by Eugie Foster
When we lived uptown in the big house with the whirlpool spa in the backyard,
Father told me never to talk to strangers, that only criminals and rapists loitered in
alleys. He still believed that, even after our fortunes changed and we had to move
I believed him too until we arrived in the tiny apartment. Our landlady, a woman
with purple hair, and her son, a youth wearing a sky-blue skirt that swirled when
he walked, welcomed us with a bonsai rosebush dotted with sunny, yellow
blossoms. Its pot was painted purple and blue, like her hair and his skirt. I adored
the flowers, but I was more cheered by the gesture of goodwill.
Father had been as wrong about the poor as he had been about everything else:
Mother, the stock market, and the leniency of the IRS. After that, I became an
ambassador, the go-between for the world outside and my family. Someone had
to. My sister, Luella, shook with terror whenever she went out, afraid to look up,
much less speak to anyone. And Father, when he wasn't pulling double shifts at
the factory offices, shut himself in his room.
So it was natural for me, when I heard the music, to chase after it.
I found the musician hunkered in an alley. As alleys went, it was nice. Between a
donut store and an all-night laundromat, the air was perfumed by fresh pastries and
eau de dryer sheet. Even the graffiti was fanciful. In the middle of a gang logo,
someone had painted a window overlooking a forest. And within that, the nearest
tree trunk was splashed with street graffiti suggestive of another window, perhaps
one overlooking an alley.
I approached with a friendly smile and my hands in view, because despite what
Luella says, I'm not a fool. Still, at a yard away, I began having second thoughts.
Sitting on the ground, the brim of his hat obscuring his face, his head came to my
shoulders. Standing, he would tower over me.
His hat bobbed, and he blew a delicate trill on his instrument. It was a wooden
recorder, big as a saxophone. I watched his fingers, remarkably dexterous for their
size, skip over the holes. His skin was the darkest I'd ever seen, so black I
couldn't tell where his wrist ended and the shadows of his coat sleeve began. His
fingernails had a luminous quality, like they'd been glossed with liquid pearls.
"What kind of recorder is that?" I said.
His answer was a fluid scale that spanned astonishing octaves from soprano to