Wednesday, April 06, 2011

True Stories (4)

It was the end of the 1950's and a promising young composer from Akron had been awarded a traveling scholarship to Europe for the Summer between the two years of his studies for his Master's degree, then the terminal academic degree in the US for composers. He had a grand time, dropping in at music festivals throughout the continent, getting to know some of the famous avant-garde music written by composers who had only been names to him before going across the pond. As his scholarship was in dollars, then a very strong currency, he had the fortune to be able to use very good exchange rates and some arbitrage in order to stretch his stay well beyond the summer. Indeed, he only began to worry about money sometime in March of the following year, when he was able to cash in his return ship ticket, which gave him an extra month, when, considering the possibility of taking a job locally, he was surprised to learn that he had "come into" (as they say) a small inheritance from his grandmother, who had left Ohio the year before, only to die from pneumonia in her retirement place near Miami. As long as he wasn't picky about the size and quality of his apartments or his meals, this sum set him up for a few years to come, and he quickly settled into a very modest career as an ex-patriot composer. He managed to get a few performances and broadcasts of his pieces, nothing earth-shaking in attention or particularly lucrative, but enough to have the feeling that he was really doing the whole European composer thing. About a year after coming into his inheritance, he got a fan letter forwarded to him from a radio station which had broadcast a live performance of one of his pieces from a local woman, about his own age, who had heard the piece on the radio, and loved it so much that she absolutely had to meet the composer. They met, seemed to hit it off, and soon were married, much to the convenience of the composer, whose residency status was perpetually in question. Now fast-forward about six or seven years. The composer and his wife and their two small children are now all living in the same two-room apartment with shared conveniences he had rented while living the lifestyle of the young Bohemian abroad. Now he was living the lifestyle of a husband and father, but it was getting seriously crowded and uncomfortable, leaving the composer without any room and certainly no time to composer, as he had had to take on work translating and teaching in order to pay the bills for four as his inheritance had long since been swallowed by the continuously dropping value of the dollar. Although his wife still professed her love for his music and he loved her for that and they were both devoted to their children, their love for one another seemed to have cooled, fueled most by their unhappiness with their material situation and the fact that he had received an ever-smaller number of performances and practically no commissions and had increasingly been unable to compose at all. He felt that his lack of time and suitable space for composing had contributed to this situation. One day, she overheard some neighbors talking about a one-room flat not far from their own which had recently become vacant. It was a state-subsidized apartment and could be secured as a studio for the composer if he were able to establish that he was poor enough to qualify for the housing. She immediately thought that this could be the ideal solution to their problem: if she borrowed some money from her parents, they would be able to afford the small rent on the single apartment and she could take a half-time job to allow him to have at least one year in which he could spend more time composing in an appropriate studio. To make a complicate series of bureacratic steps brief, the composer was able to get the apartment, but becoming qualified for the apartment had required that the couple divorce, thus demonstrating to the authorities that he required the second domicile although their means had not increased, and so they divorced on what they had agreed was a pro-forma basis. Once he had moved into the apartment, however, the composer found himself somewhat lost. He was out of practice with his composing, unused to working with adequate space and without the background noise of small children. So he spent several months looking for the right chair or the right table or the right pen or the perfect piece of manuscript paper. Nothing. He took to walking out late at night in the city, not going anywhere in particular. He would get on a random streetcar and ride it to its end station and back and then choose another. Nothing. He memorized his table top and counted the trees visible from his window or the stars at night. Nothing. He spent less and less time with the family. One night, returning from one of his walks, in the entryway to the apartment house, he ran into the wife of the concierge, a woman some 20 years his senior. She was not looking well and, asking what was wrong, he was genuinely shocked to learn the news that her husband had died, suddenly, while doing some work around the house. He offered her his condolences, she asked him in for a cup of coffee, and they started talking, in an intense conversation that lasted until the next morning, accompanied by more coffee and some schnapps and so on. That intense conversation proved to be the beginning of a relationship that, in some months time, became physically intimate. The composer eventually gave up his apartment, moving in with the concierge's widow and taking on the concierge's job full-time. He remained a devoted father to his children who went on to have happy and successful live, while his ex-wife, after a very difficult period of hurt and adjustment, fell in love with a successful culinary photographer whom she married, and the concierge and his ex-wife eventually were able, after a period of detente, to develop a genuinely warm friendship. The concierge never returned to composing, having decided that he didn't actually have a gift for it after all, but he discovered that he was, in fact, a pretty good handy person and settled into a long life with his predecessor's widow, retiring a few years ago to a small place they bought on one of those Spanish holiday islands.

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