The Clarinet

Scott Glickman commuted Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays from Manhattan to Philadelphia on the Amtrak Acela train to work in his Philadelphia office. The other days of the week, he worked in the Manhattan office closer to home. He was married with two young children. He and his wife, Helen, lived comfortably in the Flatiron District with their two children Daniel, nine, and Abigail, seven. By all accounts, the Glickmans were the ideal image of success: they were the model family and exemplary citizens. Scott and Helen were both lawyers – he was a partner at a law firm, and she an in-house counsel at a bank. They were active on various boards and philanthropic efforts. They had been married for 12 years. They spent every summer in their second home in the Hamptons and take one extravagant vacation a year in December; last year it was to Morocco. This year they planned to travel to Peru. The perfection viewed from the outside belied the emptiness inside: Scott and Helen no longer loved each other and slept in separate rooms, but they respected each other and loved their children. Everything they did, the appearance they presented, was all for their children’s sake.

Scott enjoyed his time on the train, because it offered him an hour and twenty-two minutes of quiet time each way. It was time when he could be himself without any pretense amongst strangers.

He was a creature of habit. He would rise at 4:30 am, work out at the gym for an hour, shower, then walk to Penn Station to take the 6:30 am Amtrak Acela train and arrive in Philadelphia by 7:52 am. He always booked First Class seat 10A so he had a table to read the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, and the New York Times. For breakfast, he always enjoyed being served Dunkin coffee black with a yogurt parfait and a banana. For dinner, he always enjoyed seared beef shoulder tender braised and cooked to medium paired with a glass of merlot. He never took any calls during the commute, because he treasured his personal time that much.

One day a well-dressed Asian woman in her twenties started to sit across from Scott in seat 11A on a regular basis on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays – the same days as his commuting days. She had her own routine. Upon arrival on the train, she would place a black case in the baggage bin near the restrooms then proceed to seat 11A. Before she sat down, she would wipe down her seat and her side of the table with Clorox disinfectant wipes. The first time after she disinfected her area, she offered Scott a wipe, but he shook his head. That was the only time she ever interacted with him. She was always polite and minded her own business, except she would always talk on her cellphone in Japanese, disturbing his peace even though she was quiet. Every morning she would make only that one call, and that call would last precisely nine minutes. Then she would sit pensively looking out the window, occasionally reading the New Yorker as a distraction, until 30th Street Philadelphia Station. As the train slowed to pull into the Philadelphia station, she would take her black case, disinfect the exterior then disembark.

There was something about this woman that intrigued him. It was not anything romantic. There was a quality about her, and something about her demeanor. Initially, he was annoyed because of her talking on the phone when he wanted to relax. But his initial aggravation turned to intrigue and then to sympathy, as he noticed her voice got fainter and her tone more desperate with every call. He didn’t understand a word of Japanese, but he was astute at reading people’s body language and voice, as a good litigator did.

After a few weeks of commuting like this, the woman began to go off her routine. She would travel only on Mondays and Tuesdays, and soon, it was only on Mondays.

One Monday morning, Scott had to travel down to DC for a client meeting. He was in his usual seat 10A. The Asian woman was there in Seat 11A. She looked especially fetching that morning but there was an uneasiness about her. However, her routine was usual: placed her black case in the luggage bin, disinfected her seat, made a nine-minute phone call in Japanese, looked out the window, read the New Yorker while waiting for her destination. As the train pulled into Philadelphia station, Scott broke his routine by stepping away to the café car to take an urgent call from his wife, because Abigail was not feeling well at school and their nanny was out sick, so he had to make some calls to find someone to pick her up.

When Scott returned to his seat, the Asian woman was gone, and the train continued on and away from Philadelphia station, but he noticed her black case was still in the bin. He thought to himself that maybe she went to the cafe car or went to the restroom. He tried to focus on his morning papers but glanced at the bin during every stop: Wilmington, the black case was still there; Baltimore Penn Station, case still there; Baltimore BWI, case still there. Then it was the final stop: Washington DC Union Station. He filed in line with others to disembark. He saw that the black case was still there. And no sign of the woman. He got off anyway and started to proceed down the platform with the flow of the foot traffic. His pace was hesitant. He glanced at the clock – 9:28 am – then at his cellphone. He decided to turn around. In a brisk pace, he got back into the First Class car to retrieve the black case.

Scott took the black case with him to the DC office but left it unopened in a safe place under his desk. He went about his day, attending meetings, making calls and reading briefs. Before long, it was 6:08 pm. He needed to hustle to make the 7:10 pm train. He whisked up his belongings and the black case.

Once on the train in his usual seat 10A, he ordered his usual seared beef shoulder tender braised and cooked to medium paired with a glass of merlot. But he didn’t have much appetite this evening. He glanced at the older bespectacled gentleman in a suit sitting across him in seat 11A, reading on his iPad while enjoying beer. He then glanced at the black case. He stared at it for a good while, noticing the initials “JYL” on the lid. He cracked open the case. Resting inside the case was beautiful clarinet.

