A to Y: Yore

Sam couldn’t believe their luck. Not only was the bagpipe set a minimal part of the museum exhibit, and not only did they have to pick it up them self, and not only were they given the whole thing in one piece in nothing but a plastic bag from a grocery store, but they missed the last bus of the night.

They collapsed on the bench and the bagpipes sighed in their lap. They knew they could call a cab, or just walk, but they decided they needed to take a break before they could bear taking another step. The expensive, giant, useless instrument was heavy and awkward to carry, and Sam just wanted to throw it on the ground and dig their heels into it. It was only going to be in the museum to show a modern set of bagpipes as compared to the ancient set in the “Instruments of Yore” exhibit. It wasn’t even important. There wasn’t even any history.

Sam closed their eyes and held their head in their hands, their elbows joining the tangle of pipes and plaid in their lap. When they finally raised their eyes they nearly screamed in surprise—a man was sitting next to them, a disheveled man with clothes that matched the bagpipes and skin nearly as black as Sam’s (though, very few people are as dark as Sam). Sam fought the urge to run. The man smiled, and his mouth smelled like the subway.

“I was wondering if you were alright, Ma’am,” the man said. “Are you alright?”

Sam nodded, not quite looking in his eyes.

“Is that a bagpipes?” he asked. He must be fifty, maybe sixty, Sam thought. Sam was barely twenty. They searched for another person, for help, but the two of them were alone on the darkening street.

“It’s for a museum,” Sam said, and their voice cracked. They tried to keep their face neutral but weren’t sure how they were doing. The man kept his hands folded in his lap, but somehow that scared Sam more.

“Mind if I play it?” the man asked. “I used to play; my mom bought me one when I was little.”

Sam handed him the bagpipes, and his grimy fingers grazed their wrist. Sam couldn’t imagine telling their boss that they let a strange homeless man play the museum’s bagpipes. They didn’t care at the moment, as long as the man didn’t try to touch them.

The man played pretty well. Better than Sam expected. Amazing, even. They played a jumpy dance tune for nearly five minutes, his hands squeezing the fabric and adjusting the pipes as he went. It seemed like he may go on forever, which Sam may not have minded, but he suddenly succumbed to a coughing attack. The coughs were wet, violent.

“Sorry,” he said, between hacks louder than gunshots. “Pneumonia, I think. Thank you, Ma’am. That took me back.” He was smiling with smelly teeth. “See you around.”

The man left. Played a beautiful song and left. Sam made it back to the museum and even had time to arrange the bagpipes behind the display glass. In the end, though it was scary, they were glad they had met the Bagpipe Man. Now, in the halls of sculptures and crowns, even the useless modern bagpipes in the “Instruments of Yore” had a bit of history to them.

A to F: Freedom

With the jacket, collared shirt, and heavy backpack, Mary was warm enough except for her bottom, which soaked in the cold dampness of the sidewalk. She had squished herself into a corner between two buildings and under an awning so most of the rain didn’t hit her, and was trying desperately to sleep but was scared. She missed the country’s spacious skies. The expensiveness of the city held up to its reputation but hopefully it was less dangerous than the reputation described, than the staticky televisions claimed, than the mothers whispered about while sewing pillowcases, their fingers smudged with newspaper print.

Mary was in her brother’s overalls, something she hoped would protect her from any other runaway-turned-homeless person. She dropped her head to her knees.

When she picked up her head some time later, to stop raindrops from dripping down behind her collar, there was a man standing in front of her in a suit too big for him, drenched with rain. He was black, which didn’t scare Mary like it would her mother. She had only met a handful of black people in her life. He knelt and extended his hand, like she was a dog and he was letting her sniff him out first.

“I was wondering if you were alright, Ma’am,” the man said. “Are you alright?”

Mary nodded, captivated by his eyes. He was a handsome man, even in the lumpy suit and slightly overgrown hair.

“May I join you?”

Mary shifted a bit, and he sat down beside her. He had to have been about twenty, Mary figured. Mary herself was sixteen. What her mother would think of her now! Homeless in New York, sharing a dry patch of sidewalk with an older, black man.

“So, what’s your name, Ma’am?”

“Mary McLane,” she said, trying to stifle her accent. “What’s your name?”

“My name’s Bobby,” the man said. “But people call me Treble, because I like music so much. And so they can say, ‘Here comes Treble!’ Sounds like ‘trouble,’ get it?”

Mary smiled. She took her backpack off and began rummaging. “Do you play harmonica?”

“I play a little harmonica. My mom’s family had money when I was young. I learned piano, trombone, a little violin, bagpipes—”

Mary pulled out a harmonica and offered it to Treble. “It’s my brother James’. He didn’t notice I took it.”

“Hey, check it out!”

Treble played a little tune, which made the rain seem softer and the city seem brighter.

“So this concert isn’t free, Mary,” Treble said between beats. Mary’s heart leapt. She didn’t have much money. “You’ll have to tell me what a pretty, western, white girl like you is doing huddling on the street in Manhattan.”

“I ran away.”

“Whoa!” Treble said. He gave her back the harmonica. “Usually it takes more convincing than that. You ran away, huh? Why’d you do that?”

“To see sky scrapers and the ocean,” Mary said. “I found one. Not the other, yet.”

She patted the cold steel of the building they were leaning against. It was both bigger and smaller than she’d imagined it would be.

“So you wanted freedom, then? Me too.” Treble shifted a little so he could look Mary in the eyes. “I left my girl while her belly was swelling. I didn’t want to be doing that. I didn’t want my life stuck to the girl and the mistake. So now I’m here. You know what, Mary? I believe that every choice we make is for either love, or freedom. But you can’t have both.”

“I didn’t have a boyfriend.”

“Who said anything about a boyfriend? You loved your family, didn’t you? Your home, your brother? Listen, Mary, you like Janis Joplin?”

Mary shrugged. They didn’t have a radio, or a player. Treble looked straight ahead, eyes closed, and for awhile it seemed like he was just going to go to sleep.

Then, in a sweet, soft voice, he said, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.”

Mary sighed, held back her tears, and asked Treble if he had a coin she could flip.

“Heads I go home,” she said as he found a nickel in his pocket. “Tails I stay here.”

“Me too,” Treble said, finding a second coin. They flicked the coins in the air, and they landed side by side on the ground. One was heads, and one was tails.