Unfinished Symphony

Elizabeth Poliner

We were a bad orchestra. Even our repertoire spoke of diminished expectations: Beethoven’s First, Excerpts from Bizet’s Carmen, Schubert’s Unfinished. In the hands of a good orchestra I knew these works shimmered and dazzled, made audiences sigh and weep. But in our hands—the Greater Middlesex County Community Orchestra’s—I sensed any sighing or weeping would be for self-pity’s sake. The best we could do was to play the pieces. Indeed Moses Tobin, our conductor, a volunteer, had chosen the works less for their aesthetic offerings, grand as they were, than for their relative technical ease.

One month before our first concert, scheduled the secondSaturday of May, and it appeared plain: Moses hated us. He could count onus to begin and finish, but no matter how vigorously he wielded his baton,no matter how forthcoming his cues—as fluid and directive as a cop usheringrush-hour traffic—everything in between still came down more orless to chance. And so Moses despised us in the way a substitute teacherdoes the typical mutinous class. By now he considered his task thanklessand for that he wanted thanks. A little community recognition maybe. Asecond chance, perhaps, at some kind of love.

He was an angry man. A driven, ambitious, arrogant, recentlydivorced, indubitably horny, hurt man. At forty-five, an early old age hadtaken hold of Moses the way God had once taken hold of his biblical namesake.He was in it deeper than he even knew. Already everything abouthim had thinned. When you put the recent divorce together with his strictvegetarianism you could understand the bony limbs, the gaunt waist. Butonly bad luck explained the thinning salt and pepper hair that he stubbornlyyanked into a wispy ponytail. His eyes, a cool, steely gray, seemedbound to the earthy, dark folds of the bags beneath them. He complemented his loose, worn blue jeans with either a plaid flannel shirt,which he’d typically tuck in, or a plain white undershirt, which he’d typicallyleave out. No matter what the season, how wet or cold, he wore graysocks inside worn Birkenstocks—a remarkable shoe that lacked both heel,siding, and lacing; a shoe, therefore, that in those early days of its wear signaledsomething rebellious, antiestablishment, anti-shoe, anti-us.

Rhythm, Moses insisted, was simply a matter of breath, as cyclicalas the seasons, and often he accused us—brass, strings, winds, the greaterMiddlesex County, eventually the entire Western World—of thinkingabout rhythm with a linear rigidity that made him want to puke. He wasself-righteous and moralistic and veering toward Buddhist. I felt sorry thatMoses had to exist in 1983 at all. He was so clearly meant for 1970 and forthat year alone. And meant for someplace like Tibet or Sedona or perhapsa pocket of San Francisco, but certainly not Middletown, Connecticut, amiddle of the state, middle class, middle America kind of place.”Provincial,” some might say. But “nice,” is how my mother always put it.And our neighbors, Italians like us, living in the rows of duplex houses onthose cramped streets by the Connecticut River, said “nice” in a way thatmirrored precisely the liquid intonations of my mother’s accepting tone.

That night at rehearsal whenever his brow knotted, his eyeswinced, or his arms dropped in defeat at the muddle of our noise, Icouldn’t help but feel pangs of regret for Moses, who last year, in additionto losing his wife, had lost the battle for tenure at the university, the academicborough on High Street, a beautiful, broad avenue set safely backfrom the river, a place where Moses’s passion for the ethnomusicologicalstudy of rhythm made sense, possibly would have made a mark, andwhere, whenever he raised his arms high—an act which every leader,however reluctant, is wont to do—Moses’s refusal to use deodorant, that”false,” “unnatural,” and therefore “stupid” product of western “civilization,”might have sent a chill of inspiration up his students’ spines ratherthan the chill of dismay it unfailingly sent up ours.

“Ethno what?” my husband Ron, first trumpet, once teased.

“Ethno weird!” whispered my mother, who, like me, played agusty second clarinet.

