Authors: Patricia MacLachlan
Once I told a class of Natalie Babbitt's that she had inspired and encouraged me as a writer, as a friend. “Why, then,” said Natalie crisply (joking, of course), “haven't you ever dedicated a book to me?” Well, this is it, with deep affection
To Nat from Pat
Special thanks to three peopleâ
To Sally Bagg for years of earnest and enthusiastic talk of music and its drama;
To Jane Carnes for a quiet place to write and the nurturing that came with it;
To Jason Melanson for the young unfettered wisdom that many of us have forgotten.
We all know that art is not truth.
Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth
elinda Pratt rides city bus number twelve to her cello lesson, wearing her mother's jean jacket and only one sock. Hallo, world, says Minna. Minna often addresses the world, sometimes silently, sometimes out loud. Bus number twelve is her favorite place for watching, inside and out. The bus passes cars and bicycles and people walking dogs. It passes store windows, and every so often Minna sees her face reflection, two dark eyes in a face as pale as a winter dawn. There are fourteen people on the bus today. Minna stands up to count them. She likes to count people, telephone poles, hats, umbrellas, and, lately, earrings. One girl, sitting directly in front of Minna, has seven earrings, five in one ear. She has wisps of dyed green hair that lie like forsythia buds against her neck.
There are, Minna knows, a king, a past president of the United States, and a beauty queen on the bus. Minna can tell by looking. The king yawns and scratches his ear with his little finger. Scratches, not picks. The beauty queen sleeps, her mouth open, her hair the color of tomatoes not yet ripe. The past president of the United States reads
Body Builder's Annual
Next to Minna, leaning against the seat, is her cello in its zippered canvas case. Next to her cello is her younger brother, McGrew, who is humming. McGrew always hums. Sometimes he hums sentences, though most often it comes out like singing. McGrew's teachers do not enjoy McGrew answering questions in hums or song. Neither does the school principal, Mr. Ripley. McGrew spends lots of time sitting on the bench outside Mr. Ripley's office, humming.
Today McGrew is humming the newspaper. First the headlines, then the sports section, then the comics. McGrew only laughs at the headlines.
Minna smiles at her brother. He is small and stocky and compact like a suitcase. Minna loves him. McGrew always tells the truth, even when he shouldn't. He is kind. And he lends Minna money from the coffee jar he keeps beneath his mattress.
Minna looks out the bus window and thinks about her life. Her one life. She likes artichokes and blue fingernail polish and Mozart played too fast. She loves baseball, and the month of March because no one else much likes March, and every shade of brown she has ever seen. But this is only one life. Someday, she knows, she will have another life. A different one. A better one. McGrew knows this, too. McGrew is ten years old. He knows nearly everything. He knows, for instance, that his older sister, Minna Pratt, age eleven, is sitting patiently next to her cello waiting to be a woman.
“Unclothed Woman Flees from Standard Poodle,” sang McGrew, reading the headlines. “Boa Constrictor Lives in Nun's Sewing Basket. Sit down, Minna Pratt,” he sang on.
“Hush up, McGrew,” said Minna. “A mysterious woman just got on the bus. Number fifteen.”
“Mysterious how?” sang McGrew, ending on a high note just above his range.
“A fur cape, gray braids, one earring,” said Minna. “That makes seventeen earrings total on this bus.”
“Emily Parmalee just got her ears pierced,” said McGrew in his speaking voice. “She's meeting us at the bus stop.”
Minna snorted, but not unkindly. Emily Parmalee was the catcher on McGrew's baseball team. She was, like McGrew, small and squat, with an odd sense of humor. Often she caused Minna to laugh so hard that she had to lie down on sidewalks or crouch in soda shops. Minna smiled, thinking enviously of Emily Parmalee, rushing toward womanhood faster than Minna, her ears already past puberty.
The bus jolted to a stop and Minna leaned her head against the window and thought about her lesson. Minna never practiced, except for the short times when everyone was out of the house. When no one was there, she could play bad notes without anyone calling out or McGrew humming them in tune as a guide. Minna never needed to practice, really. She could, in the presence of her cello teacher, Mr. Porch, summon up the most glorious notes; pure, in fact, surprising even Minna. She played beautifully for Mr. Porch, mostly because she wanted to make him smile, as somber as he sometimes was. Also, she felt sorry about his name. Porch. Verandah might have been better. Or even Stoop. Porch was a dismal name. For a sometimes dismal man. McGrew called him Old Back.
Someone pulled the bell cord and it was their stop. McGrew folded his newspaper under his arm, reaching over to the seat across the aisle to snatch
, forbidden at home even though it had the best headlines. Minna propped her cello on her hip and pushed through the crowd.
“Pardon. I'm sorry. Excuse.”
The beauty queen woke up, closing her mouth and gathering packages. The past president of the United States put
Body Builder's Annual
carefully between the pages of his
. The king scratched on.
