Jeff leaned against the concrete window ledge and, with cold, stiff fingers, flipped through the battered, black notebook of song notes and guitar tabs. It had been a frigid, snowy winter in Chicago. Today, there was a slight, February, thaw.
Two more songs. He had enough time for two more songs before he’d make his way through the sludge to the warmth of home and his tiny family. He always played the same song last. Their song. But, what to play for the penultimate song? Something about love. It was Valentine’s Day.
He peeked at his guitar case. A few bills and some change stood out against the worn red velvet. His audience had been steady, but slow. He’d probably have about $150 for the day. Groceries for the week. Not enough to make a dent in the rent he owed. On a warm, summer day, before COVID, this corner, in front of Panera and across from Millennium Park, could easily bring in ten times that.
Almost a year ago, he’d lost his waiter gig to COVID. Recently, he hadn’t been able to make rent. Harold, his landlord, had been a good buddy before. Full of frenetic energy, Jeff used to pop into his place early Sunday mornings, fresh off a gig, and Harold would drive them out to the forest preserve in his old green Chevy pick-up to fish and drink Red Bull. They used to laugh a lot together.
In October, when COVID numbers were down, Jeff had been called back to the restaurant. But with limited seating and public fear high, he didn’t pull in nearly as much tip money as he used to. Then, the city closed back up just a couple weeks later as the virus menaced again. When Jeff stopped in to give him the little money he had, Harold’s lively blue eyes were hollow and vacant, scaring Jeff. A reckoning was coming. By law Harold couldn’t evict the little family now. But, the time would come when the eviction ban would lift and Harold would have to take some action. Jeff had avoided Harold since then. He had a persistent fear that any day he would lose their home.
Jeff pushed away from the window and out of the stream of melted snow raining on his head and splashing his notebook. He shook off the chill and glanced around. A few intrepid couples, hidden behind masks and winter gear, lingered in the cold to hear a bit more live music, so rare in this past year.
Jeff dropped the notebook on his backpack and picked up his guitar. He fished the capo out of his pocket, slid it on at the second fret, and started strumming the opening for “Can’t Help Falling in Love”. The music was slightly dampened by the melting snow. At least, though, during these times of COVID, it didn’t have to compete with the rumble of traffic and piercing car horns. He could see the couples collapse in on each other as he started singing. Some people said he sounded a bit like Elvis. The city lights had winked on over the past few hours, providing a cheerful glow to the small audience. Jeff’s rich, syrupy voice enveloped the couples in a warm cocoon. The small, oddly spaced, group started swaying almost in unison. Jeff thought of his own loves, his wife, Sarah, and their 18 month old son, Barry.
When the song ended, Jeff let the last chord float down the wet street before starting the next song. The last song. Their song. As he started the syncopation of Talking Heads, the couples dispersed. One couple sauntered forward and the man dropped some coins in Jeff’s case. Jeff nodded in appreciation, without looking up. The street emptied with the exception of one, solitary figure. A little way off there was a black man standing, arms crossed. Jeff had noticed him earlier. He’d been standing there for quite a while, at least five or six songs, Jeff thought.
Jeff felt a pinch of fear in his chest. It was dark out now and he’d heard of street musicians being beat up and robbed in the fall. Jeff felt embarrassed and guilty. Am I afraid just because he’s a black guy? He wondered. The man wore a black, designer sweat suit and a black leather coat. A red knit cap was pulled down dark eyes, steadily fixed on Jeff. His tennis shoes were unnaturally white and stood out in the sludge. Jeff shivered and focused on the song by Talking Heads, “This Must Be the Place”.
Home had taken on a new meaning this year for Jeff, Sarah, for their family and friends, for the whole world. COVID came and sent everyone home. Jeff was not able to get the usual weekend music gigs with all restaurants and bars closed. He used to spend mornings absorbed in learning and exploring music. This joy of music, the spirit of excitement he usually felt, was lost. No new songs had been added to the black notebook in nearly a year. A pervasive feeling of despair had come over him, leaving him numb. But not when he played this song.
Sarah had lost work too. As a librarian, Sarah’s love was literature. When COVID struck, the library where she worked closed, just as Sarah returned from maternity leave. When it opened again in October, Sarah’s mom got COVID. It was serious. She was in the hospital on a ventilator for weeks. Sarah was torn up, yearning to be by her mom’s side. When her mom was finally released from the hospital, Sarah took a leave from work to care for her. COVID sent Sarah home, to her parent’s house, where she faced the inevitable truth that one day her mom would leave her. But not yet. Her mom held on as Sarah cared for her and her childhood home. COVID changed her mom. Cold, flat eyes now looked out of a ravaged shell that was once a once warm, vibrant, lively body.