Moses didn’t hate me personally. He hated me only insofar as I waspart of the group, the community orchestra. As always, we’d rehearsed on Wednesday evening in the high school’s stuffy but adequate ensemblepractice room. And, as always, the following Thursday I ran into Moses atthe Fresh and Friendly—apparently we were both creatures of habit—andhe greeted me with a bright smile. “Peg!” he said, as if grocery shopping atFresh and Friendly meant he had to give the concept at least a try. Then,”Peg!” as if testing my name for its qualities of tone and cadence. It had solittle of both I felt an urge, as I did each week, to quickly apologize. But heseemed delighted with my name’s crisp, staccato edge. “Peg!” as if it weresomething too perfect to add to, for Moses, shopping cart in tow, vegetarianTV dinners in hand, didn’t offer even one more word.

I was grateful for the lack of any personal rancor because Mosescould and did hate personally. Her name was Jenna Earlington, her positionin our group, behind the timpani. Jenna was an outsider, from southof Middlesex County’s border. In her understated maroon-colored Volvo,she commuted from Guilford, from her shoreline home that I’d envisionedas having four bedrooms, two stories, a swooping, private driveway, a two-cargarage, a home office and a den. And I envisioned its owner, a groomedinvestment planner, say, a commuter himself, a person to whom the word”Manhattan” didn’t sound dirty or foreign or intimidating, a person whoconducted business in Manhattan, a person who wore pressed suits andties each day of the week as he accomplished his money-earning tasks, aperson only too glad that Jenna, his perky, engaged wife, had her gardenclub, her bridge club, her country club, and her community orchestra,even if the orchestra took her outside of Guilford, up Route 9 North andinto Middletown, where the old people still spoke as much Italian asEnglish, where bells rang on the hour from each of the five Catholicchurches, where people shopped for their everyday work clothes on MainStreet at Bob’s Surplus, though that meant convening with the scraggly-haireduniversity coeds forever drawn to the blue jeans and painter’s pantsselling at Bob’s miraculous bargain prices from his supply of infinite mass.

Rhythm was not Jenna’s forte. The next Wednesday—three weeksnow before our first concert—she was still better at tuning up, at perfectingthe pitch of a single sound played at random intervals. As always she didthis at the onset of the rehearsal with tireless vigor. She eased her slim bodyover the top of each drum, curled the amber strands of her hair around herear, pearl-studded at the lobe, leaned the now-cleared ear toward thedrum’s white skin, and gently patted the thing with her felt-tipped mallet until its sound issued harmoniously with the oboe’s A.

The Unfinished didn’t ask a lot of most of us, and that was thepoint, but of Jenna it sought twenty-six silent measures at the start of thefirst movement alone. Schubert had finally ordered a one beat boom at theclose of the twenty-seventh and another at the start of the twenty-eighth.Boom. Boom. A gesture echoed by nearly all the wind and brass instruments,a gesture that disrupted the very sad and beautiful opening melodyas if Schubert were saying, Gang, let’s not get in too deep too fast. Let’sthink about this. Let’s shift a little. Let’s all go “boom, boom” and thenstart fresh.

Schubert insisted that my mother and I on clarinet play thatlovely, sorry melody line leading up to the first, necessary boom, boom. Todo this we followed both Moses’s cues and our neighbor TheresaBertolucci’s lead on the oboe. In the confines of her kitchen, Theresa waspositively tyrannical, chopping and slicing and demanding that each mealbe prepared the old way, with garlic and fresh marinara sauce at everyturn. But when she left that kitchen, dropped her wooden spoon andseized her oboe, something in Theresa Bertolucci’s heart softened, becamepliant and yielding. She may have looked indifferent, showing up forrehearsal with her gray hair still in netting, her heavy glasses slippingrelentlessly down her nose. But, oh, she was excellent. She played herinstrument with a sensitivity and focus that lifted Moses’s face toward theceiling and in that second before that first boom boom sent his body intoa near religious collapse.

It went straight to his soul, that cry made in deference to the sadderside of the emotions. That voice that gave sound to it. Let it be known.By then I was leaning forward in my chair, glancing first at Theresa, thendown at my short, plump, perfectly sweet mother. I knew my husband Ronwas but two rows behind me to my right. Here, amidst the people I knewbest in the world—people who insisted I was their kitten, darling, sugarplum—I suddenly felt lonelier than ever. It was the music, the notes signalingwhat I knew of myself, yet didn’t dare speak about. This was the keymy heart increasingly sang in, sometimes in the morning before work,almost always after sex with Ron, occasionally before dinner as I staredout the living room’s bay window into the fading light of another tediousafternoon.

