by Robert Wexelblatt
Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University's College of General Studies. He has published essays, stories, and poems in a wide variety of journals (including Amarillo Bay); two story collections, Life in the Temperate Zone and The Decline of Our Neighborhood; a book of essays, Professors at Play; and the novel Zublinka Among Women, winner of the First Prize for Fiction, Indie Book Awards, 2008.
Last July 17, a Thursday, in a basement practice room of the Rheinach Center, Rudolf Kanter (26) scuffled with Arnold Pracht (41). At the time both were composers-in-residence at the White Mountains Music Festival, then in the second of its three weeks. The younger man had the better of the brawl, knocking the older down—twice, allegedly—resulting in bruising to Pracht's cheek and jaw, a contusion on his left side, and a sprained right wrist. Kanter sustained minor scraping on his knuckles. There was a single witness to this event, Marie McDermott, a twenty-two-year-old violinist.
Kanter and Pracht both remained at the Festival until their respective commissioned works were performed, but Ms. McDermott departed on the afternoon of July 17. She returned to her home in Benton, Indiana, making no formal or informal statement to anyone.
Arnold Pracht did not press a criminal charge against Kanter. However, on August 4 a local lawyer acting on his behalf filed a civil suit in a New Hampshire court demanding damages in the sum of $100,000. By then Kanter had gone back to his home in Brooklyn and Pracht to his in Vienna.
Rudolf Kanter was served with papers on August 6. He informed his parents, who immediately contacted their regular firm. The case was put into the hands of Frederick Rosen, Esquire, a member of the bar of New Hampshire as well as New York. Rudolf offered no account of his actions to Rosen beyond saying that Arnold Pracht got what he deserved and that the latter's assertion in his filing that the attack was "malicious, unprovoked, and owing to professional jealousy" was false on all three points.
A Conversation with My Sister
Helena, then in the second year of her clinical psychology program at Stanford, phoned me the week after I returned from the Christmas Break. I was in the middle of my freshman year at Penn.
She started right in. "It's about this friend of yours."
"I'm talking about the one who stayed at the house last week."
"We all missed you terribly."
"Sure, I hated not being there."
"No, you didn't."
"How about barely noticed'?"
She knew I was teasing, knew I knew she missed me but also that I was happy for her and the guy she called DSB—decidedly serious boyfriend—Jack from Santa Rosa with whom she'd spent the holidays, laboring at her thesis, eating California rolls, making love. I'd always vetted Helena's beaux and, to my considerable pride, she'd attended to what I said, nearly always acted on it, regretted when she didn't. Jack had made the fearsome trip east during the summer to be vetted big time. He'd earned my imprimatur, a big thumbs-up that delighted Helena. I thought Jack was a great guy, even if he was in dental school. He won me over by not trying to and because he treated my sister with a combination of adoration and irony. I also approved of the tact with which he coped with our parents. Father was stiff with him and said little, like a distracted drill sergeant; Mother, on the other hand, was as inquisitive as a prosecutor at Nuremberg. My parents had the customary prejudice against potential mates of the non-Chinese variety and the usual single-minded dedication to the achievements of their offspring. Second-generation successes, my folks: Dad, a taciturn plasma physicist; Mom, a voluble and well-paid radiologist—both with standards more exacting than those of the quality control folks at Lexus. They weren't unaware of being Chinese-American stereotypes; they simply didn't care, not so long as Helena won her gymnastics title, played Chopin without dropping a note, and got early admission into Harvard. If anything, I was even more of a white sheep, not because my grades were better than Helena's, but because I was more dutiful. In her teen years my sister cultivated her gift for being disagreeable, elevating it to high art. I admired her for contradicting Father and still more for daring to go up against Mother. To Helena's credit, she never ridiculed me for being submissive. In her early, Freudian stage she once said, "Well look, Harry, it's no fault of yours Mom implanted that super-colossal Superego inside you. You naturally think it's your voice insisting you press your nose against the grindstone, never talk back, and get a 4.0. Of course you think it's your very own Jiminy Cricket letting you have it. But it's not, kid. It's Mom."
I loved my big sister. Like the DSB, I treated her with adoration. With irony was how she treated me.
"So what about Rudi?" I asked.
