As Mick is trying to find his way through life on his own, he realizes that as little as he feels ready to let anyone get close to him, he does need someone to confide in and "a little of that human touch", as the Boss likes to put it.
So this story's soundtrack is "Human Touch" by Bruce Springsteen.
So you've been broken and you've been hurt
Show me somebody who ain't
Yeah, I know I ain't nobody's bargain
But, hell, a little touch-up and a little paint
You might need something to hold on to
When all the answers they don't amount to much
Somebody that you could just talk to
And a little of that human touch
Baby, in a world without pity
Do you think what I'm asking's too much
I just want to feel you in my arms
Share a little of that human touch
Feel a little of that human touch
Give me a little of that human touch
Summer in Maine was almost all it took for me to be happy, the warmth and the sunlight and the sea breeze with its salty tang. And Rosie beside me.
I still say "almost" because this summer's glory carried the bitter sting of being the first summer without Grandpa and Grandma. The worst of the pain had passed, but that didn't mean I had stopped missing them.
It is at a time cruel and helpful that if you lose a loved one, there comes a time when you just can't keep up this intense level of emotions any longer even if this person meant the world to you.
The unbearable sharp pain of the immediate loss diminishes into a subdued feeling of regret and loneliness. Your appetite returns, as does your interest in mundane things you'd reckoned you'd never waste a thought on again. Once more, you find yourself getting annoyed at something as trivial as a sticking door or rainy weather. You find yourself not thinking about your loved one as often as you used to. Sometimes hours pass without the reality of your loss flaring up in your mind, sometimes even a whole day. You catch yourself laughing heartily at some silly joke or a little mishap at work. You actually think in a kind of guilty surprise that your life has mostly gone back to normal after all and you have wondrously got over it faster than you'd expected.
Then, out of the blue, you are shocked to realize you don't remember the sound of his voice as clearly as you used to, or the exact colour of her eyes. Was it the right or the left side of her forehead where Grandma had had the vaguely heart-shaped mole, and was it peas Grandpa had despised so much that they always quarrelled when Grandma served them, or beans?
I knew was no use racking my brains about something so irrelevant, for in most cases, there was no one left to prove me right or wrong anyway, but still I found myself mulling over those pointless questions, saddened by my inability to remember those little characteristics of those I had loved so much. How on earth could they have vanished so quickly? Shouldn't I carry them with me until the day I died myself? Would all the memories I had of them go the way of those small quirks until there was nothing left but the bare knowledge that my grandparents had existed, leaving nothing more but names on a tombstone?
After a while, I did what I usually did – shut away the pain and the memories as best I could. Left the house and the village to make a new start. Moved on. Stumbled on Harry's small bar rather by accident when I came into town in search of some affordable lodging and an acceptable job.
I had taken a wrong turn on my way to the port and saw the handwritten sign advertising the room tacked to one of the bar's window frames. It wasn't the best quarter in town but the bar didn't appear as seedy as many others in the area from outside, so I ventured in.
The interior was rather shabby but charmingly so with worn dark furniture and an upright piano against the rear wall. Harry was polishing glasses behind the counter as I entered with my old suitcase and knapsack that held all my belongings. We were fast to agree about the rent for the room, and as we spoke, my eyes kept wandering over to the piano in its corner. I hadn't played since the last Christmas with my family, and I hadn't missed it much, but now I felt a sudden inexplicable urge to strike a few keys. I walked over and asked, "May I?"
"Sure, go ahead." Harry busied himself with his glasses again, and I began to play, tentatively at first, making mistake over mistake as my fingers tried to recall the chords and runs that had once come so easily to me, but after a while I got the hang of it again.
I don't know how long I had been tinkling away on the yellowed keys when I looked around to find Harry had put down his dish towel and leaned onto the counter on his folded arms, listening intently.
"Jeez, you're a piano man!" he exclaimed in an appreciative tone when he caught my eye. "Listen, son, I have someone who plays the piano in the evenings, but he's no good really. I just keep him on because he's my friend. What do you think about playing for the crowd once or twice a week?"
Thus I hadn't only come across affordable and acceptable lodging but also a little job. I was glad to have some more financial leeway so that I hopefully wouldn't have to touch upon the money I'd gained by selling the house. I wanted this money to buy me a fishing boat of my own one distant day, and a new home, when I was ready to settle down.