Jeena!” The spell was broken with another kind of cry: vengeful. We now approached measure thirty-five, the first of the many fierce fortissimosasked of us winds. I sank back in my chair. Something sweet inthe music had suddenly gone sour. Schubert was turning us upside downhere, asking for all we had from the bottom up, forcing us to wail in agonyfor the greater part of three measures as if we were babies getting our firstshocking look at life outside the womb.

What the score demanded of Jenna, however, was a little syncopation.We wailed. She drummed off the beat. Or tried to.

Jeena!” Moses stretched that long “e” sound. “No! No!

We knew he referred to Jenna, but he couldn’t—perhapswouldn’t—pronounce her name properly. She’d come in a breath too soonor a smidgen too late. Tonight I couldn’t tell which. Over the months Moseshad become so fixated on Jenna’s rhythmic ineptitude that she’d becomefocused on it as well, performing in a state of woeful self-consciousness. Bynow her anxiety was such that she was a missed beat waiting to happen,an arrhythmic monster largely of Moses’s own design.

Ron apparently felt some identity with Jenna. We were packingaway our instruments when he turned toward me, pinching his nose as hedid to block the mild drift of b.o.

“Moses,” he said, “is bringing us down.”

I concede: I got a rise from Moses, especially from his reaction toJenna, so plain, free, expressed without doubt or inhibition. And I didn’tmind his hostility, for I felt some myself—an envy of the privilege Jennasmacked of, a privilege which afforded not only a multitude of hobbies butalso the leisure, the wonder, even the time, to dare know herself.

In contrast, the Greater Middlesex Community Orchestra was mysole release. And it wasn’t enough. Sometimes I’d walk along High Streetpast the university and dream of the classes I longed to take: ethnomusicology,ethnoastronomy, ethnoliterology—the study of absolutely everything!But these were short walks, bouts of fresh air, not long, steady doses.For my accounting business, home-based though it was, took up nearly allof my other time. And there was Ron to cook for after his day at the garage,and my perfectly sweet mother who lived below us with more time on herhands than she knew what to do with, and who oversaw my cooking andmy accounting, my marriage, and even my clarinet playing. And TheresaBertolucci and the rest of the neighbors who knew our every business.

“Get in the sack you two and make some babies already.” Thedemand came from anyone, anytime.

“In the name of God, do it!” Theresa wailed. “For your mother’ssake. For your father’s, God rest his soul.”

“Try it from the top,” my mother once whispered in my ear. I wasbent over my desk at the time, adding a line of figures.

“I am,” I said, pointing to the page of numbers.

“Peg, not that top,” she said and crept sadly away.

I was drawn to Moses’s fully realized hostility but couldn’t exactlyreplicate it. My own attitude toward Jenna was a more tepid enmity.Something mild and tentative, something quiet, secret, at the time almostunfelt and therefore unknown. Little did I know then that I was sufferingfrom the disease of niceness—point of contagion, my mother’s vocabulary—a condition that gets you into situations you never meant to be in,then leaves you without the wherewithal to get out. But I couldn’t denyhow I’d smile to myself whenever Moses cried “Jeena!” though I knew hemeant to demean her, though I knew this ugliness was growing, rehearsalby rehearsal, out of control.

“Everyone stop!” he bellowed the next Wednesday. He stood withhis knees bent and his back rounded. He looked like a preying animalready to pounce. My mother and I instinctively dipped low, shielding ourselveswith our shared music stand.

“Jeena! We’re stopping again for Jeena!” Moses paused and aheavy silence fell over the entire orchestra. The strings dropped theirbows; we clarinets left our reeds drying in the air.

“Now, we’ll take it from measure ten.” Moses began to flip thepages of his score in reverse order. “Got that? Jeena, can you manage thecount to ten?”

