The Accordion Man
Your appreciation for music isn't just about sound. It's about the emotion behind the sound.
A year ago today, I found it at a yard sale in a cheap trailer park in North Fort Worth behind the old Swift packing plant.
It wasn't a fine black concert accordion, like a Polina, with a dozen sparkling treble voices and lots of pipe organ bass like the ones you might see up on stage with Frankie Yankovic, the Polka King, as he and His Yanks played the Blue Skirt Waltz to a hundred geriatrics lurching into the night under a mirrored ball in a mildewed hall somewhere out on Long Island. But on the other hand, it wasn't a plain-jane Wurlitzer, with tobacco-stained keys and frayed bellows, all the finish worn off and an old tin cup screwed crooked on the front case, most likely played by a blind beggar or disabled vet on a busy street corner.
As accordions go, it wasn't a bad one. Not all beat up. I could tell it was a player. Well used and worn off in all the right places with just the faintest smell of long-gone after shave on the case where a serious man who loved the sound would rest his chin and with his eyes closed, pull the music out into the night. It was more than both. So I paid the man and set the instrument back in its battered case, lined with scraps of crushed velvet that smelled like a hundred stuffy closets and wondered when, or if, the obsession would ever end.
I don't come from a musical family. None of my brothers or sisters or cousins ever played music. Momma sang all right in church, but my father was a source of deep embarrassment to us every Sunday when he turned the Doxology into something that just made your head hurt. At some point, momma became aware of the musical void surrounding her and began telling the neighbors I was musically inclined because I liked to lie in front of the mahogany Victrola with my head stuck in the speaker and listen to the music. Then she signed me up for guitar lessons. Since I was only ten, I didn't have much say about it.
My lessons were at a music store in downtown Ft. Worth, on Houston Street, next to the court house. It was the summer of 1957 and we lived about three miles west in a flat brick subdivision with all the other hillbillies who funneled out of Kentucky and Tennessee and Arkansas, chasing defense work west down Highway 70 into Texas after World War Two. My dad always worked overtime on Saturdays so the only way I could get to my lessons was by taking the bus.
It dropped me off three blocks south of Kahn's House O'Music, in front of a big granite bank and that's where I first saw him. I nearly stepped on him when I got off the bus. That's where I first saw the Accordion Man.
I was short, I thought, but he was even shorter. Like someone sawed him in half and set him on a square of wood with roller skates nailed under it. I'd never seen anything like him. He was like some strange creature I discovered in the pages of National Geographic. A member of a lost tribe of legless men. I was horrified and fascinated by this grizzled and bewhiskered little man-without-legs who scooted back and forth along a busy downtown sidewalk, playing the prettiest music I'd ever heard.
His legs disappeared just below the zipper of his faded trousers and the pant legs collapsed and folded neatly back to make a cushion against the hard wood of the platform. His stumps slid under a heavy canvas belt, like an old piece of fire hose that was nailed down to each side. On his back, over a grimy soldier jacket and a gray, almost transparent T-shirt hung a faded army pack and on each side, tied to the straps with shoe string and kite string and every-kind-of-string were blue Folgers cans full of bright yellow pencils with powdery pink tips. And across his chest, mostly hiding an old war medal and a few frayed, faded ribbons, was an accordion. An Accordiola.
When a bus pulled up, the Accordion Man would scoot up front where people were getting off and start playing a song. Sometimes he'd sing and sway and make the little platform twitch back and forth in time with the music. He put on a real show. After he played, he'd make his pitch in a high voice.
"Be kind to a vet. Buy a pencil? Everyone needs a pencil. Buy a pencil. Only a nickel. Buy a pencil and be kind to a vet, will ya? Buy a pencil!"
Except he didn't say it like that. He didn't have any teeth that I could see, and pencil came out "pinshul." Vet sounded like "wet." Be kind to a wet, will ya?
I'd never seen an incomplete person before. No crippled people lived in our neighborhood or went to our church. No legless kids went to my school. Everyone had all their arms and legs. I'd ripped my finger open on a tack the year before and had to get stitches and I knew how much that hurt. I couldn't imagine how much hurt it would take to get your legs cut off.
The Accordion Man and I struck up an odd friendship there on that street corner. Me with my guitar case longer than I was. Him with his accordion and his pencils. After my lesson I had over an hour to wait before the bus home, and not knowing what to do with the time, I went back to the bank and sat on the wide stone steps to watch the Accordion Man and listen to him play.
The songs were old. I recognized a few from the radio shows my momma listened to when she'd sing along. And he played good. Played right along as they say. But most people just ignored him. They just looked past him when they went by. I kept thinking, if he could just stand up so people could see him, then maybe they'd stop and listen because he played so good.
