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Helen W. Mallon's, "Waiting for Mozart"
In the night rain, Lincoln Drive gleamed like black leather. Cars whizzed past the house. A hand-lettered sign on the door read, Welcome.
Bernhard took his seat at the baby grand piano in the side parlor, where seven or eight people had gathered to hear him play. He trembled with the familiar sensation of teetering on the brink of an abyss. Tonight, though, the universe had given him hope: his wife Melanie had left a vase of tulips on the piano before disappearing upstairs to prepare the meditation room. He saw the yellow flowers as a sign. Lately Melanie had been uncharacteristically quiet, but of course she believed in him! Tonight it will happen, he told himself. Tonight we will Go Beyond.
An atmosphere of formality prevailed in the parlor. Bernhard would have looked at home in a swallowtail coat, but times had changed. Centuries had changed, and he wore khakis and a button down shirt. His followers sat attentively in the comfortable chairs. Bernhard lifted his hands. The first notes rose like a sigh from his deep memory. He played improvised music that both depended on and rejected his years of classical training. He played as if jazz hadn’t yet been invented, but ought to be. He played in yearning knots and circles, and his listeners stared into patterns in the carpet as if looking for hidden messages.
The heavy front door opened, letting in raw night air. A woman who had driven ten miles on the recommendation of a clerk at Whole Foods stood in the front hall in her padded coat. Bernhard looked through the parlor door. “Please come in.”
The music—or maybe it was a sermon—meandered on for several minutes before drawing to a somber close. The newcomer had wedged herself between two other people on the sofa. Her coat was bundled on her lap. She wondered whether the clerk in the grocery store had been mocking her behind his blond dreadlocks. This was a meditation class?
Bernhard felt depressed. Once again, his music had fallen short. He looked at the woman and felt a challenge in her eyes. He took the upper hand. “This was,” he said, “transmitted music. It was not learned.”
The woman blinked, not knowing how to respond. The people beside her felt warm and embarrassingly intimate against her thighs. A young black woman opposite her opened her mouth to speak, but Bernhard stood up.
He shook the older woman’s hand. “And you are…?”
“Jennifer Eddings.” The false name came out, unplanned. It was her second lie of the day.
“How did you hear about our gathering of seekers?”
“From the Internet.” Number three.
Bernhard inclined his head graciously. The idea to advertise the Sunday evening gathering online had occurred to him recently.
“I hope you’ll find that the preparation was helpful.” Bernhard’s gaze swept the room. A pause ensued. The young black woman was tapping her lip. Helpful for what? Not-Jennifer wondered.
He had used the word “transmission,” borrowed from his readings in Tibetan and Zen Buddhism, by faith alone. He had to tell himself that the improvised music was injected into his hands by some higher force, but he knew how to project authority. He gestured toward the door, the signal for the group to move upstairs.
The young woman’s hand flew up. “How do you know the transmission is genuine? I don’t necessarily mean you,” she laughed. Her name was Tasha. She had been sacked from a very good nursing job six months earlier, and her confidence was shot. She was trying very hard to believe in Bernhard. Under normal circumstances, she wouldn’t have given him the time of day.
Bernhard hesitated. “In truth? I don’t know. I, as I,” (he patted his chest with both hands) “can never know. But in my view, music has the greatest possibility of taking us there, of all the forms of…of…” There was the wrong word, he felt. It implied some brick-and-mortar heaven. He looked at the ceiling.
Forms of art, thought Not-Jennifer. And where is music supposed to take us?
“Forms of prayer?” Tasha suggested.
“Yes!” A large, pale man in the chair beside hers clapped his hands, once. “Without the trappings of religion.”
“Without the priests,” someone else said, and almost everyone but Bernhard laughed, including Not-Jennifer, who secretly enjoyed dissing the clergy.
Bernhard was remembering Mozart. When he was seven years old, he had fallen ill. As he lay in bed, unable to respond to his parents, a Mozart piano sonata ran through him silently. The music took him Beyond, into a place of transcendent emptiness; beyond self identity, beyond awareness of his body, beyond even joy.
Bernhard had long ago given up trying to play Mozart as he had heard the music that long-ago afternoon. But someday, he would improvise the right notes. Someday, he and his Sunday night followers would find Nirvana. “It’s time to meditate,” he said.
They arranged themselves on cushions around the perimeter of an unfurnished upstairs room. A large Persian rug took up most of the floor. Musical instruments from around the world hung on the walls, ouds and kalimbas and bagpipes. Bernhard’s wife Melanie held a large Tibetan singing bowl on a cushion in her lap. Bernhard was her life’s work. They had met as students at Fielding Conservatory, when he was an undernourished loner whom the other female students avoided because he surreptitiously laughed during their recitals. She felt he was wounded by something in his past. She fell in love with his ability to hear things in classical music that no one else could, even though his playing remained undistinguished. Eventually, Melanie realized that to him, music was only a means to a spiritual end. By then they were already married. She still hoped to save him, to convince him that music was enough.
