I knew things were getting out of hand when I found a horn player in my bathroom.I got home from work needing the bathroom desperately. I had skirted past half a dozen gas stations, believing there would be a warm, clean, quiet room awaiting me in my apartment building, where I could relieve myself and maybe even take a hot bath. Instead, I found my bathroom occupied by a gleaming woodwind and a saxophone player wearing a fedora and brown loafers. I asked what he was doing in there and was told, “Good acoustics.”It didn’t start out this way; with sax players in the bathroom. It began with bones. Turkey bones, to be specific, which were played on my grandfather’s knee. And it grew until I found my days full of crooners, sitars, and eagle feathers.But I’ve lost you, haven’t I? Forgive me. These days even my thoughts take unexpected turns, which is dizzying for anyone along for the ride. For your sake I’ll try to take Lewis Carroll’s advice and begin at the beginning, stopping, of course, when I reach the end.My grandfather’s name was Charles Portal Smithy, but his friends called him Smatch. Grandpa Smatch played the bones, which is the sort of instrument usually played along with jugs and old saws. Grandpa Smatch was unusually gifted: when he played the bones, everyone’s feet tapped but the turkey’s. Many a day I would come into Smatch’s kitchen feeling bluer than Aunt Tillie’s wig, and Grandpa would start to tap his foot with a twinkle in his eye. Then out from his pocket would come the bones, and when they started to rattle and rap every cloud would leave the sky and every frown would be transformed.Those old turkey bones kept our strong-willed family together. Whenever Uncle Raiser and Uncle Martin started to get ugly with each other, whenever Cousin Mac got himself into a particularly shameful bit of trouble, whenever Pappy lost another job or my brother Orion threatened to become a Communist; whatever the trouble, Smatch would smile and bring out the bones. The music made everybody feel silly for thinking that jobs or Communism were really important in the least little bit. The music made Uncle Raiser dance with Aunt Tillie and make her laugh; it made Mac rumple my hair and it made Orion smile. Things might have gone on like that forever, with our whole family’s well-being balanced on a couple of bones and an old man’s knee, but life changed like it always does—in a strange direction and without much warning. Smatch got married.My grandmother, Roberta Angel Smithy, met the end of her life when mine had just barely begun. Smatch could cook and darn socks and play bones, so he didn’t see much reason to get married again. So it came as a big surprise when Smatch, who was long about seventy years old, married The Dear Old Woman. She was a little old spinster who lived in a flat above Smatch’s place.The Dear Old Woman worked out pretty well in a lot of ways, but she had one hang-up that proved catastrophic to my life. She could not abide bones-playing in her house. Those old turkey bones became forbidden property.Shortly after she moved downstairs from her old flat, my family fell apart. Uncle Raiser and Uncle Martin stopped speaking to each other. Aunt Tillie got a red wig. Mac went to jail and Orion went to Europe. About that time my cousin Saggy and I decided to salvage what we could of family feeling; we got jobs at a local restaurant parking cars for wealthy people, found an apartment, and moved in together.We lived a relatively normal life for a while—we worked and ate and slept, and worked and ate and slept—and then The Dear Old Woman went away to Boston to visit her sister. Smatch came to stay with us for a few days since we didn’t live far away and the rest of the family was too busy being busy to take him. On his first night with us Sag and I came home from work, and we all sat in the living room and looked at each other kind of nervously because we didn’t know what to say. Normally I guess when you spend time with your family you talk about family news, but it wasn’t like we could just come out and say, “So, I heard Orion wants to overthrow France,” or anything like that.So we sat around and looked at each other and Saggy cleared his throat half a dozen times, and then suddenly we noticed this sly look on Smatch’s face, and he pulled out a couple of turkey bones.“Now, boys,” Smatch said, “You don’t mind if…?”And Saggy said, “Of course not,” and that was that. After that night Smatch found excuses to come up to our place oh, about three times every month, and those ol’ turkey bones came along with him. It wasn’t quite like the old days. Uncle Raiser and Aunt Tillie weren’t there, and even if they had been they might not have danced because they would have got thinking about Mac in jail, and Aunt Tillie would have ended up tears. Me and Sag were there but even though that wasn’t quite the same as having the whole family, Smatch didn’t care. We stomped our feet and clapped our hands just like we did when we were kids, and Smatch’s face lit up just like it did back then too.