I was sitting in my favorite coffeehouse this past Sunday afternoon, whiling away a spectacular day over a bottomless cup of Kona coffee and the New York Time’s coverage of Michael Phelps’ eighth gold medal. Seeing as I’m old enough to remember Mark Spitz, 36 years ago in Munich, Phelps’ magnificent quest for eight has captured my complete attention this Olympic go-around in Beijing.
Well, that and women’s beach volleyball. But that’s another story.
The place is called Crossroads, and it is the best coffeehouse, bar none, in Richmond. The coffee’s great, the cups, as I said, are bottomless, and the crowd is an eclectic mix of VCU college kids and Soho-wannabes from the Fan. The guy who sold me my coffee had a triple-pierced lower lip, multi, multi tats, and little blue plates stuck in his earlobes. Oh, and there’s even a sign on the wall, extolling us to “Make Richmond Weird.”
A breath of fresh air for a guy like me, stranded in a starched-shirt, buttoned-down, old South town like Richmond.
As I looked across the shop, I scanned the multitude of flyers posted on the counter. A poster for a band called Face Down, Booty Up (gotta check them out). A flyer for a Kung Fu Film Festival at VCU (think I’ll pass). Then I saw it, tacked up between a “Roommate Wanted" sign and a "Food Not Bombs" poster.
"4/4 Hans Kroger Cello. Solid spruce top of tight grain, inlaid purling, two-piece maple back, beautifully flamed! Ribs and scroll similar. Well-balanced tone and easy response, fitting include ebony fingerboard and pegs, Wittner-style tail piece, D'Addario Helicore strings, endpin with rubber-coated tip.”
Now, as instruments go, I’m vaguely familiar with the cello. I could pick one out of a lineup. If pressed, I could probably identify one by sound, so long as it wasn’t being played too far out of its normal range.
They tell me that the cello, formally known as the violoncello, is the bass instrument of the violin family, classified as a “bowed lute,” if that helps you. Its full name means, in Italian, a “small, large viol,” a bizarre combination arising in large part from the instrument’s confusing pedigree.
Called a bass violin, or violone, in its earliest forms, the smaller model of cello with which we are today familiar did not become standard until the early years of the 18th century. It was apparently cut, literally, from its cumbersome predecessor with the advent of wirewound strings, which allowed for a fuller sound from a much shorter string.
Originally played while resting on the floor, held pressed between the musician’s legs, the modern cello is often outfitted with an endpin to elevate it, enhancing the instrument's tone while making it easier to hold. The neck of the cello is held and fingered by the left hand, at a slanted, oblique angle, with the thumb positioned behind the first finger.
Technique and formalities aside, though, I seem to remember reading somewhere that the cello is considered one of the sexiest of the classical instruments, and I would have to agree. That wonderful alto tone, mellifluous and full, neither too reedy nor too deep. The shape, so suggestive, a beautiful woman waiting patiently for the right fingers to make her sing.
And let’s not forget position and technique. Alone among the strings, the cello demands a mate, an artist lover to intertwine in sensual embrace, making music by making love.
I mean, Susan Sarandon, Witches of Eastwick? Hello?!?
For me, though, the cello will always belong to one person, and one person alone. Nobody you’d know. Her name was Heather, and she was one of my legal assistants back in the day when I commanded a troop of high-priced legal help to work my black magic in the courtroom.
In appearance, plain, in manner, severe, Heather was an excellent legal assistant, and an even better cellist. I still remember, as if it were yesterday, the first time I ever saw her play.
It was at her place, moving day. For her, not me. She happened to live in Cleveland Park, in Washington, D.C., about two blocks away from where I lived at the time. She was moving to a place a few blocks down the street because her old place had paper-thin floors, which made it difficult for her to practice.
That's how much this woman loved the cello.
Well, when we finally finished moving all of Heather's stuff into the new place, she couldn't wait to try out the thicker floors, rushing to open her case for an impromptu practice session. I sat down, a little condescendingly, willing to spend a polite fifteen minutes as Heather's audience while I planned out the rest of my weekend.
Then she began to play.
I sat there, motionless, speechless, watching this woman I'd worked with for years transform before my eyes. The calluses on her fingers, no longer rough, without feeling, but instruments themselves, willing those beautiful notes into existence. Her muscles, those strong muscles of her right shoulder, once so seemingly stringy, sinewy, now conferred the perfect absolution of this woman’s music.
And her face. Oh, her face. Once that of a spinster-in-training, now awash in joy. The woman could not have been more radiant had she been in the throes of orgasm, of that I am certain. She was transformed. I, transfixed.
In a phrase I would use years later to describe an awkward teenager coming to life on a chilly skating rink, Heather had become Suddenly Beautiful, a beauty found only in those giving free reign to the gifts a loving God has given them.
A collection of wood, varnish, and wire can do all that? I thought. There must be something to it.
As I stared out at the Cello for Sale sign, my mind ran away with my thoughts. I imagined the cello’s owner, agonizing over her decision to give up such an important part of her life. I pictured in my mind’s eye the dire circumstances that must have led to such a difficult decision. Lost job? Family emergency? Who knew?
So there I sat, lost in the middle of a dozen real human stories playing out right in front of me in that coffeehouse, a spy behind enemy lines fully engaged in an imaginary tale of someone I’d never meet.
I do that sometimes.
Resolving to do a little better this time, I stepped out of my reverie and walked across to the sign. Perhaps there was some clue in the fine print, something to put my little obsession to rest. Sure enough, as I approached the counter, I saw the words at the bottom of the sign.
"Outfit was purchased brand new in 2004. I have not devoted ample time to developing my skill, and so am parting with it."
There, I thought. That was so much better. No longer a grieving artist forced to part with her musical mate, the story was now an instrument on a quest to fulfill its destiny, to find a partner in creation.
That was a story I could live with.