of the classical-music murder mystery The Baton Rouge by Robert Bonotto.
Never attach too much importance to musicians' judgment;
they’re prejudiced without knowing it, and it blinds them.
For some reason known only to her subconscious, that night was a long one, and Bea had bad dreams through it.
As a child, she experienced the usual nightmare of falling from a great height, and waking up just before hitting bottom. When she got older and more confident, this recurring dream lessened. Then she discovered the violin, over the years mastering it …and the dream disappeared entirely.
When she was cheered and feted across Europe as a young superstar, she repeatedly passed through countries she was too rushed to see. The hellish concert schedule imposed by her manager and his company left her feeling that the whole of Europe was one big train station, with her waiting in it for late connections at midnight or at dawn, and the coffee-shops closed. Except for the worst ones. Whenever she passed a cheap diner, the smell of burnt coffee still reminded her of them.
Then, a decade into her career, the 'falling' dreams started up again.
And this time she had her violin with her as she fell, trying to protect the valuable instrument from whatever ground rose quickly to meet her. The violin had been 'on loan' from her present manager. He knew she preferred a darker, woodier tone than most soloists, knew enough to present her with an instrument she couldn't part with. He also knew the violin’s value, and how many years of concertizing it’d take her to pay for it.
And each year the insurance on the instrument mounted higher.
After years of touring, her career had finally careened off the rails, its collision caused by a nervous breakdown --too much strain, too many dates to keep, too many pills she had taken to keep going.
Her temper turned volatile. Just before her breakdown, a reporter approached her. “Ms. Klarke,” he said, “the unexamined life is not worth living. So … you can’t possibly mind our examining yours.” She slugged him with a left hook. Fortunately, the arts editor of the local paper was a loyal fan, and he succeeded in getting the story pushed all the way back to page 43, where it competed with the latest two-headed chicken story.
Towards the end, she cadged drugs off her company's doctor, a mental and moral lapse for which she blamed her management. Especially when her former manager, Willard Ronchev, took away The Violin after she'd collapsed.
She was loath to blame herself. Before the breakdown, anyone who suggested that she slow down she regarded as a potential enemy. Even now, recovered as she was, she found it hard to take personal responsibility for her forced, early retirement.
And then, last month, she had a couple of those old nightmares again. It was not a good omen, and she was sometimes afraid to go to sleep.
Seven years ago, under a new doctor's care, she managed to bring herself back from thoughts of suicide. Beatrice's aunt had sent for her after her breakdown; and she found herself back in Videntia, where Mattie had once been regarded as a prominent figure in its cultural life.
Mattie's large house was on the wrong side of the tracks. This wasn’t a problem in Videntia -- nine-tenths of the city was on the wrong side of the tracks. As she regained control of herself over the first year, Bea prowled through the huge house and kept coming across rooms she’d rarely seen before, dimly remembered from childhood. In one cabinet were toy belonging to her late sister. She burst into tears when she found her first, tiny violin, a present from her father, dead and gone these many years.
Over the next year she recovered, very slowly. She read books she had always meant to get to, and reread books she’d always enjoyed. She passed the time scribbling in her private journal, most of her writings bitter denunciations of her "enemies." When she recovered some of her old equilibrium, she wisely burned them. She spent two years teaching music at Videntia High School … until the school system cut its funding for the arts. Beatrice succeeded in not letting this send her into another tailspin, though it had been hard.
Then, five years ago, she joined the Videntia Chamber Orchestra.
This small group allowed her, slowly and carefully, to regain her foothold in the world of music. Halfway through the second year of being in the group, she became its concertmaster. Paul Wilding, her predecessor, had become unreliable. To some extent the problem was alcohol; to some extent it was his wife, Connie, one of the 'cellists. They’d argue walking down into the dressing room; they’d argue going up the stairs; they’d argue while everyone was tuning up. And sometimes … while they played.
The final straw came during a rehearsal for one of Tchaikovsky's Orchestral Suites; it contained a long, beautiful passage for the concertmaster, and Mark asked Paul to use less legato. This prompted a snort from his wife.
"Tell him to stop swaying as well," Connie added. "It's making us seasick," suggesting he was in no condition to be play, let alone stand.
Paul suddenly exploded in manic, righteous indignation, only slightly blunted by slurring. He slammed his wife, Mark, the music, his own section, and then laid into Tchaikovsky and his sex life.
Dismissal was the only solution, and it followed in a week.
Connie speedily divorced him; the luckless man disappeared; and Connie worked her way up to Section Leader. It was then that the people in her own section discovered that Connie was most likely the reason her ex-husband transferred his affections to The Bottle.
Beatrice turned and looked at the clock radio. Five a.m. …dammit.
Her past was replaying like an old newsreel in her mind. She had hoped recalling the past would lull her back to sleep; it didn’t. Realizing sleep was impossible with birds outside ready to burst into song, she got up, and felt about with her feet for her slippers. It would be a clear day, and the early summer brought some welcome light into the room.
The orchestra. Yes. She still wanted a career in music, but without the glare of publicity she felt ruined the purity of her playing, her voice, her life. She was lucky that classical music was never front-page news when she had broken down at a concert in Detroit, weeping not too visibly through the last half of a Bruch Concerto, and collapsing offstage moments after her final bow. It was her last performance for several years.
She shivered slightly. Better not to think about that long-buried scene just now. Whatever romantic notions she'd had as a teenager about the concert life had burned to a crisp under the spotlight's glare.
She looked out into Mattie's back yard, glad that a couple next door, trapped in their cubicle of an apartment, volunteered to make Mattie's garden their own. After years of Mattie's indifferent attempts, Jeff and Gabby next door had managed to make it bloom. Everyone told her growing tomatoes would be easy, but Beatrice’s own attempts ended up looking like lumpy green golf balls.
