David Brensilver


You stopped sparkling

There were no new message notifications. Sitting cross-legged in a sagging armchair and leaning forward at an acute angle, he clicked on his inbox, which confirmed its emptiness, flexed his fingers, and began to scroll through a parade of faces. He scrolled quickly, staring into a blur of portraits that disappeared from view as quickly as they’d arrived. It was evening. The darkness in the apartment framed the glow from his computer screen. Through the window, nighttime framed advertisements on a digital billboard over an elevated interstate on which headlights traveled west. A blue light in a curtained window down the block framed a woman in silhouette.

He rubbed his eyes and recalled a face he’d just waved along. Her username was Spacedancyr. According to her profile, she was a performer seventeen years his senior. Her face was familiar in its contours. His index fingers danced on his knees. Pushing an ottoman away, he bothered to his feet, turned on a light, and knelt before his record collection, head cranked to shoulder so he could read the spines. He pulled one out and stared at the cover, on which a superhero struck a theatrical pose. The vinyl was missing from the sleeve. Back in his chair, he opened the album cover like a book and ran a finger over the lyrics.

The woman in the apartment down the block turned off her screen, raised the curtain, and shifted her seat to face the window in which her neighbor had struck a theatrical pose. Headlights from the interstate created shadows that seemed to turn on and turn off a handwritten note on her wall that read You stopped sparkling. She raised her arms, cheering her neighbor’s performance from the privacy of the darkness.

A station wagon on the interstate seemed to wink. One of its headlights was out. In the front seat, mom and dad exchanged bits of logistical information—reminders, responsibilities, and deadlines. In back, a boy wearing headphones looked into the night sky, whose darkness was disrupted by the light from the billboard, and the windows of the buildings along the interstate. In one window, a man seemed to be screaming. The boy turned to look out the rear window of the station wagon and watched the man until he was no longer in view, at which point the boy rewound the tape he was listening to. Mom, who simultaneously chewed a piece of gum and smoked a cigarette, told the boy to sit properly in his seat. She inspected the nails on one of her hands. Dad looked at his watch, then held it to his ear and said, “Goddamned it.

The woman down the block sat still, her feet up, looking out her window and into her neighbor’s. There was no movement. Morning had arrived and erased all the shadows.

The man woke in his chair, album cover on his lap. A ticket stub had slipped from the album sleeve and lay on his chest. The paper the ticket was printed on held little color, faded as it was. He smelled the ticket stub.

The boy stared upward at a plane crossing the morning sky. The friction of his heels dragging along pavement provided a suitable sound effect for the plane, a vapor trail in its wake. The boy hung from his arms as mom and dad pulled him across a parking lot. At the curb, the boy’s parents hoisted him to his feet and, each still in control of one wrist, led him up a set of stairs and through a door. Inside a Victorian house, the boy was directed to a chair at a table on which sat a stack of inkblots and a dollhouse, within which a toy man, woman, and several children lay on the floor in various rooms. A doctor sitting across the table pushed the pile of inkblots closer to the boy, explaining the exercise in which he was expected to engage.

“Butterfly,” the boy said, setting the first inkblot upside down next to the rest of the pile.

The doctor stared over her glasses at the boy, whose eyes briefly met hers before he turned to the family who lay fallen in the dollhouse.

“Grapefruit,” he said, holding the next card above the rest before setting it upside down on top of the previously examined inkblot.

The doctor made a few notes and handed the boy a sketch pad and markers and directed him to draw a picture of his family. When he was done, the boy handed the drawing to the doctor.

“They have no sex organs,” she complained.

Mom and dad sat on a bench in a park across the street, dad tapping and winding his watch, mom sucking her teeth.

Hold your applause

A man in his underwear poured coffee beans from a grinder into a mug, ran a finger around the basin under the grinder’s blade, and shook the thing upside down. He plugged the grinder into one outlet, then another. Each time, the machinery failed to engage. He slammed the thing on the countertop. The man showered and dressed, buttoning his uniform in the mirror.

Exiting the elevator in the lobby of the building, he avoided a freshly mopped section of floor and waved to the janitor who drew a sleeve across his sweating forehead, a bucket of dirty water at his feet.

