Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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Short Story
3103 words
SHJ Issue 10
Fall 2014


by Diane Simkin

The usherette was like a penguin in her crisp white blouse and creased black pants waddling quickly down the symphony aisle. Lilly was hampered in her pursuit, however, by her tight skirt recently plucked from the depths of her closet.

“I’ve only been to the symphony a few times before,” Lilly confided, “when my husband was alive.”

“Oh...hmmm, is that right?” The usherette checked Lilly’s ticket on the run, then turned to her in surprise. “You’re very lucky to be seated in the front row for Lang Lang.”

“Yes. Yes, I know. It’s my friend’s ticket. She has the flu, so she couldn’t come.”

“Yes, but it’s not easy to get front row seats,” the penguin reasserted, eyeing Lilly, as if to say, “You’re no VIP.”

“Well, that’s Irene!” Lilly said brightly, ignoring the slight. “She practically lives at the symphony.”

The usherette now gave Lilly the once-over, evincing particular disdain for the cerulean blue ruffles on her blouse. Lilly loved the ruffles, as they reminded her of ocean waves, but she decided to ignore this insult as well, as she wouldn’t let a little penguin destroy her first evening out since Pinchas died.

They reached the front row, and the usherette pointed to Lilly’s chair, three seats in on the left. So close! Irene had told her she would see the players sweat.

“Thanks!” Lilly called after the usherette, whose waddle had already taken her halfway back up the aisle. She sat down and started pulling down her navy blue skirt that had hiked up her legs. When did it get so tight? She couldn’t remember the last time she wore it. Perhaps when she was last here? She looked at the tall, angular woman on her left, wondering if she knew Irene, but the woman immediately turned away crossing her legs, as if to avoid discussion.

How rude! Why would I bother you?

She now glanced at the gentleman on her right, noticing that he had a large swelling belly spilling above his belt. Now there’s a man who could eat a knish or two, she thought approvingly. He would love my bakery.

Lilly opened her program and flipped through it for tonight’s concert. She began whispering to herself, pronouncing all the names and unfamiliar pieces as if talismans: Bernstein’s Overture to Candide. Ah! So beautiful. Bernstein, the great! Beethoven’s Concerto No. 4. Oh! What could be better! Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Wonderful, wonderful. Tchaikovsky! Beethoven! Lang Lang! Pshhh, what a program. Everything so great. Pinchas would’ve wanted to be here.

Oh! She mustn’t think like that.

Lilly placed her black beaded purse on top of her program and leaned down to tuck them both underneath her chair. She settled back watching violinists tuning, sawing, and plucking not ten feet above her. A lot of screeching and squawking, she thought, as if the bagel slicer, pie presser, and dough mixer were all breaking down at once.

She looked behind her. Packed. Sold out. Hundreds and hundreds of people, mostly her age, although she hadn’t recognized anyone, just the couple who drove her here—Irene’s friends. The auditorium was so beautiful: enormous teardrop chandeliers of sparkling glass, wooden wainscoting, and a ceiling with paintings of little cupids flying around with bows and arrows. Such a place!

Suddenly Lilly felt warm, uncomfortable, her armpits beading with moisture, threatening to leave stains on her silk blouse. There were too many people. Too much excitement. She began to grab at the pearl buttons on her suit jacket, wresting them open and slipping her left arm out of its sleeve. She pulled her right arm out quickly too, but yanked too hard, such that the ball of her fist accidentally slammed into the capacious chest of that swelling-bellied man to her right.

“Ach!” he cried out.

“Ach!” she cried out immediately after, fast removing her jacket and placing it on the back of her seat.

“I’m so sorry...sorry...I hope I haven’t hurt you...” she apologized. “So sorry,” she repeated, looking into his eyes to see that he was staring right back at her, wide-eyed, holding one hand to his chest.

He finally spluttered, “If you were trying to revive me, miss, you succeeded. But I wasn’t dead.”

“I’m...I’m so very sure you weren’t,” Lilly responded with deep embarrassment, “as you, mister.”

“Uh, yes, yes...I must look terrific,” he answered wryly, rubbing the center of his chest where she’d hit him. “So...uh, what do you do for a living, lady, with a fist like that? You’re not a boxer. You missed my jaw.”

