Play Music For Me

“Play music for me, when I’m old,” Dottie said to Stan. “Like when I’m in a nursing home, in a vegetative state.”

Dottie was sipping coffee in a chaise lounge on the back porch, still in her nightgown. Stan sat at the patio table nearby, deeply engrossed in some project on his computer. Dottie only talked to him when Stan was deeply engrossed in something. He could sit for hours in the same room with her, doing nothing, and she wouldn’t speak a word. But as soon as he started to concentrate on something else, she felt the need to talk. It was usually about something highly speculative, like what would happen 30 years from now when she was in a nursing home.

“What kind of music?” Stan asked with half his brain. He tried to keep the other half on his project, so he didn’t lose his train of thought. But, somewhere deep inside, he knew that wouldn’t happen. Dottie would demand his full attention before long. She wouldn’t stand to be ignored, even by half his brain, especially at the expense of one of his many projects.

“You know the kinds I like. Anything but hip-hop, I guess.” Dottie sipped her coffee. “Or opera,” she added.

“Okay,” Stan said.

“I suppose music could be different by then, from what it is now. Maybe there will be some new genres I’d like. I’ll start a running playlist.”

“Okay,” Stan said. “You make it, I’ll play it.”

“And play me some audio books,” she added. “I’m listening to a good one now when I’m out on my walks. It’s about a couple who has a child they don’t know about.”

“How does that work,” Stan asked, putting his writing project aside. He was hoping Dottie might stop talking as soon as she saw she’d successfully diverted his attention from everything else and had his full attention. Sometimes that worked. “Seems like they would’ve noticed the big belly and the painful delivery and all. The woman anyway,” Stan noted. Dottie looked at Stan like he was an idiot.

“They thought their baby died, of course. But it hadn’t – there was a nurse who couldn’t have children of her own and…..oh never mind.” At first, Stan thought maybe Dottie’s talking had run its course. But no such luck. The word “baby” was too much for her.

“Speaking of babies, the Flores’ daughter is pregnant again,” Dottie said wistfully. Neither of their own daughters had seen fit to offer up a grandchild, and it was rapidly becoming unlikely. Emily and her husband, Ben, were in their late thirties with no plans for a family. Ben suffered from some condition or other unclear to Dottie, mumps or something as a teenager, that meant they couldn’t have children together. There were plenty of other options, but Emily and Ben didn’t seem to be interested in considering them.

Although younger than Emily, Jamie and her partner, Marina, weren’t interested in children either. Their relationship was so volatile Dottie thought it might be just as well, although she couldn’t help but be disappointed. Maybe if they split up and Jamie started again with someone else? Well, it really wasn’t fair or healthy to think about things like that.

It seemed sad to think both their immediate family lines, hers and Stan’s, would be ending. Dottie had been an only child. Neither of Stan’s sisters had any surviving children – one was a nun, and the other had experienced a series of heartbreaking miscarriages in her younger days. Eventually, the sister’s halfwit husband ended up leaving her for a teenaged prostitute he’d knocked up, or believed he had, anyway. Dottie wondered how you could ever be sure in that situation whether the baby was yours, short of DNA testing, which the halfwit husband refused to ask for.

Well, you had to play the hand you were dealt, Stan always said. Or he’d said it once or twice, anyway. Dottie would have only Emily and Jamie at her deathbed. And Stan, maybe. Both her parents had died years ago, and there were only a few cousins with whom she’d never been close. No one else.

Dottie worried. Would any of them remember to play music for her? Or audiobooks? Or to take her ashes to Alaska like she’d always asked? Or to keep her feet covered when the AC blew too cold? She loved them all, Emily and Jamie and Stan, but Dottie didn’t have much faith they’d be as attentive as she’d like. When she was in a vegetative state. In a nursing home.

Dottie looked over at Stan. His back was to her, but obviously she’d lost his attention again. Stan had an annoying habit of pulling out various projects to work on whenever he sensed Dottie was feeling conversant. And he was slouching again.