“How long have you been playing? My niece is a clarinet player too,” the gentleman in 11A asked.

Scott hesitated, then blurted, “it belongs to a friend.” He then put on his earphones, searched a radio playlist on his iPhone, found the song he wanted and began playing Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A major K.622. He closed his eyes and imagined in his mind the mysterious Asian woman playing the clarinet with expressive complexity to the music’s elegant beauty.

Upon arriving at New York Penn Station, he went to the Lost and Found but instead of turning over the clarinet case, he provided his contact information for him to be contacted so he could personally return it to the owner.

In the ensuing days, Scott did not receive any calls from the Amtrak Lost and Found. He hid the clarinet case in a closet at home. He maintained his routine in hopes of encountering the Asian woman in seat 11A so he could return the clarinet to her, but she had not reappeared. He became obsessed with figuring out a way to return the instrument to the woman. He tasked his paralegal to research for female clarinetists New York or Philadelphia with the initials “JYL.”

Weeks past, and the paralegal had not turned up clarinetists by the initials of JYL. Hanukkah was fast approaching. The Glickmans were not particularly observant but for their children’s sake, they made sure to observe some traditions. While Scott took his family to the temple, went shopping for gifts and helped to make challah at home, his mind was elsewhere. On each day of Hanukkah, the Glickmans gave their children gelt, or chocolate coins.

Scott made calls to Juilliard and other music schools to see if he could somehow identify the woman and the clarinet. Then it occurred to him: what if the initials weren’t the woman’s? What if they belonged to someone else? And the clarinet belonged to someone else? A family member or someone beloved? He felt as if he was looking for a needle in the haystack. On that thought, he became despondent. His colleagues noticed but didn’t ask what was wrong since the holidays could be a sensitive time for a lot of people. Helen asked if work was troubling him. His children asked if he did not like the presents they got him. Even their doorman asked if everything was alright.

Scott felt this inner necessity to return the clarinet. Or was it an inner necessity to find the Asian woman? Or was it simply that he liked seeing something to closure as was true with his legal cases? Whatever the case, he didn’t know why exactly he felt compelled to do this, just that he had to. He asked his paralegal to expand the search for anyone with the initials “JYL” nationwide who was involved with music in any way. The investigation yielded very random results and after several calls, Scott found that none was on point.

On the eighth day of Hanukkah, Scott and Helen woke up to the smell of pancakes and a harsh discordance of the clarinet. They came out of their respective rooms to find Abigail blowing into the clarinet, and Daniel fighting her to play with it. Helen broke up the children and sailed through to the kitchen to check on the pancakes. Scott was going to grab the clarinet when Abigail ran to kiss him, “this is the best present yet, daddy!”

Scott did not have the heart to correct her.

“We’ll have to get you some lessons,” Helen beamed as she scooped pancakes onto plates and made some coffee. She whispered to Scott, “well done.”

Scott turned on the music system to play Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A major K.622, and they began to enjoy breakfast. When the clarinet part played, he said, “Abby, that’s the clarinet.”

“I want to play in an orchestra,” Abigail declared.

“Well then you gotta learn to play at that level,” Scott asserted.

Daniel rapidly finished his breakfast and cleared his seat, “I’m going up to Nathan’s.”

“No more than an hour! You’re not done packing,” Helen sighed.

As the rest of the Glickmans finished breakfast, and Abigail continued to make jarring sounds on the clarinet, Scott stared at the instrument while the Mozart musical rapture transported him. He again imagined the Asian lady playing with sublime beauty.

As the Glickmans packed for their Peruvian vacation, Abigail wanted to bring the clarinet. Scott dissuaded her by telling her that the instrument was too fragile to bring with them on their travel. Abigail begrudgingly relented and hid it under her bed. Not one who usually cared for social media, Scott decided to post on social media pictures of the clarinet case and the clarinet itself along with a note with description of the woman in seat 11A and her itinerary in hopes that someone might respond. He then took his family on vacation to Peru.

On his children’s request, Scott was forced to be unplugged from work during their entire vacation in Peru. He did not even access the internet to check his social media accounts. But his mind was not far from the clarinet. During the trip, while the family engaged in group activities such as kayaking, hiking and other cultural activities, Scott also navigated the family to places such as outdoor plazas, cafes and restaurants where woodwind instruments played: the flute, piccolo, recorder and the clarinet. Helen noticed that being around music lately relaxed Scott. He was able to engage in a lot more animated dialogue and laughter with his family. She felt like she was getting reacquinted with her husband and vice versa.

Abigail was clamoring for clarinet lessons and did not want to wait until they got back to Manhattan, so Scott managed to find a local player named Luis who taught woodwind instruments. Both he and Abigail learned to play a little, while Helen took Daniel horseback riding. For the first time in a long while, Scott found joy. He felt a closeness to his wife and children that he had not felt in years.

By the end of the Peruvian vacation, the Glickmans felt renewed and were sad to leave. Scott felt anxiety creeping back into his life as the clarinet situation remained unresolved.

