Swing for the Heart

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The machine offered little comfort. On the other hand, it was evident it wouldn’t fall apart. No two sounds it emitted sounded the same, but still the engine created an impression of its indestructibility. It was possible something could fall off on the way. Still, David had the feeling that even if the bus lost its transmission en-route, it would immediately grow a new one. It was only on that Tuesday night, on their way from the Blue Brook Bay bar, that David found out who drove that yellow bus. It belonged to one of those bar guests who, in the last moment, demanded the band’s attention.

The end of March two thousand and one. That day almost looked like springtime, but one shouldn’t bet on that here. Winter still had another few weeks at least.

Each of them was seated in one of the bus benches, swaying from side to side according to the rhythm of the bus. It was their last jazz evening in Blue Brook Bay, and they had a ride. The driver watched them in the long rear-view mirror and didn’t talk much. In fact he’d already told them the important part.

“You still haven’t told us if we’ll need to pay anything for it,” asked Kaz.

“Pay for what?” They saw his face in the mirror.

“I mean for the exams. For the whole course.”

“No. It’s free. Well, not free, but the expenses are paid by the employer. They don’t have enough people. Only you don’t get paid while you’re taking the course. That’s all.”

“That means for how long?” inquired Sven.

“Two weeks. Two weeks full-time. Eight hours each day, then the exams. Written test and a test-drive. Two, actually. One with an employer’s instructor and then an official one. And two written tests as well.”

“And what if they don’t take us?”

“I’ll tell them that we know each other. That works. It’s quite late now. I’ll drop you off just in the city. Be there tomorrow at seven.”

That was not a bad offer. Drive a school bus! He would have a bit more money than in the warehouse and it would speed up their down-payment for the house. Work two hours in the morning and then three in the afternoon and besides, David always enjoyed driving. He would have enough time and money to study for his Cardiological Technician certification. That might finally make a difference – a step forward. David came to realize that his medical residency plans were not likely to pan out. He was constantly applying, but still only rejection after rejection. They must have them pre-printed, he thought. Personal contacts, that’s what works. This way he would be back in the city, where he’d be able to find additional musicians, too. He could either make up an orchestra with Sven and Kaz, or fulfill his life-long dream. He always fantasized about a saxophone quintet. Or a sextet. He would find other players, during the day he’d drive the school bus and in the evening he’d play. In a nice suit and under the lights. One tenor, two baritone saxes – maybe more – but definitely an alto saxophone. Then just percussion. After he finishes his school, he will be able to work as an emergency technician of EKG, and if residency comes after all, all the better. The best is yet to come.

Everything played into his hand, David knew that he was friends with Lady Fortune. He had a secret pact with her. In the warehouse, the next day David was supposed to have an afternoon shift; he would be able to get some sleep in his good old shed for shredded paper.

David asked to be dropped off close to the warehouse. On his walk back he bought a hot soup and when he finished it in his shelter, he folded his arms behind his head and let his thoughts wander for a while. He could let the bar go, actually. Nothing wrong with that. He no longer felt sad about losing the gig. David was already looking forward to tomorrow. McKnight can keep his bar; Kaz, Sven or he don’t need to beg him. Really they don’t. Tomorrow he’ll go to the school bus dispach, then he’ll get through the two unpaid weeks and after that he’ll have a stable job. Income. In the warehouse he’ll take time off for the two weeks, even if he’ll have to miss pay for that time.

Who would’ve thought. At first he figured the guy who stood up from the table was going to beat them up. And the one next to him was restraining him. Not at all. He wanted to offer them a job! David had to laugh, when he imagined they would jump on him and rough him up. But really, violence wasn’t part of David’s repertoire. He was a musician. A musician fights only in self-defense. He had to smile, but didn’t want to think much about that night at the ambulance yard. For music, one needs his heart. To be able to play sincerely and convey his sentiment, one needs the heart. No artist, painter, sculptor, nobody who truly creates something original, is capable of beating up others. There are those with a heart and those with fists.

David felt comfortably warm. In the shed he’d installed his propane heater; it was supposed to cool down in the morning so he’d leave in on at full capacity. A fire safety officer surely would have a fit. Oh well. After the long day and the bumpy bus ride he fell into a deep sleep quickly.

David awoke with a jerk. What? How could he have slept so much? What time is it? Six ten. That’s not so bad. He’ll make it. He threw on the clothes he’d had in his shed since yesterday. The black pants, shirt, sweater – the one that looks the most presentable – but he won’t show the sleeves from the back. He would have to shave without water, at least a little bit, grab a jacket and he was ready to go. Turn off his space heater and stash it away carefully.

How long should it take? First take the train and then the bus, about twenty-five minutes. His morning hygiene routine wasn’t perfect, he didn’t have breakfast and was hungry, but that didn’t matter; he can get something later. Or in the afternoon.

David pushed out the rear wall of his shed and felt the cutting sharpness of the cold outside. What was the temperature? Minus twenty? Minus twenty-five? At least. David didn’t have gloves or a hat. One can call that ‘cold’ when he can feel his eyes freezing in his sockets. David pulled up his collar, put his hands in his pockets and with a firmness in his step he set out towards the transit station. Again, those paper-thin shoes. David’s eyes were tearing up but the tears were freezing on his eyelids. His toes hurt in his shoes from the cold, as though being covered with molten iron. Light formal shoes that he used for his playing gigs.

