Two weeks ago, I met a local candy shop owner in Willoughby for a story I was working on. Her warm, welcoming, gentle demeanor instantly captured me. The way she described the chocolate-making process, how she'd pause in between sentences, thinking through every word she spoke as though hesitant to miss a beat, and how her eyes twinkled with every syllable, it made me want to stay there all day and just soak up her entire life story.
On my way home tonight, I drove through downtown Willoughby and was stopped at a traffic light. I looked over to my right to see an older man standing alone, playing a banjo and harmonica on the sidewalk. My gaze never wavered. I was mesmerized by this man and had no clue why. I wished I could have went back through time and witnessed his life. As it were, the light changed not long after and I had to tear my eyes away.
This story is for them:
He stood beneath the pale streetlight for a moment as he tuned his banjo and adjusted the metal headpiece holding his harmonica. He then took a slight step back, immersing himself in the shadows cast by the building overhang. He donned a gray mustache and a long, scraggly white beard framed by shaggy hair. Wisps of it peeked out above his ears from under his forest green hat. As he began to strum his banjo, swaying ever so slightly to the chords, his life-worn face was periodically caught by the lamplight, betraying every well-earned wrinkle. Their deep creases represented long lost memories.
Slowly, he blew into his harmonica; its biting sound muted by the breeze and the banjo strings. He stood there, all alone, as people farther down the street gathered in front of a coffee shop. I’m not sure he saw me, but my car was stopped at the nearby light. I couldn’t stop staring at him, begging to know his life story, yearning to hear about his heartbreaks. There was no doubt in my mind, by the slump of his shoulders and sad shake of his head as he played that harmonica, that he’d faced heartbreak. I pulled my car to the side of the road and parked, continuing to watch him.
The traffic light changed from red to green as the rest of the cars moved forward, clearing the road and my view of this man, clad in a flannel shirt, old dark blue work pants and a pair of dirty broken in tennis shoes. I leaned against my hand as it rested on my steering wheel, transfixed on his silhouette. He must have been in this late 60s or early 70s. I suddenly pictured him as a young teenage boy, first learning the banjo, eager to play for the girl he’d has his eye on.
My mind then wandered to an older woman I’d just met the day before at a local, homemade hand dipped chocolate shop called “Maribel’s Chocolates.” The owner was soft-spoken, hesitant and gentle, her eyes twinkling as she conscientiously described the way every piece of chocolate was handmade and dipped, the way every bit of attention was paid to each detail of the complex process. Her voice, sandpapered with age complimented her eyes, which held the kind of warmth that wraps itself around your insides, making you feel as though you were home. She also carried a glimmer of sadness in her docile brown irises, as though something had been lost a long time ago that no amount of cherry cordials, chocolate covered almonds, coconut haystacks and intricate chocolate making could replace.
My imagination began to flicker as I was brought back to the present scene and this nameless, melancholy musician before me. Never once did he look up at anyone passing. It was as though he was lost in a world of his own, his worn velvet-lined banjo case openmouthed at his feet. I pictured him once very much in love, perhaps he’d once fallen for the tender chocolate maker. She’d acknowledged a husband in our meeting, but I remember how her eyes grew detached at his mention. Maybe that phantom ghost of a deep memory carried the faint sound of banjo strings upon its wings.
Perhaps the lonesome banjo player had passionately chased after his talents and ensuing dreams, despite the financial burden struggling musicians often face. Perhaps the one and only object of his affection, this young, temperate candy maker had fantasized him serenading her in the kitchen as she wiped flour from her hair and chocolate specks from her blushed cheeks.
Perhaps together, they could have braided their passions into a lifetime, never batting an eye at the pressure their respective families put on them. Perhaps.
But here I sat, looking upon this despondent man as he sang a few words with closed eyes before blowing into his harmonica. All he seemed to have left were those coarse strings, that metal upon his lips and distant, somber memories. And as my mind flitted to the candy shop owner, I recalled her eyes as I’d spoken to her, the way she slightly hunched forward and moved slowly around the shop, as though much of her life had been left to better days. All that seemed to remain were her chocolates and her whimsical, sullen, caring eyes.
I glanced at my dashboard clock and realized I should be on my way soon. I looked up at the banjo player one last time, slightly shaking my head at my romantic musings, feeling momentarily ridiculous that I’d let them run so far away from me.
As I pulled out into the road again, I decided to stop and drop a few coins in the banjo case. I unzipped my wallet as I walked over to the man, peering into the shadows, trying to catch his eye. I could tell he saw me approach, but he never once looked at my face, as though afraid of his existence being acknowledged. I dropped two crumpled dollars and some change into his barren case and he slightly tipped his head forward as though in a gesture of gratitude. I felt my heart give a quiet leap in my chest. It was enough for me.
I began to walk back to my car and as I got into the driver’s side seat and shifted gears, I glanced back at the street, my eye catching on an object propped up against the lid of the man’s guitar case. I leaned in for a moment, squinting through the streetlight, which poured onto the worn, tattered edges of the rectangular box. I strained to make out the faded print as my eyes finally adjusted to the light.
It read: “Maribel’s Chocolates.”
~ C ~