Helen Campbell, a native of the New York metropolitan area, lives in Germany and teaches for the European branch of the University of Maryland. She has published two novels, one of which, Turnip Blues, was a finalist for the Barnes & Noble Discover Award. A former musician, she studied violin and viola in Philadelphia, and performed professionally for many years.
The Philadelphia School of Music 1970
Nathan Scheckfenster leaned forward and squeezed my bare knee. “Sweetheart, you’ve got perfect pitch, don’t you?” His face came so close I could see his raised blisters from shaving too roughly. “Isn’t that what I heard?”
I winced for two reasons: first, from embarrassment, having this man—world-famous, but twenty years older than I was--positioned within kissing distance; and second, because I didn’t have perfect pitch. Musicians with this gift are rare. Out of thin air, they can hum any named pitch in the scale, or identify pitches at random. Scheckfenster, for instance, could not only sing middle C on command, but could tell you the pitch of his car brakes, his doorbell, or even the jackhammers ripping through the pavement outside his window. Mozart allegedly had the same talents.
“I don’t know what you heard,” I answered, looking at his lingering hand, and then down at my toenails. I’d painted them soft pink that morning to go with my summery skirt. Someone had told me that Scheckfenster preferred girlie-type students. “I mean…I sort of have it.”
He leaned back, crossing one ankle over the opposite knee, and frowned. “You either have perfect pitch or you don’t. Now which is it, Sweetheart?”
I blushed, and stared at the photos on his walls. One of them, taken a decade ago, had appeared on the cover of Life Magazine: Scheckfenster, in a tux and tails, playing for a beaming Jackie Kennedy. “I don’t have it.” I mumbled. “But I’ve got a pretty good ear. Really.”
“That I don’t doubt,” he answered, leaning forward again with his elbows on his knees. “But let’s get something straight, Kiddo. I’ve accepted you as a student—and that’s a privilege. If you want to stay in my class, you’ve got a few obligations, and not just to look pretty in pink. Here’ s rule number one: I insist on total honesty, and it’s a quid pro quo: I won’t lie to you, and you won’t lie to me. Nu?”
My face burned with shame. I’d already angered the one human being I wanted to love me—by telling him what I assumed he’d wanted to hear.
“Rule two,” Sheckfenster continued, holding his thumb and forefinger aloft. “I expect you to work your butt off. You’re in music school, Honey, not a fashion show. This is army boot camp, especially my class.”
I nodded and swallowed. The pink skirt would go to Good Will. And the nail polish into the dumpster.
“Rule three,” he said, shamelessly straightening his middle finger under my nose. “Keep your personal life to yourself. I don’t care if your boyfriend leaves you for some dipshit blonde and you’re crying too hard to practice your Mozart. You’re here to work. I’m not your shrink and I’m not your mother.”
“Of course not,” I said, forcing a laugh, since I didn’t have a boyfriend or a shrink--just a mother, and I wouldn’t cry on her shoulder, either. “I’d never dream of—“
“Rule four: don’t expect me to slother you with praise. You’re here, aren’t you?” He waved his arm around the room. “That’s enough praise in my book to last you a lifetime. Just do what I say and you’ll play the hell out of that violin. Maybe.”
I held my breath. Perhaps he hadn’t lost all faith in me.
“Rule five, and this is an important one: ignore my other students. They’re here because they have chops, like you. But if you start worrying that any of them play better, then you’re toast, Honey, and it’s time to become an accountant.” I noticed the flash of his wedding ring. His wife, people said, was an actress with a temper. “You’ll need to toughen up and grow a little hair on that pretty chest of yours. This is a whole other world than you’re used to—in other words, no Mom and Dad patting your tush every time you play a note and telling you you’re Heifetz.”
I shuddered. My old violin teacher never spoke to his students like this—and I knew what my mother would say about Scheckfenster. No gentleman uses that kind of language. Ever.
“Now enough of this cockamamie bullshit,” Scheckfenster said, rising to his feet and shaking out his pant legs. “All my students have to hear the rules, so chin up, Kiddo, you’re not the first. I break them myself half the time, and you’re welcome to call me on it. Anyway, it’s time we quit—I’ve got to stick to my jogging schedule.” I’d heard how he ran through the tangle of South Philly streets every day, unfazed by the fact he’d been robbed at least twice with a gun to his head. “You have any questions for this old man?”
