Harry Youtt is a frequently published poet and writer of short fiction, twice nominated for Pushcart prizes. He is the author of several poetry collections and chapbooks. He is also a long-time instructor in the UCLA Ext. Writers’ Program, where he teaches courses and workshops in fiction writing, poetry and memoir.
ADAGIO FOR FLUTE
"Did you bring it?" he says when he sees me come into his room. The old man is sitting up in his afternoon bed, straining forward, reaching. Gray-faced, in spite of sunlight slashing past his bed and spilling onto the green linoleum like a runaway liquid.
Even this late in the game, his voice challenges me. We’ve never trusted each other. Still I expect that at some point he’ll simply have to resign. He never does.
I sit down on the wooden chair.
"I asked you to bring it to me."
Once I said to him: "Those are sappy songs you play," back when I thought I could discourage him.
"Sappy?" he said. "I don't think so."
"They embarrass me."
"Your problem," he said. It has always been my problem.
Now he reaches for the plastic pitcher. It sits on a flimsy table, legged on one side only, with wheels so you can position it over the bed. The table begins to roll away from him and he begins to fall. I brace the table with my foot. He looks at me and tries to read my expression.
"I did bring it," I say at last.
I’m watching his eyes. They’ve become expectant, as a child receiving a gift. "Well?"
"Damn flute," I finally say, and I take the case out of the paper sack I’m carrying with the books he wants.
He snatches the case, then flips open the clasps and opens the top. The three silver segments, each one shining like a miniature, slender samovar, saved and cherished for a celebration, lie in their plush-violet resting places. He fumbles to take them up and fit them together. I see his fingers trembling, and for the first time, their sudden frailness sets me back so that I almost gasp.
"Let me do it," I say.
"You don't know how."
"Don't you think it's --," I say, and then I stop.
"Go ahead. You started the question. Why don't you finish it?"
"I've forgotten," I tell him.
" - 'a little late for that'." He sneers at me. "That was what you were going to say."
"That isn't what I was going to say at all." I turn away and look out the window, down to the courtyard where a pretty nurse with black hair has just sat down on a wool blanket, crackling open the deli paper that wraps her sandwich. Pointing into the distance and then throwing her head back to laugh, and saying something as another nurse approaches. I find myself wondering whether her hair would be coarse or fine to the touch. I decide it must be coarse.
Now the old man is trying to form notes from his mouth to the flute, blowing tentatively at first, his lips cracked from the fevers he's been running. Out of practice. In the beginning there is no tone, only a kind of hissing. I’ve heard this all before, when he starts up after long absences. "Dammit!" he says. He takes a deep breath, holds it, and flutters his fingers over the keys. They make nervous, popping sounds.
I pour him water from the plastic pitcher, hand it to him. He sips it, mostly ice. "That's better," he says, his lips glistening now, flecks of ice seeping down his beard and lapsing into moisture.
In the old days, back when he first began to play it, I'd find him the center attraction in saloons, even in a hotel lobby once. He’d come home from parks with pockets full of change and crumpled bills. Just to prove he could do it, he'd say. The first time I accused him of begging and shaming the family.
"People pay to hear me play!" he shouted, flinging the money across the room, coins sprinkled everywhere. "No shame in that!"
One time I said: "If you ask me, you're better at the clarinet, but that is only my opinion."
"People expect you to chew the clarinet into cheap laughter for them. Even the clarinet knows there's more to things than that."
So it was the flute he carried everywhere.
He blows now and a note forms, in the lower register, smooth, round, and I can see from the way the old man's forehead relaxes it’s the note he’s been searching for. "There," he says. "Much better."
Later, the raven-haired nurse, the one from down in the windy courtyard, comes into the room. "I thought I heard something going on in here," straightening the blanket and tucking it around the old man's waist. He’s been playing Someone to Watch Over Me, eyes closed, reclined into his pillows, and lilting the song in a kind of Pied Piper way, over and over, and using altogether too much energy. When he hears her voice in the room, he opens his eyes.
Now that he has her attention he shifts to September Song, and he plays it low and slow. The nurse blinks to adjust to the new melody, settles onto the edge of the bed as if she has no choice. Looking all the while into the old man's eyes. He studies her face as he plays. She smiles at him through it all.
When the song is finished, a tear is down her cheek, and she wobbles to her feet to stand before him, lips quivering into a smile that diminishes as soon as it's there. She touches his hand, the tips of her fingers grazing each of his knuckles as he clutches the flute. He closes his eyes and begins a new song.
"You behave yourself now!" she finally tells him, and her eyes glisten.
On her way out of the room, the nurse comes to me, bends, her hair -- it turns out to be soft, not coarse -- brushing my cheek. "He's so much stronger today!" she whispers.
"You see?" he says quietly -- one eye cocked open -- as soon as she has left.
"You ought to rest!" I tell him.
The old man begins to play something ancient, Celtic, his eyes closed, the tone barely coming through, leaving only the sound of the keys as his fingers press them. I finally take the flute from him. He tries to resist, but I’m stronger. "You can hardly breathe, you old -- ," I tell him. The sentence doesn’t finish. For an instant we glare at each other. I see the look of offense in his face as he lies back, panting.
After he has relaxed, I hear him say, "You don't know yet, do you?" It is the first time his voice is gentle with me, the first time he has not challenged me.
"What don’t I know?"
He is silent, his eyes closed. When I think he has slipped into sleep, he finally says:
"Everything – every single thing –“
I wait and watch his eyes as they seem to search for the end of his thought.
“ -- is just a part of the same, long, song."
"Even the endings." He closes his eyes again. "They're making me an expert now at the endings."
I look out the window again, to where the nurses had been sitting. The sun has begun to sink behind the buildings. Nobody is there now.
"For God's sake, look around," he says, and when I turn back to face him his eyes are open bright. He pauses, as if remembering we've spun around all this subject before. "Don't you see it?"
He’s looking into my eyes again. I have never seen anybody die.
"You're upset," I tell him and reach for the phone beside the bed.
He grabs my arm. "When will you listen to me?"
We make a deal. I will give him back the flute if he will promise to lie quietly. I pick up a magazine to read. Later I notice he's gone to sleep. Pitched back against the tilted bed and tangled blankets. Mouth gaping open now and making raspy sounds. Fingertips still flicking -- almost imperceptible -- at the keys.
He should not have exerted himself the way he did. I should know better, but I try to pry it from him. So that he’ll be more comfortable. His grip wrenches as he feels the pull, and he clutches the flute across his chest. Like a rifle.
"All right, old man, have it your way!"
I step away to leave the room and go down the hall. In the late gold of the afternoon, he has begun to glow. After a while, when the sun is down completely, I’ll come back for the flute.