What am I going to say to Ellen? How will she react when I tell her I’ve been fired? I suppose there’s no point in asking myself rhetorical questions. I know exactly what she’s going to say.
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“Howard, how could you let this happen? How are we going to pay our bills? I’m extremely disappointed in you. You’ve always been such an underachiever. You always settle for second best from yourself. I bet you’ve been daydreaming, or hallucinating, or whatever you want to call it, instead of focusing on your work. Didn’t any of what Dr. Seagram had to say sink in? I suppose not. To think of what I gave up for you. I could be married to Barry Frugesi, living in a mansion with servants catering to my every need. But no, like a fool I let emotion override common sense and chose you. Now here I am closing in on middle age, and instead of being secure, we have to start all over again.”
None of this will be fair of her to say. First of all, I’ve worked my tail off for McDermott and Lynch Realty. It’s not my fault that I’m in a slump. Not entirely, anyway. I can only perform as well as the economy dictates. For a considerable number of years I was their top salesman. At one point I accounted for nearly sixty percent of their sales. There wasn’t a house on the market that I couldn’t sell, even if it was little more than a cardboard box held together by duct tape and loose wiring. Now that I’m not doing so well, do they show me loyalty? I suppose it was pure folly to expect any. Loyalty has gone the way of chivalry and penny arcades.
Backstabbing from employers is one thing, but the reaction from Ellen that I fully anticipate is shameless. How dare she complain about our bills being paid? We’ve never paid a bill the entire time we’ve been married. I’ve paid the bills. I’ve single handedly supported my family from day one, never mind that gratitude has been expressed at a faster dwindling rate than marital affection over the past decade or so. My output at work has declined by no less a degree than Ellen’s output in the bedroom, not that bringing this up will strengthen my case any. Ellen is living a comfortable existence courtesy of my earning and investing efforts, but all she cares to highlight are my supposed inadequacies. Her complaints are based on the paranoia instilled in her youth by a penny-pinching father. The truth of our situation is that we’d need the Hubble telescope to find the poorhouse she’s routinely prophesying is one bad break away from becoming our residence. As for the legend of Barry Frugesi, if she throws him in my face one more time I’ll have no choice but to sternly express that – “He was a pompous, self-centered ass, not to mention that it was he who dumped you, Ellen. And I hate to be the bearer of bad news, darling, but you left middle age behind in your rear view mirror a few years ago.”
What am I doing? I’m walking down the street talking to myself, that’s what I’m doing. I need to get a grip. It’s a good thing this is Greenwich Village or else I would be attracting a lot of stares. As it is, I’m just one more raving lunatic in the crowd. This area of the only city I’ve ever lived in, the greatest city in the world, bares little resemblance to the way it was when I was a child. That was before NYU moved in and took over, gentrifying the neighborhood building by building. Times in general have changed a great deal from when I was young and on top of the world. I suppose everyone’s on top of the world when they’re young, and by its very definition, times have little choice but to change. Still doesn’t stop me from fondly reminiscing and profoundly missing days gone by, one of my biggest faults according to Ellen, though certainly not the only one she recites.
As I turn onto Broadway, a beautiful and eerily familiar melody flutters in the air. I spy a black man across the street standing in front of a 24-hour deli playing a tenor saxophone. The scene is typical, but the virtuoso performance he’s giving is anything but. Before my mind can recall where I have heard this song before, he stops and starts to play another one. This composition I instantly recognize as a Dexter Gordon masterpiece that the street musician is interpreting flawlessly. Being a huge jazz fan and having nothing better to do than procrastinating further before heading home to inform Ellen of my unemployment, I cross the street to listen closer.
The sax player looks about fifty-five years old, which would make him five years older than me. He has a salt and pepper afro and possesses a complexion like hot chocolate, his radiantly white teeth putting me in mind of marshmallows floating on top. The feeling of warmth exuded from his eyes puts one instantly at ease in his presence, even as they dance in rhythm with the music he brings forth. His fingers glide across the keys with a fluidity I can’t help but marvel at. Here is a man who was born to play the saxophone, but not on a street corner with an open case lying on the ground next to him containing about three dollars in change. This guy belongs in Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall. He should be performing for kings and queens, not pedestrians with too much on their minds and too little spare time to recognize the genius they’re racing past.
