She met him when he came out of his room. He was due to make dinner, so they didn’t have to wait long. Ever since he’d confided in her, he’d been hiding from her. Usually in the bedroom, but she’d caught him coming down from the roof once. He pretended he was deeply engrossed in various random books from around the house — he found one with directions for paper toys and folded everything in it. (Erik was fond of the jointed lizard. Maggie stole the book when Mordecai was done with it and learned how to make water bombs.) But he got dressed and he stayed out of bed and he always put in an appearance for dinner.
“Oh my gods, a violin,” said Mordecai. Not, Oh-my-gods! A violin!! but low and flat and miserable.
Hyacinth bore it smiling. She had the case open in her arms so he couldn’t deny it.
The children were disparate. Erik was grave, because this was unexpected. Maggie was grinning, because this was unexpected.
“Why?” said Mordecai.
“I want coins,” said Hyacinth. “I had to mug this poor broke kid with no sweater to get change for the bus yesterday. You’re the guy who’s in charge of coins. It isn’t like you can’t play.”
“I don’t know that I can!” said Mordecai. “I haven’t had one of these since…” He glanced at the boy. “…years.” Almost exactly seven years.
“Oh, it’s practically the same thing, anyway,” said Hyacinth. “Go on and take it.”
“I won’t,” he said.
“If I touch it, you won’t return it.”
“I’m not going to do that already,” she replied. She wasn’t going back to that bookshop. She would rather light Mordecai’s violin on fire. She would rather light herself on fire.
He made a wretched sound like a badly-tuned string. With one reluctant hand, he lifted the instrument out of the case. “Ugh.” He hefted the weight of it and spun it around to look at the back. “She is cheap,” he said.
“Julia wasn’t expensive,” said Hyacinth.
“Julia was a perfectly serviceable instrument whom some idiot dropped down a flight of stairs. All she required was a new back. This creature,” he flipped her back to the front and peered into the f-hole, attempting to divine a label, “is of cheap construction, from bottom to top. I don’t even think this is wood.” He throttled the object by the neck and declaimed, “You have given me a bakelite violin!”
“Is that even possible?” said Hyacinth. She had thought about maybe pasteboard, and she’d made sure it wasn’t, but bakelite? Fakey-sciency-woodlike-substance? That would be neat!
“It should not be attempted!” said Mordecai.
Hyacinth snapped the case shut like a trap and latched it. “Why don’t you just try it, Mordecai?”
Frowning, he lifted the thing in one arm and touched his long fingers against the strings. He absolutely refused to put it under his chin like he was going to play. “I have to remember it,” he muttered.
Hyacinth gestured indulgently. “By all means.”
He snatched it down and held it away. “Not with you looking.”
“Is there some reason you need to be naked to remember it?” said Hyacinth, sweetly.
Magnificent cackled and clapped both hands over her mouth. “‘Scuse me,” she said, and took a few paces away. Skinny Uncle Mordecai — not in a three-piece suit, or even a bit of one — playing the violin. He’d look like a spicy chicken wing.
“You have done this solely to torment me,” Mordecai said.
“Uncle?” said Erik. “Do you really hate it?”
“Um,” said Mordecai. He shut his mouth.
Hyacinth swept forward, took the child by both shoulders and answered for him, “He just doesn’t know if he likes it yet, Erik. He doesn’t want to like it.”
“Because it’s complicating his life.”
Mordecai snorted. Now he took a few paces away. But he couldn’t say ‘no.’ This entire goddamned situation was complicating his life. The fact that he had to exist in the same house with a person to whom he had recently confessed that sometimes he thought about killing himself and she was treating him somewhat differently because of it.
She was treating him way differently! She ran out and bought him a violin!
“Did you give it to him to be mean?” said Erik.
“No,” said Hyacinth. “I gave it to him so he’d take it and get out of the house like a normal person. But I’m teasing him because that’s easier for both of us.”
Mordecai stepped forward and pulled her back. “That is quite enough, Hyacinth. You are too honest by half. Some things don’t want saying.” She was treading dangerously near to saying something about being worried about him, and then Erik would ask why she was worried, and someone might tell him. Hyacinth might tell him! Because Mordecai had chosen a mouthy unhinged person to assist him with his own mental health issues.
