We Unlovely, Unloved

Gregory Spatz

You had a dream of playing the violin, or maybe it wasn’t your dream. Maybe it was the dream of a parent or dead grandparent channeled through you, displaced onto you. Or the long-forgotten dream of your childhood . . . walking home from school and hearing through open windows, from the house recently vacated and occupied now by strangers in weird hats and dark clothing, where your sister’s best friend had always lived and where you still slowed in passing, half disbelieving her absence, hoping to catch a glimpse of her through a window or outside on the lawn sunbathing—those soaring, unmistakable tones. Lush, prissy, preening, unforgiving. Too full of feeling. Something from another world, another time and place, familiar and drenched in sentimentality in a way you knew at once was a bridge to and an abridgment of all real feeling—suffering meant to signify and transcend its own expression simultaneously, too dignified to be called by any one name. Instantly you’d wanted it for yourself, the sound and all associated feelings, or wished that both might one day lay claim to you, lie down beside you and pour sweetness through your ear like honey, though you were only seven or eight years old at the time and couldn’t possibly know anything about this or suffering or the rest of your life or what you might want out of it. Higher, higher the notes went, circling raptors on a thermal, arrows struggling against gravity, leaves spinning in a breeze. A prickling along the back of your neck: announcement to your soul from itself, salute from intellect to intuition, from genetic information to cognition. That sound is me. Though it would be years and years, more than forty, before you remembered long enough to find one of us, join the local community orchestra—school, life, law school or medical degree, work, family, insurance and mortgage payments, deaths, boats and cars and family trips, more deaths, tennis games, golf, a surgery or two, divorce, fake teeth, sunsets, boredom, and finally, there it was again: the violin. Time to take up that old dream of playing the violin.

Or you never dreamed it. You chose at random the day in fifth grade everyone had to pick: band or orchestra. Winds or strings. Chose because the boy ahead of you with his long-handled comb in his back pocket, the pockets of a darker color and fabric than the pants themselves, and constantly drawing your eyes, reminding you of the fullness implied above the rolled-up cuffs of his shirt, too, the hints of coming manliness in the sinews of his forearms and shoulders, because you heard him say it first, violin, and wanted in every regard either to be him, to grow up sooner, or to have his affection and attention, or to mug him in a dark alley (or to be mugged by him) and have him all to yourself. You chose, too. The violin.

Or, you woke from a sleep so profound and dreamless—brilliant, early summer light dusted with pine pollen outside your window, dazzling with possibility—your only evidence that you’d lain here all night, unconscious, the dents and wrinkles left in your sheets and pillow . . . and that sound in your head. The sound of something vestigially connected with dreaming. No, you’d heard it the night before, too. In your grandfather’s study or maybe it was outside on deck chairs with him, listening together, watching him take in the last light of day from behind the crooked shield of his beloved newspaper, the smell of his Scotch, humming back there and bobbing his head as he read and crinkled and drank and took in the fading light without ever really looking at it, growing noticeably more excited as the violins amassed toward some feudal proposition involving cavalry, horns, bursts of timpani, until suddenly the soloist peeled off ahead of them all, alone on his war horse, standard weepily waving in the wind, armor gleaming. And here it was still, that sound in your head, as if you were with him again, listening, and you knew. Whatever it was—it was you. You had to have it closer, not as a thing separate from or outside of experience, but as an angle of selfhood you’d always known about without exactly knowing, like the time last year when they took out your appendix, or your sister’s tonsils the year before that. Invisible parts and pieces that had been there all along and doing their job but which you couldn’t know about until someone cut them out of you.

