Pittsburgh, 1948, The Music Teacher
I don’t know where my mother got him—
whose caricature he was—or how
he found me, to travel by streetcars
on Saturday mornings to the Negro
home, our two rooms and bath on Hornsby’s
second floor. His name was Professor
Something-or-Other Slavic, portly,
florid man, bald pate surrounded
by stringy, gray hair. Everything
about him was threadbare: wing collar,
string tie, French cuffs, cutaway coat.
His sausage fingers were grimy, his nails
dirty. I think, now, he was one of the War’s
Displaced Persons, who accepted with grace
coming to give violin lessons
to a 15-year-old alien boy
(displaced here myself from a continent,
from a country I couldn’t name,
and a defector from Alabama).
I was the debt he had to pay
on the short end of a Refugee’s desperate
wager, or prayer, to redeem the body
before the soul. I don’t know why
my mother didn’t give him
his paltry three dollars. I had to do it.
One morning he stood
at my side waving his bow
in time to my playing, swayed
once and crumpled to the kitchen
floor that she had made
spotless for him, taking
the music stand down.
I stood terrified until she
ran in and we helped him to his feet.
He finished my lesson in dignified shame,
and I knew, from pure intuition,
he had not eluded the hounds of hunger.
Outside of death camps I’d seen liberated
in newsreels and Life, it was the first time, I think,
I’d felt sorry for anyone white.
first published in Prairie Schooner, vol. 71, no. 3, Fall