First Time

I don't believe in God, but I do believe in music.

Harlem fidgeted from foot to foot, craning his neck and stretching in the urgent, worried way of a young man who was impatiently waiting for something.

His birthday - his eighteenth - had been a few days ago. He knew, because he had heard the whooshing sound as Hurricane Caitlan swallowed it whole. He'd had dinner at his parent's place, his hand gripping his father's as everyone tried to not mention The C Word and pretend that his birthday was the real reason they were there. Poor families through huge parties, because even a little excess seems so much compared to normal fare.

He really owed that police officer. Thanks to her, Harlem had had the time to find Acid Light, to swallow his pride, and ask her to help his father. She hadn't cured the cancer, but she had given his dad the personal strength and fortitude to survive the post-surgery mess himself.

But now, that business was over. Dad was okay. Caitlin was okay. Kacey and Darius were really okay - bastards! - and Harlem was able to go through this, something he had been waiting for for almost six years, since he'd first peeked through the window as his father coming home from across the street.

It was a right of god-damned passage. His friends had gone in earlier; they'd all done what they wanted in their, disrespectful of the laws, lied, cheated, and cajoled to get what they wanted. Harlem… Harlem wanted to do this right.

Hopping from foot to foot, Harlem closed his hands and stilled himself as he looked through the glass window at the teller. She'd been politely staring through him for ten minutes as she filed paperwork, proved identities and generally did whatever tellers do. The time had served to let Harlem truly feel his surroundings - the crisp, the clean, the pristine office around him, the nice line with its ropes and its tickets and good grief, he felt so out of place. He hated places like this. This was his city! How dare it make him uncomfortable because his boots were second-hand!

Seething quietly, he glanced up as she slid across the desk a small, white card, outlined in transparent plastic, holding his face. Two IDs, now; he felt quite fancy, having so much paperwork to remind the world he existed. It was a bit silly, but it gave him a thrill. He was connected. He was connected to her, and to him, and to that, and they all had that mark on them in their wallets.

Stepping out onto the pavement, Harlem slipped his hands into his pockets, shrugging as the rain began to patter down, heading back to the dark little building that lurked on the corner of 93rd and Yale. Because that's where she'd be - even if he could only see her for a moment.

Welcome to the House of Fun, now I've come of age…

The door slid open, quietly, the floorboards creaking. Dust hung in the air, the small lights doing little to mar the murk that mired the men, gathered in a line. Some were playing pool; two were idly hammering at a space invaders machine. At the end of the bar - fetid little place that it was - there was one seat, in pride of place by the taps. Nobody had that seat.

Harlem knew who sat there. She'd be pissed if her chair wasn't free when she wanted it.

And there… in the corner, pressed up against the wall and almost forgotten, was it.

It wasn't her; it wasn't an aspect of her. But it was a telescope through which Harlem could squint, drawing his breath, closing one eye to the world, and see, just for a moment, that glory, that beauty.

He sat down, ignoring the other patrons. The tender didn't even look at him - the card burning in his back pocket, just itching to prove "Yes, I can be here if I want!" was unused and unnecessary - as so many teenage steps into adult rituals prove to be. Raising one hand, he lifted up the… door-thingy? That kept the keys hidden.

Wordlessly, Harlem raised his fingers and ran them over the keys. It was a ritual, almost; wiping the dust from the unused piano's keys, as subtle and soft vibration shook the dust from the rest of the frame. Scar tissue streaked along Harlem's forearms in little paths. Liittle nicks and cuts that lay along those young man's hands, as those hands lay upon the keys, and Harlem closed his eyes.

You need the raw data before you can process. Timidly, Harlem ran his hand up the keys, listening as they fell into place, as notes corresponded to brethren, and then, under those hands…

Music blossomed. From the corners of the room, Harlem was accompanied, as the walls themselves began to thrum with the music he wasn't rendering with his inexperienced yet completely confident hands.

"They're all living a month of Sundays,
They're all looking through rosy shades,
He looks thin, she looks overdone,
Someone throws on the shift and the future fades;"

Harlem didn't know what a rollick was before this day.

"They're all living the life of Riley,
Riding along on their rollerblades;
He says hi, she responds so drily;
A subtext of headaches and hand grenades."

Harlem's voice flowed with the music; the loud, pounding music, the energetic ferocity of the story that unwinds under his hands filling the bar. Patrons sit, listening, their drinks in their hands, and almost to a man, they move with the music, they feel their feet stirred and something deep inside that has been quiet for the whole of this long, merciless work day, stirs, stretches, and begins to take flight.