Oh, my gods. Talk about the blind leading the blind. How much of that weird personality is because she’s literally got a hole in her head?
“He did ask,” said Hyacinth.
“And you answered,” said Mordecai. He made a mouth with one hand and flapped it. “And then you kept talking.”
Hyacinth pouted. She folded her arms across her chest. “Well? I wouldn’t be talking if you were playing the violin, now, would I? I would be listening, raptly, like this.” She clasped her hands before her and made an exalted expression.
“Give me the bow,” he said.
“You’ve closed the case, you stupid woman! I can’t play it without the bow!”
Erik raised a finger and noted, “You can and it’s called pizzicato.”
“Yes, dear one,” said Mordecai. He opened the case and began to arrange things. “But not a whole song. Not seriously. This cannot possibly be horsehair.” And as for the wood, he suspected bakelite again.
“Really, Mordecai,” said Hyacinth, “what else could it be?”
“I don’t know. Zebra?”
“Zebras have black tails,” Maggie offered.
“Peroxide zebra,” Mordecai said, adjusting it. Some of the hair had come loose and he snapped it off near the base, so as not to make things any worse.
“I should think zebra would be more expensive than horse in any case,” said Hyacinth. “Peroxide or no.”
He was already on to the next thing, “It isn’t even tuned.” He plucked the strings, but faintly, with his ear next to the wood. “It’s not even close.”
“I doubt it was played much,” said Hyacinth. “The case was all dusty.”
“That isn’t a selling point! The sound is much worse if they’re not being played.”
“Then it can only get better!”
“Presumably,” said Mordecai. He plucked the strings. “If we assume this is wood and varnish I’m working with, here.”
“Mordecai, you’re upsetting your child,” Hyacinth reminded him.
Erik was still frowning, doubtful.
“My child knows I am teasing,” said Mordecai. He picked up the violin and held it properly, between chin and shoulder. “This is going to sound awful.” He attempted a scale. There was a certain amount of shrieking. “Ah!” He made a few more adjustments and then tried again, more slowly. He backed up when he got a note wrong and re-positioned his grip until he got it right. Then he did an octave. It was a little raspy but much-improved.
“This isn’t going to be any good, either,” he muttered. He plucked a few notes, these with tune and purpose. Pizzicato, as Erik had said.
The green child gasped and did a subtle dance in place. He liked this one. He hadn’t heard this one since before he didn’t like the radio anymore.
Mordecai understood that he was making Erik happy, and making up for all that stupid teasing (among other things) and promptly went flat. “Oh, shit!” He damn near dropped the bow. “Oh, I’m sorry.” Hyacinth just had to gather the children to watch him screw up and swear.
“It’s okay, I know you can do it,” Erik said.
And now, hearing that, he had to. He began again at the beginning of the phrase and he nailed it this time.
Erik let him continue unmolested until he was hitting about ninety-five percent of the notes right, then the child spoke up in a soft, worshipful voice, “Uncle, do the… magic.”
He flubbed a note and moved incrementally to correct it, “Dear one,” he said, “I am not playing this very well and I do not want to do the magic.”
“Please-please,” said Erik.
He sighed. He took it from the chorus. It always took a little while for any given instrument to warm up, and this one seemed stiff. It really hadn’t been played much.
(Or it was made of bakelite.)
He repeated the chorus, trying to draw out at least the words before he went on.
Thinly, as if from a great distance away, and steadily approaching, “Cinephone killed the radio star… Cinephone killed the radio star…” Not his voice or the voice of that group on the radio, but the violin itself. Singing.
Voice from music had been particularly popular back before the movies could speak for themselves. The radio star notwithstanding, Cinephone had also killed his career. He was philosophical about it, nothing more. Not many places were willing to hire a colored person after the war, not even if he sat in the dark, and at least this way he didn’t have to watch other people wandering around doing his job but not as good.
“Pictures came and broke your heart…”
He would admit to finding sound film a little strident. All that talking. He liked it better when pictures could only sing. The music reels were far better than anything Milo could get out of the radio, though, and they put his street-corner orchestration in the dust.
