“Why aren’t you clapping, my man?” It was the bartender with the soaring eagle tattoo. Jesus, he was big. He stabbed at my shoulder with a stalactite of a finger and filled my red plastic cup with more watered down Midwestern beer. I drank the whole thing in one gulp—gratefully.
“That’s our chief up there,” his words were like he was screaming without raising his voice. “When he’s singing, everybody claps. You dig?”
I did dig and I clapped ‘til it hurt.
The old chief finished his rendition of “She’s a Lady” and waddled off the stage. He was a frail invisible man, but in this crowd he had some serious clout. When he was out of sight I grabbed my coat and stood up to leave, but the bartender shoved me back onto the stool.
“No way. You ain’t leaving till we’ve all had our turn.” Demanded the bartender with the soaring eagle tattoo—ink so vivid, I swear the feathers were real—he points that same granite finger to a long line of his extended family leaning up against the wall, waiting to go on stage.
I nod my whole upper body like I got no neck, take another swig of skunk beer, and glance around the place.
Not an empty seat in the joint. Earlier, they’d force marched damn near every swingin’ dick in here and plopped us down in front of a satin covered stage. Grabbed me and a few others from the blackjack table. I was praying to win big, double down on aces and pull two face cards, but ended up just praying my skinny little ass would walk out alive.
All the couples huddled up close to the bar and each other; not quite sure how they got in this predicament. The tables down on the floor were occupied by a bus load of senior citizens. They gripped their fanny packs so hard that rheumatic knuckles threatened to pop out of the skin. Ludicrous prints on golf shirts and purple perm-jobs complemented the confused/frightened looks on their faces perfectly. Any minute I was sure one of them old timers would cease up, paw at their chest, and keel over dead.
Mascara filled tears trickled down ashy white cheeks. Husbands grimaced so hard they damn near swallowed their own lips. The braver men, probably still just boyfriends, twitched nervously while looking around for a possible escape route. There were fellas just as big as the one beside me blocking every exit.
Have some more beer, he says repeatedly. Much obliged, I repeat exhaustively.
I was trying my hardest not to cry, afraid tattoo guy would take it as an insult. Nobody dared move. Everyone just too eager to drink that beer and clap when told to.
One by one, those proud people sang their hearts out. The giant spotlight shown down on all the scars, ink and hard living wrinkles. This was their open mic night and we were forced to watch and listen. If it weren’t for the fear racing through me, or the skunk beer souring my stomach, it might have been something beautiful. With all the slot machines ringing in the back ground, and the flashing neon lights, it was almost like a Broadway show. Some of them may have sounded like cats in heat, but you had to appreciate the dedication. They knew every word by heart. Not a single hiccup.
There was atom-bomb tension in the air. I was sure any moment this was going to go from surreal to blood bath. They’d cut our throats and dance on our entrails. That’s just how things like this ended, right?
The last one to go was my new found friend, the bartender. The plywood stage bowed under his massive frame. Before grabbing the microphone, he tied up his long black hair in a ponytail. “This one’s dedicated to all my brothers and sisters who can’t join us tonight.” He said, with his eyes closed.
I knew the song as soon as the music started. It was from that movie with Kevin Costner and Ms. Houston herself. Not an easy one to pull off. With a voice so deep it sounded like it was coming from inside a dark cave, the bartender was sure to botch the high notes. But I was wrong. His performance was flawless. To this day, I’ve never heard such a range. As the song reached crescendo, our tears of fear were replaced by ones out of idolization. This man, whom I thought would be the death of all us patrons, won over the hearts of the biggest critics among us.
The song ended and our newfound hero took a long and well deserved bow. The entire place erupted in cheers. We all clapped until the meat of our palms blistered. No one wanted to stop clapping. Once the music was over, what would come next? Would they pull out razor-sharp hunting knives and make quick work of us?
Eventually we had to stop clapping.
When the room fell silent the bartender blew kisses to us all. “Thank you for coming to open mic night here at Soaring Eagle Casino,” He was all smiles, “Please make sure to stop at the gift shop on your way out.”
That was it. We were all free to go. I gathered up my things and headed for the door; stopping in at the gift shop to spend a small fortune on coffee mugs and refrigerator magnets. On the way home, I found a nice soft rock station and sang along with the songs. Who knows maybe next time I’ll get up and sing?