In the mirror to the left of the stage a waitress threaded between chairs; like a mermaid swimming, she balanced a tray, hip-cocked to listen to a customer’s request. I was watching her and playing time on the bass, balancing two things—like patting my head while rubbing my stomach. At an empty table she counted a tip, swiped change into an apron wrapped tight around her hips. Danny’s piano got her listening. For a moment, she stopped in front of him, gazing upward with dark eyes treading water in glistening, ivory pools.
Out of the marine depths of the mirror she smiled at me. It wasn’t a professional server’s smile; it was wise. She caught my eye and held it too long, then turned her head to profile, maintaining the shape of her lips and raising her chin. It pulled me off balance, and the song’s heartbeat rushed, as if adrenaline had been released into the bloodstream of someone already running. Over the top of the shining, shaking cymbals, Pete’s face appeared like a curious giraffe’s; he was a creature caught by music, entranced, his eyes matte, and a gleam in the depths of his open mouth. The waitress walked off the edge of the mirror toward the kitchen.
Applause began, a few strong hands drawing in the talkers. Danny stood up from the piano. “Thanks folks, yeah… thanks a lot. We’ll be here all week.”
When it was time to go I leaned the bass against the mirror and started to snug it into the canvas bag. It was like helping a friend into an overcoat, a friend who’d had too much to drink. The waitress was at the server’s station by the bar, folding napkins. She was talking to Dave, the manager, nodding and laughing; I could hear her above the crash of plates and glasses, the scrape of chairs being stacked on tables. I took a last look around for things I might have forgotten.
That morning, you were a silhouette in front of the closet light, waving pleats.
“Turn around,” I said. “Come back to bed.”
“No, I can’t.”
I closed my eyes again, smelling coffee. You would, I knew, head to the bathroom, where you’d sip at a cup while putting on eyeliner and lipstick, getting your eyes and mouth to look a certain way.
You’re a being I’ve often found held at the end of my arm or sometimes stuck inside my ribs, as if I’m Adam. But I’m pretty sure we’re separate; it’s something about touching each other so often that’s rubbed away the top layer of my skin. So it’s easy for you to get inside and back out—the same way music does. It doesn’t hurt much at all.
I wonder what you see in me, whether it’s more flaw or perfection, or whether it shifts all the time so that you can never be sure which one it is and only stay because you think eventually it’ll become clear. Maybe the inside of my ribs looks different than the end of my arm.
The chairs were all stacked; my bass was zipped away inside the bag. The bar was closed, and I headed down the stairs to leave. Dave came with his keys to open the door to the street. Among stacks of fliers in the entryway, a small figure in a puffy, gray parka faced the window—the waitress who’d found me in the mirror. “I’m Jill,” she said without turning around. “See you.”
The next night, she was in a different mirror—the long mirror above the bar that reflected the chorus line of liquor bottles colored in rust and yellow and blue. She appeared there, passing through, speaking to my shoulder as I sat on a stool after we’d finished playing. “You were watching me,” she said. “After your solo. You thought about me.”
“It was before,” I called as she continued toward the kitchen. “Before. I played it for you.” I muttered that last part because she was walking away and wouldn’t be able to hear. In the mirror, the guy at the next stool looked at me sideways without turning his head.
“Played what for who?” Danny said, taking the stool on the other side. His hair lay close to his head in tight, gleaming curls. “How come you’re still here?”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“I understand it all,” he said. “Why’re you talking to that waitress?”
“Because she understands how to look in mirrors and see the person she wants to see.”
Danny shook his head and said, “you should go home.”
I pressed my feet hard against the foot rail. Layers of cigarette smoke and years of hoarse voices were fixed to the dry boards like scar tissue built up over an injury that had never healed. Against the paneling, feet had scuffed and kicked, and the surface was pitted and carved with small initials and abrupt obscenities. If you looked down into the space where the foot rail gleamed—in the late afternoon when the sun came in at a particular angle through the skylight—you could see how the bar had been brought in from somewhere else and carried up the stairs in three sections. On the left, dark umber mahogany met ash, on the right, the ash touched cherry. The space where the rail gleamed was the only hidden place, a place for feet, hide-bound, dumb and blind like moles. Everywhere else—the tables, the kitchen at the back and the stage—was exposed, so that secrets were hard to keep.