Bernhard had never wanted to be saved.
Not-Jennifer lowered her ample body onto the cushion nearest the door and kept her eyes open. Two middle-aged women across from her looked to be already deep in meditation. Her scalp prickled, signaling the return of anxiety.
Melanie tilted the bowl and ran a padded mallet around the outside rim, using her whole arm, as if she were stirring batter. The tone was continuous, liquid, and haunting. It penetrated the bones of the room and melted into silence. She put the bowl down. Everyone’s eyes were closed. Melanie glanced sideways. The shiny zeal of Bernhard’s meditating face frightened her. She was glad she’d left the tulips on the piano as an apology for her distant behavior. But this has gone far enough, she thought. He’ll think I’ve betrayed him. After everyone left tonight, she would pull the plug on the salon.
“If we aren’t afraid,” Bernhard spoke in a low voice, “music can take us into the Holy Nothing. Sound is the other half of silence, and it, too, is Nothing. Only the mind makes it Something.”
Not-Jennifer resisted the urge to flee. Nothing was a problem. Nothing was why she had started taking the Ativan. It was the real reason why she had lied to Louis earlier that same evening about why she could not marry him. She had told Louis that marriage wasn’t a good idea because he was a night person and she was a morning person, because he only drank tea while she loved a good whiskey, because she was messy and he was neat. But she lied to conceal a deeper lie. Like him, she was a practicing Catholic. She attended Mass because it made Louis happy, but at the secret core of Not-Jennifer was a pinpoint of sheer Nothing. She expended a great deal of energy resisting its gravitational pull. Her unbelief wasn’t neutral; it was anti-belief. She went through the rituals of faith hoping to avoid falling into an icy, inward mockery that sucked the meaning out of all the good things she had experienced in life.
She couldn’t tell Louis the truth: that if they married, she was afraid Nothing would possess him, too. Breathe, she told herself. Meditation has been medically proven to reduce anxiety.
Bernhard was also afraid, but he channeled his fear into tense, meditative concentration. The Mozart afternoon had receded into mere memory. Now a room full of people relied on him to extricate them from their painful inner lives. He was flying by the seat of his pants.
Starting the salon had been Melanie’s idea. She’d hoped that having an audience would brighten his mood. They were both lonely after years of teaching “music” at local schools (Bernhard always saw the word in ironic quotes). Evening recitals, the flyer had said. They would be the showcase for his improvisations. First two people came, then one more. When they began asking Bernhard questions about the meaning behind his music, he knew how to improvise. He taught not from the realm of music, but of the spirit. The Zen notion of transmission was an echo of what Mozart had done to him. He’d grazed many basic concepts from Non-Dual teachers. He began teaching meditation after the recitals, hoping that the group energy would lead him back to where his listeners thought he already was.
Melanie kept a watchful eye. Talking to Bernhard would be the performance of her life. She was going to have to make him think that shutting down these gatherings was his idea.
The young woman Tasha was afraid because her money was running out. She had lost her nursing job at a mental hospital after reporting a prominent psychiatrist for stealing tranquilizers. Now no one would hire her. She was very committed to meditation, sitting for an hour or more a day at home. It brought her calm, but the reading she’d done in Buddhism was confusing. Bernhard agitated her by his non-answers, but she disallowed those feelings. She blamed herself for not meditating hard enough to understand.
The large pale man, sitting next to Tasha, was named Hugh. He clenched his fists as he breathed. Hugh had been miserably resentful for fifteen years, nursing a grudge against his mother. Once, he had challenged her to leave his drunken, pathetic father. He was surprised when she actually took him up on it, but even more surprised when she remarried and missed his high school graduation to take a Barbados honeymoon.
Someone began to snore, gently.
The people whose minds wandered—everyone’s mind wandered—chastised themselves for their lack of concentration. Hugh turned his anger against the snorer. Tasha was formulating more questions for Bernhard despite her best efforts to focus on her breathing. Bernhard’s jaw muscles tensed as he sat like an underfed Buddha, planning what to say after the meditation ended. Melanie kept her eyes open. Silence worked like yeast in everyone’s heart.
