There comes a point when you’re too old to start over.
Guitar flaccid between my legs, I watch a kid half my age own the stage at this open mic. He plays mandolin. He’s able to last full verses without taking a breath. He finishes up with his third homespun masterpiece in a row.
I take refuge at the bar. “What bourbon do you have?”
“That’s not bourbon.”
The bartender looks confused.
“It’s made in Tennessee.”
Eyes, vacant. Jawline, impressive.
“Bourbon’s made in Kentucky,” I explain, without hope. “They don’t give you guys training?”
“This is my day job,” he says. “I’m really an actor.”
“Okay, but right now you’re a bartender. Don’t you want to give people the right information?”
He notices a girl at the end of the bar. “Do you want the Jack or not?” he asks, ready to leave me behind.
“Sure,” I say.
The Jack’s so good that I’m tempted to mix it with food coloring and high fructose corn syrup.
Next there’s a singer-songwriter, followed by another singer-songwriter, followed by another singer-songwriter. They’re all very troubled and politically-conscious. At some point a writer takes the stage and bares his soul. We all listen politely and clap when it’s over.
This bar must be raking in a fortune.
By the time my name is called, I’m a little looped. I manage not to trip on the way to the stage. The lights are bright and the crowd is invisible. Or rather, the bar stools. Half the musicians have left by now. The mandolin player holds court at the bar.
I stumble my way through an introduction that I forget the moment it’s over. The first song feels like I’m drilling hard terrain. Inside my head a battle rages as to whether or not I’m in tune. My voice belongs to a stranger. I’m breathing all wrong. Thank god I chose to play a cover. A man better than myself knew how to write a song.
When it’s over, I tune and likely make it worse. The next one’s another cover — the kind of song that reminds you why you love music. I’m sure I botch it but at least they’re not throwing fruit.
My third and final song was to be another cover but my hands don’t seem to like me. They strike the wrong chord then another wrong chord and before long I’m singing.
I’m digging a hole six feet deep
I’m digging and the rocks are a-crying
The birds are watching on, hungry
I’m burying my one true love
I’m digging a hole six feet deep
The sun is watching on, cold
The moon is rising, it’s lonely
She swallowed the mouth of a gun
The earth don’t say nothing
The earth don’t say nothing at all
I’m filling a hole six feet deep
Her face was as thin as the clouds
Her eyes won’t call sweetheart no more
The rocks are filling her mouth
Silence follows. I pack away my guitar and mutter some sort of farewell. When I step out of the lights, the bar is more or less empty.
I order another Jack because that is all I deserve. For a moment, I lured myself into thinking like that boy again, when all that mattered in the world was six strings, a box of wood, and a longing in your gut. Old, alone, and drinking Tennessee whiskey ineffectually passing itself off as bourbon, I have a newfound appreciation for all the rings of fire that lie within that longing. One can sing his heart out and never emerge.
A girl sidles up to me, says, “I know you.”
I pry my eyes from the glass. She is much too young and attractive for us to have any kind of connection.
“I served you whiskey the other night?”
“That, I’d believe.”
“You tipped way too much.”
“Money is an illusion,” I say.
“You must have a lot of illusions.”
I nod my head and drink my Jack.
“Your name still Cornelius?”
She has a good handshake and I tell her so.
“I had a substitute teacher, growing up,” she says. “Anytime he taught, he basically ignored the lesson plan and spent the whole time preparing us.”
“Good teacher,” I say.
“I thought so.”
She asks me what I’m drinking. I confess. She orders another for me and one for herself without a hint of irony or judgment. I pull out my wallet but she beats me to it.
She clinks her glass against mine.
“What brings you here?” I ask. “I don’t think I saw you play.”
“My friend. He plays the mandolin?”
“He’s good,” I say.
“He is good,” she agrees. “You’re good, too.”
“Years ago, maybe. Covers carry themselves.”
“I knew the first two. The last one was my favorite.”
“That, um. That was an original.”
“You sort of remind me of Hank Williams.”
I drink. “Hopefully I don’t die in the back of a car anytime soon.”
“He died in a hotel, didn’t he?”
“You might be right.”
She nods to my wedding band.
“Separated,” I say.
“Permanent?” she asks.
I finish my drink.
She finishes hers, leans in slowly, and kisses me. She tastes like apples and honey and woodsmoke and for a moment I forget everything the way a good song can take over when you allow it to, when the gods reach down and say yes, your turn, you get to be our vessel for the next few minutes.
When she withdraws, she bites my lower lip slightly and I remember her compassionate eyes. It’s been months since anyone’s kissed me on the lips.
This piece appears as part of a serialized fiction experiment by Nathaniel Kressen for At Large magazine. New installments are published weekly, each based around a different liquor.
Nathaniel Kressen is the author of two novels — Dahlia Cassandra (named Best of 2016 Fiction by Entropy & Luna Luna Magazine) and Concrete Fever (Bestseller, Strand Book Store) — as well as the co-founder of Second Skin Books and the leader of the Greenpoint Writers Group.