Jukebox Lament

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John W. Buckley

THIS CLUB HAS ALL THE AWKWARDNESS of a junior-high dance, and none of the innocence. Girls are shaking it on the dance floor in great, imposing gaggles while the guys mill around against the walls, downing martinis. Cheap ones, the happy hour special kind. I’m feeling a bit out of place, like an uninvited sophomore crashing the prom. Techno crashes in from the speakers overhead; bass lines like marionette strings connect to the breasts and hips of the women, the feet and heads of the guys. I find myself nodding along with the rhythm—boom, boom, boom—half-ironic, half-impulse. Okay, mostly impulse.

I’m watching Denny wave down another couple martinis at the bar when I feel a hand alight on my shoulder. I turn around to see a familiar face. Sweeping, jutting dark hair, green eyes that sparkle even in the club’s dim light, and a smirk that’s all irony—she doesn’t like the techno any more than I do, but she’s not going to let that stop her.

“Hey,” she says, not even bothering to yell over the din. “Fancy meeting you here.”

We know each other only tangentially; I’d met her a few times before, through friends of friends. Acquaintances of acquaintances. That sort of thing. We’d once made out to Journey’s Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’ at some lame theme party. I remember she wore this pair of novelty oversize sunglasses. I have no idea why.

Trudie. Her name is Trudie.

“Hey yourself,” I say back, leaning in for an awkward, one-arm, don’t-spill-the-martini hug. “Great to see you! Are you here with anyone?”

“Dance with me,” is all she says. I shrug, taking one last stinging sip of martini as she leads me out the dance floor, arm in willowy arm.

“This doesn’t seem like your kind of place,” I say during a brief respite in the aural assault. She just smiles, rolls her eyes.

We shake our shit unapologetically for a spell, her all gangly and arrhythmic, mischief in her eyes, me all shoulders and knees, a kind of monotonous sway. You just kind of give in to the techno after a while, bow to the machines like some dystopian future has come to pass. The machines win, but just for the length of a song.

“I think I prefer Journey,” she says as she leads me off the dance floor, a corner of her mouth upturned a bit. I remember she doesn’t like Journey any more than she likes techno. Then she slinks out of slight, but for only a moment, returning with two martinis balanced in her fingers like long-stemmed roses.

We sit down at the only empty seats in the place. Trudie has a knack for this kind of thing: finding empty couches, the last beer, unused bedrooms. We’ve got a good view of the dance floor—I see Denny flailing harmlessly with a pretty black girl, his goofy blond tumble a dead giveaway. We watch the dance floor population sway and bounce for a moment.

“Did you know,” she says, her lips hovering just over the rim of her martini glass, “that squids dance before they mate?” She sips. “It’s instinctive.”

I don’t say anything, just tilt my martini against the table, watch the drowning olive.

She puts her drink down and sighs. “That’s about the only thing I remember from my Bio 101 class. One of the perks of a liberal arts education, I guess.”

She purses her lips, pauses, then catches my eye, half-smiling.

“You’re going to think I’m horrible,” she says, trailing off. She tilts her head to the side, as if trying to shake a memory loose. “J—Joey?”

“Close,” I say with a laugh. A mollifying one, I hope—I’m not offended. “Jamie. You had the ‘J’ right.”

“I’m so horrible with names. I never forget a kiss, though.” If there’s a way to wink with a smile, Trudie has mastered it.

I laugh again, raise my glass to hers, a mock toast to the shared memory.

“So are you here with anyone?” I repeat, prodding for that tangential connection that is eluding me after all these martinis. The gin burns like a mother going down, and those minor details—like how exactly we know each other—are the first things to go.

She swipes a couple loose strands of hair away from her mouth, takes a swallow of martini. “I just came from a wake, actually. I’m here by myself.” Her smile’s all gone.

I hadn’t noticed the dress before. Black, modest, like some wayward teenager’s prom gown. Not really her style.

“Oh, I’m sorry. Was it family?”

“Just an old friend from college—we bonded over those squid mating dances.” She pauses, as if replaying an old memory. “Is this a weird place to come after a wake?”

“Depends on your mood, I guess.”

“I just felt like being someplace noisy. And a drink.”

“Well, looks like you came to the right place.”

She nods, sips her drink, prods the olive idly with its cheap plastic sword. She shifts the subject to small talk, what I’m doing here, who with. I tell her this is more Denny’s kind of place than mine. Unlike me, Denny is a competent dancer—as long as it’s techno—and a lover of cheap martinis. I prefer a well-stocked jukebox and a glass of cheap whiskey. The conversation starts to peter out; a swollen silence forms between us like a heavy pendulum come to rest.