"Just wanted to give you a heads-up."
"They've been telling you that they don't approve of him."
"Don't suppose you needed me to pick up on that."
"No, it wasn't exactly hard. But it all bounced off Rudi—the scorn, disdain, suspicion, the horror."
"So what then?"
"Well, it's kind of interesting actually. Seems they can't figure it out."
"The friendship, you and Rudi. I mean they're sure of you. You've never put a foot wrong; you made it through your entire adolescence without slamming a door."
"Okay. We've been over this. I didn't rebel. I admit it, which doesn't mean I like hearing about it."
"I know, I know. Sorry. Okay, so this Rudi struck them as somebody you wouldn't like. Mom said he wore a muffler around his neck the whole time and insisted on cooking a soufflé and then ruined the whole dinner quizzing Dad about Heisenberg. She said he even told a Chinese joke, for God's sake. Did he really?"
"Muffler, yes; Heisenberg query check, but no Chinese joke. He quoted a proverb; it's just that they'd never heard it before. I can't believe they thought it was a joke."
"So, what was it? The proverb."
"'Happiness is when the grandfather dies, then the father dies, then the son dies.' That sound like a knee-slapper to you?"
"Sounds morbid to me."
"You had to be there."
"She said he smokes all the time."
"Tobacco. Mostly. And not while he's brushing his teeth."
"And he's saving up to buy a Picasso?"
"He can afford one."
"Mom said he's wild and lazy and undisciplined. I guess what she means is transgressive."
"Oh, Grandma, what big words you have."
"Hey, kid. I'm in grad school; you're just a lowly freshman."
"Rudi Kanter's cool. I'd say he's the best of everything I'm not."
I felt it was time to change the subject. "How's the dentist-in-waiting."
"Still waiting—usually on me. But don't evade the issue. What they can't figure is what you see in this Rudi."
"Oh, that's easy. He taught me about Debussy, Lenny Bruce, Piet Mondrian, Thomas Mann, Gustav Mahler, Eugene Ionesco, Le Corbusier, the Marx Brothers, and Bill Evans—and that's just the half of it, and that's in just one semester. Rudi knows Latin, Greek, French, and German. He does symbolic logic. He writes wonderful music and plays four instruments. He calls up girls he doesn't even know. He tap dances. I can't say if he's transgressive because I don't know exactly what that means. Disobedient? Irreverent? I think the puzzler is what he sees in me. In fact, I've been meaning to ask him."
My sister had the loveliest way of shutting up and she did that then, long-distance, just like when we were sitting together, a pair of over-achieving schemers who'd reached a consensus.
"I'm so lucky," she said suddenly, from the heart.
"Sure you are."
"I mean that they named me Helena. It's good they went for visual alliteration or I could have been Susan Hsu. Then I'd have to correct everybody's pronunciation—'Sue Sue,' and I'd sound like one of those giant pandas everybody stares at waiting for them to reproduce. I'm glad you're enamored of your supercool friend and learning so much. By the way, Groucho or Chico?"
"Boxers or briefs?"
This was an old joke of ours, a souvenir of our comfy sibling solidarity.
The Road to Benton
I rented a red Chrysler convertible at the Indianapolis airport and played CDs of Torroba, Thelonius Monk, and Brahms as I meandered my air-conditioned way south, more or less following the Wabash's turbid progress toward the Ohio. This was flat farm country in two tones of green—soy and corn—echt Midwest, the heartland, and not so long ago a hotbed of the Ku Klux Klan.
