Joseph McCall was the type of person for whom if something was wrong, everything was wrong, and there was no joy in the world until that one thing was put right again. If he burned his tongue on coffee, it would be days before he enjoyed the flavor of ice cream again, and in the meantime he would flip the little tab of dead skin back and forth against his teeth incessantly.
So the two hundred dollar balance left on August’s rent hung over him like a rain cloud, churning, increasing, threatening to storm as September 1st approached, when he would owe yet another thousand. Would he, for the first time since his twenties, be forced to borrow money from his parents? Was it time to move out of Manhattan?
It was a massive relief, then, when Joseph, who never answered the phone, heard someone leaving a message about a booking. “My name is Ken Friedman. I’m trying to find the young man who plays the accordion at Emily’s during Sunday brunch.”
Joseph pounced on the phone. “Yes? Hello?”
“I’m sorry to bother you with such a strange request so early in the day, but I was left your phone number by my brother Alan. You see, he died this morning. I believe he got your number from the manager at Emily’s, and put it on this list. He wanted you to play your accordion at his funeral, and I thought I should call as early as possible to book you.” The man used his full vocal range the way opera singers do, even when they’re not singing, and his words ended with a creak. He was old.
Despite his need for work, Joseph couldn’t help saying, “I’ve never played at a funeral before. Wouldn’t an accordion seem kind of weird?”
“Oh, not at all. He felt very strongly about your playing.”
“Yes. He ate brunch at Emily’s every Sunday, just to hear you. He said there was something melancholy in your music that reminded him of a lonely summer he spent in Paris when he was twenty-six.” Ken Friedman said this in such a practiced, actorly tone that Joseph wondered if someone was playing a prank.
“Are you sure? I can’t think of anyone who eats there every Sunday.”
“An older gentleman who came alone? He might have tipped you to play ‘La Vie en Rose’?”
Joseph remembered this man, who wore his thick white hair away from his pointed, foxlike face, and dressed almost formally, sometimes with expensive-looking ties. He had always given Joseph a charitable smile when he tipped, but there was something in the way he then listened that made Joseph nervous. The man moved his lips slightly with the lyrics like a sleep talker, his hand raised in a gesture of worry, as if the song were a tightrope from which Joseph might fall.
“Him? He’s dead?”
“Yes. I’m sorry.”
“God, it just seems so strange. Why did he want me?”
“He was a bit of an eccentric. When he found an artist he liked, he became very devoted. A kind of crush. It would have meant a lot to him to have you on the program. He set aside an honorarium. Would three hundred dollars be sufficient? We could probably get you more if you needed it.”
Joseph tried to swallow the eagerness in his voice. “Three hundred will be fine.”
“The funeral is Saturday at noon. Can you do it?”
“Um, let me look at my calendar really quick.” Joseph paused, still leaning against the stove. “Yeah, looks like I’m free.”
Ken Friedman gave Joseph his phone number and the address of a church in the East Village. Then, for the first time since their conversation began, his voice wavered, although it was still resolute and business-like.
“That’s it, then, isn’t it? I’m done. You are the last one on the list.”
“Shouldn’t you tell me about him? So I have — I don’t know — some sort of sense of the person?”
“I’m not the best one to do that. You’ll hear the speakers at the funeral, then you’ll play last, from the balcony. One thing I can tell you is that he was a lover of art, above all. His funeral will be a beautiful event with dancers, a chorus…”
“Seriously? Sounds kind of strange.”
“It will be strange. He was strange.”
“Can I ask what he died of?”
“Oh. He didn’t look sick.”
“Yes, well, it was sudden.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“In the eighties, Alan watched his friends die one after another, sometimes two in one week. That itself nearly killed him. Then came the new treatments. He had a much slower decline than his friends.”
So it wasn’t sudden, then, Joseph thought. But he would never point out such an inconsistency to a grieving man. “I’m so sorry,” he said again.
“Thank you, Joseph. Goodbye”
Upon hanging up, Joseph felt a pang of sadness. Alan Friedman used to poke around shyly as Joseph packed up the accordion and talked with the waiters at the end of a shift. Joseph would nod a quick hello to him and leave. Now he wished he had been more kind. How strange that a man could die, that a human body would shut down like a toy that has run out of batteries. Joseph felt like calling Claire to tell her about the strange phone call. She was more patient with his stories since they parted ways.