“No, not right now,” I said, standing up and extending my hand, meanwhile noticing a weight bench with barbells in the corner, as well as a rolled-up mattress. “Thank you, Mr. Scheckfenster.”
He brushed my hand aside and pulled me to his chest in a grizzly bear hold. “Call me Sheck, Sweetheart. We’re not formal here, except on stage, okay?” He let go and grinned. “Now get the hell out of here and go practice.”
“I will,” I whispered, angling my way past him out the door. But not before he patted me on my backside—or, in his lexicon, my tush.
Upstairs on the third floor, I tracked down the last empty practice room: a windowless, carpeted, dusty enclosure, like practice rooms everywhere. Furnishings inside were sparse: an upright Yamaha piano, a music stand, a coat hook, a metal folding chair, and a full-length mirror covered with fingerprints. As always, the heat in the room made me gasp, but the odor repelled me the most--a mixture of tuna fish, orange peels, and sweat. Soundproofing didn’t exist. On one side a baritone shredded his vocal cords; on the other, a trombone blared Wagner. Somehow I doubted these miserable cubicles served as the locus of music school drama that everyone claimed. Students allegedly used them to weep, gloat, or rage against critical teachers—or diddle each other in the darkness. The glass door and threat of the cleaning crew coming to mop only heightened the thrill.
Still, at that moment, the room was the least of my worries. More pressing was trying to sort out my feelings about my new teacher. Since childhood, I’d known his biography chapter and verse, and revered him: the six-year-old whiz kid from Newark who’d played on the Mickey Mouse Club’s Talent Roundup; the genius who put aside music for medical school, but dropped out when he realized none of his classmates or faculty knew—much less cared—he’d once been a violin prodigy; the seeker who backpacked the world for two years in quest of life’s meaning; the artist who came roaring back once he realized his purpose on earth; the conqueror who won every musical prize and performed the world over. Where most of my age group loved Dylan, my idol had always been Scheckfenster—at least until now. I frowned just recalling our meeting: his cussing, his touching, his bluntness, his ego, felt creepy and wrong. And I knew my mother would hate him.
“Nathan Sheckfenster?” she’d said, back during my senior year of high school as we raked leaves together on Halloween. “Why do you want to study with him?”
I knew from the tone of her voice she opposed the idea. “I’ve heard he’s a great teacher, that’s all.”
She leaned on her rake, eyebrows knit, and lips squeezed into a line. “Listen to me, Zoog. Why don’t you just apply to a regular university, like Buffalo? You’d do much better with a degree in English, and at least you’d find a job teaching high school. Really, Honey”—she started raking again, but with vigorous strokes—“music school doesn’t make any sense.”
“What about Janice?” I cried, incredulous, throwing down my rake. Janice, my older sister, was studying piano at Juilliard, and with my parents’ blessing. “You never said that to her!”
My mother raked even harder, averting her eyes. “No, but you and she are entirely different girls. That piano is her life--and she’s good at it, too. That’s what her teachers always told us.”
“Well, the violin is mine,” I said, stung by her implication that Janet had more talent, but unwilling to ask her for affirmation of mine. “And I want to go to music school, too.”
My mother paused and shifted strategies. “Honey, you’re much more well-rounded than Janice.” Her voice was unnaturally sweet. “And remember how you like to write? Those poems were lovely, especially the one about the puppy. You’d do better with your talents in Buffalo.”
“No, I wouldn’t,” I cried, convinced it would be no different than high school, where I’d always felt like an outsider—and for once, I wanted to be around my kind of people. “All I’ve ever wanted was to study with Scheckfenster!”
“Scheck who?” asked my father, coming toward us with a wheelbarrow. “Not one of the chosen people, is he?”
My mother frowned and put a finger to her lips; the paperboy was riding past on his bike. “Hank, we’re discussing Zoog’s future. She wants to study music, like Janice. What do you think about it?”
“One musician around here is enough,” he said, scooping leaves into the wheelbarrow and grunting with effort. “There’s no reason she can’t go to Buffalo like her brothers. And get a useful degree.”
