Monday, April 4, 2011

Short Story:
The Page Turner

Rather than my normal Monday Musings, I am posting my latest short story, one I just turned in for a workshop I'm taking. It's probably a 10-15 min. read. If you'd prefer to read a PDF, please click here.

I am a page turner. A career not chosen, but adopted in desperation.

Someone recently told me that “page turner” sounded like a cheap glossy novel, the type of book, which I have never read, that one cannot put down. What I do is cheap – I am not paid much – but it is hardly glossy.

I turn pages for musicians, enabling them to play without the need to turn the sheet music. I do this mostly for pianists, although I have also done it for violinists, cellists, and, once, a very demanding classic guitarist.

I sit frozen near the musician, dressed in black, and at the appropriate moment, reach forward, and with a firm yet subtle movement, turn the page. Then I settle back and wait.

When I have done my job successfully, no one notices. I am professionally invisible.

I have consulted a number of references and I have not, hitherto, found an official position labeled “page turner.” It is likely I am the world’s only professional page turner: most page turners are aspiring musicians who need money to pay for training, or drugs and alcohol. They do this part-time.

I, however, am committed to this work full-time, although quite by accident. It was “thrust upon me,” as they say. Sequestered from normal existence from the age of six, I did not understand what things cost, as my father paid every expense during my interminable training. I lived at home, ate his food, and drove his car. I practiced in the studio Father had built in the basement. I breathed little air that originated outside my house or a conservatory.

When I discovered that I would never overcome the myriad blockages holding me back, when I had the meltdown that ended with me walking into the dark, leaving the fire behind, and watching my shadow elongate before me, I had to discover a way to make money.

Hence page turning. My acquaintance, Kenny, made me aware of it. Sigi, my girlfriend, was out for the evening, so I ended up at Kenny’s grubby apartment late on the evening I left home, having walked several miles into the city. The initial euphoric glow of breaking away had disappeared during this journey. By the time Kenny opened the door, I was in the throes of full body tremors, a combination of the enormity of what I had done, contemplation of the yawning maw of the unknown, and the fact that it was January and I had not worn a jacket.

Although I was unable to offer an explanation, or indeed express any coherent thoughts, Kenny did his best – unsuccessfully – to calm me down. Finally he gave up, went to a closet, and pulled down a metal box. “Dude, you need to chill.” He opened the box and pulled out a joint, an object I would not have recognized a year ago. “This is great shit. It’ll totally mellow you out.”

I had little exposure to stimulants in my cloistered existence, classically trained violinists not being noted for drug culture. If anyone ever had offered me drugs, I would have said no out of fear, and because it would negatively impact my playing. Having upended my entire existence in the course of a day, however, I was open to a new experience, particularly as I detected something like concern on Kenny’s face, in spite of the fact that at that stage in my metamorphisis I had difficulty picking up non-verbal clues.

So I tried the pot. It seared my lungs, but Kenny had several ingenious solutions to make it smoother, and soon as I was sitting in his kitchen feeling a sense of calm.

After a couple of days of getting stoned and crashing on Kenny’s disgusting floor, I turned to the vital question of money. Kenny was full of suggestions. Almost everything he mentioned, however, presented an insurmountable barrier. Waiting tables, for example, was not possible for someone who tended to stutter, and whose stutter increased exponentially with the number of people present. This also eliminated coffee shops and fast food, although even absent the stuttering, my sensitivity to certain smells would likely have made these positions untenable. Bicycle courier sounded interesting until I borrowed Kenny’s bike and attempted a ride through the chaos of Boston traffic. After five minutes, I found myself hyperventilating on a street corner, trembling so badly I could not even hold the bicycle upright.

“What do you know how to do?” Kenny finally asked.

“I play the violin.”

“I know that. But what else?”

“That’s it.”

“Well, play to your strengths. Have you ever turned pages?”

“No, why?”

“I saw an ad posted at the school for people to turn pages at one of the piano conservatories. Pay isn’t great but it’s better than starvation.”

And thus I became a page turner.

It is not easy to convey the nature of what I do. I believe Sigi understands (and even if she did not, she would support me), but most people I have met since leaving are non-musicians so page turning is a foreign concept to them.

