A Little Night Music

J. Erik Hall

"To make of lyric deed and lyric thought
One music of perverse accord, wherein
The songless blatancy and banal din
Of all the world should perish..."
           - Christophe des Lauri

Super Bowl Sunday can be a lonely time for a man who has little interest in watching the game. In years past, I would have been as eager as anyone to catch the big broadcast, but somehow this year I just couldn't get caught up in the excitement, especially since the contenders were two of the expansion teams which hold no interest for me. If one of the storied gridiron franchises were set to take the field, I would have been at home that Sunday in front of the TV, but instead I found myself heading downtown to the one bar I knew would not be showing the game.

I arrived at Jim's right around kickoff time. Jim's has always been one of my favorite places to get a drink, and since the owner stubbornly refuses to install televisions in his bar, I knew it would be a good place to find some peace and quiet in the midst of the Super Bowl madness sweeping every other joint in town. Not surprisingly, there were only other two patrons in evidence, and Jim's son Brad was tending bar with a bored look on his face and both ears cocked to a radio tuned into the game. Brad had the volume turned down low, presumably to please his father, who rejected televisions in his bar on the principle that they are noisy distractions to people who ought to be drinking and socializing.

Taking seat at the bar, I could tell by Brad's absent-minded manner that he was fully absorbed by the game, and it was clear that he was not interested in any conversation. Having anticipated this when I left my apartment, I had brought along the latest issue of Newsweekly, which had been sitting unread on the top of a pile of unopened mail at home. So after Brad brought my drink, I began to read. As is so often the case in these troubled times, the cover story concerned an apparent terrorist bombing, this time in some little-known former Soviet republic. Not being in the mood for this type of hard news, I flipped towards the middle of the magazine, in search of lurid stories on fallen celebrities and similar light fare.

It was at this point that a strange little man who had been sitting in one of the booths at the back of the place came up to the bar to refresh his drink. After the fellow had managed to catch Brad's attention and get the business done, I found myself with a new companion as he sat down next to me. He was dressed all in black, and quite formally at that, especially for Super Bowl Sunday. He wore a trench coat and a fedora, as well as polished wingtips and neatly pressed slacks. This odd ensemble made him look like some minor character in an old film noir, and certainly made him look out of place in Jim's casual neighborhood bar.

"I see that you are interested in bigger questions than the latest match up of corporate interests played out on the football field," he said, nodding towards my news magazine. "I too find little interest in these manufactured events. Was it Marx who said that religion was the opiate of the people? If he were living today, I believe that he would find that professional athletics have supplanted religion in this regard."

This didn't strike me as the ideal beginning for a lively conversation, given that I am not much of a one for politics and philosophy. Nonetheless, my new friend smiled amiably after making his pitch, so I took the bait. "Normally, I'd be watching the game myself, but I don't follow either the Titans or the Panthers, so I decided to sit this one out."

"Let me ask your thoughts on events such as this" he said, indicating the cover photo on my magazine illustrating the terrorist bombing in some-or-other-stan. "What could drive a man, or a group of men, to such heights of malice? Surely none of us are born with that much hate. How does a man acquire the temperament of a killer, if he is not born with this quality?"

"I think they learn it in those religious schools, the ones in Pakistan run by Muslim preachers. When they come out of one of those places, all they can think about is jihad." This was about the best contribution I could come up with for a conversation that wasn't really catching my interest.

"But can such a school teach a man to be evil? Although they can teach him the ways of violence and hatred, can they truly teach him to become a murderer? I believe the answer is no. No man is inherently evil, but evil is in the world all around us. It may interest you to know that I have done some investigation in this area, and I have formulated certain theories about the concentration of evil in particular physical spaces."

At this point, I couldn't help wondering if my new pal was simply a wackjob, or might in fact be a salesman trying to push some sort of feng shui remedy for all my ills. Before I could either make a decision or say something, he mentioned wanting to show me something of great interest, and scuttled off for the booth where he had been perched when I first entered Jim's. A moment later, he reseated himself on the barstool next to mine, a old guitar case in his hands.

"Although I am not inherently musical, the researches that I mentioned have led me to conclude that certain peculiarities of the sonic spectrum are key to the physical manifestation of evil. Hence I acquired this instrument." As he said this, he opened his case and pulled out one of the saddest looking guitars that I have ever seen. It was a cheap acoustic model, well and truly worn out, with a tuning peg missing from the head and retaining only two of the six strings it was originally built to accommodate. I took some comfort in thinking that the battered condition of the guitar would prevent my companion from breaking into song.

He began to strum the two strings that remained to him, and simultaneously attempted to tune them, but not to any conventional standard I had encountered in my days as a high school rocker. In fact, it was pretty clear that his denial of musical ability was no act of humility, since the tuning he finally settled on sounded worse than his starting point.

