When Carmen plays viola she feels his love soar down through the veins in her arm, and she pushes it through her bow. When her father’s heart stopped last year, the pain began in his shoulder and etched its way down his arm, but he didn’t let it out because he didn’t know what it was, what was being asked of him.
People say it’s a mystery, this kind of love, that it’s unconditional, but people are wrong. Carmen wishes this weren’t the case. She wishes that she and Jesus could have forgiven her father for the girl at the office who sent him out on his construction jobs. But her father never asked for forgiveness, and even Jesus requires that much.
Her father left his cell phone in the kitchen drawer when he was home, forgot about it while her mother cleaned houses and he napped on the couch or pulled weeds from the potted tomato plants he kept on the balcony. But even on vibrate, Carmen could hear his phone in the drawer when she got home from school, and she went to it. She hated to give the calls to her father, but the calls meant money. “Put him on,” the girl would say over Carmen’s long silences, her voice reedy and crisp and smelling like mint even over phone. “Give him to me.”
Carmen divides the world up into orchestra and band. The girl who sent her father out on construction jobs and texted photos of herself over the phone that Carmen is sure would have shocked even the middle school boys who drew penises on the inside covers of pre-algebra textbooks, was band. She was a trombone or maybe snare drum. Something showy and loud. Carmen worried about her appearing at her father’s funeral. She had only seen pictures of her on the small screen of her father’s cell phone, but Carmen knew she’d recognize her. She imagined the church doors opening, and the girl surrounded by thick gusts of air, her hair blown back around her face, her thick, pouty lips pink and wet.
The girl was marching band, Carmen decided as she scanned the church, twisted around in the front pew, looking over the heads of her uncles and aunts and cousins. She had already moved on.
Carmen likes orchestra rehearsal, but she doesn’t like Jenna, the first chair violin seated next to Carmen every Tuesday and Thursday they meet to rehearse. Carmen has heard one of her uncles say that he smells money when he goes to the racetrack, that that’s how he picks his horses. When Jenna leans over her violin with her clean blond hair cut into thick layers that fall around her face, Carmen smells money, which, she decides, is cinnamon mixed with chlorine and talcum powder. Jenna wears white sneakers and small gold earrings and chews gum so quietly that she’s never asked to spit it out, even in French class where Madame Toulec walks up and down the aisles with her tiny pink trash can in one hand and violet-scented tissues in the other.
The door to the music room opens as they are finishing rehearsing Bach’s Brandenburg 3. “I have donuts,” a boy in the doorway, someone’s little brother, says. This is a difficult piece, and they aren’t even close to getting it right yet. They need to run through it again in parts and then from the beginning. The second violin section is coming in a beat too late. One of the cellos is hitting a B flat instead of a sharp. As first chair violin, it’s Jenna’s job to lead them, but Jenna is a terrible leader. She is already laughing and folding up her sheet music. Carmen looks to Mr. Korman for back-up, but he’s doing crossword puzzles at his desk in his little office attached to the rehearsal space and not looking up.
The boy has let himself in the music room now. He’s wearing a baseball uniform and carrying a big white bag with handles. Carmen thinks of her own little brother who is probably this boy’s age, eight maybe, or nine, but smaller, not just shorter. Her brother’s ears stick out a little too much and his dark bangs long over his eyes. All of the other little brothers at Henry Middle School have spiky blond hair and noses peeling from sunburns, and they’re dressed for baseball or soccer or basketball. They kick rocks across the playground and high five the most popular eighth-grade boys, the ones that Carmen has trouble looking in the eye when they are forced into group work together in history class. Carmen’s brother comes home after school, puts on his pajamas and watches cartoons in Spanish. He hides behind their mother’s leg when they are somewhere new.
The little brothers at Henry Middle School are band.
Carmen’s little brother is orchestra.
Now that donuts are here, everyone has stopped playing. They do not know their music, and the bell hasn’t rung yet, but class is apparently over. Carmen had expected more from her new school, has trouble accepting that the students here are in just as much of a hurry to get out of class as they were at Susan B. Anthony. That the only difference is that they all speak English and so far no one appears to be pregnant.
Jenna lets her violin fall onto the carpet that’s so thin you can see through it in places. Carmen listens to the sounds of the strings tumbling all around her, the accidental notes that let out when a cello falls into a bass, the metal thud of a music stand being kicked over.
Maybe this is the sound of money, she thinks.
Carmen holds tight to her viola, which isn’t hers at all, really, but on loan from Henry Middle the way her old one was on loan from Susan B. Anthony Middle.
In truth, Carmen would like a donut, but she will not join the orchestra, knocking each other out of the way to be the first to reach into the bag.
“We’re not done,” Carmen says instead.
