by Era Zistel
Illustration by Carolyn Skrzydlewski
The elderly man on the park bench came out of his reverie when two young people settled down at the other end of the bench-a boy and a girl, probably just out of school for the day. On the boy's lap rested a violin case.
"I know I'm ready now," the boy said to the girl. "But you have to know the right people, have a manager or a lot of money."
"Well, that let's you out," the girl said.
"So you think I should just give up?"
"No, but be sensible. Don't make it your whole life. Gee, Danny, you should be deciding what you're going to do when you get out of school."
"I have decided." The boy patted the case on his lap.
"Dan, that's crazy, and you know it. Be practical!"
The man sitting at the other end of the bench shook his head, thinking, Oh, little girl, little girl, you are so right-and so wrong! What would the world be like if we were all practical? There'd be no failures but no great achievements either."
Fingering the buttons on his jacket, he cleared his throat and said, "Excuse me." He pointed to the case. "You play the violin?"
The boy shrugged and nodded.
"You are perhaps giving a concert?"
"Heck, no. I just came from a lesson. Why, do you play?"
"Well, then maybe you can tell me what you think. When you've gone about as far as you can with a teacher, when he has nothing more to offer..."
"Dan, he's not interested," the girl protested.
"She means she's not," the boy said. "She doesn't much like music, except the kind you dance to."
"That's not so! I like that-what's that piece I like?"
"The Brahms 'Lullaby.'"
"Mm, I think that's real pretty."
The boy smiled, and the man chuckled.
"So, tell me about your teacher." The girl got to her feet. "I have to go. See you later, Danny."
The boy watched her depart and said, "She's really a nice kid. Helps me with my homework. Not that I'm dumb, but I don't keep my mind on it."
"And your teacher?" The man prompted.
"Oh, yes, well, when he's given you everything he's got to offer, keeping on with him might do more harm than good, don't you think?"
The man nodded, then shook his head. "But you need some guidance."
"Oh, I have. The best. Ever heard of Sablon?"
"Then you know he's the greatest."
"He's your teacher?"
"Gosh, no. My guide. I put on his records and play along with him, and you know, it's like one violin playing. That's how good I am."
"You play as well as Sablon? That I'd like to hear?"
"You would? All right, Mr.-what's your name?"
"Solomon," the man said, and repeated, "Solomon."
"Well, Mr. Solomon, I'll prove it. Let me play for you. You could come to my house. Would you? It's not far, just the other side of the park. Maybe tomorrow?
My God, the man thought, what have I done? Charlotte will be furious.
He told her as they were having dinner.
"Maurice, you didn't!" Charlotte cried. She sputtered so that he had to laugh. "You know how hard it was to find a place like this, where you wouldn't be recognized. You didn't let him know?"
"Of course not. I even remembered my name is Solomon."
"You're here for a rest. You know what would happen if they found out."
Yes, he needed a rest-from the crowds, the turmoil, even from the applause. He was tired of being singled out, begged for autographs, flattered, fussed over. Being just plain Mr. Solomon did feel good.
"But I should practice."
"We can't take a chance. Give that a rest too."
"But, I feel-incomplete."
Charlotte sighed. "I've never had to contend with another woman. That I could handle. No, I have to play second fiddle to a fiddle."
The boy was sitting on the park bench, waiting.
"Hi, Mr. Solomon!" he called. "Gee, thanks for coming. I was afraid you wouldn't."
How young he was. Maurice felt as foolish as Charlotte said he was. As they crossed the park, the boy chattered almost like a child.
"Good thing it's Saturday, because I didn't do any homework last night. I wanted to be sure I'd be good. I practiced and practiced. You know, I don't think I'd want to live with me. I must drive my mom crazy. But she never complains. There she is, waiting for us."
The woman standing in the doorway looked like the typical old-time mother, Maurice thought. Smiling, comfortable, a little dowdy.
Leading the way into the house she said, "Mr. Solomon, thank you so much for coming. It is kind of you to listen to Danny play."
"Yes, but first I want to show him my records," the boy said.
"Danny, where are your manners? I told you, there's nice cold lemonade in the kitchen."
