“Strings of Solace,” a story by Kimberly Parish Davis, was a finalist in our recently concluded 50th Short Fiction Contest. It is published with the permission of the author.
“Mandolin 2” by Dinh Hien Nguyen
Strings of Solace
Kimberly Parish Davis
…..Carly squeezed her little car into a metered parking space and got out. She hoped the long walk to the campus would give her a chance to clear her mind and get her nerves under control. She was walking around to get her stuff out of the trunk when her right foot slid out from under her and she hit the pavement. Hard. She pushed herself up and dusted her butt off as she looked around to make sure no one had seen her fall.
…..Bad omen, she thought. Her left wrist hurt. Great. Who ever heard of ice on the ground in October, anyway? What must it be like in the winter here? But there was no use whining about the weather now. She needed to focus on her audition. It was important to Tim that she stick with her goal of getting a degree in music since she’d given that up to move to Chicago with him.
…..Tim Hunt had roared into Taos on his big motorcycle and swept her off her feet. She’d only known him three months when she agreed to marry him, but so what? It felt like a fairy tale. He was her knight on his silver steed, and she was his desperate damsel looking for any escape from her evil step-father. She’d get used to Chicago—lots of people lived here happily, weather and all.
…..Carly wrestled the guitar case out of the car and slung her music bag over her shoulder. The voice in her head saying, this doesn’t feel right was familiar. She’d been ignoring it since she left home with Tim. It sounded like her step-father.
…..Focus, she thought, mentally pulling up the audition piece she’d prepared and running through it as she walked. She’d played it a thousand times, knew it backward and forward, but she also knew how quickly she could screw it up.
…..Her Daddy’s smile flashed like sunshine in her memory and brought a lump to her throat. If Daddy was here, she thought, there’d be no problem. I wouldn’t be a nervous wreck. She’d never had stage fright when he was alive, but the music business had eaten her daddy up. She was twelve when they’d found him dead on the tour bus with his name emblazoned on the side. Music had been a game she played with her daddy, making up silly songs and setting them to music. Now, when no one else was around, she played just for him. His laughter and beautiful smile kept her going. Playing for other people was the problem.
…..Carly blamed her stepfather, Billy, for planting the fear of performing in her. He had worked hard to make her stop playing entirely. To him, all musicians were good for nothing druggies and alcoholics. Carly couldn’t remember a single dinnertime conversation since he’d come into her life that hadn’t ended with him yelling something about how she needed to grow up and be responsible—think of an honest way to make a living—something that didn’t involve music. “You can work the keys on a computer just as well as the keys on a piano,” he said.
…..“I don’t even play piano, Billy,” Carly would sneer and bolt out of the dining room slamming her bedroom door for emphasis.
…..Billy, who always had to have the last word, would shout, “I’m not paying for you to study music. You better think up a degree plan that’ll get you a real job.” So, Carly worked two jobs to pay her own college tuition. She still lived at home, though, so the arguments continued. Her heart hurt from Billy’s constant criticism. His CPA brain couldn’t understand that Carly needed music in her life to thrive—to harmonize with that ache in her chest. It was a yearning she couldn’t express any other way—an itch she could only scratch by making music.
…..Her daddy knew what that felt like. He’d defined it for her when he started teaching her to play guitar and sing. They’d spend ages just fooling around with a single minor chord—humming the different harmonies in it. Daddy said, “If it feels like the sound could make you cry, you’re in the magic spot.” He loved music and sharing it with her. It wasn’t his fault about the drugs. She refused to believe that he chose to leave her. Once he started making big money, though, the record company didn’t give him any choice. He was on tour way more than he was home. All he did was sleep the last time Carly had seen him. He’d begged off their guitar time saying, “Baby, I need to recharge my batteries. Can we go get some ice cream instead?”
