The Singer Disappears

by Andrew Cothren

When he disappears, the singer is thorough. For several weeks he
behaves erratically around friends and family and bandmates: sleeps
strange hours; gets into a drunk shouting match with a producer at
a recording studio; walks off stage in the middle of his band’s headlining
set at a large, internationally broadcast music festival. In the
midst of their biggest hit, in those last few rising notes before the
chorus, guitars intertwining, audience wide-eyed, lifting hands, lifting
people onto shoulders, shouting throats raw, the singer drops his
microphone to the stage with a pop. The music sputters, halts. The
singer is halfway to their tour bus when the boos begin. His bassist—
with whom the singer started the band back when they were
just teenagers in a suburban garage, doing whip-its between songs—
is restrained by security guards as he screams death threats at the
singer’s slouched back.

After that the singer sells or gives away most of his belongings,
including his first guitar—the one on which he learned to play, a gift
from his late father. Leaving the city late one night without telling
anybody, leaving his front door open, he drives from small town to
small town in the countryside for a week, getting drunk and sleeping
in the backseat of his car, taking his savings bit by bit from ATMs.
Bartenders and pedestrians shoot familiar, surprised glances his
way, but nobody approaches or tries speaking to him. In a supermarket,
he sees himself on the cover of a tabloid, a headline questioning
his health and sanity; he keeps himself from buying a copy.

On the night he finally vanishes, the singer parks near a bridge
known to be a popular destination for suicides and scribbles a cryptic
farewell note on the back of a donut shop receipt, then leaves it in
the passenger seat atop a worn copy of his favorite record. He slings
a bag of clothes over his shoulder, pulls his hat down low, and walks
off into the dark woods.

Fog settles among the trees. He gets lost, turned around, runs his
hands along bark trying to remember something he learned in grade
school about the compass direction of lichen. Eventually he stumbles
out of the forest next to a gas station at the edge of a small village. In
the bathroom, he shaves off his trademark beard, cuts his long hair
down to the skin, then flushes the remnants down the toilet. In the
cracked mirror, he is unfamiliar.

He enters the convenience store and asks the young woman behind
the counter for a pack of cigarettes. Though his face stares at her
from a nearby wall of newspapers, she doesn’t recognize him.

“Phone’s dead,” he tells her. “Could you call me a cab?”

“Sure.” She puts her elbows on the counter, leans toward him,
smiles, jaw working neon green chewing gum. “Going somewhere
fun?”

He smiles and shakes his head. For the first time since he can remember,
flirtation doesn’t come easily to him, feels unnatural, like
being in a different country, in a car on the wrong side of the road.
“No,” he says. “Just going.”

***

In buses and trains and boats and the backs of vans, the singer makes
it to his new home: a city along the coast of a foreign country. When
he arrives, he buys a creamy pastry from a small café, walks down
thoroughfares lined with tile-sided storefronts. The streets feel just
large enough to contain the city’s activity, the streetcars and rushing
taxis and people either dead set on getting somewhere or staring
up at the patterned adornments atop buildings, at faces and angels
manifested in wood. He follows the sloping city down to its waterfront,
where a large stone Jesus stands with his arms outstretched,
welcoming cruise ships as they arrive over the horizon. Tourists photograph
bullet holes in the side of a stone cathedral, remnants of a
long-ago coup; children stick their fingers in the scars.

Though he doesn’t speak the language, he sees a sign in the front
window of a townhouse and assumes a room is for rent. After a knock
on the door and an hour-long conversation in halting English with
the elderly landlady, he finds himself in a small studio flat on the
second floor, furnished with objects the previous tenant left behind.
Wobbly stool. Three coffee mugs chipped in the same place along the
rim. Ratty couch, a stock stuck between two splitting cushions. He
passes the landlady a stack of newly exchanged bills, stiff and small
and strange in his hand. She gives him keys. Once she leaves, the
singer sinks into the crook of the couch’s armrest and falls asleep,
bag still slung over his shoulder.