When Rudi phoned me he hadn't sounded like he was in any trouble. I knew about the Festival and thought he'd called just to tell me he was back in town and how it had all gone. We'd always kept in touch and saw each other every other week or so. He'd come over from Brooklyn Heights and we'd meet at some bar or restaurant or rendezvous at Chelsea Piers. In good weather we'd walk by the Hudson or over the Brooklyn Bridge. Rudi loved Roebling's span and accounted it the finest piece of public art in America, closely followed by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. In fact, when he phoned he'd told me a bit about the Festival—what the accommodations were like, things people had said for and against his Pastorale. As always, he'd begun with the same little joke, asking if I'd gotten married—or my sister divorced—since we last spoke. Rudi once explained that teasing is a fruitful method of dealing with the world if one likes the place well enough yet can't quite bring oneself to join it. Teasing he called a social attainment of the half-hearted and the whimsical, "people willing to treat anybody like a child." He certainly liked teasing me, so it was always significant when he didn't. This was the case when, in our junior year, I finally did ask him why he wanted me as a friend. It wasn't an easy question to pose; it could have sounded like angling for praise or, worse, the prelude to a brush-off. But Rudi seemed to grasp what I meant. He was an aristocrat, had gone to prep school, was imaginative, facile, well-dressed, cultured, traveled, a jack-in-the-box for wit, exhilarating and grueling company in the way a companionable pyrotechnic display might be. I was the obedient son of immigrant strivers, publicly educated, a plugger, always anxious; and I thought myself a dull foil for the brilliant diamond he so obviously was. The foil might be excused for admiring the jewel but why should a diamond take an interest in what merely sets it off?
Rudi had lived on my hall our first year; thereafter he had his own condo. His father had been advised to buy one for him, though Rudi protested he preferred to go on living in the dorms. If absolutely necessary, he might live in the house of one of the WASPy fraternities that were courting him like mad. But he didn't want to move off campus. Rudi performed a good imitation of his father, who had the eccentricity of emphasizing his nouns, as if he were speaking German: "If we've got the capital, son, we buy a condo, then sell it for a nice profit when you graduate. Assuming the market keeps rising, it could pay for half of your tuition, maybe more. Stupid not to do it . . ." Rudi grimaced. "And that, mon frère chinois, is how the rich get richer."
So we were lounging in his off-campus living room, feet on the glass-topped coffee table. Rudi was smoking marijuana and I was sipping a pale ale when I put the question: what made him want to be my friend in the first place and then persist in it? For once he didn't toss off an epigram. He took his time, let the question hover over us like the blue smoke from his joint. Then he rather gravely said, "I see an American." I rubbed my hairless Chinese chin and tried to make sense of this. The implication was that I was closer to being the genuine article than he.
Hauling ass across the flat bosom of the motherland in my Chrysler last August I recalled this conversation and wondered if that was what he really meant and, if so, why it mattered to him. Did Rudolph Kanter, with birthrights to cash and culture, see me romantically as a Representative American, my chinoiserie notwithstanding? Did he see me as a bootstrap-puller, a self-inventor, a Franklin-Whitman-Emerson-Lincoln-Ford, a strait-laced, slant-eyed Gatsby? Next to Rudi I always felt slow and inadequate, and he appreciated this, allowed for it, tried to mitigate it. Was he telling me I had something he lacked and could never have? Did he actually like that I was such a Good Boy, yearned for my parents' approval, was uncorrupted either by trust funds or special talents like his flair for writing dirty poems in Latin or charming, clever, touching music?
Rudi had asked to meet and suggested the Danube, a new restaurant he'd praised. It was down in Tribeca. So that's where we got together.
There was some preliminary chit-chat, but as soon as he got into the Pracht story I interrupted him.
"Give me a dollar."
"Then I'll be your lawyer."
"I've already got a lawyer. Old family retainer. Well, not all that old, actually."
"So you'll have two lawyers. It's protection, Rudi. This way anything you tell me is privileged."
He took out his billfold and handed me three dollars. "You should never under-charge," he joked. "Your clients won't respect you."
I pocketed the bills. "Okay, now tell me exactly what happened."
And he did, his version of it, at least.
A respectable firm of corporate lawyers (who never under-charged) recruited me straight out of Columbia Law School, saying they liked the undergraduate degree from Wharton and were impressed by the diligence demonstrated by my grades and glowing recommendations—they praised everything except my Asiatic face which, I suspected, was the real selling-point. They were a homogeneous bunch, white from the shoes on up; they needed some kind of minority or other. Now that I'd worked my tail off for two years, I was entitled to a week's vacation. After lunch with Rudi, I decided to take it at once. I meant to go to Benton and talk to Marie McDermott. At least I would try.
I had a tough time persuading Rudi. He didn't seem to want the violinist approached. That, he said, is why he hadn't told his "real" lawyer about her. But I pressed him. I pointed out that the other side might subpoena her as a witness anyway.
