"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.
We don’t have amateurs in our symphony. We have musicians. People who sing in a church choir are not amateurs. A high school music teacher is not an amateur. And the auditions will be up to you. And how to handle players who show up late or miss rehearsals. We have four violins, if someone doesn’t show, we can get along fine with three. Including Yesenia. What am I supposed to do with her, that aggressive whole-bow mariachi style? She’s a good kid. Just show her want you want. Oboe. If you’re not doing Peter and the Wolf, do you really need one? Cara likes the soprano from the music department, they can discuss the history of Dido’s Lament, whether Purcell’s score as written had an A or A-flat, important to them though to tell the truth, I can’t tell the difference.
Cara will leave, reputation intact, the residency a nice note on her CV.
“And Llewellyn?” Nick had said. “When will we meet him?”
“I’m so sorry,” Nick said.
They were the ones that recruited her. She said no, until… And they wanted her. Made it easy. Found her a townhouse to lease in the new development, Heritage Crescent, the model home, fully furnished, not to her taste of course but what could possibly be more convenient? For a small monthly fee, leaves raked, someone shoveled the snow.
Didn’t you wonder why the price was so low?
Much less than you’d pay in LA, but I expected that.
Why would Joe Dilworth charge you less than half the going rate?
I had no idea it was his property. I didn’t know market rate. When I moved in, I’d never even met him.
She made plans, she packed. What to do with the bed that still held the imprint of his body, the armchair he preferred, his clothes? She put it all in storage. Someday Eli would be old enough… The photographs and videos might not be enough, the newspaper clippings, the names she would teach him of trees. Sycamore, eucalyptus, coast live oak, ficus. Lew’s with her when she thinks Cottonwood, red cedar, buckeye, when they tell her ironwood, sweetgum, catalpa, chinkapin, sassafras, pawpaw, most when she asks What is that tree called? and they say I don’t know. But Lew would know. Devil’s walking stick.
Someday Eli might need to see the things his dad had slept in, sat upon, worn upon the body that engendered one son.
In the motel, she threw herself on the bed and howled. She cried till she felt emptied, but her tears came and came and came. It wasn’t license she needed but self-control.
She was an administrator, she was a manager, and so she managed.
She turned them down. Only to call back…later. Was the position still open?
They interviewed her via Skype, Nick Greco, Linda McPherson (the Mayor’s wife), Rev.Anthony of the Methodist Church, an aide from the County Commissioner’s office. Her years of arts and culture programming in a much larger county, a patchwork of jurisdictions, a population more than 10 million. They loved her there. Hundreds at the funeral. “You don’t promote tolerance, you don’t bring people together through confrontation. Enough with panel discussions. Make music together, put on a play together, that’s community engagement through the arts.”
At the end of the call, they offered her the job.
“We didn’t know we were hiring a widow,” said Nick. “You’re going to make people—women—nervous.” In spite of his wedding ring, “the husbands must have been worried about you,” she said. “Oh, yes. The Italian Stallion, till I told them I was a vegetarian. Much less threatening as the Italian Scallion.” Bullshit. Out here, who knew the word “scallion”? Green onion and, here in beef country and with all the pig farms, a vegetarian? Nick, transplant from the east, said, “You stay because it’s a neighborly town. You’re surrounded by people you just don’t want to leave,” and she’d briefly thought she, too, would stay. In spite of a first impression, young people with hardware in their faces, not much software in their heads. And yet she was charmed. The Mom-and-Pop hardware store by the square. Eli loved the bins of penny candy – “penny” though a strip of candy buttons cost $3 – not hipster retro this place, the store carrying on unchanged, except for price, for generations. What was it like for people who stayed put? Who could dig a hole in the yard to bury, say, a cat, and find old dog tags, brown glass medicine bottles, broken toys, relics of grandparents, great-grandparents, ancestors, all on this ground. To be so rooted, she can’t even imagine. The outsider, come in to take charge.
“You must be glad to be out of LA,” they told her.
“Bad things can happen anywhere,” she said. Everywhere.
In the days before she left, she came across bad things everywhere. Man on the sidewalk lying on his side, pants open, penis sticking out and an arc of piss shoots into the air too suddenly for her to get out of the way. A man who grabs her arm. “Television, ads, commercials, it’s white women with black men. That’s all you see! I’m not saying kill them, but if all the white women go with black men, what are white men supposed to do?” Deal with your substance abuse and mental health issues. Tone down the racism. Go to hell.