Whichever way, you found us. We found you: we unloveliest, unlovable legions of unnamed cheap violins in sizes incremental to full, never meant to be loved or kept by anyone. Meant to get you started, nothing more. Hatched in batches and carved by machines and on assembly lines, no one of us exactly the same, but no one of us really any different from or better than the others. Bodies scarred by neglect or time or abuse, the student who dropped us, the one who kicked us, the one who banged with his tuning fork on the outer edges of our C-bouts because he was lazy or stupid, or harbored an unexamined resentment of all that we stood for and all that we could not help but constantly remind him of—his clumsy fingers, tone-deafness, lack of focus, deficient small-motor skills, his mother’s disappointment—despite his teacher’s and parents’ reminders: Are you paying the deposit on that piece-of-crap violin? Are you going to fix it? Is that how you’d treat a Strad? Our bellies gouged by an ill-fitting array of mismatched fine-tuners wound to the ends of their threading, the gouges filled with brown shoe polish or wax and food coloring, coated in super glue or epoxy, left to oxidize. Heads stuffed with a mishmash of pegs, mostly not our own, some refusing to turn, wrongly wound and threatening to split us at the cheeks, in our cheap plastic cases smelling of other children’s fingers or of bubblegum or that bubblegum-like unwholesome burnt-eraser smell of classrooms worldwide, or more often of pine tar from a melted cake of cheapest rosin. Banged against your leg as you ran for the bus, thrown under a bed for the summer, tossed in the back of a car and left there overnight to freeze, left many nights, wood fibers shrinking inside varnish, so days later when you finally remembered, brought us in, threw open the case by the heater or the wood stove, you might watch in dismay and amusement as our varnish checked and crazed with cracks. A pointless, meaningless litany of lines signifying nothing. Piece of crap, look what just happened to it! Like rock candy! If we were horses, you’d put us down. Call the slaughterhouse, salvage whatever meat might go unlabeled in dog food and render the rest into glue for more violins. More and more violins.

Here we sit. A crate of us, whole and busted into parts, cracked tops, stringless heads and necks, stoved ribs, dusty shoulders, earless scrolls, peeling tops, all in a jumbled pile, we representatives of your forgotten dreams, left in the basement when the store owner went bankrupt and no one, checking inventory and selling off stock, store fixtures, cash registers, etc., to make good on back debts, shined a flashlight far enough down the stairs to see us here or thought to make note of our very negligible value. Or maybe they did see and chose to leave us exactly as we are. Not worth anyone’s trouble. Alone, in the dark. Not a note or lick among us. Where the crate sits, the drip from an overflowed toilet or backed-up sink, busted water pipe of years gone by, has warped some of us and coated others in a brackish, mineralized deposit of hard water and floor seepage and dirt.

Lifelong service toward an unglorified end . . .

Once, we were loved. Not all of us. Some. Sorted through for salvage and resurrection occasionally by the balding young apprentice-luthier, apron pockets weighted with files, eyes huge behind his glasses, probed and measured until he quit, moved on or gave up the trade and no one took his place. But love for us is not the alchemical solvent, Philosophers’ Stone, by which better violins may be transformed from wood, varnish, and glue into the musical, metaphysical equivalent of gold. Of perfection. Of God or some deified set of geometric, tonal ideals, auctioned for millions upon millions and bearing a name ostentatiously connected with an imperial, transcendent past—the Lady Blunt, the Cannon, the Messiah. . . .

Take Martha, whose husband in his mid-fifties drifted off in his easy chair after a heavy dinner of sausage lasagna and his favorite faux Caesar salad from the market across the street following a hard day’s work, final cigarette, and sips of bourbon, slipped into a stroke-induced coma and never woke. . . . The last years of her life were enlivened solely by one of us—a dark, square-shouldered German, slightly undersized and so a good match for Martha’s crooked, slow-moving, smallish fingers (quicker at disassembling munitions and cleaning side arms at the base where she’d spent most of her life), the shorter reach of her arms accommodated by the imperfect, too-small German’s mensur. Crooked neck, varnish the color of a dirty cigarette soaked in walnut stain, ugly wide-grained top, too much shine in the yellow-gray burl of the back, artless unslotted F-holes . . . but who can measure the value of those years following the husband’s death, liberated at last from his snores and habits of picking his nose immediately after sex and flossing his teeth at the dinner table, burping without a hand over his mouth, but also his general good-natured companionability and kindness, tenderness with cats, and the nights they’d sat outside watching the sunset over the backs of other identical houses across the alley in the fading Sacramento heat, inversion purpling the dome of the sky from horizon to apex—who can say what those years would have been without the undersized, ugly violin from Germany? Who can set a value on that? The nights sitting across from his empty easy chair, covered now in music books, sheets of music, cheat sheets, and simple scores of tunes and songs from her childhood, practicing scales and finger exercises assigned by her teacher at the store where she’d bought the violin—where she’d picked it out with a feeling like love-at-first-sight from the lineup of them hanging by their scrolls on a pegboard display, each as dim and ugly and flawed as the next? That one. Those nights and the other nights, once she was ready, with new friends from the same music store working up a head of steam on some of those old-time favorites, all of them together in a unison, losing themselves to the sweep and rhythm of melody indicated by the black marks on the page, its lunge and soar to someplace better, someplace sweeter, freer, together blurring past any missed notes, out-of-tune bits and muffed corners of phrases. . . . Good nights, many of them. Some of the best of her life. At the store or sometimes at Martha’s house. Son deployed by Bush Senior to the Middle East, her own pension still paying out enough to keep her in beer and chips and beef jerky. New music and strings for her violin.