"That's for sure not going to happen," he said wagging a finger at me.
"Well, then. Is it that you think she won't bear you out?"
"There's some other reason?"
He twisted in his seat. "Maybe you could ask her for an affidavit or something?"
"An affidavit might not be admissible. Anyway, the other side would have to be given a crack at her. And then they'd certainly subpoena her—which, in my opinion, is what you should do. According to your story you're her hero, right?"
"Maybe. I don't actually know."
Rudi smiled ironically. "Because she's even more Chinese than you are."
"Inscrutable." Rudi laughed hollowly. "Besides, she never thanked me."
It's a capital error to put an unwilling witness on the stand the substance of whose testimony is, moreover, unknown to you. But I didn't say this to Rudi, who was looking more and more like he was on the point of firing me. He really was in a spot.
"Look," I said. "I'll phone her up. Just see if she's willing to talk. To me, I mean. Then we can decide. You don't have to do a thing. That okay?"
"You mean you'd go out there and interview her? She's somewhere in Indiana, I think. That's a long way, Harry."
"Well, I've known you a long time."
Pracht v. Kanter
It is possible that whoever was responsible for choosing two composers to reside at the White Mountains Music Festival judged contrasts piquant: an established European and an American still on the make; one difficult, the other accessible; two distinctive takes on tradition—something like that. The question of whether they would get along, much less come to blows, is unlikely to have been discussed even by a committee staffed by people well informed about how prickly and competitive musicians are. But perhaps I am doing these people an injustice. Maybe they just had a sense of humor or reckoned if some sparks flew as high as the peaks of the Presidential range it would be exciting. "An event! . . . Yes, and so educational for the youngsters." The youngsters: I'm not satisfied that the committee gave adequate consideration to them.
In our senior year, while I was sweating out my LSAT score, Rudi announced his decision to study musical composition and to do so in Paris. He cast his choice to me—and very likely to his family—in terms of historical inevitability.
"They say, and persuasively too, that every great fortune is founded on a great crime. Well then, assuming the family manages to hold on to it, the money gets laundered in a generation or two and the family turns law-abiding. The robber baron is succeeded by the banker and the surgeon, then come the academics and philanthropists, until, at last, we descend to the artist. I've decided to be that artist. Painting's messy, writing's tedious, sculpting requires muscles, acting demands both exhibitionism and talent. So I've decided to write music."
Never mind that he'd been writing music since he was nine. Still, it was a novelty to think of Rudi actually wanting something, bracing to witness this brilliant but languorous dilettante contemplating the rigors of professionalism.
So after graduation Rudi and I went our separate ways, both determined to work hard and make our ways in the world. We kept up with each other by email and phone and whenever Rudi flew home to New York we'd get together. He'd tell me outrageous tales about European women and tease me about my own anemic social life, which was arranged exclusively by my mother.
Rudi returned from Paris after two years, buoyant as a fresh cork and with a quantity of finished work. He had some early success, not all of it due to family connections, though his relatives probably wanted to manage his career the way mine did my sex life. His first big break was the premiere in Baltimore of his Piano Concerto. Typically, he sent me his own review.
"Young Mr. Kanter's music inclines toward the tuneful and witty rather than the daunting or deep. Imagine Poulenc without the Catholicism or Rossini at twenty-three. All the same, it's not just a matter of smooth surfaces. The Andante is built on a melancholy melody that moves in both senses. The composer seems to have been promiscuously influenced. The dissonances of the finale are redolent of both be-bop and Bartok. Regarding tradition, young Kanter expresses his regard for it, broadly defined, in an inverted way, via a sort of affectionate irreverence. This boy may have promise but so far seems more concerned to please with glossiness than to abrade or delve, preferring to juggle with what's been done rather than take the risk of originality, assuming he's capable of any."
The actual reviews were more glowing, but less interesting and also, I thought, less perceptive. The fact was that Rudi did crave immediate success. He claimed his Concerto was the result of calculation rather than inspiration. In my opinion this was true in a way and false in a way. Rudi can't help writing playfully, wittily, ingratiatingly, because that is his character. And he is sufficiently romantic never to pass up a good melody, especially in his slow movements, which are the places where he permits himself to dip his toes in the abyss. The Sarabande of his First Quartet made me tear up when he first played it for me on the piano. I told him the music made me think of a dying man recollecting the happiest Sunday afternoon of his childhood. He hooted, of course, but with delight.