I turned around just enough to see her standing perfectly still. “Ofcourse,” she said firmly, without hesitating, her mallets, though not herhead, held high.

Counting back to measure ten I wondered why Jenna stuck with it,why she put herself through the humiliations. I realized, too, that she was infact only a scapegoat, someone to whom Moses transferred all his frustrations—about us, the university, himself. I wondered how much Jennareminded Moses of his ex-wife. I’d seen her once and she was amber and lithe,like Jenna. I wondered this, yet still felt a strange, faint, not very nice delight.

We had yet to finish the Unfinished and our concert was now onlytwo weeks away. Indeed we couldn’t even get through the first movementwithout a multitude of fits and starts. In light of this Moses had decidedthat the first of the symphony’s two movements would be all we’d tackle.

Despite our shortcomings, the gestalt of the Unfinished, discernableeven when played in chopped bits, and in half, began to infect my owngestalt. Under Moses’s direction we played the Unfinished in extremis,emphasizing solely through volume shifts the polarity of mood the scorealready presented. One minute we’d be softly swaying in an easy three-fourtime to the most rapturous of melodies. In the next we’d overtake thatsunny day with yet another thunderous clap of minor chords. I’m no musicologist—I can’t tell you what those chords were—but at measure seventy-oneI hit my E flat in a state of suspended madness, a feeling that with timeI’d opened up to and rather liked, something I identified as missing in thetame sex Ron and I had been having these last seven years, not to mentionour tame evening meals—spaghetti and veal cutlet—our tameSaturday nights—bowling or Chinese food—our tame, cramped everything.

At the height of holding that outrageous E flat, I’d glance up atMoses, standing tall on the conductor’s podium, his baton suspendedabove his head, vibrating ever so slightly, his eyes bulging with some formof divine delirium, his white T-shirt flapping around his taut, unbendingtorso. I’d blow harder into my tube then, aiming toward a wail of dismaylike no other wail of dismay, aiming toward putting into the physical formof sound what Moses had put into the physical form of his posture. It waseverything at once: madness and sanity, chaos and calm, orgasm and post-coitus,connection and disconnection, problem and solution, tension andrelease.

It was Thursday again. We’d rehearsed on Wednesday and woulddress-rehearse on Friday. Come Saturday we’d perform. It was Thursday andthat meant one thing: I stood before the dairy counter at the Fresh andFriendly. And Moses was there too. Or he should have been. I was counting onit. I was looking, though I couldn’t say exactly what I hoped to make of the find.

I surveyed the yogurts and milks, the tubs of ricotta cheese andsour cream. I dragged my cart toward the varieties of butters and margarines. As I wheeled around the corner, ready to head down the nextaisle, I searched the open horizontal stretch at the store’s rear area. NoMoses.

No Moses in the canned goods of aisle three either, and no Mosesbefore the cleaning products in aisle five. I pushed forward, my load feelingheavier with each step, my pace sluggish. But it picked up when at thefrozen foods I beheld a slim man with a wispy ponytail reaching inside afreezer.

“Let me help you!” I called, surging forward.He turned my way, lifting his hand in one of those rote gestures ofpoliteness. I yanked my own back.

“Sorry. I thought you were my—”

“Husband?”

“No. A friend, sort of. An acquaintance, really.”

The man nodded his head like he knew just who I was looking for,like I was the most obvious thing in the world: yet another lonely marriedwoman who had decided that the frozen foods aisle of the Fresh andFriendly was a pretty discreet setting to plan a lover’s tryst.

“I thought you were Moses.”

The man’s expression switched from the judgmental look of a prigto the pitying look of the ever-sensible. I was satisfied to leave it at that.

At home I wasn’t surprised to find Ron and my mother andTheresa Bertolucci sitting before the TV. But they were tuned to the publicstation where a repeat of The French Chef with Julia Child played. Thisshocked me. Public TV was a little bit like a Birkenstock shoe. It wasn’t yetus. We didn’t look to TV for growth opportunities. Yet here on PBSwouldn’t we learn something new, something that could be upsetting?

