The voice was there by the window where the brass disc glowed in the four o'clock sun, large arcs of light on the ceiling and walls. The disc tilted on the stand, black electrical tape curling from the edge holding dust and hairs to the sticky side shaded from the light, shattering the light and filling the room with brass. He adjusted his seat, washing the cymbals, reflexively stepping on the pedals, the slight reverberation in the room carrying the sound through the snare's rattle to the crisp scissor cut of the high-hat closing. He tapped his sticks to the rides and rolled a little down the toms.
Starting low, taking the notes from the page, the sax broke the Acknowledgement over the first throaty impressionism of the bassline, tenor squawk in the higher range, filling the rhythm’s space with reedy sheets of glossy, coloring tones, smearing the palette left by the rhythm of the constant bass. The sunlight crossed the room among the dust dancing in the evening beams, striking the three of them, falling uneven and broken in bands of gold and shade.
The bass picked up the walk over the voice’s discreet mumble, pausing and eyeing the drummer for some inkling of a beat, taking a note and sliding the large wound string down and around the fretboard, the snare's rattlesnake growl growing even louder. The drummer put the sticks to the skin and gave in to a rhythm, picking up at the end of a measure to skip off-time into the next down beat. Slow, drunken, even, blue beat, the bass playing sparse with the drums between droning, slipping into chord changes slightly behind the time. A room painted with no furniture, only windows.
The voice was silent, listening to the sound and the spectacle of gold.
The saxophone cut off. The bass picked a quicker rhythm, half-notes to quarters, as the drums rolled over the snare and through the crash cymbal, tapping the new time out over eighths on the ride. The mouth of the sax caught the sun and poured gold, brassy illumination through the room, blinding and sharp. The bass' thumb dove around the five strings, popping and plucking across the up and down beats, twitching at the wrist in palsy, concentration taking the eyes’ glassed vision to settle distant through the drummer's direction. The closed lids of the sax, between lines licking his lips, bending both inward and running the tongue across them, swallowed behind the teeth, opening air back to the mouthpiece with a slap tongue.
Someone began to mutter the mantra in the evening sunlight, as the falling rain of the cymbals crested and the bass broke from the simple melody.
The sax’s keys snapped shut, and the bass rode a steady walk as the cymbal din came to a somber close; the brass losing its polish, darkening as the players ceased their breathing, held, still and lifeless, with instruments hung from their dominant hands. The drummer’s sticks fell to the floor, and his skins loosed from their tuning, becoming brittle and discolored. The sticks dried and cracked, splitting at the ends with dry rot and dust. The skin of one of the toms cracked slowly, creeping across from the rim and spreading like a web of ice. The night stole in, crawling across the forms that were men and were not. Each took its final shape and fell silent. Each was another image of clay, crumbling. Verdigris covered the cymbals and the horn like Aegean waves.
With his bass in one hand, he flipped the switch that killed the amplifier, and walked from the room and down the flights of stairs that lead to the door to the street.
Hugging the cold window ledge and looking through the fogging glass, rain dark pavement and the clouds overhead a swirling haze three shades of grey and yellow-orange from the artificial light, fading into a miasma that hung low between buildings and stretched off to the suburbs and the ocean to the east.
The street was a dull mirror of lights, the deli neon and the bright mothership of the bodega next door. Shifting bands of tri-color directed cars through the drizzle.
The smoke was thick but spreading through the hall over the central stairwell, entering through the crack of Old Agnes' doorframe so strong that she shook her head before the television and wondered aloud who was making that smell, but sat too afraid to open her door and look. Her hand went to the cross on her neck. Setting her jaw, she moved to the massive door and, closing one eye, looked over her distorted view of the hallway that didn’t reach the windowsill.
No one was there.
He took a deep drag and held it, feeling the lung's tickle of protest and ignoring it, taking the time to feel it steep into his blood, when his vision spotted green he blew his lungs clear, a thin trail of weak smoke leaving his nose and mouth. Licking his lips, the end of the cigarette left sticky and wet, the white paper turning brown and green at the tip, the far end glowing red in the low light from the street and the two working light bulbs in the hallway. He could hear Agnes behind her door listening, her small feet shuffling like starved, cold mice. There was a silence that stood and waited for an answer to a question never asked.