My mother nodded in agreement, then pointed at me with her chin. “You’ve heard your father, Zoog--and he’s the one paying for your education.”
I didn’t try to plead with him; he’d always thought studying music was nonsense, and wouldn’t hear even my best-structured arguments. Reason is not automatic, I’d read in a book by Ayn Rand in tenth grade, that I’d hid in my room from my mother. Those who deny it cannot be conquered by it. Do not count on them. Leave them alone.
So I turned to my mother instead. “Mom, it’s not fair, and you know it.”
“Zoog, please,” she said, pulling me toward her, and lifting my chin with the palm of her hand. “Don’t make an issue out of this. Your father’s the head of the house.”
“Then what about Janice?” I demanded, loud enough for my father to hear. “How come she gets to go and I don’t?”
She sighed, a good sign: my mother had always had some sense of justice, however haphazardly wielded. “Hank, Sweetie, Zoog does have a point,” she said, touching his arm gently. “We did let Janice go.”
My father shrugged and turned his back on us. “Well, if she wants to spend her time with the boys in Jerusalem, that’s her business,” he said, heaving another armful of leaves into the wheelbarrow. “ But she can pay for it out of her own pocket.”
“I will pay for it, then!” I cried, grabbing the wheelbarrow handles and heading to the trash bin.
And pay for it I did, at least partially. The school awarded me a scholarship on Scheckfenster’s recommendation; he’d liked my audition tape and knew my former teacher. I danced through the house when the letter arrived with the Dean’s signature. Yet my family remained unimpressed.
“Nathan Scheckfenster?” asked Janice, home at Easter from Juilliard. We were carving the ham together after church. “I heard he’s a real bastard. He kicks out half his students.”
I tossed the ham bone in the trash and tried to hide my alarm. “Maybe, but I won’t be one of them.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Janice said, garnishing the ham with maraschino cherries, and slipping a few in her mouth. “He’s supposed to be crazy. You might just be getting yourself into big trouble.”
“We’re well aware of that, Janice,” called my mother from the dining room. She always listened in on our conversations, and then rendered a final opinion—for which she had one about everything. “If there’s any trouble with that man, Zoog’ll just transfer to Buffalo. We’ll see to it.”
Those words echoed back as I sat in the practice room after my lesson with Scheck—and set off a whole chain of others, all equally awful. You have to watch those people, my mother had whispered the day I boarded the Trailways bus for Philadelphia. You know exactly who I’m talking about, Zoog. Remember Sam Blaustein? How greedy he was? She was referring to the owner of the local hardware store, an irritable fellow who’d sued my father for leaving a nickel-sized dent in the door of his rusted Cadillac—his “jew canoe”, as my father called it. They’re pushy and crude. And I’m not at all happy about this Scheckfenster. You watch yourself, Kiddo.
But much as I’d hated her whispered advice, I couldn’t discount it entirely—especially after my lesson. She was right about Scheck: he was crude, and it bothered me. But crudeness and badness were two different character flaws as I saw it--and Scheck might have only just one. To his credit, he seemed to like joking and speaking his mind. And having such positive traits made me want to support him—and prove that my mother, with all her opinions and notions, was wrong.
With that resolution, I practiced my Mozart sonata for three hours, ignoring the heat and the noise through the walls. But my first day with Scheck, it turned out, wasn’t over. Once I’d packed up and gone downstairs to the lobby, I saw him again. He and a much younger woman stood arguing inside the foyer. Fortissimo.
“How many times do I have to tell you?” Scheck was growling. I peered at his female opponent--dark-haired and pretty, but dressed in a style my mother would pooh-pooh as cheap. “Are you deaf?”
“No, I’m not,” she answered in accented English, stamping her foot. “Stop being a bully, will you? For once?”
I fidgeted with my handbag and violin case, hoping they’d see me and leave. No such luck.
“Me? A bully?” he laughed with derision. “Now that’s the pot calling the kettle black, Honeybun!”
She shoved him in the chest, a difficult manuever in stilettos, and barred her teeth in his face. “Go to hell, Nathan!”
