Authors: Annie Proulx
FOR MUFFY, JON, GILLIS, AND MORGAN
AND IN MEMORY OF LOIS NELLLIE GILL
My dad came over with a button accordion in a gunny sack, that’s about all he had.
Accordions in the Cutover
Without the presence of black people in America, European-Americans would not be “white”—they would be only Irish, Italians, Poles, Welsh, and others engaged in class, ethnic, and gender struggles over resources and identity.
Caminante, no hay camino,
Se hace camino al andar.
Traveler, there is no path,
Paths are made by walking.
Don’t Let a Dead Man Shake You by the Hand
Back Home with Reattached Arms
The green accordion travels from hand to hand over a hundred-year period, plays the music of many different ethnic groups. Necessarily, historic personages mingle and converse with invented characters. In some cases invented characters have been placed in real events; in others, real events have been slightly or greatly fictionalized. The story of the fictional accordion maker is set into a fictionalized account, based on March 1891 articles in the New Orleans paper the
of the real 1891 lynchings of eleven Italians in New Orleans. Throughout the book appear real newspaper advertisements, radio spiels, posters, song titles, scraps of verse, labels on common objects and lists of organizations; mixed in with them are fictional and invented advertisements, spiels, posters, song titles, verses, labels, objects and lists. No characters are based on living, real-life persons. The accordions are what you might expect.
It was as if his eye were an ear and a crackle went through it each time he shot a look at the accordion. The instrument rested on the bench, lacquer gleaming like wet sap. Rivulets of light washed mother-of-pearl, the nineteen polished bone buttons, winked a pair of small oval mirrors rimmed in black paint, eyes seeking eyes, seeking the poisonous stare of anyone who possessed
eager to reflect the bitter glance back at the glancer.
He had cut the grille with a jeweler’s saw from a sheet of brass, worked a design of peacocks and olive leaves. The hasps and escutcheons that fastened the bellows frames to the case ends, the brass screws, the zinc reed plate, the delicate axle, the reeds themselves, of steel, and the aged Circassian walnut for the case, he had purchased all of these. But he had constructed and fashioned the rest: the V-shaped wire springs with their curled eyes that lay under the keys and returned them to position in the wake of stamping fingers, the buttons, the palette rods. The trenched bellows, the leather valves and gaskets, the skived kidskin gussets, the palette covers, all of these were from a kid whose throat he had cut, whose hide he had tanned with ash lime, brains and tallow. The bellows had eighteen folds. The wood parts, of obdurate walnut to resist damp and warpage, he had sawed and sanded and fitted, inhaling the mephitic dust. The case, once glued up, rested for six weeks before he proceeded. He was not interested in making ordinary accordions. He had his theory, his idea of the fine instrument; with the proof of this one he planned to make his fortune in La Merica.
He set the fourths and then the fifths with a tuning fork and his naked ear, catching an aching but pleasurable dissonance. His sense of pitch was sure, he heard harmonies in
the groan of hinges. The button action was quick, the subtle clacking like the rattle of dice in a gambler’s hand. From a distance the voice of the instrument sounded hoarse and crying, reminding listeners of the brutalities of love, of various hungers. The notes fell, biting and sharp; it seemed the tooth that bit was hollowed with pain.
The accordion maker was hairy and muscular, a swell of black hair rising above a handsome face, an ear like a pastry circle. His irises were an amber color: in his youth he suffered the name “Chicken Eye.” When he was twenty he had defied his blacksmith father and left the village to work in the north in the accordion factories of Castelfidardo. His father cursed him and they never spoke again.
He returned to the village when Alba, his betrothed, sent news of the opportunity to rent a plot of land with a handkerchief vineyard and miniature house. He was glad to leave the city for he was embroiled in a dangerous affair with a married woman. His hairiness drew women’s attention. From time to time in their marriage his wife accused him of infidelities, and there were several. Accordions and hair drew women, could he help this? She knew it—his gift for music had attracted her powerfully, his silky pelt, the hair curling from the throat of his shirt.
He took chills easily, shivered when the sun passed behind a cloud. His wife was warm and it was possible to stand close to her and feel the heat that radiated from her as from a little stove. Her hands seized children, plates, chicken feathers, goats’ teats with the same hot grasp.
