Sandra & Richard: character sketches

It was Sandra’s pleasure, on certain nights of the year when she had saved up a few extra dollars from her minimum-wage job as a security camera technician at a large office building, to put on her most expensive-looking blouse and the pants that clung tightly to her in ways that made her uncomfortable on other days, and take herself out to a bar, for a drink or three.

Richard was the bartender at her favorite place, a swanky watering hole for journalists, for which Sandra had a particular fondness that she was pretty certain had to do with an old television show she had watched as a child, sitting in her father’s lap, in which the backroom dealings between journalists and politicians was never overtly made clear and which had conveyed to Sandra a strange idea that journalists were at the end of the day people with integrity and a need to tell the truth. Richard knew Sandra from their days in grade school, though they hadn’t met again until she’d started coming to the bar. He pretended he didn’t know her, since she clearly didn’t recognize him. When he told her his name – he made it his practice to introduce himself to people who frequented the bar, since it usually increased his tip intake – she had looked him squarely in the eyes and had shaken his hand with vigor, hers more calloused than his though he was certain his were stronger, and had said it was a pleasure to meet him.

She hadn’t been aware of him in grade school either, but then again, those years had been her queen bee era. She had been popular, a great wit among her friends, and she had had the special ability to put people down and make them love her at the same time. Sandra didn’t think much about her childhood, because she had never come to really appreciate how magical her grade school days had been. They had always been a distraction, and a poor one at that, from a home in which her brother was both intellectually and physically disabled and required the vast majority of her parents’ attention as well as her own.

Richard was, to put it simply, in love with Sandra. He didn’t know her very well, not in the sense of understanding her dreams and ambitions or her fears and foibles. But he knew enough about her to recognize that she came into the bar with the same clothes every time, indicating a wardrobe lacking in the finery she yearned for. He knew enough to recognize in her a come-hither look that screamed of loneliness as well as a lack of trust, as she rarely agreed to go home with any of the men she talked to in his bar. Her instincts and her sense of self-preservation were keen, Richard decided, or else she would let herself be hurt over and over again. Instead, she kept a close watch on her heart and kept her mind tucked away in a safe place from which it could observe, judge, and make calculated decisions.

Sandra herself would never have imagined anyone was looking at her so hard. She couldn’t fathom anyone taking such an interest. And besides, she wasn’t at the bar to find someone like Richard – a minimum wage worker like herself. She yearned, not for glamour, not even for safety, but for a mindset so different from her own that it needn’t worry about paying rent, buying groceries, credit card debt racking up. She yearned for a carelessness of mind that would have the space to be wrapped up in her, her, only her.

Orange February

A slice of orange floated in Kera’s beer. She had made the mistake of dunking it into the drink with a straw until it was shredded. Perhaps it is more correct to say, then, that a slice of orange peel was floating in Kera’s beer. The pits had sunk to the bottom and were turning a nauseating vomit color.
Kera wished she could vomit. But she had no gag reflex to speak of, and hadn’t thrown up since her twelfth birthday. Exactly six years.
Her birthdays were not lucky. Nor were they pleasurable. They were blank, days of off-white skies and damp chilly breezes. The curse of February in the air.
The bartender leaned over and patted a customer on the cheek while Kera stared. The interaction was more interesting to her than the continued bobbing of the orange peel in her drink. The straw she had used was in her mouth, chewed flat, folded, and chewed again in its reduced-in-size state. The customer whose cheek was patted jerked his head up and banged his fists on the bar. The bartender laughed.
They seemed to know one another. Everyone in the bar seemed to represent a cult of daytime drinking that Kera longed to be part of. It was her third month drinking while the sun was still up, and even if it was hidden by the clouds at this point in time, the more important fact to note was that it was also hidden by the walls of the bar. In other words, Kera felt she had made a big step by not drinking on her rooftop, alone.

Worrier

The trembling in the barman’s fingers was noticeable when he brought the next round of drinks to their table. Tabby, the tall brunette who had been eyeing him up all night, spoke up.

“Hey man, you okay?”

“What?” He set down her drink, sloshing some of the brightly colored liquid out onto the table, distracted by the question more than by his hands.

“Your hands. They’re shaking. Everything alright?”

“Of course,” he said, fixing a grin on his face. “Sorry about that,” he pointed to the spilled drink, “I’ll get a rag. Just a sec.” He hurried back to the bar, and Tabby turned to her girlfriends.

“Something’s not right with that guy.”

“Shut up, Tabby, you’re drunk. Also, you’re a fixer.” Joanna was big-boned but lanky, and she was the drunkest of them all at that particular moment. She didn’t notice the way her words were slurring together or how her eyelids were already drooping a little.

Tabby rolled her eyes at Kate and Gina. “If I’m drunk, then you’re a lobster,” she muttered under her breath. Joanna didn’t hear her. She was digging in her wallet for a couple quarters for the old-fashioned jukebox in the corner. “No, but seriously,” Tabby continued. “He’s shaking.”

“I didn’t notice,” Gina said. She shrugged, a dramatic feat that caused her to immediately hitch up her shirt so that nothing would spill out. Kate wasn’t listening to any of them; she had her face buried in her phone and was alternately typing and staring intensely at the screen as if it would grant all her wishes. Tabby raised her eyebrows at Gina and gave Kate a pointed look. Gina rolled her eyes and mouthed “They’re fighting again.”

Some girls’ night out this turned out to be, Tabby thought. Joanna’s drunk already and is going to fall asleep in five minutes, Kate’s having the same old relationship issues as always, Gina is in one of her quiet moods and I’m still stone-cold sober. And worrying about a barman who I’ve never met before.

The barman came back with a rag and wiped the spill. His hands were still shaking. Tabby stared after him. She hoped he was okay.

Crazytime

I’m going out to a bar, and it’s going to be KER-AYZIE!

Yeah. No. I mean, yes, I’m going out to a bar with my cousin and a couple friends. But no, I am not leaving the house with that kind of attitude. I think I skipped over the PAR-TAY stage of puberty and jumped right into middle-age, because my favorite pastime is curling up on the couch with my kitties and a book.

Work has been insane, and my creative juices need to be refreshed. Strangely, the way for me to do that is to just sit my butt down on my chair and WRITE. I haven’t been writing my work-in-progress for a few days, and I really miss it. I know that Sunday, my birthday, I’ll finally have the time to get back into it, as well as catch up on all you lovely people’s blogs.

But for now, I’m going out. Maybe I’ll come back with some fun stories, maybe not. The thing I’m looking forward to most right now? The fact that I don’t have to set an alarm for tomorrow morning. Now THAT’S a cause for celebration.

A-Trane

A-Trane, the famous and successful jazz club, has free jam sessions every Saturday night. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say Sunday morning, though. The jam session starts officially at midnight-thirty, but the show before it doesn’t usually end until one o’clock or later.

The night in question was just another Saturday night or Sunday morning, and the bar was jam-packed. Every kind of human creature above the age of eighteen was there. There were university students dressed sensibly, and those that dressed more provocatively. There were couples in their late twenties, yuppies who drank red wine and tilted their heads toward each other intimately. There were groups of middle aged men and women, friends out for a night of good music, good beer, and good company. And then, of course, there were musicians, who closed their eyes to listen properly or tapped their feet as well as they could to the fast paced or gentle jazz beats.

If smoking were still allowed, the place would be full of the blue tendrils of softly curling cigarette smoke, the smell of illegal substances, and the pungent scent of cigars. In lieu of all that, there was chatter, a strong smell of wine, spirits and beer, and an atmosphere that was as thick as the smoke would have been.

The main shows were over for the night. Many left, but just as many piled in, until the blonde lady at the front told them that the room was full and they’d have to wait. The ones who stayed after the main shows were the real enthusiasts – either for the music or for the alcohol – and they kept their seats jealously as the others crowded behind and between the small wooden tables. When a chair was vacated, someone inevitably pounced to take it, even if it meant that they’d be looking at the saxophonists extremely large feet from quite up close.

So this night at the A-Trane was the same as any other, perhaps. But it felt unique, incredibly cultural and grown-up for the two shy teenagers sitting close together. An older couple had offered them the seats right in front of them as well as the table. The teenagers thanked them profusely, and sat down eagerly. They sipped their beer when the nice waitress brought it over, and waited with anticipation for the jam-session to begin. Both were under the age of twenty and had never gone to a proper, indoor jazz club, although they’d both been to the jazz-bar in their hometown that featured live music once in while. Neither of them were experts on the genre, but both enjoyed it very much.

