Image by Mohammad Metri

Play It

by Martha Engber

Show you your future, man.

Louis walks the barren city street, a near-freezing wind blowing. He looks up at the sky, so late afternoon blue he has to squint, and even then the beauty hurts. He glances sideways and checks the number above the door of an abandoned store. Six-six-nine. Four more blocks to go. He turns his eyes to the ground and hunches his shoulders so the collar of the second-hand parka covers at least part of his ears.

As he watches the sidewalk cracks pass, he wonders what the place will look like.

The Record Shop.

Show you your future.

Louis can’t recall when, where, or how he first heard about the place. The knowledge just seeped into him, maybe from the dark, faceless whisperings he overheard when wandering through crowded, dimly-lit parties with Lucinda. His only friend. Dead four days now.

Lucinda said she’d go with him when they aged out of foster care. But she couldn’t go the distance. He found her and the birthday letter she’d written him, urging him to do what she couldn’t. Go to The Record Shop. A place, they said, where you can hear, actually hear the music of your future. And no bullshit, either. You get the melody that reflects the kind of life you’re going to have.

Based on his years on earth so far — eighteen as of today, and happy birthday to him — Louis assumes the music of his future will be some garage band shit full of despair and self-loathing.

But what if the tune is better?

Though it could be worse.

He shakes his head fast, teeth clamped tight. He stares at his shoes, the tips of his worn sneakers almost covered by the hem of the too-big gray trousers he bought at a thrift store for a dollar because they reminded him of Jimmy Stewart, or rather, the character he played in It’s a Wonderful Life. George Bailey, the idiot who finally realizes what a good life he’s got. Kids who love him because he’s nice to them. A house that’s a home, despite a few things broken here and there. A friend — a wife — who isn’t dead.

He used to love that movie, but now hates the sappy story. Though he viciously denies the possibility such happiness exists, he never quite succeeds: an ever-present irritation like a razor under his skin, of the kind Lucinda used on herself.

He thinks of old-timey black and white films, and radios and records. Louis has never actually seen a record, much less a record shop, except on the internet. He assumed The Record Shop was a state of mind until yesterday when the bus driver told him otherwise. A bus driver, for fuck’s sake. And not just any driver, but the fat guy with pale red hair, freckles, and a jaw skewed sideways who operated the bus Louis has ridden for the last three years. In all of that time, the driver never once acknowledged Louis’ existence.

Yesterday when Louis climbed onto the bus to go back to his shitty job and shitty life, a reality made starker by Lucinda’s birthday fantasy for him, his body shook so badly from desperate grief he dropped his change. He swore loudly and snatched up the coins. When he raised his face, his eyes met those of the driver. At that moment, the man who’d never looked anything but half-dead now stared into Louis’ soul.

His skin crawled, as though Lucinda’s forever-cold hands trailed down his neck.

I been watching you, the driver said. Long time. I’m not ready to go myself. But you— Something’s changed. I don’t know what, and I don’t want to know. But you’re ready. Give this to them when you go. He handed Louis a scrap of paper with an address, and in sloppy handwriting, The Record Shop.

Don’t copy it. Use it for entry. Like a bus ticket. The driver nodded slowly. Show you your future, man.

And with that, the burn of the driver’s gaze vanished. He turned his once-again blank face to the road and drove, forcing Louis to hang on.

He never said who they were, and Louis was too startled to ask. Instead, he stuffed the scrap into his pocket, as though the exchange meant nothing and only an idiot would go to an address given by a stranger and risk being robbed, beaten up, or worse.

Really, though, Louis’ entire body felt stripped of skin, every nerve screaming. The place Lucinda had sought was real. A shop with an actual address.

That night he sat in his dank basement room and stared at the scrap no bigger than a business card. A worn crease ran down the middle, as though the note had been opened and closed countless times. Though his thoughts went round and round, they returned to the feeling he was almost certainly fucked in this pathetic life.

Almost, as in maybe not completely.

