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The tarnished plate that held the dusty doorbell in place was shaped like an eighth note. Other than that doorbell plate, there seemed to be no other decorations on the front of the house. The once-white vinyl siding was dirty from the rage of a thousand storms and the knocker had fallen off the once-white door. The garden was a jungle of flowering and thorny weeds while the grass was tangled like a thick green mat, and three weeping willows trees had branches trailing on the ground.
Marianne checked her purse for the thousandth time, just in case the little orange cylinder of pills had disappeared. Good. They were still there. Did she expect them to be gone? Of course not. She felt as if she was going as crazy as the person those pills were meant to treat.
She rang the bell, and from outside she could hear it making a harsh, buzzing noise. She waited thirty seconds, forty-five seconds, all the time straining to hear the sound of the person inside coming to answer the door. There was a faint sound, but not footsteps. Marianne listened more closely, and realized it was someone yelling.
“Come in already, the door’s unlocked!”
After a bit of pushing on the rusty handle, the swollen door popped open. Marianne entered a hallway that made her own chaotic home seem like a picture from Spaces magazine. The worn carpet was littered with Styrofoam peanuts, and here and there a book with a broken spine. The shelves that lined the walls were crammed with random junk, as if the homeowner had simply shoved it on the shelves for the purpose of getting it off the floor. There was an odd smell in the air, and it made Marianne think of the woodworking class she had taken in high school.
“Francesca?” she called out, since there was no person in sight. “Francesca Stainer, are you here?”
“In the shop. Last door on the left,” yelled the impatient voice. As soon as she heard it clearly, Marianne knew she had found the Francesca Stainer she had come looking for. No one else in the world had a voice so brazen, more like a fire alarm shrieking than a person talking.
A living room should have been behind the last door on the left. But the space had been converted into a woodshop not unlike the one in Marianne’s memories, with the concrete floor and west-facing windows, power tools placed strategically about. Unlike the rest of the house, the place was spotlessly clean.
Sitting before a workbench with a wicked-looking knife in hand, was Francesca Stainer. She was tiny, absolutely tiny, standing no more than four-foot-eleven and weighing no more than ninety pounds. Francesca’s face was concealed by the boyish-short mop of copper-colored hair that fell in her face as she hunched over her work. Her clothes were the ragged sort that one normally wears in a woodshop, ratty jeans and a faded T-shirt.
Francesca didn’t even look up as Marianne entered. “Who are you and whaddaya want?” It was astonishing that such a big voice could come from such a tiny person.
Marianne said, “Don’t you remember me? My name is Marianne Vaughn. Well, I suppose it was Marianne Henderson, the last time you saw me.”
Francesca finally looked up and smiled, and then laughed. Her eyes were green, and had an insane glassiness about them. “Of course I remember you. Old Marianne, the only other girl who took woodworking class when we were seniors…how many years ago was it?” Her voice had changed, and now it was smooth and surprisingly soothing.
Marianne planted her hands on her hips, surprised that Francesca didn’t know. “Twenty years.”
Francesca whistled and laughed her shivery laugh again. “Time flies, then. You say your name is Marianne Vaughn now? Married?”
Marianne cried in frustration, “You don’t know I’ve been married for ten years? I invited you to my wedding, sent you birth announcements when my daughters were born! And Christmas cards, and looked for you at the class reunion…”
Francesca, hearing the change in Marianne’s tone, silenced her with a look. “I can explain why you haven’t heard from me; I’ve been too busy.”
Francesca finally straightened her spine and revealed her work, the top of a violin, complete with f-holes. “With this, and all my other babies.”
Marianne gaped, “You really did it, then. You became a violinmaker.”
“I always said I would. Did you think I was making up stories?” A pause, then, “Marianne, you wipe that skeptical look off your face or I’ll wipe it off for you!” Francesca screamed, jumping to her feet, her voice like a siren again. “You and all the others, my friends, my parents, everyone, said I’d never make it as a luthier. Always said I ought to take a more respectable profession, something more prestigious, something more competitive. Let me tell you, there is nothing more prestigious or competitive than this! How do you think I became so successful? I had to claw my way to the top of the heap, had to work in every moment I had to become as good as I am. And let me tell you, I worked a damn lot harder than you did to become a doctor. Now, you look at me and say this is a respectable job, or I’ll punch your teeth out.”
Without pausing, Francesca stormed over to a violin rack that stood in the corner. “Allow me to elaborate. This is Béla, my firstborn, so to speak,” she ranted, picking up a viola, “Named after that composer known to most as Bartók. My darling Béla was made back at the university, during class and during sleepless nights, when I honed and carved deep into the wee hours of morning. I worked three times the hours of my classmates, three times! I knew my first baby had to be perfect. I was a beginner, but still, that hardly justified me to bring a deformed child into the world. It was an exhausting effort, but Béla was my final exam, and thanks to him, I graduated top of my class.
