Richard McGowan ~ Christmas Concert

It was several nights before Christmas, and all along the freeway, cars were lined up like a vast herd of red-nosed reindeer being led off to slaughter. I glanced away from the sight and reached out to snap off the radio. I’d had far too much of the Messiah since Thanksgiving. You’d think a respectable classical station could think of something more original to saturate the airwaves with. But I knew that even if I changed the station, I’d get White Christmas, or Blue Christmas, or Dixie Christmas, or some other form of musical blasphemy. Traffic moved along sluggishly, inching up a long, curving hill. It was raining heavily—one of those sudden tropical storms, only it was happening in a refrigerator. I had the windshield wipers on full, but still I could hardly see the vehicle in front of me.

Along with every other irate father, uncle, brother, and son who was late for some engagement or another, I was in the fast lane. I had gotten caught in a last-minute sales meeting, and I was going to be late for my daughter’s concert if the idiot in front of me didn’t hurry up. The offending car was a Jeep, jacked up on all fours with tires big enough to dwarf a road-grader, and had struts and shock absorbers and what-not sticking out all over the undercarriage—a real useful piece of machinery for navigating the treacherous Silicon Valley freeways: when you see a car you don’t like, you just roll right over it. The Jeep had one of those typical California vanity plates, held in place by a brass frame which, had I been able to read it in the dark, would have said “My other truck is a Mack.” The driver was pumping on his brakes continually, no doubt keeping time to some Country Christmas Hit Classic. Lounging on top of this pinnacle of western automotive engineering was a Christmas tree, lashed with a couple pieces of thin twine—probably on its way to a living room hung with paintings of nudes on black velvet, and soon to be littered with tacky country decorations and strings of popcorn. The tree listed to one side, bobbing over the edge of the Jeep’s roof in time with the blinking brake lights. The driver’s girlfriend was smooching up to him in the front seat—I could see her outline through the back window, practically sitting in his lap… maybe she _was_ in his lap. I started thinking they probably deserved to lose the whole tree. They’d have a real nice surprise when they got home without it.

I reached over to turn on the radio again, thinking the hourly excerpt from the Messiah might be over by then. I should have brought a tape from home, but I’d barely had time to change my suit. Just when my eyes were averted for an instant, the Christmas-tree bedecked vehicle in front of me decided to drop its load. I felt my car go bump, bump, and slammed on my brakes before I even looked up. The car behind me skidded and swerved to one side, then leaned on his horn as if he’d run into an iceberg. I just hit the emergency lights and leaned on my own horn. The guy in front, perhaps hearing the tooting chorus behind him, stopped just down the road, and like an idiot, put his Jeep into reverse and came hurtling back toward me. He skidded to a stop and put on his emergency lights.

What kind of jerk ties down a Christmas tree so loosely that it flops off in the middle of a freeway? We were only doing twenty miles an hour—in the rain, no less. I thought I would have to get out and check the extent of the damage, and I wasn’t happy about slogging in the rain with my dress shoes on. Hallelujah, the jerk stopped, anyway, so I could at least get the name of his insurance company—I’d already memorized his personal license number (which doesn’t bear repeating—I’d always thought the DMV had standards of decency).

I hopped out, trying to pull up the collar of my overcoat even though it wouldn’t quite cover my head, and started walking forward to have a few choice words with Mister Country Jamboree in the over-endowed automobile. Of course, CJ (as I then dubbed the driver) bounded out of the Jeep and headed my way, tucking in his shirt as he walked. One look at him, and I almost turned around and left—CJ could have been Paul Bunyan’s twin brother. He had the shirt to prove it, too: red and black lumberjack style checks, with the top three buttons undone, and chest hair that was thicker than my beard. He also wore cowboy boots and wide red suspenders.

“Holy moley, mister!” he yelled with a tone of real concern. “You alright?”

I was about to lay into him when his gum-chewing girlfriend appeared from behind, tucking herself into his armpit. “Oh!” she squealed, “Ah’m so sorry! Looks like our tree smashed up your brand new car!”

