The Saxophone Player
Laura dropped a basket of dirty laundry at my feet, right in the middle of our latest fight. It was, like most of our conflicts, about money, relatives, our sex life or lack of it, and division of housework. All of these. With soiled shorts and shirts separating us, she shook her finger at me, her face red. "Damn it, Richard, I’m overwhelmed. Help me out for once."
"For once? I do plenty around here."
In the kitchen, the baby cried while her brother, Noah, played with his fire engine and wailed like a siren.
Laura said, "I do ten times as much as you, damn it. I need help. Just take these damn clothes and put them in the washer."
"Stop giving me orders."
"You’re such a bastard," she screamed.
"If you feel that way, let’s get a divorce," I shouted and ran out of the house, leaving her with children and laundry. Though the afternoon was bitterly cold, I didn't even grab a jacket. Breathing hard, I walked fast, my mind churning. She was right about the housework, but my job as a personnel manager was so much more stressful than hers. And she had become so unpleasant and dissatisfied with me that I no longer wanted to help out.
A few blocks away, I encountered a grimy old man wearing a shabby overcoat and playing the saxophone. He stood on the corner of a park, a battered instrument case at his feet holding a scattering of coins and a few dollar bills. Though his worn shoes and patched trousers bespoke obvious poverty, the notes from his tarnished woodwind flowed without flaw and his eyes were bright. In my agitation I almost walked past him, but his soft, plaintive melody caught me and turned me around.
His white hair stood straight out, a halo around his head. A thick, white mustache covered the instrument’s mouthpiece as he played. I startled; that face belonged to the most famous intellect of the twentieth century. If he was who he seemed, crowds should have been gathering, reporters clamoring for interviews, but nobody recognized him as anything other than an old homeless man--no one, that is, except me.
I approached tentatively. He smiled and stared at his saxophone case. I threw in a couple of quarters.
"You need to be more generous," he said in his distinctive German accent.
I hesitated, still not willing to trust the evidence of my own eyes. "I wouldn’t think you, of all people, need money."
"That’s not the point. You need to be more generous. It’s your need, not mine."
Smirking at how everyone wants money, I took a dollar bill from my wallet. He wrinkled his nose and shook his head, making me feel stingy and embarrassed. I took out a ten and threw it into the case. Only then did he resume hauntingly sweet, impossibly perfect Hebraic melodies.
"I thought you were dead," I said.
He shrugged and continued playing.
"You died over sixty years ago."
"People always worry about time. The physicist knows that time is merely an illusion. But oh," he stopped to moisten the reed with his tongue, "oh, how persistent an illusion."
This was crazy. Fifteen minutes ago I screamed that Laura should call a divorce lawyer. Now I was talking to a ghost -- or an imposter. "This can’t be real. You don’t even play the sax. You play, or played, the violin."
He grinned. "Death changes people," he said, enunciating each syllable. "I blow horns now."
Passersby ignored us as a cold gust scattered scraps of paper. "Why doesn’t anyone else recognize you?"
"I’ve come for you." He resumed the ancient songs.
I shivered, not from the cold. "Me? Why should you care about me?"
"For one, I want to tell you that you’re too thin. You need to eat better."
A sudden, off-key squawk startled me. I laughed nervously. "You sound like my grandmother. How do you know my needs?"
He took the instrument from his mouth. "I know you, Richard Bernstein. At thirty-three you fear you’ve missed life’s opportunities. You despair of ever achieving meaningful occupation or marital serenity. Also, you’re constipated." He returned the horn to his lips.
I stood dumbfounded. "I’ve been too upset to eat well." I finally said, then shook my head in wonder. "What do you want from me?"
He looked at me, eyebrows raised. "I want to know what piece to play."
"Is that all? Well, ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ is always nice."
He laughed, eyes flashing. "That isn’t on the list. You must indicate if I need to play The Last Song, the call for the End of Days summoning Messiah the Prince."
For a moment, I couldn’t move or even breathe. "Are you Gabriel?"
