The bar was dark — almost pitch black, and I liked it that way. Nothing but little candles on the tables, like stars in a night sky, to provide a brief soupçon of light. My boyfriend, Tony, sat across from me, and even though I could hear his groans of displeasure at the old guitarist who played on the stage, the darkness that gathered between us blanked out Tony’s visage. I couldn’t see him. Our candle had burned out.
The guitarist, however, was bathed in light from a couple of tungsten bulbs that were mounted on the stage, lighting him like some vanquished warrior, recently down from Valhalla: An acoustic, six-stringed-strumming, poet-god. He played a nylon string Yamaha finger-style, and his nails had worn a hole in the soft spruce top of his guitar where it lacked a pickguard. He was a musical soldier, and his fighting machine was battle-scarred.
I fell for him at once. Music, and a man who makes it, always gets me. I’m a sucker for it. I guess you could say that’s how Tony landed me. Not that the jerk played music, but he had good taste in it — usually. I’d met him at a blues bar here in Austin and we clicked over a soul band’s jam. But when I went to his apartment I was more interested in his CDs than him, and perhaps that’s been the root of our problems ever since. I loved him more for the man he purported to be, than who he was, and that can last only so long.
“God, this guy sucks,” said Tony, “I can’t believe we came to this dump, Carrie.”
“You wanted another drink.” We’d been on something of a musical pub crawl since early afternoon. If I reckoned correctly, this was our twelfth bar, and the day had waned into night and then to early morning.
I considered saying something more, but there was no arguing with Tony. While he had introduced me to some great music, his was a narrow piece of the musical spectrum, and he was a narrow-minded ass. But somehow, months had morphed into a couple of years, and I was still with him. Comfort and familiarity, and perhaps a little fear of loneliness, kept me in his clutches.
“You suck, Dude!” shouted Tony, who then followed with more slurs and catcalls. I tuned him out, just as the guitarist was doing, and let the gentle music flow into me. The performer was consummate, and I could tell even at a distance that nothing would faze him. He stared straight ahead into some deep, unrealized destiny, his voice mellifluous and powerful. The succinct, yearning notes poured from his guitar as if from some foreign plane; a place I found I longed to go.
Two words from the guitarist’s song resonated with me. “Moving on,” he sang, over and over, until the song ended to silence from the mostly empty bar. Taking a break, he set down his guitar, then shook the few scant coins that were in his tip jar into his palm and made for the bar. I watched as he counted them out, feeling a bit of shared pain in the pit of my stomach as the bartender shrugged at his small collection of cash and left him drinkless.
By the soft glow of his cell phone screen, I could see that Tony was engrossed in some certainly important internet surf. I stood and walked over to the bar.
“Hey man, buy you a beer?”
“What? Well, sure, sweetie. Never turn down a beer. Never know when another might come along.”
I waved a twenty at the bartender and he brought over two longnecks. The guitarist took one and downed it in a few quick gulps. I slid the other to him.
“Ain’t that yours?”
“Nah, I’ll get another. Barkeep! Two more!”
“Hah, my dad used to say that.”
“Well, I reckon I’m old enough to be your daddy.”
“You ain’t that old,” I said, and his leathery face tightened into a smile.
“Nice of you to say.”
“Ain’t see you around town before, Walt.”
“Oh, I used to play Austin, back in the day. These days I move around here and there.”
“Moving on, eh?”
He laughed, then finished his second beer and started on the newly arrived third, the crow’s feet around his eyes tightening as he lost himself in the simple pleasure of the beer. I placed my hand on his, feeling warmth in his skin and strength in the fingers that squeezed beautiful music from his guitar.
“Carrie!” Tony sidled up behind me. “Come on. Let’s go.”
I looked at him. Two some-odd years of a wasted life swirled between us. I knew if I went with him, the years would morph into decades, and I’d grow old with a man I’d simply settled for. If I were going to love a man for music, maybe it should be a man who makes his own music, and not one who simply appropriates the beauty and coolness of others. Walt was a little rough, but I could tell one thing about him: He was real.
I shook my head. “No. I’m staying for Walt’s next set.”
“Walt? Who the hell is… oh. Fine. Stay and listen to the shitty music. What do I care? Find your own way home.” He left. Just like that.
Walt still held my hand. “That your fella?” he asked.
“What’s your plan, sweetie?”
“Listen to your next set. Then, well, I’ll be moving on.”
He laughed. “You like that song?”
“I do. Play it again.”
“Okay, sure. Just don’t move on until you’ve heard some of my other songs.”
I smiled and he went back to the stage. He began a strum that sounded like a locomotive easing out of a station, and as he sang I whispered the words in time with him. “Moving on, moving on.”
Christopher Owen lives in Texas with his wife and two cats. His work has appeared at Daily Science fiction, Mirror Dance, Mystic Signals and other places. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing workshop.
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