July 2006

'The Inheritance'

July 16, 2006 18:13

I wrote this short story nine months ago when I was just getting to know my violin. No, it is not autobiographical (I'd hang myself if it were...), but it well describes, in my mind, the metamorphosis that occurs when a musical instrument enters a middle-aged adult's life for the first time. It was published last month in a publication/subscription service called Espresso Fiction, and a few people have mentioned to me that they'd like to see it here. So, thanks for humoring me and my long entry.

The Inheritance

Opal had inherited a Stradivarius. She was sure of it—the label inside the gouged, stained violin said so. When the violin had arrived, courtesy of her deceased Aunt Julia’s estate, Stan had regarded his wife with newfound respect. “A Stradivarius,” he’d breathed. “Do you know how much these are worth?”

Opal shook her head. Stan, his attention fixed on the violin, didn’t reply immediately. “Take it to the luthier next Monday,” he said finally. “The one in town.”

She hesitated. “What’s a luthier?”

Stan looked up and scowled at her. “A violin maker. Christ, Opal…”

“Well, excuse me. I’d never it called that, that’s all. I’ll take care of it on Monday.”

Stan nodded as he reached over and ran a finger down the violin. “A Stradivarius. I can’t believe it.”

The tenderness in his voice, the reverence on his face, gave Opal an unexpected pang. “I’ll just get dinner going then,” she said.

He didn’t look up. “Yes. You do that.”

The following Monday, Opal took the instrument to the violin shop, a little basement store, redolent of varnish and crowded with stringed instruments. The violin maker—or luthier, Opal reminded herself—appraised the violin, scratching notes on a pad of paper, turning the violin this way and that. Fifteen minutes later, he gave her the news. Made in Europe, yes, but the “Antonius Stradivarius, Cremonensis Faciebat Anno 1719” label affixed inside did not, to Opal’s dismay, mean it was a Stradivarius.

“Just a copy,” he told her. “This looks German, late 19th century, modeled in the style of a Stradivarius. There’s some excessive wear here—you’ll need a new bridge, new strings for starters—but it’s a worthy little fiddle, nonetheless.” He made a few more adjustments, tuned it, and handed it back to her.

By the time Opal returned home, Stan was already back from work, stretched out on the couch, reading the paper. He sat up expectantly when he saw her. His eyes were bright, his oxford button-down shirt as fresh and unwrinkled as when he’d left the house ten hours earlier. She marveled, as always, that time never seemed to touch him. With his thick, glossy hair and well-defined jaw, he looked the same as he had on their wedding day, twenty-five years earlier. “What a catch,” her friends had all whispered. Little did they know the catching had been the easiest part.

“So, how much?” he asked her when he saw her carrying the violin case. He stood and rubbed his hands together just like they did in cartoons. All that was missing were the dollar signs in his eyes, now lit up and fixed on her. She savored the moment of being important, of having information he was dying to learn. “Six figures?” he asked when she didn’t reply. She shook her head. “Damn. Eighty thousand? No?”

“It’s a copy. But not a bad one.” A note of defensiveness crept up.

“So, what, then? Fifty thousand? Twenty?” His voice grew more terse with each shake of her head. “Well then what, for heaven’s sake?”

“Two thousand.”

“Two thousand dollars?!” He stared at her, his expression now angry, accusing, as if she’d been part of a plot with Aunt Julia to trick him, to deny him of something due to him. “A lousy two thousand dollars—that was your big inheritance?”

A hard knot of anxiety worked its way up her back and into her shoulders. “I didn’t plan it this way, you know.”

He glared at her, his mouth working as if trying to form the best words. Then he drove his fist into the top cushion of the chintz sofa. He took a deep breath, straightened the pillow and walked over to the violin case, which she’d set on the adjacent Queen Anne chair. He gave the chair a swift kick that sent the violin in its case sliding down. It thumped on the oak floor, causing the violin inside to ring in protest.