“Jack Rabbit,” he’d say, looking at me, “There ain’t nothing in the world like music, even if it just comes offa your knee.” Smatch called me Jack Rabbit because my name is John Rabbing, and Smatch always thought that was kind of a different name and he just couldn’t call me by it.Anyhow, life went on. The Dear Old Woman started baking pies for us and sending them along with Smatch like she knew we were doing something nice for him, even if she didn’t entirely approve. Then one day Smatch stopped coming, and The Dear Old Woman rang us up and told us he was sick.I remember it was raining something fierce when Sag and I went to the hospital to see him, and the rain was all rat-tat-tatting on the car roof and leaking in through the duct tape on the driver’s window. We rode the elevator up to the fifth floor and went into a starched white room, and there was Smatch, staring off in the distance with a sort of a wet twinkle in his eye, and his turkey bones rat-tat-tatting like the rain on the metal bed rail. The Dear Old Woman was there and she didn’t tell him to stop playing or anything, but when we came in she got up and left the room.Smatch took a minute to notice us, but then he turned his eyes and looked at us kind of slowly. “Jack Rabbit,” he said to me, “You and Sagittarius been mighty good to me.”“Wasn’t nothing,” Sag kind of mumbled.“I got a favour to ask you,” Smatch said, and the bones went rat-tat-tat.“Sure, Grandpa,” I said. “Whatever you want.”Rat-tat-tat, went the bones. Rat-tat-rattle-tat, and then they stopped and Smatch leaned forward.“Promise me that you won’t never keep music out of that flat of yours,” he said. “Make your place a haven like you did for me and my turkey bones.”“A haven for who, Grandpa Smatch?” Saggy asked.Smatch looked at him. “There’s a few friends of mine who sometimes need a place to play,” he said. “If they ever come by…”“They can make themselves at home,” I said. Smatch just beamed, and then he put his turkey bones down and went to sleep.We were kind of surprised at his just drifting off to sleep like that, but evidently the conversation was over. Saggy went to get The Dear Old Woman and she smiled real lovingly when she looked at Smatch, and maybe I saw something in her face that told me why Grandpa went and married her in the first place. If she’d stayed around maybe we would have started having her come to the apartment once a week, but she didn’t. She went to Boston to live with her sister.You might have guessed already that Smatch didn’t live much longer. That promise we made was the last thing we ever said to him. We had to go to work, and we passed Uncle Raiser and Aunt Tillie in the hallway, and Sag saw Uncle Martin’s car pull into the lot as we pulled out, but by the time we came back after work all the hustle and bustle was over. Smatch just went and died right in his sleep. He never opened his eyes again after we talked to him.Seeing as the last words he ever said were to make us promise we’d take in some friends of his, maybe we should have paid more attention. Truth is, we kind of forgot about it. We missed Smatch though, and we missed his turkey bones, too. We never found out what happened to them, but I think maybe The Dear Old Woman has them someplace. I don’t suppose we’ll ever know for sure, and I guess it doesn’t really matter. It wasn’t the bones that were so important anyway; it was the man that played them.Like I said, we pretty much forgot about our promise. We went on working and eating and sleeping, and then one day we came home and there was a little old man with a mustache snoring outside our door, with a mandolin cradled in his lap.Saggy and I looked at each other, at a loss for words. As it turned out, we didn’t have to say anything, because the little old man woke up.He jumped to his feet and tugged at his mustache nervously, and then he stuck one hand out—holding the mandolin very tightly to him with the other—and grabbed Saggy’s hand and shook it. Hard.“Sagittarius McCann,” he said, and grabbed my hand without missing a beat. “And John Rabbing Smithy. I’d know you anywhere. Your grandfather, God rest his soul, was so very careful to describe you just so I’d know you anywhere. He was such a meticulous man, your grandfather, God rest his soul.” He said all of this while shaking his head sadly, but he perked up at the end of it.