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Record Shop Girl
March 1, 2003

I play for what I have lost

by Kirk Nesset   PrintEasy

I am a musician of sorts, but the fact is that I'm lazy. I might have played anywhere and with whomever I chose, but didn't, and don't. Instead I tune up and play for myself; I play solo at home. I go to concerts for pleasure, and listen to records and tapes. I sit in the chic spots on Melrose and Sunset, jotting my musings down on a pad, which I type up later and send out as reviews. Email to a FriendI slouch at the compact tables here by the windows, watching as women march by like notes on the sidewalk, short-haired women in tights and glossy black leather, long-haired women in paper-thin skirts, hair glowing every shade of red in the scale—I sit here at Josef's, or at the Eton or Onyx, sipping iced coffee in the roar of the city while women flow through my face in the glass, my once-younger-but-still-acceptable face, which is also my sister's, my sister who's gone.

After coffee I do the record shop grind. I haunt the places I've haunted since before I was born, seeking and buying on streets my mother once shopped. I save the big store on Highland for last. It does the sort of volume I need and require, replete with its share of odd used surprises, the trickle-in recordings I assume have vanished forever. It is my kind of store. And then there's the girl at the counter.

Today I linger at the D's and the E's—Debussy, Dvorak, Edgar, etc.—disinterested, bored as a cat, waiting to see if she's noticed. She has.

"Right on time," she says when I get up to the counter. As usual she's wearing her smile, a smile most men would cleave their hands off for, just to take home and admire and keep.

Text Bite"Oh yes," I say in return. I sigh, easing my gems onto the counter: Shostakovich's Fifth—an early Berlin Philharmonic; some unheard-of old Purcell and Ives; a few other less notable items.

"I didn't see these," she exclaims. She waves her wand over the spines of the albums, dissolving the spell that trips the alarms. The glare of the overhead lights reflect in her glasses, which have a vague pinkish tint. "I'd have ditched these for you," she says, "if I'd seen them."

"You have to work hard, dear, to keep up with me."

Her smile grows even more sprightly. Hers is a face that enchants. "I work fairly hard, mister," she says. "Harder than you, I would guess."

Her colleague the kid with the Clorox-bleached hair whisks off the people behind me, scowling as always, and starts ringing them up. He thinks I'm invading his orchard—that I've already shaken the branches and tasted the fruit. He's wrong, but I'm not letting on. Indeed, he's got a right to feel jealous; if I cared more about things in this world I'd be jealous of him.

She slides my records into a bag. She's got this unearthly ethereal calm, she's part Chinese or something, dark-haired and tall, and her wit seems aligned with her beauty. A rarity, in men and women alike.

"Well, Barbara, my friend," I say. I take my bag by the handle. I'm not so hot on goodbyes.

"Well," she answers.

The woman the kid has been helping is scoping me out. Her eyes veer away from my butt, from this girlish thirty-inch waist I adhere to, in spite of my years. Mostly it's these Italian pants I'm wearing; I buy them for this. I look young. Too young for the way I've been feeling.

I know what Barbara is thinking. "I've still got your number," I tell her. "We were considering a concert, weren't we?"

"That's what you said. You said you got tickets for nothing."

Clorox glares over again. He's listening for clues, I imagine, his thin arms extending out of his tee shirt. I tell Barbara I'll call her, and to keep an eye out in the meantime for stuff I might need. I thank her, give her a kind of nod or a bow, and stroll past the sensors with my bag in my hand, past the blinking white columns, out into the sunlight.

I proceed on the circuit. I drive back to Sunset to pick up my shirts, do the grocery and bakery, then head up the hill to where my mother is housed. The Home is an elegant old-fashioned Spanish affair, only the finest, stucco walls and polished tile hallways, plants hanging in pots, all the earthly delights and conveniences. A button my mother can push at her bedside, if she thinks she's in trouble. Her lovely antique piano, which she won't play anymore. The stereo I furnished myself; I threw out her old one and wired the new, hung the speakers on high.

The narrow parking lot's full. I circle the block until someone steps up to a car, wait, then back slowly into the slot. I turn off the engine and pull out my key. The air conditioner ticks into silence.

