Amalia’s Advice

table chairs bookshelves
Lovely Place for a Chat

Is there anything more civilized than a winter lunch at a warm, quiet, leather-clad club with Corelli on the hidden speakers? Emma sighs, nibbling on savory house-baked crackers. The soup is superb, a deep brown beef stock redolent of onions. It is almost a stew, it’s so thick with vegetables and barley. “Just what I wanted on a rainy day!”

“That is so nice to hear in my place. Please, your meals are on me, ladies. I have a hopelessly soft spot for musicians.”

Emma turns, surprised. “That is too kind of you!”

The large man smiles. He’s shockingly close, he’s moved so silently on his big feet.

“Shura,” Amalia greets the man. Amalia bows, sitting down, in much the same way she would on stage. Her face is as neutral as when she’s dealing with Richard Young.

“Well, aren’t you a pretty pair,” says Shura, sliding into a chair at their table. Dark beard shadow is deep in his pale skin, shadowy holes for eyes. His black wavy hair is tightly cut on the thick skull. His expression is long since set in the stolid Soviet blankness of the Cold War Era. The suit is expensive, expertly draped around squared-off weightlifter’s bulk as solid as rock. He has the subtle carriage of a man trained in carrying concealed, but the jacket totally masks whether he is packing or not.

Too old for current KGB, probably, Emma’s mind calculates. Retired? Gangster immigrant? Both?

“Shura, my friend Emma is the librarian who coordinates events with the Metro. Emma, this is the club’s owner, Shura Korachevnik,” Amalia introduces them gravely, with a nervous glance up into Emma’s eyes. Impossible to tell why she’s gone so stiff.

“Good afternoon,” Shura smiles at Emma. For a guy of that era, it’s a big smile. No telling what his eyes are doing, they’re so deep under the brow. “We’ve all heard of you. Not enough of us Metro fans have had the pleasure of meeting you firsthand.” The handshake is brief, neutral, neither too hard nor too soft, and full of callouses. The knuckles are scarred like an old alley-fighter. Whatever else Shura does, he still uses his hands. The soft voice uses careful, almost perfect English. Emma can’t quite identify where in the Eastern Bloc he must have grown up, before he learned German and French, all of which flavor his accent. “And how do you like my little place?”

“I’ve been enjoying it,” Emma says. Smiles back. “Great food. Excellent taste in music, of course.”

That pleases Shura almost as much as it ought to. “I hear you’ve been shaking up our Metro, more fund-raising events, bringing in lots of new audiences.”

“Of course the Metro always needs more patrons, too!” Emma bites into another cracker, and makes an appreciative face. “Mmm, I love these!”

Shura smiles. “Of course we notice the Metro has been adding to the depth of the bench among the musicians, but they had an excellent core of musicians to start with. Almost completely thanks to you, Amalia dear, and to our favorite concertmaster.” Shura bestows another broad smile on Amalia. Well, broad for him.

“Thank you, you are very kind.”

“How is Dance doing? How is he with our new conductor? I haven’t seen him here in too long,” Shura says.

“Revising scores a lot,” Amalia says, with another frightened glance up at Emma. “He’s also been playing a lot of gigs with our quartets and quintets, too, thanks to Emma’s scheduling chops.”

Emma grins, and gives a seated bow of her own. “Gotta keep all the cats busy on Christmas gigs, or they fret!”

“We miss his wonderful playing,” Shura says, without even aiming a look at the club’s empty stage.

“I’ll tell him that you asked for him,” Amalia says, smoothly and evenly, carefully.

Emma nods. “Of course I’ll add a note for you, when I’m scheduling group gigs. Do you have a preference for groups or solos?”

“No, I am delighted either way when the performer is of Amalia’s caliber, or Dance’s,” Shura says.

Amalia inclines her head with unusual dignity. “Thank you, you are very kind.”

Shura inclines his head briefly in reply, and gazes at Amalia. “You seem very happy on stage.”

“I am,” Amalia says quietly. “And grateful. I can’t tell you what a difference it makes that now we have Emma’s work, and Dance’s.”

“May it continue,” Shura says, smiling. Shura lifts one hand barely above the table, and a bottle is brought for his inspection. He frowns, and another is provided instantly. He nods once. Glasses are set out swiftly and silently. He turns that shadowy gaze on both women. “I have a pleasant little locally bottled brandy, if you’d like to try it?”

Amalia gives a tiny nod of agreement to Emma.

“I’d be honored,” Emma says.

