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The Violinist MAG
The glass cups clinked as my mother put them on the table. They were still wet, and I could see a few smudged fingerprints – hopefully the customers wouldn't notice. The wilting flowers my aunt had picked yesterday looked like they were leaning toward me, since the table I was sitting at was old and warped. My mother completed each setting with a knife, fork, and spoon, which she lay down crooked. When she turned away, I straightened them. I could see a dried glob of food on one spoon. It was red.
“Mama, I've got to tell you something.”
“Hmm?” she said distractedly, looking toward the kitchen. My father couldn't get the stove lit and had started to yell.
“I want to say something.”
“What's that?” She was facing me but her eyes were still directed toward the back of the room. My father was throwing pans now. She set down the rest of the silverware and brushed a piece of hair from her face as we heard metal pots and pans crashing against the wall one by one.
“Look, baby, you sit right theah. I'll be back,” and she walked away. I didn't really have anything to say; I just wanted to see if she'd look at me for a change – you know, really look at me, with both eyes, the way a mother was supposed to.
I could hear her arguing with my father, telling him to calm down, but her voice was barely audible above the noise. I picked up the fork in front of me and started twisting it on the table, making a design in the accumulated dust.
I looked over at the “picture wall,” my mother's pride and joy. There were faded shots of me, my three brothers, my four sisters, my cousins, my second cousins, their parents, my parents, my grandparents, even my great-grandparents. She had graduation pictures, wedding pictures, a picture of her childhood dog – her whole life was on that wall. I wanted to know who she thought was looking at it – besides her. If the customers were, they didn't see what she saw.
“Hey there, gorgeous! Give me a hand with these?”
I perked up at the sound of her voice, her unaccented, clear running brook of a voice. It was my Aunt Lemonade, struggling to get through the front door, her numerous shopping bags presenting a hazard. I could see snowflakes nestled in her freshly curled blond hair and the luxurious shade of red she had generously bestowed on her lips. Her coat was fur – fake, I was sure – but that was hardly noticeable from a distance. She had chosen a pearl necklace and was wearing a pair of black high heels I had never seen before. Wrapped around her neck was a spotless black and white checked scarf, which looked so soft I could have sworn it was made of clouds. She looked like a doll, or a model right out of a magazine. She was fresh from the city, and I couldn't stop looking at her. I was afraid she'd disappear.
“Is that you, Lemonade?” my mother called.
“Yep! Sorry I'm running late ….”
My mother burst through the door, a dish towel and plate in hand. I looked down at her shoes, which were brown and tattered.
“Would you take off that ridiculous coat and make yourself useful?” she said.
“Oh, don't be such a grouch – I'm here with my smart little niece. I was just about to show her the fruit of my labors.” Lemonade rolled her eyes at my mother and shot me a wink as she rummaged through one of the shopping bags. I could feel my cheeks burning.
“Oh, she doesn't need anyone else tellin' her how smaht she is. Lemonade, you get in that kitchen right now, or I sweah ….”
And just like that she was gone, dragged off by my mother like some filthy garment. She waved at me before she and her perfect high heels vanished behind the kitchen door. I couldn't bear the thought of them getting dirty.
Without her, the restaurant was lifeless, like an empty church, and I wanted to leave before the dust started collecting on me too. I cherished every second I wasn't here. I wanted to lie on my bed upstairs dreaming arid dreams of pearls, curls, and shopping bags.
Dinner came around like an inevitable doctor's appointment. I wasn't looking forward to the usual prattling and the grating sensation I always felt when I heard my family speak. Their conversations always centered around three topics – politics, other relatives' ailments, and alcohol – so when my father brought up something different, I was instantly curious. Lemonade must have felt the same way, because she put down her fork and turned to watch him. I did the same.
“Mikey, I got a big surprise for ya. They're right outside that back dooah theah. Some sad sack left 'em in the alley last night. Big as Yastrzemski's bat, I sweah ….” he said, gesturing toward my oldest brother.
“Cigahs … monstahs. I swear to gawd, Mikey, you ain't never seen nothing like these. I wanted to go at 'em last night, but I knew ya'd kill me. So what do you think? You and me aftah dinnah?”
“Pop, you say they've been sittin' out theah all night?”
