Violin, p.11

Violin, page 11



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  A roar of voices came to shut her up. She looked so defenseless! Even her husband, Martin, was angry with her now, and he intimidated her; she couldn't bear his disapproval. How small she looked; she and Faye were eternal waifs. I wished that perhaps Rosalind would get up, go hug her, hold her. I couldn't ... couldn't touch her.

  "Triana," said Grady. "Do you want to go ahead and make this statement now, as we planned it?"

  "What statement?" I looked at Grady. It was something mean and cruel and terrible. I remembered now. The statement. The all-important statement; the drafts and drafts I'd written of the statement.

  Katrinka had no idea how much money Karl had left me. Katrinka had no idea how much money I might one day share with her and Rosalind and Faye, and I had made the vow that if she did this thing, this unspeakable thing, if she did this, we would hand her a check, the very impressive check for a million dollars and no cents, even, and that I would demand with her endorsement the promise that she would never speak to me again. A plot hatched in the dark unforgiving part of the heart.

  She'd know then, how penny-wise and pound-foolish she'd been. Yes, and I would look her straight in the eye for all the cruel things she'd ever said to me, the mean things, the little hateful sister things, and her affection for Lev, her "comforting" Lev while Lily died, as surely as Chelsea ... but no.

  "Katrinka," I whispered. I looked at her. She turned to me, red faced, spurting tears like a baby, all the color washed out of her face but the red, so like the child. Imagine it, a child that little sitting in the school yard with her mother, and her Mother drunk and everyone knowing it, knowing it, knowing it, and that child clinging to her, and then coming home with that drunken woman on the streetcar and ...

  In the hospital one time I came in and Katrinka was like this, this red, this crying. "They told Lily twenty minutes before that blood test that they were going to do it. Why did they do that! This place is a torture chamber. They should have never told her so long before they didn't have to--." For my daughter, how she had cried!

  Lily's face had been turned to the wall, my tiny five-year-old child, almost dead, within weeks. Katrinka had loved her so much.

  "Grady, I want you to give her the check," I said quickly, raising my voice. "Katrinka, it's a gift. Karl arranged it for you. Grady, there's no speech, there's no point, there's no question now, just give her the gift that he wanted her to have."

  I could see that Grady gave a huge heaving sigh of relief that there would be no acrimonious and melodramatic words, even though he knew full well that Karl had never laid eyes on Katrinka and had never arranged such a gift--

  "But don't you want her to know it's your gift?"

  "I do not," I whispered to him. "She couldn't accept it, she wouldn't. You don't understand. Give Rosalind her check, please," I said. That one had carried no conditions, meant only as a splendid surprise, and Karl had loved Rosalind and Glenn greatly, and leased for them their little shop, Rosalind's Books and Records.

  "Say it's from Karl," I said. "Do it."

  Katrinka held the check in her hand. She came towards the table. Her tears were still a childish flood, and I noticed how thin she had become, struggling now against age as we all did. She looked so like our Father's family, the Beckers, with her large slightly protruding eyes and her small pretty but hooked nose. She had the touch of the Semite beauty in her, a gravity to her tear-stained face. Her hair was fair and her eyes were blue. She trembled and shook her head. Her eyes were squeezed shut, and the tears oozed out of her eyes. My father had told us countless times that she was the only one of us who was truly beautiful.

  I must have lost my balance.

  I felt Grady steady me. And Rosalind murmured something that was lost for lack of enough self-confidence. Poor Roz, to endure this.

  "You can't write a check like this," Katrinka said. "You can't just write a check for a million dollars!"

  Rosalind held the check Grady had put in her hands. She appeared stupefied. So did Glenn, who stood over her, peering down at it as if it were a wonder of the world, a check for a million dollars.

  The statement. The speech. All those words rehearsed in anger for Katrinka, "that you never seek my company again, that you never cross this threshold, that you never ..." They all died and blew away.

  It was the hospital corridor. Katrinka cried. In the room the strange California priest baptized Lily with water from a paper cup. Did my beloved atheist Lev think I was a perfect coward? And Katrinka was crying then as she cried now, real tears for my lost child, our Lily, our Mother, our Father.

