by Blake Sanz
From Spring 2018
I knew this guy back at Loyola, Jason. He was a musical genius, but we didn’t figure it out until we started listening to his mumbles. He’d be walking down the dormitory hall to the bathroom when a door behind him would squeak open, and to himself he’d say, “D flat.” Or the water fountain at the end of the stairs would whine as someone bent to drink from it, and he’d whisper, “A sharp.” At some point, we picked up on it and someone asked him about it. He was tic-ridden, insular almost to the point of social incapacity, but if you stuck to questions about music, you couldn’t get him to shut up. You probably wouldn’t understand him, either, but you could have a ball just listening to him go.
That’s how we found out about his uncanny ear for rhythm. He could time a minute, precisely. Haldo, my roommate, had discovered this one slow Saturday afternoon on our wing of the dorms, and sometimes he’d gather Jason and the rest of us round the room before going out. “You’re not gonna believe this shit,” he’d say. Then, he’d yell GO and start the timer on his watch. Jason would affix his eyes to the ceiling like a cat watching a spider. Those of us who’d seen it before, we ignored his stone-still posture and complained about our classes and professors. Others joked about bringing him out with us so we could show him off to girls at the bar, as if proximity to genius made us worthwhile hookups. We knew he wouldn’t come. He spent all his free time in the music building practicing. There was a chance you could see him walking back to the dorms from a practice room on a Sunday morning if you were up and around then. He’d be teasing out a rhythm with his hands as he walked, making drum noises and smiling to himself when he got the rhythm right.
In a shrill shout, Jason would yell out STOP! Haldo would kill the timer. Every time I witnessed this, it read exactly 1:00. Once, when a jealous honors kid suggested that he’d just honed the stunt for show, I asked him to time 2:23, and he marked it on the dot.
That year especially, those kinds of people inspired me, dorm-mates not just with talent, but a vision for how to use it. Jason understood his gift. He lived it. Myself, I’d moved from small-town Louisiana to New Orleans, and I was trying on the dream my uncle had saddled me with (business school), and though I took to the calculus of it right away, I wondered what good it would do. I gathered from business classes that the point was to problem solve, to learn what leads to wise decision-making in solving the puzzle of ethical profit. But solve the problems of what kind of enterprise? Make money doing what? And yet, Uncle Stock paid for college on the condition I major in Business. After eight months of this, I didn’t know anymore if college was for me. Two weeks before the deadline to apply for next year’s housing, I couldn’t decide whether to let the application go unsent. I didn’t tell anyone—not Haldo, not Jason, not even Uncle Stock, who, if he found out, would cut off tuition payments and refuse to talk to me.
End of that term, Jason performed at a student recital on campus. I tried to get Haldo and others to go, with no luck. Popular as Jason was for party tricks, most people had given up on interaction with him beyond a simple, Hey, Minute-Man! shout-out in the hall—this, one of Haldo’s invented phrases. It was meant as a sign of respect for his talent, but also as a sort of self-satisfied put-down—as if they were better people because they knew all the proper connotations of the word dude.
The night of the concert, Haldo forgot I’d mentioned it, said we should go out. I feigned boredom with the same bars we always went to.
“Pussy,” he said. “Don’t worry, bro. I’ll keep an eye out for you.” Girls, he meant. Keith isn’t a social retard, this said. He’s just taking a night off. But I knew if I continued on like this, Haldo would confront me with my anti-social behavior. “You’re not being yourself,” he’d say.
Once the dorm cleared out for the bars, I dressed up in a white Oxford, a pair of grey slacks, and a black tie. I put on a belt and a pair of cufflinks Uncle Stock had given me, slipped on my black dress shoes and sprayed on some cologne. The old man had trained me this way, and despite my desire to break free of his influence, the lesson had stuck: dress up for other people’s big events. For one, he’d explained, it helps them see the importance of what they’re doing. “And for another,” he added, “it helps you see that some moments are more important than others.” As I walked to the recital, I thought about that, painfully aware of my outfit, how stupidly young I must seem for these pretensions. The clothes fit well, though, and I liked the illogical sense they gave me that I might also be bound for something great someday.
