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Albert Trithart

Writing Contest home

Albert Trithart, Potsdam NY
The Writing Contest for Young and Adult Writers 2004
First Place: Short Fiction, age 12-20

The Violin

A cold and dreary rain beat down upon a man as he wove his way through an undulating sea of umbrellas. The soggy paper bag in his hand became even soggier as a bus pulled up through a puddle on the side of the street, sending out an arc of muddy water. A woman bumped into him and his paper bag broke open, releasing several tin cans of pork and beans, his day’s shopping, onto the darkened concrete. The woman, either because she didn’t know what she had done or didn’t care, kept walking, leaving the man to stoop down and gather the groceries into his arms. The hood of his drab brown coat blew back and the rain flowed freely down his mahogany face and into his golden-brown eyes. A stream of water ran over his obtrusive upper lip and collected in the thin crevasse of his closed mouth before trickling over his chin. The man’s skin was worn with age, though he no longer bothered to keep track of how old he was. Was this his birthday? It could have been. He thought he remembered it being this month.

The man recognized the front of his apartment building ahead but did not hurry to get to it. He had nothing to hurry for. A dinner by himself. He had always eaten by himself and this night would be no different. Even when he had lived with his family he had eaten alone. His mother had left when he was very young and his father never cooked. He and his three older brothers had always eaten by themselves. Now, for all he knew, his parents and brothers could be dead. He hadn’t seen or heard from them for 30 years.

The man opened the door to the apartment building. It reluctantly scraped the sidewalk and when he tugged it hurled itself against the wall in its typical unpredictable fashion. Inside, he wiped his squelching shoes on the once red carpet, now worn from one too many decades of such treatment. He heard the elevator grumbling into motion, unseen behind the musty yellow wall. He would not be riding the elevator. On the elevator there were sometimes people. He always used the stairs.

The lights on the first and third landings were dead and probably would never be fixed. The man could fix them himself if he wanted to. He was a janitor in a different building and knew how to do such things. He didn’t mind, however, and preferred darkness over the sickly glow of the stuttering bulbs.

His apartment was on the third floor. It had only three sparsely furnished rooms. The walls were the unpleasant color of a rotting orange and completely bare except for one window. This was the man’s favorite place in his apartment and he now sat in front of the glass with his can of cold pork and beans. The sound of rain softly pattering against the glass was comforting. He watched as two drops combined into a rivulet and gained speed with each additional drop they picked up. At the windowsill they all collected and spilled over onto the sidewalk below.

He took a bite of beans and shifted his gaze to the street. From here he was an observer. He sat, perched on a chair, watching people who could not see him. He felt less detached here than while actually in the street. He watched a woman being swept across the street in the deluge of pedestrians that always comes with the change of the crosswalk signal. She was buffeted around until she finally came to rest on the opposite side. Everybody here was always so hurried.

The man tossed the empty pork and beans can into the garbage and turned around in his chair, now staring at the apartment. He wondered what it would look like if he had a wife, maybe even a child. She would cook real meals for him and keep everything clean. She would stay up late at night to wait for him to come home from work. When he walked in the door she would smile and put her finger to her lips, quieting him because the baby was sleeping.

A siren went off outside and the man woke up to reality. He would never have a wife. He would never have a friend. Nobody would ever smile at him in a friendly gesture of recognition. He would never smile at anyone. He couldn’t remember the last time he had smiled. There was nothing to smile about.

He looked at a small digital clock resting on a table and the bars of light rearranged themselves to show one minute gone by. Soon he would have to leave for work.

The man walked over to his bed and reached under. He carefully slid out a violin case. He lifted it onto his bed as though it were a baby. He ran his hand over the rounded surface. In many places the black coating was worn away, revealing the rough brown surface underneath. He took a small bronze key out of his pocket, blackened by years of idle fingering, and undid the lock. He carefully undid the two buckles one by one and pushed back the top half of the case.

The man’s violin was his only friend. When he was 10 years old, he had found a small workable radio in a garbage can. Sometimes, when his brothers weren’t home, he would listen to the radio under the blankets of his bed before he went to sleep. One night, as he searched the stations, he came upon a beautiful sound. Its purity and magnificence fascinated him. Upon hearing that the notes had come from a violin, he was filled with an irresistible desire to create such music. His father scoffed at his dream. There was no money for a violin, and besides, it was a white man’s instrument. Black people didn’t play the violin. Not discouraged, the man decided to buy one himself. He worked in a run-down café after school for three years, saving every penny he earned until he had enough to afford the instrument. He still remembered the strange almost contemptuous look with which the man who had sold it to him.

He had taught himself how to play the violin, alone in the house while his father and brothers were gone. When he moved to the apartment where he now lived, he had brought it with him. Now, as he did every night, he took his bow from the case, rosined and tightened it, and brought the violin to his chin.

