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Jan/Feb 2014 Fiction

The Mandolin Player

by Cam Lay

Image courtesy of British Library Photostream

Image courtesy of British Library Photostream


Calling him a dwarf didn't seem exactly accurate. He had neither stunted limbs nor over-large head; in fact, he was completely, perfectly, proportional. So when the girl first saw him—as she walked with her father down the tunnel leading to Grand Central Station—her first thought was that she wasn't seeing right, that her eyes were playing tricks on her, that the man's stature was a strange, optical illusion. However, by the time she and her father were within 30 feet of him, his smallness could not be denied.

The girl was 12 years old. She and her father had just gone to see the musical Cats and were now making their way back home to Darien, Connecticut. The tickets to the show had been a birthday present from her parents. The girl loved musicals and knew all the words to most of the popular ones. On their way back to Grand Central from the theater, the girl and her father had stopped to admire the Christmas lights in the windows at Lord & Taylor. Those Christmas lights always made her happy; they reminded her of the perfect, imagined childhood that she had never had.

The small man wore ordinary enough clothes, the girl thought: black loafers, a slightly shabby brown blazer, checkered button-up tucked into gray cotton trousers. His crows' feet and gray speckled black hair suggested that he was around the age of her father, maybe a little older. He removed what looked like a violin case from a hand cart he had been pulling. No, not a violin case, she thought, a ukulele. No, a mandolin.

The girl tugged at her father's wrist. The shiny silver cufflinks he wore had been given to him as a 20 year anniversary gift by the girl's mother.

"Hey, dad," she said and beckoned to the little musician, "can we watch?"

"What?" he said, "no, sorry honey. Our train leaves in a couple minutes."

"Please? Can't we just take the next train?" She put on a pouty face that worked from time to time.

"The next train isn't for an hour, and your mother's waiting." His voice was utterly ordinary, lacking any hint of what must have been going on in his mind.

As they continued walking, the girl turned back to look at the little man. The mandolin appeared almost like a guitar in his child-sized hands. She continued to glance back every few seconds, but the tunnel was packed with people, and soon her view of him was completely obscured. She could hear him when he started to play though—the sad chords from his mandolin, his voice powering over the din of the crowd.

 

"Something weird happened the other day," my wife said, "and it reminded me of something that happened a long time ago." We were at an Italian restaurant in Park Slope, and our food had just arrived. I had ordered the gnocchi with prosciutto and a tomato cream sauce, my wife some kind of fish. This was our third "date night," something suggested by our marriage counselor.

My wife recounted an incident from when she was twelve. She and her father had gone to see Cats; in the tunnel on the way to Grand Central, they had come across a very small man playing a mandolin. The story stood out, not so much because of the mandolin player, but because my wife seldom told stories involving her father. "I'm not sure why I was so fascinated with the man in the tunnel," she said. "Yeah, he was little and had this powerful voice that just seemed way too big to be coming out of him, but that wasn't it. There was something else that was really drawing me to him. I really wanted to stay and watch him play."

"Was he good looking?" I said, a sort of joke.

"No. He was old. And he was a dwarf."

"Well, some people are into that."

"You're disgusting," she said and rolled her eyes playfully. This was good, I thought. I loved bantering with my wife. I think I had fallen in love with her over banter.

"And I thought you said he wasn't a dwarf."

"You know what I mean." And then a smile. A smile!

I thought about how things had gotten to a point where a smile was a notable occurrence. It wasn't exactly clear, but it seemed as though it all had to do with Jamie. It wasn't his fault, of course, but it was clear that everything was tied to him.

Our son was born with a rare form of leukemia, and the two years that followed his birth were an endless stream of trips to oncologists and specialists and radiologists, and then he died anyway. From Jamie's birth the prognosis had been pretty grim, so you'd think that we would have been prepared when he died, and in a way we were, but being prepared didn't seem to make things any easier. The two-year anniversary of his death had been last week. It made me particularly sad to think that now Jamie had been dead almost as long as he'd been alive.

The year before, for the first anniversary, I went up with my wife out to Connecticut to put flowers on Jamie's grave, but this year I didn't think I could bear it. My wife had gone out to Connecticut without me. Even though we lived in Brooklyn, we had decided to bury Jamie out in Darien by my wife's mother's house. We figured it was more peaceful out there—the kind of place with a sacred silence where when you stopped to listen, you could hear the birds chirping or the wind rustling in the trees.

"Anyhow," my wife said, "we went over to the ticket counter, but the line was long, and it was moving really slowly." I took a bite of my gnocchi. It was a little dry but otherwise not bad. "We finally got our tickets, and we ran downstairs to the track, but by the time we got there, the train was pulling away. So now my dad had to call my mom to tell her we'd be late. We went over to the pay phone bank, but I still really wanted to watch the mandolin player. I asked my dad, and he said that I could go over there while he was on the phone."

 

The girl made her way back to the subway tunnel where she had seen the man with the mandolin. A half dozen people were gathered around watching him, but most of the people in the tunnel would just walk right on by without paying him even a glance. Before beginning his next song, the small man looked up at the girl.

"The pretty red-haired girl returns," he said in what was either a deep Russian or Eastern European accent. The girl wasn't shy, per se, but she didn't know how to respond, so she just stood there feeling the warmth rise in her cheeks. "Well, then," he said, "I will play a special song for the special girl."

The song started with the little man strumming his mandolin slowly before picking up the pace. It was a minute before he actually started singing. The words were all in another language, but the girl thought that it was beautiful nonetheless. It was a strange sort of song that was both happy and sad at the same time. Appropriate perhaps for square dancing at a funeral, she thought. Towards the end of the song, the small man looked directly at her as he played; she looked right back, lost in the music and in the man's big gray-green eyes. Was that a tear she saw, she wondered. When the song was over, the crowd, which had grown to maybe 15 people, all clapped—the girl most enthusiastically of all. The clapping subsided, and the girl was startled by a firm hand on her shoulder. It was just her father, though.

