For the rest of his life, he would date each folly, each stumble, each failure to that afternoon when his D string popped—as if it had been snapped not by the tip of his tortoise shell pick, but by Athos herself. A severance by the Fates. An intervention. The D string on a mandolin was thick, tight-wound bronze and forged steel. An A string, an E string on the instrument might break simply by tightening too far without stretching. Those popped like hot rice. But he had never broken a D string, that length too thick, the whisking of a fingernail along it like the sound of zipping a zipper, a cicada in the hot summer trees.
That day he was to rehearse with the Saturday Night Live band. Dream gig. After years of touring with bands that came together and then broke up, it would be him, on television. He’d played a weekend wedding with a fiddler in the band who’d talked him up to the producers. It was a break among breaks. The pay wasn’t excessive but it was pay – enough to hit his rent on South Elliott Street in Fort Greene, an apartment he could barely afford. The exposure would be priceless. Fame was a train that arrived on no timetable, its stop a station you had to hang around for weeks, months, years— waiting. He could hear the brakes screeching on the platform.
Fame was a train that arrived on no timetable, its stop a station you had to hang around for weeks, months, years— waiting.
But in a drawer full of A and E’s he had no spare D strings and it was a half-hour subway ride into Midtown from his Brooklyn one-bedroom and the good news was that mandolins had doubled strings, two of each, and there wasn’t time to keep searching. He packed his instrument up. His Gibson F-5. It had cost him seven hundred dollars, the last of the money he’d saved from his last job. It was the instrument: f-holes, signed on July 13, 1923 by Lloyd Loar himself, the luthier who had changed the instrument and the course of American music forever. Chuck Berry said he’d listened to Bill Monroe playing mandolin and tried to replicate its sound on guitar and that’s where rock music came from—from the mandolin. This mandolin. He packed it up in its case. He’d just bought a cassette Walkman, first of its kind, and he put in a tape and put on the headphones with their fuzzy foam covers for each ear, and drowned out the world.
The entrance to the Flatbush D-train was slick with early winter rain. He had no token so he hopped the turnstile, mandolin case slamming against his leg. In his ears guitars and mandolins of Tony Rice and Norman Blake playing “Whiskey Before Breakfast.” In his hand, his mando. On the walls of the train inscrutable squiggles of Basquiat graffiti. “Fuck Regan.” Reagan crossed out and in red: “You.” Dappled airbrushed swaths of pink, of gold and mustard yellow. He put the case down between his legs, under his subway seat, the mandolin inside with its seven strings—what was a mandolin with seven strings? Two A’s, two E’s, two G’s, and a single D string that no one in the band would notice but him. His forehead felt hot and his hands sweaty and he concentrated on the Fuck in “Fuck Regan.” Fuck Reagan indeed. Next to it in pen: “Its spelt Reagan fool.” He peered in closer and next to it, smaller, in black: “I’d Fuck Mondale.” The Mondale crossed out so it said: “Geraldine.” He’d voted for the two of them. The guitar was in his ear on his Walkman, when out of the corner of his eye he saw it scurry over: a rat. It stopped right next to the wall with the graffiti. No other human on the subway car, just him and this rat, a piece of pink sandwich meat between its front paws. Nose all atwitch. Tail long and wound like a D string. He felt the train lurch and the rat was coming toward him now and they were there, and he hopped off the train.
The doors closed.
Inside, under the seat, his mandolin in its case.
In every dream he was thrust back to that moment: the rat, Fuck Reagan, the case, the doors closing. In the shop down on Bleeker where he emptied his savings for a shitty brand new A-style mandolin. That case. In the station, trying to find out where that train ended and where he might find that Lloyd Loar 1923 Gibson F-5 he’d paid seven hundred dollars for. At the audition for the television show where only two members of the band were still around by the time he arrived, sweaty and shaken, the tinsel sound of those cheap strings cut through nothing, the fiddler who had gotten him the gig looking up at the ceiling, down at his feet.
He had owned it. He did not own it any longer.
Two years at Columbia Teachers College to get a job teaching tone-deaf high school students to play piano, or play bass. The day the Walkman ate every inch of that old Blake/Rice tape, their singing voices elongating into Dali nightmare bass tones as the tape inside melted. Shredded. Every minute of the 1986 World Series when his Mets won but under it all, under his skin, under his mind the doors closing on that D train. His mandolin in its case, under the seat.
The 1990’s arrived.
The 1990’s passed.
People did not listen to bluegrass music anymore anyway.
He was on Staten Island. Summer 2003. People had begun listening to bluegrass music again after the soundtrack of a famous movie made it famous again. The train had arrived at a station in Nashville. He was not in Nashville. He was in New York, teaching, dreaming nightmare dreams. Today, eighty years to the day since the instrument was built. He took the Ferry across the river to Mandolin Brothers. He made the trip twice a year. If that mandolin went up for sale, Stan at Mandolin Brothers would know it. Didn’t even need a serial number. There was one July 13, 1923 F-5 mandolin signed by Lloyd Loar. Flowerpot on the headstock, Virzi tone producer inside. He had owned it. He did not own it any longer. He had left it under a seat on a D-train and watched the doors close, the train pull away. Before that moment his mind had heard fourths, fifths, intervals in harmonies in vocals and in playing “Wheel Hoss” along with two fiddles onstage. Now his ears were filled with the screech of subway train wheels, peeling away from the station.
