BY DON FREED
Copyright is held by the author.
JOE WAS clean. He was always that. His clothes sometimes looked a bit worn, but always fresh. His tone was quiet and civil, don’t speak unless spoken to. Mind your manners. He was dignified in this isolation, the common “life of quiet desperation.” But maybe, just maybe Joe had shifted from desperation to resignation.
Joe was homeless. And for the homeless, there is no there-there. There is nowhere there, there is no here there, there is go there there. Joe was not of the shopping-cart homeless variety. There is a hierarchy of the homeless, the drug addicts, the crazy’s, the shopping cart set, the screamers, the mumblers, the transients. Then there was the Joe phylum. He made mistakes only thought about today, you can only make so much driving a cab, tending a bar, dealing a straight. And now the meagre monthly social security deposit wasn’t enough to sleep under a roof and eat three squares and pay for all the little things.
The piano saved him. Not his, not even a good one. It had 88 keys and made appropriate sounds when he played it. It was more than just a way to pass the time. It was the time. Him, his sheet music, the piano. Every morning he addressed the hygienic inconvenience of sleeping outside, washed the train station grit from his pores and waited. The senior centre with the available piano didn’t open until 8 a.m., but the police rousted the sleepers from the station by 6 a.m., so there was time to kill. And that was Joe’s middle name, time to kill. Each day he went to the gym and locked his worldly possessions in the day locker. He kept his toiletries, his sheet music, and other assorted miscellanies in the small locker, paying the low-income discounted monthly rate.
Joe sat with his extra creamed coffee, his sheet music neatly tucked into his backpack. He played in his head, his pretend hands bouncing over the pretend keys with simple precision, probably more than he would ever truly exhibit, but still. Today it was going to be a little Beethoven and Debussy. He pulled out the music to remind himself of a few notes that he could not find in his head. It was a hard passage, he needed the music in front of him. It might not matter. It was hard and even when he sat in front of the keys it was going to be a slog. A halting slog. That was okay, it’s why he kept coming back. It wasn’t perfection he was after, it was the challenge. It wasn’t the challenge. It was the music.
At 8:03, Joe was sitting in front of the piano, sheet music in front of him, ready. His hands moved along the keys without touching them at first, like an athlete warming up. The faded white keys complemented his sun-worn skin. He shuffled the sheet music to get to the right piece to play with cold hands. And then he began. Instantly his hands roamed the keys without effort, the notes exiting his fingers and entering the keys. And his mind, so focused on the start, heard the music and was transported back to memories that gnawed at his heart.
It was a rough beginning for Joe. There was so much noise, yelling, bottles breaking, grunting, screaming, lots of crying. There was occasional blood. Loneliness. Profound loneliness. But then there was also music. The piano. That’s where he felt safe. His mother playing the piano. Chopin from the depths of her heart. From the depths. Of her heart. Rachmaninov, Chopin, Beethoven. And sometimes, very very sometimes, a happy Beethoven, Chopin, or Mozart, a crying happy Mozart. Joe, a toddler, a five-year-old, a ten-year-old, a teenager, sitting and listening. Those emotions were safe. And he found them in his heart, in his gut, in his loins. He found them all. But time, loss, pain, eroded them, engulfed them, ejected them. Until now when his movements were so subtle, so unassuming, his voice so soft.
Joe grew up, grew out, pushed out. Pushed out into life, a life that was chaos. An LSD hallucination of a life of echoes, of passing people, of car horns, of broken moments of his history. He drove a taxicab so many days, so many nights, so many forgotten weeks and years. Living today. Living tomorrow. Living that way, blocking the past and seeing no future. His bank account reflected that, no past and no future. Got fired. For what, smoking a little weed in the wee hours of the morning, or the wee’er hours of the night?. Fired. He moved to Reno and got a job as a croupier, dealing blackjack. They didn’t care about his resume, his history. Can you deal, follow instructions, be generally lucky sometimes? He struggled with that last one but didn’t tell them that. Who knows, maybe his luck was changing. No such luck. Fired. Possibly the unluckiest croupier in Reno.
