from the novel The Baton Rouge by Robert Bonotto
The artist should love life and show us that is beautiful;
without them, we might doubt it.
The June mornings were now so warm they hardly required a sweater. Beatrice kept a light one in her tote bag, just in case. She got her violin case out of the closet, and started out on her long walk to the theater.
They were rehearsing this morning there, but there was work that had to be done on the theatre's air-conditioning. They would have a long lunch and meet at the Aines mansion ten miles north of Videntia.
As she latched the door behind her, she reflected that the sleepless night would probably tell on her in the afternoon. For the moment the late spring weather (and the coffee) revived her. She swung her violin case along, waving to the corner store-owner as he put up his window shutters and set out his rickety vegetable stand.
Her aunt had a car, but Beatrice’s childhood friend Tom had phoned about picking her up when they broke for lunch. Until last year, they had rehearsals at a high school too far to walk to, but the difference in acoustics between the school hall and the theater was so great it took everyone precious rehearsal time to adjust. Since they'd convinced Colin to have the theater available on alternate days, they felt more comfortable, the players' tone became more secure, and more got done during rehearsals.
Bea had left Aunt Mattie well-attended to. Though expensive, three afternoons a week a nurse came in to attend to her. Since both elder women were voluminous readers, Bea sometimes felt that she could write off the nurse as an entertainment expense. In any case, with her installed, Bea felt less guilty in staying longer to attend to her own section of players.
As Concertmaster, she always tried to be at the theater before anyone else, a habit she had picked up from years as a traveling virtuoso. Back when she toured the world, she had to play in surprisingly different halls. For her to arrive at a new hall early, and warm up onstage before the audience came in, gave her some idea of what the acoustics were like. She never lost the habit of preferring to get there before the commotion started. Even rehearsals were no exception.
As she turned the corner to the theater, she stopped, and bit her lip.
There was Mrs. Dupique, near the theater entrance, staring short-sightedly into one of the stores next door. Bea waved at the older woman, who clearly didn't see her through her large glasses until Bea got quite close.
"Oh! My. You startled me." Mrs. Dupique cried as Beatrice came into view.
"Sorry. Did I tell you the wrong time? We don't start for another half-hour."
"Oh, but I like to be early," Mrs. Dupique apologized. Bea's heart sank. She treasured her solitude in the theatre for the first half-hour. Mrs. Dupique seemed to catch the shade of disapproval falling over the younger woman's face. "I'm just early today, though. I get directions mixed up, and I wanted to make sure I was punctual," she reassured Beatrice.
Bea brightened. "Oh, I see. Did you bring your lunch?"
"No, I understood from Mark that there's a score of eateries nearby."
Bea laughed. "Not quite that many. (Actually, there are, but most of them are ridiculously expensive.) I'll introduce you to Joe's Diner: that's where I get my stuff in the mornings. Come on." Bea impulsively took Mrs. Dupique's arm, and was surprised at her own chumminess. For some reason, this morning she felt unusually giddy, happy to be introducing the older woman to her own strict regimen. Perhaps she was just punchy from lack of sleep.
Both of them sailed arm in arm into the Diner, through two uneven sets of old doors, neither of which would stay closed until they were locked at night. The place looked like just about every old diner in a small city, with fake marble on the floor, fake bricks above the cooking area, fake wood paneling above the dining area, and counter seats with torn vinyl, set at drunken angles.
Will, a rough-looking blond man in his early thirties, was scraping some of the grease off the grill when he saw Bea and waved cheerfully. Beatrice beamed back at him --not her usual frigid smile. That, along with Mrs. Dupique, surprised him.
"Well, the weather must be warmer if you're bringing guests in," he joked.
"This is our newest violinist." She introduced the two. "This is Will; he makes my lunches in the morning and --"
"And we're open late Saturdays to get the classical crowd," he added, pointing a finger at her. "Remind your audience after the concert. For that I mix your drinks."
"Her … drinks?" Mrs. Dupique looked confused. Drinking while rehearsing? What kind of crazy outfit had she fallen into?
