I pulled back the bench and took my seat at the keyboard. It was a magnificent creation with its eighty-eight shiny black and white keys. I, Santo, was a stranger in its presence, yet it was longing for my touch. My hands, barely floating above the keys, teased it and its breath rose to dance between my fingers. I felt it vibrate and exhale and I knew that this instrument could feel that I was not nervous at all. I was in fact ready to make it scream with pleasure.
I was fresh to the New York nights. My Uncle Martín offered me sanctuary when I decided to escape life in Grand Rapids, Michigan. There, blue uniforms shadowed me and I gave my dreams to empty bottles. Facing a past and the wrath of God was not on my agenda. Uncle Martín, a cab driver, stayed in Brooklyn. His one-bedroom apartment was in the bay on 42nd street, just off 8th avenue. It didn’t take long for the apartment to go from cozy to cramped, and when it did, I knew I needed some cash or at least something to do with myself other than watching daytime television. He hooked me up with a club owner that was a friend of his. He told me the guy’s name was Hector Vega and he was Dominicano like us. The manager needed a guy to play keyboard for his merengue night, and I could play any instrument alive, or so I told him. Crazy enough, he took my word for it.
“We have all the other instruments covered,” said Vega, a hoarse scratch in his voice. I met the tubby, middle aged man an hour prior to opening. “Pedro, God rest his soul, was the only keyboardist.” He made a cross from forehead to breast and from shoulder to shoulder when he mentioned Pedro’s name. God existed on the east side of the country too. “I’ll see what you got and if you’re good, then we’ll work something out. Can you play by ear?” I told him I could, this time telling the truth. “Good.” He shook my hand with approval. “The band plays their own material and some well-known music too. Annabel Fuentes, the lead, won’t be here till it’s about time to play, so you’ll have to pick it up by ear.” Merengue is all the same anyway, so I knew I could handle whatever we were going to play.
The ensemble was getting into position. After talking to Vega, I met a few of the other musicians and they seemed alright. They were a small band, but they looked like they knew what they were doing. The keyboard and I were on upstage right and I could see all the other musicians. To my left were the drums and the bongos and on upstage left were the bass and guitar. Before me was the trumpet and trombone. Sosa, a short overweight gentleman and trumpet player, seemed most like my kind of guy. The night was yet to begin and already he was working up a sweat sitting on his stool with his trumpet in one hand, and a bottle of rum in the other. The other guys didn’t seem worried about him keeling over. It must have been his normal disposition.
Looking out into the house, I could see the tables on either side of the dance floor and a bar on my side of the club. It was ten o’clock Saturday night and the place was busy. I didn’t know what to expect as far as the atmosphere goes. I had played at a couple clubs back home, but I was in New York now. I saw Dominicanos, Puerto Riquenos, Cubanos, Blacks, and whites and there were nationalities that I couldn’t identify for sure. Also, I could see that there were plenty of couples. Those flying solo were already scanning for available dance partners and others were not interested in dancing.
Vega was sitting at a table looking like an old-time gangster with his legs crossed and a fresh lit Cuban cigar in his mouth. His right arm rested on the chair next to him. He had no facial hair other than a thin line of mustache over his lip and his gray hair was slicked back underneath a fedora. Vega sported a three-piece pinstriped navy-blue suit with a white shirt to bring out the stripes. His tie was a sky blue and he had a matching pocket square. Taking the cigar out of his mouth, he looked toward me and nodded. I nodded back.
“Listo?” asked a woman. I felt a hand on my right shoulder and looked up to see that my night was only getting better. There stood Annabel Fuentes, the ensemble’s lead soloist. I never thought to ask what the singer was like, so I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t imagine a caramel smooth goddess with soft pink lips and long sassy black hair that reached down her back. Her perfect waist was framed in her tight red dress that had slits to show her tempting legs. She had a body that made me want to fall on my knees right there, to thank God for making me a man. I was losing myself in her hypnotic green eyes when she asked me one more time.
“Huh?” I was at a loss for words.
“Are you ready?” she translated the question from Spanish to English, and then I realized how stupid I was making myself look.
“Yeah, yeah.” I nodded slowly, still a little mesmerized. “I’m ready.”
“You are Santo, right? You’re playing the keyboard?”
