Suite Populaire Americaine
After four days of enervating July mugginess pumped up from the swamps of Dixie, the air felt dry and light. The two-lane blacktop was nearly free of traffic and, though there wasn’t even much wind to fight, Joseph Tritto pedaled hard. Six days earlier his affair with Joyce Kleinschmidt had ended abruptly when, to his own astonishment, he clearly declared into his phone, “I can’t do this any more.” He had no intention of saying any such thing yet it popped out of him and so it must have been inside, seething like magma: disappointment, humiliation, the unacknowledged calculation that their relationship had flipped from being a source of pleasure and hope to one of pain and grief. I can’t do this any more. He wasn’t even sure whether this referred to the affair itself or just his asking when he would see her, which is what he had just been doing. “He’s out of town for two days. You told me yourself.” He had been exasperated by his whining. And she was silent. That was what had provoked him. No matter how hard he pedaled, how fast he went, he still heard that silence, loud as a gap on a White House tape. Her silence proved that, though he might be surprised by what he’d said, she wasn’t; and it seemed to him that she’d been waiting for him to catch on. She didn’t exert herself to change his mind, to ask him to specify what this was. What she did say after a good five seconds of silence was, “Please don’t send me any letters. Or emails.” Once she’d cherished his notes to her, all beginning MDSJ, for “my dear sweet Joyce.” When had they become exasperating? Or did she fear an analysis that would wring her heart? Joseph was the poet/shrink of the pair; he was the one who liked to talk about feelings, who took the temperature of the thing that was this. It was womanly of him; perhaps that was the problem. Anyway, those five Mississippis of silence began and ended their break. The remaining ambiguity was that he couldn’t decide if he had chosen end it or if he had been manipulated into doing it. Was a break what she wanted but lacked the courage to ask? Was tricking him into bringing down the cleaver a way of claiming the high ground, plausible denial and exculpation? It only made things worse to know that she could have had him back at any time. He waited expectantly for a phone call, obsessively checked email. He fantasized about a desperate call at midnight, about her showing up at his apartment drenched in tears and rain, the arrival of a long handwritten letter full of the love that, he had to admit, she’d never once expressed—the closest she’d come was at the start, when she’d called him “my best friend.” Yes, a businesslike email would have done it, the most brusque of text messages. But the silence persisted, set in like a bitter January.
Joseph had told no one of the affair, but for a time had considered calling his friend Patrick. He didn’t want advice but merely the relief of speech, of complaint. It was a dishonorable impulse and he was glad he hadn’t given in to it. Patrick always spoke of women with the unromantic authority of a gay man. He reminded Joseph of Chamfort’s aphorism that “one must choose between loving women and understanding them.” Patrick would have savored such a conversation with Joseph; he would slowly have turned it into a monologue, half-sermon, half-case study. Then it occurred to Joseph that Patrick, a colleague who had often seen him and Joyce together, almost certainly knew about the affair. A second-rate violinist but a gifted teacher, Patrick Casillas was one of those on whom nothing is lost, even if he sometimes had to invent things not to lose. He would have picked up on an exchanged look, some gesture. The surprising thing was that he had never said anything about it; Patrick enjoyed gossiping to people’s faces even more than behind their backs.
Joseph stopped working. His muse was gone. And there was work that needed to be done, a deadline that was barely a month off. Unlike his defunct affair, which had led to nothing, this work stood to be consequential. The previous year he had composed a piece he called Petite Suite Populaire for two pianos. It had begun as a sort of jeu d’esprit, written for two of the Conservatory’s advanced students. They were charming and ferociously diligent girls, one from Colombia, the other a first-generation Chinese-American. They were so serious that Joseph wanted to loosen them up. Up till then his composing had also been serious to a fault, so it was good for him as well. The conductor of the symphony orchestra had attended the year-end recital at the Conservatory and heard the premiere. He was so taken with the piece that he commissioned an orchestral version for his first concert in September. “Perhaps,” he said in his punctilious Belgian accent, “I will place it last and leave them happy—no, first, I think. Yes, last. We shall make everybody happy first.” It was the sort of music people liked hearing, which couldn’t be said of his prior work. It could earn him a name. When he was writing it he felt rather elated, almost light-headed; it was like crossing a from a dark room into a well-lit one, from ponderous to buoyant, from Germany to France. But now the orchestration, like his life, had stalled. Maybe it was being blocked that made him yearn for a long ride, further than his usual route, far into the exurbs, as if propelling himself on the bicycle could be a magic metaphor and he would regain momentum by exhausting himself.
He passed scrub pines, stands of birch, some beech trees and water meadows, smiled to think how far out he was as he glided by a horse farm. There were huge houses concealed behind evergreens and set well back, with circular driveways and iron gates set in fieldstone walls. He pedaled by ponds and through town centers with clapboard churches and with Civil War monuments and police headquarters that looked like old taverns. He passed new developments, super-sized colonials and capes that looked like steroidal impostors set among two-hundred-year-old homesteads with weathered shingles and sensible proportions.
Joseph let his mind pass randomly from Joyce, to Patrick, to the Suite and what he might do with woodwinds, strings, and brass. He was in a groove and when he came on a quick, steep hill, he scorned to downshift and hammered up the blind rise. He didn’t anticipate the mound of road sand that had been pushed into the declivity on the other side and he just plowed into it. There was no slow motion. On the contrary, everything happened in a flash: the front wheel of his Univega crunched into the treacherous softness and stopped; the rear wheel lifted, his body lurched and tumbled—he wasn’t sure of the physics except that everything was all sudden and violent. Then he was on the pavement, stupefied by the abrupt transition. His helmet was knocked sideways. His head hurt and his right arm far more. He staggered to his feet and got out of the road. Had the SUV and dump truck that that had whizzed by him just before he took the hill been a few seconds later he’d certainly have been dead or mangled. “I’ll have to bike home” was his first thought. He had no money, no wallet or phone. The handlebars were askew and so was the front wheel. “If I did have a phone, would I call her?” he wondered then noticed the blood on both his arms and searched for the source of, which turned out to be abrasions, the deepest being to his left shoulder and right elbow.
