Can Bash get the spectre of the glorious, fascinating Lark Ellery Blackwood from his mind and heart? What will it take to distract him? Is it even possible?
The EMTs check me over and find nothing amiss after my close call with the collapsed bookshelves. Paul, probably terrified of lawsuits, sends me home early, and even offers me a few days off with pay if I need it.
I use the extra time, and the motivation of needing distraction, to reschedule practice with Chloe, to call my dad and see how he’s doing, and, especially, to call back PPRE and schedule an interview.
To my amazement, they set me up with an appointment the next day to interview for a job as an assistant recording engineer.
Since I don’t have anything interview-appropriate to wear, Aiden lets me borrow a jacket to wear for the occasion, an expensive black leather motorcycle jacket, just a little bit edgy, but not overly so. Sometimes I wish I was more into clothes, could pull off really stylish things like other guys can. But clothes, hair, all of it, is like a language I don’t speak. This is the kind of jacket that looks great with ripped-up jeans and just as good with the slightly more tailored black trousers I’m wearing for my interview, along with a button-down denim shirt, my version of business-casual. My usually-messy hair is under control, and I managed not to cut myself shaving or anything dumb like that this morning.
When I get to Portland Productions and Recording Engineers, though, I fear that I don’t look funky, cool, or offbeat enough. Everyone here is super-hip, totally unconventional and a little quirky. It’s yet another place where I don’t seem to fit in.
Still, I manage to get through the interview. First, I meet with an Indian guy, Arjun Patel, who is the Studio Coordinator at PPRE, and he gives me a run-down of the job. He’s friendly, unassuming, and soft-spoken, and I find this reassuring. I could be friends with someone like him. Then I wait in the reception area for my next interview, with the head producer. The receptionist is another quirky type, with more tattoos than I’ve ever seen on any one human being, her entire arms covered with ink, and displayed by the cut-off t-shirt she’s wearing. Her hair is dyed a bright green.
“They’ll be ready for you in just a few,” she tells me with a heartening nod, and I smile back.
Smiling feels strange.
I’m nervous about the interview, but I’m also just out of sorts in general, trying not to let myself dwell on thoughts of Lark Ellery Blackwood.
It’s futile. She seems to occupy every corner of my brain. I close my eyes, and again, I can feel her arms around me, feel the softness of her red-gold hair tickling my cheek. I can hear the husky note in her voice, smell the fragrance of her, see the perfect blue of her eyes, framed with those lashes that-
I come back to myself with a jerk, my eyes flying open. An African-American man of indeterminate age is looking at me expectantly, clearly assessing me. He’s got that same sort of unconventional thing going on, with a neat beard, and a wild Hawaiian print shirt unbuttoned about halfway down. Some kind of scarf is thrown around his neck casually.
I stand up, and he holds out a hand for a shake. “Hey. I’m Ben St. James, head of HR here,” he tells me with a friendly but businesslike grip. I’m surprised someone dressed so laid-back has such a high-level position here.
“Come on back to the meeting area,” he says. “This way.”
Like everything else I’ve seen here, the whole open area is cool and industrial-looking, but very techy and professional, too. The windows of the soundproof rooms are huge, and I can see all sorts of equipment through them, like rack mounts and amps, with cords snaking everywhere. On the walls are framed vinyl and promo posters.
All the way in the back, underneath sunny windows looking out at the brick and glass facades of the buildings across the street, is a huge metal conference table, with a woman waiting in the chair at the head of it.
She rises to greet me, and I can see she is wearing a pencil skirt with a turtleneck sweater. No blazer or jacket, though. Her hair is light strawberry-blonde, and her earrings of twisted silver swing as she stands.
“Sebastian? Hi there. I’m Ursula Morgan. Head of Productions here at PPRE. Great to meet you. How are you doing?” Her eyes are a light brown color, and although she sounds friendly enough, it’s hard to tell what she’s thinking as she looks me over.
