Jack’s piano instructor had high hopes for him. “It’s a matter choosing the right material,” she said. Mrs. Metzer was a thin, angular woman in her fifties. In her music studio, a giant gable of wood and glass, a row of autographed publicity photos lined a shelf that ran along the entire wall of windows. Many of these photographs were from regionally acclaimed musicians, mostly pianists, along with some world-renowned conductors, cellists, and violinists.
One photograph of a young woman with the cello was Mrs. Metzer’s daughter. She was fragile-looking and pale, in a dark dress—the black and white photograph was full of shadows that hid her concentrated face—but Jack imagined she was beautiful. He had seen other pictures of her on the refrigerator in the kitchen. In those, she was plain with stringy hair and a beaked nose. But the photograph in the studio held the illusion—and he was sure that if he saw her play, the music would soften her like the shadows. The same phenomenon had happened with Mrs. Metzer. Often when he came for his lesson, he could hear her playing the piano from the porch. Once he had peeked into the window to watch her—her eyes were closed as her body relaxed and swayed, her fingers pounced in fits of passion. When she played Rhapsody in Blue—he thought he was in love with her.
All last summer they had worked through reams of music searching for the combination that would best exemplify his skill, his versatility, and his talent. Mrs. Metzer pursed her lips as he played, stopping him with a hand on his shoulder—“No, no,” she said. “That is not what we want.” Jack was partial to Schumann, but he knew that Mrs. Metzer would make the right decision; three of her previous students had spent a summer at the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts. She paced, sometimes, as he played, and he could tell if she were pleased by the speed of her pacing; most of the time he didn’t care, but pleased himself, stretching the tempo rubato of Chopin’s Waltz in A Minor, or exaggerating the retard in a Mozart sonata. Often she stopped him. “What are you doing?” she demanded. “Do you think you deserve to take such liberties?” He stared at the keys, smiling foolishly, then repeated the measure or the phrase until she paced again. She never wore shoes at his lessons. But her stocking feet rasped alarm at his deviations. Nevertheless, Jack had endeared himself to her.
On her more generous days, she played duets with him: the two piano arrangements. He sat at the grand in the center of the room, and Mrs. Metzer went to the upright against the wall where the pictures were. She especially liked the modern composer Copeland whom Jack didn’t especially like, but he liked playing with her, feeling the electricity of dissonance as sounds clashed, deadlocked, between the pianos. This was Mrs. Metzer’s affirmation of his talent. He never remembered her outright complimenting him. The most she’d ever given was a closed-eyed nod.
His mother was another story.
“Jack’s auditioning for the Governor’s School for the Arts,” she’d say to anyone who happened to be speaking to her. She could link his audition to any subject, with anyone, on any occasion. She whispered the word “audition” as if it were sacred, and, if he were nearby, she squeezed his shoulder or stroked his hair, so he positioned himself carefully away from her. He was glad she was proud of him, but she always overdid it. She overdid everything. When he was six, he had told her that he wanted to be a doctor when he grew up. For his birthday that year, everything was doctor—doctor kits, doctor favors, she even made the cake in the shape of a hospital bed with an anesthetized icing-face poking from the whipped icing sheet; and the children, with their little paper nurses’ caps and doctors’ hats were told, scalpels ready, to operate. Later, when he decided to be a fireman, his mother lagged behind, briefly mourning the pajama scrubs and the Red Cross backpack.
Susan had bought a second-hand piano for him last Christmas. That was the first Christmas since her new job at Langly and Sons. She could be very generous in peculiar ways. That same year she purchased a membership for Andrew at the YMCA where he could take swimming lessons. That was also the year she introduced the boys to Brad Clements, a mechanic at the Tool and Die shop across from the firm. There was always a catch. “We met on a lunch break,” she said, looking at Brad’s dark mustache and stroking his chest. “It was fate.” His mother was a great believer in destiny. Jack saw that she was in love again. He felt sorrier for Andrew because he would be around for the inevitable breakup in a year or so. But Jack would be gone. He hoped his acceptance to the Governor’s school would clinch a music scholarship at the end of next year.
But Brad was okay. When he moved in, Jack had been relieved that nothing was demanded from him. Brad respected Jack’s ambivalence, and he treated Susan with careful affection. Andrew was the one who had fallen for Brad. Here was the father he never had, just in time, and after a few months, Andrew seemed to have forgotten he never had a father.
When Jack came home from his piano lesson, his mother prepared for a talk—she set a plate of Grandma’s sugar cookies on the table. “Are you all ready for the audition?” she asked.
“I guess so.” He set his music on the counter as she poured him a glass of milk. Susan flipped through the books. “I hope you’re not playing that horrible Copeland—all that pounding.”
“No, I’m playing the Debussy instead.”
“A little better.”
“And the jazz piece.” Susan frowned. “And the Schumann,” he countered. She smiled up at him.
“I’m surprised Madame Mustard lets you play something that actually sounds like music.”
He rolled his eyes. “She taped my mock-audition today. Want to hear it?”
“From memory?” Susan asked, snatching the cassette from his hand. “How is it?” She ran to the stereo. In a moment, the sounds of Aufschwung overwhelmed the room. Susan closed her eyes and sighed as the notes took flight in lilting, rapid ascension. She turned the volume up so that Jack was sure his grandmother could hear it across the street.
“Dance with me, Jack,” she said, pulling him into the living room and putting her arms around his neck. Jack laughed at her, invigorated by the music that sounded good even to his critical ear. “You can’t dance to this,” he said.
“You can always dance!”
He put a hand on her hip and held her other hand, and they danced around the room. “You’re wonderful,” she said. With the notes cascading over the air and her finger tweaking his ear, he almost believed it.
Brad and Andrew came home from the YMCA an hour or so later where Andrew had been swimming and Brad had been working out. Brad wasn’t quite forty, but he had a slim build and was in good shape. Last summer, after he had first moved in, Jack had watched Brad out the kitchen window as he worked in the garden, wearing only an old pair of cutoffs. He leaned away from Jack in the corner of the garden closest to the window. His back was smooth with a deep muscular crevice down the center and broad, tight shoulder blades that dimpled when he pulled at the weeds. His legs were covered with straight black hair; his calves bulged as he bent down. When he straightened up and stretched his arms over his head, Jack saw the dark hair of his armpits curled with perspiration, his chest glistening with sweat, and his stomach stretched taut with a line of hair descending into the band of his shorts. How different things might have been if he had had a father, if a man had been something taken for granted in his life so that seeing Brad working in the backyard would be only glance-worthy instead of bringing on this intense longing to know and imagine and hope. Brad had smiled good-naturedly and waved when he noticed Jack watching him, but Jack flushed, and turned around, making fists to keep his hands from trembling.
“What’s for dinner?” Andrew asked. Brad kissed Susan. Jack set the table.
“Pork chops,” said Susan.
“We just had pork chops,” said Andrew.
Susan slammed the spatula onto the stove. “And you can kiss the ass of the pig who sacrificed them for you.”
Brad laughed as he took his duffel bag to the bedroom. “She got you, Andy,” he said. Andrew haw-hawed and turned the stereo on. Jack’s music filled the room. “What’s this crap?” he said.
Jack was hoping Andrew would be impressed and give him a compliment before he realized it was his music, but Andrew ejected the tape and turned on the radio. “This is better,” he said. He flung himself onto the couch. “I swam three miles today,” he said. “I’m beat.”
Brad came back into the kitchen and helped Jack finish setting. “How was your lesson?” he asked.
“You should hear the recording he made,” Susan said, prodding Jack. “You just can’t imagine one of your own children doing something so well. Especially Aufschwung.”
Brad looked at Jack. “Off-swung?”
“It means ‘soaring,’ Jack explained. “It’s one of the eight fantasy pieces written for piano by Schumann in 1837.” Then he reddened.
Brad nodded and sat down at the table. “I’m impressed—when do we hear it?”
“Piano music gives me indigestion,” Andrew chimed from the living room.
Brad laughed, albeit sympathetically, at Jack, but Susan called Andrew to the table and asked Jack to put on his tape for dinner music. “We can all enjoy it while we eat.”
“I’d love to hear it,” Brad agreed.
Jack replaced the tape as Andrew came to the table.
“Not too loud,” said Andrew, “my stomach.”
