“Rhapsody” by Elise Gallagher

16 April 2021 on Fiction   Tags:

Addy Baumann walked through the Boston Public Garden with her mouth closed tight against the zipper of a black coat she found at Goodwill. It was long but worn thin. A red scarf looped around her neck. A wool hat knitted by Grandma Jean covered her head but left the bottoms of her ears exposed. Nose hairs she never knew she had tickled from the cold. The soles of her feet ached through her boots. A full scholarship was good for paying tuition but it didn’t buy things like clothes or healthy food. An ache for Grandma Jean’s pot roast filled her stomach, even though Addy was technically a vegetarian. Addy swore to herself she wouldn’t miss Grandma Jean or Beaver Run, because that’s what always happened to the Baumann women. They left town but were always drawn back, moths to the same porch light, so desperate for a familiar glow when they lost their way. But Addy wasn’t lost; she knew exactly where she was going.

During warm summer months the Boston Public Garden was filled with people lounging on blankets or playing Frisbee on the grass. In winter, the willow tree drooped over the empty pond, its water drained away until spring. Ducks and the pair of swans named Romeo and Juliet who took up residence in the pond each summer were gone, leaving behind white feathers strewn across hard frozen grass. The swan boats sat empty; their painted half-open beaks looked manic, as though they would bite anyone who dared to ride on their backs.

Quickening her steps, Addy crossed the small bridge over the pond, feeling as though she were the only person left in the world.

By the time Addy reached her dorm room the snow had accumulated to four inches, piled on the sidewalks, pushed up against the curbs. Raw from the snow that had crept inside her loose boots, Addy’s shins stung from the sudden warmth of the building. Growing up in Beaver Run Addy had seen her fair share of snow, but never this much this early—she wasn’t ready.

A blast of warm air rushed over Addy as she entered her room, the base heater clicking as it worked at full capacity. Sheet music and old copies of Vogue magazine covered Lola’s bed on the left. Her coat and purse were gone, Addy noticed with a sigh of relief. Addy hung her coat up on the back of the door and slipped into a pair of slippers that looked like rabbits, one of the ears falling off on the side. She put a cup of water in the microwave, and stared outside at the gray world. A pair of female students walked across the street to campus, their arms intertwined, huddled close together. From up high Addy could see their words become wispy clouds in the cold air.

For a brief moment, Addy wondered what that would be like, to have a best friend she could lean on when she was cold. She had friends at home in Beaver Run, of course, Lauren being the closest, but she wouldn’t call her a best friend. They didn’t borrow each other’s clothes or spend hours talking on the phone. In high school, they sat next to each other in class and ate lunch at the same table until Lauren’s developed chest caught the boys’ attention. No one seemed to notice the curvy hips and buttocks Addy had inherited from Grandma Jean.

When Lauren’s social life revolved more around parties and dates, Addy practiced her violin, taking comfort in the music. The social isolation paid off when Addy received a full scholarship to Berklee. Lauren’s jealousy of Addy’s achievement drove a permanent icy block of silence between them.

Addy moved away from the window and turned on the pink boom box. Television, Professor Shoemaker pronounced in their first symphony lesson, stifled creativity. A musician must not cloud her mind with senseless shows, but stimulate her mind with provocative music. Not just classical, but jazz and salsa too. Professor Shoemaker was a brilliant man with a talent she longed to possess. As she thought of his curly brown hair and blue eyes, a red blush crept up her neck. Their next private lesson was in a week.

Gershwin filled the room, Addy’s favorite, “Rhapsody in Blue.” As she sipped her instant hot chocolate and stared at Lola’s closet, she let the music fill her and form images of what a busy New York City street might have looked like in the 1920s. A man in a top hat and cane swaggered down the sidewalk while a woman in a tight dress pushed a boa over her shoulder, a long cigarette dangling from her fingers. That was how Addy experienced music, in images and colors. The notes rose in a rushed crescendo. Crowds poured onto the city street, and commuters jostled by each other, making space with their elbows.

Across the room beaded necklaces dangled from hooks inside Lola’s open closet door. Addy drifted toward them, the music pushing her. She touched a short necklace with a flower pendant. It was blue with purple petals. This is what women in New York City wore over their blouses and dresses, Addy thought. She brought the necklace up to her chest where it rested above her heart. A click from the door interrupted the music. Addy jumped onto her bed and shoved the necklace under her pillow.

Lola hesitated, glanced around the room, then sniffled and removed her hat, coat, and gloves. Her cheeks were red and, Addy was happy to see, her normally straight hair had frizzy ends.

“The storm’s picking up. They say it’s going to be the worst in almost twenty years.”

“It’s never as bad as they say it is.” Addy’s heart beat faster and her palms sweat as they always did when she took something.