Through the trees across the road he made out the turret of a Victorian house. Maybe someone would be home and he could get help, at least borrow a phone. He could try Patrick. Patrick could come for him in his little Honda.
Joseph’s right arm hurt most when it hung down, a little less when bent, so he held his right elbow with his left hand. “Must have broken something,” he thought in a detached way, as if his arm were not him at all, but a burden he had to carry. He wrangled the bike into the high weeds at the side of the road, detached his dented helmet and tossed it by the bike. Then he made for the house.
The entrance to the driveway was marked by two fieldstone pillars, one with the street number set in it. There were two vehicles parked at the end of the driveway in front of a garage big enough to hold a brace of Abrams tanks. One was a new black Mercedes sedan, the other a white Lexus. The driveway curved through an expanse of weedless lawn. The house itself was an appealing pile, old-fashioned but clearly renovated; he could see four skylights. It reminded him of his sister’s doll house. All around the front were old rhododendron bushes, also spirea, day lilies, giant hosta. A privet hedge, flat as a runway, stretched from one side of the house almost down to the woods where he guessed there was a stream. “What Patrick means by Plutopia,” Joseph mused, taking careful inventory of his surroundings simply to prove to himself he wasn’t in shock. He feared he might soon be; his legs felt a little wobbly.
The front door was imposing, dark oak with stained glass. The long screened windows on either side were open, and Joseph was about the ring the bell when he heard a man’s raised voice. A line from Shakespeare popped into Joseph’s not altogether clear mind: “I understand the fury in your words but not your words.” It was fury, not pain, or pain expressing itself as fury. He stepped back from the door and crept between the rhododendrons to the open window on the left. It was so bright outside that it was a moment before he could see inside. A young woman in jeans and a white peasant blouse was standing behind a couch on which sat an older woman in a tennis dress. A few feet away, just on the other side of a glassy coffee table, an agitated man in a business suit was yelling at them both, or perhaps only the woman on the couch. Joseph heard him say, “I’ll kill your first—I’ll kill all of you!” Then he saw the pistol. The man wasn’t pointing it at anybody, just holding it at his left side where it swung like a pendulum as he put his strength into screaming a string of men’s names, places, dates, and insults.
The next five minutes were dreamlike, full of action unimpeded and unredeemed by thought. Joseph made his way as quietly as he could to the rear of the house. He found a pile of wood behind the garage, firewood but also pieces of lumber and fence palings. With his left hand—he no longer felt so much pain in his right arm but he knew that it was swelling—he chose a length of split hardwood that was roughly bat-sized. The rear door had been left open to let in the clean Canadian air. He opened the screen door carefully and stole inside an immense kitchen, with its granite counters, a butcher block, and hanging copper pans that made him think of a pipe organ. The man’s voice was clearer now. He had apparently finished delivering his catalogue of infidelities. “All this shit I’ve had to put with for years and you fucking want a divorce? You bitch!”
Joseph could see into the living room now but no one saw him. The man was raising the pistol. There was a kind of scream—definitely a scream, yet a soft one, a scream riding an indrawn breath. He made his move. He leapt into the room. The man began to turn toward him, his face red, amazed, the gray gun still pointed toward the women.
Joseph swung the plank at the man’s left arm, the one with the gun at the end of it. It was an upward stroke aimed at the elbow so if the thing went off it might miss the women. But the blow was too light; the pistol didn’t go off, but the man fumbled the thing but managed to hold on to it. Joseph’s second stroke hit flat against the side of the man’s head and he went down. The gun skittered under the coffee table. The woman in the tennis dress leaned down—casually, it seemed to Joseph, almost with indifference—and picked it up by the barrel. The man was not unconscious; he was groaning, drawing up his legs, and holding both sides of his head, like the figure in Munch’s Scream. Blood seeped from his ear.
The next minutes were blurred. Joseph felt suddenly cold and fuddled. Later, he could recall collapsing into an armchair and the young woman dashing to the kitchen where she apparently called 911. To Joseph it seemed the police were there in seconds, as if they must have been just outside all along, peering curiously through the screens, waiting to see what he would do.
The air had been briefly filled with sirens, then the driveway with official vehicles—two police cars, one van, a couple of ambulances, and a fire truck. The pistol was bagged, its owner handcuffed, his head treated; then he was hustled off one of the ambulances, guarded by two exurban policemen, for whom this was clearly an event. The EMTs put a temporary splint on Joseph’s right arm, cleaned his abrasions, then waited patiently while his arm blew up still more and a detective in a blue blazer took a statement from him. The detective looked as if he might have had his luncheon at the country club interrupted; he was evenly tanned and his thick gray hair was nicely parted. “Just a preliminary statement, Mr. Tritto,” he said suavely. “Or is it Professor? Yes? Well, we’ll be wanting to see you again, of course; but for now. . .” The woman Joseph decided must be the wife was at the dining room table talking quietly with another detective. Joseph was struck by the calm, reflective way she spoke to the lieutenant, just as he had been by the way she picked up the gun. The young woman he decided must be a daughter. Her statement was being taken in the kitchen by a uniformed policeman, over the granite countertop. He could just hear the tone of her voice. It was agitated, certainly, even emotional, but still under control. He thought of the way Martha Argerich played Chopin.
As the EMTs were escorting Joseph across the Kerman carpet toward the front door, the daughter dashed into the living room, saying over her shoulder—whether to the policemen or her mother wasn’t clear—that she was going too, going with him, or rather would follow the ambulance and drive him home. Her tone was such that nobody offered any objection which Joseph found surprising. “Not necessary,” he mumbled, feeling guilty, as if he too were being led away in cuffs. Was she grateful, or was she was angry with him? After all, the only physical violence that had occurred was committed against her father by him.
