Flute Lesson by Kevin Spaide



Every morning I hopped on my bicycle and rode into town, crossed the river, and rode out the other side of town, past the racecourse, past the new Toy Town complex, past the cemetery with all its stubby black tombstones and forgotten lives. I’d taken a job out there shoveling horse manure into compost heaps at a small government-subsidized farm. The sole purpose of the farm was to knock fourteen names off the unemployment register. We grew potatoes, beans, carrots, parsnips, some other things, then we ate them ourselves. That was satisfying. There were some chickens scrabbling around, foraging for grubs. Now and again we sold a few eggs to the hippies who lived in a campervan on top of the hill.


Horse manure is easy to work with. It’s dry and compact enough that you can pick it up with your bare hand and not get very dirty, and, as far as shit goes, it has an almost pleasant smell. Five hours a day I stood in piles of horse shit, squelching around in rubber boots, mixing the shit in with vegetable matter, one layer of shit, one layer of vegetable matter. I really liked it. I was outside, and I liked learning about things which had no bearing on my life. (For example, the inside of a compost heap gets so hot as it decomposes that you can actually slow-roast a chicken in there, provided you have a few days.) Also, the boss was lenient. That was important. He didn’t care if you loafed. He never shouted, never barked orders, never even really looked at me. He never said things like, “Can I have a quick word with you?” or “Is that alcohol I smell on your breath?” You could show up an hour late and not get reamed out. You could lean on your shovel for an hour and talk shit instead of shoveling it, but I kept at a steady rate of shoveling. It made the day go by. On rainy days I sat in the tearoom and read the newspaper, drank tea, listened to the others tell stories about how they had to punch a goat in the face one night, or how there was an angry badger in the barn last Thursday, or what’s the best way to deliver your own children without anybody from the hospital getting involved. Mostly it was fine. On Friday’s I signed my paycheck in the bank smelling like a horse’s ass, but I felt clean and easy about my life.


I was in exactly this state of mind when I came home from work one night and found Carl giving a flute lesson to a Japanese woman. This was back when we were still living in the cottage on Holborne Street. It was a happy time in my life, and I knew it. Nothing was complicated yet. Carl was one of the few people I’d ever known whom I didn’t mind seeing everyday. If it hadn’t been for the fact that we were killing ourselves with booze in that house I could have gone on living there for years, riding my bicycle back and forth to the compost heap, forgoing all my stupid hopes and dreams.


As usual he was plastered to the stratosphere. The Japanese woman, his occasional student, looked confused but eager. She held her flute across her lap, gripping it like a police baton, perhaps ready to strike him if he came too close. There was a rigid smile on her face. If there were another Japanese person in the room she might have leaned over and whispered something in Japanese, trying not to move her lips too much, not taking her eyes off Carl for one second. But she was on her own, far from home, and Carl was beseeching her from the corner with a little glass of vodka. His eyes were smaller than usual and bloodshot. He had obviously been drinking all afternoon. Maybe it had started at breakfast. The Japanese woman managed a polite sip of vodka.


None of this surprised me. Nothing short of a dead man sitting at the kitchen table, listening to the radio, could have surprised me in that room. Or maybe a fire. Carl had a somewhat cavalier attitude when it came to fire, so I was always on the lookout.


I said hello and set down my bag. Then I sat on the edge of the sofa and took my boots off and massaged my feet like nothing goofy was going on. The Japanese woman was sending me eye-messages, inviting me to help her somehow, but honestly there was nothing I could do for her. She’d gotten herself into this fiasco, she could get herself out. Of course she was in no danger – aside from the usual risks associated with being in a room with a drunk person. Maybe the next time Carl lit a cigarette the house would explode because he’d forgotten to turn off the gas. Maybe he would stumble into her lap, break her flute. If you thought about it, any number of hair-raising little incidents were possible.


