Fiddles at the Metro

“Need another carton, you think?” Drin asks, opening the top box of hamburgers.

“In ten minutes,” the grillmaster commands, flinging up one hand in grand dismissal, as if he’s conducting the finale on a Wagner piece.  It pleases Maestro Richard Young to turn brusquely away to a woman in line.  He skips the student volunteers in front of him, who wobble in dismay about presenting their plastic plates.

Young’s target is a new patron who’s looking pouty; she overspent on clothes for such a casual event, as if she’s feeling under-appreciated.  She ignored mere musicians greeting her, and sniffed at attentive first chairs in disdain.  Odd, how much she enjoys Young’s flirting, but he does have that heavy-handed charm of older Prussian conductors.  It’s amazing that Young doesn’t just drop the spatula on the grill and walk away with her, carrying the plate for her.  Young murmurs something to the lady about how much she improves his Father’s Day.  There’s an eyebrow wiggle that’s meant to be roguish.

Ah-one-two-three, flourish, that nasty auditor in the back of Drin’s mind starts counting.

Is there a problem?… No,  just she’s just slow… Yes, there it comes.

She giggles behind one hand.

Young bows her off graciously, and skips the students a few more times as he goes back to working the grill.  They huddle, looking embarrassed, while he plucks out all the patrons in line.  But Young’s unpleasantly right about priorities–they aren’t very patient.  He flatters all the ladies exactly as he did the first one.  It’s a formula that works for him.

Drin hasn’t engaged with any of them, wary of all that raw hunger for attention.  Maestro Young certainly won’t hesitate.  He’s good at dragging certain sorts of patrons into the Metro’s insatiable maw for funding.  They’ve come on the promise of things that nobody can guarantee them, chattering brightly, making the best of it.

Drin can’t help but worry about the student volunteers instead.  They aren’t going to get handholding from anybody today.

Soft touch, he scolds himself.

“No worries, sweetheart, isn’t the weather just lovely!”  The Library coordinator is greeting everyone in that killer Aussie accent, getting them to laugh.  She throws an approving look at the huddle of volunteers and waves at others in the line, who brighten up.

Drin relaxes.

The Aussie takes off her hat, revealing untidy red curls.  She pats people’s arms, and gets the volunteers to laugh.  Then she works her way up the line, ending up with a cluster of older women, reaching out to them, and she’s cracking jokes.  She halfway kneels to speak to one of their grandchildren, rumpling her cheap flowered dress in delightful ways.  However, the fluttery dress camouflages her true nature.  The summery mood is a nice respite, but Drin’s riotous imagination insists on decking her out in muddy BDUs, a gunbelt and a clipboard, yelling from a beatup truck that’s armed with a machine gun.  She’d look just as fabulous, but a lot less friendly.

Or maybe he’s just seen too many family snapshots of women like her.  His brain keeps slotting her into uniform next to the fluffy great-grandmother who spent the Great War driving ambulances.  Or the grandmother fabricating parts during the second World War, face weary under a welding helmet, tired from wrestling cranky chunks of aircraft and wrangling entire crews of equally cranky women fabricators.

The red-haired siren glances up, looks squarely at him across a dozen yards, and gives him a little smile.  Oh, she knows who he is, all right.  Your turn is coming, buddy.

He finds himself smiling back.  Give it your best shot, sweetheart.

Silly of him, but he can’t help it.

Then he looks at the students, and back to her, and oh yes, she’s got the message.  She heads up the line for them.  She’ll catch him too, if he lingers.

Oh well, time for honest work, stop admiring the view.  Drin wipes sweat off his forehead, grins at everyone waiting nearby for burgers, and heads back to the parking lot.  The empty hand truck squeals all the way.

“Are you needing box help?” Dance asks, swinging into step from tree shadows.

“Warn a guy!”  Drin exclaims, jumpy.  Of course Drin exaggerates, to make him laugh.

The man has a terrible habit of pouncing at him, delighted as a kitten that he can surprise anybody–and the concertmaster was totally invisible in the heavy shade under the park’s trees.

When Drin has been really surprised, he’s swatted the musician away with a bang like a gunshot echoing in the Metro building, a reflex he can’t control.  It’s just luck so far that he’s never hurt Dance.  The man rolls easily with such back-handed blows, flipping off inconvenient walls as if he’s in the dojo.  He always bounces up gracefully, and praises Drin’s reflex speed.  He just giggles at Drin’s horrified apologies, and both of them walk away embarrassed.

But Dance is clearly happy about the whole thing, so it’s a game.  Drin suspects he ought to introduce the concertmaster to better games.

