Wednesday
Sep142011

Three Movements

Michael Rudin




First Movement

I used to be able to hold my breath longer, for all three movements, the full thirty-two minutes and twenty-eight seconds, but I am losing it. My touch, my endurance, my memory—they go in one giant chord. My friends at the home try and convince me otherwise but a pianist knows. It's not so much there is another musician to compare against; rather, it's the inner musician, the one inside me, who could play anything. She drowns. Every Sunday we approach the bench together with the knowledge that at fifteen minutes and thirty-nine seconds, we'll find ourselves two full movements from the breach, from our former self—that it's right then we'll run out of air. Those notes I remember will have escaped, floating up and out, bubbles from my lungs; a few kicks of the pedal will have pushed me up, closer to the surface, but never close enough; for as it always does, the first movement will end, the rest of Schumann's concerto a mystery. Of course, I'll still play. Panicked and lost, I'll play breathlessly. I'll play not to drown. I'll play to forget what I remember: that I am Clara LeGrand, master of Schumann's first movement, again, for the thousandth time; but also just Clara, forgetter of the second and third, she whose eyes are gone and for whom notes are blurry. I play until I forget the notes; until I'm in their depths, forgotten too. Which is why I perform only when he insists. My son, who pays for my comforts here, is the only one I allow to drown me.

Today, the last Sunday of the month at Harriet Mable Home for the Elderly, is one of these days. There are no surprises on fourth Sundays. Everything that leads up to the Piano Concerto in A Minor is as certain and scheduled as what will happen at the end of its first movement. Per custom, we are on our own for the morning, prayer services and shuffleboard carrying the afternoon until about four, when preparations for the performance begin.

Like all good shows, it starts with curtains. Someone in the administrative office pushes a button and the drapes draw in every room and shared area in the home, tethered as if connected to a single rope. With mood set, stage follows. The piano is dusted and polished. Her lid is lifted to its proper angle, a salute to those at stage-left. Fold-out chairs are fetched and unfolded.  No longer able to enjoy pre-performance martinis, my audience accepts a medley of cocktails delivered by Harriet Mable's nurses—handfuls of pills and sagging paper cups polished off by shaky hands and saggy faces.

At four-thirty, a pre-show meal of low-sodium meatloaf and mashed potatoes is served. My friends fall into practiced routines: John Thomas, the old carpenter, measures and cuts his meatloaf into twenty equal bites before piercing each one with his fork; Marsha Keighley, my obsessive-compulsive roommate, reapplies lipstick after every fifth bite; everyone's favorite goofball, Don Trevale, coats his scruff in cherry jello and dives into a Transylvanian accent for the remainder of the evening. But even Don, the former radio announcer, goes silent at show time. At five-thirty, they all do.

Lights flicker as if Harriet Mable is an opera house and the home goes into motion, the grand piano its center, everything around it in orbit. Those who need wheeling are wheeled. High-necked IV bags float across the linoleum pond, slow and dignified as swans. Fat oxygen tanks follow, squat ducks in wake. The light dimmers the staff installed for my recitals splash the piano bench they bring from storage into "Spotlight," the elderly encircling it into "Candlelight." An announcement is made and all await Ms. LeGrand's arrival from her dressing room.

My dressing room: a bed, three picture frames, two small stacks of books. Too much dust for so little air. I sit in front of the mirror applying some of Marsha's makeup. Lots of blush but no lipstick, for I know I grimace, I know I frown, I know I bite my lips and lipstick would go everywhere, onto these teeth I grind and the tongue that chokes me. Marsha's mascara and eyeliner won't run until later, onto anything but my pillow, washed clean before she's applied her first layer of makeup in the morning.

Heels on, belt looped, necklace clasped, I pause to look at the picture of myself taped to the mirror, labeled "Los Angeles Philharmonic, 1985." I avoid the other picture in the mirror, the version reflecting now, that of Harriet Mable, a fourth Sunday, 2010. I focus solely on young Clara, standing in taller heels and in tighter belt. I channel her pre-performance tradition of humming the first few measures, Allegro affettuoso beginning energetically, a fierce attack on the piano. I hum and smile. Dip a polished toe into the depths.