I'm parked on the crest of the hill, hood leveled at the grinding heart of the city. Sunset is an hour away, but already the sky's full of the apocalyptic oranges and pinks that make newcomers gape, wondering if they're alive or they're dead. Below, on a lesser hill, a blackened tar-trailer is puffing up smoke. A row of palms flanks the street, dead still in the tremulous air.

My mother was a famous concert pianist. She grew up in New York and moved out with my dad, a man I can't remember at all, a conductor-composer killed in Korea, blown to pieces by some new Chinese bomb. Text BiteMy mother knew Glen Gould and Furtwangler and others; she performed with the symphony here in its earliest heyday. I don't blame her for not playing now. If my hands looked as twisted and gnarled as hers, I'd wear mittens most of the time. I gaze over the smog-covered streets, trying to shake off the torpor. I try to find energy to get out of the car.

My mother pushed me too hard. She pushed me in grade school, pushed me in high school and college, she pushed and she pushed, saying I'd be better and brighter than any, which might have been true, I suppose. I could have done with my bow what my father'd begun with his baton and with fresh ink on score sheets; I could've done what my sister'd do with her keyboard, had she kept on a bit longer.

My sister was the purest, most natural among us, and did not resist the motherly nudges. Her swelling arpeggios would make you sit down and weep, anyone would, even the layman, even this poor dolt down there raking his asphalt. I still have her on tape, a tape I keep in the drawer with the photos. A frozen heaven of sound, the sound of my twin at eighteen, two years before she left us and married, and—I hear—gave up the piano.

My mother we disappointed to tragic proportion. It's no wonder she's fallen apart. But I couldn't do what she asked, not after my sister had gone. I settled for the smaller ensembles instead—this during my stint at the conservatory, and just after. And then that was it.

I've still got my keys in my hand. If I don't get out of the car now I won't do it at all. I check my face in the mirror. The white sack from the bakery sits on the passenger seat—a few of the chocolate chip muffins she likes. The road-patching men are all packed, wiping their foreheads and climbing into the truck. It's gotten hot in the car but I don't dare open the window, not with the smog, this vibrating lurid pink twilight which makes street signs and roofs seem to quiver. In the sky to the south only Venus appears; stars don't shine down on this city, this city of angels. They can't break through the gauze.

My eyes trace the grain in the solid wood dashboard. I chose this machine for its leather and teak. For the quaint wooden bar in the back, which I've never used, unfortunately, and probably won't. I haven't touched the tape deck either: I don't believe in them. You can't listen for real while you're rumbling and bouncing along, it's an impure experience. You might as well listen to Chopin or Schubert on skates, careening around assaulting your ears with your Walkman.

That's it. I'm not going in now. She'll last another couple of days; I see her every week—or every two weeks, at least.

I push the key in and turn it. My engine roars into being. Tepid air blasts out the vents. I'm feeling hungry again. I need to get back to reviews, I'm so far behind. I've been even more lazy than usual. I pull out on the street and coast down the hill. Street lights are flickering on. To the left the skyline towers up in the murk, a huge fuzzy-lit Stonehenge, an outer-space vision.

They say Rossini only cried twice in his life. I know because I've read all the books—musical biography is one of my things. The first time he cried because his mother had died. Later he wept while picnicking with friends in a boat on a lake when a whole plate of chicken breasts fell over the side. Breasts stuffed with delicate truffles, which Rossini loved to no end and called the Mozart of mushrooms.

I've never loved, I'm afraid, or even liked things with passion—so in this sense I'm completely unlike him. I'll never be a drunk or a glutton, or any kind of addictive what-have-you, since I am mainly indifferent to things, be they people or spirits or food. I could've been the new Jascha Heifetz, but it's not in me to feel what he feels. To know the passions that matter, which I get only in glimpses and patches, heat-sparks that come with the cracking of ice.

I play for myself. I sit in a chair in a room full of records, solo, playing for me, my playing as strong as when I was twenty. I play for what I think I have lost, led along by the sheer weight of memory—for this sister who inhabits my dreams, who lurks in mirrors in odd moments, in gaps between chords, and in the face of the record shop girl, this living ghost of the city.