“Your ma ran out of food for dinner,” Ron explained, patting thesofa cushion beside his. “And Theresa ran out. Just plain ran out. Fromher place to our place. She wanted company.”

Good old Ron. Entertaining the widows. Setting up chairs for themclose to the TV so they wouldn’t have to strain their eyes. Finding a third nicewoman, Julia Child, to keep them company. Now the choice made sense. Iunpacked the few groceries I’d bought, then dropped on the couch beside him.

He lifted his arm, pulling me in close. I snuggled deep into his side,relieved suddenly to be home, safe from the implications of the Fresh and Friendly frozen foods aisle, home beside my dependable husband, whosmelled just slightly of motor oil. A wave of renewed affection overcameme and I began to slide my hand up Ron’s neck, tickling it some, thenthrough the sprays of his short-cropped hair. He stopped talking, groanedin delight, and my mother turned around to better hear what she thoughthe’d said. Seeing us so entwined, she shot up from her chair.

“We could go! You two, just tell me. You got business to do? Yes?”

Theresa Bertolucci crossed herself, praising the Father, the Son,and the Holy Ghost in our honor, but I pulled away from Ron. “Sitalready,” I insisted. And Ron echoed my call. “Ma,” he said smiling. Herubbed his hands together. “The night’s young.” So the two women sat, butthis time, I noticed, with more lift to their carriage.

About this time Julia Child began to lecture on the nature ofFrench bread. She stood in her studio kitchen before a set of cabinets witha sink off to the left, regal as always even with her apron around her waist.She had on a button-down blouse and her hair was slightly askew from herculinary efforts with beef-based broth for onion soup.

She held both hands at hip level and in each she grasped the heelof a French bread. The breads rose vertically from her palms, their uppertips clearing her six-foot frame. They looked magnificent: golden-brown onthe outside, tubular, firm, erect. And Julia looked equally magnificent,beaming with pleasure at these two undeniably phallic shafts of dough.

Crust! she urged, a wonderful, hard crust was the test of a superiorFrench bread.

“Not so with Italian, but OK,” Theresa chimed in.

Julia was well into the finer details of a choice crust when the loafin her left hand began to keel over, folding at its middle. She stopped talking.Clearly, she couldn’t believe her eyes. Witnessing this slow descent,Julia’s expression, one of joy and rapture, transformed to unabated horror,then unbridled rage.

She still cupped the bread’s heel in her palm, but by now thebread’s head had sunk well below the level of her hand. Several seconds ofsilence ensued, during which time Julia Child glared at this bad, badbread. If she cared even a smidgen about the glasses in the sink, the opencabinets behind her, the spoons and knives on the counter, she didn’t letit show. She simply hurled that loaf over her shoulder, dismissing it. Theglasses and cutlery behind her crashed, yet above the din her own cry rang clear. “That,” she called, “is not a French bread!”

By this time my right hand, which had been teasing Ron’s headand neck, had taken hold of his throat. I was no longer petting, however, Iwas . . . well . . . squeezing, practically choking, almost killing him, puttinghim to rest, and exclaiming as I did. “Wow! Did you see that? Isn’t shemarvelous! Did you see what she did to that bread?”Ron wriggled to free himself from my grip. He began to cough andstill I clung.

Theresa seemed charged by the incident too. “She’s a noblewoman!” she declared. “I would like her to come to Middletown! I wouldlike her to be my friend!”

“Why’d she waste that bread?” my mother asked, tipping her tinyframe toward the TV as if to better examine the scene. “Such a perfectlynice loaf of bread.”

“Not nice!” I cried. “Not nice! You think Julia Child gives a hoot,Ma, about nice?”

“Peg,” Ron moaned. “Please.”

And so I let go. Poor Ron’s face was as flushed as Julia Child’s. Herubbed his neck as he warily looked at me.

“Back off, Peg,” my mother said, turning our way. “Hey, you twoplay rough! Ron, honey, let me see what she’s done to you. There . . . there. . . all better now. Yes, sure. It’s all over now. The show is over. Theresa,”she howled, “turn that thing off!” She continued, more sweetly, clearly forRon’s sake. “We’re all just a little too excited. So, what’s the differencebetween a good and a bad French bread? Who cares, Ronny. That’s forgoofballs, that stuff.” She dropped the charm and looked me in the eye,flashing something more severe than mere disapproval. “Goofballs,” sherepeated. “Fools. Or you tell me, Peg, what kind of person thinks crumbslike that are such a big deal?”