I open the dressing room door and there is that familiar feeling of walking to a show. A lightness in belly and brain that floats me down the home's cork-lined hallways. Multi-colored reminders and announcements scale each wall, tacked from top to bottom like leaves of autumn ivy. I spy mine, the invitation to a monthly Sunday recital with "Piano Legend Clara LeGrand." The flier is simple, placing emphasis on the time—6PM—and a clip-art piano, grand in size as in style. The piano takes up most of the flier, a picture of me taking the rest. The image of the baby grand is illustrated from an overhead perspective, with keys at bottom and the curved lid extending up and over. In two dimensions, it looks like a headstone, grass growing at its base. The big, bold time stamped between my face and the piano could just as easily be advertising my wake.

I turn the corner and spy Daniel, my son, in back. There he stands, a familiar pose in familiar clothes—arms crossed, gray pinstriped suit, slicked-back hair. It was Daniel who paid for my baby grand's delivery to Harriet Mable. He ensured it beat me here, waiting in the Activity Room the first day I arrived. The staff established these monthly recitals as something for everyone to look forward to and I suppose this includes me and I suppose, during this first movement, there are indeed joys.

As I pull the bench out, I spy John spooning apple sauce and Don crunching on carrot sticks. Marsha is too busy watching them to realize I've arrived, let alone in her makeup. My friends here fall in line with all the audiences I've played for, snacking through shows and watching each other more intently than the performer. Daniel waves hello from behind them. I wave back and bow. Those that clap can.

I sit down, take my breath. My last for fifteen minutes.

It's for Daniel that I play, that I strike these first few notes. Anytime he has said he's not coming, I conveniently come down with an arthritic episode, severe exhaustion, anything to cancel the recital. But since Daniel said he'd be here today—and there he is, in back, those long eyebrows reaching across his brow, straight as the lines of my nomenclature—I have to sit down at this bench and play this piece I only remember the first part of.

The piano movers who brought my baby grand set it up so I face the room. The acoustics would have been terrible no matter what, so I assume they set it up this way so the nurses can watch me better, so the audience can see me better. Instead I see them better. The first movement is mine, committed to memory, and so I play looking at the aged, the senile, my peers, in the pit with me even as I play for them. The staff sits the group in pairs in order to serve them better, unintentionally mirroring Schumann's score: two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two hornets and two trumpets have become two diabetics, two mutes, two with heart disease, two with cataracts, two narcoleptics, two who cannot hear. And in back, composing: Daniel. All around him hover nurses, white latex gloves serving injections, cheerless ghosts for all the white-gloved waiters of performances past.

Recitals for people like these feel like charity work, and so I feel less a resident than I do a visitor. As the first movement hits its midpoint, Schumann's notes clattering off the polished tile floor, I consider that next time I should wear lipstick. Maybe I could be more star-like—come late and keep them waiting. I could certainly do more with my hair. Maybe I could even practice, I think, as Don turns down his hearing aid and closes his eyes, red jello pooling in the folds of his neck—and, just like that, there is no time left for thinking. We are into the solo before the grand finish of Allegro Affettuoso. I look to my composer and find Daniel's straight brow broken. His arms are uncrossed. The nurses have stopped what they are doing and everyone watches me for what will happen next. We've reached the end of the first movement. There's no breath left. No notes to play, no next movement to move me. It's here, in the pause before the second movement, that I taste the blood. I have always ground my teeth and I grind these false ones with even more abandon. I swallow down the blood, the saliva after. I swallow down the image that I play a gravestone, my wake; the sight of Daniel in back, eager for what comes next. I sit up taller and tighten my belt. If we must drown, let's do so breathlessly.

 

Second Movement

I wear it for her. Same reason Ma wears heels in a home where all the other grannies rock bunny-slippers. Thing is, I don't own a suit this nice so I have to ask Reggie, one of the other bouncers, if I can borrow his. Problem with the situation is Reggie's suit has Reggie's musk in it. It has his condoms in it. Luckily Ma's vision is gone—she just sees pinstripes and a tie, assumes I'm always like this out there. Dapper Dan, she calls me, no clue how broke I really am. But Reggie knows, as he's never once bothered to dry-clean the suit. It's a fair shake: I'll take care of the stains, but only after I've walked around in them.

I stand in back, closer to the exit, where the air is lighter. Sometimes it feels like I'll get what they've got if I get too close, breathe in too much of them. Don't want to end up OCD like the makeup lady, all geisha'd out in the back row. Or like the old Russian who thinks cherry jello is aftershave. Better to keep a distance. I stand in back and do what I'm paid to at the club. The art of bouncing: make it look like you own the place. I'm the guy who lets you in, the guy who doesn't, the guy who makes exceptions. The job comes down to combining the right muscles with the right demeanor. There's a form. Like Ma, straight backed at her piano, I stand straight backed in doorways. Reggie taught me well: Up here, you're a column—rock hard, stone faced. Impenetrable. So I don't just fold my arms because I'm afraid of what's in Reggie's pockets, or because I don't want Ma seeing the cuts on my hands or the bruises on my knuckles. It's a play. I'm pretending. Here in Reggie's suit, I might be pimping all of Harriet Mable, my Ma and myself included.

