NIGHTWATCHING by John Zunski
At the entrance to town they were greeted by three dogs lying in the middle of the street. Only after the Escalade came to a stop did the dogs consider the McAfee’s worthiness. They studied the vehicle a long moment before standing and letting it pass.
Sondra’s eyes roamed disapprovingly from the trailer court at the town’s edge to the bungalows, cape cods and an A-frame that lined the street. Even the nicer ones seemed in disrepair — this one needed a new roof, that one was in need of a fresh coat of paint, another missing front steps.
Outside a cinderblock bungalow, an obese man with fat threatening to roll from beneath his undershirt and over his boxers, sat upon a rickety metal chair. Smoke bellowed from his mouth and from a cigarette as his eyes narrowed in consideration of the passing vehicle.
As they rounded a bend, they were greeted by a large neon sign that stretched from its building across the sidewalk and over the street. Even though it was a couple blocks away the sign dominated the street. It too needed repairs, its letters spelled AVERN.
Travis parked in front of the tavern. Sondra’s eyes roamed from missing pieces of wooden siding on the building’s exterior to the ancient snowmobile mounted high on its sidewall back to Travis, her mouth agape.
“Boyd and Chadwick’s,” Travis said.
“You’ve got to be kidding me. This place is a dump.”
“The correct term is a dive.” Travis squeezed her thigh. “What were you expecting, The Four Seasons?”
Sondra looked from the obnoxious green Rolling Rock neon in the window to her husband. “Maybe a nice place to enjoy a cocktail.”
“I’m sure they have something to kill the bug that is lodged up your ass.” Travis stepped out of the Escalade, circled about and opened her door. “Come on, give it a chance. If you don’t like it we’ll leave after a drink.”
The soft sound of an acoustic guitar and the echo of a distant voice spurned her from the passenger seat. Her heels clacked across the concrete sidewalk and up the cracked two steps of the bar.
A felling wedge propped the front door open as Sondra paused in the doorway to peer inside. Cigarette smoke floated across the bar like predawn fog. A figure in a flannel shirt and baseball cap was hunched over his guitar while working a voice smoothed by fine sandpaper. Above him neon lights burned in appreciation. Sondra swooned.
Catching herself, she slipped her hand into Travis’s as they quietly made their way to the end of the nearly empty bar.
If water could cry it would sound like this, Sondra thought. The words flowed from the guitarist’s mouth as naturally as water flows down stream. His lyrics caressed her ears: “To kiss the lips I miss… Through flames I pray in vain… in misery I long for her breath… Till I find you, heartbreak’s my only companion…I dream of your touch with longing and pain, longing and pain.”
When he finished, the musician reached out and took a long sip from his drink as the only other patron intoned a long: “Yes… yes!” The bartender clapped.
“Berlin’s always longing for pain,” the barkeep declared.
“Yeah man,” the patron said through a tobacco-stained beard that hung halfway to his chest. “That’s why I was married seven times.”
Sondra watched the man take a long drag on a hand rolled cigarette, his expression pure ecstasy. In Seattle she would have crossed the street to avoid someone similar.
“What can I get you folks?” the bartender asked as he flipped coasters in front of Sondra and Travis.
“Strawberry Martini, extra dry with a twist,” Sondra replied.
“The same,” Travis said.
The bartender hobbled to the beer cooler, produced two bottles of Bud and then poured two shots of bourbon and sat them before the couple.
“What’s this?” Sondra asked.
“Ghetto in the Meadow Martini, extra twisted. That’ll be nine dollars for both. If you don’t mind. Trey here,” the bartender pointed to the musician, “is waiting to play.”
Amused, Travis threw a twenty dollar bill on the bar and watched the bartender make change.
Sondra nudged him, her gaze asking: You’re going to allow this?
Travis shrugged and sipped his beer.
The bartender returned to his seat as Trey struck the first chord of the saddest song Sondra ever heard. With each note, tears gathered on the guitar strings. Wherever the musician’s fingers touched, another tear formed and soon they began to fall, forming a waterfall that fed an invisible lake around the guitarist’s barstool.
Sondra reached for the shot glass and brought it to her lips. Sweet bitterness exploded in her mouth, sending an electrical charge to parts of her body she’d long thought dead. She gasped as her throat burned. Real tears formed in her eyes.
The musician swung about, facing her. Though his head was down, his eyes studying the frets, she felt as if he were staring at her through the brim of his cap.
Overcome, she sat back in the barstool and closed her eyes, each sad note telling a story she longed to hear. On the cusp of understanding, the moment just before figuring everything out, the guitar stopped crying, the waterfall’s faucet creaked shut and the lake evaporated into a desert of peanut shells and dirt.
The claps of the others summoned her and she opened her eyes only to meet the guitarist’s stare. Even if she wanted to, she couldn’t avert his gaze.
After a moment he broke his stare, slammed down his shot, packed his guitar in its case and floated out the door without a word.
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