He’s there again. I can hear him before I even look. It’s been two years that I’ve walked past this man playing the same tired old tune. The notes come out his strangled trumpet like shrill screams. The only time he’s gone is when it rains. Day after day, the same people walk by with their limp pockets and empty shrugs. Most times I walk by he hasn’t even made two dollars. Trash and dimes line the velvet inside of his case. I would think if he didn’t give up, at least he would get better, but no. This is the pinnacle of his trumpet-playing career, slumped on a bench, squealing the same old song to no one.
I get closer and start to hear the airy cracks and missed notes of “When the Saints Go Marching In” getting louder. They squeak and tumble from his trumpet, like lemmings falling to their death. It’s a Wednesday and the street is still. A few people pass by like ghosts, ignoring the man and his empty case. He’s fat and ragged, so he’s hard to miss. He always sits on the same bench, with his chubby little legs dangling off the edge, searching for damp earth. When he does get up, it’s always a struggle; there’s plenty of panting, some grunts, a stray wheeze, and even some sweat. The closer I get, the more shrill the sounds become, sending violent vibrations clawing up my skin.
Around Christmas he works the fat guy thing, wearing a Santa hat and dressing in red. But, it’s July and a heat wave is dragging through. I can see its mark from the streaks of sweat running down his face, soaking into his wiry beard. I get closer to him and see his case is empty. He doesn’t notice me as I stand in front of him. He keeps playing.
I watched him at work all day today, past the asphodels on the window. The bench he sits on is across from my office, and I found myself getting distracted by looking at him. It was slow today, so I had plenty of time for people watching. I work at a call center; my job is to help troubleshoot phones. I spend most of my days listening to people moan and cry about their service. I can’t tell what’s worse, the complaining or the guy’s trumpet playing.
The phones started to chime in around 11. Work becomes routine. There’s a script we follow when we answer, we fill the case notes out in a template, and if it’s too hard to solve, we just send them to the next level of tech support. Dust from the vents circulates through the office air, drying my body, turning my skin to dust. It’s hard for my voice to be heard on the other side with the shitty connections we have, my dried up throat doesn’t help either. The only things that thrive in this arid place are the neglected grey plants huddled along the windowsills.
In between words I noticed the bench, buried by his weight. Kids stopped and danced around him, and sometimes I would see people stop to talk, from the looks of it they knew each other. My calm gaze at the trumpet man was sometimes interrupted by the chalky voices on the other end of the phone, asking if I was still there. I was, though my body has been getting thinner and lighter, presumably to better fit into our new sleek cubicles.
I can’t stand most of the people that work here. I was stuck sitting next to Kevin today, smelling like piss and Tiger Balm. He argues loudly with customers about petty nonsense, spitting hate from his ghoulish lips. He’s been warned not to be so confrontational, but I get it. When you work a menial job and have to eat shit for it, you’re bound to snap. I just hope I’m not here the day Kevin snaps. I can feel the job slowly starting to seep into my pores too, like some rancid ointment.
I snuck out of work early and took the elevator down. As I was going down I thought of talking to the trumpet man. At the time, I didn’t know how to go about it. I just kept walking until I heard the noise. Now here I am, watching him torture this horn, not sure what to say. He hasn’t looked up once. After a minute, I speak up.
Hey man, how’s it going? He looks up, silent and suspicious. His eyes burn into his face like flaming pits. I see you every day on my way to work and was wondering if you wanted to grab some food? He puts his trumpet on his lap and wheezes a little.
You know, just because I’m out here every day doesn’t mean you owe me anything. His voice is a sweet melody I’ve never heard before. An icy shiver runs down my spine as he speaks.
No, I know. I’m just going for some dinner and was looking for company. The man starts messing with the valves. He looks to see if anyone is coming—only shadows fill the street.
Well, I don’t know. It’ll start getting busy around here soon and I don’t want to miss the procession.
I promise it won’t be long. We’ll get food, eat, and you’ll be on your way. It’ll be good food. He puts his trumpet up to his mouth and turns to the side to empty the spit out. A disgusting spray of mucus flings across the sidewalk and scatters the nearby pigeons. I wince. He puts the trumpet down and turns back to me, then takes a pause to breathe.
Alright, as long as it’s quick. He sways forward and slides towards the edge of the bench. With some struggle he packs his trumpet into a case that reads orfus, and we start down the streets.
Do you like Pad Thai?
Yeah, it’s like Chinese right?
Uh, I guess. It’s spicy sometimes and usually they put a peanut sauce on it.
Oh. Well I like spicy, so that sounds good to me. I’m not a picky eater.
Alright, we’ll go to Thai Delight then. It’s just down the street.
