The player folds twice the scrap of paper he'd been writing on, the lines for a new song that had turned up so suddenly he'd felt compelled to tear a page from the magazine to write it down, an advert page but still the coffee shop's advert page, and the paper had made a ripping sound louder than expected and now he ducks a bit as he tucks the scrap away in the tiny key pocket of his jeans.
The new lines burn in his hand, glisten like gold, and after it is safely away he leans back in his seat, takes in the quality of the street in the morning. Devoid of congestion, it is at stark contrast with what it will be just an hour from now, the morning rush, the single-minded flow. It feels like possibility. Already, there is a crowd gathered outside the bookstore. All caps and backpacks studded with the university football logo. By now he rarely allows himself what is called fool's hope (like fool's gold, shining brightly until it is properly identified) but today he can't help but imagine that word had gotten around campus and the kids are waiting there for him.
Hobob is waiting there as well, off to the side of the crowd. The Player can see that he's quickly scraped together a sign. He'd passed by Hobob on his way in this morning, a familiar face from days working this very strip. He'd given the old man some bills and told him about the gigs he was doing these days. How he'd pressed a CD. How he'd been playing just about anywhere to get his name out, sell some discs. "I'm my own LP, in a way." "That's good man," Hobob had said, using his hand to cover his nose as he sniffled, "Say man, let me borrow your guita case while you're in there. I'll cut you in. Swear. On my mama's grave." And then he'd put his arms up like he was surrendering to, not God's but the Player's judgment, his head lowered to the side, eyes closed as if he'd nothing to hide. How could he deny an oath made on Hobob's mama's grave?
The Player had retired to the coffee shop while Hobob went off to bum material for a sign; so here he is, sitting at the high table bisecting the large glass window of the coffee shop across the street from the mega-chain bookstore waiting for the manager to finally emerge, Nessie-like, from the glass vestibule and unlock the doors. He is eager to get in and set-up (there will be the folding chairs to unfold, a speaker system to hook up); it's already a quarter to seven by the clock tower.
She doesn't arrive until ten minutes later, harried, double-parking, jumping out of the side of an old Caprice, latte in hand. Late for work. She pushes her way through and after a moment the crowd begins to sag in the middle where she had disappeared. The player leaves his stool by the window, picks up his guitar and a plastic grocery bag full of CDs and makes his way across the street. He stops beside the waiting Hobob and takes his guitar out of its case and leaves the case on the sidewalk. Hobob holds the door open for him like a doorman as he walks inside.
He thinks about what Hobob's sign says as he enters. It says: Lost my job, my womon, my damn git'ar. Pls Help. He smiles to himself. Today will be a good day for the Blues.
"Do you, like, do this often?" The manager of the bookstore, a pretty lady young enough to be a student, asks him in a somewhat interested manner after he helps her cart the folded dry wall backdrop from the storage room to the magazine section. "Yeah. I do. Do you?" He returns absently while trying and failing to lever up a corner of the folded backdrop with the tip of an alligator hide boot to peek inside.
"No, you think we would, though. You know, all the kids with guitars these days."
"Lady, I can't afford for it to be a hobby."
"You mean this is all you do?"
"I thought you worked around here."
Just as expected, the luster of interest quickly tarnishes. He can see it in the face she makes as she turns her head to look towards some sound, faraway and imagined.
He opens up the folding backdrop and flinches. It is not just black crushed velvet as the outside of the display had led him to believe. Instead, at least two hundred CDs that shimmer in the fluorescent lighting are hot glued to the furry hide. Some are turned over on their blank sides, but others show gaudy painted faces, not so hot selling artists, one hit wonders. A rising-star graveyard. Some of them are even signed.
A laminated sign hangs over it all with the store logo announcing that it is "Helping Those With Dreams Make It." The manager hands him a dry erase marker and points to the blanks that he should fill in:
"Playing from his/her record __________,"
"Please welcome ______________."
He recognizes the signs purpose. It will hang over his head and combined with the tri-fold backdrop setup will offer the impression that he is a science fair exhibit.
"I'll bring the handcart around after you're done," the manager says. "So you can load all this stuff back on it."
He likes to write and to perform songs that actually tell stories. He thinks most songs these days fail miserably at this. Hip-hop, Rip-rap, Glitz-glam. Money this. Booty that. Songs about jilted love or high school graduation, songs to play as background noise on certain, specified occasions, music that has lost its soul.
Through his own music, which is actually the latest manifestation of a long, storied tradition, he hopes to tell stories about hope, and about the loss of hope and, just maybe, about redemption. Stories about people that move away from small towns in search of something and that eventually end back where they started. This particular song is called Trageville. The title is a combination of tragedy and ville, and is also a not so oblique reference to Tragerville, an actual town in the flat wilds of Texas.