The streetlights went through yellow to red. He looked at the cars, the front windshields and grills red, staring headlights in the night. The homeless man sitting beside the deli door huddled in a sleeping bag, black knit cap tight over his ears, grey hair and beard growing beneath. The man tucked wet hands under his armpits and shook like a bird making a nest.
Agnes’ feet shuffled away from her door. Her hand reflexively made a cross before her, resting on the chain and cross around her neck beneath her shaking head muttering in Czech.
People walked quickly in the damp air. The wind tossed women's hair. Water fell in large streaks on the glass; cracks in the edge of it let the cold and damp in to swirl in the smoke plume and make bumps on his arms raise.
He coughed, deep but subdued, more of a throat clearing, and looked at his hand with its cigarette burning ever closer to his fingers. The voice behind him began its drone and insistence.
He breathed deep through it again and pressed the ember against the window glass till it sizzled and died beneath his thumb. He tucked the leftover into a pack of crumpled menthols from his inner jacket pocket. Rubbing a hand across his face, he stood, tired legs buzzing pins and needles. He made a couple of numb footsteps to the stairs, shaking the sleep from himself as he yawned wide and let his hand ride the banister to the ground floor.
The bar wasn't empty, but it wasn't crowded either. He sat at the polished copper littered with coasters and stacks of napkins, wet and drying circles marking the spots where customers had been or still were. Ashtrays sat with cigarettes dying inside, or propped between the black teeth smoking while the owner did something else.
He looked at the television. Football players’ pictures sat next to each other, their stats side by side, the running game debated and completion percentages read aloud by commentators. A couple of men watched from around the bend of the bar, each taking the talking head's analysis for complete nonsense and putting their own opinions to the other with drunken enthusiasm. A red-eyed barfly watched their conversation from the far end with addled interest.
The bartender turned glasses under a sink against the wall, running a rag over and around the inner lip, placing each glass in a tray upside down to dry. He glanced up and saw the new addition, setting the next glass in line down and wiping his hands on the rag as he walked to the bar.
Some people are always where you leave them.
"How are we doing?" the bartender asked.
"I'm alright," he said, shrugging.
The bartender turned and dove into a cooler behind the bar, pulling a brown bottle up with ice stuck to the neck. Pulling the lid with his keys, he knocked the ice off behind the counter, and passed the bottle over.
"Thanks," he said.
"No problem. Brian, right? You guys still playing around the corner?"
"Here and there. Next time will be Friday."
"I'll have to check it out. Wish we had room here for some music. Just the TV and dumbass conversation for me." He looked around. "Guess I could pull a stereo out, but that would make it a different kind of bar, right?"
"I guess," Brian said, tipping the beer up and into his mouth.
“What’s the name of the group?”
“Orpheus and the Light.”
“What’s that mean?”
“Hell, if I know.”
“You didn’t make it up?”
“No, I just play bass.”
Kickoff began the game on the television, and the two men pulled money from their wallets to sit on the bar as the camera panned to follow the ball flying through the air and into the expecting arms of the player on the other side. Each dared the other to bet more and more on the game, arguing spreads and settling on a simple win or lose contest for a kitty of several hundred dollars. Satisfied, they counted out their bet on the counter and eyed each other with contempt.
"Guys," the bartender said, "you can't just put it up on the bar, ok? Be a little more subtle."
"It don't make no difference!" One shouted, his mouth hanging open beneath his eyes, wild and red. "Ain't like the police is going to bust through the door and raid the place on account of us betting on a football game."
"Yeah, it's not like we're killing anybody."
"Hey, just don't put the money out, then."
"But how do we keep each other honest?"
"Do you know this guy? I do. Let me tell you, if you don't keep him honest, he's liable to be anything but. You just believe it."
"Same for this son of a bitch. Why, he'd rob Peter to pay Paul. That's this kind of guy right here!"