“Hi, Claire. Are you up?”
“I just got the strangest call. Some guy, some older gay guy, died, and on his list of instructions for the funeral he wanted me to play the accordion.”
Claire burst out laughing.
“Wait. Nothing. What happened? Who died?”
“A stranger. Someone who heard me play at the restaurant. He came there a lot, but I never really talked to him.”
“It’s going to be a pretty weird funeral with dancers and stuff.”
It occurred to Joseph that he could invite Claire to come with him, but then he heard the voice of someone else on Claire’s end asking, “Who died?’”
“No one we know,” Claire answered.
“Who are you talking to?” Joseph asked.
“Neil, Jenny, everyone. We’re on the beach.”
“Oh, Mexico. I forgot. What time is it there?”
“Dawn,” Claire said. “Everyone says hi.”
“What are you all doing on the beach so early?”
“It’s been a long night,” Claire said. “Hold on a second. They’re all asking what’s going on.” Claire muffled the receiver to relay the story to her friends. Joseph regretted having called her. Clearly Claire and the gang weren’t in the right kind of state to understand that he had just been paid a kind of honor. But then Claire made him reconsider by saying, “You know, that sounds really cool, really meaningful. Planning your own funeral, making it this nice art event with music and dancing. Don’t you think, Joseph? What did he want you to play?”
“I didn’t ask. Probably ‘La Vie en Rose.’ That’s what he used to request.”
“But he didn’t specify?”
“I don’t know. His brother’s the one I talked to, and he didn’t say.”
“Oh, you have to find out. Can you call him back?”
“Should I?” Joseph said suspiciously. Why was Claire being so emotional? He would have assumed she was drunk, but her voice was crisp and alive.
“Oh, Joseph, I really think you should find out. This is someone who had such a clear vision of how to, you know, pay tribute to his life. I can’t imagine he didn’t have a song picked out.”
“I’ll ask him, then.”
“And call us when you’re about to play,” Claire went on. “We’ll listen on speakerphone.”
In the background there was a chorus of agreement.
Claire had never liked his accordion playing before, just his piano playing. She used to ask him to play his flawed renditions of Chopin preludes whenever they passed an unoccupied piano. She didn’t know them by name, she’d just say, “Play me one of those bouncy ones.” There had been something tremulous in Claire’s voice just now. It wasn’t drunkenness, it was longing. She missed him.
With new confidence he called the number Ken Friedman had given him. There was no answer. Maybe he wasn’t at home, Joseph thought. He could have called from the dead man’s apartment. So Joseph selected call-back from the caller ID list.
“Hi, this is Joseph McCall, the accordion player.”
Ken Friedman’s voice was higher in pitch now, and his words were clipped. “Oh, it’s you. How funny.”
“I’m sorry to bother you,” Joseph said, “but I was wondering if your brother said what song I should play.”
“‘La Vie en Rose.’ Start with that, then go on from there with whatever you like.”
“That’s a love song, though. Shouldn’t I play something more appropriate to the occasion?”
“I know it’s a love song,” the man said wanly.
“Okay. Sorry to bother you.”
“Joseph,” said the man with an airy laugh, “you sweet man, you’re not bothering me.”
There was silence. Ken Friedman seemed different now — had he given in to grief? Was this what mourning sounded like? Having never lost anyone close, it was hard for Joseph to think of something to say, and the moment he inhaled to speak, Ken Friedman hung up.
Back at the Bergen County Music Academy in New Jersey they had told Joseph that his piano playing lacked subtlety. This was not just the thoughtless comment of a single teacher at a moment of frustration, it was an opinion arrived at by a panel during a year-end critique and delivered on a form. “Although Mr. McCall shows progress in his technical abilities, he has failed to develop the subtlety required to perform works in the classical repertoire. We suggest he hone his skills as an entertainer and accompanist.”
In other words, Go play functions.
Joseph hung his head for a summer, but the next year he returned, excited about percussion. At the urging of his merciful advisor, the school allowed him to change departments. He picked up the xylophone and got good enough to play with a kitschy jazz band. But back then he drank and had a temper. He fought with his bandmates and quit.