“Stanley, I said Ray and Tina’s daughter is pregnant again,” Dottie repeated. She expected him to understand the pique in her tone and turn around – Dottie only called him “Stanley” when she was annoyed. Stan still didn’t answer.

At the emergency room, they said it had been a massive stroke. The doctors did everything they could, but Stan hadn’t responded well. After a week, they moved him out of intensive care and into a long-term care facility. He’d stabilized, but appeared to have minimal cognitive function. The prospects for any meaningful recovery weren’t good.

Dottie sat alone with Stan in the nursing home most mornings and held his hand. Sometimes Emily, Jamie or one of Stan’s sisters visited, but mostly it was just Dottie. Today, she’d been listening to an audiobook to occupy her mind, and maybe Stan’s, while she sat. As Dottie gathered her things to leave, she turned on the music playlist she’d added to Stan’s phone, and arranged his blanket to make sure it didn’t slip off his feet after she’d left, so his feet wouldn’t be cold when the AC blew.


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A Beautiful Humming

Marcus leaned against the bar. The lighting here was good – neither so dark you needed to squint to see clearly nor so bright you felt like you needed to shield your eyes. Marcus knew he looked his best in this kind of light. That always made him feel good. And the acoustics were good too – not so noisy you couldn’t hear, but noisy enough to convey a party atmosphere. If Marcus hadn’t had a policy against ever visiting the same bar twice, he would’ve liked to come back to this one.

Sure enough, a girl came up to Marcus right away. She was a pretty girl, not that that mattered much. She may have carried a few extra pounds, but Marcus didn’t care about that. He flashed her his toothsome grin. Twenty minutes later, they were headed to Marcus’ place in his car. The car had been parked quite a distance away, and they’d had to walk to it through the rain. Marcus was pretty sure no one had followed them.

The girl’s hair was wet. She laughed a lot. Her laugh was deep and throaty, not like a smoker but like someone who had good, healthy lungs. He’d noticed that at the bar. She also looked to be a similar size as the others. That’s why Marcus had thought she’d be perfect. And she’d been the one to approach him. That had been very lucky.

Marcus pushed the remote as soon as his headlights illuminated the garage door. Marcus always parked in his garage and always made sure the door closed behind him before getting out of the car. He lived way out in the country without any close neighbors, but you never knew when someone might be driving by along the road, or some trespasser might be spying and see who Marcus was getting out of his car with. You just never knew.

The girl continued laughing her melodious laugh as she walked into the kitchen with Marcus. He wasn’t sure if she was drunk, nervous or just laughed a lot. Maybe all three. Yes, she’d love a glass of wine. Either red or white would be fine. She laughed some more. Marcus poured her Sauvignon Blanc. It was safer. Sometimes a bit of light colored residue from the powder he used tended to float on top, and it was less noticeable with the white. Mixed drinks usually worked better, but Marcus hadn’t had time to hit the liquor store lately. He poured some Malbec for himself.

When she’d finished half her drink, Marcus suggested the girl might like to see his music room in the basement. She already felt a little groggy and had trouble going down the stairs, but she made it without stumbling too badly. Marcus kept his arm around her tightly the whole time, and she seemed to appreciate it.

The girl was surprised by the crowd in the music room. There seemed to be over twenty people there, mostly women, but four or five men, too. It wasn’t like a party – they were all wearing robes and standing or sitting in rows. They all looked groggy, just like she felt. Marcus led her to a space at the right side in the second row. He slipped a handcuff around her wrist, attached the other end around a music stand bolted to the floor, handed her a piece of paper and walked to the front of the room.

The girl heard Marcus clear his throat. He tapped a baton against a podium. The others all stood at attention and got very quiet. When the singing started, it sounded like nothing she’d ever heard before. It started softly, then became a beautiful hum that grew and grew, until it filled her soul. The girl knew it might all be a hallucination but didn’t want it to stop.