Upon arriving back home, Abigail immediately retrieved the clarinet to begin playing, while Daniel went to find his friends and Helen took a nap. Scott logged into his social media accounts to find thousands of responses, several of which were from Maya Hamada, a teenager belonging to the Japantown Youth Leaders based in San Francisco. One of her messages had Scott’s attention:

Dear Mr. Glickman, the clarinet you found belongs to JYL. My mentor Reina Izumi was our music teacher at the JYL. She borrowed it to take with her to Philadelphia to apply for a music teacher job at the Asian Americans United. We are grateful it is in safe hands. We would very much appreciate it if you could send the clarinet to us.

Scott replied to the message as follows:

Hi Maya. Given this is an item of value, I need to ask why I shouldn’t just give this to Miss Izumi to take it back to JYL.

As he waited for a response, he researched the name “Reina Izumi” online. He scrolled past several records of animes, none of records reflected a real person. Then he received a reply from Maya:

Mr. Glickman, Reina resigned for the job at the AAU and won’t be returning to JYL, so when we saw your post and realized that she accidently left the clarinet behind, we contacted you.

Perplexed, Scott continued to search online for Reina Izumi. He still found nothing. He called his secretary to ask her to cancel his meetings the next day. When she asked why, he merely said he needed another day to unwind from the vacation.

The next day, Monday, he took the Amtrak Acela as he normally did on a Monday, sat in the same seat, ordered the same breakfast. He got off at Philadelphia station and got in to a cab. “1023 Callowhill Street, please,” he told the cab driver.

The cab dropped Scott off at the Asian American United. He looked out of place. The cacophony of woodwind instruments from the nonprofit drew him in. He surveyed the modest space.

“May I help you?” A young man, Ken Tsai, in his 30s approached Scott.

“Scott Glickman,” Scott extended his hand. “This is an unusual question, but I found something belonging to Miss Reina Izumi. I believe she works here—” He paused on seeing a door open behind the young man, and a thin, gray-haired Asian gentleman came out with a flute in hand. The older gentleman and Ken acknowledged each other, as Scott tried to peer inside but the door closed before he could spot any familiar faces. The cacophony resumed.

“Mr. Chen is our only music teacher here,” Ken replied. They both looked at Mr. Chen as he disappeared down the hall with the violin.

Scott was baffled, “I see, so Miss Izumi didn’t get the job—”

“I’m afraid there’s been a misunderstanding. Mr. Chen’s been teaching here for the past 9 years. There wasn’t a job opening, and we weren’t interviewing.”

“But she was here at least for a visit. Or maybe for a different job? Can you tell me where I might be able to find Miss Izumi?”

“There are no job openings. We don’t know anyone by that name.”

“Ken! Phone call for you,” a woman hollered from the back.

Ken turned to Mr. Glickman politely, “I’m sorry, Mr. Glickman. Excuse me.” With that Ken left, leaving Scott confounded.

Scott took the afternoon train back to Manhattan. On the train, Scott was quiet. He did not order any food or read any papers. He merely looked out the window. Pensive. He searched the internet on his phone again for “Reina Izumi.” Still nothing. He was troubled. He began to wonder if he was delusional.

Upon arriving in Manhattan, he stopped in a music store and asked for a clarinet. After being presented several different models and brands, he picked one that resembled the one he had found. He got home before anyone else did, a first for him. He went to his daughter’s room and found the clarinet case with the initials “JYL” under her bed, stared at it momentarily, as if trying to will it to talk and provide answers. There was nothing. He swapped the clarinets. Then found a box to package the JYL clarinet. He took the box downstairs to the front desk and asked doorman to send it off. The doorman took the package and handed him a stack of mail.

Scott saw in the mail stack a brochure from Lincoln Center. He flipped through it. He suddenly felt excited and alive on seeing the new season’s programs. His cellphone rang. It was Helen.

“I’m gonna be near Penn for a meeting. Thought we could meet for dinner if you were taking the usual train back?”

“I can meet you earlier.”

“Oh yeah?”

“I got back early actually. I’ll get Nina to babysit. I’m going to take you out.” Helen was surprised. Before they hung up, he asked, “hey Helen, do you think people can just vanish?”

Helen hesitated then said, “we’ve both vanished for some time, haven’t we?”

Those words hit Scott like a ton of bricks. A realization dawned on him.

After he hung up with Helen, his secretary called to tell him that there was a partners’ meeting this evening. Scott declined, which was another first for him. His secretary found his behavior of late to be curious but did not argue.

That evening, Scott met his wife in midtown and took her to an old favorite restaurant of theirs for dinner where they laughed and chatted like two soulmates. Then he surprised her by taking her to Lincoln Center. As the lights dimmed, and the concert hall silenced, the orchestra began to play the Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A major K.622. Scott consumed the music as if it were food for his soul. As the concerto reached the finale, which took the form of a rondo, in which a main melody alternated with contrasting episodes, Scott reached out for Helen’s hand and held it through the concerto’s fast, playful and joyful conclusion.