This short story borrows its structure from Penderecki’s Symphony No. #3. The main character experiences (brutally) what the author imagines it would be like to live inside this piece of music.
There is a symphony in the attic and it must be stopped. Strings, bassoons, bells, all of it. They are finding the A. It has been lost now for a quarter-hour.
Outfitted in coattails and a cravat, the landlady readies herself before the conductor’s box. Below her feet, her lone tenant, a middling man in monogrammed slippers, endeavors to erect a tiny ship within a tiny bottle.
The tenant’s workbench is piled with jars of wood glue, knots of thread, and portholes of real glass. He holds his breath while inching a pair of forceps through the neck of the bottle. The needle-thin mast of the S.S. Thistlegorm lies on the starboard. He needs only to raise it to height, and it can sail with its resurrected fleet in a mahogany display case.
Upstairs, a timpanist strikes. There is a symphony in the attic!
The mast falls to the bottom of the bottle, trailing glue down the glass. The tenant steadies the bottle in its stand.
He has received no invitation to a symphony. He has received no warning. In the afternoons, when the tenant happens upon the landlady in the hall, she allows him only a nod, no pleasantries. The tenant has never been invited to view her quarters. His own room could hardly house a string quartet. He is certain: the landlady cannot fit a symphony in the attic.
But she has. The tenant can hear the glossy dress shoes clattering above his head.
The landlady is a private person. Perhaps she placed a note in his mailbox. The tenant wanders into the hall. It is silent, but the wall sconces quiver. He anticipates the fine stationery that will prove his error. He rehearses an apology for his tardiness, flaps his hands. He will have to hurry to claim his seat in the attic before the first movement begins. The mailbox is empty.
Inside his room, the windows rattle in their casements, the air vents wail. In the mahogany case, the sails quiver on the high seas.
A symphony cannot be private, the tenant concludes.
He hears the ticking of the landlady’s heels as she approaches the conductor’s box. Applause, stamping, tremors. Then, a low tone floods the floorboards of the attic.
I. Andante con noto
As the strings fold into the first movement, the tenant seizes a spatula and dips it in glue. The tenant is a shipbuilder. Shipbuilders work in weather. The strings amount to light precipitation.
Enter the horns. No concertgoer has ever been gored by such horrible horns.
The tenant puts down the spatula. Where does she find these people? This is no amateur group, but a professional outfit from the city center. And there are more of them than he first assumed, many more. The voices of each section battle one another in volume. The tenant is trapped between the walls of sound, dripping glue on his dressing gown.
The tenant is being punished. And for what? Being a widow of status, the landlady would not have leased her quarters to the tenant unless she felt he was proximate, no, equal in manners of culture and refinement. He has never missed a payment. He writes his checks in a neat hand, seals them in an envelope, and slips them under the landlady’s door. He never hands them to her in the hallway. The tenant values discretion.
One might say, “this tenant is as neat as a pin.”
One might say, “this tenant is a man of delicate hobbies.”
II. Allegro con brio
And then there comes a terrible slashing on the strings. The viols are marching. The viols are preparing to slaughter a small village. The viols will do it gladly. The tenant is a paying passenger on their pitiless voyage.
That clawing trumpet! That menacing glockenspiel!
The tenant knows music. He has often announced to ladies of fashion, “I know music. I have opinions on music.” But what is happening in the attic is not music. It is assault. Fifty musicians in choreographed perdition. Their arms, inexhaustible. The tenant’s head between each clash of the cymbals.
“You must stop at once!” the tenant shouts into the air vent.
As the strings die out, a jumble of tapping and knocking takes its place. The percussionists are holding a private conversation. They echo each other’s irregular patterns, virtuosos or idiots.
The landlady could have picked a composition with a melody, or at least a tempo. For the briefest moment, the tenant questions his taste. The moment passes.
The webs descend. The violins take on a shivering melody. The tenant loosens his grip. In the absence of brass and percussion, the tenant can return to the problem at hand. He is an aging bachelor in a dressing gown, still clutching his bedpost. It is nine o’ clock in the evening. He is very angry! His little fists worry his hem.
He puts on his robe, pads down the hall, and opens the front door. From the vantage of the street, there is no symphony in the attic. The light pools under the small, gabled roof. The curtains are drawn. All of the city has gone home for dinner. The cats crouch in the gutters. The cats flick their tails.
The tenant returns to the rowhouse. When he shuts the door of his room, the flutes blast him off his feet. The flutes beat his temples.
The tenant can see the landlady leading them in senseless melody, her hawkish profile darting in the stage lights. The contortions of her eyebrows proving to all who ever questioned: they are in the company of a maestro.
