By Michael Sherrin
Bernard played the accordion and Saint listened. Like every morning when there was less than a thirty percent chance of rain, Bernard and Saint took two trains to a street near Trafalgar Square. Bernard carried his accordion, his chair, and his bag with what they needed for the day.
Bernard unfolded his chair at the corner within view of the station entrance. He removed the dog bowl from his bag and placed it on the street in front of him. After situating himself on the chair, he unbuckled the accordion. Both he and the instrument stretched out with a sigh.
Saint sat to the side, facing Bernard like the audience-of-one she was. She lifted her ears, primed and attentive, with her tail stretched back, unmoving to avoid causing a distraction. She licked her nose and waited for Bernard to play.
Bernard opened with an old staple. He stretched the bellows wide and held a chord out for a long swell before compressing into a rapid fanning and bouncing. For all the movement in his fingers, hands, and arms, nothing after Bernard’s shoulder moved. His head remained low, eyes closed. Discipline prevented his feet from tapping the way Saint noticed other feet were occasioned to.
The second song was always a slow song. No one tapped their feet to it, whatever it was.
As the foot traffic dwindled, Saint lay with her head out to the street, taking her first break of the day. The bowl contained fewer coins than usual, meaning there would be no lunch.
Bernard paused after the sixth song, squeezing his instrument together and placing it on the street next to him. He emptied the coins from the bowl, never counting them, but responding with a single “hmmm” or “uhhh.” He filled the bowl with water from a thermos, inviting Saint to have a drink. She pushed herself up, stretching out the tension always in her back legs, and lowered her head to the water. On hot days, she would drink her fill. But today was cool, which meant fewer coins. After a few laps, she pressed her head on Bernard’s knee so he would begin playing again.
Bernard wore a scarf of gold, with a fuzzy black hat Saint once mistook for another dog. He scratched Saint behind her ear as only he knew how. This was their relationship. Bernard played, Saint listened. Bernard stopped playing, and Saint reminded him to play. She loved the scratches, but this was music, and even she would not be distracted by idle pleasures.
Bernard took the dog bowl, poured the remaining water into the cap of the thermos, wiped the inside with the end of his scarf, and placed it in front of him in the exact position it was before. He smiled at her, and she lifted her head, sat by his side, and listened to him play.
The morning smelled of fresh bread. Bread could only be fresh in the morning, as Saint understood. Coffee smelled fresh all day, but bread cooled off, stiffened, and aged as the day wore on. Saint knew lunchtime arrived when the smells of butter and sweets transitioned to salt, replacing the morning’s bread and pastries with cheeses and meats. Saint sat at attention during lunch, encouraging the passersby to separate from their coins and their sandwiches.
Saint laid down for her post-lunch break when a pair of feet stopped in front of the accordion player. No coin dropped into the bowl, followed by the feet stomping away. The feet didn’t move. They continued to point at Bernard.
The feet belonged to a little girl with pigtails draped over her shoulders, a bow atop her head, wearing a party dress like the ones Saint saw at the park during street fairs.
“What are you playing?” the girl asked, swinging her arms and dress side to side.
Bernard continued the melody without pause. He kept his head down as if sound beyond his music didn’t exist. Bernard played music; he didn’t answer questions.
Bernard wiggled his nose, which was wide and difficult to wiggle. “A song.” He continued to play.
“I know it’s a song,” the girl said. “What song is it?”
The accordion exhaled in annoyance with the distracting conversation. “I learned it from my grandmother,” he said. “I don’t remember the name.”
“But you’re old,” the girl said. “Grandmothers are old. So you can’t have a grandmother.”
Bernard leaned forward as he stretched his instrument for a dramatic crescendo, before lightening his touch to ease into the song’s final segment. “I used to be young. As young as you.”
“But you have a beard,” she said, once again responding with the authority of a policeman. “My daddy has a beard too, but it’s in color. Not like yours.”
Bernard finished the song with a final flourish, more than he did when Saint was his only audience. The girl clapped. Bernard buckled the accordion and rested it on one leg, braced by the straps over his shoulders. He stroked his silver beard.
“How old are you?” the girl asked with a stomp of her foot.
“Not as old as that song.”
“How old is the song?”
Bernard thought for a moment, looking at the pavement but not at Saint. “I’m not sure exactly.”
“You should know how old your songs are. In case someone asks.” The girl, whose head barely met the tip of the accordion while atop its player’s knee, wagged her finger, imitating a restaurateur guarding the garbage.
No coins fell when he wasn’t playing.
“How old are you?” he asked.
The girl lifted her hands and held up all the fingers on one and one finger in the other.
“This many?” Bernard sipped the thermos, but offered none to Saint. Saint pushed her head onto Bernard’s thigh, licking her nose to get his attention. “Where are your parents?”
“They’re shopping. I said I wanted to hear the music.”
“You’re very young to be out here alone.”
“Do you work here?” The girl inspected Bernard’s slot of street and wrinkled her nose in dissatisfaction.
“My daddy works in an office. Why don’t you have an office?”
“This is my office.”
“It doesn’t look like an office. You should have a secretary.”
“But no one would hear me.”
The girl squinted her eyes, letting out a frustrated harrumph. “I guess.”
“Woof,” Saint said, pressing her head into Bernard’s leg. She never spoke during performances, but this was a long intermission, and no coins fell. Saint reminded him of the lunch they missed and the dinner they needed.