I came to love my piano-man role quickly. It suited me well, allowing me to stay on the sidelines quietly. I played guests' requests if there were any, otherwise I mixed some popular classics and current radio favourites with sea shanties and folk tunes, and everyone seemed to be content with someone else than old Isaac being in charge of the music. Sometimes the crowd sang along, sometimes there was a guest volunteering as a more or less gifted soloist, and Harry said I'd be glad to meet Rosie, one of the waitresses. "That girl can sing, Mick. You'll love her singing."
I had met Isaac, by the way, who didn't bear any grudge against me for taking his place. In fact, he was rather glad that he got to sit and drink with the regulars instead of having to try and entertain the guests with his questionable musical talent.
On my second evening in my new job, he handed me a stack of sheet music and said, "This might interest you. It came with the piano when Harry bought it at some household clearance, but I've never touched that fancy classical stuff. Doesn't really appeal to me. Guess I'm just too stupid to play it correctly. God, I don't even know how to pronounce those names. Ever heard of Frederick Chopin?" He made it sound like choppin', and I tried to hide a smile as I bowed my head over this unexpected gift, flicking through the musty pages and happily greeting some old acquaintances – Beethoven, Mozart, Bach and said Chopin among them.
A few days later, the famous Rosie stepped into the bar and into my life, blue-eyed and pretty, first smiling shyly, then treating me to a waterfall of words as we dined royally on what Joan had deftly fashioned from yesterday's leftovers and finally singing in a strong, charming alto as I played some Irish folk songs.
Although I had come to Portland with the intention of not forming any close ties that might lead to me getting hurt once more, her untamed nature and zest for living life to its fullest struck a chord with me. Her upbeat but sensible way of looking at life helped me get through the times when the loss of my family and my home overwhelmed me. She knew how to comfort me, not with hollow words but with simple gestures, with her warm body, her heartfelt embrace, her sensuous mouth, her kisses and caresses. She didn't ask any prodding questions. She didn't care much about my family, my history, not even where I came from, and she understood that there were things I was still trying to cope with but didn't want to talk about.
Joan and Harry smiled fondly on our budding romance, while Bella seemed to be pretty jealous. I didn't like her much. I thought she had a vile streak in her. The little snake even tried to talk me out of hitching up with Rosie, taking me aside one night when Rosie had not yet arrived. She moved far too close to me in an obtrusively confidential fashion and told me in a ridiculous stage whisper, "You might want to be careful about Rosie, Mick. She has been known to disappear into the alley behind the bar with any man whose face she likes. She's had a thing going with Jeff Perry for a while, on and off, but that didn't keep her from …"
"Spare me your gossip and your slander, Bella", I said coldly. "Do me a favour and mind your own business. I can look after myself, thank you very much."
"Whatever you say", she replied, unfazed. "But don't come whining when you find I was right after all. I warned you."
I never told Rosie about that unpleasant encounter, but I consequently gave Bella an even wider berth. She kept throwing poisonous glares into my direction, but I pretended not to notice. Sometimes I couldn't resist to ostentatiously give Rosie a kiss when I knew Bella was watching.
One night, as we were walking home from the bar after another evening filled with songs and laughter, Rosie said to me, "You have such a gift for music, piano man. You shouldn't only be playing music. You need to dance, too."
I remembered the one occasion I had been out dancing with Eliza and said, "Oh, I don't know. I'm not much of a dancer. The only girl I've tried to dance with so far didn't enjoy it very much. I was more on her toes than on my own."
"Then you'll learn, silly! You've got such a feeling for rhythm, and you've got such a feeling for feeling. Haven't I taught you other things before?"
I grinned. "Oh yes, you have. Very successfully, in fact."
We started our lessons in her small room with her gramophone playing, then we got Isaac to play the piano for us when the bar was empty so we could practice with more space around us before we ventured onto a public dancefloor for the first time. I was surprised to find that I actually enjoyed dancing more and more, and she was surprised how fast I learned. "Boy, you're a natural!" she marvelled on more than one occasion, and I felt an unexpected surge of pride at her praise every time.
