Willows

(upcoming Fall 2017 in Opossum Press)

 

         His new violin teacher lived on a street lined by elms enclosed in iron bars, on the good side of town -- in a large gray manorial house sunk back from the road. Martin's mother eased the old Plymouth up to the curb in front of the house and just stared. He could tell she was hating her nurse's uniform and her cloddish shoes. He wished she would take off her hairnet and shake out her hair. She always looked pretty when she did that, as if she were shaking off her unhappiness.

         Next door, a dog bayed, as if in warning. In the front yard, a weeping willow swayed in the slight breeze, its leaves a golden green.

         "It's just like ours!" Martin said.

         "Yes, only bigger," said his mother absently. Their own willow was in the back yard of their pale turquoise house on the other side of town. Through the seasons, Martin watched the willow's progress out his window as he practiced the violin. In the spring, the willow grew green buds -- each the size of a child's knuckle -- and the vines hung like strings of beads. In the summer the vines became lost in the mass of finger-shaped leaves. At night, the leaves glowed phosphorus and dipped and danced in the moonlight at the slightest touch of wind. In the fall, the leaves turned yellow and brown and dropped off the vines, wilted and weary. They littered the tiny yard and the tiny yards of the next-door neighbors.

         The dog next door to the new teacher's house barked and barked. "Mr. Pelkey says she's kind of high-strung," his mother said as they opened the doors and got out of the Plymouth. "Rich girls tend to be -- like thoroughbreds, I suppose."

        

        The oriental maid who opened the door was a small woman with a plump round face. She greeted them with a tilt of her head and a smile, her eyes narrowing into thin diagonal slits. Perched atop her head was a white lace tiera that matched the white lace bow of her apron strings. She led them with a slightly arthritic gait down a short hall and into a large sitting room. “Miss Radke will be only one minute,” she said and bowed her head slightly and disappeared down the hall.

       Piano music wafted in from some distant part of the house.

        Mother and son sniffed the air experimentally as they waited. The room smelled of recently applied lemon polish. The floor was heavily carpeted, the walls lined with books in shelves that stretched from floor to ceiling, the wood a dark, rich mahogany. The back wall contained a brick Rumford fireplace, so clean, it was obviously never used. The mantle was cluttered with exotic knick-knacks: a black ivory elephant, a woman’s head with a colorful headdress carved in wood, a porcelain Buddha.

       They studied each item without touching them. “National Geographic,” his mother muttered into his ear.

        Above the mantle was a mahogany-framed oil painting filled with isosceles triangles of different sizes and colors.

        “Look,” Martin said. He backed up a couple steps and pointed up at the painting. “See? A man and a woman! They’re dancing!”

        “Hooray for them,” said his mother. She looked at her watch.

         The piano music had stopped.

 

         The first things Martin noticed about his new teacher were the glass bracelets around her wrists, her golden earrings, the string of white pearls against her dark turtleneck. Until recently he hadn’t noticed those kinds of things; his mother was always telling him how unobservant he was, how he lived his life like a brain in a jar on a shelf in his room. “Try not to be so morose,” she advised him but not very convincingly. However, June’s sparkles of light and gold entranced him from first sight. Her eyes were very blue, her hair was very dark.

         “I have some shopping to do. I’ll be back in 90 minutes,” his mother said to Martin. She turned to June, “I assume that will be alright?”

         “Oh just take your time, “June said. “Don’t you worry about Martin. I’ll keep him busy.”

 

         During the lesson, June said, "My boyfriend told me last night that my breasts are too small. I can't stop thinking about it."

         Martin's violin was tucked under his chin, his bow on the E string. "I'm sorry."

         She looked at him doubtfully. "What are you sorry about?" she said.

         "That he said that. That he would be so mean."

         She nodded. "I told Mother and she said 'Welcome to the real world.' I said, 'Then I don't want to be in the real world.' And she said, 'What choice do you have, Junie?' She calls me 'Junie,' which I hate. And I said, 'There are always choices.' And she said, 'What do you mean by that?' She knows what I mean but she pretends she doesn't. I'm always threatening to kill myself and it doesn't register with her anymore. Someday she'll come home from her bridge club and I'll be dead. I've thought about hanging myself from the upstairs railing. Right up there, above your head. But then I think that that would be too melodramatic. You're pressing your fingers down too hard. Lighten up. Boys shouldn't play the violin."

