The Radio Man II; or: The Axeman Cometh
He woke up itchy and hot on the floor of the flophouse, insects fleeing his body. He raked his fingers against his ribs to kill off the slower vermin; panted for air. The room’s other occupants shifted on lice-ridden burlap and ignored him. The nightmare burned the last of its hellfire fuse through him and left him cold and pointless. His cot, so much as it was his, was damp with his sweat.
The floor felt smooth and warm on his footsoles. Pots and pans clattered from the kitchen. The proprietor did his tenants the charity of a free breakfast, watery soup and hardened bread that had been most of Sam’s diet since the hurricane of ‘15.
In the communal shower, he washed himself with stolen soap. An old burlap sack was a towel. He put on the same threadbare wardrobe as he’d worn the day before and the day before that. The buttons were coming loose on the shirt. He fingered them nervously. Sooner or later he’d need new clothes. A new job. Not a line-up by the river docks but a real one, one with a decent wage and the promise of the same work the day after.
In the mess hall: watery soup, stale bread.
The proprietor tipped his hat at Sam at the front door. “See ye tonight, Sammie.”
“Yeah. If I’m lucky.”
“We can always add another night to the tab.”
Sam didn’t reply to that. Instead, he put the thinning soles of his shoes to the streets and started walking. The bulbs of his ill-healed knuckles were in flare, sore and stiff—dock work wouldn’t happen, that day. He’d have to find something else, or maybe fall back on the begging angle.
“Goddamned wops,” he muttered. It was the wops who’d broken his knuckles in ’16, looking for money he didn’t have. Debts from when he worked as a piano man. The wops always had a powerful sense of irony.
Music cut through the city din and Sam’s feet stopped moving. Gooseflesh scaled his spine and shivered his neckhair straight up. The Jazzman. Somehow Sam always ran into the Jazzman on the bad days, the worst ones. Knuckles burning, nightmares scraping at the back of his skull, low on cash—those were the Jazzman’s days.
The sax sound drew him in. Jazzman was a snake-charmer in another life, or maybe the Pied Piper. Sam could imagine that. It was easy to imagine Jazzman dressed up nice, making all those kids disappear forever.
Sam stepped into an alley that dawn didn’t touch. At the back of the alley, playing to an audience of rats and roaches, the Jazzman waited.
Black-black, spiffy suit, shined shoes, teeth so white they shone like lightning—the Jazzman lowered the sax from his lips and smiled. The audience of vermin parted like the red sea, all beady eyes and wiggling antennae pointed at Sam.
“You stop following me, hear?” Sam said.
“Ever think maybe it’s you who’s following me, Sammie? Seems you only ever show up when you need a hand.” One of the shined shoes moved, knocked into an instrument case full of coins and crumpled bills.
“Go on. Take a few nickels.”
“Who are you?” Sam asked.
“Just a music man, Sammie. Like you used to be.”
People passed the alley without so much as a glance inside.
The Jazzman knocked the case with his shoe again. “Go on. I know you need it.”
Sam approached the offering the way a man pads through a graveyard. He craned toward the pile of coin without taking his eyes off Jazzman. “How do you keep finding me all the time?”
The Jazzman smiled. He had so many teeth and they were all so bright.
Sam reached for a handful of coins.
“You learned your lesson about debt, didn’t you?” Jazzman’s voice dropped to a register that Sam felt in his bone marrow more than he heard in his ears. “You keep taking out loans like this, one day I’ll want something in return.”
Hunger curled in his stomach. Thirst grasped at his throat. The flophouse proprietor tipped his hat every morning. Sam took a handful of nickels and dimes from the instrument case and weighed them in his knobbed hand.
“What are you? You some kind’a devil, a demon?”
“I’m a new set of clothes, Sammie. Better than the ones you got on now.”
Sam stepped away from the case. One of the alley rats sniffed at his shoe. He let it.
“I could really help you out, Sammie. Get you playing again. Give those hands of yours some real use.” The Jazzman held out the sax, the brass somehow lit by his grin. “Give it a blow.”
Sam reached for the sax, like he always ended up doing. He took it in his hands.
“You and me, Sammie, we could be headliners, together. We could be all over the front page.”
