The Great Grassbee
There was music from my neighbor’s coffee shop through the early summer nights. On his green grounds women and boys came and went like bees among the giggling and the smoke and the garden light stakes. At the calmest hour in the afternoon, I watched his guests rest against the metal chairs, or soak the sun on the steps as their ignited buds flared. On weekdays, his coffee shop became an omnibus, holding parties to and from the city while others, cozy in trains, arrived between nine in the morning and midnight.
Every Friday five crates of Belgian beer came from a secret admirer in Antwerp – every Monday they left the back door in a pyramid of empty bottles. At least once a fortnight a corpse of tourists flew in with heavy wallets and enough anxiety to make a therapy session out of Grassbee’s enormous estate. On the outdoor wooden tables, garnished with long, glass cylinders, bowls of spiced herbs besides organic chocolate brownies and baked cookies bewitched to a light bronze.
By eight o’clock the band arrives, no small sham, but a stack of bongos and bass guitars, keyboards, an organ, and low and high drums. The singers pitch a key lower and the air quickly turns thick with chatter and laughter, casual innuendo and introductions forgotten on the spot, but enthusiastic to greet. The space swells and dissolves as a swarm of new arrivals come, wanderers lurk, confident boys who rest back and tell stories like brave men and there among them, women of great age, showing no trace, slither through the changing sea of faces and voices and color.
I was one of the few customers who had actually been invited to Grassbee’s house. A man in baggy pants and a colorful pleated sweatshirt crossed the cobblestone road early that Saturday morning with a napkin from his employer: 420, was written, his address number, signed J. Grassbee in a sinuous hand.
I was staying at the East Hash, the – well, the less glamorous of the two, but rather a superficial tag to describe the striking contrast between them. My house was one of the few grey houses across the canal, squeezed between an abandoned home and the hub of pure amusement that was Grassbee’s. My own house was an eyesore, lent to me by my second cousin once removed named Tulip. The history of the summer really begins the afternoon I biked to her house on the other side to West Hash. It was the same day of Grassbee’s party. I had been called to lunch with her partner, Daan Jansen, whom she refused to call her husband, calling monogamy a farce, but had shared her whole life with. I’d known Daan at university and just after the election of Frump spent a week with them in Skunk City.
Her husband was passionate about football, despite being lousy at it, and gifted with a body that could fool anyone into thinking he was a player. His family was incredulously wealthy – flaunted by his freedom with money during university – but now he’d left Skunk City and went West in hopes of starting a family.
Their house was even more enchanting than I expected, a creamy white-and-red 1914 mansion, surrounded by trees and small rivers. Long French windows ran across the front, reflecting the simmering sun and vines curled as though to hide from the light. Daan strode across the lawn with his legs apart and square shoulders broadened.
“Now, I am not saying the immigrates are problem,” he went on, “but they are not not a problem.” We were in the same debating society, and while I never understood his politics I always had the impression that he wanted my approval.
“Like my house?” he rhetorically asked, eyes darting. He turned me to look out on the porch. “Not that the other one is any bad – I’m sure you are pleased.”
Before I could answer, he turned me around again, grinning, “Lets go inside.”
We walked through a large living room decorated with vases full to the brim and rich paintings hung on bare white walls. The windows were ajar and the balcony door welcomed us with a breeze. Outside sat a buffet table and beside them two women draped in blue and white. The younger of the two was a stranger, oval face and dark hair, bejeweled with pearls. I later learnt her name was Miss Fool. The other girl, Tulip, rose and kissed me on the cheek two times.
“Perspiring with elegance!” She laughed and pointed at my suit that had damped from the ride. An apologetic smile arose to my lips, but she did not seem to take note as she continued to speak in her low, thrilling voice. Miss Fool jumped in every now and then to ash her cigarette. I lost track of what my cousin was trying to say as she moved from one event to another, abruptly bursting into laughter or shaking her head, eyes laden with worry, until the name Grassbee came up.
“I have been invited to his party,” I interrupted.
Miss Fool contemptuously raised her eyebrows, “How do you know Grassbee?”
“Why, I live next door.”
“Oh, it’s hot! So very hot, you can’t seem to get away from anything these days…” Tulip waved her linen hemstitch napkin in the air.
