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Skidding on the Road to Carnegie
Saskatchewan in winter. A silo and an eclair. A violinist trapped with a pianist in a skidding car. What really is the point of being a musician, anyway?
The horizon penciled a straight grey line on the white parchment of snow. A silo in the middle distance drew the lone vertical stroke. Flurries caught up bits of white nestled on flat fields and hurled them up into the sky like ghostly threshing machines tossing up scythed wheat. The highway, a row of grey-threaded stitches in a white blanket, seamed the landscape, as straight and undeviating as Brent’s ambition.
The car he drove sluiced down the road, the definition of anonymity: a white rental in the aftermath of a Saskatchewan snowstorm. Slush hurtled against the tires, sounding a continuous, relentless applause. Inside, the heater roared and water puddled under his soaked city shoes. There was a smell of wet wool, new plastic raincoats, and corn chips.
"We're the only thing in the world still moving," said Brent, his voice lonely as the silo. "You and I and those whirling snow flurries."
He clutched the wheel with his thin hands, squinting at the horizon until it smeared into a grey blur.
He’d never seen the prairie before. Never been to Canada. He had grown up in New York, studied music in New York, and rarely left New York. In New York ‘horizon’ was just a word, a line erased by skyscrapers, not a presence, taunting you with how far you had yet to go.
Brent’s agent, Morris, had advertised at the Saskatchewan Artists Booking Conference, and six towns, impressed by Brent’s technique and his curriculum vitae, and possibly wanting someone young and cheap, had signed him for their recital series.
Brent said, "It's not Carnegie."
Morris replied, "It's a gig."
So here he was, driving from nowhere to nowhere, staying in people’s homes for God’s sake, where they fed you mashed potatoes and asked how you liked the town and told you about their childhood music lessons. Driving for hours and hours through an infinite field of somnolent snow. Which would have been bearable, possibly, if the car had not also contained his piano accompanist.
"There's some kind of pastries in here!"
Timothy spewed soggy corn chips as he reached into a paper grocery bag. He wiped his giant mouth, scattering greasy crumbs on the vinyl upholstery.
"That woman, that whole family, were great. Smashing. Cute kids. The little one gave me a hug when we left, did you see? And the Mrs., what a huge breakfast she made for us this morning. Don’t you love potato pancakes?”
His voice was muffled, his broad flushed face buried in the bag.
“Nice snack last night after the concert, too. A bed with--I swear--real feathers in it, and a big bag of stuff for the road."
He tossed a sandwich wrapper and an empty corn chip bag into the back seat and reached a huge hand into the bag.
"Whoever said billeting is a drag?"
The six towns were scattered hundreds of kilometres apart across the Saskatchewan flatlands. The three they’d played so far all had grain elevators, Chinese restaurants, Oddfellow Halls and families eager for the novelty of hosting out-of-town visitors.Maklin, the next town on the tour, would surely be the same. Their hosts would ask to see Brent’s violin and raise their eyebrows at Timothy's yellow rain slicker, which was his idea of a winter coat. Timothy was from Georgia, and as ill-prepared for a prairie winter as Brent. He just didn’t seem to notice it. Brent and Timothy would share a room; there would be no privacy or quiet in which he could practice his anti-tension exercises. Timothy would eat everything in sight, play requests on an ancient parlour piano, tell long and outrageous jokes to which their hosts would howl, and promise to send all the children postcards from the next town.
"We could drive this road forever and still be nowhere."
His hands tightened around the wheel, even though he hadn't turned it for a hundred kilometres, and wouldn't be required to do so for at least a hundred more.
"And the ‘whoever’ who said that about billeting was me."
"Mm, mmm. Wha if hif?"
Powdered sugar puffed from Timothy’s mouth and clung to his thick red beard. He licked smears of chocolate and flakes of dough from the tips of his fingers with loud smacks of his lips, then held the pastry up and inspected it.
"What is this? Like an eclair, but different. Fantastic. Smashing. Here, have one, there's four."
"You look like you're covered with snow," Brent said.
More winter slid past.
"The snow covers everything," he sighed.
