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The blow rang through the motel room, freezing six of the seven people within it in midmotion. Theodore Poznan had a brush wet with nail polish in his left hand, while the index finger of his right was stiffly pointing at the ceiling. His hair, bleached in layers from straw to medium brown, slid forward off his shoulder and hung by his face. His beard jutted forward. His eyes were vaguely reproachful.
Elen Evans had a face of great delicacy and short hair cut with wisps around the ears and down the neck. She lofted a two-foot-long iron piano-tuning wrench with a wooden handle, which she had been using on her triple harp. Her expression was ironical.
Martha Macnamara, exactly thirty years older than Elen, was caught with a paper cup in her hand. She looked flustered and slightly apelike, with her round eyes and open mouth. She thought the words "oh, dear" and she wondered if there was going to be a brawl. She was also a bit glad (glad in spite of herself) that Pádraig had pounded the table in that way: hard, loud, and just at the moment he had wanted to.
Seated in the corner by the Formica table was a slight middle-aged man with black skin and Chinese eyes. The light of the wicker-shaded lamp put a shine on his black hair. His name was Long, and he held a three-year-old girl on his lap. This child's blue eyes were open very wide as she stared at Pádraig Ó Súilleabháin.
Pádraig himself was the sixth person frozen by the violence of his action. He was a young man who looked still younger, and a shade of purple spread from his ears to his face and down both sides of his neck. His fist,rough-chapped and very clean, slowly relaxed on the tabletop and then clenched again.
The little girl broke the silence. "Why did Poe-rik hit the table? Did he want to hit--" The remarkably long fingers of the dark man's hand curled over her mouth. Leaning down, he whispered something into her ear and then bounced her twice, forcefully.
The seventh person in the room-- the one who was not shocked by Pádraig's outburst-- was holding him up, with the neckband of the boy's sweater turned inside out, and was examining the tag with a show of interest. He raised his eyes now as Pádraig craned about and glared at him.
"No need to lose control, boy," said George St. Ives. "I was just curious why a traditional musician, or at least what passes for traditional these days, and what passes for a... Well, anyway, haven't we got enough plastic in the world around us already without wearing the stuff in front of people?"
Pádraig opened his mouth, but there was a brief pause before he replied: a pause of uncertainty. "I thought... I thought that I would do better to try to look nice in front of people. Instead of looking like I was after digging a hole somewhere."
George St. Ives had gray eyes surrounded by wrinides, and his forehead wrinkled as he held the overstretched fabric up to his face. " 'One hundred percent acrylic. Machine wash cold. Cool dryer. No bleach.' Red plastic with five-pointed stars in some sort of metallic thread. Wouldn't be very suited for digging a hole, would it? Nor for any other manly activity." His voice was gravelly but expressionless. His heavy face was a bit yellow.
"I can wash it." Pádraig wrested his sweater out of the older man's grip and started to stand up. "If it were báinin, how could I, in all these hotels?" His chair fell over. The pulling had left a sag in the back of his sweater. He looked foolish and knew it.
St. Ives watched Pádraig's distraction dispassionately and he smiled. "Did some girl buy it for you, Sully?"
Pádraig, who had retreated the length of the bed, turned back again. His sweater was now off center on his shoulders and he shrugged into it, saying: "My mother bought it for me. She said it would go in the bag well, without wrinkles." Then he rubbed his face with both hands. "Oh, this is stupid! Talking about my jumper! You are only looking for another way to rag me. To hell with it."
"There's the ticket," said Ted Poznan, who was sitting on one of the beds. He shook the bottle of nail polish and prepared to coat his second finger. All the fingernails of his right hand were long and thick with old, yellowed polish. "One's mind is her own mastery."
Elen, seated below him, made a weary gesture with all fingers spread. "Why 'her' own mastery, Ted? Is the mind a female?"
Teddy gave her one of his very many earnest gazes. "Why shouldn't I say 'her' instead of 'his'? I used to use 'tey' for either, but so few understood, and I try very hard not to use sexist language."
"Oh, you succeed, Teddy. How you succeed!" She ran her hand absently along the pegs of her tall harp as she spoke to Ted Poznan, but she did not look away from Pádraig. "There is no one more politically correct than you. Not in all California."
Long stood up, letting Marty Frisch-Macnamara slide off his lap like a cat. He retrieved a tissue from his jacket pocket and blew his nose, which was red. His amber-brown eyes, too, were bloodshot and he was breathing with his mouth open. It was a miserable cold.
"Eight weeks," stated Martha Macnamara, in tones of great conviction. "It's eight weeks today since any one of us has seen home. Remember that, everyone, and be charitable."