“My name is Rooster,” he said. And then, very carefully, he held the mandolin out where we could see its shining, deep red face. “And this,” he said, “is Mirabelle.”Saggy was evidently speechless, so I stepped up to the plate and hastily unlocked our door. “Come in, won’t you, Mr., uh, Rooster,” I said. “I guess you’re here to play…?”Rooster walked with a short, bouncy little step; but his bounce was creaky with old age. He looked around him and nodded delightedly as though he’d just entered the Sistine Chapel. He ignored us, so Sag and I sat down on our old tweed couch while Rooster and Mirabelle the Mandolin bounced and creaked all around our apartment, finally coming to settle on top of the coffee table we’d picked up at a yard sale.Rooster pulled his short, matchstick legs up and sat cross-legged on our coffee table, and then he relaxed his grip on the mandolin a little and started to play. It wasn’t the modern, chugging, full-steam-ahead bluegrass mandolin that you hear a lot of in America these days; it was slow, and shimmery, and beautiful. Rooster kept his head bent while his fingers played, and now and then he garbled out a few words, not English words. His voice really did resemble a chicken’s and it was good that he didn’t sing much, but even his occasional foray into song couldn’t break the spell woven by the sound of the mandolin. I don’t know when I closed my eyes, but before I knew it I was drifting in a gondola through the streets of Venice.The music stopped. We all sat and looked at each other. Saggy licked his lips and cleared his throat, and Rooster sat and stared at nothing with a little half smile under his mustache.“Can you play ‘Danny Boy?’” I asked.“No,” Rooster said, shaking his head. “Mirabelle only speaks Italian.”And that was that. Rooster unfolded his legs and stood up stiffly. He tugged at his mustache, tucked Mirabelle the Mandolin close to his heart, nodded to each of us, and left. But our apartment didn’t stop shimmering until we got up for work the next morning.Three days later we trudged up the old concrete steps to our apartment. The railing was sticky with sweaty humidity and the grip of too many grubby children. Sag sighed as we walked out of the stairwell, and I muttered something about needing to get the elevator fixed.There was an Indian in front of our door. He was sitting cross-legged on the floor like a chief at a pow-wow in an old western movie. He had long hair that was going grey, and tough skin, and a hawk nose. He stood up and stretched his long, blue-jeaned legs when we stopped at the door, and nodded to us both. He didn’t say anything, but he moved his drum out of our way. It was a big drum made out of animal hide and a wooden frame, and festooned with feathers all around.Saggy stepped forward and unlocked the door—I guess he figured since I made the first move last time, it was his turn now. “Won’t you come in?” he asked. He sounded insincere as a wax apple, but it’s hard to know how to sound when there’s an Indian with a drum outside your door, and you’re not sure what to say to him; when you’re not sure, in fact, just why he’s there, or how your grandfather, who as far as you know never played his bones outside of his own four walls, ever became friends with Chief Little Big Foot.The Indian was more polite once we got inside; I figure maybe he didn’t know who we were at first and that’s why he didn’t introduce himself right off. Or maybe he just didn’t feel like talking when he first saw us. There are people in the world who say only what they want to say, which is a great deal wrapped up in very few words: he of the eagle-feathered drum was one of those people. As you may have noticed, I am not; I wrap very little in as many words as Bartholomew Cubbins had hats. But I’m working on it.“You’re Jack Rabbit,” he said to me, without a twitch of the leathery skin around his mouth and eyes. “Randolph Jones. Nice to meet you.”“Yeah,” I said, shaking his hand. Then he and Sag went through the rounds, and then the Indian got to work setting up his drum right in the middle of our floor. We moved the coffee table out of the way for him. When the drum was all set up he took a whopping big stick, screwed up his eyes so the wrinkles around them caved in, and chanted his heart out, while the drum added its own voice—a voice I somehow felt would keep singing even if the stick got thrown across the room. The drum wouldn’t quiet until the song was done.It was done two hours later. The effect on the apartment was very different from that of Mirabelle the Mandolin. There was no shimmer about the Indian in blue jeans and the eagle-feather drum. It’s hard to describe just how listening to that chant, that song, that beat, affected me. If you can imagine hearing a history book—no, I don’t mean seeing it, I mean hearing it—if you can imagine hearing all the sounds on the pages, gunshots, and cattle, and tumbleweed on a ghost town street, and swearing forty-niner’s, and all the rest of it; and if, above all those noises of life, you can imagine hearing an eagle singing—singing, not crying—an eagle singing a never-ending theme that incorporated all those other sounds and made sense of them; and you can imagine