Bridges

           Jaroslav Grydzinski loved his parents. They were the ones who whistled all the heart grabbing songs from the old country. Even during the darkest days of the Depression. Even when they reluctantly went to the local relief office because they were out of food, out of clothing and did not know from where the next hundred dollars were coming to pay the mortgage on their clapboard house built in the Ukrainian Village on Chicago’s near west and north sides. Their anguish was awarded with food stamps and a monthly relief check. They introduced Jaroslav to a fearful god who was also righteous as well as the gorgeous liturgical music in the cathedral down the street.

           He praised them for the whistling and the connections the melody and rhythms made that bridged the marrow of his bones to his ancestry in Kiev and the water of the Dnepr. He accompanied them on the pots and pans from the time he could reach into the kitchen drawers and pull out the wooden cooking spoons which served as drum sticks, from the time he could blow across half empty mason jars. They shortened into a bamboo rod a pole used to hold up the clothes line which he used to manipulate sounds. He became so adept they took him to the music academy downtown. He swept his instructors and his instructions before him. Put a flute in his hands and he was a Mistral going south through the Rhone Valley to Africa, a Santa Ana, dry and hot through the canyons of Southern California, a wet Chinook going north along the Oregon coast, foehn like down the eastern slopes of the Rockies. The whole school worked to get him into the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.

           Politically he became restless walking for weeks with Martin Luther King through the heart of Mississippi keeping voting places open till midnight so Blacks who dared not register before, registered then, in droves.

           He also cursed his parents for dying and leaving a rundown house with no money for upkeep or taxes. The government besieged him continuously. He could not keep a steady paying job though he was chosen by the Houston, San Antonio, Cincinnati, Nashville symphonies to bolster their flute ensembles and for which he played on and off. His arrangements of the music brightened the scores, challenged the musicians so that more and more he was asked to substitute as conductor. But his musical skills and instrument could not make up for the agitation he felt overpowering him from the damage he could see being perpetrated by the political powers of the country.

           Not only were his parents near poverty, they had to go begging to the public hospitals for assistance as their ages increased, as their health deteriorated. It seemed as their health went, more and more, Jaroslav’s health also collapsed. After the parents death his fibromyalgia and insomnia became worse. It was almost impossible for him to sleep at night and during the day, try as he might, the daylight noises of the leaves moving in the breeze, the rolling of garbage cans, steps on the stairs, the dropping of and pounding of lumber, the starting of automobiles, the stopping of trucks at curbside, the going to and returning of schoolchildren, the bouncing of balls, jump roping, roller skating, laughing, crying, calling besieged him.

           He made friends with Terrell Franco, a doctor who visited him at home and listened closely to the aches and pains of his body and the aches and pains of maintaining a house which wanted badly to die. Franco had all he could handle without trying to figure out symptoms which seemed real but were unconnected with inflammation, cough, paralysis, loss of reflexes, trauma, food, indigestion, bowel or urine passage, double vision, fainting, impairment or swelling of the joints. Franco thought he was pretty good at linking symptoms with physical complaints. But there just were no connections.

           “Doc. I hate this life. I hate this country. What they’re doing to it. It makes me sick. How about you?. You are older. How do you stand it? How is it possible you been standing it?”

           They were standing in the middle of Jaroslav’s clutter. He had a million books, most of which were either in his book case, perched precariously on the shelves or on the floor in disheveled piles. Cut newspaper articles were trying to escape from numerous folders on two tables in the center of the room and the three shoved against the wall. At varying heights were piles of the Nation, the Catholic Worker, In These Times, The Progressive along the wainscoting of the lower walls. Three laundry bags were choked with clothing. There were three Underwood typewriters, two of which were gathering dust in which there were empty sheets of typewriter paper on the rollers. On top of the periodicals, on top of some of the books were typewritten sheets of paper. Not one surface of any of the tables was visible. The Venetian blinds covering the three double hung windows were completely drawn and darkened with ingrained dust. There was no sign of a computer or printer. When looked closely at what was written, there seemed to be continuous commentary to editors, anecdotes to friends dashed off as naturally as breathing, as naturally as feet in socks, socks in shoes without the slightest typewriten error or deviation of punctuation, rounded off with self deprecating and Job like satire.

