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by David Francis
Imagine the coolness after the glare and the traffic. Walk in: the bar counter on your right, a room with two pool tables on your left, beyond the counter the exit leading back out front to the patio with its four redwood picnic tables, and in the far right-hand corner a low stage with a black upright piano on a mealy brown rug. Price-tagged sub-Rouaults by local artists hang wherever you look except on the mirror and the pulls. On band nights, Wednesdays through Saturdays, at eight, a door-man sits on a chair left of the entrance by the jukebox.
Emptiness. Only Christine with her heavyset Dutch face under mousy blonde shag pulling and fetching ale for no one, saying “Thank you,” and standing around. But the TV’s off and she seems in a good mood. Empty like a conch shell. It’s odd for a Friday. She leans, side-saddle on her stool, staring out to sea.
A tall young black man lopes in, in a slouch beret and sandals. Christine straightens to attend to him.
“I’m the musician booked to play this Wednesday night. Brian Hebert.” He shakes the slightly reluctant proprietary hand offered from behind the bar.
“The Micro-Managers are playing,” she informs him. “They’re a bunch of professional types that get together to play jazz.”
“I’ll be on after them.”
“I guess. You’ll have to talk to Bob.”
“OK, what about the cover? What’s the door-take?”
Christine sighs and shakes her head. “It’s been bad. We’ve been losing money. The other night we made two dollars.” She makes her blonde apple-cheeked smile at the empty room, turns back and says, “What do you call yourselves?”
“We’re the Brian Hebert Three.”
“What kind of music do y’all play?”
“Bluesy, jazzy, piano-based music….My drummer may quit…I’m looking for a replacement right now.”
“Drummers are just the flakiest,” she drawls. “We had a band booked called Shrug. The night came, they call us saying their drummer’s sick. They were booked for months in advance.”
The barmaid glares at the empty stage. The musician does, too.
“My bassist is bitching about money, too, man….I might just play solo…I can use y’all’s mike?”
“The band last night–we caught ’em taking our P.A. out the door. They’ll never play here again. They won’t be playing anywhere in town.” She enjoys the band’s brazen act and her threat equally, taking it all in stride.
“I can use that piano, right?”
“At least when rock bands play, they bring all their friends, usually their own door-man and they fill up the room. But when we get jazz,” Christine harrumphs, “we don’t break even….Hey, Jesse….”
A short wiry white-haired Hispanic man darts in and sits near the entrance.
“I saw a car out front the other day that looked a lot like yours…gold with tail fins….”
“That was my car,” he nods, positive.
The barmaid knows his drink and brings it.
“Where’ve you been keeping yourself?”
“Me and my old lady been fighting,” he says agitatedly. “I just left there.”
“That’s bad….Everybody’s fighting lately. Bob and his wife were at it yesterday….”
“I don’t understand her problem. But she’s just real pissed off at me.”
Christine returns to the musician who has ambled back from the bathroom.
“You want a drink?”
“Nah,” he waves it off. “What do you have that’s cheap?”
“Just the customers,” the wiry refugee jokes.
Everyone has a laugh off that one. Suddenly the musician strides to the piano, plunks at the keys, sits and begins a rolling boogie-woogie. Almost drowned out by the air conditioning, the low-ceiling acoustics, and his own pounding, he sings without a microphone.
Christine fetches another gin and tonic for Jesse.
“Ain’t nobody here, it’s kinda lonesome for a weekend,” he says.
“Last week we made a lot of money,” Christine sighs. “I don’t know. The band tomorrow are opening for a headliner….”
“Oh, really? One thing, you have the best jukebox in town.”
Though neither will admit it, it seems special to have this music all to themselves, as if the emptiness has afforded space and expanse for self-expression. As they talk they nod and move a little to the piano, less restrained and purer than it will be on the night of the gig.
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