by Christopher Bacas

We make unplanned pilgrimages; a friend, job or tragedy send us barefoot around sacred mountains. Eyes fixed on the path, we’re prevented from losing our way by loyalty, diligence or grief. Anyone we pass is possibly the most important person we will ever (not) meet.

A job: play half-hour concerts; moving from unit to unit in an eleven-story Upper West Side building. Our private audiences, home-bound seniors. We are a saxophone/bass duo. My partner, Joshua, sings in English and Spanish. Our employers provide a list with names, apartment numbers and an emergency contact.

On the ninth floor, our first stop, a caretaker slowly opens the door. A vector of heat escapes around her into the drafty hall.


“Si, si”

We announce our sponsor’s name. She doesn’t recognize it. Voices inside call out, ricocheting off a bare floor. She opens the door all the way. In the center of the room, behind a walker, Nayeli slumps into a kitchen chair. Swollen with disuse, her feet rest on a fresh, spread out Depends. In the corner, her husband, Tolentino, in a jacket and spiffy sneakers, sits on the edge of a plush armchair, knees tight. He gets up to shake my hand. Then, I lean in to shake his wife’s.

I pull my horn out of the case, assemble it and get ready to play. With upturned eyes, the couple appraise our instruments as if they were caged snakes. A brief cloudburst follows; small sounds musicians make before playing: soft descending notes in whooshing funnels, rattles and clicks. Then, silence, awkward and centripetal, whirling us into the present. We look at them.

“Un cancion d’amor” says Nayeli.

She says it again,  fingertips brushing her chin, eyes angles no toward the door. Looking around his fingerboard, Josh repeats her request. A love song. I whisper song titles. He’d need to sing. I’m not able to gird a melody with enough amor to make it worthy of that name. We start “Besame Mucho”. Nayeli nods in recognition and sings along, turning her face toward the kitchen. At the table, their aide looks down, tapping her phone under long red nails. Nayeli swivels to look at her husband. He widens his eyes, gets up and walks over. She lays a forearm across the walker grip. They hold hands and sing to each other; voices inaudible. His mouth moves just after the words, hers opens wide at the end of each phrase.

“Como si fuera esta noche la ultima vez”

Like tonight was the last time. On a sunny April afternoon, a corona flares inside their windows, halos picture frames and pours onto the linoleum floor. Institutional heat billows. Along the ledge, in front of an open window, plants vibrate in the breeze. Tolentino stoops, patting the arm of her walker quick time. When the song finishes, a few sibilant notes float off while she sniffs and sighs. Her husband releases her hand, turns and sits down. Nayeli looks away, in the glare her wet irises seep into lashes and pulse like open bivalves.

“Thank you”

“Very niiiice”

They look shyly at us now, as if we share a few small mysteries. The emotional warp of song draws us closer than any conversation. We need to stay in this musical zone. Josh lays down a Tumbao and sings ” Un Verrano en Nueva York” while I make bogus salsa fills. The aide slips past us mid-song and leans over Nayeli with a pair of shoes. They speak rapid, simultaneous Spanish. A cell phone rings. Nayeli answers in English. The aide puts the shoes on the floor and slides one onto Nayeli’s foot. She pivots the phone away from her mouth and switches to Spanish. The aide takes the shoe off, picks up the pair and walks behind me into the hall. Nayeli pivots back to her phone. Another phone rings. The aide reappears at the kitchen table, answering that call. We finish our song. I botch the ending. Phone sandwiched between cheek and shoulder, the aide returns to place flowered slippers on Nayeli’s feet. Tolentino looks on, face glowing and immobile. Both phone calls end:



Nayeli says they used to go out dancing. She smiles a little. The place in Brooklyn. She had family there, in Flatbush. Are they still there? She swings her face side to side. No. Now, she’s sick. Her back. The phone call was the doctor. She has to go in next week. While she speaks, her husband looks behind her. Across the room, their aide peels vegetables into the sink.

They say “play whatever you like”. Their aide props her phone on the kitchen table to watch a video. Her dark eyes bear down on the squiggly colors. There’s a pot of rice cooking on the stove. Below, Amsterdam Ave, roaring truck gears and hissing brakes. Above those geothermal vents, their windows swell with magma. We are a bathysphere submerged in a molten sea. Photos and tchotchkes wave like seaweed in blazing currents. I blink and play into silent depths. Our cells dissolve. In the heat, DNA recombines, forming new species; reed-propelled coral nymphs and ebony-spined manta rays. A golden tide engulfs the couple. Their heads reappear; wet rocks breaking undulating waves. Josh sings “Viejo San Juan” in rich voice. It’s their birthplace, but they don’t seem to know the words. The corona wanes a little and the whole seascape withdraws; erased by shadow. I look at my colleague. His eyes dart up and then toward the door. Our revels have ended.

“Thank you for coming today”

“Really great to meet you”

“Come back sometime”

I disassemble my horn and zip up the case. Josh walks his bass toward the door. The aide nods at us and follows me. On the way out, I say:

“Next time we’re gonna stay for lunch.”

Eyebrows lifting, Nayeli tells the aide in Spanish,

“Get some cookies (gallettas) for the skinny guy.”