THURSDAY: The Clarinet Player

BY MICHAEL JOLL

Copyright is held by the author.

THE FIRST thing Piotr Szymanski noticed about the bum sitting on the sidewalk in front of Buchholz’s Music Store was his heavy black overcoat and fedora — unusual, to say the least, in an August heat wave. He continued his leisurely pace down the hill towards the listless form occupying the concrete next to the sandwich board. As he neared the body, it stirred. Whether he had heard the man’s footfalls or had seen him coming, Szymanski did not know, but from the way the bum’s legs stretched out and blocked the sidewalk there was no way to escape him except by stepping into the street.

“Goddamn bums,” Szymanski muttered. “Skid Row trash. You’d think San Francisco was a magnet for their kind.” He sucked in a disapproving breath. There was no way of avoiding them anywhere; begging, demanding hand-outs, and accosting ordinary hard-working people. Winos. No self-respect; that was their trouble. He kept his thoughts to himself as he neared the bum in case the man heard him and became violent. You could never tell these days.

As he drew close, the second thing Szymanski noticed about the bum was his eyes. There was no way of evading those eyes. They latched on to him, seized him as surely as if they had been a stevedore’s grappling hook, and clutched him in a desperate embrace, refusing to release him. Nearing to within a few steps of the huddled form, Szymanski almost felt the probe of the man’s stare bore through his own eyes into the back of his skull. He turned his head, but he knew that penetrating stare still followed him. As he drew abreast, the bum held out a chipped enamel mug. Szymanski stepped to one side as he passed by.

“Spare a dime, mister?” the bum mumbled. The voice reflected the beggar’s despair of receiving any act of charity or kindness from a stranger.

Szymanski slowed and stopped, regarding the stinking, and no doubt disease-riddled, pathetic specimen of humanity slumped at his feet. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, my ass,” he grumbled silently, wrinkling his nose in disgust. The bum looked up at the man standing over him and held his mug out further, silently imploring some compassion, some tiny shred of understanding. Szymanski turned his head and walked away, but not before he took in the dejected, rounded shoulders, the defeat registered on the bum’s face, the helplessness reflected in those eyes. From the yard behind Buchholz’s Music Store a rooster crowed its contempt. Szymanski ignored it like he ignored the bum, and continued on his way.

When Szymanski retraced his steps the following day the bum still sat in the same spot, wearing his black overcoat and grey fedora pulled down over his face in the ninety degree heat. Certain that the man’s eyes followed his every move, Szymanski looked away only to see the portly figure of Clare Buchholz propping up the door frame of his music store, watching him. He arched his eyebrows and directed a slight twitch of his shoulders in the direction of the store owner. Buchholz returned the shrug with one of his own, and vanished into the darkness inside.

This time Szymanski stopped at the bum’s feet, curiosity overcoming his distaste. The bum clutched the enamel cup at his side but did not raise it, as if he knew it would be useless to ask a man twice for charity. Before he looked away Szymanski read the despair on the bum’s face.

“You’re still here, then,” he said, as much to break the silence as for a desire to strike up a conversation. He received a barely perceptible nod.

“If I give you a dime what will you do with it?” His voice challenged the bum, betraying no hint of compassion.

The bum looked up, and again Szymanski felt the dark brown eyes probing his skull, noticing for the first time that the eyes had a yellow cast to the whites. Liver problem, he thought. Goddamn, useless wino. No doubt he brought it upon himself. Why should I help him?

“I will put it with the two other dimes and the nickel that people have been kind enough to give me today,” the man replied. “With that I can buy soup and bread, but it is not enough to pay for a room, not even for one night.”

Szymanski’s face registered his scepticism as he listened to the bum’s heavily accented English. He inspected the man more closely. The sun and wind had burned the thin, wrinkled skin around his eyes to the colour of Moroccan leather, but even that failed to hide the underlying grey pallor beneath the sparse, straggly, grey-flecked beard. He glanced down. The sunburned fingers, long and bony with prominent knuckles, ended in broken and dirty nails. He took in the coat with its frayed cuffs and missing buttons, and the lapels of a dark grey suit jacket. A grubby white shirt, buttoned to the top, missing only the collar and stud, peeked from beneath the jacket. The pant legs, their cuffs as frayed as the topcoat, poked out from under the coat’s skirt. The man wore boots, not shoes, the laces missing, and the leather uppers cracked and peeling away from the soles. The outfit gave the impression it had been discarded more than once, and resurrected from the trash can by the current occupant.

