Playing from Memory

Playing from Memory

by David Milofsky


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780870815263
Publisher: University Press of Colorado
Publication date: 04/15/1999
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 270
Product dimensions: 5.98(w) x 9.03(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

David Milofsky's stories, articles, and reviews have appeared in a variety of periodicals, including the New York Times, Prairie Schooner, and Redbook. He has twice won grants from the NEA and has also won fellowships from the MacDolwell Colony, the Bread Loaf Writers Conference and the Rockefeller Foundation. He is currently Professor of English and Director of the Center for Literary Publishing at Colorado State University.

Read an Excerpt

Playing From Memory

A Novel

By David Milofsky

University Press of Colorado

Copyright © 1999 David Milofsky
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-87081-526-3


THE APPLAUSE was thunderous. It rolled out of the tiered seats, enveloping the musicians, resonating through the huge, vaulted hall, until finally it crested and began to subside. Heinz Ober consented to an encore. Schumann, Ben would remember later. Again the auditorium was flooded with noise. A man in the front row stood and shouted, "Bravo, bravo, maestro, more!" But Ober would never play a second encore. He stood and bowed stiffly from the waist. Then he indicated his colleagues with a broad sweeping motion. When the audience tired of clapping, Ober pointed at Antoine Beaulieu, who led the quartet offstage. As the junior member, Ben always exited last. He counted a beat, two beats, then followed Ober. He was ten feet from the wings, his mind blank, his eyes on Ober's polished heel, when abruptly he felt his feet go out from under and saw the stage coming up at him.

He was flying, now soaring, arms outstretched, reaching for the receding tails of Ober's tuxedo. It seemed to take ages to hit the floor; he floated, weightless, outside himself, not believing what was happening to him. Then he was on the stage, shoulder tucked instinctively to blunt the impact of his fall. Ben smelled sawdust as he rolled into the accompanist's stand. But even the sharp pain in his side seemed imaginary. The whole thing was too absurd to be true.

Perhaps his fall would go unnoticed. People were in a hurry to get home, they were reaching for their coats and purses. He would crawl like an Indian scout into the wings on his hands and knees. Who would see; who cared anyway? But to his dismay, nothing worked. Arms, legs, nothing. He lay as if paralyzed, his vision blurred, his limbs useless. He saw his right leg jerk convulsively, and then, feeling the flood of sensation return to his body, he swept his left hand in a wide arc, looking for his glasses.

He replaced the wire-rimmed spectacles and the world snapped into focus. There was a short, gray woman facing him in front, eyes wide in horror. Ben smiled weakly. It's okay, he wanted to say; a minor miscalculation, nothing more, nothing broken, go home now. Everything's fine. But having made eye contact, the woman became hysterical, pointed at him. "Help! He fell down! Look, help!"

Nervous whispers rose in the hall. Those who had been hurrying to leave turned now to look. Ben felt his cheeks flush with embarrassment.

"Get up," someone hissed from offstage.

He felt a hand under his arm, and he pushed unsteadily to his feet. The woman who had cried out was still standing in front of him, staring. A group of elegant matrons with frosted hair approached. Ben raised his right hand to hold them off, and was surprised to see his fiddle secure in it. Through it all, he had managed to protect his instrument. There was comfort in that.

He considered making a little speech; perhaps he could imply it was all part of the concert; something light to leaven Ober's rather predictable program. But then, sadly, he realized there was nothing he wanted to say. He made a deep bow and walked offstage.


OBER WAS WAITING. The others seemed to have gone to the artists' room. He would apologize to them later. "Ben, Ben," Ober said.

"You're repeating yourself."

"No jokes, this is serious. What happened to you?"

"You saw it," Ben said. "I fell on my ass."

Ober was usually the picture of composure, but now he was beside himself. "Of course I saw. I have eyes. But how did you fall? That's what I want to know."

Ben's self-assurance wavered. "I fell. How does anyone fall? I tripped, I guess."