"Don't worry. It's not what you think. My doctor has made me swear off colas," Bea explained to her. "He says I dehydrate easily and have to have a lot of orange juice and water. Will mixes two bottles of orange juice and seltzer for the long rehearsal --"
"And a bottle of regular water." Will corrected her.
"Yes," she added uneasily. "That's one reason I have to 'disappear' from the stage in the early afternoon during our longer rehearsals. All that … liquid. But they're doctor's orders for the next six months. So. I have to do it."
Bea didn't mention the real reason for the doctor's orders. He was trying, in a homeopathic way, to clear any remaining drugs that she'd taken years ago out of her system. He (and Tom) also asked her to go on one-day fasts twice a month. This she wouldn’t do. She loved her health, but she loved good food more.
The two ladies gave their orders to a receptive Will, who saluted them with a spatula. They walked over to the window, which had been a graveyard for moths and flies until Will started cleaning it regularly. There was a crevice of skyline between two blocks, and one could see a fragment of downtown, with a strip of the bay beyond it.
There was little traffic outside, and the business side of a newspaper page rolled slowly past them as they looked out over the dusty street.
"I keep hearing about how this city is going to 'come back'. 'Come back' from where?" Mrs. Dupique asked.
"Well, it was rich once." Beatrice explained, as the two women sat down at the only table that looked out over the town. "It was a happening town fifty years ago. Textiles and the like; the factories are artists' lofts now. Most of the heavy industries have moved elsewhere, and some feel the town's treading water. Mind you, I don't include myself among them. Our artists don't, either. Videntia as it is suits me. It's not a sleepy town, but sometimes it dozes off.
"Anyway, people who call this town a city are as wrong as people who call this city a town. There's something about Videntia that refuses to be goaded into anything resembling a Metropolis. Maybe someone put a curse on it years ago. If so, I personally find it an endearing sort of curse."
Mrs. Dupique looked at Bea with a sense of intuition. After a moment she said, "It's a good place to hide, you mean."
Beatrice, never one to reveal her past to a newcomer, turned the inference on its side. "It's a good place to hide from Progress, yes…" she said. "If hiding from Progress means that we both can lounge here in this dirty diner, talking freely about art and music, and not feel guilty about not discussing art and music in a fancier place… then yes, that's all right with me…" She idly followed the pattern on the Formica table with her index finger, and added, "I don't know if that's the clear explanation you want, though --"
"No, it is," the older woman said quickly, "and I think I know what you mean. One of the ladies in the string quartet I was part of was awfully put out if we dined in places where she couldn't intimidate the waiters." She looked past Will and at an older, unpleasant man who had just walked in from the back, carrying an armful of plates, and glaring at the two of them. "Unlike that guy, for instance."
Bea turned around, as quickly turned away. "Oh, that's Joe. He owns the place. He is difficult. Nothing intimidates him. I suggested to Mark that we get him to write some of our requests for the tougher federal grants. He'd end up getting them."
Joe shot the two ladies a hostile glance. "If ya's gonna sit down, ya gotta order sumptin," he growled. His voice sounded subterranean, like something that had escaped from under a manhole cover, and was trying to crawl back.
"We're waiting for our order, thanks, Joe," Beatrice chirped brightly, and muttered to Mrs. D, "We go through this nonsense every morning." The two women watched him waddle off. "Why do you put up with it?" Mrs. Dupique mouthed back, after she was sure Joe had wandered out of earshot.
"Joe's is the cheapest place around. Also, Will –the younger guy—has been here for only six weeks. Try to get his attention first. But he puts up with a lot of crap here, and I'll be surprised if he does stay."
"You get on well with him."
"I tried to get him interested in classical music, but he won’t have anything to do with it. All the same, his keeping the place open late on Saturday night has helped us: now folks know they have a place to go to afterwards for coffee and cake." She looked over her shoulder at his muscular frame, and added, "I loaned him a few CD's of early jazz, but Joe won't let him play them in the diner. He apparently plays them after Joe's gone home while he's cleaning up."
In their conversation the ladies had not noticed that, behind them, the two men were giving each other the sort of wide berth that follows a huge and violent fight.
