He was American, that much was obvious without a second glance. That was not surprising in the least in a place like this. The second glance, however, revealed him to be much more foreign. He didn't fit in that brash place filled with chrome and white oak, a constellation of halogen lamps in nouveau deco nouveau fixtures shining from every direction, removing even the hint of a shadow. He brought his shadow with him and settled it around himself as he sat. I watched him. He was not there by choice; his eyes tightened when the coffee grinder ran, and when the steam valve was turned on to foam up someone's latte. I had never realized what a noisy place it was until I saw him wince and felt the needles in my own brain.
He brought with him darkness and smoke, late nights with bleary eyes, lost nights wondering what the fuck you're doing there and why doesn't anything make sense. He was a creature of the night, of last call and dark secrets, and he had come up to the light. His right hand, I realized, was playing, quite of its own accord, Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, his fingers brushing the table with gentle assurance, the tendons standing out on the back of his hand. I watched his fingers draw the graceful, deceptively simple lines of the song. He did not play with precision, but each time his finger touched the table I heard the note, and when he struck harder I felt that too, and it was beautiful.
I am a piano player. When first I saw him I didn't know what he was, but I knew he was not a musician. But at that moment his fingers played and I was the instrument.
I was suddenly conscious of the telephones all around me. Mingled with the sounds of labor-intensive coffee there was a constant background of ring-tones, of chatter with people who weren't there, conversations between disembodied and placeless people. Their voices were as bright and piercing as the place we were in. None of them saw him. None of them would see the shadow in their midst, as if unseen, it didn't exist. I tired to convince myself that their brittle happiness was more forced, more strident than usual due to his dark presence, but I knew they were always like that.
His fingers changed their pattern; it took me a moment to recognize Beethoven's WoO 59, Fur Elise. Still just the right-hand part; his left hand was motionless, clinched white-knuckled around his forgotten mug. Between his hands was a slip of paper, smudged and creased, lying flattened out on the polished table. He never took his eyes off it. His lips worked as if he was sounding out the words written there, but as I rose to get a refill I saw that the paper was blank.
While I stood in the short line I looked back at him furtively as he sat hunched forward, long stringy hair unwashed, beard too long ignored, clothes slept in, his right hand playing music he never heard, his left on the verge of shattering his mug. He was not just a creature of the night, of the desperate underbelly of the city that I visited for gigs, he was a mad demon prince of that realm and his presence here meant the end had finally come.
He caught my glance when I came back to my table, next to his. He turned to me with red-rimmed eyes, pulled me in despite my urgent desire to escape. I had looked at his paper, and now I owed him an answer. His right hand had reached the roller coaster moment in the music, when the car is creeping up to the top of the steepest drop, his fingers playing the two notes back and forth, more and more slowly with increasing urgency. His voice carried a sadness that made me feel a hundred years old. "There's nothing there, is there?" He asked.
I could have said "no". I could have declared myself to be a creature of the light, who believes in absolutes and knows a blank piece of paper when he sees it. But at that moment I was no longer confident. I was peering through the shadow, the paper possibly its source, and the night touched me. Nothing is certain in the night world.
"Nothing I can see," I answered.
He nodded slowly, in time to his music, his eyes fixed back on the paper, his lips working silently again. "I'm waiting for someone," he said, snapping me out of my reverie. With my eyes I had been listening to the music he played. From where I was, at the edge of the darkness, I could hear the notes faintly, echoing from far away. "Do you know what music this is?" he asked.
"Beethoven. Fur Elise."
"It's starting to piss me off."
"Why don't you play something else?"
"I'm not the one, playing it, man."
I stopped myself from asking the obvious question.
"I was hoping it was you." he said.
"I'm not that good."
"Prosim," a pretty young woman pushing a stroller said tartly. I was leaning out into the space between our tables and blocking traffic. I pulled back to let her push past. As she crossed between us she blocked the shadow (what do you call it when you're in a shadow's shadow?). When I could again see the man at the next table, the music had changed.