Jeff closed his eyes, lost in the song. Sarah and her mom had always been close, but the news of the baby brought them even closer together. They became inseparable. They decorated two nurseries, one in the apartment and one in Sarah’s parents’ house. Her mom planned on providing child care while Sarah worked. It was Sarah and her mom that named Barry. Listening to the oldies station while they were painting the nursery one Saturday afternoon, a song came on that immediately brought them home, to Sarah’s childhood. A song her mom used to play for her, “I Write the Songs”. They looked at each other and both instantly knew they would call him Barry.
Now, every night when she thought Jeff couldn’t hear her, Sarah cried. On this night, as his song echoed down the street, his favorite song, Jeff cried too. His heart filled, remembering when he met Sarah. He had gone to hear an old high school friend play in a band. In the dark bar his gaze was drawn to a woman dancing under a light across the room, head bobbing, blond hair flying, jumping up and down. She looked around the room with big, brown eyes and danced like no one was watching. She had a mesmerizing smile.
She was dancing alone. Jeff leaned over to his buddy and told him to go dance with her. His buddy laughed and walked away towards the bar. When the band started playing Talking Heads, Jeff couldn’t stay still. He walked up to her, heart fluttering, hands sweating, and asked her to dance. She said yes. Sarah was a frenetic dancer, moving about wildly, not exactly in time to the music. And, he loved her. When the music stopped, without saying a word, Sarah ran off the dance floor. Jeff stood watching, head cocked, confused. He would learn later that she had to go to the bathroom.
The next week, while Jeff idly dreamed of the beautiful blonde from the dance floor, Sarah actively searched for him. She was intrigued by the mystery man who asked her to dance. Her cousin was in the band and an interrogation of band members had revealed Jeff’s identity. She got his number and called him. Their first conversation was warm and familiar, after which he sent her roses and champagne. Talking to her felt like home.
They got married in the summer, barefoot in the park. The sun streamed through a canopy of oak trees creating a halo just over Sarah’s head. They were madly in love and gloriously happy with all of their family and friends surrounding them. Fully at home.
This was the moment on Jeff’s heart as the song ended. He wiped tears from his face and opened his eyes.
The man was gone. Jeff was alone on the street. He shivered and took a deep breath. Time to go home. Sarah would be waiting. At least he had grocery money. Jeff smiled inwardly picturing Barry’s pudgy face and thinking of how he’d be so excited to see him. He bent to place the guitar in the case when he saw there was something in it. It was a purple silk bag. Jeff picked up the bag and looked inside. It appeared to contain a, rather big, stack of crisp dollar bills. Jeff looked around the empty street. Did that black guy leave this? He peered into the bag and then saw the picture of Ben Franklin on the top bill.
Jeff’s heart raced. He shoved the purple bag deep in his jacket pocket and snapped it shut. He checked the snap several times before deciding he would keep the snap off and just keep his hand in his pocket. He packed up his things and ran to the L station. Jeff couldn’t be still. He paced up and down the empty train car throughout the short ride to his neighborhood stop.
Once home, Jeff burst into the apartment. Sarah was in the nursery with Barry, who stood in his crib, red-faced, tear-stained, grabbing the bars like a prisoner. The two were at war. Sarah looked at Jeff, her brown eyes darkened by the pain of the past year. Her face was drawn and tired and worry lines had started to form around her eyes. Jeff set the guitar down and pulled off his jacket.
“How did it go?” Sarah asked, without seeming to care.
The whole way home, he’d thought about how he would tell her. But, now, he forgot all the things he had planned. “There was this guy….” He stammered and realized she wasn’t listening.
He pulled the purple bag from his jacket pocket and laid it on the changing table. He took the stack of money out. It was all $100 bills. He fanned them out. Sarah crossed the room. “What’s that? Where did you get that?”
“There was this guy. I don’t know who he was. I think he dropped this in my case, right at the end. I didn’t even see it.”
Jeff picked up the bundle and counted the bills. He looked at Sarah, heart fluttering, mind racing. His voice was almost a whisper. “It’s $20,000.”