The Instrument

1. Allegro

With a shoe in the small of his back, his face down, snarling, and trying to push up into the living room from his trembling elbows, Kay Tian first noticed the bruises on his left forearm on the night his brother came to take back his piano. His face cleared and he drifted for a second, a single roller skate launched from the top cone of a pyramid.

“Wonder how that happened,” said Kay Tian. And then he was smashing back into the carpet, his face grinding into the shag, his teeth snagging on and ripping out curls of nylon from his own milk- and ash-stained floor.

“You are supposed to be listening, not talking,” said Gertie, Kay Tian’s oldest half-brother.

“Sorry, Gertie,” said Kay Tian.

“How come there’s a brick on the floor?” asked Gertie. “A brick from a construction site. Where did it come from? Why do you have it?”

“It’s a brick.”

“Is it stolen, too?”

“I use it to hold the door open sometimes,” said Kay Tian. “Otherwise, it closes pretty hard.”

“I can’t believe this,” said Gertie. “I can’t believe I’ve been robbed by my own blood. Can you believe this? Can you believe what you’ve done?”

“I don’t know, Gertie. I didn’t think you’d mind. I mean, you’ve got three pianos. How come you have THREE pianos?”

“Well,” said Gertie, relaxing on his hips and pondering this. Gertie rested all his weight on the one punching foot, waggling his knee. Finally, reaching a conclusion, he removed his loafer from between Kay Tian’s shoulder-blades.

“Thanks,” said Kay Tian, blinking and rubbing his face.

“You may have a point there,” said Gertie. “I may have had an easier time in life than some of the rest of you kids. As the old one and the smart one. I didn’t think about that.”

Gertie sat down in the only piece of furniture in Kay Tian’s apartment – a sprung lawn chair with a bathmat thrown over the back to cover the splayed holes where the plastic cords had melted and warped.

“But what am I supposed to think?” continued Gertie. “You’ve been stealing things from me my whole life. Maybe you are experimenting. Maybe you and your drug friends are about to launch a comprehensive campaign to clean me out of every last luxury I’ve earned.”

“I only steal little things,” said Kay Tian. “Things that don’t matter. Things you wouldn’t miss, man. And I don’t have any drug friends.”

“I missed my piano,” said Gertie, standing again, his bottom lip poking out. “It’s my favorite piano. The children have their pianos, and then I have MY piano.”

“I didn’t know that,” said Kay Tian. “I need to practice, man. I have to stay in shape. You don’t know how it is. You never get pissed, and drink too much, and get in people’s faces at clubs.”

“What happened to the piano you took with you from home? The one from high school?”

“I left it at this guy’s house after I played one of his parties. But then he got busted for dealing, and all his stuff got impounded and auctioned off. I didn’t have enough money to bid.”

“I’ve still got to take this one back,” said Gertie. “I can’t encourage you. What would mother say?”

“Yours or mine?” asked Kay Tian.

“Ha ha,” said Gertie. “Nice try. Boo, I’m your dead fucking mother, Kay! That’s what she’d say. Ha ha. No, MY mother of course. Your REAL mother, if you have any gratitude left in those slack rubber bones. Anyway, help me move this thing down into my truck. I’m glad I came by: you make me laugh.”

Kay Tian hung his head and picked up his half of the piano. He and Gertie hefted the mouse-gnawed piece of ivory-shunted oak down ten flights of stairs into Gertie’s waiting panel truck. The truck was baby blue, and there was a picture of Gertie on the side smiling and holding his hands in the air as if to say: I can’t believe I just posed for a picture! But if I gotta, I’m gonna smile! The name of his deli (Fast Food Fresh) wreathed his head in a blister-etched golden arc. It was classy.

Gertie closed the back doors of the truck and wiped his hands on his pants.

“Hey Gertie,” said Kay Tian, holding out his forearm like a jeweled dagger to catch the light. “Does this look strange to you?”

“I didn’t do that,” said Gertie.

“I know,” said Kay Tian. “I don’t know how it happened.”

