Jigs in the Stairwell

The stairwell is no longer pleasantly echoing with Irish jigs and reels.

“It’s drowning frogs out there,” Emma says, crossly, shaking out her umbrella. Her shoes are soaked. “Did you hear the thunder going?”

“Yes, I did, and just look at you!” says her buddy, Amalia Mortkowicz. Amalia speaks quietly because their voices echo so much in the concrete surfaces of the stairwell going up to the next floor. The open risers of the stairwell won’t stop either loud noises or a wet, skidding foot.

“Well, I’m not going out until it eases up, I’ve got that damned old cello case of mine to get home. Here’s the books. It took a month for our professor to decide the Greek folk music really wasn’t. Greek, I mean. Which made him such a grumpy old man. All worthless except for your local historical collection. You know that’s a very fast review for him, don’t you?”

Emma groans as she puts down the cloth bag of lumpy objects handed to her. “I owe you. I’m sure it’d be easier to pull teeth. So, how is it working out with our newest immigrant?”

“Oh, Emma, I wanted to ask you– Is there anywhere else for him to go?”

painting of woman cellist by gacquet
A Substantial Cellist

“You’re tired of him so quickly?”

“No, he’s a dear! But my sister is coming home day after tomorrow.. And he’s very self-contained and tidy, and my old sofa… Well, things are worse than when you stayed with me. The trip didn’t go well. She’s deep in one of those horrid rebound situations.”

“I remember you were worried about it,” Emma says, giving a little warning gesture upward.

Amalia murmurs, very soft, “I can’t fault her taste, but her comments last night! I’m sure she’ll try to seduce him, no matter what I told her. She fusses now about people who only talk in gerunds! It’ll drive them both mad. I just can’t see me letting her maul him about and demoralize him like that. He’s a lovely player. Well, I’ll see you later, girlfriend, I’ve got students to bully.”

The door slams after Amalia’s stout, fast-moving figure. There’s a brief echo in the stairwell. Then the hush of rain on the walls.

“I heard you doing jigs and reels up there at lunch time. You might as well come down and talk to me. I know where you work. If you help me get her cello home tonight, we can haul your things to my place.”

There’s a little rustle up there.

“I’m Emma, I’m a librarian on the fund-raising and symphony coordination committees. Amalia might not have bothered to explain. And trust me, you do not want to risk Amalia’s sofa or her sister,” says Emma. “I’ve got more room than she does. How are you on carrots and celery sticks and peanut butter for dinner?”

There’s a brown face peering down over the rail. “Much better in satay sauce with onions,” says a soft tenor voice.

Emma gazes upward. “You cook?”

“Liking much when finding pans,” he says. “And onion.”

“I have a few pans, I just never use them.”

“Amalia is very much nice lady, but all boxes, no pans,” he says.

“You’re on, Mister Ha Neol. Come on down and I’ll show you the cat and my digs and my pans, and we’ll come back later for Amalia. I want out of these wet things. Do you have a plastic grocery sack for your violin case?”

“No,” he says.

She props her purse on a rail, it weighs a ton, and rummages. “Zip ties, no, scissors, no, tape–I was mailing things in this weather, silly of me–” She pulls out a couple of wadded plastic sacks and waves them aloft. “Do I know how to rescue musicians and librarians, or what?”

“Miss Emma does!” he says, and then he’s edging down silently. He’s a foot shorter than she is. He has dark skin and eyes that look more Mongol than Korean. “Miss Emma was hearing us? Miss Emma came to our rehearsal?”

“I did,” she says, holding out the plastic in his direction with one hand while her other hand is rearranging the oddments that should stay stuffed in her purse, and are trying to fight back. She doesn’t stare at him. She knows better than to spook shy guys who play instruments and never use ‘you’, or ‘I’, those rudely direct pronouns, only the politer ‘we’ or ‘us’. If she’s not careful she’ll start doing it herself, as if she’s mocking him. “Mister Ahn Ha Neol–Mister Ahn, isn’t it?–you’re going to be the best damn concertmaster we’ve had in years, trust me.”

She’s surprised when he turns away, puts up one hand, and wipes at his eyes. “We are thanking Miss Emma.” Not for the first time, she silently rues the day the Metro signed a contract with Hovannes Walstadt, conductor. The old guy is like a bull in a china shop. Ha Neol’s other hand is clutching his violin case to his chest. The odd scars on his face are pale in the cold. He’s all angles, skin drawn hard over bones– far too thin, Emma thinks.

“Right,” Emma says, frowning. “Let’s get some coffee and sugar bombs into both of us first. My treat because you’re going to carry Amalia’s cello tonight, and I’m starved, and I don’t want to wait.”

“So kind,” he says, gazing up at her.

“Nonsense, I’m selfish! I like intelligent company.”

“We are not,” he says, following her down the stairs so the she has to stop and turn around and face him. This time he’s taller, since he’s three steps higher. He looks somehow larger at this angle. The skinny is muscular. The shift of his angular head reminds her of a large praying mantis staring at her, fascinated.

“I’m sorry? You’re not intelligent?”

“Not Ahn Ha Neol, not our name,” the violinist says, smiling at her. “Our name, it is now becoming Dance Of Knives. Amalia helped get our papers to start this changing.”

Emma bites back her first word, which would have been “sweetheart,” and merely says; “Of course, how silly of me!” and rushes him down to the door by sheer force of will.

(originally written Apr 16, 2009)