Staccato Notes

Written on April 22, 2012:

Alan walked down the narrow brick alleyway, keeping close to the pooling light from the bulb above the Laundromat’s back door. A distant dog barking or the whishing of a passing car’s tires would make him crane his head over his shoulder. A cluster of moths and other bugs pelted the lone light bulb.

He could see the two dumpsters at the end of the alleyway, looking as abandoned as the warehouse they rested against. At first Alan thought he had the wrong place, but with one step further, he could see the hidden gap between the dumpsters. Though shrouded in shadows, the iron handrails of a staircase peeked out from their hiding place.

With one quick glance behind him, Alan padded the phone in his pocket. Through the fabric, his fingers traced it, trying to find the vibrate switch. The alley and street were clear so he walked from the light to the staircase.

The steps were cold and concrete. A stream of water trickled down the rough wall from a leaky dumpster. The strong stench of garbage water wafted up the stairwell from a stagnant puddle in front of a metal warehouse door.

Alan crept down the stairs uneasily, gently allowing his foot to sit on each step’s surface before putting his weight on it. A crumpled flyer laid beside the murky water. “I live by Music, for Music!” read through the crinkles, shadows, and water stains.

Still staring at the paper, Alan rapped on the warehouse door with his red knuckles, a cacophonous echo rolled through the still alleyway. His hands slapped against the door as he tried to stop the sound, his head twirling over each tense shoulder, both bunched up to his ears.

A small slot in the door slid open with that grating sound rusted machinery makes. Two harsh, blood-shot eyes met Alan’s. The darkness made them hover in space. The pupils were tomato red, their coloration like an oil pastel painting. The red streaks streamed across the white.

“Password?” the eyes asked gruffly, scanning Alan head-to-toe.

Alan cleared the tension from his throat and shoulders with a cough, the whites of the eyes narrowing in his doing so.

“Eighth note,” Alan said throatily.

“You alone?”

“Yes.”

The slot in the door smacked shut and he heard a series of locks and bolts coming undone on the other side. With a slow, whining lurch, the thick warehouse door opened, revealing a narrow brick hallway. The walls were coated in egg crate-styled foam; the shadows sunk into the grooves, hiding from the overseeing florescent light. It was soundproofing material, like the kind in his alma mater’s band room.

“Well, get in here!” the gruff voice called.

Alan couldn’t see who opened the door; they were behind it. All he saw was the subterranean passageway. He strode forward awkwardly, the heels of his hiking boots scuffing on the cement floor. His legs inched forward in a mixture of caution and confidence. This was his first time and he didn’t want his nerves getting the best of him.

The heavy door slammed shut behind him and the guard latched the locks. Alan glanced behind him at the large silhouette standing in the corner, nodding its head once the entrance was sealed. Alan cranked the second door’s handle down, hearing the latch click open. Loud jazz music poured into the chamber, almost knocking him backwards with shock. Music, it was the first time he’d heard it since the federal law passed nine months ago. Right after the People’s Revolt…

Behind the door, a bustling lounge bumped to the rhythm of lively tunes. There were wooden tables of all makes and styles: coffee tables, dining tables, end tables, and even television trays. All were encircled with chairs of the same manner, one reminding Alan of the paisley armchair his grandmother had by the large Victorian windows in her living room. Each table had tea light candles glowing inside colored votive centerpieces.

Across from the lounge’s entrance was a tiny kitchen. It had the essentials: a refrigerator, a stove, and a counter with a sink. Hanging cabinets, filled with plates, cups, and food, encased the kitchen off from the rest of the small space. Strands of Christmas lights dipped in hanging bumps from the cabinets; their warm lighting created amber halos on the bar’s glossy wooden countertops. Alan could only make out bits of the it through the gap between the countertops and cabinets; it looked like someone took an eraser along a dollhouse’s wall, revealing the kitchen.

A small stage sat on the opposite side of the room. It was only a stack of riser platforms but the wall behind it was a camouflage of vintage band posters. Not one stood out by itself, but the words “Hall of Fame” hung on the wall above them. The letters were the kind Alan recognized from grocery stores signs. White bed sheets were nailed to the brick wall on each side for curtains.