It was then he caught sight of me watching them. Our eyes locked for what seemed like minutes; I just couldn’t move. But finally, I turned and ran up to the ladies’ room, shaking with fright and disgust. I’d never seen a human face so pained or exhausted as his.
“Well, tell me about him,” drawled Janice that night on the phone. She had called me, probably at my mother’s prompting; they liked spying for each other. “Is he as bad as everyone says?”
I hesitated. Anything I told her would go straight to my mother--and my mother would use it to shame me. “Well, he’s a little weird…but I was expecting that.”
“Of course he’s weird,” said Janice, biting into an apple and chewing loudly. “But what, exactly, did he do?”
I saw through her tactic at once: getting me to reveal the details, then fabricating her own distorted version for my mother’s ears. I wouldn’t fall for it. “He didn’t do anything in particular. But he does seems pretty strict.”
“Well, if it’s of any comfort, I heard his wife is even worse than he is,” she said, leaving spaces between the words as she masticated. “You haven’t met her yet, have you? Yolanda, the soap opera actress from Buenos Aires?”
So that explained the accent. And the drama. “No…but what’s so bad about her?”
Janice chuckled, sipping something through a straw and belching. “They say she’s slept around with half the Philadelphia Orchestra. And he knows about it, too, but he still won’t divorce her.”
I was dumbfounded. For all his tough language and cockiness, Scheck, it turned out, was a cuckold. No wonder his face looked so harried. I sighed and remembered what Ayn Rand had said about men: The man who is proudly certain of his own value will want the highest type of woman he can find, the woman he admires, the strongest, the hardest to conquer—because only the possession of a heroine will give him the sense of an achievement, not the possession of a brainless slut…
Another strike against Sheck. And a tough one to overcome.
Thursdays at four, Scheck maintained a tradition: all twelve of his students assembled for something he called his “performance art” class. He told me I’d love it or hate it. The goal was to play and critique ourselves, raising group standards and learning to grow—in his words—steel balls for the stage. I figured this couldn’t be fun.
That day, in a downpour, I got to class nearly in tears. I would have been nervous in any case; but thanks to the weather, my sandals and hairstyle were ruined. I slid in, clothes dripping, and sat in the last empty folding-back chair. A puddle of water spread out at my feet that I partially covered with Kleenex. None of my classmates looked up to console me; instead, they were frantically playing in order to loosen their muscles for what loomed ahead. I opened my violin case and joined in, overcome with self-pity.
At four, Scheck, post-jogging, marched in with wet hair and a towel across his shoulders. The playing stopped short; only the crunch of his athletic shoes and a far-away ambulance siren were audible. Everyone rose to their feet, and still holding their instruments, bowed from the waist. I followed suit, feeling awkward.
Not so Scheck. He bowed back, doffing an imaginary hat and dragging the towel across the carpet in front of him like a cape. “Thank you and good afternoon, lords and ladies,” he smiled. “Tune, please, while I find my violin.”
Over the racket of tuning, I watched him. The man stood at more than six feet, and his rear view was pleasantly that of an athlete; head-on, however, he frightened children in the street. His big teeth protruded; his closely-set eyes were encircled with plum-colored shadows; and unruly patches of hair curlicued on his forearms, the back of his hands, and his earlobes. Someone once told me he shaved in the men’s room before teaching females. I’d actually noticed a few spots of blood on his collar the day of my lesson.
“So, my devoted disciples,” said Sheckfenster, lifting his violin out of its case, a cherry-stained Strad he’d received from an anonymous patron. “I’d like to start with something simple today. How about the solo in the slow movement of the Bartok 3rd Quartet? You all know it, right?” He tuned and played the passage flawlessly. “Let’s go around the room and hear what each of you do with it. Any volunteers?”
Everyone looked at the floor.
“Ha, chickenshit, all of you,” Scheck laughed, moving his chair into the middle of the room and trying to make eye contact with each of us. “Hmm…how about our new kid on the block?” He tapped my shoulder with the tip of his gold-mounted bow. “Go on, Honey, show us nudnicks what you can do,”
Every set of eyes fastened on me. “I’ve never played the Bartok before,” I whispered in horror, kicking the Kleenex under my chair and pushing my wet hair behind my ears. “I’ll need to see the music.”
