The Tambourine Men

You can tell that they’re coming by the music seeping into the air, the notes lingering like a scent that you can almost recognize. You’ll follow it just to know, because otherwise it nudges at a corner of your brain, reminding you to notice it. When they arrive, you can just follow the stream of people headed toward them, the crowd clustering around the sounds.

You can try to push up to the front if you like, but people are so tightly packed that you’re risking an elbow to some of your softer parts. Everyone stands still, locked in place, reaching for the music that chimes and jangles through the mob of people. You can feel it rising through your bones and spreading through your blood until the melody runs through your veins and makes your heart beat faster.

You can hear them play for a while, and then they go. It seems like forever when you’re in the middle of it, the music stretching like some vast landscape where the grass rustles and the streams murmur, the leaves swish against each other and the birds offer an occasional cascade of notes. The sweetness of it fills your chest with a warm pressing joy.

You can listen to it rapt, your lips moving without your realizing it, your eyes closed. When your eyelids blink open you see the men on stage as they play. They are wearing buttoned shirts and jeans, and their eyes are open. They stare at the people, eyes searching, lips parted. They look entirely ordinary. Your eyes slip shut again and the sound builds again to a glorious height. It stretches again forever. The music surrounds you, overwhelms you, drowns you in beauty. When it ends the silence is emptier than anything you have ever heard.

You can tell when they’ve gone by the sudden absence of people who are usually there. The old lady isn’t at the grocery check-out line anymore, the librarian is missing, the banker who eats a sleepy lunch at the corner diner has left the plastic stool empty and you can see the dimple on the cushion where he’s sat every day for twelve years. You can watch them go, but that’s boring. Men with suitcases trundling behind them walk in a little clump. It’s more interesting to watch the trail of people following them.

You can count them, but you’ll get tired before you reach the end. They link their arms together and walk on, some with bright sure steps and some dragging their feet, undecided, still thinking of the leftover burgers they abandoned in their refrigerators.

You can watch them all and wonder, and ask yourself if you should go too. They’re all listening, all straining for the music, and humming along with the sound. Together the caravan of people builds into a great round well of song, so many voices twining together. They walk endlessly, singing, dreaming.


There was a man – let’s call him Harold – and he watched a woman. Her name was Jessica. He was sure of it.
He knew almost everything about her. He was familiar with the motion of her hands as she spoke and the sound of her voice out loud; he knew the curve of her throat and the shadows of her shoulders. He remembered the folds of her skirt when she moved. The line of her smile. Her habit of waking and sleeping, her style of dress, the odor her perfume left in the air. The scuff on the right heel of her everyday shoes. Nearly everything about Jessica, because she was nearly everything. The details were immensely important, for together they comprised her being. He watched her in the street as she walked, hurried, checked her watch and shuffled shopping bags. He watched when she typed at work, and when she laughed at distractions. He watched her conversations with friends, her quiet coffee dates, her dinners and dinner parties. He watched while she slept until her features blurred and his own eyes began to close.

He lost himself in watching her. He watched her expressions shape her face until he forgot his own. He knew her moods and her ways so well that they molded his life. Her own joy caused his. Her dead cat provoked his tears as well as her own. He was giddy with her over her promotion and felt her secret resentment at her best friend’s engagement. Even more – he noticed the wry smile as she listened to her co-worker ramble, and the polite boredom when her boss talked and waved his hands in the air. Her feelings and thoughts, her every movement, were more important to him than anything. He, himself, mattered barely at all. She was the idol of his life, and he worshiped everything she was, everything she did. He didn’t think about this; it was natural, the shape of his life, as if nothing else had ever been. If it had, he certainly couldn’t remember it. There was nothing before Jessica.

Eventually, he knew he had to meet Jessica. He couldn’t just watch from afar anymore. He had to see her up close, had to smell the scent of her skin and see the glint of her eyes. He wanted to hear her voice speak to him. He planned for nearly a month; picked a date, a place, and a time. He decided that he would approach her after work, when she busied herself cleaning and correcting and finishing the day’s odds and ends. He would say something inconsequential to her, and she would answer, and her words would be a message. He imagined that they would give meaning to his life, perhaps, they would tell him who he was or how to act or what to do. He speculated as to what she would say. He was nearly sure, though, that she would brush him off and murmur that she had something she had to go to, something more important. It would be true, too.

As soon as he got into the office, though, everything started to go wrong. He was more afraid than he’d ever been, shaking with anticipation. Of course his own anxiety didn’t matter. Only she mattered. But when he made his way to her desk, forcing each foot to step forward, her eyes showed fear too. Bewilderment, maybe. She looked as if she couldn’t understand why someone, even unimportant as he was, that she didn’t even know was walking toward her with such purpose. He stopped in front of her desk, and he looked at her for a long minute. She fiddled with the pen in her hand, and she looked back at him, but she didn’t say anything. Finally, trembling, he opened his mouth to speak. That was when it occurred to him that he had prepared no words, and come undecided. Words spilled out in a heap, fragmented and jumbled; “Hello. Erm, Jessica. Hi. I just well, I wanted to say, to tell you, to talk to you. I wanted to talk to you for a long time.” He lurched to a stop, looked helplessly at her. She looked confused and her beautiful eyes were lost, drifting and dizzily vague.
“Why do you want to talk to me? What for?”

He almost gasped at the question. “You’re – well, because you’re important to me. I know you don’t know me but I think you’re important.” He stopped again. He knew he had said too much, that she wouldn’t want to hear it and that she would want him to go away. She was about to tell him that he wasn’t important enough to tell her so.

She looked down for a long moment, and then turned her lovely face back to him and said, “Important to you? That doesn’t make sense, though. I’m not important, not nearly at all to anybody.”
Harold waited for a long moment. He knew that her face was sad, that her eyes looking up at him were confused and he could see the glint of weary sorrow in them. He couldn’t focus, though, couldn’t look at her; he was choking on a disappointment he had not expected. Harold shrugged and turned, and as he left he felt that something monumental had lifted itself from his life, had left him with nothing. He didn’t know what he was going to be, if she wasn’t important. He bent his head and walked on. The woman still sitting at the desk put down the pen still clutched in her hand, and bit her lip, and watched him go.