It crossed his mind that Kleinschmidt also might be capable of murderous rage. Had he become suspicious? Was Joyce simply terrified? Joseph couldn’t entirely prevent feeling some sympathy for the man he had attacked. He had been so upset by Joyce’s passive rejection that to extrapolate to frenzy wasn’t beyond contemplating. And what had he been feeling when he leapt into the living room like a one-armed Baryshnikov? Except for a couple childhood brawls, he had never hit anyone—certainly not the way he had the man he now knew was named Banister. With so many reasons to feel guilty it never occurred to him to look for thanks. In fact, the women had said nothing at all to him, and that dapper policeman had looked suspicious. The detectives on television always made a point of saying they mistrusted coincidences.
One of the EMTs moved aside and she was beside him. “I know who you are,” she said.
“Of course. You heard me give my name to the police.”
“No. I mean I know who you are, what you do. I’ve seen you on stage. You weren’t wearing shorts and a T-shirt then. Or a sling. I heard both your symphony and your Suite Populaire.”
He wasn’t displeased, as fame is being known by people you don’t know. “I suppose you preferred the suite, like everybody else.”
“With respect, Mr. Tritto, you’re the one who chose the title.”
“I also know two of your former students.” She gave their names, both female. Joseph thought that this was far too much coincidence for any detective, even one with a snug berth in placid Plutopia instead of the networks.
They spent about a full hour at the nice suburban hospital, where she brought him a tuna sandwich and an iced tea while he waited to be released. Then they were in the Lexus, driving not to his apartment but back to her house. The doctor said Joseph had probably suffered some shock as well as a slight concussion and it would be preferable for him not to be left alone for twenty-four hours. “Do you live alone?” she asked and when he admitted he did, she said, “In that case you’re coming with me.” He demurred, of course. “Just to be on the safe side,” she insisted. “And don’t waste your breath. I’m not taking no for an answer. And I’m a good violinist.”
He had to wait with an orderly while she got the car. When he got in Joseph asked, “If I’ve got a broken arm and a concussion, what does your father have?” He was not trying to be amusing; on the contrary, he really was afraid he had shattered Banister’s elbow and fractured his skull. He had certainly tried to.
But she shook her head. “I checked with the doctor who saw him. Broken eardrum, some ruptured capillaries. No big deal, he said. Arm’s fine. Cranial x-ray negative.” He wondered if her lack of affect was quite normal. She hadn’t sounded this way when giving her statement to the police. He examined her profile and saw that it was a charming profile; he also noted the color of her hair and liked it. Odd that he had taken in so much about the house, the landscape, but hardly anything about the people. He was also surprised that she looked familiar.
“Holly Banister,” he said slowly, his voice mimicking the speed of his sluggish brain. “I know the name. In fact, I’ve seen you too. You played with the Manfredi Quartet last year. Schubert.”
“And Shostakovich. My sister’s better on the flute than I am on either the viola or the fiddle.”
“Hadley. Holly and Hadley. And mother’s Heidi. Can you believe it?” She made a sour face at the windshield. “Hadley just turned seventeen. She’s up at the White Mountains festival, thank God. I’ll have to call her. She’s going to insist on coming home. What a mess.”
Joseph was replaying the scene in the living room. “Did he, your father I mean—was all that. . . sudden?”
“Sudden? Depends on what. The gun was sudden but the jealousy and the vituperation weren’t. I’m sure my mother asking him for a divorce was sudden, but I’d also say it was inevitable. She told him this morning, apparently. So I guess it wasn’t sudden and yet it was. It can take a long time for a thing to become sudden.”
Joseph thought of Joyce and of how long she must have waited for him to catch on.
“How long had he been going on like that? I mean the shouting and the gun.”
“Nearly half an hour, I think, though it felt like a month, which is why I didn’t believe he’d actually shoot us. But the police did say the gun was loaded. A full clip, they said.” She twisted in the seat. “Why don’t you tell me about your bike accident? Arm hurting less since they set it?”
“Well, that and all the ibuprofen.” Joseph became self-conscious, looked down at his bare legs, felt the dried sweat encasing him. “Wish I had some proper clothes.”
“We can stop and buy some.”
“I don’t have my wallet. I’m right-handed,” he added irrelevantly.
“You’re going to have a hard time with zippers.”
He was shocked that she would tease him. All he could think to say was, “I need to write.”
“People manage. They get used to using the other hand.”
“I haven’t got time.” He explained about the commission, the deadline, admitted he was stalled but didn’t say why.
“I could help you with that,” she said just as flatly as she said everything else. “I might even be capable of having ideas.”
They rode in silence for half a mile or so. Then Holly said, “Want to hear something funny?”
For a moment he thought she was going to tell a joke, maybe something else about zippers, as if her world had not just been detonated and her life nearly lost.
“Funny?” he said chidingly.
“I was engaged to be married. I broke it off. Yesterday.”
Joseph sighed. “I’m sorry. Is it proper to say I’m sorry?”
“I think it’s one of those rare occasions when sympathy and congratulations both work.”
“And neither does any good. I suppose you’re off marriage, then.”
“Off men, I’d say.”
Again his mouth outran his mind. “Good.” He spoke too quickly, meaning to cancel what she’d just said by seconding it, and this was because he was attracted to her but hadn’t yet realized it. And now they both did.
After that Holly fell silent but her silence was only superficially like Joyce’s or at least it sounded different to Joseph.
Holly and Joseph found Heidi Banister in the kitchen making chocolate chip cookies. Left alone, she had changed into a red sundress that Joseph thought more flattering than the tennis outfit; it was low-cut and faded.
