by Katherine L. Holmes
First published in Denver Syntax
Again, after Vivian put a paper roadblock before a cricket that she intended to convey to a coffee can, the creature leaped off the cabinet. It hurtled through the air in an arc to the floor where it would scuttle into the woodwork if she didn’t step on it. They didn’t fly. The height from which they threw themselves must be a colossal cliff to them. In the sunlight, the damask gold leaf of their wings intrigued her.
Vivian didn’t think then that they were roaches; they must be crickets or beetles. Unlike many of the people she worked with, she was not well-versed on the subject. While many of them spent their student years in New York or another metropolis, Vivian spent hers at Oberlin College, one of the few music conservatories situated in the countryside.
At Oberlin, Vivian sieved instruction from visiting musicians who were so prominent that she could listen to their recordings after they left. From her teachers there, she finagled passwords that become introductions to city conductors. And she made pilgrimages, paying homage to the sacred coattails of her instrument. At seeing the virtuoso Jean-Pierre Rampal’s metronome setting penciled on her music, she still became charmed, like a wind-up toy.
It was a piccolo sound of her own idea that Vivian worked for, conjured finally with her thin lips. One conductor, another password, said he had never before heard the tone Vivian rarified from piccolo wood.
It was fifteen minutes before she should even start out for her symphony audition. Vivian captured a cricket onto a slice of paper and deposited it into a coffee can. Little dilemmas, household banalities fortified her into performing as well as she rehearsed.
But this, after she had been bandying ethics among people who conquered chairs like thrones. She resented the mercenary attempts for a promotion in a too-recently, all-male field. Having become a vegetarian, Vivian wandered into these issues and self-righteousness. It was the last dinosaur that was the horror carnivore, she observed. It was the man on the cursed earth who killed to live. The other musicians, with their athletic need for nutrients, countered her challenge. She admitted that as a child, she hadn’t liked the taste of meat. She couldn’t recall recoiling from it for moral reasons.
But Vivian wanted to elevate the piccolo from its origins in the drum corps. She had tried to soften its timbre while avoiding the covert rivalry of female flute players. Sometimes, she could swear that if flutes were rifles and piccolos pistols, she would have been murdered by now. Vivian didn’t believe that an enthralling tone could be maintained by a heartless competitor. Survival should depend on music being foremost. If she had to duel for a position, she would choose perfection as her weapon.
Perfection over ego. That was her motto since she was a teenager. A small city orchestra conductor asks her to relieve an amateur, a PTA officer, of the first flute part in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The woman blubbers as if Vivian hit her on the playground. Appeasing her, Vivian bullies the conductor into transforming phrases of the flute part into piccolo passages. And Mendelssohn is still about to seize her piccolo and alter it to look like a bent baton.
She was glad to get going, the summer crickets unnerving her, glad to pack her portfolio of music and her flute, her piccolo too, in her tapestry carry-all.
The Midwestern symphony admitted flautists for try-outs with the same blasé graciousness that they admitted ticket holders to their concert hall.
Vivian’s ritual: sip and swallow oxygen that is exchanged with musicians who are comfortable on the craved-for stage. She sits in a corner on a couch in the personnel office, filling out an application on a clipboard. The room is full of flautists filling out applications on clipboards, most of them emitting the aura that there is only one flautist in the room. They are one round of many. But there is the defiant feeling that theirs is the only round.
Vivian flexes her knuckles; her handwriting is legible and flared, small and styled. A male flautist asks for another application. Vivian’s application will pass quickly before the selection committee. It states that she is an alternate piccolo and flute player with the city’s chamber orchestra. Their financial difficulties include people who are mostly cocktail conversations lately. Vivian’s last appearance with them was three months ago. Before that, an opera orchestra brought Vivian from the music conservatory to this city.
She and another woman, a substitute in the opera orchestra, assent to each other’s existence. Their nods are as rapidly waning as the ring of a tuning fork. Blousy and busty in sunset pink and crimson, the other woman causes Vivian to recall that the symphony conductor received accolades this past season for Rimski-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.” His gestures were grandiose as the woodwind parts became boisterous, then running.
Downplaying the piccolo personality expected of her, Vivian wears an aqueous hue with concert black.
She has made an “o” where she should have made an “e” on her application. Her carry-all unzipped, she fishes for an ink eraser. As she flicks the eraser’s rubbings, she sees an insect toddling to the couch’s armrest. When she swerves with the clipboard, it recklessly jumps as if to throw itself from a burning building. Vivian drops her eraser. No one watches her surveying the couch’s overpass. The other musicians would rather forget that she is sitting there, filling out an application on a clipboard.
