by Eli VanDyne
A tale of a middle-aged man desperate to escape life's monotony and pursue his dream.
This story was an editor's pick in the short story newsletter: "Short Stories: Step One: Eat the Soup" 3/20/2013
This story was awarded first place in the Newbies ONLY contest of March, 2013 - Thanks Siscok!
Nocturne in G Major
Bill Ackerman checked his hair in the rearview mirror of his ’98 Honda Accord. It was still smartly parted on the left and sprayed into place. The open windows let in the fumes from bumper to bumper traffic. Bill turned up the CD player, the second movement of Beethoven’s Pathetique was starting.
Bill glanced at the neighboring cars. On his right, two young women sat with the windows down, conversing loudly. Laughter drifted over at regular intervals. The driver looked over and smiled, and Bill smiled back. She was beautiful; in a natural no makeup needed way.
Bill couldn’t help but think, if this was 15 or 20 years ago, he might’ve had a chance. The way she flipped her hair and continued to look over told him he still did. The driver laughed and began pointing towards the shoulder of the road as she spoke with her passenger. She waved politely, and Bill waved back, then the young girls were cruising away down the shoulder.
The minivan that pulled up to replace the suntanned Venus held a middle-aged mother with her kids in the back. As Bill glanced at the dashboard clock, an avalanche of reality crashed through the peaceful valley of his mind.
Oh well. I’ll be late. Ten minutes late already. What a joke. Ten minutes, ten days, ten eons, ten times infinity, what’s the difference? When I took piano lessons as a kid, my timing was perfect. Four fourths time, three fourths time, never needed a metronome. Always made me think of a bearded midget in a pointy hat waiting on a city bus. Funny, I couldn’t play a G Chord now, but I can remember laughing at the metro gnome.
Ten minutes was surely longer then, a much more significant fraction of my life. God, an hour of piano lessons seemed to drag on forever. Now I listen to a Chopin Nocturne or a Beethoven Sonata and think: should’ve played piano and stayed outta trouble. Here I am about to be fifty years old, fifty times 365 days old, fretting over ten minutes in time. Maybe I’ll call and tell them I’m stuck in traffic. Ehh, I’ll tell them when I get there. If I get there. I could take this next exit and never look back. Cut this stringy haired over stressed woman off and follow that young fox down the shoulder. Follow her to my new life.
Blaring sirens snapped Bill back from his musings. The sonata’s third movement had started, and two state police cruisers were passing on the shoulder; traffic was slowly lurching forward. When Bill got closer to the scene of the accident, he couldn’t help but stare. A large pick-up truck had run directly into the back of a semi. The driver of the pick-up must’ve been speeding, because the truck’s cab was quite literally fused with the rear of the tractor trailer. Bill reached over and strapped on his seatbelt.
The remaining five minute drive to the office was traffic free. Stepping into the elevator and pressing floor four, Bill checked his watch: almost 8:30. Mr. Henderson wouldn’t be happy. Maybe he took the day off to golf or laugh at homeless children, or whatever rich pricks do while you handle all the work.
In the elevator, Bill watched as the digital display switched from a green ‘G’ to a segmented red ‘1’ with a beep. The ‘1’ was replaced by the five segmented lines that represent a ‘2’ in all elevators, but look more like a stylized backwards S or half of an incorrect swastika. The lights in the elevator dimmed, and then flickered brightly. Just before the digital ‘3’ could display itself, the lights went out completely. The elevator shook to a stop. Bill stood in the darkness for a few seconds until the emergency lights came on.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Bill said to the upper left hand corner of the elevator. He ran his finger down the push button display to the small metal one with the red ‘In Case of Emergency’ plaque over it. His finger was hovering just above the button, when a thin, static laden voice came through the small speaker below it.
“Are you stuck?” The voice asked with an echoed quality, as if the speaker was broadcasting his question from an immeasurably large gymnasium.
“Yes,” Bill replied, feeling a sudden chill.
“Did you see that accident on your way in?” The voice slowly asked.
Bill felt every hair on his body stand out as if the walls of the elevator had become statically charged. He took short, hyperventilated breaths through a mouth that felt as if he had spent an hour chewing a dish towel.
“Yes,” he replied, and as the oddness of the question registered he added, “Why?”
“I was late to work today too, Bill. There I was… shaving with an electric razor in the visor-mirror, glancing down to make sure my cruise control was set to just around ninety… with no idea that I was racing towards my own unavoidable cold-steel-crash-bar demise.” The voice was choppy and left long, static filled gaps between statements as if Bill was tuning through radio stations.
“How do you know my name?” Bill inquired of the static.
“Is that really what you want to ask Bill? OK, it’s not what I’m here to talk to you about, but let’s just say I’m omnipotent. I’m taking time out of my schedule, which admittedly looks totally blank at the moment, to save your ass, Ghost of Christmas Past style, through an elevator speaker… You know what I always wanted to do Bill?”
There was a silence here, or rather a static, like someone holding a phone up into high wind with Bill on the other end. The sound made him shiver and he opened his mouth to break the eerie static silence, but before he could, the voice continued.
