Finding Middle C
It would all be over in less than eight minutes. The nerves were still there, but Clio had no time to pay attention to them. She walked out past the curtain and onto the stage apron and stared at the bright lights while she waited for the judges to write down her number. At a judge’s signal, she walked upstage to her harp and sat down on her stool. Images of Robert clouded Clio’s mind, and she drew in a deep breath to regain her focus. This was not the time for distraction.
Clio located Middle C, the grounding string of her instrument. The first pluck and the final strum of her piece both revolved around this long, sturdy, red wire. It was the beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega, the place where her fingers always returned.
Pluck C, Pluck C, EF,EF, Pluck C. A, B, A, F, pause C. Ring finger, thumb. Ring finger, thumb. Ring finger, thumb, thumb, thumb, middle finger. STRUUUUMMM. Pluck, pull, pluck, pluck, pluck, pull. Pause. Breathe. CC, ABA, CC DFD, CC, ABA, CC. STRUUUUMMM. Rub, rub, RUB, RUB, RUB. Pluck E, Pluck C. Hold. Pause, Breathe. Pluck C. Hold, pause, breathe. Pluck C.
Clio pressed the surface of the strings between her flat palms to quiet her harp. She stood up, bowed, and exited stage right. Her lungs burned. She’d been holding her breath throughout the last sequence. Her palms were wet with sweat, and her fingers trembled. It was finished.
Nothing could have prepared Clio for what she felt the moment she walked off the San Francisco opera house stage. Her heart raced and her limbs pulsed. She’d done it. She’d played the best audition of her life. Juilliard was in her future.
Even better, she and Robert would be together again. Having her boyfriend away at school on the East Coast during her senior year was not the ideal situation. She’d have to endure football games, lunch periods, homecoming, and the prom without him. It would be tough, but her entrance into Juilliard would change everything. It would make all those months of separation worth it.
An announcement came through the auditorium speakers. “Numbers fifteen through fifty-five, please meet in front of the concert hall east entrance.” This could only mean one thing. They’re posting the call-back list. Clio, along with scores of other hopefuls, dashed to the concert hall.
Juilliard School of Music
- Abigail Leonard
- Carmen Barnes
- Michael Fontana
- Luca LaPietra
- Anthony Lomelli
- Patricia Blustein
- Steven Michaels
- Deborah Taylor
- Chanelle Halloway
The Saturday after she returned from San Francisco, Clio moped around the house waiting for Robert to return her phone call. At noon, he still hadn’t called. It had been three hours. Why hadn’t he called?
Clio, who had yet to change out of her flannel pj’s, stared at the TV and flipped channels. Every so often she’d let out a dramatic sigh in hopes of drawing attention to herself. And sure enough she did, but it wasn’t the kind of attention she wanted.
“For Christ sake, Clio. This is getting to be ridiculous.”
Charles Burbank II, Clio’s father, stood in front of the TV blocking her view. Clio stared at his shoes. She didn’t want to look at his face because she knew he’d had it. Why couldn’t he just let her be? She played the part well. The poor, innocent victim. Woe is Clio. Why couldn’t he just play along with her pity game like mom and everyone else?
“That’s it. I’ve had it. No more of this woe is me crap. So you didn’t get in to Juilliard? It’s not the end of the world.”
“To me it is.”
“Yeah. Well maybe that’s because you’ve got this perfect little world all planned out in your head. Life’s not perfect, Clio.”
“Watch your mouth.”
“Listen. Here’s Nana’s cake pan. Why don’t you save me a trip by running it over there for me?”
With that he handed Clio the empty pan, grabbed the remote off the end table, and headed out of the den. Clio knew better than to argue with him. Dad had laid down the law and if she didn’t get her butt in gear soon, there’d be hell to pay, and she knew it.
The CD player in Clio’s Ford Explorer blared. She rolled down the windows, and the wind whipped through her long, dark hair. As she fiddled with the buttons to skip the songs she didn’t care to hear, she came to an abrupt stop.
What in the world was she going to do over at Nana’s? Sure she’d give back the pan, and then they’d have something to eat. Maybe she’d have to take Nana out shopping or something. In other words, she’d be stuck pissing the afternoon away at an old woman’s whim. Clio would rather sit around and wait for Robert’s phone call.
One block. Two blocks.
Nana was cool and all. On Clio’s eighteenth birthday she insisted that from then on, Clio call her by her first name. At first Clio was reluctant, but now it was second nature.