The musician smiles, holding up a bottle of water that beads moisture.

“Oh God yes, please,” Drin says, and gulps a blessedly cold mouthful.

“Here, please sit, there is a bench.”

He’s blinded in the dim light under the trees.  He holds out his hand, waving.  The musician’s calloused fingertips touch his wrist.  They feel hot as an oven, guiding him.  “Our Mister Drin must cool off, resting in the shade.”

“Jeez, you should talk,” Drin says, wiping his face again.  He pats the bench slats next to him in demand.  He earned that much from Dance last night, helping the concertmaster haul endless thirty-pound boxes of meat up to a large facility kitchen.  While stacking things, he started humming sea chanties at Dance as a joke, but it took off.  The Metro cooking folks sang all kinds of silly songs.  There was yodelling.  No burden to haul pots and crack jokes and sing, while the hardcore Metro volunteers got things cleaned up.

The Aussie gal had been there too, ferrying people and things around in her ugly old stationwagon, a blur of motion.

He asks, “So did you sleep at all last night?”

Dance perches on the edge of the bench, lets his hands dangle between his knees.  He shakes his head.  “This gala– our main summer event–” a wave at the seating area, full of chairs and people chatting and the smoke wandering from the grills, ”–this is not forgiving our regular work for next week.”

“I snuck a bite of that medium hot pork galbi of yours,” Drin says, gazing out at the crowded wiener line, where Robert and Amalia dish up baked beans and silly patter along with the grilled dogs and the crumbly veggie patties that Young disdains to grill.  Robert makes  faces, acting out as Amalia does different voices in some story.  Performers!

Dance tips down his chin, as if he’s hiding it, but there’s a tiny quirk to his mouth.

Drin says sternly, “You’re just lucky I didn’t gobble the whole pan.  I’m behaving myself, you know.”

Dance just starts to smile, wider and wider.

“But I don’t promise to be good about the chicken.  I mean, if there’s any left in the pan by then.”

Dance starts to chuckle.  “We will make galbi for our Mister Drin on another day, please, it is our privilege.  But our spicing for you– should it be that much hotness in spice, or more?”

Drin frowns.  “Don’t know, until I try your really hot pan.  Is it gonna kill me daaaaaaid, or just make me wish I was dead?”

That gets a belly-laugh that roars across the park at startling volume.  Then Dance claps a hand over his mouth, stifling it, but his eyes are still laughing.

Drin squints at the Concertmaster, distracted.  Happy day, the man is wearing short sleeves.  Good God, the forearm muscles.

Drin blinks.  Anatomy is completely distracting.  Also, he’s not used to seeing Dance in such bright colors.  “When did you sign up for the marching band?”

The man’s laugh breaks out again–damn, he’s got a singer’s lungs on him–and Dance admits he borrowed the eye-punch turquoise pants and acid yellow embroidered guayabera from the guys in the horn section of the Metro.

The horn section have been screaming since they arrived.  Those guys are all yelling in some village dialect out of Luzon.  There’s wizened old Pilipino guys running a noisy bucket line of supplies from the parking lot to the really ancient guys running the deep fat fryer.  The whole crew of reprobates showed up in matching tropical pareus and shirts with their foreheads painted in their soccer team colors.  Sports announcer howls in Spanish erupt from a massive old TV set up from a car battery.  They chant for their home team, waving for everyone in line to join in.

The fry crew is vital for this event.  Nobody ever worries about their safety around the huge vat of hot oil because they used to be stewards in the US Navy, then they went sailing out on cruise liners, moonlighting in swing bands on shipboard.  They can play anything by ear, even if most of them don’t sightread quite so well, and they all struggle to pass Young’s annoying chair auditions.

Of course Drin heard the gossip.  The most reliable story had it that, at last week’s section auditions, Young started pounding on his music stand in rage.  “The horns can’t read music!  They can play Dixieland all night but they can’t read!”

Drin blinks at the chrome-yellow shirt next to him.  In context, the borrowed clothes become a blunt political statement.  “I heard Young accused you of helping the horns cheat.”

Dance shifts his chin sharply forward, curls his upper lip until his teeth show, and he clicks his jaws together like a horse biting somebody.  There are a lot of teeth in there.  Snap-snap.  “Briefly,” Dance says, giving a soft huffing noise of laughter somewhere down in his chest.  “We changed his mind.”

“Oh?” Drin says, fascinated.  The biting gesture does not look at all Korean to him, which is odd, because all he knows about basic Korean manners is what he’s observed from the concertmaster himself.  Scattered memories of military bars in Seoul aren’t helpful.