“Fuck you,” Luke says. Luke plays cello, but to Carmen he will always be band. He curses often and in a disarmingly good-natured way. Carmen is devoted to him secretly and completely. She is protective of her love for him as she is of her loaned viola, aware that neither will ever be hers.
She is a ransfer student from across town, new this year when a slot opened on the waiting list her mother put her on when a seventh grader at her old school got pregnant. The principal mailed home a rare note in English and Spanish, encouraging parents to discuss both abstinence and birth control with their children. Instead, Carmen’s mother decided she should go to another school, one in the same neighborhood where she cleans houses.
Carmen has no one at Henry Middle School to confide in about Luke. Her friends from her old school called her stuck up and then stopped returning her text messages after she transferred. Carmen is alone with her feelings, which, she decides, makes her closer to Jesus, who was also alone, despite his great love for humanity.
Mr. Korman is out of his office now, saying, “Save one for me. Take it easy there, kids.” Mr. Korman has a big belly that hangs over his belt, but from the back he looks thin. Each time he turns around his belly is an unhappy surprise to Carmen, like the Sunday school teacher she once had with the long smooth dyed blond hair and brown face full of wrinkles.
“Going, going, gone,” Mr. Korman says, reaching deep into the white bag.
A half hour later, Carmen is alone in the music room with her viola. She is not really allowed to be in this classroom alone, but Mr. Korman trusts her to lock up behind her. All of the teachers trust her at her new middle school just like they trusted her at her old middle school and at her elementary school before that. She is the girl who takes the attendance down to the main office and walks the sick boy to the nurse’s room. The girl who copies down the homework assignment from the board and never asks for an extension. At her old school, she didn’t talk to the other girls in Advisory class about cramps and stealing cigarettes, and at her new school, she doesn’t talk to them about skipping math tutoring and making out with high school boys. She is the girl who gets the certificate at the end of each marking period for never being tardy or absent.
Carmen is alone with her viola, the most misunderstood of instruments. Even the man at the music store where she buys her replacement strings pronounces it wrong. Vi-ola instead of vee-ola.
Her father didn’t know what she played. My daughter the violin player, he used to brag to relatives at parties. Correcting him felt mean, like correcting his double negatives or the way he said the number three as if it didn’t have an “h” in it. Viola, she said, under her breath. Viola, viola, viola.
Her parents are from El Salvador and learned English from the channel nine news, the world’s problems in the background whenever they were home. She didn’t forgive her father for the girl on the cell phone but she forgave him for not knowing the difference between a violin and a viola.
Once her body while she read each page, committing jokes to memory. How do you keep your violin from getting stolen? Put it in a viola case. What's the difference between a viola and a trampoline? You take your shoes off to jump on a trampoline.
In truth, when Carmen chose the viola as her instrument in fourth grade, she didn’t know what she was picking from the “petting zoo” set up in the cafeteria. Embarrassed to try instruments without already knowing how to play, Carmen had pointed when it came to her turn. We finally have our viola player. Excellent, the music teacher said, making a note on her clipboard.
Carmen had learned to appreciate its sound later. The viola didn’t squeal the way the violins did when you played a bad note. You didn’t have to stand it up in public in front of you and wrap your arm around it the way you did a cello.
Mr. Korman thinks she stays in the music room to practice her viola. And she does, going over and over her scales. But she really stays to dance in the center of the empty room. Carmen has thick ankles, slightly bowed legs and slumped posture. She knows all of these things about herself. Her family never had money for dance lessons, and even if they had, Carmen wouldn’t have asked for them. She doesn’t want to pull pink tights over her thick ankles and learn what she’s doing wrong. She doesn’t want to line up next to girls who look like Jenna. She wants to dance alone.
When Carmen is sure that enough time has passed that even the principal has left for the day, she places her viola in the red velvet lining of its case. Ever since her father died and she knelt before him laid out in his coffin, she has thought of the violin’s case as its coffin, and she crosses herself before snapping it shut. What's the difference between a viola and a coffin? The coffin has the dead person on the inside.
There is a pile of old classical records in Mr. Korman’s office on the floor near his desk. Carmen pulls out The Nutcracker from the center where she left it last week, the frayed edge sticking out a little. Carmen’s uncle has a broken record player in his garage, but Mr. Korman is the only person she knows who still has a turntable that actually works. Sometimes when he gets tired of sitting in his office and doing crossword puzzles and listening to how terrible they sound, he comes out and yells at them and then plays Vivaldi or Mozart or Schuman, and tells them to shut up and listen. That this is how it’s done.
Don’t ever touch my turntable, he tells the class every time he plays them a record. Do you know how expensive it is to replace a damn needle?
