As the howling grows closer, I’m cognizant of the three hundred in small bills hidden in my bra, the product of nine hours of slinging drinks to assholes.
It’s the bagpipes – droning, keening, high-pitched. The sound should be annoying, and yet everything in me wants to cry along with them. The lonely woman wail of the instrument shuffles across the green lawn, and I falter, my guard dropping for just a second. That’s all it takes.
He catches me staring, my eyes too curious for three in the morning. I look away, pretending to check for the bus. It’s late, and the club closed an hour ago. As the howling grows closer, I’m cognizant of the three hundred in small bills hidden in my bra, the product of nine hours of slinging drinks to assholes.
It’s cold, the bitter air ripping the lining of my lungs as I breathe out a syncopated cloud through my chattering teeth – despite the temperature, I’m grateful for the coat I’m bundled up in. If he stops, if he’s a criminal, he won’t see my cleavage. The boobs increase my tips when I’m behind the bar, but it’s not something I want to flaunt in front of a guy who might want to mug me . . . or worse. This is a tourist area, so the danger exists. Tara, the relief bartender, was robbed last week by some huge fucker who threatened to stab her. She was lucky; he only took her money.
The bawling breaks off, and the air charges with anticipation. Should I run? Should I stand here and try to act cool? I don’t know, but a voice rattling in my brain tells me it’s stupid to suspect this guy of doing anything other than disturbing the peace. It doesn’t matter that it’s late – or early, depending on how you look at it; it seems unlikely someone playing the bagpipes would be interested in stealing my cash. It’s kind of a bulky instrument . . . How would he run away with any kind of speed or with any kind of anonymity? That time I’d gotten mugged at college, the guy had been going for nondescript, I think, so I couldn’t ID him. It had worked.
This guy, though. I imagine telling the cop, “Oh, yeah, he was tall and played the bagpipes.” They’ll either think I’m kidding or be thankful it won’t be too hard to find the man – I can’t imagine the range of suspects fitting that description is too broad. I’d rather not find out, though.
He clears his throat. “Uh, excuse me, miss.”
Polite. Well, if he is a mugger, his mother taught him good manners. I detect a bit of a South Philly accent, making the second syllable of ‘excuse’ sound more like ‘eyxkyuuze’. Maybe his mom is one of those old women I see at the market, all big, eggplant-colored hair and velour tracksuits.
“Yeah?” I try to sound tough, remembering what my self-defense instructor taught me. I took a few classes after the mugging. No fear. Stand up tall. Loud voice.
“There’s a huge accident a few blocks over – if you’re waiting for the bus, it’ll be a while. Apparently, public transit is running this line up to an hour behind schedule.”
I look at him finally. He’s older. Not old – just older than I am. Maybe mid-thirties, floppy hair dark against his forehead. He’s not unattractive, but that makes me even more uncomfortable.
“Oh.” I can’t think of anything else to say because now I’m worried about getting to my dog before he pees all over the house. I should call a cab, but I don’t want to spend the money – plus, I’d rather take my chances with the muggers. A lot of late night taxi drivers are creepy.
“I can wait with you if you like,” he suggests, his voice cautious. “I’m waiting for the bus, too.”
I wonder if he lives along my bus route or the other one that picks up here. It’s tempting to ask, but being careful works both ways – he’s bigger than me, stronger, but I could just as easily pose a risk. He doesn’t know; I could have a gun under my coat. I could be a hooker, and my pimp could linger around the corner.
“Okay. Thanks.” I attempt a smile, which likely comes out more like a grimace.
“I’m Ethan.” His hand hovers in front of me; he’s not wearing gloves. It’s probably hard to play the bagpipes with something on his hands. I’m not wearing gloves either, but my fists have been shoved deep in the pockets of my coat. My fingers feel like ice.
“Brooke.” Despite being bare, his hand isn’t that cold. His leathery, calloused palms tickle my skin.
“Walking is better than standing still. Keeps you warmer.”
“Yeah, I heard you playing.”
His chuckle floats vapor around us. “Yeah, you really can’t help it – the bagpipes are loud.”
“How long have you been playing?”
Ethan nods pointedly down the sidewalk, and I shove my hands in my coat again, following his lead. We cross the street, and a quiet wheeze staggers from his bagpipes, as if his coat has emphysema.