My car wasn’t exactly brand new, but I looked around to where she pointed. Sure enough, the front grill was bent in and one headlight had gone out, the glass completely smashed. The tree itself was nestled cozily under the car, nuzzling up against the oil pan.

The look of childish helplessness on both their faces—and frankly what I considered might be a moderate dose of dull wittedness—somehow got to me just then, and I couldn’t quite bring myself to swear at them. Besides, the fastest thing to do would be to shrug it off with a happy face, extract their battered shrubbery from beneath my car, and be on my way. I decided that silliness would carry the day. “Merry Christmas!” I called, throwing out my arms. “Sorry about your tree!” Both of them lit up in grins.

“Look—he ain’t even mad,” the guy said to his girlfriend.

She batted her lashes in astonishment. “We’re awfully sorry about this,” she chimed, wagging her head.

It only took a minute to get the tree out from under the car. All the while, I was thinking of how to explain it to the patrolman who would undoubtedly appear in a moment: it’s just another roadkill, officer, nothing to be alarmed about; I’m sure it happens all the time, what with all these trees swooping down on unsuspecting holiday merrymakers.

The tree was pretty battered up around the lower branches, but it really could have sufficed to cheer someone’s holiday—if one cut off a couple feet from the bottom and turned the bad side toward the wall so it couldn’t be seen. You only decorate half the tree anyway, right? I started trying to explain this to my countrified acquaintances, but they would have none of it.

“Look, mister,” CJ drawled, propping up the tree with one hand. “We busted out yer headlight. Hell, the least I can do is give ya the tree.”

The woman tilted her head and shot out a hand to touch my arm. She had a horrified look in her wide eyes that I could see even through her dripping mascara. “You ain’t already got one do ya, mister?”

I glanced at my watch and tried to weasel out of it. I’d already nixed the idea of a Christmas tree—told my family (meaning my daughter, Jenny) we weren’t having one that year, and that was final. They just shed all over the carpets and had to be tossed out at precisely the right moment in January or the city garbage folks wouldn’t pick them up. We’d had a tree one year that sat around well into February because we missed the magic pick-up date. I finally chopped it into little bits and threw it out a piece at a time over the next six weeks. I had no use whatever for a Christmas tree.

In the end, I didn’t want to argue with them—it was cold, exceedingly wet, and I was already going to be late for the concert. So CJ helped me load the mortally wounded conifer into my trunk. We groped around for the twine, but couldn’t find it, so he battened down the lid with his girlfriend’s belt. She had high-tailed it back into the Jeep to wait for him out of the rain. He whispered into my ear while he cinched up the belt. “She don’t really need her belt,” he said. “I’d have it off her in another couple o’ miles anyways.” He gave me a wink and wished me a Merry Christmas.

By the time I arrived at the hall, the concert had long since begun and it was almost intermission. I detest arriving late for these things, and I had to wait around the lobby until the first part was over. I was thankful I’d not been any later. Jenny would have been sorely disappointed if I’d missed her big debut: about twenty minutes from the time I arrived in the lobby, she was scheduled to begin her first public performance as a featured soloist—playing “Harold in Italy”. If you don’t know it, it’s a fine piece of music, but it’s not in the frequently-performed repertoire, because it’s sort of a half-fledged concerto for viola. Not the violin or the cello—the viola: underdog of all orchestral instruments.

My daughter Jenny wasn’t always a violist. We started her out right on the violin—something I considered a respectable instrument for a young lady. My ex-wife and I had faint hopes that someday she’d be a concert violinist—Jenny was that good from the time she picked up her first quarter-sized fiddle. We spent a fortune on expensive teachers, and as soon as she was ready, we started her on the long track: youth symphony. But just after her fourteenth birthday, something happened to her brain. I don’t mean a pre-mature stroke or some kind of lesion. She came home one day with this hideous dreamy look in her eyes, and she puttered around the kitchen nervously helping me cook. She wasn’t talking very much.

I didn’t want to probe, figuring she’d tell me what was on her mind when she was ready. “I have to go to Milan next month,” I said, trying to be cheerful.