Or Marvin Fong: second-generation immigrant heir to the family grocery, his lack of interest in all things commercial or store-related—placing orders, stocking shelves, greeting customers with a smile, working longer hours to get ahead—as puzzling and alienating to his parents as his ease with the backward, treacherous English language and his ludicrous dedication to “sessions” at the corner pub with the local button accordionist, and anywhere else they could find to play with the other pipers and balladeers, whistlers, fiddlers, banjoists, players of the stick-drum shaped like an enormous tambourine, sometimes step dancers, arms straight at their sides, legs kicking and flying . . . every night but Sunday, the songs and jigs and reels of a culture more incomprehensible to them and remote from China even than California. What was wrong with him? He barely drank and never made a nickel playing—worse, he seemed content eternally stalled out in bachelor brotherhood with the accordionist, and as indifferent to the effects of that as he was to the lack of any real commercial value for his endeavors. Why do you not want a son? A wife? Why you do this to us? Marvin’s violin—an overbuilt Suzuki, machine-sawed F-holes shedding splinters of wood fiber, bridge like a sink plug, distant, wiry tone—had been a gift from his parents early in high school (and one they ever after berated themselves for having given), to help him fit in and solidify his place at the back of the first violin section in the school orchestra. Theirs too then, they decided finally, to insist upon having back in return for the store and all of their savings, the day they announced their retirement plans and asked him please to step up. Abandon the shenanigans and take over. What else could he do? Years after their deaths he found it again, the old Suzuki still strung and mostly in tune, still sleeved in rosin dust from his years of sessions, at the back of his mother’s closet and hidden under a stash of unworn, black shoes she must have bought decades earlier at a bargain, so she’d never have to shoe shop again. But it wasn’t the same. Without that button accordionist who’d long since moved on—without the buzz and wheeze of his reeds, every phrase of Marvin’s stamped over by the braying, joyous fractiousness of the accordion’s push and pull, his always starting and ending the tunes, calling through the ruckus, One more! Ho!—no joy in it. No life. The violin sounded like it always had, by itself. Empty. What he’d really wanted . . . something good to fill his spare time. Little enough pleasure in his solitary life anyway, who needed the reminder that once it had been different? That once he’d cared? Anyway, he could hardly remember the first thing about how to play, or any of the tunes on his old tune list. He traded it at the shop in partial exchange for a new Casio keyboard with some decent rhythm presets and early 90s-era looping capabilities so he could play by himself without sounding quite so alone, if he wanted. If he ever felt like it . . .