It was hopeless, I thought the next evening as I wriggled into myconcert attire, a black skirt and blouse, black hose, black shoes. Our dressrehearsal would begin in less than an hour. Ron had gone so far as to askMoses what he thought the point of a dress rehearsal for an orchestra was,anyway, why such a big deal?

“Seriousness!” Moses snapped, glaring from his podium. Theanswer gave me a surge of energy. He added, “Readiness!”

But how would we get through it? What was the point of the nextnight’s concert, a fiasco to be sure? If even one other person felt asdepraved as me—and I was certain at least Moses did—weren’t we adoomed lot?

I met my mother in our front hall. We’d hardly spoken the entireday.

“Oh, Ma,” I cried. “Look at you!”

She wore her widow’s dress, bought ten years ago for my father’sfuneral, black silk with a black lace collar. Elegant tears of pearl hung fromher ears and she’d twisted her hair and pinned it behind her with a beautifulgold barrette. She looked dark and delicate, lovely and mournful.

“It still fits,” she said, smiling sadly. She shrugged. “That’s something,Peg, huh?”

Theresa Bertolucci wore her widow’s dress too, and as we strodeoff toward the rehearsal hall at the high school, trailing Ron who was alsonot speaking to me, I thought of us as a trinity of sorts. For I felt like awidow myself. After all, only a mere technicality—that I’d finally let go ofRon—excepted me from the definition.

To my dismay Jenna Earlington looked just like me: black A-lineskirt, black button-down blouse, black hose and pumps. As we headedonto the stage I accidentally bumped into her.

“Sorry,” I said. I held my clarinet under one arm. My reed protrudedfrom my mouth. As I spoke the reed bobbed up and down and Iwondered if she could understand my gnarled diction. “These days I don’tknow whether I’m coming or going.”

“No problem.” She gripped my shoulders as if to steady my wobblingposture. Releasing me, she clapped her timpani mallets together.”Here goes nothing. I can’t wait to get bawled out tonight.”

I dropped my head and pulled the reed from my mouth. “I’m sosorry,” I whispered, genuinely, as if I’d been behind each of Moses’s outbursts.”He can’t help himself,” I added, nodding profusely as much to thememory of myself choking Ron as to these words about Moses.

Surprising myself with this unaccountable burst of sympathy, andknowledge, and self-knowledge to boot, I felt the heat of the fresh coat ofguilt that now painted my face. Her face opened into a wide smile of relief.

“Thanks,” she said. “I was beginning to wonder if anyone elsecared. What a loony he is, huh?” She paused then whispered, “But I rather like the challenge. It’s bringing something out in me. And I like his drive.I even like the Unfinished. Most days I pretty much feel like theUnfinished.”

“I understand,” I said looking at myself reflected in Jenna’s eyes.Up, down, all over the place—the Unfinished. “Yes, yes!”

She nodded toward the podium where Moses stood, rapping hisbaton against his raised music stand. For him dress rehearsal meant a pairof black socks inside his Birkenstocks, tight black jeans and a long-sleevedblack T-shirt. Loony or not, he had a firm hold on us both and at the soundof that baton Jenna and I scurried like obedient schoolgirls to our places.Beside me, my mother fidgeted with the mouthpiece of her instrument.When I raised the height of our shared music stand, my mother promptlylowered it. We settled finally for a position somewhere in the middle, andI set the Unfinished before us.

“From the top,” Moses ordered. As he lifted his baton he mouthed,”One-two-three.” His knees were bent, his shoulders lifted, and his eyeswere closed, a signal to the lower strings to creep in ever so softly.

And they did. The Unfinished began this way, emerging from thedepths of silence slowly, as if sound itself was weighty and hard, a breakthroughas mysterious and gray as dawn. When the upper strings joinedin, they barely whispered their series of fairly monotone notes. No melodyyet, just preparation, undercurrent, vibration, sound that laid the groundworkfor more sound.

