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David Alexander

Cadences in the Key of the Dominant

"Excuse me, gentlemen." -- Lao Tzu

"Hear that, Sam? See them lights?"

"Yeah, boss."

"Know what that is, Sam?"

"Yeah, boss. It's the nine o'clock to Lisbon."

"The midnight plane's the last one out. I oughta be on it."

"Go, boss. I'll be alright. Just clear out."

"I can't and you know it. She's coming back. I can feel it in my bones."

"She's never coming back, boss. Take my advice. Get out while you can. I'll even help you pack, if you -- "

"Shut up, Sam!"

"It's true."

"No. She'll be back. Tonight. She's bringing me the mission data. I need the mission data."

"She ain't comin' back, boss."

"Yes she is. I been waiting years in this hellhole. I have a mission. They gave me a mission. She'll be back."

The owner of the Belle Aurore reached for the pony glass of gin on the table. He tipped it back, only then realizing it was empty. With a drunken snicker, he poured some more gin from the bottle beside it into the glass, then raised it to his lips.

"I ever tell you about the Iraqi radars?"


"The Iraqi radars. The fuckin' Iraqi radars?"

"What -- I mean, no, boss."

"I was supposed to put a virus on one of the critical components. Fuck up the whole works. Just like in the legend of Hannibal's horses. I ever tell you about the legend of Hannibal's fuckin' horses, Sam?"

"No, boss, you never did."

"Hannibal had these horses, right? And the fuckin' horses carried his warriors into battle. So one day a guy comes up with an enchanted horn that plays this note that stops the horses dead bang. He plays the note and they drop down just like that."

The saloon owner tried to snap his fingers, but he was too drunk. "You follow me, Sam?"

"I don't know, boss."

"The Iraqi radars were like Hannibal's horses. All the spooks had to do was send out the right frequency and the radars went dead. You ever wonder how we bombed the piss out of the ragheads that night? Huh, Sam?"

"Boss, you ain't makin' sense. Stop talkin' this foolishness."

"Fuck you, Sam," the owner said. "I'll talk any kind of foolishness I want."

"Sure, boss."

"She's coming back," he went on. "I can feel it." He took another drink. "Hey, Sam. If it's four o'clock in Semelye, Turkistan, what's the sound of a toilet flushing in the Fourth Dimension?"

"Huh, boss?"

"Never mind. You know what I want. So do it and get it over with."

"I don't follow you, boss."

"Play it! Play it, Sam!"

"My name ain't Sam," replied the piano player. "Hell, I don't even exist."

"Even if you're a solipsism, motherfucker, you happen to be my solipsism. So play it."

"Huh, boss?"

"Never mind. Just play it."

"Okay, boss. I'll try to play it."

The piano player swiveled on his stool to face the baby grand in the middle of the dark, deserted cafe. It was late, and he was tired, but he did the best he could.

"Not that one," the saloon keeper hollered. "You know the one I want."

"No, I don't, boss."

"Don't call me 'boss.' I don't like it."

"Then what do I call you?"

"Call me 'Ishmael.'"

"You're talkin' crazy, boss."

"Yeah, well maybe I am," the saloon keeper said. He tried to pour another shot of gin into his glass but noticed the bottle was empty. Lurching to his feet, he staggered over to the piano player and stared at him for awhile without saying a word. "Let's go upstairs now, Sam," he finally said.

"No, boss. I don't want to go upstairs."

"Come upstairs with me. I got something I wanna show you."

"No way, boss. I don't like it upstairs."

"I'll sell your ass to that fat bastard with the fez and the shifty eyes, you don't go upstairs with me."

"No way, boss. Don't try to make me. I'm scared of what's upstairs."

"I don't give a monkey's fuck what you think," the owner said. "You're goin' upstairs."

He reached inside his coat jacket and pulled out a single-action Colt model 1911 automatic which he carried cocked and unsafetied. Raising the gun to the piano player's head, he went on, "I'll give you till the count of three. One ... two.... "

"Shoot me if you want, boss," said the piano player. "But I ain't goin' upstairs."

"Okay, I admire a guy with guts," the saloon keeper said and put the gun back into his jacket. "I was just testing you, anyway. Wanted to see what you were made of. I really didn't want you to go upstairs with me."

"I'm glad to hear that, boss."

"Besides, I really never had anything to show you," the saloon keeper went on, as he shuffled over to the bar and grabbed down another bonded bottle of gin.

"Besides, I can't even piss in a straight line anymore. Once I wanted to be a lion tamer. Then a priest. Now, look at me."

He sat down again at the table and popped the cork on the bottle, then poured himself another slug.

"It's been rough, boss. I know that much."

"Yeah, the victorious cause had the support of the gods, but the vanquished had the support of Cato."

"Say what, boss?" asked the piano player.

"Never mind." He sucked back some more gin. "Look, if you can't play me what I want I got some good lyrics for a song. Wanna hear 'em?"

"Sure, boss."

"Here goes: Population, copulation."

The piano player waited a minute, then said, "That's it?"

"Yeah, that's it. The idea is, you sing 'em over and over again and you play something syncopated on the piano, see? Well, you do that and you get something sounds like a choo-choo train. Do it."

The piano player shrugged his shoulders and closed his eyes. Then, with a smile, he got inspired.

He began to tickle the ivories, singing, "Population, copulation. Population, copulation. Population copulation population copulation population copulation," as he played the song.

"That what you meant, boss?" the piano player asked after awhile.

"Yeah, that's it. You just hear something?"

"No, boss."