The celebrities among us: one, a Czech or possibly Hungarian Strad copy, a notorious spinner of tall tales. Cracking, over-thinned back, sunburst patterned finish mostly blasted away and weathered by time, top freckled with ancient drops of blood. Sold or traded first to a Depression-era brothel in Lovelock by a traveling salesman—one of a quartet of cheap instruments painted white to suit the madame’s preferred virginal string-quartet parlor staging—and played indifferently by a rotating cast of whores in lingerie and garters who did not love it or dream of playing it or dream of anything much beyond sleep or escape, some older, some teenaged, some in makeup thickened with lead, one with a bow arm driving like a water pump, another who never played, only hid it under a damp, bare arm (prop, shield, foreign object) stripping away some of the white paint and causing its surface to smell faintly of lilac, soap, talcum, and days-old sweat. Until the night it was stolen by one of the girls, Hispanic and of indeterminate age, mid-police raid, carried with her over deserts, valleys, mountains and fields, on trains and later horseback, farther west and south, not because of love or dreams or any dedication to its well-being, but as her sole collateral against future damage. Hocked at a shop in San Diego and weeks later, stripped of paint, back plate thinned to an inch of its life, Czech label gone, strung up in fresh Black Diamond strings—sold again at three times what the shop owner had paid out, to a leather-capped, red-whiskered troubadour, years younger than the age given in any of his questionable documents and on a desperate one-way quest out of town, as far from his jewelry-store-owning parents, and all their disappointment in him, as he might ever get: Fiddlin’ Will Slim (nee William Eric Goldman). Up and down the California coast—on stages and in bars and playhouses, calling square dances and country dances; in a hammock under the stars beside Slim, weather permitting, witness to any number of drunken young ladies charmed out of their clothing by Slim’s singing and playing and his way with words; rained on in the open back of Slim’s flatbed and once left in a parking lot for hours before Slim, chagrined and somewhat panicked, returned for it; later, when musical styles changed, stuffed with foam and plugged into a Fender amp and distorted through wah-wah pedals for psychedelic effect, and when the styles changed back again, the foam replaced with the rattles of two rattlesnakes and the pink garter of a girl he claimed to have loved—year after year, the Czech went with Fiddlin’ Slim. Once, to the doors of Carnegie Hall on a trip east. Another time loaned to a notorious big-eared fiddler from Bill Monroe’s band for a sold-out grange hall show in Crescent City, and nearly not returned; instead, Will and the big-eared fiddler sat up all night drinking cases of cheap beer and smoking cigarettes, playing everything they could think of in common to play. Benediction given at the end of that night: Damn good to know you, Slim, and good to play this old box. Lucky thing for you I don’t just shoot you and keep it for myself, like I say. You take good care of it.

On it went, until the night Fiddlin’ Slim, in vintage wedding lace, work boots and fedora—part of the shtick for his latest set-ending, stunt-fiddle number—tripped on the dress train and fell headfirst from the stage and was not caught by any of his adoring fans, the Czech baptized in his blood but otherwise miraculously unscathed. Slim’s last words, caught in a foam of blood and broken teeth and mostly inaudible above the volume of the rest of the band who peered down at him from the edge of the stage but did not stop playing right away—All my lifethis violin — the Czech raised like a scepter at one of his fans, the only one to grasp the enormity of what was passing and what had been bestowed upon her. Thereafter, enshrined at her home with other Fiddlin’ Will Slim (and Elvis and Kitty Wells) memorabilia in an alcove-like corner of her living room lit with Christmas lights and candles. Surrounded by posters and cassette sleeves, set lists, guitar picks, signed pictures, souvenirs, coffee mugs, and dried flowers, the Czech spent its last worldly years gathering dust, slowly splitting its sides from its top and back, glue joints everywhere giving way, fingerboard as sunken and shrunken as an old heel of cheese, so that the day the woman finally passed and her children came around with insurance assessors to clear out the place, see what might be worth keeping, selling or donating, the violin was declared worthless and donated to the shop where it was briefly inspected, plucked at, tapped around, and boxed into the basement, its near-celebrity past forgotten.

