This is a bit of a departure from my normal, finely honed dosage of cynicism. It's a short story that's been knocking around in my noggin for some time. I promise: back to the usual nastiness on the next post.
I clopped down the side street, avoiding traffic. The pavement felt especially hard under my feet on a night full of shadows. A light mist fell. I noticed smells before anything: food, was it porcine? I drew my pea coat tighter as the cold knifed at me.
Turning left, working toward the smell, I saw the oddest of windows, three of them arow, set into brick. They were mounted just below street level, each fronted by a well that separated it from the sidewalk. The windows were about three feet across and a half that high, shaped like eyelids. I peered through one. I could see a frantic mop of female hair, two flailing hands and little else. Her back was facing me.
Did I hear music?
The woman in the eyelid then turned slightly, arms still moving. She had one big, red dot of makeup on each cheek, almost as a clown would. Suddenly, she smiled at me, a wide, toothsome—mocking?—grin. She stopped one arm and pointed to her left, still grinning, gesturing with her head in the same direction.
I backed off from the eyelid and turned to where she had indicated. Just past the last window was a small flight of steps, leading down. A bare light bulb tried to light the stairs. I used them. On a wooden double door was a small sign. It read “Enter” in a few different languages.
Without pause, I went in.
I found myself in a small foyer. The cold fled my body. I smelled the food, stronger now. Music, still muted, seemed to pour from the walls. Was that Gershwin? At the other end of the foyer a door opened and a woman stepped into the hall. She held two glasses of what looked like wine. Her dress was black and sleek as were her magnificently stockinged legs. Ebony hair in the tightest of chignons. Alabaster face, maroon lipstick. And eyelids, heavily shaded.
The woman approached me and handed me a glass. “Welcome, Tim,” she said. “I've been waiting for you. First, we toast.”
I yammered, “But how—?”
“As I said, first we toast. To the music.” Fine. Our glasses clinked. The crystal rang. It was so finely wrought that the lip was razor-like. The wine stumbled into my mouthed. Delicious, thick, viscous grape magic.
“Come here,” said the woman, pointing lazily at the door through which she had just appeared. I was beyond questions now. I followed her as we went down another flight of stairs, wider and steeper than the ones outdoors.
Through another set of doors and into a cavernous—what was it?—ballroom. Off a central hub were alcoves. I could see musicians in each one. The ceiling was very high, domed, dotted with dozens of chandeliers. The sound was pleasing, even though I should have been hearing cacophony.
In each chamber was a different ensemble. I could see full-blown orchestras, wind symphonies, even a uniformed brass band. The lights bounced off their gaudily fringed, gold epaulets. Their shakos looked like fezzes. Turning slowly, I could see I was surrounded by music. More groups, odder yet: seven women in boaters, all playing harmonicas; a massive troupe of vocalists, scat-singing orchestral parts. Most eerie was that the music from all these bands seemed to flow fluently, even my ears fought to find a melody.
My hostess smelled faintly of frangipani. She had never left my side. Nudging my elbow, she led me to a large circular bar at the center of the room. Ringing the bar was an array of tables, all of which seemed to be occupied by well-dressed folk. As a burly bartender refreshed my wine, I turned to notice a table of five stout, mustachioed men, all dressed in white tie and tails. Each drank from a huge stein of beer. The men lifted their glasses and smiled heartily, as if in a toast. I offered glass and smile in return. Somehow my wine was white now; it tasted of almond, honey and flint.
In the center of the men's table was a steaming dish of sausages, gleaming just like the drinkers' bald pates. Mustaches limned with foam were wiped and the process repeated.
“Go see the music,” said the woman. “I'll be here.”
I pitched toward the full orchestra, whose conductor was the woman I had seen through the eyelid. As I got closer to the stand, I could hear Gershwin's “Concerto in F.” I immediately knew that something was different, musically askew, but arranged in a tuneful, earsome, way. I scanned the musicians. Sure enough, improbable instruments appeared: two accordions, a washbboard, a cymbalom played by a woman in gypsy garb.
The maestro caught my eye, her smile almost mocking. Her hair seemed to have grown since I had first seen her only minutes before. Or was it? I tore myself away from her gaze. And wandered.
An octet of acoustic guitars and harps played “Car on a Hill” by Joni Mitchell. Instrumentally. The brass band bounced jauntily through “Manic Depression” by Jimi Hendrix. A wonderfully beautiful alto sax player, accompanied only by piano, mourned through Mozart's funereal, “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen.” I wasn't surprised to hear the harmonicas assay “Love Me Do.”
The all-vocal band was thrumming a Strauss waltz. As if from nowhere, a woman twirled me around and led me to the dance floor. She was dressed in Gay 90's fashion, gusseted, bustled and pipe-curled. Before I knew it, we joined dozens of couples on the dance floor. She guided me with knowing hands, her smile eternal. Soon I found myself getting in step; before long, we were perfectly synched with all the other dancers. I didn't have to think; it just occurred.
My partner left the floor right after the piece ended. The singers bgean a precisely articulated handclap sequence, alternating phrases of twelve and ten. The time felt strangely familiar. Then the group tiptoed into Pat Metheny's “The First Circle.” The woman in black reappeared, this time holding a plate of toothpicked sausage knobs. She fed me one, very delicately. Fennel, rasins and garlic gavotted over my palate.
We returned to the bar. The portly porter group seemed to have left. A brandy snifter the size of a fishbowl loomed in front of me; its contents carried notes of orange and bergamot.
“Where am I?” I asked.
She smiled and said huskily, “We're all here for the music.” Then it hit me: No matter what ensemble I listened to, they all played my favorite pieces. The woman seemed to know this.
“It's your music, Tim. Leaving is up to you,” she said.
I can't remember how long I stayed; the hostess walked me to the door and gave me a kiss, languorously legato. “Come back anytime you want,” were her last words. It was daylight when I left, refreshed and clear-headed.
Since then, I have returned many times. She's there, the music's there, waiting for me.