“That song, a year later”… Deep autumn, afterward
She first visited the café in November of 2008.
I remember seeing her stiffen slightly, after timidly opening and closing the door.
Most likely, she had been startled by the noise level and the clientele.
A cheap down jacket, its lightness its only merit. Worn-out pink sneakers, washed-out jeans, a dull, dark grey, high-necked sweater.
Her abundant brown hair hung down her back in two careless braids. Her bangs were disheveled, hiding her eyes.
And upon her nose, those round, thick-framed glasses. No red on her lips, no blush on her cheeks. A paleness in her face.
She looked like one of the middle-aged women from her job at the supermarket so long ago, stopping by a café on the way home from work. Just throw an apron on her and it would be perfect.
She made up her mind, proceeded through the hushed café, and sat down on a barstool at the end of the counter. It was a seat just beside the record player booth, from which one could see the record shelves. From the floor, only her back would be visible.
“This place… says it’s a café, but you serve alcohol, right?”
“We don’t have that many kinds, but yes. Would you like something to drink?”
“Do you have champagne?”
“Ah, sorry. We don’t sell sparkling wine by the glass.”
“…Sorry, I don’t need champagne. Red wine, please. Something heavy.”
“Coming right up.”
After that, she spoke not a word, just drank in silence, erasing all traces of feeling.
Apart from when an order was being placed, I never spoke with customers. In general, I never even went to take additional orders. So, I left this solitary customer alone.
I only got a good look at her face by chance.
Normally, I stood at the register by the entry to the inner side of the counter as I served customers. However, when I went to change a record, I had to move to the booth.
As I was in the booth searching for the next record, I happened to get a glance at her face from below.
Her face, painted with regret. Her eyes, haunted by emptiness.
After that, she returned to the café now and again.
About once a month—she wasn’t exactly a “regular.”
When she did show up, it was always on a Saturday evening. And she always ordered a glass of red wine. Cabernet Sauvignon. A tart, heavy red.
Slowly, slowly she drank.
She drank beautifully, with no wavering of composure… Or perhaps it was more like she was holding her breath, suppressing her very existence as she drank.
She showed no sign that she was enjoying her drink.
It was as though she were ingesting a poison, a tiny bit at a time.
At first, I thought she might be overextending herself deliberately, ordering something heavy. I was technically part of the restaurant industry, if only a small one. Seeing someone imbibing halfheartedly did not give me an especially good feeling.
So, the fifth time that she appeared, I said something.
“Cabernet is high in tannins. It’s probably a bit difficult to drink. We also offer Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Sangiovese, if you’d like to try any of those.”
“I’m fine,” she declared, quietly but decisively.
This brusqueness made me think I had said something presumptuous. But as I withdrew to pick a record, I heard her apologize.
“I’m really sorry. You went to the trouble of telling me those other options, and I just…”
Her voice was frail, shaking slightly.
Her lashes cast shadows across the whites of her eyes.
I caught a glimpse of some confusion. There was chaos swirling in her heart, which she was trying desperately to keep in check… That was how it appeared to me.
And yet, because I had suddenly spoken to her, the emotions had overflowed, slashing through like blades.
Not through me… But through her, herself.
I could see small waves of emotion, struggling to drag her back to the other side of her nerve while she attempted maintain her blank expression.
At that moment, for the first time, her face looked like that of a child.
For the first time, I thought, “This woman… No, this girl, with such emptiness in her eyes, might still be a minor.”
In which case, I had to stop providing her with alcohol.
But just as that flashed through my mind, she looked at me, smiled, and said, “If something is easy to drink, I end up drinking too much.”
That was the first time I saw her smile.
…But it was a husk of a smile. A formality—it would be fair to call it a simple bending of the lips—undertaken for the simple purpose of speaking.
A woman who could smile like that, who could varnish over things so easily, couldn’t possibly be a minor. Having revised my thoughts, I dropped my pursuit.
“Can we make requests for records?” she asked me one night, as she was ordering her third glass.
Though she was nearly always empty-handed, today she held a movie pamphlet. Something directed by Woody Allen, Vicky Cristina Barcelona… A love triangle with Scarlett Johansson and Penélope Cruz, if I remembered correctly.
“You can. One request per person. Would you like to see the lists?”
I handed her a special edition of Swing Journal and a vocal anthology magazine.
“The ones that are circled or underlined are the ones we have. If you don’t see what you’re looking for, just ask.”