I’m about to ask her about her job, but I can’t remember what she does. Something artsy, I’m certain—photographer, poetry journal editor, chamber musician. I settle for a joke instead.

“Either this is the worst techno I’ve ever heard, or someone needs to turn off their car alarm.”

She scrunches her face for a moment, then we share one of those laughs that drains the lungs of air like a deflating balloon. I think she needed it—there’s an ease about her now, a softness, as she crosses her legs, exhales deeply. I catch myself glancing at the precipice between hemline and thigh, another vestige of teenaged dances. Mystery back then; anticipation now.

“So, this friend,” I say. “Were you close?”

“Used to be. Not so much anymore.” She adjusts her hemline. “We hadn’t really talked in a few years, since college, really. I found out through Facebook, can you believe that? Welcome to the digital age. Anyway, I got in touch with her sister. She said I should come. To the wake.”

“That’s pretty awful,” I say. “Did you guys go to school around here?”

“UCLA,” she says.

Something comes to me then, some remnant of a past conversation. A last-call revelation, perhaps, or some lucky link shared in the post-party dawn. This is it. This is how we know each other.

“Your friend,” I say, my martini in a vice grip. “What was her name?”

Maybe she feels it too, because she hesitates then. Her eyes seem to cool, that sparkle fading to a faint glow, ember-like, as she, too, searches for that connection. She bites her lip, breathes in. The she says it, her words more cutting than cheap gin or red plastic swords. “Audrey. Audrey Cybulski.”

Neither of us say anything, letting the crushing techno and the burning in our bellies fill the silence, fill the cracks that have started to form in the evening. There’s nothing to say for the moment.

And then the moment’s over. She puts a hand on my knee, more to get my attention than anything else, I think. My eyes had become fixed on the mirror above the bar and the skewed view it gives of the place, like it’s been tilted 90 degrees. Or maybe it’s just me that feels that way. Tilted. Askew.

She squeezes my knee again. “Let’s get out of here.”

I nod, suddenly weary. Weary of the drinks, weary of the music, weary of the whole place. “Yes.”

We have to take stairs to get back up to street level, and when we do, the sun is up there waiting for us, blinking between buildings, low on the horizon. The fact that it is still daylight adds to the otherworldly quality the day has taken on. Around us, above us, downtown is covered in an uncomfortable haze, metal and glass and monotony. We cut through it, emboldened by the gin and acute sense of tragedy.

She slips her arm through the crook of my elbow, wriggles her fingers between mine, her small fingers alternating between my own like keys on a piano. When she squeezes, our fingers form a melody only we can hear. We glide past bums marooned on corners, change-cups rattling, past scurrying professionals, their glossy shoes clacking on the concrete, off to homes or happy hours. We have no such destination.

“Where are we going?” I say.

“I don’t know. Anywhere. It just looked like you needed to get out of there.”

“I did.” I’d tracked Denny down, told him I’d catch up with him later, and followed Trudie out. Now, we wander in a vaguely western direction, toward the setting sun and the oblivion it offers, neither of us talking much. The thought of Audrey’s death bounces inside my skull like a misfired bullet, cutting through memory after memory, haphazard and cruel.

“I know a place a few blocks away,” I say after a time. “Quiet, decent jukebox, good whiskey.”

“Okay.” She leans into my arm, hair brushing against my neck. Soft.

We continue on in silence. I think of Audrey as we walk, Audrey and her brown hair, of the last time we talked. Some meaningless conversation online a few months ago. I had initiated it. How’ve you been? Good. Me too. Great to hear from you. That kind of thing. Six months ago, maybe a year. I don’t think I’d met Trudie by then, so at least a year. Now Audrey was dead and it was all over Facebook and I didn’t even know.

“This is it.” We stop.

The entrance is tucked between a cleaner’s and a convenience store on Seventh Avenue, a tinted glass door, anonymous aside from the bouncer on a stool sitting behind it. He checks our IDs and lets us in. The bar is on the second floor, so we head up a couple flights of carpeted stairs. Dim wall lamps light the way. She tries to catch my eye on the landing, but I keep moving.

The place is quiet, just like I’d hoped—it doesn’t get much business on weeknights. There are a couple pool tables in the center, nice ones, regulation sized, with bright green felt. A jukebox in the corner. A young, handsome bartender is stationed behind the bar, which overlooks half a dozen empty tables. The only sound is the occasional clack of pool balls colliding.

