Gregg sat at the bar, in deep communion with his second gin and tonic. In between sips, he would hunch lower and watch moisture gather on his glass, droplets which clung to their spots as long as they could before plunging to the coaster beneath. Sometimes two droplets formed at the same time and Gregg pretended they were racing. In the reddened darkness of the Nighthawk’s lounge lighting he felt safe and unseen and he watched the dampness form circles on his coaster. As usual when Gregg’s set was over Roger had started up his old scratchy jazz through the speaker system, nothing like the stuff Gregg played but slower, more plodding, more methodical. Up until now Gregg never realized that Roger always started with the same song. He hummed along to bits of the tune, passively memorized. Every Thursday for over a year and he hadn’t noticed. Then the other side of the coin: he’d been playing the Nighthawk for more than a year. Put in the time and something will come along, it just has to, but how much time does he have to put in? He finished his drink and signaled to Roger for another.
The coaster his drinks were dampening featured a mustached man raising a mug in toast to unseen conviviality. Gregg studied him. A grin drunkenly plastered across the face, beer foam sticking to his upper lip. Ruddy, pockmarked skin. Something Russian about the image. The gin and tonics trapped the man inside evanescent rings but he went on toasting life regardless. Roger took Gregg’s old glass and moments later returned with a filled one, so full that some tonic (Roger’s mixological method was to dump a shot of gin in first and add all the tonic after, no mixing, so there was clear delineation between gin and tonic to begin) spilled as he set it down. Gregg’s cup runneth over.
There were perks to playing to empty rooms, once upon a time. As a newcomer to the live music scene Gregg somewhat enjoyed these no-show nights, up on stage without worry of judgment, freer to stretch his limits, try things he might not otherwise try. He got paid either way. But that was some twenty years ago, and the lessons to be gleaned from empty room performances were all long since gleaned. Now it was just playing to an empty room. Gregg was not so literal a man that that had to mean no one was there. If the few people in the bar couldn’t bother to watch, it counted as empty.
Every now and then sitting on his barstool Gregg would touch his foot to the saxophone case at his feet. It was a nervous habit more than anything, just checking it was still there, something he picked from the embellished cautionary tales of his most practical and paranoid elders in the live music scene. It mattered more in earlier days when his name could almost be called a draw, when the shows he played had audiences, when he had a partner, when everyone could sense some sort of propulsion in his fledgling career. No one would bother stealing his instrument now—no one around to steal it.
He wondered about Alex. It all happened years before but he wondered from time to time. Hard not to be mawkish when the world so insists upon it, all signs declaring the past the place to be. He gulped some of his drink and placed it back on the coaster. He supposed Alex was still with Sophia because if he wasn’t, why hadn’t he called? The two had to still be together. Gregg hadn’t liked her and told Alex so and said it was for the sake of the band but he must’ve been wrong about her because all this time they must’ve remained together. Really it didn’t matter because Alex wasn’t cut out for this life, didn’t have the stomach for it, too concerned with the lesser and more immediate. Sure they weren’t making money but that couldn’t be the motivator anyway. Gregg told himself for years he didn’t mind and maybe he did a little but there’s no gain without sacrifice or at least no worthwhile gain. He worked the bars and clubs that accepted him and poured his soul into performing and one day he’d be appreciated even if he didn’t live to see that day. There’s payment for you—recognition. He daren’t say glory but when the word popped up and fizzled in his imaginings it left a giddy aftertaste. Recognition was what he said out loud.
The past or future, then, were the acceptable places to reside. The present was less appealing. He downed some more gin and tonic and made a mental note to remind Roger to fix his clock. For months the hands remained stuck pointing almost skyward, 11:53, and Roger said he’d fix it when it stopped working but he also said no one cares anymore, they all have phones. Modernity in a nutshell, that. No one watches the performers, and everyone has a phone. Gregg suspected some relation but could never move his theories into more concrete territory. He was not deluded enough to think he had all the answers, but he certainly knew the questions. He asked them constantly, to whomever would listen. Admittedly that pool was becoming smaller and smaller.
Of the handful of people in the bar who didn’t watch him play earlier, only two remained. They were a young couple, or maybe just a couple of young people, a man and woman crowding into each other and giggling softly for all the bar to hear. No decorum. The woman was out of the man’s league but she laughed whenever he spoke and Gregg knew that counted for something. On the bar in front of her was an empty martini glass that earlier held some cherry liquid. The man was drinking beer.
“You wanna know something?” the guy asked, playful and smirking. Gregg watched and listened and sipped his drink. “I could tell you were into me as soon as we met.” The smirk widened into a grin as the words came out. He smiled and talked out of the right side of his mouth. He had well-tended blonde hair swept to the side, a corporate look he leaned into. He wore a navy blazer with a pressed dress shirt underneath. His voice slurred a little but not much.
The woman laughed and shook her head. “No chance. I wasn’t interested in you then.” She smiled coyly and her hand went to her drink, dropped to the bar when she realized the glass was empty.
