(Note: This story is inspired in part by the so-called “My Way” killings.)
I watch the young man as he swallows the last of his beer and stumbles toward the battered karaoke machine in the corner of the room. Under the crowded bar’s sour yellow light he looks like a poorly-made puppet being jerked around by invisible strings. He careers through a crowd of older men, sends drinks flying as he takes his place on the platform. Hard fingers stab at the controls, scrolling through songs, through the list of possible expressions.
As he straightens, feet apart, body swaying lazily, and the first notes of the song fill the room through the fuzzy speakers, I feel that familiar disappointment. Another overbearing, neon-plastic love song full of warbled cliches and faux sentiment. The mating call of the human as a capitalist construct, a consumerist doll. I turn to the counter for another drink as his voice flops onto the first verse. There is nothing there.
“You look disappointed.” The owner towers over his room, tall enough to see anyone calling for drinks. A lighthouse for drunks lost in the human sea of pushing bodies. Maybe it was a genetic advantage, something he inherited from his father, would pass down to his son.
“I think I feel a headache coming on,” I say. That blunt pain splintering out from somewhere behind my left eye.
“You wait till his girlfriend gets on.” The owner laughs. Cracked, red teeth like an unfinished mosaic, evidence of a strong moma habit. “Why do you think all my glasses are plastic?”
“It’s not like that,” I say. How could I explain it? “Music is the body language of the soul, of the universe.” And I prefer the ugly truth to the smoothly varnished lie. That’s what I wanted. I wanted truth in beauty, and there is none of that in something designed to sell to a target market. “I just want a little honesty.”
“You’re in the wrong place for that,” he says. “The only truth in here is that we’re all about twelve hours away from having to face our own lives again.”
As the song nears its end, the chorus repeats, turning the screw. The rotation of the drill aimed at my frontal lobe. A clumsy flourish, slow, drunken clapping and hooting from the singer’s table.
Stabs of synthesized bass as the next song begins. More cheers for the young woman in bare feet who joins the young man at the machine. It is a shouty B-52s’ song, full of aggressive innuendo. The couple share the mic, and she is as bad as the owner had warned. Yet, I find it more palatable. There is something like honesty on their faces, in their eyes, as they stare at each other, looking for cues. They were saying something more than the words. A simple tale of lust, but a biological truth is still a truth.
I finish my drink, leave money on the counter for another. The owner shuffles off.
It came and it went. Palpitations like the staccato beats of big band drums. The muggy heat under smog-smudged sky, the itchy river of sweat that ran down my back. There were days when I feel it coming all at once, when the city’s artificial constructs were walls blocking out the light. I looked around and saw only the lies we built trying to pretend we matter.
That is when I needed to be packed into those small spaces, another sardine in the can, nose filled with the smells of their life. Tension and release, fear and joy. The gasping, squirming reality of existence.
Out there on the streets, in the bars, I looked for the truths that aren’t a part of advertising. Someone trying to say something that isn’t a quote, a callback, a reference to the most recent pop culture event. I needed someone to tell me that society–that life–would continue to exist without smartphones, social media, and the three Swedish guys who wrote every hit song coming in from the West.
I watched them dance, watched them talk to each other, watched them say the things they thought they should say. Weaving lives out of the threads the media gave them. Friday night, when there were as many reruns in the real world as there were on television. Even in love, something universal, they were only the understudies fumbling through half-remembered lines. Even that wasn’t real anymore.
But there was a moment of crystallizing realness that comes when they realized the show doesn’t go on, when they find something that isn’t in the script. How does a person raised without the chance for original thought ad lib? What do they say when the next line hasn’t been written for them?
Six songs in, the room starts jeering. All except for the young man’s table, who are clapping along to a mumbled rendition of something by The Cars. More music written and produced before he was even born. I wonder what that means. The owner told me it’s a birthday party, that they’d paid in advance for the extra songs.