Susan slapped his arm. “This is important for Jack,” Susan said. “This audition may be the single most important thing he’ll ever do.”
Everyone hushed as the music swept the room. Brad nodded his head at the beginning; even Andrew cut his meat quietly. But soon everyone began to eat, careful not to clank the glasses, or clatter silverware against plates. But into the jazz number, the clanking began as well as the talking. Susan, taken with a phrase of melody sometimes closed her eyes and paused, fork raised to lips, before opening her mouth. Jack felt foolish thinking that anything would be different. As the recording finished, he breathed easier, wondering if Bach or Haydn or Chopin ever got anything they really wanted.
On the day of the audition, Mrs. Metzer drove Jack to the university. He had been there once before to see a concert, so he knew he was familiar with the building. He gripped the black folder that contained the audition pieces in one hand as he walked down the hall toward the audition room. They waited in line until his number was called. There were dozens of other people waiting before him. The line opposite him was auditioning for cello; they all looked serious as they fingered the necks and leaned the bulk of their cellos in their laps. One girl seemed lost behind her cello. But her face emerged from behind it, serious, stern, and beautiful. Jack could feel the magic of the music transforming the ordinary. That was the draw for him—the illusion of more. So much more. His fingers twitched. Mrs. Metzer smiled at him and patted his hand.
“Don’t be nervous,” she said. “You’ll be fine.”
“Yeah,” said Jack. He didn’t feel like talking. He wanted to listen to the other voices around him. Mixed with the warm-ups and the clicking of heels and the sound of air conditioning, the music was like a soundtrack to some poignant and climactic scene in a movie. He imagined the camera backing away from him to encompass the hallway, the other students, Mrs. Metzer walking away to talk to a fellow professor. Something significant would happen soon.
“Are you in line for the piano auditions?” a voice whispered to him. Jack was annoyed and only nodded before he turned. A boy, smaller than he, smiled nervously. “What are you playing?” he asked.
Jack opened his arm and let him see the titles.
“I tried Schumann last year but didn’t make it to the second audition,” he said. “This is it. If I don’t make it this year, I’m giving up a career in music. I paint too, which is better because my hands are pretty small.”
Jack hadn’t thought that far ahead. He hadn’t the least idea what he would do if he didn’t make it, or if he did for that matter.
Mrs. Metzer clicked back. The boy turned away and disappeared back into the wall of waiting auditioners. Jack’s number was called. A flush of energy rounded the inside of his skull and lifted the hairs on the back of his neck. His heart absolutely thumped, but as he walked to the door, the boy who talked to him tapped his shoulder and said, “Break a finger!” Some people laughed, and Jack was grateful that the boy took the seriousness out of it for a moment. Mrs. Metzer had worn a hat—a scarlet and black derby. He was glad his mother hadn’t come; she would have decked herself in some inappropriate evening gown with gloves or a sequined party dress or something. That made him smile. Mrs. Metzer whispered, “Play well, Jack” into his ear as he entered the room. He glanced back at the crowded hallway, wondering if he had been transformed in their eyes.
The man conducting the audition was fat with an oily face. He sat with the air of irritation heavy people often have in never being comfortable in standard sized chairs. He smiled at Jack as he probably smiled at everyone and took his music with a practiced hand so that the pages didn’t even rustle.
“Proceed,” he said.
The piano was a Steinway, of course. The hard, polished skin of the instrument reflected the glare of the lightly shaded windows. He remembered thinking someone should have put a bouquet of flowers or something on the piano to break the startling contrast between black and white. The man looked at the music, rubbing his index finger up and down the edge, making a painful rasping.
“Whenever you’re ready.”
Jack pounded the first chord before the man finished the sentence, relieved that he had surprised him, but not quite able to block the man’s rubbing finger from his peripheral vision. This made him more aware that he was not concentrating, which made him play more deliberately, but not less accurately. He played well. He paused between each piece until the man nodded. Only for a few moments did he lose himself in the music. When he finished the last piece, his little finger accidentally struck middle C as he lifted his hands away from the keys, and the sound teetered around the room while the man placed a handwritten sheet of music onto the piano. Jack noticed his half-amused smile. “Study this for sixty seconds, then sight read, please.”
The notes were scratched in small blue ballpoint dashes.
“This is handwritten,” Jack softly commented.
“Yes.” The man huffed as he resumed his sitting position. “Is that a problem?” Jack realized that this man had probably written it. He wished the man’s chair would collapse.
“I can hardly read my mother’s writing.”
The man smiled but didn’t respond. “Thirty seconds,” he said.
Jack began immediately. He took the notes as they came; at least he got the timing and key signature right. But the notes made no sense; there was no melody, and the left-hand intervals were oddly arranged. He couldn’t tell whether he did well or not. And when he finished he didn’t care. He thought there would be a great feeling of relief afterwards, but as he scooted off the bench and took his music from the fat man, he was disappointed at feeling rather numb.
Mrs. Metzer smiled as he came out, put her arms around his shoulders and squeezed, a gesture his mother wouldn’t appreciate. “Fine, Jack,” she said. “Just fine.”
He smiled at the boy in line as they walked down the hallway. “See you at Bucknell,” the boy said. A few years ago, Jack might have tried to respond to such an enviable confidence, but he knew better now. Confidence was like luck. You either had it or you didn’t. He thought he had talent, but he’d been very good at concealing his ambition. He had heard once that every human being hid a secret desire to expose themselves to others. He thought this might be true, though he never would. But it was the urges you had to live with.
Mrs. Metzer wanted to take him out for pie. She was very definite about the pie—the proper follow-up dessert for an audition. Jack didn’t doubt her, but refused, saying that his mother expected him by four. Mrs. Metzer was disappointed. This outing had been difficult for her, thought Jack. She was awkward trying to relate to him outside of her music room, and he smiled inwardly, sympathetically. This was how he felt everywhere. All his life he had been waiting to feel comfortable somewhere. At times, his talent provided him with that, but he was not a little frightened that this had been a mirage, that the music had clouded the reality of his perch in the world, had only postponed the inevitable fall.
“How was the audition?” Susan asked when Mrs. Metzer dropped him off. He had seen her at the window, holding the sash of the curtain between her fingers. At first he had been amused by his mother’s jealousy of Mrs. Metzer, but he had quickly grown weary of it. She always made more than there was out of everything.
She searched his face with her eyes. “The sight-reading?”
He took the music to the piano.
“When will you find out?” she asked.
“Mrs. Metzer said by the end of next week.”
Susan inhaled. “That long? How can you stand to wait so long?”
“It’s only a week.”
“Only a week says my calm, cool, collected son as he waits for the most important decision of his life.” She walked to the piano and trilled on two notes in the upper register. “You’re never anxious about anything are you, Jack?” She said this more as an accusation than a compliment.
He trilled on the lower register. “No,” he lied. In fact, he couldn’t remember ever not feeling anxious. But it was about everything, impossible to pin-point, except at the place where it centered in his stomach, where he ached sometimes so much that he thought he was dying.
Susan fingered the keys now. “Are you upset with me, Jack?”
“Should I be?”
“Well, I thought things were going so well. Have you and Andrew been fighting again?”
“Everything’s fine, Mom. Really.” But it was no use. Susan and Jack had a relationship that appeared to be more than it was: Susan believed that she understood Jack; Jack knew she didn’t but let her believe it was so. “I’m just a little worried, I guess.”
“I thought that was it.” Susan put her hand on his shoulder and squeezed. “You have nothing to worry about, Sweetie. Your life is going to be wonderful,” and she tweaked his ear as a kind of punctuation. “My life is heading that way, too.”
“Brad and I are getting married.” She played Here Comes the Bride deliberately with her index finger, trying not to grin as she peered at Jack.
He was surprised. She had never been married before, and she swore she would never get married. This set-up was going to be permanent. “Grandma will be thrilled,” he said.
“I’m not doing this for my mother, Jack,” Susan said. Her mouth had tightened and she folded her arms. “All my life I’ve done what I thought was best for everyone else. This time I’m doing something for myself.”
Jack was always amazed by his mother’s selective amnesia. He had never known a moment in her life when she had not done whatever she wanted, though she did have a talent for disguising those intentions. Things were never what they appeared. She seemed to discover herself in the silence and clapped her hands. “Well, on that note,” and she struck a B flat—“no pun intended,” she laughed, “I want you and Andrew to go to your grandmother’s tonight. Brad and I are going out to celebrate.