I gathered up my things and moved to his side of the aisle, hanging my long coat over the back of my chair, laying my folio near his clenched left hand. He didn't offer and I didn't ask; I was already in his shadow. Chairs didn't matter. I sat and watched his right hand play. I could feel the notes, but I didn't recognize the music. Not Beethoven, that was for sure. More like Philip Glass, with haunting repetition gradually transforming.
"I'm more of a blues man, myself," he said. "I've seen you before. You played with Old Ray Black down at the Rat the night he died."
I nodded. That had been two months ago. The Rathskeller was a tiny place, filled with smoke and sweat. It was the sort of place that didn't really get started before one or two in the morning, when everyone who knew better was home in bed. The bar was small, the stage was tiny, but the piano was always in tune. Or perfectly out of tune. Old Ray Black had been a regular there, and people who knew always filled the house when he played. "Old" may as well have been on his birth certificate--no one called him "Ray" or "Ray Black", the same way that no one called King Henry the Eighth "Hank". He was Old Ray Black, or Old Ray if you were addressing him directly.
That night the Rat had been getting hotter and hotter as we played, but Old Ray Black had taken that heat and worked it with the smoke and despair in the room until what came out of his guitar wasn't just sound, it was a beast that reached forth and feasted on the lives of the crowd and left them begging for more. They were shouting and clapping but Old Ray Black didn't stop, he just rolled on and his gravelly voice rang out over the noise of the crowd like a church bell on a quiet Sunday morning.
The place was packed and no one was leaving. The creature that was his music played in its garden of souls. I could feel his beast but I was taming one of my own, a creature that allowed me to breathe only so I could continue to play. I looked up at the bass player, but he wasn't seeing anything except the music.
It was almost dawn when we finally stopped. The audience cried for more even as exhaustion took them. "Well, guess I'm done," Old Ray Black had said, lighting a cigarette. He fell over dead, smashing his guitar.
I didn't remember seeing this man at The Rat, but there's a lot I don't remember about that night. I don't remember how the fire started and I don't remember leaving. The piano, the bass, the guitar, and Old Ray Black himself had been burned to ashes. The fire had taken the Rathskeller, taken its stained and battered carpet, its hand-carved bar, its horrifying men's room, and had left a blackened hole in the city.
"Yeah, that was me," I said.
"That was a good show."
The music stopped. His fingers hovered over the tabletop, suddenly uncertain. He looked at them, waiting for another message. None came. His left hand clung to his still-full mug of coffee. The paper sat exactly between the two, the center of the Universe.
Slowly he relaxed his hand and the jangle of the coffee shop reached my ears again. "Still blank?" he asked me.
Somewhere between the smudges and the creases, in the grain of the paper itself, something moved. "What do you see?" I asked.
"Let's go get a drink," he said.
"I'm uh... I'm supposed to meet someone here," I said.
"She's not coming."
I knew he was right. I had always known. Suddenly a drink sounded good. "Let's go, then," I said.
He released his mug and picked up the paper carefully with both hands. He folded it gently and placed it in his coat pocket with exaggerated delicacy. He took a deep breath and stood. "People around here call me Cowboy Bob," he said, holding out his hand. He did not resemble a cowboy in any way, but the title seemed to fit him. I shook his hand, wondering if any of the power that had guided his fingers would rub off on me. "Paul," I said. "Paul Sharpe."
Cowboy Bob nodded and I wondered if he had even heard me. I thought I should be able to recognize him if he had been at the Rat or any of the other little places I play. To get a name you have to be around for a while. Then again, on the night side I was little more than a tourist. As I was putting on my coat, Cowboy Bob said, "I'm from Detroit. We need to get fucked up."
We stepped out onto the sidewalk and I wrapped my scarf tighter around my neck. Clouds were billowing up over the rooftops, and the wind was bringing biting cold over the pole from Siberia. Cowboy Bob looked at the clouds, then up and down the street. "I know the right place," he said. He turned to the right and headed down toward the old city center. "Gestapo's on the trams today," he said. "We'll have to walk." Apparently the idea of paying to ride had not occurred to him. That was all right, I enjoyed walking as long as it wasn't raining.