“Stop it!” She swooped down to pick it up. “It’s not the violin’s fault.”

“Sorry,” he said over his shoulder as he walked away. “Not as if I’m damaging some fine antique though.” He shook his head as he leafed through the day’s mail on the side table. “Two thousand bucks,” he muttered a moment later. “Your Aunt Julia was always a flake. Figures she’d tell you she was leaving you an inheritance and instead give you a tired piece of junk.”

She ignored him and went into the kitchen to make dinner. Later that evening, she tried to play the violin, but the screeches produced were horrific. She could hear Stan snickering in the adjacent room. Deciding she didn’t need one more thing beating her down, she stuck the violin back in its case and left it a corner of the den.

A month later, she chanced upon the violin again while vacuuming the den. It had been one of those weeks where Stan and her aging mother had found fault with everything she did. She welcomed the opportunity to observe flaws in something besides herself. Sitting at the desk, she opened the case and studied its contents. The violin’s neck was tied down to the base to keep the violin from moving. It looked like a noose. She frowned and ripped the ties free. Her hand closed around the violin’s neck as she pulled it out, the other hand protectively scooping up its underside. It felt vulnerable, delicate. She rested the end on her ample belly and studied the honeyed wood and smooth varnished surface. Her fingers traced its shape, so like a female torso with its curves and swells, hips sloping out from a narrow waist. Which, in her case, hadn’t been narrow for years and years. Not since before the girls were born and here the two were now, off living their own lives, rarely bothering to call because, they argued, nothing new was ever going on in Opal’s life, so why call?

Her babies—her girls. Once they’d been coltish, sweet things, begging for stories and pony toys, looking up at her worshipfully. Now they’d grown into strangers—sleek, exotic ones who communicated by cocking their heads, first at her and then at each other, as if she’d just asked them to explain West African fetishism to her. They’d crossed over during their teens, and now stood on the other side with Stan, treating her not with contempt, but not with love. Instead, with sympathy, impatience. It hurt every time she opened her mouth to speak and she saw their eyes glaze over. Or the way they’d recoil before accepting her hug. “You’ve gotten all squishy, Mom,” they’d say gaily afterwards before sashaying into the living room to look for Stan. She’d stand in the kitchen, stirring gravy that didn’t need to be stirred, listening to their tinkling laughter mixing with Stan’s rich baritone. They weren’t hers anymore. How did she lose that which was supposed to be eternal?

It was getting late. She tucked the violin back in its case and continued her vacuuming. The next day, however, she returned for the violin and brought it into to the living room, to keep her company as she cleaned. She liked the way it sat there, quiet and elegant without judging her. She plumped the cushions and dusted the bookshelves, then brought the violin with her into the laundry room, setting it atop a basket of clean clothes. Afterwards, as she carried the basket upstairs, she found herself humming a tune. When she bent to pull the violin out, she heard a light echoing hum that surprised her. She realized it was coming from the violin. She hummed a different note—nothing. She hummed the earlier note and once again came the answering ring in the form of a sympathetic vibration. The violin was speaking to her.

She picked it up, tucking it under her chin the way the luthier had shown her, and hummed a lower note. To her delight, it hummed right back. She tested with other notes from the scales she remembered from her singing years. The violin replied on four of the notes, one note for each of its strings. The middle strings were the most responsive. She reached out tentatively and gave one an experimental pluck. Then she plucked the lowest string. The vibration resonated through the body of the violin and entered her own body. She could feel it against her shoulder and beyond. She lowered the violin and stared at it in wonder.

Opal had sung once upon a time. Beautifully, everyone told her. She’d performed solo at the local Christmas concert three years in a row as a young adult. She’d even considered a career in music performance, but her mother had talked her out of it. “That will never get you a good husband and a family,” she warned. She followed her mother’s advice and pursued a degree in child development. Then she met Stan and all professional aspirations flew out the window. Instead, she let the glamour of Stan sweep her along, which it did, for years. His successes, he always told her, were her successes as well. She, in turn, focused on her side of the pact—raise the two girls; provide Stan with a clean, pretty home, a place of refuge after the challenges of work. And everyone seemed happy.

