Faultless to Stand
My former professor had hit a new low and become a life coach. In a weak moment, desiring expiation, I found her on the Internet. She had a website; her business was called Your Life is a Garden. The theme color, of course: green. There was a faintly Buddhist graphic suggesting the Endless Knot, but it was messed up. I tried to figure out what was wrong about it, tracing the curves with my eyes, but all the routes I’d followed in life—from my early years studying voice to the strange time in graduate school, my work for the symphony, my friendship with Marlon, and all the years and songs and sadness since—bubbled up from memory and got mixed up with the lines on the screen. I had to go back and start over.
The homepage had five menu options with exclamatory headings: WEEDS! BLOOM! And so on. Each page had a picture of my former professor, whose name was Monica. She had changed it to Monique and gotten divorced again and was living on the coast in a town called Avalon. There, she’d established her “studio,” where she would teach you yoga or read a self-help book with you or follow you around shouting empowering things at you for a day or even a week, depending on how gullible you were or how needy, and how much you could afford to pay. Lunches were provided. There was a photo of a square white plate with something gluten-free and vegan in a taco shell that was emitting asparagus rays. In the background of every one of the photos on the site, there were leafy fronds: Monica/Monique was standing on her head, straight as a stake, by a really, really small pool. With a frond. She was flinging her arms wide and laughing with all her big white teeth at a shaggy palm tree. She was smirking at a bright-colored blossom. She was toting a market basket of oranges, smiling back over her bony shoulder.
“Monique” was sixtyish now. I was ten years younger, but she looked great: hipless, taut, rested, coy. I spent too much time on my singing to work out and had acquired jiggly thighs and an incipient sag above the knees at fifty, but I believed she had these defects too; they were just held hostage in her leggings. On any count, though, she looked better than I. Her hair was still a color everyone called red, but it was actually pumpkin. And it wasn’t natural.
The essential menu tab was plant! There were two pictures of her on this page. One was supposed to be inviting, but she looked like the woman I remembered: together on the outside; on the inside, a coiled-up narcissist—the coiled-ness flickered in her eyes.
The other photo on the page showed her with legs planted apart, looking petulant and sexy (at sixty!), with a fist half raised and a face like “You better e-mail me.” She had a bull neck for a thin woman. I remembered that about her. Her neck had ropes of muscle stout enough to save someone falling from a height.
There was the box on this plant! page for you to type in your information: name, phone. Who would do that? I thought. Why would anyone hire a life coach?
For attention. And then I thought about the other professions where you paid someone to pay attention to you.
We’d been MA students in Education, and she was our teacher. It was a course in some new teaching method that ended in an –ism. The first day, before Monica walked in, someone among us pointed out that you could take any adjective ending in –ive and put –ism on the end and teach a class in it. From then on, she didn’t have a chance. When she walked into the room, a list awaited her on the board (it was still blackboards then):
Productivism. Provocativism. Reiterativism. Suppurativism. Eliminativism. Augmentativism. Rebarbativism. Inoculativism. Creativism. Affricativism. Lucrativism. Deformativism. Putativism. Urinativism. Ablativism. Durativism. Normativism.
We were bad and mad because she didn’t know what she was talking about. She made us diagram a cookie recipe; she made us annotate a two-source bibliography—Two! She didn’t want to grade any more than that. She made us outline her lectures and then delete all the generalizations; she made us create a “reverse” lesson plan, and she made us journal. Every Good Boy Does Freewriting. She collected these each week and wrote comments in them like you’re making me think—good!
She was a long, ass-less string in self-generating motion. In contrast to the tunics and leggings Monique wore in the photos now on yourlifeisagarden.com, Monica’s wardrobe ran to boots, tight jeans and studded belts. She strode around, tossing her pumpkin hair and provoking a clatter of annoyed laughter from us as she commanded us to annotate and journal.
One of the male students, Dink, was a cartoonist. He drew her with a whip, magnificently front-loaded, and started a series that he called Domonicatrix, in which she handed back journals where she’d written things like you’re making me come—good! It was vicious but very funny, and we ate it up without feeling too bad. Of course we didn’t feel bad. She was a know-nothing who held the power of our grades.
Each day after class, we’d dribble out into the hall, and if Dink had a new cartoon, we’d huddle around to see it. Or we’d gossip about whatever she’d made us do that day, about her boots and SM-looking accessories. The guys would make lewd innuendo, and we’d all roll our eyes and laugh. But then Monica came out with her books and folders in her arms—she didn’t have a briefcase, and this was before messenger bags. We’d fall silent and start to disperse, avoiding her gaze, which would be on whichever of us was foolish enough to look over and see her staring, like a puppy that wants to come and play with you but is on the wrong side of a fence. It was her self-absorption: without the regard of others to pump her up, she quickly deflated. Each of us made the error of looking once. One time each, we caught that desperate gaze—and never looked again.