At work, a colleague coming off his shift told the uniformed man that scientists had discovered a supermassive black hole “whose event horizon,” the colleague read from a magazine, “beckons.”

The uniformed man put earplugs in, winked through the open window at the magazine-reading engineer he was relieving, and closed the subway-car doors. The train’s headlight reached into the tunnel ahead. The uniformed man checked his watch and put the vehicle in motion, riding the wave of the tracks, a study in bodily fluidity.

Aboveground and however-many blocks away, a woman hurried barefoot along the sidewalk, her eyes welling with tears, fingernails digging into the skin of her crossed forearms.

A man sitting on the sidewalk against a building waved as she approached.

“You’re bleeding,” he said, eyebrows raised, chin up.

The woman had bitten through her lip. Her mouth hung open. She disappeared into a subway tunnel leaving bloody partial-footprints where she’d stepped.

On the stairs she passed a man perched in an angular position looking at his watch and aiming an antique camera at the platform.

The barefooted woman appeared as if edited into the moment, an apparition in the spotlight, her back to the train, fingers in her ears.

The uniformed man deployed the train’s screeching brakes. Mouths hung open on the faces of those who stood on the platform, some turning away, most covering their ears. A hemorrhage of humanity exited the subway, stepping on bloody partial-footprints on the stairs to the sidewalk.

On another set of stairs, however-many blocks away, the janitor climbed backward, lifting the bucket and washing each step as he went. At each landing he paused to catch his breath and inspect the soles of his shoes, eventually exiting the stairwell to mop the hallway on whichever floor he’d arrived.

He knocked on the door to the apartment from which the bloody partial-footprints had come. No one answered.

The janitor took the elevator to the basement, telling a resident who got on along the way, “Please, watch your step.”

He poured the dirty water from the bucket into a drain in the basement floor, stopping to give gravity a chance to do its work. When the dirty water was gone, he stood and leaned for a minute on the mop handle before sitting and typing a notice that began, “Dear residents.”

However-many blocks away, a different note that read “Are those the shoes you’re going to wear?” was pinned to the inside of a violin case from which a musician took an instrument and bow.

The musician played a series of scales and arpeggios. Half a lemon gleamed in the makeup lights. Steam from an electric teakettle fogged up the mirror.

“Do you need anything?” a publicist asked, eyebrows raised, chin up.

The musician held out the violin and bow, pretending to hand them to the publicist, who chuckled.

“Shall we, then?” the publicist asked, clearing his throat.

The musician scratched at a jugular spot of eczema on the non-calloused side of his neck.

“You’re bleeding!” the publicist stage-whispered.

“I’ll live,” the musician said, staring at the fogged-up mirror and dabbing at his neck with a handkerchief.

The walk to the stage was lined with photographs of the more prominent of those who’d performed thereon, all taken from the same elevated perspective.

The wings were dark but for the spotlight that beckoned past the curtain the publicist pulled back and the exit sign that hung in the opposite direction over a shadowed door.

The publicist started the applause, offering a cue to musician and audience alike.

As the applause died, the musician stabbed a foot at the stage, adding a scuff mark to the scores that had been left there by others.

He put the instrument under his chin and drew the bow across the strings in the instrument’s upper register. And then he froze.

With welling eyes he followed the sound of a half-step double-stop through the hall, the bow trembling in his hand. When the sound had died, he lowered the instrument away from his face and hurried off the stage, his footsteps marking the time it took for him to leave the spotlight.

“Do you need … anything?” the downfacing publicist asked, sotto voce.

“I’m sorry,” the musician said, pointing with his bow to the exit sign, which he followed through the door, onto the sidewalk, and, half a block in whichever direction, into a subway tunnel.

As a train arrived, the musician handed his violin and bow to a man who sat on the platform. Through the windows in the train’s closing doors, the musician watched the man on the platform draw the bow across the strings.

The man on the platform stared into the tunnel from whence the train had come, where the sound of the violin now traveled.

Aboveground and however-many blocks away, the janitor carried a flower arrangement down a hallway, stopping to knock on an apartment door from behind which came the scream of a teakettle’s whistle.

In his darkroom, a photographer stared at a developing image. The teakettle shrieked over a knock at his door.