It is a song about a young couple driving back to town with their newborn son because the town they actually live in, this Trageville, is too small to have the facilities required for modern childbirth.
The couple is made up of a pair of dreamers that find each other only after they have given up. In the song they bring the product of this union back to the steel silos and pipelines of Trageville, wrapped in a baby blue blanket in mother's arms, staring cross-eyed at the driver, a serious looking man with Popeye forearms and his hair cropped, military-style, like a second skin to his head. The man leans forward in his seat as he drives, as if he's eager to return to something waiting for him back in town though his wife and newborn son coo at each on the passenger's side.
The man is anxious to return to his stool at the bar he frequents, as comfortable a stool as there can be, one whose vinyl-faux-leather is molded to the shape of his ass. When he tells his wife he is going to his friends house to work on an old Buick which they have been working on for three years and is still on blocks, he is going there. This hole seems to be the only oasis that the oil company has sanctioned in its little refinery town. It's called the Gutbucket, and in a smirking thematic nod, the lights are decidedly dim, the décor reservedly shabby and the only type of music that the jukebox is stocked with is the Blues. Though the old Rock-Ola spans the entire spectrum of its chosen vocation, Texas to Chicago to Delta, it has gotten to be that after years of basically forced patronage, the regulars, tired of frowning through the limited selection, would just as soon leave the thing alone and nurse their drinks in silence.
The driver will admit if you press him that he prefers Country & Western. Nevertheless, he is a great patron of beer (especially when it comes ice cold and in a bottle) and he is mighty thirsty on this cloudless morning after three days of bland hospital food and just plain coffee to keep him. Pretty soon the father is bringing the child to this place where he drinks his disappointments away. He brings the baby along and sets him on the next stool over, still strapped in his carrier. Of course, a baby can ruin the nursing silence of a place like this and after ice chips and fingers dipped in whiskey fail to soothe the wailing child, the Rock-Ola is finally resurrected as a pacifier. It is the best thing that domestically inept field workers can come up with, and it works. The baby gurgles happily in his car seat, reaching out a tiny hand as if to touch the voices hanging in the air, thick as cigarette smoke, while his father slowly inebriates himself to the point where the ground seems to be just a large plate twirling on a pole and nearby objects double up. Inebriated to the point that it will require the child's mother to come and collect them both. By the time he is three, the child is just another regular at the Bucket. Terry, the bartender always has a bottle of milk, the silver covering pierced with a bendy straw, and a bowl of honey-roasted peanuts set out for him, but most important of all there would be the ghost of Furry Lewis or Bukka White rising from the Rock-Ola jukebox to soulfully enumerate their losses.
The player takes half a bow over his instrument and around him trickles scattered clapping, polite but not a bit genuine because it comes from the browsers, their places held in one hand, gently and awkwardly tapping with the other. Indeed, the more skillful aisle dwellers can, without looking up at all, conjure up that glorious sound with a free palm and a denim covered hip, or the back of a sturdy hard bound book, or at the magazine rack, flapping their interrupted diversions like gulls' wings to emit a flutter that might pass, if the player tries hard enough, for applause. The sound of many one hands clapping, he smiles, though it really eats at him. But as always-as mechanical a response as it is-he receives his payment thankfully and even a little greedily, for he has just finished his first song and the day is still young.
"Thank you, thank you," he says, low into the mic, trying to channel Johnny Cash.
The ones that continue to clap after his acknowledgement are greenhorns. Latecomers that feel the need to pay for a performance they did not seek. They are eventually quieted by the grizzled veterans who glance sharply their way and then turn back to their browsing, disregarding the cue for them to rejoin the conversation as if they had heard a stray, easily dismissed cough instead of the overenthusiastic response of the uninitiated.
As the day wears on it will begin to seem as if the separating line between the tiled area in front of the magazine rack and the industrial gray carpet of the Arts & Humanities section becomes an invisible mime barrier trapping his sound instead of the usual mute performer. He can almost imagine, in an out-of-body sort of way, looking at himself through glass as if he were playing sealed in a vacuum, except that the rich elocution of his guitar glances off of the shelves beyond and returns to him with barely diminished veracity as if there were no obstruction in the way at all, no glass, no people, no audience.
Occasionally the manager circles by on her rounds and stands there not listening, her arms folded impatiently against her chest, her feet tapping to a beat a half a second off his own.
