, he says. He’s putting on his, so she follows him. She’s not sober enough for this. Three beers must be stronger than she thought. Maybe it’s the bubbles.
….. Are you listening? He’s staring at her. Stand up.
….. She does, and he does, too. He takes out his wallet and looks through it for a few seconds, then takes out two old receipts and puts them on the table. His other hand is on her back. He leans down and speaks into her ear, so she can hear him over the music: Run.
….. A boy and a girl, barely older than they are, run up the stairs and sprint away on the sidewalk, knocking into them without stopping. They stagger back, their side aching. It feels like there’ll be a bruise. They hate bruises—by the time they get used to the unnatural color on their skin, it’s healed and disappeared.
….. Jackson cries out. The couple have already turned onto another block.
….. Fucking assholes, he says. Are you okay? Did she hurt you?
….. Is she the one who ran into me?
….. Yeah. The guy took it wide. Smarter.
….. They nod. Got it. I’m not hurt. I mean, it hurts. I don’t think it’s bad.
….. Good. He shakes his head. What the fuck were they doing? Do you mind waiting out here for a second? He hands them the thermos. I’ll just go inside and check—
….. One of the waitresses runs up the stairs. Jackson, did you see—
…..Yeah. They ran off before I knew I needed to follow them. What’s going on in there, Shayna?
….. She breathes heavily. Those two kids—I thought they were from uptown. They looked rich, Jackson, I fucking swear. Then they left the check–
…..You served kids again? Jackson kneads his temples. Shit. You’re gonna get fired this time, you know. And those two were assholes. They almost knocked over the kid.
….. Shayna focuses on them. Oh, hey. You’re here again. Don’t you get cold?
….. They hold up the thermos. Not really. Coffee helps.
….. She smiles.
….. They could’ve gotten hurt, Jackson said. Did you hear me? I said—
….. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Shayna says to them. Are you okay? I swear I didn’t know.
….. I’m fine, they say. I promise.
….. She nods. Okay. Good.
….. You have got to stop doing this, Jackson says. Promise me you’ll stop.
….. I thought they’d pay! You know I need the tips. She wraps her arms around her waist. It’s really fucking cold out here, she says. They didn’t pay, and now I don’t know what to say. You’re right. I’m gonna get fired. I—
….. Jackson sighs. He reaches into his back pocket and pulls out his wallet. How much?
….. Oh, shit, thank you so—
….. This will never happen again, okay? You need to promise me. Shayna? You need to promise.
….. I promise. Oh, my god. I promise. I love you so much.
….. Jackson rolls his eyes. Just tell me how much.
….. Fifty dollars? Jesus Christ. He pulls out the bills and hands them to her. Don’t look at me like that. It’s fine, because this won’t happen again. You’re paying me back, anyway.
….. You’re an angel. She kisses him on the cheek, Thank you so much. I’ll have the money for you tomorrow.
….. Don’t lie to me, Shayna. I know you.
….. She laughs. Fine. I’ll have the money for you at the end of the month. Thank you again. Angel. She turns to them again. Isn’t he an angel?
….. They nod.
….. See? They think so, too. You have a good night. Stay warm out here, she says to them, and walks down the stairs, back into the club.
….. Jackson checks his watch. It’s 10:50. Shit. All this before eleven. What a night.
….. They smile. It’s exciting like this.
….. A little too exciting, Jackson says.
….. They fall silent, and they start to hear the music again. So much was going on what they forgot to listen. This song is faster, wilder. Perfect for dancing.
….. They wish they could stay all night, until the end of the late set. They wish they could dance. They do dance, a little—their toes tap against the sidewalk and their shoulders dip to the same rhythm. It’s not the same as real dancing. Stomping, whirling. If only they had a partner, someone to pick them up and twirl them around.
…..They don’t need that, though. They can’t miss what they’ve never had. They know what it feels like to dance with every part of their body, moving until their cheeks burn and their stomach twitches with sharp aches so they have to stop, and stopping feels worse because it means the loss of a feeling they can never focus on until it’s gone. It’s how they relax at home, when homework is too stressful or customers haven’t been tipping at the diner and their parents come home sealed shut with irritation.
….. She walks up the block slowly, watching her feet. She knows she’ll chicken out and run away again if she looks where she’s going.
….. She’s afraid of the bouncer, so she speaks to the person she almost knocked over while they were running.
….. Hey, do you know the people who work here?
