It’s only been six months, but the way time has been moving for me it might just as well have been six years since I moved into the quiet little garden bungalow in south Berkeley. So many things can happen to a man’s life in six months that it seems an untenable task, a labor as unfulfilling as sorting the grains of sand on a long beach, this, the telling of the why and wherefore of how one finds oneself standing at any particular place.
On the surface everything was fairly simple. Downright predictable in a late twentieth century sort of way. My wife left me early this fall. Or rather, told me to leave her. She called me at my office late one Friday afternoon and told me not to bother coming home because the locks were already changed and she probably wouldn’t be there anyway. She had some place important to rush off to and didn’t have much time to talk. She said a couple of other things too. Stuff about how distant I’ve become and how unhappy she was and something about needing a change in her life that I really couldn’t possibly expect to understand. Those were her words, not mine. But I don’t quite remember everything she said. It was hard to concentrate. I felt a little ill, like I had a fever coming on and I began to sweat just a little, right on the sides of my head, just above my eyes.
I was used to taking orders from her and she was used to my silence, so I let the receiver hang away from my head for a long moment while I looked out the window down to the street below. My face being held hostage to a blank stare as I tried to think about what all of this meant. I could see a long chain of pre-schoolers; two and three-year-olds being taken on a walk by their teachers. They were heading across the busy swell of 14th Street to the tiny green triangle of Snow Park. The kids were holding on to a long rope. A strong looking rope, maybe an inch thick, with a huge knot tied every four feet or so. Every kid had their hand firmly gripped around their knot. Every last one of them happy and secure as a squad of ducklings bouncing along behind heir mother, their view of the world falling no farther than the knot on the rope directly in front of them. I watched the long line of kids cross the street. Saw each of the kids make it across and up onto the curb. I saw them, at a word from their teacher, let go of the rope and take off running, happily burbling about the blue sky and the green grass before I put the phone receiver back to my ear and said, okay sure. Where do want me to go, what do you want me to do? But the line was dead. And she was gone.
Six months is a long time to remember the detail of feelings and I would be falling prey to the construction of a fiction if I said that I felt much more than a buzzing dullness when I met the Realtor at the tiny house to pick up the keys to my rental. Time and action were moving slowly for me these days, having only the week before quit my job and given myself the present of a few months of a retreat that I hoped wouldn’t turn into a wholesale surrender, and small, ordinary interactions were becoming increasingly more difficult for me to understand. Joy seemed to be far away and gone, but as of yet, nothing had stepped in to take its place. Not sadness, not terror, not loneliness. Just a kind of flattened lethargy, a weariness that hung heavy around me like a rain soaked coat with a rusted-shut zipper. I thought I at least ought to have felt some kind of profound sadness when I walked into the quiet house, a late afternoon sun splitting the faded wood floors like a knife. After all, tonight would be the first time sleeping without my wife, or at least without her reflected presence shouting out from every corner, for a solid 12 years. But all I can honestly remember thinking as I sat on the living room couch was that this house smelled like Berkeley. I hadn’t lived in Berkeley since my college days but I can remember like it was yesterday, the signature herbal teas, brown rice and coffee thick as roofing tar leave in wooden walls. It sometimes seems that every house I’ve ever been in, in Berkeley, has had a previous occupant that cooked curries and baked 10-grain basil and pimento bread. I used to call Berkeley houses whole grain houses back in the jaded days of my youth. But just then I breathed deep and lolled about with the profoundly comfortable feeling of being home.
The cottage was short and straight in design. A one-story wood frame forest cottage on a flat, sunny street in south Berkeley. Nondescript in every way, right down to the dying bougainvillea vines over the a splintered arch that ushers one up to the front steps. I entered the house without thinking. Walking in a direct line from the front door, a person walking without purpose could make it through the entry hall, dining cul-de-sac, through the kitchen and out a flimsy screen door onto an ivy screened porch in about twenty paces. The house, though empty, seemed altogether too noisy with the respective ghosts of the previous tenants. Not to mention all the ghosts of my own that tailed me, room to room, doorway to doorway. But the porch I instantly saw as my point of refuge. Walled in on three sides by an ancient sagging trellis, overgrown into a tangle of passion flower and Kiwi vines. It felt like a cave of wonders and I sat down on a rickety metal chair that was stuffed into one corner behind a leaf strewn table. A light breeze worked its way through the vines, along with just enough of the mid-afternoon sun to lay a light glow over the table, bringing with it a hint of the coming fog, which clocks in most every afternoon around three. I remember being able to almost set my watch by a Berkeley summer day’s fog bank.
Damn, I thought as I settled back into the not uncomfortable chair. Is this what I’ve come down to, living my life in a panorama of indigo memories? I always used to wonder what it would be like, to be one of those odd, Berkeley urban hermits. You could see them everywhere in the old days and you still can; scurrying about with an unruly sheaf of papers stuffed under one arm and reading a smeared copy of The Nation with the other, while bowling their way down Durant Street like a rat on a mission for more cheese. No, I don’t have the requisite burned-out Ph.D. look about me to pull that off with the proper élan. But it would be easier than I might care to admit to park myself in this back porch oasis for far too much of every day. Living on strong coffee and pastries bought every morning during a furtive, dawn foray down the street to the local bakery. It surely wouldn’t take long before people were noticing my furtive coming and goings and wondering what it must be like to be me.
I was just thinking how brilliant I was for coming up with the original idea of an afternoon coffee fix when I first heard the sound that would become my daily companion. A tinkling run of notes on a piano from somewhere off and through the barrier of vines. A thick sheaf of notes, then a dark, softly hit chord. Plaintive, saddened but somehow forward looking. Then the left hand settled in with a supporting movement running into an upward drifting string of chords and melody and counter melody. This wasn’t little Suzy or Benjamin doing their daily scale exercises. Not by any incredible stretch of the imagination. This was heartfelt and deeply hued music. But not the harsh, intellectually driven, bombastic chest-thumping stuff I always seem to hear the times I’ve gone to see the symphony or the ballet. And it certainly didn’t feel like the musical equivalent of a gaudily covered romance novel which is what so much music for the piano sounds like to me. This was soft and assured, even when the movements were dark and angular. Matured lines spoken from, with and to experience. I sat mesmerized, all thoughts of going out and looking for food and drink pushed to the back of my mind. I heard the tune all the way through. A tune either impossibly long or incredibly chard couldn’t tell for sure, time seemingly stopped while the magnet of the notes drew me into different swells of text, sub-text and emotion. Maybe it was my weakened emotional state leaving me prey to accepting rides from strangers, but I was taken on a series of turning twisting streets through my own internal emotional landscape. I felt happy and sad, disheartened and afraid, invincible, and as vulnerable as a child fallen out of his crib and left to cry alone. All in ten minutes time. What was this song, who was the player? I eagerly awaited the next song, but there wasn’t one to be had. A few seemingly random brushing of the keys, a couple of phrases played over from the first performance. Key phrases that the player obviously wasn’t happy with, played over two or three times as if to cement the proper locution and control. And I’m thinking, if the notes were played any finer, any closer to the magical plateau of perfection, my heart might have been ripped from my chest. I lay in wait for the next tune, but it never came. I fought the urge to shout through the cover of vines to ask for another song, but for once in my life I showed a reasonable degree of social discretion. I somehow gleaned that having an eager audience, the player might color the tune differently, and I wanted to hear the music played by the artist, solely for the artist. I only had to wait.
And reward came the next afternoon. At the stoke of 2:30, just as I could begin to smell the fog on the leading edge of the westerly breeze, the notes from the mystery piano began to float through the greenery. I immediately recognized the tune as one and the same as was played the day before. Impossibly beautiful, serene and assured, and yet emotionally jolting as the scrambled thoughts from a long running fever dream. Again I was transported, brought alive, made to laugh at all the tiny vagaries of my closeted little life. How such beauty and complexity could exist close enough to almost touch and yet be invisible behind screen. I held myself aloft and listened with my whole body. Afraid to move lest I scrape the leg of the chair and momentarily block out a note or a chord. The song ran through my veins like a drug; easing, blocking, fine-tuning and rearranging the way the afternoon looked to me. But in all too short a time it was over. And like the day before, a brief five minutes of brushing over a few lines, repeating a run or two until it felt right and then silence.