They both turned their beers up. The kickoff was returned to the middle of the field and the teams were massing at the line of scrimmage. Two rows of shiny colored helmets bent to each other.
"Peter had it coming."
"This is true."
"I never liked Paul much, either."
"Sorry son of a bitch."
"Never mind," the bartender said. "I hope they do close me down." He shook his head and wiped the counter, avoiding the pile of twenties on the bar. "That way I won't have to listen to this nonsense every day."
Brian drank his beer and watched the teams slam into each other while the offense got a first down on the second pass. The room rose and fell with the movement of the game. When he finished the beer, he pulled a five dollar bill from his pocket and tossed it on the counter.
"That'll do," the bartender said. "See you Friday?"
"I'll try to swing through."
"Maybe I can get away and catch a bit of the show, eh?"
"Have a good one."
He walked back into the street. As the door shut behind him, he could hear the drunks cursing the television in loud, slurring voices. Something had happened in the game, but he didn't know what. The shouts faded as his footsteps grew louder and traced a path around a bum snoring on his side in a pile of newsprint. Half a block later, the alley turned off from the sidewalk into darkness.
He stood next to the opening, kicking one of his legs behind him to hug the wall with the sole of his shoe. His hands hid themselves in the kangaroo pouch in the front of his hooded sweater. He felt twisted knots of cellophane among the lint and loose change. It would be a long night. His nose was running already, and he tilted his head back and snorted deeply.
The first one walked up to him inside of twenty minutes. She had a jacket the color of night that hung too long, past her waist to her knees, and nothing underneath except a rotten pair of hot pink flip-flops. Withered cheekbones took form out of the darkness long before the length of jacket found definition from the shade. Her legs were covered in fresh cuts that sent shining ribbons of blood past the knees to cover the bright sandals. The muscles twitched reflexively.
"Can I get about fifty of it?"
“You got money?”
She smiled with no teeth. Two uneven pigtails curled away from her ears, held with blue and yellow pastel barrettes floating above coat hanger shoulders
“Yeah, I got money, honey.”
"Fifty." He pulled a couple of the pouches out of his pocket and swapped them for the paper bills. "There."
The bone white eyes widened and turned. Walking away, her jacket swung in the breeze of her manic strut around the corner and into oblivion. The slap of flip-flops faded into the drone of cars and city.
They will come faster, now.
He sighed. It would only take a few minutes. The trash from the empty parking lots and alleyways would wander around the neighborhood to him. Staggering as if their blood was running a bit too hot, well into the red, the stops and starts couldn’t be helped. They moved through the neighborhood taking the spin of the world into account, compensating and thinking how clever they were not to fall down. You could find some stopped, one arm against the brickwork, bent over and reeling from the motion, their mouths’ loose spittle falling to their feet in the streetlight.
Brian felt firm steel against his back. Only a couple would have money. He pulled his sweater hood lower over his face, and stretched his back. The voice began to speak in low tones, whether he wanted to hear it or not.
It was hours later. The bartender's voice broke the dark night with the sound of bells. Drunks from the bar stumbled out into the street, laughing and gesturing back into the faint light of the open door. The bartender appeared, waving a rag at them and returning gestures of his own. Turning back from the retreating drunks, he paused with an arm against the jingling door.
He could feel the bartender eyeing him as if the finger of God pressed against his forehead. With a quick flash of keys, the man had shut and locked the door and began to walk his way. Brian felt the finger release and the cool breeze against the print on his scalp.
Ready? Here we go.
He sighed and looked at the pavement. He was cold and not in the mood for this.
"Seriously?" the bartender said, standing with his hands on his hips.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"You know damn well what I mean. You really got no better way to make some change?"
"I ain't going to sweep your damn floor, old man."
"Ha.” His laugh never reached his eyes. “I wish I had enough to pay somebody for that kind of thing."
"Times are rough on everybody."
"You know this can't end well."
"How you figure?"
"There's better lotteries. That's all I'm saying."
"Well, you said it."
"Right." The bartender sighed. He stared at him. "You still on for Friday?"
"I'll be there. I said I'd be there."
