Writing prompt: “Write a story about a beggar who loves to hear himself sing.”
At the hands of tired Taxicab drivers, a familiar chord plays: beeps, blows and honks swelling in unison. When Henry was a child holding onto his father’s hand—swinging below the businessman’s fedora and behind his long black wool coat—Henry tried to match the Taxicabs’ horns. As he and his father raced between women in heels and the street vendors’ calls for business, Henry opened his mouth to lazily match the sounds of the short, angry blasts. He never used words like “honk” or “beep,” because he wasn’t trying to be a horn: he simply wanted to join the song. “Ahhhh,” Henry would loudly cry. Then, “Uhhhh” or, “Eeeee.” Each horn sounded slightly different than the others.
In the bustle of his outdoor studio, Henry found beauty in sound. In his home, he found beauty in silence. Born to two deaf parents, one deceased, Henry’s first and only language was sign language. His hands were instruments of love, rebellion and mundane offerings. As he silently communicated with his father, he learned the world through emotion, relationship and the tactile realities of earth: hard, soft, hot, cold, open, closed, up, down. Inside his home, the world was predictable and horizontal. He appeared before his parents as he stepped into their view and he disappeared at will, not only out of their line of vision but into the smallness of his own room. His closet, his books, the tents he made with his blankets—these were the worlds within his world where silence filled the air but orchestras of imagination took hold of his dreams of being a hero, capturing a beautiful girl with long, blond hair and filling his pockets with the treasure from a pirate’s ship. Henry was content with the quiet . . . but he also loved the instruments of the street!
Sometimes the street enticed Henry with its orchestra of sounds and dared him to walk alone. The city streets provided a studio for Henry’s voice—insulated by inattentive ears and myopic, schedule-keeping skirts and suits. Henry walked alone to sing into the air, notes that were picked up by steam flying upward through grates and then landing onto brick, cement and, occasionally, birds flying past. Lost notes wandering about the smells of perfume, fuel and urine. Lost notes that looked like neon lights and felt like dust-laden metal. Henry walked with his voice and left pieces of it all along the paths he strode—paths worn familiar by his father’s shoes but made more adventurous by his father’s absence.
One morning, as his father pulled him along the cracks in the sidewalk, the briefcases whizzing past his head in a blur of activity, the strollers crying and the vendors calling, Henry heard a new sound. It sounded like a bass: the lowest note of a Taxicab’s wail. It was sharp and dull at the same time. It stopped for a moment. Then he heard it, again. His father continued moving with the cadence of the inattentive as those surrounding them on the sidewalk and in the street turned to face the sound. Henry, not recognizing the instrument, turned his face into the direction on which a thousand other eyes suddenly focused. Running backwards now, with one hand shielding his eyes from the sun so he could see the source of the sound and with the other hand holding onto his father’s long, thick fingers, Henry tried to match the sound, “AH!” He tried, again, “PKH! BKH!” He wanted to hear it once more so he could find the pitch, the tone, the rate. Twice more, in quick succession, the instrument blared its presence into the crowd. “PKH! BKH!” The long, thick fingers dropped to the ground and Henry tripped backwards over the black wool coat. Henry signed to his father, “ Up.”
“Dad, up. Dad, running. Dad, voices. Dad, up.” In a rapid and panicked frenzy of articulating fingers Henry’s hands began to scream into his father’s face, “Dad, open your eyes. Stand up.” Henry felt knees and heels and laptops fly against his brightening cheeks and frenetic hands. He felt the weight of the crowd pull him away from his father’s sleeping eyes and into the wet, steamy oil slicks in the gutter between his father and a Taxicab that was calling for people to move out of the roadway, “Uhhhhhhh. Uhhhh. Eeeee.” Henry’s eyes raced from the sky to the ground. To the mouths and teeth and lipstick running past him and atop the black wool coat. Tears rolled from his heart to his mind to his eyes and burned a path from his face to his newly ripped jeans. He signed to men and women, he signed to the air, “Help! Pirates! Cold! Down! Red! Hot!” From right to left, then up and down his hands moved: they moved with his eyes and mirrored the thumping of his labored breath and beating heart.
Henry began to sing the music of the city. Short, rapid vowels. Hard, pounding consonants. “Oh, oh, oh” . . . “Ee, Ee, Ee” . . . “Nn . . . G, G, G . . . N, N, N”
Alone, Henry’s voice shooting into the air like arrows and glass and metal, his notes pierced the large hooped earrings of a woman with pink lips. She reached to take his hand, stifling his fingered voice, rendering his method of communication useless. Henry tried to pull his hands away but the woman with the pink lips grabbed his fingers tightly, piercing the inside of his thumb as she pulled. A pink nail created a red streak on his hand and as he sang, “Ahhhh” he looked back at the black wool coat becoming smaller, blowing lightly in the wind and, eventually, disappearing into a wall of legs and steam, blurry behind hot tears and confusion.
As Henry grew into a man, the street became his home. His voice continues to fill the alleys and the sidewalks, singing the sounds of the city back into itself, like threads weaving a quilt of sound with which he covers himself.