The seats they’d been given were a table’s length away from each other, so their knees touched lightly, but they couldn’t hold hands or cuddle. They sent happy looks at each other and smiled, thanking their lucky stars that they weren’t too close to the stage, and could actually see the drummer’s face when he got up to introduce himself.

“We’re Naked Jazz,” he said, his voice low and sexy as he leaned into the microphone. He was short, bald and rail-thin, but his voice was charismatic, and his hands were energetic and powerful, clutching the drumsticks that he was going to use in mere moments. “We’re going to start off the jam-session with four or five original tunes, and then we’ll open up the stage to the many talented musicians here tonight.”

And so they started. Their music was fast and furious at the start, messy in the way that jazz can sound before you pick out the melody and the fluidity of the tune. The bassist was dancing with his big instrument, moving back and forth as if it were a woman he was caressing. He smiled widely every time they all hit a particularly fun part, and looked like he was having the time of his life. He was bald as well, but muscly and stocky, giving an aura of danger about him when he wasn’t grinning.

The pianist looked like a real grown-up despite his dreadlocks. They were tied neatly behind his head, which had a nice gray beret on it. His glasses looked very much like a science geek’s specs, and he head a wedding ring on one of his dark hands. He played like the devil, jumping a bit off his seat sometimes and nodding his head to the music.

The trumpet player looked like he was right out of college, uncomfortable in his skin and onstage until he played. He did this extremely well, his precision perfect, his technical skills flawless, but amazingly every note still had soul.

The drummer who introduced his band-members with respect before was playing just as hard and well as the rest. His lips puckered and receded as he made the beat sounds softly to himself. His right hand held the drumstick in that way that looks so awkward but is the staple of a jazz drummer. He moved fast, bouncing on his stool and closing his eyes often. He never missed a beat, and drummed without stop, loudly when needed and so quietly sometimes that the cymbals sounded far off and haunting.

Finally, the saxophonist joined them for a couple of tunes. He was extremely tall, big footed, and his saxophone looked too small in his big hands. He played like a madman, eyes shut tight when he soloed, but meeting the trumpet player’s gaze when they started to play together, one giving a question while the other gave the answer.

Over an hour after Naked Jazz started, the teenagers, starry-eyed and happy, left the bar before the real jam session began and other musicians came onstage as they chose and joined in. It was two-thirty in the morning, and they were nearing exhaustion as they walked home together.

For the A-Trane, it was just another successful Saturday night. For the teenagers, it had been magical.

When It’s Hard to Write

It’s hard to write when you’re on a bus, holding a notebook in your lap.

It’s hard to write when you’re so tired that you can barely keep your eyes open and your brain feels like it’s melting.

It’s hard to write when you feel like you have nothing to say, or at least nothing new.

It’s hard to write when you’re not feeling well and your hand is shaking as you hold the pen or type.

It’s hard to write when you’re in a noisy and dark bar.

It’s hard to write when someone’s watching over your shoulder.

And, apparently, it’s hard to write when you’re on vacation and spending precious time with people you rarely see.

Farmer’s Market Singers

When we got there, the bar was already in full swing, open to the elements, right in the middle of a little junction of the tight avenues inside Farmer’s Market. The occupants ranged from just turned twenty one to middle aged to elderly gatherings still enjoying the gargle on a Friday evening.

The stage was low, the microphone basic, but the speakers were more than adequate. The man who was on stage when we happened upon the place was bald, beer-bellied and had to be at least sixty. He was just wrapping up a song to applause and cheers.

The DJ announced that next up was Phil, and from the table right in front of us rose a large, pink, white-haired man with a tight shirt and a smile stretched across his meaty face. He looked to be  at least seventy, but when he started to bellow into the mike, he had the vigor of a much younger man. He sang like Louie Armstrong, with a growl and a grin.