“No, Kiddo, that you don’t,” Scheck answered, twisting his wedding ring off his finger and tossing it across the room into his open violin case. A few students applauded. “You just heard me play it. Take a deep breath and start on low A. You already told me you’ve got a good ear, didn’t you? Here’s your chance to prove it.”
Shaking, I got through the passage, but only just barely. I tried to start over, but Scheck grabbed my wrist and held on tightly.
“Well, class?” he said, clearing his throat and finally letting go of me. The skin on my wrist was white. “What do you think of our newcomer?”
Soo Jin raised her hand. I’d met her the first week of school—a pretty Korean girl with bare feet and hair long enough to sit on. “Maybe you could play out a little more, Zoog?” She had an itty-bitty voice that matched her waifish body. “You’ve got such a lush sound. Why don’t you have some fun with it?”
“Bingo,” said Scheck, holding his thumb up and grinning. He liked Soo Jin, and it irked me. “Zoog is a little too inhibited…could be all the hours she’s spent on her knees in Sunday school. Honey”—he turned to me and winked—“you heard Soo Jin. Let your hair down as long as hers and show us your sexy side, will you?” He paused, unaware how much I hated him that moment. “All right, class, any other comments?”
“Yes, the intonation,” said Jean-Philippe, from Quebec, his eyes on Scheck, not me. “The B-flat at the top of the second phrase could come up.”
“Sustained,” said Sheck, like a judge ruling on an objection. “Anyone else?”
Randy, from Texas, leaned forward, polishing his plastic-framed glasses with a dirty rag. “That whole line of notes, B-flat-A-G was rushed.” He pushed his glasses back on his nose and looked at me, blinking furiously. “And I think your phrasing could be shaped a little better, Zoog. You could linger more on the E-flat—“
“My problem was watching her,” said Rolf de Lessups. The room went quiet; every head turned his direction. He was the oldest of Scheck’s students, and roundly regarded as his best. And his best-looking, too. “She moves too much when she plays. And there’s not much emoting to go with it. She needs to start feeling the music.”
She? I stopped breathing and turned my whole body to face him, the bastard. “I do feel the music,” I said, trying to control the shaking in my voice. “I just don’t know the piece well enough.”
Rolf shrugged and spoke directly to Scheck. “Then maybe when she knows it, she’ll cut out the convulsions.”
The room went silent. Scheckfenster snapped at Rolf’s knee with his towel. “Knock it off, Rolf. We don’t allow those kinds of comments in class. Argumentum ad hominum, for those of you geniuses who had Latin in high school.”
Ralph rubbed his knee in mock pain. “Sorry, Scheck,” he said, winding an imaginary bandage around his leg as everyone tittered. “Next time I’ll stick to the rules.”
“Damn right you will,” said Scheckfenster, leaning back in his chair and twirling his thumbs on his stomach. “Now let’s hear you play it, smart ass.”
Rolf smirked, tuned loudly, and sailed through the passage—not as smoothly as Scheck, but much better than I had.
“Bravo!” cried Soo Jin in her itty-bitty voice, clapping and swinging her legs under her chair. “That was beautiful!” Little wonder she praised him: I later found out she was Rolph’s live-in girlfriend—or rather, she shared her apartment with him. Her father, the scion of Seoul’s wealthiest family, had bought her a luxury condo on Locust Street.
But oddly, Soo Jin was the only one clapping. Ludmilla, the girl to my left, had a different response: she hissed asshole so loudly I jumped from my seat. Yet no one reacted, as much as her name-calling breached Scheck’s ad hominum rule. Everyone knew Rolph had dumped her last year for Soo Jin—so Scheck cut her some slack.
I hadn’t, I noticed, got any from him. I hunkered down low in my chair in defeat. And lower still when Scheckfenster told Rolf he’d never heard anyone play it so well—except for yours truly, of course. Which set off another round of titters.
“So what did you think of performance class?” asked Scheck as I walked through his door for my lesson on Monday. He had just placed his weight sets and dumbells on their rack and was dusting them with a feather duster.
I lowered my eyes. “All right. I guess.”