Something moved in the corner. I hadn’t seen quite everything in the room. There was a pile of coats over there in a chair. The coats belonged to no one and no one ever sat in that chair except for one person, and I saw now that one of the coats, the filthiest, most ragged-awful coat of the bunch, contained that person. It was this guy called Tully who seemed to exist in some relation to Carl which I could never fathom. They were often together, though Carl obviously despised Tully, and Tully was usually asleep. All I knew was that they were from the same part of Belfast and knew some of the same people there. They hadn’t known each other there, though. They’d met here, in town. Sometimes I got the feeling that Tully knew something about Carl and unless Carl tolerated his presence he would tell everyone Carl’s secret. Carl let him sit in the house and watch TV or cook something to eat. He brought his own food, usually potatoes and cabbage, sometimes a packet of greasy little sausages which filled the house with blue smoke when he fried them. We had a huge sack of potatoes from the farm, but he kept bringing potatoes from the supermarket. After he ate he slept in the chair. He always got up after a few hours and went away, lucky for us. Who knows, maybe he had other houses like ours and drifted from corner to corner, chair to chair, and this was how he lived his life.


Without any warning Carl picked up his flute and started playing. His face turned red and then purple as he scrunched his neck into the flute and filled it with his breath. The Japanese woman positioned her flute at her lips in a straight-backed pose of classical elegance, flaunting the wondrous beauty of her arms as if she were struggling to teach Carl how to hold his damned instrument, then she began to play along, tapping her fingertips over the holes and blowing timidly into the aperture of the flute. She had beautiful hands with long, slender fingers the color of cream. Looking at them made me want to touch them. Carl’s hands were gnarled and palsied-looking. They didn’t look like the hands of a flute player (he worked on an oyster farm) but he was masterful with the thing. The Japanese woman played silently. You could only hear Carl. This was the lesson.


I sat on the sofa and listened, wishing I knew how to do something, anything, as well as Carl played that flute. But I didn’t know anything. No one would ever ask me to teach them something beautiful. For a moment I was angry and jealous of Carl who drank vodka all morning and smoked forty cigarettes a day and yet could still wow a Japanese woman in this way, by doing something no one else knew how to do, and, yes, a Japanese woman with beautiful hands and beautiful lips and dark watchful eyes. I sat on the edge of the sofa smelling like horse shit.


I went upstairs and took a shower. There was no door on the bathroom because Carl had removed it the first week, claiming he feared shutting himself into such a tiny room. (“How’s that for crazy!” he’d said as he heaved the door into a shed behind the house.) I could still hear the flute over the noise of the shower. Long strands of Carl’s hair clogged the drain, causing the plastic basin to fill up and almost overflow. I had to turn the water off for a minute to let it empty out. Even then, shivering in the cold air, listening to the flute, wondering about the Japanese woman, scrubbing the shit out from under my fingernails, sloshing around in the yellow water, I was aware of a sense of privilege. I was free. Yes, this is what it was to be free. I was 27.


When I stepped out of the shower Tully was sitting on the toilet. He chuckled at my nakedness.


“I’ve seen bigger dicks on head lice,” he said.


“Get the fuck out of here,” I said.


Tully was an old man. It was obvious that no one loved him and he’d be dead soon. I just hoped he didn’t die in our corner. He pulled up his pants and trudged out of the room and down the stairs. I looked in the toilet but there was nothing there. I flushed it anyway.


I dressed with the idea of going out in search of a woman I was always looking for, an art student with whom I’d allowed myself to become infatuated almost to the point of insanity. I put on the appropriate clothes, the clothes of a fool: midnight blue corduroy trousers with a green patch on one knee, an old purple sweater with frayed cuffs, a pair of dark boots. The sweater hung correctly. Wearing it made me feel good. I was sure that people would like me better in a sweater like this, and maybe I finally stood a chance with the art student who seemed, really, to hate me.


When I came downstairs Carl was sitting in his chair reading the newspaper, one leg tossed over the other, foot dangling. Tully was gone. The Japanese woman was over by the door now, her flute across her lap again. If someone had come in and tapped her on the shoulder she probably would have shattered. A teacup wobbled in her hand. When she touched it to her lip, her entire body seemed to tense up as if she were fighting a powerful force that wanted to suck her into the cup. Her eyes stared over the brim. She was watching Carl who was not paying the slightest bit of attention to her. Then she was looking for somewhere to set the cup down, so I shoved the kitchen table toward her. That’s the kind of house it was. We didn’t have a separate kitchen, and the table was a loose fixture that traveled around the room. There was a horrendous noise as it scraped across the stone floor.