“For the women who make our Metro people happy, the honor is mine,” Shura smiles again. The glasses are filled before him, and he sips from one of them, considering. Only when he nods are the two other glasses presented in front of his guests. They lift their glasses in toast. “To a happy orchestra,” Shura says, and they agree heartily.

Amalia remembers to make appreciative sounds. “Oh, it goes with the soup so nicely.”

Shrua nods. “Oh, this? It goes with everything.” He leans back expansively. “My brother, who is an administrator for our lovely local ballet troop, informs me that we should treasure our concertmaster properly. I understand Dance saves their professional lives and budget for them on a regular basis, as the Metro’s performances with them are one of their biggest expenses. Since my brother has been known to literally pull out his hair by the roots when things are crazy, I have a fondness for anybody who prevents my brother from going bald.”

Emma chuckles. “Well, I hope our efforts are helping everybody concerned. Put the money where it counts, right?”

“Oh, this does help a lot, or so I hear,” Shura says. “So tell me, what’s your opinion of our new conductor, this Richard Young?”

Amalia gives Emma a quick look.

“Is he a friend of yours?” Emma says, with another smile.

“You Americans, so blunt,” Shura says, equally amused. “To be perfectly frank with you, let’s just say that his attitude towards editing music in the middle of a dance performance can cause professional conflicts of a serious nature. My brother was very glad to receive Dance’s warnings this season.”

“I daresay the stage technicians were too,” Amalia says grimly.

“It seems odd that Maestro Young forgets that these petty things can scale up all the way into garbage strikes and city lockouts,” Shura says.

Amalia says, austerely, “He is often reminded of it.”

Shura lifts a brow. “And it only makes him shout louder?”

“Sadly,” Amalia says. She gives a shrug. “It is possible to manage all this better. Of course I will apologize again to your brother for those occasions where we failed to do so timely.”

Shura smiles at Amalia. “I also hear that you and Dance and some of the other first chairs were able to prevent such a point of historical interest at their last joint performance.”

Amalia’s face darkens. “There was no time to edit the sheet music or rehearse the changes or inform the dance master. As you may know, nothing can go forward without that approval. It was physically impossible to get changes done. These things crop up with live performances, you understand. But I fear Maestro Young’s reaction to this ended up becoming more public than any of us hoped for.”

“Ahh, artistic temperament, such a burden,” Shura says, with another surprising glint of amusement, and lifts his glass of brandy in another salute.

“Excellent brandy,” Emma comments, smiling.

“I’m glad you find it pleasant. I offer you a bottle for Dance, so he can make some of his marvelous confections for Metro parties. Call it part of my contribution,” Shura says. “It looks like I am being called away, sadly. I should enjoy speaking with you another time, if I might. Emma, it’s a great pleasure to meet you, as I knew it would be. Amalia, always good to see you visit us. Thank you so much for coming.” He rises, extends his hand. He departs on absolutely silent feet, all that bulk moving like a ghost.

Sinking back into her chair, Amalia folds her arms around herself and lets out a long, slow sigh that doesn’t show from ten feet away. “Oh, that was bad.”

“You mean, will we get lucky, or will something unpleasant be showing up in a downtown dumpster next week?” Emma says.

“Indeed. But Young’s probably safe. He owes money. Besides a bad temper, he also has a gambling habit,” Amalia says.

“Oh sh–” Emma clamps her mouth down. “It explains some of his erratic behavior, doesn’t it?”

“I believe so. I have to tell Young that Shura commented on his latest temper tantrum, too. I’m sorry the lunch isn’t so fun because I asked to come here,” Amalia says. Her eyes look tired suddenly. “I’m afraid I’ve been neglecting this place, I should’ve come by sooner. I think Shura forgave me when he saw– when he saw us.”

“You want to go now?” Emma glances over where three guys are setting up music stands, nobody she knows. Amalia clearly does.

b/w art block print f woman in cafe

Amalia begins to say something, and then shakes her head. “No, no, it’s nothing. You had something you wanted to discuss, we can stay.” She sinks back into the chair. “Those guys are pretty good, you’ll like them. They were going to audition one afternoon, but Young was shouting and they left before we could try them out. I’ll see if I can talk them into coming again.”

While the musicians are tuning on stage, Emma asks quietly, “Shura– was he one of Robert’s boyfriends, briefly?”

“Oh yes. He wasn’t very patient, he kicked Robert out. He likes all different types of toys. If you wondered whether he was admiring your cleavage–well, yes, he probably was. He told me he’s more into ballerinas for aesthetics, but he likes showing off beefy male models sometimes, with bruises. Robert started wearing makeup so other people who wanted him wouldn’t see marks.”

