THE CITY’S WAREHOUSE DISTRICT lay inland of Washington’s Pacific coast and the green wreath lamps cast a fresh streetscape of red brick and black iron fire escapes. Howie’s new shoes hit the cobblestones as more freedom rose through his chest. It welled and rushed to a head as he walked in the hot humid air.
Nicely-dressed yuppies and trust-fund-afarians smiled and looked him in the eye, giving hope that at twenty-eight the best of life waited. Women, so tall and thin, walked with pride, unescorted. Cars rolled through narrow streets, yielding right-of-way to pedestrians.
None of this surprised Howie; he had cased the city before accepting the job as Market Analyst. He would have invested more effort negotiating salary except his future boss was an imposing man. When Howie broached the issue, his employer got mad. It was unclear how far he could push that matter. But he needed the change and the move.
Clevens Street was up-ahead and he would take a right, then left. The place was called Jagger’s. He didn’t know of any connection to Mic or the Stones. The landlady at the apartment had informed him that they offered patrons the chance to sing between the second and third sets. Apparently, they played blues and rock and jazz. He wasn’t a singer but he would do it, though he hadn’t chosen a song.
Fresh air caressed him in a lulling breeze as a passing brunette in slinky black dress and heels flashed him a smile—driving him crazy. Howie turned, admiring subtleties of her departure.
Late that afternoon, he had worked-out and his arms and legs were tense with the strange male thoughts seeping in, like he needed a naked woman beside him that night and as things gained in momentum he might grab hold of the night and carry it through on his shoulders.
Jagger’s seemed to jut from the corner of Marshall and Forty-Third, bordered by abandoned storefronts, murmuring rising and a beating red sign. Howie spotted the cue-ball head of the heavy bouncer sitting outside. Through an open window women with exotic flourishes melded contemporary dress with the 20’s and 70’s, hinting Asian and European inspiration. They danced while men watched. Howie exchanged a grin with the bouncer.
Smoke stung his eyes as music hit him with electric guitar and bass and the snare drums tempted his heart to match cadence as a short blonde grasped his bicep to swing between two guys, affording an eyeful of her bronze cleavage.
Hardwood floors shined and reflected. Patrons in small gatherings danced and conversed beyond the second floor’s ledge of rusty metallic waterfalls. At the bar, he found a spot to press between and he got out some dollars. He put them back inside his wallet. He didn’t want to get drunk. Not even one beer. He’d do it sober to ensure the experience was lucent. The anticipation, the anguish, humiliation—everything—it would be his.
“What are you drinking?” the bartender yelled.
“I want to sing.”
The bartender grinned. “You sure? It’s not something you can back-out of.”
“I have to do it. No one knows me.”
He popped tops off green beers. “You’re serious?” He looked at Howie. “What do you think you can sing?”
Black-lacquered railroad-ties ringed the stage like a squat Mayan pyramid. “I’ll sing, ‘Miss You.’”
The bartender grimaced, “Miss You? Here? You know where this is, right? Jagger’s. And you want to sing the Stones? Miss You? You can’t even dance to that. No. Pick something else.”
He smirked. “Hold on.” A beefy man behind the bar joined them. “See this guy?” he asked the beefy man. “I’m not sure whether I should give this guy a mike or call the cops.”
“Yah,” the beefy man agreed, “Looks like he wants to rob the place or something.”
Howie broke out in deep laughter. “I guess you better give it to me. The microphone.”
“All right. In ten minutes the second set will end.” The bartender leaned near. “Let me get you a couple shots to loosen you up. On the house.”
The bartender furrowed his brow.
Howie found an empty stool and studied the drummer in his sleeveless T-shirt, tie-dyed in violet and black. The lanky bassist’s mostly-unbuttoned shirt draped in dripping crescents while a balding lead singer put a feminine edge on a BB King song.
Howie glanced to his left to a handsome, well-built man in his late thirties. Two women put their hands over his white silken polo. They looked respectable, despite their school-girl affection.
In the crowd before the stage, several men raised beer bottles and yelled as their girlfriends danced and flirted, tempting them with playfulness and feigned naiveté.