The two women made their way backstage and down the stairs. "Another reason we prefer to rehearse in the Cincinnati Cinema," Bea pointed out to Mrs. Dupique as they descended, "is that there are three large dressing rooms in the basement. They're much larger than the usual ones."
"Why is that?"
"Well," Bea explained, "the Cincinnati was built just around, oh, 1910 or so: just when vaudeville was getting its biggest, most elaborate acts. Later on, it didn't take long for movies to take spectacle out of theater's hands. (I should add that until last year, the theatre doubled as a porn palace, which earned it the nickname 'The Cinsin'. Colin has been the manager and he's been fighting for its return.)
"Look at these old names," she continued, as they walked down a corridor with ancient hieroglyphics on the walls, graffiti that had been stenciled up by old theatre people decades before. "There were dog acts, trained seal acts, high wire acts. There was even one act, and I've seen a very old film of it, of a woman in a huge fishtank who managed to unshackle herself before she drowned. (Her husband just stood there in a tux, telling the audience how brave she was. Typical.)
"You can't have a huge and assorted bunch like that waiting to go on, standing outside in the parking lot, or in a dressing-room the size of a closet. So, they built three large dressing rooms in the basement. The smallest one is Mark's. The other two are at the next to each other at the foot of the stairs, so Mark or Michael (he's our manager, you'll meet him today) can make speeches there and be seen by the folks in both rooms."
"But why build three big dressing rooms in the first place?" Mrs. Dupique asked.
"One for the women," Bea counted off with her fingers, "one for the men; and one for the animals. One of our orchestra's feminists says that the three categories still add up to two. I never dispute the charge. I'm not very good at math."
Other people were filing in now, and some nodded to Bea and her new friend. She introduced Mrs. D to members of her section, and made her way to her own locker.
She wanted to share her locker, as the rest of the players did. But as concertmaster, she was obliged to store 'extras' for forgetful players -- mutes for the strings, resin for bows, blank music paper, and lots of short pencils for making corrections, as well as all the small dynamic changes Mark liked to make when he was conducting rehearsals.
The rumble of conversation spilled over to the occasional sound of someone warming up on their instrument, general laughter, and a congregation around the table, where mediocre coffee was being dispensed with a free hand.
Bea heard Mark's voice as he descended the stairs. Then, as usual, he stopped and ascended the stairs.
That's one, she thought.
Then he started down the stairs again. Then there was muttering, and she heard him climb the stairs again.
That's two, she thought: he's left something else in the car. The third time down the stairs Mary was with him, making him repeat all the things he needed back so he wouldn't stop rehearsals looking for them. Resigned, she gave a tired wave to Beatrice.
This was the beginning of every rehearsal. Mark's perennial vagueness was something that may have endeared him to Mary. At first.
The year she married him, Mary had told Beatrice, "Mark always seems to be gazing across great and distant vistas that I can only hope to see…."
She later concluded he just needed better glasses.
His tendency to regard the concrete in life as merely an obstacle to be gotten over quickly, or to be gotten over with the help of anyone close at hand, tended to irk her. (She thought Ben was the same way, but that was excusable: she wasn't married to him.)
It was Mary who could remember, often in the nick of time, the various grants and foundation monies that had a deadline fast approaching. It was she who managed to keep the orchestra sailing over a rough and dangerous sea of official paperwork that had to be duplicated, signed, petitioned, collated, stapled and then pummeled into already overfilled filing cabinets, in a house far too small to accommodate such things.
Mary managed to come to terms with this tidal wave of administrative pulp with admirable alacrity. Without making it in any way legal, she could inveigle the newer orchestra members to pitch in when the tide of paper rose to crisis levels.
In other orchestras, a lunch invitation with the conductor often meant you might be fired. With Mark's orchestra, it was generally understood that a dinner invitation could, between the salad and the dessert, turn into a Work Weekend without the "guest" quite knowing how this had come about. This was somewhat offset by the fact that Mary was a good cook, and even better when it came to concocting the sort of snacks that kept folks' hands clean to work at something they'd usually rather die than do.
