Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Doomsday Symphony: Chapter 52

In the previous installment of The Doomsday Symphony, Rogers Kent-Clarke, after stealing the score for Mahler's new symphony, makes a bee-line escape through the woods but gets side-tracked in ways he would've never thought possible.

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Chapter 52
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Zoe had spent many sleepless hours during that past week considering her various options, given Xaq’s complaints about being uprooted from their home in Brooklyn, first coming out to the farm, then going off to Chicago. She tried to convince him it was just a vacation while she went out and played this concert, a chance to get away. She felt guilty not explaining the real reason, auditioning for the Poulter-Zeitgeist Quartet and, if she got the job, moving out there. But only if Xaq liked it, she promised herself: if he didn’t, they’d stay.

But what reason was there to stay in New York City? It was becoming too competitive for her, and way too expensive. She never established herself as a successful free-lancer or earning some plum full-time gig. Plus, there were too many new arrivals every season – recent graduates, new hopefuls with big dreams – and, frankly, she wasn’t getting any younger.

Not that not getting the job was all that kept her awake at night: what if she actually did get the job? It wasn’t just Xaq who’s going to feel uprooted, removed from school and friends. She had her own friends, her connections, even the back-drop of strangers she saw all the time who seemed like friends, familiar faces. The whole idea of packing and moving wasn’t exactly an adventure, more like the nightmare side-effect that went along with the new territory. Would she find an apartment in a nice neighborhood with a good school nearby?

Playing the violin was all she ever dreamed of, once she’d gotten past that embarrassing ballerina princess stage when she was ten (she knew there was a box in the attic where Victor kept that costume). She’d see Itzhak Perlman on stage and imagine herself there, playing her favorite concerto (one year, Mendelssohn; a few years later, probably Brahms).

She’d worked hard, practiced much of her childhood away, hours that could have been spent playing with friends if she’d had any, yet she was never convinced it had gotten her where she’d dreamed of being.

Was it just a matter of practicing more? Now past 30, she could no longer motivate herself into adding even another hour. It hadn’t helped her marriage and she didn’t want to risk losing her son.

She knew she wasn’t an aggressive person (until someone started messing with her son). Was that why she didn’t go after better gigs?

Zoe Crevecoeur was respected around town as a good musician, a solid violinist, always reliable, a dependable player and an inspiring teacher. That “town,” however, was Brooklyn: her reputation got lost crossing the bridge into Manhattan. There were times, looking at that skyline, she thought she might as well be living hundreds of miles away, not just a few.

Was this what all those hours of practicing had been for, coming this close, only to gaze across this narrow little river, having sacrificed all that time she could’ve spent with her folks, with her friends?

Her day job turned out to be a good fit, compared to how many of her acquaintances worked as waiters or ushers. The local public library was very “old school” and had a great music collection. Running into an old friend, a pianist from school, she was surprised he’d given up music to pursue becoming a full-time librarian there.

The real surprise was that they had a part-time opening for an educational docent, along with some duties at the circulation desk. The hours were flexible, twenty hours a week, and he needed to hire someone. The pay, not great, was at least steady. She could work her schedule around theirs so she thought, “Why not?” and said yes.

She gave talks, visited schools, worked on special music programs for the community and brought friends in to give the occasional recital. When funding was eliminated, they offered her a full-time mid-level job. She said no.

At the time, she wasn’t sure she’d want to give up her dream, packing the violin away along with the ballerina costume. But she’d take side-long glances at her pianist-friend and wonder if he was happy. The funny thing was, thinking about it now, wouldn’t she jump at the chance – a job, steady income, regular hours, even health-care benefits? But wasn’t it a coincidence she’d just happened to walk into the library and run into her friend at that very moment? It was also a coincidence her job was eliminated: it could happen again, no?

It may have been another coincidence she’d met Cameron Pierce through the library program, first through a presentation at his school and then when he’d come by to attend her talks or listen to the recitals. He said he was looking for something beyond what little his school program offered, his teacher concerned about challenging him, but unable to.

He had a promising talent, no more than what she’d had at his age, including sloppy technique and lots of bad habits. She took him on, got him straightened out and they’d even become good friends. But whether he could make it in the professional world, she had her doubts and reluctantly told him so, unless he’d work harder.

Speaking of small worlds, her husband had a science teacher in college named Mahmoud Shirazi who just happened to be Cameron Pierce’s grandfather – not that her ex-husband was something she wanted to lose sleep over, now, either.

