“One! Two! One two three four!”
The trio jammed out for a few moments before Joe shook his head and gestured with his hand, causing Frankie and Gail to stop playing. “This isn’t working out,” the moose said, strumming on the uke. He turned a few keys and played a chord. “Dang it, I need to get the string replaced.”
“Again?” a hoarse voice called from the chairs surrounding the stage. “How many times already?”
Joe looked at the source of the voice. “No one is asking you, Ozzy.”
“I was only saying that you should try a different brand of uke string, that’s all.”
“Like you should try another brand of harmonica?” Gail said.
“You got me there,” the guy said, jumping from his seat and walked to the stage.
Once again, Joe was surprised at Ozzy. A grizzled dwarf with a knee-length ginger beard, he first came to the group asking for a place in the band. The band found that he played the harmonica and the piano, but sang like a crow. “Where you yesterday?” he asked the dwarf. “You were supposed to bring coffeecake.”
Ozzy shrugged and fiddled with his beard. “Had a doctor’s appointment,” he said.
Joe tried not to roll his eyes at the threadbare excuse but barely succeeded. “You should have told me.”
The dwarf waved the rebuttal away. “I would have called, but I know of your sleep habits, kid.” He shrugged. “I’ll try next time.”
“Break time!” Mister Bear yelled out before anything more was said. “We have coffee and grape juice right now.”
“And honeycakes,” Gail said, putting the sax on the stand.
“And grilled salmon,” Frankie said, standing up.
Carl reached over at the pastry-laden plate and grabbed a honeycake. A mug of hot chocolate was at his elbow.
“I didn’t think that Joe would be ‘ere,” he said, nibbling on the cake.
Markus ‘Mister Bear’ McDonald shrugged. “He really doesn’t practice here,” he said. “Usually, it’s just for shows.”
The bear nodded and sipped some of the chocolate. “You changed recipes,” he said, taking another sip. “Less cardamom.”
Markus opened his mouth to respond, but was interrupted by Joe’s arrival. “Hey, babe. What’s shaking?”
“Nothing much,” Markus said, deftly pushing a steaming cup of café au lait towards the moose. “What happened last night?”
Joe shrugged and sipped the coffee. “No idea. Last night, I find Milhouse on my doorstep and now I can’t find him. I think my uncle’s to blame for the last part,” he added darkly.
“The bastard was ‘n your ‘ouse?” Carl said in a puzzled tone.
Joe turned to find Bar Jocks’ resident bartender sitting next to him. “Carl? What are you doing here?”
“Listening to ya practice,” Carl said, eating another honeycake. “Ya not bad, really.”
“He usually comes in the mornings,” Markus said, “If you actually wake up at this time, you would know.”
Joe closed his eyes in exasperation. “First Ozzy and now you. It is not my fault it is too early to be up this early.”
“Nah,” Ozzy said behind Joe. “It’s just too early for you.”
Carl looked at the dwarf, who was dressed in a plaid flannel shirt and pants. “Shouldn’t ya be chopping wood somewhere?”
“And shouldn’t you be getting people drunk?” Ozzy retorted. He clambered on a stool and turned to face the Markus. “The usual, sir.”
As the blue bear walked off to get the order, Carl turned to Joe. “So, what ‘appened last night.”
The moose shugged. “I was headed home, and I find Teresa on the walkway. She’s my cat,” he explained at Carl’s raised eyebrow. “Anyway, I take her and I walk a bit more and see Milhouse on my step. Thankfully, he was asleep.”
“Well, I called my uncle over, who helped me to carry him inside. I didn’t say much because my uncle wouldn’t have let him inside in the first place. After that, I went to bed.”
“So where’s ‘e now?” Carl said.
Joe shrugged. “No idea. My uncle said that he’d take care of the problem, but other than that, I don’t know.”
Milhouse rolled on his back, smiling in pleasure. His headache was gone, and he felt that he won a marathon.
“So, kitten,” a deep voice said beside him, “feeling better?” A callused hand started to rub Milhouse’s ripped stomach.
The leopard turned his head to face a monster of a moose, all naked brawn and bulk. He tried not to be distracted with that bulk, but failed magnificently. “Yeah,” he sighed out, reaching to rub a thick pec nub.
“Careful there,” Brian said. “You’re gonna get me riled up again.”
“Like I care,” Milhouse said, still playing with the nub.
The moose chuckled and moved the hand away. “You get a shower, and I might join you.” Milhouse nodded and got out of the bed and out of the room.
The moose leaned into his pillow, nodding to himself. The guy was so pent up, he thought to himself, that he needed an outlet. Poor kid.
