I don’t have that look. Some people do, but I’m not so lucky. I don’t look like my profession. I’m a busker. Don’t laugh, it’s a living. Problem is, when you shut your eyes and picture a busker in your mind, be they small or tall, slight or portly, I will never fit the bill. I have the unfortunate appearance of someone whose job title is preceded by the word man. Milkman. Mailman. Garbageman. Just not a streetmusicman.
You may be asking why this is important. Fair enough question. When you’re panhandling for money—come on, let’s face facts, street performing is begging with a musical accompaniment—having the look of a starving artist plays as much a part in getting people to part with their hard-earned cash as talent.
“Oh, look at the poor wretch having to sing for his supper, let’s toss him a pittance, shall we, dear?”
Some of the others have nailed the look down from the hair that refuses to be tamed to the ragged clothes just over the borderline from being hip and trendy. Me? I look like a well-fed blue-collar worker trying out a new hobby. That’s why I have to work twice as hard to earn half as much as my compadres. My audiences tend to be tight-fisted, self-absorbed philistines that expect blood for the bits of copper they toss my way.
Oh, I should probably mention that I busk for the dead.
Not the kind of job you rush out and apply for. Me? I kinda just fell into it. Turns out a friend of a friend knew a guy who used to work for the cousin of a woman who lived next door to a guy who was complaining that his employee just up and quit on him. Seems he couldn’t handle the stress of performing in Perdition, which I can plainly understand now.
What? No, I’m very much alive, thanks for asking. My work ID acts as a sort of day pass and allows me to mull about in Hell without experiencing any of the torment and damnation. Kinda cool, but it takes some getting used to.
Although it’s a paying gig, it ain’t enough to cover rent and bills—minimum wage in Hell is murder, no pun intended, so I rely heavily on the gratuity chucked into my hat. And yes, the dead have real money. Don’t ask me how that works. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the day pass into Hell thing.
My spot is the corner of Abaddon and Wretchedness, and while a part of the overall design of Hell, it’s technically Limbo, the waiting area where souls are processed and dispatched according to assessment. And as time moves differently in Hell, the wait can be an extensive one, so you figure folks would jump at the chance to experience anything that takes their minds off the situation at hand. That is so not the case. When facing damnation, the furthest thing from their minds is to listen to anyone sing. This is made evident from the contents of my hat. Today’s take so far consists of three dollars and eighteen cents in coins, a stick of chewing gum, a balled-up snotty tissue, and a punch card from some boutique java spot with one punch away from receiving a free coffee. The coins stay in the hat, the gum in my mouth, the tissue—ick—in the trash, and the punch card in my pocket. I’m not one to go in for designer coffee but like The Police sang, “When the world is running down, you make the best of what’s still around.”
“Not what I expected,” a voice says from behind, nearly startling me out of my skin.
I turn to see a woman in her sixties, seventies, maybe—I’ve never been good at guestimating people’s ages—all done up as if for a night on the town. “You’re not the first person to say that.”
“And is it just me or is it chilly here?”
She was right, you’d figure being so close to Hell there’d be some sort of radiant heat, but there was a constant wind that blew shivers down the spine. “Not just you.”
“You’re not half bad, you know.” the woman said, looking into the hat. “You deserve more than that.”
I look up and down the avenue, We’re the only two people on the street at the moment. “It’s like they say, it all comes down to location, location, location.”
The woman opens her purse, a small clutch bag that’s a throwback to a classier time, and produces a two-dollar bill. “I’m afraid I’m not in the habit of carrying cash, so this is all I have.”
“It’s the biggest tip I’ve received in a long while.” I smile as she places the bill into the hat.
“Not that I’ll have much need for it anymore.”
“Not unless you were crossing the river Styx.”
“You mean the ferryman doesn’t accept the card?” the woman pulls out an obsidian credit card. “I was told never to leave home without it.”
It’s an outdated reference, but we both chuckle at it.
“If you’ll pardon the intrusion,” the woman asks. “How did it happen?”
“How did what happen?”
“How did you die? Peacefully, I hope.”
“Oh, no. I’m not dead, I just work here.” I show the woman my day pass.
“How interesting.” and she appears to actually find it interesting but her expression drops.
“What’s the matter?”
“It would be my luck that the first conversation I strike up in the afterlife would be with a living person. I was sort of hoping to find a travel companion for what lies ahead. I’ve always dreaded doing things by myself.”
“I’m not sure that’s how it works here. I think isolation is part of the torment process.” I realize what I’m saying just a smidgen too late to pull it back.
“Torment. I hadn’t considered that.”
“Not your fault. You’re not responsible for my sins.”
“I know I’ve just met you but it’s hard to believe you’d have anything to worry about.”
“Kind of you to say, but we’re all sinners in one fashion or another. I just wish there was a way for me to plead my case. I believe my sins were righteous.”
“You can always try.”
“No, no. I’ve never been good at that sort of thing.”
“Maybe if you practiced, rehearsed what you want to say? You can try it out on me and I’ll give you my honest feedback.”
“No, I couldn’t.”
“What have you got to lose? If you botch it up, you’re still being condemned anyway, at least this way you’ll have had your say.”
“Like my final words?”
She contemplates it long and hard. “All right then, if it wouldn’t be a bother.”
I gesture up and down the block. “Not like I’m doing anything else. Ready?”
“No, but go on.”
I straighten my posture and assume an authoritative voice. “You stand here accused of the sin of…”
“Murder,” she adds, sheepishly.
“Murder,” I repeat, stunned. “What say you in your defense?”
“I don’t deserve to be here. I was sent to the wrong place. I did what needed to be done, what no one else had the courage to do and now I’m being punished for my actions.”
“And whose life did you take?”
“Others would have died if I didn’t.”
Not The End…