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Thursday, 16 July 2015

The Passing Place (free early look)

I began writing 'The Passing Place' five years ago. Its been my white whale to an extent. I keep going back to it and writing some more. But I run out of steam or start a new project. Five years seems a long time but actually its a very short when you consider most of the time i have been working on other things. It is however where i go back to when I finish a project as a rule. And having completed Cider lane and got it into print I am going back there again with a view to finishing it this time. It could and probably will be months if not actually years till i have a complete draft of the whole novel. But the first chapter has been written and rewritten several times  and is on about draft 5 at a guess. The whole novel is less than half written in the first draft  which is much a lesson in completing a whole draft before you edit as any thing else. a lesson I learned form Cider lane. Hence my intention to do just that and work through the existing stuff first doing a semi draft just to make sure i know where i am with it all. Then write it to the end.

However because it might prove interesting to some , and spark some interest in others, or may just prove an entertaining distraction here in is the first chapter of the book I will eventually finish....

please note its a work in progress, a tad rough around the edges and has not been past a proof reader and so forgive any issues of spelling, grammar , or just not making much sense occasionally.
It will also undoubtedly change before publication if it gets that far  


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CHAPTER ONE


The greyhound pulled away into the thunderous summer storm, leaving a disheveled, world weary figure in the dark of the deserted bus station. The night was lit only by a faltering street lamp which occasionally blinked out for fractious moments, and the blue luminescence of an electric bug killer. The device crackled under the eaves of the ticket office roof as a stray moth headed for sanctuary from the rain, only to burn on its filaments. Despite the rain the air was hot and humid in the way of the western desert states in high summer. The traveler ignored the urge to seek shelter. Enjoying instead the cool of the rain. He was aware that it would prove to be a mistake to let himself get soaked through. But he had been on the back seat of a bus for most of the day in sweltering heat with no air conditioning. A heat that persisted even this deep into the night. For the moment at least cooling off in the rain won out over common sense. He had three dollars and change in his pocket, with little hope more coming his way any time soon. He was not even sure where he was.  All he knew was that it was as far as the bus ticket he purchased that morning would take him.
All the same getting soaked to the skin in a rain storm was foolish. He risked catching a cold or worse. Nor did he have any place to dry off or change cloths. It was in essence a stupid thing to do, but self-preservation was not high on his list of priorities. Indeed there was little on that very short list. He had come to the end of the line, figuratively at the very least, if not indeed actually. No more places to go, no more money to go with, and less motivation to do so than money. So he stood in the rain and enjoyed the simple pleasure it falling on his skin. Simple pleasures were the only pleasures he had left to him.
Moments past and he became aware he was being observed. Without seeing anyone doing so, but he could feel it on his skin. However a cursory glance around revealed no one else about, making him shiver, half from cold, half to rid himself of the feeling of being observed. As a consequence he finally took in his surroundings. Wherever the bus had landed him it seemed little more than another dust bowl of a mid-west town. All flat featureless horizon and huge sky. Somewhere between rolling farmland and empty desert. As barren a place as he felt within.
The buildings near the bus station had a temporary look about them. It was however the kind of temporary you only got when buildings have been around a long time. The bus station lay on the outskirts of the town itself. Separated from the huddling buildings of the main drag by a junkyard. All rusting Studebakers piled four high. Written off Cadillac’s stripped of anything valuable. While at the back of the lot there were small hills of worn out tyres. Opposite the junkyard sat a desperate looking motel. A hotel eight sign flashing in the night. A flee pit of a place where the rooms probably had sheets with indescribable stains that no washing powder would ever remove. The ticket office was a small trailer of ancient aspect. With a coke machine standing next to it offering light amongst its shadows. Half hanging from the trailers wall was what he presumed was a condom machine rusting in the desert air.
The bus station ticket office was also a trailer, of the static kind. One side cut out and replaced with long windows and a set of double doors, Half the trailer formed the waiting room, the other half the office itself, both were closed. The rest of the town seemed closed too. A few lights were on in trailer homes further down the strip. A few more where trailers got replaced by actual subprime track housing. Further still where the strip became Main Street there was a small commercial district, with better street lighting about a quarter mile from the station. Main Street looked as closed as everywhere else.
Where ever he was it was dead time, 2am. The only things in the streets at this time were stray cats. Or perhaps a foraging coyote, come in from the desert to raid the trash of civilization. Hicksville mid-west was closed for the night and sheltering from the unusual summer storm. The traveler, whose name was Richard Barrick found himself wondering if there would be much more life in the town in the middle of the day. Deciding in all likely hood it would be equally dead at 2pm. Such was the run down broken nature of the place. The back end of nowhere in the mid-west. A place half forgotten by the world, and probably by those who still dwelled there. 
Richard could not shake the feeling of being watched by someone or something all the same. The spell of the rain was broken now however, so he moved into the shelter of the ticket office awning. Looking longingly at the hard plastic seating, and coffee machine he probably could not afford at the other side of the glass doors.
