from the classical-music murdery mystery The Baton Rouge by Robert Bonotto.
Click here for Chapter One.
One's friends are that part of the human race
with which one can be human.
The budget passed at last, the quartet of musicians emerged from the Battle Of The Bank ruffled but victorious. The orchestra would be relatively solvent for at least another year. Aunt Mattie's nurse came by and took her home, leaving Beatrice and the others free to show Mrs. Dupique around her new environment. It was certainly different from her old hometown of Indianapolis.
For Videntia was a place with a mind, and occasionally a heart, of its own.
Videntia didn't behave in the usual city ways. For one thing, the central section was a dead crater, surrounded by hills boasting a richer, upper crust. It had taken several decades for the city (or town: its inhabitants were evenly, and rather hotly, divided as to which it was) to slowly re-establish its inner life. The orchestra helped.
The city's cheap rents lured artists to come and live there, especially given the toxic expense of trying to live anywhere else. It was said that nearby Boston had culture but no subculture. Videntia had little culture, but an embarrassment of subcultures.
Other odd contrasts greeted and confused visitors. One Brahmin-bred writer stopped at a rundown cigar store to get directions. "Inadvertently misquoting Emerson to the young black man behind the counter," he later wrote, "I found myself being corrected by him. And he did it … rather testily.”
Unexpected pockets of education were common. The city had reserves of retired if impoverished academics, and her bookstores thrived on what the mall bookshops considered poison.
The used-clothing stores were classier than the new dress-shops.
The derelicts were as well read as the politicians were illiterate.
The rock and classical music audiences were virtually the same age. The senior denizens of rock-and-roll had discovered Videntia, found it affordable, and retired there to contemplate their peripatetic pasts. Ironically, many of them looked older than they were, and some were even belatedly discovering the music of two centuries before.
Another reason for younger enthusiasts of classical music was the Videntia Chamber Orchestra's attempts to keep ticket prices low. But most enticing of all, its conductor exercised his predilection to talk to audiences in an informal way between the more difficult pieces. Mark had a deep-voiced and Midwestern sort of delivery, with a self-effacing strain of humor running underneath.
The audience was fascinated to see him go from being the chatty, friendly-faced host, to a stern dictator of the baton. In a second, he would flip a last joke at the public, then turn to the orchestra and forcefully start the first downbeat. (This was, of course, all rehearsed beforehand.)
It was more a theatrical ruse than a musical one, but it worked, although the critics hated it like poison. They didn't like anyone taking the explanations of the music out of their own hands, and they said so. Loudly.
The four musicians inched along the sidewalk, engrossed and gesticulating. Starting and stopping, the intensity of the discussion guaranteed that, wherever they went, they'd get there slowly. Through some atavistic impulse they were heading for their favorite restaurant two blocks away.
They just weren't aware of it yet.
The heavy morning's humidity had vanished; the atmosphere was lighter, a slight breeze and patches of cerulean blue breaking through the clouds.
The four looked in at store windows as they walked along, those windows that still had businesses to decorate them.
Mrs. Dupique was relaying her professional experience to Beatrice and Ben, who were sounding her out as a possible Second Violin for the orchestra's string quartet.
"I should add," explained Ben, with a slight Brazilian accent, "that our present second violin is too often busy. He's in demand, spreads himself pretty thin, shows up late at rehearsals, and these days is under-rehearsed. When he's good, he's great; but that is happening less and less often." He added, "It's beginning to annoy. We formed the quartet for fun and profit, and we're getting less of both."
"I see," Mrs. Dupique considered. "Well, I might like that very much. I was in a string quartet that got together for fun in college. And it was fun. One of our boyfriends called us 'Les Belle Dames Sans Souci.' But won't your regular player be insulted, with my trying to butt in? A string quartet's like an extended family, and I don't want to seem rude--"
"I think he'll be relieved we made the decision for him," Ben said decisively, "More than that, he might even be grateful to you for it." He looked back at Beatrice, who had hung back to confer with Mark. "I know that Bea feels as I do."
Mrs. Dupique thought this over for a moment, and appeared to come to a decision. "In that case, I'd love to play with your group. It'd be an honor. I've played with a married couple before --- pianist and 'cellist. It was a happy time."
She looked at Bea, who was listening to wry remarks Mark was making about ladies' shoes in a shop window, his hands imitating someone limping.
"Your fiancée is quite attractive for her age," she nodded approvingly.
Ben smiled, and adjusted his glasses. "She's not my fiancée."
"A board member said you two were engaged…"
"Ah. That. That is the orchestra’s jokes," Ben explained. "And we have many. For example: our conductor was the victim of a practical joke by our first trumpet some months ago. Mark retaliated, and now there’s an escalating war between Mark and the whole brass section: last month they set two dozen music boxes in different parts of the theatre that all went off during a rehearsal.) The joke about Bea and I, though, started when, one night in Chicago, she and I had to share a hotel room on a tour. We've been friends ever since."
Mrs. Dupique gave Ben a judicious look through her ornate glasses. The frames had Studebaker-like tailfins, and their thick lenses magnified her eyes to frightening dimensions, giving her the appearance of a beagle with an overactive conscience.