Most of the people at the underground club were seated, facing the stage, clapping along with the combo band’s songs. The smiles on their faces shone with great intensity after being dormant for so long. There were people of all kinds there: people with dreads, people in suits, athletes, a bride, a groom, fat people, skinny people, ugly people, tall people, bearded men, and bald women. All were intermixed, mingling, and enjoying the evening.

Alan wanted to smile, to tap his hand against his thigh, to play. But his nerves made his face cold of any expression and his body too tense for movement as at-ease as that. A soft and gentle arm bumped into his, making its way out of the lounge. He normally wouldn’t have paid any attention to it, but his anxiety made him jumpy and his head whipped towards the passing person.

It was none other than Amanda, Amanda Westfield. The young woman’s eyes grew upon eye contact with Alan, terrified realization dilating her pupils. She ducked away from his stare; and shut the door behind her, closing him into the lounge. Alan stared at the door as if he’d just seen a ghost go through it.

Him and Amanda had both been music majors back in college. He played trumpet and she was a piano prodigy; they’d also been a serious couple during their senior year. That was the year of the People’s Revolt, and the government’s outlawing of music of any kinds, blaming the lyrics for supposedly provoking the uprising. The painful reminder of that year and his and Amanda’s falling out burned in his pocket. Alan’s hands sunk deep into his jeans, his right hand fumbling over his metal cop badge.

“How can you do this, Alan?” Amanda’s voice cried in his head. “How can you just throw away EVERYTHING? You’ve worked so hard for all these years just to give up like that?”

“Do I… do we even have a choice? They’re treatin’ us like we’ve committed treason or somethin’! If we want to survive now, I had to do this. You should think of doing the same…”

Her shoulders buckled as tears brimmed on her eyelashes.

“We’ve lived for this, Al. After all, it’s what brought us together, right?”

He walked towards her, taking hold of her collapsed shoulders; she tucked her chin into her chest.

“Of course it was, babe,” he said warmly, lifting her chin with his finger, looking into her eyes. “We’re just gonna have ta ride this thing out.”

Her head shook daintily back and forth.

“I can’t… I’m sorry, but I can’t,” her voiced cracked.

She stepped away from his grasp, tears spilling down her face now. Then, she was out the apartment door.

He didn’t follow.

She didn’t return.

“Welcome, my man! Gladja could make it! Tell me, ya play?” a man’s voice bellowed over the crowd.

Alan presumed this was the owner. The quirky, but jolly man must have come up to him upon seeing him enter. Alan was wary with his answer, but he figured if he was going to blend into the club’s culture, he’d better earn their trust fast.

“Yeah, trumpet actually!” he hollered over the commotion of the band and people. “I haven’t played since college though. Imma bit rusty! The name’s Alan by the way.”

“Ahhh, once a player, always a player! Right? I’ll putcha on the list. Feel free ta warm-up in da storage closet over there. Sorry, but that’s da best we got. Do it quick though cuz this here’s da last group!”

The man pointed his stubby finger to another warehouse door by the stage. In front of it, a stockpile of black instrument cases created mounds of different shapes and sizes. Initials, spray-painted in white, ran across each case in a variety of letter combinations. The owner patted Alan on the back, chuckling, and crossed the lounge, greeting many at their tables along the way.

Alan weaved through the maze of tables, chairs, and people. Each person turned and looked at him; each face made his heart beat faster and his face feel hotter. Luckily, the dim lighting masked his flushed face.

It was cramped in the storage closet. Shelves packed with canned goods and boxed meals lined the walls. Alan had bumped his head on the hanging light bulb when he came in. It rocked in the air, making the glow move like a searchlight over the shelves, but he quickly snatched it, stopping its momentum.

The trumpet case in his hand felt as heavy as an anvil, vibrating slightly in his trembling grasp. He set the case down with a clunk on the floor. Undoing the metal clasps, Alan flipped the case open and stared at the tarnished instrument.

“A lot of experience,” he said wheezingly, mocking his former professor’s voice.

