The Polka Man
by William John Watkins
Whenever I hear an accordion now, it sounds to me like angels screaming. I used
to like accordion music back when the band came into my Uncle Jack's bar on
Saturday nights and played polkas for the miners and their wives to dance to. But I
was very young then, and that was before I met the Polka Man.
My Uncle Jack bought his bar with his "leg money." That was what he called the
compensation the Red Circle Coal and Navigation Company gave him for the loss
of his leg. Generally, all the Red Circle gave disabled workers was a pink slip, but
his accident was so spectacular and public opinion so obviously on his side, that
they had no alternative but to pay him off.
And, of course, he did manage to save the life of a minor mine official, which
every miner who came into the bar berated him for, even ten years later. That the
rescue was inadvertent counted for nothing with them. Instead of knocking the
old fool out of harm's way scrambling out of the tunnel a half step ahead of the
explosion, they held generally that he should have "stopped and thrown the
bastard back in."
His failure to do so was considered the loss of a golden opportunity, since men
from The Office rarely came any closer to the miners than the pay window, and the
drunker they got, the more they moaned the loss of such a chance to get even. But
even when they'd been laid off, and the joking had a bitter, belligerent tone, Uncle
Jack never complained about it, any more than he complained about the loss of his
He was remarkably good natured about the leg, considering how much it pained
him in the mornings, and sometimes late at night, and always when the damp
rolled up the valley. It always looked painful to me, a red, blunt, angry stump just
below his knee. But he always gave me a rueful grin when I mentioned it, and said
"Well, it was only half a leg really, and they paid for a whole one," as if he'd
In fact, I never saw him angry about it at all, until the Polka Man came in. I called
him that even before I knew his name because he came in carrying something that
looked like a new kind of accordion and I thought he was there to play, even
though it was early afternoon and not even Saturday.
It was probably just wishful thinking. I loved polkas then; I never heard one
without a hurricane of excitement around it. The minute the accordion would riffle
through its notes opening up, miners would get up and fling their wives and
girlfriends around, and it was all shouting, and the stamping of feet, and laughing.
And of course, they always played a polka when a fight broke out, which is always
exciting for a kid.
I didn't know then that it was all just a way of forgetting the desperation of their
lives for a minute, so it always cheered me up when I heard a polka, and I needed
I was nine then, and in love for the first and last time. Her name was Grace
Powers, and her father ran the bank. There's no more painful kind of love than
first love. You're always too young to know what to do about it, even if you have
the chance, and you rarely have it, because first love is almost always unrequited.
Mine was more unrequited than most.
First, as is almost always the case, she was beautiful, or at least I thought so then.
It seemed to me she was the blond haired little girl from every magazine I'd ever
seen, and I wanted her more than life itself, though I had no idea what to do with
her if I got her. I doubt that I would have thought to kiss her, and wouldn't have
known how to do it right anyway. I believe all I wanted was for her to say she
My fantasies always ended that way, after some great act of heroism on my part.
Still, my daydreams about her always seemed incomplete, like the Coming
Attractions they showed on Saturday afternoon at the Palace. But then, in those
days, even the movies rarely went further than innuendo, and I was far too young
to even know something was being hinted at. Still, I knew there was something
more I wanted, I just didn't know what it was.
Of course, what makes first love so valuable isn't that it's free of lust, but that it's
free of the taint of knowledge, like Adam and Eve before the serpent showed up
and told them the "game" they'd been playing all along was dead evil.
The Polka Man told me that.
Not that I understood him then. I didn't understand what he meant any more than I
understood what he was offering. But my Uncle Jack knew. From the first minute
the Polka Man came in, I could see in my uncle's eyes that he knew him. And
It was a great shock, seeing fear in my Uncle Jack's eyes. I was afraid most of the
time, but it was inconceivable to me that there was anything Uncle Jack could be
afraid of. But I had no doubt he was afraid. He had that look people get when they
look at an overwhelming natural force, like a fire, or a really big storm coming in.
"What do you want?" he said. He didn't give the Polka Man time to answer.
"You'll not get it," he said. "One was enough." I never heard so much anger in his
voice, and I certainly couldn't understand why he would be mad at the Polka Man.
