This story is by Stu Ducklow and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
Oswald looked like a tourist. In fact he was a tourist. Camera danging around his neck, pockets of his relaxed fit shorts stuffed with brochures and a canvas safari hat atop his bald head. But what betrayed him most was the way his hand kept creeping up to massage his neck. Oswald’s neck was sore from looking up. Everything in New York required looking up and Oswald was unable to resist the temptation.
He was glad he’d won that airplane ticket in the office pool. New York was his first trip away from home in his whole life and he wanted to make the most of it. To save money he rented a shared Air B&B flat 20 subway stops away from midtown Manhattan and tried to ignore the outrageous violations visited upon the atmosphere by his roommate, an enthusiastic student of the saxophone.
Oswald was a mild and agreeable man. He approached life with caution and tried to do the right thing. He had been so successful that, by the age of 50, he had accumulated a nagging wife, a surly son, an ailing mother and an oppressive mortgage. He had dutifully worked 30 years as a bookkeeper for William Smith & Sons, an import-export business on the third floor of a grimy office building in downtown Vancouver. His office featured a magnificent view of the merge lane over which he rode as a bus passenger at the end of each workday. In summer, with the windows open, the office was flooded with traffic noise and engine exhaust.
That building had been the centre of his professional existence, but it was nothing compared to the magnificent structure at the corner of Fifth Ave and 33rd St, otherwise known as the Empire State Building, where he now stood massaging his neck and looking up.
Wow! He thought. The building soared straight into the clouds. He couldn’t see the top. Maybe if he crossed the street to the other side he’d get a better angle.
Still looking up, Oswald edged towards the street. He felt the curb with his foot and stepped down. The translucent cloud layers shifted, revealing a granite protrusion that might have been a gargoyle peering out of the mist at one corner. The object blocked his view of the top. If he moved just a little more, he’d be able to see it. Oswald thought it was strange that the gargoyle seemed to be looking right back at him with an expression of alarm on its reptilian face.
And that was the last the world ever saw of Oswald.
Not that many people cared. As might be surmised Oswald, despite being a husband, son and father, was quite alone in life. Certainly nobody in New York would report him missing, least of all the enthusiastic sax player.
When Oswald failed to return from his two-week vacation, Mr. Smith, proprietor of William Smith & Sons, asked his secretary, Ms. Frump, to find out where he was. Ms. Frump consulted the company’s personnel records and dialed the phone number on file. But it was nearly 30 years old and not in service. With Mr. Smith’s permission she took a cab to Oswald’s last known address. But the street ran right through a car dealership. Oswald’s family home and seat of his childhood memories would have been smack in the middle of the showroom.
Mr Smith displayed his usual doggedness in the face of frustration. He asked Ms Frump to call the police and file a missing person’s report. The young detective who visited the office the next day took down the slender details of Oswald’s life as known to the people at Smith & Sons.
“It’s not uncommon,” sighed the young detective, with a world-weary air. “I’ve seen it all before. Older man feels like he’s missed out on life and suddenly disappears. He may be anywhere. If I were you I’d check to see that he hasn’t embezzled something. Not uncommon at all. Older man steals thousands from his company and disappears. Yup, seen it all!”
Smith was horrified. Accountants were called in— forensic accountants, at great expense. After two weeks they presented Mr Smith with a splendid bill, fully annotated, and pronounced the business completely free of all forms of fiscal malfeasance. In fact, they said, Oswald had done an excellent job of keeping the company books. “We’re always looking for good people,” said the senior accountant handing Smith a business card. “If he ever comes back tell him to get in touch.”
Mr. Smith was beginning to miss Oswald. “We should have paid him more,” he thought, when the personnel agency began sending him lists of qualified candidates. Their salary expectations were stratospheric. Odd, thought Smith. Oswald was still classified as a junior clerk. Though he’d become indispensable to the company, he’d never been promoted nor received a raise in pay beyond annual adjustments for inflation.
Oswald would have been pleased to hear the value Mr Smith placed upon him if he could remember who Mr Smith was. All he knew was what the nurses in the charity ward of the hospital had told him: he had been found a few weeks earlier, unconscious, caked with mud and nearly naked in a sanitary sewer after apparently falling through a manhole. He had been discovered by a city employee who had called the cops but only after relieving the oblivious victim of his wallet, camera, passport and plane ticket.
