The Cardboard Signs

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Other  |  House: Booksie Classic
Assignment: Write a short story.

Submitted: September 01, 2012

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Submitted: September 01, 2012

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The Cardboard Signs

It was an old thing, dirty and disfigured. Despite its appearance, the old man hummed a ‘G’ and started to tune his instrument. Flat. The bow bounced against the strings and the instrument started to match the man’s pitch. Listening to the back-beat of shoes, he sat and faced the flocks and began to play. The notes wrapped around the legs of the pedestrians passing by his alley, but the melody was lost at their thighs. Even with the rotted wood distorting the sound, it could have been the best tune to ever hit the city streets, but to the athletes and businessmen, it was only worth three dollars. He felt the faces of each coin they threw, then placed them back in his case. After adjusting his sunglasses, he locked up his viola and felt for his home. Upon hearing the three o’clock church bell, he hid himself inside his box.
The crowd could have been heard miles away, but he knew they were only a block


“Hey, Johnny, will you throw mine for me? It’s a good stone, but my arm is a little sore today.”

“Betty, leave me alone won’t ya? I throw your rock for ya everyday, man up and throw it yourself or stand back with the peanuts!”

“Come on Johnny! Just for today? Please!”

“Lord, Betty. Every. Single. Stinkin’. Day. Just hand it over.”

A different male voice chimed in “Johnny! Look who’s here! You miss me?”

“Hey! Henry! Where ya been? Nevermind that, gotcha a good stone?”

“I forgot to grab one, sorry man.”

“Here’s an extra Betty gave me. Hey! Hush, Bett!”