You’ve got to update, Mr. Korman, Jenna always says, but Carmen likes the way the records sound, crackled and serious.
Carmen knows exactly where “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” is on the record. She takes off her shoes and socks and finds the thick groove and gently places the arm down so the needle is in the right spot. Then she folds her body over itself in the center of the room and listens. She tries to pick out each of the instruments one at a time: trumpet, oboe, flute, violin, until she finally hones in on the viola section.
But no matter how hard she listens, every instrument, not just the violas, is overshadowed by the celesta. Carmen wrote a research paper on this piece for extra credit and knows the ethereal bell-like sound is made by tiny hammers striking metal plates, that this particular sound is a result of careful engineering. But it still sounds like heaven to Carmen each time she hears it. And, each time, she thinks about her father and wonders if he made it there, even though he cheated on her mother with the cell phone girl, even though he never asked anyone, not even Carmen, for forgiveness.
Carmen rises on her tiptoes, arches her arms over her head and spins slowly around. She imagines her father and then Jesus watching her, seeing her beauty, the way she feels this music coursing through her body. She imagines Luke, the cello player, staring at her with desire. What she doesn’t imagine is the boy with the donuts standing once again in the doorway.
“What are you doing?" he asks.
Carmen stops dancing, but the record is spinning and she can feel the sugar plum fairies still dancing all around her.
“Nothing,” she says.
“I saw you,” the boy says.
“What do you want?” Carmen says. She is walking over to the record player now. She feels her bare feet moving over the thin carpet. She lifts the arm up and the music stops.
“Jenna forgot her violin,” the boy says. “She’s in the car, with our mom. You’re not allowed to touch Mr. Korman’s record player. Jenna says no one is, that he’s a total freak about it.”
Carmen ignores the boy and opens Jenna’s locker, the combination lock open and dangling the way it always is. Carmen lifts off the lock and opens the door, hands the boy the violin. “You’re lucky I was here,” she says.
“I would have just found the janitor,” the boy says. “I’m going to tell you played Mr. Korman’s record player when he wasn’t here. Give me something or I’m going to tell.”
Carmen stares at the boy who had the bag of donuts, the little brother in the baseball uniform. He’s wearing a cap now and she can’t see his spiky blond hair, but now she understands that it’s Jenna’s hair, cut short and mean. “How do you know I didn’t have permission?” Carmen says.
“I don’t have anything to give you,” Carmen says.
“Give me five dollars or I’m telling,” the boy says.
“I don’t have anything,” Carmen says. It’s true. Her mother won’t let her bring money on the bus because it might get stolen. She only has her student ID and her prepaid bus card.
“Show me your bra,” the boy says. “Show it to me or I’m going to tell Mr. Korman that you played a record.” The boy stares at her bare feet. “And I’m going to tell my sister that you’re a total freak.”
Carmen laughs, but the boy isn’t smiling. She hears a car horn beep four times in a row. She has always been the girl the teachers trust.
“They’re waiting for me,” the boy says. “My mother and Jenna. They’re both in the car.”
“I’ll bring you the money tomorrow,” she says.
“Too late,” the boy says. He’s turning and walking toward the door when Carmen says stop.
The boy is not much older than Carmen’s brother. Maybe he’s ten or eleven, she decides. He’ll tell Mr. Korman that she used his record player, and he’ll tell Jenna that he saw the transfer girl dancing around the music room, and Jenna will tell everyone, even Luke, and they’ll all know. “Okay,” she finally says. Carmen closes her eyes and lifts her shirt up quickly and then pulls it back down.
“Now promise not to tell,” Carmen says.
“I’m not promising anything,” the boy says.
Carmen hears the car horn again. Next year or the year after when he’s at this middle school, Carmen will have already moved in to high school. He is capable of ruining her life only right now, at this very moment.
“Promise or I won’t forgive you, and Jesus won’t forgive you either,” she says.
“Jenna’s right,” the boy says. “You are a total freak.”
Someone is leaning on the car horn now. Carmen imagines Jenna’s thin fingers pushing and pushing.
Carmen stares at the boy hard. “Promise,” she says.
“You’re crazy,” the boy says, but something passes over his sunburned face that Carmen hopes is fear. “I’m coming!” the boy yells and then he’s gone.
Carmen lifts The Nutcracker off the turntable and puts it back in the album cover. She slips the album into the center of the pile near Mr. Korman’s desk, the frayed edge sticking out just enough so she can find it next time.
When Carmen steps outside with her viola, the fog is already rolling in. She walks down the sidewalk to the bus stop feeling the air turn wet on her arms and face, the only music in her head now the sound of a siren, someone else’s emergency, moving nearer and nearer to her.