She has my resume in front of her, and she gestures me to sit as she pulls it closer to her. Ben sits, too, and opens a leather-bound notebook, where I can see another copy of my resume clipped.
“I’m fine,” I say, hoping I don’t sound too nervous.
“Any trouble finding the place or with parking?” she makes conversation.
“No, it wasn’t any problem at all,” I tell her, smiling, hoping I have the right combination of politeness and friendliness down. Aiden, of course, has given me extensive tutorials on how to conduct a successful job interview, and I sit up straight, making eye contact.
“That’s good to hear,” Ursula Morgan says pleasantly. “Now, Sebastian- or, you said you go by Bash?”
The way she’s pronounced my name, with a soft sound and a tilt of the head, calls to mind the one woman I’m trying to forget, and I’m momentarily unsettled.
“Yes, that’s fine, Bash is fine.”
“Okay, then, Bash,” she continues, “tell me what has brought you to PPRE?”
I steady myself, and respond as I’ve practiced with Aiden: I explain my experience with music and playing regularly with Chloe, emphasizing my knowledge of the industry, of basic recording techniques.
“I see you had straight A’s in all of your music classes, too,” Ursula notes. “Straight A’s overall, even. That’s impressive. Worked at your college radio station. And your letter of recommendation from Chuck Anderson is a rave. But I’d like to know a little more about other things. What do you pursue for pleasure?”
Lark Blackwood! my Id screams, but I quash him down.
Besides, it’s a peculiar way to phrase the question, isn’t it? “The usual things,” I say. “Reading, hanging out with friends. Music takes up most of my time.”
“That’s how most of us are here, too,” Ursula says. “Music’s a passion. You can’t make it in this field if it’s not.”
“I understand that completely.”
She asks me about music and albums, concerts, favorite artists, asking me questions that grow increasingly complicated and intricate. I don’t know if it’s a technique to test me out or not, but I am pleased that I can respond, and even manage a few anecdotes about live gigs that make Ursula and Ben laugh. My wariness and unease lessens, and I’m actually enjoying myself.
In some ways, it’s not even like a job interview. Ursula wants to know who I listen to, and we talk a bit about the classics, the guitarist-songwriters I love. She isn’t into Clapton or Dylan or Neil Young. She prefers contemporary female vocalists, favoring Mariah Carey and Celine Dion. Ben, on the other hand, doesn’t say much, but makes a whole lot of notes on my resume.
“What unique experience would you bring to PPRE?” Ursula asks me.
I manage to say something about a variety of experience as a performer and songwriter, as well as my retail experience preparing me for dealing with a variety of situations.
“And what sort of future do you see for yourself, Bash?” she asks.
Unbidden, the instinctive, involuntary image fills my mind: my future is with Lark Blackwood.
It’s so strong, it might as well be written in fiery letters in the sky.
I shake my head. Is that a premonition? Fate? Or is it just my own ridiculous, impossible dreams and desires?
“I’d like to explore my opportunities,” I say, “be it production and engineering, songwriting, marketing, even discovering new talent.”
“That sounds promising. And ambitious.” She turns to the HR guy. “Ben, do you have any questions for Bash?”
“When are you available to start?” Ben puts in.
“Any time. As soon as possible, as soon as I’d give notice at the bookstore.”
“Great. Ben, why don’t you go write things up, and I’ll walk Bash out?”
Ben nods obediently, and scurries away.
“Can I offer you a coffee?” she asks me, indicating a fancy machine at the far corner of the meeting space. Without waiting for my answer, she strides over and, after pushing a few buttons, hands me a steaming cup.
I hate coffee, but I fake a sip to be polite. It’s disgusting. Bitter and sharp.
“I’m really pleased with how well that went,” Ursula says to me in a warm tone.
I can’t hide my surprise.
She smiles reassuringly at me. “I sense you have a lot of promise, Bash, a lot of untapped potential. We really enjoy developing new talent here.”
“Thank you. I hope so,” I say, keeping up my friendly and professional mein.