The rented vines,
Calabrese, Negro d’Avola, Spagnolo,
a harsh wine without name, sold as a blending wine to foreigners. It was the local custom to hold the fermenting must on the skins for a week, the source of the wine’s rough character and purple-black color. Swallowed straight down, it raked mouth and throat and, as other astringent liquids, was reputed to have beneficial medicinal qualities. The foreign buyers paid very little for it, but as it was the only possible source of cash income, the growers could not protest. The lack of land, money and goods, the boil of people, produced an atmosphere of scheming and connivance, of sleight of hand, of oaths of collusion, of brute force. What other way through life?
Besides the vineyard the accordion maker and his wife rented five old olive trees and a fig espaliered against the wall, and their lives were concerned with children, goats, hoeing and pruning, lugging panniers of grapes. At night the poverty of the place sounded in the whistle of wind through the dry grapestalks and the rub of moaning branches. Their hold on the plot of land weakened as the landlord, who lived in Palermo in a house with a copper roof, increased the rent one year and again the next.
The accordion maker’s shop was at the end of the garden—a hut that once housed sick goats with a floor space no larger than a double bed. On a shelf he had pots of lacquer, a box of flake shellac, various glues and sizings, squares of mother-of-pearl, two corked vials the size of a little finger containing bronze paint. Here were files, scrapers, his chisels—one a flake of chert he had unearthed from the soil—and gouges, taps, dies, metal tongues and hooks, tweezers and lengths of spring-steel wire, calipers and rules, nippers, punches and clamps, many of these tools stolen from the factory in Castelfidardo—how else to gain possession of these necessary things? With a
rigger’s brush of a few sable hairs he painted scrolls and keys, flourishing triple borders bristling with bronze thorns. He sold the instruments to a dealer in the market town who, like the wine merchants, paid him almost nothing, enough to feed magpies, perhaps.
As the accordion maker gained mastery over his craft he began to imagine a life not possible in the malicious village, but likely enough in the distant place that rose and set in his thoughts: La Merica. He thought of a new life, fresh and unused, of money hanging in the future like pears hidden in high leaves. He whispered and murmured at night to his wife. She answered, “never.”
“Listen,” he said aloud furiously, waking the baby, “you know what your brother wrote.” That bracket-faced fool Alessandro had sent a letter, spotted with red sauce and grimy fingerprints, that said come, come and change your destiny, turn suffering into silver and joy.
“The world is a staircase,” hissed the accordion maker in the darkness. “Some go up and some come down. We must ascend.” She refused to agree, put her hands over her ears and moaned when he announced a departure date, later pointed up her chin and rolled her eyes like a poisoned horse when he brought home the trunk with metal corners.
The accordion maker’s posture, suggestive of hidden violence and challenge, caught the eye of other men. He stood with the left foot planted, the right cocked suggestively, his shoes black broken things. His character betrayed his appearance; he seemed
and aggressive, but was not. He disliked grappling with problems. He depended on his wife to comb
through difficulties. He produced the vaulting idea, the optimistic hope, she ordered the way in everything—until now.
How many wake in the night, stretch out a hand to the sleeping mate and encounter a corpse? In the evening the accordion maker’s wife had wept a little, lamented the looming journey, but there was nothing, nothing that gave a sign paralysis would come in a few hours to crouch above her ribs and thrust shims into her joints, stiffen her tongue, freeze her brain and fix her eyes. The accordion maker’s fingers trembled up the rigid torso, the stone arm, the hard neck. He believed she was a dead woman. He lit the lamp, cried her name, slapped her marble shoulders. Yet her heart beat, sending the blood pounding through the pipes of veins until her rib-harp vibrated and this encouraged him to believe the affliction was a temporary fit that would ease when daylight came, but it did not.
As days passed it became clear that this paralysis was an evil put on her by some choleric force, the will of an enemy that she never leave the village, for she had been a healthy woman, her only defects an occasional seizure dating from childhood and a clouded eye, injured by a hurtling almond as she danced at her wedding supper. She was never ill, up from childbed within a day, running her household with authority. Her strong contralto voice was made for command. Her father had called her “the General” when she was a child. Such a person has enemies.
The accordion maker was ready to throw himself from a cliff or rush into the wilderness, only let someone say what he should do. He appealed to his mother-in-law.
The mother of the paralyzed woman folded her arms. It was as though a powerful dwarf with a basso voice spoke from within the baggy yellow skin. “Go. Three years. Make money
and return. We will care for her. It is better that the man goes alone first.” The wet olive eyes shifted.
