Joe Gibson’s Melancholy Baby A quiet that filled and corned the square and desolate room cuddled
Joe Gibson in its flatness. Sleep crept along his calf, through his knee to his thigh and stopped at his groin. The sensation was peculiar, familiar. The promise of a dark storm sat outside the door. As he stretched his arms, as he cupped his hands and led them behind his head, he followed the path of a grey gull across the low horizon of the parking ot. The gull was morning, soiled linen. It pushed forward, fell to the roof of a car, then, still as a crumb of mortar, it rested. The vinyl car top was black, the gull was grey, the car beneath was faded blue, its breadth split in two by a thin bright red line. The wind picked up and ruffled the gull feathers. Spots of water flattened against the shop window. The gull lifted its wings and let the wind carry it into the air. It vanished against the frame of the door. The wood floor was grey too, Joe noticed. Flat and grey, as if it were painted the color of dusk. The phone rang. Joe swung his leg off the desk and tottered across to the counter. He used the rolling chair as a cane. He could feel the prickling sensation at the place where his balls and thigh joined. “Montague’s,” he said. “WBRU! Are you listening?” The voice on the phone quivered with excitement and promise. The tone was practiced. Joe felt excited suddenly, in a way he couldn’t explain. The quiet of the day, his constant uncluttered state, was suddenly broken. He pressed the phone hard against his ear. The voice was a signal to something, he thought. “Sorry?” he said.
“WBRU! Are you listening?” the woman repeated. “Yes, I’m listening,” Joe said. “Then just tell me the name of this song and you’re a winner!” Joe listened. The phone line hummed. He couldn’t even hear the woman’s breathing. He wondered where she had gone. Maybe the music was about to come on. He wasn’t sure. He felt like he was watching for something in the dark. Seconds passed, one, two, then ten. He could hear a clicking on the line. Then the woman’s voice came back on the line. “Your answer?” This was the kind of voice that didn’t require a body, Joe thought to himself. It was a voice that could live like an angel. If you were lying in bed with your eyes closed and this voice began to whisper in your ear, you’d be transported to heaven, you wouldn’t be able to imagine the things that this voice could do to you, the way that your body would respond... “Sir, can you tell us what song that was?” the woman asked again, the excitement ringing in her voice. “The song....what?” Joe mumbled, chastened. The phone slipped against his ear. The plastic was slick with his heat. “A guess, sir. This is a pretty popular song. You can be a winner.” Joe wondered what song that had been in the silence, what the trick was that would let someone hear it, how the voice could think that he would know, and then a song slipped into his mind, and he uttered the words without thinking. “Melancholy Baby?” The line crackled again, two clicks, and her voice came back, flatter now. “I’m sorry, not this time, bye then.” And the line went dead. Joe put the phone back on the wall. His leg bristled and stung. He could feel his penis swelling.
A loose-jowled man walked through the curtains at the back of the shop. Over his arm he carried a bright purple cape. “Who was it, Joseph,” the man asked as he spread the cape out on the long oak counter. He smoothed the cloth over the tiny ancient wormholes in the wood. “Not nobody, Mr. Montague,” Joe said. “Anybody, Joe. Anybody. That’s the right way to say it.” The old man sighed. He looked at Joe sideways. “I’m just getting to the books, Mr. Montague. I was just watching the storm come in.” Joe rolled the chair across the room. The wheels squeaked loudly. Joe sat down at the desk and opened the ledger. He took a pile of invoices and began to copy them into the ledger slowly. The pencil was smooth against the thick paper. At the counter, Mr. Montague pulled a measuring tape along the length of the cape. He mumbled to himself. His wrists were so thin that the bones along his arm stuck through like ruined fence posts in a mud flat. Joe watched him pull at the tape. He fumbled with the end, and in slow motion the tape began to fall to the floor. Joe looked down at the ledger. Mr. Montague propped one bony hand on the oak counter and turned his body sideways. He leaned over in the middle, his knees crooked and locked, and reached down slowly to the floor. Joe watched him fumble for the tape. He breathed hard. His fingers were like blind worms punching for a hole on a concrete pavement. A couple of hours later, the storm started. The heavy clouds hung low across the parking lot. At the edge of the lot, the trees bent and twisted in the strong wind. Joe finished with the invoices and watched the weather. From the back, he could make out the regular breathing of the old man. He had fallen asleep.
