Malcom stuttered into the broom handle, and barely caught himself in time from landing chest first onto the ground. His vocal chords sounded scratchy as he yelped. His cry of surprise was little different than his singing voice, which was not at all how he imagined it would sound. He reached over to the laptop still leaning on the broom handle. His knee cap made an alarming pop and he grimaced. The tight sharpness in the leg lingered. Fingers gripped the broom for support, mimicking the rest of his body with their own creaking noises.
A tired sigh escaped through his nose, a bit like the smoke from an old dragon’s snout. Squinting, he was able to find the button on the tiny computer. From the speakers at the back of the computer came the sound of a spitfire slamming his words on the stage before an audience of screaming fans. The fans were louder than the singer, especially as they screeched through the poor microphones of Malcom’s second-hand computer.
His grandson had actually given it to him for free.
“You can have it grandpa. Really, I don’t really use it since I bought a new one.”
Malcom remembered cleaning it sweetly. Dabbing a q-tip in a solution of alcohol and sliding the moistened end across the keyboard to get rid of the built up grime and oil of the kid’s fingers. The keyboard had never been cleaned before, he could tell. Nobody cares for their things anymore, Malcolm thought.
Then that night, he’d been poking at the keys. Pressing on each one with a hesitant index finger. Waiting to see each individual letter appear on the screen before typing the next. He found himself whisked away to a series of videos. After watching one (a recommendation from his grandson) another popped on without prompting. Not knowing how to stop the video from playing at first, he had let it go on, and turned to wash the dirty dishes building up in the sink instead.
The dishes built up in the sink now that Mary was gone. Before Kevin, their grandson had even graduated high school, she had passed away. Now Kevin was in college and learning a trade, his grandfather hoped. But he still washed dishes the way they used to do it together. With each fork, each a single plate, Malcolm sank deeper into the murky water. He remembered how Mary used to stand next to him while he washed. She hand dry the dishes, even after they had bought the drying rack and set it up next to the sink with the little plastic tray underneath. Too pretty to use. They’d anticipated the holidays when the family came for dinner and there would be stacks of imbalanced plates. But then, it seemed all of sudden, the family began inviting them over for Thanksgiving at their place weeks before the date. At Christmas, then, they thought. Then during pumpkin pie the family invited them to come over for Christmas dinner too. Soon they realized holidays would be at their children’s houses now, so they continued to dry by hand, not enough dishes to fill the rack, to justify using it.
All of a sudden in the middle of thinking about that last good year’s Easter ham, a song began to pull at his shirt collar, thumping. It was unlike anything he’d heard. He stopped mid-wipe and set the plate and sponge down in the sink. He rested his soapy palms down on the edge of the counter and let his fingers and toes and nose tap while the suds ran down the cabinets. Malcolm felt shaken, positively jittery like drinking deep dark coffee. He hadn’t had coffee in ages.
His grandson would be home for the weekend, Malcolm heard, and he planned on driving to his daughter’s house to see him, ask him about that artist he’d heard. That week he drove over as planned, slowing to a gradual stop in the driveway, letting gravity hold the door for him while he got out. He balanced himself on the roof of the car before heading up to the house. When he entered, his daughter Barbara made a sound of surprise.
“Oh, but he’s not coming this weekend. Turns out he has a big paper due on Monday and has to spend the weekend finishing it.” She explained.
Malcolm’s shoulders slumped and he spent the next hour sitting in the kitchen talking with his daughter, but he left before dinner, saying he had leftovers waiting at home. Didn’t want to waste them, he said. He smiled with lips closed, gave his daughter a half hug and shuffled out the door quietly without even staying to say hi to his son-in-law as he came home from work.
The next weekend Barbara called to say hello. It took him almost ten rings before he reached the land line still hanging in the kitchen. Wasn’t expecting a call, Malcom admitted. The laptop sat open in the other room, playing a new song, just as entrancing as the first and Malcolm “hmmed” and smiled and said, “oh, yes?” until Barbara finally hung up, then headed back to sit in front of the computer and deftly, he thought, pressed replay. Kevin would be home next weekend, Barbara had said and Malcolm was excited to see him.
