“That snow, two years later”… Early autumn, before
That said, it wasn’t as though she started showing up any more frequently. Her clothes were always the same, the epitome of plain. Even when it got warmer, the only change she made was a cheap, unfitted blouse.
I had decided that, whenever she came in, even if she didn’t request anything, I would put on a famous jazz record with a female singer, whether Black or white.
Ann Burton’s Blue Burton, Ella Fitzgerald’s Songs in a Mellow Mood, Shirley Horn’s Embers and Ashes, Julie London’s Julie is Her Name, Carmen McRae’s By Special Request, Dinah Shore’s Bouquet of Blues, Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown, Dinah Washington’s What a Diff’rence a Day Makes!…
When one of the regulars pointed out how unusual it was for me to be playing vocal records, I thought I might rein it in a little.
I wasn’t trying to show this woman any special favor, exactly.
But seeing the little waves of emotion that appeared faintly in her cheeks while she was listening to a good record wasn’t bad. It seemed like she was holding her wine glass just a little higher.
“Is there an event today?”
With the passing of summer, things had turned chilly again. That evening, she had replaced her unflattering blouse with the baggy cotton parka she’d been wearing at the beginning of spring.
Unusually for her, she had shown up on a Friday.
“We have live performances two Fridays a month.”
“If we didn’t have an event now and then to draw new customers, this quiet little place would go out of business.”
“I guess so.”
“Female singers tend to bring people in.”
“So? You going to skip out for today?”
“Hmm… I think I’ll listen.”
“There’s a charge. Three thousand yen.”
“…That’s a fair amount.”
“Well, everyone manages to eat, at least.”
“Granted, there aren’t all that many people who actually want to make a living out of performing.”
“You aren’t interested at all, are you?”
“I… No, um… Well, I guess.”
“Since I’m here… I will.”
“You know, our rule is that students pay half price.”
“So, are you a student?”
“Can I see your student ID?”
Hmm… Maybe that was another mistake.
I had taken a light tone, since lately we’d started having more complete conversations. But maybe I’d gone too far.
“All right. We’ll just say you’re a student.”
“No, no. Um… Wait a moment, please.”
She pulled a camel-yellow ticket holder out of her purse. It had a cute design that didn’t seem to fit her.
“Is it okay if I hide my personal info?”
She covered the bottom three-fourths of her student ID, showing me only the name of the university.
Wait, that university? She was a student at a fancy top-of-the-line place like that?
“Will that do?”
“Great. Here, 1500 yen.”
And she sat at her usual barstool.
“So, what do you do if you want to become a professional? Do you play Tchaikovsky and Chopin at international piano competitions, or things like that?”
“That’s for classical musicians. With jazz, you don’t really se any international competitions.”
“So, how do you become a pro?”
“If you’re a high achiever at a place like the Berklee College of Music, you get opportunities to play sessions with famous musicians or record with major labels when you graduate. Other kids, kids who studied at music schools in Japan, might make demos so they can perform at live music venues, become a pupil to a professional, play sessions with pros they know, enter small competitions in Japan. It’s sort of a slow and steady road they follow that way.”
“Now that you mention it, the pianist accompanying today’s singer is classically trained.”
“She just got back. There she is.”
The woman turned from the counter, following my eyes to the door.
The pianist stood, the door shut behind her.
Long black hair, almond-shaped eyes…
Her model-like physique, too, was part of her appeal.
As the woman looked at the pianist, I could see that her back had stiffened.
Her gaze was fixed on the pianist as she approached the counter.
“Barkeep, have you heard from her?”
The pianist took off her mask. As she muttered her question, her full lips gave her a somewhat young impression.
The woman looked away from the pianist, exhaled quietly, and faced the counter once more. She set her elbows on the countertop, propping her face up in her hands.
What was that? She looked as though she’d seen a ghost.
Maybe she had mistaken the pianist for someone she was afraid of meeting.
“I did hear from her. She’s going to be a bit late.”
“Again? This is getting to be a problem with her.”
“She’s always late. Everyone’s frustrated because we can’t rehearse properly. And she keeps bringing in random pop songs just because.”
“Ah, yeah, sounds tricky.”
We were known for being a fairly diehard place here.
“It might bring in an audience, but our performance suffers because of it. I’m done playing with her, honestly. Even though we haven’t played yet.”
“Um, Rikako-san, there’s a customer right there.”
I threw a glance at the woman at the counter.
“Oh, I’m so sorry. Are you a fan of hers?”
“No… I just happened to stop in,” she replied coldly.
“At a worn-out jazz café like this? Even though the barkeep has such a terrible personality?”
“Now, see here.” She wasn’t wrong, which was the worst thing.
“A young woman like you… How unusual.”
“I feel at ease here.”
“Don’t tell the singer what I just said, okay? And don’t worry, I’ll do my part.”
“All right. I look forward to it.”
The café certainly was booming that night.
The vocalist was a gorgeous, flashy woman, and when she arrived thirty minutes before the start of the show, she was already in a good mood. She must have been drinking with some of the customers.
Attendance was superb, and narrow as the space was, we were fully packed.
The customers all seemed to be enjoying themselves.
But, as I listened to the music, I was feeling regretful.
I had allowed physical attractiveness to lead me to a foolish booking.
The singing was… less than stellar, even speaking generously.
I didn’t know who she’d studied under, but she was a far cry from even the minimum level.
With a show like this, none of the customers here would understand what jazz had to offer. The customers who had shown up specifically for this singer didn’t appear to have any ear for jazz to begin with. In other words, I wasn’t seeing any prospective patrons. Booking this act had been pointless.
It was no better than a bunch of middle-aged men ogling a young lady singing karaoke at a snack bar, kissing up to everyone for applause.
And… I was curious to know what her response was, as she sat listening at the counter.
I glanced over, and our eyes met.
Instinctively, we shared a strained smile.
“She’s like a geek princess,” she said quietly to me, during some dull MC patter between songs.
“What does that mean?”
“If you have a single girl in a group of geek guys, she’ll be treated like a princess, even if she’s not that cute. That’s what it means.”
“…That’s a pretty harsh thing to say.”
“Well, I’m saying it. I’m a mean-hearted woman.”
“That piano player is wasted on her.”
Rikako-san was doing her utmost with the piano. Her classical training had given her an excellent technique.
Her improvised piano solo had also been vivid and inventive. She was amazing.
But the idiots in the audience weren’t paying the piano any attention.
It was truly unfortunate.
Finally, it ended.
All that remained was the encore. I hated to think that I had burdened the woman at the counter with such a rotten singer at her first live jazz performance.
“For our encore, we’ll be playing a Japanese pop song that’s a perfect fit for the upcoming season.”
Seriously? This was not the kind of joint we were running.
“It’s an old one, and originally it had a slow, disco-like beat, but when you play it acoustically, it definitely has a jazz feeling.”
What was that supposed to mean? A “jazz feeling”?
Get that out of here.
Rikako-san herself was wincing.
“Here we go. This is ‘White Album.’”
Ah, I knew that one. Yuki Morikawa. Came out a little over ten years ago.
I did like this song a bit.
Rikako-san played a skillful arrangement of the familiar introduction, setting the stage for the singer to enter.
But, around the words “every day” in “more and more every day” at the end of the first line, the singer flubbed the melody in an unpleasant way.
Even worse, as though her nerves had snapped, she messed up the lyrics twice—even I caught it.
This was a problem. A performance like this would never bring money in.
I leaned against the counter and sighed.
A blow sent reverberations up through my arms.
I faced forward, startled.
She had her right fist clenched tightly on the counter where she’d slammed it down, trembling.
She was looking at the singer.
I stared at her, astonished.
But there was none of the usual emptiness in her eyes.
It was anger. A burning rage, that seemed as though it might explode at any moment.
Loathing arose in the corners of her eyes, and faint furrowed lines appeared in her young brow.
We were no karaoke snack bar. We were a jazz café, and had been for many years. We’d established ourselves that way in my father’s day, and so we had remained.
The pianist was no bar accompanist, either. She was a professional, who had diligently studied classical music in a music college before switching over to jazz.
So it would be only natural for us to be angry, with our establishment and performance respectively being used as some kind of karaoke substitute.
But, for this woman to be angry… I honestly didn’t understand it.
“…Why? Why?” she muttered.
“Why did you have to follow me all the way here?”
“…Why did you have to get the melody and lyrics wrong? Why did you have to trample all over my memories?”
Her voice was so faint that only I could hear it.
It was an expression of deep, heart-felt resentment, meant for no one’s ears.
The performance finally ended. The singer shook hands with the patrons, and the patrons settled their drink tabs and headed out one by one, apparently satisfied.
I paid the singer and Rikako-san their performance fees.
“When do you think we should perform next?”
The singer, having seen the audience off and come to the counter, spoke good-humoredly as I handed her a small bottle of beer.
“I’ll think about it.”
Of course, I had no intention of booking her again, but, unfortunately, this was the service industry. If I refused her outright, it could impact customer traffic. So, having learned from past mistakes, I kept my answer nice and vague.
“I’m pretty busy myself, so I’d like to schedule sooner rather than later. Rikako-san, when are you open?”
Oh, boy. Sessions between jazz players were pretty strict, so it was generally starkly clear whether performances would or wouldn’t mesh once you started playing. Did she not understand that…?
Maybe she did just need to be told right out.
Right as I was pondering this, the woman at the counter muttered, “Nice work.”
“Oh, thanks. I’m glad to see we had women in the audience.”
“Singing karaoke is easier than singing to live music, you know. I think if you rented a party room and gathered your fans there to watch you sing, everyone would be happier, don’t you?”
She spoke between sips of wine.
“You could be as noisy as you wanted there, and no one would have any reason to complain.”
“…What do you mean, ‘reason to complain’?”
“Exactly what I said. I hated having to listen to you sing.”
“Look, I’m a professional. Who do you think you’re talking to?”
“A professional? How, exactly? Your English pronunciation is horrendous, and you were screwing up the lyrics all over the place.”
“Who cares about English lyrics? No one understands them, anyway.”
I had thought the same thing, until recently. But now, I knew differently.
“Are you serious? It’s disgusting that you would sing with that kind of attitude. It’s completely disrespectful to the music. If you really liked the song, you wouldn’t flub the lyrics. If you don’t find your own interpretation of the emotions carried in the lyrics and try to express them, if you don’t bother to learn about its background, that’s when you screw up. How can you call yourself a professional?”
“You’ve got a lot of nerve to… Hey, look at me when I’m talking to you!”
“No, thank you. I don’t like looking at ugly things.”
It was too late for me to yell, “Stop!”
The singer had upended her bottle of beer over the woman’s head.
And the woman simply resigned herself and took it.
“…I don’t want you to come back here,” I said, looking at the singer.
“Are you serious? I’m the one who’s being disrespected.”
“I agree with her. It’s ridiculous that you would call yourself a professional. If you really do like jazz, if you really do like singing, then you should devote yourself more to your craft.”
“That, and I don’t condone what you’ve just done to one of our valued patrons. Please leave.”
At this, the singer slammed her bottle down on the counter, snatched up her bag, and left.
“…I’m sorry,” the woman said in a feeble voice, a towel dampened with hot water and then tightly wrung placed on her head.
“No, no. Having you say that to her was a real weight off my shoulders,” Rikako-san said, drying her hair. “You agree, right, barkeep?”
“I certainly do.”
“I think it’s soaking into your braids. Is it okay if I undo them?”
“Wow, that’s a really pretty chestnut color. Is this your real hair?”
As the cheap hairbands were removed, her long, bright, full hair was released.
It became all the more beautiful when dried and combed out.
“…Barkeep, I need another towel.”
“I’m going to take your glasses off.”
“Oh, hang on. I-I’ll wash my face myself.”
“Come on, come on. …Oh, wow. Look at you… This girl is gorgeous.”
With her makeup removed, a clear, ephemerally pale complexion came into view.
She hid her face with her right arm.
But she couldn’t hide her faintly colored cheeks and ears.
“Why would you deliberately wear makeup that makes you look sick? Your skin is so perfect.”
“Um… I don’t want to draw too much attention.”
“Oh? So you know that if you were to wear normal makeup, you’re beautiful enough to draw attention?” Rikako’s tone was light and teasing.
But the woman’s face grew even redder, as though Rikako had hit the nail on the head.
“…You’re gorgeous yourself, Rikako-san.”
“Why, thank you. But not enough to suit those fake glasses, am I right?”
“When I walked in earlier, you obviously thought that I was someone else, then got disappointed when it turned out I wasn’t.”
“Oh, um, no… That wasn’t it.”
“Hmm. Well, not that I mind.”
Rikako-san continued drying her off.
Listening to their conversation, I had frankly been shocked.
It had never occurred to me that there might be women in the world who wore makeup in order not to stand out.
“Are you a detective?”
“No, just a student.”
“Actually, how old are you?”
“So rude, barkeep. You’re not supposed to ask a lady her age. By the way, do you like singing?”
“Sorry, is that a sensitive topic?”
Rikako-san peered into the woman’s face, smiling.
I recalled that she was the type to come on pretty strong when she took a liking to someone.
“…I do like singing. But I don’t sing.” The woman averted her eyes from Rikako-san.”
“Hmm. But you knew all the lyrics to the songs that piece of trash sang today, right?”
“I was looking at you from time to time. Your lips were moving.”
“I’ve… learned a lot here.”
“Oh, is that so?” Rikako-san looked sidelong at me and snorted. “You know, I’d love to hear you sing.”
“I just told you, I don’t sing.”
“But that doesn’t mean you can’t, right?”
“…You’re not very nice, are you, Rikako-san?”
“If I were, I wouldn’t be a jazz musician. So? Will you do it?”
“It’s nothing worth hearing. What I was just telling her earlier, that was about me.”
“What do you mean?”
“I used to be the queen of solo karaoke.”
“What’s solo karaoke?”
“Exactly what it sounds like. Doing karaoke alone. Ahaha! You sound pretty proud of yourself. You like singing that much?”
“Please just drop it.”
“Aww, come on. This world is full of old guys, and I’m finally meeting a cute, pretty girl. I can’t drop you now,” Rikako-san said, embracing her. “So, who taught you?”
Rikako-san peered into her face, toying with her hair.
“When I was a senior in high school, I did some training with a pianist in my class. That’s about it.”
“Is that good enough for you?”
Though she sighed deeply in annoyance, I saw something playing at the corners of her lips—troubled, and yet relieved, somehow.
Either way was fine. Compared with her sitting and drinking dead-eyed at the counter, this embarrassment in the face of someone else’s friendliness made her feel far more alive.
“By the way, what’s your name?”
“I won’t force you.”
The woman sighed once more.
“Setsuna Ogiso. I’m a second-year in the Politics and Economics Department at Houjou University.”