It looked as though the bad moment had frayed and dissipated in the general weariness, but George St. Ives was not reconciled. He glanced at Martha, whose band this was, and then away. His gnarled, nervous fingers played patterns against his hip. "I don't think there's anything out of line in objecting to things that destroy our... direction, here. After all, we have gone through a lot of sacrifice. The bitterness of being ignored by critics. The full houses that still don't pay.... "
"This is not an original tune, George," said Elen. "We've done all variations, in the past eight weeks."
Martha broke in. "So George thinks I made a mistake in not trying for any really big halls. Well, maybe I did. But it was a decision I had to make a lot of months ago. And may I say it's better to sell out a little hall than sit like little toads in a big empty pond. And this tour will make all I predicted."
"Even if we don't find the missing cash from last night?" asked Teddy.
Long cleared a phlegmy throat. "That is my responsibility."
Martha pointed a monishing finger at him. "You will not make that up out of your own pocket! It's fortunes of the road."
"And I am the road manager."
"But I am the high mucky-muck herself, and I say--"
St. Ives raised his voice. "Enough! I was not talking about money. If I wanted money, I'd be in a very different line of work. I want my music to be heard. This year. Tonight. Life is uncertain and all the old arts are breathing their last at once. Here we are, a few who know what's being lost. I had hoped... We might have... "
Almost everyone looked away from St. Ives. Many sighed. Marty wiggled.
If he noticed this lack of enthusiasm, it only made him more determined to speak. "Not that the music we play is in any sense correct by Celtic traditional standards: how could it be, with Pozzy on a Spanish guitar, Sully with his nineteenth-century German transverse flute, and then of course the squeeze-box: a factory-made sealed package of Victorian origin, which one can neither tune nor repair.... " St. Ives paused in sorrowful consideration of the of the button accordion. "But hey! We don't have to court the modern audience with bizarre clothing."
Martha scratched her scalp with both hands until her gray hair bobbled up and down. She looked very bothered. "George, if we followed your ideas of what was traditional, there would be no one up there but you on the pipes."
He appeared to consider that. "No. I'm willing to grant that the harp is traditional to Celtic music."
"Thanks, George, but I doubt I have the strength to endure your approval," drawled Elen. She put the instrument in question protectively onto her shoulder and continued tuning.
"Then be at ease, Miss Evans. I said the harp, not the harp player. There is nothing more traditional in your musicianship than in, say, Ravel." He rubbed one heavy knuckled hand over his eyes and winced at some private ache.
With an unnaturally innocent expression, Elen Evans looked around her. "La! Ah believe Ah have been insulted!" She met Pádraig's eye.
Perhaps her glance was merely languid, and it was Pádraig's own hurt he read into it. But Ó Súilleabháin, who had stood miserably silent in his twisted sweater, now went from red to white and lunged for the piper, hands balled into fists. He did not touch him, however, for he came up against the afflicted Mr. long. That gentleman had somehow wandered between the two in search of fresh Kleenex. Pádraig's arm was softly circled by a dark hand, which he could not remove. "Bi cúramach, a Phádraig," said long very quietly, and then he turned away.
The tissue box was on the table beside St. Ives. Long brushed the stocky piper as he reached around him, and St. Ives staggered.
With the first signs of real temper, St. Ives pushed back, succeeding only in pushing himself backward onto the mattress, which swayed beneath his weight.
"Take a walk, George. Cool off." Martha spoke quietly, but all in the room turned to her in surprise, even George. He pursed the mouth that was hidden in his curly, bisonlike beard. He swelled beneath his layers of sweaters. He rose to his feet, but appeared to reject the soft suggestion that had really been a command.
Long was beside him, shoulders almost touching. He blew his nose again, discreetly. "Lovely afternoon for a walk in Santa Cruz, St. Ives," he said, with a genteel enthusiasm. "Blue sky, ocean breezes. A good way to regain a flagging inspiration. To reflect, perhaps, on the death of old arts. If one doesn't fancy a nap, of course."
"I myself--" and he tossed the tissue into the bedside basket-- "am going to nap." He looked significantly from the bed to St. Ives.
Much to the surprise of most in the room, the piper walked out without another word. They heard his feet echoing down the hall and out the back door of the motel, for St. Ives stayed in a place apart from the rest of them.
Elen glanced at Long with exaggerated respect. "The big lady's muscleman?"
He blinked sore eyes at her. "Well, it is my bedroom, Elen. He could scarcely stage a sit-down in it."
Her gaze grew even more disbelieving. "Sure he couldn't! George would never be so rude. I think he must believe you're carrying a gun."