that it broke your heart all at once because you just can’t listen to something like that for a long time without entering into the eagle’s song yourself—if you can imagine all that, and I don’t suppose you can, than maybe you can imagine what the song of Randolph Jones sounded like.He smiled when he was through, and nodded to us again and left. We moved the coffee table back, but before we did, we found an eagle feather on the floor. Sagittarius hung it up over the door with the black tip hanging down like western mistletoe.There was something about that feather on our door. It was a sign, like the markings Gypsies and hobos used to leave on fence posts to tell anyone who could read them that these were friendly pastures. Every day after Sag put it up we got new visitors. Most came during the day and camped on our doorstep till we came home, but sometimes they appeared in the hallway in the middle of the night. One young man in white robes who played sitar always showed up at sunrise. I say ‘always’ because he came more than once; they all did. Chief Little Big Foot came back a week after his first appearance, though we didn’t see Rooster again until nearly two months after Mirabelle the Mandolin first made our apartment shimmer. He came on the heels of a dark-haired, blue-eyed, ballad-singing beauty from the British Isles. Her name was Rhiannon Scott and she blew in and out of our living room like a sea-wind, dark like kelp and turbulent like salt waves beating against misty islands. I felt like things were getting out of hand, and like I said, after I came home to that sax player in the bathroom, I knew they were. I thought maybe they would just keep coming and coming until they forced us right out of our apartment, right out of our lives. But it didn’t happen like that.Two days after the sax player in loafers and a fedora took over the bathroom, Orion came home. I went to see Ma, and there he was at the dining room table, eating a tomato bite by bite. I think I stopped short, there in the doorway, and I know I looked pretty stupid, there with my mouth hanging open. Orion looked up at me and said, “What are you looking at?”“You’re home,” I said.He arched his eyebrow and scratched his knee—he was wearing jeans and they were all torn and ratty from being scratched too many times—and said, “Yeah?”I sat down and said, “Give me some of that tomato.”Ma fed us both supper, and I went home and found Sagittarius fiddling around with a massive flat-topped control panel sort of thing.“What is that?” I asked.“You record on it,” Saggy said. “Music. I thought maybe one of Smatch’s friends would wanna record something sometime.” And you know, I hadn’t realized until he said that that there wasn’t anyone in the apartment wanting to play.And I said, “Orion’s home,” and Sag said, “I know, I saw him yesterday”; and he said, “Dad wants me to come out to the old cottage and help him with some fixing-up work.”I thought that was a darn good idea but I didn’t say so; Saggy never liked it when he thought I was telling him what to do. But he and Uncle Martin hadn’t seen much of each other for a good while, and I always thought that was too bad—if I had a father I’d want to see him a lot, I guess, and I’ve always thought if Orion had a father he wouldn’t want to be a Communist. I had a father once, of course, but he died before I could walk.Even so, I didn’t like to stay at the apartment by myself, so when Sag went out to the old cottage I went home with Ma and Orion. I stayed there with them from Monday after work all the way until Friday night, and Orion actually talked to me some, about what it was like when we were growing up. And we talked about Smatch mostly.“I wished I was here when Smatch died,” Orion told me on Wednesday. It was raining, and cars were driving past and splashing through puddles on the street.“You shouldn’t have gone,” I said.And you know something? Orion said, “I know.” And then he said, “France can stay how it is, I guess. I guess Communism’s pretty washed up. You know they don’t play mandolin in Russia much.”“What are you talking about, mandolin?” I said. I was so surprised I looked pretty stupid again—it’s no wonder Orion always thought I wasn’t too bright, since he’s always saying things that surprise me and make me look stupid. Orion scratched his knee and mumbled, “I met this guy in Europe who played mandolin and talked a lot of sense. That’s all.”And I thought—no, I knew—it was Rooster that Orion had met over in Europe. I thought I’d ask Rooster about it next time I saw him. But I didn’t see him. Not again, not ever. Friday night the apartment building where me and Sagittarius lived burned down.Sag came back from the cottage, riding in Uncle Martin’s car. Uncle Raiser and Aunt Tillie and Mac, who was out of jail and through rehab and everything, drove out to help us root through the ruins of our old place. We didn’t need their help, not really. But it was good they were there. Orion was there, too, and Ma. We dug through the ashes, and they were still warm, but we didn’t find anything. Once Uncle Raiser bent down to pick something up, and Uncle Martin bent down at the same time, and when they picked their heads up they were looking right at each other.