Ma wrote the book on showmanship. Woman played for a living and she's a player in retirement. Up there in her heels, and her dress, everything squeezed in, pressed smooth, Ma plays through Schumann's measures like she knows what she's doing and we don't. But then the clues, hidden now in the brief reprieve between the first two movements: Though the back's straight, those lips are crooked. Ma's lost, panicking. I watch her feet hover above the pedals like she's about to run. Watch her hands grip the bench like it's about to run. She stares out at me, the nurses—the whole damn audience—wondering if we know what she doesn't. And yet, Ma, she's a player. All that pain lives in a tiny little pause. Her eyes squeeze shut, flutter open, and there's that same fear, the same decision she's made so many times before. And on its tail, satisfaction; and on its tail, exhilaration; and at last, Ma's found it, the path out. She takes a breath. Breathes. Even from the back of the room, I recognize the new look in her eyes. I see it every night in the girls who come out of the bathroom at the club, powder on gums, chatty chatty. It's a fear they'll get caught when really, they are caught—we just don't bother telling.

Two cliques of knuckles crack. Those feet, floating seconds earlier, touch down. Ma's lips straighten—two columns, impenetrable. Though she can't seem to remember I'm a bouncer, she certainly channels what I do: by improvising the second movement, Ma continues appearances. She makes it look like she owns the place. The joke of it is that Harriet Mable's a stupid place to own. It's nylon drapes covering barred windows; the teal, tiled floor of a 1950's hospital. Roomfuls of stale, broken air. But where I see special "natural" light bulbs installed, a counter for all these geezers with Vitamin D deficiencies, Ma sees "special" light-bulbs, spotlights, a mood set for performance. Those are her nylon curtains and this is her teal stage. She's played the concerto for as long as I've been around and at this point, it's her piece more than it was Schumann's—the one she played to audition for the Philharmonic; the one she played the night her future hubby, my pops, sat in the stands; the one she played to win recitals at her childhood academy; the one she played to put me to sleep. And after she first began forgetting the third movement, Ma played it to audition for resident recitalist at Harriet Mable.

A few of the home's head doctors came to the house for what I told Ma—back straight, arms folded—was a run-of-the-mill check-up. The doctors might as well have been white-coated soap opera actors, first checking her blood pressure, then listening to her lungs. It's hard to take them seriously now after watching them peer falsely into her eyes, down her throat, inside ears that could detect tone perfectly but of late detected little else.

While they marked a chart for good measure, I suggested Ma give a short recital—it was the least we could do for the doctors' trip. The docs knew ahead of time of her Alzheimer's, but the reason I asked them over was that we'd finally come upon a signature forgetting. I was in the kitchen making my famous grilled cheese when the sizzle of butter and toast turned the kitchen to a smoke pit. I'd timed my life to Schumann: One movement for showering, twelve measures for brushing my teeth, that kind of thing. But my burning the grilled cheese black confirmed I was now missing my cues because Ma had invented new ones. On their way to the house, the doctors listened to all three movements on a CD I sent over. Schumann's Piano Concerto had defined Ma's life, her career, and they agreed that her forgetting a single note, let alone rewriting an entire movement, was as relevant a diagnosis as any blood test or CAT scan. We drank tea in the living room, all of us performing our different shows, pretending to enjoy what comes after Ma sits up taller and tightens her belt.

I've got to be the only bouncer in southern California who knows the concerto's second movement opens on tiptoes, the Intermezzo creaking up Schumann's staircase in hopes of not waking Allegro Vivace, angry and in wait. And Ma's version is even more delicate. Rather than toes, she's on her tippies, her nails, tickling forward one-eighth at a time searching for some note to direct her back to the main dance. I listen, satisfied. This performance is more than a grandmaster's improvisation—it's a grandmaster's improvement. It's also exclusive to me, the grandmaster's son, and the two or three nurses who tell me they know classical. We're the only ones who know what Ma's doing here, changing the score into something we recognize as better than the original, better even than last month's take on the original. Ma's in deep and the deeper she falls, the further the Alzheimer's pulls her from Schumann, the more desperate these performances become. They grow more real, more affected, more espressivo. More hers.

