The Violin Teacher

A Moe Minsky Tale
Written By Al Geto


    It had been a difficult day for Mr. Fleming, a violin teacher who, along with most of the rest of the country, was broke. His wife, a doll-like woman, despaired over their four-year-old's sudden fever, and there wasn't enough in the icebox even enough ice for the remainder of the week. Not to belittle the devil, two of the three lessons on Mr. Fleming's schedule that day fell through.

    At the first appointment, the student, a young, talented girl, had been confined to bed. No one had informed him. The second pupil, a high school football player who handled the instrument as if he was beating it up with the bow, hadn't returned from practice on time, and although Mr. Fleming waited on the stoop over a half an hour for him, he never showed up. Since nobody was home, Mr. Fleming left a note in the mail box then hurried off to his third appointment, having failed to earn the six dollars, three per lesson, he'd heavily counted on to see them through the week. He'd had a bit of luck recently when Ellen won the church raffle for a tea set of imitation Spode, said to be worth a hundred dollars but which Mr. Fleming promptly pawned for twenty. That was three weeks ago. On the way to his final pupil of the afternoon he sat perspiring in the subway, having sold his small car, saving on gas and insurance but wearing himself out. Shaken by the thought that his family could barely survive the weekend, he decided to sell the second of his three suits, one of which he had already sold during a previous emergency. That sale had caused him some grief because two buttons on the fly of those trousers were missing and he had never mentioned it to the buyer.

    Mr. Fleming, a small, round man, hinting a bit of a belly, had a pointy nose, dreamy eyes, and a soft voice. He wished he'd had the guts to ask the sick girl's mother for the missed fee, inasmuch as he had come all the way in expectation of it. But he feared the possibility of losing yet another pupil. He had only a few left. Families were cutting expenses beyond their immediate needs, and violin teachers were the first to go. He also taught piano. One of his previous two piano students had sold his Steinway, the other said he didn't have enough to pay for tuning his piano and Mr. Fleming felt he couldn't keep giving lessons on an instrument that sounded Chinese even though the student was willing, and to Mr. Fleming's dismay, was beginning to enjoy the sound of it.

    Calculating funds on hand, Mr. Fleming maintained a near-zero bank account, had fifty cents in his right trouser pocket, the one without a hole, and had left his last dollar with Ellen should she need medicine for the boy. Since he had forgone his lunch he felt somewhat faint as the train clattered up into the light out of the tunnel. He clasped his violin case tightly. Inside was his dearest possession. He'd once considered pawning it but had decided he'd rather kill himself first, until he recalled he'd dropped his small life insurance policy and Ellen would have nothing. He thought of the house he was about to visit and prayed to almighty God there would be no further disasters. The three dollars had to last the weekend.

    Jeremy, a twelve-year-old whose lack of skill on the violin appalled Mr. Fleming, awaited his arrival in a short sleeved shirt, a pair of neatly pressed slacks and sneakers. A skinny boy with large eyeglasses, a perky manner, and clod-fingered, he had unconsecrated Ave Maria, gutted La Paloma, frozen the Spring Song, and made goulash of the Hungarian Rhapsody. He had the habit of flinging his bow wildly across the strings, missing notes all the way. Mr. Fleming enjoyed Jeremy's enthusiasm. He never scolded. His criticism was kindly. Jeremy was a technical failure, a mediocre pupil, but still a source of revenue. The violin was the most difficult of all instruments and he wished Jeremy had chosen the piano. At least the boy could have become the life of the party regardless of the level of his playing. Mr. Fleming knew that one day Jeremy would abandon the violin, but if he had studied the piano he'd be hammering out "Alexander's Ragtime Band" for the rest of his life along with a few other crazy songs like "Ooh, Ooh, Ooh, Look What a Little Moonlight Can Do, Do, Do!"

    By the time he reached Jeremy's house, protected by his wilting Panama hat, after the six-block trek from the elevated stop, Mr. Fleming was feeling hungry, thirsty, and weak in the knees. Jeremy admitted him. No one else was at home. Jeremy had set up the silver violin stand in the parlor. Mr. Fleming placed his violin case carefully on the brocaded sofa.

    "Would you please get me a glass of water?" he asked, and relaxed in one of the easy chairs.

    "How about a coke?" Jeremy asked.

    "That would be lovely," Mr. Fleming said, thinking of the shot of sugar in it that would revive him. It did, if only a little, and the few minutes in the easy chair helped. He rose, opened his violin case and prepared to accompany Jeremy in a simple concerto they had been studying for several weeks. He was glad to see Jeremy resin up his bow so thoroughly. It reduced the squeaks. Obviously Jeremy had done little practicing and Mr. Fleming, his handkerchief on the chin rest, bore with him as he proceeded to execute the music. The notes swam before Mr. Fleming's eyes. He became so hungry he thought he would pass out. He noticed in the adjacent room a capacious cut glass bowl filled with fruit on the dining room table and wondered how he could get his hands on an apple. Then the phone in the kitchen rang. Jeremy went to answer it. In an instant Mr. Fleming rushed into the dining room with his violin case, placed it on the table, lifted the unexpectedly heavy cut glass bowl and dumped several of the fruits into it, closed it, and was back in the parlor while Jeremy was still talking.

    "It was my mother," Jeremy said when he returned. "She won't be back before you leave and asked me to say she'd pay you for both lessons in two weeks because next week we're going to the country for July Fourth."

    Mr. Fleming's heart sank.

    "Oh, dear," he sighed, "and I just realized I had left the house without my wallet. Would you have a dollar you could let me have until next time?"

    "I'll take a look. Just a sec." He ran upstairs.

    Mr. Fleming slipped his violin bow into its holders and locked the case.

    Mr. Fleming was looking into the hall mirror, adjusting his Panama hat to the angle he preferred. He often thought that if he grew a small moustache and wore the hat he'd resemble the dapper actor, William Powell.

    "All I got is eighty five cents," Jeremy said, coming down the stairs.

    "That'll be fine. Thank you," Mr. Fleming said, accepting the change, five cents of which was in pennies. "Well, have a happy July Fourth," he said, tucking his violin under his arm and carrying the case in his hand.

    "Ain't you gonna put your violin away?" Jeremy asked, surprised.

    "Why, no. It's recommended one expose the instrument to the fresh air from time to time. It refreshes the wood, so to speak. It gives it tone."

    "I never heard that," Jeremy said.

    On the train, Mr. Fleming settled himself into a seat at the empty end of the car and opened his violin case to get an apple. But all the fruit turned out to be wax. Mr. Fleming closed the case and watched the houses flash by until the train descended into the tunnel. As the train flew past the stations he was wondering about the price of wax fruit.

-Al Geto

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Copyright August 3, 2000-


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