By The Light Of A Torch Song

Mag Challenge 196

This was written over a year ago and has sat in the “draft pile”  It’s done now, I think. Another tale of an old crow and her beau and a little bar in Greenwich Village called “Cobalt.”

wings 5It was a little hole-in-the-wall joint tucked away in an unfashionable part of the East Village.  Dexter stumbled upon it by chance one evening.  The entrance was down in a basement well with the door set at a right angle to the street. He must have walked right by it a hundred times and never noticed it. The only inkling of its existence was a small squiggle of a sign set above the door that said “Cobalt” in cobalt blue neon which would intermittently flicker and go off, stay off for a while, flicker and come back on again.  That’s how he’d come to notice it.  The sign had been off, and flickered back on just as he was walking up the sidewalk toward it.  Curiosity had gotten the better of him and he’d gone down to investigate.

There wasn’t much to the place.  Solid wood door with a little sliding “speakeasy” window and a squeaky hinge that let onto about 8 feet of landing, left turn and down about fifteen concrete steps lit by bare bulbs, left turn again, through a short hallway and out into a low-ceilinged, cavern-like room with a bare concrete floor.  There was about ten feet of bar on the end by the stairs, a stage down at the other end just big enough for drums, upright piano, and a couple of chairs for the side men du jour, and in between a collection of maybe fifteen cocktail tables surrounded by an assortment of arm chairs, love seats, and ottomans, all standard  Salvation Army issue.  Indirect fluorescent lighting washed down the black-painted plaster walls, and each of the four square concrete pillars had a couple of those movie theater floor-directed lights placed knee-high around it.

That first night, he’d found an out of the way corner, and ordered a Coors Light.  He’d had a particularly crappy day at work and as he sat listening to the surprisingly eclectic mix of music on the surprisingly good sound system, the tension of the day had just drained out of him like water out of a bathtub. It was a slow night, and one of the waitresses, Sachi, had sat down and talked to him for a while. The next thing he knew, Dexter was telling her all about his dead-end job and how much he hated it, and the assholes he worked for and with, and how he never seemed to fit in anywhere and how he always felt like a third wheel.  She’d seemed interested and sympathetic but, of course, she was just being nice to the customer.

Still, he found himself going back again and after he’d been a couple more times, he found out that they opened at 6:00 and that you could bring food in and eat it there if you didn’t make a mess and bussed up after yourself.  That’s when he started coming straight after work.  He’d pick up some takeout on the way, and then just sit quietly and listen to the music for the rest of the night, and drink a couple beers.

Sometimes they had live music, but it was never advertised and didn’t seem to be scheduled.  Just whoever showed up and wanted to play.  They played what Dexter assumed was jazz.  Most of it he had never heard before, but he decided he liked it.   One night it would be piano and string bass and trumpet, and another night, it was drums, electric guitar and flute, and then drums and piano and string bass.  But then last Tuesday, the bartender and one of the men customers put an armchair up on stage and about an hour later, this woman wandered in, slender, with dark hair in a single braid all the way down her back, and she was carrying a large cloth bag.  She got up on the stage, sat down in the arm chair, pulled out this thing she was knitting and sat there and knitted and sang, one song after another, just her singing, for almost two straight hours, in English once or twice, but mostly in what Sachi told him later was Gaelic, and it was the most incredibly beautiful singing he had ever heard.

Today, he’d stopped by Won Hong Lu’s and picked up some shrimp fried rice and a couple of egg rolls.  He had begun to hate the fact that he had to leave at midnight — turn into a pumpkin, he’d joked — because he had to go to work the next day. But it was Friday, finally, and he was determined to stay there until they closed.  Sachi brought him a Harp Lager.  He had never drunk anything but American beer until he started coming there. Then one night Sachi had brought him a Harp.  She said the bartender had opened one too many, and he could have it on the house.  It had been a revelation.

He’d been there about an hour when a guy went up on stage and started playing piano.  A while later, the black bassist came in schelpping his string bass, unpacked it and began to play along with the piano player. He had seen both of them before and smiled at the thought of listening to them again.  About ten minutes later a guy came in lugging drum cases and began to set up a snare, high hat, and bass drum, then unpacked some brushes. Kia the other waitress brought them all up bottles of something to drink.  Dexter thought he enjoyed watching them play as much as he enjoyed listening to them.  There was an easy rapport between them. They played comfortably together.  The pianist would start a song and within a bar or two the others would have joined in.