Over our post-prandial espressos at the Danube Rudi discoursed at unnecessary length, and with an acerbity excessively relished, on Arnold Pracht and his oeuvre. According to Rudi, listening to Pracht isn't a thing one undertakes casually, or even on purpose.
"Maestro Pracht," he said, "thinks exceedingly well of Maestro Pracht; in fact, I believe he thinks of little else. Pracht cultivates his reputation the way Nero Wolfe does orchids. He writes articles which, no matter their titles, are invariably about his own work. They all sound like old-fashioned manifestoes. He loves being interviewed and comes over as a cross between a film director and a designer of women's clothes. He yearns to be admired not only so as to prop up his amour-propre but because he wants women. He wears a lot of leather and is beginning to turn leathery himself, what with all the time he spends sunning himself on other people's yachts. I ran across him in Paris and he was just the same. Fifteen years of phony iconoclasm and genuine debauchery take a toll; the guy's starting to look wasted. It almost goes without saying that he's contemptuous of everything American. Amerika, du hast es schlechter. Except for the greenbacks, of course, and except for the girls. The man plays things two ways: he can set himself up as the sole legitimate heir of the Viennese tradition, as if he used to hang out with Mozart and Mahler, and at the same time he's the enfant terrible smashing every worn-out convention, a mad Calvinist in a cathedral. Pracht's the most theoretical of composers. His insecurity shows up in the way he insists on how complex and profound his intentions are. When you actually listen to his stuff it's hard not to think of what Twain said about Wagner. You know—that he knew the music was much better than it sounded."
"Wow. You really don't care for this guy," I said superfluously, just to make it seem that what we were having was a conversation.
Rudi blew his nose into his napkin, folded it up. "Say you stuffed everything I can't stand about so-called serious contemporary music and the pretentious people who write it into a centrifuge and ran it for an hour or two. The scum at the bottom of the test tube would be Arnold Pracht. The guy adores being called difficult and challenging and edgy, even ugly—anything but academic. This insistence on always doing 'something new' betrays his slavish obsession with tradition, which, of course, he vehemently denies. His latest fad, by the way, the one about which he lectured the girls in the mountains, is testing the limits of music. I can still hear him holding forth in that ludicrous Wienerschnitzel accent."
By now Rudi had worked himself up to unstoppability. He delivered the following in the voice of a Gestapo officer in a second-rate WWII movie.
"On ze left hand you have, ja, noise, nicht wahr? Was ist noise? Ze rattling radiator, ze infernal traffic, ze collapse of an apartment block? Zen, on ze right you have monotony, yes? Ze dial tone, ze buzzing door bell, ze drone of a Tibetan monk. Verstehe? Yes? You follow? Well, ze one ist all variation und ze other all repetition. Was den ist ze music? Tradition insists ze music must be so to say an aggregate, a compromise; zat is to say, repetition und variation also. Zat ist was has been thought always. Not too much ze one nor again too much ze other. But why, I should like to ask? Why zis prejudice? To seek out ze harmony in one single tone, ze melody hidden in random rattling—zat ist was I have set out precisely to accomplish in zis new piece I have composed for zis grosse Festival, ze work which you will so much honor me by performing."
Rudi snorted. "Intentional drivel," he declared, striking the table, "one long Teutonic pick-up line. Pracht's one real talent is disguising lechery as music theory. Marie was the only female who didn't melt, didn't respond at all in fact; so naturally she was the one he had to have: that red hair, the green eyes and milky skin, that coupling of loveliness with silence, the provocation of her seriousness and total indifference."
This final, unexpectedly lyrical outburst of Rudi's aroused, as they say, my suspicions. But then, a lawyer's trained to be suspicious, to check all the angles. I couldn't help but notice, for example, that he mentioned milky skin and auburn hair but not Ms. McDermott's surname. As to his professional distaste for Pracht, I was reminded of one of the few Chinese proverbs I knew, had remembered, in fact, because of Rudi. Now I laid it before my agitated friend.
"A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song."