As he acclimates to his new home, the singer finds that, for the first
time in his life, he desires routine. Each morning, he drinks percolated
stovetop coffee and sits on his small kitchen’s windowsill, staring
down at a public square choked with pedestrians and scooters, a
rattling funicular, dealers hoping to scam tourists into buying fake
drugs. A trio of old men drinks at the base of a giant statue, intermittently
changing position to remain in its horse-shaped shadow.

Outside, the singer skulks down streets far removed from the market
district, in those areas of the city not listed in travel guides, away
from the constant choke of tourists. At alleyway cafes, the singer sips
wine, sunglasses on, every prolonged eye contact or curious tilt of a
passerby’s head enough to make his heart pound.

He buys a book of poetry, hoping to learn the language. Fails. Buys
a dictionary. On the beach, he sits, watching waves, the skin on his
arms slowly going golden.

***

Memories of his lifetime in the water are hazy and few: his parents
drunk, asleep in lawn chairs while he jumped off the dock at their
country lake house; the bolt of fear the first time he swam out too far,
feet no longer touching the muddy lake bottom, paddling panicked
back to shore until he could stand. He’s never set foot in the ocean,
untrusting of those things below its surface, of riptides and creatures
thought long dead.

At the edge of the old port, he finds a bar populated by a regular
crowd of elderly fishermen and calloused sailors, who all spend
their afternoons and nights slouched in uncomfortable booths or
standing outside, leaning against concrete hitching posts, smoking
hand- rolled cigarettes and staring out at the harbor. There, the singer
listens to conversations in a language he is only just beginning to
understand, nodding along as men make the sign of the cross and
talk in grave tones about those lost to the sea.

In a given day, the singer speaks only when necessary. He is
thoughtful of each gesture, every nod of his head, the way he points
to items on restaurant menus, how he looks at fellow pedestrians
while crossing an intersection. He recalls how ill his father got near
the end, how the old man needed physical therapy to be mobile, a
months-long progression from moving feet to moving legs to walking
again under his own weight. In this new life, the singer feels he
is doing something similar, re-learning in increments how to exist.

***

The money lasts several months, but eventually he needs work. He
gets a job in the kitchen of a small restaurant down the street from
his flat, and within a week the last remnants of guitar-string calluses
on his fingers finally disappear, softened by soap, replaced by nicks
and blisters. The cook, a woman his mother’s age, is patient with the
language barrier and does what she can to help the singer learn.

They appreciate one another’s intuitiveness. The cook knows that
the singer is on the run from something, this man in a country not
his, requesting pay in cash under the table, but she doesn’t pry. He
proves a quick study and is soon deft with his knife, separating fish
flesh from skin, from ribcage, plucking the bones, the cook nodding
her approval. Soon, he and the cook maneuver through the kitchen
as though they’ve been partnered for years, timing in lockstep, preparing
and assembling dishes without speaking. At the end of their
shift, they sit in the back doorway, in the cool air sweeping in from
the ocean, sharing cigarettes and drinking red wine from paper cups.

One night the radio that hangs from a nail in the corner of the
kitchen plays his band’s biggest hit. Within the first few notes the
singer gets dizzy, nauseous, and makes his way to the back door,
knocking a pot of rice to the tiles along the way. In the alleyway he
breathes deep and slow, fighting to keep his stomach contents down.
He waits, shaking, until he knows the song will be over, and makes
his way back inside, the cook touching the back of her hand to his
forehead. The next week it happens again, and he asks the cook to
tune the radio to a classical music station on those nights when the
singer works. She does so without question, allows things to carry on
as they always have, though the singer notices her gaze falling on him
more frequently, a motherish hand on his back whenever she passes
behind him with a hot plate of food.

Faces become familiar. The bartender in the old port places his
drink on the bar as soon as he walks in the door, before he’s even
taken his seat. The rented flat slowly becomes his, a life accumulating
in dirty dishes, clothes slung on the backs of chairs, stacks of books
bleaching in the sun.