“Can I sit here?” Jill said, and climbed onto the stool Danny had just left. “You’re lucky you get to sit when you play, Ron. Ron’s your name, right? My feet hurt and my hair smells like cigarettes—I hate that.” She took a handful of hair and brought it to her mouth, wrinkling her nose.
“But you can’t smoke in here,” I said. “How come your hair smells like cigarettes?”
“In the back, the busboys.”
I liked the way she talked; she had a low voice. The roots of her hair were red but the ends were dusted blond, like blooms of delicate coral. When the bartender set down a glass of red wine, she leaned forward, and the black t-shirt she was wearing rode up, revealing a filigreed tattoo on the skin above her tailbone.
“It’s not exactly sitting,” I said, as she settled back. “It’s half-on and half-off. You like jazz? A lot of girls don’t like jazz.” She rolled her eyes. “I mean—it’s good you do. You live in the city?”
She had that wise smile again, but she wasn’t looking at me. She must be aware I was watching her. Or was she watching herself in the mirror? “Close to here,” she finally said. “In the summer sometimes I walk over.” In the darkness under the bar, our feet touched.
I saw her walking along a late afternoon street of long shadows. With dark glasses and a big purse, stuffed full of girl things that clattered and scraped and swallowed her whole downy forearm whenever she reached inside. On the walls of her apartment there were probably a few black and white photographs of faces—old, angular faces with broken veins and wrinkles like a river delta. Her bed was covered in pillows, and there would be flowers, wildflowers set in a clear water glass half full.
“You have a cat?” I asked.
“No, I’m allergic. Where do you live—with someone?”
“How’d you know that?”
Her smile disappeared into a sip of wine.
“We never see each other anymore. She works days; I work nights.”
“Your rhythms are probably all off. You should live with a night person.”
I shrugged and smiled, but my smile lost its shape. Last night when I got home, the moon shone through the top of the window above the bedroom curtain. You lay on your side, facing away from me, asleep. The room was warm, and you’d kicked the sheet down. The length of your dark hair sheltered your neck and shoulders, but the rest of you was exposed to the moon’s passage. I undressed quietly and got into bed. I reached for your left hip, swelling like the bottom of my bass. But I couldn’t feel you through the calluses—the ones the strings have rubbed into my fingertips over time. I pressed harder, no longer concerned you might wake; I wanted to feel you but had blinders on the ends of my hands. You sighed and rolled further away, and—for a long time—I’d sat there propped up on the pillows, touching the calluses on my left hand with my right.
I put my left fingertips against my neck and imagined trying to match your pulse with my own, pressing my throat against yours and getting knocked away, repelled like a magnet. Could it be that all the time we’ve spent together has reversed our polarities?
A different hand tugged at my forearm. “Come back,” Jill said. “You’ve got your fingers against your neck like you’re playing the bass—what are you doing—practicing?”
“Do you think that if two people are together for a long time they start to move at different speeds toward different things?”
Her head remained still, but she looked up to the right and frowned. “No, not really.”
“No, because that would imply that the best love is the shortest, that we can only be close for brief periods of time. What you’re saying—it’s not very romantic; I thought you’d be more romantic. Dreamy.”
I was pretty surprised where she was taking things. She’d moved her foot away from mine. “How come?” I said.
The line of her mouth became a downward arc. “I don’t know.” She tossed her shoulders. “A jazz musician,” she said. “I figured you must dream a lot. I should go.”
“I do dream,” I said. “I do. You working tomorrow?”
At eleven the next morning, the landlord began banging on pipes and then stuck his nose into the darkened bedroom. “Sorry to bother you,” he said, “but could you stop putting bones down the disposal? Tell your girlfriend.”
I had one of those weird headaches I got when I didn’t sleep enough, the ache of it only on one side, behind my left eye. I dressed and fixed coffee, wishing you’d left a note.
