[by Kris Faatz]
Joseph knew his violin wouldn’t cover up the noise when the mail came at noon. Even so, at a quarter to twelve, he took the instrument out of the case because a hard knot had formed in the pit of his stomach and he didn’t know any other way to get through the daily torture. He tucked the violin under his chin, studied the dripping gray pines outside his apartment’s picture window and let his fingers trace arpeggios he hadn’t had to think about for years.
The notes he played mingled with the percussion of raindrops on the roof. He had stood on enough stages, looked out at enough featureless faces, to know how to keep himself together under pressure, but his hands still wanted to shake when he heard the downstairs lobby door open and shut. Keys rattled and metal mailbox doors clanged as the carrier dropped off his load. Joseph kept playing, coaxing out one arpeggio after another, thin high notes as fragile as spiderweb. Finally the violin could go no higher, and at the same time, the noises downstairs stopped and the lobby door shut again. Still, the rain on the roof measured long seconds before Joseph set the instrument in the open case on the sofa and went downstairs.
He shouldn’t hope for another reprieve. He ought to understand by now that Leah was gone, at least to him, and he wasn’t being fair to anyone—especially not her—to wish things were different. But every day for weeks, he had sorted through the handful of concert calendars, musician’s union newsletters, magazines, and bills that turned up in his mailbox, holding his breath all the while in case he found the one piece of mail he dreaded, buried in the pile. Every day, when he hadn’t found it, he’d been glad no one had been here to watch him almost run back up to his apartment, gulping his laughter down as he took the stairs two at a time.
Now he made himself fit the thin brass key into the mailbox’s lock. As soon as he opened the door, he saw it.
Only one piece of mail this time. A small but heavy-looking ivory envelope, alone and exposed, as if someone had known Joseph had to find it right away, without any chance of doubt or mistake.
Joseph looked at it. Strange. After all this time waiting, now that the thing had come, he didn’t feel sad or angry or anything else. Only hollow.
During Leah’s years as his student, Joseph had watched her handwriting change from a little girl’s loopy, floppy letters, with long-tailed y’s and g’s and circles instead of dots over the i’s, to a woman’s neat, controlled hand. He had watched her grow up, and she had been like no one else, and he couldn’t imagine anyone else knowing him as well as she had and finding the good in him anyway…but it did no good to think such things. He looked at the envelope now and read the printed letters that came out of the shadow inside the mailbox: …seph Vitale…m Street, Apt 3B….ester, New York. The stamp in the envelope’s corner had a picture of two bells on it.
A chilly draft whispered in under the building’s front door. Someone’s television down the hall blared briefly with canned laughter, and a dryer hummed farther away. Joseph listened to those things for a while, the only sounds of life in the building, before he finally he reached into the box and took out the envelope.
A round gold sticker, embossed with an iris, held the flap shut. Joseph remembered a poster, taped by its corners to a dingy white wall, lighting up a room with a display of purple petals and long green leaves. He shut the mailbox door, peeled the sticker off without tearing it, and took the card out of the envelope.
With joyful hearts, Leah Halverson and Evan North invite you to celebrate their wedding. Sunday June 12 2005, at three o’clock in the afternoon. The Queen Victoria Inn, 312 West Evering Street, Boston, Massachusetts.
The words were printed in dark green, in a simple but graceful typeface. No fussy curlicues or flourishes. Joseph might have expected that. Then he saw something else on the card: a tiny arrow in the bottom corner, drawn with a pencil. He turned the card over.
I hope you’re doing well. I’m sorry I haven’t been in touch for so long. The last few months have been really busy, and I have to admit, I wasn’t sure what to say to you. But I’ve missed you, and I hope you’ll come to the wedding. You still need to meet Evan. I’m sure you’ll like him. Please do come.
She signed it, Love, Leah. Joseph looked at the words, the handwriting he knew almost as well as his own. Then he slid the card back into the envelope and pressed the sticker down on the flap. The sound of the rain followed him back upstairs.