And it always ended the same way: with homemade whipped cream and fresh strawberries --whether they were in season or not.
No one ever knew where she got them.
Before they started the morning rehearsal, Mark took Beatrice aside. He was shaking his head in despair. "I’m afraid we're going to have to do something about Yuki," he said.
Yuki was the best 'cellist in the group after Connie, and the natural choice to lead the violoncelli after Connie's departure in two weeks. Unfortunately, in every other respect she was a disaster. A small, slim Japanese woman in her early twenties, she was pathologically shy, and totally incapable of leading her section. Yuki avoided even looking into their eyes, and when they asked about bowing, she’d nod assent before they'd finished asking their questions. Despite her talent, the 'celli would be in disarray until a player with equal ability and a far bigger ego could be found.
"With Connie leaving, we've got to get some strong-willed type to take over that bunch," Mark said. He had been a 'cellist in his early days, and knew exactly how combative they could be. "Oh, she'll do for a couple of concerts, but she can't possibly lead the section in the fall. I thought she'd grow into it, but this morning, I got that queasy feeling ..."
"What do you mean?" Beatrice asked.
"You know my hunches, Beatrice. I just don't think she's going to be able to handle her group. It's not stage fright: she just can't bring herself to correct anybody."
"Well, we haven't got anybody to take Connie's place now," Beatrice pondered. "You'd better tell Yuki she'll only be asked to be leader until we get a co-leader. I think that might solve the problem."
"Tell her when?"
"Like, right now, Mark. I'm not going to do it." She was used to his attempts to get someone else to do his dirty work and quickly sidled away. He looked at her as if she were a rat leaving a sinking ship. His attempted guilt trips were ones he'd invited her on before, and she had her own section to attend to.
Bea saw Mark bring Yuki over to one side of the stage. With a contrite expression on his face, he told her the bad news.
To his surprise, she laughed; no one had ever heard her laugh before. She grabbed Mark and hugged him, an expression of great relief on her face.
Mark walked gingerly back to the podium, giving Beatrice a thumbs-up. She shook her head and went back to her stand.
Two hours later the rehearsal ended, and the musicians were downstairs again, changing back into their street clothes. Michael Munie, Mark's part-time manager, clapped his long hands for attention and said in a thick Midwestern voice, "Remember, Folks, they're working on the A/C here this afternoon, so we'll be rehearsing at the Aines mansion. Remember to bring warm socks, no matter what the forecast says."
"Where's Tom?" Bea muttered to herself. "I need a lift to the mansion."
"Has it come to this?" rasped the 'cellist who had the locker next to hers. His buzz-saw voice had more to do with his staying in the back of his section than he realized. "It used to be a treat when your Male Escort came by. Now you just expect him to materialize --poof!-- when you snap your fingers."
"Poof indeed. She doesn't even have to do that," a deep, feline voice purred behind him. The 'cellist, married and a father, turned and saw Tom leaning on his locker. "Cripes! Don't sneak up on me like that," he snarled at Tom.
"Don't fret, darling. You're not my type," Tom patted the 'cellist's hamster-like cheeks, getting Buzzsaw Man away in double-time. Tom went up to Beatrice. "Heard the last few minutes, Bea, gorgeous, beautiful." Without asking, his hands went to her shoulders and he gave her a quick neck-rub. "I stopped by your place a half-hour ago, saw your nurse in the garden reading to your aunt. Very pastoral. Except for the fact that she was being read the guillotine scene from A Tale of Two Cities and knitting. If we're going to the Aines mansion, I had to borrow your aunt's car; hope you don't mind. She didn't."
"Tom, when are you going to get a new used car? It's been months now."
"Among other things. Anyway, you're cordially invited to drive all of us to Boston to see Sergei Von Klipop's at his last concert tonight. I'll buy you a ticket. I hope you don't mind."
"Of course I don't mind," he said. "You know that."
Beatrice and Tom had known each other for thirty years. Although as a young woman she’d been attractive enough to have her face on LP records, Bea had always been more handsome than beautiful. One reviewer compared her light blue eyes and strong jaw to Ellen Terry's, the great actress who’d been a favorite model of the Pre-Raphaelites.