An extremely inebriated but happy man in his thirties followed. He was tall, maybe a surfer-dude turned corporate but out for a fun evening with friends. He sang the B-52’s Rock Lobster perfectly, with added dance movements for the long pauses between the sung lines. We cheered like crazy, and I even managed to snap a few photos of a father dancing with his two-year old daughter, teaching her how to turn under his arm and then swinging her around in the air.

We left to buy lemons, and when we returned we were rewarded with the best yet. She was tall, with baggy pants and tennis shoes, a jeans jacket hugging her thin form. Her hair was blonde-going-grey, and she sang like an angel. One hand casually hanging in her pocket and the other holding the microphone, she sang sweetly in a country-singer’s sweet but slightly rough tones, and her partner and friend cheered and took pictures of her while she sang. The crowd went nuts once she was done, clapping and cheering.

When the next man started singing about Jesus being right for him – and we weren’t sure whether he was being sincere or ironic – we decided to leave. But my mind is still swimming with the variety of cultures represented in the crowd, the different age groups and social dynamics that could be found there. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to watch the karaoke at Farmer’s Market on this cool Friday night.

The Jazz Bar

The jazz bar is situated off of the main pavilion where the common pubs are located. The pubs on the main drag are all basically the same – crowded, smoky, electronic music blasting too loudly from the speakers. The jazz bar, however, is different. It’s roomier, more spread out, with tables both inside and out. They’re all simple affairs, black plastic tops on stainless steel legs, the chairs matching them. The main difference, of course, is the music: live jazz. The musicians change, sometimes during the course of one evening, but they make up the same basic grouping: a drummer, a bassist, a pianist, sometimes a guitarist or a trumpeter, occasionally the odd harmonica-player. The atmosphere at the jazz bar is relaxed. Although the live music is loud, louder than you would expect, conversation is still an option.

Saturday night found the jazz bar full to bursting – yet still, the space outside didn’t feel cramped. Four young men and a young woman, none of them long out of adolescence, shared a table. Four of them sat and sipped their beers while the fifth slurped his strawberry-melon-smoothie moodily, wishing he hadn’t made himself the stupid promise of zero-alcohol-for-a-month. They sat and listened to the music, one of the youths, who was on his break from drumming, occasionally made snide comments about the trumpet player who was blasting his sounds into the air. The conversation went back and forth, encompassing everything from the latest party to the correct technique of asking a girl out to dietary tips to tattoos.

The group was clearly comfortable together. The solitary girl, who wasn’t a regular addition to the group as she was the girlfriend of the curly, black-haired young man, was welcomed among them and felt surprisingly at home with them. She talked easily and laughed readily, not fearing being ridiculed and not taking to heart the light teasing that is often a single girl’s lot among boys. It dawned on her that this, too, she would leave soon. Oh, she would be back, of course she would, but the experience was all the more precious because she knew it might not be repeated for a good long while.

One-Eyed Steve: Part III

“Ah, my little ones, and so, all atremble, I went out into the inn and walked up to the barkeep. The innkeeper always worked at the bar, and half the people in town didn’t know he was the owner of the inn, so friendly a barkeep he was. So, as I said, I walked up to him and told him what One-Eyed Steve had said. I told him the eye-patch man was there to see him and that he better come right quick ’cause I’d left him in the kitchen alone. The innkeeper, instead of lookin’ confused, looked at me with a fierce look and asked if I was sure of what I was sayin’. This was a big man, mind, and I was already feelin’ faint from bein’ so close to that old pirate in the kitchen.

I told the innkeeper that One-Eyed Steve was in the kitchen as sure as the nose was on my face and the sun rises in the East. He wiped his hands on his cloth then, and he took me by the elbow, takin’ me back to the kitchen with him. Steve was still there, and he was pale and sweatin’ again. The innkeeper let me go after orderin’ me to put a kettle on with boilin’ water. As I was doin’ that, I got to hear what the men were talkin’ about.

‘What is it, old man? Is she alright?’ the innkeeper was speakin’ quietly with Steve, and he seemed worried. Steve answered him in the saddest voice I ever heard a man use.

‘Nay. Nay, brother. She left us in the night.’

The innkeeper froze for a momen’, and then he was huggin’ Steve fiercely, and I could hear both of the men weepin’. Me, a boy of thirteen, couldn’t believe these two grown men was cryin’ – I still thought that men didn’t cry back then, and I damned well hid my tears from anyone if ever I had ’em.