"Okay," Ben admitted under the laser-like gaze, "we're more than friends. We lunch. We go out. Sometimes. But, you see, we are both of us set in our ways. And, more often than not, they are separate ways."
Mrs. Dupique pursed her lips disapprovingly. "Well," she said after a pause, "it's a private matter."
"Not anymore it isn't," Bea called from behind. She and Mark rejoined them and Beatrice put her arm through Ben's.
"Don't worry. You'll find it's generally relaxed here," Ben said, and squeezed Mrs. D's arm. (She enjoyed that but wouldn’t show it.) "I understand you're also a good cook; I heard you exchanging recipes with one of the our board members. We’ve so many amateur chefs that we've ended up with a bunch of specialists."
"I make pasta," she said, "and I make it from scratch."
"Are you one of those people who make it in their kitchen and hang it all over the place to dry?" Beatrice asked.
"Cheaper than drapes," Ben put in.
Mrs. Dupique giggled. "Yes, that's me. My late husband used to come into the kitchen, take one look at the place while I was drying all the pasta out, and go out for coffee. That's how I got good coffee without having to make it…"
"Well, we have do have a meat sauce whiz. Is it the tuba, Ben?"
"Trombone. Tuba does salads." He winked at Mrs. Dupique. "With almost enough garlic."
Mark turned to Ms. Dupique and said quietly, "I'll introduce you to everyone, but you should be able to make your way on your own. We have one large dinner together every three months, called The Four Seasonings."
Mark suspected that she was lonely, and knew better than to ask about her late husband. "I’d say we’re like a family, but at the moment we don't fight enough to be a real family. Any way you look at it, it's a different orchestra from the ones you may be used to. Mostly due to Bea here."
"He means," Beatrice explained, "mostly due to my money."
"Your winning that money got us a lot of publicity," Ben said. "Lottery winners are read about with interest by people who have never heard of Berlioz."
"We don't have the manpower to play Berlioz, anyway," Mark put in.
"That half-won lottery money," Bea continued, "will keep what I call the Gray Glove Of Bankruptcy off our orchestra for 19 more years. When the money runs out, Lord knows what will happen. Maybe someone will take us on, or over. By that time, I'll be near seventy, and be in the rear of the Second Violins."
"Or among the violas," Mrs. Dupique turned back to wink at Ben.
But Ben was lagging behind, walking at a loping pace, and smiling to himself over some private thought.
They found themselves at The Baguettelle.
A year after Bea had joined the orchestra, she had asked Don & Krista, a young married couple she had stayed with one summer in Wisconsin what their biggest ambition was. Two years later they'd fulfilled it, coming east and opening a successful bakery and restaurant.
It took the place of a corner drugstore. Younger wood tables of a bright beige color surrounded the dark wood ornaments that once graced the old store. The enterprising couple left the pharmacy's original apothecary sign standing above the back. The tables were functional rather than ornate, but the atmosphere, including the liberal spreading of daily newspapers (including occasional European ones) and turn of the century Viennese posters, gave the place a continental air.
The scent of rosemary and basil greeted the quartet as they entered the restaurant. and Don greeted them by spreading a tablecloth over their table.
"Morning, folks. New arrival?" he asked.
Introductions followed. "So you're a violinist, too?" Don asked. "Let's see. Two violins and one viola. That makes a … what?"
"Yes. All you need is a 'cellist to make a string quartet."
"We know," she muttered. "We've been looking for a good 'cellist for months. We need a new leader for the whole section when Connie leaves."
They were half an hour before the lunch crowd and took the best table, one in the corner that overlooked both streets, over which the sky now shone.
"I feel honored," Mrs. Dupique said, as the four settled themselves comfortably. "It's my first full day here, and already I'm having lunch with the beloved conductor…"
"I don't know about 'beloved'," Mark said, and covered a wry smile. "You'll find it's our orchestra that's lucky; and I don't mean in having me. Our first miracle was in Bea's co-winning the lottery. We'd be precisely nowhere without her. The second miracle was in the three conductors preceding me going from bad to worse. That's the only reason I'm respected in any sense."
"How could three bad conductors be regarded as a miracle?"
"Simple. You know that Bea's uncle conducted this orchestra until WWII. When he enlisted for the service, his wife Mattie – the older woman with the canes you saw today – was the orchestra's harpist, and took over as conductor. But … he was killed in Italy. After the war was over, they demoted her and handed the baton to a man, despite the fact that most of the board members were women. Or because of it. She went back to playing the harp, and retired a decade ago.
"Anyway, the man they appointed was a good conductor at first, but he slipped badly over the years. I heard him the year before he died. Not good. It was obvious he didn't care anymore, or maybe he was losing his hearing. Either way, the playing was scrappy at best, and unlistenable at worst.
"So. They then hire this English martinet named Iceling. He fires half the orchestra the first week. Good move: some of them had been hanging on and scraping away for decades. But he's a lousy conductor. Insults the players, that's okay with the board. But when he insults the board, he's dead-meat. Out he goes at the end of the year.