The record room is full to capacity. Records range from ceiling to floor on each of the walls, with barely an inch of available space. To be truthful, some are my mother's, they're mixed in with mine, fine old recordings from the forties and fifties. Day by day they're increasing in value, all of them, like these baseball cards collected by morons. In the next room is a full wall of tapes and another of CDs. Along with boxes and boxes of disks I still haven't opened, the ones they hope I'll review.

I'm slow at reviewing. I'm dull and tired much of the time, lazy as sin. Lately when I do mail a review off they send it right back, saying it's no longer relevant. They tell me to tone down my language. They don't care to hear about incontrovertible timing, or melody's disarming flow. Transubstantial sevenths and fifths.

I pad into the living room, fresh-showered, wearing my towel. I put on Satie and sink down on the couch. I pull on the headphones. I cross my legs on the coffee table, pushing the magazines to one side.

We taught ourselves about timing, my sister and I. We learned more than anyone might have imagined, playing night after night, surreal duets, our harmonies mingling, intertwining, reverberating in the soft quiet peace of the house. We slept in the same bed until high school, and after—it was a hard habit to break. Each night she'd slip into my room and crawl in beside me; now and then I'd slip off to hers. We'd embrace until daylight, until the calamity of traffic flared up in the distance and the wailing began. We'd lay under that cool white cover of sheet, jigsawed together, one single calm being, our breathing metered and measured, lungs falling and rising in effortless tandem.

Mornings, my hands grazed the plump new swellings of flesh on her chest—there was no question of warrant or license, no sense of shameful impurity. My hands traveled her pale long belly, down to the curling dark hairs, which seemed to increase overnight. Sometimes she'd touch me in kind, though not so forthrightly perhaps. We'd lay locked until dawn, until Mother got up to put on the coffee. We'd lay there like unknowing lovers, my stiff still-miniature self nestled in the cleft of her buttocks, awakening to beauty, the unfiltered grace of the soul.

I take off the headphones and get up from the sofa. Satie roams at large in the room. I step across to the window. Miraculously, the haze seems always to lift in the evening, leaving a nightscape so clear it is almost sublime, a strange lovely gridwork of twinkling, shimmering light, a jewel-studded sorcerer's cape flung on the hills.

I suppose it is possible to make oneself cry. But that is cheating, I think. One could always seek out criers as models, famous unhappy weepers in books—Jake Barnes, say. Or that blubbering slob in Saul Bellow, Augie or whoever, seizing his grief at a stranger's funeral in steaming New York.

It's not like I don't know how I am. I did not choose to become cynical. I didn't set out to turn bitter as this, to dismiss this city and world as completely as my sister dismissed my mother and me, running off with her unmusical petroleum engineer of a husband, telling me to leave her alone.

And I have little reason to whimper. I don't have to work. My house is paid for in full; I bought it after Mother sold the old house in Westwood and went to the Home and made me her official co-signer. I tend to spend a bit of her money. I tell her I do, and I tell her what for. I couldn't begin to put a dent in her fortune, what with compounding interest and all, even if I lost my head like some shop-happy buyer, which is not very likely.

I ease down in the chair by the window. I sigh and pick up the phone.

Text BiteI go over the sequence I've arranged in my head, combining clauses and verbs in fair orchestration, then dial. The tones sing out as I press with my finger. Barbara picks up at her end of the line.


I drop the phone in its cradle. She's not supposed to be home. Either she's gotten off early, or she's sick, or she's adjusted her schedule—I thought surely I'd get her machine. I'm ready now to ask her out to the concert, but the living voice creates a kink in the chain-link, a hampering unthought-of dimension. I feel perturbed. My breathing's uneven. The background roar in my head increases in volume, like tape hiss, or waves in the distance.

My history of dealings with women is a history of failure. A sad fact of my life. But this woman is different, and this is the issue. She's devoted to listening and playing. In our chats at the store she has taught me some things, things about contempo classical and jazz, even pop and new wave, about which I'm poorly informed. She's sharp and intense, black-haired, has a fine round little bottom, and seems to invite my advances.

Satie swirls around in the room, dreamy rhapsodic piano. I stare out the window, looking beyond my reflection. The moon's floating up in the east, orange as a pumpkin, preternaturally bright.

I intend to give her a chance to withdraw. To come up with excuses. I won't put people on the spot: I refuse to suffer anyone's woeful misgivings. She can call me to respond and say yes, fully assenting and eager. I can comply with willing compliance. I'll call again in the morning; I'll be sure then to get her machine.

