Aphelion Issue 242, Volume 23
August 2019
 
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Music Man

by Bruce Memblatt


Dikon played a mean sax. The streets were good to him. Some days were better than others. The winters were hard. Summer nights were the best. Folks hanging out in t-shirts and jeans sipping cool beer, catching the breeze in their hair were free-er with their spare change on a warm summer night.

Same corner every night, right by the subway station down by Union Square, Dikon would blast out high notes, low notes and every note in-between. He'd take requests, he'd improvise, he'd reprise. Some nights he could pull in a hundred bucks and get a room somewhere, but most nights Dikon stayed out on the streets.

If you asked Dikon why he chose the streets he'd tell you he didn't know, there were some things he could do, some things he couldn't. He loved the music, but it wasn't why he stayed out there. Dikon wasn't searching for fame or fortune. Dikon was just trying to survive.

Some said he was just a lazy so and so, but that wasn't it. Dikon was afraid. He played a mean sax. He played a tough street guy but deep down in that place where there's nowhere to hide Dikon knew he was afraid of the sun and the moon and everything that slithered in-between, because he couldn't cope with the small everyday things people did to get by. As hard as he tried his head was forever lost in the music and the clouds beneath the harsh sun.

Dikon spotted Virgil one night hanging on the corner where he always played, the corner of Sixteenth and Broadway, the corner he'd came to call his corner. There wasn't anything that unusual about Virgil; it was just that he kept coming back. Now Dikon knew he played a good sax, and some people loved the sax, but there were other corners and other street players. Why was this dude stopping by almost every night?

Virgil was tall, always wore a hat, and he must have been in his late forties, Dikon surmised. The thing was there was something dark about Virgil that Dikon couldn't define, like a sadness, but more. It was like Virgil knew something; something about the way things were going to go down, not just for him but for the world. And Dikon guessed they weren't going to go down good from the way Virgil carried himself and by the intensity in his eyes. The eggs would fall, the eggs would fall everywhere and break like cheap glass.

Dikon would describe Virgil as a mortician. It was something in the way he looked, his hat, his shiny shoes, his black suit, and the vague smirk that came and went with the frenetic breeze.

When Dikon learned Virgil's name it must have been the tenth time Virgil had sauntered down to his corner. The red setting sun bleached through the buildings surrounding the intersection like cracked ice under a bed of bourbon. The first thing Dikon saw was the shadow of Virgil's hat falling over the saxophone case that stretched over the sidewalk by his shoes. The second thing he saw was a twenty-dollar bill haphazardly fall and land on top of the change that lined the case.

The third thing; he heard his voice. "I like the way you play -- all sad like."

Dikon couldn't help but spit out, "It's all the loose ends, you know, I can't figure them out, they turn my head, and I cry through the notes."

"You need a job," Virgil said, that's all he said, nothing poetic or complex like Dikon expected, the fucker just said You need a job.

Was he all wrong about him? Maybe Virgil wasn't a mysterious dark soul; maybe he was just another asshole. Dikon knew Virgil was right, in the grand scheme of things, but at that time, in that spot, he thought the fool was just shooting off his mouth with an easy answer, and the guy didn't look like anybody's fool.

Dikon just shot back, "Yeah. I suppose you've got a job for me?"

Without missing a beat, without curling a hair, Virgil said, "As a matter of fact I do. My name is Virgil, I own a little club just down on Avenue A, called, as you might guess, Virgil's. I want you to play there. I'll pay you; maybe even give you a room."

Dikon stared in his eyes. Virgil's eyes were squinting like the sun was hitting them too hard, but the sun was behind him. Dikon thought it added something to his already strange demeanor. It was like the dude was caught between something, maybe between a rock and a hard place, maybe between good and evil, maybe somewhere between sane and crazy like him.

Dikon simply said, "So that's what you've been doing coming down here every night? You were scoping me out, trying to see if I was good enough to play in your club."

Virgil cracked a half smile. "I've been looking for someone special, someone who didn't pose, someone who played real. I need someone who plays real. You play real."

"You know there's something about you that's dark," Dikon said. "Man, you scare me and you intrigue me."

"Do you want the job or not?"