"You tripped? On what? There is nothing to trip on! The stage is clean! Here, don't believe me, go look for yourself."

"I don't have to, I trust you, Heinz. I tripped over my own feet. I lost my balance. It happens, I'm a klutz, I fall down a lot. Why don't you ask about Cleveland, or that shower stall in Boston, or my broken wrist in Madison last year, it's the same."

"Very good, you take the words out of my mouth. I would very much like answers to all these questions."

"And I already told you. The throw rug in the hotel came out from under me, the fireplug was hidden, shower stalls are slippery. I sued the city of Madison and won; the court believed me, why don't you?"

Ober lowered his head, chastened. "I'm sorry, Benjy, I ..."

"Ah, to hell with it. You're right, it's not normal. I don't know what's wrong." Suddenly he felt light-headed again and walked over to the wall and sat on a desk.

Heinz followed, and when he spoke, he was sympathetic. "Benjy, we are friends, you are like a son to me."

"Sure, Heinz, I know. I appreciate it."

"But I am worried; as you say, it's not normal. I am concerned for your welfare, that is all."

"And the welfare of the quartet."

"Of course. That is my responsibility as leader."

"Sure," Ben said. He couldn't blame Heinz. They couldn't have him falling down at concerts.

"I understand how you feel," Ober continued. "It is like being under attack, as if your body is in revolt. It is upsetting, I know. But it is not only you that is affected. I too am concerned when my second violinist falls and breaks his arm. Now you fall again. This is very serious. Careers, you know, can hang on just such an incident. As musicians, our bodies are terribly important. Beyond interpretation, beyond theory, we must have marvelous coordination, we must be alert, we must eat properly, we must exercise, we must —"

"I know all that," Ben said abruptly. Next Ober would get into orgone theory and blame it all on Ben's refusal to sit in the goddamned box he had brought back from New York.

Heinz was insulted. "All I meant was that we can never afford to take our health for granted."

"I know," Ben said. But he also knew it went beyond that. Ober would not be a left-handed fiddler today had he not broken his arm in two places when he was thirteen years old. The arm took more than a year to mend and never did heal properly. Ober had been forced to switch his bow arm; and he said his tone had never been the same.

"Look, Heinz, I know what you mean. I agree with you; it's very serious. But I don't know what to tell you."

"All I ask is that you see my doctor."

"Not that orgone guy?"

"Very funny. Very amusing. I mean the head of the medical school at the university. He also has a private practice; there is no reason anyone else need hear about it. But I must know if there is anything seriously wrong with you. If there is, we will fix it; if not, then we can forget about the whole thing. Agreed?"

And what if they couldn't fix it, as Ober said. What then? But there was no point in arguing. "All right," Ben said. "What the hell. I went to a doctor in New York and another in Cleveland. Neither of them found anything, but if it will make you feel better, I'll go see the guy at the medical school. What harm can it do?"

"Exactly," Heinz said, pleased to have convinced Ben. "Now come, there will be people waiting for us, a reception."

"I think I'll just stay here for a while," Ben said. "I'm a little shaky; I'd just as soon not see anybody right away."

"As you wish, my boy," Heinz said. "I'll make excuses for you." He tapped Ben's shoulder and moved off toward the greenroom.


BEN SAT on the desk, still holding his fiddle under one arm. His broad shoulders and long trunk made him appear taller than his five feet eight inches, but he was not a big man. Now he peeled off the toupee, revealing a nearly bald head with a neat fringe of brown hair and a pate that gleamed in the stage lights. Heinz claimed his pink scalp distracted audiences, which insulted Ben, but he let it pass. There were more important things to worry about. Now he lit a cigarette and sucked on it, his cheeks hollow with the effort. Everything seemed hard tonight.

Color distracted him. Turquoise just out of his field of vision. Then he remembered: Dory was meeting him. They were going for a short vacation, had been planning it for weeks. He turned to see his wife watching him.

"Have you been here long?"

