WHAT GOES AROUND
The envelope in Dr. Charles Winchester’s “in” box was small and square and addressed in a pained left-handed scrawl. Not another invitation to some boring society function, he thought. He’d had more than enough of those in the last three years. He sighed wearily and slit it open. Sure enough, “You are cordially invited to the world premiere performance of the Symphony Number One by David Sheridan . . . .” Good Lord. There was a note enclosed, written in the same scrawl as the address, “Dear Doctor, Remember me? Call me. David.” and a local phone number. Remember? The one patient Charles would never forget. He picked up the phone and dialed.
“Hello? David? This is Charles Winchester.”
“Doctor! How good to hear from you. Unfortunately, I’m on my way out the door to deliver some galley proofs to my publisher, but if you’re not busy, maybe you could come over for dinner tonight.”
“I’d be delighted. Would eight o’clock be all right?”
David gave him the address. “But make it seven. We have a lot to catch up on.”
Charles tapped the invitation. “Indeed we do. Seven then.”
The address was a small house in Brookline. As Charles got out of his car, his ear caught a strain of piano music drifting through the open window. He closed his eyes, feeling he was on treacherous ground. Not Mozart, please, he thought. Don’t let it be Mozart. It wasn’t Mozart, but something he didn’t recognize at all. He knocked on the door.
“Doctor, it’s good to see you.” David Sheridan shook his hand in a firm grip.
“How is the hand?” Charles asked, turning it over and examining it.
“Admiring your handiwork?”
Charles dropped it. “I only wish I could have done better.”
“I’m not sure I do,” David said, “but where are my manners? Would you like a drink? I seem to remember you were a wine drinker.”
“Wine would be fine. I must say I was surprised to get your invitation. I had no idea you’d become such a successful composer.”
“I don’t see why.” David extracted the cork from the wine bottle. “My first three piano concertos were all performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra last season.” He poured the wine and handed Charles a glass.
“Oh. Well.” Charles took a drink. “I’m afraid I haven’t been to the Symphony since I came back from Korea.”
“I find that difficult to believe.” David sat down and waved Charles to a chair. “Whyever not?”
“It’s a long story,” Charles sighed.
“Well, that’s what we’re here for, isn’t it, to catch up with each other?”
“What about you?” Charles asked. “How long have you been in Boston?”
“About three months. I moved here temporarily to get my symphony ready for its premiere, but I find I really like it. I’m trying to convince my fiancee that we should live here, but she still loves New York.”
Charles took another swallow of wine. “When are you getting married?”
“Not for a while. Alicia wants to finish up her residency first.”
“She’s a doctor?”
“Soon will be. Pediatrics.”
Charles looked around the cluttered living room, piled with music books and manuscripts. He indicated the baby grand piano which took up nearly a third of the room. “Can you play that?”
David stood and caressed the keys. “Not well enough for money, but still well enough for love. Would you like me to show you, Doctor?”
Charles hesitated. The ground was getting treacherous again; he would have to tread carefully. “If you would like to. Something of yours, perhaps?”
“Of course,” David smiled and sat down at the piano. “This is my Piano Concerto Number One. You’ll just have to imagine an orchestra.” He began to play.
The piece began in a minor key, softly, like a rain of sorrow that grew slowly and gradually into a river of despair, seductive and almost sweet. David’s right hand faltered from time to time, but Charles soon stopped noticing. A second theme wove itself around the first, first one note, then two, then more, a theme of hope, soft and insistent. The despair grew in intensity; hope opposed it, never gaining volume, never losing its insistence. Finally, despair shattered in a rain of jewel-like notes, leaving the stage to hope, soft as ever but now triumphant.
“Excuse me,” Charles said and fled outside to the porch. He clutched the railing, the tears on his face a pale echo of the dam that was bursting in his soul. He felt every pain, every loss he had ever endured washing over him in one huge, crashing wave. He wept silently, choking back sobs, over each one. Loss of love. Loss of faith. Loss of hope. His soul felt battered. His car beckoned to him from the driveway, and turning and walking back through the front door was the bravest thing he had ever done.
David called from the kitchen, “The bathroom is down the hall to the left if you want to freshen up.”
Charles closed the bathroom door and ran the sink full of cold water, which he splashed over his head and face. “Please, God, if you’re up there at all . . . .” then he trailed off because he had no idea what to ask for. “Well. Just do the best you can,” he finished.
“I hope you don’t mind eating in the kitchen,” David said when Charles came out. “I don’t have a dining room.”
“The kitchen’s fine,” Charles said. “David. About what just happened . . . .”
