“All the Things That I Can’t Tell,” a story by Blythe Asta, was a short-listed entry in our recently concluded 54th Short Fiction Contest. It is published with the permission of the author
photo by Alan Levine/pxhere.com
All the Things That I Can’t Tell
by Blythe Asta
I methodically walk along. Stepping in tune to the pulsing soundtrack spilling out of the passing nightclub, littering the sidewalk. The electric guitar wailing something menacingly slow and strong. Almost soulful but still all the while punk at its core and insisting itself to be anything but a love song. I wouldn’t be surprised to catch a glimpse of Lux dancing inside as I pass. Lux, used to be Grace, and I almost miss the days when she was. The name Grace gifted to her in honor of the white-gloved ingenue, elegant goddess poised to the silver screen. Lux changed her name craving to prove herself to be anything but. Just before she left home. Not long before she met me. I pass bars and nightclubs and dives that I recall Lux mention before but I can never bring myself to venture inside. These are the things that I can’t bring myself to tell you. But something tells me you already know.
…..You. Always greet me with a sly smile, careful not to let on that you’ve been eager to see me again, but, I swear, the brightness in your eyes says otherwise. Making my way up Valencia, I can almost always faintly hear the keys of the piano being played beneath your fingers before I can even see the neon sign. The notes floating up and getting caught in the trees, hanging amongst the leaves. Hanging alongside some of my old notes – brown and brittle and crumbling by now. The neon sign calling out to me like a beacon, beckoning me. You carry the weight of the world at your fingertips and as I get closer, with every aching step, I can feel the concrete streets throbbing beneath our feet, struggling to hold the weight of you.
…..The moment I step inside, the warmth envelopes me. The warmth of the crowd of bodies, some familiar in face but most just familiar in spirit. The warmth of the shelter from the biting, bay air. The warmth of your smile. You have a way with music. You play in a way that entertains and soothes. You have this incredible ability to gage a room and anticipate what the crowd longs to hear. What we need to hear. When we need to celebrate, your fingers dance lively atop the keys, improvising a high tempo that encourages us to laugh and clap, whistle and whoop. Then when we need a break to relax, you transition so smoothly and effortlessly taking the tempo down and playing a cool, smooth set and we just sink into it and let our minds drift. Drifting out the door, floating over the city, out beyond the bay chasing far off memories.
…..Even when you finish playing and shift the work of your fingers to handling the bottles behind the bar, we still find ourselves in your healing hands. You have a way with people. You talk and interact in a way that excites and comforts. You have this astounding ability to read people. In a way, all bartenders do. But not in the way that you do.
…..Hey! You say. Your eyes are as bright as ever. It’s been a while – Good to see you again! What are you after tonight?
…..Hey, you too! I can feel my smile begin to broaden on my face but I can’t manage to stifle it. Just whatever’s easiest.
…..You smile with a slight nod anticipating the words slipping from my lips. I never expect anything more than opening a bottle of beer but you always surprise me.
…..You carefully read my face. You look like you’re in the mood for…gin?
…..I smile softly. Sure.
…..Somehow you always guess correctly. You seem to know what I’m in the mood for even when I don’t. Sometimes gin. Sometimes bourbon. Other times vodka. You always know. You always take the time to carefully put together something especially for me. Your own remedy graced to me from your healing hands to soothe my aching soul. Sometimes a Martini. Sometimes an Old Fashioned. Other times a Moscow Mule. Tonight, it’s a Tom Collins. I’ll never know how you always know.
…..You know that I always conceal a harmonica in my pocket. I can’t remember if I told you myself or if you heard it from another regular. But you know that I won’t play it. Not for you. Not for anyone. At least not yet.
…..Have you been playing lately?
…..I take a sip and sigh. Partly in savoring of the refreshment of the cocktail and partly in embarrassment. Not as much as I should be.
…..You nod knowingly while drying a glass.
…..That’s alright…But, you know, I am hoping that someday soon enough you’ll be up on that stage playing with me…
…..You glance up at me from drying the glass and smile.
…..I feel myself begin to blush. I think I can manage that.
…..You smile and finish drying the glass. Been listening to anything new?
…..I take another sip and think a moment. Mostly just the classics…my favorites…
…..My eyes brighten with excitement. Of course.
…..Because, you know, if you weren’t a fan of Billie Holiday, we couldn’t be friends anymore.
…..And rightfully so!
