A Little Love Music
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by Harry Buschman
“Did you graduate from Humboldt High, Fred?” Jennifer held a buff colored envelope up to the light and tried to read what was inside, then she sniffed it. I was in the middle of the Yankee/Oriole box score.
“Fred, did you hear me?”
“Yes dear, I was just thinking.”
“Thinking! Don’t you remember what high school you graduated from?”
“Of course, Humboldt High.”
“You’re not listening to me, Fred.” She passed the envelope to me and said, “I think it’s an invitation.”
I opened it and looked at Jennifer in amazement. “My God,” I said,”My high school’s having a 25th reunion! Impossible.” It gradually dawned on me that I was 43 years old and the easy part of life was behind me – the graduating class of 1976 was having its 25th reunion.
“Why don’t you go?” Jennifer said. “It’ll never come around again.”
I shrugged. “You know me, Jennifer, I’m not big on reunions. It’s way up in God-forsaken Troy, New York , 175 miles away. Another world, another time.” Then I looked at the chairwoman’s signature – Sharon Olefant! I was stunned, it must have showed because Jennifer sensed a change in me.
“Cat got your tongue, Fred?”
“It was a long time ago, Jenny ...”
I’ll say it was. Sharon played the cello in the school symphony orchestra and I played clarinet. Funny she would still call herself Olefant. Could it be she never married, or maybe she kept her maiden name for professional reasons ... could that be possible? I mean, up there in Troy, New York – what kind of a profession could a woman have?
“You’re waffling Fred,” Jennifer said. “Why don’t you go? How much is it?”
“$60 bucks a person, that’s a lot of money, Jennifer.”
“Go alone. I’ll stay here with Kenny. Look, Fred – if you don’t go it’ll eat on you forever.”
I looked at the calendar. “It’s on a Saturday – June 14th. Kenny’s got a baseball game.”
“The baseball game is in the morning, you can be there for his ball game, then take off in the afternoon. When my 25th rolls around you can bet your life I’ll be there.”
So it was all set. I sent a check to Sharon Olefant – I wondered if I should include a short note about the cello, but I thought I better not.
The next month crept by slowly. I tried to put the reunion out of my mind, when that didn’t work I tried to think of the rest of the graduating class of 1976 and what they might look like today. There was Dodie Parker, I had a faint recollection of Dodie in his football uniform looking like an undernourished turtle inside a shell too big for him. I had a clear picture of Winnie Mason who sat up front in history – Mrs. Mercer would ask the class a question and Winnie would shout out the answer, then turn around and grin triumphantly at the rest of us. Mrs. Mercer didn’t care. As long as her questions were answered, she was off the hook. Although I couldn’t really remember his face, I couldn’t forget the strut and swagger of Manny Locatello. I could see his shiny licorice-black hair pushed far enough front to bob seductively between his eyes while he walked, as though it was some sort of male animal fertility symbol.
I dug out my old yearbook and tried to bring this crowd of 94 teenagers into focus, but it was beyond my powers of extrapolation to imagine how they might look today. I honestly couldn’t recognize myself and it followed that everyone at the reunion would be a stranger to me, if they had gone the way of all flesh as I did. I could imagine only one person aging gracefully .... perhaps growing even more beautiful through the passing years – and she, of course, was Sharon Olefant.
So long as she still played the cello, of course.
I don’t care who you are, how famous you’ve come to be, or even how old you are – there’s bound to be something private in your past. Something you keep to yourself. It’s usually something that happened during the process of growing up, an occasion you can’t forget. It may be something wonderful that you remember with warmth and pleasure, or it may be something so embarrassing or damning that it keeps coming back ... like a wave of nausea. My experience with Sharon Olefant and her cello was both warming and embarrassing. I never mentioned it to Jennifer. It’s none of her business, for one thing, and I’m sure she’s got a secret or two up her sleeve, I’ve seen a far away look in her eye from time to time.