"Exactly," he growled and hit the table so that the little cups jumped.
The population of Benton, Indiana, is pretty much what you'd expect. The staff at the Ramada didn't actually stare at me; in fact, their exaggerated politeness made me wonder if they mistook me for a Japanese businessman looking to open a Honda plant. The reception clerk even made a funny little bow as he handed over my key-card, uncertain but willing to practice oriental etiquette. I couldn't have been more amused if he'd come out from behind his counter and kowtowed. "Mr., uh, Hi-Sue?" he ventured. "It's pronounced Sue," I said for the ten thousandth time in my life. When he heard the New York accent he didn't appear embarrassed, only stupefied.
Ten minutes on the computer had yielded a few data on Marie McDermott. She was a violinist, held a bachelor's degree in music (magna cum laude) from Indiana University, and was a candidate for an M.F.A. at the same distinguished institution. She had performed fairly widely, albeit in small local venues, both as soloist and in chamber groups. Her notices ran from more than satisfactory to inappropriately adoring. She had won a place among the first violins in the University's symphony orchestra. Her high-school graduation picture was online: Catholic uniform, long red hair, straight little nose. If there was a smile there you'd need a magnifying glass to find it. At seventeen she looked as solemn as a fugue in B-minor. There was also a more recent picture, a professional portrait. In this one she was holding her violin by its neck and had on a dress of what looked like green velvet—Maid Marian with a string instrument depending from her delicate hand like a defunct swan. The earnest twelfth-grader had grown up to be a knockout but she still wasn't smiling. Even on the computer screen I could see what had turned Rudi lyrical. Ms. McDermott was an ideal illustration of what Kierkegaard—a philosopher I'd had to read for a required humanities class and never forgot—called "The Interesting." He'd defined it as "a border category," something that's two things at once: beautiful but also meaningful, aesthetic yet ethical too—combining the qualities of a physics textbook with those of a Road Runner cartoon. That is, your average supermodel isn't as interesting as one with a 160 IQ who can play Bach. Ms. McDermott was gorgeous; she struck me as untouchable yet put together in such a way that, assuming you were alive and male, you'd want to touch her.
I gave the timing of my initial call to Ms. McDermott some consideration. If I tried her during the day there was less chance she'd be home, but a night call, outside office hours, might come off as unprofessional, which was the last thing I wanted. According to my sources (Rudi and a garrulous female Festival official I'd managed to get hold of) Ms. McDermott—homesick? disgusted? traumatized?—had fled after the incident to her parents' home in Benton. Assuming I'd gotten the right McDermotts on the search engine, Marie's father, James Michael McDermott, was an executive with Archer Daniels Midland; her mother, Margaret, was active in executing the good works of Holy Cross Church. Marie had two younger sisters, aged eighteen and fourteen. I noticed the spacing—one girl every four years, one tuition at a time—which suggested an admirable mastery of the Rhythm Method. I recalled a poster I'd once seen from The-Family-That-Prays-Together-Stays-Together campaign of the 1950s: standard-issue white family in their Sunday best standing at reverent attention in a pew—Nelsons and Cleavers and Father Knowing Best. Would such people even open the door to a Chinese lawyer from the fleshpots of the East wanting to talk about what I wanted to talk about? Still, I could hardly justify making the trip without first convincing Marie to meet me. But why should she? What reason could I give? Her father would hardly let me see her alone, if at all. James Michael probably kept a shotgun around the house.
I called in the afternoon and, as it turned out, one of her sisters picked up the phone and did so as if it were in an old British film, albeit one with Caller ID.
"McDermott residence. Maureen McDermott speaking. How may I help you Mr. . . . Hi-Sue?"
I made the usual correction and hurriedly identified myself as an attorney who needed to speak with Ms. Marie McDermott. I said needed, not wanted, by way of appealing to the little sister's charitable nature. If she felt anger toward me, it was well swaddled in schoolgirl courtesy.
"I'm afraid my sister's not here at the moment." Then the voice suddenly turned sincere, a decibel louder and a decade younger. "Oh," she said, "is this about what happened in New Hampshire?"
I admitted it was.
"Then can you please tell me what happened? Marie won't tell me anything."
So Marie wasn't talking to her sister, maybe not even to her parents. Why would she talk to me?
