Authors: Elise Blackwell
Tags: #Literary, #Contemporary Women, #American Novel And Short Story, #Fiction, #Fiction - General, #Musicians, #Adultery, #General, #Literature & Fiction
An Unfinished Score
ALSO BY ELISE BLACKWELL
The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish
An Unfinished Score
This is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2010 by Elise Blackwell
All rights reserved. This book, or parts thereof,
may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Blackwell, Elise, 1964–
An unfinished score / Elise Blackwell.
1. Musicians—Fiction. 2. Adultery—Fiction. I. Title.
1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2
Book Design by SH • CV
For Meredith Blackwell
She hears the words on the radio. It is the radio that announces her lover’s death. His is not a household name, not in most households, but he happens to be the most famous person on the plane that went down. The plane’s wreckage, strewn across Indiana farmland, is being examined for clues. Crews search for the voice recorder, the black box that holds the secret of two hundred seventy-one deaths.
Two hundred seventy, plus one.
Suzanne’s rib cage shudders—a piano whose keys are struck all at once—yet she does not cry. She does not cry, but only closes her eyes and presses her palms flat on the cool counter. None of the facts of Alex’s life suggests that it ends in a soybean field.
At the dining room table, playing a board game and separated from her by the counter on which she works, sit the other members of her household, a household in which Alex’s name at least rings a bell. Her husband’s dice clack against the wood; her best friend sighs as her game piece is sent back to start; Adele’s hands clap three times.
“Starting over isn’t all bad,” Ben says, and Petra does not respond.
Suzanne lifts onto her toes to search the high cabinet for the olive oil, her hand grabbing only the air the bottle usually occupies. She spies it on the counter, where she obviously set it earlier. It has been right in front of her all along. She minces the cloves of garlic that she peeled before she knew her lover was dead, heats oil in a wide skillet, salts a pot of roiling water. The simple sounds of knife on wood, of water rising to slow boil, of onion sizzling become the distinct tones of grief.
If she lives, this will be how: moment to moment, task by task, left foot then right, breathing in then out. An eternal present in which every sound is loud. This is something she should be good at, if anyone can be. For four years she has practiced pretending that everything is fine, that she is what she seems to be.
Ben, who has been listening to the broadcast, who has heard the honey-voiced announcement, says from the table, “That’s sad. Don’t we have a couple of his recordings?”
“I think so. Chicago Symphony playing Brahms’s Double Concerto and some other stuff.” Suzanne presses her voice flat, passing for normal. “I played under him in St. Louis that time, right before I moved to the quartet.”
“Why is death always sad?” Petra says. “I mean, wasn’t he a total asshole, even for a conductor?”
“I kind of liked him.” Suzanne shakes water loose from the greens, tries to dry her hands on the oily dishcloth.
Moment by moment, left foot, right foot, breathe
. “Can you clear the table after the next round of turns? Dinner’s almost ready.” She breathes in and out again, short on oxygen, lungs shallow and on the edge of panic. “Such as it is.” A sputtered almost joke.
While Petra and Adele pack away the game, Ben sets out white plates. His form contradicts the domestic setting: his strong forearms bared by rolled-up sleeves, flexing as he folds the cheap paper napkins on the diagonal.
Adele signs something, and Petra interprets for Ben: “She says she’s never seen you do that before—fold the napkins. Usually you just toss them out. She says they look like sails.”
letter by letter, but he knows the sign for
. Adele claps and makes one of her unconscious noises, a chirp of delight.
Suzanne watches them, grateful that they are safe on the ground yet also afraid of their emotional compasses, each tricky in its different way, each seeming to point at her all the time as though she is true north.
Ben’s absorption with fact and music rarely extends to interest in the breathing world, and never outside their small, odd family. It is a distance that feels studied, as though he made a decision in some formative year not to be touched by other people. He shields his emotional barometer so well that even Suzanne and Petra often take it for an absence, for some hole in the fabric of his nature, and their surprise borders on fright when he names some human truth, extracting the insight from his emotional hollow like a magician pulls a ribbon from the thin air.
