I can’t remember why I lugged my drum set to The Nit that night. It was probably the club’s shitty reputation, which I knew about without ever having been in the place—long sets, low pay, no kitchen, the audience screaming over the band. The idea of enduring all that while despising my sound might explain why I didn’t just get on the subway with a snare and a cymbal. My memory of that gig has many caved-in places. I know I called for a van before hauling my stuff to the street, and that when it finally came it was just a normal taxi, no hope of holding a whole set of traps. By the time an actual van arrived, showtime had passed.
“Look who decided to make an appearance,” the bartender said when I pushed open the door of The Nit. “The drummer is here!” he announced, applauding.
My bandmates were sitting at a table near the stage. Otherwise the room was empty.
“I didn’t decide to make an appearance. The van for my drums never came.”
“That’s why you kept everybody waiting? We got drums right here.”
“Who’s everybody?” I said, dragging my cases to the bandstand in back.
“The people who left because there wasn’t any music.”
“People were here and left?” I asked Ben, our tenor player.
“No, nobody was here.”
I looked back at the bartender. “So what’s his problem?”
“Change the subject,” said Dev, the pianist.
The rest of my gear was still on the sidewalk. Malcolm, our leader and bassist, got up to help me. On my way out, I stopped at the bar.
“You said people were here and left. The band says nobody was here.”
“I guess it’s my word against theirs.”
“How much is a beer?”
“The band price.”
“Six bucks. Regular price is eight.”
“I’ll have an I.P.A.”
Outside, Malcolm was trying to hang my drum bags over his shoulders. I took them and gave him my rolling traps case.
“How did we get this gig?”
“I played here with a woman singer, and the bartender invited me back with my own group. I suggest not messing with him. He’s a weird guy.”
I dumped my bags on the stage and went to the bar. The glass he had waiting for me was one-third head. “For six bucks I want it poured right.”
He put it back under the tap and let it run until much good beer went down the drain. “Satisfied?”
I put down my money. “Listen, friend. Like I told you, my van never came. But nobody missed any music. You didn’t miss selling any drinks. So why don’t we both just start over?” I raised my pint to him.
He picked up a tumbler from the bar, empty and upside down, and clinked my glass with it.
I set up my drums and sat on the throne to start warming up.
I stopped. “What?”
“You can’t play like that in here! We have people living upstairs.”
“They live above a music club.”
“Keep it down.”
I looked at Malcolm. He was playing lines on his bass, but softly, almost with no amp. “So it’s gonna be that kind of gig.” He shrugged his shoulders. I got up with my beer and headed for the front door. I saw an enticing pack of cigarettes on the counter behind the bar. I’d quit when I turned 30 a few months before, and hadn’t slipped a single time. But right then, I’d have killed for one.
“No drinks outside.”
I finished it and left the glass on the bar. Outside it was beautiful on Avenue B, people walking around in a perfect spring evening. I thought about trying to drum up an audience: “Great jazz here tonight, folks. Hipper than The Village Vanguard. Just $10 a set.” But the person who could say that wouldn’t be the person who could play it. Or at least it wasn’t me.
It was now a full hour after showtime and the club was still empty, but you always play the set. People might come in later. So we hit it, and instantly we sounded amazing. This always happens when you encounter adversity. Get a flat tire on the way to the gig, you’ll never play better. I was dropping in snare hits and bass-drum kicks like a prizefighter. Everything worked. I wanted to thank the bartender for being an asshole, but he was acting more or less normal now, propping open the front door so the street could hear what we were doing.
Halfway into our second tune, a man and two women walked in. You could tell which was the guy’s date and which was their friend. I liked the friend. They sat down while the guy went to buy drinks at the bar. The women were digging us, nodding their heads and typing into their phones. Three tunes later, 30 people were dancing to our pointillistic craziness.
I was very happy that I’d brought my drums. We took a break, and some admirers came up to praise my beats and the interplay they’d noticed between me and the band.
“We don’t usually see music like this here,” one of them said.
“What do you usually see?”
“Folk, I guess you’d call it.”
