Here’s a charming romantic comedy that turns on the presence of an eccentric cimbalom player named Lazlo. Julie Marden is a violinist and she writes fiction about musicians, with verve and wry touch of comedy. She’s one of dg’s former students at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and she has already contributed mightily to Numéro Cinq—see especially her lovely essay on the use of thematic passages in Chekhov’s short stories.
Right now, in addition to performing with various professional orchestras, she teaches chamber music to children at the Tufts Community Music School in Medford, MA, tutors Boston area children in reading and math (through the “No Child Left Behind” program), and teaches academic writing skills at an on-line college. On the side, she also performs in amateur theater productions: Clytaemnestra in Euripides’ Elektra (in ancient Greek), Puck, Hippolyta, and Snout in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Hermione in Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale,” and Elena in Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.” She lives with her daughter Nora, their dog Gracie and a cat Panther in Concord, Massachusetts and Walpole, New Hampshire.
THE CIMBALOM PLAYER
By Julie Marden
When Jeff first recognized Nina’s voice, he was relieved he hadn’t answered the phone. He’d just walked into his two-room Washington Heights apartment, carrying a package of unassembled moving boxes. Nina was leaving a message, offering him a weekend job playing principal percussion in a college orchestra in Vermont.
“The piece we need you for is Kodaly’s Hary Janos Suite . . . rehearsals Thursday and Friday evenings, dress rehearsal Saturday morning and the concert Saturday night . . . pays three hundred dollars plus hotel room . . . it would be great see you again, Jeff, how are you? Please let me know right away if you can do this. The concert’s in ten days. I’ll have to keep calling people if I don’t hear from you soon.”
Jeff leaned the flattened boxes against the wall. He hadn’t seen Nina in over a decade, but her breezy, lyrical voice hadn’t changed. Fourteen, fifteen years ago, they’d been students at the New England Conservatory of Music. They’d never so much as made out, but Jeff remembered her thick red hair, sonorous viola playing, and a forwardness that had sometimes puzzled him.
He took a beer from the fridge and brought it to the sofa. He wouldn’t take the job. Three hundred dollars to drive three hundred miles to play with an amateur, student orchestra. No wonder he was moving, leaving music altogether. In his twenties, Jeff had gone to conservatory hoping to win a job in a full-time, first-rate orchestra, like the Boston or Chicago Symphony. But he’d never won a job with any full-time, professional orchestra. Now, thirty-seven, he lived hand-to-mouth, job-to-job: a club-date here, a recording session there, the occasional freelance gig, a handful of private students. He wasn’t starving, but he’d had enough. In less than two weeks, he was moving back to Hammond, Indiana to live and work with his widower father, who ran the tool and die company that Jeff’s grandfather had started in 1942.
Jeff finished his beer and set the can on the coffee table, next to his answering machine. The room was dim. The red light on the answering machine was still blinking. Jeff reached over and erased Nina’s message.
By Sunday afternoon, most of the moving boxes were assembled and packed. One remained open, though, parked by the fridge, filling with last minute objects like the fake-copper-rimmed clock Jeff had once found in his parents’ attic and brought to his first apartment in Boston. He’d just removed it from the wall by the stove and was lowering it into the box, next to a framed, bubble-wrapped photograph of his mother. The phone rang. Jeff was sure his father was calling. He reached to answer, glancing habitually above the stove, only to see empty air and a circle of clean white paint where the clock had just been. He forgot to speak.
“Jeff, are you there? It’s Nina. Did you get my message?”
“I did.” Jeff said. “Yes. Nina. Sorry. . .”
“It’s okay, Jeff, but I’m in a bind. I still haven’t found a principal percussionist. We can pay more now: two hundred dollars more, that’s five hundred total. Only we need someone with a car, who can drive to New Jersey and pick up the cimbalom player. You can’t imagine how hard it was to find this guy, Jeff. I must have made fifty phone calls.”
“Nina, I’m — I’m moving.”
“Jeff, did you know there are three people in this country who play orchestral cimbalom parts and one of them just moved to Germany? The other two live in Texas and California and are totally booked. After that it’s all gypsies who play in restaurants but don’t read music. But one of them gave me the number of the Hungarian Community Center in Daisy Park, New Jersey, and somebody there gave me Lazlo’s number. That’s our guy, Jeff: Lazlo. It’s a miracle! He says he knows the piece, but he doesn’t have a car. He works at the Daisy Park Woolworth’s breakfast counter. It’s too bad if you can’t do this, Jeff, you’d like Roberto, our conductor. He’d like you too, he appreciates real talent, believe me. I’m sorry. I know you’re busy. Perhaps you could recommend someone? With a car?”
“The concert’s next weekend?” Jeff asked.
“A week from last night.”
Writing down the rehearsal schedule, Jeff felt an unmistakable squeeze of regret. He wondered if, after all, he should take the job. That might be easier than finding someone else to do it. The extra money made a difference. He’d have to leave for Indiana a few days late, but that was okay; his lease went through the end of the month and he wasn’t starting at the factory until after Thanksgiving. Heck, he wasn’t going on payroll until January. He studied the schedule again and examined his half empty apartment. He tried to remember what a cimbalom was. Some weird Hungarian instrument, was all he knew.
“Where’s Daisy Park?” he said.
“Near New Brunswick. I could get more gas money, Jeff.”
“That’s okay. Listen. I’ll do it.”
“Oh my God. Jeff, thank you! Wait till I tell Roberto!”
The following Thursday morning, Jeff pulled up in front of the Daisy Park Woolworth’s. A few minutes early, he leaned his head back to soak up some sun. When he opened his eyes, a lanky fellow in a white jacket was peering through the passenger side window. He had brown hair and a pointy nose. Jeff got out of the car. They shook hands. Lazlo’s name was stitched across his jacket breast in red, industrial cursive. He smelled of bacon and eggs.
“Any luggage?” Jeff asked.
“Yes, yes. At the house.” Lazlo waved carelessly. “But first – to the cimbalom. We take the car, no?” He pronounced the word “tzeembalom,” as if it began with a T.
They drove a few blocks down Main Street to the community center, a long concrete building with Hungarian and American flags hanging above its door. Jeff had never heard of a Hungarian enclave in New Jersey, but this building as well as the Magyar Savings Bank across the street and the Little Budapest Coffee Shop down the block made him feel as though he’d slipped into a movie set, or a fairy tale. ‘The Fairy Tale Begins,’ he thought, remembering the title of the Hary Janos Suite’s first movement. He’d noticed it on his music the night before, packing. The strange thing about this fairy tale, though, was how many of the buildings were of the same era as the ones in Hammond: pre-World War Two brick and mortar structures with vintage molding, most of them three or four stories high. Looking down the street, Jeff had only to subtract the Hungarian names from the establishments to imagine himself back in Indiana.
Inside, Lazlo led him down a corridor to a large linoleum-floored room. Against the wall stood a trapezoidal wooden box, latched shut, on four squat legs. It looked like a low, oddly shaped desk or table. A paper garland dangled from its top.
“A few nights ago we had Hungarian party,” Lazlo said, sweeping the garland to the floor. “With food, dancing, everything! Wait a minute, I need screwdriver.”
While Lazlo searched for the screwdriver, Jeff was tempted to unlatch the cimbalom’s top and look at whatever mechanism was inside, but instead, he waited politely and then held the instrument steady while Lazlo unscrewed its legs. Together they carried it to the back of Jeff’s station wagon. It made a muffled twang when they set it down.
“Shh, I know,” Lazlo said, cocking his ear and patting the wooden case affectionately. “We’re going on a trip!”
Jeff thought of the drive ahead, the potentially bumpy roads, the musical hardware that might shake loose. “What about a blanket?” he said, when they went back inside for the legs. “To keep it steady during the drive.”
“Yes. Good idea. We’ll get one at my aunt’s.”
“Yes, where I live. Don’t worry, it’s close.”
Back in the car, Lazlo jabbed and pointed their way around several corners to a thin house with peeling gray paint, a broken window, and a tangle of bushes in the yard.
“Come in for coffee,” Lazlo said. “She makes it for everyone.”
“No thank you,” said Jeff. He wouldn’t have minded coffee, but he preferred the comfort of his car. He decided to pass the time listening to the CD of the Hary Janos Suite that he’d bought that week. On its cover a threadbare soldier held forth in a village tavern. Jeff turned on the disc and pulled out the liner notes, which included a quotation from the composer, explaining why the suite opens with what is supposed to sound like a sneeze.
According to Hungarian superstition, if a statement is followed by a sneeze of one of the hearers, it is regarded as confirmation of its truth. The Suite begins with a sneeze of this kind! One of Háry’s group of faithful listeners … sneezes at the wildest assertions of the old tale-spinner.
Curious, Jeff replayed the first movement’s opening several times, listening to the long chromatic aahhhHH that rose in pitch and volume through the orchestra until it reached a jangling trill from the piccolo, triangle, and violins, and then exploded – CHOO! – with a bang from the snare drum, cymbal, and timpani. Afterwards, a downward thumbnail slide on a piano returned the music to a somber melody in the basses and cellos: grim foot soldiers, setting out for war.
By now, several leaves had dropped onto Jeff’s windshield, a mixture of maple and oak. A few swished through his open window. Jeff continued to listen. The six-movement suite depicted Hary Janos’s exploits during the Napoleonic wars. In “The Viennese Musical Clocks,” for example, the legendary peasant receives a tour of the city from the carriage of his latest mistress, Napoleon’s wife. Jeff decided to play the chimes and glockenspiel, the musical clocks themselves, in that movement. Next, Hary Janos sings a love song to his true sweetheart back home. But Jeff fast-forwarded past it because it didn’t have any percussion parts. He wanted to hear the snare drum rolls in “The Death and Defeat of Napoleon,” in which Hary Janos single-handedly slaughters the diminutive Corsican and swaggers around his body to a parody of the Marseillaise, played on the saxophone.
Still no sign of Lazlo. Jeff fast-forwarded again to the suite’s sixth movement, the triumphant finale. He wanted to hear a particular xylophone lick, a tricky flourish of three rapid, hand-over-hand, half-steps, followed by a leap to an E flat, an excerpt he had once practiced over and over for an audition he didn’t win.
The door to the house swung open. Jeff turned off the CD. Instead of Lazlo, a woman came out, carrying a brown paper bag and a thermos. She was slender, with gray black hair cropped along her jaw and a short sleeved, green dress hanging below her knees. She walked straight to Jeff’s window.
“For your journey,” the woman said, holding out the bag and thermos. “Sandwiches and coffee.” Her hands were flecked with tiny scratch marks.
Jeff thanked her and took the gifts, averting his eyes from her hands.
“Lazlo’s coming,” the woman said, uncertainly. She closed her lips and smiled. She seemed to think the wait was normal, even though Jeff had been there for almost half an hour.
Finally, Jeff said: “We have a rehearsal at seven. In Vermont.”
“Yes. I’ll fetch Lazlo.”
She went back in. Jeff sipped some coffee. It was strong and smooth. Then he tightened the lid back on the thermos and got out of the car to sweep the leaves off the windshield. Lazlo emerged from the house with a backpack and a torn quilt. One of his cheeks was splotched red.
Jeff opened the back of the car. “You fall asleep?” he said.
“Can you imagine!” Lazlo said, lifting the cimbalom’s large wooden case as Jeff wrapped the quilt around it. “One minute I’m packing my luggage, the next I’m having a dream!”
They drove past New York City in silence. Lazlo looked out the window; Jeff waited to get beyond the heavy traffic. Somewhere in Connecticut, they ate the lunch Lazlo’s aunt had prepared: surprisingly tasty bologna sandwiches and several handfuls of fresh raspberries, some still attached to their stems.
“Where are these from?” Jeff said.
“In the yard. Didn’t you see?”
“I guess I must have,” Jeff said. “So what does she do, your aunt?”
“My aunt? What does she not do?” Lazlo laughed. “ She can’t sit still, she’s got the gypsy blood. Four days a week she works at the florist, and sometimes she goes with my uncle, cleaning the bank and community center. At home she grows the garden, cooks, and she makes Hungarian embroidery.”
“Is that why her hands are scratched? From embroidering?” Jeff thought of his own mother, dead twelve years now, how smooth she’d kept her hands, storing lotion in some cabinet or corner of almost every room in the house. Every once in a while, she’d embroidered, too, but she’d never scratched her hands.
“Yes, maybe. Or probably picking berries. But wait till you see my vest. She made it three years ago, with birds and flowers. On Saturday, for our concert, I will wear it over my white shirt and black trousers.”
“In an orchestra, we’re supposed to wear tuxedos,” Jeff said.
“Yes, but I will wear my vest.”
In Massachusetts, they drove past a city with a clock tower jutting up from the roofscape, each clock reporting a slightly different time, like a pair of violinists not moving their bows in sync. One clock said three twenty-four. Another said three thirty-two. Jeff’s watch said three thirty-five.
When he lived in Boston, sometimes he’d subbed in the orchestra in this town, riding the hired bus that transported conservatory students and other carless young professionals to and from the rehearsals and concerts. Approaching the concert hall, whose fluted columns were visible from the highway, Jeff remembered sitting next to Nina on that bus one time. She’d been telling him about her interest in zoology, and had showed him a book about flying squirrels, which traced the evolutionary trends that created the folds of skin between the animals’ arms and sides that allowed them to glide from tree to tree.
“I used to play in the orchestra there,” he said, pointing at the hall. “With Nina.”
“Nina,” Lazlo said. “You mean, the girl who called. She cute?”
“Maybe.” Jeff said. “She used to be.”
“I don’t remember,” Jeff said, although he thought he probably did. “Violist.” “Violist. Viola. Like big violin, no?”
“Like big violin, yes.”
So maybe she does have big boobs!” Lazlo said.
Jeff asked Lazlo if he’d ever played in an orchestra before.
“Yes. With Hungarian orchestra – cimbaloms, violins, clarinets. My uncle plays violin. He teaches us the Hary Janos!”
“I see,” said Jeff. “So where do you play?”
“At the community center. We play just a few weeks ago, on October Twenty-three.”
“October Twenty-third.” Jeff said.
“October Twenty-three, Nineteen Fifty-Six,” Lazlo said. “The day the Hungarians fight the Soviets.”
Jeff was a history buff. “Okay,” he said. “I’ve heard of that. But the Soviets crushed the Hungarians in Nineteen Fifty-Six.” He hoped he hadn’t said the wrong thing.
“They did not crush us.” said Lazlo. “We showed those bastards who we are. And my uncle moved to America and then my aunt. And now, here I am, driving past cows in a field! But we play all kinds of music on October twenty three, not just Hungarian. We play Frank Sinatra, Dr. Zhivago, ‘Memory’ from Cats. Hey, do you know ‘Bolero’?”
“Of course I know ‘Bolero,’” said Jeff. “I’m a percussionist.”
Jeff had first learned the snare drum part to “Bolero” in high school. He’d practiced its endlessly repeating pattern, Pa patata Pa patata Pa Ta Pa patata Pa patata patata patata, until his hands were numb. In conservatory, the same year he’d won the concerto competition, he’d performed the part in orchestra with a visiting French conductor. Jeff’s teacher, a percussionist in the Boston Symphony, taught him the trick of tapping the drum with dimes instead of mallets at the beginning, holding the coins between his thumbs and index fingers to play the rhythm as quietly and clearly as possible. But with that method a second player has to take over with mallets as the piece grows louder. So Jeff ended up holding the sticks near the tips at the beginning, then creeping his grip back toward the base as the piece went on. “If you can play this quieter than anyone else and still keep the rhythm taut,” his teacher had said, “you can win any audition you want.”
Jeff switched lanes to pass a truck.
“You know what I figured out?” Lazlo said. “‘Bolero’ and ‘Memory’ from Cats, they’re both the same!” Lazlo sang the opening of “Memory,” then of “Bolero,” stretching out the rhythm to make his point.
Jeff shook his head. During his audition years, three times, “Bolero” was the piece that did him in. In Boston, they’d made him play it right after the cymbal crash from Tchaikovsky’s Fourth, when his arms and hands were so numb from the vibrating metal, he could barely hold the sticks. In St. Louis, he tried to use his fingertips instead of dimes at the beginning, then transition to the mallets. He’d perfected this in the practice room, but during the audition it proved a disaster. He never started the excerpt better than in Chicago, but during the third time through the phrase, he dropped a stick. They let him start over, but he knew he’d lost the job. By the time Jeff moved to New York, he never wanted to take another audition, let alone play “Bolero,” again.
“That’s not ‘Bolero,’” he said. “You can’t sing it like that and still call it ‘Bolero.’”
But Lazlo had fallen asleep. He snored lightly through the rest of the drive, leaning with the car as Jeff turned onto the smaller roads that wound past farms and forests to the college town and finally to the inn.
“Brick,” Lazlo said, waking up and staring at the three-story, ivy-covered building. “I expected wooden.”
“Won’t your roommate want a key?” the woman at the desk asked Jeff.
“It’s a share?”
“We’re booked right up,” the woman said, in a crisp Yankee accent, handing Jeff another key.
On stage at the arts’ center, not far from the conductor’s podium, Jeff and Lazlo reattached the cimbalom to its legs. Lazlo then headed off to the cafeteria, while Jeff inspected the percussion instruments set up in back. The drums weren’t bad; the chimes were out of tune. He met a student rolling out the timpani from a storage area.
“Who’s playing these?” Jeff asked.
“I am,” said the student. Jeff gave him a thumbs-up. He was relieved that the timpanist wasn’t another ringer. Together, they re-arranged the percussion section in a long arc: timpani, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, chimes, glockenspiel and xylophone. They put black cloth on a tall stool for the triangle.
By now, other musicians were filtering into the hall. Some went on stage to warm up, more stood in the audience, unpacking instruments, chatting, playing scales. Jeff looked up and saw Lazlo walking down the corridor with a woman: Nina. Her red hair fell to her shoulders. She wore a long, unbuttoned, wool coat. Jeff walked to the edge of the stage. “Smallish boobs,” he confirmed, in Lazlo’s voice, and then wanted to punch himself. If anything, she looked prettier than before.
“Jeffrey!” Nina said, coming on stage to hug him. “How can I ever thank you? I love Lazlo! He was in the cafeteria, buying grape juice. Come on. I’ll introduce to you to Roberto.”
At the podium, Roberto was shuffling through his notes, his head bent down, a wispy black ponytail grazing his shirt collar. But he looked up and greeted Jeff warmly. Ten feet away, Lazlo was opening the cimbalom, unlatching the top and lifting it off.
“Let’s bring it closer,” Roberto said, pointing to an area between the podium and the front of the viola section. “So the audience can see it.”
“Jeff was our star percussionist at New England,” Nina said, while Jeff and Lazlo moved the cimbalom. Half out of embarrassment, Jeff lowered his face to study the instrument’s construction, the paired metal strings that stretched lengthwise across most of the instrument: thick copper strings in front, narrower steel ones in back, each pair gradually becoming shorter. The thinnest, shortest strings ran in a different direction across a triangular corner. From a small compartment underneath, Lazlo produced two long, skinny mallets with soft, white woolen heads. They looked like magnified Q-tips. He struck two strings, one at a time.
“Fantastic,” Roberto muttered. “Almost eerie, no?” He looked at his watch. “Where is everyone? The rehearsal starts in five minutes. Nina told you we’re starting with the Kodaly, didn’t she?”
“Good. I don’t want to fuss with it tonight, just read through to find the problems. We can fix those tomorrow and Saturday. I’ve got to spend some time on the concerto. The soloist is flipping out – and she’s our concertmistress!”
Jeff walked back to the percussion section. He was glad that he and Lazlo only played in the Kodaly and could go back to the inn at the break. But when the concertmistress stood up to signal the oboist’s A, his nerves flared. He was late for his first entrance on the snare drum, marring the famous sneeze. In the second movement he missed the octaves on the chimes, playing discordant sevenths instead. Roberto gave him a quick smile: here was a problem to be fixed. Jeff was annoyed with himself, but he liked the way Roberto worked the orchestra. “With me, please,” the conductor begged the strings when they dragged during an accelerando. “Make the crescendo during the long note! You’ll tune that chord during the break, yes?” he urged the woodwinds and brass. He seemed determined to get through the piece without stopping.
But he didn’t get his wish.
As the third movement began, Jeff had just realized that Nina was the person playing a viola solo, when he looked up and saw Roberto land an open palm in front of Lazlo.
“Go. Now!” Roberto said, trying also to bring in the clarinet. “Two after Letter A,” he barked, leaning and gesturing toward the violins. He started singing Lazlo’s part, hoping that would help. But Lazlo didn’t play. He sat frozen, his elbows sticking out like chicken wings, his mallets motionless in the air. Roberto waved the orchestra to a halt.
“Are you lost?” he said to Lazlo.
Lazlo lowered his mallets and lifted his head. “What are you doing with your arms?” he said.
A brief, shocked pause took over the orchestra. Roberto stepped off the podium and walked to the other side of Lazlo’s music stand.
“You come in here, at Letter A,” he said, pointing a finger at Lazlo’s part. “The D major trills on the off beats. See?”
“Yes, D major trills.” Lazlo said, searching his instrument and repositioning his mallets.
Roberto stepped back to the podium almost wearily. “Letter A,” he said. “Tutti.”
This time Lazlo played the D major trills, only he played them longer than made sense, and then stopped. He kept looking at his music and then at Roberto, but he didn’t play. Roberto resorted to singing Lazlo’s part again, while Lazlo sat quietly, looking straight ahead. Jeff was relieved when the movement ended and they went on to “The Death and Defeat of Napoleon.” Strangely enough, Lazlo sprang into action during the fifth movement. He hammered away confidently, even when the rest of the orchestra drowned him out or played at a different tempo from his. It made sense that he would know the Hungarian dance movement. Jeff suspected that this was what Lazlo referred to as “The Hary Janos.”
By now, Jeff’s nerves had calmed down. During rests, he’d sorted out the remaining percussion assignments, making sure not to take all the good parts, just the hard ones he felt expected to play. “It’s all yours,” he told a student, pointing to the bass drum note that ended the entire piece.
At the break, he was saying goodnight to Nina, who looked worried, but hoped he and Lazlo could join her for an outing on Saturday, when Roberto strode up.
“He’s a bust!” he said. “A total disaster.”
“Who’s a bust?” Nina said.
“Who do you think?” Roberto said. “That cimbalom player!”
“Don’t say that, Roberto,” said Nina. “It’s only the first rehearsal. Can’t you work with him? Maybe he was confused.”
“Confused? Did you hear what he said – what am I doing with my arms? He’s clueless!”
“You should see yourself, Roberto, you’re like an octopus up there! And he played well in the fifth movement.”
“Of course he played well in the fifth movement; it’s practically the Hungarian national anthem. But I need him in the third movement! The cimbalom solo! It’s crucial — the core of the piece.”
“Can’t you work with him, Roberto?” Nina said. “You don’t know how hard it was to find him. Jeff drove all the way from. . . ”
But Lazlo was walking up. “If possible,” he said, “for the concert, I will wear my special vest. The audience will like it – very Hungarian, with birds and flowers.”
Roberto turned to Nina. “ Look. I’ll meet for half an hour tomorrow at eleven, but if it doesn’t get better, you’re hiring a pianist to cover the part.”
“He’s really a softy,” Nina said, after Roberto left. “We’re all tired. I’m sure the audience would love your vest, Lazlo. And Jeff, it’s great to see you again.” She put her hand on Jeff’s shoulder. “Sorry about the double room,” she whispered. “The inn’s booked solid.” Then she pulled him closer. “I’ll call you in the morning. I think I’ll need your help!”
Jeff was exhausted. “Goodnight, Nina,” he said.
Despite its formal exterior, the inn was a cozy affair. A small dining room, with round tables and yellow tablecloths, occupied a corner of the ground floor, across from a bar. In the morning, Jeff was seated at one of these tables. He’d left Lazlo asleep and come downstairs to get breakfast and listen to his messages on the payphone; his cell phone was of no use in this town. His father had called, hoping Jeff would be home in time for supper on Sunday – his sister and brother-in-law were coming. “The men painted your office,” Jeff’s dad added. “Brightens it up a bit.”
Turning his eggs with a fork, Jeff looked out the window at the lawn and the row of pine trees behind it. He hadn’t told his father about going to Vermont. He didn’t see how he could get back to Hammond until Tuesday at the earliest.
Jeff had been looking forward to his new employment. He’d grown up at his grandfather’s factory, worked there during summers, including one when he tried to design a die for tambourine zils. He didn’t mind the windowless office; he wanted the company to survive. Even living with his father seemed a reasonable step. Eventually, he’d buy his own house and start looking for someone to share it with: a nice, levelheaded, affectionate, smart woman. But would he find her?
Jeff scraped the remaining eggs onto a piece of toast. He thought about Nina. She was certainly smart, but he wasn’t sure about levelheaded. She had a good heart, though. What had brought her here, anyway? He thought he’d heard from an old conservatory mate that she’d married a college professor. But she obviously wasn’t married anymore; she said she lived alone in a condominium. For a jealous second, Jeff wondered about Nina and Roberto. But he’d noticed the flash of Roberto’s wedding ring during the rehearsal last night and somehow knew there was nothing to worry about there.
Jeff hadn’t noticed Lazlo coming down the stairs. Now he was pulling a chair out. “Nina woke me up,” he said. “On the telephone. She wants you to call her. Not me, you!”
It hadn’t occurred to Jeff that Nina might want Lazlo to call her. He waited a minute, then went back to the phone booth.
“Roberto can meet us at one o’clock now, not eleven,” Nina said. “That gives us more time.”
“Time for what?”
“To teach Lazlo his part.”
“But how? He can barely read music. ”
“What are we going to do, send him home on a bus? And I think he could pull it off. You heard that sound. Anyway, I’m meeting with him, and I hope you’ll join us. You’d probably help more than I could.”
Jeff looked back at Lazlo. It bothered him to feel sympathy right now.
“Ok. Give us a half an hour.”
“Thanks, Jeff. You’re a love.”
“No. Just a chump.”
After Nina hung up, Jeff called his father’s office and left the hotel number with the secretary. Back at the table, he told Lazlo as tactfully as he could about the extra rehearsal. Lazlo received the information calmly, but up in the room, he took out his vest. “Maybe I’ll bring this,” he said. “Why not?”
A quarter of an hour later, back at the concert hall, Jeff had to admit that Lazlo looked authentic in his vest, playing “Lara’s Theme,” from Dr. Zhivago as soon as he removed the lid from the cimbalom. It might have been better had he gone straight to the Kodaly, Jeff thought, but he couldn’t help noticing how natural the mallets looked in Lazlo’s hands. When Nina arrived, she couldn’t stop talking about the vest. “Oh Lazlo,” she said. “It’s beautiful.” She admired the fine stitching, the birds that climbed the vines and peeked out from behind their elliptical leaves. “You should come back some day and play at a party.”
“Jeff would have to drive me,” Lazlo said, poking Jeff’s arm with his index finger.
“You’ll have to take the bus,” Jeff said. “I’ll be long gone.”
“What do mean, you’ll be long gone?” Nina said.
“I’m moving, didn’t I tell you?” Jeff said. “To Indiana.”
“What? You get a job at IU or something?”
“I’m going to work for my Dad.”
Nina looked suspicious. “Doing what?”
“Making machine parts.”
“It’s a tool and die company. My family’s run it for sixty years.”
“There isn’t anyone else who can keep it going?”
“Not with my last name,” said Jeff.
Nina took out her viola. “All right Lazlo,” she said. “You’re going to learn that friggin’ third movement before Roberto gets here, okay? What’s ‘Dal’ mean anyway?”
“Dal” said Lazlo. “That means song. Maybe a love song.”
Nina played the opening phrase. “It’s a sad song,” she said. “But lovely. It’s like an old person singing.”
“Or a young person,” Lazlo said, “singing old song.”
“So let’s hear it,” Jeff said.
This time Nina began the piece for real. Following along with Lazlo’s part, Jeff started conducting and counting to help Lazlo know when to play. “That was you,” he said, after Lazlo missed his entrance.
“Sorry guys,” Lazlo said.
“You played this last night, remember?” Jeff went to the piano and played Lazlo’s first notes, the D and F sharp trills.
Lazlo found the notes and played them. “I know how to read them, too,” he insisted. “Just not so fast.”
“So maybe you can learn this by ear.” Jeff said. “Let me see your music.”
Jeff looked at the part. For much of it, the notes were simple and repetitive, trills and arpeggios that accompanied the melody in the strings and woodwinds. Usually there were rests between the changes. Surprisingly enough, within an hour, Jeff taught Lazlo the bulk of the movement, memorizing each phrase and demonstrating it on the piano,. He gave him a short lesson on following a conductor, what a beat pattern looked like. (“Don’t ever ask a conductor what he’s doing with his arms again!” Nina said.) Then they reached the long cimbalom solo at the end.
“What is this crazy music?” Lazlo said.
Nina laughed. “Crazy music,” she said. “Don’t you love it?”
“I don’t know,” Lazlo said. “But it doesn’t love me.”
Jeff studied the jagged line of ascending notes at the beginning of the solo. These led to a restless version of the melody, dense with clashing harmonies. Jeff imagined the player’s hands jumping wildly from string to string. Finally the music assembled into a jumbled cluster, out of which poured a cascade of notes that landed on a low, low G. On the page, the tiny black shapes spilled down the staff; they looked like lemmings, hurling themselves off a cliff.
For Lazlo, Jeff simplified Kodaly’s original as much as he could.
“Don’t try to play every note,” he said. “Just make sure you end on the right one.” He leaned into the cimbalom and pointed at a pair of thick copper strings near the front. “That’s the G there,” he said. “Right?” Lazlo struck the string and nodded.
They worked through the cadenza one more time, then went back to the beginning, none of them noticing when Roberto arrived. “Bravo,” he said, mounting the stage, after Lazlo, at Jeff’s discreet signal, made his second entrance. When Roberto started conducting, Lazlo kept going. Jeff made a fist in the air. He gave Lazlo another secret cue when it was time for the solo.
Clearing his throat, Lazlo found his opening notes and bounced the tips of his mallets over the strings, haltingly at times, too fast at others, skipping and improvising through what he couldn’t remember or play, until he came crashing down to the final G.
Roberto sighed. “Well,” he admitted. “That’s an improvement. It can only get better, right? It might not be a bad idea to listen to a recording, though.”
“There’s one in my car,” Jeff said. “We can listen this afternoon.”
“Now what about the fifth movement?” Roberto said.
“No problem! That’s what I know!” said Lazlo. “We play it October Twenty Three.”
“What?” said Nina.
“The Hungarian uprising,” Jeff said. “October Twenty-third, Nineteen Fifty-six.”
“The day the Hungarians got our buts kicked,” Lazlo said, a touch defiantly.
“Let me hear it,” said Roberto.
That night, with the full orchestra, the suite began to take shape. Roberto fixed a host of intonation, balance, and ensemble problems. At Jeff’s suggestion, he developed a system of cues for Lazlo. When he pointed with one finger, Lazlo came in; two fingers and Lazlo stopped and got ready for his next entrance. Clearly, with his eccentric rhythm and inabity to read his part, Lazlo was not cut out for orchestral playing, but he had a good ear, and the cimbalom was heard some of the time. The solo was herky-jerky at best, but it was already better than in the morning.
Jeff made enough mistakes himself that he wished he’d practiced his own part that afternoon, instead of listening to the CD and going out for hamburgers with Nina and Lazlo. He made up his mind to practice the next day, even if it meant forgoing Nina’s excursion. What was the point anyway, with Lazlo there? Or even if Lazlo weren’t there? In three days, he’d be in Indiana. After the rehearsal, Jeff sat in the bar past midnight. When he went to bed, he slept fitfully, dreaming he was in a car with his father, taking machine parts to be repaired.
A rehearsal at ten o’clock on a Saturday morning poses difficulty to both college students and professional musicians. So Jeff was at least pleased that, at this one, the Kodaly was scheduled last. The orchestra provided free breakfast, too: a backstage array of bagels, cheese, coffee, and orange juice. Jeff and Lazlo walked in to what remained of this while Mendelssohn’s violin concerto received its finishing touches. Lazlo could scarcely believe the student soloist was heading to medical school. “What a violin player! She could be famous!” he said, munching his bagel. Jeff said nothing. At the break, he went on stage to warm up, only to be approached by the student percussionist, asking for a lesson on the bass drum.
“Use your whole body, not just your arms,” Jeff told him. “The sweet spot’s just off center. Hear the difference? That way the sound widens before it melts.” It was easy to say these things when he wasn’t the one doing them. He let the kid practice and joined Nina, Lazlo, and Roberto up by the podium. Lazlo, wearing his vest, was comparing “Memory from Cats” to “Bolero” again. Nina tried them on her viola.
“I see what you mean,” she said, “only the rhythm’s wrong.” She smiled. “Remember when we played ‘Bolero’ at school, Jeff? You would have loved it, Roberto. This guy was incredible.”
Jeff blushed. That French conductor had asked him to play “Bolero” ‘s opening measures so quietly that every resting musician had to sit dead still for him to be heard, while the cellists and violists plucked their accompaniment with the smallest motions possible. The piece had grown from there, a fifteen minute crescendo in which the entire orchestra became one huge percussion instrument, hitting, scraping, plucking, blowing, and pulsating with that same rhythm Pa patata pa until the trombones’ final cry of agony and release.
Jeff stared at Nina. “Still like flying squirrels?” he said. “Flying squirrels – yes, yes I do. And I remember showing you that book, too. I had a flying squirrel in my house not so long ago – the cat must have brought it in – I’d never seen one alive before. He was gorgeous, not beady-eyed and creepy, like regular squirrels. He had soft, round eyes, and was graceful. You should have seen him glide down from the mantelpiece when I tried to catch him. It made me think – I know this is weird – of someone – a lover – pulling a blanket over me.”
Now Nina was blushing too. “How did we get onto this? Yes, ‘Bolero.’ We all thought you’d become the principal percussionist of the Paris Opera after that concert.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Jeff said, turning to go to his place. Roberto had already stepped onto the podium. Just this last rehearsal and the concert, Jeff told himself. Try to concentrate. But the more he concentrated, the worse he played. His arms grew tight. His back hurt. He tried to pull himself together while Roberto rehearsed the third movement, the “Dal.”
“Strings,” Roberto said. “Play with more delicacy, please. Quiet down when the cimbalom comes in. There’s only one of him; there are forty of you! It’s beautiful, this movement, the essence of the piece. First the viola solo, just the song, unaccompanied. It’s Hary Janos, the soldier, singing to his sweetheart back home. It’s sad, but it’s a love song. Then the cimbalom comes in, with the clarinet and strings. Incredible atmosphere. Like trees and wind. Finally you get the melody, finally you take over. Suddenly no more Vienna, no more soldier’s life. Just lying in a field, touching his girlfriend’s hair, pulling the blanket over her.” Roberto winked at Jeff. “When the cimbalom comes in alone, the music internalizes – that cadenza! — until everything comes crashing down. He wakes up and it’s over. No countryside, no girlfriend, just mud and war. The melody returns with the strings and clarinets, but it fades away, only a memory. Good God! Listen to me! Let’s play it again. The whole movement!”
After the rehearsal, Nina invited Jeff and Lazlo to her condominium for lunch and a hike.
“You and Lazlo go ahead,” Jeff said.
“I have to practice, do some other stuff.”
Jeff watched Nina and Lazlo leave the hall. Then he went outside and walked around the town green and bought a sandwich. He knew he should get to work, but he kept thinking about other things, like where Nina and Lazlo were and calling his father. He went back to the hall and practiced his parts as slowly and calmly as he could. In the late afternoon, he drove back to the inn.
Up in the room, about to lie down, Jeff saw that Lazlo had dropped by, leaving his vest on his bed. The phone rang. Jeff knew it was his father. He hesitated, then picked up, but his voice couldn’t sound. His father said “Hello, Jeff? Jeff? Is that you?” But Jeff couldn’t speak. He held the phone in the air, away from him, trying to moisten his throat. He didn’t know how long he stood there, but at some point he realized that his father must have hung up. He felt ashamed and confused. The room, with the typical furnishings of a country inn – the flowery wallpaper, matching white bedspreads edged with pompoms the size of acorns, a thickly varnished table and desk – now seemed unpleasant and awry. Jeff paced. He walked into the bathroom, saw himself in the mirror and abruptly walked out. The phone started ringing again. Jeff didn’t answer. He walked over to Lazlo’s bed and looked at his vest. He saw the birds and leaves and pictured the hands, the scratched, strong-looking hands that had created them and had offered him sandwiches and coffee. “For your journey,” she had said.
He picked up the vest and held it in front of him. Each bright leaf, each flower, each stitch was a different shape and size. The embroidered birds peered into the room with piercing red eyes, as alive as any cackling flock in a cornfield back home. He put it on. It seemed almost unthinkable, unmanly to put on a piece of clothing that belonged to someone else, especially so odd and costume-like a garment as this. Only the vest didn’t seem that way anymore. For a moment, Jeff considered taking it off, but he decided not to. He felt good wearing the vest in this room with the air growing dark. He lay down on his bed.
In his sleep he heard the laughter, the door creek open, the voices.
“Come on, Nina. Let me pull the blanket over you.”
“Lazlo, you’re crazy. The concert starts in an hour!”
“Oh, please. Just once more, one more kiss.”
Their bodies thudded softly on the mattress.
Carefully, Jeff inched himself towards the wall, then turned and looked across to see Lazlo’s hand winding through Nina’s hair. He shut his eyes. What should he do? Let them know he was there? Crawl under the bed? He remembered the vest. He should take it off, of course, but he didn’t. He heard a grumbling sound. A light flicked on.
“Hey…!” Lazlo sat straight up. “What do you think you’re doing?”
Jeff jumped to the floor. “I could say the same to you!”
“I’m so embarrassed,” moaned Nina. Then she saw the vest. “Oh my God, Jeff. You look adorable!”
“Take it off. Please.” Lazlo was less charmed.
Jeff stared back at him.
“Why should I? I believe your aunt made it for me,” Jeff hardly recognized his thoughts.
“What did you say?” said Lazlo.
“I said your aunt made the vest for me.”
“Please again, take it off.”
Jeff stood there, stubborn and silent.
“Jeff,” Nina said. “Come on. It’s Lazlo’s.” She slid off the bed and reached to put a hand on Jeff’s shoulder, but he stepped back.
“This is a little too strange,” he said, slowly taking off the vest and handing it back to Lazlo. “I wasn’t trying to steal it. It was lying on the bed. I only wanted to put in on. Then I fell asleep, and you two lovebirds came in. Why don’t you look around next time?”
Lazlo stepped toward Jeff.
“Oh stop!” Nina said. “What’s wrong with Jeff putting on your vest, Lazlo? And what’s wrong with us kissing? You wanted to practice. We wanted to have some fun. We talked, we laughed, we smooched. You’ll both be gone tomorrow. So what’s the problem?”
“There isn’t one,” Jeff said. “We have a concert to play. You have to be there sooner than we do.”
“I know,” Nina said. “Like in half an hour. Lazlo, thank you for the walk. I’ll see you guys later.” She gathered her purse and shoes and hustled out of the room.
Jeff and Lazlo cleaned up and got ready. They left the door to the bathroom open, going in and out in towels, shaving, peeing, dressing, and combing their hair without a word. Neither spoke until they were walking through the parking area to Jeff’s car, when Lazlo softly punched Jeff’s shoulder. “You and me, we’re brothers,” he said.
That evening, Kodaly’s Hary Janos Suite received a standing ovation. From the fairy tale’s opening sneeze, which Jeff punctuated precisely on the snare, to the final bass drum boom, which the student player struck perfectly off-center, the performance was a true if not total success. In the second movement, the flutes and trumpets paraded their tunes around the conjured squares of Vienna while Jeff’s glockenspiel octaves chimed out the hour. Later, the saxophone’s portrait of Hary Janos gloating over the defeated Napoleon caused Roberto and several members of the orchestra to smirk. Roberto stretched the slower tempos of the fifth movement, the proud Hungarian dance, like candy; in the faster section, Lazlo’s skinny mallets pranced along the cimbalom’s strings like the legs of a marionette. But the suite almost unraveled in the “Dal.” It started well enough: Nina played one note of her solo slightly off pitch, but her sound filled the hall – and Jeff’s heart – with melancholy. Jeff shut his eyes to listen, then opened them to watch Lazlo find his notes for the first entrance, and at Roberto’s cue, play them no problem. He made his second entrance no problem, too. But when it came time for his solo, when Roberto waved the rest of the orchestra silent and subtly pointed, Lazlo didn’t play. For four, five, six eternal seconds, the hall was still; no one even sneezed or coughed. The music itself seemed to have dropped its jaw in bewilderment.
Jeff’s cheeks grew hot. Was Lazlo doing this on purpose? Was it his own fault for putting on Lazlo’s vest and making such ridiculous assertions? He didn’t think so. Roberto looked around the orchestra, trying to cue people in again, as if the cimbalom cadenza had already broken the love song’s spell. But just as Roberto’s arms went up, Lazlo’s arms went down. He played the opening arpeggio, then fumbled through an awkward smattering of notes until he landed on the low G. Roberto, his face a mixture of dismay and relief, gestured to the strings and clarinets. The suite picked up from there; the music survived its accident, perhaps even growing in purpose and energy.
After the concert, Jeff thanked Roberto, said goodbye to the other percussionists, and returned to the stage to collect his sticks. To his surprise, a small crowd had gathered around the podium. He wondered if they were looking at the score to the Kodaly, checking to see if there really were a seven second long pause in the middle of the third movement. But then he heard the music and saw Lazlo in the midst of the swarm, still wearing his vest, a dealer in a bazaar. He was playing “Lara’s theme” from Dr. Zhivago.
“The mallets are little feet,” Lazlo said when he finished, holding out his sticks for everyone to see. He showed them how with a fast wrist action and the doubled strings he could hammer the same note over and over again. Next he played a Hungarian folk song, using the sticks with the softer heads. He played “Embrace Me, My Sweet Embraceable You,” which Jeff’s mother had once sung along with Judy Garland in the living room at Jeff’s home in Indiana. Jeff heard snatches of her voice, “I love all the many charms about you; above all I want my arms about you; . . .you and you alone. . .” He couldn’t remember the rest of the words. Lazlo recounted the history of his cimbalom, made in Budapest and smuggled over to this country by his uncle in the fifties. Eventually, the crowd drifted away until only Jeff and Lazlo remained on stage.