How come nobody’s at the train station? Now he remembered! The strike. A transit strike.

David began running towards the bus station. But that didn’t make sense either. David knew that if he runs across the slope he’ll reach the main road, then he can run along the highway, take a shortcut near a warehouse storing railway metals and run through the street towards the bus dispatch. He’s got twenty-five minutes.

David began running in his dancing shoes, crossed the road outside of the cross-walk, jogging all the way towards the hill, navigating the snowy and frozen slope. He was slipping, falling, then got up, and ran further and further; he can’t miss this job opportunity. He felt sweat trickling down his back, the hot magma of the frigid air gushing into his lungs. Now along the highway – the solo runner David Říha. He has to persevere; he can rest later, now he has to continue running. Streams of cars, small pick-up trucks and huge noisy trailers passed him; he kept running, further, small figure next to the highway. Now between the warehouses, with legs heavy as concrete, icy, hurting, millions of needles stabbing his lungs, sweat on the back and forehead feeling like an iceberg. David kept running, he couldn’t anymore, but it was still before seven. Three minutes to seven. He will make it, he will be on time. Around the corner past the warehouse and between the fences, David is running, doesn’t see in front of him, eyes covered with frozen tears, each breath a slash with a spike. One minute to seven, in front of him he sees the small yellow building of the bus dispatch, he’ll finish, he’ll get there. Cross the road, a few more meters around the, “…noooo!” David screamed in pain. His left ankle slid off the curb and with his full weight David sprained it. He fell to the ground and for a moment thought he would pass out or throw up from the pain. With difficulty he stood up and his leg failed him. He sank but wanted to make it across that last stretch. Two more steps and he broke through the door.

David’s vision went dark, he wanted to take a breath, but his breathing tube closed up instead of letting in air. David felt flames in his chest, his ankle was pulsing painfully. He fell into the chair and with the corner of his eye caught a glimpse of a woman leaning above him.

It was quiet. Wonderful and liberating silence lasting for hours, ages, beautifully endless silence.

“Can you talk? What’s your name? Do you know where you are? What day is it?” Slowly, David opened his eyes. Above him stood a young man wearing a paramedics’ uniform and next to him a young girl also wearing that uniform. She was taking his blood pressure. David wasn’t able to take in all the details. Everything felt as though outside of him. They were saying something to him and he was probably responding. The girl placed a soft mask over his nose and mouth and David felt refreshed. Only now did he notice the white reflective strips on the man’s sleeves and pants. He was aware that he was seated on a chair and that he was surrounded by the two people in black and the lady, and also another person talking to him in a fast and convoluted tone. He knows him, that’s the one, he knows, yes, he knows him, but now can’t remember the name. Piano. Yes, that’s Kaz. So they’ll play?

“We have to take you to the hospital. You’ll come with us in an ambulance. Can you get up?”

“No, no, that’s impossible….” David mumbled into his mask and felt enough strength to be able to pull it off. Everyone felt silent.

“…ankle…I can’t. I can’t afford an ambulance right now. I’m feeling quite fine already.”

“You should go to the hospital. But we can’t force you, it’s your right. Do you want to think about it?”

“There’s nothing to think about,” said David softly.

“In that case I have to ask you to sign here, please. Read it. I better read it to you.”

By now David remembered that he was sitting in the bus dispatch and was there to look for a job. What time was it? There was a clock on the wall. Seven twenty-five. So he was late. He didn’t make it? He’ll try to talk to them. He should probably clean up a bit. He lifted his right arm, left arm, his jacket survived it.

The paramedic finished reading the release form, at the bottom he marked an ‘x’ indicating a signature and passed the paper to David. With a heavy hand David grabbed the pen and slowly wrote his name. The girl carefully removed the oxygen mask and soon the white ambulance cube drove off.

David felt exhausted to death, he tried to draw air into his lungs, which was whistling like a blizzard both in and out. Still he felt embarrassed. This is not how one applies for work. How could he have slept in! And then the strike. When did he actually arrive? He was trying to straighten up and clean up a bit and was apologizing profusely.

“You care a lot about this job, don’t you?” David smiled and nodded. The man who spoke approached him, shook his hand and introduced himself.”

“And I’m David Říha….”

“…I know. I knew you were coming. But I didn’t know you were flying in. That’s because of the strike, right? You see, school buses wouldn’t dare doing that.” David understood that the man from the bar kept his word.

“Are Kazimierz Blowiecki and Sven Olsen also here?”

“The first one is, the other one not. So look. We’ll get started right away. I’ll take your personal documents, we’ll fill out some paperwork, then we’ll complete some lab tests for drug use and so on. That’s just the beginning.”

“So I’m hired?” cheered up David and began coughing immediately.

“For now only into the two-week training program. Then there’ll be exams and then we’ll see if we can hire you. In the worst-case scenario you’ll wear a yellow rain-coat that says you’re a ‘school carrier’ and you’ll run kids to school.” David started laughing, but his laugher quickly grew into a heavy, sharp and gurgling cough.

“Are you alright?”

David was sitting curled up in his chair and only lifted his thumb to indicate that he’s OK.

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