An invitation

When my parents first brought me there, Finkbeiner's Conservatory of Music was a cloud-white building on a tree-graced hill overlooking the dense roofs of downtown. Sounds of trumpets, flutes, cellos, and violins earnestly shook its many bright windows, and made us, a boy of seven and his first violin, shake too. It would cost my parents more than they could afford if I was accepted as a pupil, and I was terribly afraid I'd let them down.

Finkbeiner himself examined me, testing my hands, asking me questions. A tremendously tall man, with a veritable symphony of tempestuous hair, ferociously ruddy cheeks, and blimp-like middle, he loomed over me, colossal and sinister. He looked almost exactly like a child-hater in a movie I'd seen. To my astonishment, he accepted me.

He even undertook the teaching of me himself. And, oh, how he drove me! He never smiled. He seldom praised. Often he shouted. Once, after I'd played a passage ten times without getting it right, he shouted that I didn't play ''with hands and a heart, but with mousy paws and a soul made of cheese.'' Bursting into tears, I ran from the room. When I returned later, he was waiting. ''Again, '' he said.

So that my parents should not have spent for nothing, and so that I could vindicate my hands and soul, I kept on. Many times I vowed that one day, when I was a famous violinist, I would come back and say something utterly withering to him. But as I grew older my fear and anger turned into understanding. I saw that he was like a father who worked so hard to make something of his children that he could take no joy in them. A man who hated, above all, mediocrity, who would never settle for the good-enough which spoiled music - and spoiled the world, too.

And now, years later, as I stood before the old Conservatory, I was glad I'd not come to take revenge, for everything had changed. Downtown buildings had moved closer to his hilly one, pinching the brightness and movement out of its windows. Crows sat on the roof, cawing, and yellow leaves had piled up around the skinny trees in front, like bills on spindles.

And there was a van backed up to the front steps. Movers were stomping in and out, fetching and carrying things - framed pictures of great musicians, chairs, music stands, benches, little glass cabinets, piles of music books. They looked like overgrown children emptying out a dollhouse.

I went inside to the office where Finkbeiner had given me lessons. Everything was gone except his desk and chair in a corner.

Crumpled in the chair, greeting me with haggard, red-rimmed eyes, sat a figure that looked more like a crashed Graf Zeppelin than a human being.

''You want these?'' he said, mistaking me for a mover. ''Take.'' It was when he got up and stood to his full height that I recognized Finkbeiner himself.

Oh, what an altered man! He looked pale, emaciated, and irrecoverably entangled in his symphony of hair. The news I'd come to bring him - that although I'd turned out to be no Yehudi Menuhin, I was playing the violin in a little band that made a living - seemed suddenly a slighting of his own news, and I merely introduced myself as a former pupil who'd dropped in to say hello.

He remembered me. ''Mousy paws and soul of cheese,'' he said. He smiled, grateful for someone to talk to. A scandalous lack of pupils, he explained, had caused the Conservatory to fold, forcing him to move everything to the basement of his home. Nowadays children didn't want to take sophisticated music lessons. They just wanted to go boom, boom, boom, twang, twang, twang!

Movers came and took the desk and chair, too. Finkbeiner stood looking around the empty room. ''My whole life,'' he said, ''nothing.''

What could I say to someone so desolate? How could I help him? I could only think to ask, ''You couldn't give private lessons in your home?''

''And to what children?'' he answered. He walked me to the door, and we said goodbye.

A few days later I had an idea. Perhaps the best thing for his bad news, after all, might be my good news. Good news couldn't hurt if it came not as a slighting but as an invitation. And so I sent him one to a concert our band was giving at a big deli. The children of many of my friends would be there, I said.

That night the deli was packed. Those who couldn't get tables sat on the floor. And, off to the side, so he wouldn't block anybody's view, stood . . . who? It was he, towering even above the band. From time to time he nodded at me, acknowledging, I hoped, that I wasn't disgracing him. Mostly he looked at the faces of the children, and when they looked back, as if asking what secret part he had in all this music, he smiled.

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