I was twelve the first time I saw the music man. He was sitting on the curb outside a dive bar in downtown Miami, guitar slung over his shoulder, a few loose bills and change stuffed in a red Solo cup at his side. Mother clutched my hand tighter as we walked past the bar, on our way from the parking garage to meet Daddy for dinner at some upscale restaurant a block or two away.
When I slowed to listen to the music, she tugged my arm, and I squealed, protesting the pull in my shoulder. But as we passed, I watched his hands fairly dance over his guitar strings. His fingers were lean, strong, with a few black hairs speckled across each knuckle. When I met his eyes, he grinned, a dimple appearing in his cheek as he did, and cast me a quick wink before my mother pulled me away.
The next time I saw him, I was seventeen. Earlier that evening, I’d stumbled out of my high school gym on prom night, half-drunk with heartbreak after seeing my boyfriend kissing another girl. I got in my car and drove and drove and drove, not caring where I ended up. When my head was pounding so bad from crying that I couldn’t see straight, I pulled over and started walking.
The trill of light, airy notes like a bird song carried over the blare of a midnight dance rave at one of the clubs, and my feet carried me toward the music. When I found him, he was on his feet, playing his flute like a madman while dancing lightly round a crossroads between several bars. A few partygoers paused to watch, tilting their heads sideways and laughing at him.
He saw me and dipped his flute in a funny little bow. I hiccupped a laugh, the pain in my head easing a bit. His fingers flew like the birds he imitated, and when he finished the song, he swept into a bow. Panting a bit, he sat on a curb, and the few watchers who remained scattered. I went and sat beside him. In the streetlights, sweat glistened on his dark skin.
“Little bird, you are far from home tonight, I think,” he said, balancing his flute across his knees.
I couldn’t deny it, but I looked around the emptying square instead of answering. “Why do you play your music here?”
“So that people will hear.”
I thought of the smirks and laughs of the people who had passed by earlier. “I don’t think they heard.”
“But I—” I wanted to say, You should be playing at Carnegie—not here where no one cares. But with the music still lingering inside and closing the crack in my heart, I couldn’t wish him elsewhere.
On some level, he seemed to understand. “Those who listen will hear.” Then he set a gentle hand atop my hair. “Go home, little bird. Go home.”
I searched him out several times after that, usually when I was home on break from college and needed the music to remind me that life was better than I believed. I would park my car and wander the streets until I heard the notes that would lead me straight to him. Sometimes he was playing his guitar or flute—other times a violin, a trumpet, a saxophone. Once I asked him if he had ever found an instrument he couldn’t play. He grinned and said, “Not yet.”
We didn’t speak very often. Whenever he caught sight of me, he would grin and bow his head in acknowledgement. Whenever it was time for me to leave, I would raise a hand in farewell and smile.
I took music lessons in college because of him—mainly guitar with a little piano thrown in on the side. I thought perhaps I would become a music teacher, help kids hear the dreams of distant lands through the music I would create and teach them to make. But though I became passable at both instruments, the music never sounded like his, and so I set it aside for other pursuits.
The next time I saw him, his violin was mourning out a tune I’d never heard before—singing of midnight walks by empty lakes and waking up to a sun gone dark. When I stayed after to ask him what had happened, he said, “What else? Love.” I asked what had happened to her, but all he would say was, “She walks with the unseen now.”
I found my own love not long after that, and thankfully mine went better than his. For a long time, I forgot to look for him. When I finally did, his smile was back, but his face was a little thinner, a little grayer. Still, when he saw me, he raised his violin bow in greeting before going back to his song.
Earlier tonight, I felt drawn out of my house for the first time in a long time. I drove the streets, my windows down, listening to the crickets in the summer breeze.
The first notes I heard were clear as my mother’s finest crystal, and I smiled—but then they choked. Coughed. Stopped. They came again, stopped again. Started and stopped, like an asthmatic choking on exhaust fumes. I parked in a hurry and ran through the streets until I found him, curled over his guitar, caught in a coughing fit.
I knelt before him in the street, held my hand to his head like he had to me so long ago. “What happened?”
His eyes crinkled when he smiled, but they were tired, and his face had grown even thinner. “I grew old.”
“But you’re not—”
“But I am.” He pulled my hand away from his head and squeezed it between his two hands. Then he set his fingers on the strings again and began to play. Again, a coughing fit seized him, and the music stopped, disappearing into the night. I saw his eyes look past me to all the people passing by, faces set like flint on their paths, no matter what good or bad those paths might yield.
He held the guitar out toward me.
“Play for me,” he begged.
“I can’t,” I said, shaking my head and remembering the inadequate attempts of my college days.
His grip on my hands was so tight it hurt. “Not for the crowds—for those who will listen.”
He started coughing again, and I took the guitar from him so that he could bend over and catch his breath. As I held the instrument, my hands tingled where he had gripped them, and I looked around the square. Most passed by with no notice of the old man coughing his heart out or the young woman standing awkwardly beside him. But across the street, a boy of perhaps fourteen leaned against a storefront. His face was hidden in shadows—the smudge across his cheek might have been dirt, or it may have been a bruise.
My music man wheezed in a new breath and released it slowly. “Play something sweet,” he said, his voice cracking.
So I slipped the guitar strap over my head and set my fingers to its strings.
And I began to play.