Carl raised an eyebrow behind his newspaper. It sat there for a moment on top of the page like a fuzzy brown caterpillar.


“We’re taking a little break,” he informed me.


“Good,” I said.


The Japanese woman nodded enthusiastically, reaching out for her cup of tea. She’d set it down maybe four and a half seconds earlier. Yes, it was break time, time to drink tea. The banner headline on Carl’s newspaper stated: Local Woman Falls Prey to Burn Unit Negligence. I recognized the smiling woman in the picture. She looked healthy and happy, in the prime of life – my God, what had happened to this poor woman? I leaned forward and tried reading the article, but Carl folded the paper suddenly and pitched it into the fireplace.


“Rubbish!” he said. Then he started to badmouth Tully.


“Did you notice that coat he was wearing? He lives in that thing. I tell you, it has an address and a fucking gas meter. What are we going to do?”


“I don’t know.”


“Maybe we should call the police.”


“What? Because of Tully’s coat?”


“An anonymous call. From a public phone.”


“I don’t think that’d be a very good idea.”


He stared at me for a moment before saying, “No, you’re probably right, you’re probably right.” He crinkled his forehead and lit a cigarette. The Japanese woman sipped her tea like someone doing something she didn’t understand.


For reasons which were not entirely clear to me, Carl trusted me a great deal. If I told him something was wrong he believed me and he dropped the subject. It was an odd, unbalanced friendship. We influenced each other in various ways, but the dynamics were screwy. Usually Carl appeared very strong to me, really a one-of-a-kind person, but then he said something totally crazy and I told him it was crazy and he agreed with me, sometimes going so far as to thank me for protecting him from himself. Then I felt strong, but the truth was that I had never protected him from himself. I just told him what I thought.


I wondered about his other friends. Were they all a bunch of knaves and knife merchants? Did they talk nothing but total bullshit all the time? Why was he so willing to listen to me when he was so unwilling to trust anyone else? These were the questions I asked myself but which I never asked Carl. I would have been too embarrassed to talk of matters of honesty and trust.


Also, I didn’t want to ruin things. We were doing well. Or I was, anyway. Living with Carl, anything could happen. He was generous, and I had a talent for recognizing weird forms of generosity. He never said, “Mind not coming home after work because I’m giving a flute lesson, drunk, to a beautiful Japanese woman?” No, he never mentioned it. When I barged in smelling of horse shit, he said, “You should learn to play the flute. Pull up a chair.” So I did. I had no intention of learning to play the flute (as envious as I was) but I loved walking in on something like that, something so bizarre it probably wasn’t happening anywhere else on the planet. Most people I knew would have found it intolerable.


I made myself a cheese sandwich and a cup of tea and sat down beside the Japanese woman, letting my hair dry before going out in search of the woman who hated me. They resumed their lesson. Sometimes Carl would stop playing to explain something. The positioning of the fingers for a certain note, or some little trick of the trade that got you through an otherwise rough bit of song. Even drunk out of his mind on vodka he was exceedingly patient and sane. Against all reasonable expectation he was a good teacher. He stuck with her until she got it. And he didn’t ask for money. He was just doing it for the hell of it, because he could. If money were involved he’d have to show a level of responsibility he found off-putting. His student looked grateful, if slightly bewildered.


They played for a while. Then, in mid-song, Carl stood and marched up the stairs, still playing. It looked as if the flute were rising on its own and he was being pulled along behind it like someone under a spell. He played all the way up the stairs. You could hear him for a while in the bathroom. He often used the shower stall as an echo chamber. He played the flute in the shower to get a better sound, to hear things differently.


Then the music stopped, and we heard the bed springs creak over our heads as he eased himself into bed. That was it. Lesson over.


Under a full yellow moon I walked into town with the Japanese woman who told me in very bad English a little about her country. She said she liked my sweater, and I stopped thinking about the art student long enough to look at her hooded eyes. She smiled. But, no, there was nothing there for me. Nothing more than polite disinterest, if not boredom.




© 2005-2009 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas

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Kevin Spaide