Wailing & Relief

by Ryan Lind


The band had driven over an hour to be here. The man on the harmonica, the default lead singer, Stu Greenbaum, had been Sherry's gynecologist before he retired and before we split apart and divided our resources. He didn't have much of a voice now—never really did. But he had that fire that burned down everything, so people still showed up to hear him wail about his new and used lovers. These had once been so easily acquired by the magnanimity of his station at the end of the stirrups, the required intimacy of a man who had seen too many folds to be either impressed or sickened, the medical facilities of acceptance of fact—that flesh is merely flesh. No woman is excited by cold examinations, of course, but every human being likes the ease of flatly delivered good news or compassionate bad news—an enunciation Greenbaum had perfected over time. He had made a fine living.

But Greenbaum could step aside on stage. He could lean against the too-loud amplifier, even now, and let his curly hair be blown by the horns. He could listen to his oldest friend, Vernon Giles, peel his guitar strings down to soft nylon. Giles picked with his thumb; he thought it softened and muddied the sound. Drew the blues out from the instrument. Bluesmen all have theories, and this was Giles'.

I watched old Giles that night, already tired from the hour's commute to this stage. Tables were pushed back, against the electronic dartboard and filled with the working weary, pressed closely to one another. How Giles melted his strings together, my God. He sat in a chair. He played one of those new composite guitars, lighter in weight than a middle-aged bluesman would find acceptable. Dr. Greenbaum blew for a while into his harp, bending over to accentuate the distorted whir. Oh and then Giles accompanied him. Eyes closed. He swung his head from side to side, and his jowls made the tremolo sound. Greenbaum gave way. He looked at Giles doing his work, watching the flaps of skin and judged them flatly. Smirking good news across the stage.

Old Giles curled his head down toward his heart under the lighter, modern burden of his new guitar. Yes, the sound was more digital than analogue, but the acoustics bounce so fast through the linoleum-covered room, no one has time to complain between noises. If there were any purists in the room, they bowed their heads with the guitar player and let the grace of the lonesome wash them.

I could see the sweat foaming along his hairline; some of his hair managed to remain orange. It parted easily and laid down where other hair had been a while ago. Giles has to be seventy, I thought. He shaked his head side to side, then. Seventy-five, I wondered? And Greenbaum noded fiercely in time and seared an exclamation mark through his harmonica. That song lasted for some twelve minutes. The drummer, one of three men who played this role, swept his brushes, built to a close.

Old Giles stood up. Greenbaum blew some staccato notes. Giles pulled the microphone stand to his level, and he spoke to the tune about his loneliness. I believe. He repeated line after line. And I believe even more. A man his age, seventy-five according to Greenbaum's telepathy, cannot keep his fingertips so nimble unless he is very alone.

The band took a break, and the room exploded with voices. The divorcees who had been moving their old backends into the bank of tables to the swing of minor chords were now laughing and screaming and getting drunker on beer. You could see the girlhood on them. They remembered when the band was younger. What they did during the breaks thirty years ago. How many things came to an end when Greenbaum and Giles mopped their heads and shot rye between sets? How many new things were begun? The taste of steam.

The whole band fled to the men's room. I was washing my hands when the door crashed open and the men filed in and took their places. I fuss with the paper towel dispenser. The urinals are hung on the wall for maximum capacity. One man's foot is pressed up against another man's foot. Four of the band members piss together, while the fifth waits his turn behind the starts and stops of urination. None of the men speak. They look down. They wait. The heartbreak of waiting for a natural function. Bracing themselves against the graffiti. The reading is tolerable. They read a couple lines and look down to see what is happening. Relief is unpredictable. They point their heads down at their hearts and wait. All of them are wondering who will drive the van home in the dark.