His toes were numb inside his soggy shoes. He wiggled them, cursing Morris for not telling him to bring proper winter boots. But he’d so far resisted buying any, and now that he had only two concerts left in this frozen country, he certainly wasn’t going to. He took his foot off the gas to rotate the ankle and get back his circulation, and the car slowed and then jerked forward as his sole reconnected with the pedal.
“Hey!” yelled Timothy.
The tires slid on a small patch of ice, and the wheel trembled under Brent’s hands. He clutched at it and squeezed tightly.
"There’s ice everywhere," Brent whispered.
"Well, it's winter, guy." Timothy punched him on the arm and took another pastry. "Long winters are why prairie ladies know how to bake so well."
"Couldn’t stand being stuck in one of these towns through six months of this. Waiting for Spring. Baking. Ice fishing. Bingo. Sometimes a concert like us. Knitting. Quilting. No one's even been to The City."
Brent chewed a nail.
"Never seen so many quilts."
"The whole town comes out for a concert."
"It's the only goddamn thing to do."
"Yeah, but they all look forward to it, and know all about it, and discuss it afterwards at home, at church on Sunday, at the market. In that diner we stopped at yesterday they're probably right now discussing your bowing technique. The interpretation of the Franck."
"Oh, right, like anyone up here has even heard of Franck."
"Our hostess last night said she was surprised how slow we took the fourth movement. Not lively, the way people usually play it. ‘Stately’, she said. You think she was being polite? I think it’s too heavy and morose."
"We've argued about that movement enough. Violin starts, that’s me. Piano imitates. That's you.”
Timothy’s lively tempos, his crazy ways of phrasing that somehow made sense, the volume of sound supporting the violin, freed and yet terrified Brent.He couldn’t control the music they made, it was like a skidding car. The only way Brent knew to handle it was to brake, and squeeze the steering until his knuckles went white.
* * * *
Before that night’s concert Brent stood backstage, his eyes closed, violin set carefully on a table on top of a velvet cloth. He slowly, incrementally raised one leg, concentrating on the sensation of minute muscles contracting, until his knee was level with his waist. Then he stood, motionless, inwardly urging himself towards the balance that would keep his performance on track, keep his tension under control.
“Oblivious flamingo!” shouted Timothy.
Brent staggered, his eyes popping open.
“What? I’m concentrating!” he hissed. “Don’t you have any sense? Don’t you have any control over what splurts out of your mouth?”
“That’s what you look like,” said Timothy.
He had crumbs in his beard.
"It's a method for calming nerves."
"It reminds me of a joke,” said Timothy, and began telling a joke to the stage manager as Brent closed his eyes and tried to shut out everything except his balancing exercise. The joke seemed to be about a gorilla, a viola and a banana, and the stage manager laughed uproariously and forgot to give them a five minute warning.
“You’re up, fellas!” he said, still laughing, and shooed them onto the stage.
After the concert they spent the night with an ancient curmudgeon named Walt, in a rickety Victorian farmhouse near the grain elevator. Walt lugged their suitcases up a long snow-covered walkway. Brent carried his violin, and, afraid of slipping, glared down at his feet as they punched dark holes in the moon-sparkling snow. Timothy carried a sack of cookies left over from the reception.
His host stomped snow off his heavy boots, and Brent tried to do the same, but his loafers were soaked again, his toes numb and his insteps stinging with slush.
“Maybe I should pick up some boots,” he thought. “No. What would I do with big heavy boots in the city?”
Walt’s home was cozy and odd. The bookshelves were piled with philosophic tracts and on every flat surface were stacked, in small metal bins, or just piled haphazardly, part and pieces of an antique piano.
“I collect ‘em,” said Walt. “Poor old ladies. People bring ‘em to me now, their old crashed-up old pianos, and I take ‘em apart, polish ‘em up. Been studying for years how them hammers work. And each one different as peas in a pod. There’s three naked ladies--” he giggled, “I just call ‘em that, when I’ve taken ‘em t’part—in the back room now. And my pride and joy, almost perfect--” his voice cracked, “right though here!”
