Touch and Go
by A. Frank Bower
Through the windshield, Abel Fremont saw the high-rise a mile away, a huge rectangular prism of glassed balconies. With resigned, sparkling eyes, he gazed at it and rubbed a speck of dirt on the glass with his forefinger. It smeared and distorted a tiny part of his view.
Abel parked in the front lot, took a pen from his shirt pocket and picked up his Patron’s Log notebook from the passenger seat. Flipping to the first blank page, 63, he wrote, Arrived two p.m. He slid it into a suitcase side pocket and got out of the Volvo.
Abel stood next to his car and looked upward. The high-rise swayed enough to prevent snapping from high winds. The glint in his eyes faded; he reminded himself how often he moved: 63. For a moment, Abel appraised this monolithic home. He could never reside near the top. He didn’t want to; he was a man in the middle by birth and choice. His sub-let sponsor banked on it.
He carried his luggage and instruments to apartment eight-0-three. Setting them on the floor, he thought, Someday unpacking will make sense. Abel opened the sliding glass door and stepped onto his veranda. Looking down eight stories, he thought, I recognize facial features of passing people. From the roof, I’ll bet they look like mad insects.
His neighbors always knew when he was at home. Music buffeted from his walls, streamed along corridors, mingled with everyday sounds of emptying trashcans, mothers calling children, cocktail conversations. Rarely, his saxophone wailed against the imprisonment of the high-rise. On occasion, fluid vibrations of his clarinet caressed children to sleep. On Mondays he played flute and brought subtle smiles to television faces weary of work-week beginnings. Most often, he strummed and picked his Ovation guitar. While he played, full, round sounds made the eighth floor hallway breathe and pulse.
One evening he shared an elevator with a couple from apartment six and the man from seven. He wished them a good day; no more. Harriman, the married man, asked the other man if he’d like to live higher up.
“Of course,” answered Birch, “who wouldn’t?”
Harriman pressed on, “I’ve got a promotion due soon, so I’m ready when there’s a vacancy upstairs.”
Birch reacted acidly to the boast. “What do you do, Harriman?”
“I started as an Inventory Control Clerk for Allied five years ago. Next month I’ll be in charge of the office operation.”
Birch didn’t respond, so Harriman spoke again. “What’s your line?”
“Computer program designer.”
“I thought they outsourced most of that high-tech stuff.”
“I do okay.”
“But can you move upwards?”
Birch’s left cheek jumped twice. “I will eventually; I’m in no hurry.”
Harriman put his arm around his wife and snickered.
Birch’s face reddened. “Hey, if you think you’re so hot, why don’t you stay on the elevator and go brag on the upper floors?”
“Relax, Birch. I didn’t mean any offense.”
The elevator door opened. Birch exited briskly.
That night Abel used his saxophone, playing erratic riffs with barnyard overtones reminiscent of John Coltrane. Melodies underneath were beautiful, Ravelesque, but hidden within squawks and grunts.
The next evening Birch wasn’t on the elevator. Harriman said to Abel, “That Birch sure is touchy. Humh; changes elevators because he can’t face failure.”
“I wish you would change elevators,” said Jordan from apartment eight.
“I don’t like your attitude. Your ego’s as big as your body.”
Harriman glared. “Oh? And what do you do?”
“What I do has nothing to do with it. You’re a bastard, period.”
“Watch your language in front of my wife.”
“Sorry, ma’am—but it’s true.”
Mrs. Harriman answered, “My husband isn’t heartless. He’s successful. You people don’t like that.”
“Ma’am, if you’re implying a lesser degree of success on my part, forget it. I own a chain of seven restaurants. Your husband is a bastard.”
Abel Fremont spoke for the first time beyond his standard greetings.
“Mr. Harriman isn’t a bastard. He’s just chosen an inappropriate path.”
Harriman said, “What?”
Abel asked, “How is your health, Mr. Harriman?”
Jordan answered for him. “Outside of an obvious weight problem, there’s his ulcers, his wife’s migraines—and nobody who works with him can stand him.”
Infuriated, Harriman demanded, “Let me out of here!”
As if on cue, the door opened.
That night he played his clarinet and flute; played what he could of Gershwin’sAn American in Paris; it was difficult. To end the evening, he played The Blues Project’s The Flute Thing. Its upbeat, leaping lines commanded cheerful smiles throughout the eighth floor.
The following day the Harrimans were absent from the elevator. Birch, Jordan and the woman from nine rode with Abel. When the door closed on the first floor, Birch addressed him. “I understand you had some choice words to say last night.”
“I talk when necessary. Words are traps. Music is the only pure communication.”
For the first time the woman from nine spoke. “I’d like you to know I enjoy your playing.”
