Solo I. Chase the Rhythm Cast in Umbra
From the apartment window, leaning out with disbelief, I witness the woman materialize beside the NOW BREWING sign at Moonbrew. A compulsion drives me off the loveseat I’m straddling. Not even pausing Magos Herrera’s Necesito un sol on my Bluetooth speaker, I move quickly, throwing on a slim black tee with a blackberry syrup stain at the collar and shimmying into my black skinny jeans before bursting through the front door. I go windmilling down the stairwell and out onto the street. A rhythm section blossoms from the night. A truck double-parked with its flashers blinking blocks my view of the shop, but I know already she has begun to disappear. I would yell out, but the silence I carry seals my throat. When I squirm between the cars and cross the street almost all of her is transparent. I press my face against window and the reflection of her face merges with my face. My eyes, my brow, this shaved face comingle with her features and the tears dripping onto the counter. The corner of our mouth flicks upward and then I am standing alone staring into a nearly empty coffee shop at 21:00. I have been silent for so long, but now I feel the urge to speak.
Solo II. The View from the Jazz Telescope
There is a skylight in the middle of the Moonbrew café ceiling and the full moon orbits there. Jenn, my closing barista pal for life, laughs when I ask her.
“A ghost?” Jenn cackles. “Here? It wouldn’t surprise me if all coffee shops carry ghosts of fallen baristas.”
“She’s not a barista, though,” I say, rinsing out steaming pitchers. “She looks more like a customer and she’s crying.”
Jenn shrugs. “We’ve all cried at this coffee shop. It could be anyone. And you don’t know her so what’s with all the questions?”
Moonbrew is open until 21:30, but I am flipping chairs on top of tables at 20:00.
“I think it’s almost instinctual, Jenn. Like something olfactory and suddenly I am remembering something. Except it’s like something that hasn’t happened yet?”
Jenn and I have been friends since we both started working at Moonbrew back in 2020.
“Remembering something that hasn’t happened yet. Hmmmm…. In my professional, barista-certified-counselor opinion, you are suffering from an overstimulation most likely caused by over-caffeinating and watching too much late-night anime.”
I shrug and head to the backroom to fill up my mop bucket. Bobby Timmons’s version of My Funny Valentine plays on the sound system. Water and bleach splash into the bucket. I spend all day filling vessels: coffee cups, pitchers, mop buckets, and pastry trays. But this ghostly encounter is a void. When I think of her form, I feel something like a knot of notes whirling in my abdomen ready to flurry forth from my tongue. Humans can be monstrous, humans can be reticent. I often feel I am both.
“I’ve never seen your ghost woman,” Jenn says, between the clanging of coins in the drive-thru cash drawer. She counts the drawer by putting each type of coin in orderly stacks.
“No one I’ve worked with has ever mentioned an infamous Moonbrew ghost. Maybe you brought her along.”
I swirl the mop across the floor and through the skylight I study the constellations. Connected star shapes with so much space between them. Like a human body or at least a human experience. The caffeine is starting to kick in and my mop stokes become jittery.
Something is happening in Moonbrew that I don’t understand. She may have been within the walls of this shop for an eternity without anyone noticing her. I recognize this sensation but it is a tune I can’t yet follow.
I do not see the ghost tonight. After Jenn locks the door and we slither to the street she says, “We’ll have to name this ghost after you, you know.”
Solo III. I Am in the Echo of this Lunar Crater
The next day I work a mid-shift. It is 14:46. Outside there is a downpour and the water splashes against the windows. I cruise through the shift tapping my foot along with Rosalia De Souza’s Bossa 50 and the human noises of a half-full café. A customer orders a large coffee and I am only able to fill half the cup before the coffee urn empties. I give a baleful smile to the waiting customer and let them know I am making a new pot now and it will only be about four minutes.
Her transparent face absorbs my reflection in the mirror.
I start new caffeinated and decaf coffee then drag the old urns to the sink. I dump a pitcher of hot water into both. As I watch the coffee slurry pour out into the farmhouse sink, her face manifests from the dark, liquid surface. She swirls the pool with her hand. The water rushes from the faucet, raising steam and a collaborative white noise. I reach into the steaming water and fish for her hand.
When our fingers collide a deafening bolt strikes and a thick white veil falls across my world. I can speak. I see a small child sitting neck-deep in a crystalline creek, their small feet distorted by the water. I can feel the slimy sensation of the mossy rock stones on the soles of their feet. The running water feels so good against their skin.
I say this is the way that jazz makes me feel: like I am submerged in something to the point of danger, latched to the smallest anchoring rock where the water flows so refreshingly fast. I feel the water and her fingers pulling along my skin.
The child becomes older and they brandish a knife against a child with a shorn head who holds a notebook. The knife is not heavy, but they know it is sharp. They want to slice and do harm and regain what has been taken from them.