“From there, I was employed by this dour old luthier who paid me a pittance. I took the work because I needed the job.” Here, Francesca paced the room, as if looking for something to throw. “I thought to myself, why should I work so hard as before, if he will eat all my profits? By each time I dared slack off, I could only see Béla staring at me. How was I justified to make my second baby not as good as the first? My new baby needed to be strong. She needed to sing so sweetly she would be invited into great concert halls to display her talents. With my little girl’s future at risk, how could I do anything less than my best? On that, I made Dulcinea, a cello. Do you know what my Dulcinea is doing now, Marianne?”
Marianne just shook her head, afraid to speak.
“She plays for the Guarneri string quartet! I am so proud of my baby. Well, I didn’t get one cent in profit from Dulcinea, and I could hardly stand that. So I left that dour old man and went into business for myself. How did I make it, you ask? How did I make it as a young luthier with no tools of my own and no money? I poured my heart and soul into each of my babies. Paid off all my debts for tools with three of my babies, each sold for five-figure sums. It pained me so much to let them go, just broke my heart. But if it wasn’t for those babies, I couldn’t have made more.
“And I just kept making more babies, each with their own name. Each with their own sweet voice and distinct personality. Some are meant to project great sounds of power, others are better suited to glittery runs of notes. Others still have the saddest voices, why, they could make even the hard-hearted murderer cry.” Francesca’s voice had changed from anger to obsessive passion. Her eyes and gaunt face glowed as she reveled in the stories of each instrument she had made.
“Do you see now, Marianne? Do you see that this is a respectable profession? Do you see why I had to become a violin maker? No other job would have suited me, nothing else. This was hardly my choice. I’m sure this is my destiny.”
Francesca took a deep breath, sat down and then said calmly, “So, tell me about your job.”
Marianne barely heard her over the sound of her heartbeat. It was as bad as Dr. Sanchez had said. Francesca was mentally unstable, out of her mind. Reclusive, misanthropic, unhealthily obsessed, violent mood swings, all those things on her report were true. Marianne checked her purse to make sure the pills were still there. They were.
“For one thing,” she said softly, “I’m a pharmacist now, not a doctor. I switched majors as a sophomore.”
Marianne noticed the wall, which was hung with framed certificates. They were all awards, crediting Francesca’s excellent work. Squinting, she could read that one said To Francesca Stainer, a True Luthier, Following in the Footsteps of Antonio Stradavari. Open on the table beside her sat an orchestra magazine. There was a picture of a cellist there, and Francesca had circled the cello. She had written across the picture, Riley, Baby # 49. A sentence in the article was highlighted, and this read …a cello made by the so-called genius Francesca Stainer…
Marianne gulped. “As a matter of fact, I know your doctor…”
She knew she had to say the rest, had to explain the real reason she had come.
Dr. Sanchez had prescribed Francesca a newly marketed medicine, one that was supposed to help with her instability. The pills in Marianne’s purse would calm Francesca’s mood swings, and make her more social. Perhaps, with the medicine, Francesca might even clean out the house. The medicated Francesca would be less obsessed with her work, and in general, would become a much more well-rounded and agreeable person.
Dr. Sanchez had prescribed the pills to Francesca months ago. Naturally, Francesca was too “busy” with her work to come and pick them up at the pharmacy. Then Marianne, handling the long-abandoned pills, had seen the label on the bottle. She wondered if it was the same Francesca Stainer she had known back in that long-ago woodworking class. She asked Dr. Sanchez.
“You were her friend? That’s a first,” the doctor had joked. “I’ve never known Francesca to have so much as a casual acquaintance. No one wants to be around her time bomb of a temper.” Here he had paused, “But if you’re her friend…surely she’ll be civil to you. Could I ask you an enormous favor? Could you bring the pills to Francesca and ask her casually to take them? Francesca will be better off if you do.”
And now, here Marianne was, with the pills in her purse and Francesca before her. But then Francesca’s words came back to her. I worked three times as hard…my babies…each with their own personality…I was heartbroken to let them go. Francesca was obsessed, true. She was mentally unstable, true, but did it really hurt her? And what of her babies, those beautiful instruments that wouldn’t exist had it not been for a passionate, half-mad, brilliant luthier? They were, as Francesca said, extensions of the soul. And what would happen if that soul was medicated to make it “normal?” What would happen to Francesca and her work?
Marianne took a deep breath. “I just know your doctor, that’s all. Small world, isn’t it.” She zipped up her purse and set it down on a table across the room. “Let me tell you about my daughters.”