"Oh, sure. Be back in a jiffy."
The mother led the way into a cool, dark room and went around pulling up window shades.
"Stays cooler when it's dark," she said. "There's Danny's collection. He's pretty proud of it. Most of it is pieces by that violinist, what's his name. I must say, Danny plays just as good. You'll hear."
"But there are so very many violinists," Maurice said, "some of them on street corners, playing for nickels and dimes. It is no way to make a living."
"But this man, what's his name, he must make plenty. Danny says-"
"Danny says what?" The boy came in, balancing a tray like a waiter. "Here, Mr. Solomon, nice cold lemonade."
"I was just telling Mr. Solomon," the mother said, "about how this violinist-"
"Sablon, Mom. Maurice Sablon-"
"Yes, about how he must make plenty of money-"
"Enough," the boy said, "so he could afford to quit."
Maurice choked a little on his lemonade. "Why do you say that?"
"Have you heard his last records? If you haven't, don't listen to them. I can't understand why he still keeps on. He must be about seventy."
Last. How ominous that sounded.
Sixty-six. Maurice felt a sudden, intense longing for Charlotte. "Darling, that's not old," she would say. "Not these days. The public still wants you. Look at your record sales."
"It can't be for money," the boy said. "He must have plenty." The boy shook his head. "He was so great, I guess finding fault with him now would be like‹well, tearing down a monument. Besides, lots of people don't even hear when he's off pitch. Maybe he doesn't even hear himself, anymore."
My God, why hadn't Charlotte told him? And why hadn't he told himself? Yes, he'd heard those sour notes. How many times while recording had he redone a passage, then finally let it go, telling himself nobody would notice?
"I have practically all his records," the boy was saying. "The early ones--the good ones. See? The "Kreutzer," the concertos, the sonatas. Here, the "Lark Ascending?--do you know that? Beautiful, beautiful, the way he plays it. And my prize, the "Chaconne," made at his peak, his very peak. I don't think he's recorded it since."
He'd been afraid to, had been sticking pretty much to showy, easier pieces.
"Let me play it for you. You'll hear how wonderful he was."
"No." It would be painful, recalling those days when he had been so sure, so vigorous, so...alive. "Remember, I came to hear you play."
The boy laughed. "You see?" I get to talking about Sablon, I forget everything else. You can tell he's my idol. Well, okay, then, here we go."
The violin was out of its case, lying on the table, the bow next to it. The boy picked them up, plucked the strings, snuggled the violin under his chin, raised the bow.
"Here we go," he said again, and all at once he was no longer a boy. With the raising of the bow, he took on the dignity and assurance of manhood.
Maurice opened his mouth as if in mute protest. Of all things, the "Air on the G. String," so deceptively simple, so devilishly difficult. That first long note, so hard to maintain, to increase-oh, but the boy was doing it well, as good as Sablon. In fact he was Sablon, with one slight difference.
The movement of Maurice's hand was small, but at once the boy stopped playing, looking defiant and worried at the same time. Hastily, Maurice waved reassuringly.
"Nothing. Nothing at all. Just the vibrato, a bit mechanical. It should have life too, should grow as the volume grows, but not too wide-here, let me show you."
Reaching for the violin, he plucked at the strings, and said, "You should have a better instrument," then drew the bow across to produce that first note, hardly audible, gradually increasing to introduce the grandeur of the melody.
And he was lost.
The well-remembered, long-forgotten double stop took him by surprise. Somewhere along the way he had slipped from the "Air on the G. String" into the "Chaconne." Now, after many years, here he was doing battle with it again, fierce, triumphant battle, the bow attacking with force, the old fingers responding to his commands, finding each challenging stop without slipping or searching. Ah, how good it felt to make those written notes come alive again in magnificent sound. This was a sustenance his soul needed. He was not Mr. Solomon, could not be Mr. Solomon. He was Sablon. In fervor he played on, until a finger slid, and the squawk made him shudder.
Well, no matter. This was only a rehearsal. He was...he was... Blinking, he took in the unfamiliar room, the strange furnishings, the boy sitting at the table, slumped over with his head on his arms.
