The Houses on Birch Street: No. 1 Birch Street

No. 1, Birch Street.

Every morning at 6 o’clock sharp, a young man steps out of his front door and onto the mat, which cheekily reads, “Nice underwear!”. Often he’ll scrape a clump of dirt off the sole of his shoe on the edge of the door, where it will join the other lumps from days past, before slinging his guitar around his thin shoulders, and turning to lock the door behind him. His keychain is unadorned, save for a picture of himself and a red-haired girl, enclosed in a cheap plastic case. The photo was taken one night the previous summer at the beach, the same week the annual carnival came to town. They have their arms around each other, and the girl is leaning her head on the young man’s shoulder.

The young man will walk east, his hands in his pockets, past all the darkened houses. Once he passes No. 8, he will turn left and head up the street towards the local park. He’ll head to the center, cutting across the empty field and past a small jungle gym before reaching a stone fountain. By now it will be almost 6:30, and the first few people will have started arriving, dog walkers and early–morning joggers. As soon as enough people are wandering the park, the young man will take out his guitar, leaving it open in front of him. He will play a variety of music, anything from country to tracks from old rock bands. One of the frequent joggers will always leave him a twenty dollar bill, and he will give her a brief smile and a nod. He’ll play for a few hours, accepting requests from anyone who asks, until around noon. Then, he’ll pack up his guitar, scooping up the money inside. On a good day he will make around fifty dollars, which he will fold and put in his pocket, alongside his keys. He won’t leave the park the same way he came in, straight across the field, as small soccer games will have sprung up, obstructing the way. Instead, he will walk around the outside, and head west towards the main city. His new route will mean he won’t pass by Birch Street at all, and will arrive in the city a few moments later. He’ll aim for a small café, where he’ll buy a cup of coffee and an egg–and–cheese breakfast sandwich. The girl with red hair from the photo on his keychain will stop in, and they’ll sit there for an hour or so, just talking, the girl picking at the young man’s sandwich. The girl will leave first, leaning over the table to give the young man a quick kiss before exiting the café.

Shortly after that the young man will finish his coffee and leave as well, throwing his empty mug and sandwich wrapper in the garbage on his way out the door. A brief walk will bring him to a central plaza, where he’ll once again bring out his guitar, and begin to play. Here he will usually make over a hundred dollars, and several of his audience will ask him if he sells albums. He will say no, but he can be hired to play his music live. His small concert will end close to 6:30, and on his way out of the city he will buy a small box of macaroons and another cup of coffee. By the time he gets back to Birch Street it will be near 7 o’clock, and he’ll return to his house to drop off his guitar, sunglasses and newly earned money before leaving from his back door, taking the macaroons with him. He’ll walk to another house, which he’ll enter also by the back door, and sit waiting in the kitchen until a girl comes in to join him. After lowering all the blinds they’ll share the macaroons and a couple glasses of wine, laughing and talking together over cheap take–out.

A couple hours later the young man will leave, his hair mussed and pink smudges on his cheek. The girl will hand him his jacket as he leaves, again by the back door, and returns to his house. There he’ll spend his evening lying on his couch, playing online blackjack on his laptop. Eventually he’ll throw his jacket back on, tucking the money he earned into one of the pockets. He will return to the city, where he’ll head to a small, hole–in–the–wall bar. In the back room he’ll join five other people sitting around an old wooden table. They’ll play cards late into the night, the young man gambling away all the money he earned. Only seldom will he win, however, and most nights he’ll stagger out of the bar, smelling of cheap whiskey and in a foul temper. It will be 4:30 in the morning before he finds his way back to Birch Street, and with shaking fingers he’ll dig his keys out of his jacket. The red–haired girl on his keychain will smile out from the photo as he will manage to unlock the door, and barely make it to his bed before he collapses, face first, onto his mattress.

–G.L. Aster

(No.’s 2 and 3 next week)