Outside the auditorium, music students smoked and laughed. They wore ripped T-shirts and jeans with chains running to their wallets. They looked at my get-up and hushed as I passed. I imagined their snickers once I got inside. As a matter of habit I tried to channel Stock’s attitude—Brush it off! What will those losers be doing in five years? But they were my age. They understood things in a way Stock didn’t. I had an urge to strip off the button-down, tear it into shreds and walk in the auditorium in a white tee like some kind of old fashioned rebel.
I slipped into a middle row, begging for anonymity, but the lights shined bright and everyone sat in plain view. On stage, Jason’s drum kit stood by itself, his drumsticks resting on the stool. In the first row, I saw three kids I recognized. Down a row from me, parents passed judgment on their children’s college progress. Below them sat a man dressed like me. He looked older, with a distinguished quaff of short gray hair. He was a thin man and he had a precise way of picking threads off his sleeve and clasping his hands in front of his knees.
The rebels from outside came in, looking like bad seeds from a James Dean movie. They took five seats right below center stage, just as Jason and two others walked on stage. The trumpeter and bassist acknowledged the rebels in front with points and laughs, but Jason trained his gaze on his drums. He had a gangly, arrhythmic walk that bounced his head up and down and emphasized his height and his thinness. He sat down at his stool and ran the drums through a series of thumps, striking each one with the force of a pro. His movements were crisp and the drums sang beneath his sticks as he tuned them up. The two other musicians conferred, but Jason remained oblivious. The bassist gestured toward him and asked him a question, but he only tightened the fittings on a cymbal and tested its sound. Once he seemed satisfied with its pitch, he looked up, adjusted his glasses, and gave his band mate a firm nod.
At once, all three instruments exploded in a burst of intermingling sound that drew out into a layered, five-note interlude on the horn. The trumpeter kept his gaze fixed straight ahead at a point in the distance as he glided through the key changes. The bassist took his lead from Jason. They played the hook for “Autumn Leaves” and ran through the melody once. The trumpeter took a solo, riffing the tune into a bebop progression that lost the melody. Jason’s steady hand slowed to a metronomic thumping of the bass while the horn’s sound scattered over the auditorium. The trumpeter sprayed a string of atonal notes staccato, and the rebels laughed, threw up their hands in delight. At this, the trumpeter’s eyes smiled. He smoothed out the sound, got back on key. He guided the song back into the familiar melody and ended with a return to the hook. He brought his trumpet down to his side and nodded as the rebels pumped their fists and whooped.
Next, the bassist. A short, rounded boy, his close-cropped brown hair gave him the appearance of a hedgehog. His pudgy cheeks orbited in circles as he soloed, and his face contorted and squinted in an overly jazzy mannerism. He put the bass through a series of syncopated scales, hunching up his shoulders when he hit a high note. Jason kept time with no flourishes. The bassist plucked his way through an uncharted wilderness of notes. When Jason crashed a cymbal, the bassist looked up and knew to end. The rebels pumped their fists. The well-dressed man leaned forward and put his chin in his hands as he watched to see what Jason would do.
And here is what he did: he made me forget that I was anywhere. His thumps and crashes evoked not just the tune’s rhythm, but its melody, too. He riffed off the pattern. He kept the bass drum thumping, sometimes syncopating it to keep the crowd guessing about the underlying rhythm. His mouth jutted open at times, closed suddenly at others. For fleeting moments, there was a rhythm beneath the rhythm, not the kind you could feel like at a rock concert, but one he held somewhere beneath as he tinkered. With the toms and the snare he played with time, made it bend and slow and quicken and melt. At moments in the solo, I felt anxious. At others, overjoyed. My heart raced to his motions and the sound from his kit and the rhythm of it all until a rest paused the song, and even then an echo in my head held the tempo until he picked it up again. After a series of violent rounds about the set, he brought the beat down to a quiet cymbal tap-slide that changed the mood sublimely. He mocked the grace of the moment with a loud and vocal “AHH TS TSSSSS, AHH TS TSSSSS.” Every drumbeat was being dropped in its proper place, which had been unknown and unknowable just nanoseconds before it hit.