"I thought I heard her coming."

"She ain't, boss. She's never coming."

"Don't talk that shit, Sam," the owner retorted, drinking more gin. "I'm telling you she's coming. She's bringing it to me. Tonight. I have my mission."

"Boss, don't fool yourself no more. She ain't coming. You still got time left to catch the midnight plane. Let me help you pack."

"Then come upstairs with me, Sam."

"No way, boss. Ask me anything, but not that."

"Ham liyarat, ham tujarat. That's an old Moroccan proverb. Means 'both a pilgrimage and a business.'" The owner poured himself another shot.

"Okay, boss. Whatever you say."

"You remember the time they had me working the God slot out of Radio Pakistan in the old days, Sam?"

"Sure boss. Sure I remember it."

"Yeah, that was something, alright. You know how many kilos of Pakistani brown heroin you can fit in a dead G.I.'s corpse with the guts removed, Sam?"

"I -- no, I don't, boss."

"Forty kilos of horse, Sam. Forty kilos exactly. Almost like the Lord intended it that way."

"Okay, boss."

"Man, it sure wasn't pretty. But it sure beat the hell out of dumpster diving for conference notes, internal memos, technical manuals, all the rest of that bullshit. You remember?"

"Yeah, boss. Sure, I do."

"Don't lie to me, you fucker! I asked you if you remember."

"I -- yeah, sure I remember, boss. It's just like you said."

"Damn right it is. Then came the days we used to cruise skid row. Do the soup kitchens, shelters, steam grates, subway tunnels, the whole nine yards. Made test subjects for the drugs they were developing out of them winos. Sometimes they died. Sometimes they were programmed. Speedboat hits on seaside restaurants, that kind of stuff. You wanna hear about the Kennedys? The truth?"

"No boss, not tonight."

"I'm gonna tell you anyway."

"No boss, I don't give a damn."

"Reptile, rep tie."

"What you say, boss?"

"Reptile in a rep tie, you fucker!"


"Rep tie on a reptile."


"Shaddup! Just shaddup!"

"Sure, boss. Whatever you say."

The saloon keeper was about to speak but he stopped short and looked intently at the dark window of the cafe.

"You see something just now?"

"Nothing, boss."

"Maybe it was the plane. Had wings on it. Lights too."

"Plane ain't leavin' for a couple of hours yet. Plenty of time for you to catch it. Take my advice and fly out of here. You don't belong here."

"You remember O'Hare? Best fuckin' route out of the country. Security ain't worth shit. We used to use that one a lot. Athens, the same. Fucking terrorist central. Smuggle a body through customs in a burlap bag. Orly, you can still probably get stuff through. Not De Gaulle, though. Tight as a nun's vagina. You got that?"

"I got that, boss."

"Damn straight." The owner looked at his watch but couldn't read it. "You ever hear of Y Gasset?"

"What, boss?"

"Spanish philosopher. Once said, 'America is a primitive people camouflaged behind the latest invention.'"

"Never heard that one before, boss."

The owner looked at his watch again. He held it close to his eyes and stared at it but still couldn't read it.

"What time is it?"

"It's late, boss. Time to close up."

"Nobody's closing till she comes."

"She ain't comin'?"

"Yes she is. I can feel it."

"She ain't, boss. I can't lie no more."

"Tell it to the horse marines. She's comin'."

"Sure. Whatever you say, boss."

"In Nebraska in the winter all it does is rain. Except when it's snowing."


"Used to be the passwords. You remember the fuckin' passwords, don't you, Sam?"

"Oh. Yeah, boss. Sure."

"Now play it!"

"I don't know it."

"Play it, goddammit! Don't bullshit me."

"I can't play what I don't know, boss."

"Then come over here."

"Why, boss?"

"Just do what I tell you!"

Sighing with resignation, the piano player got up from his stool and gently closed the cover over the keys. He crossed the dark cafe to where the owner sat at the table. Silently he stood at his side.

"It is of jocund advent," the owner said. "Let us grace it with wine."

"Huh, boss?"

"Gimme a cold Falernian wine."

"Ain't got none."

"Then gimme any kind of wine, even Soave Bolla. The bouquet don't matter. I just want something to go with my spaghetti."

"Ain't got no spaghetti either, boss."

"Don't call me 'boss.'"

"I won't, if you won't call me 'Sam.'"

"Fuck you. I'll call you anything I damn well please."

"Okay, boss."

"Pour me a drink and get back to the piano."

The piano player poured the pony full of gin and walked away. The owner raised the glass and drank it down. The piano player began to softly ply the keys, humming to himself.

"You hear that?" the owner shouted, looking toward the door. "That's her!"

"Only the wind, boss. Only the wind," the piano player said and went back to his melody.

"Bullshit. She came back, just like I knew she would."

The owner lurched to his feet and staggered to the door. He pulled it open but there was nobody there.

"I told you it was only the wind, boss."

"Then come upstairs."

"No way, no how. How many times I gotta tell you?"

"Then play it."

"I can't play what I don't know. I told you that too, boss."

"She's coming back. I know she's coming."

The saloon keeper shuffled over to his chair and sat down at the table. The piano player tickled the ivories, humming softly to himself.

"If it's ten o'clock on the moon, what's the sound of one hand clapping?"

"What, boss?"

"Never mind," the saloon keeper said, and raised the glass to his lips. "Just play it."

"I don't know how, boss. I keep tellin' you that."

"Play it, I said."

"Okay, boss. It's your saloon," said the piano player, but he closed the cover on the keys.


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