Uncle Jack was always nice to old people, and he'd have made a hefty profit if he
didn't set up one on the house every time an old timer came in.
Besides, the Polka Man was as harmless looking an old man as I ever saw. He had
a Santa Claus sort of face but without a beard, and a big smile, and his eyes were
amused even though they looked sad deeper down, like he'd suffered a great deal
but hadn't lost his sense of humor about it. He was short, and not plump but sort of
soft looking. Even the fat miners had a frame of muscle underneath like a steel
girders, but he was nothing like them. Nor was he that unused kind of soft like Mr.
Powers, the banker, or the men from The Office at the mine who we'd see on the
way to church on Sunday.
He had a hearty voice, a kind of musical voice, like women's laughter, and he had
long, women's hands. "I've come to play," he said.
I could see Uncle Jack was still afraid of him, but he started coming round the bar.
I'd seen him do that before when somebody got dangerous and he had to throw
them out. He only had one leg, but he could use it better than a cop used his billy
club, and even the meanest drunk usually went backing out with his palms up in
front of him when Uncle Jack came around the bar. I expected the Polka Man to
pick up his accordion and scramble out, but he held his ground as if he wasn't in
the least worried about anything Uncle Jack could do, because it had all been done
to him already.
And about four stools down, Uncle Jack slowed, stuttered, and stopped. And there
he stood, with the weight on his good leg so the other could swing free to upend
somebody, but too afraid to take a step closer. "Take your damned squeeze box
and get out," he said.
But the Polka Man only laughed. A pleasant laugh, the kind friends have whenthey call each other names they'd punch a stranger for using. "You liked my music
well enough once," he said.
Uncle Jack looked guilty, and it took some of the anger out of him. "Well, I don't
like it now," he said.
"Shall I unplay it then?" the Polka Man said. It didn't make any sense to me, but
he said it as if he was perfectly willing to do it.
My uncle hung his head and gave a deep sigh and said, "What's done's done."
The Polka Man smiled as if Uncle Jack was complimenting his playing. "None
ever sorry they danced to my music," he said.
"But I won't dance again," my uncle said.
"Not you," the Polka Man said. Then he looked at me.
Uncle Jack came another half step forward; you could see he was more scared than
ever, but he couldn't hold back. And he couldn't go forward. There was a lot more
fear in his voice than rage, and it almost sounded like he was begging. "Not him,"
he said, "he's too young."
"Old enough for my song," the Polka Man said.
My uncle looked at his leg, and took another step and a half forward. He was close
enough to grab hold of the Polka Man with a lunge, but he didn't do it. He was
starting to sweat, and he was sort of shivering like something was pushing him
forward just as hard as fear was holding him back and he was stuttering between
the two. "No!" he said. But you could see he knew he had no power over the Polka
Man and couldn't really command him to do anything. Then he swallowed hard
and said, "Aww, to hell with it, then. Take the other one and be damned."
That made the Polka Man laugh, not a mean laugh, or a superior laugh, but the
kind of laugh when somebody says something he doesn't know is funny but
everybody else does. "I'm not here for your leg, you daft bugger." He held up a
finger to stop what my uncle was going to say next. "And I'm not here for his."
The idea of it seemed preposterous to him, and he seemed like he was trying not to
laugh. But it didn't put me much at ease. I didn't know what was going on, but it
was clear it was about me, and I didn't like it.
"No, you're here for pain," my uncle said. "Just like the last time."
"I am," the Polka Man said. "But I promise you I won't take any that isn't here
My uncle looked a little mollified. "And you won't harm him," he said. It was as
much a warning as a question.
The Polka Man's eyes twinkled. "What a question," he said. "Of course I won't
harm him!" But it was perfectly clear that he could, and there was nothing my
uncle or anybody else could do to stop him.
I looked for the door, but somehow I knew I couldn't get out it, and the Polka Man
gave me such an affectionate look I wasn't sure I wanted to, even if I was at risk.
And I wanted to know what was going on, more than I wanted to get away, so I
stayed where I was until the Polka Man and my uncle finished negotiating. I could
see that was what they were doing, even though it was clear my uncle had no
power over the Polka Man. Finally, the Polka Man said, "I give you my word, no
pain that isn't here already."
My uncle looked skeptical, and the Polka Man gave a smile. "Did your leg hurt?