Holly explained why she had brought Joseph back, though her mother expressed no curiosity on the matter. He felt as awkward as a big, wrongly delivered package. Mrs. Banister rubbed her hands on a dish towel and pointed at the bowl full of chocolate studded batter.
“You loved it this way when you were little.” Holly stuck in a finger. “Apparently this is what you do when your husband goes crazy and somebody falls from the sky and brains him. You make cookies.” This was the first allusion either of them had made to earlier events.
“He’s okay, nothing broken,” Holly informed her perfunctorily. “Mm, I do love your cookies,” she said like a little girl, dropping the Lexus keys on the polished granite and taking a second finger’s worth of batter.
Joseph had the sense that neither of them knew how to conduct themselves—not with him or with each other—how to talk sensibly. Nevertheless, Holly struck him as level-headed and her mother as almost philosophical in her detachment. Whatever their mental state, it was not hysterical—at least not yet.
Mrs. Banister nodded at his arm in the sling. “So you did all that with a broken arm?”
“I want to apologize,” Joseph started to say, not knowing himself what he should apologize for—coming in without ringing the bell, smashing her husband’s arm and head, being brought back by Holly, for wearing shorts and smelling like a cyclist, for overhearing her husband’s rant. Mrs. Banister stopped him by saying something uncanny.
She waved her hand like a welcoming pennant. “Apologize all you like. Wallow in it, if you want.”
After that, of course, he didn’t want to apologize at all.
“Did you phone Hadley?” Holly wanted to know.
“I could say I forgot but actually I was putting it off,” her mother replied rather vaguely, as she smacked a spoon full of batter on the cookie sheet. “What I actually forgot was to preheat the oven.”
“We have to call her.”’
“Naturally. Will you do it, please?”
Holly threw Joseph an “I-told-you-so” look. It was a significant moment. The most delicate and complicit communication between people is always wordless. Certain looks make bonds, or confirm them.
“Coffee first,” she said and looked at Joseph, raising her eyebrows—wordless communication again.
Holly set about making coffee; her mother went on with her cookies, and Joseph continued to wonder whether these women were traumatized or not. In his opinion, they ought to be.
Heidi Banister was in her forties and a good-looking woman. Her body moved with girlish lightness though her face remained still, She had a peculiar look around her mouth that Joseph interpreted as bitterness, the effect of a marriage long gone rancid. She bent to put the cookies in the oven, then recalled it was not yet hot and straightened up. This made him aware of her body and, momentarily, he wondered whether she really could have slept with all those men. Or any of them. Did all married women face the identical choice between the stasis of submission and the hazard of divorce? Was she retreating into a familiar, female kitchen-world? He wanted to talk to her so he asked if she were also musical, like her daughters.
“Just about tone-deaf,” she said, sponging spots of batter off the counter. “And my husband’s no better, though he claims he played bass in a high-school band. They must have been terrible. No, it was my father who had the genes. You might have heard of him. Nathaniel Breitler?”
Holly said, “Mr. Tritto is a composer” but Joseph spoke over her.
“Breitler! Of course. He was a first-rate pianist.”
Heidi heaved a sigh and looked as impassive as ever, yet Joseph seemed to have broken through some sort of ice jam. She leaned on the counter and spoke at length, though not entirely to him. “First-rate is right, but, you know, he was never satisfied. His own cruelest critic. It’s hard to live with a perfectionist. You want to grab his collar and tell him to cut it out, to him and tell him it’s obsession, vanity, that it’s—it’s solipsism. He didn’t demand perfection from us, from his kids—especially not from me, without any talent. In fact, he preferred me to my brother who was talented. Loved the harpsichord. He’s an investment banker now and maybe that’s why—my father, I mean, setting such high standards for himself and none at all for Bruce. I once asked my mother how she lived with him and she patted my arm and said it wasn’t difficult once you worked out that most of the time men aren’t grown up at all. What do you think?” She made a face at Joseph, not a mother’s face but a judge’s. “They never give up their toys—whether it’s a piano or a gun or a wife.”
Nonplused, Joseph said, “I have your father’s recording of the late Beethoven sonatas.”
The day was doomed to be full of non-sequiturs. Nothing cohered.
“Coffee’s ready.” Holly turned from the counter to him. “Sugar? Cream? Milk?”
“A little milk.”
“Two percent, one percent, buttermilk, skim, homogenized, pasteurized?” Why was she teasing him? Her mother had just declared all men to be infantile and possessive. She was off them herself.
“Do you think we could lend him some of Dad’s clothes?”
“Oh, I don’t know—”
“Really, it’s not—”
“Why not? He can’t wear—”
“I’m fine, really—”
“No. You’re not. And of course you need a shower. I’ll get you a towel.”
“Oh, we have to put a plastic bag over that cast. Make it tight. You remember when Hadley broke—”
“Hadley. I nearly forgot. I really should—”
“Yes, you should. Go, I’ll see to him.”
“She’s going to want to talk to you. She’s going to want to come home.”
“You really think so?”
“Look, I don’t want to be any—”
“I’ll go get her. It’s not all that far.”
“Well, if she really insists—”
“God. I would.”
“Finally! The oven’s hot.”
It all sounded a little mad to Joseph, who still felt like an unwanted package left by the rhododendrons.
Holly took the phone into the living room. Meanwhile, Heidi fished out the biggest plastic bag she could find, gently took his arm out of its sling, stuck the bag over his cast and made it tight. She then more or less drove him upstairs to the bathroom. He felt like a failed pitcher, sent to the showers.
“I gather we’re to keep an eye on you—though not, presumably, while you’re showering. You’ll be spending the night. So there’s still going to be a man in the house.” She put a fresh towel and washcloth in his left hand and said she’d find him something to wear.
