Closing in on midnight at The Moose Head Haus. Best time. Best place. I was at my best spot, too, the three-legged, oak-stump stool by the fireplace, sitting in the shadow of an actual moose head, a massive work of taxidermy looming over me. A proud beast before the gunshot, I'm sure, and now a bit of Black Forest kitsch screwed to a wall. Strapped to my chest was my own beast, my Moravcha piano accordion, 34 keys, 48 base buttons, built in 1937 by the Hrabal Brothers in Brno, in what was then Czechoslovakia, and dotingly rebuilt, restored and upgraded for electronic amplification with these very hands. And these very hands were now pumping out "Hell's Bells," like I do every Friday beneath the stuffed moose as the Witching Hour approaches.
Dancers jammed the little floor. And why not? What's jollier, what strips down inhibitions more, than a bald, bear-sized guy with Rasputin-length whiskers billowing AC/DC classics on the musical equivalent of a duckbilled platypus? I was feeling good. I was wearing a maroon guayabera and forest green Bermudas. I was "on." Winking at the foxtrotting old-timers. Smiling at the girls in bare shoulders and tight jeans. When this skinny, longhaired, mid-twenties-type guy came up and dropped an envelope on my thigh. Before I could catch a good look, he jerked away, scampered behind the dancers, shoulders hunched, back stooped. Made me think of a squirrel. Probably a tip. Maybe a fan note. Met his fiancé while cracking up at my rendition of "Back in Black" or some such backhanded compliment. A bit for the keepsake drawer. I shoved the envelope in my back pocket, only missing a few beats.
After closing, as usual, I stuck around, downed a few Hefeweizens and watched Nancy wipe down the tables. Working my way through a third pint, I ogled her thighs, discreet, corner of the eye, pretending to tune the squeezebox. Can't quite nail the G key. That tiny skirt. I could see under it every time she craned over a table.
"It's that G-string that gets me." Can't believe she caught me looking. "I mean key. G key. It's the one out of whack."
"It's called a thong."
"What song?" Just play dumb.
"My underwear, mister." At least she was smiling. "It's called a 'thong.'"
When was the last time I touched thighs like those, with their 24-Hour Fitness tone? I've been plodding my way into a sexless middle age for a decade now, puttering my nights away at this Bavarian-themed bar and grill, performing for a dishwasher's wage. I'm the musical equivalent of the elaborately-framed oils of hunting scenes and Teutonic nobles that decorate the dark-wood paneling. I'm not dissatisfied, though. Haven't got it half as bad as some. There're people living in those five-bedroom monsters, way up there in the hills, who can't even have kids. Who'll never get the rush of pressing a screeching just-born to their chests, of feeling those lungs heave. So I was thinking when I remembered the envelope.
The size of a bereavement card, it was sealed and, on the front, in third-grade-like block letters, begged: "Please Open Immediately. Very Important!!!" Three exclamation points. How intriguing. Such high drama! "All right, Mr. Envelope, Sir, my curiosity is aroused." I said this much louder, much more Shakespearean, than I realized. Nancy glanced over. "That you or the suds babbling, old man?" I winked, thinking of my thigh slipping over hers. I slid my finger carefully under the envelope fold. My fingers are thick and hairy, not what you'd call a musician's hand. I came to music late. I'm self-taught. My highest aspiration is to play here. It puts me in a good mood. I spread a little joy. That's all I want—a good mood, a little joy. It doesn't matter that I can barely cover the rent on my one-bedroom in a stucco shoebox against the 101. I don't need red-tiles and Corinthian pillars up in the hills. Who'd want all those complications?
Inside the envelope, sunk into the crease, lay a key, a tarnished gold thing, the edges worn smooth. And there was a three-by-five, a few lines in a shaky scrawl, more scribble than cursive. "Please come tonight! Very important! Very, very important!" More exclamation points. What was this? Desperation? Melodrama? Mockery? Then there was an address. I recognized it. My building. Apartment 406. Two floors above me, windows facing the southbound lanes.