Five dark bruises, all in a line along the top ridge of his left forearm. Eyes on a potato.

“Somebody must have grabbed your wrist when you were reaching into their coat to steal their wallet,” said Gertie, uninterested.

“Nah, then there would only be FOUR bruises, and one underneath. Nobody’s thumb does that.”

“I don’t know, and I don’t care,” said Gertie, getting into his van. “Come by the shop sometime. I’ll make you a sandwich. Half price. For a half-brother.”

“Okay, Gertie,” said Kay Tian. “Seeya.”

As Gertie drove away, Kay Tian poked each of the bruises in turn, wincing at the little bite of pain that puckered from his arm and exploded in the roof of his mouth. The bruises were soft, but there was something tough under each, like the pit of a rotten peach.

“NOW what am I going to do, man?” asked Kay Tian to his arm.

His arm did not respond.

Kay Tian stared at the curb in front of his apartment building. He had planned to spend the whole night practicing. Now he would have to cancel tomorrow’s gig down at Gary’s -- the bar on the corner where he spent most of his time. It had taken forever to finally convince Gary to let him play. And now he was going to have to back out.

He walked up the stairs to his apartment, sat down in the lawn-chair, and started picking at his arm, watching the world outside through the single window. The window was painted shut so you couldn’t open it, but from ten floors up there was a pretty nice view.

“I have no instrument,” said Kay Tian. “That’s my problem. Without an INSTRUMENT, I’m nothing. I don’t even have drumsticks. If I had drumsticks, I could beat on the floor in time and then they’d still have to pay me, even if I drove everyone out. I don’t even have a harmonica. If I had a harmonica, I could blow on it until people paid me to STOP. Can’t even do that. All I can do is sing, but you can’t just sing. Anybody can do that. Singers are instruments themselves. They are played by managers and agents, and I don’t have one of those. To tune me. To turn my key. To make me spin.”

He put the five fingers from his right hand on the bruises on his left arm. The bruises had started to itch.

“This is a musical city,” said Kay Tian. “Maybe I can find something in the trash.”

He watched the turf wars in the power lines between the squirrels and crows, and watched people come and go at the bus stop in front of his apartment building. He joggled his leg until it got quiet outside, and then he put his hand on his knee and made it stop. He wiggled his toes instead.

“Yeah, down in the dumps,” said Kay Tian. “That’s where I’ll get lucky.”

He stood up, opened the door, breathed a full face of fresh night air, and descended the steps into his neighborhood’s lower intestenate clench.

2. Lento con moto

As soon as he hit the pavement, frustration welled up inside him like a balloon inflating inside his head. Up high, it was easy to disengage. But down on the ground, the sky and the future settled down on your naked shoulders like a scratchy wool blanket – rubbing against the zits on your back and turning your neck red with sharp tangles and useless, sprung Velcro.

Sometimes Kay Tian got stuck on the verge of tears for entire days at a time. He would rub his head on the walls and try to think depressing thoughts, but he simply couldn’t drain away the sadness. If he put the meat of his palms into his eye sockets and pushed, he was sometimes able to squeeze a poor semi-circle’s worth of damp into his hands, but it wasn’t very satisfying.

He screwed his hands into his eyes now, but there was nothing. Oh well.

If he waited, and if he slept enough, eventually the tears would go away and he could relax. And sometimes while he banged on the piano keys he could reverse the burning pain in his forehead and dump the pressurized saline on the inferno he made in his heart, where it would burn off into forgettable steam. It was jazz.

But it was impossible to do this unless he had something to play. He couldn’t reverse the fluid dynamics inside his head without a tune.

For the time being, Kay Tian shrugged off the well of despair, thumbed his nose, snuffled, and started walking, looking for a likely-looking trash can. It didn’t help that his neighborhood was beaten into a shit-shaped rock by the hammer and tongs of drugs and poverty. You couldn’t even really call it a neighborhood anymore – it was tenements on top, and cat food dishes underneath – cheap, ugly restaurants where spoiled meat and old bread were ground into paste and mixed with spice and milk to make it edible.