…..We both laugh. When’s the last time I laughed? I try to remember. But you have a way of talking with me that helps me begin to forget.
…..Your soft laughter quickly turns into a cough. You stifle it into your shoulder.
…..Excuse me. I’ve had a bit of a sore throat lately.
…..Could just be the change in weather…I offer, hopeful. The unpredictable weather here tends to do that.
…..You nod. Yeah could just be something in the air.
…..I feel a quick twinge of pain in my chest. I take another sip.
…..I did stumble upon a record that looked kind of cool…I struggle to recall the name of the record. Butterfield Blues Band, I think it was…I haven’t listened to it yet.
…..Hmm. You think. I don’t think I’ve heard of them. Well, let me know when you give it a listen; I’d be curious to know if they’re worth checking out. You smile again. I trust your judgement.
…..I smile back. Yeah, I will.
I lay back on my bed, my Koss covering my ears, staring at the ceiling. I close my eyes, floating between each instrument. Hanging on every note. How many instruments? I try to count. A song begins with a piano that reminds me of you. Not just for the simple reason that you play the piano but because it’s a style that I genuinely think you would enjoy. My heart is slowly beginning to feel at ease. Eager to see you again and tell you about the song with the piano. I can feel myself sinking into sleep. A voice rattles me awake. I’ve got a mind to give up living.
…..My face winces in pain. I ignore the voice and focus on enjoying the instruments. How many instruments? I try to count. Piano. Electric guitar. Drums. But the voice continues, Pick me up a tombstone and be pronounced dead. My eyes fly open glaring. My body jerks itself up. My hands fumble to pluck the needle from the record. My body sighs and falls back on the bed. My hands reach up to my ears and rip the headphones off throwing them to the floor. My body lie fuming. I can hear my heart pounding in my ears. I can feel it welling up inside, like an old dam struggling to suppress a flood. I start sobbing. I roll onto my side and curl my knees into my chest, grabbing my bedsheets and pulling them to my face, trying to stifle my sobs. I don’t want Lux to hear me. I manage to choke my sobs to an end. I have to get out of here. I fumble for my boots. I jam my arms into my jacket and grasp the right pocket.
…..I walk down the hall towards the living room. I wouldn’t be surprised to catch a glimpse of Lux lounging on the couch reading Junkie. I gently close the front door behind me. I pause on the front steps, looking across the street, out over the neighboring rooftops. In the moonlight, I can faintly make out the dark ripples of the ocean developing into waves rolling towards the shore. My view of the waves meeting the shore is obscured by the neighboring houses. I can’t be sure if the waves actually meet the shore at all. I can faintly make out the sound of the waves colliding with the shore but I can’t be sure if I’m actually hearing the waves or if I’m reassuring myself, like hearing someone say, “Shave and a haircut,” without hearing them say the rest and so your mind fills in the missing bits. I descend the steps and walk down the street towards the beach.
…..I trudge along the shore pulling the zipper of my jacket up to my chin. The biting air piercing my skin. I finger the smooth brass in my pocket, twisting it around in my hand. Reacquainting myself with its anatomy. I pull it out, rocking it back and forth slightly, playing with the moonlight reflecting off its metallic cover. I stop and turn to face the ocean. I reluctantly put the harmonica to my lips. My bare hands are burning, it’s so cold. Music is practically the one thing that Lux and I could hardly ever see eye to eye on. When the world began to hurl punk and thrash metal at us, I couldn’t be less interested. I’ve always been an old soul with a romantic love for blues and jazz but Lux couldn’t feel more comfortable in her own skin. Maybe even for the first time. Maybe for the last time. Trying to ignore the pain, I begin to play. A tune that, despite its old soulful nature, whether or not Lux actually enjoyed it or she just tolerated it, she wouldn’t seem to mind listening to me play. I remember her smile. How long has it been? I try to forget.
As I get closer with every step, I can’t help but notice that the streets aren’t throbbing the way they usually would be. Walking along Valencia, I can still faintly hear the keys being played but it’s not your fingers summoning them. The moment I walk in, the warmth envelopes me just the same but not as comforting. I look to the stage and, sure enough, someone else is playing the piano. It looks like you but it isn’t you. You look a bit different. A bit deflated. You seem to be struggling to play, your fingers falling hard and tired on the keys. You seem almost tortured to be playing.