“All right? You guess?” He threw down the duster and took my arm. “Honey, you’re not being honest with me--and you should know the rules by now. Go on, spill your guts.”
I decided to indulge him a little. “Okay, the class upset me. I thought I played awfully.”
“Well, that’s good for starters,” he grinned. “Now, tell me how you really felt.”
I crossed my arms on my chest and met his eyes. “All right, you made me angry.”
“Did I? You’re sure? Only just…angry?” he teased, making faces.
Louse. “No. I was pissed off. Why did you have to call on me first? You set me up to fail!”
“Hallelujah!” he cried, raising his hands to the heavens like a preacher and dancing around the room. “Sunday School speaks the truth at last!”
I didn’t laugh; I thought he was making fun of me. “Well? Why did you call on me like that?”
“Why? For your own good, Honey,” he said, switching to a more grown-up tone of voice. “Look, I want to show you something.” He dropped down on the carpet and started doing push-ups. “The secret to all success is repetition, and I can do a hundred of these suckers.” He switched from two hands to one, panting. “And that, Kiddo, is what you have to do from now on in performance class. It’ll get easier, I promise.” He stopped and pulled himself to his feet, dusting off his hands. “But you’ll have to work on your attitude, too.”
“My attitude?” That was a word my mother used. And used and used. “What’s the matter with it?”
“Honey, it sucks. You’ve got a beautiful sound when you play—no, stop making faces, you know it, and so does Rolph, that shmendrick. Just dump the false modesty and show the class what you can do. Waste ‘em next time, will you?”
A beautiful sound. That Rolf knew about. I fought the impulse to hug him. “Thanks,” I said, hiding my smile and hoping he’d pay me more compliments. “But I really don’t believe you.”
Challenging Sheck, it turned out, was off limits. “What the hell? You think I’d lie about something like that?” he snarled. “Who d’you think you’re talking to? Huh?”
I backed away, crushed by his anger. “I…I didn’t really mean anything…it’s just I’m not used to…flattery.”
“Flattery? There you go again,” he groaned, striking his forehead. “You think I’m playing games with you, don’t you? Trying to get you in the sack, right?” He paused. “Look, if that was my goal, I’d use a whole different strategy. I wouldn’t do it by telling you what a great violinist you are. Believe me, Sweetheart, that’s for amateurs.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, blinking back tears. “I didn’t mean to—“
“I don’t care what you meant,” he scoffed, picking up the duster and returning to his weight rack. “We agreed to be honest here, didn’t we? So why would I lie?”
The phone on his desk suddenly started ringing. “B-flat,” he said, identifying the pitch, and throwing down the duster. “Ten to one it’s my goddam wife. Stick around, will you, while I chase her off?”
I blotted my tears with the back of my hand and pretended to study a photo on his wall—Scheck high-fiving Leonard Bernstein in front of the New York Philharmonic.
“Look, I’m with a student and I don’t want to talk about this now,” Scheck was growling into the mouthpiece. “What? Really? Cut the crap, Yolanda!”
I moved down the line of photos, as far from Scheck as possible. Scheck with Ormandy. Scheck with Casals. Scheck with Rubenstein. Scheck with the Juilliard Quartet, one arm thrown over the violist’s shoulder.
“I’m not going to cover your ass this time,” he was shouting. “You can figure it out on your lonesome, Sweetheart...Christ, what in the hell kind of thing is that to say? Are you drunk?”
By then I’d heard enough. I bolted from the room and ran up the stairs, two at a time, straight into a practice room. What a bastard he was. And like thousands of frustrated students all over the world, I wept in the darkness, raging against my teacher, and kicking the piano legs.
That evening, my mother called. Her turn to spy. “Zoog, what’s going on? I just heard from Janice you’re already having a hard time.”
Janice? We hadn’t spoken since last week, when I’d kept my mouth shut about everything. “Huh? What did she tell you?”
“For crying out loud, Zoog, I don’t remember the details,” said my mother, clearing her throat, always the prelude to a lecture. “But she had the impression you weren’t very happy. And I’m worried.”
“Well, she’s wrong, Mom,” I said, annoyed. “Everything’s just fine.”
“Are you so sure? What about that…teacher?”