Leah had first come to Joseph’s apartment on a January night more than five years earlier. He hadn’t seen her for almost a year before that, after she graduated from high school. When she called him out of the blue, late on that frozen January evening, she told him she was at the bus stop in Fairport, ten miles outside Rochester. Her mother had thrown her out. She was sorry to bother Joseph, but she didn’t know what to do right now. When she tried to laugh, the hurt in the sound made Joseph’s throat go dry.
Now, five years later, Joseph came up the stairs with the ivory envelope. He tried not to think of the night when she had walked up these same stairs with him, but the memory pushed itself forward into the emptiness in his head. She had looked so pale, huddled in her bulky parka, gripping her violin case in one hand and dragging one small suitcase along behind her, with the handful of clothes in it that she’d been able to grab in a hurry. She had let Joseph carry the violin up the stairs but had insisted on hauling the suitcase herself. “It’s too heavy,” she had said, with the same shadow-laugh.
He had been glad, that night, that he had thought to turn on the living room lamp before he left for the bus stop. When he’d held the apartment door open for her, warm yellow light had welcomed her in. Now, this afternoon, when he came up to the apartment alone, only thin gray daylight met him. Joseph tossed the envelope on the kitchen table. It landed on a stack of old mail and he heard the pile topple and the envelopes slither over each other to bury the new one.
A performer had to hold together under pressure. Too soon, Joseph would have to go to work, wade through an afternoon and evening of teaching students who couldn’t know and had no reason to care about the hole that had opened up in him. For now, he took the violin out of the case and faced the trees again.
Every time Joseph arrived at the Rochester Conservatory of Music, he expected to hear his father’s violin. Giuseppe Vitale’s roan-colored instrument had wrapped melodies around Joseph’s childhood, singing, sobbing and wailing at all hours of the day and sometimes in the middle of the night. No other violin sounded like that, the same way no other violinist brought audiences to their feet the way Giuseppe had from the time when he, the Maestro, had been a ten-year-old child making his debut with the Milan Symphony. Joseph, certainly, did not have his father’s dashing ease, or his high cheekbones and wicked smile, or the moods that had whipped and swerved around like a weathercock in a hurricane but had somehow, for reasons Joseph had never been able to understand, only made the world love the Maestro more.
Once, during the time when Leah and Joseph had been together so much, she had told him she couldn’t imagine what it had been like for him to grow up in the Conservatory. To her, it had been a museum. She had always been afraid to touch the brocade curtains or sit on the antique Tudor chairs in the parlor, and she didn’t know how Joseph, as a little boy, could have had room to breathe and play in a place that had invisible “Do Not Touch” signs on everything. She’d told him that even after she had studied with him for years, she still used to tiptoe through the long dining room to get to his studio. She didn’t want her footsteps to rattle the silver tea service on the sideboard, or make the translucent china cups shiver and clatter against the polished wood.
For Joseph, the Conservatory had always been home. He knew what Leah meant, though: not because of the antiques and brocades, but because his father’s presence had always filled the Conservatory until anyone might wonder how other people found enough air to breathe. Even now, this afternoon, Joseph let himself in quietly, careful not to let the screen snap shut behind him as he shoved the heavy stiff-hinged door open. He still hadn’t learned, after all this time, not to brace himself for his father’s footsteps in the hall. No matter how carefully he came in, Giuseppe had always heard him.
“Well!” That voice had sounded as clear and sharp as Giuseppe’s shoes against the old floorboards. “Here you are. Don’t you think you’re running late?” Or, “How was your practice today? Have you cleaned up that Caprice yet?” Or, “You need to give another solo recital, you know. Your students need to see their teacher perform.”
Today, different steps came down the front stairs. Joseph hung up his trench coat on the rack by the door as his mother came into the foyer.