It wasn’t until after graduation that he took up the accordion. Joseph wanted to become a collector of songs, and this was the perfect tool: easy and portable, a funny little piano. He played until his shoulders ached and there was a arc of tiny red bruises across his belly where his skin had been pinched in the folds of the bellows. When the neighbors complained about the noise, he took to practicing on the roof of his building. He liked the fresh air and the far-off audience of Manhattan skyscrapers, so he continued to practice there even when it got cold.
He used his graduation money to go to Scandinavia and wander about collecting folk songs — songs that made old, stone-faced people’s squinty eyes light up with wonder: How did a young American know that one? In Sweden he bought an old-fashioned chromatic with buttons instead of keys, but he always returned to his sleek black piano accordion. He felt himself becoming a craftsman rather than an artist, a shift that, in his youth, would have horrified him. But instead he downed another vodka and railed against the pretensions of classical music. It was the music of the people that moved him. Pop, now and forever.
He moved to New York, joined the Musician’s Union and lived from gig to gig, drink to drink until, to his surprise and delight, he got a job playing onstage in “Bolsheviks!”, a Broadway musical.
The show was set in the early days of the Russian Revolution. The rich people wore enormous fur hats and the poor people wore rags. Joseph’s part came after a minor character, a handsome young Bolshevik, was executed in the street. Snow started to fall (as it did after every dramatic turn in the plot) and Joseph, as a blind accordionist unaware of the corpse stage-left, limped onto the silent stage led by a street urchin who carried a tin cup. Pumping the bellows with great effort, Joseph played a bleak little melody which was ripped off from a Polish folk song. Then the orchestra joined in, the proletariat chorus began to sing their lament, and Joseph was led offstage. That was it.
For several months Joseph was satisfied. He got a good wage plus benefits for performing, and wasn’t that most musicians’ goal? It was such easy money — he only spent three-and-a-half minutes onstage — that he overlooked the fact that the story was melodramatic and the music was pompous, frequently quoting Tchaikovsky, whom he despised. Joseph would watch the remainder of show from the wings in anticipation of that final chord (B-flat minor sixth; in this show, Russian misery always made itself heard in minor-sixth chords) when the crowd would erupt into applause, rising to their feet, cheering and hollering. It gave him goosebumps.
Often, after the show, he and a few buddies from the orchestra would take the A train down to the Meatpacking District for a late dinner. There he met Claire, who worked as a waitress at their favorite spot. She was full-breasted and ironic about her own good looks, pulling her hair into Pollyanna braids with sweaty tendrils crossing her forehead, or wearing a fake Jackie-O fall. And while her false eyelashes were in on the great unspoken New York joke, the oversized blue eyes they adorned were pure, unironic Iowa. Chuckling at her own vanity, she refused to answer Joseph’s friends when asked her age. “You’re the nice one,” she said, squeezing Joseph’s shoulder and giving him, and not the others, a refill. “That’s why I’ve enrolled you in our Bottomless Wineglass Program.”
Joseph figured she was a few years older than he. When she laughed hard at a joke — which was often — she’d put her hand over her mouth and push up the skin at the corners of her eyes. Joseph thought this was a strange affectation of shyness, but would find out months later it was a habit she had picked up from her great-aunt — a measure to prevent crow’s feet.
One night, Joseph outstayed the other musicians, and Claire took him to a bar to meet a few friends. The booze flowed and the group’s number increased, until, in the wee hours of the morning, Joseph found himself crowded against Claire in the corner of the booth. He gazed into those eyes, which still seemed very awake, the room tilted, and Joseph thought, I’m either going to pass out or kiss her.
Claire’s expression changed and softened. “Oh my God!” she said. A hush fell over the table at the sound of genuine emotion. “I just realized — you are straight, aren’t you!”
Everyone cheered when he kissed her and, with that, Joseph was drawn into Claire’s life, and into her gang, which was made up of bright, attractive waiters and waitresses with hard-to-pin-down sexualities who were all deferring their dreams for the sake of the nightly bash. They would descend on a restaurant where they knew someone and get roaring drunk. The wait staff and managers always tolerated this behavior because once the shift was over and the tips counted, they would unite with the gang to go forth and conquer another restaurant.
