Excuse me. Yes. You behind the cash register with the ink-stain spreading in your shirt pocket. Don’t look down yet though, no, look at me. I’m missing something here. Where is he? Who? Everything else about this shit-hole is the same every day and you’re asking me who? Ok, I’ll tell you, but from now on I’m buying my coffee in small change until you pay more attention. The man, I’m looking for the harmonic man, where is he? Do you know? Does anyone?
We sat on the sidewalk that night, our backs leaning against a cold brick building’s wall, knees rolled firmly into our chests for warmth—she was more flexible than I and for that reason simply fit better. “Just like two kids in love,” you may have thought if you walked by. But I wonder. I wonder if the wind would’ve been as fierce against your face as it was on hers, intermittently transforming fragments of hair and skin into waves of dark sand softly flowing into disappearing dancing shadows; while I remained timeless, and still. I wonder. I wonder about a lot of things like that these days.
I used to imagine that the harmonica was stuck in place to his lips. You see, I’d never actually seen him any other way. Gliding gracefully in pendulous motion over resisting chapped terrain, hypnosis set in between tones and breaths. I just assumed he was always at home.
The street light flickered above us and the city began to shrink. We sat silently and waited as pieces of granola skittered off my frozen yogurt into the creases of my pale yellow polo shirt. She picked them up with hardly a glance and flicked them with her middle finger onto the sidewalk. She had long slender fingers, artistic fingers. I remember how she held her glass that first night at the bar, between two of her fingers, charming—as if at a fancy cocktail party, sporting a proud British accent and perfect, coordinated eye-rolling technique. She asked me to be her rugged Scottish suitor but I was intimidated. She could be undeniably precise and creative when she wanted to be. Tonight, the crumbs rolled haphazardly onto the street and out of sight. She didn’t feel very creative at all.
The first time I heard him playing the instrument, I was coming up the back escalator at work, a novel approach to obtain a mid-morning cup of coffee, on a day on which I felt especially fond of myself. I wore shades of blue and my pockets were arranged just right, so I knew exactly where everything was. I heard “The Gambler” buzzing off his lips before I ever saw him. It was my father’s favorite song, one I’d always remembered him by and, looking back in my mind, his voice was inextricably linked to it. My father wore a thick beard back then, black, creeping high on his cheekbones, so that when he smiled there was nothing else you could focus on. He loved hats, I can remember dozens of them, but he’d wear the cowboy hat most, a memento of the short time he spent in Texas when he first immigrated to the States. He’d tell me every night he dreamed of living in America since he was a little boy and that I should have big dreams, too. I remember hearing his accent fade away as he sang “The Gambler,” and, looking back, I think he knew it happened, too. It was the happiest I’d ever seen him. He became larger than himself.
The light continued to wax and wane, but never died. She only stared and it performed the blinking for her.
“Where are you?” I asked, as I looked towards her out of the corner of my left eye. Her gaze hid without moving, as she fidgeted her left foot.
I pressed on. “Ok, I get it.… I know things have been off but….” I couldn’t even convince myself and, instead, gently pressed her left knee and rocked it side-to-side hanging on to thin strands of familiarity.
“Just tell me what’s in your head right now,” I said and immediately regretted the sincerity with which I made the request, hoping she wouldn’t pick up on it. I shifted position slightly, my legs now extended in front of me. A cold breeze of vulnerability swept over me and I quickly jerked my knees to their former position.
The light stayed still for moments now and she gathered courage.
She began to speak, the first words slightly slurred, as they often are by cold lips attempting to engage with a warm tongue. “You know ... there was a moment yesterday morning ... I was brushing my teeth while you were in the shower and....”
I chuckled to crack my own discomfort. “You always try talking while you’re brushing,” I interrupted nervously, my tone trembling with deceit. I hated how she wandered the apartment with foam in her mouth, holding the brush on one side, then the other, as she spewed syllables that tumbled over one another, falling flat before my ears could even attempt to overcome my eye’s disdain. She had an endearing, slightly crooked canine tooth when we first met, but decided on metallic cosmetic hardware a year later. I didn’t even mind the kind of attention the braces brought but now, now I didn’t like her teeth at all.
