Friday, June 29, 2007

Ginny's Song

HANK HAD BEEN HOME SIX weeks before he picked up his violin, and it was another ten days before he did anything but hold it. After three years, it felt comforting just to curl his fingers around it, like a child with a teddy bear. When he put the violin in his lap, he felt he could return to his boyhood, with Mr. Luckley scowling and saying, "Are you playing that instrument or strangling it? Start over, start over!"

Maybe that was why it took him so long to raise the instrument to his chin, why he spent nearly two months playing the war hero to the delight of his parents and little brothers while he felt like a hypocrite inside. He'd hurt his knee in boot camp and been declared unfit for combat, had been shuttled from one menial job to another, and eventually been shipped overseas as an aide. He'd survived bombings and the shrill fear of air raids, but that was hardly hero stuff in his opinion. His family begged to differ, so he humored them, smiling emptily and waiting to escape.

He took long walks around the neighborhood at dusk. His family had moved in June of '42, right after he'd graduated from high school and shortly before he'd joined the army, so he wasn't overly familiar with his surroundings. There was always the possibility that he might become lost, and every night when he arrived home, he felt a little disappointed.

The walks were only a physical escape, though. He knew that music would be a more satisfying one. So he plucked up the courage his family had been falsely heralding for weeks and tuned the violin, then picked up the bow. The instrument felt heavy, and he could hear Mr. Luckley again. "Gently, Henry. Don't squeeze it. Treat your violin as you would a woman. Would you squeeze a woman?"

He'd been thirteen then and could remember blushing and directing a fierce hatred toward his teacher for the rest of the lesson. Now, eight years later, he managed a shaky grin as he loosened his grip and began to play.

His playing sounded heavy and awkward, but he persisted, hoping his ineptness would shake off like a coat of rust and he would find the pure, sweet music of his memory. He could hardly expect to be good after all this time and he attempted to scold himself for not hunting down a secondhand violin while he was in the army, and keeping in practice. He knew, though, that he could never have played real music there; the fear and the tension wouldn't have allowed for it. Besides, it had felt almost good to deny himself, a reminder that he was fighting a war even if he wasn't on the battlefield.

Of course things were different now. He was home, and the violin became part of his nightly routine. After a few weeks the bow felt natural in his hand, and the music no longer jarred him. He dug out some battered sheet music and managed to play a Bach piece that made him feel eleven years old again with Mr. Luckley standing imposingly beside him. Night after night he worked his way through the sheet music, rarely hitting a sour note, picking up speed. Yet always the music lacked a soul, and whenever he tried to escape the confines of the black-and-white pages and delve into his own compositions, the notes fell and shattered like glass.

Hank could hear Mr. Luckley in his ear--"You're not feeling the music, Henry"--and he wholeheartedly agreed with the specter of his old teacher, but he couldn't recapture the joy that used to hug him every time he picked up his violin. He couldn't even say where he'd lost it, whether he'd forgotten it in the old house, or had buried it overseas, or whether it had run away when he came back to seize it.

So he went looking for it, taking the bus back to his hometown one Saturday. He stood in front of his former house, expecting to feel a rush of memories, but he felt only drained. He went up the path of the house next-door instead, the Cookes' house, and though he hadn't thought of Ginny Cooke in a while, he suddenly felt eager to see her, to hear her contagious, musical laughter.

He hadn't even made it up the steps when a dour woman with a baby and two squabbling children came out, slamming the door behind them. "Whatever it is you're selling, I'm not interested," the woman said without looking at him, herding the children into the car.

Hank backed away, frowning. His hunger to see Ginny had increased in the moments since the idea first entered his head. Though he couldn't explain why, he felt certain there was a connection between his old neighbor and his music; if he could find her, he could recapture the magic in his violin. He leaned against the maple tree that bordered their old properties and remembered the one time he had played for Ginny. He'd said it was a birthday gift for her--she'd just turned sixteen--but he doubted she had appreciated it; Ginny wasn't the type to listen passively to anything. It had instead been a gift to himself. Watching her in the autumn twilight had inspired him, and he was sure he'd never played better than that evening.

They'd never spoken of it afterward. He could remember how badly he'd wanted to ask her if she'd liked it as they walked to school the next morning, but though he had never been shy, he'd been unwilling to speak then unless she said something first. She never had. He got the feeling that she, too, wanted to say something but could not, though maybe that was wishful thinking on his part. Still, surely it was strange that she hadn't said anything. Ginny was always talking--why hadn't she given him one of her careless thank yous, or teased him about his "fiddle friend," as she always did when he had to go practice?

