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Johanna – 7

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I was finished with all my law school exams and coursework at the end of Spring 2016. My grades were high, my interview schedule had gone well and I was feeling very positive. I was with Duane at the Irish bar after his show, when he was approached by a middle-aged guy with a shock of white hair.“Can I buy you a drink?” he asked.“I’ll never refuse a Guinness,” said Duane. He turned to me. “How about you, Johanna?”“I’ll have one if you are,” I said.The guy bought three pints of Guinness and passed Duane a card.“I’m a producer,” he said. “In LA. I liked what I saw tonight.”“You want us to audition?” asked Duane, passing the card to me. “I’ll round up the guys.”I read ‘Aaron Lindwall’ along with a phone number and a string of social media addresses.“Not the band,” Lindwall said. “Just you. I think I heard something, but I’d like to be sure. I want to hear you again, by yourself.”“Well…” began Duane.“He’ll do it,” I said. “Just give us the studio address and a time.”“Whoa, whoa, not so fast, lady,” he said. “Who’re you?”“She’s my girlfriend, Johanna,” said Duane.“I don’t have a studio in New York,” said Lindwall. “I’m in town for a bachelor party. I’ll give you a thousand dollars to play the party tomorrow.”“We’ll take it,” I said, impetuously.“I’m not talking to you, Johanna,” said Lindwall, clapping Duane on the shoulder. “I want to hear from my man.”“If Johanna says okay, I’m okay,” said Duane. Lindwall wrote an address on a cocktail napkin and handed it to Duane.“Give them my name at the door,” he said. “I’ll see you at nine. The guys will be properly liquored up by then, but don’t mind them. You’re playing for me.”“Give us half the money upfront,” I said. “Drunk people tend to forget their promises.”He looked at me critically, and said, “You’re a hardnosed b–.”He said the letter ‘b’, but his meaning was plain. He pulled out his wallet and counted out five hundreds. I gave them to one of the barmen and asked him to run a counterfeit pen over them. Lindwall looked on, expressionless, and said, “Tomorrow,” before leaving.The following day, I got home from the law school library at eight and changed into some nice lingerie, with a sleeveless silk top, a tight, short dress, and high heels.“Where are you going?” Duane asked.“I’m coming with you,” I said.“Are you sure? It’s a bachelor party, not the best place for a girl.”“I want to make sure he pays you,” I said. “I thought he looked rather shifty.”“I looked him up online, Johanna. He really is a music producer. He lists a lot of big names.”“Anyone can put up a website,” I said.The bachelor party was in the private room of an upscale club in the Village. We gave Lindwall’s name at the door, and a waiter escorted us upstairs.It was a fair-sized room with its own bar. There was a barman along with two waitresses in short skirts. There were about thirty men over the entire age range from twentysomethings on up. As Lindwall had predicted, they were properly ‘liquored up’. There was a lot of loud ribald laughter and the waitresses were having a hard time with prying hands.“I think you should go home, Johanna,” Duane whispered to me.“I can take care of myself,” I said.I went to the small stage in the corner with Duane and he tapped the mike to get their attention. There was a brief moment of quiet.“I’m Duane Byrne,” he said. “Who’s the groom?”“He is!”, “This is the guy!”, several of the men called out, pushing a fellow with light brown hair forward. He was stocky and well-built, but looked the worse for wear. His tie was askew, several buttons of his shirt were undone, and one of his shirttails was out of his pants.“Okay, me lad,” said Duane, his Irish accent coming on strong. “Here’s something to remind you of what you’re giving up.”He strummed his guitar and then launched into a bawdy, foot-tapping ditty about the joys of bachelorhood. Every verse ended with, Drinking till the wee hours of the night, With ____ to hold me tight, a different woman’s name each time. There was plenty of coarse languages, and he soon had the crowd on its feet, braying along with him.“He’s not bad, your boyfriend,” said Lindwall. “A nice voice, warm and round.”I nearly jumped, for I had not seen him come up beside me.“You owe five hundred,” I said.He handed me a thick wad of twenties and I put it in my purse.“Not going to count it?” he asked, with a hint of levity.“If you stiff Duane over a few twenties, that’ll tell him all he needs to know about you.” I looked over at him. “Are you going to give him a real audition?”“I’m leaning that way, yes.”“Are we done here for the night?”“Just a bit longer. I need some music for the next act.”Almost on cue, there was a huge shout from the crowd. A buxom young blonde entered the room and got on the stage with Duane. She waved to the men and blew them kisses. Lindwall went up and spoke in Duane’s ear. He shook his head vigorously, clearly upset. I went over.“What’s the problem?” I asked.