I put the trash I’d collected off the patio floor into one of the big bins. It wasn’t half full, so I didn’t need to empty it yet. I was putting the broom and dustpan away when a hand came down on my shoulder. I turned to find the busboy there.
He was taller than me, which surprised me, but I didn’t know why. Lots of people are taller than me. I’m not very big at five feet ten. Where I have muscles, partly because I used to play a lot of sports and partly because I burn off energy by exercising whenever I can’t sleep — which is all the time — I was bulkier. Because of that I’d kind of assumed, from a distance, that I would be bigger. He was tall enough that I had to look up to see into those eyes, and right then they were just looking at me, with nothing in them.
“Thank you for helping me,” he said, using the most utterly unmusical voice I’d ever heard and his hands. It was as if he couldn’t talk without using both. Couldn’t or wouldn’t. I detected a hint of something defiant in the way he looked at me.
“You’re welcome,” I said. My turn to leave. Whatever the hell else I was getting into here, I didn’t want to get into this.
A hand caught my shoulder and he turned me around, his grip surprisingly strong for such a slender man. “My name is Shawn,” he signed and said.
“Cooper,” I said, and already I was doing that careful thing, talking louder, exaggerating my pronunciation, and I hated myself for it.
“Hooper?” he asked, his fine eyes curious under a V of furrowed brows.
“Cooper,” I said. I made a C with my hand because, yeah, I knew what a C looked like if I thought about it.
He nodded. “Cooper.” Then smiled. Oh shit, he had a smile that…dazzled. I turned away and this time he didn’t pull me back.
After I finished cutting up the rest of the bar fruit, I was free to play my violin for tips. I didn’t kid myself as I walked up the stairs to my room to clean up. The men downstairs eating nachos would rather be watching the ballgame. In the restaurant part of the bar, there were a few couples eating at tables. If it sucked, and if everything went to hell, I could always play on the boardwalk on the weekend and make enough to get to the next town. The secret of my success was substantially lowered expectation.
I rosined up my bow, a ritual of sorts for me, as I scanned the smallish crowd. Jim turned off the overhead music, but the television over the bar still played the game. I began by playing “Las Mañanitas” for a man who was having a birthday party. His friends and the waiters sang; even Oscar came out to do the honors. After that, I passed a pleasant enough hour wandering between the restaurant, bar, and patio until it was time to push back the tables and set up a makeshift dance floor. I wasn’t even sure that was legal, but here in St. Nacho’s, as everyone in the bar referred to the town, rules didn’t seem to have the bite they did in the world beyond.
Already I found myself slowing down to the pace of this sleepy town. I wondered how it was during summer, or even on weekends. I hadn’t wondered about a town in a long time. Mostly, I just wanted to move on. I made close to twenty-five bucks in tips, and since I didn’t have to pay for room and board, I felt rich.
Over and over I told myself not to sweat the details. The guy with the warm brown eyes was just a guy, and this was just another gig. In three days, four tops, I’d be heading out again. But then I got to know Jim and his lover, Alfred, pretty well the next day over breakfast. It turned out Alfred played the cello, and we bonded over being orchestra geeks in high school. That I didn’t mention fucking up Juilliard wasn’t really lying, I told myself; it was just that it was a long story, a long time ago, and it always went a long way toward ruining any relationship I had with serious musicians. It gets tiresome hearing that I’m too stupid to live.
Mostly I enjoyed my second day in the kitchen with Oscar and Tomas. They worked seamlessly together and still managed to argue the entire time. Tomas inexplicably called Oscar precioso snidely when he was angry, and just as strangely Oscar called Tomas pendejo when he felt tender toward him.
They gestured threateningly at each other all day long with big spoons because on my first day I’d hidden their chef’s knives. They were quirky and worked well with each other, and the third morning I was there they made chilaquiles that were so good I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I realized that morning that most of the people who worked at Nacho’s ate breakfast there at around one in the afternoon, except for Shawn, the busboy, because he had classes at the junior college in the early part of the day Monday through Thursday. Also, it seemed, because his friends didn’t like it.
