The Soloist

By: George SparlingeMail:

Ex-boxer Dickie slammed his fist on the dining room table. He scared me sometimes.

“It’s abnormal for Eileen to take violin lessons with a Danish instructor across town.”

“You’re too protective of her.”

I finished my sherbet and watched Dickie stop eating his blueberry pie, unusual for him. His appetite was enormous but kept his weight down by working out every day.

“Don’t give me that how-sophisticated-Eileen-is routine. My dad’s addiction to Danish porn broke up his marriage and left me without a father.”

“Partly,” I said, mollifying him, his face relaxed until I threw him a sucker punch and said: “You eventually outweighed him, beating him up so much he left.”

He got up so fast that the chair toppled over.

“It’s about Eileen not the past. I don’t like the smell of her underwear after she comes back after a lesson.”

The last man I thought would be a panty fetishist. What next, having sex with her violin?


“And it wasn’t how a hot danish smelled from your favorite bakery.”

“You sniffed for sperm?”

We’ve been married for ten years except for times I couldn’t bear his sudden bouts of violence. I wasn’t ever threatened or treated to it, but others had been.

“The odor was pungent, not ‘that sweet science’, as that guy described boxing.”

“A.J. Liebling coined the phrase…Go on.”

It wasn’t because I felt superior bringing things literary into ordinary conversation. Dickie wasn’t embarrassed or felt like an intellectual underling. For him, what literary references I passed on were like him landing knockout punches. He’d become a very good fighter, trained by a man steeped in Hemingway.

“He’s not only teaching Eileen classical violin but his baton isn’t only that rod dancing in the air. It’s that stiff one between his legs which angers me.”

“If you’re so sure, why don’t you talk about it with Eileen.”

Then he counterpunched me. I should have known it was coming and didn’t have time to duck.

“That’s for you to do. If she found out, I’d never hear the end of it. I’m pretty sure my cousin was molested by his grandfather. That family rumor smelled like incest.”

“It’s perversity on your part. Incest involves more than sniffs.”

“I snuck in her bedroom after she came back from practice. She lay sleeping when I smelled her panties inches from her bed. Too damn close but I couldn’t help being abnormal.”

Wasn’t I abnormal marrying an ex-fighter rather on track for a marriage to a Stanford graduate? My friends and family thought so.

“I can’t tell her why you’re suspicious but I will encourage her to tell Gunner to use condoms.”

Eileen was primed for her debut recital. The program will feature Wagner’s “Liebestod” and Hindemith’s “Sonata for violin and piano.” Her mentor, Gunner Hivver, will be the pianist, Eileen violin.

“Hindemith opens with such violence and sensuality and savagery that I shake inside playing it,” Eileen told me. “I hope it’s not noticeable.”

Her voice, tender and emotional, was unexpected, something I wasn’t prepared for.

“You’ve come a long since studying under Gunner,” I said. “You’ve matured.”

“And the ‘Liebestod’. The love death theme is so revealing. Gunner’s passion on piano moves me deeply.”

Eileen had come back from college classes. She wore skinny jeans that Sass and Bide introduced, a bulky sweater, low-heeled saddle shoes, and hung up her jacket and scarf.

“Smells good, Lana, what’s cooking?”

Smells again; Dickie’s face redden. I stood and hugged her. Good violinists were intelligent as well as intuitive. I told her but she shrugged it off. I meant to ask why her friends no longer came over to study but Aileen said: “Gunner made a Scandinavian dinner. We ate horseradish-spiked Scandinavian beef tartare, runny egg yoke, hot brioche toast and dessert was kladdkaka, a sticky chocolate cake. Champagne afterwards almost knocked me off my feet. Gunner had to drive me home.”

Dickie looked at me, anger inflected his face that signaled a rejoinder: “Almost meaning…you stood up making love.” I said.

Dickie would’ve said as much. At first, Aileen blushed. Her brows jammed tight over furious eyes, and when she turned and looked at Dickie, she balled her fists, trembling, and threw some precise jabs in the air his way. They sometimes threw punches at the bag, Dickie teaching her how to fight like a man during workouts at the health center.