“I’m asking your boyfriend for a small favor,” said Lindwall, pointing to a battered piano at the corner of the stage. “I need some music for Bree, something better than the boombox she’s got. But he’s balking.”“Come on, Johanna,” said Duane. “Let’s go.”I looked at Lindwall. He put up his hands.“You’re free to go,” he said, his meaning clear. No play, no audition.“I’ll play,” I said. “But I want your word that Duane has an audition. In a studio in LA.”“You have my word.”“Maybe I’m stupid,” I said. “But I’ll trust you.”“You’re not stupid,” said Lindwall.I sat down at the piano and looked over at Bree.“What do you want?” I asked.“Something fast to start,” she said. “Then slower and slower.”I played fast, simple and repetitious, the sort of music a kindergarten teacher would play. However, the monotony of the melody didn’t matter, for everyone’s attention was riveted on Bree. She was a good dancer, and her pulsing, rhythmic movements were boldly sexual and suggestive. She communicated with me with her eyes, clearly indicating when she wanted me to slow a notch. She moved into the crowd and back onto the stage with consummate skill. She allowed the men just enough liberty to keep them on edge.I slowed the music one more notch, and she writhed on the stage in a snake-like motion. It was so sensual, I could see the men literally salivating.“Take it off!” one man shouted.His shout bahis siteleri was taken up by another, and another, till there was a cacophonous, foot-stamping chorus, “Take it off! Take it off!! TAKE IT OFF!”She nodded to me, and my fingers slowed along the keys. She began her strip-tease routine, starting with her long gloves.Then she undid her blouse, a button at a time, cueing me with her eyes as she showed them more of her full breasts. She wore a bright red bra, so low cut that her aureoles were partly visible. When she shimmered out of her blouse, there were hoots and hollers.Her skirt was next. First, she raised it to give them tantalizing up-skirt glimpses of her red panties, stocking tops, and garters. Then, she slowly unzipped it. When she finally let it fall, I hit a deep bass note. It was nearly drowned out by the yelling. She pranced around the stage on her platform heels in her bra, panties, stockings, and garters.One of the men pointed to me.“Hey, the girl at the piano still has all her clothes on!”“Yeah!” said another. “Come on, we paid you! Take it off!”Bree looked at me questioningly, and I shook my head.“I’m the stripper, boys,” Bree said, loudly. “She’s just the piano player.”“I want to see her tits and ass!” the groom shouted, pointing at me.I saw Duane stand up with a furious look on his face, and knew I had to do something to forestall him. I swiveled on my piano stool, and called out, “Anything for the groom!” I undid several buttons of my silk blouse, enough to show them my bra.“More, more!” yelled the groom.I pulled down my bra cups for a few moments saying, “Not much to see, boys!”They were drunk enough to laugh, and let me go back to the piano. I played till Bree finished her act. She went around the crowd to get her tips wearing nothing but her red garters and shoes. She handled the aggressive pawing dexterously, never letting it escalate into sexual assault. I buttoned up my blouse and headed for the door with Duane.“You get ten percent of the tips,” Bree said to me, as we passed. “I’ll give you twenty since you showed them your tits.”“It’s all yours, Bree,” I said. “You earned it.”“Thanks, you’re the best,” she said with a grateful smile.Lindwall walked us out.“I like you, Johanna,” Lindwall said.“I don’t like you,” I replied. “But I’ll respect you if you keep your word.”“Give me your contacts,” Lindwall said to Duane. He handed over his card without a word. Lindwall looked at it briefly before putting it in his pocket. “I’m back in LA tomorrow. We’ll have you out soon.”Duane was still mad and began to walk away without replying.“Make him come, Johanna,” Lindwall said to me. “I don’t have the time or patience to deal with immaturity.”“He’ll be there,” I said. * * * * *On the advice of my professors and with their blessing, I applied for court clerkships, rather than going directly on the job market with law firms. It is well known that a prestigious clerkship can catapult a young lawyer into a fast-track career. The day after my adventure with Duane at the bachelor party, I got the notification that I had been selected for a prized clerkship at the Supreme Court. I immediately called Mom and Roberta with my news, giddy with excitement.Duane took me out after his evening gig. When we got home, we had the best sex we had had in a long time. He went down on me, then had me sit on his face. He let me ride him, and I did so with wild abandon. He held back even more than usual. I came several times and went to sleep in his arms sated and content.I dreamed I was marrying him in a lovely gown of virginal white. Dad was walking me down the aisle. Mom and Roberta were in the front pews. It all seemed so real, that I woke smiling, thinking we were on our honeymoon. As reality set in, I considered telling Duane about it. But when he woke, I worried he would think I was trying to entrap him. So I didn’t.   * * * * *I graduated law school in the summer of 2016. I was twenty-four, one of the youngest graduates in my class. Mom and Roberta were supposed to come to my graduation. At the last minute, Mom called to say she couldn’t come.Roberta did come and she brought her new boyfriend, coincidentally a Silicon Valley corporate lawyer named Owen Lawler. The four of us – Roberta and I, Duane and Owen went out for brunch before heading to the graduation ceremony. Owen seemed nice enough and he was attentive to Roberta, which made me happy.On paper, Owen and I should have gotten along famously. He was in the profession I was entering, he was outdoorsy and fit, and we shared a lot of interests. But somehow, he and I just didn’t have chemistry. I can’t explain it.I went to see Mom immediately after my graduation. I was sure she would not have missed it unless something was very wrong. Roberta came with me.I had been working so hard at law school (and spending every free moment with Duane), that I had not been home to Wisconsin since Christmas 2015. When we got home, I shocked to see how pale and wan Mom looked. She was still pretty, but walked slowly and painfully. Roberta took us out to dinner at a nice French restaurant to celebrate my graduation. Mom asked to go home midway through the meal pleading tiredness, so we cut it short.She changed into her nightgown and we tucked her into bed.“Mom,” I said. “You’re hiding things from us again.”“What do you mean, cherie?”“The cancer has come back, hasn’t it?”“Yes,” said Mom quietly.“How did you know?” asked Roberta, aghast.“I was with her when she went through it the last time,” I said. “When are you going into chemo?”“Next week,” said Mom.“I’m staying here with you,” I said.“No, no, cherie,” Mom said, distressed. “You have this prestigious clerkship at the Supreme Court. I’m so proud of you! I will be fine by myself.”“It’s nothing,” I said. “It’s just a job. I’ll get another one after you’re better.”“You’ll never be offered a Supreme Court clerkship again,” said Mom.“It’s nothing compared to what you gave up for me,” I said.“What are do you mean, cherie?”“I know, Mom. I know about the Chicago Symphony tour.”“How do you know?” asked Mom.“What are you talking about?” asked Roberta. “Mom soloed with the Chicago Symphony a few times,” I said.“I know that,” replied Roberta.“When I was six, she was offered a contract as the principal soloist on the Symphony’s World canlı bahis siteleri Tour. It was for nine months, included dozens of performances. It would have put her in front of discerning audiences all over the world. It would almost certainly have led to a big recording contract. But she turned it down because she didn’t want to leave me for that long.” I looked at Mom. “Rudolf told me. He said everyone in the university music department knows.”Mom sighed.“You were too young, cherie, you needed me. And it would probably have come to nothing. Just the money from the nine-month contract.”“Mom!” Roberta exclaimed, wide-eyed. “The Chicago Symphony! Dozens of concerts!”“She would have been famous,” I said to Roberta. “You know Mom’s touch and instinct are superb. She’s so much better than the young soloists of today like Yuja Wang, that girl everyone raves about.”Roberta stayed a week, but then she had to go back to work in San Fran. She left, saying she would call every day and be back in a month.I called the Supreme Court justice’s office and asked if I could defer my clerkship. I was told, very politely, that it was a “take it or leave it” offer. I reluctantly sent them an email, declining the offer.Mom’s chemo was much more painful this time round. She rapidly lost all her hair, and so much weight that the wigs I had bought her the last time looked ridiculous on her. We resorted to big floppy hats whenever I took her out on short walks around the neighborhood.The cancer was very aggressive and Mom had bi-weekly infusions. But in spite of the heavy dosages, the cancer continued to spread. At the end of two months, her lead doctor was frank.“We’re not stopping the cancer,” he said to Mom. “All we’re doing is making you weaker and more miserable. I’m afraid we’ve run out of treatment options.”“What do you suggest?” I asked.“I recommend stopping the chemo and transitioning to palliative care. We can begin with pain medication.” He looked at Mom encouragingly. “You’ll feel a lot better for a while. After all, chemo is poison.”“How long do I have?” Mom asked quietly.“A few months,” he said. “Six months at most.”On the drive home, Mom spoke lightly, trying to get my spirits up. But I too sad to be cheered up.“Come on, Johanna,” she said at last. “Let’s stop by the store at the university dairy for ice cream. You always loved doing that.”“I’m not six, Mom.”“You were such an adorable six-year-old! I should have been a better mother to you.”“You’ve been the best mother anyone ever had,” I said, through the lump in my throat.I started crying and pulled over. Mom put her arms around me and wiped my tears. I wished I was six again.