Small Choice by Ian Byington

I remember Judy's advice when I first moved to Oregon: don't tell people you're a teacher; tell them you're an accountant. It's the only way to pick up women, she said. Then she left, moving from Oregon back to Montana to teach Indians to remember the past but not to hold it too closely.

Reshuffling the New Orleans coffeehouse rules came hard for me. It seemed easier there - you sing your songs, and see what happens. It's similar to wolves howling at the moon, or the mating calls of species of some birds. You sing a song and watch to see which eyes follow you to the next song, which lips whisper to a companion while the eyes are still with you.

There was the woman who bought me hot spiced cider the night my voice was shot from singing too loudly, too carelessly. She turned out to be a seventeen-year-old freshman at Loyola who wanted children. There was the estranged wife of the neo-Impressionist painter who thought he was an avatar of the Lord Krishna. She took me home to read her angry poetry; when the three kids piled into her bed on me the next morning, she said she wanted a father, and protector. There was the fisherman's wife who made me laugh and tell her stories before she told me when the boat would come back to port. There was the Tulane soccer team goalie, a senior in accounting. She never forgot the score, or how much time was on the clock.

It seemed easier there, with less in the way of finding out what you need to know, and less keeping you from staying later than you really wanted. Life should always be so uncomplicated.

Oregon enjoys an accountant's eye for reckoning, more precise than New Orlean's fuzzy estimates. Bars close early, taverns even earlier, and the coffeehouses require thoughtful songs. People don't laugh at the same things; sometimes they don't laugh at all. Neighbors are more distant than the fences between houses, and there is no equivalent to hurricane parties - those end-of-the-world etherizations which prepare one to be blown away into the next world or the next day. Oregon thinks before it speaks, feels before it laughs, and hopes before it dreams. Oregon is careful.

Well, I'm not a teacher anymore, just a coffeehouse singer still looking for a little warmth and a better way to sing songs to which I already know the words. Tonight a woman with electric hair and dull eyes said during the last break that it must be lonely singing in places like this. In New Orleans that's an invitation; here it's sociology. She went back to her espresso.

When I look at the clock behind the counter I can gauge how the night feels to me: I either say to myself, "I get two more hours," or "Rats, another two hours." Tonight is moving slowly, with a good but quiet crowd. I get to play two more hours. I plug the jack into my acoustic guitar, turn on the amp, and try to turn up the temperature in the place with a song that might be best described as thrash folk.

Now I'm not sure how professionals whose careers aren't in decline do it, but while I'm singing, I'm scouting the room for prospects for a beer after the set. My standards are high: she has to be intelligent looking, have bright eyes, and if possible, be impossibly beautiful. Tonight there appear to be two candidates: a woman sitting next to the fake fireplace with a fake fire going in it, and another located farther back in the room nursing a coffee cup through its third refill while she writes in a notebook. The first woman definitely has the eyes; they laugh above freckles and nearly straight teeth. The second woman is definitely going to be up most of the night.

The set continues, and I begin to scheme. It's important that I make contact before the end of the night: she might otherwise leave before I'm through playing for the night. There are a number of ways to meet people in places like this, and I've seen them all, watching from my perch here on the stage. I suspect I have the advantage over most barfly/pickup types, because I get to look at the audience without appearing to stare. Of course, it's just a polite way to stare. I have the added advantage of being on display doing something that I do rather well, or at least well enough to be paid for it.

The way I tend to meet people is simple—I go up to them and thank them for listening to my set. Things either take off from there, or they say they enjoy it and turn back to a book. The risks are minimized; it doesn't feel like rejection to me if someone prefers being literate to being with me. It does, however, tell me important things about incipient availability.

The set is going well: the crowd is picking up a bit, and on the last song I saw some lips moving to the words. Number 1 appears to be interested in me: she catches my eye nearly every time I look her way, and smiles when she claps. Number 2 looks up from her writing every so often, and claps after every other song. It's hard for me to read her interest, but I can read my own: I want to find out what she's writing and see if she's as intelligent as she looks. She has a way of cocking her chin when she looks up that grabs me, somehow. A pre-Raphaelite artist would be able to show the glow in her eyes, the mix of thought and introspection and concentration. Since I can't paint, I'll just tell you, it grabs me.

Nearly done with the set: one song left, a lilting ballad about the possibilities of autumn love. You're going to have to believe me when I tell you I sing songs that lilt. Not tilt, lilt. Anyway, I've decided when I'm done I'm going to get a cup of coffee from the counter, then drop in on Number 1 and see what's the deal. I glance at her as I bow after the song; she smiles as she applauds quietly.

At the counter I ask for the usual: a cup three-quarters full so there's room for sugar and cream. Small talk with Ann, the coffeehouse lady. She says she's been getting compliments about me and to be sure and see her at the end of the night to put some more playing dates on the calendar. Sounds good to me; I tell her so. As we talk, I see the first woman get up from her place by the hearth that pretends to be a fireplace and walk toward me. Great.

"Hi. I just wanted to tell you I really like your singing."

This is good. Her eyes are even brighter close up: an aquamarine with amber flecks in them. She has the kind of nose that hack writers describe as a pixie nose. Her voice is melodic and soft, with a deep richness to it. I'm a tenor, our children will be baritones. Her cashmere sweater gives me a fuzzy feeling inside.

