A trip to tanglewood, p.1
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       A Trip to Tanglewood, p.1

           Barry Rachin
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A Trip to Tanglewood
A Trip to Tanglewood


  Barry Rachin

  * * * * *

  Published by:

  A Trip to Tanglewood

  Copyright © 2010 by Barry Rachin

  This short story represents a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

  * * * * *

  A Trip to Tanglewood

  Marie Augustin believed emphatically in keeping her personal life separate from the workplace. Many of her elderly clients were scheming and manipulative. When she first came to America from Haiti, they tricked her into staying longer than her allotted time. They whined and wheedled until she gave them her telephone number, then called at all hours of the day and night begging for a loaf of bread - when they already had a spare loaf in the freezer - and similar foolishness. "Better to stay outside their circle of craziness," Marie told herself a dozen times a week and defended her privacy with steadfast obstinacy.

  Marie liked the widower, Mr. Marsoubian, best of all. Sent by the home care agency, she cooked and cleaned; she washed the few clothes he wore and got his groceries now that his driver’s license had been taken away. His thinning gray hair falling down in his eyes, Peter Marsoubian was waiting for Marie when she arrived one Monday morning. "I need a favor."

  Marie made an unintelligible sound, a cross between a grunt and a groan. Taking a rag from the kitchen closet, she went into the living room and began the weekly ritual of dusting the furniture. "What type of favor?"

  "Drive me to Tanglewood in the Berkshires to hear the English trumpeter, Maurice Gordon." There was no response. "I'll pick up the tab for everything - food, lodging, tickets to the concert."

  Marie considered the odd request as she guided the cloth dampened with lemon oil over the mahogany end table. The wood was old but still retained its luster. "Out of the question," the black woman returned. She stood straight up. Peter Marsoubian stared at her short squat body with the broad nose and tree trunk of a neck. "Transporting clients is against agency rules."

  Peter gawked at her with soft eyes. Everything about him was soft. His shoulders slouched at a precipitous angle and jowls sagged. It was as though someone had taken a rasp and filed away all the rough edges and sharp corners. "We've known each other a year and a half, and, in all that time, I've never asked a single favor."

  "Where is this place?" Marie asked, more from curiosity. She already had dismissed the idea of helping Peter. Driving him anywhere was non-negotiable, not even a remote consideration.

  "Tanglewood. It's a three and a half hours drive out of Boston. West on the Mass Turnpike."

  "Why don't you just wait until he comes to Symphony Hall?"

  "This is Mr. Gordon's only appearance locally. After Tanglewood, he flies back to London."

  "You could buy a record."

  "It's not the same thing."

  Marie put the dust cloth down and glanced about the room. The furniture in Peter Marsoubian's apartment was old but durable. Near the window was a bulky chair and sofa in an outmoded flower pattern. A pair of three-legged end tables, each with a brass lamp and lace doily, flanked the sofa facing toward an upright piano. The furnishings, which in another setting might have seemed drab, exuded an air of sparse stateliness, a monkish austerity. "You know the rules," Marie said firmly. "A homemaker can’t drive a client in her car." She examined the dark ridge of dirt on the underside of the dust cloth with satisfaction. Sprinkling a few additional drops of oil on the surface, she resumed her dusting.

  The next day, Mr. Marsoubian was waiting for Marie in the kitchen. He had fixed two cups of tea. A plate of toast and jar of boysenberry jam were on the table. “I thought you might like a little snack," Peter said with a ingratiating smile.

  Marie stared at the toast uncomfortably. In her native country when people wanted something done they frequently gave a gift; in such instances, once the money or goods changed hands, the obligation was born. "I'll just have the tea, thank you," Marie said. She took a sip. It was already quite cold.

  "Why don't you sit down," Peter suggested. "It's not good to drink tea standing up." Marie didn't see why but sat down just the same. With a bony finger, Peter pushed a shiny brochure across the table toward her. There were several pictures on facing pages of smiling, ecstatically happy people - women wearing evening gowns, men in tuxedoes, musicians, singers, even an elegant blonde with a bouffant hairdo plucking a huge harp in a pastoral setting.

