Table of Contents
Jump to the Prelude
Zach coughed the second he stepped into the empty shop. The inside was even darker than he’d expected when looking in from the outside, so he couldn’t see clearly, but there were definitely lots of dust particles in the air. He waved those off with his baggy cap and looked around.
A couple of crowbars, some splintered wood pallets, and a loose wheel, probably from a handcart, lay around. Footprints filled the remaining floor space surrounded by brick walls. All of these traces had probably come from the workers who’d carried out whatever left-behind items from the previous business.
“Close the door behind you, will you?” Mr. Shevlin said.
The second Zach closed the door, all car honking and commuter noise from the outside was blocked out. A perfect soundproof door for a nice, peaceful reading haven, it was. And perhaps the lack of light and the general stuffiness was good for books, and that was why Mr. Shevlin had chosen this location. The air here was dry, for sure, so Mr. Shevlin didn’t have to worry about ruining the pages with bugs eating them up.
The walls were thick too. The left half of the wall behind Mr. Shevlin was thickened with double layers of brick. That left part protruded into the bookstore space. The right half seemed to have been left as-is for the bookshelves. But if Mr. Shevlin planned on bringing in a piano, he’d really have to tear down those extra bricks on the left side of the wall. The store was tiny. It couldn’t even hold Mr. Shevlin.
But then Zach thought: no room could hold Mr. Shevlin, not the biggest hall in the whole wide world. Mr. Shevlin was a flamboyantly enormous man. He held his hands wide apart, palms facing Zach. The man positively exuded confidence as he presented himself and the room to his potential new hire.
Gus Shevlin was an open book. He hid nothing, not even his dirty white apron, which was smeared with a brownish-glistening barbecue sauce that Zach could smell from this proximity, indoors. It made his mouth water, it smelled that good. And at the same time, it made Zach nervously aware of the smallness of this space. He made himself tiny by hugging the cap and the briefcase against his shabby, church-donation-box suit.
“So,” Mr. Shevlin said, “you must be wondering, ‘Where’s the piano for the piano man?’ ”
“Indeed, sir,” Zach said.
“Let me ask you first, what kind of piano music do you play, Zacharias?”
“Any kind, sir.”
“Any kind,” Mr. Shevlin said.
“Any kind,” Zach said.
“Isn’t that no kind at all?”
“What do you mean, sir?”
“When you play any kind,” Mr. Shevlin said, not in a belligerent way but in a let-me-test-if-we-get-along way, “when you do anything and everything, isn’t that nothing? When you like everything, do you truly like those things, or does it just mean that you dislike nothing?”
Interesting point. “I think,” Zach said, “what I mean by ‘any kind’ is that I am open to exploring every possibility when it comes to music.”
Mr. Shevlin nodded encouragingly.
“Even new forms, like jazz, for instance,” Zach said.
“Jazz!” Mr. Shevlin said. His eyes sparkled. “Yes, I’ve heard it. The very first recording. The— the— what’s it called, The Original Dixieland Jass Band. The Livery Stable Blues.”
Zach’s eyes lit up too. “That’s the first recording I’ve heard too.”
Mr. Shevlin’s smile broadened. He said, “They say it right. ‘Spell it Jass, Jas, Jaz, or Jazz—nothing can spoil a Jass band.’ ”
They laughed. How wonderful, to meet someone who liked to talk about Zach’s favorite subject!
“So, did you like it?” Mr. Shevlin said. “The recording, I mean.”
“I love it. I wouldn’t be here without it. It, it, it”—Zach’s tongue failed to catch up with his thoughts. He’d never had to express his thoughts about music to anyone back home—“It sounds like music as communication, not only with the audience but also amongst the players.”
“Brilliant! Absolutely brilliant. So you don’t mind playing with bands, to make the audience feel, instead of putting it to sleep?”
Zach laughed. “I don’t mind making the audience feel, not at all.”
“You don’t mind, you know, people of various backgrounds? Because a lot of bands will come and go, at least that’s my plan, but I want you to be here at all times, for everything in-between, for all the different times I might need music. For example, you can’t have a singer audition to the accompaniment of a trumpet, you see?”
“Of course not.”
“We need a piano man for that. So, what do you think about folks who, you know, aren’t like us? Don’t look like us?”
“I don’t mind at all, so long as they love music.”
“And you don’t mind being on stage with saxophonists, drummers, all of those?”
“Why would I?”