…..Carly couldn’t care less about fame. And she guessed that was the part her asshole stepdad couldn’t get. Why would she want the lifestyle that had killed her father? Still, she wanted music in her life. Every day. Her loftiest goal was to become a session musician at a recording studio where she never had to see the audience. Chicago was a great place for that with several big recording studios. She just had to perfect her playing. No, it wasn’t even really her playing. She could play, but nobody knew it because of the stage fright. Okay, sure, to be a session musician she’d have to be able to sight-read anything and play several instruments. That’s why she needed a music degree. Her daddy had never learned to read music. He’d been one of those naturals who played so well by ear that he never needed to. He was the front man—a star from the first time he played for anybody. Carly didn’t need that. She’d be happy as a nameless backup musician.
…..She’d tried to explain it to Billy, but he refused to believe there was any good in playing music at all, and Carly’s mom agreed. She’d divorced Carly’s dad right after his first record hit the charts. Too many groupies, she said. Carly’d been little then, and music had been all-but-banned in their house, so she kept her guitar hidden under the bed—especially when Billy was home, so when Tim roared into her life, and he actually wanted her to be a musician, Carly had been so flattered she never thought past the honeymoon. At first, she was ashamed that she couldn’t play for him, but she was grateful for his encouragement. As a painter who hated to show his work, he recognized her social anxiety.
…..She stopped to adjust the bag on her shoulder and get a grip on her thoughts. Wrong time to drag all that crap up. I’m doing this my way, and Billy can go to hell.
…..The words “School of Music” over a set of double doors announced that she’d found the right building. Hot air hit her with a blast. She searched the directory for Dr. Bonham’s office, and her hair crackled as she pulled her stocking cap off. She scraped it into a messy ponytail in the elevator to avoid looking like a dandelion. It wasn’t the composed look she wanted, but it would have to do. Slipping her coat off, she smoothed her skirt and noticed that her knee was bleeding from her tumble beside the car. Great. It stung when she touched it. She straightened up and knocked on the door.
…..“Dr. Bonham?” She stopped just inside. “I’m Carly Hunt. I had a ten o’clock appointment?” Her stomach knotted.
…..“Come in, come in.” The tall man acted like he was in a hurry and brushed at invisible lint on his dark suit. “Sit down.”
…..He took her guitar case and set it aside, waved at a chair, then perched on the corner of the desk, his long leg and shiny black shoe dangling uncomfortably close to her. Carly had to tilt her head to look up at him. His cologne was overpowering, and she scooched the chair back as far as she could, then she took in her surroundings. The office felt like a church with wine-dark carpet, oiled-wood paneling, and arched windows. This was a very different sort of music school to the one she’d known in New Mexico, where her professors had worn boots and jeans. Nobody there bothered with cologne. It was too hot for that. There, a happy musical chaos floated in the hallways overlaid with the scent of stale saliva from brass players’ spit traps. This place was silent and smelled of furniture polish once you got past the cologne.
…..“Now, Miss Hunt, why have you come to see me?”
…..Carly snapped out of her reverie. “I’d like to finish my degree here. I’ve spent three years at the Taos School of Music, so technically I’m a junior, but I understand it may take me an extra year because I’m transferring.” She hesitated, then added, “and it’s Mrs. Hunt.” She looked down at her hands. Her new name felt strange on her tongue.
…..“We don’t accept many transfer students, but I see your transcripts are in order.” He placed a pair of reading glasses on his nose and tapped at the papers. “You’ve done the requisite theory classes. What sort of music have you been playing?” He tilted his head down to look over the tops of the glasses at her.
…..“Classical mostly . . . a little jazz. My guitar solo work was Sor, Carcassi, Bach . . . some jazz standards . . . voice . . . I did some arranging for the jazz choir, too.” It was a confession dragged out in fits and starts.
…..Dr. Bonham loomed, immaculate and odoriferous glaring down his long nose at her. “Okay,” he said. “Play something for me.”
…..Butterflies fluttered in her stomach and her fingers trembled as she took her guitar out of the case and tuned it.
….. Bonham said, “How about a scale? G Major?”
…..Whew, she thought, I can do that in my sleep.
…..“The Segovia pattern.” He nodded. “Good. Now D minor.”
…..She played that too even adding a little flourish at the end.
…..“Alright. Now what piece will you play for me?”
…..She pushed up straighter in the chair. The professor’s proximity made her extra uncomfortable. Focus, she told herself. “Sor’s A minor etude.” She said, handing him a copy of the music she’d memorized.