Didn't you get everything I promised?" he said. "Did I ever lie to you?" My uncle
shook his head reluctantly. "Did I cheat you? Do you want it undone?" the Polka
Uncle Jack shook his head again. "I won't have him hurt," he said doggedly.
The Polka Man gave an exasperated sigh. "I take the pain away," he said. He
looked like he carried it away inside himself. "Who knows that better than you?"
Uncle Jack threw up his hands and went back around the bar. "It's up to him,
then," he said.
And the Polka Man turned to me. "I want your pain," he said. "I'll deal for it fair
and square. You make the decision."
I didn't know what was going on, but I knew I didn't want a bar and I needed two
legs to play on, but since it was up to me, I was willing to listen. "I want my legs,"
The Polka Man laughed so hard it took him two minutes to stop. "I don't collect
legs," he said. "What kind of silliness have you been telling him about me?" he
said to my uncle.
"He knows nothing about you," Uncle Jack said. "Nor where you come from."
"Well," he said to me, "I'm from right here, you know. Just not Right Now." I had
no concept of time as a place then, so I thought he meant he was born in the Valley
but didn't live there any more. "And around here," he said, "I'm called the Polka
He picked up his instrument and moved it apart and together. All it sounded like
to me was a gang of men and women being crushed to death, and I told him that.
"Those were the black keys," he said. "Wait'll you hear the white ones." But he
didn't play them. "I'm collecting for the white keys now," he said.
I believed him that he wasn't after legs, but I didn't know what he was after. So I
"Pain," he said. "You can't have great music without pain. That's the root of all
art." And as soon as he said it, I could see how the polka was just a way of letting
a whole lot of pain out in one great joyous rush.
"I take it back away with me." He looked like there was a lot more to it, but he
didn't know how to explain it any way I'd understand.
I didn't like the idea of being mined for pain, but I was young then, and I didn't
know the Red Circle Company was mining all of us for pain everyday, and the bar
and the polkas and the fights were just ways of trying to get away from it. So it
didn't make sense to me. "What do you want it for?"
He looked like I'd ask a hard question, one he'd asked himself more than once.
Finally he said, "When I come from," he said, "nobody's ever been in pain.
Nobody I know even knows what it is."
"They never get hurt?" I said. "They never fall down or get hit by a car or
"There's all kinds of pain," he said. "But no, they don't fall down, and there aren't
any cars, and they're never sad. And they never dance." He looked like that was
the greatest pain of all. "But they will," he said, "as soon as I've tuned my
instrument." He looked like he thought they weren't going to be very grateful to
him at first. "That's what I need your pain for," he said. "For my instrument."
"Are you an angel?" I said. I didn't know anything else that could take away pain,
and the place he was talking about sounded a lot like heaven the way I understood
He had the same rueful smile Uncle Jack had whenever he talked about his leg.
"You have to be ruthless as the Devil to be an artist," he said. "Especially with
yourself." He never said so, but I believe he felt each pain every time he played a
note. "Now your uncle," he said, "he was a black key." Then he hit one note full
of quavers that sounded like something being ripped, and I felt like he'd torn a
piece off me.
"You made him lose his leg," I said. I didn't know why, but I didn't hate him for
that. My uncle clearly didn't, much as he feared him, and he knew a lot more about
it than me.
"No, I didn't," he said. "He was going to lose it anyway." I looked at my uncle,
but he was polishing glasses like none of it was any of his business. "All I took
was his pain." He played the note again. It was dreadful. "For my instrument."
I must've looked scared of the thing, because he played another note, only this one
didn't have any fear or horror in it at all. But it was so sweet and sad it made me
want to cry. "There's all kinds of pain," he said. He looked like he'd had them all.
And he played another note, a low, hollow sound that made me feel empty inside.
Then he hit another key, and nothing came out. "That's your pain," he said.
I was sure nothing hurt me, and I didn't want to know if some accident was going
to happen to me any minute that all I could do was sell the pain to. "You know the
pain I mean," he said.
And when I thought about it, I did. It was the worst pain in my young life, and
until he walked into the bar, it was burning me like hell fire. And the moment I
thought of Grace Powers, it started hurting me again, but a hundred times worse,
because now I knew I could be rid of it. It wasn't just that I had this longing for
her that I couldn't even define. It wasn't even that she didn't know I was alive,
because she did, it was that no matter how much I loved her, wanted her, I could
never have her.
