Part One: Michael
It was just outside of Seattle in a dingy little ?north-of-nowhere? truck stop that I let the little girl with the fiddle die.
She couldn?t have been much older than eight or nine.
I?d just stepped out of the dining area, having filled up on coffee and lukewarm chili, when I saw her. I was heading north to Alaska, but planned on making a short detour east to try and find the local brothel that the gentleman drinking coffee next to me at the breakfast counter had been kind enough to steer me towards. But before the brothel, I needed a pay phone.
I was originally going to wait to call my sister when I reached Anchorage, but changed my mind and decided to call now. I?d tell her that I might be a day or two later than I?d thought last time we talked’she ought to get a kick out of that one. I fished through my pockets but they were devoid of change. I was just about to tear into my knapsack when I saw the little girl watching me from the back of a pickup truck. She was all alone, sitting in the back among several large pieces of farm equipment fastened down with bungee cord and canvass. I assumed that her father was inside the diner. For all I knew, he was the one who?d given me the directions to the brothel. There?d been no other customers in the place. She was watching me intently and smiling. I decided to go over and say ?hi? and see if she might have a dime for me to use the phone. I wasn?t about to give my sister the satisfaction of calling collect, as tempting as the idea might be. I?d just as soon not call at all and let them all wonder.
As I walked closer I could see that the girl was cradling a tarnished fiddle in her arms. She seemed small for her age, and the instrument appeared enormous in her tiny hands.
"Do you play?" I asked, nodding towards the fiddle. She smiled, but said nothing. I smiled right back at her. "Are you shy?" I asked playfully. She shook her head but still said nothing.
When I reached the back of the pickup she held out the instrument to me. At first I wasn?t quite sure what she wanted‑‑I thought perhaps the thing was too heavy for her, or she was getting tired of holding it, but then I realized that she wanted me to play. I took it from her and looked it over; it?d been some time since last I played. It was old and showed some serious signs of wear. The surface was faded and scratched, but the strings were shiny and new, sparkling in the cool Seattle sun. The neck was tarnished and appeared to have lived a long and musical life. I?m no musician, but I guessed that any instrument that had been used so much as to be in such a sorry state had to be worth something. As I took it from her she reached back and offered me the bow.
"Do you play the fiddle?" she asked.
"A little bit," I replied, positioning it against my neck and grasping the frayed bow. I?d picked up fiddle playing a few years back while I?d been farming maize in Iowa‑‑a desperate attempt at a rustic life that had yielded bitter and disappointing results. I?d had almost as much luck mastering the musical instrument as I had raising life from that dead Midwestern soil.
I fingered the fret-board and dragged the sorry excuse for a bow across the perfect strings. It was in tune. I quickly played three of the only five chords that I knew, and followed the melody with a few quick runs of a five-note major scale. The music was simple and rusty, but it made her laugh. Her laughter was like the sound of water that I?d heard trickling from a rocky precipice in Colorado?a waterfall that I?d searched for but never could find. It was the sound of the wind whistling through the Joshua trees of Southern California. Next to the beautiful sound of her laughter my music felt dull and clumsy, like some drunken giant clomping carelessly around in a child’s tea party.
"Are you famous?" the little girl asked me, looking intently at my scruffy, weathered face and peering into my eyes. "You look familiar."
"Me?" I looked at her, genuinely surprised. I thought back to my years in Iowa, all alone and trying to perform a miracle of agriculture with no real farming experience to call upon. And then I thought of my family in their mansion up in Alaska. "Famous?" I said, "No, I?m not. But my brothers are. And my sister and my parents, too. Maybe you?re thinking of them." I sat down on the bumper of the truck and handed her fiddle back to her. I didn?t want to talk about my family any more than could be helped. All I wanted was a dime.
"There, now you play," I smiled.
She may have been a virtuoso, but I?ll never know because at that moment there was an eardrum-splitting grinding of metal and the screeching of brakes. I looked up and was shocked to see an out-of-control Mack truck barreling at highway speed down the off-ramp and into the rest stop. It was heading into the parking lot, and directly for us. It fishtailed as it careened off of the highway and sparks flew from the rims where the front tires had blown out and the bumper was dragging on the tarmac.
I wish that I could say it was a split-second decision on my part, that there was no time to act or even think, but that wouldn?t be true. The truck seemed to come at us in slow motion. I could smell the noxious fumes from the highway, the gas and grease of the diner, and the sharp, acrid odor of burned rubber and brake fluid from the doomed truck. I could see clearly the rusted bulldog ornament on the hood, sparkling in the sun as it drew closer. And in the seconds before it demolished the red pickup truck and the little fiddle player sitting in its back, it felt as if I had all of the time in the world to weigh infinite possibilities and consider alternate options and actions.
I leapt off of the bumper and rolled away from the wreck.
The sound was deafening?all twisting metal and breaking glass. There was an explosion as the spilling gas of both vehicles ignited, filling the air with a thick, dark smoke and the smell of destruction. I staggered to my feet and started walking back towards the pickup, but immediately realized that it was far too late to help. The entire wreck was engulfed in flames and smaller explosions were throwing broken glass and dangerous embers up into the air. Nothing could survive in that inferno. Beneath the reek of burning petrol, my sensitive nose could detect the delicate malodor of burning flesh, heavy and sweet like bacon, but with a nauseating, oily quality to it. As I caught my breath and carefully surveyed the damage, my eyes settled upon a small wooden fire in the midst of the carnage. Wood burns differently than gasoline, and it was a moment before I realized that I was looking at the charred and ruined remains of the fiddle. Disgusted, I turned and walked away.
Far off in the distance I could hear sirens wailing, and I wanted to be long gone by the time the police and fire engines arrived. The last thing that I wanted was to get caught up in a formal investigation?what more could I tell them, than that the truck had gone out of control and hit the pickup?
I slung my pack over my shoulder and quickly scaled the steep embankment to the highway. Behind me the smoke of the wreck was slowly rising, pointing a waving finger up towards the heavens, marking the way for the hurrying rescuers and investigators. I mounted the top of the embankment and stuck my thumb out into the busy line of traffic which was slowing to get a better look at the accident and to make way for the rapidly approaching emergency vehicles.