….. She holds out three twenties. Take this. Give it to the waitress. Please? Her feet step away even as the arm with the money extends further. I don’t want to stay. I’m afraid they’ll—Please? I am paying. It’s just a little delayed.
….. The bouncer steps forward. I’ll take that, he says, and pulls the bills from her hand. I paid you and your boyfriend’s tab. No one’s gonna call the cops. Shayna—the waitress you fucked over—would get in trouble, too. Now she doesn’t owe me anymore, so that’s good.
….. Oh. She crosses her arms. Now she feels worse, and she’s still drunk. She can’t leave without saying thank you. Thank you, seriously. I really didn’t mean to—
….. Save it, he says. It was stupid to serve you in the first place. What you did was wrong. And we know your faces, so don’t try coming back. Even if you have been to the ATM first.
….. She looks down. I’m really, really sorry.
….. Wait, he says. This is sixty.
….. I know. Ten for the tip.
….. I see. He starts to smile. Shayna will appreciate that.
….. They clear their throat. Do you want any coffee?
….. Jackson looks at them. Seriously?
….. I mean, if she wants. They look at her. Do you?
….. She considers it. It might help her sober up. I’ll have some, yeah.
…..The bouncer sighs and hands her the thermos. You better bring extra next week, he says to the other person.
….. They nod, eyes on her. I will.
…..This is good coffee, she says. Thank you.
….. You’re welcome, they say.
….. She hands the thermos back to the bouncer and turns back to them. Do you work here, too?
….. They shake their head.
….. So why are you here?
….. They look at her. To listen to the music.
….. Yeah, why here?
….. It’s good music. And it’s local.
….. She steps back. You live around here? What are you, some undercover child star?
….. They shake their head. My family owns a diner around here. We used to live in the apartment upstairs. I barely remember it—the rent got way too high. We live way out in Brooklyn, now. We’ll probably move again before I graduate high school.
….. Jackson sighs. Fuck this city, sometimes. All the time.
….. You should move to the Bronx, she says. I don’t think rich people will go there anytime soon.
….. You never know, Jackson says. Don’t test them. He laughs. You’re right, though, the Bronx will stay shit for a long time.
….. They fall into silence. She doesn’t want any more coffee—it hasn’t been offered, anyway—but she doesn’t want to leave. She can hear the music now. The bouncer sips the coffee and looks down the street. The other person gazes at the door, swaying to the beat.
….. It sounds pretty good out here, she says.
….. That’s the point. They stay focused on the bottom of the stairs. What’s it like in there?
….. No. They look back at her. What does it feel like? To be that close to the music?
….. She remembers the minutes between the band starting and the waitress coming over to take their orders. Before the night got shitty. It feels really good, she says. I didn’t pay enough attention. If I could go back in there—she glances at the bouncer, who ignores her—I’d pay more attention.
….. They nod. Are people dancing?
….. No. No one dances. Should they?
….. I don’t know. I would.
….. I bet the band would like that. I’d like it if people danced while I was playing.
….. You’re a musician?
….. She likes how impressed they seem. It makes her feel impressive, too. She speaks humbly: Not really. I mean, I play trumpet at my school. I can basically get away with anything, because they really needed a trumpet. It’s not a very popular instrument. You need to practice, like, twice a day. My mom hates it. She’d make me quit if it didn’t look so good on my college applications.
….. They don’t smile at her cynicism. So you can read music?
….. Yeah. Only treble clef.
….. Treble clef is the one they were taught in elementary school. They can barely remember what it looks like, much less the notes it represents. That’s really cool.
….. I guess. They don’t say anything, so she says, So you dance?
….. I like dancing. I don’t, like, dance professionally.
….. She laughs. I mean, obviously.
….. They wait a second to rehearse the question five, six, times. Do you want to dance now?
….. Here? She kind of wants to. She always dances when she drinks, and dancing here will be better than at some crowded house party. Her boyfriend only slowed danced with her: bodies close, feet shuffling from side to side. She wants to dance with her whole body.
….. Okay, she says. It feels like something she should do—this dress wants to move. She takes off her jacket, even though it’s freezing, and holds out an arm already covered in goosebumps.
Emma Deshpande is a writer and bookseller who lives in London, England. She was born and raised in Connecticut, and she is currently pursuing a low-residency MFA at New York University. You can learn more about her at her website..deshpandewrites.com, or on Instagram at. @deshpande_writes.