As a teenager, the feeling of that evening and his wondering over their dual silence afterward had faded quickly into the monotony of chores and football games and geography tests. Ginny had gone back to being just Ginny. So why did he now feel so consumed by that one autumn evening? He wrapped his arms around the tree trunk, as though it had absorbed the long-ago song and might give it back to him. He couldn't recall even the melody, but he was sure that if Ginny were sitting under the tree again right now, weaving yellow leaves into her dark hair and laughing at him, he could play that song in an instant. And this time they would talk about it afterward.

He let go of the tree, feeling foolish, and tromped to the next-door neighbors' house on the other side. He was relieved when a familiar face answered his knock. Old Mrs. Cowley stared blankly, then opened the screen so she could hug him. "Hank McLennan! Don't you look fine!"

"You look pretty fine yourself, Mrs. Cowley," he said with one of the most genuine smiles he'd worn in the past three years.

"Come in, come in. I just made gingersnaps. You always loved my gingersnaps. My, you've gotten tall."

He hadn't grown an inch since high school, but he didn't tell her that as he sat and took a gingersnap. Mrs. Cowley asked him about his family, and he told her everything she wanted to know without the least bit of impatience.

"I certainly miss you folks," Mrs. Cowley said, nudging the cookies closer to him. "The people next-door now keep to themselves, act like it grudges them to say hello. "Though I admit they're not as bad as the folks who moved into the Cookes' old house--they're downright rude."

"What became of the Cookes?" Hank asked, afraid to look at her in case she didn't know.

"Well, they moved away in, let me think… '43? You remember, Mr. Cooke worked in the Blackmoor office, the company that made those sewing machine parts. Mrs. Cooke always had the latest model; would've been the envy of the neighborhood if she hadn't been so sweet. Anyhow, Blackmoor started manufacturing something for the war--can't recall what--and Mr. Cooke got transferred to Hamilton. The whole family was upset, but there was nothing they could do but up and move."

Hank clung to the name of the city, Hamilton, for the rest of the visit and resisted the urge to rush there when he left Mrs. Cowley's. Instead he walked to the depot and sat on a bench for an hour, waiting for the next bus home. There was no one else he wanted to see here. He knew Mr. Luckley had died about a year ago, but even if the old man had been living, he wasn't sure he would have visited him. He doubted that Mr. Luckley would have understood his problem, or been sympathetic. He knew what his teacher would say.

"Don't be a fool, Henry. Either the music is in you, or it's not. You can't go looking for it like a lost mitten."

Mr. Luckley was usually right, too. But that didn't mean he had to listen.

He was being a fool, but he still tried to rationalize it to himself. After all, he needed a job. And he was twenty-one, an age when he ought to be on his own. So he ignored his brothers' protests, his father's unspoken questions, and the hurt look in his mother's eyes, and he got himself a room and a job in Hamilton.

The job wasn't much--night watchman at a factory--and neither was the room, a tiny, stuffy box in one of the city's poorest boardinghouses. He could have gotten the same job, or better, at home and lived with his family, but he was still happy as he rearranged his possessions in his new room, tucking his violin under the bed.

For a week he slept days and worked nights, feeling cheerful at the possibility that he might be living in the same city as Ginny. He knew he might never find her, so he put off searching, not wanting his good mood to dissipate.

Still, he couldn't delay forever, so one day he rose at noon and went to the Blackmoor building. After talking to one frenzied secretary who'd never heard of Mr. Cooke, he was directed to a second who said she thought Mr. Cooke had retired, though she wasn't sure. When he asked to speak with someone who might know for certain, the woman frowned and refused, saying everyone was too busy.

He left, shoulders squared, and went to the high school, figuring that freckle-faced little Carson Cooke must be about fifteen now. The high school, however, had no record of him. Hank was not deterred; Carson might go to private school, or boarding school, or be in the penitentiary for all he knew. There was no reason to believe the Cookes weren't still in Hamilton.

There was no reason to believe they were, either. He tried the telephone operator, but she couldn't find Mr. Cooke in her listings. Perhaps they didn't have a phone of their own or perhaps they lived outside of Hamilton. He asked in shops and doctors' offices, combed the newspapers, stayed alert wherever he went in hopes of seeing Ginny. He expanded his search to the surrounding towns, though he never tried their schools or telephone operators, unwilling to meet with more direct defeats. The indirect were bad enough; with every passing day he felt more dejected, and his violin sounded more mechanical. Once music had been constantly on his mind, a song weaving its way through his brain. Now Ginny consumed him, and he was aware only of the gnawing within himself. He ignored the girl at the boardinghouse who hinted for an invitation to the movies and he was glad that his job required routine and not brainpower. It gave him more time to think about finding Ginny.