Lilly tittered. “I...I...”

She didn’t finish, because at that moment enthusiastic applause broke out as the conductor emerged from the side of the stage. He was a thickset man with powerful shoulders, Lilly noted, though he seemed to float toward the podium, all lightness and grace.

“The Maestro,” the gentleman on her right nodded to her, whispering in a tone of reverence, though still clutching his chest with his right hand.

Lilly nodded back, a look of chagrin yet on her face, and then settled back in her chair as the lights dimmed and Jahja Ling rapped on the podium to bring the orchestra to attention. Tap, tap, tap!

Here we go! The Maestro nodded at the violinist on his left and with a vigorous stroke brought down the baton, the music erupting with exuberance—flutes trilling, cymbals crashing, and violins weeping and wailing with their bows sliding all over the strings.

Ahhh... Lilly felt giddy, joyful. Suddenly she thought of Pinchas again and how he would have loved this. But didn’t she have a pact with herself not to think of him? When she got dressed this evening, hadn’t she avoided his side of the closet, as she always avoided his side of the medicine cabinet, his side of the bed, his reading chair, and every other place he frequented in their house, was enough, already. She had to move on; everyone told her so, even her son. But lately it was hard. Pinnie’s Yahrzeit, the anniversary of his death, was in the middle of next month, and memories of him kept popping up. At work, wherever she happened to be—behind the bakery counter, in the cafe, the kitchen—he was there too. She often found herself fleeing those places just to escape, as if he was chasing her.

So where am I going to run now? She looked behind her at the people all rapt in attention. Soon, she too was riveted. What a zippy, wingdingy piece. So much crashing and clashing. But before she knew it—over. So soon? Such a piece, and over so soon?

The lights in the hall came back on, and Jahja Ling and the orchestra bowed to hearty applause. Momentarily forgetting what piece was coming next, Lilly bent over to retrieve her program; but just as she was fishing for it, the gentleman on her right, who also happened to be fishing for his, abruptly sat back up, inadvertently smacking her now on the right side of her temple.

“Och!” she cried out, holding her head, feeling for a bulge. “Why did you...?” she remonstrated, as if he’d intentionally hit her. But when she looked at him, he was gawking at her, his left hand covering his gaping mouth, shocked. Suddenly he burst into laughter so infectious that Lilly burst out too, and soon the two of them were rocking back and forth, howling in their plush, velvet seats like children.

Though their laughter was submerged by the din in the auditorium, the woman on Lilly’s left was irritated nonetheless. “Shhh!” she hissed, her forehead crumpling into ridges of disapproval.

Taken aback, Lilly turned toward her. Normally she might have said, “Shhh yourself, lady!” But here? She couldn’t, wouldn’t make a scene in Symphony Hall. Wasn’t she supposed to be having the time of her life? At least that’s what Irene had said when she gave her the ticket.

Lilly nodded in a chilly, perfunctory manner to the woman. She then stole a quick glance at the gentleman on her right, who was gazing at her, a smile curling on his lips, as one now curled on hers.

Jahja Ling left the podium, returning a few minutes later with the great Lang Lang. The audience responded with fervent enthusiasm—whooping, hollering, caterwauling. Lilly wondered how the lady on her left liked that.

She then looked up at Lang Lang, who crossed to the piano directly in front of her. What is this? A pisher in his twenties wearing a rock star outfit—black velvet jacket, silk shirt—with both collars wide open on his chest?

But she found she was mesmerized by this “mere boy,” however, for though he was young, he had great aplomb, bowing with one hand on his heart, the other gesturing graciously toward the audience.

Lang Lang sat down and then with fingers arched, articulated, poised above the keys, gave a slight nod to Jahja and began to play. Lilly felt that each note was struck as if it was entirely distinct from the one before and the one after, so that she found she could hardly wait to find out what the next would be. The melody is piercing, she thought, with a mysterious sweetness. Suddenly she remembered a meadow back in Winnipeg where she’d gone with Pinnie one afternoon when he’d returned from the war and the field had been alive with blooming yellow asters, blue hyssop, purple columbine. He had been so young then, lean, muscular...and then she remembered those early mornings at the bakery, just the two of them...kneading...