The place has a sort of old-timey hunting lodge theme going on—fake deer heads along the walls, empty gun rack behind the bar. Still, it’s got a casual, yet classy element I like—no open shoes, but you don’t need a jacket. A perfect hideaway from the club-goers and scenesters that plague other places around here. A place to talk and have a drink. Or drink and have a talk.

Trudie motions toward the bar. “This one’s on me.”

“Just get me what you’re having.” My eye is on the jukebox: one of the older ones with big, plastic turning pages. I feel around in my pocket and find a few crumpled dollar bills.

Flipping through the pages of the jukebox reminds me of sifting through stacks of CDs and dusty vinyls, back when people still bought records, waiting for that one perfect find. A juke is about the closest thing most people come to a record store these days. And this place has always had a good one—it runs the gamut from classic country to shoegaze to electropop. Eclectic, off-the-beaten-path stuff. I shuffle through the records, nothing specific in mind. The electric whir of the pages is soothing, as is the click when I make a selection. Whir, whir, click. Rhythmic.

The haunting sax intro to Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band’s Turn the Page is playing by the time I sit down next to Trudie. It’s the version from the Live Bullet album, the only one anyone really knows. The crowd—a whistle here, a shout there—is a barely-perceptible background for Seger’s road-weary dirge. The sax keens like a masterless dog; Seger sings about long and lonesome highways. Weary. Lonesome. These are things I know.

Trudie sips on a whiskey sour; I pick mine up and take a drink. Cheap, tangy, good.

Our table is tucked in a corner, opposite one of the pool tables. Empty, for now. We wait for the pendulum of conversation to regain momentum.

“Can you believe this dress?” Trudie says against the encroaching silence. She straightens the hemline against her knees. I look away. “It was my senior prom dress. I didn’t have anything else that was all black. I had to cut off all the frilly parts, though.”

“You look nice,” is all I can manage. I’m still staring at the empty pool table.

“So, you dated Audrey, right?” Trudie says after a moment. I think we were both waiting for her to. Seger wails away through the speakers mournfully—“There I goooooo.” The crowd chants along, a faint echo, solemn.

“Yeah. For a year or so. Just after college.” I inhale, not sure if I’m ready to hear the answer to the question that I’m about to ask. Need to ask. “So … how did it happen?”

Trudie catches my eye for an instant before beginning. I don’t know what she’s looking for.

“It happened on New Year’s Eve,” she begins. “Right in the middle of some big block party.” As she tells the story, I swirl my drink through its own condensation on the table, creating small ovals of moisture, cutting through them again and again. Trudie takes a deep breath. “She was out with a bunch of friends and I guess she started breathing funny or something. Like she was out of breath. She said she needed to sit down and when she did, she closed her eyes. And never opened them again. I can’t even imagine that. All these people drinking and celebrating, loud music, bright lights, and she just sits down, closes her eyes, and dies right there. Jesus.” She finishes the rest of her drink, stares at the rim of her empty glass.

The jukebox whirs. Nick Cave comes on. Something off The Boatman’s Call, sad and slow and spare. I follow Trudie’s lead and finish my drink as well.

“Wow,” is all I can muster. “Audrey was never one for parties. At least not when I knew her.”

“How well can you ever really know somebody?” she says, dropping the cliché without a hint of irony. “Especially in this city.” She squeezes my hand and then gets up and heads to the bar.

The pool table is no longer empty. The guy at it has a custom cue, chalk, glove—pretty serious for a one-man game. He’s pretty good, though. I watch him line up shot after shot and sink each one. I listen to the clack of the balls as he strikes them, the gentle thump as they drop into the pocket. It’s comforting to watch someone doing something well; there’s a gentle harmony, a rhythm. Clack, clack, thump. Trudie comes back without me even noticing. She has another round of drinks.

“I feel like I could drown in a Nick Cave song right now,” she says. “Let his voice cocoon over me and just sink to the bottom of it all.”

“I know how you feel.” I stare into the amber hollow of my drink. “Did they ever find out what was wrong with her? The doctors?”

She nods mid-drink. “Cardiac arrhythmia, they said. There was something wrong with her heartbeat; the rhythm was wrong. Her heart skipped a beat and it just stopped—like the needle on a record player. Random, right? Cardiac arrhythmia. Sounds like something that would happen to an old person.”

“Jesus.”

“At least it was peaceful.” She raises her glass.

“At least it was peaceful.” We clink our glasses together, a toast to the departed Audrey. Audrey with the brown hair and slight smile, Audrey who wore sweaters even when it wasn’t cold, Audrey who was a big part of my life once, but not anymore. Audrey.