And so my days took on a modest form. Mornings were spent rustling about the small house that felt too large by half-again. I was on the verge of becoming one of those types who hold long, detailed conversations with themselves while making the morning coffee and it made me laugh to think where that might lead. But I guess the fact that I could still laugh at myself was a sign that I wasn’t completely gone around the bend with the neurosis of my isolation. The house seemed uninhabited, even by myself, as I bounced around the four walls, changing seats with each section of the daily newspaper. It seemed so right somehow to read about all the amazing things going on to real people out in the real world. I knew I’d have to join them again someday, but for now I was comfortable only in my own company, however thin that shield may have been.
Around 1:00 or so each afternoon, I would make myself a modest lunch and sit out on the porch with a book, waiting for the music to appear. It never began before 2:30, nor later than 3:00. The piece of music never changed, and after a month or so of hearing the one piece and nothing else from their fingers, I gave up on the idea that the pianist was rehearsing for a particular performance. Obviously, someone with such a great degree of skill at their instrument must be capable of playing dozens, if not hundreds of pieces. But the one was all I ever got to hear.
Of course I was intensely curious about the player and kept an eye, in passing, on the equally small, red trimmed house. At first, I hoped that the player would be a youngish woman with long braided, yellow hair and flowing skirts who would, seeing me emerge from my house on my daily errands, ask me in for a cup of coffee. Or, if I was exceptionally lucky, a glass of wine over which we would fall deeply in love with each other; living happily ever after within the folds of her music and the mythic poems I would write in her honor.
Yeah, right. All I saw when walking past the house or looking out my front window, was an old man, bent and white with age, working his way down the front steps and out of his yard. He left first thing in the morning and returned promptly at 12:25 each day. I can’t recall ever seeing him leave the house at night or in the late afternoon, but then I’m not a detective and I’m sure he had more to his life than one trip out into the world each day.
As I said, he was small and gray and stiff. Nothing in his appearance spoke to the depth of emotion that rang forth from his piano each afternoon. I held out hope for a short while that his granddaughter, she of the yellow hair and hippie skirts was slipping in and out of the house when I wasn’t around. But before long I realized that I was glad that there was no beautiful young woman. Glad that the maker of the music didn’t have any physical impact on me. In a small way I was already in love with the very fact of the old man’s existence. Cloaking the desirability of the music within the folds of sex, or any of the other land mine of human relations would strip it of much of its power.
One day, against many quietly voiced protests, I found myself walking up the path to his door. I had decided that I needed/wanted to hear the music with less of a barrier. I also wanted to know the name of the tune that had added such a firm structure to my life. I’d gone on one or two occasions to a couple of the more esoteric vinyl record stores in Berkeley hoping somehow to find a recording of a song that I didn’t know the name of by a composer or performer that I didn’t have a clue to. I queried a couple of clerks, even going so far as to try and hum the tune. I’m sure the clerks remembered me after I left, probably told a few good stories that night over dinner or happy hour about the loony who came into their shop that afternoon. But to their credit they were mostly kind and helpful and didn’t treat me like the obviously crazed person I was. But then, Berkeley is a town built upon the shoulders of the obsessive and the slightly demented and I wasn’t all that different than a good many of the people roaming its streets. So finally, instead of living in ignorance, I decided to just go up, knock on his door and ask him about the song. What’s the worst that could happen? Maybe he wouldn’t even speak English. In which case I could pretend to be a political activist and get him to sign a petition or something. I certainly looked the type. And its always a good idea to have a plan ‘A’ at the ready.
Up his path I walked. Past the neatly pruned rose bushes and up the cracked paint steps to his door. I could hear the sound of my three knocks echo quickly through his house. There was a short wait of silence, then I heard muffled steps, slowly working their way toward the front of the house.