"Using this simple instrument, which is of no high quality, I will give you a demonstration of my theories." As he said this, he plucked and held a single note, which sounded uniquely sick on his poor little instrument. He plucked the same note several times in succession, and each time held it until the sound faded away. "What does that sound suggest to you?" he asked.

"I think you might be out of tune there, but with an old guitar like that, I'm not sure that you'll have much luck getting it into tune."

"Do not be distracted by the unconventional nature of my music. It has taken many months of intensive inquiry for me discover the power of this note, and I assure you that it is effective, if dissonant."

I took a sip of my beer, and noticed that while I had been chatting, it had not only warmed to room temperature, but had also become extremely sour, as though someone had dropped a little vinegar into my drink when I wasn't looking. I called out to Brad for another beer, and was surprised at his surly, wordless reaction as he plopped another bottle on the bar while flashing me a disgusted look. I've known Brad for a couple of years, and although I realized he didn't want to be drawn away from the game on the radio, I found his reaction to be quite strange, since we had always gotten along well in the past.

Turning back to the curious guitarist sitting next to me, I could see that he was now watching me closely. He had stopped playing the unpleasant note which so fascinated him, and when he saw that he had my attention once again, he pointed to the magazine lying on the bar, and tapped the front cover illustration with his finger. I looked at the picture. When I had glanced at it previously, it had shown a crowded city street, with pedestrians running from the dust of what appeared to be an explosion in the background. But on this second viewing, I saw that it now showed the bloody and mangled bodies of several of those pedestrians on the ground, and if they were not dead, they were badly wounded at least. There was no doubt in my mind that the image had changed since I first looked at it, for the graphic depiction of gruesome injuries was not something I would have failed to notice earlier.

I turned back to my neighbor, and was disturbed to see him grinning. "Do you see it now?" he asked. "The seemingly harmless note I pick upon my guitar calls forth evil. Now it is weak, since I know only the rudiments of this dark science, but you can see that my efforts have not been in vain."

"How do you mean?" I asked.

"Surely you can see the transformation on the cover of your magazine. And look there" he said, pointing at the set of beer taps on the other side of the bar to my left. They had sprung a very evident leak, and a fine mist of beer was gently spraying the back wall of the bar. I looked at Brad and pointed at the taps, at which point he gave me the finger and stalked off through the kitchen door, out of sight.

"The evidence of your eyes cannot be denied. You see that in playing this exceptional note, I have summoned wickedness itself. I grant you that this malevolence is weak, but the effects of the invocation are clear, and you see them even here." At this, he indicated the section of bar between us, on which a puddle of liquid was gently bubbling. Even as I watched, the pool seemed to grow larger, and with a sickly feeling I realized that it appeared to have the very color and consistency of blood. Startled, I stood up and backed away from the bar.

"What kind of game are you playing?" I snapped.

"It is no game, my friend. What I have demonstrated here is the science of evil, and the method by which one may draw it forth at will. As you can imagine, once I refine my technique, that which I shall be able to call up will be ever more malign. One cannot help but be fascinated by the immense power into which I am learning to tap - is it not thrilling?"

"I'm sorry, but this doesn't interest me. I enjoyed meeting you, but this sort of weirdness is not my cup of tea. I'll be going now." Having said this, I tossed a ten-spot on the bar, and turned and walked out of Jim's. The strange little man with the guitar began to say something in a tone of regret, but let it go when it was clear that my mind was made up.

As I emerged into the cold winter evening, I couldn't help feeling a little disturbed by the events in the bar. But as I walked to my parked car, it seemed as though there was a logical explanation for everything that had occurred. Brad's rudeness could be explained by his focus on the Super Bowl radio broadcast, and a beer tap springing a leak was not so unusual. Likewise the pool of liquid on the bar was probably just spilled sauce or syrup which I hadn't noticed when I first sat down. The magazine was more troubling, but I had left it behind, and had no way of checking the picture once again to see if the change had only been a hallucination of some sort.

Having thought it all through, I felt a lot better when I got to my car. I reached into my pocket for the key, and it felt a little strange as I grasped it. Holding it in front of my face, I could see that it had broken in half. I fished the missing piece out of the bottom of my pocket, and placed both halves in the palm of my hand. Somehow this was more troubling than anything that had occurred in Jim's, since the key had been secure in my pocket the entire time, and I had not felt the tension of stressed metal or heard the noise that must have sounded when the key snapped in two. Feeling a little frightened and altogether at a loss, I looked idly into the distance. On the other side of the parking lot, the strange little man with the battered guitar case looked in my direction as he prepared to board a city bus that had pulled up to the curb where he was standing. As our eyes met, he gave me a sort of apologetic frown, and tipped his hat to me. Then he climbed the steps, and as the doors closed behind him and the bus pulled out into traffic, I realized that between a useless car key and a missed bus, it looked like I was walking home.

Top of Page