“Yes, dad, he used a condom tonight,” she said. “The recital’s in four days and I want you to come,” she said, looking at Dickie, pushing her open palm in the air, a palm that looked as if it were stained with Bordeaux wine. Her jowls looked puffy and what was that on her mouth, a lesion? “I’ve reserved seats for you and Lana.”

She headed upstairs to her room, and Dickie hollered, “Tonight? What about other times?”

“You’re obviously a father jealous of my sex life with Gunner?”

Dickie blushed. He dipped another artichoke heart into mayonnaise. “You don’t think I’m a pervert, don’t you?” He spoke without emotion or heat: a reporter asking a question at a murder scene.

“You’re not. Did Gunner and I do perverted things? So what if we did or didn’t.”

They faced each other and I saw Eileen’s red-rimmed eyes. I could’ve shut up about it, not intrude on her independence, but I said: “How’s your sleep, Eileen?”

“I have trouble sleeping these days. Gunner said that’s natural before a recital which will be attended by 200 people.”

“Gunner’s keeping you awake, ‘leen. You should’ve had a female maestro.” Dickie now sounded like a concerned father. And now a doting husband: “Ms. Maestro, that’s Lana, and I trust her. Don’t play bohemian artist with me.”

This would only get worse so I changed the subject.

“You’re not bringing over friends to study together lately.”

Dickie often cursed loudly at the television when he thought a show should’ve had a different ending, her friends upstairs thinking her dad a brain-damaged pug. On closer inspection, my daughter’s face disturbed me. The violin’s chinrest couldn’t have made her puffy under each side of her jaw. I grabbed her hand on the banister before she disappeared and I said:

“Let me feel your lymph glands,” and she pulled away, continuing up the stairs. I walked faster, blocking her ascension.

“What are you doing, Lana. I’m not a child you can punish,” she said.

Nevertheless, she stood on the next lower riser, and I felt her swollen nodes.

“I’m a checker-upper. I always click health sites for recipes so that Dickie’s blood sugar doesn’t get high…”

She cut me off and said: “Spit it out, La. What’s the matter with you. Rambling isn’t like you.”

“There’s a new antigen test…”

“What are you talking about? Don’t mice get tested by researchers?”

“A HIV antigen test for people, like you maybe. After a few days of infection, HIV can be detected. What day and time should I schedule the test with our doctor?”

Her eyes watered, and she said, “I can’t cancel the recital, even if I get sick I’ll be there.”

“You can still perform if the test is positive and you get drug treatment,” I said, though that might not be true if the worst happened. Gunner may even know he was infected and still carry on with Eileen. Death was always trending.

Her shoulders slumped, head down, arms dangling loose at her sides.

“Tomorrow I’m free. What’ll happen to years of violin lessons?”

“The drugs will slow HIV down.”

Tomorrow, Jerusalem, I wanted to say, as if an atheist like myself wanted holy turf for a miracle to happen.

I gave Eileen a sleeper and she hadn’t bothered to shut her bedroom door. From our bedroom, we could hear her snore.

I said, before we slept after sex, “Creation and destruction are the same, there’s no room for miracles to change that.”

Dickie said, punching his pillow, a ritual preparing for sleep, “Don’t go negative on me or on Eileen. I’ll guide you through the darkness.”

Was he asking to have anal sex, the dark tunnel leading nowhere? Was he tainted with the pornographication of everything?

“Negative means she isn’t infected. You don’t want her to die, do you?”

He placed his mouth close to my ear, saying, “I can’t make the test positive.”

“Normal’s a lie. Normal people kill.” I turned my head away, Dickie’s mouth still against my ear.

“You think life’s normal. That’s why you clicked with me. We balanced out. My life’s abnormal and that pleases me. I’ll show you what I mean. I’ll fix it.”

The next day, I pondered Dickie’s remark: I’ll show you what I mean. Who did he thought he was, Virgil leading Dante through Hell? Instead of neurosis paralyzing me, a DVD I ordered from Netflix might reset a sense of balance I had lost. I dreaded what might happen if he blamed Gunner for taking advantage of protégé Aileen. Or he could take flight from Aileen and me since I used to be married to his bother, Vince. Aileen was Dickie’s stepdaughter. Or he could say, It’s your problem, I have clean hands.