He got out of bed a few minutes later, and he walked into the guest bathroom, already fogged up from the hot water showering over. He opened the curtain and smiled at Milhouse, who was lathering up, his muscles slick with water and suds.
Brian smiled widely. “Need a hand?”
“Alright, let’s try that again,” Joe said, strumming his newly-tuned uke. “Ozzy, get that piano in.”
The dwarf’s fingers cascaded across the keys. “Got it,” he said.
“This was a triumph,” Joe sang out. “We’re making a note here, huge success.”
Frankie paused the bongo play. “Really? We’re going to be singing that song?”
“Just wondering if you’d get it,” Joe said innocently.
Frankie shook his head and started to sing. “Oh, what a night. Late December back in Sixty-Three…”
Joe picked the tune up and strummed. “What a very special time for me…”
Gail sang along, “As I remember what a night.”
As the four practiced, Carl nodded, tapping his shoe to the rhythm. “I like these guys.” He turned to Markus, who finished serving coffee to a few more early-risers. “Mind me asking ‘ow long ya and Joe been together?”
“Uhm…let me see…” He counted on his fingers for a moment. “About four years.”
Carl nodded and sipped his chocolate. “And the shop?”
“Three, I think?” Markus shrugged. “Why you ask?”
“Just makin’ conversation.” He took another sip.
“Sing us a song you’re the piano man,” Ozzy rasped out over the music, causing anyone listening to wince.
“Ye gods,” Carl said, wincing. He called out, “That‘s terrrrrible, ya oaf!”
“Eh, go put a sock in it,” Ozzy yelled back.
“Guys,” Joe said, playing a discordant twang, “please…?”
As the Ozzy and Joe argued, Markus noticed someone coming into the shop. He was a built grey kangaroo dressed a green and yellow swim trunks and a white ribbed tank top.
“Hey,” the bear said, prodding Carl and jerking his head in the direction of the ‘roo. Carl turned around and grinned as he saw the person.
“’Ello, Mike.” Carl said, getting off the stool and walking over to the ‘roo. “What brings you here?”
“The otter invited me,” Mike said, smiling a bit. “What are you here for?”
“Coffee. And ‘oneycakes. ‘Ave ya ‘ad breakfast yet?” Mike shook his head. “Well, ya’re in luck,” Carl continued, smiling and slapping the ‘roo on the back. “My treat.”
Joe looked at Ozzy, who was playing an impromptu piano piece. A moment later, and he began to play a uke compliment. Frankie closed his eyes and gently pounded a rhythm. A few minutes later, when the song was about to end, Gail finished with a lilting string of notes.
“That went well enough,” the dwarf said over the light applause. Frankie nodded, and then noticed a beefy ‘roo was next to Carl. “Hey, Joe, look who’s here.”
Joe looked and smiled a bit. “Mike’s here?” he asked himself. He turned around. “Be right back. Take a break or something.” He went off the stage and came up behind Mike, giving the thick guy a hug. “Hey, what’s up?”
Mike tried not to riled up at the hug; something about Joe turned the ‘roo on very much. “Nothing, really,” he said, resisting the urge to snuggle against Joe. “Your otter friend invited me to see you play.”
Joe nodded as he released Mike.
“And I thought to come over and see what’s the fuss is about.” Mike continued, turning around on his barstool and looking at Joe. The moose was dressed in a bright red shirt embossed in palm trees and pineapples and cargo shorts. Neither hid Joe’s build. “You’re looking good today,” he said, smiling a bit.
Joe playfully rolled his eyes. “Eh. I was woken up early by my uncle, and I thought it was a good idea to do an early practice session.” He shrugged. “So, what time am I working tonight?”
“Come at five, and we’ll get you hooked up.”
“Alright,” Joe said, noticing a steaming plate of freshly cooked breakfast – a huge omelet and a few slices of toast – sliding on the counter. “Your order just arrived.”
Mike turned his head in time to see Markus place a small saucer of butter and packaged jelly next to the plate. “Damn, that looks good.”
“I’ll let you go, then,” Joe said. “I’ll see you later. Enjoy the music.”
Carl eyed Joe getting back to the stage. He leaned over to Mike. “I ‘aveta tell you some news. Last night, Joe found Milhouse on ‘is steps.”
Mike thoughtfully chewed the information along with a forkful of breakfast. “What happened?”
“Nothin’ really,” Carl said. “Joe just ‘ad ‘is uncle carry ‘im inside, and that was that.”
“Carry him inside?” Mike said, aghast. “Why?”
“You ‘aveta ask him.”
“Alright, this tune goes out to the folks at the counter,” Joe called from the stage. “And a-one, two, one-two-three-four!”
The band went into a lively song that soothed Mike somewhat. Carl was right, he thought. I need to ask this.