“Can’t we just get some pizza here?”
Susan sat on the couch and put her feet up on the coffee table. “What happened, Jack? You used to like your grandmother more than you liked me. Now you like me more.” She was talking in her baby voice. He nudged her feet off the table.
“That’s not it,” Jack said. “I don’t like either of you anymore.”
She laughed. “She’ll want to hear about the audition.”
“I know.” His grandmother was too eager. For a long time now he had felt more and more uncomfortable around her, but lately it was unbearable. He loved her—she had always been the steady one while his mother was off to play out one drama after another, but now she couldn’t stop herself from being needed, and he couldn’t stop himself from resisting it.
“You could play her your audition,” Susan said.
“She’s heard it a million times.”
“So have I. And I still love to hear you play.” They heard the car doors slam outside. Brad and Andrew were home. Susan went to the window. “Jack,” she said. “Please don’t fight with Andy tonight. You know how your grandmother is.”
“I never fight with Andrew,” Jack said.
“Just behave yourself.”
When Andrew came into the room, he gave Susan a big hug. “Congrats, Mom—you finally didn’t pick a total loser,” he said.
“Sorry, Honey—it just slipped out. I hope you aren’t too mad.”
She wasn’t mad. Everyone stood around, smiling. Brad looked at Jack for an awkward moment. Then he gave him a hug: an overly tight and hard hug, with loud, painful smacks on the back. Jack tried to hug him back, but the most he could manage was a couple of meager pats at his waist. Brad rocked him slightly, and Jack’s chin dug into the side of his neck. “Looks like I’m going to be around for a long time,” Brad said into his ear. Jack closed his eyes and breathed him in. He felt strangely comforted, and for a moment a vision of happiness wormed among his thoughts, too painfully sweet to be true or believed. He stiffened, and Brad released Jack and said to all of them, “We’re going to be a family.”
Nobody spoke for a few moments. Jack had the distinct feeling that everyone was waiting for him. He tried to think of something to say but found it an awkward business finding a transition from everybody else’s happiness. Finally, Andrew spoke, and he breathed easy again.
“Jerry said I could spend the night. Or we could just stay here. Jack-ie might need a baby-sitter, but I don’t.”
Susan put a hand on the piano. “Put a sock in it, Andy.”
“But this is stupid,” Andrew said.
Brad stood beside Susan—he wasn’t smiling anymore, but Jack could see that Andrew amused him. Just like me when I was kid, he imagined him thinking.
“When was the last time you spent some time with your grandmother?” Susan asked. She looked at Brad and rolled her eyes.
“You mowed her lawn.”
“Better than nothing.”
“Better knock it off,” Susan said. “You’re going. Period.” She gave Brad a quick kiss on the cheek. “Let’s get ready, Honey. You boys—hit the road.”
Brad leaned toward Andrew as he left the room. “Just do what she says,” Brad whispered. Andrew looked at him with a frown. “You know how she can get,” Brad said. Shared confidences, Jack noted. Long talks out on the porch—he’d heard their voices sometimes, winding around the porch swing like another kind of creaking. His mother went out there too, her voice higher, clipped and animated, blending with the others. He’d accompany them with his piano lesson, listening to that other music while he paused. He seldom felt left out. His part was simply somewhere outside their circle. It was only a matter of waiting it out, until he knew what to do. He had stopped believing in a lot of things, but he still believed in revelation
His grandmother sounded like a friendly crow when he and Andrew walked through the door—caw caw, “seems like forever,” caw, “missed having you all to myself,” caw caw. A fall at a church ice-skating party had broken her hip and left her with a slow, stiff walk a few years ago. Now she said she was too old for such nonsense, though everyone could see when it snowed that she just itched to do it again. She was raised in northern New York “where the snowdrifts buried houses.” She kept a manger scene on her mantelpiece all year round.
“Mom said I can go over to Jerry’s after supper,” Andrew said as his grandmother kissed him.
“No way,” said Jack.
“She did, Grandma, I promise!”
“Hardly stepped into the room and already straining to leave,” Grandma said. She knew he was lying. She could tell when anyone lied. She said she had the gift of discernment, residue from a time with the Pentecostals, between her early days with the Pilgrim Holiness church and her present devotion to the Methodists. But she let it go. After a life with her daughter, she had learned that she must. Jack saw her waver between rebuke and hurt, but she settled, he thought, nicely, somewhere around nonchalance, and she playfully slapped Andrew on top of his head and huffed, “Not another word about leaving. At least pretend to enjoy dinner.”
“I can do that,” Andrew said.
Jack smiled in spite of himself. So did his grandmother. Andrew was quick. He was the only one Jack knew who could actually leave his mother speechless. After dinner—she had ordered pizza after all, throwing in a tossed salad for homemade effect—Andrew sneaked out through the window in the bathroom. “He’s so melodramatic,” she said with a sigh. “As if I would force him to stay.” She laughed sadly, the way she did when his mother would talk about her disastrous affairs. The way she truly felt about the whole thing showed in the creases of her mouth. But now Jack was stuck. He had hoped that he and Andrew could devise a mutual plan of escape, but as usual Jack was left holding the means of his grandmother’s happiness for the evening while Andrew took hold of his own.
After dinner, he played his audition music for her again. To Jack’s relief his grandmother truly delighted in his music. She applauded and complimented him without the ostentation of his mother. Afterward, they played some Parcheesi, and then she brewed some rose hip tea that she had made herself from the roses in her garden.
“I can’t wait to get started out there,” she said, glancing out the window. “Another week and you’ll see me out back, wooden shoed and armed with a spade.”
Jack tensed a little. Teatime was the official starting point of serious conversation. He laughed a little anyway, picturing his grandmother, as he had seen her so many times, in the garden wearing her clunky wooden shoes, spade in hand and a straw hat tied around her chin, looking like a peasant woman from some other era. He took a deep breath. “Mom’s getting married,” he said.
She sipped. “It’s about time, don’t you think. Of course her timing never was very good.” There was more she wanted to say, but she didn’t. “Do you like Brad?”
“He’s good for Mom, I think,” he said. “He and Andy really hit it off.”
“I’m glad,” she said. “It’s hard to know what to say anymore. Everything has been so wrong that even the right things don’t seem to have much of a chance of staying that way. But how do you feel about him?”
“He’s all right.”
“I see.” Jack could feel her discerning him. “I’ve always felt that you had been cheated, Jack,” she said. “I suppose it’s too late to make up for it now.”
He bowed his head. She was good at this. She could pinpoint the problem, make it painfully clear, yet she could offer no solution. He thought this unforgivably cruel. He did like Brad. He just didn’t know what to do with him. There had been a lot of investment in the pain of that void in his life—he nursed it secretly and dutifully; whether Brad could fill it, or if Jack even wanted him to seemed entirely irrelevant at this point. Jack would be gone by the end of next year. He wouldn’t have to worry about any of this again. His mother could marry Brad and have a wonderful life with Andrew and his grandmother, but he would be out of it. He would be far, far away. It wouldn’t affect him anymore—he could be certain of that.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said.
His grandmother smiled at him and said, “You’re a good boy, Jack.”
He slept in his Uncle Barry’s old room. A few of the model airplanes that his uncle constructed as a child still hung from the corners of the room, dusted and preserved. He didn’t sleep well. He dreamed of dogfighting in the black warplane, pressing the red button on the controls until the other plane burst into flames, and he woke up sweaty and breathing heavily in inexplicable, wrenching terror.
When Susan almost married Jack’s father, they had planned the traditional spread, with gowns and tuxedos, cake and reception, the whole fairy-tale event. But he never showed and was never seen or sought again. Andrew’s father had been a flower child, and because his philosophy had been free love, he had no intentions of paying for it in marital bliss. He had moved to Mexico a few years ago, the abandoned antique shop downtown testified to that. Susan and Brad had decided to meet somewhere between the two extremes—they would have a family ceremony at the courthouse. There would be a nice reception at Sylvia’s. Sylvia had helped his mother through her vocational classes. She had recently married a lawyer she worked for, who came complete with a hostess dream house, a social status, and a Bosendorfer grand piano. Jack would play the piano at the reception.