She was tearing lettuce leaves into microscopic fragments, and she looked up. “Will you see Grandma?”

Jenny meant my mother—fountainhead of all family quirks. As a bright-eyed Italian girl of seventeen she married her American sweetheart and came to the States. It turned out to be a terrible marriage, and years later, after dutifully raising four kids, she divorced my father, American style, and went home to the Old Country. Jenny had only met her a few times, but when they did meet you couldn’t pry them apart.

“Uh-huh. I thought I might take you along, if you can stand it,” I teased. I pulled the salad bowl away from her and tossed in the tomato I had been cutting. “We’ll leave the day before spring-break.”

She brightened a bit at that, and with a very limp wrist, laid a whole leaf of lettuce on top of the chopped tomato. “Can we stop in Vienna?”

“Oh, I don’t know, Jenny… Maybe for a day or two.”

She put on a weak smile. “Can we go to the opera?” she asked softly. Jenny’s enthusiasm for opera was phenomenal. She must have inherited that from my mother, too—I always thought half the reason she went back to Milan was because they did too many German operas in San Francisco.

“Only if you can drag Grandma along.” I picked up the salad and two bowls, then waltzed away toward the dining room.

Over dinner she made her momentous announcement. I had just put a big bite of steak into my mouth and was chewing thoughtfully. I even recall we were listening to something by Prokofiev.

“Daddy, I’m going to switch,” she said quickly with an air of non-chalance.

I paused, finished chewing, and then fell right into the pit. “That’s fine, honey…” Another pause. She wasn’t looking right at me, and I leaned over to try to catch her eye. “You’re going to switch what?”

She stabbed at her steak, fork delicately held in her left hand just like we’d taught her all her life. “To viola.” She slid a small piece of steak into her mouth and started chewing.

I gagged, and put down my fork, but she kept on chattering with her mouth full, trying to convince me before I could even voice the beginning of an objection. Finally she appealed to my conceit. “You want me to be a great musician, right Daddy?”

I tried to agree that had been our hope, but I was still trying to catch my breath.

“Well, I’m sitting third-desk right now. Do you know what that _means_?” she whined. “I’ll never get anywhere in a concert career. You have to sit first-desk—or be the concert mistress.”

I coughed a couple more times. “But you’re doing fine,” I insisted. “You’re the best.”

She gave me her old half-frown, pulling down one side of her mouth and screwing up her eyes, then rolling them away toward the ceiling. “Daddy,” she said, “I’m not the best. Mary is the best.” She pushed another piece of steak onto her fork. “I’m sitting third desk with Deadpan Wang.” She got that dreamy look again, and balanced her fork on two fingers. “But if I switch to viola—they’re always in greater demand you know, because fewer people play viola, Daddy—I could be sitting first desk.”

“Look,” I told her, “you’ve already won a couple of competitions, are you going to throw all that effort away, and take up… the _viola_?” I actually gulped.

“_You_ might call it winning,” she shot back, “but I’ve never taken better than second place.”

“What about the cello?”

“Daddy,” she whined again, putting down her knife and picking up her milk. “The technique is too different—you should have started me on cello ten years ago.”

“Does your mother know about this?”

She twirled her fork among her green beans and wouldn’t meet my eyes. “No.” She looked up with knotted eyebrows. “She doesn’t care.”

“Jenny, she does too…” I let that trail off lamely and we ate in silence for a while.

Now, I had nothing particular against the viola, as an instrument. Frankly speaking, I’ve known a couple of violists pretty intimately—and I’ve always found violists to be warm and tender people. Much less high-strung, so to speak, than violinists. Not quite as passionate as cellists. But I would hardly have considered the viola to be a prestigious solo instrument. How many famous violists can you name? How many great viola concertos? “The repertoire is too limited,” I said, speaking what was on my mind. This fact did not deter her determination.

“Mr. Rossi thinks I’d make a great violist,” she replied. There was that look again, right in her light brown eyes. Just like her mother.

