Front Porch Review
We seventy-five-year-olds don’t take up new things too easy. I have a tumor in my shoulder, and it’s trouble enough for me to keep up my painting arm without having to learn how to play the clarinet. But…well, here’s how it all happened.
I’m at Starbucks one morning (I’m guessing eight out of ten of Starbucks’ early bird customers are men in their seventies because they open up early, and we old men aren’t able to sleep much) when this guy with frowzy gray hair all over him takes the empty seat at my table. I look with only one eye because weirdos sometimes will do this, sit down right next to you like they’re your long lost cousin or something. You don’t want to look a weirdo straight in the face or you might be letting yourself in for something unpleasant. Anyway, as an artist, I’m trained to see a lot with just one eye.
I can see this guy has a real scuzzo look. Like I said, he has grey hair sprouting out of everywhere: his face of course, his ears, his nose, the top of his shirt, his knuckles. The hair on his head stands up high in an uncombed bush. I realize he doesn’t smell too good either. Then he starts whistling. Ay ay ay, I say to myself, time to change tables.
But the whistling is really good. I mean, it’s musically good. I’m not a musician, but I like to paint them. Jazz musicians are just about my favorite subject. I’ve done dozens of paintings of them performing so I’ve learned to appreciate their music. This guy is whistling jazz…good jazz.
I let my other eye loose. “What’s that you’re whistling?” I ask. “Wait, I know, that’s Take the A Train, isn’t it?”
He looks at me from under these eyebrows that stick out like tangled nests of thread and rubber bands you’d find in your junk-keeping drawer. “Yes, that’s right,” he says. His voice is okay. Nice even.
“That’s a tough one to whistle,” I say. “All those fast notes. I wouldn’t even attempt it, but you do it great.”
Now he looks at me like maybe I’m the weirdo. He takes a long drink of his coffee, sets the mug down. “I can’t whistle anything now,” he says.
“What do you mean?”
He points to the coffee cup. “Screws up my embouchure.”
I heard of what he’s talking about. Embouchure. It’s a horn-player’s lips and mouth…well, the muscles in them. Any musician who plays a wind instrument has to have a trained embouchure to produce the notes.
So it turns out my new friend is a clarinetist. He’s so shabby because he’s one of those who got old real quick, sort of by surprise, and some emphysema to go with it He hasn’t got anyone as the phrase goes, and he couldn’t work anymore except maybe to give a few lessons, and had to settle for a sub-let rent-controlled flat with some beat-up furniture and a crummy view. He has an old tape deck, and spends a lot of time listening to his music tapes while looking out the window at a Chevron station on Pico Blvd. That is, when he’s not coming down here to Starbucks or walking around down at the waterfront.
Me, I’ve got a fine condo apartment with a studio overlooking the ocean and with a nice wife in it, I should not forget to mention. If you have a woman in your life you never end up looking like my friend the clarinetist, no matter how hard things hit you. I’ve known married men who were clean-shaven and groomed all their lives. But after their wives go, even they look a little crumbled up and seedy to me, know what I mean?
“My lady died last year,” he tells me and I am not surprised to hear it.
So I invite him over to my place. Lex his name is. And I’m grateful when Lex shows up looking combed and respectable and even smelling like soap and hot water. He’s carrying his clarinet case.
I take him into my studio. The sun is just going down in front of Santa Monica. He presses his forehead against the window and watches the whole process without saying a word.
I show Lex some of the things I’m working on. He loves my pictures of the jazzmen. He once played a few sets with Krupa, he tells me. But most of the time he was a bandmaster in the Canadian navy. He shakes his head appreciatively at my picture of the Duke and his boys. “You really caught it,” he tells me.
I don’t like hearing that about my painting. “I hope you don’t mean caught it like a photograph. My work’s expressionistic.”
