weekend-readsUnfinished 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 second Saturday of May, and it appeared plain: Moses hated us. He could count on us 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 ushering rush-hour traffic—everything in between still came down more or less to chance. And so Moses despised us in the way a substitute teacher does the typical mutinous class. By now he considered his task thankless and for that he wanted thanks. A little community recognition maybe. A second chance, perhaps, at some kind of love.

He was an angry man. A driven, ambitious, arrogant, recently divorced, indubitably horny, hurt man. At forty-five, an early old age had taken 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 about him had thinned. When you put the recent divorce together with his strict vegetarianism you could understand the bony limbs, the gaunt waist. But only bad luck explained the thinning salt and pepper hair that he stubbornly yanked into a wispy ponytail. His eyes, a cool, steely gray, seemed bound 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 typically leave out. No matter what the season, how wet or cold, he wore gray socks inside worn Birkenstocks—a remarkable shoe that lacked both heel, siding, and lacing; a shoe, therefore, that in those early days of its wear signaled something rebellious, antiestablishment, anti-shoe, anti-us.

Rhythm, Moses insisted, was simply a matter of breath, as cyclical as the seasons, and often he accused us—brass, strings, winds, the greater Middlesex County, eventually the entire Western World—of thinking about rhythm with a linear rigidity that made him want to puke. He was self-righteous and moralistic and veering toward Buddhist. I felt sorry that Moses had to exist in 1983 at all. He was so clearly meant for 1970 and for that year alone. And meant for someplace like Tibet or Sedona or perhaps a pocket of San Francisco, but certainly not Middletown, Connecticut, a middle 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 on those cramped streets by the Connecticut River, said “nice” in a way that mirrored precisely the liquid intonations of my mother’s accepting tone.

That night at rehearsal whenever his brow knotted, his eyes winced, or his arms dropped in defeat at the muddle of our noise, I couldn’t help but feel pangs of regret for Moses, who last year, in addition to losing his wife, had lost the battle for tenure at the university, the academic borough on High Street, a beautiful, broad avenue set safely back from the river, a place where Moses’s passion for the ethnomusicological study of rhythm made sense, possibly would have made a mark, and where, 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 rather than 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 was part of the group, the community orchestra. As always, we’d rehearsed on Wednesday evening in the high school’s stuffy but adequate ensemble practice room. And, as always, the following Thursday I ran into Moses at the Fresh and Friendly—apparently we were both creatures of habit—and he greeted me with a bright smile. “Peg!” he said, as if grocery shopping at Fresh 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 so little of both I felt an urge, as I did each week, to quickly apologize. But he seemed delighted with my name’s crisp, staccato edge. “Peg!” as if it were something too perfect to add to, for Moses, shopping cart in tow, vegetarian TV dinners in hand, didn’t offer even one more word.

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

Rhythm was not Jenna’s forte. The next Wednesday—three weeks now before our first concert—she was still better at tuning up, at perfecting the pitch of a single sound played at random intervals. As always she did this at the onset of the rehearsal with tireless vigor. She eased her slim body over the top of each drum, curled the amber strands of her hair around her ear, pearl-studded at the lobe, leaned the now-cleared ear toward the drum’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 the point, but of Jenna it sought twenty-six silent measures at the start of the first movement alone. Schubert had finally ordered a one beat boom at the close 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 melody as if Schubert were saying, Gang, let’s not get in too deep too fast. Let’s think about this. Let’s shift a little. Let’s all go “boom, boom” and then start fresh.

Schubert insisted that my mother and I on clarinet play that lovely, sorry melody line leading up to the first, necessary boom, boom. To do this we followed both Moses’s cues and our neighbor Theresa Bertolucci’s lead on the oboe. In the confines of her kitchen, Theresa was positively tyrannical, chopping and slicing and demanding that each meal be prepared the old way, with garlic and fresh marinara sauce at every turn. But when she left that kitchen, dropped her wooden spoon and seized her oboe, something in Theresa Bertolucci’s heart softened, became pliant and yielding. She may have looked indifferent, showing up for rehearsal with her gray hair still in netting, her heavy glasses slipping relentlessly down her nose. But, oh, she was excellent. She played her instrument with a sensitivity and focus that lifted Moses’s face toward the ceiling and in that second before that first boom boom sent his body into a near religious collapse.

It went straight to his soul, that cry made in deference to the sadder side 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, then down at my short, plump, perfectly sweet mother. I knew my husband Ron was but two rows behind me to my right. Here, amidst the people I knew best in the world—people who insisted I was their kitten, darling, sugarplum—I suddenly felt lonelier than ever. It was the music, the notes signaling what I knew of myself, yet didn’t dare speak about. This was the key my heart increasingly sang in, sometimes in the morning before work, almost always after sex with Ron, occasionally before dinner as I stared out the living room’s bay window into the fading light of another tedious afternoon.

