Fiction: “These Are the Eyes of Norah Jones” by Phillip Gardner

Adam’s Rib was located near the office where we spent our days cursing the stock market and counting down the hours, where Robert, Peter, Wess and I no longer sold high-end real estate. Wess referred to the bar simply as “The Chain” although to my knowledge it belonged to no franchise.

“Nooo,” Robert said—this was ritual, “not The Chain.” Robert’s ex-wife was Jane. But after an hour or two of Scotch, she became “Chain.”

Adam’s Rib was mahogany and soft light, no clocks, no televisions and never crowded. Dark and cool in the summer. Its bartender, Derik, had become our friend. At that time, about the only things we hadn’t lost were our companionship and one corner of the bar.

Our unspoken covenant was that we check our failures at the door because our unspoken conviction was that the falling value of some things does not necessitate the falling value of all things.

It was Peter and Robert on one side, me on the other. When Wess entered the bright light from outside produced his silhouette. We watched as he lifted his arms high and waved them side-to-side in a kind of hallelujah cha-cha routine. “Chain, chain, chain,” he sang. “Chain of fools.” He was returning from a showing, the only one for any of us all week. His gin and tonic was waiting on the bar when he sat beside me.

“Drinks are on you, pal,” I said.

Peter lifted his glass in a toast to Wess. “I know that smell, the smell of a closing.”

“Sorry, gentlemen,” Wess said, “but I have to save my pennies.”

“You can keep the pennies,” Robert said. “Take out the plastic.”

“Can’t do it. I’m getting married,” Wess said.

“Derriiick!” Peter called. Derik smiled.

“Norah Jones,” Wess said.

“Make it a triple,” I said.

Robert said, “Not my Norah.”

Ms. Jones had become the symbol of our salvation. When the conversation drifted too near the landmines of our broken marriages or the carcasses of our careers and our jokes passed into corrosive mockery and bitterness, one of us would seize a dark introspective pause and say, “But we still have Norah.” And then we would collectively spin off on her enigmatic beauty and boundless talent and quote her lyrics word-for-word. She became that thing we all could count on, a mystery we could believe in, a fate we could bow to.

“When’s the wedding?” Robert said.

“Not before her husband goes to prison,” Wess said. Derik, who had been standing near the register, stepped closer.

“Norah has no husband,” Peter said.

“The woman I just spent the last hour with?” Wess lifted his glass, held it before him like a chalice, slowly drank, and then nodded affirmatively to the out there. “She has the eyes of Norah Jones.”

“My Norah would never hook up with a criminal,” Peter said. He signaled Derik for another round.

“There’s mystery and mischief in those eyes,” Wess said. “That’s what makes her Norah Jones.”

“No, the mystery is in your ex-wife’s eyes,” Peter said.

“Mystery, I said, not treachery.”

“Your wife would kill you if she could,” Robert said. “Peter is right. You have a death wish.”

Derik set down the drinks all around.

“I dreamed my wife tried to kill me last night,” I said. “I’d forgotten until just now.”

“How?  How’d she do it?” Wess said.

“She held a gun to my head and handed me the telephone.”

“She ordered you to swallow the phone,” Peter said, “or to beat your brains out with the receiver?” We all laughed.

“No, she forced me to call the funeral home and make arrangements for my own funeral.”

“That’s no dream,” Robert said. “It’s called divorce court.”

“Is Norah’s husband going to prison for murder?” I said.

Peter said, “Norah has no husband. She’s saving it for me.”

“No,” Wess said. “This woman’s husband was convicted of making ecstasy, the drug, in their upscale basement. When he’s shipped off to the land of widespread cheeks, she’ll get a huge settlement, everything. She said she was devastated. She told me that. She said it with these Norah Jones eyes, you know, sad but filled with hopeful expectation.”

“He’s making drugs in the basement and she knows nothing about it?” Robert said. “Not likely.”

“I’m telling you, you should have seen those eyes.”

“Well, sometimes you can be married to a woman and never know her,” I said.

Robert said, “Ecstasy, that’s the new love drug. That’s what I see in Norah’s smoldering eyes. That’s why the husband took the bullet for her. Each of us would do the same.”

“She’s a child,” Wess said. “A woman child. A woman but innocent as a child.”

We all lifted our glasses, closed our eyes, and went our separate ways with our Norah Jones.

“The less you know a person sometimes, the easier it is to love them,” I said.

*****

“What kind of arrangements did you make?” Wess said. “For your funeral?”

“Oh, that wasn’t the half of it,” I said. “I really don’t like talking about this.”

“Sure you do, Billy,” Peter said.

“Carry on,” Robert said.