“… It’s rhetorical Bill, no need to think about it. I wanted to move out into the country and raise Dachshunds. That’s right Bill, hotdog dogs. I wanted a herd of them. Now here I am, dead as a dresser drawer. Are you seeing the moral here Bill? If you’re stuck, unstick yourself. Nobody’s here forever, a tractor-trailer with your name on its license plate might be idling gently in wait right around the next curve. So if there’s something you’re dying to do, do it before you’re dying. See you on the other side Bill.” This final sentence, which sounded as if the voice was significantly further away, also heralded the elevators unexpected return to upward motion.
Bill, like most humans who encounter odd supernatural phenomena, immediately set about denying anything strange had happened. As the elevator rose, he rubbed his hands on his forearms where the goose bumps were just beginning to flatten. He arrived on his floor wishing he had never taken any psychedelic, possible-flashback-inducing substances.
While settling into his computer chair, Bill saw Frank Etles’ disheveled head pop over the cubical wall three work stations down. His reddish-brown hair puffed and tufts stuck out far in all directions like some wild untamed shrubbery. Bill quickly grabbed his computer’s headset and threw it over his ears in an attempt to fend off Frank’s inevitable verbal assault. He was humming a few bars of Brahms’ piano trio, and nodding along to the non-existent music that he hoped Frank would believe was blasting through the headphones.
Frank was heading towards Bill, huffing and puffing like a hung over freight train. His black collared shirt belonged on a much smaller man, it looked to be shrink wrapped around him. Bill noticed the tie that hung from the shirt's stretched neck had some sort of white pattern on it, and as Frank drew closer it materialized into piano keys. Frank’s gin blossom nose and red face shined above his inexplicable piano key tie. Bill had heard of mobsters who strangled their victims with piano wire, but wondered if anyone had ever been choked to death with a piano tie. Frank, now within arm’s reach, clapped a large, sweaty hand on Bill’s shoulder.
“Late again, Akerman,” he said, in a fair imitation of Mr. Henderson.
“He’s not here today is he?” Bill asked.
“Nope, at least not yet.” Frank said, as he pointed to the yellow folder on Bills desk. “Still stuck on that Americans United job? Geez man, if they want 50 percent validation, call for a week, then just check the right boxes next to half the phone numbers. Job done. The main office will never know the difference.”
“No, but I would,” Bill replied absently.
Bill was envisioning himself hitting Frank over the head with his glass clef note paper weight, laying him supine on the desk, and playing his tie like a Steinway baby grand onstage at Lincoln Center. His mind meditative like, under the hot, white house lights, as his fingers flew through complex polytonal melodies and dug deeper and deeper into Frank’s chest.
“Suit yourself. Anyway, wanna come get a drink after work?” Frank asked.
“No,” Bill replied, shaking his head.
Frank continued to talk, but Bill’s attention was drawn down the hall, where a suited man was unlocking an office door. It was Mr. Henderson. His appearance alone was enough to cause Bill’s fist to clench. The boss stood in a self important way, and Bill could imagine him thinking: How dare this door be locked? Doesn’t it know who I am? Still seated on the desk in front of him, Frank was apparently just getting to the punch line of some drawn out anecdote.
“And then I said to him…” Frank droned.
Bill pushed his chair away from the desk. He stood up straight, shoulders back, head erect, and walked towards Henderson’s door. Without stopping to knock (a serious taboo for any employee of Henderson) he walked directly into the office where the boss’s over-used, potent cologne immediately filled his nostrils. Mr. Henderson’s eyes went wide with shock, and before he could recover, Bill blurted out:
The outright surprise on the boss’s face was more pleasing than Bill could have dreamed. Here was Henderson, a man who could talk for hours about a $200 steak dinner while you starved to death, actually at a loss for words. Bill turned around and slowly left the office amidst the sound of Henderson’s stuttering voice. There, beside the door, was Frank, who had obviously eavesdropped on the whole thing.
“Geez man!” he said “That was great.”
Bill looked over Frank’s shoulder, towards the end of the hall, where the elevators waited for his hopefully uninterrupted escape.
“I never liked you Frank,” Bill said, without taking his eyes from the elevators. “You’re pushy, obnoxious, and you invite me to the bar when I’ve told you god knows how many times I’ve been sober for five years. You’re a narcissist and a total ass, you and Henderson are perfect for each other.”
Frank’s mouth hung agape, and he stared blankly at Bill, a blankness only alcohol and practice could put on your face. Bill didn’t care if he drowned in whiskey, he’d never have to deal with Frank Etles again. 'If you’re stuck, unstick yourself,' the voice had said.
Bill found himself back in his car, passing the same accident from earlier. This time he was on the eastbound side, heading home. The pick-up had been somewhat disconnected from the tractor trailer by firemen using the Jaws of Life. The windshield was a grayish-white from all of the shattered glass, but behind it Bill could see what looked like several jars of strawberry jam smashed against a wall. As he passed, his Beethoven CD changed into static noise for a moment, and Bill thought he heard through it: “If you’re dying to do something, do it before you’re dying.” and felt the same chill he had gotten in the elevator.
As Bill pulled up in front of his apartment complex, he noticed a lightness in his head and chest that he hadn’t felt for years. Like a work horse finally released from an overloaded cart harness. He strolled to his apartment door, head high, lips slightly stretched in a smile. Once inside he went into his bedroom and opened the closet. There, on the shelf at the top, covered by old, folded shirts and sweatpants and a fine coating of dust, was his Casio keyboard. He brought it down, set it up on its stand, and began to recall how to play a G Chord. He had plenty of time to remember.
Thanks for reading, any feedback is greatly appreciated!