Upon entering, he will be shown to that table in the center of the room, the one with the single red carnation in a cut-glass vase. It is a small table, which seats only one, and it is permanently reserved for him by the management. No one else is allowed to sit there. Should the doorman and the maître d' seem a trifle officious in greeting him, you will perhaps understand why he is treated with such respect.
In addition to the honor of serving as his hosts, the owners profit considerably by his presence. On evenings such as this, the café is filled to capacity with customers who have come here primarily in hope of catching a glimpse of the old musician.
For many years now he has not been well. He walks with a slight limp, leaning on an ebony cane. Due to this infirmity, he might be found here only once or twice a week, and some weeks not at all. No one ever knows when he will appear. Since the chances of seeing him are few and unpredictable, his admirers must frequent the café each evening, night after night, rather than miss a single occasion when he might decide to show up.
Once he makes his entrance, and the maître d' has shown him to his place, the manager steps forward to welcome him and to proffer an elaborately carved chest containing rare Havana cigars. These he always declines, with a polite nod. Then the drinks begin to arrive at his table. Of course, the bartenders would willingly serve him any drink he might desire, but by long-established custom, such acts of tribute are now left to his admirers.
Throughout the evening they place their orders, and the waiters ceremoniously carry the drinks to his table and place them before him. Some evenings he sits for hours before noticing these offerings. Occasionally he might reach out with one frail, incredibly delicate hand, and take a sip from this or that tall glass that has caught his fancy. Only a sip, nothing more.
Perhaps once or twice a night, if the taste pleases him, he might look up, and nod. Elsewhere in the crowded room, the fortunate admirer who ordered that particular drink, and who has been watching intently all the while, will nod back with equal gravity. (It is considered ill-mannered to wave, though I have known this to happen, always to the disapproving glances of the others.) The one who sent the drink will turn triumphantly to his companions, and will certainly command their attention for the rest of the evening.
The old musician never knows who sent a particular drink, or any of the dozens of drinks that are set before him, but his manners are superb, and if a drink truly pleases him, he will invariably nod toward the sea of faces surrounding him. As the evening progresses the table becomes completely covered with glasses of all sizes and shapes. Sometimes the maître d' sets a second table alongside, with a starched white tablecloth, to hold the overflow.
The drinks are elaborate, in tall frosted glasses, containing all manner of exotic fruits and liqueurs. Sometimes, depending on where you are seated, the old musician is barely visible behind this forest of frosted, glittering columns. Occasionally one catches a glimpse of him refracted by cylinders of emerald and saffron and violet. He may seem momentarily shadowy and distorted, but it is still unmistakably his face, inscrutable and calm, the face of the old musician.
Such courtesies are sincere but unavailing, of course, since he no longer performs. Those who have been coming here for many years still recall the evenings, long ago, and immediately after his retirement, when he would enter the café at midnight in the company of two or three beautiful women. He would sometimes play a selection or two, for the delight of the customers. But those times are past. The management keeps the stage in readiness, and the instrument tuned and polished, and under a red velvet cover, should he change his mind. But few believe he will ever play again.
Even so, there is no way of determining that he will not, and thus there is still hope. Imagine our surprise, now that we have come this far, if we were to see him walking stiffly toward the stage and the shrouded instrument. Would it not be incredible, the excitement that would surge through the crowd? Would it not be profound, the great hush that would come over the faithful? This must be why they continue to come, night after night, and gather around their tables, watching him carefully, hoping for the impossible, the unimaginable.
Certainly it is enough, more than enough, simply to see the old musician sitting there in his accustomed place. To know that before you, so serene and so calm, is the individual responsible for creating the music that has swept the world, that many consider to have changed the very course of history.
To realize this is genuinely moving. Should he arrive tonight, see for yourself if you are not thrilled by his presence, and by the sight of his round, owlish face, and the nimbus of soft, gray hair, and the delicate hands resting on the white tablecloth.
A person of your discernment and taste is well aware, of course, of the significance of the music. None of us would pretend to understand it, much less attempt to perform it as it should be performed – as he performed it, years ago. We know that no one else has ever been able to give the music its proper range of expression and feeling, so infinitely complex and at the same time so hauntingly simple and melodic.
No one has ever played the music as well as the old musician himself, at the height of his performing career. Were it not for the few recordings from those days, we should be lost altogether. And when he is gone, they will be all that we have.
For my part, I am not sure they will be enough. Perhaps the soaring spirit and evocative power of the music will be lost forever with his passing. Listen to the young musicians, up on the stage at this very moment, the ones who take turns bending over the second instrument, the less expensive one the management provides for them. How insensitively they bang away! How cacophonous, how unpleasant to the ears, how repellent to the soul!
Unfortunately, they, too, are part of the evening’s entertainment, by a tradition of long standing. Though nearly everyone else in the room is repelled by their incompetence, the old musician has never shown that they bother him in the least. Accordingly, their presence is grudgingly tolerated by the management, and to a lesser degree by the old musician’s admirers.
