Orion woke up first although I usually do. He can’t be quiet when he is excited. He is so happy to wake me up, he stifles cried of joy as I rise from slumber. I try to keep his environment somewhat predictable to help him feel calm but things are not exactly stable around here. I never know who I am going to be from one day to the next.
Literally. Mom makes me tell people I have a different name and told me to keep track of who knew me as what name. It was an impossible task but I told her I had it down. I used to be amazing at math, way better than most for my age, so she believed me. I did try, assigning symbols to people who wore glasses, thick lenses got two diamonds, expensive ones got three. But then I realized, no one cared. Everyone had bigger problems on their minds than a twelve-year-old boy they thought went by a different name. My identity wasn’t important to the world, to my mother and soon, I didn’t care what people called me.
Mostly people referred to me as ‘boy’, ‘grinder’ or ‘you there’. I played an organ grinder in the parks around the city and downtown on weekends. Orion is my monkey who helps pick up the change people throw as tips. He performs a couple of tricks but is old. He tries to keep up but most days, I just let him pick up coins. I’ve known Orion for a long time and though I take care of him, we are like brothers. In his heyday, he belonged to a man who was like a father to me, Arden. They were an amazing team who traveled the world together, playing music and making memories. I miss Arden.
My family traveled with The Joyful Flyers Circus as their resident musicians, The Cosmic Joke. We played for the acts, for the crowds, we played for hours. My family loved it. My dad kept us separate but friendly with the itinerant types, insisting we practice and remain true to some semblance of a normal life. Walking the road of an artist of music meant that when a patron came along, someone happy to buy what you were selling, your gratitude carried you to be whoever they needed you to be. ‘Work is love, love is work’, my Dad used to say. We were grateful and lucky to be selling our familial notes for money as it meant freedom for our souls, indulgence in our God-given gifts and a life of peace and family. I miss that.
War broke out the summer I turned eleven. Everything went crazy but my Dad insisted we stay out of it, that we continue on our journey with The Joyful Flyers with whom we had a year-long contract. So we pretended and imagined and wished for peace. We played music with love, hoping in some galactic way to be making a difference in a violent world. But that world came knocking one night and wouldn’t take no for an answer. They took my Dad.
We didn’t hear from him for 17 days. The day we talked to him was the last I heard his voice as he died the next day from internal bleeding from a recent beating . If we had been able to see him, we wouldn’t have recognized him, his face swollen and bruised, his walk, limped. He had told me he loved me and that I was the man of the family while he was away. I knew what that meant and so did my mother.
She had started drinking heavily the night my Dad was taken away and was in no condition to find work. My other siblings did what they could but were unskilled save playing the violin, the bass guitar and the drums. The financial prosperity in my family was going to have to come from me. I told Orion it would be okay, that we could do it. We were going to hit the streets with a vengeance. I knew my organ wasn’t brash and in-your-face. It was antiquated and spoke to a time that no longer exists, a simpler time. But there was a music lover born every minute and I intended to find them all.
Arden hadn’t cared that I was a kid and treated me like a person. He told me things about the world he thought I wouldn’t learn from my Dad but had a right to know. He told me that if I didn’t know how to bring in money, I might as well lay down and die. He wasn’t an advocate of greed and stockpiling, just being able to keep oneself alive. He always said if I did my best, if I always did my absolute best, not looking to anyone outside me to validate me or qualify what ‘best’ meant, I couldn’t go wrong.
This flew in the face of the perfection demanded by a musical father. But that was all over. Walking to the park with Orion, his new scarf tucked into his coat, I thought about how Arden used to tell me about this organ grinder named Ole Jackin McBlue and his monkey, Dreamer. They were the best in the business, born in the perfect time and place for an organ grinder to bring entertainment to the masses for free. They were beloved and cared for by their city, their practical life worries soothed by active care and comfort extended. Ole Jackin had a true heart and a loving soul and the world he lived in knew it. There was no charge for organ grinding and there never has been in the history of a traditional industry. We rely, and always have, on gratuitous giving. When a person gave a grinder money, McBlue used to say, it was the ‘Power of the Almighty coming through’.
I never really knew what he meant but I did know that if I didn’t make some money that day, dinner was going to be scarce and breakfast non-existent. Needing doesn’t necessarily mean getting so I stopped thinking about the money I needed. I stopped begging people, in my head, to please help me, to keep my family fed, if only for one more day. Instead, I thought about what I wanted. I pictured myself leaving the grocery store after the park with enough food for three days. I saw myself happy, I saw it happening in my mind until it was as real as day, until I felt it. I felt like everything was going to be okay even though there was no tangible reason to believe so. I ignored the reality of my life and walked into the park with Orion and my trusty organ grinder and played to a world that needed my balm of my music to soothe themselves back to balance.
The galaxy gave that day, the world bending to my will, my sweet Orion tired from doing actual work. I knew it would. I knew a noble job like grinding, done well, would please whatever power is in charge, whatever God that makes it all work, whatever being is behind the whole of life. We all went to bed that night with full bellies and when the morning came, I awoke to battle the facts and illusions of the world, confident that truth would always win.