Of course I noticed his hands first. The fingers were long and slender and anchored to an almost brutishly strong palm. While the rest of his body was quite old and withered, his hands remained youthful and strong. It was as if all the energy he could conjure up was directed to the flow and grace of his fingertips. Even holding his balance against the door frame, there was a certain grace and ease with which his fingers moved and shifted to hold him perfectly still and erect. It was as if he was playing a silent sonata against the rough wood. He stood propped up against one side of the doorway looking out at me expectantly. And suddenly, I had nothing much to say. “I’m, uh, your neighbor, Phil,” is all I could manage to produce. Its not that I’m shy or often tongue-tied around people. I have reclusive tendencies but I’m a relatively garrulous recluse when the mood strikes me.
“Of course you are,” he said. “Please come in. I’ve seen you many times in front of your house. Phil, hmm. What kind of name is that? English, perhaps? Please, do come in.”
I was led into a small dark room and motioned to a settee. Well, a couch really. But there was a certain dignity about the old man and the old, one might be tempted to say lacquered look of the furniture and decorations in the house, that I felt that he must call his couch a settee. Or perhaps, a divan. I sat down and he excused himself for a moment and went off to his kitchen to get us a cup of tea. I resisted the urge to go and inspect his bookshelves. A habit I freely indulge in when I first come in to most peoples houses. But here I felt it might be seen as impolite. Sooner than I would have thought the old guy must have had a pot already on the stove, he was back with a tall blue porcelain carafe and a service, perfectly outfitted for two. For one split second, I was transported into a Somerset Maugham novel, my favorite literary fantasy. A glance down at my unwashed jeans and dusty tennis shoes pulled me out of high tea on the French Riviera at Maugham’s and back to this tiny, slightly stuffy living room in south Berkeley.
“I’m sorry. My manners, what can I be thinking,” he said, pouring out a cup to the brim with dark brown tea and aiming it my direction. His whole body slightly trembling with effort to bend, but his hand steady and true. I involuntarily reached up to take the cup, watching him step shakily to me, but he held up his other hand. “No, it is quite all right, young man. My body is old and it shakes, but my hands, God be blessed, when given a task still remain firm and resolute.”
He took up his own cup and sat back in a stiff-backed chair he had drawn up next to the couch, took a sip and smiled at me.
“I am Alexander Rokusek. And you, Phil, are my neighbor these three months and now you come to see me. Call me Sasha, please. It would make me more comfortable. ” He saw my eyes start when he mentioned how long I’d been living in my bungalow “Yes, three months. You are surprised? An old man has little to do with his time except to spy upon his street. Of course I see you when you go out and about your business. I hope you will forgive this small hobby of mine, watching the world rush by in all its whirlwind of activity. An old man has very little else to fill his days. So I watch…and I speculate.
“And you play the piano. I’ve heard you play the piano, when I sit on my porch in the afternoons. I wanted to ask you, I wanted to know.”
“You want to learn piano? Oh, I don’t think so, I no longer teach. I no longer have the patience for it. It’s funny, Phil. One always thinks that old age brings wisdom and patience. That’s what you think, isn’t it. But I will tell you, the older I get the less time I feel I have to spare for that which does not directly affect me. And I have so much myself left to learn of the piano in the days I have left on this earth that it would feel to me a crime to spend any time teaching another. So please forgive me, do not think me to be impolite if I choose not to teach you of the piano.”
“No, Sasha. I don’t want to learn to play the piano. I’ve no desire to play, just to listen. I’m curious about the song I hear you play every day. What is it called?”
“The song you hear me play? It is a simple piece. And I work on it most every day. It is coming along. Yes it is coming.”
“But it is so beautiful, Sasha. And you play it perfectly every day. If you’ll forgive me for being perhaps a bit more poetic than is necessary, I don’t think I could live without hearing you play that song every day.”
“Poetry is good for the soul, Phil. It will keep you alive on this Earth longer than any other Medicine. So promise me that you will never apologize for being or feeling poetic. But perfect? Do not take offense, Phil, but what could you know of perfection. It does not exist within a piece of music. And the piece of music you speak of, this song, is a long way from being mastered by me. Sometimes I am afraid that I will die while it is still my master and not the other way around.”
“But why do you play only the one song? And why only once a day? You must know hundreds of other pieces of music.”