Theresa Bertolucci, my mother, and I sat waiting, our tongues runningup and down the reeds in our mouths. At measure thirteen Moseslifted his head and eyed us, Theresa in particular. At measure fourteen heclosed his eyes once again and nodded. The baton came down, and weexhaled, our breaths transforming into that dolorous opening melody,which we played just a decibel louder than the strings.

Theresa swayed in her chair as she played, and I swayed too, lessto the music than to the mass of feelings conflicting inside me. Moses continuedto conduct with his eyes closed, his body in a near swoon, his rightarm cutting the air in three-four time, his left arm suspended in space. Atmeasure nineteen I heard the soft call of the trumpet—it was Ron, cryingout—and I felt a pang of grief knowing that soon I’d do it: leave him, beginmy life, hurt him, help myself. And my mother and Theresa Bertolucciand the entire neighborhood—I’d disappoint them all.

The melody turned over again as we climbed toward our firstmajor crescendo, toward the booms of measures twenty-eight and twenty-nine.For the first time ever Jenna Earlington hit her notes on time, andMoses, who had opened his eyes for this moment and stood stiff as astatue, suddenly jumped and wielded his baton in cyclical, sweeping gesturesof encouragement.

Clearly a miracle had happened!

Maybe he didn’t loathe her after all, I mused. Maybe his rancor waspurely professional—maybe he had no choice but to terrify her into anawareness of time.

However it had obtained, the entire orchestra awakened to thiswondrous event and, unified at last, we began the momentous climbtoward measures thirty-four, -five, and -six where we’d bellow our firstchords of anguish.

I turned to my mother then. My neck felt stiff as I hit my C sharp.Let me go! I cried with my note. She turned to me with a look of horror,as if the note had actually transmitted those thoughts to her mind. Herface was flushed with effort, her mouth puckered around her reed, herneck perfectly taut, the veins in it pulsing and bulging. She looked readyto collapse and die.

But she recovered at measure forty-two where we relaxed into along series of simple notes played off the beat, notes that punctuated themain melody of the Unfinished, a sweet, facile tune carried now by theviolins and violas. Things took a turn for the better here; daylight hadfinally broken, and my mother and I clearly were out together on a Sundaypicnic, laughing as we strolled by a sparkling pond, throwing bread crumbs—yes crumbs—to ducks and geese, our every gesture in sync. She lovedme. I was her daughter. Her kitten, darling, sugarplum. No matter what Idid, where I went, I’d always be these things.

Goofball! Fool!

Wouldn’t I?Turning from her toward Moses, who also seemed to have relaxedfor the time being, I suddenly thought frozen foods! I thought, no one totalk to! I thought, personal and professional failure! I thought,abandoned, loveless, horny! I thought, Let’s not get in too deep too fast.Let’s think about this!

At measure sixty-four I stopped thinking altogether. More chords of despair. More wailing. Schubert had done it again, had set us off on ourpicturesque spring stroll, on our day full of promise, then, inexplicably,changed humor. He was quarreling with us now, pelting us with sound.What had we done to deserve this? My mother and I ducked down into thelowest of B flats and I leaned protectively toward her. Indeed everybodyregistered a flat then, and all these flats landed on top of each other as ifwe were cars, each of us, skidding helplessly toward what was already amultiple vehicle collision, and Moses had no choice but to take us into theheart of it, then get us through it, through one thick snarl after another,though at this point he looked exhausted, though he looked hungry andpale and stricken with grief.

Beautiful, I realized, glancing up to follow his lead. I meant his face:his not-nice, not-handsome, passionate, aging, engaged, tired, full of contradictions,face.

I turned back to the symphony situated between myself and mymother. We too weren’t finished, but were somewhere in the middle, in thevery thick of it. It’s OK, I told myself, thinking of Moses. It’s OK to look justlike that.

Work that appears on the KR web site is from The Kenyon Review and all applicable copyright restrictions apply.

Back to top ↑

Sign up for Our Email Newsletter