A Night with Gerald by Ben Bellizzi

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            It was Thursday night and once again Gerald was packing them into the Old Town Pub. They came through the door in twos, the men stepping uncomfortably in slacks that had been purchased for them, the women attempting to appear grand in their pearls and summer dresses while they held their men close and claimed them. The couples at the tables settled in and agreed, ‘This is nice, we’re glad we did this,” while those who’d arrived late were forced to either balance on stools or lean against the walls. No one wanted to arrive too early, for the food went right through you, but there were certain sacrifices to be made for a big night out. It was Thursday and Gerald was playing, there was nowhere else to be.

            A handful of youngsters braved the stage to get things started. Bill Watson’s boy played some tunes on his fiddle, the brothers McAllister plucked their banjos in an agreeable manner, and then the tall girl whose name nobody knew sang with a piano accompaniment, causing the men to explain their attention with comments such as “She’s so tall, she must have to wear men’s pants…are those men’s pants?” These opening acts were enjoyable and the musicians were talented, but when they finished, most of the crowd was engaged in conversation and forgot to applaud. They wiped the smudge marks from their drink glasses and kept an eye on the hunched figure stooped to his drink at the end of the bar. They left him to himself. Whatever his mood, he was not to be disturbed.

            At a few minutes to ten they cleared the stage and dimmed the houselights. People angled their chairs to face the front. The bartender raced to fill glasses. The spotlight wandered blindly around the wooden stage before coming to a rest on the stool and microphone in the center. Conversations fell. The manager, heavyset and perpetually sweaty, scurried up before the crowd, raised a hand to shade his eyes, and said, “Okay Gerald, we’re ready whenever you are.”

            The pub roared. Men whooped, women whistled, and his name rang out every few seconds. Fists rumbled against the unsteady tables and boots stomped against the floorboards. At the far end of the bar, Gerald stared into his drink. His reluctance was part of the performance, too. He suffered the encouragement as it pelted his back. Slowly he straightened, displaying more years than were his own. He emptied his glass and sulked toward the stage. Women inched closer to their men. Hopeful bachelors straightened their collars. Single girls plumped their breasts. Gerald assumed his perch on the stool and there was silence.

            Guitar on lap, shoulders scrunched over guitar, head bent to one side, Gerald addressed the microphone. His voice was scratchy, and as always, difficult to understand.

            “This is a song I just wrote,” he mumbled.

            Yesssssssssssss, went the crowd. These were the best, these new ones. Nothing could top Gerald singing songs recently written by Gerald. God bless this man.

            He swiped his fingers across the strings and stopped immediately. He didn’t like one note, it had to be tuned. Everything had to be a certain way. He took great care to fix the errant string, much to the delight of the crowd. He showed a doctor’s concentration, a good doctor’s concentration, not like Doc Peterson in the second row who was known to pull and prod at body parts like levers in a rusty transmission. Gerald took his time with his guitar, the guitar that was old and battered and said to have once been used to knock a man unconscious. No one was allowed to touch the guitar but Gerald himself, and though it couldn’t be counted on to hold a tune, and its tone was questionable at best, people only scoffed when someone suggested he find a replacement.

            “But that’s Gerald’s guitar,” they would say, “He could never use another. It simply adds to the whole…” and they would drift off holding an imaginary something in their gesturing hands. If someone required an explanation, they simply wouldn’t understand.

            Gerald finished with the string. He apologized and began again. He strummed with every finger, raising his hand dramatically high above the strings and dropping it far below, imploring the sound out into the creaky pub. The notes varied as a few of the frets were too worn to be true, and of course he stumbled between the chords, perhaps not landing on the correct formation until the third or fourth strum, and then also there was the F chord in which his mangled pointer-finger could never bend in the proper position and sounded more like a C chord, and he knew it was wrong, and had been told it was wrong, and he knew he didn’t have the ability to play it correctly, but he played it all the same, in fact rarely chose a song without an F chord. Gerald played the introduction as a maestro might have played the finale, lingering on that F chord for longer than the beat required, perhaps thinking that with just a little more effort this might be the night of all nights when he would finally conquer it, which he didn’t. And his timing was off, as usual. But the people inched to the edge of their seats, some licking their lips in anticipation. His guitar was quieted and he was inhaling, about to sing.

            As poorly as he played guitar, Gerald’s singing was far worse. His range barely encompassed one scale, his voice cracked painfully in all the wrong places, and he often ventured too close to the microphone and caused it to screech in pleas for mercy. Hands throughout the audience clutched at tables, standing individuals cinched up their anuses, and the bartender gulped at the dark liquid in his plastic cup. This new song, even more than the others, was hardly endurable, yet when Gerald finished to more fist pounding and boot stomping, people leaned into the ears beside them and said things like,

            “Amazing! He didn’t forget a single word!” and “What inventiveness! I can’t imagine where he gets his inspiration!”