Nana had actually always been more than just a grandma. She’d been more like a friend to Clio, someone who understood her. Dad always called them Artsy Fartsy and blamed their connection on their creative nature. In this family, musical talent skipped a generation. Clio played the harp, and Nana had a voice like a nightingale.
Three more blocks.
Nana also didn’t play around. She was straightforward sometimes to the point where you just didn’t want to hear what she was going to say. That was Nana. She didn’t always tell you what you wanted to hear, but somehow it was always what you needed to hear. Clio wasn’t sure if she was ready for that just yet, but in one more block she would find out whether or not she was ready.
Nana ushered her granddaughter into the house the look of surprise still fresh on her face.
“Well this is a nice surprise. I haven’t seen you in a while. Where’ve you been?”
“Oh, is that all I get today? Half ass answers?”
“I’d rather not get into it right now, OK?”
“No one’s asking you to get into anything. Geez you’re touchy. Let’s go take some of that edge off.”
Nana teetered her way into the small corner of the house that she called the kitchen. She nudged the step stool over alongside the counter with a harsh tap of her foot. Then she proceeded to climb on top and rummage through one of the upper cabinets. To Nana’s left, a brightly polished silver teakettle sat idle on the stove. Clio couldn’t help but notice how the silver of the teakettle looked dull compared to the silver hair atop Nana’s head. Nana’s hair was more of a crisp, clean, silver white that made her the envy of all her friends.
Clio watched in silence as Nana’s hand reappeared from behind the cabinet door clutching a deep burgundy bottle. Her bent and swollen fingers that suffered the pains of arthritis from numerous years of sewing were wrapped around its long neck. She set the bottle on the counter and looked around as if she had forgotten what she had set out to do.
“If this doesn’t fix that attitude, then God help you.”
Clio grinned. Only Nana would whip out an unopened bottle of wine to take the edge out of her granddaughter’s snarly voice. Clio lightly swirled the wine around before placing her nose near the rim of her glass to get a whiff.
“My God girl. Drink up already!”
Clio took a sip. Her tentativeness made Nana roll her eyes. So Clio swallowed her glassful and grimaced for dramatic effect. It actually wasn’t bad, but she wanted to get under Nana’s skin.
“It’s a 1986 cabernet. I knew you’d like it. Got it from someone special, so I saved it for a special occasion. C’mon. Let’s get comfy.”
Nana, who sprawled out on her couch reclining as if she were floating on the Nile, wasted no time.
“Out with it. What’s goin’ on?”
Clio began to feel that familiar knot return to her stomach. It felt as if she had swallowed a two-ton brick, and it had settled in the very pit of her stomach. Why was it so hard to talk about this? Nana had heard it all. Christ, Nana shared it all, even those things that grandchildren never want to know about their grandparents. Clio swallowed hard once. And then again. Her throat had gone dry.
Before she could open her mouth and attempt to say something, Nana sat upright on the couch, her ivory white hands gripping the cushions. Once again, Clio took note of the curled fingers. Bent and rigid, they resembled twigs that would snap if pressed too hard. But these hands had the potential to radiate more warmth than the kettle on the stove. Clio studied the lines and wrinkles on Nana’s skin. When compared to Clio’s firm, smooth hands they were like a treasure chest carrying a wealth of experiences where each crevice held its own story.
“Cecelia, my heart’s broken,” Clio finally muttered.
“No dear, your heart’s not broken. It’s only cracked.”
There they were. Those never failing words from the almighty Nana. They made sense, as Clio expected they would, but they definitely weren’t what she wanted to hear. How could Nana even remember what it was like to have a cracked heart? It seemed unfair that she would even offer that sort of a statement when 52 years of happy married life had made her completely unqualified to do so. Unable to stop herself, Clio spoke up with the bluntness of a wounded animal.
“How would you know?”
“I just know things.”
The two women stared at one another. Nana continued.
“Let me guess. You’re moping around feeling all sorry for yourself, wallowing in your own self-pity. You haven’t left the house to go do something fun in days. Am I close? You bet I am. Well guess what, Clio? It just ain’t worth it. You’re young for Christ sake. Go out and live a little. He’s one guy. God, to be young and single again.”
“But I just thought things would be different. I had everything all planned out already.”
“And he had different plans.”
“Yeah, without me.”
“Tough luck for him. So are there any guys at the studio?”
“Nope. Just me and Randy.”
“What about at school?”
“Oh c’mon. You mean to tell me there’s not one cute guy in any of your classes?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Well then I don’t see any problem except that you’re sitting on your butt waiting for someone to make you happy. And don’t’ go telling me that Robert is the only thing that can make you happy because you make your own happiness. No if, ands, or big ol’ butts about it. Come with me. I want to show you something.”
