Struggling Artists

“What’s the matter?” Emma asks, opening kitchen cabinets and pulling down tins.

actor Kim Jae Wook, kicking
actor Kim Jae Wook, kicking

Dance flings himself into a chair with a thump and sits looking at the floor, with his hair fallen over his face, and only part of one eye showing. “I’m doing crap tonight.”

“Ahh,” she says, and fills the kettle. She was pretty sure of that already, given that he hadn’t done anything about dinner, he hadn’t made tea, and when she first stepped in the front door, she could hear the violin protesting Maestro Young’s latest selections of repertoire from the back of the house.

“So playing stopped,” Dance says. “The bow, the instrument, me, we are all at cross angles.”

“Well, you tried for a good long time. Some days, that’s all you can do. Would working out at the dojo help? I could drive you, if you want.”

Dance pushes his hands over his face, and sits with his head propped in his palms, elbows on his knees. “We are not knowing. We tried extra time jogging, trying to calm down.”

“What happened at work?”

“Amalia and me, we don’t think Young really wants to be here at all,” his voice says from behind his fingers. “Amalia thinks Young has signed the contract some place.”

“He’s certainly made it abundantly clear why he hates things out here,” she says, getting out a cutting board and pan. She looks at him more carefully. “You think he’s trying to get his sorry ass fired? Go back home to white-bread land? That’s good news, right?”

“Not quite. He is trying to provoke us. Create legal grounds for breaking contract.”

Emma blinks at him, surprised.

“Amalia thinks it is probably Nebraska.”

“They’re smaller than we are!”

Dance spreads his hands out in puzzled agreement.

Emma starts cutting onions. She says, preoccupied, “Why would any conductor want to go back to Nebraska, anyway?”

“Maybe there are nice things there we don’t find here,” Dance says. “Amalia said it is much more small town, people know each other more, there would be more accountability when people are known to each other, right?”

She sighs. “Stop trying to be fair!”

He blinks at her in surprise.

She looks up at Dance and sighs. She used to get that puzzled look from him all the time, back when he was still learning what kind of rules came with strange new words and phrases. “They probably can pay him more than we do, that’s all.”

Dance says, “Do you think they would not be fair to our Miss Emma? I mean, the kind of people one meets in Nebraska?”

“I meet people from Nebraska all the time, for conferences. Librarians and music people and extremely tough-minded charity fund-raising folks. Both liberals and conservatives, you know. I am in total awe of their guts, let me tell you. No, what you’re talking about is the stereotype of small-town Nebraska, narrow-minded Scripture literalists and bigots. But they don’t all believe like that. That’s just the annoying loudmouths anyway. Just like we have all kinds of annoying loudmouths. And none of these loud puffballs are fair to their so-called ‘enemies’, are they?”

He tilts his head slightly, thinking about it. “Well, they may play at it, to give the appearance of fair, but then they just knock down the straw targets? Push over the scarecrowman, yes?”

She smiles. “God, Dance, I love talking to you, you’re so fun.”

He looks at her. “Well, they usually don’t even have very good aim at those poor sitting targets, do they?”

Which makes her laugh, and that’s probably what he meant to do.

She points at him. “What kind of badly acting happened tonight?”

Dance looks away, hugging himself as if he’s cold.

“Okay now, cough it up, it won’t kill you, it’s just a hairball–”

“Mister Drin and Mister Bud Innes, they walked out. Young said things to them.”

She puts her hand down on the counter, bracing herself, and stares at him. “Oh love, that won’t do. That damn fool!”

“It was… it was bad. About how.. sluts like… Robert … behave. Before he was with Bud.”

“Was Robert there?”

“No, that was part of the problem. He wasn’t… Robert wasn’t scheduled to be there. There was no reason for the cello section to be there. But Young had us call them up, and about half of them made it. He gave Amalia hell for being late, and she gave it right back to him for being a… stupid arrogant prick.” The words are short, bitten-off, as if he’s having a hard time making them come out at all.