So it was back in the cab, where he didn’t have to say much. Even if he was too quiet for them to understand “Where to?” they knew that’s what he was asking. What else would he be asking? “Where to?”
“245 East 59th Street.” That’s all they needed to say and he was off. Making enough to live on. Just to live on.
He was on his third piece, for some reason he chose Rachmaninov, Piano Concerto #2. He wasn’t thinking about anything in particular, knew not why he picked it and began to play. At first he struggled, the notes coming slow, in fits and starts. He knew this piece, it shouldn’t be that hard. And then he remembered. It began as an image of a woman, his mother then morphing into the blond woman he picked up one night. All at once the music came to him, no longer halting, now lilting, now disarming. There weren’t women in Joe’s life. That’s what happens to loners, they are alone He chose to smoke weed and stare at the tube. Women were scary. His experiences were few and defined far between. He wasn’t getting the “easy” girls in high school. He was scrawny and acne-patched, shy and unnerved. Even taking care of himself seemed too expressive. But occasionally he couldn’t help it. And that really felt good, he had to admit. And at age fourteen, he gave in, couldn’t resist the sensation and was in a constant state of wanting to, doing it, wanting to do it again.
But unlike most boys, instead of Playboy centrefolds or erotic books, music would get him off. Ravel’s Bolero and the end of Strauss’s Salome were particularly effective for the quick stimulus response. Even thirty years later, hearing Bolero would elicit pangs as if it was a lost girlfriend not a lost adolescence. But then his mother walked in on him one afternoon, heard the music coming from his room and walked right in. And her timing was perfect. Joe was in mid ecstasy and then explosive agony, his eyeballs flying across the room at the sight of her standing aghast, a small scream of recognition. And he was dying inside, but he couldn’t stop it from coming out. It kept coming out, spurting out, an ocean coming out, unending, a bucketful or two. It should have been joy, release, relief. It was very unbecoming. She shut the door. And he whimpered, cried hard tears as he cleaned himself up with the sock hidden under his bed that was overused for the purpose. She never came into his room without knocking again. But it was too late. That image implanted in his hippocampus, the real joy was gone. It became rote, an unnatural act that had to be performed. That singular moment, an event that maybe should have rolled away into the fog of time instead planted itself, an Iwo Jimian flag of humiliation that never left him, followed him in a life of solitary confinement.
But this woman flagged him down one night in his taxi. And she was pretty in a well-worn but not worn-down sort of way. And a little drunk. Dressed with distinction, wearing a hat. And she just started talking. The talk of the tipsy. Friendly, laughing in odd spots. And it was a long drive. From Manhattan out to some forgotten Long Island town. And Joe nodded in all the right spots and responded when appropriate.
“What did you say, it’s Joe isn’t it. Speak up, Joe, I’m in the back here, I can’t hear you, speak up.”
She said it so nicely, with genuine interest that he did, he spoke up. “No, I’ve never been to the ballet.”
“No, that’s too bad. You should go. It’s beautiful. Erotic and yet so not. Writhing bodies playing on a higher plain.”
“I always thought ballet was boring, for girls, ya know. But you make it sound so, so . . .” his voice trailed off.
“So what, Joe?”
“Musical?” she laughed. “What an odd way of describing it.”
That shut Joe up. Any hint of criticism was enough to drown him in silence. He stayed there, gurgling beneath the surface.
“Oh Joe, I’m sorry, I wasn’t criticizing you, I just wasn’t expecting such an interesting response,” she said, and he was surprised she noticed. Her voice was so soft, not in volume but in the way it flowed, soft and kind and kind of sad. It made him feel bad, uncomfortable with his own emotional isolation.
“That’s okay. Not your fault. I just have a low threshold for pain.”
She was silent for a minute. He couldn’t decide whether she was thinking about what he said, lost in her own thoughts, or got suddenly bored. He stayed quiet too, it was safer.
After a couple of minutes of nothing but the sound of the rumble of the road and the radio, she said, “You speak from your soul, don’t you, Joe?” Somehow their conversation, once lively, joyful, the air around her lilting, now had taken a darker turn. In the rearview mirror, he could see the edge of her lips sink.
