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Jill let the music fill her. Like a balloon, it started in her stomach and spread slowly until she could feel the majestic sounds tingle every nerve in her body. She closed her eyes to hear better and forgot to breathe as she strained to hear each individual instrument in the orchestra. Jill felt her heartbeat quicken as the piece grew towards its climax. She exhaled when the crescendo finally broke in waves of sound. The lawn around her suddenly erupted into applause. Her own hands began to sting as she pounded them together rhythmically. Jill felt that applause was as much a release for the audience as a way of showing appreciation to the performers.
"See, now the first violin is shaking hands with the conductor." Jill nodded and smiled at Uncle Jimmy. She, of course, couldn't see anything on stage due to the 5,000-odd people seated in front of her. Lawn tickets were cheaper, but were only for listening, not viewing. She felt a twinge of pity for the man. That was once his dream, to be first violin of an orchestra. But then the war came ...and Jill dismissed her sad thoughts and rolled over onto her back. She took another bite of her apple, then offered one to Uncle Jimmy as she waited for the next piece to begin.
Jill remembered an evening two summers ago, when her parents called her into their bedroom. Bedrooms were the only private places in her family's huge house. The rest were made public for the use of the guests at her family's bed and breakfast inn.
"You remember your Uncle James, don't you?" Her father began, unsure of himself. He pulled at his short beard nervously.
"Sure. Why?" Jill bounced lightly on the bed.
"Well, he's going to be staying with us for a little while."
"Like a vacation? I thought he just started a new job in that fancy restaurant in New York. That's what you said, Mom." Jill looked expectantly at her mother.
"Yes, um, he ... that didn't really work out, honey, so he's coming here ..." Jill's mom looked very put together, as always. Hair done, nails painted, outfit perfect down to the tiny pearl studs in her ears. Yet she faltered.
" ...for a little while to visit his favorite niece." Jill's dad came to her mother's rescue, tying everything up very neatly.
When Jill was little, Uncle James was like a romantic figure out of a novel. Her mom's younger brother, he was the wild man of the family. He was always doing crazy things, as if he set out to shock the world. Jill didn't know him very well; he was never around long enough for her to get to know him. That morning he was going to become another body to take up space in the already crowded home. Jill was eleven. But that was before I knew him, she thought.
At first, Jimmy kept to himself, spending hours alone in his room. His almost constant violin playing was the only reminder to the rest of the house that he actually existed. He and Jill were polite, never too personal. It was summer when he came, and Tanglewood was alive with music and people. Jill went to every concert she could afford. Her parents had neither the time nor patience for classical music. And they couldn't justify sitting outside listening to musicians they couldn't even see.
"Why don't you pay a little extra and sit inside where you can see something?" her father always asked.
"Because that would ruin it," Jill would reply stubbornly.
Jill couldn't describe the reasons for this to herself, let alone her father. She imagined the musicians, as magical, something more than human, like the music they made. This magic shouldn't be seen.
That warm July evening when Uncle Jimmy plopped down next to Jill during intermission, she couldn't quite believe her eyes.
"What are you doing here?" she managed to choke out. Most 11-year-olds weren't allowed the freedom to be able to ride their bikes to and from the symphony. Jill was torn between her enjoyment of privacy and her curiosity.
"I've always wondered where you run off to sometimes, all by yourself. So tonight I thought I'd follow you. Mystery solved. I thought I was the only one who liked classical music in this family."
Now she was angry at his flip reply, but his smile and their apparent mutual interest cooled her.
"Well, you can sit here if you want, I guess." Jill didn't want to give in too easily.
Uncle Jimmy didn't say another word. He listened with Jill and didn't bother her with questions or comments, respecting the music. She liked that. They clapped together at the end, enjoying each other's company.
By the end of the night they were the best of friends. They discussed the program, and their favorite pieces and instruments. Jill finally found someone to share her love for music.
As summer ripened, Jill and her uncle went to almost every concert together. Mostly they sat in silence, but sometimes they talked. Uncle Jimmy's favorite topic was the violin. He was entranced by the instrument, loving everything about it.
"That could have been me up there, right now, if the war didn't come," he'd say.