“Yes, Phil. I know many pieces of music. There is much beauty in the world. Perhaps if I tell you a story you will understand why I play my song every day in an attempt to play it to the furthest reach of my meager abilities. Do not worry, Phil. It will be short story. It will be finished before your tea is cold. Oh, my manners again. Your cup.” Sasha reached over the small glass table between us and slowly and laboriously re-filled my cup with the dark, bitter tea, without losing a drop.
“There. You are comfortable? Yes, okay. My story? Many years ago, Philip. You are a Philip, not a Phil are you not? You are to an age where Philip might begin to fit you better. So if you don’t mind, I will call you that. Yes, many years ago I lived in a town in the country where I was born. Havrnck was a small village in a small green valley in the south of Czechoslovakia. Our town was small and our fields were small but the land in Bohemia is lush and our town was well supported We were able to have a small school of our own, two churches and even a music teacher. I fell naturally toward music, and if I am not being too immodest, it quickly fell into me. I was forever sneaking to it whenever the work of the fields and my schoolwork could be put aside. Sundays were the finest because with the exception of the harvest time, no one was compelled to work on a Sunday and my parents being religious but not without feeling felt that my wanting to sit at the piano from sunrise to sunset on even the most beautiful Sundays was an act of faith as strong as any they had seen within the wall of the town’s church. They held out hopes that I might one day win a scholarship to the conservatory in Prague. I secretly wanted to go to Vienna when I reached an age but I kept this to myself. I knew my teacher’s feelings about Dvorak and about the love he had for the music of our country. The music that made us all feel the heat of our patriotism. And I knew that that was the music he would want me to study. So life went. Work, study music.
“Now, Philip, you are not to think that we were like your American hillbillies, cut-off from the world in our little valley. We had a radio and we knew what went on in the world. So it came as no surprise when one fine, blustery Fall afternoon, just as the village was stirring back to life after taking its noon meal, the Germans marched into our valley and into our village, all shiny leather and curled lip arrogance. I remember it as if it was yesterday.
“Being fifteen and fit, I had taken to the fields and woods with the other boys and young men. We had it in our minds to fight and kill a German or two, but in reality, all we wanted to do was stay out of their way and thus avoid being a mourned corpse before our next birthday. We had heard all the stories flying from one town to the next of German atrocities. Were we cowards to leave our families, our sisters and mothers and sometimes our aging fathers behind? No! We were Czech and strong. But we knew that the Germans only wanted to kill the young boys and young men. The ones that might hold up a long barreled rifle against them or cut their throat while they slept drunkenly as all Germans do after drinking our sweet Bohemian wine. So when the Germans marched into town we watched from the woods with hatred at what they might do in our absence.
“The German army is nothing if not efficient. They marched straight into the center of town, went from building to building, house to house and pulled everyone out into the town square. Old, young, sick and frail. It made no matter. All were bullied out into the crisp Fall day that now had lost most of its sweetness. They were angry, of course when they saw that there were no boys over the age of eight or men under forty to be found. Angry but not surprised. They knew just what was happening. They were well trained and this was not their first Czech village.
“A group of officers sat down to wait, taking over the largest table on the outdoor court of the village cafe. Laughing and ordering the serving girl, Marta was her name, I remember it all, to bring them the best wine and cheeses and whatever bits of pate and cold meat she could find. They told her to save her Czech beer, so they might use it later to bathe in. Ah, to be home in the biergartens of Munchen drinking real German beer. That is what they wanted. Not to be forced to subsist on this piss-water Czech beer, which is all they’d been able to find since the beginning of this campaign. In no time they were half drunk, chairs pushed back and boots muddied from tromping across our fields lounged atop the tables, soiling the fine embroidered linen Marta spread out so evenly every morning. She did her best to wear a smile and serve them as quickly as she could, pretending not to mind their clutches and thinly cloaked suggestions as to what other things they would like served to them. She was badly frightened by what they might do if they felt even the smallest slight come from her or anyone else in the village. We had all heard the stories of how any kind of resistance was met. So as soon as she could, she said that she needed to fetch more wine and sent her aging grandfather Helmek, out to bring them more cheese. Fortunately for her, and for Helmek, the soldiers were getting too drunk to care one way or another for a lowly Czech serving girl. Preferring to boast and thump their chests and talk loudly of the strength of the Aryan race and to laugh their rough horse laughs at the feeble resistance put up by the Czech army and partisans. How they wished that there had been more fight in the Czechs so they could have shown what the German army was really capable of. ‘Wine. More wine, schnell, schnell.’ The bastards were running poor Helmek ragged. He was not so young in those days, though I could see by the look in his eyes that he remembered the man he was thirty years back and wished even half his strength back so he could club their thin German heads together. ‘Music, we want music. Hey old man, don’t turn your dirty Czech back on me when I’m talking to you.’ The biggest and drunkest of the officers shoved back is chair so hard it fell into another table and crashed to the ground. ‘Hey, you. Old dog, come back here. I’m talking to you. I told you I wanted to hear some music.’ Helmek kept walking away toward the kitchen, while the other soldiers began to laugh and taunt the big soldier, who by now had adopted a glower and a flexed knee stance as if he was waiting for a fight to begin. The soldier pulled out his Luger and fired two shots into the air. ‘Can’t you hear me old man. I want to hear some music.’ By now his friends were near doubled up with laughter at this unexpected carnival. Some of them were shouting for the big drunk to sing, since he couldn’t get the waiter to provide any music. Bets were being taken on whether he would sound more like an ox or a sheep. Marta cowered in the kitchen and Helmek kept walking. I could see this all from behind a hedgerow not fifty paces from the cafe. I wanted to run out and throttle the bastards. But what could I do, I ask you? Nothing, that’s all. I stayed hidden and hoped that nothing bad would happen. Helmek passed through the rope-hinged door to the kitchen leaving the red-faced officer standing in the middle of the cafe patio, a gun in his hand and his fellow officers burying him in hard laughter.
“A short minute later Helmek came back out through the door with three bottles of wine. ‘Oh, you’re back already,’ the drunken soldier started in. ‘And what’s with this wine? I told you I wanted to hear some music. What’s wrong with you, are you mocking me, are you, you Czech pig?’ Helmek tried to slide past him with the wine and said, ‘I’m sorry, I thought you said you wanted more wine. I must have heard you wrong.’ The soldier swept a bottle out of Helmek’s hand as he moved quickly past, and leveled the gun at the back of his head. ‘Maybe you can hear this the better old man?’ And he shot him dead. Right there in the middle of the cafe. I had never seen anything more cold-blooded or horrible in my life. But this was only 1938 And What did anybody yet know of horror in 1938 I ask you? The big drunken soldier bulled his way through the kitchen door and dragged poor Marta out. She saw her Grandfather laying in a pool of blood and brains and began to cry and shake. ‘Now you, Czech bitch. By God you’ll get me some music. Do you want to end up like this old dog?’ Marta just began to cry harder. The soldier gripped her roughly and shoved her back up against a heavy wooden table. ‘I’ll have some music out of you one way or another, you bitch.’ And he proceeded to push her until she was laying flat on her back across the table. To a tremendous cheer from his compatriots, he pulled her skirt up high, exposing her for all to see. The poor girl, she tried to kick and fight but he slapped her twice hard right across the face and she went back down, stunned senseless. He began to rub up against her, roughly kissing her tear-streaked face. ‘Sing for me, Czech songbird. Sing loud enough for your whole town to hear.’ Marta, regaining some of herself raged against the drunken lout and tried to push him off. It was then that we all heard the notes of a piano begin to sound. It was my music teacher. Not quite young and swift enough to hide with us in the forest, nor old enough to safely be seen in town, though all the good it did poor Helmek, I can’t say– he had remained hidden in his cellar to watch alone. But poor Helmek’s fate and Marta’s predicament had drawn more out of him than he had been known to possess. He was sitting at the battered old upright piano that was used mostly for folk songs and drinking songs on Saturday night at the cafe. A piano vastly unworthy of his skill and very much unused to producing the depth of emotion than came from his fingers at this moment. He began to play clearly and strongly and with no lack of patience, a passage from Dvorak’s Symphony #9, The New World Symphony, arranged in the spur of the moment by himself; all the sweeping strings, darkly quiet fissures and thundering brass coming flowing out of the old upright piano like a Spring river swollen with the melt of Winter’s snow. My teacher’s head was thrown back, eyes closed and he played with the blank faced concentration of a man who might never stop, so deeply was he lost in the music. The seated officer’s laughter stopped as if it had run up against a brick wall and the animal holding down Marta twisted his head toward the sound as if facing a pursuer.
