He stared at numbers on a screen and made notations in pencil on paper, pushing his eyeglasses onto the top of his head and twirling his pencil with his fingers, finishing that routine by dropping the pencil, business-end up, into a mug on which was emblazoned the word tacet. The pencil bounced on its eraser as if taunting a sharpener that sat empty on a saucer. He stood up with the formality of a gymnast sticking a landing, lowered his glasses onto the bridge of his nose, and slipped his shoes on, reaching down, without bending his knees, to tie the laces into several reinforcing knots. Straightening himself, he looked at the clock, two of its arms black like the numbers beneath them, the third a thin blade of red. The fluorescent lights blinked.
Leaving the room, he snapped his fingers in time with each step, humming a melody that returned as voices in a fugue. He stopped to drink from a water fountain whose volume of delivery was inconsistent. The fugue’s harmonic rhythm doubled against the time he kept with his fingers. He walked against foot traffic—acknowledging with his eyebrows passersby’s greetings—and through a revolving door, exiting the building into a breeze that held flags in presentation against a jaundiced sky.
Outside, a queue grew at a traffic light. Vehicles maneuvered around one that sat still, its driver staring at the signal cycle, which seemed to conduct a chorus of vocal complaints and car horns. The finger-snapping man knocked gently with one knuckle on the window of the stopped car, startling the driver, whose bloodshot eyes met his and whose bottom lip quivered. The finger-snapping man opened the passenger-side door and eased himself onto the seat.
The car radio was tuned to static, the volume of which the man in the passenger seat turned down without losing eye contact with the driver, whose fingernails dug into the plastic grip of the steering wheel, and who sobbed, childlike.
Chorus members got out of their vehicles and gathered at the sides of the inert car, whose windows framed scowls and caught spit that issued from behind bared teeth. The man in the passenger seat acknowledged none of it, keeping his focus on the driver and holding out his hand, which the driver took hold of. With his other hand, the man in the passenger seat continued to snap his fingers and hum the lines of his fugue.
In the finger-snapping man’s vacant office a red phone rang, and rang again, the fluorescent lights above buzzing as they blinked, as if dozing off. The numbers on the screen changed. The notation on the paper did not. The desk chair spun ever-so slowly as if mimicking the clock’s second hand. A heavy knock on the door joined the phone in duet.
The door was opened by a hyperventilating man who wiped perspiration from his forehead with a threadbare handkerchief. “Why the fuck have you not woken the queen?” he bellowed, dry-heaving and collapsing in the chair.
The sweating man leaned closer to the numbers on the screen, clutching his chest. A collectively stern-faced retinue gathered around him, some of whose eyes grew wide upon digesting the numbers on the screen while others covered theirs with trembling hands.
Outside, sirens and spinning red and blue lights contributed to the chaos in the crossing streets, the traffic signal swinging, pendulum-like, in the wind. A voice-tuned-to-authority addressed the chorus through a megaphone, the message itself indecipherable. A woman wearing roller skates sat cross-legged on a Jersey barrier playing spoons, the sounds of her performance swallowed by the chorus.
In the besieged car, the driver had bitten into his bottom lip, which bled onto his chin. A web-like fracture in the windshield expanded a little, and a little more. Snapping his fingers and humming, the man in the passenger seat raised his eyebrows and nodded, cuing the driver as he introduced each voice of the fugue, and turned up the volume on the radio, on which the static gave way to the sound of the spoons, the rhythms of which took over the timekeeping the man had done with his fingers. He rolled down the passenger-side window, slowly, cranking the knob counterclockwise, the downward motion of the window erasing the crack in the windshield until a marble shot forward from the newly unblemished glass and disappeared against the jaundiced sky.
The sweating man in the office picked up the red phone and dialed a number, slamming the receiver down, picking it up, and dialing again before hanging up.
“We’ll let her sleep,” he said, choking on those words. A hand landed on his shoulder.
A man in a jumpsuit, wearing an eye patch and foam-covered headphones plugged into a Walkman on the jumpsuit’s belt, navigated through the cluster of drawn faces surrounding the sweating man and emptied a trash bin into a larger one on wheels.
“’Scuse me,” the man in the jumpsuit said, winking with his uncovered eye and tearing the top sheet of paper from the notepad on the desk. “This is for me.”
The woman with the spoons eased herself off the Jersey barrier and, rolling on her skates in a practiced slalom through the chorus, carried the marble, balancing it on one of her spoons, to the besieged car and slipped onto the back seat. The marble circled the business end of the spoon counterclockwise.
The voice-tuned-to-authority that issued from the megaphone gave way to static, and the sirens tuned themselves to the key of the fugue that filled the besieged car, whose driver, sobbing no more, rolled down his window and began snapping his fingers in the music’s time, to which the red and blue lights adjusted their rotation. The driver of the besieged car licked the blood from his bottom lip, erasing the wound itself, his eyes clear and twinkling.
The sweating man in the office looked at his watch and at the clock, whose thin, red second hand now circled counterclockwise, pulling the clock’s black and white arms in the same direction and erasing the numbers in their path. He whacked at the space bar on the keyboard below the screen on which information dissolved into a constellation of pixels that were brighter than all the others, that hierarchy shifting with the blinking fluorescent lights whose intermittent buzz was joined in duet by the pencil sharpener, which complained like a stomach growling.
“My lord!” a woman standing behind the sweating man whispered, hand on her cheek. A crack appeared in her eyeglasses as she spun and ran from the office, shouldering through the foot traffic that clogged the doorway.
The pencil sharpener spat its last meal into the throng that had gathered around the sweating man, whose threadbare handkerchief was soaked. The pencil sharpener continued to scream, as if ravenous.
The sweating man began to recite a prayer but couldn’t get the words out despite forming them with his lips, the veins in his neck acknowledging the force of his intention, silence defying his efforts. He began to sob, his eyes bloodshot—thin, red cracks crawling across the sclerae, which turned jaundiced in reaction.
In the hallway, the woman wearing cracked eyeglasses kneed the water fountain, screaming, “Why‽” She marched to the building’s entrance and got caught in the revolving door, which seemed to toy with her.
Not far from the revolving door, next to the water fountain, the man in the jumpsuit leaned against a wall and studied the notation on the paper he’d taken from the notepad in the crowded office.
“Groovy,” he said, turning off the Walkman and sight-singing the melody that was written in pencil on the paper.
Outside, the chorus fell silent and the flags unthreaded themselves into the jaundiced sky.
A writer and musician, David Brensilver’s fiction has been published by The Dillydoun Review and ENC Press. His journalism has appeared in Drum and Modern Drummer magazines, and at New Music Box, an online publication of New Music USA. He’s performed with all manner of ensembles in venues ranging from the glorious to the disgusting.