‘She had a long life, Steve, and she was happy with ye. Ye helped her and nursed her and fed her and cared for her when no one knew or cared about her anymore.’ the innkeeper spoke into Steve’s shoulder, still weepin’.

‘Aye. She was the best mother a pair like us could ask for, and she tried to be strong till the very end.’ Steve was holding the innkeeper up now, and he was speakin’ fiercely into his face as the innkeepe  seemed about to fall over with his grief. ‘I’m sorry ye didn’t get to see her, brother, but she sends her love. She told me so right before she closed her eyes and went to sleep.’

My kettle was boilin’ by now, but I didn’t hardly notice it. Only when the whistle of it made the men look up and remember me did I get the tea and mugs. I splashed some strong stuff into each of their teas – they seemed to need it, and I wanted to do somethin’ to help ’em if I could. Eventually, as you may imagine, the innkeeper had to go back and be barkeep and work the night out. Seems no one knew that the mother was still around – she was in bad shape, or so I came to understand later, and she didn’t want people to see her.

My ducklings, don’t fret, this isn’t the endin’ of my story. After this sadness, I wanna tell ye what happened after the innkeeper left the room. I was still in there, continuin’ to wash dishes as I was told to, when the innkeeper dried his eyes and went back out. Steve was still there, and he spoke to me again.

‘Bet you thought I was  a villain and a pirate, eh boy?’ he growled at me. I wasn’t so frightful of him anymore – seein’ a person weep can do that to ye. I looked him square in that one blue eye of his, and I said ‘I thought so, sir, but now I know ye ain’t no pirate. Yer a noble man, takin’ care of yer ma like that.’ One-Eyed Steve looked at me as if he’d never seen a boy before.

‘Well, boy,’ he said, a bit of his wicked grin comin’ back. ‘Ye better not tell anyone a thing about tonight. Nay, won’t do to have the boys comin’ to look for me house. I’m fine with bein’ feared. But as a reward,’ and here he started to laugh a little to himself, ‘as a reward let me share a second secret with ye. Aye, me ma was decent as they come. Still, she had her wild notions when I was a lad, just like any ma.’

And then he lifted his eyepatch. Instead of a mangled scar, instead of an empty socket, instead of even a blind and staring eye – all of which I’d imagined to meself – instead of any of those, there was a reular eye under that patch. The skin around it was whiter, bein’ hidden under that patch, and the color was brown instead o’ being ice-blue like the other one, but it was a seein’ eye alright.

‘Ma seemed to think the boys might laugh at me bein’ all dog-eyed like this,’ said One-Eyed Steve. ‘And then I jus’ got used to bein’ a pirate to people.’ He put the eyepatch back over that normal eye, and left the kitchen the same way he came in.

Which only goes to show, my ducks, that ye never know. Ye really never know abou’ a man by his looks. Not ever. And don’t ye forget it.”

The three little figures on the carpet uncurled themselves from the positions they’d kept during the long story. As soberly as any statesman, they all proclaimed that they “will remember, Papa!” and then were scooted off to bed. The man, though, sat for a while longer in front of the fire, and thought about One-Eyed Steve.

Metal

Every time is like the first time. Palms shaking and sweaty, heart pounding away in my chest so loudly that I’m sure everyone can hear, my face getting red with fear.  The gloved hands approaching my face, that long needle covered in plastic drawing nearer and nearer. Just like every other time, I screw my eyes shut tight, and hold my breath.

Pain, exquisitly sharp and focused, as the needle goes through the skin, breaking it completely. Another burst of pain as the needle is taken out and the metal bar is put in. Until this moment, it is all the same every single time.

But after… Well, after is a different story. After the piercing process is done, I can breath a sigh of relief and smile, looking at the newest metal piece in my body. I carry the dull ache of the new hole all day and the days that follow, but it doesn’t bother me so much anymore, because I’ve done it before and I know how to deal with it. It’s the fear of the pain that makes those few minutes on the piercer’s table so awful every time.

My total count is now eleven, three in the face, eight in the ears. Eleven is a good number.