A story by John Gardner
Seated by the window in the last row of the firstclass no-smoking section, his large attaché case wedged under the seat in front of him, his seat belt snug and buckled, Benjamin Nimram drew off his dark glasses, tucked them into his inside coat pocket, and in the same motion turned to look out at the rain on the gleaming tarmac. The dark glasses were his wife’s idea, an idea he’d accepted in the way he accepted nearly all her ideas, with affection and a tuck at the corner of his mouth that signified, though his wife did not know it—or so he imagined—private amusement tinged with that faint trace of fatalistic melancholy one might catch, if one were watchful, at the periphery of all he did. Not that Nimram was a gloomy man. When he’d put behind him, at least for public appearances, that famous “Beethoven frown”—once a private joke between his wife and himself but now a thing as public as the mileage of his Rolls, since his wife had mentioned both, in an unguarded moment, to an interviewer— he’d discovered that smiling like a birthday child as he strode, tails flying, toward the light-drenched podium came as naturally to him as breathing, or at any rate as naturally as the second-nature breathing of an oboist. He had mentioned to her—more in the way of trying it out than as sober communication of a determined fact that it made him uneasy, being recognized everywhere he went these days.
“You poor dear!" she’d said, eyes slightly widening, and he had smiled privately, realizing that now he was in for it. “We’ll get a pair of those Polaroid dark glasses,”she’d said.
“Good idea,”he’d agreed, seeing himself in them the instant he said it–the dark, heavy face, thick eyebrows, large nose, the somewhat embarrassingly expensive suit. “And a shoulder holster, maybe,” he’d thought, but had carefully shown nothing but the tuck at the corner of his mouth.
“Is something wrong?" she’d asked. She stood in the doorway, half in, half out, trowel in hand, a paper bag of some kind of chemical clamped under her arm. He’d caught her on her way out to her gardening. She was smiling brightly, head tipped and thrown toward him, back into the room. It was the look she sometimes got on the tennis court, extravagantly polite, aggressive.
“What could be wrong?” he said, throwing his arms out. “I’ll pick up a pair this afternoon. ”
“Jerry can get them,” she said. “I’ll phone in ahead.”Jerry was their outside man, a grinning young half-Japanese. What he did around the place—besides stand with his arms folded, or ride around the lawn on the huge, green mower—had never been clear to Nimram.
“Fine,” he said, “fine.”
She blew him a kiss and ran out.
Poor Ariine, he thought, shaking his head, slightly grinning. “I believe I was destined for this marriage,” she had once told an interviewer. Though she was sometimes embarrassed almost to tears by what she read in the interviews she’d given to newspapers and magazines, she continued to give them. She saw it as part of her duty as his wife, keeping his name out there. And though she tried to be more careful, knowing how “different” things could sound in print, to say nothing of how reporters could distort if they were, as she said, “that kind”—turning trifles to tragedies, missing jokes, even suddenly attacking her for no reason (one had once called her “a musical ignoramus”)—she continued to forget and speak her mind. Nimram praised her, needless to say, no matter what she said. Certainly there was never any harm in her words. Even her cunning, when she schemed about his “image” or the IRS, had the innocent openness of the Michigan fields around her father’s little place in the country, as he called it—a house sometimes visited, long before her father had bought it, by the elder Henry Ford.
There wasn’t a great deal Ariine could do for him in the world, or anyway not a great deal he could make her feel he needed and appreciated—aside, of course, from her elegant company at social gatherings, for instance fund-raisers. She was “a good Michigan girl,” as she said; Republican, a member (lapsed) of the DAR. Subtly—or no, not subtly, but openly, flagrantly—she had been trained from birth for the sacred and substantial position of Good Wife. She was a quick learner—even brilliant, he might have said in an unguarded moment, if Nimram ever had such moments—and she had snapped up the requisite skills of her position the way a street dog snaps up meat. She was not a great reader (books were one of Nimram’s passions), and music was not really her first interest in life, except, of course, when Nimram conducted it; but she could keep a household like an old-time Viennese aristocrat; she could “present” her husband, choosing the right restaurants, wines, and charities, buying him not only the exactly right clothes, as it seemed to her (and for all he knew she had unerring taste, though sometimes her choices raised his eyebrows at first), but also finding him the exactly right house, or rather Brentwood mansion—formerly the home of a reclusive movie star—the suitable cars—first the Porsche, then on second thought, of course, the Rolls—the suitably lovable fox terrier, which Arline had named Trixie. She had every skill known to the well-to-do midwestern wife, including certain bedroom skills which Nimram waited with a smile of dread for her to reveal, in her openhearted, Michigan way, to some yenta from People magazine or the L.A. Times. But for all that, she had moments, he knew, when she seemed to herself inadequate, obscurely unprepared.
“Do you like the house?” she had asked him once, with a bright smile and an uneasiness around the eyes that made his heart go out to her. It was only his heart that got up from the chair; the rest of him sat solid as a rock with a marked-up score on his knees.
