Other People’s Music
We stepped into the tavern. I was far from a regular but I’d been there before.
The jukebox was playing. We went up to the bar and ordered beers.
My friend leaned over and asked, “Who’s that woman in the corner?”
I looked. I didn’t know her. I said I didn’t know. I asked why.
“I came in and she gave me a strange look,” he said.
He gave me a severe look that was meant to mimic hers.
“Do they always look at strangers funny?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve never paid attention.”
“What do you pay attention to?” he asked.
“First thing is if there’s a seat open at the bar.”
“Well, I don’t like it,” he said. “I don’t think I like this place much. Not sure I’m gonna want another beer or to ever come back.”
“Okay,” I said.
“I don’t like new places,” he said. “It’s why I don’t normally come to places like this.”
“Every place has got to be new once,” I said.
“I like places where a guy walks in and nobody cares,” he said.
“Sometimes I like places where people care,” I said.
My friend excused himself to the bathroom.
I walked over to the woman who’d been staring at my friend.
“Excuse me,” I said. “My friend said you looked at him kind of funny when he came in. I don’t want any trouble, but sometimes he gets paranoid. And I can’t help but wonder if it’s true. Is there something funny or strange about him?”
She said, “He walked in looking around at everybody. He walked in giving everybody stern looks. He came in looking nervous – like he didn’t belong. He came in looking like he knew he was out of place. That’s why I had my eye on him.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Have a pleasant day.”
I was ready to leave her when she asked, “Does he belong?”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “But probably not. He doesn’t seem to belong much of anywhere. That’s why we’re here. I thought this place might be different.”
“Good people come here,” she said. “Not perfect, but decent people just wanting to have a good time and get along. People needing to take a deep breath in a place where it’s easy to breathe.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’ve been here a few times. I’ve noticed. It’s nice.”
I hurried back to the bar. I gave the bartender a few bucks to buy that woman a drink.
My friend came back.
He said, “I don’t think this place is very friendly. I don’t think I want to come back. I don’t think I want to stay.”
I explained how I’d been in there a few times and folks had always been friendly enough.
“Friendly how?” he asked.
“I’ve come in wanting a few beers and they’ve always given me beers without any shit,” I said.
“Do these people talk to you?”
“Sometimes,” I said. “If so, mostly chit-chat. Which is fine. But usually I just sit and drink, which is equally fine. Sometimes better. But either way, it’s okay.”
“So most of them more or less ignore you?”
“They more or less leave me alone.”
“That doesn’t seem very friendly,” he said.
“It’s good enough for me,” I said.
I was gulping my drink so we could get the fuck out.
“I don’t like this song,” he said about whatever it was on the junkebox.
“Somebody else probably does,” I said. “If we hung around, maybe a song you like would come on. Or you could put some money in to play what you like.”
“I don’t wanna hang around for another drink or any more songs” he said. “Thanks, but I’ll be ready to leave.”
If somebody had heartily welcomed him as a stranger, things might have been different. Maybe that’s what he was looking for when we stepped inside. If somebody had welcomed him and immediately taken a keen interest in his life story, things might have been different. If somebody he didn’t know had given him an afternoon’s worth of credits to play whatever he wanted on the jukebox, things might have been different. But nobody really cared. They didn’t care about him any more than they cared about me.
The bartender came over. He said the woman wanted to thank me for the drink.
My friend asked, “You bought that old bitch a drink? Why?”
“I bothered her,” I said.
“About what? About me?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“What’d she say?”
“She asked if you belonged.”
“What’d you say?”
“Said I wasn’t sure.”
“Is that what you really think?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Why?” he asked.
“We’ve only had one drink and you’re ready to leave,” I said.
“The people seem weird,” he said. “And the music.”
“Well, there’s always music. Or something else. Everywhere.”
“Sometimes I like music,” he said. “But not this.”
“A song only lasts a few minutes,” I said. “And there’s other people’s music everywhere. Other people’s music. Or something else. Everywhere. All the time.”
“There’s no jukebox at Applebee’s,” he said. “Least if it’s there, nobody plays it. Not while I been there. Not that I’ve noticed.”
“It’s just a torrent of white noise,” I said. “And when you walk in, nobody at Applebee’s cares.”
“Exactly,” my friend said.
We finished our beers. I settled our tab. I went back to that tavern occasionally but never again invited him.