As Kevin entered the front door that weekend as promised, a bag of laundry dragged beside him. His grandfather Malcom was waiting patiently at the kitchen table, sipping on a cup of coffee (decaf, he just liked the taste still, he argued with Barbara until she produced and old, unused packet of decaf from the back of a pantry shelf). He patted the seat next to him, looking earnestly at Kevin until he came over to say hello to his grandfather.
They spoke of the artist, Chance, the boy called the musician. So when Kevin had left to hook up with old high school buddies, Malcolm left again, back home to find more information on this Chance boy.
From Chicago the internet told him. And the boy was only a few years older than Kevin. A juvenile, Malcolm thought, but wonderful. He’d spent the rest of the night squinting through his new glasses at the screen. He’d gone to the optometrist recently to get a new prescription for a stronger lens. Now as he leaned over the keyboard (a bit of shine developing over certain keys) Malcolm listened carefully to the rhythms of the song and tried to absorb the smooth ramble, a river of words, bumping and shifting through rocks and lifting upwards to spray the stage and a lovely shower of expectoration and enthusiasm.
Malcolm smiled again and hoped to hear the words come out right this time, hoped that the broom handle would provide an acoustic touch. He tried to imagine the drums and synths beating around him, supporting him with their weight so strong they could just about hold him up straight like the urban legend of a spoon held upright in a strong cup of coffee. Held just right, in the center of it all. Crowds looking up at him from a crowded stadium. A group standing in the wings. All this, he imagined, closing his eyes. But his voice didn’t sound right and he still felt the emptiness in his chest. So he played the song again to fill the space.
Over the next month Malcolm rarely called or visited his daughter’s family. He stayed cooped up in his apartment staring into the laptop screen crackling with pixels of music, vibrating with the volume turned as far up as it would go. Malcolm found that his knees couldn’t take standing up. So he took a quick trip to the Goodwill. The closest location, about ten miles, further than he had driven in a long while with Barbara’s house only a mile and a half away. Still, he had his driver’s license and after looking up the location on the Google maps he wrote down the directions on a piece of scrap paper. It turned out to be an old note left on the refrigerator. Mary, letting him know she went out to visit her friend at the nursing home and would be back around 2pm.
From behind the wheel, Malcolm squinted to see the numbers on the buildings. The old station wagon wobbled along the road slowly and a few people honked, leaning into their horns before rushing past him. They would look over into the car and see Malcolm staring right and left, then speed past, abashed. Finally he found the large blue and white lettered sign for Goodwill. The parking lot was bumpy and cracked and the wide and low bumper of the wagon grated on the sloped driveway.
Once he’d parked, flipped the blue handicapped placard around the visor and into view Malcolm eased himself up from the seat and made his way inside.
“Hello, how are you?” a pimply, greasy haired kid drawled from behind a shelf. Malcolm twisted his head around to see where the boy’s voice came from but could only see the stacks of VHS tapes and cheap foggy glass vases. Staring around him, Malcolm hoped to see a pile of faded armchairs and scratched up coffee tables that would indicate he was close to the furniture section. He wasn’t. An attendant strode past, looking in a hurry, though there was no one else around.
“Excuse me.” He shouted to the blue vested woman.
Once he’d spoken he realized his voice had come out a lot louder than he’d meant and the woman looked preemptively irritated. He bent down at the waist slightly when she approached, trying to speak more clearly and at her height, an attempt at politeness, but she didn’t seem to take it that way as she stood, one hand cupping a cocked hip and an expression of someone waiting for a 80’s IBM computer to reboot.
“Where is the furniture section?” Malcolm asked.
“That way sir.” She tried to smile kindly, but Malcolm was already hurrying down the aisle. At the end he saw what he needed an old stool, badly scratched, but usable and miraculously well balanced. He bought the stool and carefully placed it in the back seat then drove back home and set it next to his laptop. Sitting up straight atop the stool, Malcolm felt his chest expand and sink. Then he tried again.
