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He is gone now, the blind man, tidily dressed
in a suit of dust, with a dusty tie and dark glasses,
who played the clarinet on Paseo Huerfanos,
the paseo of the orphanage, as if the street itself
formed the orphanage crowded with people
with multiple elbows and always in a hurry.
Some days I saw the blind man, other days not.
Some days I heard his clarinet far in the distance.
He was thin and stood very straight. Some days
his gray presence and the gray stone buildings
came together as he stepped back into the wall
as into a closet. You think he played happy songs?
I’ll let you wonder for a while. In the morning,
he played on the east side of the paseo, west side
in the afternoon. So always he stood in shadow.
I didn’t know the songs he played, but the notes
brought to mind the adagio in Brahams’ Clarinet
Quintet; notes that the breeze raised up and cast
into the smoky air—slow, protracted and sad,
handfuls of notes like the scent of wood smoke.
Some days I saw someone give the blind man
a coin, other days not. Some days I put a coin
into the tin cup at his feet and other days not.
I was in love then and thought myself in a hurry
even when I was standing still. People were poor
and it was the time of the dictatorship and curfew.
The thousands on Paseo Huerfanos had to be home
and behind locked doors by ten o’clock. Maybe
that’s why they hurried. They were making up
for their truncated days. But I don’t know why
I hurried. If one is in love one should walk slowly
without so many agendas and appointments,
money to be cast away or built into little piles.
Some days when I heard the blind man’s clarinet
I followed the notes until I stood across from him,
as people hastened this way and that. Perhaps
I could say the clarinet linked the people together,
but I don’t think that’s true, or I could say the notes
made small patches of blue sky on an otherwise
cloudy day, but I don’t think that’s true either.
The woman I lived with worked during the week,
but some days we met for lunch. Why didn’t we
meet more often? I was always in a hurry—errands,
appointments, my own work. Maybe the notes
of the clarinet were like those missed occasions
becoming one with the air, but that’s not right either.
Some days I walked past the blind man without
giving him a glance, but even so I still heard him
till his notes mixed with the growl of distant traffic.
So maybe the faraway notes were like the awareness
of death that sometimes approaches, sometimes
recedes, but, then, why should that be the case?
Back then many blind people played music or sang
in downtown Santiago. Their wives or husbands
led them to their spot in the morning and led them
home at night. At lunch time the blind man would take
a small package from the pocket of his suit coat
wrapped in wax paper and step back into the shadow;
maybe he thought it rude to eat in front of strangers.
Something so small wouldn’t take long to finish,
at times a sandwich, at times a piece of bread.
When he was done, he would fold up the wax paper
and tuck it into his pocket. Then he’d pause, as if
resituating himself before again stepping forward
into the paseo, discreetly balanced between shadow
and the crowds, before lifting the clarinet to his lips,
and once again producing that rich fabric of notes,
slow, protracted and sad, as people hurried past,
and some days I would pause, hearing the notes
rise into the air, as if I too were resettling myself,
putting a space between the rush and who I thought
I was, or perhaps only wanted to be, because I was
young in those years and now I’m forty years older,
and my children are the age that I was back then.
But this afternoon it is raining, the trees are bare
and the sky is thick with sooty clouds in a way
that recalls Santiago in winter, and I believe I can
even hear the blind man’s clarinet. Foolish,
of course, but my life now is full of such musings
both asleep and awake, and much of what seemed
important—just as it all once seemed important–
drifts away like smoke or the notes of a clarinet,
as I approach the shadow of a darker time, and then,
inevitably, the darkest.
04/05/19—05/04/19 (begun 2016)
First publication in Vox Populi.
Copyright 2019 Stephen Dobyns