He laughed out loud. "Definitely not. My former wives will tell you in detail how I was no angel during my latest lifetime."
"But why would you play The End of Days?"
"The world’s misery multiplies without end. Every second, some soul’s new anguish cries up to the heavens, and the Holy One, Blessed be He, can no longer bear his children’s torment."
"The Holy One? You mean God? But you’re an atheist."
The old man looked hurt. "When I said God doesn’t play dice with the universe, was not that a statement of religious faith?"
"But you never cared about being Jewish."
"I cared enough that Ben Gurion offered me the presidency of the State of Israel."
"And you refused."
"Yes, because I am--was--a citizen of the world before any nation." He smiled. "But it was nice to be asked."
"And now you’re a beggar?" I stood, mouth open, and stared at him.
He spoke with crisp Germanic consonants. "Death changes people. Physical matters have lost all relevancy. Also, old memories are returning."
"Yes. Memories of a whirlwind with two fiery horses drawing a fiery chariot to heaven." He picked up the horn, releasing music, uncanny music evoking memories of childhood and more. A young woman threw money into the case, but no one looked twice at him or me.
"And you’re going to blow the last trumpet on a saxophone? I don’t believe it."
"Of course not. He put down the woodwind and took a velvet sack from the case. "I’ll use this instead. You can look at, but don’t try to blow it."
The sack held a coal-black ram’s horn, polished and intricately inscribed with Hebrew letters. In spite of the cold, the instrument--a shofar--radiated heat and the aroma of warm oil. I shuddered, somehow knowing that human hands had not crafted this. "You’re serious."
"And I’m to help you decide?" He nodded. "Then don’t blow the damn thing. Don’t bring about the end of the world."
"But Messiah is supposed to bring a reign of peace and justice. People have prayed for Messiah’s coming for millennia."
"I know." I shook my head. "My children, they’ll never grow up. What will happen to my family? I don’t want a new world. I’m frightened."
The old man’s face was serious. "People often fear change, but voicing sentiments can not prevent the Call."
Now my stomach shivered. "What do I have to do?"
He started making passes in the air. Each movement of his hands left a swatch of color, like a painter using the air as a canvas. The picture of a man and a woman arguing appeared.
Laura and myself.
"The Master of the Universe can tolerate much pain, but there is a specific limit. With so much suffering in the world it seems strange that a minor incident like this could cross that limit, but, in fact, that is what happened."
The picture came to life. I heard and saw myself threatening Laura with a divorce and then storming out of the house. The old man looked at me expectantly.
My eyes went wide. "That crossed the limit?"
I shuddered. "Well, what do you want me to do?"
"It isn’t what I want. My instructions are clear. If that last misery isn’t nullified, I’m to blow the ram’s horn."
"And I’m to nullify it? Okay, then. I’ll..." I hesitated. "I’ll go back and apologize to my wife."
The side of his lip flickered in a half sneer, half smile. "That won’t work. A forced apology will aggravate your insecurity and make you more be resentful. She’ll be only partially mollified, and another fight will break out."
"Then what do I have to do?"
"Where should I go? I have a well-paying job here, and I think Laura would be even more unhappy if I ran away. I know I would."
He chuckled, his eyes gleaming. "I don’t mean another place. I mean another universe."
I panicked. "Do you mean suicide?"
"No, no. That’s a sin. No, to prevent the call of the shofar, you’ll have to come with me. I can’t describe it more." He took the ram’s horn from me and moistened the tip with his lips.
"But if I disappear my wife and children will be miserable."
"You think so?" He put down the shofar and again drew pictures in the air. I saw Laura snuggled into the arm of my best friend, Harold, while the children played quietly nearby. I hadn’t seen them all so happy in ages. It broke my heart.
One more try. "Why should I leave? She has created just as much unhappiness. Why not take her?"
That intelligent face stared at me. "I’ve come for you, not her. Her responsibility is not your concern."
My mind raced. The old man stared at me, then picked up the shofar and moistened it again with his tongue. I knew somehow that this nightmare was no dream.