"I'm not so sure," he said as he turned and walked back to the bar. His feet made thin sounds between the brick walled facades. His flashed his keys quicker than light and disappeared through the door.
Friday came as any other day. He took his guitar case down the steep stairs that lead from the flat, stirring Mrs. Agnes from her afternoon soaps to check the peephole in vain. The steps fell under foot two at a time, his legs stretching and catching, hand grasping the rail to spin around the half-flight landings to the next flight.
The street was straight concrete and asphalt bent in the false heat, mirroring the cold sky as the roads narrowed to quicksilver points in the distance. He walked with his head bowed, watching the tips of his shoes advance one after another.
In these quiet moments of the city, he could hear over his shoulder the voice’s murmur strengthen. Vague and indistinct, it felt like a mother’s whisper, but wasn’t female or male. It was something else, droning as he crossed streets before white stick figures made of tiny bulbs turned to red flashing hands.
Brian found the others in the studio. Dismantling the drums and stands, they walked each piece down the stairs and into a rented moving truck. The toms were on their way down. The next trip would finish the drums between the other two.
He laid his guitar case down, and began to pull cables from his amp and speaker cabinet. With the amplifier’s handle in one hand and the guitar case in the other, he slowly stepped down the stairs and put them both in the back of the van. His cabinet was last. Tilting his body with the weight and trying his best to see the stairs around the side of the thing on the way down, he had it in the truck before they finished loading the rest of the drums stands. They shrugged, sighed, and panted. Four hands shut the door, and an extra set put the padlock through the handle.
After waving the truck off, he walked several blocks back to his building, jumping the stairs three at a time until he stopped by the window on his landing. The street below was brighter in the day, and the only people visible moved without hesitation one way or the other. None stopped or paused longer than the streetlights required. The voice was there with him, and its tones lifted almost to a lament, but fell a few notes short.
Music thumped outside the poorly insulated club. The smokers gathered, huddled together in a cloud of tobacco and body heat that rose in the night through the neon and the streetlights’ vibration. Excitement powered conversation; several erupted and folded in smoky choruses. Girls laughed and reached out to touch each other. He felt uncomfortable, walking off the rush that followed him for hours after a show. His mind hopped from track to track, jogging through topics and tangents stolen from the words he heard filling the air between the tilting and gestural bodies.
The darkness of the night found him rounding the corner to the bar. He stopped by the door, reached for it, resting his fingertips against the flecked green paint.
You don’t want to be here anymore.
The wood was cool and dry, the paint rippled under his skin in sharp cracks and bubbles. He heard his breath and the buzz from within the bar.
The door opened and the red-eyed bar fly waddled out, bumping into him and nearly falling flat onto a car by the curb as he staggered away. The car’s alarm groaned and beeped at him. He rushed off as fast as he could ping-pong between the buildings and cars that lined the street. No one came outside. The car alarm stopped after several repetitions.
Brian stood in front of the bar, staring at the green door. Turning, he walked farther down the sidewalk to the alleyway, looking into the deep black of the space between buildings. His hands went into his sweatshirt pocket.
There was only silence. He pulled his cigarettes out, opened the pack, and pulled one with his teeth. Striking his lighter, he saw a shape standing in the wavering light above bright pink flip-flops. A thousand words filled his mind at once, each from the voice, clamoring, growing louder as the shadows shook behind crude forms on the brickwork and trash.
Brian lifted his thumb from the trigger. The flame snapped out. Eyes glowed in his direction, brightly jaundiced and jerking uneasily. A soft hissing rhythm came from beneath.
The eyes moved toward him. The hissing grew louder. The voice began to scream in his ears, overlapping itself to keep above the din that grew between the facing walls of brick and mortar, the trash that lay beside dumpsters’ open maws in the darkness. He stepped away, reaching for the small of his back. A crack of thunder broke through him; the alleyway faded to white and then electric green.
A form erupted in a smokeless flame nearly the shape of a man, between him and the hissing shade. He covered his eyes and tucked his head into his shoulder. Three dull pops filled his ears, leaving the world in silence.