Jeena!” The spell was broken with another kind of cry: vengeful. We now approached measure thirty-five, the first of the many fierce fortissimos asked of us winds. I sank back in my chair. Something sweet in the music had suddenly gone sour. Schubert was turning us upside down here, asking for all we had from the bottom up, forcing us to wail in agony for the greater part of three measures as if we were babies getting our first shocking 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—perhaps wouldn’t—pronounce her name properly. She’d come in a breath too soon or a smidgen too late. Tonight I couldn’t tell which. Over the months Moses had become so fixated on Jenna’s rhythmic ineptitude that she’d become focused on it as well, performing in a state of woeful self-consciousness. By now 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 packing away our instruments when he turned toward me, pinching his nose as he did 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 to Jenna, so plain, free, expressed without doubt or inhibition. And I didn’t mind his hostility, for I felt some myself—an envy of the privilege Jenna smacked of, a privilege which afforded not only a multitude of hobbies but also the leisure, the wonder, even the time, to dare know herself.

In contrast, the Greater Middlesex Community Orchestra was my sole release. And it wasn’t enough. Sometimes I’d walk along High Street past 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 all of 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 her hands than she knew what to do with, and who oversaw my cooking and my accounting, my marriage, and even my clarinet playing. And Theresa Bertolucci and the rest of the neighbors who knew our every business.

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

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

“Try it from the top,” my mother once whispered in my ear. I was bent 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 exactly replicate it. My own attitude toward Jenna was a more tepid enmity. Something mild and tentative, something quiet, secret, at the time almost unfelt and therefore unknown. Little did I know then that I was suffering from 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 deny how I’d smile to myself whenever Moses cried “Jeena!” though I knew he meant to demean her, though I knew this ugliness was growing, rehearsal by rehearsal, out of control.

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

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

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

I turned around just enough to see her standing perfectly still. “Of course,” she said firmly, without hesitating, her mallets, though not her head, 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 in fact only a scapegoat, someone to whom Moses transferred all his frustrations—about us, the university, himself. I wondered how much Jenna reminded 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 only two weeks away. Indeed we couldn’t even get through the first movement without 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, discernable even when played in chopped bits, and in half, began to infect my own gestalt. Under Moses’s direction we played the Unfinished in extremis, emphasizing solely through volume shifts the polarity of mood the score already presented. One minute we’d be softly swaying in an easy three-four time to the most rapturous of melodies. In the next we’d overtake that sunny 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-one I hit my E flat in a state of suspended madness, a feeling that with time I’d opened up to and rather liked, something I identified as missing in the tame sex Ron and I had been having these last seven years, not to mention our tame evening meals—spaghetti and veal cutlet—our tame Saturday nights—bowling or Chinese food—our tame, cramped everything.

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

 

It was Thursday again. We’d rehearsed on Wednesday and would dress-rehearse on Friday. Come Saturday we’d perform. It was Thursday and that meant one thing: I stood before the dairy counter at the Fresh and Friendly. And Moses was there too. Or he should have been. I was counting on it. 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 and sour cream. I dragged my cart toward the varieties of butters and margarines. As I wheeled around the corner, ready to head down the next aisle, I searched the open horizontal stretch at the store’s rear area. No Moses.

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

“Let me help you!” I called, surging forward.

He turned my way, lifting his hand in one of those rote gestures of politeness. 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 married woman who had decided that the frozen foods aisle of the Fresh and Friendly 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 prig to 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 and Theresa Bertolucci sitting before the TV. But they were tuned to the public station where a repeat of The French Chef with Julia Child played. This shocked me. Public TV was a little bit like a Birkenstock shoe. It wasn’t yet us. We didn’t look to TV for growth opportunities. Yet here on PBS wouldn’t we learn something new, something that could be upsetting?

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

Good old Ron. Entertaining the widows. Setting up chairs for them close to the TV so they wouldn’t have to strain their eyes. Finding a third nice woman, Julia Child, to keep them company. Now the choice made sense. I unpacked 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, who smelled just slightly of motor oil. A wave of renewed affection overcame me and I began to slide my hand up Ron’s neck, tickling it some, then through the sprays of his short-cropped hair. He stopped talking, groaned in delight, and my mother turned around to better hear what she thought he’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. “Sit already,” I insisted. And Ron echoed my call. “Ma,” he said smiling. He rubbed his hands together. “The night’s young.” So the two women sat, but this time, I noticed, with more lift to their carriage.

About this time Julia Child began to lecture on the nature of French bread. She stood in her studio kitchen before a set of cabinets with a 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 her culinary efforts with beef-based broth for onion soup.

She held both hands at hip level and in each she grasped the heel of a French bread. The breads rose vertically from her palms, their upper tips clearing her six-foot frame. They looked magnificent: golden-brown on the 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 superior French bread.

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

Julia was well into the finer details of a choice crust when the loaf in 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 the bread’s head had sunk well below the level of her hand. Several seconds of silence ensued, during which time Julia Child glared at this bad, bad bread. If she cared even a smidgen about the glasses in the sink, the open cabinets behind her, the spoons and knives on the counter, she didn’t let it show. She simply hurled that loaf over her shoulder, dismissing it. The glasses 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 head and neck, had taken hold of his throat. I was no longer petting, however, I was . . . well . . . squeezing, practically choking, almost killing him, putting him to rest, and exclaiming as I did. “Wow! Did you see that? Isn’t she marvelous! Did you see what she did to that bread?”

Ron wriggled to free himself from my grip. He began to cough and still I clung.

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

“Why’d she waste that bread?” my mother asked, tipping her tiny frame toward the TV as if to better examine the scene. “Such a perfectly nice 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. He rubbed his neck as he warily looked at me.

“Back off, Peg,” my mother said, turning our way. “Hey, you two play 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 for Ron’s sake. “We’re all just a little too excited. So, what’s the difference between a good and a bad French bread? Who cares, Ronny. That’s for goofballs, that stuff.” She dropped the charm and looked me in the eye, flashing something more severe than mere disapproval. “Goofballs,” she repeated. “Fools. Or you tell me, Peg, what kind of person thinks crumbs like that are such a big deal?”

 

It was hopeless, I thought the next evening as I wriggled into my concert attire, a black skirt and blouse, black hose, black shoes. Our dress rehearsal would begin in less than an hour. Ron had gone so far as to ask Moses 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. The answer gave me a surge of energy. He added, “Readiness!”

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

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

“Oh, Ma,” I cried. “Look at you!”

She wore her widow’s dress, bought ten years ago for my father’s funeral, black silk with a black lace collar. Elegant tears of pearl hung from her ears and she’d twisted her hair and pinned it behind her with a beautiful gold 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 strode off toward the rehearsal hall at the high school, trailing Ron who was also not speaking to me, I thought of us as a trinity of sorts. For I felt like a widow myself. After all, only a mere technicality—that I’d finally let go of Ron—excepted me from the definition.

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

“Sorry,” I said. I held my clarinet under one arm. My reed protruded from my mouth. As I spoke the reed bobbed up and down and I wondered if she could understand my gnarled diction. “These days I don’t know whether I’m coming or going.”

“No problem.” She gripped my shoulders as if to steady my wobbling posture. 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 so sorry,” 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 the memory of myself choking Ron as to these words about Moses.

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

“Thanks,” she said. “I was beginning to wonder if anyone else cared. 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 his baton against his raised music stand. For him dress rehearsal meant a pair of black socks inside his Birkenstocks, tight black jeans and a long-sleeved black T-shirt. Loony or not, he had a firm hold on us both and at the sound of 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 promptly lowered it. We settled finally for a position somewhere in the middle, and I 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 eyes were closed, a signal to the lower strings to creep in ever so softly.

And they did. The Unfinished began this way, emerging from the depths of silence slowly, as if sound itself was weighty and hard, a breakthrough as mysterious and gray as dawn. When the upper strings joined in, they barely whispered their series of fairly monotone notes. No melody yet, just preparation, undercurrent, vibration, sound that laid the groundwork for more sound.

Theresa Bertolucci, my mother, and I sat waiting, our tongues running up and down the reeds in our mouths. At measure thirteen Moses lifted his head and eyed us, Theresa in particular. At measure fourteen he closed his eyes once again and nodded. The baton came down, and we exhaled, 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, less to the music than to the mass of feelings conflicting inside me. Moses continued to conduct with his eyes closed, his body in a near swoon, his right arm cutting the air in three-four time, his left arm suspended in space. At measure nineteen I heard the soft call of the trumpet—it was Ron, crying out—and I felt a pang of grief knowing that soon I’d do it: leave him, begin my life, hurt him, help myself. And my mother and Theresa Bertolucci and the entire neighborhood—I’d disappoint them all.

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

Clearly a miracle had happened!

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

However it had obtained, the entire orchestra awakened to this wondrous event and, unified at last, we began the momentous climb toward measures thirty-four, -five, and -six where we’d bellow our first chords 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. Her face was flushed with effort, her mouth puckered around her reed, her neck perfectly taut, the veins in it pulsing and bulging. She looked ready to collapse and die.

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

Goofball! Fool!

Wouldn’t I?

Turning from her toward Moses, who also seemed to have relaxed for the time being, I suddenly thought frozen foods! I thought, no one to talk 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 our picturesque 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 the lowest of B flats and I leaned protectively toward her. Indeed everybody registered a flat then, and all these flats landed on top of each other as if we were cars, each of us, skidding helplessly toward what was already a multiple vehicle collision, and Moses had no choice but to take us into the heart of it, then get us through it, through one thick snarl after another, though at this point he looked exhausted, though he looked hungry and pale 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 my mother. We too weren’t finished, but were somewhere in the middle, in the very thick of it. It’s OK, I told myself, thinking of Moses. It’s OK to look just like that.

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