But I can tell Robert wants to get to the scene of the crime. Seems a little morbid, but also sort of capital-
Romantic. Something Paganini might want to do. Or Yeats.
My trumpet player, who has a girlfriend, is full of surprises.
And the next surprise comes when we get to the Dakota, the building where Lennon lived. After we walk past the iron gates where the shooting happened, Robert stops near the corner, opens his case, takes out a silver trumpet, slips a mouthpiece into place, puts a mute in the bell, and begins to play.
The sound has to fight the noise of the traffic on Central Park West, but the melody is warm and strong, and I can hear the words in my mind:
Hey, Jude, don’t make it bad.
Take a sad song, and make it better;
I’ve been to a military funeral, one of my dad’s army buddies, and I’ve been to our town’s Memorial Day ceremony every May since I was three. Some buglers can play taps and make you cry, and some can’t. Robert can bring the tears.
He goes on with the song, knees bent, eyes closed, and before he’s done, ten or twelve other people, all ages, have stopped to listen. When it’s over, there are smiles and murmurs, but no applause. It would have been like clapping for the choir in a church.
We walk back toward Broadway, and I say, “That was nice.”
He shrugs. “Sort of corny.”
“No. Just right.” I almost tell him that I’d never be able to do something like that, just take out my instrument and begin playing on a street corner. But it feels too personal. Yes, I’m shy, but why bring it to his attention? I’m too shy to talk about how shy I am.
We talk a little on the subway, mostly about our audition pieces. He’s worried most about Haydn, and I’m worried about Paganini.
As we pull out of the 103rd Street station, I remember that I’m going home to another night in an empty house, no Grampa. And I also remember Uncle Hank’s little visit before my violin lesson today. And that’s when being escorted home begins to feel like an excellent idea.
When we get off the subway at 110th Street, Robert offers to walk me to my door, and I don’t argue. Besides, I can tell he’s still enjoying his tour of New York at night.
As we wait for a break in the stream of cars and taxis on Broadway, he says, “Unless you’re in Old Town, by eleven-thirty Chicago looks pretty empty, even on Friday or Saturday night. New York’s a whole different thing.” When we’re across, he stops to look at the statues lit up by the votive candles that flicker in the window of a bodega. And then he’s got his nose against the glass door of the Italian bakery three doors farther south, and he makes me promise we can come again when it’s open.
And I’m having fun, just being with someone who’s seeing my neighborhood for the first time. Because the variety is wonderful, and I shouldn’t take it for granted. I shouldn’t take anything for granted.
Once we get to 109th Street, it’s a short walk to Grampa’s house. And when I’ve got the gate and the ground floor door open, and the house feels dark and silent, I say, “Why don’t you come in? I’ll play you some Paganini if you’ll play me some Haydn.”
“It’s pretty late—think it’s okay with your grandfather?”
“It’s fine. Really.”
I lock the iron gate, and when he’s inside, I flip on the hallway lights, lock the door, and set the steel rod back in place.
He nods at the door brace. “We’ve got an electronic alarm system at my house.”
“My grampa says he prefers iron bars and bricks, especially if the power’s out.”
“Can’t argue with that.”
When we’re upstairs, I can see my daffodils there on the dining table, bright as sunlight. I say, “Want a sandwich, or something to drink?”
He nods. “Both. Please.” He’s apparently one of those people who can eat a meal once an hour.
I’m in the kitchen and Robert’s walking around the parlor, looking at books, looking at Grampa’s war medals, taking in the family photos. “This is you, right? The skinny girl in the middle?”
“Aha—he plays the trumpet, and he’s also an expert at flattery.”
He grins. “I meant to say, are you the slender brunette with the dimples and the smoky eyes?”
I nod my approval. “Yes, and that’s my family. They live in West Virginia, near Charleston.”
“Which explains your accent—not what I think of when someone says she lives in New York.”
“Accent? What accent?” I say, drawing out the vowels for him.
Maybe it’s because I know he has a girlfriend. Maybe that’s why I suddenly feel like I can flirt a little. Because that’s not like me. But he doesn’t know that. At this moment, I think I know more about him than he knows about me.