One of Kenny’s friends referred to me as a “glorified ball-boy.” I had no idea what a ball-boy was, having never seen a tennis match, television being on the “forbidden distractions” list. The friend explained. “You understand the similarity, right?”

“Not really.”

He looked at me in the way many of Kenny’s friends did, a look I was beginning to understand as a mixture of incredulity, pity and exasperation. “You sit there doing nothing and trying to stay out of the way. Then you have to move very quickly to do one little thing. Then you go back to being invisible.”

"It's much more complicated than that." But how could I begin to give him a sense of the nature of this job? The subtleties, the pressures, the difference between success and failure?

I must have a very precise understanding of the structure of the music. It is not always a matter of simply turning pages forward: some pieces have repeated sections and I need to turn back to the right spot and then skip forward to the coda. It is precise work. One cannot turn to the incorrect page. If one does, one will not last long, particularly as musicians are a quirky bunch, prone to personality issues and fits.

A certain pianist of some renown, for example, once fired a page turner because his nose whistled. The ex-page turner told me this in a state of disbelief in the alleyway behind the concert hall. I put my ear next to this fellow’s face and told him to breathe. I could not hear the slightest sound. But then this same musician, according to reliable rumors, fired another page turner because his whiskers made too much noise rubbing against his shirt collar, even though he had shaved immediately prior to the concert.

Another had a more dramatic reaction after the page turner turned to the wrong page. The pianist did not react, completing the piece, and the standing to accept the applause afterward, Backstage, however, he walked rigidly up to the page turner, opened the score, and ripped out the offending pages. He then balled up each page, and threw them at the page turner: "This is page seven" throw "and this is page eight" throw "unlike this, which is page ten" throw.

With my rather withdrawn and sensitive nature, I never would have started turning pages if I had known about this type of aggressive behavior. Fortunately, I only heard these stories after I started. And I have never had to deal with a confrontation: I am very good at what I do.

I have to be. I am exceptionally well trained for the role. Shortly before my dramatic departure from home, I calculated (during one of my increasingly frequent bouts of insomnia, compounded by a headache that sat between my ears exactly in the place where I heard my own playing) that I’d spent a minimum of 98,000 hours studying violin. The fingers of my left hand are exquisitely calloused – so much so that when I drum my fingers on a table, it sounds like someone is tapping a small hammer on the surface.

I have also experienced the pressures that these musicians face. To have to perform perfectly before thousands of eyes and ears. While the vast majority of these listeners cannot distinguish the world’s best violinist from the man I hear on the Red Line, there is a small minority with ultra-sensitive ears. They hear the most subtle variations. One can play beautifully, movingly, with exquisite technique, and yet these experts will notice a single microsecond’s difference in pace, or a note that is only a millihertz out of pitch.

That is pressure, my friends. And not everyone can rise to the occasion. And even those that do can have a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder that causes them to be imperious, snobby, or just plain rude.

Then there are those of us who are not able to rise to the occasion. Not for lack of trying.

I will never forget my first performance. I was only seven and my father had pressed the music teacher at my school to allow me to play during the holiday assembly. He had in mind that I would perform to honor the first anniversary of my mother’s death. How could the music teacher say no to that, even if she did have some serious concerns, even then, about my emotional state?

I learned quickly that Father had choreographed the whole performance. This would be his lifelong habit. Some people knit, collect stamps or do woodworking. Father dreams on a sweeping and dramatic scale, envisioning life as a series of intricately arranged set pieces.

He purchased a grey suit, including a vest and a pocket watch chain. He arranged to have a large picture of my mother blown up and placed on an easel on the stage. I was to play to my mother as it were. He chose the most moving piece of which he could think, Bach’s Violin Sonata in C Major, even though it was well beyond my abilities.

“I can’t play it, Father,” I said.

“You will learn, Daniel,” he replied. And learn I did, practicing into the early hours, until my fingers were as crooked as an old man’s. I would regularly fall asleep on my desk at school.

It was then I first experienced symptoms of the problems that would eventually destroy my father’s hopes. The initial clue was the stuttering. It was minor, a slight catch of my tongue on my teeth when I first started speaking. The teacher spoke to my father about it, but he chalked it up to fatigue, a not unreasonable conclusion.