Nick keeps talking and she’s looking out the window, when she looks out the window in her new home, there are no trees, all cleared away by the developer, nothing but low shrubbery, from Nick’s office on the campus she sees dogwood in bloom cottonwoods. Back home, Mexican fan palm, Canary Island palm, California fan palm, jacaranda, bottlebrush, gold medallion. The botanical names keep her up at night, running in her head, floss silk tree is ceiba speciosa, coral tree is…starts with er, ern, erph, ery, ery-something, erya, eryb, eryc, hour after hour, at dawn she gets it, erythina caffra, oh Lew, my husband. You wanted to plant a million trees. Instead, disposing of the dead, diseased, uprooted. Killer trees, falling on cars, homes, people. He should have died beneath a tree, not the way… “What kind of tree is that?” she asks Nick, he doesn’t know but what he does know is this: Men already known to be cheating dogs see divorced women as easy pickings but even decent husbands are susceptible to the charms of a lonely, blameless widow.
She would not be blameless long.
“Years ago, they had a choice between the state college and the prison,” Nick told her. “They figured the prison would bring a better class of people.” What the prison brought was jobs. There was a private prison, too, this one for immigrants, some transported from the border, others who’d been working at the meat packing plant. The detentions and deportations brought activists and lawyers. And though the town had refused the honor of the state college, it ended up with an institution of higher learning, progressive liberal arts Keenan College, expanded from its first seat—the unused state sanitarium where TB patients had lived once upon a time in quarantine. The college brought Nick to the Plains as Dean. She has an office near his, on the new campus.
He said, “We also need to deal with town versus gown.”
The town, this county seat, had grown. Near the interstate and railroad, perfect for logistics, sheds and warehouses along the horizon. Best equipped regional medical center, biggest shopping mall. New employers hub assembly, spare parts, refurbishing wind turbines. Small businesses, vaping pods. The Japanese family buying up soybeans to manufacture tofu, supplying restaurants in seven states.
“My dream? Look, kids who went to Antioch didn’t want to leave Yellow Springs. Galesburg, Illinois votes Democrat. Why? Probably because of Knox College. Expanding Keenan College – I thought I’d be establishing a beach head. But we have to keep people here after they graduate. We have to draw in the rest of the population.
“Be careful with Linda,” Nick warned her. “She’s been the Queen Bee. Completely unqualified but she wanted your gig.”
Now he says her presence would be a distraction. Stay home.
All along she did what Nick told her, had the “ladies” to tea: they’re all wives of “prominent” citizens.
“Don’t women here work?” she asked him.
“Most do. Most have to and don’t have time for midday teas.”
So how to get past the donor class? She left leaflets at the country bars, the laundromats, Yesenia talked to the cleaners and cafeteria workers at the college. Tereze poured tea for the wives of the lawyer, the doctor, the newspaper publisher, the banker, the owner of the packing plant, the radio station, and of course, Linda. Who started the Music Program importing out-of-town talent to perform in the Civic Auditorium. Helen, the doctor’s wife breathed out a thank you. She fingered her long blond braid. “Music is my life’s blood. I don’t know how I’d get by without my cello.” You’ll join the orchestra, of course, an ally.
Shagbark hickory, honey locust, linden. Orange osage, chinkapin. Eli, my sweet love, your Daddy loved trees. Sometimes at night, just as she falls asleep, he’s on top of her, inside her, so real that her body responds, spasms, she must be crazy, Lew, my love, insane? so be it.
Downstairs by the radio, oh, this is what she tried to veto, one disagreement with Cara, sure, the Leonard Bernstein centennial, celebrate it, but that song, really? Those silly women having a ball putting on Spanish accents. At least she didn’t have to see what they looked like onstage, big bright flouncy skirts, peasant blouses. God, hadn’t the news spent months teaching that Puerto Ricans are Americans, and now we have to listen to I like to be in America? And everyone there moving here? It’s not a joke, the island all but destroyed, still, and certain Americans so scared of the invasion from the South. But it was certainly a crowd pleaser. All that applause.
Yesenia’s not singing it, none of the Latinas.
Sweet, chubby Yesenia could never have been as shy as she seemed at first. Nick sent her over. You’ll need childcare. So quiet, but she’d nailed the first scholarship for a Dreamer, a full ride to Keenan, her application had to be strong, and she must’ve interviewed well. No friends in the dorm but she did love learning, wanted to experience, to try, curious about everything.