Her tallness and distant manner made her seem forbidding, though she didn't intend to be. Still, her natural regality --and acid wit-- enabled her to protect Tom from high school bullies.
He was born out west, though Tom's Czech parents originally came to Videntia, and moved back when he turned twelve; his voice still kept a faint western twang. He’d met Beatrice in the high school orchestra and they remained best friends.
Perhaps Bea's protecting him at school inspired him to join the police force, after two years as BATHJAC's Police Reporter, during which he changed his name from Grivék to Griffes.
At first, his fey personality put the other policemen off. He made up for it by whipping through paperwork no one else wanted to do. Then he sealed their approval by going to City Hall every day, and harassing bureaucrats to buy the precinct new computers. They said there was no budget for them. Tom did not give up. Eventually, through diligence, dinner, and flowers, he got a high-ranking mayor's male secretary in a sexually compromising situation.
The police department got their computers, and Tom and the secretary still spent Thanksgiving and Christmas together.
Tom's reporting experience consolidated his position: he was as relentless on assignment as a Jack Russell Terrier on uppers; and after twenty years, he’d finally been promoted to Police Detective. He also played third flute in the orchestra, and a bit of timid jazz on the side, though he shamefacedly snuck off to Boston to do it.
"I'm glad the Great Conductor Klipop Plan went through," Tom said as he bounced up the stairs alongside her. He was four inches shorter than Beatrice, and her innate seriousness made him seem even smaller when people saw them together. Despite graying temples, age hadn't slowed his natural friskiness.
"How'd Mark take someone sniffing out his terrain for the last concert?"
"With relief, surprisingly; here he comes, you can ask him yourself."
Mark and Mary stopped in the hallway as they saw the two coming towards them. "Tom," Mark waved him down in an officious manner. "Good. Glad you're here. I want to thank you for helping with the fundraising." Tom gave a slight smile and looked elsewhere, as Mark continued, "No, I'm serious. You were a big help manning the phones. I stopped by the precinct to drop some brochures by. I didn't see you there."
"The guys at the precinct treated you with respect, I hope," Tom interrupted, his face suddenly stern.
"Of course. They usually do."
"Yes. They do now," Tom said, under his breath. "It wasn't always that way." His face relaxed as he looked up. "They … no. Sorry to interrupt."
Mark shrugged. "Well, that's all, really. I was surprised to see you weren't there both times I came by the station. Are you on Special Assignment? I don't want to bug you for more help if you're tied up on a case."
Tom waved this away. "Oh, no. I forgot to tell you. I have a lot of time …now. After the fire. That was my reward."
"For saving the lives of three firemen they laid you off?" Mary cried.
"No!" Tom cried, vaguely offended. "Of course not. I mean they gave me the choice of an honorarium: either a medal or money. I wanted neither. I asked for a 30-hour week instead. And that's with all the medical insurance. Took 'em a while to give in. And they let me redecorate my tiny little office. Half of it's in pink now. You oughta see it."
Mark shook his head. "Pink. Good God. You're gonna get yourself fired, Tom. Are you deliberately trying to push your co-workers over the edge?"
Tom grinned. There was little chance of that. His uncle Leon Stedmin headed the force and protected him, though Beatrice and Mark were among the few who knew about it. Not that it would've surprised anybody. In Videntia, most of the municipal government was related, and had been since the town's founding over two centuries ago.
Tom leaned on the wall next to the manager's office, and started tapping out a tango with the back of his hands. His hands were always restless, tapping, snapping, drumming on any surface at hand; it was a character trait that charmed Mark slightly and annoyed Mary considerably. Once, when he was helping them cook dinner, she took the wooden utensils out of Tom's hands and made him sit in a corner. There, while chattering away, he found something on the wall to tap rhythms with until she threw a cracker-box at him. He started drumming on that. So she `made him sit in the car until dinner was ready.
