Hudson Tesoriero (Griffith University, Australia)
I lie in bed, staring at the ceiling. Water-stains form amorphous shapes underneath the paint. I feel like a drink. It’s unusual that I do—I’m not a big drinker or very social. But tonight’s different. I feel different. Pessimism and paranoia absent. Feeling good despite the long day of call-centre monotony. Tiny desk, air-conditioning, instant-coffee. A steady stream of abuse from strangers. Now I want a beer and to simply sit and listen to music, to be around other people and hear them discuss their days: how their work is going, their plans for the weekend. Time to get up. My room is littered with discarded outfits, walls lined with dog-eared paperbacks and records. It’s got a feature wall, the feature being a cork-board decorated with posters and band cut-outs. Lately I’ve been listening to Norwegian Black Metal and Jazz, the somnolent hypnotic kind. My taste is pretty eclectic, but those genres have more in common than you’d think. I live with my friends near the beach. They all work more hours than I do and have serious girlfriends now. I doubt they’d want to come out. All on their way to better things. Not me—stationary, dull. I need to aspire to something. I need a plan. I need a cold beer. And so I leave the house.
I walk because I walk everywhere. It’s cheaper than the psychologist visits I barely afford, and I don’t own a car. I like long walks, distances to the point of ridiculous. Zoning out. Music blaring. Meditation. Thinking deeply or not at all. The bar is a hole-in-the-wall type. I read about it online. Walking, I pull my wool beanie over my ears. I hope I’m dressed alright. Jeans, sweat-shirt, and my favourite boots. The website said nothing about a dress-code. I just hope it’s not too classy, not too yuppie. I hate anyone that’s successful. Anyone with money or goals. Bitter, I imagine myself like Emperor Nero: dancing and strumming the lyre as Rome burned. A neon sign sears the dark ahead. I’ve arrived.
The place is small but not cramped, with maybe ten people sitting at the few tables inside. Intimate. No one sits at the bar itself. There’s a stage at the back with a stool in its centre. An acoustic guitar rests against the stool. The instrument beaten and scuffed, but not ruined, by the wear—suggesting veteran status. I imagine blood soaking into its wood, hairline grooves flowing red along the grain, the guitar expanding and pulsating like a heart. A large, creased flag is pinned up as a backdrop. Every performer an ostensible nationalist.
I order a beer from the bartender. He’s tall, bearded.
‘That’ll be six bucks man.’ He pours the drink while looking past me, mouthing along to the sparse lyrics of the house music—ambient, inoffensive—playing from the stereo behind him. I pay with coins from my wallet. He drops them into the register.
I sit down and gesture to the stage. ‘Did someone perform tonight?’
The bartender meets my eye for a few seconds before replying. ‘Nah, they haven’t started yet. Should be on soon, but.’ He slides my beer in front of me.
I take a sip. Dry. Not cold enough. Not nearly as good as the one in my head. ‘They good?’
The bartender scratches his face. ‘I’m not sure. The boss booked it.’
I nod and drink my beer. Nothing you ever get in life is as good as what the imagination has to sell. I look around the bar between sips. It’s plain and minimal, suggesting nothing. I finish my drink and order a second, paying on card now. A table is leaving. Two couples; I watch them exit. They look happy, and I wonder if I could ever be like that—comfortable, content, self-assured. My psychologist said I have to overcome my if-then mentality. If I get a better job, then I’ll be satisfied. If I get a girlfriend, then I’ll feel secure. Happiness comes from within, apparently. I’m supposed to practice mindfulness. Well, I’m here. I’ve got a drink. I’m alive. I look back to the stage. Nothing. I rub my eyes and yawn, the beer already putting the zap on me. Then there’s a man there picking up the guitar. That was fast. Or was it? I don’t know, I can’t handle my drink. He has grey slick-back hair, and a suit that would have fit better ten years ago. He looks familiar, but I can’t place him. I stare at the creased road-map of his face. Was he famous? Surely not if he’s playing somewhere like this. He sits down, doesn’t introduce himself, and starts playing. The bartender fades out the house music. The people at the tables don’t look up, too engaged with each other. I recognise the song but can’t recall its title. His baritone is distinct and loud, no microphone. He croons.
‘Leaping into the abyss
It seemed so appealing
Until I survived the fall.’
Eyes glazed over, he looks into none of our faces, instead dwelling inward—mining for some deep inner-spring where the spirit flows. He plays song after song in succession. Minutes pass. He starts to flicker, fading in and out like a television screen being tuned for channel-reception. I guess the light above him is broken, but, when I look up at the ceiling, it’s fine. Strange. My eyes are glued to him. The guitar parts, the vocal melodies, I know them. But it’s not a cover-set. The people at the tables look up now and then but aren’t really listening. They hardly notice him at all. The bartender checks his phone, then opens a dishwasher from the adjacent kitchenette—if a sink and tiny stovetop can be called a kitchenette. He unloads some glasses, wiping them down with a tea-towel before putting them in the fridge. A song finishes with a double-chorus. A definite hit, but from where? It’s followed by a scattered, impersonal applause. Feigned decorum. He tunes his guitar for a second and then addresses us.
