Later, Luiz would think about what the bassist said: how they’d considered calling up a different drummer to play the gig. He’d think about how everything could’ve been avoided if they had, and about what a damn shame it was, the way the tiniest margins determine our lives.
It was Luiz’s first time booking this band—a three-piece outfit of San Francisco State kids who played that indie folk so popular these days. A young hapa woman named Sylvie led with vocals and guitar. She’d been a regular at the bar these last few months, coming in for happy hour with her girlfriend or a crew of classmates. A couple of weeks back, during one of the live music nights, she’d asked Luiz what it would take to get her own band on stage. He’d told her he’d be glad to listen to a demo. He liked giving up-and-comers a shot.
Now, Sylvie took to the stage in a boho dress and knee-high boots, with her drummer and bassist behind her. They played a mix of covers and threw in an original here and there, their songs hitting that sweet spot between loungey and lively. He could tell from the get-go that this group was something special. Sylvie had a silky smooth voice, which drew people in off the street throughout the evening. The bassist laid down solid groundwork for her melodies, and the drummer played with commanding precision.
The bar was a narrow shop in the Sunset District, so it wasn’t the sort of spot to rock its foundation back and forth, even on a weekend. Booths lined one wall, and round four-top tables filled the rest of the space. The bar itself was near the door, its bottles arranged on lit and mirrored shelves so they couldn’t be missed from the sidewalk. At the far end of the room was the stage—a small platform raised a step above the floor. Luiz had owned the place for nearly a decade, and he didn’t usually stay for the late Friday nights anymore. But because Isabella was out with friends and wouldn’t be home until later, he’d stuck around to hear the new band.
Sylvie and the others had another half hour in their set. They jammed through an instrumental bridge and edged their way back into a chorus. As their collective volume lowered with each bar, Sylvie let out a mellow croon. Guitar, bass, and drums quieted so much that a listener might expect the song to dip into full a cappella. Luiz leaned his elbow onto the bar, where he sat, letting himself be carried by the music and anticipating a satisfying close. But then a heavy roll on the snare drum cracked the quiet chorus like a whip. The drummer dribbled his sticks in a sixty-fourth note combo before smashing one of his crash cymbals and bursting into a heavy rock beat. Ritchie—the drummer’s name, if Luiz rightly recalled—was a young Filipino guy with a buzz cut, thick rectangle frames, and a cheap polyester vest which he wore over a T-shirt. Until then, he’d played with solid technique—great grip and even strokes—blending into the background like a good drummer should for these kinds of songs. Luiz didn’t expect him to have made such a blunder and thought perhaps the whole thing was a just poorly planned transition. But the panicked look of the bassist, a gangly white guy with his hair in a ponytail, confirmed Ritchie had gone off script. Sylvie reacted by singing improvised yeah yeahs to the beat and strumming harder on her guitar—a faithful, last-ditch move to cover for her drummer. But the damage was done. Ritchie shut his eyes and tuned his bandmates out. He thundered his sticks along his tom-toms and broke out into a full-on drum solo. Luiz’s customers caught on—some visibly disturbed by the swell of heavy music on stage, while others whooped and gave approving nods.
Luiz launched himself off his barstool and hurried to the stage, although he didn’t quite know what he’d do when he got there. Cut the sound? The drums didn’t need the sound system to make a racket. Yell at the kid to stop? His bandmates were already trying that. The bassist had quit playing along. He and Sylvie shouted “Ritchie! Ritchie!” But he couldn’t or wouldn’t hear.
Luiz feigned calm as he reached the side of the stage, though his insides spun devilishly when he caught the worry on Sylvie’s face. Her jaw agape, her eyes darted from Ritchie to the bassist to the crowd, finally landing on Luiz. She hopped off the stage, her face flushed, sure her band had lost every chance of ever booking another gig at his bar.
“Oh, God,” she said. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s gotten into him.”
“He said he’d be fine,” Sylvie said, an air of disbelief in her voice.
Ritchie banged his head back and forth while grooving in a dynamic, syncopated beat. Luiz motioned for them to move out of sight of his customers. The bassist followed too. Huddled in the dark by the wall, the three were speechless for a moment, as the rolling solo from the stage washed over them. Sylvie and the bassist looked timidly at Luiz, while Luiz locked his eyes on Ritchie, picturing what it would take to wrangle him off stage.
“I told you we shouldn’t have let him play,” the bassist said to Sylvie. Then, to Luiz this time, “We almost called another friend to sub in on the drums.”
“He said he’d be fine,” Sylvie said, an air of disbelief in her voice. “He said he was fine.”
Luiz raised his hands between the two and told them to explain. The bassist turned to Sylvie and gave a slight nod, as if to say she should do the talking.
“Ritchie hasn’t been himself since the BART station attack,” Sylvie said. “The woman was his aunt.”
Luiz didn’t need her to tell him which attack she meant. It’d dominated the local news for the last week and even reached national outlets. He’d learned about it the night it happened. A man had smashed a glass bottle over an elderly Filipina woman’s head. He threw her down, kicked and kicked, and then walked off—as if he’d grown bored, just like that. She lay crumpled on the empty platform until the next train arrived. This happened at Colma, not the busiest of stops. Nobody witnessed the attack, although the security cameras caught the scene on tape. The woman and her attacker had been the only ones to disembark from their train, so they were alone on the platform once it zoomed off. The police hadn’t captured the man. The picture circulating on the news was of a young guy, broad-shouldered, in a black Giants hoodie and ball cap. The grainy image of him etched itself into Luiz’s head. The police said they couldn’t know the man’s motive, though different media outlets strongly suggested hate crime. People said it was obvious. It had been the twelfth incident in the last couple of months. Only the week before: an old Chinese man at a CVS in Chicago, a Vietnamese grandmother on the sidewalk in L.A. The air was thick with animosity these days, with politicians spouting off their usual drivel about foreigners, the rumored war about to break out in the South Pacific, the threat to the economy it could bring. When he’d watched the video, Luiz recognized immediately what he saw: the sick pleasure of cruelty.
He swallowed the sour feeling gurgling up his throat.
“She was his aunt?” Luiz said.
“Kind of,” Sylvie said. “A woman from his church. But Ritchie says she’d practically raised him. Changed his diapers and all that.”
“Well, shit,” he said.
Sylvie and the bassist told Luiz how Ritchie had shown up late to rehearsals all week because he’d been visiting the hospital in the evenings. They’d suggested then that he skip the gig, but Ritchie had shaken his head and played.
“There was no stopping him,” Sylvie said. “He really did seem okay.”
“Should I go up there?” the bassist said. “Try again? I can maybe get him to stop.”
Ritchie had moved into a punchy funk beat. Luiz noticed only now the tightness in Ritchie’s forehead, the creases that broke canyons into his skull. Sweat slid down his face, running right over his eyelids.
Luiz put his hand on the bassist’s shoulder. “Leave him,” Luiz said, then cocked his head toward the bar. “C’mon.”
He had his bartender fix the two of them whatever they wanted. Luiz opted for a Suntory whisky and parked himself on the stool closest to the wall. Luiz and Isabella had watched the newsreel of the attack over a dozen times, though they’d had no good reason to. Isabella cried each time, and Luiz felt a piercing somewhere beneath his ribs. Still, they didn’t change the channel when it appeared on TV, and they wouldn’t scroll past when it popped up on their Facebook feeds. Maybe, Luiz thought, a part of him needed to punch through the numbness, the disbelief. Or maybe he felt some duty to bear witness.
Luiz noted, however, that despite everything, the kid played with impeccable technique—confident hits and an ease in his strokes.
He and Isabella had come to the States in the eighties, newlyweds searching for a life away from Marcos’s Philippines. When they decided to stay for good—a decision not made in a moment but more as a realization that settled slowly over years, like mold on tile—they understood they’d signed themselves up to a life on the outside, one constructed at the edge of this thing that was America. Those first years, Luiz took the train from the very same BART station in Colma. He rode it every day to his job at the downtown Hilton. Back then, the scathing cry of dogeater, and other biting remarks, assailed him from time to time. Sometimes from a sneering face passing too quickly to be held in his memory, so it seemed as if the air itself had spoken the insult. At first, he would report the incidents to Isabella at the end of the day. He’d trade a story of a man on the train for her story of some comment made by her boss about how she ate with a spoon and fork. Eventually, they no longer bothered. They settled into the reality of these things like they did with the city’s fog and the particular quiet of this country’s streets. Luiz wondered how many decades the woman at the train station had lived here. He tried to imagine what she felt when the blow landed. What had it been like, the sheer force of hatred wrapped in surprise?