I kept the occasion well below the surface of family life for two weeks prior to the reunion. I had my suit pressed and bought a new pair of shiny black loafers with bright brass buckles. I got a haircut, not on THE Saturday, but on the Saturday before – people with fresh haircuts look like shorn sheep to me. I was especially attentive to Jennifer and Kenny – took him to baseball practice twice, helped him with his homework once, and even brought a bouquet of yellow jonquils home to Jennifer on THE Saturday.
“Look,” she said don’t try and drive back here at two in the morning, stay in a motel. They reserved some rooms, didn’t they?” She looked at me critically. “Lookin’ pretty sharp, Fred – you don’t look a day over 43.”
“I’ll probably start back after the dinner. I won’t stay for the speeches or the dance.”
“Don’t be silly, have a good time. See you tomorrow.”
At about the halfway mark on the way to Troy I began to wonder. At Saugherties I pulled over at a rest stop and considered looking for a bed and breakfast then coming home in the morning with a made-up story, but something made me push on – I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t. The cello incident replayed itself in my mind. In exquisite detail I could see Sharon Olefant in the string section of the Humboldt High School Symphony Orchestra. That's how it all began. It wasn’t her beauty that attracted me, it was the way she straddled her cello.
She was a long-legged girl with prominent knees, and when she stood erect and bare-legged, her knees revealed the faces of cherubs. At the cello, however, smoothly encased in black pantyhose, they were the equal of Marlene Dietrich’s. She had long black hair, coarse and heavy, like the mane of a Budweiser horse. She would throw her head back wildly; her eyes, normally black as obsidian, would roll up until only the whites could be seen and her lips would pull back to reveal her teeth, (white as the teeth of a kitten) while the bow in her right hand caressed the gut of the cello, sometimes gently, but often with strength and urgency. Her left hand appeared to skitter up and down the neck of the instrument without her knowledge, then it would pause at times to quiver for an instant and lend a tremolo to a held note. I envied her cello more than any boy of 18 can possibly endure, I was jealous of it as I would have been if it had been Manny Locatello.
How I found myself playing the clarinet in the Humboldt High Symphony Orchestra is another story. Mr. Timpano directed both the orchestra and the marching band. You won’t find a cello in a marching band, or a violin for that matter – only brass and drums, but Mr. Timpano learned early in his career the only way he could be a success as a high school music teacher was to use what he had, particularly when very few of the boys in the band could march and play an instrument at the same time. They could do one or the other but not both. I was one of the few who could, so he gave me one of the left over clarinets from the orchestra. He gave Charlie Wilson a flute, and Boomer Tyson an English horn.
This gave me a foothold in the wood wind section of the orchestra, and during practice I had an unobstructed view of the cellos – I might have been a passable clarinetist otherwise, but the sight of Sharon Olefant in her throes of ecstasy threw me off stride again and again.
“Lingus! You have been sent here to ruin me! You are to come in at bar 43 when I signal you.” I was never ready for Mr. Timpano, my mind was elsewhere and my eyes were riveted on Sharon Olefant.
“Watch me, Lingus! Why don’t you ever watch ME?!”
Mutterings would rumble throughout the orchestra ... “Why the hell did they ever let that clown in here? Come on Lingus, suck it up, will ya? This is the fifth friggin time we’ve done bar 43!” Meanwhile I would look over at Sharon Olefant – she would be lying back in her chair cradling her cello between her knees and testing the tension of the gut in her bow – waiting to get underway again.
It wasn’t easy getting close to Sharon – she was a tough nut to crack and I had very little experience in those days. As a matter of fact I haven’t learned a lot since then; Jenny’s the first woman to ever see things my way.
Sharon and I shared a science class in which she showed no interest whatsoever, and in orchestra practice she was so absorbed she hardly knew I was there, except when I screwed up. But with dogged perseverance I managed to walk her home after practice. A cello in a hard leather case weighs forty-five to fifty pounds, and she lived nine blocks from the school, and after a half dozen trips she loosened up enough to sit with me a few minutes on her front porch while I got my breath. It led me to overplay my hand.