…..He gave the page a cursory glance and nodded for her to begin.
…..She took a deep breath, held it a second, then started to play. Easy, she coached herself. She’d started off too fast, but she made it through the first 8 bars. Did I play the dynamics? She almost fumbled at the twelfth bar out of habit but got through it with only the tiniest of fumbles no one who didn’t know the piece would notice. Then she was through the hard bit at the end somehow, magically. Her hands were damp and tingling, but her face flushed in relief when it was over.
…..Dr. Bonham looked at his watch. “Right, Mrs. Hunt,” he sniffed. “You know the basics. If we can find a slot for you, I’d recommend you play an actual concert piece, if you have one, for the committee.” He strolled around the desk to look at his diary. “We don’t have room for many students who specialize in guitar performance. It’s more of a sideline here. Perhaps if you played a second instrument . . . Have you sung any opera?”
…..Carly nodded. “I have. Soprano.” She hated squawking around in her upper register, but she had one piece by Francesco Durante memorized in Italian. “I’d need an accompanist.”
…..“Of course. The next step, if the Dean agrees, will be a juried audition with three professors. Keep practicing. We’ll be in touch.”
…..Why on earth did I think I wanted to transfer here? Carly asked herself on the way back to the car. Because Billy, a Chicago native, thought it was a good school? “A degree from there is worth a lot,” he’d said, “even in music.” She wouldn’t be called back. I wouldn’t go to that school if you paid me. Her gait was slow, and her ears burned with shame. She felt like something Dr. Bonham had scraped off the bottom of his shiny-fucking-shoe.
…..As she came within sight of her car, she thought, it is a charming area. Shop windows and cafés beckoned. Oh, well, guess I’ll never get to know you.
…..She passed a music store with antique instruments in the window and went halfway down the block before turning back. Why not? I’ve got nowhere to be. The shop was warm, and the old floorboards creaked. The door blew shut with a bang behind her, and a bell rang above her head. The shelves were crowded and dusty, and a man with a grey ponytail and a bushy beard greeted her from behind a counter to her left. She nodded pointing to a rack of sheet music. Sometime later, she found a book of Irish jigs and reels, but when she went to pay for it, the shopkeeper was in the back room. She rang the bell by the register. While she waited, she heard a heartbreaking mandolin melody in a minor key, and looking down into the glass case, she saw an old mandolin on display. It had a rounded back like a lute. When the shopkeeper came out, she asked to see it.
…..“It doesn’t play,” he said. “We just keep it here for looks. Hasn’t been tuned in forever.”
…..“Would you sell it?” she asked. Tim would have a fit that she’d spent money on another instrument she wouldn’t play for him, but she felt a wild hair cropping up.
…..“I suppose. I couldn’t ask much—the condition it’s in. It’s not rare or anything. These little Washburn mandos were pretty popular around nineteen hundred or so. I’d take ninety-five dollars for it.”
…..Surprised at the low price, she said, “Done.” Feeling like she’d stolen the little instrument, she made to hurry out of the shop before the man realized his mistake, but she turned back at the door and asked, “What tune were you playing just now?”
…..“Hmmm?” The man looked up, confused. “When?”
…..“I mean when you were in the back room.”
…..“Wasn’t me, love.”
…..Carly walked back to her car, confused. She’d clearly heard a mandolin playing, but she was pleased with her new instrument. On the drive home, she could have sworn she heard the mandolin tune again.
…..“I don’t know what to do now, Tim,” Carly said over dinner that evening.
…..“Go visit some other schools.” he said.
…..“I’d rather get a job first.”
…..“Knock yourself out.” Tim sounded unhappy.
…..“What’s wrong with me working?”
…..“Did I say anything?”
…..“No. It was your tone of voice.”
…..“Whatever, Baby, but I thought you wanted to go back to school, finish your degree.”
…..“What’s the hurry?” Carly couldn’t figure out why Tim was so determined that she stay in school, she resisted on general principle. “I’m not ready to start the application process all over again.”
…..Tim took a sudden keen interest in a story on his iPad, effectively shutting the conversation down.