“How did it go, Viv?”
The “Toreador Song” was still on Malcolm’s lips.
She was in the fury of Rimski-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” when the lion-haired trumpet player in the chamber orchestra sounded the bell at her apartment building. Since rehearsals of “Lieutenant Kije”, they have been seeing each other, in spurts like their orchestral parts. At times, the attitude is shirking, that of the lover who has made a pledge of dedication in another ceremony.
“I was sabotaged!” Vivian said and inhaled. “They ought to control some of those pushy people who show up for those auditions.”
“Start at the beginning, Viv. What did you play?” Malcolm smelled of liver and gin. He wore a tomato-orange T-shirt.
“The sabotage started in the warm-up room. She had feet like foot-long hotdogs. She snatched my music stand when I was unloading my carry-all. ‘You won’t mind, pour un moment?’ Slipping into French because she had just returned from Paris. She had to unscroll a manuscript across two stands. It had just been printed, a composition for Jean-Pierre Rampal.
“Her tone, Malcolm! How can gold-plated flutes be distributed to breathy players? The music was a showpiece and I asked her how to get a copy. She fluttered her eyes with her flutter tongue – great pause – said, ‘Tres limited edition. You’d have to kill for this music at this point.’ She lied to the publisher about a public performance in the States, fed them a few names, said that Rampal himself had sent her, and got a printed manuscript copy! As if her audition was a public performance!”
Malcolm was roaring with laughter. “So you twirled your many-colored cleaning scarves, pulled the piccolo from your sleeve, and sabotaged her with your magic tone. You could have congratulated her on her splendid sales work for the French music publisher. But now she should lend that music to someone of a stature that can gather an audience.”
“If she could find someone! That’s the sort of strategy she had for me,” Vivian retorted, observing Malcolm. “She said, ‘Hasn’t it dulled your ear, rehearsing piccolo parts?’ In a low languorous tone. Since flying in, she heard about the symphony conductor’s remarks about the piccolo – that he said it comes in like moments of titillation.”
“Or tintinnabulation. And she got you mad before you played. You really think you stave off stagefright by treating an audition as if it’s a rehearsal? What did you play?” Malcolm sat propped up like someone in the audition committee. He had been at Vivian’s audition for the chamber orchestra.
Vivian stood and said, “It was over an hour wait. I started with the fourth movement of the Prokofieff and then did the Griffes ‘Poem.’ They didn’t want to hear any Vivaldi on piccolo. And then the sabotage, the back-stab! I was sightreading when that woman’s flutter tongue sounded from the hall! My time got off, on a dotted eighth note. I don’t know how she got away with it. I thought they’d stop me and give me another chance. I can’t believe that they didn’t hear her or recognize the low vibrations as flute flutter tongue! The finger-snapping sultan, Armand, and his entourage.”
“You should have protested,” Malcolm said, limbering his neck muscles. “Why are you pushing that coffee can at me? Because you think I need coffee?”
Vivian showed Malcolm the cricket.
“God, it’s a cockroach. I just ate, Viv.” Malcolm frowned at the floor, letting a burlap flap of hair cover his eyes.
“I thought they were crickets. I’ve seen a dozen since yesterday,” Vivian explained.
“They didn’t sing at night, the 600 that are probably infested in here. They’ve got insecticides at the grocery store. Three hours and they’re gone.”
The cockroach is an ancient insect, Malcolm told her. For 400 million years, they have multiplied pruriently. It’s been called the Age of the Cockroaches when they were the only insects that left fossils. City cockroach, who made you to survive?
If you get up for a midnight snack, you’ll find out how many know they’re not supposed to be in your apartment. Walk on platform heels and carry an aerosol can.
Dim, sifting noises like drum brushes. Or leaves swishing outside the window. Nights after auditions, Vivian felt as if she had eaten jumping beans. A rabbit fled from the magic show, frantic and sniffing, no longer buoyed by a baton.
Time now for her own composition, a woodwind ensemble with piccolo. Vivian hadn’t decided whether to give the clarinet or the oboe a triad of notes where her music box sounds were broken chords.
The day I told you about the second flute playing the piccolo parts in rehearsal for “Pines of Rome”, you dropped a jar of jam. Didn’t you mop? Busy as a little Beethoven?
Your mouth tastes of liver, Malcolm. I just ate. The spinach, rice, and feta stir-up.