On that long-ago afternoon, seven-year-old Bernhard had climbed off the trolley and arrived early for his piano lesson. He sat in the waiting area, swinging his legs and staring into space. He imagined himself riding a horse instead of waiting for his music teacher. The part of him that wasn’t on a horse listened to piano music that ran like a brook from one of the studios. It thrilled him. He didn’t know then that it was Mozart. Gradually, the music filled his mind until it spilled over. Then the part of him that listened was also riding—beside a stream, now, and in sunshine—and the walls of the Victorian music school had disappeared. Young Bernhard was aware that if his mind moved in a horizontal direction, he could plant himself back in the chair on the worn rug of the waiting room.
Then the chair was gone. And so was he.
He was in light. Or he was light. Both things were true simultaneously, and music pounded through his small body like hooves on a road.
What happened next was a question of debate in the music school for several months.
Bernhard’s music teacher came into the waiting area to find a pale, shaking boy gripping the arms of his chair, a pupil of minor ability who refused to leave the room for his lesson because he insisted that some nonexistent Mozart piece was playing. His mother arrived to pick Bernhard up early and found her smaller-than-average son hot with fever, the victim of a bullying teacher with failed talent and a bad comb-over.
One of the other teachers in the building that afternoon found that a window in one of the piano studios had been jimmied open. This was after the teachers agreed that no one, no one, had been playing real music that day, least of all Mozart. The teachers had been there for hours, listening to children struggle to create music from individual notes.
Bernhard’s teacher actually accused Bernhard of breaking the window lock, even though it had been forced from the outside and the small boy was barely robust enough to lift a crowbar. The boy’s mother threatened to pull him out of the music school then and there, but Bernhard insisted that he had to learn to play the piano like “a great artist.”
Later, playing his mother’s records until they wore out, he identified the remembered piece as Mozart’s Sonata Number 13 in B-Flat Major. Bernhard never could play music as he had heard it that day. No one could. Bernhard had heard them all, many in live concert. Even the greatest fell short.
The little boy took a week to come down off his Mozart high, which coincided with the breaking of his fever. While he was sick, he felt like golden dust sifted from the music that continued playing in his head, unaware of his parents fussing around him.
He practiced with great fervor after he recovered. He pitched a fit when his mother tried to find him a new teacher. He had to be in that music school, in that building, and he had to learn to play in that same way. He only told her, though, that he wanted to become a concert pianist and that he liked his teacher’s rough corrections. Even as a child, he knew to adapt his message to his audience.
Bernhard worked so hard that he became pretty adept and got into Fielding, a fine conservatory. Along the way he turned to Buddhism because his professors unfailingly insisted that music was an end in itself. He hoped that eventually the Eastern view of things would melt his piano playing into nothing and he’d be washed down a corridor and dissolve again into Mozart. He never sought a guru, because he suspected that such a person would insist that Mozart was beside the point. So he found himself in a repurposed bedroom in his house in Philadelphia, shepherding a group of lost souls who were looking for a promised land that he knew didn’t exist, because if you put it in words, Land, or Promise, or anything but Mozart, you’ve already killed it. If he could only play as he wanted to, they would see. Together in silence, they would dissolve into gold plankton. Next week, he prayed. May the meditation prepare our hearts.
In the silence, the person who snored had a dream. Her name was Carol. She was Tasha’s cousin. She was a devout Christian who thought Bernhard was full of horse manure. She had started coming to make sure Tasha didn’t get involved with some cult before she could find another job.
In her dream, Carol and Bernhard were standing in front of a brick building. Bernhard was talking his usual nonsense. He was so absorbed in listening to himself that he didn’t notice Tasha climbing the face of the building, three stories up. Carol put her hand on his arm and shook him. The moment Bernhard looked up in the dream was the moment Tasha fell to the sidewalk.
Carol woke with a yelp. She got up and walked across the room and grabbed Tasha by the shoulder. “We’re getting out of here,” she said.
Melanie sat up.
“Wait, wait,” Tasha said. “I’ve got a question.” Everyone gaped. The two women stood by the door.
Carol rolled her eyes.
“What’s wrong?” Bernhard said.
“We’ve had enough, is what’s wrong,” Carol said. “I’ve been coming here for two months, and you haven’t said anything yet that makes any sense.”
It struck Tasha that Carol might have a point. She had been trying to persuade her from the beginning, but the interruption had knocked something open in Tasha’s head. What if it’s not me? She wondered. What if he’s the crazy one?
Three people who had not spoken stood up, including the middle-aged meditators whom Not-Jennifer had envied at the beginning of the session. Carol pulled Tasha to one side, allowing them to leave.