  "You were always ..." I said, "so good to her."

  "What are you talking about?" Katrinka said. "You don't have a million dollars! What is she saying? What is this? Does she think that--"

  "Mrs. Russell, if you will allow," Grady began. He looked to me. He rolled on even before I nodded.

  "Your sister has been left most comfortable by her late husband, with all arrangements made before his death and with the knowledge of his mother, arrangements which do not involve any will, or any such instrument, which can on any grounds be contested by any of his family.

  "And indeed Mrs. Wolfstan signed numerous papers some time before Karl's death, that this arrangement would not in any way be questioned upon the loss of her son, Karl Wolfstan, and could and would be most speedily transacted."

  He went on.

  "There is no question as to the validity or the integrity of the check that you hold in your hand. This is your sister's gift to you which she would like you to accept, as your portion of whatever this house might be worth, and I must say, Mrs. Russell, I do not think even this house, charming as it is, would sell for one million dollars, and of course you have in your hand a check for the entire sum, though you also, as you well know, have three sisters."

  Rosalind gave a little moan. "You don't have to," she said.

  "Karl," I said. "Karl wanted me to be able to--"

  "Ah, yes, to make it possible," said Grady, stumbling now to fulfill my last commission to him, realizing that he had failed to carry out my whispered instructions and now off the beat and for the moment lost. "It was Karl's wish that Triana be able to provide a gift to each of her sisters."

  "Listen," said Roz. "How much is there? You don't have to give anything to us. You don't have to give anything to her or me or anyone. You don't ... Look, if he left you ..."

  "You have no idea," I said. "Really, there is plenty. There's so much it's purely simple."

  Rosalind sat back, drew in her chin, raised her eyebrows and peered through her glasses at the check. Her tall willowy husband, Glenn, was at a loss for words, touched, amazed, confused by what he saw around him.

  I looked up at the wounded and quivering Katrinka. "Don't worry anymore, Trink," I said. "Don't worry ever again ... about anything."

  "You're insane!" Katrinka said. Her husband reached out to take her hand.

  "Mrs. Russell," said Grady to Katrinka, "let me recommend you take the check to the Whitney Bank tomorrow and endorse and deposit it as you would any check, and I am certain you will be happy to discover that your funds are readily available to you. It is a gift and carries no tax penalty for you. No tax whatsoever. Now, I would appreciate some statement with regard to this house, that you will not in future--"

  "Not now," I said. "It doesn't matter."

  Rosalind leant towards me again. "I want to know how much. I want to know what this costs you to do this for me and for her."

  "Mrs. Bertrand," said Grady to Rosalind, "believe me, your sister is amply provided for. In addition, and perhaps this will make my point as delicately as possible, the late Mr. Wolfstan had also endowed a new hall in the city museum to be entirely devoted to paintings of St. Sebastian."

  Glenn in great distress shook his head. "No, we can't."

  Katrinka narrowed her eyes as if she suspected a plot.

  I tried to form words. They were just beyond my reach. I gestured to Grady and mouthed the word
"explain." I made an open shrugging gesture.

  "Ladies," said Grady, "let me assure you, Mr. Wolfstan left your sister very well off. These checks really, to be quite literal and frank with you, do not make a particle of difference."

  And so the moment was over.

  Just like that. It was over.

  The terrible speech had not been made to Katrinka, take this million and never ... and there had been no stunning realization for her that she had forfeited forever in hate the possible share of something much larger.

  The moment was gone. The chance was gone.

  Yet it was ugly, uglier even than I could have planned it because she stood now, furious with hate, and she wanted to spit in my face and there was no way in the world she was going to risk losing one million dollars.

  "Well, Glenn and I are grateful for this," said Roz in her low, earnest voice. "I honestly never expected one thin dime from Karl Wolfstan, it's kind, it's kind that he would even, but are you sure, Grady? Are you telling us the real truth?"