…..Carly said, “I hope you don’t mind. I bought a mandolin.”
…..“A mandolin?” Tim looked up. “Do you even play the mandolin?”
…..“Well, no, but it’s really pretty. Think of it as art—an antique. I’ll have to have it worked on if I ever want to play it.”
…..Tim sighed and said, “Let’s see it then.”
…..She got the mandolin, and he turned it over in his paint-spattered hands.
…..“It’ll look nice hanging on the wall if nothing else.”
…..She knew he’d appreciate the visual aesthetic of the instrument even if it didn’t actually play anymore. “You’re not allowed to paint it.”
…..“Would I do that?” Tim looked innocent. Their apartment was filled with things he’d felt compelled to paint—bright electric colored dressers and airbrushed lampshades. The downstairs neighbor constantly complained about the noise of Tim’s air compressor, so he was looking for a studio space somewhere else. Carly wasn’t happy about that, but she couldn’t stop him.
…..Within a few weeks, Carly was manning the office of a real estate developer who was never there. No one called or came in, and she was bored to tears, but it was a job. With nothing else to do, she searched the Internet for someone to repair her mandolin. She called the Downtown School of Folk Music and made an appointment with their mandolin teacher for the following evening after work.
…..There were two ancient leather chairs in the big, echoing hall where she sat waiting for Mr. Hansen to arrive. The floors were tiled in a checkerboard pattern that had been bold and new in 1960. The room was heated, but only just. Dan Hansen was middle-aged with a beak of a nose and no hair on top. His hand was warm, and his smile radiated welcome.
…..“Nice to meet you. I’m Dan.”
…..“Nice to meet you. I appreciate you looking at my mandolin.” She handed the instrument to him.
…..“It’s a ‘tater bug.’ That’s what the bluegrass boys call these.”
…..He fished a pick out of his pocket and tuned the instrument by ear. He ran a few scales up and down the little neck with hands that seemed too big to be so precise and quick. Then he tried some chords. The higher he went up the neck the more out of tune it sounded. Dan held the base of the little instrument up to his nose and took a sight down its neck.
…..“Well, the neck is definitely bowed—you might be able to get a fret job and straighten it out enough to play it.”
…..He gave Carly the number of a luthier he knew. Then he told her classes were starting up the next week. When all was said and done, Carly had agreed to three months of mandolin lessons, and she felt happier than she had in a long time.
…..She was disappointed to find Tim wasn’t home when she got there. She’d wanted to celebrate with him. She poured herself a glass of wine and watched Netflix.
…..The next week, Carly had her first lesson. Dan had loaned her a mandolin to use while hers was being repaired. The tiny frets took some getting used to—they were so much closer together than on a guitar. Even so, Dan was impressed that she read music and he sent her home with exercises and a songbook.
…..Dan was well known around Chicago for his lightning fast picking, so Tim and Carly went to a local club one Friday night to hear him play. Dan’s band played the blues, and Dan not only made his mandolin do things she had never heard before, he sang like B.B. King. He was a natural on stage, like her daddy had been, and Carly found a new measure of respect for her teacher. She was excited on the way home. “I thought Dan was really good. Didn’t you?” she said to Tim.
…..“Uh-huh.” He flipped through messages on his phone.
…..“No, seriously. I didn’t expect him to be such a showman. Guess you can’t judge a book by its cover.”
…..“He wasn’t all that,” Tim said.
…..“But you love blues bands.”
…..“They were fine,” Tim said, a little too sharply. “Can we drop it?”
…..Six weeks into the mandolin lessons, Dan announced it was time to start rehearsing for the end-of-term concert. His students were to play a short six-song set, then lots of other groups would play as well. Rehearsals were set for Saturday afternoons.
…..On the first Saturday, Carly had her guitar and her mandolin packed up and ready to go and she was putting on her coat when Tim looked up from his sketch pad and said, “Where are you going?”
…..“Rehearsal, don’t you remember? Saturdays for the next six weeks till the concert.”
…..“No, I don’t remember anything about that.”
…..“It’s not a problem, is it?”
…..“Maybe. What am I supposed to do? I thought Saturday was our day to spend together.”
…..“I’ll be gone a couple of hours, tops. I’ll pick up something nice for dinner on the way home.”
…..“Who else is going to be there?”
…..“I don’t know. Dan—some other students. I haven’t met them yet.” She set the guitar case down and put her hand on her hip. In a voice that sounded sharper than she’d intended, she said, “What do you think we’re gonna be doing? Having an orgy?”
…..Tim slapped his sketchpad down on the table and stood up. “Don’t bother with dinner. I’ll get a pizza at the studio.”
…..“What?” Carly snapped. “Oh, that’s fine. You go to the studio.” She got louder as she went along. “I like spending my nights alone.” She was spitting with the force of the last few words, but Tim didn’t hear. He was halfway down the back stairs.
…..Carly offered a close-lipped smile as Dan introduced her around to the rest of the musicians. She was the only girl in the group. There was a stand-up bass, two banjos, a guitar, a fiddle, and a mandolin, in addition to Carly’s mandolin and guitar. The rehearsal was more of a brainstorming session to work out their set list, and when it was done, Carly had no recollection of anybody’s name or what she was supposed to practice.
…..Dan stopped her on the way out. “Carly, is something wrong?”
…..“Not really. Fight with my husband.”
…..“I know how that goes. I was married once. Want to talk about it?”
…..“No. Yes. I don’t know. I mean he’s being so unreasonable! He’s actually jealous of me rehearsing,” Carly said.
…..“I’ve heard that one before. It’s pretty common among musicians.”
…..“Yeah. My mom and dad divorced over him being away on tour.”
…..“Your dad’s a musician?”
…..“Was. He’s dead now.”
…..“I’m sorry to hear that. What did he play?”
…..“Anybody I’d know?”
…..“I’m embarrassed to say.”
…..“My dad was Max Santiago.”
…..“The Max Santiago? From the Santiago Band?”
…..“Wow! I had no idea!”
…..“Yeah. I don’t share that very often.”
…..Dan said, “I’ve got a gig to get to or I’d buy you a beer. Go home. Work it out. He’ll come around.”
…..Carly took the El train home. It took her past Tim’s studio, so she stopped. The building was run down, but it had big west-facing windows that caught the evening light. She rang the buzzer at street level. No answer. She tried two more times, then called his cell. Nothing. He must have gone home, she thought, but when she got home, he wasn’t there either.
…..When she heard him coming in after midnight, she met him in the kitchen.
…..“Where have you been?” she asked.
…..“At the studio.”
…..“Really? You weren’t there when I came by,” she said.
…..“You came to the studio?”
…..“Yes, I did. Six o’clock. I thought maybe we could make up and have a nice evening.”
…..“I must have gone out for a pizza.”
…..“That would be why you didn’t answer your phone either, I suppose.”
…..“I left it in the studio.”
…..“Whatever.” Carly marched down the hallway and closed the bedroom door in his face.
…..Over the next few weeks, Carly saw Tim less and less. He started going straight to the studio after work in the evenings and staying there all night.
…..The Saturday rehearsals went alright, and since Carly was the new kid, they suggested that she mostly play rhythm guitar where she felt most comfortable with only one short solo on a mandolin piece. That suited Carly just fine, and everyone was pleased when she volunteered to sing harmony. Adding a woman’s voice to the mix enhanced their overall sound tremendously. They asked her to sing lead on one tune and scrambled to find just the right piece settling on “Wayfaring Stranger.” She agreed because the guys insisted. Besides, it was a song she already knew, so she figured she wasn’t likely to mess it up, though she was terrified of singing lead. She stumbled through it the first time they ran it and told Dan in her lesson the next week that she didn’t know if she could do it, but he brushed it off saying, “Who you afraid of? It’s just going to be a bunch of other music students.”
…..The day of the concert, Carly was a nervous wreck. She went through the motions of getting ready, putting on deodorant twice just to be sure. Tim was in the apartment for a change, and underfoot all morning. Still, she was glad of the company and told him, “I feel like I’m gonna throw up. Can you imagine if I hurled right there on the stage?”
…..“I think it would be funny, but you’re not going to do that.”
…..“Tim, I don’t just want to get through it. I want to do a good job, support the group.”