Daan crossed his arms over his chest, his expression twisted as he stared and spoke under his breath to her, “I thought you had given him the house in Cannabasea.”
“But the canals are so lovely! And besides, what difference does it make? This heat –”
“I’ve never been to Grassbee’s, what’s it like?”
“Oh Miss Fool, let it be! He’s a nobody.”
I nervously glanced between Daan and Tulip. Miss Fool’s eager eyes beckoned me and so I went on to tell her of my invitation, and the parties, and the people, and the music. She beamed as I spoke, her white teeth shining stronger than the dimming sun.
“We must go! We must go at once!”
“Miss Fool, I tell you, he is not worth anyone’s time.”
“Then why do you have a house beside him?”
Daan glared at Tulip who was resting her chin on the back of her hand, staring into the distance. Miss Fool moved her plate back and took my hand with her as she stood up. Tagging me along, she grabbed Daan’s arm and pulled him to his feet. Tulip’s glassy eyes looked up at us, a fragile smile spread across her porcelain face, her red locks ebbed below her shoulders.
Daan had chosen to take his dark green vespa with Miss Fool in the back, while Tulip sat on the end of my bike, leaning her head against me. At the bridge before the canal to Grassbee, however, there was a division. She had hoped off and with her feet pointed outwards, waited for me to reel my bike around.
“Did I hit a bump?”
“Oscar,” her hands trembled as she spoke, “There is something you must know about Mr. Grassbee and I…but oh, don’t look at me so poorly, please! I can’t stand your sad eyes! And this heat – this heat won’t go away!”
“I’m listening,” I took her hands in mine, “I’m listening.”
“Mr. Grassbee and I had once been engaged – well, almost – he found out about Daan, you see, and…well, he doesn’t know we’re still together.”
“Is that why he invited me?”
“I suppose to be polite. But you must stay clear from Daan. And so do I. If he sees us together, I’m not sure what he’ll do.”
The clock had struck past six as we entered the coffee shop and already the air was congested with loud music and people speaking over one another. Crowds flooded in and out of the bar to the garden, and Miss Fool took me by the gap between my arm. Her eyes wide like a curious child, she glided through the mass. Her tongue spoke feverishly about the smell. In the midst of bumping and leaning against strangers, a rough squared hand fell over my shoulder and pulled me back.
It was a familiar face. The man who had been serving me black coffee early mornings, only without the apron, and a black leather jacket and denim jeans instead. He smiled at me.
“I’m so glad you came!”
I looked at him, stunned. He excused me from Miss Fool and led me to a quiet corner of the bar. We sat on two wobbly stools, between us a tall table with a measly blue ashtray, the smile plastered to his face.
“Are you enjoying yourself, Ollie? Can I call you that, Ollie? I hope you don’t mind – ”
“No, no, Mr. Grassbee, thank you for inviting me.”
“Of course! We’re neighbors, we need to know one another.” He paused to light a joint, “How long do you plan to stay here?”
“Only another week, I’m afraid. I was hoping to find a job here, but I think I have a greater shot back in the city.”
“What do you do?”
“I used to work in publishing, but – no one reads books anymore.”
“They use paper for other things,” he remarked, a sympathetic frown pulling the corners of his mouth. “But I might know someone who can help you. Do you write?”
“I fiddle –”
“You ought to show me one day, I could help you. I used to write, but…”
His eyes drifted off into the distance, as if he were looking for someone then abruptly came back to me, crows’ feet. He took a drag. “Listen, I’m a simple man, Ollie, can I still call you that – Ollie? I like my music, I like my business, and my women, well, young kush, I need to be frank with you. You're Tulip’s cousin and before her, well, there was Mary Jane, and Ines, and Ketrine, and Molly, but no one like Tulip. Never like her.”
His charming smile now hid behind a haggard face, eyes filled with painful longing, he looked like all the lost boys that had come to his coffee shop to run away and tell tales of adventures. He continued with a sober voice, “Now, I know Daan is here. She can’t fool me, young kush, I know her too well. Playing with her hands anxiously and sighing…but I tell you this; I’m going to get her back. And you’re going to help me.”
