In the Debris Field
We found it in the debris field while looking for my mother: a 1921 A-4 style sunburst mandolin, half-hidden in blue mud. Somehow it had sunk to the bottom of a heap of sodden instruments—warped guitars, fiddles, swollen banjos, an electric mandocello, a broken requinto made from an armadillo shell—but the mandolin was still intact, unscathed, double duct-taped inside a dry plastic bag. Look at this, I called to my grandmother, but she had gone on ahead, trudging through puddles with a broken aluminum crutch over her shoulder and a headless doll under her arm, and I ran to catch up. We found a cookie tin full of quarters and a pair of wire-rim glasses and a waterlogged black-and-white abacus and on the other side of the field a warped cello bow and a big sheet metal sign that read THIBODEAUX’S STRINGED INSTRUMENT REPAIR, and nearby, next to a burst cardboard box labeled GIDEON USA / POCKET NEW TEST. / 4 GROSS NFS, we saw two white shapes we thought were drowned Dalmatians but turned out to be dead and rotting goats. We stood a moment at the far edge of the field, eyes watering in the hot sharp stench. Then we left, lugging our loot back to the FEMA trailer where we’d been living since the previous hurricane. Sitting on the steps my grandmother examined the mandolin while I washed up with the garden hose; she held it to her ear and plucked the strings and announced that Good Dogs Are Evil; to my damp questioning face she explained It’s tuned in fifths, like a violin, and I said How do you know, and she said Don’t ask stupid questions, just tune it and play this, and she wrote out from memory the opening bars of a Czerny étude on the back of the Missing Person poster we’d made from a snapshot of my mother blowing out all 38 candles of last May’s birthday cake.
My grandmother told me later that jazz was invented in 1865 by freed slaves wielding abandoned trumpets and tubas and drums and coronets they’d found in the debris fields following the fighting around New Orleans. She said that not a one of them had electricity or sheet music or a grandmother who’d gone on full scholarship to Julliard, and that if Ignorant Negros could teach themselves, then by God, I, with all my advantages, could have no excuse.
I played Puccini and Bach and Chopin nocturnes and Villa-Lobos tremolo studies every day and listened to Bill Monroe and Jethro Burns and David Grisman every night for the next eight-and-a-half years and I slept cradling the sunburst mandolin in my arms and eventually, no matter how rapid or rococo the passage, if I could hear it in my head I could produce it on the instrument. At my Merle Fest debut they billed me as the Yngwie Malmsteen Of The Mandolin; when I started in on a theme from Paganini the crowd rioted, Old School people booing me and the NewGrass people booing them and cursing and throwing bottles, and I turned my back and kept playing. On the second day they put me head to head with a famous old man who had worked with everybody from Bill to Doc to Del to Ralph, and he slashed a few furious phrases at me, throwing down the gauntlet, but I took it right back to him, ripping into some Brandenburg-style counterpoint and some Baroque scales but adding my own thing to the mix, and just as it had been from the day I’d started playing, in my music was the anguished song of a headless doll and the rubato stagger of a cripple’s broken crutch and the smeared red words of a slaughtered lamb, and the old man closed his eyes and smiled and inclined his head. When I left that place the day after the festival, I struck my tent and carted my cooler and fold-up camp chair across a field strewn with every manner of dross: fastfood Styrofoam and wet pizza boxes, condoms and tampons and a backpack of disposable diapers, a shredded blue tarp torn by the wind, white and black bags of spilled trash, clumps of dogshit, about a thousand crumpled cans. Dark men moved through the debris, stabbing it with sticks. I picked up a sun-bleached Polaroid from a clump of weeds and stared at the image: a woman neither young nor old, hair falling over her fading face.