“I don’t know, I’ve never really thought about it. I don’t talk much.”
“But when you do, you tell me the truth. I need the truth, every once in a while a person needs the truth, don’t you think?”
Joe considered. He figured, logically, the truth was a good thing, though sometimes it hurt, hurt real bad. Like when he was 16 and his mother decided to tell him the truth, that she was leaving and not coming back. She was waiting for him to be big enough, old enough to take care of himself. And now was the time, though she knew he was neither big enough nor old enough, broken, probably permanently but she couldn’t wait anymore. And she couldn’t take him with her, she was leaving with nothing, just leaving. Soon the sum of hate, hopelessness, and heartache was all that his father had left, and he dumped those emotions from his wife, now gone, to Joe. And Joe was the perfect punching bag because he wouldn’t fight back, didn’t know how could only slink away. Within six months Joe had to leave. He wasn’t sure if he feared life or death more, he only knew he had to get out and find out.
“But the truth can hurt so much, maybe it’s better to hide from it,” Joe said.
“Take the next exit, please,” she said, and he realized he’d forgotten their roles, their stations in life. But she brought him back. Customer. Taxi driver.
“Oh Joe, I would like to hide from it, pretend nothing is wrong, pretend that I am coming home alone and my husband is spending the night in the city because it is convenient and not because he doesn’t want to come home. And worst of all, the real truth I can’t hide from, I don’t want him to come home either. I’d rather be alone. I’d really rather be alone.” The rearview mirror showed a face visibly sagging now. A pretty face, high cheekbones, pretty blond straight hair, yes, a hint of grey roots but still, a shapely nose. Yes, she was once pretty, no Joe corrected his thoughts, still pretty. He stalled, he didn’t know what to say, had no experience with relationships Then he remembered an article he’d read in the newspaper once.
“I read somewhere that most relationships can be fixed.”
She looked up in surprise, her eyebrows lifting, her steel blue eyes wanting. He could see it, she wanted something from him. His words, his thoughts.
“I think they said the problem is most people keep looking for the perfect relationship and look right past the person right in front of them. And if they just commit to the relationship they are in, most of the time that’s all it takes. Stop wanting the other person to be something else, try and enjoy the reality. I think that’s what the article said anyway.”
She sat motionless, staring at him. Her eyes widened. He watched her and the road. He could see her wheels turning, wondering, exploring the possibility.
“It takes two though, doesn’t it, Joe, doesn’t it take both, it can’t be just me,” she said in a whine like she was tired of it always being her. Joe couldn’t remember anything else about the article, he had nothing more to fall back on. Except what his mother said just before she left that day. He tried it out in his head. It sounded right and important when his mom said it to him. Though he never felt like he lived up to it. He felt like he should help her. She had on a nice hat, nice clothes, so there was money and yet she was struggling, Joe could see that.
“Well, yeah, I guess it takes two, but doesn’t it always start with one. My mom said, Joe, it’s up to you, how it turns out, it’s up to you,” Joe said it. He didn’t know how she was going to react but it didn’t matter. He was feeling better. Wow, he thought, I am feeling better. I am trying to help her and I am feeling better.
“Take a left at the light and your second right, it is the third house on the right,” she said. Then she laughed, laughed with release and glee and abandon. And he laughed with her but he had no idea why. There was something wrong with her laugh. He dared not ask.
“Oh Joe, you are too much. I never would have guessed, getting in a cab that the driver was Freud’s smarter brother.” And she laughed again. And then he wasn’t laughing because he realized that until this moment, she was feeling as bad about him as he felt about himself. In stony silence, he kept driving.
“Oh my god, Joe, I did it again. I am so sorry. I wasn’t laughing at you. I was telling you that I had such low expectations of you, and that hurt, didn’t it?”
“Oh, that’s okay. Like I said, I just have a low threshold for pain.”
“Yes, but I don’t want to be the one to cause it. You’ve been so nice and so smart and this is how I repay you. Well, here we are, just pull in the driveway.”
