The dark is no enemy,
The light no solace.
IT WAS NOON SOMEHOW WHEN HE dropped into the world and found: plaster falling off the walls and two pairs of dirty panties floating in the kitchen sink.
"Shir-lee...!" he bellowed, wheeling around to face the doorway. "Get that goddam crap out of the sink!"
He walked towards the door and then out into the hallway, jaw clenched and lungs preparing to yell out again. A stinking wet rag slapped him in the face before he could duck. As it slid to the floor with a plop, the smell of urine burned his nostrils.
He opened his eyes slowly, blood thumping in his lobes, fists gnarled with rage. In the instant his eyes registered that there was no one in front of him, his fist swung a vast arc and piled into the plaster to the right of him. He savoured the solid crunch of cheap wall giving way as the blow reached its zenith.
A snigger penetrated his satisfaction, deflating the outstretched arm like a chilled penis. He drew back out of the hole, suffering chalky scrapes from the fragmented edges, and turned to confront the sneer.
A woman of elephantine proportions, in a half-opened, grimy bathrobe, sat there, her pig-slitted eyes burning at him while caked and yellow teeth grimaced between her huge lips in a death's head smile. "Wanna try that again, little bastard? Wanna ask Shirlee something nice and friendly, pisspants?"
Her body loomed like a gelatinous barrier between him and the dangling lightbulb at the front of the hall. She seemed to expand the longer he stared and his gorge began to rise, threatening to suffocate him if he didn't move. He slid his feet backwards, shuffling towards the empty kitchen like a declawed crab. He felt a sudden wetness spread down his leg.
A laugh heaved slowly out of the mass of her, belching a cloud of decay at him.
He squeezed his eyes shut for an instant then opened them again.
Daylight was filtering in through the glassed door before him. Daylight and a shadow.
"Sol," he heard a woman's voice call, "Sol?"
A key clinked, the bolt turned and fell, and he heard the rustle of a grocery bag pushing the front door as it opened into the empty hallway.
"Oh, there you are. Help me bring these in, Sol?" The woman let the bag slip down to the floor and, shoving it towards him with her foot, turned to go back for more.
He stared at the bag, trying to register the items that sat so innocuously inside its serrated lip. Kleenex. The yellow ones. Celery. A fat loaf of Weston bread. What were they doing here in this hallway?
He remembered the hole. What would Shirley say about the hole he'd made? He looked at his hand, at the thin knuckles, and slowly opened his fist. No stab of pain moved down his fingers and he knew what he would see on the wall as he turned: solid oak panelling that gleamed quietly, smugly almost, at him. Undented. He stretched his fingers out a bit more, looking for pain. He could hear the woman tripping up the stairs in her heeled shoes, the rustle of more grocery bags. He took a step towards the bag on the floor.
"Whew! I'm absolutely bushed today! I'm glad the shopping's over and done with." The woman laughed as she brushed in through the partially closed doorway and set two bags down on the hall table. She stopped short as she straightened out. "What's wrong, Sol? You look terrible. Was it bad last night?"
He bent down, slipped his hands under the bag, carefully supporting the loose round things that were settled in its bottom, and straightened up. A pair of familiar brown eyes watched him, brows puckered in anxiety. He took a deep breath, but it sounded like a protracted sigh when he let it out.
"You ok, Sol?"
"I'm ok." He shrugged his shoulders and gave her a weak smile. "It gets to me sometimes, playing that dive." Her brow remained puckered and he felt the solid hard-edged weight of cans press into his hands.
"Let's have a cup of coffee. I've got some good news." The woman brushed a strand of wavy hair from her forehead and took up her two bags, stopped to look at him again before heading into the kitchen.
"I've been invited to teach down in New York, at Hunter College, papers guaranteed. It's the big time for us, Sol!" He followed her, juggling the can bottoms slightly as he walked once more into the kitchen.
A bright fluorescence greeted him.
In the glare of the klieg light, he could not make out a thing but he heard a smattering of applause and laughter. He stood there with the bag of groceries in his arms, squinting madly in the direction of the audience, feeling foolish. What was he supposed to be doing? Where was his saxophone? He looked down at the celery tops and saw the black mouthpiece of his soprano sticking out between the loaf of bread and the kleenex box. He smiled cheesily at the invisible audience and sat the bag down, separated the various household items and slowly drew his instrument out. Applause and laughter burst out with satisfying energy and he twisted the reed, riffled a few notes, twisted it again and set it into his mouth. A hush fell over the place and as his eyes adjusted, he could begin to make out a few heads in the nearest rows.
"Sol..." he heard as he took a deep breath and began to wail... "SO-ol..."
The crying of the sax filled him with sorrow and hot tears began to squeeze out from between his clenched eyelids, mingling with newly forming beads of sweat. "So-o-ol..."
He stayed inside the darkness behind his eyes.
"Why are you standing there crying?...Sol?" A warm familiar smell reached him and two slim hands slipped around his waist. He let himself be led to a chair and sat down. Slowly he opened his eyes. Shirley was standing before him, bent down to look into his face. He stared at her cheek, noting the transarent fuzz of hair and pale splash of freckles. She said, "I never knew you liked jazz so much..."
He blinked his eyes and focused on the bridge of her nose.
"I'm all right. I'll be all right. Just need a little something in my system before I head home tonight." The coatcheck girl looked at him quizzically, squeezed his shoulder and went to the counter.
"Hey Pete, fix Sol up something nice. Something hot and easy to go down, eh?" The barman stopped wiping the top long enough to nod at Sol and grunt an affirmative.
A saxophone wailed tiredly in the back of the dim, smoky cabaret. A few hangers-on could be seen, silhouetted against the faded stage lights that filtered ineffectually towards the tables. The piano thudded a tired bass line, sounding as though the player's hands were reluctantly stirring sludge.
Uncomfortably hunched to rest her elbows on a counter barely higher than her stool, the coat-check girl slouched on the edge of uneasy sleep. She watched the barman fix Sol's drink, her eyes half-shut, lizard-like in the underwater light.
The saxophone blurted out abortively and the piano gradually gave up its supportive hammering. There was no sound now except for the buzzing of a fluorescent bulb.
Several minutes passed. The two or three silhouettes sitting around the stage seemed to lose shape in the smoky half-light, fading away with the music.
Sol stood up, a heavy-set man in a dark suit. Walking gingerly, as though reluctant to fully waken his somnolent legs, shoving aside a protruding chair with a scrape and thump, he stepped over to the still-unmoving shapes. Towering over them, he rested his massive fists on the table. For a moment no one spoke. Then a low throat-clearing and a barely audible rumble came out:
"Ok folks, let's pack it in."
The coat-check girl yawned. Time to go home. Behind the curtain something shifted, and with a click the lights on the stage went dead.