Emma snorts. “I can believe it. Never give up, right?”

Amalia looks up at her under her brows. The guys start playing light stuff onstage, Strauss waltzes arranged for their trio. “He’s a musician.”

Shura would probably find it amusing to lipread the question that should be coming, and the answer. “And somehow Dance isn’t his type, or something?”

Amalia chuckles, and finally relaxes enough to finish her soup. “Guess what else.”

“Hmm, maybe that Dance would be an interesting fuck, but not what he’s looking for. Too ethnic and too damn fast and too–I don’t know, intellectual. Just from his style as a musician.”

Amalia gives a crooked smile.

“So what else did he say?” Emma demands.

“He told me he’s too rough for training babies. He’d keep pushing Dance until Dance withdrew consent and starting fighting back, somebody would get hurt. Shura said he doesn’t ever gamble on who gets hurt, or how.”

“Wow, in the middle of a compliment, that’s a helluva insult. You know Grisha and Vanya, from the Central Library? The hardcore leather stuff they’re into would curl my toenails, but boy, there’s rules. I mean, saying that Dance wouldn’t keep his word? He gives his word, that’s it. And he’s got pain threshold out the door. I’m pretty sure he isn’t into that stuff, but his word is…”

“Indeed,” Amalia says dryly. “Maybe that was what Shura was afraid of. At any rate, it made me careful about giving my word to Shura. Also probably what he planned. I’ve seen him layer these things.”

Emma shakes her head in disbelief.

“Yes. He said Dance is the ferret who bites.”

“He never!” Emma says.

“How would either of us know?” Amalia asks, and suddenly they’re both giggling. Release of tension. “Dance is so closemouthed at work. Has to be, he’s leading such a bunch of prissy little divas. And he never told me much at my home. But then right off, he was chattering away to you!”

“That was funny. I wasn’t expecting any of it, but he told me his three most important things right away–that he cooks, that he likes growing plants, and that he’s queer. I mean, right off, that trusting.”

Amalia chuckles. “Oh, you–you just peeled him open like a sardine can.”

“I think he was lonesome,” Emma says. “Still is, really. I had hopes, but Vanya just runs away, poor guy.”

“Has Dance ever nabbed somebody for the night, since he’s been at your place?”

Emma shakes her head. “I’m not his keeper, though.”

“Oh come now, you certainly are!” Amalia says, still grinning.

“And you’re not? Come on, Amalia, you’d be chewing his ear off if he got tangled up with some silly damn fool, admit it!”

Amalia shakes her head. “Haven’t had to, yet. Man’s too smart for his own ferrety good.”

“Dance is not a ferret!” Emma says.

“No?” Amalia says, smiling slowly.

“Nope. Hey, ferrets are plenty cute. But anybody who can frighten a gangster like Shura into refusing to play, that’s no ferret.”

Amalia sighs. “And if spanky boy Robert isn’t wired for Shura’s games, believe me, Dance isn’t even near the playground.” She shrugs.

They fall silent while dishes are cleared, and bowls of nuts and small finger sandwiches and toasty-hot tempura vegetables are provided. More tea is poured for them.

Amalia sips, and sighs. “We need the kind of patrons who appreciate Dance’s playing. The way we were, we’re just… a boring Pops-style schmaltzy afternoon for snarky Mister Critical Basehart. Nothing in there about what the conductor’s style might have to do with it, you notice.” Amalia visibly shakes herself and addresses the dish of nuts. “Right. So, patrons who like Dance, that’s what we’re looking for. It’d help if we ever gave away some tickets, had some contests, did some decent darn PR, on time for a change, too.”

“So you’re going to jump all over the PR people in admin, right? Get some new players to audition, shake it up. And so will I. See if I can get some volunteers in the business office, pushing things along.”

“Good. Now what did you want to ask me about?”

“Well, what we’ve been talking about–a boyfriend for Dance. A good one. I mean, you know how he is at home. You’re a yenta, too, I need your help!”

“Well, I’ve been trying to think who might suit him, who he’d be happy with.” Amalia ticks off points on her fingers. “He’s a sweetheart, he’s much less irritating than most absent-minded musicians, he treats women with huge respect but he doesn’t let them dish shit either, and he’d be totally devoted to somebody in the same way that he trusts you and me.” She thumps the table with her thumb. “He cooks your meals all the time. Good food. He works hard at that, too. He’s a keeper, and nobody’s even looking at him!”