“Put the blame on Miramar…”
She wasn’t terrible. She was never going to be a good violin, but she wasn’t terrible. He was getting a little bass out of her by the second verse, but the stringed instruments were always the easiest to draw. Woodwinds were next, but he had no need of those for this particular composition. He was awful at piano, he wasn’t getting any piano until the song was practically over, but that was him. He doubled the chorus again to see if he could get it any better and he really couldn’t.
He wasn’t going to get much better than this without a lot more playing, and he didn’t want to do it with an audience. He ended the song and held the violin away from him again. “She is fractious,” he opined.
Hyacinth spoke to Erik aside, “That means ‘like me, and that annoys me””
“I am not fractious,” Mordecai said. He knelt and slipped the violin back in its case. Not without relief, but not with only relief. The case was falling apart. He was going to have to ask Milo to put some charms on it. “Fractious is a woman who has been drinking gin all night. Old men who rent furnished rooms are curmudgeonly.”
“Among other things,” said Hyacinth.
“Indeed,” said Mordecai. He did up the latches.
“I like the piano,” Erik said. “Why isn’t there ever any piano until the very end?”
“I don’t know. It’s like it needs to warm up, like the radio, and it needs it every song. Maybe if I played the same one twice in a row I could get it at the beginning.”
“I like ‘Turkey in the Straw,'” Magnificent informed him. “I think that has a mouth harp.”
“You have no taste,” he told her.
“I am nine,” she replied. “I don’t need taste.”
“Well, I’m not playing it, so don’t ask.” He put the case in the room, in the middle of the floor for just now — where the inconvenience of it would facilitate finding it a permanent home — and closed the door. “Am I allowed to make dinner now, or is some other entertainment required of me?”
That was pushing it too far, right over the edge. He knew it before he even finished saying it.
Erik gave a sob and spilled a single tear. He had to do all his tears one at a time. “But… do you… really not… hate it?” he said. Hyacinth said it was a present. It was supposed to be nice. Erik wanted his uncle to have music again and be happy.
“Oh.” Mordecai would’ve known he’d upset Erik even without the slowing, but this way it was like he was hurting the boy. He guessed he was. He knelt, and he caught Erik in a hug. “I don’t hate it. No. I don’t hate it. I had a violin for a long time, when I was still with your mother. I had to have something small I could carry, you know? It wasn’t hard to learn. I’ll pick it up again, it won’t take long. I’m just embarrassed about it right now. Your mother used to like ‘Honey Pie.’ I’ll play that one for you when I can do it right. It’s got piano, too.”
Erik pushed back from him. He scrubbed both hands over his face and hugged his own shoulders. Mordecai understood with pain that he had learned to fix himself this way, perhaps some time ago. There were other people here who would hug him, weren’t there? People maybe a little more tightly bolted-together than his old uncle?
There were three other people in here and nobody was hugging him now.
He didn’t look like he wanted it.
“I… like when you… play,” said Erik. He put two fingers on his right eye and adjusted it needlessly. It didn’t cry, there was none of that left, but sometimes he got it wet from the other eye if he wasn’t careful. “I… miss it. You… haven’t… since…” He didn’t want to say it, not any part of it. Not about getting hurt, even though he didn’t mean about getting hurt.
You haven’t since I made you sad.
“I didn’t have anything,” Mordecai said. “That’s all it was. I lost Julia…”
“You blew up Julia,” said Hyacinth.
“This is not what I meant by helping!” said Mordecai. Having silenced her, he ignored her. “I didn’t have Julia anymore and I didn’t think about playing. That’s all.”
“It’s… not,” Erik said.
The red man winced. “It isn’t, but will you let me say it is if I promise I won’t ever stop playing again?”
“Mordecai, don’t…” said Hyacinth.
Mordecai made a mouth with his hand and shut it. Compulsory honesty is not a virtue, you sadist!
Hyacinth sighed and rolled her head up to the ceiling. Sure. What harm is it if we damage the kid a little more? As long as he feels better now.
