Six Across13 February 2018
You heard the music before you ever saw it, although I suppose that’s regular.
I hauled my shopping bag up higher so the cans would dig into me. My briefcase balanced me out just nice.
The air was set to crack with snow. Cold licked the edges of my ears. People scurried between skyscrapers, families and things. I scurried too, in a slow sort of way, to catch my bus home.
The music was a jangly sort. Drums smashing. Guitar notes tripping over each other to be first.
I got closer and closer, until I finally came upon the band playing. They were set up on a wide street corner. People milled about throwing coins. Others stood by, never too close. An old-seeming guy bashed about on the drums. Little grey frazzles of hair wilted with sweat around his forehead.
I stopped by an overflowing trashcan and watched them a bit. The amplifier shuddered the concrete under my feet, in a way that was rather nice, completely separate from the music itself.
After a while they quit, and people clapped. I did too, but with my gloves it didn’t make any real sound.
The players leaned in to talk to each other, then the drummer nodded as he grabbed the microphone.
“Listen up, erryone.” The drummer’s voice sort of buzzed inside my skin. “Louis, he’s on guitar, he’s going on break, as he’s a lazy so-and-so.”
Louis, still sorting through his things, tilted his head at the drummer who guffawed through his moustache and went on: “So as long as he’s gone, Johnny and me are doing the crossword. Anyone be welcome to help us out, alright folks?”
I sort of thought about what to do, I guess. There was really no reason to stay – I could just as easily do the crossword in my own paper on the bus home. I stayed, though I didn’t know why.
The drummer fished out a crisp, vertical-folded paper from his coat. He shrugged his scarf up and shivered the paper around a bit.
“Righty-oh,” he said. “First clue, folks. Four down: taxi charge.”
For about a three-block radius, I thought about people hearing a man do a crossword as they went about their lives. It felt funny to think about kids and couples pointing into lit-up shop windows. People trying to sing outside a church. All listening to a man talking about taxi charges, just as I did.
“Fare!” someone shouted from somewhere. People still bustled past on the sidewalk. Cars still drove past, chucking their lights up onto us then off again.
“Hey hey!” the drummer said. “Now, is that spelled F-A-I-R- or –R-E?”
“R-E!” a young man wrapped up in three scarves next to me called, his voice sounding distant. “I never heard of any taxi charge that was fair.”
“Not wrong, not wrong.” The drummer hunched over and, pinching a stubby pencil right near its point, scratched it in.
“Marvellous. Round two, huh? Five down: children, bring up – children in brackets. You there, honey–“
He thrust the microphone at a pretty young woman, plump and smiley in a long tartan skirt. I myself was thinking maybe it was raise.
“- bring up children, what do you say?”
“Difficult!” she said into the mic, then smiled sheepishly. “I imagine, I haven’t any.” She fussed her hand through her hair, stepped away from the microphone.
“That’s for sure. You there, pass this to that lady over there, she knows,” he said, pointing to a middle-aged woman. She was decorated all with shopping bags and had a jacket like an insect’s exoskeleton, sectioned and shiny. People fumbled the microphone to one another until she leant to receive it, like communion. “You raise them, don’t you?” she said earnestly, peering at the drummer.
“Oh, raise, five letters, reckon you’re right there honey.” His voice resonated almost just the same without the microphone.
Johnny, perched near the drummer’s shoulder, smoked, creating the effect of a tiny fire floating and curling in on itself. The dirty heat of cigarette smoke drifted through the frozen air. He murmured something to the drummer.
“Yer, we’re getting some real easy ones to start off,” the drummer said.
The young fellow with all the scarves turned on his heel towards me. “This is how the commies do crosswords,” he grinned. I laughed but not in a loud way. For a moment I couldn’t be sure if he was talking to me. I checked over my shoulder, and there was nobody.
“Yes,” I replied. “It must be.”
The drummer continued.
“An impossible emotion. Nine letters. Let’s think, folks.”
I started counting the letters in surprised, because I supposed if you saw something impossible, that’s how you’d feel.
“Wait a hot second, everyone, I think maybe I have this one.” The drummer smiled with crooked teeth. “Overjoyed,” he said. “You can’t be too happy, it’s impossible. It’s a silly word to exist, really. Anyone gonna overrule me on this one? Johnny? Of course not. OK then – next one. It’s four letters, and it’s the gateway drug, and it ends in e from fare.”
“Oh my God,” said the young scarf guy, laughing.
The drummer looked up sharply. “Hush, man,” he said, pulling the microphone tight against his chin disapprovingly. “Don’t bother the Lord with this crossword shit. He’s busy.”
My friend grinned. “Yessir.”
People were having trouble with this one. Some people close by muttered about dope but nobody wanted to say it too loud.
“There’s a woman here who knows,” said some teenager. The drummer frowned and peered over, then grabbed the mic and stood. He hitched his trousers up and lumbered across the sidewalk, to the side of the electronics building. Through a gap I glimpsed an old beggar woman, lying against the shadows at the wall, with a blanket wrapped around her head. Everyone turned to look at her and blocked my view. A man grimaced and looked away again.
“What say you, ma’am?” the drummer asked.
Her voice sounded like opening an ancient window.
“It’s love,” she said. “Of course it’s love.”
There was a silence, I wasn’t overly sure if the drummer was doing something, but then eventually he said, “Thank you ma’am, that’ll do us nicely.”
He came back to his seat. We also got through “an untrustworthy friend” which was a fox, and “the colour of the promise not to forget” which was blue, as in the flower.
“We’re doing well.” The drummer rustled the paper. “Now, six across – the meaning of it all,” he said. “What is the meaning of it all?”
What a funny question, especially for a crossword. Too big somehow.
Someone shouted something, just as a car whirred past. Damn it, what had they said?
The drummer was nodding solemnly. “Yer, that fits, that works well.”
I frowned and looked at the scarf fellow but he didn’t seem at all confused.
I shook my head. I must’ve misheard the question, nobody could answer such a thing that easily. More worryingly I might’ve missed the real answer, maybe they had said something real intelligent and useful.
As the drummer scribbled it in, a man shuffled past me and went up to the band. He planted a long leg around the drum-edges and grubby gold cymbals.
“Well, look what the cat dragged in,” said the drummer, lowering the paper. “We’ve got our lazy guitarist back!”
“Hey now,” I saw Louis’ mouth say, laughing. He hefted up his guitar while the drummer folded the paper up.
“That’s all on our crossword section,” he said. A cold fog gathered around the microphone. “We did pretty good I’d say. I think you’re all very special folks, helping old men sort their crosswords. Righty-oh, back to our jobs.” He shook drumsticks out of his sleeve.
I wondered if there really was anything special about us at all, or whether we just, by random chance, happened to be the people who weren’t quite so busy as the other people.
They started playing again. The shopping-bag lady left, and the young man went to talk to the girl in the tartan skirt. I meant to give him a nod before he left but didn’t get the chance.
I stayed until the music finished. They demanded a bigger applause and more coins. I waited until others had gotten out of the way and crept up and placed down what I had from my overcoat pocket. The players were all chatting away and packing up, reaching for things to put into their van without looking where they put their hand. I thought I could ask about that one crossword clue, but instead I leant against the electronics shop wall. The old lady was gone.
Louis and Johnny got their things together, then they waved goodbye as the van coughed on and away.
I watched as the drummer clutched his coat closer, ducked his head and started trudging along, alone and far smaller without his drum kit.