But the more he thought, the more he was tempted to give up. Even if he found her, there was no telling what would happen. They had been friends once, good friends in a lighthearted, bantering way, but that was four years ago. He couldn't even admit to himself why he wanted to find her so badly, whether it was because he thought he could regain his music through her, or whether he was in love with his memory of her. The first reason seemed selfish, the second foolish, and all he knew was that he had to find her, that every time he thought of her, it was with a wisp of that long-forgotten song, just out of reach.

So he stayed on, though it became apparent that if he wanted to remain in his little room, the cheapest available, and subsist on something more than tea and crackers, he would need to increase his income. He could remember Mr. Luckley saying, in one of his rare generous moods, that perhaps Hank might earn a livelihood with his violin, and though he knew this wasn't what his old teacher had meant, he advertised himself as a beginning violin instructor.

He returned from another failed search for Ginny one day to find a message from his landlady. Someone had called for him on the telephone and would be coming the next day as a prospective pupil. Her name was Annie Redden, and Hank pictured a pigtailed ten-year-old, the only kind of pupil he thought he could handle right now.

So he was startled and dismayed to find that the person knocking on his door the next afternoon was neither pigtailed nor ten. Her hair was swept up in an old-fashioned pompadour, and though she barely came up to his elbow, she was at least eighteen, maybe twenty.

"You're Mr. McLennan? The violin teacher?"

"Hank," he corrected, alarmed at being called Mr. McLennan. A moment later he was sorry; perhaps it wasn't proper. The girl only nodded, unconcerned.

He realized he was still standing in the doorway like an idiot and he stepped aside to let her in while he tried to explain himself. "I was expecting someone younger. I'm only a violin teacher for beginners." He was careful to leave the door ajar; his landlady wasn't particular about callers, but he had the sudden urge not to be unseemly.

"Well, I'm only a beginner!" she said brightly. He fought down a frown, convinced she was some silly girl who wanted to learn songs like "Blitzkrieg Baby" and "GI Jive." She patted her violin case and beamed at him, and for a moment she did look ten. "I've been fooling around on this fiddle forever, but I didn't get it into my head to take lessons until I was fifteen, and as soon as I found a teacher, he joined the army. Violin teachers were just another shortage of the war, I guess."

"I guess," he agreed. "Can you play something for me, Miss-uh-Redden?"

"Annie. And I can, as long as you don't mind listening to my own crazy music. It's all I know."

Lovingly, she took out her violin, and Hank steeled himself for "crazy music." He was determined not to be a grouchy, scornful teacher of the Mr. Luckley variety.

He didn't get much opportunity to test his patience, however. After inwardly cringing at the unorthodox way she held her bow, he felt enchanted the moment she began to play. The notes seemed to pour out of her instrument like a waterfall, and he was drenched with the joy of all he had been missing since his own violin sang like that. At the same time, a curdled streak of jealousy ran through this joy, and he felt especially miffed when Annie stopped and put down her violin with an oblivious expression, apparently unaware of the gift she possessed.

"You've come to the wrong teacher," he said, trying to correct the gruffness in his voice midsentence. "You're no beginner."

"But I am, that's just the problem," Annie said with a sigh. "I know I play well—"

More than well."

"--but I don't even know what I'm playing. I want to be able to read music, to play other people's songs. And to write down my own. Can you teach me that?"

He admitted he could, and they agreed to meet every Tuesday afternoon.

He received one other answer to his ad, so two afternoons a week he gave up the search for Ginny and struggled along with his two pupils--for they were struggles, The second student, Gladys Heilmacher, age eight, spent her lessons glowering over her violin, the bow clenched in her chubby fist. She wouldn't relax despite his efforts to put her at ease, so he stopped trying and accepted her as punishment for whatever he had once put Mr. Luckley through. Gladys was conscientious if nothing else, and within a few weeks she could play a simple melody that plodded off the strings the way Gladys herself plodded. When the hour was over and Gladys left with her equally glowering, plodding mother, Hank always collapsed into a chair, feeling exhausted and hopeless.

Annie's lessons tended to end in exhaustion, too, but never hopelessness. Annie did not learn as quickly as Gladys did, but her music never plodded. Instead she seemed to fight against the notes, as well as against him, questioning everything he told her and resisting all suggestions until he got aggravated enough to raise his voice, at which point she would burst out laughing.

It took Annie longer to learn her scales than Gladys, and even then she was apt to let her bow wander off in the middle of them as she followed her own whim of a song.

"You're not trying," he noted. He was past the point of being exasperated and was instead amused.

Annie's blue eyes grew large innocent. "Oh, but I am!"

He raised his eyebrows.