A sound like a tambourine.
If there was anything we were meant to have dominion over. No more lying down near them. I fought battalions.
How did you do it, Malcolm? Win and keep your position?
Malcolm’s pupils contrasted his irises like a cat’s. In his day clothes though, he could be pegged as a burly working man, called Mac by some. Not a symphony concert-goer.
Triumphant, his smile. Treacherous the way it wasn’t a smile so much as a challenge, a snarling.
You know, Viv, when in a movie fight scene, they keep throwing additional bad guys in the way of the victor, and he thrashes through them all? You don’t believe that happens. That’s what I’ve done, like you. I’ve beaten out the belcher that really could embarrass the orchestra. I’ve concocted cadenzas that turned many into mewlers. I’ve urged the pot-bellied musician with a pot-bellied contract to rehearse and rehearse until he’s breathing with difficulty. I’ve not been nice, Viv. My students don’t like me.
I don’t know you well, Malcolm.
I have had a few, Vivian.
You’re like so many, Malcolm. You’ve got that killer instinct.
Then I’m probably the last trumpeter you’ll want to go out with. On second thought, don’t get up in the middle of the night.
In the morning, Vivian tried to get hold of her landlord. To get hold of herself, she began her calisthenics, long tones on the flute. But then, notes on paper clambered before her, dark and many-limbed. She remembered then that a roach had slipped into the orchestra hall. She was appalled; her unknowing sabotage made her smile; the D above the staff that she was playing went sharp; she was appalled that her smile had a taint of revenge. Compunction pushed her to the telephone.
Vivian found herself talking to the personnel secretary, feeling refractory, looking at the floor. “This is Vivian Tribby. I have to tell you something about when I came in for the flute audition yesterday. You see, I’ve never had a problem like this before, in my apartment, and I had no idea...” Vivian told the woman what had escaped from her carry-all onto the premises. “I don’t know if it matters, but I thought I’d let you know. Maybe you should tell the custodian.”
“Is this some kind of sick joke?” came the rigid answer. “If you think I’m going to scream that word while I’ve got applicants here.”
“No, that’s not what I want at all. Do you know who this is?”
“One of the 325 flautists that have come through this office in the last two weeks. Or so you say. I’ll tell the custodian.” The woman hung up with a hush, the hush of one who has some understanding of intrigue. This might have been party conversation for Vivian; now she began to think about other cities and other auditions.
Malcolm’s perfected flourish. “How are things, my fife?” He was stopping by to see if Vivian wanted to watch the evening chamber orchestra concert.
A door opened in the hallway and the landlord appeared. He was a construction contractor, brusque and too substantial, in from his van full of tools. Dolefully, he had talked to Vivian about his daughter pursuing competitive ice skating.
“Vivian, one of the tenants is on a hospital night shift now. She doesn’t want to hear the piccolo before mid-afternoon,” he said.
Vivian was air to him, a matter of noise.
Malcolm looked around the landlord to a sheer hardwood floor. “Someone move out?” He swaggered in his tuxedo slacks. “An eviction?”
“As a matter of fact, that’s right.”
“What for?” he said in his easy counterpoint.
“Unpaid rent and rotten housekeeping.”
Vivian could then tell her landlord, without being blamed, that she had seen some small consequences of the rotten housekeeping.
“This is the first time I’ve had to deal with roaches here. You know, I usually work with new housing. Roaches don’t have much to do with clean rooms,” the landlord stressed. And dolefully said, “Let me know if you can’t control the situation. You’ll have to cooperate with fumigation.”
“How much notice do you have to give here?” Malcolm wondered, walking on.
“I wish I could float away,” Vivian said. “What flute players want to do at their very souls.”
While Vivian changed clothes, Malcolm sat on a straight-backed kitchen chair and began to do warm-ups with his trumpet.
“You’d think a clean trumpet sound would do it,” he yelled, although he had been evicted previously. “Roaches have ears.” And then he blasted the trumpet entrance that sounded like a signal above the roil of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” The volume of it probably penetrated several walls.
Malcolm broke off from his warm-ups. His voice was plaintive speaking. “Do you know when I went into the professional range and stayed there, Vivian?” His voice was nearing her bedroom. “It was when I was afraid of being drafted. I sweated at the horn from reveille time in the morning until way past taps at night. The bands in the armed forces are about as selective as they come. I wouldn’t be a soldier. I couldn’t carry a gun. I didn’t want to thrash through any enemy.”
Causes Katherine Holmes Supports
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