         Martin, violin to chin, bow on strings, stayed frozen.

         She went on: "How old are you? Twelve? Thirteen? You're small for your age. If you're not careful, you'll turn into a sissy. Those glasses don't help, either. You should be playing football, beating up other boys or something. Unless you're gay. Are you gay? I think Harmon's gay. I told him that. He didn't take it too well. That's when he brought up my boobs. He said ‘You should consider implants.’"

          He played a little exercise melody but it was hard to concentrate. He made three mistakes. One of them was really awful. She didn't say anything but the corner of her mouth curved downward. She smelled of apricots, fresh and sweet and clean. Afterwards, she said, "You need to practice more. Nathan Milstein played eight hours every day. He went through a bow a week. I read that somewhere."

          She played a CD of Nathan Milstein performing Bach solo sonatas. Then to kill time before Martin’s mother returned, she put two Bicycle decks together and they played canasta and listened to Milstein. June sat cross-legged on the green carpet and hummed along. She said she had nothing but contempt for the others: Heifetz, Stern, Perlman. She called them "showboats." She said, "You can hear Milstein's whole life story in his playing. You can tell he was an ugly child and knew he wouldn't ever be much handsomer. And he was right.” She showed him the picture on the CD cover: Milstein in glasses stared glumly out at Martin. “You can tell the violin was the only thing that mattered to him in the world. That and maybe a cat he was fond of, who liked him no matter what he looked like but he was mean to the cat and then felt bad about it and would play a sad piece on the violin to console his soul."

         "You mean the cat's soul?"

         She gave him a contemptuous look. "Cats don't have souls. People have souls, at least while they're alive. After you're dead, your soul's dead, too. Don't you know anything? Next week I'll have to show you third position. You're overdue."

         He couldn't concentrate on the card game and made some obvious blunders. She said, several times, "Boy, that was dumb," and chortled while she picked up the discard pile. Her silky black hair hung down to the floor as she did so, and the ends feathered the green carpet. She made four canastas, three clean and one dirty, by the time he melded. He didn't mind. He was wholly hers by then.

        

        “She seems sane enough,” said his mother on their way home.

         Martin slumped down in his seat and closed his eyes. He kept thinking about June’s mouth.

         His mother went on. “She wasn’t difficult was she? For what she charges, she could be the next Midori.”

          He said, “She’s alright.”

         “Not that a girl like that needs money. But I suppose that’s how the rich stay rich.”

 

           That night as usual mother and son lit two amber-colored candles at the dinner table. “For Caitlin and for your father,” his mother said quietly. They bowed their heads and were silent for more than a minute. His mind drifted in the silence, but he experienced none of the familiar sights and sounds: the screech of tires, the splintering of glass, the forest of blue and red blinking lights. Or the open graves in West Yarmouth -- dark scars on the smooth velvet green of the cemetery -- the coffins shiny violet and chrome mounted on sawhorses, the black earth piled beside each hole fresh and raw, the minister intoning, and his mother tightening her vise-grip on his hand until the pain made him bite his tongue until it bled.

           Instead he thought about kissing June’s red lips.

          When mother and son lifted their heads and opened their eyes, it was as if they had awoken from a deep sleep together. They looked at each other. Her eyes were moist. For one panicky moment he thought she’d read his mind. But she merely said: ”May they rest in peace.”

           At nine they met in her bedroom, as always, she in her flannel nightgown with the tiny faded-red roses, he in striped pajamas. She had brushed out her hair and it made her look younger, less severe. They slipped under the covers of the double bed. She put on her reading glasses and read aloud from her volume of French poetry, a verse from Paul Verlaine. Lately, she’d been practicing her long lost college French:

La lune blanche
Luit dans les bois ;
De chaque branche
Part une voix
Sous la ramée ...

Ô bien-aimée.

L’étang reflète,
Profond miroir,
La silhouette
Du saule noir
Où le vent pleure ...

Rêvons, c’est l’heure.

Un vaste et tendre
Apaisement
Semble descendre
Du firmament
Que l’astre irise ...

C’est l’heure exquise.

Un vaste et tendre
Apaisement
Semble descendre
Du firmament
Que l’astre irise ...

C’est l’heure exquise.

        

         She turned off the light when she was finished.

 

         Third position didn't go so well. He was nervous and kept glissing.

         "Don't guess where the note is," June said. "I hate it when you guess. You have to know where it is, like you know your multiplication tables. What's eight times seven?"

