When Mr. Penny woke up that morning, his head felt like a vitamin bottle (plugged with cotton). “Nothing helps a plugged head except strong tea and a long walk.” Was it Mrs. Mickleson who’d told him that? Regardless, it was worth a try. After his third cup, he stepped out the door.
He made his way to the Central Library, one of his favorite places. The doors there opened automatically. There was an escalator. Mr. Penny admired escalators but didn’t like them much. He’d heard—this might not even be true—that an escalator had sucked a girl’s shoelaces up, once, and ripped her legs off. Rumor or not, he’d never trusted an escalator since.
Someone had told him (Mrs. Mickleson again?) that the sameness of a library’s odor is one of the few things in life one can depend on. It was true. The Central Library smelled . . . well, it was pasty and electrical. Dirty carpets—that was important. It didn’t particularly smell like books, though that had to be a part of it somewhere.
First, he looked at the magazines. That never took him long. There aren’t many magazines worth flipping through.
He tried reading a book after that, only the place was so noisy—it’s hard enough concentrating these days at the best of times—that he ended up putting it back on the shelf. Too bad.
After he drank from the water fountain and used the toilet, Mr. Penny couldn’t think of anything else to do. So he left. The librarian smiled at him on the way out.
Right across from the library was Victrola Park. It wasn’t a big park like (the name escaped him). There was a slide and a sandbox in the middle of Victrola, but never any children—just a lot of men walking by themselves and looking sideways at one another. Mr. Penny wasn’t sure about these men. If he looked at their eyes he could see the ideas swimming around in them, and they were never pleasant ones.
His favorite bench was the one in front of the war monument. He’d only just sat down, when—
“Hey bud,” said an older man with sparkling eyes, appearing.
“Hi,” said Mr. Penny.
“Can you give me a dollar, bud?”
Mr. Penny examined the man. His beard was white for the most part, but yellow around his lips. His teeth (there weren’t many of them) were yellow as well.
“No,” Mr. Penny decided—because he didn’t have a dollar.
“I want to go to the Paul McCartney concert,” said the man.
Mr. Penny had heard the name, he was sure. It didn’t ring the bell all the way, though.
“That’s my dream in life,” said the man. “Ever since I was a kid. To see a Paul McCartney concert.”
The man smelled like cigarettes and something else. It was unpleasant.
“This is probably the last time he’s gonna tour, you know? Or I could be dead soon. I take antipsychotics. I get . . . $350 a month and my rent is $350. If I don’t get to that concert, I’ll—oh man, I don’t know what I’ll do. I’m lucid right now and I want to enjoy it.”
He looked so old and sad, this strange man. Mr. Penny guessed that he was eighty.
“Pop used to take great care of me, but he’s dead. He was a good man. He loved the Beatles. That’s where I got my love of the Beatles from. Hey, you know the song ‘Blackbird’?”
Mr. Penny contemplated. No, he didn’t.
A woman walked by with a shopping bag. The man turned to her.
“Say, do you have a dollar?”
The woman didn’t. Neither did the next one.
The man sighed.
“I’m not a lot different than other people. I have dreams. Fuck it, I have dreams. If I can’t get to this thing . . . Fuck. I might as well be dead.”
Mr. Penny nodded—though he wasn’t really listening. He was thinking. A dream. What had Mrs. Mickleson told him? “A dream keeps your blood running.” Something like that. “If you stop dreaming,” she’d said another time, “you might as well stop breathing.”
Had there been something like that in the past, something that kept his blood running? At thirty-five years of age, something must’ve kept him going for that long. It hadn’t been an easy life that he could recollect (he couldn’t very well), not by a long shot. There had to be something.
The next morning, Mr. Penny didn’t get out of bed till 11:00. He didn’t go outside all day, either. He just didn’t feel like it. He did his usual inside things (ate toast, listened to the radio) then looked out the window for a bit.
After lunch, he went across the hall to Mrs. Mickleson’s. When he sat in the blue armchair, he sank right down into it. It swallowed him up. A good armchair is always hungry.
In a minute, Mrs. Mickleson came into the room with the tea tray. She poured Mr. Penny some tea and added three lumps but no cream.
Mrs. Mickleson was the landlady. She was a nice woman, though she talked too much. As she went on about something, some sick relation, Mr. Penny imagined a fox peeping in the window at him, sticking its tongue out. That always made him laugh. Not this time.
Mrs. Mickleson was staring at him, now. Had she asked him a question?
“Something troubling you, Mr. Penny?”