She had learned some words that she liked using. Often. The two that drove us crazy were pedagogy and heuristic, or any variation of them. It occurred to me that Pavlovian behavior modification could liberate us from at least this daily irritation. It was not an intentional plan; I stumbled on it by accident. One day Monica raised a leather-braceleted arm to write something on the board, saying “Pedagogi—”and fortuitously one of the students yelped; he’d pinched a finger in a backpack buckle. She stopped mid-word, appearing ruffled. I took note, and a little while later, when she said it again, I gave a soft hum from the back of the classroom that seemed almost to be outside myself, like a nondiegetic bridge to an ominous scene in a film. I’d been a vocalist for a few years, and knew what I was doing, but the humming still startled me. I’ve never produced the sound in any other context, but it was just the right thing to stop her. I felt only a little mean doing it.Again, Monica halted, switched gears, and went on to another thought.
We went all-out on this conditioning effort. One of the female students was our best belcher-on-command. The second Monica opened her lips to say the dread words, she was cut off by a frightening, painful moan or a resounding belch. It became a spontaneous rotation—no one had to point to anyone; you simply knew when it was your turn. No one remembered that I had started it; I was the quiet one, a few years older than the others, and it was generally known that I’d taken some hard lumps, didn’t claim too much success. When Dink drew cartoons of our class engaging Domonicatrix, he characterized us each perfectly. I was Closet Girl, her hair in her face, hiding something in my closed hand. I asked Dink what it was, and he replied, “You know. A secret key. You’ve got the power, Ida.” Dink was a genius, and he was more right about that than even I knew—and I’d been living with myself for years.
Within weeks, Monica was trained. No more pedagogy. No more heuristics.
One day she came into the grad-student lounge while we were eating lunch. I had a small margarine tub of peas and cottage cheese, and she leaned over and stared at it. “What is that?” she said. She had seldom spoken to me alone; I believed she had intuited my role in her harassment; she sensed the closed hand, the secret key.
I told her it was peas and cottage cheese. “Huh,” she said. Then, “Why? I wonder if I should try that.”
There was no why. I just liked the the touch of hardness to the peas, the way the cottage cheese bound them from rolling around, the little salt to it that flavored the bland, chewy green hulls with the nugget of pea that slid around inside them. I was irritated that she was turning my peas and cheese into something about her, that she wanted to eat what I ate to validate herself. You could see the process going on in her brain, behind her coiled-up stare. I should have felt sorry for her, but I hardened myself against her.
“What are the pedagogical implications of teachers asking about students’ food?” I said—and she winced and squirmed when I said “pedagogical.”
What we had against her wasn’t fair or compassionate, but it was real: She wasn’t like us. We were aspiring teachers. For the most part, we were there about someone else. We wanted to “be the change,” even though that wasn’t on T-shirts yet (even though Gandhi didn’t ever say it); even though we were also intellectuals who wanted to know more than we wanted to be. We were—most of us—anyway, scholars and tutors and guides. We believed in our ability to mold lives for the better.
A few of us were squarer pegs: Max, a junior-high English teacher who’d come back for the graduate degree, was an alcoholic. Tori was Wiccan, and quite a little manager. She dropped out and married and became a stepmother, multiplying by three the number of lives she was sanctioned to run. Liam was built like a god; he rose to the position of assistant superintendent, acquitting himself impeccably for many years, until he suddenly began exposing himself to sixteen-year-olds in the high-school men’s room.
And there was Closet Girl. I was not sure about teaching, but I had to do something. I’d taken the hard lumps in my vocalist years, so I clutched Dink’s words like that warm animal, hope. A secret key, a handful of concealed power. People had used that word about me before—“power”—a stretch because I knew me: a snail out of its shell. Though there’s oracular power in the raw and the naked, if you can just unchain it.
Instead of teaching—an open invitation for students to throw salt on me—I migrated into the arts to work as education manager for a Midwest symphony. I gave tours to schoolchildren and planned showcases for patrons. None of these things were pitches for money, but they laid the groundwork; I was one leg of a several-point base on which the symphony’s financial security rested. I learned enough about every instrument not to sound like Monica had, making us jump through hoops. I didn’t play anything, but I could of course read music.
I did not anticipate what the horns would do to me with their flamboyant curved brass configurations and open-throated song, more plangent than any human voice. There were display cases of antique instruments in the foyer of the concert hall, and I fell for a King trombone from the 1890s. Oh, that ornate bell, where the decorative arts and music met! On an unadorned oval patch of the bell, encircled by dramatically etched flourishes, the name of the instrument company was engraved: H. N. White. In every detail of its design, the horn proclaimed its maker. As things will.