The others in the room were looking at the papers in their hands, so the girl did the same. After a while, she caught the rhythm and the words started making sense. Then, she started to join in and became part of the hum. That beautiful, soul-filling hum. It went on for hours, or perhaps only a few minutes. It transcended time and space. But, eventually, the hum stopped, and Marcus began leading people away, one at a time.

When it was the girl’s turn to be led away, Marcus brought her to a tiny room in another part of the basement, just large enough for a narrow cot, small sink, and toilet. A box lunch, pillow, and blanket were placed neatly on the cot. She ate her fill and then slept, tired from the music, or maybe the wine, or maybe from whatever Marcus had added to it.   She dreamt that a beautiful hum had kidnapped her and filled her up until she exploded.

Marcus felt annoyed. Despite his high hopes, he didn’t think the new girl was going to work out. She’d joined right in, quite enthusiastically he thought, but the great promise in her resonant laugh hadn’t been fulfilled. She’d been flat and didn’t project well at all. He hoped she’d eaten the entire meal he’d left for her. If so, she’d be easy for him to dispose of tomorrow morning.

The next evening, Marcus leaned against the bar. A girl came up right away. She was a pretty girl, not that that mattered much. Marcus smiled his toothsome grin and nodded at her as she chattered away, listening carefully to see if her voice might be right to fill the empty place in the hum of his being.


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Two O’clock Drunk

It’s only eight o’clock. I’ve been here since just after five, parked on this stool, in this bar, in this town. Like I am nearly every night since it happened.

On this stool, chosen because it’s on the end, near the men’s room and furthest from the entrance. The bartender with the ponytail knows me and leaves me alone, mostly. Except when he sees my glass is nearly empty. He’s a good bartender, this ponytail one, and here most nights. The other one, the one with the bushy beard, is okay, too. But not as good.

In this bar, chosen because it’s convenient to my apartment and the stools are comfortable. Quiet, but not too quiet. Interesting music, but not too interesting. Clean, with good lighting. The bar three doors down, where I go sometimes if someone has my spot here, or if neither ponytail or bushy beard are working that day, is okay, too. But not as good.

It this town, not chosen at all, or perhaps chosen by failure to choose. People act like there’s always a choice – not about everything that happens but about how you handle things. I guess that may be true. All I know is I ended up here, so I stayed. This town’s not that good a place. Not even okay. A hundred, or a thousand, places would be better if I had the energy to leave. But I don’t.

If things had happened differently, maybe there’d be a different place, a different bar, a different stool. Alma liked to stay in motion. Places, bars, and stools were very fluid, back then. And there was more to life then than bars and stools anyway. Lots more.

But Alma’s gone. She believed she was going to another place. Maybe a better place. I believe she’s just gone. Alma didn’t have a choice about anything that happened. About the lump or the surgery or the treatment. Or about dying. I didn’t have a choice either – if I had, I would’ve chosen it to happen to me instead of her. Then I wouldn’t have to choose how to handle it. Alma would’ve had to make that choice, and she’d have chosen more wisely than I have.

So, I’ve made my choice or maybe failed to choose. I’ve chosen to sit here since just after five, parked on this stool, in this bar, in this town. It’s only eight o’clock but I’ve chosen to be two o’clock drunk. Or maybe failed to choose not to be.


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A Great Day

It had been a great day. So great, Tyler felt like bragging about it.

Tyler had an anxiety disorder. When he was a kid, he’d never really understood what that meant, except he’d been different. And not in a good way.

As an adult, it was even harder, sometimes. As a child, people tended to humor you and would occasionally cut you some slack. As an adult, not so much. Tyler’s biggest struggle involved waiting – he experienced all kinds of unease when he had to stand or sit idly, even for a few minutes.   Lines at a store, waiting rooms, and even pausing at long traffic signals could send him into high gear. Usually, Tyler tried to occupy himself with games, music or other activities on his cell phone to get through it. However, that didn’t always work.