On a morning nearly a year into his new life, he sits on the beach.
Sweat stipples the front of his shirt. Sand soaks in the noon sun,
cliff faces and sparse umbrellas offering little shade. The sea is calmer
than normal, small waves breaking along the shore’s edge. Ignoring
those glowing things he knows exist in the depths, the jellyfish with
long tendrils possibly floating like fishing line across the surface, the
natural forces pushing and pulling, the singer sheds his shirt, sticks
his sandals in the sand like twin grave markers, and walks briskly to
the water.

Stepping anxiously through the breaking surf, small cuts on his
hands stinging in the salt. When a swell lifts his feet from the sand,
then drops him down again, he lets out an audible, unsure groan.
Feeling he’s out far enough, he swims parallel to the shore. His stroke
is arrhythmic, choppy, arms lifting too far from his body, feet churning;
he tires quickly. Standing with his chin just out of the water, he
catches his breath, then starts swimming again. In fits and starts, he
makes his way down the beach, turns around to return.

Halfway there, he gets exhausted and paddles to shore. When he
returns to where he’d been sitting, his shirt has blown into the water
where it floats, soaking, in the shallows. The sandals are gone, a set
of footprints leading from where they’d been and back to the road.
He chuckles, pulls his shirt from the water and wrings it out, walks
home barefoot down the skinny sidewalks, smile pasted unnaturally
to his face.

***

Seasons progress. The singer finds it difficult to track time when the
weather changes so little throughout the year. He swims in the mornings,
each time reaching a bit farther and back along the shoreline,
breathing easier, his motions synched, nothing wasted. Last vestiges
of fat fall from his body and, newly lean, he buys new clothes in the
tourist market, risking recognition. Soreness becomes stiffness becomes
a newfound feeling of strength, his body settling into place.

As time goes on, the singer maps the city for himself. At night,
after the restaurant has closed, he walks the streets in lamplight, feet
slapping the uneven cobblestones. In the city squares and overlooks,
young men and women drink wine from bottles and shout out at the
skyline. Cigarette smoke streams from open bar windows. Taxis maneuver
narrow streets around drunken bachelor parties.

One night he steps into a small bistro in some far-off avenue, late
enough for the crowds to have migrated closer to the water, closer to
the bars and clubs, or else gone home. Only a handful of others are
there, sitting at candlelit tables and drinking wine, picking at tapas.
He gets a gin and soda and sits at a table, picking at a half loaf of
bread. At the table next to his, an older couple sits, holding hands,
speaking to each other in a low, humming whisper. Wine glasses sit
in front of them, lip-stained and empty. They’re drunk. Yet, to the
singer, they look in control and at ease, an effortless calm that gives
him fits.

Since moving to this new city, the singer hasn’t felt that sort of
envy for the settled lives of others. In his old life, the feeling struck
him constantly. A family at a highway-side rest area, sharing French
fries while he took a break from the tour bus outside to buy cigarettes.
Couples at his concerts with arms wrapped around one another.
His bassist playing with his young daughter backstage, her arms
flailing at a toy drum kit. For a moment, the time he’s spent in this
new city— repairing his life, becoming someone new—shortens,
feels like little more than a vacation. He downs his drink, asks for
another.

Before the waiter returns, the lights in the bistro dim to nothing,
leaving just the candles flickering on the table. All noises cease; pots
and pans stop moving in the kitchen, conversations snip short. The
front doors close, a handful of smokers hustling to get inside before
they’re latched. Two men and a woman position themselves in front
of the door. The men each carry a guitar—one of them 12-stringed—
and the woman wears a flowing black dress that makes her head and
hands look like they’re hanging from the ceiling.

Then they begin to play. It’s a simple folk song, but in the small
stone room, by candlelight, it expands, fills the space, the guitars’ finger
plucks weaving around each other and the woman’s voice rising
above, trembling gorgeous, her eyes closed and hands clasped saintly.
Everyone in the restaurant, the servers and dishwashers, the locals
and tourists, sits in absolute silence, one or two mouthing along
with the words. The singer’s heart beats in his ears. After a minute
or so, he realizes he’s been holding his breath. When he releases his
lungs, he sobs.