We walk up to the doors of Thai Delight. It’s in a basement, so I offer to help him with his stuff. He agrees and hands me some of his things, before starting on the stairs. He turns a little to his right and with caution dangles one leg to the next step, repeating the process for each step as he grips the handrail with both hands. It takes a while, but he gets down. A smiling waitress seats us, fills our cups with ice water, then leaves two menus on the table. She walks away and we start to look through the menus. In the dim light of the restaurant I notice the dull watery shimmer of his skin. He’s an ugly man, with a crooked nose dividing his face unevenly.
An awkward silence drapes us like the worn old mint tablecloths. The waitress comes back and takes our order for two veggie Pad Thai, then walks away, disappearing past the swinging kitchen doors. Behind them, I see steam rising up, carrying the heavy smell of broccoli and carrots. The sound of sizzling food fills the air, along with a gust of spice that tingles my nose.
So, how long have you been doing the trumpet thing for?
My whole life pretty much. He gulps down the ice cold water. I look around while he’s drinking and notice the place is empty, except for a couple sitting at the other end of the restaurant.
Are you from around here?
No. He wipes his forehead. I’m from out of town, came down maybe four years ago. How about you?
I’ve been here as long as I can remember, never had plans so I just stayed.
There’s nothing wrong with that. I would have stayed back home, but I ended up here after a bad deal.
That’s one way to end up here. What kind of deal if you don’t mind me asking?
Well . . . it’s a little personal.
I see. I sip at my water and crushed ice, until I come up with something to say. Hey, did you hear the Grand Prix the other day? I can’t believe how loud those things get.
Yeah, it really smothered my playing. Made it hard to concentrate.
I get that. Do you make much playing on the street?
Enough to buy a snack, maybe coffee or something, nothing worth saving. I don’t do it for the money.
As he says that, our plates come out from behind the kitchen’s swinging doors. The waitress smiles, puts the plates down, then leaves in a hurry to get more water. The aroma of spicy peanut sauce takes over our table. Heat rises up from the noodles as we stir them. He starts eating without hesitation.
So why do you play on the streets then? He slurps up a forkful of his food, and after gulping it down, gives me a weird look.
Why does anyone do anything? He continues to shovel food in his mouth.
So you just do it for fun?
I never really thought about why I do it. It’s just what I do. Hey, you know after all these years, no one has ever invited me to dinner like this. I’ve met people on the street before, some are friends, others just street regulars, but I’ve never been approached this warmly by a stranger before. I smile, but he’s avoiding the question.
Well, I’m usually pretty friendly. So is it for practice then?
It’s just very nice of you is all, I appreciate it. Listen, in return I’d like to show you something after we eat.
So what do you do? The waitress comes and fills our waters. I swallow my bite and nod politely to her as she walks away from the table.
I work at a call center. It’s pretty boring stuff.
So you sell stuff to people?
Ah, no. Not exactly. I do technical support. Basically I help people fix stuff, or get them to someone who can.
So you’re pretty techy?
I wouldn’t say that. You don’t really need to know any of that stuff to do your job. I could do it in my sleep.
Like some waking somnambulant.
Sleepwalker, except I guess you’re awake. You are awake right?
Uh, yeah. I think so? He stares into my eyes.
Hmm, it’s hard to tell. But I think maybe there’s some life in there. We both laugh and continue to eat.
There is some more small talk while we finish up our meals, but mostly the table resonates with quiet slurping. I leave $30 on the table before we walk out. He tells me to follow him to one of the empty parking garages near city hall. The air is muggy as we walk down the road. I’m a little nervous, but I decide I trust the guy so I don’t think much about it. I follow him through an alley, before we make it to the garage. We get to the third floor and he stops to put his case down.
I actually have a pretty special talent for the trumpet. It gets me into trouble sometimes, but it’s the only way I can pay my debts.
Is this guy joking? Maybe people pay him to stop playing. Or maybe he’s just delusional.
Uh, so you’re going to play the trumpet for me? I mean, I’ve heard you play before, and I hate to say it, but you’re not that good. He smiles and takes the trumpet out, then puts in the mouthpiece.
I usually don’t do this for strangers, but I’m from the other side of the river. I think it’s time I go back. Believe me, you belong there too.
What? No, that’s OK.
Don’t be scared, I’ll take you. His voice brings a strange joy to mind, a memory of when I was young and would listen to the shivering trees in the morning wind.
The man continues to prepare his instrument as I look around the garage with uncertainty. My heart sinks, I have no idea why I’m here.
Look, I think I’m just going to leave.
He wets his lips and grips his horn as measures sound and fill the air. As measures sound, I feel the ground but soon the music penetrates, my legs and arms and mind go still. My heart begins to slow and chill; a nervous roll turns to a curve and then a swirl and then it spills. Synapses fire synapses splash synapses match the pounding hatch that is my heart still in my ribs, bending to the beat. The beat against my molten mind welds to my heart, and then my feet, and then my breath against the sky, my soul begins to hover by.
