Roger MacGuff had been teaching violin lessons for six months when Abby's mother brought her to his studio at the United Methodist Church. She was ten years old then, with a rounded face and red hair cropped short around her ears. She wore a pair of kid's overalls the first time they met in the Sunday school classroom on the second floor. He told her to extend her left arm so he could measure it and tell her mother which size instrument to get from the music store downtown.
As he did this, he asked her why she wanted to play the violin. She told him she'd seen a Chinese girl play on PBS and it "looked like fun." He wondered what the hell an eight-year-old was doing watching PBS after Sesame Street and Barney and Friends gave way to The NewsHour and other special events, like symphony orchestras and Evening at Pops specials.
She was his most talented student. Their lessons were only supposed to last a half hour, but she'd beg to stay later, determined to play "Gavotte in G" without letting her fingers slip on the trilled notes. Eventually, the next student would arrive, sitting against the hallway wall with his instrument and a blank, bored stare, and Roger would have to send Abby home, where, her mother would later tell him, she'd go directly to her room and continue playing the song again and again until the notes were smooth and perfect. She moved through the Suzuki Violin School books at twice the rate of his other students, and by the time she was twelve, she was playing with the orchestra class at the middle school, winning ribbons at solo and ensemble competitions, and was always the highlight of his studio's winter and spring recitals. Families of his students packed the sanctuary, and other children's grandmothers remembered her performance as much as those of their own.
She always chose the most difficult piece in the book for her performances, which he'd cautioned her against at first, but quickly learned not to oppose. "Don't you think I can do it?" she'd ask, raising her eyebrows in a way that struck him as both precocious and highly manipulative, and that would end it. When she took the stage, she'd not only play it with perfect tone and skill, but with forcefulness and energy, her eyes sharp, biting her lip in concentration, leaning into each stroke of her bow, rosin dust puffing from the strings. He'd watch her from the front row, pride swelling in his chest. Usually, he held his breath as his students came onstage—little girls in fairy princess dresses, older boys in navy tuxes with pants that needed hemmed—waiting for the inevitable squeal, the note held in not quite the right place, even though it wouldn't reflect badly on him. With Abby it was different. He could watch her as if he were at the concerts he and his partner, Stu, frequented at Severance Hall and the Ohio Theatre: back against the upholstered seat, leaning slightly to one side against Stu's armrest, smiling.
Roger and Stu lived just down from the church, at the trailer park off Route 59 outside Ravenna, Ohio. Stu worked downtown as a host and bartender at Bar Ten; Roger moonlighted as concert master for the Cleveland Orchestra. Somehow, they'd managed to strike a balance between their lives, where Stu alternated on performance nights between going to the concerts and working the evening shift, having pizza and beer ready when Roger tottered through the door, exhausted, his bowtie crooked. They'd sit on the couch in front of the faux fireplace they'd had installed when they moved into the mobile home, watching the fiber optic flames waver and crack, Roger's head in the warm place where Stu's neck met his shoulder. They'd talk about Roger's students, the evening's concert, Stu's occasional duty to eighty-six drunk college students. "Sometimes I think having your job would be easier," Stu said one night. "Then I remember I can't whistle, let alone play a violin."
"It's not easy," Roger said. He took a long sip from his bottle of Rolling Rock and glanced over at Stu, who was staring into the fireplace, entranced, fingering his short-trimmed beard. "It depends on who I'm dealing with, I suppose."
Abby was one of the easy ones. He didn't need to say it. After she'd been playing about a year, his other students began to talk. They watched the way she carried herself, tall and upright, the violin case dangling in a loose, but firm grip, her Suzuki Violin School Volume Three under her arm. When she showed them the songs in it that she was playing, the rapid runs of sixteenth notes that covered the pages like armies of black ants, the kids' eyes would widen in awe, tinged with jealousy. He overheard two girls outside in the hall at the church one day, saying it "wasn't fair." What's not fair? he wondered. That she's good? Committed? He didn't like to cast aspersions on his students, to judge one as being above the other. But there was something about Abby that kept him glancing at his watch, counting down the minutes until one of his other lessons ended and she came through the door, beaming, her long red hair brushed over her left shoulder.