I gaze out the window. Under even the most minimal pressure, it's the one-man performance for me. The toccata, the solo recital. The syncopations of everyday human transmission are strangely beyond me, they're messy, they try my poor patience. I prefer probes over capsules, prefer the triumphs of the Voyagers and Vikings, of the unmanned Magellan, streaking along even now toward its business on Venus—prefer them all to those inept early Apollos, or this flawed and disastrous shuttle, to bodies strewn piecemeal over the desert of ocean.

"This is some house," she says, leaning back on the sofa.

"Thank you, my friend," I respond, and refill her wine.

We've been out to dinner and the concert. To Luigi's on Western, and Brahms and Tchaikovsky at the Chandler Pavilion. I've entertained her already with a tour of the record room and the sound of my speakers, with my violin collection, and—just now—with a little tale about the death of Tchaikovsky, who died at his brother's of cholera, evidently mistaking wash water for fresh and gulping it down.

"You've got more stock here than we do," she tells me, "down at the store."

I sit down beside her, nonchalant, wineglass in hand, strategically keeping my distance. I tell her I'm glad she got to see it at last.

She drinks down more of her wine, smiling her smile. I fill her glass up and then top off my own—I'm taking it easy. She's wearing her black and white tights, the ones with the dizzying horizontal patterns of stripes. Her black leather jacket hangs on the chair by the door. In the dimness her face seems less Oriental than usual, her chin-line and cheeks a little less rounded, her nose, below the rims of her glasses, the nose of a very young girl.

Her mother, she told me at dinner, is full Vietnamese. She—Barbara—looks rather more like her father, who she never sees any more, thanks to his problems with booze and heroin and with living in general. Her mother's remarried.

"So this is your mom's piano," she says in a while.

"One of them."

She rises up in her tights and walks over. She uncovers the keys, folding the cover carefully back in its hole. She runs a finger over the long row of ivory. Delicately—so soft the keys don't make a sound.

"Jesus," she says.

"You should see what she's got at the Home."

"I hate to imagine." She turns and gives me a glance. "Mind if I play?"

"Please," I say. "I'd be thrilled. Two concerts in a night's a fine kind of bargain."

She pulls out the bench and sits down. She leafs through the music there on the holder, then stands and takes down a sheet from above: Sibelius, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, piano reduction. She flattens it out on top of the others.

"You're one for the cool arctic strain," I announce from the sofa. "I'll bet you like Grieg."

"I'm for anything sounding as pretty as this," she says, and plays the opening bars.

She's not bound for greatness, exactly. It's obvious right off. Still, she's learned all her lessons and has at least a feel for the movement, which is more than you can say for five-eighths of the musical world. She's played this piece maybe four hundred times and it shows, she knows it inside and out. Now she simply needs a good teacher.

Text BiteI move up to the bench and sit down beside her. I turn the page when she's ready. She warms into the song. The playing turns fluid, her pale fingers supple as cream. She gets better and better. I glance at the mirror on the wall to my right.

We could be my sister and me, side by side like this on the bench, dark-haired, she turned in profile, the same height as always as me, and me still solicitous, still boyish as ever in some ways, though careworn and slightly more shaggy.

She stops playing abruptly.

"Are we going to bring out the violin, or what?"

"That's what you want?"

"Of course," she says, smiling, her eyes on the score sheet. "Why else would I choose this one, Mr. Record Collector?"

I start to get up, hesitating. I don't know about this. I stay where I am for a moment and then on impulse gingerly pull off her pink-tinted glasses. I put my mouth over hers. The timing is right all at once. The stirring is there for a change.

"My, my," she says, drawing away in a minute. She sets her hands in her lap, straightens her shoulders.

I go out and come back with my best violin. She starts the song again from the beginning. I haven't played with a soul in ten or twelve years. It's hard to try to do it again. Terribly hard.

Soon I am hating myself for hating the way she fails to draw out the rests, for how she sometimes drags on the rhythm. It's not fair to hate somebody for this. To imagine your senile arthritis-bent mother doing it better, much less your beloved look-alike sister, who should be by now the best in the world. Comparisons are odious. They're downright unfair.

