"Unhappy Dido" by Diane Lefer




They started with Ravel’s Bolero. Instead of the snare drum with a quiet heartbeat tap, the concert took off with a bang. Sure, before she arrived, the only music that mattered in Cranwood Springs was the high school marching band. So what? She wasn’t a musician, just an administrator, didn’t really appreciate music though of course she had to know her stuff. A visionary, Nick said, ha! when he hired her. She’s always got words in her head, that’s how she is. Music without lyrics, her brain gets busy which is fine when she needs to think, but it fills in words, like now, when she doesn’t want, what happened, what should have happened, what she said or could have, and didn’t. There’s no Mrs. Stiers here. I’m Tereze Novotny, you must have the wrong address. Of course it would have made no difference. The music plays. Those poor musicians, they have to pay attention. And she should have been there. So much effort and she couldn’t even show her face. Eli squirmed in her arms by the radio. Should have said I do have a man in my life. My son. Should have said, What century are we in? “Listen, sweetie. Yesenia’s playing the violin.” All that itchy pizzicato. At 7:00. Just like TV, everything starts early, Central time.


“Wait, just a little” for the bass drum and cymbals, but he’s bored. She carried him upstairs, wanting to feel Lew’s presence. He was there, sometimes, on the stairs, closed inside a space of their own, dissipating and gone as soon as she entered a room. No bedtime story, her four-year-old wanted maps, paper maps, spread out and crinkling over the comforter. She tucked him in with Mr. Monkey. Never had to control his screentime, wasn’t even interested, though she’s downloaded Frozen for the drive. “Here’s where we live, and here’s LA where we used to live…” “With Daddy.” The world map up on the bedroom wall, America here, Trinidad there, that dot where Daddy via India, pointing, and Africa, and here, Holland was born. Oh, you must miss the beach, these people tell Eli, with your California tan! She thought Lew, with his brown skin, would never fit in. Look at her own bias, look at Eli’s pediatrician here in Cranwood Springs, African American Dr. Hollis who plays the flute. A year ago, driving east, the plains, no trees, nothing to remind us of…how I pulled over at the Scenic Overlook, of all things a cattle feedlot, beef on the hoof as far as the eye could see, but Cranwood Springs, courthouse square and City Hall and all those cottonwood trees “…and here is where we’re going, to Aunt Jen in Phoenix." “Yay! Oscar!” Jen’s dog. Saguaro, palo verde. Skip to my Lew. “Put your finger here, see, just this much, and let’s see, each time you place this on the highway, that’s one hour. We can go this way, to Colorado, but we won’t be there in time for lunch. Or south, along here, to Wichita. “On our broomsticks! Let’s have sanwitches in Witchita!” “Where we gonna sleep? Think we can make it as far as Amarillo?” Her great-grandparents, immigrants to Texas, though not Amarillo. “Witchita! Witchita!” Witch, bitch, Complicit, enabling bitch, they called her. As soon as I knew… You knew! No, what I’m saying is… You knew!


When will we meet Llewellen?


They didn’t know. How could they not know? In LA, hundreds attended the funeral. That’s how much they valued me. Mayor Garcetti’s eulogy. The police bagpipers played. How could Cranwood Springs have missed it? Why would I have come to a place like this if I hadn’t needed to get away? She turned down the job at first. It was only after…that she… With only three shot dead, maybe it never made the national news. Llewellen Stiers, 42, arborist. Tanya Williams, 23, mother of two, Jose Arevalo, delivery truck driver, 56. She could run away, maybe, probably they couldn’t, and wasn’t ignorance why she’d come? LA, everyone knew, allowed her, encouraged her to fall apart. Jen holding her up at the funeral to keep her on her feet. When she wanted to be dignified, stoic, she wanted to be Jackie Kennedy. Take time off. Put your head down on your desk and cry, it’s OK. They expected her to break down. They conspired to let her drown in grief.


Lost my partner, what’ll I do? She sits halfway down the stairs. Closes her eyes. He never comes when called.


A two-year grant, community engagement through the arts. In-kind contribution from the college, their office space. Matching funds from a local donor who turned out to be that son-of-a-bitch Joe. The job came with an expiration date, she could leave without hurting their feelings. Two years.


Two cops. I thought they’d killed him. Are you alone, Mrs. Stiers? Yes, she said, as though Eli asleep upstairs didn’t count. They told her—at the Arco station, paying for gas, shot dead. As soon as they left she ran out to the street, all those motels on Sunset so many times driving past, respectable or not, who knows? she had no car, no luggage, just a room where she could throw herself face down on the bed, convulse and wail without waking her—their—son, that stupid song in her head, skip to my Lew, a child’s song as if what she needed was her mother, a mother’s comfort, lost my partner, what’ll I do? Lew, my darling, she’d fled, leaving Eli without a mother. Me me me, the selfish widow. How did I get back? Lyft? I don’t remember, upstairs the boy is safe, asleep, then she stumbled about the house, weaving into furniture, black and blue in the morning, wanting a drink but no, if she started to drink, she might never stop.


Vulnerability. That’s how they got me, and how I got Cara Rinaldi. Hard for a woman conductor, one brief guest appearance after another, and she agreed to a six-month residency to start up the Cranwood Springs Symphony, sweetened the deal with Visiting Professor at Keenan. Born in Chicago, the winter didn’t put her off. Amateurs did.