Stu agreed. He had seen her play every recital since she was ten and walked onstage with a bounce in the steps of her shiny patent leather shoes, an air of maturity, as if she belonged there and knew she could prove it. He called her Roger's golden girl.
He couldn't quite pinpoint when it started, but sometime after Abby turned fourteen, he noticed something wasn't right. There was no way to trace it back to the first sharp note, the first tightening of her wrist as she practiced her vibrato. The first lesson when she'd rushed in late, flustered and flushed, her bulging book bag thrown over her wrist and dragging from her body at a hunched angle. The first time she'd forgotten her music. It was layers and layers of moments, he decided, of several lessons in a row where her lack of preparation was more than evident, as much from her poor performance as the way she squinted at the unfamiliar music, cringing as her fingers slipped on the strings. Her third position was sloppy. She'd never apologize for being unprepared, which irritated him—even when he gave her the stern warning that she was wasting his time, she just stared at him, her blue eyes void of any shame at all, and said, "O.K.," in a high, soft voice.
Even more than her waning lack of commitment, Roger was bothered by the ways she tried to cover it up. If she made a mistake, she'd laugh nervously and say, "Shit, I've been messing up that part every day."
He'd adjust his glasses and cross his arms over his chest. "You haven't touched that music in a week," he'd tell her. She'd cock her head to the side like a perplexed puppy, like she had no idea what he was talking about.
Stu was quick to offer an explanation. "Maybe she's got guy problems," he said one night when Roger came home from rehearsal. "That can really hamper your performance." He needled Roger in the side with his fingertips, but Roger didn't respond.
"She's not like that," he said. "She's level-headed, conscientious. Smart. At least she used to be. She never let that stuff get in the way before."
Eventually, Roger reached the point where he had to call Abby's parents and find out what was happening. When her father answered the phone, Roger asked if everything was O.K. at home, if there was some better reason other than a newfound interest in boys to explain why Abby had started losing interest in playing. He said no, she seemed fine—at the most, a little distracted due to stress at school, a little more willowy than usual. He had, though, been getting on her for weeks about not practicing enough. When Roger told him how badly her lessons had been going, he said he didn't realize it had come to that. There was something hard and grating in his voice, each phrase separated with a long pause, a rush of exasperated breath into the phone. Roger felt guilty, knowing that as soon as he hung up, her father would be in Abby's room to deliver a lecture about her lack of commitment and responsibility.
In the end, Roger decided Abby's sudden disinterest was due to something neither he nor her father could explain. Some teenage girl phase. But that didn't make this any better, and so he tried to think of some way to bring her back.
He decided to hold a recital. It was only October, and the traditional holiday program was still two months off, but he knew enough from his own teenage years that there's nothing like public exposure to snap you back from whatever fantasy you're trapped in. It would be a fall celebration, with pumpkins on the corners of the stage and garlands of cellophane leaves. The kids who'd just started playing would eat it up and the parents would go crazy and bring their entire extended families. Most of all, it would get Abby to return to reality, to realize that she'd be playing in front of people who remembered her performances, in front of her peers who envied and admired her from a distance. No matter what her motivations were for sacrificing her gift, nothing was worth that kind of humiliation.
At her next lesson, he let Abby know about the recital. She plucked at the strings of the violin with her plastic glue-on nails as he talked, and her nose and forehead crinkled when he mentioned his plans. "Why?" she said. "It's not Christmas yet."
He took her violin and started to tune it, pausing for a moment to listen to the pitch of the strings. "Well," he said, "I've gotten a lot of younger students this fall, and I just thought it would be neat if they got a chance to play for an audience."