…..Once you finish, you smile painfully at the crowd’s applause. You slowly make your way behind the bar. I approach the bar but you don’t take notice. Hey! Your face looks tired, groggy but your eyes brighten up a bit acknowledging me. You smile softly. Hey! It’s been a bit…How’ve you been?
…..I’ve been good…What about you?
…..You shrug. I’ve been feeling a bit under the weather lately.
…..Yeah you look pretty tired…Do you have a cold?
…..Yeah I think it might even be a fever…I still have that sore throat but it’s been hanging around long enough; it should clear up soon.
…..I feel a quick twinge of pain in my heart. Well I– I hope you feel better soon. Are you already done playing tonight?
…..Yeah just a short set tonight. Feeling a bit worn down lately with this fever, so I’m trying to take it easy this week.
…..That’s probably a good idea…
…..You smile softly. So, what are you after tonight?
…..Whatever’s easiest. Seriously, don’t strain yourself on my account.
…..You smile with a slight nod anticipating the words slipping from my lips. You carefully read my face but your eyes look so weary.
…..You look like you’re in the mood for…rum?
…..This time, I’m not so sure if you’re right. Suddenly I’m not sure if I’m in the mood for anything. I smile softly just the same. Sure. But how about something simple…rum and coke?
…..You smile and wink. I think I can manage that.
…..I smile. I tell you about the record and the song with the piano that reminds me of you. I tell you that as soon as I finish listening to it, I’ll bring it to you to borrow…although I don’t tell you that I’m unsure when that will be. I watch you struggle to smile. You struggle to try to act like yourself. You don’t have the usual energy and spunk that makes you you. You seem pained by something. We both do.
Tonight, you’re all I can think about. Since you began working at the piano bar, you have come to make me feel a bit of solace in the midst of my sadness. Your conversation accompanied with your piano playing has come to make me feel a bit of peace in the midst of my grief. My slow and painful return to normalcy in stopping in there from time to time has been the one thing that I have come to count on as an attempt at an escape. The one thing that I can look forward to that gives me a bit of relief from thinking about Lux. From thinking about everything. I’m older now than Lux will ever be. Did you know that? I might still have a chance to see all of the things that she will never see. I haven’t yet decided if I want that responsibility. But these are the things that I can’t tell you.
…..I’m trying not to let myself get carried away. I’m trying not to think of Lux. I can’t let myself overreact and jump to conclusions. I don’t want to think of Lux. But I feel like I know you well enough to know that you’ve been struck by something in the air after all. This isn’t just a cold. God, I’ve never wanted to be more wrong. But this looks a bit too familiar. Painfully so. I’ve seen this kind of thing before. Not long ago actually. And I’ve seen how it ends. But something tells me that you already know this story. Whether you heard it from a more regular regular or you read it in my eyes. You’ve always been perceptive like that. Or maybe you yourself have already lived to witness a similar story of your own. None of these explanations would surprise me. I can tell that you know exactly why it is that my heart aches the way that it does.
…..Tonight, I can’t let myself think of you. I can’t think of Lux. I can’t think of any of it. I can’t think of who Grace used to be. The stories that she told me about her growing up. The reasons she felt she had to leave. When it all began. The show she saw while in LA. The match that ignited the fire. I can’t think about all of the late nights spent in deep conversation. Discussing all of the things we didn’t understand. The reasons she loves punk. The reasons I love blues and jazz. The thing that happened to Harvey Milk. Stonewall. The riots and candlelight vigils. Our first loves. For me, Duke Ellington. For her, The Velvet Underground. Nina Simone. T Rex. We always traced them to the Beat generation in one way or another. That’s where our love overlapped. I can’t think of the hours spent together at City Lights. Reading Burroughs. Reciting Kerouac and Ginsburg. Meandering throughout the city streets. Me always with my harmonica in my pocket ready to belt out my greatest drunken impressionable tribute to Larry. We thought the streets were ours. I can still remember her smile. Still hear her laugh. Her cough.
…..You don’t know how it hurts me to see you this way. I can see it in your face. I’ve seen this before. I saw it in Lux. The sore throat. The headaches. Fatigue. Fever. It hurt my skin to see hers in such pain. Skin sinking day by day. Clinging to what? The shell of the person that she once was. And no one else can haunt me. The way that Lux haunts me. A new form of cancer they say. But they don’t know what. I can’t let myself think about it. I lay buried deep in bed, blankets pulled up to the Koss covering my ears. Eyes closed, tears streaming down my cheeks. I try to clear my head, encouraging myself to tune into the beauty of the record that I promised to finish. To float between each instrument. How many instruments? I try to count.
