About a kid scared of his own norm.
The boy was named J.S. In full, it was Johannes Sebastian- like Bach-, but no one was allowed to call him that. Then again, they couldn’t call him J.S., either. It was simply ‘Jess’, now, something that a classmate had coined, no doubt. Our kids liked to do that- to point out the literal sound of irregular words and acronyms. ‘Pneumonia’ was pronounced with the ‘p’, and innocent abbreviations like ‘A.K.A.’ pronounced ‘Acka’. Nevertheless, it suited the boy just fine. Right in between.
He was the new kid again, entering our elementary school at the start of grade six. But, unlike most wiry, shifty-eyed new students, Jess melded seamlessly. We saw him sitting in homeroom on a chair near the front, his torso turned, looking each of us over with polite interest. We were shocked by his placidity, so that we looked for things like trembling knees and fingers, and fearful, wide eyes. Instead, his eyes glided across the new scenery with the air of an old professor, and he’d smile quaintly at anyone who caught his glance. He’d recline in his stackable chair with the relaxed limbs of surety, like he knew it all. That, all of it, impressed us.
So, within a day, he was already one of us. He was a good sport- gentle in his demeanour. He could sit around in a circle, his chair back facing the boys, and laugh heartily at their jokes. He would play any position in basketball when called upon, and never complain, even when he was to play defence. He’d even take turns with them, jumping off the high cement block now and then- which, to them, was taboo-, but it seemed to the boys that whatever he did, he was never truly a part of it. We saw it in the way he’d often sit with his knees around him, or when his dark eyebrows would furrow ever so slightly, and his eyes would somehow darken like the night time.
Music class was only three days a week. It had been two weeks of school, and not once did Jess show. He’d slip out of the building unnoticed, in the beginning. Excuses ranged from doctors’ appointments to funerals. It was always something. We’d think of his serene, freckly face, and the gentle soul that he was. But then, with the disturbing prospect of his disappearance, we couldn’t help but wonder.
It soon became a topic of discussion among our students. Most kids felt concerned about the boy. Mean kids invented reasons that the boy should not show for class. Steve Emerson was the king in this department.
“I’m a superhero fighting crime.” Or else: “I’ve got a chronic case of the runs.”
* * *
“Jess, man, you didn’t show again!” panted Richie, eyebrows high in his face. “Where do you go? Oh, let me guess; you were having tea with the queen.” He chuckled boyishly.
“Good one. No, it’s a long story.” He scratched his head like he did when people asked him these uncomfortable questions.
“I got time.” He looked at Jess earnestly. Jess stared into space with the dead-end look in his eyes. He thought of valve oil lined against the wall, and stacks of sheet music. It was all too familiar and fresh. It made him cringe.
“Didn’t want to let the cat out of the bag, but I got this eardrum condition where high pitch makes my ears ache. So I can’t listen to live music anymore.”
Richie snorted. “That’s the biggest bull I’ve heard in a decade.” Then he looked at him more seriously. “You oughta come. You’re missing out, too; Dan’s got a new violin. Plays like a dream.”
Then, Jess thought of Dan, the supposedly great violinist. He knew in that instant that he’d never come to music class.
* * *
It was a tiny man, the father of Jess (or J.S. at this stage of his childhood), conducting the orchestra. The boy would sit in the back room, his short legs dangling over the seat, watching his father with adoration playing in his eyes, and hearing the sounds, not yet knowing what it all meant. What he did know was that it spooked him, and he liked it.
In truth, it was a little spooky to a four-year-old. He’d watch the crazy, possessed man that was his father, enchanting the terrible hurricane, in the minor key, huge and thundery like a stormy evening. As the smooth crescendo swelled, the little man would twist and reel on the spot like a bead of water on the stove. Then suddenly, the tension would release, and the room would gently deflate.
Yes, the low hum of a bassoon was beautiful, and yes, the brass section was uplifting, but there was nothing quite like the sound of a violin- the mysterious, weeping, disturbing violin. Played high and piercing, it was an otherworldly cry; played low and deep, it was a velvety purr, savoury like wine, and fragrant like dried lavender. That sound- of pain and beauty- it followed him.
It was always there, playing in his mind. Ominous and powerful, it began to poison him. It wasn’t the soundtrack; it was the heartbeat of his life.
* * *
The kids were at it again, humouring each other about Jess. They stopped short, however, when Richie said something.
“Remember Freddie Styles, that conductor for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra? That was Jess’ dad. Had a seizure, right in front of the orchestra. The kid was in the audience. He was dead when the ambulance arrived.”