Lost somewhere in his repertoire is a boy, possibly the one from the first song, a boy who, like many boys his age, which is thirteen, would like to get his hands on a guitar. The boy's father is a more pliable man when drunk, a stark contrast to the distant seriousness he holds in his sobriety. This soon figures into the secret answer to all of this boy's childhood desires: to make his desires known only after his father has been thoroughly prepared.
In this way, he gets his father to buy him his first guitar when he is thirteen (actually the same guitar that he'd keep with him throughout his long and frustratingly uneventful life, replacing frets and strings several times because he believed, like his storied predecessors, that a soul inhabited the body of a good guitar right until the very end). After two beers and three sifter bottoms full of Jack, his mother, his secret accomplice, drives them all to Culvert Music and Appliances thirty-six miles away. In the bar next door, and then again in the parking lot, they give his father booster shots to keep him utterly convinced that this is an idea worth paying for. That the boy needs something to get good at and it sure as Hell aint gonna be sports.
It is a Gibson L-1 that the boy chooses. Smaller and shallower than your typical dreadnought or wide-body but with an almost familiar fading of dark stain into light brown wood under the sound hole. One word comes to his lips as he ogles it. Smoky. And that's the name that eventually sticks.
Poor Joe Williams had stowed one in the trunk of his car for a while, not a Smoky, per se, but a L-1, nonetheless. Though he knows Poor Joe is a bad example of what he wants to be as he looks upon his companion beckoning in the muted light of the store. But hey now, Robert Johnson, he had played an L-1. He'd made just two recording sessions in Texas and in spite of his performance reticence went on to become one of the biggest legends of all time. In fact, when teenage yearnings first begin to manifest within the boy, when he is struggling with his clumsy fingers to master his first riffs, he likes to imagine his own Gibson as the one that Johnson had held out to the Devil at the crossroads, the faded power of the old covenant still remaining, a smaller piece of his soul, maybe, in exchange for just moderate fame-enough to carry him away from the steel silos and pipelines of his surroundings. No, he isn't interested in conquering Trageville, pop. 152. No, ever since the Gibson had been bestowed upon him completing the triangle, that long waiting cradle formed by his outstretched hand and accommodating hip, his eyes have squinted four hundred miles to the south and east, Texas 87 drawing to a point in heat-hazy distance. He imagines it as an ethereal, emerald stage prop shimmering on the flat horizon, painted against the sky.
If you ask the Player about his earliest memory he would probably describe for you the twinkling evening silhouette of the city of Austin, distant from his bedroom window by about four hundred miles, the brightly lit clock tower of the University reaching hopefully into the night sky. This image is evoked in another one of his songs, no surprise. In actuality it had not been (and today still isn't) the real skyline of Austin. The truth, something he would not realize until much later, was that the skyline was simply the clever backdrop for a popular public TV show called "Austin City Limits."
This sixty minute slice of heaven was the first impression he'd ever gotten of the curious effects that music could have on people. Indeed, the camera spent as much time scrolling over the audience as it did sitting on the performers, one face morphing and fading into another. On each attentive mask he could see the subtle powers that these masters had over their audience; he could tell, even at the age of three (though the Player might exaggerate at times), that underneath their masks of engrossment something violent was going on. He could see the sheer bliss, or the deepest, respectful melancholy, the ticks of anticipation compressed and scrunched under terrible pressures, brows wrinkled, crinkles near the corners of the eyes. He would take in each panning drama as a gob of drool teetered on the edge of his own lips.
And when the end came, POW! All of these emotions restrained by courtesy exploded in bright wave after crashing wave, this more-than-your-every-day-clapping, these catcalls, whoops, whistles. Some put their whole bodies into it, stomping and jumping and waving their arms. To the nascent Player it was the logical end result. How could all of that feeling build for so long without ending in a brilliant supernova of sound, of pure expressive fury? And this, this earliest memory, informed all of his future notions of what an audience should be.
A young man and father are continually at each others' throats. A classic theme. But since he is the bearer of a proud tradition, it is naturally part of his repertoire.
There is, as there has always been, that young man that believes in his very youth, believes in being seventeen years old, believes that all he needs, really needs, is his truck and his guitar. They will take him as far as he dreams of going. A young man whose father is now unbearable to be around, now that he is serious and sober all the time, having hopped back on to the wagon after conceding to his wife and a peptic ulcer about the size of a half dollar that drinking as much as he'd had was bad for him. The boy is, of course, a mere boy, naive and rash, and who, one day after a particularly bad row, packs up his truck with all of the belongings uniquely his in this world stacked pathetically in one single corner of the pickup bed. Who, as he slams the door shut, begins pounding on the panel of the driver side, his fist leaving wide dents, until he realizes he is taking his anger out on his only ticket. Who, after getting in places both his hands on the wheel and tries to calm himself. What does the old man know about music, let alone his music, anyway?
