The Cello Player
by George Dila
My friend David’s parents were members of a religious sect called Plymouth Brethren. They believed that the world was evil and that most people were controlled by the Devil. That included David, their only begotten son. After all, he read worldly books by writers like that degenerate, Kurt Vonnegut. And he took cello lessons from a Jew.
David and I grew up in the same blue-collar suburb of Detroit, the neighborhood a grid of narrow streets lined on both sides with asbestos-sided bungalows. To most of our high school classmates David was invisible, but I noticed him, noticed something unique about him. Like finding a French franc in a pocketful of change.
For one thing, although he played the cello, he chose not to play in the school orchestra. He had higher standards. The only time I ever heard him play was at a school Christmas concert when he accompanied the choir, in which I sang tenor, on Silent Night. He took a lovely solo which he played from memory, ignoring the sheet music on the stand, his eyes closed, his body swaying in small arcs. Even at that age his playing seemed effortless, unlike those in the orchestra sawing away at their instruments. The audience, which included my parents but did not include his, seemed mesmerized by his playing.
Unlike other classmates with younger siblings at school, he was touchingly solicitous to his younger sister Christine, having lunch with her and stopping to chat between classes. And he dressed differently, more like an adult, with polished shoes, creased pants, and pressed sport shirts.
Our friendship was not a deep one. It was a friendship of convenience, of curiosity, and a few shared interests. We occasionally worked together in study hall, and spent time at each other’s homes after school. Once we went downtown together to see Aldo Ceccato conducting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in Berlioz’ Symphony Fantastique. David pointed out his teacher, the principal cellist.
At my house we played ping-pong in the basement, David lunging at my slams with mock enthusiasm, playing only to indulge me, I think now, or we sat in the kitchen and he talked to my mother about things in the news that didn’t much interest me, like Margaret Thatcher becoming Prime Minister of England or Egypt reopening the Suez Canal.
At his house we stayed in his room with the door closed listening to records—symphonies by Beethoven and Tchaikovsky and Brahms. His cello was always out, leaning against his straight-backed practice chair behind a black music stand with Macomb County Schools stenciled across the back, the bow lying across the shelf of the stand, and a piece of sheet music, open.
I saw his mother only when we walked past the kitchen. She would be working at the sink, very still, either attending very closely to her own thoughts or waiting for something to happen, something of import, or she would be sitting at the kitchen table intently reading a small book. She never looked up when we passed, and David never spoke to her.
I met his father only once. He was sitting in the living room when we came in, reading what appeared to be a Bible. There was something soft and pulpy about him, I thought, like a too-ripe pear. He did not look up and David did not speak to him. A couple of hours later, as I followed David back through the living room on our way out, his father was still in the chair, reading his Bible. I had already walked past him when he spoke, the unexpected sound of his voice taking me by surprise.
“You like that stuff too?” he asked in a soft, friendly drawl.
“What stuff?” I asked.
His eyes went back to the book, and he did not look at me again during the rest of our short conversation.
“That heathen music,” he said in the same friendly way. “That classical music he listens to.”
“Jim,” David said softly, trying to get my attention.
But I knew something about such music. Our choir had sung Bach and parts of Messiah. So I replied, “A lot of classical music was written for the church.”
Again, David said, “Jim.”
“And what makes you think,” his father asked in that soft, unhurried way, still looking down at the book in his hands, “what makes you think that most churches are not controlled by Satan?”
A small smile hovered over his lips like a bird and then decided not to land. I could not speak.
“Let’s go, Jim,” David said, behind me.
“Perdition,” his father said quietly into his Bible. “They’re headed for perdition, Lord.”
There was a grim quiet about the house as we left, a sense of suppressed feelings, of errant emotions kept at bay.
David ran away from home when he was sixteen, riding the Greyhound bus to New York City, taking his cello with him. He lied about his age, lived at the Y, worked as a busboy at three restaurants at one time: the Longchamp’s on the ground floor of the Empire State Building at lunch, the Russian Tea Room at dinner and, on Sunday evenings, at a place called the Waterwheel out in Westchester. To get there he had to take a subway out to the Bronx and then a bus to White Plains and then ride the rest of the way with the guy who got him the job, a waiter from the Tea Room.