The man curled up in his box and covered his neck. Soon the rocks were hitting his box with tremendous force, and then they started to break through the exterior. Just as the rocks started making their way to his skin, he heard a high-pitched yell. It was a girl, sounding maybe nine or ten, yelling at the older kids.
“Ay! Leave him alone! He hasn’t done nothing to ya! Go away!”
“Lay off ya brat! Hell, we don’t want trouble with the fuzz over her, lets go guys.”
“But Johnny! It was just getting exciting! You can stand up to a runt like her!” Betty whined like a six year old outside Toys-R-Us.
“I swear Betty, you’ll be lucky if...” They left the man’s alley. After all the voices trailed off, he emerged from his destroyed box. He didn’t know where the girl was, so he looked straight up and mumbled a thank you.
“Ay, Mister, whatcha playin’? What’s that thing I mean--looks lika fiddle kinda.” Her voice bounced off the back walls of the alley, signifying to the man she was towards the open end of the alley.
“It’s my viola, she’s not perfect, but I get by. She pays for a meal every few days--guess that’s all I can really ask for.” He found the case and felt to make sure all the strings on his instrument were in place. He heard her walk over to the case, probably to take a closer look.
“Back home, my papa used to take his fiddle out and dance around the kitchen. We use to sing along with his playin’ during supper, and he said he was gonna teach me to play it someday.”
“Why didn’t he? Violins are great things.” He was feeling the sides for any new damage.
“He got shipped off to the war. Mama told me we were gonna live with my nana, but she really meant just me--I was gonna live with her.” Her voice had a sad undertone. “Mister? Why don’t ya look at me when I talk? You just seem sort of blank. Nana says looking away when people are talking says you’re rude.”
“Well I can’t look at you.” His sunglasses fell down his nose a little. “The big man took my eyes and gave me the Lord’s ears.”
“The Lord’s ears? But your ears seem normal...”
“I can hear a tune, play it well, and it’ll pay for some food. He’s looking out for me. He’s giving me what I need and leaving me without want.”
“That’s pretty cool, I guess... I’m Charli, what’s your name mister? Hey! What are those cardboard sheets doin’ over yonder?”
Charli was looking at some neatly cut rectangles of cardboard leaning against the side of the alley. They were white and glowed against the dull bricks.
“Cardboard sheets? Well, I can’t say. Didn’t know they were there to be honest.”
“Can I have them!?” Charli was puzzling, but he had no reason to protest, after all, it was only cardboard.
Charli jumped up and down, her impact ringing the man’s ears. “Thank you mister! Thank you! Thank you so much!” She grabbed the cardboard and ran. The man felt around the alley for another box and found a nice large one, dry on the inside. Perfect.
“Hey Mister, look what I brought you!” Charli was back the next day. The man faced her voice and smiled. “Look! I painted words on your sign! Can you read them? Read the--oh, I’m sorry...”
“Don’t worry about it. Back in Maine, my friends always forgot about me not being able to see. What does it say?”
“Music can make a sweet day sweeter.’ Do you like it? I was thinkin’ maybe you could put it next to you and people would give you more money, ya know?”
“Thank you Charli, your kindness is always welcome in my alley.” He smiled as he heard her run away. It was time to start playing. He found his viola, sat in his usual spot, set up his sign, and began to play. At first, things went as usual, people too busy to appreciate the background music. Then, he heard people sigh at his viola and children would say “aw...”. Money started to pour into his case, he heard coins clash together. He felt the embossed faces on the metal and then felt the wads of paper. This would be enough to buy him several meals. He gave the money to the weekly social worker and asked for food and a single flower--something colorful.
Charli came back the next day and was given the flower. She was beyond excited, and in return gave the man another sign. This was the second of what would become a month long series of signs. Everyday, she would visit and change his sign, whatever she wrote being sweeter than the words before. The man was attached, and treated her as if she was his own flesh and blood: listening to her, teaching her, and sharing with her. That month was the happiest he would ever have.
Then one day she didn’t visit. The man worried--he couldn’t find any sign she had left for him. He found an old one against the alley wall and sat it next to him, only to realize from the snickers it was upside-down. Someone from the street turned it correctly and the money started to pour, like always. A child read his sign aloud and he realized it was one of the most recent: It’s a beautiful day, be thankful you can see it. Even though the money gave his case a solid three pounds, even though the words were as lovely as they were the first time, it felt empty. The sign felt old, the case felt light. The next day, she wasn’t there. Then the next, and the next, and the one after. The man reused the same signs and received the same change. He played the same songs and sat in the same spot. Even though everything looked the same, it felt different. The man was vacant. He couldn’t even feel the school-children’s rocks break his skin or the spider bite his side. He would lay on the bare alley concrete, unprotected from the elements, and occupy himself with using his god’s name in vain.
It was around eight-o-clock, over two weeks after Charli’s last sign. The man turned around to face the alley entrance upon hearing Johnny’s all-too-familiar laugh. Usually it meant he was throwing rocks, but it was late-school’d been over for nearly five hours. The man heard a hiss and then metal against concrete. Then a match. He crawled towards the entrance and picked up the scent of alcohol-this boy was drunk. Glass shattered and a wave of heat hit the man’s back. He heard the crackle of flames consuming everything behind him and quickly approaching him-Johnny was yelling, “Your little girl there ruined me she did! Made sure no one talked to me none anymore! I got nothin’ and if I can’t have anything you can’t neither!” Johnny kicked the old man, then lost his balance. His reputation followed him to the ground. He was out cold, and the old man used him as a heat-shield. When the flames died out, the man found a single string belonging to his poor viola. It was hot-left a bright red ditch on his calloused finger tip.
Everything the man had was gone, though he lost it all long before the fire consumed his instrument. Weeks went by with no more than a dollar coming his way each day. He lost weight, he rarely left his box, and he never touched his old signs. He died, not physically because his organs were still running, but he felt there was nothing to live for and so, he didn’t live.
Months went by after the fire. The old man heard the three-o-clock bell, and instead of hearing children curse him he heard heavy plastic clash against the ground. He felt his way to the alley entrance and found a heavy plastic case and a cardboard sheet. He pulled the soft, new viola out of the case and played while children sounded out his sign. “When you’ve lost everything, look up and realize how beautiful today is.” And the man looked up.


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