He is on the verge of going back in and yelling some more (and thus, maybe, he will never have to actually go). As he sits there his anger and fear turn end over each other. He looks back and forth between the open road and his home, possibility stretching out before him and the first seventeen years of his life reflected in the rearview mirror, his hand now hovering over the lever on the door. He sits there for many minutes until the rate of his breathing slows and his gaze settles on the mirror which frames the warm light tumbling out of mullioned panes. There he sees the curtains on the living room window part, not long and lingering like a worried, doting mother would part them, but like a father, quick and with sharp blessing. Then he sits there and tallies up the truth of the situation. He realizes how young and pathetic that he is, but that one generous motion calls it in his head. He starts up the loose-belt singing of his truck and spurs it onwards towards hills.
The player realizes how pointless it is to be let down by the pathetically empty theatron of folding chairs fanning out before him in the cavernous maw of this chain mega-bookstore, in a city full of people too busy, too in-a-rush to give a damn. Still he's feeling rather under appreciated, like all the greatest masters during their time. Why does it need be this way?
So he stands there feeling under appreciated until somebody sits down. Finally plants their ass in a seat. It is a grand development for all of about two microseconds until he notices she has her finger jabbed inside an encyclopedic volume of some absurdly long-winded author and proceeds to open it up to a page in the middle. He starts twanging harder and maybe more discordantly, then, he cannot tell for the pounding in his ears. Eventually, the woman lets out a deep sigh, rolls her eyes, gathers up her things to head towards the check out counter.
The boy in his first song, who turns into a youth in the second, eventually becomes a man, a sad man dressed up for a gig like the city slicker's idea of a cowboy, Texas sized belt buckle, ten-gallon hat. A year after his arrival at the destination of his dreams he has not yet encountered his dream and is playing gigs wherever he can. The only problem is that he is usually playing for someone else. Now he's an official Travis Deputy. With a silver star pinned to his costume, he has been inducted into the world of theme performances, a business that the famous Country Music Star (and also, paradoxically, prominent Scientologist) Trent Travis runs on the side. Some deputies are bodyguards. Some are Travis' personal landscapists. He, being neither intimidating nor strong, instead dons fanciful getups and performs for screaming kids and costumed drunk people. One day he could be a pasty-white Russian bard, another day, a pasty-white and falsely mustachioed Mexican Mariachi.
Cowboys he hates the most. Which is what he is today. The ten-gallon hat pinned with chotchkis makes his neck hurt. The hard leather novelty chaps restrict the blood flow in his legs. The giant Texas-shaped belt buckle scratches Smoky's veneered bottom. The greatest indignity is that he isn't even performing. As soon as he dons his caricatures, as soon as kids begin running around and through his legs to try and tag each other, as soon as tipsy women hit on him, he becomes simply a novelty act. When he plays, he plays with bile in the back of his throat, copper on his tongue. The money is passable but he feels that he is internalizing some carcinogen in the process. Inevitably his body will reject it all, retch it back up like a glistening afterbirth.
But today he has gladly accepted his assignment for the possibility of meeting Travis, his boss, the sheriff that he has not had the chance to meet. It is supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek thing having cowboy themed entertainment at a party for the biggest Country Star west of the Mississippi. He is supposed to act like some humble cowboy poet, one moment strumming on his guitar, the next spouting lyrical universal truths in exaggerated Texas twang. But he has other plans. He sneaks one of his own songs in there. He had worked it out the night before. If Travis is impressed by it, great. If the guests are just annoyed by his change from light fare to serious, well, then, at least he gets noticed. At least he makes a mark. Maybe some record producer in the room will take note.
But as he plays his song he looks around the room. They are all void in their faces, like the people that rushed by him on the street when he was living out of his truck and playing guitar on the sidewalk to make ends meet, carelessly tossing trash and shit in his open guitar case. The voidest face of all within the crowd, the weathered mug of Trent Travis himself.
He had gone to get something to eat just before and now notices somebody has left a wine glass on his case, and somebody else, he assumes because the wineglass is not quite empty, has left some change in the glass. He is suddenly enraged. He removes his hand from strumming to bat the offending wineglass off of his case and it shatters quite spectacularly and unexpectedly on impact sending the loose change inside spiraling out across the floor. Stunned by this he can only, to match the statement he has unintentionally made and thus avoid awkwardness, throw his exaggeration of a hat by his feet, stomp the crown down flat, shed his vest, deputy star and all, in one quick motion and toss it into the mortified crowd.