The Acknowledgement ripped through his mind, his skull humming from within, and the sax line continued its opening over and again, then one more time before breaking to give the cymbal wash and bass walk room to grow.
Two footfalls carried him to the edge of the street, where his heel left the concrete and his pivoting momentum took him over the edge, falling hard against the cold pavement. The fire continued in the alleyway. He could see the cornices of the buildings illuminated in its bright orange glow. His head hurt and swam in the pain.
Above, the moon moved across the sky, its broad face grey with earthshine. A thin strand of bright white highlighted the grey disc as it grew larger and larger, falling to his vision, filling it with grey and darker grey.
The flames disappeared with the voice and its constant murmur. Brian blinked and the moon exploded into separate verdigris crescents that hovered and melted into one another. Everything went black.
"That kid, I swear," the bartender said, shutting the door behind him with its rush of bells. He turned the tumbler, put the keys in his pocket, and looked over the empty bar. The copper counter top glowed in the light from the television. The football game surrendered quietly to the news and late night talk shows. The host wore a suit and tie. He wasn't funny, but thought that he was. The bartender reached over the counter and with the remote control silenced the man. The mute face continued to mime his routine to neither speech nor applause. The bartender’s rag spun, throwing water drops in a flat circle from a point between his tight fingers. He hummed and watched the silent grey-hair talk with his hands and mug the camera with all the wolfish threat he could draw.
There were dishes to be washed. He let the sink run steaming hot, his hands protesting at first, but the heat felt good after the damp cold of the night. Wisps rose and warmed his face. He blinked and looked at the screen. Wiping his hands on his pants, he walked into the office in the back, and picked up the small AM/FM cassette player that he kept on his desk.
Dusty. He blew on it as hard as he could with his eyes closed, feeling the cave and squirm within his chest. When he opened them again it was less covered; the chrome was old and chipped, and had fallen off revealing the dull plastic beneath. He didn't have any cassette tapes in the office that he knew of. It had been years since he’d seen a tape for sale. He lost count of the years long ago.
He plugged the stereo in and tuned the radio dial; waving the antenna first this way and then that, till the signal grew stronger and he could hear Bruce Springsteen singing "Badlands". The sax and guitar solos screeched bars of 3” speaker reproduction; the full band in tinny miniature, each instrument crushed into the two narrow channels competing for attention, only eight inches apart, swamping the dull glow of the television and the neon liquor and beer advertisements humming on the walls. Dipping his hands back into the hot water, he turned a highball glass over, rubbing the rim with a greying rag. Both sets of fingers felt wet and numb.
He was moving his hand to place the glass in the dish drainer, hanging it in mid-air, the glass dripping water slowly to the floor as he blinked each drop away.
His face fell. He threw the glass at the stereo as hard as he could, knocking the cheap plastic to small pieces that ricocheted off the ceiling and the bar, the glass shattering in a high pitch crescendo of falling crystal. He sat in silence, breathing heavily as the sirens' cry filled the bar with blue light from the street. Looking over the sink full of dirty glasses, he sighed and let his head fall to the copper bar, feeling its cool metal against the sweat on his forehead as his body quivered twice, and slowly, crossing first his back and crawling down the lengths of his arms, he was engulfed in flames, charring the cotton of his button-down, both open sleeves fountains of blue flame crested with yellow. His hair evaporated in a bright flash reflecting between the mirrored beer advertisements as cold, black impressions formed where eyes should have been. The copper glowed in the dull yellow light, the TV cut to commercials, and the barred windows flashed red and blue over the rows of downturned glasses behind the bar.
In the morning when he woke, it took fifteen minutes buffing the blackened outline with his rag until the copper could first be seen and then lustered. The rag ran grey and dirty in the sink under cool water that he wiped across his forehead and neck. Tossing the rag in the sink, he turned off the silent TV, watching it recede into a single dot. His feet crossed the room and walked the stairs in the back of the office to the loft with the small, sheetless bed and no windows. It was dark and soft in his bed, and he disappeared quickly in the silence.
(Copywrited. Published in Before the Gates.)
(Copywrited. Published in Before the Gates.)