Clara Vitale had been stunning when she was young. As a child, Joseph had thought she belonged in a movie, where she could have worn a long white dress and sparkling slippers and flowers in her red-gold hair, and swept around a ballroom or swooned into the arms of a dark, mysterious man. He thought she ought to have done those things instead of dishing out his oatmeal before school, or boiling pasta for dinner, or running an iron over his father’s shirt collars. Now her hair had turned silver, her slim waist had thickened and her spine had curved just enough to pull her shoulders forward, but she had lost none of the beauty that had won the Maestro. She smiled at Joseph. “How are you today?”
“I’m fine. How are you?”
“Oh, the same. Can’t complain.” She lifted her chin to study him. “Jody. What’s the matter?”
No matter what x-ray vision she might have had during his childhood, Joseph told himself that she couldn’t peer through his skull now and see the envelope with the gold iris sticker. He couldn’t tell her about it. If he did, he wouldn’t make it through the afternoon.
Right here, in this foyer, she had put her arms around Leah and held her, that night when Joseph rescued the girl at the bus stop. During the cold, headlight-pierced drive to Rochester, Leah had told him her mother was done with her because Leah wanted to be a professional violinist. “I told her I wanted to audition for music schools this year. I’ve been working up a program. She’s the one who said I should take a year off after high school, but now she says I lived off her like a parasite. She says I’m jumping off a cliff and I won’t take any more of her money with me.” Joseph had taken her to his apartment to drop off her things and then brought her straight to the Conservatory, at ten o’clock at night. Clara had come down in her bathrobe and slippers, taken one look at Leah and come to her with her arms open. Joseph stood by and watched his mother’s hand smooth Leah’s hair. “It’s all right,” Clara had said. “We’re going to sort this out.”
“Jody.” His mother’s voice roused him now. “Something’s wrong. What is it?”
Joseph couldn’t tell her about Leah’s note saying she missed him and would he please come “celebrate” her marriage. He was being stupid. Leah had told him that herself, hadn’t she, the last time he’d seen her? I can’t believe you’re talking like this. You don’t even know him. And the worst thing: You sound just like my mother.
Joseph looked his mother in the eye. “Nothing’s wrong,” he said. “I’m fine.”
Wednesdays always felt long. Joseph opened the door for his fifth student and reminded himself never to put a string of beginners back to back again. He’d been teaching too long to make that mistake.
The fifth student, a pudgy blond nine-year-old, came in grinning, hefting his violin case like a bellboy hauling luggage. “Hey, Mr. Vitale.”
Joseph flinched as the boy dropped the violin case on the carpet. “Hello, David.” He managed a polite smile when the boy’s mother followed her son in. “Mrs. Long, how are you?”
“Fine, thanks.” Mrs. Long settled into Joseph’s extra chair. “Mr. Vitale, David needs to apologize, don’t you, David. We didn’t practice much this week.”
The boy’s grin disappeared. “That’s ‘cause you didn’t tell me to.”
“You know when you’re supposed to practice. It’s on your schedule after your homework.”
“But sometimes I forget. You have to remind me.”
Joseph sighed. “All right,” he said. “David, let’s see what you remember.”
He watched as the little boy maneuvered the violin around and finally got the right position, more or less, with the instrument under his chin and his other fist clamped around the bow. Leah had been about the same age when she started lessons. She had carried the violin as if it were made of glass and hardly ever opened her mouth, just looked up at Joseph with wide, shy eyes.
“Good,” Joseph told David. “Let me hear your scales.”
“I don’t like scales.”
Joseph ignored him. He turned the metronome on and set it on the music stand. The beats fell like drops of rain. Joseph listened with half his attention, looking out the window.
The weeping willow in the front yard had put out new yellow-green leaves. Today, of all days, he shouldn’t look at it and remember. He knew that, but he couldn’t stop himself.
A summer evening years ago, a fifteen-year-old girl standing under the same willow tree. The curtain of branches had screened her, but Joseph had known Leah’s height and profile, and more than that: he had known how the violin fit the curve of her arm like an extension of her body, how the strings sang for her in a way they didn’t for any other student. He had recognized the melody she played, Telemann’s B minor Fantasy for Solo Violin. The liquid notes had spun together with the falling willow branches, the fall of her hair, the light breeze and the sunset colors in the sky.