I lose myself in what’s around and start to focus on the sound, the undulating syncopations resonating from the horn hypnotize my fluid body hovering above the floor — My toes begin to tap and twitch as tied to some ungodly string they roll-and-rap-and-flick-and-fling as played by some eternal thing. My heart becomes a metronome, the notes dance round me to the beat. They tumble, toss and roll around, trippingovertheirownsound. The heat that music generates sheds off into the air around, a glow grows from this world of sound and paints my eyes with vibrant lines.
Iridescent tangerines bleed into crystal acid greens, while tie dye crimson apricots pull me along somnambulants — banana-yellow deep cerise begins to soak my flesh with ease while pure electric phosphorescence swallows up my atoms presence, eyeball white burns some new hue then shape shifts colours into shoes, before the space tween me’s and you’s is nothing more than greensandblues.
I lose all feeling, all sight, all sound. My thoughts evaporate, my world goes blank.
The grey fuzzy screen of a security camera shows the fat man finish playing his trumpet, you can see me on the concrete in a daze. After he’s done, the man puts his trumpet away. He latches the case, and holds it in one hand as he stands in front of me. There’s a moment of hesitation. He puts the case back down and goes through my pockets, emptying everything out of mine and putting it into his. He grabs his case and starts to walk away, but then stops again. With his back turned to me he waits. He’s thinking. It’s not long before he grabs a piece of paper from his pocket and uses the case to write something down. He turns back to me and stuffs it into my hand, before waddling off the screen.
I can’t tell how long it is before I come to again, but when I do I find myself alone on the concrete parking lot, sitting cross legged. I look around but the guy is gone. In my hand I find a note, so I open it:
I hope you enjoyed the music, it looked like you did. I’ll have to leave town, but don’t feel bad. It’s time for me to move on. You’ll find the other side isn’t much different, but it’s the little things that you’ll notice. Sorry about your stuff, but I needed to get a bus ticket too. Good luck out there.
I’m still in shock, the letter doesn’t sink in at first. I sit on the parking lot cement looking like an infant, staring at nothing. I move my head around, as my eyes wander from one thing to another without any rush. After a few moments, as if snapping out of a trance, I check my pockets in a panic, but they’re empty. That asshole! He could have just asked. I don’t stay mad for long though. I’m still under a gentle haze from the trumpet. I continue to sit on the floor in a trance.
After a while the daze wears off. My gaze wanders, but I can’t tell if I’ve been taken to the other side of the river, it all looks the same. I get up and walk out to the echo of my own footsteps. I can see the sky from the garage, disappearing slivers of orange and pink are swallowed up by the twilight. I was robbed, but it doesn’t bother me. I somehow feel the world is a better place tonight. Maybe I should leave town too. I walk out from the garage with a smile. I go home and have a perfect sleep for the first time in months.
The alarm wakes me up like a bucket of ice water. I hit the snooze. I hit it again, and again, finally I turn the alarm off. I don’t wake up until the gentle sun lifts me from a dream. When I do wake up, for the first few seconds I think I’m still dreaming. I take my time getting up and watch the clouds in the sky, they’re plump with moisture, but it won’t rain. Out my window I can hear the leaves of the trees shiver in the gentle wind.
Eventually I get out of bed and call in sick. After breakfast I decide to go out for a walk. It’s nice outside, the sun is warm on my skin, and for once I don’t feel a dry scratching in my throat. I stroll around the neighborhood soaking up the sun for most of the day. The streets are empty, but I find the quiet flow of the day pleasant and refreshing. By the time the cool night air pours over my skin, I’ve ended up back at the bench were the trumpet man sits. It’s bare, but I don’t think much about it. I look up at my office and see all the bright cold lights filling up the windows at night, always full of light but empty of life. I can see little tops of heads bob and shift as they re-adjust their headsets. They remind me of moss covered tombstones.
As the week goes on, I start to come in late. I start to take a detour to work and find myself taking longer to get to there. When I finally do make it to work, they call me to the boss’s office and ask about my trouble getting in on time, but I don’t have any explanations. They don’t seem to care why I missed work the other day either. It’s like they’ve forgotten about me. The air inside is still dry, but my skin has stopped flaking. I think about quitting, except I know I can’t afford it. I bring coloured pencils to work with me and start to draw the customers as they talk. I put the microphone on mute while I make them into drooling caricatures.
I still watch out the window at work, but the bench is mostly empty. Days and weeks go by, and the street is much quieter now. I’m a little sad at first, but happy for him, happy that he moved on. I’ve found a sweet spot for coming in late now, not quite so late that anyone will notice, but not quite on time. Eventually this too becomes a procedure of sorts, but it gives me enough time to watch the sunrise before work. Sometimes the colours remind me of the trumpet man’s music, all blistering and beautiful.