He flips a thumb toward Grampa’s door. “Your grand-dad’s room?” I nod, and he points at the case where Grampa’s Purple Heart medal is on display. “He’s not going to come charging out here with a bayonet, is he?”
The phone rings on Grampa’s desk in the study. It’s too late for my mom to call, and I don’t want to talk to anyone else. I keep making the sandwich, and Robert says, “You want me to answer that?”
“The machine’ll get it.” Then I remember again: Every phone call could also be Grampa. And I hold my breath, hoping.
But after the beep it’s Uncle Hank, and he’s talking so loud, I can hear him from the kitchen.
“Lawrence? . . . Pick up. . . . Blast you, Lawrence! . . . Pick up your phone. . . . Okay, so it’s late. But you call me tomorrow at home. I’ll be out in the morning, so call me at noon. I tried to call today, and then I come all the way there, and I let myself in to wait, and then Gwen shows up and breathes some fire, and she boots me out—said she’d call your lawyer if I didn’t leave. That girl’s got some spunk—wonder where she gets that from, huh? Anyway, you call me tomorrow about the house deal, or else I’m gonna have to show up there with the cops . . . so I can check up on my eighty-five-year-old brother who’s not answering his phone. This is the wrong time to try to ignore me. And please, tell little Gwennie to stay out of my way, okay? I need that money, Lawrence, do you hear me? I need it. So you call me.”
Uncle Hank slams down his phone, there’s a dial tone, and the machine shuts off.
Robert looks uncomfortable. He manages a smile and says, “Your grandfather’s a sound sleeper.”
I put his plate and glass on the table, and as Robert sits down, I tell the truth. “Actually . . . my grampa’s not here.” Because it seems to me that a person who’s not involved, who’s just a visitor from Chicago, someone like that would be exempt from what Grampa said. About not telling anybody.
Robert’s eyebrows shoot up. “So something
going on? Like that guy said?”
I hesitate, then decide. “Can you keep a secret?” Because I want to tell him the rest of it.
His eyes are greenish blue and there’s nothing hidden, and he nods. “Keeping secrets is one of my best talents. Right up there with trumpet cadenzas. And flattery.”
He follows me into the study with his sandwich and milk. I push the button on the answering machine, and I click back through all of Friday’s messages from Uncle Hank, from Kenneth Grant, from Jason the fourth-floor tenant. And I play him Grampa’s message from Thursday.
At the part where Grampa says,
Please don’t tell anybody I’ve gone. Especially Hank,
Robert looks at me and nods.
When the message is done, Robert says, “And you don’t know when your granddad’s coming back?”
“And the man who just called, that was Hank?”
“Right again.” And then I tell Robert about the invasions and the yelling, and about how they both own the building, and about Uncle Hank being in the house this afternoon.
“He really scared me—and he did it on purpose. He’s so . . . inconsiderate.” Which wasn’t the first word that came to my mind. But I’m trying to do what Grampa said and not judge Uncle Hank. It isn’t easy.
“So if you can’t reach your grandfather to tell him to call Hank, then he’ll use that as an excuse to come blasting in here tomorrow with the police, and then he’ll find out his brother is missing, and then he’ll take charge of the house. And then little Gwennie will have to go away.”
“Exactly,” I say. “It’s bad timing.”
Robert nods. “The worst.” And then he’s quiet, because he understands how much work, how many years of preparation it’s taken me just to get in line for auditions at good music schools—much less get accepted at one. Not to mention get a scholarship.
Then he says, “So what are you going to do?”
“About which part?”
“About your uncle coming here tomorrow. And maybe bringing the police.”
I shrug. “There aren’t any good choices. And I don’t want to start telling a million lies. I should probably just call Grampa’s lawyer. He’ll know what to do.”
Robert shakes his head. “If you do that, then he might go to the police himself if it really looks like a missing-person case. Lawyers are officers of the court.”
And I wonder how someone like Robert would know a thing like that. Another surprise from the trumpet man.
