He wears a Greek fisherman’s cap, the kind John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie wore, and though you don’t know him, it suits him. He’s a salt-of-the-earth type entertainer, a people-meeter, friend-maker, and rambler who’s traveled all the train lines from Union Station, who has spent some time in Nashville and in Salinas though he’s no more than twenty-two or twenty-three years old. In fact, he’s playing This Land is Your Land, shouting lyrics over his shoulder, straining to see the faces of those gathered around this free piano, a public instrument that lives here, in one of “the last great train stations,” behind red velvet ropes. The audience is made up of those coming home from work or a trip, like you, who are prone to distraction, or pianists themselves waiting for their turn to play. The young troubadour’s hands bounce on the keys. The audience sings along. He meets each person’s gaze. He’s got a sideways smile you think you might recognize.
When he’s done playing, people pat his shoulder and thank him. He nods graciously, bends down to chat with them (he’s tall), but as he chats, he takes breaks to look at you. Then he walks directly to you, the way you’ve always wished someone would notice you in a crowd. The wish has been so quietly patient you forget it was there, until now.
“That was great,” you tell him.
He says, “Thanks, thanks,” so humbly, like you’re the one he wants to compliment. He asks why you’re at Union Station. You say you’re coming home from New Orleans. You don’t mention that you lingered longer than you usually would have to hear a musician because you’re in no rush to get home. Pointing upward, you comment on the acoustics of the space, but not on how when you left the train tunnels and entered the waiting room through those tall, Mission Revival arches you wished someone was there to meet you. How the terra-cotta and tiled floors, inlaid with Art Deco-style marble designs, and the huge bronze chandeliers suspended from vaulted-ceilings overwhelmed you with their beauty. You couldn’t help hoping or imagining someone waiting to have a drink with you at the bar, called Traxx, after your long journey. Unlike other old train stations, the passenger waiting room at Union Station is filled with wood and leather armchairs instead of pew-like benches that offer a sense of reverence and faith in tribute to the period between arriving and departing.
You ask the young troubadour where he’s coming from or going to. He says he was driving home from work but stopped to play this piano. His car is waiting in the short-term parking lot. For a moment, you both pause to listen as someone else plays the piano, a nervous woman. Clearly, it’s the song she can play best, as indicated not by her ability, but her refusal to be interrupted when the hand of a capricious homeless man slams down on the piano. She yells an obscenity at him and sends each following note out as a sharp little punch to the air. It spoils the mood. These things happen with instruments in public places, you say. Not everyone has their own grand piano. The troubadour explains that he does, though. He rents a studio apartment that has one, but there’s no one there to hear it played, so he visits this one and plays for the commuters.
As you talk, you see the young troubadour’s spell over you isn’t necessarily attached to the piano and can be followed elsewhere. He asks if he can buy you a drink and points to Traxx, the train station’s smart little bar. Wow, you think; it’s only been a few minutes, but he’s already read your mind. Or, maybe he was reading it before you arrived.
At the bar, he tells you he’s a folk singer, that he loves a once famous, old folk music venue that everyone else in LA has forgotten about, except him. He’s making a documentary about it. You tell him you like folk music. The only songs you can play on guitar are Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Leonard Cohen. For the entirety of your twenties, you were devoted to these ballads and this is still the music you like best. Talking about the hold music has on you, how you fear you’ll never know a person as resolutely as you know a song, is a problematic. If you start talking this way, you’ll reveal too much of yourself. But then, in this and other ways you don’t mean to, you do reveal yourself. You tell him you are a poet, you say something about poetry as social responsibility and art as a conveyor of love, the messenger-wire between yourself and the world. When he asks you what your favorite poem is, you use your phone to look it up, then read aloud “The Forms of Love” by George Oppen. Taking your phone into his hands, he reads and repeats the last few lines, committing them to memory, “It would have wet our feet, had it been water.” You wonder how he hears those lines.
Pausing to find the right words, you try to slow down; you want to be like the poem and unfold cautiously, but he interrupts your long pauses to say you look very beautiful when you gaze away, your ideas anchored somewhere his eyes can’t follow yours to. At this point, what you say doesn’t matter. Your words feel like shapes, like wooden blocks to clear out of the way. They are a sliver of some transcendent knowledge you and this stranger recognize in each other, like a memory split two ways.