Thus the young musicians are here, too, scattered throughout the audience, usually seated at the least expensive tables near the door to the kitchen, or next to the rest rooms. Clutching their manuscripts, hoping for a chance at the instrument, some have come from hundreds of miles away, even from other countries, to present their achievements in the master’s presence.
Would you believe it? Simply to appear in this café is considered to be equal to performing in the greatest concert halls of Europe and North America. To receive a nod from the old musician, as incredible as that might seem, would assure a young musician’s career for life.
For the prominent critics and reviewers are all here as well, taking notes and slyly observing each other. They could not afford to miss a single evening. And the journalists are here, too, staying close to the telephones backstage, waiting for the slightest sign that the old musician has noticed one of the performers. Due to the nature of the music, there is simply no other way to determine whether a particular young musician is good or bad, talented or amateurish, unless the old musician should happen to give some sort of indication.
Strangely, he rarely turns toward the stage, and has not been known to notice a single performer for many years now. The last person to whom he nodded went on to become the toast of London, Paris, and New York, and is already beginning to speak of retirement.
In the opinion of many, that particular individual reached her peak the night she was here, with the old musician in attendance. After that, she should not have been permitted on stage again. Despite the years spent practicing and perfecting her art, she has never approached the mastery with which the old musician himself played as a matter of course.
Ah, but they are all ambitious and hopeful, these young musicians, and so the stage is usually as crowded as the tables. Everyone waits expectantly, and no one really listens to the performers, who thrash about, struggling for control of the instrument. The true center of the room is the table where the old musician sits, entirely surrounded by his admirers.
They wait now, just as you and I are waiting, in the hope that he might appear tonight. Lately his visits have become even more infrequent than in the past. But even the waiting is not without its rewards. It is terribly exciting to contemplate what we might yet experience before the night is out. That he might actually agree to perform is beyond comprehension; but consider the rapture that would engulf the crowd if he should even deign to smile.
We know that during his greatest period he wore diamond rings on each finger, while his cuffs and shirtfronts were studded with gems and precious stones. He glittered like a star of the first magnitude. Many scholars believe this to have been a correlative of the nature of his music. But as he progressed in the perfection of his art, such external displays no longer interested him. Less concerned with outward appearance, he began to appear in public in more informal attire. If he comes to the café this evening, his dress will be unassuming.
Yet he is still the old musician, without question, and we know in our hearts that he has not changed. Historians record that in his days of triumph, when statesmen and financiers pulled his carriage through the streets, and debutantes and dowagers drank champagne from his slippers, he arranged to have his front teeth set with flawless diamonds. Many believe he has them yet. If someone on stage were to play something sufficiently acceptable, or even if a new drink were to please him, perhaps he would smile, and then we would know.
Imagine! The crowd would gasp, staggered by his brilliant visage! Reporters backstage would fight over the telephones, newspapers would stop their presses! Extra editions would be rushed to the chambers of kings and queens and presidents around the world! The old musician has smiled!
And yet to my knowledge he has smiled even less frequently than he has played during the last ten or twenty years. I have met a few extraordinarily privileged persons who have actually heard him perform, but no one within memory has ever seen him smile. This possibility too, then, is part of his mysterious charm, and reason enough to come here, night after night, to see if he will appear.
There is always excitement in the air, as long as he sits at his little table, surrounded by the faithful, engulfed by meretricious imitations of his music, refracted by the forest of variegated drinks. There is always the hope, as long as he returns to us, and we continue to believe, that everything is not lost.
There are scoffers, of course, but they are few, and no one pays them much attention. A year or two ago a drunken sailor wandered into the café when the old musician was already seated at his table. The sailor became unruly, and before the management could throw him out, this vulgar personage had the impertinence to insist, in a loud voice, that he had seen the old musician before, many times, playing for beer and cigarettes in a bar on the waterfront.
“A toothless old stumblebum!” he shouted, as they pitched him into the gutter, accompanied by hoots and guffaws from the old musician’s admirers. Everyone knew it could not be so. It could not possibly be so, because he is the old musician.
A common bond unites us, then. Whatever happens, we commune with the old musician and with the spirit of his music. It is said that he sips a drink only once or twice an evening because he has no need of worldly intoxication. His entire existence is one of pure and heightened sensitivity, and his very presence conveys this serenity to those who cherish him most.
This sense of tranquility and peace can be yours, too, if you will allow yourself to become receptive to his presence. Should he arrive tonight, observe him carefully, do not let him out of your sight. Give him your utmost attention. Let nothing else distract you, even if all you can see is a pale, watery face suspended in the depths of crystal, among the layers of blue and green and gold.
What do you say to buying him a drink? We might have enough money between us for one small glass. The odds will be against us, of course, but sometimes he is quite whimsical about those he decides to sample, passing up enormously expensive concoctions for one or two simple, unpretentious offerings.
It will not be long now. Can you sense the rising expectancy of the crowd? It is a sign. He is certainly not far away. No doubt he is only a few doors down the street, tapping along the sidewalk with his cane. I can almost hear him! Yes, yes, I am sure of it – at any moment he will be among us!
First published in Bohème Magazine, April 2005.