…..“Why, Baby? It’s just a bunch of students. Once this show is over you can quit this nonsense and find a real music school.”
…..“Nonsense? You think this is nonsense?” She slammed her mascara tube down on the counter and wheeled on him. “I can’t understand what you want, Tim. Go to a fancy school, don’t work. What are you thinking? Do you also want me to be barefooted and pregnant? Teaching the children in the living room? Dinner on the table at all hours of the night whenever you decide to come home?”
…..“I didn’t say that, Baby. Calm down.”
…..“Screw you, Tim. I’ve got this. Thanks for the motivation. I wouldn’t want to interrupt whatever you get up to when you’re,” she made air quotes, “painting.”
…..“What’s that supposed to mean?”
…..“You know what it means, Tim. King of the double standard. Who you doing, darlin’? Cause it damn sure isn’t me.”
…..Carly was shaking with rage instead of nerves now. She hadn’t planned to have this conversation, but it was too late to take the words back, so she kept going. “Fuck off and die, Tim. Take your things and leave. I want a divorce. I never want to see you again.”
…..The words surprised Carly as much as they did Tim. Up to that point, she hadn’t even dared to think them, but for the first time in a long time, she got a tingling sensation along the backs of her arms that told her she was heading in the right direction. She searched herself for feelings about Tim. There were none.
…..Tim raised his hand as if to slap her, but Carly didn’t back down. Her eyes blazed, and Tim backed away, grabbed his coat and left.
…..The hall was packed. The Downtown School of Folk Music occupied an old high school building with a big auditorium, and the old wooden theater seats creaked and rattled as people shuffled through the rows to sit with their friends. Carly hadn’t been in the auditorium before, and the sound of the crowd brought on a fresh crop of butterflies to life in her belly. She was nearly hyperventilating when the bass player tapped her on the shoulder and pointed to the stage to indicate that it was time to go on.
…..For the first song Carly strummed her guitar at the back of the group. She may have hit a few wrong chords, but nobody noticed. Then the banjo and mandolin player in front of her stepped away from each other, and Carly was supposed to step forward and take the microphone. She felt like she would pass out in the dazzling lights. Beads of sweat ran down from her armpits. She imagined her blouse was stained with it. She did her deer-in-the-headlights impression for what seemed like ten minutes. Then Dan walked out and took the mic to welcome the audience and introduce the band.
…..“Good evening everyone. Thank you for coming out to hear this term’s budding bluegrass musicians. They have all worked hard rehearsing this program for you. Tonight, you will see some familiar faces up here, along with a couple of promising newbies.” He named the boys in the band and finished with, “and Carly Hunt on rhythm guitar, mandolin and vocals.”
…..He reached over and squeezed her shoulder as he said her name, then he turned to her expectantly.
…..What was he waiting for? She couldn’t remember what came next.
…..“Guitar,” he mouthed.
…..Oh, that’s right, he was supposed to trade her guitar for her mandolin. That was it. Carly ducked her head and closed her eyes as she lifted the guitar strap over her head. What song was she supposed to sing again? How did it start? God help me remember the words.
…..Dan took the guitar and held out her little tater bug mandolin. He lifted the strap over her head, and whispered in her ear, “Sing pretty. The boys are right here to help you out.”
…..As her hands touched the mandolin it hummed like it couldn’t wait to play, and Carly thought of her daddy’s smile. Her eyes filled with tears, and her voice broke as she started to sing around a big ol’ lump in her throat, but that only made the music sweeter. “I am a poor wayfaring stranger, traveling through this world of woe.” .The sound of the boys behind her lifted her and held her safe through the song, and the little mandolin felt like it played itself.
When the song was over, the audience was quiet for a second, then she heard Dan hoot and people started standing up. She turned around and the boys were all clapping too. Dan walked over and called her name out loud and slipped her a handkerchief. She blew her nose and finished the set.
Kimberly Parish Davis, as a younger woman was a musician crippled with stage fright, so she learned to be a sound engineer. Now she’s a writer who publishes the work of others while she writes short fiction by the light of the moon. The press she manages is. https://madvillepublishing.com