It even felt like a Thursday. Days of the week, mused Jacobus, are like keys in music, each possessing a distinct personality. Thursday. Thursday, he considered, that would be B-flat major. Not brilliant like A major, not friendly like G major, not even the nestled warmth of F major. Certainly not morbid, like G minor, the key of the Devil’s Trill Sonata, Danse Macabre, and the slow movement of Death and the Maiden. What day would G minor be? Not Thursday. Thursday didn’t feel like death, at least not any more than usual. Jacobus didn’t know it for a fact, but he would have bet the Spanish Inquisition did not start on a Thursday. Thursday. Just … B-flat. It didn’t matter whether the summer heat was melting the tar on Route 41 or you were freezing your ass off going outside for firewood on a frigid February night, you can always tell when it’s a Thursday. Today’s steamy, mildew-inducing drizzle had been no exception. At least until the phone call.
The summer morning had started out the same as the others for the past week. Jacobus, sweat dripping down his back, twiddled the pawn between his thumb and fingers. It was the one piece on the board that hadn’t started to gather dust, because every day since Nathaniel had left for Europe, Jacobus had been twiddling that insignificant chunk of wood as if that action alone might somehow divulge how it was he had managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
To be brought down by a lowly pawn! Once again Jacobus felt its pedestrian curves and grooves, no different from any other pawn. To have allowed Nathaniel to queen a pawn, exposing his own king, rendering it helpless and defenseless! In a breathtaking turn of events he had resigned in ignominy. Yeah, he thought, I could have taken the pawn with my queen, but then she would have been captured by his knight, and the game would be over in three more moves. Four at the most. It wasn’t that Jacobus minded losing—actually, he did mind, terribly—it was the humiliation of so precipitous a demise that Nathaniel had even refrained from gloating—at least verbally, but who knew if he was silently smirking?—no easy task for someone who had oft been the object of Jacobus’s unrestrained victory celebrations.
Jacobus refused to use his blindness as an excuse for not “seeing” the impending disaster. Though they used black and white pieces for Nathaniel’s benefit, they used pieces from separate sets of different size so that Jacobus could always tell which were his when feeling the board. They never bothered with the chess player’s rarefied vocabulary, “black Q4 to white K5,” or whatever terminology it was they used. Rather, Nathaniel would say, “Just moved my bishop three spaces toward the kitchen,” which was a lot easier for Jacobus to remember. Nevertheless, Nathaniel’s minuscule white pawn had leveled his oversized black king. An ironic twist here, thought Jacobus, considering their respective skin colors and sizes.
Jacobus mentally reenacted each move, trying to ascertain what he could have done differently. Every one had seemed so well reasoned, so well calculated, taking into account his overall strategy amid the local skirmishes, the majority of which he had won. Yet somehow, unbelievably, Nathaniel had managed to navigate his pawn all the way through to his end of the board. Though consumed with self-loathing for his failure, Jacobus mused upon the miraculous metamorphosis of the pawn: A dispensable, almost worthless foot soldier, finding itself in the right spot at the right time, becomes, by some mysterious alchemy, a queen, the ultimate power broker. It made no sense. What anonymous medieval chess master had come up with that rule? It was stupid, Jacobus concluded, because it simply never happens in reality. GIs don’t become Jackie Kennedy, and she wasn’t even a real queen. It was the only rule in chess he could think of, in fact, that didn’t have its reflection in the real world.
The brittle ring of Jacobus’s ancient black rotary phone shocked him out of his petulant reflections. He hadn’t gotten a call in days, and that last one was a wrong number asking for the Williamsville Inn. When Nathaniel left for Europe, Jacobus pulled the plug on the answering machine that his friend had imposed upon him. He had told Nathaniel that an answering machine was worthless because even if he received any messages he wouldn’t answer them, but just to humor him he let Nathaniel install it. Now it was uninstalled.
Jacobus reached for the phone. “Yeah?” he said, annoyed at being disturbed in the middle of self-flagellation.
“There’s no Dr. Jacobus here,” he said and hung up.
Bored with flogging himself over the pawn-cum-queen, with his right foot he located his cane on the floor beside his chair, retrieved it, and poked his way into the kitchen. The path was so familiar from the pattern of grudging creaks in the worn pine floorboards that he could easily have navigated with his ears alone. Jacobus needed the cane, however, for other purposes.
