The hookah bar hosts open mic night every Thursday, where eclectic vagabonds with dying guitars stare at the ceiling with mouths long enough to stretch to the floor. Strings pluck sadness as a state of defiance; voices bob in and out of cherry and lemon smoke. A man with low cheekbones and a fedora climbs on stage and sits on a paint-splattered stool. He taps the microphone; the reverberation makes his mustache move. His guitar—a Jasmine Dreadnought that looks like he met it downriver, re-strung it, and rubbed it dry with tree bark—releases sullen notes from its sound hole.
Tom Waits. Ol’ 55. It is haunting and effective. I want to follow him back to his spot under a bridge where he keeps warm with peppermint schnapps and curls up next to a stray dog named Earle. I want to wake him up while it is still dark and sing Neil Young until the sun warms our bones.
When he finishes, the man retreats to the bar, sits next to me, and orders a beer with Canadian nickels.
“Ol’ 55,” I say.
“What? Oh yeah, man. What a fucking masterpiece,” he replies. “They don’t make songs like that anymore. I’m Cody, brother.”
“Well, Eli, you play an instrument?”
“Harmonica. Guitar, a little.”
“Right on, man,” Cody says to me with a smile that’s more gums than teeth. “C’mon, let’s fire up a hookah.”
We find an alcove and sit on seats that look like Afro-Cuban, hembra bongo drums. An Aimee-Mann-meets-Edie-Brickell voice oozes from a small girl with a large mole who crouches over the microphone like she’s covering a secret. We order a blueberry-mint hookah and drink from faded beer cans. I tell him his voice could transcend boundaries, immediately regretting the sentiment. He tells me I should get up there; I politely decline, but all I want to do is fill the air with Nick Drake’s Parasite or Phil Och’s When I’m Gone. I fend off the paralyzing anxiety with a long pull from the hookah. The subject passes.
Hours dance by. Cody and I are the only ones left in the place. He hands me his downriver guitar and shoves me on stage. I sit on the blotted stool and close my eyes.
Whatever comes out of me flows in ripples, then waterfalls, then drops like snow and kicks up like autumn leaves. I exhale deep, profound regret for a life unlived. Every note is part of a long rope attached to an anchor that rakes along the bottom of the sea. My eyes search the back of my head and my fingers slide across barbed metal tightropes. A string breaks. My eyes open.
Cody looks at me with eyes as big as 45’s. He has the student, teacher, manager, and producer stare all rolled into one. He kicks his shoes off and digs his socked toes deep into the cracked wooden floor. The bartender stops putting away glasses and stands with her hands on her hips, a smile as wide as sin.
“You’re Thursdays,” she says from the back of the room.
“Excuse me?” I reply.
“You’re Thursdays, man, you’re fucking Thursdays! Honestly, I haven’t heard music like that since…shit, man, I haven’t heard it. I need you to open Thursdays, can you handle that?”
“I don’t know…”
“Eli, brother, whatever you just did there, that could make you a whole hell of a lot of money,” Cody added. “Now don’t get all nervous and itchy on me now, friend. That’s something special you ain’t allowed to keep to yourself. Daphne, you did heard that, right?”
“I heard it.”
“Sorry about your string, Cody. I got a little carried away.” I stumble off the stage and hand the guitar over to him. He hesitates like it’s no longer his to hold. He runs his fingers along the remaining strings as if he was talking to it, relating to it.
That night in a dream I’m back at the hookah bar. The place is gone, burned to ashes. I am holding Cody’s guitar but the strings are missing. I’m the guy living under the bridge with a stray dog, an itchy blanket, and a head full of storms. Sometimes I find myself here, sitting among ruins, so far downriver that I cannot find my way upstream. I wake up between the two worlds, unable to decipher the real from the dream until the feelings fade. It’s Friday morning, way before the sun stretches. My head feels like a tin can with loose pennies knocking around inside. I remember last night, but downplay the authenticity of the recognition I received from strangers.
I can’t fall back asleep so I grab a flashlight and wade through the elephant ears lining the side of the house until I reach the symmetrically square backyard. The shed sits abnormally in the middle of the yard like an island in a kitchenette. The shed hasn’t been opened in months. The key still fits the lock, but the door feels heavier. The smell of soot and storage is enough to cause flashbacks. But the rug is still there: six by eight Oriental with deep burgundies and a pattern haunted with off-whites and coral blues that look like cheetahs morphing into space invaders. Its weather and fade are a divine palmistry, each line characterizing a connected past. It was on the floor when the fire took the walls. It frayed at the edges but never burned. Everything else burned.
I lay out the rug on the front porch, place a folding chair in the center of it, and spend most of the morning re-stringing the old Gibson in bare feet. My toes navigate the patterns, each intricacy holding an exciting sadness. Sitting in the middle of the rug does not keep me from its edges.
I arrive early for open mic night, guitar strapped to my back, rug under one arm. Cody is already there, obsessively checking the stage, the stool, the microphone.
“Magic man!” Cody yells.
Daphne pops up from under the bar, runs to me, and hugs me as if we are lovers. She cups the sides of my face and looks deep into my averting eyes.
“Tonight we change the world through music,” she tells me.
“No pressure,” I reply, turning red and slinking from her grasp. Cody grabs the rug and carries it onstage. He lays it out and gums a smile.
“Let’s get you liquored up.”
The place fills up quickly. The beers begin to take shape and liquid courage sets in, so I make my way to the stage to the stool in the center of the rug, sling the guitar strap across my shoulder, and let the Gibson hang like a ghost. I slip my shoes off and run my big toe around the pattern, while patrons watch and wonder if I’m all there. Truth is, I’m not, and I hope to find a portal. A purgatory between music as an art form and memories as a weapon. I start to play and I feel a heat rising around me; I hear the screams in the other room. I can’t get to her. I touch the doorknob and it sears my palm. I collapse and cough and gasp, unable to call out for help. She is stuck and I can’t get to her. I can’t save her. I remember wondering if I finished my cigarette, if I remembered to run the dishwasher, when was the last time we made love. I remember sirens; I recall the news, but not the months of crippling death afterward. I sing to her in wails and moans. Every sheet of music I ever wrote floods the room and flies around the bar, scraping the floors and the ceiling until they turn to ash in the bowls, pass as smoke through the windscreens and filter through water basins to be inhaled deeply into the bellies of man.
A string breaks. I open my eyes. The audience is transfixed; pairs of hands are outstretched to lift the frayed edges of the rug as if to search for a hidden world underneath it. I scan the room for her, but it did not bring her back. I’ll try again next week.
"Whatever comes out of me flows in ripples, then waterfalls, then drops like snow and kicks up like autumn leaves. I exhale deep, profound regret for a life unlived. Every note is part of a long rope attached to an anchor that rakes along the bottom of the sea. My eyes search the back of my head and my fingers slide across barbed metal tightropes."