Whir, whir, click. Something off Elliott Smith’s XO. He stabbed himself in the heart a ten-minute cab ride from here. Hearts, rhythms, skipped beats, knives. What the hell.

I spend the next hour with a gauze of whiskey sour and sad songs over my eyes and ears, wrapped over me, like I’ve just experienced some traumatic head wound. And maybe I have. Or maybe I just want to pretend that it hurts more than it actually does. I tell myself that’s just the booze talking. The pool player leaves somewhere in the haze, dismantling and packing up his cue and slipping out the door, cool, smooth. I remember toasting him as he leaves. I remember slow-dancing with Trudie next to the jukebox to Journey’s Lights. And again to The Smiths’ There Is a Light That Never Goes Out. I remember talking about how sometimes the light does go out. I remember laughing about squids. I remember the broken glass and sloshing mess of a spilled drink, the bartender calling us a cab. I remember the mutual spark and quick looks away when we brush hands. I remember that we started kissing even before the cab came, halfway down the stairs under the vacant gaze of a mounted deer head.

We spend the cab ride back to the club making out, the tipsy kind with roaming hands and tongues that catch as much cheek as lip. The cabbie ignores us, cranks up the modern rock station. Something angry, with guitar chords like stones thrown by giants. One, two, three chords and verse, chorus, verse. Predictable. It was always going to end up this way, Trudie and I.

Our tongues are deliberate, not building up to anything—just getting to know each other again. The hands stay on top of clothes—an unspoken agreement. Nighttime downtown passes by in pace, in rhythm to our tongues, a black-and-neon blur in the (admittedly-fogging) windows of the cab. We could have walked. But we wanted the privacy. Such as it is.

When we get back to the club, there’s no “Your place or mine?” conversation. She has dinner plans (I don’t ask with whom), and I’ve got to find Denny. Or maybe just go home. The night air is cool compared to the warmth of the cab. Of Trudie. I hand the cabbie a bill and he takes off, merging into downtown, either oblivious or uncaring. Our little tryst probably won’t even make the highlight reel at his weekly poker game.

We stand shoulder to shoulder on the sidewalk, our fingers brushing against each other. A sensation like lightning when they touch. It’s still cold enough that it mists when we exhale. The mist floats up and out of our mouths like cartoon word bubbles—but curiously blank, the words dissipated. When we turn to face each other, our breaths commingle under a streetlight, languid and vaporous, a colloquy in the language of night.

Our eyes meet; she holds my gaze briefly. It’s over when she kisses my cheek.

“You should call me,” she says.

“I don’t have your number.”

She fumbles around in her purse, pulls out a flip phone.

“Let me text you.”

I give her my number. She starts typing away, her thumbs dancing a tiny ballet.

“Used to be a girl would just write her number down on a cocktail napkin.” She gives me the wink-smile again.

My phone chimes after a couple seconds. “Got it.”

Another peck on the cheek, a “Great to see you,” and she’s gone, up the sidewalk and disappearing around a corner. I watch her go, standing alone under the orange streetlight. Then I take my phone out to read her text.

From: Trina (323-410-0077)

Let’s meet up under better circumstances. Trina XO

I already had her number. And Trina. Her name is Trina. I want to smash my phone on the sidewalk, break it into shiny little bits and scream at the sky. But I don’t.

Feeling too sorry for myself to be alone, I head back downstairs to the club. It’s the same as I left it hours ago, although the genders have begun to mingle more. The same music plays—a frenetic collection of spastic beats and chanted verbs. Jump! Shout! Move! I feel like doing none of these things. I search for Denny, wondering what would happen if the music skipped a beat.

Denny’s still here, still dancing, still drinking. He’s got the diagonal stride and loopy grin that comes from too many martinis. He pulls away from a group of girls and lopes over toward me, hair askew and eyes glassy.

“Jamie, man, where’ve you been? I’ve been looking all over for you! There’s some girls I want you to meet, man. Girls.”

I consider telling him where I’ve been, what’s happened, that I don’t want to meet any girls. I want to tell him that this music has got no rhythm, got no heart, that I just want to slow dance next to a jukebox. But I don’t. I grab another martini and start dancing with one of Denny’s girls. Short, pretty, almost as drunk as I am. I ask her if she knew that squids dance before mating. I don’t ask for her name. She doesn’t ask for mine. We dance robotic until the house lights come up.

~

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About the Author

JOHN W. BUCKLEY is a California soul trapped in an Arizona body. He has a BA in English Literature from Arizona State University and an MPW from the University of Southern California. When he’s not writing, he can be found teaching composition and literature to community college students. His short story “Girl in the Mirror” was recently published in the Menda City Review.

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