Sitting on the kitchen counter next to his empty mug, the twenty-four-ounce one with the Caffiends logo that Yumi had given him, was a single-burner electric hot plate. He turned the dial, listening for the click to know it was on, until he could feel the little pointer positioned at two o’clock. If he turned it to three o’clock it would boil the water faster, but it would short out his antediluvian fuse in the basement, and that was a pain in the ass to replace. Next he turned on the faucet and filled the mug, sticking his finger in it to know when the water had reached the top. Then he poured the water into a teakettle that he had owned longer than he could remember, and set it on the hot plate. He opened the cupboard above the counter, and using the point of his cane, felt for the two-pound can of Folger’s instant coffee among the other cans, all of which he could identify by their shape and/or size. He would have preferred to keep the cans on the counter so he wouldn’t have to reach for them, but they attracted mice, even with their lids on. The mice scared his gargantuan bulldog, Trotsky, which Jacobus couldn’t care less about, but he did care that they would shit all over his kitchen. He used to keep peanut butter–baited traps on the floor, but the dog had found the treat irresistible, and with a brain capacity inversely proportional to his stomach’s, was unable to make the cause-and-effect connection between licking the peanut butter and the intense pain on his tongue that inevitably followed immediately thereafter. So now Jacobus kept the cans in the cupboards.
He maneuvered the can with his cane, and when it was an inch over the edge of the shelf, deftly flicked it off and caught it in his left hand. He did the same exercise with a plastic jar of sugar. By the time he had emptied three teaspoons of coffee and one of sugar in his mug with the spoon he kept in the can, the water was boiling, which he could tell from the foghornlike moan the kettle gave off. He touched the spout of the kettle to the lip of the mug so it wouldn’t spill, and poured.
While the coffee cooled enough so he wouldn’t burn his tongue off, he yanked open the recalcitrant door of the refrigerator—perhaps the last of its species, which needed defrosting, though he never bothered—and inhaled deeply. The sound of the door opening was followed by the predictable clattering of Trotsky’s claws as he skidded around the corner into the kitchen.
Slim pickings. Jacobus fondled a half-empty bag of Lit’l Smokies smoked sausages and put that back. He felt an onion whose soft spot had grown alarmingly since yesterday, and backed away from an open can of sardines. He took one sniff of a prehistoric chunk of liverwurst and with heavy ambivalence let it drop from his hand, assured that before it hit the ground Trotsky would catch it in his gaping maw, swallow it, and beg for more. All that remained were condiments of an undefined nature and an open bottle of Rolling Rock. Unbidden came Jacobus’s recollection of the few days he had spent at the home of Yumi’s grandmother, Cato Hashimoto, aka Kate Padgett, in her mountain home in Japan, and of the profusion of delicacies that had been assembled before him, one after another, for his alimentary consideration.
Jacobus brusquely banished that thought from his mind, and, supplanting it with serious consideration of the Rolling Rock, calculated whether it was the appropriate time of day for a beer.
The phone rang again. He pulled his handkerchief out of his back pocket and wiped the sweat off his head. After the fifteenth ring he decided that his sanity was worth more than his privacy.
“This is Sherry O’Brien.”
“I’m the acting concertmaster of Harmonium.”
“As opposed to the juggling concertmaster?”
“I was wondering if I could come play for you.”
“I’m auditioning for the permanent concertmaster position in a few days, and you’ve come highly recommended. The orchestra’s here at Tanglewood for the week and since you’re nearby I thought, well, I thought I’d give you a try. I’m happy to pay whatever your fee is.”
Jacobus considered his schedule. In the afternoon, his former student and surrogate daughter, Yumi Shinagawa, was going to play for him in preparation for the same audition. When was the last time he had seen Yumi? He couldn’t remember. Almost a year? Tomorrow he had nothing. The day after that he had nothing. The day after that … Actually, his calendar was clear for the rest of his life, however long or short that would last.
“I’m very busy,” he said.
“I’m sure you are,” she pursued, “but I was really hoping…”
He didn’t hang up but let the silence linger.
“Maybe tomorrow afternoon?” she continued, picking up her own thread.
“When?” he asked.
“Today and tomorrow we have morning rehearsals at ten. Would one o’clock be okay?”
“You know how to get here?”
“I’ve got GPS.”
“Then maybe you should have that treated first.”
“And your fee?”
Jacobus hung up.
From what O’Brien said, Jacobus figured it must now be about 9:30 A.M. He removed the Rolling Rock from the fridge, chugged it, and took his coffee to the rusty iron lawn chair that had once been painted green that sat in front of his house, wondering along the way why the acting concertmaster of the world’s most famous orchestra would ask for a lesson from a total stranger three days before an audition. And why Thursday suddenly felt like G minor.
Copyright © 2012 by Gerald Elias