Bone tired and could feel the chill now from the soaking he had endured. Occupying his mind if nothing else, he tried to take in every of the waiting room. Mostly to avoid having to make a decision about his next move. Dirty vinyl tiles covered floor, scuffed and longing for a polish it badly needed. The over filled ash trays, forgotten on the chrome topped pedestal bids, equally untended to. The usual detritus of any waiting room was all the worse for neglect. Half-filled forgotten plastic cups mingled on the dusty corner tables with out of date magazines no one would wish to read. While beneath hard utilitarian plastic seats, designed with equal lack of comfort for all in mind, lay fast food cartons and cigarette ends gathered in defiance of fire regulations. A ragged plastic plant, probably placed in the vain hope of adding some semblance of nature to the room, served as extra ash tray. The door to the unisex toilet had a heavy padlock and a sign saying ‘request the key at the counter’. If the worry worn battered door was any guide he did not want to imagine the state of the facilities beyond. Waiting rooms the world over inspire little in the way of human warmth in Richards opinion. This one was no exception and in utter fairness a damn sight worse than most.
Looking for further distraction from the cold and the numbing beat of rain drops on tarmac, Richard found the Grey Dogs bible in a corner of the window posted with small ads. In his last few months on the road he had found himself seated next to more than one old hand in the vagrant life style. He had come to realise there was a whole sub culture out there he had never previously imagined. Traveling the length and breadth of American on greyhound busses. He had heard more than one of them refer to themselves as the Grey Dogs, and as a group as Gray Dogger’s. Which amused him more than it should have done due to his British upbringing. It conjured up strange images in his mind. Of aging men stood in bushes, watching parked cars with steamy windows. The Grey Dogs travelled the back ways of America on the busses and picked up work here and there for a few days or weeks. Never staying still for long before they hopped the next greyhound out of town. The Dogs held themselves aloof in their chosen path of vagrancy. Different from the ‘rail riders’ or common hobo’s. They had a place in the world, even if that place was the back seats of greyhound buses and ill kept bus station waiting rooms. In their minds at least it raised them above the average hobo. They paid their way, or at the very least their fares.
Richard had found their odd pride and assumed station laughable at first, though he had enough grace to never laugh to their faces. As time went on however he came to understood them more and more. He realized that even on the fringes people needed something to cling to. Something that allowed them to feel better than others. A place in the world and someone to look down upon, no matter how close they sat to the bottom of the pile. He hated the idea that even down there at the bottom people were as conceited and bigoted as anywhere else. He hated this even more once he knew he thought in similar terms. He had long been rationalizing to himself that he wasn’t himself a transient. If for no other reason than because his decision to live as he now had been entirely his own. Which had made him a step up from the Grey Dogs, in his own opinion, until his realisation.
The Grey Dogs bible was the bus station pin board. Every small town bus station had one. They were full of little ads selling old worn out things which had little value left in them. Short term let ads for run down rooms and the cheapest end of the hotel market. Lost pets posters with pictures of loved animals their owners desperately wanted back, desperate enough to put signs in bus stations. And of course wanted adds offering short term employment picking fruit, or packing meat, painting some fence somewhere or other jobs so short term and poorly paid only the Grey Dogs and other in the transient community would be likely to take up. Everything a Grey Dog needed could be found on those pin boards. Short of a way out of the life of the bus bound homeless vagabond. Work, shelter and a way to make a quick buck or two. Enough at least to keep body and soul till the next time you had to move on, and the price of a bus ticket to the next town.
Three dollars and change in his pocket, no bed to go to, no dry change of clothes, and no food in his stomach. Richard guessed that made him as much a Grey Dog as anyone else now. So he scanned the little cards and posters on the pin board, more in hope than expectation.
The itch of being watched returned, and he suppressed the urge to look over his shoulder into the dark of the night. The haven of the lamp light, intermittent though it was, gave him a vague sense of security. But he was all too aware that bus stations at night were not the safest of places. He closed his eyes for a moment and let himself find some calm, before looking at the reflections in the window to assure himself he was alone. Putting the feeling down to nothing more than paranoia he focused once more on reading the pin board.
He skipped over the twelve dollar a night boarding houses beyond his means and unlikely to be found open at 2am in any case. Paused to stare at the cocker spaniel called Alfie, posted by a loving owner willing to pay ten dollars for his return. Its sad eyes staring back at him from the badly photocopied photograph. Thinking absently to himself that ‘anyone who really loved their dog would have had a better picture to use, and offer more than ten bucks to get him back.’ He was still half pretending to himself he was only looking at the pin board to pass the time. Trying to ignore the deep seated ache in his joints and the hunger pains of a stomach left empty for more than a couple of days. When he found in the corner of the pin board something he would never have expected.
Which ripped him in two.


Piano Player wanted,
Must know Forever Autumn by Jeff Wayne,
Room, board and wage plus tips,
Esqwiths Passing Place,
Piano bar and grill
Location Relative


Forever Autumn…
It had been her favorite song.
