by Mary Byrne
Atlanta. Springtime, 2004.
Late each night, an hour came when the edges of objects and people went runny. It arrived in the interval between the last band’s last song and the closing of the bar. By then the smoke was soaked thick in everyone’s jeans, and the musicians, spent, covered in sweat, fell from the stage and into the crowd, who were other musicians, mostly. They roared. They wrapped their arms around each others’ waists. And everyone pressed in, thigh to thigh, lit up, looked for drinks. Then, reaching, a musician might see his hand turn paintlike—melting, coating the pint glass, running skin-colored rivulets onto the sticky tabletop.
On this particular night, a jawline ran downward in a grotesque extension all the way to the hip. It dragged the head along at an impossible tilt, cockeyed and confused.
Then smoke fused a shouting mouth to the ear of its listener, and as they pulled apart, with difficulty, thick bridges formed between them.
The hour involved not just a shifting of shape but of sequence. A young woman with braids like fairytale fantasies leapt up, alarmed, eyes darting to a spot on the floor where she hadn’t yet dropped her glass. A bartender bent low for a tumbler, but whiskey was already fixed, raised to a musician’s lips. Then a young man’s look was drawn to a steamed-up window and held rigid there; he was bewildered, until the small, still face of the one he sought for sex, the one he wanted to grip and bruise, appeared there like a figurehead parting ocean fog. Along the cool steel lip of the bathroom mirror, careful draws of cocaine chased away an earlier joy and left behind a cold foreign flavor, an awareness of motes, a trace of insult too slight to sift out. Dry white papers crackled in the trash before the powders were served.
From behind the bar Alicia, who wasn’t drinking, saw what was happening. She felt the hour take hold. It was making her breasts swell and hum, for one thing. She leaned in to hear an order, and they plumped forth ahead of her, full of intent. Then a chill wind blew from cracks around the door—nothing in the South was built for the cold—and they constricted at once. The musicians, shaggy-headed, many full-bearded, were stacked four deep along the length of the bar, and as Alicia slid a drink across, five improbably long fingers stretching from the back row made a funny umbrella over everyone’s heads and plucked the glass away.
Word was, members of the art-metal project The Migrants, who scarcely left one another’s side, had cornered the rock critic in the men’s room and were taking out their licks on him, one by one.
Alicia ran her free hand along the back of her jeans, felt for the switchblade she kept pressed against her backside. She was moving under one of her paintings hanging above the bar, near the tiers of liquors—most of her patrons were owners of the bars she had tended since she gave up stripping—and she would monitor people’s responses to it. Truth was, no one saw it. Lurid colors and crisp lines brought ads to mind, a thing to consume and discard. The black velvet backdrop connected people with something clownish, cruel; their eyes left the painting before they registered why. Alicia watched, waited, for mention of the beatific girl she had painted, balanced on a crescent, hands turned heavenward. But it never came. The hour was a blasting howl, people’s torsos had stretched like taffy and become tonguelike, and she was whirling, palms wet with whiskey, breasts jumping with their own invitations. Within their slim enclosure she and the other bartenders braided neat paths around one another, reading lips through the smoke to take orders.
Then from the back of the room came a sharp crack of wood splintering—the sound broke through the din—and everyone turned to look. The Migrants pushed out of the men’s room as one tangled body, encircling the rock critic from above and below and all sides, and they dove on him beautifully, in steady time, making a drumbeat of the beating, and the man, shirtless and senseless at dead center, was twitching like a tight calfskin set to burst. To Alicia, they were a flock of blackbirds moving laterally across the barroom floor. She saw how they enfolded their wings to prevent the man from falling out. People gave them room to pass. Then the bouncer held open the front door, and the pulsing, swinging pack squeezed itself through, and out, and into the night.
Before the door swung shut, someone slipped in.
Alicia felt a warm wet push against her ankles, glanced down, saw water rushing by in a swift current. Then there came a warm tap, tap, tap on the back of her neck, and she looked up to see the beatific girl melting off the black velvet. Pinks and blues and yellows ran down in little streams, mixing together, and dripped from the frame, bright droplets sprinkling her and the other bartenders.
The newest arrival was a young man so tall he swayed, a graceful figure of elongated proportions gently curved at the top, a broken-off candy cane. He wore a black, wide-brimmed hat, and beneath it his face was solemn. He was walking past her.
For Alicia, it was the sudden sensation of a hot brush firmly painting a broad stripe down her front. She grabbed her belt buckle, tried to stop it there. Then she ducked under the bar and followed the man as he parted the crowd.
When she reached him at the back wall, he had already tacked up a picture.
Come to my show, he said to her.
The picture was an advertisement, homemade. Musicians do this.
Alicia looked. Saw what was there, saw where the picture came from, shut her eyes at once, her head snapping sideways like a dog that’s been struck.
The room’s ecstatic roar and hot churn fell away, and now the hour was just this constellation, Alicia and the tall man in the wide-brimmed hat and the picture pinned to the wall.
They were still. She needed to see it again.
It was not that the bodies were headless. They weren’t headless. They were hooded. And in the way the bodies were heaped, those hooded heads were growing out of torsos and ass cheeks, not necks. No one was dismembered; no one was dead; it was a heaping, living serving, a healthy portion heaped up and served up so the photographer’s snap could fuse face to testicle, lips to asshole; that’s right, breathe it, breathe it, for all time; now that’s a generous helping; that’s something I can take home with me; that’s a keeper there.
The moment of knowing such a photograph should not be taken—gone, along with the memory of knowing.
Standing pileside, her thumb up, the perfect foil. Not exactly first-tier material in any other place or time but in this godforsaken sandpit of heaped-up brownmen, she really nails it, no?
The tall man in the wide-brimmed hat had pasted his face over hers. So it was his eyes, nose, mouth under her soldier’s crewcut, above her boyish posture, pointing, smiling, signaling an upcoming performance at the club and the sudden completion of one in the picture.
The man bent low to Alicia’s ear and spoke the name of that place in a voice made for song. She heard incantation in the words, music that was there; he drew it out of the vowels.
Was it art? Alicia leaned in close to the picture, saw dark pools on the concrete. She cupped her back pocket and imagined how the picture would look, slashed to thin ribbons, spilling in curls to the floor.
Mary Byrne’s fiction has appeared in Epiphany. She holds an MFA from Brooklyn College and teaches writing and reading in New York.