The Wide Open Eyes of Madness
by Jessica Zafra
It was windy out, but inside the pub it was stifling, choked with cigarette smoke and the stale smell of beer. Middle-aged men in shirtsleeves lolled over plates of fried chicken, crustaceans and mollusks, while harried-looking waitress in black stockings dodged groping hands shooting out from under tables. The proprietor was slumped over his cash register, oblivious to the raucous voices, the grunts of beer-bloated patrons, and the occasional crash as an inebriated customer bumped into a table. A uniformed policeman, his belly preceding the rest of him by a foot, made his way to the john with the exaggerated daintiness of the drunk.
Through the din and the distant rumble of thunder the music from the jazz band hammered insistently at the proprietor’s brain. The band was playing Thelonious Monk, a fact which went unappreciated by the patrons and by the proprietor, who had hired the band as a favor to his sister, whose son played piano for the quartet. He frequently considered replacing the band with a karaoke machine or some girls dancing in their underwear, something more fun than this jazz shit.
He squinted at the bassist, a wiry man in his thirties. There was something unnerving about that guy. Maybe it was his face, with its thin lips and feral eyes, the face of a man who would casually slit a stranger’s windpipe. The proprietor looked again. The bassist was moving in time to the music, and in his eyes was a look of intense concentration, as if he were possessed. As if, the proprietor thought dimly, as if he were making love. One hand gripped the double-bass, the other stroked the stringsâ€”it occurred to the proprietor that the instrument was shaped like a woman. He chuckled. Horny bastard, he told himself, then he forgot all about the bassist as a waitress handed him a customer’s money.
At one the band members packed their instruments and prepared to leave. Eleven tomorrow, the pianist reminded the bassist, who nodded curtly. Carefully he zipped up the case and lifted the instrument, passing the strap over his shoulder.
Outside the pavements were slick with rainwater. Carefully he sidestepped the puddles and open manholes. His steps were brisk; the soles of his shoes made an almost imperceptible hiss against the concrete.
At a streetcorner a man approached him. Girls, sir? A good time? The bassist shook his head and walked on. Boys, sir? the pimp dogged him. No, he said firmly. Briefly the streetlamp lit his face, outlining the hollows of his cheeks. In the darkness sat a young girl, her face painted into a grotesque parody of itself. She looked at him hopefully, then seeing indifference, looked away.
The bassist turned right a the next block and stopped at a building with a Condemned sign in front. On the ground floor were hardware stores and bankrupt Chinese wholesalers of dried fish and beans; on the upper floors were dark, cramped holes for transients and illegal aliens. He climbed the filthy stairs and let himself into one of the rooms.
The room was bare except for a narrow bed, a table with the remains of meal, and a chair which held several shirts. He put the bass down, then opened one of the grimy windows.
Some night, he murmured wearily as he began to dress. Where the hell did Mike find that new drummer? He doesn’t know his drumsticks from his dick. Ruined every goddam song. I wanted to kick his teeth in. He draped his clothes on the back of the chair and padded to the bed in his bare feet.
Not that the audience noticed. What do they know. Give them few beers and a couple of sluts and they’re happy. All they want is some tramp wailing in a jukebox. They don’t deserve Monk, they don’t fucking deserve jazz. He turned off the light and stretched out on the narrow bed.
Everyday it’s the same stupid faces. The same idiots. He paused for a moment, as if he were listening for a sound in the early morning stillness. The only reason I go on at all is you. Outside the window a streetlamp flickered to life, illuminating the round, womanly shape of the double bass.
That is some weird sonofabitch, the proprietor said to himself, watching the bassist. Look at the way he plays with his instrument. The proprietor chuckled at his own imagined wit. Playing with his instrument.
Oblivious to the proprietor’s existence the bassist played on, his fingers moving over the strings, his body keeping time to the beat.
At one the band concluded its set to sparse applause. Neat work, the drummer told the bassist. The bassist gave him a cold stare, then without a word he turned and left the stage.
What his problem? the drummer demanded.
Ah, donÃt mind him, said the pianist. HeÃs like that.
The proprietor strode onto the makeshift stage.
Evening, boss, said the drummer.
The proprietor waved away the courtesies. I was just thinking. What’s the stuff you were playing just now?
Whatever. Why don’t you guys play something we all know, huh? Something the customers can sing along to. Nobody knows that stuff you play. He walked around the double bass, which was still standing on the stage. Hey, what do you call this thing? Cello?
The pianist smiled. Double bass.
Whatever, the proprietor said, plucking a string. You ever notice that this here looks like a woman? he said, leering. The band members laughed.
I mean the shape and all, the proprietor said. Like a woman. Waist, hips, and when that guy plays it…Taking hold of the bass, the proprietor mimicked the bassist, grinning obscenely.
Emerging from the men’s room the bassist saw the proprietor and stopped in his tracks.
Looks like he’s getting it on with this thing, the proprietor laughed, his paunch bumping against the bass.
A low growl began in the bassist’s throat, a strange animal sound. He bounded to the stage, picked up the microphone stand, and smashed it into the back of the proprietor’s head.
Don’t touch her! he screamed, standing over the fallen man. Dont touch her, you pig! Don’t touch her!
Copyright 1992 by Jessica Zafra and Anvil Publishing. All rights reserved.