I stared at the key, taking a long swig, the wheat ale dampening my mustache, crawling among my molars. In the kitchen porcelain and glass clattered. Javier and Rafael were loading the washers. Wonder if Rafael will stick around and grind out some music with me? He used to play bandoneon in a Norteno outfit before crossing the border. I stared some more. I pulled on my beard. What kind of stunt was this? Why did the kid think I had any desire to get mixed up in his life? Nancy bent over to turn off the gas fireplace. Can't believe I said "G-string." The dishwashers rumbled. As if exclamation points would make me drop everything and run to see what spectacular phenomena awaited behind door 406! A tray of dishes shattered on the tiles. "Good one, guys," Nancy shouted. The problem with touching thighs like those, they come with complications. I put the key and the note back in the envelope, folded it up and slipped it in my pocket.
Got home at three. Even though I had five pints doing its best to numb me, in bed I couldn't stop squirming. My sheets tangled, the spread dragged over the side, pillows ended up at my feet. A fire engine wailed past. Whose car got hit-and-run this time? The sirens kept coming. Whole family must be carnage. A helicopter cracked the air, circling, so loud it might as well have been navigating my ear canal. The key was still in my Bermudas. My Bermudas were draped over the armchair. Why didn't I just throw the thing away? I rolled to the edge of the bed, on my back, head hanging off the side, fingering the scar running up my belly, watching a sliver of street light key its way into the shadow of the ceiling. "Key its way?" Am I going to start seeing keys all night? And is that chopper racket really sounding like a jangle of lock openers? Damn that kid.
Straightening my guayabera, limping toward the door, I strummed my fingers across the bellows of the button accordion I found yesterday at the Salvation Army, a Russian thing manufactured in St. Petersburg, mud caked in the pleats. I should spend the morning working on it. That's all you see in my place, on the shelves, on my kitchen table, in the cabinets, lining the walls: a squeezebox salvage yard, accordions, bandoneons, concertinas—their innards spread over every flat surface—all culled from garage sales, junk yards and thrift stores. Each one I've restored the best I can.
I hobbled up the stairs and down the hall to 406. Not much pain in my hip these days, but the right leg's an inch shorter than the left. Push-drag-step. One-and-ah, two-and-ah, three-and-ah, four-and-ah. That's my walk. Twelve beats in four count. Before my limp, couldn't even tell you what a time signature was.
The lock clicked when I turned the key. Part of me had hoped it wouldn't. I'd have a good story to tell Nancy. "What'd you think was behind the door?" "I don't know, mister. But I think I know what you'd hoped was behind it." "Oh, you do?" Then it'd be over—an unsolved mystery, the best kind, no lingering complications.
But the door opened and I poked my head over the jam, timidly, craning, letting my eyes adjust. In the dawn gray, my pupils focusing and refocusing, I wasn't sure I seeing what I was seeing. But soon there was no doubt. There was the young man dangling, a yellow electric power cord cutting into his throat, chin against collarbone. The cord was wrapped around the beam between the living room and kitchen.
Black hair over his cheeks. Faded jeans. Black Slayer concert shirt. Bare feet. Incredibly thick tuffs of hair at the toe joints. Genetic quirks find surprising ways to manifest themselves. So I was thinking, a remnant idea from my old life. Inching into the room, I pulled the door shut. There was a ripeness, a hint of sewage. Why I didn't turn away or call 911, I don't quite know. There was curiosity, sure, but also some feeling of . . . what? Duty? Obligation? Or was it a sense of being valued? He'd chosen me, hadn't he? Didn't that mean he'd seen something in me no one else had? But what would that be? That I'd feel for him more than others? Could he see that I knew loss? That I struggle?
