The Best Exotic String Quartet.


The red dot on the hot rollers goes black. She turns off the TV. Time to set the hair for another gig.

At this hour, she isn’t sure which arouses the more intense emotion: being slated to perform outdoors at the Great Blue Haze Festival, or anticipating the sight of her college boyfriend again after twelve years. No matter that he’d left her for a psych major with a natural overbite who lived in a trailer and worked at the toll booths on the Turnpike. She’s never played a folk festival in her life. Either way, both events are on her docket for this waning summer eve, and the sleeveless black chiffon from Pier I is the order of the wardrobe.

The dress is the easy choice. First, there’ll be the annual Orchestra on the Promenade, guests on the lawn, light symphonic favorites under fluorescent pole lighting rendering her olive skin that particularly subtle shade of jaundice as the sun sets. This they could all do with their eyes closed, no matter the skin they were in. But, the gig at Blue Haze – that was going to command a real performance.

Harry, the first violinist, is sure they can make stage just in time if they pack into the Ford pick up precisely after the Satchmo Medley. His wife will follow in the van. He knows the back country roads, because he has lived them, and one is inclined to trust the man of fewest words, outside or in.

Thankfully, the air is balmy at departure and she is glad to be following directly behind the big red truck, hauling her precious 1838 Simoutre. Of concern is a saturating thunderstorm further east, likely rendering any ground covered by outdoor festival attendees a soggy mud slide where there is no grass, to say nothing of the lingering wetness in the air that might lie in wait for the cello’s quilted maple varnish. But, this will be a good gig, Harry’d said. The promoter’d promised they’d play Piazzolla and Moondog, and the crowd would go wild.

Arrival is a snake across nearly pitch black sod, as the Ford pick up takes the lead. Parking is a sucking sound, to be repeated in rhythm, as footwear designed for the concert boards moves across the unwelcoming terrain. And, the blackness; is it the eyesight of advancing age, or are there no stars left in the cosmos? She lifts her cello case a bit higher, to clear the fog which is settling just above their ankles as they trudge.

Then, out of the void, that unmistakeable burn of electronic amplification. A single spotlight bathes the smattering of die hard hold outs, devoted to the final unknown five in their cotton cloth who’d been promised a debut on the mainstage. From the rear of the makeshift structure, the four wondering members of the string quartet approach, and stand on the soaking grass behind. Harry has worked it all out with the promoter: play mainstage, immediately after the last band standing, or not at all. He’d said to be there by 11:30pm, they’ve made it onto the site by 11:35, and Geoff, the second violinist, is a fund manager; by his calculations, this is a non-Union gig, and they are on time.

The cork in her dress wedges begins to absorb rain water. The black Pier I chiffon billows prophetically. She looks at Harry. Where is the promoter?

Sitting on the final chord for a few extra seconds, the cotton clothed unknowns finish their last cover. The sound crew moves in. Briskly, they begin to dismantle the woofers and the cables and the band’s equipment. And, the festival die hards move on out, like fruit flies at a firefly convention, in the vague direction of a nearby hill.

She wonders if her college boyfriend still wears Royal Spyce. She can still remember his brown polyester slacks, sheathing legs that went on forever. Leaning carefully against the upright cello case, she removes her cork wedges. Her stocking feet soak into the wet grass.

The last light goes out on the mainstage. The sound crew slams the tailgate closed, scrambles into their vehicle, and disappears into the night.

The violist’s name is Satou. He’s a friend of Harry’s from New York. Being the benevolent and beloved man about town, Harry attracts all the real artistes from the four corners of the earth. Satou stands quietly. Geoff looks at his watch.

Twenty two minutes pass.

She thinks about the time her college boyfriend sang “Imagine” by John Lennon at the Leaping Lizard Lounge on Route 5. His voice, his legs under the Fender Rhodes, everything about him. And, that song. That mild blasphemy. No heaven. No hell. She is sure she’d fallen deliciously, disobediently in love, right there and then at the Leaping Lizard.

Then, she has no idea why, a verse from the Book of Revelation. She shivers. “The day of the Lord shall come as a thief in the night.”