But what was happy, really? Anesthetized better described how Opal felt. All these new baubles and acquisitions Stan brought home that seemed to fulfill him didn’t begin to pierce the wall of grey that had been accruing inside her. It had all been so gradual, she hadn’t even noticed how her spirit had been leached of color. The girls had sucked it out. Paying bills, running errands and managing a household had sucked it out. Placating Stan and trying to live up to his expectations had sucked it out. She’d told herself for years how fortunate she was, how her occasional despondency was a small price to pay for the security and luxury she lived in. She had nothing to complain about, as Stan often told her. Absolutely nothing.

Why, then, did it feel as if she couldn’t draw a full breath—that she hadn’t for years now? She thought about her young adult years, when life had glittered with opportunity and promise. Had that all simply been an illusion that defined youth? When she looked back on her life, it was like gazing down a two-lane Nevada highway, the kind where you could see for miles and miles, all littered with the detritus of her life. Choices made and opportunities ignored. All for her family, she’d told herself. Being selfless was a noble endeavor. But this was what being selfless had given her—a husband who looked through her; two beautiful girls who eyed her in unease as if the heaviness and washed-away looks that had afflicted their mother might be contagious. And no singing. No music at all in her heart.

Until this scratched little violin brought a flicker of it back.

The next day, she decided to try playing the violin with the bow again. The luthier had shown her how to first tighten it so the horsehair was taut, and then run the bow over the strings at a perpendicular angle. It made the expected horrible scratching sounds, but this time she didn’t give up. Studying her reflection in a mirror, she adjusted the angle of her elbow, the bend of her wrist. She lowering her shoulders a bit and tried to coax the sound out. Finally she hit the bow against the strings just right and the instrument sang out. The lowest string was rich and deep, the musical equivalent of a cup of hot chocolate. The highest string was like a child’s laughter—light, silvery and laced with something otherworldly that made her throat contract.

Three days she did this. Every day her spirit lifted.

Then, the following day, when she was changing out of her nightgown, she caught a glance of herself in the mirror. Instead of looking away like she usually did, she paused to examine her naked body. Heavy, yes. Sagging breasts, a pillowy stomach, hips bursting out. But a waist—still a bit of a waist. Like the violin. On impulse, she took the violin from its case and brought it over to the bed.

She lay down, set the violin on her belly and put her hands on either side of its little wooden hips. It felt so perfect, so smooth and beautiful. Then she put her hands on her own much bigger hips and realized with shock that they too were beautiful. Perfect, for their size. Something inside her seemed to unlock and realign to this startling new reality. Her body was beautiful. Not in spite of how it looked, but because of it. The flicker of warmth inside her grew stronger. She began to cry, then, little whimpers at first that made the violin list and tremble on her belly, then loud, wracking sobs that prompted her to lift the violin from her belly and lay it beside her on the bed, where it would be safe. But even there, it seemed to give off its own luminosity and warmth, a silent support that made the tears flow harder.

She lay there for some time, until the tears finally ran their course. She hiccupped a few times, and then, unfathomably, began to laugh. Chuckles at first, that developed into big belly-shaking howls of glee. She sat up and looked over at the violin. Clever Aunt Julia. Wickedly clever old woman. She’d seen a lot more than Opal had ever given her credit for. She’d given Opal something Stan wouldn’t be able to claim, or even understand.

Opal knew then that she’d call the violin shop and ask about teachers for struggling adult beginners. Stan and the girls would be baffled by her interest. They’d shake their heads, snort and whisper among themselves that Mom had really gone off the deep end this time. They’d make her feel bumbling and undignified. But it no longer mattered. This time she had the inheritance on her side.

"The Inheritance" first appeared in Espresso Fiction in June 2006.

© Terez Rose 2005

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