Below the toes, a step ladder on its side. Next to it, newspaper clippings taped to the wood floor. I bent over them, wrinkled, yellowed. Biting my lip, I steeled. One clipping showed a photo of my family, the color washed out. My three sons obviously inherited my wife's smile, wide, joyful, like they're holding back giggles. My smile looked forced. It'd been stressful corralling all those prepubescent boys onto the photographer's bench. In the photo, I'm thin, clean-shaven. I surfed and scuba dived back then. The caption identifies me, Rodger Huntsman, as the only survivor and in critical care. Another photo shows the wreckage, the crushed EuroVan. As if squeezed by giant hands. Accordioned. Isn't that the term? The headlines mention the manhunt for the hit-and-run diver.
I looked back up at the corpse. Sharp nose, fine angles. A handsome face. He was probably around 17 or 18 when he totaled us. Maybe I'd have run at that age. How'd he find me? How'd he even recognize me? I hobbled across the room, kicked a Miller can out of my path and eased down onto a duct-taped couch. Not very comfortable. But in the big picture, does it really matter how he found me? With guilt like that knocking around cracks have to appear sometime. By the window hung a Magadeath poster. I stretched out my bad leg.
A fly crawled on his cheek. "Really, how's another death going to help things?" I said it out loud, conversationally, and cringed when the fly crept onto his left eye. "But maybe I'm a little glad you did. Maybe I'm a little glad that fly's licking your eye. But I don't really like being glad about it. But maybe I am. "
The face of a Bavarian prince. He could have stepped out of one of those paintings on the walls of the Moose Head Haus. "Young Nobleman Dangling." Or something like that.
"The mind's an eerie thing." I directed my observation to the corpse. "I'm sure you know how it talks to you in strange ways. Like tonight, I thought I didn't want to come here, but then I started seeing keys in the ceiling and even that police chopper sounded like keys shaking around." For some reason I paused, as if expecting the kid to make a comment. Waiting for a dead man to gather his thoughts? Not exactly a sign of having all your marbles together. "I'm telling you this because when I saw you, and I don't know exactly why, a memory popped into my head about a dream I had a long time ago. I'd forgotten all about it."
Fidgeting, I found a new position, one foot up on the couch, the other on the floor. Then I told the kid about the nightmare I'd had about Eric, my oldest son. Just after he'd turned one, I dreamed he'd died. My wife was shattered. That's in the dream, she was shattered. But I felt I had to keep it together. Be a man of iron. Like my dad would've, and his dad, too, and probably the whole Huntsman male line going back to whatever Scotch-Irish bog they climbed out of. I told her what happened was tragic and devastating, but we have to accept it and start working on a new baby right away to replace the one we lost. Be tough. Move on.
"Yup," I summed it up, "all the tenderness of a Neanderthal." A fly landed on the kid's chin. He had the smoothest skin. Peaches and cream. Such a waste.
"Then you know how dreams jump around?" I went on about how after giving my wife the pep talk, suddenly I was sitting with my mom at a table in her backyard on a sunny afternoon. I was telling her how even at one Eric had been so playful, so full of joy that whenever I was around him I'd practically melted with happiness. Next thing I know, I was broken down in sobs. Convulsing. Attacked with spasms of this bottomless sadness. All that Neanderthal resolve. Crumbled.
"The pain." I was looking up into the kid's face, the way the hair hid his cheeks. "How can I describe it to you? Really get it across?"
I sat up, pulled at the tips of my whiskers. Something was jabbing my spine. It was like leaning against a ripped car door.
"It was like a maniac was stabbing me in the head with an ice pick and wouldn't let up. Imagine being doubled over, in convulsions, and this psycho with his ice pick just keeps stabbing and stabbing. It was a horrible, shitty dream. When I woke up, I was pissed off for dreaming something so fucked up."
