Reading is the perfect break from the caprices and the partitas and the sonatas and scales and arpeggios I’m preparing for my auditions. And a few months ago I decided it would be good to read my way through the novels. I started with
for Austen, and I read
Pride and Prejudice,
which was so good that I immediately read it again. Then came
for Brontë), and I even got to
for Conrad) and
for Defoe). But I am constantly telling my own story to myself, and these days, that’s about all the narrative flow I can handle.
I think that’s why I shifted to poetry. And why am I hooked on Yeats? It’s the density that I love, even though I don’t get half his symbols. What I do get is that he looks at the life around him, and then he goes inward, digging until he finds something true. And I like how he’s always imagining the world coming to an end. And I love his sadness. And his loneliness.
Thank you, Miss Page, for that sparkling literary commentary. While your heart is whomping away.
Because I’m still viewing the afternoon scene, still trying to catch my breath. And I can see myself settled into a booth with my book and my cocoa and some lemon cake. And then I glance up because I hear a voice through the glass, out on the street: “Taxi!”
I know that voice. I see Uncle Hank climb into a cab, see it turn across traffic and head south on Broadway. The yeller is gone. It is Thursday afternoon, and it’s safe to go home.
But I don’t. I have decided I need this break. I read and I sip and I nibble, and almost two hours pass in the coffee shop while I sail to Byzantium, and then to the lake isle of Innisfree, and then I go riding with the banshees, with Niamh calling
Away, come away
. And the next time I look up from my book, I see it’s getting dark, and I need to get home and cook supper for Grampa. Because that’s one of the few things he lets me do for him.
And in my mind I see myself go up all nine front steps this time.
And my heart beats even faster now, because I already know what happens next. I unlock the heavy oak door with the frosted glass and let myself into the entry hall where the staircase leads up to the third and fourth floors. A tenant has sorted today’s mail, and after I unlock the door that opens from the hallway into Grampa’s parlor, I pick up our pile from the narrow table. There’s a letter to me from my mother.
Inside there is only one light on, the brass lamp with the green glass shade that sits on Grampa’s huge desk in the study.
I call, “Hi, Grampa. It’s me.”
His bedroom door is shut, and there’s no answer.
I walk through the parlor and into the study and put the mail on his desk. And I see the blinking light on the answering machine. So I push the button.
And Grampa begins to speak. On Thursday. Today.
Hello? Gwennie? I hope you had a good day. There’s no easy way to say this, so I’m just going to tell you, straight out. I need to go and stay somewhere else—for how long, I’m not sure. I know this is sudden, but I have to leave right now, today. And I have to ask you to do something for me. I want you to keep the house going for me while I’m away.
Then Grampa coughs. A deep cough. I can tell he’s turned away from the phone, but it’s still loud. It hurts to listen. I’ve heard that cough a lot over the past three weeks, but he won’t let me mother him. I have to pretend I don’t see how he struggles.
Grampa begins again. His voice sounds weaker, and there are pauses when he has to catch his breath.
This is a lot to ask, Gwennie. I know that. But it’s the best I can do on short notice. I need to go, right now, and I know you need to stay here. It’s a hard situation, but we’ve both got to make the best of it.
Now, this is important. Please don’t tell anybody I’ve gone. Especially Hank. I haven’t changed my residence, but if he thinks I have, then he’ll try to make something of it. Just steer clear of him. And please, don’t judge him too harshly. Hank’s having a tough time right now. Even so, I don’t want him taking it out on you. And I don’t think we should let anybody know that a high school girl is living here all on her own. I know you’ll be fine, and you know it too. But others might not see it that way. So it’ll be best not to tell anybody for now. I know this is a lot to bite off, but if I didn’t think you could do this for me, I wouldn’t be asking. And I am asking. And I thank you.
Grampa coughs again, and again it’s hard for me to listen. Then he goes on.