The special variety of physical closeness dancing required was new and exciting for me, similar to that other kind of intimacy she had introduced me to. Sometimes it seemed almost indecent to me to hold her so tight and move like that with other people looking on, but when I voiced my concerns, she simply laughed them off, telling me not to be sheepish.
Somehow she got me to shake off my inhibitions, get over my innate reticence and give myself fully to the dance, executing the steps in time with the rhythm of the music, eventually daring to take the lead as I was supposed to. I even bought an extra pair of shoes, rather expensive ones of fine black leather I kept meticulously shiny.
We went dancing whenever we got the chance to and began to reap more and more enthusiastic applause from onlookers and fellow dancers alike.
I was a little embarrassed by that acclaim. I didn't mind people watching us dance, but being in the spotlight after we'd finished made me uneasy, all those questions where I came from and how long we'd been dancing together and whatever else they wanted to know. I usually remained monosyllabic so that people's attention turned to something different rather fast.
Maybe it was a little unfair towards Rosie, but I didn't want to encourage anything like superficial "friendships" with the boys and girls we met repeatedly at various dances. I had no need for shallow conversation and endless drinking with virtual strangers. So it wasn't only because we loved to dance that we spent most of the evenings waltzing and whirling; it was also because I wanted to escape meaningless small talk and one or two of those exceedingly coquettish girls who kept pestering me to dance with them while I didn't even think of sharing these precious moments with anyone other than Rosie.
I knew she didn't quite understand what she perceived as my funny shyness, but I had to give her credit for never trying to change me. She teased me sometimes when we were alone but never made me look stupid in public.
She was sympathetic and sensitive despite her resolute manner, but she wasn't one for exchanging deep thoughts, not given to brooding and reflecting like me. She hardly ever wasted any time dreaming or musing over things. She was far too no-nonsense and down-to-earth for that. Sometimes I missed the kind of philosophical talk about everything and nothing I'd enjoyed so much with Eliza.
Yet I was grateful to take what Rosie could give me, so I tried not to miss too much what she couldn't. More often than not, I found her practical attitude helped me get over my losses and going on with my life; that as much as the dancing and the music. I loved the way she could belt out the most raucous shanties one minute and warble one of those sad, gentle Irish folk songs the next.
And, of course, I enjoyed her physical ministrations. She quenched my desperate thirst for closeness, for warmth, for love and passion – and, gosh, that woman knew how to give me pleasure. Sometimes I couldn't quite believe what things she did to me, or had me do to her. Things I'd never dared dream of. Things I'd never even thought possible.
On this bright and sunny Sunday morning, we had woken up in her bed, still entwined in the night's embrace, and as the sun caressed our faces and painted long golden stripes across the floor, I had told her a few things about my childhood in Maine, especially about spending so much time outside, roaming the coastal paths and rocky little coves with Grandpa and later on my own or with my friend Thomas.
At the mention of seaside strolls, Rosie came up with the idea of showing me her favourite bit of beach just outside town, packed a little picnic lunch and a blanket to sit on and led me to this lovely strip of sandy shore that wasn't as wild and primal as the coast I was used to but quiet and beautiful.
We had eaten the sandwiches and the fruit she'd brought, and I had stretched out lazily in the sand afterwards, as I'd always done on the beach, despite Rosie's protest that I would get sand all over my clothes and into my hair. I didn't tell her that this immediate contact with the sun-warmed beach was exactly what I sought. I lay with my eyes half closed against the brightness of the sun, one arm behind my head, my toes digging into the fine sand, basking in the warmth and the gentle touch of summer wind.
She had remained sitting on the blanket, her shoes off, her legs tucked underneath her, fiddling with the folds of her dress a little nervously. I squinted up at her, taking in her lovely shape in a blue-and-white shirtwaist dress with a narrow white belt. "Why don't you lie down for a while with me?" I suggested.
"What are you planning to do?" she asked, sounding a little testy.
Taking her tone for mock irritation, I raised an eyebrow and said innocently in the way of our usual suggestive banter, "Nothing bad! I've always been told to be good and not to get a girl into trouble." With this, I quickly reached out for her, pulled her down and made her topple onto me.
