Unaccompanied Cello
by Howard Waldman


Nobody knew for sure why the patients in the Fuller Rehabilitation Center, deprived of so many other things, were denied television as well. They could have done with a little entertainment, though, after painful sessions in the brace-fitting unit, repeated efforts to bend their elbow or knee an extra fraction of an inch, confrontation with gravity after marvelous mobility in the hydrotherapy pool, the periodic ache of a lost limb, and the related ache of a lost love. This last pain was particularly acute on Sundays, when they stared out of windows for hours in hope of a visit that seldom materialized.

Those windows were the closest to TV screens in the institution. They offered an invariable program of cracking units, disused factories, and gigantic scrap heaps. According to one theory, the mountains of crushed cars created a magnetic zone that sabotaged reception, reducing Lucille Ball and Lassie to ghosts flitting about in a snowstorm.

Every year the scrawny roof antenna was raised higher in an attempt to poke free of this confusion and grab the images of a brighter existence sweeping by overhead. At the end, before a gale snapped it off, the antenna resembled a gigantic orthopedic device advertising the services of the Rehabilitation Center.

Dr. Rosen, head of the psychological support unit, finally persuaded the Director to invest in a private cinema with a stage for occasional live performances. The weekly screenings featured cheap rentals of prewar movies, mainly category B. Considerations of economy also presided over the choice of live performers, generally semi-professionals, working what they called "the cripple circuit." It paid poorly but guaranteed, they thought, a grateful audience, in any case a captive one.

But things didn't always go smoothly for those live performers, as the recently appointed Activities Director soon found out. Didn't go smoothly for her, either. Probably hadn't gone smoothly for her predecessors. She was the third Activities Director in less than a year.

Gladys Foley was a thin, recently divorced woman in her early forties with a dogged smile, harried blue eyes, and poor nights. In her occasional optimistic moments she thought she did a satisfactory job in her major areas of responsibility: arts and crafts, the library, vocational training, and outings. Unfortunately, she was also in charge of those chaotic Saturday afternoon sessions that threatened her, she was convinced, with immanent loss of employment.

It was the fault of the unruly juvenile patients. Not the ones on the wheeled stretchers, poor lambs, incapable of any kind of unruliness, but the mobile ones in wheelchairs. Gladys was always careful to feel sorry for them too but there were limits. They couldn't keep still. They spun about in their chairs, they chattered, they bickered, they snickered, they yelped disruptive comments. This was bad enough during the movie, but at least the screen actors could go about their one-dimensional business unperturbed, unlike the flesh-and-blood performers. The children's meows had already sabotaged a poodle act. The parents, sitting alongside them, didn't dare intervene. So Gladys had had to plead with the group collectively, with no result.

Stronger measures were clearly in order. The children took cynical advantage of their handicaps. Last week their concerted boos and whistles had rattled a young juggler. He received a billiard ball on his head, whereupon the children burst out laughing, their laughter detonating adult laughter, until the juggler fled the stage in disgrace.

The Monday following the billiard ball fiasco, Gladys encountered the hatchet-faced Director in a corridor, nightmarishly empty except for the two of them, no place to hide, impossible to flee. Her deferent twitch of a smile and murmured greeting got no response except for a tightening of his mouth as he strode past her.

A few minutes later she encountered old, limping Dr. Rosen in another empty corridor. That close to him and by the window she couldn't help noticing the peculiar leaden no-color of his face, like the sky over the scrap heaps, and she recalled for an instant, before it was shouldered aside by her own problem, a colleague's information that Dr. Rosen was extremely ill and would be retiring soon. She couldn't know that this was his very last week in the Center.

But Dr. Rosen didn't make an issue of his health. He replied "Fine" to Gladys's automatic "How are you, Dr. Rosen?" Still professionally acute, he touched her bare arm and asked, "What's troubling you?" She told him tumultuously and in great detail. In what he thought was his final act of psychological support, he tried to reassure her: the Director's rudeness meant nothing, he often acted as though the staff were glass, perfectly invisible. Dr. Rosen's hand on her arm was more consoling than his words.

So, unconvinced, Gladys lost no time visiting the children involved, tight-mouthed herself, and "read them the riot act," as she put it. The fat one looked tearful and muttered "sorry" (but he wasn't); the cross-eyed one said defiantly, "It wasn't me" (it was); the ringleader, the freckled redhead, just grinned and didn't say anything (a bad sign). She warned that in the case of further misbehavior the guilty party or parties would be deprived of movies, for a month. She didn't add that in the case of further misbehavior she herself was sure to be deprived of her job, for good. That information would only have encouraged them to continue misbehaving.