Minutes remained. Worst case-scenarios formed and flooded but he reined them, visualizing himself pacing that black deck with the corded mic in his sure grip. Burning grew below his clavicle, acid reflux, and his palms bled sweat. He thought strange things:
If at his wake his spirit could swoop through his mourners, discovering their grief and memories to reveal the significance of his life, then he’d know what things had been important, free from the agony of pressing through each stupid moment.
But he counted the last refrains of the BB King song and the fear was on him. Covering his skin like the air he couldn’t shed. His heartbeat strengthened and the wooden stool grew flat and hard. People watched him. Gossiping on the subject of his aloneness. He needed the beer to have something to do, something in his hands.
A cymbal rang and stilled to usher the hiss of loudspeakers as dancers clamored and trailed-off their conversations. Feedback shrieked. The singer pressed his lips against a silver microphone, “Somebody in here.” He seemed to scan the crowd. “Is an arrogant son of a bitch. Thinks they can sing.”
Howie weaved between people holding drinks who looked at him curiously, asking if he would sing but he ignored them. He pulled himself up black railroad ties, his knees tight with the dark walls and the ceiling growing outward.
He stood on the deck in their midst as they ignored him. “I want to sing ‘Miss You’ by the Stones.”
The band members looked at each other. “We don’t play the harmonica, dude,” the drummer said.
Howie considered the guitar’s complexity, “You can fake the harmonica with effects.”
They looked at each other again. “Yah. Good luck,” the guitarist said.
“Can you back me up on vocals?”
“Let’s see how it goes, man.” They sniggered.
The microphone hung from its chrome pole while the gathering diverted its focus to him with stares piling up on his skin. He fussed his wet palms over the mic to release it, feeling them see his fear as it pierced and drained him. The microphone released a crackled screech as it freed.
“NICE HAIRCUT, DICK!” a pudgy frat-boy shouted.
Jagger’s erupted. Bartenders and wait staff turned, laughing. People left, heading toward the bar and the bathrooms.
He raised his numb fingers in a chopping motion at the guitarist and his tight throat stung as he swallowed. Loudspeakers cried an improvisational riff, settling into the bluesy melody with bass and drums bolstering.
The rarified group appeared to look over each other and over the floor. Near the tables, a seated woman took a swig of beer and pointed at him. The harmonica effects faded out and he should already be singing. His spoken lyrics hinted above the hiss of the loudspeakers. He knew every word. That was all that mattered. His voice lifted into song, uniting with its cadence as his hands ran along the rubber black cord. He stepped toward the ledge to near them. Sharp notes surged and resonated in his chest.
A woman on the second level pulled an expressive blonde with penetrating, sky-blue eyes near the waterfalls to see him. Howie sang to the women, looking fixedly in their eyes. He walked back up on the deck, clenching his eyes in a fight to wrest hope and fear outside himself.
The Blonde had made her way to the first floor, and she cajoled a towering man toward the stage. She stressed her nearness, her strength of presence, with hips and smiles. The towering man danced and he seemed to enjoy her. A boisterous couple in office clothes sashayed their hips while in a loose handhold. Drinkers joined, filling voids, freeing the group from self-consciousness as it congested. They grinded on each other, improvising ballroom spins while men dipped women so close to the floor. Couples held in fast embraces, slow dancing.
The band rose-up behind him, pushing air, channeling vibrations through the floor, up into his knees as his ears grew feverish, ringing. His diaphragm flexed. His throat tingled. It burned as he stole his breaths with passing caesuras.
Guitars and cymbals died with the dancer’s moves slowing like a solidifying flow, calming, lights revealing sweaty skin and starry eyes as they turned to the stage. They clapped. Men shouted with drunkenness.
Howie placed the microphone back in its stand. “Thank you.”
He walked into the crowd. People watched him. But his inner voice drowned in adrenaline, making him taller. A lovely young girl stood before him, her countenance brimming as she looked over him. He smiled and clasped her dainty shoulder as he past.