Bernhard smiled serenely. He had struck a nerve. It was the first time anyone had reacted during the meditation. To him, it meant that important energy was beginning to flow within the group. Melanie took it to mean that she would have to think fast. Not-Jennifer took it to mean that she shouldn’t have laughed at the priest joke, and that Carol was warning them not to play with fire. The hell with meditation; tonight, she needed Ben & Jerry’s. Tomorrow, she’d call Dr. Zither, the psychiatrist Louis had recommended.
She rose with some effort.
Hugh, the young man, took it to mean that black girls were too sassy.
“I still have a question.” Tasha shook off her cousin. “In this Buddhist book, it says that desire is what makes us unhappy. So I’m sitting here and I want to be happy. We all want to be happy, right? Even you,” and she looked at Bernhard in a way that made him feel, suddenly, naked. “It’s a catch-22, you know? If you have to stop wanting happiness in order to be happy, does that mean meditation is like spiritual Ativan?”
Melanie put down the Tibetan singing bowl. Her mouth went dry.
Not-Jennifer hesitated at the door. She wanted to hear how Bernhard was going to get out of that one.
Bernhard had never found happiness to be very motivating. If anything, the Mozart afternoon had shown him that happiness was irrelevant. Tasha’s question was very basic to Buddhist thought, but his mind was blank. He tried to remember which of the Four Noble Truths she’d referred to. His face went hot.
“I think that’s disrespectful,” Hugh told Tasha. “You interrupted our meditation.” He glared at the three women who stood at the door.
“How am I supposed to learn if I don’t ask questions?” Tasha’s hands were on her hips. Carol tried to nudge her out of the room.
“I think it’s a good question,” Not-Jennifer said stoutly. Carol gave her a look.
“Bernhard.” Melanie put a hand on his knee.
He decided to trust his instincts, wherever they led. To hell with Buddhism and its interminable lists. Four Truths, Five Faculties, Thirty-Seven Requisites. He took a deep breath and launched: “From the standpoint of Emptiness, which is the ultimate reality, happiness or unhappiness doesn’t mean anything. Say you have a decision to make.” He warmed to his theme, noticing that Hugh and the remaining women—even Carol, despite herself—were turned toward him in the familiar, expectant way that had come to make the absence of Mozart less painful for him. Melanie’s hand moved to his shoulder. He took this as encouragement. “Say it’s a big decision, ah, like the choice of a mate. Suppose you’ve got your pick of lots of people, you know,” and he laughed, hoping to turn the mood in the room, “lots of sexy girls around, but you have to choose just one to settle down with, because of societal pressure. After all, we do not, as far as we experience it, live in a universe of multiple, coexistent outcomes.”
Hugh gave a snort. The women’s faces froze. Melanie dropped her hand. “You make a choice,” he went on, “maybe not from love at all. Maybe the one you choose is not the prettiest or the smartest, but simply the most persistent. Maybe you’re just tired. Maybe she makes a good goulash.” Nobody laughed except Hugh. Bernhard knew he’d blown it, but he kept talking. “Anyway, you make your choice, you marry, and there you are. It’s just life.” He beat the air with his hands. “What does happiness have to do with it?”
“What if she doesn’t want to marry you?” Tasha demanded. She’d seen Melanie’s face close as if with a drawstring.
“Come on, baby,” Carol urged, tugging her by the wrist.
“Well, she makes her choice too. Yes or no. And there you are. Stuck or not stuck. It depends on your perspective. But happy…?” Bernhard was on his feet and pacing now. He felt expansive and cosmic.
“Wow,” breathed Hugh. Relationships were so…random. His mother’s happiness came at his teenage expense when she ditched his high school graduation for her honeymoon. So what? he thought. She had later apologized, but he had chosen to ignore it. His eyes stung with emotion.
“Bernhard?” Melanie gave him a meaningful stare, but he looked away.
“Sounds like a lot of double talk to me,” Tasha said.
Carol, nodding vigorously: “Mm-hmm.”
“Well.” Bernhard quashed a laugh in his chest. “There’s a saying in Zen: ‘If you meet the Buddha on the street, kill him.’ You think you know, you don’t know. Our concepts get us in trouble. Concepts of the Buddha or God, concepts of love, ideas about marriage and fidelity.”
The room went quiet. Even Hugh wasn’t sure about that one.
“What?” Bernhard asked in all innocence. He had never been unfaithful to Melanie. It was just a concept.
Melanie stood up. She’d been the only girl at conservatory who even noticed Bernhard. She hurled the Tibetan singing bowl at his stomach. It made a ringing thud and rolled across the floor.
The impact shot through Bernhard in a flash of white light. No music played for him. His head narrowly missing the edge of a chair, he fell into a tunnel of Nothing.
With a cry, Melanie threw herself down beside him.
“Give him room,” called Hugh.