“Do y’mind if I tell you somethin’ Sharon?”
“Well ... it’s about you and your cello.”
She didn’t give me a ready answer, instead, she looked at me suspiciously and placed one hand protectively on the cello’s leather case.
“What about my cello?”
“It’s the way you play it, Sharon – it’s hard to explain. You look like you’re makin’ love to it.” She stood up quickly and looked down at me. “I mean it’s like – you were alone in the room with it ... and I can’t help wishin’ it was me, Sharon. You know what I mean?”
I guess she did, because she looked at me as though I were something she had stepped in. “You’re disgusting Lingus! You’re sick, you should be put away someplace!” She picked up her precious cello and pushed her way through the front door. She gave me a final cold stare and shook her head – “You nauseate me, Lingus!”
With that she kicked the front door shut and snapped off the porch light, leaving me standing the dark ... which is basically where I’ve been for the last 25 years. That’s what I meant when I said there’s bound to be something private in your past that you keep to yourself. We never spoke to each other after that evening, and in my fantasy I’ve often wondered what effect that confession might have done to her, did it stick in her mind as it stuck in mine? Why was her name still Olefant? Questions, questions ....
I pulled into Troy about 4 p.m. and made my way towards Humboldt High, the way an old hound dog that’s lost its scent and eyesight still remembers the hunting fields of the past. It hadn’t changed much. There was a new wing running off to one side of it. It looked like it had been put together with Leggo blocks, that’s where the dinner was supposed to be.
I guess I looked okay – a little wrinkled from the trip maybe, but on the whole pretty presentable. I combed my hair in the rear view mirror and got out of the car, taking my jacket with me. I nodded pleasantly to a couple walking behind me – we seemed to be keeping our identities to ourselves until we got inside. There, a woman in black was taking our invitations and handing out name cards. “Lingus? Yes, is that Lingus with an “L”? My it’s good to see you again Mr. Lingus ... are you alone?”
“Well we’ll just have to find somebody for you to sit next to at dinner, won’t we?” She raised her eyes, and her facial expression, though dulled by time and the inexorable law of gravity was familiar to me. I saw abandon there – her eyes raised to mine, (though half concealed behind thick glasses) revealed the shadow of a wildness I remembered from the days of the Humboldt High School Symphony Orchestra. She was wearing a corsage of dried flowers that covered her name tag, so I asked hesitantly ....
“Are you Sharon Olefant?”
“Yes, Mr. Lingus. How nice of you to remember.”
I held my place in line, much to the annoyance of the crowd behind me. “I seem to be alone Ms. Olefant ... yours is the only face I remember.” I hoped she would jump in and say let’s sit together, but she shifted her attention to the people behind me – she was, after all, a woman with responsibilities and the presence of Fred Lingus was not nearly as important as making sure each of us had his right name tag.
I found Dodie Parker and we went over old times by the punch bowl. He hadn’t put on an ounce, I remembered him, a pitiful figure lost inside his football uniform like a turtle in a shell too big for him. He was now a short man, wizened, with a bright red nose that he constantly fingered as though it might suddenly disappear without warning. His eyes a watery blue seemed full of tears and he dabbed them constantly with his handkerchief. “This time of year ... the grass, you know?”
Winnie Mason, the whiz in history class was now Winnie Morgan, the wife of a General Electric light bulb tester – “I haven’t bought a light bulb in twenty years,” she boasted. She now wears glasses too, the kind with a string attached to the earpieces and go around the back of the neck. Her hair was tied tightly in back giving a serpentine slant to her eyes. She hadn’t brought her husband, “I have no one to sit with at dinner, Fred – are you alone?”