“Yeah, that’s me.” I stretched out my hand to properly introduce myself. I didn’t want to look completely inept. “I’m Santo Ortega.”
“Annabel Fuentes.” She shook my hand and she was as soft as she looked. “I see you’ve met Rosa.”
“This was Pedro’s Keyboard. He called her Rosa.” She made the cross for Pedro.
“Oh. Rosa. We were just getting to know each other.”
She gave me a smile that said I’m not too sure about you, but let me see what you can do. She turned around to go to the microphone downstage and I savored her walk, watching her plump apple bottom switch its balance to match her step in her stiletto shoes.
I don’t know how it exactly happened, but by the time Annabel reached the microphone every band member was on their point. If she gave a signal, I missed it. Sosa had the trumpet to his lips and let out a blast. Bada ba-ow! He was moving before I had time to refocus. Bada dah dah. Bada dah. Bada dah! The bongos came in, getting their skin beat by quick hands. Pa pa pa. Pa-pa. Ta pa-pa. The trumpet sang and the bongs skipped. Pa pa pa. Bada dah dah. Pa-pa. Bada dah. Ta pa-pa. Bada dah! I didn’t let Sosa hit that high note one more time without me joining in. Din din ding. Din din dining ding. Din din ding. Din din dining ding.
When the other guys found their place, the red rhythm caught fire. Dancers celebrated a Caribbean night; skirts were swirling, legs in motion, shoes were blazing. An array of lights only instigated the flame. I saw women do twirls that I once thought were impossible. One guy dipped his woman inches from the floor and had her up and spinning in less than a second. He must have been a pro.
Sosa looked back at me and motioned with his trumpet for me to look at Annabel. I watched, not wanting to miss another signal or any changes. Her voice gave direction to the music. “Ritmo. Ritmo caliente. Me quema. Me quema siempre.” It was one of their original songs. If it wasn’t, I hadn’t heard it before. Microphone in hand, Annabel sang like she was well aware of being a woman. In the light she looked like a dream, dancing and singing. She turned just enough to see me out of the corner of her eye, looked at me and smiled. This time the smile said something else.
Thinking I might not have another opportunity to show her what I could do, I played as hard as I could. Din din ding, din din dining ding. Pa pa pa. Bada bah bah bah. I was in my element and feeling it. My hands discovered all of Rosa’s abilities with aggression. Sweat gelled on my fingers and I could feel beads of sweat running down my temples. I was hot and the heat felt good. Me and Rosa worked it all night long.
* * *
Sosa tapped out Wynton Marsalis’s Where or When on his horn. He was cool about it, and smooth. At nearly six in the morning, Sosa was a wonder. With all the drinking, he was still hitting those notes just right. I accompanied him on a piano that was on the floor and not on stage, giving Rosa a rest. It was a familiar soft and jazzy melody. Sosa kept starting it over and over but I didn’t mind. I was content with its flow. He seemed to be in his own world anyway.
The rest of the band had long since disappeared. The lounge itself was empty other than Vega and a few other gentlemen at a round table. They were sitting in a corner with a deck of cards and jingling spare change. Every few minutes I’d hear Vega’s hoarse voice swear or crack a joke, depending on his luck. His suit coat was draped over the back of his chair. His tie and collar button were undone and his sleeves were rolled up to his elbows. A cloud of Latin flavored smoke enshrouded them. They seemed to be having a good time.
The place was already clean except for Vega’s table and for Sosa’s row of bottles on stage. A couple of the bottles were half full and one was completely empty. I finished the tune one more time with Sosa, deciding that I could use a drink too. I got off my bench and carried a bottle back to Rosa on stage. As I walked off again, I gave Sosa a friendly slap on the back just to see if the brown bear would fall off his stool. He didn’t even flinch. He was lost in his rhythm, in his own mellow groove.
Moments later at the bar, I sat underneath a blue light. From where I was, I could see the neon sign through a window; Vega’s Lounge. It was still flashing. The bartender was still behind the counter organizing a bit before heading home. He sensed my presence and looked up.
“What would you like?” He wiped his hand on his smock and grabbed a glass.
I cocked a smile with drowsy eyes. “Anything with alcohol. No preference.”