“You have to stop playing sometimes,” Erik said. “You have to make dinner and you have to sleep.”
“I do. I know. But you know what I mean. Not for a long time. Not like I did.”
The boy nodded frantically, “Yes, please… promise… that.”
“I promise.” He was hugging his shoulders again and Mordecai pulled his hands down. “Erik, do you mind it if I hug you?”
“No, I like it,” Erik said. He looked away. “But I know you… can’t… always.”
“Oh, boy,” said Mordecai. He closed his eyes. He hugged his child.
“Uncle, do I… make… you… sad?” He could feel the tears.
“No, dear one. My sad is broken. It’s nothing to do with you.”
“I didn’t… break it… when I… got… hurt?” Erik pulled back and looked at him. His eye was winced narrow and damp, like he was gazing into a furnace.
Mordecai shook his head. “No, dear one. I’ve been broken this way a long time. I just can’t hide it as well anymore. I know it hurts you.” He sighed, and he wiped his eyes with the heel of his palm. “I’m sorry. I’m trying really hard to be better.”
“We don’t… ever throw… broken things… away!” Erik said. He flung both arms around his uncle’s neck and held tightly. Mordecai picked him up and swung back and forth with him — like when he’d been a lot smaller and a lot louder and a lot easier to make happy.
Maybe not an awful lot easier, Mordecai thought with a watery smile. Erik had never been an easy one. He’d had a little over seven years to get used to that and he was still flying this broomstick with one hand and a blindfold.
It hadn’t killed him yet!
He landed Erik gently, crouched beside him and kissed him on top of the head. “What would you like for dinner tonight?”
Erik sniffled and rubbed his eye with a hand. “It’s chicken casserole. Green peas. Canned. Or dried. Or shelled.” He wiped his nose on his sleeve. “And egg noodles. Or semolina pasta. Or two eggs, four and a half ounces flour. Three cans of cream of mushroom soup or two bottles of milk and a stick of butter, or oil…” Erik had been making a judicious study of his uncle’s shopping lists ever since he could read again.
“Yes, dear one. I know what we’re supposed to have, but what would you like?”
“Chocolate cake,” said Erik.
“I make excellent chocolate cake,” Mordecai said. He was going to have that graven on his tombstone — cause, effect, and apology. He Made Excellent Chocolate Cake.
He stood with difficulty and squeezed Erik’s hand when it came up to steady him. “I’m all right.” Hyacinth grabbed his elbow and would not be put off. He endeavored to lose her on the way to the kitchen. He walked right past the dining room doorway and took the long way around, past the sweeping staircase, instead.
“Can we have the brown sugar frosting?” Erik said.
“I don’t think we actually have any brown sugar.”
“Then you can learn how to magic some.”
“Is it white sugar and molasses?” the boy asked him, after a moment’s thought.
“Yes. You can also use syrup, but that’s a kludge.”
“For which part?”
Mordecai made a sheepish gesture. “Either. It’s a kludge.”
“What about honey?”
Mordecai considered that. “Ma-a-aybe, but I haven’t tried it, not for brown sugar.”
“What about toothpaste?” Maggie said.
Mordecai recoiled involuntarily. Ah! Oh, my gods! What is she doing here?
Oh, yes. She was watching Hyacinth humiliate him with a violin. Tactful, considerate Hyacinth.
“Toothpaste?” he asked her sweetly, eyes narrowed.
Maggie grinned at him.
He pointed a finger, “If one of my kids tried to bring me toothpaste for sugar, I would’ve had them taken out and shot. There isn’t even sugar in toothpaste. Do you think if I spoke to your mother, she might consent to having you tested?”
“An excuse. Hyacinth, will you get off of me? I think we’ve established my legs work!”
“Not until you talk to me,” she told him through clenched teeth.
“Why, we’re talking now!” he answered her, smiling.
She would not break eye-contact with him. “Erik, go look for brown sugar in the kitchen.”
“Magnificent, go look for trouble in the kitchen.”
“You don’t have to tell me,” Maggie said. She wandered after him.
“Erik, mind the table!” Mordecai called out belatedly. There was a light thud. The red man winced and hid his eyes in his hand.