His first note was low and resonant. Slowly, he walked his fingers up the strings, holding out each note until his apartment was flooded with sound. He poured himself into the room, covering the bare walls with paintings and carpeting the floor with red velvet. For him this meant everything. It was what he lived for. Some people played a violin, saxophone, or guitar in the street to earn money from passersby, but for him simply playing the violin was payment enough.

The man’s melancholy song uplifted him and then drifted through the thin plaster wall into the next door apartment where a woman stood in mourning. She had never been in her mother’s apartment alone. Now she stood there in her gray checkered business suit and high-heeled shoes, tears rolling freely down her cheeks, leaving salt streaks on her light almond skin. Several strands of thick black hair fell into her face, but she ignored them. Shaking with sobs, she was gripped by the vision of her mother sitting in the sunken chair, telling her that she looked exactly like she had when she had been young. The woman sank into the chair, hoping that it would make her feel better sitting where her mother had only two days before. It didn’t. The chair was cold and made her skin prickle with tiny bumps. She wrapped her arms around her chest in a gesture of self sympathy, trying to warm her heart.

Then she heard the music. She had heard it before while visiting her mother after work. She remembered thinking how strange it was to hear such a lovely sound in such a decrepit neighborhood, but she had never thought much of it. Now, sitting there in the wake of sorrow, she understood what the music was saying. She understood the loneliness behind it, felt the comforting effect it had. It uplifted her and brought back memories.

The woman had played violin since she was eight years old. In her small town high school she had been one of the best violinists. However, her first day in college had smashed every dream she had had of becoming a professional. Dwarfed by the superior abilities of the other students and intimidated by the expected daily hours of practice, she decided to become an accountant. She hated numbers. She hated accounting. However, with no other way out, it had been her only choice. She never played her violin again.

A thought came to the woman. She remembered her discouragement and tears after college. She remembered bringing her violin home with her during the first vacation. She remembered purposefully forgetting it there and never mentioning it again. Could her mother still have it? She wouldn’t have sold it and certainly wouldn’t have thrown it away.

The woman got to her feet. The mysterious ongoing music and the thought of seeing her violin again added an excited anticipation to her step and lightened her sorrow. After searching through every closet, she finally found it in the place she least expected. It was lying in her mother’s chest, alongside all of the other things she had brought with her from India so many years ago. The woman then realized that she had not only broken her dreams, but those of her mother. The case was dusty and she removed it carefully, expecting it to fall apart at any second. Instead of carrying it by the handle, she held it in her arms as she walked back to her mother’s chair.

Inside its black velvet case the violin looked exactly the same as when she had last seen it, years before. How could she have changed so much when it was only slightly out of tune. Then something caught her eye. It was a bundle of papers held together by a rubber band. Each one was a receipt from a different year. Receipts from a violin shop, each one for a violin tune up. Her mother had kept her violin in constant repair, always hoping she would return for it, keeping it ready.

Now even more eager to get started, she instinctively braced the violin against her legs and turned the tuning pegs. Soon she had the violin under her chin and ready to play.

Without looking at sheet music, the woman wasn’t sure what to do. On the other side of the wall, the man played the same low note on which he had started. There was silence. The woman, hoping the mysterious musician wouldn’t leave, answered with the same note. At first it was unsure, but soon her clear sound matched his. The feel of the music flooding in her ear and the bow gliding across the string was a feeling she had missed without even realizing it. The sound waves crossed the wall and entered the amazed ears of the man. He had been answered. Soon more notes followed the first and, after a moment of uncertainty, he lifted his violin and responded.

They continued like this for quite some time, talking to each other. The man played out his loneliness and the woman hers. She spoke of her childhood memories and the death of her father 10 years earlier. She told him about the stock failure that had forced her mother into this apartment. Every note spoke of her forgotten dream.

The man told her how he worked the night shift so he wouldn’t have to be around people. He told her why he hated pork and beans of his yearning for a companion he would never have.

And then they stopped. Both at the same time, they stopped. They had said everything, freed their hearts, calmed their minds. The woman had to return home for dinner and the man had to go to work. He was already late, but he did not care. Yes, he would walk differently. Perhaps there would be more confidence in his step, but he would not walk faster. He was in no hurry.

The man and woman both stepped into the hall at the same time. The woman’s thin lips curled slightly upward in a smile, recognizing his presence, and he nodded in turn, ever so slightly.

They both walked to the elevator and waited in silence for its sliding doors to open. Inside, it was illuminated by a steady glow. The floor sank out from under them and the man steadied himself by grabbing at the wall. The woman smiled again and brushed a strand of hair out of her eyes. The elevator stopped and they stepped out.

It was nighttime. The streetlight danced in the puddles and the headlights of oncoming traffic were reflected in the windshield of a parked car. The pleasant smell of rain was mingled with that of car exhaust and laundry detergent. The man breathed deeply and enjoyed the smell and, though normally she would not, the woman did too. Then the man turned to the left and the woman turned to the right, and they walked in opposite directions to different destinations. The man glanced back over his shoulder and seeing the violin case in her hand, smiled and walked away into the lighted darkness.

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