The music transports me back to a better time, a wondrous one during which I handled a saxophone pretty well myself. I must have played close to a hundred nightclubs. That sax of mine helped pay my way through college. It got me more dates than I could have ever hoped more. Ellen fell in love with me, despite having superior offers on the table, largely because of the passion and sensuality that I exuded on stage. Was it really so long ago when I last went out on the fire escape to set loose a melody after making love to Ellen on that creaky old bed in our tiny apartment in SOHO, back when we were delirious newlyweds?
The Dexter Gordon tune is brought down to a graceful landing. I respectfully applaud and toss a dollar into the musician’s case.
“Much obliged, mister,” he says in a throaty pack-a-day voice, flashing a broad smile with his practically glow-in-the-dark molars.
“You’re incredible,” I tell him. “Much too talented to be out here playing on the street.”
“Ain’t nothing wrong with the streets. You’re always guaranteed a sell out audience, rain or shine. Even if most people don’t stop to listen, they still hear me as they walk by. All in all I’ve played for thousands of folks. And every so often, one of my songs touches someone’s heart and makes their day just a little brighter. Guys and dolls on Wall Street might make a lot more money than me, but how many opportunities do they get on the job to make someone smile?”
“I suppose you have a point there,” I say. “I used to play the sax years ago. Nothing quite like standing before a crowd and knowing I had them in the palm of my hand, that I could take them on a journey of my own making simply by breathing my dreams and aspirations into that brass tunnel. The feeling was worth a lot more to me than the paychecks.”
“Of course it was. That feeling is called happiness. A shrink or a thesaurus could give you some alternate words for it, but I think the one I chose works just fine. I might not have a lot of money, but it doesn’t take much effort to put a grin on this old mug of mine. The same can’t be said for you, sorry to report.”
A quizzical expression must fall upon my face, because before I can ask the old musician what he means by this, he proceeds to answer my unspoken question.
“I can see it in your eyes. Your whole life has revolved around providing for the well being of others at the expense of your own contentment. You’ve worked for years in a job you hate so your wife could wear fashionable dresses while dining at exclusive restaurants. You made sure that your son was able to go to the best schools, even though you knew that he’d goof off and flunk out. You arranged for your daughter to have her dream wedding, never mind that you couldn’t stand the guy and accurately predicted it wouldn’t last a year. Their needs were taken care of, but what have you done for yourself? The truth is you haven’t really been happy since the last time you played your saxophone. When you put it up in the attic so your wife would stop complaining that she kept tripping over it, you tucked away a large piece of your soul.”
I can do nothing but stare with astonishment as this complete stranger recounts my life story. I am both frightened and fascinated.
“Where are you getting this nonsense from?” I manage to stammer, afraid to confess to the accuracy of his words, or perhaps ashamed to admit it to myself.
“Like I said, I can see it in your eyes. It’s a gift. Some people create paintings, some write novels, others sing or dance or solve complicated mathematical equations. There are even a few extraordinary individuals who can juggle while riding a unicycle. As for me, I play the saxophone and read people’s eyes. Some of them tell the saddest stories ever told. The truly tragic ones I put to music and play their tears. It isn’t too late for you to change your song, you know. Sometimes, what looks like a setback is actually an opportunity. Don’t let this one pass you by. Life is too short, and there’s a whole mess of beauty to take in if you have the right frame of mind to see it. Most folks waste time examining their sorrow, trying to make sense of it, trying to bend it to their will. I say just toss it aside to make room for a prettier picture, for a song with a groove that you can dance to.”
I’m not sure how to regard this fortune cookie advice. Since he knows so much about me, superficial details as well as knowledge that seems to require inside information, perhaps he actually is qualified to counsel me. He may merely be some down on his luck guy playing saxophone on a street corner for castaway coins, but his advice rings truer than that given to me by those in much loftier societal positions, including Dr. Seagram, who charged armed robbery by the hour to listen to my woes and then regurgitate the irrelevant opinions of Sigmund Freud. Listening to the musician, mesmerized by the creases in his face that remind me of rivers on a map of Africa, I feel as people do upon reading their horoscope in the newspaper for amusement and finding that it neatly coincides with whatever they happen to be going through.
After college, I wanted to pursue a full time career in music. But Ellen, who was pregnant with the child who hastened our sprint to the altar, insisted that I enter a more secure line of work. On the recommendation of her father, some would have called it extreme prodding but I knew better than to offend the daughter who doted on him, I chose the real estate game. I turned out to be pretty good at it, needing simply to transfer my stage presence to one-on-one charm, especially in the beginning when it was new enough to capture my interest. But it was only a matter of time before dissatisfaction settled in. My vocation was lucrative, my home spacious, my finances secure, my loved ones were protected from their complacency, but still .