I pushed myself off couch. Sun eased in the windows. The grind of freeway traffic. Hobbling over to the kid, I tilted my head to see up into his eyes—blue and very wide. Why so wide? What did it mean? Pain? Panic? The realization that something horrible and irreversible was taking place? The room was warming up. Sweat pooled in my mustache, dripped down through my beard. A fly was on the lips, strutting back and forth. Strutting! No shit. Like it was some proud rooster, some cock of the walk. The conquest of the decomposers, the thing was probably thinking. We always win in the end.
"Anyway." I waved the fly off. My fingers just reached the kid's chin. "I kind of feel like that right now. Like some maniac is stabbing me in the head with an ice pick. Got any idea how that feels?"
If I was like my dad and into the Old Testament, then I would have believed what happened next was divine intervention. And maybe I did want to believe it. A finger of sunlight light caught my eye and aimed at a set of kitchen knives, six black handles waiting in a mahogany block. I didn't have to think about it. The choice seemed to have been made some years back. I lurched over, seized the paring knife—its slender curve of blade most ice-pickish—then standing before the kid, jammed it into his stomach. I'd never stabbed anyone. It was astounding how easy the blade drove into the body. There was a tiny pop as it pierced the skin, but then it was like torpedoing through a cantaloupe, as if his belly had sucked up the knife, greedily, slurping to the hilt. My fist slapped right up against the black Slayer tee-shirt, feeling a warm stickiness seeping through the cloth. What happens to all that blood after you die?
But as I felt the warmth spread, fist still around the handle, flies circling the kid's head, I didn't want this to be me. It could be and easily justified. No one would assign blame if I slit open his bowels, sausage-linked his intestines and stuffed full his esophagus. I can hear the quacks now, as I did all those months in recovery: "The subject entered a violent dissociative state triggered by abrupt associations with past trauma." But I didn't want to be blood and vengeance.
"Fuck that Old Testament shit," I told the corpse, yanking out the blade and flinging it toward the kitchen. "Be right back."
I started down the stairs. Fast as I could. But don't think svelte twenty-year-old bounding across the flights. Think gimpy hippo, bumping the wall, gripping the railing, tottering at the edge of each step, stumbling, bad led dragging, orthotic elevated shoe thumping. When I did finally manage to make it to my place, I picked up the first instrument I'd dug out of a Salvation Army—a Hohner Cajun button accordion, 20 treble buttons, 12 base buttons, five switches. Back then, some ten years ago, when I'd wondered zombie-like into the second-hand store and spotted the instrument, there'd been something so confusing and dejected and forsaken about it—all those buttons, some missing, rips in the pleats, splayed like a hemorrhaging sea otter on a shelf next to a greasy electric fan. I guess in it I recognized myself.
I took it back up stairs, the Hohner Cajun under my left arm, my right hand clutching the railing. But before I started playing, I righted the stepladder, made myself comfortable and told the kid the story. How I'd seen myself in the accordion and then holed up in my apartment trying to figure out how to make sense of it—and by extension myself. "If you're into that sort of thing. Self-analysis." I glanced up at him, questioningly. Blood trickled down the zipper of his jeans. I don't know why I kept feeling like he was going to respond. "And I assume you are," I assured. "Or you wouldn't be here." Then I went on about how I'd stitched up the tears and carved my own buttons out of Tupper wear lids to replace the missing ones. Timidly, haphazardly, unsystematically, I started teaching myself to play.
"I'll play for you now." My own voice startled me. Had I been speaking or just thinking I was? "Now that it's all cleared up. The meaning of this thing." I went over some scales, warming up the fingers. Then followed the scales into "Hell's Bells," slowly, letting the groove find me. My shoes started tapping the floor. My head was nodding. I winked at the kid when I added embellishments. Showing off, I guess. I went on and on, picking up tempo, slowing it down, fooling around with octaves and rhythms, for hours, over and over—verse, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus—thinking of the Moose Head Haus at midnight, the stuffed creature over the gas fireplace, the parquet floor crowded, the bare shoulders, the girls with their arms above their heads, pint glasses in one hand, maybe a boyfriend's in the other.