  Marie examined the pictures on the inside fold without bothering to read the accompanying text. Flipping the pamphlet over, she glanced at the schedule of events. The English trumpeter, Maurice Gordon, was booked as guest soloist on June 18th. An inset picture of the virtuoso fiercely clutching his horn accompanied a list of his numerous accomplishments.

  "Two things," Marie said, tapping the brochure rhythmically with a taut index finger. "How do you think a black woman, a green card alien from Haiti, would fit in with this cheerful group?" Marie let out a gruff belly laugh and, embarrassed by her loss of control, made a mental note never to do such a thing in public again. "Ain’t one person who looks even remotely like me in any of these pictures. They're all white."

  "There are black musicians in the orchestra," Peter corrected. "And the conductor, Mr. Ozawa, is from Japan."

  "That may be so," she reached for the cup of tea but thought better of it. "I've never been to a place like this and wouldn't feel comfortable." Marie rose to her feet and made a motion to clear the table.

  "Two things," Peter blurted out. "You said there were two things."

  "Fact is, I could lose my job. My husband and my children depend on the money I make. The risk is too great."

  Peter turned the glossy page over in his hand and sighed wistfully. "If I hadn't lost my license, I'd go myself. Straight up the Mass Pike." He trace the route on the small map located on the rear of the brochure. "Past Framingham and Westboro, almost to the New York border. Then straight up route 41."

  "Sorry I can't help you," she said, putting the dishes in the sink, and left the room. Marie washed a load of laundry and, while the clothes were drying, made a pot of chicken soup. Haitian chicken soup is what Peter called it, because, instead of the traditional ingredients, Marie used chopped scallions, thin slivers of green pepper and egg noodles. Sometimes in place of the noodles she used whole grain rice which she cooked for a half hour separately before adding it to the stock. Peter didn't seem to mind. What he didn't finish during the week was usually gone before she returned the following Monday.

  When the clothes were dry, she folded and put them away. In the den Peter was practicing his trumpet. Marie was so used to the bittersweet tone, never overly loud or harsh, that she hardly noticed the music wafting through the house.

  Peter Marsoubian played trumpet - first in concert and marching bands, then later in small, community orchestras. It was a hobby, nothing more. He never earned any money. Now that he was too old to perform in public, he still managed an hour or so of classical etudes and songs every day.

  Though his technique was sure and supple, he never played a piece through from beginning to end without pausing a half dozen times. After each interruption, the tune would resume from the exact note where he had left off only to falter again midway through a handful of measures. "Peter, why do you stop so often?" Marie had asked him once.

  "Emphysema," Peter said laying the golden bell of the horn on his lap. Where the mouthpiece rested on his top lip only a moment ago, there was a puffy, circular indentation. "Can't get enough air into my lungs anymore."

  It was almost eleven o'clock when Marie finish
ed preparing the chicken soup. "I'll be leaving now," she said buttoning her winter coat. In her homeland people would be moving about in short sleeve shirts and thin, cotton dresses. "Is there anything else I can get you before I leave?"

  "A ride to Tanglewood."

  "Out of the question," Marie said with a pleasant, round-faced smile. "See you tomorrow." She went out the door.

  From Mr. Marsoubian's she drove across town through the Callahan Tunnel to look in on an Italian woman with cataracts and a heart condition. On the ride Marie considered Mr. Marsoubian's wacky proposition. "Here I am, barely five years in the United States - not even a citizen - and this crazy Armenian wants me to drive him to the ends of the earth. On a whim! Just like that!"

