Smoke swirled around the dimly lit cafe not far from the nearly flooding subway stop housing a rather bustling C-Train on this misty Nov. evening. A short and grizzly man with delicate hands sat atop a barstool and plucked away gently on his worn guitar. As the man concluded his set of folk and traditional numbers he swallowed sharply and nodded to the applause of three and a half attentive patrons of this fragile and dying haunt.
The light of scattered street lamps and the hush of a steady rain eked in the door behind a tall and thin man with a broken look upon his face and hair which matted under his wet knit cap. Mickey was a longshoreman working early mornings and late evenings just off of the dockyard on the West Side of the island facing the industrial parks of god’s country beyond the river. The door closed softly and the squish of his boots drew all conscious eyes toward him and his tattered sweater which smelled not quite like trash but yet not of the ocean either. He nodded at the audience whose attention turned, for a moment, away from the next singer who was taking the stage.
Mickey sighed softly to himself and sat down in a booth set for two. He stared at the low light of the small oil lamp that sat haphazardly in a small bowl atop the tan tablecloth. Before his fingers could get close enough to burn, a friendly face fell into the booth with two cups in tow.
“What shall we drink to?” Sandy asked. Mickey looked up at them. They were sporting a new cut above their upper lip and a bruise under their left eye. He didn’t say anything about it.
“We’ll drink to lost lovers and forgotten dreams,” he said with a soft and broken smile. His heavy eyes weighed lighter upon the sight of his friend.
“Lost lovers indeed, and let’s not forget our heavy hearts,” Sandy said with gravel in their voice. In the gap of conversation, Mickey looked off into the distance toward the poorly lit stage where the next singer with the same bag of songs as the last strummed away. Sandy watched his eyes shimmer ever so slightly as they sipped their coffee.
“Why don’t you get up there?” Mickey looked back at Sandy whose question hung in the air. He thought for a moment and pressed his tongue against his bottom row of teeth. The shimmer still lingered amongst the squint of his wandering eyes.
“My father wanted me to be a seaman,” he paused, searching for direction. “And my mother wanted me to just have, ya know, any steady paycheck.” He stopped and sighed while scratching under his hat which now revealed his hairline, “And, I suppose, I’ve done neither of those things.”
“But are you a folk singer?” Sandy asked sincerely. The sounds of a poorly attempted cover of “Puff the Magic Dragon” filled the derelict room of dissipating wonder.
“If I am, it’d be news to me,” he said sadly and sardonically. He looked away from the stage and its now four patrons before taking a swig of the beverage Sandy had placed in front of him minutes ago. “I’ll die on the banks of that river,” he stood slowly, his bones cracked and his muscles ached. “Besides, these hands aren’t meant for art.” He put a few dollars down on the table and took a step toward the door.
“But what about your heart?” Sandy asked, now turned and facing him as he leaves, their words hanging amongst the dust in the air. Mickey stopped with his hand pressed against the door, he thought for a moment and then shrugged before stepping out into the now sideways rain.
He trudged aimlessly amongst the brownstones, his subway stop far in the distance. He shuffled slowly through the downpour looking for any way to walk from the life he wanted to leave so far behind.
Stepping down the stairs toward the underworld of rocking train cars, fat rats and piss-stained concrete were the sounds of an old blues number that echoed through the tiled cave. Mickey passed through the turnstile and found an old man, guitar in hand, finishing his tune. He looked down at the old man who sat on the floor shoeless, his repurposed coffee can filled with only a few cents and plenty of dirty water.
“The instrument or my soul, take your pick,” the poor man said. “One of the two is surely worth a warm bed for this old timer.” Mickey swallowed sharply as they looked at one another.
Then, with empty pockets and a lighter heart, the subway doors closed and Mickey, now holding the guitar which lacked two strings, was heading uptown.