Larry felt like a four-year-old trying to read a book. He knew the symbols had been carefully inscribed on the page by a great practitioner, but they might have been sneezed in ink for all he could tell.
He had begun to regret joining his adult music class. Even if he could figure out what the notes meant, how could anybody ever expect to work a contraption like this clarinet? Larry was a hard-headed appliance manager for Shopmart. If a supplier had asked him to stock a product, say a vacuum cleaner, with all those tiny valves and holes, he’d have told him to come back when he understood the meaning of a user-friendly interface.
But he’d joined the music class precisely because the instrument looked so impossible, and because the hard wood and soft metal sheen spoke of something more permanent than the latest 72-inch high definition plasma color TV screen. His father had played that clarinet. Along with some black-and-white family snapshots it was the oldest thing Larry owned.
Larry had another reason for his recent interest in music. Miss Snoith, account executive for TechnoDisplay had been working her company’s booth at a recent trade show in Toronto, half a continent away. Their eyes had met over Power-Pitch 21-inch Tilt-Screen Point of Sale System and there was more in her look than the usual calculating appraisal of his purchasing power.
Somehow Larry, in his attempt to seem more than just another polyester-suited middle-level manager, had mentioned that he played clarinet in a small quartet of serious scholars interested in early music. In fact he’d even composed a few pieces for the group. The ruse had worked. Miss Snoith had accompanied Larry to his room where they practised duets all night long. But he was going to be in a lot of trouble if he didn’t deliver a bravura performance at the next trade show upon a much more complicated instrument. That was three months away.
Right now Larry was having trouble playing the first few notes of an unfinished gavotte, by Spaghetti, an obscure 17th Century Italian composer. He cast his eyes heavenward in an appeal familiar to scoundrels everywhere: what if they find out?
Fortunately the ghost of Spaghetti was listening. In fact he was sitting just across the kitchen table from Larry as he had with countless clarinet players over the past 300 years thanks to a curse by the maestro di cappella. The maestro had commissioned the piece to impress a visiting bishop and had been infuriated when Spaghetti abandoned his career to work for his patron, a baker who required help with his latest creation, a pie-shaped loaf, baked with cheese. The curse of the maestro di cappella, also known as the pizza curse, was to listen to clarinet students mangle his gavotte through the ages until he found one who could not only play it, but finish it.
Larry was trying again and not doing very well. He needs a softer reed, thought Spaghetti.
Larry stopped playing as if he had heard something. He held the clarinet in front of him and inspected the reed. He took it off and turned it over, remembering that the grade of reed was stamped on the inner surface. It was a Van Doren Number 3. Hell, thought Spaghetti, that’s what the pros use. He should start with a 1 1/2, and probably a Rico; they’re softer. Larry rummaged in his clarinet case and pulled out another. He stuck it in his mouth like a sucker for a few minutes the way his instructor taught him. Then he assembled the reed, ligature and mouthpiece and tried a note. Better. Now for the music.
Very slowly, Larry began to work out the sounds. He found he was able to play each note correctly if he took his time but he had no idea what the piece was supposed to sound like. “It sounds like this,” thought Spaghetti, humming the opening bars.
Suddenly Larry seemed to know what to do. Slowly, but keeping Spaghetti’s cadence, he began to play. The composer’s jaw dropped. This guy was getting it! He leaned forward and began to conduct. “Don’t worry about the sixteenth notes, just play the quarters!” he shouted. Larry responded with a series of honks and squeaks that was certainly enthusiastic if not recognizably gavotte-like. Suddenly the marks on the page were making sense. He was even beginning to follow the dynamics, the little instructions in Italian below the staff.
Spaghetti was having a wonderful time. He’d lived vicariously through other clarinet players but this guy actually had talent. Spaghetti played through Larry all night, running through rhondos, minuets, bourees and passapieds.
Larry was thrilled and exhausted. “I can play!” he thought. “This is better than sex!” Wrong on both counts, sighed Spaghetti with the longing of four centuries of abstinence.
They practiced every day. Larry became enchanted with early music, spending hours on the Internet looking for obscure scores and visiting the manuscript section of music stores. Clerks avoided him as he hummed through music, and chatted as if to an educated colleague.
Larry was channeling Spaghetti. At work he switched his regulation Shopmart tie for a silk scarf and carried a lace handkerchief in his hand. He began growing his hair and a pencil mustache, waxing the ends to a curl. He swooped and pirouetted among the high resolution video display units in the appliance aisle, humming counter melodies to the new baroque music he’d installed on the Muzak player.
Larry thought the trade show would never arrive but soon he was on the plane to Toronto, clarinet carefully stored in the overhead compartment, sheet music in his briefcase. His mustache had assumed a concentric spiral and his embroidered vest was fastened by a jewelled brooch that rested elegantly over his lacy scarf. At the convention center Larry studied the map of exhibitors and raced to the TechnoDisplay booth, near the bathtub fixtures. At last, there she was, the lovely Ms Snoith, extolling the virtues of digital in-store signage, particularly the Swivel-headed Belch-Message Point of Sale Mark II, successor to the very model she had been selling when their eyes first met.
“Oh Larry!” she smiled, and his heart fluttered. “I’ve got the most wonderful thing to show you. It’s our new Quantum Hypothesizer. It actually used quantum theory to calculate consumer variations for every situation imaginable in a nanosecond and electronically coach the store clerk with the ideal sales pitch for every situation. It’s right on the cutting edge! In fact the man who invented it used to work for Shopmart. Let me introduce you.”
It was Scruggs, that nerdy retail clerk he’d fired last year for selling pirated games along with the store’s DVDs. But Scruggs had changed. He affected a far-away look behind his thick glasses and had grown a huge, bushy mustache. His hair was a cumulous cloud of unruly curls above a tall, furrowed brow. His faded green sweater sported elbow patches and holes from cigarette burns. Larry knew Scruggs was no physicist, but he sure looked the part.
And after Scruggs showed him the new Hypothesizer, Larry knew what was going on. Scruggs had sold himself to Ms Snoith with the same technique Larry used, only with a different trade. Larry could play a gavotte like a master but he couldn’t do math like Einstein.
Ms Snoith gazed at Scruggs fondly. “Maybe after the show’s over we can talk more about relativity.”
Somebody Somewhere is a freelance writer and frustrated musician in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
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