“Oh, I know. So’s mine. Well, I do dig it. Your stuff, I mean. I can hear the music they’re playing in those pictures. If that’s what you meant by expressionistic…”
That’s what I meant all right. He never asks me if I ever sold any of my work, which I like. Some people who come here, it’s the first thing out of their mouth. Sometimes they even have the nerve to ask what I get for it. Of course, I have sold plenty of work, and could sell more if I wanted to, but I don’t really need the money anymore, and I like these things too much to let them go. Maybe I’m stupid that way. My wife thinks so.
I tell Lex I’ve been having trouble lately painting. Hard to hold my arm up.
“I don’t suppose you could do that lefty?” he asks.
“Not at my age. I can touch things up with my left, but I could never teach myself to really paint with it.”
“So what are you gonna do?”
When Renoir was very, very old, and his hands were so painful and stiff from arthritis he had pulleys move them, and people sometimes to help grip the brushes. But I have no answer for Lex.
He takes his clarinet out of the case. “Like to hear a tune?”
Lex wets his lips, then the reed with his tongue. He holds the instrument so easy and familiar in his hands you could almost think his fingers melted into it. He rests his elbows on the arms of the chair and starts in. While he plays, he never looks up. In fact, his eyes are shut, his chin on his chest the whole time. The music fills my studio with happiness. “The Lady is a Tramp.” I don’t want him to ever stop. But he does.
“Don’t,” I say. “Don’t stop. It’s fabulous.”
He gives me this terrible look. His face is pale. He speaks almost in a whisper. “Can’t. Can’t…it’s the em…”
“No. The emphysema.”
Lex and I take a walk down to the beach. He figures maybe the ocean air will help him. He takes his clarinet along. By now the moon is out. The water is quiet. A light evening breeze. This is southern California at its best. We sit on the sand.
“You think you could play something now?” I ask him. He nods.
What a picture he makes, this whiskery man, back arched, elbows on his knees, lids tightly shut, framed against the curving shoreline, the moon-splattered Pacific, the licorice stick blowing sweet jazz straight down into the sand. I should paint this. He plays for a good fifteen minutes before he gets tired. Then he hands the clarinet to me. “You could learn it,” he says. “I could teach you.”
I laugh at that. “You know better,” I say.
“But you don’t have to raise your shoulders to play the clarinet. That’s what I was thinking of.”
“You’d give me lessons?”
“But you know I’d never be any good at it.”
“With enough time and practice you might.” He is one crazy optimist.
Time is something I don’t have much left of, and I don’t think he does either from the look of him. We both stare out over the rippling water. We are silent. We have nothing much to say to each other for the rest of that evening.
We see each other the next morning at Starbucks. Lex hands me a clarinet case. “It’s my backup,” he says. “You can use it to practice on.” His eyes go inward for a minute as he sits down, like maybe he’s not sure he should have made the offer. Then he comes back out of himself. “In fact, you can have it.” Then he tells me he wants to give me lessons on one condition: they take place on the beach.
“In a public place!” I object. “Why?”
He explains he loves being near the sea. He’s an old navy man, after all. He feels younger near the water. It’s why he moved from cold Canada to Santa Monica in the first place, even though his apartment building is several blocks away from the shore. He’d be a better teacher in a watery environment. “Anyway,” he says, “it’s pretty private on the beach at night.”
I take the instrument home, keeping it out of my wife’s view. If she saw it, I wouldn’t want her laughing at me, which she might. I’ve heard her say it so many times, “There’s no fool like an old fool.” Women, bless their hearts, can sometimes be heartless. Taking lessons on the beach doesn’t seem like such a bad idea to me anymore.
I take the clarinet out of its case. I wet my lips and then the reed with my tongue as I had watched Lex do. I don’t believe I’m capable of making even one note, so I am not afraid to blow into it even though my wife is not far away in the kitchen. I’m amazed when a huge honk comes out of the thing.
” Was that you?” she calls. “Jesus. Gesundheit.”
“Thanks,” I call back. I quickly hide the clarinet case between some old canvases. Maybe after I learn to play the thing a little, I’ll let her in on it. Maybe not, too.
