Who has a girlfriend.
Friday night ends when Robert leaves around one A.M., and before he goes, we’ve got a plan. I walk him to the door, and he says, “You sure you’re okay here? Alone and everything?” And the look on his face makes me think he wouldn’t enjoy it, himself.
“Me? Sure. I’m fine. And the place has great locks. Very secure.”
“Good. So, I’ll see you tomorrow.” And he’s gone. Because I’ve convinced him that I’ve got everything under control.
But once I’m ready for bed, Gwen the brave one seems to be missing in action. This house is older than my violin, and the place breathes and creaks and clanks, especially when the furnace goes on and off during the night. I finally get to sleep by locking the door of my room and leaving the closet light on, and then saying the twenty-third psalm to myself about fifteen times. But I still have bad dreams, except now they’re about Grampa.
As we planned, Robert comes back to the Page family brownstone around eleven on Saturday morning, still carrying his trumpet, and I’ve got some chocolate crois sants and fresh orange juice ready for our breakfast.
It’s another bright February day, warmer than normal. I’m warmer than normal too. I can’t quite believe what Robert’s going to do, and I’m feeling feverish.
After we eat and then sit in the parlor reading the Saturday paper awhile, it’s still about twenty minutes until noon. So I say, “Bring your trumpet and I’ll show you my practice room.”
He picks up the padded case and follows me to the ground floor where I left my violin, and then we go downstairs to my studio.
“This is great.”
He’s right. It’s not a big space, but the lighting is good, and the acoustics are perfect.
“My grampa had it built special. First he drove the carpenter crazy, then the electrician, and then the painter. It’s my favorite place in the whole world.”
“And no one can hear you play down here?”
“No one,” I say, “at least not the violin.”
“Then it’s time to give it the trumpet test. Better shut the door.”
He sets up his horn, and with no warm-up, he takes off into the last movement of the Haydn trumpet concerto. It’s all from memory, clean and classical, a silver river—almost five minutes with no letup. And it’s very good.
And then, effortlessly, he’s playing a jazz solo, something I think I’ve heard before. And it’s cool and glassy on the surface, hot and liquid underneath. He leans into the notes, fingers on the pearl buttons, turning the air different shades of blue. It could almost change the way a girl feels about jazz.
Before he stops, I have my violin out, and as he finishes, I cut in with the runs from the middle of caprice number 17. It’s his turn to listen. And having watched him so closely, now I’m aware of every move
make, each dip of my shoulder and slash of the bow. And I know Robert’s watching my fingers dance the way I watched his.
And I get so flustered that I have to stop.
He says, “No, keep going—please.”
I’m blushing, and I say, “Could you maybe not look right at me when I play? It makes me nervous. It’s . . . it’s a problem I have. I hate playing solos, and if I ever get the orchestra job I want, I’ll never have to play solos. But you know how it works. Because before I get that job, I’ll have to do a jillion auditions. And every audition means I have to play a solo. So it’s a problem.”
He nods. “I was like that, scared to be out front. I’m playing with the jazz band, and Mr. Stojis points at me to take a solo, and the drums and the piano have this great rhythm cooking, and I lift up my horn . . . and nothing comes out but little squeaks. Happened over and over. Pitiful.”
Remembering the way he played for John Lennon, I say, “But you’re not shy now. Because I saw you last night, right there with people all around us. So how’d you get over it?”
This unsettled look zips across his face, just for a second, and then Robert leans toward me and he says, “The truth? A couple years ago . . . I mean . . . well, no. It’s a really long story.”
He smiles, then looks down and clicks the valve buttons on his horn. It’s the first time I’ve seen him look flustered.
And once again I have the feeling that my trumpet player is full of surprises. Plus a secret or two.
Then he says, “But let’s try something.” And he reaches over and flips off the light. Which is, in fact, another surprise.
This room is fifteen feet underground, with a double-thick door and no windows. Complete darkness.
And Robert’s voice says, “Now. Just play.”
“Is . . . is this what you did, play in the dark? To stop feeling shy?”
“Sort of. But don’t talk. Just play.”
And then another thought, a big one. “Is it because your girlfriend’s blind, is that it? The darkness?”
“Just play, okay?”
So I do. I take a deep breath, and then the burst of notes that starts the caprice comes winging out of nowhere, filling the space. The staccato runs, the sharp double-stops, the rush and the flutter and the punch, and it’s all as if the music is happening without me.
My fingers love the dark. They know where they need to be, and they know what they need to do. And this piece sounds so strong. The music is powerful, and so am I, here alone in the dark.
But I know I’m not alone. Robert’s three feet away. Or three miles. Hard to tell.
I’m still playing, whipping my bow from string to string, slashing toward the end, and now I understand why he did it, why Robert shut off the light: So he’d disappear. And me too. Because that’s what needs to happen, with or without the light. You have to let yourself disappear.
After the Paganini, it’s still for a moment. Then, because I truly am from West Virginia, I make my violin speak like a fiddle, and I begin playing “The Water Is Wide.” It’s an ancient tune, deep and dignified. After one verse, his trumpet reaches out and takes the melody, so I weave a simple harmony through the inky air, first high and then from beneath.
The folk song ends, and the silence is dense and peaceful. I have not felt so much at home in a long time.
Out of the darkness, he says, “Nice.”
And I whisper, “Very nice.”
And then sitting in the dark suddenly seems too weird, so I fumble for the lights, and as we both blink and smile, I say, “Your teacher’s right. And your girlfriend. You really are good.”