  At a traffic light three young girls in green and black plaid skirts crossed the street. The girls hugged their schoolbooks to their breasts, chattering away with breezy innocence. As they passed in front of the car, Marie felt a stabbing throb of sadness. When she was their age in Port au Prince, she witnessed a murder. Not that she had seen the actual crime. She was fourteen and on her way to school. A young man was lying crumpled up like a discarded rag in the middle of the street. A trail of dried blood had crusted over and turned black on the side of his neck where the bullet had entered. A swarm of noisy flies was circling the hole. A small crowd gathered. No one spoke. They stared briefly with severe or curious expressions and hurried away. Later that day when Marie returned home, her mother asked, "How was your day, my darling? Did anything special happen to you?"

  Marie did not tell her mother about the corpse. She went and sat under a palm tree and thought about the unlucky man with the hole in his neck. On Sunday before Mass, Marie lit a candle for the anonymous dead man. She didn't know why. The sermon was short. Marie ran her fingers over the smooth, round beads of her rosary and tried to think deeply about the meaning of life; she struggled to consider her fragile existence in the urgent way that grownups did. But there was no revelation. No epiphany. "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed." When the priest placed the host on her outstretched tongue, Marie felt strangely different, as though there was the need to atone for some vague and, as yet, unspoken sin.

  Beeeeep! The light turned green and Marie eased the car back into gear. She was already five minutes late and the Italian women with the milky eyes would be pacing the floor.

  Peter Marsoubian lost his driver's license the previous spring in a peculiar accident in the parking lot of Richter's Hardware. The policeman who took the accident report noted that Peter had 'backed his car into a pedestrian'. Peter took issue with the officer’s choice of words. "I didn't run the man down,” he protested. “No one was maimed or injured.”

  There was some truth to Peter's account. The victim, if he could even be described as such, did not require any medical attention and, except for some lingering soreness which went away after a day, no harm was done. However, Peter had been involved in several traffic accidents over the past year and a half and, after this most recent incident, the registry pulled his license. In a letter which he received a month after the incident in the parking lot of Richter's Hardware, the registry informed Peter that, if he wished to appeal their decision, he should do so within ten days. He had every intention of doing just that but somehow never got around to writing the letter.

  Through the holidays and into the New Year, there was no more mention of Maurice Gordan, ‘trumpet virtuoso extraordinaire’. Peter came down with a mild case of bronchitis and spent a week in bed. In early January Marie's sister-in-law, René, came to visit. A lean-boned woman with a thick scar over her left eye, it was rumored that her former spouse - they were divorced five years now - had been an attaché, a member of the secret police, in Haiti. Marie asked her husband, Leon, about the scar. "An unfortunate accident," he said, refusing to elaborate.

  "All the way from New York I sat alone on the bus. Imagine that! Not one, white bastard would lower himself to share the same seat with me!" René was unpacking her suitcase in the spare bedroom. She rubbed the jagged weal of the scar over her eye. The skin blanched then returned to its normal color, several shades darker than her regular skin tone.

  "How sad!" Marie replied.

  "And that old lady at the Greyhound Station! Did you see how that wrinkled-up prune behaved when you came to get me?"

  Marie and Leon had gone to meet René at the Greyhound terminal near Park Square. In the lobby as they were collecting René's baggage, an elderly white woman with a peacock feather in her hat and too much rouge gawked at them rudely. When their eyes met, the white woman scrunched up her nose. But the bristling anger was dampened with equal portions of confusion, grief and loneliness. As the woman hobbled unsteadily away, Marie noted one leg was shorter than the other, causing the peacock feather to bob up and down erratically. "She’s just a harmless, old fool. That white woman didn't hardly bother me one tiny bit." "No," Marie repeated emphatically, "not one tiny bit."

  René ignored the remark. "Leon told me about that horrid, Armenian. The nerve of him wanting you to drive him to the ends of the earth to hear some stupid, ridiculous trumpet player! I've never heard such nonsense!"

  "I wish Leon never mentioned it."

  "If I was in your place and he asked me," René fumed, "I'd tell him to stick his trumpet where the sun never shines."

  "He only asked twice," Marie said softly, "and never mentioned it again."