I had a sudden insight: my teenage daughter had a crush on the conductor. He needed a violist, and apparently he was astute enough to take advantage of a young girl’s infatuation to get one. Maybe I’d have a word about cradle robbing with Mr. Rossi. Well, no that was a bit much, I decided. Jenny would have given me the silent treatment for a week. I’d have to stay calm. I told her to think about it for a while, and after a couple weeks, if she still wanted to descend to being a violist, we’d see.

Half an hour later, while I did the dishes, she was on the phone to someone, and jabbered away for a couple of hours to her friends while she dragged the phone all over the living room. I decided again I’d have to join the modern age and get a cordless phone. She probably was about ready for her own private line. I thought maybe I ought to make her pay for it, too.

Jenny worked her way up to first desk within a year of taking up her beloved viola, and despite myself I was beginning to be slightly proud of her. She really was in higher demand, and was constantly so involved with chamber ensembles, youth symphony, flitting here and there, that a lot of her schoolwork was suffering noticeably. Her grade-point average dropped until she was barely maintaining a “B”. We had a little talk about that, and decided mutually (or at least I like to think it was mutual) that she needed to pull it up, or I’d pull the plug on all her extra-curricular activities.

So there I was, three years later, pacing the lobby, waiting. I heard applause in the auditorium, so I snuck in the door. The hall was packed solid. At least it seemed packed solid for a moment. I found a pretty lousy seat near the back and plopped myself down while I looked around for something closer. I spotted an aisle seat near the middle, so I moved down and slid into it. I need not have rushed—it was intermission, so I sat there for ten minutes contemplating. Soon, the orchestra filed back in and the audience bustled around to reclaim their seats. The conductor, the notorious Mr. Rossi, re-appeared on stage, and the orchestra stood for him. I waited through the next torturous work on the menu, hoping it would be over quickly. When it ended, I clapped a couple of times and hoped the rest of the audience didn’t go wild.

When the applause died out, I found I was holding my breath. Then, Jenny appeared in the wings, and strolled forward, her instrument dangling easily from one hand. I could see her scan the crowd and smile—she was really just looking for me. I felt like waving, but that would have been gauche, so I kept my hands to myself. There she was, her black skirt billowing from a waist and hips that resembled her mother’s gorgeous figure more each time I noticed it. Her starched white blouse almost crackled. She had spent half an hour fussing over it with the iron, then spent another half an hour getting every speck of lint off her silk skirt. I noticed that her shoe-laces were untied, as usual, and broke out in a smile. At that instant, she tripped over the foot of a music stand—an intense foreboding chill shot through my spine and flashed along every nerve in my body when I saw her sailing headlong toward the floor. A gasp went up from the crowd, and the applause stopped immediately.

Her reflexes, I must admit, were those of a well-bred cat, and her instinct for self-preservation must never have been stronger: her viola never hit the floor. The conductor, wheeling around when he heard the clattering sound, stepped from his podium to assist her in standing again. One of the violinists, whose improperly placed music stand had done the damage, put down his violin to pick up the debris. The conductor had a few words with Jenny, and then he escorted her off the stage. She limped, and would put no weight on one leg. Rossi’s arm seemed to be practically fondling her chest and I felt a surge of fatherly irritation. I was already on my feet when they started off, and was trotting down the aisle toward the front of the auditorium.

“I’m her father,” I shouted at the old ladies who tried to stop me from ascending the side stairs. By then, some numbskull appeared from the wings to make an announcement that there would be a slight delay, and ask the audience to please wait a few moments. “Tell ’em a few jokes,” I suggested as I dashed past. I didn’t wait to hear what he said next, but ran into the back, looking for the green room. I was certain that’s where she would have gone. I hoped they had a doctor handy.

In another minute or two, I was with Jenny and the infamous Mr. Rossi, who had his arm around her waist and was consoling her in oily whispers. She sat with her priceless viola set across her lap—well, it was priceless enough to me, as I couldn’t afford to buy another one like it even if I sold both of my cars. Her bow had been snapped in two and was draped across the viola, two pieces of splintered wood dangling from white horsehair. She wept into the palm of one hand.

“Darling, are you OK?” I asked, rushing up to her. Mr. Rossi wisely removed his roaming hand and stood back a few steps.