Bernard patted Saint’s head.
“Can I pet your doggie?”
Saint sat straight and poised, shifting her eyes toward Bernard to convey her displeasure. This was a distraction, and an unprofitable one. Little girls carried ice cream, not coins.
The girl reached toward Saint, who gave the pale fingers a sniff. They smelled of soap and fruit and mucus. Saint lowered her head in frustration, but this only invited more petting. The girl stroked Saint’s back as if trying to straighten the curls of her fur. No one pet her like Bernard did.
“He’s soft,” the girl said.
“What’s her name?”
“That’s a nice name.”
“Woof,” Saint said, again urging the accordion player to play. The girl jumped back with a squeal, pressing her hand to her cheek.
“She’s just saying hi.” Bernard put a gentle hand on Saint’s head. Saint lay down to obey. She did not want to say hi to a girl with no coins. She didn’t understand why Bernard did.
“Do you like music?” Bernard asked.
“Very much. I’m taking piano lessons.” The girl stretched out her fingers for Bernard to inspect.
“A very good instrument.”
“How do you play that?”
“The accordion?” Bernard stretched the bag, which groaned, and trilled the keys imitating a bird’s squawk. “It’s like a piano. But it can do so much more.”
“This old lady comes by and teaches me. I don’t know any songs yet. I can play my scales. I’m supposed to practice.” The girl looked at her yellow shoes, shuffling them on the pavement. “Do you play here every day?”
“Do you practice?”
“This is my practice.” Bernard played a quick scale, which seemed to impress the girl. She studied Bernard’s fingers, which moved like mice when the lights went on. Saint wanted to say Bernard never played at home, only here for his audience. But that would be impolite.
“Does your dog always come with you?”
“Saint is always with me.”
Saint sat at attention hearing her name. She was always ready.
“Dogs shouldn’t be in an office.” The girl folded her arms. Saint would have as well had she arms to fold.
“I won’t tell.” Bernard placed a single finger over his lips, which made the girl laugh.
“Play me something else,” the girl said, waving her arms out.
Saint didn’t like this. Bernard didn’t take requests or accept demands. Never had Saint specified what song should be played. Bernard chose the music, and Saint provided the ears.
“I have just the song.” Bernard spread his arms wide and a puff of sound released. The sudden move startled the girl, who cupped her hands over her mouth. Saint knew how to act and remained perfectly still. The rest of the song slowed, haunting and pulsing with finger flourishes and deep breaths. Bernard closed his eyes and played, stretching his leg out, raising his head when the rhythms increased, then bowing when they slowed. In and out. The girl’s face froze, torn between a smile and a frown, seemingly unsure what to make of the sounds she heard.
Saint listened, but did not recognize the song. She found it hard to process, being so alien to her. She lay down facing the street, away from Bernard, who made no show of noticing while he played. Apparently, he found a new audience.
The song completed, and the little girl clapped with the hesitation of someone lacking keen ears.
“Did you like that?” Bernard asked.
“I did.” The girl spun her arms and dress as before.
“What are you doing?” The girl’s parents stood at the corner. They rushed to her side with several bags hung over their arms.
“I want to learn the accordion, Daddy,” the girl said in a high key.
Her parents hurried her away, making no attempt to drop a coin. They pushed the girl down the street, though she spun around, running back. She dipped into a pocket in the front of her dress and lifted a gold disc that she dropped with a thud. She nodded and ran back to her concerned parents.
Bernard puffed hair through his whiskers and scratched Saint behind her ear. Saint made a quick inspection of the heavy disc in their bowl, unsure of its denomination, but finding it stood out against the dull copper and brown within. Satisfied the girl had left them with something for their time, Saint sat up, willing to play her role. Bernard nodded and proceeded to play his next song.
Evening smelled sweaty regardless of the season. Ovens baked savory meats, people unbuttoned shirts, and shoes hurried by, but with a clumsiness as if feet forgot how to step one in front of the other over the course of the day.
Bernard played during the evening commute and on through the first restaurant seating, serenading them with lighter, more romantic fare. Saint lifted her head and pressed her chin on Bernard’s thigh. Bernard knew what this meant, and looked into her eyes as he played, holding the stare for what felt like the longest point of the day. Saint’s tail wagged. She licked her lips, pressing closer to the accordion player, getting close to his scent and feeling the vibrations in her nose and through her head and the rumblings from Bernard’s stomach.
With his final song played, Bernard packed the thermos, chair, and accordion over his shoulders and lifted with a groan. His legs stumbled until they found their pattern, having forgotten how to walk over the course of the day.
Saint followed close to his feet, sniffing the ground as they headed home.
“We had a good day, did we not?” Bernard asked without looking down. He flipped the gold disc with his thumb and caught it in midair. Saint wasn’t sure she agreed and tilted her head to the side indicating her confusion.
“What do you want for dinner, Saint? My treat.” Bernard held the gold disc between two fingers, letting it twinkle back the city lights.
Something about the coin conveyed value, importance. Maybe she could forgive the distractions of the day after a good meal. Saint let out a woof of approval, indicating her lack of preference.
Michael Sherrin developed his preference for fiction when he learned reality didn’t include a real Spider-Man. He has an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management, where he learned to write riveting Excel formulas, though the solutions were often predictable. By day, he works with complex analytical algorithms, and by night he works on short stories and his novel. Michael lives outside Boston with his husband, dog, and several thousand action figures.