Joe pulled in. The house was dark. “No one home I guess,” Joe said.
“Yes, my kids are having a sleep-over with their cousins.”
“That’ll be $100,” Joe said.
“You know what, Joe, why don’t you come in? Maybe I can repay your kindness.”
“Ma’am, no need, I don’t want to bother you at this hour.”
“No bother at all. Please come in.” She looked at him in the mirror and smiled. That was a smile he thought, a wow smile. This was unknown territory. He had no idea. But he was just a pawn in this game. He had no will of his own. It was only what she said now. He agreed to come in. They walked into the house, and she turned on the lamp in the living room, not the front entrance light but the lamp.
“Can I get you anything? Water, coffee, tea, probably not a drink, I suppose, since you are driving.”
“Yes ma’am, I mean no ma’am, I’m fine.” He stood fidgeting, he didn’t know what to do with his hands. Then he saw himself in the entranceway mirror, cap, scruffy unshaven week-old beard, cheap jeans, a NY Jets tee–shirt, and lightweight windbreaker. GQ he was not. She smiled at him.
“Don’t go anywhere, I’ll be right back,” she said and walked away, dropping her coat on the floor and turning back and smiling.
Joe’s mind was suddenly racing. Was this it? The mythical taxi driver dream. Almost every driver had a story about picking up “some chick,” usually drunk, somewhere, and ending up with a hand job, a blow job, or actually fucking in the back seat. Joe guessed most of them were bullshitting, taxi drivers couldn’t be doing that well, but he guessed it happened occasionally to some. But he never thought it would happen to him. Just was never going to happen. And besides, did he even want that? His sex life was nonexistent, years ago he had ceased even considering it. Didn’t engage in porn, go to bars, dream, or fantasize. His sex life was over, he wasn’t old enough for it to be over but there it was.
But here he was, alone in the house of an attractive woman who said she wanted to repay his kindness, was lonely, invited him in, dropped her coat, turned her head, and smiled. Even he could consider these as signs. Signs he didn’t know how to respond to. He stood there while she walked into another room, presumably her bedroom.
Joe stood awkwardly, waiting. He looked around the living room. It was decorated like right out of a movie or TV show, couches, lamps, drapes, important-looking pictures on the walls. It had a surreal quality, so beyond his zone as to be a fantasy. The house, the living room, the woman in the other room, changing into something more “comfortable.” She didn’t say that but she might as well have.
Then she returned, wearing the same sky blue dress. Disappointing but not fatal to his hopes, if they were hopes. Much of him wanted to run screaming from the house, a haunted house of overwrought expectations smacking headlong into the flimsiest of fantasies.
“Ah Joe, thanks for waiting. You were so nice and thoughtful to me, I just wanted to give you this,” she said and thrust a wad of bills into his hand. He looked at her, could see her breasts pushing against her dress. He looked into her eyes then down at the bills in his hand, then back to her eyes. At that moment her face changed from an open smile to the recognition that their expectations were not aligned. She went stiff, he could see fear rise up into her face. All of a sudden, he realized she was now scared. She backed away, trying to remain calm, while her hands shook a little.“Oh Joe, it’s so late, you have a long drive back.” She ushered him to the door. “Good night and thanks again.” She opened the front door and almost pushed him out. He was stoic and let himself be exited. He got into his cab and started the car. He put his hands on the wheel, only then remembering the bills still in his hand. He counted a 100 dollar bill and five 20’s, a $100 tip. Not bad.
He hit the last notes of the concerto with extra verve, with a bang, hammering the keys. It was over. His eyes were closed, his hands shaking, his soul aching, and then in a moment he pushed it all away, pushed it back into its can, back into the deepest reaches. Only playing did he allow himself to remember, in fact, he couldn’t help himself, they just rushed in. The music and the memories, two halves of an oddly shaped whole, but only then.
Joe glanced up at the clock. Another hour and then a swim and a shower. He looked back at the sheet music wondering what he should play next. And then without the sheet music, for no reason, for every reason his fingers began to play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, three notes that repeat, repeat, and repeat, ten times repeat.