“I told Professor Donaldson that I cannot sing in this weather. Cold to heat, heat to cold, it will ruin my voice.” Lola stared at her reflection in the mirror, and smoothed her hair. She sighed, turned on the hair straightener, then took off her turquoise necklace and placed it on a hook. “Daddy says I should refuse to sing if Professor Donaldson won’t listen. Let’s be honest, who else could take my place? Rachel? I don’t think so.”

“Rhapsody in Blue” ended, the momentum of the song leaving the room quiet and still. Addy touched her big bulbous nose, one of the few traits she received from her father. The curls were from Grandma Jean, the long toes with brittle nails from her Grandpa’s side.

A buzzing from Lola’s cellphone filled the room. Addy wondered which boyfriend it was—Lola had three—but didn’t ask. Instead, she watched as Lola slipped into a tight-fitting coral sweater and dabbed perfume on her neck. After Lola left, Addy reached beneath her bed and pulled out a small wooden box engraved with her initials, AB. She placed Lola’s floral necklace inside with the other trinkets, then dabbed some of Lola’s perfume on her neck, in the same spots, before leaving.

*

Collecting other people’s trinkets began as an innocent habit, after Addy’s father left them and moved to Cape Cod for two years. She went through her parent’s bedroom first, smelling his cologne-soaked t-shirt. As each day went by without her father’s return, she moved through the whole house until she ended at the mudroom. She brought his steel-toed work boots into her closet, placed his hammer on the ground beside them, then salvaged what she could from his room where he played his music after work. Gershwin’s sheet music with penciled annotations in her father’s slanted scrawl were tucked deep inside her sock drawer, his pencil indented with gnashed toothmarks was placed beneath her pillow. Every night, before bed, Addy would bite down on the pencil, her molars sliding into the grooves her father’s teeth had left.

The collecting grew into a compulsion. Whenever Addy was at a friend’s house she had to take something, usually a toothbrush from the medicine cabinet. There were a few times when she almost got caught, but never did. The thrill of waiting for the owner to notice the missing object coursed through her, making it feel as though her body was vibrating. Then, when it was over and the items were hidden in her room, they seemed sad and pointless.

As Addy walked across campus with her violin case, head tucked down against the snow, she thought of Lola’s floral necklace and how, in a few months, she would wear it to see if Lola noticed. That was the thing about objects. The simple ones, the plain everyday ones, were hardly ever missed. It was as if they never existed at all.

Addy entered the symphony hall where the student orchestra would rehearse that afternoon. Their seat assignment auditions for the holiday performance were tomorrow and Addy was determined to get first chair. Papers rustled and instrument cases clicked open then shut. Students blew on their cold hands trying to warm up their fingers. A few scales floated through the air, clarinet and flute voices blended together. Addy slid into the violin section, taking her seat as second chair. To her right in first chair was Andrew who got straight As and practiced violin every spare minute he had. His father played oboe in the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Addy often wondered if this was the real reason he received first chair. While Andrew memorized every note, every pause in the sheet music, moving between the notes with mechanical precision, Addy played with passion. She felt the music; this was something that couldn’t be taught, her father had told her once as she sat at his piano bench beside him. You can learn the scales and how to sight read music, but feeling and passion are born inside of you.

Addy felt Andrew’s eyes travel over her denim jeans, the only pair she had without holes, to the red sweater that had strings sticking out of the fabric. The rest of the students were in neutral formal attire.

“This is a dress rehearsal,” Andrew said in a tight voice. Addy pretended not to hear him, but when he bent down to close his case she snatched his rosin from his stand and put it in her pocket. He straightened and didn’t notice.

Professor Shoemaker was ten minutes late, entering with a loud bang of the auditorium door. While he walked down the aisle he stripped off his coat and scarf, threw them on the stage, then pulled himself up without using the stairs. His brown curly hair glistened with the melting snowflakes, his cheeks were tinted red, and his blue eyes sparkled as he looked at the students. Addy blushed when his eyes swept past her.

“As the storm rages on we play.” He raised his baton. Every student sat up, raised their instruments, poised, ready. Professor Shoemaker’s baton fell and music filled the symphony hall.

It was a difficult rehearsal. Already tired from the semester and feeling weary from the early snow, students fumbled over notes and missed pauses. They fell off beat countless times, but Addy played on. Professor Shoemaker stopped, frustrated, and told the rest of the orchestra to listen to Addy and Andrew for guidance. When Professor Shoemaker smiled at her, she leaned into the music more, swaying and moving with the notes.

At the end of rehearsal, the mood in the room darkened. Most nights students lingered to talk but today they crept off with their heads down, wounded. Addy lingered, taking her time, then stood up to leave. Professor Shoemaker walked over and touched her arm.

“Addy.” He smiled.

She tucked her hair behind her ear and tried to prevent the blush from spreading across her face.

“Great rehearsal tonight, I can tell you’ve been working on those scales.”

