You climb the metal fire escape on this frigid, Chicago night, a little uneasy. The steps sway and clang under your feet while layers of paint and rusted metal disintegrate under your hand. You are halfway up when you make the mistake of looking down to check your progress. A pause as you close your eyes, grip the railing with both hands and whisper, “Oh please oh please oh please…” A deep breath, and you continue on.
You reach the door and sniff back some rogue snot before turning the handle. You step in to find the inside just as dark and cold as the outside. Darker. Except for a soft spotlight trained on a man and a baby grand piano. The bear of a man is dressed all in black, and his hands play across the ivories more delicately than you’d have expected. He watches you, grinning. His face is pleasant enough, but something about the grin is slightly unsettling, as if it will spread into a giant Mr. Sardonicus rictus at any moment.
“Watch your step,” the man warns casually, just before you feel age-old wooden slats begin to give way under your foot.
You cautiously navigate your way across the room to the piano, thinking, however illogically, that if you can just grip this huge, heavy piece of furniture in the middle of the rotting floor, you’ll be safe. The man continues to grin as you listen to him play. He begins to sing. A full, sonorous voice that seems to come up from another time. It makes you think of thin, foreign men with severely pomaded hair and angular women with Louise Brooks haircuts. The man plays a beautiful song, and you begin to relax under the lilting melody. Until your mind begins to process the words…
When I come back to life, I’ll find you,
Push my thumbs into your eyes and blind you.
When you hear your name called out across a crowded street,
you’ll think of me and swear the ground was stolen from your feet.
He punctuates the verse with a high, ghostly, wordless howl-hum.
Your shoulders freeze. You glance back across the room and wonder how quickly you could make it back out the door and down the fire escape. You turn back as the man stands, still grinning, and motions you to follow him. You don’t know why you follow, but you go. Out a window you climb, onto a snowy stone balcony overlooking the city. Chicago is laid out for you in a jeweled grid, the snow making everything pristine. Clean. Wonderful. You try to remain on your guard, but the site dazzles you and your eyes widen and sweep the landscape like an excited child’s.
Beside you, the man begins to chuckle. Maybe he’s not so bad, you think. He’s shown you something beautiful you might never have seen had you let fear turn you back down that fire escape.
Then you feel a strong tug on the back of your jacket. As the snow-laden streets fly up to meet you, the man’s booming laughter echoing behind you, you realize he really was as bad as you thought.
Daniel Knox’s album Evryman For Himself, the second in a trilogy, releases May 10, 2011. The first album of the trilogy, Disaster, is available to stream, download and order on CD on Bandcamp. And, if you’re brave enough, he’s on tour.
photos: John Atwood