Version 1: Dancing in the Dark
A story inspired by a pair of brown boots and a Bruce Springsteen song
Jack was drunk. Not unusual, especially at this time: just gone midnight, Wednesday becoming Thursday. It was the same as Monday rolling into Tuesday, Friday merging into Saturday. Jack sat alone in his usual spot at the bar of The Sad A – formerly The A Minor, after the guitar chord. The name had to be changed because underaged kids assumed it was an easy place to get in. The bar was just off 2nd Avenue. The three stools to his right were empty, as were the two to his left. On the next stool along, sat a woman who Jack put somewhere in her mid-forties: long dark hair, business dress, unable to hide the strain of her job from her face. Jack figured ‘lawyer’. He noticed her nail varnish was chipped as she lifted a large wine glass to her lips.
Jack looked at the clock: Twenty-two minutes to go.
He looked around the bar. He knew every inch of the place: the dents in the dark bar, each rip in the leather of the bar stools. He knew when Dave, the owner, had been doing coke the night before, when Jenny the waitress was trying to quit smoking. And when she’d given up giving up. He knew Friday Tom’s family history, knew when people wanted to talk, when they wanted to drink. This was the place Jack had met Gina. She was a college girl who had come in for her friend’s birthday. She smiled at him as he stood on the small corner stage and played Layla by Derek and the Dominos. She met him at the bar afterwards and told him he should buy her a drink, which he did. They talked and drank until morning, when Dave kicked them out. They’d got coffee at a place across the street, which is gone now. Just like Gina.
Fuck, it's hot in here tonight.
Jack pulled at the collar of his black shirt. It felt like it was shrinking as he wore it, squeezing his neck, slowly stopping his airway from working. He unbuttoned the second button, drank from his bottle, warm beer slipping down his throat, offering no cooling.
Fourteen minutes to go.
The Sad A had been there for Jack throughout the full seven years of his marriage. Six nights a week he’d stood on the stage – two sets a night - and played songs for his new bride as she served drinks from behind the bar to earn a bit of extra cash to help with rent. They’d celebrated birthdays in the place, laughed at the bar, cried tears in the cramped toilets following the miscarriage. It was the place they’d plotted and planned their way out of the city, Jack on one side of the bar, Gina on the other. They’d talked, seriously, about moving to some beach town and buying a place they could run themselves. The dream was of a small, simple bar, with a kitchen, and, of course, a stage where Jack could play. Jack often joked he’d like to live in a place where he didn’t have to wear shoes, where sand would hide between his toes, his body could ache from a daily ocean swim, and he could spend his nights entertaining people.
They dreamed and saved, saved and dreamed. But their pot never got big enough to let them make the jump. Or the city’s hold on them never released enough to let them leave. Jack was never sure which was true. Gina got promoted at her day job. She stopped working at The A because she was tired all the time. So Jack picked up her shifts at the bar and kept playing. Their lives moved in different time circles. Her: up early, home in the evenings. Him: sleeping all morning, working all afternoon and night. Some days he got in from work as she was getting up to go out.
Gina still came to The A. She’d eat there, grab a drink. For a while she stayed for his late set, but then one night she yawned too much, tried to force herself through the tiredness and Jack told her to go home. She didn’t argue.
It took two years before they split. She moved out when he was at work, and when he finished his shift he went out drinking on a session to commiserate the passing of the only real relationship he’d ever had. On nights like this, sitting at the bar, watching other people’s lives play out around him, he often wondered if that drinking session ever really ended.
Dave collected his empty. “Another?”
“One for the stage.”
Eight minutes to go.
The bell above the door pinged and a group of five entered. Jack checked them out, studying each one with a practised precision. They were some kind of shift workers, cops or hospital staff, all enjoying the joys of being out in the city without the usual weekend crowds. Sometimes Jack wondered how many people he’d studied coming through that door. Hundreds, maybe even thousands. All ages, races, men and women. Never her though. Not since that day.
Dizziness passed through Jack’s mind like a whirlwind. He grabbed the bar, his fingers turning white as they held onto the dark wood. His breathing was fast and shallow. He tried to stand but his legs felt like soft snow. He waited a couple of seconds and balance returned. Jack stood and walked through the bar, ignoring every ‘hello’, every ‘how are ya?’.