“Oh, Zacharias, you wouldn’t believe it! Some of the classically educated folks, they just… I don’t even know what they have against saxophonists and drummers, I don’t think it’s even that, being against certain instruments or instrument players. But they’re against everyone but themselves. They’re against working with singers, dancers, everyone! They’re against playing in front of people who aren’t dressed in their most stuck-up, expensive dresses and suits! It’s the very idea of people not holding their breaths to listen to them playing music, is what pisses off those stuck-up musicians so much. But you aren’t one of them, are you?”
“I’m most definitely not, sir. I mean, I wouldn’t mind if people did hold their breaths to my music, but even if they do breathe, I don’t mind.”
Mr. Shevlin laughed. “Brilliant. Splendid. How old are you?”
“Ah, good age. Wonderful age. There’s nothing you can’t do, nothing you can’t achieve…” For a moment, Mr. Shevlin’s eyes glazed over. Then he abruptly said, “You said that you’re new to the city, didn’t you?”
“Yes, I’m from—”
“Doesn’t matter.” Mr. Shevlin grinned happily, waving off Zach’s half-answer. “Doesn’t matter at all, my friend. Who cares about the past, and who truly cares about the future either? Especially we, the people who are new.”
“Oh, have you recently moved too?” Zach asked with a big smile, glad to find a fellow newcomer, and such a driven and successful one too.
“What?” Mr. Shevlin said, then laughed, waving off Zach’s full question with a much bigger hand movement than the one he’d used for the half-answer. “Oh, no. Been born here, lived here all my life.”
Zach’s smile faded in confusion. “Then…”
“I meant, new in spirit. New in attitude. New in terms of being always adventurous, willing to take risks, never settling for what people say you should settle for. The people who take what is theirs. The go-getters.”
“That’s why I wanted you to audition, Zacharias”—Mr. Shevlin pointed at Zach—“not anyone else.”
“I’m the only one to audition?”
“Yes. What’s the point of wasting time with numerous trials? More trials, more errors. I just wanted to meet you in person, understandably, before offering the position to you.”
This was too good to be true. A name-in-only audition? On Zach’s first day in this big city? His life here was going to be rosy!
“No point in inviting more people,” Mr. Shevlin said. “Especially anyone else from around here. Because, you see, people live in this big marvelous city and they get used to it. They get used to the idea of opportunities so that they become blind to opportunities. And at some point, opportunities become non-opportunities. Do you see what I mean?”
“I… Sort of,” was all Zach could say.
It was overwhelming to watch Mr. Shevlin, such a large man, talk with even larger gestures. Once the topic of music had ended, such movements had become more evident.
Every time Mr. Shevlin used words like “big” and “marvelous” and “opportunities,” his arms mimicked an explosion, like fireworks. Then the arms returned to their default positions to the sides of Mr. Shevlin, ready to mimic more fireworks, should “big” and “marvelous” and “opportunities” come up again. The man’s hands never entered his personal space; they remained hovering just outside of it.
Those grand gestures made Mr. Shevlin’s childlike face seem out of place. Little children just didn’t take up that much space. They might flail their arms, but such movements were never performed for theatrical effects, which was the case with Mr. Shevlin. He used his hands to deliberately multiply his size.
Little children weren’t muscular either, but Mr. Shevlin was. He probably exercised a lot to keep himself fit, this Mr. Shevlin, which was very wise. Running two businesses required extremely good health.
“But do you really, Zacharias?” Mr. Shevlin said. “Do you really see what I mean?”
“Because I want you to understand. Really understand.”
“A person who takes for granted what is presented to him isn’t taking advantage of all the opportunities that are presenting themselves. Very few people manage to keep things fresh. You know, always look out for new things, live up to the spirit of the Declaration of Independence. Make sure that we do in fact make the most of our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The new in spirit, the always-wanderers, the adventurers—they are the ones who never take anything for granted. That’s why I invited you, Zacharias. We must concentrate on the here and now to take advantage of everything that we can take advantage of, don’t you agree?”
“You’re quite right, sir.”
“And say, later, when you’re not in this here and now anymore, you’d focus on the new here and now, wouldn’t you?”
“I… Of course, sir.”
“ ‘Of course’ indeed, son, ‘of course.’ Yet not many people think that this is ‘of course.’ You see? In the ‘here and now,’ they concentrate on the ‘anywhere but here and anytime but now.’ Guess what they’ll do in the ‘anywhere but here and anytime but now’? They’ll think about the ‘here and now’!”
Mr. Shevlin roared with laughter.
“All hooey!” he said. “Makes no sense whatsoever!”
Was this what New Yorkers found amusing?
Zach attempted to join in the laughter and it came out awkwardly: “Eh, ha ha ha.”
