It was the dead of winter, which accounted for the listlessness felt and seen everywhere. The sky was immaculately blue. But it was dull. And it was stale. The whole earth was trapped under a sagging bowl of frosty mildew, never to be cleansed or even vigorously scrubbed. Such was the general sense of neglect in nature.
One of the people trapped under that sky was an old man walking back home from the music shop. Not much going on in that quarter, he thought, looking upward. It appeared peaceful at least. But the wind came from up there. He and the wind were on very bad terms.
He had some rolls of blank sheet music tucked under his arm. They flapped restively. Keeping them thus checked, he nimbly wiped the dripping snot from his nose, which left a streak of slime across his face, like the skid mark of a snail. It froze, remelted, refroze, and gradually fell away. He was coming down with a cold. His hands and face were red and smarting. It was very cold that afternoon. Sometimes he coughed.
He fetched a laboured sigh. His chest was fairly. Still, the sight rent a little hole in the armpit of his too-small jacket. He had to get a new one, He’d thought so for years and never did. It was falling to pieces. So was his body. It was only a little older than the coat. How feeble things get.
His hat was a very drab one. It had the appearance of a stubbly autumn field. Its creases were filled with veins of rime like frozen ditches. It was stiff and crunched at its being gripped. Under its stiff brim, sidelong gusts of cold air caused the innards of his ears to swell. It was very unpleasant.
He whistled some Duke Ellington tune. He didn’t remember what it was called. He recovered himself a little from the gloom that clouded his thoughts, which made a tactical retreat to the margins of his mind, patiently awaiting the first quarter or half rest in the whistling.
His socks were wet. His toes were numb. There was no comfort anywhere about him. So he whistled. He was a bad whistler. It was more of a round, wordless whisper. But if it had any secret to convey, it wasn’t to be received.
He was almost home. Another block of trudging and sludging and he could throw his shoes off his frozen feet, bang them against the door or wall (his shoes, that is), and lay them next to the radiator. He whistled again. He coughed. The wind also whistled, but not to make believe that it had no cares. Certainly the wind had cares. But it never coughed.
A track had been trampled in the snow up to the door. The old man followed it, regarding it with severe disapproval. This was the work of the other tenants. He was the only person who ever bothered to shovel it. He never met the superintendant.
The sky darkened. It really took him by surprise. No matter now that he was home. He searched himself for his key-chain. Finding it, he took it by the loop, ran his fingers through the gamut of keys, and pierced the lock with the only one that would fit. It wriggled and clicked and the old, heavy door drifted open, groaning like weary ox.
He walked into a hot, dimly-lit haze and rubbed the condensation off his glasses. He made his way instinctively to the stairs and up them, along the creaking upper passage, and into his room.
The room was about twelve feet by eight. There was a bed, a chair, a small desk, a small chest of drawers, an electric organ, and a pair of headphones. He sat on the bed, where he had a long fit of coughs and heaving. His arm relaxed, and his sheet music fell to the floor. When he felt good enough for the little effort, he kicked the paper bundle over towards the desk. It rolled up to the gap by the wall and partially unravelled.
His neighbour, who lived in the room above him, was speaking very loud. She might have been on the phone or else with a much quieter guest. The latter happened to be the case. He heard the guest make several short utterances of dismay or surprise. They were both much younger than he, apparently.
Just as he began to get warm, a faint series of identical knocks came from the front door. This was irritating. He didn’t want to go back downstairs. He hoped someone else would. He waited. Another peal of identical knocks. A beastly melody, he thought. He listened for some ado elsewhere. The other rooms were also loath to acknowledge the knocker. His neighbour above and her guest were now even laughing. He wondered what the joke was.
He sighed. He nourished within himself a spark of hopefulness. Sometimes it raised him, if not to doing, then to drifting, like the drifting of a weather balloon. It might only be a drifting downstairs to open the door. An ordinary knock on the door was too unremarkable not to notice. A life of so many ordinary knocks only led him to suspect the most ordinary. Might it portend something? Could it give a settled purpose to all these seemingly monotonous days, as a mark at the end of a sentence may overturn any prior expectation of its meaning? Could it be his long-awaited inspiration?
The old man rose to the occasion, resolved to be the answerer of this insistent caller, who now knocked every ten or fifteen seconds over again. When he came to the door, he stood before it for half a minute till at last he took hold of the knob and put a clumsy turn into it. The door opened with the same weary groan.