On Saturday, when Susan was preparing the guest list for the reception, the letter Jack had been waiting for arrived. Susan came running into the room waving the letter, “It’s here! It’s here!” Jack swallowed his excitement and took the letter. “Good luck,” Brad said, patting his shoulder. Even Andrew was smiling. “I hope you get in, Jack,” he said. “It would be nice to have you gone for five weeks.”
Jack was too busy reading the letter to respond, though Susan punched Andrew in the arm. He handed the letter to his mother who read, her voice rising with every syllable, “...delighted to inform you that you have been selected to take part in the state sponsored music camp!” She didn’t finish but hugged him and kissed his face a dozen times. “I knew you could do it! ‘Delighted’—did you hear that?”
Brad shook his hand. He had been bored with the reception plans and was happy for the interruption. “Congratulations.”
“Do I have to bow in his presence now? Or do I just kiss his big toe?” said Andrew.
“You can kiss my ass, Andy,” Jack said, feeling especially bold now. But he smiled so wide and said it so good-naturedly that no one, not even Andrew, could take offense.
“Wait until your grandmother finds out—Andy, run over and get your grandmother. Then she put on his tape so loud that when his grandmother came in the door and hugged him, it was as if there were no sound in the world but his piano music. The laughing faces, as his mother danced with him, seemed to multiply so that the whole world was in that room, smiling, patting his back, shouting encouragement. It was the first unmitigated moment of happiness he had ever known.
Mrs. Metzer was very pleased. She said, “I’m very pleased.” Her stiff self relaxed as much as it could as she took his hand in hers and squeezed. “I had every confidence in you,” she said. After his lesson, when he told her the good news, she took him out of the music room into the small, colonial kitchen and gave him a piece of lemon cream pie. He was touched by this effort; this was no store-bought variety. It was delicious and awkward and perfect.
“I didn’t tell you,” she said, about halfway through her pie. She smiled as if he should know what she hadn’t told him. “My daughter will be at the Governor’s School this summer. She’ll be conducting the orchestra.” Mrs. Metzer smiled sheepishly as if this bit of news embarrassed her, but Jack realized that her embarrassment was caused by her pride, which appeared a little too self-consciously for her own comfort. This was something she couldn’t wait to tell him. This explained the pie.
“Really?” he said. “I’ve always wanted to meet her.” He poked the remaining crust on his plate. He glanced at the picture of her daughter on the refrigerator. She wasn’t really smiling, but her teeth showed. She was ugly; no amount of music and shadow could change that fact.
“I’ve told her all about you,” she said. “You must introduce yourself to her.”
“Yes. Yes I will.”
During the three-hour bus trip, Jack clutched the leather book bag that Mrs. Metzer had given him for his music; it was an old-fashioned black leather rectangle that you could hold by the thick wooden handles or carry over your shoulder with the long-embroidered strap. Not to be outdone, Susan had purchased a new article of clothing for every day he was to be there—from a navy-blue double-breasted suit coat for the formal dinner after the concerts to an assembly of socks and underwear varying in color and cut. Andrew, smirking, had slipped him a box of condoms. He took the trip alone on the Greyhound, glad he had talked them into letting him go this way—he needed this transition.
All the “music campers” assembled in the auditorium after room assignments were made. The first day would consist of introductory lectures, tours, faculty introductions, and a welcome banquet. Optional concerts were scheduled to exhibit the talents of their varied instructors. He looked for Mrs. Metzer’s daughter in the program—she was there, a small picture beside the list of her accomplishments. The photo was better than the one on the refrigerator; it was a close-up, but her face was toward the camera with only a hint of a smile as she looked past the photographer’s shoulder at something to her right. She would perform that evening.
When Jack found his room after check-in, he ran into the boy he had seen in line at the auditions. They had been assigned to the same room along with two others.
“My name’s Eric Lawrence,” he said, shaking Jack’s hand. “I see you made it through without breaking your fingers,” he laughed.
“Yeah.” Jack wriggled his fingers for show. “I’m Jack Lundy. So you put off the painting career?”
Eric laughed. “Until the music falls through.”
“I’m a realist—an optimist with brains. Otherwise it’s just wishing.”
The other guys had already unloaded their stuff and disappeared. Jack pushed his suitcase under the free bottom bunk and hung his garment bag in the closet. “Are we all pianists?” he asked.
Eric took a sketchpad from the top bunk. “I don’t know. I think they just assigned names alphabetically.” He began to sketch, glancing at Jack every so often as he unpacked his book bag.
He colored, feeling himself being watched so intently. The pack of condoms fell on the floor. Jack quickly picked them up and stuffed them into his front pocket. Eric scratched quickly against the pad and in a few minutes he ripped off the sheet of paper and handed it to Jack. “Here.”
He was really good—Jack wondered how he could so accurately capture his features without really knowing him, and then so easily give his work away. He felt awkward taking it, especially when he saw that Eric had drawn the condoms peeking out of his pocket. “What do I do with it?” he asked, stupidly.
“Give it to your girlfriend.”
“Give it to your mother.”
Jack set it on top of his suitcase under the bed. “Thanks,” he said.
“Sure,” said Eric. “I sketch caricatures at the mall for extra money. I practice every chance I get. You’ll probably have a whole suitcase full by the end of the six weeks.”
They walked down to the cafeteria, ate some supper, then walked across campus to the music building to check out the practice rooms. Each room had a black glossy-finished Steinway and a bench. They squeezed into the small room and sat down at the piano. Jack put his hands on the upper keys and began warm-up arpeggios. Eric thumped a jazzy accompaniment on the lower register, and soon they were jamming—an odd mixture of classical, ragtime, and jazz. Jack smiled at his hands and couldn’t stop smiling; he was mortally afraid he would giggle.
After a little while they stopped, breathing heavily.
“You’re good,” said Eric.
“I’ve never done that before,” said Jack. “My teacher makes me play strictly by the book.” Jack almost slipped and called her Madame Mustard.
A few seconds of silence passed. Jack unfolded the program he retrieved from his pocket and checked his watch. “Do you want to see a cello concert?” he asked.
Eric looked at the program. “Is she good?”
“It’s my teacher’s daughter—I promised to go see her.” He was suddenly annoyed at this obligation.
“Okay—” he pushed his glasses against his forehead and ran his hand through the part in his hair. “I’ll meet you there—I want to get my sketchpad first.”
Jack remained in the practice room. With the door shut, the room seemed to shrink, and he cranked open the single window for some fresh air. Since the practice rooms were in the basement, the windows were level with the parking lot. The evening air wafted humid and dank against his face, and he closed it again. He could just see Eric in the distance walking towards the dorm with short, bobbing strides. It was funny—so many times he had longed for something like this, but the attempts had been too painful or the results too inadequate, and he had stopped trying; now Eric slid easily and uninvited into that space. So that’s the secret. He cranked open the window for a second time, then played loud enough so that Eric might hear.
Only a few dozen people showed up at the small recital hall that evening for Lillian Metzer’s cello concert. She was a tall wispy woman, clothed in the obligatory black pant suit—though black seemed to be a color well-matched to her expressionless, reticent features. She placed the cello against her left knee and took a breath. She embraced the instrument, and Jack noticed the hint of a smile move across her lips as she teased the first note from the string.
He had forgotten his copy of the program in the practice room so had no idea what she was playing, but it was terse, and strange, and glorious. Her fingers moved spider-like along the neck, snatching notes from the scale in no apparent order or rhythm, but every now and then she held a note, and that note would vibrate the air with such sweetness that his pulse would answer in fluttering reverberation. The music lasted forever; when she finished he cursed the applause that whisked away the lingering effect. Her eyes remained closed until it was quiet again, then she nodded once toward her accompanist and played her second piece. This music grated Jack’s very bones. She chiseled and sawed sounds from her instrument that he had never dreamed possible. There was no melody, no beauty, no hope in this music, but as he watched her, he knew that this was what she loved. The first piece had been for the audience; this piece was for her. When she finished, she lifted her chin at the hesitant applause with a smirk on her mouth, then quickly walked off stage.
The host announced that the next performer would appear after a fifteen-minute intermission. Jack searched the room for Eric. Though he hadn’t sat with him, he hoped he’d come; perhaps he sat in the back so he could sketch without disturbing anyone. But as he exited from the recital room into the large, rather plush lobby of the music building, he knew that Eric wasn’t there.