  "Oh, yes, Mrs. Bertrand, your sister is well off, very well off--"

  I saw a vision of dollar bills. A true vision of them flying towards me, each dollar bill with tiny wings on it. The most insane vision, but I think for the very first time in my life there was a relaxed realization of what Grady was saying, that that type of worry was no longer required, that that type of misery was no longer part of the larger picture, that the mind could turn now in perfect peace and quiet upon itself, Karl had seen to that, and his people, it had been nothing to them to see to it, the mind could turn to finer things.

  "So that's how it was, then," Katrinka said, looking at me, her eyes tired and dull the way eyes get after hours of fury.

  I didn't answer.

  Katrinka said:

  "It was just all a dry financial arrangement between you and him, and you never even had the decency to tell us."

  No one spoke.

  "With him dying of AIDS, you might have had the decency to let us know."

  I shook my head. I opened my mouth, I started to say, no, no, that's abomination, what you're saying, I ... but it struck me suddenly as just the perfect thing that Katrinka would do, and I began instead to smile and then to laugh.

  "Honey, honey, don't cry," said Grady. "You're going to be all right."

  "Oh, but you see, it's perfect, it's ..."

  "All this time," said Katrinka, her tears returning, "You let us worry and tear our hair out!" Katrinka's voice carried over Rosalind's pleas for quiet.

  "I love you," Rosalind said.

  "When Faye comes home," I whispered to Roz as if the two of us, sisterlike, had to hide from all the rest, at this round table in this front room. "When Faye comes home, she'll love the way the house looks now, don't you think, all of this, all that Karl did, it's so beautiful."

  "Don't cry."

  "Oh, I'm not, am I? I thought I was laughing. Where is Katrinka?" Several people had left the room.

  I got up and left the room. I went into the dining room, the heart and soul of the house, the room in which so long ago Rosalind and I had had that terrible fight with the Rosary. Good Lord, it is a surfeit of memory that drives people to drink, I think so sometimes. Mother must have remembered such terrible, terrible things. We'd torn Mother's Rosary to pieces! A Rosary.

  "I have to go to bed," I said. "My head aches, I keep remembering. I'm remembering bad things. I can't get them out of my mind. I must ask you something. Roz, my love ..."

  "Yes," she said at once, both hands extended, her dark eyes fixed firmly on me with utter sympathy.

  "The violinist, do you remember him, the night that Karl died. There was a man out there on St. Charles Avenue and--"

  The others crowded under the small chandelier in the hall. Katrinka and Grady were in a furious discussion. Martin was being stern with Katrinka, and Katrinka was almost screaming.

  "Oh, him," said Roz, "that guy with the violin." Rosalind laughed. "Yeah, I remember him. He was playing Tchaikovsky. Of course he was really, you know, doing it up, as if anybody had to improvise on Tchaikovsky, but he was--" She cocked her head. "He was playing Tchaikovsky."

  I moved further with Rosalind across the dining room. She was talking ... and I couldn't understand. In fact, it was so strange I thought she was making it up, and then I remembered--. But it was a wholly different kind of recollection, with none of the sting and heat of these other memories; it was pale and long ago released and generally let to slide away, or deliberately veiled under dust. I didn't know. But now I didn't fight it.

  "That picnic, out there in San Francisco," she said, "and you know all you beatniks and hippies were there, and I was scared to death we were all gonna get busted and dumped in San Francisco Bay, and you took that violin and just played and played and Lev danced! It was like the Devil came into you, that time and the other time when you were little and you got a hold of that little three-quarter violin up at Loyola, remember that? And you just played and played and played but--"

  "Yes, but I could never make it happen again. I tried and tried, after both those times ..."

  Rosalind shrugged and hugged me close.

  I turned and saw us in the mirror--not the hungry, thin, bitter girls fighting over the Rosary. I saw us now. Rubensesque women. Rosalind kissed my cheek. I saw us in the mirror, the two sisters, she with her beautiful white curly hair bouffant and natural around her face, her large soft body in flowing black silk, and I with my bangs and straight hair and ruffled blouse and thick hateful arms, but it didn't matter, the flaws of our bodies, I just saw us, and I wanted so to be here on this spot with her, in relief, to feel the glorious flow of relief, but I couldn't.

