“Is the jukebox broken?”
Charlie bit the corner of a bag of sunflower seeds, tore it open. “It won’t light up,” he said, spitting out plastic, “but it plays.”
“Is it playing now?”
“Should be. Forney put some quarters in.”
“You don’t know the name of this song, do you? I checked the labels, but the lights –“
“It won’t light up,” Charlie said. He was sitting at the bar today, unlike most days. Most days, he was working behind it. “Sounds like Dylan.”
“It is Dylan,” I said. “I was wondering what song.”
Charlie cracked a sunflower seed with his teeth, flicked the shell into an ashtray. He called across the bar to Forney, who was sitting with a friend. Forney hollered what?
“What song is this?”
Forney flashed two fingers, then three, then two, then turned back to his friend.
Charlie turned to me. “Two three two.”
I straddled the stool next to Charlie. Normally I get my drink at the bar, then go to a table. No one bothers you when you go to a table. Tonight I felt like sitting at the bar.
“Can I get you something?” Charlie asked.
“Maybe in a minute.”
The surface of the bar was a dark-grained wood. That’s all I can say. I don’t know much about wood. The lacquer was nicked up pretty bad, but in a place like Charlie’s, you don’t care.
Charlie cracked another sunflower seed, dropped the shell into the ashtray. “Like it?”
I turned to him, found his eyes on me. I said, “Like what?”
I tend to scratch under my ear when I feel stupid. When he said the song, I scratched under my ear. I said yes, I liked it.
“It’s a good one.”
Charlie nodded. “You a fan?”
“I think maybe I might be.”
Charlie popped another seed in his teeth. “Me too.”
I wrapped my hands around the metal rail that ran along the bar. It was – I don’t know – tarnished, or something, and if you wrapped your hands around it, your hands came off smelling brassy.
“Usually take a table, don’t you?”
“Not really,” I said. There was, but I couldn’t explain it.
Charlie pushed his ashtray across the bar. He rose from his stool, passed through the swinging, waist-high door to the bar. He grabbed the ashtray and dumped the shells in the trash.
“Let me know when you want that drink.”
He grabbed a mug, poured himself a beer. He slurped foam, wiped his mouth on his cuff. His eyes met mine, and he smiled. “What?”
“I thought you didn’t drink,” I said.
“I don’t drink. But I do have one from time to time.”
The condensation on the mug made it twirl when he set it down.
“You want me to have one?”
“You might could use one,” he said. “Most times, I have to tell people no. You, I think, might could use one.”
I smiled and tapped the bar.
Charlie pulled another mug from the freezer, set it under the spout to fill. He slid it to me and I took a sip. Frozen slivers floated on top.
“You know what I like about this song?” said Charlie, brushing a sunflower shell off his shirt.
I waited. Sometimes you have to wait on Charlie. He likes to take his time, sometimes.
“I like his voice. It’s not the best voice, but I like it. You listen to that voice, you get it, what he’s trying to say.” Charlie raised his mug, took a sip. “I don’t need the words to understand him, you know? It comes through in other ways. His tone, the passion. Makes me feel connected.”
Charlie has this way of looking at you with a kind of half-smile that makes you feel like he’s waiting for something. It can make you nervous. Sometimes he realizes this, I think, and he looks away. That’s what he did, anyway. Then he grabbed a rag and wiped his hands and turned to go.
“It makes me think of a woman,” I said.
Charlie stopped, turned back. Dropped his rag and leaned up against the bar. “Yeah?”
I nodded. “That line at the beginning,” I said. “Take a woman like you. I know that’s just a fragment, but that’s the whole song, if you ask me.” My beer was resting in its own little pool. I spun it back and forth. “That organ,” I said, “that whatever-you-call-it, Hammond organ? I don’t know, but the way it just hangs there, with the bass going slow and sad with the guitar. And that line, Take a woman like you. That one line.” I ran my fingers over the rail. “The longing in it.”
Charlie nodded. “Yeah.”
“It makes me sad, a song like this. More than sad. It hurts. This song hurts.”
“I can unplug that thing.”
“No, no. I like it.” It was a good kind of hurt. I couldn’t explain it.
Without really moving, Charlie seemed to get comfortable. “Tell me about this woman,” he said.
I slid my beer back and forth between my hands on the wet bar. “She’s everything,” I said.
Charlie nodded. “I know what you mean.”
I felt not quite so nervous anymore. I felt alive.
“What’s her name?”
I drummed my fingers on the bar. A couple of times. Two or three times. “Kasha.”
Charlie nodded. “Wow. That’s a name.”
“It’s a beautiful name. She’s a… it’s a beautiful name.”
Charlie smiled, picked up his rag and wiped down the bar.
The song faded, ending like it began, Dylan going la la la.
A silence fell. Charlie sipped his beer. I twirled mine.
A cue ball clacked and billiard balls exploded against each other.
Charlie straightened and said, “I like it when a song ends, and you feel like it hasn’t.”
I got out my wallet and pulled out some bills.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “I just want to hear those la la las again.”
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