"I've wanted to write a story about Ben. He deserves that much."
Janie Harris has lived in Omaha her whole life. She knows every street, every store, and every bad Saddle Creek reference. But when her best friend leaves for Iraq, she realizes that things can't stay the same. Surrounded by those left behind, Janie begins to unravel a spiderweb of acquaintanees, friends, and family who stand on the precipice of change and monotony. Enter a cast of homeless guitar players, ghost hunters, and accountant fathers in a collection of short stories about letting go, growing up, and charging forward.
The College World Series is the absolute worst time of year to be in Omaha. It’s the only two weeks on the whole calendar that anyone actually cares about Nebraska, and they flood in and make the Old Market a New York tourist trap.
“Excuse me?” some woman is looking at me, like I’m supposed to be helping her with something. “Do you know if there are any restrooms on this street?”
I don’t say anything. Just keep walking towards Delice. I’m hungry. I need a scone.
Mark sighs, and says, “Yeah, yeah, right down this street. You see the sign that says ‘Passageway?’"
She thanks him and keeps on walking. I hold the door open for Mark. He walks in, shaking his head at me. But I don’t care. I’m too busy reading the pastry shop’s windows.
“What is a ‘savories?’ ” I ask him. The bell rings behind us. The whole place is packed full with fat Texans in baseball caps and fanny packs.
“It’s a pastry,” Mark says.
“Why does it say it on the window?”
“‘Cause it’s a pastry shop.”
“But no, it says ‘pastries’ right next to ‘savories.’” I point this out to him. “I just think they needed an extra word to fill the space and couldn’t think of one.”
“Maybe --- hi, I’d like a chocolate croissant and a medium ta ---”
“Excuse me?” Another one of the fat women who recently lost an epic battle with a curling iron tugs on my shirt --- tugs --- and I sort of blink at her. “We’re trying to get to the Western Heritage Museum ---”
There’s a hesitation. Then I turn to the waiter. “A scone, thanks.”
“Did you hear me?”
“Yeah, a scone.”
“Ma’am, what are you looking for? I’m from around here,” Good ol’ Mark. The woman roughly turns from me with her map. I grab my scone and take a seat before someone else can.
“What’s your deal?” Mark follows me through the crowd. I part it like the Red Sea, probably because I look like I spelunked in a dumpster. “They just needed directions.”
“No.” I bit into my scone. “No, Mark. They come up to me with that attitude of ‘I’m here on vacation meh meh meh so you’re here to serve me. You’re not like a real person. This isn’t like your home. This entire city is my private getaway and you are here as part of the show.’ ”
“Is the only joy you get in life found from being pissed off at people?”
“Yes.” I pause. “And scones.”
There’s this Christmas shop on the eastern-most corner of Howard. It’s a block from our spot outside Nouvelle Eve. Covered in green vines and smelling like peppermint, even in the dead of June, it’s just one of those places that feels like it sells happiness.
Maybe this is why everyone always makes a stop there. No matter who they are or what they’re here for, they’ll be walking down the street, see its little candy cane sign, and swerve to the right and down the stairs. About a half an hour later, they’ll emerge with nothing bought, but big smiles like they just went to Disney World.
There’s this girl outside the Christmas shop’s door, a top hat turned on its head on the ground in front of her. She’s singing everything from Joni Mitchell to Avril Lavigne, depending on who’s walking by her. She’s got thick black frames like Ira Glass and straight dyed-black hair.
I always thought it was weird to judge people on their hair, but this girl’s is pin-straight, and I don’t think it’s supposed to be.
I’m picking away at my guitar, across the street outside the Persian restaurant. Mark and his fiancée had to go to a funeral; this kid from her graduating class went to the war and got himself killed. So Mark drove down to Eppley to pick Christine up this morning (she’s in from Yale, ain’t she fancy?), and he went with her to the funeral around eleven. He “may or may not be back” today, and my money’s on “may not” seeing as it’s hitting seven and there’s no sign of him.
So, I decided to give up my spot for a minute to come down here and see who’s been stealing my customers since I got back from dinner.
Now that I’m closer, I can see just how thin her wrists are, how white her skin is, and how soft her voice is coming out from behind her beat up top hat and sign that reads: “GET ME TO AMERICAN IDOL, OMAHA.”
I can’t tell if that sign’s supposed to be sarcastic, or if she’s serious. But it doesn’t really matter. She’s beautiful, regardless.
She picks up a song I know. I can feel my fingers playing along. And I think she hears me. She nods, I nod. We keep playing. Hoagie, on his paint bucket drums, watches us down the street with a private grin. I’m going to hear about this later on, I can feel it.
There we are, having a conversation over the parked cars and the strolling Iowans and the Florida baseball team and the Goth kids and the family of four that all dressed the same today. We’re speaking words no one else understands, her singing and me strumming.
The whole street is dancing. I can feel it. The bricks that have laid there for 150 years, the horses waiting for someone to pay thirty bucks to be driven around the park, the gigantic “Welcome to Omaha” sign down the street, all of it is vibrating with her soft, silky minor thirds and my sharp, merciless strings.
I don’t know her name, and I won’t ever know. As soon as the song’s done, she smiles, nods again, and then picks up her top hat and walks into the Christmas store.
I take an obligatory bathroom break down in the Passageway, and when I return, she’s either already left the store or she’s decided to live in there forever, ‘cause she doesn’t ever emerge. I watch all night, but she’s entangled inside the ivy and peppermint. Forever to live in a candy cane Disney World.
It was the best conversation I’ve ever had.
Copyright 2009 Jennifer Castello.
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