Most of his money went for cello lessons and therapy. He had one lesson a week with the assistant principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic and one session a week with a pricey upper-eastside shrink. After all, David had his standards. But he didn’t have much money left over for necessities like underwear and socks. So he stole. But not the cheap stuff. Not from places like Alexander’s. Only the good stuff, from Saks and Bloomingdale’s.
I learned all of this about him a dozen years after he ran away. During that same time I’d finished high school, picked up a business degree at Wayne State, went to work on the account services side of the advertising business, and met and fell in love with Liz, the person who became my best friend and my wife. And then, without meaning to, without need or inclination or propensity, I fell in love with another woman. Her name was Janice.
I’d had no contact with David in all those years, but I was going to New York to spend a couple of days at the home office of the ad agency I worked for and decided to look him up. I called his old number. His sister was there visiting from out of town and we spent a few minutes catching up on each other’s lives. Then she gave me David’s number in New York and asked me to call her when I got back and tell her how he was doing. I promised I would, but I never did.
When I reached David he seemed glad to hear from me and we arranged to have dinner at his place when I got to New York. By this time he was living on the upper westside in a neighborhood that someone in the office told me was on the cusp of trendiness. On the night of our dinner there was a howling storm. I hailed a cab in front of my hotel and headed uptown, the wind driving the rain in sheets across Broadway, the wipers slashing furiously, the driver hunched forward, mumbling, heedlessly crashing through pot holes as big as small ponds. David buzzed me into the building and was waiting when I reached the third floor landing. We hugged in spite of my wet raincoat.
“It’s awful out there,” I said, following him into the apartment. He threw the deadbolt, found a wooden hanger in his closet, took my coat and went to hang it in the bathroom over the tub.
The apartment was small—a living room with windows facing onto West 81st Street, a galley kitchen, a bedroom and bathroom down the short hallway. In the living room was a sofa covered in smooth gray flannel and an Eames easy chair of wood and leather. One whole wall was shelving holding hundreds of books, several feet of record albums, and a collection of stereo components. There was a small print on one wall that could have been a Klee and another I recognized as a Picasso. On the floor was a Persian rug in deep burgundy. A rosewood dining table, cleverly designed to fold up nearly flat, was open, and on it were two dinner settings of china, crystal, and silver. In a corner near the windows was a straight-backed chair of dark mahogany with a needlepoint floral seat, and a brass lyre-back music stand holding a piece of sheet music. Leaning against the wall was a black cello case, closed, and through its handle was a chain of chrome links that snaked around a heat register pipe and fastened with a small padlock. The cello was put away.
“God it’s great to see you,” David said when he came back into the room. He chose a record and put it on the turntable. “Elgar. The Cello Concerto,” he said. He closed his eyes for a moment, listening, then said, “Du Pre. My God, she was only twenty.”
David was now a waiter in a popular steakhouse in Greenwich Village where he served people like Jason Robards and Stephen Sondheim. This was Monday, his night off. He poured White Label into two crystal tumblers filled with ice and then busied himself rolling a fat joint.
“The waitering business must be good,” I said. “You seem pretty damned prosperous.”
“It’s embarrassing how much money I make. Incredible tips. Two thousand a week, easy, all cash. And food. You’ll like the steaks we’re having.” He looked up from his task and lifted his eyebrows. “I have a deal with the chef. Dope for steaks.”
He lit the joint and passed it to me and we began talking, about the old neighborhood and high school, and about our lives since then, talking through the Scotch and the dope, through the steaks and the Bordeaux, through the coffee and the Hennessy XO, through the Scarlatti and the Mozart and the Bartok.
He told me about his early days in New York and about the best way to steal underwear. He told me funny, preposterous stories about working in restaurants, about fistfights between cooks, and about larcenous bartenders. He wasn’t seeing a shrink anymore. The therapy money now went for artwork, books and music. He still played the cello several hours a day, and still took a lesson once a week. He spent an occasional night in the bed of a pretty Korean girl named Sumi who lived downstairs. She was a fiddle player, studying at Julliard, tons of money in the family. In fact, while David was putting on a new record, the faint cry of a violin wafted up from below.
“Sumi’s practicing.” he said.
“You know, I’ve only heard you play once,” I said. I reminded him of the Christmas concert years before.
The rain drummed on the windows and thunder boomed a long way off.
