A soft jangling resounded as he stepped through the door. In a particular sense, it was warmly cold, harshly inviting, a sound that made him joyous. Inside the space was a collection of ancient tables, padded booths, checkerboard floors and busted neon lighting surrounding a marble counter lined with matte vinyl barstools enclosing the kitchen within. A coffee pot sat on the corner of the counter, half full with the dark liquid that so many needed less or more of in this modern time.
“It’s a hot one out there today, isn’t it!” The host outstretched a hand, which he took with hesitation. “You’re tonight’s musician, right?”
“I suppose you could say that much.” In a gravely, worn out voice, he spoke. He wore a tan, worn overcoat, and a brown velvet fedora, which was falling apart with a sense of grace. His face was ashy, and his eyes cut through the smoggy skin like pearls in an oyster. He had scars on his cheeks, and a cut across his throat. A tattered pouch slung across his chest, the musician had an arm tucked in his coat as he gave off a slight smile.
“I saw you on a poster once, I think. Do you really have..” As if on cue, the musician brought out a mechanical arm, his left arm, to be specific. Coated in a dented layer of brass, with a tape deck built into the side, the arm was coated in keys, with a extendable brass cylinder containing a reed. “Yeah, that thing! Reminds me of..”
“A saxophone.” The musician gruffly muttered.
“Yes, that! Saw them in the museums, yes I did.” The host cheerfully piped, inspecting the instrument. “So, that’s what you play on?”
“And listen with.” The musician reached into his pouch, pulling out a cassette tape, which he slid into the tape deck within his brass prosthetic. A calming jazz began to resonate from the appendage, as it softly vibrated along with the beat.
“You’re a real ancient, mister! With all due respect, of course. Why, nobody’s used media like that besides our—“ the peppiness was cut off by a gruff voice from the kitchen.
“Quit nagging the man, he’s got a show to play tonight!” The chef walked out, a man with a replacement eye that flickered red in the light, never blinking. He wore a button up grey shirt underneath a stained apron, with wrinkled skin and grey wispy hair.
“Oh, alright then. I’ll be in the back, holler if you need me!” The host stepped backwards, walking towards the break room, still sneaking glances at the musician over his shoulder.
“Apologies for him. He’s a new hire.” The chef outstretched his hand, which the musician shook with respect.
“Oh, don’t apologize. Really, I’m surprised he knows as much as he did.”
“The days really have changed, right!” The chef laughed heartily. “Finding a hire was so difficult, you know with all these massive conglomerates snatching all the positions. Not often you find someone who’s content with hosting.” The chef looked over his shoulder, towards the break room. With a click of his tongue, he spun back to face the man. “Would you like something to eat before your set? It’s about 3 hours to your time, and, as you can see, nobody’s here yet.”
“Sure. I’ll take whatever you think’s best. And a coffee.” The musician sat down at the counter.
“A trusting fellow, aren’t ya. I like that.” The chef went to the fridge, grabbing a ball of dough dotted with small sugar pearls. He divided the dough, placing it within a waffle maker and closing the lid down.
“It’s hard to be like that, nowadays.” The musician lit up a cigarette.
“Tell me about it. It’s about every week I get some jackass in a suit rolling up to the counter with a thinly disguised contract.” The chef turned the waffle maker over, to let the other side cook evenly. “They’ve been trying to hire me for years. Kitchen work, they say. In one of those big skyliners, you know those new ones?” The chef walked back over to the counter, pouring the musician a cup of coffee.
“The ones that breach the clouds?” The musician grabbed two brown paper sugar packets, pouring them into the dark brew. “Been up for years, I wouldn’t call em new personally.”
“Yeah, those ones. Too tall for my blood, and too buttoned up. But I swear, they’re relentless. With all the mass production, you’d think they’d replicated us by now.” The waffle maker chimed, and the chef opened up the lid, plating the sugar-speckled waffles alongside some pre-cooked bacon. With a glaze of syrup, he presented the meal. “Enjoy.”
“Hey, thanks.” The music man dug in, taking a bite. “Wow, damn good. Where’d ya get the stuff for meals like this?”
“Made fresh here, another rarity with the suits prowling around. I’ve had seventeen deals to try and get me to sell synthetics. And I’ve said no, seventeen times.” The chef stood proudly for a moment, before slouching back down to a relaxed posture. “It’s no big deal, really. Just making things like I always have.”
“Well, don’t stop, then.” The musician took a long sip of his coffee. “You really sure you don’t mind if I just hang out here until the gig time?”
“Not at all. Coffee’s on the house, by the way." The chef walked off to the kitchen, leaving the musician at the counter to enjoy the rest of his bacon and waffles. As the time passed, they chatted more about current affairs, with people slowly filling booths and tables, and it came time for the music man to play. The hostess brought out a stool for him to sit on, positioning him in front of the diners.
“Break a leg!” They said with a smile.
“Thanks.” The music man opened his pouch, taking out a few tapes and sitting on the stool. “I’m gonna just play a few of my favorites for you cool cats tonight, that alright?” He asked the crowd in a slightly more sultry tone, not expecting a reply as he put the first tape in.
Instruments of jazz reverberated out from his arm, slightly muffled by crackling speakers. He extended the portion containing the reed from it, and began to play along, the more natural tones merging with the recorded sounds of long-dead musicians like him. He continued on for a while, switching songs and tapes as people ate their dinners watching him, leaving a few tips next to the stool occasionally as they got up or left. After several hours, he halted, stood up, and took a bow. “Thank you.”
“No, thank you.” The chef said, leaning on the counter. “I haven’t heard a man of your skill play in years!”
“Well, I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’ve been playing ever since I was young and...it means a lot to me. The people mean a lot to me too.” He smiled for a brief moment, collecting the tips.
“Hey, take this.” The chef presented a to-go cup. “Irish coffee, on the house, like the rest.”
“Man, you’re a giving guy, you know that?” The musician took the cup in his hands, taking a sip. “Diamond in the rough.”
“I could say the same to you.” The chef grinned. “Well, I gotta close up soon. Have a good night, and feel free to come back anytime.”
“Will do.” The music man glanced outside through the windowpanes, the once warm day now a humid night, with rain drizzling down. He walked towards the door. Slowly rustling through his pouch, he found another tape, labeled “For When We’re Apart”, holding it for a moment with delicate, shaking hands. After putting the tape in his instrument, the music man departed, letting his misty eyes join the misty outdoors as a new tune began to play.