The Desperation Waltz

A Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie story

“Hey, Tommy,” Jimmy said without looking up from the newspaper he had spread out on the bar, “what’s Reubenesque mean again?”

“Jeesh! It means ‘fat’. How many times do I have to tell you that?”



“Weight proportionate?”


“Full figured?”

“That means really fat. Whaddaya doin’ that for? We got a whole club full of babes here. How do you expect to get next to a girl in the personals?” He thumbed his own chest. “Tommy Klein, he knows better. Tommy Klein is an operator. You just stand back and watch me work.”

This is the truth: I don’t even like bars. I can go for years at a stretch without taking a drink, and the last place I’d be tempted to drink would be a bar. But I had come to a club that is not but ought to be called Desperation to see a singer and songwriter, a chanteuse named Celia Redmond who is making a name for herself.

Desperation is her name for the dumpy little country bar stuck right in the heart of the big city. The real name is “Country City” or something equally forgettable. It’s a costume bar, really, as phony in its way as a gay bar or the tap-room at the American Legion Hall. Country transplants and the children of country transplants and would-be country transplants put on clothes they don’t wear all day, speak in an affected diction and dance and drink until the house band strikes up “The Desperation Waltz” at midnight. Desperation is a place to escape from the real life of the big city: Office work, factory work, construction work — and unemployment.

Jimmy and Tommy were not untypical of the crowd, just more immanently pitiful. Jimmy’s a gentle giant of a man, as broad as he is tall. His hair was cut down to the scalp and he had a fringy little mustache and his neck was very, very red. Tommy was dapper. If Jimmy had asked me what dapper means, I would have told him: “Short, and overcompensating for it.” He was trim and toned without actually bearing muscles and his cowboy costume fit him snugly. His hair was unconvincingly brown for a man with crow’s feet around the eyes and he wore enough Old Spice for a dozen desperate aging men. Jimmy was slowly nursing a bottle of beer but Tommy was throwing back Seven and Sevens, one after the next, and belching delicately behind his hand.

“I don’t see what you got against the personals, Tommy. I think it must take a lot of guts to put yourself out there like that.”

“Yeah, sure. Guts. You can’t see ‘em. You can’t touch ‘em. And you sure can’t dance with ‘em. Take that one over there.” He pointed to a pretty little girl in a starched white cowboy shirt and blue jeans. “She’d be all right if she’d drop a few pounds.”

“Stuff it,” the girl said. “My baby loves me just the way I am.”

“He’d have to,” Tommy scoffed.

Jimmy shook his head slowly and went back to reading the personals.

That was when Celia came on. The house band cut off the dance music in the middle of a song and all the dancers inside the split rail dance corral shuffled back to their tables, back to their drinks. At the far end of the room a single spotlight illuminated a bone thin blonde haired woman in a white sequined gown sitting behind a baby grand piano. She introduced herself not at all, just nodded her head and began to play and sing.

She did you some permanent damage
You’re still kinda trusting but it only goes so far
She did you some permanent damage
How can I touch you when you’re nothing but scars?

I knew when I met you you had some things to get through
I took one look and saw the pain in your past
But I let my guard down caught you on the rebound
It hurt me to watch you but I thought it couldn’t last

Her voice was low and slow and haunting. It cut through the crowd noise easily and soon enough there was no crowd noise. Tommy tried to make some rude comment about her appearance but Jimmy and everyone around him shushed him to a resentful silence.

She did you some permanent damage
You’re kinda suspicious but it don’t mean a thing
She did you some permanent damage
How can we make music when you can’t even sing?

You tell me she’s done now I’m the only one now
You call me late at night to say you’re always so alone
You tell me you need me can’t wait to see me
But when we’re together there’s just nobody home

She did you some permanent damage
The ghosts in your eyes they’re haunting me too
She did you some permanent damage
I wish I could help there’s not a thing I can do

I must have been crazy to think I’d be your baby
I’d be the one who could help you start again
Thought I’d break through you get in next to you
Now I know I’ll always be on the outside looking in

She did you some permanent damage
You’re still kinda trusting but it only goes so far
She did you some permanent damage
How can I touch you when you’re nothing but scars

She did you some permanent damage
Permanent damage
That’s the way you are…

At the end of the song the piano chords faded into a stunned silence and it was a moment before the crowd burst into applause. Drinks and bottles of beer were sweating untouched on tabletops and a few people, Jimmy among them, were wiping away tears.

“Hey, what’s the big deal” Tommy said. “I mean, she’s a looker, but she’s no spring chicken, is she?”

“Shut up, Tommy.”

“Hey, what’d I say? I wouldn’t kick her out of bed or nothin’.”

“Shut up, Tommy.”

Tommy scowled and downed another Seven and Seven.

Celia started playing an up-tempo tune and she played through two full verses to give the dancers time to get back out on the floor.