I don’t blame her. How could I? She shared her enthusiasms with me. Her World Lit class, reading Virgil. And one day: “Tree rings play music! This man in Austria, he analyzed the rings, every characteristic, you assign values and output to a piano score. Listen, listen.” Downloading walnut, dissonant arpeggios, oak like windchimes, maple, clang clang then whispers, then quiet drop by drop an icicle melting over the roof, silence enfolds the notes, spruce, “Isn’t it wonderful?” but the trees had to be cut down. They can’t talk to you until they’re dead. And one day she says, “I didn’t fight for DACA, I was afraid, I let others step up. It’s not right that I benefit. I have to give back.” That’s when she really blossomed, interpreting, meeting activists, organizers, and that’s how…
Where is he?
I don’t know.
Did you transfer money to him?
No! I wasn’t, we weren’t…
How could he do it without help? How did he jump bail and vanish?
How does it feel? To take hush money to cover up rape?
Yes, he purchased naming rights to a whole row of seats. Half of them, my name. Yes, he gave Eli Legos, gloves with flashing LED lights, dinosaur hot wheels. Yes, you’ve seen us arm-in-arm, bright smiles. Yes, he was perfect. So unappealing. I was in mourning, can you understand that? If he’d been…compatible… I’ll find another one, stop the damn song, better than you, Skip to my…Do you see I was happy not to be tempted.
My Lew, my Lew, my darling.
For Eli’s sake, there had to be an end to the wails of grief, the wrenching moans that frightened him and that’s when he asked it most, Where’s Daddy? thinking only Daddy could ease my pain. I came here so I’d have to be stoic. Like Jackie.
She was so calm on the drive east, Will Daddy be there? Eli so excited. No matter how many times she told him, no, Daddy isn’t coming back, he still expected to find him waiting for them in Cranwood Springs. He was three when they left. Now he’s just turning four. Yesenia never babysat anyone like him. “Do you know what he said? When I grow up, I’m going to be a tree and I will give oxygen to the people.” She’s impressed, never saw him swinging on the banister, shrieking I’m a monkey! I’m a monkey! Monkeys live in trees! Never saw him kick her, screaming I want Daddy! Unless, “Has Eli ever kicked you?” she asked Yesenia who didn’t answer the question, who said, “He’s just a little kid. A little boy,” and, “Sometimes he cries.”
The Adagio in a minor key, slow and mournful. She pictures Helen’s blond braid against the curve of her cello. She wanted the cadenza. “But it’s not up to me. Cara’s decision.” An ally lost, right there. They played this first in a recital, perfect, how it fit her mood, but unremarkable. Even Joe noticed. “Even Bach couldn’t hit it out of the park every time.”
He applauded after the first movement along with most of the audience. Cara stopped and turned, lectured about holding the applause to the end. People in LA clapped at the wrong time too, and no one scolded them.
Would you say you know him well?
She couldn’t say—it would sound too cold to say—she was never interested enough in him to want to know him.
What she should have explained, maybe did explain, hard to remember, but whatever she said, that’s not what came out in the weekly and on the air. I needed an escort, and I don’t mean, you know, escort service, sexual services you pay for, no, not at all. For fundraisers, public occasions, I needed to walk in on the arm of a man. Hardly a 21st-century requirement, not to my way of thinking, but it’s what I was asked to do.
The Allegro, the violins sawing away, grasshoppers, jointed arms up and down. Anyway, who decides what’s OK? Jazz and you can applaud every soloist or whenever the spirit moves you. Who said you have to stay stock still? That night, seated beside Joe, her toes moved inside her shoes, forbidden response, while he sat unmoved. Nothing physical at all. They never had sex. It didn’t bother her he didn’t try. She wasn’t attracted to him in the least.
You didn’t find it suspicious he didn’t want sex?
We weren’t a couple. It was an arrangement.
It was convenient for you, wasn’t it, that he took care of his needs in other ways.
And believe you me (who says that?), I didn’t choose Joe. What did he get out of it? He liked being seen as a benefactor, a philanthropist, maybe he just liked wearing a tux. Frankly, I assumed he was gay. Till Yesenia tried to hide her tears. Which, why should that raise suspicion? He didn’t assault her, didn’t extort her, just came on to her. … If he was straight, of course he’d prefer someone young and pretty like her. She was only crying because she thought we were a couple, that he was betrayin