Allowing that faint, but stubborn hope to win this time, if maybe for the last time, Louis decided to go. But he’d wait forty-eight hours, until his birthday today. Because after the Christmas present of Lucinda’s death, and a New Year that promised more of the same, he couldn’t resist crowning the various ironies, coincidences, and black humor with the chance to turn this possible death sentence into a birthday excursion. Maybe this time the universe would—

He sharply shakes his head, trying not to think too much. The images of derelict storefronts create a surrealistic movie about nothing. A cracked red leather bar stool. A doorway to a narrow staircase. The side of a crumbling building sporting a rusted, twisted metal rod like an intestine shriveling in the dying sun.

He tries not to think about Lucinda, but does anyway. Those white arms pocked by cigarette burns. He wishes he’d gotten such a fatherly gift. If he’d been beaten with a belt, a switch, an open or fisted or choking hand, or flung into walls that broke his teeth and limbs, then he’d have visual proof. Whereas words leave no physical scars.

Dress like that, you deserve to get the shit kicked out of you. Think you’re what, exactly? Some goddamn somebody?

Lucinda’s ashtray arms had given her a ticket out, albeit to foster homes. All she’d had to do was endure the ride for one more year, like him, till she was eighteen. Then she could go where she wanted, do what she wanted. She promised to stick with him. She wanted to find The Record Shop — that music place — thinking there might be a small chance her future would be better.

But she left him.

The building numbers show Louis he’s almost there. And when he gets there, he’ll listen to the reality of the notes, rather than pretend to hear what’s not there, like chickenshit adults. The truth will be the present he gives himself. If nothing else, he’ll prove he has the guts to face what’s coming. If it’s that much worse, he can always take a ride on the Lucinda train. And if it’s better…

He clenches his hands in his pockets while walking the last concrete block of this abandoned place. Frozen weeds blow in a winter wind of no snow, the air not just cold, but lip-cracking, skin-flaking, wind-searing dry. He walks fast, then faster. As he’s passing a doorway, he glances up. He pulls to a stop, backs up a few steps and stares at the name in thick black letters above the door.

The Record Shop.

He peers in a window, the lighting wrong somehow. Outside he’s standing in golden afternoon sunlight. Yet inside, the store appears submerged in night, all the corners dark where untouched by a yellow overhead light.

A skinny man in glasses stands inside, near the front of the store looking through vertical stacks of what look like actual record albums Louis saw and read about on the internet. Big, square cardboard envelopes, each containing a black vinyl disc big as a dinner plate. The man’s fingers run the tops of the albums so fast, he can’t be reading the titles. Shifting from foot to foot, every few seconds he shakes his head, a violent slash side to side.

Suddenly a dark figure buried deep in the shop strides out the door so fast Louis barely has time to step back. The door flies open, making a bell above the door quake. The figure doesn’t just emerge. He unfurls into a tall, slender clean-shaven man wearing an overcoat and a hat like the men in old detective movies. He holds a hand splayed over his heart. The man stops. Though staring at Louis, the man clearly doesn’t see anything except what he’s just heard. Mouth open, eyebrows slightly lifted, eyes wide and movie marquee bright, the something is not just good, but astounding.

The man ducks his head, turns, and strides down the street, away, away.

Louis should be happy for the man, who obviously got a better, instead of a same or worse. Because that’s what people come here for, isn’t it? To learn if their future will be better than what it is now?

But something about the man’s stride — hard, brisk, like someone who just missed hell by a hair’s breadth — makes Louis nervous. He looks through the window again. The skinny man in glasses continues to shift his weight while occasionally glancing at a third figure behind a counter at the back of the shop.

Louis pushes the door open. The bell jingles.

The skinny man looks up, smiles and nods as if his head sits on a spring. Then his eyes drop to the records, the smile disappears and he shakes his head, a whiplash.

The burly man near the cash register stands with one hand on his waist and the other on the counter, eyes on an open magazine. The air smells like dusty bread. Frayed posters wallpaper the walls. Black Sabbath. Kiss. The Jimi Hendrix Experience. As though time hasn’t moved past the days of heavy metal and acid trips.

