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Black Box Nocturne




Jeff Shaw



                        No one ever brings anything small into a bar.” Elwood P. Dowd

                        The night was black and slick with rain. Once upon a time the damaged neon sign over the doorway had read "Anthony's Piano Bar" in ornate, cursive script. Now a few undecipherable segments glowed and writhed, like creatures from the sunless depths of the ocean. Inside the otherwise drab brick building, it was a typical "dead Tuesday". No two-for-one-championship-wet t-shirt-home game-ladies night-grudge match-of the century promotion to lure in customers on a rainy night at the beginning of the work week. At the bar, on mismatched stools, sat Pat Kerry and "Stewy" Rollins, each nursing a shot and a beer. Behind the bar, nursing a shot of his own stood Josiah Wilkes, proprietor. The only other customers were a couple of college boys at the table farthest from the bar, who were killing a pitcher and time before going to the movies. They were watching the local evening news on the big screen TV and making fun of the anchorman's hair transplant and the anchorwoman's breast implants, secure in the knowledge that they themselves were immune to the ravages of time and gravity.

                        A black cat strolled down the bar, paused and arched his back in front of Josiah, who dutifully stroked him and scratched his ears.

                        "Where did ya get the kitty, Joe?" Stewy gently joined in petting the throatily purring cat. The cat looked back at Stewy for a moment at the first contact of his unfamiliar hand, and then sidled closer to him, as though to signify that Stewy had been found worthy.

                        "Everybody loves Stewy". Pat smiled. Joe smiled and nodded in agreement. Stewy had been making them smile in the same way since they were all boys together on the Eastside.

                        “He just wandered in through the back door Sunday night, while I was taking the trash out after the game. My Momma always said black cats brought the hoodoo with them, but he seemed hungry so I gave him some milk and some of the chicken wings leftover from the buffet and he kind of settled right in. I don't believe such a handsome, friendly fellow could mean anyone any harm. Besides, he looks like he has a story or two to tell, and I figure if we treat him right, he might decide to share them with us some quiet night." While he spoke Josiah set up a saucer of milk at arm's length down the bar. The cat shrugged off Stewy's attentions, trotted to the saucer, crouched in front of it, and began lapping it up, purring like a well-tuned outboard motor.

                        Pat saw the disappointment in Stewy's face when the cat moved out of reach. "Don't take it personally, man. His appetite got the better of him. Nothing he can do about that; it's just the way he is wired." Pat turned to Joe. "So how is the rest of your financial empire doing?"

                        "Pretty good. I ran discount coupons in the campus paper for my " Low-carb" turkey and veggie grinders last week and we were busy right through the weekend. And the video store is still doing steady business. All the money I put into converting to DVDs has paid off."

                        "Being on Fraternity Row has gotta help. I'm just amazed the Zoning Board gave you a variance."

                        “Actually, I didn't need one. Pop Lenkowitz had his barber shop there back in the fifties. It was in the basement. The entrance was around on the north side where the bus used to stop and he had a big arrow painted on the wall above the steps with the slogan "Drop in for a quick trim."  So Mike Burdick, is on the Board and was able to get me grand-fathered in."

                        “Mike Burdick, huh? He was always a good guy. You went through the Academy with him didn't you?"

                        "Right. He was 2nd shift watch commander at the 23rd for about 5 years, before making it to captain. Finished out his 25 with a gold shield. Now he tells me the Dems have approached him about running for City Council. Mike always was smart."

                        "Takes one to know one."

                        “What you mean by that?"

                        “It means, Stewy, that I don't think Mike is any smarter than Joe."

                        “Oh, right. Nobody is smarter than my friend Joe. You should have been a captain too."

                        “How right you are, Stewy." Pat and Joe smiled, knowing that it was useless to try to explain to their friend that in those days a black patrolman didn't make captain no matter how smart he was.

                        “Another round, partner?"

                        "Sure. It makes me feel like a shareholder. What kind of movies do kids rent these days?"

                        “Oh, all kinds of shit. Frat boys rent porno and action pictures. Computer types rent Star Trek and Japanese cartoons. Art students rent foreign films and anything with vampires. We rent a lot of PBS Masterpiece Theater stuff to English majors who don't like to read."

                        “Does anybody rent the old classics like Casablanca or The Wizard of Oz?"

                        “Sure. Especially foreign students and gays. Hey what's the matter Stewy?"


                        “Stewy, take your thumbs out of your mouth. We can't understand a word you are saying", Pat said patiently. Josiah faked a cough into a cocktail napkin so that Stewy wouldn't see him smiling. Pat gently disengaged Stewy's thumbs from his mouth and wiped them off with a napkin. "Now what the hell were you saying?"