Then I realized I had not gone to the bathroom in a number of days, although I had also not eaten much. Even so, I started to feel cramps I now recognize as the signs of constipation.

I am still surprised the stress manifested itself as a blockage. I would have expected it to loosen my system. It seems, however, that this is when I began to shut down. Every opening in my mind and body closed, opening only for music, or for instructions from Father.

**********

It was Mother who initially encouraged me. I had listened to her play violin since before I can remember. (In one of his rare reflections on my childhood, my father noted that if I were fussy as a baby, it just took a few notes on Mother’s violin to settle me down.) I would sit on the floor in front of her, and lose track of time.

One day she showed me how to produce sound on the instrument. I was only four or five, and the violin was huge in my hands. But I remember the pleasure of sitting on Mother’s lap and feeling her hands over mine as she demonstrated how to finger the strings and hold the bow. I started with a raw, scraping sound, but progressed quickly to a fine, if thin, pitch.

Would Mother have wanted me to plunge so thoroughly into playing I would lose all sense of reality? Would she have expected me to sacrifice my childhood and adolescence to this dream? I do not believe so. While she started me down this road, she did so because I wanted to. The music pleased me, and created a sense of calm and focus.

No, the dream of international fame was Father’s. I was simply his instrument. I would become very good to honor his interpretation of my mother’s wishes. My playing would be his memorial to her, a monument to perseverance, passion, and loss.

Even now, I am not angry with Father for this obsession. I cannot imagine how he felt finding her unconscious in a pool of blood on the kitchen floor. She had had a miscarriage, which in itself should not have threatened her life. Unfortunately she also had a physical response to the sight of blood that caused her to faint. Her head struck the edge of the kitchen counter with enough force to cause a brain hemorrhage.

Thus I became the repository for all his love and dreams. Unfortunately, he chose a weak vessel into which to pour this bounty.

**********

My father believes Sigi is to blame, that is it “hormonal.” He tells me this in the letters that arrive with increasing frequency, prompted by a single letter I wrote to him at the suggestion of my therapist. (While she has never said so, I believe the therapist now sees this action as a mistake: she did not realize what it would unleash on Father’s end.) He still sees it as a breakdown on my part, and not a break from him. He feels that if I had not fallen under Sigi’s spell, I would still be his obedient son, practicing diligently, subsuming my own needs. He dismisses any notion that he pushed too hard, that by not allowing me to develop at my own pace he exacerbated underlying tendencies.

If he thinks my hormones only came to life when I met Sigi, he has completely forgotten what it is like to be a teenage boy. I had to play with my legs crossed any time girls were present. Teachers would castigate me for the sudden deterioration in my performance, but I could not very well explain that it was impossible to concentrate when I was conscious only of the throbbing in my penis, the sticky moistness at the tip, and the fact that in spite of the shame and inward cringing embarrassment, I still could not stop imagining these girls naked.

No, Father: my hormones were released long before I met Sigi. They just never made it any further than my underwear as I would invariably ejaculate without any manual stimulation.

I should note here that I am rather slight of build. Although my mother’s family is of average height, and my father is actually slightly tall at 5’11”, their chromosomes cancelled each other out, and I ended up a 5’5” shrimp, with the sunken chest of an adolescent, even at 26.

I am not now, nor was I ever, a boy or man that girls or women would notice, except to pity.

So imagine my surprise when Sigi approached me. I walked out of the conservatory just as she passed by, canvas Army surplus bag over her shoulder and a cuticle in her mouth. I glanced at her, then quickly down at the sidewalk as I had trained myself to do around women.

As I walked away, she called after me: "Hey, are you a musician?"

Surely she could not be speaking to me? But I looked back and saw an expectant look emerge from the dark eyeliner and many piercings. I felt the normal full body clench, the one that starts in my buttocks, spreads to my extremities, and finally lodges in my mouth where it traps my tongue.

“Y-y-yes, I-I am” I managed to say.

She walked closer and I realized I was looking up at her. She was at least three or four inches taller. “What do you play?”

“V…v…violin.” I did manage to spit the word out relatively quickly, a surprise given that “violin” normally could not escape my throat at all.

She nodded. “Cool. Are you good? You ever performed for anyone?” 

I had at this point performed 227 times in school assemblies, recitals, competitions, and auditions. I know this number only because my father kept a detailed account in a ledger book. He recorded the date and location of each performance, the piece or pieces played, scores given or awards won, and the size of the audience. He also rated each performance from 1-10. I never understood his system, although I now realize it bears more than a passing resemblance to the scores used for ice dancing. Like that system, it attempts to make science out of an art.

So the answer was fairly easy: “Y-y-yes…m-many times.”

I realized that she had a look of admiration on her face. I recognized this visage from observing judges at competitions. No matter how hard they tried to present inscrutable faces, they could not cover their reaction to an outstanding performance. It was the one facial expression to which I had become finely attuned.

Sigi asked me to join her for a cup of coffee, which I did mostly because upon hearing her invitation, my throat closed up and I could not say anything.

At the coffee shop, she talked endlessly about music and musicians, although I knew nothing about any of the groups she mentioned, rock and roll being banned at home. Although I did get some of my voice back and was at least able to respond with yes’s and no’s, she did not seem to mind carrying the conversation.

She wrote her name and phone number on a napkin and handed it to me, giving me a kiss on the cheek that still tingled several hours later as I lay awake tossing and turning, partly because I could not stop thinking about Sigi, and partly because I had had coffee for the first time in my life and the caffeine was doing the rumba in my bloodstream.

So Sigi became my girlfriend. It was a slow process. She had to make every move. She found this frustrating. After meeting a dozen times, we had not progressed beyond her nightly peck on the cheek, although at least I had become capable of carrying on a conversation.

One evening as we parted, she moved her lips toward me, but rather than going for my cheek, she aimed for my mouth. I was too shocked to react. My lips locked. My face froze.

Sigi looked confused, then a bit angry. “What’s wrong with you? Don’t you like me?” I could only stutter.

“I know you’re not gay ‘cause you get a boner every time we’re hanging out together.” Now I was both speechless and red-faced. “What’s the problem?”

When I still could not speak, she took me by the hands and pulled me over to a bench on the sidewalk. “Just breathe,” she said, continuing to hold my hands.

I looked into her eyes and as I tried to breathe more regularly, I felt my heart slow down. The prickly feeling left my skin. And then I began to speak, still stuttering but more articulately than ever. I do not remember all I said. But by the time I finished, out of breath as it seemed impossible to draw in enough air to get all the words out, Sigi knew I was 25 and had never kissed a girl. That I had no regular friends. That my mother had died suddenly. That my father took over and crafted this mission for me, for us, for him.

She studied my face for a few moments, then reached up and brushed her fingers lightly over my brow. “C’mon,” she said, standing up and taking my hand.

She took me back to her apartment, sat me on her couch, and insisted I have a large glass of some type of liquor that burned my throat and brought tears to my eyes. Then she said, “Wait here” and disappeared into the bedroom.

A minute later she appeared wearing a terrycloth robe. I could not tell if she had anything on underneath. She moved toward me, hands in the pockets of the robe, and then sat next to me. “I know you’ve never been with a girl. Have you ever seen one naked?”

I just shook my head. “I want show you,” she said, and began to undo the robe.

“Are y-y-you ju-just f-feeling s-s-sorry for m-me?” I blurted.

She looked annoyed. “Don’t piss me off. No one needs to feel sorry for you. You chose your own path. I just like you. That’s all.” Then she opened the robe, took my left hand, and began to trace her body with my calloused fingers.

**********

From this point, I began to question the trajectory of my life. For all intents and purposes, I had been a hermit. The world had changed during that time, but it made no difference to me: I never knew the real world in the first place.

My initial love for music had long since been swallowed by the relentless pursuit of Father’s goals. When I failed an audition, I did not think it was because I do not have enough talent, or because I have anxiety disorder: it was because I had not practiced enough, or I had been distracted.

But Sigi raised issues that had never crossed my mind. (So to that extent, Father is correct: Sigi is to blame, but only because she waved the smelling salts of real life under my nose.) Listening to me flagellate myself after an anxiety attack that resulted in another failed audition, she would look concerned and say, “Anxiety is normal. Everyone has it. You just have it worse, and playing in front of people is more pressure filled than almost anything. Have you thought about doing something else?”

