Trigger warning: suicide, depression, blood
Something I felt like writing having seen Amanda Palmer's keynote speech to the Muse and Marketplace Conference, and listening to Hugh Laurie's music and an album of swing music. Also given a lot of the thoughts and news and discussions that have been going around me lately.
I've never been to America, nor a blues club, nor the 1930s, so this won't be historically accurate of anything. Just my imaginings.
The clatter of the railcar, bell ringing, fades into the night as you cross the liminal point. The club is dim and smoky as ever, a familiar sensation like the a mother’s embrace or that first cup of coffee on a wet November morning. On the stage at the back, Joe strokes the ivories - a low and slow mournful rhythm, more a sigh that a tune - and he gives you a nod.
“Hey, beautiful. What can I get you?” The usual you tell her and she pours a double. Lizzy always has a smile for you, though she’s looking tired lately. Has her shift just started or is she just getting off? “George isn’t coming in, so I’m here all night.”
You take your glass over to your spot - a little two-seater under the stairs, full view of the room but out of the way. The nights you’ve wiled away on this couch, alone or pressed up against another body, everyone getting drunk and no-one really listening to the band. Nights filled with howling laughter, screaming arguments and filthy, passionate fumblings high on the thrill of exhibition but the band just kept on and no-one paid no mind. There’s the cigarette burn Nina left when she dropped it, distracted by the cocktail some rich kid threw down her top. Nina made her regret it, of course, and she ended up paying for the couch, too, but Lizzy never bothered to replace it. And on the coffee table there, the ring of bubbled and discolored varnish from that trick Johnny-From-Milwaukee tried with a martini glass and a lighter.
When was it you last saw George, anyway, you wonder? It used to be he’d be in every night, opening time, whether he was on shift or not. Sometimes you’d come in to find him playing the piano, and he’d sheepishly close the lid. He wasn’t bad; you and Lizzy had always told him he should play for the club somenight but nothing came of it.
People are coming in now: ones, twos, threes. They head to the bar and fill up the benches and chairs around, but leave you and your corner alone. A few familiar faces but none of the old crowd. The scene is changing, leaving you behind. Nina’s gone, Billy and Danny not long after that. Joe’s looking to go north, apparently, join some big band on tour. How much longer before it’s just you and the club?
* * * *
The railcar clatters along the rails, lurching down hills and around corners. You’re alone on the car, but for the driver and a dozing drunk, his suit crumpled like he’s worn it since Wednesday. A breeze through the open walls sets a chill through your clothes and you wonder if it’s too late to turn back. But you’re heading the wrong way for home and you’re almost there.
Maybe he just hungover, or took a night off for someone’s birthday. George has a brother, right? Didn’t he say his birthday was coming up soon? Liz didn’t know, and was too busy at the bar for the third degree.
Had he been coming in less and less often? Had he been hiding away and drinking more? You are sure you talked to him Tuesday, didn’t you? Or was that last week?
You remember, last July, Liz and Joe were celebrating their engagement. They closed the club, invited all their friends and announced the good news. What a night! You’ve never known so much beer, wine, gin and cocktails drunk in one sitting. Joe and the guys played all night and everyone danced. George lead the speeches and made sure the happy couple didn’t have to lift a finger. He made the party something really special. And he got on pretty well with Nina, as you remember. Everyone said that they’d be next to tie the knot but... well, that didn’t happen.
When was the last time you saw him smile?
* * * *
The railcar dropped you off two blocks from George’s place. The streets are lit only by the candles and electric lights flooding from the apartment blocks on the north side. This time of the morning, the streets are quiet and bare, everyone either tucked up at home or still packed in to the bars before they close.
You have only been to George’s a couple of times, and both times you were drunk, dragged along by Lizzy. “We’ve got to take the party to Georgey!” she’d say, over and over. Everything looks different in a cocktail-fuelled haze, but that grocery looks familiar and you remember crossing train tracks like these.
The apartments are built around their own courtyard and you let yourself in, the door not being locked. A woman is still out, scrubbing washing on a board, and she gives you a wary look. You consider asking her if George lives here but you don’t. There is a gramophone playing from a window on the second floor and you climb the stairs to the balcony. Fats Waller, isn’t it? George is always humming his music.
‘I don't stay out late
Don't care to go
I'm home about eight
Just me and my radio
I'm savin' my love for you.’
The track runs out, needle scratching over the vinyl, as you reach the door. It isn’t locked and, holding your breath, you push it open. The kitchen beyond is dark but for lamplight from beyond the window.
There’s a click and a flash of light - the electric bulb turned on and you blink away the spots, arm raised instinctively to your face. But the spots fade and there’s George, shirtless, pale, unshaven. He holds a knife in his hand and it’s all you can look at. 8 inches of shining patent steel carving knife...
And you see the red and white lines down his arm, the blood running across his palm and fingers to drip-drip-drip on the floor boards, seeping into the woodwork.
Put the knife down, George... put it down.
His grip tenses, and you flinch, ready for the strike, but the knife hits the floor and George slumps into a chair. “You came for me? How did you know?”
Easy, you tell him. I know the blues.