After showering he wrapped the damp towel around him as best he could and peered out the door. There he found a green Calvin Klein polo shirt and a pair of blue jeans—too large in the waist—neatly folded on the floor.
Holly had not been wrong about zippers.
While Joseph was cleaning himself up, Holly called her sister who did indeed beg to be picked up. So he would be having a late dinner with Heidi Banister “à deux,” as she said.
“I spoke to Hadley, of course. Did all I could to soften matters. Reassured like mad. I told her to think of it as an episode, which always sounds so dismissable and self-contained—you know, as in ‘you’re just going through a stage.’ Did your mother ever say that to you?”
“She did, yes.”
“I didn’t mention the gun or even you. Holly’d done all that. . . and probably gave her an analysis of me. Do you know, there were times when I actually yearned for a little sibling rivalry. Those two are as thick as thieves.”
Joseph thought it a peculiar expression but then Heidi Banister did not seem conventional, inclined to exurban decorum. Maybe her husband’s jealousy was exacerbated by her boredom and disappointment. Perhaps her originality played a part in driving her husband over the edge, knowing he couldn’t keep up with her. Then he pictured the talented daughters with their heads together, closer to their Breitler genes than to their father’s.
Heidi was seated on the living room couch, apparently at her ease, exactly as she had been not so many hours before when her husband threatened to blow her away and she didn’t look as if she’d mind. She had made them both vodka tonics while the steaks she wanted him to grill defrosted.
Perhaps she guessed the direction of his thoughts. “His name’s Christopher. My husband. Christ-bearer. Saint Christopher was such a fraud even the Church eventually had to admit it. But, to be fair, my husband isn’t a complete fraud, though I suppose you don’t make as much as he does in real estate without a lot of fibbing. He inherited the business, though, so the really nasty work was done by his father, as tough a swamp Yankee as you’d ever want to avoid meeting. Amazing how quickly money gets clean nowadays. You don’t even have to wait a whole generation. A little foundation does the trick—and you save on taxes too.”
Joseph sat in the very armchair into which he had collapsed after flooring Christopher Banister. There was a blood stain on the carpet; he resisted the impulse to cover it with his feet.
“Holly told me who you are. Another musician. Odd that I should be surrounded by them, don’t you think?” She sipped and sighed. “I like music but sometimes—”
“Sometimes it feels like a wall, the kind that closes in.” She waved her hand and laughed lightly at what she’d just said. “Oh, I don’t know. It must be entirely different for you, more the way it was for my father. You people move in a different world. You have different gods too, don’t you? You worship the greats?”
“I have my enthusiasms,” he said guardedly.
She smiled at him, lifted her drink from the coffee table, girlishly drew her legs up under her, and adopted a tone at once amused and challenging. “If you tell me about your parents, I’ll tell you about Holly’s fiancé—the fiancé that was.” Evidently, when it came to not missing things, Heidi Banister resembled Patrick Casillas.
“My father was a doctor, an internist. He died five years ago—heart attack, out of the blue. My mother worked for years in the medical field too, as what’s called a hospitalist—”
“I know what a hospitalist is.”
Joseph pressed on, as if testifying under subpoena. “After my father died, she retired and moved out to California to be near my sister and her family. Julie’s nine years older than I am and has two boys. Her husband’s a partner in a Los Angeles law firm, a successful one. I visit twice a year. Your turn.”
If an armed and infuriated husband who believed her promiscuously unfaithful was unable to shake her equipoise, Joseph’s little challenge certainly wouldn’t. The way Heidi Banister sipped her cocktail and lounged on her couch suggested nothing even remotely post-traumatic. To Joseph it appeared that she was reserving judgment on him and could go on doing so, perhaps forever. She clearly didn’t feel obliged to pretend to like him. Why should she? He presumed she was sizing him up because of Holly. It made sense that she should. Her daughter had broken off her engagement and, within twenty-four hours, was rescued under dramatic circumstances by a man of a plausible age, a tolerable appearance, and what Holly might be deem an ideal, even a romantic profession. She hadn’t heard her daughter say she was “off men,” so was bound to think her daughter susceptible. Joseph was guilty until proven innocent—and what man is innocent?
“Perhaps,” she began, “you’ve noticed how frequently people are wrong when they say relationships are built, as if they were pyramids or skyscrapers—or starlets. At least as often it’s the other way around. I mean the relationship’s what’s left over after a pretty lengthy process of unbuilding. You begin with prejudices, misconstructions, suppositions, fantasies—with illusions that can seem as sturdy as an office block. Then there begins a kind of dismantling, an erosion, until you’re left with what might, for lack of a better term, be called the truth. More than one truth, usually: there’s the truth of the other person, the truth of yourself, and finally the truth of how things really are between you. Have you ever noticed that, Joseph? May I call you Joseph?”
“Certainly,” he said, feeling as uneasy as a small mammal might, if it suddenly realized it was an experimental subject in a maze. It was an acidic analysis. “It’s one view of how things develop between people. But it doesn’t leave much room for them to be changed by each other, or by the relationship itself.”
“Because people aren’t, not really. Changed. That’s what I mean by illusion. When you’re young and liberal you think people can be changed; when you’re my age, you don’t. What strikes you is how nothing seems to change them at all.”
He couldn’t help thinking of her husband. “Nothing?”
“Well, I won’t rule it out absolutely. People can escape theories about people. But perhaps you’ll understand if I say that’s how things went with Holly and Bradley, the unbuilding, I mean. You see, he’s not a musician but he is a music-lover. I think he fell for Holly, in part, because she is a musician, a fine one. Since he adores music and can’t make it himself, he overestimates those who can, sees them as higher beings. On another plane, as I said. Bradley’s what’s called a good man, solid through and through. He does something in finance; I often wonder how anybody so scrupulous could manage in that world. But he seems to do it just fine.”
Joseph felt an urge to interrupt her. “He sounds like a paragon.”