No, I had not. What else was there?

Sigi did not stop there, however. She questioned Father’s choices. “Are you doing this for him or for you?” she asked me one evening.

“I’m doing this for my mother, actually.”

I had told Sigi about my mother’s death, how my father had fallen to pieces, listening to the same music every evening for weeks on end while we subsisted on takeout food and meals dropped off by sympathetic neighbors and relatives. How he sank lower and lower into his armchair and I began to think that if I turned the handle on its side, he would disappear into it.

Until he heard me play Mother’s violin one evening (I had continued to play even after Mother’s death, although Father was too distraught to remember my lessons, and I had not played when he could hear) and I suddenly found him standing before me with moist cheeks and a manic glow. He said nothing, but when I came home from school the next day, I discovered he had spent the day ripping the kitchen apart, pulling the counters and cabinets out, and tearing up the floor. Everything was tossed into a pile in the backyard and once darkness fell, he took me outside and we set it on fire.

The next day, he took me to my first lesson since Mother’s death, and told the teacher he wanted to increase my sessions to three times per week.

“Three times per week? That’s a lot for a six-year-old.”

“My son is going to play Carnegie Hall someday, and that requires practice.” Then a pause and for the first time I heard the words that would drive my existence for the next twenty years: “His mother, my dear wife, just passed away, and she would have wanted this.”

Sigi knew this story, and yet she did not buy it. “Did your mother ever say that? And even if she did, do you think she would have wanted you to be this unhappy?”

Ouch.

**********

Father knew something had changed when I began stuttering less. He thought I was finally overcoming the anxiety, that he had been proved correct (for he had long refused to believe I needed therapy or medication, believing I simply needed to deny its existence, to think positively).

Then I failed an audition with my worst performance ever. Not because of the issues that had derailed me on occasion in the past – fainting, trembling, sudden paralysis of random limbs – but because I was so much more relaxed than normal that my playing loosened. My tempo kept changing. My fingering was inconsistent.

Driving home afterward, my father’s hands clenched on the wheel, he demanded to know what had happened. “You played appallingly, son. I would rate that a zero.” He glanced at me with narrowed eyes. “What’s wrong? I know you have the talent. You certainly have worked hard, and I can’t imagine how we could have spent more on teachers and training.”

“I-I-I don’t know, F-f-father. I j-j-just get anxious.”

“You are so close, son. You just need to buckle down and focus. This anxiety you speak of is all in your head.” I do not think he grasped the irony of that statement.

“S-s-sigi says…”

“Sigi says? How long has this Sigi known you? Has she known you since you were brought into this world? Has she bathed you, fed you, paid for your lessons, your instruments? Does she know what it takes to produce a world-class concert violinist? Has she encouraged you, supported you, babied you?”

Father was on the verge of winning, as he had every time I had tried to talk to him since meeting Sigi. He won by default because I could not articulate myself. I gave in, although it took several starts to finally spit out the words “You’re right.”

**********

I met Sigi that evening. I did not tell Father I was seeing her. He had voiced concern about her before that afternoon’s tirade, although I had never referred to her as my girlfriend, partly because g and f sounds are among the most difficult, but mostly because I knew he would not approve. Over the years, I had heard him comment about classmates whose future careers were derailed, in Father’s view, once they started dating.

I am dancing around the subject. I need to put it into words, to admit that I lied to Father right from the start. Lied for the first time in my life. I may have been woefully na├»ve in many ways, but I did know my father. Lying was required. Not that it took any great effort. I had spent years disappearing into practice rooms, classes, and teachers’ homes. He saw me only in the mornings, and perhaps for a brief period in the evening. He had no way of knowing whether I was practicing, in lessons, or spending hours in the sticky sweetness of Sigi.

She knew I was upset as soon as she saw me, but I could not tell her why. I could not speak clearly and finally gave up in frustration. This prompted Sigi to start a game of 20 questions. “Is it me?” I shook my head. “Is it your dad?” I nodded. “I know how to get your mind off of that.” I thought she meant sex, something we did with what I eventually realized was spectacular frequency. (Remember: I had many years of repressed hormones bouncing around inside.) But instead she grabbed her shoulder bag, took me by the hand, and led me outside.