Emily Parmalee was at the bus stop with the shirt of her long underwear worn on the outside and brand-new holes in her ears.
They always greeted each other as if they had been lost on the prairie, smiles and exclamation points. A matched pair of luggage, thought Minna.
“Hallo, Emily,” said Minna. “I like your ears.”
Emily Parmalee grinned.
“I'll have feathers within the month,” she said matter-of-factly.
Minna pulled her cello up the steps to the conservatory. The sky was gray, with low clouds, like in an old painting.
“I'll be forty-five minutes today, an hour at the most,” Minna called.
“That's all Old Back can take,” said McGrew, sitting down and taking a very black banana out of his jacket pocket.
On this dismal day Minna Pratt, cellist, climbs the steps to her dismal lesson with her sometimes dismal teacher, Porch. Outside sits McGrew with a dismal banana. And Emily Parmalee, who does not yet have feathers. Dismal is all Minna can think of. A dismal life. But she is wrong. Old Back Porch has a surprise for her. The surprise is not Mozart. The surprise is not dismal. It is Lucas, tall and homely and slim with corn-colored hair. With blue eyes, one that looks off a bit to the side. And with a wonderful vibrato.
inna paused before the great wooden door of the conservatory and looked up for good luck to where the gargoyles rested, gray and ominous and familiar. Then she pushed open the door and began the walk up the three flights of stairs. There was an elevator, but it was self-service, and Minna had nightmares of being stuck there between floors with no one to talk with, nothing to count. Alone with her cello. Minna, of course, would not practice.
After three days and two nights of being stranded in an elevator, Minna Booth Pratt has emerged, blinking and looking rested
Blinking and looking rested
A record, ladies and gentlemen! Seventy-two hours in an elevator without practicing!
Applause, applause, cheering
Sighing, Minna paused at the first-floor landing to look out the window. Below were McGrew and Emily Parmalee, slumped over like half-filled travel bags, singing. Minna pulled her jacket around her, the chill of the old building numbing her fingers. Far off she heard an oboe playing Ravel, a sound as sad and gray as the building. She walked up the last flight of stairs, slowly, slowly, thinking of yesterday's lesson. It was BartÃ³k, bowing hand for BartÃ³k staccato; swift, short bows, Porch's hand on her elbow, forcing her wrist to do the work. When she got it right, he would smile his BartÃ³k smile: there quickly, then gone. It would be early Haydn today. High third finger, she reminded herself, digging her thumbnail into the finger, forcing it to remember. After Haydn it would be the Mozart.
The Mozart. K. 157
. The number was etched on her mind, and Minna stopped suddenly, her breath caught in her throat. The Mozart with the terrible andante she couldn't play. The andante her fingers didn't know,
know. And then the wild presto that left her trembling.
Minna shook her head and walked on. Today was chamber group, three of them, with Porch, the fourth, playing the viola part. Called chamber group by all but Porch, who referred to it as “mass assembled sound.”
Minna would be late. She was always the last one to arrive, no matter what early bus she took. Everyone would be there, Imelda and Porch; Orson Babbitt with his tight black curls and sly smile. Minna pushed the door open with one finger and they were tuning, Porch scuttling sideways like a crab between music stands with an armful of music. Imelda stopped playing and laid her violin on her lap, one foot crossed primly over the other, her black braids slick as snakes.
“It's three thirty-five,” she announced, glancing at the clock. “And you've got only one sock.”
“That's in case you care,” said Orson, making Minna grin.
Imelda was touched with perfect pitch as well as other annoyances. She pronounced varied facts even when not asked. She could recite the kings of England in order, backward and forward, the dates of major gang wars, important comets, what mixtures produced the color mauve. Imelda: fact gatherer, data harvester, bundler of useless news.
“It's WA today, Minna,” called Orson from across the room, Orson's name for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Orson played second violin with a sloppy serenity, rolling his eyes and sticking out his tongue, his bowing long and sweeping and beautiful even when out of tune. “If you must make a mistake,” he had quoted, “make it a big one.” Was it Heifetz who had said it? Perlman? Zukerman maybe?
“Tune, tune,” said Porch briskly. He turned to Orson. “And is there a word for today?” Orson was the word person, spilling words out as if they were notes on a staff.
“Rebarbative,” said Orson promptly. “Causing annoyance or irritation. Mozart's rebarbative music causes me to want to throw up.”
Porch sighed. Orson preferred Schubert.
Suddenly Porch brightened, looking over Minna's head.
“Ah, good. I'd nearly forgotten. There is an addition to our group. A newcomer.”
Everyone looked up. Minna turned.
“This is Lucas Ellerby,” announced Porch, beckoning him in. “Lucas will play viola with us from now on.”
The boy paused at the doorway. His hair fell over his forehead.
“Imelda and Orson,” introduced Porch. “Minna Pratt, too.”