A woman stood on the front steps, seemingly in her mid-thirties and holding a clipboard. A profuse mass of curly black hair sat on her head. She was bigger than he. He felt somewhat cowed by her stature. She smiled broadly at him like an affable Gorgon. Immediately she overwhelmed him with a barrage of words.
When she had finished, he was bewildered. “You’re selling something?” he asked, not having caught any of it.
“No, sir,” she said still smiling her metamorphic smile. “As I said–” and she repeated herself. The old man understood as many words as before.
“How old are you, sir?” she asked.
“Old?” He wasn’t sure. “I’m in my late eighties.”
“Can you give me a specific year?” she asked.
“They’re all specific,” he answered.
The woman’s broad smile contracted in an uncertain direction. She spoke more slowly than before. She imbued her vowels with some of her old smile’s spare broadness.
“What is the exact date of your birth?” she asked.
“I estimate,” the old man asseverated, “between 1925 and 1935.”
She put the question to him more narrowly. “So you don’t know the exact date?” she said in a drawling voice, so that each word sounded like a separate question in itself, which turned to the word before it and the word after it, asking both if it knew the one from the other, or either from somewhere else.
“Not exactly,” he said.
“Were you born in this country?”
“Do you have your birth certificate?”
“I believe I’ve got one of those, but it’s not mine. It’s not anybody’s to the best of my knowledge. I believe it’s forged.”
“I think so. My mother burned the old one and forged a new one. Or at least I think she burned it. She went to jail for it for a while for that, if I’m not mistaken. That was very sad. But she committed fraud, you know.”
“I see,” the woman said. She was now curious. “Why would she forge it?”
The old man stepped outside in his slippers, leaving the door ajar. He shivered and rubbed his hands under his armpits and looked at the dark snow.
“I think she wanted to apply for relief,” he explained. “But I was too old to be coverable as a dependent. Or at least I looked too old to be coverable as a dependent. But then if that was it, it wouldn’t have done her any good to forge it. Come to think of it I’m not too sure myself why she did it. She might have gone to jail for something else altogether. She used to steal things, you know.”
“Yes, things,” he reasserted to her. He was embarrassed now, which was rare for him. Old wounds had been opened. “Cigarettes and little things like that. Usually from five-and-ten places. Sometimes groceries. Apples, bananas. She was frugal in her own way.”
“I’m sure she was,” the woman said dryly.
“Think what you like,” he said, suspecting a cruel judgment. “She’d do anything so long as she didn’t have to sell the piano. She’d rather starve her children than see ‘em not play it. Don’t know how I played it starved but there you have it. I still play, but I’ve got an e-lectronic organ now. I have to wear ear muffs so I don’t disturb the neighbours and so they don’t disturb me.”
“You’re a musician?”
“Mostly, but I used to work at the elevator factory. I put in fifty years there. I had a pension from there used to come till it stopped one month. Never figured out why. Never bothered to. My heart was never in elevators anyhow. I like to write songs. I’m a songwriter.”
“Well, all the best with that.” The woman’s broad smile revived. She saw how he clearly had taken up a cause and pursued it proudly, but soon strayed into murky reminiscences. She bade him goodbye and went to the next house.
The cold was bothering him. The warm indoors called him. He went back inside and had a nap.
He woke up and his room was dark. It was 2:00 A.M. by the clock. He felt a surge of music issuing from his various humoral organs. Tonight he would accomplish something.
He had written hundreds of things. None of it amounted to a complete whole. None of it was a song. He got out of bed, went to his organ, and flipped the on-switch. A red light blinked on. He put on his headphones and pressed middle C. He heard that soft tone ringing with the organ’s usual shrill weirdness. He hammered out a few notes of a mournful melody. It sounded slowly and longingly, like a soliloquist in a Greek tragedy. The voices of his left hand comprised the chorus, in their falteringly sorrowful Doric accents. The old man spontaneously began to croon the words in a few clumsy couplets.
If I could just be young again,
Oh, what would I do?
The same thing I’ve done again,
Or maybe something…new?
It went on more or less in the same fashion. It was done. A cramped elegy, two minutes and thirty seconds long. He went over to his desk, unwrapped the blue ribbons of the blank sheets, and began to pen it down.
But the more he wrote, the more he struggled to remember what he was doing. He wrote with increasing haste. To delay was to consign his work to oblivion.
When he was satisfied, he went back to bed. Soon he fell asleep. He dreamt strange dreams. They were lightless. There was only sound. He wondered at them and attentively followed the bold, aphasic voice leading. It seemed to be a chorus of fairy voices gathered for a secret feast. They grew steadily louder and warmer. All the while, the old man’s breath became cooler.