Warren Zevon Attempts Happiness
Warren Zevon found the church where Lindy said it would be, on the outskirts of town by a cliff overlooking the ocean. It stood devout; it didn’t posture. Few windows graced the short stone walls. A relief carving of Jesus carrying his cross, a crowd of onlookers jeering at him, covered the heavy wooden doors. Zevon hadn’t asked how his employer knew where his wife disappeared to every day. An ugly thought grew in his mind. It pushed back the nausea from too much beer, but it didn’t do anything about the sun drilling into his skull.
He pulled open one of the doors and stepped into the gloom. He left his sunglasses on. Even though no electric lights were lit, the sunlight and candlelight glinting off the gold-plated altar at the front made his head pound. But cool air wrapped itself around his body, and Zevon thought, for a moment, that he would have been content to lie down on one of the wooden pews and sleep until his performance at Lindy’s pub that night. He could forget about Crystal, forget about everything but his music. The seeds of a few songs had taken root in his fingers the minute he’d stepped into the Spanish heat. He needed time—and quiet—to let them grow.
But then Zevon saw her toward the front of the church, kneeling. His feet moved forward without his brain telling them to do so, his hand raised. He grabbed her arm and jerked her up. A gasp escaped her lips, and he saw that her eyes glistened.
“Crystal. What the fuck are you doing here?”
Crystal stared him down, strands of her shoulder-length brown hair stuck to her lips. She blinked the moisture out of her eyes, leaving only anger and hurt.
Zevon let go of her arm. “Are you messing around with Lindy?”
“What?” A look of mild disgust crossed her features, and he felt stupid for asking.
“How’d he know you were here?”
“He asked me.”
The nausea took over again. Zevon sat down in the pew and closed his eyes. “Shit,” he said.
Crystal sat down next to him. “You know me better than that.” She sighed, and her whole body sagged. “This was supposed to be a new life for us.”
After a few minutes, a few deep breaths, he opened his eyes and took off his sunglasses. The mix of candlelight and sunlight cast shadows that danced in celebration on the ceiling. The closeness of the walls created a sense of shelter, a sense of familiarity, a sense of home. It surprised him.
When Zevon ran his hand along the pew, he felt where the varnish had been worn away. The wood felt smooth against his fingers, like Crystal’s skin. Decades of consistent use had softened the edges in places, and his hand fell and rose ever so slightly as he traced depressions in the bench.
A creaking sound indicated the door opening at the back of the church. Zevon turned around to see an older couple limping in, the husband leaning on a cane and his stooped-over wife for support. They paused inside the threshold to cross themselves while the door slipped shut with another creak and a thump, and then continued to the front of the church. The husband wore blue slacks with a white polo, the wife a paisley dress. The weight of living for so long hung on their shoulders. Zevon wondered if the man’s limp came from age or if he’d carried it from the war to the present. The couple’s progression to the front took the form of a deliberate slow-motion dance, spread out over time so that no one would miss a step by blinking.
The old woman looked at Zevon and Crystal as she passed. Deep lines creased her face, and Zevon couldn’t decide if they were from smiling or suffering, or both. The woman’s lips twisted up slightly, and she grunted with the effort of supporting her husband. Zevon found Crystal’s hand and gripped it. He couldn’t take his eyes off the couple. He sensed Crystal watching them, too.
Now at the front of the church, the couple knelt in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary. Mary, draped in blue and white, her hand outstretched, stood to the side of Christ on the cross. The couple prayed with their heads bowed, the man rocking back and forth. A candle flickered and popped as it went out, a soul rising to heaven with the final spurt of smoke. The sun’s light cast halos around the couple and the Virgin, the three of them locked in a triangle apart from the rest of the world.
The old man broke the spell with a quiet huff as he struggled to lift himself. His wife said something in a sharp voice, and his motion stopped until she rose and offered her hands. Once they both stood, they made their way over to the bank of votive candles. With shaking hands, the husband pulled his wallet from his back pocket, keeping his arm linked with his wife’s. Despite the shaking, it looked like a practiced motion, worn into muscle memory from years of repetition. He pulled a few coins from the battered leather wallet and plunked them into the offering box while his wife gathered half a dozen candles from the box next to the stand. She glared at his wallet. He plunked a few more coins into the box. It was the same in many churches Zevon and Crystal had visited in nearby Barcelona on sight-seeing tours: Velas, una peseta.
The woman handed three candles to her husband and kept three for herself. Together they lit them in pairs, then placed them side-by-side on the top row of the tiered stand. A chanting whisper accompanied the motions. The words escaped their lips like a dusty song. Zevon did not understand their Catalán, but he longed to chant with them, to brush the words past Crystal’s cheeks as he held her close every night. The couple repeated the motions and the words with each candle until all three pairs cast shadows and wishes against the wall. Perhaps they were for lost friends, or children, or perhaps for any soul trying to make its way into heaven.
Time moved backwards as the couple made their way outside. Zevon turned to watch them recede, and when they disappeared behind the creak and clank of the door, a feeling of deep loss and sadness settled over him. He stared for a few moments, remembering the sound of their murmurs. He tried to memorize them, then tried to translate them, to layer chords over chords, the man’s voice with the woman’s. He felt a song growing, and something else.
“Warren?” Crystal’s voice broke the silence and restored the normal flow of time.
Zevon swung his body back around, away from the door. “We should become Catholic, raise a family here.” His words were not a suggestion, but a conviction that surprised even himself. He raised his hand again, this time to push Crystal’s glasses up the bridge of her nose. His matching pair lay on the bed stand in the room they shared above the pub, and he wished he had them instead of his sunglasses. Zevon looked into her eyes, more serious than he’d ever been about anything.
Crystal touched his cheek with her fingertips. “Will that make you happy?”
He saw the unasked questions in her eyes, the ones that had chased them to Spain in the first place.
“Let me play you a song.”
“You don’t write happy songs.”
Zevon got up anyway, and sat behind the upright piano in front of the church. Scratches and dings marked the top. The wooden bench felt solid, real beneath his weight. He glanced around, but saw no one except Crystal. Zevon lifted the cover and closed his eyes. It had been a long time since he’d placed his fingers on a real piano, let alone one with ivory keys. That made this one at least forty years old.
He liked old pianos. They sounded richer, more seasoned. At Lindy’s he had only a small Yamaha keyboard and his guitar, with a sound system jury-rigged from a cassette player and some portable speakers. He let his thumb fall down on middle C to feel the weight of it, to feel the hammer fall against the string. The sound of that single note ringing in the air brought Zevon back to life. He heard the murmurs and let them come through his fingers, slide down onto the keys. For how long, he did not know, he filled the church with the old couple’s prayer, his prayer, for Crystal, for everything to be okay.
Eventually, he let the music die away. The sounds lingered in the smoky air as he walked back to the pew. Zevon took Crystal’s hand again and kissed it.
He sank deeper into the wooden pew. He turned back to the altar, to the statue of Jesus bleeding on the cross, and tried to feel the last vibrations of the piano in the air.
Bio: Kelly Lynn Thomas reads, writes, and sometimes sews in Pittsburgh, PA. Her creative work has appeared in Sou’wester, Thin Air Magazine, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and others, and was a finalist in the December 2015 Glimmer Train Fiction Open. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University, is hopelessly obsessed with Star Wars, and can always be found with a large mug of tea. She also runs the very small Wild Age Press and blogs for The Rumpus. Read more at http://kellylynnthomas.com.