He descended to the practice rooms to retrieve the program he had left behind. The hallway was dim, a lone bulb burned at the opposite end. The practice room doors were all slightly ajar; a custodian must have come through. He turned the light—the program was gone. He felt uneasy returning through the darkened hall, so he turned toward the lighted stairway. As he walked, he felt the fear from his childhood steal into his chest, and he walked faster until he was running up the stairs, sure that something was chasing him. He forced himself to walk as he emerged, embarrassed, into another hallway upstairs.
He sipped from the fountain noting the warm, slightly bitter taste of the water. He tried to find his way back to the main lobby—he listened for music or voices, but the hum of the air conditioners made it difficult. After some exploring, he found his way to a hallway that ran behind the recital rooms. In what looked like a dressing room with a large, hotel-like vanity lining one wall, he saw Lillian Metzer. The door was open. She was sitting in a chair tugging at the zipper to her gig bag. Her hair was straight and black and hid her face as she leaned over.
“I’m Jack Lundy,” he said without clearing his throat or knocking first, just to see how she would react.
She looked up quickly, tossing her hair behind her shoulders. She didn’t smile, but her face relaxed and she straightened. She was taller than Jack and even thinner than she looked on the stage. “You say that as if I should know you,” she said. “Do I?”
“No.” He stared at the cello case feeling foolish. “Your mother said I should look you up.”
“You’re a little young for me, aren’t you?” she said. Then she laughed, an uncontrollable giggle really—shriek-like, that bounced around the hallway.
Now Jack’s face relaxed. He smiled, though he was a little embarrassed for her laugh; he would never laugh like that.
She set the cello in the corner then leaned back in her chair. She didn’t discourage him, so he walked into the room and sat down.
“Yes,” she said. Small talk didn’t come naturally to her, he could tell. Even her voice sounded unused to speaking. Yet he was relieved by the awkwardness—and found a certain pleasure in watching her come up with something to say.
“I really liked your performance,” he said after a few moments of silence.
“Oh,” she said. Then abruptly, “My mother speaks highly of you.”
“She’s a good teacher,” he said, hesitant, “she’s helped me a lot.”
Her face moved back and forth between ugly and intriguing. When she looked him in the eyes, he leaned toward the latter. “I doubt that. You are what you are.” Her lips remained tight against her teeth, though her eyes had no trouble staring through his. He felt stupid for constantly looking away, and was just about to excuse himself when she asked, “Are you a musician?”
At first he thought she was teasing him, but when he started to laugh and her eyes widened in shock, he realized she probably rarely teased, and never about music.
“I guess so.”
“You don’t know.”
“No. Yes. I think so.”
“Hmm.” She stood and picked up a stack of music from the counter, seeming to contemplate his answer. Jack stood as well, waiting for what she would say. She looked at him, deciding. “I would like to hear you play.”
“Mrs. Metzer has a recording,” said Jack.
“I would like to hear you play,” she repeated.
“Oh.” This felt like a test he wasn’t adequately prepared for. He didn’t say anything for a few moments. “All right.” He couldn’t tell whether or not she was pleased, but he could tell she was ready for the conversation to be over.
“I’ll be conducting the orchestra every afternoon. Why don’t you come by later this week, and maybe you’ll play then?”
He followed her out of the room and waited while she locked the door.
“Goodbye,” she said. She left quickly. For a moment he thought she was upset with him, but as she turned down the hallway she looked back and gave a slight, rapid shake of her hair before rounding the corner. Mrs. Metzer made the identical gesture when he took liberties with tempo at his lesson.
He wasn’t interested in listening to any more recitals tonight, so he left the building. There were quite a few students milling around the small courtyard outside the fine arts building. He made a half-hearted attempt to find Eric, thinking that he might have come later, but he walked through the crowd toward the dorms without spotting him, disappointed but not surprised.
His room was empty. It was only ten o’clock. He thought about calling home, just to let them know he was settled in, but he decided against it—he didn’t want them to think he was lonely or anything. He changed into a pair of shorts and a T-shirt and wandered down the hall to the TV lounge. It was dark; he left the lights off but turned on the television and lay down on the couch. The cable must not have been hooked up because only three channels came in clearly. He kept the volume at a low mumble on a news station, not because he was interested, but because he liked the soft sound of voices, like whispers in another room, and the way the hazy blue light from the screen flickered against the ceiling. There was something wonderful about this isolation; he felt a strange contentment in being totally alone, and he imagined himself the sole person in the building. He put his bare feet on the arm of the couch and sighed. The contentment passed, however, and he soon began to wonder if he had missed a meeting or a performance that everyone else had gone to.
He awoke to the sounds of running feet in the hallway. The TV was still on; a few guys were watching Letterman. They watched him as he raised his head and looked around. He stood, sheepish and embarrassed, and stumbled to the hallway. His room was unlocked, and he walked in quietly. The other guys were sleeping. One boy was very small and slept with his hands under his cheek like a child. The boy on the top bunk had his back to him, but Jack could tell by his breathing that he was asleep. Eric was in bed. Jack slowly stripped down to his boxers and began climbing the ladder to his bunk.
“Sorry I didn’t make it to the recital,” Eric said.
Jack stepped down from the ladder. “You’re awake?”
“I ran into a friend.”
“That’s okay.” He felt stupid just standing there beside his bed. He started up the ladder again.
“Was she good?” Eric asked.
“Yeah.” He was going to tell him more but decided against it. The bed creaked as he gathered the sheet around him. In a little while, he heard Eric’s steady breathing and stared out the crack in the draped window at the security lamp that gleamed against the darkness.
By the end of the first few days, Jack had his schedule down: theory class in the morning; ear-training; lunch; group practice; piano lesson; free time; recitals and performances; dinner. His friendship with Eric had grown steadily; they spent most of their time together, except when he was with his girlfriend, Beulah. She was a soprano with an incredibly clear and lovely voice. She could reach a high A with an ease that belied the fullness of the note. When Jack first saw her sing, he was astounded at her connection to Eric; she looked older, matronly, better developed than his slight frame and delicate features. But when Eric introduced him to Beulah after she had descended the stage following a rehearsal, and he saw, with unflinching amazement, her transformation into a mortal girl as well as his dangerous propensity to idolize, he thought them well matched. They were both from Abbington Heights. Her voice was smooth and her laughter tinkled. Jack couldn’t stop himself from gaping when she spoke. She must have noticed this rather indecorous attention for she stopped sometimes in mid-sentence to fix him with a look that encouraged more than discouraged him. Eric was oblivious.
Jack saw her as he glanced at the studio door during their group practice. Eric played at the piano directly across from him. The room was filled with ten baby grands, and every student played the same piece at the same time. Right now they were playing a Haydn sonata—a lot of scales and arpeggios that only showed off, but it gave him a thrill to be a part of the music, to have the instructors walk past him with a nod instead of a correction or reprimand. To Eric they often said, “Stop slouching—don’t play with your chest, Mr. Lawrence—put your energy into your playing—it’s not a dance, Mr. Lawrence.” He laughed at first, but after too much of this Eric stopped playing altogether: when Professor Leonard actually pulled his shoulders back. This is what Beulah saw as she watched through the tiny window. Jack pretended not to notice and deliberately missed a run as Professor Leonard passed him, but he only tsk-tsk’d him and put an encouraging hand on his shoulder. The look that Eric gave to Jack was like ice.
After the lesson, the three of them went to the student union. Eric was sullen.
“I got the solo in the Martini piece,” Beulah said.
“I knew you would,” said Jack.
“I’m a little nervous about the concert, though.”
“No you’re not—you love to show off,” Eric said.
“I do not!” said Beulah, withdrawing her hand and playfully slapping his arm. Then she snatched his hand into hers again. “Okay, I do,” she laughed.
Eric opened the door to the union. “At least you’re honest about it,” he said, frowning at Jack.
They ordered their drinks and sat in a rustic booth in the back. The place was crowded with other students. Jack got the distinct feeling he had made a major blunder somehow, but for the life of him he couldn’t figure out what he had done. Eric avoided eye contact, though when he did look at Jack it was with a piercing accusing look.
Eric sipped his drink, then patted Beulah’s hand. “You’re in good company, Beulah, Jack likes to show off too.”
“Everyone likes to show off,” Beulah said.
“That’s true,” said Eric, “especially when they’re not showing off.”