David’s violin screeched. Joseph pulled himself back to the lesson and corrected a fingering. “Try that again.”
Leah hadn’t meant to be heard, that evening under the willow, so when she came in later for her lesson, he didn’t tell her what he’d seen. Nor did he feel what he eventually would. After all, she was still just a girl, but that evening, something had changed.
“Hey, Mr. Vitale, I’m done with my scales.”
Joseph looked around. David was watching him, frozen with the violin under his chin. Joseph had finally taught him not to move once he got in position. Mrs. Long peered at Joseph too. “Mr. Vitale, is everything okay?”
I miss you. Please do come. How could she think it? “I’m fine,” he said. “David, let me hear your Minuet.”
The boy put the bow back on the strings. Joseph forced himself to focus on the up-and-down motion of the stubby fingers, the slewing back-and-forth of the bow.
Leah had left for New England Conservatory five years ago, at the end of August. On her last night in Rochester, she had packed up her sparsely-furnished apartment and invited Joseph over for dinner. When he got to her place, the studio he and Clara helped her find back in January, he saw two full cardboard boxes sitting by the door, along with her suitcase, an empty two-shelf bookcase, and a rolled-up poster. The poster was the Van Gogh “Irises” print Joseph had gotten for her at the art museum, to brighten up the bare little apartment. When he gave it to her, she had asked if she’d ever told him that irises were her favorite flower. She hadn’t, that he could remember. Somehow he had guessed it anyway.
She had set up her card table and folding chairs for one more meal. She couldn’t take them on the bus the next day, so she planned to leave them “free to good home” in the lobby. Joseph stood by the wall outside the galley kitchen, where one more box waited on the counter for the saucepan and single knife she’d kept out, and she talked to him over her shoulder as she bustled around the space that barely gave her room to turn. “I still can’t believe this is really happening,” she said. “I keep trying to think what it’ll be like, making music full-time.” Once, she stopped and faced him, a suspended-animation image of eagerness. “It’s incredible, isn’t it?”
He fixed a smile on his face, determined not to let her see the small sorry part of him that kept thinking how much he would miss her. During dinner, though, as they sat together over paper plates of chicken and rice, her spirits faded a little. “I wish things were different with Mom,” she said. “I wish she wasn’t ashamed of me.”
His answer came out before he thought. “I know what that’s like.”
Joseph carefully set his plastic fork on the edge of his plate. He had never talked about this. “You never met my father, of course.” Giuseppe had died before Leah began studying at the Conservatory. “He was a violinist too,” Joseph said, “but he was a real stage performer.” The kind of performer that Joseph himself, for all the time he had spent trying, had never managed to be. “Like Paganini,” he told Leah. “Do you know the stories about Paganini?”
She shook her head. “You never told me any.”
That should have made him smile. “Good point. Well, they say Paganini always wore white kid gloves to his concerts. Of course he couldn’t play with his gloves on, so he made an assistant come onstage with him at the beginning of every performance.” As he told the story, Leah put her fork down too. “He would sweep onstage, hand his violin to the assistant”—Joseph was no actor, but with her fascinated eyes on him, he couldn’t help tilting his head arrogantly, handing an invisible instrument to an invisible peon—“and then he would whip off his gloves and toss them into the audience.” He mimed this too, carefully flicking his wrist over the dinner table without jostling the water in their plastic cups. “The women would all swoon. He got a standing ovation and he didn’t even play a note.”
Leah burst out laughing. For one second, Joseph forgot about the bare walls and full cardboard boxes and the bus that would come for her tomorrow. For that one second, he felt young.
Then she said, “Your dad was like that?”
Joseph picked up his fork again, but didn’t touch the food. “My father wasn’t quite that bad, but he was a showman. An impresario. Everyone loved him. Meanwhile…” Dear God, he didn’t need to tell her this, but she was leaving tomorrow, so what did it matter? “Do you know what he said when I first started playing?”