In a flash, three other deputies have him, two under arm and one with his feet. They wrangle him out the door, and off the stoop, and then he is curtly chuted down Travis's newly sodded and glistening Bermuda lawn like an otter down a riverbank. On the way down he slides over a bump, a change in the slope, and starts a mad tumble until he is stopped, again, quite curtly, by a stone retaining wall.
He has to go back sometime later to pick up Smoky. He receives it from the help with a door slammed in his face, no words from Travis and no pay for the performance.
In the car the rage begins to build up again until he sees a big Suburban pull into the driveway and out of it, like clowns at the circus, hop seven deputy hopefuls, chaps and spurs and all. Some have guitars but most don't, though each one grasps a script in a sweaty palm. He smirks and starts the truck to go. An additional measure of triumph: As he drives into the sunset he points a satisfied smirk at the blaze of glory he'd left on the lawn, an exaggerated trench in the ground, a feature straight out of a roadrunner cartoon that is now covered with divots of Bermuda grass like badly fitted hairpieces.
As the day wears on, the player performs, not only the better songs from his reservoir, but also an astounding act of transference. There is a complex mechanism in his mind, the closest analog being a bilge pump, that if flipped can temporarily reverse that sinking feeling that is like sea water accumulating in his bowels, the back of his head. It replaces the heaviness with the airy light substance of habitual gratuity that follows his first song-or from a time even before that: a track that he has recorded and can easily recall for the end of his day or whenever he needs it. It is a wonderful personal invention that he has relied on since childhood when his father's praise for him was scarce. A necessity now when his sustenance grows thinner and weaker and all but disappears by his third act.
The man trapped in the album, now older though maybe no wiser, returns home late at night after drinking away his disappointments and whatever money he's made from selling self pressed CDs that cost slightly less to make than he'd sold them for. He pulls a shoebox full of yellowing roughage from underneath his bed. Then, from his jeans pocket, he procures the wad of paper. He unfolds it and without rereading the lines, now faded from sweat and grime and obscurity, lets go of the paper which floats unceremoniously down onto the pile. Then he slides the box back under the bed, out of sight. All songs yet to be sung, yet to be paired with melody. He flips the light in his room and slips out of his shirt and lying there in bed he stares out of the window at the feeble promise of the clock tower glimmering above the rooftops, thrusting out into the starless, moonless sky, a familiar roar echoing through the alleyway.
The wind banging on his window spurs the march of his thoughts and won't let go. He gives up the sleep effort and forces the sticky bottom pane to let the humid air in. There is nothing left to do but sit cross-legged on his bed, his back against the wall to sink away some of the heat clinging around his body, guitar on his paunch, picking at scraps from memory in an effort to conjure a fresh riff, a cooling breeze.
The couple across the way also have their window open, the whisper of their amorous activity carrying over to his ears. He closes his eyes, his hands moving up and down rhythmically, and in the murky darkness, in which everything seems connected with sinuous strands, it is suddenly his feathery touch on the guitar strings that will eventually bring the couple, their ears perked up and moving with rabbit-like motility, their lover's symmetry singing at the fall of his hand, to their inevitable climax. As with nights before, he begins sheepishly, newly unsure of himself, stringing together musical gibberish at first but his fingers soon finding their confidence, segueing into a song, not the Blues, the resigned past, but a ballad still replete with sultry shapes, winding subterranean rivers of longing.
As the final reverb fades, the player takes a full bow. His day is done. He is exhausted. He doesn't expect much so his mind is somewhere else, most likely on the lines he'll write when he gets home. So he is surprised when the applause comes, that glorious sound seemingly condensed from the ether of his thoughts. After a moment it is still there, the note holds and actually grows in intensity and richness, as if the audience is standing (but aren't they already) to more properly express their admiration.
It sounds so numerous and generous as if suddenly during his last song a whole auditorium's worth of adoring fans has quietly slipped into the bookstore and has been intently listening amidst the aisles, their response almost like the pre-recorded track of a live studio audience, the approving squeals and whistles mixed in with the unbroken and accumulating din. It sounds too good to be true, but there it is.
He extends his bow. He thanks everybody profusely. Once, twice, three times, bowing each time. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you very much. His words lingering in the internal workings of the speaker system. He must stay like this for a full minute, or so it later seems.
The sound stops as abruptly as it begins, and with a squeak. He opens his eyes. The smile fades from his lips. His guitar dangles loose in front of him. The browsers stare.
What strikes him as he stands there, still bowed, legs crossed in awkward flamingo pose: how a handcart clattering over the cold gray tiles of a chain-bookstore's magazine section can, when conditions are ripe, sound so very much like applause.