by JN Shimko
The summer before the boy started first grade, his father took him to a concert in the city. The famous symphony orchestra from far away had come to bring culture to a place that had none. At least, that’s what the men at the barber shop sneered the day before.
“They never did like those who lived away from the oceans, did they?” the barber said while cutting the few hairs left on his client’s forehead.
“Nope,” the bald man said.
“Think that because we live in fly-over country that we don’t understand what an orchestra is or have never heard of Bach,” the barber said.
The boy didn’t like that he was forced to go. His father had never taken him farther than that barber shop. The boy would climb in the beat-up Ford truck, rust sprinkled above the tires and along the curves of the hood. He would ride silently from the family farm into town, past the post office and the bank. His father would turn left at the corner where the boy’s uncle ran the gas station, giving a curt wave as he went by. They would drive down the dusty old Main Street, passing by every building on the silent strip before they arrived at the small shop at the end of town, unmarked except for the red-and-white striped pole out front. His father would kill the engine and the boy would bounce out of the truck, racing to the shop’s entrance, making sure he had a chance to show the men inside how strong he had become by opening the door on his own.
This time, though, the boy only stared outside the truck’s dust-covered window as the pole flew by. They traveled beyond the town and onto the highway where the truck was no longer the only one on the road. Staying in town, the boy had never ridden on something so fast as the highway before. The cars coming from the other direction flew by them, barely more than a blur as they zipped by. More than once his father had to tell his son to stay seated and buckled up. Not once, though, did the man smile at the boy or talk to him. Whenever he was told to calm down, the boy would sit back in his seat, tighten the shoulder strap over his clean-pressed shirt and clip-on tie. They were the boy’s Sunday clothes, for when they went to church with Mother. The last time the boy wore these clothes, though, was when she left them.
Mother had been sick for some time before she succumbed. Where the boy used to talk to Mother in the morning at breakfast and in the afternoon after he was done helping on the farm – which entailed his father calling the boy out to help so Mother could tend to the house, alone. The boy would play with his toy John Deere tractor with its brilliant green paint covering the metal body while his father would fix the farm’s tractor. The boy received a smile and pat on his head whenever he tried to hammer in a nail on the worn-down fence. His father used to laugh whenever the boy tried to tighten a bolt on the broken-down tractor. That evening the boy would tell Mother about the day’s work and how he built the fence or fixed the tractor. Now, silence took over the rituals. His father never spoke much before; but this new silence was absolute. Sometimes, when the boy got it right, the frown disappeared. But it wasn’t long before a mournful sigh followed.
“It’s not that he’s a problem,” his father once said to the barber. “It’s that he looks so much like her.” The men nodded their heads, the bald client looking at the boy clutching his John Deere toy tractor, but he was paying attention.
Now, with the two driving to the city, the silence was piercing. The boy continued to dread what was coming. It wasn’t his father’s idea that they go to the concert but rather the boy’s aunt’s.
“You could show him a side of you he doesn’t know exists,” she said. The two adults were in the kitchen, the boy’s aunt cutting up potatoes for Sunday dinner while his father cut the chicken into pieces for the frying pan. They didn’t think the boy stood on the other side of the wall, clutching his tractor close to his chest.
“I don’t know if that side of me exists anymore,” his father said.
“You still have the violin in your bedroom, right? It still exists.”
“I haven’t touched it since…”
“So? Does that mean it doesn’t work anymore? Do you remember the first time you heard that music?”
“Yes,” he said, sighing. He agreed that it would be good for the boy to hear the sounds that used to make Mother smile.
“Plus,” the aunt said. “it’s important for the boy to experience more than wheat dancing in the wind every day.”
The boy didn’t want to go. He missed Mother greatly and did whatever he could to help on the farm like before, but he couldn’t understand why going to a city he’d never seen, in his Sunday clothes no less, would make him feel better. He would rather spend the night in the silent house, driving his toy tractor on the living room floor. He found comfort in playing while his father would read the evening paper. That was the ritual before Mother passed away and that was the ritual the boy wanted to hold onto.