“I think I just sprained my ankle,” she replied, but that was not the uppermost thing on her mind. “Oh, Daddy—look at my bow!”

“Hey, we can get a new one,” I told her, lifting it up. “I saw the way you saved your viola,” I said, trying to sound cheerful. “It was a great maneuver!”

She didn’t smile. “But… how am I going to _play_?”

I turned to Mr. Rossi. “Look, I’ll take her to see a doctor, and…”

“NO!” Jenny screamed. “I have to go on! There are people waiting out there!”

“Honey,” I replied, “you have to see a doctor right away.”

“Daddy—people paid _money_ to see me play tonight…” She started crying again. “If I don’t go on I’ll be humiliated forever!”

Under his breath, Rossi was making ecstatic noises in a thick, and quite ineffable, European accent. He sounded like a bad Italian wine with a French label—bottled in Austria and shipped via the Trans-Siberian Railway to Alaska where it was smuggled south on a Canadian ship. “She eez a true artiste…”

Try as I might, I could not convince her to come away with me. She was stubborn in that way—more stubborn than her mother had ever been. Mr. Rossi was no help at all in the matter either: he seemed to agree with her!

“But you can’t stand up,” I added, still trying to convince her.

“I’ll sit,” she replied curtly. Her tears had all dried up by then.

“Oh yais, eets no problaim,” Mr. Rossi interjected, “we’ll seemply yoos ainuther baow.” I shot him a look that shut him up immediately.

Jenny insisted on performing. She always carried another bow, and now the wisdom of that practice was proven. Unfortunately, it would have to suffice, though she had repeatedly decried it as being “quite an inferior stick” for playing anything serious. She got her elitism from her mother, too.

Mr. Rossi clapped his hands, entirely relieved. “Ah, but ZEES awdiense weel nevair hear souch subtle deefferense!” I knew what he meant too—the auditorium was filled with hundreds of glassy eyed parents, siblings, and tiny tots; half of them probably could not even spell “viola”. Mr. Rossi practically pranced away—off to see the numbskull and make another announcement: the soloist was unharmed; the show would go on.

Jenny had only one further thought: she’d had enough time to stop shaking, but she was so unnerved by the experience that she decided she could never trust herself to play from memory. “I really must have the score, Daddy. I should.”

The ladies of the green room were bustling around, trying to fawn over her, but keeping a respectful distance from her father, whom they correctly perceived to be an ape in a touchy mood. Oh, yes, they all agreed whole-heartedly that it would be no disgrace at all. Plenty of soloists had played before with the music in front of them. And considering the state of her nerves, the audience would be so relieved—and honored—to have her play at all, that they would forgive the minor irregularity of playing from the music. By all means, she must have the score.

Reluctantly, I finally gave in and knelt down to tie her shoe-laces. She could not stand unassisted—we tried a few experimental steps and she collapsed immediately under her own weight. One of the ladies produced an ace bandage, so we tied up her ankle, which had swollen so much it looked like a baked yam. A chair was taken onto the stage for her to sit. And of course, since she would be playing from the score, she needed a page turner.

It was the hand of fate: I knew the music, and I was wearing a black suit. “Honey—I’ll turn the pages,” I offered boldly before anyone else could volunteer. “Just like we used to do.”

She gave me that little-girl smile—I’d hardly seen it in ten years, but it made me feel like a real father again. “Oh, Daddy, would you?”

“Come on,” I said, putting my arm around her. “I’ll escort my princess to her throne.” She laughed, and we left the green room with her limping along beside me.

Now, I’m not much of a theatre person. I never attend plays, and the last time I was on stage I was in the third grade. By the time we reached the wings, I knew my face had already turned the color of a ripe tomato and I was sweating. I should have let one of the bustling ladies turn pages for her. How I could face an audience, I had no idea. I concentrated on keeping my daughter’s weight off her sprained ankle.

