A man walks into a bar—but it isn’t a bar: it’s many bars. It’s bar after bar of a ten-page score that in the next eight minutes will loosen a pinched city man in the front row clear through the folds of his skin, like steam from a mare’s lips penetrating the deep creases of an outstretched pale palm. The boy slouched at the exit will pull his hands free of his pockets, tuck his long purple bangs behind his ear, and lean his head against the door frame with his eyes closed. The fat lady with too much perfume and eyelashes like spider legs will cry tears that dig channels down her cheeks, parting the layers of powder and rouge, trickling at long last into the forgotten delta cleavage of her heaving chest.
The man in the bars leaps from the treble clef and begins. In the score’s opening bars, he walks the quarter notes—strong, even beats, even steps, one foot in front of the other, embarking on a journey. When the man reaches the first eighth notes halfway down the sheet, he ascends and descends them jauntily, like Gene Kelly in the wet street, touching his shiny shoes on curbs and benches, in black and white and gray, with a crisp click and a tap and a drag. Through the mist of a one beat rest he leaps to a whole note and grabs an invisible lamppost, where he hangs from the tick tock clock, the tire under the elm tree, the pole of his zebra on the merry-go-round, as he twirls the umbrella at his side.
Turn the pages, though, and he drinks the notes in the bars, staccato shots of whiskey slammed back with a chin to the ceiling and a pound on the counter. A few bars more and his notes play grainy movies on a white wall—boys howling into a black night, smashing mailboxes with a baseball bat out the back end of a pickup truck; kids throwing coke bottles side arm against the cracking bricks of old city hall; girls skinny dipping in a swimming hole, bare breasts buoyant and soft as jellyfish in a changing tide.
Just when the fat lady sighs—when sound and sense are too much of what was and what might be—the man in the bars enters a new one, unplugs the projector, brings out the black coffee, pouring long hot streams from his tied whole note thermos. From it, he pours out melancholy and apron strings, each note a rung on a slowly climbed ladder. With uneven steps he climbs to the top, where he’s winded, a clarinet, a bassoon, a loon making a hollow call in the stillness.
And when he enters the last bar of the score, with sweat on his brow and his nostrils flaring, the man in the bars leaves them with this: a swoop and a scoop, that finishing fermata note, cradled in his arms. It’s the lingering touch of a lover leaving, a pure and singular note, held evenly, gently pulsating, like fingers tip to tip, arms extending, until at long last the man in the bars departs, leaving a spent white sheet falling between them to the floor, with only the smoky air left to fill all that punctured space.
This piece first appeared in Drunken Boat