Perhaps out of a nervousness sprouting from this new intimacy, you down the last of your wine. He asks if you want to return to the piano so he can play you a Leonard Cohen song. You to sit next to him on the bench. He starts to play “Hallelujah,” but forgets how it starts, so you sing the first few lyrics. Then you’re singing along together while he plays. People think you are lovers. How much more marvelous if they knew you’d just met.
After many rounds at the piano, including one accompanied by a construction worker who pulls out a harmonica, you and the young troubadour decide it’s time to give someone else their turn. You walk together to the front doors, ready to part ways. You look down at your cellphone, ready, or pretending to be ready, to call an Uber. But he stops you, offers to give you a ride home on the way to his. He is shy and the offer sounds more like an apology. You think about it for a minute, knowing how it would sound in the news the next day: “Woman Accepts Ride to Her Own Death from Marauding Folk Singer.”
You look at the troubadour who is tall and lumbering but has baby, peach-fuzz skin and hands you saw tremble when you sat close to him on the piano bench. You and he share a mutual friend, a fact you discovered earlier during drinks at the bar, but this is evidence of safety only for a foolish person. And, there’s flimsier evidence, still. You believe he is a version of yourself ten years younger. You trust your idealistic younger self because sometimes, it is who you still are.
When you mention you like jazz, he puts on the local jazz radio station in his Volvo station-wagon, which was probably his mom’s not long ago. He pulls up in front of your house and takes your bag from the trunk like a cab driver. You invite him to have a drink on your porch with you. You unlock the door, set the bag down, and pour two glasses of whiskey. It spills into crystal tumblers you got for your wedding. You’ve longed to pour a whiskey into them for a stranger. The record All Things Must Pass lays on your turntable by the front door. He must have noticed, because he picks up your guitar and plays a George Harrison song. You put the record on, turn up “My Sweet Lord” loud. He asks you to dance and kisses you softly, tentatively. You find it endearing, but he’s the one who’ll say again and again over the course of the night, “You’re so sweet.”
Later, you lay together on top of your bed, still clothed. He cups your cheeks with his big piano hands as you trace his brow with your fingers and say things like, “Where did you come from?” and other not insincere but unnecessary flattery you would have wanted to hear and believe when you were twenty-three years old.
You tell him how that morning you left New Orleans where you were celebrating your best friend’s bachelorette weekend with your other girlfriends. You describe what you ate there, where you stayed, and the live music you watched. You are tired, not from the train ride from LAX to the station, but from the flight before it. This is how you make your way towards home when landing at rush hour means no one wants to endure traffic to pick you up.
“New Orleans, the finest city in the world for music,” he says.
“Sure is,” you say.
What you do not mention is how New Orleans was also hard. How you were the first of your friends to get married and the first to get divorced. How one by one, you watched all your girlfriends marry, but instead of getting divorced, they got pregnant, and that your joy for them and soreness for yourself are somehow related, though you don’t understand why. One thing you believe is that everyone deserves to be happy, but to say their good fortune doesn’t deepen your own sorrow would be a lie. You say none of this to the troubadour, refusing to admit loneliness or shame, nor how you conjured him tonight through the magic of pure and practiced longing.
After lying on the bed, dozing and kissing for many hours, you say it’s time for him to go. At 4 a.m. you’re restless, travel weary, and don’t sleep as well as you used to with a stranger beside you. He says he’d like to play you a few songs first.
“I’d like that, too” you say.
The last one is Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” You sing along. You also know the chords by heart, can fingerpick it pretty good yourself.
You begin to see this whole night as a memory taking shape even as the real-time events sputter along. You imagine the way you will gather and recreate the night in snippets and images, like a dream you can’t explain to anyone, and how it will sustain you for a good while.
When the rooster crows at the break of dawn, you know well what you’re chasing, you’ve done it long enough so the night feels like a taciturn lover you no longer reach for. You are wise enough to recognize this feeling. You’re happy to replace the indentation of the young troubadour’s shape on your bed with your cat’s small curved body, then swallow a few aspirin, and fall asleep alone.
Rumpus original art by Dmitry Samarov.