"Next the board gets a man whose purpose in life is to please everybody. Well, you just can't lead fifty temperamental artists that way. He leads soupy, spineless performances. Sloppy ensemble work. He lasts two years until someone in the audience wakes up and fires him."
"And that leads to you?"
"Yep. And it did take a while to get the players to care about music again. Mary and I have screened and added players when we could. There are a hundred applications for every orchestral job in this country, so we can afford to be selective. Secretly, though, we end up judging ability and temperament, even with a certain amount of union-haggling. At the moment we have that luxury." He sighed, "What you're witnessing now may well be the crest of the wave. We'll only be able to keep riding it if we continue to come up with interesting programs. We have to grab attention from, well…."
He nodded. "And it hasn't been difficult. The CD and iPod explosion has hurt the big orchestras, but it’s certainly helped us: we can play rarities like Cowell’s and Atterberg’s symphonies. So, on each program we do a warhorse everyone likes, then add the novelty no one knows – and that’s never been recorded. I grab music professors in Boston, who come in and talk. They talk to their friends at the esoteric papers in Boston and on any number of Internet and on the Listserv music-lists and… hey, presto. A hundred extra customers. Sometimes two.
“All right. So we couldn’t sell out in Videntia's biggest theatre --except for our Pops Concerts in June. That's the reason the smaller ‘Cincinnati’ theatre's become our home for serious music. The acoustics are good; and we can rent it, now that Beatrice won the lottery."
"Half-won it," she corrected him, as Krista came to the table armed with a number of fresh-smelling dishes; they all set to eating. In between grateful mouthfuls, the talk continued.
"You … half-won the lottery? I don't understand."
"Oh, that," Bea answered, with a wave of the hand. "I keep forgetting you're new here. I shared the winnings with someone else."
"Oh," Mrs. Dupique sighed, "what a disappointment for you."
Beatrice practically choked on her chicken salad. "Disappointment? I thank my lucky stars I only won half. The guy --'Walt'-- who won the other half got and spent it all at once, running a restaurant in Vegas into debt, or something. Despite his trying to sue us for the rest of it, I'm deeply grateful to him for showing me what not to do. I went to a broker and made myself a sort of trust fund, bought Aunt Mattie's house from her (reasonably) and put the rest into a fund for the orchestra. I was already the concertmaster by this time, so weren't accusations of my trying to get ahead…"
"But why did this man Walt want to sue you?"
"Well … I didn't actually buy the ticket."
Mark prodded her. "Go on. Tell her the rest."
Beatrice sighed, folded her napkin, and continued. "I'd bought this used jacket at a hospital sale, and found the ticket in one of the pockets. It's crumpled and looking old, so I thought, well, it's too late now. Two weeks later I was answering some e-mail and reached into my pocket for a handkerchief; the lottery ticket in there had turned into this damp, chunky ball.
"Okay. I'm online anyway; so I look up the state lottery on the internet, and just barely decipher the numbers telling me I'm a winner. So, of course … I got the ironing board out, and … I tried to iron it out, but, see, I …I've never been able to iron too well, and I … somewhat browned up the paper …"
Ben had his hand in front of his face, suppressing a smile as he listened.
"So," Bea struggled on, "I brought this tiny bunch of disconnected, lightly parched pieces in a plastic sandwich bag to the lottery office … and …won."
"Beatrice is so serious sometimes she ends up a bit scatterbrained," Mark added. "It took the lottery agents three days to decide that she was a winner. And meanwhile, after she tells me that she was thinking of setting a fund up for the orchestra, I and Mary --that's my wife-- are phoning their office just about every hour. We gave everyone there season tickets after we found out we'd all won."
"It seems that your orchestra has had some near misses."
"Just like every orchestra," he said. Mark then described to them all his near miss that morning with the unknown car. He turned to Don, who was wiping the table next to them. "You know everyone in this town, Don. Who would want to run over a guy in a black car with a white hood?"
"I dunno," Don answered, as if it was a riddle. "A really nasty nun?" Mark dismissed this and pulled out his wallet, waving away others' attempts to pick up the tab. "Mrs. Dupique's new here, and let's hope this'll be her only meal I'm paying for."
"You don't have to explain what you mean: I know that game!" she answered. "In my old orchestra, when the conductor wanted to fire someone, he invited them to a fancy restaurant and did it there."
"Fancy! Well! Thanks for the compliment," Don said, as he wiped down one of the window tables.
They got up to go, and Mark remembered to pick something up for his wife. "You'll meet my Mary tomorrow," he said to the new violinist. "She's really the inner motor that the orchestra runs on. I'm just the …show jumper."
Their good luck with the weather held as the four got outside the restaurant. They said their good-byes and dispersed.
"Your place or mine?" Beatrice said as she put one arm around Ben.
She was taller than he was; and they were more comfortable with this than their friends were. Ben smiled and was about to answer, when he looked up and his face froze. Two blocks away, he thought he spotted a black car with a white hood. It was headed for the expressway. It was headed for Boston.
copyright 2005, 2007 by Robert Bonotto. All rights reserved.