From the moment he had first played the album for her she had loved it with an abiding passion. It was the name of the song had brought him up short. Cutting him to the quick deep within his soul.
Forever autumn…
He had not listened to the song since she died. He had sold his copy, along with everything else, six months after she died.
He quit his job a month after her funeral. It seemed a worthless, hollow, and pointless thing. The support group told him it was one of the stages of grief. His boss told him they would hold his position open. Everyone told him to,” Take some time.” Just as well-meaningly they all told him,” It will get easier.”
“ Horse shit!” he had told them.
Nothing got easier, it never got easier. Nothing filled the gaping hole in his life. Six months after she died he could not take the reminders anymore.
In a crappy little bar off main street while he drown his sorrows a fellow drunk offered the sage advice that he should.” Sell up and move on.”
It seemed like the best advice in the world. So he did. He let the rent on the apartment run out, and held a garage sale to turn of the detritus of his life in to cold worthless cash.
It had been the garage sale to end all garage sales,
“ Come. Buy my shit. Everything for sale. Take my life in exchange for your cash. These china cups, ten dollars and there yours, five then since you want to haggle and I’ll through in the saucers for free.”
“ The brass framed bed we slept in, argued in, ignored each other in, made up in and fucked in, two hundred bucks, and you can have the mattress and linin we stained with our love making as well.”
“ The wide screen which we watched Casablanca, Star wars and Jaws together on. That we snuggled up in fount of on the couch, with popcorn and coffee. Hell buy the couch while you’re at it, the DVD’s, the player, the lot, give me the dead presidents and carry them out with you.”
“ The silver frames with our wedding photographs in twenty dollars for the pair, fifteen then, okay twelve greens and it’s a deal, no don’t give me the pictures back, take them, chuck them, burn them, whatever, just don’t leave them with me.”
“ The cloths she wore, with the smell of her perfume and sweat still on them. Haunting my senses each time I go near the washing basket. My cloths, the ones I wore when I was with her, the ones that remind me of our life together each time I pull them on. Hell just take everything in the wardrobe and the damn the wardrobe itself, make me an offer for the lot, taking any bids any price, take my junk, take my life,, take it all.”
He had flirted with the idea of pilling up the cash afterwards, and dropping a match in the middle to watch it burn. His life was gone, ended with her, with just some half-life left that had no worth or substance. So all that’s was left was to sell it all, and burn the proceeds.
Richard fell short of that at the last. The match burning down to his fingertips while he held it. Instead he took the cash, found a cheap rental car and set off to see America. Trying to find a point in it all, a reason to go on, or an answer, any answer, to the question that burned within him, Why?
Why?
Three letters and a question mark, one word, and endless black hole of a question.
“ Why?”

In their last few months together she had seemed happier and more at one with herself than at any time he had known her. Throughout the five years of their relationship she had fought off bouts of depression more than once. But they had become more fleeting over the years. He had always known she had issues with events in her past. Dark memories that could be brought to the surface by the smallest of things, a newspaper article perhaps, or an unexpected scent in the air, or just the color of falling leaves, triggers all of memories long suppressed, languishing unresolved in the darker corners of her mind. Her physiatrist, a charmless individual who viewed things with cold detachment, had broken her confidence after her death and spoken to Richard over the phone.
“ You have my deepest sympathies Mr Barrick. I am sorry for you loss. It is tragic when depression leads to this but much as we would wish it otherwise, some things can never be resolved. The best we can achieve is to lessened there impact over time. Dampened it down as it were. Sadly it can resurface when least expected”
It had been only a few days after her funeral, a call to settle his bill. The court injunction had arrived two days later. The good doctors deepest sympathies did not extend to a waiting period for payment it seemed. Richard had written a long angry letter, filled with bitterness and grief, taking pains to point out that his wife had been receiving treatment for her depression which obviously had not been successful. He stated he would see the doctor in court and told him to stick his bill where the sun did not shine. He stamped it, posted it and punched the post box in frustration. Before he walked back to the apartment feeling terribly alone.
He woke that night in a cold sweat, and remembered how much she had hated unpaid bills. The next day he posted off a check and an apology.
 Richard had struggled to deal with her bouts of depression. He had tried to help in any way he could think of. He would give her space, making himself scarce around the apartment, or stay close and hold her through the night. Treat her to her favorite food, or take her to a happy movie. He tried talking her through it, he tried keeping silent and just being there to listen. At times frustration got beyond him he had tried anger and despised himself for it afterwards. No matter what he tried, she just seemed to sink deeper into herself.
She told him once,” This is not yours to deal with Richard honey, I know you want to help but you can’t.” He refused to accept her assessment of the situation, and kept on trying.
Even now, a year after her death he could not accept that it was not in some way his fault. That he could have said the right thing at the right time, or done something that would have made a difference. Not being out working perhaps. If he had stayed home and held her close with coffee and cookie dough ice-cream. If he had smiled as he walked out the door and said he loved her. Or just given her just one more hug. A little thing that could have made her decide not to take her own life that night. Put it off for another day, another week, forever.