You slathered it inside tortillas, or lumped it on top of baked crusts with capers and called it pizza. People came home from work in downtown clubs, restaurants, stores, and offices, laid down three hours worth of wages for a meal and a beer to wash it down with, and fell into a coma for another day. Kay Tian had a job like that, but he fought at both ends of his day for time to play, time to practice, time to be a human being for a little while. It was an extravagant life in ways (a life he had to keep secret from his peers who would mock him mercilessly), but it kept him going.

In the alleys, he listened for music. For homemade music. He sniffed for the strains of tunes in the drainpipes between ramshackles, trying to hear between the arguments and crying babies, listening for something sad and dirty.

He needed to find somebody with a new toy, because that meant that they’d thrown out their old ones. There was no other reason to get rid of a good instrument.

As he meandered between buildings and noisy streets, poking into piles of garbage and looking for the tell-tale signs of wood, ivory, or steel, he almost enjoyed himself. At least he was doing something. His arm was itching to high hell, but if he rolled up his sleeve, the wind numbed it enough to make him forget.

Down a dead-end street near the highway, there was a rustle above him and he looked up into the steep ramparts of a forty story apartment building that seemed to sag in the middle like a wet cardboard box. Somebody was calling to him.

It was a ten year old boy, casually smoking a cigarette and drinking a tallboy. The kid looked as if he had been tanned and cut professionally at a leather factory, and his pinched lips and flared nostrils quivered with the smoke and the night’s chill like the damper on a smokestack, ready at any moment to start shrieking – belching fire, erupting in tufts of caky black soot.

“Hey, what are you doing down there?” shouted the kid, instead of exploding. “Going through garbage? You want me to call the cops?”

“No, I’m looking for an instrument,” said Kay Tian, scratching his arm. There were bumps now. He could feel them, but he couldn’t see them in the dark.

“An instrument? What the hell for?”

“To play music, man,” said Kay Tian, softly.


“To play music.”

“That’s gay. What kind of music?”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“You can play anything?”


“Any instrument?”


“You some sort of genius?”

“No. Yeah, maybe. I’m a genius.”

“Are you ribbing me, slanty?”

“A little bit.”

The kid took a long swallow of beer and then spit it out, aiming at Kay Tian’s feet. Kay Tian raised his hands over his head and scowled. What the fuck, kid?

“I missed on purpose,” said the kid, taking a long drag from his cigarette. The kid glanced over at the window to watch his reflection as he let loose a thin trickle of smoke from his dancing nostrils and then sucked it back into his mouth. The old French inhale.

Kay Tian lowered his head and started walking again.

“Hey wait!” shouted the kid. “Hey, don’t go anywhere.”

Kay Tian stopped a good distance out of the way. Out of spitting range.

“I’m sorry I spit at you,” said the kid. “Don’t go anywhere.”

“What do you want?” asked Kay Tian.

“I have an instrument,” said the kid. “It was my sisterses, but she moved out. If I give it to you, will you teach me to play?”

“I don’t know about that,” said Kay Tian. “Actually, pretty much no.”

“Sure, you can come over and we’ll bond and shit. We’ll have a special connection, you and me.”

Kay Tian stepped closer and put his hand over his eyes to shield them from the naked streetlamps and get a better look at the kid.

“Do I know your mom, man?” he asked. “You look kind of familiar.”

“Who knows? Lots of people know lots of things. For instance, you know how to play any instrument. For instance, I know how to fart out of my armpits.”

The kid demonstrated.

“What kind of instrument?” asked Kay Tian.

“Hold on right there,” said the kid. “I’ll go get it. I was going to set it on fire and videotape myself dancing around and playing it. Like the devil. For the internet. But you can have it instead. Sure.”

The kid disappeared inside, leaving his cigarette smoking on the balcony rail. He came back shortly carrying a battered old fiddle.

“Hey, look at me. I’m a FUCKING musician,” he shouted. He looked over his shoulder at the balcony door, but no one came out. After a curt bow to all three sections of his invisible stage, he started banging on the fiddle with the bow, bouncing his knees and kicking up his heels. He whittled the bow back and forth as if it were a hacksaw, gritting his teeth, shutting his eyes, sticking out his tongue.