Claire was the only girl Joseph had ever met who could outdrink him. As a couple they always laughed the loudest and kept the party going as one by one their friends crawled home to bed. In the presence of Claire, alcohol’s effect on Joseph changed — it didn’t make him sleepy, it made his blood boil. They would go to Claire’s apartment and have intense, animated conversations, which, as they got to know each other better, often became loud arguments during which they laid out each other’s faults in gorgeous detail. Joseph told Claire she was jaded and false, and secretly hated all her friends. Claire countered that at least she had friends, and that Joseph gave up on people too easily, just as he had his art.
“I haven’t given up my art,” said Joseph half-heartedly during one of this argument’s iterations. “I do my art for a living. Need I remind you, dear, that you are a waitress?” (It had taken months for Joseph to get it out of Claire that she had come to New York to act.)
Claire squinted and said, “You know what, Joseph? The food I serve when I’m waitressing? I also eat it.”
Joseph picked a hangnail for a moment, then he realized she wasn’t going to explain. “What the hell does that mean?” he asked.
“Would you ever pay money to see ‘Bolsheviks!’ if you weren’t in it?”
“Well, then,” Claire said. “Shame on you. It’s a sin to serve up what you wouldn’t eat.”
Back and forth they volleyed until the argument blossomed, as it usually did, into violent, glorious sex. As they lay panting afterward, Claire turned to Joseph, her hair having collapsed lopsidedly from whatever amusing shape it had formerly taken, and said, “I think we just raped each other!”
Summer came and Claire started spending every other weekend at the house the gang had rented in the Hamptons. Joseph visited for a long weekend in late June. The weather was brilliant but the jokes tedious.
“Why is the TV on constantly?” Joseph asked Claire, as the jarring chords of a CNN News Alert reached the roof deck where the two lay dozing.
“It’s Neil,” said Claire. “He can’t take silence. It makes him panic. Relax, Noodle. Take off your shirt.”
“I burn easily,” said Joseph. But a moment later he took it off and rolled over. He could hear the same sound bite they had been playing all weekend, in which the mother of Tiffany, an eight-year-old Kentuckian who had disappeared while waiting to be picked up from day camp, begged for her return. Joseph knew it by heart: “Please, please bring my baby back to me. We won’t ask no questions.”
The abduction of Tiffany had been fodder for many of the gang’s lame jokes that weekend. “Are you going to the store? Keep an eye out for Tiffany.” Joseph and Claire had kept up half-heartedly — Claire even worked up a good rendition of the mother’s hick accent — but it was nice now to escape to the roof. From the laughter that arose from the living room, it seemed that one of these jokes had again been recycled.
After dinner that night, Joseph settled into the deep, pillowy couch between Neil and Claire. Some people were over whom he neither knew nor felt like meeting. Now, on his third vodka soda, he felt sassy enough to take on Neil.
“Music’s playing and everyone’s talking,” Joseph said. “Now will you turn off the TV?”
“What is with you and the TV? You want silence? Go to Montauk. We like noise here in the Hamptons.” Neil scanned the room lazily, perhaps looking for someone worthy of the effort it would take to launch himself from the couch. “Speaking of noise, did you bring your accordion?”
“No, Neil, I left it at home. With my TV. They keep each other company.”
“Yes, please bring it. I know Claire swoons when you serenade her, don’t you, Claire?”
Claire said nothing.
“Actually, Claire hates the accordion,” Joseph said. “It symbolizes, for her, my death as a real artist. She told me that in an argument once.”
“Joseph, please don’t,” said Neil. “Hearing about the non-sexual side of my friends’ relationships really turns my stomach.” Then Neil glanced at Claire and his arch expression dropped.
Joseph turned to Claire. She was leaning forward, elbows on her knees, delicately supporting her wine glass with her fingertips. She blinked, and tears fell from both eyes. She put down her glass, walked out onto the deck, and slid the door closed behind her.
Joseph and Neil sat for a minute. Then Joseph said, “Should I go after her?”
“You idiot, of course you should.”
