Alison, Franny’s elfin neighbor, had also followed the sound of music outside, away from her muddled work on her master’s thesis. She’d lived in town long enough to know about the cowboy festival, and also to stay away from the larger venues like the furniture store. Alison had heard enough tragic cowboy songs to last a lifetime, but nonetheless she was grateful for a chance to escape her studies. The thesis itself she loved; the writing of pages and pages of summaries of other people’s research Alison found deeply tedious. When, she thought, do I become worthy of inflicting this suffering on other poor graduate students, who have to read my interminable thoughts on my topic? When do my own ideas about it become valid – how much to I have to endure to achieve that status?
Lost in the kind of self-pity familiar to every thesis writer at every university in the world, Alison trudged through the crowded sidewalks, avoiding eye contact. She planned to circle the downtown, end at the coffee shop so she could fuel up on a strong espresso, and use the caffeine-induced energy to return to her reading and writing. The whole excursion would only take about twenty minutes, not enough to create any guilt about the break.
A simple melody on an acoustic guitar somehow rose above the din, causing Alison to look up. She saw Leo perched on a stool in the café, strumming and smiling at the audience. On a whim, Alison went inside. I can get coffee here, too, she told herself, and maybe a treat. But she did not go to the busy counter to order. Instead, she took a seat near the front, where Leo focused his smile on her.
His singing voice, imperfect but strong and soulful, elated Alison. When he finished, another thirty minutes had passed, but no guilt crept up her spine. She watched as he seemed to head for her table, only to have a half-dozen people intercede themselves to talk to him, shake his hand, compliment his music.
She could not understand why this made her embarrassed enough to sneak out while Leo was engaged in conversation. Nor did she understand why she felt relieved to see Franny returning to their building a few steps ahead of herself, entering the next-door apartment and pulling the door closed behind her, alone.
Alison returned to her work, studiously avoiding any glances out the window in the direction of the café.