I signaled Derik for a round. “After I’d made arrangements at the funeral home, she ordered me to call an ambulance. ‘I won’t do it,’ I said. ‘Somebody’s got to clean up the mess,’ she said. ‘And it’s not gonna be me.’ I said I wouldn’t do it. She pulled back the hammer and rested her finger on the trigger.”

“What was it?” Wess said. “A .357 magnum?”

“Smith & Wesson.” I said.

“Long barrel?”

“You bet.”

“Oooooh,” he said. He drank. We all drank.

My dream,” Peter said, “goes like this: Somehow I’m sitting in a wooden kitchen chair, blindfolded, my hands tied behind my back. I say, ‘It was an accident.’ And she says, ‘Nobody screws another woman by accident!’ I say, ‘I didn’t know what I was doing. I was drunk.’ And she says, ‘Do I look like Mother Teresa for fucking out loud?’ And then she puts this plastic bag over my head. This is scary, I tell you. And I say, ‘What are you doing? What is this?’ and she says, ‘Plastic serum. I want the truth.’”

“’Plastic serum’,” Robert said. “I like it.” Robert and I taught high school right out of college, when we still believed in something. I was History. He was English.

Peter has this way of leaning in confidentially when he gets excited. “The thing is, in my dream, if I remained very, very calm, I could breathe. But if I got excited, a.k.a. lied, I’d breathe in that thin plastic, you know, like your dry cleaning comes in? I’d suck it up my nostrils.”

“You mean it was like a truth drug. You lie and you suffocate,” Wess said.

“It was a nightmare,” Peter said.

I said, “What does that dream mean? How would you interpret its meaning? It’s full of symbols: The chair, i.e., the electric chair. The blindfold.  Is it literally about blindness or about justice?”

“Yeah,” Wess said. “The plastic. Does that symbolize plastic?” We all laughed.

“What it was about,” Peter said, “was life and death. I tell you, when I woke from that dream I was so tense my sphincter ached.”

“Aching Sphincter.” Robert looked at Wess. “Maybe that symbolizes that Peter will be Norah’s next husband.”

“Peter wouldn’t stand a chance with Norah,” Wess said. “She’s too much woman for him.”

“Those eyes—.” I said.

“I would present her with a gift,” Peter said.

“She’d be in ecstasy,” Robert said.

“A song,” I said. “One about life and death.”

“Life and death? I have the perfect symbol for that combination,” Peter said. “Tits.”

“Those eyes,” I said. “Sometimes, you just know she’d take a dare. But other times she looks like a tender, innocent debutante.”

“A debutante who’ll take a dare. That’s my kind of woman,” Wess said.

“She is from Texas, you know. Famous for its cheerleaders and debutantes,” Robert said.

“Not cheerleader,” I said. “She’s too shy. Too smart.”

“She could shy me till I begged for mercy,” Wess said.

Peter said, “I’d beg too if I could, but I can’t. Permanent knee injuries from the divorce.”

“Hey Billy,” Robert said, “did you beg in your dream? You know, before the ambulance came with the clean-up crew?”

“No,” I said. “After that, she put the barrel of the .375 in my ear and told me to call the cops. I dialed the number. Told them there’d been a murder at our address.”

*****

“Texas figures into my dream,” Robert said.

I don’t know what time it was, but it must have been late because Derik poured himself a beer and pulled up a stool.

“May I join the Coroner’s Corner?” he said.

“How did she kill you?” I asked Robert.

“Do you mean in real life or in the dream?”

“The dream.”

“I don’t know. In the dream I’m already dead.” He looked at each of us. “Do y’all ever have movie dreams?” We all nodded that we did. “This is a movie dream, and I’m in it and I’m watching it. I see myself in the coffin, like in a close up.”

“How do you look?” Peter said. “I mean, Billy is about to make a very important call. He needs to know he’s calling the right funeral home.”

“Dead,” Robert said. “Very dead.”

We all drank.

Robert said, “The camera slowly pulls back and Chain and a group of her friends, people I don’t know, are there. We’re all in a tiny chapel, only it’s a cocktail party. Some guy taps his martini glass with a spoon and the room goes silent. Chain hands the guy a piece of paper then mops her false tears with a cocktail napkin. The man speaks in a kind of broadcaster’s voice and raises his arm indicating the paper he holds. ‘Because I Could Not Stop For Death,’ he says, in the voice of death itself.

Wess turned to Peter. “That’s a famous poem by Gertrude Stein, I think.”

Robert continued, “Everybody circles the wagons as he begins.”

“Was Gertrude Stein a Texan?” Peter said. “Her name sounds Jewish, there are no Jews in Texas.”

“I’m getting to that,” Robert said. “You see, the guy doesn’t read the poem. He sings it.”

“Thaaat’s the Norah connection,” Wess said, giving Peter a big uh-huh.

