The Stranger and the Twenty dollar Bill – Johanna Kopp

The world was black outside my windows, and my body ached for more sleep, but I willed my arms to push my body away from the warm, soft bed, and my legs to carry me to the kitchen. Looking the part was every bit as important as the rest, so while I swallowed large gulps of coffee, I quickly applied makeup to my tired, puffy eyes, before loading the equipment onto the small dolly. Each step was mechanical; if I thought about it for one moment, I would lose my resolve.

I pulled my scarf up over my nose with my free hand while the bitter cold air nipped at my eyes and cheeks, making my way as quickly as my legs would carry me down several blocks to Davis Square with my goods bumping along behind me over the uneven concrete. The quiet stillness of the night was slowly being infiltrated by the occasional car on the road when I reached the train station. My numb thighs graciously embraced the relief of the station’s encapsulated entryway.

After paying my fare, I balanced the dolly on the escalator. Descending slowly into the dimly lit station, the familiar sound of a saxophone greeted me like a sad customer in a lonely bar. Immediately frustrated by its sweet melody, I sat down in defeat on the nearest bench. I was late again. Davis Square station was my first choice because it was closest to home. Of course, I really wanted Harvard Station; that was the sweet spot this side of the bridge – the money maker, the crème de la crème – but it was two stops away making it nearly impossible for me to be the first to arrive. I contemplated returning home; that would be easier.

Time wasn’t my only adversary, more pertinent was the constant battle that churned in my mind – that enemy of the stage I succumbed to long ago, now threatening each nerve of my young twenty-one-year-old body. A demon entity that won the fight before – I remember the day clearly, the day I quit singing.

I was standing in the small gymnasium, the yellow glow from the highly polished wood floor contrasted the cool light from the icy blue sky resting quietly behind frosted windows. Proud silver radiators stationed like the Queen’s Guards along the window-covered wall forbade winter’s entry. I stood my ground before my teacher’s disappointed glare, solid like a marble sculpture, attempting to hide the anxiety which riddled my body, twisting my insides with an agony that threatened to purge my very soul onto the gymnasium’s varnish.

“We have gone over this, Johanna. You have a beautiful voice. I would not have given you this solo if I didn’t believe in you. You have so much talent; I don’t want to see it go to waste.” My teacher, at once firm and gentle, encouraged for the twelfth time that month.

My eyes were full of tears, even though I knew she meant what she was saying, but it did not matter because I was never going to be good enough. And the fear had taken hold of my whole body, I thought my legs might collapse beneath me, right there.

“I know you’re scared. That’s completely normal. That’s why we have been practicing every week. And, don’t forget, you promised me the other day that you would do this. I am counting on you.”

Through the gasping breaths of my balling ten-year-old self, the words “I can’t” forced their way into existence. My teacher was burdened with the task of taking to the stage to perform my part in our class play, and to sing my solo.

The first train of the day pulled in from Alewife, and I boarded it. As my train pulled into the station on the lower level, I peered out of the small window on the door and thought for a moment that I didn’t see anyone there. I eagerly rushed through the doors as soon as they opened and beelined for the bench. There was no one else there. I could not believe it. I quickly unpacked my stuff and got setup – plugging in my wires, adjusting the mic stand, staking my claim.

I wasn’t any good at the keyboard yet, and I was no Tracy Chapman, but I was determined to perform. So, I sang even though, maybe, no one could hear me and even though, maybe, it didn’t matter to anyone. After singing through all my prerecorded accompaniment several times, I wanted to sing something different. And truthfully, I didn’t know if anyone was really listening, anyway. So I decided to sing a song I had enjoyed singing since high school, Harlem Blues*, and I would just have to sing it acapella.

“You can never tell what’s in a man’s mind…”

My voice was steady and smooth, breathy and soft. I tried pretending I was the only one there, I was singing for myself.

“…and if he’s from Harlem, there’s no use of even tryin’…”.

As each line fell from my lips, my voice grew stronger, louder.

“And since my sweetie left me Harlem, well it ‘aint the same ol’ place…”.

My voice belted out, disappearing into the hollow space of the tunnels. My song filled the station, reverberating off the walls and the dingy fluorescent lights. Then, the ear-piercing screech of the metal wheels under the train straining against the bend in the tracks forced my voice out of the tunnels. I resisted. I let my song ring out, my voice trembling with the rumble of the thundering train.

When the train came to a stop at the platform, and the doors opened, people rushed out through the doors in droves like cattle being herded through a gate, and their ears were suddenly engulfed by my song. Some stared, while others pressed on in their hurry.

“…I have a friend who lives there, I know he won’t refuse to put some music to my troubles and call them Harlem blues…”

When my song was done, a woman walked up to me. Her face held an expression that was at once intense and kind. She placed a twenty-dollar bill in my box and said, “That was amazing. You have a beautiful voice, and I have never heard anyone sing with such perfect pitch like that before.” Then she walked away to wait for the next train.

Johanna Kopp is a writer from Cambridge, Massachusetts, now residing in Central Florida. She has recently completed a memoir and is the founder of a local creative writing group called Mad Scribes which can be found on Facebook at She writes nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and songs. She also enjoys incorporating the visual arts. Her work has appeared in The News Chief, on Scott Tarulli’s September in Boston: Live album, in Months to Years, and at