“Oh, yes. Williams College, Harvard B-School, plays rugby by the rules and everything. But paragons have their drawbacks,” she said tartly. “They don’t wear well. They can even wear away.”
“Your daughter found him—dull? Is that what you mean?”
“He’s not dull at all, but he is. . . predictable. It’s not the same thing. Holly had just reached the point where her life seemed a question and he looked like the answer. It happens to a lot of people in their third decade. I don’t doubt it was much the same for him. After all, isn’t that why people marry? Suddenly they want to be grown-ups, to dress up, own bookcases, and play house. They want all those annoying adolescent emotional and sexual problems settled once and for all. They get sick of having an identity crisis. Marriage is a great seducer, Joseph.”
All this sagacity made him impatient and so he asked, “Was that how it was for you?”
She smiled at him, unperturbed by this obvious question, and replied, “Naturally.”
“So Holly and Brad became—what?—disillusioned with each other?”
“Not with each other, no. I think Bradley’s the type of man who could stay faithful to an illusion for a couple of decades, maybe even longer. And Holly didn’t change her view of him, or not exactly. I think what she came to see was that the only thing she could do with Brad was to disillusion him. These last months, well, what I saw was her working at doing just that and, in the end, what became unendurable for her was that she failed.”
“So then Brad’s still an answer, just the wrong one?”
“A very good answer but, to Holly, not the right one. She may yet regret it. Right answers aren’t always so good. In the long run.”
She downed the dregs of her drink and got to her feet. “I think those steaks ought to be ready by now. What do you say to baked potatoes and a nice salad? Not feeling at all woozy, are you?”
Joseph also got up, a little awkwardly, because of his arm. “I’m fine,” he said firmly.
Cooking took up their attention and lowered the tension. Over the meal conversation was stop-and-go, ranging from his high opinion of Mahler to her favorite movies. It was the latter that led to the only thing Heidi said about the day’s big event, or what led to it, and it shocked Joseph.
“You’ve seen Psycho, of course. That famous shower scene? You know, what always got me about it was how much Janet Leigh’s character is enjoying that shower—I mean, she’s entirely self-contained in her pleasure, out of the reach of detectives, bank managers, and lovers. It almost amounts to masturbation. Men just can’t stand it. They need to kill it.”
“All men aren’t like that,” Joseph said with less conviction than he’d have liked.
“Did I say all, Joseph? If so, I beg your pardon. That would be unpardonably rude.”
Then the phone began ringing.
They were doing dishes when Holly and Hadley pulled into the driveway a little past eight o’clock.
Hadley, a pretty, fresh-looking teenager with a rounder shape than her sister and luminous skin, ran in and threw herself on her mother with an exclamation that summed up her feelings.
Then, without even looking at him, she hugged Joseph, being careful of his right arm. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” she chanted straight into his ear, as if her gratitude had to remain a secret between them.
Holly said nothing at all. She looked exhausted and dropped on one of the stools by the counter.
Heidi asked what she could get for them to eat.
“Eat? Who could eat? Anyway, we grabbed burgers on the road,” Hadley reported with breathless contradiction. She grabbed her mother’s hand. “Jeez! Have you seen the news? It was all over the radio. Have the TV people been here yet? The blondes with the microphones and idiotic questions?”
Holly reminded her sister why they hadn’t yet been assaulted. “Remember that police car parked just outside the driveway?” Plutopia is considerate, protective of its taxpayers.
Hadley, dressed in jeans and a huge Harvard sweatshirt with sleeves that covered her hands, turned toward Joseph, who was at the sink. She pulled up her sleeve and pointed a finger at him. “And you!” she said with all the excitement her mother and sister eschewed, “you’re the hero.” She struck a pose, one hip out, placed the finger she had aimed at Joseph on her plump cheek, and did a fair impression of a tough headline writer. “Hero–Composer Saves Distressed Damsels. Real Estate Tycoon Under Arrest and Under Observation. Exclusive Suburb in Shock. Neighbors say he was—”
Holly gently cut her off. “Enough, Had.”
But the locomotive had too big a head of steam. “On the radio they even mentioned that I play the flute and Holly plays the violin,” she said to Joseph, and to her mother, “So, he finally went bonkers.” Then she cried a little and dropped her mother’s hand. Holly put her arm around her sister’s waist.
“How’s the concussion?” Holly asked. “Pass out or anything while I was away?”
“I’m okay, just fine. You could’ve dropped me at home, though it was nice chatting with your mother and the food was delicious.”
“And it was nice for me to have company,” said Heidi, mimicking him.
The rest of the evening lasted barely an hour. As soon as Hadley’s weepiness went away she asked her mother a series of questions to which she received partial and evasive answers. After that, the daughters were on their cell phones and Heidi went up to bed.
Between calls Holly asked Joseph if he knew where he was to sleep. Then she coyly added, “My offer stands, by the way. About the orchestration. Thought about it?”
Joseph had thought about it and decided he didn’t require her help. So when a grateful acceptance leapt from the tangle of his psyche he was as surprised as when he’d told Joyce he couldn’t any longer do whatever this was.
“Good. We’ll start tomorrow after I drive you home.” said Holly, taking charge. “And your bike.”
“What about your work?”
“What there is of it can wait.”
The next day, however, what work got done was chiefly that of the ladies and gentlemen of the press.
Two TV trucks were parked around the corner from Joseph’s apartment building so that Holly, who was searching for a place to park, and Joseph, who was directing her while simultaneously explaining his perplexity about whether a certain obbligato passage should go to a violin or cello, missed seeing them.
