A. C. Koch
It’s easier to notice a bad pattern than a good one. For example, it only took Sam two occasions to realize that any time he played “Corcovado” while a girlfriend was in the room, she would end up getting decapitated in a freak car accident on the way home. Once was an accident; twice was a curse.
A subtler pattern, however, took much longer to rise to the level of his consciousness. He was in his mid-30s before he realized that every time a relationship ended–no matter who ended it–the song that was playing while they took their last looks at each other was Toto’s “Africa.” Blasting from a passing car, grooving on the mall’s muzak, no matter how he heard it, once that song was over, he never saw that girlfriend again.
When he was dating Amy, he tried playing “Africa” for her, just to see what would happen. This was just after he’d noticed the pattern, and he was testing his theory. They hadn’t been fighting or anything, it was only their fourth date and they were having a lovely romantic picnic on a summer afternoon. He strummed his ukulele and sang, “I hear the drums echoing tonight,…” and she leaned in, laughing.
Halfway through the first chorus, her phone trilled with an incoming text. She glanced at the message and her eyes went wide. She shot to her feet. “You bastard!” she screamed, and slapped him hard across the face. Then she spun and marched away across the grass.
Stunned, he went on strumming the chords until she faded from view on a pathway through the trees. The ukulele went silent, and he never saw her again.
For breakups, he had two powerful options. But if there was a pattern to how he could meet women and get them to like him, he hadn’t figured it out yet. It seemed to be some combination of smiling and saying words and dressing reasonably well, but he hadn’t narrowed it down to something as specific as a song.
After the whole Amy debacle, he started taking notes on all the times he went out looking for love. A couple of times he met nice women in bars, and hit it off, and once even made out with a waitress in the hallway going back to the restrooms where Metallica was audible from the kitchen (“Enter Sandman”) while Jamiroquoi was grooving in the front part of the bar (“Canned Heat”). But nothing more came from that encounter, so the pattern eluded him.
It was during a perfectly ordinary trip to the supermarket that he met someone special. Their carts collided in the entryway as she was coming in and he was going out. The bag of apples in his cart spilled into hers. She wasn’t really his type–more of an all-American yoga lady than the artsy, gothic types he usually went for–but she laughed as he showered her in apologies. She ended up carrying his apples out to his car with him, and handed him her business card after they’d chatted a few minutes. She added her cell number on the back, and flicked him the card with a grin. Pocketing it, he watched her walk into the supermarket. He gave her a few minutes to get lost in the aisles and then he marched back inside.
He wasn’t going after her; he wanted a word with the manager.
“What was the song that was playing on the sound system about ten minutes ago?”
The manager stood behind the customer service desk and blinked. “The song?”
“It’s a playlist, right? You have like a playlist running on the sound system, of corporate-approved shopping music. Right?”
It took a lot of wheedling but Sam finally got the manager to go into the back office and give him a run-down of all the songs that had played in the last twenty minutes. Sam noted the time and the song that was currently playing, then consulted his receipt for the rough time when he’d gone through the check-out. A little addition and subtraction narrowed it down to “Sailing,” by Christopher Cross. Yacht Rock.
A confident smile flickered across his lips. He pulled his cell out and dialed in the number the woman had just given him.
“Hi–it’s me, Sam, from the parking lot? I know it’s only been a few minutes but I’m thinking I’d really love to see you again. What do you say we go grab a drink when you’re done with your shopping?”
She hesitated and then laughed away from the phone. “Well,” she said, and he could tell just by the sound of it that she was smiling.
Really, the story should end there. If it ended there, it would be a light-hearted bit of romance with a dash of magic, about how one man learns to take control of his romantic destiny, and learns a bit about life in the process.
It would be best to leave out the part about how he realized he could manipulate and monetize his bizarre gift, which–once he nailed down the pattern–never failed him. Best to skip the part about how he stalked a famous actress to play her the beginning of “Sailing” as she sat eating lunch with her agent in a downtown LA brasserie, how her eyes locked onto his as he strode through the tables with his ukulele, strumming and crooning. Six months later: his face and hers, pressed together in the flash bulbs, on the covers of paparazzi magazines across the world. Then everything falling to pieces when they were Christmas shopping in Barney’s and “Africa” came on the speakers. In under a minute she was storming off, a red handprint throbbing on his cheek, camera flashes recording his stunned face. Then: a plunge into shame and despair. Best to skip over how he started lurking on the Dark Web to see who might be interested in hiring someone who could get a person decapitated.
It turns out a lot of people are in the market for that.
He took a job that involved going to a Washington D.C. cocktail party and bumping into a woman who was a high-profile lobbyist for an environmental group. His ukulele looked ridiculous with his tuxedo, but a chorus of “Sailing” later and she was sparkling eyes at him and running her fingernail up his arm. Later, after hotel sex, he sat on the love seat strumming. He alternated between the opening chords of “Africa” and “Corcovado.” One would get her to leave, unharmed, while the other would result in her losing her head. The first option was worth nothing, but the second was worth a million.
“I had a nice time,” she said as she came out of the bathroom steaming, wrapping a towel around her body.
He smiled, and started strumming. She swayed as he sang along, “Quiet nights of quiet stars…”
A. C. Koch’s work has been published in the Columbia Journal, Mississippi Review, and Exquisite Corpse, and two of my short stories have been awarded first place in the Raymond Carver Short Story Award (2003, 2007). I live in Denver where I teach linguistics at the University of Colorado and play guitar in a bossa nova trio, Firstimers.