As we sat down, I had a brief moment to look out and feel terrified. The auditorium was dark, so I could only see the first few rows. And I could sense the breathing masses beyond the lights, hovering expectantly in the shadows, ready to slash me to ribbons. A hot wind was blowing in over the bobbing heads in the front; their forked tongues wagged angrily as they coiled slowly. I could almost see the sand whipping across the dunes. They were pretty damp dunes, though, since it was a rainy night. I could feel the intense humidity in the breeze. The conductor gave a nod, with a broad smile in our direction, and the orchestra struck up with the soft introduction.

I panicked at first, shooting my eyes across the page of music, trying to remember what I was supposed to be doing. Where was the first page turn? I couldn’t even remember how to read the little black dots. The page took on the look of an obscure foreign document splayed out across the music stand, filled with incomprehensible ink blots. It was a Rorschach test for the incurably insane. The whole scene was backed by the restless, peering faces of the audience. I closed my eyes briefly, trying to calm myself. I snapped them open immediately, however. If I had my eyes closed, I would miss Jenny’s signal. If that happened, I knew all would be lost for certain. I’d be laughed off the stage, and she would be ruined before she had even begun.

Only an eccentric maniac like Rossi the Terrible would have picked “Harold in Italy” for the finale of a Christmas concert. It’s not seasonal in the least—what was wrong with something seasonal that didn’t require a viola solo? But I guess, the orchestra was ready, Jenny was ready—maybe under his mop of stringy and vaguely European hair he thought it would be an exquisitely quirky touch to perform it for Christmas instead of waiting until spring.

The first few page turns passed without incident, and my heart-rate steadily decreased toward normal. She nodded knowingly at just the right instants, and I managed to turn the pages without spilling everything all over the floor or uttering a primal scream. After that, each page turn became easier, and I found that by the time we were well into the piece, I was breathing again, and I could follow the score. I began to get cocky too, and took a few glances at the audience out of the corner of my eye. I could feel the rapture, starting up out there somewhere like a wisp of cool air. She was playing beautifully, passionately. Mr. Rossi was conducting as brilliantly as he could—at least his expansive gesticulations looked fervent. I had heard the piece so many times—the solo passages anyway—that I knew it by heart. But hearing it then, pouring from Jenny’s viola backed by the shimmering of Berlioz’ orchestration, it took on a sublime quality that I had completely forgotten. It had been a long time since I had really listened to “Harold in Italy”, and all the old memories started to come back.

The second movement has a quality like a caravan painted in broad, colorful strokes. It starts out very softly, and builds up as the caravan approaches, passes by the listener, and then eventually recedes into the distance. It’s a striking section, and personally I think it’s the best part of the whole work. By that time, I was alert again, and was trying to gauge the audience reaction. I had started to recognize individual faces, and remember where they were—I had been turning pages for more than fifteen minutes. I kept track of where people were looking, whether they folded their hands, how they tilted their heads at certain points. I didn’t hear a lot of coughing and shuffling either. As my eyes grew accustomed to looking at them, I could see further, beyond the first few rows. They really were—I suppose a Victorian might have said “transported”—by the music. I flipped the page again at Jenny’s nod.

I had noticed previously one rather large woman near the front row. She was all dressed up with several long strings of pearls and a long dress of medium golden-brown shades with lacy white frills and a high collar. She had pale, white skin, and her brunette hair was tied up in a hideous bun and topped with a white flower. The whole outfit made her look like an overdressed turkey dinner with all the trimmings and those little white caps on the drumsticks. She seemed for a long while to be even more “transported” than anyone else. I could see the rouge on her cheeks; her lips were parted and she bent forward. The next time I chanced to look her way, near the end of the second movement, she was crying into her handkerchief.