Then, after a stint of keeping time like a drum major at halftime (ba-boom, chic, ba-boom chic), he unleashed a flurry of explosive bars that slid up and down a tonal scale that he mimicked with his body language, his shoulders hunching at the high-hat crashes. His sticks were a blur but the sound was precise and impossibly fast. Suddenly, he broke the carnival mid-measure, freezing himself and time in a silence that arrested me. He stood rigid as a downtown mime, his lanky arm extended out above his head, ready to crash down onto a cymbal. His mouth was open and so were his eyes, but he didn’t blink and he didn’t seem to breathe. He held the posture, held it some more. The auditorium, dead silent. We were all waiting. The well-dressed man looked at his watch. Still we waited. Jason kept frozen. When he finally came out of the catatonia and slapped the cymbal and the instrumentalists joined in on the downbeat, the well-dressed man shook his head in amazement. Jason had, of course, held the rest exactly a minute.
The trio cycled once more through the song’s simple refrain, a denouement to let us all catch our breaths. They ended with a calculated whimper, at which point the rebels in front high-fived each other. Though I could only see the side of his face from behind, I could tell that the well-dressed man was smiling ear to ear.
When the show ended, I wanted to say something to Jason. It seemed important to recognize his genius. As I waited in the stands for the crowd to thin out, the rebels talked about their evening plans. They were heading later to some place I’d never heard of called Mermaid Lounge. Jason would be playing there. Just then, the bassist and the trumpeter came out and greeted them. They exchanged secret handshake hugs and inside jokes. Somebody mentioned Jason. Dude killed it, one of them said, and soon they were off.
The well-dressed man climbed up on stage and started talking to Jason. Their conversation looked important, and I decided not to push the point. I exited the auditorium into the quad, stood with my hands in my pockets and looked up at a palm tree swaying in an ominous breeze. The dark sky swirled with clouds, and I became self-conscious of being alone. So I wouldn’t have to watch anyone else see my outfit and wonder who I was, I left before more students walked out of the auditorium. The tropical night air moved clouds overhead in waves, but no wind whispered and no rain fell. I walked over the streetcar tracks in front of campus to the sidewalk abutting Audubon Park. I looked at the darkness of its cycads, listened to the white noise of the fountain at the middle of the lagoon. Soles of my dress shoes clicking on the concrete, I began walking toward downtown, past old money mansions with gas lamps burning on either side of their monstrous, uninviting doors, humming the melody to “Autumn Leaves.”
I thought about the thrill of Jason’s solo and I marveled at the miracle of his talent. I wondered if I had some gift I hadn’t found yet, but mostly I worried what it meant for my life that I didn’t. At the very least, my upbringing had taught me, I had the right perspective on ambition. After my parents died but before I grew up, I’d get Uncle Stock to tell me how I used to run through mom’s den with a pillowcase tucked in my collar like a cape, making siren sounds and screaming I HAVE A DREAM! I’d been watching Adam West, thought I’d found my calling. Those siren sounds? They were my way of imagining the Gotham crime I was coming to bust up. And the screams? My father had a cross-stitched, framed, MLK quote hanging on the wall in the foyer, and it had those words scripted in all caps. Watching from the couch, my parents would ask, ‘What you doing, silly?’ Switching to the voice of Gotham’s would-be victims, I’d respond, ‘THANK GOD ALMIGHTY I AM FREE AT LAST!’”
Some people get weepy when they think about how they didn’t follow their childhood dreams, but come on. What were they? To be a Martin Luther King Batman? For me—and keep in mind I’m now a classic 9-to-5er—the real thing to get weepy about was how I couldn’t come up with a worthwhile dream I could ever really follow in the first place. That year in college, I recalled my MLK Batman childhood to try to keep a reasoned handle on the limits of a person’s future. Still, I ached to be a man of consequence, the way I saw that Jason already was.
I picked up the pace, wanting to find some nowhere place I could call my own for a couple of hours. I wondered what Haldo would think of me now, walking and brooding like this. He’d have a field day. He’d extol the virtues of banality, though he wouldn’t call it that. I took the bend in the avenue for a few miles—beyond the old corner grocery, beyond the Columns Hotel where a cluster of well-dressed socialites on the patio held drinks at an arm’s length and the high notes of their laughter carried to me, beyond the K&B where Haldo would sometimes buy cheap beer, even beyond the statue of the Confederate General high up on his pedestal.
