From the open dark doorway of a semi-public tavern in a narrow alley in the second city of an island in the Caribbean whose name can never quite be recalled, Whose shape is skated over by fingers on the map on their way to Jamaica, Cuba, Grand Cayman, Aruba, and which has never been bothered much by tourists, (and all that happy business with marimbas, congas and the like never made it there either), sometimes comes the sound of music wafting out to die against the soft ochre alley walls and dark cobblestones dissolving under the weighted tropic glare.
They play for the purest of reasons: to pass the time. They converse in a language of grunts, glances, knowing smiles and random words. Their most articulate, most ongoing conversations they make through their guitars, mandolin, accordion, and the like. The drummer plays a vestigial kit salvaged from the great hurricane of way back when. Sometimes a couple of the ever-present domino players are moved to rise from their endless game and blow along on their battered horns for a spell.
Old cronies, they’d learned about the blues long ago in the same way they learned about approaching weather: via shortwave radio, staticky, interrupted, far off. Without realizing it, they’ve developed their own sound over the years, in their isolation. A lazy tempo, heavy on the bottom end, guitar chords spreading out over the rhythm like a Japanese fan over pulsing coals, accordion’s long exhale, mandolin fluttering above, images of love rising from the singer’s smoky old voice, and those drowsy trumpets.
The singer had left the island out of curiosity many years ago and then returned after twenty five years of singing in second and third tier cities all over the U.S. Singing unloved songs in half deserted rooms where he and his ever-changing audience, if it could be called that, shared a mutual indifference. Curiosity satisfied, he returned to the island. His old acquaintances, friends, liaisons, were all there, playing the old songs in much the same old way. Their faces had sagged, their eyes grown rheumy, and there were fewer teeth among them.
His voice had changed during the last couple of years before his return. He’d struggled with it for a time, in an experience symmetrical with the voice change he’d gone through at 14. He and his new old voice had settled into each other comfortably by the time he returned home. He was taken back into his place in society without much fuss at all.
Sometimes, when a pretty girl, or two, recently come of age, happened down the alley on a sunny afternoon, an old familiar longing would rise up in the bass player and express itself as curiosity about far away places.
Once, as he and the singer stood side-by-side in the doorway to share a cigarette and watch two beauties stroll down the alley to the sun-bleached boulevard at the end, the bass player asked the singer, Why did you return?
The singer, his attention diverted by a savory gust from the ocean, said, with his nose to the wind, Beyond here lies nothing. Except the moon and stars, replied the bass player, glancing up at the glowering sky. It wasn’t necessary for the singer to reply, and he didn’t.
The soft clack of dominoes reminded them then of a song, an old song, a song they could play to pass the time.