Louis’ eyes land on the curtained doorway behind the counter, black as a cave. Suddenly sweating, he unzips his coat and slowly walks down the main aisle.

When he reaches the counter, he clears his throat and opens his mouth. “I…” but nothing more comes. He tries again. “I…” But fails. “…want Pink Floyd, please. Dark Side of the Moon.”

The burly man lifts his dark eyes. He says, “Look under P, down that aisle,” and nods toward where the skinny man stands.

Louis had looked up the album online, wanting something to ask for in case whoever he found in the store looked ready to jump him, or he lost his nerve, which he has. He turns to leave.

But when he looks out that front window to the late afternoon sun, there’s nothing but deserted street beyond. That’s what he has to look forward to. What more could he lose?

He curls his lower lip under and turns back to the counter. From his pocket he pulls out the creased address the bus driver gave him. His ticket. Trapped heart banging, he hands the paper to the burly man and says, “Louis Bride.”

The man by the door barks. “Arf!”

Louis’ shoulders jump. He wants to turn and yell at the man to shut up. Instead he keeps his eyes on the burly man, who seems to consider Louis.

“You want your will be?” the burly man says.


Will be, as in what your future will be.”

Louis blinks. “Yeah.” He wonders what other options exist, but is too jangled to ask.

The burly man bends down and lifts a plastic milk crate onto the counter and starts flipping through maybe a dozen albums. Louis licks his lips, confused about how this works and whether he should run. He’d envisioned a computer with a database of billions of music files, one for every person in the world. Anything but a single crate of actual albums. Does the burly man somehow know who will come in and set aside their albums? How would he know? The bus driver?

The burly man holds out an album.

Louis takes the thin envelope that feels oddly light in his hands. The cover is noon blue and without words or pictures. Then again, what had he expected? A fancy design with a kick-ass title?

The burly man nods to the black-curtained room. “You can play it in there. Follow the directions on the wall.”

Louis glances at the guy who barked. “What’s with that guy?”

The man shrugs, eyes half-closed. “Comes in every day. Can’t bring himself to listen, I guess.”

Louis takes a deep breath and walks toward the black curtain.

“One more thing,” the burly man says.

Louis turns.

“Use the headphones,” the man says. “Good or bad, I don’t want to hear it.”

Louis pauses, then pushes the curtain aside.

He finds himself in a closet-sized room lit by a tiny wall sconce that throws a small circle of light on a list of hand-written directions tacked to the wall. Beneath the directions sits a large, blocky machine atop a table. He knows it’s a record player, because he looked that up, too, just in case. The room is so warm, he takes off and drops his coat in a corner.

As directed by steps one through five, Louis takes the record from the cover and sets the vinyl disk on the turntable. He lifts the headphones and places the huge muffs over his ears. With a trembling hand, his fingers remain just above the machine’s on switch. Better, same, worse, he tells himself. Worse, same, maybe better. His hopes either confirmed or killed.

Swallowing, he turns the switch to play.

Louis watches, mesmerized, as the record spins. The machine’s needle-tipped arm lifts off of its cradle, shifts sideways and slowly lowers to the record. He hears a slight scratching as the needle finds the groove.

Then the music begins.

At first Louis blinks. Then he wants to laugh. Then he gets angry, wondering who fucked up, because this can’t be his life. Not this light, soft melody that plays on and on and on and on, all the while growing so much lighter the notes begin to lift Louis away from his anger, from his life to this point, from this very room itself. His eyes shift upward, as if toward the sky, the music now in his head and his being. His mind fills with an image from a vague memory. Of a girl, maybe fourteen. Just some girl, skinny legs, not much chest. A girl with that safe, innocent look of a real kid. Where had he seen her? On a street corner? Standing in a crowd? But he doesn’t know. All he remembers are her dark brown eyes looking back at him. Studying him. Eyes that fill with a momentary, searing look of pity and disgust before quickly looking away. As if she x-rayed his heart and found the damage worse than even that of ash-tattooed scars from a cigarette. More of an oozing, decaying mess reeking of shit, of vomit, of a grotesque beyond words.