One day the principal trombonist took out the antique King and played it at an exclusive patrons event. It had a voice! I had thought it was, literally, just window dressing. What a voice! I had been in love, but not in years. Love had not been a good idea. It had scarred me savagely, and I had decided against allowing it again, but the King seduced me, and I began to think about Chet Kronk, the trombonist, by association. My love was really for the magnificence of that instrument, the heart-in-its-hands voice, but by transference, I applied it to Chet. I slipped into a few more rehearsals than I was used to attending. I became attuned to their dynamics and noticed how Chet favored a young violist, how it had become a competition between Chet and the conductor for her attention. All were married, and I was glad I wasn’t, because no one is faithful. Every so often I thought about Monica for no reason—once while I was listening to an album of trombone concertos Chet had recorded. Her face flashed in my memory: the day I’d been the one to look her in the eye coming out of the classroom. I was the only one who didn’t look away, who actually spoke to her then. “You know you’re a fraud, don’t you?” I said. “You do know that? That you haven’t taught us one single thing we’ll even remember?” I stopped. It was enough, but something came over me and I added, “You know how pathetic you are?”
It was the Rimsky-Korsakov Concerto for Trombone and Military Band I was listening to, a nineteenth-century piece that predated the antique King trombone by only ten years. As I listened to the final movement, the Allegro-Allegretto, I thought of my cruelty to Monica. And of how I’d given up singing, for reasons related to love. I knew I had slipped into a state that was fast becoming irreversible. That I hadn’t loved any person, ever, the way I loved the King’s song. And that I had gotten lost.
There was a chorus auxiliary to the symphony orchestra. It was made up of volunteer voices from the community, but auditions were rigorous. The singers were near professional level and a great help because they could be mustered to appear at educational events more easily than the instrumentalists. The instrumentalists took some handling. They were fussy and demeaning; and there were music stands and large cases that needed to be trucked around. With the chorus, it was just folders and risers and a piano. In a pinch, even these things weren’t necessary for them to gather and sing. They were glad to be there.
A former member of the chorus still came to every practice. His name was Marlon, and he’d been a tenor with a voice so pure he was a legend—untrained, he’d just walked in one day to audition and had sung the conductor and other panel members to astonishment. He could sing a scale so lovely that it melted in the air, as if the impeccable, mathematical music of the spheres had become audible on earth. Marlon was eighty-one now and had not been an official member for a while because a stroke had destroyed his ability to carry a tune. Now, he could only sing a low C, but it was still there, the divine purity of that C, and he sang it with the chorus sometimes when they practiced, especially a signature piece in which the tenor part dipped again and again to the only tone he could sing, and at those moments, it was almost like listening to my beloved horns.
I’d come into a rehearsal and was waiting to talk to the director one afternoon, when Marlon sat beside me. He sometimes wore his old tux, but when he didn’t, he wore a jacket that made him look square and strong, although his frame was crumbling and folding in on itself.
He had old-fashioned cream sodas in glass bottles; he handed me one. He had brought it for me! This was a first. We were acquainted but not friends.
I asked how he knew I would be here. He didn’t understand—and then he did and smiled, which made him cough. “I can’t sing anymore and I’m too old for love,” he said. “So I spend a lot of time listening. Something told me you would be here, and thirsty.”
We listened to the practice, and that day he didn’t get up and join the chorus. He leaned over after a bit and said, “You can sing, you know. I’ve heard you in the hallway.”
It was true. But as with love, I’d given up trying to make it go anywhere.
A little while later he leaned into me again and said, “You really can.”
The chorus practiced, section by section and together, and it was over, and they went home. After, I talked with the director about an event we had on the calendar. Then I went to the foyer and stood looking at the antique trombone. A man named Henderson White had, around age twenty, founded the company that made it. In the first years he personally made the slides for every trombone; the speed and lightness of the slide action are essential. The company name was his name, and it was engraved on the instrument for everyone to see: H. N. White. And his hands had made the slide that Chet Kronk drew out and pulled back, drew and pulled, when he played.
I went home and practiced singing one note; the next day, another. An old hymn came to me, one we’d sung when I’d gone to church as a child, and I sometimes found myself rehearsing the last verse, by the hymnist and cabinet maker Edward Mote. I liked that this verse contained a reference to horns:
When He shall come with trumpet sound,
Oh, may I then in Him be found,
Clothed in His righteousness alone,
Faultless to stand before the throne!
