Carried on a Breeze – by Mike Power

“What the hell was that?”

The bartender must’ve gone for a piss because there was nobody behind the taps to answer. The asker saw his chance to steal a pint and was reaching for a free refill when a woman two stools down looked up and caught his eye. “You hear that weird noise?” he asked and sat back down. He tried to re-catch her eye but she’d seen enough. That was OK. He understood. He shouldn’t be looking at her anyway. He was a family man, not one of these New York City degenerates. He preferred his hometown of Pearl River to the filthy mongrel city. He lived there in a house that was five miles from the one he grew up in. His parents still lived there. Joe at the bar, and Sharon at the diner, and Tom at the garage, and Linda at the Stop’n’Shop all knew him, respected him, and indulged him. They looked up to him for putting on a badge and risking his life for them, strangling the scum at its source, and keeping it away from their families. When he was in the city he didn’t go to the opera or the ballet, or to poetry readings or art galleries. He didn’t submit to feminine influence. He believed city women had too much power. In the city, the men are timid and the women bold. The thing he liked best about the city was seeing the Rangers or Bruce at the Garden, though he preferred to catch the E Street Band in their natural habitat, in Jersey. He also preferred coffee to tea, beer to wine, oxycontin to acupuncture, breakfast and lunch to brunch, dogs to cats, nonfiction to novels, backyards to front stoops, football to baseball, country to hip hop, English to Spanish, meat to tofu, straight to gay, traditional to cutting-edge, rugged individualism to we’re-all-in-this-togetherness, and God to emptiness. And he didn’t feel comfortable in a place where his people were a racial minority. It wasn’t that he had a problem with other races; he just thought it worked best for everyone when people lived with their own kind.

“It was a weird noise,” she said. Her voice was so soft he could barely hear it even as he gave her his full attention. He opened his mouth to say something but nothing came to mind.            “The words don’t exist,” he said. She’d known a lot of guys like him, but most wore a more resigned expression by this point in their life. This guy looked like he still wanted to find the words, so he could wield them against his most invincible foes – his impotence and incoherence – and watch them collapse in bloody puddles at his feet. His fingers trembled with the weight of their emptiness.

“Maybe they do,” she said.

“Huh?”

“The words. Maybe they do exist and you just don’t know them.”

He smiled and nodded. “That’s prob’ly it.” He lowered his head to his glass and looked up at her over the rim. She watched the afternoon light, a weird mix of dying sun and flickering streetlights, reflecting off his large forehead and stubbly chin on either side of his draining glass. He took his time in setting the empty glass on the rutted mahogany. He turned his head like a dog. At that angle she could imagine how he might have looked in better days. He looked up at just the right moment to catch the light in her eyes and it set off a siren in one of his ears. He closed his eyes to listen more clearly to the random fluctuations of its pitch. He raised a hand, felt it tremble, and let it fall limp. Eventually he said, “Mozart. Now, there was a guy who didn’t need words to say something.” He lowered his head and looked at her again from the queer angle that gave her a glimpse of his faded glories. She climbed off her stool and faced him, then she lowered her head too and put her hands together in Eastern salutation, then walked away into the pink Greenwich Village afternoon.

She was accustomed to the effects of alcoholic intoxication, but not this early in the day unless she was in a social situation. She enjoyed the change of pace. She also suspected this day was going to require sedation. The sun had set behind the taller buildings but there were still patches of daytime alive on the sidewalk that led to Washington Square Park. She cleared her ears of the sounds of human voices and mechanical speakers. The trapped, stuffed air of the inside world gave way to outside’s swirling freshness and she heard all manner of new sounds. Death whispered to her through the leaves. She could even hear, underneath the leaves that death had already claimed, the soft rumble of his laugh. She saw by the smiles on the faces of passing strangers that they weren’t hearing what she was but she felt no reason to envy them; she preferred to feel pity. They didn’t know what they were missing.

She heard the crack of thunder as a message from a time in the future when her planet would be returned to the lifeless rock it been for so long before the inconvenient intrusion of life. She heard the birds communicating extinction with each clipped tweet. She heard the hum of bicycle tires, the howl of cabbies’ horns, the squeal of a toddler, and the screech of subway wheels as warnings of impending destruction. There was only one sound in the heaving, pulsating universe that confounded her. It wasn’t hum, howl, squeal, or screech. It was coming out of the harmonica of an 18 year old boy with a cardboard box between his feet.