If you can’t compromise don’t
Don’t say you will if you know you won’t
Don’t stay with me if you’re just playing a part
Don’t give your word if you can’t give me your heart

Don’t ever feed me a line
If it’s just water don’t say it’s wine
If it’s a fever don’t tell me it’s more
Nothing worth having’s worth lying for

If you resent it don’t stay
It’s not just me that you’ll betray
A bad performance won’t turn lead into gold
We’ll both get nothing but we’ll both get old

Don’t cheat yourself out of life
There’s more to marriage than just taking a wife
If there’s no one at home you’re hurrying to
It’s just a graveyard you’re hurrying through

If it’s not right then it’s wrong
If there’s no poetry it’s just a song
Everything crumbles when it’s built on lies
There’s never anyone behind a disguise

If it’s not me it’s not you
Better than nothing will never do
Better late than never is a much better plan
If I can’t love me I can’t love any man

If you can’t compromise don’t
Don’t say you will if you know you won’t
Don’t stay with me if you’re just playing a part
Don’t give your word if you can’t give me your heart

She played a few more songs and then the spotlight dimmed and the house band took over, playing covers of country radio hits and the Macarena by request. Celia found a place at our end of the bar and deflected one would-be suitor after the next. Tommy gave it a shot, of course, and was shot down with dispatch.

“How’d you do?” Jimmy asked.

“Oh, forget her!” Tommy muttered. “Just another depressing babe with ‘issues’.”

Jimmy shrugged. “She sure can sing.”

I walked over to her and said, “May I speak with you?”

She gave me a slow smile of genuine amusement. “I’m not god, am I?”

I smiled back. “Only when you write.”

“And when you sing,” Jimmy added.

“It’s just country music, fellers,” she said in an affected drawl. “Just the waltz, plucked and strummed, with lyrics. No counter-melody. Nothing but layered harmonies. And a high warblin’ voice like a hound dog bit by a hedgehog. You think I’m joking, don’t you?”

I nodded.

“But I’m not. It’s the English ballad grafted onto the Viennese waltz, and the charm of it is that the simplicity of the music leaves all the room in the world for the lyrics. If you want it to be stupid, it’s the stupidest music there is.” She started to sing softly, just loud enough for me and Jimmy and Tommy to hear:

The humor is forced
The bathos is boring
And everything’s smothered in schmaltz
It’s the music of degenerates
The degenerated waltz

“What if you don’t want it to be stupid?” I asked.

She smiled a tight, bitter little smile. “What if you don’t?”

I shrugged. “I hate everything about country music except for the things that I love. Like everything else, it’s almost always desperately about nothing. But unlike everything else, sometimes it’s desperately about something. I like art that’s about something. That’s all I like in art, I guess.”

“Boy,” she said in her affected voice, “you got no bidness talkin’ about art and country music in the same mouthful of words.”

“Oh. Right.”

“I don’t sell enough beer as it is. I don’t pluck and I don’t strum and I’m too close to a piano bar singer for some of these folks anyway. So please don’t start talking about art. They won’t be able to run away fast enough.”

I said, “You underestimate your audience.” Jimmy nodded agreement.

“I think I overestimate their tolerance for pain. Songs about something do all right on the radio, but these folks came out to dance and get drunk. If you want to play in bars, sing up-tempo songs about nothing.”

“Sing songs about shex,” Tommy slurred.

“Okay, so why do you do it?” I asked.

She looked down at the bar. “That’s another story.”

“I have time.”

“What are you, a reporter or something?”

“Or something.”

She scowled at the bar. “Look out for your own.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Nothing. I was married once, a long time ago. I had two children.”

“I have two children,” Tommy said. “Two children? No, three children. Three ex-wives, three ex-children, three child-support payments.”

“Look out for your own,” Celia said.

I started to ask another question but she stood up and strode back to the piano. When the spotlight hit her she said, “Over at the bar there’s a reporter ‘or something’, and I think he wants to know if a white girl can sing the blues.” She started to play another slow ballad.

For all the bitter shades of blue you put me through
For all the stains of hungry pain I washed out of my clothes
For all the nights of dreary fear of what you wouldn’t do
I’ve had to face the brutal truth everyone around me knows
And maybe bitter shades of blue are all you’ll let me show
But baby I’m not blue today I’m indigo

For all the blasts of shattered glass my dreams became
For all the cries I locked inside where no one else could hear
For all the sly beguiling lies all different all the same
I’m trading your opacity for one vision crystal clear
And maybe shattered shades of blue are all that you’ll permit
But baby I’m not blue today I’m violet

For all the passions passing leaving ghosts undead unmourned
For all the wasted days spent playing games I couldn’t win
For all the years the salty tears of life always unborn
I’ve pushed us to the end at last so my life can begin
And maybe ghostly shades of blue are all that you require
But baby I’m not blue today I’m sapphire

The song had been very quiet, very much a piano bar kind of country. But now the piano came up strong and full and Celia’s voice came up strong and full to meet it.

Maybe baby shades of blue are all that you can see
But baby I’m not blue today I’m free

Again the crowd was stunned to silence. A good ol’ boy tried to steal a kiss and a good ol’ gal stomped his booted foot good and hard.