“This is a kind of folk,” I said. “The Village Vanguard used to have folk music, back in the day. Things don’t have to be so categorized and separated.”
“Except people want to know what they’re getting.”
“That’s their problem.”
Then there were the people who stared at you but didn’t approach. The friend was one of those. I went over and sat in the empty chair at her table.
“Vicki,” she said, reaching to shake my hand.
“What did you think?”
“Loved it. What you did with the samples especially. ‘I Live for the Night’ floored me.”
“You know what samples are, huh?”
She was referring to the spoken-word fragments I’d been controlling with my sticks on a triggering pad, layering and displacing them as a thing for the band to jam against. “Are you a DJ or something?”
“I’m an activist. A community organizer.”
“Really? Cool. I need to get more political myself.”
Her guy friend was waiting for a chance to jump in. “Great stuff. So glad we found out about it.”
“Me too. You were texting, and suddenly the place was full of people. Did you call all your friends?”
“We posted to a place people check for flash mobs,” said his girlfriend.
“You’re community organizers too?”
“No, we’re I-bankers.”
“Like Bitcoin or something?”
“Investment bankers,” Vicki said. She put her hand on the guy’s arm, which his date didn’t like. “We’re old friends from school. They give generously to my causes.”
“That’s good. Everything’s related.”
“Exactly,” she said, and moved her hand to my arm.
Before we went back on, I got Vicki’s name and number in my phone. I had a girlfriend, and I would never cheat on anybody, but what if things ever go wrong?
It was a work night, and people started leaving as soon as we got back on the stand. Through the windows I could see the dead street: no one else was coming in. Vicki and her financier pals waved goodbye in the middle of the second tune, and we played our last numbers the way we started, for the bartender and the noise-phobic tenants upstairs.
I was breaking down my drums when a big woman in a muumuu came out from a room in the rear of the club. “Do more publicity next time,” she told Malcolm. “Get out a bigger crowd.”
“The place was packed for the first set.”
“I counted the door, and you’re short a hundred bucks.”
I turned to Ben who was packing up his horn onstage. “Who’s this?”
“The club owner. The bartender’s her son.”
Malcolm said, “How do you figure a hundred bucks?”
“There’s a floor I need to keep this place open.”
I stepped down off the bandstand. “We had a roomful of people dancing and drinking. How much is the floor?”
Her son came out from behind the bar. “The floor is what she said. A hundred bucks more than you brought in.”
“Okay, boss. Fine. Then don’t pay us. But there’s no way we’re paying you to play here. This band’s been reviewed in The New York fucking Times.”
“I don’t give a fuck about The New York fucking Times.”
“Well we do. Go fuck yourself.”
He took a big wad of keys off his belt like he was going down to the basement. Then, wham, he slugged me right in the eye.
I woke up in a hospital room with an IV in my arm. My left eye hurt with a pain I’d never felt before—a deep-down ache like something was seriously wrong in there. I wondered what they’d done, if I’d had surgery of some kind. I raised myself up to look in a mirror on the opposite wall. Big bandages covered the left side of my head. A button was tied around the arm of my bed, so I pressed it and lay back to wait. Then Lucy in the Sky, my girlfriend, was standing beside me. She didn’t know how to go about hugging me, so she just laid her head on my chest and wept. The nurse came in.
I said, “She’s seeing me for the first time. I guess the bandages are scary.”
I attributed my calmness to whatever they had going into my arm. Later they told me I was in shock.
“Your doctors are coming to talk to you.”
“What did they do to my eye?”
“They took it out and cleaned it.”
Amazing: took my eye out and cleaned it. That explained the pain, but at least I was in great hands. I patted Lucy’s arm and told her everything was all right. Then the doctors appeared as suddenly as Lucy did, except I must have drifted off because Lucy wasn’t there anymore. Five doctors were standing around the bed in white coats. The woman in charge was beautiful, like an actress.
I said, “Are we in a movie?”
Everybody laughed. Then the beautiful woman talked about enucleation. I assumed she was referring to what they’d done—cleaning off a person’s eye and putting it back.