“Of course I like it,” he’d answered. “I love it!” When they were alone or among intimate friends his voice had, at times, a hearty bellow that could make Arline jump.
“Good!” she’d said, and had smiled more brightly, then had added, her expression unsure again, “It does seem a solid investment.”
Nimram might have said, if he were someone else, “What’s the difference? What’s a house? I’m the greatest conductor in the world, or one of them. Civilization is my house!” That, however, was the kind of thing Nimram never said to anyone, even in one of his rare but notorious rages.
Her look of uncertainty had been almost anguish, though she labored to conceal it, and so he’d laid down the score he was fiddling with, had renounced the brief flash of doubt over whether he should leave it there— defenseless on the carpet, where the dog could come in and, say, drool on it—and had swung up out of his chair and had stridden over to seize her in his arms and press his cheek to hers, saying, “What’s this craziness? It’s a beautiful house and I love it!”
There had been, apparently, an edge of uncontrol in his heartiness, or perhaps it was simply the age-old weight of the world distracting her, time and the beauty of things falling away, nothing sure, nothing strong enough to bear her up—not yet, anyway, not as quickly as that—not even the strength in her famous conductor’s arms. “I’m sorry,” she’d said, blinking away tears, giving her embarrassed midwesterner laugh, “Aren’t I a fool?”—biting her lips now, taking on the sins of the world.
“Come,” he’d said, “we eat out.” It was his standard response to all sorrows no energy of the baton could transmute; a brief arrogation of the power of God—no offense, since God had no interest in it, it seemed.
“But dinner’s been—” she’d begun, drawing back from him, already of two minds.
“No, no,” he’d said, tyrannical. “Go get dressed. We eat out.” Candlelight burning through the wine bottle, silverware shining like her dream of eternity, people across the room showing one by one and four by four their covert signs of having recognized the famous conductor, a thing they could speak of tomorrow and next week, next year, perhaps, buoy themselves up on in dreary times, the memory of that dinner miraculously blessed, as if God himself had come to sit with them. The tuck of private amusement and sadness touched the corner of Nimram’s mouth.
He was not a man who had ever given thought to whether or not his opinions of himself and his effect on the world were inflated. He was a musician simply, or not so simply; an interpreter of Mahler and Bruckner, Sibelius and Nielsen—much as his wife, Arline, buying him clothes, transforming his Beethoven frown to his now just as famous bright smile, brushing her lips across his cheek as he plunged (always hurrying) toward sleep, was the dutiful and faithful interpreter of Benjamin Nimram. FT is life was sufficient, a joy to him, in fact. One might have thought of it—and so Nimram himself thought of it, in certain rare moods—as one resounding success after another. He had conducted every major symphony in the world, had been granted, by Toscanini’s daughters, the privilege of studying the scores of Toscanini, treasure-hoard of the old man’s secrets; he could count among his closest friends some of the greatest musicians of his time. He had so often been called a genius by critics all over that he had come to take it for granted that he was indeed just that— “just that” in both senses, exactly that and merely that; a fortunate accident, a man supremely lucky. Had he been born with an ear just a little less exact, a personality more easily ruffled, dexterity less precise, or some physical weakness—a heart too feeble for the demands he made of it, or arthritis, the plague of so many conductors—he would still, no doubt, have been a symphony man, but his ambition would have been checked a little, his ideas of self-fulfillment scaled down. Whatever fate had dealt him he would have learned, no doubt, to put up with, guarding his chips. But Nimram had been dealt all high cards, and he knew it. He reveled in his fortune, sprawling when he sat, his big-boned fingers splayed wide on his belly, like a man who’s just had dinner, his spirit as playful as a child’s for all the gray at his temples, all his middleaged bulk and weight—packed muscle, all of it—a man too much enjoying himself to have time for scorn or for fretting over whether or not he was getting his due, which, anyway, he was. He was one of the elect. He sailed through the world like a white yacht jubilant with flags.
The rain fell steadily, figures and dark, square tractors hurrying toward the belly of the plane and then away again, occasionally glowing under blooms of silent lightning, in the aisle behind him passengers still moving with the infinite patience of Tolstoy peasants toward their tourist-class seats. With a part of his mind he watched their reflections in the window and wondered idly how many of them, if any, had seen him conduct, seen anyone conduct, cared at all for the shimmering ghost he had staked his life on. None of them, so far as he could tell, had even noticed the Muzak leaking cheerfully, mindlessly, from the plane’s invisible speakers. It would be turned off when the plane was safely airborne, for which he was grateful, needless to say. Yet it was touching, in a way, that the airline should offer this feeble little gesture of reassurance All will be well! Listen to the Muzak! All will be well! They scarcely heard it, these children of accident, old and young, setting out across the country in the middle of the night; yet perhaps it was true that they were comforted, lulled.
Now a voice said behind him, professionally kind, “There you are. There! Shall I take these? All right?”
When he turned, the stewardess was taking the metal crutches from the young woman—girl, rather— newly planted in the seat beside him.