“Angelica Cruz?” he said. “That was her name, right? The woman?”
Sylvie had taken the stool next to him, while the bassist leaned his elbows against the bar on her opposite side. She’d asked the bartender for a gin and tonic, which she now turned in her hands in tilted circles so that the ice cubes clinked in a spiral, a soft flutter of chimes on top of Ritchie’s thundering beat. The bassist drank a stout.
“She has stitches all over her scalp, and some internal bleeding too,” Sylvie said.
“And the fucker’s still out there,” Luiz said. He sipped his whisky and let it burn him gently on the way down.
Ritchie pounded his toms and dropped into halftime. More of the customers exchanged their approval for disgust now, wondering how much longer the one-man show would last. Ritchie played with his chin raised, so the stage lights illuminated his face. He hadn’t opened his eyes in half an hour. A line of mucus ran from one nostril, past his lip and down his chin. Luiz noted, however, that despite everything, the kid played with impeccable technique—confident hits and an ease in his strokes.
“Well, he’s made a few fans, at least,” Luiz said.
He tipped his glass to the stage. Even as some guests scowled, a couple of white guys—mid-twenties with a few drinks in them—stood to cheer Ritchie on. They waved their arms like inflatable car dealership mascots. They clapped to the beat.
But another man came stomping toward the bar. “What the hell, man? This drummer’s a pain in the ass.”
The bartender glanced at Luiz. That piercing sensation swelled in Luiz’s chest.
“Let the kid play,” he said, only loud enough for the bartender to hear.
The bartender shook his head at the man, who flipped him off in response. He returned to his table and pulled his date out of her seat, and then stormed out as she trailed behind. On his way, the man raised his middle finger again and aimed it toward Ritchie.
“The kid’ll run out of steam,” Luiz said to the bartender, even though he didn’t know if he believed this. Let the place empty itself out, he decided.
“Thanks,” Sylvie said.
“This world’s a shitty place,” Luiz said.
She shook her head and sipped her G&T, then stared into the clear drink with a somber glaze over her eyes. “What a waste of a wonderful world,” she said.
Sylvie reminded Luiz of his daughter—her soft heart, her way with words, her long black hair. Kayla was in her first year of studying engineering in Boston. After the attack on Angelica Cruz, she’d called Luiz and Isabella. She asked if they were okay, and her voice quaked as she spoke. Here too, she said, though Luiz and Isabella already knew. They’d seen the report. A Chinese restaurant had been vandalized—windows smashed, graffiti on the walls—only a few blocks from her university. Another in the pileup of crimes. Kayla told her parents she worried for them. They told her to be careful out there.
Ritchie hammered a double bass beat like it was nobody’s business, getting louder with every measure.
After that phone call, Luiz had stood alone in their bathroom and stared himself down in the mirror. He and Isabella had assured Kayla they would be all right, had told her not to worry, because they weren’t yet old or vulnerable. Luiz was healthy, only middle-aged; a bit short, but he knew how to fend off an assailant. These were empty promises, of course. In the bathroom, Luiz beheld his own body turned soft since the downhill decades following his thirties. At fifty, the gap of years between him and the victims around the country was beginning to close in. Luiz tightened his fists and imagined a man coming at him swinging. He threw a punch into the empty space above the toilet, testing to see how much force remained in him. Something in his shoulder popped at the thrust of his arm. When he was young—long before he arrived in the United States—he would get into fights all the time. In those days, he never lost.
Now Luiz downed his whisky and set the glass on the bar with a clack, like an oversized pawn reaching the end of a chess board. Ritchie hammered a double bass beat like it was nobody’s business, getting louder with every measure. Sylvie nursed her drink, but the bassist finished his beer and rose with a grunt.