And some people did stop, mostly older women in expensive coats. Some men my father's age, but they never looked him in the eye or shook his hand like the old ladies did. Most people that walked in front of the bank looked at him but they didn't see him. I knew this because I was a kid and it was the same way.
One Saturday he just scooted up to where I was sitting and started playing a song, just playing it to me. When he finished, I didn't know what to do so I clapped and he offered me a pencil. I tried to give him a nickel but he wouldn't take it and I told him it wouldn't be fair. I couldn't take the pencil. He gave his little platform a twitch and winked at me, stuck out a rough hand and I offered a soft one. I guess since he and I were both short we could see each other, so we introduced ourselves and became friends. His name was Tommy.
He said the music was always in him. It just couldn't find a way to get out until a night in 1943 when he heard an accordion playing outside a field hospital in France. They'd taken his legs that morning but he could still feel them down there, under the empty sheets. He was crying for his legs when the music put an arm around his shoulder and led him away like an angel. Ever since that night, he'd never wanted to do much except make the music. Said it kept the angel with him. Kept him happy.
That summer, with Tommy as my angel, we explored the city looking for people who needed his music. A ten-year-old boy and a legless man, easy on the streets and invisible to everyone who couldn't see.
I was a little uneasy, walking around with a crippled man I barely knew. Everything so different from where I lived. But the more I walked with Tommy, the more I saw that my other life, the one lived within the confines of six square blocks, that's what was becoming unreal. Home, church, grocery, school. Church, home, school, grocery. Only so many combinations before it all folded back in on itself like a Möbius strip of boredom and sameness. Out in the world with Tommy, my eyes couldn't be stopped.
But more than tall buildings and long limousines, the jukebox hustle and rattle and snap of the city, I was captured by the discovery of a nation of people I never knew existed outside the pasteurized, flat topped-laced-up-khaki-colored square of my existence. A nation of people like Tommy. People who'd lost a part of their bodies, lost a part of their hearts or their minds or their dignity. People who'd lost their place in time. People who had little chance of ever being found. It was Tommy's job to look for them.
We went to the jail that sat down the hill from the courthouse and there behind a barbed-wire fence, men in stripped shirts tended a small garden in the hot Texas sun. He played "The Yellow Rose of Texas" and the prisoners began to smile. One pulled a harmonica from his prison pants and began to play along. Others began to sing softly. A giant, a monster of a man with tattooed arms and a crooked face came to the fence and gave me a bright red tomato, warm from the sun, while Tommy played away their troubles and erased their crimes.
And every Saturday we met someone new. Behind the public library, I met a man who lived in a wooden crate with a three legged dog named Snap. In a dead end alley off Seventh Avenue I met Annalise, a beautiful blind girl who lived on the fire escape of a tumbled down building. In the old wooden section of town down by the train station, I met a man without a nose. Nothing but a hole in his face covered loosely with a dirty kerchief. I met a beggar who used a piece of rope for a belt and safety pins for buttons. And I met people asleep on benches and in doorways who didn't wake up when Tommy played for them. He said it didn't matter they were asleep. What mattered was that he played a song just for them.
"Might be all they get ya know, just a song. Maybe all they really need."
When the fall from grace is so stunning and complete and there's nothing left to subtract from your life but life itself, maybe a song was about the only thing you could give a man without hurting him in some small but terrible way.
At first, I thought the music itself transformed the people he played for, like he played magic on that instrument. But as the summer wore on, I began to realize it wasn't the music. It was the player. And what Tommy played was aimed at their souls. He said a man could steal food and beg money if he was hungry. But if a man was hurting in his heart because no one cared about him, well, there's no place he could go to steal that. No place to beg for it either.
On July Fourth weekend we went to a small unkempt park behind the Western Union office and there, I met other men like him. Men who went to war and left pieces of themselves behind, the pieces they left replaced with clumsy imitations. Legs that sounded hollow and looked swollen and pink like my sisters dolls. Feet that looked like the old wooden shoe trees my father put inside his Sunday shoes. Arms that stopped short and ended in shinny mechanical hooks. Arms and legs that creaked and clicked when they moved. But the men didn't seem to mind. At least they didn't show it.
Tommy played for them too. Old war songs, songs I never heard before. Like the prisoners behind the jail, some of the men sang softly and some just stared off in the distance. Others got very quiet and looked down at the bristly grass as the music swelled and floated out over that weedy little park. He played each of them an angel that led them away, it seemed, to a place they wanted to be.