The old father nodded a little to show the good sense in this advice. Their oldest son, Alessandro, had emigrated to New York two years earlier and sent them letters stuffed with money, letters describing his handsome clothes, his position, his fine new bathtub (the bathtub in which he was fatally attacked a few years later by a Bohemian, lunatic with rage because Alessandro had kicked his son for making a noise on the stair; even then the old parents denied that their family was cursed).
The accordion maker’s daughters, sniveling because they could not go on the ship to La Merica, were parceled out with aunts. Silvano, the only boy—conceived on a Sunday—was eleven, old enough to stand a day’s work; he would be the one to accompany the father. The girls looked at him with hatred.
Another who suffered from these events was the frozen woman’s younger sister, a child herself, whose task it became to funnel gruel through the stiff lips, to ease the stinking cloths from beneath her sister’s dribbling vents, to roll the wasting body with its raw bedsores to new positions, to drip clear water into the dry, unseeing eyes.
The father and son left in the dimming starlight of morning, descending the steep path with jumping steps, away from the rigid woman and her relatives’ restless eyes, the resentful girls, past the stone in the shape of a beehive that marked the limit of the village. The accordion maker carried the trunk, his tools and the instrument on his back in a kind of harness made from knotted rope. The boy, Silvano, bent under a rolled-up sheepskin and a
grey blanket, a canvas bag stuffed with cheese and loaves of bread. The village was out of sight forever in less than seventy steps.
They walked for two days, took a ferry across glittering, white-stippled water, then trudged on to a railway station. During this journey the father hardly spoke, thinking first, with tears marring his view, that his wife had been the cloth of his shirt, the saliva in his mouth, then recasting the situation in the harsh male proverb—the best cold meat in a man’s house is a dead wife. Unfortunately his wife was neither quick nor dead. The boy, gangling, humiliated by his father’s silence, no longer asked questions but, as they approached villages, filled his pockets with fingerstones to pelt snarling dogs.
It seemed Sicily was pouring out as cornmeal from a ripped sack. The railway station swarmed with people shouting, gesticulating, dragging valises and wooden boxes this way and that, crowding from the door of the station onto the platform, itself a crush of relatives embracing and clenching each other’s shoulders, a storm of heaving cloth, the women’s head scarves folded in triangles and knotted under their chins, brilliant geometries against the mass of black backs.
The father and son boarded the train and waited for it to move in the company of buzzing flies and passengers struggling on and off. They sweltered in their woolen suits. On the platform the people seemed mad. Women cried and threw their arms up in the air; men pummeled the shoulders and upper arms of departing sons; children howled and clung to receding skirts with grips that tore fabric; babies wrenched their mothers’ hair. The conductors, the train officials, shouted, pushed back the unticketed. Down the length of the train passengers leaned out the open windows, crushing and kissing hands for the last time, their mouths contorted by grief.
The accordion maker and Silvano sat unspeaking, their
eyes casting over the scene. When the train started, a cry went up as those on the platform watched the cars glide away from them, saw dear faces already changed into the unknowable masks of strangers.
An aging man, corpse-thin in a rusty suit, broke from the crowd and ran alongside the train. The hooks of his eyes caught Silvano. Strangers often stared at the boy, taking in his big cheeks and sagging eyes, an uncommon face for a child, something Spanish or Moorish in those red-rimmed eyes. The man shouted something, repeated it, shouting and running as the train gathered speed; he ran with spidery legs over the rough ground beside the track, and as the track curved and the train drew away, the boy looked back and saw the man still running, far behind the train, and at last on all fours, motionless in the locomotive’s falling smoke.
“What did he say?” demanded the father.
“He said to tell Silvano—I thought he meant me—this other Silvano to send him money. He said he would die if he couldn’t get away.”
The accordion maker ground his teeth, crossed himself. It twisted his spine that a stranger would call his son’s name and ask for money. But the one on his left, a strong young man who had just boarded the train, an ugly fellow with a gap between his front teeth and a flattened nose, pulled his sleeve.
“I know that one!
That crazy one comes to the platform every day, chases the train crying for someone to tell his brother to send him money to come to New York!
He has no brother! His brother died a hundred years ago, crushed by the hooves of a horse in La Merica! And you, you are going there?”
The accordion maker felt the pleasure of a direct question; the urge to confide warmed him.