A story about memory and music.
The old man’s face was a maze of wrinkles. His bright blue eyes swam among the folds of his skin, darting this way and that, trying to find their way through the labyrinth but not often succeeding. He wasn’t as old as his features portrayed him to be; life had treated him poorly, drawing lines that should not have been there. From under the battered grey cap that covered his head a few wiry white hairs grew, some so long that they joined the thicket of ragged hair falling tiredly from his chin. His mouth moved incessantly, his lips mashing themselves together, occasionally muttering words of acknowledgement to passersby and revealing a cave almost completely devoid of teeth.
He held in his crooked hands an old accordion, burgundy wood and pearl inlay, with yellowed keys and several missing buttons. Despite the shaking of his hands when they let go of the instrument, when they moved to scratch his cheek or pull at the hem of his ratty shirt, when his fingers were in control of the accordion they were sure and strong, playing the keys down to their very beds and moving across the map of black buttons with ease. His feet, one encased in an old running shoe and the other fighting its way out of a worn leather sandal, tapped in perfect time with whichever popular old tune he was producing at the moment. He sat there on the steps of an empty apartment building, on a hot summer’s day in the city, as the crowd moved past him. Once in a while somebody would pause to listen, or down and drop a coin or two in the black case at his feet, and he would nod at them, taking requests but saying hardly anything. When he did, his voice was low and gravelly, full of soft consonants, rough and rambling and difficult to understand.
A man and his wife were walking down the street. She had one arm tucked firmly in the crook of his elbow and a cardigan tied around her waist, all tanned skin, painted toenails and straight hair. He was balding and at least ten years her elder, but in good shape. He was the sort of man one looks at and knows automatically that he plays golf every weekend; his pale yellow polo shirt and chunky silver watch gave him away. They had matching sunglasses, sleek black pairs of eyes that shielded them from the dirtiness of the city block they were passing through. She clutched her oversized bag as if trying to save herself from the garbage on the sidewalk, and he constantly pinched at the space below his nostrils as if to wipe the smell of the city away. Fine beads of sweat were pooling above his eyebrows; under the hot sun, the couple appeared to be melting, as if in any moment they might become nothing more than a mess of pastels and plastic, yet still bright and untouchable among the dirty grey surrounding them from all sides.
They approached the accordion player, slowing slightly to move in time to his rendition of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” as if they couldn’t help themselves. The woman pulled at her husband’s arm a bit as the song ended, but he had stopped walking. In the partial shade of the old brick apartment building he lifted his sunglasses from his face, placing them in the pocket of his shirt. He took a step towards the street musician, then another, and then another, until he was standing almost directly over him. The old man looked up at him with a harmless, genial smile on his face, squinting less as the golfer blocked the sun from his eyes. He didn’t say anything.
The golfer peered at him for a moment, using his left hand to tuck his shirt further beneath the waistband of his cargo shorts. Then, with a clearing of his throat and a brief pursing of his lips, he held out his other hand. “It’s been a while,” he said. “How are you?”
The accordion player looked at the hand, then up at the man’s face, then down at the hand again before slowly reaching out his shaking fingers to take it. He shook once, twice, three times, then let go, resting his right hand on the keys of his accordion almost lovingly and placing his fingers over a familiar chord as if for reassurance. He said nothing, just sat there looking slightly bemused. A silence seemed to permeate the busy street as the two men looked at each other.
The golfer cleared his throat, louder this time. “Frank?” he said. “How are you, Frank?”
The old man presented his crooked grin. “Thas’ me,” he answered. “What would y’like t’hear?” His voice was old yet innocent, young yet invariably overused. He lifted his cap from his head to scratch at his scalp, and then replaced it.
The man’s wife was getting impatient, looking around and standing a few feet away from her husband as if pretending not to be associated with the scene. But here she stepped forward, pulling at his arm. “Mark,” she hissed. “Mark. What are you doing?”
The man stepped back, squinting at her as if he didn’t quite know what to answer. But he finally spoke. “It’s Frank,” he said. She just looked at him. “Frank,” he repeated. “You know. Frank.”