"Thanks. I saw you singing along on a couple of songs."

"You play all my old favorites! It'd be impossible not to. I'm so glad I came tonight. Do you play here very often?"

"Couple of weekends a month. This is one of the nicer places I play." Ann is leaning over the counter like the KGB.

"Want to sit down? I have a few minutes till the next set."

We move over to her seat by the fire. "I've always wanted to learn how to play the guitar. I have one at home." I envision a soft fold of cashmere filling the curve of a guitar.

"Do you give lessons?"

I have before, and say so.

"That sounds great! I'll have to tell my son Travis. He wants to learn, too."

"Oh, you've got kids." I generally like kids. In multiples of zero.

"Yes, I have three. Would you like to see their pictures?"

She drags some photos out of her wallet. I look at the little criminals.

"Who's this guy with the kids?"

"Tom. My ex-husband."

"Who's this guy?"

"That's Bob. My ex-lover. After Tom."

"This one?"

"That's Ivan, the fellow I'm seeing now. Aren't the kids cute? This one here is Loren."

"He really wants to learn, huh?"


"Tell you what. Here's my number. Give me a call next week and we'll see if we can set something up. Sound like a deal?"

"Oh, really? That's great! I'm so glad it'll be you!"

"Yeah, no prob. Thanks for coming tonight."

One down, one to go. I make my way through the closely set tables with my coffee cup, and land at Number 2's table.

"Hi. I wanted to thank you for coming tonight."

She looks up at me, then waves her pen at a chair. "Would you like to sit down?" I would, and do.

There's a dry moment while we both seem to be thinking about what the next thing to say has to be. It's hard for me to tell whether she's glad for this visit or not. Not a particularly auspicious sign. Maybe she's just quiet, though.

"What are you writing?"

"Working on a story. I write children's books."

"No, really."

"I do. Ever heard of Paul the Squirrel or Gentle Weasel?" I shake my head. "That's OK; you'd played some songs I'd never heard before tonight. Did you write them?"

"Which ones? Do you remember?"

"The last one, the one about drinking in a think of someone. That was a nice idea."

I don't want to talk about my songs. They're generally sad, and mostly were written more than five years ago. "Have you been published?"

She gives me a look that makes me think she's checking to see if I'm really interested. She decides I am. "Yes."

"Do you do anything besides write? Or is that your only job?'

"I work as a bookkeeper part time."


"Sure. Why, don't I look like a bookkeeper?"

"What's this one about?" I gesture toward the notebook.

She smiles for the first time. "You really want to know?"

I like her smile. "Yeah. But actually, I need to get back." I gesture toward the stage. "Are you going to be around for awhile?"

"I think so. I'm getting a little tired, but I'll hang on for awhile. I want to finish the first part of this tonight."

"I'll buy you a cup of coffee if you're still here when I'm done. Forty-five minutes."

More teeth in the smile this time. "If I nod off, sing louder."

"Deal." I head back to the stage to plug in and turn on for the last hour. I start things off with a quiet song about a lady who rides a horse in the moonlight until the horse dies. After that she begins to fade with the waning of the moon, and dies the day before the new moon. My new friend returns to her writing, but I don't see her pen move very much. After a couple of songs, she puts it down and listens, her head cocked in her hand, that way.

The last hour moves quickly, partly because I'm enjoying playing for the woman in the back of the room, and partly because I'm choosing longer songs to make the time seem shorter. The clock on the wall tells me there's time for two more songs. As I begin to sing, I see her gather her notebook, pen, and bag, and walk toward the stage. She stops at my tip jar, which sits on the stage left speaker, and puts a bill and a note in. Without looking toward the stage, she heads for the door, and closes it quietly behind her. I play through.

The set is over, and I bow and thank people for coming who didn't have anywhere else to go anyway. I begin to wrap up cords and microphones. I usually leave the tip jar alone until I've packed and gotten paid, just in case some soul wants to give alms. I can't wait.

The note says: "I like you. If you hadn't spoken to me, I think I would have fallen for you in a big way. Good luck with your music."

There's thirty two bucks in the tip jar. It's been a good night, and I always take myself out for a beer if I make more than fifteen.

This has been a good night, even if the Gentle Weasel slid off the bank into the river. Oregon overanalyzes itself, and then runs from the mirror. I finish packing, then write down some dates to play on Ann's calendar and in my datebook.

The East Avenue Tavern is right around the corner. Dick tells me he just gave last call, then pours me a pint of Henry's. I peel off a bill from my tip wad. As I hand it across the bar, I notice writing to the right of George Washington's face. It says: "See you tomorrow night."

Ian Byington has been writing short stories and long plays for a couple of decades. Some have been performed, some have been published, and some have been set aside to grow. An accomplished musician, he nevertheless claims "Small Choice" isn't autobiographical at all. "Good fiction, of course, isn't autobiographical. That wouldn't be creative or artistically honest," he was quoted in an interview in 1997. The interviewer smiled and printed his comments anyway.

Lately, he's been writing for local newsletters (, environmental websites, and other folks' websites ( His last album, Things Seen & Unseen, was released in 2007. His well-received last CD, Love You on the Run, is available for purchase online.