Staring at the ceiling of the farmhouse bedroom she’d slept in as a child, she wondered if it wasn’t time for a new challenge, inventing herself a new career or at least finding a new nickname. There really wasn’t any argument to leaving Brooklyn but were there any to staying? Wasn’t this moment “as good a time as any”?

Victor’s contentions still rang fresh in her ear, arguments they’ve continued to have ever since she was a senior in high school, only lessening in their passion because, by now, he figured it was too late.

A new nickname would be easier, she thought, a place to start, a respite from the doubts and fears, misgivings and misconceptions. She’d been “Zo” as a hip teenager, Zoya when she was a ballerina princess. She even spelled it Zoë when she wanted to be elegantly professional about it. What personification would her son Xaq’s next nickname reflect?

Her husband, Stephen Falco – correction: ex-husband – was “Steve” all his life until he turned 30 and started getting weird about several things. Dropping the comfort of “Steve,” he suddenly started going by Stephen, pronouncing it “Steffen.” It was his name, she figured, he could do with it what he wanted, but his brusquely correcting anyone’s standard pronunciation was rude, not that he liked it when some wiseguy friends called him “Steph” for short. “A man’s name commemorates his sacredness of identity.” Listening to the rote-reading pompousness in his voice, she considered calling him “Asshole,” instead.

He never minded Zoe keeping her maiden name professionally but he disliked it when, around this time, she stopped using Zoe Falco socially, saying she found it spiritually unacceptable, having to give up her “sacred identity.” When he argued their son should become Zachary Falco-Crevecoeur, Zoe dismissed it because, should he marry Janet Smith-Jones, shouldn’t their children become Falco-Crevecoeur-Smith-Jones?

As familiarity grew from disbelief to outright contempt, Zoe frequently put herself through the futility of wondering what had first attracted them. No one had introduced them, no common cause brought them to the same place: she’d dropped her keys in the darkened lobby when Steve, arriving to visit a friend, helped her find them, their La Boheme moment.

Years later, love had turned into childish name-calling, however long the bickering had brewed over lesser irritations they had essentially put aside. Deeper issues soon fueled their ever-increasing falling-out, like tectonic plates rubbing inescapably against each other.

It had been a bitter divorce by the time everything was finalized, deciding their constant quarrelling was more abusive to their son, all the arguments she’d had with her father boiling up against her husband’s attacks. He hectored her about not having a “real” job to help support their son, that playing music was more fun than “real” work. She would accuse him of losing his dream, whatever “sacred identity” meant to him, sacrificing his scientific curiosity for the comfortable classroom, admitting he had, at first, only done this until he’d locate a research job.

If he’d done it for his love of teaching, that would have been acceptable, but he complained how he hated his job, his students, their sniveling lack of curiosity but mostly the meagerness of his paycheck. Did she want her son being raised by a man who viewed himself as a failure before he was 30? She said no.

Custody was arranged and approved: Xaq lived with her, he’d stay with Falco every other weekend which neither of them considered ideal. That first time she took Xaq over to his father’s apartment, no one answered. A neighbor said he’d already moved out, the superintendent showed her it was empty. The school said he’d resigned, found a new job.

She contacted her lawyer, the courts, then the police, filing a missing person’s report. Did he move, skip town or really “disappear”? His bank account was emptied, his credit cards cancelled. He had become a non-person.

The day she ran into a friend of Falco’s, a guy everyone called Hawk, had not started out being a good one, but Hawk said he knew where her husband – her ex-husband, she corrected him – was. Hawk, citing quantum physics, described the possibility of being in two places at once. Falco, he was convinced, had accessed his parallel universe.

Every choice you made created a split in reality, he demonstrated with his hands. Hawk showed her how you are here, having made this decision, but yet you are also there, where you’ve made the other. When you combine these alternate selves (hands brought together), you realize your complete self, he explained, accessing endless knowledge of the universal experience.

Everything is an illusion, but every particle of matter vibrates at a certain frequency. The supremely intelligent mind can alter that frequency.

“Voilá – Falco has jumped from one to the other!”

(And people really believed this?)


It continued to annoy her how often thoughts about her ex-husband crept into her consciousness in the midst of a performance, running in some parallel mind-stream, Brahms on one channel, Steve the Dead-Beat on the other.

“Focus,” she heard herself yelling at herself, trying to drown out the intervening channel. Why couldn’t this happen when she watched television, instead?

It had been going well enough, everyone reading the program notes during the Mozart, tapping their feet during the first movement of Paul Schoenfield’s Café Music though they quickly lost interest once the second movement started.
This was another of those bread-and-butter Sunday afternoon “musicales,” one of a series bringing young artists and classical music into the neighborhoods, part of the larger churches’ cultural legacy seeking to benefit their communities and congregations. Most times, she knew, these programs were great, with large, attentive and appreciative audiences listening raptly to great music in a great location.