Then I have another thought. “But maybe the police
be involved. What if my grampa’s really in trouble? I have no idea where he is, and I keep imagining the worst. Like, what if he went out yesterday afternoon, and he fell down somewhere, and the police just scooped him up and thought he was a wino, and they took him to Bellevue, or to a jail somewhere?”
Robert looks at me, and his eyes seem so deep and clear. He says, “Well, you should absolutely do whatever you think is best. But on that tape it sounded to me like your grampa knew what he was up to. And it also sounded like he wants you to keep on with your own work. And he wants you to keep Hank in the dark about everything else. So . . .”
Robert’s quiet again, and then he says, “Look. You need about two weeks, right? To get done with your auditions?”
“Only half that to finish the most important ones.”
“Okay, so you just need to stall your uncle for seven days. And all you’re doing is what your grampa asked. He said to keep his house going for him while he’s away. This is his place, and you have his permission. His brother can’t just whip in here because he leaves for a while. And your grampa left you in charge. Are you eighteen yet?”
I shake my head. “No, seventeen.”
Robert wanted a different answer.
“Well,” he says, “even if you’re a minor, you’re still old enough to be left at home without supervision. And you’ve definitely been left in charge.”
“Right,” I say, “but Hank’s going to stir up trouble, and that’s enough to ruin everything. If I can’t stay focused on my final prep work, I might as well not even take these auditions. I should just buy a bus ticket and go home.”
“Oh, well, that’s clearly the winning attitude.”
“Don’t be sarcastic.”
“Then don’t talk like a dropout,” he snaps. Then, gentler, Robert says, “Look, let me hear that message again.”
I point at the machine. “Be my guest.”
He ignores the frost in my voice and sits down and plays Grampa’s message. Then Robert swivels the chair toward the bookcases and starts to talk, pretending that he’s on the phone. “Hank? This is Lawrence. What do you want?” And then he coughs. “Me? I’m fine. I just don’t want to talk to you, and that’s that. So stop bothering me. Now good-bye.”
I stare at him, and my mouth is hanging open because Robert is using Grampa’s voice—not perfect, but really close.
I say, “How did you
“Gwennie? Is that you? I need you to keep the house going for me while I’m away.”
it! How did you learn to
He grins at me. “Mostly from this stupid game I play with my girlfriend. When we’re out, like maybe to eat or at the mall, sometimes I try to make her think someone else is talking to her. It’s gonna sound sick, because she’s actually blind.”
My mouth is hanging open again. “Your girlfriend’s
? Really? And you trick her? With fake voices? That
He’s laughing now. “No, but it’s not, not for us. It’s just a game—really. And when I start using some new voice, sometimes she knows it’s me, but she pretends she doesn’t know, and she goes along with it, and then
zaps me. And sometimes I get everything perfect, and she really thinks I’m somebody else. And sometimes I do it when I call her on the phone. So I’m in practice. And I am completely
at prank phone calls. So I think your grampa needs to give mean old Hank a call. Tomorrow about noon.”
His cell phone rings, and I jump a mile. Robert takes a look and says, “It’s Alicia—that’s her, my girlfriend.”
So I nod and leave the study, pulling the door shut behind me. I can hear him talking, then laughing. And I can picture his smile.
Nothing’s really changed here. Grampa’s still missing, Uncle Hank is still yelling, and my auditions are one day closer. But I feel better anyway. I don’t know if Robert can help me or not, but I do believe that he really wants to try. And I don’t feel like I’m on my own anymore, at least not the way I was this morning.
So many surprises.
On Friday, a little before midnight, I realize that instead of those poems by Yeats, I ought to be rereading
. Because that’s more like my story—me, alone on an island. Manhattan is not a tropical paradise, but Grampa’s ship is lost at sea, and Uncle Hank is doing a good job playing the part of a hostile native. And me, I’m the castaway.
In Defoe’s novel, Robinson Crusoe finds a helper, and he names him Friday. And the castaway is sure that this helper has been sent to him by divine Providence.
So if I’m Gwendolyn Crusoe, then maybe Robert is going to be my man Friday.