Emma points at her. “Yes! He deserves to have a boyfriend who can support his music and appreciate him, and even better, make him really happy.”

“Oh, yes, I agree. I don’t get it either. Just by the way, some of us think he could be downright pretty, in the right hands. Give him some tailoring, he could make a lovely courtly leg. But don’t forget about the other camp–whew, are they nasty! You know Joscelyn, of the Lady’s Home Guard Whatever bunch? She says Dance smells funny!”

“I’ve heard her,” Emma agrees, making a face.

“But she’s drooling all over the Czechs and the Croats and the Albanians and– man, Mondays are rough. The Eastern Bloc crew rolls in late, reeking of cigar smoke, and the drinking, pfehhh! Nobody can keep up with the Russians for vodka bottles killed on toasts, when somebody comes in town and the Embassy needs translators for everybody. They need the money, of course they have to go deal with those four-day parties. But you want to talk reeking stench? They stink so bad I’ve had to mediate union demands from the poor flautist girls sitting in front of them. Honest! You don’t want to know about the way the trumpets torment those poor girls, either. So what is it with the strange personal comments about a clean tidy guy like Dance?”

Emma shrugs. “Believe me, he doesn’t wear any cologne. We neither of us can afford that. To me, he just smells like… summer. You know, dry grass, pine needles, maybe some kind of resinous spice. Like a cat, or something. It’s pretty nice, you know?”

“Yes, exactly!” Amalia laughs. “I’d love to bottle it after he’s just done a solo, I’d make a fortune!”

“I doubt that it would have commercial success, given some of the comments from the old ladies.”

Amalia sighs. “It’s a shame. For them, he just doesn’t click. Maybe Joscelyn misses the smell of sweaty gym socks!”

Emma snorts. “All right, meow, catty gal! Who else have we got? I thought Bud Innes would be perfect, but right now he’s got his hands full with your rotten little enfant terrible.”

“Thank God for Bud!” Amalia exclaims.

“Oh, Bud’s nice-looking, too. Fit, intelligent, got all his teeth, doesn’t dye his hair–” Emma grins. “Madam, we’re just arguing over the price!”

“You never catch him looking over our people like they’re so many cows in their chutes, either,” Amalia says, thumping the table again. “You can laugh, but he’s got some clout. He’s brought in ten times more patrons in a year than anybody since the Duschesnes did, back ten years ago. They’ve been passing on at an appalling rate, poor things. Well, except Winston. That old rowdy! He just keeps chasing the boys down the halls same as he always did, even if he has to hang onto the wall.”

“Well, poor old guy, he can’t see two feet in front of his face. Great excuse for groping everything within reach, anyway. He gave me a lovely apology for being so rude to a lady!”

Amalia starts to laugh. “The other day, Dance saw him heading for Robert and got in the way, and apparently Winston got a nice handful of something unexpected. Both of them squawked. Winston was yelling all about Dance’s foreskin to his young buddy Amos, who’s getting hard of hearing. I think half the staff snuck out rather than listen to any of it. Rather sweet, honestly.” Amalia pauses, frowning. Then she starts tapping the table. “Amos loves Dance’s playing, but he only plays with flossy pink things in PVC and rubber. Tomas claims he only seduces men in uniform. Meisner never goes out with the same guy twice, brags about that. I think Schutzie has been ill again,” Amalia says, worried. “You and I need to drop by for visits.”

“It’s very tough being alone like that, poor Schutzie. I’ll send you a reminder email, set it up for next week. We’ve got a nice crew of aging queens there, but they’re very set in their ways.”

Amalia sighs. “Of course none of them will date an Asian guy, at least in public.”

“What about the younger guys Bud has brought in?”

“They’re all into sugar daddies in substantial income brackets. Which is good for the symphony, but no use to musicians trying to play rent boy. Or girl. Turns out Bud knows some very sharp lesbian machine-shop types too.”

Emma grins. “I know, they’re great!”

“I have hopes for some of our flautists and violists, believe me. I think one of Innes’ shop gals has been seeing Orleans, that tough new gal Bannerjee found for percussion.”

goth girl with bleached hair, dangle earrings
the percussionist

“Oh, the buzzcut with the tats? Yeah. Well, what about Jakobs? Now there’s a nice guy.”

“Jakobs hasn’t been by much since he had his first son, and his parents and grandparents started in on him about traditional observances.”

“What? That sweet little sissy boy?” Emma exclaims.

