THE CELLO PLAYER
by Rori Leigh Hoatlin
On summer nights, when I was supposed to be asleep, I sat on our back deck with my father and listened to his stories. In Michigan, June nights can be chilly, so I took the faux goose down comforter that my mother bought me in Traverse City and wrapped it around myself; I sat Indian-style across from my father in the dark as the last wisps of light and horseflies disappeared and Venus came up in the west. The smell of my father’s cigar set heavy in the cooling dusk as he settled back in his green canvas chair; he was readying for the story.
My father was an orator. Words clipped along his tongue and came out animated and full-bodied. He knew when to pause, when to cry out, when to swear. He claimed that art eluded him; he couldn’t hear the art that came from his lips.
He had an arsenal of tales, but my favorite was his version of Titanic. It was a story he told year after year, trying to flesh out the details. His central character was the cello player in the first-class band. My father always changed the name of his protagonist to Ralph or Jay or John; the name never mattered—the cello player was everyone, and my father felt a special bond to this man he didn’t know and couldn’t save. He hated that even in his story, the facts couldn’t be changed: no one in the band would survive.
In the summer of ’98, at age eleven, my mother and father decided it was time for me to start working at our family business, Action Vending. While my classmates spent their Junes and Julys in soccer and softball leagues, I was at the Vending, sweeping the cement floors of the back garage, cleaning coffee and sandwich machines, and sorting through the pop can returns. Going to the Vending was worse than mowing the lawn or cleaning the house for my mother—those chores had definitive beginning and ending points; you could finish them at your own pace. Chores at the Vending were perpetual. I had to be there from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., no matter what.
When I started working there, business was good. I heard rumblings that we were in an economic slump, but nothing, as far as I could see, had affected our lifestyle.
One day, after learning about class systems in school, I asked my mother, “What class are we?”
She replied, “middle class,” but I was suspicious. I knew that my father’s work at the Vending was blue-collar, but he also had a title there; he was president of the company. We lived in Hidden Lake Estates, where houses ranged from a quarter to three quarters of a million dollars in price. We went to private Christian school. We went on family vacations in the summer and the fall, and we ate out every Saturday night.
To be fair, none of our activities were extravagant. Our vacations were never more than a few hours away; we’d go to Lake Michigan, which we only ever called The Lake or up north to Cadillac. Our dinners were always at family-friendly restaurants like Bill Knapp’s or Lanings. My father liked these places because he could feed his family of six for forty dollars. But still, I knew that many people in the world weren’t as fortunate as we were. Most of my peers were not going out to dinner every week. And they lived in smaller neighborhoods that didn’t have uniform mailboxes or bylaws that required the front of each house be made of at least fifty percent brick.
This neighborhood differed from the one my father knew as a child. He’d been poor. His father immigrated from The Netherlands in the 1920s and with a third-grade education, he had worked a variety of odd jobs: carpenter, construction worker. My father would tell us how he and his brothers dug water wells by hand and how they only took one bath a week. My father told us that by the time it was his turn in the tub, the water was full of leaves and mud and a bath was hardly worth it.
We were wealthy middle class, and this fact was a point of pride for my father.
In the beginning, when I was young, my father told the cello player’s story in a leisurely fashion, from the perspective of man who didn’t know what was to come.
With a hint of an affected accent and his shoulders straight, my father began: “On the first morning at sea, the cello player, Ralph Milton III, relaxed in his second-class quarters with a cup of Earl Grey tea and the Liverpool newspaper, which he hadn’t had a chance to read yet. After a leisurely stroll on the deck, Ralph returned to his quarters and practiced Bach on his cello. The lovely maple instrument was heavy in his hands, but after years of carting it around to various hotels and Parisian cafés, Ralph was thrilled to find stability with the White Star Line. The bow along the strings reverberated back into his forearm. And by early lunch, Ralph, dressed in his three-piece suit with gold buttons, stood before the first-class passengers along with the other members of his band, and played the soft and tender notes of Bach and Vivaldi.”