“Professor Leonard’s a Nazi,” Jack said, hoping for a joke.
“He loves you, comrade,” said Eric. He was not joking. Beulah eyed Jack and shook her head.
“We’re free until tomorrow—what do you want to do?” she asked.
“There’s a nature preserve close by,” said Jack. “We could go there and you could take your pad and sketch. If you want.”
Eric looked at Beulah without saying a word. Jack knew that look. His mother gave it to Brad when his grandmother stayed too long after dinner. Jack had given that look to Andrew when Sylvia came over. He would never give that look again.
“I can’t go, though,” Jack lied. “I’m supposed to meet with Ms. Metzer, later. I forgot.” Jack saw the undisguised relief on Eric’s face. He suddenly became furious, surprised how murderous his thoughts were—he could kill him with his bare hands—but he managed a smile when he said, “Why are you so mad at me, Eric?”
“Because you’re good.”
Beulah stood up. “That’s not fair,” she said.
“You’re so good and you don’t even know it, or you pretend you don’t, which is worse.”
“You have your painting,” Beulah said.
“Right,” he huffed. “I’m not really good at any one thing,” he said, his voice beginning to choke. “It sucks.”
Jack looked around. A few people were watching them. He wanted to leave. “But I can’t do anything else,” he said.
“You don’t know how lucky you are,” said Eric.
Beulah tossed her empty cup into the trash. Jack and Eric sat across from each other sipping the last of their drinks. Jack wondered why Beulah was with Eric; he assumed weakness or charity had drawn her to him. But it seemed right somehow—people never connected with those who were good for them. And suddenly he was afraid of Beulah—because she seemed so perfect and because she was not perfect at all. He was afraid of this friendship that had power over him, that weakened him with longing, and made him want more than he had ever imagined. He was afraid it was all just another hoax of sorts. He told Beulah and Eric that he would stay a while, then go practice. He watched them leave; Eric glanced back, feeling guilty for his behavior, Jack hoped.
He did practice. A few practice rooms were occupied; most of the populace had taken advantage of the free afternoon and the nice weather. He wondered if the other players were there out of desperation as well. He played through his lesson as well as some music he bought at the exhibition. Three o’clock came quickly, and he walked upstairs to the recital hall where the orchestra was practicing and sat in the back row. They were playing a Wagner piece, very romantic; it wasn’t something he imagined Ms. Metzer choosing. She directed with a small white baton that scrolled intricate spirals in the air. She had an unusual, unexpected gracefulness.
Suddenly she hammered her stand with the baton—the oboes had come in late, causing the violins to drag. She descended from her stool so quickly that it fell over with a violent crash. “Don’t think about anything else,” she screeched. “Stop thinking about what you will do later, who you will be with later. Right now, until I say stop, you will only think about the music. It is the only thing. It is everything.” Her voice cracked with rage. The players in the orchestra were visibly stunned. The oboe players bowed their instruments in shame.
As she righted her stool, Jack thought she had seen him. She cleared her throat and tapped her baton; all the instruments readied themselves. “From measure thirty-two.” The oboes did not miss their cue; the violins did not drag. When they finished she said, “Next time, do it for you, not for fear of me. Fear won’t take you very far. You’re dismissed.” She remained on her stool as they filtered off wings of the stage. Jack slowly walked down the aisle. Ms. Metzer suddenly turned around, “You’re here,” she said.
“Yes.” Her brusqueness eased him, and he nonchalantly set his books on the lip of the stage and hopped up. “Do you want me to play here?” A grand piano lurked offstage. His fingers itched to play it. Ms. Metzer eyed him with what he thought was amusement, but whether it was with him or his obvious desire to play the instrument he couldn’t guess. She didn’t say anything, so he asked her if she wanted him to come back later.
“Not later,” she said. “I hate putting things off. What did you think of the rehearsal?”
He was taken aback, but answered, “I thought the oboes were late.”
“Ah.” He thought he had failed some kind of test, so added, “I think you got their attention.”
“It’s a shame that their attention must be got, don’t you think?” She picked up a chair from the violin section and set it beside the piano. “What will you play?”
“I brought some Chopin.”
“Mazurka in B flat major.”
She closed her eyes. “All right.”
He lifted the lid from the keys and opened his music. It was a difficult piece full of trills and rapid rhythms surrounding a melody that was at once lively and lush. He enjoyed the freedom of rubato, and without the constraint of Mrs. Metzer he milked those phrases for all they were worth. If he had been less absorbed in the sound of the music, in the feel of his fingers against the keys, in the incredible gymnastics of tones of which the instrument was capable, he might have noticed the wry smile on Ms. Metzer’s mouth, the restless fold of her arms, or the sigh of soft contempt she breathed as he played. But he played on enthusiastically, even dreamily, until the end of the first movement. He paused, then stopped as if coming to himself and put his hands on top of his thighs.
“You like Chopin?” she demanded.
“Who else do you like?”
“Schumann, Wagner, Brahams…Bach—usually.” He spoke hesitantly, testing his answers to her reactions. He had added Bach to the list when she nearly winced, though he only liked to play him, not listen to him.
He began to suspect that she did not approve.
She rose from her chair and circled behind him. Jack sat still, facing the piano. His hands were clammy.
“Why do you like these composers?” she asked.
He almost said because they made him feel better but decided to say something equally abstract but less personal, “Because their music is beautiful.”
“Define beautiful,” she said, still walking, click-clicking around him with the familiar pace of her mother, without the cushioning effect of stocking feet.
He tried to answer with something intelligent, but faltered. Music drew him, as if a hook had imbedded itself somewhere deep inside him, caught on something that would burst if tugged and scraped and pulled long enough. How could he tell her that? “It’s nice to listen to,” he said.
She stared at him. “You’re a romantic,” she said, almost accusingly. “What about Bartock, or Cage for that matter? I suppose you don’t like them?”
He didn’t. In his music appreciation class, he had tried to make sense of the harsh, clashed, experimental tones but had simply rejected it as a terrible mistake. “It’s ugly,” he said, inwardly shuddering because that’s exactly what his mother would say. He resented Ms. Metzer for forcing him to these conclusions.
“What does that have to do with it?” she laughed.
He didn’t know what to say. Everything, everything, he thought. But after a few moments of silence, and to his great relief, she moved on to other subjects. He realized, then, that her anger at the orchestra had little to do with their performance and everything to do with being forced to conduct Wagner. He suddenly feared her and intended to avoid her the rest of his time there. The next day, she left some music in his box for him to peruse, but he only half-heartedly attempted to play it; it was something anyone, with practice, could play with the same result. There was no point in that.
Jack kept busy over the weekend by moving from performance to practice and back again. He only saw Eric at night in his dorm, and either Jack or Eric pretended to be asleep depending on who was out later. On Sunday afternoon he got a call from his mother. The dorm seemed abandoned—everyone had gone to the picnic. Jack had become impatient with friendships, so he hadn’t tried to cultivate any after Eric and Beulah, and he couldn’t stomach going to the picnic and eating alone. He had been working on an assignment for his theory class when she called. He sighed as he slumped against the corridor.
In the silence he knew she was trying to pinpoint the problem, but she never got it; she didn’t have his grandmother’s insight. She would be twisting the cord around her forefinger as she spoke. She was probably sitting on the stool in the kitchen—maybe looking out the window. He unwrapped the cord from his own finger.
“How are the wedding plans?”
“Oh—you know men, they don’t want anything to do with planning—they just want to know if there’s an open bar at the reception.” She laughed, then quit abruptly. “How is it going?”
“I’m learning a lot.”
“I hope they’re not coercing you into playing all that modern crap.”
“Yes, Mom, that’s it. They are. I love it now. All I do is pound the piano for thirty minutes—they let us use hammers and everything.”
“Very funny—ha ha.” She took a deep breath and asked casually, “Did you meet Madame Mustard’s daughter? What’s her name—Rose or Crocus or Dandelion—some flower name.”
“My mistake. First name basis huh? Did she like your playing?”
“I don’t know. She’s a little strange.”
“Of course she is—she’s a musician.”
He twisted the cord around his finger again. “How’s Grandma?”
“Grandma’s fine, I’m fine, Andy’s fine, Brad’s fine. Tell me how you are.”
“Fine.” They both laughed.
“I miss you, Jack. Nothing’s the same here without you. No one plays any good music. Andy and Brad are off in their own little world, and I’m stuck with all the work.”
