Ironing for a corpse wasn’t Joan Spencer’s idea of fun. She hitched up her jeans, tested the iron’s sizzle with two wet fingers, and creased the first shirt she touched.
Coming back to live in Oliver should have felt like old home week, but it was turning into pure murder. And something didn’t make sense. Ignoring the crease as she jabbed the iron’s point fiercely between the buttons, she thought back to that first orchestra rehearsal—had it really been less than two weeks ago?
Joan rested her viola case on the gravel in the dark parking lot and searched the shadows for a way in. The sprawling new Alcorn County Consolidated School dwarfed the limestone Oliver School building she remembered from so many years earlier.
“Thank heaven for small mercies—there’s a bass.”
Some twenty feet away, a minuscule Toyota was being delivered of a string bass and a long-legged stool by a short, round man who had to be going her way. Joan picked up her instrument and concentrated on catching up with him before he reached his destination.
She made it in time to open the suddenly obvious door for him. Encumbered by an instrument bigger than he was and pointing the stool awkwardly ahead, the little man nodded his thanks and struggled down a long corridor without a word.
She followed, bothered by her sudden shyness. All I have to do is introduce myself, she thought, but she couldn’t make the words come.
Her fingertips felt too cold to play.
Suddenly the little bass player stormed a door with the legs of his stool and Joan was enveloped in the cacophony of an orchestra warming up. The bassist was already lugging his burdens up some side steps to the stage of the small auditorium. Balancing her case across two armrests, Joan added it to the others already littering the empty seats. She took out her viola, stretched the shoulder rest across the back, tightened the bow, and gave it a few quick swipes with the rosin. It couldn’t need much, as little as she had been playing.
She climbed to the stage and paused, uncertain whether to find a seat or speak to the conductor first. But he didn’t seem to have arrived yet. Most of the orchestra was seated, although a string of violinists stood laughing and talking along one side. The first stand of violas had its complement of players. At the second, a balding man with a cheerful face sat alone.
“May I sit here? I don’t know how you do things.”
“Sure, happy to have you. There are never enough of us.”
Joan settled into fourth chair in time to see the concert-master gesture to the first oboe for an A. She was grateful to discover that this orchestra tuned winds and strings separately, and not a bit surprised when the winds started noodling again before she’d brought her recalcitrant C string under control. Some things, she thought wearily, are the same everywhere.
She realized why she hadn’t found the conductor when a woman—about five feet tall, round, and ruddy-faced—hefted herself onto the podium, laid a score on the stand, and picked up the baton. Alex Campbell was her name, Joan knew from the publicity she’d seen about this first rehearsal of the Oliver Civic Symphony season. It hadn’t occurred to her that Alex was one of those names.
“Welcome back, everyone,” Alex was saying, “and a special welcome to the new people. It looks as if we’ll need to schedule some auditions. I’d like to hear all new winds during the coming week. For tonight, please double parts. I prefer to mix strong players all through the string section, but if you care where you sit, sign up for an audition. Yoichi Nakamura, our manager, has the sign-up sheets. Yoichi, do you want to say anything?”
A young Japanese man stood, violin in hand, among the seconds. His eyes danced, and his pointy smile reminded Joan of the delightful haniwa figures she had seen only in pictures. When he spoke, his barely discernible accent marked him as foreign born. “Thank you. Please remember to fill out the registration cards on your stands. Write your name as you want it to appear on the concert program. I will have the sign-up sheets for auditions at the door for you. Also the sign-out sheets for borrowing music. That is very important. We must know where to find the music, especially after a concert. We paid two hundred dollars for missing rental parts last year. Next week I will bring you a personnel list and the rehearsal and concert schedules for the whole year. Thank you very much.”
He didn’t quite bow as he sat down, but Joan thought his quick look at his chair was not altogether to see if it was still there. She wondered whether he was one of the Suzuki-trained violinists now beginning to pepper American orchestras.
“Are we tuned? Yes?” asked Alex. “Then we’ll begin with the Schubert.”
The Schubert turned out to be the Great C Major Symphony. They read straight through the first three movements, interrupting only when a whole section of players was hopelessly lost. The beginning wobbled as September beginnings do among musicians who spend more of their summer in swimming pools than in practice rooms. But when the oboe solo danced over the violas’ pom-pom-pom-pom at the beginning of the second movement, Joan began to rejoice. By intermission she was very glad she had screwed up the courage to come.
Her stand partner introduced himself as John Hocking, an engineer for one of the two electronics firms in Oliver. His daughter, he said, was over in the back of the second fiddles.