And then, more mine. I feel Ma's take on the second movement drive everything I am forward. They go in concert: first, my feet, inching toward the piano; then, my fists, out from behind the arms that hid them. At last, my mind follows, looking forward to later tonight, when I'll bruise knuckles to the rhythm of Ma's notes, graceful and hers, new and at once forgotten.

Those soap-opera doctors who diagnosed Ma don't bother attending the recitals anymore. Of course, they still ask me to because we can't, you know, lose hope, because, you know, breakthroughs just happen. I don't tell them I don't believe in breakthroughs. That with each recital, it's not hope I'm losing, but hope I'm gaining. One look at the sleeping Ruskie with the jello mask reminds me that hope is just a bunch of posturing. They're promises, and promises are the one thing I expect to receive forever, even as I make them myself: my promise to never leave the pan with grilled cheese grilling; my promise to call Reggie "The Enforcer" if he promises to never reciprocate; my promise to continue coming here, even as Ma's memory worsens. Promises are what push me forward, eyes staring upon the scars creasing my fists, their dents and scatter graceless but mine, and whose origins—if Ma's promise keeps—will eventually grow forgotten.

And that's the hope I'm here for. The reason I come back for recitals. It's not for meatloaf. Nor for Ma, not entirely. I come for me. Her second movement is the most beautiful second movement in history—not for its notes but for their promise. Ma's proof that my genes hold the ability to master music, and also the ability to one day forget I did. I do what Reggie taught and stand this promise up and cross its arms. I make it impenetrable. Alzheimer's, my Enforcer for everything: letting some memories in, keeping other memories out. It's the promise that one day Reggie will grow forgotten. His foul suit, forgotten. All the drunks we've cracked our fists into—called for or not, the fact I never minded—forgotten. Why I never tried anything else and why I don't now. I time Schumann to all of them. One movement to shower; two movements to feel clean.

 

Third Movement

Clara sits at her baby grand in complete darkness, body humped over, forehead resting where notes should lie. She pulls back gently and lets gravity return her forward, head hitting the note stand with a soft thud. It is one-thirty in the morning. Clara feels her hair flattening. A tingling heat crowns her forehead where she and the piano meet, have been meeting. Elsewhere, Harriet Mable's residents sleep well into their second and third dreams of the night. Layered between their snoring come moans and screams, sounds that float down the hall folded between the squeaks of the sneakered nurses, scuffling through doors that creak open disinterestedly and close even more so. Rather than rest, Clara is here, turning her piano into a drum. Turning her head pink. Ten fingers rest quietly on keys she doesn't need light to see, or play, or fear. She recalls the recital earlier this evening. A fabricated second movement followed by a seventy-nine-year-old curtsy. Then the night spent smearing borrowed makeup into pillows that have never smelled like her. She is back, now, because she is tired of this feeling, in her bones, that she is forgetting more than movements.

Five miles away, Danny works inside the club where he bounces. With the line dead, Reggie sent him in to control traffic around the dance floor. Danny blends well into the space. The borrowed gray suit and dance floor are one in shade and when the strobe light flickers, six feet of pinstriped column appear in the mirror behind the bar. Danny allows the DJ's music to pulse through him, the remix growing more dense and layered with the introduction of each new sample—beats that blend and flow, wash into one another like waves. Danny holds a narrow metal flashlight. If this area becomes too busy, he will flick it on and direct traffic toward the outdoor smoking area and the bathrooms. Until then, he crosses his arms and closes his eyes, remains perfectly still.

Clara begins. In the darkness, without audience, she is free to play as she has always practiced. Schumann's first movement is less performed than ejected: out fly notes from wrinkled nose and crinkled eyes, pendant neck and rigid lips. Clara barely recognizes her breath, as fierce and spastic as the notes that sweep her up and push her further. Performed for an audience of one, the first movement does what it was written to: the music transports, transfigures. Clara feels herself swaying—feels herself flow back and forth across the length of the bench. Unabashed, Clara throws her butt into it, laughing. Wills her fingers to follow suit. They leap high, arc soft, land softer, sharp to flat and octave to octave, jumping like marionettes on strings, strung from clouds, and suddenly in forgetting that she's forgotten, Clara remembers: The first movement is fun. Here, now, eyes shut in darkness and playing for herself, Clara recognizes the first notes in Schumann's second movement. They lay a few pages ahead, pictures in a photo album she's flipped through all her life. Clara knows them intimately. They are family. She has only to turn the pages and say hello.