"She wants to say hey.
I'm sorry I feel this way -
With all of my darkness
Flying into your light."

The song was in the piano; the song reflected in the days and lives of people, the music the celtic lilt these slumping, resentful, Irish garmentworkers still hear on weddings and holy days, who close their eyes and see for a moment the glittering emerald of grass and pride that they still think of as theirs.

He had no idea what he was doing. Fingers coaxed free new notes, old notes, but he didn't know what to call them, or where they came from. They were just there. First you did that, then that, then one of them, and oh, you'd better hang onto that one, because you'd want it again in a second and it all flowed together, like a city, life bumping into life and each one marking the other, the song as a whole bringing meaning to each little note, no matter how alone it might feel.

"But I'm happy;
To be unhappy.
Just not too unhappy;
Because nothing's really that bad.
It's poetic,
It's so pathetic
It's all life so static;
So helplessly, happily, sad."

When you can render music from every flat surface, one might wonder why you would ever bother with an instrument. Why you would seek out this one moment, this night, this object, and treat it with such reverence, when the sound it creates is worse than the sound created by the power of music itself, unchained by instrument, a life borne aloft on life itself?

Because, as Harlem pounds out the song, his eyes closed, his voice soaring, the story of two people in a modern world so good they can't truly be unhappy about anything, but can't bring themselves to find happiness for fear of the work involved, he touches the face of something more. This, the urban shaman muses, eyes closed in the kind of rapture his forebears reserved for exotic drugs and carnal acts, this is holy.

Harlem lost track of how many songs he played; they'd just been there, in the piano, waiting to come out. They'd danced under his hands, taking in turn, like beautiful girls flirting and giggling as he flowed past them in a ballroom.

He lost track of the time, and it wasn't until he finally felt the creak of pain in his hands and his throat from the hours of exultation that he finally realised it was, perhaps, a little late. He was near his parent's house; he could go crash there without much fear. Glancing around the bar, he realised the patrons had stayed; more had arrived. The bar was full, and around him were people, quietly shuffling their feet as they in turn, realised that it was well longer than they'd meant to be there.

But nobody had wanted to leave.

Harlem looked over them. His people. The people of the Row. Poor, in some cases outright desperate, in a bar at three in the morning, work in five hours - or less! - for some, and utterly, utterly unable to bring themselves to go. A jewel in the darkness, an evening of something special. They'd come for the drinks, but not one had left since he'd started playing. Sliding off the stool, Harlem steadied himself, smiling gratefully as a familiar hand put itself on his shoulder.

"C'mon," Backbeat said. She was just there. She hadn't arrived, she hadn't ever really left. She always was just there. Harlem had been an older brother to a sister and a younger brother to a sister, and every time he felt Backbeat's hand on his shoulder, he knew he was safe.

It wasn't her. She wasn't the girl of the dreams, or the woman in the CD. She wasn't like that - but she never had to be. She was his friend - for better or for worse, simple, beautiful, and pure in that.

Harlem slumped against her, hugging her shoulder, looking for the first time in so many years like a young boy in need of bed. Backbeat fairly picked him up as the crowd dispersed, quietly filing back to their lives. There would be some sick days tomorrow, some early knock-offs and some late turn-ups. Some might lose their jobs but go looking for something better, feeling like they deserved it. Some would go in, swear at the right person and finally close off the issue that had been bothering them.

But every last person who left that bar that night was affected. The rites of spring, the rites of steel; Harlem was a shaman to his people, even when they didn't know it.

As the giant, white-haired woman filed up the tenement steps that cradled Harlem's parent's house - fishing his key from his pocket, she heard him murmur, already asleep on her arm.

"Always wanned to play th'piano."


Author's Notes

Harlem is an obssessive writing subject. I myself have no musical talent, nor do I have enough technical knowledge to describe that talent, so Harlem's prodigy-level skill with music can be pleasantly described in the same general, useless terms I have to use when I describe music. One of them. Then one of those. That up bit, that whoosh bit.

I feel sorry for Backbeat sometimes.

As a writer, I am less concerned with the dramas that my characters undergo, or experience, or suffer through in the game, and more about how they do things. The game - when I have other people around me - is where I can oust gangs, create heroes, destroy villains, ruin relationships or build new ones. But I can't just show Harlem quietly sitting down and playing a piano for the first time; there's simply no way to show it all, from all the angles without grandstanding.

I have no particular love of the old writing aphorism "Write for yourself," because it strikes me as self-centred and useless. Write for people to hear, because all art is, in some fashion or other, a means to interact with people. What I have here, what I want here, is to show how things are done, not what things are done.

- Talen Lee

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