Like a bullet, the promoter is upon them. His is a baby face that can still bear up a shoulder length shag, and the earnest countenance of a guy who knows the stars shone on him from birth. His shoulders lean the rest of him forward eagerly, as he vigorously shakes Harry’s hand. We are here! Great! Follow him, he says. We’ll be performing under the tent!

Satou looks at Harry. She looks at Geoff. The tent? What tent? But the promoter is already way ahead of all of them.

Harry isn’t happy. He’d worked it all out. They were to play Piazzolla and Moondog, mainstage or not at all.

Harry’s wife pulls up in the van. Harry opens its rear doors, loads the cello, and the quartet heads up the hill after the promoter.

She isn’t sure whether it is the night air, or the waning thunderstorm, or the lay of the glen, but sound doesn’t seem to travel well through the blackness of that space until one is on top of its source. As they catch up to the promoter, the sound catches up with them: Thump Thump Thump Thump Thumpa. The tent. The tent. The mind-numbing Thump Thump Thumpa Thump.

The Rave tent.

Incandescent bulbs dent the cable strung lazily between each tent pole. A long, laminated table holds up one end, and the Rave deejay’s equipment covers it completely. Styrofoam cups roll around on the dirt ground. Residual wind whips at the canvas. And, a solid mass of bare, upstretched female arms wave beneath. Thump Thump Thump Thump Thumpa Thump.

Harry walks away.  She is left with the promoter and his assistant, a bald guy in sweats. She asks them about the twenty two minutes of dead time between 11:35 and midnight during which the sound crew leaves.

The promoter freaks. He’s the promoter! He’s got forty bands here! The deejay in the rave tent is from Chicago! The deejay from Chicago has agreed to cut his set in half so you guys can go on! He’s the promoter! He’s spent his last two hours dealing with us! He can’t be everywhere! If we want, when he sees the sound crew in the morning, he can give them a spanking!”

She tells the promoter that she is a teacher who has worked with high school students. She says that the rave kids won’t want a string quartet to break up the rave. They will throw stuff. Heavy stuff. Like, the deejay’s equipment. You know. Jesus in the temple. Righteous, Rave anger.

The promoter says that he has good, non-violent people here. She tells him that her cello is worth 20 grand and is irreplaceable, unlike the Chicago deejay’s equipment which is made in a factory. She tells him that Harry’s violin, and Geoff’s, and Satou’s viola, and her cello, are worth collectively several thousand dollars. The promoter folds his arms, leans against the van, and stops talking.

Harry comes down the hill. He hands his key ring to his wife, asks her to drive everyone to the mainstage, and walks away. Harry’s wife looks down at the key ring, and back up at Satou. Where’s the van key?

The cello is locked in the van.

Thunder reminisces in the distance. It takes fifteen minutes of scrambling in the mud looking for the van key to come up empty handed. Then, the promoter and the bald assistant appear, and announce that the string quartet is on after the Rave deejay for a half hour, at 1:00 am. Geoff tells them the quartet isn’t on anywhere, because the cello is locked in the van and Harry’s van key is lost in the mud.

Down goes the promoter, on all fours, like a wild boar on a truffle hunt. Two and a half minutes later, he surfaces, triumphant. The key is in the palm of his hand. He crows. Now, you HAVE to play!!

She slogs up the hill in the squidge, cello in tow, with the violist. Standing, she stares at the rave, still steaming full on like an electronic sea of organic kelp. For the first time all evening, Satou opens his mouth. He says that last night, when they’d tried to stop the rave, everybody’d gone really rowdy. This is enough for her. But, she is not in charge.

Then, the hands of time begin to spin. The earth tips ever so slightly on its axis. Geoff turns to Satou, and says  that, Well, he is leaving. This is it. He’s not playing. Satou says don’t tell me; tell Harry.

Geoff walks down the hill. Two minutes later, it is over. The quartet is three, not four, and they are not playing. It is 1:25 a.m. Her college boyfriend is due at the maingate in five minutes.



She wonders who has heard Jesse Jackson the night before on TV. He makes her cry. Why can’t he be President?





© Ruth Ann Scanzillo

1996; revised and completed 2/17/15

all rights reserved. Good night, Gracie.


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