The Music of Copenhagen
a short story
“You are always in my thoughts,” said the young man.
The old man ate his thick restaurant pancakes. He knew the young man was going to Copenhagen with his two dogs.
“Are you still working on that pancake?’ asked the young man.
No one takes dogs to Copehagen unless they plan on staying there a long time. The old man knew this. The young man--not his son, he was even younger than his son, who very strangely had grey hair now—was leaving the old man alone. Who was this young man? The old man couldn’t remember. But he knew the waitress’s name was Midge. She poured more coffee.
The old man wore an old fashioned shirt with western yoke on the back. His shoulders were still broad as he bent over his food. He grasped his fork.
“By this time tomorrow I’ll be there. This time tomorrow I’ll be phoning you.”
The old man looked up, surprised. He checked his watch.
“No no, tomorrow, this time tomorrow.”
The old man went back to his plate. He sipped his coffee, which was very pale. He had a ritual: pour the cream—it must be cream, not milk—stir, pour more cream, stir. Then wipe the spoon on the napkin, set the spoon on the table. Add a little more cream, stir with the clean spoon. The old man wore a flat brown hat, frayed at the creases. He drove here, to the pancake house near the airport, in his car, wearing the hat and slumping behind the wheel, while driving slowly and feeling for the brake.
“They have different money there,” said the younger man. “Have you ever seen it?” He leaned sideways, getting something out of his pocket. “Look. Pretty crazy, huh?” He handed over a few crumpled notes of turquoise and orange.
“Oh, hmmm,” said the old man. He didn’t know what to do with the money. He wasn’t going to Copenhagen.
“I have to be at the airport in an hour and fifteen minutes.”
The old man immediately put his hands on the table and began pushing himself out of his seat.
“No, no,” I’ve got plenty of time. I wanted to sit and relax with you a bit.”
The old man settled back down in his booth. They sat in silence for a while. Midge, a stout red-haired woman, took their plates.
“You take a quarter,” said the old man. “And a reed. A clarinet reed. Have you got a quarter?”
The young man fumbled in his pockets. He knew the old man had played in a military band, long ago. He had heard about how long reeds needed to last, in those years. The young man had Danish money in his pocket, but no quarter.
“You put the curved edge of the quarter up to just below the curved edge of the reed. Then you get a match. Have you got a match?” The young man was no smoker. He shook his head.
“Then you hold it up under the thin edge of the reed which sticks out beyond the quarter.” The old man held up an imaginary quarter and a reed and set it alight with an imaginary match. “The match sears off the bad edge, and your reed lasts much, much longer. It’s like new.” He rubbed off imaginary blackened crumbed reed from the edge of the quarter.
“I’m going to have a hard time figuring out this money,” said the young man. He was going to live in a tiny apartment with the woman he had found, and take his two dogs for long walks in the park every day.
“Un-huhnh,” the old man plunged his spoon again into his coffee. After cleaning it again and setting it carefully on the table, he patted his vest pocket and found a match in it. The surprise was like a tiny burst of flame, and suddenly he imagined himself in the sun of a park bench in Copenhagen. Why wouldn’t he be going there? Surely the sun was just as warm on the other side of the earth.
Then he remembered something, and sat straight up as if he were about to get off an airplane in a foreign country.
“I’ll be gone before you get back,” he said.
The younger man stared. He spluttered and protested. But the old man sat proudly, his neck muscles straining to hold the weight of his head.
“Get a good clarinet player for my funeral.” He looked into the bottom of his cup as if something there still might need stirring.
The waitress brought the bill.
“My flight’s leaving soon.”
The old man stood and held out his arm awkwardly, waiting for a coat sleeve. The younger man tugged the sleeve on gently, using both hands. His hands were reddened from handling the leashes of big dogs, and big enough to cover all the baldness on the back of the old man’s head. He paid the bill at the table. The old man fumbled in his pocket.
“No, this is on me.”
But the old man still fumbled in his pocket. He brought out a handkerchief and wiped his nose. Then he pulled out the Danish money, stared at it, and handed it to the young man. Once more his hand went into his pocket, and he stacked a handful of change in a neat pile on the table.
“Used to use a coin like that to fix a reed,” he said. “No one knows that trick anymore.”
The old man shuffled to the door. The younger man turned and put his hand on the arm of the waitress. “Watch out for him, next time he comes in,” he said.
Midge was a cheerful woman with big hips and broken nails.
“I hate to leave him,” said the young man, and he began to cry. He put his hands on her shoulders and his face fell into her neck. He sobbed, as the old man stood in the doorway, the chill wind sneaking in behind him. His eyes glinted, remembering the way a good reed vibrated and how its resonance sounded against his teeth. He figured that someday, perhaps sooner than the young man, he’d hear the music of Copenhagen.