Szymanski wrinkled his nose and regarded the shapeless fedora, grey with dust, the blocking gone, and the hatband stained white with salt. The smell of stale sweat from the man’s unwashed body wafted upwards. As he had the previous day, Szymanski took a step back, and looked about him. The familiar street sat deserted in the shimmering afternoon heat. The sharp outlines of shadows cast by the shabby tenement buildings angled across the road, and plunged the alleys into darkness. As bleak and lifeless as an abandoned movie set, the street reflected the ravished economy of a nation on its knees. Nothing stirred. Not even Buchholz, he noticed, had re-emerged from the gloomy cavern of his music store.

The distant screech and rumble of a streetcar broke the silence, and dragged Szymanski’s attention back to the man at his feet.

“Don’t you have a home?”

“No.”

“Don’t you have a skill, a talent that you could use in exchange for room and board? Sweeping floors, or cleaning windows perhaps?”

“There is no money to pay for work,” he said. “The stores have no customers. The owners barely survive.” He lapsed into silence.

“What did you do before this?”

For an age the man remained mute and motionless, as if unwilling to continue with his interrogation. At last he looked up, a flash of anger replacing the haunted look. Szymanski met the penetrating gaze, and held his ground.

“I played the clarinet,” he said.

Maybe, Szymanski thought, but I doubt it. Though if he did play the clarinet it might explain why the bum chose to beg in front of Buchholz’s Music Store.

“Where did you play?” he persisted. “What kind of music?”

It was the bum’s turn to look embarrassed. “The classics,” he replied with an air of resentment. “With the New Rochelle Symphony.”

Szymanski arched his eyebrows for the second time that afternoon. When the man chose not to elaborate Szymanski spread his hands. “… And?” he said.

“The orchestra went broke in 1929,” he said with a deep sigh. “We all lost our positions. When there was no other work, I looked in New York, Chicago, here. There is nothing. No Symphony would hire me or even let me audition. They all have their own problems, I think. It has been four years.”

“So, you have a skill,” Szymanski said.

“Not one that anyone will pay for.”

“Have you tried playing in a jazz band?”

The man spat onto the sidewalk. “Nigger music! I would not crawl so low as to play jazz, not even for money. It insults my dignity. I have still some pride. I would rather beg.” The eyes stared with ferocity at the man, as if defying any rebuttal.

Szymanski reached into his pocket and tossed a dime into the mug. “Do you have a name?”

“Yeshua,” he replied. “Yeshua Davidovich,” he said after a moment of awkward silence.

“A Jew,” Szymanski said.

The man nodded.

“I am Piotr Szymanski,” he said. “In English, Peter. Like you, I am also a Jew. From Warsaw.” Szymanski moved on down the sidewalk without saying more.

Yeshua still sat cross-legged in hat and coat in front of Buchholz’s the next day when Szymanski made his unhurried way down the hill in the blazing heat of mid-afternoon. This time he entered the music store, and a few minutes later reappeared.

“Yeshua,” he said.

The man looked up.

“If I am going to continue giving you money,” he said, “you will have to earn it. Otherwise there is nothing.” He reached inside his jacket pocket and held out a penny whistle. “Here,” he said, “let me hear you play for your supper.”

Yeshua took the whistle and examined it, closing and opening his delicate fingers over the holes as if playing a tune in his head. He placed the mouthpiece between his lips, and in a single breath played a quick scale. He looked up.

“Not enough,” Szymanski said. “Even I can do that. Let me hear what a professional orchestra clarinettist can play.”

Yeshua closed his eyes, took a breath, and began playing the first notes of Handel’s Hornpipe. As the seconds ticked by his playing grew more confident. He finished with a flourish, opened his eyes, and looked up. Szymanski met his gaze with approval, and held out a quarter.