“Thank you,” the girl was saying, reaching down to each side of her for the straps of her seat belt.
“They’ll be right up in front,” the stewardess said, drawing the crutches toward her shoulder to clamp them in one arm. “If you need anything, you just sing. All right?”
“Thank you,” the girl said again, nodding, drawing up the straps now, studying the buckle. She nodded one more time, smiling suddenly, seeing how the buckle worked, and closed it. She glanced briefly at Nimram, then away again. She was perhaps sixteen.
He too looked away and, with his heart jumping, considered the image of her fixed in his mind. She was so much like his wife, Arline—though of course much younger–that he was ready to believe her a lost sister. It was impossible, he knew; Arline’s people were not the kind who lost things, much less the kind who had secrets, except on Christmas morning. Yet for all his certainty, some stubborn, infantile part of his brain seized on the idea with both fists and refused to let go. Her hair, like Arline’s, was reddish-brown, with an outer layer of yellow; hair so soft and fine it was like a brush of light. Their foreheads, noses, mouths, and chins were identical too, or so he’d thought at first. As he turned now, furtively checking, he saw that the girl’s nose was straighter than Arline’s—prettier, if anything—and more lightly freckled. For all that, the likeness grew stronger as he studied it.
She looked up, caught him watching her, smiled, and looked away. The blue of her eyes was much paler than the blue of Arline’s, and the difference so startled him that for a moment—shifting in his seat, clearing his throat, turning to look out at the rain again—he could hardly believe he’d thought the two faces similar. He watched the girl’s reflection, in the window eight inches from his face, as she reached toward the pocket on the back of the seat in front of her and drew out a magazine, or perhaps the plasticized safety card.
“I hope they know what they’re doing,” she said.
Her face, when he half turned to look, showed no sign of joking. Ordinarily Nimram would have smiled and said nothing. For some reason he spoke. “This your first trip on an airplane?”
She nodded, smiling back, a smile so full of panic he almost laughed.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “the pilot’s in front. Anything happens, he gets it first. He’s very concerned about that.” Nimram winked.
The girl studied him as if lost in thought, the smile on her face still there but forgotten, and it seemed to him he knew what she was thinking. She was in no condition to pick up ironies. When he’d told her the pilot was “very concerned,” did he mean that the pilot was nervous? neurotic? beginning to slip? Did this big, expensive-looking man in the seat beside her know the pilot?
“Do you know the pilot?” she asked innocently, brightening up her smile.
“A joke,” he said. “Among people who fly airplanes it’s the oldest joke in the world. It means don’t worry.”
She turned away and looked down at the plasticized card. “It’s just, with the rain and everything,” she said softly, “—what happens if a plane gets hit by lightning?”
“I doubt that it would do any harm,” he said, knowing it wasn’t true. The Vienna Quartet had been killed just a year ago when their plane had been knocked down by lightning. “Anyway, we won’t be going anywhere near where the lightning is. They have sophisticated weather charts, radar . . . anyway, most of the time we’ll be high above it all. You live here in Los Angeles?”
The girl glanced at him, smiling vaguely. She hadn’t heard. The captain had broken in on the Muzak to tell them his name and the usual trivia, their projected altitude, flight time, weather, the airline’s friendly advice about seat belts. Nimram examined the girl’s arm and hand on the armrest, then looked at his own and frowned. She had something wrong with her. He remembered that she’d come on with crutches, and glanced again at her face. Like her hand, it was slightly off-color, slightly puffy. Some blood disease, perhaps.
Now the stewardess was leaning down toward them, talking to both of them as if she thought they were together. Nimram studied the sharp, dark red sheen of her hair, metallic oxblood. Her face, in comparison with the girl’s, was shockingly healthy. She addressed them by their names, “Mr. Nimram, Miss Curtis,” a trifle that brought the melancholy tuck to Nimram’s mouth, he could hardly have told you why himself— something about civility and human vulnerability, a commercially tainted civility, no doubt (he could see her quickly scanning the first-class passenger list, as per instruction, memorizing names), but civility nonetheless, the familiar old defiance of night and thunder: when they plunged into the Pacific, on the way out for the turn, or snapped off a wing on the horn of some mountain, or exploded in the air, or burst into shrapnel and flame on the Mojave, they would die by name: “Mr. Nimram. Miss Curtis.” Or anyway so it would be for the people in first class. “When we’re airborne,” the stewardess was saying, “we’ll be serving complimentary drinks . . .” As she named them off. Miss Curtis sat frowning with concentration, as panicky as ever. She ordered a Coke; Nimram ordered wine. The stewardess smiled as if delighted and moved away.
Neither of them noticed when the plane began to move. The girl had asked him if he flew on airplanes often, and he’d launched a full and elaborate answer-New York, Paris, Rome, Tokyo . . . He beamed, gesturing as he spoke, as if flying were the greatest of his pleasures. Nothing could be further from the truth, in fact; flying bored and annoyed him, not that he was afraid—Nimram was afraid of almost nothing, at any rate nothing he’d experienced so far, and he’d be forty-nine in June. Or rather, to be precise, he was afraid of nothing that could happen to himself, only of things that threatened others. Once he’d been hit on the Los Angeles expressway, when Arline was with him. Her head had been thrown against the dashboard and she’d been knocked unconscious. Nimram, dragging her from the car, cursing the police, who were nowhere to be seen, and shouting at the idiot bystanders, had found himself shaking like a leaf. Sometimes, lying in bed with his arm around her as she slept, Nimram, listening to the silence of the house, the very faint whine of trucks on the highway two miles away, would feel almost crushed by the weight of his fear for her, heaven bearing down on their roof like the base of a graveyard monument—though nothing was wrong, she was well, ten years younger than he was and strong as a horse from all the tennis and swimming.
In his hundreds of flights—maybe it was thousands—he’d never once had what he could honestly describe as a close call, and he’d come to believe that he probably never would have one; but he knew, as surely as a human being can know anything, that if he ever did, he probably wouldn’t be afraid. Like most people, he’d heard friends speak, from time to time, about their fear of dying, and the feeling was not one he scorned or despised; but the fact remained, he was not the kind of man who had it. “Well, you’re lucky,” Arline had said, refusing to believe him, getting for an instant the hard look that came when she believed she was somehow being criticized. “Yes, lucky,” he’d said thoughtfully. It was the single most notable fact about his life.
Abruptly, the girl, Miss Curtis, broke in on his expansive praise of airlines. “We’re moving!” she exclaimed, darting her head past his shoulder in the direction of the window, no less surprised, it seemed, than she’d have been if they were sitting in a building.
Nimram joined her in looking out, watching yellow lights pass, the taxiway scored by rain-wet blue and white beams thrown by lights farther out. Now on the loudspeaker an invisible stewardess began explaining the use of oxygen masks and the positions of the doors, while their own stewardess, with slightly parted lips and eyes a little widened, pointed and gestured without a sound, like an Asian dancer. The girl beside him listened as if in despair, glum as a student who’s fallen hopelessly behind. Her hand on the armrest was more yellow than before.
“Don’t worry,” Nimram said, “you’ll like it.”
She was apparently too frightened to speak or turn her head.
Now the engines wound up to full power, a sound that for no real reason reminded Nimram of the opening of Brahms’ First, and lights came on, surprisingly powerful, like a searchlight or the headlight of a railroad engine, smashing through the rain as if by violent will, flooding the runway below and ahead of the wing just behind him, and the plane began its quickly accelerating, furious run down the field for takeoff. Like a grandfather, Nimram put his hand on the girl’s. “Look,” he said, showing his smile, tilting his head in the direction of the window, but she shook her head just perceptibly and shut her eyes tight. Again for an instant he was struck by the likeness, as remarkable now as it had been when he’d first seen her, and he tried to remember when Arline had squeezed her eyes shut in exactly that way. He could see her face vividly—they were outdoors somewhere, in summer, perhaps in England—but the background refused to fill in for him, remained just a sunlit, ferny green, and the memory tingling in the cellar of his mind dimmed out. The Brahms was still playing itself inside him, solemn and magnificent, aglow, like the lights of the city now fallen far beneath them, lurid in the rain. Now the plane was banking, yawing like a ship as it founders and slips over, the headlights rushing into churning spray, the unbelievably large black wing upended, suddenly white in a blast of clouded lightning, then black again, darker than before. As the plane righted itself, the pilot began speaking to the passengers again. Nimram, frowning his Beethoven frown, hardly noticed. The plane began to bounce, creaking like a carriage, still climbing to get above the weather.
“Dear God,” the girl whispered.
“It’s all right, it’s all all right,” Nimram said, and pressed her hand.
Her name was Anne. She was, as he’d guessed, sixteen; from Chicago; and though she did not tell him what her disease was or directly mention that she was dying, she made her situation clear enough. “It’s incredible,” she said. “One of my grandmothers is ninety-two, the other one’s eighty-six. But I guess it doesn’t matter. If you’re chosen, you’re chosen.” A quick, embarrassed smile. “Are you in business or something?”
“More or less,” he said. “You’re in school?”
“High school,” she said.
“You have boyfriends?”
Nimram shook his head as if in wonderment and looked quickly toward the front of the plane for some distraction. “Ah,” he said, “here’s the stewardess with our drinks.”
The girl smiled and nodded, though the stewardess was still two seats away. “We don’t seem to have gotten above the storm, do we?” She was looking past him, out the window at the towers of cloud lighting up, darkening, then lighting again. The plane was still jouncing, as if bumping things more solid than any possible air or cloud, maybe Plato’s airy beasts.
“Things’ll settle down in a minute,” Nimram said.
Innocently, the girl asked, “Are you religious or anything?”
“Well, no—” He caught himself. “More or less,” he said.
“You’re more or less in business and you’re more or less religious,” the girl said, and smiled as if she’d caught him. “Are you a gambler, then?”