Emma scowls. Amalia does not lose her temper prettily. For the hundredth time Emma goes over lists of names of possible candidate conductors again in her mind. They can’t get Artois for love or money since he hates living in town here, too close with his relatives. Gaglioni is prone to temper tantrums at sub-professional performances. “Gags” might be fine if they had a decent budget to pay for topflight sections, but they don’t. It was that gangster Shura Korachevsky who warned her and Amalia away from Whiteley’s bad habits with finances. There’s a good dozen more to look at, but it’d take money to go listen to their practices and performances and really find out.

Young is a vindictive prick, too. He must be trying to leave the Metro a shambles. Now the damnable man may have put two of their best patrons at risk, not to mention salaries for at least four first chairs. Somebody will have to go talk to Bud Innes about that.

God help her, she knows who gets to go, cap in hand, begging Innes to interview conductors while he’s in various cities on other business. From what Emma’s overheard, Innes is tight with S. David Smith, the oh-so-trendy conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Perhaps he could call in a favor or two when he’s out East, and get the names of a few likely candidates. Besides Drin, Innes is practically the only patron with a decent enough ear for both the music and leadership ends of the problem. Goodness knows he travels enough; Dance is very patient on the endless panicky calls from Robert. Poor guy has panic attacks whenever Bud is out of town for too long.

Dance scrubs his eyes with his knuckles. She’s seen him cry before, and not just while they were going through the Months of Being Alone, as he called it. He says sometimes he just gets too full, and when it overflows he gets angry, he shouts, he cries, he vents it off safely here at home. But Young is overloading the tolerances too far. Dance is beginning to react aggressively at Young’s bullying of other players. He’s starting to stare down, not to look away when Young challenges him.

She looks at him. There’s something else going on there, she thinks. Young insulting patrons is a only little unusual these days; Young really hasn’t been the same since the party where he was seen screaming at Dance and that poor little pregnant violist.

“You called Bud right away?”she asks.

Dance nods again. “He told me not to worry, he understood, he said he and Drin left because they didn’t want to provoke things any worse. He says he wants the list of conductors to interview in London and Salzburg next month.”

“Have you called Drin?”

“No.”

“Okay,” she says, and starts rummaging in the fridge for things to chop into a stir fry. “Talk to me.”

“When Young said insulting things to them, when he looked at Mister Drin like that, we just… ” Dance makes a wave with his hand. “We just… got too close to…” he makes another wave.

“Why Drin, and not Bud?” she asks, washing vegetables. “Yes, of course he’s very likable, very supportive, comes up with great ideas, everybody adores talking to Drin. Everybody must be furious on his behalf.”

Dance puts his face back into his hands. “Young gets to all of us with what truth we do not want to admit, yes? The icky, sneaky truth.”

“Oh yeah,” Emma says, grimly.

“The queer slut, that was his insult to those two patrons. They’ve been more helpful in two months than most patrons in years, but he says things like that to them. To drive them away, yes?”

“If he’s trying to ensure the patrons are all hetero, then yes, he’ll make those sorts of insults. So what else is new?” Emma corrals the chopped bits of loose celery.

“Young said things like, ‘Going out to pick up beardless boys in clubs every night.'”

Emma winces. “Oh yeah, that’s grounds for us dumping his contract, all right. You’re right, that was really bad.”

“This made us…made me… so mad… It’s not true, the idea that Drin… that he’s… flighty. A tomcat.”

“Oh?” Emma says. That’s what everybody assumes of great big charismatic guys like Drin, though nobody seems to have any evidence about who Drin goes out with, or how often he picks up new partners. Give the guy credit for that, Drin has kept his personal life far more private than the Roberts of this world tend to do.

“He’s not, we don’t care what Young says he saw.”

Emma raises her brows. “How would Young see anything? Why would he know anybody’s tastes in boys, if he’s as straight as he claims to be?”