Petra’s moods slide across her face all day—intense, shifting, and mostly short-lived. They rule her though she cannot name them, yet she easily measures the feelings of others, taking the pulse of one person or an entire room, if only so she’ll know whom she can make angry and when to run the other way.
Yet it is Adele Suzanne most fears. Adele’s emotional compass is keen because she is still a child—no one spots a liar faster than a smart child—and unrelenting because she must watch people closely or she will lose the world.
Suzanne turns to drain the pasta, hot streaks of steam pelting the side of her neck and face.
Ben does not set out wineglasses, so Suzanne does not uncork the bottle she picked up earlier, reading labels against price tags, the sun filtering through the store’s filmy window warm on the back of her neck, the clerk watching her with slight interest. She does not open the wine she chose before she knew her lover was dead. Before he was dead, or at the moment he died? The radio has not said what time the plane dropped from the sky.
“Like a stone in water.” The witness voices an accent so Midwestern that it sounds Southern. Suzanne turns the dial, clicks off the cheap radio. Without the word
, and there isn’t one, the details can do her no good tonight.
Suzanne distributes water glasses, and they take their usual seats around the food. Adele lifts her glass, leaving behind a wet circle she traces with a fingertip. She looks at the food, at each of them. Had they been a household of three, which for a while it seemed they might be, family dinners would have been shaped by sound. Rising or falling or stalled, but always sound or its absence. But Ben and Suzanne’s baby did not arrive, and after Petra and Adele made them a quartet, they worked to make a world defined by sight, touch, smell, taste rather than by sound and not-sound.
In their deep concern for Adele—the child who never turned to Petra’s violin, who never winced at sudden noise, the child with wide eyes but only a small seal of a mouth—the three musicians do the best they can. Suzanne has trained her eyes and hands to move with some fluency. Now that Adele can follow the shapes and motions of lips, Suzanne speaks slowly and faces her squarely. Of course none of their hands are so nimble in language as Adele’s. The swift precision of hers is that of a conductor who knows the music so well that he does not use a score.
Suzanne watches Adele’s fingers through dinner, sometimes forgetting to answer, forgetting to mouth or sign, “Yes, I had a good day, too.” She is thinking of Alex’s hands at work, and that today feels like the worst day of her life.
Petra carries the conversation with Adele, chatting away like an older sister, asking Suzanne if Adele can have soda with dinner, as though it is Suzanne and not Petra who is the mother. Suzanne does what Petra wants her to do: she says no for her.
Away from her violin Petra’s long fingers lack the speed and clean sweeps of her daughter’s, but they share their exuberance, the beguiling lack of self-consciousness. They move without her watching them, like Suzanne’s fingers when they press and release the strings of her viola but at no other time. Suzanne envies this fundamental honesty, this fluency in a speech not yet divorced from action and feeling by time and intent. For all her faults, Petra doesn’t lie. She says she doesn’t have to, an advantage of not giving a flying fuck what other people think. Suzanne wonders what it is to lie in gesture, whether it is easier to detect deception in a first or second language, in spoken or signed speech.
Hands caught in the act
. She folds hers in her lap, resting from eating the food she cannot quite taste.
She remembers to ask Ben about his work. He is collaborating on a composition with a man who is both a mathematics professor and on the adjunct music faculty, and they are arranging it for a small orchestra.
Ben nods, stabbing tubes of pasta. “We decided to cut the faux-scherzo.”
“Too obscure? The joke that isn’t?”
His hair, recently grown out from a self-inflicted haircut, flops side to side as he eats. He looks at Suzanne as though there is food on her face, more amused than annoyed but at least a little annoyed. “I argued that it pandered, and Kazuo agreed. The whole point of this staging, of using his contacts to get this performed for an audience, is to create an uncompromised piece.”
“No such thing!” says Petra.
Ben ignores her. “I want the listener to have a distilled experience, something pure.”
. Suzanne pictures Richardson Auditorium one-third full: small clumps of math professors, music students, the odd mother taking a too-young child for a little culture after church, widows and widowers with the small hope of meeting one another and nothing better to do on a Sunday afternoon. Empty seats divide them.
She swipes her mouth with her napkin. “To experience the beauty of music intellectually, stripped of emotion,” she says, a refrain from one of Ben’s oft-spoken theorems.