He laughed. “Is that what I look like?”
She continued to smile, but studied him, looking mainly at his black and gray, unruly hair. “Actually, I never saw one, that I know of. Except in movies.”
Nimram mused. Smart kid, he was thinking, because he’d only now caught the ripples in that remark of hers, Are you a gambler, then?
“I guess we’re pretty much all of us gamblers,” he said, and at once felt embarrassment at having come on like a philosopher or, worse, a poet.
“I know,” she said without distress. “Winners and losers.”
He shot her a look. If she was going to go on like this she was going to be trouble. Was she speaking so freely because they were strangers?—travelers who would never meet again? He folded and unfolded his hands slowly, in a way that would have seemed to an observer not nervous but judicious; and, frowning more severely than he knew, his graying eyebrows low, Nimram thought about bringing out the work in his attaché case.
Before he reached his decision, their stewardess was bending down toward them, helping the girl drop her tray into position, Nimram lowered his, then took the wineglass and bottle the stewardess held out. No sooner had he set down the glass than the plane hit what might have been a slanted stone wall in the middle of the sky and veered crazily upward, then laboriously steadied.
“Oh my God, dear God, my God!” the girl whispered.
“You are religious,” Nimram said, and smiled.
She said nothing, but sat rigid, slightly cross at him, perhaps, steadying the glass on the napkin now soaked in Coke.
The pilot came on again, casual, as if amused by their predicament. “Sorry we can’t give you a smoother ride, folks, but looks like Mother Nature’s in a real tizzy tonight. We’re taking the ship up to thirty thousand feet, see if we can’t just outfox her.”
“Is that safe?” the girl asked softly.
He nodded and shrugged. “Safe as a ride in a rocking chair,” he said.
They could feel the plane nosing up, climbing so sharply that for a moment even Nimram felt a touch of dismay. The bumping and creaking became less noticeable. Nimram took a deep breath and poured his wine.
Slowly, carefully, the girl raised the Coke to her lips and took a small sip, then set it down again. “1 hope it’s not like this in Chicago,” she said.
“I’m sure it won’t be.” He toasted her with the wineglass—she seemed not to notice—then drew it to his mouth and drank.
He couldn’t tell how long he’d slept or what, if anything, he’d dreamed. The girl slept beside him, fallen toward his shoulder, the cabin around them droning quietly, as if singing to itself, below them what might have been miles of darkness, as if the planet had silently fallen out from under them, tumbling toward God knew what. Here in the dimly lit cabin, Nimram felt serene. They’d be landing at O’Hare shortly—less than two hours. Arline would be waiting in the lounge, smiling eagerly, even more pleased than usual to see him, after three long days with her parents. He’d be no less glad to see her, of course; yet just now, though he knew that that moment was rushing toward him, he felt aloof from it, suspended above time’s wild drive like the note of a single flute above a poised and silent orchestra. For all he could tell, the plane itself might have been hanging motionless, as still as the pinprick stars overhead.
The cabin had grown chilly, and, carefully, making sure he didn’t wake her, Nimram raised the girl’s blanket toward her throat. She stirred, a muscle along her jaw twitching, but continued to sleep, her breathing deep and even. Across the aisle from them, an old woman opened her eyes and stared straight ahead, listening like someone who imagines he has heard a burglar in the kitchen, then closed them again, indifferent.
Thoughtfully, Nimram gazed at the sleeping girl. On her forehead, despite the cold, there were tiny beads of sweat. He considered brushing the hair back from her face—it looked as if it tickled—but with his hand already in the air he checked himself, then lowered the hand. She was young enough to be his daughter, he mused, pursing his lips. Thank God she wasn’t. Instantly, he hated it that he’d thought such a thing. She was some poor devil’s daughter. Then it dawned on Nimram that she was young enough, too, to be Arline’s daughter, from the time before Arline and he had met. Arline was thirty-nine, the girl sixteen.
The faintest trace of a prickling came to his scalp, and he felt now a different kind of chill in the cabin, as if a cloud had passed between his soul and some invisible sun. “Don’t ask!” Arline would say when he drew her toward the subject of her life—that is, her love life—before they knew each other. “I was wild,” she would say, laughing, “God!” and would touch his cheek with the back of her hand. The dark, infantile part of Nimram’s mind seized on that now with the same blind obstinance as it had earlier seized on the idea that the girl was Arline’s sister. Consciously, or with his brain’s left lobe, perhaps, he knew the idea was nonsense. Arline’s laugh had no abandoned child in it, only coy hints of old escapades—lovemaking on beaches or in the back seats of cars, drunken parties in the houses of friends when the parents were far away in Cleveland or Detroit, and then, when she was older, affairs more serious and miserable. She had been married, briefly, to a man who had something to do with oil rigs. About that he knew a fair amount, though with her Anglo-Saxon ideas of what was proper— “Never complain, never explain”—she hated to speak of it.
In any case, the idea that the girl might be her daughter was groundless and absurd; if it remained, roaming in the dark of his mind, it remained against his will, like a rat in the basement, too canny to be poisoned or trapped. Even so, even after he’d rejected it utterly, he found that the groundless suspicion had subtly transmuted the way he saw her. He felt in his chest and at the pit of his stomach an echo of the anguish her parents must be feeling, a shadowy sorrow that, for all his notorious good fortune, made him feel helpless.
Strange images began to molest Nimram’s thoughts, memories of no real significance, yet intense, like charged images in a dream. Memories, ideas . 3. . It was hard to say what they were. It was as if he had indeed, by a careless misstep, slipped out of time, as if the past and present had collapsed into one unbroken instant, so that he was both himself and himself at sixteen, the age of the girl asleep beside him.
He was riding on a train, late at night, through Indiana, alone. The seats were once-red plush, old and stiff, discolored almost to black. There was a round black handle like the handle on a gearshift that one seized to make the back recline. Toward the rear of the car an old man in black clothes was coughing horribly, hacking as if to throw up his lungs. The conductor, sitting in the car’s only light, his black cap pulled forward to the rim of his glasses, was laboriously writing something, muttering, from time to time—never looking up from his writing toward the cougher—“God damn you, die!” It was so vivid it made his scalp prickle, the musical thrumming of wheels on rails as distinct in Nimram’s mind as the drone of the airplane he sat in. The wheels and rail joints picked up the muttered words, transforming them to music, a witless, everlastingly repetitive jingle: God damn you, die! (click) God damn you, die! (click) . . .
Sometimes he had awakened in terror, he remembered, riding on the train, convinced that the train had fallen off the tracks and was hurtling through space; but when he looked out the window at the blur of dark trees and shrubs rushing by, the ragged fields gray as bones in the moonlight, he would be reassured—the train was going lickety-split, but all was well. Though it seemed only an instant ago, if not happening right now, it seemed at the same time ages ago: he’d lived, since then, through innumerable train rides, bus rides, plane rides—lived through two marriages and into a third, lived through God knew how many playing jobs, conducting jobs, fund-raising benefits, deaths of friends. He’d lived through warplane formations over Brooklyn; explosions in the harbor, no comment in the papers; lived through the birth and rise of Israel, had conducted the Israel Philharmonic; lived through . . . but that was not the point. She was sixteen, her head hanging loose, free of the pillow, like a flower on a weak, bent stem. All that time, the time he’d already consumed too fast to notice he was losing it—it might have been centuries, so it felt to him now—was time the girl would never get.
It wasn’t pity he felt, or even anger at the general injustice of things; it was bafflement, a kind of shock that stilled the wits. If he were religious—he was, of course, but not in the common sense—he might have been furious at God’s mishandling of the universe, or at very least puzzled by the disparity between real and ideal. But none of that was what he felt. God had nothing to do with it, and the whole question of real and ideal was academic. Nimram felt only, looking at the girl—her skin off-color, her head unsupported yet untroubled by the awkwardness, tolerant as a corpse— Nimram felt only a profound helplessness: helplessly fortunate and therefore unfit, unworthy, his whole life light and unprofitable as a puffball, needless as ascending smoke. He hardly knew her, yet he felt now— knowing it was a lie but knowing also that if the girl were really his daughter it would be true—that if Nature allowed it, mother of tizzies and silences, he would change lives with the girl beside him in an instant.
Suddenly the girl cried out sharply and opened her eyes.
“Here now! It’s okay!" he said, and touched her shoulder.
She shook her head, not quite awake, disoriented. “Oh!” she said, and blushed—a kind of thickening of the yellow-gray skin. “Oh, I’m sorry!” She flashed her panicky smile. “I was having a dream.”
“Everything’s all right,” he said, “don’t worry now, everything’s fine.”
“It’s really funny,” she said, shaking her head again, so hard the soft hair flew. She drew back from him and raised her hands to her eyes. “It was the strangest dream!” she said, and lowered her hands to look out the window, squinting a little, trying to recapture what she’d seen. He saw that his first impression had been mistaken; it had not, after all, been a nightmare. “I dreamed I was in a room, a kind of moldy old cellar where there were animals of some kind, and when I tried to open the door—” She broke off and glanced around to see if anyone was listening. No one was awake. She slid her eyes toward him, wanting to go on but unsure of herself. He bent his head, waiting with interest. Hesitantly, she said, “When I tried to open the door, the doorknob came off in my hands. I started scraping at the door with my fingers and, somehow—” she scowled, trying to remember. “I don’t know, somehow the door broke away and I discovered that behind the door, where the world outside should be, there was— ” She broke off again, blushing. When she saw that he was waiting she shrugged self-consciously, then finished, “First there was dirt, but then it cracked like an egg, and there was this huge, like, parlor. Inside it there was every toy or doll I ever had that had been broken or lost, all in perfect condition.”
“Interesting dream,” he said, looking at her forehead, not her eyes; then, feeling that something more was expected, “Dreams are strange things.”