“Norah would never do such a thing,” Robert said. “Y’all know The Yellow Rose of Texas?” We all did. Robert sang its melody:

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.
We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

I thought the beer he was drinking might pass through Derik’s nose. We laughed until our faces glowed.

“That’s not all,” Robert said. He was trying to tell the rest. But we couldn’t stop laughing. “There’s more,” he said.

Derik brought us another round.

“There’s symbolism here,” Robert said. “The chapel? Where I’m lying in state? It’s a wedding chapel. In Vegas!” Our eyes were red from crying.  “It’s called Chapel of Love. That’s some heavy symbolism, right?”

“Stop it,” Wess says, motioning like a traffic cop.

“No, I can’t,” Robert said. “Because I’m dead and the whole thing is a set-up. They leave me there. Don’t you get it, the party, everyone at my funeral, all these strangers, they leave me there. The whole thing is a set-up. Chain calls a limo, the partygoers get into their cars, turn on their headlights, and the Vegas traffic parts like the Red Sea so that they can get to where the real party is happening lickety-split.”

We couldn’t stop laughing.

“But you still have Norah,” I said.

“I’m about to pee myself,” Wess said.

“Me, too.” Peter said.

*****

“These are on me,” Derik said. We knew nothing about him, except that he was a fine bartender. The best bartenders? You know nothing about them. They can carry it all inside. And keep it there. That’s why we need them so.

We all drank. Derik locked the door and picked up the newspaper and sat in a booth near the kitchen. He had already set up the bar for tomorrow. He knew the dark path we had entered.

“Name the moment—upon reflection—when you knew it was over,” Robert said. We weren’t laughing now.

Peter spoke first. “When she said, ‘I won’t be your somebody else.’ Trouble is, I don’t remember when she said it. You?” he said to Robert.

“We were at an Italian restaurant. She’d come home from a professional conference, and as she told me about a man she met there, I knew she was lying. It was like that moment when you’re watching a poker player, the instant you get inside that person’s head.  And I wasn’t jealous or angry so much as I was fascinated by her acuity, her skill as she redesigned the pattern of truth. And I knew that’s who she was. The woman I’d married.”

Tonight it was Wess who grabbed the helm. He heaved an overly animated deep breath. “We were having a conversation, too, he said. And I said, ‘I’m gonna buy that bass boat I want.’ And she said, ‘If you do, I’m gonna buy those boobs I want.’ And I did. And she did. And that was that.”

I thought it might be over. Wess’s effort was a fine one. We drank. Then at some point they looked at me.

“We were in the car,” I said. “Don’t know where we were going or where we had been.”

“That could be any one of us,” Peter said.

“And out of nowhere she turned and looked at me, as if there were something I should have intuited but hadn’t. ‘So,’ she said. ‘What do you make of a line like this: The less he loved her, the more he told her so?’ I didn’t know how to answer. It was like a riddle or a self-fulfilling prophecy. And so I said nothing. And that was the beginning of the end.”

“You should have seen her eyes today,” Wess said. “I couldn’t remember the specs on the property. All I could do was look at her eyes. If I get a follow-up, I’m taking you guys with me. You, you, and you. Yep, we’re all going. Norah’s the charm. I’ll of course introduce you as somebody you’re not; I mean four realtors might frighten her off. Sometimes her eyes get this frightened look, you know.” He turned to me. “You, Billy, you’ll be the electrician, there to check out the wiring. Peter can be my friend from the bank who just happened to see my car parked outside.” Robert lifted his credit card from the bar and reached for his jacket.

“I’ll pass,” Robert said. “A woman’s eyes? That’s not enough.”

“It’s a start,” Peter said. “You gotta start with something.” He looked from Wess to me for backup. “These are not just any woman’s eyes,” he said.

Robert pulled on his jacket. He turned for the door. “Not enough.”

“Norah Jones,” Wess said.

“These are the eyes of Norah Jones,” I said.

“Got to be more than eyes, even if they’re Norah’s. We can’t go on like this. It’s over, guys. It’s over.”

Derik unlocked the door. Wess stood.

Robert shook Derik’s hand. “Wait,” Wess called.

Robert stopped and turned.

“I’ll make you a drummer,” Wess said.

“A full kit, cymbals all around.” Peter said.

“A drummer?” he said.

“Norah’s.”

He opened the door. “Norah’s drummer?”

“Damn straight,” I said.

He paused, tilting his head slightly. He looked at each of us. There was something about his eyes. “Okay,” he said. “Okay. I’ll be there.”

Phillip Gardner lives in Darlington, South Carolina, where he writes stories and screenplays. He is the author of two collections of stories, Somebody Wants Somebody Dead and Someone To Crawl Back To. Gardner teaches at Francis Marion University.

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