My father puffed on his cigar and spent much of the story discussing facets of the ship: where the crew slept and how far away they were from the upper decks, how the second-class quarters were nicer than most ship lines’ first-class quarters, how there were gates separating the third-class passengers from other parts of the ship. He wanted to impress upon me the importance of the details; how lavish this ship was, how, in the presence of beauty, we are blind to our gut reactions.
I was, of course, primarily interested in the sinking. At eleven, I was fixated on James Cameron’s rendition. I loved that moment when the ship finally disappeared into the aquamarine water; I held my breath with Jack and Rose.
But, by the time my father got around to the actual sinking, he was factual and informative. “For certain, the ship broke in two; we know, because they found it,” my father told us, alluding to Robert Ballard’s late-1980s discovery of the ghostly ship on the bottom of the Atlantic. He added of the water, “It was so cold, even colder than The Lake in May.” He winked at me. He didn’t want to scare me. He didn’t want me to think about decay and destruction; he didn’t want to say “death” or “demise.”
“But what happened to the cello player?” I persisted, my comforter covering my head as I tried to keep my ears warm.
My father said, tactfully, “He didn’t make it, but as the lifeboats drifted away from the ship wreckage, there was the faint sound of a cello playing. The notes fell from the sky on those who survived.”
“He was in Heaven.” I smiled, satisfied, and looked up at the stars above us. Other than telling stories, my father and I spent a good deal of time contemplating the stars. “The Summer Triangle’s out now… Are the stars part of Heaven?” I asked.
My father didn’t question my transition; we understood that when there was death, there was an afterlife. “Yes,” he replied, and I could see the faint shadow of my father’s head nod in the dark and the glowing ember of his cigar glow as he puffed again. I knew that he was glad I didn’t insist on knowing the gruesome facts. He was glad he didn’t have to talk about the slow suffocation of drowning, or the panic when you realize that the place you thought was safe is slipping away.
When the doors shut on the Vending in October 2004, my feelings were mixed. The yellow and brown building across from the McKay-Jaycee soccer park had been there for over fifty years. My father, my uncles, my grandfather, they all kept moving more and more machines out of the factories. At one point, my grandfather had so many old vending machines filling the garage and parking lot that he paved over their remains just to get rid of them; the acts of desperate men.
The closure meant that I no longer had to spend my summers there, that I could move on to other jobs—scooping ice cream and selling fudge. But, I could see in my father’s eyes that the Vending was more than a business; he had spent the last thirty or more years growing this place. It was a mistake that would tumble around in his mind for years to come. The only way I could begin to understand what happened to the Vending and in turn, what happened to my father, was to go back over those years leading up to its demise.
My maternal grandfather, Roger Sr., and his brother, Marv, started the Vending in the early 1960s. They put a few candy and pop machines in factories and every other day went to refill them. It was a source of income during the winter months (September through March in Michigan), a break from their landscaping business. But by the seventies, a fight over money caused dissension between the brothers. In the end, Marv took the landscaping business and moved it thirty miles west to the Holland area, and my grandfather took the Vending. Because it was now his primary source of income, he expanded.
As it grew, my grandfather solicited family members to join his ranks—his two sons, my uncles, Rog Jr. and Ron respectively, my father, Leo, and my father’s brother, Howard. All of these men played a variety of parts: they were the route men who drove around town in blue and white passenger vans, filled the machines with candy and homemade sandwiches; they were the mechanics, the electricians. They were also the office men; they balanced the checkbooks, deposited money, filled out expense reports, and wrote invoices. There was no division between the blue and white collar jobs at the Vending, everyone was in it together; they all knew its faults and vulnerabilities, but they plowed ahead anyway.
After the new millennium, I could hear sour notes of angst in my father’s story about the cello player. My father and I again sat on the deck. I was now thirteen. Now my father stressed the cello player’s doubts, as the life my father had built began to crumble. The story went like this:
“Jay Westwood, son of Richard the miller and Marta the seamstress, was missing his family on the third day of the liner’s voyage. He’d meant to send a telegram to his parents, but with the exhausting hours on board the ship, he hadn’t had time. His fingers were worn and blistering from practice.” My father held out his hand in the darkness and rubbed the pads of his fingers against his thumb to show where Jay had been hurting. The doctor had told my father he ought to quit smoking; his hands were restless in the dark without the smoke to keep them steady.