The sheen of the brass was long faded and the horn had a few bumps and dents. A couple falls must’ve chipped the trumpet’s finish as well. Alan picked it up, sliding the trumpet out of the case’s mold. His fingers mechanically ran through the fingerings of song notes still in his muscle memory.

He’d been running through scales when the band’s music stopped. The high-pitch whine of the amp lingered in the air for a moment before the candles burned it up. Applause then took its place; it was Alan’s turn.

He reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone. A message from the chief ran across the screen: “Good luck, Champ. Our guys will be on their way once you give the word.” Alan hesitantly swiped his finger over the screen, smearing over the finger smudges with new ones. A keyboard appeared on the screen and he sent back a simple, “okay.” With that one word, he had secretly sentenced everyone there to years in prison, and maybe even death. A heavy, cold tingle sunk down his body and his guilt compacted his stomach.

Alan opened the storage closet door and stared at the jolly man on the stage. The owner glanced over at him and clapped excitedly.

“Alright, everyone,” the man announced. “Now I’d like to introduce our last playah for da evening. It’s his first time here, so give him some love. Now, I know you all will… Everybody, give it up for my man, Alan!”

The crowd cheered, hollered, and whistled as he made his way to the stage. Alan took a spot by the microphone and grabbed it with his damp palms.

“Hey, guys,” he said a little shakily. How’s it goin’? You like jazz?”

The small crowd roared with cheers and Alan’s nerves started dwindling.

“Well alright then! Let’s do this!”

He looked forward to playing again, to having the music channel through him. He’d been empty for months and longed for a taste of his old life. Now, the opportunity was resting in the palms of his hands, only seconds away. As he put the mouthpiece to his lips, his phone began buzzing in his pocket. He broke from his performance stance and reached into it.

“Sorry, everyone,” he said into the mike. “Might be an important call.”

As he drew his phone from his pocket, Alan felt something else come out with it. Before he had time to react, his metal cop badge tumbled from his jeans to the stage floor. It clattered on the wood and absorbed the stage’s lighting, making it gleam intensely. Every eye narrowed in on the shimmering badge. The only sound was the sizzling of a grilled cheese sandwich on the stovetop. Otherwise, there was silence.

His heart was ready to jump out his mouth. He looked out at the audience with shock. Their horrified faces stared back for a brief moment before chairs and tables crashed to the floor as the mass stormed the door, kicking and shoving their way out. In a shocked daze, Alan dropped the trumpet and knelt down, swiping up his badge.

He could hear their shoes scuttling down the alleyway before scattering in different directions at the street. He stared at the debris about the floor: glass plates with a floral border- shattered, antique wooden chairs- broken, and colored votive candle holders- destroyed. The chief had said it was fine sending him in alone; they hadn’t expected trouble at this place.

Alan’s focus glided along the floor towards the kitchen as the smell of burning toast permeated the room. The cook had fled with the rest of the crowd, leaving the burner on and the grilled cheese burning on the skillet. Alan hopped off the stage, weaving through the minefield of fallen furniture towards the hinged section of countertop that created the kitchen’s entrance. Turning a food-splattered knob, he shut off the burner and scraped the cast iron skillet across the stovetop. The sandwich hissed in the pan as if its burns deflated it. It eventually ceased, but was replaced with the approaching calls of police sirens. According to Constitutional Amendment 45, emergency and law enforcement sirens were the only “melodies” allowed. In the silent cities, the sounds carried for miles.

Alan didn’t want to explain that he’d blown it, that his own stupid mistake had botched the bust. As he got to thinking about it, he was glad though. Those people were enjoying the music- something he hadn’t done in eight months. He’d even been excited to play; in fact, he still desired to.

With his back leaned against the kitchen’s countertop and arms stretched behind him, he peered through the kitchen’s opening at the passageway. Both doors were open, allowing him a clear sight of the concrete stairs.

He’d only play for a minute or two; he’d be done by the time the squad arrived. He just had to close those doors.

Quickly, he slinked out along the edge of the bar and sprinted down the chamber. His hiking boots stomped heavily on the pavement, slightly muffled by the foam walls. His hands were propped in front of him like battering rams as they thrust the first door shut. His fingers frantically latched the locks: turning knobs, sliding latches, and lifting chains. Dashing back towards the room, Alan thought the walls looked covered in sharp spikes that were closing in on him. He hurled himself through the second doorway and slammed it shut with the swing of an arm, not bothering with its set of locks. It felt like he was being driven by impulse back to the stage, and it felt good.

