Mango played the bongo. His beat was hard to beat. It was made for feet. And whenever he tapped his little drum the floorboards would begin to thrum, as soles would fall into cadence with the rhythm of Mango’s soul. People would come from miles around to the café where Mango performed. They would sip at their brews and talk intellectually while the lanky man sat on the floor with his pair of skins between his knees.
He always started slowly, his thumbs making the only sound. They would quietly work out a formula and set it to a tempo that held true to whatever was twitching Mango’s heart. Usually before too long, he would attain an inner understanding and resound and reverberate within its groove. Whatever intellectual discourse may have been simmering becomes lost when Mango plays his bongo. Toes start to rise and rapidly fall and slap the hardwood before rising again and completing the cycle. Everyone was in tune with Mango’s drum.
Dividable Al would close his cash register. No one bought when Mango performed. He lost money at his café shop but this did not bother him at all for what he did not garner in cash he gained in satisfaction at listening to his friend thump on his little drum. Once Mango was finished and the crowd was astir, he was always certain that their thirsts would require quenching and cost never was an issue. Dividable Al jacked up his prices once Mango left the floor.
No one knew where Mango went once he completed his nightly set. No one ever bothered following him once he disappeared through the door. They all knew that he would be back the next night and that was enough for them. In twenty-one years the tall, slim polecat had never missed a show. He always arrived just a minute or two before ten and he always carried on his act to precisely 11:45. Then he was gone and not an eye could bear testimony as to where he might be.
People did not really care. No one ever asked the question. Mango did his thing and that was all that they needed from him. They did not ask for more and if by chance a newcomer would inquire Dividable Al about the drummer, all that the café owner would say is that he would be back the next night. And if the newcomer were there the following evening he would see that Dividable Al was right.
For twenty-one years Mango remained true to his rhythm and the folks would not be let down. Certain Sara saw most of these shows. She had first watched Mango play his bongo when she was sixteen on a date with a senior. The date had been a washout but not Mango. Certain Sara came back the next night and the night after that and so many nights in a row that she had graduated high school by the time the streak was broken. Then she moved to another city to attain her college degree but once she completed her education she came back to her town and to her Mango. She was now thirty-four years old and she never married. She never had a date since that first time she saw the skinny man on the bongo drum. She had no regrets and would have done everything the same save for her hiatus to college town. Mango’s beat was hard to beat and it was all that she needed. Of this Sara was certain.
Someone who was not quite around as long as Certain Sara but was still considered a regular was Crouton George. He initially came for the salad and would be gone before ten o’clock but on the night of his divorce he decided to tarry a little longer at the café. He had heard about Mango. Then again who hadn’t? Mango had a reputation greater than his repetitions on his skins. When Crouton George saw Mango play that first time he was hooked and had not missed a night since. Somewhere along the line, he had taken to ordering extra croutons for his salad. These he would save for when the drummer came on stage. Then George would throw his chunks of dried bread at Mango. Without missing a beat Mango would catch the croutons with his open mouth and chew at them while playing his drum.
Certain Sara and Crouton George had never met but they both knew Dividable Al so well that they were both able to run up tabs at the café. Others ran tabs as well but unlike Sara and George some would occasionally forget to pay. For this reason Dividable Al had to hire himself some muscle. This muscle came in the form of Wax Harry who sported a moustache that curled on its ends. Wax Harry bounced at the café at night and during the day he would kick down apartment doors and manage to collect on some bad debts. Wax Harry had met Certain Sara and Crouton George but never sought to endear himself to them. He saved his endearments for Ishy. No one knew one way or another if Ishy was a girl or a boy and no one really cared. Ishy had only been coming around to the café for the last three years and was still considered a newbie by most of the regulars except for Wax Harry. Wax Harry would make sure that Ishy would be seated at the table closest to Mango so that he or she could enjoy the show. At times when Mango played his bongo he would look up at Ishy and she would cast him a wink. But at the end of the night when Mango disappeared Ishy would still be there and in the company of Dividable Al’s muscle, Wax Harry.
Night after night the same routine would play itself out. Night after night the crowds would rave for more but Mango never played an encore. At 11:45 he up and left to disappear to that place that only he knew and there he would remain until the next night when it was time to play his skins again.
Twenty-one years had come and gone. Twenty-one years of a man at his bongo. Yet these were not empty years. Just ask Dividable Al or Certain Sara or Crouton George. Even those who ran up unpaid tabs and learnt of Wax Harry’s muscle would attest that for a night’s entertainment the café was the best.
Then one night while the smiling Wax Harry was escorting Ishy to his or her favorite table, someone heard the sound of a car crash outside of the café door. It was two minutes to ten. This someone was Crouton George who on this night of all nights felt a little hungrier and had not saved up any of his croutons for the show. When he heard the screaming brakes he knew that it was his fault. He had broken the routine and now had to pay amends. But he was not the only one that felt that way.
Dividable Al had left his cash register open and was catering to new business when he should have had it shut. He too knew that the blame was his. And Certain Sara was not here tonight. Someone at the office had asked her out and she had given in to this gentleman and was at this moment sitting in the theater uncomfortable by the fact that she had his arm wrapped around her shoulder. She was not going to allow him to become any more forward. She wished that she were at the café to watch Mango play his bongo and sensed that something terrible was going to happen.
Crouton George got up from his table and ran to the door. Outside on the street he saw a bicycle underneath the wheels of a bus. Sitting attached to the bicycle carrier was a bongo drum, its two skins punctured as a result of the accident. Walking away from the scene was a tall lanky man, his head in a fray. Thumbs trying to work out a new formula were tapping it. Crouton George did not follow Mango for long. The former drummer disappeared into the crowd as best he could but no one came past his shoulders and he could be easily seen snaking his way to the subway. Crouton George had left his change inside and did not have enough on his person to pay for the fare. He watched Mango take a window seat. The two men silently waved at each other as the train chugged its way off to its grinding rhythm.
It was a familiar rhythm to Crouton George – one that he heard every night for many years. It was the basis of Mango’s beat. It was the heartbeat of the city. As he listened to it as the train slowly rounded the bend, Crouton George knew that the beat would go on and that the next night Mango would be back at a minute to ten or so and would entertain the crowd to 11:30. Once a routine is established, it lives on despite the sentiments of those that it had swallowed. There will always be croutons and there will always be Mango.