Contest #224 shortlist ⭐️


Fiction Friendship Teens & Young Adult

The Masked Trumpeter

A cloudless night like this

                                                                   Can set the spirit soaring:

                                                                   After a tiring day

                                                                   The clockwork spectacle is


                                                                                               - W.H. Auden

Mexico City is never completely dark at night. It is always enveloped in the collective penumbra of billions of streetlamps and all objects cast long shadows in that eerie glow that is wondrous against the blackened sky; it emboldens those that wish to venture the city streets during those hours of peaceful respite from the harshness of daily life in this great metropolis.

           It was already midnight when Alejandro and I started walking. We had spent a full evening at our friend Guadalupe’s house and the clue that we had overstayed our welcome came when her father started strolling down the hallway, giving us dirty looks as he passed the den where we sat with her listening to records. But both Alejandro and I lived regrettably far away. Compounding the problem was that no buses would be running at that hour, and, between us, we didn’t have enough money for a taxi. That’s when we decided to walk.

           The old San Ildefonso College was the heart of downtown’s historic center, nearly 20 kilometers away. We figured, in our foolish and irresponsible minds of only 19 years, that if we walked straight along Insurgentes Avenue at a fairly good pace we would make it to our 7:00 AM class with time to spare.

           Not only is Mexico City never fully dark it is also, like New York, truly, “a city that never sleeps.” So, we were not alone. The number of cars seemed to have dwindled slightly from what you usually see in the daytime, but they were still out in significant numbers, enough to create a never ceasing cacophony and a parade of ghostly lights flashing by. And there were many other walkers as well, going this way and that way; I tried making up each person’s story as they passed. A few, I figured, were like us, out on the town for no good reason at all, while mostwere probably either up early and on their way to work a late-night shift or leaving work and, finally, on their way home.

           By 2:30 AM we were on top of the Viaducto, an incongruent freeway whose cars were rushing underneath at a maddening pace. We stood and watched in silence for a while from above; the fascinating spectacle creating a surge of excitement. But there also came the realization of fatigue.

           “Hey, Alex, I’m getting kind of thirsty. Let’s stop at that convenience store up ahead."

           “You read my mind, Sal.”

           The store was an old time, free-standing 7/11, the kind that stays open all night. As we entered, the sole employee with more distrust than curiosity, following us with his gaze as we made our way around the store. The clerk went back to the cash register to observe our movements from the safety of his counter and seemed relieved when we finally came up to him with sodas and assorted junk food. It wasn’t healthy but it was all we could afford at that moment.

           The donuts were delicious as I ate them, washing them down with an ice-cold soda, the fizziness of which stung the back of my throat and created a welcome, revitalizing sensation as it worked its way down to my stomach. I stood still momentarily relishing this feeling of near-ecstasy. Those moments were hard to come by at my age. I had concluded in my short life, that happiness, or at least a semblance of happiness, was attainable only by stringing together moments of contentment like this one – no matter how small – to fill in the gaps of an otherwise empty life.

           I finished off the pack of donuts and the rest of the soda as we walked, and I was feeling ready to continue this absurd trek.

           By 4:30 AM we had made it to the intersection of Insurgentes Avenue and the Paseo de la Reforma Boulevard. We veered off to the right and proceeded down Reforma, the exquisite, European-style boulevard full of history, and, eventually, about half an hour later, reached Juárez Avenue. The impressive city center, with its massive colonial-era buildings, was now in full view. The lights atop the Torre Latinoamericana – Mexico’s first true skyscraper – twinkled happily. There was a bright glow behind the Alameda, the wonderful central park with its handsome alamo trees separated by promenades interrupted by fountains. The light was coming from the construction site of the future Alameda subway station which was still in its excavation phase. The construction workers were so busy they seemed antlike, and the roar of the machinery was loud.

           There were four or five workers on their break sitting around a small campfire on top of which there was a flat pan where they were heating up tortillas; a pot of what appeared to be beef stew was next to it. The delicious smell of the stew wafted into the crisp, morning air.

           As we approached, one of the workers smiled at us and asked, “where are you boys off to so early?”

           “To the prepa,” I replied.

           “It’s still too early, isn’t it?”

           “We have a 7 o’clock class,” I said.

           “Then you have time for some breakfast. Come and eat a taco,” he commanded, almost paternally.

           As I bit hungrily into one of the tacos he prepared for us, I relived, with eyes closed, what I had experienced earlier with the donuts and soda and, once again, gave thanks for life’s small but meaningful wonders.

           But I was also deathly tired, so, I decided to lie down on a cardboard mat the workers had for just that purpose – that of splendid repose after a delicious meal. I turned and saw Alex had already fallen asleep.

           I woke suddenly feeling the firm tapping of a heavy boot on my ribs.

           “Wake up, Sal.” It was Alex who was prodding me. “It’s 6:45 and we’re going to be late for class.”

           I rushed over to a water fountain and splashed my face. I turned, as we walked hurriedly away, to thank the worker who had been so nice to us but he was no longer there.

           We scurried off past the beautiful, art deco Palace of Fine Arts – the hub of Mexico’s cultural world – towards Cinco de Mayo Avenue. The city was coming back to life. Storekeepers were sweeping the curb; the street cleaner passed making the air smell like humid dirt. A people were already rushing in all directions carrying briefcases, bags and umbrellas. One more block remained before reaching the Zócalo, the immense government square.

           It was unusual to hear music so early in morning. Usually street performers – which abound in the city – will wait until people are on their lunch breaks and feeling hurried. But the music was definite, becoming louder as we approached the corner. It someone was playing a trumpet; it was a marvelous, jazzy piece that I recognized immediately: “Petits Machin” from the Miles Davis album Filles de Kilimanjaro. It was a difficult piece but being so well played that I was expecting to see Miles Davis himself. But instead, next to the entrance gate of the Metropolitan Cathedral, there stood a comical figure wearing a silver wrestler’s mask (a replica of the iconic costume of Mexico’s famous wrestler, El Santo) masterfully playing his trumpet. Some passersby were smiling, clearly amused, tossing some coins into the instrument case that was lying open on the sidewalk.

           The masked trumpeter would close his eyes on occasion, savoring the melodious sounds but there was an inherent sadness in his playing that his clever disguise could not hide. He noticed me as I stood off to one side. I had stayed behind as Alex hurried on ahead, mainly because I felt compelled to talk to him; there had to be a story behind how such an accomplished artist ended up playing in the streets for pocket change.

           “You are really great, man,” I said enthusiastically during a lull in the performance.

He nodded politely acknowledging my compliment. And a great idea occurred to me in a flash.

           “I know how you can make some money,” I said. “Why don’t you come with me to the prepa? I’m sure you’ll be a tremendous hit with the students.”

           He hesitated for a moment, not saying anything, appearing deep in thought. I remember thinking I could almost make out a frown behind the mask. Then he retrieved what little money was in the case and lovingly put away his trumpet. Picking up his case he gave a step towards me and simply said, “Okay.” As we walked, I asked him his name. “Ramón,” he replied.

           The Old San Ildefonso College was only a block and half away. It is a regal structure commissioned by the Viceroy of Spain in the final years of the sixteenth century and has since served its purpose as an institution of learning and knowledge. The architecture is magnificent and in keeping with the norms of that bygone era: Large patios bordered on all four sides by three stories of stone arches. The walls behind the arches are covered by the spectacular frescoes painted by Mexico’s three greatest muralists – Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros.

           As Ramón and I approached the main entrance, the huge, carved wooden doors were open. Stepping inside, we ran into Alex who was on his way to find me.

           “Old man Santos didn’t allow me to enter because his class had already begun," Alex said, almost with relief that he didn’t have to endure the heavy philosophy class. He looked at the trumpeter with some confusion.

           ” What’s going on?”

           “He’s going to make some money. Come on,” I commanded.

           We led Ramón to the center of the main patio where all was quiet, after all, everyone was in class, and peace prevailed – at least for now.

           “Start playing,” I told him, “And you’ll see the response. Trust me.”

           Ramón, the Masked Trumpeter, put his trumpet to his lips, closed his eyes behind his wrestler’s mask and began. He had decided on playing something lively and that was popular at the moment: Chuck Mangione’s “Feels So Good.”

           It was amazing, and once again I was surprised at the artistry of this musician. He made his trumpet sound more like Mangione’s iconic flugelhorn! The acoustics of that ancient building were in his favor and the sounds drifted upward and sideways loudly, and pleasingly, filling the enormous space with a rich and wondrous sound.

           One by one the doors opened, and people started appearing at the railings of all three floors. There began, in the background, the hushed din of people in a hurry to speak. Some stood there appearing startled, some were applauding, all were smiling.

           I couldn’t tell who initiated it, but the coins started raining down, glittering, momentarily illuminated by the sun as they fell and bounced heavily on the patio stone blocks, clinking and clanking loudly. Some the spectators crumpled up some one- or five-peso bills and threw them towards the center where Ramón was standing, straight as an army bugler, diligently and masterfully playing his trumpet; he looked comical with his silly mask on, but he was, nevertheless, inspiring.