“Stop it” she snapped. She snapped so often these days. “You’re always interrupting me. Just listen, God, just learn to listen if you want to know what I have to say.” She sighed a dense, humid smoke-sigh, paused, and looked up at the light.
“I’m sorry,” I said, lying again. I didn’t want to hear what she had to say. A drop of cold sweat made its way halfway down my back and waited patiently, contently, hopeful.
The man wore white, sat on an upside-down white paint bucket, and wore a white hat turned backwards, only partially covering long, poorly groomed strands of white hair. His face was featureless, his eyes without depth and as his instrument glided across his thin lips it occurred to me the music was in perfect unison with all that surrounded us. People simply walked by. I stared frozen on most days but don’t think he ever noticed me, mostly, I suppose, because I was hardly even there. I thought of my father on those mornings, remembering the last time I saw him sleeping, the first time I saw him sleeping, I’m not sure I ever saw my father sleeping before that time. He wore a white kurtha covering his body from neck-to-toe, two gold necklaces that hung below his collarbones with unfamiliar pendants, and a red, small streak of paint on his forehead just above his nose. He was cleanly-shaven, his hair neatly parted and trimmed and I had never realized his eyes were so small, his forehead so large. I don’t remember much else, really, I turned away rather quickly that day—it wasn’t right, and I had had enough. It was just like the music, dense, slow, monotonous by a man playing a sitar when he should have had a guitar, an Indian hymn when it should have been, “The Gambler.”
She paused for seconds and hours before she started again, still looking up, her head now resting comfortably on the wall. The acoustics had improved.
“What I’m trying…” she paused to rub in my previous interjection. “…Yesterday morning, when I was brushing my teeth you were...” She froze again, the light remained still. “You were humming something. It was something, I can’t remember how it went but you were humming bits and pieces at a time and … well ... I guess I just noticed ... I mean ... I just realized ... I don’t know ... it’s just bothered me ever since then.” The sentence decrescendoed towards the end as she lowered her head to her knees. The movement was graceful and strong. I listened closely for tears but there were none. I didn’t understand at all.
“What bothered you?” I asked, startled, confused. My knees began to knock into one another as they trembled with impatient fervor and my voice climbed and tipped over a subtle wall that the night had seen us build.
“The humming,” she looked up and said louder—then adding, even louder, “You always hum. You hum in the shower, in the car, in the morning, at night. But you never sing. You never sing anything. And I realized that it’s what’s been bothering me.” She swiveled smoothly along the stubbly concrete as if it was a gymnasium floor and suddenly stared directly into my profile, now seated in cross-legged fashion. I raised my eyebrows reflexively, dampening a more deliberate response to a moment I perceived as insanity. (My left eyebrow is asymmetrically thinner and shorter than my right and though I always liked that quality, it suddenly left me feeling inadequate.)
She continued, “It’s just when I first met you, there were all these dreams and plans and … you’d name authors of any book I mentioned, talk about going to school again, volunteering here, there … but you’d never read any of those books ... you never do any of it … and it’s OK ... it was OK ... I don’t know ... sometimes … but I can’t take it now ... you just … you just … hum.” She went quiet at the end, and the word hum came off her lips more like a buzz than a word. She placed her hand on my knee as if it were her finger on my lips. It was precise, creative, and I couldn’t find the words to respond.
What is night? Night is when no one really knows what they want or what they’re doing. Night is when people question things, so the door has to be locked because when people don’t know what they want they may steal anything. I sat up on the corner of my bed that night while she pretended to sleep beside me. I wanted artistic fingers like hers, but only found my short, uncoordinated ones. I wanted his black comforting beard, but could only find his perfectly shaven face distant from mine, unrecognizable, unforgiving, a stranger to himself. I raised my eyebrows, fluttered my eyelids and shook my head in attempts to exorcise a chorus of laughter directed at my ignorance, and suddenly felt ill. I couldn’t even hear him sing “The Gambler” anymore. In fact, now, I wasn’t sure he had ever really been singing it at all. It was the same four lines over and over, one taken from the somewhere in the beginning, a couple from the middle, and one from near the end, with the gaps filled in with voiceless, faceless hums and, slowly, even those began to fall out of my grasp.
Ankur Parikh is a multi-borough New Yorker.