In the CBD, I turned down a side street toward the river. Empty brick warehouses lined the street on either side. I could hear the roar of the ramp to the Mississippi Bridge above me. Walking a block and turning a corner I came to a small building with a tin roof and the door shut. Inside, everything seemed blue and the insulated buzzing of cars flying above on the bridge made me feel like I was underwater. No music played and so few patrons were talking that I could make out each word. A papier-mâché mermaid hung above the bar, overseeing the dive with a self-satisfied malaise that unnerved me. From beneath it, the bartender gave me a glance, but no one else noticed me. I took a seat two stools down from a man in a wrinkled suit nursing a glass of whisky and ordered a beer when the bartender approached, trying to make it sound like I was used to drinking alone. I wasn’t, but I liked the strange and sad camaraderie of the regulars, and I liked imagining that I might one day come to hold a unique position there, as the young lad eager to take his place among the old.
Halfway through my first beer, a man walked in and took the seat between me and the old man with the wrinkled suit. The man nodded at me, then turned to face the bar. He ordered a rum and coke and the old man with the wrinkled suit began to strike up a back-and-forth with him. I tried not to listen, but I couldn’t help it.
“You look like you could use something a little stronger,” the old man said.
“Why is that?” asked the newcomer.
The old man laughed. “Sal Burton,” he said flatly, and extended his hand.
The beer came. “This one’s on me, son,” Sal said.
The newcomer thanked him and began to introduce himself, but Sal interrupted.
“Now, before you start your story—and don’t get me wrong, I want to hear it—I oughtta tell you something straight away, just when you think the world’s out to get you. We all got our stories, and yours ain’t nothing more than the next man’s.” He paused for effect and then added, “Now go on. Tell me.”
“My name is Manuel,” the man said.
“Manuel!” Sal said. “And where you coming from today, Manuel?”
“A little town called Rayne.”
“Just outside Lafayette? What’s your gripe, son?”
“Today, I opened my airbrushing shop.”
“Don’t sound like a sob story yet.”
“There is much for which you can never prepare.”
“Tell me about it.”
“My loan application wasn’t accepted.”
“That’s just a bump in the road.”
“And then, there is my wife.”
“Well, now you got yourself a real problem,” Sal said, and took a sip of whisky.
Manuel elaborated. Out of the violence of Chiapas, he’d emigrated from Mexico, married a local girl from Acadiana, and started an airbrushing business. Sal asked about his wife, and Manuel didn’t respond. They drank to fill the gaps in conversation, and Manuel took time to notice his surroundings. I ducked my head into my beer to avoid appearing like the eavesdropper I’d become. The blue darkness was ingrained so firmly that it seemed to have seized the place and made the bar its own. I couldn’t imagine it in daylight. From where we sat, I could hardly see the bartender, who was at the opposite end serving a weak gin and tonic without expression. No music played. In front of me stood rows of colored liquor bottles, and through them I could see Manuel’s distorted image in the mirror, refracted through bottles of spirits.
“When I was your age,” Sal said, “we thought the world was ending. Those Japs, those Germans. Didn’t seem like we could win. I’d just come back from the Solomon Islands, seen it all. Had a woman I was coming back to.”
Sal took a slow, deliberate gulp.
“But when I got back, I saw her with another man. They were in the D.H. Holmes looking at sofas. You believe that? Sofas! She never knew I was watching. I waited until I saw her take his hand, then I high-tailed it out of there.” He pulled a picture from his wallet, and I chanced a glimpse over my mug. It was an old black and white, a young girl half-smiling out at us. I felt I could almost see her red lipstick showing through the gray. The man’s old fingers held the picture at the corners as Manuel looked on. “A young son of a gun like you’s got a long way to go fore he has any right to start fretting. I know about problems, mister, let me tell you.”
Sal ordered them another round.
“What did you do?” asked Manuel.
“What do you mean?”
“After you saw her with another man.”
“Son, that’s not the kind of thing you can ever really be prepared for, no matter what you know about the chances of it. You may think you’re strong, but you can’t really tell until the hurt comes.
“Me? I left town. Was supposed to start working for the chemical plant, but I just couldn’t. I didn’t know where I was going. Must have driven three days straight. Ended up middle of nowhere, Texas. Got lost near Big Bend, I found out later. Broke down in the high desert, had to walk to a gas station to call a tow truck. I hitched a ride back to the car. By then, there was about five or six cop cars parked, sirens a-flashing, flashlights a-poking in the darkness, dogs sniffing and barking.