Suddenly she became aware of Lang Lang’s left hand dangling and swaying above the keys while his right spidered back and forth on the keyboard as if weaving an invisible web of heartsore, and Lilly sank lower and lower in her seat, tears beginning to flow. She hardly noticed when the movement ended, except for the fact that the gentleman on her right was coughing and clearing his throat—ahem, ahem, ahem!—stealing a glance at her, which she felt, but did not register.

The second movement soon began with the violins as if on a warring march—Yumpum Papapa!—the piano answering as if with a plea to the violins to be calm. What kind of music is this? Instruments talking to each other, fighting just like her and Pinchas? Hadn’t she always been quick, too quick to anger, while he was so patient?

Ach, how could he have died?! He was such a strong man!

“Yumpum Papapa! Yumpum Papapa!” The violins moved forward with power, belligerence, summoning up memories of conflicts at the bakery with customers: So sorry that the bread didn’t taste as usual, Mrs. S. Of course you can have another on the house; and, No, we haven’t overcharged you for the brownies. We use King Arthur flour, real butter, Mexican vanilla, so we charge a few extra pennies. “Yumpum Papapa!”

Maybe it was time to stop working. Let her son take care of everything as he seemed to anyway, breezing through the bakery, troubleshooting, keeping everything running smoothly, everyone happy but his wife, that philandering...flangisteryphchshhh!

Lang Lang now seemed to be smashing the keyboard, as if wounding it with wild runs, purposefully challenging the violins, that responded with furious intensity, sweeping their sound higher and higher as if to the ceiling, Jahja now entering the fray, thrusting his baton toward the orchestra, spurring all the instruments to a feverish pitch...

Why did he have to leave me! How dare he! Lilly began searching for her purse, sobbing, stabbing for it beneath her seat, finally finding the clasp, snapping it open. Ahhhh, her hanky....

Suddenly there was a hush in the great hall—the pause between the second and third movements—and she heard her sobs out loud. Oh God, how could I? But when she looked around to see if anyone had noticed, she saw the gentleman on her right sobbing too, albeit quietly, his head bobbing up and down, a hanky wiping his eyes.

Not wanting to embarrass him, she immediately looked back up at the stage, where Lang Lang was patting his face with his hanky.

A lotta hanky-panky at this Symphony. The peculiar association popped into her head.

The gentleman on her right blew his nose—a foghorn blaring—announcing the end to his episode of grief.

What does he have to be so sad about? Did he just lose his spouse?

The third movement began, with Lilly once again riveted by the young wizard pouncing on the piano, pouring out chords with rhythmic energy—the keys a mere continuation of his hands, heart, brain—until suddenly, he whipped back on the piano bench, shoulders lifted, fingers caressing the keyboard as if the music’s ineffable beauty lifted him to the sublime.

Oh my God! Who is this little pitzkela, playing Beethoven as if he’d written it himself. He would no doubt love my ruffled shirt, or even wear it, with its waves flowing down the front.

The next ten minutes flew by with the violins and piano contending, until the piano’s persuasive tenderness seemed to coax the violins back into a harmonious, peaceful presence, after which all the instruments joined in for the climax, Beethoven’s thundering storm of a finale replete with pounding piano, gonging drums, and blaring trumpets.

After it was over, the audience, almost as one, rose to their feet and screamed. Lilly heard herself scream too, beside herself, outside herself. “Bravo! Bravo!”

Jahja and Lang Lang then joined hands, bowing together, graciously receiving the profferred love. Lang Lang took a separate bow, and Lilly could have sworn that as he placed his hand on his heart, he looked directly at her, the hint of a smile peeping from the corner of his mouth. Pshhh, what a fantasy.

During intermission, Lilly waited in line for the restroom with several of the penguins herding her, and many others, against the wall. Officious birds. Her irritation immediately dissipated, however, as she thought of Lang Lang’s secret smile. Mr. Swelling Belly’s too.

But how can I even think about a gentleman’s smile! I’m an old lady! Well...perhaps not that old.

Lilly reached her seat just as the lights were dimming and Jahja and Lang Lang entered to worshipful applause. She laid her bag on her lap. There would be no repeat of any head-banging incident this evening.