“You heard him,” she said. “I’m going to feel better soon.” When I did not respond, she went on. “I want you to do something for me.”“Anything,” I said.“I want you to take me to Montana, while I’m still strong enough. I want to go where your father took me after we were first married.”“Where was that?”“Wild Horse Island in Flathead Lake,” she said. “I didn’t appreciate it back then. But I think I will now.”“Dad took me there lots of times,” I said. “It was one of his favorite places in the world. Mine, too.”A week without chemo and Mom felt much better. She even put on a bit of weight and her face seemed fuller. I booked us flights to Billings and rented a car there. I got my old camping gear down out of the attic and we packed. I called Roberta, but she could not get leave to join us. I think she may have been secretly relieved, as she never liked camping.On the way to the airport, Mom was exceedingly cheerful, and I caught a bit of her good mood. During the flight, she talked about her Montana trips with Dad, all of which had occurred before I was born.“The local people around Dad’s place thought I was stuck-up,” she told me. “Looking back, I can see there was some truth to that.”“It was very foreign to you, Mom.”“I should have been nicer, especially to your father. He tried so hard to please me.” She was quiet for a while, and then went on. “I want to go back to Robert’s place as well. To see who’s still around. Can you take me?” “Of course, Mom,” I said. “But let’s go to Wild Horse Island first, shall we?”I drove to Flathead Lake, made camp, and rented a small motorboat. I got Mom to sit at the stern beside me, as it is the most stable section. I sat by the tiller of the outboard motor to guide us across. I warned Mom that it would be windy, and she held on to me and the gunwale, clenching her teeth. But she was a trooper and made no complaint on the choppy ride.We spent the day hiking the trails, taking pictures of mule deer and enormous bighorn sheep. We saw a bald eagle up close, as well as one of the few horses on the island. I used my rod and caught us a nice lake trout that I stashed in my daypack.I overestimated Mom’s strength, and by the time we reached the caldera-like formation at the top of the island, she was exhausted. I put my arm around her and she leaned on me gratefully all the way back to the boat. She slumped on my shoulder on the trip back across the water. She crawled into the tent and rested while I built a fire and cooked the trout. The smell got to her culinary senses and she came out as it was done. I served it out and she took a bite with undisguised relish.“This is wonderful, cherie,” she said. “You are your father’s daughter, you could live off the land if you had to. And live well.”“It’s not haute cuisine,” I said. “But everything tastes better outdoors.”“Get me some pine needles, cherie,” she said. “Let me contribute to this meal.”I gathered some, and she put them in the hot oil residue in the cast iron pan. She stirred them around for a few minutes to make a greenish sauce that she brushed on top of my fish. It gave the fish a tart, pleasing flavor.“Wow, Mom!” I said. “You can make anything taste better!”After we ate, we lay side by side and looked up at the stars. Mom held my hand, and I put my arms around her. I kissed her on the lips, as she liked.“I’ve been meaning to do this for years, Johanna, but I kept putting it off, waiting for the right moment. But I don’t have many moments left, so I’d better do it now.”I opened my mouth but she put up her hand.“I always wanted you to be more like Roberta. All the time you were growing up, I made you feel canlı bahis second best. That was very wrong of me. I want to tell you that regardless of how I acted, I never loved you less. I love both my daughters equally, but you were always my baby, my little one. The last few years that you have been in New York, I’ve been thinking about all your trials and hurts, and how I often made them worse. I hope you can forgive me.”I held her and cuddled her.“There’s nothing to forgive, Mom. I’ve always felt your love. Ever since you cried with me on your lap when Dad died.”She smiled.“Did you really hit Gordon Greene that hard?”“Yes,” I said, laughing. “I got him good.”   * * * * *We camped by Flathead Lake for several nights before packing the car and heading to Dad’s small town. Mom suggested that we drive straight to the old ranch. The new owners were affluent people from California. They had knocked down the old ranch house, bunkhouse, and barn, and built a mega-mansion in its place. It looked out of place in the stark surroundings, and Mom wrinkled her nose.“I should never have sold it,” she said. “This was your inheritance.”“No, it was yours, Mom.”We drove to town and parked in front of the only motel. When we got out of the car, we almost tripped over Regan Bittner, Dad’s old girlfriend.“Hello, Regan,” Mom said with warmth in her voice. “I don’t know if you remember me, I’m Marie-Aude von Eschenbach.”