by JONATHAN OLDSTYLE
The afternoon came upon him all at once, in the twist of a tooth, and a tug, and the taste of brass and rhubarb. He’d done nothing more novel than have a nice bit of a bite of pie, as he’d done a thousand times before, but this time the heavy middle of the day suddenly sat upon his shoulders at the cost of a piece of himself. He groaned quietly and looked up.
“Please,” said the young woman at the end of the long table, “please tell us a story!”
He thought, and chewed, and spoke. “I was not always a man.” He smiled as he swallowed blood. “Once, long ago, in a small town, I was a boy, and it was there that I met a man, of middle-age, who said something to me…” and then he stopped speaking.
And it was quiet for a moment, and above them a bird wheeled about and turned on the wind and called across the canyon and the girl waited, and waited again, and looked at the children, who looked back at her, wondering why the man was silent, and finally she asked him, “What did he say?”
“Who?” His eyes moved from the bird in the sky and back to the girl. He blinked. “Who, and what, did who say?”
He’d heard a red hawk calling just now, and remembered another, from another time, at the edge of a lake in the mountains, on a night where cold blue fireworks bloomed in the warm summer sky. Mandolin strings buzzed in the air, here, and over there, hands were clapping, and three people were laughing, maybe four. He sat on a wood bench still tacky with fresh white paint, and in the morning he touched her face, and they drank juice together before he left.
“The man, in the village…what did he say?” The young woman had freckles, and her hair was pulled back and tied with a ribbon. She’d chosen fruit pie but ate only the ice cream beside it.
“Ah, yes.” He thought back to the man, a musician in the village, long ago. “The old man. That was many years ago,” and he paused before saying “young lady.” It was what he thought, because that is what she was, their only relationship, really, but he did not say it, because young ladies – women – these days, were sensitive.
He nodded, and thought, and sucked at the hole inside his mouth, beside the golden molar near the back. It was soft to the touch of his tongue, and it bled but it didn’t hurt. His fingers, roughened by the first half of a lifetime, felt the dry wood of the table. Oak. Unpainted, but stained, long ago, now faded.
Beneath the edge of the table in his other hand, he rolled the tooth around between his finger and his thumb, and then dropped it to the grass between his feet. Many years… it was the first time in all those years that the tooth had been apart from the rest of his body… lifetimes later, a child would find it in the dirt, and clean it, and hide it away in a cracked Bakelite box full of pennies and broken glass.
“A long time…” He thought of the immensity of the reality of a passage of time so easily compacted into the phrase “many years.” He drew in a breath and felt air touch the place where he once had a tooth, and he said “A long time…is a LONG time.” He looked at the young woman across the decades, and he knew that she could not yet understand. “That man,” he said, “The man, that man, he said my name.”
The young woman smiled at him, and waited.
He touched his thumb with his fingertip, and felt no tooth between them. His other hand moved across his stomach, and took both so that they would not rise up to his mouth, to feel the hole where the tooth had been.
“And,” she said, “what else did he say?”
“And…” He thought about that night, behind the rolling forward motion of all those years, the seat of his pants a bit tacky as he sat on a woman’s bed, after the fireworks, pulling at the rough sheets.
“And…” He thought, and he thought about their wedding, and their life together, their years together and his life as it went on, and on, afterwards.
And then eating warm rhubarb pie at a family’s Fourth of July party in America, so far from childhood and home, in the afternoon, in the summer, so far away from being a young man, and the mandolin and the clapping hands and the laughter, so long ago…
“And,” he said, “Then the old man spoke to me of music.”
And the young woman waited for more, as he looked up at the sky and saw no birds, but far off, above where the birds weren’t, there were clouds and beyond the clouds, even in the early afternoon, the moon, there. She waited, to be certain, for a time, and another, then cleared her throat, and said to him “So…what did he say about it?”
“Hmm? What? What did who say?” He turned from the moon to the young woman, her face smooth with fresh freckles and so many summer days ahead of her. “Ohhh…” He smiled, thinking back to that day, in the bar, at the piano, and the old man at the bench.
He leaned in towards the young woman, whispering his words as a secret for her to figure out some day when she was ready…“I have no story for you today, only words.”
“Okay, he said and gave them to her. “One should never talk…about music.”
“No, no, no. Listen.” He leaned closer. “Music,” he whispered, “is to be played.”
And then he smiled.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Jonathan Oldstyle grew up in the Hudson River Valley. His work has previously been published in the New York Morning Chronicle.
Photo © 2009 by Malk