The boy’s pouting abated when he noticed more and more cars zipping by their truck. What started as a few blurs flying in the other direction turned into a steady stream, each light beam blending into the next. He wanted to ask his father about the city but he was scared to break the silence.
Moments later, the truck crossed a bridge over a grassy valley the city folk labeled a river years before. The two took the first exit off the highway and into downtown. The city was huge in the boy’s eyes. He gazed at all the tall buildings they passed by, metal and concrete climbing higher than anything he had ever seen before. A glass cylinder laid on its side over the water, a strange sight he had never could have imagined.
“That’s the Myriad Gardens,” his father said.
“Oh,” the boy said, unsure of what “myriad” meant. But he did not have time to pay attention because they turned right and the boy had a new sight before him. People.
Everywhere he looked there were individuals, couples, and families walking about, chatting, running across the street, hailing taxis. The boy had never seen so many people in his life.
His father pulled the truck into a parking lot near the Music Center. When the boy climbed out of the truck, he felt the same urge to sprint as he did when running to the barber shop entrance, but his father told the boy the city was not a place where boys should run around alone in the evening. Taking his hand, the boy walked alongside his father to the music hall just as many other were doing that night.
The Music Center was nothing more than a large rectangular brick building on the outside. Pale yellow bricks climbed up the walls and a banner hung above the doors proclaiming “A Night with the National Symphony Orchestra.” But the boy had never been to a building so big.
The inside of the auditorium brought more wonders. They were on the second level with the seats climbing to the top of the section. The boy wandered over to the ledge and stared wide-eyed at the rows upon rows underneath him before he looked up, gasping at another level above him. Everywhere he looked, seats were filled with people of all sorts; men dressed in tuxedos accompanied by women in evening gowns and boys in shirts and ties. There were men in sports jackets and blazers and women in long dresses with shawls wrapped around their shoulders. And there were boys and men wearing blue jeans, mostly in the upper levels, looking everywhere but on the main floor where the tuxedoed men and gowned women mostly resided. His father led them to their seats to the right of the stage on the front row of their level. They had a perfect view of the stage and a glimpse of the side where most people couldn’t see anything. There a man stood waiting. His white hair slicked back and dressed like those on stage, he just stood there, gripping onto his violin, waiting for something to happen. At the time the boy had no idea why this man waited. The boy was confused until his father explained the man’s was to wait while everyone else on stage blew into their horns, trumpets, saxophones, flutes, and clarinets, strummed their bows across the strings of their cellos, basses, and violas, and tapped on their drums, xylophones, and chimes. His father said the man was a concert master who would wait until the conductor told him it was okay to walk on stage. He would signal the oboe to play a note, an A, and all the instruments would tune one more time. Then he would play his own A on the open string and all the stringed instruments would tune one more time.
As soon as the boy’s father finished explaining, the concert master walked on stage to the applause of the crowd. He took a short bow to the audience and then proceeded just as the boy’s father had stated, nodding to the musicians as, somewhere in the back, a note resonated throughout the auditorium. All the instruments started replicating the sound. Then the concert master played a single note to the strings, who all tuned their instruments to his A. As soon as the commotion died, the man took his seat at the front of the orchestra, next to an empty platform. The conductor then appeared on stage. He was tiny to the boy but his lanky frame towered over the musicians sitting as he walked past them. The conductor walked in wearing a dark black suit, a tuxedo his father would later explain. His grey disheveled hair bounced on his shoulders as he walked to the concert master and shook his hand before he turned to bow to the audience. The conductor flipped back around and stepped up to a stand with a wide book. He opened it, grabbed his baton, and snapped it high into the air. Just as an army battalion hearing orders from their leader, every musician came to attention, raising their violins and violas onto their shoulder, bows pressed against the strings, resting their mouths against the tips of the oboes, clarinets and flutes, inhaling deeply and waiting before blowing into their trumpets, trombones and French horns. Everyone was ready and at attention including the audience, who sat with bated breath at what was to come. The conductor then dropped his arms and the world forever changed for the boy.