You know where I keep my ATM card, and you know the PIN number. There’s money in the savings account if you need to transfer more. And I signed some checks, in the black folder, second drawer of my desk. Gas and electric, bills like that get paid straight from the bank. Can’t say what you’d need checks for—hard to know. But you treat that money like it’s yours and . . . and you get whatever you need. There ought to be enough to last you through this stretch.
Well, I’ve got to get going. This business with Hank is tricky, so I’m not going to tell you where I’m staying, not just now. And I might be out of touch awhile. But don’t you worry. And that’s an order. You just keep about your own business and leave all the worrying to me. I love you, Gwennie. Good-bye now.
I listen to Grampa’s message again, and then a third time, trying to understand. Trying to breathe slowly. Trying not to shiver.
And now, the actual now, I am sitting at Grampa’s desk with one lamp burning. The streetlights are on outside, and a pale orange glow seeps through the tall front shutters.
In this city of ten million people, I am alone.
THE BRAVE ONE
After I listen to Grampa’s message, my mind does not want to obey me, so I point it toward the green hills and the warmth of West Virginia. Thinking of home always calms me down.
And the first thing I picture is my two little sisters and my two big brothers. And my dad. And my mom.
Mama always says I am the brave one.
I can see her face on the day I tell her I want to go study music in New York. Mama could never imagine leaving her home. When she and Daddy got married, he moved south so she could stay put, close to where she was born and raised. And when I tell her I want to go and live with Grampa, she is mystified, but not surprised. I am the brave one.
For me, leaving West Virginia didn’t feel brave. More like necessary. But it wasn’t like I left all at once. I left molecule by molecule over a period of four or five years. Because when I started junior high school, I liked Nickel Creek and the Charlie Daniels Band and the fiddle playing of Alison Krauss as much as the next kid. But then I discovered Bach and Mozart and the rest of the gang, and classical music began pulling me away from the mountains, away from the deep woods and the rushing streams, and finally away from my family and friends in West Virginia. I started out liking the fiddle, but I fell in love with the violin.
And I can thank Mr. Richards for that, the music teacher at my junior high. He let me borrow some of his CDs, artists like Itzhak Perlman and Joshua Bell, and then Midori. And after four or five lessons with him, he convinced my folks I had some real talent. And then Mr. Richards helped me find a violin teacher in Charleston, and I was well and truly on my way. Away from West Virginia.
So by the time Grampa offered me free room and board in New York, the change was almost complete. I had to follow my new music. Mama understood, and so did Daddy. They didn’t want to see me go, but they understood.
Still, it wasn’t bravery that pushed me north. It was more like a survival instinct. The move was inescapable, but the journey wasn’t without fear.
Even though it happened almost two years ago, the feelings are still with me. On that early August morning when I take my seat in the bus and turn to wave good-bye to my family, I think, This must be the hard part. Then five hours later the bus goes across the state line up into Pennsylvania, and I think, No, this is the hard part.
I sleep and I wake just as the bus dives like a whale into the Lincoln Tunnel, and then it plunges up and out into the gray air of the city. The harpooned bus spins around and around and comes to a gasping stop on the floor of the Port Authority terminal. I climb out, Jonah with a suitcase and a cheap violin, and I glide down four escalators to the street, and I climb into a yellow taxi, and I zoom sixty blocks north through New York City—and I think, This has to be the hard part.
And then a week later I go to my first day of classes at Latham Academy of the Performing Arts, and all the kids look at me and smile at my Charleston accent, and then I have to stand up and play a solo for our orchestra conductor, and I think, No, this must be the hard part.
And it was hard, because I hate soloing. The only good thing is that once the other kids heard me play, no one cared how I talked anymore.
All that is past, a year ago last September.
And here I am still sitting at Grampa’s desk. On Thursday. Today.
I guess my mom is right. I don’t frighten easily. But as the answering machine whines and rewinds, at this moment I do hope and pray that I have finally come to the hard part. And, of course, I’m pretty sure I haven’t.
Grampa and I don’t talk much, but over the past year and a half we’ve gotten used to each other. He has his routines, and I have mine. I know he likes having me around. He doesn’t say that out loud, but he’s been so kind, mostly little things, but some big ones too.
