There is only one perehod (underpass) we take on the way to school each morning. In winter, it looms dank and wet. In summer it is cool, under sputtering fluorescents and a low ceiling. A man sits halfway down on a tiny folding stool playing the accordion. It is the same brisk song. An old Soviet one, happily ironic. His face is lost in some unblinking slow motion. He has no smile, no sadness. It is as if he is a blank piece of paper. Empty. Motionless. Just his fingers moving and his body making a little sway right and a little sway left. If someone drops a ruble, he does not react. If you stare at him, or stop for a moment he does not look at you.
On some mornings his song brings a sort of breath to our walk. We are almost there. I will pull E's long messy hair into a ponytail, kiss her once on the top of her head and agree what time I will take her in the afternoon. Some mornings his song makes me depressed. I keep hoping he will play a new one, or he will do something different. I try to imagine how many years he has been playing this urgent, forlorn waltz.
Lately, he makes me angry. Every morning, sitting with his insect eyes poking out from his face. Every morning with that sideways tilt of his head. No suntan. No different stubble on his chin. The same pants. The same shoes. I want to respect him for his commitment. He is running a marathon that will never offer a finish line, or a silk ribbon to break. I think he will just lean over very slowly one day in this tunnel and die. A flame of embarrassment runs under my face, and along my arms at these cruel thoughts. He is a father, I guess. He found something to do, and he does it. He is not a quitter. Maybe he hates playing this song, but has no choice. Maybe this is the only song he knows. I can't expect him to improvise a new one. I can't expect him to do anything more than what he can.
I pass him, thinking to drop a coin in the little cardboard box but I do not. I need small change to buy milk downstairs and they refuse to change bills.
I wonder how the accordion man sees all of us, scurrying to work, to bring children to school before they stop serving breakfast, to the market, to the bank. Maybe he feels sorry for us, running around like insects every morning. I wonder if he is bored of my face, sour and tired after I have brought E to school, my hands in my pockets, gazing at my feet as I go home to an empty apartment, to scramble some eggs and make a living.
I am haunted by his half-lidded eyes that day. Taking the garbage to the chute in the hallway, the heavy metal door flops open. There is a safety pin at the bottom. It has been there for months now. Every time the door slams shut and wine bottles clang furiously down, I wonder if it has unloosed itself. A day or two passes, then the next garbage bag goes down. It is still there. A North star in a dark sky. Someone must need this safety pin. Someone must take it, I tell myself.
But they never do.
It is safe. It survives, maybe by luck or chance. Maybe by grace.
I hope it is there tomorrow.