“After the ship was struck by the iceberg and the water was near to Jay, he couldn’t help but question his choice to stay on the deck. He couldn’t help but think of his mother, how disappointed she would be that he missed Easter. He looked at the other men in the band. He wasn’t bonded to them; they weren’t his real family. Before this trip they were barely acquaintances, but now here they were all together on a doomed ship; they would forever be held together in history by their profession.” My father lingered for a moment, considering, I supposed, what that meant.
My father continued. “Near Jay, there was a deck chair. Maybe if he threw it overboard at the last minute he could save himself.”
Every morning my father rose by 5 a.m. and drove to the Vending, and once I turned fourteen I began going with him. I had been promoted. I was allowed to go on the route with my father to restock machines. In the morning, when we drove into work down 28th St. to Vineland Avenue, I sensed that I was learning about life. There was a gravity to those mornings. Just before the sun started to rise, at the very end of the night, I heard my father sigh. He was looking intently at the sky. Before he could begin a new day, he wanted to make sure there was a new day left.
After the route, we returned to the Vending. In the afternoons, my father worked studiously behind a large mahogany desk. Poring over worksheets, his straight black hair dipped into his eyes as he balanced the books and entered the numbers into the new Compaq computer, one slow finger peck at a time.
By the early 2000s most lunch rooms at the factories were smoke-free. One vice usually enabled the other—the sweetness of Mountain Dew mixed with the sharp cut of Marlboro Reds, and the sensory overload was enough to make your gums bleed. My father told me that this was one reason vending companies were struggling to make a profit. He explained, “People buy from vending machines on impulse. If you can’t take your smoke break in the lunchroom, then you won’t be compelled to buy a Milky Way.”
Not wanting to get in the way of his endless receipts and reports, I asked, “What should I do?”
Without looking up he, demoted me to my old post: “Hmm…You can probably go sweep the back garage.”
I nodded, but before I turned away I asked, “Is the Vending not doing so good?”
My father never lied to me, and in this moment, I believe he told me what he thought was true: “Well, Leaky, we’re taking on water, but I think we can still pull ourselves out.”
I left my father in a hazy and unfathomable white-collar world that neither of us understood. He didn’t elaborate on his plan to pull himself out, but within a few months the Vending had a new member in the ranks.
Marcus, a financial consultant, came to the Vending in late 2002 at the behest of the senior partners of the Vending. My father had talked to Marcus on the telephone for many weeks. His fee to save the Vending was large, but my father believed in him.
Marcus was a short Polynesian man with a round stomach. He wore long-sleeved button-downs and a gold watch with a large face. His interactions with me were kind, though formal. He asked me cursory questions about whether or not I liked high school, and he never talked badly about the Vending in front of me. But I knew that behind closed doors at the Thursday meetings, undercurrents left unattended were being dredged to the surface.
For the first time in years, I saw a spark of hope in my father. Excitedly, he’d quote Einstein: “‘Insanity is continuing to do the same thing over and over and expecting different results.’ We’ve been doing the same things all these years, Leaky, and expecting them to change.” My father told me this as we pulled into Roger’s Department Store in the work van. He was returning a shirt he’d received as a birthday present.
As we entered the store, the scent of perfume overwhelmed me. “Let’s see if we can find something for your mother,” my father suggested as he spotted the Clinique counter.
“What have you been doing that you shouldn’t?” I asked.
My father looked up from the counter and thought for a moment. “Your grandfather always lets everyone take cash whenever they need it.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, you know how we get money from the machines and we bring it back to the Vending. All that money should go into the bank so that we can pay our bills, but Grandpa’s always told us that if we need a little extra, just to take it.”
“What? Isn’t that illegal?” I asked.
“Yes.” My father admitted, nodding his head.
“So why do it?” I asked, perplexed by my father’s admission. I wasn’t used to him admitting fault. My father was an elder. He gave ten percent of his paycheck. He had helped to buy our church a new organ. How could he falter this way?