           The light bulbs went on in the marquee circling the physician’s cerebral amphitheater. “Jaroslav, you are a genius. I do not know why I cannot convince you to get out of this house, eat what I tell you instead of that fat and grease and sweets you are nuts about. And walk. You are a Catholic. Then walk for Jesus’ sake. At least for the sake of the Pope. Take communion, take confession, take a bath, wash your feet, trim your nails. But above all, get out of this dump and play your flute before your flute learns to hate you and runs off. How’s your friend, the other flautist. You really seem to like her. Your letters are filled with her.”

           Jaroslav went to Franco. Hugged him. Kissed him on his eyes, both cheeks, his chin. “Crazy for her, Terrell. Those bastards ruined Loretta. I want to make up for it. With my tongue and my fingers, I do it all, hours. I need her to enjoy sex. The soft, close, slow, wet kind. I do not want her to do anything for me. I just want her to enjoy all the length and height of uplifting sensation, celebration. None of that Hollywood junk, fast candy. I’m in shambles after. I do get close to Nirvana each time. Every trick I use on the piccolo, I try. I suppose I come close to madness. Those two bastards. They ruined her life with their needs, demands.” Jaroslav’s letters to Franco were full of the short falls of those two men who had no concept of her spiritual and artistic soul and his inability to make her understand what an extraordinary flute player she was and how frustrated he was not being able to bring her to climax.

           Jaroslav took the physician’s hands and led him to a chair where he pushed him looking straight into his eyes with both hands on either of the older man’s shoulders. “I’m listening. Say. Tell me. Fifteen years at least older, I am sure you are. How do you stay together when me, much younger is falling apart.? My slightest effort exhausts me. Several local orchestras are begging me to lead them. How can I? The very thought of trying to deal with partly trained musicians is enough to make my heart palpitate, my throat tighten, sweat pour out of my palms. Tell me Franco, my love. How do you do it? How are you doing it?”

           Franco looked at him sadly. He saw his great hooked Shylock nose. Imagined him magnificently in The Merchant of Venice. Took his hands. Held his palms toward his lips. Kissed them. Then the finger tips. Tears flowed from his eyes. “I will tell you only if you play some Ravel. And only if you promise to get out of this house and walk half a mile and eat what I prescribe two straight weeks.” He then took him in his arms and tangoed with him across the room knocking books off the tables and chairs, knocking periodicals left and right.

           Jaroslav stopped, cleared another chair into which he shoved the doctor. “Now say,” he panted. The doctor leaned forward, placed one hand on his knee, the left elbow on the opposite knee then shaded his eyes with it, looked toward the floor, through it, groped for the past.

“In February 1945 I crossed over a river on a moonless, starless night, in Germany. I could hear the water beneath me but had no idea on what I was walking. Later, I discovered the water over which I was walking was the Rhine and the bridge on which I walked was the Remagen bridge which collapsed taking men and material with it, 10 days later. It was the last bridge over the river into Germany from the west. And we were the first division of the Allies to use it to get to its eastern bank. I had never been fifty miles from home until I was pulled into the infantry.

           “The bombardment of the cannons and their flashes filled the sky and the air ceaselessly. It sounded like all the thunder and lightning of all the Junes, Julys, Augusts of the entire century. I was frightened. I was homesick. I was a boy. The next morning, I stumbled on seven beautiful German soldier boys lying in the tall spring grass, faces up, eyes of marble staring at the sky, in fresh, full olive uniform. Maybe they were fifteen or sixteen. But they were beautiful and they were dead despite their perfectly tailored uniforms and admirable leather boots. Several weeks later, leading my platoon into a town, I was shot down in the village square, the bullet narrowly missing my spinal column. In that same skirmish, two West Virginians, about my age, who were bazooka carriers in my outfit, lay blue and dead at my feet. We had played poker together an hour before. It was the same week, Franklin Roosevelt died. Soon after, Adolf Hitler died by his own hand to avoid capture. And then the war was over.

           “I thought there was now no reason why the world should not be beautiful. But as you know it is not better. It has become worse and worse, despite we knowing how to make it a marvelous place and being capable of making it splendid. You are a marvelous person, a splendid musician, an exceptional writer. Come play for me. Then we will go out and walk. Your pain is my pain. But I want to make you a gift of my pleasure. There is no operation. There is no pill nor will there ever be one, nor procedure that can help you or me. There is only you and there is only me. And there is your love for Loretta. And that is what is going to keep you alive and make you well. And my viewing it and knowing it will do the same for me. There is nothing out there more than there is inside of us that is going to make that so. And once we find whatever it is that makes us special that way, we will share it between us. And not only us but with everyone else endlessly. You and I will partake of this orgasm we call life and parcel it out in great quantities to each person we meet.”