It was another question that woke him in cold sweats at night,” What if?” ,” What could I have done differently?” ,” What could I have said to make her think twice?” ,” What if ?” he had asked himself, and anyone who cared to listen. Just another question with no answer that could satisfy him, but he kept on occurring to him all the same.
He remembered the day they met for the first time, a simple coincidence nothing more, they had both missed the same sub way train by a few moments. Arriving on the platform just as the train pulled away. He would not have missed the train at all if he had not dropped his keys struggling for change at the auto ticket booth. While he scrambled for the keys his place in the queue was taken by a less than polite fellow ticket buyer. Who took their own sweet time choosing their ticket. He recollected muttering something under his breath about ‘fucking tourists’, and being rewarded by a sharp look of distain from the queue jumper. Who snorted and returned to deciding between an off peak roomer and an all zones travel pass. A choice which it seemed was far more difficult than the twenty cents price difference suggested.
In all he was only delayed a few minutes, but it was enough that even half jogging, half running towards the platform he reward was the sight of the back end of the train pulling away with a thirty minute wait for the next one. She entered the platform form the other entrance as the last vestiges of the train vanished into the tunnel. That was his first sight of her, angrily stomping across the platform to the solitary line of blue plastic seats.
They sat two seats apart in silence for the first ten minutes. Though he had found himself glancing in her direction more than once between staring at his feet and looking up at the arrival/ departure screen to see how much longer the wait would be. Each time he looked her way he found his eyes dwelling upon her a moment longer that was strictly polite. Before catching himself doing so and snapping his gaze to the track in front of him. The third or fourth time however he found her smiling back at him, returning his gaze. Somehow that shared gaze had led to an edgy broken conversation in which he had felt more nervous than he had a right to be. As nervous as he used to get as an awkward teenager talking girls for the first time back home in England.
He could not recall now what she had been wearing, or how the conversation between them began. All he remembered was at some point he had invited her to Lincoln’s Lizard lounge. The crappy little venue he was playing at the following night. He’d had a spare flyer on him, half crumpled in his pocket which he had nervously handed to her. Mostly in an attempt to prove it was not just a line he was swinging by her.
When the train finally arrived they sat opposite each other on long bench seats in an empty carriage. Continuing the strangely awkward conversation as the subway train rattled through the tunnels. They parted when his stop came up, Richard feeling an odd twinge of regret as he raised from his seat. Sure at the time he would never see her again, while desperately hoping he would. But it was, after all, just a coincidental meeting, blind luck, one of those moments when you touch another’s life as they touch yours for a few minutes perhaps or an hour. Then never think of them again.
He thought of her again, all that night, the sound of her voice, its soft accent which he could not quite place. Wisconsin perhaps or Maine or any of a half dozen other states. Her sad green penetrating eyes, which gazed back and through you as you talked. The sound of her laugh, a throaty chortle, which uttered from her lips at the oddest moments in their conversation. And mostly he thought of her face, looking at his, and smiling. The following morning he had awoken from a dream of that smile. The morning was spent half in a day dream of that smile. By noon, reality kicking in, he had resigned himself to never meeting her again, with a curse uttered to the gods of coincidence.
Looking out from behind his keyboard into the dim lit audience of the Lizard he missed several notes when he saw her sitting near the bar watching him play. Her eyes filled with a sad kind of joy. He struggled to find his way through the rest of the set, receiving more than one disgruntled look from both the lead guitarist and the bass player, for messing up his notes. Though the singer, a prima-donna named ‘Slick’ Steve Snake, real name Ted Mills, didn’t seem to notice. Instead he sung badly, as out of tune as ever.
After the set Richard joined her at the bar and they fell back into the same awkward yet delightful conversations which were to become the norm between them.
A year to the day after their meeting in the subway they married in a small ceremony before a judge up state. The guests extended to a couple of his friends who served as witnesses. Toasting the happy couple with cheap, not quite, Champaign, and waving them off to a honeymoon weekend in St Paul.
Life had settled down between them. She was working on her doctorate part time at NYU, while teaching gym at the Y. He’d worked in the parts department of a Queens car dealership through the day, and played keyboard in a string of unsuccessful bands on the suburban New York circuit. They found a small apartment on the better edge of Queens. Times had been good. Money though never plentiful had not been a problem. What problems they had, their love carried them through.
She never spoke of her past, or of her family or friends, or lovers from before him. She never spoke of anything from before that day on the subway. When he was still asking, she would grow dark and troubled. When he pushed too hard his questions would lead to arguments or thrown her into odd depressions and silences. By the time they married he had stopped asking, and tried to think of it as just one of the quirks of her character. Eventually he just accepted that missing past.
A few months later she experienced her first real depression, and a cycle he came to know only too well, for the next four years, began. She would slip into dark mind sets, suicidal thoughts, and anger, which was often seemed directed at him. He struggled to cope, though he loved her more deeply than he had imagined possible all the same. She had started therapy, partly at his suggestion after their third year together. It was costly but they managed the bills for both the sessions and the medication which followed, they both took extra shifts at work to find the money. For a long time this seemed to have little effect however, until the last year of their relationship.