“I know.” She nodded, then quickly asked, “What time is it, do you know? How long before we get to Chicago?”
“They’re two hours ahead of us. According to my watch—”
Before he could finish, she broke in, “Yes, that’s right. I forgot.” A shudder went through her, and she asked, “Is it cold in here?”
“Freezing,” he said.
“Thank God!” She looked past him, out the window, and abruptly brightened. “It’s gotten nice out— anyway, I don’t see any lightning.” She gave her head a jerk, tossing back the hair.
“It’s behind us,” he said. “I see you’re not afraid anymore.”
“You’re wrong,” she said, and smiled. “But it’s true, it’s not as bad as it was. All the same, I‘m still praying.”
“Good idea,” he said.
She shot a quick look at him, then smiled uncertainly, staring straight ahead. “A lot of people don’t believe in praying and things,” she said. “They try to make you feel stupid for doing it, like when a boy wants to play the violin instead of trumpet or drums. In our orchestra at school the whole string section’s made up of girls except for one poor kid that plays viola.” She paused and glanced at him, then smiled. “It’s really funny how I never make sense when I talk to you.”
“Sure you do.”
She shrugged. “Anyway, some say there’s a God and some say there isn’t, and they’re both so positive you wouldn’t believe it. Personally, I’m not sure one way or the other, but when I’m scared I pray.”
“It’s like the old joke,” he began.
“Do you like music?” she asked. “Classical, I mean?”
Nimram frowned. “Oh, sometimes.”
“Who’s your favorite composer?”
It struck him for the first time that perhaps his favorite composer was Machaut. “Beethoven?” he said.
It was apparently the right answer. “Who’s your favorite conductor?”
He pretended to think about it.
“Mine’s Seiji Ozawa,” she said.
Nimram nodded, lips pursed. “I hear he’s very good.”
She shook her head again to get the hair out of her eyes. “Oh well,” she said. Some thought had possessed her, making her face formal, pulling the lines all downward. She folded her hands and looked at them, then abruptly, with an effort, lifted her eyes to meet his. “I guess I told you a kind of lie,” she said.
He raised his eyebrows.
“I do have a boyfriend, actually.” Quickly, as if for fear he might ask the young man’s name, she said, “You know how when you meet someone you want to sound more interesting than you are? Well—” She looked back at her folded hands, and he could see her forcing herself up to it. “I do this tragic act.”
...He sat very still, nervously prepared to grin, waiting.
She mumbled something, and when he leaned toward her she raised her voice, still without looking at him, her voice barely audible even now, and said, “I’m what they call ‘terminal,’ but, well, I mean, it doesn’t mean anything, you know? It’s sort of . . . The only time it makes me scared, or makes me cry, things like that, is when I say to myself in words, ‘I’m going to , ” He saw that it was true; if she finished the
sentence she would cry. She breathed very shallowly and continued, “If the airplane crashed, it wouldn’t make much difference as far as I’m concerned, just make it a little sooner, but just the same, when we were taking off, with the lightning and everything ...” Now she did, for an instant, look up at him. “I never make any sense.” Her eyes were full of tears.
“No,” he said, “you make sense enough.”
She was wringing her hands, smiling as if in terrible embarrassment, but smiling with pleasure too, the happiness lifting off as if defiantly above the deadweight of discomfort. “Anyway, I do have a boyfriend. He’s the one that plays viola, actually. He’s nice. I mean, he’s wonderful. His name’s Stephen.”She raised both hands to wipe the tears away. “I mean, it’s really funny. My life’s really wonderful.” She gave a laugh, then covered her face with both hands, her shoulders shaking.
He patted the side of her arm, saying nothing.
“The reason I wanted to tell you,” she said when she was able to speak, “is, you’ve really been nice. I didn’t want to—”
“That’s all right,” he said. “Look, that’s how we all are.”
“I know,” she said, and suddenly laughed, crying. “That really is true, isn’t it! It’s just like my uncle Charlie says. He lives with us. He’s my mother’s older brother. He says the most interesting thing about Noah’s ark is that all the animals on it were scared and stupid.”
“He really is wonderful,” she said, “except that he coughs all the time. He’s dying of emphysema, but mention that he ought to stop smoking his pipe, or mention that maybe he should go see a doctor, Uncle Charlie goes right through the ceiling. It’s really that spending money terrifies him, but he pretends it’s doctors he hates. Just mention the word and he starts yelling, ‘False prophets! Profiteers! Pill-pushers! Snake-handlers!’ He can really get loud. My father says we should tie him out front for a watchdog.” She laughed again.
Nimram’s ears popped. They were beginning the long descent. After a moment he said, “Actually, I haven’t been strictly honest with you, either. I’m not really in business.”
She looked at him, waiting with what seemed to him a curiously childish eagerness.
“I’m a symphony conductor.”
“Are you really?” she asked, lowering her eyebrows, studying him to see if he was lying. “What’s your name?”
“Benjamin Nimram,” he said.
