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the letter reader

It is the third time I sit down to record The Letter Reader. The laundry rack has been pushed back, the lights dimmed. There is a flat grey sky outside the windows. The song has changed key three times. I even tried it a capella, the guitar just resting on my knee. The words felt hollow and empty when I heard them playing back. Unlistenable. The struggle is a familiar one - between the glowing idea of something butting up against the reality is presents as it enters the world. We are all famous in our own minds - heroes, geniuses, rock stars and saints. In the real world, we are flabby, and fallible. We are painfully human, and no angels. How to align all of this? How to put yourself in front of a microphone, or an empty piece of paper, an open road, a classroom full of children, an office?

Maybe there are glimpses of greatness. Maybe there are little cracks of something magical, if you wait for them, if you nurture them, if you struggle for them. I often find myself yelling at tv sc…


It was after 1am, and the metro stations were closing behind me as I made my way back to the apartment. Drunk on cheap Russian beer, I walked into the dark, wet night, stepping on rotten apples. Their sweet, musky smell twirled around me and I felt like throwing up. My phone rang. It was home. I dropped it on the ground before I could answer it, my saxophone swinging around wildly on my back. I decided just to get upstairs as fast as possible.

In the elevator, my face looked back at me - touched with glitter somehow, great circles under my eyes, my lips red and swollen.

E was crying in the living room, standing in the dark. She had waited for me to get back from the show. Dropping the horn to the floor I held her in the silence for a long time. She breathed into my sweaty t-shirt and we said nothing.

That afternoon I had picked her up from school at 5:30. She was outside, in the courtyard with all of the children - running around in the slow-motion, delicate way that only four year olds can. She saw me, and stopped. My saxophone case slung behind me, the stroller hung with bags of extra clothes and toys for her. The children circled me, and asked what was inside the case.

"A trooba!" one boy crooned.

I shook my head no, and opened the bag to show them the ancient saxophone. A girl smiled at me. E was quiet, and just rested her hand on my shoulder. She nodded her head once.

I bought E a chocolate croissant at the fancy bakery down the street and we sat for a moment.

"So are you sure you want to come to the concert tonight?" I asked her. "If you get tired, or if it's too loud you won't like it."

"Ya hatchu! (I want to)" She said, around the pastry."Ya hatchu!"

"OK." I said. "We'll ride for a bit and maybe you can take a nap."

She nodded, and we were off. Splashing through puddles, crossing the river and over to great Smolenskaya. Time was getting short, so I ran into McDonalds for a double-cheesburger and fries. The phone was ringing about work and meetings, and E was getting tired.

Rolling through the Arbat we passed tourists and people with monkeys you could take your picture with. There were young people playing broken guitars, singing angrily, singing as loud as they could. E laughed and leaned forward in the stroller, leaning into the cool wet air.

I saw a taxi with a sign on it, and told him where we needed to go. I asked him how much, and he said "meter."

We piled into the black station wagon. I saw the display said $33USD and asked him why it said that. "Pagoda" (the weather) He said, correcting me. We were there in ten minutes. I asked him how much and he showed me a meter that said 1,720 rubles. I thought it said 172 which would have been about right. But no, it was a $50 taxi ride. As he gave me change, some of the bills dropped slowly to the floor of the car. He did not even reach to pick them up.

Inside, most of the band was already there. I introduced E to everyone, and set her up at a great wooden table. We drew some picture of dolls together. The drummer started warming up, and she looked at me. It would never work. She started to cry. I called my wife to come and get her. I suddenly felt torn, and helpless. I felt I had been selfish, bringing a four and a half year old girl to a bar gig. She buried her face in my shoulder.

"Ya hatchu zdes." She said.

"You want to stay?" I asked.

She nodded sadly.

I understood now. She really wanted to stay, and at the same time couldn't stay. I walked outside with her, wandering back and forth across the sidewalk. The band watched me through the great windows. Will has two kids. He knew what I was feeling. I looked in every few minutes, holding my hand open trying to say maybe in 5 minutes I would be back.

D finally arrived and I piled E in with the bags of extra clothes and toys and the folded up stroller. She sighed deeply, and looked at me with her giant eyes.


The Expatresse said…
Yeah. Sigh. It's tough. They want to do something very much. But sometimes they just aren't yet capable.

I'm pleased to see that even someone who speaks the language and doesn't look like a tourist can get ripped off, too. Not that I wish it on you.

We took a gypsy cab home from a party Saturday night at 4:00 a.m. Rimskaya metro to 12:00 on the Garden Ring for 300 rubles. Yeah, we overpaid . . . a Russian would have dickered. But it was 4:00, and we just wanted to go home.
brenda said…
More Moscow magic, M. and God, what I'd give to play the horn. But seriously, every time i read you, I am just sooo there. Imagining that if you play as well as you write, they must be screaming.

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