                        "My thumbs hurt. Like someone is sticking pins in them." Stewy fanned his thumbs back and forth, blowing on them like they had been burned.

                        "Hold still a minute. Let me see them." Pat held them firmly, but gently while he examined them and Josiah leaned over the bar for a closer look. “I don't see anything. Do you?"

                        "Nope. Nothing. Let’s put some ice on them." Josiah filled a bowl. "Here man, try this." He guided Stewy's thumbs into the bowl. "How does that feel?"

                        “Better. It has pretty much stopped, but maybe you should take me home now."

                        “Are you feeling sick?"

                        “No. I feel okay but -"

                        "Then let’s just sit here and relax and visit with Joe and finish our drinks. If you still want to go after that, I promise I'll take you right home."

                        “Where is your piano?" The three friends jumped and turned to the voice in unison. None of them had heard or seen the speaker come up on them. It was as though he had suddenly come into being on the spot directly behind them the way shadows spring to life on the walls of a darkened room when you turn on a lamp. Two pairs of well-practiced cops eyes took the stranger in: White, male, mid-30s to a young- looking early 40s, Medium height and build, except for broader than average shoulders, clean shaven with reddish blonde hair and blue eyes, handsome but not obtrusively so, the face of an actor destined to be cast continually as the leading man's best friend or worthy rival who doesn't get the girl. He was wearing a black, English topcoat, black slacks, black leather driving gloves that were probably Italian, and hand-stitched black leather loafers that were definitely Italian and cost more than an honest cop would take home in month. Under his right arm he carried a large, black box that appeared to be made of ebony. The surfaces of the box were covered with an intricately carved pattern that eluded the eye in the low light of the bar.

                         "Gentlemen, I am sorry if I startled you. Is there, in fact, a piano on the premises?" the blonde man in black asked smiling while he turned to survey the room. His speaking voice suggested that if he chose to sing he would be a tenor and a good one.

       Josiah was the first to respond. “No sir. Not for years I'm afraid. It used to sit in the corner over there where the big screen TV is now."

                        “It was a nice one too. A pre-War Steinway Baby Grand. Like Gershwin used to compose on. Great, clean action on the keys." Pat’s hands moved up the scale in the empty air unconsciously while he spoke. The stranger smiled broadly.

                        "Are you a musician?"

                        “No, I'm a cop. Or was anyway. I've been retired for a few years now. I do play a little, but just for myself."

                        "Don't you believe it, mister. My friend is a great pianist. He can play anything from Mozart to Thelonius Monk. He used to sit in at all the after hours clubs where there were jam sessions down in the Village when we would come off patrol. He got such a rep that Nat Hentoff of Downbeat wrote a piece on him, "The Beat Cop with a Real Beat". He even sat in with Freddie Hubbard once, at Mr. Hubbard's request."

                        "Really? Why didn't you study and pursue a career?"

                        "Well, I wanted to -"

                        “He won a scholarship to Julliard but then his mother died-"

                        “My mother died and I had to go live with my father who decided New York needed a third generation of Kerrys wearing the blue of NYC’s finest." Pat turned back to his drink. Stewy stood next to his friend.

                        "You are the best music maker I ever heard. He plays for me on all my birthdays. Ever since we met."

                        “That is wonderful. I can't imagine a better gift."

                         "Me neither. I love music. I have a radio and some days I just listen to it all day and when people start talking on it I change it to more music."

                        “I love music too and I quite frequently change stations when they talk too much." The stranger's tone was gentle without being condescending. Josiah and Pat exchanged a nod of approval. “I hope I wasn't getting too personal - stirring up old memories-"

                        "Forget it. Water under the bridge. I turned out to be a pretty good cop."

                        "The best, partner."

                        “Do you have a favorite pianist?"

                        “Well, as a young man Rubenstein, but now Bill Evans."

                        “I am a great admirer of Bill Evans, very lyrical and inventive, especially in his use of his left hand to duplicate the rhythms of his right hand's line. Could you get me a Johnny Walker Black on the rocks with a twist, please?"

                        “So you know piano, are you a musician?"

                        “Composer. Actually I am in town to audition people for a new piece I am working on."

                        “No kidding. Would we have heard of you?"

                        “Possibly, though I've been traveling abroad for the last few years, seeking inspiration as it were. I don't know of any of my work seeing the light of day in the City in the last few years."

                        “I don't know music any where near as well as my friend Pat, but I've been thinking you looked familiar to me."

                        “Me too."

                        “I did receive a fair amount of attention from the media at one time, but as I said I've been away for awhile." The two college boys came up to the bar singing a T.V. jingle, about a car that would surely get them laid, in surprisingly good close harmony.

                        “Can we get another pitcher, man? I mean please."

                        “Are you boys driving anywhere tonight?"

                        “Nope. Just walking around the corner to see a kung fu movie at 9:15 then back to our frat, Mr. Wilkes. Honest."

                        “Okay then." Josiah turned to refill the pitcher.

                        "Looking at your tan, I'm guessing you were someplace very hot. On safari maybe."

                        “Actually, I went to India, to a place called the Towers of Silence, on Malabar Hill, the highest point in Bombay."

                        “Sounds like some kind of temple."

                        “You sought inspiration in silence, I like that." Pat downed his shot with a flourish like a toast. Josiah started to pour his friend a refill then thought better of it and turned to the stranger who was sipping his whiskey, waiting for the next question. The frat boys started to withdraw, but paused when Stewy spoke.

                        "What kind of place is it, mister? It sounds real quiet and peaceful."

                        “Oh it is my friend. It has five white, cylindrical Towers and sits above the city. The sky above them and the branches of all the trees around them are filled with sleek, well-fed vultures with feathers as black as tonight's starless sky. The inside of each tower is open to the sky that the vultures may enter freely. Carved stone steps, well worn by the passage of thousands of feet lead to the only way in, a small iron door set several feet above the ground. Inside the Towers the floors are laid out like a circular gridiron of rectangular stone receptacles in three concentric rings. The outermost ring is more than twenty-five feet-across. At the center of each tower is a deep well about five-feet across. Three rings were built in each Tower in accord with the three moral precepts of Zoroaster:" Good deeds. Good words. Good thoughts." "

                        "Wow, Zoroaster. The Armies of the Day versus the Armies of the Night and all that stuff. I read something about this in my Eastern Studies course last semester."

                        "You are quite right. The Parsees who built the Towers do embrace those teachings."

                        “I am afraid I know the answer to this question, but I've got to ask it anyway." Josiah refilled his and Pat's glasses. "What are the Towers for?"

                        "At the funeral hour the white-clad Nasasalars, the only living beings allowed in the Towers, besides the vultures, enter bearing the naked bodies of the newly dead and place them in the open stone receptacles. The men in the first ring, the women in the second, and the children in the innermost. In less than an hour only skeletons remain which are soon dried and bleached white by the relentless sun. They are then cast into the wells where they crumble to dust and are born off on the wind."

                        "Man, they are tripping big time. That is truly and deeply fucked up."

                        “The Parsees hold earth, water, and air to be sacred and will not pollute them with human remains. They have given their dead over to the vultures for three thousand years. To them it is a natural and sanitary solution." The group sat in silence. One of Stewy's thumbs had found its' way back into his mouth. The Stranger stepped closer to the bar and set the black box down.

                        "That's better. Mr. Wilkes, a refill please. I am sorry if my little travelogue has dampened your spirits, gentlemen. Please allow me to attempt to restore them to their former buoyant state. Let me share a joke with you, a joke I think you will all appreciate:

       A well-dressed man walks into a bar one night with a black wooden box under his arm. He steps up to the bar and sets the box down and orders a top-shelf scotch. Then to the astonishment of the bars' regular patrons, he taps on the box and it opens to reveal a tiny man in a tuxedo seated at a tiny concert Grand Piano who begins playing Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. When the little man, he is less than a foot tall, has finished he stands and bows to his audience and the well-dressed man closes the box, asks for a refill and sits back to wait for the inevitable questions. The bartender is the first to recover from his shock and asks the obvious question “Where in the world did you get such an amazing thing?" The well-dressed stranger replies'," You won't believe it but I will tell you anyway. I was traveling in India and happened to visit a local market looking for some souvenir I could bring back to New York with me when an old man as twisted barbed wire grabbed my sleeve and said he had a great treasure that was no longer of any use to him that he would sell me for $50.00 American, a fortune by Indian standards. I was intrigued so I asked him to show me his 'great treasure'. Reaching into his shabby shroud he pulled out a battered old oil lamp, just like in the story of Aladdin. And sure enough the old fakir told me that the lamp did in fact contain a genie, but the genie would grant only one wish and there was a problem with the genie but if he told me what it was the genie would not come out at all. I paid him on the spot, thinking that with the story attached to it the lamp was the perfect souvenir. One night when I got home I decided what the hell and gave the lamp a rub and out came the genie and well there you have it." The stranger pointed to the black box. "Do you still have the lamp?”asked the bartender. The stranger reached inside his topcoat and pulled out the lamp and set it on the bar next to the box. The bartender reached into his cash register “I want to buy it." The stranger pushed the lamp across the bar saying, "Take it. But I'm warning you, there is a problem with the genie." The bartender looked the stranger up and down and looked at the box thinking of the miraculous thing it contained and greedily grabbed the lamp." You look fine and I'm going to keep it simple." The bartender rubbed the lamp furiously and a genie appeared in a puff of green smoke. Bowing to the bartender, the genie asked, "What is thy wish, my master?" And the bartender replied without a moment's hesitation "I want a million bucks." The genie nodded saying, "So it shall be done" and disappeared with a clap of thunder. After a minute a duck fell out of nowhere onto the bar, then another and another, and it soon became clear that it was raining ducks in the bar. "What the hell is this?" screamed the bartender at the stranger as the room began to fill up with angrily quacking waterfowl. "I warned you,” said the stranger. "The genie is hard of hearing. I mean you didn't really think I wished for a 10-inch pianist did you?"