            The crowd clamored for more. Gerald, completely drained from the one song and looking like he might collapse right there on stage, did what he could to pull himself together. He brought his mouth to the microphone, thanked the crowd, and started in on a second. Another song, what a treat!

            He played for an hour and a half like this, he seeming to fall off his stool at the conclusion of each song, the crowd begging him for more, and he rising to their demands. He put everything he had into his frightful songs, belted them out like a prizefighter swinging blindly as he stumbles backwards, and a gambler might have wagered on whether he or his guitar would give out first. Gerald always made it, though, and his guitar too. He inspired his audience with his passion, had them rooting for him even as they cringed at the sounds he spat at them. The town’s music teacher, who gently encouraged his students not to attend Gerald’s performances, sat alone at the first table. His eyes were aflame.

            The women talked about him throughout the week. Here was a man who was certainly aware of his incompetence. He couldn’t play a lick and his voice sent birds to the skies, yet he got up there Thursday after Thursday with his songs of loss and abandonment and performed them as if his life depended on them. Nothing was more important. Single women fantasized of throwing themselves at him; if he was so devoted to something so wrong, there was no telling the lengths to which he might commit to a woman. He would never leave her. He would forever go down with the ship, and even if she left him, he would treasure her memory, immortalize her and sing songs about the heartache she caused him. To be loved…ah, there’s nothing like it.

            As for unavailable women, they saw his unwavering commitment flood out from the stage and into the very men beside them. No one left Gerald’s shows early, no one looked at their watches or cast longing looks at the door. The men beside these women accompanied them each week not only without complaint but with a certain amount of enthusiasm. They enjoyed themselves while there. A man who would endure such pain for his woman was a man to hold on to. He was a man who would put himself second, who would stay until the end and do so with a smile on his face, a man, perhaps, as reliable and dedicated as the one suffering before them.

            Now the men knew all this. They felt the gratitude the women displayed for their demonstrations of commitment and support, and they looked forward to Thursday nights as much as their partners. No matter what holes they’d stepped in previously that week, all would be forgiven with a night out at the Old Town Pub. Single men recognized an opportunity to establish themselves with a new beau and show that, like the man on stage, they were willing to stick it out regardless of any woeful forebodings. We are men, they were saying, we might not be great men and we will certainly make our mistakes, but we will do our damndest to see it through. We will plug away, just like that poor son of a bitch.

            In their attendance, these men, single or otherwise, formed a bond with Gerald. He was a fighter, unafraid of the devil himself. They stood in awe of the obvious punishment his own music inflicted upon him, one he not only accepted but seemed to invite, and he made them look good. What would we do without Gerald? they’d say, Don’t let that man pay for a single drink.

            At the night’s conclusion, Gerald returned to his seat at the end of the bar, a full glass awaiting him. He asked to pay but was never charged. He sat alone as the couples disappeared arm in arm out the door, spewing laughter into the warm summer air. Some flirtatious ones remained at the bar, pairing off and pawing at each other, noticing nothing around them, playing out their own song that might lead to the most glorious of finales. Energy was everywhere, all thanks to the man too inspiring to approach. Leave him be, people said, if you listen to his songs, if you understand them, you’d know it’s what he wants.

            Gerald remained there all night. When the last couple trotted out the door, the bartender poured him one more, full to the brim, and then attended to his cleaning. He didn’t mind Gerald, it was but one glass. He enjoyed the company.

            Gerald took his time with that final drink. New songs for the following week began to write themselves. It was true, music poured out of him like water from a pail. It was all he knew. It didn’t matter that his hand cramped and throbbed within a minute of his playing and didn’t subside until sometime late the next day. It didn’t matter that his throat ached and made it easier to spit than to swallow. It didn’t matter that his name was actually Dave, had always been Dave, but that so much time had passed since the bartender had listened too carelessly to the story of his former sweetheart’s cat, named Gerald, that he’d taken to introducing himself as such. He hadn’t imagined himself drinking in a closed bar, playing music for people he didn’t know, or returning to an apartment with that thin, single bed, but it was the path he was on and the one he would walk.

            At night’s end he tipped back the last of his drink, put on his coat, and collected his guitar. The bartender looked up from his cleaning and smiled.

            “See you next week, Gerald?”

            He looked up, nodded his head, and said, “Sure, I’ll be here.”

PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY OF MARCUS COOPER.