“Get Sylvia to help you.”
“She’s doing as much as she can already—she already volunteered her place for the reception.”
“Which reminds me, we need to discuss the music you’ll play. I want you to play, you know, reception music. Romantic stuff.”
“Do I have a choice?”
“No. Consider it your wedding present.”
Jack didn’t want to talk any longer. The fastest way to close the conversation was to give her what she wanted. “I made some friends here—a singer and another pianist.”
“A female friend?” she asked.
“Here we go.”
“My roommate and his girlfriend.”
“I see.” There was a pause. “You like her don’t you?” she pressed.
“I’ll see you at the concert on Friday, okay?”
“Talk to me, Jack.”
“Bye, Mom.” He hung up before she responded and sat there for a few minutes. He decided to leave in case she tried to call back; that would be just like her. He walked over to the courtyard where the picnic was being held. He smiled and nodded to several people as he wandered over to the food-laden tables where he picked a few chicken wings and some cheese and fruit from the platters. As he poured himself some punch, Beulah stepped up beside him.
“Hi.” Jack glanced around for Eric.
“Don’t worry—he’s off sketching somewhere.”
He was embarrassed at his obvious relief. He gnawed at his chicken. “What’s up, Beulah?”
She contemplated him for a few moments. “Jack Lundy, you’re the only person I know who can wage a war without saying one word.”
“And you act so innocent. It’s frightening.”
“What are you talking about.” The chicken wing trembled between his fingers. He tossed his plate into the garbage. Beulah smiled and put her hand around his arm and led him away from the tables. They walked in silence. She kept her hand in his arm. He hoped he looked as calm as she did, but he knew it wasn’t possible. They came to a stone bench between two birch trees, and Beulah sat down.
“Eric feels really bad about what he said the other day,” she said.
“Then why did he say it?” This came out much worse than Jack meant it to.
“See—you are mad. Haven’t you ever said or done something in the heat of the moment that you didn’t really mean?”
She laughed. “Oh come off it, Jack. Sometimes being good brings out the worst in people. It comes with the territory.”
He sat down beside her. She stroked her hair behind her ear. “What am I supposed to do?” he said. “You’re good too. How do you deal with it?”
“I don’t make deals.” The way she looked at him made him realize that she was telling the truth.
“Jack,” she whispered.
He kissed her. He hadn’t planned to, but he did. And she kissed him back. He felt himself lifted from those now insignificant problems, knowing, as her hand pressed against his cheek and his arm encircled her waist, that once this kiss was over, nothing would be changed at all. This had nothing to do with music; it had nothing to do with anything, or everything, so he kept kissing her and for one sweet, terrible moment he thought he could do everything he wanted.
That night, Jack waited up for Eric. He apologized for getting mad. Eric insisted on taking the blame and they were friends again. Until Eric fell asleep, Jack felt like a betrayer, but when the slow, steady, sound of Eric’s breath pulsed beneath him, he reveled in indulgent and satisfying dreams.
In the morning he found a letter from Ms. Metzer in his box. She wanted him to play for some colleagues who would be there that afternoon. He was too preoccupied to give it much attention, but he decided that he would go after his group lesson if for no other reason than to feel secure in the fact that he had not reneged in any way the promise he made to his teacher.
The concert on Friday would be an all-day affair. The orchestra would perform as well as the band, the string quartet, a choir, various solo instruments and singers, and finally a recital of four pianists. These four would be chosen by Professor Leonard. At the lesson, Jack was asked to demonstrate a passage from the Hecht piece. It was difficult, not the kind of music Jack liked, but he played it perfectly.
“The phrase closes at the descent of the arpeggio, but without losing substance,” he said to the other players. “Hecht wrote the dynamics to be observed—it is more than simple technique.”
Jack tried to be proud as he sat there with everyone staring at him, but he felt as if he had had nothing to do with it. Professor Leonard discussed the music as if Jack were the instrument instead of the piano, and though he was relieved by the diversion of the other students’ attention, he was secretly distressed by the absence of their admiration. It was no surprise when Jack’s name was called as one of the four to play in the final concert. He would play the Chopin, he decided, no matter what Professor Leonard said. Eric half-smiled at him. Things were back to normal, but the old jealousy was still there, though Jack thought there was something more in Eric’s look.
Beulah met them outside the practice room. She looked at Eric, strangely, shyly, and Jack thought that she was embarrassed about the kiss, but he soon realized that her awkwardness wasn’t directed toward him. She talked casually with him, smiling spontaneously when she caught Eric’s eye. Something had happened. When he left them to go see Ms. Metzer, he thought he heard their duet of sighs as he turned the corner.
Ms. Metzer met him pleasantly enough. He heard her shrieking giggle as he approached studio B and peered through the small, square window of the door where he saw her standing with a man and a woman inside. He thought they were embarrassed by that laugh too, but they smiled at her anyway. When he knocked, she let him in and introduced him to Professor Kinsley and Dr. Martin-Alan, “People with connections to Juliard and Eastman,” she informed him in a hushed voice.
She led him to the piano. Jack knew that he must have looked puzzled to them, but he couldn’t understand what was going on. He felt a little like a performing bear. He took out some music and smoothed the pages down as the three members of his audience sat down in metal chairs a few feet from him.
“Did you play any of the music I sent you?” asked Ms. Metzer.
“Did you bring it?”
“You didn’t like it, did you?”
He didn’t answer but looked at her blankly. She smiled and watched him as she told the others, “He thinks music should be beautiful.” They smiled appreciatively, if not patronizingly, and nodded to him. He decided to play the Brahms—something so melodious that it just might offend them. And though he didn’t care what they thought of the music, he couldn’t not care how it sounded. When he finished, their presence came back to him like a bad smell, and he asked them if that was all. Dr. Martin-Alan laughed and said to Ms. Metzer, “He is so eager to leave!” She was a plump, friendly looking woman with white hair pulled back into a loose bun on the nape of her neck; Jack pictured her beside his grandmother—they could be sisters except for the stylish shoes this woman wore. His grandmother never wore shoes indoors and only ugly, clunky ones out. Jack held the music on his lap.
Professor Kinsley crossed his legs and leaned back in his chair. “The technique is good but emotional. How old is he?” turning to Ms. Metzer.
“Sixteen,” Jack interrupted.
“Hmm,” he said.
Jack felt the same uneasy feeling he had felt in the group lesson. He avoided their eyes, which didn’t seem to be looking at him, but through him. His fingers began to tremble.
Dr. Martin-Alan folded her arms, and, eyeing Jack, asked Ms. Metzer, “Does he have a tape?”
“I’d like to hear it,” Professor Kinsley said.
“Where else will he apply?”
Ms. Metzer blinked her eyes slowly. She began to tell them the places he was thinking about applying to. He had no idea how she knew this. He saw the pleased expression on her face; she was in control here, even more than on the stage. They were all pleased, talking about his ability as if it were something in a bottle to pass around a sip, separate from him, necessarily absent. The anger that inflamed his fingers cooled to a smoldering fear, and, to his own amazement, along with the fear came a tremendous feeling of relief—it would be so easy to let this happen, so easy; this was the road of least resistance. Was it a matter of great weakness or great strength to become a possession? He suddenly stood up.
They all stared at him aghast. “Is something the matter?” one of them asked.
Jack stared at the floor. “Yes.”
Ms. Metzer came close to him. “This is the most important day of your life, Jack,” she said softly. She put her hand on his shoulder. This was one of his mother’s tactics. He shrugged her off, and she backed up a step.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “but I’ve got to be somewhere.” Professor Kinsley stepped toward him as if to stop him, but Jack veered away and headed for the door. “Nice to meet you,” Jack said, suddenly frantic to get out of the room. “Thanks,” and he left.
He had no idea what he was doing. He slowed to a walk after his escape from the music building, looking over his shoulder every once in a while to see if he had been followed. He clutched his book-bag that pulled sorely at his shoulder—he would take it back to the dorm. No, he didn’t want to meet anyone. He walked around campus for a long time. Finally, he found himself at the small stone bench where he and Beulah had kissed. He sat down, wishing she were there. He even imagined the sound of her step coming through the trees, but when he looked it was only a gray squirrel scurrying among the weeds. It stopped short when it spotted Jack, not even munching the pouch in its mouth. Then it darted up the nearest tree, zigzagging about the limbs until it rested safely out of danger perched on a swaying limb.