“Thank you. I hope it doesn’t bother anybody.”
“Far from it. It’s beautiful…well, sometimes your saxophone…irritates. But when you play guitar I turn off the sound on my TV so I can hear.”
“I’m flattered; that’s quite an accomplishment.”
She grasped the jab. “I’m Winnie Patterson.” She smiled and extended her hand.
He shook it. “Fremont; Abel. Pleased to meet you, Ms. Patterson.”
“Winnie. Would you like to come to a party? I’m having a few people over tomorrow night and I’d like you to be there.”
Winnie said, sincerely, “If you care to. I’ll leave that up to you.”
“In that case, I’d like to attend.”
The elevator door opened.
“Eight, then?” said Winnie. “And Mr. Jordan? Mr. Birch?”
Abel noted, Contact established and put the logbook on a bookshelf.
That night he played his guitar. Its strains sounded louder than usual; it soothed nerves of all within earshot. He played Segovia. He played country and flamenco.Beatles and Brahms. Children slept; women wept; men pretended they did not hearwhile they turned away from their women to hide their emotions.
The next day Abel entered the elevator with Jordan, Birch and Winnie Patterson.
Birch said, “Evening. I wanted to ask you; you’re obviously a hell of a musician;is that what you do?”
“Oh, come on, you know what I mean. What do you do?”
“Whatever I feel I must…many things.”
“All right; I see you’re taking me literally. What’s your line of work? Or are you independently wealthy?”
Abel Fremont thought for a moment. “I teach.”
The corners of Abel’s lips curled up. “I teach with music.”
Lack of direct answers led Birch to think Abel hid something. “High school?”
Again Abel paused. “Privately.”
Winnie Patterson said, “You’re a teacher? I thought so.”
Abel smiled slightly. “No, I’m not a teacher.”
“But you teach.”
“I must remember to listen carefully when you speak.”
The door opened.
Winnie said, “I’ll see you at eight?”
Abel nodded and left the elevator.
“Are you going to play, Mr. Fremont?”
Winnie looked at Birch and Jordan; all three smiled.
He wrote, Eight p.m. and replaced the log.
At precisely eight o’clock, he knocked on the door of her apartment.
“Come in, come in,” Winnie said. She whispered, “How should I introduce you?”
“As your neighbor.”
She smiled, closed the door and introduced him to everyone.
He set his Ovation in a corner and searched for a familiar face. He found Jordanin conversation with a couple. Winnie watched him join them. Small talk occupied less than a minute; the man asked, “Have you studied music long?”
“Thirty-two years,” Abel answered.
The guest said, “I’d love to hear you play.”
“So would I,” from his partner.
Jordan volunteered, “I guess that makes it unanimous.”
Abel looked around for Winnie, who still eyed him. He made a strumming gesture.
She broke away from her conversation. “Ladies and gentlemen—folks! One of my guests would like to play some music for us. You’re in for quite a treat.”
While all applauded, Abel got his guitar. He found an ottoman, put his right leg on it and checked the Ovation’s tuning.
“I’d like to play an original composition called, ‘My Work’.” Abel hit three strong chords and let them echo into oblivion. After they were gone, he played single-string riffs with the delicacy of spun glass, weaving melodic tapestries of intricate floral designs. In a minute, many guests wiped at tears.
Then his sound was of the darkest streets. Notes sprang from sorrowed infants sobbing in darkened rooms where their teenaged unwed mothers gave their all to put food in their bellies. His bass line was a NASA countdown. The rhythm came from junkies tying-off, mainlining in filthy, squatted rooms. His melody was of sunrise glinting through barren, ice-covered trees in December.
There were no words. They were unnecessary. The music was intense, overpowering. Abel Fremont’s eyes gleamed; his foot tapped out the increasing tempo; this music made love to the entire human race. The Ovation dripped, oozed acoustic adrenalin. His foot, their hearts, pumped faster. Drinks hit the floor, forgotten. Cigarettes burned fingers.Neck hairs stood on end throughout the room. The music guided dozens of minds through twisted, tangled mazes of misconception to light only seen after darkness.
At Abel’s crescendo, one woman had a spontaneous orgasm. Another, and a man fainted. After the peak, he brought them back gently, gradually, to the other reality.Hestopped single stringing and strummed to the rhythm of recovering-lovers’ breathing.
No one spoke for a long time.
Winnie broke silence. “Abel, I’ve heard music before, but never anything like that. It was exquisite.”
A guest asked where he played.
“Wherever I am.”
The guest pursued, “I mean, where? Clubs, concerts?”
Abel could not contain his frustration. His voice strained, “This is me, not what I do for money!”