“No,” Yeshua replied. “You have given me the means to earn a modest living. That is enough.”

Szymanski shrugged at the refusal of his charity, and moved on without another word.

Every day but Sunday for the next week he stopped on the sidewalk, and listened to Yeshua play a melody from the classics. And every day Yeshua refused the offered quarter.

The heat wave broke with steady rain and Szymanski took a taxi rather than walk. As the cab passed Buchholz’s Music Store he noticed that Yeshua had moved under the awning of the music store but, instead of sticking his legs out in front of him he now sat tailor-fashion on the sidewalk, playing his penny whistle for passers-by. It was time to move on, Szymanski decided. He had done what he could for the man. The rest was up to him.

On his walk to work the following day, however, something prompted Szymanski to stop by Buchholz’s Music Store and enquire why Yeshua was absent from his usual position.

“He has not shown up here today,” Buchholz offered. “Maybe he is not well after the rain. If so, I hope he gets better soon. I miss him playing. Business even picked up a little.”

As Szymanski stepped out of the music store Yeshua appeared, looking even more drawn and haggard than usual, and assumed his customary position next to the sandwich board. He took out his whistle and began playing a passage from Mozart’s clarinet concerto. After listening for a while, Szymanski moved on.

The next day Szymanski walked down the hill toward the music store carrying a small black cardboard case fastened with chrome clasps. He stopped in front of Yeshua and heard him play his piece, but instead of offering him a quarter he handed the case to the musician. Yeshua’s eyes registered surprise as he unfastened the clasps and inspected the contents. They clouded almost immediately when Szymanski offered an explanation: “It is my daughter’s,” he said. “She does not play it any more.”

“Why?” Yeshua asked.

Szymanski looked at him with pain in his eyes. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “Use it well. I would be most upset if you pawned it.”

Yeshua took the tenor recorder from the velvet folds in the case, fitted the pieces together and with his eyes shut, closed his fingers over the holes.

“I first learned to play on a descant recorder at school when I was a small boy,” he said, a dreamy note entering his voice, the first Szymanski had heard from him. “It started me on my career. I played the tenor recorder for a while before the clarinet. It is a lovely instrument but there is not much music composed for it. Mostly it is transcribed.”

“Where did you learn?”

“In Kiev,” Yeshua replied. “My father played the bassoon with the Ballet Kiev. I was at the Conservatory when the Revolution began. We escaped. Russia was not a good place to be in 1917, especially for Jews like us.”

He put the mouthpiece to his lips and began to play a haunting melody, the soft, warm, mellow tones of the recorder bringing Buchholz out from his store to lean against the door frame. A passer-by stopped and listened for a few minutes before dropping a coin into Yeshua’s empty enamel mug. Yeshua nodded his thanks at the hollow, tinny ring, and continued playing.

“Tomorrow,” Yeshua said after he finished the passage, “if you come, I will play Weber for you, the first movement of his clarinet concerto. I will transcribe it for this instrument, and practice overnight.” He smiled for the first time since Szymanski had met him.

“A Ukrainian and a Pole,” Szymanski said. “Enemies for a thousand years talking on a sidewalk in San Francisco as if they were friends. Only in America can we bury our differences, huh?”

Yeshua’s lips twitched into a grin as Szymanski walked away.

For a week Yeshua played for Szymanski, and for whomever else passed by. Few failed to drop a coin into the mug before leaving.

Buchholz beamed as Szymanski walked into his store one Saturday morning. “He is bringing in business,” he announced. “So, what can I do for you today?” The two men spoke in hushed tones for several minutes while the strains of melody drifted through the open doorway. Szymanski left but instead of stopping to hear Yeshua play he crossed the street and hailed a cab. If Yeshua noticed he gave no indication, and continued playing.

Earlier than usual the following Monday, Szymanski entered Buchholz’s Music Store, and re-emerged a few minutes later carrying a black case. He joined the small audience while he waited for Yeshua to finish his piece. He ran his fingers through the thick white hair curling over his ears and fiddled with the ends that reached down like a mane over his collar, watching Yeshua’s eyes follow the knot of pedestrians drifting away towards the centre of the city.