One morning about seven years into our marriage, an impulse led me up to the attic in search of my abandoned saxophone. I found that I had forgotten all the songs once played from memory with such ease. I had traded my soul to the devil in exchange for domestic tranquility, and my soul, in the shape of a tenor saxophone, had become dust covered and foreign to my touch. As I headed to work shortly afterwards, I realized it wasn’t so much playing the sax that I missed, as it was the sense of freedom I associated it with. When I was a young man, the whole world lay before my eyes for the taking. Now as a not so young man, I could scarcely believe how little I had elected to grab hold of.
The process of manufacturing a lifetime is a tiring one, or at least that has been my experience to date. The quotas I was professionally obligated to reach pulled increasingly further away over the years. The degree to which I allowed myself to care about this waned in direct proportion. One year ago I had what experts termed a nervous breakdown. Therapy and time were supposed to rejuvenate me and increase my sales figures in the process. I tried to care. I failed. Eventually I was fired. No hard feelings.
This black street musician is right. Today doesn’t have to be an end for me. It can be a new beginning. Maybe I’ll start my own business, open up a music store. And I could take up playing the saxophone again, not to earn a living, but to make the process of living a little sweeter. What nobler cause to undertake a venture can there be? But before doing any of this I’ll go on a world cruise with Ellen, check out all the places we once talked about longing to see before getting caught up with keeping up with the Jones’, whoever they happen to be. What’s stopping us? We have enough money saved to tide us over for a good while. Our kids are grown now and more or less independent; Rachel having married and then divorced herself into country club money; Herbert lucking into business partnership with a former college classmate and now earning a small fortune not through intelligence, skill or diligence, but solely due to being in the right place at the right time – the American way.
My thoughts are interrupted. The musician is once again playing the song I first heard him performing, the one that lured me to him like a child to the Pied Piper. I allow its sweet melody to caress my senses and find myself humming along. Suddenly I realize why the tune is so familiar to me. I composed it twenty-six years ago. It is the song I wrote for Ellen when I was courting her. This cannot be, and yet it most definitely is. I clear my throat to ask how he could possibly know this particular arrangement of musical notes, but then decide against it. Some things are best left unknown. I continue to listen until the saxophone man finishes my song, after which he grins so brightly that I nearly need to shield my eyes.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” he says. “Now it’s time for you to go home and play it for yourself.”
“I think you’re right.”
I remove a twenty from my wallet and place it in his instrument’s case. Then I head across the street towards the nearest subway entrance. I can’t wait to get home and discuss with Ellen my wonderful plans for the adventurous future I’ve envisioned for us. She’ll no doubt resist at first, wanting me to be practical, to get back onto the safe road. But I’ve played it cautious long enough. I’m confident that if I stick to these relocated convictions and probe deeply enough into my wife’s heart, I will eventually find the free spirit lurking beneath, long dormant but not yet expired.
The chain of mellifluous chords snakes between the oxygen and nitrogen that comprise the surrounding air. With each step I take the music grows louder and sharper, the acoustics of this street corner defying conventional wisdom. The saxophone man is accompanied by a most unique set of band mates generating sounds only to be found on a New York City street, the ultimate jazz improvisation. Then an unpleasant chord is struck, a high pitched screech that spoils the toe tapping groove. I turn my head just in time to see the alarmed face of a truck driver slamming his foot on a break pedal. But the vehicle has gained too much momentum, and the distance between us is too small. The tires stop spinning, but the grill of the truck moves towards me at a catastrophic rate of speed. An instant later, all fades to back.
When I awaken, it is in a state of profound confusion. I do not know how long I have been asleep. Perhaps I’ve been in a coma. I am relieved to find that my limbs are fully operational. A quick pat down of my torso fails to reveal anything missing, or even hurting. My health appears to be fine. I must have recovered from whatever injuries I suffered while lying unconscious in this hospital room.
“Looks like you were having quite the dream.”
I turn towards the voice that has startled while informing me that I am not alone. Seated to my right is Dr. Seagram. I wonder why my former psychiatrist has come to pay me a visit. It isn’t as if we became good friends while I was under his care. In fact, during my sessions I made little effort to mask my disdain of him. My wife and kids should be here by my side, not this Freud obsessed fool.