Abby kicked the toe of her sneakers into the carpet. They were expensive, he noticed, the kind of athletic shoes that were meant more for conveying an image than physical activity. She was growing out her hair, too, and wore giant silver hoop earrings and heavy blue eye shadow that reminded him of the makeup at a drag show that Stu had taken him to in Akron. "So it's a kids' show," she said. She raised her eyebrows, resting a hand on her hip.
"Not exactly. Everyone's going to be in it. Even the kids your age."
He handed the violin back to her. She shifted her weight to the other leg, her knee popping out a little, and stared at the floor, swinging her instrument back and forth, her thumb and forefinger wrapped around the thin neck. She leaned forward a little bit, adjusted the neck of her shirt. "Yeah, I guess that's O.K.," she said, and Roger couldn't help but notice a bite in her voice, something hard and resentful.
He opened her book and flipped through it, looking for something for her to learn as a recital piece. He wanted to pick something challenging, something she couldn't fake her way through, something that would force her to rise back to her previous excellence. He stopped about halfway through and set it back on the music stand. "This is called ‘Humoresque in G Major'," he said. "Dvorak. I want you to play it for the show."
Her forehead crinkled at the name. "Is it supposed to be funny?"
"No, no. Probably more witty than funny. It's supposed to have a lighter rhythm and tone. The title's a little misleading—it's not necessarily humorous, but…" He looked at the music, then back at her. "Fanciful. It's from the Romantic period."
He watched Abby study the page, the jumpy bars of eighth notes, the tiny italicized directions beneath the staffs indicating tempo, brightness. She made a wide-eyed face and looked off to the side, said shit under her breath. "It's a hard piece," Roger said. "I know. But you're my best student, Abby. You can handle it. You just have to work at it." His mind quickly ran through the roster of his other students, and he realized that there were a couple of them who were approaching or might soon surpass her. But for now, it was still the truth.
"Why don't you try to play it?" he said. He knew it was going to be disastrous, but she had to understand what she was getting into, how awful it would be to get up in front of an auditorium filled with her parents, her friends' parents and perform. She gave him a look that clearly said, Are you fucking serious? and her mouth fell open a little bit. For a moment, she seemed terrified.
He put his hand on her shoulder. He'd never touched one of his students before, but the move was instinctual, as if he'd do it to anyone in trouble, the women he'd never love, the children he'd never have. He felt her arm tighten, and thought he heard her draw in a breath. "It's all right. It's the first time you've played it, and it's hard. But you'll get there. I promise. You just have to work. Hard."
She craned her neck to the side and looked up at him with a hint of a smile. She raised the violin to her neck, and began to play, a rush of dragging, scraggly notes. He grabbed the tip of the bow with his fingers, and it grated to a stop against the strings. "No," he said, "don't play it so fast. Nice and slow. You can play faster later, but first, you've got to learn the notes and when to retake and replace the bow. Remember, it's a light song. Airy. Again." He let go, and watched her lean in closer to the music, moving note by note, measure by measure, hoping that was just how he'd get her back from wherever it was she had gone.
"She seems like she's getting better," Roger told Stu one night a couple weeks later. They were sitting on the wicker loveseat on the porch of their mobile home, drinking beer and watching the occasional car kick up the limestone dust in the long road that extended the length of the trailer park. "I hope she is, anyway. Part of me thinks if she's not, she'll get what she deserves—but then I feel a little guilty, you know? Like I'm setting her up."
Stu was smoking a cigarette, and blew a long stream of smoke over Roger's head. He prided himself on being able to make smoke rings, like Cyd Charisse and Bette Davis, and puffed out a couple as he leaned over to look back at Roger. "Well," he said, "if she hangs herself, it's her own funeral. Tough love, darling." He made his fingers walk like tiny legs over to meet Roger's hand. "This is for her own good. If she can't get it now, she'll probably just quit and you'll have taken a real weight off her shoulders."
Quit. Roger hadn't considered that. He could barely remember what it was like to not have her as a student because she'd joined the studio so soon after he set up shop. He realized it was irrational. But he couldn't help imagining not having a student who was so self-directed and disciplined, even if she no longer was, hadn't been for months. It was awful. In his mind, she was still Abby, the kind of student he'd dreamed of having in graduate school for music performance, when he'd decided he wanted to teach. He didn't want her to go. Maybe holding onto her the way she was would be better than not having her at all.