A string popped loose. Then another. Finally, the last three strings snapped down the middle all at once with a noise like an iron door twisting off its hinges. The fiddle was completely cut.

“Well shit,” said the kid, looking at the fiddle as if it were a snake on his shoulder. “It’s all busted. Here. YOU take it now.”

The kid held the fiddle over the balcony and leered.

“No!” shouted Kay Tian. “Wait! I can fix it!”

The kid dropped it. It fell crooked to the ground, spiraling awkwardly like a piece of shredded newspaper or a pierced popinjay. It hit with a quiet squeak and cracked in half. It didn’t bounce or jump, but just lay there broken, like the world’s tiniest plane crash.

“You can keep it,” said the kid, tossing down the bow, his cigarette, and the empty beer can for good measure. He went inside.

Kay Tian looked at the sky and tried to find Orion as he counted to ten. It was the kid’s fiddle, after all. He could do what he wanted with it. Break it; smash it. Shove it up his ass and use it as an emergency flotation device if someone were to, perchance, throw him into the sea.

Kay Tian picked up the bow and bent it against his hand.

He put it in his jacket pocket and decided to go home. Sometimes you just knew when you were beaten.

3. Adaggio con brio

He still had no idea what he was going to do tomorrow night. If he skipped out and didn’t show, he would not only be out of a gig, he would have to find a new bar to hang out at. And Gary’s was so convenient.

After he turned on the lights in his apartment and took his jacket off, and after his bones started to warm up, he remembered his arm. He ran to the bathroom and looked at his itching wrist under the lipid fluorescent lights to see if the marks were oozing or if the bruises had melted together.

Under the buzzing gleam, he saw something he didn’t expect. Not hardly. No, not hardly at all.

He let out a whizzing geeeeezus of surprise and sat down cross-legged on the bathroom floor.

Every year that Kay Tian was in elementary school it had been part of science class to grow bean sprouts. Every year, teachers found a different reason to make bean sprouts happen – from aphid counting, to soil manipulation, to in-depth analysis of genetic inheritance over four or five different bean generations. Every year, the students had planted the beans in little terra cotta pots on Friday and watered them with heavy dreams, antsy over the weekend, hoping their beans would be the first to sprout. It was dice, but there was some art to it. There could be timid green tendrils poking out of the soil overnight if you situated the seeds right: not too deep, loose soil on top, the pea-eye facing topside.

Did somebody plant beans in Kay Tian’s arm? Who had watered them? What was the experiment, and what sort of bar graph would he have to make with map pencils?

From each bruise on Kay Tian’s arm, there was a tiny sliver of white filament poking out of the top, curled over exactly like a newly-planted bean sprout.

Kay Tian pinched one of the fibers between his fingers and unsprung it like a pig’s tail. It burned in a crawling shiver along his arm that made his head swim. He let it go and it snapped back to place.

“What’s wrong with you?” asked Kay Tian to his arm.

His arm did not respond.

Kay Tian threw open his medicine cabinet and tore open his Dopp kit. He kept a few tools in there that he had collected over the years. He rooted around until he found a pair of pliers. His first instinct when he saw the fibers growing from his wrist was to get rid of them as soon as possible. He could only deal with them when they were no longer attached. But if he cut the cords at the skin, and there was more wire curled up inside, he would only prolong the pathology. He had to pull the suckers up – roots and tackle -- like weeds.

Kay Tian took a firm grip on the pliers and yanked. The filament gave, sickly, unraveling a full foot before catching and then holding. He pulled harder, but the wire didn’t give. Was it bone? Skin? Some kind of tumor?

Kay Tian went back to the Dopp kit and grabbed a pair of heavy black scissors. He jogged the wire way back into the crotch of the blades and shut his eyes.

“Better cut it,” Kay Tian said to himself. “Got to get rid of this business.”