It wasn't just that she was so beautiful and I wasn't. Or that I was short for my age,
and she wasn't. Or that she was graceful and clever and sweet, and I was awkward
and stupid and ruthless, though I didn't know then that I was ruthless. I believe all
the Polka Man did was let me know what my pain really was; he didn't make it, he
just made me fully aware of it, and it hurt worse than anything before or since. I
could see that the pain was that I could never have her. She was the banker's
daughter, and I was the runt nephew of a one-legged bartending ex-coal miner.
I could see that we would grow up along side one another and go to high school
together and I would want her more and more the more ways I found out there was
to want somebody, but I would never have her, and I would watch her get married
to somebody who didn't love her at all, and beat her up, and keep her pregnant
until her looks wore away, and she would never in her most desperate dreams
think of loving me as even a possibility.
She would never think of me as anything but an ugly little runt who would go
down into the mines and come up blackfaced and hollow eyed until I coughed
myself to death trying to cough up all the coal dust I'd swallow before I was fifty.
And that was all I would be, just a drunk in pee-stained underwear sitting in my
Uncle Jack's bar and coughing my lungs up into a hanky and looking at it to see
how long I had to live.
I could see that life inescapable as destiny, and seeing it hurt so bad I started to
cry, even though I knew I was too old for that and my uncle was watching me and
all. But I bawled and bawled, and the Polka Man let me go on until all I had left
was sobs, and when I was all cried out, I looked at him and it was all there, fresh
as if I hadn't grieved any of it away. I knew I was going to feel that terrible pain
all my life, every waking moment from then on, and it would never get any better
and it would never go away, and I'd never feel it any less than I did right then.
When I stopped crying for a moment, the pain didn't go away it was just like
somebody turned the volume down and it was still playing in the background. And
I said, "That's what you want?"
And he nodded. And I didn't know why, but I hated him for wanting it, even
though I knew I was going to give it to him no matter what. I don't think I thought
at all about the people wherever he came from who would hear it as part of his
music, but I've thought a lot about them ever since. I can't help wondering what it
did to them the first time they heard it. What it must have been like to people who
never felt any pain at all. I think of that sweet sad note he played for me and what
it did to me, and I'd heard music before. I don't really like to think about what it
did to them.
I suppose if he told me they'd feel just what I was feeling every time they heard it,
I would have sold it to him anyway. Hell, I'd have probably given it too him just
to be rid of it, no matter who had to suffer it instead. "And I won't feel it any
more?" I said.
"You'll never feel a thing when you think about her," he said.
"Take it," I said.
And Uncle Jack leaned over the bar and said, "Show him what he gets."
And the Polka Man started to play a polka, and everything that I knew was going
to happen to me started to flash before my eyes again, but he played the white keys
mostly, and all of it changed, and I could see myself grow up taller and better
looking than I ever dreamed of being, and I played football and went away to
college, and there was a long line of girls like Grace Powers doing things to me I
couldn't even identify, and as soon as one left there was another along, and I loved
all of them, and not one of them had the power to hurt me like Grace Powers.
So I let him take away the pain of first love, and when he touched my key, I still
couldn't hear it, but my uncle heard it and big tears rolled down out of his eyes.
And when the Polka Man played out his song, I knew it was over because I
thought of Grace Powers, and it didn't hurt. I didn't feel a thing.
But what I didn't know was that it not only wouldn't hurt, but that in all those
beds and all those bodies, I'd never feel anything as painful or as good as I'd felt
then, and much as I like the life I bargained for, like my Uncle Jack, when I think
of it, and that emptiness I feel instead of love comes to me, I smile ruefully just
like he did, and wonder if it wouldn't have been better to have kept the pain after
And when I do, I know what it is that makes my bargain and Uncle Jack's look
good, bad as things get, because we don't have to be those poor painfree
demi-angels, laying around in their endless luxury, when the Polka Man finally
gets his instrument tuned and starts to play. And better still, when that pain floods
into them and floods back out mixed with their own newly created agony, we
don't have to be the Polka Man.