                        Josiah and the frat boys burst out laughing immediately. Pat whispered for a moment into Stewy's ear and they joined in. The well-dressed stranger stepped back from the bar smiling at his audience.

                        "I'm so glad you liked the first part of the joke. I'm going to leave you for a minute and see if you can figure out the second part for yourselves. My only rule is that you must each try to open the box on your own and the piano playing policeman tries last. Go ahead and pick it up, handle it. Pass it around. I'll be back in a moment. “The stranger headed across the bar to the Men's room.

                        One of the college boys pounced on the box and raised it to eye level. Everyone else gathered around for a closer look. "It's heavy, but I'm pretty sure it's not solid. I mean it is actually a box not a cube. And the wood has been treated with something that is a little sticky. With kind of an herbal smell. But I don't see any hinges or locks or clasps that would show how or where you open it." He passed it to Stewy who looked like a kid receiving a birthday present.

                        "It's shiny like oil in the street after it rains and it smells like incense in church. And it’s got scary faces like from Halloween on it. Maybe it's got trick-or-treat candy and stuff in it. It's sticky like an old lollipop. You take it." Stewy handed off to the second college student.

                        "Man, look at these carvings, real Goth shit, skulls on all sides and some kind of pattern of lines that runs all the way around like -"

                        “It’s a musical staff and the skulls are notes. And it smells of sandalwood and something else I can't identify." Pat was leaning in close but made no move to actually touch the box, in strict accordance with the Smiling Stranger's rules. The college student ran his hands over all the box's surfaces in a futile effort to find a seam.

                        "The skulls move a little, but pushing them doesn't seem to do anything. Maybe the joke is that we expect it to do something and it doesn't." The cat hissed and yowled suddenly from the back room and the boy, startled, almost dropped the box but Josiah stretched across the bar and caught it. Josiah turned towards his backroom but the cat made no other sounds so he turned back to the bar.

                        “No I'm sure it does something. In Chinatown they sell puzzle boxes where you have to slide some panels and push buttons that appear to be part of the inlay work in just the right order to open them. I'm betting this is something like that." He pushed several different sequences of skulls to no avail. Josiah looked up at Pat who was watching patiently, but whose fingers were moving over the bars water-ringed surface as though it was a keyboard. “I know that look. You've got it don't you partner? “Josiah handed it over to Pat and started washing his hands in the sink where he did his glasses trying to scrub off the sticky, scented residue from the box.

                        “I think so."

                        “Mr. Wilkes could I get a ginger ale and maybe a couple of aspirin. I'm not feeling so well all of a sudden."

                        “Sure son. Coming right up. You have a little too much to drink? "

                        “No. I just feel kind of achy. Not like I want to blow chow or anything."

       Pat was turning the box slowly first one direction then the next, all the while humming softly.

                        “Pat I would like to go home now. I don't feel right."

                        “Shhh. Stewy, Pat will take you home soon. We are going to see what is in the box in just a minute, aren't we partner?"

                        “It’s Beethoven. That sneaky bastard told us what it is. It's the opening bars to the melody line of the Moonlight Sonata. Let’s see starts here. Pat's fingers moved swiftly over the surface of the Black Box, depressing the death's head notes sequentially such that he made contact with all six of its faces. When he finished, strains of the Beethoven composition filled the bar. Pat set the Box back on the bar.