He opened one eye. His hands tensed on the scissor grips, but didn’t squeeze.

“But I don’t even know what’s wrong with me,” said Kay Tian. “Maybe I should get a second opinion.”

Kay Tian set the scissors down on the floor next to his lawn chair and got a beer from his refrigerator. He took a slurp, set the beer down on the carpet, took a bigger slurp, set the beer back down, knocked the whole thing back, and then got another.

He looked around for his health insurance card, but he couldn’t find it. He tried the phone, but he hadn’t paid his bill in months, and it was dead in his hands. It was late: too late to bother anybody who might have some experience with this sort of thing. He sat back down. Finished his beer; had another.

It wasn’t long before his thoughts returned to tomorrow night’s gig. Maybe this would be a good excuse to get out of it.

“An EXCUSE!” said a voice in the back of Kay Tian’s head. “I thought you wanted to be another buggy damn musician!” The voice echoed and rebounded, nearly making him fall out of his chair. Kay Tian put his head up against the wall, but no, no, yes, the voice was all inside his head.

Kay Tian frowned and put his thumb in his mouth.

“I say buggy because buggy means parasites, and that’s what musicians are,” said the voice. “You want to muck around with gel in your hair and be a scraping, carping minstrel for all the girls and boys with too much money and not enough sense? Well, say hey, Mister Kay: you’re not pretty and no one is going to buy for a second that you’ve got anything deep to say. I mean, look at you – with those glinty pig eyes and that body built for sitting in beanie-bag chairs all day and eating slop. Your own brother thinks you are wasting your time. Your OWN BROTHER: the blood that raised you. If you can’t trust flesh, what can you trust?”

Kay Tian whimpered, and slowly wrapped the long cord peeling from his arm around one finger, winding his arm up in front of him like a roll of kite string.

“So you DO want to be a musician,” the voice continued. “All right, then. All right. No EXCUSES. But if you think you can compete with what everybody else has – talent, looks, a message, charisma -- then you are just deluding yourself. It’s not going to come easy for you. Ha! The whole world is conspiring against you. Why? Because you don’t NEED to be a musician. You aren’t one of the especially gifted -- the bagged and tagged, the God-chosen few. Your name’s never gonna be up in lights, my son, my son. You’ll never slouch in a recliner moodily for the cameras as a perky blonde interviews you about your influences and your latest rehab. Don’t go shitting yourself and dreaming beyond your possibilities.”

Kay Tian drank another beer. Number four; only two left. He lay face-flat against his carpet and put his fingers in his ears.

“I’m still here, you know,” said the voice.

“I know,” said Kay Tian.

“You don’t have any hope, you know.”

“I know.”

“Look, if you want to play music, you will find a way to do it, and you should stop crying about it and buck yourself up, champ. See OPPORTUNITIES where you see EXCUSES. You gonna wait for somebody to hand you your future in a velvet chafing dish with parsley and sherbet? Or are you gonna try and make something out of yourself?”

“Make something out of myself,” sniffed Kay Tian. He gave one of the strings another yank. It was bone. It had to be. For some reason, coils of bone were bursting through his skin in runnels of lanky fiber. He could probably find the exact name for the condition, if he had an Encyclopedia. He remembered seeing something about it on TV once, on one of those shows where people do free surgery on freaks who are trying to get laid.

“Pitiful by a damn sight,” said the voice. “But I’d like to see you try. Maybe you’ve got an instrument you don’t know about. Maybe what you really are is one lucky son of a bitch.”

4. Prestissimo

Kay Tian was sitting at the bar, wearing his heaviest pea coat, when Gary came over and clapped him on the shoulder.

“Heya, kid,” said Gary. “You ready? How about a hug? Wow, what a busy night. How come it’s so busy?”

“It’s another band,” mumbled Kay Tian. “Lotsa publicity, man. They are shooting a concert video. You must have doubled booked.”

“A real band?”

“Looks like it.”

“You heard of ‘em before?”

“Oh yeah?”


“They like the…ambience of the place. It’s authentic.”

