Fabulous Freddy and The Bluesmen are halfway through their set when I arrive. The drums and bass are whispering to each other as Freddy’s chords wrap around me and pull me into The Sportsmen. The first time I saw him perform was at The Hotel Lafayette when the Lafayette was still a fleabag. I wasn’t working that night or any of the other nights I’ve heard him play. I had always been there just to hear his guitar. Tonight is different.
The bouncer won’t give me trouble. He’s older than me and walks with a hitch like he’s laid his Harley down too many times. He’s just an ID checker, a hand stamper, a cover charge collector. His hair is pipe metal gray, pulled back into a scraggly ponytail. Tattoos cover his arms, and that’s okay. Bikers, ex-cons, and servicemen have earned their ink. It’s the accountants with barbed wire encircling non-existent biceps who piss me off. Store-bought tough guys. Makes me want to put a bullet in their eye for free.
I like this bar, The Sportsmen. Exposed brick walls are covered with posters of bands that have played here in the past—The Ron Davis Combo, The Skiffle Minstrals, Lil’ Ed and the Imperials. I’ve seen all those guys perform at least once. The floors are wide planked and stained with decades of musician sweat, spilled drinks and maybe blood. The door to the alley where Freddy will smoke between sets, where I will follow, is just past the bathrooms.
Freddy looks the same. Maybe a little heavier. He doesn’t move around stage as he once did, but I don’t move like I did thirty years ago either. He plays with the same passion, making his guitar wail and grieve. His eyes are shut, letting the music take him places I can only imagine. When he opens them, he gazes into a white crowd. What does he think when he sees all us Caucasians staring back? What the hell do we know about the blues? Maybe that’s why he plays with his eyes closed, pretending we’re not there.
He still dresses like a star–a red silky shirt partially buttoned revealing a large gold cross, a black kufi on his head, Beatle boots. His bass player is a mess. Three hundred pounds if he’s an ounce, not even able to stand. He plays half-sitting, half-leaning on a barstool. I can guess his ailments—diabetes, hypertension, circulation problems. He might die tonight before Freddy. But he keeps a tight bass line, I’ll give him that, the fat fuck.
There’s only one waitress, a young blonde, covering both the floor tables as well as the ones in the mezzanine. She’s not happy about it, scowling as she hustles up the stairs with a full tray of drinks and still scowling when she comes down a few minutes later with her tray heavy with dirty dishes and empty glasses. Her lips are pressed into a bloodless line, and she hardly talks when she stops to scribble orders, pissed off at the waitress who didn’t show or the manager who screwed up the scheduling. She’s just a kid, probably a college student with a jerk boyfriend, but she’s working hard, humping back and forth to the kitchen, to the bar, checking tables along the way.
She drops off the bill at the table next to me without stopping. I overhear the bald guy tell his wife he didn’t think his burger was that expensive. She takes the bill from his hand and says she only ordered two glasses of Cab not three. But maybe she’s wrong. Maybe it was three. He shrugs, leaves money on the table, and they leave, the blues not their thing, I guess.
I shake my head.
The little waitress is probably padding everyone’s bill, charging for an extra drink here, jacking the price up there, banking on the fact that people are too drunk or too lazy or too mesmerized by Freddy’s slide guitar to notice. The extra dollars add up and go straight in her pocket and there’s no need for that. She must make good tip money on nights Fabulous Freddy plays. Money is what got Freddy in trouble—or owing it did—and stealing money is going to get her ass fired. But maybe she isn’t padding. Maybe there’s too many tables to cover and she made an honest mistake. Maybe she’s just a lousy waitress. Definitely, it’s none of my business.
I walk to the bar, scanning the crowd for off-duty cops and ex-soldiers, trying to spot thick necks, short hair, dick eyes. No one looks like they’d get involved. There’s no heroes in this audience. I’m the only one wearing a sport coat, but that’s okay. It’s not an Armani or Calvin Klein, something people might notice, just a cheap jacket I bought off the rack at AMVETS for a couple bucks. The fabric is shiny in places, the cuffs frayed, but it’s comfortable and keeps everything covered when I’m strapped. It’s perfect for a night like this.
The bartender nods to me when I approach, and I check his beer selection, the bottles lined on a shelf like a firing squad. In an old place like this, with Freddy playing songs of sorrow and loss, they should be serving the old-time brews—Simon Pure Ale, Iroquois, Beck’s—but those breweries are a thing of the past, like Freddy, maybe like me. I order a bottle of Bud so I have something to hold. I’ll drink later after it’s done, like I always do.
I find a good spot against the wall with a clear view of the stage. Freddy crouches to bend notes, his body twisting as much as the sound. The gold cross around his neck dangles and catches light. Isn’t the kufi Muslim? Does he believe in both Islam and Christianity, hedging his spiritual bets like he obviously never hedged his money wagers? Or is the kufi and cross just part of his stage costume, carrying as much weight as his Beatle boots and belt buckle? I hope he believes in something. I hope seventy virgins, or seventy saints and angels, wait for him tonight. Anyone who plays the slide guitar like Freddy deserves an afterlife, one without fire and brimstone, one without an accounting. I’m going to miss hearing him play.
I wonder if he’ll see an explosion of light at the end. I bet they all did, an explosion that propels them from this world to the next, their energy never dying but transforming into something else. All bets off. All debts forgiven. Either way, he won’t feel anything. I’ll send him swiftly. I have nothing against Freddy. I have all his cd’s.
The blonde waitress stops in front of me with eyes dead as stones and asks if I want to see a menu.
“What’s good here?” I ask.