This, however, was not one of them, with its cramped space and untuned piano. While the audience was large, it was one that proved Zoe’s theory that handing people pieces of paper was a bad idea. She saw them turning the page, a single folded sheet, folding and then refolding them with nothing else to do while they listened.

During the Brahms C Major Trio on the second half, a woman in the front row, fascinated by her purse, inventoried its contents every time she reached in for a cough drop wrapped in stiff crinkly cellophane.

Remembering how idyllic Hawk’s description of parallel universes sounded, she wondered if there was someplace where this performance was actually going well. If she could only “adjust the frequency” of her cells and make the jump! One makes a choice and here you are, dealing with all its various consequences; but over there, the other choice unfolds – better? worse?

The difference between a live performance and a recording is players feed off the energy they sense from people in the audience. Zoe, playing her heart out, sensed her sound was dying before reaching the air.

They’d started the scurrying third movement as she began imagining what it would be like, turned into particles that vibrated, capable of moving from space to space like a beam of light, infinitely refracting between universes.

Then they reached the middle-section opening like a sudden sun-beam and Zoe could see the smiling faces of Xaq and her student Cameron.

These were the ones, if not herself or even Brahms, she was playing for – another young man over there was also involved – but these others (most of them, anyway) squandered the gift she was giving them.

But still you played your best out of respect for the music, for the art you believed in but, most especially, for yourself.

She looked over quickly at her colleagues, these friends of hers, and knew they also sensed the same thing, listening to their music soaring upward, particles of beauty that vibrated from one frequency to the next.

Back into the scurrying bit again, Zoe considered the possibility that maybe there wasn’t just one universe, perhaps several or even thousands, one for each of us, for each decision we had made, “billions and billions.”

The audience, applauding between every movement so far, didn’t notice this one had ended: merging with the cosmic flow, Brahms led the way.

Now they were into the home stretch, the gradual build-up to the end, when she suddenly imagined the sound of her violin swirling off like smoke into the distance, with squirrely intonation and puffs of scratchiness. This wretched violin – could she afford a better instrument if she could collect all the back alimony and child-support her ex owed her?

As they pushed toward the final chords, she saw people gathering up their things even though they had twenty-five measures to go.

On the last chord, everyone rushed into the lobby, eager to begin the reception.

Before, whenever a performance didn’t go well, even if only in her own mind, Zoe blamed herself for not being sufficiently focused, maybe not having prepared satisfactorily or warmed up enough – any number of possible excuses. Blaming intonation problems on her violin was one thing, but an instrument is like a relationship and sometimes it doesn’t always work out. It sounded fine in the store-room and in her living room when she practiced, but friends were telling her it didn’t project well in an auditorium, coming off dull in a resonant place like a church.

There had been that well-known violin teacher, hearing her audition, yelling at her for letting someone sell her an instrument “that bad.” It might, he explained, be okay for a beginner, but not for a professional. He suggested she fall on it or report it stolen, putting the insurance money toward buying a good one. Then he dismissed her.

Before that, she had always assumed what was holding her back was her technique which no amount of work seemed to improve. Yet there was no relief in discovering that the instrument was partly to blame. He’d been right, naturally – that’s why he was the well-known teacher, after all – she couldn’t pursue a decent career with an inadequate instrument.

She felt energized by this renewed push the past few weeks, getting her audition video ready to send into the quartet in Chicago. A friend recommended her, said he knew the first violinist, Galina Poulter, really well.

What a revelation it was playing Devon Cilnois’ violin during rehearsals this past week, made by an unknown Frenchman in the 1880s. She considered asking to borrow it for this audition but knew it was impossible. His partner Rafe knew someone in Baltimore looking to sell a similar French-made instrument, not as good as Devon’s but better than hers.

Meanwhile, there was the pressure of that audition. Would someone there loan her their violin, letting them know how she could sound?

Things like this just sent her into a tailspin until she could barely function.

How could she manage buying a good instrument, not to mention a good bow? They were just so expensive. It wasn’t like she was going to find a Strad somebody accidentally left behind in a bar.

Besides, moving to Chicago, she would need to buy a car, rent an apartment. A violin, she figured, would actually be more expensive.

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To be continued

- Dick Strawser

The novel, "The Doomsday Symphony," a music appreciation thriller written between 2010 and 2011, is the sole supposedly intellectual property of its author, Richard Alan Strawser.
© 2012

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