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)

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.

Jokes From Dance

hand on mug on dark table with food
A nice lunch

His name is not Ha Neol Ahn. Not any more.

It rattles her. That name came out of the research she did before their prizewinner showed up, when she was trying to get some grip on where their first chair might take the Metro Symphony. From what she’s heard so far, it’ll be somewhere a lot more crisp and professional and technical.

Amalia’s email last night commented that Walstadt simply doesn’t hear the subtle problems. He rushes through when he is there. He’s busy feathering for his next nest. Naturally, says Amalia, he was perplexed and annoyed by the things that Dance of Knives recited carefully to him from scribbled notes, after their very first break. But the other first chairs were muttering a lot. The good ones were nodding, triumphant.

The email devolved into all caps with exclamations to say that Dance was absolutely right. It mentioned that he didn’t forget anything she warned him about. As an exercise in pure memory, Amalia said, he stunned half the orchestra into submission right there. She wrote that she was going to be happy as a clam to work with him.

“So how do you feel about work so far?” Emma asks.

“We are sorry to miss talking Metro Symphony with Amalia at night,” Dance says, tugging out paper napkins with careful precision, the way he does everything. “Sharp wit, yes? Advise us. We are being–” he takes a breath, smiles, “I am– grateful for so much generosity. Amalia is helping members of sections who struggle in this repertoire. She wants change for accommodation. Metro must train younger musicians.”

“We were lucky Walstadt brought in some funding to hire them at all,” Emma says.

Dance looks at her solemnly over the plate full of sticky bear claw. “Walnuts?” he ask, holding up some of it.

“Yes, these are a bit old, but–”

bearclaw pastries on white and blue plate
Which Kind of Walnuts?

“Can we be telling if these are Persian walnuts or black English walnuts?” He says it with a distinct rhythm, articulating with care. “We– I– read these two trees look different. Black walnuts grow sticky husk?”

Emma pauses and blinks. “Yeah, they do. Can’t tell in pastries, but we can try to find something that does show the taste.”

“We will be liking that. Liking plants too,” he says. His eyes catch the light, turning a warm light brown. “We never live long enough with one place for planting trees.”

Emma grins. “Well, then you’ll go nuts–sorry!–you’ll go crazy over my weeds. I know what most of the weeds probably are, but that doesn’t make it any easier to bend over and dig the darn things out.”

“Can we give you digging help? Good, helps thinking. Good like jogging.”

“Oh, you do whatever you like out there, it can only improve things.”

“What is Miss Emma liking cooked in satay?” Dance asks then, and licks sticky cinnamon sugar glaze off his fingertips, wasting none of it. That reminds her of cats. Not a fluffy and sweet-tempered cat like her own, but something a lot more powerful. Perhaps with spots or stripes hidden in that sleek black coat. Feral as hell.

It’s just not on, she tells herself crossly, to project such patronizing nonsense onto somebody she barely knows. But the whole orchestra saw Dance being gently evasive. Walstadt likes to grab people, push them about, turn them to face new directions, when he gets aggressive or excited or carried away. Dance doesn’t accommodate that. He is too quick on his feet. Right now, he’s watching the gears grinding slowly in her head. He’s used to waiting for people to catch up.

“Oh, use anything in the fridge, whatever’s in there. I think there’s onions. I’ve got no idea if I have any of the spices or whatnot that you might want to use.”

He smiles then. “We ask if our third and fourth thing be good to our first two things, yes? When we have one thing only, we use. Pickles. Eggs. Odd things.”

Emma wipes sugar off her mouth, and his eyes follow the sugary napkin. Oh yes, that boy’s been hungry.

He does that head-tilt again. “Is Miss Emma liking carrots and celery with peanut butter?”

“No, but that’s what I can stand to snack on in a hurry, when my tum is all riled up and tossing round.” She pats herself.

“Is tum all tossing now? Is Miss Emma’s job giving upset?”

Emma whooshes out a breath. “No worries, I’m all right now. You made me settle down and eat something and laugh! But don’t get me started whingeing about work, we’ll sit here all night!”

“And that is bad?” he says, with a little quizzical smile. He waves his hand at the crowded little donut shop. “Yes, sit here in a warm place, eating sugar bombs with beautiful woman who has such wonderful laugh?”

“Oh, lord luv a duck, did you say pretty things like that to Amalia?”

“Oh, Amalia is pretty, but also such jammin’ awesome musician. But Miss Emma, yes! Miss Emma is jawdropper steaming hot, I know this before. Our section says this. They can’t say it to Miss Emma, all straight boys, no, no. But we are queer, so we can say whatever if we like. Right? So straight boys kid us. We say it, Miss Emma punch us out, we must go to rehearsal all black-eye, and Maestro Walstadt asks who hit us, and they all laugh at us a lot.”

Emma finds herself cracking up and laughing very hard. When she winds down, she reaches across the tiny table and gives him a little push on the shoulder. “Flattery!”

He smiles. He’s letting her push him, too. “That is, flattery is to say pretty things?”

“Yes! Silly things that you only say to make somebody happy!”

“But is not just silly,” Dance says. He puts out his two hands, and takes hers, and grips them gently. “Miss Emma impresses people, lots smartness, so quick, Miss Emma does not stop to visit a mirror who says Miss Emma is the fairest of all, yes?”

She grins. “Why? Do I need to brush my hair or something?”

He lets go of her hands, reaches up, and plucks a tangle of little twigs from the curls tousled by her right ear. “As we say, no worries, please. Leaves fall on the head coming in. Do not wish to surprise Miss Emma.” He frowns, smoothing the disordered curls above her ear.

“Oh damnitall,” Emma growls, looking ruefully at the twigs. She puts up a hand and adopts a silly dramatic pose. “Oh, I shall just have to play as if I’m really a wood nymph or water fairy or something terribly Shakespearean.”

He gets up, laughing, and puts the twigs in the can along with their paper trash. He’s still chuckling as he sits down. “Ha! Amalia tells stories on Miss Emma. Miss Emma plays Puck with tricks.”

“How do you– oh, of course! You’ve learned the music for plays and ballets, right?”

“Yes, we read translations to understand…how do we say… mood. Correct phrasing, style of bowing. But that old man Falstaff, that is nasty in Korean. Older village people don’t like actors yell those words where child might hear. Very sad. Old sad clown.” He touches her coat sleeve just enough that she can feel it. He’s so used to being cautious, it makes her want to reach out and arm wrestle him, teach how to do silly fingersnaps, or just maul him about while quoting silly movie lines, and hear him laughing some more. Of course she won’t do that, which is a shame.

He smiles, as if he read the thought anyway.

Emma taps his arm. He permits this, too. “We should get you a proper haircut. I’ve a buddy who wants new clients who won’t mind being experimented on.”

He pushes his untidy mop into a rooster comb like a bad mohawk, and makes a silly face. “Oh, sad again, not enough tats and earrings.”

“Amalia didn’t warn me I’d be laughing all night!”

He leans in close, opening his eyes very wide. “Amalia tires, we don’t joke at her all night. But Miss Emma! So glad Miss Emma is Miss Amalia’s friend!” He grins, with very white teeth.

“So am I,” Emma says, and gives him another mild push on the shoulder, which only makes the grin widen. He pats her arm, too. Emma is beginning to think that only a damn fool would chase Dance round the house. She’s certain that he’ll be underfoot all the time, alongside her cat.


written from a challenge on bjd_30minfic with the prompt of “stairwell”