Fifteen minutes later, we arrived at a party. Seeing people mingling on the front porch, observing the crowd through the windows, and hearing the rumble of modern music, my body tensed and I began to shake. Unconsciously, I squeezed Sigi’s hand so tightly she grimaced. “Ouch.” She looked at me, and then stopped to face me.

“Look, Daniel, I know you get nervous around people. I understand. And you know I’d do anything to help you. I’d never push you to do something I thought was bad for you.” I nodded. “But you need to start facing this down. My friends are super cool. I’ve told them about you. They know you get anxious, but they don’t care. You don’t have to talk. Just hang out with me, and listen.” Then she kissed me and we walked into the party.

**********

It is not that I planned to spend the night at Sigi’s, or deliberately chose not to call Father. My memory is hazy, but I do recall staggering along, one arm around Sigi, while she tried to teach me to sing “Daydream Believer” by a band called, if I recall correctly, The Monkeys. At her place, I fell asleep immediately (although the song lodged in my head to the extent that I apparently sang “Cheer up, Sleepy Jean” several times after my eyes closed). Since I had just turned 26, Sigi assumed, fairly, that there was no need to let my father know I would not be home.

When I awoke to see the red numbers outlining 6:25 (very late for me as I would normally have been awake since 5:00 and, having completed my morning scales and other exercises, would be starting on the day’s focus piece), I immediately thought of my father. He would be awake, sitting at the kitchen table with his coffee and the newspaper, only he would not hear the usual sounds of me playing.

A wave of anxiety hit, so strong I almost choked. I jumped out of bed – and immediately crashed into the wall (it was not a large apartment) due to the combination of hangover, anxiety and dizziness. This woke Sigi up. “What’s wrong?”

“I-I-I have to g-g-get home.”

Sigi just stared at me. I could see various playing through her mind, but in the end, she just got out of bed and started to dress. “I’ll drive you home.”

“You d-d-don’t have a c-c-car.”

“I’ll borrow Frida’s.”

As we drew closer to home, the tingling and gurgling in my stomach began to spread, moving to my chest and then my arms. It felt like someone else was controlling my body, driving an irregular pulse through it, as if I were one of the complex speaker systems my father installed. It became almost impossible to give Sigi directions, words piling up in my throat like the cars backed up on the other side of the Turnpike. She eventually pulled a map book from the back seat and had me point at it.

By this method, we made it home. “Do you want me to come in?” Sigi asked. I shook my head. We kissed and then I emerged from the car to face the long walk up the driveway. The concrete felt spongy, my feet sticking to it like mud. When I finally reached the front door, I turned to see Sigi waiting. She waved, and then blew me a kiss and drove away.

I found Father in his usual position in the kitchen, sitting with his right leg over his left, his right elbow resting on the table as he read the newspaper. With deliberate motions, he turned his head, looked directly at me, then turned away, snapping to another page in the newspaper.

I wanted to apologize, but could not. Instead, I trudged downstairs to the studio and reluctantly pulled out my violin. I could not bring myself to play, however, and instead sat on the edge of the chair, feeling my soul spinning in time to my hungover brain.

I did not hear Father come downstairs. He just appeared. He stood, hands cupped together in front of him like someone in a singing lesson.

Finally he spoke: “Do you know what yesterday was?”

I shook my head, and he nodded, as if confirming his worst fears. “I didn’t think so.” Then, “It was the 20th anniversary of your mother’s death.” He stared directly at me. All I could do was silently mouth “Oh” and then lower my head, eyes glued to the carpet in shame.

“I had looked forward to hearing you play, even though you’ve disappointed me lately. I thought it would be a nice tribute to your mother to play some of her favorites. I’d even written out a tentative program.” Only my father would refer to a series of musical pieces intended for one person to play for another at home as a program. And that triggered a realization: he was no more of this world than I. In some way, I was more attached to reality.

He continued speaking, berating me in a perfectly flat tone. But I had floated away and barely noticed when he turned abruptly and left for work.