“They grabbed me out the truck, started asking questions: was this my car, where was I going? Turns out, I was just a few hundred feet from Mexico. They thought I was some wetback just snuck his way over. They showed me how they followed my footsteps in the dust, how the dogs caught the fresh scent and led them to the spot where I’d peed. Just like a Mexican, they said. You believe that? I had to set them straight. It took a while, since I could see how they’d reckoned it. Once they got it I wasn’t a threat, we started to talking. Most of them boys on the border patrol were ex-military, could spot a soldier and liked finding someone to complain to about the war. We got into it, and then I told them about Adele, and we got to talking.”
Manuel hadn’t touched his drink since Sal started his story. “About what?” he asked.
Sal pulled out his badge, a five-pointed gold star encased in black leather.
“Being a cop don’t make up for losing her, but it’s something. See that sign over there?” Sal pointed to the door. It was an ad for a travel agency with a picture of a woman in a white bikini. Below her, there was a list of destinations: Key West, Bermuda, Saint Croix, Nassau.
“If I was you,” said Sal, “I’d take one of them trips. You never know what the world’ll tell you bout yourself. Ain’t no such thing as a get-rich quick scheme, that’s for sure. But I’m here to tell you: there is such a thing as a get-lost quick scheme. And you, my friend. I ain’t never seen nobody ever so much in dire need of getting lost as you.”
Sal waited for a response. Manuel seemed to be measuring out the meaning of the badge on the bar, but he didn’t let on. He just turned toward the bartender, raised his drink to his lips. I caught his eyes in the mirror. They were unreadable. Manuel put his glass down on the table; he’d hardly taken a sip. He got up, patted Sal on the back, and put a bill on the bar for a tip. With no ceremony, he walked out the door, turning to wink at me as he left. Sal shook his head like he’d expected all of that. He looked at me and threw up his hands. “Who knows? Maybe he’ll be in the Virgin Islands by tomorrow,” he said. “Or else, maybe he ain’t got no business he’s leaving behind and he’s just full of shit. You never can tell around here.”
I didn’t know what to say. “Who knows,” I said.
“Haven’t seen you in here, young fella. What’s a boy like you doing in a dump like this?”
“Just blowing off some steam,” I said.
He laughed. “Blowing off some steam? All right,” he said. I winced at how he judged my youth. “Well, the doctor is out for the day. I’ll drink to your good health, though.”
I raised my mug. He raised his whisky in reply, downed it. The bartender came over and refilled him. “Jeff here—he’ll take care of you tonight,” Sal said. I nodded, and we lingered in silence. He was waiting for me to say something. When I didn’t, he spoke again, looking up at the mermaid: “You know that thing was sculpted by a man who fought with Pancho Villa?”
This was 1999: the odds against his story seemed long. “Really?” I said.
“Can you imagine?” he said, then headed for the bathroom.
I thought about Pancho Villa and I thought about Manuel, but I didn’t want to look at the mermaid again. It creeped me out. Instead, I spun my stool around and looked at the place. In a short time, it had begun to fill up with people not much older than me.
“Band tonight,” the bartender said.
“That’s what I heard,” I said.
“They’re playing as a parting gift for some friend of theirs, some kid moving out to Hollywood. He just got a bite on a screenplay, gonna give it a whirl out there.”
I looked around at the decidedly artistic crowd: boys with tattoos on their necks, girls with sarcastic graphic Tees, short hair and heels, not much makeup. I recognized a few of them from Jason’s recital. I wondered how I came off to them, a kid their age wearing this preppy boy uniform, sitting by myself. An older guy with a mane of uncombed hair carried an amplifier to a corner, which I now realized was a tiny stage. Sal returned from the bathroom.
“It’s about time for me to get out the way,” he said. “It’s the changing of the guard around here. I gotta find another place with old fogies like me.”
I nodded at him.
“You with them?” he asked me, pointing to the art crowd.
“No,” I said.
He looked me up and down. “A bit of advice, son: relax. You’re gonna be fine,” he said. He downed his last shot of whisky in a single gulp, then stumbled out the door.
