Wednesday, December 24, 2014

“Tenor on the Ninth Branch” by Glen Benison

            I see her today.
She is at the bottom of the City Hall steps looking up, way up, looking in awe at the human Christmas tree. I am certain it is Suzanne. My heart starts beating faster, and I will her to climb the steps.
            The human Christmas tree is created by a mass of people, more than two hundred, dressed in suits of forest green. Everyone is wearing white tuques and white mittens to add the visual effect of snow having settled upon the greenery.
            There must be twenty branches of this tree that spreads wide and climbs up the twenty-three steps that lead towards the entrance of City Hall. The tree sits on a base of two dozen people and grows ever so slightly narrower as it ascends towards the final and twenty-third step.             The man on the top step, at the very tip of the human tree, is dressed in shiny gold. His arms and legs are spread out at forty-five degree angles. He is the star of wonder whose royal beauty bright graces the whole project and whose presence hopefully guides passersby to come from afar bearing a variety of tithes for charity.
            I am at the end of the ninth branch of this human Christmas tree. Although I have been feeling depressingly blue, I am dressed in glittering red. I am the ornament hanging at the extremity of the ninth branch.
            I watch Suzanne and I am in awe of her radiant beauty. Time has been kind to her in the decades since I last her saw at our youth club’s year end dance. And oh what a night that was.
            I will never think more of myself than I did on that dance night so long ago. I branded every young lady but two with a florescent smiley face sticker on the back of their dress. While dancing with a young lady, I’d slowly slip my hand down to rest upon the soft curve of her buttocks. There I had gently applied a sticker.
            That was one glorious night for me; I fed my ego for hours. I was eighteen years old, displaying as much maturity as a six month old Golden Retriever. I felt that I alone owned that dance floor.
            As the music once again slowed, I placed my hand into my left pocket and looked towards Judy. Lovely Judy. She was chatting with a few girl friends as I made my move in her direction. She was to have been my next conquest. But beyond Judy’s shoulder, I saw her ex-boyfriend Nicholas who seemed to be in a debate with his own conscience. His body leaned towards Judy as he tried to work up the gumption to ask her to dance, but his feet seemed to be stuck in neutral.
            I hesitated in my approach towards Judy, for I imagined that at that late hour and that late in the season, her Nicholas’ chance was then or never.
            As Nicholas finally got his act in motion and moved towards Judy, I chose to concede to his desires and backed off. Ha, I guess I did have a heart back then, and it was gutsy of him to try and regain the lover who had cast him away earlier in the summer. I watched as Judy smiled and accepted his offer, and as they began to dance, I started to sing the words to that song: “Whenever you reach for me. I’ll do all that I can.” I sensed the power of love reigniting between them.
 A forceful tapping on my shoulder interrupted my tune.
            I turned to stare into the chest of the six foot-five inch brother of the only other young lady in the room who I had not tagged with a smiley face that night. The big bruiser jerked his thumb over his shoulder indicating that I should ask his sister Suzanne to dance. Now. I knew it was in my best interest to do just that. 
           I walked across the dance hall to where the sister and her flowery dress blended into the wallpaper on the far wall. Suzanne’s eyes lit up when I asked her to dance. I took her hand and led her out to the centre of the floor. As I put my right arm around her waist, my left hand reached into my pocket. I fingered my roll of stickers and but before I could make my move and stick a claim on her, Suzanne sighed and blurted out that she loved me.

