Following is an excerpt from the novella “The Exit Coach,” from the story collection of the same name by faculty member Megan Staffel (click through for full excerpt):
At nine AM when the doorman rang and said, “You have a visitor Mr. Abram,” he knew that Jennifer hadn’t canceled. And now the whole tiresome business would begin. Two weeks later, if it lasted even that long, he would decide that his privacy was more important, and feeling like an ass, he would fire the overburdened, underpaid Caribbean, Vietnamese, Puerto Rican woman who had spent an hour on public transportation and then with poor language skills and a volatile mixture of hates and fears, tried her absolute best to understand his needs.
A knock on the door came next. Soft, but he heard it. He had lived by his hearing all of his life and in old age was still blessed with it. It was his legs that had given out.
“It’s open,” he called, wheeling himself into the foyer, preparing to meet the enemy.
But the person who stepped onto the parquet Maxi kept so slick with wax he joked that she was trying to kill his visitors, promptly fell on her backside and a pair of ridiculously impractical shoes flew off her feet. “Oh! Oh gosh, I’m sorry!”
“Well, the first thing is that you’ll need sneakers for my floors. Those shoes will kill you.” He couldn’t see her face yet, but he followed the motions as a swirl of legs and arms and some kind of navy outfit (my God, did they come now in uniform?) righted herself. “And you are?” Maybe it was a new person from the drugstore who didn’t know deliveries went to the front desk.
“Ava Prett from Silver Linings, sir. Are you Mr. Harvey Abram?”
“Well, I used to be and unless something alien has claimed me, and of course it has, because that’s what old age is, but it hasn’t claimed all of me, not just yet, I still am. At your service.” He actually (oh you fool, you seductive idiot) bowed his head.
At least Ava Prett had a sense of humor.
“Shoes go by the door, you can be barefoot, it will be safer, and belongings in the closet.” But he noticed she had brought nothing with her. “Put the kettle on the stove, you’ll find teabags and cups in the cupboard, and we’ll have tea in the living room and a little chat.”
He situated himself at the head of the table so he could see her as soon as she came through the door and while he listened to preparations he asked himself what he was going to do. This was a girl, not a woman. A girl was not fair, prepared as he was to face another Maxi Bruder, armed with decrees and opinions, right ways and wrong ways, and most annoying, the belief that he was helpless. But this was a human person totally unformed. How could he turn her away? What if she could sing? Yes, what if she could sing?
She was not beautiful. Thank God for that. But as she brought the tray in, good, he’d forgotten to mention the tray, she looked at him. She smiled. What a smile! “You’re strong,” he said out loud, but only for himself. But she heard it and replied, setting a cup in front of him, a teapot, another cup for her, “Not really. Some girls at my school did weights, but I didn’t.”
“Even so, you are a strong person. You are full of beginnings.”
She stirred sugar into her tea. For a moment, it looked like she might say something, but then she didn’t. And then she said, “It’s my first job.”
“Your first job ever or for this agency?”
“Ever. I graduated high school two days ago.”
“Do you play an instrument?”
“No, I wanted to, but in the end I didn’t.”
No hesitation, he noticed. “I’ll play you some Benny Goodman. Ever heard of him?”
“No, but thank you.”
“The greatest clarinet player ever lived. Are you Jewish by any chance?”
“No, or at least my mother never told me.”
“That’s okay, doesn’t matter. Benny Goodman was Jewish, that’s why I asked. Ever do any singing?”
She giggled. “Star Spangled Banner? Not really, no.”
He started it. “Oh say can you see, by the dawn’s early light. What so proudly we hail…”
She didn’t join in. Leave it alone, his better, less greedy self instructed. Don’t make her nervous. “That’s okay. It’s a terrible song. We’ll get to the singing part of things later.”
“I thought I was supposed to do dishes, serve food, stuff like that.”
“Sure, sure. All of that. That would be good. I was just wondering, on the off chance, you know. Mining for talent. That’s what I do. What I did, rather, and it’s hard to stop a thing when you’ve been doing it for so many years. It was how I met my wife. Alice Long, ever hear of her? Probably not, you’re too young. She’s been gone fifteen years now, but once she came through that door just like you did. Another apartment of course. And I was just starting out then. And really, I was only a couple of years older than her. Why, when I first met Alice Long I hardly had a list at all. A kid, wet behind the ears. But that’s what she was too. So I said, ‘Sing me something.’”
What shall I sing? she asked. That clear, bell-like voice.
Anything, I don’t care.
“You see, I was pretending it didn’t much matter because I wanted to see what she would choose. Well, she sang “Evenin,” the greatest blues song in the world. That was first of all what impressed me. But second was the authority of her voice. The wisdom. She delivered that song as though she had lived in it and her tone, it was syrup. Thick, sticky, endlessly sweet. Oh God, what a woman. Though a girl then, not much older than you.”
“Did she fall on the floor too?”
He laughed. “Very good.” Well, it was clear that Ava had timing, maybe even some humor. Yes, something was there. “Look at me.”