To make things worse, next Saturday's program was sure to tempt the devil in them. Not Flaming Guns, starring Tom Mix on top of Tony (his horse), but the insane live thing that preceded the movie, far worse than jittery poodles and inexpertly juggled billiard balls. Her predecessor, before he was fired after a month on the job, had had the weird idea of programming a cultural cello recital featuring Sebastian Bach, the religious composer. Gladys respected culture and religion but wondered if Sebastian Bach would go down well here. Above all, she apprehended the reaction of the disruptive trio.

The looming Bach recital monopolized her brain, day and night. From one point of view, it provided relief from the other things that habitually gnawed at her, but she didn't see it that way. Her snatches of sleep were riddled with nightmares about Saturday afternoon. In one, she stood on the stage in her underclothing, confiding painful intimate things to the packed audience. They howled with laughter except for leaden-faced Dr. Rosen, who listened with deep sympathy. Then she saw the Director glaring at her and she tried to become transparent glass, couldn't, and broke into tears. She woke up, her face wet.

She saw her unimpressed doctor about it the next day.


At exactly three o'clock that Saturday afternoon, the curtains parted on Gladys Foley standing unsteadily on the stage alongside the artist, both in a circle of light. Despite the threatened cello recital, the Recreation Room was packed, the way it had been in the nightmare. There were the patients, the indispensable attendants, a scattering of visitors, and Dr. Rosen.

To her horror, Gladys saw, again as in the nightmare, the hatchet-faced Director. He had never attended a Saturday performance before. She felt terribly opaque. She heard no sounds from the children's section, but impaired hearing, along with dizziness, seemed to be a side effect of the Librium her doctor had prescribed for her nerves. Doubling the dose hadn't been wise, she now realized.

Problems began seconds after the curtains parted, coming from an unexpected quarter. Introducing the strange-looking little man in black tie clasping his cello case, she tripped over his impossible name. He instantly corrected her in his thick foreign accent:

"No, please, Madame, my name is Belowkovsky, Vladimir Be-low-kov-sky. And one must not forget Bella."

Gladys looked about but saw no woman there to be introduced. She blinked and continued:

"Mr. Bel . . . ah . . . our guest will be playing, just for us, a wonderful piece by the well-known composer, Sebastian Bach . . ."

He corrected her again in front of everybody, in front of the Director himself.

"More precisely, Madame, a suite, by Johann Sebastian Bachhh."

He pronounced Bach not as she had, like "Back," but with an unpleasant terminal sound like clearing a throat full of mucus, prior to sloppy expectoration. Three corrections in six words! She blinked twice and got it over with.

"Well, whatever, we are simply thrilled to have you here this afternoon and I am sure that everybody will listen with great attention and pleasure."

Saying that, she stared insistently in one direction, stepped out of the spotlight and, perilously, off the stage. She practically collapsed on a chair behind the children.

Dizziness, nausea, itching, headache: now she was getting, frontally, all of the listed side-effects of the tranquilizer and none of its promised tranquillity. She summoned up a sharp shh! to cut off nascent snickering and clapped hard to prime the applause pump. The audience responded (those who physically could), but sluggishly.

Vladimir Be-low-kov-sky stood like a giant solemn beetle in his evening clothes between the music stand with an open score and a small table with a pitcher of water and a glass. He presented his shiny bald dome flanked by great outcrops of hair as he bowed to the dying applause, pivoting ten degrees between each bow, five in all. He sat down, brought forth his cello and pointed at it.

"First, permit that I introduce Bella. Without Bella, Vladimir Belowkovsky is what? Is nothing! You are perhaps surprised that my instrument possesses name. But have not ships names, often female names, such as Queen Mary, celebrated liner? Or cannons too, celebrated Big Bertha? So why not musical instrument? You want to know how much costs Bella. In America, always this question: how much costs? Millions of dollars, you think. No. She is not Bella Stradivarius, not Bella Amati or Bella Guarneri, all celebrated Italian instrument makers, you must know. No such super star, Bella, no! Simply Bella Belowkovsky. Enough for me, enough for her."

The musician pulled the instrument between his knees and detailed her parts from top to bottom, starting with the tuning pegs. His hand slowly descended down Bella's long graceful neck, passing over the flanks of the voluptuous torso, and then caressed the belly, "fine spruce, smooth like satin." Unnecessary to explain the strings, he said, for soon under his brazil-wood horsehair bow, those strings shall whisper, cry, moan and pray, ecstatic with the Bach Suite for Unaccompanied Cello in G major, BWV 1007.

He pivoted Bella on her end pin and displayed her back, slowly passing his hand over the gleaming surface, choice maple wood, he explained, fifteen coats of varnish.

"But I have forgot essential thing," he said, pivoting Bella about again. "Note please the f-hole, for sonority and to enter Bella for humidification." He fingered the left hand sinuous opening shaped like a seahorse, and then the right-hand one. "Two f-holes as you can see."