“No, enucleation means removing the eye permanently.”
My first thought was that I’d get to wear an eyepatch like those one-eyed guys in the magazine ads. Then it hit me that they were just models. “No! I don’t want to lose my eye!”
“Of course. But we’re not sure you’ll be able to see with it again. If it’s blind and also painful, removing it would be the right choice.”
“The right choice for you.”
She smiled and squeezed my knee. “We’re sending you home to see what your healing powers can do on their own. Think positive thoughts. Your attitude plays a big role.”
My bandmates came in after the doctors left. They leaned over the bed to kiss my head on the good side, pretending the other side wasn’t there. Everyone commented on how calm I was.
“I’m in shock. Hey, that first set was magical. You guys all sounded great.”
“Thanks. Then the energy changed in the second set.”
“And then this.”
Somebody started crying. It was Lucy, standing behind them. I hadn’t realized she was back.
“What did I say to piss the guy off?”
“You told him to go fuck himself in front of his mother,” said Ben.
“I told him the same thing,” said Malcolm.
“But I’m the drummer.”
“You’re making a drummer joke?”
“I had drumsticks in my hand. Maybe he felt threatened.”
Lucy said, “He hit you because you’re handsome and brave.”
I raised myself up in bed to see how handsome I still was. “You guys heard I might lose my eye?”
Nobody said anything. Finally Dev asked, “Do you have any insurance?”
“On my drums? No.”
“I meant on your health.”
“I don’t think so.”
“He’s in shock,” said Lucy. “Don’t ask him to be logical.”
I said, “Logic is meaningless.”
“That’s the punchline of the drummer joke,” said Ben.
“You guys got my drums, right?”
“No,” Malcolm said. “We were concerned about getting you to a hospital. We went back this morning, but the club was locked.”
“You have to go back when it’s open.”
“It’s not gonna be open. There’s a huge outcry about you being attacked. All the acts have cancelled. The cops are going to ask if you want to press charges.”
“Damn right I do.”
“Please don’t say things to upset him,” said Lucy.
“I’m not upset,” I said, but in fact I was, by her. She’d been riding me about getting serious, making a commitment, moving in together. I kept saying I wasn’t ready. This made me someone with one leg out the door, which, since she put it that way, I guess I was. And now, because I was helpless and blinded in one eye, she was going to get her way.
They let me leave the hospital in Lucy’s care, with pain meds and an appointment to come back in a few days. Before we left, they showed us how to change my dressing. Neither of us had seen the injury. The whole left side of my head was swollen and bruised, and in the middle was a bulging purple marble with ooze coming out of it. When I closed my good eye, all I could see was a reddish glow. I thought Lucy would be squeamish, but she was rock-solid, cleaning it with sterile swabbing sticks, squirting in new ointment.
Because my lovely surgeon said my attitude played a role, Lucy decided it was entirely in my power to save my eye. At her place I had to be quiet and keep both my eyes covered for most of the day. This was to give my brain a chance to regroup. I couldn’t watch TV or use a computer. Even pretending to play drums was out of the question. If I picked up a stick and hit anything with it, I was getting an enucleation. I spent most of my time in the leather recliner she’d inherited from her dad, staring into blackness. Her father died young of a heart attack, which explained a lot about Lucy. She was braced for everything she loved to disappear.
She wanted me to call my parents. “Just give them the facts and tell them you’re okay.” She dialed the phone and handed it to me. “Be upbeat. Don’t mention losing your eye.”
“Then what’s the point of calling?”
My mother got predictably hysterical about her only child being injured in the big city. There was a muffled dropout while she told my father. Then he came on in his paramilitary way.
“What did you do to provoke this?”
“Nothing. I was playing a gig, and the owner’s son sucker-punched me with a fistful of keys.”
“For no reason.”
“We wouldn’t pay him money to play in his club.”
“Was the understanding that you would pay?”
“No. We’re professional musicians. We don’t pay to play gigs. Lucy thinks he hit me because I’m handsome and brave.”
“How were you brave?”
“I told him to go fuck himself.”
“That’s not bravery. How bad is your eye?”
“They don’t know yet. I might lose it.”
He covered the phone and told my mother. She started screaming. After I hung up, Lucy said, “I told you not to mention that.”
“It just popped out,” I said.
Everything was a gruesome eyeball joke.
Two cops came the next day while Lucy was at work. I looked at their badges with my good eye and invited them in. They sat on the living room sofa. I got back in the recliner.
“We understand you want to press charges against—” he stopped to read it off his paperwork, “—The Nitpicking Monkeys of Academe.”
“The Nit, people call it, and I’m not pressing charges against the club. I’m pressing charges against the bartender. That’s who assaulted me.”
“The establishment is owned by one Olivia Giuliani.”
“That means I have to charge her?”
“Probably. We’re police. We don’t give legal advice. Get a lawyer.”
I told them I wanted to see her bastard son on trial.
“Trials rarely happen in this country. Their lawyer will propose a settlement. Unless he thinks he can get out of it altogether.”
“How would he get out of it? I have witnesses. I never raised a hand, and I’m losing my eye.”
“Is that what the doctors say?”
“Yeah, an enucleation.”
“Rough,” said the cop taking the notes.
I lifted the bandages and closed my good eye. All I could see was a purple haze. “This is what he did to me. Totally unprovoked.”
“Jesus,” the first cop said, while the second cop wrote it all down. “Any other injuries besides your eye?”
“Yeah, my drums. Thousands of dollars of drums locked up in their club.”
“You have any proof you own them? Serial numbers, receipts, photographs, nameplates on the equipment?”
“Not very smart. How do we know you didn’t steal them yourself?”
“Because I’m telling you I didn’t.”
“If they give your drums back, will you drop the charges?”
“Why? Did they ask you to ask that?”
“No, but they will.”
I called Malcolm. “Did the bartender tell you we’d owe them money?”
“He never said we’d have to pay. But I called the woman I played for there, and she says the bands always cover the floor.”
“The cops say they’re gonna hold my drums until I drop the charges.”
“You could say you’re not pressing charges, get your drums back, and then change your mind.”
“Great thinking. How about driving me over there? Lucy’s at work until six. Maybe if they see me in person with my bandages, they’ll give me my drums back.”
“You’re supposed to be resting quietly.”
“I’m sitting in a recliner with my eyes covered.”
“You uncovered them to call me.”
“He’s smashing my drums to bits right now. I can feel it.”
“No, you said yourself he was going to trade them for dropping the charges.”
We hung up. I lay back in the recliner and reviewed my life before I was injured—my parents, my friends in school, all the bands I’d been in, all the women I’d ever known. Eventually I came to Vicki the community activist.
“I heard what happened after we left,” she said when I called her. “I didn’t know how to reach you.”
“They say I might lose my eye.”
“I heard that. I hoped it was just a rumor.”
“It’s not. Plus my drums are still in the club.”
“Your band didn’t get them for you?”
“It never reopened. People are boycotting it.”
“Now I feel guilty. I started the petition against them. But you have to get your drums back. There’s a van where I work. I could come get you.”
I waited for Vicki on the street where Lucy lived, deep in Bushwick, almost to Queens. She pulled up in a white van with a black fist painted on it. I was wearing a shapeless hat and big sunglasses over my bandages. She kissed me on the cheek when I got in.
“You don’t look so bad, mister.”
“I’m on the mend.”
“They changed your prognosis?”
“No, but I think they tell you that so you won’t go mountain climbing.”
She laughed, and we rocked across Brooklyn. “I was so sad when I heard what happened.”
“The guy’s such an asshole.”
“Don’t focus on him. Focus on your music. I can’t imagine playing like you do.”
“I can’t imagine doing community organizing.”
“Yeah, but you’re an artist, living at the source.”
The source of all guilt, I thought. Not home resting, sneaking out behind Lucy’s back, meeting a cute woman who thinks I’m single. “You don’t have a cigarette by any chance?”
“I know. I quit. But I’m nervous right now.”
“About confronting your assailant? I have a black belt in karate.”