It started as a whisper, barely audible, hinting that everything the boy witnessed beforehand was just a show, an explosive whisper instead of the loud bang he anticipated. He had to strain to hear each note coming from the stage. Gently, the music rose higher from the flutes, affirming all was well in its pleasant melody. The woodwinds and strings joined in, repeating the phrase, reassuring the boy. The orchestra’s quiet continued as the strings took the lead. Every note was slight and peaceful. Even when all the instruments joined in the phrase the song did nothing more than walk through the aisles of the auditorium and dance in the boy’s ears.
Then a crash!
The boy bolted upright in his seat. The trumpets screamed in anger as the violins and violas echoed the marching feet of a dictator. The cellos and trombones joined the trumpets in their declaration. The violinists’ fingers danced on their fingerboards, a flurry of action as the percussions drummed a war beat followed by a sharp decline to the dire. The music was drastic: the boy took in the despair from the woodwinds, fright from the strings, and anger from the brass instruments. Each note portended something dangerous as the boy listened, waiting for something to go wrong. The cacophony reached its climax with a thunderous applause followed by a silent, small sound of hope emanating from the back, but the boy didn’t know where. The music crawled back upwards, each note slightly louder than the previous. It wasn’t the peaceful sound of the beginning, but the mournful cries of a funeral. The strings returned singing for hope with the woodwinds arriving afterwards. The brass jumped in and transformed the sadness into delight. The percussion proclaimed victory, a conquest over whatever evil the boy confronted in the middle of the performance. The triumphant melodic phrase continued as the trumpets took the lead and every other instrument bowed down in their song. And just when all was right in the boy’s world, the symbols clanged one last time.
The conductor held his arms in the air, preventing the audience from applauding. He waited a few more moments, set the baton on the stand, nodded to his musicians – who rested their instruments – and allowed the audience to react. They roared and the boy leapt to his feet over the excitement of what he just witnessed. He turned to his father to see if he experienced the same thing and saw the old man looking at him with a bright smile and wet eyes.
The drive home was quiet. His father looked at the boy, smiling, which made the boy smile in return. That night was the first one since Mother passed that his father smiled longer than a moment. But the excitement of the night caught up him as he rested his head on the shoulder strap of his seat belt.
The boy slept when the truck pulled up to the farm house. He roused when his father stepped out, walked around, and opened the passenger door, but fell back asleep before he could say anything. He missed his father unbuckle him from his seat. He unconsciously wrapped his arms around his father’s neck as his father pulled him out of the truck and into in his arms. The boy didn’t remember how he made it up the stairs and into his bedroom, where a red and white football pennant adorned the far wall and a picture of his favorite baseball player hung just above the boy’s bed. He work the next morning, still wearing his clothes, minus the clip-on tie.
The next day, his father drove the boy to the music store not far from the barber shop.
“My son needs a violin that will fit his arms,” his father said. The shop owner walked into a room in the back. He returned with one that was half the size of the violins hanging on the wall behind the counter and handed the instrument to the boy.
“It’s a nice instrument,” the shop owner said. “$500.”
“Dammit, you know this violin ain’t worth $500. Hell, I bought mine for $500 over 20 years ago.”
“Yeah, but that was when your violin was worth $500. I’d probably sell it for a few thousand today.”
His father looked at the boy holding the violin in his small hands. He didn’t have a bow but he was still playing the music he heard the night before.
“I’ll give you $350 for it,” his father said. The boy looked up as the shop owner looked at his father’s face. The boy knew what the shop owner was looking at: the new wrinkles to his father’s eyes, the graying hair at the temple. The owner nodded and his father paid for his son’s new violin.
All the way home, the boy clutched the small case. He took each deliberate step up the stairs and into the home, placing his treasure on the couch. He flipped the latch up on each end of the black box, the wide end before the narrow. As he lifted the lid, his father knelt beside the boy, holding his own case. The boy did not notice his father had gone upstairs or returned with an older version of the case he just brought home.
