A Little Night Music
by Laura Legge
Of course, I was embarrassed about the bicycles. The deans, the associate professors, and the panelists speaking on poverty would all arrive in cars. Behind windshield wipers, they would see the plowed road clearly. And we would plod in blizzard-wet—Alice with a ukulele in a purple velvet case she had stolen from their own music faculty, me with a brand-new pandero our mother had mailed from Oaxaca. Some evenings, I pounded my indignities into it so loudly the downstairs neighbors would knock a broom against the ceiling. My sister and I would call this kind of polite aggression “estilo canadiense.”
With our bicycles, we had ended up on opposite sides of the street. This is because I thought maybe the university was on the south side, and Alice was confident it was on the north. We walked in the same direction, the width of the two-lane road between us.
“I changed my mind about singing for them,” my sister yelled from across the street. “Let’s go home, Lola.” She was wearing a bright red hat that made my big stomach flop. I was wearing a parka that had the same color as the snow that had collected under my fenders.
“But we need to get paid,” I said. I tried to shape my words into a paper airplane and fly it to her inconspicuously, while the world, like a teacher, had its back turned. But at that moment, the wind joined our conversation. It pushed my body the wrong way.
“What?” she called. “I can’t hear you.”
I cleared the wind-water from my eyes. “Necesitamos el dinero,” I said.
Alice wore her Spanish like her red hat. When I spoke it in public, my whole body felt like it was recovering from a bad case of frostbite. Even the ingrown hairs on my home-threaded eyebrows started to tingle. “Me vale madre,” she said.
The sidewalks were narrowed by slush and eruptions of black ice, and a handsome man approaching me with a booted Chihuahua powered along the single-file strip. I stumbled into the sludge. I had tried to tune up my garage-sale bicycle once, using some hex keys from our crooked landlord’s utility closet. Every time it moved through the snow, I thought it might fall apart. It would peel open like one in an old cartoon, banana-style.
Alice moved through the idyllic, Christmas-film neighborhood as if set to music. She skated along the ice in her canvas sneakers. The sludge had frozen my matching shoes into igloo bricks. I counted poinsettia baskets and cranberry wreaths to distract myself from the hard work of lifting my feet. Across the street, Alice had gained half a block on me.
I needed to slow her down.
“Where did you meet this professor again?” I called, though of course I remembered the day she had gone to audit a class without me. LAS320H: Hygiene and the performance of culture in twentieth-century Mexico. She had come home with daisies braided in her corkscrew hair.
“Strip club,” Alice yelled.
An old woman in a mink coat glowered as she passed me, as if I were the one who had said it. Her lipstick bled past the border of her lips.
“You did not,” I said.
“I love you so much, parsniptits,” Alice called.
She had no choice but to stop then, as a motorized wheelchair challenged her on the sidewalk. How that tartan-blanketed woman was pushing through the snow at all was a mystery. We had our bicycles and our instruments, but this machinery of hers was more than I could imagine hauling through the city. Alice stood in her way, and the woman sat in Alice’s.
The woman held down her chair’s horn, which played “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” in a series of perfunctory bleeps. Alice had only two laughs—lark song and ambulance siren—and now she let out the latter. The woman in the chair flipped a switch and the allegro became an aggressive version of “Pack It Up” by The Pretenders. Alice tried to act angry. But hadn’t I huddled behind the glass of a domestic while she demolished this same song at a packed karaoke bar, happily bulldozing all the words with R’s—burn, baby, burn?
Losing patience, the woman forced her chair forward. On the way past Alice, she clipped the side of her shoe and her bicycle pedal, which made a clanging noise that ricocheted off all the old-world streetlamps. Alice cursed, but her dead-weight words did not echo.
On the far side of the street, I had caught up to my sister. Rushing with all that freight had made me sweat, and although Alice was at her most beautiful with feral hair and red-soaked skin, I had to be more careful. A girl like me needed to shower twice a day. I needed to put on concealer and mascara just to go unnoticed.
“Doctor Rothschild is surprisingly hot,” she continued, as if the woman in the wheelchair had been a mutual hallucination.
I hoped the elderly swan-necked couples and the men embalmed in cashmere would assume we were discussing a character in a novel Alice was reading.
“And he probably thinks I’m hot, too,” she yelled.
On the power-washed window of a boutique store, I saw This winter, you can’t live without…, and behind the text was a scene of model evergreens and fleece snow, a succession of mannequins balanced on an ascending ski lift. Two ways I may never travel: up the resort gondola lift, down the groomed mountain.
