By Rich Russell
Martin Vanderbard stumbled out of The Spotty Dog on to Warren Street. Steadying himself a moment on a parking meter, he tuned his vision on an antique storefront across the street. “How long was I inside?” he wondered. A coven of bearded men sat smoking outside Swallow coffee. Martin, anticipating the refrain, made his way to the church.
He had been in town only a few days. (Or had it been a week already?) “Martin!” –– someone cried. Who would know him here? It was one of the beards. He kept walking, pretending not to hear, hoping the man would not repeat his solicitation. “Martin Vanderbard!” He looked across at them –– and waved; a general wave, one which acknowledged but did not encourage –– and continued on his sojourn to the church.
He had come out from the city to this sleepy town. But the city, it seemed, had been following, encroaching on this place more and more (pitiless) –– but not fast enough. He had come out from the city on a whim a few months ago and decided that this was where it would happen. He had been enticed by the twee little high street, the rainbow flags festooned from second floor windows that promised “We are a civilized people here,” and by the girl he had met –– the one he was going to the church to meet again. Still, there was something stifling about it all; about the small town with its people, the ones who already knew him. The girl from the church had said, “Enjoy it –– before anyone knows you. (For once they know you, you will be theirs. You will belong to the town. The town’s only purpose is to include everyone –– everyone it wants to be included. You will not be spared.)” She had smiled then and offered him a mouthsome piece of gingerbread. “This woman makes the best in town.” He had tasted it –– the gingerbread, and had decided: “Well.”
The church was tucked down a small street off of Warren. He had to let himself in through a side door, up into the control room. The little German man was nowhere. He passed back through the inner workings of the venue, into a narrow staircase that led up to the sanctuary.
The world opened –– the space opened up from the narrow labyrinth of before. He wasn’t sure if it was the cold outside, or the beer, or the tired, but he could have fallen to his knees in the empty retreat, where only a few pews had been left, relics of a former time when there had been music of a different sort.
He saw her, fussing with chords near the altar: the girl who had offered him the gingerbread.
“Hey!” –– she waved. “I didn’t think we were recording anything else today,” she said.
What time was it, Martin wondered. He still was not sure where he was. His life in the city began to feel like the dream –– like this was the not-dream that he was an echo in. How much time had passed? Weeks? –– months? had he been working on this project. He just stood there and stood.
“I was just about to go,” the girl said. “They all went to dinner.”
“Is it finished?” he asked her.
She descended from the altar.
“Tomorrow I’m going to spend some time mixing the tracks we recorded this week. But I think we’re just about finished. Are you going back to the city tomorrow?”
He didn’t know. He said yes, that he would.
“I’m going to go get some dinner. Did you eat? Do you want some dinner?”
“All right –– sure. Where should we go?”
“Have you tried Swoon? Or there’s that tapas place. Do you like tapas?”
“I like tapas.”
So they went for the small plates. The gingerbread girl lit a cigarette outside as she simultaneously struggled to button up her coat. He remembered now –– she had met him at the station at the end of the summer. She had driven him to the church which, like everything else in the town, had seen a conversion in the last thirty years: it was now a music studio, owned by a kindly German man and his wife. The gingerbread girl was the head sound technician. And after she had shown him around –– to the control room downstairs that had live video feeds into the sanctuary –– she had given him a piece of gingerbread she had just bought and suggested a few places where he could get coffee. He remembered this now, this little portion served back to him at some expense. But it was delicious.
“I think it’s going to be a good album,” she said, stuffing a cheese puff into her mouth. “The Dutch instruments add a nice touch. Did you say you’re from Holland yourself?”
“My family is. No, I was born near Tom’s River.”
“Oh –– I’m from South Jersey. I miss it. This is, like, the most gorgeous part of the whole country, but I find myself dreaming about the Pine Barrens.”
She took a guzzle of water.
Maybe this was the exhaustion of having finished it; recorded it; it was done now, set down. No matter what else happened now, someone would know that he had existed at least long enough for this. He now handed it over to her, some girl he didn’t even really know, but trusted. She would wipe off the tracks. Then it would be sent off into the world, to see if it could make something of itself; maybe a song could be licensed, would end up in a film or a television show –– an episode of Vampire Diaries maybe, when the lead actress (who plays both the ingenue and fatale) and the vampire share a kiss, Martin would be there in the background with his barrel organ, like the palimpsest laid on top of them to secure the emotion in the viewer: to smother them with it.
“It’s good, Martin. Your work –– it’s good. You don’t have to be worried.”
“No –– it’s not that. It’s just –– I think I’m experiencing some sort of postpartum.”
“Well, we’re not totally finished yet. We might need to re-record parts still. But I understand. I’m looking forward to being able to get some sleep tonight myself.”
They both paid the check.
“You’re growing a beard, I see.”
Martin felt his chin.
“I think I’ve forgotten to shave this week.”
“It’s Hudson –– it’s rubbing off on you.”
She smiled. After parting, the girl lit another cigarette to serve as censer as she processed down the tenebrous alleys to Allen Street. Up the back staircase of one gabled manor, she climbed to her attic hideaway.
Meanwhile, there was Martin. He walked in the opposite direction to his guest house, but was distracted in replaying the entire week in his head –– trying to equalize everything, to highlight those moments –– the gingerbread, the image of the sanctuary in the daylight –– and to edit out all that was unnecessary.
He somehow ended up in the Courthouse Square. In the park, another man with a beard –– this one stranger even than the hipsters from before –– waved to him.
Martin waved back. The man beckoned to him. Martin approached. As a light illuminated the man better, Martin realized that he was wearing a ruffled collar and doubleted breeches. How long had he been in the tapas restaurant with the gingerbread girl? What century now was this? In a single day, he had seen images of poverty, gentrification, and now some gesture towards historical restoration?
“Hello,” Martin said. “Are you waiting for someone? Are you lost?”
The man smiled. “Yes, a little lost, maybe. But I will find it. I am very good at finding places –– even without GPS. Digital cartography –– bah! Where is the thrill in that, Martin?”
“Sorry, do I know you?”
“You wouldn’t be here were it not for me. Not in Hudson, anyway. It would be someplace else. But, you see, I heard that the poet John Ashbery lives somewhere around here, and I was just trying to see if I could winkle him out.”
“Oh, I like Ashbery. I read a bit of his poetry in college. Do you mind if I join you for a bit?”
The ruffled collar smiled and bowed slightly. There was wind and a suspicion of snow.
Here our tale cuts off, though.
For Martin Vanderbard disappeared that night: he did not return to his apartment in the city the next day as scheduled. A check from an unknown benefactor was sent to the church to pay for his time in the studio, a note reading “I shall not be continuing with this album. Thank you for your time and help and all of your good work. Dank u.”
The gingerbread girl and the German moved on to their next project.
Some years later, when the gingerbread girl was finally preparing to move out of that attic apartment on Allen Street to return to her ancestral homeland of South Jersey, she found a CD buried in a pile of discs, this one marked, M. Vanderbard (Unfinished) –– and she scratched her beard and wondered at that.
Rich Russell teaches composition, literature, and creative writing classes at Atlantic Cape Community College and Stockton College. His work has been published in a few places.