Watching him, I wondered if I could survive in a world without sound, what it would mean to me to lose my hearing. It brought to mind Beethoven, because I had often pretended I was him when I was a kid. I used to imagine losing my ability to hear myself play the violin, going deaf until finally it was gone altogether. I thought if that happened I would disintegrate on the spot. Not out of sadness, because mostly it wasn’t about my love affair with music, but because it was the last thing that tied me to any kind of self-concept. Music left me behind because I was a whore, but still I waited at the figurative window of my consciousness for it to return.
I splashed water on my face. Jim let me know where I could get some supplies and cigarettes. I was out of laundry detergent; being forced to travel light meant I could only buy the dispensable boxes or really small bottles. I needed soap. The soap in Jim’s shower smelled like flowers, and I could smell it on myself hours after I’d used it.
I was walking back from the store with my plastic bag swinging from my arm, when I heard feet running toward me. When a hand grabbed my shoulder from behind, I overreacted, dropping my bag and spinning around the opposite direction to shake it off and loom a little. Even though I wasn’t really tall, I had the tats and the piercings, and I could be intimidating. The last three years had made me hard. I knew my eyes looked at the world through a haze of pain, and worse, remorse. My own mother had found me frightening the last time I saw her. When I turned and stood to my full height, I realized the hand that caught at me belonged to Shawn, and I had definitely surprised him. He had been standing outside the convenience store with a group of his friends. They looked concerned; one was walking over to meet what he perceived to be a threat. I shook my head.
“Hi, Shawn,” I said, relaxing. I picked up my bag again and grinned. “How are you?” I was feeling my way with this, not certain what to say, how to say it. I’d been told I mumble sometimes. I wanted to make myself as clear as possible, which was keeping me from acting naturally. And I hated it.
“Hi, Cooper,” said Shawn, whose smile was still glowing inside me from the first time I’d seen it. His friend came up and threw an arm around him, but then let him go immediately to sign something to him. Unlike Shawn, he didn’t use his voice, so I couldn’t begin tell what he was saying. I kept my eyes on Shawn.
“This is Kevin,” said Shawn. To Kevin he added, “Cooper works at Nacho’s.”
Kevin seemed to want to say something, but just took Shawn’s hand in his and walked him back to the group of men and women he’d been standing with. They all signed, I saw, their beautiful hands fluttering their words into the air. I thought it looked like birds flying. Shawn was the most vivid of all, and he was the only one who spoke out loud.
He eyed me a little as he said, “He’s nice. He plays the violin.”
I grinned and turned away. Time to move on. Shawn’s gang was made up of people who shared a life like his. I knew the deaf community in the town where I grew up was insular and had its own social hierarchy. They were differently abled, and a man who made his life by his ears wouldn’t exactly be necessary or welcomed into their world.
I found my way back to Nacho’s and up into my small studio there. Somehow, with these four bare walls around me, I felt safer than I had in three years. It was a sanctuary of sorts and made me think I needed to find St. Ignatius and do whatever it is you do for saints. I just wanted to stay out of the harsh glare of public scrutiny, do my job, and then fade away like a sigh when it came time to relocate.
It wasn’t until that evening that I realized I’d blown the whole anonymity gig completely and that Shawn would inadvertently play a part in making me the center of controversy in sleepy St. Nacho’s.
I was playing “De Colores,” a mariachi tune as classic as margaritas on the fifth of May, when Shawn, who had the night off, and all his friends came in. Really, it was a quiet Thursday night at the bar, sometime between the dinner rush and the dancing that would follow when ten o’clock rolled around. I was beginning to enjoy this — the hour when I could play and chat with people I wouldn’t call friends, but acquaintances. They listened with enthusiasm, a lot of them, because they’d never had anyone play just for them. The old fancy French restaurant staple of a violinist who played romantic music for a table was as foreign a concept in St. Nacho’s as…well…a fancy French restaurant. I could already hear the difference the practice was making in the way I played, and I wasn’t immune to the siren’s song of my talent. I was getting better.