I drank the coffee and put on a little Bud Powell—a nice way to begin a day. The music broke in waves, rushing ahead of the beat, pulling it, almost toppling it over. Manic quicksilver riding the rhythm section.
A dream had occurred. Children screamed on a crowded, pink carousel that spun elliptically like the beaters on an electric mixer. The carousel was big and powerful, a monster that flung the children outward with great force but was checked because their parents had strapped them in tight. I watched from a small table to one side. The central hub turned at a slower pace than the circle of plunging circus horses but still faster than the rest of the world. And mirrors covered it so that it was difficult to tell whether the horses and children were real or just reflections.
I ate some corn flakes, thinking I’d tell Jill about the dream, that she’d be impressed. I got up and looked around the kitchen, at the bathroom, the hall closet full of empty coats and shoes. The apartment wasn’t big enough. We’d outgrown it—that’s what you said.
In our room there was an old roll-top desk bought at a yard sale. You’d painted it red and put your computer on top, along with bank stuff, bills. I rattled the top open and looked in the little compartments against the back. A checkbook—rarely used—deposit slips. Paperclips, rubber bands.
At the bottom of the big drawer, beneath a folded credit card statement from last year, there was an envelope. No stamp or return address, just your name on the front, written in handwriting I didn’t recognize. A card was inside, the kind of card, I imagined, given for a birthday or to mark a special occasion. I didn’t open it. I pictured hands fitting it into the envelope’s narrow space, licking the seal and pressing the surfaces closed.
There was something about you changing the way your eyes and mouth looked that bothered me. You were different. Pretty like a shiny image in a magazine. I didn’t really see you that way; it was for your day job, a place I’d never been, a place I heard stories about so that it was like a novel with very long sentences and too many characters. By the time I did see you—which wasn’t often—you’d put back your regular eyes and mouth, but I looked for traces of things I hadn’t heard about.
The next night, there was a concert at the theater down the street from the bar, and at eleven thirty—when we were almost through the second set—a lot of people arrived so there was a line waiting for tables. Dave came up and talked in Danny’s ear, and Danny nodded and kept calling tunes. It was busy and loud, and Jill was hustling around. I was glad her section was up front where I could see her.
“The tips were pretty good tonight,” she said later. It was closing time; the first chair was piled onto a table, and the busboy emerged with mop and bucket and wringer. Jill was snapping a rubber band against a thick roll of bills with her thumb and forefinger.
“All ones?” I said. “You could buy me a drink.”
“But I wanted to talk more about dreaming. I had a dream this morning. I think it was about you.”
“I think you should straighten out your domestic problems, Ron.” She snapped the rubber band again. “See you.”
I heaved the bass into the canvas bag and leaned it against the wall. “Hey,” Danny said. “We’re getting something to eat—you gonna come?”
I did not, no. Danny and Pete liked to party too much, and besides, I was busy. I put the bass into my car and sat in the darkness of the parking lot till I saw her come out and get into a red Prius. I pulled out behind her, hanging back a bit. Her left turn signal was going, and I put mine on, too.
Finally traffic cleared, and I turned left after her onto Sheridan. She got ahead of me, and then her taillights turned off to the right down an unfamiliar street.
I had to slow down because there was a red light. By the time I made the turn and get halfway down the block, she was already walking up to a house. I stopped at an empty spot three cars down, and saw her in the driver’s side mirror, on a lighted porch.
“Hey!” I was out of my car running on the sidewalk. “Jill.” She turned around fast, and her hand went into the purse. I stopped with one foot on the first step. “Hi.”
“What are you doing here? I just about pepper-sprayed you.”
“I know. I wanted to talk, and then you left, so—”
“You followed me? That’s kind of creepy.”
I waited, but she didn’t say anything else. “The thing is,” I said, taking the second step, “you remember what you said about night people?”
She kind of sighed and said I could come in for a little while.
I didn’t want to leave my bass in the car, so she waited while I got it. The house was old, divided into apartments, full of odd corners and small spaces. One big room was on the second floor, facing the street, and a bathroom. I couldn’t see the pictures on the walls because she only lit one dim lamp by the doorway. She was gone for a few minutes, and water ran along the pipes.