“You should have been here earlier. I practiced all afternoon,” he told me, “I bought a new instrument a couple of years ago. A Fagnola. Italian. Paid a fortune. Now I never leave it out. Somebody could break in and walk off with it, so I chain the damned thing up.”
I asked him about playing in an orchestra, or teaching.
“I’ll play for the Phil or no one at all,” he said. “That’s my standard.”
“But don’t you have to work yourself up to the Philharmonic?” I asked.
“I just won’t go that route. I’ve had chances to audition for a couple of other orchestras. Des Moines and New Orleans. And a word from my teacher would have me in Cincinnati tomorrow, without an audition.”
“Why not, for a couple of years?” I sipped my brandy.
“I’d rather kiss Jason Robards’ ass for a big tip than play cello in Cincinnati,” he said.
I asked him if he’d seen his parents since he left home and he told me that he’d been back a couple of years before. His mother was very ill and Christine asked him to come see her. The visit with his father did not go well, he told me. But he wouldn’t say any more.
I told him about the racial problems in Detroit, and about college, and the advertising business, and about meeting and marrying Liz, and about our life together. But I didn’t tell him what I’d come there to tell him. I didn’t tell him about Janice. I wanted to, but I could not.
I wanted to tell someone about the guilt I felt lying to Liz, and about how I still loved her, loved her very much. But with Janice it was different, and I wanted to tell someone about how this beautiful young woman seemed to love me beyond all reason. And about how I drove with my convertible top down, screaming her name into the teeth of expressway noise. I wanted to tell someone about our silent phone calls, and being with her when we should have been at work, and the way we clutched at each other in empty doorways and elevators, and the way we kissed and how I put my hand down the front of her jeans and touched her wetness. I wanted to tell someone about the first time we sat facing each other naked on her bed, laughing and playing like children, and about making clumsy, slightly embarrassed love.
And then I realized that was why I had come to see David—to have someone to tell, someone I knew but not too closely. Like making a confession to a priest behind a screen.
But I did not tell him. The wind blew the rain against the windows.
The telephone rang. David picked it up and listened, said a few words, softly, and then hung up.
“I’m going downstairs for a second,” he said. “I promise I’ll be right back.”
“Musical. Sumi’s stuck on a tough bit of Beethoven.”
A little muddle-headed, I went to the bathroom, then came back and began looking at David’s books. Lots of music and philosophy and history, but little fiction. I examined his artwork up close, the Picasso and the Klee and several original pencil sketches, skillful studies of hands, backs, buttocks. I stood at the window for a while looking out. The rain had stopped and the street below was glistening black. Finally I found myself at David’s practice area. I touched the music on the stand. Schumann. The world was silent except for the faraway cry of Sumi’s violin, repeating the same short musical phrase over and over again.
To this day I cannot explain my next action. I knelt next to the cello case and tried to snap open the catch. It was locked. I gently shook the case, then put my hands beneath it and lifted it a few inches off the floor before carefully setting it back down.
“So, will you play for me now?” I asked David when he came back upstairs. He was slouched into the sofa, I into the Eames. We both seemed sated, satisfied.
“Maybe next time,” he said. “Now I’ve had too much to smoke and too much to eat and too much to drink.”
I didn’t respond, waiting for him to say more, and I imagined a conflict going on in his mind, whether to reveal his secrets, to open his heart, something that I had been unable to do myself. We were both quiet for a long time.
“In fact,” he finally continued, “I played almost until you got here. My hands are dead.”
“Next time,” I said.
Later, when I told Liz about my dinner with David, I did not tell her about the cello case. I did not tell her that when I shook it, nothing moved inside. I did not tell her that the cello case had been empty. I did not want to hear her cool, detached opinion. In fact, I wanted to believe that I was wrong, that the case had not been empty, that the cello had really been there.
Actually, that is what I now believe. I believe the combination of food and alcohol and dope, and the fierce storm just a fraction of an inch away on the other side of the windowpane, and my own secret that I had held firmly in my breast, that all of these factors caused me to be confused. I believe that the cello was there. And I believe that David has a right to his life, any way he wants it.
George Dila is the author of a short story collection, Nothing More to Tell, published by Mayapple Press in 2011. His short fiction and personal essays have appeared in numerous journals, including North American Review, Cleaver, Palooka, Literal Latte, Fiction Now and others. A native Detroiter, George now lives in Ludington, MI, a small town on the Lake Michigan shore. His website is georgedila.com.