Chloe wished she had never read the poem her boyfriend, Ricardo, had written about the girl in the alley. The image of Ricardo pinning the black-haired, almond-eyed beauty in a short leopard skirt up against an alley wall outside of The Dresden haunted Chloe.
“It’s a poem,” Ricardo had told her. “It doesn’t mean it’s true.”
The way Ricardo said it, the sheepish smile on his face, Chloe felt it was true.
“Besides, I’m with you now,” he said, wrapping his arms around her small waist. His hand, brushing against Chloe’s thighs slid up her dress. It felt good to her. But she imagined his hand going up alley girl’s skirt and Chloe backed away from him. She tried to erase the girl in the poem from her mind. But every Thursday night Ricardo went to The Dresden and Chloe couldn’t forget.
Before she had moved in with him Chloe had known Thursday nights were Ricardo’s night to go out by himself to sing. She was okay with that. She didn’t like bars anyway. But that was before she had read the poem.
Chloe had always said, “I’ll never marry a poet.”
Not that she didn’t like poetry, she loved it but her dad was a poet. She loved him but she didn’t want that life. The no money, the constant revisions.
Chloe moved into Ricardo’s bungalow in Echo Park a year after they met. This was before it was hip to live there, when fruit carts with mango slices, peeled cucumbers sprinkled with cayenne pepper, Carne Asada stands and Mexican markets with overripe avocadoes and dusty cans of refried beans were replaced with art galleries and coffee shops as the twenty something’s started gravitating to the East side and the rent went up.
“How about you move in?” Ricardo had asked six months earlier.
She wasn’t ready to give up her three hundred square foot guesthouse off of Sunset Boulevard. She liked living alone and having her own place. And it was too soon.
But then the bees and the rats came.
“If it wasn’t for the bees and the rats you’d still be living there,” Ricardo said when Chloe ended up packing all her things into her 1998 Ford Station Wagon and moving in with him.
“I would have moved in eventually anyway,” Chloe said.
And she meant it. But the bees and the rats did push things along.
At first there were only a few bees in Chloe’s small home and they didn’t bother her. Stretched out on her futon reading a book, she’d occasionally look up from the page and follow the buzzing wings as they flew around the powder blue walls. She imagined she was outside lying on the grass with the sky, the birds and the bees above her. But everyday there were more and more.
One night at two a.m. Chloe drove across town and knocked on Ricardo’s door.
“What are you doing here in the middle of the night?” he asked.
“I can’t sleep,” she said. “The bees have taken over.“
“How bad can it be?”
“It’s bad, there’s a whole swarm of them.”
And there were. Bees everywhere buzzing around. The next day Chloe called the bee exterminator.
“Thirty years in the bee business, and this here hive is the biggest I’ve seen,” the bee man told her as he inspected the air-conditioner where the bees were coming from. “I can get that hive out but the honey in-between the walls, that’ll cost someone.”
“My landlord is cheap, he’ll never do it,” Chloe said.
“That ain’t no business of mine but where there’s honey there’s rats.”
The bees left and just like the man said, the rats came.
“I hear them clawing at the honey in the walls,” Chloe told Ricardo.
That’s when Chloe packed up and moved in with Ricardo. And that’s when she read the poem about the alley girl. The alley girl became the bees buzzing in Chloe’s head and the rats clawing at her heart.
Chloe didn’t mean to read the poem. It was a Sunday. Ricardo was in the narrow kitchen warming corn tortillas on the open flame of the stove for lunch. Chloe sat on the worn thrift store couch. The scent of honeysuckle floated in through the open windows that faced the courtyard where the five 1930’s bungalows faced. A little community of run down homes. Artists lived in all of them.
She listened to the playful laughter of kids running after the jingling ice-cream man who pushed his cart up the hilly street. One of the kids was crying. He didn’t have money for ice-cream. Chloe got up and walked over to Ricardo’s writing desk, a rickety table he had made out of scrap wood. A vintage tin cookie jar full of coins was set next to his 1950’s Royal typewriter that he wrote his poems on.
“They don’t come to me if I use a computer,” he had said.
Chloe liked the sound of the keys hitting the paper when he wrote, the pauses in between the words as they came. It reminded her of her childhood when her dad wrote poems. It was comforting.
Chloe rummaged through the tin of pennies for silver coins. Next to the tin was a stack of papers. The afternoon sun streamed in through the open windows highlighting the top page. Or so it seemed to her. Chloe glanced at the title.
The Girl in The Alley.
She knew she shouldn’t read on. Chloe was a writer, too. Short stories. Ricardo and Chloe had made a pact.
“We will not read one another’s work,” they had said to each other.
It had never gone well when her father’s women, and he had many, read his poems. Inevitably, the words they read seemed to haunt them the way Ricardo’s had affected Chloe.
But Chloe read on. She read the whole thing and forgot all about the penniless kid crying for ice-cream.
The Dresden was an old piano bar in Los Feliz. The place was known for featuring Marty and Elayne, an eccentric older couple who had been playing and singing classic jazz there for thirty years five nights a week. Marty with his black toupee and gray hair peeking out from underneath wearing a tuxedo with a pink cummerbund. His wife, Elayne center stage, next to the piano wearing her signature green sequined floor length dress, red hair swirled like a cinnamon bun on top of her head, huge gold hoops and rhinestone bangles on her wrists.
On Thursday’s after their act it was Open Mike. Ricardo always hoped to be chosen to sing a song among the many singers who showed up. He’d choose a Frank Sinatra song or Bye Bye Blackbird, one of his favorites.
At first Chloe would wave to Ricardo as she watched him drive away every Thursday at nine. But over the months Ricardo started coming home later and later and Chloe started creating scenarios in her head. She knew she was jealous and insecure.
“You pay more attention to the way you look when you go to The Dresden than you do when we go out together,” Chloe said as she watched him shave and check for nose hairs.
“If I get chosen I can’t look like a schlub on stage,” he said.
Chloe understood that but then there was alley girl. What if she still went there? Ricardo had reassured Chloe she didn’t but maybe he was just saying that or if it were true it didn’t mean she wouldn’t show up again.
One Thursday night, Chloe was lying wide-awake in bed. She imagined a dark bar, people sitting in worn red leather booths drinking Martinis, Ricardo onstage singing, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” A girl walks in wearing thigh high boots, a short skirt, red glossy lips, shiny black hair cascading in waves down to her full boobs all propped up and out there for everyone to see. Ricardo notices her right away. She looks at him, he looks at her. Ricardo tries to hold back but the girl from the poem is irresistible and before the night is over, he follows her out to the alley.
It was like Chloe was possessed that night impulsively driving to The Dresden in her beat-up station wagon, the rain coming down hard making it difficult to see. She was crying, her heart racing.
Chloe ran into the dark bar. She felt like a bulldog, growling, looking for its bone. There was no Ricardo. Not onstage, not in a booth with his arm around a girl, not in the restroom or in the back lot and outside in the alley, only a dumpster. A homeless man was rummaging through the wet garbage. She called Ricardo, no answer. She dialed his number again and again as she raced around the block looking for his car. Her hair was wet and matted down. Her phone rang.
“Where are you?” Ricardo asked. “I missed you, I came home a little early.”
She was embarrassed to tell him but she did and when she got home he wrapped his arms around her.
“You silly girl. We probably passed each other on the freeway going in opposite directions.”
He set Chloe a bath, lit a candle and made her Sleepytime tea with honey. As she soaked in the tub she heard the typewriter keys hit the page. Click, click. It was a poem for Chloe.