He walked up to the mic stand slowly, deliberately—he didn’t look like someone who did karaoke, and yet here he was. He didn’t belong in the beer-drenched hall, enclosed in an expensive navy blue suit, tie knotted just so under his Adam’s apple. But despite his buttoned-upness, his hair was overgrown and floppy—that of a young boy who refused to sit still in the barbershop chair. He had come straight from work, you could tell, his briefcase abandoned at the side of the stage and exhaustion set underneath his eyes.
And so he climbed up there, pressed suit and wild hair, and picked his song. It took a long time, and a charged silence filled the crowded room, a specific kind of silence that comes only with the absence of music in a karaoke bar. One where you can hear clearly the shifting of young people in their seats, their attention turning away from the stage and toward their phones.
And then his song started. Twangy, and slightly old-fashioned. Those who frequented this bar, on Avenue A in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, were used to synthesized Top 40 hits. But this was not that. A guitar, only, and the sound of a live audience. He picked it because it was the song that his dad had played for him, on long rides in the car of his youth, the car (and the father) he left behind when he moved away for college in the city. The audience didn’t know this, of course, he had no one in the crowd to know this. But you could see it, a little, in the way he seemed to loosen at the sound of the strings.
The man started tapping his shiny, wing-tipped Oxford to the beat. A little off-tempo. Bobbing his head disjointedly, just enough so that his hair flopped, almost comically, this way and that. You could picture him, this grown man, as a child in the passenger side of his father’s car, even if you didn’t know him. Just from the nodding of his head. The colored lights glinted off the disco ball and drifted across his lapel.
It was a Johnny Cash song. Almost all spoken dialogue. A little silly in its blatant Americana—all fist fights and lost fathers and booze. But the man had such an earnest look on his face that it made the song instantly, easily loved. And he did the voice, too, with a barstool-cowboy gruffness. Learned from his father, and cherished. A sheepish bravado.
He slowly started to shed—first the jacket, thrown onto the sticky bar floor, and then the tie was loosened and the top buttons undone and the shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows. He came out of himself until his hair matched his clothes, like an overgrown altar boy eager to ditch church and get back to the neighborhood baseball game.
And then he was dancing. Holding the mic stand, dipping it like it was his very own dance partner. His long-stiff limbs—you could tell he hadn’t moved like this in a while—suddenly, awkwardly, beautifully, free.
By the end he was panting, rosy-cheeked. The song ended, and he stood there, so different from when he first stepped onto the stage. The room was quiet for a moment. He looked at his shoes, bashful, then moved from the spotlight. And then everyone, slowly, everyone clapped. And he smiled, quietly proud. And satisfied, so satisfied.
Lily Bradfield loves writing both short fiction and non-fiction—she has been previously published in both the online and print editions of Cultured Magazine, an art and design periodical, as well as Vassar College’s literary magazine.