For the third time, Flynn was certain he was going crazy. He could’ve sworn the ring of a phone, the chime of a computer, and the squeak of a chair played the first three notes of a familiar song. It was the same tune he thought he had heard twice before – once this morning on his way to work and once right before lunch. How peculiar that it should haunt him on this ordinary Tuesday. Over the years, his memory had wedged the melody between obsolete knowledge and discarded whims. But, he still knew each note and every lyric with uncompromising clarity. As well he should, considering he wrote them with his own hand.
Years before his hair turned gray, he played guitar and was quite good at it. He had a knack for writing songs with catchy lyrics and spry fingers that could rip through any series of chords with ease. There was a time in his life when busking for a living actually seemed like a viable career option. Back when he was a skinny kid, life was a wide expanse where pursuing flights of fancy was considered a rite of passage. He still liked to think of life that way, but an ex-wife, endless hours of toil in a cubicle farm, and the passing of twenty years shrunk that once very wide expanse into the size of a pinhole in which he could barely move.
Every day he and his scrappy band of two schoolmates would play street corners along Oxford Street or wherever anyone would listen and toss a few quid. Flynn smiled at the thought of their faces so young and beset with scruffy three-day-old beards. Sam pounded the bucket drums, while Duncan made the harmonica moan. Sam’s hands were always red and raw from slapping the buckets for hours on end. Duncan’s mouth always permanently swollen, sometimes with a blister or two. They always joked that the harmonica gave him herpes. Ha! What good friends and good times!
He looked at the cubicle walls that surrounded him like a fence that kept cattle from escaping. The bald, ashen walls reminded him of himself a little too much. He reached across his desk and picked up a few paper clips. He dropped them one by one into a little pile. Plink. Plink. Plink. The coins people once threw into his guitar case would jingle with almost the same tone. How he loved that sound! Though, it was never really about the money. How could it be? There was never any to be had! Something else entirely drove him to pick up his guitar day after day, for there was nothing quite as euphoric as playing his soul out on a street corner. His voice would reach to the sky and set him free. It was magic.
Every song he had ever played rushed through him as though he were a battered jukebox. Through the static of decayed memories, the music was still alive . . . it was once something he displayed so vividly without hesitation. Each day had been a celebration where the music was a savior to those drowning in the city . . . or in life as a whole. His voice echoed off the brick walls, stark concrete, and comatose streets. Sam’s relentless beat embraced Duncan’s wailing harmonica as they fought against the city’s rigid code. Together, they stood at the center of a beautiful reprieve of lyrics and a soothing cascade of notes.
Flynn’s fingertips started to tingle at the memory of how much it stung when his guitar strings bit into his skin. It was a good pain that reminded him he didn’t need much to be happy. The music played louder and louder until it was all he could hear. He let himself fall further just to feel the strings dig deeper into his flesh. Whispers of Sam and Duncan joined him in the chorus.
“Flynn?” a voice called. It came from so far away, he wasn’t sure he heard it.
A finger tapped his shoulder. The touch barely felt real, but he still answered, “Yeah.”
“We don’t pay you to play air guitar.”
Flynn opened his eyes, scarcely believing the need for such a statement, but sure enough one arm was outstretched while the other was poised to pluck non-existent strings. He came flying back to the present, horrified at his gaffe. The music faded as he folded his hands into his lap and hung his head. “No, I don’t suppose you do. My apologies.”
“We need the numbers for the Wembley account by four o’clock. Think you can hang up that guitar and get it done?”
He’d been lucky to retain his job after all the redundancies in the last year. There was no choice but to walk the straight and narrow, especially at his age. Some young bloke fresh out of university would happily take his job for half the pay. Flynn pulled the account file from his drawer. Manila, black, and white again shaped the course of his life. The music was gone; muted in a dark corner. In its place, the air conditioner hummed above his head, unwavering in its bland serenade. For the next hour, he dutifully crunched numbers into sums, products, and quotients. Nimble fingers flew over the buttons of an adding machine without fault. Click. Click. Click . . .
Those empty clicks drove him mad. They had no voice or rhythm. Or purpose. He slid his fingers off the buttons, dumbfounded as to why it never bothered him before today. More troubling still was deciding what irked him more: the clicks or lack thereof. The quiet was odd and unnerving. He could hear the intermittent bubbles of the water cooler and the squeal of a door hinge, but in his little world there was nothing but a soundless void.
