A storm is coming. Not a violent, windy one, just a heavy, calm kind of snowstorm. The kind that makes all that traffic stop after a half hour or so; empties out the streets. Then what remains of the urban life are the lights. That green, yellow, and red blinking continues in its repeating pattern, though no cars wait for their instruction. The colors alternately diffuse off the white snow on the street, signaling no one.
After the storm is over, or even while it’s still snowing, everything gets really quiet. The city is peaceful and serene, like the cover of one of those cheesy Christmas cards; the kind with the clear glitter glued fast to the drawing of the snow in the illustration. That glitter that is still sticking to your fingers after you decide you don't want the card and put it back on the rack.
I can always tell how much snow we are going to get by the flakes, and how they fall. These are big ones, so large that you can see their shape as they float slowly downward. The air is still; not a breeze to speak of, so they just kind of falter and take their time and drop very slowly, kind of rocking back and forth. It’s almost as if they’re trying to decide if they want to continue their descent, onward to their inevitable fate.
If they had brains, maybe they would decide to fly back up the same way they came and start all over again. That way, they could be the ones that land on top, piling on the others, the ones that came before them. That way, at least, they would accumulate higher and higher, into who-knows- what? A pile worthy of industry? A fort? A snowman? An igloo? Anything would be better than just instantly melting away, only to run down the sidewalk into the iron grates that send them to the river. Or worse yet, becoming a one inch layer of slush that lasts for just minutes before being salted into oblivion and brutally pushed off the street by an anonymous taxpayer-funded plow, any cohesive individuality scraped noisily aside in a few seconds, like so many crumbs from a single piece of bread that has been reduced to burnt toast.
I stick out my tongue to catch one or two of the flakes, something I have done so many times in the past. It is an action that harkens back to my youth, and yet doesn't seem that far removed each time I do it now, many, many years later. The things that stimulate the mind while waiting...
Ah, finally! She's got to be the singer. Beautiful, nice makeup, stylish clothes. A swing band tonight? No, a jazz quartet maybe. A rock band?
“Gonna be a cold one,” I say as she walks by me, just to hear the sound of her voice if she decides to comment back to me.
She looks at me, nods, and smiles politely enough but offers no vocal response. She does clutch at the scarf around her neck, pulling it tighter, and toss it back over her shoulder. She may not speak it, but her body language tells me she agrees with me about the weather.
“Yeah, it's gonna be a cold one,” I say again just to hear myself speak, confirming her signals aloud for the both of us. My words come out in a mist of condensation that floats for a second and then disappears in front of me. I exhale then, purposefully, puffing twice just to see it again. The woman crosses the street and makes her way into a department store.
Yeah, that would figure, I guess. More nice clothes. Not the singer, though, hmm...maybe she'll buy a new winter coat.
Then I see a man carrying a double bass in a road case. He walks down the alley and up to the stage door. That's one. How many more tonight? So, it's not a rock band. But these days, you never know…genres are mixed. The lines of music are blurred.
“The lines of music...are blurred...ha, ha, ha. Not bad. Ha, ha, ha.” The bass player hears me laugh and looks in my direction.
Actually, nothing is quite as it was. It all sounds good to me, though. No, definitely not a rock band. The roadies would have been here hours ago, pulling endless gear out of the back of a truck. This versatile, old theatre always keeps me guessing. Always a diverse lineup.
Look at that! The bass player no sooner gets to the stage door and it opens, without him so much as raising his gloved fist to rap on it. Security cameras picked him up, no doubt. That's new! Steve, the stagehand, is always there by this time of day. When I played places like these, we had a “code knock”. No security cameras then. It was a rhythm of the melody of one of our songs, usually. Sometimes it was something silly or a novelty song from decades past. We used it to get into a building, or a dressing room that was locked from the inside. And those doors would not open unless the knock was correct. Sometimes the guys couldn't hear it, half-deaf as they were. Then you would have to kick “the code” into the bottom of the door, sending its telegraph-like staccato reverberating through the inside of the building. Five seconds or so later, and the door would come flying open, powered by some irate crew member who was running late and trying to do his job. Magic.
“Ha, ha, ha!”
The thought of that always makes me laugh out loud. Steve hears me. He looks over and gives me a nod and a little wave as he holds the door open widely for that big cumbersome bass in the hard shell case. He’ll be back out to have a smoke as soon as everyone is accounted for. You can count on it. Like one of the code knocks.
Simple, but effective. Without that rest in the middle of the sequence, you didn't get in. Rest...what the birds are doing right now. They have trouble flying when the barometric pressure drops like this. So, there they sit. On everything. They just set aside their “plans” for the day and follow their instincts. They look like musical notes sitting on the wires. Bird, bird, bird, bird. There's a space. That must be a rest.
“da-da-da-da-rest-da-da-da-rest-da-rest-da-rest-da” Birds in three quarter time. These are the stupid birds that don't fly south for winter. Three quarter time? A waltz! South? Ha! I give you “The Roses from the South Waltz!” Herr Strauss, they are playing your song and sitting it out all at the same time!
“Ha, ha, ha!”
More musicians carrying cases are coming down the alley. I've lost count of them. It's a big show, though, which means at least an hour or more of music. Funny, the things that stimulate the mind while waiting. I puff another purposeful breath into the sky and watch it dissipate quickly.
Two more musicians carrying violin cases arrive in the alley and approach the stage door. Following closely behind them, a trombone, trumpets, flutes - a full orchestra. The jazz quartet is definitely out.
I did so want to hear a singer. I miss the sound of a woman's voice, the way they look and smell. Maybe next week some Bessie Smith tribute, or maybe Edith Piaf.
Let's see, what might they be performing? I could look at the newspaper on my lap to confirm, but it's more fun to guess. It's something to do while I wait for them to start. By their demeanor, their flippant chatter, laughing...I'd say it was...light and jumpy. Vivaldi's, The Four Seasons? Astor Piazzolla's, “Four Seasons” would be even better, but it can't happen with that ensemble of instruments, unless the bandoneon player slipped by me while I was in Birdland.
“Birdland...ha, ha, ha, ha! Drum roll, cymbal crash! Ba-dum!”
A passerby turns around to look back, hearing my outburst. I'm not sorry I said it.
“Hey, it was funny!” I yell back at him.
Even “Rhapsody in Blue” would be a nice treat to denounce this winter's unforgiving cold! A couple clarinets and French horns walk on by, and that seems to be the last of them. In a few minutes, Steve will open the door and have a smoke while they get acclimated to the stage. Okay, time to look at the entertainment section.
“Let's see...there it is. Shit. ‘An Evening Celebrating the Music of Claude Debussy.’ Pretty stuff, but it will put me right to sleep.”
There's Steve. He gives me a wave by extending his fingers again, the same kind of little wave each time he sees me. Nice guy. He'll leave the door open a just a little by sticking that brick in it when he goes back in. It will be just enough that I can hear the whole show. Unless, of course, some other stage hand sees it and tosses it out and closes the door. If that happens, good old Steve will open the window in the back bathroom just a bit. You can't leave it open too much, though. I remember those dressing rooms being so cold at times. So cold. I never knew why. Maybe that was the reason…
As Steve looked across the street through the falling snow, he saw the old man pull his newspaper apart into separate sections, crumple them, and stuff them inside the vintage, tattered overcoat he always wore. As he watched, the man buttoned his coat all the way to the neck, and turned up the collar. He pulled a dark blue knit cap down carefully to cover only half of his ears in spite of the cold. Steve took a last puff on his cigarette, tossed it at his feet and reached down to put the brick in the door.
He took one last look across the alley, in time to see the old man roll over and pull the flap down on the side of his cardboard box. Large snowflakes rocked back and forth, slowly falling from the gray sky above, and began collecting on top of the makeshift shelter.
“Yeah, it's gonna be a cold one.”
By J.A. WILLOUGHBY
Is a short story that is included in
“Encore” is Copyright © 2015 J.A. Willoughby
Photo by Rebecca L. Willoughby - Cover design by the author
Stardust Publishing Group – Pennsylvania
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