Senseless snickering started up in the adult part of the audience and, like sparks on tinder, instantly inflamed the children's section. In the presence of the Director! As if they all knew her job was at stake: terrifying malevolence. Gladys nipped the disorder in the bud with a sibilant shhh! cutting off the snickerers everywhere. She tried to see how the Director was reacting to her prompt intervention, but from where she was seated, he was hidden by a pillar, as was Dr. Rosen. What was so funny, anyhow, Gladys wondered. The presentation of the cello was instructive, and she regretted she had no paper and pen to take notes.

Gladys shifted her gaze from the pillar to the musician. He seemed to be staring at her in bewilderment and discontent. Could it be that he totally misunderstood the situation, taking her shhh on his behalf for a sabotaging hiss? But now he looked away and scanned the entire audience and went on.

"So. I must now, after Bella, introduce to you J.S. Bach (1685-1750). J.S. Bach, as you have to know, was a most profilic man . . . prokific man . . . prolific, prolific, most prolific man: twenty-seven masses, two hundred and ninety cantatas, twenty wives, two children . . ."

More impolite adult snickers. The disorder was spreading. Belowkovsky's glare silenced them before Gladys, trying to digest his incredible information, could intervene.

"No, no, what do I say? In your mind you have corrected me: twenty children, of course, two wives, of course. But enough. So: First Suite for Unaccompanied Cello in G major, BWV 1007 by J.S. Bach."

He pulled Bella between his knees, her neck on his shoulder and approached the bow. It froze above the strings. He withdrew it, disengaged from the cello and addressed the audience again with a worried expression.

"Do not misunderstand. Two wives, yes, but not situlameous . . . silutameous . . . si-mu-l-tan-e-ous . . . si-mu-l-tan-e-ous two wives, no, no. No Moslem, J.S. Bach. To the contrary, devout Lutheran. So, first wife: Maria-Barbara, beloved, beloved cousin, seven children. After death of beloved Maria-Barbara, Anna Magdalena, beloved too, thirteen children. In all, then, twenty children, among who, Emmanuel Bach, Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach, Wilhelm Friedmann Bach, Johann Christian Friedrich Bach, Johann Christian Bach, etcetera, etcetera, too boring to enumerate all. So: First Suite for Unaccompanied cello in G major, BWV 1007 by J.S. Bach."

He drew the cello close, approached the bow, then lowered it and sat stone-still in sudden reflection. He stared at the audience.

"BWV 1007. You wonder, perhaps, about what means BWV 1007. Foolish woman at concert once asks (joke perhaps? I think not, I think rather stupidness, deep deep stupidness) 'BWV 1007?' she asks. 'Bach had car? Never heard of that model.' So she said. Stupidness. Cars in eighteenth century! BMV is, of course, catalogue: Bach Werke Verzeichnis. Nothing, but absolutely nothing to do with BMW, double-you, double-you, BMW, Bayerische Motoren Werke, manufacturer of powerful costly automobiles. Stupidness. Enough."

Again the musician announced the work. Again he postponed the promised music in favor, this time, of a long drink of water. It involved a suspicious sniff and then audible gulps, a bobbing adam's apple and a terminal ahhh of satisfaction. Gladys stifled a yawn and issued another preventive shhh. He was rather eccentric, but it appeared classical musicians often were. It was no reason for laughing. Her eyelids weighed a ton. She could hear from a great distance the little man explaining the meaning of "suite," dance movements, and in a soporific drone enumerating them: Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Bourrée, Gavotte, Gigue . . .


A crash and a storm of laughter awoke her. The musician was frozen in the attitude that had unleashed disaster, his left hand clutching Bella by the neck, his other arm still outflung in the gesture of bow attack, but his hand empty, the bow lying a yard from his feet, close to the fragments of the pitcher of water that his impetuous elbow had knocked off the table. Guilt stabbed Gladys Foley, as though her relaxed vigilance was responsible for the accident. She stood up unsteadily, summoned all the air she could in her lungs, and expelled it in a mighty indignant shhhh!. It silenced the laughter.

The musician muttered angrily in a guttural alien language as he leaned the cello against the table and picked up the bow, which he examined minutely. Satisfied, Vladimir Belowkovsky positioned himself above the chair, tugged at his trousers, a prudent crease-preserving gesture, and slowly lowered himself. In midcourse, knees bent at an angle of thirty degrees, a violent ripping sound filled the auditorium. The musician froze, his face blank. He dispatched his hand on a reconnoitering mission to the seat of his pants. A look of horror, and the destructive laughter started, everywhere.

"Stop it!" Gladys cried out. "Stop that laughter immediately!"