I do not know how long I sat in the studio. I looked at the walls, bare except for a selection of awards Father rotated every six months, and shelves with hundreds of scores, and thousands of pages of and about music. I pictured the basement where I had attended the party. Sigi’s friends had a band, and the basement was their rehearsal space, not drab and antiseptic like this room, but alive, strewn with cables, speakers and instruments, band posters drooping from the walls, empty bottles piled in corners, the air a potpourri of sweat, electrical overload, and stale beer.

Sigi had decorated her own room with art posters, magazine clippings, a piece of cloth from India. Color and light. My bedroom was empty except for a bed, desk, more music on shelves, a metal music stand in one corner, and my mother’s old violin.

I raised my eyes to the one narrow window at the edge of the ceiling. It allowed a slit of sunlight to enter each morning, angling for a brief hour down the wall and across the floor. It needed only bars to resemble a jail cell. The same view day after day for years. I looked at my arms. Alabaster skin, darkened only by sparse arm hairs. I was never out in the sun.

I stood, trembling with sudden nervous energy. I was not sure what to do, but I could not sit still any longer. Violin in hand, I marched up to my bedroom. I went to the window and pushed back the curtains, releasing a cloud of dust. Momentarily blinded by the sun, I squinted and stared into the backyard. I could see the spot where Father had burned the old kitchen years ago. He had never tried to reseed the area so it remained barren.

I set the violin on the bed, and turned to face the shelf of music. The trembling had increased, my whole body twitching, my fingertips pulsing. An urge took over. I grabbed several scores, and flung them to the floor, then I swept the remaining music from the shelf.

Rather than satisfying my anger, this action increased it. I opened the window and ripped out the screen. I grabbed a handful of music and threw it out. Another load followed, then I grabbed the shelf and knocked it over. It made a satisfying bang as it rattled off the wall and then the headboard. But this was followed by a horrible musical shriek. The shelf had landed on my violin, a priceless DiAmanti Father purchased when I was 12.

I gingerly approached the bed. I could see the remains of the violin, the neck cracked, a peg sheared off, and the top of the instrument stove in by one of the F-holes. Time stopped. I had to remind myself to breath again.

But the trembling was gone, and I felt strangely relaxed. I looked at the instrument again, and then I snickered. I tried to suppress this urge to laugh, but another snicker slipped out, this one turning into a snort as I tried to keep my mouth closed and instead diverted it through my nose. Within seconds, I was laughing maniacally and painfully, eventually collapsing on the floor in the corner.

When I finally controlled myself, I knew what I had to do. I gathered up the rest of the music and tossed it out the window. I went to the basement and began to haul loads of music into the backyard, using a wheelbarrow to move it all to the empty space at the back. I scoured the house for additional items. The pile grew higher as I added certificates and awards, photographs, records and CDs, and then, finally, the ledger book with Father’s detailed accounting of my performances.

But I was not finished. I went upstairs and retrieved the smashed violin. I looked at Mother’s violin in the corner, and felt the first moment of doubt as I grabbed this second instrument and headed back outside.

I doused the pile with gasoline, pulled up a lawnchair and waited in the weak winter mid-afternoon sun.

I heard Father pull into the driveway at 5:15. I stood with the box of matches in one hand, and a match in the other. The kitchen light came on, and I saw him briefly in the window. Then he moved to the sliding glass door in the dining room, which I had left open to draw his attention. He looked down at the open door, and then stepped forward to look outside. I wanted him to see me. To say “Son, what are doing out here in the cold?” But I realized that in the near darkness, he could not see me.

No point in waiting. I struck the match and dropped it on the pile. It ignited with a woof, flames shooting 12 feet in the air. I saw Father recoil in surprise, and then start across the deck and down the stairs. As he approached the fire, I picked up the DiAmanti, waited until he was 10 feet away, and threw it into the fire. As he cried “Daniel, my God what are you doing?”, the varnish began to peel and bubble. The strings caught on fire, burning along the length, and then releasing with a series of sharp twangs that could be heard above the roar of the flames.

I could see Father’s figure through the waves from the fire, swaying and splitting as he moved around the outside of the conflagration toward me. I picked up Mother’s violin and held it out. He stopped, and I backed away, still holding the instrument. I watched him frozen, becoming hazier and less distinct against the glow of the fire, until I reached the back gate. I opened it, let myself out, tucked the violin under my arm, and walked away.

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