He flowed onto the bar, elbows perched upon the hard edge with his shoulders slumped, a cigarette in one hand while the other aimlessly caressed a shot of whiskey, neat. The smell of stale beer and smoke mingled with decades of accumulated broken dreams and lingering hope. He regarded his reflection in the bar room mirror, and his face, gray-bearded and worn, stared back at him, half obscured behind rows of liquor in the dimly lit dive.
“Hey, John, you want another one?” Mickey said. Like he didn’t know.
John fell back into the foggy trance he’d wandered in for the last hour, meeting his own gaze, a certain kind of defiance in it. He remembered the first time he came in here, how he sat in front of this same dammed mirror, perhaps even on the same padded stool, back when he was shiny and new and his eyes burned with that fire which comes with youth and certainty. It was empty that first afternoon, just him and Diane, who still owned the place, and old Billy, who was sitting at a battered piano playing a hit song he’d written back in the seventies, three chords and the truth. It was magical; John was hooked.
That was why he’d moved to Music City, to be around people like that, places like this. To write songs and play music until all hours of the night and grasp the thrum of creative energy that hummed in the air all around this place and inside him. He yearned to find a way to unleash it, to tap into a force greater than he, to channel those ideas and create something great.
In those early years, ideas danced all around him in the way of magic, swirling threads of many colors, each one a line, a melody, an emotion, a truth. He figured that all he had to do was reach out and grasp those threads, weave them together, and sit down with his guitar, and something beautiful would eventually emerge, a song never heard before. Nashville, and then the world, would recognize this rare talent, of course, and reward him with the praise and cash commensurate with his ability.
It had only taken John a few weeks to figure out that he’d overestimated his unique skill set, which proved far less rare than he’d initially believed. There were folks writing poetry and lyrics that would have made Kirstofferson proud, singing their asses off in front of empty bars and tip-jars. Yet, he kept believing, working to get better, honing his craft. His fingertips were calloused from long hours playing his guitar, and his skin grew thick with rejection. Sometimes he wanted to quit, but he didn’t because he believed. Really, he didn’t have a choice, for writing was in him.
The years slid by while John wrote and played songs and networked and drank on Music Row. He lost his wife, who grew to despise him in spite of her kind nature, and he lost himself, too, somewhere right in the vicinity of where he now sat. She couldn’t forgive the wasted potential, and neither could he. She had a great job, while he was a mere “aspiring writer.” That’s how she introduced him at cocktail parties, and it made him grind his teeth then. Ten years of marriage down the drain. He wanted to think he was better than he was, and that label was something he chaffed at. Either you were a writer or you weren’t.
“John, do you want another one?”
“What do you think?”
“You’re too ugly to be an ass, and not old enough to get away with it,” Mickey quipped, sliding another one across the bar.
“Thanks,” John said.
“Written any songs lately?” Mickey said.
“A few. You know how it is.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
Mickey used to write songs, too. But last night he sang the same four songs he’d played relentlessly ten and twenty years ago, though now his voice was shot to hell. Back when John first heard the man sing, he sounded like Garth Brooks. Now it was like Garth on gravel with bad pitch. Back then, writers would pass around a beat-up guitar at the bar until five in the morning, after the bar was supposed to be closed, and Mikey would play harmonica while Billy made the piano sing and someone was always there on the fiddle, and there’d be mandolins and upright base-guitars, and girls singing harmony. All the while, the beer flowed and people laughed and wrote and played and created. It was joyous. That’s how he remembered it, anyway.
“What happened to this place, man?” John said.
“Progress. We’re busier than we’ve ever been. Nightly live shows, tourists come in and out every day. Business has never been better.”
“It’s dead, though.”
“The hell it is! Look at that table over there, a tour bus from Tampa. They just tipped me a hundred bucks. This place is hopping now. You’ve been gone a while.”
“The whole Row has changed. It makes me sad. Don’t you wonder what the hell happened? The publishers all moving away, high-rises taking over. There’s no heart here anymore. It used to be…intimate. Now it’s all corporate, impersonal, worse than I remember it.”
“You sound just like the Doctor Doom I remember,” Mickey laughed. “I never liked you then. You were arrogant, always bitching about “politics.” Guess what? You don’t have what it takes. Never did. And this place is still here, while you’re just passing through.”
“Screw you, Mickey.”
“You deserve it.”
“Maybe. But I’m just trying to sit here and have a drink in my old watering-hole.”
“It’s not your watering hole any more. So, you don’t get to talk bad about it now. I saw your ex in the paper last week, by the way. She looks great. A real peach.”
“Good for her,” John said, meaning it.
“So why’d you get divorced, anyway? I remember her coming in here to meet you, her all dolled up and professional in her business suit and you in your cut-up jeans and long hair. We all wondered when she’d leave your ass.”
John picked up his glass and gripped it tighter than he usually did, a slight nod of his head as he had a conversation with himself, the one where he reminded himself that he had much to lose and nothing to gain by coming across the bar.
“That’s not how it was. But you can go ahead and check yourself now, Mickey. Cause’ I never liked you either.”
“Just messing with you, Doctor Doom.” Mickey snickered and stuffed his rag down into the back of his jeans and turned away.
The juke-box which once wailed Haggard, Jones, and Cash now blasted pop-country-rap while a group of starry-eyed kids set up on stage with nervous energy and fervent belief, like this was their moment. They wore hats and cowboy boots, and John smiled. They launched into a predictable set of songs about trucks and beer and girls in cut-off jeans and the tourists from Oklahoma cheered.
