The old guy was good, I have to give him that. Too good to be busking on some street corner late at night for spare change. But that’s where I met him. I listened for a while. Tossed some coins into his guitar case. Listened some more. He nodded his appreciation and kept playing.
The wind was whipping up and I got a chill. There was a convenience store just down the block so I went in for a coffee. What the hell. I got two cups and took one back to the guy making music. I held it up to him. He sort of grinned and said, “Thanks, but I gotta keep playing ’til midnight.”
“What,” I said, “you got a contract or something?”
“Exactly.” And he kept on playing.
I set the cup down next to his case and listened for another minute or so. Then I continued on my way home. But there was something about the way he played, the way he looked, that I couldn’t get out of my head. I wandered around for a while sipping my coffee and near midnight I found myself back on that street corner. No one else was there, but he kept on playing.
“It’s almost quitting time,” I said.
“Coffee’s probably cold by now. I can get you a fresh one before the store closes.”
“Thank you,” he said, “but you’re my audience. That’s all I needed.”
“That part of your contract too?” I smirked.
“Yep. Just like he promised on the crossroad.”
Oh, great, I thought, another one of those ‘deal with the devil’ whackos. I should get on home now. But I stood there just the same.
His fingers flew over the strings in a way that didn’t seem humanly possible. He grinned. He knew he had me hooked.
“All I wanted,” he told me, “was to be the best and to always have an audience willing to listen to me play. Maybe I should have asked to be rich and famous too, but I didn’t. So that’s not part of the deal.”
His guitar was making the most beautiful sounds I’ve ever heard.
“I can always get a gig,” he continued, “as long as I’m willing to work for tips. Or for free. And there’s always an audience, but sometimes that’s whoever passes by on some street corner like you did. Sometimes it’s just an old wino even more down on his luck than me.
“I play every night ’til midnight. Sometimes ’til my fingers bleed. I never dreamed that playing could become a chore, that I could ever lose my love for it. All I wanted, or thought I wanted, was to be the best. But one of these nights I’ll find myself back out at the crossroads. I’ll stop playing. Lay down my guitar. And die.”
“Well,” I said, “you’re a hell of a guitar player, if you’ll pardon the expression. I never had a talent for music. I’d give anything to play like that.”
I was startled by a voice from behind me that asked, “Anything?”
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