The microphone’s cord had come unplugged during the stampede; it snaked across the littered floor to an amp by the stage. Alan scooped it up and popped it back into place before following it like a train on its tracks to the amp.

Red candlewax caked the sides of the ancient amp. Time had taken its toll it. Alan was sure he’d get a face full of dust when he turned it on with its screeching shaking the particles loose. Flipping the wobbly power switch, nothing happened; the thing was dead.

“Ah, come on!” Alan said impatiently, smacking the amp.

He leaned over it, finding the power cord’s prongs half out of the outlet. Wiggling them back in, the amp screamed to life.

Scrambling back to his feet and onto the stage, he picked up the trumpet. He brought the rounded mouthpiece to his chapped lips once again, and he played. Years of performances flowed out of the horn into the microphone. He could see the sheet music in his head, each note lighting up like the words in a children’s sing-a-long video. He was at home with the music.

Why had he given this up? This was his life. Amanda had been right all along about him surrendering so easily. Where had his dedication gone as an activist for the revolt? Instead of fighting for his passion, he became a hypocrite as soon as the law came down, changing his stance to save his own neck. Look where it got him. Now, he was helping to destroy the last of his former lifestyle. He was eliminating the last of humanity. The world he lived in now was one full of fearful obedience and monotony.

The trumpet’s music slowed to a trickle as Alan realized this. These months of silence had driven him stir-crazy for music like an addict in withdrawal. Gradually, the trumpet bowed away from him; his eyes focused on the closed warehouse door leading to the passageway.

“I’m not doing this,” Alan whispered, then screaming. “You hear me? I said I’m not doing this!”

He kicked a metal folding chair from the stage. It sailed through the air before crashing noisily in the debris field of furniture, more glass shattering upon its impact.

He lunged from the stage, clearing most of the mess, but stumbling as he landed. In his mad hurry, he flung the lounge door open with incredible force. Its handle cracked the brick wall. Alan’s stomps thundered down the chamber, slightly muffled by the foam again. His hands ripped at the locks of the alleyway door: flipping, slapping, and tugging them. The last lock had only come loose as he yanked the large door inward. He didn’t have much time as the sirens were getting close.

After sprinting down the tunnel, Alan hurdled in zigzags over the tables and chairs. He was almost to the stage when his boots caught on an exposed table leg, making him tumble downwards. His palms and knees scuffed and scraped on the hard wood, but he did not allow it to slow his momentum. He seized the trumpet and rose to his feet. Jumping to the side of the platform, his fingers flung at the amp’s volume dial, its numbers blurring as they spun, and cranked it to the max.

The mouthpiece pinched his lips to his teeth as Alan spun towards the mike. He ignored the pain and took in as much air as he could. Expending it all, he played louder than ever, directing the trumpet’s song onto the microphone’s silver wiry mesh. The amp, open hallway, and silent streets carried the music through the neighborhood.

The mike was the focus of all his energy. He was sending all the music into it, imagining it exploding under the pressure and the amp spraying sparks and smoke into the air. Music resonated everywhere.

“I’m a musician, God dammit, not some puppet!” his thoughts shouted.

Alan hadn’t heard the S.W.A.T. team charge down the alleyway, down the stairs, down the passageway, and into the lounge. His only focus was on the microphone at the end of his battered trumpet. His instrument shone beneath the stage lights on the ceiling.

Suddenly, three sharp prongs stabbed into his chest, immobilizing him. A rapid clicking noise followed the pulsing electricity flowing through his veins. The skin around the prongs burned and seared. The trumpet flew into the heap of furniture as Alan fell backwards to the floor. The instrument was sure to be exterminated along with its family by the storage closet. Alan’s head smacked against the wood, his body continuing to tremor, before his vision started fading. The enclosing darkness centered on a poster taped above the stage. It was The Beatles’ Let it Be album cover.

Then everything went dark.

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