Over the weeks, he waited until Barbara called to let him know that Kevin was expected. Each time the visit brought Grandpa Malcolm to the house and he would sit and wait with a cup of decaf coffee stirred up fresh from the little packets that Barbara recently began stocking in the cupboard. Then Kevin would come in through the front door, hauling an overstuffed bag of smelly clothes and Malcolm’s smile would curl from the corners of his mouth and he would pat the seat next to him at the kitchen table for Kevin to sit and talk with him a while.
Kevin begrudged the time. Sitting and talking with Grandpa for an hour or so and only escaping when the buzzer for the washer would go off. Immediately when the buzzer went enck from the other room, the boy would leap from the seat of his chair and hurry in to shift the sopping clothes into the dryer. It always seemed to be a delicate process, lifting each dripping t-shirt and sweats, each yellowing gym sock individually into the dryer, but when the door clanged closed, Kevin would walk dutifully back to the kitchen table and let his grandpa speak.
Sometimes Malcolm would leave before he really wanted to, hoping to get in his grandson’s good graces, hoping the conversation could go on just a little bit longer next time. And eventually they did. The next few months passed by and when Kevin walked through the door, the laundry bag was just as full and ungainly, it took just as long for him to do the laundry, but it seemed to take less time for him to actually move the clothes from bag to washer, washer to dryer. Reflecting on the unusual attention, Malcolm cocked his head to ground, suddenly shy.
Although he continued to practice the raps in his small home, shouting and coughing with the vocal strain, working all the time on the melody, the forced rhyme and tone. The tone was the hardest to capture. He found it difficult to relate the attitude of confidence and grace needed and he spit and gasped trying to give it force. But no force could make it work.
As he sat on his stool one day a knock came on the door, startling clack of knuckle on wood. A groan escaped his lungs and he stood stiff on his ankles and hips rigid, for it was still morning. When he reached the door the end of a baseball bill slid around the corner.
“Hello?” Malcolm called.
The snapback hat snapped round and flashed a dopey smile easily recognizable to Malcolm. Kevin shuffled back to the door, pulling up his jeans over the baggy shorts and held out an envelope.
“What’s this?” Malcolm frowned. Grumpy with confusion and the startling arrival of his grandson, Malcolm was not sure of what to do or say.
“Just open it.” Kevin urged him.
Inside the packet were two thin sheets of paper, the black stripes of a barcode streaked through the center and pixelated ads spattered the surrounding mote of paper.
“Tickets?” Malcom asked, softly. There were two of them. “What am I going to do with two tickets, son?” He tried to hand them back to the boy, stuffing the print out back into the envelope like un-foldable maps, but the boy shoved them back to his chest.
“Those are for you. I’m taking you out, grandpa. So we can see a show.”
“We.” Malcom said quietly. “We?” It was unbelievable that he would go out at night at all. In fact, even visiting Barbara and the rest of the family for holidays he would leave fairly early, passively demanding an earlier dinner time and sliding his chair out from the table before desert was served.
“We.” He said it again to himself.
“Yeah, I thought, maybe I could pick you up around six and we could grab a bite to eat. Then we’ll head over to the stadium early so you don’t have to walk around everyone to get the seats.”
So thought out Malcolm felt his eyes burn and adjusted his glasses up the bridge of his nose, sniffing. His grandson’s expectant face looking down at him, Malcolm nodded and slipped the packet into his back pocket.
“Okay, son.” Malcolm said.
“Yeah?! Great, I’ll be here on the fifteenth then! School break starts a week before, so I’ll be just down the street, but I’ll pick you up, yeah Grandpa?”
“Alright. That sounds fine” Malcolm nodded again and patted the ticket in the butt of his slacks. “That sounds pretty nice.”
On the day of the concert, Malcolm had changed three times, reflecting how he hadn’t acted this vain since the first couple of times he had taken Mary out. Then, at the appointed time, right exactly at six o’clock, a knock on the door told him Kevin had arrived and he got up from the couch (the nearest seat from the door) to join him. They walked side by side to the car until Kevin hoped up ahead to hold the door open for him.