Grassbee left me aimlessly walking, having asked for a simple request, to find Tulip and take her out front by a bench next to the canal. In the garden, I could hear her speak, “That’s what I get for being with such a brute man, a hulking, cruel –”
“I hate that word, hulking,” Daan said, sipping back a golden-brown glass of bourbon, “Even in jest.”
“Tulip,” I apprehensively approached them, “Can I speak to you for a moment?”
“Now, whatever is it you have to say to Tulip, I’m sure I can hear as well!”
“Only for a moment, please.”
Tulip slowly rose, extending her hand to me. She quickly glanced back at Daan before leaving. “Hulking,” she teased.
As we stepped out of the blazing heat that the rooms congealed, Tulip twirled and laughed on an artificial note. We went towards the bench where a lean, long figure waited. At the sound of our footsteps, Grassbee, pale as death, with his hands plunged like weights in his pockets, stood in a puddle of water glaring tragically into Tulip’s eyes. I heard a sort of choking murmur and part laugh as she said, “What a pleasant surprise.”
His distraught eyes stared as she gracefully, yet carefully sat on the bench. He spoke quickly under his breath, often pausing to smile. Then in the corner of my eye, Daan appeared, fists at the ready. Tulip immediately slipped her hands away from Grassbee and stood up, straight as a door.
“It was so hot inside,” she explained.
“The thing to do,” said Daan impatiently, “is to ignore the heat.” He strolled over, then stopped before the canal, and leaned against the railings. He took out of his jetted pocket a metal flask.
“Why not let her alone, young kush?” Grassbee peeped in.
“Where’d you pick that up? All this ‘young kush’ nonesense,” he sharply snapped back, moving towards them. Tulip eyebrows stitched together.
“If you’re going to make personal remarks, I won’t stay here for a minute.”
But Daan continued, “Mr. Grassbee, I understand you’re a Pot man.”
“Oh, yes, I understand you were part of the Pot Academy. The Legalization. I myself am a Liquor man – ”
“I really don’t understand this row you’re making,” Tulip looked desperately from one to the other. “Have some self-control, Daan!”
“Self-control? Now, I know I don’t give big parties, and I’m not very popular, but I sure know my whiskey and wine. Yes, I suppose I ought to just sit back and let Mr. Kush from Kushland make love to my wife!”
“Your wife? We live in modern times – you can’t claim her! Listen, young kush, I have something to tell you –”
“Please don’t!” Tulip interrupted helplessly, “Let’s all go home. Why don’t we all go home?”
“That’s a good idea,” I walked beside Daan to take my bicycle. He grabbed me by the arm and turned me, sneering, “I want to know what Mr. Grassbee has to say.”
“’Your wife’ doesn’t love you, she never has!” said Grassbee, “She loves me.”
“You must be out of your mind!” exclaimed Daan automatically.
Tulip sprang out of her vulnerable stance and pulled the bicycle out of my hands. In a quick breathe, she whispered, “I’m sorry.” Without hesitation, she mounted the bicycle and cycled. Daan sweaty in angst ran to his vespa, followed by Grassbee who lunged himself onto the back as the ignition went on. Simultaneously, the door of the coffee shop opened and Miss Fool, with bloodshot eyes stepped out, a gush of smoke and stench behind her and as the music raucously played, the sound of the motor fading as all three disappear in the darkness.
After two years I remember the rest of that day, and that night and the next day, as an endless drill of police and newspaper men in and out of Mr. Grassbee’s coffee shop. Tulip had reportedly been the first victim of a coffee shop, experts speculating that she was too high to ride her bicycle and had fallen into the canal as a come down. They never found her body, and returned my bicycle with its front handles dented. Grassbee soon after disappeared, the drumming sounds a distant memory, and I never heard from Daan, although Miss Fool tells me he had bought himself a boat and was sailing across the Boozy sea. As I sat in my chair overlooking the canal, brooding on the new, modern world, I thought of the postcard and package that secretly resided in my nightstand. With no signature or note, it arrived a week after Tulip’s death. On it was only my address and a picture of glaciers, on the front written ‘Greetings from Alaska’ and attached to a small, dry weed in the shape of a flower.