The janitor walked to the next door, in front of which he set the flowers.

The card in the flowers was decorated with music notation and read “congratulations.”

An empty cup

A man sat on the sidewalk outside a coffeehouse, his eyes scanning the parade of people who approached. Music escaped onto the sidewalk each time the coffeehouse door opened. The man’s fingers drummed on his knees.

“Excuse me,” he said to a cluster of passersby whose eyes looked in one another’s direction but not in his. He asked for the time, of which, for him, they had none.

A woman unattached to the cluster stopped and rummaged through her things. “The time?” she asked. “Somewhere …” She pulled out a pair of sunglasses and held them in her teeth. The woman gave the man the time and turned into the coffeehouse.

“Excuse me,” the man said when she came out.

The woman leaned toward him, nodding, eyebrows raised above sunglasses.

“Somethin’ ain’t right,” he said.

“Say again?” she said, tilting her head.

“Young man used to buy me a cup every day, sit here and sing a song with a beat-up guitar,” the man said, addressing his reflection in the woman’s sunglasses. “’T’s how I kept track of the time.”

Elsewhere, a pajamaed woman in a bedroom decorated with posters of rock stars sat at the foot of the bed, a radio-alarm clock in her hands. After a few minutes during which rain played a drum roll on the window, the alarm turned on the radio, which was tuned to a place between stations. The pajamaed woman turned it off and set the clock on the bedside table. Rising in a slow motion, she ran a hand across the bedding where she’d just sat and turned to leave the room, nearly tripping on a guitar cable, one end of which was plugged into a small tube amp.

The pajamaed woman stepped through a sliding-glass door and into a downpour and collected a rain-filled mug from the arm of a chair on the patio.

Inside, the phone rang. She picked it up and set it back down in its cradle, its cord swinging like a metronome’s arm over wet footprints. The pajamaed woman filled a teakettle and accidentally knocked a French press off the counter. She danced backward as the thing exploded against the floor.

Fuck! she shouted, stepping on shards of glass. Using the teakettle for balance, she looked over her shoulder at her bleeding foot. “Goddamned it,” she snapped, hopping backward till her back met the wall against which she slid into a sitting position on the floor, where she picked glass and wiped blood and coffee grounds from the wound.

The phone rang again. The pajamaed woman whipped the cord around till the receiver fell from its cradle and hit her on the head. She roared. Veins bulged in her neck and on her forehead.

The voice on the other end of the line spoke in short, interrogative bursts.

The pajamaed woman slammed the back of her head against the wall and put the receiver to her ear. She stared out the kitchen window and into the downpour.

“Sorry,” she said, her chin dripping. “Static.”

The man sitting on the sidewalk saw the woman in sunglasses hurry toward him. He waved, his arm like a windshield wiper in a storm of passersby.

“Would you like a coffee?” she asked, her brow furrowed.

“Black, thanks,” the man said, squinting.

Exiting the coffeehouse backward, the woman spun, knelt before the man, and handed him a cup. She pushed her sunglasses to the top of her head. With the sun behind her, she cast a shadow over the man.

“People remember the guitar,” she said, biting her bottom lip.

“Asked him once why he kept that piece of cable plugged in,” the man said, staring at nothing in particular and sipping from his cup, which he held in both hands. “Had me hold the frayed end while he played a tune, like he was fillin’ me up.”

The woman sat back on her heels and shook her head, sunglasses sliding back into place.

Otherwhere, a doctor asked a young boy why he didn’t share his feelings.

“So nothing can escape,” the boy said.

The doctor made a note. “If you won’t participate, I’m going to ask you to stand in the corner,” she said, lowering her chin and staring over her glasses at the boy, who slid off his chair and took up a position where the walls met.

“Now, if you decide that you’re willing to participate, I’ll give you a piece of candy,” the doctor said.

The boy touched one of the cracks in the wall with an index finger and followed it with his eyes toward the ceiling and toward the floor.

A musician and writer, David Brensilver has played with orchestras and R&B, jazz, and swing groups in venues ranging from the glorious to the disgusting. His journalism has appeared in Drum! and Modern Drummer magazines and at New Music Box (an online publication of New Music USA). His satirical novel ExecTV was published in 2005 by ENC Press.