“Marta, seizing her moment, pulled free from under the soldier and disappeared in a rush and a wink. ‘What is this crap you play?’ said the officer turning angrily toward the piano. ‘Play some real music for your betters. Some German songs. Play us a tune we can sing to.’ The Officer, his gun back in his hand, advanced on my teacher, who played on, ignoring everything but the swell and beauty of music. I have heard Dvorak performed many times but never have I heard him played with more force, with more immediacy than by my teacher, while threatened by a gang of murderous soldiers, on an untuned piano with many beer and wine stiffened keys.
“The officer buoyed by alcohol and indignation bellowed up to my teacher who played with his back to the Germans. ‘I told you to stop playing this primitive music. You Czechs only wish you were Germans, only wish your music could reach to the level of ours. Stop now or you’ll finish your song like old Grandpa over there.’ He gestured to the inert form of Helmek, who by now had run out of blood to shed and lay as if sleeping off a drunk in a spread of red flowers. When the music continued, the officer raised his gun and leveled it at the back of my teacher’s head. ‘You stupid Czechs. Must you all learn your lessons the same way?’ He glared with arrogance and disgust. Just as it appeared that my music teacher would meet the same fate as Helmek, Marta rushed back from the kitchen with a 14” meat chopping knife held in front of her like a flag. She swung it hard at the German officer’s neck, trying to kill him as one would kill a chicken. Suddenly sober, the soldier whirled and fired as if he was a dancer in a ballet. Marta dropped in a bloody heap not three steps from her Grandfather, the knife clattering harmlessly to a stop at the German officer’s feet. Still my teacher played on. Dvorak, glorious Dvorak. I felt my heart become frozen, stiffen and then break, all in one breath.
“A roar of motors and dust brought our scene back to a different reality. The German column was beginning again its advance. Most of the drinking party of officers pulled up to their feet and began moving out of the cafe. They had bigger fish to fry than our little town with its one cafe and two churches. The drunken officer still stood faced off with the still, bleeding Marta and dead Helmek. He seemed uncertain as to where to turn. Perhaps he was even drunker than he appeared. He lowered his gun at Marta and fired twice more, her body leaping with each intrusion. ‘She tried to kill me, you all saw that didn’t you?” he said to the other German soldiers who were still moving toward the exit. They all, to a man ignored him. He turned back toward my teacher, who finishing the movement, stepped away from the piano and looked upon the sad scene with the eyes of one who put his hand to the fates. I don’t think he wanted to die just at that moment. But I do think that he could see the future of our village, of our country and I don’t think he had any expectations beyond the walls of the cafe.
“The soldier began to raise his gun, which I think he thought had enough bullets to kill everyone in our town, but was forestalled by another officer. ‘Come on, Gert. Stop wasting time. If it’s killing you want there’ll be more you can stomach tonight. We are called to advance and they say that there is a group of stupid Czechs that thinks it can fight with Germans, 25 kilometers in front of us. Forget this stupid old man. He’ll get his before too long. Come on, we’re already falling behind the column. And with that he took his fellows arm and pulled him out of the cafe, leaving my teacher standing at the piano wondering where in the world his next step would lead him.
“That is the tune you hear me play, my new friend. I play what I can of the New World Symphony because for me this is the only piece of music that holds onto a meaning. I play it to remember. I play it for Marta and for Helmek and for my old music teacher. Though I haven’t seen him or my village since that day. The war took me many places, far and away from Havrnck. I was even in Vienna once. But for me there was no place at the most famous of the conservatories. I play this piece from my memory and try to take from it again, from my own hands, a fraction of the passion that was given to me that afternoon.”
I sat, looking for a long moment at my stone cold tea, still resting on the glass table top where Sasha had placed it for me. “Will you play for me now?” I started to say, but Sasha was already moved to the piano and was taking a series of deep breaths, his eyes closed to this pallid time we think of as our all encompassing world of troubles and importance.