The deck chairs facing the glowing pool were empty, as was the little herb garden. Joseph wandered slowly, hands in his back pockets, listening to the crickets sing their one lifelong note, F-sharp, above the labored breathing of the ocean. It was such a rare thing for him to hurt Claire deeply, it thrilled him a little. He never could have managed it intentionally; she was too well armed.
He found her sitting on a bamboo day bed in the pool house. The paths of tears on her face shone in the wavering blue pool light. Joseph sat on the floor and took her hand. He wondered how to apologize.
“I was really hoping they’d find her alive,” Claire whispered. “I know, it’s stupid.”
For a disorienting moment, Joseph wondered if Claire was speaking in metaphor. Then he realized that the police had found the little girl, Tiffany, murdered, and that Claire had heard this on CNN while he and Neil were bickering.
With the creaking of bamboo, Joseph climbed up behind her. He twisted her hair into a rope and moved it aside to kiss the back of her neck.
Claire leaned forward suddenly. “You love me when I’m sad!” she said with a bitter laugh. But this bitterness was an effort, and again she lay back, giving her weight to Joseph.
Over the course of that autumn, it dawned on Joseph that the standing ovation “Bolsheviks!” received every night was not so flattering, as it resulted from the audience members’ poor understanding of theater tradition and their desire to be the first out to hail a cab back to the hotel. He began to arrive as late as possible to be made up and ready for his walk-on, and to hide afterward in a subterranean rehearsal room, playing Spades with stage hands until the curtain call.
The role of the ragamuffin who led him onstage was shared by three little boys. Out with the gang, Joseph would go on long rants about what horrible brats they were and how he planned to push one of them into the orchestra pit on the last night of the show. He invented a complex history for the three: They were a terrorist cell who had, themselves, written and produced “Bolsheviks!” in order to raise funds for al Qaeda. Claire and the gang ate this up. Joseph railed against these innocents, knowing that if he ever told the real story of how he had come to despise the show and his part in it, the gang would shift in their seats, stir their drinks, and try to change the subject. It was best not to remind them of their own joyless jobs and fading ambitions.
The idea that Claire had first mentioned in the pool house, that Joseph loved her when she was sad, became something of a refrain for her. “You want me to be as miserable as you are!” she yelled during a drunken fight that winter.
“You are, though! Can’t you admit it, Claire? We’re losers! What are we doing? Nothing!”
They were silent for several minutes, lying far from each other on the bed. Then Joseph reached out and drew Claire over. She lay her head in the crook of his neck.
“Claire,” he said, “Lent is coming up. Let’s give up drinking for Lent.”
Her body stiffened.
“I’m tired,” he went on. “I want a change. It’s just for — how long is Lent? — six weeks?”
She chuckled dismissively and said, “We have to drink.”
“No, we don’t.”
“Yes, we do.”
“Because…” She hesitated, propped herself up on her elbow, and her voice became severe. “I’m sure you don’t want me to spell this out for you, Joseph, but I will. We’re nuts. We’re probably manic depressive, both of us. By drinking we regulate it. We’re on the peak together each night, and we’re in the pit together each morning. It’s not pretty, but at least we’re in it together. If we didn’t drink, we’d spend our lives waiting to catch each other on a manic upswing, and, in the meantime, fall out of love.”
Joseph was speechless. Did she really believe this? And, more importantly, was it true? By getting clinical, she had broken an unspoken law of their arguments, and he didn’t feel passion enough to punch back. He got up and went home.
After this, arguments lost their operatic quality. They were no longer exhilarating and led, not to sex, but to long stretches of silent brooding until either Joseph or Claire offered a heartless effort at reconciliation, a fake bouquet, then turned out the lights. Joseph quit practicing on the roof, quit collecting songs. He had one song now. It was three-and-a-half minutes long, and he hated it.
It helped to have a drink or two before heading off to the show. He was so late once that the pianist from the orchestra, who served as a kind of budget understudy, had to step in. Luckily for Joseph, this pianist didn’t look the part and played the accordion badly. The stage manager put a letter of warning in Joseph’s file.
One afternoon Joseph and Claire decided to ease their hangovers with tequila sunrises. These put them in a different state of drunkenness than their usual vodka — a cuddly, cooing high, from the vantage of which their differences seemed small and distant. It was Claire’s night off, and they sat watching old movies on TV until it was time for Joseph to go to the show.