They all stopped laughing and turned about, those who could, and stared at her, the glaring face of the Director appearing from behind the pillar, staring at her, glaring at her, not at the perturbers, at her, at her; and now all those faces distorted with her tears and suddenly old Dr. Rosen with his furrowed leaden face bent over her, his hand touching her bare arm, the metallic smell of his breath as he whispered that in his opinion it was all right if the audience laughed because the musician was actually a comedian and hoped that the audience would laugh, that if people didn't laugh he would be very disappointed.

She fled the auditorium in tears.


Dr. Rosen mastered the deep pain, persistent for two days now, and limped after her into an empty corridor where she was standing before a window, shoulders heaving. Between her sobs, he heard the distant cello launch into Dvorak's Humoresque (with occasional false notes, but maybe that too was for laughs), grotesquely inappropriate background music to all the misery of her life that she was now pouring out: motherless at nine, her terrible father, her unhappy marriage, the divorce, so many other things. She begged him to be her doctor, you listen to me, my doctor doesn't listen to me, nobody listens to me, ever, please be my doctor.

Dr. Rosen's hand on her arm provided comfort, but his words were cruelly devoid of comfort and she cried harder when he declined, explaining, apologetically, that this was his last day here at the Center, that from now on he would be more a patient himself than a doctor, that was life, give and take. He succeeded in calming her.


Dr. Rosen found the musician on the parking lot, barely recognizable, rejuvenated with his vigorous head of hair, easing his cello case onto the rear seat of a beat-up Dodge. He'd already shed his wig there.

Dr. Rosen said: "Thank you very much for the performance, Mr. Belowkovsky."

"Just plain Bellow. Thanks for the thanks but thanks for what?" He'd shed his Russian accent along with the Russian name, but not his sad expression. "Some days it's hard to raise a laugh. This was the worst ever. That woman."

"It's a special audience. No, the woman didn't help things either. She meant well though. Do you really play the Bach piece?"

"Only if I can make them laugh first. It's a theory I have. If they don't laugh they get the Humoresque."

"I was sorry you didn't perform it. The Bach, I mean. That's why I came."

Bellow pulled the cello case out of the car.

"Audience of one but beggars can't be choosers. Outdoor acoustics, though. And I'm not Pablo Casals."

He sat at one end of a bench, the cello between his knees, Dr. Rosen on the other end, his eyes closed.

The meagre Fuller Rehabilitation grounds were almost empty. Practically everybody was inside the Recreation Room, watching Flaming Guns. A few nurses and attendants strolled over, stayed a minute to listen and watch, then strolled away.

Bellow didn't go past the Prelude.

"As I said, I'm no Casals," he said, placing the cello back in the case.

"There's only one Casals," said Dr. Rosen. "Thank you very much."

Bellow stared at the circular raised flower bed with pansies shivering in the tart April wind, then at the Center's solitary tree, an elm pruned hard to the point of mutilation, so still leafless.

"I work hospitals mainly. I don't do it for the money. I have a full-time job in a bank."

He looked at a smudge of black smoke dragging across the grey sky and made no effort to move. He wanted to talk, Dr. Rosen understood. He would be the last of the talkers. Dr. Rosen got up painfully and sat next to him for his final act of psychological support.

"I always wanted to perform before an audience. Like some kids dream of conducting a locomotive. A real performance and a real audience. This is the best I can manage. First time, it was straight Bach. They laughed. I was angry. Then I started playing it for laughs and now when they don't laugh I'm angry. The music gets lost in the shuffle. I don't know, maybe I should take up golf. Running out of hospitals anyhow."

Dr. Rosen touched his arm. "Don't do that. You've got real talent." He was careful not to specify: talent for laughs.

Bellow shook his hand thankfully, stowed his cello-case, and drove off.


From the bench Dr. Rosen watched the Dodge dwindling in the industrial landscape, crawling past the car cemetery it would soon join, making for the freeway. The pain, muted during the exchange with the comedian-musician, returned full force. Perhaps to escape it, he thought of the woman who was sure to lose her job--how did she ever get it?--and wondered if he couldn't find something for her somewhere. He'd have to take care of it fast, while he still had the necessary energy. He thought of the mediocre cellist who had run out of captive audiences and wondered if he couldn't find other hospitals for him.

He closed his eyes and summoned up the Prelude to the First Suite, not in Bellow's but in the vastly improved Casals's version. From elegiac it modulated into funereal. He tried to get free of it. It went on.

But then from the third-floor Recreation Room windows came shots and a thunder of hooves and the children going joyously Yay! Yay! and for a few seconds he was free of the pain, the scrap heaps, the mutilated elm, and the funereal music of the unaccompanied cello.


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