Her eyes narrowed, and the embarrassment was back. He could see her searching her memory. “I think I’ve heard of you,” she said.
“Sic transit gloria mundi,” he said, mock-morose.
She smiled and pushed her hair back. “I know what that means,” she said.
The no-smoking sign came on. In the distance the earth was adazzle with lights.
In the lounge at O’Hare he spotted his wife at once, motionless and smiling in the milling crowd— she hadn’t yet seen him—her beret and coat dark red, almost black. He hurried toward her. Now she saw him and, breaking that stillness like the stillness of an old, old painting, raised her arm to wave, threw herself back into time, and came striding to meet him. He drew off and folded the dark glasses.
“Ben!” she exclaimed, and they embraced. “Honey, you look terrible!” She pulled back to look at him, then hugged him again. “On TV it said there was a thunderstorm in L.A., one of the worst ever. I was worried sick!”
“Now, now,” he said, holding her a moment longer. “So how were Poppa and Momma?”
“How was the flight?” she asked. “I bet it was awful! Did the man from the kennel come for Trixie?”
He took her hand and they started, moving with long, matched strides, toward the terminal.
“Trixie’s fine, the flight was fine, everything’s fine,” he said.
She tipped her head, mocking. “Are you drunk, Benjamin?”
They veered out, passing an old couple inching along on canes, arguing.
“I met a girl,” he said.
She checked his eyes. “Pretty?” she asked—laughingly, teasingly; but part of her was watching like a hawk. And why not, of course. He’d been married twice before, and they were as different, she and himself, as day and night. Why should she have faith? He thought again of the conviction he’d momentarily felt that the girl was her daughter. Sooner or later, he knew, he would find himself asking her about it; but not now. Scared and stupid, he thought, remembering, and the tuck at the corner of his mouth came back. He got an image of Noah’s ark as a great, blind, dumb thing nosing carefully, full of fear, toward the smell of Ararat.
“Too young,” he said. “Practically not yet of this world.”
They were walking very fast, as they always did, gliding smoothly past all the others. Now and then he glanced past his shoulder, hoping to spot Anne Curtis; but it was absurd, he knew. She’d be the last of the last, chattering, he hoped, or doing her tragic act. Arline’s coat flared out behind her and her face was flushed.
Almost as soon as she stepped off the plane, Anne Curtis found out from her father who it was L that had befriended her. The following night, when he conducted the Chicago Symphony in Mahler’s Fifth, she was in the audience, in the second balcony, with her parents. They arrived late, after the Water Music, with which Nimram had opened the program. Her father had gotten tickets only at the last minute, and it was a long drive in from LaGrange. They edged into their seats while the orchestra was being rearranged, new instruments being added, the people who’d played the Handel scrunching forward and closer together.
She had never before seen a Mahler orchestra—nine French horns, wave on wave of violins and cellos, a whole long row of gleaming trumpets, brighter than welders’ lights, another of trombones, two rows of basses, four harps. It was awesome, almost frightening. It filled the vast stage from wingtip to wingtip like some monstrous black creature too enormous to fly, guarding the ground with its head thrust forward—the light-drenched, empty podium. When the last of the enlarged orchestra was assembled and the newcomers had tuned, the houselights dimmed, and as if at some signal invisible to commoners, the people below her began to clap, then the people all around her. Now she too was clapping, her mother and father clapping loudly beside her, the roar of applause growing louder and deeper, drawing the conductor toward the light. He came like a panther, dignified yet jubilant, flashing his teeth in a smile, waving at the orchestra with both long arms. He shook hands with the concertmaster, bounded to the podium—light shot off his hair— turned to the audience and bowed with his arms stretched wide, then straightened, chin high, as if reveling in their pleasure and miraculous faith in him. Then he turned, threw open the score—the applause sank away—and for a moment studied it like a man reading dials and gauges of infinite complexity. He picked up his baton; they lifted their instruments. He threw back his shoulders and raised both hands till they were level with his jaw, where he held them still, as if casting a spell on his army of musicians, motionless as a crowd in suspended animation, the breathless dead of the whole world’s history, awaiting the impossible. And then his right hand moved—nothing much, almost playful—and the trumpet call began, a kind of warning both to the auditorium, tier on tier of shadowy white faces rising in the dark, and to the still orchestra bathed in light. Now his left hand moved and the orchestra stirred, tentative at first, but presaging such an awakening as she’d never before dreamed of. Then something new began, all that wide valley of orchestra playing, calm, serene, a vast sweep of music as smooth and sharp-edged as an enormous scythe—she had never in her life heard a sound so broad, as if all of humanity, living and dead, had come together for one grand onslaught. The sound ran, gathering its strength, along the ground, building in intensity, full of doubt, even terror, but also fury, and then—amazingly, quite easily—lifted. She pressed her father’s hand as Benjamin Nimram, last night, had pressed hers.
Her mother leaned toward her, tilting like a tree to high wind. “Are you sure that’s him?” she asked.
“Of course it is,” she said.
Sternly, the man behind them cleared his throat. □