The recital was a month away—the sanctuary at the church was already booked, the younger kids were buzzing about what pieces they'd chosen and the parents were already figuring out what their children were going to wear for their first public performance. It was too late to put a halt on the whole thing. Too many people would be angry, and there was no good reason to cancel anyway.
Stu narrowed his eyes and leaned backward, resting an arm across the loveseat's back, across Roger's shoulder. "You're not convinced, are you?"
"Then wait. Wait and see how it comes out. She might surprise you."
"I hope so," Roger said. He rested his head backward, against Stu's wrist, and watched the sun start to go down over the darkening ridge of trees at the far end of the park.
For the next few weeks, it seemed to be working. Abby would arrive for her lesson, closer and closer to being on time, hand her instrument to Roger to be tuned. Roger recalled that in the past, she always used to arrive early, then sit in the hallway as he finished the lesson before hers, running a dust cloth over her violin, gritting her teeth as it squeaked between the fingerboard and the strings. It was a kind of care and precision he wished for now, but he saw his student as being in recovery, and knew that recovery was a long process whether it was from an illness or a bout of poor judgment and misplaced priorities. He tuned the violin for her, trying to avoid thinking about how she should be able to tune it herself by now, and there was always a long moment of awkwardness before the lesson began; Abby would open her music book, then stare at the notes, then to Roger, her eyes first lowered, then demurely raised to meet his. Sometimes she'd fiddle with her clothing, pulling at the bottom of her shirt, then looking back up, as if she were trying to stall the inevitable. And then she'd begin to play, and it wouldn't be great, but it would be good. For Roger, good was enough. For now.
The week before the recital, Roger watched from the Sunday school room window as Abby's mother's minivan pulled up to the sidewalk in front of the church. He saw Abby get out, and then talk to her mother through the passenger window, her face drawn together, full of sass. She wore a short denim skirt and a red v-neck sweater, and seemed preoccupied with shaking her hair out, deliberately messing it up so the red curls fanned out around her face, frequently glancing at her reflection in the back window. Finally, she nodded and started to walk away from the door. Her mother honked the horn. She stopped. Abby listened for a moment, then rolled her eyes and opened the door to retrieve her violin case. The minivan drove off.
It was ten minutes before Abby finally came through the door. "I'm sorry," she said. She was breathing hard, as if she'd just come running in from outside. "My mom picked me up late from school and there was traffic." He stared at her for a minute, trying to decide whether or not to say anything about seeing her mother drop her off, or the fact that there was never traffic in Ravenna. "I'm sorry," she repeated, and set to work getting out her violin.
He had her start with a chromatic scale, working her way through the first position notes with a confidence that always started strong in her warm-ups, but dissipated as she moved into her longer pieces. When she finished, she opened her music book to "Humoresque" and plucked at the strings, as if stalling for time before she had to begin. "You can start any time," Roger said. She looked at him uneasily. "We only have a week left," he reminded her, and she glanced away before bringing her violin to her shoulder, placing her bow on the first note.
Her notes were sharp and grating, the tempo half what it should have been. Roger tried not to grimace, though he knew he couldn't help showing his disappointment. Even her stance at the music stand was sloppy, her shoulders slouching at an angle, her weight placed almost entirely on her right foot. Her face contorted in a struggle to follow the music, her lips pressed tight together, and he wondered if she felt any shame at all, for wasting his time like this, for wasting her own abilities. As she played the last note, holding it longer than necessary, he let out a sigh.