A kid sat down next to John, after he’d left the guitar on his back next to the stack of them lining the stage. He grinned, his eyes full of wonder and glory, scruffy and earnest.
“Hey, man,” he said, “are you gonna get up on stage?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“You new in town? I’m Lance, by the way.”
“John. Nice to meet ya. I’m just passing through.”
“Ah. Well, this place has a way of getting in your blood. Watch out, or you might just stay.” He laughed. “There’s a cool vibe here, you know? An energy in the air. It’s like nowhere I’ve ever been. What are you doing here, if you aren’t here to pick some songs?”
“Reconnecting. Remembering. I don’t know. I love this place. Or at least, I used to.”
Lance got a far away look in his eyes, something akin to pity and perhaps a bit of fear.
“Ah,” he said, “you’re a writer. Moved away. That’s a hard thing.”
“Not really,” John lied.
“If you didn’t miss it, you wouldn’t be here, though, would you?”
“I worry about that, you know. Swinging for the fences and striking out. Failing in a spectacular way, because there are so many people more talented than me here trying to get through the same little door. And one day you wake up and you’re forty and wonder where your life went. No offense.”
“None taken. Trust me, I had that conversation with myself, right here, many times. Wondering why I what the hell I was doing. I moved away when I was thirty-five, no regrets.”
“So, what happened?”
“Life happened. And that’s a good thing, not something to be ashamed of. I used to think that there was nothing more important in the world than my music and my writing. I was a fool. By the time I figured that out, it was too late.”
Lance nodded his head, silent for a few minutes while the kids on stage wrapped up their set with an original song, a ballad about the death of a loved one. I noticed that the bar quieted down, and folks were listening, feeling it.
“I think the same way,” Lance said, peeling the label on the longneck in front of him. “Maybe it’s the only way to make it, to be willing to give everything up. Art demands sacrifice. Somebody said that. I’m willing to go the distance, but I worry how I’ll feel in ten years if I still haven’t gotten a cut.”
“It’s different for everyone,” John said.
“I’m up,” Lance said, brightening. “Wish me luck.”
He marched up to the stage, unzipping his gig bag and removing a battered Martin. John grinned. The kid had taste in guitars, anyway. He played finger style, a unique arpeggio, and sang a song about whiskey and loss, and damn it if John didn’t find some rain in his eyes. Lance was good, really good.
The crowd clapped after the song, though not with the same enthusiasm they’d displayed for the trucks and girls in Daisy-Duke’s. He spoke into the microphone, his voice a deep baritone, and said “I’d like to get my new friend John up on the stage. What do y’all think?” More tepid applause.
What the hell, John thought. That’s why I came here, maybe. He stepped up to the stage, and one of the other writers offered him a nice Taylor to play. Lance grinned at him, one hand shielding the mike, and said “I hope you don’t mind me puttin’ you on the spot. Let’s see what you got.”
“It’ll be fun,” John said. “Back me up.”
John played “Rainy Night in Nashville,” a song he’d written just before he left town, a sad song about broken dreams, and Lance sang harmony and laid down some cool licks. John lost himself in the melody, embracing the moment, weaving the threads dancing in the air around him.
After they left the stage, the two sat back down at the bar, and Lance slapped John on the back. “You’re pretty good, man.”
“Thanks. You’ve got it, Lance. That rare thing. You’re gonna make it, so don’t listen to old fools like me.”
“That song you played is still on the juke box here,” Lance said. “I dig it.”
John felt a warm hand on his neck, and he turned. His wife smiled at him, appearing from nowhere, long dark hair tumbling over her shoulders, her dress cut low enough for a hint of cleavage. She smelled like flowers and hope and sunshine. She kissed him on the lips and squeezed his thigh.
“How’s memory lane?” She said.
“Good. This is Lance, by the way. Really talented writer.”
“Hi, Lance, I’m Kelli. Did John invite you to the book signing?”
“Hi, uh, no.”
“Well, you should come. We’re going for drinks afterwards with some friends. You should join us. Always fun to hang out with a bunch of songwriters.”
“He didn’t tell you? A book signing at the Vanderbilt Barnes & Noble for his new novel.”
Lance arched his eyebrows, an almost relieved smile spreading across his face. “You write books? My faith is restored. You had me worried, there, for a minute.”
“Writers write,” John said, with a laugh.
Mickey sidled up to us, leering at Kelli. “So,” Mickey said. “It’s starting to make sense now.”
“Yep,” Lance said. “When you said life happened, I didn’t quite understand. But I do now.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Kelli said.
“Well, you’re beautiful.”
“Isn’t she, though?” John said, running his hand over her backside, savoring the curves in all the right places. “Gave me two boys and thirteen years. Now we’re getting to the really good part, I think.”
“It’s hell being married to a writer sometimes,” she said. “We had to learn to quit worrying about what might happen, and live in those times between the folds. Once we did that, it got easier. You writer-types spend so much time pining away for a dream, you miss the good stuff happening all around you every day. Do that enough, and it all starts going to hell in a hand basket.”
John and Kelli said goodbye to their new friend, and strode into the pale afternoon light hand in hand and the old homes cast friendly shadows down Sixteenth Avenue, while the new offices and condos looked on with disdain and music from the last bar on the row poured out onto the street and life was good.