Addy nodded her head.

“I hope you’re auditioning tomorrow, I’ll be there to judge this time. Once they see how brilliant you are, there will be no doubt in their minds where you belong.”

Addy muttered thank you and looked down at the tip of her shoe, afraid if she kept looking at Professor Shoemaker she would do something drastic, something she only dreamed of, like kiss him on the lips. She’d never been kissed before, she’d never had a boyfriend for that matter, but she imagined that his lips were warm.

“Can you still come over tonight to watch Max?” Professor Shoemaker continued. “The event hasn’t been cancelled. I can pick you up if you want.”

The thought of being alone in the car with Professor Shoemaker made Addy giddy.

“No,” she replied. “I can walk. It’s not my first storm.”

“Thank you,” he said, the gratitude and relief in his voice enough to keep her warm as she walked outside into the swirling snow. His words, how brilliant you are, filled her thoughts. He had never given her such praise before and she had never received such a compliment from a man, an accomplished man.

Addy’s cellphone vibrated in her pocket as she walked across campus. She ducked inside the student center, opened her flip phone, and listened to the voicemail message while she checked her mailbox. Inside was a familiar envelope from the Dean’s Office.

“Addy Madeline Baumann, it’s your mother,” the voicemail message played. “Why are you ignoring my calls? I got a letter from your school warning that you’re about to lose your scholarship? What is going on? What’s wrong? I know there’s been a lot of change—” there was a pause and then an intake of breath. “If your grandmother told you about your father’s new—”

Addy slammed the phone shut and threw the Dean’s Office envelope into the trash, already knowing what it said. If she didn’t improve her grades she wouldn’t be able to return next semester, and worse, couldn’t play in the orchestra. Addy shoved her hands in her coat pockets. On her way past the office window Addy grabbed a pen when the attendant’s back was turned. A cold numbness crept through her and it wasn’t from the snow.

Addy walked through a parking lot on her way to her dorm building, ready for a nap before she had to babysit for Professor Shoemaker.

“Addy.”

She looked up, surprised to hear her name, to see a man leaning against the driver’s side door of a CRV.

The last time Addy saw her father was two years ago on a night similar to this one. A blizzard had dumped fourteen inches of snow over Beaver Run with no sign of stopping. Belinda, her mother’s milk cow, was pregnant and went into labor at midnight. Addy was alone at the house, her mother visiting Grandma Jean, unable to leave. After watching Belinda push for an hour, Addy realized that Belinda’s calf was stuck. Addy only knew one person close by who could deliver a calf, and that was her father. After Addy pleaded and begged, he came over on the snow mobile with a strange instrument that looked like giant salad tongs wrapped in a blanket.

With gentle strength Addy’s father placed the tongs around the calf and eased the animal into the world. It lay on the blanket, its tongue lolling to the side, eyes closed. Belinda licked the still body of the calf, but her tongue could not revive it. Addy’s father sat with his head down, breathing hard. She placed a hand on his shoulder to tell him it wasn’t his fault, but he stood up, not meeting her eyes.

“Well, that’s life isn’t it,” he said. “Sometimes you’re born dead.”

He fell asleep on their couch beneath the wool blanket Addy used when she read at night. Addy sat in the chair, watching her father’s chest rise and fall. His long brown hair had fallen over his eyes. She didn’t want to go upstairs to her room, afraid that if she walked away she would never see him again.

In the parking lot her father opened his arms for a hug. “Hey, baby girl.”

Addy stepped back and crossed her arms. As she stared at him two separate worlds blended together, the ground felt like it was tilting, and she grew lightheaded. His jowls sagged, his hair was gray on the sides, and his stomach protruded over his belt. She glanced at the wedding ring on his finger, then looked at the ground.

“Addy, look I drove all the way up here. Your mom called me all upset about some letter she got from your school and told me it was my fault.” He paused. “Come on, why don’t we get something to eat? You look like you could use a hamburger.” Addy’s stomach grumbled and she opened the CRV’s passenger side door.

The two ordered their meals at the McDonald’s drive-thru window and sat in silence eating cheeseburgers. It was the meal they always shared when he used to pick her up on the weekends for his visitation hours. Addy’s stomach was tight, and her mouth felt dry. The car was running, and the heat made her back sweaty. However, she refused to take off her coat. She worried that if she moved the moment with her father would dissipate and he would be gone again, a mirage, a cruel dream. She moved her elbow so it bumped into his making sure he was actually there.

“I promised your mom I would talk to you. That was the only way she’d stop calling the house and waking up Geraldine.”

“Geraldine?” Before Addy had left Beaver Run for college, her father was with a woman named Moira.

“She’s my new—” he paused—“she’s our baby girl.”

The contents of Addy’s stomach threatened to come up and the scarf around her neck felt suffocating. She dropped the cheeseburger in her lap.

