Smoke for the Mozarts

Nick Almeida

Karen performs for the group. Another dirge. All E and A minor, all heavy-handed with a walkdown in the bass, delivered into the mic with spittle and pop. There’s light applause: my students have learned, at least, to be fair. In the back I type comments for each performance and email them immediately: I know I say reach the back row, but did you reach the front?

The Mozarts are a musically inclined collection of the delusional and dying who meet in the Presbyterian church on Bridge and 3rd. All live with a stern belief in his or her deadly illness, though doctors cannot corroborate. It’s a burden twice. First you’re dying and second you receive nothing: no care, no sympathy, just a referral slip for a psychiatrist and a flyer for our Thursday group, The Mozarts.

Next is Barry. Barry is six foot seven with a wingspan larger than my sofa. He played for the Austin Toros in the NBA’s developmental league until a bicycling accident convinced him his right leg was damaged to the point of amputation. The leg is indeed there, massive and pants-clad and as seemingly competent as the other, but still Barry moves with a crutch and reports phantom sensations behind the thigh. He is my most promising student.

Barry’s cello looks kindergarten-small between his knees, and Gerta, our only European, assists him on electric keys. (Gerta has vitiligo; she swears it’s cancer).

The overheads reflect on Barry’s bald head, and, yes, I know this is a cliché, but a teacher’s job is sometimes to choose which clichés are permissible and which are not. It’s also my job to edit, to gently steer, to nudge students in the direction of painful truth, but who am I to edit Barry with his eyebrows plucked into perfect Nike swooshes, who’s spent hours and years and possibly one lifetime in empty gyms for nothing, whose polished shoes are larger than the headlights of my car? This group owes Barry. He named us when we had our what’s-the-name-gonna-be meeting, taught us that Mozart was dead two weeks before a Berlin newspaper announced he’d been poisoned, though nowadays they think he died of strep. “The greatest musician ever,” Barry explained alongside a powerpoint of babyfaced Mozart done in pastel, “and nobody diagnosed what killed him. They didn’t listen to his symptoms. And this was a great man.”

We respect Barry but nonetheless when he touches bow to strings there is a commotion in the middle aisles. Two Mozarts are fretting. Murmurs abound.

“Excuse us,” I say, but they are standing, flailing.

“We smell smoke,” Ron Christmas says. “Tina and me both. Who else smells it?”

It’s difficult to describe the tremble in Ron Christmas’s voice when asks Who else smells it? Because of course he has to worry — Ron, whose salivary gland overproduces because of rabies and is constantly wiping his chin though nothing is there.

“Got zilch back here. Let’s hear Barry,” I say.

“I smell it!” says Tina (hypersensitive to power lines).

“There are many things in the world to smell,” Barry agrees into the mic.

“Please,” and I am slapping my palms. “My wife’s elbows deep with grad school work, she’s got both kids, I’d like to —”

“There is,” announces Karen, rising and pointing, “smoke!”

The hubbub swells. On stage, Gerta paces to and fro, sniffing the curtains.

“Enough!” I say, and am pacing the aisle to commandeer the mic. “You may not derail this performance for undetected, nonexistent —”

“Wait!” Barry calls into the mic. For a moment, the room’s his. He points to the side door where Mrs. Waterson, the front desk person, stands with her bag on her shoulder.

“Apologies for interrupting,” Mrs. Waterson says, “but the church is on fire. The kitchen. A microwave. If you could —”

But it’s too late: the sprinkler system kicks on. It showers over us, wetting the chairs, our laps. Mrs. Waterson splits. I make for my laptop. But down in the rows The Mozarts do not exit.

Emergency lights flash. There’s an alarm like frightened elephants.

The Mozarts rise, expressions buoyant, and converge at the stage to confirm one another: Karen, Tina, Barry, Gerta, Ron. You were right, they say, a handshake, a hand on a shoulder, Karen’s hand slipping into Ron’s (a moment I am not supposed to see). You were right, she says and dabs his chin for him.

Water’s collecting in the instrument cases, atop the organ. Soon the fire company will drape foil blankets on The Mozarts, EMTs will check pulses and listen to their breathing, and soon they will herd back toward the exits, all but Karen and Ron, who are still getting soaked, still dabbing, still repeating: You were, I was, we are.


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