“Martin McCann…” Uncle Raiser said. I held my breath and Aunt Tillie looked worried.“Yes?” Uncle Martin asked, brushing his hands together.“Martin McCann,” Uncle Raiser said, “Me and Tillie found an old painting in our basement and we thought it might look good on the wall at that cottage of yours.”“Well, then,” Uncle Martin said, “How about you all come down tonight and you can hang it up?”We all loaded up in a couple of cars and drove away from the burned-out building. We drove for an hour, and it was dark when we got to the cottage, so Sag nearly stepped on the tape on the doorstep.“What’s that?” I asked.“A recording,” he said, looking confused.“That’s not mine,” Uncle Martin said.“It’s mine,” Saggy said. “But how did…?”We went inside, and Aunt Tillie and Ma cooked and Uncle Raiser and Uncle Martin talked about the weather and politics, and they slapped their knees and laughed. And Orion went in the kitchen and showed Aunt Tillie how to make a drink that he liked in Italy. Mac sat on the floor near the fire and listened and watched and looked settled and content for the first time in his life, and I noticed him playing with a pouch around his neck.“What’s that?” I asked him.“Medicine pouch,” he said, and looked kind of embarrassed. “Nothing in it. Old Indian at the jail gave it to me.”I would have asked him more, but right then Uncle Raiser said “Ta-daa!” and I looked up and saw the picture he had brought for Uncle Martin, and I almost choked. It was a woman, standing on a seashore with stormy skies all around, and danged if I hadn’t seen her before, and danged if she wasn’t from the British Isles and if she didn’t sing ballads and if she didn’t make me think of seaweed and islands and moonlight.Orion and Aunt Tillie and Ma brought in the food. We all ate, and everyone talked but me and Sag. I looked at Saggy significantly but he didn’t look back; he was still looking at that tape he’d picked up on the doorstep.End of the night, Saggy found something he could play the tape on. He turned it on and there they were—Rooster and Randolph and Rhiannon Scott, Mirabelle the Mandolin and the eagle-drum song, the sitar and the saxophone and everything else we’d been hearing in our apartment for weeks.There were three songs on the tape, and the last one was a real toe-tapper. Uncle Raiser got up and he took Aunt Tillie’s hands and they started to dance, and Mac rumpled my hair—just like he thought I was eight years old—and Orion, my brother Orion, Orion the Communist, got himself out a pair of turkey bones and started playing.And that’s pretty much the end of my story. It all happened a long time ago, before there were CD players, and that tape of Saggy’s is old and wrinkled and when you play it you can’t hear it very clearly. It sounds like something that was recorded a hundred years ago. And sometimes I think it was.Because it’s like Sagittarius says: that recording equipment he got was broken, and he never did fix it before he left, and then of course the apartment building burned down.I’ve never seen them since, those friends of Smatch’s. Saggy hasn’t seen them either, and Orion has never seen his mandolin-player friend from Europe, and Mac’s never found his old Indian buddy from the jail—although he did look for him for a long time, to say thanks for setting him on the right path in life. And when our family gets together at the cottage—which we do a lot, and we bring all our kids with us and our wives, and we play music and Orion always plays bones, and we dance and laugh and no one talks about jail or Communism, and Uncle Raiser and Uncle Martin sometimes fight, but they always make up afterwards—when we get together at the cottage, I sometimes stand in front of that picture for a long long time.Until someone asks me what I’m seeing when I look at it, because they get the feeling I don’t see what they see. And then I tell them I’m not looking at anything, just a picture of a girl by the sea. And that’s all I say. I’m not looking at anything.But now, I guess you and I know better.Ma’s calling me to come in the kitchen and get my kids out of her hair, but she’s saying it with a smile. My son is begging my big brother to play him a real rouser with turkey bones on his old ratty knee. Aunt Tillie’s teaching my niece to play bridge in the kitchen, but they’re going to have to clean the game up so Ma can set the table.I suppose Lewis Carroll would say this is the end, so, like I promised, I’ll stop.
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