My father nodded as I saw a small, brown sliver of chocolate cream pie inching down his chin. He didn't notice and instead shoveled in another spoonful.
“Pops, that'll be like sucking on a popsicle,” Mikey said. Lemonade giggled; her laugh was like a high-pitched aria amidst the garble.
“Why I oughta … and here I thought I was doin' you a favah, waitin' for ya,” Pop said, making a fist in Mikey's direction.
“All right, settle down now, everybody. Hey, listen heah, I got a new joke.”
This was Grandpa now. I sunk a little in my seat. Not another sordid joke. But I was quiet just the same. Everyone turned his way.
“Okay, so listen heah. Theah's this boy and his pa, and they'ah outside, looking at a new hoss the pop's wants to buy for the fahm. It's a real beauty. So but before the pops buys it, you know he wantsta make shoa it's a goodie. So he stahts feeling its behind, you know, checkin' its muscles and whatnaht, down its legs and so on. And the kid says, ‘Pa, whatcha feeling the hoss that way foah?' and the pa says, ‘Kid, I gotta make shoah this hoss is a good'un. You know, gotta check it out. Whatcha askin' foah?' and the kid says ‘Oh, I get it! I saw the UPS man doin' the same thing to Mum.'”
The table erupted, even Lemonade. I took my cue from her, and cracked a thin smile – a very, very thin one.
My sheets were cold when I slid under the covers. I tried not to look at the stain that had been on my pillow since I could remember and adjusted myself to face the window. Between two buildings across the street, I could see the moon. It was just a crescent, barely visible, giving off little more illumination than a street lamp. People were talking in the apartment next to ours, their droning voices the only lullaby as my mind started to blur and my eyes began to close.
Then, out of that nothingness came a sound so foreign I wondered if it was coming from my father's radio, which he sometimes left on at night. But this wasn't the sound of a baseball game; this was music, and it was getting louder, louder, louder, until it culminated in a chord that rang out clearly and enveloped the emptiness of my room. It was a violin, wailing peacefully from across the street. I ran to the window, fearing the ethereal sound would end before I could locate its source.
A light snow had begun to fall, the flakes smaller than the ones I had seen in Lemonade's hair that afternoon. They were almost water, melting before they could stick to the ground. The snow formed a thick, nebulous screen, which despite its opaqueness, could not separate me from the reverberating echo of the music. Through the haze, I discerned the faint outline of a man on the shade in the apartment across the street. His shadow swayed to the rhythm of the violin he was playing. His window was open, as if he wanted me to hear. I could imagine the cold air attempting to suffocate his fingers but failing, its bite not strong enough to overwhelm him.
When the song ended, I returned to my bed, my cheeks rosy from the fleeting outdoor escape, and retreated under the covers. I fell asleep to my father's radio and the silent snowfall outside. I dreamed of the musician's apartment – I saw bookshelf upon bookshelf of sheet music, clean furniture, his clean face, clean everything – a different world, a world that was supposed to be.
“And Yastrzemski's gotta fight the cold here again, folks. It's a damn nippy one in Boston tonight … Strike one!”
“Mama, I have to tell you something.”
I was sitting at the table again, watching my mother clean the frames on her picture wall. She scrubbed and scrubbed until I could see my reflection in one. The restaurant was empty, save for a couple sitting close together in the back, laughing and drinking coffee. They were Mama's least favorite kind – they weren't going to order anything else.
“I want to take music lessons.”
“Now what would you want to do that foah?”
“I don't know. I just want to try it. If you were going to let Mikey smoke a cigar, then ….
“Then music should be allowed.”
“You think so, huh? Where do you get off bein' so sure a yahself?”
I didn't reply.
“Listen, I don't have time to go round lookin' for someone to teach you. If you find someone, I'll pay for a few lessons.”
“Thank you,” I said quietly, and left before she changed her mind.
I hadn't been to that side of the street before. As I exited the front of the restaurant, I wrapped Aunt Lemonade's scarf around my neck. I knew I shouldn't take it without asking, but none of my clothes seemed suited for this visit. I wanted to look like I would belong in the world I was about to enter. I wanted to look like I was fit to make music too.