Alice stopped walking, so I copied her.
“Pull out your pandero, Lola,” she shouted.
The cold air would make the skin stiff. And we were already late for our gig. Without the catered spread, I would not eat dinner tonight, and without the $100 each we were going to be paid, I would not eat dinner for the rest of the month. Alice had a sparrow’s grace and appetite, but I did not want to yell to explain all that. I took out my tambourine.
A young, winter-swept model walked past me, her cheeks salt white. As I started to bang the instrument, her steps grew faster, until she took a nervous left into an alleyway. Cold and bleached, she was the weather, and I had changed its inevitable course. For the next few beats, my hands got a static charge from the pandero skin.
Just as I was beginning to play more loudly, I heard Alice across the street tuning her ukulele. She had done that in our apartment not an hour before. The temperature, maybe, had affected the wood. I stopped drumming.
We first heard English in a clapping game our mother had taught us, back when we were both chubby children. I remembered struggling to keep time because my palms had barely made a noise. They had sounded like they were made of marshmallows. Now in front of a chocolatier, Alice started to sing, I am a pretty little Maya girl. As pretty as I can be, be, be.
A city bus filled with Friday night commuters and golden yuppies in evening-out sparkles interrupted the space between us. The vehicle squeezed my side of the road, covering my parka with the bile from its wheels. I hadn’t noticed until the driver pulled over, but I was standing beside a bus stop. He was waiting with his doors open for my dirty parka to come closer.
I waved him away instead of explaining that I had been standing in the wrong place. When the bus rasped back onto the road, I could see its marquee said, YOU, MY LOVE, BELONG HERE.
My boyfriend’s name is Fat Man. He comes from Chicoloapan, with turned-up toes and a pimple on his nose. And this is how the story goes… How was Alice managing to make even that flea-market ukulele look sexual? She was one of those car dashboard luau figures, summoning with her hips, only instead of a grass skirt, she had on orange snow pants.
In front of her, a waxed motorcycle slowed to a stop. A helmetless man in black dealer boots took a bill out of his crotch pocket and held it up for her. He wanted her to come get it from him. I squinted to see what the bill was, but it was too dark outside for my eyes to work. I wondered if I was looking at a month’s hydro or a six-pack of cola. Alice kept playing, though she bridged seamlessly from our childhood song into the chorus of “Pack It Up.” Her feet were planted evenly on the snow, as if she had a deed to that particular chunk of sidewalk.
“Alice,” I called. I looked to see if anyone was staring at me, but the only man passing was changing the song on his portable music player. “We should get to the university.”
My sister played a final flourish and zipped her ukulele away. “Que te folle un pez,” she said to the man.
The man rode away. Something in me moved. It was as if, when he pressed down on the pedal gear-shift, my body responded in the same way as the motorcycle. As much as I wanted him to disappear into the north wind, part of me wanted him to make a U-turn, to come back and cover me with his big, rich lips.
Alice started walking again, and I struggled to put the case back on my pandero while still forcing ahead with my bike. For half a block, I kept up with her. A bus passed in the opposite direction of the first, SOON YOU WILL BE HOME on the marquee. When the vehicle cleared, Alice was not ahead or behind, but directly across the street from me.
“I see the university,” Alice yelled.
Instead of “yours,” she said, “South.” I was relieved. My wet feet had gotten so cold that I didn’t know if I could cross the street. I thought about going into a champagne store and asking for two plastic bags to bind around my canvas sneakers, but by the time I steeled myself enough to go inside the store, Alice had already jaywalked and fallen in step beside me.
“Hola, amor,” Alice said. Her face was illuminated by a set of Benz headlights. Mostly what I saw was her red hat, the knit pulled so far down that I could barely make out her expression. Eyebrows, I had read in a psychology magazine I found in a recycling bin, spoke the language of the face. “You really want to go to that dumb conference?”
Together we passed a dozen storefronts, a dozen miniature worlds of cove lighting, runway kimonos, and immovable, oil-shined Oxfords. I had seen Alice spit sunflower seeds and black tobacco inside other people’s dress shoes when we went to look after their Nordic-sweatered children. Now as we passed these stores, she pretended not to notice the fancy shoes at all. If we had been in one of our gigglier moods, we might both have referred to this willful ignorance as “estilo de Lola.”
Streetlamps threw light crudely on Alice’s body, saddled as she was by her bike and uke. For a minute, I did not see my brave, infuriating sister. But I saw someone else I had sometimes known. Estilo de Lola.
