One day the little old man woke up. He made his bed as he listened to the birds caged in the next apartment. He smiled when he saw the sun on the bed he’d made. And then he left the room. It was time for coffee and breakfast.
With his stubby fingers he twisted the knob on his stove. The kettle began to awaken. From the icebox he pulled eggs, butter, cheese, spinach and a tomato. He closed the door after this was done. On the door there was a picture. He could only look at the picture for a moment. He went back to work. He worked, thinking of the picture.
He diced half of the tomato and put the other half face down on a saucer. The kettle began to wail. He took a mug from the cabinet and grabbed the instant coffee too. Spooning the grounds into the mug, he thought about the picture. Then he heard the kettle scream.
When the omelette was done and the coffee down, he washed the dishes. He heard music, or thought he did. It came from a far away distance or a different time. He wasn’t very sure. Something about the music. It was very out of place, like a gull in Kansas.
He showered, dressed in slacks and a collared shirt. He pulled his coat from the closet. He put on his cap. He went out the door carrying nothing but the thought of the picture and the sounds of the music.
The hallway offered no welcome to the old man, though the man knew the hallway well. He had seen it develop, transform, diminish.
There were no neighbors to the old man. There were rooms and rooms of people, but they were like ghosts. He headed towards the stairs at the far end of the hall. About halfway the man noticed a door opened up a crack. He heard powerful voices and heroic music just inside the door. He peeked in.
A brother and sister were on the floor eating cereal and watching a cartoon show. They were wearing pajamas and laying on pillows sprawled on the floor. He saw what looked like a villain was holding a detonator on the screen. A voice shouted, “Halt!”
The old man let out a small laugh. He smiled very wide. The kids turned towards him. They did not smile. The girl turned towards her brother who was bigger, and said something that the old man could not hear. And then the boy was up. They boy made himself look tough as he approached the door.
“Hi,” said the old man. And then the door was closed.
The old man reached the bottom of the stairs more tired than he liked. He pulled his keys from his pocket. He found the little silver one he used to open up the mailbox marked 4C. There were circulars for grocery stores, pizza chains and oil changes. He got a bill from the gas company. A letter from a politician, asking for his vote. He put these things in his pocket without much thought. He closed the box.
The church was four blocks away, or a thirty minute walk. It was cool outside and the bodies on the street hustled around him. He was a small bobbing vessel in the sweeping current. The youthful bodies were careful not to nudge him, perhaps from fear of injuring an old man. He walked all four blocks without even being grazed.
When he reached the church he was very tired. He sat down on a bench outside the church to rest. There were three very fine oaks that had grown in the small yard outside. They offered plenty of shade for congregants and passers by over time. He’d seen many birds take shelter in the limbs. He thought of this as he watched the men work.
With respect to the traffic, the men were dismantling the trees as they stood. Climbers with saws were cutting away the branches. Men with ropes lowered the severed limbs with pulleys into the bed of a big truck. As efficiently as a nest of ants attacking an invading preying mantis, the workers were overwhelming. And they were making good time. Pretty soon, the old man thought, they’d all be gone.
He watched from the bench. He’d known that this day was coming. “With old oaks comes acorns. Acorns on city streets, well that’s a liability,” was what someone had said. The old man heard this, and then he heard them say, “And in these times…”
The man got up from the bench and walked inside the church. His eyes took a moment to adjust, but while they did he removed his hat. He heard voices in the room. Amplified voices that drowned out the sounds of the chainsaws outside.
A bass drum was beat impatiently and he finally saw the altar. A band was setting up. Teenagers with cut off sleeves and tattoos were moving amongst heaps of equipment. Someone came and moved the lectern. The old man hadn’t thought it would be so easy. A girl at the microphone said, “Check, check, check one-two. Check one-two.” Her nose ring glistened in the light.
The old man stood still looking for a place to pray. He had always prayed at the steps of the pulpit, but this band. He walked towards them. He knew he would be quick. He always prayed the same.
As he walked, he took in the cross hanging over the pulpit. He admired the stained glass. He was almost there. He would pray.
“Can you hear me?” she said. “They’d better hear me!” She angrily motioned towards the pews. “I’m the fucking lead singer.”
It was then she saw the old man. He was laboring onto his knees. He was near her. She went and crouched by him. He had closed his eyes.
“Excuse me, sir.”
The old man looked up. He smiled. She smiled.
“I’m sorry, but the church is closed to the public right now. It will be for another two hours while we rehearse.”
“But,” he said.
“See, we’re Immaculate Conception, and we’re playing this show tonight and we’re going to unleash some new stuff that we haven’t had much time to rehearse. It’s gonna be epic. Or biblical. Whatever”
He watched her mouth move, not quite sure.
“Point is, Pastor B said,” she stopped, “The youth leader, you know? Anyway, he said we’d have the place to ourselves so none of our die-hards try and leak anything online before the gig.”
The old man looked at the band members. They looked uncertain but they said nothing. He looked at the rest of the room and it was empty. He looked back at the girl. She still smiled.
“Two hours and the place is all yours,” she said. “Promise.”
The old man worked himself into a standing position, but he didn’t turn to go. He looked at them all, but only she looked back. And kept on smiling.
When he was walking out, he heard their voices behind him. He heard her voice well, and only whispers among the others. In the mic, belted through the speaker she said, “Alright, screw it, let’s move on. And can we lock the damned door?”
Outside again, the old man heard music, not his music, come from the place within.
He looked at the trees. There was only a little left to be done. He looked at the doors and heard someone locking them from the inside. It was then he thought of the picture.
Him and his wife had celebrated their tenth anniversary at the beach. They’d left the kids at her mother’s home outside of town before they drove down the coast. They rented a room at a small motel on the beach and made love once all the bags were inside. She giggled as he tickled her and she’d laughed when she saw a seagull on the window sill looking in at them.
That night he took her out for lobster. She wore a red and white dress and he had on a blue suit. It was a small fancy place with champagne and a band. They ate and drank, and then they danced.
He had made reservations with the owner, and they had gotten well taken care of. He had wanted her to feel like smiling. She didn’t stop. He was happy for this day and night. Purely.
While they danced, they held each other close. Knowing something.
The next day at the beach he got burnt by the sun, but she turned golden and helped him with aloe on his back. He let her baby him, and tease him. Then came a knock on the door.
A water from the restaurant was delivering an envelope.
She was the one to open the envelope. The picture. The owner had snapped it as they had danced. She looked at the snapshot and didn’t say anything. He asked her what it was. She began to cry.
“What is it, dear?”
“Oh,” she said, “It’s just perfect.”
He heard her voice say this, and then he heard the traffic. There was a group of tourists crossing the crosswalk too late. Drivers were honking. The tourists hurried with scared faces. The old man put on his hat and started for home.