"Well, I try to try, anyway. I want to learn properly, honest, but the music just … gets away from me. Surely you understand."

"My violin teacher was much less understanding than yours," was all he said, which made Annie laugh.

There was no Mrs. Heilmacher to come for Annie at the end of her lessons, and she often stayed for tea and whatever he'd gotten as a cheap day-old leftover from the nearby bakery. He hadn't realized how lonely he'd been until he had Annie as a friend. This wasn't like talking to the girl down the hall, who waylaid him with prattle about who was going to be on the radio tonight and the latest Spencer Tracy movie. This was real conversation, and he found himself talking about all sorts of things. Not everything, for sure, but he did tell her about looking for Ginny, although he didn't attempt to explain the complicated reasoning behind his search. He wasn't sure he understood that himself.

He liked listening to her better. Annie spent her days taking care of her aunt, a feeble, needy woman who wanted someone constantly close by. Annie could only come to lessons by paying her younger sister to stay at the aunt's house for the afternoon.

"It seems like a lot of trouble to go to," he told her. "Expensive trouble, too."

Annie raised her eyebrows. "You don't know my aunt. I'd take accordion lessons just to get out of that house once a week." But she laughed as she said it, the way she always did when she came close to complaining so he couldn't feel sorry for her.

"Besides, these lessons are an investment," she added. "Someday, when I'm good, I'm going to take my violin all over the country and fiddle for my supper."

"Oh, you're good enough for that now."

"You think?"

"Sure. Supper doesn't cost much. … "

She laughed again, as he'd known she would. Her laughter was as joyous as her music.

Tuesday afternoons with Annie became the bright spot of his week. They made up for Gladys's dull lessons, and they got him through the five futile days of looking for Ginny. Sometimes he would forget that Annie wasn't beside him on those days, and he would turn with some humorous observation only to find himself alone.

Mostly, though, his mind was on Ginny. As the weeks passed, he became convinced that the Cookes weren't in Hamilton, yet he couldn't stop looking. It was a compulsion; if he admitted defeat, he was sure something inside him would crumble away; irretrievably lost.

So he kept looking, dreaming up new scenarios of what had become of her, none of them particularly happy. Probably she was married. Ginny was the type to marry young--not a flirt, but one of those teasing, easy-to-talk-to girls that all the boys love. He could picture her bossing around a husband, a baby on her hip. He didn't like to think of her being married, but it didn't deter him from wanting to find her.

Once he imagined that he found her, but she didn't remember him. That thought was thoroughly depressing, and it took a while to convince himself that Ginny Cooke would never forget a lifelong friend after only four years. Probably she had forgotten the time he'd played the violin for her, but that didn't matter. As long as she would give him a smile of recognition, or maybe a hug, and say, "Hank!" he'd be satisfied.

"Why?" Annie asked when he expressed this sentiment to her.

"Why what?"

"Why would you be satisfied?" She frowned. "If I were looking for my long-lost love, I'd hardly be satisfied if all he did was smile at me. And I'd be downright upset if it turned out he was married."

"I never said she was my long-lost love," he pointed out.

"Well, isn't she?" When he didn't say anything, Annie continued. "Why else would you look for her all this time?"

He didn't mention Ginny to Annie after that. He told her funny stories about himself as a kid, and he talked about his brothers, and he mimicked Gladys's stodgy ways until Annie howled with laughter. Once he talked about the war, about the constant knot of fear in his stomach and how he felt like a coward for being so scared when so many others had it worse. She listened to him in a way that seemed tangible, like a hand to squeeze, and though he thought he'd regret telling her these things, he never did. He didn't talk about Ginny, though, and he didn't talk about music.

Annie's lessons went on for four months without her making any progress in learning to read music, and then, in a few weeks, everything came together for her. She mastered the skill as though she'd always known it and only needed to be refreshed. Annie was delighted by her sudden progress but didn't seem to find it unusual; Hank was amazed for both of them.

Hank was also the one who gave her the push he knew she needed. As they sat down to tea after a lesson in which she had dazzled, he gave her the card.

"What's this?"

"Your new teacher." He had noticed the DuBois Conservatory on his daily walks around Hamilton, and last week he had forced himself to go in, to meet with the teachers and interview them as carefully as though he'd been picking an instructor for himself. The man he'd chosen reminded him a little of Mr. Luckley, if Mr. Luckley had been short, and British, and smiling.

He knew he would miss Annie, both having her as a pupil and having tea with her on Tuesday afternoons, but he shut these thoughts away. He was surprised to see the expression on Annie's face, as though she were angry with him, or going to cry.

"You're not a beginner anymore," he said gently. "I've got nothing left to teach you."

