Joseph didn't recognize the figure approaching him. That is, he didn't recognize him at first. The man held Betty, his favorite steel string. The one Joseph based his career on. The man sat down on a stool and played. He was confident and flawless. the double made the hard parts seem easy and the easy parts seem like the sweetest melody Joseph ever heard. That's me, Joseph thought. Not the real me, but the one I pretend to be.
Next to the figure was a bottle of whiskey. In between the songs, the double reached down and took a few drinks, but it didn't seem to alter his performance. If anything, the man's playing improved. Joseph involuntarily licked his lips.
He knew the whole thing was an illusion. A trick of his mind. It wasn't the first time he had drinking dreams since getting sober. There was some part of his mind that wanted to drink, even after several years had gone by. His sponsor had told him of such things.
Joseph turned away from his doppelganger and looked at the attendant crowd that cheered the figure on. He scanned the crowd and searched for her, for Anne. He saw many others; his parents, his sponsor, former bandmates, girlfriends, his agent, everyone he knew was in the crowd. At last, he found her in the back row, sipping on a glass of wine and smoking a cigarette. She seemed happy. Not the frantic kind of mad girl that he had come to know and come to love. Anne wore a blue sun dress that hung on her just right. Anne was the image of innocence, perfectly at peace, tapping her foot and slapping her thigh ever so lightly to the rhythm of the music his clone played.
He thought of forcing himself awake. He knew nothing good could come from this illusion. He knew he had enough things to worry about. There was the meeting with his agent the next day, the meeting with the TV producer. He had to sell himself. He had to be charming. It wasn't about his music anymore. It never had been. He had created a melody perfect for a daytime TV show. He was good at it. The beautiful image of being on stage and playing before the world the melodies from his heart was just his illusion. Just as much a dream as his clone being able to drink without anything bad happening.
But the Joseph on stage didn't care about that. This was the image of Joseph before things got bad. Before he was making money and things went to hell. Long before the drinking went out of control. Back then, he only drank at shows, and he only drank then because that's how the clubs paid him. He was relaxed, carefree, poor, and had nothing but the future to look forward to.
He turned back to Anne. She looked so much in love and so beautiful in a cloud of cigarette smoke illuminated by the stage lights. He felt a sense of loss that she could never know him as he was then, back when he felt alive. Back before his innocence was lost and the booze got to him. He could have loved her sweetly then, not the angry way he fucked her now. He could make love then. That's what she deserved. Now he could hardly look at a woman without wanting to punish them for breaking his broken heart. He could only fuck the way a broken, jaded man fucked, like he was out to break them the way he was broken.
He blinked. The figure was gone. It was him on stage now. And Anne walked onto the stage and approached him and touched his shoulder while he played. "What are you so worried about?" she said.
He set his guitar down. The imaginary audience didn't seem to mind. In fact, they were all gone and all that was left was Anne and him. She pulled the whiskey bottle from the ground. "I can't drink," he said. "Bad things happen. I'm a fucking mess."
"Don’t' worry, baby," she said. "No one's gonna know."
He placed the lip of the bottle to his lips.
The world shook.
His eyes burst open. Is this what happens, he thought. I drink and God shakes the world.
He went to the window, stumbling as the world continued shaking. Earthquake, he thought. I'm in California. It's just a fucking earthquake.