I am about to sit down in the living room with a drink in my hand when he begins his story. From the start I know that my role is to be quiet and and just listen as he shares it with me. He has probably told it a thousand times in countless places, but now it’s my turn; now I have to hear it. It’s a story many men have lived before and I know that when someone has to tell it, he is not looking for an opinion, but an attentive ear. I expect anger and bitterness from a man in his situation, but he is not like that. This tall black man is kind and his speech is calm and tender. His voice carries only a small portion of the burden of expression. He is a man of music and it is with music that he reveals his feelings. I notice that he is not simply going to tell the story. He’s going to relive it; he’s there and although I cannot see her, she is there too.
Deep bass notes take over the room, bouncing off the walls and hitting me from all directions. The tune is repetitive and accusatory, even before his voice is heard for the first time. The periodic intervention of a dissonant guitar signals that what’s about to happen will not be joyful. He is going to confront his lady about something that’s eating him up inside. He needs to talk to her about an incident that awoke his jealousy and insulted his pride. Soon I find out that the two of them were walking down the street when a man gave him a challenging look, unprovoked. The tune continues uninterrupted, repeating the same bass line until he lets her know that his first reaction was to turn to her. As he speaks about this, the sounds of strings invade my living room with notes in rapid succession that arise tension, only to reveal that her response was to quickly look to the ground. Something had not been right at that moment. That’s why he now wants her to tell the truth. He says that he doesn’t know who that man was, but he thinks that she does, and since she doesn’t respond, he utters his first verbal sign of anger, even if still in his calmly tone; “dadgummit!”.
The bass continues its rhythmic pulse as Bill tells her that he doesn’t believe that the man was someone just passing by. His voice is still calm, but the glass-breaking sound of a wooden tambourine tears the air waves abruptly, as if his angry fist pounded on the table. Her reaction is to nervously clear her throat, confirming all his suspicions; at least in his head. Bill’s voice raises and many accusations follow, accompanied by high pitched violin notes that fly across the room like spears that soar from his mouth directly into her body. She tries to make her case; to explain that men don’t have intuition, but it’s too late. For Bill that is just wishful thinking. It’s over; she has wrecked their home. He wants her out of his life, but not without one last demand. His voice now overpowers all the music, reducing her to a pulp of shame and guilt, as he repeats endlessly: “dadgummit, who is he and what is he to you?”
That is the last I hear from him. He doesn’t come out of the trance and walks away, mumbling that same last phrase as the strings and playful wacka-wackas fade and I am left sitting on my couch, perplexed by what I just witnessed. For the first time I feel like I experienced sounds instead of only listening to them and I have the sensation that for three minutes and thirteen seconds I was transported back to 1972. I look down and notice the drink in my hand, still untasted. I take a sip and decide that this is a story that needs to be written; a story of betrayal and deception; a story of music and feelings; a story that I am hearing for the first time four decades after it was shared with the world; a story first sung by Mr. William Harrison “Bill” Withers, Jr..
Hugo R. Vargas