When Shawn came into the bar with his friends, he immediately sat the group at a table on the patio where I was playing and went to get them a round of drinks. He had three men and two girls with him. Their little party was so lively; they caught every eye in the place. Shawn returned and Kevin put a protective hand on the back of his chair. He and Shawn began to talk, and I saw a lot of glances headed my way. Kevin’s looked a little frosty, and I wasn’t surprised. He kept a hand on Shawn, or his chair, the entire time. Shawn even knocked it off a couple of times, but Kevin simply put it back surreptitiously when he wasn’t paying attention.
Shawn waved at me and I gestured back with the neck of my violin without interrupting the piece. He and Kevin engaged in some sort of discussion. They all looked like passionate debates, and he scooted his chair away from Kevin’s a little. Then Shawn smiled at me with the kind of smile that usually meant leaving town. And from the way Kevin stared at his profile, I saw I was right. Whatever they were saying, I would not be staying in St. Nacho’s long enough to find out.
I turned and worked the tables in the opposite corner, deliberately. When it comes to a smile like the one on Shawn’s face, I had to say, I was not immune to its charm. It spoke to me of summer and liking a boy because he helped you off the ground when another one shoved you. It reminded me of music camp, pancake breakfasts, cold lemonade, and playing in the orchestra at the Mall of America and going on an amusement park ride with the first chair cello, only to find out that he wanted to kiss me as badly as I wanted to kiss him. It was an open, curious smile, free of guile, which I could not even look at for its brightness and its hope.
Then suddenly, he was standing right before me, having tired of trying to get my attention any other way, and between songs I sighed and smiled back. He held out a beer as an offering, and I shook my head and declined, telling him firmly that I did not drink.
Wide, curious eyes that told me nothing met mine. “Iced tea?” he asked, carefully signing and speaking the words.
I nodded. He left to get me a glass and brought sweetener and lemon back with it on a saucer. “Play for me,” he said. “I’ll watch.” He indicated the violin.
What devil possessed me, I couldn’t say, but perhaps the simple troublemaker that was my constant companion made me take his hand and place it on the bottom of my violin as I began to play “La Habanera,” from Carmen. His eyes widened, and he jerked his hand back completely as if it burned when I played the first few notes. Kevin leaped to his feet.
Oh, yeah. I’m a fucking Venus flytrap, all right. A man-eater.
Shawn motioned to Kevin to sit, adding, “Just chill, Kevin. It tickled is all,” in his unmusical voice, and he replaced his hand, feeling the music through his fingers. I happen to know, because I play the thing all the time, that you can feel the difference between the high notes and the low. You can feel the violin tremble with my vibrato. You can feel both the inclination and the emotion of a musical piece by placing your hand on the side of the instrument, even if you’re locked inside a soundproof box. Its voice carries in waves, like yours and like mine, and Shawn could feel my voice, my true voice, through his fingertips as I played my violin for him.
The last thing I expected was for him to understand this, but curse me for the idiot that I am, he did understand, perhaps too well. It was in his attitude. It was in his posture. But mostly it was in his eyes as they met mine, and he once again smiled. At me.
For the first time in ten years, my fingers lost their nerve. Or rather, I lost my concentration, and my violin sounded like a cat hitting a wall or a needle scratching across a record as the world stopped on an imaginary point in space. Silence hung thickly in the air as we stared at each other. I tried to return his smile, but couldn’t find one that wasn’t so used it was completely unworthy. I didn’t have a fresh one and neither could I create a new one. I didn’t have one to share with nice boys anymore.
Had Shawn shoved me out the door and up against the wall, or better, to my knees, I would have known just what to do. I laughed off my inability to play, made some kind of joke, and I took a long sip of my tea, unsweetened as penance for my sins, to buy myself time to think. Then I returned to “La Habanera,” finishing my night out in the cantina with that piece. Shawn was back in his seat, looking at me thoughtfully, but I didn’t let him have my eyes again.