I avoided the orchestra’s rehearsals now because Chet’s attentions to the violist pained me. But I went often to hear the chorus practice. Sometimes Marlon sat with me, and sometimes he climbed the risers to join the tenors and sing his C. I listened to the director’s coaching—old, familiar strategies of the voice that I had forgotten, and was enchanted: like finding a once-treasured gewgaw in a drawer, something you forgot you still cherished until you saw it. I told the director I was practicing, and he thanked me for being such a supporter of the chorus. I hadn’t expected him to take me seriously. Still, I was wounded, and that day I went down to the basement of the concert hall and wandered among the broken music stands, wishing to be taken up, above the malignant world.
I was stunned when, with no warning, Marlon had another stroke and died. I mourned for the loss of his faultless C; but thinking of him on that night after he died, I tried it. And I could sing it! He had willed it to me, low though it was. I reached into my diaphragm for the notes, and it was like all the perfect discarnate things no one cared about were inside me.
I began to wonder if I could sing for an audience. I heard people at the symphony raving about a cathedral in a famous city, where choirs sang and the acoustics were remarkable. I tried not to give credence to the hype, until I remembered what Marlon had said the first day he sat with me: “I spend a lot of time listening.”
I listened to the hype then. I bought a plane ticket. I had one entire song by heart that was ready, and worthy of a cathedral. But no accompanist. When I got there, I walked through the city streets with my map, picturing Abraham climbing Mount Moriah to make his barbarous offering; and I knew that just as God had sent Abraham a ram to save his son, an accompanist would be provided for me.
On the street was a girl with a keyboard, playing for change. “How well can you play?” I said, handing her the music. Her hands flew to the right keys, never having played my music before; they were made for this. I offered her some money, and she came with me.
She told me she had run away from her witchy, overbearing stepmother and had a job as a professional accompanist now; she only played on the street for old times’ sake, for the pleasure of the unschooled audience. She’d grown up in a home with proms and piano lessons; she’d won competitions. It turned out she was Tori’s stepdaughter—the Tori I’d been in grad school with, in Monica’s class on the –ism.
Again, Monica. My cruelty, I knew by now, was a persistent stain. In the right light, it cast a monstrous black shadow. This was a few years before the Internet, but if I let my imagination scout the future, I could dimly see Monica’s frenzied headstands by the pool, and the last-ditch life-coaching career; I could predict how my mean-spirited words and the ridicule of my cohort (which was, of course, a microcosm of humanity) would diminish and diminish her with their heartlessness.
It was a cold day. My young accompanist wore fingerless ragg wool gloves. She stashed her keyboard in her apartment, and we put our hands in our pockets and heads down against the wind so our eyes wouldn’t water. I had a scarf wound around my throat to keep it warm. The cathedral’s stone steps were wide and spattered with leaves. This made me happy; so much of the city was pavement and block; here was something that had lived.
It was the largest cathedral of its kind. You could schedule your performance there, but I had not planned ahead, so the letter board in the front of the nave was blank. The keyboardist and I walked up one aisle and crossed through the pillars into the nave just before we reached the quire. She tried the piano, playing a scale or two. A clergyman was there. He was not a priest; it was not a Catholic cathedral. He wore vestments. A striped knit sleeve showed under them as he handed me a guestbook to sign. I signed H.N. White, maker of the King horns, and gave it to my pianist, who signed Tabitha Stephens—which made me laugh. A talented witch was never a bad thing to have along, I thought.
I asked to warm up, and the pastor nodded, so I sang Marlon’s C, and then my own scale. The notes were all right. Despite the cold, I’d kept my voice. My accompanist played the opening bars, and we tried it together. I came in right on cue. She was good; she could watch me and play at the same time and see when I was changing the tempo and bend with it. I was nervous, until I conjured Marlon in my mind—he was getting up on the risers with only his C and a tremendous need to make music. What did I have to be afraid of?
In a circle of chairs beneath the quire, a man and woman and were going through a camera bag. Their gray heads bent together in a mutual search for something small, maybe a lens cap. Their old fingers were not as nimble as my pianist’s, and the bag was giving them some trouble. They were the audience that had been given me, these two inattentive old tourists. The clergyman had drifted away.
I stepped forward to introduce the song. I thought for just a second of dedicating it to Monica to win my absolution. Then she reared up in memory in her boots with her coiled-up eyes, and I knew I had to take a chance on forgiveness being real: the forgiveness that passes all understanding.
My accompanist was ready. She gave me the sign. She played the introduction, and I counted the beats, and when it was time, I came in. ●
Evelyn Somers is the associate editor of the Missouri Review. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Southwest Review, Florida Review, Shenandoah, Georgia Review, the Collagist, Crazyhorse, Copper Nickel, Bloom, and The Millions, among others. As a freelancer she’s edited prizewinning work in multiple genres. She lives and writes in a dilapidated 19th-century mansion and is finishing a second novel about a gifted teenage boy who decides to get revenge on his archenemy, his father’s mistress.