She gave a little surprised cry, struggled a bit as she usually did, but instead of stopping her seemingly fake protest and kissing me, she tore away from me harshly and sat back up, straightening out her skirt with choppy brushes of her hand.
I propped myself up on my elbows and looked at her, bewildered. She had turned away her face, her back appeared rigid and tense.
Something seemed to be wrong all of a sudden and I couldn't imagine what.
I sat up completely and laid a hand on her back. "What's the matter, Rosie? You don't have to if you don't feel like it. I just thought …"
To my horror, her shoulder blades began to twitch and her chest to heave in a way that could only mean one thing. I inched closer and pulled her against me from behind. She still kept her head turned away from me stubbornly as I murmured something soothing and kissed her tenderly on the neck. This only served to make her weep harder.
"Now, what is it, love? Is anything wrong? Please, tell me. Say something. I'm sure it's nothing we can't work out somehow."
"It's nothing we can work out", she cried, sounding desperate. "I don't know how to tell you … I hoped I'd find a way on the walk here but I couldn't." She swallowed and went on, "I'm going to lose my job and I don't know what to do. I haven't got much money and …"
I was startled by her outburst. "Wait a minute. Calm yourself." I stroked her bare arm. "Why should you lose your job, love? Harry's more than satisfied with your work, as opposed to your co-worker's. There's no reason why he should kick you out in the street."
She whirled round to face me. "Oh yes, there is. I'm late. Have you got any idea what that means?"
"Late? Late for what?" I was utterly puzzled. Rosie was never late. She hated tardiness and always got cross when I didn't show up on time. "You're never late for anything!"
"Oh, dammit, Mick, don't be such a man!"
I still didn't get her point.
"Fine, if you don't understand, I'm spelling it out for you: I've been waiting for my frigging period for four weeks beyond the usual time and I'm beginning to give up hope that it's going to come any time soon. For, as you know, Rosie is always on time! Even with this!"
Now it was beginning to dawn on me. I remembered Grandpa's warnings, and I deeply regretted my light-hearted joke about getting girls into trouble. Obviously I had done exactly that, letting my passion get the better of me without considering the consequences.
"You mean …"
"Yes, I mean!" she shouted, furious tears in her eyes. "I guess I'm pregnant. And I guess Harry's going to sack me as soon as it's beginning to show. I have no idea what I'm going to do then."
Holy shit. Neither had I.
"Do you … do you want us to get married, Rosie? And as for the money … I could work double shifts or play the piano more often and ask Harry for a pay rise, so we could afford to rent something bigger to have enough space for three. And maybe … maybe you could find work in an office after all, with regular hours and everything, so you could earn a bit until you … until the baby is born."
"I … I don't know. I don't really want to get married and I don't really want a baby and I certainly don't want to work in an office!" She wiped her tears away angrily with the back of her hand.
"Well, if you're pregnant, there's no changing that, is it?" I said, trying to be sensible. "It's not what either of us wanted, but I guess now we'll have to make the best of it. Who knows, maybe it will be nice to have a family after all."
"Nice!" she snorted. "It's certainly nice to get up for the umpteenth time in the night because the kid is squalling and to spend your days changing crappy diapers. And …"
"Oh, Rosie", I sighed helplessly. "I know this is a shock for you, and for me, but it's certainly not the end of the world, you know. We'll find a solution. We'll make this work somehow. So many other people have made it work before us."
She sobbed wildly, shaking her head. "There is no solution. This will not work. It cannot work. I hate children! I hate the thought of becoming a mother! I don't want a kid! I want my freedom, not a family! Oh, what a goddamn screwed-up mess!" She slammed her fist into the sand and finally collapsed in a whimpering heap at my chest, exhausted with rage. I couldn't do anything but hold her and let her cry.
When her sobbing had subsided, I took her hand and said calmly, "Let's take it one step at a time. What do you think about finding a place to live together first of all, and about getting married? We can think about the rest later."
"I … I don't know." Her hand slipped out of mine, and she nervously touched her cheek. "I … I'll need some time to think about it. I … can't decide just like that."
I admittedly felt a little stung that she had not said yes immediately, but I nodded. "Of course. Whatever you want. You decide."
Not much later, we packed up our things and walked home. Hand in hand but silent and shaken, an invisible divide between us.