Dance looks up at her, shocked.

She gives a little shrug, julienning zucchinis that Dance brought in from the garden. They need to be used. “If Maestro Young is so damn straight he can’t stand hearing all that icky stuff, where would he have heard it? Why would he even bring it up?”

“Because either Bud or Drin are the manly man when they’re not even trying, more than Young on his most puffball loud day?” Dance says.

“Puffball loud,” Emma repeats, grinning. “That’s a good word for it. Hellfire, Dance, come right down to it, you’re a helluva lot more macho yourself. You get things done and you don’t make a parade of it.”

“What? Oh, Our Miss Emma has more of the machisma. Miss Emma is a much tougher customer than Young.”

“That isn’t hard! Young goes to pieces over schedules.” She rolls her eyes. “I think he’s got some minor disabilities on the fiscal and calendrical front, if you want the truth. But that’s nothing to do with mental toughness. Admit you have a problem, move on, get some help, right? He could have the balls for that.”

Dance grunts, shaking his head.

Emma says, annoyed, “Somebody taught Young to get out of work by throwing tantrums.”

“We must make it clear that he can turn things over to Admin people who like doing those schedules, make it easier for him.” He stands up, stretches. “You want the broccoli stems peeled?”

Korean dish bibimbab
Korean dish, bibimbab in a stone plate, photo by Korean Kitchen

“Yeah, that’d be great. And peel some onion for me.”

“Needs garlic too,” Dance says.

“Gonna load up on the garlic, just to tick off Young and his touchy nose?” Emma says, grinning.

“We seriously considered asking Drin to go to dinner with our Miss Emma, and Miss Amalia and her sister, and having pizza with extra garlic,” Dance says gravely.

“That’s a great idea!” Emma says.

“Can’t afford it until next month,” Dance says. “All that extra copying. We just found out the Metro isn’t going reimburse any of us for that. We can’t ask people like Amalia to cover an extra fifty bucks she doesn’t have.”

“Oh Christ, and I’m skint this month too, the way they raised the rent on us,” Emma says.

“We know,” Dance says.

“You should call Drin,” Emma says.

“What can we say?” Dance says. He sounds a little panicky.

“I don’t think you’ll have to say much of anything. Just mention his friend Bud. I bet he’s mad on Bud’s behalf.”

Dance chops broccoli stems distractedly. “Mister Bud is Mister Drin’s boss, but they do enjoy talking at events, they seem like friends then.”

“It’s reasonable for him to be concerned when somebody’s insulting his buddy, right? Give me the knife, love, before you cut yourself. Let me get started frying this up, you go call him. Everybody will feel better.”

Dance nods, and leaves the bowl of chopped broccoli and onion by her. She can hear him talking, as the food sizzles in the wok. She pours in some soup stock, quieting the noise.

“…Too tangled up to play very well..” she hears, which is a remarkably trusting thing for him to say to anybody.

Then there’s long silences interrupted when he says, “Oh yes, Mister Drin is right,” or things like, “Is our Mister Drin thinking we could do that for the next concert? That’s a very good idea,” and she can hear his voice relaxing as the conversation goes on.

Dance is smiling when he hangs up, and he comes back to Emma and puts his arms around her in a big hug and kisses her on the cheek. “Thanking our Miss Emma, who is very wise,” he says.

“You’re welcome. Also, you need to crush some more garlic for me,” she says, shifting the broccoli about in rapid dips and flips of the spoon. Dance taught her how to do stir fry, and he’s very patient about what she does to things like curries and dirty rice.

“Here’s some canned water chestnuts,” he says. “It’s cheating, but the best we can do.”

She looks at Dance, who is busy being her sous-chef. He starts mixing up the spices and cornstarch into sauce for her.

Hmm, she thinks. Young was zeroing in on some live signal there.Trying to poke through the armor.

