Suggested Listening: “Ammosel” by Billow Observatory, Calque, EP, 2023.
“I came in here for something.” Gator stood at the kitchen door. “What was it, man?” Gator scratched his head and looked over at the dirty window. Beyond the cracked glass. Fresh crystals clung to torn asphalt shingles. White snow would disguise the dirt, at least for a while.
“Whatever.” Gator shuffled toward the refrigerator and opened the door with the broken seal. Inside the dented box was where the ketchup was stored. Any food that could rot was stockpiled on the back porch — at least until appliance parts could be found. “Someday, I’ll have an icebox that works.” Gator turned and smiled at an old friend. “And wouldn’t that be awesome? I mean, we’re dropping $250 a month on electricity for this hellhole. At least this piece of shit keeps the room warm.” Gator waited. “I guess we should’ve shopped, huh?” Gator chuckled, but Phil didn’t respond.
Life was uneasy — far too quiet — outside, beyond the dingy apartment walls. Blessed with perfect pitch, Gator noticed the one thing that would drive him to drink. Or to die inside.
The music had stopped. The violins once plucked in symphonies were replaced by obscenities. Amusement had turned to despair. The car alarms and blaring stereos that once rattled the nerves at all hours in crumbling parking lots were absent. Yet, the broken beer bottles remained scattered.
The small symphonies that enchanted and the choruses sung from balconies in Milan some years before was a sweet but lonely wail that would never be replicated in the midwest. “Here?” Gator complained. “That’s a class of talent to be shunned.”
Three city trucks plowed the way for the cars that wouldn’t drive down the city block.
“I should have ordered food on the app. But why?” Gator closed the refrigerator door. “They’re out of everything. Right? Including parts. Well, at least you’re listening. You’re a good listener. The best. And that’s what counts.”
A notification sounded on Gator’s cellular phone. “Or not.” He read another — one of the dozens — alert. “Some schmuck has gotten a hold of this number. Assholes. No, I’m not taking your stupid screening or tests. Screw that, man.” Gator tossed the phone aside. “We’re rebels, right? The last musicians standing. And no, I’m not gigging for no pay. I’m not gigging for an audience of one — like the bouncer if he bothers to show up. The gigging days in Chicago are over, man. The music scene is dead and gone.
“That was the only scene around these parts. Okay, maybe restaurants. What do they call that? Hospitality. That’s right. Yeah. I dunno, man. Once they closed Maxwell Street, that was it for the blues — or any music — in this town. I mean, if you’re gonna gig, do it right, you know? And you might as well look awesome, but you can’t do that here. Nah. Forget it, man. All the good bands go to L.A. They’re too afraid to look good or sound good or something. Well, they used to go to L.A. That was a while ago. Everyone I know has gone overseas now. What do they call me? The last musician standing? I dunno what that’s all about. Midwestern rules. Or something.
“And you know what’s worse? The best restaurants are closed. Who wants to eat out when you can order in and watch a movie, right? Who wants to pay to park?” Gator chuckled. “Hell, man. Who wants to get carjacked?” Gator opened a bag of potato chips. “Who the hell wants to dine alone?”
He held one chip steady for a friend. “No? Okay. fine.” Gator ate six, sealed the bag, and tossed it aside. “Why go out? Eat by myself? Hell, you’re not coming out. And gig? Who’s going to clap? You know, like applaud? The peeps that do show up wind up leaving after their friends play the encore. Who the hell wants to gig in an empty house? I said that, right?
“I mean, I’d rehearse, but what the hell for?” Gator leaned against the kitchen counter, watching icicles form in the rising sun. “I suppose I should get dressed, huh? I dunno. I guess I’m not in the mood. I mean, if you’re gonna lock it all down.” His thoughts trailed off. “I dunno. I dunno, man. I guess I’m just bored. The last band I saw sounded like those other guys. I can’t remember the name of the band. I can’t remember the lyrics. Actually, I couldn’t understand a word.
“I can’t think of the word. I haven’t talked to anybody else in so long, you know? I mean, what for? Right? Ideas getting shot down. We used to jam. Plug in. Gather ’round. Rolling in after 3 AM? Those were the days. I mean, I dunno. I dunno what I’m trying to say.”
Gator reached for a mug. “I mean, I’m just trying to communicate with you honestly here, and you’re not saying a word. You know, bounce some ideas off each without fear of reprisal. I mean, it used to be we didn’t have phones. Couldn’t afford ’em, man. If we wanted to gig, we got in the car and banged on somebody’s door, you know? Well, there was always one guy with a car. Slip him some gas money. Buy him pancakes after the gig. Wash it all down with a beer and throw it all up in the sink.” Gator chuckled again. “But the clubs are closed. They closed it all down. I dunno why, man. I dunno what people are so afraid of — like ghosts. Or shadows. Or something. This town is dead. This town is toast.
“I mean, at least I think that’s the case. Everything’s boarded up, and I’m talkin’ to some computer when I wanna order food. Or reach out. Hell, read a book. All these stupid blogs. And I’m scrollin’, and I’m scrollin’ just trying to read. I mean, what the hell?
“You realize you’re the first person I’ve talked to anyone in days, right? No. Make that months. I dunno, man. Could be longer. “That’s effed up.”
“How long have we been here? Like this?” Gator thought back to when he was young. “Something like, what, two years? No. Three. Yeah, something like that.” Gator poured a cup of coffee and took the day’s first sip. “It’s as though everyone around here has given up hope. I don’t know what’s wrong or what’s up with people.” His sigh was soft and restrained. “I suppose I should shower, huh? Maybe teach some kid online. I guess. But why?”
Gator looked left toward an old friend. “You haven’t budged.” Gator waited for the response that wouldn’t come. Gator wiped his hands on a kitchen towel and reached out. “You okay?” Squinting to see — as though that would help — Gator peered down at the countertop. “Phil?”
Long shadows were cast across the white Formica, the new day destined to be overcast once again. Another gray day but without a friend.
“Phil?” Gator nudged the stinkbug but an inch. Phil never flinched.
Gator scooped an old, soft friend into the palm of his hand, a hand that hadn’t touched an instrument in years. Phil had been a good friend. A good listener. Better yet the best, some bug hanging around, delivered through some crack or some vent.
“Let’s take you outside.” Gator slipped his boots on. “We’ll check the mail. Why? I dunno, man. I haven’t held a letter in years.” Down two flights of back stairs, the gray paint worn and peeling. a burst of snow burned Gator’s tired eyes when he opened the back door. The last musician standing heard no sound but a siren, the only song left in a city of millions.
Thank you all for reading. Thank you all for your support.