A single guitar player plucking along the side of a coffee bar in the art district wasn’t a unique site.
The public responded with quiet indifference, occasionally dropping loose change into the open case at his feet.
He nodded appreciatively at the meager tips, but kept his head in the music. If he allowed himself to be concerned with totals he wouldn’t find the determination to keep playing. It could mean the difference between making it to the power company by five and another night burning candles just to find the bathroom. At least he had bought two weeks with the water company.
He pushed the thoughts away and strummed the opening chords to a Johnny Cash song. Out of his peripheral he caught a woman stop in the middle of the side walk. She held a chubby little boy by his free hand as the other gripped a pastry from the coffee shop.
By the second verse she had vanished. He wished admiration could buy him a meal at the end of the day, but it was a temporary salve to his wounded pride. He did his best to appreciate the moments as they were few and scattered.
He wrapped up the song and received a handful of broken applause from the patio area. As he nodded a silent thanks in their direction he noticed the woman was back again. She walked up to him, a cup of coffee extended towards him.
“I thought it might be nice to have a warm drink with all that singing,” she explained as she offered him the drink. “Its just black, there’s cream and sugar in the bag.”
He was stunned and extended his own hand to accept out of reflex more than conscious effort.
“That song was one of my dad’s favorites. He used to play it over and over in the evening.” Her eyes wandered to a past memory as a sad smile crossed her lips. She blinked to shake it away and smiled warmly at the guitarist. “I just wanted to say thank you and let you know you sang it beautifully.”
“Thank you,” was all he could manage at first. “Wait, I can pay you for the coffee. You didn’t need to do that.”
“No, no please.” She waved him off refusing the change he fished from his guitar case. “Please, it’s the least I can do to repay the gift of a good memory. Best of luck to you.” She took her son’s hand and led him away, stopping for a brief moment to drop an offering into the case.
He watched them walk down the street, his own sad memories swelling to the surface as she carefully guided the little one between other pedestrians and laughed at something he had said.
Once they turned a corner and were lost from his view, he looked down into the case and caught his breath in his throat. A twenty dollar bill stared up at him from the handful of nickels and quarters splayed against the felt.
He snatched it from the case and shoved it in his pocket with the wad of ones and a lonely five all stored away safely. Paper money always stayed out of the case, just as he always started a street set with a few of his own quarters in the case. He hated to see it empty, and the thought of some jackass grabbing any real money out of the case was a paranoia he could never shake so he followed these two rules with unshakable dependence.
He started in on another cover, more modern this time and meeting the approval of the patio crowd. A girl he figured to be about his age climbed on top of the newspaper box across the sidewalk from him. She crossed her legs and propped her elbows onto her knees while resting her chin in her palms. She stared intently at him as he started another verse.
He did his best to ignore her, but was growing irritated with her game. It wouldn’t be the first time some punk teenager gave him a hard time. The coffee shop owner let him play outside the patio as long as he didn’t cause any disruptions. He had some major convincing to do the last time he broke a kid’s nose for heckling him.
He rationalized he wouldn’t hit a girl so he would just have to ignore her. At least until her boyfriend showed up and gave him someone he could legitimately hit.
He finished the song and took a moment to sip on the coffee at his feet. He glanced at the girl hoping she would grow tired of her game, but she only adjusted one of the electric blue braids on the side of her head and tucked it behind her ear against her dark hair. Half her mouth curved into a grin, her darkly lined eyes never leaving his face.
He rolled his eyes and started another song.
Three songs, twelve dollars and some change later she jumped down from the box and walked directly towards him.
“You look like you could use a break.”
He stepped back overwhelmed by the determination emanating from the petite frame in front of him.
“Uh, I wasn’t really planning…”
“You could use something to eat. Get inside for a few and thaw out.” She stared him down, intent on having her way.
He reached in his pocket and felt the few precious bills inside. “I don’t really think I…”
“My treat. I owe you.” She smiled up at him and raised an eyebrow, challenging him to try and say no.
“That’s cool of you, but there’s no reason for that.”
“Of course there is. I can’t just walk away with a free concert, and I only have my debit card. Lunch it is, okay?”
He felt his traitorous stomach grumble and couldn’t come up with another excuse so he shrugged and pulled his guitar strap over his head. “So are you going to tell me your name, or should I make one up?”
She held out her hand, “Veronica.”
He shook her hand and for the first time returned her smile. “James. So is this a hobby of yours? Taking street musicians out for lunch?”
“Only the talented ones that happen to be good looking and have a promising future,” she didn’t hesitate with her answer, catching James off guard. He felt his face flush and he cleared his throat, unsure how to respond. “Don’t be so shy. You will need to learn to accept compliments when you’re famous.”
“Ha! Famous? I’d settle for uninterrupted power service.” He ran his hand through his hair immediately regretting the admission.
“I think we can manage that.” She started down the street and he followed close behind.