I say I worry that my teeth will fall out of place and that the body requires too much maintenance. How do I take care of a thing like this?
Then the child is a teenager standing in a cave with an assortment of gear and a helmet like an astronaut’s and it is pitch black except for the neon notes of a baritone saxophone and they stumble along the walls until they come to a chamber filled with bioluminescence. The jazz hues swirl together with the glowing animals and plants and suddenly every sense in the teenager’s body is firing at once. They are alive and breathing and interacting and glowing and jamming.
I say that I feel launched into space, a liminal object. A satellite entity. The view from such a position is out-of-this-world, but I do not have a voice that reaches one planet or the other.
I feel the ghost’s hand slipping away from mine and I try to snatch it back. Are these memories mine or hers? Or ours? Why can I not distinguish what is mine any longer? I do not know who I am.
When I emerge from this vision, it is 03:37 and I am naked in bed alone, listening to the strumming of deep strings. And I am wide-awake with the cherry flavor of an unwashed organic coffee. My exposed skin is a mute so large I lose my place. It strikes me now that this ghost woman and I are chords with the same root. My solo has been 16 bars of silence. I have not even listened to hers. The rain from earlier has become a booming thunderstorm and in between the roaring wind and this ludicrous bass guitar solo I take long slow breaths and try to keep this body together.
I feel the ghost’s hand slipping away from mine and I try to snatch it back. Are these memories mine or hers? Or ours?
Bridge. Set a Tempo for Citrus Jazz
I pour the last of the lemonade into a large cup and hand it out to a customer. The café is almost empty so I slice some lemons to squeeze for more lemon juice. Aziza Mustafa Zadeh’s Carnival blasts overhead. The smell of the lemons clings to my fingers, bright and acidic. As I work the juicer, I try to dampen the shaker rhythm going in my head of hauntings and coffee. So much so that I knock over the cup of lemon juice which spills on the counter and down the front of my favorite pants. That sends me scurrying to the bathroom.
Before I open the door I sense her. In the bathroom, I find her levitating before the sink, putting her hair up in a bun in front of the mirror, her back and lifted arms forming a Y. I ask her if she likes jazz and she turns, slowly. Her transparent face absorbs my reflection in the mirror. The buzz of a trumpet surges from the grout between the tiles and I tremble with the low frequency vibrations. She comes forward and I do not back away.
“Will you tell me your name?” I ask. The silence I carry is demure beneath the melody of the lemony trumpet.
“Yours…” she murmurs with ambiguous punctuation. She moves closer.
My face burns. What if one of the customers comes in and sees me here with this specter? I do not know how they will react and my head spins with that anxiety.
Then she comes face to face with me and I ask, “Why have you come to me?”
Her voice comes like the tinkle of a triangle. “I will help you reach where you are going.”
My eyes shutter against the expanding brass sound. The ghost gains opacity. From within her aura faint notes from an oboe send serpentine melodies fluttering.
Caesura falls upon the bathroom. “Please, do you know what is happening to me?”
“I am what is happening to you,” she says with eyes glistening. “I am here to help you become what we are.”
“Okay,” I say. “I am scared, but I am ready.”
The ghost smiles and enters my body. Her entrance is citrus tart.
Like a cat squirming to reach that perfect sleeping contortion, I feel her specter searching through my body. When she probes me like this my flesh vibrates. I am filled with this enormous intangible vibration. I press my hands against the wall’s cool, pink tiles, dizzied. The oboe blares and slithers, scaly and gem-hued. My entire body shakes with her presence and my cheeks wet with the tears habitually sparkling on her face.
She finds the spot and slides in and in that moment we merge completely. Beneath the tears I understand something unseen exists. It is joy. She cries for joy when we are together.
Jenn comes into the bathroom after knocking and finds me crying on the floor. “What is wrong?” she asks, crouching down next to me. Her face is an orange cut in half.
I can’t say anything so I pull my knees closer to my face and bury my eyes there.
“I’m going to sit right here with you, if that’s okay, and then we’ll talk if you want to or if you want to sit in silence. That’s fine, too.”
We wait for 10 minutes. Finally, a piano and a soprano saxophone begin a swing duet and I feel my voice rising to join them.
“I think that both our past and future selves appear to us as ghosts,” I say through sloppy tears. “But I don’t understand if we become them or they claim us.”
“I’ve always thought we are what we are,” Jenn says.
“I’ve never felt that, Jenn. There are so many things I want to do, there are so many aspects about myself I want to explore, but I feel like I can’t. I don’t think I have ever been who I am yet.”
We sit on the ground and the caesura returns to the bathroom. Slowly, the ghost woman detaches herself from my body. I am not ready for her yet. I feel like an abandoned rind.