Szymanski offered the case to Yeshua. “Take it,” he said. “Show me what you can really do.”

Yeshua opened the case and pulled out the pieces of a clarinet. He assembled them, wet the reed, and began to play with eyes closed as he dreamt his way first through a passage from Mozart’s clarinet concerto before playing Schumann’s “Träumerei.”

“Tomorrow I will come by again,” Szymanski said. He turned away, but not before he caught the hint of a smile on Yeshua’s lips.

Piotr Szymanski showed up early the next day carrying a different case. He went into Buchholz’s store, and had coffee with Clare while he waited for Yeshua to arrive. “He spends 12 hours a day in front of the store, playing,” Buchholz said with a tone of approval. “If business continues to improve I may offer him a room at the back of the shop, if he wants it when winter sets in.”

At 10 Yeshua showed up, sat down cross-legged as usual on the sidewalk, took the clarinet out of the case, and assembled it. As he wet the reed Szymanski appeared from inside the store. Yeshua looked up, curiosity flashing across his face as he stared at the case in Szymanski’s hand. He opened the case, drew out a viola and bow, and placed the open case on the sidewalk.

“Today,” he announced, “we play together. We start with Richard Strauss, ‘Don Quixote.’ It has some good viola passages. Then we shall see what we should explore. Some Boccherini, maybe.” Szymanski raised an enquiring eyebrow and laughed as he began to tune his instrument. “Give me an A,” he said. Yeshua looked on with a serious expression of concentration creasing his forehead.

They played until early afternoon. “Eighteen dollars. It is the most money I have seen in four years,” a teary-eyed Yeshua told Szymanski as they entered the deli across the street. They took seats at the counter and ordered corned beef on rye and a plate of knishes.

“I cannot stay,” Szymanski said, checking the time on his pocket watch. He slipped the half hunter back into the vest pocket of his suit and fiddled with a lock of hair over one ear. “I have to go to work to earn my own living, you understand.”

“Where do you work?”

“Quite close by,” Szymanski replied. “Downtown. Which is why I usually walk when the weather is fine.” He paid the bill, and left Yeshua sitting on the counter stool with the whole order in front of him.

The next day it rained and Szymanski took a cab to work, but the following day the San Francisco weather gods co-operated, and he walked to Buchholz’s Music Store. Yeshua sat in his usual spot, hunched over his clarinet with his mug on the concrete in front of him, still wearing the threadbare coat and shapeless fedora that Szymanski had become accustomed to, looking every inch the Jewish tailor. He wondered if it was Yeshua’s trademark. He decided more probably the outfit was all that he owned. He stopped and waited until Yeshua finished playing an excerpt from “The Magic Flute.”

“Bravo, Yeshua! That was excellent. And now I have some news for you.”

Szymanski waited for Yeshua to show a sign of interest, but when Yeshua turned toward him the sunken eyes were dull, and an expression as blank as a newly plastered wall was all that registered on his face. He looked away and stared at the sidewalk. Szymanski continued undaunted. “Yeshua, I am principle violist with the San Francisco Opera. We have an opening for a clarinettist. I have arranged for an audition with the music director for you tomorrow morning. I will play with you. It will be tough, naturally, as the orchestra only wants the best available talent in the pit, but I have heard you play for long enough to know you can do it.”

Yeshua looked up, but instead of joy or excitement in his eyes, a look of fear, the fear of the hunted and the desperate flitted across them before he looked away. Szymanski read the eyes, and sighed.

“It is what you wanted, Yeshua,” he said with a note of exasperation creeping into his voice. “It is a chance to prove that you belong in a professional orchestra. Mr. Buchholz has agreed to let you use his bathroom to clean up, and I will bring clean clothes for you to wear tomorrow morning. If you don’t want to take this opportunity, I cannot help you anymore. It is up to you.”

Yeshua gave a dumb nod and picked up his clarinet, but instead of putting it to his lips he laid it down again flat on the sidewalk. From inside the copious folds of his overcoat he retrieved the black and chrome tenor recorder case, and without a word handed it to Szymanski. Szymanski took it, and with raised eyebrows looked into Yeshua’s eyes, sunk deep within their sockets, the black pupils pin holes in the bright sun.