“Oh, I wish you asked me first, Winnie, but I already promised Sharon Olefant.” At the moment my hopes for a nostalgic evening were at a low ebb and I considered making an unobtrusive exit and going home. I looked at my watch – it was close to nine o’clock. If I started now and didn’t stop I could be home by one in the morning, that wouldn’t be too late, except I hadn’t thought of an excuse. Well, I could think of one on the trip home.
I had another punch with Dodie Parker and he introduced me to Manny Locatello – of all people! I wouldn’t have recognized him if it hadn’t been for Dodie.
“Remember Fred Lingus, Manny? Left town after graduation. Where’d you say you were living, Fred?” At this point his eyes had filled up, and together with his runny nose he went into a sneezing fit. I didn’t get to tell either of them where I lived and by the time Dodie pulled himself together both of them had lost interest in me. Manny’s youthful forelock had disappeared along with most of the hair behind it. He resembled an aging and overweight rock star who has been given a free ticket to a benefit concert. He was the only man in the room in a tuxedo. He sported an enameled pin in his lapel with the General Electric insignia, not the kind of thing you’d expect to see on a tuxedo. I glanced quickly at Dodie and noticed he was wearing one also. It seemed as though the entire graduating class of 1975 was working for GE.
Dodie, with a final sniff, said, “Well, I’ve gotta look up the wife, we’ll be called in for dinner soon.”
Manny picked up the cue, “Wait f’me, Dodie, I gotta find Phyllis.”
That left me alone by the punch bowl. I was in a perfect position to make my getaway. No one would miss me, I could just edge my way out the same way I came in – get in my car and be home in a few hours.
“Fred! You’re not leaving are you? I’ve saved myself for you.” It was Sharon Olefant!
“Oh, there you are, Sharon. I thought you forgot.” Damn! I had almost gotten away. I was a little rusty at this game, I didn’t know what my next move should be.
Sharon Olefant did. She took my arm in a grip of iron, and like a guard leading a prisoner, she marched me into the dining room. Instead of sitting with the troops she steered me to the committee table, there she introduced me to the Chairman – who, although no food had yet been served, already had a napkin tucked in his collar. Next to him was a bird-like woman with a puckered face who obviously would rather have been somewhere else.
“These are the Tuckersons,” Sharon explained, “Byron here sets up our reunions every year.” She said this without looking at him – as though he were some sort of alien species that must be explained, but not necessarily acknowledged.
The room was beginning to fill up and the ambient noise increased to a level that made talking, (unless it was to your neighbor) a bit of a problem. Sharon and I recognized this and we were able to talk to each other almost as though we were alone.
“Fred Lingus. Well, what do you know? It’s been 25 years, Fred – think of that. 25 years!”
“I know. A generation I guess. I live down state now you know.”
“I know. I know. Indian Point, right? How many?”
“How many what?”
She looked at me as though I were a mindless child – “Kids! Kids! – What else is there?”
“Oh, er .... a boy. Kenny. He’s twelve.”
She sat back and squared her shoulders. “I’ve had six. A girl and five boys.” She looked at me and her eyes held that same look of abandon, “It was more fun making them than having them – if you know what I mean? How about you?”
Thankfully, before I could answer, she sighed and sadly admitted that her making days were over, that she and Felix, (her husband) had ‘racked up’ as she put it, their last offspring two years ago. “Besides,” she added, “Felix is on the night shift at G.E. now.” Sharon Olefant was and I guess, still is a rather remarkable woman, and I wondered whether her original passion for the cello still burned within her. “Do you still play the cello?” I asked.
“Our last year in high school, remember? We were in the orchestra – I played clarinet, you played cello.”
“That’s right,” she said. “I almost forgot – no – I gave it up when I married Felix.”
Imagine! After all those years! I was right all along – and as I drove home, my headlights cutting through the night along the dark Thruway, I could hear the cello again. I was filled with an inner peace. I thought to myself, “What a fortunate man Felix must have been, what music they must have made together.”
I couldn’t wait to get home.
The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters, is simplicity.