She lowered the violin. They looked at each other for a minute, and he thought it seemed like she was taking in his frustration, drawing it inside her because she knew she played badly, knew she deserved it. "The recital," Roger said, "is in one week. You have your dress rehearsal next Saturday morning. You'll be playing for your peers and your family and your peers' families. And if you play like this—if you play the way you just played—"
Abby's eyes were wide, big with sadness and another emotion, something almost tender, that Roger couldn't place, but felt. It was something swelling, like Stu running his hands down his arms, resting against him in bed. He kept his eyes on her, waiting for her to drop her head to the floor with the indignity he wanted her to feel. Instead, she clasped her hands together, her shoulders rising and falling, and kept staring up at him. "You got anything to say for yourself?" he went on. "This has gone on and on and on for over a month, and I just don't know what to do with you anymore. You're disrespecting me, your parents, yourself. What in the hell is wrong with you?"
She flinched a little, and he immediately wished he hadn't chosen those words. "I'm sorry," she said.
"Quit saying that. You're not sorry. You're not a bit sorry. You're—"
She threw herself against him, her arms around his waist, lips straining against his. Her violin smacked against his leg, a tonal clunk. He stood there limply at first, unsure of what to do, preoccupied by surprise and the notion that a girl was kissing him, for the first time since he was sixteen or seventeen. Then, as if coming to, he pushed her away. She lost her balance and fell backwards onto the floor.
Abby gripped the neck of her violin and stared down at the carpet, her lips sputtering. Roger fought with himself about whether to say he was sorry, whether to extend his hand and help her up. It wasn't the first time a woman had come onto him, and in all those other cases, it was easy to hurt them, to say he was very sorry and hoped someday she'd make a man happy. He wondered how he'd missed it, how Stu had been right all along.
"I—" he said. "Abby—" He couldn't go any further. Before he had a chance, Abby crawled over to her violin case, locked the instrument away, and scampered out of the room. He watched her from the corner of the window for the next several minutes, as she waited for her mother to pick her up: leaning against a tree, arms hugged tight around her, the motions of her hands to her cheeks, wiping them on her jeans.
He met Stu at Bar Ten that night for beer and BLTs, where he told him about what happened. "Get out!" Stu said. His face under the low light of the table's glass lamp was incredulous, a stunned grin on his face. He reached across the table and slapped Roger on the arm, nearly toppling his drink. "She did what? That little minx!"
"Stu, stop it. This isn't funny." For the hundredth time in the last four hours, the image of Abby on the floor flashed in his mind, her shocked, white face, the way it gradually filled with color. "I think I hurt her."
"Nah." Stu swigged down the last of his beer, and motioned for the waitress to bring him another. "She's what, fourteen? She'll forget all about it. She's probably got dozens of boyfriends."
"I don't think so." Roger thought about how strange she'd been for the last couple of months, how he'd attributed all of this to a genuine loss of interest in her instrument. It hadn't been that at all. Somehow, he knew that Abby hadn't forgotten what happened, that she wasn't already on the phone with a boy from school or doing her homework. He took the paper ring off his napkin and silverware and started to roll it into a scroll, rubbing it back and forth between his fingers. "There's just one thing I don't get," he said. "Why would she just keep playing so badly? Wouldn't she want to impress me? Or am I being egotistical to even think that?"
"No, it's some kind of teen girl thing," Stu said. "They try to make themselves look stupid so boys will like them. She probably just wanted attention. I saw it in a Lifetime movie once." He kicked Roger under the table. "Good thing grown men don't do that."
Roger pretended to laugh. He took a long drink of his beer, half-listening to Stu talk about the drunk armory worker he'd thrown out for hurling a bottle at the TV during the Indians game, half-thinking about how wrong he was. Grown men did things that were just as bad. Maybe worse.
Roger was surprised when Abby showed up at the recital hall for her dress rehearsal. He'd spent the morning trying to stay preoccupied with the younger kids who'd come, showing them how to walk out onstage with their music under their arms, to wait for Roger's signal to raise their instruments, to take a bow when they finished. But when she walked down the side aisle dressed in sweatpants and an oversized Akron U sweatshirt and sat in the third row, he lost his concentration. Instead of listening to the boy onstage play, he tried to script what he was going to say, how to handle the inevitable awkwardness. He made the student run through it a second time just so he wouldn't be shortchanged by Roger's lack of focus. In her seat, Abby had taken out a music magazine with a bare-chested man on the front, glancing up now and then as if looking to see if it was her turn yet. Finally, Roger let the kid go, and motioned for Abby to come onstage, hoping he didn't seem reluctant.