Another, stitched together from scraps and shards of Italian tone wood at a family-run German shop, mid-November 1938, by a shop owner who in anticipation of losing everything he owned, had already broken apart the most valuable instruments from his personal collection into a handful of scattered parts and pieces, value and heritage of each known only to him, in order to avoid seizure by the culture-hoarding, culture-whoring Nazis. As a final gift to his most promising client—the girl with baleful eyes the color of ferns in rain, quick, decisive fingers, and a head of unruly black curls inside which ticked a metronomic precision the rival of which he’d never witnessed; a passionate lyricism that always put him in mind of his own allegedly gypsy-blooded grandparents—to keep her playing and in good spirits through whatever might come, he went to work: painstakingly spliced together ribs of three different instruments. Scroll from an unattributed Italian he felt certain was the work of Andrea Guarneri but couldn’t prove, grafted to a neck from his own stock; neck block branded with his customary marking; top salvaged from a ruined Ruggieri, back from a Tononi, cracked and cleated and patched a half-dozen times. Weeks he sneaked back and hid in the rear room of his shop, working by candlelight at night and in shafts of moonlight or dim winter sun through his broken back window to avoid notice, cold air mixed with snow and rain freezing his cramped, chapping fingers, careful always to avoid any misstep. No time now for mistakes. Each shard must match the next exactly, no undoing anything, no leaving anything to chance—all the while thinking: what a ridiculous, pointless exercise, ridiculous final testament to his life’s love and work, monument to a lifetime of skill and craft, an entire family lineage of trade skills and secrets, to be passed undocumented to a client with love, yes, and some real sense of urgency or hope for a better life for her somewhere else, someday, yes, but really with the utmost certainty of the futility of it all. The pointlessness. Why music in the face of war? Why music ever? Who cared about fine violins? Because, he told himself, filing, clamping, gluing. Because, because, it is all that I have and all I have to know myself by. And anyway, what else would I do? Fight hatred with more hatred? Where does this end? — until at last it was done. French-polished to mostly hide any irregularities (but not completely; he wanted his craftsmanship subtly on display) in the mismatched patchwork of colors and grains. His final work. Out of the shop and out of his hands, to be played wherever and whenever by her for the rest of her life, in England, Finland, Shanghai, and later America, until years later by a series of unexpected events and ill-considered bequeathals it wound up in the window of the hock shop in Sacramento, visited at first daily by the niece who’d hocked it and who continued to fight the addictions that had caused her need of fast cash, and later weekly, biweekly—visited and played until at last she fell off the wagon and was never seen or heard from again. Later misjudged by the young new owner of the shop—Piece of junk. Look at all these messed-up repairs—and thrown in the crate with us. Finito, the life of the patchwork violin.

The rest of us, fractionals, full-sizeds, a skein of busted bows, the same everywhere and serving the same purposes, we claim no such history. Fingerboards marked with dots or stripes of paint or of tape—white, blue, fluorescent candy-colored “frets” to assist the more tone-deaf students with finger placement—only the shiny, hardened residue of adhesive left now, a chip or two of color . . .

Or maybe you dreamed of us, but for one reason and another never laid a hand on us or on any of our brothers and sisters the world around; never felt the pinch of our unaccommodating plastic chin rests, the sting of our endpins and tailguts catching at your neck; never breathed the faintly bitter, beery acrid spirit-varnished wood-and-rosin smell of us, or felt the ache through your hands and fingers as you fought to pull a tone from us. Your last days on earth you lay attached to machines, one minute threaded to the next by heartbeats and inhalations timed, measured, and assisted by those machines, nothing musical in any of it, and dreaming whatever the dying dream. Random moments, nursery rhymes, times spent and obligations missed. In the back of your head somewhere, maybe, a sound like the one that first made you know of us. A picture with it: summer evening, light in the highest branches of the trees suggesting an earlier time of day, shadows covering the ground and lower leaves and branches, rainless clouds towering along the horizon and refracting too many colors changing too quickly to name, grass cool and slightly damp through your dress and against your bare calves, hint of dew hanging in the air, not yet fallen, as the orchestra came to order and tuned. All your adult life ahead of you still, that night. Patter of applause with the conductor’s entrance, so like other things you loved—rain through tree leaves, butter sizzling, brook water over stones, the rush of adrenaline before a kiss—stagelights up full now as he raised his arms for silence. For the downbeat. And who knows? Maybe some part of that dream persisted, trapped around the bed where you slept alone the last years of your life, until the day your family came to clear the house and, entering the bedroom—transistor radio left on beside the open window, or suddenly switched on by an electrical impulse discharged through the air upon his entrance into the room, a change in radio frequencies caused by his presence—the child you’d always hoped might play for you (and who did, for a time in grade school, though grudgingly) stopped dead, hearing: the opening phrases of your favorite concerto spiraling up and up. A cry from beyond bursting out of the silence and static at a volume too loud to attribute entirely to chance or fate, and causing the hair on his neck and shoulders and the backs of his arms to prickle—the notes perfectly ordered and phrased in much the same ways they’re always phrased, and saying the same things about life and death and love and triumph and hurt generally shared by players of that piece. So he called them to him, his remaining family. To see the curtains spinning full of spring air and emptying again. To listen and let the notes pass, and you with them. To hear in them everything you wished you might have said, but didn’t.

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