He must have fallen asleep. The sunlight glittered low through the trees. As he sat up, he glanced up into the tree the squirrel had climbed. It was gone. He stood and stretched. Two more days and he would be gone from here. He never thought he would look so forward to going home. It hadn’t been a bad experience, but he didn’t know what to do with it. He just wanted to get away and put this behind him.
Though there was still plenty of light, some of the windows of the dorms were lit. He could see people inside, laughing, watching TV. He hoped that Eric would be in. He didn’t want to be alone anymore today, and maybe Beulah could join them and they could all go somewhere to eat. His room was locked. While he searched for his key, he heard Eric’s voice inside. He was about to knock when he heard Beulah’s voice. They weren’t talking, but he could hear their voices, strange, muffled, rushed, and he realized what a fool he was.
It was dark when he noticed someone following him. He glanced over his shoulder—a man, about Brad’s age and build seemed to be dogging him. He walked into the music building; the man followed him. Jack’s stomach flipped. He could go into one of the practice rooms, but he had no music, and the lights were off. The man was getting closer, and suddenly Jack slacked off. Maybe he would just pass him.
“How are you doing?” the man asked Jack when he caught up to him. He was good-looking, with a touch of gray at his temples. He wore jeans and a soccer shirt that made him look younger than he probably was. His whole face asked for something. Jack didn’t answer.
“Do you have the time?” he asked.
Jack looked at his wrist, though he didn’t wear a watch. “I don’t know,” he said.
“Are you going somewhere?”
Jack began to walk slowly again. “No, just walking around.” The man probably thought he was a college student. He walked beside him.
“Do you want to go somewhere?” he said softly.
“Where?” Jack’s heart raced inside his chest; he couldn’t believe this was happening. And then he didn’t care. Everything was wrong anyway.
The man smiled slightly. He rubbed Jack’s chest and nodded for him to follow. Jack let him walk ahead. He watched the man lead him down the hall, glancing at him over his shoulder. He was headed for the dressing rooms behind the stage. The man ducked into one of them. Jack walked slowly toward the room. The man smiled reassuringly, beginning to unbuckle his belt. Jack stood in the threshold for a moment: he heard Beulah’s voice in his mind, the sickening sound of the man’s stertorous breath, the sharp prodding of his own indefatigable need. He glanced at the piano in the corner, then ran as fast and as far as his legs would carry him.
Beulah and Eric never said anything about that night, and neither did he. He could act like nothing happened because he figured he would never see them again. He spent the majority of his time practicing for his recital on Friday thus avoiding any real contact with them. Ms. Metzer left him another note in his box saying that her friends had been impressed with his playing and encouraged him to think seriously about applying to their programs next year. At the bottom of the note was a little postscript: “I’m sorry if the audition made you uncomfortable. Please forgive my enthusiasm for your talent.” He realized that he would never figure out Ms. Metzer. But he pocketed the note without much emotion. He thought he might never bother to feel anything ever again.
When Friday came, he dressed in his new suit and calmly waited in the wings while the other students performed. He knew his mother, Andrew, and Brad were in the audience, probably in the front row, all bored, except his mother who only liked the music because he was a part of it. He told her when she called again that he couldn’t see them before the concert. He dreaded seeing them afterward.
When he was introduced, he could swear he heard his mother’s clapping over the rest of the audience. He resisted the urge to look into the crowd and refused to acknowledge the applause. It felt wrong that they were here in the midst of this. He wanted so badly to keep things separate.
He played Chopin. When he was finished, he wondered what had happened. He didn’t remember playing, but he knew, instinctively, that he played well. Very well. But the blissful blank of performance ended with the final notes. Not even the burst of applause could stop the unprecedented rush of disappointment he felt as he bowed. His smile turned to a grimace. He spotted his family in the center section—all clapping wildly, even Andrew. Even Brad. He looked away as he exited the stage.
At home Jack was relieved that his mother’s wedding took most of the attention. He was left to himself, and any silence or absence on his part was attributed to the excitement of the concert or his reaction to the upcoming marriage. His grandmother tried to corner him once, but he got out of it by telling her that he and Andrew had been fighting—a reliable excuse for sullenness. It wasn’t entirely true. For the first time in his life, Jack punched Andrew hard enough to make him back off; Andrew had asked him about the condoms—if they were gone yet. But that was the only triumph. When he had unpacked, Eric’s sketch lay in his suitcase like a pall over his shirts. He looked at it silently, then folded it into a small square and tossed it into the wastebasket.
The ceremony was quick and stiff, as non-religious as such things should be; it was exactly what his mother wanted, what his grandmother despised. His mother wore a cream-colored pantsuit with dark brown cuffs and lapels. She wore her hair up and smiled the way he saw her smile in old pictures. “She’s really happy,” he contemplated. And a ball of anger gathered in his throat for a moment, which he immediately swallowed back down. Instead of a bouquet, she carried the small white cardboard box that she kept on her vanity. She had tied it up with a pink satin ribbon. Jack knew what was inside—baby pictures of him and Andrew, a lock of hair from their first haircuts, the white pocket Bible she carried at her near marriage to Jack’s father, a wheat penny for Andrew’s father, and the obituary of his grandfather. He imagined it was her way of bringing all the great mistakes of her life together for redirection. This was no union, but a convergence. Now she could say about her life, with relief, “It was all for the best.”
Brad tried not to look uncomfortable in his gray pin stripes, but everyone could see that he was already looking forward to the reception where a change of clothes was waiting. Jack stood beside Brad during the vows. As Jack handed him the ring, Brad winked and pressed his hand, and Jack felt an indescribable gratitude toward him.
The ceremony was quite brief, and when it was over, Jack and Andrew rode with their grandmother in the car that followed their mother and Brad. His grandmother hadn’t liked the ceremony. “Didn’t even mention God—what good can come of that?”
Andrew sighed. “At least they’re married, Grandma. You should be happy for that.”
“I am,” she said. “I am happy. Yes, I am.”
Since Jack would play the piano, he wasn’t permitted to change out of his suit at the reception. Andrew had changed from his suit to some pants and a Hawaiian shirt. He was already tanned from swimming. Most people came dressed up. Sylvia flitted from couple to couple in a tight black skirt and a gold-sequined blouse. She had directed Jack to the piano when he arrived. “Now Jack,” she said into his ear,” You mustn’t stay at the piano the whole time. Whenever you want to take a break, just let me know and I’ll put on some music.” Then she smiled at him. “Your mother says you’re a wonderful dancer.” She giggled. Jack tried to smile. “I intend to find out,” she said, and she kissed his cheek and patted his chest before she slowly turned and walked toward the newlyweds. Jack hated Sylvia.
About thirty people filled the room, most of whom Jack knew. Some men were talking with Brad. He figured they were friends of his from the shop, unused to dressing without coveralls, looking rather underdressed more by their demeanor than by their lack of a coat and tie. Susan flirted with them. They all had drinks in their hands. She nodded to him to begin playing. He glanced around the room for his grandmother. She was in her usual place, behind the food, serving the cake in friendly, tidy squares. Jack knew she was uneasy with the dancing and the drinking—two things his grandfather absolutely abhorred, but he also knew that she would stay until he finished playing. He didn’t plan on stopping.
Weeks ago his mother had made out a list of songs she wanted him to play—some classical, but mostly old movie love songs and dance music. At first, his music was just the background to conversation, but in a little while, after several refills at the open bar, people began to dance. Jack was surprised that some people really knew how to waltz. His mother and Brad were good dancers; they moved like professionals, Brad’s arm around his mother’s waist and hers around Brad’s neck, fingers tweaking his ear or cheek, or stroking his hair. Andrew obviously hated the music, but he danced with Sylvia’s daughter, Lucy. She was a tall girl, taller than Andrew, but she put her head on his shoulder as they danced, and once he saw Andrew’s hand lower and rest on her behind.
The classical music took some concentration, but the music he played now only made him think harder about everything else. He had thought, stupidly, that everything would go back to normal. He thought that certain things would disappear, that he could keep them out. He thought that music was the answer. He was wrong. He knew he was wrong. But he played anyway. He played on as if the song would never end because he wasn’t ready, yet, to face what would happen when the music finally stopped.