Now, the scent of heliotropes was one she looked forward to as she made her way upstairs to bed on summer nights. It was the young couple's hope to have a house and garden of their own.
Bea quit smoking four years ago, but felt the sudden need for a cigarette. She’d stuffed a pack of them, for "emergencies." At some street corner someone had once gave out free packs of NearNicks, a low-nicotine cigarette. They tasted foul, like dusty teabags not in their first youth.
There was a crumpled pack in the back of one of the many drawers on her old writing desk, stuck behind damp coupons that expired ages ago. She used a letter-opener to dig them out. She looked into the little packet and found them looking more unappetizing than she'd thought. The matchbook they came with was damp, too; but she got a match to work without burning herself.
She sat back in the captain's chair, its charm being a wide pair of arms to rest hers on, and tried to remember where she’d first seen the orchestra's ad.
Beatrice heard the creak of a door --all their doors creaked-- and Mattie padded slowly down the hall to the bathroom. Once the sound of those ancient slippers had been a comfort to her. Now Bea heard the walker that her aunt had to use. She hated it, and knew her aunt hated it more.
Still, Beatrice reflected, the two women got along. Mattie allowed Bea to take care of her, a privilege the old woman was independent enough to resent anyone else taking. For the most part, Mattie had carried on by herself until she'd fallen and broken her hip a year ago. Now she argued with the walker she was obliged to use, refusing to be seen outside with it, relying instead on two highly unpredictable canes.
Mattie passed Bea's door, very slowly. The younger woman made an irritated gesture with the hand holding the cigarette, and some ash flicked itself into the corner. Bea and her aunt had a similar shortness of temper.
What riled them both was that the ancient slowly making her way to the bathroom was once a cyclone of energy: defending her work as a symphony conductor in letters to the editor; giving lectures on American composers, some of whom she'd met at noisy parties the night before.
Oh, yes. She recalled it now. It was her aunt who gave Bea the notice of the orchestra needing a first violin. Relieved at remembering, Bea put the cigarette out and got a dressing gown out of her closet. Ben had shyly given it to her as a birthday present two months ago. The thing was a riot of Brazilian color, with vulgar green stripes dancing next to calmer, deeper purples, broken up by large, bizarrely placed red diamonds. It was entirely inappropriate for her, and she loved Ben for not realizing it when he gave it to her. Despite its fluorescence, it was light and airy, and perfect for Videntia's humid summer mornings.
She knew that the creaks from the stairs as she went down to get the paper would tell Mattie she was up, and she warmed up the kettle for coffee. The kitchen windows were hemmed in now with evergreens, making it the coolest room in the house. She retrieved the two papers from the front stoop and put the arts section on Mattie's side; Bea usually read the news and sports first herself.
She smiled at a tiny ad in the arts section, a theatre notice for the play The Night That Creeps. It reminded Bea that the play Ben had a small role in ended its run that weekend. Her friend Karl was directing it (unwillingly) and she’d promised them both that she’d take Mattie to see it. Her aunt enjoyed anything with a murder in it --that was the reason she subscribed to the Videntian instead of the BATHJAC, the nickname of the multi-merged Bulletin-Advocate-Times-Herald-Journal-American-Chronicle. The Videntian was bloodier.
She frowned at the bottom of the page. The Videntian hated its arts section, and never stopped griping about an obligation to culture they felt elitist and unnecessary. To them, Movies and Rock were the only Arts; nothing else mattered. Their one dissenting critic was Bill Engels, who covered the classical, theatre, and arts scene, and often seemed to top his previously set high standards for intolerance. This was untrue: his writing style gave the impression that he enjoyed himself less than he really did. This didn’t stop his paper from misusing him, and the Videntian crowed, "You Hate Him, But You Can't Put Him Down."
Aunt Mattie tarnished the phrase at a public forum, clearly stating that she'd be glad to put Engels down, if a veterinarian gave her the lethal injections to do him in with. But Engels thought this wonderful, and hugged her.
Beatrice hadn’t wanted to become Concertmaster when she'd joined five years ago; but as she continued in the orchestra, string players began to come up to her and ask her opinion on just about everything. They asked her about strings, about recital repertoire; about bowings, about agents. Eventually it seemed as if she took the mantle as a matter of course. Taking a busman's holiday to Boston and New Haven, she conferred with other concertmasters before she accepted the post. Going into her forties, she'd begun to be careful about what was left of her career.
Once she took the job, she found the position combined the responsibilities of a Den Mother with that of a psychic psychologist.
She knew the commonplaces, like making sure the bowings were written so that the weakest players as well as the strongest could play them. Yet she also had to learn subtle mental games to keep the more disruptive members of her group in line without her having to make scenes. She learned how to pair up players to share desks without turning them into sworn and swearing enemies; and she felt appreciated for this.
She found herself enjoying this new role in ways that enhanced her own playing. When she played solos now, they had a swing and warmth she never indulged in when she was an International Star. The only ones who heard her now were the people in that theatre, the people of Videntia.
Good. She was playing her heart out for them. Just … them.
And when two players she introduced to share a desk with fell in love, announced their engagement, and asked her to the wedding as "Best Lady", she realized why she felt that a whole new life had opened up before her.
She was no longer alone, playing with a different orchestra each night, stuck in a new and strange city, staying in antiseptic, soulless hotels (if she was lucky) for the sake of a faceless management. After the long painful years, and in this dusty, half-forgotten city ... she'd finally found her home.
copyright 2005, 2007 Robert Bonotto. All rights reserved.