Might Have Happened

If she had stopped, earlier, instead of listening to the drum of her feet and the hiss of her breath, then things might have been different. Tina would have stopped to talk to the old woman for more than half a moment, would have sat beside her on the sidewalk and kept talking. The old woman’s lined face might have lit up then, settling into a well-worn but forgotten smile.

Tina would have asked her what she was doing, why she ended up there, what she wanted with her life before anything had happened to it. The old woman would have introduced herself as Rebecca, and shaken her hand. Then the old woman talked, for a long time it seemed, letting the pent-up shut-tight held-in words all pour out in a bewildered rush. Tina liked to listen, and listening to this one woman would have been the same. She sat and nodded, her eyes intent, her ears drinking in the rusty voice.

The old woman’s story was a long and convoluted one. Rebecca told Tina about the husband who’d left her, the sister who took a plane and never came back, the child who ran away at fourteen and never came back. It would have been very sad, and Rebecca might have said, “Everybody leaves in my life. I never see anyone again, and I don’t even know if my baby is dead or alive.” Her voice was quavering. Tina hugged her impetuously, hiding her tears in Rebecca’s shoulder.

When Tina finally got up to go, she creaked to standing and held the side of the building. She teetered there on the sidewalk for a moment, and then she pulled up Rebecca with her. It took some coaxing, but she got Rebecca walking and into the nearest café, where she bought the older woman a sandwich and fiddled with her phone for a moment. She felt guilty about using an expensive electronic in front of Rebecca, but she kept her head bent low, only peeping up to ask Rebecca’s last name.

After lunch, she copied down a few numbers and gave the scribbled napkin to the old woman, and explained, “I got you a room at this motel, and here’s your confirmation number. You can stay there as long as you need until you get back on your feet.” Rebecca, her eyes welling, would hug Tina and hold her close, and they would part with kisses on the cheek and promises to stay in touch.

Tina didn’t know what would have happened after that, eventually. Perhaps Rebecca would have left the motel and refused to keep taking her help. Perhaps she would have gotten a job and a home of her own. That was where the story always seemed to get murky, in the aftermath once other people’s actions could go in any direction.

The train was groaning to a stop, and Tina stepped out. She shook her head, flinging the daydreams away. The old woman on the sidewalk had given her a piercing blue look as she’d walked by, and she’d stooped to drop a dollar into the paper cup. Time to let her thoughts wander on something else now.

Street Musician

Leo looked and saw himself.

A woman was walking down the street, her handbag swinging and her phone buzzing. She was digging into that cavern of notes and Kleenex and old pens, trying to search out the vibration before it stopped. It might be work, and that was important. Worse, it might be her husband, poor man. If she didn’t answer him, he’d definitely be angry. The buzzing was harder to hear over the warbling of a trumpet, wailing up to high notes and swooping down again. It was pretty music, probably, but it was distracting. She had too many things to do today, and her phone was vibrating somewhere in her bag, and trying to find it she’d walk into somebody. The sidewalk was busy at lunch hour, but she stopped dead anyway. Let everybody else shove around her, she was scrabbling for her phone, for a call that might mean more work – either way, more work at the office or more work at home. She had too many things to do and somehow was trying to add to that list. She must be crazy. This was just ridiculous. She’d stopped right in front of the trumpet without noticing. The song was shiny and bright, and when she glanced over she saw the musician looking right at her. He was a young man, in shambling clothes and big brown eyes, and he looked at her imploringly. The last thing she could find now was spare change, couldn’t he see that? She shook her head once, brisk and irritated, and finally her fingers closed around the phone. She snatched it out of her bag and dove into the bustle of the sidewalk again, starting to say hello and to apologize. She was gone in the crowd in seconds, without a glance back.

A man bumped into that woman on her phone, and muttered a “sorry” that she didn’t even hear. He was just strolling, hands in his pockets, looking around him. The city was lively in the middle of the day, and he had another twenty minutes before he had to get back to work. People were interesting, he thought, especially when they didn’t know anyone was noticing. Most of the time they were right, and nobody did notice, but he liked to catch those moments. There was a young woman rushing past with her fingers moving rapid-fire over a touch screen. Her lips were moving as she stared and scurried. A woman going in the opposite direction was striding along with her eyes fixed, as if she were about to get somewhere. There was a strand of hair curling down from the bun coiled on her head. A man was leaning against the side of a building, playing a trumpet. There was a smudged sign at his feet – “please help” or something like that – and the trumpet was letting out actually quite a pretty sound. An old man was dragging himself along with his cane, and he stared up through draped skin at everyone who passed. Everyone was busy, it seemed. It was lucky, the man thought, that he had so much time just to walk around and notice.

A boy was pushing through the grown-ups, coats whipping and legs shuffling past him. His father was somewhere, not too far ahead of him, and he’d be really mad when he realized he was walking all alone. It had only been a second, seriously. He just had paused for a second to look at the guy playing a trumpet, before he realized it was some homeless person and Mom had said not to talk to them. He wasn’t going to talk, anyway. The tune was nice, was all. Maybe he recognized it. It was hard to tell. There are always those songs you just can’t remember, the ones you hear and you know you know it but it’s something, maybe, from that TV show. You can never figure it out and then it bugs you all day. His dad was wearing the blue coat, he thought. It was ahead, he could see it, and he squeezed through a couple people and saw him for sure. That was definitely him, and he wasn’t even walking anymore. He was standing, waiting, and he was going to be so mad.

Leo wondered, when he played, what people saw when they looked at him. He imagined, to pass the time. He wondered if anyone else tried to look at themselves and got distracted by looking instead at all the people in the way.