            She told me that she had loved me since time began. She told me that my asking her to dance was the most wonderful event of her life. It was the last dance of the night and, as I understand now, most people have expectations when courted on the last waltz.
            But you just don’t tell a man you love him right off the bat like that. At least you don’t tell me that. I released the roll of smiley-face stickers in my pocket. This lady would not become my next conquest. Not if there was love involved.
With the first notes of the last dance, a black light had come on, and the smiley faces stuck on the back sides of all the ladies in the hall, except two, began to glow in testament to my ego. I had held each one of those ladies in my embrace that night. One at a time, just me and them. I’d quietly celebrated each new claim. I was a numbskulled narcissist, a total knob. But I didn’t know it then.
           I had also had this obsession of not being able to stop myself from singing along whenever there was music playing. It was instinctive. I knew all the words to the songs, especially the old moody slow dances. And I could sing, in fact I still can today. I had sung through all my earlier dances and even while dancing with this love sick Suzanne, who I desperately wanted to turn off, I couldn’t shut my mouth.
         Suzanne misinterpreted my actions. She assumed that since I was singing a love song, I was singing specifically to her, that she was being serenaded. Suzanne didn’t understand that when there was music I just had to sing and couldn’t be muted no matter how hard I tried to squeeze shut the vocal chords.
            “I am so in love with you,” Suzanne once again cooed in my ear.
I was unable to reciprocate that emotion in the slightest, but I kept on singing even though I knew the collateral damage it was causing.
While most ladies left that social evening with a smile glowing upon their backs, Suzanne left with a glowing in her heart. That glow glimmered for some time but would never generated a reciprocal response from me. She waited for a phone call that never came and hoped for a knocking upon her door that never occurred.
            Life went on.
            And now I see Suzanne climbing the steps at city hall. She stops to gaze at our human tree of wonder. She listens to our music. We of the human Christmas tree are actually a choir – a poor one I admit – comprised of downtrodden folk of the city. Standing on the ninth branch, I’m as downtrodden and defeated as most. But I can sing better than any of them.
            I am the tenor on the ninth branch.
            The human Christmas tree is a project of the city’s Mayor who brings together the homeless and at-risk folk and offers us a paying job: to sing Christmas carols between noon and one p.m. every weekday throughout December. We also sing from five to seven on Wednesday through Saturday nights.
            Battery operated red lights flicker on and off at the top of our white tuques, adding some glitter to our night-time performances. On Christmas Eve we will compete with the downtown churches, trying to draw away their midnight worshippers. I am out of work, out of luck, and pretty well out of chances to get back on my proverbial feet, but this Christmas time gig makes me feel almost like a regular guy again.
            I watch Suzanne closely. She slowly climbs a few steps, pausing at each branch while absorbing the music. She is getting nearer to my branch. I sing as powerfully as I can. My voice is the one thing I have left. I don’t need to focus on the sheet music. I know these carols by heart and I focus all my energy upon performing just for Suzanne.
            We are not a good choir by any stretch of imagination but the Mayor’s “On Your Feet Again” program is making a difference by using a normally useless contingent of his inner city folk. His is banking on the assumption that even a bunch of crappy singers can’t butcher a Christmas carol too badly, and in any case, at this time of year, the Mayor figures the populace will cut us some slack.
            The Mayor organizes a group of volunteers to feed us free meals as we linger between shows. He lets us hang out at the nearby convention centre, where he has a group of retired business people trying to teach us computer skills and effective job search techniques. This hasn’t done me much good, but I guess you never know.
            I notice Suzanne’s lips moving and I realize that she is singing along with us. We in the choir have reached out and touched another bystander. I strain my ears and swear I can hear her sweet voice weaving through the din of our choir. The spirit of Christmas that exudes from our tree of human retreads is powerful.
            The choir stops as we catch our breath before moving on to the next carol in our repertoire and Suzanne has moved up another step. She is standing by the ninth branch. My knees feel weak. Suzanne and I have not been this close since the night of the club dance when she expressed her love to me.
            I look at Suzanne standing right there just a few feet to my side. She is scanning the faces on the ninth branch. We begin singing about Good King Wenceslas and the Feast of Stephen. I push and project the power of my tenor voice to its limits. I may never have sung with such passion. I may never have been in such need of acceptance.
            Her eyes move towards me, the red ornament, and a smile spreads across her face. She joins in as we hit the stanza where “a poor man comes in sight gathering winter fu-u-el.” I can tell Suzanne does not recognize me. The twenty-some years that have passed have not been kind to me.
            I am sixty-five pounds heavier than I was when I held her in my arms the night of the club dance. My cheek jowls hang down the sides of my face like saddlebags from a mule. My long greasy hair hangs out the back of my toque in a ponytail. My collapsed nostril is a scarring from my close encounter with cocaine.
            I must get Suzanne to realize that it is me. As her eyes once again settle upon me and my distinct voice, I sing my lines directly to her. “Thou shalt find the winter's rage, Freeze thy blood less coldly.” It is as if I am on one knee, begging her to let me, this poor man, back into the warmth of her heart. Her eyes remain fixed on me and they seem to bore deeply into my soul. I reciprocate her gaze.
            She moves up the steps to the tenth branch of the human Christmas tree. I turn my head and watch as she goes but I am still singing directly to her. Then she moves to the eleventh branch. I rotate my torso and continue my serenade. On to the twelve branch and I know I have lost her. No surprise there. Why would she ever want the sad sack of bones that I’ve become?
            Our carol ends and my heart collapses. I turn back and face the City Hall Square at the foot of our Christmas tree.
            We begin our next song. It is the lovely “O Holy Night,” a carol in which my range of voice excels over all the other choir members. It is my time to shine but my spirit has darkened. The song begins and I can only lip-synch the words. My shoulders have slumped. My chin dips and disappears into my meaty jowls.
            And then Suzanne is beside me again. She is so close. I feel sweat surfacing on my forehead.
            She is staring into my eyes. My voice regenerates and I join the choir in their lyrics. Her eyes are locked on mine, as I have again fixed my gaze upon her. Her head nods as if there now just might be some slight recognition. A smile spreads across her face but it is a sad one. She reaches her hand towards me and her bare fingers linger for several seconds as they make contact with my white mittens. I feel her warmth seep through the woollen fabric.
            Suzanne turns away without a word and continues ascending the human Christmas tree. She is gone. She has stuck a crisp twenty dollar bill to my mitten.

Glen Benison has had nonfiction articles published in two Canadian running magazines and in the Ottawa Citizen; he has had seven of his (very) short stories broadcast on CBC Radio. Six years ago, he turned his fancy to fiction when he discovered many ideas taking seed in his mind and then escaping onto his keyboard. He is never certain how a story might unfold and once his fingers start the qwerty dance, a story’s ending is often totally out of his control.

See Brian Henry’s schedule here, including writing workshops and creative writing courses in Barrie, Brampton, Bolton, Burlington, Caledon, Cambridge, Collingwood, Georgetown, Guelph, Hamilton, Kingston, London, Midland, Mississauga, Newmarket, Niagara on the Lake, Oakville, Orillia, Ottawa, Peterborough, St. Catharines, Stouffville, Sudbury, Toronto, Halton, Kitchener-Waterloo, Muskoka, Peel, Simcoe, York, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.

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