“No?” he asked, grinning.
“I had a lot on my mind that night,” she told him.
“Ted noticed it too.”
“That night. He said you kept looking at me.”
“Ted doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
“I’m just saying, if I noticed it, and Ted noticed it…” He flashed his palms, let implication run its course.
“So you think you know what I was thinking better than I do?” They each sported smiles out of proportion with their words.
“Maybe you tried to suppress it, I dunno. But you were digging my style, there’s no doubt about that. And here we are tonight. If I was wrong I doubt you’d be sitting there.”
She laughed and shook her head and took her hand off the bar but Gregg couldn’t see where she placed it. “No chance,” she repeated, shaking her head, smiling, playing along.
Gregg shook his head and finished his drink. He had a habit of foisting loneliness on himself and thinking it lonesomeness. The latter held something attractive, something elective—he was here because it is where he wanted to be. He motioned to Roger for another drink. The young man leaned in closer to the woman. Gregg couldn’t hear their conversation anymore. How many times had this scene played out, different actors in the same roles? Gregg knew the direction it would go. Though he could only follow the saga to the bar’s exit he knew the next steps. Roger took the empty glass without a word but Gregg caught his eye and Roger stayed to listen.
“You know those two?” Gregg asked.
“No. First time I’ve seen them. Guy said he lives right around here, though.”
“Can you tell them to stop being so loud? I’m trying to enjoy my peace and quiet.”
Roger looked at the pair then back at Gregg. “You want another of these?”, shaking the glass and sloshing the remnant ice.
“It’s like they don’t even realize they aren’t the only people in here.”
Roger sighed. “You really need me to go talk to them?”
Gregg swallowed hard and glared at the pair. Neither looked up. “It’s alright,” he said at last to Roger, averting his eyes from the two, shaking his head more to convey the enormity of this concession.
“Another one, then?”
“Sure,” he grumbled. “You got the time?”
Roger looked at the clock. “11:53.”
“Very funny. I mean for real.”
“About fifteen past midnight.”
“Early, still,” Gregg said, nodding. He dared another look at the couple.
“Yep,” Roger replied, and went to fix another drink. Gregg touched his foot to his saxophone case and watched the pair. As a new, full gin and tonic appeared on Gregg’s coaster, the couple stood and leered at each other, the man throwing an arm around the woman and her snuggling into it, what it is to be young and in lust. Gregg put the drink to his lips but didn’t sip, watched frozen in that pose while the two staggered out of the lounge as one. He put the drink down. No one else in the lounge then, save Roger. While playing the woman had looked at him and smiled and tucked her hair behind her ear. When there’s less to be hopeful about, you look for hope in the insignificant, like some preterite frontiersman crouched down to the riverbed panning for gold and coming up with muck.
Roger leaned against the back wall and folded his arms and watched Gregg drink. Gregg took a deep sip, methodical, eyes down in front of him. “You gonna want another after that?” Roger asked.
Gregg swallowed and looked up. “Probably.”
“I thought you played good tonight, by the way.”
Roger blinked, jerked his thumb toward the restrooms and said, “I gotta use the can. I’ll get you another when I get back.” Then he left.
Gregg swung his legs around his barstool and faced the lounge. When he first started playing here Roger mentioned the owner was planning on ripping out the cheap maroon carpeting in favor of something more elegant but that move seemed to be indefinitely postponed. Roger hadn’t mentioned it since and the carpet remained untouched. Gregg didn’t mind, though—it gave the Nighthawk an eerie ambiance he thought suited his style as a performer. Wedged in the far corner was the stage, a sad little platform about a foot high. The mic stand stayed up always, even when the microphone was put away. It reminded Gregg of a flagpole with no flag. He imagined how his writhing, sweating visage would look from this seat, over the expanse of four tables to the stage. Florid faced, twirling and gyrating, cheeks puffed, fingers dancing spiderlike over the saxophone keys. This was not a big venue but they let him play every week and drink for free afterwards so he never complained. Sometimes people would come up to him after sets and compliment his passion on stage. They said it really came through that he gave it his all. This was the encouragement he needed. He needed to put in his dues and they reminded him of that.
Roger came back from the bathroom and made another gin and tonic. Gregg finished his from half empty and plopped the glass down on his coaster and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
“Just to be clear,” Roger said as he swapped the old drink for the new, “this is the last one tonight. I gotta get to bed early.” He took the old glass and started cleaning it.
Gregg paused and nodded. “Understood.”
“You’re playing next week?” Roger asked, scrubbing the glass, eyes on it and not Gregg.
“Of course,” Gregg said simply. He took a deep swig of his drink and let the liquid sit in his mouth a moment before swallowing. Then he nodded and smiled at Roger. “Long as you got a show to play, I’m playing it.” Roger didn’t look up. At length Gregg added, as if a reminder, “Every Thursday.”