He dries out his trumpet and puts it away. And as I pack up my bow and fiddle, I love my practice room even more.
Then Robert looks at his watch and says, “It’s show time.”
I’m following him up the stairs toward the parlor, and I say, “Do you really think we should do this? I mean, couldn’t we get in trouble?”
He stops and turns to look down at me from the top step. “I don’t think there’s much risk. And getting your uncle to back off for a week or so doesn’t seem wrong—not at all. You’re just trying to keep the house going for your grampa. Which is what he asked you to do, remember? And I know just what I’m going to say. I’m not going to tell any lies. I’m going to make simple, true statements. And I’m going to use an old-man voice. So it’s like I’m making a prank call. And what Hank decides to make of it, well, that’s his business.”
I shake my head. “Some smart attorney would love to hear you say all that—and then she’d tear you up into tiny bits and feed you to a judge.”
Turning and walking into the study, Robert says, “If everything works out right, that’ll never happen. I’m ready to dial.” Then using Grampa’s voice, he says, “Now where’s that darned telephone number?”
I can’t bear to stay in the study, so I pace back and forth in the parlor. It’s not a speakerphone, so I can only hear Robert’s half of the conversation. He sounds exactly like Grampa.
“Hello? . . . Well, that’s none of your business. . . . You can think whatever you want to. . . . Gwennie? She’s doing just what she’s supposed to do. . . . Can’t help that. . . . Well, go ahead and think whatever you want to. But don’t come around here. You want to talk, talk to my lawyer.”
Then Robert lets loose with a big coughing fit, and when he’s done, he says, “And that’s the end of it. . . . No, that’s the end of it.”
And then he hangs up.
I’m back in the study, and I’m looking at Robert’s face. He tries a smile, but it doesn’t work. His cheeks are flushed.
“That guy sounds totally out of it today—yelling and swearing, and he says he’s got papers all ready to sign. And he says he needs to borrow some money against his half of this house or he’s going to lose his business. And he needs to get it settled right now. No wonder your grandfather wanted to get away.”
I shake my head. “If you’re saying Grampa ran away and left me to deal with all this because he was afraid or something, that’s not true—that’s not like him at all. You saw those war medals in the parlor. He would never run from a fight.”
Robert says, “Okay, but if he knew Hank was so nuts about needing some money, and he knew Hank was going to keep pushing, then why do
think your grandfather left all of a sudden?”
That stops me cold. But then the answer comes to me so clearly. “Grampa must have been pretty sure that if he’d stayed, things would have been worse.”
“Worse than this?” Robert makes a face. “How?”
I shrug and I say, “I don’t know.”
And on Saturday, that’s true. I don’t know how things could be worse. But I’m sure Grampa wouldn’t have made it hard for me, not on purpose.
And then I think, Wouldn’t it be nice if everything always happened on purpose.
And then I think, Maybe it does.
After the phone call to Uncle Hank we have some lunch before we each spend about two hours practicing down in my studio, me first and then Robert.
And then late Saturday afternoon I ask him about staying the night.
“I mean, if you want to. You could even check out of your hotel and just stay here until your auditions are done. In Grampa’s room. If it’s okay with your mom and dad. And you can practice here anytime you want to.”
I keep myself from saying that I don’t want to spend another night alone in this house. But I think he knows that.
He smiles and nods. “That’d be great. And my folks’ll like it, me being at someone’s house instead of a hotel—staying with this kid I know from Tanglewood.” Robert’s already composing what he’s going to say to his parents.
And he leaves and comes back at about six-thirty with a rolling suitcase and a backpack and a bag of Chinese food. Which is good, because I’m famished.
After we’ve each wolfed down some egg rolls and chicken with pea pods, I ask, “So what did your parents say? When you told them about staying here.”
He keeps busy with his chopsticks, talking between bites. “My dad was fine with it, but then my mom said she wanted to talk to your grandfather, and I told her that he’s away for a while. And then she got all mothered out. So I just said, Well, this is what I’m doing because I’m sure it’s all right, and if you were here, you’d know it was all right too. But you’re
here, so you’ll have to take my word for it. And I checked out of the Empire, and here I am.”
When we’re done eating, he says, “So who’s got the practice room first tonight, you or me? I don’t mind taking the late shift.”
Which is perfect for me, because I had the early practice this afternoon, and I’m ready to take another run at my pieces, especially the Bach partitas.
I’m at the top of the stairs when Robert says, “Have you ever played a fiddle tune for your teacher at Manhattan? Because you should.”
I make a face. “Bad idea. Pyotr Melyanovich would not be amused. He’s
“Doesn’t mean he won’t like it. Because you should be using that, the energy and the feelings. Have you heard a CD called
I shake my head. “Bluegrass?”
“It’s Yo-Yo Ma with Mark O’Connor on violin and Edgar Meyer on bass, all three of them classical ge niuses. And you should hear what they do with a bunch of old melodies.”
“And you’re saying—”
“That it flows both ways. Classical training is great, but there’s stuff way back in the mountains that’s just as important. Ask Bartok. Ask Sibelius. They know about folk music. I’m just saying you should use everything you’ve got. And your teacher would say the same thing. Unless he’s an idiot. End of lecture.”
I nod and say, “Thank you, professor.”
And he grins and bows stiffly.
As I walk down to my practice room, I have to admit it’s good advice. Because it’s like I have one head that’s filled with fiddle tunes and denim overalls, and a newer head that’s all sheet music and crystal chandeliers and people wearing tuxedos and evening gowns. And sometimes I still feel like I have to stop being my old self when I play classical music.