It’s the fingering that’s hardest. Lex shows me just where to place my fingers, and I think I know what to do, but they won’t follow my orders. Holding the clarinet, these same hands that I trust to carefully blend my oils and subtly move the brush now feel clumsy and unreliable.
” It’s a flow,” Lex says, leaning on his elbow in the sand. “You’ll learn that the movement of the fingers is more like a stream than a punchboard. It should seem like water moving along the keys.”
I shake my head, knowing I won’t ever know that.
“How’s the shoulder?” he asks.
“You were right about that. The shoulder feels fine. But that finger stream you’re talking about…I don’t think these fingers are gonna float. Arthritis, you know.”
“I’ve got arthritis, too. Who doesn’t? Can’t use that as an excuse.”
For weeks Lex and I meet on the beach after sundown. We have to depend on the moon or stars for light, but since I don’t read music, he’s teaching me to play by ear. The moonlight shimmers on the silver keys, and they’re easy for me to see.
Eventually I am actually able to play a whole thirty-two bars of “Sweet Sue.” I am terrible. A young couple passing us on the sand winces at each other.
“That’s it,” says Lex. “That’s great.”
He can’t mean that. I play it again. My jerky notes seem to jump like jagged stones up into the quiet air then crash like a bunch of junk into the surf. I put the instrument down. I look at Lex who has been gazing far off out to sea. Why is he bothering to teach me to play the clarinet? In spite of what he said, it must be excruciating for him. For that matter, why am I bothering to learn? “You know,” I say, surprising myself, “it doesn’t take a lot of breath to paint.”
He turns to me, those tangled eyebrows knitted together in one questioning bird’s nest. He is nowhere near my meaning. Then he gets it. “You’d teach me to paint?” he says.
That’s what I must have meant. Just in case I didn’t, now I leave a little room for him to turn me down. “Would you like me to?”
A slow smile creeps across his bushy face. “I never thought of that, but sure, why not?”
Because there’s not a chance in hell you can ever do it well, I don’t tell him. Instead I say, “But for painting we’ll need daylight.”
“I think I could squeeze it into my busy morning schedule. But could we do it out here by the water just the same?”
Here? No. Of course not. Sand in the paint. Gawkers. Humiliation. Still I say, “I don’t see why not. After our coffee at Starbucks.” I’m letting myself in for torture, same as he must have with me. I’m way too old for this, for being some kind of a teacher. Way too cynical, way too jaded, way too everything to be teaching the abc’s of painting to an old coot. But the deal is done.
This man is grinning at me. A bouncy light is reflecting from a star off his tired eyes. He pulls a comb through the frizz of his head. He laughs loud and long. “Painting,” he shouts. Again, “Painting.” and laughs some more.
A stiff breeze has come up. The surf which had been curling onto the shore with a soft sound like whispers, is now coming in waves that flop onto the sand. It makes sharper slapping sounds ̶ like applause. Or it could be shouts. “Encore! Encore!” Maybe the surf is calling to me.
I take up the clarinet and try another chorus of “Sweet Sue.” I think I’m getting better.
Eventually each of us comes to recognize his or her unique life assignment. For Marty Marcus it has been to prove that every one of his myriad fears, up to and including death, could somehow be made light of (he even wrote a comic novel about the Great Depression, Hollywood Park). Influences: Romain Gary (The Dance of Ghengis Cohn), Bruce Jay Friedman (Stern), Hitchcock, Serling. Marcus has also written some mordant poems, essays and non-fiction books including one in which he admitted to “a heart the size of soda cracker.” Marcus’s wife/best friend, Sue, who does not have the same sense of humor ‒ although an excellent one nevertheless ‒ may be pleased to see herself noted here along with their four adult children, nine grandchildren and ageless dog, Rupert Jr. Marty and Sue Marcus live in Northfield, Illinois, a place on the map.