“I’m stopping this,” he said. “It’s embarrassing.”
More people had gotten up to leave, but a few had their phones out, raised up to film Ritchie. Some maybe broadcasting him on their social media feeds. The guys up front kept up their hollers but with a steadily deflating gusto. The bassist, refueled, marched toward the stage. Sylvie set her own drink down but didn’t chase after him.
When the bassist crept up to Ritchie’s side, Ritchie was pumping his arms with concentrated force. The bassist inhaled and then lunged, but right as he did, Ritchie raised both sticks high. And when his arms flew up, his left fist—stick clutched in its grip—landed in the bassist’s face. The bassist stumbled back and covered his nose with both hands. The customers jumped out of their seats. Somebody yelped. The two guys up front quit their dancing, stunned. Ritchie played on.
“He’s lost it,” the bassist yelled to Sylvie. He made a W with his arms as if to ask, Aren’t you going to do anything about this? His nose dripped blood onto his shirt.
Sylvie cringed at the sight. Then she shook her head.
“I think he needs us right now,” Luiz heard her say, much too soft for the bassist to hear.
The bassist guffawed and then bent down to retrieve the gear he’d left on stage. He coiled up his cables and slid his bass into its case while everyone watched. When he left, he didn’t bother looking back.
The bar emptied, and any passersby who thought about coming in were dissuaded by the raging drummer inside. Eventually, Luiz told his staff to call it quits. He shut the front door and turned off the open light in the window. The bartender wiped the counter down, while Luiz helped his staff stack chairs on tables.
When Luiz reached the tables closest to Ritchie, he paused to look at him up close. His hands glided around the kit in galloping rolls. His arms glistened with sweat, and Luiz guessed his shirt and vest had also been soaked through. The kid had a machinelike quality in his ability to power on, he thought, but the sound he drew from the drums was as human as anything on this godforsaken ball of dirt ever was.
“Kid,” Luiz said. “Hey, kid.”
Ritchie made no sign of hearing. At the foot of the stage, the air trembled with the force of the bass drum, which shook the hairs on Luiz’s head.
“You’re gonna be all right, kid,” he said.
It was the kind of thing he’d said often to Kayla when she was a girl, after she lost a toy or fell off her bike. And later, when he and Isabella said goodbye at her dorm room after dropping her off on campus for her first year away from home. You’re gonna be all right. There’d been a time Luiz believed this for himself. Hearing the words tumble shyly out of his mouth now, he questioned whether anybody—whether even he—could be convinced.
And then: a loud bang. But not from the drums this time.
Now Sylvie and Luiz were Ritchie’s only remaining audience. Sylvie pulled a chair right up to the stage, like she was standing guard, as if Ritchie were a priceless museum treasure that might be burgled away. Luiz had returned to his stool. Whatever sad power was in the kid could fuel a city, he thought, and he pressed his finger to his forehead and rubbed. He retrieved his phone from his pocket and wrote Isabella a text message to say he’d be home late.
Something unexpected came up.
Everything ok?? she wrote.
She’d been on edge since the attack. He should’ve known better than to scare her.
Yes, Luiz wrote. Busy night. Big fiasco with some spilled drinks. Broken glass. The guys could use help.
She told him she’d just arrived home from her night out. She’d tell him all about it when he returned.
Don’t wait up, he wrote, even though he wanted her to and knew she would.
Luiz wrote Kayla too. Maybe a call this weekend? Mom and I want to know how you’re doing. He added a smiley face so she wouldn’t worry, then deleted it when he realized it might convey the opposite message. He added We love you instead but deleted that too. He hit send and only then remembered the time difference. Three a.m. in Boston.
And then: a loud bang. But not from the drums this time. On the other side of the glass front door stood two police officers. Hulking figures with badges and steady jaws. Their cruiser sat parked in a slant along the curb. One of the cops, a burly white man, pounded on the door. Behind him was his Latino partner, a couple inches shorter but built like a football player.
From the stage, Sylvie shot Luiz a panicked look. He put out his hand, signaling her to sit tight. He opened the door wide enough to fit his face in the gap and greeted the officers.