Danny doesn't need to see the club to know it's packed. He feels it. The air takes on heat, thickening with breath and sweat and the products that sweeten both. Tonight's heat infects him, a fever that builds. Danny sweats through Reggie's pants, wishes he were outside where it is cooler, where there are fewer faces. Inside here, the faces float, too close and too many. Dressed in shiny sequins, reflective sleeves, stained and studded leathers, they dart past him, past one another, never slowing down or breaking rank. Schools of fish, Danny thinks, pulling down the narrow lapels of Reggie's suit. The pinstriped triangles rise and fall with his breathing, tiny gray fins on a giant gray shark. Danny grips his flashlight tighter. Clicks it on and off. Tries to will himself cooler.

Clara, who can hold her breath for fifteen minutes and thirty-nine seconds, does not need to. The joy she found in the first movement has become comfort in the second. Gone are the pendant neck and rigid lips. Both lean backwards to face a ceiling Clara refuses to look at, her eyes still shut, too afraid to open for fear the return of notes has something do with the double dip of darkness enshrouding them, or the piano, or herself, all of them working in unison to create this second movement that she finally plays while breathing, each lungful fueling a backstroke that floats her to notes and truths forgotten. For Clara now remembers: there was never supposed to be a third movement! Schumann preferred his concerto be listed on programs in two. Clara envisions the program from that opening night. The month, the year, the setting—she pins them all to the mirror in her mind, that most private dressing room of all: January, 1846. Leipzig, Germany. Clara tiptoes deeper into the second movement. Wills her eyes sharper, her memory better focused. She knows it's ahead, the name of the woman who first performed Schumann's concerto. She knows it's important. Knows but can't remember. So measured earlier, Clara's breathing grows determined, her backstroke forced. The waters of the second movement become choppy, bitter with salt. Clara pushes on: ten measures later and she remembers the last day of her inaugural year at the music academy, the day of her very first recital; three more and she's reached the day each student presented his or her choice for the recital; a few more and there's a young girl, shy and alone on the first day of school, clutching sheet music in the back of the class. Clara pins the picture of this girl beside the program. Straightens her neck to look upon both. Flips from her backstroke to kick hard into the water, then harder still into the piano's pedals. Clara feels herself gain momentum. These movements and their movements, they are music disguised as memory, memories disguised into music. When she finally reaches the third movement, five minutes and thirty-eight seconds further than this evening, Clara, out of notes and out of air, has traded them for the name of the woman who first performed the concerto on a January night as dark and quiet as Harriet Mable. The only concerto Schumann would ever write, the composer dedicated his work to this pianist, not only the woman who pushed him to complete the piece but the wife who pushed him always. Her name, Clara, was the reason a young Clara LeGrand selected it for her first recital; and it's this realization, hanging from Clara's ankles, driving the pianist to depths she has been unable to reach herself, that also brings her back to the brink. Finding herself has come at a cost: Clara has lost her breath, her way. Panicking, the old woman opens her eyes. Adjusts them to the darkness. She has come upon Schumann's final movement, the one he never wanted people to see. The one she cannot.

There's no going back. Clara starts and stops the third movement. Starts and stops and starts and stops and starts and stops, each attempt at jump-starting Schumann's third movement introducing fresh blood into a mouth that grits, four staves of teeth locked in place and sealing in what's left. Clara's head thrashes as she picks up two new measures. Her fingers, calloused for decades, ache now as she smashes them into keys, harder and harder still, hammers into jackhammers, boring the wall she shadow-puppets for the rest of Harriet Mable. Clara shuts her eyes. Her fight for notes is a fight for more, and when Schumann's notes stop their trickle back, Clara starts fresh from the beginning of the third movement, thrashing and smashing, refusing to quit, playing the entire movement to gain a few more notes, and then the entire movement to gain just one, and then the entire movement two, three, four times only for two, three, and four more. She is broken, on repeat. The notes refuse her. Clara takes a deep breath and opens here eyes to discover the lights on, a few of the nurses standing across the Activity Room beside a sleepy Marsha, her face plain, barely recognizable without the layers of makeup. They seem weary but not alarmed. In the light, Clara is suddenly aware of her sweat-soaked robe, pinned to her like a wetsuit, the hair pinned to her forehead, tingling new shades of red. She wipes her brow, brushing errant hairs back. Pulls the robe back, peeling it from her skin. With her third movement, Clara closes the piano's lid and stows her fingers, playing and replaying the third movement from inside her robe's pockets until she is in undressed and in bed, Marsha snoring, the lights off, free to play once more. Clara will never quit these hands that cannot remember. The notes and memories might still return, a harmony worth feeling for.