‘This’ll be my last number. Thank you.’ His voice is different. It doesn’t sound like anyone I’ve ever heard. It’s older. Thicker. The man has lived. He goes into his final song. I know it, at least I’m pretty sure. I swear it’s on the soundtrack of a movie I’ve seen before, or maybe I once heard it on the radio. I tap along on the bar. It starts to feel warmer inside, hazier, edges blurring—a Vaseline-smeared out-of-focus, amber and black. He’s flickering again. I close my eyes and lose myself in the song, trying to search for it in my mind. An astronaut adrift in the galaxy of my memory. I can’t find the puzzle piece. I can’t name the song. And then it’s all over. I open my eyes and the singer has disappeared into the small room behind the stage. Feeling odd, I order another beer. Already a bit drunk, I tell myself it’ll be my last. The bartender looks at me. I raise an eyebrow.
‘So, he was pretty alright huh?’ Another couple stand and head out.
‘Yeah, not bad.’ He gives a polite but non-committal smile. I don’t think he even watched for a minute. He raises his voice, addressing everyone inside: ‘last call.’ The house music is made softer, and the lights are brightened. The last table gets up to leave, and the bartender goes to check something behind the stage. Now there’s only me. I hum that final song, resolving to get up and leave. Before I can, the singer sits down next to me. He’s no bigger than I am but seems massive. His presence carries weight. ‘You want another drink?’ He stares through me with grey eyes.
I run my hand through my hair. ‘Alright, sure.’ I don’t really, but I’m intrigued by the singer. The bartender returns cradling new bottles of spirits. He stocks them on the shelf and turns to face us.
‘Alright, guys, what’ll it be?’
‘A whiskey, with a little water.’ The singer speaks with a softness. The bartender looks to me. I hesitate for a second, thinking. ‘A gin and soda, thanks.’
The bartender nods and starts making the drinks. He’s fast; wanting to go home, no doubt. The singer looks me up and down but says nothing. I feel awkward and pretend to focus on the different bottles behind the bar. The bartender puts the drinks in front of us, and the singer hands him a twenty-dollar bill from a battered wallet. The money is old, not like faded and crumpled, but a different style of bill—an older issue. The bartender takes the twenty and stares at it for a moment, bringing it close to his face and squinting. He shrugs and puts the note in the till. I look into the singer’s sepia drink and for a moment imagine blood again. Marbled streaks of red float under the surface, like tadpoles waiting to be fed. He catches my gaze and looks forward again, contemplating something. The bartender walks out from behind the bar to start stacking chairs on tables, and I steal another glance at the singer. There’s something sad about him, something melancholy, but I can’t decide what. He exhales as if he’s listening to me think, and points to my glass. ‘How’s your drink?’
‘Yeah, good. Thanks man.’
He waves his hand. ‘You’re welcome.’
I lift up my glass and we cheers. ‘So,’ I begin.
He takes a sip and then another, as if he’s concentrating very hard.
‘What’s your name?’ I feel stupid asking and try to give a look that communicates this.
His lips curve into a half smile, giving him the appearance of a haggard clown. ‘Don’t you know?’
I force a laugh, but his expression doesn’t change. ‘I’m not sure. I mean, I recognised your songs.’
He laughs. ‘Really? I didn’t think anyone would.’
I’m confused. ‘What do you mean? Why not?’
He looks at me, serious now, crow’s feet like fault lines in the corner of his pale eyes. ‘Well, because they’re old, kid’.
‘Yeah, but so what?’
He shakes his head and says nothing. We drink in silence for a while. I feel warmer and numb. I speak. ‘So how’d you end up getting the gig here then?’
He puts his glass down on the bar and stares straight ahead at the liquor shelf. ‘It’s just something I have to do.’ He sighs and turns to me.
I can’t help but smirk. The gin blocking my filter.
‘Who’s forcing you?’
He looks paler now, less impressive. He ignores my question.
‘Finish your drink, kid.’
I shrug and down the last of my gin.
He gets up off his stool and puts his hand on my shoulder. His grip is firm. ‘It was a pleasure.’ He heads behind the stage, the light above him flickering again.
I call out to his back. ‘Hey, you gonna play here again soon?’
He turns to face me, then looks the bar up and down like it’s the first time he’s seen it. ‘Maybe not here, but somewhere. Always somewhere.’ Then he’s gone. The bartender comes behind the bar again and kills the house-music. He collects our glasses, and I notice that the singer’s is full. I watched him down the whole thing, but there’s a full drink here. I must be drunker than I realise. The lights shine brighter. Always somewhere. I repeat it to myself as I leave. Always somewhere. I walk home in the cold night, humming a tune I can’t name.
Hudson Tesoriero is a PhD creative writing student. He is currently working on his first novel focusing on the millennial experience and cross-cultural settings. He has had multiple short stories published through Griffith University, as well as various culture magazines and online journals.