Dickie wasn’t adverse to older movies as people Eileen’s age might be. I slid Body and Soul into the player. It starred John Garfield, a boxer corrupted by mobsters who got a piece of him. Dickie praised the ring action, two pugilists going at it realistically. It ends with Davis, Garfield’s character, going against the mobsters and beating the hell of his opponent who was supposed to win. Way behind on points, the last round sees Davis out for blood, banging harder than ever against his opponent, crashing blows leaving no doubt who won the fight. Davis confronts his mob handler after the bout: “Get yourself a new boy, I retire.” The mobster: “What makes you think you can get away with this?” Davis refutes him at the conclusion: “What are you gonna do? Kill me? Everybody dies.”

I ordered it because Dickie had had similar troubles with gangsters, bettors hoping to cash in whether he lost or won his fights. Searching classics, I read the praise-worthy comments by viewers who’d seen the film.

Eileen said: “A positive finale.” The test results came up positive, and she began drug therapy today.

The movie was about “fixers.” Now, no longer slumberous, Dickie’s words last night hit me hard: I’ll fix it.

Eileen: “I’m not quitting like Davis. My career is just beginning.”

“Davis got out before more mob contamination. He beat them and you can defeat this thing too,” I said, hugging Eileen. But, like the original tragedies, optimism was Greek to me. The medications the doctor prescribed had Greek-sounding names, perhaps gods and goddesses with powers to burn away her infection.

Taking four medications, Eileen played violin in a basement room. While downstairs, I told Dickie about her treatment. Though I knew he could understand it, he kept clear of details, so I imparted them. I was his audio book; he consumed the information. His hostility toward Gunner was so intense that he couldn’t bear seeing the effects HIV had on her. When she’d enter the room, he’d leave, ducking his head so he wouldn’t accidentally see what Dickie called, “Gunner’s Disease.”

At a distance, he seemed as if he paid attention but he’d look alert in some bouts even after he rose before the referee counted him out. Among the many side effects of the drugs were nausea ( Dickie ate in restaurants now, refusing to see the damage Gunner had inflicted on her. ). I thought that primitive, in line with what men long ago did during women’s menstruation: sequester them. In his favorite chair, he muffled his ears with his large hands as if he might hear her abnormal heartbeats when the doctor examined her miles away from home.

“Gunner’s cold-hearted and has hot blood on his hands. She’s like Leningrad when Nazis had the city under siege,” he said. “The city survived, only the people died.”

Recital cancelled, Dickie and I drove to Gunner’s studio. No other students were present.

“I’m glad to meet you, Lana, you too, Dickie. Eileen has told me a great deal about you both,” he said. “Can I get you something to drink? Wine, bourbon or brandy?”

“Eileen’s struck down with HIV,” Dickie said. “How about me as your new pupil,”Dickie said, gripping Eileen’s violin.

He looked at Dickie, and said: “How many years have you played violin?”

“For as many as you’ve taught Eileen,” Dickie said.

“You can use her violin then.”

“If you like music, there’s a finale coming up you’ll never forget,” Dickie said.

Dickie had his muscular arm wrapped around Gunner’s shoulders. Suddenly, Dickie removed his arm.

He held four strings: the lowest string was G just below middle C, then, in ascending order, D, A, and E. Earlier, back home, he twisted the tuning pegs and loosened the strings, pulling each through the hole in the tuning peg, unhooking the other end from the fine tuner.

Now, Dickie wore black, stainless steel, wire-core, cut-resistant work gloves.

“Solo in the ring, I’m going solo now,” Dickie said.

He clenched the ends of Eileen’s violin strings, raised his arms over Gunner’s head, brought down the strings to Mr. Hivver’s Adam’s apple, yanked and twisted and pulled the synthetic nylon-wrapped in aluminum strings until blood poured from Gunner’s neck, until he slumped motionless, until Dickie’s persistence severed Hivver’s head from his body.

Purity did not exist. It never had. Some might call murder purity.