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Something to Listen To
Cady stood alone on the stage, eyes half closed against the bright blue-white spotlight. She could hear the music in her head, echoing like the aftermath of a dream. When she opened her mouth no lyrics came out. They fell away like pearls off a broken string. Cady pressed her lips together and resisted the urge to wipe away the sweat forming on her brow. The spotlight clicked off.
“You’re starting to freak me out,” said Wanda holding the cord to the spotlight in her hand. She and Cady were wearing identical shirts that said Zelda’s Bar. The bar had closed over hour ago, leaving them to clean up. The chairs were stacked on top of the tables around the stage, the smell of cleaning fluid and Febreze hung in the air like a bad aftertaste, and the stage was dark.
The notes receded into the back of Cady’s mind, and she stepped off the stage, “I’m working on a new song,” she said.
“You’ve been standing there for five minutes staring into space. And humming.”
“I’m writing it in my head.”
“I hear that paper works great too.”
Cady rolled her eyes. Wanda wasn’t a song writer so Cady couldn’t expect her to understand her process. Her songs would begin her head, words with seemingly no connection would stick together like puzzle pieces, or she would start humming a strange melody that she’d never heard before. Then she would go home and write down the lyrics and bang on the keyboard until she found the right notes.
Unless, of course, she had writer’s block. Like she did then. That required a more unorthodox creative process.
“Why are you still here anyway?” asked Cady.
“I just thought you might want to go to breakfast together. Sorry for bugging you,” replied Wanda. Her eyes were as bloodshot as Cady’s from working the nightshift. Cady and Wanda usually didn’t close at Zelda’s Bar, but that week they’d been headlining a new singer, A.J. Smith, a real crowd pleaser. She was able to hit notes as rich and smooth as wine, and Zelda’s had needed extra help to handle the crowds. Wanda was the regular bartender there. Cady was her roommate. For Cady, it was a temp job, but she wouldn’t have heard of it if it wasn’t for Wanda; Cady knew she should be more appreciative of her.
“It’s okay, that was mean,” said Cady apologetically. “Breakfast sounds good.”
“I’ll get my purse,” Wanda said with a forgiving smile.
“You paid last time,” said Cady, “I’ll get it.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure,” said Cady. Wanda shrugged and put her coat on, while Cady said a prayer of gratitude for big tips.
“Ugh,” groaned Wanda squeezing her eyes shut as they stepped outside the bar, “someone needs to put out that light.”
Cady nodded in agreement as she dug through her purse for her sunglasses.
“So, since you’re paying for it, what do you think? McDonald’s or Chicken Farm?” asked Wanda.
“Chicken Farm’s closer,” said Cady.
Cady had carpooled with Wanda that night, and, despite the gas money it had saved her, she had regretted it. Wanda’s car, or the Death Trap as she and Cady referred to it, was a 1987 Honda Accord with no air conditioner or heater, and whether or not it would choose to start was always questionable. The engine groaned as Wanda turned the key. Cady just looked out the window.
She had only lived in Hilltown for a little over a year, but she was as familiar with it as the town she grew up in, and considered it to be more her home than the latter. The streets were paved with brick and cobblestone and most of the buildings were relics from Hilltown’s pioneer days, but they sat next to the newer buildings as sedately as one would a newborn sibling.
People came to Hilltown for its music, some to make music, and some to listen to it. Cady had come to make music. It had been her dream since she first enrolled in her school’s music program at ten years old. The kind of music Hilltown was known for made people feel emotions they never knew they were capable of feeling. The music made them feel that they had gained something, something bigger than themselves, something that would fade away with the music, so they held it in their minds for when they needed it again. That was the kind of music Cady wanted to make—music that would make people feel.
She heard a snapping sound from what seemed like far away.
Cady blinked and turned to Wanda. A giant chicken shaped sign was hovering in the window behind Wanda’s head.
“Oh, sorry,” mumbled Cady.
The Chicken Farm was open twenty-four hours and served breakfast from four to eight. Wanda ordered a fried chicken, egg, and bacon wrap with coffee. Cady just ordered the coffee, and wondered why almost everything on their breakfast menu seemed to be a combination of chicken, eggs, and bacon wrapped in something.
“Is it just me, or was the guy working the counter checking us out?” said Wanda as they carried their order over to a booth, away from one of the sun saturated windows.
“Was he?” Cady looked over at the counter. The boy working the counter looked to be in his early twenties, college aged, and had one of those crooked smiles that seemed to drive some people crazy. He was practically begging to be in a song.
Cady sipped her coffee, tapped her nail on the table, and tried to imagine what it would be like to be in love with the Chicken Farm boy. She heard a piano melody, and the melody sounded like laughter. The relationship would start out fun and carefree, but as they got to know each other better it would escalate into a crescendo of passion before flowing into a dull, even rhythm that would never pick up again as they became comfortable with each other.