Jill would nod or give a speculative "Hmmm." She grew to love Uncle Jimmy and felt a loss for him that he remained undiscovered as the great violinist he was obviously born to become. She knew he played enough, sometimes very late at night. The familiar strumming grew on her, and became part of her life, like eating or sleeping.
Jimmy's "vacation" lengthened considerably. A few years later, when Jill was helping her mom with the spring cleaning, she began, "I wonder if it's too late for Uncle Jimmy to get into an orchestra?"
"Oh, honey, I don't think so." Her mom gave Jill a strange look as if to say, Why would you ever think that?
"Yeah, but it's not his fault he got drafted." Jill sprayed more glass cleaner on the window.
"James was never in any war." There was a questioning tone in her mother's voice as she dusted a bedside table.
"Sure he was. That's why he's not a professional violinist now."
Her mother stopped cleaning. "Wherever did you hear that? James may play around with that thing, but he's not really talented-"
For at that moment, lovely music floated into the room; a vast improvement over what usually came from Uncle Jimmy's upstairs bedroom.
Mother and daughter listened in silence for a moment and then, in mid-note the playing stopped, or rather, was stopped, and they could hear Jim yelling loudly.
"You have no right whatsoever to play my violin! Give it to me immediately!"
"If you are the owner of this instrument, I first suggest you tune it, and, second, take some lessons! I have heard your pitiful playing at all hours of the night."
"Oh no," Jill's mom quickly realized that it was Mrs. Washburn fighting with Jimmy. She was a lonely, wretched widow and one of the most difficult guests.
"How dare you! I should be on tour at this very moment, madam!"
"Only a fool would book you."
"Well, I'll have you know-"
"Oh Susan, you'll never believe what this woman did,"
"I don't want to hear it, James." He looked as if he had been struck.
Jill watched mutely from an open upstairs window.
"Mrs. Washburn, I would like to apologize on behalf of my very discourteous brother. I hope you haven't taken too much offense at his attack."
Jill marveled at her mother's control. Uncle Jimmy was dumbfounded, because he was expected to apologize to this lady.
"But Susan, she played it, my violin! Where does she get off-?"
"That's enough." Jill's mother led him inside the house, much like a disobedient little boy. Mrs. Wash-burn followed with a smirk of satisfaction on her face. Jill hated her.
"You shouldn't try to fool a violin teacher, young man ..."
Her mother brought Uncle Jimmy into the living room, and slammed the door. When they emerged ten minutes later, he was subdued. Her mother walked up the stairs shortly after and resumed dusting as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. Then she began to spoke: ."Jill, Uncle James may toy with that violin, but he is not orchestra material. He was never in a war, nor was he drafted for one. I would appreciate it if you don't mention today again, and that you be extra nice to Mrs. Washburn."
Jill didn't answer, but walked out of the room, not understanding anything.
No one knew it, but that was the beginning of the end. Uncle Jimmy drew into himself, barely eating, hardly talking. The only thing he did was play. Violin music could be heard soft and low, or sometimes loud and ear-splitting. Jill's parents did not interfere with him.
Uncle Jimmy accompanied Jill to Tanglewood less and less. On one of the few nights in late July, he acted very oddly.
"Jill, don't believe what your parents say. I was great; I really was. I could have been a star, a huge sensation."
"I know, Uncle Jimmy, I know that."
As Jimmy began to cry, Jill held him in a tight hug, silently willing him to stop.
A few mornings, later Jill's parents called her into their bedroom.
"It's about your Uncle James," her father began.
Jill glanced at her mother's face, and knew that something was very wrong. She had dark circles under her eyes, and her nose was red. Her hair was a mess, and her robe hung loosely from slumped shoulders.
Oh God, Jill thought.
The next few days ran together, one indistinguishable from the rest. Her mom crying, always crying. People she didn't know hugging her. The funeral.
By the end of the week, she had to escape. She needed to hear the music. During intermission Jill did something she never had before. She slipped up the aisle just after the lights went down and sat on the ground near the first row.
Sometime during the last piece she realized that Uncle Jimmy was never any good at the violin. He had only had a dream, a marvelous dream, and he couldn't face his failure any longer.
Jill studied the first violinist. He looked like her fifth grade teacher. He looked ... like an ordinary man. That's all they were - ordinary people. Suddenly the music was not special, and not magical. When the last piece finished, she forgot to clap. n