  "You're too nice, Marie. Too nice and unsuspecting." René wagged a finger in the air. "Did it ever occur to you that going to the concert was just a ploy, a convenient excuse to get you to go away with him?" René placed her hands on her bony hips and sniggered as though at some private joke. "The horny, old bastard!"

  An unintelligible protest welled up in Marie's throat but never quite reached her lips. She breathed out deeply and, for the first time since she had greeted her sister-in-law at the Greyhound station, looked the woman full in the face. "René, I need to say something."


  "Please, shut up!"

  Dead ten years now, Peter Marsoubian's wife, Sarah, taught piano and gave voice lessons. He never spoke about the woman directly, only through the medium of music. "My Sarah played popular music, but she favored the classics."

  "The classics. That's nice." Marie was washing the windows from the inside. Washing windows was not in the homemaker job description. It was considered chore work and the agency frowned on such things.

  "Chopin, Debussy, Bartok." Peter, who was sitting at the upright piano, ran a finger over the black keys forming a perfect pentatonic scale. "My Sarah loved them all."

  Though she had never met the big-boned, pretty woman, Marie was familiar with all the milestones, bits of historic and incidental trivia that chronicled the history of Sarah Marsoubian's life. She had heard them a hundred times, like variations on a classical motif and always filtered through the protective buffer of symphonies and songs. It was as though the marriage and the music had merged, annealed into one indistinct, amorphous whole.

  "Here's a picture taken at a community concert at the Dorchester YMHA," Peter said removing a discolored photo from his musical scrapbook. In the picture Sarah was seated at the piano; Peter, holding a bundle of sheet music under his left arm, stood center stage. His trumpet was perched on a small stand. "We performed the Carnival of Venice with all four variations including the triplet and thirty-second note runs."

  "Very handsome!" Marie said. She was looking at a picture of Peter Marsoubian in his prime. Strong and vibrant with a full head of bushy hair. "Very handsome, indeed!"

  In early March Marie received a call from the director of the home care agency. Mr. Marsoubian suffered a heart attack and had been taken to Beth Israel Hospital. The case was suspended until further notice. Marie waited for the initial shock to pass. "How’s he doing?"

  "Too soon to tell," the director said. "I know this might seem a little bit crass, but there‘s another case opening up - same
hours Monday through Friday, if you're interested." There was a brief pause. "Hello, Marie? Are you still there?"

  "Hold on a minute while I get a pen and paper."

  The new client was a sour-faced negro woman with kidney failure and glaucoma who drank cheap wine from early in the morning and was prone to mood swings. Marie’s first visit to the squalid apartment off Massachusetts Avenue the black woman was waiting with a magnifying glass and sour expression. She slid the lens over a crumpled shopping list scrawled in bold letters with a felt-tipped pen. “I want Libby peaches in heavy Syrup not the shitty, store brand.”

  “Libby peaches. Heavy syrup,” Marie repeated.

  “Honey ham’s on sale. Get a quarter pound sliced extra thin.” She flung the words out like an accusation. Pressing a button in the handle of the magnifying glass, a tiny light bulb threw a beam of yellow light onto the list. “Camel cigarettes. Unfiltered. One carton.”

  Marie pointed at a metal canister propped in the living room; the steel tank was fitted with pressure gauges and plastic tubing. “Can’t purchase smokes with oxygen in the home. Too dangerous. State regulations.”

  “My daughter’ll pick them up,” the black woman wheezed nastily, “when she visits Friday after bingo.”

  Marie drove to the market at the bottom of Chelsea Street. In thirty minutes she had everything and was back at the apartment where the client made her wait while she checked each item against the cash register receipt and counted her change. “You could of got the goddamn cigarettes!” Escorting Marie to the foyer, she slammed the door throwing the deadbolt. Click! Marie put her hat on and lumbered down the stairs.

  A week later Marie called the home care agency and asked to speak to the director. "I would like to go back to Mr. Marsoubian when he comes home."

  "Anything wrong with the new lady?" the director asked.

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