Then she changed over the course of a summer. She began to smile more, laughed freely at his jokes, and smirked at the shared references of a long relationship. She was off the medication. Yet did not have an episode for several months. She was happy and as in love as was he. Richard harbored the hope that the depressions were finally behind her. Then she ended that hope it in the most final and absolute of ways.

Richard My love    
I could not stay, it has grown hard each day.
I will see you again in another life.
 Do not morn me. I am going home.
I will love you all ways.
Carrie

A brief note he found by the sink, simple and lacking in anything he could grasp towards as an explanation. There was no distraught phone call, as there had always been in the past. No finding her weeping on the floor and not going through with that final act of choice. No waking in the night to find himself been held as if the world was collapsing around them. All the things he had been through with her before, in her dark moments, had not prepared him for the finality of the letter and it explained nothing.
Instead he had come home late that night from a gig with a small jazz band two towns over and thirty miles up state to find her lying dead in the bath. The water a deep red sickening color, cold and clammy, the deep cuts in her wrists brutally final. Her eyes open and staring endlessly at the polystyrene tiles on the ceiling.
She had ended it all and him left behind, stuck with one unanswerable, painful, question.” Why?”
Three letters, a question mark, and a black hole in which to drop every emotion.
“ Why?”
Six painful months had followed, waking each morning alone in the shell of their life. Empty, cold and soulless without her. The funeral had been a blur, every day after was a blur.
And the garage sale to end them all.

Richard had taken the money he decided not to burn and hit the road. It had lasted him almost six more months. The rental had lasted the first three, before he decided it was cutting through his funds to quickly and he had dropped it in favor of the good old greyhound. The first week of bus rides left him regretting the loss of the car. Stale smells and stale conversations on late night journeys between states had put pay to his romantic idea of the old gray working dog. But he had stuck with it and in those six months he had seen America from one coast to the other, mid-west to Texas, the everglades of the sunshine state, to the endless rain of Seattle. The Grand Canyon and Disneyland. The Joshua tree to the giant redwoods, old faithful and the great lakes, he had seen it all, and none of it touched him, cheered him or filled the hole she had left.
Six months on the road, and he was down to louse change and a back pack of dishevel cloths. Looking for a job in a hick town he could not even remember the name of, just another mid-west outpost, Baptist church, tavern and an empty bus station where the greyhounds were kenneled each night. Staring at a sign in the grimy bus station window offering work to a piano player who knew Forever Autumn.
Carries favorite song.
He read it for the third time, with the same disbelieving eyes.” What’s wrong with this picture” he muttered to himself under his breath, falling into an old habit of thinking out loud when alone.” Hicksville bar seeks piano player, fair enough, hell they probably even have MTV out here so it’s not all Tammy and Dolly. May be Hicksville has a yearning for a piano bar and the best of Gilbert and Sullivan. But shit, come on, give me a break, Forever Autumn, who the hell in this back end of nowhere knows a song from a 1978 concept album.”
He read it for a fourth time. Trying to ignore the rest of his thoughts. That voice inside him which wanted to add painfully. ‘It was her favorite song, of all the songs in the world, her favorite song.’ Even if he could suspend his disbelief about everything else, even if he could accept the unlikeliness of the card naming such an unlikely song.
It was her song, she played that album to death. Jeff Waynes War of the Worlds. A double album retelling the H G Wells classic. All powerful vocals, odd keyboards and majestic rock guitars. A weird synthesis of rock music and storytelling you would never get past a record producer in these more cynical days of pre-made formulated mass music. Hell Sir Richard Burton was the narrator. Hollywood Royalty. The Tom Cruise of his day and he gets involved in this weird little concept album written by at the time a virtual unknown composer. It was ridiculous.
She had loved it, cherished it even despite it being a decade older than she was.
Forever Autumn was her favorite track on her favorite album.
She would play it over and over.
.A gentle rain falls softly on my weary eyes,
She was so pleased when he had shown her how to get the CD player to repeat on song on a constant loop. As if to hide a lonely tear
She had smiled for what seemed like hours as she sat writing the last draft of her thesis while it played over and over.
 My life will be forever Autumn,.
Driving him to distraction but he loved to see her smile so never moved to change the song.
Cause you’re not here …
It was the CD in the player the night she took her life. Playing on that selfsame loop. She had slit her wrists laying in a hot bath while she listened to her favorite song.
Like the sun through the trees you came to love me.
  It was still playing when he found her. It echoed through his head for an hour while he waited for the ambulance he had called four hours too late to mean a damn arrived.
Like a leaf on a breeze you blew away.
The police came next with forced sympathy, edged with questions he could not answer. Questions which amounted to” did he have any idea why she did it?” Why? Same old unanswered question.
Cause you’re not here.
It was probably a cop who finally turned off the CD player. Filling the apartment with a silence that was terrifying in its own right. He’d never played the song again. But it echoed through his nightmares.
Cause you’re not here.