“I’m Joan Spencer. I’ve just come back to Indiana, but I lived here a long time ago. In fact, I’ve been wondering if I might know anybody in the orchestra.”
“You might. Some of these folks go back as far as you possibly could. Don’t let me keep you. I’m a recent arrival, myself. Over there by the punch and cookies you could run into almost anyone.” “I wonder if I’d recognize anybody after all this time,” she said, getting up. “Can I bring you anything?”
“Thanks, but I’m trying to pretend I don’t want any.”
Joan grinned and laid her loosened bow on the stand. With the viola tucked under her arm, she threaded her way between cello stands to a table in the wings of the stage behind the basses. There she accepted a Styrofoam cup and a cookie from a woman whose tailored elegance and coiffure called for formal afternoon tea. Looking ruefully at her own scuffed sneakers, Joan wished she had a free hand to tuck up the hair she felt straggling down her neck.
The only good thing to be said for the nondescript fruit drink was that it was wet and cold. Could she have been shivering only an hour ago? But that had been jitters. An hour’s vigorous playing had warmed her from fingertips to sodden underarms.
The cookie, homemade and lacy around the edges, proclaimed at least one sheep among the goats of the refreshment committee.
All around her, old friends were greeting each other. Except for the horns, who were taking advantage of the break to work on a chorale that nibbled at the edges of her memory, and the inevitable trumpet showing off his triple tonguing, the players seemed thoroughly jumbled. Many had left their instruments behind. Only a few of the fiddle players bore the rough, red brand of the chin rest beneath their jaws, battle scar of long hours of practice. Some were too young to have achieved one, but more, she suspected, were amateurs like her, who played for pleasure and stopped short of pain.
Paying the teenagers scant attention, Joan concentrated on people her age or older. No one looked familiar. Hardly surprising, after almost thirty years, but a disappointment nonetheless.
To her annoyance, the shyness had come creeping back. An inner voice needled, You don’t belong here. You’ll never feel at home again. With a now-or-never feeling, she introduced herself to a white-haired man standing alone.
“Hello. I’m Joan Spencer and I’m new.” “Elmer Rush. So am I.”
“New to Oliver, or just the orchestra?”
“Both. My daughter and her family moved here this summer. Then her husband died, and I came to be with her and the children.”
Joan blinked. “I’m sure that’s a help.”
“She makes me feel welcome. And one of the children needs a lot of special care.”
She smiled. “Mine didn’t, but at times during the past few years I would have sold my soul for someone to help me yell at them.”
Elmer nodded. “How old are they now?”
“Pretty well grown. My daughter’s on her own, with her first real job, and my son’s in high school.”
“You’re still busy, then.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Actually, I don’t see that much of Andrew. Not that I’d want him in my lap all the time. Generally, I’m glad he’s so independent.”
They moved back into the orchestra. Elmer crossed behind her to the bassoon section. He would have to audition later in the week, Joan remembered. She wished him luck.
Just as she reached her seat, she felt a hand on her shoulder. “Joan Zimmerman! Is that really you? What are you doing here?”
It took her a moment to recognize in the rounded features of the tall woman beside her a member of Miss Duffy’s sixth-grade class. Then it was easy. Nancy Krebs was now a dead ringer for her own mother.
“Nancy! I wondered what happened to you, but I didn’t know how to find out.”
“I almost didn’t speak. I hardly knew you without your chipmunk cheeks. My dear, you have bones! You must tell me how you do it. Your hair’s darker than I remembered, too—or do you help it a little? Skinned back like that, it reminds me of when you wore pigtails. Remember?”
Joan remembered efficient fingers catching every last strand of her hair in french braids so tight they stretched the corners of her eyes. Her own sloppy twist was skewered at the top with a wooden pin and felt in imminent danger of coming undone. She chuckled at the thought of working to cover the occasional gray strands she’d been seeing recently. It was fun, though, that Nancy noticed how streamlined she was these days.
“I always expected to see you at a class reunion,” Nancy rattled on.
“Why? The high school never knew me.”
“Never mind, You’re here now. Look we’ve got to catch up on each other. I’d offer you a ride home tonight if I hadn’t ridden with another trombone player.”
“Nancy, I can drive if you’ll tell me where to go. I’d love to talk. You can’t believe how good it feels to see someone I know.” “Great. I’ll find you after rehearsal.” She scuttled back to the trombones. The conductor was already tapping for order.