"I regret I can't do that," I told Maureen.
"Shoot," she exclaimed. "Well, Marie'll be back in an hour. Want to try her then?"
"Should I tell her?"
"That I called?"
"Okay. Goodbye, Mr. Hsu."
Meticulous pronunciation of my name was my reward for remembering hers. I just wasn't sure if she was the fourteen- or eighteen-year-old.
Marie did take my call, though almost the first thing she said was that her parents hadn't wanted her to do so.
"You told them what happened?"
"Not in detail," she said curtly but without conspicuous hostility.
I pressed the point, perhaps unwisely. "They must have been distressed for you. They'd have wanted to know the details."
Pause. "They did. Yes."
This told me that Marie McDermott had a strong character, was keen about privacy, and probably wanted to put the nasty episode behind her and get back to fiddling full-time.
I started over. "I want to thank you for speaking with me," I said.
"I can't have you phoning here and talking to my sisters. Or my parents. It would upset them."
Or send you to a nunnery, I speculated, and plunged ahead without much hope. "Would you be willing to talk to me about the details?"
She didn't say no. She said, "Why?"
I explained that Arnold Pracht had filed a civil suit against Rudolph Kanter, my client. Though her name was not mentioned in the complaint, should the case go forward it was possible she might be subpoenaed.
"Subpoenaed by you, Mr. Hsu?" Her pronunciation was impeccable.
"I can't rule it out. Perhaps by the other side."
"I would prefer not to be subpoenaed."
"I appreciate that, Ms. McDermott. Of course. I too would prefer to avoid it. Would you consent to meet with me?"
Pause. "I can't come east."
"No, of course not. I'd come there, naturally."
"It's that important?"
"I think it is."
Pause. "You believe what I have to say would help your client?"
"I see. And if I refuse?"
"You were the only witness, Ms. McDermott. In the event of a refusal, I'm afraid the likelihood of a subpoena would increase."
Pause. "How do I know you're who you say you are?"
"You can look me up on the Internet." I gave her my firm's web site.
Pause to write, then, "Did you Google me?"
Another pause, a long one. Impatient sigh. Then grudging consent. "But I have two conditions: I won't meet with you at my parents' house and I won't meet with you alone."
"Not a problem," I said airily. "How about over dinner at Benton's best restaurant? My treat."
"I don't like the best restaurant in Benton," she said without irony.
I ventured a laugh. "Well, your favorite, then."
She told me its name. Marengo. Chicken, I thought, Napoleon's Italian victory. We fixed a day and time. And so I had, if I cared to look at it that way, a dinner date.
Dinner With the Violinist
I was early. She was right on time. I wore contacts. She wore glasses. I had on a tan sport coat and a tie. She had on a blouse about the same color as her eyes, a knee-length white skirt, and a blue cotton blazer. I smiled when I saw her, which was before she saw me. When she saw me she didn't smile. I tried to comport myself professionally. She actually did.
I was nursing a tonic water at the bar while she looked around uncertainly at the door, the way people do, but she didn't do it the way other people do. I stood and raised my arm. What, I wondered, must I look like to her? Exotic? A lawyer? Yet another man from the decadent East?
There she was, milky skin and all. Those pixels were a joke, really. As she walked toward me I saw that she moved awkwardly; she had the slightest limp. Rudi hadn't mentioned that. It was, I think, the limp that floored me. And the glasses. Well, we learn: human perfection is never perfect. And then there was her impregnable seriousness, of course. The way she didn't smile. Ever.
I introduced myself. She nodded but didn't take my hand. It was a week night and the restaurant, not being the best in Benton, only her favorite, wasn't crowded. We were shown right to a table.
Marie didn't give me an opportunity to pull out her chair. She was dauntingly brisk. She sat right down and touched her hair—didn't fool with it, just fingered the ends. I thanked her again for seeing me.
"You didn't leave me much choice," she said factually, without resentment.
I glanced over the menu. She didn't need to. It was her favorite restaurant, after all.
A waitress was there at once and smiled familiarly at Marie. I ordered veal verdicchio, Marie the lasagna. When I suggested a glass of Chianti she declined. Either she didn't drink or she wanted to get down to business.