At the reminder that this nicest room in the mediocre motel belonged to Long, all the musicians rose also. But Mr. Long had walked from the space between the beds back to the breakfast table, where he smiled graciously and sat down again, showing no more signs of going dormant.
"I don't, Daddo," said Marty, edging away from him. "I don't fancy a nap at all. I more fancy a walk, I think."
No one answered her. Belief was audible through the room as they realized the awkward scene was over. "Ravel," said Elen Evans contemplatively, as she began to strike octaves on the left row of strings. "I really prefer Debussy." She plucked a great, rolling, unsettled chord along the length of the harp, top to bottom.
Teddy spoke to the unhappy chord, rather than to Elen's dispassionate words. "Don't be put off your center by that, Elen. I don't think George feels very well. Inside himself. I see him as off balance. Harried from within, you know. He needs some sort of adjustment."
Her Face looked rather like Stan Laurel's, so blankly she gazed at him. "Spiritual in nature, Teddy? Or chiropractic?"
"Either or both. Or nutritional. I wonder about his amino acids.... "
"I prefer past-life regression, myself."
"You have a marvelous gift of acceptance, Ted," said Martha appreciatively. "I admit he pisses me off wonderfully, when he gets going like that. And he doesn't even nip at my ego, as he does to yours."
"George doesn't really twist the screws in Teddy." Elen smiled like a madonna, plucked an octave and winced at the sound. She uttered a quiet and very nasty curse and twisted the big turning wrench once more. "Not as he does to Pat."
Ted blew on his ugly nail. "He isn't exactly wild over my guitar. I can hear his teeth grinding every time I add a chord progression. But that's his problem, not mine."
"And he really does care, you know. About the accuracy of what he's doing. There's few enough who do."
Páraig Ó Súilleabháin glanced worriedly at Ted. "Do you think... Did I do wrong in getting angry at him? Maybe I didn't understand enough.... "
"Getting angry doesn't help, that's for sure, Pádraig," said Ted, putting his hand on the Irishman's shoulder and shaking him in warm fraternal fashion. "But I really feel with you in your reaction. It's really a gut-wrencher to keep your balance when someone around has lost his. What's important now, though, is to keep your channels open with the guy."
Pádraig blinked. "To... ?"
Martha, who had been combing her hair in the mirror, stopped long enough to laugh at his expression. "That's Californian, Pádraig."
"Mellowtalk," added Long helpfully. "I believe he means you are to continue to encourage conversation with St. Ives-- or possibly to dredge the mouth of his harbor."
"Now there I'm willing to help," said Elen, with a wicked giggle.
Ted nodded left and right. "Okay, okay, you have my full permission to make fun of me. Any time. Otherwise I'll start taking myself seriously."
He cracked his neck with the heel of his hand and gave a satisfied yawn. "It's all part of the cycle, friends and neighbors. What goes around, comes around." He rose, examined his ugly, guitar player's fingernails, stretched his lean body left and right, and left the room. "Oh, the wavelengths of rapture! Sweet-home California!" he called back from the doorway and then he was gone.
"He does that on purpose," muttered Martha. "He can talk perfectly good English when he wants to. I think it's important to him to have some strong ethnic identity."
Elen Evans giggled. "I asked him why the hell he wanted to play Celtoid traditional, when his heart is so purely new age, and you know what he said? Jigs and hornpipes ground him. Me, they knock flat on my keister!"
Martha sighed. "And yet Teddy plays his part very well. He has an ear for the traditional sound and he makes no ruckus. Doesn't seem to go into turmoil like... some."
She grunted and drummed her fingers on her knee. "What grounds him is grinding me down, I think."
Long spoke with some asperity. "That is not the music, Martha, but the musicians. You should take some privilege as well as responsibility from your position. Forbid George to bother you."
"Forbid... " Martha uttered a one-syllable laugh that was more than half a choke. "My dear, to stop George from 'bothering' would be simply to stop him from existing!"
"I agree," added Elen. "St. Ives's basic essence... "
"His interest is to convince you all of that, but really he is as capable as the next fellow of coming to terms with... "
"Dock his wage," suggested Pádraig, with a shade of malice.
Martha put her back to the wall and tucked her skirt neatly around her legs. "I forbid you all to bother me further about this," she said.
"Oops," said Elen, and they all relapsed into silence.
Copyright © 1986 by R. A. MacAvoy
Posted May 2, 2013
A wonderful followup to "Tea with the Black Dragon." Very well written, with interesting characters and an engrossing plot. By the end of the book, I felt I both knew well and sympathized (rare for me) with all of the major characters. Since all of the characters were engaged in one form of folly or another, this is really saying something.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 9, 2011
No text was provided for this review.