The band’s singer came over the loudspeakers, “Strange. But not bad.” They ripped into Van Halen’s You Really Got Me and a stocky man near the bar whistled with his fingers.
Howie walked behind the right side of the stage. Inside a broad corridor, a gathering fanned around a bathroom, waiting. Past them, patrons filled a decent-sized room. The lingering patrons seemed a diverse group, men and women, maybe fifteen, mostly drinking from tulip-shaped Bordeaux wine glasses. A middle-aged, well-traveled man with gold earrings and bandana leaned forward in his wheelchair, grinning like a young boy.
The handsome man in the white polo burst from the woman’s-room, arms rising with red wine falling, swashing the floor. The gathering roared. “OH MY GOD!” “I CAN’T BELIEVE IT!” A slender woman slinked confidently out the woman’s-room and along the corridor.
Howie stopped and watched the man’s exchange with the guy in the wheelchair.
The man turned to Howie. “Fuck off already, man.”
An aloof blonde ringed the man’s waist, clinging. “Isn’t this the guy that did the singing?”
“What’s going on?” Howie asked.
The man neared. “I railed my fourth chick in this bathroom.” He reeked of merlot, glancing around and upward, “MY ASSOCIATES CONGRATULATE ME!”
“Maybe,” Howie glanced to his left, “Maybe, she fucked you.”
A couple guys and a woman stopped to listen.
The man’s pupils jittered side-to-side, seeming to focus on him. “I railed my fourth one tonight. I didn’t have to sing like a damn idiot.”
“And you missed a bit,” Howie pantomimed the removal of specks of white powder below the man’s nose.
The growing crowd peppered with snorting giggles and hand-muffled laughter. The man turned his back slowly to set his wineglass on a rail, approaching, flexing a striated forearm and a broad bicep. Calmness fell over his face. “Why’d you say that, friend?”
“I’m not sure, really. It just seemed approp—”
Hard knuckles rammed into Howie’s eye-socket, igniting him, forcing a yelp before the blackness filled with a guitar riff growing faint. He drifted from his cheek pressed against the hardwood.
An arm pulled him up as he ran his fingers over the cold drool he’d left on the floor. He recognized the smaller bartender. “Where?” His head felt like he’d been rung.
“You’re at Jagger’s,” the bartender said. “You sang and you got knocked out.”
Howie groaned, rubbing his temple. “Funny.”
The bartender led him by the elbow toward the bar.
“What happened to the guy?”
“He’s not here. Don’t worry.”
“How about the free drink you . . .” He blinked, shaking his head. “Scotch on the rocks. Glenfiddich.” He touched a tender spot on his eye, grinning. “Mid-Nineties. Something from Mid-Nineties.”
“I suppose so. We can do that.” The bartender looked behind himself. “Actually, you should probably leave.” His hand pressed over Howie’s back. “Trust me.”
“You’re throwing me out?”
Outside, a mustang convertible dropped off women while a midnight-blue Beemer opened its door for some over-served bar-hoppers. Couples walked, held snug in each other. He could find his way home, though he felt dizzy. His eye throbbed and constricted. It would swell, bruise purple. But he didn’t know anybody, so he wouldn’t have to explain and there were weeks before his work began at the firm.
He turned back to quick footsteps nearing. The bartender’s face flushed as he sloshed liquor over the rim of a tumbler. “Here,” he handed it to him, catching his breath. “Top shelf, man. Keep the glass.”
“Thanks.” He took a drink. “What happened to the guy who punched me?”
“Went upstairs to his office. I hate that guy.”
“He owns the place?”
“I wouldn’t come back for a couple months.”
“Not a bad idea.” Howie gave a farewell wave and turned away.
He finished the drink and left the glass atop a brick building’s windowsill. It wasn’t long before the buzz lessened the pain. He smiled at people that past him, though only a few ventured eye-contact once they’d seen his face. It was an enjoyable walk home, despite the earlier violence and the corresponding thoughts that nebulously filled his mind. With an upward gaze the night sky held vastness vaguely similar to the possibilities afforded a single man in a new city.