Joan’s stand partner was grinning. “Looks as if you know the one person in this bunch who can tell you more about what goes on in Oliver than the rest of us put together—and I bet she will.”
Joan thought back. Even at twelve, Nancy Krebs had known everyone else’s business. I wonder if I’ve changed as little as that, she mused.
The rest of the rehearsal dragged. Partly it was because she was eager for the kind of conversation she’d expected ever since arriving in Oliver a month earlier, but partly it was because Alex Campbell apparently thought half a rehearsal was enough for warming up to the music. In this half, she was beginning to work on it, often with individual sections. She began with the long-short-longs of the first movement. The concertmaster and principal second violin debated separate bows and hooking, and Alex concentrated on exact eighth notes, rather than the triplets into which they tended to slide. Then she and the violins attacked the written triplets that rose into the stratosphere at the end of the Andante section. Looking around, Joan realized that this must be the pattern of Alex’s rehearsals. Other people were prepared for it. Several players had books in their laps. A couple of students were bent over homework. The oboists to her right were making new reeds—or were they improving the ones they had? A visibly pregnant cellist was furrowing her brow over intricate knitting. John Hocking had borrowed the music from the first stand of violas to pencil in their bowings.
Unoccupied, Joan found it hard to keep from dozing off. In spite of the long wait, however, or maybe because it gave her a chance to listen, she found her admiration increasing for the musical results Alex was achieving with few words and slight gestures. She made a mental note to practice the tricky places before the next rehearsal. She certainly didn’t look forward to evoking audible groans like those she heard from the oboist during the violins’ most ragged struggles. She winced at his sotto voce comments when the first bassoon dragged behind and hit repeated sour notes in the woodwind choir’s answer to the horns.
“Lumbering elephant,” he muttered, just too loudly to be misunderstood.
At last the violas—and everyone else—were invited back into the fray, and the first movement concluded in relative triumph.
“Not bad, for the first rehearsal,” Alex pronounced. “We’ll read the last movement next week, I think, and work on the second. We might even get to the overture.”
The discipline of rehearsal dissolved into general chatter and packing up. Yoichi meandered from stand to stand picking up registration cards and the music folders of the confident few who weren’t signing them out.
“Do we need to do anything about stands and seats?” Joan asked her partner.
“Audition? Sure, if you want to. I’m not going to bother. Alex knows how I sound, and I have no ambition to sit first.”
“No, I’m happy. I meant the chairs themselves.”
“Just leave ’em. I don’t know how long it’s been since anyone here has had to help set up. Some people are even beginning to agitate for pay.”
“Maybe I’m out of my league.”
“You’re fine. I was listening. Say, could you take the music this week and let me have it next time? I know I won’t get a chance between now and next Wednesday.”
“Thanks. I was hoping I could.”
The stage was clearing rapidly, but at the narrow steps Joan recognized the string bass player whose descent was causing a minor traffic jam.
“Come on, shorty, move it,” said a curly-headed man holding a small case and patting his foot. It was the super-critical first oboe player. Below him, the little man stopped dead, set down the bass, and looked up.
“Just go, will you?” snapped the oboist. “Maybe you ought to take up the piccolo. Then we’d all get home on time.”
Jaw clenched, the pudgy bassist shoved his stool aside at the bottom of the stairs to clear the path. Joan stood speechless as the oboe player hurried down the steps and out the door.
At her shoulder, Alex Campbell said quietly, “If I auditioned on any basis but music, he’d be out. In fact, if he played piccolo, I wouldn’t put up with him. But a good oboe isn’t easy to come by.”
“It’s really true, isn’t it? An oboe is an ill wind that nobody blows good.”
Alex groaned. “I haven’t heard that one in years. And I haven’t met you.”
“Don’t hold it against me, please. I’m Joan Spencer. I play viola.”
“Don’t worry. We’re almost as short of violas this year as we are of oboes. I hope you won’t let this keep you away. He’s a fine musician, but tact is not his long suit.”
“It won’t matter. He’s not conducting. I did enjoy this evening.
It’s been a while since I’ve had a place to play.”
Below them, the bassist had recovered his equilibrium. Joan remembered that she owed him something and went down to thank him for guiding her in. “If it hadn’t been for you, I don’t think I’d have made the first half.”
“I wondered if you were new,” he said.
“New? She lived here before you knew where Oliver was on the map.” It was Nancy. “Harold Williams, this is Joan Zimmerman. We’re old friends.”
“It’s Joan Spencer now, Nancy.”
“Of course. And I’m not a Krebs anymore. I’ll tell you all about it.”