…..A song begins with a powerful blast of harmonica. I’ve heard the harmonica played quite impressively like this before but this is different. The upbeat, spunky sound of the harmonica is hitting me differently this time. Such power and certainty. Such authority and attitude. Not just a background instrument or an accompaniment to fill out the sound of the others. It stands alone, front and center and demanding attention. All of the things that I can’t bring myself to think about, everything just seems to melt away. I’m completely immersed. Soon enough, I realize that I’m smiling. I’m drifting. And I’m smiling.
Somehow, I’m feeling a bit lighter tonight. I put on my jacket and grasp the right pocket. I grab the record from my bedside table. I walk down the hall towards the living room. I pause halfway through the hallway. Lux’s bedroom door is closed. It has been since she died. I can never bring myself to venture inside. These are the things that I can’t bring myself to tell you. But something tells me you already know. I apprehensively reach for the doorknob. Barely touching it. Just fingertips. Its smooth, polished surface is so cold. I sigh as my hand drops back to my side.
…..Walking along Valencia, I can hear the piano keys. Ringing out over the streets, slowly growing louder and more distinct with every step. The sound is as comforting as ever. No matter who is playing them. The notes floating up to the trees, hanging amongst the leaves. The green neon is as bright and beckoning as ever. The moment I walk in, the warmth envelopes me all the same. Comforting and familiar.
Tonight, you’re sitting at a table amongst friends and fellow regulars. Faces I’ve seen a number of times before but haven’t been able to acknowledge. You’re no longer playing the piano or working behind the bar. Your body will no longer allow it. Quite frankly, to see you here at all tonight is nothing short of a miracle and I savor it. I take a seat at the bar. I set the record down in front of me. Another bartender approaches. Hey! What can I get you?
…..Um n-nothing for me tonight, thanks.
…..I have to make a conscious effort not to keep looking over at you. I sit re-reading the album cover. Turning it around and around in my hands. The crowd’s applause rattles me back to reality. I look to the stage. Open Mic Night and someone has begun playing the saxophone. Its smooth, sensual alto sound lulling the crowd.
…..When the saxophonist leaves the stage to the sound of loving applause, the MC takes to the microphone inviting up the next performer, whoever that may be. I stand up from the bar, the record in my hands and walk towards the stage. I stop at your table and hand it to you with a soft smile.
Up close, I can see just how exhausted your body has become. Your face sunken in. The color of your skin drained to a shade of nearly grey. Even with your body hiding snuggled deep within layers of clothes, the lack of flesh and muscle underneath is noticeable. Bones clinging to what they can. Eyelids struggling to hold themselves up. But you muster a smile. Just as sweet as ever.
…..Thanks, I’m looking forward to it! I’ll get it back to you when I’m finished.
…..I gently shake my head. You keep it.
…..I step onto the stage. I finger the smooth brass in my pocket, twisting it around in my hand. I pull it out, turning it back and forth slightly, playing with the stage light reflecting off its metallic cover. I lift my face to the crowd. I reluctantly put the harmonica to my lips. I begin to play the song that I used to play for Lux. I remember her smile. I let myself remember all of the things that I’ve been working so hard to forget. Each melody played, each dip and swing of each note tells a story about Lux that I haven’t been able to bring myself to tell you. Stories about myself. Where I come from. Where I’ve been. Here I stand before you, finally sharing all of me. I savor your smile.
…..You slowly stand from the table. You struggle to make your way to the stage. You take your time, climbing the couple of steps onto the stage and take a seat at the piano. With your head hung, eyes closed, and your soft smile, you occasionally play a few keys, filling out the melody. A cool, smooth set. I close my eyes and let myself just sink into it. Sinking together, our minds begin drift. Drifting out the door, floating over the city, out beyond the bay chasing far off memories.
Blythe Asta has a B.A. in Cinema from San Francisco State University along with a year of study in Film & Television at Swinburne University of Technology. She has worked on various independent film projects and is currently living in Melbourne, Australia. Other published works can be found at blytheasta.wixsite.com/blytheasta
Listen to Toots Thielemans play “We’ll Be Together Again,” a 1988 recording with Fred Hersch on piano
Click here for details on our upcoming Short Fiction Contest
Click here to read “A Failed Artist’s Paradise” by Nathaniel Whelan, the winning story in the 54th Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Contest