Every morning since last spring I've met my friend Axel for coffee around 8:00. Today when she did not shown up after an hour, I was surprised because we were going to plan a rehearsal for this weekend. Axel was the Saturday night headliner at The Rumor Mill, and I had offered her the use of my office because the sailboat where she lives was not a good place to rehearse.
Axel and I were not birds of a feather. She was a physics major from Berlin with a bent for math and science. I was an English major with no talent whatsoever for anything practical. I had once owned a 30’ sailboat, and when she took me out on her 38-footer, I could see that she had a command of sailing that I had never achieved.
Axel made her living in the U.S. as a high-level, computer programmer. At one point in her career, her Sony team was racing Apple to see who could build the best animation software. Steve Jobs and Pixar won the competiion, and after that Axel became a freelancer. I glanced at her screen one morning and saw it full of the bewildering letters and symbols that make up the arcane language employed by these confident geeks.
She surprised me several months ago when she asked me, "Are you coming to hear me on open mic night at the Rumor Mill?" I said, "I didn't know you were a musician," and she replied, "Oh, I play blues guitar."
She went on to tell me that more than 45 years ago in Germany, a boy in her required Music Theory class asked her over to hear some new American records he'd purchased. All the recordings were classic blues guitar, and Axel decided right then that not only would she get an American guitar but that she would teach herself to play blues. After a year working for a dollar an hour, she sent away for an American Fender Stratocaster. And she did teach herself, masterfully, to play the blues.
She later taught herself the acoustic guitar and saved enough to buy a highly regarded Ramirez instrument. With bookings from an agent, she toured Europe, playing classical guitar.
At open-mic night here in Friday Harbor, Axel built up a small following of listeners who were as spellbound as I was to hear her play. She had a funny self-deprecating way of talking about her playing, but once she hit the first note she was like someone magically possessed.
Many people were put off by Axel's brusque manner and blunt opinions. But somehow - across the gender gap, and the cultural gap, and the generational gap - she and I became friends. We both loved word play, and one morning over coffee she retold me a story she had just read in an online German newspaper. It is strongly suspected, said the newspaper, that a 40-year-old German sail-boater, from Hamburg, who was anchored off Nuku Hiva in Polynesia, was lured into the jungles and was eaten by the locals.
I responded, "Well, he started off as a Hamburger and ended up as a hamburger." This sent Axel into a long paroxysm of laughter. Of such macabre quirkiness are friendships made.
A few weeks ago Axel received a call on her cell. After hanging up she said, "That was my sister from Germany."
I asked, "Does your sister have children?"
Axel said, "She never wanted children. And I never wanted to get married."
After a long pause, she continued, "When I was young, my father would return home drunk. Then he would beat my mother. Then he would batter me. Then he would hit and hit my little sister. When I was sixteen, I got so strong he left me alone. That year I walked out the front door and never looked back."
This morning I went to Axel's sailboat and I pounded on the hull and then on the cabin roof, calling "Axel! Axel! It's Jim!
After getting no answer, I pushed back the hatch and could see her jacket on a bunk, so I knew she was there. Then I saw a foot sticking out from behind the galley partition. I went down the companionway ladder and reached out to touch her foot. It was like cold marble.
The sheriff, who came quickly, went on the boat down to the galley. Soon he came up to look at me and shake his head sadly. He said there was no way to know why she died. He said that when people die alone and have no family in the community, it's likely there will be an autopsy.
Whatever the coroner might conclude, I believe that though Axel walked out her front door in Germany 44 years ago, she never walked out from under the shadow of her father's swinging fist.