He poured some stuff together and I had no idea what it was. Of course I wasn’t going to tell him that. I had to keep up my front. He slid my glass across the counter. I tried it and had a couple coughs after my first gulp.
“Not bad.” There was a frog hanging on my tonsil. The drink was strong and perfect.
“I’ll fix you another before I leave.”
I swiveled around in my chair to watch the corner pocket gamblers. Vega was in an uproar and still willing to throw down cash. I hoped he was going to throw some my way, seeing as how I had not been paid yet. I wasn’t half bad and deserved some kind of payment or at least an opportunity to play another night. No one had mentioned anything to me. As far as I knew, it could have been my first and last night. I was ready to make my way home, but for some reason I couldn’t get myself to leave.
“May I sit with you?”
I looked to my left to discover Annabel catching me off guard again. I had assumed that she was long gone with the rest of the crew. After all, it was six in the morning. She didn’t wait for my response but crossed me to sit on the barstool immediately to my right. It took her only a couple of steps but I sensed her confidence. Her attitude was sexy.
The bartender grabbed another glass. “Is there anything I can get for you Anna?” he asked her.
Annabel crossed her legs and leaned a little on the counter. “I want some water,” she answered.
The bartender served her the water and gave me another of the same drink. “Here you go.” He took off his apron, folded it, set it down, then walked away. For the first time I was alone with her.
I took her in for a minute, noting her transition. Annabel had changed out of her dress. She was wearing leg hugging blue jeans and a glittery black tank top. Large hoops dangled from her ears. Her hair was still in the same sassy style. It was long, wavy and wild. She was still wearing the same stiletto shoes.
I tried to arrange myself a bit, tried to look cool. After taking a sip of her water she turned to me and her green eyes locked onto mine. “I have to tell you,” she said, “you were fantastic tonight. I didn’t expect you to do so well.” She took another sip, her eyes still on me.
“I was lost there for a minute but managed to catch on a little,” I mentioned casually. “The band was great. That music you guys have is really something.”
Annabel nodded, her eyes still penetrating. I could tell she was trying to read me but I wasn’t going to give anything away. I looked to Sosa who was still playing on stage and listened for a second. Yeah, he was still playing the same tune.
“Sosa is an interesting character,” I said, still looking away. “He’s a fine trumpet player too.”
“Yeah. He’s wonderful.” She uncrossed her legs.
“Does he always drink like that when he plays?”
“Only on a good night.” Annabel smiled at me. She was radiant in the early morning. “He doesn’t have a choice, but to keep playing like that.”
“He’ll die if he stops.”
“Die?” I laughed a little but the look on her face was serious. “What do you mean die?”
“Sosa’s been swallowed whole. We’ve all been swallowed. Vega’s Lounge. The minute he stops drinking. The second he stops playing…” She trailed off into nothing.
“What are you talking about?” I lost in the frames of a different mind.
“Just what exactly are you running from Mr. Ortega? That’s what I’m talking about.”
Vega must have scored some green. He laughed and gave a fellow a hardy slap, nearly knocking him out of his chair. The poor penny picker put on his hat. He was drunk and swearing. He stood up and when he figured out his feet, he found his way to the outside.
Annabel looked at me again. “This is a different kind of hole you‘ve found yourself in.” Her voice was low at a whisper. Her ocean green eyes turned to ice, and something inside them disappeared. “Don’t stop running.”
I couldn’t help but to gulp down my drink. Annabel wasn’t making any sense, but I felt her words and I understood. She flipped her hair back and got off the barstool. She left me and started towards the door.
The gentlemen scavengers clapped for her and whistled when she walked by. “Great job tonight, Annabel,” said one man in a grey suit. “Looking good, Anna,” said another. She took a moment to be gracious and gave a simple bow and wave before leaving.
I got up and followed her, almost running, unsure of what to do when I caught her. I pushed the double doors open going from darkness to light and was greeted by the crisp morning air. I looked and did not find her. Annabel was already gone.
About this post…
Published in the 83rd volume of the Display Magazine of Grand Rapids Community College, Vega’s Lounge received second prize in fiction for the magazine in 2005. This was R.R. Tavárez’s second time seriously exploring short stories as a method of expression, having only tried hand at poetry prior to writing for Display.
Photo credits: Preillumination SeTh