Tithe

6CAB549A-4AF2-4558-B704-16099245E831.jpegMarcus lived on an edge of town. Not the actual edge, not the city limits where light gives way to quiet dark – but an edge piece, a place where the neighborhood butted up against the rail road track and the ruins of old factories beyond. One could walk past it on either side in a couple minutes, drive past in a heartbeat – but it remained an edge, a cliff of the known.  A place where the railroad track felt like the shore of an ocean, the collapsed buildings a ship’s graveyard. Marcus had lived  in his house for only a few days the first time he heard the music, only two weeks when he saw the first stranger come down to the tracks to leave an offering.

The music only came at night. Too quiet to hear inside his house, but if Marcus was walking home late or getting something from his car or walking his dogs he could hear it plain – echoing from the dark beyond the train tracks. Sometimes it was guitar, sometimes it was a low trumpet, sometimes a flute – hollow and insistent.  The music did not come every night, but often enough. The melodies changed – always approaching familiar, but distorted by distance and wind. He asked his neighbors if they heard the music, but they only smiled and turned away from the question.

Then the first stranger came. They came at sundown, just drove to the end of the street in a black sedan. They got out, they wore a coat and slacks, work-day tie loosened. Marcus watched from his window as they walked across the tracks, something wrapped in red cloth in their hands. The stranger did not look left or right, they did not stay long – their shoulders seemed to carry a familiar errand. They came back to their car empty-handed. The stranger sat in the black sedan for a few minutes then drove away.

Marcus could not bear the curiosity and made his own way down to the tracks with a flashlight, but as long as he looked he could not find whatever had been wrapped in the red cloth. Whatever the stranger had left behind was gone – or beyond his ability to find.

Time passed and more strangers came. Young and old, rich and poor. They drove or they walked or they rode garish bicycles – always to the end of his street, always to the rail road tracks, always bringing something. Sometimes Marcus could see their offering – bowls of stones, a loaf of gray bread, red flowers in a green vase — all placed over the tracks among the ruined factories. All placed and left, but try as he might Marcus could never find them after the strangers departed.

And still at night, the music. Marcus found himself humming through his day, trying to remember the tune. He still could not place it, but was sure that it was sad.

He asked his neighbors again – about the music, about the strangers. They frowned and shook their heads and handed him back the question unopened.

At last, he could stand it no longer. He waited on his front porch at sundown for three days, until another stranger appeared. An older woman in a long blue dress walked down his street, her eyes already looking beyond the rail road tracks – Marcus had learned to recognize the gaze. She carried a small box under one arm. He rushed across his yard to move between her and the tracks and held up a hand in greeting.

“I am sorry to bother you, but – but I live here. And for weeks and weeks I’ve watched people like you come to the tracks, to the this place – and all of you leave something. Can you tell me what’s going on? Why you come here?”

She smiled politely, and said, “No.”

And to his surprise she walked past him.

She walked past him and continued on to the shore and beyond, with the box under her arm. Marcus followed.

The woman in the blue dress walked across the tracks and sat the box down on a collapsed brick wall.  She sighed, then turned and walked back the way she had come. She nodded to Markus but did not speak. He watched her go, wanting to call out again, to ask more questions – but he knew it was fruitless.

Then the music came – louder than he had heard before. He blinked and the sun jumped below the horizon, he blinked again and the street lights came on — not the customary yellow-white, but a pickle-green. He turned and the box was gone and the music was so loud and he was singing and he was singing and he was crying and crying and the fog, the fog was green the fog was green, green as cucumber and how could he ever forget the tune?

A few months later, a new family moved in next door to Marcus – a lawyer and her husband and three children who quickly became enamored of his dogs. One evening, after hot dogs and wine he was chatting with the lawyer while her husband and her children threw a blue disc around the yard. She stopped mid-sentence and leaned in close, ” Marcus – this is a weird question, I know – but the past couple of nights I’ve been hearing music outside at night. Do you know where it’s coming from?”

Marcus took a slow sip of wine and felt her question on his tongue. He gave as good an answer as he had.

“Over the tracks.”

“But there’s noting over there but ruined old buildings and trash? I saw a cop walking down there last night, I wonder if kids are sneaking in to hang out there?”

“The cop probably had something to give.”

“Something to give?”

“We all have something to give — we all owe something, eventually.”

“Marcus, what are you talking about? Am I missing something? Are you making fun of me?”

Marcus smiled politely, and said, “No.”

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