She took them silently and began flipping through.
In her accustomed cold expression, there was an air of some emotional elevation. Maybe she’d enjoyed the movie.
“I’m sorry, I’m not actually sure.”
“What kind of thing do you like?”
“I really don’t know.”
“Well, um… You know this place is a jazz café, right? And you come here now and then.”
“Yes… My dad used to listen sometimes.”
“What did your dad listen to?”
“Shakatak, Weather Report…”
“Those aren’t jazz. They’re more like fusion. It’s a crossover with rock that was derived from jazz.”
“Oh, really? I did think it sounded a bit different from the jazz I hear here.”
She said this with such a straight face that I wasn’t really sure how to respond…
“Mm, he would listen to this CD sometimes that had a blue jacket with a lady singing into a microphone, with her mouth open wide.”
“Oh, that…” I moved to the record booth to look for it. “This one?”
“Yes, that one. I’m impressed you knew what I meant.”
“It’s a pretty famous record. Want to hear it in analog? This record is just about over.”
I removed the record from its jacket, checking the dark blue label stuck to its center. The gold printed letters were tiny, and my farsightedness always made it difficult to tell Side A from Side B. But with this particular record, it was easy to tell simply from the song titles. It was a fairly famous one.
I set it on the Mono player.
I flipped the switch, and the turntable began to spin at 33.3 RPM.
Once I was sure that it had stabilized, I dropped the needle onto its outer lead.
There was a small pop, and some surface noise.
Then, a lonesome guitar rang out, joined by a piano that fell in drops, and “Don’t Explain” began.
“The track order is different from my dad’s CD.”
“Oh, the CD must have a different track order from the original. This is the real order.”
Helen Merrill with Clifford Brown.
An iconic record among iconic records, a collaboration between Helen Merrill, a white singer, and “Brownie,” a genius trumpet player who died at an early age. It was a popular one, and many had requested it.
“Heeheehee… ‘Don’t make excuses,’ basically?”
“It was written by a black singer, Billie Holiday. It’s said her husband at the time came home with lipstick on his shirt and rattled off a bunch of excuses, and that was what she took as her inspiration.”
“Cheating, huh,” she muttered, expressionless.
I personally didn’t tend to listen to music with vocals, and especially not by white singers. It just didn’t give me the Blues feeling.
So, I had never put this record on to listen to the songs. When I did put it on, it was because I wanted to hear Brownie’s trumpet.
The stunning solo interlude ended, and Helen Merrill’s voice returned.
“You know that I love you,” she murmured suddenly.
“As long as I love, I can endure.
You’re the only one I think of.
Everything I have is yours.
I’ve cried hearing rumors, I know you’ve done wrong.
But it’s not a matter of wrong or right.
As long as I’m with you…
So don’t make any excuses. Something like that. Hahaha…”
Tears were running down her face.
“Whoever wrote these lyrics must have been a foolish woman.”
“Ah… Yeah, I guess so. Billie Holiday was a foolish woman. She had all sorts of troubles, drowned herself in love, alcohol, drugs, and died a mess.”
The needle began to trace the second track.
“You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To.”
She dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief as she spoke.
“My dad only ever listened to this song, so I didn’t know there was a song like that on here.”
Her bashful expression looked slightly childish. Was this her real face?
“It’s used in commercials a lot. Its Japanese title is ‘I Wish You Would Come Home.’”
“That’s a mistranslation.”
“It means something more like ‘I want to come home to you, darling.’ The positions are switched.”
“Are you… an English Literature student?”
Her face suddenly straightened.
Shoot. What was I doing? It was my policy not to pry into customers’ lives.
“Sorry. Forget I asked.”
“…I just have a bit of a specialty in English, that’s all.”
After listening to the remaining two songs, she rose.
“Sir, the next time I come here,” she said as she was paying her tab, “will you play something for me again?”
“What kind of thing do you want to hear?”
“Something old… and sad. I don’t want to hear any new songs.”
An ironic smile appeared at the corners of her lips.
“A torch song, then.”
“Something like, a song about love that burns in your heart. It’s what they call old songs about disappointed love.”
“To ‘carry a torch for’ someone… Unrequited love, huh…”
Her eyes darted back and forth.
“I’ll get some ready. You can listen to a bit of everything.”
“Yeah…” She met my eyes. Her gaze was as hollow as always.
But there was something faint in her brow, as though she had decided something.