She shook her head again. Joseph said, “He said, ‘Listen to that awful noise. You sound like a cat yowling.’”
She didn’t laugh. He would always remember that. “That’s terrible!”
Joseph shrugged. “Beginners never sound great. I was probably pretty bad.”
Her mouth set in a line. “He still shouldn’t have said it.”
Now Joseph smiled. “Well, it’s all over now.” It was, though; it was all over. He heard himself add, “Everyone thought I was going to be another great violinist like him. My grandmother used to call me il Maestro piccolo.” He tried to smile again. “Sparuto was more like it.”
“What does that mean?”
“Sparuto is…it means small, but in a bad way. Puny.”
“Why would you call yourself that?”
He remembered that same grave look on her little girl’s face. He felt old. “Well, I suppose if my father was the standard, I’ve never measured up.”
For a moment she studied him. Then she smiled and reached for his hand, and her warm fingers closed around his. “Yes,” she said. “You have.”
On the April evening five years later, when Joseph was through teaching, Clara came to his studio. “Would you like some dinner?” she asked. “I have lasagna in the freezer.”
For a second he considered it. He could stay here with her in the old house, sit across from her at the kitchen table the way he used to. Even without his father—maybe more so, after Joseph had gotten used to the new shape of things—this house felt like home.
The envelope was waiting, though, tugging on the back of his mind like an elastic band. Joseph latched his violin case. He wouldn’t let the invitation keep him out of his own apartment. “No, thanks,” he said. “I have some leftovers at home.”
Clara walked to the door with him. When he looked down at her to say goodnight, he remembered her eyes on the day his father died. Giuseppe had been hurrying down the front steps, on an afternoon like any other, when he had put his hand to his forehead and collapsed like a rag doll. Joseph could still hear his father’s body hitting each step on the long way down. Clara hadn’t cried as she knelt on the floor beside her husband, or on the strangely beautiful morning when they buried him, or even afterward when she and Joseph came back to the house and sat together in the silent kitchen. Her eyes had looked so vivid in her white face. “Of course,” she had said, “when I married him, I knew I would probably lose him one day. I was so much younger.” That was true. As a little girl, Clara Johnson had studied violin with Maestro Vitale. Joseph’s mother had lifted her chin in affirmation: “But I didn’t want anyone else.”
Now Joseph bent to kiss his mother’s cheek. “Good night, Mom.”
Outside, the rain had tapered off to a fine mist that hung in the air and made halos around the street lamps. The black pavement glimmered with water. Joseph turned the collar of his trench coat up against the chill and started down the empty street.
The last time he had seen Leah, back in the fall when the maple trees in the park had started to turn red and gold, Joseph had noticed the ring right away. The point of white light had glittered in the sun, harsh enough to sting his eyes.
He and Leah had walked through the park together in the smell of leaves, until they came to a low bank in the sun. Leah said, “Sit with me.”
When he did, easing down beside her onto the warm bright grass, she said, “I think you already know, but I wanted to tell you in person. Evan asked me to marry him. I said yes.”
Joseph knew he should have been ready. She had told him about Evan before, during phone calls and their few brief visits. He had listened as a friendship progressed into something deeper. He should have known this was coming. Why did he feel so cold?
Leah went on, “We’ll get married sometime next summer. Evan won’t be finished with his doctorate, but I’m teaching and he got a church organist job for the fall. We’ll stay in Boston for a while.”
Married next summer. She would be a June bride. Of course.
Joseph couldn’t think straight. Only a handful of words made it through the cold inside him. “What about your mother? Does she know?”
He saw the recoil in her face. “No. You know I haven’t talked to her since she threw me out. Why?”
He couldn’t stop himself. “She should know what you’re doing.”
“What do you mean?”
“You and Evan are very young.” Distantly, Joseph heard how calm he sounded. “He hasn’t finished school yet. Are you sure you can support yourselves?”
“Joseph, my God, I’ve been supporting myself for years.”