She isn’t going to open it up again now that Drin’s got him calmed down, but she’d bet that the needling wasn’t aimed at Drin or Bud Innes. He was jabbing at Dance. The cooler and calmer Dance is, the more Young wants to poke at him. It’s like a teenager pushing and pushing until somebody lays down the hard boundary line, and then they kick up a squall just to be sure of it.

Why would Young want to see Dance go all to pieces, anyway? The Metro has never seen Dance lose his temper, not once. She has. Talk about goddamn scary. That’d take the Metro to bits all by itself. Hell, nobody wants to see that. It makes them all crazy nervous enough when the second violinist goes off, being jealous about his wife and tries to get Dance to fight with him–and he does it nearly every month, like clockwork.Young tried to provoke the usual competition between first and second chair, but he only succeeded in making Brian’s tantrums worse. It didn’t get to Dance at all. Dance is always cool as ice through those encounters. But Dance likes Brian Erickson, even with all the competitive violinist prickles and the jealousy problems about Brian’s ridiculously rude wife. Treats him just like a squawling pet cat who badly needs a flea dip in spite of the waving claws.

What was Young zeroing in on? she thinks. She pours Dance’s sauce into the wok to thicken it, stirring it in rapid flicks of her spoon. “Maaaan, that smells good, I always love your spicing.”

Dance smiles. “Mister Drin said he’d dare eat my hot barbecue next time. He heard rumors he might have to use tongs to eat it.”

“They’re quite right about that, love!” Emma grins. She’s not in the same class when it comes to eating chilies at the level of heat that Dance can handle, but she’s learned that she likes chilies with a range and depth of good flavor. Dance’s Korean-style barbecue has a sticky sweet tang something like Japanese tonkatsu. He labels the pans with warnings. For the hot pan, he adds lots of mustard and garlic and hot radish, and a long, slow, killer heat from three different kinds of chilies. He’s warned her to be very careful if she ever handles the little glass jar in the fridge with the marinating Scotch bonnet chilies.

If Young starts messing with Dance about his buddy Drin, she thinks, then the poor sap is gonna be in a world of hurt. Getting Scotch bonnet chilies dumped in his underpants will be the least of the guy’s worries.

And that’s just talking about Dance.

Bud Innes may be amused by all this fuss. He doesn’t feel the need to intervene in politics very often. He has a scary level of trust in people’s instincts for self-defense.

Not Drin. Drin is not going to tolerate Young’s games. Drin is hands-on, a whole different order of possessive, a totally different style of ownership. Drin’s plans are affecting the whole damn symphony through Dance as the concertmaster. Drin has laid claim on Dance’s time and interests in ways that have nothing to do with picking up beardless boys in clubs.

Young knows it, too.

Jealous sod. Picking on Drin’s foremost pet musicians? That’s tiny politics from a penny-ante operator. No patron with money and political savvy likes seeing that.

Drin hasn’t bent any kind of revenge onto the man yet–certainly not the way Bud Innes will, when he gets a hot new conductor with a name in there for the Metro, somebody who totally eclipses Young. They’ll have a hard time remembering who whats-his-name was. Eventually. Trust Bud Innes for that.

Drin is more short-term, up close, bare-knuckled. She’s uncertain what Drin will do if Young starts attacking Dance or Amalia so bluntly.

So far, Drin is civil to the man, he addresses Young calmly, nodding when Young says things, paying attention as much as he does with anybody in the orchestra.

But Young doesn’t get the time and care and interest that Drin directs to Dance.

Hell, Drin puts in more time and effort talking to Amalia, the first cellist and Dance’s best buddy in the Metro.

Young knows that too. Hates it.

How pathetic is that?

Emma squints against a gust of highly-spiced steam. She knows Drin and Dance have had some fun conversations about chilies. Ahhh, that could be useful, she thinks. She’s going to have to find some way to thank the man for how he got Dance to calm down and relax again tonight.

That’s some leadership, she thinks. That’s what they need in a conductor, dammit.

===

from another googledocs collaboration!

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