“Of course, I remember you, Mrs. von Eschenbach,” Regan said, a bit of color rising to her cheeks. She turned to me and spoke more easily. “And hi there, Johanna.”Regan had aged well. She was in her mid-forties, still lean and pretty.“Johanna and I are in town for a few days, reminiscing,” said Mom. She looked up and down the single street. “Everything seems much the same.”“A few changes in the faces,” said Regan, regaining her composure.“Is there a place we could sit down and have a coffee?” asked Mom. Regan looked surprised, so Mom went on. “I would love to talk to you.”“Sure, sure,” said Regan. “Not much by way of restaurants here, but you’re welcome to stop by my place. I can whip up some coffee.”A short while later we were in Regan’s cozy living room, sipping coffee, and munching on her homemade cookies. They tasted just as I remembered them.“I wanted to talk to you about Robert,” said Mom. Her tone soft rather than confrontational, and Regan relaxed. “All of us loved him. You and I were his lovers. You were better to him than me. I’m grateful to you for that.”“He was fond of me,” said Regan. “But he loved you. He never stopped loving you.”“I’ve made many mistakes in my life,” said Mom. “But losing Robert was the biggest one.”“Well, he gave you Johanna,” said Regan. “She’s a treasure.”“Yes,” said Mom. “In many ways, I’ve been very lucky.”We stayed for a week. I drove Mom all around the surrounding mountains to show her my favorite spots. Regan packed us picnic lunches and came with us on some of these trips.On the flight back to Wisconsin, Mom looked exhausted, but her expression was blissful.“Johanna, I have one last wish,” she said. “And I know it may be difficult, so feel free to refuse. When I die, I would like to buried in the churchyard by your father.”“But, Mom, we need to get a plot –” I began.“I spoke to Regan about it. We got it marked and I already put the money down.”“Of course, I’ll do it,” I said.Mom looked out the aircraft window for a while. Suddenly, she looked back at me.“I’m not a great one for giving advice, Johanna,” she said. “You’ve seen what a mess I made of my life. But learn from my mistakes – don’t do what I did.”“What do you mean, Mom?”“I like your boy, this Duane,” she said. “He seems genuine, and I think he loves you.”“Sometimes he does, Mom.”“No one loves anyone all the time, Johanna. That was my mistake with your father. He was a man that loved me most of the time. But I expected him to change, to become the man I wanted, one who would love me all the time. But that’s impossible.” She paused. “Do you love him?”“Yes, Mom.”“Have you told him?”“He knows. I’ve told him I care for him.”“Men like to be told, Johanna. You must go to him and tell him. Don’t let him slip away from you.”Mom seemed to have a sixth sense, and Duane called very soon after we got to her house. He sounded buoyant and in my depressed state, it irritated me.“Great news, Johanna! The audition was superb! There was a lot of lawyering, and that took quite a bit of time. But the label’s now given me a three-record deal, more money than I’ve made since I was born! Lindwall’s signed on to produce. We recorded the first three tracks last week.”“That’s great, darling,” I said.“You don’t sound thrilled,” he said, disappointed.“Of course, I’m thrilled!” I said. I tried to sound more upbeat but could not keep a slight tinge of annoyance out of my voice.  I thought – My mom’s dying, and you want me to be happy over a stupid record deal.“I’ve always been there to celebrate your victories with you, Johanna. This is the biggest one of my life! I want you to fly out and celebrate with me. I’ll send you a first-class ticket. I’ve texted you the address of the place the label has rented for me in Santa Monica.”“I’m sorry, Duane, I can’t come right now. I need to be with my mom.”“Are you sure? I really want you with me.”“I’ll come as soon as I can, Duane.”“Okay,” he said and cut the line abruptly.I thought of calling him back, but then I didn’t.   * * * * *It seemed like Mom had stored up all her last reserves of strength for the Montana trip. As soon as we got back to Wisconsin, she went downhill very fast. A month after we got back, she could no longer get out of bed, and we both knew the end was near. I called Roberta, and she flew in immediately.As soon as Roberta arrived, Mom asked us to help her to her bureau and pulled out two velvet-covered jewelry cases. She handed one to Roberta and one to me. I opened mine and the first things I saw were the gold snake pendant with the matching gold bracelets that she’d promised me back when I was fourteen.“Sell the rest of the jewelry if you wish,” she said. “But please keep these pieces and pass them on to your children. Each of them has a detailed provenance related to our family history in France.”Roberta and I took turns sitting by Mom’s bedside 24/7. She tried to be brave and hide her fear from us, and that broke our hearts. We made her as comfortable as we could and gave her opioid pain killers on the schedule the doctor gave us. At first, she refused them, but soon the pain grew so great that she gave in.

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