Dory ignored the question. She put her arms around him and held him tight. The turquoise shawl blocked his view, so Ben closed his eyes. He smelled her perfume; violets, he thought. She kissed his neck, then pulled away. "Are you all right?"

"I feel fine," Ben said. There was no point in worrying her. "I don't know what happened. Suddenly I was flat on my face. How did it look?"

"I couldn't see anything. Everyone was standing up and pointing. It was awful, like the circus. By the time I could see, you were on your knees. I was scared."

"I just tripped." Then, elaborately casual, Ben said, "Heinz wants me to see his doctor."

"But you've already done that. They always say you're fine."

"Maybe I am. Except for a few moments, I'm the way I always was. I feel a little weak, but we've been on tour, late nights, lousy food, all that. It's not so unusual."

Dory looked exhausted. Her dark hair curled onto her neck and accentuated her pale skin. Her eyes were round and sad; she had been crying. "Oh, Ben, what are we going to do now?"

It was not so much a question as a plea, and Ben felt helpless to answer. He took Dory in his arms and held her. He stroked her hair and neck; to him, she seemed fragile as a bird, bones exposed, as if she might break. "I don't know for sure," he began. "But we'll get by. We always have, haven't we?"

Dory nodded and blew her nose. "I guess so. Don't you have to go to the reception?"

"In a minute. I want to sit here for a while longer. You're tired. Why don't you go back to the hotel?"

"I think I will. Somehow I'm not up to seeing Heinz tonight. You'll be along soon?"

Ben nodded. "I won't be long."

Alone again, Ben shivered slightly. When he put his fingers to his forehead, they felt like ice. The fall had upset him more than he let on. He didn't want to upset Dory and he didn't entirely trust Heinz. He couldn't afford to.

What was it he had said? Careers could hang on such a fall? Hang. It was an odd word to use, and Ober was meticulous in his speech, as he was in everything else. Did he think this was the beginning of the end for Ben? Was Heinz trying to ease him out? It was ironic, since Ben had always thought of Ober as his savior, mentor, the man who had rescued him from a life of radio orchestras and free-lance jobs. They had met on a Tuesday. Ben remembered because normally he came to the union hall only on Fridays. He would pick up his check, then go to Wurlitzer's to cash it and buy strings. Often he went to Lindy's for lunch. But a friend called to say Ober wanted to meet him. Sitting backstage, it all seemed very vivid to him. He knew it was 1957, that he was in Chicago, that ten years had somehow gone by, and that he was crowding middle age, but it seemed as if he had never been away.

The musicians' union was at Fiftieth Street and Sixth Avenue. As Ben climbed to the second floor, the sound of a thousand voices engulfed him. At the top of the stairs, he paused before entering the room.

The musicians swarmed over an area a city block long. They were packed in groups, like fish, in different parts of the hall, with buffer zones separating them. Jazz musicians met at the rear, near Fifty-first Street, and spread toward the middle. The classical musicians were on the Fiftieth Street side. Recording musicians, radio men, those who played in orchestras for Broadway shows or worked at Radio City or the Roxy, filled the middle. On the fringes were men who belonged to no particular group. Displaced persons who made twenty dollars on Saturday night playing for a college dance, a wedding or bar mitzvah.

Anyone who revered musicians as virtuosos with poetic souls should see them here, Ben thought. They were as poetic as dockworkers shaping up for the morning call. Most of the men he knew were Jews like himself, who saw music as a means of escape from their families, a way out of the ghetto and the sweatshop.

The boys he had played with in the Ail-American Youth Orchestra were just off the boat or at best first-generation. Still, if ever the idea of American equality worked, it was here, in the union hall. For the most part the rules were brutally fair: either you played exceptionally well or you were out. Go teach piano in Brooklyn or high school in New Jersey.