Waking with cold sweats in the night, the song taking a stroll through his mind as he found himself reliving the moment of finding her. Or just having those endless Why‘s? Staring back unanswered in the darkness.
Cause you’re not here.
“ Cause you’re not here” became his plaintive cry to the world ever since. Life was without worth it had no taste nor meaning.
Cause you’re not here,
Going on made no sense any more
Cause you’re not here ……….

He stood there in the still dead air at two in the morning staring at the card through the grime and refused to believe his eyes. Wondering if he was light headed from lack of food. It had been a couple of days since his last proper meal. A couple of candy bars were no substitute for actual food. Perhaps then this is just some kind of hunger delusion.
A short gust of wind whistled through the dead air, pushing his lank long hair across his face. The unexpected breeze making him shiver slightly as the temperature dropped a degree or two.
A half bored yowl filled the silence of the bus station. Shaking him out of his self-indulgence, bad memories and uncomfortable questions. Surprised and suddenly paranoid once more, he looked around for the source of the noise. Which turned out to be a tortoise shell cat. Laying a few feet away on the asphalt pavement. It seemed to be lazily examining Richard amidst a bored yawn. Its tail, a fluff of fur, stretching out in to the night air. Its green eyes staring straight at him, head at a slight tilt. It showed nothing of fear or even concern, just lay there watching him with an air of supreme indifference. Giving out the impression of owning the pavement in that way only cats can. He remembered Carrie telling him once that cats considered where ever they were to belong to them and them alone as a matter of course. Which he considered was probably not far from the truth. Carrie would have liked this cat, he was sure, tortoise shells were her favorite. The thought passed over him before he snatched it back not wanting to think of her again so soon.
To distract himself, without really thinking about it, he found himself staring back at the cat as it slowly, with artful laziness, stood and stretched its limbs, before strolling towards him. It captivated his attention in much the same way as the card in the window had, which was for a moment at least forgotten. It had that sleek elegance only a cat can muster. Its green eyes never left his as it walked. Before it leap up to the window sill and stalked along it with self-assured grace.  Until it came to a halt right next to the card in the window. Purring gently as if it was purposely dragging his attention back to the card. Dragging him back to the memories again in the process, he felt a lump in his throat as it tightened, but the cat purred softly and almost seemed to be speaking to him. Telling him, ‘Take the job’, telling him ‘Its Okay,’ telling him there were answers to be found.” Take the job. Time to start rebuilding your life Richard. Only then will you find out why.” It purred.
After what seemed like an hour but was probably less than a minute the cat leaped down form the window sill and stalked off into the night. Richard watched it go, its tail high in the air. Bemused in that he was sure despite knowing it was impossible that the cat had spoken to him, hell the cat had even known his name, it seemed to have known him in fact.
Once it was gone he looked back at the card in the window.” Esqwiths Passing Place, weird name for a bar,,,, what the hell it’s probably that or starve I guess.” he muttered to himself. Resolved to taking the job he picked up his backpack and set off in search of the bar thankful that the rain was easing off. He did not even realizing he was following the direction the cat had taken…

Finding Esqwiths Passing Place was both easier and harder than he expected. It only occurred to him as he made the quarter mile walk towards the center of town that the address of the bar had seemed a little on the odd side. Location Relative. Did not tell you a great deal, unless Relative was a street name in whatever Hicksville town actually was called. Which seemed a little unlikely. Med-west towns tended to go with the usual bunch of unimaginative street names, like Main Street and Boardwalk. Not wishing to ask directions till he had to, and figuring a small town like Hicksville would have most of its bars and businesses in and around Main Street he headed there. The other possibility being Esqwiths Passing Place was a road house out near the interstate. He ruled it out for no other reason that the center of town was closer. So the better option for now at least.
Location Relative, prompted the question relative to what? Possibly it was a joke of some kind, or an oblique reference he was not getting. The whole thing could just be a joke, he was not ruling that out. The name of the bar, if it was a bar, was odd enough to start with. The Watering hole, or the dew drop or some other staple bar name was a damned sight more likely name in a place like Hicksville. It sounded more like some half assed sophisticated New York or LA name. The kind of bar that was in vogue for six months or a year among the yuppie crowd. Piano bar and grill sounded an improbable combination as well come to that. How many stake houses had a pianist playing requests in the corner for god sake?
“ Could I get a rack of ribs, loaded potatoes skins, a rib eye, a draft of bud and ask the piano player to bash out unchained melody will you?” He muttered to himself. The more he thought about it the more unlikely it all seemed.
As he reached main street it started to rain heavily again. Unable to find suitable shelter between store fronts he was soaked to the skin once more in a few minutes and resolved to ask directions from the first local he came across. Which proved equally unlikely as main street as quiet as you would expect on a week night at 2am. The seven eleven had been shut for hours, as had everywhere else. Even the local sheriff’s department was closed for the night. Emergency calls probably just went direct to the duty officer’s home and got him out of his bed. If so you better have a damn good reason for waking him up unless you want to get an ear full about why your problems were not his problem. 2am in Hicksville was dead time, and not a time to be looking for directions in the rain.