“That was a chair!” said Erik.
“Mind the chairs also!” Mordecai attempted to writhe out of Hyacinth’s grip and go after them. There were so many edges in the kitchen. There was glass in the kitchen. Erik was improving and he could do without supervision most of the time, but the kitchen was a goddamned obstacle course.
“No,” she said.
“We are not doing this now,” he said.
“Chocolate cake and promises you don’t know you can keep!” she replied, digging her fingers into his arm.
“You didn’t have to give me a violin!” he snarled. “Why did you have to show up in front of my bedroom door out of nowhere with a goddamned violin?”
They were doing it now. Weirdly, they both needed to do it now. They needed to do it days ago. Screaming at each other. Not about chocolate cake and a violin, but about everything being scary and different between them and changing. They didn’t like that, either of them. It required screaming, even if they weren’t going to say the words they meant.
You still irritate the shit out of me, you know!
Oh, yeah? Well, you do, too!
“Even if you had to do that, did you really need to bring the kids there to gawk at me? I haven’t had a violin since Alba died! Did you even briefly entertain the concept in your damaged head that it might bother me a little? Couldn’t you have warned me?”
“What, did you want some kind of reverse ransom note? ‘Cheer up, you old bastard, or I’ll give you a violin?’ Something like that?”
“You didn’t have to give me a violin!”
“All right,” she allowed, releasing him. “I didn’t have to give it to you in front of the kids, but I didn’t think he’d be so upset.”
“You know, I think I may have mentioned one or two times that he’s been upset. I think you’ve mentioned it. In fact, I think you used to hit me over the head with it on a daily basis.”
“Okay! I guess I didn’t think you’d be so upset that you’d start spewing poison in every direction like a snake with a head cold and upset him more! I think I may have been expecting a ‘thank you.’ Apparently, I am stupid.”
He stood quietly for a moment with his arms folded and let those words exist in the air. He was fond of them, despite the intended sarcasm.
Hyacinth’s sour expression soured further.
“Apparently,” he said at last.
“You know, when you tell him you’ll never stop playing again, you are betting on your own emotional health to hold up indefinitely and you have just asked me to help you about that because you know it doesn’t. That isn’t smart.”
He sighed. “I just don’t want him to worry about me. He’s always worried about me. He was so worried about me, he called a god to help me. I don’t know what else to do except tell him it’s going to be okay. He deserves everything being okay… even if it won’t be.”
Hyacinth shook her head at him, “But you know it’s going to hurt him when it’s not.”
“It would anyway,” he said. “At least this way, he can be happy right now. Hyacinth, he’s seven. He’s got a lot of really awful people telling him a lot of really awful things he doesn’t need to know, all the time. He doesn’t need the two of us doing it, too. Can’t I just make him a chocolate cake?”
“You’re going to pay for this later, you know?” she said. “I can’t tell you how much, I can’t tell you when, and I have no idea if it’s going to be worth it. You are running up a tab right now, are you aware of that? It’s going to come due.”
He nodded weakly and looked away. “Do you think… Do you think you might see your way clear to helping me avoid collections?”
“I consider it my sacred duty,” Hyacinth replied. She turned and considered the kitchen doorway. “Mordecai, please tell me, in the spirit of financial irresponsibility, are we having nothing but chocolate cake for dinner tonight?”
He drew himself up. “I make excellent chocolate cake.”
“The General is going to scream.”
“The General can go to a pub.”
“No brown sugar but yes molasses!” Eric called over, showing the jar. He was standing on the countertop, Magnificent having helped boost him up there.
“Ah, Erik, what are you doing?” cried Mordecai. There were about fifteen different ways this situation could go south and half of them involved glass shards covered in molasses.
Erik, do you think maybe you could spare two seconds from worrying about me to worry about you? I would appreciate it!
Erik did not drop the jar, or fall, or encrust himself with glass and molasses, or otherwise damage things. He climbed down from the counter and delivered the jar to his uncle with a smug expression. See? I’m all better!
Two minutes later, he did drop the sugar, but that was in a bag and it didn’t matter as much.