“Red” (Washed Out Series)

Posted: August 1, 2012 in Scribbled Notes, Typed Pages and Published Work

The second entry in my little flash fiction series.  See “Drive” for an explanation of the collection’s premise.

Smoke fills the room.

Across bare brick, hard ash, cold concrete, the layers of a thousand cheap snapshots flitter and wave in the stuffy smog outdoors.  It’s a Friday.  Neon whips by in solid lines beyond the kicked and battered door.  It’s done so for hours.

The establishment’s quiet; waiting and sipping drinks with a blue-collar weariness famous the world over.  Leather jackets wear smudges in the cheap upholstery.

Across one end of clippings and cheap ink is a bar worn by years of pounded fists, slapped palms and blackjack hands.  Stained glasses hang overhead in their dozens.  A few sit or slouch across its polished face with hands on their drinks and their pay stubs in the bartender’s greasy hands.

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.”

The baritone voice drifting from the speakers is raspier than usual and washed out.  It’s the static, though the three single-malt slugs before didn’t help.

Heads turn.  Who is he kidding?

Out of key.

He kicks the stand aside, wishing it would burn.  The old days would have him blowing this one to electronic catatonia in the space of a single set.  He’d burn a dozen out before the end of the night.  The killer ‘chords he’d tested in his youth were still strong and still steady.  The embers had ripped at his heart in time with the drums and the drugs and the deafening baying of a bloodthirsty mob screaming their hearts out before him were silent now.

Stagnation had buried them.  Age had said a few words over the remains.

Those days of sold-out amphitheatres are over.  The after parties and fast sex have blown his brains and his sense out long ago.

Nothing left to do but play.

The gloom of the room flows across the myriad of slouched backs and bundles across the floor.  Nobody but the man is without Belmont’s or d’Lauriers; a nicotine-inspired parody of a candlelight vigil.

He strikes up a tune, fingers groping the E, reaching up to the G with a lag he hasn’t shaken since his lock-up days.

Too soft- the receptor is barely picking it up.  Shit equipment, as always, but beggars can’t be choosers.  His coat-tail flips from the stool’s back end- jet black and caked with the leavings of his apartment’s rotting plaster.  A single red strip chases its way up the old coat’s outer seams to his high collar.  Despite the bulk of the coat, there’s a vast hollow space beneath.  He isn’t well-fed, muscled, or wiry.

A hand thumps the table before him.  A shaven-headed fifty-something with anchors across his arms and intoxication stitched across his face yells out a syllable.  It’s indistinct.

A word?  An insult at least?

He can’t tell over the faint twanging, but his mates’ reaction isn’t much better.
Dockworkers, all of them.  It might have been their girlfriends and sisters keeping him up in his slowly rotting apartment last night.  Pen had tried to move across his staff paper for the first time since leaving the clink.  It had ventured past the first two bars and stopped, dead.  Unfair.  Weaving notes hadn’t been hard before.

It hadn’t been agonizing.

Thumps and muted moans had shattered his concentration.

When in the last three decades had he ever concentrated?

“Piss off” murmured one of the dockworkers.

He sighs, shakes his head slightly.  His steel-grey hair flips from behind his coat, tied tight with the few spare strings he keeps.  Eyes green as neon flickers in the smoke and the dust.

Everything is a haze.

Everything is a goddamn haze.

A pick slips into his hand.  A paw would be a better description.  Worn away by scars, battered by beers and handshakes, sweetened by under-the-skirt caresses or soulful twangs, burned by the unceasing dancing of the strings.

They define him.

More can be said about his hands than any other part of his body.  Veins seem to break the skin.  They are rough, but how they dance.

Correction.  How they danced.

A pluck slips into a short chord.  He’s getting back the muse, but for how long?  Is it a quick kiss over a smoke or a long, sleepless night?

He grins, though anyone looking up from their pints would call it a grimace.

Both eyes close.  The pick between his hands slips to the floor.  All five fingertips quiver.  They’ve done this before.

Though he can’t see a thing, his left hand presses lightly across the fret board.  This old Gibson has taken him places.  It has thrust him before thousands.  It has bought him fuck-buddies, agents, and fame.  It has slashed airwaves and amps to pieces with punkish impunity.

It is only a guitar.

It’s only an instrument.

This is only a bar.

He is only a channel.

Slowly, he lets the chord build into a construction.  His fingers barely know when to land next.  His index finger is everywhere at once.  The sting of strings after so long is a sweet pain.

The dark wood and dark red body of the guitar shakes, quivers with the violence of his strumming.  It’s taken worse during its time in bars, bedrooms, and back alleys.

He hasn’t.

For so long, this has been stuck inside his mind, in smoky bars and blasé crowds and the uncaring rumbling of the world outside.  These tunes are being swept up off the floor and squished and moulded together into something useful.  It isn’t choreographed.  It isn’t work shopped.

It simply is.

The tumble of notes falling from the amp is growing, changing.  He himself is only a spectator.  It is out of his hands.

Gliding crescendos pitch to snap-quick taps.  He feels the fret board bend under his fingertips.  It can take the strain.  Heaven knows he has.

A low bass grumbles into life.  It acts as an anchor, keeps his frenzied but sober escapade level and steady.

He looks up for a moment.  She wasn’t beside him.  She was stuck in a different smoky bar in a different part of town.  Unlike him, she was playing a tune she loathed.

Behind that, the gunshot-quick crack of a drum keeping time.  Nobody is filling that role so far, but who is he to complain of the muse’s gifts?

It’s all in his head.  Despite the insanity of it all, it was a delusion he surrenders to.
Worse yet, it will all die as soon as the strings vibrate for the last time.  He knows he can never write this.

He won’t presume to try.  Gifts from a muse are rarely anticipated.  They only drink themselves to death in their endless repetition.

Hard riffs blare across his boots.  A throwback to his old life, a petty time of calculated fury and choreographed violence.

That life doesn’t stand a chance in a smoky room.

Applause shakes him from his revelry.

He doesn’t remember stopping, staring, and snatching up the beer beside him.  Nor does he remember exactly what he says.  What he does remember doing is staring at a mug, clutched by a blushing college girl looking to score.

No matter the dark of his coat or the darker man beneath, the red of his Gibson still glows.  It always has, and likely always will in the cafes and bars beside the dirty dockside blocks that are his stomping grounds.

Red lace always borders his throat.


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