I flinched and wrapped the phone cord around my wrist. “He’s fine, Mom. If you mean Mr. Scheckfenster, that is.”
A few seconds passed as she regrouped. “You know I’ve always had my doubts about that man. Janice agrees with me, too. Did you know one of his students ended up in a mental hospital? I haven’t said anything about that to your father, but it’s not too late for you to switch to Buffalo.”
I wanted to punch the wall. “Mom, Janice doesn’t know anything about him. She should mind her own business. And I’m not switching, no matter what Scheck does.”
“Scheck? “ Her voice scaled up an octave. “Is that what he has you calling him? Scheck?”
My heart was thumping. “Yeah…so?”
“You listen to me, Zoog--that man sounds a little too familiar for my taste. And I’ve heard all about that Puerto Rican wife of his—or are they even married? Huh?” She clucked her tongue. “You watch yourself around that man, you hear me? Otherwise, we might just have to come get you!”
Next morning, I called and canceled my upcoming lesson. Flu, I explained to Miss Gelles, Scheck’s elderly secretary—which wasn’t completely dishonest. I was sick in my soul and that moment I hated my mother, my sister, and Scheck—road blocks, all of them. And I saw that once more, Ayn Rand got it right: Why do they always teach us that it’s easy and evil to do what we want and that we need discipline to restrain ourselves? It’s the hardest thing in the world—to do what we want. And it takes the greatest kind of courage. I mean what we really want.
And all I wanted was to play the violin. Really play.
The following Friday morning, I showed up at school for my ear-training class. Scheck, I knew, wouldn’t be around; he only taught only three days a week, which meant I’d be safe from unwanted encounters.
At noon, following class, I went down to the basement for coffee. I couldn’t find a place to sit, but just as well; I’d never liked the lunch room. Students sat hunched over circular tables, chatting and giggling in twelve different languages. The topics discussed stayed the same: love affairs, lessons, auditions, and—always in whispers—which students played worst (or, to use their most popular adverb, played shitfully). Girls always greatly outnumbered the boys, and the boys who were straight—at least half-time—were much in demand. The unwashed, the gangling, the weak-chinned, the pear-shaped, the pimpled, got chased down and tackled like Elvis. One of them, Gerald, a bony bassoonist, made motions for me to come sit in his lap. I swallowed my coffee in one scorching gulp, shook my head, and dashed upstairs.
Outside, the weather was balmy and cloudless. I thought about taking the day off from music and wandering off to the Art Museum.
“Zoog! Wait up!”
Damn. Scheck’s voice. I stiffened and turned around slowly. He ran up from behind in his jogging attire, and pulled me into a clumsy embrace.
“Sweetheart!” he panted, stepping on my toes. ”I was godawful worried when I got your message. You still sick?”
“A little.” I backed away, unsmiling. He was covered in sweat. “And I might still be contagious.”
“Then cough all over me, Bubula” he said, jogging in place alongside. “Anything you could give me would be better than what I just got.”
“Really?” I frowned. It sounded like he was talking about the clap. “What’s the matter with you?”
“A busted tooth,” he answered, grimacing. “I’ve been at the dentist all morning. You ever see a root canal?” He hooked his upper lip with a forefinger and exposed a rear molar discolored from coffee, still jogging in place. “Damn abscess kept me up all night. My wife, too. She was ready to plug me with her .38 just so she could get some sleep.”
I thought of their bedroom and shuddered: him on his back, nude and hairy, and groaning in dental distress; her, in a leopard-print negligee, furtively loading her handgun in the light of a digital clock.
“I’m sorry,” I said, wishing he would close his mouth. Passersby were staring. “That must’ve hurt.”
“Not anywhere as bad as the bridge I got a couple years ago.” He slid his finger around to the opposite side of his mouth and lifted his lip even higher. “Gorgeous, isn’t it? Put me back six thousand dollars. And all for the privilege of having some Nazi drill the enamel off my teeth. I lost sensation in half of my face and couldn’t stop drooling for a month.”
“Lucky you’re not a brass player,” I said, feeling foolish I couldn’t think of a better response.