“I’ll see you out, now,” she tells me. “I can point out some of the features in the studios. And we have a local band coming in tonight to record. They’ve been touring up and down the coast all summer, and I think they’re ready to take the next step.”
“It sounds exciting,” I say honestly, and I discreetly ditch the coffee in a trash can as she walks me through the facilities.
This would be such a great place to work!
Once we get back to the reception area, Ursula holds out her hand, and, when I shake it, I imagine she’s actually giving my hand a little squeeze… but that can’t be.
“This has been a real pleasure, Bash,” she tells me. She’s friendly, professional, but there’s something that makes me feel odd, too. Unnerved.
Of course I haven’t felt normal in days, I remind myself, Lark Blackwood omnipresent in my mind.
Yet again, I try to quell my thoughts of her, and focus on saying goodbye to Ursula Morgan, thanking her for her time.
When I get home, Aiden is waiting for me, eager to hear a blow-by-blow of the whole interview.
“I think it went okay,” I say cautiously. “It’s hard to tell after just one conversation in a controlled setting, you know. Also, I think I was dressed all wrong. Everyone there was way more… rocker fashionista bad-boys-and-girls thing.”
“Dude, you could pull that kind of look off, easy,” Aiden tells me. “How many times do I have to say it? You’ve got a lot going for you, if you just, you know, showcase it a bit more. Don’t hide in the shadows and all that.”
“I told you, I’m not changing everything about the way I look and dress to fit in with a group of people,” I say testily.
Aiden laughs. “Such a rebel, Bash!” he jokes, and I crack a grin, too. “Hey, let’s go celebrate tonight. I want to hear every detail about the interview, and it’s been too long since we’ve gotten the gang together.”
The gang. Other than Chloe, it’s mostly Aiden’s pals. Still, I humor him, and agree to some happy hour something-or-other at a local Mexican watering hole.
While Aiden is sending texts and making calls, the front door of our building buzzes. When I answer the intercom, the disembodied voice says “I have a delivery for a Mr. Sebastian Liam Stone. Signature required.”
“Sure, thanks,” I say, puzzled as I buzz the delivery man up. I haven’t ordered anything, and I know my dad Keith wouldn’t send me anything without telling me about it, first.
The thought of my mother oh-so-briefly crosses my mind, but I dismiss it. I haven’t heard from her in ten years, I’m not likely to now via special delivery.
The delivery man has a box the size of a small child, marked “FRAGILE” in bold, red letters. “Here,” he presents his electronic clipboard, and I scrawl my name.
Aiden has joined me in the entryway of our apartment, eyes wide. “What on earth is that? Did you win an eBay auction?”
“I’ve no idea,” I say, looking for a return address.
There isn’t one. Just my full name, and my address. How peculiar.
The box is large, but not too heavy, and I lift it onto the kitchen island. I find a box cutter in the utility drawer, and carefully slice through tape and cardboard. Inside the box is light, professional packing material and custom-fit padding around a familiar shape. A guitar case.
I open it, and can’t believe what I’m seeing.
It’s a 1963 acoustic Martin guitar. Signed by Bob Dylan. I open an envelope affixed to the guitar case, and there is a certificate of authenticity.
My jaw sags.
“What the hell is that?” Aiden gasps.
Wordlessly, I hand him the certificate, and his eyes bug out.
“It’s Dylan’s,” I whisper.
“Where did it come fr- Good fucking shit, Bash. Blackwood sent this, didn’t she?”
I had given Aiden a very brief synopsis of Lark Blackwood’s visit to the bookstore, and how she saved me from the collapsing bookshelf, but it was all very bland.
He’s put two and two together with lightning speed, and I feel my cheeks heat up.
“You don’t know that, Aiden,” I protest.
Zeroing in on something else in the package, he removes a different, heavy white square envelope. Sebastian is written on the front in a firm, bold hand.
He gives it to me, and I take out a plain white card. In the same script is a quote, and I instantly recognize Dylan’s lyrics, about the pain behind beautiful things.
