A Short Story
It was his tenth wedding anniversary, and Daniel Gordon was returning home to his wife after a hard day at work, a very hard day. In fact, he’d just been laid off. Management said that it was a competitive restructuring, but Daniel knew the boss was afraid that someday he’d be in line for the top job. It was a preemptive amputation.
The winding, coastal road led to the suburb in which they had just moved. What would he tell her? Rebecca had been very patient, even when a job opening caused them to move halfway across the country. She left her friends and family without complaint. After living in an apartment for two years, they had just bought the perfect house. How long could they afford to make the mortgage payments on it: three months, four? She loved the placed. It was the one real thing he’d ever been able to get her. Now they might lose it.
The car sped along the narrow highway curves, a small gift-wrapped package and box of roses sliding across the seat. The sun went down over the ocean, taking its illumination with it. Daniel turned on his headlights.
Sure, they gave him a severance package, but jobs hadn’t been exactly plentiful since the economy turned. Several friends had taken jobs at a greatly reduced pay rate. There was always unemployment, but it didn’t pay much either. What did that leave, his life insurance policy? It was strange to be worth more dead than alive. If he died before he missed a payment, Rebecca would at least get enough to pay off the house. Maybe enough and survive for a few years, or go back to college.
The tires squealed around a tight corner.
She was a good-looking woman; she could find someone else, someone who could keep a job. Even with a master’s degree in business, he couldn’t guarantee her the lifestyle she deserved. Perhaps dying would be the kindest thing to do for her. It sure beat showing up at home on their tenth wedding anniversary with a pink slip. How would it go? Hi, hun, happy anniversary. By the way, we’re destitute. No, he couldn’t face that.
The car sped blindly around the next corner, the wheels screeched as the car slid into the opposite lane. He was going the wrong way around blind curves. It spun toward the railing that separated the highway from the cliff edge, and the deadly plummet into the Pacific below. Daniel stomped hard on the brakes. Turn into the spin, his driver’s education teacher’s voice haunted. The car stopped on a patch of dirt shoulder, inches from the railing. What was he trying to do, make her a widow? Did he really want to die?
Daniel fought to calm his racing heart, forcing himself to breathe through his dry mouth. He opened the car door and stepped out into the night air. A pack of cigarettes felt as though they were burning through his shirt pocket. He retrieved one and lit up, smoked it and lit another. After the third chain-smoked Camel, Daniel slumped down on the hood. Sorry Becks, I shouldn’t have brought you here. It was just a job for Christ sake.
The light of the rising moon provided enough light to inspect his car. Only a flat tire. He tossed the butt and went to get his jack and spare tire from the trunk. Why was his trunk always full of junk? Pulling an abused sleeping bag off the pile, he fumbled for the jack and ran across the familiar texture of his saxophone case. It was heavy and hard, his long forgotten friend. The flat tire, for the moment, could wait.
The instrument had been his friend throughout his troubled teens and lost twenties. It alone had given voice to the secret fears and doubts of adolescence. Once, he might have had talent. Talent or no, however, it brought him solace when the winds of the fortune turned against him.
The case was old and beat up, it had been used when his father saved it from the hock shop and presented it as a gift for his thirteenth birthday. Scratches and cracks, long covered over by bumper stickers and band logos, indicated the case’s age. On the car’s hood, he opened the case for the first time in years. Seeing its brassy gleam lit up by the moon was like going home. Gingerly, he freed it from its worn padded tomb, then fitted the mouthpiece and tested a few notes, his stiff fingers stretching and straining to make the changes. It had been a long time. Several times over the years, it had come close to ending back in a hock shop, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it.
The notes rang through the hills, bounced off the cliff face and resonated out over the ocean. More notes followed, then old familiar melodies. Soon it felt as though he’d never stopped playing. The music became a melancholy riff to match his mood, slow, and sad. The reed grated against his tongue, but the music flooded the world, sharing all he felt with it.
Aiooooop Aioo Aiiooooop. The sound resonated from the ocean. It was a vaguely familiar sound; a sound from a tape his wife gave him to relax, Sounds of the Ocean. There was a whale out there; he waited and listened. Nothing. Was his imagination toying with him, or was it strange echoes?
Daniel blew out a new melody, the first few notes came tentatively and then started to flow from his instrument with feeling and purpose.
Aiiioooop Aioop. It was a whale. He played, matching the sound of the aquatic deva. It continued its strange song, changing its song to match him. It had been a long time since he played a duet, but they were in harmony. In high school and his freshman year of college, he’d played in a band. It didn’t amount to much, but he loved it. Memories of joyous years mixed with the music and moonlight.
Aiioooaiiiooop! The whale knew the joy of song. Would it give up song, for the security of the corporate world, for money? He stopped and laughed; corporate America secure? He studied business at his father’s urging. Yes, he had, in fact, given up on his dreams, a sacrifice to a false god, financial security.
The saxophonist played harder, and louder, blowing till his lungs burned. The whale matched him; together they played the mournful Ode to Lost Dreams. Perhaps the whale also lamented, or maybe it thought he was another whale. Whatever the cause, that night, both lamented together, until neither had a sad note left.
The world had taken enough. Society’s false promises could no longer make him forsake his dreams. Becky used to watch him play in college; she often claimed his music won her heart. She would understand. They could survive for several months on the severance pay. He’d find a band. All he needed were a few gigs a week. A musician’s soul rejoiced at the sudden freedom, it had been distracted from its destiny for far too long.
Daniel Gordon played a few last notes for his friend, in the darkness. What do whales wish for; Peace, harmony, more plankton? Whatever it was, he wished it for the creature. In his moment of despair and doubt, it was that inhuman voice from the dark ocean that showed him the light. There was no response; it had gone back to the depths. The saxophone slid gracefully back into her case, and he lit another Camel. This time, however, the case went in the seat beside Rebecca’s anniversary present and roses.
The car hit the road again with its spare tire and a more cautious, optimistic driver behind the wheel. It was his tenth anniversary; he was in love with his wife, and on his way home to tell her about his new dream job.