It was so cliché it made Cady’s coffee taste bad.
“You know Cady, I get the feeling that you haven’t been listening to a thing I’ve said.” Cady looked up.
“Exactly,” said Wanda. “I asked what your new song’s about.”
“Oh, I’m still working that out,” said Cady. Wanda nodded and opened a packet of sweetener.
“The reason I’m asking,” she said as the crystalline flakes swirled in her cup, “is because you haven’t woken me up with that piano in a while.”
“Well,” said Cady, “my agent didn’t really care for my last few songs.” To say that her agent merely hadn’t cared for them would have been gracious. He had described them as soulless and generic. Cady hadn’t even known what to say back.
“We’re meeting again in a few weeks. I plan to have it ready then.” Cady hoped to have a song ready then. She couldn’t remember too many details of their last meeting, just the ending where her agent threatened to drop her if she didn’t produce something worth listening to.
“That’s good,” said Wanda, “’ cause, you know, I’m starting school again soon and I’ll have to cut my hours at the bar and I’m sorry but I can’t find any other way to put this—I won’t be able to pay so much of the rent by myself anymore.”
“I know,” said Cady. Her parents had offered to give her a monthly allowance when she first came to Hilltown, just until her songwriting career picked up, but the suggestion made her feel like a fifteen year old again. Now, every time she sat down at her keyboard, she wondered if that may have been a mistake. Dollar signs floated behind the notes to her sheet music when she tried to compose, making the pages impossible to read.
Cady tipped her head back and swallowed the last of her coffee, lips puckering at the bitterness.
“I’m sorry to be so blunt,” said Wanda looking down, “but you can’t take all the time that you need anymore.”
“I know,” repeated Cady standing up. “If you don’t mind, I think I’ll walk home.”
Wanda nodded, but said nothing.
The air outside the Chicken Farm was spring air, fresh and crisp. If Cady had been a smoker she would have lit up as she walked. She had tried smoking once, in college, because she heard that all great artists smoked. After a few puffs, she finally quit coughing long enough to throw up. Going on walks and observing things as they happened, Cady decided, would have to be stimulating enough.
She wished there weren’t so many homeless people in Hilltown, though. They blended into the pavement and alleys like water stains on wood, always visible in the corner of Cady’s eye—the people that had been used and forgotten about by Hilltown. Cady, and everyone else she knew, usually walked past them, and never spoke of them, as if by consensus.
“Hey lady, can you spare some change,” said a withered voice. Cady couldn’t tell if the speaker was a man or a woman, he or she was too wrapped up in colorless coats and scarves to reveal a shape. Cady averted her eyes and dropped a bill into the outstretched hand.
“Well, thank you! How generous.” Cady could have cursed; she realized that she’d just given away the last of her tip money.
“You know, I feel like I should give you something in return,” said the homeless person. “Are you a music lover? You look like a music lover.”
“I’m a songwriter,” said Cady.
“Oh, I used to be a songwriter too,” said the homeless person. Cady edged away from her. Talking to failed artists always made her feel uncomfortable.
“Do you want to hear a song?” asked the homeless person. “It’s an old one, but I think you’ll like it.”
“I wrote it when I first came to Hilltown, ages ago.” The homeless person crooked her finger at Cady, who leaned in reluctantly. She held her breath; the smell of the homeless person was awful.
Cady heard the sound of a throat being cleared, and the song began.
The song began as a natural history. It spoke of green, untouched hills and prairie grass as high as a man’s waist. Crickets chirped and wolf packs howled together in harmony. Then people came, kicking up the dust with their wagons, and as they marched together through the tall grass they sang. Their songs were the songs of their lives: what had brought them to the hills and how they got there.
The notes were drawn out and built on top of each other in a song that went on as more people came to the hills. Then all at once it stopped, and it was just Cady and the homeless person again, standing in Hilltown.
“That was beautiful,” said Cady, and she meant it.
“Thank you,” said the homeless person, “it’s not finished yet though. I doubt I’ll ever finish it. I’ll only have more experiences to add on to it.”
Cady was only half listening. A tune was forming in Cady’s mind. She hummed it to herself to keep it there.
“Thank you,” she said to the homeless person, who was already settling back down onto the concrete. She didn’t wait to see if there would be a response, she had to get back to her apartment. Something had burst within Cady, all the anxiety she’d been feeling over the past few months had been released, and were rolling around with a new optimism.
Cady could hear Wanda snoring in her room when she reached their apartment. She blocked it out and sat down at her piano. The blank music sheets that had been sitting idle for weeks fluttered like seagull wings with each note that Cady played. The song she played was her song, her fears and goals shrunk into small, black notes on paper, and each chord grew in intensity. The song was a story, and it was the story of Cady.