He led them into what had certainly been the formal dining room of the old house. Instead of a table, an old rosewood piano glowed under a dim and lopsided chandelier.
“I’ve been scrounging parts for this darling for years,” said the old man, running a hand through his still white hair so that it stood straight up on one side. “When she came to me,” his face sagged, he whispered, “she was a wreck. Barely a carcass.” He ran his hand over the curve of the century-old instrument.The pink of the wood gleamed in the flickering light of the fire in the next room.
“Too bad I never learned to play.”
There was silence for a moment. Brent heard his heartbeat twice, before Timothy opened his mouth to speak. Before he could, Walt shook himself, raised a gnarled finger and ran out of the room.
"Saskatoon wine," he called.
He returned with three tiny, mismatched wine glasses, and set them on the plank table in the living room. The etched cups on spindly stems caught at the firelight and tossed it back in trembling fragments.
"What is it?" asked Timothy, as he took a fragile glass of bright red wine between his thick fingers.
Brent looked at those fingers and wondered how Timothy managed that night’s delicacy in the Mozart first movement, how he’d pulled the turbulent phrases of the Grieg along without crushing them. Timothy didn’t seem connected in any way to the music he played. Brent sniffed at the wine’s raw sugary smell and gagged.
"Saskatoons?" Walt answered. "Little red berries. Grow like huckleberries. Where you from?"
"Georgia. I play every year for a competition in Atlanta. Met Morris, our agent, there years ago.”
“I’m going to embalm Morris in snow,” said Brent, not for the first time, but he stretched his toes nearer to the crackling fire.
Outside the window Walt's beat up truck and the leaning outbuilding that sheltered the white rental car and an assortment of tractors, tractor parts and antique cobbler's tools rested under the blanketing snow, and the prairie stretched smooth and luminous into the night.
"Where are you going?" asked Walt, his tiny eyes bloodshot after his fourth or fifth glass. "I mean, as musicians? As creators of Art? As searchers of Spontaneous Serendipitous Exuberance?”
Brent rolled his eyes. Walt was just a crackpot philosopher talking in capital letters. There seemed to be at least one in every town, living alone as a silo on a horizon. He gave him the only answer he’d ever had, or thought to look for.
"I'm going to Carnegie."
Timothy laughed and held out his empty glass for refilling.
"Very ambitious,” he said, ”but I think it's been done."
Brent woke hours later, disturbed by loud laughter, the creaking of wood chairs, and, after a pause, the haunting and tinny pinging of an old piano, clear and even-timbered but frightfully out of tune. Timothy played Liszt on the rosewood lady, and Gershwin, and then something Brent didn’t recognize.
He sat up in bed and stared at the frosted landscape as the music played. The snow, which at first glance appeared as smooth and depthless as blue sky, began to reveal ripples and shallows, hills and valleys and undulations, spots of bright reflected light, hollows plunged in shadow.
Usually, after a performance, Brent could remember every note. He could, and did, go through the performance in his head, dissecting each phrase and analysing what was perfect and what was not. Tonight, Brent remembered nothing. Except that he’d felt that somehow, something inside him was melting.
He looked down at his chewed nails. The piano stopped in the middle of an odd cadence, and he heard a far away and nebulous sound, a white noise. Perhaps, on the highway through the town, a white car was fighting through the night.
Brooks crept down the stairs, his bare toes on the splintered wood, and stood outside the door of the old dining room. The piano creaked and groaned as it gave up its notes, and on the bench, sitting next to Timothy, sat the old man, his hands in his lap and tears running down his face.
“I think you're infatuated with that farmwife." Brent drove again the next day, because Timothy tended to pull over at every tiny town, ‘just to visit,’ and they did need to be in Swift Current before 3. Their last concert fell on a Sunday, so it started earlier, at 7:30. After the concert it was only a two hour drive to the airport.
"I'm infatuated with these pastries. Better take one before they're gone."
“They’ve been sitting in the car since yesterday,” said Brent.
“Guy. You would have taken them inside and put them in the refrigerator?”