"He was so good," she said, "did you hear him?"

"A little at the end," her dad said. "Here, give him this." Her father handed her a five dollar bill. She walked up to the man and dropped the bill into his mandolin case. Up close she could see that he only came up to her shoulders and that he was older than she had originally thought. More like her grandfather than her father.

"Thank you so much, pretty girl," he said.

"You were really good," she said and turned to walk back to her dad.

"Wait, pretty girl."

She turned back around.

"Come here," he said, "I have something for you."

She hesitated, glancing back to her father for reassurance. He smiled at her as if to say that it was okay, so she turned back to the man. When she was perhaps a yard away from him, the little man waved his arms in the air as if he were carrying some kind of invisible wand, and then voila! like magic, a single long-stemmed rose appeared in his right hand.

"Neat trick," she said to him, wondering how he had done it. Had it been up his sleeve? Hidden behind his back? She reached out to grab the rose. It was purple, but nearly so dark that it appeared black. Just as she took the rose from his wrinkled little hand, the man got up on his tip toes and whispered into her ear.

"My dear, you must never think it is your fault," he said. "The world can be a very hard place, but you will learn that in time. You must take care." She was puzzled, taken aback. What was he talking about? She retreated to her father, the purple rose hanging limply in her hand.

"Let's go dad," she said, "we don't want to miss the next train too."

"We could stay for another song if you want. We have plenty of time."

"That's okay, let's go."

"Did the guy say something to you? I thought I saw him whispering something."

"Nothing really. Just 'thanks' for the fiver."

 

By now I had pieced everything together from bits that my wife had told me over the years about what happened with her father. Her age at the time. The time of year. The driving back home from the train station. "So that was the night your father left?" I said.

She nodded. "We took the train from Grand Central and then drove to our house from the train station. My dad dropped me off in front of the house and told me to run inside because it was so cold out. He was going to back out and go down the driveway to the garage. And then, like I told you before, he just never came in the house. And that was the last I saw of him for like five years."

She was upset from talking about all this, and I didn't blame her. It was a hell of a thing to have your dad leave like that, out of the blue. The guy didn't even bother moving out. He'd secretly packed a single suitcase, and that was it. A few weeks later he sent her mom a letter trying to explain how he wasn't in love with her anymore or some crap like that. Out of my peripheral vision, I saw our waitress approach our table to ask how everything was, but I waved her off with a subtle nod.

"I remember my dad hugging me a little extra before I got out of the car, but I didn't think anything of it until later. And then I remember thinking about the musician in the tunnel: how he acted, what he said—how could he have known? Over the years I sort of forgot about him. It was more than 25 years ago."

I skewered the final gnocchi dumpling on my plate, swirling it around in tomato cream sauce before placing it in my mouth. My wife didn't deserve everything that had happened to her. Of course, one thing I'd come to learn was that deserving or not deserving something didn't mean a whole lot. I reached out across the dinner table to grab her hand, but she jerked it away, violently, as if touched by a flame.

"What's wrong?" I said.

"What's wrong?" she said, in mimicry of my own intonations. She poured herself a half glass more of wine.

"I'm sorry," I said.

"For what?"

"For what happened with your dad, for what happened with Jamie, for what's happening here," I said and motioned with my hand to the empty space between us.

"Okay," she said. She took a slow and deliberate sip of wine and held it in her mouth before swallowing in one big gulp. She patted her dark stained lips with her napkin.

"We can't replace Jamie, but we can still have a family," I said.

"Why didn't you come with me to Connecticut?" she said.

I knew I didn't have a good answer. "I'm sorry. I should have."

"But you didn't."

"I didn't." This time I didn't see the waitress coming, so I didn't have the opportunity to shoo her away before she was there at our table. She looked at us, and I could tell by the expression on her face that she realized that she had arrived at an inopportune time. Still, she was past the point of no return, so she asked us if we wanted dessert anyway.

"I just want to go home," my wife said to me, and I asked for the check. The waitress smiled back at me cordially, trying to make the best of the awkward scene.

"Tell me something," I said when the waitress had gone. "Why did you just think about the mandolin player again today, after all these years of never telling me that story?"

 

A woman walks hurriedly through the crowd of evening commuters down the tunnel that goes from Grand Central to the subway. She is 37 years old. Today is a special day for her, although "special" may not be the word. It is the two-year anniversary of her son's death, and she is returning from Connecticut where she visited his grave.

She feels as if a layer of grief covers her skin, but in a way she doesn't mind it. Yes, she wishes things were different, that her son was alive, that her marriage was healthy. But so long as the facts of her life remain the same, she doesn't mind the accompanying feelings: the strange shortness of breath, the heaviness on her forehead. They remind her that things matter, and she feels a kind of consolation in this.

The woman twists through the crowd, keeping her head down and trying to focus on the immediate task at hand: get home, get to the subway, take the next step, the next step. But then something about the place, about the configuration of the tunnel and the bustling flow of the crowd, stirs a memory in her that is both ancient and immediate. She stops and listens, almost convincing herself that she hears the single strum of a stringed instrument. A sound distant and familiar, not quite like a guitar.

What she would give to actually hear that sound again, that chord. To look up and sweep her long red hair out of her face and have him be there, looking the same as he did all those years ago, except perhaps that his salt and pepper hair would have turned white. Their gazes would meet, and the woman would see the spark of familiarity in his glistening eyes. Such a beautifully sad, little old man, she would think. He would stop playing and raise his hand in greeting toward her. She would wait for it, wait for it, thinking that if she watched carefully this time, she might be able to figure out where the rose came from.

 

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