Joe first saw the back of the girl’s head as she walked with her back against the building to gain some protection from the eaves against the heavy rain. She was framed in the window for a moment and then turned in the door. She was wet from head to toe. As she stood at the door she shook herself like a cat would. Water sprayed from her. The drops stained the floor. “Can I help you?” Joe asked. “You don’t mind, do you?” She pointed to the stains on the floor. “It’s wet out.” Joe looked to the back. “No,” he said. “It’s OK.” Her face was round, her eyes brown and flat, set wide apart so that she looked startled and calm at the same moment. Her nose was small and flat at the bridge. She was young. She smiled. “This is great,” she said, pointing to the costumes along the wall and hanging from the racks. “They look really old.” She pointed at the wall. Her fingers were stubby. “I need a costume for a party tomorrow,” she said. She looked at Joe. He waited. “Is that possible,” she asked. “Did you have anything in mind,” Joe asked. She pursed her lips and frowned. She took her coat off. She was wearing a light blue blouse, tight against her arms and full at her breasts. She shook her hair again. “No,” she said. “I’m not that good at this kind of thing.” “Come look then,” Joe said. “I can show you what’s popular.” “Oh, but I don’t want popular. I want to make an impression. I want to look like what I’m wearing is what I’m supposed to wear, you know. That I was meant to be that person, like a past life kind of thing.”
Joe led the girl to the first rack of costumes. She flicked through each one like she was rifling through a bin of records. One hanger got tangled and Joe leaned past her to work it loose. When she saw something that caught her interest, she concentrated on it intently, then swung it aside. Joe stayed close to her. As she moved through the costumes, the space between them closed, and then he matched each of her steps. He wondered at how close he was standing to her, at how methodical she was, at how engaged he felt with her, as if she were waiting for him to reach past her and pluck a costume off the rack. “Here!” she said. She held out a bouncy white dress. This was the fairy queen costume. It was the most popular woman’s costume in the shop. “This is perfect,” she said. “I want this one.” Joe took it from her and spread it out on the counter. “I’ll need to take your measurement now, so we can adjust it. Then you can pick it up tomorrow morning,” he said. He led her to the small stand set before a full-length mirror at the side of the shop. “Lift out your arms,” he said. She held her arms away from her side and suddenly seemed somehow taut, but limp, like a dancer. Her back was smooth and broad. Joe took the measuring tape and led it around her chest. His hand slipped and he steadied it against her side. Her breasts were firm against the tape. The girl giggled and flexed her back. “Here,” she said and turned to reach for Joe’s hand. “What?” he asked anxiously. The touch was unexpected and thrilling. “Move the tape down. You’re missing the biggest part.” “I...”
“The gown won’t fit.” The girl took his hand and held it away from her side, while she shimmied the tape down along her breast. He could see her smile in the mirror. He watched the tape move down her breast and come to a rest where he imagined her nipples were. She squeezed his hand. “Now, pull tight. I want the dress to be snug. I want to spill out of it almost.” Joe pulled the tape and closed it off with his thumb. He reached into his pocket for a pencil. “Done?” “Yes,” he said. Joe went to the counter and bunched the costume up. Then he spread it out along the wood. He worked the wrinkles out with his palm. He could feel the sweat gathering at his brow, trickling down behind his ear. He stared at the order form and realized that his hand was shaking. His body felt limp and invaded. He wanted to push his head down against the wood, he wanted to heave himself around the shop, he wanted to take the girl in his arms and feel her breasts with the rough center of his palm. “I’m sure you’ll look very beautiful in this dress,” he said quietly. “I’m sorry?” the girl said. She was standing at the door. “I think the rain’s going to let up. What a bummer that I had to run through it to get here.” She half-turned from the door, paused in the middle of putting her rain jacket back on, as if she was reconsidering its need at all, her eyes stalled, expectant, clear. When the girl left the shop the air was damp with the storm. Joe walked to the door and watched her trod sturdily across the parking lot. The puddles were still. Joe squeezed the door frame. He heard shuffling behind him. The old man was up from his nap.
“A rental,” he said. “Yes sir, a dress. It’s on the counter. She’ll need it tomorrow morning.” “Did you tell her it would be extra.” “I didn’t. Things are so slow, I didn’t see why we’d charge it.” “You fit her, measure her?” Mr. Montague asked as he swept the dress off the counter. It sounded like dry leaves. The sound was unexpected. “Yes,” Joe said. “Good.” Mr. Montague coughed and walked through the costumes to the back. Joe heard him shuffle around. He coughed again, dryly. Joe walked out into the parking lot. It felt like time to have a smoke.