“Survival, woman,” Amalia says sternly. “That’s it. The rest of the list are all these appallingly hypocritical neoNazis who fawn over Richard Young and wouldn’t know Wagner if it bit them on the ass. Pathetic, ain’t it?”

“Okay, what’s bugging you?”

Amalia pushes nuts around in the dish. Finally she coughs it up. “I’m worried for Robert when he decides he can’t handle rules this time around. Bud is not above making Robert jump to it when he wants something. I think Bud Innes is quite possessive. What he wants, a good deal of the time, is not for Robert to fawn over him, but to get some work of his own done. Bud is out of town all the time, and then Robert gets panic attacks, you know how he calls all of us. Well, Bud wants him to keep busy. He really wants Robert to be a bloody musician who practices. This is all new to Robert. He couldn’t believe it at first. Dance and I have been setting him tasks to do, and Bud makes sure he does them. Surprisingly enough, Robert has been responding well to this regimen. Everybody’s happy about it, even Maestro Young, who–”

“–who really has a tendency to unfairly rip into the cellos,” Emma completes it.

Amalia grimaces. “But if Robert is too much of a fool, we’ll lose Bud’s support completely. Robert has a history of ridiculously stupid explosions like this. What do we do, oh fellow yenta?”

“How long do we have?”

“Six more months, possibly nine, if Bud is as sharp a manager as I think he is. When he tires of Robert’s games–” A fatalistic shrug of the shoulders.

“Tell me everything you know about Bud Innes,” Emma commands.

Amalia takes a deep breath. “Bud Innes has what people call good timing. He earned money from the high tech bubble. He got out in time and invested in long-term real estate. He shifted out right before the mortgage markets blew up. He’s been talking about aerospace stocks, some kind of advanced computer chip research. I’ve heard him in some interesting conversations. People say he has good advice . I understand Bud’s tastes in investment run to the conservative, reliable end of the spectrum. He takes Robert to parties, a lot of them, and it helps us bring in more people, so I don’t fuss about how many regular outside gigs Robert is not playing. Robert is there at parties to work. Robert remembers gossip perfectly, and Robert’s sharp engineer of a boyfriend knows it.”

“And people say musicians are impractical,” Emma says dryly.

“Living on beer nuts at happy hour, that’s impractical,” Amalia snaps.

“Didn’t Bud offer to endow Bannerjee’s chair? I mean, the first chair for percussion?”

“Indeed he did. That was a pure act of charity. Bannerjee’s got four kids and a traditional wife and two expensive tarty girlfriends, he’s so hopelessly broke.”

Emma says, “I know Bannerjee plays sixteen times as many gigs as anybody else does! But maybe it doesn’t hurt for Robert to know that Mister Innes can take his love elsewhere.”

Amalia grimaces. “People have been very quick to remind Robert of this. I ask them not to. It just makes him sulk.”

“He’s good at that, too.”

“It’s so frustrating! Well, all of us suspect that Young is going to find somewhere else better for himself, within the year. And if our dear Robert is smart, during the remaining time, he’ll soak up as much as he can learn from Dance and from me. Bud Innes has made a huge difference in all of that. I’m grateful for it, believe me! Once Young is gone, and somebody else comes, Robert might have a chance of becoming somebody important–if his new patron is still interested, and if Robert can learn new habits.”

“Says something about Bud Innes that he can make Robert stick with it at all.”

“Oh yes. You’ve seen Bud holding court, right?”

“With that snow-white hair, yeah, he really shows up wherever he goes. Hell, I ask him to spread news, sometimes–he can hold court with the best of them.”

“Sure, he certainly doesn’t mind the attention. But Bud’s secret weapon is that he’s really interested in everybody else. He pokes in everywhere, he spends time asking about the technicalities of different instruments. He says he’s a tinkerer. But he never answers when people ask what he’s tinkering with.”

Emma snorts. “It’ll probably make money, huh?”

“If past performance is any judge,” Amalia says dryly. One finger indicates the club around them. “You can bet Shura Korachevnik will be keeping an eye on it.”

“Not a recommendation to get a total innocent like Dance involved in Bud’s business,” Emma says.

“Yeah, you’re right,” Amalia agrees, and starts counting out what she can offer for a tip.

Emma waves her off. “I’ll get it this time. You go recruit those guys with the waltzes, right?”

Amalia grimaces. “Shura will like that. He showcases people he thinks ought to get more work.”

“Is he ever wrong?”

“Never,” Amalia says dryly.

Dance and Emma’s series continues, two years later, when we Begin the Beguine.

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