Giving up on the hope of finding the place in the rain, let alone that it would be open at 2am, Richard looked for shelter to sit out the worst of the downpour. Ending up under the eaves of the doorway of the local farmer union. Which offered little enough shelter, but at least kept him dry enough to roll cigarette and have a smoke while he considered his options. He stood in that debatable shelter and looked out across a slowly dying main street reminiscent of so many other small towns. No doubt the local mall took much of the business away from the center of town. One in four lots were vacant, the one in use showed all the hall marks of struggling businesses. Store fronts in need of a lick of paint, and a modicum of investment which turn over would not cover.
Across the road from the farmers union was a seven eleven, long closed for the day, metal grills over its door and windows. Beside it sat a vacant lot, then a gentleman’s barbers which looked like it hadn’t done good business for a decade or more. The obligatory red and white pole sticking out of the wall was flaked and rusting. A car dealership further up the road looked like the kind of place which did good business in the fifties and had limped on since while Crazy Dave made his mad deals,” deals so good I must be crazy” as the adverts on the local FM station would no doubt proclaim. A sticker on a station wagon windshield proclaimed the” Best deals in Nebraska” and the sign over the car lot said Providence Automobiles. Which probably gave Hicksville a name at least, not that Richard cared which part of the mid-west he was standing in, drenched to the skin. He stood in the farmers union smoking and watching the rain flush the dust and trash down the gutters of the main street. Staring out towards the vacant lot opposite him for almost half an hour till he was half drifting off while leaning against the doorway. Only to be shocked back to wakefulness when something brushed against the leg of his jeans. He looked down in the kind of mild panic you get when unexpectedly roused from a day dream to see the cat from the bus station pressing up against him to share his sanctuary from the rain.
“Hey there fella.” he exclaimed, finding himself unexpectedly pleased at the company. The cat hissed, looking up at him with an expression which Richard knew instinctively was one of irritation, he realized his mistaken without thinking about it and apologized.” Sorry lady,” he amended. Fishing in his coat pockets for something to make reparation with. Finding to his own surprise the last of a Hensley chocolate bar he bent down to offer his token of appeasement to the cat. His reward, a purr and his leg been rubbed against in a hard but friendly way by the tortoise shells neck and back. It did not occur to him to wonder how he knew he had been in error as to the cat’s gender, the cat nibbled the chocolate out of his hand. Instead what occurred to him was his wife’s love of nibbling away at chocolate bars. She could make a bar last a couple of days. Taking tiny bites every now and again and savoring the treat rather than eating it all at once. His mood dropped again at the small reminder of his grief. So he pushed it out of his mind and stared off across the main street again to where the vacant lot had been.
The brightness of the neon sign in the window surprised him, not that it was overly brash of ostentatious. Just bright in the dark of the downpour. The windows of the bar were tinted glass affairs, which looked a little out of place in Hicksville. Yet seemed to suit the bar all the same. The neon sign was a pale blue set against black. ‘Esqwiths Passing Place, Piano Bar n Grill ’ it read, without flashing or any other low brow tricks to draw attention to it, a simple small neon sign in a window and pair of heavy doors.
After he got past the shock of seeing the bar appear in the vacant building, Richard rationalized out loud, half talking to the cat without thinking about it,” Of course its nearly 4 am, I didn’t see it because the lights were off. Someone just turned them back on that’s all. It just looked like a vacant lot in the darkness.” he chuckled to himself,” Bars don’t just appear in vacant lots” he said smiling to himself and looking down at his companion in the shelter. The cat seemed to be giving him a dismissive, almost unbelieving look. Almost as if it was saying ‘Sure Richard, if that makes you feel better.
Disconcerted suddenly, Richard looked across at the bar again, in time to see the door open and a huge man dressed in a tuxedo step out into the night. Propping the door open, he stood in the shelter of the overhang like a guardian of entry. He was well built, the archetypal club doorman. Richard mused to himself, ”Now if that guy bounces you, yer gonna stay bounced.”
The cat purred at his feet in what could have been mistaken for a chuckle. The doorman’s skin was as black as his tux. His face covered in a neatly trimmed but thick beard of coarse black hair. The cornrows his hair was platted into were tight to his head and equally dark, only the whiteness of his shirt and eyes broke up the patch of darkness he made. He had an aura of both welcoming and menace that only a true bouncer could achieve as looked across the main street. Straight at Richard, who felt the hairs on the back his neck stand up. They locked eyes for a minute then the doorman seemed to lose interest and took a cigarette out from a half crumpled packet of Marlboro. Deciding there was no imitate call on his doormanship.
Well, you going to stand in the rain all night Richard, cause it will be a sight warmer in there’ said the voice of the cat. It defiantly was not actually the cat. He was sure of that, because cats don’t talk, and there was enough strangeness about tonight as it was.
