|Jul/Aug 2003 fiction|
Arthur Aranoff and his wife lived in 6E, over Israel Bernstein's family. We-my mother and father and myself and sometimes Mary Henderson our housekeeper when she slept over-lived in 5C. Mr. Aranoff was our building's resident celebrity. He played the cello, mostly for Mutual or one of the other house orchestras that radio networks maintained in those days, but occasionally he sat in with the New York Philharmonic or the Metropolitan Opera when one of their regular cellists fell ill.
We had other professionals living in the building, a six-storey affair with an elevator and dumbwaiter just off Tremont Avenue in the Bronx. Mitchell Papov, a retired oral surgeon, lived in 1D, and Bernice Kauffman's father was a certified public accountant. But Arthur Aranoff was our star, a man who had played, however briefly, under the batons of both Bruno Walter and Arturo Toscanini. When he tipped his floppy dark fedora to one of the building's housewives, she flushed with pleasure. "Good morning, Mr. Aranoff," she replied with a little bow as if he were nobility. Sometimes he wore a cape instead of an overcoat like other men. My mother said the cape made it easier for him to carry his instrument to a performance, but my father, a jobber in the fur trade who had worked his way up from cutter's helper, insisted that the cape was an affectation, just a means for Aranoff to call attention to himself.
Mr. Aranoff practiced five or six hours a day, including Saturdays and Sundays. We couldn't hear him, but Izzy Bernstein said the noise drove his parents crazy and that they were always banging on the ceiling with a broom handle. They complained to the landlord and there was even a court case, but the judge ruled that since the cello was Mr. Aranoff's livelihood he had a right to practice "during regular business hours." My father said that if Aranoff lived over our own apartment he would know how to fix Aranoff's wagon, and he wouldn't need any judge to help him either. Sometimes he cursed Aranoff in Yiddish, to which my mother, the daughter of a prosperous Upper West Side factors man and herself an amateur pianist, would respond by asking if he wouldn't like another slice of honey cake.
One evening when my father was only halfway through his baked chicken she told him that Arthur Aranoff was going to play the Haydn cello concerto on the radio that Saturday. My father immediately lost his appetite.
"But, David, you always love my baked chicken."
"Sorry," he said, looking confused by his loss of interest in his food. He considered his wife's cooking on a par with his mother's, though Grandma's was a very different kind of cuisine, heavy middle-European stuff that would constipate an elephant.
"Why should you begrudge the man his moment of triumph? It's only with a radio orchestra."
"Aranoff is a shnorer. Never done an honest day's work in his life."
My mother replied with what I had come to think of as her stage laugh, a sound that reminded me of the celeste in Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker which she took me to see at City Center every December. We also had a subscription to the Philharmonic's children's concerts.
"Art is his work, dear," she said, clearing away his plate and trotting out a flan she had whipped up that afternoon. I saw him hesitate as she put the glass dessert dish down and poured some caramel sauce on top. It didn't take him long to choose between the flan and his principles. "Just as fur coats are your work. You both create things of beauty. Your own creations we can see and feel. Arthur Aranoff's are less tangible, something experienced only in the heart."
I doubt my father even knew what "tangible" meant. And he had no illusions about what he did for a living: he sold animal skins to fat rich women. But my mother always talked like that whenever the subject was anything remotely connected with art. My father probably didn't even feel offended. He readily acknowledged that his wife was better educated and more cultivated than he was. He was not ashamed but proud of it, like a man who owned a work by a great master. The work of art did not diminish its owner simply because he was not himself capable of creating such beauty. Quite the contrary.
But he still hated Arthur Aranoff, and one way or the other he was going to settle the man's hash.
All week the building was in a buzz about the concert. The broadcast was scheduled for eight p.m., so even Mrs. Gottlieb who kept a strictly kosher house would be able to tune in. In the evenings my mother behaved as if the event were to be no big deal and scarcely mentioned it. But during the day she spoke about little else with the other women in the building. The performer himself was said to be rehearsing constantly, eight, even ten hours a day. The Bernsteins were furious.
I too was excited, though my loyalties were divided between my mother's love for music which I shared and my father's injured pride. His brother Michael was an orthopedic surgeon, and his sister had married a bigtime lawyer. All his family's resources, including those that should have been put toward my father's own education, had gone toward seeing his brother through medical school. From a very early age I was familiar with how everyone had chipped in to make sure Michael got his M.D., only to see the new doctor turn his back on his uncouth relations the minute he started dating an OB-GYN's daughter from Forest Hills. Aunt Miriam, as I knew her, had a twitch that I learned to imitate. "How lovely to see you, my child!" I would mimic in her quasi-gentile accent and then blink my left eye hard as if something had just flown into it. My father would rock with delight. "That's good! That's good! Esther, come see Annie's imitation of that stuck-up shmalts-ball Michael married."
When Saturday finally rolled around my mother could no longer hide her excitement. We were not friends with the Aranoffs-as a couple my parents hardly ever socialized-but I had been with my mother any number of times when Mr. Aranoff doffed his big hat and stopped to chat with her on the sidewalk. I could see there was some kind of mutual admiration going on there. Aranoff didn't speak as well as my mother. Few people did. But his way of expressing himself was a long way from father's harsh Bronxsprech, and neither Aranoff nor my mother ever used any Yiddish during these conversational impromptus. Sometimes as I listened to them exchange opinions about Casals or Heifitz I would think, What if Mr. Aranoff were my father instead of the coarse man that fate had assigned me?
When my mother returned to our apartment after one of these chance meetings she seemed intoxicated, the same way she looked after she had had a Sunday afternoon "highball" or a second glass of Manischewitz during seder. Sometimes she even sang, gay little tunes with French lyrics about shepherds and long summer nights.
Father worked most Saturdays, and this was to be no exception. In the afternoon mother baked a cake and listened to a live broadcast of La Boheme on the same station that was going to air Mr. Aranoff's performance that night. She sometimes asked father if he wouldn't like to go to an opera with her, and he always managed to put her off without outright refusing-his schedule was too unpredictable; you never knew when a buyer would have to be taken to dinner; his hemorrhoids. She wouldn't dream of going to an opera or even a movie without her husband accompanying her. No matter how much French she spoke or how progressive her political and moral ideas, the loyal Jewish wife was still very strong in her. All afternoon we sang along with the music coming out of the RCA portable she kept on top of the refrigerator, and when poor tubercular Mimi was breathing her last I saw two tears trickle down my mother's pale cheeks in perfect unison.
By seven o'clock the dishes were done and my mother had changed into the dress she wore when she took me shopping on Fordham Road. She rearranged some figurines in the big hutch that dominated half a wall of our living room. Then she flipped through old issues of The Ladies Home Journal. Father was reading a copy of the Post and almost visibly digesting the veal cutlet she had made for supper.
"How about taking a walk up to Cushman's for cheesecake?" he said, abruptly closing the paper. They frequently strolled along the Grand Concourse on a Saturday evening, weather permitting, a habit left over from my father's Orthodox youth.
She reminded him that the concert would be starting in half an hour. "That shmuck. For him I have to give up my evening?"
"He's our neighbor, David. It isn't every day someone you know gets to play on the radio. Besides, I made a cake this afternoon. Your favorite. Annie helped."
My father grunted and regarded me as if I were part of the conspiracy against him. But he allowed my mother to cut him a generous slice and sat down at the kitchen table while she fiddled with the knobs on the RCA. "Why can't we get a real radio," she said, voicing one of her rare complaints, "like other people?"
"You don't need a radio to hear Aranoff," he replied, his mouth full of devil's food. "All you have to do is step out in the hall."
We listened to a long newscast, then a commentary by Gabriel Heeter or someone very like him, accompanied by snide comments from my father who looked as if he would very much like to leave my mother to her arty nonsense but was afraid what might happen if he did.
Finally we heard the theme music for the concert. Then the announcer came on, a deep self-confident voice speaking in a kind of Anglo-American accent that no one I knew spoke. When he introduced the soloist for the Haydn concerto he called him "our own virtuoso, Arthur Aranoff," at which point my father made a vulgar sound. Mother shushed him.
Impressed though I was by Arthur Aranoff's being chosen as soloist for a radio performance, I really had no idea how good-or not-he actually was. Nor had I ever heard the Haydn cello concerto before. But I figured if I listened closely I would be able to tell if he really was a "virtuoso." So that was what I did, sitting quietly beside my parents at the kitchen table which still contained a few dark crumbs from my father's dessert.
But father was fidgeting like a schoolboy being kept after class. He would stand up as if he suddenly remembered he had something to do, then abruptly sit down again. During the slow movement he went into the living room and rustled the pages of the Post until my mother asked him to please stop. By the time the final movement was under way he was back standing in the kitchen doorway. But his restlessness seemed to have disappeared. He even seemed to be enjoying the bouncy closing theme, patting the doorjamb in time with the music. My mother smiled up at him. He smiled back.
"Need anything from the corner?" he asked after the concert was over. "I thought I'd pick up a copy of the News."
"You don't want to take a walk up the Concourse?"
"After I get back. Annie," he said, "care to come along?"
"Do I have to?"
I suspected right away he was up to something my mother would not approve of, and I wanted to find out what it was. But I had to at least make a pretense of not being a willing party to it.
He took my hand as soon as we were out of the apartment and held onto it as we waited for the elevator and then during the ride down to the building's lobby, where we ran into the Leibermans.
"You heard the concert?" Mrs. Leiberman said, all a-dither.
"I heard, Mrs. Leiberman. A virtuoso performance!" father said, though I knew he was only using that phrase because he had heard the radio announcer use it. But Mrs. Leiberman nodded her head in approval and then, noticing me, said, "What a big girl!" and patted my shoulder with her bony fingers.
Walking down Tremont Avenue he whistled one of the themes from the Haydn concerto, or at least his own version of it, introducing klezmer-like trills and Pop Goes the Weasel endings at the end of every eighth bar. I giggled at his interpolations but was impressed by his musical invention, something I never would have thought him capable of. I returned the pressure of his hand and began to swing our arms up and down rhythmically. When he came to the end of the next eight bars I anticipated the twist he would give to the phrase and joined in. The next time, he let me fill in the phrase by myself, and I gave it such a wild turn that we both laughed till we were out of breath.
When we reached the corner newsstand, instead of buying a newspaper he raised his thick index finger and nodded toward the telephone booth nearby. It was clear he had mischief in mind, so I followed him in. He closed the door, forcing me to stand very close, something I hadn't done since I was a young child. In the cramped, airless quarters I became aware for the first time of his masculine smell, an odor of old sweat and some sort of solvent. To my surprise, I found I liked it.
He dropped a coin in the box and carefully dialed a number. I heard the ringing in the receiver which he held, as he did all telephones, half an inch from his ear as if wary of what might come out of it. Then I heard someone pick up.
"Please may I speak," my father began in the voice of a middle-age Polish Jewish woman, "with the great voytchuoso Arthur Aranoff."
I started to giggle. He glanced down and nodded as if to confirm my part in the ruse. At that point I didn't really expect Arthur Aranoff to come to the phone. You couldn't just call up a radio station and get to speak to one of the performers, whether it was just our neighbor from 6E or Jack Benny himself. And yet my father seemed so confident-I had heard him do a Yiddish accent before but never a full-blown impersonation, and certainly not that of a woman-that I was beginning to believe he could bring it off.
"That's you, Meester Aranoff?" he said in a voice that sounded like claw-handed Mrs. Leiberman and all the other superannuated immigrant Jewish women I had ever known, with a touch of Milton Berle thrown in (how had he got the voice down so pat? did he practice in the freight elevators at Feinman & Sons?) I could see great jiggly bosoms that had nothing to do with my own hard chest. I could smell latkes frying in grease so thick my mother would flee retching in disgust. I could hear all the raucous noises and uncouth smells of a Jewish ancestry I had till that moment tried so hard to disdain. And I was amazed at how much fun it all seemed to be.
"Meester Aranoff, I am so lovink the cello! For years I am leestening the Haydn concerto. Such beauty, Meester Aranoff. Such feelink! But never do I hear playink like yours. A voytchuoso, Meester Aranoff. That's what I'm callink you. A voytchuoso!"
He paused to give Aranoff a chance to respond and gave me a wink, part co-conspirator, part caution not to give the game away.
"No, no, Meester Aranoff. No false modesty. Tsu fil anivez iz a halber shtoltz. I'm sayink to my Moishe here, 'Dahlink, I must tell in person this man how much I am lovink his cello.'"
I was gagging with laughter. This was better than a Marx Brothers comedy. Better than Steven Rabinowitz's imitation of Mrs. Froelich.
"Not at all, Meester Aranoff. Every void you desoyve. Every. Single. Void."
The next morning we ran into the Aranoffs in the lobby. Mr. Aranoff was wearing his black cape and had set his floppy hat at a rakish angle. His wife had on a frilly print dress. Aranoff doffed his hat to my mother and she immediately complimented him on the concert the night before. He flushed with pleasure.
"A virtuoso performance," my father said, surprising everyone, since nobody, the Aranoffs included, had any illusions about my father's interest in music. He once signed a petition for the Bernsteins even though we ourselves never heard anything from the Aranoffs' apartment. "Well, thank you, David," Aranoff replied, obviously moved by this compliment from an unexpected source. "Thank you very much indeed."
"It was very well received," Mrs. Aranoff put in. "Tell them, Arthur, about the woman who called in to the radio station."
Aranoff feigned modesty, but it was obvious he had been telling the story to everyone.
"Just some aficionado," he said. "An educated woman. European accent. Probably a musician herself. It was very gratifying."
"Isn't that marvelous," my mother said. "Well, we all know how good you are, Arthur, and we're very proud of you."
"Very," father said, giving my hand a squeeze.
My father never repeated his performance in that telephone booth. But those few minutes convinced me of something about him I would never forget and doubly cherished for being kept a secret from everyone but the two of us. It was like having a world-class gunslinger for a father, a Wyatt Earp who had come out of retirement just that one time to rid the town of bad guys before sinking back into anonymity. It was like having a father who was every bit as much a virtuoso as Arthur Aranoff, even if he didn't get to perform for millions of people and no one but myself knew how good he was.
Of course, we never told my mother, and even between us we scarcely ever recalled that evening-a couple exceptions being: when he took me in his arms at my wedding reception for the traditional father-daughter dance and, in response to an overzealous violinist in the trio he had hired for the occasion, whispered, "I am so lovink the cello!"; the other time was when I visited him in the hospital shortly before his death.
He was barely able to speak. He gestured for me to come closer. I did, until our heads were just a few inches from each other. His eyes were glazed from pain-killers and there were tubes in his nostrils. I thought what he wanted was a kiss, so I kissed him on his pink stubbly cheek. But then he parted his lips and I turned my head sideways to catch what he was going to say.
Despite the grim circumstances I broke into a wide grin. Pleased with his success, he smiled as well.
Afterward, my mother asked what he had said.
"Just," I replied, "that he loves me very much."