Oswald took the news with characteristic equanimity. He couldn’t remember a single thing about himself, not even his name. Obviously he needed a new one but he wasn’t sure how to go about it. Perhaps his place of origin would be a good start. But no, that would mean he was either The Man from the Sewer or The Man from the Psych Ward. Neither was a suitable introduction to the outside world and that would have to happen soon. A well dressed young man with a clipboard had visited his bedside and made it clear that his hospital visit was temporary.
Oswald had a good brain, experienced in the relentless application of logic to the most difficult problem. Whether he knew it or not, his training as a bookkeeper was guiding every move. Oswald knew only two things about himself for sure: he was somebody and he came from somewhere. So that would be his name: Somebody Somewhere.
Somebody knew quite a lot about the world but nothing about himself and that gave him an advantage over his old incarnation. Oswald had been brought up to respect his elders, defer to authority, think of others first and dislike himself. Somebody felt no such restrictions.
Oswald had never missed a workday in 30 years. He’d married because it was expected. He’d never travelled except to visit his wife’s mother 100 miles away. He loved music, art and baseball but had never played an instrument, held a brush or played catch with his son.
Oswald loved his son, a shy, pimple-faced teen who played video games in his room and was falling behind in school. He wanted to tell him that hard work would pay off and that girls really would learn to like him but the boy just rolled his eyes. One night after the family was in bed, he’d started a letter to his son, but couldn’t finish it.
Instead he’d made a decision.
A small gathering of nurses and orderlies stood with Somebody on the hospital steps on the day of his discharge. He had been a favourite patient. Many of the women hugged him and some of the men. Others patted him on the back or shook hands. The director appeared and made a speech: “we’ve become fond of you, Somebody, and we hope you’ll be able to find out who you are and where you come from. We’ve taken up a bit of a collection to help see you through your first few days in New York. Goodbye and good luck.” He shook hands.
Somebody waved and walked towards the busy street. He was soon lost in the crowd of shoppers and office workers enjoying the midday sun. He had nowhere to go and no plans. He sat on a bench and opened the envelope to count his money. About $100. Would it even buy lunch?
He heard music in the distance and headed towards the sound. A street musician was playing a saxophone. There was something familiar about the music. A small crowd had gathered. He couldn’t see the musician but he knew who it was. He’d heard those screeching jazz licks a thousand times in his shared B&B.
The music stopped. “Oswald?” said the musician. “How have you been, I haven’t seen you in ages!”
“Pretty good,” said Somebody. “I made a little side trip. Has my family been in touch, I should give them a call.”
“Nope, haven’t heard a thing. Are you coming back? Glad to have you, if you don’t mind me practicing all the time.”
“I’m going to be a little busy for the next few days but I’ll get in touch. You’ve got the place to yourself for a while.”
“Okay! See you around!” The musician turned back to his crowd before they had a chance to wander off.
Somebody peeled a $5 bill from his modest grubstake and placed it in his friend’s instrument case. Then he watched the carefree movements of a young woman on the other side of the crowd. She was absorbed in her dance and Somebody began to imitate her. He didn’t have much experience but he wasn’t afraid.
The woman noticed him and shimmied his way. Awkwardly he shuffled towards her, a harmless old man having a good time. Together, they executed an uncertain do-se-do while the crowd clapped and the sax player fed off the energy. Then Somebody wandered off in search of a small cafe and a glass of wine.
He wondered how long it would take before Smith found out about that raise he’d given himself, the one that made up for all those years of penury. He didn’t think Smith would do anything about it since that would mean revealing the questionable expense declarations Smith had insisted upon as long as they’d worked together.
Checking with the sax player had been the first item on Somebody’s agenda. He had to know if the cops had been asking questions. But how could they know where he was? He certainly hadn’t told his wife and she wasn’t likely to figure it out on her own.
His second job was to finish that letter to his son. He’d begun it months earlier with exhortations to work hard and get a good job before realizing how hollow his words would sound. So he’d written about his secret self, the one none of them knew. How he’d dreamed of being a painter, travelling alone and living for the moment. How dreams were the most important thing in life and that it took courage to follow them. Perhaps when it was safe, his son could visit and he’d show him the man he really was.
And the last item. Buy a decent saxophone and get some lessons. Maybe his roommate could teach him. After a lifetime of work, Somebody was ready to play.