“We never really thought of it that way. Grandpa was the one in charge, and it’s family, ya know? You just don’t really think of it as embezzling…” He paused and waved a salesgirl over. “I think it took an outsider like Marcus to point out how ridiculous our behavior was. But we’re going to stop now. We’re switching directions, taking a pay cut. All of the money is going to the Vending.” My father told me this as he handed the salesgirl a fifty-dollar bill from his wallet full of cash. My father could see his mistakes, but I wondered if it was too late for him to learn from them.
A year after Marcus had been with the Vending, the cello player’s story took a sharp turn:
“The worst part about the water is the panic. If you could keep your body loose, maybe you could make a swim for a boat, but in those temperatures, it seizes immediately. Your muscles congeal, your heart races, your lungs suffocate. Your internal thermometer is ticking down, plummeting in minutes.” My father was focused on the physiology of freezing.
“John thought about all of these things. He could see the panic in those around him. He had to make a plan. He had to come up with something that could save him. He was with his bandmates, determined to stay until the very end, but he also knew he’d have to try and save himself. It was then that a miraculous thought occurred: he could use his cello as a flotation device. All around him, throngs of people were grabbing deck chairs and pulling apart pieces of the ship, but no one would come after his cello. He could get away without hurting anyone else, without abandoning his team. The center of his life would be the thing to save him.”
By the summer of 2004, my seventeenth year, I noticed that the building on Vineland was emptier. The red shelves that were once stocked full of chips and Mars candy were dustier and empty, Sysco only delivered once a week instead of twice, and my grandfather had been relinquished of all of his duties except cleaning out the freezer and going through the pop cans. My father slipped me money on the side—cash from the machines—and I started to wonder if this was something that all the men in my family were doing: taking money before it could be counted.
When I went there, it seemed that no one could meet my eyes. My uncles walked with their heads low and their eyes darting about, as though they were deciding what to grab. There was something primal about their gait, an urgency and desperation in their movements. They were drowning and in that moment, would anyone have blamed the other for selling out?
On Thursday afternoons, I would wait outside of the main office. They still had their weekly meetings, but even I already knew that they were barreling toward bankruptcy.
I kept expecting someone to yell about the injustice, or scream for help, or blame someone else in trivial anger. I expected my father’s impassioned voice to shout out. But I never heard anyone. There was only eerie quiet behind the door, and I wondered if they were trying to make a desperate plan together, or if they’d simply given up and sat there, quietly, out of expectation and duty.
Without an ultimatum, without drastic measure, without fanfare or seething fire, my father conceded to going down with the ship—in the end, there was no cello to cling to.
“He just couldn’t make it. If it had been me…” My father had been starting the story this way the last few times. He wanted the cellist to survive somehow. He wanted to rewrite fate and fact. He wanted to believe that, even in the direst of circumstances, his protagonist would have been able to find a way out.
I looked at my father; he was not in the mood for this story. For the first time, I jumped in. “I think the cello player tried, and I think that’s all that matters.”
I didn’t ask my father to tell me this story anymore. From time to time, we’d talk about the Titanic, how it sunk and why, but it was important to let the cello player rest in peace.
Later, long after the Vending and my father had declared bankruptcy, and he had a new profession as a truck driver for Teddy’s Transport, he told me that he often thought about what he could have done differently to save the company. “There was a moment when I could have asked Uncle Howard to take out a loan. He was the only one whose credit wasn’t shot to hell. I could have asked him to work with me, and together we could have bought out the others.”
“Can you imagine still being there, though?” I asked, laughing at the thought of running routes and filling snack machines.
“Maybe it wouldn’t have worked, but sometimes I wish I would have tried.”
“You did try,” I assured him. “You only see it clearer now because it’s in the past.”
My father nodded, but I knew that this was something he would say again. The weight of an empire-crashing grows lighter with the passing years. The intersection of fact and fate becomes a malleable object in our memories. You can divert disaster with one step and the faith that you might save yourself.
Rori Leigh Hoatlin is a third-year graduate student at Georgia College & State University studying creative nonfiction. She is a Teaching Fellow of English composition and literature at Georgia College and a Summer 2013 Teaching Consultant at The Lake Michigan Writing Project in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Her work has previously appeared in Young Scholars in Writing, Prick of the Spindle and is forthcoming in Steel Toe Review and Superstition Review.