by Thaddeus Rutkowski
An electric radio sat on top of the refrigerator in my family’s house. My mother was the one who turned the radio on. She liked music, and sometimes she would sing along.
The radio had a clockface that told my siblings and me when it was time to leave for school.
Every morning, the radio played the top hits through its monaural speaker. Out of all the hits, the one that stuck in my mind was “Nowhere Man.” The melody hooked me, but the lyrics didn’t mean much. I certainly lived in a Nowhere Land, but was I a real Nowhere Man? Was I a man at all, or just a boy? I definitely felt like a boy. Did I have any Nowhere plans? I wanted to leave Nowhere and get Somewhere. Would I be able to do that, or would I go from Nowhere to Nowhere?
I knew where Somewhere was. It was in the shows I saw on television. Where I lived was not on television, and the people I saw on television didn’t come to where I lived. That would have helped, if some TV actor showed up where I lived or where I went to school. That would have proved I was Someone. But I knew no TV actors. I was No One.
I didn’t have high expectations for a change in my situation. I just wanted to get to school on time.
One morning, I heard my mother singing “Nowhere Man.” She had most of the words right. When she stopped singing, she said, “It starts out well; then it repeats. But it doesn’t go crazy, like most of the songs I hear.”
Listening to her made me late. I slammed out the door and ran for the school bus.
In physical-education class, I jogged with the rest of the boys around a dirt track. As we high-stepped, we chanted, “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of
Tripoli . . .”
Our gym instructor jogged along with us. “You’ll be ready for the Marines when you leave here,” he said. “But when you get to boot camp, you’ll have to sing in a room filled with tear gas.
I wondered if we would have to jog in place in the gas room, or whether we could sit in a chair while we wept and sang.
We rounded the first turn in the track. As we pumped our arms and lifted our knees, we called out: “We will fight our country’s battles in the air, on land or sea.”
“You’ll put on a gas mask and keep singing,” the instructor continued. “Then you’ll take the mask off and keep going. If you can’t do it, you’ll start again. You’ll repeat until you get through the song. When you’re done, you’ll pass the test for the Marines.”
As we neared the finish line, we shouted, “We have fought in every clime and place where we could take a gun!”
“Run, Sweet Peas!” the instructor yelled.
I collapsed as I crossed the line. I wasn’t able to join in on the coda.
My mother asked if she should buy a violin for herself. “I saw an ad in the paper for a used one,” she said.
“How would you learn to play it?” I asked.
“I’ll follow my ear. I listened to the Chinese violin a lot when I was a child. It has only two strings, but this one isn’t much harder.”
“Won’t you need lessons?”
“I can hear the notes in my head.”
“You should use the money for something else,” I said.
Presently, my mother bought the instrument. The violin was beautiful. It rested in a velvet-lined case and was made of red-brown wood. When my mother drew the bow over the strings, the sound box gave out a loud, rich drone. “It sounds a lot like the Chinese erhu,” she said.
She played a few notes that didn’t follow any recognizable pattern, then put the violin away.
Later, I opened the violin’s case. I unclipped the bow, picked up the instrument, and drew the bow across a string. The sound vibrated in my head.
An artist friend of my father’s came from New York to visit.
At one point, my father asked him, “Do you ever see any celebrities there?”
“I was at a party with George Harrison,” the friend said.
When I heard this, I knew the friend had been carousing with the Nowhere Man himself, or at least with one of the musicians on the song. Harrison was a Somewhere Man. He got Somewhere by heeding his own advice about living in Nowhere. He made his Somewhere plans and left.
My father’s friend was an ambassador from Someplace. I believed he could help me do Something.
“Did you talk to Harrison?” my father asked.
“No. That would be the thing not to do.”
I could imagine the Somewhere people milling around with drinks in their hands, talking to who they were supposed to talk to, making sure they stayed Someplace, making certain they didn’t return to Nowhere.
In chorus practice in school, our teacher played the piano while we sang. The teacher liked songs with a message—with a conscience—so she told us to open our music books to “Blowin’ in the Wind.” As the notes flowed from the piano, we came in with the words.
I was a bad singer—I had trouble carrying a tune, even when the teacher played it slowly. So I repeated what the boys around me sang. Unfortunately, the boys hated the song. Instead of singing the line, “The answer is blowin’ in the wind,” they chanted, “The answer is blow me in the wind.”
In the morning, I heard my mother playing “You Are My Sunshine” on her violin. All of the notes were right; I recognized the song.
“How did you learn that?” I asked.
“I sang it in my head; then I played it.”
“Can you play ‘Nowhere Man’?”
She scraped the first few notes out of her violin. The sequence sounded familiar. She was hearing the melody in her head. She would have to spend time practicing, but soon she would bring the song home.
About the Author: Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of six books, most recently Border Crossings, a poetry collection. My novel Haywire won the Asian American Writers Workshop’s members’ choice award, and my book Guess and Check won the Electronic Literature bronze award for multicultural fiction. I received a fiction writing fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts.