How Long Have You Been Teaching Banjo?

I’ve traded lessons for my kitchen mixer gears
to be packed with new grease.
Since then, decades of birthday cakes.
Traded lessons for porch steps made wrong,
the all-wood support after one year
melting to grass. Trading time
for music but which of us gets which?

Can I have a shorter lesson for less?
Can I have a longer lesson for more?
Every lesson is long and won’t ever be over.

I played them the sources.
Took them as far as the past was recorded.
Their names in notebooks,
and under each name, tune titles and dates.

The tune isn’t written, I said. I said, Listen,
which note is higher? I said, Trace the string
with your finger up to the peg.
I said, Think of strings at the peghead
opening into a flower.

Swing your arm, I say, like walking down the road.
Road, I say, never sidewalk or street.
One-and, two-and I taught time,
and-one, move and to the start.
Play the pattern while gazing at nature or art.
No flicking your finger. Try holding small fruit,
a lime or a winter satsuma. Or library card or museum card.
I will never say credit card.
Find the melody. Be methodical,
each string open, each string fret by fret.
Why, every time, do they skip the one note they want?

Of the worried one who froze at each mistake,
I asked, What will happen when you get it right?

A friend’s T-shirt says What part of bum-diddy don’t you understand?
but I ask, Do you have a pet?
I say, cute puppy, big kitty, and once,
green parrot, green parrot, silky emerald
on the student’s shoulder.

I have taught a bone doctor who traded me a window.
I have taught a radiologist who retired yesterday but still
knows cancer when she sees it.
I have taught a man at his melanoma end
hourly drinking last-ditch raw juice,
who gave me a cookbook he wrote
with his wife, a Russian prosodist of English verse—
how spattered now, the page of my life’s best borscht?

The high schooler hands me the fee
his parents have tucked in his case,
plus a ten-dollar tip.
No need to give extra, I said, and he said,
My parents told me to tell you,
Music teachers are holy.

What could I do? I took the money.

The notebooks with their names
go in what kind of museum?
Handwritten artifacts, hand-collaged covers.
Now a digital file for each one.

I’ve taught a man and twenty years later his son.
A mother traded her three children
to their father for one hour of banjo class.
I’ve taught a leader of love studies
who absolutely would not listen.
I agreed on a trade with a tree-man
who pruned my hundred-foot fir, and still owe him hours
for his sawing and haulage, but he never called back,
the branches shaggier now than before him.