The spotlight went out on Celia and the bartender hollered out, “Last call!”

From the center of the riser the singer of the house band counseled, “Last call, my friends. Y’all know what that means. Last call is when the Fairy Godmother comes down and turns every fair maiden into Cinderella and every proud man into Prince Charming. One last drink, one last dance, one last song. It’s ‘The Desperation Waltz’.”

By this time Celia was standing next to me at the bar. She said, “Everybody goes home lonely, but nobody goes home alone.”

I laughed. “On that cheery note, can I walk you to your car?”

She looked at me through squinted eyes. “Yeah.”

The crowd from Desperation had spilled out on the sidewalk, desperate people milling about in the desperation waltz, silently sizing each other up and silently tearing each other down.

When we had left the throng behind us I said, “That was a beautiful song.”

“Thank you.”

“It wasn’t the story, though, was it?”

“How’d you know?”

I shrugged. “Everyone cried but you. You said you had children. What happened to them?”

“What are you, some kind of voyeur?”

“Sure. Just as much as you are. A collector of impressions. A spinner of yarns, a teller of tales. I like to think that on my very best days I manage to shed a little grace. What happened to your children?”

She smiled and it was the most painful smile I’ve ever seen. “What do you think it means to be selfless? People say that word all the time. A selfless devotion to the poor. A selfless pursuit of excellence. A selfless regard for the needs of others. What do you think it means?”

“You tell me.”

“There was a time in my life when it was very important for me to be selfless. I was committed. I was radicalized. I was empowered. I was organized. I was everything except alive. Marching here, protesting there, meetings, pickets, sit-ins, sing-outs, one-two-three-four we-don’t-want-your-dirty-war. I was selfless. I was without a self. When I thought about doing something for my own sake or for my husband’s or for my children’s, I’d talk myself out of it. I had two little girls and they needed a lot of my time, but there were poor little children all over the world who needed my time, and who was I — who was I — to put my own children first? My daughters wanted bikes, but I convinced them and convinced myself that the money was better spent on our causes. I was raised Lutheran and my husband was raised Lutheran and there was a Lutheran school right across the street from our apartment, but I convinced my husband that private schools were elitist, so our girls went to public school on the school bus instead.”

We were walking slowly down the street, murkily lit by widely-spaced streetlights. “Go on.”

“Are you sure you want to hear this?”

“If you can bear to tell it, I can bear to listen.”

“It’s not that much to tell. One day we all woke up late, so my husband had to drive the girls to school. A truck driver in a hurry ran a red light and killed everyone I loved. I bought bikes for the girls and buried them with them. It was a stupid thing to do, but I wanted for that to be the last stupid thing I did.”

We want for the horrifying to be outsized and intentional, the devious plottings of a mastermind of evil. But the horrifying is almost always small and banal and common, much too common. Celia was stoical and grim, buried twenty years deep in her grief and her guilt. I said, “But you couldn’t have known…”

“Life isn’t about what you can’t know and can’t do. It’s about what you can know and can do. I couldn’t know my children would be taken from me so young, both at once, but I knew they’d die someday. And the worst of it is, I would have neglected them forever. I was wrong, and I learned my lesson. Exactly one day too late. I don’t want to be absolved for anything. That’s the last thing I want. Pretending your past didn’t happen is just another kind of selflessness, isn’t it?”

“I guess it is.”

“I’ll do like you. I’ll try to shed a little grace instead.” She stopped in front of a dusty brown Toyota. She said, “You’re not coming on to me.”

“Is that a question or an observation.”

“An observation. An expression of surprise, if you want to know the truth.”

I chuckled. “Aren’t we the vain one? Should I make an effort to join the vast host of men you’ve rejected tonight?”

“You must be happily married.”

“The opposite, I think.”

Unhappily married?”

“Happily unmarried.”

“You’re not…?”

“No, I’m not gay. And I’m not indifferent. I’m just not like that.”

“A gentleman. Who’da thunk it?”

“Go home,” I said. “Sleep and don’t dream. Shed grace when you write and when you sing.”

She smiled. “Same to you, bud. Look out for your own.”

I walked my way back up the dark street and when I got back to Desperation, Tommy was leaning against the wall. Jimmy was beside him, coaching him as he puked up one Seven and Seven after the next.

Jimmy nodded to me. Looking at Tommy, I said, “What do you think it means to be selfless, Jimmy?”

Tommy looked up at me and sneered. “It means you didn’t get laid either, smart boy!”

People who think the worst of themselves think the worst of everyone. It’s baked in the cake.

“Oh my darling,” Tommy sang and puked.

“Oh my darling,” he sang and puked.

“Oh my darling, Tommy Klein. You’re a boozer. Three time loser. And your name is Tommy Klein.” He puked again, the vomit splattering all over his cowboy boots and carefully pressed jeans.

I don’t even like bars. But grace is where you find it. And everybody’s gotta take a side.

I said, “Look out for your own, boys.”

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