“Come with me,” he said. “Come watch me from the wings.”
He wanted to do something for her — he hadn’t decided what — some sort of tribute in his performance. Maybe he’d just wink at her from behind his dark glasses.
“Okay,” she said.
Her willingness surprised him. Before they could leave, though, Claire’s phone rang. It was a friend.
“Noodle, can I take a rain check?” she said. “They’re all going out.”
“Of course they are.”
“Oh, don’t be mad. I’ll come to the matinee on Sunday. How about that? Then we’ll have dinner.”
Joseph acted like he wasn’t bothered, and Claire left. Then he downed a glass of straight tequila, shuddered, swooned, and stumbled off to work.
The makeup lady, a five-foot-tall, motherly Ecuadorian whom Joseph had always adored, pursed her lips and didn’t say a word as she quickly dabbed his face with pale foundation. She knows I’m drunk, thought Joseph, and he started to giggle.
“Sit still,” she hissed.
“Seet steel,” he mimicked.
Joseph heaved on the accordion, unsnapped the metal straperettes to release the bellows, and took his position next to the little boy in the dark. He ran his left middle finger over the chord buttons until he found C with its hard little nipple, and positioned his right hand over the keys. The handsome Bolshevik onstage sang his last words, the music swelled, the rifles popped, and the audience gasped, as they always did. The man wavered for far too long — as he always did — then crumpled.
Even now, in this tacky theater playing for these fat tourists, Joseph loved his first opening of the bellows. It felt like taking a huge inhalation with lungs much greater than his own. It also served as a cue for the boy to walk forward and bring him onstage.
But tonight was Joseph’s night. Instead of the melancholy Polish folk song, he played “Misty.”
Look at me, I’m as helpless as a kitten up a tree…
The boy jerked in fear at the change of routine — a jerk that satisfied Joseph deeply — then calmly led him on. There was that brief burst of applause an audience always gives when they recognize a tune.
Through his dark glasses, Joseph saw a shade of bafflement complicate the mournful expressions on the faces of the peasants he passed. He only played a few bars of “Misty” before improvising a trilling, wistful little transition into the folk song. The orchestra joined in as it always did, followed by the chorus.
“What was that?” asked the boy once they were offstage. Joseph looked him in the face, perhaps for the first time. He was a cute kid whose cheeks had been given the semblance of hollowness with charcoal-colored slashes.
“‘Misty,’” Joseph said, shaking the snow from his hair. “Never heard it?”
“You’re in trouble,” the boy said.
“And he was right!” Joseph howled as he told the story later that night. “Boy, was I in trouble!” Joseph shook his finger and imitated the stage manager in falsetto: “‘Do you think this is your stage, where you can play what you want? Was that a joke? Do you think you’re funny? Well ha-ha, asshole, you’re fired!’”
The gang roared.
“And I said to him, ‘It was funny. And beautiful. It was what this show needs, a little jazz.’”
Claire’s eyes searched the others’ faces and her mouth released a few bars of thin laughter. All the way home she was quiet. Only after Joseph followed her in and locked the door did she turn on him and beat his chest, crying, “Why did you do it?”
In the argument that followed, Joseph refused to make sense of what he had done. He didn’t understand it himself, but it was his, and he had no desire to dissect it for Claire. Their voices trailed off and they lay quiet and sleepless until Joseph said, “I could kill myself.”
It horrified Joseph to hear himself say this, and he quickly amended, “I mean… not like a threat, like I’m so unhappy I’m going to kill myself, but like, I am a person capable of killing himself.”
Claire said, “I know that’s what you meant. I’m not disagreeing.”
That was the last night Joseph spent at Claire’s. In the morning he went home and stopped drinking. He began to practice again — jazz standards now, crowd-pleasing songs of love and loss — to be played at respectable, low-paying gigs like brunch at Emily’s.
* * *
On Friday, Joseph got a call from Claire. “I don’t think we’re going to listen to you play,” she said. “Don’t call. It seems disrespectful.”
“Oh, I liked the idea.”
“You didn’t seem to.”
“It had already occurred to me to invite you. I forgot you were in Mexico.”