He looked down to see the cat stalking off across the road, heading towards the bar. Richard felt oddly unsurprised when it turned to look at him at the half way point and seemed to motion with its head for him to follow. ‘Come on then slack Alice’ the cat seemed to say, before resuming its crossing of the road.
Slack Alice, he had not been called that since Carrie died. It brought him up short for a second. Then he rationalized it was his subconscious. Doing its best to fool him, trying to get himself to believing he was talking to the cat. He felt a familiar emptiness inside. Pushed it down. Then, grabbing his soaked back pack, he headed across the road.
Richard watched as the cat got a polite nod from the doorman, who stepped to one side to let it disappear through the door. Racking it up to just another little bit of strangeness for the day he mused to himself, ‘So the doorman liked cats, can’t blame him for that.’
Sadly it appeared that the barman did not feel as welcoming to half drown transients who did not look like they had the price of a drink on them. He moved to block Richard’s entry before he was even half way across the road. A feat easily accomplished by his sheer bulk which effectively blocked out most of the light coming from within.
”Good evening Sir.” the doorman said politely but with a voice which had a definite hint of malice behind the pleasantry. A voice which said it’s a good evening for now, whether it continues to be a good evening for you remains to be seen. ”I’m afraid we are not open in this Relative at this time.” The doorman added after waiting for Richard to complete his crossing of the road. His voice even and friendly but note of warning remained.
Richard stood at the curb side, his feet still in the gutter which ran high with sluice. The water soaking through the fabric of his trainers. He felt a sudden longing for the warmth within, as the rain ran down the back of his collar. His eyes went from the light seeping passed the doorman to the doorman eyes, and for a long moment he struggled to find his voice. The whole night had been so strange so far, the cat seeming to talk, the sign in the window, those words, ‘Must know Forever Autumn.’ The sudden storm from dry air. A Bar he could not find that was suddenly right there in fount of him. Everything was too strange.
He tried to explain he had come about the Piano players job, but all that came of that first time was, ”Piano job.” He coughed and tried once more, breathing in deeply before he started again, with the only slightly less garbled. ”I’ve come about the job as a piano player. I know Forever Autumn. And it said there was a job here, there was a card in the bus station window. And the cat sort of lead me here,,, I think,,,, well I’m not sure”
The Doorman greeted all this with a stoic silence. His face impassive. Richard waited till he could not bare the silent giant’s cold stare anymore then began to explain once more, ”There was this card in the window of the …”
The Doorman held up a hand, ”I heard you the first time my friend,” he intoned, before resuming his silence again for a few seconds. He seemed to be considering something, as if waiting for inspiration to strike, for a profound or witty reply to come to him. When entry would be refused and he would tell Richard that he should move on. Richard felt himself deflating, resigned to a miserable end to this fool’s errand and was about to turn back to the limited sanctuary of the doorway across the street. Then the Doorman seemed to decide on something and spoke again. With words which Richard did not expect, ”Tell me my friend, did the cat talk to you as well?”
Richards first assumption was he was been mocked. The doorman having a joke with the half crazed and all soaked man in the gutter. Who was spouting mad ideas about a job. ”Did the cat talk to you as well?” seemed mockery at the very least. He was about to respond angrily when it struck him there was no mockery in the tone, the question was actually a genuine one, or seemed so at least. ”Erm,, yes, I mean she seemed to, I followed her I think, at least I seemed to hear the voice in my head,, erm, this is nuts right?” he was shaking now. Deep down wondering if this was all down to lack of food and sudden exposure, the really early signs of hypothermia or something else brought on my poor diet and a transient lifestyle. ‘Perhaps I am finally losing my grip on it all completely,’
The Doorman smiled at him, white teeth cutting through the darkness of his face in the dim street lights. ”I think you better step inside my friend, were leaving this relative in a few minutes anyway, guess she has been collecting strays again.” There seemed to be a sigh in his voice at this last bit, his whole tone had softened suddenly. He stepped to one side and ushered Richard past him into the door way. A second set of doors with misted glass stood between the outer portal and the bar itself, but even getting this far and out of the rain cheered Richard considerably. ”Wait here a moment,” the Doorman said before rummaging through a small cupboard beside the door. After a few moments search he produced a soft pink towel and tossed it to the bedraggled Richard. ”Dry yourself a bit before you catch something nasty.”
Richard thanked him and began to towel down his hair and face. Feeling a little warmer and less like a human river bed. He risked a smile in return. ”The cat ….” He began inquiring only to be faced with the hand of silence once more.
“All in good time, I suspect, my friend,” the doorman said, then relaxed a little. ”I’ll tell you what thou, I’ll stand you a brandy at the bar to warm you up aye. Sound good.” Richard nodded to this, ”Yes, brandy’s good for a drowned man they say, Piano Players job, hum. Well I guess I should not be surprised. Still never thought we would be getting a new piano player.” He said grinning.
Richard felt a moments apprehension, then risked the question, ”Whys that?”
The Doorman chuckled for the first time, more a boom laugh than a chuckle, which seemed to come from somewhere deep within his chest. ”Because my friend, I did not know we had a Piano.”