“Really? Holy shit.”
She reached over and put her hand on mine. I told myself all I wanted was my drums. If Vicki wanted something else, that was her business. Besides, I was injured and out of commission.
We crossed the water and entered Manhattan on a cloudless afternoon. When we got to The Nit, the roll-down metal door was lowered over the entrance. Graffiti tags and cartoon characters were sprayed on its slats.
“We’re not getting in there,” I said.
“We haven’t even tried yet.”
She turned the corner and parked the truck in the alley behind the club. I pulled on the club’s rear door, but it was locked. We walked around to the front. The entrance for the apartments was locked, too, but Vicki ran her palm up and down the row of doorbells until somebody answered.
“UPS,” she said, and the door buzzed us in.
We skirted the sad stairway and walked along the ground-floor hall. It smelled exactly like The Nit. There were numbered doors for people living on the ground floor, and one unmarked one.
“This goes to the club,” she said, feeling around on top of the molding.
She came down with a key that unlocked the door. We walked into darkness and found ourselves standing behind the bandstand. My drums were there, just the way I left them.
“You finish packing while I go back up the truck.”
She went past the bathrooms and propped open the rear door. Daylight came into the back of The Nit and shone where I’d been standing when I got hit. When she came back, I pointed from the stage. “My blood’s still on the floor.”
She went over. “Jesus. It is.”
“I’m gonna get the cops to come look at that.”
I fastened my cases and we carried a load to the van.
“We taking this to where I picked you up?”
“No, a different place in Brooklyn.”
“Your practice studio?”
“My apartment. Where you picked me up was my girlfriend’s apartment.”
“Oh. I didn’t know.”
“The doctors insisted on releasing me into someone’s custody, to make sure I’d rest.”
“Then we should get you lying back down.”
She leaned in and kissed me on the lips. I kissed her back. We went in for the rest of my drums. We were stepping off the bandstand when a woman’s voice said, “You’re breaking and entering.”
The daylight from the back door only went in as far as the stage. The voice was coming from the dark middle of the club.
“How do you know my name?”
“The police told me. I’m pressing charges against you.”
Her silhouette rose against the front windows. She was moving from a barstool in the dark to one in the light. “This club is closed until further notice.”
“Because the community shut it down,” said Vicki. “No one assaults musicians and gets away with it.”
“What’s your name?” she asked me.
“Come here for a minute, Kevin.”
“Where’s your lying coward of a son?”
“I sent him away.”
I put down my drums and stepped across my own bloodstains. She took a cigarette from the pack on the bar and lit it. “I asked you for a hundred dollars because that’s how this place works. My son says he explained that.”
“He didn’t explain anything of the kind. We’re musicians, not vanity acts. We don’t pay to play.”
“Because the other clubs are run by trust-fund kids.”
Vicki laughed from the bandstand. “This from a woman who owns a building in the East Village.”
“My parents ran a bakery here. You think I’m rich? Look at this place. It’s a dump. I need a new boiler, a new roof, all kinds of repairs on the apartments. Owning this building is eating me alive.”
“Could I have one of those?”
She gave me a cigarette and lit it with her lighter.
I turned to Vicki. “The whole thing was a misunderstanding. We shouldn’t have been playing here in the first place.”
“Your eye isn’t a misunderstanding. Maybe the lady hasn’t heard. He’s probably going to lose it.”
Olivia seemed crushed by that news.
“How are you going to make that up to a person?” said Vicki. “The loss of a human eye?”
“If I have to sell the building, I’ll sell it.”
To my relief, the cigarette tasted bad. I put it out in the ashtray on the bar. “What was it called when it was a bakery?”
“The Continental, just like the bar that came after it. My son named it The Nit when he got thrown out of grad school and I let him start having music here.”
I knew what I’d call it: I Live For The Night.
“Don’t sell it. Give me a stake and let me run it. I’ll make it profitable. I’ll make it the most happening place in town.”
“Show me what he did,” Olivia said.
I raised my bandage, and she gasped at the sight. But when I closed my good eye, the purple haze was clearing up. I could see her blurry face.
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