Ben had always been among the best. From the start, when his father got the idea of Ben's learning the fiddle so that one day he could work his way through medical school, his talent had been large and unmistakable. Moshe took Ben to a Hebrew teacher who played the violin. The melamed insisted on having the boy play for his friend, who was concertmaster of the National Symphony. Moshe never dreamed music would become an end in itself. To him, music was essentially frivolous, something to take up the slack on a Sunday afternoon or relieve the monotony of prayer in the synagogue. But not a job. He went along with the melamed and lived to regret it.

The concertmaster was impressed. He took Ben on as a private student. At twelve Ben made his concert debut. He won scholarships to Peabody and then to Curtis. At fifteen, in the dead of the Depression, he was earning three times as much money as his father. Still, Moshe did not trust music. It wasn't steady; here today, gone tomorrow. He wanted Ben to go to medical school. But the family needed the money.

For Ben, music was liberation. It meant he could leave home and meet people his own age. It meant he had money to spend as he pleased. It meant that at fifteen he was an adult. He had gone to Curtis as an explorer in search of a new land. After Curtis, Ben toured and eventually came to New York. When the union's six-month waiting period had passed, he found a job at WOR and joined a struggling string quartet organized by a friend from Curtis. It was 1943. The world was at war. But Ben had no reason to be unhappy. He failed his army physical because of his eyesight, and he had a girlfriend. He was only twenty-five years old and already making $8,000 a year. Yet in time he grew dissatisfied. He had always thought of himself as a pragmatist when it came to music: he had even shifted from violin to viola at Curtis for a better position. Music was a way to make a living, and a good living at that. But now he felt unfulfilled. In part it was a function of time. Five years before, he was euphoric just to be out on his own; now he took it for granted. Originally he had reveled in making enough money to support himself, but he no longer enjoyed buying things. Then there was the music itself. He was trained to perform on the concert stage, but he spent most of his time in radio orchestras.

He liked free-lancing better. The jobs were sometimes worse than the commercials he did for radio, but often much better. At least he had some control over his life. He could keep an eye out for opportunities and didn't have to punch a clock. After three years of free-lancing, however, he began to question his worth as an artist.

He was twenty-eight now, a veteran. If there was to be a break, shouldn't it have occurred? The musicians he went to school with all seemed to be famous. Leonard Rose, Eudice Shapiro, even Isaac Stern, who was younger. All of them had agents, were on their way. And what was he doing? Playing background music for newsreels. Ben felt the meeting with Heinz Ober might be his last chance.

The noise of the musicians talking formed an almost palpable barrier, like the humid curtain at the entrance to a steam bath. Heinz had said they would recognize each other, but Ben didn't know how.

The pay windows were to the left as he entered the room. Ben stood behind a man who was arguing with the paymaster. A check had been lost, both men were angry. The musician threatened to take the paymaster to the union if he didn't produce the check. "This is the union," the paymaster said with perfect logic. "Sure," the man said, "but you know what I mean."

He reminded Ben of the Cisco Kid. He was tall and dark and had a cocky smile. Each week at WOR, the script seemed the same. Cisco would read his line: "You are the most beautiful señorita the Cisco Kid has ever seen." Then Ben would play a tremolo. Over the months, he came to feel a personal bond with Cisco. He was a good-looking kid, and when he spoke his lines, he leaned over the microphone like a crooner, taking the stand in his hands and stroking it. But Ben had never spoken to Cisco.

The line moved, and Ben stood facing the paymaster. His name was Red, or at least that was what the musicians called him. Though Ben had been coming down to the union hall for years, Red had spoken to him only once, the day Roosevelt died. Then Red looked up and said, "Wasn't that something about Roosevelt, dying like that, I mean?" And Ben had nodded dumbly because there was nothing to say.

"Next," Red called, and Ben moved up.


"Seidler. Ben Seidler."

Red flipped through a pile of checks. He went through the pile again, more carefully. Finally he picked out Ben's check.

"Miss it the first time?" Ben said.

"Next," said Red.


Excerpted from Playing From Memory by David Milofsky. Copyright © 1999 David Milofsky. Excerpted by permission of University Press of Colorado.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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