Did he want the job or not? Dikon wasn't sure, but he was going to take it because the intensity that surrounded Virgil made him curious, not in the sense that he had to find a concrete answer to a concrete question, but in a more ambiguous sense. It was as if Virgil was holding the key to a door they were all going to fall through and if he followed him maybe the blow wouldn't be so bad. Virgil was going to in some way protect him from the splatter and chaos that was coming, that they brought on. He could see it in the edges of the buildings and in the way the sunlight peered around corners like it was crying.

"I'll take it," Dikon said, staring at the red sun setting behind Virgil like it was calling him, "I'll take it. When do I start?"

"Tonight. Follow me."

"So you just want me to leave my corner right now and go with who? You? Some stranger who claims he has a gig for me? You might be some kind of lunatic."

"Yeah, why not now, Dikon? Have you got something better to do?"

"Nope," was all Dikon said while he slowly bent over and placed his sax in the case, carefully removing the change from the cheap velvet lining, and stuffing the coins into his pockets.

He sneezed twice and then he turned to Virgil and said, "Say, you're not the devil are you?"

"I'm worse," Virgil said, half smiling.

Dikon liked the way Virgil tossed off his answer, like they knew each other, as if somehow this had all happened before. Maybe it did, he told himself. Maybe everything had died before, maybe it dies over and over, and people don't notice it. Maybe something has to happen to make you notice it, like you have to meet a Virgil.

Suddenly, Virgil stared at Dikon like he'd just seen the end of the world. "You've got a lot of theories don't you? Well get them all out of your head. I'm just a club owner, that's all I am. Let's go," he said and he began to take his steps.

Dikon followed him, sax case under his arms, an eerie feeling in his belly that told him things were changing. Glass would crash. Under his breath he felt the stone cold feeling of fear mixed with the sizzle of the anticipation of something new happening. He held his saxophone case tightly as they walked down Broadway in silence.

Silence seemed to sit everywhere.

The sun was edging off into darkness, maybe this was the last time Dikon would see its light, the thought struck him like a match, as the window panes in the buildings turned black and the street lights began to emerge, not like they did in the past, but still enough to put on a show.

He thought about light. He thought about his next move. What would he play for his debut at Virgil's, something dark and bluesy, that must be what Virgil wanted, he thought as they turned onto fifth street and began walking east towards Avenue A, towards Alphabet City, to Virgil's.

The small brownstones that lined Fifth Street looked like they could fall over and crumble away with one good blow. Dikon imagined himself taking out his sax hitting a high E and watching the buildings tumble away like clay. That's when Virgil stared at him like he knew what he was thinking.

But all he said was, "Three more blocks to go."

And there they were on the corner of Avenue A and forth street. More brownstones and old buildings lined the way; bordered storefronts, broken ATMs, ripped billboards etched with graffiti with phrases like Angel was here, God doesn't care spread across plywood that covered broken windows and battered doors. It was the darkest street in the world. And in the middle of the street, between Fourth and Fifth on Avenue A, a blue neon sign hung that simply said Virgil's, over a plain wooden door with a panel of thin glass at its center.

The first word that came to Dikon's mind was seedy, and then he quickly remembered he was a lowdown homeless saxophone player. Occasionally he'd forget, he'd even come to believe he had a place somewhere, but it was just a wish in Dikon's head, a memory of easier times to get him through the rough times. But, in fact, against the backdrop of boarded windows and the broken bottles and cans that lined the street Virgil's didn't look half bad. There was a soft glow around the door from the dim light from within the club that made it look mysterious in the way that even in the dingiest of places there are rims and specks of light that can induce beauty, Dikon thought, a sad kind of beauty.

He glanced at the side of Virgil's head as they walked down the street nearing the door. Virgil's hat tilted over just a bit. He could see the edge of a grin. Dikon wondered when he was going to say something, but at the same time he was eased by his silence, because he wanted to take in the atmosphere. He wanted to hear the place he was going to play in. Dikon thought all places had their own special sounds that reveal their history if you listen close enough. And if the glass started to fall he wanted to be the first to hear it, through everything, through the past, through the present and whatever was left to come.

A motorcycle raced down Avenue A, breaking the silence and Dikon's concentration. Then Virgil pulled open the door and he said, "Here we are."

The dim light hit Dikon's face. He saw the back of Virgil's hat against the light making it appear like a shadow, making Virgil appear like a shadow as he led Dikon into the club. As he had guessed, there was a bar running down the right side of the room, and against the opposite wall tables scattered about, small round pale wooden tables. A few random shadowed faces appeared in wooden chairs around the tables.

Dank and musty was the feeling that came to him, like they had just stepped into an old woman's attic. There was another sense he got from the room, a sense of sadness, which he thought was unusual, bars usually had a sexy sense to him, even the cheap ones, but this one was sexless and dark with a kind of longing he couldn't put his fingers on.

He looked at the ceiling, old ceiling fans spun slowly, and on the walls, nothing, no pictures or bric-a-brac, nothing, just plain wood paneling and some cheap lamps. But the light in the room, there was something about that dim light that brushed against his skin like waves of change, like something was about to happen. He wasn't sure it if going to be something good or something bad, or something in- between but he knew this light would play a part in his future. This may be the last light I see, he thought, when Virgil turned around and pointed to a small slab of wood on the other end of the bar facing the tables.

He said, "This is our stage. Okay, it's not the Palace but it's a job, Dikon, and everyone has a job to do."

All Dikon could think was finally words, even if they were sort of the same words he mouthed off about jobs earlier at Union Square. Doesn't this cat ever think about anything else? he wondered. Then he took another look in Virgil's eyes and he was sure he did. Virgil was just playing the boss man now. He had to wait till he eased in and things got comfy. Virgil would tell him thing things that would unravel the riddles in his head. He had to because the puzzles were getting too complex. His head was getting too heavy; he needed to play, to release.

"Why don't you step up here," Virgil said, pointing again to the stage," bring your sax, get nice and cozy. More folks will be here later. It's early yet, so don't worry if you mess up in front of these people."

Dikon said, "I don't mess up when I play. When I play everything's connected."

"I know, I just thought it being your first day. Anyway, later I'll introduce you to the other players. In the meanwhile if you want something to drink Sid at the bar here will get you something."

Dikon looked at the bar; he didn't see a bartender, no one that looked like a Sid. Sitting at the counter he spotted more nondescript faces appearing in shadows on the stools, but there was no one behind the bar.

Then Virgil called, "Oh, I forgot to tell you... Sid is a midget, you've got to look down further."

Suddenly he saw a glass pop up on the top of the bar, and he heard a gruff voice plow out. "Gin and tonic."

Dikon just smiled to himself, natch, when a thought occurred to him. It was something Virgil had said before about meeting the other players. What did he mean players? Like in a band? He was a solo act. He turned around to ask Virgil and he was gone.

Then from behind the bar he heard Sid say "Well, aren't you gonna play something, Music Man?"

"Yeah, sure," Dikon muttered under his breath as he took his sax out of his case. Then he stepped onto the plank of wood that Virgil called a stage, and he thought, a stage is a stage, and he pulled the instrument to his mouth. He paused looking out over the small crowd, at the dark tables, the dark faces. He took in the dusky feel of the room and he trembled a little inside because he couldn't feel the music in his head. Something was throwing him off, this place was all wrong, he knew, when suddenly he had it. He regained it and he let out a single note, an E flat, and he held that one note a long time. The shadowy faces stared across the room in anticipation and then he slid right into Gershwin's Summertime from Porgy and Bess: Summertime...and the living is easy. He wailed it out like he was crying, like the world was crying, and the faces just stared, Dikon thought in awe, and he knew he had them, had it. Had the crowd in his hands, when suddenly out of nowhere it seemed, because he didn't know where he went. He didn't think he was behind him, but suddenly Virgil tapped him on his back and said, "That's enough."

Dikon's head spun around. What did he mean that's enough? He just played the mother fucking life out of that song; he played it to the top and all Virgil could say was that's enough. He saw a pattern developing, was this how it was going to be? Some mysterious dude just whipping out short orders at him, where was the rest? Where was the whole? When was it all going to enfold? There was a reason he was in this strange place. Everything happens for a reason. What was it? What was going down, he thought, as he stared into Virgil's eyes hoping for some kind of answer, some kind of something.

Virgil squinted back at him and said, "That was real good, real good, Dikon, but save it for later when she gets here."

She who? What was Virgil conjuring up? Was this she someone special, a rich lady, maybe a celebrity? His mind began to churn. The puzzle was getting harder. And in the pit of his stomach he felt a sudden urge to scream out loud to the world stop! Then his thoughts returned to the expected stranger. Why would anyone rich or famous come down to this dark street to this sad dark club? He wondered when he turned around because the room felt too quiet, and when he turned his head all the tables were empty.