"All right," Annie said quietly, and sipped her tea. Hank watched her and thought of his own last lesson with Mr. Luckley. He had been fourteen, the Depression was dragging on, and his parents had no money for violin lessons. He remembered the ugly taste in his mouth all through that last lesson, while he tried to pretend he didn't care and his violin wept for him.

At the end of the lesson Mr. Luckley was as forbearing and ferocious-looking as usual, even as he said, "Well, Henry, you were not my most talented pupil, but I think you had the most heart."

He wanted to cry, or say thank you, but being fourteen he did neither.

Mr. Luckley continued. "I would teach you for free, you know. But I'm not making that offer. You don't need me anymore. It's time for you to become your own musician." He put a hand on Hanks shoulder, lightly, yet it seemed to sink into Hanks skin. "I won't wish you good luck; luck is for fools. But I wish you well, Henry."

He had left while Hank had stood there, silent and helpless and wanting to yell, "Wait! I need you. Teach me more."

Annie put her cup down with a clatter, jarring him back to the present. He thought he could see danger in her eyes. "If this is our last lesson, then you need to do something for me."

"What's that?"

"Play your violin."

He forced himself to smile as he refused.

Annie smiled sweetly in return. "I'm not letting you refuse. You are going to play for me. All this time I've known you and all you've done is demonstrate scales on my violin."

"Maybe I don't know how," he kidded. "Maybe you've been taking lessons from a fraud."

"A fraud who knows the instant I make a mistake, and how to correct it." She stooped and reached under his bed. "A fraud with his own violin."

She took the violin out of the case and placed it in his lap. He looked at it, and then at her. "Annie…"

She returned his gaze, unwavering.

"Look, I don't play like you do. I used to, but I can't anymore. I'm mediocre at best."

She continued to look at him. "Did you ever play for Ginny?"

He raised his eyebrows, wondering how her mind worked. "Once. A long time ago. It was the most beautiful song I ever played." The words sounded stark and meaningless even to him.

"You loved her."

It wasn't a question, but he answered it anyway. "I don't know."

She looked at him a moment longer, then picked up her own violin. "Play with me, if you won't play alone," she said, and began one of her swooping, impromptu songs, the notes jingling off the bow like so many smiles, the kind of melody that couldn't help but make you happy.

Grinning, Hank put his violin to his chin and began to accompany her, his fingers moving instinctively. This wasn't music, it was one of their silly conversations, or the sweet cake they ate with their tea. But slowly the song changed, becoming deeper and realer until he began to falter, consumed by the undertow of Annie's talent. When she glared at him over her violin, however, as fierce as Mr. Luckley ever was, he felt compelled to keep trying and he turned himself over to her. He felt like a puppet connected to her by his violin strings; she was giving him his cues as surely as though she were moving him herself. Their music joined together, two streams converging, and he was overcome by the current of it, washing over him at such a rate that he would have been swept away but for Annie's steadying pace. This was music, this was real, and his heart was ready to burst, but he had to keep playing or else fall behind and drown.

He didn't know how long they played, or how they stopped, only that he was completely drained when they did.

"Was that the most beautiful song you ever played?" Annie asked softly.

"It was your song," he managed to say. "Not mine."

Something changed in her face, and she put her violin away and got up. "Thanks for teaching me, Hank," she said, her voice distant and flat, and she stuck her hand out. He shook it mechanically and felt a piece of paper slip into his palm. He looked at it a long time, then looked at her.

"I have a cousin who works at Blackmoor," Annie said, her voice still dull. "I had her ask around. Your Ginny is in Boston; there's the address. Are you going to chase after her?"

He didn't say anything.

"You should, I suppose. But you don't have to go chasing after old memories to find happiness. That was you playing the violin a minute ago, even if you're too much of a dolt to know it."

Her eyes were flashing, and she shook her head at him one last time before striding out the door.

He stared at the address, holding Ginny in his hand and then placing her gently on the table. He was still clutching his violin in his other hand and he sat for a moment trying to absorb the silence and the events of the afternoon together.

He brought the violin back to his chin, remembered the long-ago golden evening, and began to play. He thought it was Ginny's song, though he wasn't sure. Whatever it was it was beautiful, and he began to cry years of unshed tears because the music was his again and he could feel it pulsing through his body.

He could have played all afternoon, reclaiming his lost prize, but he cut himself off midnote and laid the violin down. He had his priorities, after all, and the music could wait. He reached for the slip of paper with Ginny's address, folded it four times, and placed it in the wastebasket. Then he walked out of his room and onto the street, knowing that if he hurried he could catch Annie.

By Valerie Hunter

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