“Eleven dollars for a single,” she says, pointing to the menu.
“Yeah, but how much do you charge for the wings?”
I shouldn’t have said anything. I shouldn’t have engaged her. Christ, I’m not a kid on my first job, but I opened my mouth anyway. She doesn’t blink.
I lean close to her ear. “How much did you grift that bald man for his burger? And did his wife have two drinks or three?”
The corner of her colorless lips twitch. Freddy’s guitar solo builds to a lamentation. She glances at him then back to me, her face as expressionless as her eyes. “You a cop?”
“I’m as far away from a cop as you’ll get.”
“Then why do you care what I charge?”
“You going to tell my manager?”
“I hate snitches.”
“Then what do you want? I’m not going in the alley with you.”
This startles me for a heartbeat until I realize she’s talking about a blackmail fuck or blowjob. Christ, she’s just a kid. Freddy’s guitar sounds like it’s crying for all of us now and maybe it is. I can’t stop myself and ask, “Do you ever feel bad about ripping these people off?”
“Why do you care? You judging me?”
“You some Jesus nut? You going to tell me only God judges now?”
“I hope he doesn’t.”
“I was just wondering if you feel remorse.”
“Remorse?” Her face breaks into an honest smile. Life comes into her eyes, which is far better than watching it leave. “Who are you? My conscience?”
“Like I said, I’m just curious.”
“Listen,” she says, and glances around to make sure no one overhears, “I only nip people who dress like they can afford it or who are throwing money around like assholes. And drunks. The drunks never check their bill. They just see what they owe and pay it. Half the time I don’t even bring back their change. The ones who give me the biggest kick are the stupid, sober ones who give me a fat tip on top of it all. They’re just clueless. Happy now?”
“Jesus, what’s with you?”
Freddy’s guitar sounds as if it’s in pain, as if it knows it will all end soon. The smile and light have left the waitress’ eyes.
“Fine,” she says. “I memorize faces. I pick them out early and try to remember what they look like, so I don’t rip them off the next time they come in. They might catch on. They might be looking for it. Except the drunks. They don’t remember shit. I steal from them all the time. Can I go now?”
“You memorize faces?” I ask, and swear she’s studying the dark moons under my eyes, the lines fissuring from my mouth, like she could give a description if the cops asked. Something blankets me, weariness or sadness, and I can’t shake it off. It settles on me deep to my marrow. She’s a loose end now, something to be addressed. I should’ve kept my mouth shut.
“Sometimes I dream about them. The faces, I mean. Look, it’s busy. I got to go. We good here? You going to say anything to my boss?”
“We’re good,” I say, although I know we’re both far from it. I hold out a ten.
“You’re weird.” She snatches the bill from me and heads up the mezzanine stairs. I watch her go, but I’ll be seeing her again.
Freddy is nearing the end of his solo. The volume is increasing, the drums and bass starting to kick in. The crowd is yelling, encouraging him to reach deeper into his soul and have it flow from fingers to frets, like he hasn’t given them enough already. There are whistles and people calling out, bearing witness. Freddy is lost in the music, and I’m lost, too.
Faces have never haunted me. They have never visited me in dreams or floated in mirrors or appeared as fleeting glimpses in crowds. I’ve never memorized my marks like the waitress memorizes hers. There was no need. I knew I would never see them again, at least not in this world. Once a job is done, it’s forgotten. But as I watch Freddy’s face twist and contort reflecting the sound he’s squeezing from his Gibson, I wonder if his features will haunt me. I’ve watched that face on stage for years. It has stared back at me from album covers and cd cases, from posters and handbills, even the occasional t-shirt. It’s the face of a man I have admired and paid to watch long before I took this job. His face, I’m certain, will stay with me.
The audience is on their feet now, clapping and yelling as Freddy finishes his set. My stomach twists a little as he announces a short break and reminds them to tip the bartender and waitress. He’s off the stage now, moving through the crowd towards the alley door. He stops to shake hands and pose for pictures. I check if anyone is following him, but the fat bass player is leaning against the stool, mopping his face with a towel. The drummer is already at the bar ordering a drink.
I shoulder my way through the crowd, trying not to bump or jostle anyone who might remember. There’s no rush. My pace matches Freddy’s. He slips into the alley alone. My sport coat is already unbuttoned as I reach the door. One hand turns the knob, the other slides inside my jacket. I step outside. Freddy is facing me, bent forward, shielding the lighter from the wind with his body. He squints through the smoke as I move away from the door. No one else is in the alley, no kids passing a bowl, no bums scrounging for empties, no lovers against the wall. It’s clear to Amherst Street. I pull the P22 from my shoulder holster, the suppressor already attached. Freddy straightens, drops his lighter, realizing there will be no second set tonight.
The alley door opens and, goddamn it, the blonde waitress steps through. I should be relieved. She’s made it easy on me. I don’t have to come back looking for her now. But she doesn’t belong in this alley, at this moment, stumbling into something she doesn’t understand. Maybe I don’t belong here either anymore. Why isn’t she inside hustling drinks or nickel-and-diming drunks? Did she follow Freddy out here to share a cig or did she follow me?
God damn it.
She gapes at the gun. Our eyes lock and hers grow wide. She realizes what I am. Not a cop. Not a Jesus nut. Not her conscious. I’m something much worse. Her mouth opens to say something or perhaps scream, but no sound comes out except the exhale of her final breath, but only I know that. I swallow hard and steady my hand, certain these two faces will haunt me not only in half-fogged mirrors and restless dreams, but also each time I hear a blues guitar weep as if it’s mourning the presence of lost and remorseful souls.