The faces in the crowd, everyone was gone. He spied around the room, the tables stood vacant like they hadn't been used in ages. The chairs sat on top of the tables like they do in restaurants when they're preparing to close. The cocktail glasses were gone. It was as if he dreamt it, but he didn't because there were people sitting there enraptured with his performance just moments ago.

The saxophone fell out of his hands and onto Virgil's stage when Virgil said, "They all went home. You know, things to do, preparations, not that there's anything one can really do, but it makes them feel better to prepare for what's happening."

The mystery was unfolding. He was certain the whole would come pouring over him like little sparks of light that would lift the sand in his head with Virgil's next words.

With anticipation, with confusion he said to Virgil. "Prepare for what, prepare for what?"

Virgil walked to the end of the bar and pulled a glass from the counter. The mysterious dark man seemed to be becoming even more elusive just at the moment he was certain the riddle would be solved.

Dim light fell over Virgil's head as he held the glass in his hand up to the source of the light, a simple bulb that hung above the bar, and he said. "You know what people are preparing for C'mon Dikon, it's time to put your head in order, you have a job to do, your job is to play soon, when all hell breaks loose, when the shit hits the fan, when the..."

Virgil's' words broke off because they were both starring at the door. The light in the room seemed to bend towards the door, and then the she that Virgil had spoken of entered slowly, dressed in white, with wings, like an angel, with light hair and eyes intense and black. Dikon thought she must be an angel. He must have died and he was playing for an angel. This run-down club on the darkest street in the world must have been some kind of ironic bizarre entrance to heaven.

"Do you see her Dikon?"Virgil said, still holding his glass up to the light bulb, "now, like I was about to say, when the lights go out."

When the lights go out? Dikon wondered anxiously, what did Virgil mean when the lights go out? It was too strange. Everything was becoming too strange. His head began to ache with mystery because the answer he needed seemed to be racing further away.

He just stared at Virgil again as the she, the woman entering the room, drew nearer and the light surrounding her grew brighter.

"What do you mean?" Dikon shouted."The light, the light is growing brighter, not darker!"

"Now you know what's going on," Virgil turned to Dikon and softly said, "you've heard the reports. Everyone knows the sun is dying. It's going to burn out in a glorious burst any moment now. You know that, you know that, glass will break, glass will break everywhere.

Glass will break, glass will break everywhere. God, those were his words, his thoughts! Dear god he knew, he knew, he knew what was happening. Suddenly he felt warm, very warm; his body could feel the extreme heat his mind had been shielding him from.

His eyes slammed towards the bar. Virgil was gone. The angel was gone. The tables were empty. Then suddenly he heard it; glass crashing everywhere, everywhere he could hear and everywhere he could see, he heard it shattering, slicing, falling to the earth in shards and unbearable thuds and blasts. Everything inside him awakened for his death. There was never any Virgil. Virgil was a man he created in his mind to protect him from the light, from the crash, from the end.

He fell to the ground and grabbed his sax. The sax lay on the sidewalk. He wasn't inside a bar. He was never inside a bar. There was no bar named Virgil's. He made it up in his crazy head. He finally saw it, the great realization, when a flash of light filled his vision.

He felt bright hot light surround him, surround everything, for what seemed like just a second, and then everything that ever was disappeared, the earth, everything. Everything was gone. Before him only space, black space, but for a reason beyond his comprehension he still had his sax in his hand. Instinctively, he pulled the instrument to his mouth when he heard a far off voice say in a whisper: "Blow, Gabriel blow."

THE END


© 2011 Bruce Memblatt

Bio: Bruce Memblatt lives in New York City. His stories have been featured in such magazines as Aphelion (most recently Music Man, July 2010), Static Movement, Danse Macabre, SNM Horror Magazine, Jeani Rector's The Horror Zine, The Piker Press, A Golden Place, Eastown Fiction, Short Story Me! 69 Flavors of Paranoia, Suspense Magazine, Audience Magazine, Black Lantern Publishing, The Cynic Online and The Feathertale Review, and Bewildering Stories, and have also appeared in a number of print anthologies.

E-mail: Bruce Memblatt

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