An image from hospital bed scenes in various movies springs to mind. Fearing to discover that while my body is fine, my face is encased like a mummy, I run my fingers from ear to ear and hairline to chin. No bandages or scars are to be found. It seems that I am completely uninjured. Perhaps the truck merely tapped me and I was knocked out when my head hit the ground. Or maybe I passed out in fright, a reasonable reaction to the circumstances. It has become clear that I was certainly not plowed into.
“How did I get here?”
Dr. Seagram smiles in that way of his that I have frequently longed to smack from his face, for it toes the line beyond which is a smirk, without quite crossing it.
“You blacked out in your office after. After you were fired, Howard. Do you remember being fired?”
“Of course I do.” Oh, how I loathe Dr. Seagram’s condescending tone of voice. My guess is that rather than coaxing patients back to mental health by lending an ear and dispelling sound advice, his technique is to drive them off his couch and back into the chaotic world that loosened their marbles through the overpowering force of his obnoxiousness. “And I remember leaving the office, having a great conversation with this black guy playing the saxophone on a street corner, and then I think I was hit by a truck while crossing the street.”
Dr. Seagram pulls on his beard, one of his many very annoying habits. I can almost literally see the wheels spinning in his head as he tries to psychoanalyze me.
“What you’re describing is what you must have just dreamt, Howard. The truth is, you collapsed in the office of your employer after you were let go. An ambulance brought you here. Therefore you could not have had a conversation with a musician, black, white, purple, or green. And there was no truck accident.”
The words spoken by Dr. Seagam shake me. As much as I dislike him, I also know him to be a straight shooter. Playing con games is not his style. So I’ve little choice but to accept that his version of events is the true one.
“But it seemed so real. He seemed so real. He inspired me to make major changes in my life. I was looking forward to taking his advice. No offense, Dr. Seagram, but ten minutes spent talking to him was far more motivating and clarifying than all of my sessions with you combined.”
“No offense taken, Howard. After all, it’s pretty hard to compete against a figment of one’s imagination. Under the circumstances, I think you should give serious consideration to resuming our sessions. I recommend two per week to start. Going back on medication is probably a good idea as well. You have much work to do when it comes to dealing with stress. It’s no wonder a day like this one pushed you over the edge. Not that it’s anything to be embarrassed about. There’s no easy way to cope with being fired from a job you’ve had for decades and being left by your wife on the same day. You have a tendency to hide out in a fantasy whenever reality gets too difficult for you to handle.”
“Left by my wife? What are you talking about, Dr. Seagram?”
“Oh my. Apparently you’ve blocked some of what happened this morning from your memory and replaced it with what you just dreamt about. I hate to be the bearer of such bad news, but Ellen moved out of your home. She’s taken up with another man. I’m rather embarrassed to admit that the man she left you for is my colleague, Dr. Robertson.”
Talk about information overload. If only this conversation was my nightmare instead of the awful state of affairs I’ve awakened to. I close my eyes in order to picture the psychiatrist that Dr. Seagram shares a practice with. Our paths only crossed a handful of times. He’s African American, about half an inch taller than me, mid fifties, a salt and pepper afro with a complexion like hot chocolate and prominently white teeth. My eyes open wide, as does my mouth to utter three syllables.
“Oh my God.” Remembrance is crashing down upon me. The real events of today are assaulting my awareness with perfect clarity, in technicolor. Ellen curtly informed me that she was leaving for good. Unlike prior occasions, it was not merely a bluff for attention. She actually walked out the door this time, out of our marriage, without taking the briefest glance of regret back. Pathetically, I could think of nothing better to do in response than go to work, where as bad luck would have it, I was fired. I did not leave the office on my own terms, or even on my own feet. There was no encounter afterwards with a wise black man who plays the saxophone like an angel. But I didn’t dream the guy up entirely, for he does exist, he is in fact the very same man that Ellen left me for – Dr. Robertson.
I close my eyes again, this time in sweet surrender. My senses shut out all stimuli, so if Dr. Seagram is offering words of wisdom or apologizing for his colleague’s behavior or trying to fit future sessions with me into his calendar, I am blissfully unaware. My state of concentration pays off and I am able to bring back what I long for. The music of the saxophone man is washing over me. It will get me through this. The uncaring world that I desperately need protection from has disappeared. Only this glorious music is left behind like a Cheshire smile.
Roy Pickering is a freelance writer living in Maplewood, New Jersey. He showcases his fiction at roypickering.net
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