"Arnold Pracht is suing my client, Rudi—"
"Excuse me. You call him Rudi?"
"He's an old friend as well as my client."
"Ah, I see," she said, as if this solved a riddle that had puzzled her, perhaps why I would come all the way to Benton, Indiana.
"Arnold Pracht is demanding a considerable sum of money for damages. In his complaint he claims that Rudi's attack on him was unprovoked, malicious, and prompted by professional jealousy."
"And what does your friend say?"
I saw no reason to be anything but candid. "He's said nothing officially. He's said nothing at all, except to me."
She looked impatient. "And what has he said to you, Mr. Hsu?"
"He told me that he was defending you, Ms. McDermott. He said Arnold Pracht was physically assaulting you in that rehearsal room, that he happened to be in the adjacent one, heard you cry out, and came to your rescue. Is that true?"
She was inscrutable. I wondered if she were wondering if I believed my friend.
"Pracht offered to go over a Beethoven sonata with me, a difficult one. The Kreutzer."
"Yes, I know it. And what happened?"
"He did make," she hesitated over this crucial choice of words, "advances."
Her stillness remained undisturbed; not an eyebrow raised. "Good for your client?"
"Did you cry out?"
"I suppose I did make a noise, though I wouldn't describe it as a cry. I was surprised, that's all."
"So you didn't raise an alarm, call for help, nothing like that?"
"Certainly not. Nevertheless, your client did tear open the door. He rushed in and started hitting Pracht."
"Pardon me, Ms. McDermott. I have to ask these questions. Are you saying you were not being molested by Arnold Pracht?"
She paused. "Did I use that word, Mr. Hsu?"
"What word would you use, then?"
"I believe I said he made advances."
"An ambiguous word—a weak one, legally speaking."
The waitress interrupted us. We fell silent as she set down our food and encouraged us to enjoy it.
Marie forked about a gram of lasagna into her mouth. "It's as good as ever," she said, but even the good food didn't merit a smile.
"Excuse me, I have to put these questions. It's my duty."
"Yes, your duty to your client. Your friend."
I leaned back defensively, brushed my mouth with my napkin. "Ms. McDermott, what would my client have seen when he came into the rehearsal room?"
"Hasn't he told you?"
"He did. But I'd be obliged to have your opinion."
"I can't tell you what another person saw."
I took a deep breath, hating myself, hating Rudi. "Let me rephrase. When my client came into the rehearsal room was Arnold Pracht in physical contact with you?"
Another pause, another measured answer: "Possibly," she said.
"You've had your answer, Mr. Hsu."
I almost expected her to add, "So do you still want to subpoena me?"
"Very well, then."
I thought that was all she was going to say but then she surprised me.
I didn't really want any more.
"Your friend, Rudolph Kanter, had been annoying me ever since he arrived. Did he tell you that? Also, did he tell you what he was doing in the basement?"
"No," I admitted.
She nodded demurely and spoke to her plate rather than to me. "This isn't pleasant for me, Mr. Hsu. I feel, I feel intruded on by you. No, I know it's not your fault."
"Thank you. I'm grateful you said that."
"All right, then. I don't mean to sound immodest but I got the idea they were competing. Isabelle said so too. My roommate. Also Alan, a cellist. Vying. That was the word Alan used. He said this sort of thing happens all the time at festivals, that it was a sort of game between them, that they were making me another object over which to compete."
"Everyone could see they despised each other and hated each other's work."
I cleared my throat. "Did my client ever attack—pardon me—make advances in the same way Pracht did?"
"If you mean did he touch me, then no. But I don't think it was because he had any scruples about it. In my opinion he thought he didn't need to. I'm sorry, but your friend struck me as conceited. Entitled."
"You didn't like him?"
Here Marie revealed some annoyance. She put down her fork and again began to finger the ends of her hair—that auburn hair which she still wore long, with bangs—and answered me with steely dignity. "I wasn't there to like anybody, Mr. Hsu. I was there to study, to work."
I drove out of Benton the following morning.
Taking his orders from Rudi's parents, Frederick Rosen negotiated an out-of-court settlement. Rudi told me he'd have preferred to win but didn't really care.
I've written to Marie McDermott three times. I've tried to call her four. So far.
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