I began to wonder about my own music and the effect it had on people who heard it. Momma dragged me all over the neighborhood that summer for uninvited concerts with members of her bridge club.
I hated it. Traipsing up someone's driveways lugging that long case and the little electric amplifier. Momma's friends would greet us with startled looks and when the awkwardness was over, they'd invite us in. Momma would announce in a breathless voice how I'd just learned a new song that I was dying to play for them. I was dying all right, but she never noticed. The startled neighbor would have to move a lamp or a magazine table out of the way so I could plug in the amplifier.
"Sorry, that's okay, I think the cord will reach now. Sorry, thank you."
Then I'd play Steel Guitar Rag which was the only song I knew without messing up. The notes would roar out of the little amp, screaming around the living room, bouncing off slip-covered furniture, crashing into family portraits and banging against wall clocks; blasting dogs and cats out of sleepy dreams so they'd run off and hide behind the couch. My angel was a tortured, electrified monster. Bent on destruction.
Through it all, momma would smile knowingly at her startled friend as if to say, "I know, you wish your child could do this."
Afterward, in the thank-God-it's-over silence, grateful for the absence of my amplified howling, I was offered a sugar cookie and blue Kool-Aid.
"Well! That was certainly nice! How long have you been taking lessons?"
Before I could ever answer, momma would take the floor and I'd drag everything out of the poor woman's house as quiet as I could, sometimes wishing I could just crawl in the case with that guitar and close the lid forever.
Toward the end of the summer, the week before my birthday, Tommy was gone from his usual spot by the bank. I looked for him after my lesson but he was nowhere to be found. The only evidence that he'd ever been there was a few broken pencils in the gutter by the bus stop. The following Saturday I looked for him again, going to all the places he'd taken me, looking for the people we'd met, hoping they might tell me where he'd gone. But like Tommy, they seemed to have vanished too. Even the old soldier's park was empty. I missed the bus and began to walk toward home, the guitar case banging a familiar sore spot on my knee, tangled up in my thoughts about him and the music.
Thinking and daydreaming like kids do, I paid no attention to where I was going until I heard a siren several blocks away. It was then I noticed I was on Seventh Avenue, standing just in front of the dead end alley where Tommy played for Annalise. And up there on the fire escape in a little patch of light, I saw her. Beautiful sightless eyes looked down and past me. Smiled a little.
"You seen Tommy?"
"Come up. We can talk if you want."
So I climbed the rusted steps to her and in a small piece of August sun, high above the alley, Annalise told me the music was gone.
It happened in front of the bank where I'd first met him. Crushed under the wheels of the same bus that took me out of my world and into his. Maybe he got too close to the curb and rolled off. Maybe someone in a crowd of people trying to get on hadn't noticed and accidentally pushed him. No one knew. No one had seen him.
"He played so good." she said. "Like an angel. He was, you know. A real one."
Not long after, I quit going to lessons. It was a great disappointment to momma and ended in one of those long discussions at the supper table kids all hate about didn't I appreciate the opportunity that other kids didn't have and she'd talked with my teacher and he said I played better than the other students and what was wrong with me not wanting to play anymore? I tried to tell her it wasn't the guitar or the lessons or anything else she was thinking, but I couldn't. I was still too short and couldn't figure a way to say any of it right. I couldn't figure how to say that I loved the music and maybe it was enough right now just to love it. That I knew the power of music to help and maybe heal just a little and that I wasn't tall enough to hold that power and might never be. That it was enough right now just to know these things.
I take the accordiola out of its beat-up case and run the scales. Pull a few major chords out long and loud. Hold them out until the sound gets so soft it just disappears.
It has a beautiful voice. High and sweet like a young girl singing in church. The straps are frayed and C-Major wants to stick a little, but other than that, it's a fine instrument. I place it carefully, high up on the fifth shelf, in the center. I climb down, put the rickety ladder away and turn back to look at them, smiling.
A wall of accordions. Row after row. Like a chorus of angels.
K.S. Moffat (Ksmoffat3@aol.com) grew up in the shadow of a Texas defense plant and as a teenager, gained a measure of notoriety as a porpoise trainer and monkey handler at the Ft. Worth Zoological Park until a vicious encounter with one of his primate charges resulted in its untimely death. Following a string of educational failures, he subsequently moved as far north as citizenship would allow and currently resides in a heavily mortgaged home outside Detroit, where he maintains a healthy distance from monkeys and most people. When not obsessing about middle-age, he practices architecture.
InterText Copyright © 1991-2000 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 10, Number 3 of InterText. This story Copyright © 2000 K.S. Moffat.