Soon, a boy a bit older than me with an explosion of curly red hair and a cane with a silver skull on its head walked through the door. He looked about twenty-five and he had a face like a Gremlin. He was all swagger and stumble, his night having moved beyond its pregnant phase, into a carnival-esque birthing of sorts. A boy I recognized as gay came in with a girl who seemed to be his girlfriend. They made witty jokes at the expense of the redhead. He laughed back, accepting their doting and eyeing his chance to get to the bar for a drink. He came up to the empty space next to me and ordered a cocktail I’d never heard of, a Sazerac. I had no doubt that this was the screenwriter. As the bartender made the drink, the screenwriter turned to me, looked me up and down.
“Hey there, cowboy. What’s your game?”
“I don’t know. What—”
“Everybody’s got one, don’t you know?”
The bartender pushed the Sazerac toward the screenwriter. He took it up and raised his glass to me.
“Mermaids, right? Like Shakespeare, right? I fucking love this place.”
“My English professor, he told us once about—”
“What would it be like to actually meet a mermaid?”
I had no idea what he was talking about. I raised my empty glass to him. He looked at it and laughed, then went to join his friends by the door. I turned back to the bartender and braved him a question about the new crowd.
“Does it always change like this?”
“Bands bring their own crew. The writer knows the band tonight, I guess. You want something else?”
“Sure,” I said.
Halfway through my beer, Jason walked in, drumsticks in hand, carrying a tom drum under his arm. Like in the auditorium, he kept his myopic gaze straight ahead. He walked toward the stage and put down his things. The well-dressed man from the concert came in carrying a few more drums and a stool. He put down the drums while Jason went outside to get the rest of his kit. When he’d brought it all inside, Jason went to assembling it. The well-dressed man came up to the empty spot next to me to order a Sazerac.
“I just saw Jason play on campus,” I said.
“Yeah? He’s damn good.”
“Who’s playing with him here?”
“Some guitarist. You know Jason?”
“He lives on my dorm.”
“We just signed him to a deal with Columbia. Anyway, they should be starting, soon as the guitarist gets here.”
I started to ask him about the record deal, but his drink arrived and he went back to help Jason set up. In front of the stage, the screenwriter pointed to his gay friend and laughed, and the woman with them put her hands on her hips and stuck out her tongue. Other friends, rebels from the recital crowd, stood in an arc of banality. Some wore fedoras, others had scarves and stockings. One girl wore a guayabera like she was some kind of old Cuban man. A piercing crackle of thunder hit and then rumbled, sharp and foreboding enough that everyone stopped talking and looked vaguely up at the ceiling. There was general laughter at the simultaneity of the response, and for that moment we were all the same: worried for ourselves and pleased to see that everyone else was, too.
I ordered another beer. Soon, rain started to pound the tin ceiling and more thunder boomed. A boy my age wearing a plaid shirt and jeans arrived to the stage with a guitar case strapped to his shoulder, drenched and carrying an amplifier. He put it down next to Jason’s drum kit, took the guitar out of its case, and began plugging in.
To my surprise, then, Haldo walked in with a blonde wearing a purple mini-skirt and heels. She was the kind of girl I would’ve dreamed of in high school, but now, I saw her as a creature from another dimension. She wore orange-red lipstick and a made-up face, mascara smeared down her cheek from the rain. Haldo had his hand on her ass, which she pretended not to notice. Typical for him, he was dressed in a tight-fitting T-shirt that hugged his biceps and a pair of designer jeans that reached down to his lacquered boots. They were both wet, and I couldn’t imagine what had brought them here. They didn’t notice Jason in the corner, but I saw Haldo notice me and smile, put up his hand and wave. The two of them came over, making their way through the gauntlet of the screenwriter’s friends who looked at them like they were aliens.
“What the fuck are you doing in this dump, man?” Haldo said. He placed the blonde in the empty space next to me. She looked around, never made eye contact with me, even when Haldo introduced her. Melissa.
“Just hanging out,” I said.
Haldo looked at me hard and laughed. “Yeah, right. Just hanging out,” he said. “We were at Quills for a while, but that place sucks, so I told Melissa I’d take her downtown. She wanted to go—what was the name of that place?”