With a swift wave of her arm, she beckoned Clio to follow her into her bedroom. Nana slid open her mirrored closet doors and asked Clio to bring over the chair from her vanity. Nana gingerly stepped up on the chair and stretched her arms out to form a T in order to maintain her balance. Once she was as steady as possible on the wobbly chair, she reached up to the top shelf and pulled down a shopping bag. Clio’s immediate reaction was that Cecelia was about to do what everyone else had already done; she had joined in on the pity party and bought Clio some gift.
“Look what I bought for the opera.”
Nana held up a magenta pashmina with fringed tasseled ends. It’s silky, soft cashmere texture melted into Clio’s skin as she wrapped the shawl around her shoulders. Clio handed the gorgeous piece back to Nana, and Nana flung it over her own shoulders and twisted from side to side modeling her new purchase.
“Won’t this be fabulous for opening night?”
“Do me a favor. Get up on that chair and pull down that shoebox over in the far back corner. I want to wear my silver shoes on opening night.”
Clio steadied herself on the chair and peered into the closet. There were dozens of shoeboxes in the far right corner of the shelf, and Clio wasn’t exactly sure which one Nana wanted. She could see one box farther over than the rest, but couldn’t reach it from where she was. She needed to move the chair. She reached out to hold the shelf for balance, but as she did the chair rocked and Clio pitched forward. Arms flailing, she knocked several items off the shelf before crashing to the closet floor.
“Clio, are you OK?”
Clio was laughing so hard she couldn’t answer Nana’s question. By the time she caught her breath, all she could do was apologize for making a mess and promise that she would get the shoes down without being such a klutz. Cecelia was about to reply, but the shrill ring of the telephone cut her off.
“Go get that and I’ll clean this up,” Clio said.
Up and down. Up and down. It wasn’t all that easy fitting everything back into Nana’s overflowing closet. As Clio was shifting items over to create space, she noticed
an old, tattered box whose brown parchment paper had faded to tan due to the elements of time and nature. Curious, she removed the lid and released millions of dust particles into the air that made her sneeze. The box looked like a piece of ancient history that belonged in a museum. Clio was honestly surprised that it was still in one piece.
Clio grabbed the box, got down off the chair, sat on the bed, and proceeded to sort out its contents. She pulled out and old, beaten up prayer book. It held prayers of numerous saints and the little laminated hand held prayer cards from funerals that Nana must have attended. Next she reached in and found a red autograph book. It was dated 1936 which would have been Nana’s elementary school days. The cover had fallen off and the clasp had rusted so badly that it was ashen black in color. A few pieces of loose paper, thin and crumpled from withstanding the tests of time, fell out of the box as Clio dug deeper into the bottom.
At the very bottom of the box lay a stack of envelopes all neatly bound by a single blue ribbon. They appeared thin and worn just as the rest of the contents of the box. Clio’s heart pounded wildly. While her gut told her to stop snooping and put everything back where she found it, her mind focused on a belief that she and Nana shared. Everything happens for a reason. If she wasn’t meant to see these, she wouldn’t have found them.
So Clio undid the ribbon and picked up the first envelope in the stack. Without hesitation, she pulled the letter out of the envelope. The last few words on the page made her stop reading, but only for the moment. The letter was signed: All My Love, Steven. Who the hell was Steven? Clio knew that Nana and Grandpa had written to each other during the war, so she had expected to see her grandfather’s name, Charles, at the bottom of the page. But there it was scrawled legibly in black ink, STEVEN.
Clio had to read these. She put the letter back in its envelope, returned the envelope to the stack, and retied the blue ribbon. She stuck the stack of letters in the corner of the closet floor and hopped back on the chair to put the tattered box back on the shelf where she’d found it. Lastly, she grabbed the shoebox Nana requested and set it on the bed.
She then returned to the letters and the thought of how to get them out of Nana’s house undetected. There were quite a few in the stack, enough to make it bulky, but, for Clio, it was worth a shot. She lifted up her sweatshirt and stuffed the letters into the waistband at the back of her pants. They rested against the curve of her spine. Some of the corners pricked her skin. She’d have to stand straight and tall all the way to her car without fidgeting to keep them hidden.
Clio took a deep breath. When she exhaled she could hear a faint crunch, the sound of the paper envelopes bending. No problem. She had two choices: talk loud or hold her breath. She’d prefer the former of the two. Clio then twirled around, double-checking herself in the mirror several times. Thank God she’d worn a sweatshirt. There was no bulge. All her bases were covered. She was good to go.