His father dusted off his case with an old t-shirt torn to rags, set the cherry-finished laminate shell on the coffee table and unclasped the latches. His father opened the box revealing a chestnut-varnished instrument with a slight dull in its shine but the boy looked upon it with the same glow as he did during the concert. His father turned the knob holding the bow in place against the underbelly of the case’s lid. He pulled the bow out and tightened the screw at the bottom. With each rotation, the hundreds of hairs loosely hanging from the wood began to line up in a tight formation. After several turns, he sat the bow down and lifted the violin from its bed. Grabbing the neck, the man opened the hidden compartment underneath the neck’s resting spot and pulled out a small wooden box. The boy was mesmerized, not blinking once in fear of missing out on something important.
Inside the wooden box was a small chunk of amber. The rosin, looking almost like petrified sap, was once rectangular years ago, when his father first bought it. Through time the bow had worn the top down into a U shape, the sides thick against the wood while the bottom nearly gone. Holding the rosin in his left hand, his father picked up the bow with his right and began to stroke the hairs across the amber. He explained to the boy the importance of rosin to a violin, that it gave the instrument its voice. He slid the bow back and forth along the rosin’s crevice ten times before returning the bow to the table and the rosin back into its box.
With encouragement from his father, the boy mimicked his father. Though his case was smaller, and new, it still held a bow latched to the lid. The violin had its own bed, though the lining was velvet and purple. The boy lifted the instrument up and set it beside his father’s, the two instruments the same aside from size. The larger one was nearly as long as the footstool his father used when reading the paper in the chair while his own violin looked like a toy next to it. He looked into the case saw a compartment in the same place as the older case. Inside the compartment was nothing. The man presented his son with a box, a untarnished block of rosin attached to its own wood. He fished his pocket knife out of his jeans, flipped the blade open, and scratched the surface of the rosin. When he was content with the work, he grabbed his son’s bow and rosined the hairs, preparing the new violin’s voice.
His father helped the boy position the small violin on his shoulder, an equally-small shoulder rest clasping the edges of the violin. The boy laid his jaw on the black polished chinrest on the bottom right of the violin and grasped the bow like a club in his right hand. He then set the hairs on the strings of the instrument and pulled the bow across. A raspy noise protruded from the belly of the box, twisting the boy’s face in disgust while his father erupted in laughter. His father repositioned the boy’s hand on the bow, and guided his arm as the bow pressed more firmly on the strings. With his father’s guidance, the boy dragged his arm down slowly, eliciting a tiny note barely audible to anyone but the two. Slightly off key. The boy’s face lit up at his first note. His father picked up the violin from his son’s arms and set it back in its case.
He turned to his own instrument, leaving the shoulder rest alone and instead placed a cloth from the chin rest over to the bottom of the violin where the shoulder rest would sit. His father tightened the strings to his instrument, loosened years ago to prevent damage, and then tuned the strings with his ear. Pleased with the sound, his father set the bow along the A string, the second string to the right. He set the fingers of his left hand where he wanted them on the instrument and then began.
The song started off peacefully, a slight ring filling the room before the sound grew as the notes dropped down. A river of sound ensued as each note was lower than the previous before hitting bottom and then returning, step by step, to the original note. The sound didn’t grow, though. The urgency from the night before didn’t exist in each note his father played. Instead, the boy could hear the calm. Then music began in earnest. The song played out smoothly, from a quiet, nearly silent, walk through an uncharted musical forest. Each note accompanied the previous one perfectly, as if they were created especially for each other. His father paused before he repeated the original phrase only an octave higher. He danced his fingers across the board, from the top of the first string all the way to the bottom on the last. The finale dazzled the boy as his father then progressed each note, slightly higher than the one before, until he nearly reached the top of the fingerboard on the first string.