Tchaikovsky’s concerto now began with its snap cracking piano chords, Lang Lang at full throttle. Lilly felt the music swirl around her, envelop her, and once again she began to think of Pinchas and how he had enveloped her with his long, strong arms; and she became lost in memories, only dimly aware of Lang Lang’s hands flying over the keyboard through the first movement.

When it ended, she realized she’d hardly heard the music and resolved to concentrate: Irene had told her to remember everything and tell her everything about the concert. She’d wanted to see Lang Lang for years.

The second movement began with Lang Lang’s fingers tripping over the keyboard, performing dreamy runs. This, however, only served to send Lilly deeper into thoughts of the one-she-wasn’t-supposed-to-think-about-but-couldn’t-help-thinking-about; until before she knew it, the second movement was over, and once again she realized she’d hardly heard anything.

At the beginning of the third movement, however, when Lang Lang’s hands leapt off the keyboard, as if Cossacks off the floor, Lilly became fully alert. Soon she was gripped by the driving rhythms that alternated with the slow, shimmering melody that kept appearing, disappearing and reappearing, until it finally emerged in all its glorious, romantic splendor.

How does he do it?

Lang Lang raced to the finish in a scintillating dash, and the audience went into a frenzy of foot stamping, roaring, whistling. Even Miss Noodle of Disapproval on her left was hollering, “Bravo!”

And of course the gentleman on her right. “Bravo!” he screamed with fervor.

“Bravo!” she screamed too, suddenly aware of his large arms and powerful claps.

Then cries of “Encore!” “Encore!” and “More!” filled the auditorium until Lang Lang obliged, playing a short, lyrical piece, during which Lilly found herself once again holding her breath, while his spidery hands took flight—pinging, poinging, springing in an amazing display of virtuosity and abandon. Oh my.

And the crowd erupted again, crying, as if the floodgates of their passion had at last opened: “Bravo!” “Bravo!” “Bravissimo!” “Bravo!”

Amidst all this prolonged clapping and cheering, Jahja and Lang Lang bowed to each other; then each bowed separately, after which Jahja shook hands with several members of the orchestra, and then pointed to each section in turn to take a bow. Such a big production.

The two men left the stage only to return a few minutes later, bowing, once again, hands on their hearts. They repeated their entrances and exits several times until, at one point, it seemed as if they’d left the stage for the last time. The audience would not accept this, however, and the clapping developed into a strong, synchronized rhythm that would not quit.

Lang Lang finally returned alone, to renewed stamping, whistling, and cheering, and Lilly watched as he retrieved his hanky from the piano ledge and waved it. He then began to walk off the stage, but just as he was parallel with Lilly, though ten feet above, he turned, looked directly at her, and tossed his hanky to her with an easy, graceful, backhand movement.

Lilly reached up with both hands to catch the falling cloth to clutch it to her chest.

She held it there with both hands crossed over it, until after a while she became aware that it was damp, quite damp, even soggy. She turned to the gentleman on her right, now staring at her unabashedly, and said in wonder, “He threw his hanky...?”

The gentleman, as nonplussed as Lilly, did not reply. Instead, he shook his head back and forth, staring at her, a quizzical expression on his face. He kept shaking his head, now at the hanky clutched to her chest, now at the stage from which Lang Lang had thrown the hanky, and now at the ruffled waves on her beautiful, cerulean blue blouse. He kept shaking his head and staring at those waves as if he imagined sailing far, far away on them.

And in a quavering voice, not entirely dissimilar to Lang Lang’s fingers slipping and sliding all over the keys, he said, “ you come here often?”

“No...well...yes. Yes, I...I will.”


SHJ Issue 10
Fall 2014

Diane Simkin’s

play, Frankie and Annie, was produced at the Manhattan Theater Club in New York City; and her three one-act plays, Potter’s Field, The Vacuum, and Ms. Gomb, were produced at the Wooden O in Los Angeles. Under a commission from the American Musical Theater, she wrote the libretto for a children’s opera, Moonchildren, which was performed at the Brevard Music Festival in North Carolina.

She currently lives and writes in San Diego.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury