dave o'leary

Death Plays the Air Instruments

     I’m in Shoals Pub at 11:15 on a Tuesday almost afternoon, and the Staple Singers old R&B hit, “I’ll Take You There,” has just come on the juke. A few heads nod knowingly to the rhythm and drink remembering something good. Others hail the bartender offbeat.


     There’s a contented madness in this everyday crowd, in their beers and their whiskeys and the solitary communions whispered to such between smokes outside and trips to the bathroom. They are a determined bunch, confident in speaking up when something more is required, even hours ago just after opening, “Yeah, I’ll have another.”


     There are smiles and laughs with raised drinks and half-closed eyes as Death stands alone in the corner behind the bar mouthing the words of the backup singers in the chorus. He doesn’t like being ignored, but He can see—and He actually sings a bit now—that we’re more taken by the music, by the moment, by the few shards of light that manage their way through the lone window.


     They’ve traveled millions of miles, those rays of light, from star through space and atmosphere to end up alighting on the last drops of the beer gifted by the bartender to the decaying homeless man, and they move to the beat when he nudges his glass.


     They are the most successful of their brethren, there, dancing in victory in the liquid, and he swishes them, swirls them, clutches the glass for support, but he pauses when the rhythm of the song changes in the middle. He lets go, refuses to drink that last sip not knowing when he will see such light again.


     Death, still alone in the corner, begins playing the air bass when the main rhythm of the song comes back in but quickly pretends not to when He sees we see. He turns, fumbles for His scythe, adjusts His hood. He looks around and with a wave of the scythe lets us all know that He’ll stop by our homes, our little apartments, later, when we’re alone, where there is no crowd, no groove, no fragments of sunlight, where laughter is muted and dreams hushed.


     But He doesn’t understand. Dreams do not matter in this moment. Immortality and damnation are forgotten as we all order round after round so that, finally, even Death has one small shot—well tequila, the kind that would give Him a hangover like Himself—and then another, and then He buys a round for everyone knowing that in this moment we embrace Him as a friend, another one of us with a job to do, a job made easier by drink, trying to live for but a moment in the face of the seeming impossible odds of a good and happy life.


     The homeless guy finally drains his glass, stands up, stumbles out from the safety of our crowd. The juke goes quiet. We all look around and notice that Death has slipped out too, as has the sunlight. Breaths can be heard then, glasses being set down, others lifted, and we wonder if we’ll ever see either of them in here again.


     After a few minutes, a woman puts some money in the juke, and punches a few buttons. She’s looking for something. When she finds it, Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1000 Dances” begins to fill the bar. Some people start moving awkwardly to the music, others nod to the bartender for refills, and then I see them through the window, we all do, Death and the homeless man sharing a cigarette and some conversation outside, some laughter too, and some dancing, waving their arms wildly in a way we’d all like to, playing the air drums to the muted rhythms of the music.

13 February, 2021

Dave O'Leary is a writer and musician living in Seattle. He's had two novels published (The Music Book and Horse Bite) and has had prose and poetry featured in, among others, the Daily Drunk, Versification, and Reflex Fiction. His forthcoming book of poetry and prose--I Hear Your
Music Playing Night and Day--will be published in May 2021 by Cajun Mutt Press.