“No,” she said snippily, “I don’t know Frank. Who is Frank?” She tucked a piece of blond hair behind one ear and crossed her arms across her chest as if to shut herself out from the neighbourhood around her. “I don’t care about Frank,” she told him. “I just want to get back to the hotel. Come on.”
“It’s Frank,” her husband repeated. “I graduated with him. He got a scholarship for playing the accordion, you know,” he added.
“And look where that got him,” she replied, raising her eyebrows. “Come on, Mark. It’s boiling out.”
But her husband didn’t listen, instead turning back to the old accordion player, who was fiddling around with a dial on his accordion and humming an old Beatles tune to himself. “Frank,” he said, “it’s me. Mark. Mark Robertson?”
The old man looked up at him again. His voice came from the depths of his lungs, a verbal shrug. “I don’ know tha’ one,” he said apologetically. “Hum a bit, though, ‘n’ I migh’ rememb’r.” He smiled genially at the golfer. “I kin’ pick these things up, y’know, easy they are, jus’ comes to me.”
The man kept trying. “Mark Robertson,” he repeated. “Chess club? No... Golf club. We played golf together. Southern Avenue High. ” But recognition failed to appear in the old man’s bright blue eyes. Instead, a painful confusion filled them. He just sat there, and his head began to shake, back and forth, back and forth. His fingers drifted hesitantly over the keys of his accordion, playing the ghost of a song but making no sound. “I-I don’ know tha’ one,” he mumbled. “I’m sorry, sir, I don’ know tha’ one.”
The man’s face softened a bit, even under the hard sun. “That’s alright, Frank,” he said. Still, he tried one more time. “Our graduation song,” he said. “’My Way’. Your namesake, Frankie, remember? You’ve gotta remember. I danced with Nora to that one, Frankie. You were there.”
“Nora who?” his wife interrupted, a cross look on her face. Her skinny eyebrows were knitting themselves with irritation down into the rims of her sunglasses. “Mark, for Christ’s sake, whoever this Frankie is, he obviously doesn’t remember you. Let’s go. Come on.” And she pulled once more at his elbow.
“Doesn’t remember me?” The man was suddenly angry; a shadow passed over his face despite the bright sun and seemed to cling to the corners of every line. Although he appeared younger than the old man, in this moment one could see his age. “Of course he remembers me. We were best friends.” He turned back to the old man once more. “Frank Sinatra,” he said, leaning in and pronouncing every syllable with precision. “’My Way’ by Frank Sinatra. Our graduation song. Don’t you remember dancing to that, Frankie?”
Finally, the old man’s face spread wide with recognition, the confusion gone from his eyes. “Yeah, yeah,” he said, “I remember that one.”
The golfer grinned and glanced at his wife. “See?” he said. “I told you he knew me.”
The old man chuckled. “Haven’t played that ‘un in a while, sir, but I’ll see wha’ I can do.” He looked down at the accordion, put his fingers over the keys and buttons, drew a long, rich chord out from the instrument and then paused, looking up at the golfer, whose face bore disappointment and the tiniest hint of sadness. “I’m sorry, sir,” he said earnestly, “sorry for takin’ so long. Haven’t played this ‘un in a while, y’know, it’s been a while, it has. But I think I can do it.” And he began to play the song.
The man stood there and listened to the song. His wife reached out to pull him away, but when she saw him lift a hand to swipe at the corner of his eye, she stepped back and listened too. The old man finished the tune with a long, heartfelt chord, then collapsed the bellows of his instrument and leaned on it, grinning. He nodded to himself. “Haven’t played that ‘un in a while,” he said, with a trace of apologetic pride in his voice.
The man was silent for a moment. Then he reached into his pocket, pulling out his wallet and withdrawing several bills from it. He folded them carefully, then leaned down and placed them in the accordion case. “Thank you,” he said. “I hadn’t heard that one in a while either.”
“It’s a beautiful song,” his wife said, a little more kindly. “But I’d like to get back to the hotel now, Mark.”
“Yes,” he said, with a small smile. “Sorry. Let’s go.”
She took his elbow and they walked down the street together, the pastels of their clothing blending in with the neighbourhood around them. The old man took the bills from the case in front of him, counted them with a small smile on his face, stuffed them under his cap and started playing again.