On a side street in the village, there is a little booze joint with a piano. It’s in the basement of a narrow townhouse. The floors are sticky and the writing on the bathroom walls mostly forgettable but sometimes funny and tragic. Drinks are never a fantastic pour, but they’re cheap and the price fair. People don’t come for the hooch; they come for the music and the community. It is church for people who love show tunes more than god.
If the Lovely Man is behind the piano when he peers through the window, Marcus comes down the steps and makes his way through the throng to the bar. He won’t stay if the younger one is there, the one who tosses his hair around and plays the keys heavy, who purses his lips to say things that are snide but never witty.
The Lovely Man has a gentle smile and the kind of hands one wants to see at a keyboard. They’re long and slender hands, pale and elegant hands. If Marcus stays late enough, nursing first one and then another snifter of bourbon, most of the crowd will clear. The Jersey thrill seekers will leave first, in their nice long coats, and all the way home they’ll probably chatter about the songs and voices. The young bloods who came in groups will leave in pairs. Finally the stage queens will slip out into the night, swishy old cats with short prowls home.
At this late hour only a few remain, the shy ones who wanted to sing all night, but hadn’t found the moment or the courage. For such a small group, at two in the morning, the Lovely Man plays any song he knows, even if it’s not Broadway, which is the rule of the bar. It’s a rule the young one with the hair keeps jealously and without humor. Not the Lovely Man. He and his stragglers want to hear and to play and to sing what is soft and blue. Their hearts and notes break over lyrics written for molasses voices that pour slow. What they like best isn’t for shouting. These last singers, these patient souls, are the sweet remains of the long evening, the honey to cajole from the bottom of the teacup. There’s always some new faces, but many have been coming for years. Marcus knows a few of them by name.
He knows Miss Katina, who always tells new lies and never repeats one or tells the truth. She’s told him her name is Anthema, Cheryl, Nefertihiti and Butterfly Moon. He sticks with Miss Katina because that was the first one he knew. She sings from deep in her big belly, up and up through her nose and out over her teeth. Once she told him how her daughter died – freezing in the night on a roadside in Virginia – and how she could never again sing ‘Autumn Leaves’. She wept so mournfully, he almost believed her.
Old Sam sits by himself, a wasted little elf with silver and jet curls, with a speaking voice dry and lonely. When he sings ‘Three Coins in a Fountain’ he has a rich baritone that seems not to belong to him. The surprise he causes delights him. His eyes crinkle when he sees jaws dropping. He eats up the applause with kid delight and no one wants to stop beating their hands together for him. When the claps at last subside, there’s a gentle sadness that steals back into his blue eyes. He turns toward the table where he sits, the smile fading, but not quite leaving him.
The stout man with the opera voice sings things like no one else, songs with Italian words that make him throw out his hands when he trills them. Marcus doesn’t know his name, but he thinks of him as Senor Lieberman. His affectation is Italian, and clearly his appetite, but there’s something about him that makes one think he grew up in the back of a Jewish deli. He reminds Marcus of a boy named Ira, who he loved when his hair was still golden. The senor has mastered something that would never fly at the Met. He renders opera small and tender, making the epic explosions into soft confessions for the midnight hour. Maybe it’s something about the way he sings that makes Marcus remember past loves. He cries every time, clasping the senor’s hand fervently and whispering, “You bastard.”
Before the bar closes and the others shuffle out, the Lovely Man casts Marcus a glance from under his long lashes. He smiles and says, “We can’t turn out the lights until you sing us out.” Marcus blushes and he wants to protest, but he won’t because it seems silly when all the others mustered the courage. He smiles back at the Lovely Man and they begin.
When Marcus sings, he starts rough and ends sweet. The engine needs to warm. If the first song is short, he’s usually asked to do another. His poor voice is broken, he was told long ago, but he made it into something of his own. It’s a woman’s voice, but a woman who had it bad from the word go. She’s tough and hard and bittersweet, but more sweet than bitter, not that she’d want that to get around. When he sings ‘All of Me’, people look away – it feels like peering into a window – but they listen close.
These nights, Marcus walks home in a glow, the music of the others still lingering close, like voices of people he lost along other walks along his way. They come back to him through the singing, and they stay to put him to bed.