Like the practice room. That was huge. I’d been here two weeks, and one morning he says, “There’s a carpenter coming over to fix up a room in the basement for you.” Grampa said he didn’t want to have to hear me playing all the time. And there was probably some truth to that. But it was more. It was a gift. He didn’t want me staying late at Latham, or wasting time walking back and forth to the practice rooms at Manhattan School of Music. He wanted me to have a safe, quiet place to work. And he made sure the carpenter got everything just right. A gift.
I have always felt Grampa’s presence in the next room, or down the hallway, or up a flight of stairs. We both like being alone, but we enjoy being alone together, the way toddlers like to sit side by side while they play in their own worlds. Sometimes I sit next to him and we watch
Wheel of Fortune
. Once he asked me to read a chapter of
out loud. And two or three nights a week we have our bedtime snacks together. Simple moments. And already I miss that.
Sitting here in his worn leather desk chair on this Thursday night, I’m trying to understand what Grampa has asked me to do. He wants me to pretend he’s still here. When we go on vacation, my dad hooks up timers to the lights. They turn on and then off, and the house looks lived-in.
And Grampa wants me to do that same thing here, now. Because of Uncle Hank and this valuable building? That makes sense. I think I understand that part.
And it occurs to me that my grandfather might be asking me to break the law. Because the law has a different word for pretending: fraud. And I have been to church enough to know what fraud is called in the Bible: bearing false witness. Lawrence Page, my grandfather, is asking me to lie for him.
If it were anyone else, I wouldn’t even consider it.
I can hear the gold wind-up clock ticking on the mantel. It feels too quiet for this time of night, so I walk into the parlor and turn on Grampa’s TV.
CNN. That’s his channel. The news is bad, but the sound of it is good. If any of the people who live upstairs walk past the hallway door, it will sound like Lawrence the landlord is sitting in his easy chair, just like always.
And so I tell my first lie. For Grampa.
My cocoa and lemon cake have worn off. I go to the kitchen and fix myself a cheese omelette and then sit at the small dining table and eat. Omelette, toast, orange juice, milk, alone.
Alone is not a problem for me. I couldn’t count the hours I have spent alone. Alone in the woods. Alone in my room. Alone in the library. Alone in a book. Alone in my music. I’m comfortable alone.
Because being a classical musician isn’t like sitting on the front porch playing the fiddle with a bunch of friends. It’s more like a long hike on a lonely road. It’s ninety-five percent solitary practice time, two percent instruction time, two percent rehearsal time, and one percent performance. Nothing is improvised, and if you’re not a perfectionist, and if you don’t like being on your own a lot, then you need to go and find yourself another road.
And with such an intense schedule, there aren’t a lot of opportunities for making friends. Or for meeting boys. There’s just no time for that. At least not so far. Not for me. But maybe I’m only making excuses for not trying harder.
Because I notice guys, and I’ve been known to smile at one now and then. I mean, I don’t want to be on my own forever. Or living with my grampa for the rest of my life—not that there’s any risk of that.
But that thought brings back my worries, and I have to push away the fears about Grampa.
And then I try to remember what I ought to do next, right now, tonight.
With Grampa having trouble, it feels selfish to think about me, but I can’t help it. I can’t ignore what’s going to happen in five days. I am crashing toward the end of my senior year in high school, and this coming Tuesday I have an audition at the Juilliard School, and then the next afternoon an audition at Manhattan School of Music, and then two days later I have to be at the New England Conservatory in Boston. There are other auditions in mid-March, but Juilliard, Manhattan, New England—those are my big three, and they are soon.
The faculty members at these auditions won’t want to hear me gush about how I’ve loved music since I was a little girl in the hills of West Virginia. They won’t want me to tell them how I felt the first time I listened to Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, or how I wake up with melodies running through my head, and how thrilling it is to let the sounds in my mind rush across my fingertips and spray into the air that surrounds my violin. They won’t want me to talk at all. They only want to hear me play.