"No! Stop! I’ll do whatever you want," I cried.
He took the ram’s horn from his lips.
My shoulders sagged. "Just don’t blow the horn."
The old man packed the ram’s horn and saxophone back into the case, and took my hand. Together, we jumped from the curb into the street.
We never made it.
How can I describe what followed? My body had disappeared, yet I heard without ears the same sweet, haunting melodies he had played earlier. Without eyes, I perceived a vista of indescribable shapes. "Where are we?"
"We’re on the asphalt directly below our bodies, which are still jumping off the curb."
"That depends on your viewpoint. Time and space are relative. Now, look up."
Above, floated a huge flock of iridescent oblongs bumping into one another.
"Do you know what those are?" the old man asked.
I stared, mesmerized by their beauty, and shook my non-existent head. "They’re exquisite."
He laughed. "Yes, they generally are. Lakes, ice crystals, and even individual particles like these are marvels to behold, if only people would expend the effort to do so."
"I don’t understand."
"These are water molecules in a dewdrop on the street." His grin returned. "Let’s go closer. "
We flew to one of the molecules, two smaller atoms flanking a third -- H20 -- and inside to the oxygen atom. The nucleus sparkled with tiny iridescent spots on the surface, and larger brighter spots streaming away.
He must have sensed my puzzlement. "Scientists call those spots gluons and gravitons."
"Yes, but to actually see them…"
He metaphorically touched my shoulder. "Now look down."
I obeyed. Just below lay a shimmering haze, everywhere and nowhere at the same time, radiating colors I had never before imagined. "And that is?"
"It's overwhelming. How can such a tiny particle be so marvelous?"
"Ah. We are in luck," he said, ignoring my question. "A rare occurrence draws near." A second shimmering haze, somehow opposite to the first, approached. Ever so slowly, the two shapes touched, then vanished in a radiant explosion of indescribable loveliness. "Mutual annihilation of electron and positron, releasing energy equal to the mass times the speed of light squared." Pride tinged the German accent that persisted even here. "Angels understand this, but I was the first human to calculate the quantities of energy involved."
The display of wonders continued as we plunged deeper into the microcosm. He showed me neutrinos, quarks in their bags of three, strings, membranes and particles as yet totally undreamed by people, particles for units of time and space, magnetism, and even -- to my amazement -- intelligence, each particle in turn comprised of subparticles, unlimited division in front of me, incomparable magnificence all within a commonplace drop of water in the street.
"Is there no end?"
"None. All is in its essence the same--call it energy, ether, creation bricks, or what you will--but the pattern is infinitely complex. The deeper one delves, the more one finds, like magnifying the never-ending pattern of a Mandelbrot fractal. Each particle contains a universe, and the entire cosmos visible to humanity is only a particle in a larger existence."
A thrill went through my non-existent body and I shivered, stimulated beyond imagination by this pageant. I sensed his smile as I stared, entranced, at one marvel after another, unlimited resplendence in this insignificant corner of the ‘real’ world. "This is gorgeous. I never dreamed so much beauty could exist." The parade of wonders continued. "And to think I fretted over who would do the laundry."
He looked at me slyly. "Is this beauty also present in the macro world where you live?"
I hesitated. "I don’t know." Then I realized why he had brought me here. "Of course. Our world is made up of these flawless particles. The beauty is everywhere. I just never realized it before "
"You guess you couldn’t recognize it before because your ego got in the way."
"Exactly! I’ve been worrying so much about myself that I couldn’t see the world I was in."
"How about the selfishness of your wife?"
My mind whirled. "Meaningless. She and I are both patterns of energy in the universe. You said time was an illusion. Fighting is another illusion because we are both parts of a larger whole."
"Part of God?"
"God, higher power, whatever you want to call it. It seems so obvious now. Had I understood this earlier, I wouldn't have fought with her."