“Sir, we’ve received a call about the noise,” the white cop said. His nametag read R. Anderson.
The bar sat on the outer edge of a commercial area, with rows of houses and a residential neighborhood only a street over. In this part of the city, far from downtown, things settled down long before midnight. Luiz shouldn’t have been surprised that somebody had complained.
“Guy’s just finishing up his set,” Luiz said. “Sorry. Must’ve lost track of time.”
“You’re closed,” Anderson’s partner said.
“We’ll wrap it up. Sorry. Sorry you had to come all this way.”
He shoved at the door, and at the small exertion of force, Luiz didn’t resist.
Luiz turned to the stage. Sylvie had tiptoed onto it and leaned in toward Ritchie’s ear. She must have been telling him the cops had shown up. Maybe she’d convince him it was time to be finished. He didn’t appear to register that she was there at all. The door remained a wedge between Luiz and the policemen, keeping them past the threshold. He leaned his weight into it as if he’d have strength to hold them back—as if trying to do so would be a good idea.
“Sir,” the white cop, Anderson, said. “You’re going to have to let us inside.”
He shoved at the door, and at the small exertion of force, Luiz didn’t resist. He stepped out of the way and allowed it to swing open, then pressed his back against the wall as the officers entered. They approached the stage, yelling at Ritchie.
“Cut it out,” the shorter cop said. His voice thundered against Ritchie’s drumming. “Hey, cut it out, right now.”
They kept shouting as they got up on the stage. Ritchie grooved on, cutting off one of the cops midsentence with a loud crash on the cymbals. Sylvie stood frozen on his other side. Her mouth moved, but Luiz couldn’t make out her words.
Anderson yelled something, then lunged at Ritchie. Sylvie jumped between them and held her hands out, pleading. Luiz felt an instinct to place himself between her and the officer, but he was halfway across the room. Anderson took her by the shoulders and shoved her to the side. Sylvie fell against the back wall, her body slapping it like she was a limp fish.
“Whoa, whoa,” Luiz shouted.
The other cop put his hand out to stop Luiz from stepping up onto the stage. His palm possessed the authority of a wall. Luiz froze, then watched Anderson grab Ritchie’s right wrist. With his forearm pincered in the man’s grip, Ritchie played on with his left, rattling a one-stick roll on the snare. His feet pedaled away on the hi-hats and bass drum with increased fervor.
Anderson pulled hard, and for the first time that night, Luiz heard sound leave Ritchie’s mouth. It wasn’t his voice as much as a wild grunt—the kind a child refusing to yield his toy might make. The primal noise sent a shiver through Luiz.
“There’s no need to hurt him,” he shouted.
Luiz ran forward, forgetting the other officer with his outstretched hand. All he thought was, Let the kid go. The man who wasn’t Anderson shoved Luiz, slamming both hands into his chest so he fell off the stage. Pain zinged through his hip and ran up his back. The officer looked down at him for half a second before turning to give Anderson backup. Anderson tugged at Ritchie’s arm like he wanted to snap it clean off. Luiz held his breath, imagining the twist and crunch of a chicken wing. But Sylvie came back, screaming, “Wait! Wait!”
Her hair a whipped-up mess, she grabbed one of Ritchie’s cymbal stands and pulled it away, just out of Ritchie’s reach.
“Back up,” Anderson said.
Sylvie took the hi-hat stand and dragged it away too, its pedal scraping the stage as it escaped Ritchie’s tapping foot. Sylvie toppled over the crash cymbal, and then went for the ride.
“Let him go,” she said as she worked. “He’ll be quiet. Let him go.”
“This guy’s ass is glued to his seat,” Anderson said to his partner.
Sylvie tipped Ritchie’s floor tom onto the stage with an ugly thud, then she planted both her hands under the bass drum’s rim and pulled hard. Ritchie’s foot remained on the pedal, still tap-tap-tapping to the groove that lived in his mind, but now the mallet only struck the empty space Sylvie had formed between him and his drum. Ritchie was left with his snare drum, and he burst into a lightning-fast lick.