The violinist awakens from his dream to the sound of the first piece finishing. It was an unusual opening movement for any orchestra, but a choice the conductor insisted upon. The contrasting themes between the horns, violins, and bass against the oboe is too much for what the violinist wants this evening. He asked for a mellow evening with a soothing melody. Instead he faces a conflict of emotions right from the start. As the piece finishes and the audience awards the orchestra with their applause, the violinist opens his case. He turns the knob from the underbelly of the case’s lid and grabs his bow. Lifting the neck of the instrument out of its bed, the violinist opens the small door to pull out a wooden box. Inside the box is his rosin, the secret to making his instrument sing. He holds it in his left hand and moves the bow back and forth along the crevice created by his previous performances. The rosin is nearly gone now, the U more pronounced than ever before and nearly touching the wood. Ten strokes back and forth are all he puts on the hairs of his bow.
As he finishes with the bow, the orchestra begins another piece. The violinist is conflicted. He told the orchestra when they contracted him that the conductor should expand her musical horizons. But, they pressed on and he relented. After all, it is the song his father played for him as a boy. Now, the music stings as he hears the music play on the stage.
The violinist takes out his instrument from its bed, holding the chestnut-finished instrument from the neck. The wood’s polish is dull, worn from the years played by generations of masters. He inspects the strings, ensuring none will snap tonight, and takes out a cloth. Placing the cloth on the chinrest the violinist walks to the back away from the stage. He enters in a room where he cannot hear the violence of the song. He flips the switch to a small silver box; the silence is washed out with a single tone: a perfect A. He plays his open A string, hearing to see if the note is in tune. Playing with the string around the nut – the little notch at the top of the fingerboard of the violin – he finds his A and moves to the other strings. He finds each string slightly off key, not enough for the public to notice but blaringly ripe for the violinist. After an adjustment to each string, he turns off the box and stares at the clock ticking on the wall. It continues to countdown the seconds.
For years, he would walk on stage, playing to an audience who would eventually give him a standing ovation. His performances fostered reviews filled with words like “passionate,” “genius,” “spectacular,” and other synonyms of greatness. The violinist did not mind the words, the ovations, or the awards. However, none of them compared when he would return home and the violinist would continue what was started years ago with his father, that day the two discovered a way to reconnect. From that moment on, their conversation continued to be few in words but great in substance. Each night they practiced, each performance the boy begged for, his father’s music spoke loudly. As the violinist improved, the performances grew into duets. By the time his father gained in years beyond his ability to play, the boy carried the conversation fully.
Tonight, his performance would not be a part of that conversation. Not in this first performance since Father joined Mother. And while he will speak again tonight, the monologue will be flat and dull compared what he had with his father.
Inside the room, without the sounds from the stage or a person nearby to hear, the violinist speaks. He pulls the horsehair bow across the steel string, eliciting a sound that whispers to no one. The violinist repeats the performance for his father. Each note is deliberate in sound and a testament to the love of his craft. Just as before, the song ends with a progression of notes, from the bottom of the last string nearly to the top of the first. When the violinist finishes, silence engulfs the room, just as he wants. He sighs as he returns backstage where the musicians are mingling during intermission. The conductor greets him with a hearty handshake and idle chatter, waiting for the lights to flash its signal for the audience to return. When the lights flicker, the musicians return to their seat in the orchestra.
Backstage, the violinist wants to ignore the world beyond the curtain. They all want to see him play, hear the sound others have called “exquisite” and “among the best.” He just wants to be home, to talk to his parents. Each note from the musicians on stage soothes the violinist as he knows moments separate him from having to play for the people and minutes hold him back from walking out of the hall and into the streets, disappearing among the pedestrians clutching their coats as the snow falls on their caps and scarves. It doesn’t keep him from trying to stop time, though. If he could freeze those on stage, in the music house, in the city streets, he could leave now and go home, to find his father ready to have another conversation.
The conductor glances at the virtuoso, flashes a brief smile – a little more than a polite gesture but less than in awe of what’s to come. The violinist nods at the conductor, granting her the okay to start again. While the woman exits backstage to the rising applause from the audience, the violinist’s attention shifts back to the beginning when everything was still awe-inspiring. Knowing it will never be like that again, he sighs and makes his entrance on stage.