Widows with nothing better to do
. The thought recurs, means something new in its second iteration. Alex’s wife—now a widow. Her carotid arteries tense, as though there is too much blood in her body, and her pulse is all she can feel.
Adele’s eyes are fixed on Suzanne’s mouth, trying to read her words. Petra’s stare is about something else. In these faces she loves, Suzanne sees only danger. Her head feels heavy, engorged with grief beginning to swell.
Ben again shakes his head, hard, caring so obviously that his body discloses his passion. It is how they used to feel about the music—and each other—all the time, even back when they were students, when they were only posing as musicians and adults, rehearsing the people they wanted to be.
Now sarcasm sharpens his laugh. “Not stripped of emotion. Without emotional interference. No directions in the first place—no
—just the sublime.”
“Isn’t the sublime emotional?” Petra asks.
Suzanne closes her eyes and sees Alex. She opens them because if she thinks about Alex she will break like a glass shattered by perfect high pitch. She concentrates on what is being said at the table, tries to close the distance fast opening between her and where she sits. Even her plate seems far away, Petra’s voice oddly distant. When Ben launches into his long answer, his voice comes to Suzanne as if through a tunnel.
She knows his premiere will have three reviews. The local paper will send a cheerleader who knows nothing about music and will write up something sweet with the assistance of a music dictionary, a thesaurus, and the photocopied program. A more expensively educated and stealthy presence from the
will yield a scathing piece that neglects the composition itself in a jeremiad against the off-to-sea, out-to-lunch academy and its impenetrable, navel-gazing, masturbatory self-indulgences. The reviewer will use some of these very words.
The third review will be written by one of those several professors who knock between music and mathematics departments—a friend or admirer or enemy or former lover or teacher or student of Kazuo. It will appear, months later, in a journal carried by Princeton’s Fireside Library but not by the libraries of universities with less funding and smaller collections. The review will be positive or negative or—most likely—mixed, but it will be dense and detailed, and Ben will pronounce that at least the reviewer understood what he and Kazuo were seeking, that the reviewer
“You can call it Subliminal,” Suzanne says.
Though he rarely joked himself, Alex always smiled at her silly puns, and the thought of his smile constricts her throat even to air. When it releases, she hears herself gasp, though only Adele looks up as though she has heard the sound of Suzanne desperate for oxygen.
“You know it can’t be titled,” Ben says, his voice like salt, the last of his amusement evaporated.
After dinner the evening pulls long like elastic, and Suzanne is relieved to cross the stretched time, moment by quivering moment, left foot then right. She volunteers to make Adele’s school lunch while Adele and Petra withdraw to their part of the house—two bedrooms linked by a bath—for their nighttime rituals. She makes the sandwich, puts dried apple slices in a plastic bag, tucks a vitamin in a paper napkin, and stows the lunch in the refrigerator. She reminds herself, as she has promised herself she would, that Adele is not her child.
“I’m going to stay up and read a bit,” she says when Ben turns in early. The lines traversing his forehead hold hurt, or maybe she imagines this. “We’ll spend some time this weekend.” She bends her mouth in a curve that is almost a smile.
Both times that he asked, once early in the affair and once two years in, Suzanne told Alex that she made love to her husband only rarely and when unavoidable. But that was not true. Sometimes
means preventing pain in another, or loneliness in yourself. Sometimes
means doing what someone else wants because you are the kind of person who does what others want you to do. Sometimes unavoidable means only your own generalized desire, that strong human need for touch.
“This weekend.” Ben leans down, kisses her hairline.
“Don’t forget the deadline this Friday.” When he looks puzzled, she adds, “For the teaching position.”
His face closes, his jaw tightening and his eyes cooling like water becoming ice. “I thought we already decided that commuting wasn’t something I would do.”
“It sounds like you’ve already decided, anyway.”
While new to their marriage, they would argue late into the night. They did this less out of respect for the old adage against going to bed angry than out of their eagerness to engage with ideas and with each other. Now Suzanne knows the value of truncating a quarrel, if only in sleep gained, and her words are the last of their day. Tonight they do not even make eye contact again. As on many nights, they do not say good-night.