They got out of the Lexus and there was no time to remove his twisted bike from the trunk. It was less like sharks feeding than the unanimous fluttering of pigeons descending. Feed, feed, feed us. Everyone has seen the thrusting microphones, the sharp-elbowed reporters with questions delivered like accusations or the sympathetic concerns of old pals, the blank, bewildered faces of their targets. But when one of the reporters shouted to her cameraman that the blonde next to Joseph Tritto was Holly Banister the scrum became nearly maddened. It was just too good. The questioning shifted from details of the rescue to the nature of their relationship. “It was just a coincidence,” Joseph kept repeating this way and that, smiling all the while, but reporters care even less for coincidences that policemen. “Did you know each other, Joe? When did you meet?” “Were you going to the house to visit Holly?” “Did Christopher Banister say anything to you about his daughter before you decked him, Joe?” “Holly, is Joe here your knight in shining armor?”
Holly shrank in horror and Joseph did his utmost to keep his body between her and the phallic microphones, the nosy cameras, the pushy questioners. He took Holly’s right arm in his left hand and backed to the foot of the steps, following the atavistic instinct to keep the foe in front of them him while making for the high ground. He would have preferred to say nothing, to send them away with a curt “no comment,” but he knew this would be a mistake. Refusing to entertain questions from the press is like invoking the Fifth Amendment before a Congressional committee—it’s your right but it suggests you’re guilty.
He gave them the briefest summary of the events of the previous day, assured them the broken arm was from the bike accident, explained why he had been an overnight guest at the Banister household, and told the public that Holly had generously volunteered to bring him safely home—both him and his bicycle, because they were both a bit worse for wear and needed a ride.
“Can you give us a look the bike, Joe?”
Once inside, Holly asked for some water, while he rushed to the kitchen to fetch it, she looked around.
“It’s so. . .”
“So masculine.” That was her verdict.
He handed her the water, left-handedly. “Is that good or bad?”
“I honestly don’t know,” she said.
“Sorry about all that outside. I should have realized.”
She gulped down half the glass of water. “Didn’t occur to me either; I mean that we’ve become public property.”
The bulb on Joseph’s old answering machine was flickering angrily, another kind of noisy silence, one flash per message.
“Look at that,” he said.
“Figures. I didn’t get off the phone until almost midnight. Go ahead. Check your messages. I’ll entertain myself.”
“First I should call my mother.”
“There’s a good boy,” said Holly, squatting down to examine his bookshelves.
Joseph’s mother answered right away.
“I’m just making breakfast,” she said. “Three hours difference. Remember?”
She knew nothing about what had happened, so he had to tell her and reassure her he was fine. She asked if he needed her to fly east and, when he said no, made him promise to fax her a full medical report. “And call your sister, please.”
Then he started in on the messages. Most of which were from reporters or the interns of local talk shows; even one of the networks had called.
“Wrong fifteen minutes,” he cracked to Holly, who had left the books when she discovered the score of the Suite lying like an abandoned as an orphan baby on the floor.
Patrick had left three messages, each more urgent than the last. The first was the most wry.
“Jesus, Joseph. If what I’m hearing’s true you went for a bike ride, walked smack into the middle of a domestic violence cliché, and came out the toast of the town. If you’re free from heroics today, how about giving me a call?”
More calls came in while Joseph was on the phone. “Damned call waiting,” he muttered.
Then Holly got a call on her cell. It was Hadley wanting to know when she’d be back and whether Joseph would be coming with her. She also said that Brad had called the house. When she told him Holly wasn’t there, he spoke to their mother. “For a long time,” Holly reported her saying. Joseph noted that the paragon had not called Holly directly and thought it showed either admirable tact or a willingness to take the shrewd advice of his almost mother-in-law. He could hear Heidi counseling him, “Bide your time, Bradley.”
Among the score of messages was none from Joyce, a fact about which Joseph felt half-a-dozen ways.
Finally, they were able to sit down with the score. Holly was laying the pages out on the floor when a call came in.
Joseph looked at the Caller ID. “I have to take it. It’s the fuzz.”
“Mr. Tritto? Detective Harbaugh. We spoke yesterday.”
“I’ll still need to talk to you again. I can come to you.”
“Today? Right now?”
“No, no. It doesn’t have to be today. In fact, I wanted to let you know that I’ve checked out your story.”
“Well, your identity, the facts.”
“You mean whether or not I knew the Banisters two days ago?”
Detective Harbaugh was silent, perhaps deciding whether to laugh. “Yes, that was more or less it,” he said. “Also we had to decide whether to charge you with breaking and entering. That’s what Mr. Banister’s lawyer rather vigorously suggested we do. Obviously, we declined.”
“Then I’m in the clear?”
“So far as we’re concerned.”
“Thanks. That’s nice to know.”
Then Harbaugh struck a sour note. “Sure, you can go back to being a hero.” It was an odd remark, grudgingly congratulatory but also bitter.
Holly was watching Joseph closely.
“Detective, can you tell me how Mr. Banister is?”
The answer was evasive. “He’s. . . he’s in a facility. Awaiting arraignment.”
“Yes, but is he okay. Physically, I mean.”
“You’ll be hearing from us soon, Mr. Tritto. Just need to cross some T’s and dot a couple of I’s.”
Holly frowned up at him. Her eyes were dark blue. He sat down beside her and told her what most of what the detective had said. She nodded. Joseph judged it best to leave out the breaking and entering business.
A half-hour later he was still showing Holly the orchestration he had accomplished when there was heavy banging at the door and Patrick shouting through it, “My hair’s blow-dried but I’m not from TV. Guess who.” He was balancing two large pizzas, a couple of lemonades, and a six-pack of Bass ale. He bustled in with this abundance wearing skin-tight designer jeans and his trademark red canvas high-tops and immediately reminded Holly that they had played together in a youth orchestra a decade earlier. “You played first violin. I played last, so of course I remember you.” And that was the first time Joseph saw the serious Holly Banister smile. It was such a radiant experience that he didn’t even mind not being its cause.