Tasha pushed Hugh aside and knelt, putting two fingers on Bernhard’s carotid artery. The others froze, surprised by her bold move. Tasha counted off the seconds. She turned to Melanie. “His heart rate’s okay,” she said. “He’s going to be fine. Just let him rest.”
Not-Jennifer said, “Maybe it’s a seizure.” She dug in her overstuffed purse and retrieved her phone.
“Please give me that.” Tasha held out her hand. Bernhard opened his eyes when she shone the flashlight app in his face. His eyes followed the beam as she moved it from side to side. Then he gave her a hostile glare and turned on his side.
“Shouldn’t we call 911?” Not-Jennifer asked.
“It’s not a seizure,” Tasha declared, returning the phone.
“How do you know?” Hugh asked her.
Tasha jumped up. Carol grabbed her before she went after Hugh.
“Get out!” Melanie screamed. “All of you. Now.”
“He’s all right,” Tasha told the others. “Let’s leave them be.”
Hugh lingered. The others filed down the stairs and retrieved their coats.
“You,” Melanie told him, “are no longer welcome here.”
Hugh swallowed. As he walked heavily down the stairs, he wondered if he’d actually gotten from Bernhard everything he needed. Outside, the rain had stopped. He passed the three women who stood on the sidewalk, bundled in their coats. He headed for his car without looking at them. He had to call his mother.
Not-Jennifer, Tasha, and Carol had been trying to analyze Bernhard without much success, except for Carol. She said he was a textbook example of what happens when you vaunt your own spirituality and forget about God. “In any case,” Not-Jennifer told them, “That was hardly the answer to my prayers for a meditation class. I think I’ll reconsider therapy.”
She chided herself for her dishonesty. Once again, she was passing herself off as someone who prayed. Tasha and Carol looked at one another. It was the answer to Carol’s prayers. “Listen to me,” Carol told her cousin. “You’ll find a better job. Don’t let that Dr. Zither get to you any more.”
“Fred Zither?” Not-Jennifer asked. “The psychiatrist? He was recommended to me because he doesn’t just write prescriptions. He actually listens to his patients.”
“Ah,” Tasha said. “I wouldn’t go to him. He’s an addict.”
“She reported him for stealing drugs,” Carol explained. “He got her fired and he’s trying to ruin her reputation.”
“No! That’s terrible,” Not-Jennifer told Tasha. “You know you rescued the whole situation.”
“I guess I did,” Tasha said.
“Are you a doctor?”
Tasha blinked, surprised. Then she smiled. “Not yet.”
Carol grinned from ear to ear.
They hugged goodbye and promised to connect on Facebook. Not-Jennifer remembered they wouldn’t be able to find her. “I lied about my name up there,” she admitted. “My real name is Anna Gordon.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Carol said. She and Tasha walked away. Their bodies were so close that to Not-Jennifer, they looked like one big person.
Not-Jennifer drove to the house of her boyfriend, Louis. She leaned on the bell until he opened the door. His balding head shone above rumpled pajamas. “I’m very sorry to wake you,” she said, kissing his cheek. “Would you be willing to hear my confession?”
Louis smiled. He figured she had stuffed herself with Ben & Jerry’s.
“I mean it,” she told him. “A real confession.”
In the silent house on Lincoln Drive, Melanie sat beside her husband. Relieved of the burden of his disciples, Bernhard had relaxed into a graceful sleep. He looked like an inverted question mark. His black hair was the dot. “You fool,” she whispered. “You bloody fool. I will never stop loving you.”
She lay down beside him, exhausted. As she dozed, piano notes began to bubble in her mind. “I’m overwrought,” she told herself. “I’m just making that happen.” She waited, her body tense. The notes cohered into an elegant melody. She recognized it as Mozart’s Sonata Number 13 in B-Flat Major. It coursed like a stream through the chilly room. “Jesus,” Melanie thought. “I don’t know the music that well.” She snapped upright and stared at Bernhard. He was smiling in his sleep.
Helen W. Mallon’s short fiction explores the tension between spiritual aspiration and human frailty. Her childhood in a Philadelphia Quaker family, her years as an Evangelical Christian, and her current study and practice of Buddhism provide complex themes as her characters struggle with salvation, truth, and the nature of the self.
Her book The Beautiful Name: Four Short Stories was released in June by Books To Go Now. Her writing has appeared in Passager, Philadelphia Stories, and Relief: A Christian Quarterly, among others.
She has published book reviews in Fiction Writers Review and the San Francisco Chronicle, and is a regular contributor of reviews to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Helen facilitates writing workshops in Philadelphia and is a private writing coach. Her MFA is from Vermont College of Fine Arts.