           Mr. Hernández, one of the custodians, smiling broadly, handed Alex and I two patio brooms, a dustpan and several large paper bags and we began sweeping up the coins and bills. Several guys we didn’t know started helping us pick up the money and the bags began to feel heavy. When the tune ended, Ramón looked up, just then realizing that he had drawn a huge crowd that had begun applauding excitedly, whistling and cheering. “ENCORE!” someone yelled. Then in unison hundreds of voices began crying out for more. Ramon complied and started playing Herb Alpert’s “Tequila”. Once again there was raucous cheering. When he had finished, he bowed then lifted his trumpet in appreciation; I couldn’t see his face, but I could tell he was soaking in the loud applause – the artist’s fodder for the soul.

           Alex and I led Ramón out through the back entrance and crossed the street to the tiny Pánuco Café and we began to count his money. Two thousand five hundred and twenty-three pesos – not bad for a twenty-minute performance!

           Ramón took off his mask. He was one of those good-looking guys that can’t grow a full beard. And, even in his shabby clothes, there was an air about him that made him look like someone who, when spotted, might be confused with a celebrity.

           Mr. Vilchis, the young music teacher, happened to pass by and spotted us as we lingered in the café, chatting. He waved from the entrance then entered and walked towards us.

           “May I join you?” he asked.

           “Of course, sir,” I replied, motioning for him to sit down.

           He ordered a cappuccino then directed his words to Ramón. “Have you studied music for long?” he asked.

           “No sir. I have no formal musical training,” he answered shyly. “My uncle, Beto, played with a mariachi band when I was growing up and he would sometimes visit on his way to work, already dressed in his suit and carrying his trumpet case.” Ramón went on. “I always loved it when on weekends he would play for us. He is the one that taught me the fundamentals of music.” He lowered his gaze. “After he passed away, my Aunt Concha, gave me his trumpet.”

           “I’m sorry,” Mr. Vilchis said, truly touched. “Listen, why don’t I introduce you to someone I know that has a band. Right now, they get contracts to play in restaurants and bars that offer live music. I play with them sometimes, just for fun. I’m a flutist,” he interjected with some pride. “They’re in need of trumpet player, since they play many Cuban danzón pieces. But when the need arises, they’ll play jazz, rock, or just about any genre of music.”

           Ramón was listening to Mr. Vilchis with great interest – he was, after all, out of work and struggling – and the prospect of making a living playing music was highly appealing to him but he felt shy about asking for any more details.

           ” Anyway,” Mr. Vilchis said. “Here is his name and telephone number. You can tell him that Carlos Vilchis said it was alright to call him, if you’re interested.” And Mr. Vilchis left us.

           The card was pale yellow and bold black letters read:

Carlos Calderón


La Cumbre Musical Group

In the upper left-hand corner, there was a drawing of a treble clef in red. At the bottom was his telephone number.

           “You’re going to call him, right?” My question came out almost like a command.

           “I guess so.”

           Ramón seemed to feel the pressure behind our gaze, silently urging him on to not lose this opportunity. He got up and walked to the opposite wall where there was a pay phone, placed the receiver to his ear, put in a 20-cent coin and dialed Carlos Calderón’s number. He spoke briefly in a soft, mumbling tone. “Gracias,” we finally heard him say.

           “He wants me to meet with him today at El Bar León at 5:00 PM for an audition. Mr. Vilchis was right, they’re in need of a trumpet player.”

           “You’re going to nail it, you’ll see. And to play in El Bar León, wow, what an opportunity!"

           We talked at the table in the tiny El Pánuco café for the rest of the day telling each other our life’s stories. Alex and I didn’t really have much to talk about; up till now our lives were those of adolescents struggling to find their way or, at least, find out what it is we wanted to do with our lives. But for Ramón, it had been an intense life punctuated by death, failures and loneliness. Perhaps this opportunity would be a turning point for him, and Alex and I were happy to have somehow contributed in making it happen. Finally, the masked trumpeter stood up and walked to the door. “Thanks,” was all he said as he waved good-bye. But he was smiling gratefully, dampness building up in his eyes. And at 4:30 PM, at the age of 26, Mexico’s future musical superstar, Ramón Astorga, walked out to find his way through the busy streets towards El Bar León and his destiny.

November 12, 2023 21:54

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Story Time
08:04 Nov 30, 2023

The attention to detail here is really remarkable, and I applaud you for taking that kind of time to document a true event. Well done.


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Philip Ebuluofor
18:26 Nov 25, 2023



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Mary Bendickson
07:21 Nov 25, 2023

Interesting story made more so knowing it was true. Welcome to Reedsy and congrats on the shortlist.


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Aaron Morgan
21:05 Nov 24, 2023

I love this story! The series of events flow very well together and the descriptions of the city make me feel as if I were walking alongside the characters. Having the opportunity to impact someone’s life in a positive way is so powerful and formative to the giver. This story captures that truth.


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22:02 Nov 12, 2023

This story is based on a personal experience and it happened almost exactly as it is written.


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