He didn't seem to be walking quickly but I still had to work to keep up. "We need a juke box," he said. "And whiskey. Good Kentucky bourbon."
I didn't say anything. I prefer Scotch, but Old Ray Black had been a bourbon man. It seemed like a good idea to hoist one for the old master.
After some twists and turns we were in an alley I didn't recognize. We passed through a simple wooden door with a crude sign that read "U nikde". Nowhere. I followed him down a narrow flight of stairs and found myself in a dark cavern of brickwork. The quiet of the place was itself a presence, and my new friend's shadows blended perfectly. "Miki, we need the music loud," Cowboy Bob called out as he passed over to the jukebox. "Bring some money over here," he said to me. I dug into my pocket and he started punching buttons.
Stevie Ray Vaughn's Couldn't Stand the Weather exploded in the quiet bar. Cowboy Bob crossed to where I was already sitting. A glass of Kentucky Jack, no ice, sat before each chair. Miki had not put the bottle away.
Before he touched his glass my strange companion pulled the paper out of his pocket and unfolded it, gently smoothing it out on the table. In that light it looked different to me. The smudges were darker and more coherent, and there was a new dark spot where it had absorbed a stray drop of whiskey off the table. The drop fit some larger pattern I could not see.
After placing the paper carefully, he looked up at me. I shook my head no. Not yet. Cowboy Bob lifted his glass and I followed suit. He held it before him, a high priest calling the brethren to prayer. If he was the priest, I was the virgin. The sacrificial lamb. He took a sip of his booze, and, eyes closed, drew air over his tongue, savoring the fumes as the alcohol evaporated in his mouth. I took a drink. His right hand was twitching, and it took me a moment to realize that he was picking along with Stevie. In his left hand he held the whiskey up to the light, looking through it with one eye closed.
"You think there's anything in here?" he asked. He had to raise his voice to be heard over the music.
I started to shrug but then stopped myself. No taking the easy way out this time. "Yeah," I said. There was something in the bourbon. There was a mystical fire and an inescapable debt. There was a little hope and far more despair.
"The devil's in here," Cowboy Bob said, and drained his glass. He took a deep breath and held it for a moment. "Not any more," he said as he exhaled. With a grin he smacked the glass down onto the dark oak table. In the low light his teeth flashed unnaturally white. "He's mine, now." The jukebox moved on to Dylan's Like a Rolling Stone while two more glasses appeared in front of us. The right hand -- I didn't think of it as his right hand anymore -- was playing the Hammond.
"There's not a single recording of Old Ray Black anywhere," Cowboy Bob said.
I found that hard to believe. Even if there were no official recordings, his followers would have smuggled tape recorders into every venue he played. "There's got to be bootlegs," I said.
I took a swig of the booze. It burned at my nose but danced in my head. It's too early in the day for this, I thought, but in that little cave it was always night.
We drank, and the jukebox played. It played far longer than I thought it should have for the money I had given. If there were any others in there besides Miki they blended with the shadows as well as my companion did. Sometimes he seemed to vanish even as he sat directly across from me.
The paper glowed in the pale light. It seemed to breathe as it lay there; it seemed larger than the bar. Larger than the world. Out of the corner of my eye I could see it move, but when I looked straight at it nothing had changed.
Sultans of Swing ended, and another piece started. It was a simple piano piece, a vine that grew and slowly bore beautiful flowers. I had heard it many times before, but now it was as if Beethoven himself was playing it. I looked down to see my right hand playing Moonlight Sonata on the rough tabletop. I looked across the table.
Cowboy Bob was quietly folding the paper. He slipped it into his pocket. "Old Ray Black couldn't write," he said. "Never learned how." He got up and left.
Since that night I've played in every bar in the city. People come to hear me now, the ones who know. I've been in every bar, but I've never seen Cowboy Bob.
Article © Jerry Seeger. All rights reserved.
Published on 2005-01-16