“Yeah. The Metro. Anyway, we got turned around and then the rain came, so we ducked in here. What they got to drink, dude?”
“Sazeracs,” I said.
“Sazeracs? What the fuck is that? How about a Bud Light? What you want, girl?”
“A Tom Collins,” Melissa said to him.
Haldo held up his hand to the bartender, but Jeff didn’t see him. People kept looking at Haldo and Melissa. On stage, the guitarist bent down to ask Jason something. As the bartender came to take Haldo’s order, rain pounded the roof hard. “Say again?” the bartender asked. On stage, Jason smacked a tom drum and the music began. Haldo leaned over the bar and yelled his order once more, right in my ear.
In the midst of the music and the rain, two men came in wearing red hoods and sweatpants and red Air Jordans. They pointed a gun at Jason, and the bar screeched to silence. Jason held the drumstick frozen above him. The gun fired and Jason cried out and flinched. The shot put a hole in the ceiling above him. He looked up at it. His petrified face reminded me of his expression in our dorm room when he would time a minute. The shattering of raindrops on tin was the only sound. One of the hoods gestured with his gun. The screenwriter and his friends backed against the wall. Beside me Haldo moved beside Melissa, putting her body in front of his. She turned her head and put it in his chest, covered her hair with her arms. The two men shouted for everyone to take out their wallets. One took a garbage bag out of his sweatshirt and popped it open with a whipping motion. Haldo flinched. One of the hoods moved from person to person, gesturing for people to throw their wallets in the bag. The other jumped over the bar and pointed a gun at Jeff.
“Come on, Trump! Your wallet!” a hood screamed at me, gun pointed at my face. I took out my wallet and dropped it in the bag. Dark eyes glowed at me from deep in the hood. Was it Manuel? Or was it that I was thinking of how this man looked like him? Just like that, he moved on. I kept my eyes down like I’d seen victims do in movies. Then I turned back to see the bartender opening the register, the other robber dumping the money from it into his bag. In a nervous tic, I adjusted my tie and looked up at that indifferent papier-mâché mermaid, wondering what to do next, but in just a few moments, it was all over. The two men darted out into the rain, leaving us with its echo on the tin. Postures relaxed and dumbstruck faces of frustration and fear remained. A chatter of disbelief ensued as people commiserated. The screenwriter pulled at his curly red hair, his mouth agape. A tattooed artist shook his head, and the girl with the guayabera reciprocated. Haldo asked Melissa if she was okay. “Oh my God,” she said in a valley girl deadpan. Jason and the guitarist looked at each other. The well-dressed man approached them and said a few words. Jason wanted to play, but the guitarist looked like he’d seen a ghost. And so it was in that way that Jason’s sound was silenced for the night. The bartender called the cops. I wondered how far away Sal had wandered, how long it would be before he heard what had happened.
Haldo turned to me. “What the fuck, man?” he said.
“I know,” I said.
“Did that shit even just happen?”
“It’s crazy,” I said.
“I mean, seriously. What the fuck?”
He kept going on like that, until I couldn’t take it any more. “Haldo, you’re a dick,” I said. “You won’t amount to anything.”
“Dude, what are you talking about?” he said, but I was in my own world. It was spinning. I headed for the bathroom and locked myself in the stall. With the door shut, the sound of nervous bar chatter faded. A window to the alley outside was open above the sink, and in the air that blew through it I could feel the cool aftermath of the storm. Every few seconds a fat drop of rain slammed down on the tin. Cars rushed by on the Mississippi River bridge above. I looked at the writing on the stall beside the toilet: T-Rex rules. Bobbi sux dix. Pimp $. I took one of Stock’s cuff links off my shirt and put it to the stall, took a few minutes to carve out that old, silly heroic phrase from my childhood. When I was done, I looked at it from a distance. I liked how it blended in with the rest of the gibberish. Given how long it seemed to have been since the last time the stall was changed out, I thought my writing might last up to twenty, thirty years. But, then, this was before the storm. Before I’d calcified into my own mediocrity. Outside, sirens wailed, and I imagined their blue lights in the darkness. I looked one last time at my scuffed cufflink, then threw it in the toilet and went back out into the mumbling crowd of victims, each of us awaiting our chance to bear witness.