He was American, that much was obvious without a second glance. That was not surprising in the least in a place like this. The second glance, however, revealed him to be much more foreign. He didn’t fit in that brash place filled with chrome and white oak, a constellation of halogen lamps in nouveau deco nouveau fixtures shining from every direction, removing even the hint of a shadow. He brought his shadow with him and settled it around himself as he sat. I watched him. He was not there by choice. His eyes tightened when the coffee grinder ran, and when the steam valve was turned on to foam up someone’s latte. I had never realized what a noisy place it was until I saw him wince and felt the needles in my own brain.
He brought with him darkness and smoke, late nights with bleary eyes, lost nights wondering what the fuck you’re doing there and why doesn’t anything make sense. He was a creature of the night, of last call and dark secrets, and he had come up to the light. His right hand, I realized, was playing, quite of its own accord, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, his fingers brushing the table with gentle assurance, the tendons standing out on the back of his hand. I watched his fingers draw the graceful, deceptively simple lines of the song. He did not play with precision, but each time his finger touched the table I heard the note, and when he struck harder I felt that too, and it was beautiful.
It wasn’t until later it occurred to me to be jealous. I am a piano player. When I saw him I didn’t know what he was, but I knew he was not a musician. But at that moment his fingers played and I was the instrument.
I am suddenly conscious of the telephones all around me. Mingled with the sounds of labor-intensive coffee there is a constant background of ring-tones, of chatter with people who aren’t there, conversations between disembodied and placeless people. Their voices are as bright and piercing as the place they are in. None of them see him. None of them will see the shadow in their midst, as if unseen, it didn’t exist. I try to convince myself that their brittle happiness is more forced, more strident that usual due to his dark presence, but I know they’re always like that.
His fingers changed their pattern; it took me a moment to recognize WoO 59, generally known by the much more romantic title Für Elise. Still just the right-hand part; his left hand was motionless, clinched white-knuckled around his forgotten mug. Between his hands was a slip of paper, smudged and creased, lying flattened out the polished table. He never took his eyes off it. His lips worked as if he was sounding out the words written there, but as I rose to get a refill I saw that the paper was blank.
While I stood in the short line I looked back at him furtively as he sat hunched forward, long stringy hair unwashed, beard too long ignored, clothes slept in, his right hand playing music he had never heard, his left on the verge of shattering his mug. He was not just a creature of the night, of the underbelly of the city that I visited for gigs, he was some mad demon prince of that realm and his presence here meant the end had finally come.
He caught my glance when I came back to my table, next to his. He looked at me through red-rimmed eyes, pulled me in despite my urgent desire to escape. I had looked at his paper, and now I owed him an answer. His right hand had reached the roller coaster moment in the music, his fingers playing the two notes back and forth, more and more slowly with increasing urgency. His voice carried a sadness that made me feel a hundred years old. “There’s nothing there, is there?” He asked.