“I don’t need it any longer,” Yeshua said slowly, the words thick and slurred. “It belongs to your daughter, you said. She should have it back and learn to play it well. It will bring her joy.”

“My daughter died 20 years ago,” Szymanski replied. “But I will accept it and keep it in her memory. And I shall take comfort that it went in some small way to resurrecting your career.”

When he arrived with a suitcase the following morning, Buchholz’s Music Store was still shuttered although it was well after opening time. A black police car attracting a small crowd of rubberneckers blocked the entrance to the alley that ran alongside the building a couple of stores from Buchholz’s. Szymanski approached the nearest patrolman with a feeling of dread gnawing his stomach. He squinted through the bright sunlight into the shadows at the end of the alley, and took a step forward.

“Stand back, please, sir,” the officer warned.

“Do you know who it is?”

“No positive I.D. yet, sir,” the patrolman said. “Seems he might be a bum who plays the clarinet or something for pocket change. Homeless guy. Nothing we can do for him now. He’s been dead several hours, looks like.” The officer shrugged his shoulders with a lack of concern, and turned away to warn others not to get too close.

“I may know him,” Szymanski offered after the patrolman had succeeded in keeping the onlookers at bay. The cop perked up.

“Hey, Chuck,” he called to the officer bent over the limp body 20 yards down the alley. “Fellah here says me might know the stiff.”

The officer in the garbage-strewn alley beckoned to Szymanski. With a sinking feeling in his gut Szymanski approached the still form. He set his face in a grim mask and steeled himself for his grizzly task, knowing the worst even before he came to a halt a few feet from the body. The clarinet’s open case lay close by. The instrument was nowhere to be seen.

“Take a look, sir,” the officer said, standing aside. “Know the fellah?”

Szymanski took in the vacant, lifeless stare in the cloudy eyes, the grey pallor of death beneath the sunburnt skin, and the yellow irises. The familiar coat and suit jacket lay in a heap on the ground. A flimsy black kippa fluttered in a gust of hot wind and skidded a few inches across the dirt. A rat scuttled away, squeaking, towards the safety of the shadows. Near Yeshua’s body lay his grey fedora, trampled into a shapeless scrap of felt, half buried under the stinking mess of an overturned trash can. A white prayer shawl with narrow blue stripes and grubby fringes was still fastened with a knot around his skinny waist. Yeshua’s left shirt sleeve was rolled up past his elbow, and his arm bore the scabs and scars of needle tracks on the pallid skin. An empty syringe lay discarded by his side. An infinite sadness descended upon Szymanski and enveloped him.

“Dime to a dollar it was heroin.” The patrolman named Chuck offered his considered opinion. “Common as crap, horse is. I’m surprised more of these bums don’t kill themselves with it.” He looked satisfied with his diagnosis. “Yes, sir,” he added with an air of finality, “they probably would if they could afford it, which they can’t unless they’re stealing, and there ain’t nothin’ worth coon shit around here to steal.”

Chuck stood up and tipped his hat to the back of his head. “So, know the fellah, sir?”

Szymanski wrenched his eyes off Yeshua’s corpse and looked at the officer. A shiver ran the length of his spine as he took in the tableau a final time. Tears misted his eyes. He shook his head.

“Never seen him before in my life,” he said.

He turned his back on Yeshua and, with undignified haste, fled down the alley, the cockerel’s mocking laughter from the yard behind Buchholz’s Music Store ringing in his ears.

4 comments
  1. How many people get the opportunity to see what they might have become if they had chosen a different path at a pivotal point in their lives? Perhaps that is Yeshua’s gift to Piotr. . . . A fabulous story!

  2. Michael,
    Another very well told story. Great dialogue — great description of place and character.
    But, just a nit………I would take out the biblical reference of the cockerel. His denial was obvious by his action.

  3. Hi, Jazz:
    Somehow I’m not surprised that you picked up on the reference to Matthew 26, v 74. “The Clarinet Player” is a retelling of a small part of the Easter story. “Before the cock crows twice” was its working title. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.
    Thank you also, Bev, for yours.
    MJ

  4. Great new story. Blew me away.

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