His long lone dream found no expression in words, or in body language, or even in the eye contact she shared with him. His passion knew only one way to escape his body and that was through the breath he forced through tiny wooden chambers, across tinier metal reeds that vibrated more intensely as his desperation increased. He wanted to bleed through his instrument. He had a vision of his heart exploding and saturating the park with a great spray of blood, washing the impurities of the world down the nearest gutter, and liberating the beauty that was hiding so close to the surface. His fingers slipped on the sweat-soaked strings of his guitar, his heart clutched, and he sucked a lungful of air. When his fingers regained their footing he found the highest-pitched chambers of the harmonica and released a singular breath of joyful relief through them. The resulting note – pure, sweet, and strong – bounced at 1,126 feet per second, in radiating patterns, off the stone walls surrounding the park. It traveled through the arch, north up Fifth Avenue across Central Park, Harlem, and the Bronx toward the North Pole. It traveled east past Broadway, the East River, and Long Island, before skipping across the bottomless cold Atlantic. It traveled west and south, down MacDougal Street, and into the ears of a comfortable couple creeping toward the modest one-bedroom walk-up that had been their home since 1965.

They met in 1963, a few blocks from their future home. He was coming up out of a hole in the sidewalk, with two cases of soda to stock the shelves of his father’s deli. She was on her way to work at the Chock full o’Nuts on 41st Street. He saw her ankles first, and his fascination increased with each inch of her that was revealed, up to the red-haired tip of her head. He knew immediately that she was the one for him. It took a few months before she recognized him as the one for her. She still recognized the one for her as he struggled with shaking fingers to work his key into their building’s front door. She held onto his arm for their mutual support. The door was almost closed behind them when the young woman who lived downstairs, rattled with booze and harmonicas, slid through the gap between door and frame. She stopped and smiled with tender indulgence at her favorite old couple. She took a gentler step to pass them then shot down the stairs:

 

Ba

Bump

Ba

Bump

Ba

Bump

Ba

Bump

At the bottom of the stairs she slapped the banister and made a wish to find the man who would grow old alongside her. She wondered again if her current boyfriend might be the one who would some day morph into her elderly gentleman. She smiled at the thought of his face. They shared a love that she had hoped would transcend time, but she also felt a growing fear that she was incapable of giving him something he desired. Unlike the old man she passed on the stairs – who she caught stealing glances at her from the corners of his eyes – she did not always make her boyfriend’s heart go

Ba

Bump

Ba

Bump

Ba

Bump

Ba

Bump

She knew her boyfriend wanted to want her. He wanted to want her more than he’d ever wanted anything, but she also knew that desire is impervious to want. Desire doesn’t respond to pressure or guilt or violence. Desire dances to its own tune and disregards the obstacles in its path.

Her boyfriend believed in fairy tales. He had hoped to sweep his perfect princess off her feet and carry her impossibly lithe and weightless body across the moat to the castle of his never-ending love, but there was a dragon who had other plans. One drunken night in college (or was it four?) he intentionally indulged the murky depths of his desire with the most repulsive man he’d ever met, his sociology professor. He knew if that didn’t cure him, nothing would. He learned in the hardest of hard ways that there is no cure for yourself.

She suspected that his desire pointed in the opposite direction from her. She learned in the easiest of easy ways that if you don’t want to believe your suspicions, you don’t have to.  She was just starting to learn the harder lesson that disbelief doesn’t change truth.

She was on her way to meet her knight in shining armor when she was distracted by a sound carried on the breeze. It tickled her ear and led her on a different path, through and around the park, so that she was a little late in getting to the restaurant where they were meeting. When she got there, her boyfriend was already talking to the waiter who was cataloging the frustrations of an aspiring actor. He said, “When you tell someone back home that you’re a stage actor they ask, ‘What shows?’ but when you tell New Yorkers they ask, ‘What restaurant?’ The two men shared a laugh that had almost nothing to do with the joke. She watched them with an anthropologist’s fascination. Her boyfriend rose when he saw her and said, “Here she is.” She felt his big hot hands on her shoulder blades and recognized affection but not desire.

They ate, but everything tasted like ashes to her. They talked, but words had no meaning for her. They drank, but she was already drunk. They asked for the bill, but she had already given up all she had.

When the waiter brought the check he brushed her boyfriend’s hand in such a gentle way that they all felt the blush of fresh romance.

She struggled to absorb the death of one more dream as she felt it crushed under the weight of its futility, and was sick with the premonition of how hard it was going to be to dream again. She took a long look at the man across the table from her and knew that she would spend more time than she should missing him. She knew the loss of this love was going to sting her for the rest of her life. She knew she wouldn’t be able to mourn the death of a lover who wasn’t dead. She knew that she would be understanding, and supportive. Everything she knew, even the uncomfortable silence between them, was unbearably incomplete.

mikepower

Mike’s short fiction has appeared in The Journal of Microliterature, Coffee House Fiction, and on the site of the New York City Writers’ Network. His first novel was The Zoo and he is currently working on his second. He is also a poet, musician, and visual artist. More of his work can be found on his blog Words & Music at www.mikepowernyc.com

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