They quickly fell into a routine. Holly arrived for work at ten o’clock and left by four, as if it were a real job. In fact, Joseph had offered to make it just that, to pay her a fee; but she had looked at him in a way that made repeating his offer unthinkable. He did think of venturing a joke: “If it’s not for money then it must be for love.” But, as his head was now quite clear, he suppressed the impulse.
The third morning an exasperated Holly burst through the door, complaining that Hadley was jealous and bored but refusing to go back to the festival until the following Monday. “It’s a serious matter. All her friends are away and she’s intensely interested in you.”
Joseph went to get her a cup of coffee. “Why don’t you bring her in with you tomorrow? We can afford to take a break—go to a museum, take in a movie.”
“She feels funny about leaving Mother on her own.”
“You don’t,” he said without thinking.
“Of course not. Hadley’s just wallowing in adolescent guilt. She wasn’t there, you see, and that weighs on her. It’s silly. Mother loves being on her own. When we were kids and went off to summer camp she practically did a jig. Besides, her girlfriends are beating at the door with curiosity and sympathy. She’s a celebrity.”
“And apparently symbol, too.”
Joseph was alluding to the shift in the relentless press coverage. Though the rescue story had run its brief course, displaced by a water main break, a five-car pile-up, and the arrest for fraud of one of the city’s best known philanthropists, the story had not died. It had been transformed into a topic for public debate. While Christopher Banister’s lawyer had not succeeded in getting Joseph tossed in jail, he did get the charge against his client down to attempted assault, on the grounds that the only person who was actually injured was Mr. Banister himself, that he had a license for his gun, that it was a first offense, that he was a pillar of the community. More controversial yet was the judge’s decision to let his client out on bail, though set it at a quarter of a million dollars and issued a restraining order, sternly laying out for the defendant the consequences of going anywhere near Heidi.
Women’s groups expressed their outrage; there were picketers in front of the court house, editorials in the newspapers and lengthy interviews with academic experts on domestic violence and the psychology of batterers. Holly’s only comment on this development was brief and rather cheerful: “The heat’s off,” she said.
The orchestration of the Suite proceeded with marvelous rapidity. Joseph accepted all her suggestions, especially about the strings, for which she even persuaded him to compose two new, more challenging passages. He enjoyed the work. Holly grasped what he was after, needing any explanations, and wrote things down so precisely the score almost looked printed. It would be difficult to say whether the work increased their attraction or if it was attraction that made their collaboration so agreeable and smooth. In any case, in a matter of days they had made more progress than Joseph had in a month and this allowed them, so to speak, to pay more heed to the sexual tension between them.
When Hadley brought her sister to town Joseph had the inspired idea of inviting Patrick to join them for the day. The two took to one another the moment they met. Patrick offered a detailed, well informed appreciation of Hadley’s clothing, which had appeared to Joseph uncoordinated and grungy but which turned out to be high-end designer stuff. Patrick knew the names of all the designers and completely won Hadley’s heart by asking with genuine interest where she’d bought everything. They quickly established a mutual love of the wind music of Darius Milhaud, the films of Pedro Almódovar, and the Venetian mysteries of Donna Leon. Hadley and Patrick had so much to say to each other that Joseph and Holly were left more to one another than if they had spent the day working instead of at the Institute of Contemporary Art, munching their way through the waterfront market, strolling in and out of the upscale downtown galleries.
Hadley phoned her mother three times. “She’s turned her phone off,” she reported, sticking out her lower lip. But was in high spirits. Neither sister was concerned. “Tennis and gossip,” Hadley opined. “We’ll try again later.” Joseph wondered if it might be a boyfriend for whom the phone was switched off—if there really was one, even one.
After polishing off the galleries they returned to Joseph’s apartment. It was getting near rush hour, but Hadley begged to stay. “We should all have dinner together. I’m dying for a lobster. Come on. You wouldn’t send me back into the wilds of ennui without a lobster, would you?” Holly phoned their mother to see if it was all right. There was still no answer, so she left a message.
They took the Lexus down to the waterfront where Hadley downed a two-pound boiled lobster. In a spirit of solidarity, Patrick did the same. Joseph and Holly both ordered baked scallops.
“Don’t they look adorable in their bibs,” Holly said to Joseph.
“Yes. Very cute. I feel almost parental--elbows off the table, Patrick.”
There was much laughter and the girls only spoke of their father once, when Hadley told Patrick he was camping out at a friend’s beach house and wanted her and Holly to visit over the following weekend. “Apparently we’re legit.”
“Are you going to?”
Hadley giggled. “You kidding? Anyway, the festival winds up next weekend and I promised to be there on Monday for rehearsal. I’m first violin, you know.”
“Ah,” said Patrick, “like sister, like sister.”
On this subject Holly said nothing.
They dropped Patrick and Joseph and by eight-thirty the sisters headed home.
Fifty-two minutes later Holly phoned Joseph.
Her voice was dry and flat as an Arizona mesa. “She’s dead. They both are. Hadley’s hysterical. The police are on the way. Can you come?”
They had made up their minds that the month of horror and mess would end, like summer itself, when the orchestra played the first notes of Joseph’s Suite Populaire. None of them believed that matters would really improve just because a date had been reached, because of mere music; but they kept saying it would, for one another’s sake.
Holly had become almost motherly toward her sister who, for two weeks, had rocked between fits of crying, black withdrawal, and two days of terrifying euphoria.
Now Hadley was seated between Julie Frank, her best friend, and Patrick Casillas up in the mezzanine. Holly sat next to Joseph, three rows from the stage. The polite noises of the crowd, the buzz of life, felt comforting. Joseph’s cast had been gone for a week but when—in the burgeoning silence out of which music issues, just before the conductor’s downbeat— he took Holly’s left hand in his right one she pressed her lips against his ear and whispered, “Don’t squeeze. It’s too soon.”