“Marriage is different. If he’s still in school, you’ll have to help him too. I don’t think he’s very responsible to marry before he’s independent.” He didn’t know what he was saying. The words came out of the cold before he could hear them in his head. “Are you sure he’s worth it?”
“Joseph! I can’t believe you. You don’t even know him. How can you judge him?”
He didn’t want to hurt her—he could never want that—but something else kept speaking through his mouth. “I only mean you don’t want to make a mistake. You are very young, too. A young person doesn’t always have good judgment.”
For a split-second he saw pain in her eyes. Then she jumped to her feet.
“I never thought you could be like this.” The diamond glared on her finger. “You sound just like my mother. I’m not listening to this anymore.”
She walked away and left him there. Joseph sat on the bank, unable to move, aware of the strange cutting beauty of the red maple leaves against the sky.
Tonight, Joseph got to his building through the misty dark. The apartment felt cold and damp, but when he found the wall switch, the flood of yellow light took the raw edge out of the air.
The mail filled the table. The pile of scattered, messy papers seemed to have gotten bigger since he left. Somewhere in there, though he couldn’t see it, the iris sticker glowed like a coal.
The last few months have been really busy, and I have to admit, I wasn’t sure what to say to you.
Joseph glanced at the clock. Nine-thirty. Not late enough to bother the neighbors. He unzipped the violin case, took the instrument out and ran the bow over the strings.
But I’ve missed you, and I hope you’ll come to the wedding.
The tune seemed to take shape by itself, moving his fingers over the strings, singing gently under the bow. It was the melody Leah had played under the willow tree: the Fantasy for solo violin.
Her last evening in Rochester, before she moved to Boston and started college, she had sat at her table with her hand on his. She had already told him she thought he did measure up to his father. Now she said, “You know, I’m so lucky you were my teacher. If I’d never met you, I don’t know what would’ve happened.”
He tried to make a joke, tried not to show how his fingers tingled at her touch. “Plenty of teachers aren’t as crazy as I am. You might have had one of the normal ones.”
She shook her head. “Nobody could have been as good as you.” She looked at him, shy, not a little girl anymore. “This might sound silly. I mean, you’ve known me since I was a kid, maybe I always seem like one to you. But…” Despite the heartbeat hammering in his ears, he saw how her blush lit up her face. “I really like you,” she said. “I mean, I…I care about you a lot.”
In his mind, purple iris petals glowed like stained glass. His hand moved gently, turning over to close around hers. “Thank you. I care about you too.”
Now, in the living room, Joseph played on. He remembered her shape under the tree and the lilt of her violin.
The night before she left for Boston, they had agreed she was young, just starting out in life. A lot might happen. He had told her he would never stand in the way of her happiness. Of course, right then, he couldn’t imagine her happiness being separate from his own.
I’ve missed you. Please do come.
Joseph played the melody through to the end. The last notes lingered in the air, drifting away.
He stood still until the sound disappeared. Then he set the violin in the case and went to the table. He had to rummage to find the envelope, but he took it out and held it, looking first at her handwriting on the front, then the gold iris on the back.
He picked up the phone in the kitchen. His fingers found the numbers automatically.
I’m calling because…
The ring sounded clear and cool. He listened, counting the heartbeats in his throat.
Because the violin fit the shape of her arm and sang for her under the willow branches. Because she had seen him for what he was and valued him anyway. Because he had held onto a dream for a long time, but now he had to let her go.
The receiver lifted with a click. “Hello?”
He took a deep breath and closed his eyes.
“Hi, Leah. It’s Joseph calling.”
Kris Faatz (rhymes with skates) is a pianist and teacher. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Kenyon Review Online, Potomac Review, Reed, Digging Through the Fat, and other journals, and was featured in Bookends Review’s Best of 2016 anthology and Peacock Journal’s 2017 print anthology. Her debut novel, To Love A Stranger, was a finalist for the 2016 Schaffner Press Music in Literature Award, and was published in May 2017 from Blue Moon Publishers (Toronto). She has been a contributor at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshops and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference.