Ernst Barbakoff went to the Cambridge Public Library, the branch on Pearl Street, every weekday morning as soon as the doors were open. Also Saturday afternoons. That was where the librarian, whom everybody called Miss Virginia, had posted his advertisement for piano lessons, the one with the quote from Toscanini: “This is how God plays the piano.” At the bottom, in brackets, it said, Leave replies with librarian; and these Miss Virginia duly collected and handed over to the tall, hunched musician, who sat at one of the tables reading first the newspaper and then the same blue-spined book, which turned out to be a journal kept by a Romanian Jew.
What she noticed first was how, once he took off his hat, his hair, matted down on the crown of his skull, slowly started to rise. After an hour or so, it had puffed up to match the popular idea of a wild conductor–or, for that matter, Arturo Toscanini, whom she had looked up on the library’s computer the day after the newcomer had asked her to post the ad. The day after that, she learned his name, not from the computer and not from the man himself but from an elderly lady who always took out three books a week, two novels and a biography. She whispered to the librarian, “That man is a famous pianist. When he was a little boy. I saw him. I heard him. In Tel Aviv. Ernst Barbakoff.”
It gave Miss Virginia a pang, trying to imagine the child prodigy–a tuxedo? slicked down hair with a part?–and seeing him now in his half-buttoned cardigan and with the swollen and gnarled hands that struggled to turn the pages of his book. And those ears! The way he absent-mindedly pulled on the rubbery lobes. On a whim she looked him up too, but all she got was a doctor on Long Island and a partner in an accounting firm. She tried to place his accent, though he said little more than “Good morning, Miss Virginia,” when she had greeted him with “Good morning, Mr. Barbakoff.” It was European, but also like that of the Israelis who lived one floor down in her building, and like that of the woman who claimed to have attended his concert when he was a boy. Haphazardly, a little dreamily, she invented a story: Holocaust survivor, refugee, hidden by–well, by a Polish pianist. He would have heard Chopin through the floorboards. Then, at her desk, or even at her kitchen sink on Magoun Street, she would laugh at herself and let the nonsense dissolve. Later on, when she had learned that part of this castle in the air was true, it made her feel that she, too, had known him as a boy: the hair with pomade, a stiff white collar.
After a month he asked her to take down the notice. “No more lessons, Mr. Barbakoff?”
“I have, my dear Miss Virginia, too many pupils.”
His sweater, she saw, was buttoned the wrong way. She forced down the impulse to redo it herself. Instead, she turned her head away while he fumbled at the leather knobs.
“I charge them unheard-of sums,” he said. “Fifty dollars. From one woman, one hundred dollars. Still they ask me to come.”
He stuffed his arms into his overcoat, and his newspaper and his book into his satchel, which was hinged, like the sort of gadget doctors used to carry in the movies. Then he set off on foot, though the wind was chill and a few snowflakes were tumbling in the air.
That night she went back to Toscanini on the computer, not at the library but on the laptop by her bed. There it was, his name, at the bottom of the discography: Brahms Second Piano Concerto, Ernst Barbakoff soloist, with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. It seemed to be the last recording by the maestro and the only extant work by the daily visitor to the Pearl Street branch. Except that it wasn’t extant–or if it was she could not find a copy. In the end a gentleman in a tweed coat and striped tie at the Boston Public Library managed to get the LP from another city and invited her to listen to it through headphones. A professional courtesy, he said, laughing. She laughed, too, not so much at the image of herself reflected in the glass, like a bee with the huge yellow cups on her ears, but at the sudden thought: Why had she gone, and why was she still going, to such trouble?
Then the music began. The horns, the orchestra, the piano. She had played the flute in grammar school, then never touched another instrument. She wasn’t musical. But she shook, just a little, at the ascending and descending notes–like armies, she thought, and imagined the wing span, thumb to little finger, that mastered the octaves. Was there something wrong with the earphones? Then she realized that the sound she heard, an intermittent buzz, was Toscanini, humming. He was carried away, and so, at the slow movement–what did they call it? Adagio?–was she. Just one string instrument, she wasn’t sure if it was a cello or a viola, playing something that sounded to her like a lullaby. Then the piano: she could feel the feathers of it on her skin. And when they played together her face grew hot. She understood what was happening: this was a song to women. She thought of the old lady in the library when, sixty or seventy years ago, she had been in her teens. Had she blushed as well? Another old lady, the wife of the pianist: had she? The librarian’s mouth fell open. She shut it, reproving herself: Does he have a wife? Then the man in the striped tie lifted the needle from the groove, and the music stopped.
“I don’t want to disturb you, Mr. Barbakoff, but might I ask what that book is that you are always reading?” It took some courage for her to ask. She stood behind him, leaning forward.
“Rereading, Miss Virginia. I missed a good deal the first time.” He turned to look up at her. The morning sunlight, slanting in, lit up the stubble on his cheek and chin. “It is a journal by a young man who lived in the city of Bucharest. You know, I believe, where that is?”
She took a chance: “Romania.”
“Yes. The author was a Jew and–well, you will understand: that country was an ally of Germany. I mean, in the Second World War. Thus there were many difficulties.”
Another chance, a greater one. A leap. “You went through the war, too. Is that why you are reading the young man’s book?”
At that he pushed his spectacles, round and black, onto his forehead. His eyes were pale, a shade of gray. Unusual, she thought, for his people. And then another thought: Was he even a Jew?
“I suppose, my dear lady, that I did.”
Now she had to bite her tongue because she wanted to blurt out that she had searched for his RCA Victor recording and had finally been able to listen to it on Boylston Street, at the BPL, and that she had heard the conductor humming, did he always do that, and how powerful he, Mr. Barbakoff, was in the first movement, but it was in the Andante, not the Adagio–she had looked it up, along with the opus number, which was 83–that she felt the tenderness that was in his: hands? She couldn’t say that. Soul? Luckily for her Barbakoff spoke first:
“I was fortunate. More fortunate than he. For you see, Madam, he did survive the years of war but was struck by a truck. In the year 1945.”
“Oh,” she exclaimed. “How terrible. I hope–”
A man, she knew his name, Harvey, looked up from the magazine he was reading. “Miss Virginia. You’re in a library.”
“Sorry. So sorry,” she replied.
Mr. Barbakoff pushed the spectacles back down on his nose, she could almost hear the clang of shutters falling, and turned back to the pages of his book.
But he surprised her by looking up again. “My son,” he said, “was killed by just such a vehicle.”
She gasped and touched his shoulder. “If you like, come with me. I mean, if you’d like to talk.”
Against expectations he rose and followed her to the reading nook at the back of the room. They sat at right angles where the padded benches met. He was the first to speak. “Do not be disturbed. This was many years ago. It is not the reason I read the journal. I do not believe it is. I believe it is because of the workings of–” he held up the volume so that she could see the name of the author–“Mr. Sebastian’s mind. And, of course, the extraordinary times in which he lived.”
Miss Virginia took in little of this. Her own mind was reeling. “I have a son,” she said.
“Ah, and what is his name?”
“My boy was Daniel. They say the driver had fallen asleep. Or that he was inebriated. I do not remember. But such large vehicles, with many wheels, were forbidden on the Franklin Roosevelt roadway. Yet there he was.”
“I am so sorry.”
“Decades in the past, dear lady. I do not think of it. And should not speak of it.”
She was sorry to hear him say that. She was convinced it was a good thing, a healing thing, to talk. She had seen how Billy responded to his sessions after school. A little smile, an ironic smile, brought her lips together. She believed that talk was a medicine, a balm, that it calmed the mind. Yet she chose to live her life–well, she heard Harvey’s words: You’re in a library.
Mr. Barbakoff broke the half-minute of silence. “Of course, for us, there were consequences. I have not played the instrument since that day.”
This confused her. The accident occurred long ago, he said. But he did play the piano. Or at any rate gave lessons on it. Of that she had the proof. But before she could make the point, he once more volunteered.
“I mean, there were no performances before the public. That life was over.”
“I understand. You gave lessons. I put up the notice. Toscanini, the conductor, said you played like a god.”
“He was the god. An angry one. There was a fellow in the woodwinds. Let me see. Yes, the mists of time are lifting: the oboe player. Was his name Aronson? The poor man! He always was late on his entrance. So the maestro took off his watch and said, ‘You see this thing? You see this watch for the wrist?’“
Miss Virginia tilted her head: he was speaking a little too loudly, but his attempt at an Italian accent–see-a this thing-a; this watch-a–made her want to giggle.
“‘This is how the Signore Oboe tells the time.’ Then he threw it on the floor and stamped on it until the springs flew out. Of this god I was the worshipper. Yes, I now must give lessons to uncomprehending pupils. A world of Aronsons. But you must forgive me. I am in the main and at almost all times a silent man, and now I am speaking too much. And perhaps a bit deafeningly.”
“Oh, not at all. I enjoy what you tell me.” And she did. The mists of time. Who, in ordinary life, spoke like that?
“I only want to say that my professional career ended. Ended after Daniel. I was driving him to a game of baseball. In our Plymouth automobile. I work no longer on concert stages. No longer in recording studios. But I played at times in schools–in New York City, and in the city of Boston, where I continued to teach my instrument to the young people.”
“And now you have retired? To give private lessons?”
“I would put it differently, Miss Virginia. I would say that from the Academy of the Arts I have been retired.”
“Do you mean–? But you are an artist. A prodigy. No one can fire a man like you.”
He leaned back on the bench. His hair, the tangled wisps, were in a maelstrom. He held up his hands. The fingers were buckled and twisted. “Do you see? Grounds for dismissal. Imagine what the maestro would say to me. When trying to keep up with my students. He would break over my head a thousand batons. In the most recent years I taught at the academy both English literature and English language. At which you have already discovered I am not so proficient. It was from this employment that I was–may I say, set at liberty.”
“Your English is wonderful. The way you speak: it is old-fashioned, I suppose, but that gives it a … grandeur.”
They had, she realized, talked through the lunch hour. She had to get back to her desk. And he, surely, had one of his hundred-dollar lessons. Yet neither of them moved. He told her then about the February day on which there had been a storm of wind and how in the morning the Charles had frozen over. That same morning he lost his job. Because, he explained, he had reprimanded a student for presenting someone else’s poem as her own. It was that old chestnut “Trees.” Of course, he corrected the girl. Holding up her sheet of paper with forefinger and thumb, as if were offal, or a stinking fish.
“I am now angry at myself,” he said. “I am a disappointment.”
He told Miss Virginia that the students called him Mr. Barbershop, which made her squeal with merriment: Physician, she thought, looking at his overgrown mane, heal thyself! He went on to say that they tried to persuade him to smoke marijuana. He refused, but they reported him anyway. The school, and its principal, were happy to use this as an excuse. He could no longer play on the school’s Yamaha. He could not control his classroom. The teachers union was no help. Old, white, a broken-down horse. So now the man who played the way God did gave private lessons.
Here Mr. Barbakoff opened his leather case and took out a metronome. “This is now my finger. It goes tock-tock-tock without feeling pain.” He put it back, followed by the thick book and folded newspaper. It was clear that he was preparing to go. But for the moment he sat.
“I wish I could describe to you the weather of that day. A wind that whistled. Overnight all was transformed. I believe that for a brief time I was transformed. Whiteness, a kind of blindness, the length of the Charles River. The branches of the trees and each twig of each tree were enclosed in a tube of crystal. Everything about me, the living trees, the living river, creaked and cracked. I thought they were messages, tongues speaking in code, the way they say whales speak to each other. Then a red scarf, blown from the head of some university student, moved across the ice. It, too, was a living thing: some spirit, I concluded. I had awakened that morning, and all I wanted was a cigarette. To disappear in the smoke. I was then one type of man. Not so pleasant. The man you see before you now. But the white river, like pearl, and the blue of the sky. I was then a man who–I give some credence to the thought that I was a man repaired by beauty. Thus did I enter the classroom of the academy, on my lips the question: Dear children, have you seen today the trees, the sky? But one of these Katzenjammers, ja?–he dropped his trousers and said, and I shall quote him accurately, ‘My ass be ice.’ And so the spell that had overcome me came to an end.”
Now the pianist did stand. He snapped the bag shut. “Voila! Mr. Barbershop. The martinet.”
She rose as well and followed him back to the reading table. There he retrieved his overcoat, his muffler, his hat. They walked together to the main door. “Thank you for the conversation, Mr. Barbakoff,” Miss Virginia said.
The door, magic, opened automatically. He looked back over his shoulder. “The accident was in warm weather,” he said. “For my wife the difficult month is the month of June.”
They did not return to the benches for some time. Indeed, Ernst Barbakoff did not appear at all the next day or for the rest of the week. When he did walk in, out of the rain, it was on a Saturday afternoon. He put his wet hat on the table and started to read, or reread, the words of the man who did not know he would soon be dead. They did not greet each other. She understood it was shyness. Then, on a sunnier Wednesday, things were as before.
“Good morning, Mr. Barbakoff.”
“Good morning, Miss Virginia.”
A half hour later they were sitting catercorner, his knees and her knees not far apart. What she wanted to know, had always wanted to know, was how he had survived the war. He told her about growing up on Heydukova Street and the neighbors who had brought them liver sausage from the countryside and who, at the war’s end, sat eating pig’s fat and pig’s bones in a pot. While at what had been the Barbakoffs’ dining room table.
“And in between?” she asked. She wanted to hear about the Jews. The Germans. The war. That was the movie he was to play for her. Why? She didn’t know why. Perhaps because she knew there was a happy ending. For was he not here? Alive? Inches away?
“It begins with my instrument, a Bechstein,” he said. “Too large to carry up the three flights of stairs.” Not all at once, but over the next days, before the break on Sunday, he told her how the big black piano, heavy as an elephant, was hoisted through the air while he stood, crushable, beneath it. He spent the winter playing Mendelssohn. In mittens with the ends of the fingers cut off. He wanted to master all of the Lieder ohne Worte. Despite the fact that the Germans had occupied the city since the month of September, he grew reckless–“though it was only thoughtlessness, a great evil”–when the first warm days of spring arrived. In plain words, he ripped through opus 102, the forty-fifth song, with such abandon that the galloping horses–that’s what the opening bars sounded like to him–leaped from the same open window through which the Bechstein had flown in and rampaged up the street, past the Bratislava Synagogue and out in every direction, all the way to the castle and along the Danube; faster and faster he played, louder and louder, no mittens now, until the front door opened and a German officer in black and silver stepped smiling in and said, “Wer ist der wunderbare Klavierspieler hier?”
Mr. Barbakoff stopped speaking. He smiled, lopsided, one side of his mouth going up, the other down. “My father was not home,” he resumed. “But my mother was. The officer asked her, it was a polite request, to follow him downstairs to the street. My mother’s name was Iris. She said she could not go because she was not wearing her yellow badge. ‘Kein Problem,’ said the officer. He had a soft voice. I followed them both down the stairs. When they stepped onto the curb of Heydukova, he said, ‘What’s this? No yellow star?’ He shot her two times. I thought of course that the third shot would be for me, but he only said, ‘Go back to your instrument, Mein Wunderkind. This time do not forget. The music of the Jew Mendelssohn is forbidden.’”
Under the table, Miss Virginia took the ruin of his hand.
They talked on through the warming days of spring–rather, he talked while she sat, her back upright, taking it all in. At times she had to let go of his hand and put both of her own over her ears. Where was his father? Seized? Shot? This Isidor did not return to their flat. Outside, the roundups had begun. Ernst left their building at night, after the curfew, with three rolls in his pockets. He began to walk east. He lived in forests, in meadows, in caves. Like Nebuchadnezzar in the Bible, he ate grass and bark and leaves. Spring had arrived: in the ground there were worms. The farmers wanted to kill him; nonetheless he crept close and strangled their chickens. “Do not, Miss Virginia, put your faith in respectable people. Not farmers. Not shopkeepers. Not the teachers in schools. Trust, instead, the horse thieves and the Gypsies. The smugglers and the women who sell their bodies. They–but my dear lady, are you weeping?”
“Oh, it’s foolishness. I am the fool. I used to think I had a hard time in childhood. I didn’t eat worms in the ground!”
“I have made a discovery. It does not matter how much or how little pain a child endures in those early years. He needs only a single happy moment that he then carries with him. As an example I have the memory of those same women, in their timber and tar shacks, hoisting me onto a table and crying over and over, Blondinko! Blondinko! And combing this way and that way my hair. That is one such memory for me. The red-headed ones. The dark-haired ones. In discussions to see who would have the privilege of having the child sleep in her bed. As a young boy, you see, my own hair was fair.”
The librarian wanted nothing so much as to comb out the tangles herself, to run her fingers through the foamy white wisps. She clasped his hand again, hoping he would hold it captive until the impulse passed.
“Please,” she said. “It was spring. It was warmer. You came home. Tell me.”
But it was too late that day to say any more. He told her about the Russians on the next. They found him hiding in a cave. They made him a kitchen boy in the army. He played the accordion. He played the cornet. Sometimes he drummed. He learned enough of their language to sing about Moscow, the Don, the Steppes. They carried him in triumph along Heydukova Street. They wanted to kill his neighbors, the ones living in his apartment, the ones who had sold his piano–or chopped it up for firewood. But they only beat them. One of the soldiers, Alexei, said he would take him home, to the town of Boksitogorsk. He would grow up with his other son, Pavel, also age eight, and he would have a new mother, Agrefena, and they would make of this little Zidi a good Christian lad. Alexei had a gold tooth that popped from his gums. Come with me and you keep it, he said, tossing it to the boy. That same night, Ernst left the city and started to walk–west this time, then south, on the long trek to Brindisi. The tooth was in the thief’s pocket.
“And I have on that long march and in my long life stolen more.”
With those words, which frightened his listener a little, he rose. Then he threw back his head and with a sort of whoop, too loud for any library, cried, “Miss Virginia! Imagine! I might have been a Russian! With a brother! A man who prays on his knees!” It was the first time she had heard him laugh. That, too, was frightening. And so was the flash of gold at the back of his mouth. Timidly, she asked, “Why didn’t you go? Wasn’t he, that soldier, a good man?”
“Why didn’t I go?” he repeated. By then he had already pressed his hat onto his head. He was winding his out-of-season muffler around his neck. “Because then I could not find my mother.”
“Your mother? But your mother had been shot. Shot dead. Before your eyes.”
He was a full foot taller than she. From that height he looked down. “I am disappointed in you, dear lady. You do not understand.”
A few days later an aged, large-breasted woman came into the library shortly after the piano teacher had left. Miss Virginia asked her if she could be of assistance. “Are you new to this branch?”
“Yes, I am new. But I believe my husband is not. Do you know the tall man who just left? The pianist? I watched him from across the street.”
“Do you mean Mr. Barbakoff? Ernst Barbakoff?”
“I see that you know him.”
“Oh, yes. We all do. He comes here to read. Almost every day.”
“Do you know who he is? Are you aware that he was one of the great artists of the last century? That he won the São Paulo Prize? That he played with Toscanini?”
“He does not speak of his career. But everyone here knows he was a wonderful pianist. Toscanini? The conductor? Yes, we know that, too. It was on the notice we posted.”
“What are you saying, Miss? What notice?”
“Well, it hasn’t been up for some time. He has so many pupils now.”
“Pupils? His pupils are in school. The Academy of the Arts. This is a Boston public school. A pilot school. For the talented.”
The librarian asked Madam Barbakoff to wait because she was sure she still had a copy–and she did, in a drawer of her desk.
“Here. You see? He doesn’t need it any more. He can get a hundred dollars for an hour.”
The woman leaned close to the paper. She seemed to be reading it many times. “How long ago did you post this?”
“A few months ago. Late in February. Or I think March.”
“But how could that be? Did he wish to give private lessons this summer? When his students will be on vacation?”
“Oh, no. He’d already lost his job at the academy. I think he said it was after the cold snap. Do you remember that? When the Charles froze overnight?”
The woman stared at her. “That I remember,” she said at last.
Miss Virginia retrieved the notice, which had fallen to the surface of her desk. “Then he asked us to take it down. He had too many students, I mean the private students, to teach. I don’t know why I kept it.”
“No? I think I know why.”
“Would you tell me–about the São Paulo Prize? Was that when he was a child? The famous prodigy?”
“He was,” said Madam Barbakoff, “fifteen.”
“I heard his recording. The Brahms concerto. The one he made with Toscanini.”
The woman paid no attention. “He has, still, the gold cigarette lighter. That was his prize. A cigarette lighter for a child. My name, Miss, is Carlotta. I turned the pages for that concert.”
“I am happy to meet you–” She almost went on to say, Ernst has told me so much about you. But he hadn’t. Hardly a word. Instead she said, “I know a little about his childhood. The street he grew up on. The black piano. How they had to put ropes on it to bring it up to the windows.”
The woman jerked her head backward, turning it a bit to the side. “He told you that?”
“I think, for him, it was an important day.”
“And what else has he told you? What other important days?”
“I’m sorry. Should he not have? Ernst and I, we’ve had–I think you could say, a conversation. Though not really. He is the one who speaks.”
“You are this Miss Virginia? The woman, her hair was dyed a shiny red, the sort of metallic color you see on cars: she nodded toward the nameplate.
“Yes. Think of it: a private joke in a public library. Because that is what everyone calls me.”
“Are you aware, then, Miss Virginia, where Mr. Barbakoff goes when he leaves this place?”
“No. I mean, to his pupils. But who he gives lessons to I have no idea. They can’t be far, though. He always walks.”
“Thank you for this information. I work in the market on Prospect Street. I shine the fruit. I put, in pyramids, the apples. If you come in, I shall be there.”
“I don’t know what to say. What is it, Mrs. Barbakoff? I thought you knew about the school. About Ernst being fired. Have I upset you?”
“No. I said you informed me. Now I shall inform you, since it strikes me that you do not know: You, Miss Virginia, are in love with my husband.”
Miss Virginia, in luck, steered her sputtering old Honda into a parking space just ten feet from the front of her building. Billy was lying on the couch, staring at something impenetrable on the ceiling. But he jumped up, lively enough, when she came into the room. “Mommy!” he declared. “You’re in luck! I’ve just worked out a whole new set of chords. You get to hear them first!” He skipped around her in his socks. She had stopped for lamb chops–not in the Whole Foods on Prospect Street–and told him they would be ready in half an hour. Billy asked her to wait. He went to the corner where his guitar was propped. “Listen,” he said. “The Angel Boy is going to play. You’ll be in seventh heaven!”
She steeled herself. She knew what was about to happen. He was going to slash his hands back and forth across the strings, producing the howling sounds of what he called new music. This is what happened now: a chorus, a crowd, wailing in some unknown language. It went on for ten minutes. She marveled that the neighbors did not bang on the walls. “Well?” he asked, looking up with his buck-toothed smile. “Do you like it? It’s art nouveau.” Some day she would tell him it was gibberish. Not today: “It’s remarkable,” she said. “Yes, I’m beginning to see what you’re getting at.”
That was all the encouragement he needed. He resumed, moving his head about to no rhythm she could discern. She could not help being charmed by his long white fingers. Inherited from his father, along with the adorable Adam’s apple that moved up and down in his throat. But the pile of blond curls, the shining blue eyes: they came by accident or an ancestor from some extinct tribe. Billy’s hair vibrating on top of his head, as if he, like his instrument, were plugged into the electrical circuit. Suddenly the music stopped. Those bright eyes went wide.
“Oh, look, Mommy,” he said. “Do you see what I see?”
She followed his gaze to her lap. The bag in her arms was leaking blood. “The meat!” she exclaimed, and moved in quick steps to the kitchen.
“Ha, ha, ha,” her son’s laughter rang through the house. “Does that mean you are going to have a baby?”
She made the lamb chops, filling the flat with smoke. She defrosted the brick of spinach. She waited while the pasta boiled. Fifteen, she thought. The age of her son. The age of the Barbakoff boy at the time he died. The age of Barbakoff himself when he won that international competition–and was already sleeping with the girl who turned his pages. Billy always said, I’m the one who sees things, not you. But her eyesight was good enough for that.
They ate together–she silent, still thinking, watching the grease on the dimpled chin of her son. He gnawed on a bone like a dog, then looked up across the tin-topped table and said, “Aren’t you going to tell me? One of his stories?”
“What do you mean? Whose stories?”
“Oh, Mommy, you know. The man at the library, your Hebrew friend. You fall for every word he says, hook, line and stinker. Get it? Ha, ha, ha! Instead of sinker?”
Hebrew friend. But knew he was half-Jewish himself. She had taken this up with Dr. Mendoza. It was the boy’s way of distancing himself from his father, who had run off three days after he was born. What Don said was that the tragedy of 9/11 had revealed to him who he, beneath the surface, really was: a man who wanted another man. And that gent was a sergeant or a captain or some other gallant he had met in the gym. A rear admiral, Billy once said. That’s what you call a double-entendre.
“Nothing you don’t already know,” she answered. “About how the Russians carried him on their shoulders, down the same street he lived in before.” Immediately she felt a pang: it was regret. Why had she passed on so much of what Mr. Barbakoff had told her? These things belonged only to her. She had no wish to share. But Billy, he was relentless:
“No one knows you like me, Mommy. You get goosy-goose eyes when he talks to you. It’s like he casts a spell. Do you know who used to do that? In olden days? It was Scheherazade. That’s a word for the spelling bee! Mr. Harris told us all about her. She’s in The Arabian Nights. That’s all we read these days at Cringe and Spat-In. Books by the Arabs and the blacks. Or by American Indians! That’s what I call a crock. Because they didn’t even know how to write.”
“All right, Billy. Let’s not start in.” She knew a diatribe was coming. The Jews. The blacks. The government. The taxes. What had she done to raise this right-wing son? Dr. Mendoza had no answer to that one.
“I’m not starting in, I promise. But I’m a very intelligent person. So I get to say that you are like Scheherazade, only backwards. She told the king stories so he would not chop off her head. And I bet she showed him her titties! But your Arab, he’s a Semite, he’s an Israelite–he tells his stories to you. And boy, they keep you alive. Because on a day when he doesn’t show up at the library, you come home and uh-oh, uh-oh: better stay out of this lady’s way. She’s on the warpath.”
“This is such nonsense. I–”
“We aren’t reading the whole book. There are a thousand and one of those pages! But I know the ending. I skipped ahead. The king and the queen had three new children. And no one’s head was chopped off. You won’t chop off mine, will you, Mommy? When all the little kikes are running around the house?”
“Yes, you’re right, Billy. I do remember. He told me something new.” She spoke quickly, to head him off. “There was a soldier. Alexei. He wanted to take Mr. Barbakoff back to Russia. To make him part of his family. Since he was an orphan. I mean, his mother and father had both been killed.”
Billy stopped twirling his fork in the pile of vermicelli. He looked up, aghast. “But that was the Soviet Union! He would be a Communist!”
Suddenly Miss Virginia was overcome by weariness. She hadn’t the strength to lift her food to her mouth. She made a bargain with her son. She’d buy him three more guitar lessons if he would do the dishes.
“Oh, Mommy, you know I always do the dishes. It’s my forte! Can I have that little lamb chop? A growing boy has got to eat!”
Her legs would hardly move. Her feet dragged along the floor. It was only–what? She could hardly raise her arm to look at her watch: eight-fifteen. She peed into the toilet. Never mind washing her face. Never mind her teeth. Or her creams. She dropped onto her bed just as she was, though she managed, with one foot propping the other, to force off her shoes.
She swooned into sleep with the light on. It lasted dreamlessly until two. Then she was awake and knew she would remain that way, perhaps till dawn. She picked up the book by her bed. Of course it was the Journal Mr. Barbakoff was always reading. She struggled with it. Mr. Sebastian’s mistresses. Mr. Sebastian’s plays. He said that all he needed to make his life complete was a girl to sleep with and a mountain to ski on. She did not think he could be her friend. His own friends, with the fascists closing in, turned their backs. But he still shook their hands. How to explain such a person? She closed the book. What she wanted to think about was what Carlotta had said: You, Miss Virginia, are in love with my husband.
Was it possible? He was thirty years older than she. And those teeth! With all the fillings in the back. Once she had seen him with his fly undone. But Billy was right. On the days he did not come to the library, or was late, she held her breath until she thought her face must be blue. But he was wrong about The Arabian Nights. About Scheherazade. The better example, from her own high school, was Othello.
At Deer Isle/Stonington she had been in the drama society. That’s where she met Fredric, the boy she ran off with. He had played the Moor, with black paint all over his face. His white eyes staring out like a minstrel. He had, for someone in his teens, the right voice. Deep and rolling. She wasn’t his Desdemona. That was the blonde. With the big house on Reach Road. But it was Virginia Michaud whom he tongued and groped in the hedges. Bianca, the courtesan.
The whole of the production came floating to her, like pieces of a shipwreck. The girl, Desdemona: she had a father, furious that his daughter had taken up with a nigger. Shameful: that’s what the whole cast and the whole crew called Fredric, charcoal in his makeup. She tried to remember: Was there a single black person in all of Deer Isle? In all of Maine? But Desdemona says, and here was something she did remember, after so many years, I saw his visage in his mind.
They had to look up that word, visage, which is why it stuck. The–not nigger, the blackamoor’s face had nothing to do with it. She loved his mind. No, not his mind exactly–and here the librarian, alone in her bed, in the middle of the night, began to giggle. She clapped her hand to her mouth, so that Billy would not hear. It was Othello’s tongue she was in love with–the same live red tongue that Fredric pushed down her throat and used to wet her thighs and the lips of her virginia, a lame joke that nonetheless left them gasping. In plain words, the Venetian girl was entranced with the stories that the great soldier told: his battles, the deserts and mountains he had seen, fierce cannibals, floods, the caves without light. It all came back to her:
She lov’d me for the dangers I had passed
And I lov’d her that she did pity them.
No wonder she had married her general and followed him off to war. Was that not why she had waited, yes, breathlessly, for the stooped old man to show up at the Pearl Street branch? She wanted him to talk to her. And never stop. The black Bechstein hanging forever in the air.
She was a goose, just as Billy said. When they got to New York, Fredric dropped her as soon as he had washed the greasepaint from his face. In the city, she always played parts more or less like Bianca–or like Emilia, the loyal friend, the maid. Don, not very high up in his theatrical agency, couldn’t do much for her. She took her courses at Hofstra. At L.I.U. She got a job in Larchmont. She got a better job in Cambridge. And here she was, along with her interesting son.
She felt, now, that she was going to drop off to sleep again. It wasn’t going to be dreamless. Cannibals and–how strange that word: Anthropophagi. She made a sort of vow. A resolution. She could not be Scheherazade. But she would find something of her own to say. She thought of the viola. Or the cello. The little runs, the ripples of the piano. She crossed her legs. She squeezed her fist between them. The music flickered through her.
She was able to keep her vow a few days later. That was when Mr. Barbakoff began to speak once more about his mother. Whenever he did so, the thought flashed through her mind that he, with his load of sorrows, might be a little mad. On top of everything else, to lose his son. And he at the wheel of the car. She was certain that she, in such circumstances, would be crazed. What he did was talk about his mother as if she had lived on. He had survived, he said, and said it often, because even in the depths of despair, in a cave without light, he knew she was waiting for him. Not in heaven. On Heydukova Street or some other spot on this earth.
He told her he went every other week, through all his childhood years, to the big bulletin board in Tel Aviv. He was looking for his mother’s name. Iris. Barbakoff. Or Shabilan, her maiden name. The large, echoing room never closed because who knew when some lost soul, fluttering in on a slip of paper, might be found. There were times, “Many times, Miss Virginia,” that he spent the night curled in a corner, hoping that his mother, or the spelled-out letters of her name, would appear on the cork slabs of the wall.
Then the day he had been waiting for arrived: the name Barbakoff, not so common, was on the board. On green paper. That meant a male. “I was sure they had made a mistake. The tag said “I. Barbakoff.” It had to be Iris. They had meant to use blue–turquoise blue, as if, you see, those who were lost had tumbled from the sky. I went to the officer, a female, in her brown uniform. I handed over the slip of paper. I believed one had to have perfect eyesight to be in the Defense Forces. But she put on glasses. She told me that Isidor Barbakoff was working in the apple orchards near the Sea of Galilee. I could not grasp what she had said. My father: he never returned to Heydukova Street. Not even after the war. He had been erased from my mind: the eyes, the eyelashes, the line of his mustache. Gone. But he had endured.”
The story, of course, continued. He rode up to the Galilee in a prewar Leland bus. With melons rolling in the aisle. Chickens squawking in the luggage rack. He spent the better part of the next day searching for the kibbutz and then for the orchard. He found it a little before nightfall. He asked for Barbakoff. There, someone said, pointing toward where, a good way off, a ladder was leaning against a tree. Miss Virginia’s heart was beating, she imagined, as rapidly as that of the eleven-year-old boy. She thought to herself: This is a story out of the Bible. Jacob’s ladder. With the angels ascending and descending.
Ernst reached the bottom rung. At the top, a man was leaning out, a bit precariously, retrieving the fruit. The boy waited. Until the moment was safe. Then he called out his father’s name. The man turned, looking down. The boy looked up. Dark skin. Eyes almost black. No mustache. It was a different man, half an Arab, perhaps, with a narrow brow. Not his father.
Miss Virginia held still. She gripped his hand, beneath the table, with both of her own. She had to take care that the tears she suspected to be in her eyes did not spill. This was her chance.
“My father,” she began, “was a fisherman.” She almost added, because of the mood she was in, like the apostles, the Jews in the New Testament. “Really a lobsterman, but on the island everyone is called a fisherman. The only other thing you can do is pretend to be a carpenter and work on the houses of the summer people. Or else cater to the artistic types out at Haystack. My father was called Neddie. My two brothers and I, we called him that. His actual name was Nelson. We lived on School Street, on the hill above Stonington. It was a big house, going way back in the family. We had what seemed like thousands of traps, you know, made out of wooden slats, and they were piled up on the front lawn. We made tunnels and secret passages and sometimes castles out of them, castles with turrets. They were like Legos for giants, though we were just little kids.
“We never got … jaded. I mean, the years went by, and we half grew up; but we didn’t stop looking for the Annika when it came into the Fish Pier for fuel in the morning or to drop off its catch at the end of the day. Easy to see: it was painted a fire-truck red and smoke was always coming out of the stack because Neddie never got around to cleaning out the injectors. Probably you’ve guessed what I am going to say, Mr. Barbakoff. One day the Annika didn’t come in before the sun went down. It was close to the dinner hour and all of us were home. The other boats came in. Not the Annika. We didn’t worry. It might have meant a big catch. Or trouble with the engine. Do you know that Stonington was the biggest lobster port in the country and maybe still is? At last there she was, chugging away. With two other boats, one in front and one behind. It was too dark to see anything except that all three tied up at Fish Pier, which meant that in no more than an hour our father, with the smell of his catch and the sea, would be walking up the path to our door.
“But after only fifteen minutes four or five other fisherman appeared. What they told us was that they had seen the Annika on the far side of Isle au Haut, which was where Neddie had most of his pots and where he spent most of the day. Except the boat was turning in a tight circle, going round and around, with the smoke pouring out of the stack. They couldn’t see anyone on board. Well, there was no one on board–not Neddie and not Jillian, who was his sternman. Yes, man, though of course she was a woman. They knew right away, because they had seen this before, that either Neddie but probably Jillian had gotten caught in the lines after rebaiting and that whoever wasn’t caught jumped in after. The life vests were still aboard. Their boots, you know, those damned big black boots, would have filled in ten seconds flat. They searched. And kept searching, with as much light as they could cast on the water. Cold water. April water. And the next day the Coast Guard and half the fleet went out, looking on the land and looking under that nice calm surface of the sea.
“We went out, too, the day after that. A beautiful day in the spring. There were all our buoys, phosphorescent green with the white stripe at the top. Bobbing merrily away. And down below, in the depths, the lobsters, clawing at each other, attempting to force their way out.”
The older man did not respond. He sat, allowing her to enclose his hand, though Miss Virginia had the passing thought that he ought to be cradling hers.
“My mother, Irene, would not accept it. Nelson Michaud did not fall off his boat. He wouldn’t get entangled, not by his own lines; but he might–this was her evil notion–by another woman. She meant Jillian, the sternman. She believed to the end of her life that the two of them had staged the tragedy and run off together. I am saying all this, my dear, so that you will know that to the end of my life I, the same as you, am waiting for a dead person to appear.”
Miss Virginia lived far off, in the Alewife section. Impossible to walk. What were my options? A taxi. Of course, out of the question. That left the underground tramway, which in Cambridge and Boston is called the T. I surprised myself by deciding to take it without debate. I did not walk the many blocks along Magazine Street with hesitation. I was not slowed by doubts. My thoughts were about how foolishly I had lived my life. There had been an accident. A person had lost control of his vehicle. Asleep from long hours. In a muddle, perhaps, from inebriation. It had not been the hand of fate. Nor could I by my abstention, or self-punishment, bring back the boy or prevent such an event from occurring again. The sky above, in waning light, was threatening. But I felt uplifted. I had removed myself from black magic. If only Carlotta could remove herself as well. The woman was in chains.
Carlotta: a problem. I told her in the morning not to make dinner for the two of us. I said that one of my students, the Isenberg boy, the one with talent, was holding a private recital at his home. I thought that would explain why I would wear my good jacket. She laughed in my face. So this evening I said nothing. Neither did she. Her only words were “Take your umbrella.” As it happened, I was already at the door. I opened it. I closed it behind me. This, too, created a feeling of exhilaration.
In a shop near Central Square I bought a bottle of wine and then descended the steps to the outbound side of what they call the Red Line. I felt no anxiety on the speeding car. No shortness of breath or perspiration. On this Saturday night the people stood shoulder to shoulder. Students in backpacks, some reading their little screens and some reading books. Others dressed for a night, as they say, on the town. I felt a certain benevolence for this city in which one grows old and then older while those all about remain apple-cheeked and young. Perhaps I have used the wrong word: for those in unison swaying were mostly Asiatics or had descended from African ancestors. Behind my back two from the nation of Haiti were laughing in their own patois. People smiled, as if in on their joke. I thought I saw, toward the end of the car, Mr. Lemoyne, my former pupil. A student of art at the academy. But it was not he: I had been fooled by a Negro wearing a tie.
I realized that a young woman, from below, was addressing me.
“Sir?” she said once again. “Would you like a seat?”
I shook my head, meaning that I would prefer to stand, but she was already rising. Yes, apple-cheeked, red-dotted, though I was the one experiencing the moment of embarrassment. Thus the old and the young changed places, as is the natural course taken in life. I hid the fact that the gesture had touched me by staring down at the paper map I spread over my knees. Magoun Street was close to the last station, at Alewife. A short walk down Massachusetts Avenue, a right turn, and I and my bottle of wine would be there.
As I walked down Miss Virginia’s street, with its humble houses, white, gray, the color of cream, I slowed my pace. Not because I was searching for the number but because the lightness of step that I had experienced on leaving my own home was replaced by apprehension as I approached that of the librarian. What was the old man doing here? With his absurd bottle of Pinot Noir? What would be the result of such an evening? Something far worse than being offered a seat on a train. I slowed to a stop. If a slight breeze had come from the south, it would have blown me back to the close crowds of Massachusetts Avenue.
As it happened I had come to a halt before the house of my friend. She lived, as did I, at the top of a wooden building. There was a hydrant in front, a fresh red, and a tangle of telephone and electrical wires overhead. A small tree, smaller than I, survived in a rectangle of earth. A few leaves still clung to the branches. In a day or a week, the blink of an eye, they would be joining their fellow refugees. Only a person soft in the head would feel any pity.
In the middle of the street an automobile, its hood high and with smoke or steam coming from the internal parts, had also come to a halt. A person was leaning into it, without concern, it seemed, that those jaws might snap shut. I turned. I started up the first of the four brick steps. Michaud: that was the name beneath the third-floor bell. I reached out a finger but was stopped by a call from the street.
“Hello! Hello! Mr. Barbershop! Is that you?”
I turned. A young man, a boy really, was standing by the disabled vehicle. He wore a white shirt, open at the collar. He waved the rag in his hand.
“Well, that is a name I have been called.”
The boy made his way across the street to the bottom of the steps. I took off my hat as a way of returning his salute. “Though your mother–I presume Miss Virginia is your mother–thinks this the greatest of comedies.”
The boy looked up to where I knew my hair was rising like a porcupine’s quills. I did not explain that Carlotta had become reluctant to cut it. One of the whims of her age.
“Yes, she’s my mother. I know all about you. Do you know all about me? About what they call me?”
“I fear I know very little. But your name is Billy.”
“Yes, yes. But no: Angel Boy is what they call me in the band.”
“Ah and I can guess why.”
Surely the name came from his hair, the hive of blond curls that sat atop his head and spilled over his ears and partly over his eyes. These shone through his locks, a startling blue.
“You think it’s my hair,” he said. “But they say I have a sweet or an innocent or a I-don’t-know heavenly or something temperament.”
“Well, it is a pleasure to meet you, Master Billy. I am indeed Ernst Barbakoff. I have arrived for dinner.” We were too far apart to shake hands. “Will you join me?”
I turned once more to the top-floor bell.
“Oh, don’t do that. Mommy is upset. This car, it’s a Honda, but I call it a Hindu. Ha, ha, ha! Isn’t that a good joke? It broke down two times on her way home. And now it’s in the middle of the street! You should have seen the way your Miss Virginia came in. She walked right by me! Into the kitchen and the pots and the pans. I’m the one to make the repairs. We can’t call a mechanic. They charge an arm and a leg. Do you understand? Don’t go in. She is not ready for you. She’s cooking her world-famous chicken. It’s a recipe from Julia Child! The model of this car is from 1997! From before Billy was born.”
“Ah. I understand. I shall walk around the block. Perhaps twice. Perhaps three times. Do you agree that this is a good plan?”
“No, no. You can’t do that, Mr. Barbershop. I need you to help me. No one else will. They just walk by. They aren’t Good Samaritans. It’s the thermostat. It’s stuck in the closed position. They call it vapor lock. We could wait for it to cool down, except we can’t. We’ll get a ticket. Isn’t it terrible? Those meter maids! They are supposed to be public servants. That means our servants! But they pounce on us. They are agents of the government.”
I was surprised to see how his eyes began to glisten. Were they filling with tears? “But how can I help you? I know nothing of cars. I have not–”
“Worse than a ticket! We’ll be towed. It costs more than a hundred dollars. We can’t afford that. Mommy works and works. By the sweat of her brow! You are the one who sees her in the library. She’s the real public servant. But the politicians don’t care. Not about people like us. We are the scum of the earth!”
I looked at this boy with astonishment: his chin, with a strong vertical cleft, was trembling. His lips were trembling as well. This was a grown-up young man, but over this small disturbance he was about to cry.
“Of course I shall try to help you, Master Billy. What is it you would like me to do?”
“Push! Push! Push! I’ve got the keys. Mommy’s keys. But they don’t work. That’s because of the boiling water. It soaked the starter. Ha, ha, ha! I sound like a professional. An auto mechanic! They rob you blind! You’ll be Happy in a Honda! I made that up. I’m good at jingles.”
He retraced his steps to the disabled vehicle and lowered the hood. I placed the bottle of wine on the floor of the portico and followed to where he now stood waiting at the driver’s-side door. I looked up and down the quiet street, deserted in the September dusk. “Is there any danger?” I asked.
“What a funny question!” he exclaimed. “I know everybody on this block. And everybody knows the Angel Boy. I play for them on my guitar. They think I am talented. I’m their best friend. Maybe it will start raining. That’s the prediction. Are you afraid of lightning?”
The collar of my shirt had grown tight. I felt a flush, a sudden fever, as if my own thermostat were in the closed position. It was not lighting I feared. But another bolt from the blue: a car, a boy, an out-of-date automobile. The voyage on the Red Line train? The camaraderie within it? My own self-possession? An illusion. Now the buttoned sleeves of my shirt had a grip on me. I stood stupidly, like a man in shackles.
Master Billy slid behind the wheel. He leaned up at me from the open window. “Are you ready, Mein Herr? Go round to the back. Roll up those sleeves! One-two-three! It will be as easy as pie!”
I felt no choice but to do as I had been instructed. I went to the rear of the automobile. I pushed against the warm metal. Nothing occurred. The car moved not an inch. Master Billy leaned out his window. “Push-push-push! Happy in a Honda: Wasn’t that a good slogan? Do you think they would pay me for it? They’ve got millions! Push! Shoulder to the wheel!”
I tried once more. What strength I had seemed to flow from my limbs like a liquid. I stood, already breathless. “You must accept my apologies,” I said to the boy, who was already marching in my direction. “I wanted to help you.”
“Don’t worry! Allow me to do it, Mein Kommandant! Ha, ha, ha: I watch those old movies all day. I’ll push, okay? And you drive. Come here. See? You just hold down the clutch and when we get up a good head of steam you let it pop. And off you’ll go. See the USA in your Chevrolet!”
The child held the door for me. He was beaming and nodding, so that the tower of hair threatened to topple to one side. He could not know that at that moment I was the one who was close to tears. I felt as if a black cloud were descending upon me, like the mask of ether over the face of a surgical patient. In another moment I might fall without consciousness to the ground. “No, my dear Master Billy. Do not ask this of me. It is beyond my powers.”
The boy took a step back. He opened his mouth and then snapped it shut. Once more it opened, forming a huge letter O. “But you promised! It was a promise! You’re a Nazi! You stabbed me in the back!”
In my imagination I could hear doors and windows opening all along the block. Would these neighbors come running to protect their best friend? I held out my hand for the keys to the car. He gave them to me. For what felt like the first time in my life I got behind the wheel of a car.
It would be best to give a summary of what happened next. The boy pushed, the Honda automobile began slowly to move, and after half a moment I followed instructions. With a jerk, a bucking motion, the senile mechanism came to life. I got out and the blond-headed youngster got in; and off he roared, turning at the end of the block. I moved from the macadam of the street to the curb in front of his house. I wrung, from anxiousness, my hands. A half-minute went by. And then another. At last this young boy came rushing toward me, not in his mother’s automobile but on foot. He was laughing and leaping as one sees in a forest animal. I stood, as immobile as the hydrant for fire, as he swept me up in his arms.
“I did it!” he shouted. I could not but help but, in this moment of jubilance, join in his laughter. Nor could all those living on Magoun Street help but hear his cry: “Billy found a parking space!”
Miss Virginia answered the door when I knocked. She was charming in a black blouse with white piping and a black-and-white skirt. The charm was from the apron she wore on top of her clothing. “Oh,” she said, glancing toward her son. “You’ve met each other.”
“Indeed we have,” I replied.
The boy stepped inside. “Take off your shoes,” he said, even as he removed his own. “It’s a rule of the house.”
I did what he asked and then hung up my hat and coat by the door. I saw Miss Virginia give a slight start. She had only seen me in my button-up sweater.
“Oh, you brought wine!” she exclaimed. “Wonderful. I’ll just get a corkscrew. And see to the chicken. It won’t be long. You two can entertain each other.”
Master Billy led the way to the living room. He said, “I missed my meditation. It makes me calm. I could do it now, but then I’d have to go into my room. Wouldn’t that be rude? With such a famous guest? A child progigy, Mommy said. I bet you made millions! You can’t do that these days. The government takes it away.”
As he spoke, he threw himself down on a couch that was so small his head was propped up at one end and his stockinged feet hung over the other.
“I am practicing to be a progigy, too. We have a band. I am the Angel Boy. It’s a whole new kind of music. Not like the shit you hear on the radio. I’m allowed to say that word. Sometimes we play all night. We are trying to express our times. Would you like to hear?”
“Oh, very much. Is that your instrument? The guitar? One of my students at the Academy of–”
“Shhh. No talking. Artist at work.”
Master Billy picked up the instrument. I saw that it was attached to an electrical cord. I sat deep in the cushions of a nearby chair and listened as he plucked a string with one hand, while moving the other up and down, nervously, from fret to fret. What came out was a shrieking sound. It went through my head, from ear to ear, like a pick for ice. He continued. We both knew it was deliberate torture. Another moment went by, followed by an abrupt stop. The boy stared unblinking ahead. Was this part of his meditation? Then of a sudden he said, “You are married. I know there is a Frau Barbershop. How is she this fine day?”
I laughed. “Yes, I am married. I thank you for asking. She is well.”
The boy turned back to his guitar. He plucked a single string. There was a pause while the reverberation died away. Then he said the following: “Then what are you doing here?”
“Billy,” I started to say. “Master Billy–”
This was the moment at which Miss Virginia came back into the room. She was no longer wearing her apron. Her cheeks now had rouge. “Here we are,” she said, holding up the spiraling blade of a corkscrew. I rose and reached for it, knowing I would fumble at the task. Her son stood and, perhaps out of kindness, took it instead. As he twisted the little stiletto he said, “Mommy, why didn’t you tell me? He has such big ears!”
Out came the cork with a pop. Miss Virginia brought two glasses. “Oh, please, pretty please,” said the boy. “Why am I the one who is always left out?”
“Just a sip, Billy. You are already in one of your moods.”
She poured a half a glass and he drank it down. I thought, from what he said next, that he had become on the instant inebriated. “Of course I am in a mood. The big bad wolf has arrived. Is he going to eat me, Mommy? Or is he going to eat you? I think one of us has to go. Two’s company! Three’s a crowd!” He said this with a laugh and an engaging grin. I saw the gap between his two front teeth–teeth that, like a little boy’s, before braces are applied, were protruding and somewhat buck. Only minutes before that sight had enchanted me. What joy, as he came bounding toward me, that he was alive.
“I think, Master Billy, there is a misunderstanding. Your mother is a fine woman. We sometimes speak in the library. We are surrounded by books and the readers of books. We talk of bookish things. And incidents from our lives. And in this manner we have become, let me try to express it, comrades in a conversation.”
The boy was not as tall as I. But because he was not, like myself, stooped, he stared at me nearly eye to eye. “I see things, you know. I am gifted that way. Once at the school carnival I was dressed as a Gypsy. Remember, Mommy? I made nine dollars! Because I told everybody’s fortunes. And everything I said came true! Look into my eyes, Mr. Barbershop!”
Was I mesmerized myself? Or had the wine gone to my head? Once more I did as instructed. But the boy pulled back. He blinked and blinked again. “Time to chow down!” he exclaimed. “I only tell happy fortunes.”
His mother said, “We don’t have a dining room. We eat in the kitchen. Everything is ready.”
We followed her to the table. On a platter, in the middle, sat a roast chicken. No one spoke as the plates were handed around.
Finally, Miss Virginia said, “I want to say what an honor it is to have Mr. Ernst Barbakoff with us. Did I ever tell you, Billy, how our guest won the International Prize at São Paulo? When he was just your age? I keep thinking: how happy you must have been!”
“You told me, Mommy. You bet he was happy. He must have made a mint. A mint!”
“And did I ever tell you, Mr. Barbakoff that not long after we first met, I think it was early in March, I succeeded in hearing your recording of the Brahms concerto. Opus 83, if I remember. It was a real treasure hunt. You can’t buy it anywhere.”
“Brahms? All that stuff is for old people. It’s superannuated.” The boy was heaping food on his plate. “We have to have new music. That’s why I practice and practice. I work my fingers to the bone!”
“I am afraid you are right,” I told him. “Many traditions are dying. And so, of course are the old people themselves.”
“Well, I’m not that old,” said Miss Virginia. “And I have parts of that music by heart. I could hum the slow movement. But I certainly won’t.”
A silence. An embarrassment. All of us were thinking: See the old man; see the younger, the much younger, woman. I looked over at the boy. He was devoting himself to his food. Carrots, potatoes, the flesh of the bird. Odd how, each time a bite went down his throat, his Adamsapfel bobbed up it. He saw that I was staring. “Mommy told me one of your stories. Didn’t you, Mommy? She said that you were almost adopted by a Russian soldier. A Russkie! You could have been a Communist! Are you a Communist? Or just what I call a Cambridge knee-jerk, ha, ha!”
“Oh, Billy, please: let us not get onto the subject of politics.” Miss Virginia turned her head toward me and mouthed the word Republican.
I said, “Well, Master Billy, when I first came to this country, Mr. Stevenson was running for president a second time against Mr. Eisenhower. I believed Mr. Stevenson to be a very fine gentleman. But for the second time he was defeated. After that, I thought about the subject of politics there was nothing more to say.”
Master Billy talked around mouthfuls. “And we won’t say. Mommy doesn’t like it. Not a word. Cross my heart. Besides, I don’t care what you are. Are you a Zionist? Some people have trouble with Jews. I know a boy at Syringe and Satin: he drew a swastika on a window. What a tizzy! You would think the world was coming to an end. But I have no problem. No, siree! Those Jews know how to rake in the bucks!”
“Billy! You promised!”
“That’s a name I made up for my school. I have lots of them. Fridge and Fatten! Everybody laughs when I tell a joke.”
Miss Virginia cried out, “Oh, Billy, that really is witty.” To me she said, in just above a whisper. Cambridge Ridge and Latin.”
“She’s just saying that. She doesn’t really think I am witty. She wants to encourage me in my pursuits. Because she is a nice woman. But lonely. That’s why she put on the rouge.”
“Oh! You are embarrassing me!”
“See? What she really wants is for me to stop talking. To fermez la bouche! That’s why she sends me to a crazy doctor. So that I won’t talk so much. But you know what’s crazy? All I do is talk to him! Isn’t that funny? It’s a scream!”
“I was only going to ask you to help clear the plates, Billy. It’s time for dessert.”
“I go in Mondays and Wednesdays and Fridays and I say, Hello, Doctor Crazy! But his real name is Mendoza. He’s a Jew, too. He’s got a bald spot! So he combs his hair sideways over his head. And something happened to his nose. It is all smashed down into his mustache so when I am talking and he is listening it makes a whistling sound. He wheezes away. He sounds like an accordion! Half the time I make things up to see if knows the difference between bullshit and the bullshit, ha, ha, ha! You’ve got to hand it to him. He can tell. He crosses his legs when I make up a story–like the other day I told him I wanted to cut the throat of Mr. Harris, that old Ramsay Harris, because he walks around the classroom and pinches people’s ears. I think he’s a faggot! So I said I wanted to cut his throat with a knife. But he crossed his legs, because Mr. Mendoza knows Billy is like a saint and if Billy sees an insect struggling in a pool of water he always lifts it out and watches while it dries its wings. That’s my good deed. I’ve got a lot of karma. I’m not going to come back to earth and suffer all over again. So sooner or later I’ve got to tell the crazy doctor the truth. For example, just yesterday I said that a child progigy was coming to dinner and that was going to create a big problem, a big problem, because he was used to wine, women, and song and was going to steal Billy Michaud’s mother away. But he just crossed his legs, which means it wasn’t true. And he was right. Because for goodness sake, Mr. Barbershop, you already have.”
At these words I felt–well, I think it was the full weight of his unhappiness. Poor boy. But I also knew I must protest. How did he come to such an idea? Of stealing anyone away? But as often occurs my words came too slowly. There was a bang, a clatter, and his chair went backward. Billy was standing.
“Poor Mommy! She pays for the crazy doctor three times a week, and the other two days she pays for my music lessons. Pays through the nose! All right! All right! You don’t have to tell me twice. Silence is golden.”
With those words Master Billy whirled around and walked back to the living room. I saw through the archway how he went to the sofa and picked up his guitar. Then he came back toward our table, the cord trailing behind him. I prepared myself for the onslaught. I fought against the reflex to put the flat of my hands to my oversized ears. He might, this boy, pull a bee or a grasshopper from the water, but he was capable of tormenting human beings. What happened next filled me with amazement. He quietly began to pluck out a tune. I knew it at once. The first of the preludes and fugues from Das wohltemperierte Klavier. In C major.
Next to me, Miss Virginia let out a sigh. I watched as the fine lines that ran across her forehead one by one disappeared. The boy came closer, still playing. He was like a troubadour or a smiling waiter in a Mexican restaurant who wishes to serenade a pair of lovers. When he was done, his mother applauded excitedly.
“Well,” said Master Billy, rather shyly. “Sometimes you have to give the boobs of the boobs-oisie what they want.”
“Young man, when I lived in New York, I heard this played by the Spaniard, Segovia. In the Town Hall auditorium. Wearing black spectacles. I thank you for reminding me of that night.”
The boy picked up his fallen chair and put his instrument on the seat. He stood with his hand stretched toward me. What would any man do? I half rose. I took it. I acknowledge I felt pleasure–for Miss Virginia, who was smiling, as they say, as Billy would say, ear to ear. A loose strand danced from the ribbon that held her hair. And, yes, pleasure for myself. I felt a warmth for this young man with all his disturbances.
A second surprise: he leaned toward his mother and took, with his free hand, one of hers. He drew her to her feet.
“What is it, Billy? What are you doing?”
“This,” he said, and brought our two hands, Miss Virginia’s and my own, together. It was as if he had seen us in the library, when our hands were joined under the table. Then he raised his head toward the ceiling and said, “I want to say something. From the bottom of my heart. I wish the two of you every happiness.”
“Billy! What on earth?” Miss Virginia jerked her hand from mine, as if she had touched the burning surface of a stove.
“Well, I’m the third wheel. The odd number. The odd number is always out.”
“No one is in, no one is out,” his mother said. “Don’t you understand that?”
That Adam’s apple bobbed up, so violently I thought it might fly from his mouth. His eyes began their rapid blinking. “I understand everything. You think I am an innocent babe. But I know about the snake of desire. You and Mr. Barbershop are going to enjoy your fucking tonight because that is what the whole goddamned world is about.”
Miss Virginia put her hand over her mouth.
“Master Billy,” I said, and I hoped that my voice was not shaking in the way that my hands were and also my knees. “I understand that you believe you know me. Because of the things that Miss Virginia has told you. The many incidents of my life–”
“A big black piano. And the little boy underneath it.”
I hoped he could not see that I winced. It pained me that she had told him that, too. “The truth is, these incidents have given me a certain feeling about life. They have taught me about people–on occasion people I have just for the first time met. I see in you something–I think it is something precious. But it is in danger. I wish to–”
The boy took a step closer. He was now inches away. “I see! I see! You want to give Billy a lecture. The way the Herr Doktor Professor did to his students at school. Fail them. Give them an F! Pinch their ears. But I am not a nigger, Mein Herr. You can’t send me to the ovens.”
Oh, the confusion here. The pity of it. What could I say to this suffering child? “That was an experience I now regret,” I began. But the boy was already fleeing through the living room. I came after, as quickly as I could.
“It is now eleven o’clock,” I said. “I must now take my leave. I arrived at the coat rack in the hall. “I thank you both for this evening.”
But Master Billy brushed by me and was at the door. “You stay. Really. Pretty please. You know how to make her happy. I’m going to have a night on the town!”
“No! Billy!” his mother cried. And then, as he pulled open the door. “Your shoes!”
But he was gone without them. I went to the window that overlooked the street. I saw the white shirt he was wearing, and the boy himself, run down the steps and then, with his loping motion, move up the street, toward Massachusetts Avenue. There was a sensation in my right arm. Miss Virginia was touching my sleeve. I thought: I must thank her again for this evening. I also thought: I must offer to help her clean away and wash the dishes. But she, looking up at me, said, “Come.”
Her lips were trembling. I saw a thing I somehow had not noticed before: a swath of freckles across the bridge of her nose. The lashes of her eyes, long and black, without cosmetics, fluttered a little. She tightened her grip on my arm. Thus was I led through the chaos of our evening into the small, quiet bedroom at the end of the hall. The wallpaper was faded: dim blue and dim gold fleurs-de-lis. While I watched she turned her back. I understood she was unbuttoning her blouse; her elbows were visible as she accomplished this task. Then she stepped out of her black and white skirt. In her underthings, she looked over her shoulder. “Will you do the same, my dear? Will you take off your things?”
I wanted to say that Carlotta was waiting. I wanted to say that I was a coward and that for the making of love I was much too old. But then her brassiere fell away. The sight of her back, and the spine of her back, touched me. I did not wish to leave her alone. I took off my jacket, my shirt, and my trousers. I was aware of a humming in my ears.
“That, too,” said Miss Virginia, and I knew that without having pointed or nodded she meant my undershorts. She slipped from her last garment, too, and turned, so that we faced each other naked. I was startled by the whiteness of her belly and the blackness of the hair underneath it: it was as if her skirt had left an impression. She walked to me and lifted her face.
“Miss Virginia,” I said. “This cannot be. My hair. My ears. The gold in my teeth. These terrible hands.”
“You think you understand? No, no, dear man: you don’t understand.”
She took one of those hands and led me to the bed. Again she raised her face. I bent to kiss it. Then she sat on the cover and pulled me beside her. We lay then side by side. My poor penis lay against my leg. Too old! Too old! And also too frightened. I started to say these cringing words aloud. She said, “I know, my darling Ernst. I know.”
She began to touch me with the flat of her hand and then the tips of her fingers. This she repeated for many moments, while a train of thoughts like donkeys went head to tail through my mind: Would Billy return? Carlotta, pacing the floor of our flat. This gift I was about to receive: Was it happiness? On this subject I had no opinion. About unhappiness I was better informed: it was the hell of being unable to love. Matters more mundane. Achilles: how surprised he must have been to see the shoeless boy. And then, I agreed with what Master Billy had said: his mother was indeed a fine cook. The chicken–but this same woman now said, “There, you see?” I had come alive.
We kissed again. She lay fully on her back, and I rolled on top of her and felt the heels of her feet on my buttocks, guiding me in. There rose from her the smell of her childhood, as it must have come to her each evening when her father walked to where she was waiting. At the end of the path.
I do not know how many hours we slept. I did not know if young Billy had returned or not. When I opened my eyes I saw by the faint light of her clock that she was raised on one elbow, looking at me.
“You are the man that poor Romanian with all his liveliness and forgivingness and talent would have become.”
The words forced tears up from an abandoned well. And Daniel? Was he in some strange way alive in the boy Billy? Or in poor Lislelotte? Afflicted as these children were. What of Carlotta? The girl in Brindisi, not yet with breasts, with her hair chopped in pieces. Was she somehow in this woman? Because I had for each the same feeling? Because we all in some manner live each other’s lives?
How happy you must have been!
I thought about what Miss Virginia said. In Santiago, in the heat, the blaze of the sun. I felt close to the girl who turned the pages and wiped my brow, so that the salt of my sweat would not blind me. A thread bound me to her. When, in the recording studio, number 8-H, Toscanini moved his baton upward I knew that I levitated from my chair, not visibly, only a part of a millimeter. When the baton moved to the left or to the right, calling on strings, calling on woodwinds, I moved in some fraction that way as well. We also were tied.
There was a similar bond with those in the audience–whether the five thousand in the sun of Santiago or in the darkness of the concert hall, when all that the child pianist could see was the shine on a pair of eyeglasses or a white shirt collar or the scintillation of a diamond that hung from a woman’s neck. And of course the invisible thread stretched to Brahms and then to Schumann and then to dear Mendelssohn and back to the man who had composed what Master Billy had played on his guitar, and back still and back–perhaps to a boy, a shepherd, as he played on his pipe. I do not include the birds in the trees. I was bound to all the creators of music who for some years in my youth I brought back to life.
I opened my eyes. Miss Virginia had not moved. With her eyes, under their long, curving lashes, she was still looking at me. I reached up with my hopeless fingers to touch her cheek.
“Anthropophagi” is one of seven stories that Leslie Epstein has written about the life of Mr. Barbershop.
image: Photo of Mihail Sebastian, circa 1930-1945