The streets were slushy. The melting snow had formed a kind of soup along the edge of the sidewalk and was running into the sewers. The city had contaminated it; instead of pure white it was nearly black – almost unrecognizable.
Crossing the street, I looked up at the window I'd watched the night before. The shade was still open, but the daylight prevented anything inside the apartment from being discernable. Just as I shifted my gaze, though, I saw pale white hands lift the window up – barely an inch. Those had to be the musician's hands. They were a milky color, long, thin, and bony – as if he'd never touched anything in his life. I looked at my own hands – the dirt under my fingernails, a scar on my right thumb – and shuddered.
His door was gray and paint was peeling off the bottom, revealing a sickly green color beneath. The scarf around my neck began to feel constrictive and itchy – it was too tight, no matter how loose I made the knot. I had the urge to rip it off and throw it down the sewer with the black snow. What had I expected his door to look like?
I almost didn't knock. I was about to turn away, but the sound of my grandfather's voice was bandying about in my mind: “I saw the UPS man doing the same thing to Mum ….”
I knocked twice. No answer. I knocked again. The third time, I heard footsteps and the lock scraped.
“Can I help you?”
“I heard you the other night. Your window was open.”
“Are you the girl from the restaurant across the street? Your family owns it?”
“Come in, I guess.” He pulled the door open slowly, revealing the apartment I had imagined so extensively in my head. I held my breath.
There were dishes everywhere – plate after plate. I saw one on the floor covered with crusty spaghetti sauce. There was one on his bookshelf that looked ancient. The shelves sagged in the middle, under the weight of the printed words in them. One book was so dusty I couldn't even make out the title.
And then I saw it. The violin. There was an empty coffee cup next to it with the words Boston Pops glazed on the front. So he was good, then.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
“Me? Oh, yes, yes, I'm fine. Well, no … I mean, it's just – I just – it's not how I thought it would look.”
“Thought what would look?”
“I'm afraid I don't understand. You thought my–”
“I don't know. I guess I just imagined it … different. Clean.”
“Never mind. Look, I came to ask you a favor.”
Now he looked truly bewildered. His forehead scored with creases, but he mustered up a small smile and shrugged.
“Go ahead, I suppose.”
“I want to take music lessons … from you.”
For a moment he said nothing, just continued to watch me as he slowly went to sit on the arm of the couch. He glanced at the violin before once again settling on me.
“Listen, I'm not a teacher. I'm a performer. There's a difference. It's two different arts, you know. I don't know if I'd be able to–”
“I'm not looking to become a professional. I just want to learn how to play,” I said, my voice involuntarily cracking. The scarf was unbearably tight.
Once again, nothing.
“Could you at least teach me to read music?”
Still silence from him. I was about to turn away, to escape this foreign world, which I had envisioned so inaccurately, and retreat back to the one I knew. I took a step toward the door and tripped over a plate, the one with the crusty spaghetti. He chuckled, and I whirled to face him.
“So? What do you say?”
“Tomorrow, 3:30. We'll see what I can do.”
I tried to close the restaurant door softly, but my hands were clammy and I lost my grip, which made the bell above the door jingle.
“Welcome! What can I do for ….”
“Hello, Aunt Lemonade.”
“Oh! You surprised me, sweets. I was just about to … is that my scarf?”
I sighed, deflated. “I know I shouldn't have taken it. I can't explain now, but I needed it. And it's fine! Really, it is,” I stammered, my hands shaking as I unwrapped the scarf. I could finally breathe.
“Don't you worry. I don't mind. It looks beautiful on you.” Her soft hand stroked my cheek and she smiled and walked back toward the kitchen, the clicking of her black heels creating a rhythm.
I sat down at the nearest table, the one I had drawn the dust picture on. But now the table was spotless – someone must have just wiped it. I could hardly focus. All I saw in my mind was that violin and his white, creamy hands.
The restaurant was busy, noisier than I ever remember it. I saw my family working – my brother bussing a table, my father coming out of the kitchen to take a customer's compliment, Lemonade greeting a snow-dusted family as they entered, and my mother, by her wall, polishing the pictures.
Instead of retreating upstairs, though, I stayed and looked at my family – really looked at them, the way a musician was supposed to look. And I saw that they were synchronized, like the inside of a finely tuned instrument.