“He’ll be quiet,” Sylvie said. “Look! Look!”
As she reached for the last piece of the set, Anderson wrested Ritchie off his seat. He lifted him up and threw his body onto the stage with a slam. With Ritchie flattened on the stage, Anderson unsheathed his baton and brought it down on his back. He struck once, then twice, then thrice.
Luiz hadn’t yet found the strength to stand. From where he sat crumpled on the floor, his eyes lined up square with Ritchie’s, though Ritchie still kept his sealed shut. The side of Ritchie’s face pressed into the stage. If the baton had hurt him—and it must have—the kid didn’t show it. He wore the same expression he had all night. He’d transported himself to a different plane. Maybe, Luiz thought, he hadn’t returned from that place just yet. Maybe the blows on his back only came to him like loud knocks in a dream, like a banging door in the distance.
Sylvie screamed. Anderson raised his baton again, and Luiz felt his body curl into itself as it braced to witness another strike. But Anderson’s partner cut in.
“We’re good,” he said. “We’re good here.”
Anderson lowered his arm.
“Get this kid the hell out of here,” he said, not so much to Luiz or Sylvie but to some invisible presence in the air itself. Like a command for Ritchie to disappear altogether.
Anderson slid the baton back onto his side, and he and his partner walked off stage.
“Close up,” the other officer said.
Luiz listened as their shoes thumped on the floor and held his breath until the door banged shut. He stayed motionless and waited for the warm ache in his back to subside. On stage, Sylvie sat on her knees, heaving. All around, the pieces of Ritchie’s drum set lay scattered like debris after a typhoon. The silver drum shells and bronze cymbals reflected the glare of the hot stage lights. Ritchie lay limp at their center.
“Are you both okay?” Luiz said.
Her face contorted into a soundless sob, the kind that could break into a sharp wail at any moment.
On every news report, Angelica Cruz had declined to comment on the assault. Any footage of her showed her reclined in a hospital bed, looking down with a blank expression to the floor, bandages wrapped around her head. But in one segment, her daughter, a curly-haired middle-aged woman, stood quaking before the cameras and fought words out of her mouth. In the video, she wore a pink sweater and pearl earrings. She spoke while dabbing her face with a rumpled Kleenex. Whoever did this was evil, she said. I hope he knows that God will judge him someday. I’ll pity him then. I will. Luiz had wondered, What good does that do you now?
He forced himself up, ignoring the protest of his joints, and joined the two on the stage. He knelt and took Ritchie by the shoulders. He propped him up, leaning the boy against him. Ritchie’s body was soaked with sweat and warm to the touch. Luiz felt a longing then that took him a moment to name. On top of everything, he realized he was frustrated. Ritchie hadn’t had the chance to finish his solo. The song had been cut off before its end.
Sylvie scooted herself across the floor to take the weight of her friend from Luiz. She rested him against her and folded her arms across his chest. Then her face contorted into a soundless sob, the kind that could break into a sharp wail at any moment.
Luiz thought of his daughter on the East Coast. He hoped she lay sound asleep and safe in her bed. When Kayla was a baby, he’d daydreamed often about the woman she’d grow to be. He’d pictured future friends, college, passions, boyfriends. He imagined all her jobs and even children. It was only later that he realized he’d never set a backdrop to his fantasies. In what sort of world would she be allowed to live her future life? Luiz looked at Ritchie’s beaten body in Sylvie’s embrace. He prayed that in the morning, Kayla would wake to a bright and good day. That she would feel she had everything she ever needed.
He wondered where the officers had gone after they left the bar. He pictured them cruising through the foggy city at night, stopping, maybe, at a gas station or 7-Eleven for a soda or a bag of chips. Out in the same darkness, Angelica’s attacker roamed loose. And here the three of them were, in the wreckage. The sun was hours from rising. Luiz took in a deep breath and then another. Tears fell down Sylvie’s face, and in her arms, Ritchie stirred. His fingers closed weakly over his palms as if searching for his drum sticks. Luiz saw where they lay, discarded at the foot of the bass. Nobody spoke and everything was quiet, except for the soft chorus of their breathing