The place was beginning to fill up, soon there were no empty tables and not much longer after that, the only empty chairs were the other armchair, the love seat, and the ottoman at Dexter’s table.  Sachi came over and asked if he would mind if some people sat at the table with him.  He had already begun to feel guilty for taking up a whole table by himself and readily agreed.

The couple that took the love seat were older – maybe late 30’s, early 40’s, both on the short side, slender.  He had a ponytail of dark hair, and her hair was loose and long, almost invisible in the dim light against her dark clothing.  The man introduced himself as Bron and his lady as Catha.  He was obviously British by his accent.  The chair was taken by a tall, thin, teen-aged boy with long dark hair, a pierced ring around the middle of his lower lip and a long sleeved black teeshirt that had “If you’re really a Goth, where were you when we sacked Rome?” in white gothic script on the front. He was introduced as, “My nephew Drogo.” But it was the girl who took the ottoman that captured his entire attention.  She was wearing a long black crushed velvet dress with fitted sleeves.  She had a disheveled scribble of dark hair that hung in strands and locks about her face, and she wore blood red lipstick, which along with her dark hair, only made her pale skin look all the more pale.  Drogo proceeded to introduce her as “My girlfriend, Maida.”  Drogo had a thick middle European accent.

They were settling into their seats when Sachi brought their drinks, what looked like Guinness draft, except in front of Maida, she set a full, unopened bottle of Old Crow whiskey with the seal unbroken. Apparently, it was some kind of inside joke because they all laughed.  “That should last you at least til midnight,” Bron said with a chuckle.  She promptly opened it and took quite a slug straight from the bottle.  Then, grabbing the bottle by the neck, she stood and made her way to the stage, acquiring a low stool en route.  After kissing the piano player on the cheek (he didn’t miss a note of the complicated riff he happened to be playing at the time), kissing the bass player on the cheek, and waving at the drummer, she settled on her stool and began to sing.

She had a low, sultry voice slightly frayed at the edges, and she seemed to specialize in love songs.  Dexter recognized some of them, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” and “As Time Goes By” and a couple of other tunes were familiar from some of the old B&W movies he’d seen on Turner Classics channel.  Thankfully, the others at the table were there to listen and didn’t feel it necessary to engage him in conversation, because he was spellbound.

It was another of those magical musical nights, like that time the lady had sung in Gaelic.  About four or five songs in, it occurred to him that he could open a memo page on his iPhone and thumb out a line of lyric so he could find out more about the song later.  But once he had, he would surrender to the song and just let it wash over him.  The time slipped by in a happy haze and then suddenly it was last call, and with a chuckle, Maida started singing a song that had the refrain, “Bye Bye, Blackbird” and that made the people she’d come with laugh aloud.

Dexter meant to go up to her, Maida, and tell her how much he liked her singing but as she finished her song, the couple and the boy got up to go, along with half the people in the place, and somehow he lost them and her in the crowd of people headed toward the stairs that led back up to the street. He caught a glimpse of them, but then a short, blond haired man and his tall Eurasian lady slipped in front of him.  Dexter had seen them at Cobalt on several occasions. They were speaking French.

When he finally made it up the stairs and out into the street, he looked around for the singer and her friends, but didn’t see them.  They’d probably caught a taxi. He stood a long moment in frustrated disappointment.  Then with a philosophical sigh, he set off up the street toward the subway entrance.  At the corner, a raucous caw called his attention to the street signs bolted to the street light pole.  Four black birds that look like crows were perched there.  As he stood there watching them, they launched themselves into flight and disappeared into the darkness.  A single black feather floated down into the light.  He held out his hand and caught it.  A long moment he looked at its glistening blackness lying in his palm, then he carefully put it into his inside coat pocket, zipped his coat all the way up and started off toward the subway.

3 thoughts on “By The Light Of A Torch Song

  1. What a nice morning read. I was a little surprised how my attention wandered when those song titles got mentioned — I know the lyrics to them all. The biggest difference is, I grew up with them, rather than seeing them on Turner Classic. 🙂

    I hear that expression “thumb out” from time to time. I guess now I’m going to have to look it up. It must be geek-speak for something that I don’t do. I remember how long it took me to get “selfie” straight, too.

    NIce tale, nicely told.

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