At that moment, as the caravan was fading into the distance, I had a kind of revelation that I’ll never forget. This is what it’s all about, really, I told myself. This is Jenny’s life, and the kind of emotions she can evoke in an audience are her special gift. Maybe I had never really come to terms with the direction she had chosen. I started to feel tingly and blurry eyed. If she, with her playing, could bring tears to even one large woman in a worse-than-average audience, she must also be bringing joy to another, and at least some feeling to someone else; maybe everyone else. If she really wanted to do that with a viola instead of a violin—bringing a new kind of life to a little regarded solo instrument—I felt I could finally accept it. Somehow, over the past three years, my opposition to her taking up the viola had completely blinded me to the fact that she was actually succeeding. It felt like her destiny beginning to unfold. I was sitting on stage with my seventeen year-old daughter, actually participating in her debut as a soloist. How many fathers have that opportunity, I wondered. I felt a growing sense of privilege attending the event, and I was elated by the time the third movement was over. Jenny would fly away from me, of course, into some concert career, climbing ever higher—the inevitable result of a child growing into an independent woman with a great art to unleash on the world. Whether she ever became a famous soloist or not, I thought at that moment, was irrelevant. It was really the ambience that she lived for; not only the brief moments of performing, but also the people around her—the friends with whom she played and passed her time, the practicing, the dedication; even Mr. Rossi, whether I really liked him or not. I could hardly keep tears out of my eyes long enough to turn pages through the end of the fourth movement.

When the music finished and the last blast faded into the walls, there was fully ten seconds of absolute silence in the auditorium. What happened to all the tiny tots? I almost wondered if the audience had gone to sleep! The applause began from the front—the large woman held her handkerchief between two fat fingers, and was applauding wildly, ecstatically, leading the crowd. I had never seen such fervor in a spectator. She was shaking her head, back and forth—I could see the tears glistening on her cheeks—she threw kisses. In an instant, the applause grew to a tremendous roar that crashed against the front of the stage… and then the audience, en masse, were on their feet. I could almost not believe it—a standing ovation for “Harold in Italy”? No, it was all for Jenny.

The reception afterwards was gorgeous. I stood back, still hovering close to Jenny while she took the greetings of her friends and random members of the audience, including the large woman with the handkerchief. I sipped a California white wine that was far too young and sassy, and let her bask for nearly an hour. She still could not stand up, of course, so they had brought her a padded chair from somewhere, and she sat straight-backed like a little monarch, with a big bouquet of pink roses nestled in the crook of one arm, nodding and smiling. The other hand was perpetually extended to receive other hands—and on a few occasions to receive a kiss from some lecherous old geezer.

It ended all too soon for Jenny, I could see. But when I glanced at her face as the last of the stragglers were leaving the room, I could tell she was dead tired. The pain in her ankle could not be masked any longer either. She winced and stretched out her legs when I approached.

“Daddy, let’s stop by the hospital on the way home, OK? Just to make sure it’s not broken or anything.”

I laughed. “Sure thing, Jenny.” She had always been small, like her mother, and had never grown too big to carry. I lifted her up, and holding her viola case in one hand, carried her out to the parking lot. The rain had stopped, and half the clouds had dispersed. The moon lit up the remaining clouds like big silver scoops over the far hills—and a few stars twinkled overhead in the cold air.

I whirled around, and around as I walked. “Let’s see,” I kept saying, “was it this way?” And I would whirl her one way. “Or was it that way?” She was in giggles, with her arms clasped behind my neck.

We found the car—I knew where it was all along, but I was having fun. When we reached the car, I set her down on her feet for a moment to fish my keys out of my pocket. Meanwhile, I handed her the viola case, and she took it absently. She turned around then, and seeing the front of the car for the first time, burst out in a squeal. “What the hell happened to your car?” She limped to follow me to the door.

“Little mishap on the freeway,” I replied, unlocking the passenger door. Her eyes went from the front grill back along the side of the car. I couldn’t help smiling when her eyes stopped at the trunk. It was half open, with big sprigs of fir tree bulging out all over.

“Oh, Daddy…” she whispered, clutching my shoulder. I heard that warm tone come back into her voice and she embraced me. “You said we weren’t going to have a tree this year…”

“Changed my mind, honey,” I replied. “Besides—it was too cheap to pass up.” I grabbed her viola case out of her hand. “Got it from mah ol’ frenn CJ,” I drawled.

She looked at me like I was made of goat cheese. “What?”

“Get in, I’ll tell you about it on the way,” I answered, holding the door for her. “Poor thing had an accident on the freeway, but it ain’t nothin’ a little amputation won’t fix.”



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