Flynn picked up the phone and held it to his ear. He looked over his shoulder to make sure no one was watching, as he was about to do something that would be considered rather strange. He eyed the telephone keypad, contemplating his choice while a hesitant finger hovered over the buttons. And then he did it. One by one, he dialed random numbers just to hear the tone of each button. The “one” sounded different from the “three” and the “eight” – like notes on a scale. All he needed to do was string three or four together and fuse them with a beat. He hit more and more buttons, anxious to decode the encrypted song. When it would not come, his fingers became more frantic, the beeping erratic. Blaring pandemonium assaulted his ears, bringing with it a frightening invitation to lunacy. He stopped. What am I doing?
Flynn again glanced over his shoulder, hoping no one had witnessed his little bout of insanity. He pushed the switch hook to put an end to his ridiculous attempt at touch-tone composing. Believing it was even possible made him one sad fool or a man rife with desperation. Neither sounded particularly appealing. The dial tone wailed it’s monotone hymn in his ear and he realized it was possible to have a heart that beats without a pulse and to breathe a lifeless breath. He hung up the phone and scrutinized his hands in utter bewilderment. When he was alive and firmly at the helm, they had created and sowed beauty. In death, they were nothing more than instruments of slavery forced into the drudgery of menial tasks. Fingers that once played intricate medleys had been reduced to buttoning his shirt every morning and calculating profit margins.
Wary of the coffin that encased him, Flynn wheeled his chair away from his desk. He couldn’t imagine Sam’s raw hands wielding a pen instead of thumping a bucket drum. Or Duncan investing in lip balm and a three-piece-suit. Then again, when he was twenty, he never imagined himself suffocating in a cubicle. Yet, here he sat gasping for air.
He still had his guitar. It was one of the few things he could call his own after the divorce. It lived in his closet tucked behind sweater vests, trousers and ties. There in a dank corner, his old friend sat collecting dust; the strings bound and gagged by forgotten joys. He shuddered at the thought of Sam’s drums and Duncan’s harmonica suffering the same fate – choking to death in the corners of other closets. Such an abysmal existence should never have come to pass.
The band had broken up over a girl, or at least that was what they had told themselves all these years. Gwendolyn was her name, if he wasn’t mistaken. Flynn still wasn’t sure who threw the first punch, but it didn’t really matter. They went their separate ways with bloodied faces and bruised knuckles, never to speak or play with one another again. Truthfully, it was all a bunch of codswallop. Blaming it on the girl was an excuse for what they didn’t want to admit: They had grown apart and started to believe more in the rules than the songs they sung. Childish antics of making music for pocket change didn’t pay the bills or make parents proud. Willful to the end, Flynn stuck around to play a few street corners on his own, but it was never the same. A few years later, he bought his first tie.
These days he had dozens of ties that he knotted around his neck almost every morning. They all hung limply from a wire hanger in shades of blue, red, and plaid. There was even a lame Christmas tie with reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh. He hated all of them. Flynn reached up and loosened the tie clutching his throat and unfastened the top button of his collar. The release was exhilarating.
There were still three hours left in the workday, but that fact no longer held any meaning to Flynn. He stood up and walked away – it turned out to be easier than he thought. Out on the street, he drew a deep breath and flexed his fingers.
9 thoughts on “The Way Back”
C! I really enjoyed that.
“A few years later, he bought his first tie.” That resonates – the move into manhood with its specific trappings. How ties represent what holds him down. Nicely done.
Thanks, Beth! 🙂
you are a beautiful writer. i can feel every emotion flynn has throughout this piece as if i were him. wonderful.
You totally made my day. 🙂 I did a lot of research to create Flynn – he is a combination of several buskers I saw performing in London and online. It’s great to know he feels so real. Thanks for reading!
Amazing. I feel like I’m there, watching Flynn. 🙂 Great.
Thank you so much! 🙂 I’m glad you enjoyed it.
Thanks for reading!
I had an old friend who used to be able to play ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ on the DTMF keypad of a ham radio. It was also said of him that he could get a tune out of a duck call. He spent his working life as a tax inspector and hated every minute. He retired at 60 and became an activist in anarchism. He would have understood, I think.
Your friend sounds like Flynn in so many ways. Thanks for sharing his story for I like to hear about similar spirits and I always hope they break free. 🙂