“You don’t seem like yourself today.”
“Do you know who Paul McCartney is?”
Mrs. Mickleson jumped up—and disappeared. She reappeared a minute later with a big stack of LPs.
“I love the Beatles,” she said, dropping the LPs on the coffee table.
“Who?” said Mr. Penny.
Mrs. Mickleson dropped her jaw, this time.
“But . . . of course you’ve heard of the Beatles?”
Her tenant shook his head.
“Don’t be silly.” She held up one of the albums. “Meet the Beatles?”
Mr. Penny looked at her quizzically.
“Abbey Road? You’ve listened to Abbey Road, I’m sure. Or heard something from it?”
He didn’t think so, no.
“Let it Be?”
Mr. Penny shook his head.
“You’ve never heard” (she held out a brightly-colored album) “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band?”
“A Hard Day’s Night?”
Mr. Penny paused. That one looked familiar. He might’ve seen that somewhere. Or had he?
“I saw the Beatles play Shea Stadium in ’65. That’s how I lost this tooth.” Mrs. Mickleson pointed to a gap on her bottom row of teeth. Mr. Penny had never noticed it before.
She held up another LP. There was something scribbled on it.
“Look—signed. By their manager. He killed himself.”
Mrs. Mickleson leaned forward. She whispered:
“He’s coming, you know.”
Mr. Penny shivered.
“Who?” he whispered back.
“Paul McCartney!” she cried, slapping him on the leg. “On the twenty-third. Just a couple more weeks. Of course I’ve got my ticket and—”
Mrs. Mickleson bit her lip. She grinned. She lay a hand on Mr. Penny’s.
“How would you like to go to a Paul McCartney concert?”
Mr. Penny thought about it. Paul Mcartney wasn’t his dream, he didn’t think. “Everyone deserves a chance,” though, as people were fond of telling him.
“Alright,” he said.
Mrs. Mickleson’s eyes sparkled.
Mr. Penny dreamed, that night.
He was walking down the street, holding a briefcase. He was himself—but he wasn’t. He was someone like himself. A twin, or something. He was a successful man, a working man, with a spring in his step. He counted the smiles people gave him (ten). Mr. Penny hadn’t felt that happy since . . . He couldn’t remember ever being that happy.
When things can’t get any better, they like to get worse.
As he waved to a man in a blue car, his briefcase popped open and papers flew everywhere. Mr. Penny chased them down the sidewalk and into the street.
“Look out!” yelled someone.
Mr. Penny lifted his head off the pillow. It was morning.
A man of habit, Mr. Penny looked forward more to the things he’d done a hundred times than to any fresh venture. He’d never been to a rock concert, not that he could remember. That’s not to say it wouldn’t be enjoyable, not necessarily. It would be different, that’s for sure. He was almost looking forward to it.
On the day of the concert, he took a hot bath. Then he picked out his best suit (he only had the two) and slipped into it. It was baggy, but that didn’t matter.
There was a tall mirror in Mr. Penny’s bedroom that Mrs. Mickleson had given him. “It’s no trouble,” she’d said. “I was going to throw it out.” It was a perfectly good mirror, only something was the matter with it. It had gotten warped somehow and—well, when Mr. Penny stood in front of it, he seemed thinner than he felt and his head looked as small as a donut. It was amusing.
Mr. Penny tied his tie around his skinny little neck and buttoned up his jacket. He turned sideways—and laughed. His head actually vanished!
There wasn’t time for tea that afternoon (Mrs. Mickleson had to get ready), so Mr. Penny waited in the blue armchair for what seemed like three hours. Finally, she stepped out of the bathroom.
Mr. Penny’s eyes widened.
Mrs. Mickleson was wearing a grey suit, a man’s suit, and had on—it was a shaggy kind of black wig. He almost hadn’t recognized her. She looked like a man.
“You’ll understand when we get there,” she said. Then she grabbed her purse with one hand, and Mr. Penny with the other.
They drove forever. The city was bigger than Mr. Penny would’ve ever guessed. They parked at an enormous building, a stadium. Mr. Penny had felt just fine inside the car, but when he stepped out—well, it was like stepping into a river. There were so many eyeballs and people pressed together like fish. Mr. Penny thought of the aquarium at the zoo. He’d only ever been on the outside, before.
There was a kind of gate, and as he slid through it a large woman rubbed his pockets. He wanted to wait for Mrs. Mickleson, who was lagging, but he couldn’t’ve slowed down or stopped if he’d wanted to.
