The boy with the violin case came around the corner. On time, as always. Head bowed, feet dragging on the sidewalk, the case drooping by his side, as always. He approached A__’s gang, scattered on the sidewalk, oblivious to their presence.
Till A__ spoke.
The boy looked up, alarm running through his body quickly and efficiently, flushing his cheeks and warming his ears, bringing him to attention. He had dreaded this confrontation, accepting its inevitability, and yet was no less stricken by fear when it finally arrived.
“What’s in that case?”
“Yeah? What’s it for?”
“I play music on it’.
“Yeah. Well, play it for us, maestro. Let’s see what you got.”
It wasn’t an invitation to play; it was a message indicating the penalties for refusing to play. An elementary inference.
The boy picked up the violin. Lessons for the day had ended a while ago; his performances hadn’t. And his taskmaster in the chambers he had left behind was, despite his gruffness, brusqueness and peremptory commands, an infinitely less demanding audience than this one.
He began to play, drawing the bow across the violin’s strings. He always wrapped himself around the strange new beast–violin plus bow–that emerged when horsehairs made contact with catgut, but today, he held on to its familiar shape just a little tighter. As if it could protect him from the beating that lay close by in his future.
He picked the longest composition he knew, the Spring Sonata that would go on and on for twenty-two minutes. He’d enjoy them while it lasted.
The notes rang out clearly and sharply; they moved down the street and around it; they floated up around the gang’s ears.
They reached A__ too. He had heard violins before. He had heard their sound. Sometimes his uncle, his mother’s brother, who lived crosstown and visited for dinner when his father didn’t mind, played the violin as accompaniment to a meal he had finished quicker than the others.
The sound was familiar but still novel. At home, his uncle often played over the sounds of dinner: plates and spoons clanking, babies crying, men shouting, women chattering. At home, the violin was background music, just one more component of an inchoate sound that filled their home in the evenings. It was never allowed to stand out, always relegated to a humble plebeian standing.
This was different.
A__’s gang stood on the street corner, not moving. The maestro stood next to them, playing, not daring to look up. Eye contact might break the spell, might dispel the mood. It was not a chance he was willing to take.
A__ was motionless. He wanted the music to stop. He wanted to get on with the rest of the act: the smashing of the violin on the sidewalk, the flinging of the bow across the street, the punch in the face and the kick in the pants that would propel that little whiner home.
He remained motionless.
The sonata ran out. The boy added a flourish or two and then stopped. The bow came off the strings; the violin dropped to his side.
A__’s boys stared at him, awaiting directives for their deployment.
A__ finally spoke.