I sail away on the solos regardless. I seal up my eyelids—I don't dare glance in the mirror. I'm working from memory and do not leave out a note, not even in the final movement, where the notes stream out like bullets, or debris on a fast-moving river. I think she approves, I hear her over the violin and piano, the all but inaudible in-drawings of air, the occasional gasp.

We play three or four songs. We finish the bottle and start on another, and then we're down on the carpet, her shirt up to her neck, arpeggios of laughter trilling out from her lips. I explore her, bold from the music and wine. I kiss her body all over.

"You play a mean fiddle," she says, before I get very far.

Drifting up from the speakers is Shostakovich's Fifth—I've committed the new album already to tape. I fall into the waves of the strings, inching up again to her chin, pausing, meandering, no hurry at all. She's not about to resist. I pull down her tights with my toe.

Eyes closed, I see my old bedroom in Westwood. My first violin standing there in its case. I hear piano-song wafting up from downstairs, that haunting lingering melody I've been hearing for years and can't seem to escape, that requiem for the living, and loss of one's hope. I've kept away from women for ages, except when I pursue them to tease them, which is mainly teasing myself.

Barbara pulls me over onto her body. She's strong. She unbuttons my pants.

I'd forgotten what it was like. This kind of wonder I'd all but erased from my mind. I fall in completely, I don't know where I am. The unplanned and impromptu folds me under its wing, begging for nocturnes of unrehearsed feeling. Eventually I hear her calling me back.

"What?" she's asking me now. "What are you saying?"

It's not the first time this has happened—the dark sotto voce augmenting until it gets me in trouble.

"What do you mean?" I ask in return, my voice still caught in the spell of the motion.

"You keep saying it's unfair," she says. She's out of breath also. " 'Unfair, it's unfair,' you keep saying. 'I won't let you do it.' "

"You must have misheard me."

Distrust washes over her face, or vague disappointment, all but unnoticeable.

"I guess so," she says, and slowly draws her hips into mine.

I can't help it, all at once I'm churning with hatred again. I try hard to suppress; it's a sentiment unworthy of any. And then my mind misgives me for real. I know from experience that the show is all over—I may as well pack up my instrument now, toss in the towel. Learn to throw off the tyranny of womanly charm, I've been saying for years, certain that the project was hopeless. Lately, with the variable state of my hormones, my body's taken the swearing for gospel, dull as my thought-heavy mind.

"Seems like you've had enough for a while," she tells me. She tilts us over onto our sides, working herself out of her tights, which are bunched at her ankles. "It's okay," she says, and brings her lips to my forehead.

Of course it's okay. Okay for her. She can fly off to her shop and have fun with her workmates. She can talk about me if she likes, about how rusty I am with my bow or about other performances, things over which I have precious little control. She can stand at her counter discussing the latest new-wave-synthpop band, the post-industrial-punk and hip-hop whatever, bands like Shinehead and Meatpuppets, Killing Joke and Creaming god-awful Jesus, bands about which I know or care not a jot—and she'll know what she's saying. She's a dozen years younger than I at the least. She's only a step or two up from these teenaged gothic-punk rockers, baleful dark bunnies driven by irony and their scorn for the world.

Only memory's sublime. Surely I'm better off by myself. I don't even know what to say to her now.

Gradually her breathing lengthens and deepens. She's drunker than I am and she's falling asleep. I'm drifting in and out of slumber myself, hips tucked into hers on the carpet. I float with the sound floating up from the speakers, the lamenting mournful violas and cellos, the cadenced footfalls of snare drums, which rap like jackboots on concrete. It gets louder and louder, this dark heavy music, the horns growing more nightmarishly brash, the drums more insistent—which is impossible, I set the volume myself.

There is little to fear. My body's still trim, the women still notice; I know how to dress, how to behave. I'm at the helm here. Lazy or not, control is the key—so what if I'd like now more than ever to cry, and it's not in me to do it. It's a matter of mind. You have to arrange the perspective, hear and see with precision, get into the timing. If need be you can even fasten fruit back onto branches, freeze it together again, even after it's fallen, or shattered and bruised. Even with half of you missing and the rest of you scattered out over the railing, sinking, fading by degree into water, cold and un-whole.

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