  I just couldn't.

  "Do you think Mother wants us in this house?" I stared to cry.

  "Oh, for the love of God," said Rosalind. "Who gives a damn! You go to bed. You should have never stopped drinking. I'm going to drink a six-pack of Dixie beer. You want us to stay upstairs?"

  "No." She knew the answer to that.

  In the doorway of the bedroom I turned and looked at her.

  "What is it?"

  My face must have frightened her.

  "The violinist, you do remember him, the one playing out there on the corner when Karl ... I mean when everybody ..."

  "I told you. Yes. Of course." She said again that it was definitely Tchaikovsky, and I could tell by the way that she lifted her head that she was very proud she could identify the music, and of course she was right, or so I thought. She looked so dreamy and sympathetic and sweet and gentle to me, as if nothing of meanness had survived in her at all, and here we were--and we were not old.

  I felt no older today than any other day. I didn't know what it meant to feel old. Old. Fears go. Meanness goes. If you pray, if you are blessed, if you try!

  "He kept coming here, that guy with the violin," Rosalind said, "while you were in the hospital. I saw him this evening out there, just watching. Maybe he doesn't like playing for crowds," she said. "He's damned good, if you ask me! I mean the guy's as good as any violinist I ever heard in person or on any record."

  "Yes," I said. "That he is, isn't he?"

  I waited until the door was shut to cry again.

  I like to cry alone. It felt so marvelously good, to cry and cry, totally removed from any hint of censure! No one to tell you yes or no, no one to beg for forgiveness, no one to intervene.


  I lay down on the bed and cried, and listened to them out there, and felt so tired suddenly, as if I had carried all those coffins to the grave myself ... Think of it, scaring Lily like that, coming into the hospital room and bursting into tears and letting Lily see it, and Lily saying, "Mommie, you're scaring me!" And at that moment, when I'd come back late from the bar, I'd been drunk, hadn't I? I'd spent those years drunk, but never too drunk, never so that I couldn't ... and then that awful, awful moment of seeing her small white face, her hair all gone, her head cancer-bald yet lovely like the bud of a flower,
and my stupid, stupid, ill-timed bursting into tears. Cruel, cruel. Dear God.

  Where was that brilliant blue sea with its ghostly foam?

  When I realized he'd been playing, it must have been after a long while.

  The house had gone quiet.

  He must have started low, and it did have the pure Tchaikovskian sweetness this time, the civilized eloquence, one might say, rather than the raw horror of the Gaelic fiddlers that had so enthralled me last night. I sank deep into the music, as it came nearer and grew more distinct.

  "Yes, play for me," I whispered.

  I dreamed.

  I dreamed of Lev and Chelsea, of us fighting in the cafe and Lev saying, "So many lies, lies," and realizing what he meant, that he and Chelsea--and she so distraught, so basically kind, and naturally loving him, and wanting him, and my friend, and then the most terrible things came tumbling back, memories of Father's angry speeches and Mother crying in this house, crying in this very house, for us, and I not coming to her, but all this was wedded with sleep. The violin sang and sang and pressed for the pain, pressed as only Tchaikovsky might, deep into agony, into its ruby red sweetness and vividness.

  Drive me mad, not a chance, but why do you want me to suffer, why do you want me to remember these things, why do you play so beautifully when I remember?

  Here comes the sea.

  The pain was wedded with drowsiness; Mother's poem of night from the old book: "The flowers nod, the shadows creep, a star comes over the hill."

  The pain was wedded to sleep.

  The pain was wedded to his exquisite music.


  MISS HARDY was in the parlor. Althea was just setting down the coffee when I came into the room.

  "Ordinarily I wouldn't think of disturbing you at this time," Miss Hardy said, half rising as I bent to kiss her cheek. She wore a peach-colored dress, very becoming to her, her silver hair combed back into a perfect frame of disciplined yet yielding curls.

  "But you see," she said, "he's requested it. He asked us specifically if we would invite you because he respects you so, your taste for music and your kindness to him."


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