Pepper's Penance Ch. 06

Author's Note

Pepper's Penance is a slow burning romance that unfolds over the course of twenty-three chapters. This is not a wham-bam story. But, if you're into that sort of thing, I think you'll like this one. Check my profile page for other chapters.

Chapter 6: Ashley's Turn

"Ash, how is it you can run a music store without knowing how to play a single instrument? I mean, how do you do it? Get up everyday and look yourself in the mirror? 'Hi, I'm Ashley Zimmer of A to Z music. I don't know jack shit about any of these instruments, but I'd sure like to sell you one.' Don't you feel like a fraud?"

I chewed my lip. It was my own fault really. On the way to the bank, I had mentioned it. Just an offhand comment. I don't even remember why. Now, sitting down to dinner, Pepper was obsessed.

"How do you express yourself? I mean, do you at least sing in the shower or something? Barn board painting? Adult coloring books?"

"Barn board painting?"

"Yeah, it's something fancy ladies do on girls' night. They sit around in some overpriced art studio, drinking wine and stenciling these pithy saying onto old pieces of reclaimed wood. You're supposed to hang it on the wall so people can ooh and ahh over it when they come to visit."

"I live in the apartment above the shop. I don't have room for a barn. Or many visitors."

"Just the board, Ash, not the whole barn. Geez."

I grinned. "I like henna art. I guess you could call it my current creative endeavor."

"Do you do your own designs at least, or have you been tracing them from some craft magazine?"

"No, they're all my own." I held up my left hand and rotated it around so Pepper could see my latest.

She pushed her wine glass off to the side, took my hand and twisted it this way and that, while she examined the stains I had put on my skin. "I suppose it counts," she said. "As art."

When the waiter came with our salads, Pepper dropped my hand in favor of unrolling the silverware from the cloth napkin and arranging the items on the table and on her lap.

"You should really take up an instrument." she said.

"I'm too old to join a band."

"What are you, like twenty-five or something? You're not old. And who said anything about joining a band? I don't have a band. I bet Dave doesn't have a band."

"Who?"

"Dave. The guy who delivers for the deli. Corned beef on rye? Black Stratocaster? Ring any bells?"

I nodded.

Pepper hoisted her wine glass and took a swig before pronouncing judgment. "I'll bet you lunch that Dave is definitely not in a band. He spends his free time strumming chords or picking out arpeggios, probably sitting on the corner of his bed with a little ten watt practice amp—"

"Nope." I held up a finger while I continued chewing what was in my mouth.

Pepper didn't wait.

"What do you mean, nope? You and Dave are hanging out these days? Are you two talking about starting a band even though you don't know how to play? That would be such a punk rock thing to do. Learn three chords and go."

"I mean, his practice amp. It's sitting in my shop on the same wall as the used guitars. He said he bought a new one that sounds more British, whatever the heck that means."

Pepper shook her head. "And you own a music store."

I shrugged.

"The point is, Ash, people express themselves through music. It's what separates us from the lower animals. It's good for the soul. Helps keep you sane when everything around you falls apart."

"My uncle played in a band. Little Klezmer outfit here in town. Nothing big. Weddings, Bar Mitzvahs. He's the reason I have the store."

"His playing must have really inspired you. Making you want to invest in a music store when you don't even—"

"He passed away."

Pepper lowered her eyes. "I'm sorry."

"He wasn't married. Didn't have any kids. I guess I was his favorite niece. His only niece, actually. Because when he died, I got the store."

"Listen, Ash, I'm sorry for giving you a hard time. I didn't mean to—"

"It's alright, you didn't know. It's been long enough for me to accept it." I sighed.

"Probably long enough that I could have actually picked up one of the instruments he left behind and tried to learn, but I didn't. So don't worry about it, okay?"

"Alright." Pepper picked up her fork again. "Still, it's not right for me to tease you. I'm doing it again."

"Doing what?"