Brent smiled. Another silo slipped onto the horizon, low outbuildings scattered around it. From behind a wide sheet of cloud the sun suddenly flashed, a bolt of dazzling silver lightning. Wet splatters on the windshield sparkled like crystal. Brent jerked the wheel, blinded. The car slid.
"Wow. Slow down." Timothy put a powdery hand in front of his eyes.
"I can't see! It's so slippery."
"Why would I turn? I haven't turned in so long I forget how."
The muscles of his thin forearms tightened and bulged, he clenched his jaw the way he tried not to when he approached a really difficult stretch of notes. Anti-tension, anti-tension, he screamed to himself. The car slalomed down the center of the empty highway.
"Whoooeeeeeeeeeee!" Timothy waved his hands, and powdered sugar flew from the paper bag. "I love Saskatchewan!"
"You're crazy! Stop yelling and help me!”
The tension in Brent’s arms suddenly snapped, like the highest string of a violin, and he flailed his arms, knocking the bag out of Timothy’s hand and shoving him hard against the passenger door. Crumbs and powdered sugar clouded the front seat.
The car sideswiped a snowbank five feet high and careened to the other side of the road.
In the most unexpected ways, Timothy could plumb the delicacy of pianissimo. Now he whispered, “A flat empty road, with snow bank’s like bowling bumpers on each side. Really, guy. Hit it, have fun, you’re going to be fine. ”
"I can't see!"
"Just drive. Smashing!"
"That’s what I’m trying to avoid!"
The car swerved from one side of the road to the other, and his body began to move in synchronicity to its swaying.
Timothy grabbed the dashboard with both huge and freckled hands. "Yiiiiiiii!" he yelled. “We’re driving through the most gorgeous landscape painting you will ever see."
"If I could see it maybe I could relax!"
"This is Life. This is Glory. This is Spontaneous Serendipitous Exuberance. This is the fourth movement of the Franck!" And he began to sing at the top of his booming red-bearded baritone, hanging onto the dashboard with one hand as the car swayed, and conducting wildly with the other. "Ba bum bum bum bum baaaaa..."
. "I am never doing another tour with you.” Brent said. “No matter how good we sound together. You're crazy!”
He was yelling with his eyes closed, hanging on to the steering wheel for dear life.
“You're driving me insane and I am getting the hell back to New York and never leaving!"
And just as suddenly as it had appeared, the sheet of cloud covered the sun again, like a mother firmly tucking in a child reluctant to sleep.
Brent opened his eyes. The car found the right side of the road and stayed. He breathed out, the carbon dioxide from his lungs a puff of white nebulousness that instantly vanished.
Timothy was silent. He tilted his head to one side and looked up past the edge of the windshield. Brent slowed the car and tilted his neck also. The silo, almost abreast of the car, loomed above them, its silvery aluminum stalk towering above them, the tallest thing for two hundred kilometres.
"That structure does have a certain charm, in this light," Brent said.
The car passed the silo and plunged again toward the horizon. Without the single landmark to catch his eye, the landscape rolled effortlessly, white as forever, smooth as a perfectly drawn bow.
"You think we sound good together?" Timothy asked.
They drove in to Swift Current.A grain elevator, a Chinese restaurant, an IGA grocery, a sign that said Dick’s Boot Shop, Ahead Right.
Brent turned. The beat of the slush whapping at the tire walls slowing. He stopped the white car in a snow-packed parking lot, where vehicles crusted in brown ice languished.
"Look,” said Timothy. “Here's the last eclair. If you hold it up like this it looks just like a silo. Covered with snow and everything."
He waved the pastry in front of Brent’s nose.
"Last one. Going, going, gone."
Brent wrinkled his nose. A worn plywood sign jigsawed in the shape of a boot leaned against the wall. Would he be back? He remembered gazing out at the winter just the night before, and how the snow revealed itself in the darkness, in drifts and swirls and hidden shapes. How he recognized the shapes in himself, and they were shapes of fear. But really, was fear getting him anywhere?
Brent turned off the engine and reached for the eclair. Powdered sugar fell softly onto his city jacket. Beyond Dick’s Boots, far in the distance, he could make out the penciled outline of another silo.