Everything vanished, and I remained alone within nothingness. A voice said, "You still can change. When you realize you and Laura are part of a whole, then you can obey the commandment to love your fellow as yourself."
"It can’t be that easy."
"With the proper perspective, it can. To the cosmos, you are like a sub-atomic particle is to you."
I considered that. "It's like magic. I couldn’t have understood this without help."
A laugh. "You’re an excellent student. It is never too late for repentance and the gates of prayer are always open." His words echoed in my mind as even the nothingness faded away...
Laura dropped a basket of dirty laundry between us, right in the middle of our latest fight. "It’s not that much work. You can help me out for once," she demanded angrily.
"For once? I do plenty around here."
"I do ten times as much as you. Damn it, I need help. Just take these damn clothes and put them in the washer."
"You always tell me what to do."
Laura screamed, "You’re such a bastard."
I turned towards the front door, thinking, if you feel that way why not get a divorce. Before I could speak, the room grew dark and started to spin, and Laura and the sounds from the children withdrew at a frightening rate. Deja vu, as if watching for the second time a film clip, though now with changes in the script. I saw our house full of misery. If I stormed out now, the misery would be more than The Holy One, Blessed be He, could endure.
Why was I thinking in religious terms?
Laura’s hands on my shoulders and her panicked voice brought me back to reality. "Richard, you’re pale. Are you okay?"
I steadied myself and looked at her, studying her worried looking face. "You care," I said with surprise.
Tears streamed from her eyes. "Of course, I care. You’re my husband."
"Lately, you sound so angry at me."
She sobbed. "Lately, you’re such an inconsiderate shit."
"Do you really think I’m a shit?"
"Yes!" she shouted, and then, shoulders drooping, seemed to implode. "No. You’re not, but you leave me with so much work. I get tired and you won’t help. I never have a free moment."
"I’m stressed out at work. I get tired too and, well, there hasn’t been much warmth between us lately. I don’t know what the answer is."
She looked at the laundry basket. "Maybe dirty clothes," she said bitterly.
"Well, sometimes rest may be more important than fresh laundry. I don’t know." I gulped. "I’ve been fighting you so hard I’ve forgotten what I want for myself."
She laughed, but the sound was bitter. "I have too."
"Let me go out for a few minutes to clear my head. I’ll take the kids, and that way you can have some time for yourself and maybe take a quick nap. When I come back we can work on this."
The tears had stopped. She stared at me with suspicious eyes. "You look different."
I closed my eyes and tried to focus my thoughts. "I feel different. I can't explain it."
"Those are easy words to say."
" I’m not trying to convince you, but something’s changed."
"Should I take you to the doctor?"
I spoke with conviction. "No. There is nothing to be afraid of. Beauty is everywhere. We just don't realize it." I shook my head. Hadn't I said those same words a few minutes ago?
Her expression softened. "Maybe I need to realize it also. Take Noah, but leave the baby with me. When she’s colicky like this, snuggling her against my tummy is the best thing to calm her down. She and I will take a nap together. Lord knows I need it."
I hugged her gently, grabbed a jacket and walked out with my son. A brisk breeze felt invigorating. The sun warmed my face. We approached a park where children ran, laughing and screaming with infectious vitality. I smiled. I didn’t know what would happen with Laura and me or with anything else, but some inner conviction assured me it would be better than what had gone before.
I was about to walk with Noah into the park when he pulled my hand. "Look, Daddy. The man’s making music." A few feet away stood an old man in a shabby coat playing a Sousa march on the saxophone. Face red, he blew fiercely into the horn but, whether from intoxication or simply from the frigid cold, kept hitting sour notes. His dirty face, ringed with a corona of white hair, looked familiar. Without question I had seen him before though I couldn’t place him. I threw a ten-dollar bill into his case. He smiled and said, in a distinctive German accent, "Thank you."
He’s just another homeless person, but I can’t stop thinking about him. He makes me hear uncanny, lovely music and, when I close my eyes, I see celestial spheres.
Revised Dec 2017
BACK TO ZVI'S FICTION PAGE