When she returned she was wearing a different colored t-shirt, and her face looked pale, her eyes and mouth smaller. “Make-up,” she said, noticing my stare. She made us chamomile tea, and we sat on opposite ends of a long, low couch. I leaned against a pillow covered in green and yellow paisley.
“So the other night,” I said. “You knew where to look in the mirror to see me. You knew where I’d be. How’d you learn to do that?”
“Working a lot in bars.”
“It must be like radar. When I try, I search all around but I can’t find the people I’m looking for. If I do see someone, it’s by accident.”
“With radar, you have to bounce the signal off one object to see another.”
There was a long silence. She was sipping tea and looking out the front window where car lights moved from the right to left and disappeared.
“What do you do in the middle of the night?” I asked.
“Because we’re both night people. I feel like I waste a lot of that time. It’s too late to practice; everyone else is asleep. I watch TV with the sound turned down. It’s like everything’s over, and you’re the only one left.”
She poured us more tea, and I was surprised when she started talking. “Sometimes I’m like that,” she said. “I get home from the bar and change, and I can’t settle down. I’m restless—can’t sleep, can’t stay awake. The best times are when I stay up till dawn. I like to be quiet, get into a place where I’m really calm and alert. I sit here in the dark and wait. It’s a gift. When the light first starts to come.”
After I left Jill’s, I passed my exit and kept going west toward O’Hare. It was too late to get much on the radio. The car was full of March wind, and I put the heater up a notch. With no one else on the road, driving didn’t take much of my attention. Mile-long lengths of flat buildings surrounded by empty parking areas and locked dumpsters covered the ground on the other side of the airport. Big halogen lights cast orange beams over warehouse loading docks lined with trailers. Everything—the windshield, the lights, the buildings—was filtered through a dry patina of salt, even my fingertips were tacky with it. I rubbed them together around the steering wheel, feeling the layers of callus.
At the end of the parking lots, near the back entrances, a few cars had been left all by themselves, the cars of janitors and the midnight shift. Night workers—like me. My life was a mirror image of most peoples’; for me, darkness was not blanketed and pillowed but brittle with artificial light and sound. Dentist appointments and car repairs had to be scheduled early in the morning or late in the day. No matter how much I tried, I never got enough sleep, and every so often, there were days of no sleep at all.
You’ve slipped out of my world, the world of night work, of waiting for the light, of the hum of streetlamps and rustle of trees. You’ve returned to nine to five, to daytime rhythms marked by the sun moving to the center of the sky and then descending into violet clouds, by birds chirping at the end of sleep rather than the beginning. We’ve needed the space between us, because what we have left is mostly longing.
At 5 o’clock the eastern sky was beginning to blush pink through the right side window of the car. I pulled into a breakfast place and parked so I could keep an eye on the bass. I sat at a table and ordered coffee. Just like in every bar I’d ever played in, a mirror ran along the rear wall. A mirror was a great place to study people, once you found them.
I looked along its length from the right to the left but I was the only one staring back.
Maybe—if I can find a store that’s open—I’ll get you a card. I could slip it into your desk, and you’ll find it and figure it was from the past, that gravity had drawn it down to the bottom of the drawer.
I could say all that sweet, old stuff. I love you; be mine.
I turned away from the mirror; the things in it weren’t real.
When I got home, you were up. The apartment blazed with harsh light, and eggs sizzled on the stove. “Where have you been,” you said. “I’ve been frantic. I called so many times—didn’t you ever check your phone?”
“Sorry. I hung out with Danny, lost track of time.” I was very aware of my hands, spreading them out, palms up and rippling them with a shrug because a lie required coordination with whatever accompanied it. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I should have called but I figured I’d be back before you even woke up.”
I locked onto your eyes and tried not to blink, but my eyes were too dry from lack of sleep. You were tearing up.
“Oh damn,” you said, the tears brimming over. “My make-up. I’ve got to go to work. The disposal’s broken again, and something smells bad, down under the sink. I called the landlord. Will you be here when I get home? We need to talk.”
Originally published in Ink and Coda, January 2014 with the title The Bar in Three Sections.