But he must have remembered wrong, because in his mind he now sees her looking at him in a friendly way, as if she recognizes something familiar about him. She gives a shy smile, one that says I think I’d like it if you said hello. So he sees himself walking toward her. They begin to talk and because she feels so comfortable with him, she suggests he come meet her parents. Maybe they can walk to where she lives, or take a bus. But then he realizes she would live beyond the crumbling city, and he’s right, because now he sees them riding in a shiny commuter train where they sit by a blue-tinted window watching the garbage city fall away. The little boxy houses all in a row give way to bigger lots with greener lawns and bigger, more welcoming houses. And even though Louis suspects there are people in some of those houses — under some of those expensive striped awnings and in some of those clear blue pools — who smell of decay, he’s no longer one of them. He no longer carries an odor of rot. His hand in hers, she leads him. He’ll meet her parents and they’ll all live in warm sunshine.

Louis blinks once, twice.

The record has stopped.

The arm of the player rests back on its cradle.

He closes his dry mouth as his eyes wander the black, silent room, the air now stifling.

He knows he’s been given the wrong album. Even if his future is better than he imagined, it can’t be this beautiful. A life so wonderful he finds himself wanting to keep the melody within him forever, of weightlessness and an overflowing sense of…goodness. A feeling more beautiful than anything he’s felt before. More effective than weed, more powerful than any dream, more peaceful than any promise of death.

He listens again, and a third time. In the brutal silence that follows, he tries to memorize the tune, or at least part of the melody. But already the notes grow fainter, like a traveling ensemble moving toward the horizon. Because he doesn’t own the music, and therefore won’t be able to listen whenever he wants, the tune will eventually fade, as all good things do. Whereas bad things — disappointments, errors, savage realities — ring loud in your ears forever.

When the music does disappear from his mind, Louis assumes he’ll fill with rage, because now he knows for certain what he’d always suspected: there are people out there destined to live lives far more dazzling than those like his, made of rot the depth of which he hadn’t realized until this moment.

He slowly lowers the earphones from his head and gently removes the record, which he slips back into its cover.

When Louis emerges from the darkness, arms holding the album to his heart, he squints in the fluorescent light, the windows now black with night. The skinny man is gone. Louis’ eyes drift from the rows of silent albums to the burly man, who leans on the counter with one hand.

“There…” Louis says, barely hearing himself. He presses his lips together and clears his throat. “There’s a… a mistake. You gave me the wrong album.”

Frowning, the burly man straightens and holds out a hand.

Louis looks down at the album in his arms, not wanting to give her up, or someone like her. But if she doesn’t belong to him…

Louis slowly hands the album to the burly man, who flips it over and scans the back.

“It was so…” Louis says. He opens a hand, palm up.

The burly man grunts and shakes his head. He tosses the blue album onto the counter with enough force, the square slides a ways before stopping. He bends down and brings up a second plastic crate. Quickly flipping through the albums, he yanks out another record.

The burly man sets the second album on the counter, one with a cover made of yellow glaring as a plastic toy.

“Sorry for the mix-up,” the burly man says. Then he taps the yellow album. “This is your will be.”

Louis shifts his eyes to the blue album. “Who does that belong to?”

“That? Oh, that’s yours, too,” the burly man says, “but it’s your could-have-been.”

Louis’ eyes shift from the garish yellow, his will be — to the album colored blue as a sky far, far beyond him. Of what could have been had he not unknowingly crossed some boundary, missed some opportunity, been scarred too deeply, thereby making such a radiant future impossible.

But he came here. He didn’t have to, but he did. He did.

And in his head, she smiles.

Louis tucks the blue album under his arm. He looks hard at the burly man. But the man says nothing.

The corner of Louis’ mouth turns up. He walks out, the truth in hand.

A could-have-been is also a never-too-late.



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