I’m as stunned as if someone had zapped me in the back of the head with a Taser. What on earth sort of a message is this?
“Blackwood, right?” Aiden repeats, and I have to nod.
“I think so,” I admit in shock.
“Do you know how much this must be worth?!” Aiden yelps. “Why would she send you Dylan’s autographed guitar? What’s going on between the two of you, Sebastian, huh?!”
I read the lyrics again. Shadows and darkness. A scarred soul.
“Nothing’s going on between us,” I say truthfully. “I get the feeling that- that this is some sort of a message telling me to stay away from her. Like, a warning or something. She must want to make sure I really get the point,” I add sourly.
I’m not the woman for you. You should stay far, far away from me. You’re too naive.
“Why would she be warning you away? You aren’t like, stalking her or anything, are you?”
“I haven’t contacted her in any way. We’ve just run into each other coincidentally.”
Aiden’s eyebrows shoot up to his hairline. “Are you sure about that?”
“What do you mean?” I know I sound defensive.
“Are you sure it’s just coincidence?”
“I’m not seeking her out! You remember, I didn’t even want to go to that conference-”
“Hey, hey, Bash, I didn’t mean- Well, it’s just… this is a big deal. Even for a mega-billionaire like Blackwood.” He gestures towards the priceless guitar, resting in state in its case and box on the counter.
I think about that hundred dollar bill she gave me the first morning we met. It’s now in a drawer in my dresser.
“I guess she wanted to make sure I got the message…?” My voice trails off.
“Then what’s with the quote?” he jabs his finger at the card with those lines from Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet.”
“Bash. Hey. I get that you don’t want to talk about whatever went on with her-”
“Nothing went on!”
Aiden holds up his hands. “Okay, whatever didn’t go on. But these things… Blackwood’s not acting like someone who wants you to stay away from her. Dude. What happened? Did you- God, you haven’t slept with-”
“No!” I feel my face crimson.
“We just… talked a few times. I- I don’t know how to explain it. I guess I thought we had some kind of… connection, but she said… she said I should stay away from her, that she wasn’t right for me. Or I wasn’t right for her. I guess it all means the same thing, anyway, doesn’t it?” It’s humiliating to say it all out loud.
“Hm,” Aiden muses. “I mean, I would guess a woman as rich and powerful as she is would have to be careful about who she hangs out with. I’m sure there are tons of unscrupulous guys who would try to take advantage.”
“I’m not interested in her for her money,” I say stiffly. I’m offended that Aiden thinks I might be some kind of gold-digging opportunistic ho.
But Aiden’s eyes light up. “But you are interested in her!” he proclaims like he’s the town crier. “I knew it!”
I frown. “What mortal man wouldn’t be interested in her?” Probably some of the immortal ones, too. She’s certainly as stunning as any mythological goddess I ever heard about.
“Play it cool all you want, dude. I know what I’m seeing.” I scowl, but Aiden continues. “And it’s been pretty clear she’s not exactly indifferent to you, either.” He waves his hand in front of his face like he’s fanning himself. “The way she was looking at you the other day was… phew!”
I’m still staring at the guitar. I’m afraid to even touch it. “This is too much,” I say, shaking my head. “I have to return this to her. I can’t keep it, I can’t accept a gift like this, even if it is a warning.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“I’ll send it back to her. I’ll send it to her office. With another Dylan lyric,” I add, inspired.
“‘Lay, Lady, Lay’?” he jokes, making a lascivious face.
“No, of course not,” I frown. I can’t even joke about something like that. “I’ll think of something.”
As I am carefully re-wrapping the guitar, Aiden is poking around on his phone. “Jeez,” he gives a low whistle, scrolling. “I knew something like this would cost a mint, but Bash, dude, a Dylan Gibson sold in auction last year for three hundred thousand dollars.”
I stare at him, my jaw agape.
It’s too much.
All of it, all of this, it’s all too, too goddamned much.
MBO playlist, track nine, Bob Dylan, “Not Dark Yet”