“My bar?” said Gary. “A real band, here? Wow! Maybe I’ll get famous!”

“Maybe,” said Kay Tian.

“Wow! Lookit me! Out in front of the cameras with a real band! Shaking hands with famous people and standing there, right up next to ‘em, right up to my ankles in the goddamn puddle of fame leaking right up out of their shins. Ha ha ha! Yeah, right. Not me, nuh-uh. Look at me. What’s this band’s name? You know ‘em? Can you introduce me?”

“This is your bar!” said Kay Tian.

“Yeah, but I’m not a MUSICIAN,” he said. “It’s different. I’m an authority figure. There aren’t any famous authority figures. Except the president. And I ain’t the president, case you noticed.”

“Maybe I’ll introduce you after the show,” said Kay Tian.

“Don’t look so glum,” said Gary. “Hey, listen, go up there and play right now. It will be great. Come on. It’s my bar, and I say you can play a few songs tonight while the crew sets up.”

Kay Tian frowned.

“So what are you gonna play? What kind of equipment do you need? And how come you are holding a brick?”

“Just one mike, man,” said Kay Tian. “And never mind about the brick.”

Gary shrugged and walked over to the stage, cutting his way through the crowd of slouching pastel teenagers, and the middle-aged regulars in red-hot primary who were leering and snapping at them.

The place was full to capacity. There were even people sitting on top of the bar, waggling their feet and talking about last week’s shows and how much better they had been. A video crew was assembling a tripod in one corner and a man in horn-rimmed glasses was busy putting xes on the ground with orange tape, marking the camera range for the band and ensuring that they wouldn’t leap out of the frame at an inopportune moment and kill a solid gold rockumentary rockportunity.

Gary set up the mike stand and stood there grinning. He waved. He laid his finger aside his nose and gave a big thumbs up to the guy with the camera. The guy, barely awake, closed his eyes and nodded slightly.

Gary waved Kay Tian over to the stage and put his hand over the mike as Kay Tian climbed up next to him.

“Big chance, kid,” said Gary. “Where’s your piano? Weren’t you gonna play piano?”

“No piano,” said Kay Tian.

“What should I introduce you as?”

Kay Tian looked at the crowd. Someone called his name, and he scanned the faces till he found them. It was Gertie in shorts and knee socks, oblivious to the scorn of the other patrons, carrying Kay Tian’s half-nephew Seth on one meaty shoulder. Gertie’s curly, bright red hair had been smoothed down in strokes away from a pink, glistening center part. He wore a blue windbreaker with his deli logo on the lapel.

Good luck, shouted Gertie. Seth crossed his eyes, and lolled his head against his shoulders.

“Just call me Kay,” said Kay Tian to Gary. “That’s my name. I’m nothing bigger than myself.”

“Oooo,” said Gary, laughing. “Humble.”

Gary leaned into the mike.

“Here he is, everybody!” he shouted. “Let’s all give it up for KAY! My very good friend! LIVE, tonight, RIGHT HERE, for YOU down at Gary’s bar! Enjoy yourself ladies and gentlemen: and remember to drink up, tip your bartenders, and come back again next week!”

Gary gracefully moved aside, clapping. There were a few scattered bursts of applause, but they seemed more hostile than laudatory.

Kay Tian shrugged off his jacket and kicked it away from the stage.

He dropped the brick he was holding.

Tied around the brick in five knots were the five strands of flesh that stabbed from the inside of his arm. The brick hit the floor with a weak thud. Kay Tian lifted his arm so that the brick dangled, grimacing and sweating with the pain of the pull.

In his other hand, Kay Tian held the bow from the broken fiddle. The brick anchored the strings from his arm and tightened them just enough. As soon as the brick stopped swinging back and forth, Kay Tian lay the bow aside the strings and began to play.

Even though he wanted to, and even though each note felt as if it were being pried from him by force with a flathead screwdriver, he never started screaming.

When he was done, no one remembered to clap. Kay Tian knelt to pick up the brick, stumbled as he bent, and collapsed, knocking over the microphone.

1 comment:

Chris said...