Heavy strokes of the cello. With each note of the timpani, the delicate bottle containing the S.S. Thistlegorm inches closer to the edge of the table.
The tenant picks up a shoe and hurls it, with all of his strength, at the ceiling. It lands inches from his work table. The cellos do not respond.
The tenant enters the hall. He knows what he will do. He will walk up the stairs and knock on the door himself. The usher in his waistcoat will open the door a crack. The tenant will peek inside. “My apologies,” he will say. The usher will put his index finger before his mouth. The tenant will wade past the dark figures to the conductor’s box. He will tap the landlady on the shoulder. Her baton will pause midflight, and everyone will turn to look at him.
Should the tenant put on his suit?
The tenant’s suit needs to be ironed. The tenant irons his suit. The blaring trumpets send him into a panic; he leaves creases in the fabric. His eyes are shot. He looks wild.
Attired and perfumed, he walks up the stairs and raises his fist to knock. It is quiet in the hallway. He can barely hear the music. He puts his ear to the door.
Should he wait until the end of the movement to enter?
The door will open at the end of the movement, and the tenant will appear as if he had just left an important engagement. Perhaps another symphony across town. A superior symphony in a real concert hall. He will slip into the attic between movements. That is the way to do it. Then he will remind the landlady tactfully of her error. At the sight of his face, she will understand. He will not need to speak. He can disappear into the shadows, and repair his shattered evening with the model.
When he can no longer hear the horns, the tenant knocks. The door does not open. He tries the handle. It is fixed, as if someone were clutching it from the other side.
The tenant considers. Should he stand, knocking, forever? Should he wait at the door until the symphony is released?
The tenant returns to his room just as the final movement begins.
V. Scherzo (Vivace)
Kettle drums take out the woodwinds. Tubular bells come unstrung from their stand and rain down on the floorboards. The symphony is unleashed! Each section is climbing its way to the big finish.
Upstairs, the audience watches the face of Krzysztof Penderecki. He sits in the front row of the audience, his beard holding up his mouth. His hands cover his face. One eye looks forward. One shoe sticks out. Penderecki is afraid of the symphony he made.
Below him, the tenant curls around his bedpost. The crystals rattle in the chandelier. The cobwebs come down.
The S. S. Thistlegorm tips off the workbench. The bottle cracks. Its insides spill out on the rug.
The Sixth Movement
The tenant kneels before his ship. The captain fails his crew. He chokes into his collar.
A piece of plaster hits his knees. A shower of white dust covers his shoulders. When the tenant looks up, the ceiling has already bowed.
First, he sees the fine black shoes. Then the trouser legs. The sharp end-pins of the cellos and double-basses. The xylophone halves his dresser. The piano takes out the workbench. A clarinet bites reed-first into his leg.
And then the gong falls. A big, brass gong sails down from the ceiling and crowns the tenant’s head. That is how he ends.
The landlady lies across the mahogany case. Around her is the remains of an entire fleet: S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, R.M.S Lusitania, S.S. Andrea Doria.
The airborne musicians pile up in a groaning heap. Their suits are white with plaster. They cough in the dust. It takes a long time to untangle their arms and legs and violin-strings.
In the corner, two monogrammed slippers stick out from under the gong. The musicians avert their eyes. The musicians are private people. They leave one by one, and disperse in the street.
Upstairs in the attic, there is one square foot of floorboard intact and inside it is the seat of Penderecki. He has not removed his hands from his face. When the rowhouse is quiet, he climbs down the stairs and into the ruined hall.
Outside, the street is clean and cold. The cats watch the man dart down the street, forgetting him instantly.
Music can hold enormous power in memories and experiences, transporting us instantly to an age, location, or person. What sonic joys, mysteries, disbelief, and clarity have you experienced? Identify songs of influence in your life and explore them like variations on a theme, melding syntax and song structure, recalling the seriousness or levity that accompanies. Whether it’s an account of when a specific song first entered your life, the process of learning to play a song, teaching someone a song, experiencing the same song in different places as it weaves through your life, unbelievable radio timing, sharing songs with those in need, tracking the passing down of songs, creative song analysis, music as politics, etc, I am interested in those ineffable moments and welcoming submissions of your own variations on a theme, as drawn from your life’s soundtrack. Please email submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep an eye out for others’ Variations.
**(“song” is a broad phrase: could be a pop song, a traditional tune, a symphony, commercial jingles, a hummed lullaby, 2nd grade recorder class horror stories, etc)**
Sara Kachelman’s stories have been published in Chicago Review, Columbia Review, Diagram, and other literary journals. She is an MFA Writing student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she is workshopping her first novel. Contact her at sarakachelman.com.