I could fathom that she was afraid and angry, but I didn't understand her fierce aversion to the mere thought of having a child. Sure, it hadn't exactly been my own dream to become a father so early, but if there was a baby on the way, I imagined it would be beautiful to eventually hold the tiny creature in my arms, the result of making love to a wonderful woman, the woman who had helped me through the dark valley of my grief and loss.
I almost smiled at my little fantasy but stifled the impulse as I looked at Rosie's tear-stained, hopeless face. She's in a state of shock, I told myself. She will get over it and things will get sorted out somehow, marriage or no marriage. We will be a family.
The following week, I was working the late shift at the shipyard. It was already past seven when I climbed the stairs to my room on Friday, hot and sweaty from a hard day's work, looking forward to washing and changing out of my dirty clothes.
When I put my key into the lock and turned it, I was startled to find the door unlocked. Strange. I was quite sure that I had not left it open when I went to work, but I maybe I was mistaken. With Rosie's pregnancy and its possible consequences occupying my mind, I might not have been as cautious as usual about locking up. After all, I hadn't been able to concentrate particularly well at work either. Only my heavy working boots had prevented my toes from getting squashed when I dropped the large hammer I'd been wielding, which earned me a dressing down from the foreman. Later I'd tripped over some metal rods on the floor and painfully hit my elbow on the edge of a workbench, getting shouted at again. Lost in thought, I rubbed the spot on my arm where the resulting bruise was already visible.
The only good thing about this workday had been getting paid. I carefully took my week's wages out of my pocket before I undressed and washed and changed into my usual piano man attire of charcoal trousers and white shirt. With a short glance into the mirror, I ran my fingers through my hair in an attempt to make it look a little less messy and bared my teeth at myself ironically.
Before finally going downstairs, I bent to retrieve the small strongbox I kept hidden under a pile of underwear at the bottom of my closet. I religiously put half of my week's wages in there every Friday night. The contents of this box were destined to contribute to buying that fishing boat.
I unlocked the box and immediately saw with a sinking feeling that half of the money was missing. Damn. Could this day get any worse?
Swearing violently, I threw my newly earned dollars into the box, locked it and tore open the drawer of my nightstand. At least the thieves had not laid their dirty paws on my wristwatch or my father's fountain pen. And I probably ought to be glad that they hadn't taken all of my savings. What idiot thief leaves half of the money behind, I wondered. Did they think I wouldn't notice that something was missing if they didn't take it all?
I made sure I had both the key to my room and the key to the strongbox safely tucked into my pocket when I left and walked into the bar through the back door. Harry waved at me from behind the counter. I wanted to ask him about any suspicious figures who might have sneaked upstairs to steal my money, but he was busy talking to Arthur and I didn't want anyone to listen in.
Rosie was nowhere to be seen as I entered. I assumed that she was in the kitchen or had gone to the basement to fetch something.
I walked over to the piano and opened the lid, wondering what to play to greet her and maybe finally make her smile again, at least for a moment. Things were still strained between us and we had not touched upon the delicate subject again.
I hadn't quite made my mind up about the song yet when someone tapped me on the shoulder from behind. I spun around, expecting Rosie – but the blue eyes fixating me were Joan's.
She blinked nervously and blurted without any greeting or introduction, "Rosie said to tell you she's gone to visit her family. Her mom's fallen ill suddenly, seems to be something grave. She's not sure when she's coming back, could be a week or two until then." She rattled her message off hastily and appeared greatly relieved when she was finished.
Dumbstruck, I nodded blankly, sitting motionless on the piano stool for a minute before I got up to close the lid over the keyboard with trembling hands. It slipped from my hands and fell shut with a bang.
Joan's eyes were dark and understanding as I excused myself for the evening and hurried outside, rage and disappointment and guilt, confusion and anxiety fighting a vicious battle within me.
I stumbled through the streets blindly at first, then I started running. I ran and ran, my good shoes pinching my toes unpleasantly, until I had reached the outskirts of town and came closer to that deserted strip of beach. Under a cold white moon, I hurled stone after stone into the indifferent sea, cursing her for running away like that, yelling until I felt completely drained and sat down, fingers raking the cool sand, tonelessly whispering her name into the night.