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Solo Act, Part I

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She has come alone to the bar, simply to sit in the cool air and have a drink. It is late afternoon and the sun comes through windows high on the wall above her and pools in golden puddles on the lacquered wood under her wineglass. The bar is silent, as if holding its breath for a later crowd, and she begins to feel the first touch of the wine relaxing her spine. She slips a shoe off one foot and rests her bare toes against the chill of the brass kick under her stool. The only other patron sits at the far end of the long counter staring down into a glass of beer. She looks at herself in the mirror behind the bar, her reflected face pale and sickly in the gloom amongst the jumbled bottles of booze. I am lost she thinks.


Penelope wove during the day and pulled apart her work at night to keep her suitors at bay, waiting, believing. Three steps forward, two steps back. The woman at the bar feels as if she has done quite the opposite; she wove a world at night and ripped it to shreds by day. What she has done to others is now being done to her, karma working out the wrongs in life.


In her old life, she often sat on the damp grass in her backyard and cried at the full moon. Within the beauty of it all, the children, husband, good wines, long vacations, endless dinner parties she had felt a separateness, like a ghost peering into bright windows craving the warmth inside. What’s missing, what is wrong, what am I waiting for? She often thought to herself in those days.


She sits at the bar and sips her wine and her hand moves toward her purse and goes inside and touches the brown bottle of pills lying there in the darkness with the remains of her life, among receipts and late reminders, her wallet falling apart, uncapped lipsticks smeared with escaped cigarette tobacco, a glimpse of pink paper, reassuring herself. She studies the outside of her bag, an old, expensive leather bag drooping on the stool next to her, lumpy and benign … it gives no clue to the chaos inside.


She has tried it before, she has stood right outside the door, but fear always brought her back. Although she believed, like people in another time, that blood washes away dishonor, she was afraid of God, or Allah, or Buddha, or a billion unanswered questions from a billion and more souls that had gone before and she was afraid that there would only be dark silence at the end and possibly no peace whatsoever. She could get trapped in a netherland of broken souls that terrorized the living. She might find herself in the middle of Jan van Eyck’s painting, the Last Judgement, upside down with a pitchfork in her head. She may have to go back and live the same life she just messed up, or come back as a spider. She studied and searched for answers, for quick, painless relief. She lingered over recipes for self-murder, discarding one theory, placing others to the side. She became a scholar of suicide.


Metaphysics suggested that she might, if she practiced hard enough, just float away from her body at will, and she liked that idea. She would practice, but then take it one step further from those who warned about the silver string tying your soul back to earth … she would look back and see her body lying there, see all the ugliness that she created for herself, see all the ruin of a perfectly good life and perfectly good chances thrown away and she would reach out with her hand and choke off the pitiable vision on the string and drift away like smoke. Who needs a mother like me anyway?


The bartender pours her more wine, and she takes her glass and moves to the grand piano that sits silently in the corner of the barroom, dust motes swirling in the late sunlight across the dull gleam of the wooden top. The keys are yellowing and some are cracked and chipped with age. She touches a key and the note spirals up, clear and perfect, aligning itself with the dust in the air and flying away into the air above. Suddenly the man from the end of the bar is standing there beside her.


“Do you play?” he asks her. She laughs and the sound feels hollow to her.


“No, but I like to listen.” she replies. The wine has made her slightly drunk.


He smiles at her. He has crooked teeth and a wide, full mouth. He wears glasses and has sideburns that look too cultivated and pointy, too intentional. He is studying her face and she feels embarrassed and shy at once. She doesn’t want a man to pay attention right now, she wants to drink alone. She looks back down at the keyboard and is quiet. She feels him move past her and he sits down at the piano bench and places his drink on the bare wood of the piano. She feels her old self caring about the wood, about the moisture, about the ring it will leave, about the remedy for water marks on good furniture and she reminds herself that it doesn’t matter anymore.


Even now, ever so often, something would flutter up in her heart like a tiny moth and make her catch her breath at the beauty of small things and she would think to herself I will miss the sun and moon, I will miss my unborn grandchildren, my books … and I will be forgotten. She would miss water, and kisses. She would miss her mother and her father, her sister, her brother. And her sons … those years-ago babies she had formed inside of her. If she could somehow wake up one day and be something else entirely, she would stay. A tiny, shrill voice screamed to stay, to make love again and ride horseback and see India, to hear all the music there was to hear. But she had been born, she decided, with a caul of darkness that would never leave her side, it never slept and even if there were one day of happiness that she might have a chance to weave, the blackness stole in and ripped it to shreds every time.


“What do you like to listen to?” the man asks her. She just stares at him, her head swimming. He’s going to think I’m crazy, she thinks, and laughs again, this time her voice sounding like bubbles underwater. And I am! I’m stark, raving, fucking looney tunes bats-in-the-belfrey crazy, Yes. I. Am. That’s what they tell me, anyway …

(Part 1) |  Part 2

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