"Getting into my old habits. Being a lousy human being."

"You're not... Pepper. Who told you that?"

"Nobody." She twirled her fork around in her hand, balancing it on an empty spot of her plate by one tine. "I just. I can recognize it now. It's how I'm wired, I guess."

"Pepper, don't take this the wrong way, but well, I got to start life with a music store, free and clear. It sounds to me like you had to start from scratch, like maybe you—"

"I had Natalie. Kindest person in the world." Pepper put her for down and sighed. "But I even managed to fuck that up.

"Remember that trick I told you about, where I'd claim the vending machine stole my money without giving up a drink? Well, I pulled that on Natalie the first night of class. I didn't really mean to. We were on break, half way through the lesson for the night. Everybody there had a day job, so we were all pretty tired and looking for a little caffeine to take us through the next ninety minutes.

"I had already picked out two or three of the guys who I knew would swoop in to come to my rescue as soon as I started my little show. So I pretended to load the machine with quarters while it was actually the same one I kept palmed in my hand. I was getting pretty good at it.

"I stood there for a few seconds. I pressed the button over and over. I banged on the machine with my fist. When I hung my head and prepared for my academy award winning breakdown, I caught the flash of a dollar bill in my peripheral vision.

"I tried my best not to smile as I played through my mind which of the guys I had picked as my potential vending machine knight in shining armor might be holding the bill. And then I heard Natalie's voice.

"'Try this with the quarter in your hand. It should be enough,' she said.

"I stood there like an idiot for a few seconds, long enough that she moved forward to insert the dollar bill for me. I followed it with my quarter and got my caffeine fix for the evening.

"I don't even remember if I finished it. Probably not. It didn't taste right after that. She knew I was scamming her, Ash. She knew, and she didn't care. I couldn't look her in the eye after that. I couldn't even spend the rest of the class fixated on her stockings as she sat on the corner of the desk.

"She knew I was a fraud. She knew. She even made a point of mentioning the quarter I had used for my sleight of hand. And still gave me a dollar to pay for it. That's how I know I'm a shit human being, Ash. And I'm still doing it. How many bottles have I scammed you out of?"

Just as I opened my mouth to admonish her for being too hard on herself, the waiter showed up with our main course. And, as we tucked into some of the most amazing pasta dishes I'd ever had, the topic of conversation turned away from Natalie yet again.

"I love this place," Pepper said, perking up after a few forkfuls of Penne alla Norma. "There's enough food for three meals here. I won't have to cook anything 'til Tuesday."

I took her cue as she steered us away from what must have been a painful subject, back to the more mundane. "You don't like to cook?"

"I don't like to cook for just me. For a gathering, that's fine. But for one? Too much prep work. Haven't had any gatherings in a while, unless Trixie counts, so mostly I order out."

I shrugged. "I usually make a big batch of something I like and eat it throughout the week. Then, once I'm done with the leftovers, I'm sick of it and ready for the next thing."

"You're weird."

"I know."

"This is why you need to pick up an instrument, Ash."

"I wouldn't know where to start."

"You poor dear," Pepper said. She reached over to pat my hand like a child. "Next time it's slow in the store, I'm going to teach you a few scales or something, just so you'll be able to string some notes together once in a while. Say what's on your mind. Express yourself before you explode."

I smirked. Pepper stopped patting and rested her hand on top of mine. She had her gaze fixed on the table cloth when she began a lazy tracing over my henna art with the tip of her finger. Soon she had her thumb brushing over my skin too. I tried my best to stay still, not wanting her to feel jilted.

It was a while before she spoke again.

"Of course, we'll have to start with major scales seeing as you're so happy all the time. Minor keys are probably incompatible with your personality." Pepper stopped outlining my henna. "It's something at least. A good start."

As we waited for the check to come, Pepper had finally given up stroking with her thumb too, but otherwise she made no effort to move her hand.

Neither did I."

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