“Oh, that’s sweet.” Now a little of that zest returned to her voice. “Go ahead and call, then, but it’ll just be me. The gang’s not so into it.”
“It’s better that way,” Joseph said.
“We were coming down off Ecstasy when you called. The idea of listening to you play — it was one of those things you cling to. You know how it is. No one’s mentioned it since.”
Claire, in her blind honesty, often revealed things that Joseph would have skipped. This had the baffling effect of making her seem at once more trustworthy and less dependable. The phone crackled and she said, “Damn it, I get such bad reception. This place is a shithole. There’s algae on the pool tiles. If you were here, we would escape together.”
“Claire, I wasn’t invited.” It hurt Joseph when she played dumb like this, pretending they hadn’t separated, because it was the same as pretending they hadn’t really been together.
“Wait, are you there?” Claire said, and the call ended.
Five minutes later Joseph received a text message: “Call 2moro.”
Joseph entered the cool, bright sanctuary a half-hour before the service was to begin. About twenty people milled around a gleaming, black casket. A group of young people dressed in identical black vests and yellow shirts stood in the narthex. Joseph set his accordion in a pew and approached them.
“Hi, I’m the accordionist,” he said to a girl who couldn’t have been over twenty.
“Accordionist?” she said, loud enough to cause some of the others to turn. “This really is going to be a freak show.”
“Oh? Well, do you work here?”
“Work here? This is a church. We’re an a cappella group. We’ve been hired to perform.”
“Maybe you can point out Ken Friedman to me, then.”
“He’s over there, but I warn you, he’s not in a very good mood. I guess he’s upset about how this whole thing was planned.”
Ken Friedman stood talking to a barefoot woman in a leotard. He had salt-and-pepper hair, fiery eyes in deep sockets, and large hands that he slowly rubbed together as he spoke. Joseph approached, and then, to give him time to finish his conversation, strolled over to the casket. It was closed, covered with a large flower arrangement thick with white orchids and Lilies of the Valley. The sickly sweet aroma made him step back. At the head of the casket stood a framed pencil drawing that looked like it had been made by a child. It could have been a portrait of the deceased, but only resembled the man at the restaurant in the most rudimentary way — happy slits for eyes, a swoop of bangs, a smiling, squarish mouth. In the center of the face was a large triangle, like the nose of a Jack-o-lantern. But, yes, it was Alan Friedman: under the chin was the knot of a tie. And under the knot were the initials A.F. Had he drawn this himself?
“Did you want to speak with me?”
Joseph turned. “Oh, yes, I’m Joseph.” He shook Ken Friedman’s hand and reached up to lay his other hand on the man’s shoulder. “Again, I’m so sorry.”
“Joseph McCall. We spoke on the phone. I’m going to play the accordion.”
The man gazed at Joseph and shook his head. “Son of a bitch,” he said.
“Is there some problem?” asked Joseph.
“You didn’t speak to me, you spoke to my brother.”
“Um, are you sure?”
“You have another brother? Why would he say he was you?”
“No. You spoke to my brother.” Ken Friedman nodded at the casket.
“I spoke to him? But he’s—”
“Dead. This is about the tenth time I’ve had to explain this today, so forgive me if I seem callous. Alan called the church, called all these performers, called the mortuary to come pick him up, told everyone he was Ken Friedman and that his brother Alan was already dead. Then he killed himself.”
“Oh, my God,” said Joseph.
“Yeah. Charming, isn’t it? He planned this whole program. Only he forgot that it’s Labor Day Weekend, and half the goddamn family’s out of town. He thought he could fill this church. If you died could you fill this church on Labor Day Weekend?”
“Oh, my God.”
“Meanwhile, I’ve got a twelve-year-old at home who’s so distraught she couldn’t even make it out the door. Selfish old bastard, treating a church like a goddamn cabaret. And it’s a Presbyterian church!” Ken Friedman shook an open hand at the vaulted ceiling. “We’re Jews! Does any of this make any sense to you?”
“Because if it does, explain it to me! I haven’t a clue.”
“He said it was sudden, then he said it was slow,” Joseph said, remembering. “He contradicted himself.”
Ken Friedman nodded.
“How… how did he kill himself?” Joseph asked.