“Are you going to leave her?” Addy asked in a tight voice.

“What?”

“I said, are you going to leave her too?”

“Addy, it’s more complicated than you think.” Her father touched her wrist and she pulled away.

“Don’t touch me,” she snarled. “Don’t ever talk to me again.” She fumbled with the lock until it opened, and stumbled out of the car into the snow, tears blurring her vision. For the first time, she was the one walking away while he called her name.

*

Addy took the green line to Park Street and walked through the Boston Public Garden again, this time avoiding the glaring swan boats. Street lamps lit the brownstones on Commonwealth Avenue, testaments to Boston’s history. Gray and turquoise shutters stood out against the bricks. Iron gates surrounded the small front yards. Addy paused in front of Professor Shoemaker’s building. The shutters were deep blue and the bushes in the yard hid a stone bench and empty bird bath from view. The iron gate did not squeak when she pushed it open; she stiffened and wanted to turn back, feeling uncomfortable and out of place. The buzzer rang, then Professor Shoemaker’s voice inviting her inside floated through smooth and deep despite the crackling intercom. There was a loud click. Addy hesitated, then pushed the main building door open and went inside.

In the foyer Professor Shoemaker’s wife examined herself in the entryway mirror. She wore a golden beaded dress that shimmered when she moved, and her long hair was pulled back into a bun. Professor Shoemaker wrapped his arms around his wife and whispered in her ear. She smiled, glanced back into his eyes, and as Addy stood in the entryway she felt like an intruder in their private moment but she couldn’t look away. She glanced at herself in the mirror, and saw how shabby the sweater looked, how ridiculous Lola’s red lipstick was on her lips. She wished the Shoemakers good night and walked into the baby’s room, feeling ashamed.

An hour after the Shoemakers left, Addy put Max to bed. She wandered around the house, opened and closed the cupboards, and placed a spoon in her purse. She made her way upstairs into the elaborate master bedroom. An old record player sat in the corner of the room with a collection of classical music albums. Addy chose an Etta James album and the song “At Last” filled the room. She ran her hands over the smooth wood of the vanity, cracked open the jewelry box, and marveled at the diamond earrings and pearl bracelets. She picked up a pair of earrings and pushed them through her almost closed holes. Next, she opened the closet and touched a smooth red dress. She took off her clothes, unzipped the dress, and stepped into it. As she stood in front of the Shoemakers’ full-length mirror, staring at her reflection, running her hands over the red dress, she thought of the way Professor Shoemaker had looked at his wife. She closed her eyes, and imagined that his arms were wrapped around her.

Addy swayed to the music, giving in to how it gripped and held her, the way she imagined a lover would. Unlike music, men did not love Baumann women, they abandoned them, or stayed with them, draining them, until nothing remained.

The aching numbness filled Addy’s body again. She threw open the doors to the balcony, the way she thought Professor Shoemaker’s wife would in the morning, and stepped outside in her bare feet. Addy closed her eyes again, losing herself in Etta James’s smooth voice. She twirled in the snow, the red dress swooshing around her. As she turned her face to the sky she wondered if she could ever be a woman a man would love.

*

Addy climbed the auditorium stairs and sat down in the wooden chair in the middle of the stage. The anxiety she felt was not from the audition, but the borrowing of the red dress she wore. She positioned her violin and looked out into the audience. Professor Shoemaker sat in the front row, nearly invisible in the bright stage lights, and the thrill she felt dissipated when he did not react to her garment. It was another unappreciated possession hidden among so many others. His wife would not even realize it was gone until she decided to wear it.

The other music professors sat around him, clipboards poised in their laps. Addy rested her cheek against the cool smooth wood of her violin, nuzzled it once as though it were a lover’s hand, closed her eyes, and played.

Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” floated from her violin in a slow, sorrowful tune, the notes awakening and stretching. Addy saw the dewy meadow fields of Beaver Run in the early morning, her father’s truck driving down the road as he left them. She let the music say what she could not give words to. Her longing for moments that were always out of her grasp, drew out the notes. She thought of her college acceptance letter, of the seat she sat in now, and what she wanted the most—first chair. She let her emotions flow through her fingers, and her bow moved at a frenzied pace, her body swaying with it. As the notes bloomed her chest, which had felt so empty, filled.

*
Photography by Daniel Fazio

Elise Gallagher received her MFA in Creative Writing and Publishing Arts from the University of Baltimore. In 2018, she attended the One Story Summer Writer’s Conference where craft lectures and classes were hosted by authors such as Hannah Tinti and Will Allison. Her short stories have appeared in various online literary magazines. She is a Senior Fiction reader for Cherry Tree literary magazine and a freelance editor. When she is not writing or editing, she is spending time exploring the outdoors with her husband and toddler. You can find her on Twitter @GallagherElise.

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