Sam stood alone in a dawnlit alleyway, a weight of coins in one hand and the haft of an ax in the other. A stray breeze stuck a newspaper page to his leg. A lone rat ambled past him, scrounging for leftovers. Sam watched it, wondered how hungry it would have to be before it started eating the other rats.
He dropped the ax and ran.
The first time he’d seen the Jazzman had been just before the hurricane. The club owner had just cut Sam his wage for the night’s play and Sam was smoking a cigarette outside, weighing whether to bank the cash or try it at some poker.
“Dark days ahead, Sammie. I’ll tell you that much. There’s dark days ahead.”
The Jazzman came from the night, five feet away and just a shadow.
“Do I know you?” Sam asked.
“You will,” and the Jazzman’s smile sliced the air like light off a knife. “I’ll tell you that much, too.”
“I’d rather not,” Sam said. He turned right around and started walking, his body tense with the idea that the man might just attack him. But the Jazzman didn’t move, he just laughed. And Sam shivered and kept right on walking.
And they’d both been right.
In the nightmare, he saw his sister die. It was dumb luck is what it was: his place survived the storm and hers didn’t. Every day since was red in a ledger and the nightmares were his interest payments.
In the nightmare, he was a cockroach hiding under her bed. She and her husband ran to and fro in the apartment, boards and nails going up on all the windows. They lit candles. The sky of the mattress groaned when they sat on it; huddled together, their voices nervous and ragged. He kept hearing the word ‘baby’ over and over again. He’d never found out if it was true or not. It didn’t matter anymore, anyway.
In the nightmare, the apartment came apart in a whirlwind. The walls unspooled in ribbons. The revealed world outside was a rush of white and black and gray, with a sound like radios tuned to unused frequencies. His sister screamed and her husband leapt from the bed. As a roach, he watched the man’s feet hit the floor, and then he watched the gray rush of the world eat him right down to the ankles. Crimson gore painted the hardwood where his sister’s husband once stood. His sister kept screaming. The floor splintered into thousands of wooden knives, their bloodthirsty tips pointed up at the mattress.
There was a flash of red, and his sister stopped screaming.
He woke up with a breathless gasp, pulse drumming against his skull. He wiped sweat from his forehead with broken hands and scratched the bug bites festering his skin. The other occupants of the room shifted and stretched on their cots and ignored him. Pots and pans clanged from the kitchen. He rubbed his eyes and went for the communal shower.
In an alley by the docks after a no-luck morning, the Jazzman smiled.
In an alley next to a bar where Sam spent his last coin on bad whiskey, the Jazzman smiled.
In an alley, after a sleepless, nightmare-riddled night, the Jazzman smiled.
In an alley, when Sam’s aching hands found only lint at the bottoms of his threadbare pockets, the Jazzman smiled.
“Give it a blow, Sammie,” he said, offering the saxophone. “You’ll be the biggest news you’ve ever heard.”
When the saxophone twisted into an ax, Sam’s knuckles stopped aching.
He dropped the killing instrument and ran weeping into the street.
The Jazzman smiled.
Back at the flophouse, Sam put himself in the corner of the room, crouched fetal against the wall. He cried and whispered to himself and pulled out strands of his own hair and the room’s other occupants ignored him. He mumbled prayers to martyred Christ and heard no answer. Starving, he snatched a stray roach from under his mattress and ate it. He wondered if it was the same roach he dreamed of being the night his sister died.
In an alley across the street, the Jazzman smiled.
“You’re six days short,” the proprietor said. He held his hat between his hands, wringing the brim. The room was empty save for the smell. Dust and roach carapaces clung everywhere. No bugs had survived Sam’s hunger. “And the other boarders, Sammie, they been talking.”
“It’s my hands, y’know. I can’t work on account of my hands.”
“They say you been talking in your sleep. I know time’s been hard for you, but…” one of the proprietor’s hands left the hat to venture to the back of his neck. “I can’t lose this kind of business. I’m sorry.”
“I’ll get work soon. Real work.”
“What you been dreaming about? Scaring the hell out of people. They’re saying you wake up screaming.”
Sam picked at his teeth, loosening the ridged leg of an insect. “Same old, same old. My sister, you know.”
“I can’t let you stay. It’s nothing personal.”
“No, no. Never is. Wops said that when they did my fingers, too.”
