The Songbook

My first try at flash fiction. This is a very short story. I hope you enjoy it.

Dr. Ellen Marsh reached into her lab coat pocket and pulled out what she thought was a five dollar bill. It was only when her hand hovered over the open guitar case that she noticed it was a twenty. She hesitated and let the note fall into the case where just a few crumpled dollar bills rested next to a dozen scattered coins.

Hell of a tip, Ellen! But the guy sang a good song. And he sure looked like he could use the cash. Probably in his late twenties, right about her own age, the singer had unkempt hair, a shaggy beard, and wiry arms with a tattoo of a butterfly just above his wrist.

“Wow! Thank you, miss.”

Kind eyes. And that natural strain in his speech that gave his singing crystal purity, as though his voice might shatter at any moment.

“No worries,” Ellen said and walked off in the direction of Stella’s Café’.

The coffee at the hospital tasted like hot water steeped in dirty socks. After a ten-hour shift in the ER, what she craved was a full-bodied roast, smooth and creamy, never mind the two-city block trek past panhandlers and shopping-cart pushers, some of whom she remembered treating on summer nights for bruises and cuts and sometimes worse.

The next evening, the singer was in his usual spot, scuffed guitar hanging from his shoulders by a length of twine. Ellen knew enough about music to realize the guy mostly played the same three chords, but the melody he wrapped around his strumming, the pang that poured out from deep within him, the words to the lyrics which probed her heart relentlessly, made her stop and listen.

When the song ended the crowd that had gathered joined Ellen in applause. The singer bowed in Ellen’s direction as if she were the only one there.

“You write your own songs?” Ellen said.

“I-I guess you can tell,” the singer stammered.

“They’re nice.”

The singer hopped over the guitar case in Ellen’s direction but almost stumbled as his feet landed on the pavement. Ellen took a step back.

“Can I buy you a cup of coffee, Miss?” He patted his front pocket. “I have money.”

“Maybe another time.”

The singer strummed an open G chord and quickly muted the strings with his palm. He looked down and blushed. “Yeah, maybe another time.”

Ellen was off duty the next two days. Friday evening the singer was there, but when he caught sight of Ellen rounding the corner of the hospital, he quit mid-song, stuffed his guitar in its case and hurried off in the opposite direction. In his haste, the guy didn’t realize he had dropped something; a little booklet. Ellen called out to him, but he darted across the street and was gone.

She walked over, picked up the booklet and opened it. On the first page, in scrupulous longhand was the word, “Songbook”; underneath it, “Zeno H.” Ellen straightened and slipped the book in her lab coat pocket.

She didn’t open it again until after she had poured herself a glass of Shiraz, kicked off her shoes, and slumped into the sofa of her studio apartment. The book contained lyrics to dozens of songs. With clean, simple words, each song shined a spotlight into a dark corner of her life, as if the author knew her like no one had ever known her. In the second stanza of a song titled, “Ballad for the Broken Hearted,” something inside her came unhinged, and she burst into sobs.

She looked for him the next five days on her way to Stella’s -- drove past his spot on her day off. “Just to return his book,” she said as she backed out of her driveway. She couldn’t get him out of her mind. That night, Ellen returned to her apartment, uncorked a bottle of Merlot and read the songbook cover to cover for the third time.

The next morning, the ER was awash with standard fare: a middle-aged man with chest pain; a three-year-old with a bead stuck in her nose; a dog-bite; a car-wreck; and a heroin addict in the grips of paranoia. Ellen was trying to clear her thoughts between patients when the doors to the ambulance dock burst open. Two burly paramedics wheeled a gurney toward the trauma bay leaving a trail of dark splatters on the linoleum floor.

“We got a bleeder here!” the lead paramedic shouted.

Ellen chased them into the trauma bay. “What’s the story?”

“Slash and dash, boxcutter to the femoral artery. Bled a river on the way over.”

The patient’s arm dropped off the side of the gurney. Ellen grabbed the man’s hand to place it back on his chest and saw the tattoo of a butterfly just above the wrist. Her eyes shot to his face. He was so pale she hardly recognized him. She couldn’t discern if he were unconscious or merely too weak to keep his eyes open.

Ellen shook his shoulders. “Zeno! Zeno, open your eyes for me!”

The paramedic said, “You know the guy?”

Zeno’s eyelids fluttered. Ellen shouted, “Can you hear me, Zeno?”

His eyes opened.

“You hold on now,” Ellen said. She tightened her lips to hold it together.

Zeno’s mouth quivered. “That’s okay, Miss.”

“We’ll go for coffee!”

Zeno smiled. He closed his eyes. “Maybe another time.”