Once they found their seats, things calmed down a bit. They were an hour early, which gave Mrs. Mickleson plenty of time to tell Mr. Penny about her nephew’s leg and her sister’s emphysema.
Her tenant was about to nod off when he thought—he was sure of it—he could smell a skunk. He sat up straight. A skunk (this was years and years ago) had sprayed his uncle in the face and burned his eyes so badly he needed glasses after that. They were comical glasses that made him look like a Great Horned Owl, which was just as well: a Great Horned Owl is the only thing on Earth that will eat a skunk.
“She already has arthritis, the poor dear, so the goiter won’t do her a bit of good.”
Mr. Penny was about to nod off again when a scream jolted him awake. Now everyone was screaming and jumping to their feet. Mr. Penny jumped, too.
But it wasn’t a skunk they were wound up about. It was Paul McCartney.
He was an older man with a British accent. The skin on his neck dangled down. When he sang, he wobbled his head from side to side, like a bird. The neck skin wobbled, too. It was difficult to hear his singing, the music was so loud.
When the first song finished and a man behind him screamed “Play ‘Yesterday!’” Mr. Penny nearly died.
“Play ‘Yesterday,’” screamed Mrs. Mickleson, next to him.
By the end of the first hour, Mr. Penny’s legs were getting stiff. He wasn’t used to standing for so long. It bothered the one leg especially, the one with the scars. He had to stand, though, because everyone else was standing and he didn’t want to sit there staring at someone’s behind.
“Play ‘Blackbird’!” yelled the man behind him.
Paul McCartney must’ve done just that, as the man was so pleased when the next song started that he grabbed Mr. Penny by the shoulders and shook him like a terrier shaking a rat.
The whole crowd roared.
Mrs. Mickleson screamed.
Mr. Penny decided that his dream was not Paul McCartney.
A few hours later, as they made their way out of the stadium—he’d never seen so many people—Mr. Penny checked for familiar faces. Lately, people seemed to know him and would wave to him or approach him even though he never had the slightest idea who they were. It was the strangest thing.
On their way home, they cut through Victrola park. There was an old man on the bench, with a yellowed beard. Mr. Penny recognized him. He would’ve said hello to him—only the man was crying.
That night, Mr. Penny had the briefcase dream. As always, he was sauntering down the street, himself but someone else, swinging a briefcase and feeling not like Mr. Penny but like Mr. Millions.
Whenever a pretty girl walked by—there seemed to be no end of them—he smiled.
One especially pretty girl stopped and talked to him. No matter what Mr. Penny said, she laughed and laughed.
The girl took his free hand. She leaned closer . . .
Of course the briefcase had to pop open and Mr. Penny to go bounding around like a rabbit after the papers. The last one blew right into the middle of the street. When he bent over to pick it up—
“Play ‘Yesterday!’” screamed the pretty girl, behind him.
He woke up.
As Mr. Penny stared at his toast, there was a knock on the door. He looked out the peephole.
It was Mrs. Mickleson. Holding a blue briefcase. When he let her in, she set it on the kitchen table.
“Go ahead,” she said, smiling.
Mr. Penny brightened, a little. “Even an empty container is full of potential.” Who’d told him that? As he tried to remember, he popped open the briefcase and—
LPs. It was full of LPs. Beatles LPs.
“I was going to leave them to my daughter but she doesn’t even like the Beatles.
Can you imagine that?”
Mr. Penny watched the fox curl up in the briefcase while Mrs. Mickleson told him all about her daughter’s financial problems.
“Anyhow, they’re better off by far in your hands, in the hands of a fan.”
Mr. Penny’s hands started to shake. He put them behind his back.
“I only hope they make you half as happy as they’ve made me,” she said, kissing him on the cheek.
The second Mrs. Mickleson closed the door behind her, Mr. Penny, breathing hard, dumped the LPs onto the floor. He took the briefcase to his bedroom and flung it on the bed.
He changed into his good suit—it took a while, he was shaking so badly—and dug his dress shoes out of the closet. Then he picked up the briefcase and stood in front of the mirror.
He looked like the man. The man from his dream. He looked skinnier, of course—there really was something the matter with this mirror—and his legs were like zigzags. Still . . .
Mr. Penny turned. In profile, he looked handsome. Like a million dollars. Even if he’d lost his head.
Mr. Penny laughed. He hadn’t felt so good in . . . It must’ve been forever.
He dug some papers and pens out of a drawer, stuffed them into the briefcase and snapped it shut.
He opened the door . . .
And off he went.