What does a man turning twenty-one have to say about his life? What is his soundtrack, his mix-tape describing his accomplishments, his goals. He stands there, microphone swinging in front of him like a pendulum, eyes closed, curved finger thrusting in the general direction of his blushing girlfriend, and uses another man’s words to tell her she is “just what he needed.” I go outside for a smoke.
Crowds of people mingle on the narrow street, the back alley. A woman approaches, her perfume aura like a memory of an inescapable illness. Ripped fishnets, painted face, she weaves in and out of the pools of light, her narrow hips swaying mockingly. She wants to sell me a piece of her life, but there’s nothing real there. Past a bruised shoulder, I can see the lines of boxes, the huddled bodies inside them.
While she talks at me, I flick my cigarette butt. It leaves a spot of grey ash on her forehead. As she stumbles away, cursing, insulting my manhood, my lineage, I turn back to the bar. It is time for the final performance of the night.
It’s in the wrong key. The thin, tinny snare and scratchy bass overpower the struggling melody line. But there is no mistaking that song.
“And now, the end is near,” he slurs, holding an empty bottle in the air, index finger pointing toward heaven. “And so I face the final curtain.” Half singing, half talking, he is barely keeping up with the beat, but as he repeats the words, I can see him begin to feel it.
Written by one man almost mocking another man’s style, “My Way” is as definitive a statement on arrogance as any culture has managed to produce. It is something people actually believed in. Chest puffed out, the young man rushes into another line. “And more, much more than this, I did it my way,” he growls, wide and defiant.
This is conviction, or very near to it.
He fits himself into the role, the attitude. He says something he wants to believe. “I did what I had to do, and saw it through without exemption.” A mission statement.
People scatter as I approached, trying to get away from what their lizard brains recognized as the modern equivalent of the stalking tiger. They needn’t have worried. None of them have anything I need. It is only the young man, fist held high, who can answer my question.
“To say the things he truly feels, and not the words of one who kneels,” he sings.
Staring down the barrel of my gun, he reaches his moment of absolute crisis. And I get to see the real truth.
“Finish the song,” I tell him.
He has his hands above his head, palms out. I hear screaming, shouting from behind me. Maybe the owner is calling someone. The police, or whoever he pays protection money. The singer’s girl disappears in the crowd rushing for the door. That is her truth.
“Finish the song,” I say again. The pressure of the gun against his skull, the neck muscles straining to move away without falling back. I need those last words. “Finish the song.” My finger curls, and his eyes cross.
“The record shows,” he stammers, swallowing. Deep breath. Where is that conviction now? “I took my blows.” Knees bend under the weight of that single point, and I press him down. I can see it in the pulsing vein on his forehead, on the perspiration stinging his rapidly blinking eyes. More lies.
“And did it my way,” I finish.
“What do you want?” he snivels as he squirms under my gaze. The transformation is complete. The arrogance is gone, the confidence never existed. This is who he really is.
“Tell me why you sang that song.”
His features contort, his eyes narrow. Confusion. He wants to see something else in me, past the facade. But I’m not like him. I’m not like them. “What are you talking about?”
The room is nearly empty now. Only the owner, cowering behind his counter, remains. “What have you ever done?” I asked. “What have you ever done your way? Who are you? What is your way?”
“It’s just a song,” he says.
“What does it mean?” I take the gun away from his head, crouch down to get to eye level. “Tell me what you think. Tell me what you actually think.”
“It’s just a song,” he repeats. “It sounds cool. Sinatra was cool. It’s a song. What else is there?”
“Exactly,” I say, and put the gun under his chin before pulling the trigger.
The owner is yelling as I leave. I put some money on the counter on my way out. It’s not his fault. He is another man trying to survive as best he can.
The gun goes into the trash. I’m sure it won’t stay there. Someone is watching, always. I walk home alone, past the rows of paper houses, past the rushing hordes. The drunk and the sober, the children sleeping under corrugated stoops, the ones tucked up in their gated condos. In that final moment, he’d told me his single truth, told me something that he had never told anyone else. Nobody else would ever know what he really was.
I could sleep with a clear head tonight.