                        “It’s just a music box?" No sooner had Josiah voiced what they were all thinking than the top and the sides of the box fell away, slowly, like the opening of some exotic night-blooming flower. At the center of the box was a small dais upon which sat a miniature concert Grand piano with what appeared to be a wizened sausage in a tuxedo posed on the bench as though to play. Each of the side panels that lay flat on all sides of the dais was covered with three rows of receptacles, some containing similarly desiccated items, like oddly shaped tidbits of beef jerky.

                        "What the hell is that? It looks like a burnt weenie dressed to go the prom." The college boy who had first handled the Black Box laboriously raised his head from the bar to peer at its strange contents. His voice was hoarse and he was sweating profusely. Stewy, who was hugging himself and shivering while slouched against the bar withdrew a wet and wrinkled thumb from his mouth.

                        "It's a dick. All dried up. I hurt Pat. I want to go home. I hurt."

                        Cramps doubled Josiah over like a baseball bat to the balls. He hit his forehead on the bar. He heard a thump and a pitiful moan but the invisible vice that was crushing his viscera kept him from raising his head.

                        "Something is wrong here, Pat. I feel like I've got the flu all at once. And I think I see a nose and something that could be an ear and several different fingertips in those little boxes." Josiah pushed himself upright on the bar and turned to where his former partner had been standing. His joints burned. It hurt to inhale. Pat didn't answer. He was on the floor curled up into the fetal position in a puddle of beer. Both of the college boys were also on the floor in similar postures. Stewy was on his back, one leg kicking feebly like a tortoise roasting in the desert sun, one hand to his blood-smeared mouth. He had bitten through his thumb.

                        Josiah heard humming. He could see the stranger, still smiling, crossing the room towards the bar. Along the way the stranger leaned down and grabbed each of the college boys by their belts, carrying them like suitcases, humming and smiling, no sign of strain in his face, he hefted them up onto the bar. Neither boy uncurled, one was positioned on the bar so that Josiah could look him square in the face. The boy's eyes darted all around wildly, but the rest of his face remained frozen in a grimace of pain.

                        “Castratos for the choir, I think."

                         Josiah's eyes burned as beads of sweat ran into them as his muscles warred with themselves. He struggled to turn towards where the stranger stood looking down on the boy like a sculptor regarding a fine piece of alabaster before bringing his chisel to bear. The stranger's topcoat hung open as he leaned forward over the boy and Josiah could see metal implements glittering coldly in the low light of the bar, affixed to its lining in neat rows. With a sudden movement the stranger placed his hand inside his topcoat, something flashed in his hand as he withdrew it, and the sound of tearing cloth and something wetter followed.


                        Josiah thought of his gun hidden no more than 10 feet away under the bar at his cash register. He tried to take a step towards it, but simply managed to fall to the floor in the right direction. The stranger continued to hum. Josiah smelled urine and blood. Josiah managed to prop himself up on his elbows and pull himself six inches forward, caterpillar fashion. He felt his as though he was pulling himself apart with each attempt to move. A sudden spasm forced him to clamp down so hard that he felt a molar crack and its filling dislodge. His mouth began to fill with blood. There was a dull thud behind him and the humming stopped briefly.

                         “Everybody loves Stewy. Sizable, but a wide-eyed innocent nonetheless. Such wide eyes." The happy humming began again.

                        Rage filled Josiah and he pushed himself through the pain, the crippling spasm, and advanced another foot and a half towards his goal. Keep humming you bastard. With each successful voluntary contraction, Josiah felt more in control of his body again. The pain was almost irrelevant as he dug his elbows into the floor and shifted his weight forward over them.

                        Josiah could see now that the shoes were in fact hand-stitched Italian, as he had supposed.

                        “You are very strong and I am very impressed." The stranger smiled down at him. " You would not be trying to escape while your partner and boyhood chum were in peril, and the phone is at the other end of the bar, so you must be trying for" the stranger's bright blue eyes scanned the bar and settled where Josiah's Smith & Wesson was clipped beneath the register," this." He lobbed it under hand into the middle of the room.

                        “I am a little hurt that you didn't figure out who I am, even though I have been away for several years, as I mentioned earlier this evening. But I feel certain you must remember my previous performance in your city. It involved various body parts of two young paramours arranged as musical mobiles, very Calderesque, in a loft I had once shared with the young lady. She played "Ain't Misbehavin"; he played “Don’t Get around Much Anymore". I admit the irony was a bit over done, but I was a younger man then and more concerned about making contact with my full audience." Josiah remembered. He tried and failed to get his knees up under him. The stranger smiled and leaned down, his black topcoat spread out behind him. Josiah heard the sound of heavy wings.