“Seems kinda high strung,” Llewyn says to nobody in particular. He does a lot of that, talking to nobody in particular. They have great conversations, him and nobody in particular. Heart-to-hearts.
A snort comes from somewhere.
He's picturing the guy, hands in his pockets, cheeks blown out, rocked back on his heels, reading the menu and holding up the line at Nedick's. Then the man stepped forward and the hands flew out of the pockets. Like he was conducting a hot dog symphony. His face looked like something off a flier that'd been left in the rain for three days. That it didn't disintegrate was a miracle, but it didn't, held together by mercy.
“He's a folk singer like you.” He hated when they said that: what the hell was it supposed to mean?
They're at the Figaro, in the early days. Llewyn's policy has always been to treat the audience like the tourists they are: spit on them and they'll want to bottle it. Up till now it's worked, or at least it hasn't not worked. But it's different with Mike, whose voice is an appeal, and he's fumbled around for something to extend to them. Kindness. Gratitude. He'll have to ask Mike the word for it—whatever it is, it's not native to New York.
Midway through they take an unplanned half-hour break, thanks to some crap with the lights. The air's thick with smoke and the smoke's thick with impatience. Sweat's popping at Llewyn's temples. He's gripping his guitar by the neck, he'd be on the hook for attempted murder if it was a person, and it grazes the mic stand as he mounts the stage. The hand that snaps out to steady the mic sends it wobbling in the other direction. He's conscious, suddenly, of all the eyes out there.
Mike pulls him back from the crowd. He doesn't have to pull very hard—carries Llewyn like a current. “Shit,” Llewyn starts, out of range of the mic. He wipes the sweat from his brow with his sleeve. “Shit shit shit.” Mike laughs, a tickle in his ear, rests an arm on his shoulder.
There's a space. The two of them, they're out of reach. Raising the hand slack on Llewyn's shoulder, Mike daubs a woman in the second row with a finger. “Who's she?” Llewyn says.
“She's in the key of D.” Mike squints at the woman with almost comical intensity. The weight lifts from Llewyn's shoulders as he strolls forward, strumming a chord like an invitation. He doesn't look back again; within the next few notes Llewyn recognizes the song and the woman. Ida Red.
“I love that,” Mike says into his glass afterward. His smile wobbles: it's the only place he loses his balance when he drinks. “Playing a song for somebody who doesn't even know it.”
“That's what every musician does,” Llewyn says. He doesn't have the heart to add, “All the time.”
“The way Joy tells it, we're out in the city. I'm four? I'm four, she's six. My old man's home, which you know is a big deal because he gets itchy feet on dry land. That's what he'd tell us. Anyway.
"On some corner or other, we run into a bum with a trumpet—sometimes it's a trombone. And he's playing, playing like he doesn't know where he is. Doing that, that thing trumpet players do, they're strapped into the solo and they gotta ride it out. A little flashy, and this trumpet is beat to shit but to me it looks like pure gold.
"His fingers on the valves, Mike.
"The case is open at his feet, of course. I almost trip over it. My eyes are big and round—again, this is Joy's version—and they stay on him as I squat down to pet the fucking case. There's a cloth in there. I like that, it's mysterious. It's more interesting than the money. Music's pouring down around me. I feel it but I feel it physically, too, in my chest. It's like I'm standing behind a waterfall.
"Dad's just walked on by. I have to run to catch up. I'm gasping for air but I can't stop smiling, not even to catch my breath. And supposedly, in this piece of Davis family lore, I tell him: 'I wanna do that.'
"You're supposed to laugh. That's the punchline. Asshole.”
At Mike's the radio never stops. An ugly old brute, it has a place of honor on the little table under the window. Most of its paint's been scared off. Mike can't walk past without touching it, fussing with one of the dials. When they play he turns it down, but not all the way.
Llewyn bets one day it'll just crumple in on itself. Like a guy having a heart attack.
“That's where you're from, huh?”
Mike's been telling a story about Maine in winter, a mythic snowfall. It's a story full of people who'll never know anything more profound than the snowdrifts of whatever year it was. Part of Llewyn's jealous. A tooth or a toenail. Something.
There's a contemplative note in his sigh, and the radio fills in the gaps with jazz that sounds like someone breaking plates. “Mostly.”
“You took off for New York when a girl broke your heart.” Smiling to himself, Llewyn gathers his guitar to his chest and plucks a sad-sack chord. Sick as he gets of everyone trying to rewrite history into another folk song, in a way it's reassuring. There's always a sadder story than yours.
Mike turns to look at him. His hair's too long, it falls into his eyes. “It was the other way around,” he says, baby-powder soft. Llewyn remembers something Mel said to him, that Mike was the stronger singer, maybe a better musician, indisputably more personable than Llewyn, but there was no pain in his voice.
Mel's an idiot.
The music's changed. One of those songs so old it's almost a feeling, and reaching for the words is like plunging back into childhood. “I can't stop thinking about something lately.” Mike's a fluid talker but he chooses words carefully, as if leery of weighing down his tongue. “A ghost in the radio that's mistaken for a song.”
Llewyn lies still. Parting his lips takes effort. “Fuck, Mike.” He sits up slowly, guitar sliding off his chest. But Mike's already back at the radio, changing the station.
The bartender's been giving them the fisheye ever since they came in clamoring for champagne, and Llewyn's drunk off his glower as much as the crap-ass whiskey. A laugh bursts out of him, pops like the cork from the bottle they're never going to get. “I knew it was gonna be bad but—Mike—I didn't know it was gonna be god fucking awful.”
“Welcome to the music business, kid,” Mike says, heroic attempt at keeping a straight face undermined by his incessant snickering. He can't seem to stop: every time he comes close it just bubbles over. Llewyn's never seen him so far removed from his dignity. Well, apart from this afternoon.
Mike leans to bump his glass into Llewyn's, which is sitting on the bar, and strikes the pose. He flings one arm out, scattering drops of whiskey, tips back his head and stretches his mouth wide as a baby bird's.
“'Soar,' he kept saying. 'Soar!'” Llewyn snorts, a musical two-note affair, and scoops up his drink. “Yeah, my arms are sore, thank you for noticing.”
Mike collapses back to his seat, tossing a smile Llewyn's way and feigning surprise at the empty glass in his hand. He drinks anyway, tapping the bottom of the glass like it's a ketchup bottle. When he puts it down he's still smiling that trailing shoelace of a smile. “Listen, Llewyn.” His voice is warm, welcoming. “Things are gonna be—”
They look up, then at each other. A hush has descended on the room. Up on stage, a man—not young, not old—slumps on a stool and strums a guitar. One booted foot taps the floor. His head's bowed in a way Llewyn finds pitiful. It's like it's being held there, like he's been forcibly submerged in the music.
He's crying. The light seems to stroke the tears on his cheeks.
“I know him,” Mike whispers, straight into Llewyn's ear. “He does this every time.”
Mike nods, just barely, in time with the song. His eyes drop to the countertop. “Imagine.”
He laughs again. “I'd fucking kill myself.”