“Lead on, pendeja,” I said.
We took a left together, and did the Poor Musicians’ Shuffle down a conduit named Philosopher’s Walk. The signs for the conference appeared and then appeared more regularly, until we found a turreted Victorian building the color of a split almond. To an iron fence that was taller than the two of us combined, we locked our bicycles.
We shared a sister eye-roll and fell up the stairs. The oak doors were too heavy to open, even when we both pulled the handle, and it didn’t occur to us until our hands peeled into white lines of red that the doors might be locked from the inside.
“Is there another entrance?” Alice asked me.
“Do I look like I’ve been here?” I tried to stamp my shoe, but the rubber sole absorbed the sound.
She looked at my face as if it were a storefront I was, for once, occupying. “Kind-of,” she said.
We followed the curve of the building until we found an even larger entrance, a Siberian tiger in the cedar door, his protracted claws poised in a way that suggested he had carved himself into the wood. The door moved when we leaned into it, and we lurched into that vaulted, cut-tree forest, dragging the dirty city in on our footwear. We left a trail of gray slush and cigarette ash all the way to the main rotunda, where we had been told the conference attendees would be mingling.
When we were close enough to hear a man say the words economic variables and liminal space, we paused at the threshold. A single voice in a room of putative minglers. We were late, and the keynote had started.
“We find ourselves at a crossroads,” the man was saying. “The city’s transportation system is in shambles, and who is affected most by that reality? Those who don’t have cars. Those who live in the suburbs and peripheries. Those who need to get to housekeeping or janitorial or waitressing jobs at an unseemly hour each day.”
“Is he the hot one?” I asked Alice.
“Vete al infierno,” she said reflexively. Then she listened to the voice. “Yes, that sounds like Samuel.”
I hit her back like the cool, stretched plate of a frame drum when she said the name Samuel. When had she won that particular intimacy? And why hadn’t I been given the same chance?
Though I wouldn’t admit it to my sister, I had never been on campus before. “Where do you think the money for this building came from?” I asked her, expecting a cago en tu leche.
Instead, I saw my favorite odd Alice habit. When I asked a question to which she didn’t know the answer, she would turn her toes inward and look like she was going to stumble, like a bird that had just discovered its birdness.
“Let’s give Samuel a chance to explain,” she said.
We shed our outdoor skin on the shampooed carpet, leaving a bubble of parkas that from my experience looked like a bed. Inside the room, we could hear Samuel tying a bow of Gandhi quotations around the end of his keynote. The speech was followed by a rush of cathartic applause. Supported by that ovation, Alice unzipped her ukulele case, and I followed her by freeing my pandero.
The arrangement had always been that Alice would start into her choice of song, without having discussed it with me beforehand, and I would improvise the percussion section. Consensus was that I could keep rhythm to any song. And besides, I felt most comfortable in the act of catching up.
“Ready?” I asked.
Just as silence-frost was settling in the rotunda, Paz ripped through the opening chords of “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.” She was wearing a torn black sweater with an allover print of a wolverine, and as she moved into the radiant scatter of the audience’s white faces, the little weasels seemed to be waltzing to her bastardized Mozart. She tramped all the way on stage, stopping in front of a stained glass window printed with a coronation crown, an oak bearing gravid acorns, and Latin words I understood through a different heritage. I leaned in the extravagant doorway and looked for Hot Doctor Rothschild.
Alice stared down the seam of the audience to where I was standing with my naked pandero. Again, a road had parted us. I wanted to play the way my sister was, her conviction making a Hendrix fire of the ukulele’s gut strings. Instead, I was one of the audience faces. In our odd-couple teenage years, when we walked around our neighborhood as a little head of garlic and a long, lovely poblano, I had teased Alice for choosing such a girly instrument. “It comes,” she had said, “from a Portuguese guitar called the machete de braça. You hear that, cloudfart? It’s a fucking machete.”
I started to learn the bass drum, but it was so loud it drowned out her ukulele. So instead, she bought me my first pandero.
In front of the conference attendees, Alice started to invent lyrics. Her Spanish rolled out so quickly that she lost her tongue in it. The crowd was looking around in confusion, but a few silver-hairs were tapping their patent heels. I wondered if Hot Doctor Rothschild was one of the heel-tappers. I had looked up a photo after Alice came home elated by his lecture, but if I was going to get a glimpse of his expression, I needed to waltz on stage beside my sister.
