|Oct/Nov 2019 Fiction|
On a rainy night in LA, with the TV muttering and rain clanking in the downspouts outside the apartment, I sat with my fiancée as we softly and sleepily told each other about our cousins, aunts, and uncles. We were two chubby Jewish lovebirds, in our late 30s in 2006, warmly offering to each other whole new families as we told silly stories in the lazy night. We easily judged and evaluated all those people from our childhoods, labeled them each as good or bad, nice or mean, greedy or noble, and summed them up for each other into baubles of memory.
Melinda had only one real aunt and one real cousin, but through her now-divorced uncle by marriage (she called him her ex-uncle), she was still tenuously connected to a tangle of semi-uncles and quasi-aunts and lost cousins who were themselves riven by bitter divorces and feuds.
"Tell me all of their names," I requested drowsily, and she did, but to tell this story I must use false names. Melinda's ex-relatives had long Jewish names of three syllables each, and here I will call them the Sapirsteins and the Chodoretzes, and I will say that Melinda spoke the name "Claire Chodoretz."
"I once met a Claire Chodoretz when I was about eighteen," I said. "Could that be the same girl? She played the cello."
"Oh yes, she did play the cello, she played very well."
"My God, was that your ex-cousin?" I said. "Is she very thin with brilliant red hair? Is she rich? Does she live in San Mateo, California?"
"Oh, no, the Chodoretzes lived in Portland and Seattle, they were pretty poor because her father Big Steve Chodoretz kept getting fired from his jobs. She didn't have any money at all, at least not that I know of," Melinda said. "But she was tall and thin and had bright red hair—of course she must be in her 40s now, so I doubt if she is still thin or even naturally red-haired anymore."
"But she did play the cello?"
"Yes, she was incredible, she played the cello brilliantly."
"Yes, my Claire Chodoretz did, too—it must be the same girl. Did she become a professional musician?" I asked.
Melinda shook her head, "Oh, no, no. The last I heard, she worked with cows."
"I don't know—they said she worked at a dairy farm. Somebody told me she worked with cows. But where did you meet her?"
I laughed and sighed, and told Melinda about going to music camp when I was 18, a Jewish music summer camp held at a private Christian college in the San Jose area. I used to play the trumpet in high school, never very well, and I drove up there from LA with two friends from high school band, a male trombonist and a female clarinetist. Thirty or so "Jewish youth" from California and adjacent states spent two weeks there in the summer of 1985, mostly learning Jewish songs, drinking beer in cars, taking side trips to San Francisco, buying and trading heavy-metal music cassettes, and even getting a little of the "intensive liturgical music training" we had grimly expected.
There was a girl named Claire Chodoretz, a strange splendid girl of 21, tall, lean, silent, with crazy flaming red hair, pale blotchy white skin and a tremendous talent for the cello. She had come along with a younger girl, who also played the cello but not as well. "I think she was Claire's stepsister or something—her name was Leila, but her last name was different. I've forgotten it because it wasn't as strange. Wait, is Leila one of your ex-cousins, too? Is there a Chodoretz stepsister Leila?"
Melinda sat up and thought seriously. "No, there is no Leila," she said. "Claire only had brothers."
"Who was Leila then?" I said.
In the comfort of the cozy apartment and my fiancée's close presence, I remembered those two girls from 20 years ago, memorable Claire with her spectacular cascade of red hair, playing rich deep notes on the cello with her skinny bare white arms swaying, and Leila, small, shy, beautiful with big dark eyes, solemn and graceful in a thin sundress, which fluttered in a warm breeze as we all walked together across the campus carrying our instruments to the dorms.
"And we went to their house in San Mateo. I thought they were stepsisters or maybe cousins. They didn't look alike at all, but they were close," I said. "Leila and Claire invited my friends and me, after music camp ended, and we drove out there from San Jose, over a long bridge over the blue bay to a big magnificent house, where you could see the bay from the hill in the backyard. I thought they both lived there."
"No, Claire Chodoretz was from Portland, then Seattle after her mom broke up with Big Steve Chodoretz. She must've come down to San Jose for the music camp."
I remembered how the five of us sat on the spacious patio with our instruments and dutifully played "Avinu Malkenu" and then "Eliyahu Hanavi" all together, Claire's cello leading and Leila's stumbling behind. I remembered the delicacy of our music, playing the dark slow songs with an antique sorrow we couldn't know or experience fully, on a beautiful sun-washed patio where bees buzzed over tubs of flowering Shasta daisies.
Then I remembered how Leila put her cello down, sat on the bricks and leaned back in her little sundress with her glossy, bare tan legs together, smiling quietly while I tried to play "Billie Jean" on the trumpet and my friends laughed. Then Claire picked up Leila's cello, which was much nicer and more expensive than her own—Claire said solemnly that it was built in 1899—and she played the solo part to a cello concerto, which I later learned was the Dvorak, with breathtaking beauty and expression. I looked at Leila to see if she resented Claire, but she only watched with a slight fond smile, almost distant or dreaming.
I said, "I remember a nice man and woman there who acted like Claire's and Leila's parents, which is why I assumed they were stepsisters."
"No, they couldn't have been. Claire Chodoretz only had brothers," Melinda said.
"Yeah, I wondered why Claire, who played the cello so much better, had the inferior cello, if they were stepsisters. It seemed strange at the time, but I didn't ask any questions," I said.
I remembered how my male friend and I had to sleep on the living room floor, on folded blankets and sofa cushions, while the girls slept upstairs, and how an aura of girly magic, of Leila's quiet glistening beauty and of Claire's blazing talent, seemed to drift in the dark house down from where they lay in their beds. I remembered being still awake at dawn as the light first caught at the furniture and pale windows, when I saw Leila, already in her sundress with her dark hair loose, a vision of loveliness from a dream, tiptoe past us holding her sandals and sneak out the front door, so noiselessly I thought she was my longing hallucination of her.
"It seemed to me," I said, "that Claire had been teaching Leila how to play the cello, but Leila wasn't very good at it. And when Claire borrowed Leila's cello, it sounded fantastic, because it was a really old expensive instrument, I forget what kind, and I thought Leila would be jealous. But Leila wasn't. She just watched as if it didn't concern her, like she was far away. I remember that."
"So this Leila wasn't jealous or resentful—that was a good quality."
"More than that," I said, "it was as if she had no pride."
"Why didn't you ask her how she felt about it?" Melinda asked.
I laughed and said, "I was too shy."
"Was Leila pretty?" she asked.
"They were both pretty," I said. "Claire was pretty in her own way. But Leila was... gorgeous. Uhh, almost as gorgeous as you."
I wondered if there was any chance that I might meet Claire Chodoretz or even Leila at our wedding. But Melinda said, "No, I'm pretty much cut off from all the Chodoretzes and almost all of the Sapirsteins."
At the wedding reception, Melinda's one aunt told us, "Listen, we weren't going to tell you, my daughter is supposed to be coming from New York after all, she fixed it with her boss but her flight is very late, I don't know what's happening. It was going to be a big surprise for you, but now I'm afraid something horrible has happened, so I want you to know she was trying to get to LA, in case she never gets here, God forbid."
"Dodie is coming!" Melinda cried. "Where is she? Where's Dodie?"
Dodie was her one real cousin, who had moved to New York 15 years ago. She was a Saperstein who'd broken with her Saperstein father in one battlefront of the feud. Meanwhile Melinda's friends from her job kept hugging her and shrieking with laughter, but whenever she looked up, she said anxiously "Oh, where's Dodie?" Finally a short bouncy little blonde lady rushed in, and Melinda screamed "Dodie my Dodie!" and they hugged, as Melinda sobbed joyfully, "My Dodie!"
Melinda brought me over to meet her cousin Dodie and said to her excitedly, "You won't believe this, but he actually met Claire Chodoretz about 20 years ago."
Dodie gasped, "What? What? How did he meet Claire Chodoretz?"
"It was at a Jewish music camp," I said.
"That's right, that's right, she played the cello!" bouncy Dodie said.
"Yes! She was terrific!" I said, and we talked and laughed. Then I asked, "Did Claire have a stepsister or a cousin or somebody named Leila? A very pretty dark-haired girl who also played the cello but not as well?"
No, Dodie said, Claire only has brothers, and asked, "Are you sure this is our Claire Chodoretz? Did she have bright red hair and crooked bottom teeth?"
Yes, I said, that had to be her. "She and this Leila girl invited us to their house in San Mateo, so we drove over this long bridge across the bay. We played music on the patio, Claire took Leila's cello and played it much better than Leila could, but Leila didn't seem to mind..."
Then Dodie opened her round mouth in surprise and said, "Oh, no, no no, that wasn't Claire Chodoretz's house. Claire lived in Seattle with her mother after her mother and Big Steve Chodoretz got divorced. No—the house in San Mateo was the house of Uncle Mark Sapirstein's girlfriend. My God, you were in the very epicenter of the family split, you were in a place none of us could ever go! We used to call that woman 'the Evil One'—you were in the Evil One's den! The girl must've been Uncle Mark's girlfriend's daughter, the one who died! What did you say her name was, Leila? We never knew her name."
"Leila died?" I said, and even through the emotions of my wedding day, I felt a cold jolt. "What happened to her?"
"It was a drug overdose, or no, I think AIDS. She was a drug addict, but I forget now if she got AIDS or if she OD'd. She had a lot of issues, she was in a lot of trouble, she ran away from home. Her mother was a terrible slut who seduced Uncle Mark away from his family and eventually killed him with stress."
"Oh, God," we murmured.
"But before she died, that girl promised her cello to Claire. It was a really valuable cello, not a Stradivarius but some other famous kind, Italian, what was it? Mortadella? Terra Bella? And after Uncle Mark died, the Evil One flipped out and tried to get the cello back from Claire. She was sending Claire threatening letters, and when Claire returned to Seattle, the Evil One came to Seattle to stalk her. Claire had to hire a lawyer to get a restraining order against her. In fact I think Claire contacted another Sapirstein kid who became a lawyer, but he refused to speak to her. She had to go outside the family. Claire even had a signed letter from Leila, like a will, but the mother was just insane. That's probably why Claire didn't become a professional cellist—she was too freaked out by it. I'm sure she sold the cello after a while, once she had to live in the real world. She went to work at a stockyard or dairy farm, something with cows, in the Midwest I think, Iowa, and nobody heard of her again."
"Wow," Melinda and I said, holding each other, now resenting the intrusion of thoughts of death or failure into our wedding day. I tried not to think about Leila's death, though the shock of it gathered in the back of my mind.
"Isn't that bizarre," Dodie said eagerly, "how I know the whole story about Uncle Mark and his girlfriend and Claire, and yet you're the one who actually met that druggie girl and knew her name?"
"God, I'm so happy you came, my Dodie!" Melinda said.
On our honeymoon in Hawaii, we were on the beach when huge fluffy clouds boiled in from the ocean and began to rain on us. We ran back to our hotel chuckling, and we gave each other our honeymoon music presents. I gave Melinda CDs of her favorite teenage music, the Go-Gos and Abba, and we listened to effervescent girls sing in high harmony. Then she gave me a CD of Dvorak's cello concerto, and when I heard it, I felt a current of grateful luscious emotion rush through my mind that made the whole world seem glorious and tragic.
I remembered Leila in her thin light-colored sundress scuffling softly and slowly toward me in powerful sunlight, as I sat on a bench on the San Jose campus with my friends from LA. We called, "Hi Leila!" while she came closer to us, smiling gently but not speaking. Then she said to the girl who played the clarinet, "Did you find out anything?"
The girl who played the clarinet said, "No, sorry Leila, I can't, umm, I can't help you with anything, okay?"
And I said something to Leila, would she like this or that cassette? I wanted her to keep standing there in our circle of dark shade under our own tree, because I wanted to watch her big eyes in her delicate smooth face, the thin loose dress hanging over her small pretty body, and I wanted to look at the smooth skin of her perfect bare arms. But Claire Chodoretz came striding up and said, "Leila, come on! We've got to practice! Come on, Leila!" and took her away.
Then I kept pestering the girl from my high school who played the clarinet, "Come on, tell me, tell me, what did Leila want? Why can't you tell me what she wanted?"
"No no, it's private, it doesn't concern you, stop asking me," the girl from my school said, but I insisted. Finally she said, "Okay, I'll tell you if you'll just shut up about it. She wants drugs, okay? She has a lot of tranquilizers, and she wants to trade them for something, anything else. But half of the students here have tranquilizers already, we're Jews for God sakes, why would we want to be even more excited than we are? I wanted to be nice to her, but she's a pain in the butt. Claire watches her like a hawk. Oh, God, don't tell me you like her! She can barely play the cello at all, she doesn't even belong here!"
Listening to the Dvorak cello concerto with my bride in the hotel room, I said, "This must be the music that Claire Chodoretz played on Leila's fancy cello—it is so beautiful."
We listened, and Melinda said, "Oh, God, I want to see Claire again, I want to find all of my ex-family again."
At the end, I said, "That was really beautiful. I love the cello playing with an orchestra. I wonder if Mozart wrote a cello concerto? I'm sure he did—I should try to find it on a CD."
Then we flew to New York to visit Dodie Saperstein, and after Passover went to dinner in Manhattan with her and her gray-bearded boyfriend who used a cane. Bubbly talkative Dodie, now a New Yorker, full of sarcastic wit, tried to explain to me all about her father's family, the Sapirsteins and the Choderetzes, and their rupturing divorces. Dishes clattered and people shouted with New York exuberance as she told us that her father, Melinda's "ex-uncle," was the eldest of four Sapirstein siblings. His sister, who married the useless and quixotic Big Steve Chodoretz, was Claire's mother. His brother, Uncle Mark Sapirstein, had been lured away from his wife and kids by the seductress, Leila's mother the Evil One, and had moved into the Evil One's house after the Evil One had kicked out her own husband.
"My mother wouldn't let me have any contact with any of the Sapirsteins after my dad left, and I was so mad at him I didn't want to see him or his relatives again for the rest of my life," Dodie said. "But I did finally talk to my cousin Jonah Sapirstein, Mark's son, who was as mad at his father Uncle Mark as I was at my own father. He was furious at Claire Chodoretz, too, because she alone of all the cousins defied the boycott of Uncle Mark and dared to visit him in California. I thought it was Santa Barbara, but if you say San Mateo, that might be it, I don't know. Yeah, Claire Chodoretz was cut off from the whole family after that, but she deserved it for being selfish—she shouldn't have gone to see Uncle Mark. She was always kind of stuck-up, like she was better than the Sapersteins, and later she was probably too ashamed of being such a failure to get back in touch. Of course they all defended my father, who left his wife, the exact same thing as Uncle Mark did, but they did not see their own hypocrisy. "
"Oh, my God, little Jonah Sapirstein!" Melinda said. "What happened to him? I last saw him when he was about 14 and he was so cute, with that olive skin and curly hair!"
"I think he lives in Texas now. I haven't spoken to him for a long time," Dodie said. "I don't have to reopen old wounds. Hey, what do you guys want to do tonight? Do you want to go to a concert?"
"Is anybody playing the cello?" I asked.
"Hey, what are you talking about, this is New York! Somebody's always playing the cello!" her gray-beard boyfriend said.
"Hey, people do play the cello in California now and then," I said defensively.
Yes, a superb cellist was playing that night, and we went to a recital of cello sonatas by Brahms—delicious and chocolaty, but a little sluggish at times—and trios by Carl Stamitz, sweet and jaunty and almost like Mozart, my favorite composer. In the program notes, I read that the cellist played a Scarampella cello.
"Is that the kind of cello that Claire Chodoretz got from the Evil One's daughter?" I asked Dodie.
"Mmm... it might've been, I can't remember for sure. I think Jonah told me what it was."
We returned to LA and rented a larger apartment and moved a lot of my junk out of storage. I found the old photos and certificates I'd saved from the Jewish music camp and showed Melinda a picture of all the students holding their instruments in front of a tree on the Christian campus in San Jose, lit up by glaring sunlight. "That is Claire, that is Leila," I said, pointing.
I gazed at the photos, mystified by the passage of time, puzzled by the fact that these tiny blurry images were the only physical sign of my thick memories. "Yes, that's Claire Chodoretz," Melinda said. "That's her all right. I would recognize her anywhere. Where are you?"
"Right there!" I laughed, pointing.
"Oh, God, is that really you? Oh, my God!" she laughed, and took off her glasses and held the photo close to her eyes to see it better, since she was nearsighted.
In rare quiet hours of the first months of our marriage, I tried to remember every moment of those weeks in San Jose and that day in San Mateo, and tried to search out every secret sign that Leila was doomed to early death. I could see nothing in all the vivid but scattered images in my memory to signify an unhappiness that pulled her toward drugs, except the time she had asked the girl from LA, "Did you find out anything?" But I thought of how she had watched Claire play the valuable cello—was it a Scarampella cello?—without jealousy or resentment.
I remembered the man and woman who ate dinner with us at the beautiful house above the bay, the man vaguely hearty and kind, the woman polished and glamorous in a glittering yellow halter top. She couldn't have been any older than 45 at the most, but she seemed old to me and thus her sexiness seemed vulgar. But I shyly eyed her tanned oiled shoulders, and the motion of her breasts swinging inside the bright yellow fabric, as she leaned over our plates to dish out more beef stew or applesauce.
Several times over the following months I did a web search on the Internet for "Claire Chodoretz" but found nothing. However, I did learn more about cellos and cello concertos, and I found out that Stefano Scarampella was a famous cello builder who made cellos in the late 1800s and early 1900s. I became fond of Haydn's cello concertos, which had hearty joyful satisfying melodies, but I didn't find in them all the emotional expression I would've liked. But I could not find any cello concertos by Mozart, which I most wanted to hear. Apparently, if Mozart wrote any, they did not survive, and nobody knows what they would've sounded like. Also I found out that older cellos sound better and louder than newer cellos, just because the wood from which they are made becomes harder and therefore more resonant as it ages.
Melinda's marketing agency wanted her to go to Texas, to give a presentation about some software products to a company in Houston and another one in Arlington. She was excited and dieted for three weeks so she could fit into a very nice pale blue skirt and jacket, but then she got nervous and ate too much, so her clothes were tight and uncomfortable, and she was upset.
She said, "I've been thinking about trying to see Jonah Sapirstein. He lives in the suburbs of Houston, and I got his phone number from Dodie. But now I'm all nervous, and I don't need to face an extra problem by myself. But would you want to come with me?"
At first I didn't want to, but I realized I would be a calming influence on Melinda, and that this was the sort of thing I should do now for her. Also I wanted to hear more about Claire Chodoretz. So I encouraged Melinda to call Jonah Sapirstein and managed to get some time off from my own job. We arrived a day early in Houston and went to see him. He met us at his door and Melinda shrieked, "Little Jonah! Oh, you're so big now!"
He was 32, boyish and fat and handsome with curly black hair. He sat on the couch in his disheveled apartment in the warm humid outskirts of prosperous Houston, surrounded by high precarious stacks of computer and audio equipment, many of the units in unopened boxes. "Are you just moving in?" Melinda asked him.
"No, I live like this!" he said, gesturing. He and a friend had started a business setting up audio systems and computer networks, but it had failed, leaving him with a cornucopia of obsolete consumer electronics. He worked as a counter clerk for a car rental agency.
After humorous conversation he asked Melinda, "Why haven't I seen you for so long? Wasn't there some kind of a family feud? Are you even supposed to be here?"
"It's because your uncle divorced Dodie's mother and my mother never forgave him," she said.
"Hmm," he said thoughtfully. "But wasn't Dodie's mother supposed to be a real bitch?"
"No! No, she's a very nice lady, she was at our wedding! Don't you dare say that about Dodie's mommy!"
"Okay, okay," he laughed.
"Maybe you don't want to hear this," Melinda said to him, "but my husband here knew Claire Chodoretz years ago and was actually at the Evil One's house when Claire visited there."
"The Evil One?" Jonah said blankly.
"You know. Your dad's... girlfriend."
"Oh... the Evil One," he said and suddenly was quiet. I noticed his smooth dark face twitching and wondered if the wound was still fresh. "You were actually there, huh?" he said to me. "Where was it, on the coast somewhere, Santa Cruz or somewhere?"
"San Mateo," I said.
"You know," Jonah Sapirstein said slowly, "since my dad died, I've gradually tried to... to, you know, forgive him. At the time, for him to run off like that seemed so horrible, but, you know, I think he was a very loving person. I have a lot of good memories of him that come back to me now. When you're a kid, you can't imagine how powerful love and sex can be, and you think people do things for spite or because they hate you when really they're... they're driven by love, really... desire and love. Maybe he just had too much love inside him. Did you meet that woman?"
"Uhh, yes, very briefly," I said. "And her daughter."
"Yeah," Jonah said, "that woman supposedly had a freaky daughter on drugs or something. She killed herself."
"Did she?" I said, stunned again.
"Oh, yeah, yeah," Jonah said. "She was seriously fucked up, so I heard, and who can blame her with an insane mom like that? They bought her a really expensive cello, a Stradivarius I think, no no, it was some other Italian kind, Linguini or Mozzarella or something—oh, Scarampella? Yeah, I think that was it—and my dad enticed Claire Choderetz, who was an excellent cellist already, to come over during the summer and teach the daughter how to play, just to distract her from getting high. None of us would have anything to do with my dad. We just cut him off completely. My mom used to curse his name right in front of us. But he lured Claire with that cello, just like that woman lured him away from us kids. So we cut off Claire, too—cut her right off, like with a knife. Chop," he said.
"Claire seemed like a very intense musician when I knew her," I said.
"Oh, I adored Claire, I loved Claire," Jonah said unexpectedly. "She was what, eight, seven years older than me? When I was ten, nine, we used to get together with the Chodoretzes in Oregon. Her father was still there—what was his name again, the big klutzy guy? Big Steve!—and she'd sit out in the backyard under a huge old tree, with green leaves falling on her, playing the cello, with this long red hair, barefoot and so serious, swaying with the music. She seemed like a goddess of nature to me. I'd climb the tree and wait for her to come out there and then watch her play from up in the tree without her knowing I was there."
"Dodie says she ended up working at a dairy or something in Idaho, something with cows," Melinda said.
"Cows?" Jonah said. "Hmm... well, she wasn't that good with people, let's be honest. Probably she'd do better with animals. A wee bit self-absorbed, now that I think of her."
"But is it true that she ended up with the Scarampella cello?" I asked.
"Yeah, the woman's daughter killed herself, and apparently my dad wanted to give the cello to Claire." Melinda and I glanced at each other but didn't want to correct him. "It was kind of pathetic, really, now that I think of it," he went on. "We'd all cut ourselves off from my dad, and he really did love us, I realize now, and he loved Claire because she was the only one of his nieces who came to see him after his heart attack. She stayed there, you know, she moved in with him. Yeah, the Evil One tried to get the cello back, she called the police and reported it stolen. She drove my dad crazy with things like that, that's why he had a heart attack. Claire took off, she was living in Eugene, and when the police showed up she just vanished with the cello. At least that's what I heard."
"I thought it was Seattle," I said.
"No, no, she had a signed letter from Leila giving her the cello," Melinda said.
"Who's Leila?" Jonah asked.
"I heard," Melinda said, "that Claire tried to hire Darren Saperstein, your other uncle's son, who had his law degree by then, to take out a restraining order against the Evil One to stop harassing her about the cello, but he refused to see her. At least that's what Dodie told me."
"Really?" Jonah said. "I thought Dodie told me all that other stuff. Did Dodie ever get back in touch with her?"
"No," Melinda admitted. "Dodie doesn't know where Claire is, except that she works with cows, on a farm somewhere in Idaho."
Jonah and Melinda hugged, and he said, "I'm really glad you came. I think about my father a lot, and you know, it's good to think about him being nice to Claire. We didn't consider it at the time, but he was really kind and sweet to her. He gave her that cello after the druggie girl died. Why shouldn't Claire have it? She was the real musician, even if she didn't pursue it in the end. Hopefully she sold it for a lot of money and invested in Microsoft."
He gave Melinda the last known phone number of his aunt, the mother of the Chodoretzes, in Chicago. "She probably isn't at that number anymore, but you could try," he said.
After Melinda's business presentations, which did not go well, we flew back to LA and I listened to cello music, the Beethoven cello sonatas that I loved, and the Haydn concertos, and some wonderful cello concertos by Carl Stamitz (1745—1801), not well-known but so beautiful, serene and lovely yet full of deep emotion.
Melinda was depressed after her business failures but gradually recovered and got the courage to call her Chodoretz ex-aunt's phone number. She kept leaving messages, but no one replied. Eventually she received a phone message from a man who identified himself as Evan Chodoretz. "My mother is ill and won't be able to speak to you," he said in a stern voice. "I don't know who you are or what you want, but if it's a business matter, you can call me," and he left a number. Melinda looked up his phone prefix and determined he lived in Ohio, the Cincinnati area. "Your uncle lives in Cincinnati, too!" she said.
"Wait, I don't want to get my uncle mixed up with a guy who sounds that angry," I said.
But she called Evan Choderetz, and I listened to her half of the conversation. "I'm kind of your cousin, Evan! I met you at your family's house in Portland—remember all the Sapirsteins used to come, remember Dodie? I'm Dodie's cousin on her mother's side. No, nothing important, it's just that, uhh, I just got married, and I wanted to tell everybody I ever met in my whole life! Yeah, I'm 37 years old! No, I still live in LA, I work at a marketing agency and I... oh, really? Oh, ha ha ha! So you have kids now? Oh, that's wonderful! Well, I just wanted to make contact, I'm so sorry for all these years that our families have been... oh, I know, the older generations all had their own problems and... but I would love to come and see you when we're in Cincinnati. We're going to be there in the summer when we visit my husband's uncle and... no, no, I'll give you plenty of warning, ha ha! Oh really? Oh really, wow, that's so..."
She hung up, smiling brightly, and looked at me. "That's Claire's brother," she said.
"I didn't know we were going to visit my uncle this summer," I said.
In the leafy warm Ohio summer afternoon, we drove the rental car through green-filtered light under big Midwestern trees, till we came to Evan Chodoretz's house. "What's this thing by the door? Oh, it's a mezuzah, look!" Melinda said. We knocked, and Evan opened the door. He was a tall, lean, almost haggard bearded man in his late 40s, wearing a kippah—he'd become Orthodox though he wasn't before. His stiff face crackled into a boyish smile as he said, "Hello Melinda! After all these years, mazel tov!" He shook my hand but not hers, and brought us into the house where menorahs and Jewish artworks were prominent on waxed walnut shelves.
He spoke glibly but with modesty. His wife and two of his kids were off visiting her mother in Chicago, but he was busy at his work, at the regional office of an expanding national title insurance company. His mother, who had moved to New York, was not seriously ill, but he'd wanted to spare her any family "tsuris." His eldest daughter was here in Cincinnati going to summer school, and she came in, smiling, to sit near us attentively. Her lean solemn face and streaky red hair reminded me of her aunt, Claire Chodoretz.
He spoke of his serious religiosity as well, part of the engrossing project of his life at which he worked so hard and contentedly, and he urged us in a general way to join him in this endless enterprise. "Wow," Melinda said, "we love God and we love Jews, but we just don't work at it as hard as you, no offense!"
Melinda said, "It's an unbelievable coincidence, but did I tell you that my husband once met your sister Claire?" and the daughter leaned forward avidly, as I told about the Jewish music camp and the house above the bay. Evan's easily expressive baritone voice faltered. He was quiet and then said very slowly as his daughter gazed at him, "I... I often feel guilty about Claire, I feel I, we, all of us failed her somehow. Starting with our father."
When did Evan last talk to her? we asked, and he said, "Oh, maybe five years ago, she wrote to me." We were surprised to hear that she lived in California—he wasn't sure if it was north or south—in a rural area whose name he had forgotten. She was still single at that time. She worked, not at a dairy farm, but at some sort of an agricultural laboratory. She had an odd and probably lonely but self-sufficient, independent life.
Does she still play the cello? we asked. "Yes, yes, she does, just as an amateur. She plays with some little local group. She has a pretty valuable instrument that she's owned for a long time, and it's kind of silly for her to keep it when music is only a hobby for her. I advised her to..."
"You mean she still has the Scarampella cello?" I asked.
Evan looked at me. "You know something about classical music, about cellos?" he asked in a challenging tone.
"Yes, I'm a big fan, I love cello music. We were listening to cello concertos on the CD player all the way here."
Evan sighed. "That's actually why Claire contacted me, after many years when none of us even knew if she was alive or dead. She wrote to me asking if I could find out how much a Scarampella cello was worth. She inherited it, you know, from the daughter of my uncle's... from my Uncle Mark's... from the daughter of that disgusting woman. Claire didn't want to ask any questions locally—I got the impression that she wasn't in a very secure housing situation, and she used a post office box. I think she was afraid someone might steal it. I found out that a similar instrument, also from 1899, had just sold for $56,000 in New York. I wrote back to say she should sell it and buy a condominium. She thanked me for my advice, but she wouldn't sell the cello. She's always been stubborn. She wouldn't give me her phone number, she didn't have an email address, and after a couple letters, she stopped replying. She's very independent, very... unconventional."
Melinda said, "Do you think she could've become a professional musician if she hadn't gone through that whole trauma with the cello and the uncle's girlfriend and..."
"Oh, sure," Evan said. "No question about it. She had tremendous talent. It's really a horrible waste."
I said, "Well, you can't call it a waste, if she still plays and gets enjoyment out of it." He shrugged and seemed unwilling to concede this, so we talked about music. He was a classical music fan, more knowledgeable than I, but admitted he'd been unable to initiate his daughter, who preferred hip hop. I raved about Carl Stamitz, the little-known composer I had discovered, and his ravishing cello concertos. "They sound like Mozart's cello concertos would sound, if he had written any, if they had survived."
"They can't be as good as Mozart," Evan said. "Mozart was a supreme genius. Nobody can approach him."
"Well, these Stamitz concertos are very beautiful," I said.
"Yes, they are! Even I love them, and I'm so ignorant," Melinda said.
Evan was brooding and said abruptly, "I'll admit, Claire was young. She was drawn into the whirlpool of Uncle Mark and this horrible woman, she had no conception of what was happening. Still, she has to take responsibility for her own actions." His daughter was fascinated, but she didn't speak.
To lighten the mood, I said, "Oh, well, the next time you talk to her, say hello from us, and tell her about the Stamitz cello concertos. Maybe she would like to play them."
He shrugged and said dismissively, "I think she has very high standards in her music, if not in other things."
Though I did not want to talk any more about Claire Chodoretz, somehow I wanted to pick a fight over these Stamitz cello concertos. I insisted he listen to them, and I went to the car, out into the cricket-ringing Ohio evening, to get the CD. When I returned, the atmosphere seemed oddly chilled, and Melinda was scowling. She asked the daughter to show her where the bathroom was, and the two of them were gone for some time. Evan Chodoretz had an extensive audio system and an excellent CD player, and the now-familiar bright contented loveliness of the Stamitz concerto, number two in A-major, filled the room.
Evan said, "I can tell immediately it's not Mozart. It's too simple, the texture is not nearly as rich."
I said, "Yes, but the melody is beautiful. Skip ahead to the slow movement." Then came the sublime but ardent melody, as beautiful as anything any cello could ever play.
Evan asked me, "Were you Claire's boyfriend?"
"No!" I laughed.
"But do you think she was attractive to boys when she was twenty? She always seemed just a scrawny gawky little girl to me, one of those odd little genius girls that scare away the boys."
I laughed again. "No, no, she was attractive, she was pretty, she had such talent, she made a big impression. Of course I had a big crush on the other girl, Leila, the one who... the one who owned the Scarampella cello originally. Leila was very pretty, with these big dark eyes, beautiful small body but with all the curves, you know... but I was very shy as a kid."
"You met her at the house?" Evan said. "Claire brought you to the house, and you met this girl there?"
"Well, Leila was at the music camp, of course, and then they both invited the three of us from the San Fernando Valley to their house."
"But this girl wasn't Jewish," Evan said. "Why was she at the music camp?"
"Of course she was Jewish, she played the Jewish songs with the rest of us," I said, now annoyed that Evan was talking over the music.
"Her mother, that woman who destroyed Uncle Mark, was not Jewish," Evan said firmly, angrily. "Judaism is matrilineal."
"Okay, if you say so," I said, shrugging, puzzled and resentful. We listened to the Stamitz concerto, and the beauty of the music brushed away the annoyance I felt. Melinda and Evan's daughter slipped silently back into the room and sat together on the sofa.
When the slow movement ended, Evan's daughter whispered "Wow, that is so beautiful," and I felt vindicated.
"Well, it's not Mozart," Evan said.
We didn't discuss Claire again but chatted on light topics, then said goodbye and promised to email photos to each other. When Melinda and I got back into our rental car and I put the Stamitz CD back into the player, I asked her, "What happened when I left the room to get the CD? The weather seemed different when I came back."
"No, the weather was the same," Melinda said. "A cold front bringing heavy judgmental remarks moving through the Cincinnati area, with a 90 percent chance of someone being an asshole."
We headed back to my uncle's house, and Melinda asked, "What did you and Evan talk about while I was excusing myself?"
"Nothing, just small talk," I said.
During the ride back and the flight home to LA, we talked lazily but intimately, still like newlyweds interested in each other's thoughts. We envied Evan his family and his earnest pretty red-haired daughter, but we disliked his personality, his mixture of arrogance and self-laceration. If he feels so bad about Claire, why doesn't he keep track of her address, why doesn't he send her a few bucks? we asked each other. Melinda had reconnected with the Sapirsteins and the Chodoretzes, like she'd wanted, but my own private quest had come to an end. It seemed unlikely we would ever find Claire Chodoretz herself.
Melinda said, "OK, you want to know what Evan said to me? He wanted to know if I thought Claire was a lesbian, and whether she'd ever made lesbian advances to me."
"What did you say?" I asked.
"I said, no, of course not! And I know she liked boys, because she used to talk about her ideal boyfriend and how he'd be a great musician. In Evan's mind, anybody who is a little bit unusual has to in a separate category of some sort, so that he can understand and blame it all on that. A person just can't be a little different. So what did Evan say to you?"
"Nothing. I don't even remember," I said.
"Yeah, Evan's implying there's some dark secret there," Melinda said drowsily, wiggling back into the airliner seat, "like maybe Claire and Leila were lovers, because why else would Leila leave her the expensive cello? If that's how it happened."
"I guess Leila just wasn't interested in the cello, and she must have realized how much Claire loved it," I said. "Maybe the note was a suicide note."
As we flew high above a huge gray sheet of wavy cloud over our wide USA, I returned to once-vivid moments in my memory that were fading, as if the strong hammering San Jose sun that had illuminated them for 21 years was setting now in my mind. I remembered the class sessions in late afternoon with a woman cantor who laughed and talked and gestured, then all of us walking out onto the campus, the girls' hair and skirts flapped by hot wind, Leila stepping out of her sandals and scuffling along barefoot. I remembered her exquisite tan calves and feet, as she dragged the wrapped-up cello on its little wheels by one hand, holding her sandals in the other.
I remembered Leila and Claire veering off by themselves, and I remembered passing them again when I went the other way. I remembered Leila staring at the ground, sulking, and red-haired Claire sitting next to her, sniffling, wet-eyed, confused, clenching her jaw. Claire must have urged Leila to stop doing something self-destructive, Leila must've sharply refused, and tough serious Claire must've started to weep. I remembered how they sat close together, each with her cello in a wheeled cloth cello bag, and yet there was a gap between them, because they each had different sadnesses that could not unite, though their cellos leaned together on the sun-drenched concrete.
I had given up my online research on Claire Chodoretz, but toward the end of the year I wanted to find out more about the composer Carl Stamitz. Not much was known about his life, though he was a contemporary of Mozart and the son of one of the key inventors of the symphony. When I followed some of the newer search links on "Carl Stamitz," however, I found that a performance of his second cello concerto had taken place two years ago at a chamber music festival in a small town in California (I had better not name it), and the photograph of the cellist depicted a thinly-smiling woman about 40 with short black hair, whose first name was Claire. I can't use here the real last name she used, but it was a short English or Irish name with the same initial as her old name, like "Collins."
I'd been doing this research surreptitiously at work, and when I came home, I said hesitantly to Melinda, "Could the cellist Claire Collins be the former Claire Chodoretz?" and showed her the website and the picture.
"Oh, my God, that could be her," Melinda said. "She always wanted long hair, but I guess in 25 years she might have changed her mind. She was usually so serious as a kid, and I don't remember her ever smiling like that, but in 25 years she might've been happy once or twice and learned how to smile—maybe it is her." She took off her glasses and stared closely at the fuzzy image of the faintly-smiling dark-haired woman who played the cello.
On the Internet we found out that the amateur cellist Claire Collins was also a lab technician and worked for a company that I will call "TJT Analysis" (the real name is similar), located in a small agricultural town 200 miles from LA (I won't say whether to the north or the east), pretty far from the coastal town where the chamber music festival was held but not an impossible distance.
On another website we found the email address for Claire Collins at TJTanalys.com. "Oh, my God, let's email her," Melinda said. She wrote her an email, "Hi, Claire, this is Melinda, Dodie Sapirstein's cousin. Are you the former Claire Chodoretz? Do you still play the cello? I used to see you every summer at your house in Portland when I went with Dodie and the other Sapirsteins. How are you? I got married last February, and we went to see Dodie in New York. She's still single, and her boyfriend has a gray beard. Does that make you feel old? HA HA HA! Love Melinda. Happy Hanukkah. P.S. If you are not Claire Chodoretz, let me know."
"Does that sound totally stupid?" she asked.
"Yes," I said.
But she received no reply. She emailed again and again received no reply. "I think it's her," Melinda said, "but she's very stand-offish, she always has been. I'm surprised she ever got married to Mr. Collins!"
A month later, without telling me, she emailed Claire Collins at TJT Analysis again, this time just two brief sentences. "Please let me know if you are or are not the former Claire Chodoretz. A gentleman who played the trumpet and met Claire Chodoretz at Jewish music camp San Jose CA 1985 is asking about her."
This time there was a reply, which read "Melinda, yes, I am Claire C. but don't use my work email. Call me in the evening. Here is my phone number."
I stood behind Melinda in the little kitchen of our apartment, nervously chomping on cereal, as she called the number and exclaimed, "Hello, this is Melinda, I got your email and I—oh, hello? Hello, Claire! Oh my God, I'm so happy to hear your voice, for years and years I've wanted to talk to you, how are you my Clair-ee? Oh, yes, I—oh, it's been so long!" There was only a brief interchange about the family, then Melinda said, "Well, you'll never believe the coincidence, but it's my husband, yes, he met you, he did, at the music camp, isn't that incredible! Yes! Wow... yes, I know, we'll have to meet sometime, I've missed you so much! I know, the Sapersteins are all crazy, it's no use letting them keep us apart!"
As Melinda spoke, she raised her eyebrows at me and pointed to the phone, asking by gesture if I wanted to talk to Claire. But I shook my head, feeling suddenly an unexpected reticence.
After Melinda hung up the phone, she said, "Claire remembers you! She wanted to know if you still played the trumpet. I said no—was that accurate?"
"I don't think I could even get a noise out of a trumpet anymore," I said.
"By the way, she's not married, she legally changed her name to Collins for some reason, and she invited us to come and visit her. Do you want to go?"
On a mild glinting February morning after a big southern California rain, we set out for Claire's house, a four- or five-hour drive from our apartment in North Hollywood. There was a little snow on the far-off peaks, but strong glassy sunlight had dried up all the water on the streets and freeways. We drove through the city and over mountains, through desert, then across fertile fields. We passed huge green expanses of new lettuce and tiny tomato plants, enormous silver-colored processing buildings and warehouses, alfalfa fields, old trailer parks, and farm worker housing. After we turned off the main highway, the road to Claire's house was narrow and full of mud that had washed off the soaked farmland.
We came to a large old ranch house, then followed a narrow road behind it and approached six little stucco houses, far out along the edge of flat, plowed fields. The road must've once been lined with eucalyptus trees, but they had been chopped down, leaving jagged stumps. When we passed the first little house, the road was so full of mud, I decided we ought not to venture into it, so we parked right there on the shoulder and walked along the elevated edge of the road by the eucalyptus stumps, picking our way through the mud, carrying presents for Claire.
The air was cool and fresh, the sunlight very penetrating. Puddles and pools out in the fields glittered, and the stumps still smelled of eucalyptus. Dazzled by the unfamiliar setting, we lost track of the house numbers and did not realize we'd already come to Claire's house, so when we saw a tall rangy woman in high rubber boots, with long jet-black hair tied in a pony tail, throwing straw on muddy dirt in front of a muddy pickup truck, we thought she was a Mexican farm worker. But she looked up and said, "Melinda, is that you?" and then she called me by my name.
"Claire!" we laughed. She had grown her hair long again since that concert at the chamber music festival but had kept it black. "Oh, no, it hasn't been red for years," she said. Still slender, tall and rugged and weathered, she seemed a little defiant, but she apologized for all the mud. "I thought you guys were going to drive up here, so I was spreading straw on the driveway," she said, maybe a little annoyed at her wasted effort.
She led us into the house, which was very small and clean but had no pictures or artwork of any kind on the white walls. "Oh, this is wonderful!" Melinda said. "You're really out in the country—it's so peaceful and beautiful!"
"It gets noisy on weekdays in the summer," she said. "Lots of machinery running in the fields over there, and the pickers park up and down the road."
"But how did you end up here?" Melinda asked.
"Oh... the lab where I usually work is pretty close by, and I found this house for rent," she said. "I like not having too many neighbors, so I can play the cello all I want." She smiled faintly. She seemed nervous and out of breath, though I supposed that was partly from the exertion of throwing down the straw for us.
"Oh, come on, people would pay to hear you play the cello," I said.
She flushed a little bit and said, "Well, sometimes I play late at night."
She expressed polite thanks for the presents we'd brought her, including the wine. Melinda enthusiastically updated her on the Sapersteins and told her about cute little Jonah. "He's gotten all roly-poly just like me!" Claire nodded warily. We both agreed that her niece, Evan Chodoretz's eldest daughter, was a wonderful girl. Claire had never met her or spoken to her.
Melinda's family news and Claire's interest in it rapidly ran out. There was a pause. I asked Claire if she would've recognized me. "Yes, of course," she said, looking at me with clear pale gray eyes that I did not remember.
"I'm a little heavier now than I was then," I laughed, patting my belly. "No, I would still remember you," she said, still nervous, perching on the edge of a large wooden chair.
"If you still had red hair, I think I would recognize you," I said, looking at her face, as she looked back at me with an undefined, restrained emotion. "But the black hair fooled me."
She asked me why I stopped playing the trumpet. I laughed and said I had never been any good at it and I'd found other interests. "But I listen to classical music now," I said.
Melinda and I told her how we had met, and we asked her questions about her job, which she answered with some reserve. She really did work with cows. She drove around to all the dairy farms and cattle ranches in a wide area, picking up blood, milk, and necropsy samples, which she then helped test at the lab. She'd gone to UC Davis, with no support from her family, and minored in chemistry. The pickup truck was hers. "Of course, my music is my main focus," she said.
"But don't you want to live in a more urban area so you can play in an orchestra?" Melinda asked.
Claire shrugged, "I do play in an orchestra now," and named the amateur group, based in a town 70 miles away. "And I have musician friends who come by. We play string trios." Just a few years ago, she said, she'd begun to audition for solo parts again, and the concert at which she'd played my favorite Stamitz concerto was her first solo appearance since college.
"You have to play for us!" Melinda exclaimed. "We want to see your beautiful cello!"
"Uhh, okay, maybe after lunch," she said. "I don't know, I'm kind of... disorganized today, the mud on the road and everything."
We were interrupted by a little cat, meowing and scratching at the back door. "Oh, it's that cat," Claire said. "He's not my cat, but he keeps hanging around. I should give him some fresh water."
Of course Melinda had to get up and hurry to the door. "Ooh, look at the pretty little kitty, he's all stripes!"
"Don't let him inside," Claire said sternly, "he has fleas."
As Melinda talked to the kitten and gave him water, Claire and I looked at each other.
I said, "I was so sad, and shocked, really, to hear that Leila had died—that girl Leila, your... friend."
"Yes," Claire said.
"She must have been very young."
"Yes, it was a long time ago."
"Somehow I had thought you two were sisters, or stepsisters since you had different last names. You seemed so close," I said.
"They wanted me to watch over her," Claire said. "But I guess it didn't help."
"What exactly happened?" I asked.
Claire was quiet, then spoke stiffly, looking off toward the back door as Melinda dropped the water dish and apologized to the friendly kitten. She said Leila had run away from home and died of a drug overdose in San Francisco.
"Somebody told me it was suicide."
"Maybe it was. She was self-destructive," Claire said.
"But somebody said she had written you a letter, giving you the Scarampella cello. Was it a suicide note?"
Melinda was shouting from the back door that the kitten seemed really hungry, and Claire stood up. "She wrote me a letter, but it could look ambiguous to people who didn't know her," she said. "It's kind of painful to talk about, if you don't mind." Then she called, "Just a minute!" and took a bag of cat food from her kitchen cabinet.
We joined Melinda outside in the sparkling rain-cleansed sunlight. There was no backyard, only a worn concrete slab by the door, where a broken wastebasket and a dead potted plant rested. Beyond the concrete, weedy mud extended to a ditch, and on to the razor wire, still glittering with raindrops, that demarcated a field of sprouting broccoli or cabbage.
"Well, it was a terrible tragedy," I said, to complete the conversation and to let Melinda see its outline.
With startling sarcasm, Claire said, "Yes... it's always a terrible tragedy when a beautiful young girl dies."
"I still remember her, think of her," I said. "By the way, was she really Jewish? Somebody told me she wasn't."
Claire paused, a little too long, so that we looked at her curiously. "I don't know," she said. "I guess not, technically. Does it matter?"
I felt chastened. I said, "Well, my friends and I liked her."
"Boys always liked her, when they didn't know her," Claire said. I saw she was breathing rapidly again, and blushing. "I liked her, too. I loved her, but she must have hated me, to run away and die. She had this amazing... sluggish... passive beauty, beautiful eyes and skin."
Melinda said, "God, everybody is so beautiful when they are in their 20s and they don't realize it. I used to be so ashamed of my looks, and now I'd give anything to look like that again!"
"Oh," Claire said, "I gave up caring about how I looked, even when I was still a teenager."
"Come on, you were very pretty, too, when I met you at the music camp!" I said flirtatiously.
"But I liked you!" Claire said, almost angrily, but smiling with a peculiar strength, coy, hurt. Melinda laughed, "Ahh!" to deflect the emotion, but Claire insisted, "I liked you! Why do you think we invited you guys to the house? It wasn't Leila's idea, it was my idea! She didn't care, she didn't care about anything! But you didn't even notice me!" She glared at me, then laughed. "I'm over it now, though."
We went back into the little house, pushing aside the striped cat from the door, and got ready for lunch. She'd made spaghetti sauce the night before and now just had to cook the spaghetti. "I don't eat beef, by the way," she said. "Don't ask me why."
Melinda had funny stories about Jonah Sapirstein and Dodie Sapirstein, to which Claire listened politely. But her mind was working, and after several anecdotes, she said, "Yeah, well, those people all cut me off, even my own brothers cut me off. And what was my terrible crime? Just going to see Uncle Mark. I had to lie and tell everybody I was only going to Jewish music camp, so I could go see the cello. And of course I would stay with Mark and his new family, if I couldn't go back to Seattle! Of course I would stay, why wouldn't I, if they all turned their backs on me when they found out, if they all ostracized me! What did they expect me to do, if they judge me like that, so blindly, such blind hating judgment? But I've dealt with all that a long, long time ago."
"Is that why you changed your last name?" I asked.
She was ambushed by the question. "Partly. Yes," she said uneasily.
"You wrote to your brother, though, and he was glad. He thinks very highly of you now, he feels bad for how they treated you," Melinda said warmly, patting her arm.
"I'd heard somewhere he was working in insurance, and I finally wrote to him to ask how much it would cost to insure my cello," she said. "It was a lot more than I could afford. He told me to sell it, and sure, I could've used $8,000 back then—my truck had broken down. But it would be like selling my arm or something. I'd never sell it."
Melinda and I looked at each other. "But it's a Scarampella, isn't it? It's probably worth more than $8,000," I suggested.
"I don't know, my brother offered to buy it from me for $8,000, but I told him no," Claire shrugged. "It's ridiculous how the prices have gone up. Leila once told me that her father paid $2,900 for it, and she didn't even like the cello. They only bought it for her to distract her from drugs. Poor Leila." Again she spoke with sarcasm.
What happened to Leila's father? Did he ever see Leila? we asked. Who was her mother, who was the grand tanned woman in the yellow halter top?
"Her name was Margaret, I don't remember the father's name. He divorced Margaret and left, and when Leila first got in trouble with drugs, he came back to California just long enough to bring her the Scarampella cello. He always had to have the very best, I guess. He was wealthy—they had a beautiful house in San Mateo, above the bay. But Margaret, she was a bitch. She hounded Uncle Mark to death with his heart problems, and she would've done the same to me if I'd stayed. I lived there for a while, did you know? Yeah." Her voice quieted. "You could see the bay from the hill. We used to walk up the hill in the backyard and look down through the trees, down to the blue water."
Then we were all quiet, chewing our spaghetti and carefully drinking the wine we'd brought. I didn't think Claire would want to talk about Leila again, and I was surprised when she spoke next. "I was supposed to watch over her," she said, with wine thickness in her voice, "to stop her from destroying herself, but I couldn't. I gave up. I told Uncle Mark, I can't do it, she hates herself too much. God, I told him, I can't keep track of this girl..."
Now she talked on, a little aimlessly. She never went back to Seattle. She transferred to UC Davis and worked low-paying jobs at labs in Sacramento and San Francisco for years to pay her bills. She tried to get help from her father, but Big Steve's legal troubles had begun and he had nothing to offer. "When Uncle Mark called me to tell me they'd found Leila dead, I met them at the mortuary, and we scattered her ashes in the hills, so I never went back to that house. The last time I saw Uncle Mark, he was in the hospital."
"Aww," Melinda said, and patted her arm.
I was going to say that she must've had to go back to the house at least one more time, to pick up the Scarampella cello, but then I closed my mouth and didn't speak. The little striped cat was meowing and scratching at the back door, and Melinda and I looked toward it, but Claire ignored it.
"We heard that Leila's mother kept stalking you and tried to get the cello back," I said.
Claire looked at me, reset her face, and seemed to pull back up the restraint she had let fall. "Margaret had some mental problems," she said.
"Or did she send the police after you or something?" I asked.
"But you had that signed letter from Leila, so..." Melinda said.
"All that's in the past," Claire said.
She swiftly stood up to clear the table, but Melinda cried, "No, no, I'll do that! Go get the cello! Go on, get your cello!"
Claire went to get her cello in her bedroom, but she shut the door and didn't come out again for a while. I sat down in her little living room on an upholstered chair, guessing the big wooden chair was Claire's cello throne.
Melinda called from the kitchen, "I dropped some cheese on the floor, is it okay to give it to the cat? He looks really hungry."
"It's not her cat," I said. "She said not to let it inside."
"I'll give it to him out on the patio," Melinda said, then went out the back door and cooed, "Here, kitty kitty! Yeah, you like that, huh? What's the matter with your eye, little boy? You got something in your eye? Oh, his eye is running."
Then Claire opened her bedroom door, and there it was—the great glossy Scarampella cello. Magnificent in varnished maple wood, buffed smooth from a century of caresses, it glowed like olive oil in the brilliant sunlight through the thin curtains. Claire had changed her clothes and now wore a long blue and white cotton skirt, and she'd tied back her damp-looking black hair. "I hate to play in those rough jeans," she said, "I'm always afraid the fabric might hurt the finish." She carried the cello to her chair, made a few abrupt loud strokes upon the strings with her bow—her elbow shot out forcefully, and the brief rough notes resonated through the little house. She began to tune.
"Melinda, hurry up!" I shouted. "She's almost ready!"
Melinda mock-ran inside the house and sat down next to me. She said, "Oh Claire-ee, what a pretty skirt! Oh, I love those long swishy skirts, I would wear them all the time, except on me, with my hips, they make me look like a Rose Parade float."
"Well, I like the light-weight material," Claire said. "I need to spread my legs pretty wide, obviously."
"Yeah, don't we all! Ha, ha, that really helps sometimes, ho ho!" Melinda snickered, then whispered to me, "That cat needs some attention. I have to clean up its eye when I have a chance—nobody's taking care of it."
"Sshh," I whispered.
Claire played "Eliyahu Hanavi," and we clapped. I said, "I remember that one!"
Melinda said, "Oh, that's so beautiful, so Jewish beautiful."
"I'll play some Bach for you guys, okay?" Claire said. She lifted her bow, briefly ceremonious, then began one of the famous Bach suites for unaccompanied cello. Her playing was almost unbelievably good. I was amazed at her polish and the sharpness of each note. The Scarampella cello had a luscious honey-gold sound, and yet the notes were clean and intent. Bach's music seemed dry, though, and after several movements I began to feel oddly bored with it—it seemed too enclosed upon itself and made Claire seem self-absorbed.
But I watched Claire in fascination. I saw how her pale face, weather-roughened but still scarcely lined, had the thin hard bones of her youth in her jaw and cheeks, except for the puffiness under her chin, and how her fingers moved with sinewy precision on the fingerboard. Her now-black hair swayed and bobbled in its fluffy ponytail, and her clear gray eyes, expressionless, focused on the empty air between us, since she knew all the music by heart and did not have to read a score.
She finished the Bach suite, and Melinda and I applauded excitedly. I said, "Oh, that's fantastic!"
Melinda jumped up and hugged her, saying, "Oh, it's so beautiful, you're amazing! You're even better now than you used to be!"
Claire, startled and embarrassed, held the bow far out from Melinda's embrace, then said, "Oh, thank you, thank you." The little striped cat had begun again to scratch at the back door, meowing mildly, and Melinda glanced back at it as she sat down.
"That is so good, I'm just... I'm speechless," I said.
"Thank you," she said, blushing again. "Do you want to hear anything special?"
"Could you play that Stamitz concerto you played at the concert? I love that concerto," I said.
"You know the Stamitz concerto in A?" she said, looking at me, smiling in surprise, holding up her bow.
"Yes, I told you, that's how we found your email address. I was looking up Carl Stamitz."
"You told me that, but you didn't say you knew the concerto," she said.
"I do, I do. I have the CD with that chamber orchestra, you know, the German one, what is it, Nuremberg? No..."
"I'll play it for you," she said.
Melinda, miming humility with hunched shoulders, said, "Oh, oh, before you start, can I just, real quick, take care of that little kitty's eye? I just need to wash his eye out with warm water—do you have a washcloth, or some clean rags? It'll only take a minute."
"Yes, there should be some lab rags, they're like square thin towels, in that kitchen cabinet to the left of the sink," Claire said. "You know the Stamitz concerto! That's funny." She met my gaze directly, still smiling.
"I love that concerto, I think it's as good as Mozart," I said, watching her face.
"Yes, it's almost as good as Mozart," she said. She started tuning again. "It can be our song," she said lightly.
From beyond the back door, I could hear the little striped cat squealing as Melinda said to it, "That's okay, that's okay, little baby, I'm just cleaning your little eye!"
"I'll have to play the orchestra part, too," she said, "so let me get the full score." She stood up in her blue and white skirt, strode away, then quickly returned with the printed music, a music stand, and reading glasses. She held her bow vertically for just an instant, then leapt into the familiar concerto, and the balmy sweet music burst out into the room.
Melinda called from the back door, "Go ahead, Claire, I can hear you just fine out here! I'm still working on the kitty's eye, but keep playing!"
She stopped then and shuffled ahead in the score. "I'm getting a little warm, could you open the big window?" she asked. "No, just push it, push it to the side, the lock is broken."
"Is that why you moved out here, so you could play louder without worrying about whether Margaret would be lurking in the bushes?" I asked from the window.
She continued to page expertly through the score. "Margaret's dead now, by the way. I heard about it a few years ago," she said.
"Oh, is that when you started auditioning for the concert?" I asked.
She looked up through her little glasses and said, "Yes. Yes, I think it freed me up a little bit, to hear that."
With the sunlight flooding the room and the thin drab curtains at the open window fluttering with a drying breeze, Claire played the first movement of the Stamitz concerto with dazzling skill and a splendid Scarampella sound. She finished a gleaming passage for the solo cello and said quietly, "There's a long section here for the orchestra, I can't play all of it, let me just skip ahead a little..."
Melinda was still outside, doing something with that cat, and in the intimacy of the exchange between Claire's music and my adoring ears, seeing her scan the score so seriously as she unconsciously embraced the cello with one arm, I felt the certainty of my suspicion finally crystallize.
I said very quietly to her, "How exactly did you get that cello, after Leila died?"
She studied the music longer, then violently turned to me, her jaw thrust forward. "I deserved it!" she said, passionately in a low rough voice, breathing fast. "Leila couldn't play, she didn't care, she just wanted to loll around in her easy... her easy, fake ecstasy. She didn't care! I deserved it, I did! The father didn't care, he didn't even show up after they found Leila—and that bitch Margaret just wanted to sell it, she had no conception, no conception at all of what it was for. I deserved it! For what I went through, I damn well deserve it!" She looked at me with the same fierce, almost desirous glare that she'd used on me when she told me that she had liked me.
"But you stole the cello from the house, didn't you?" I murmured.
For her answer, though Melinda had still not returned, Claire began to play the gorgeous second movement of the concerto. She wrenched into radiant life the 200-year-old music, and she saturated it in an intense, grave beauty, an immediate living beauty beyond the reach of memory, beyond the capacity of words, beyond judgment.