But today had been a great day. Tyler had stood patiently in line behind the old lady at the convenience store who’d waited until AFTER the cashier had rung up her purchases to even START pulling her wallet out of her purse. And then she’d pulled an even smaller change purse out of her wallet and slowly counted out exact change, one bill or coin at a time.

And there’d been the oil change during his lunch break – he’d gone across the street to a coffee shop while they were working on the car. Neither the WIFI nor the cellphone signal had been good there, and it had taken forever for Tyler to get his order. But he’d smiled politely and told the barista to have a nice day. Just like a normal person.

Toward the end of the day he’d knocked off work early to attend a teacher conference at his daughter’s daycare. He’d arrived right on time – he’d found punctuality to be a good way to minimize waits – but the conference before his had run long. Tyler had sat for fifteen minutes surrounded by children’s toys and books, none of which held any interest for him. Thankfully, he’d pre-loaded a podcast onto his phone that helped him through it, sort of.

After leaving the conference, his daughter had wanted to buckle herself into her car seat on her own, and he’d forced himself to let her. She’d taken a long time, but he’d held onto the steering wheel tightly with both hands to control his frustration. When she’d finally gotten it right, he’d smiled at her in the mirror, and she’d smiled back.

Yes, it had been a great day. Tyler thought maybe a drink at the corner pub might be in order. His daughter was asleep, and his wife was finishing up some work on her computer. A perfect chance to slip away for a little while and celebrate. Most evenings, there was a game or something playing behind the bar to keep his mind occupied, at least for the half hour or so it took to drink one beer. Tyler never drank more than one – he had enough problems as it was.

There were only a few people in the place, but the bartender was flirting with a couple of women on the far end and pretended he didn’t see Tyler.   When Tyler called down to him, he raised one finger to let Tyler know he’d heard, but still didn’t seem in any hurry to serve him. Finally, Tyler walked around the bar, grabbed a mug, and filled it up from the beer tap.

Of course, the bartender wasn’t happy about that, and things escalated. A small scuffle ensued, and Tyler ended up getting a black eye. The police were called. It took another wait of twenty minutes for them to arrive, so by that time Tyler felt quite agitated. The police assumed he was drunk, or on something, and took him away in their squad car. Fortunately, rather than booking Tyler for anything they just put him in a cell to sleep it off.

But Tyler was too keyed up to sleep and waiting in his cell was torture. He didn’t want to call his wife, even though he’d been offered the opportunity. Tyler just couldn’t face seeing the disappointment in her eyes, yet again.   After a while his cellmate, a heavily tattooed man with a shaved head, got fed up with Tyler’s pacing and got rough. One thing led to another, and finally the guards came to break them up. But they were too late to stop the cellmate from bashing Tyler’s head against the cell bars. Tyler ended up bleeding rather badly from a gash on his temple.

The ambulance ride to the emergency room was another unbearable wait. With the assumption being he was high on something, the EMTs were hesitant to sedate Tyler, and one strap they’d used to restrain him hadn’t been properly fastened. Tyler thrashed out with his arm and hit one of the EMTs hard enough to knock him into some equipment, which started buzzing and beeping loudly.

The ambulance driver, startled by all the commotion, jerked the steering wheel slightly. The right front tire dropped off the pavement edge into a rut, followed by the entire ambulance, which then rolled and flipped over several times. By the time it came to rest, Tyler didn’t know which direction was which. No one else in the vehicle seemed to be conscious.

Tyler assumed that, sooner or later, first responders would arrive to pull them out. Probably after another long wait. He could see an LED light on some piece of equipment or other flashing the time. Tyler tried not to look at it, knowing it would only add to his anxiety, but finally couldn’t help himself. It was 11:59.

Maybe it hadn’t been such a great day, after all. Tyler didn’t feel much like bragging about it.


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