“Me? A plumber?” Scheck laughed and switched to jumping jacks. “I ever tell you my old man wanted me to learn the trumpet? No? The god’s truth, Sister! He hated the violin, thought it was for sissies, and I was small for my age to begin with. So he found me a trumpet at a pawnshop, thinking it’d increase my testosterone levels.”
“How…unscientific,” I said, blushing, as a passerby stared at us.
“Not if you knew my old man.” Scheck hooked his hands around a parking meter and leaned forward to stretch the muscles in his calves. “He was a Russian Jew, straight off the shtetl, a real sonovabitch who ran the numbers in Newark for Longy Zwillman until the Italians forced him out…you should have seen all the thugs at his funeral. My brother, the doctor, walked out.”
I wondered what my mother would think of this disclosure, then smiled. She would never have to know. Nor would Janice.
“And then there’s my old lady in the opposite corner, shrieking that her son is going to play the violin, just like Jack Benny, and put her up in the Fountainbleau Hotel for vacations. She’d had it with the Catskills by then.”
I laughed. “You didn’t disappoint them, did you?”
“The old man? Hell yes.” He grabbed one ankle and pulled it up into his backside, then switched sides and repeated the motion. “After Longy hung himself, he wanted me to chuck the violin and buy up rental properties with him in Newark. He thought we could make a bundle.”
I wrinkled my nose. Newark? All I could think of was lead-based paint and rusted pipes. This was sounding even worse than my father. “That sounds awful…I mean, to be so…misunderstood.”
“Yup, the shits for sure.” He stopped his stretching and walked alongside me. “Luckily, the old lady was a little easier to please. But only up to a point.”
I tried to imagine his mother. Surely not a beauty. Or a cub scout mother. “Is she still alive?”
“Yeah, about a hundred feet from here.” Scheck pointed to an elegant Art Nouveau building facing Rittenhouse Square. “I bought her the condo a couple years ago. Which means I get to have lunch with her three days a week and listen to her bitch about the neighbors.”
I smirked. My mother did the same thing. And not just about the neighbors. “Does she come to your concerts?”
“Naw,” he said, yanking me toward him so I’d avoid stepping in dogshit. “She’s had bilateral hip replacements and carries oxygen. Besides, her taste in music runs to stuff like ‘Those Were the Days’.”
“Do you play it for her?”
“Damn right I do,” he winked. “Five days a week. I’m a good son.”
We’d arrived at my bus stop. “I’m heading home,” I said, almost unwilling to leave him. “It’s time to practice.”
“Atta girl. But Honey, before you go”—he took my hand and held it against his chest—“I’ve got something to say about our last lesson: I owe you an apology. Really. I was acting like a horse’s ass…and they say only women get their periods.”
“It’s all right,” I said, feeling his heartbeat under my hand. “I’ll survive.”
“I know you will,” he said, mock-socking me in the jaw. “You’re a little kick-ass, Sunday School. And forget all that crap about perfect pitch. You don’t need it.”
And so I stayed with him--for four more years, if not my entire life. We talked on the phone only yesterday.
My mother, of course, never warmed to him; nor to Ayn Rand, whose book of quotations she found in my dresser and roundly disparaged. This is what you waste your time reading? Just look at her photo—jeez! She held up the book in one hand and her nose in the other. I’m awful worried about you.
But she worried much less about Janice, who finished her bachelor’s degree and then moved on to Juilliard’s graduate program. And there, Janice flourished. She won the school’s concerto competition, finished cum laude, and married her boyfriend, a freckled Canadian tenor. They now run their own music school in Toronto.
Scheck filed for divorce and moved in with his mother—for twenty-four hours. The next day, intrigued by the tax breaks and chance to escape her, he did what his father had wanted; he purchased three Gilded Age mansions in West Philadelphia, all of them already chopped into student apartments. And that’s where he lived, on the ground floor of one, with its moldings and sconces and fifteen-foot ceilings. The rents paid his mortgage and financed his bottles of Glenfiddich Single Malt Scotch.
He’s long since retired and moved down to Boca Raton, where he runs on the beach every morning. I’ve sent him a copy of Ayn Rand’s quotations, which he claims he’s never read. But if he does someday, he’ll find the one quote I’ve highlit in yellow for him: It’s not who will let me, but who will stop me.