“Here you go, grandpa.”
“Oh, I don’t need that kind a thing! I’m old, but I’m no cripple!” Malcolm mocked. “I’m going to a rap show, aren’t I!” and he smiled at Kevin to let him know he was joking. The boy laughed. Kevin took him to a small hamburger joint a few blocks from the stadium. At the register Kevin shoved his grandfather’s wallet aside, paying for the food himself. Two burgers, two large fries and two cokes in baskets.
“Why didn’t you let me pay? It’s not as if a college boy has much money to spare.” Malcolm asked.
Kevin stuffed a few more fries in his face, but smiled, sheepish.
“Mom might have given me a few extra bucks.”
They were quiet after that and Malcolm sucked on the greasy food, relishing the thought he might have some heart burn later. He hadn’t eaten anything heavier or greasier than a baked potato in years, Malcolm recalled.
As they drove from the burger stand to the stadium Kevin rolled down his window, bumping some of their favorite artists on the radio and hung his hand out the side letting it wave up and down. Malcolm looked over at him.
“What’s that you’re doin’, son?” Malcolm shouted.
“Oh, you never done this before?” Kevin shouted back. “It just feels nice, relaxing. You let the wind kinda lift and drop your hand. Try it!”
So Malcolm placed his hand on the sill of the window and then slowly slipped it out fingers pointed in a flat sturdy plane. Immediately the force of the wind blew his hand upwards and he panicked pulling the hand down, but as he did he felt it rise gently with the wind. He whooped so loud he matched key with the voice calling from the stereo and for the first time, Malcolm’s voice fell right into the flow of the song.
When they got to the stadium the lines were only beginning to form around the edges of the stadium. The show didn’t start until 8 or 9, Kevin admitted, but they could find their seats now and then they wouldn’t need to fight past everyone else. Kevin lead him over to the elevator where a guard stood tapping on his cell phone. Although he looked up a moment at their approach, he quickly went back to ignoring them again once noticing the slightly stooped back of the elder man and they rode up to the nose bleed seats alone and uninterrupted. Sitting up there, they sank down in their seats and watched as a few of the stage hands walked back and forth over the stage setting up. Only a few others were milling around. They fell into a slow flowing river of conversation, continuing some of the things they’d talked of at the kitchen table. Malcolm asked about his life at school and wondered if Kevin had found any girls worth keeping around. But Kevin balked at the suggestion.
“Nah, I haven’t found one of those yet.”
“Yeah, I messed around an awful lot before I met your grandma. She was a special woman.”
There was silence for the moment, broken only by the very distant sound of static from beyond. After the moment passed, they began to talk again of music, beats and rhymes and melody. Then before they realized it, the stadium was filling up and there were people milling about, staring down at tickets as they came up to their row, double checking the time, the date, the location to make sure they didn’t have it wrong as they looked and saw the older man grinning in the front row of the third tier balcony.
The show started out slow, thrumming and drifting up to the old man and his grandson, it was like the music realized the need to build up to the hard hitters gradually and the whole stadium sat on the edge of their seats, waiting for the beats to drop. At about halfway through the show, Malcolm began to stand up. He had been inching closer to the edge of his seat just like everybody else, but he had recognized the subtle build-up of the upcoming song, the steady thrum, and he was ready before any of the others for the incredible moment when the beat finally dropped.
A deep throb vibrated through the stands and the crowd stood up and joined Malcolm with a scream of excitement. Kevin looked over to his grandfather and felt his eyes burn, the lyrics of the song hitting him harder than they had before, making more sense to him now than they had before. And his grandfather was singing along, every word clearly mimicked on the old man’s lips.
When the song was done, they all sat down again and sighed, completely satisfied. Malcolm had beat them all to that too, for only a few seconds before the end of the last encore, he had sat down suddenly, without warning, his heart too full to keep beating with the rest and he had stopped and sighed at last, satisfied.
If you liked this, you should read Trebez post here. I picked this weeks music challenge below. Can’t wait to her what comes next in our writing musical chairs.