After two songs, the band stops. They carry their instruments
to the rear of the restaurant to a small wave of applause. The lights
brighten, conversations resume. The singer stumbles from his seat
and out the now-open door. Cycling through cigarettes, he stands on
a part of the sidewalk where the glow of streetlights doesn’t reach.
He struggles to breathe; his ears feel like they’re boiling. A passing
group of men stares, laughs at his expense. He throws the remains
of his cigarette at his feet and walks away without stomping on the
ember.

***

Some months later, the singer sets out for his daily swim. It’s a windy
day during the last gasp of the peak tourist season; even those more
quiet stretches of beach are full with sun-soaking bodies. Despite
heavy waves, the murmur of human activity reaches across the water.

Midway through his swim, he sees a flailing arm bobbing in the
distance. As he nears, he sees a young girl, inflated swimming float
around one wrist, drowning in the choppy surf. The girl screams and
coughs, choking on water. The singer moves quickly.

She is young, perhaps only seven or eight, but is panicked, flailing,
difficult to grab hold of. “Calm down,” the singer says as he grabs her
by the waist and starts paddling toward the beach. “Calm down.” But
she doesn’t hear, or doesn’t understand, continues swinging her arm
and shouting in German. A tiny fist hits the singer in his nose and it
gushes blood.

Eventually the girl tires. The singer struggles to keep their heads
above water. As they near the shore, he sees a crowd gathered, shouting.
The instant his legs are able to touch the sandy bottom, he collapses.
Several people sprint into the water and drag both him and
the girl out and onto the beach.

Someone wraps a towel around the singer’s shoulders. He licks his
lips and tastes the blood still coming from his nose, recalls all the
terrible things he once did to his body at backstage parties, in hotel
rooms, cocaine and alcohol until his ears burned and his vision shifted,
waking in hotel beds with blood dried stiff in his beard.

“I’m sorry,” he says, delirious. “I’m sorry I’m bleeding.”

The crowd is slow to recognize him. As they do, low whispers grow
into shouts, shock in several languages. People pull phones from their
pockets and start snapping photos, filming as he breathes heavy, the
sand on his tired legs drying off and falling back down to beach. He
hears his name spoken in hushed voices. One woman hums the chorus
of his biggest hit to a man next to her, who nods in recognition.

Almost to a person, the crowd knows who he is; the singer realizes
he’s grown even more famous in death, that his resurrection will be
an event, his songs shooting back up the charts, his face on every
television set. Demands for interviews. The flash of cameras. Facing
those he left behind, those who mourned him this long, who buried
an empty coffin full of clothes and records and handwritten lyrics,
fans who held burning candles and sang songs outside his childhood
home. The anxiousness he felt back when so much of the world knew
who he was, knew his songs, when he couldn’t go to a convenience
store without being photographed, the feeling that he worked to
hard to erase, returns all at once. The panic makes him dizzy.

He rises to his feet, many in the crowd shouting questions, talking
on their phones. He looks at the near-drowned girl, swaddled in a
purple beach towel and shivering in her mother’s arms. The girl’s eyes
are glassed with shock and he feels thankful that she, at least, can’t
tell—may not know—who he is.

As he walks back into the ocean, the singer keeps his eyes locked
on the horizon. Several people break from the crowd and follow him,
asking over and over where he’s going. He paddles his worn limbs,
thankful none of the crowd follows him into the water.

He swims straight. The commotion fades slowly, voices dimming
beneath the sound of salty breeze. The singer counts strokes in his
head, tells himself to stop at a hundred, then another hundred, another.
His arms tire and he abandons his stroke, paddling like a child,
saving strength.

Finally he stops. Allows himself to float. There’s a weight in his
muscles he’s never felt before, but he doesn’t sink. Ocean calm, he
turns his head, doesn’t see land, no stone Christ standing openarmed.
Somewhere in the distance, a mechanical grind: a helicopter
or a large ship. At this distance, he can’t tell which. The sun falls behind
the world’s edge, the sky opposite a darkening blue. It will soon
be night, and he lacks the energy to return to shore. He feels the
slight tug of a current, taking him in a direction he can’t discern, toward
the horizon. He closes his eyes, shivers, cold. Goes.