Jordan grabbed Abel by his free arm and pulled him away from the guest. “Abel, you said you teach. Who do you teach?”
Abel glared into Jordan’s eyes. “You,” he said with emphatic clarity.
Stunned, Jordan didn’t get it. “Gifts like yours…I don’t understand. Such a great musician—”
Abel intensity rose: “I am not a musician!”
Jordan persisted. “But you should be—“
“Don’t tell me what to be!” Abel bellowed, now out of control.
“—not a teacher!”
Abel screeched, “I – am – not – a – goddamn – teacher! You have ears—you listen--but you never hear!”
Jordan frowned, confused. “Don’t you mean hear, but don’t listen?”
“I know what I said.” He stormed out of the apartment. Winnie Patterson followed him to his and watched him stuff clothes from a dresser into his suitcase.
When he closed it, Abel said, “Ms. Patterson, I apologize for my outburst. I amsorry I ruined your party.”
The corners of Winnie’s mouth rose. “Mr. Fremont—Abel; don’t apologize. It’s just a party. It’s not important. You are.”
Abel’s gaze fell to the floor. “You’re too kind. I hate losing control.”
Winnie offered, “It’s human. Isn’t that the point?”
With his temperament near normal, Abel eyed her with warmth. “You hear.”
“Thanks to you.”
“No,” said Abel. “You hear. I didn’t make it happen.”
Winnie went to him, put her hands on the corners of his shoulders and induced him to see her eye-to-eye. “You gave me something to hear. You opened me. I’ll never forget you for it.” She hesitated, continued. “Abel, don’t leave. Please.”
He winced. “I have to. It’s not because I lost my temper. It’s…my job.” He gently pulled away from Winnie and began to empty the closet into another suitcase. “I did what I was sent here to do.”
Winnie furrowed her brow. “Sent here?”
Abel blew air from puffed cheeks. “Music must be heard. I tried to live alone. There’s no point. So, I move from place to place, try to share it. Thank God I have a sponsor. He sees me, knows that music is my prison.” He chuckled. “He likes that I don’t stay anywhere for long. He wants me to spread my music around. My dream is to find a home, a place where I’ll be heard, too.”
“I hear you,” smiled Winnie.
Abel closed the suitcase. “Bless you for it. I can’t be…comfortable with others. I hope you don’t think I have a loose screw—or I’m being too sensitive.”
Winnie said, “You probably are too sensitive. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t be able to play like you do.”
Gingerly, Abel placed the Ovation into its black case. “I feel. I have this gift—or curse. I don’t want to play; I have to. Then, people don’t see me. I can’t live withthat. Believe me, I’ve tried. I move on, always hoping to find a home.”
Winnie cocked her head. “Don’t you feel at home with me?”
Abel closed his eyes, sighed and opened them. “Yes. But the others….” He stacked his instrument cases on his luggage. “I can’t live here. I’m sorry.”
Reluctantly, Winnie understood the music ended. They were quiet while they moved Abel’s belongings into the hallway. He shut the door behind them.
“Would you…stay in touch?” Winnie asked.
Abel took a business card from his shirt pocket. “My cell phone number is on this. Please call me.”
Winnie brushed his cheek with her lips while she took the card from his hand. “You know I will.”
Abel tucked his clarinet, flute and saxophone cases under his left arm, squatted to grasp his larger suitcase. His right hand took his smaller bag and guitar. “Thank you, Winnie.” He smiled and turned to the elevator. He looked back at her once.
Fifty feet away, Jordan watched this last exchange.
The elevator door opened. A young boy exited. He looked at Abel and said,“What’s up, man?”
Abel said, “The opposite of down.”
The boy went his way; Abel took the elevator.
Winnie stood in the quiet corridor; Jordan came to her. “Winnie, I’m sorry. What did I say?”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“But he’s going. I mean…is it because we finally found out what he does? Teaching’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
“You still don’t understand, do you?”
Winnie pursed her lips. “Never mind.”
“Never mind! Greatest musician I ever—“
“He’s not a musician!”
“Then what is he?”
“Ask that little boy. He knew.”
Abel Fremont wrote, Departure: 9 p.m. and dropped the log onto the car seat. He opened his flip phone and pushed speed dial one. After two rings, his sponsor said, “Already?”
Abel winced. “Where to next? Somewhere warm, I hope.”
“How about Tucson?”
Abel sighed. “Okay. Call me with the address when you’ve made the arrangements.” He started the Volvo and drove off.
In the rear-view mirror, he watched the high-rise shrink, a huge monolith of bright-spotted blackness. With resigned, sparkless eyes, Abel gazed at it while he sped away. One by one, lights went out until he could no longer see where it had been.