“Save it until after dinner, Doctor. Take some time to pull yourself together, then we’ll talk.”
Charles took a deep breath. “Thank you. And it’s Charles.”
“All right, Charles. Come eat now.”
Dinner was a simple affair of chicken and vegetables, but Charles found he had never been so ravenous. He took seconds of everything. Afterward, they adjourned to the living room.
“Did you ever have physical therapy, Charles?” David asked.
“No, I can’t say that I have.”
“I did. Six months on the hand and the leg. I cried myself to sleep from the pain almost every night.”
“Surely your doctor gave you pain medication.”
“I refused it. I was already starting to write then and the drugs dulled more than the pain. I got so used to writing with my left hand that I still do even though I don’t have to.”
“And your point?”
“That any pain is bearable if it’s for a purpose. It’s the pointless pain that breaks you. So tell me why you don’t go to the Symphony anymore.”
“It was in Korea.”
“I had gathered that.”
“Yes, I guess you would. Well. I’d always loved music, you know that, but in Korea it became more. It was my lifeline; my link to the outside, civilized world; my hedge against the insanity and the death.”
“You certainly could have picked worse things to fulfill that need.”
“Yes, and I know so many who did. But in the last days of the war, five musicians with the Chinese army surrendered to me.”
“Yes, really. They didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak a word of Chinese, but I taught them,” Charles swallowed, “. . . I taught them to play Mozart. The Quintet for Clarinet and Strings.”
“David, they were all killed.”
Charles rushed on. “I haven’t been able to bear listening to music since. All it can do is remind me.”
David cleared his throat. “That seems like far too high a price to pay for one horrifying experience.”
“David, I lost the thing that mattered to me most in the world. You can’t imagine what that feels like.”
David held up his right hand. “Yes, I can.”
There was a long moment of silence. “All right,” Charles said. “I suppose you can.”
David flexed each finger. “You know, I still miss it. I’m very proud of what I’ve accomplished, but sometimes, when I hear someone play one of my concertos and I know in my soul that I once could have played it better, it still hurts. What I have now is better than what I lost, but I’ll always miss it.”
“I’m truly sorry.”
David snorted. “I wish you would stop saying that; you’re not the one who fired that mortar shell at me. No one could have put me back together better than you did. Stop pretending you’re God.”
“That’s a lesson I’ve been trying to learn for years.”
“Am I the first person you’ve told that story to?”
Charles leaned back in his chair. “Yes.”
“Why? Surely you have people here who care about you?”
“I’ve thought about telling my sister, but she has enough of her own problems.”
“Worry about you being the chief among them, I’m sure.”
Charles opened his mouth to deny it, then hesitated. “Hunh. You . . . may be right about that.”
David leaned forward. “Then talk to her. If you have friends you can trust, talk to them. And come back and talk to me. If you don’t, I’ll come find you. I’ll camp on your doorstep until you do.”
“Heh. You would, too, wouldn’t you?”
“Yes, I would. And take the music back, Charles. You’ve been without it much too long.”
Charles bent forward, covering his face with his hands. “I’m . . . not sure I can.”
“Despair is easy. Don’t you remember all the things you told me when I thought I’d never play again?”
Charles looked up. “Yes. Every word.”
“The music is in your soul, too. It’s how you got through to me; it’s how you connected with them. We all speak the same language.” David stood up and walked over to the piano.
“Please, no more,” Charles said.
“Now surely, of all the things that happened in Korea, this is what you should be most proud of,” and David began to play Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. Charles sat utterly still, waiting for the pain to start, but there was none. Just peace. “See, that wasn’t so bad, was it?” David said when he was finished.
“No, it wasn’t,” Charles said, astonished. David’s fingers picked out an unfamiliar tune, soft yet strong. “What’s that?”
“I don’t know yet, maybe the Symphony Number Two.”
“No offense, David,” Charles said, “but I think I’ve had all I can take for one day.”
David stood. “I understand. My door is always open to you, I hope you know that.”
“Thank you. But before I come back, I think I’d better have that talk with my sister.”
David smiled. “Good. But if I don’t hear from you in a couple of days, I’m going to come find you.”
“You do that.” Charles turned to go.
“Just one more thing,” David said. “You haven’t said whether you’re coming to my premiere.”
Charles thought for a moment. “How could I not?”
Driving home, Charles found himself unconsciously whistling Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Damn, not Mozart, he thought. Ah, the hell with it, and he kept on whistling anyway.
The pain was excruciating, but he wondered how he could have lived so long without it.