“My grandfather taught me to play when I was a kid. I do weddings now and stuff like that.”
“Is that what you were doing tonight?” I’m being very nosy, but the frigid air seems to have frozen my verbal filter. I try to get a grip so I don’t accidentally ask him something really embarrassing or say anything too revealing.
“Uh huh. I was over at one of the clubs around the corner. I don’t know why they wanted me to stick around for the whole thing – I only played when the bride walked down the aisle. But hey, I got paid for the night.”
He stops in back of the Liberty Bell pavilion and peers through the glass. I can just make out the security guard glancing at us as he makes his rounds. The overhead light shines down on the bell and the building is completely empty inside. I’ve never been to see the Liberty Bell – not the new building, and not the old one. I’ve lived here for twenty years. Apparently it’s not that uncommon; of all my friends, only one has paid the money and waited in line. He told me he only did it because his parents came to visit.
“Did you know the bell has cracked three times?”
He nods. “Yep. The last time it was repaired was 1846.”
I stare at the bell, wondering whose job it is to shine it. It’s got to beat tending bar or playing the bagpipe at weddings, but I don’t say anything because I don’t want to be rude. Instead, I say, “They didn’t have to fix it after that guy attacked it with a sledge hammer a few years ago?”
“Now that I think about it, I do remember something about the damage being fixed after that. I meant the crack in it, though. That sledgehammer thing was pretty screwed up.”
“Nothing very exciting ever happens in Philly.” I don’t want him to think I’m complaining; the fact that this place doesn’t really seem to attract nut jobs or terrorists is a relief. “Of course, I’ll take it.”
“Nothing exciting, huh? That’s not true at all. What about last year when that guy puked on a little girl at the Phillies game?” He grins and heaves his bagpipes higher over his shoulder, another wheeze pushing out into the air. I wonder why he doesn’t have a case for the gizmo – surely wandering around in the middle of the night with bagpipes draws attention.
“Yeah, I suppose. We certainly have our fair share of sports-related hijinx.”
“Do you work around here?” He changes the subject abruptly, as if daring to talk smack about the sports teams will somehow curse them. Again.
“Yeah, the bar two corners down. I bartend.”
“So, you’re in this area all the time?”
“I guess so.”
“That’s cool. I really like it around here, and there’s something about being here late at night.”
We walk around the building, following the path cut into the frozen ground.
“Do you like bartending?”
The wind picks up a bit, and my teeth ache from the cold, so I speak from between clenched lips. “It’s okay. Good money.”
Ethan nods. “You know, there’s a ghost that’s supposed to haunt this area,” he says, completely out of the blue.
“There have been some alleged sightings of a man in a frock coat and a triangle hat, rushing up and down the lawn.”
“Sure it wasn’t one of the reenactors?” I grin. Ben Franklin loitered on the corner earlier today on my way to work. I saw another reenactor too; he was hiding in an alcove on his cell phone and smoking a joint. The combination of historical outfit and modern technology cracked me up . . . not that pot is anything new.
His laugh floats over the grass, echoing off the buildings. It’s so quiet, and not even the noise from the dormant bagpipe can disturb it. One of the things I love about the city is how silent everything gets at this time of night. I wish I wasn’t so afraid of what could happen; I want to spend more time alone outside, soaking up the peacefulness. A bus runs up the street, but even the roar of the engine seems muted. Ethan is clearly into history, but I’m more interested in the feel of the city – it’s familiar and comforting with just an edge of insecurity. I feel strangely safe here, even when I’m looking out for muggers.
“Maybe it was. I do like the idea of it, though. We have a real history, and it permeates everything about this city.” He touches my shoulder. I take a step back. This is too intimate all of a sudden, and his words suffocate me. He’s a stranger, and he’s telling me this, invading my personal space, and it feels wrong. The money in my bra crinkles against my skin, heavy and conspicuous, as though I have a sign on my forehead that blinks “I have cash!”As I look for the guard – just in case –the bus finally rolls down the street. With relief that’s probably a little too obvious, I shout, “Oh, it’s there’s my ride!” I race toward the bus stop, shouting, “Nice to meet you!” and hoping he doesn’t follow.The bus pulls to stop right in front of me, and I clamor aboard, hastily swiping my transit card and heading toward the back. It pulls away; I don’t look out the window. Even through the glass of the window, I can hear the mournful sound of bagpipes.