“Here,” Lazlo said, handing Jeff the mallets. “You play.”
Jeff looked at him. “You want me to?” he said.
“Yes, I want you to.” Lazlo offered Jeff the mallets.
Jeff took them. He stood before the cimbalom, then slowly picked out a scale and a few broken chords. The part to the Kodaly lay open on the stand.
“Can you play this?” Lazlo said, turning the pages back to the solo.
“Why?” Jeff said. “You did fine.”
“I had my moments,” Lazlo said. “Like up on that mountain with Nina – you should have seen us.”
“I’m glad I didn’t.”
“Listen. You play whatever you want. I’m going to the reception for cookies. I’ll leave my vest here; I don’t want it to get foody. I don’t even care if you wear it.”
“I’m not going to wear it,” Jeff said.
After Lazlo left, Jeff played through the solo, finding his way slowly, trying to understand each note, what it was saying, where it was going. The notes shaped themselves into phrases, phrases whose eerie dissonances seemed to pull the world apart by its roots right there on the all-but-abandoned stage. Sensing someone’s presence, Jeff turned and saw Nina standing in the wings, holding her viola case by its black leather handle, her coat all adrape and blended into the gathered curtains. Her fingers were long, slender, and pale; her wrist emerged delicately from her coat sleeve. For a moment he thought he saw tiny scratch marks on her hand. He looked away, then back again. But Nina was gone.
Maybe she’d stepped behind the curtain; it waved and rippled slightly. Jeff wondered what to do. Should he acknowledge her and say something? Or should he forget that she might be there, forget about her completely? He did neither. He played – first the melody, then the rhythm – “Bolero.”
I enjoyed the story very much. As an orchestral player myself I found it quite believable, and have had experiences, perhaps not quite so colourful, with players of accordion, mandolin, saxophone, sometimes even pianists who are unaccustomed to our over-disciplined style of rhythm. Of course I knew there would be trouble as soon as Jeff let Nina and Lazlo go without him… Unfulfilled ambitions haunt so many of us musicians. There was somewhere that I thought a hyphen might be better between two words, but I can no longer find it…
I loved “The Cimbalom Player”. Julie’s writing portrays graceful sensitivity in how the three main characters relate to each other to form a very interesting triangle of friendship and withheld friendship. This glimpse into back stage lives of three free-lance musicians affords readers insight as to how it really is by someone who has been there and done that. Most memorable is how the percussionist protagonist (Jeff) visits their shared musical world while simultaneously treading on the cross-roads of his promising past, stagnated present and alternative futures. But lucky for Jeff, an unlikely companion musician in the form of a folksy cimbalom player becomes his alter ego and seemingly (let the reader decide) prevents him from travelling the more secure and conventional future path in favor of keeping to the road less travelled.
Find here a new creative voice on the short story scene that you should not miss!
Lovely. Thanks Julie!
Fun story! I like the characters very much and felt like I knew them. I’m glad the Cimbalom player lived near New Brunswick (I know one that does). Also, it was cool to get in the middle of Hary Janos Suite. I love that piece and it was fun to hear the music in my head as you described it through Jeff and Roberto.
What a pleasure to read Julie Marden’s new story. Lazlo, the cimbalom player, is one of the more charming characters I’ve encountered in recent fiction. In this lovely depiction of the world of orchestral musicians, Lazlo serves as counterpoint to Jeff, the protagonist, as Jeff prepares to leave his career as a free-lance percussionist behind and return to the Midwest to assume the mantle of his family’s tool and die business. In Lazlo’s company, Jeff and his friend Nina are reminded of the deep pleasure of playing from the heart, and how even mistakes can lend beauty to a performance and to a life.
Thank you Julie for sharing these characters and their poignant, funny little weekend. I’d love to don that vest for an afternoon…
I very much enjoyed this story.
It was entertaining
It was funny
It was interesting
It was bittersweet
It was a little fatalistic
I especially loved the evanescent ending where Nina departs as a ripple and Jeff as a rythm, tres poetic!
Very apropos story for me! I’m not sure how I navigated to the site, but it had to do with researching something about cymbalum. Back in the late 90ies, at some music historical function in central NYS, there was a man with, reputedly, the very cymbalum used to record the soundtrack for Dr. Zhivago. The man told a story of having acquired the instrument in, perhaps, Hungary, and that it had to be “disassembled” for shipping for some reason. I have come to believe that this man was Derek Bell, himself, the member of the Irish group, “The Chieftains.” Bell is the one who played the cymbalum, imitating the balalaika, for the Dr. Zhivago soundtrack. Looking at pictures of Bell and my remembrance of the man at the musical/historical function seem to match. Could any light be shed on any of this? The gentleman did play “Lara’s Theme” on the cymbalum for us. I can’t specifically remember him stating that he was the one playing for the soundtrack, but he did say it was the very cymbalum used. I suspect it was, indeed, Derek Bell. Anyway, interesting how the story fits my quest!
A belated thank you to all who have commented on my story and to all who have read it as well. It’s wonderful that such a variety of readers are enjoying it. Usually I thank people via email, because I assume after reading and commenting, they don’t come back to read more comments. But I don’t know all the commenters’ email addresses. To Mr. O’Donnell, I have to say that I had no idea who played cimbalom for the Zhivago soundtrack; I always thought it was a balalaika! I once heard someone play Lara’s Theme (a tune that will always haunt me) on a cimbalom, though, at an orchestra rehearsal, but it wasn’t Derek Bell.
Thank you again to all who have made their way to my story.
Hi again, Julie. As you can see form the last line of third paragraph via the link, Bell did, indeed, play the cimbalom to imitate the balalaika in the Dr. Z soundtrack. Unfortunately, I likely will never know if it was Bell I heard telling the story. BTW, enjoyed your story very much!
Thanks, Harry! Interesting to read about Bell, and I’m glad you liked my story.