Mr. Shevlin abruptly stopped laughing and ceased with his grand hand gestures. Zach immediately stopped his laughter attempt and froze. Perhaps Zach had offended Mr. Shevlin by acting so unnaturally and implying that Mr. Shevlin was not funny at all.
But Zach’s worry only lasted for a second, because in the next moment, Mr. Shevlin said, “I’m glad you agree with me, Zacharias. The reason I’m telling you all this is because for any close-minded, short-sighted person, my vision is bound to be seen as crazy, dangerous, nonsensical. But maybe you, maybe a fellow forever-new New Yorker, might understand what I have in mind, and become a trusted confidant in this venture.”
Zach stared at him, then said, “With all due respect, sir, I thought you were looking for a piano man.”
“I am, son, I am,” Mr. Shevlin said, and his grand gestures resumed. “But don’t you see? Everyone—the piano man, the waiters, the dancers—everyone has to be on board with this.”
“Waiters?” Zach said. “Dancers? In a bookstore?”
Mr. Shevlin had to be confusing this business with his other business, The Underwater Grille. A piano player for the bookstore was one thing. But there was definitely no space for more than one table, and surely no space for even a single dancer after adding the piano, the waiters, and the customers.
Apparently, Mr. Shevlin shared Zach’s sentiment. The big man glanced around, as if searching for extra space. But of course, the place didn’t just spontaneously expand.
That lack of reaction on the part of the dusty room, however, did not discourage Mr. Shevlin. In fact, he grinned mischievously, like a boy who’d hidden a treasure in the back yard, unbeknownst to his strict parents.
“Can I trust you, Zacharias?” he asked.
“I… Yes, sir,” Zach said.
And why wouldn’t Zach say it? He was no liar, he was no snitch, he was no thief. He thought he was fairly trustworthy.
“Because, as I told you,” Mr. Shevlin said, leaning in, “I’m not inviting anybody and everybody here. I’ve invited you for your vision, your promise.”
“My vision, my promise,” Zach said.
How astounding. Zach hadn’t realized that he possessed such things: a vision, a promise. It was as if Mr. Shevlin’s declaration of Zach’s vision and promise had conjured up those things inside Zach. And not just that; it felt as if Zach had always had those ambitious thoughts. Way before he’d met Mr. Shevlin. Way before he’d left home. Way before he’d begun to play the piano.
Zach, as long as he worked for Mr. Shevlin, was destined for success.
A flash of acceptance of this glorious fate must have sparkled in Zach’s eyes, for Mr. Shevlin leaned back and nodded solemnly.
“I trust you, Zacharias,” Mr. Shevlin said. “And that’s why we’ll begin your audition now. Everything that you see from now on, you must keep a secret. Understood?”
Mr. Shevlin turned around and walked toward the wall behind him, the one with the extra layer of bricks on the left side. He reached for the bricks. But before he touched one of them, he faced Zach again.
“And if you damage anything that’s mine,” Mr. Shevlin said, “I’m afraid I’ll make you regret it terribly.”
Zach blinked. What did this man mean by that? “That will never happen,” he said simply.
Mr. Shevlin nodded. “I sure hope so, son.”
Then the big man touched a brick on the left side of the wall.
“Oh, goddammit!” Mr. Shevlin said, flushing at such an alarming rate that Zach thought the man was having a heart attack.
But just as quickly as he’d turned red, he recovered his composure.
“I’m sorry,” Mr. Shevlin said, and poked the single brick with every word that followed. “This. Thing. Never. Works. Properly. Damn. That. Mechanic. I’ll. Have him. Killed—”
With the last word, Mr. Shevlin punched, rather than poked, the brick. That did the trick.
The brick sunk into the surface with a click. Screeching and squeaking followed; a mechanism of some kind; a set of cogwheels, maybe, combined with pistons, chains, and pulleys; something that gave the impression that the dusty, miserable room was coming to life, shaking the entire building in the process.
“Ha, isn’t this something?” Mr. Shevlin said.
The right side of the brick wall, which didn’t have the extra layer of brick and therefore didn’t protrude into the bookstore space, cracked noisily as it slid to the left. Zach gasped. A sliding door-wall! Only now did he realize that the left and right sides weren’t different sides of a single wall; they were two separate walls.
The right sliding door-wall kept creaking left until a narrow gap in the left wall swallowed it whole. This revealed a gaping opening.
The mischievous boy had successfully revealed his hidden treasure to his new friend.
© 2022 Ithaka O.
All rights reserved.This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.No part of this story may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author.