Clara, who gulps down pain for tastes of pleasure, believes in the hopelessness of breathing water for hints of oxygen.

Danny promises the man a count of four. In his mind and with his flashlight, he counts the beats out, tapping the rhythm into the leg the man has stepped on and has not yet moved, or apologized for, or even acknowledged. For four beats, Danny forgives the man, telling himself he is simply too drunk, the DJ's mix too loud, the dance floor too distracting; that perhaps Danny's foot is too flat, its shoe too smooth, too like the dance floor. Danny convinces himself not to mess up Reggie's suit. Tells himself not to mess up the bar's ambiance, it being too early for that music-shrieking stop, the hushed and sobering aftermath. But he gives all this hope just four beats to crystallize, and at the end of them, all Danny has is the heat and the fact that pulling this man by his hair into the cold alley will escape them from it. Danny taps the man who turns around quickly, whose smile turns around quickly. No, Danny is not a friend, or a female—he is a suited man holding a flashlight. Who is yelling. Who is screaming to get off his shoe. Who decides there's no need for talking because movements will suffice. Danny finds the man's blonde hair thick and easy to grab. He yanks it through the back alley door, throwing the man into the brick wall opposite, his body crumpling into a question mark as he asks what is happening, what is wrong, what did he do, the sentences slurring one into the next and stopping abruptly when Danny leans back and drives forward, all his might behind a punch that sends the man falling to the ground, a cough of air gusting into the alley. Refreshing in so many ways.

The alley is completely silent save for panicked, desperate coughing—that unsteady but familiar line of percussion Danny knows all too well. Danny, whose job is done, who should reenter the bar to resume trafficking the dance floor, finds himself taunting the man he has already hit, begging and pleading in rhythm with the man's begging and pleading. As he asks the man to take just one swing, just one step, to give him a chance to finish what he started, Danny hears the door open sharply behind him. Then the voice of the man whose suit he's borrowing, Reggie, saying to back off, man, to let it go.

But there's no going back. Danny restarts his routine. Rediscovers his rhythm. He's once again asking this blonde drunk on the ground to challenge him. To get up. Look up. To say something. Anything. The man's lips begin to quiver. He's close to pissing himself. Danny calls him a coward, the conviction splattering the man's face in spit that joins the tears already running down peach-fuzzed cheeks. Danny balls his fist, prepared to punch the beaded, moving targets. Danny envisions which bone in the man's head might break his hand. Perhaps the forehead, at the right angle; or the jaw, if he follows through into the bricks. Danny wants a cast, a sling, a splint—ten fingers that for at least a month won't want to see a piano and want to improvise from its bench. Won't push him to sit down beside his mother and show her they can play too. Danny works this job to pay her bills, to pay his own, but it's men like this, on the ground and whimpering, asking what is wrong, what is wrong, that will always be his compensation. Men like this are his excuse: a way to break fingers until he becomes like his mother and forgets why he needed to break them. Reggie grabs Danny by the shoulder, turning him around and brushing the dust off his own gray suit. Danny watches Reggie recognize who Danny becomes on the days he borrows his nicer suit; what he needs on these days he wears gray and returns smelling like old people. It is quiet for a moment before Reggie says, Go ahead, nodding to the blonde man on the ground, eyes wide and terrified, scrambling to his feet, looking left at barbed wire blocking his exit, looking right at Reggie blocking everything else. Apologies sing out into the alley, an improvisation of words and gestures that do not course correct a Danny who pins the man against the wall, straightening his abdomen for the punch—who takes a small step to the left, switching arms and straightening the man for another. He and Reggie have done this so many times, these performances that are always forgotten by the men they tell to forget them, that are denied to cops who don't care and could never prove anything anyway. Danny smashes his hands into the man's skin, into the bones, into the organs behind. He finds a beat and flows, loses it and starts anew. Danny will never quit on these hands that cannot forget, temporary casts perfect for temporary pains. He lets the blonde man slump to the ground, silent in the darkness. Reggie walks back into the bar, briefly blasting the alley in light. For the briefest moment, the blonde man appears to be sleeping peacefully, chin and neck layered in jello like the man from Harriet Mable. The DJ's mix travels into the alley, the notes difficult to decipher, muted by their swim through the dark bar.

Danny rubs his knuckles and the soreness tingling inside them, two hands layered behind two kinds of blood. He takes a step backwards from the door, one final movement before cocking his fist, aiming at the music.