"You mean all they gave you was some time off? They ought to reward you with more than that, Tom," Mary objected. Tom said nothing, kept drumming away, and she continued trying to provoke him. "Saving the lives of three men trapped in a burning building is pretty impressive." He nodded but kept his mouth shut, and stared at the floor. She crossed her arms and leant on the opposite wall, trying in vain to speak above Tom's insistent tapping, which seemed intent on drowning her out. "You usually brag about your cases, but you haven't said much about this one," she yelled above Tom's rhythmical din. "That surprises me."
Tom looked at Mark and nodded towards Mary. "Suspicious."
"Suspicious? Not at all," Mark defended her. "But I don't know that I'd have the guts to run into a burning building to save three men – even with potential orchestra subscribers watching – "
"Would you do it if Mary was in there?" Tom interrupted.
Mark hesitated for a second, which was probably unwise with her standing next to him. "Yes. Certainly. I mean … I suppose so."
Mary uncrossed her arms. "What are you saying, Tom? You weren't -- oh, no. I don't believe it. You were seeing one of those firemen? Romantically?" She gave a little yelp of laughter and looked at Mark, then back at Tom. "Which one?"
"Does it matter which one? I had to save them all. I couldn't just run into the building and carry one guy out through the front door as if I was carrying the bride… groom… whatever … over the threshold." To this he added thoughtfully, "Anyway, not with his wife and kid out there, in front of the building and all."
"Tom!" Mary cried.
"I know, I know," he admitted, tapping away. His head was bowed down, but he was hiding a sheepish grin under moustache and goatee.
Mary emitted a gasp of irritation. "I don't see why not. It sounds like something you'd do, Tom. Yes. Yes, it sounds just like you. Flamboyant."
"And almost flame-broiled," added Mark.
Mary was shaking her head now. "Tom. That's shameful. You're such … such a tramp. Really. I for one am appalled." But she looked more amused than disapproving.
"Why? I saved three lives, didn't I?"
"Yeah, but --"
"So. There you are. All done for a good cause."
"Good cause. Right. Tom, that's got to be the shoddiest excuse for sanctifying extramarital affairs that I've ever heard of---"
Tom shrugged. "It's all I could come up with."
The Aines mansion was a large stone building north of Videntia that was only used by the orchestra as a last resort.
It was always cold, except during the summer, when it was merely musty. Mrs. Aines was one of many rich dowagers who tried to lure the group over to her house to play. All of the millionairesses' 19th-Century mansions had immense banquet halls. These could accommodate practically the entire orchestra; the double-bassi and the percussionists having to play in the kitchen, with both swinging doors propped open.
The contest between all these rich matrons, as to which mansion the rehearsals would be favored, was won in this case by a cat.
The animal seemed to have adopted the harpist of the group from the first time it heard her instrument. He sat by her and, whenever a passage sailed above the treble clef, would lift his head to the ceiling as if following a moth. Odder still, at longer harp passages his front paws would paddle the ground in delight, as if he were trying out kitty finger-bowls. This convulsed anyone playing near them.
"Cute cat. What's his name?"
"His name is Claude," the butler answered with some amusement.
"Because he is. Be careful."
A further incentive was Mrs. Aines' cook, who always made a mountain of chocolate and shortbread cookies for the orchestra's consumption during the breaks. Playing near or in the kitchen, the double-bass and percussion could smell the baking of the previous night, and it nearly drove them out of their minds. Even the oboists, with their care in messing up their reeds, couldn't resist the cook's culinary ministrations.
Though few in the orchestra would admit it, Mrs. Aines' advanced age was also an advantage. Many of the dowagers wanted the orchestra over in order to interrupt rehearsals and talk everyone's ear off.
Mrs. Aines was the exception. One of the orchestra's first organizers, she was past caring to meddle, but enjoyed listening to them through an intercom in her room upstairs, particularly if the music was written before 1850.
A ‘cellist in her youth, she always asked the resident quartet to remain twenty minutes after the rehearsal ended.
After everyone else went home, the quartet would quietly tread upstairs, and play her a movement or two of Mozart in her bedroom, as the backyard trees' shadows slowly moved over the deepening green of the lawn.
copyright 2005, 2007 by Robert Bonotto. All rights reserved.