“Sammie, come on. You’re six days short, you smell like a barn, you’re scaring off the other boarders…no way I can let you stay on. Don’t make this any uglier than it has to be, alright?”
Sam pushed himself to his feet. His limbs were narrow, his body warped and stretched. He shuffled forward on legs that were alien to him, almost insectoid. Hunger returned to his guts slowly, as if a limb regaining feeling after being long numb.
“I’ll be back,” he said.
The proprietor gave him space. His mouth opened as if to speak, but no words issued forth.
Sam smiled. “One more shower.”
The proprietor nodded weakly. “One more shower, that’s it.”
Sam’s shoes had fallen apart. The calloused soles of his feet scraped the floor as he walked. The floor felt cold and ungiving against his footsoles.
The alley crawled with tiny lives. Lice and bedbugs. Roaches he could barely fit in his mouth. Rats, of course. And mankind, the vermin. Sam saw them all. Bedsored, bug-bitten, sunken-eyed, the reek of rot on their flesh. Living corpses garbed in eaten veils. So, too, was his transformation.
He scratched the endless trail of bites lining his body. They went round and round and round. He gnawed on a stale loaf of bread he’d stolen. He was no longer sure what tasted better, the bread with its mossy fungus or the bugs with their twitching legs. After the bread was gone, he hunted rats.
He wasn’t sure when he’d turned invisible, but he knew he was. Chasing a rat down the sidewalk, he ran by the old flophouse. He passed within an inch of the proprietor’s nose, and the proprietor stared right through him. When he begged the corners, the people who filled the sidewalks never peered down. Sometimes a child would meet his gaze. Children were more keenly aware of things. They saw the things no one else saw. They saw him past the shroud of his invisibility.
He caught the rat in a narrow, lightless alley. He wrestled it still.
“Down on your luck, Sammie boy?” the Jazzman formed from shadow, a leather instrument case in his hands.
Sam snapped the rat’s neck. His knuckles throbbed. Narrow rivulets of blood rolled between his fingers where the rat had bitten him. “Why’d you do this to me?” he pleaded. “Why me at all?”
“I didn’t do anything, music man.”
“You’re a devil, huh?”
“I’m a song, Sammie. I’m the song the universe sings when it thinks nobody’s listening. I’m the bottom of the barrel. I’m the promise you make when you’re out of other options. I’m a lot of things, Sammie, but I’m no devil, and I never did nothing to harm you.”
Sam stared at the dead animal in his hands, the wrenched twist of its broken spine.
The Jazzman smiled like starlight. “The universe sent the hurricane, Sammie. The universe killed your sister. It unraveled her the way a kid peels a thread from a sweater. The universe drowned the nightclub and took your money with it. Oh, yeah. It gave that wop his sense of humor, too. Come on, now, baby, don’t cry. Let me play you a lullaby.”
Sam sobbed, his tears mixing with the blood on the rat’s fur. His wail sucked him in, muscles so tight they almost broke his brittle bones.
The Jazzman opened the instrument case. “I’ll make you a square deal, Sammie boy. It’s pretty clear to me the universe ain’t gonna do it. No, sir. That big void sky’s not planning to do you any favors. But me? Well. I helped you out, didn’t I? I got a lot of change in this case, and not just the kind that comes in coins. Get me?”
The Jazzman brought the sax to his lips.
The music was improvised. Jazz was the song of the universe. The Jazzman played chaos, played broken promises and dead-ends. Jazz was the notes that got played and the notes that didn’t. Sam really only understood the ones that didn’t.
Sam wiped the tears from his eyes.
The Jazzman held the sax toward him. “I can give those hands some use, yet. You put me on, get out of those raggedy clothes of yours…we’ll show these folks what the song of the universe sounds like. Go on, Sammie. Give it a blow.”
Sam dropped the rat corpse to the alley floor and took the instrument. The ax was heavy in his hands. Its edge ate sunlight. He gave it a test swing, imagined it slamming cross-wise into a dirty wop’s throat.
He flexed his fingers around the haft. It felt good.
His smile burned white as starlight. The suit fit him almost perfectly. The shoes gleamed smooth and polished. He brushed dust from his lapel and toed the vermin carcass aside. The ax went into the instrument case along with all the cash he’d ever need.
In the alley, alone, draped in shadow, Sam listened to the jazz of the universe.
It seemed to him that a sweeter tune was never played.