“He hooked himself up to an I.V. Nice and comfortable. I don’t know where he got all that stuff, but he must have been planning it for months. Healthy as a horse, but on the phone, when he was Ken Friedman, he told everyone he died of AIDS. He didn’t have AIDS. His friends died of AIDS, but he didn’t have it.”
Joseph put his hand over his eyes. “Oh, my God. I called him back. His voice was strange. I must have been the last person he spoke to.”
“Well, lucky you. He didn’t so much as leave me a note. Just instructions on Post-Its.” Ken Friedman took a rolled-up paper out of his back pocket and shook it. “He sent me to Kinko’s to pick up copies of the goddamn program.”
Ken Friedman turned away and wiped his eyes, giving Joseph time to wonder if Alan Friedman’s I.V. had been in during that second call, feeding poison to his vein. In a flash, Joseph saw himself through Claire’s eyes and agreed that he was stupid to savor his own sadness.
A strange man with wispy gray hair came into the sanctuary. He walked down the aisle with his shoulders hunched and arms hanging, throwing his weight into each step like a badly strung marionette.
“Oh God, it’s Harry,” said Ken Friedman. “I have to talk to him.”
The man reached the casket and put both hands on it. He hung his head and swayed — was it out of drunkenness or infirmity or grief?
Here is someone who loved Alan Friedman, who has a reason go cry, thought Joseph. I will play for him.
* * *
No one in the funeral gave Joseph further clues about Alan Friedman’s life — not the English woman with a lisp who read a Wordsworth poem about daffodils; not the woman in the leotard, who did a slow, repetitive dance thick with baby-cradling and sun-rising arm motions to Phillip Glass; not the speaker, an old boss of Alan Friedman’s, who said only the kindest and most general things (always ready with a smile … loved people…); not the a cappella group, who sang a shockingly soulless “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”; and not the female rabbi who delivered words of thanks to a nameless, genderless “Heavenly Friend.” During this prayer, Joseph ducked behind the balcony railing to call Claire.
“I’m about to go on,” he whispered.
“Okay,” said Claire — charmingly, also in a whisper. “I’ll go out by the pool. The reception’s better there.”
Joseph set the phone on the pew and stood up. He slipped his hands through the straps and found C. He could not see the face of that strange, mourning man, Harry, only his crooked form wedged into the corner of a pew, shoulders quaking.
The rabbi reached the end of her prayer. Joseph allowed for a few seconds of silence, then opened his bellows. The gasp was unusually loud. From the concerned expression of a woman who turned and looked up, Joseph could tell that it had sounded like someone inhaling to weep. Funny, then, for her to see instead a guy in a cheap suit with an accordion.
He began to play.
The acoustics of this church were different from anywhere Joseph had played before. The sound filled the sanctuary, then returned to him, amplified and stripped of both the brass of the chords and the reed of the keys. For the first time it sounded, to Joseph, like a human voice. “La Vie en Rose.” How could a song about the rosy life sound so sad? He heard clearly now what the audience heard: how the accordion could tease the sadness out of a happy song. It was what Claire had hated about it, and what Alan Friedman had loved.
Row by row the mourners stood and, led by an usher, filed past the casket and looked, not into the face of a dead man, but at that strange pencil drawing. Then they returned to their pews, gathered their things, and left.
Joseph closed his eyes and listened to himself play love song after love song. He felt he should stick to standards, since those were the songs that Alan Friedman had heard him play, and, with a few exceptions, those were all love songs. Without being too heavy-handed, he gave some of them a minor turn, and the passages he improvised to link them were solemn, never showy. Maybe it was just that he could hear himself so well, but it seemed that he had never played better.
When he opened his eyes again, Harry was gone.
The pall bearers came and pushed the casket, on rollers, out of the sanctuary. People milled around. A couple of children played tag around a pew until their mothers stopped them. At one point a man laughed, then remembered himself and changed the laugh into a cough. Still, Joseph played.
Finally, the last mourners left. Joseph unhurriedly finished the song, then squeezed out the last breath, snapped closed the straperettes, and took the accordion off. The straps always cut into his wrists, and he massaged these spots for a minute before remembering Claire.
He picked up the phone and looked into its tiny face. They were no longer connected, but there was a text message.