He smashed his hand into the bathroom door, which swung open, slamming behind him. The room was empty but it was still tight, dark. Jack stood in front of the scratched mirror, the face staring back older than his calendar years. He was tired: of the city, of the life, of being alone.
A beach flashed in his mind.
He slowed his breathing.
I don’t want to go out there.
In out, in out, in out.
She might come in tonight.
Clarity returned to his eyes.
She’s never coming back.
He checked his watch, her wedding gift to him. It was time.
He left the bathroom, walked through the course of small round tables and chairs placed in a random order between the back of the bar and the stage. He stepped onto the stage, noticing Dave had placed a new bottle of beer on the stool next to his mic stand. Jack picked up the bottle and drank, putting the bottle down half empty.
His view from the stage was of tables filled with drinks, a girl leaning on her boyfriend, groups of faces all staring at him. Dizziness flirted with him again and he had to concentrate hard to stay upright.
“How’s it going? My name is Jack and I’m gonna play you a few songs.”
Applause rippled round the room.
“And I’d like to start with something by Bruce.”
Someone at the back of the room whooped and it echoed around the dark. Jack tried to find the owner of the voice, but he couldn’t make out one face from another. The ceiling felt low, like it was pushing down on the room.
Jack’s hands started playing and he started to sing: “I get up in the evenings / And I ain’t got nothing to say.”
The words were delivered slowly, his voice dripping in pain.
“I come home in the morning / I go to bed feeling the same way / I ain’t nothing but tired / Man, I’m just tired and bored with myself.”
Jack took his hands off the guitar, pulled at the collar of his shirt. He could feel the sweat sliding down his chest.
He moved through the chorus, “This gun’s for hire…”, and into the second verse:
“Man I ain't getting nowhere / I'm just living in a dump like this /There's something happening somewhere...
The beach appeared again.
… Baby I just know that there is.”
Jack played on autopilot. His mind was swirling, like water draining from a sink. He undid another button on his shirt.
The chorus again.
The door pinged. Jack looked, as always…
“You sit around getting older / There's a joke here somewhere and it's on me.”
Jack looked at all the faces, captivated by his performance, waiting for his next chord, his next delivery of Springsteen’s words. His fingers kept playing but his voice was lost somewhere at the back of his throat. The notes continued, his fingers picking the strings, the guitar keeping up the pretence that everything was going just as it should.
Sand between his toes.
The sun on his face.
His body aching from swimming in the ocean.
Her face smiling from the bar.
Jack stopped playing and stepped off the stage. He ran out of the bar onto the street, the guitar still in his hand. He undid another button of his shirt. Despite the cool night air his clothes were stuck to him, his jeans felt like another, thicker, skin. He ran down the street, away from the bar, away from Dave’s confused cries of concern. He turned a corner and stopped, and sat on the floor. His brown boots felt like concrete. He tugged at the laces, desperately trying to untie them.
The knot broke on the first one and he yanked the boot off. He repeated the actions with the next boot and dropped it on the sidewalk. He pulled his socks off.
He stood up and flagged a cab. One passed him, barely registering his signal. The concrete cooled Jack’s bare feet. His heart was racing. He was doing it. Finally doing it.
A cab pulled up and Jack got in the back, taking his phone out of his pocket.
“Just drive north,” Jack instructed. “I’ll let you know where I’m going in a second.”
The cab driver looked annoyed but Jack didn’t notice. He was pushing buttons on his phone and then listening to it ring.
Three rings, four rings… seven, eight, nine… “Hello.”
“It’s me,” Jack said. “I’m doing it.”
“Jack? What are you talking about? It’s nearly one in the morning.”
“Come with me, Gina.”
“What are you talking about? We’ve not spoken for two years. What the hell are you doing?”
“I’ve left The A. I’m going to the beach. I want the bar, our bar. I want the dream. Our dream.”
“Jack, this is crazy.”
“Come with me. This city, it’s breaking me. Don’t let it break us. Gina, please. Please come with me.”
There was a noise on the line, and Jack figured she was sitting up in bed, buying herself some time.
“I’m in a cab, Gina. I’m heading to your place. Pack a bag and meet me.”
“We can call it Gina’s Place.”
“Or just Gina’s.”
“Jack, let me speak… which beach?”