“Peter,” Stan said.
When you walked into Mandolin Brothers he was there, at the front, to greet you. What had been tens of thousands of dollars worth of vintage guitars, mandolins, fiddles and banjos in 1981 were millions of dollars worth of vintage guitars, mandolins, fiddles and banjos in 2003.
“Any signs,” he said.
“Would I call you, Peter, if there was a sign.”
“You would,” Peter said. He walked to the small room in the back where the mandolins were kept. There was one Lloyd Loar F-5 on the wall. Customers had to ask Stan if they could take it down to play it. Peter did not have to ask. Hanging from its headstock was a white thread with a rectangular tag attached. He pulled the instrument down off the wall, turned the price tag in his hand. Instead of a number, it read: SERIOUS INQUIRIES ONLY. Peter had a pick in his pocket—it was nylon, tortoise shell was illegal now, and the lone tortie pick he owned had been in the case with the Loar on the train in 1984. He knew that when people told the story—if they knew the story well—they included that detail: even his tortoise shell pick had been in the case. On the train. The rat’s tail like a thick pink D string, only tapered. Surging with rat’s blood.
It was like leaving an apartment under your seat and walking away.
While he picked a fiddle tune he could feel his right toe bare against the sand inside of his sneaker. He could not afford a new pair of socks. He could barely afford his rent. He stopped halfway through the B part of “Big Mon.” A small crowd of folk musicians were now standing in the narrow doorway listening to him play. His prowess. His fate. His hands began to sweat.
“OK, leave the man alone, he played with Bill Monroe but Bill Monroe is dead,” Stan said. The mandolin was in Peter’s lap and the price tag dangled from it, twisting alongside Peter’s soul in the air-conditioned wind. “You don’t have to ask,” Stan said.
“It wouldn’t be a complete trip if I didn’t ask,” Peter said. “Riding the Ferry isn’t free, you know.”
“It’s because of the Japanese, you know,” Stan said. That small indignity of Stan repeating his words, trying to puff him up. “They’ve been buying the Loars. All the old Les Pauls—you know a ‘50’s Les Paul can fetch two-hundred grand now. Two hundred grand for an electric guitar. Nutso. The L-5’s, all the old archtops. They don’t even play them,” he said. He waited for Peter to tell him not to say anything more but Peter just fingered the curly maple one-piece back on the Loar in his lap.
“How much,” Peter said.
“You know I ask what I ask. It doesn’t mean I’m going to get it.”
The screech of train wheels in his ears.
“I’m asking one-seventy five,” Stan said. “One sold for one-sixty down at Gruhn’s in Nashville last week. George Gruhn himself called to brag.”
One hundred and seventy five thousand dollars. For a mandolin. For a mandolin he had owned. Lloyd Loar had built fewer than two hundred of them. In the 1920’s they were ubiquitous, like electric guitars are now. Whole orchestras of our grandparents playing mandolins, mandolins, mandolins. And Peter had left his under the seat where he was sitting on the D-train. It was like leaving an apartment under your seat and walking away. No keys. No apartment. A rat scurrying across the way.
“I’m sorry, man,” Stan said. “I’m sorry.”
That night and every night after like every night before:
He rides the back of Rat through the roiling Sea of Japan. Swells of water rise like mountains, dip into troughs like valleys, and with his hand wrapped in Rat’s fur like the mane of a racehorse, Peter braves the ocean tides. It goes on forever like this: the sound of banjos and guitars drowned out by the roaring of the sea, Rat’s gigantic pink striated tail whipping back and forth under the water like a propeller until they hit land and immediately they are in a brightly lit city, Takashi Murakami manga eyes of sword-bearing young girls in school skirts flashing from every billboard, Francis Bacon faces on the hoards of people making way for Peter on Giant Rat, their screams drowned out by the sound in his ears of the train screeching until the Rat lifts high into the air. Peter is afraid of heights, deathly afraid of heights, and as a scream he cannot release collects in the back of his throat he grips as tightly as he can as flying Rat rises ten, twenty, fifty stories high until finally they are a hundred stories in the air.
The only sound outside is the rush of the ocean and the faint plucking of a guitar string.
Rat stops before a window. In the apartment, a small American woman stands before her stove. Her hand is on a teapot. Peter and Rat alike can see her hand on its black plastic handle, can see as the spout expels its steam, but they cannot hear the sound, cannot hear the way the cry of the kettle mimics the screen of train wheels. The only sound outside is the rush of the ocean and the faint plucking of a guitar string. The American woman pours her tea. She pours in honey from a plastic honey bear. She takes a spoon from a drawer at her left hip, stirs, sips. It is a beautiful apartment, furnished sparsely, modern: a glass table so thin it might as well not be between three low-slung sofas, a Herman Miller chair the woman sits back in and looks up at the plastic case on the wall. Peter can barely bring himself to look but Rat bucks, looks back at him, peers in at the wall. Peter opens his eyes and there on the wall is a human body, head hanging down, thinning brown hair on top, one ugly big toe sticking out of a torn sock. His sock. His toe. “Fame is a train,” Rat screeches. “You’re always at the station.”
The American woman on her burnished chair sips at her tea and looks at him. She stands to get a closer view. She is standing just inches from the window, inches from them, from him on her wall.