"I'm sorry, I got carried away," he apologized, and the boy raised his head.
"Forgive me!" he cried. Then he said, "I should have known. But how could I? Those pictures of you on the albums, you don't look anything like that. You look-"
"As bad as that?" Maurice shrugged. "Yes, the change is so gradual, one tends not to notice. Or prefers not to. Those pictures were taken years ago. My manager insists on using them. I have no say. I just do the playing. Or-you are right-used to."
"No, please!" the boy protested. "I was wrong. The way you played just now-"
Very carefully, almost tenderly, Maurice put the violin on the table. "When a swan dies, just before the end, he sings a beautiful song. Maybe that was my swan song."
"No, you're not that old."
Maurice winced, then managed a smile. "Indeed, my body is still fairly serviceable. Let's say the song was for the departure of my soul, and that's a relief in a way. It was beginning to be a burden." He put his hand on the boy's shoulder. "You don't understand, do you? Never mind. You can't help being young any more than I can help being old. Now, there is work for you to do. You must come to my house and get acquainted with my Strad, to discover how good you can sound on a better instrument." He paused. "No, I forget. My violin is in New York. Well, I'll have to send for it. So, now you go tell that little friend of yours how wrong she was."
The manager was upset. Everyone was upset.
"Who is this Daniel Sherman? Nobody's heard of him."
"They will," Maurice said, "they will."
"And what kind of a name is that, anyway? Sherman? There are dozens of Shermans. Hundreds. Of Sablon there is only one. The Sablon. That's who they want to hear. People are asking their money back."
"I'll make it up."
"The house will be empty."
"Fill it with paper. Give tickets to students at the academy. Take people in from the street. You know how to do such things."
Yes, the manager did know how and contrived not only to fill the hall but even lure in some standees.
Maurice looked at the crowd with growing uneasiness. To avoid causing a stir, he and Charlotte had waited until the last minute, when the house lights were dimming, before entering their box. Now he feared he might have been unwise. He should have stayed backstage, along with the boy's mother, where he could take over in case anything went wrong. How could someone so young, a small-town boy not even used to meeting strangers, face such an audience as this? He might stand before it, frozen, or just fall apart.
He could tell Charlotte was nervous too by the way she kept fingering the clasp on her handbag. She looked at him and smiled, then murmured, as the hall darkened, "Hals und Bein bruch." An old tradition, an inverted way of wishing good luck, "Break your neck and a leg." She'd always said that before he went on.
A hush spread over the hall, followed by a polite fluttering of applause. Maurice's heart began to pound, harder than it had ever done before he himself had walked out. On the vast stage stood the boy, so small, so young, so vulnerable. As Maurice had taught him, he acknowledged the audience with a slight bow, then fitted the Stradivarius between chin and shoulder, adjusted it firmly, and raised the bow.
Maurice closed his eyes. He couldn't bear to watch-or to listen. He had begged Daniel not to do the "Chaconne." "Not so soon," he had said. "Wait until you are accustomed to performing. You'll be too nervous." But the boy would not be dissuaded.
The first notes sounded-strong, clean, without a hint of a tremolo. Double stop after double stop he attacked with assurance and an ease that seemed almost carefree. Oh, the boy was good, as good as Sablon had ever been, maybe, with that extraordinary dexterity, even a little better.
On his thigh Maurice moved the fingers of his left hand, playing note after note as the sounds came from the stage, and the muscles of his right arm tensed with each stroke of the bow. Charlotte reached over to cover his hand with hers; in the dim light tears were shining in her eyes.
"It's all right," he whispered to her. "My soul lives. It's down there."
With the playing of the final notes of the "Chaconne" came a moment of absolute silence followed by thunderous applause. The boy on the stage seemed not to hear. With the bow still raised, he stood as if frozen. Then, turning, he looked up. And slowly, like the rolling of an ocean wave, the audience rose, all heads turned to follow the boy's gaze, a sea of faces lifted in homage toward the box where the old man sat.
About the author: Since her writing career began in the 1940s, Ms. Zistel has published 13 books and written for such magazines as Reader's Digest, McCall's, Saturday Evening Post and Audubon.