Abby put her music on the stand and looked at him. She appeared tired, her face pale, and her eyes seemed naked without liner and mascara. "I'm ready," she said.
She launched into the song with a long, down stroke of the bow, and he was stunned by how upbeat it sounded, how much richer the music was compared to when she'd played at the lesson. There was a dullness to the performance in spite of this, a wind-up mechanical quality, but she was playing, and she sounded good, the best she'd sounded in a long time. Her face was calm, broken only by the occasional frown as she studied the notes, reaching a place that Roger imagined was giving her trouble. The recital is tomorrow, he thought. When she played for the audience, they would think she was decent, though not as good as in the past—Perhaps she's just having a bad day, those who remembered her from the past would think. But she could still do it, still walk away intact. Maybe still come back from this altogether.
She held the last note for a perfect five seconds, then let it hang in the auditorium like the ghost of a bright light against a pair of closed eyes until it faded away. She looked up silently, waiting. "It was good," he said, standing up and walking back onto the stage. "Very good. If you practice very hard tonight, you can play very well tomorrow." He wanted to tell her to keep this up, to not sacrifice her ability on the altar of her bad decisions. He even wanted to tell her he was sorry. But it didn't seem appropriate. Not yet. Too much praise or repentance and he could send the wrong message entirely.
She leaned to one side and brushed her hair back from her face. "You think?"
"Yeah," Roger said. He smiled a little. "I think you're going to be fine. Let me just tune you up before you go."
She passed the instrument to him, and he pressed the body to his stomach, turned the small pegs at the bridge, plucked the strings. Abby gazed over his head, around the high ceilings of the recital hall, as if she were searching for something, an answer written in the eaves of the stage. Roger gave the strings one last, reassuring strum. As he prepared to hand her the violin, his fingers brushed the back of the instrument, and he felt a series of grooves, jagged and strange, that didn't belong there. "What's this?" he said out loud, and Abby glanced back at him, the blood draining from her face. He turned the violin over. On the back, carved in thick block letters, was ROGER MACGUFF = FAG. The words glinted in the overhead lights of the stage.
Abby's mouth fell open. He noticed her lower lip shaking, like she was going to cry, but no tears came. A veil of blankness fell over her eyes. "I—um—I…" She couldn't speak. Roger didn't know what he expected her to say, but only because he didn't know either. He felt cold inside, his head beginning to throb. "Please," she finally said. "Please don't—"
"I think we're done here," he said. He shoved the violin at her and closed her music book. He was unwilling to watch her pack up, to study her movements for the slightest indicator of remorse, to listen to her beg him not to do anything about this. Instead, he walked offstage and into the green room, where he sat on a blue sofa, stared straight ahead, and tried to find patterns in the gold and navy patterned wallpaper until his next student arrived.
That night, he called Abby's parents. He spoke with her mother, and told her that Abby would not be permitted to appear in the recital. When she asked him why, he held his breath. The glinting letters flickered in his head, and when a fresh burst of anger rose, he almost told her everything. Instead, he said that Abby wasn't adequately prepared, that she would do better to keep practicing the piece for the Christmas program. "But she's been working so hard," her mother said. She knew Abby hadn't been practicing enough and set aside the whole week to work on it. He told her he knew, that he could tell Abby had been working harder. But she wasn't good enough. "Next recital," he repeated, and said he knew she's had a tough time, it's better she just sit this one out. He could hear the misgivings in her voice, the questions, but nonetheless, Abby's mother told him she understood. When he heard the phone click off, he knew he didn't have to say anything. The rest would be taken care of, all by itself.
Copyright © Kori E. Frazier 2009.