I do not move until the small voice of the shaker returns. It matches up with my heart beat, reminding me that I am alive and valid. Jenn offers to help me up. I manage to stand on my own. Even after I wash up the smell of citrus and the oboe’s tune cling to me for hours.
Coda. A Translunar Injection with Six Shots of Espresso
We have French press, aero press, V60, chemex, percolator, and auto-drip coffee. But I need more salvation for a morning shift. On an empty stomach the caffeine from this large latte I made when I walked in the door rumbles through my system.
Customer after customer pummels the counter with their inane requests. The grinders, too, yowl without cessation. I can barely hear Los Músicos de José’s Amaneceres on the speakers. I take two more shots of espresso. When you drink enough caffeine in one session you begin to see through things, through people. Even thin air harbors unseen territories between it. From some heraldic dimension, a piano solo escapes in frenzy.
The cheap laminate floor boards begin to rise glowing opalescent. A staircase materializes.
A woman comes in and orders a large, no-foam, extra-hot latte with an extra shot of espresso, but what I see is each layer of her skin, the muscles and bones beneath, and when I look at her mouth there are manifested words jettisoned in the air.
It’s 07:26. The customers pile in ready for this state of extrasensory euphoria. I hand the woman her drink and she dematerializes between the double doors. I am shaking. This shift is like a rollercoaster running full throttle, shaking and jarring with just enough safety mechanisms to keep the people locked behind the bar from perishing in the act.
I pull shots and steam milk. The whirring of the grinders claws at my ears and I reverberate. And the piano notes are sharp and dissonant, coming back soft and close, cardiac and vital, purring. Yet across the room I see a brilliance emanating from the bathroom alluring like a wagging conducting baton. The other baristas on shift seethe in the hellish heat behind the counter and I abandon them without a word. Off goes my apron and headset. No longer can I bear the weight of silence.
“Where are you going?”
“I need a minute,” I say. Already I can feel the tears misting my eyes.
“We can handle this.”
I do not say anything else. My mouth is charmed into silence.
As I cross the room the early noise rushes against me like a whisper of tide heard from the moon. The cheap laminate floor boards begin to rise glowing opalescent. A staircase materializes. The shimmering bathroom door is at the top.
It is full of extraterrestrial jazz; it tastes like pecans beneath a super moon.
The higher I climb, the more I sense my body changing. My arm hair falls out. A tenor saxophone joins the ensemble in high octaves and drops quickly, hitting the piano’s bass notes, improvising off that structure. The biology of my bones alters. I still hear the grinders but there is so much space between the café and where I am going.
Upon each stair, a star twinkles. I see my faces reflected in each surface and each of them has a unique mythology. The stars connect in shifting forms: at one point flora then bestial then human, and somehow I am now among them. On the top step I press my hand against the door and I notice each fingernail is painted a rainbow of pastels. My hair is long, frizzy, dewy. A clarinet surfaces on the melody and floats lilting and rounded, a full moon yearning for the ocean.
I am transformed but I am not made new. There is no novelty in this body. Only familiarity. The conducting baton silences the instruments.
The door opens and she is there. We reach toward each other. The shaker, the oboe, the soprano saxophone, the tenor saxophone, the baritone saxophone, the piano, the triangle, the trumpet, the bass guitar, and clarinet start sounding off scales and tuning up.
When our hands meet the ensemble releases cosmos.
“I am tired of being a spacecraft in orbit,” I say. The rhythm is in my ears, pulsing nova-loud. “Make me strong enough to re-enter this atmosphere.”
She fazes into my body. A flute and a piccolo descend from the heights of this celestial realm and I take a breath for the first time in 22 years. It is full of extraterrestrial jazz; it tastes like pecans beneath a super moon.
“I have been away from you for so long,” the ghost woman coos. “I thought I would never find my way back to you.”
“How could I have sent you away from me?”
Our melodies intertwine and become one. “I have never left you,” she says. “I was and I am always here, experiencing everything with you and validating you no matter what form we take.”
“But what will the others say when we end on this resolution?”
I feel our mouth stretching into a smile. “If they have any decency they will applaud.”
We are crying because this interplanetary chamber is bright like a comet tail and we know one of our wishes has finally come true. We dance in the limitlessness of outer space.
Curtain Call. Clap for the Stars because the Performance Has Ended
When I come down, I feel like a heavenly queen sparkling with stardust. As I descend the luminous staircase there is taut anticipation. Will another note be played? Will the show go on? I keep my face downturned until I reach the bottom of the stairs. On the café’s sound system, Hiromi’s Suite Escapism: Fantasy plays. There are so many eyes in the café. So many lungs holding their breath. I lift my head, smile, and return behind the bar. My performance is indeed over. I do not wait for anyone’s applause.
Justin Allard graduated from Centre College and lives in Louisville, KY. Their work has appeared in The Aquifer, Perigee, La Casita Grande Lounge, and Entropy Magazine among others.