         "Fifty-six?"

         "See? You only know because you practiced them."

         "I'm sorry."

         "Don't apologize. It's so immature. I never apologize for anything. They want me to go to Hartt. Guess who's not going?"

         "You?"

         "I told them: it's Oberlin or nothing." June's brow was furrowed. She paced back and forth in front of the piano. She wore a plain pink, sleeveless dress and pulled at her fingers one at a time, over and over. "Who wants to go to some dumb Connecticut school? Besides, that's where Harmon is going, the creep. I broke up with him two weeks ago. But every day he calls up and apologizes and wants to get back together. I tell him to drop dead but he won't take the hint."

         Afterwards, she showed Martin her mother’s Diane Arbus photography book, with the twin girls, one happy and one sad, and the boy with cerebral palsy holding a hand grenade. "This is truth," she said solemnly. "This is the way things really are." She stood next to him with the book in hand and slowly turned the pages. He longed to touch her arm, to kiss her shoulder, a physical craving so powerful, he almost gave in to it.

         They played canasta again but she was mostly silent through it and he won, although the victory felt hollow and unearned. When his mother showed up, June didn't even bother to say goodbye.

 

         That summer he saw her every Tuesday afternoon at three. He learned third position, then fifth. He practiced many hours each day in the solitude of his room, with the sun beating hot through the window. Outside, the leaves of the weeping willow shimmered and winked on their long vines. When it rained, the vines were pushed around by the wind, and he thought of June's long dresses, how they moved as she swiveled and paced, swiveled and paced. He practiced and practiced until the light began to fade and his fingertips were numb and his mother had to yell in increasing exasperation for him to please, please come down to dinner.

         One night he dreamt of June and woke up before dawn and the sheets were damp. He thought in a panic that he might have wet the bed or he might be bleeding. His mother was already up, thank God, getting dressed in the bathroom. He gingerly folded back the covers but saw no blood.

         His mother came into the room with her hair up and her nurse’s uniform on. “You were restless last night,” she said. Then, “It’s perfectly natural, you know.”

         He couldn’t speak.

         “It’s a sign you’re growing up. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. I’m a nurse. I know about these things. Only,” and she gazed down at him with a smirking half-smile that seemed terribly knowing. “I am curious who inhabits your dreams these days, who might have inspired such an eruption. Was it some girl from school?”

         He didn’t answer. His throat was fully constricted.

         “That’s alright. You don’t have to tell me. Everyone has their little secrets.” She leaned down and kissed him on the cheek, then turned to go. “Just as long as it’s not your violin teacher. I’ve been worried about you two,” she said with her back to him, adjusting her hairnet. “I’ve been thinking that your recent obsession with the violin maybe isn’t so healthy either. It wouldn’t have anything to do with her now would it?  I needn’t remind you that she’s years older than you and very much out of your league. I wouldn’t want to see you hurt.” She turned back toward him. She was no longer smiling. “It isn’t her, is it Martin?”

         He stared at her for a moment before saying, “No, of course not.” 

        

         On the last Tuesday in August, June told him it was goodbye. She was off to Connecticut after all. "I'll never be famous. I'll study violin for three years then switch to music ed and Harmon and I will get married and that will be the end of my life."

         "But you can't do that! You'll hate it there!"

         She shrugged.

         "Will I ever see you again?"

         She gave him a piteous smile. "Of course not. You'll get a new teacher and forget all about me."

         "I could never forget you." His voice cracked at the end.

         She looked at him. "You're such a boy. That's what you think now but you'll see."

         After the lesson, they played canasta for a final time while on the stereo Milstein played Bach solo partitas. They sat on her carpet cross-legged. After she melded, she stared at him without saying anything. The silence grew heated, then threatened to go bust. She leaned over and grabbed the sides of his head and kissed him so hard their teeth clacked, and his glasses went askew.

         At that moment, his mother's car pulled up outside and June grabbed his chin between thumb and forefinger. She said in a hard whisper, "Don't ever write me. I won't even open the envelope, I'll just throw it away. And especially don't call me, ever. If I hear your voice, I'll hang up on you." Her eyes were fierce, her upper lip slightly curled. Then she relinquished his chin.

         In the car, he tasted blood in his mouth. His mother asked him why his face was so flushed but he was reluctant to answer, lest he swallow and lose the taste forever.