In the brashest voice I had, I started to sing, “Here we go, let’s get on the dance floor! Don’t you know, I’m already bored! Music, a little night music, a little night music, a little night music, a little night, n-n-n-n-night, n-n-n-n-night!” Walking toward her, I felt light in my canvas shoes. They were still wet, but in this colonial room with its fireplace burning fennel, I could feel the cold lifting.
Doctor Rothschild was in the second row wearing a Panama hat. I had looked up his photo after Alice came home from his lecture elated, pink dahlias on her cheeks. Now in person, other than his tranquil, even eyebrows, I registered nothing about his face. It was a vertical ribbon of ice down which a girl could slide ad nauseam, having no flaw to grip.
“So let’s not sit here like a bunch of statues of conquistadors,” I sang, starting the slow part of the song. “So let’s not wait around like a bunch of expired prunes, expired prunes, expired prunes. Let’s eat some hu-u-ummus. There’s one kind with coconut, I saw it on my way in, oh yes I did, yes I did.”
My sister was laughing under her Quetzalcoatl hair. All the snow outside was washed by that sound of rain.
Alice finished with a C triad, while several people gently applauded. Doctor Rothschild stood up squarely above his Oxfords and turned to face the crowd. “These interesting ladies were invited to perform a few Mexican folk songs for us tonight,” he said. “I guess folk music has changed since I was young.”
The people in the audience looked as alive as the oil portraits of former university presidents on the walls. A few of them laughed at the doctor’s joke. That cloudfart owed us so much hummus.
Doctor Rothschild continued, “Over the coming days, we will have lots to talk about. And perhaps we can invite our guerilla guests to join us in these conversations.” I could not see his face from where I stood. I wondered if this invitation was for show, or if he was really going to laminate badges for us—LOLA LANA, VERY IMPORTANT AND ESTEEMED DELEGATE, CONFERENCE TO END POVERTY IN THE AMERICAS. I imagined having a placard around my neck that showed everyone I belonged. I could enter any of their buildings without feeling that my own shadow was a security guard.
Alice and I stuffed our cheeks, and then our pants’ pockets, and then our instrument cases. Weighed down this time by camembert and dried sourdough and little tubs of fig preserve, we moved toward Hot Doctor Rothschild.
“Permiso,” I said, as we approached his tweed back.
Turning, the professor looked at me the way I have looked at bus stop advertisements in noisy fonts. “Thank you for performing,” he said. “Do you ladies want to stick around for some coffee?”
Beside me, Alice was pointing her mucky boot toes inward. Finally she said, “We’ve got nowhere else to be.” And then, privately, “Anyway, I’m not ready to leave just yet.”
Alice and Doctor Rothschild were alone in another city. I was a noisy snowplow pushing down their street. Still, they had chosen not to close their bedroom window. “Can we have our money?” I asked.
The man wire-mouthed me. “I don’t believe we’ve met,” he said, holding out one hand. “I’m Samuel.”
In the breast pocket of his jacket, I noticed, was a package of water biscuits. I called myself Lola Esquire and took his offered hand. When he said the words back to me, they were shining and material, as if laminated and fixed to my neck with white string.
“Lola, your shoes are soaked. Why don’t we all move closer to the fire?”
When I was a child, my mother tried to get me to eat her fried squash blossoms. Alice had already finished her plate and was starting on mine. “I don’t like them,” I’d said, sticking out my halitotic tongue.
“How do you know,” my mother had asked, “when you’ve never tasted them?”
I nodded at Samuel. As we walked, I imagined we were a family moving beside the cedar smoke after our dinner. There would be moccasins and foreign broadsheets waiting for us. One of the chairs seemed to have a perfect, time-worn groove on the velvet cushion, made just for my lovely, fat derriere.
On the way, an old man intercepted us. He seemed to be made entirely of dried apricots—earlobes, knuckles, elbows. I was still hungry. I supposed when you had reached a certain level of hunger, it would always be there, like a phantom limb. “Luce and I are heading home, if you wanted a ride,” the old man said to Samuel.
Samuel asked if there was room for us all. I did not hear the answer. I was already leading him and Alice by their wrists to the fireplace.
The three of us sat in separate wing chairs beside the stone hearth. Alice played “Cielito Lindo” on her ukulele, which again by change of atmosphere had gone slightly out of tune. It made her notes sound clear and echoic, the way an old doorbell does when you are already inside the house.
Laura Legge lives and writes in Toronto. Her work has appeared most recently in The Malahat Review, PRISM international, and Room magazine, and she was nominated for the 2014 CBC Short Story Prize.