More chesty laughter.  “Maestro Young got a reminding that no one else has test sheets of his new compositions.”

“Wait, he was picking audition music from his own compositions?”

“Indeed yes.  He lacked time to choose ordinary pieces they don’t know by heart, he is looking for their problems with sight reading.  Robert says Bud Innes will add this… irregularity… to the Board agenda next week.”

Drin scrubs at his forehead.  “Well, there goes the board meeting.”  He cuts another look over at the Concertmaster.  “Out with it.”

“Oh, he agreed they all make the same mistakes.  He agreed those are errors which no string player would be making.  Yes, indeed, they all learned to read orchestral scores from one old guy aboard their first cruise ship.  We tell him we can guide Young to that person’s house in town, to hear exactly what he does to poor innocent music students.”  Dance makes a face.  “We warned him he will not enjoy it.  We warn him the teacher is a very grumpy man who throws shoes and large canned goods at people.”

Drin starts to laugh.  “You’re kidding!”

“Oh no.  Last time, it was big pineapple cans in the street.  Boom!  Boom!  These guys–” he gestures at the fry cooks, in obvious frustration, “–they cannot be putting in time on music classes.  Every year, the Board says we first chairs can tutor them free.  Oh, yes, get on that right away.  But they have no time.  Session work in LA pays them better than our Metro.  They are still playing better than anybody else the Metro hires on a union card.”

Drin scrubs at his forehead again.  Money again, the root of so many Metro ills.  “Robert bragged that Young hasn’t caught up to the real cheating going on.”

Dance tilts his chin up.  “Do you want to ask when Robert is trash-talking?  Do you really, our kind lovely Mister Drin, as our volunteer auditor who must fix things?”

Drin doesn’t meet that gaze.  He knows better.  He sighs. “Oh hell and little greased pigs.  No, but okay, tell me anyway.”

“We have a bigger– how do you say– tricking.  A finagle by the saxes.  This trick is so good it fooled all conductors before Young.  This a hotseat swap.  Three session sax players are sitting one Metro chair. They have one guy who passes all these sight-reading auditions, but he’s too busy in LA to be here for performances.  So they swap just like hotbunk aboard ship.  They are all one guy on our paperwork. They sign one social security number, they take turns getting paychecks.”

Drin closes his mouth.  “Okaaay.  I can see how that’d be hard to catch, they all travel in such a mob with hangers-on and relatives.  Can you point out which guys?”

“They’re in LA today–”

“–doing studio gigs?  Right.  Of course they are.”

Dance nods.  “Two of them also swap clarinet with a fourth guy, so it’s much harder to remember those changes by Maestro Young. We are making sure they keep up.” Dance gives a little embarrassed cough, admitting to it.  He nods toward the fryer crew. “That fourth guy, our first clarinet, he is there on the end, cutting turkey.”

Drin sighs.  Of course that guy is their best clarinetist.

“All the horns, sure, they know about it.  But perhaps people won’t say so if you ask them.  We would–” he waggles his eyebrows, “–well, we would have to tell them to speak to you.  The bassoons and the French horns are serving at the pans.  See, they serve our dwaeji galbi and dak galbi pans on the end.”

Drin stares at the Concertmaster, who clearly has all this firmly under control.

“How many other finagles–fiddles–messes–am I missing?” Drin demanded.

Dance lowers his head, coughs into his cupped hand, gives a little wave.  “Eee, more or less, it is all in how we count.”

Not reassuring.

Blandly, Dance says, “Can we ask your help on clearing up the taxes and the employment paperwork to make this first little finagle into proper shared positions, all correct under the union contract?”

And dammitall, he says it so innocently, as if fraudulent income tax reporting is just a minor issue among all the Metro’s other problems.  But there was the glint of something under that solemn expression.  Resignation, amusement, a sort of pride, just as it looks when Robert’s bragging about his stunts.  Look, they’ve got away with it, until Drin came along and asked.  Nobody noticed it before, look how clever Drin is, here he is now, asking the right person.  The man is teasing him a little.

Drin gives him a stern look.  “It can get fixed, of course.  But it might go beyond my level of union contract expertise.”

Dance frowns as if he’s coming up with his next question, but their conversation is interrupted by a distant boom, and some odd whooshing noises.

Flatly, Drin says, “Who’s setting off the fireworks?”

Dance looks away in that direction, frowning.  He says, “You know, the really big nutjobs are the trombones.”

The Concertmaster is clearly waiting for him to ask, but he’s not going to.  Not.

Who let the trombones take charge of the fireworks? is not a question he wants answered.

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