Fiction

The Quackers

By: Barry J. Vitcov

Buzzy and Clara fell in love at the duck pond. Of course, like no other romance, it started with the willowy and vibrative sounds of a saw being played crudely by wannabe professional basketball player Buzzy Mendelsohn. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” never sounded so awful or so alluring.

            Buzzy Mendelsohn is a skinny, almost five-foot six-inch basketball player who once dreamed of being tall. Now he spends much of his time being a gym rat, duck pond visitor and recently an avid saw player. At one time, he was a high school star hoopster with an unbelievable vertical leap, smart ball handling skills and an outstanding outside shot with the ability to get fouled and chalk up a high percentage of free throws.  Because of his diminutive size, he was a lightly recruited player by several NCAA Division II colleges. Scouting reports noted his smarts, speed and a skill for creating scoring opportunities for his teammates. His dreams of playing in the NBA remained dreams during the seven years he drifted through several Australian and European teams. He managed to save almost all of what he earned during those years and smartly invested, with lessons learned from his grandfather, his earnings.  Those investments now allow him to live comfortably while looking to become a fulltime college coach. He currently coaches at his former high school where his reputation as a player is still very much alive. His coaching responsibilities leave most of his mornings and afternoons with unstructured time. Much of that time he can be found walking through the city park situated across the boulevard from his modest apartment building. When the mood strikes, he totes his thirty-inch Stradivarius musical saw, violin bow and rosin in a custom-made case over to a bench adjacent to the duck pond. He tries to pick a time when there are few others in the park, and he won’t be a noisy nuisance. Weekends never work. Thursdays before or after the lunch hour seem best.

            When Buzzy and Clara eventually met, the first thing he noticed was her hair. Clara Roth’s wavy red hair worn long and full gives the impression that she is in constant motion. Her green eyes sparkle with optimistic anticipation. She is a confident realtor who dresses casually stylish and speaks with clarity and determination. She favors designer jeans, plain white blouses, and espadrilles. Each day begins with a thirty-minute workout in her home gym and three-mile run, part of which is through the park. She is a go-getter and top performer at the firm where she is happy to be an associate and has no ambition to advance as a broker/owner. Even in slow market times, she makes a very good living. At twenty-eight, she has accumulated a sizable number of investment properties and is known as a property owner who keeps her rents fair and her holdings in impeccable condition. Clara loves entertaining friends by playing songs with a comb and tissue paper. When asked why she doesn’t simply use a kazoo, she responds by saying a kazoo is problem-free while a comb and tissue paper is an art form. It was her quirky choice of musical instruments that eventually endeared her to Buzzy, just as Buzzy’s inharmonious saw had attracted him to her.

            One Thursday morning, Buzzy sat on the bench by the duck pond, the handle of his saw clutched between his thighs, his left hand bending the saw and his right gliding the violin bow across the saw’s edge. He was working on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” when a gray-haired woman wearing a large, feathered yellow hat and billowing purple muumuu approached carrying a zither. She sat with perfect posture on the bench beside Buzzy’s and asked if she might join in. As Buzzy labored with finding the correct notes, the older woman plucked and strummed the Beatle’s classic tune effortlessly. Even the few ducks paddling about the pond seemed to be aware that the music had improved. Her expertise began to influence Buzzy and before long they managed an accurate and workable version. Buzzy’s saw was never in such good stead. Buzzy asked the woman if she frequented the park and she said usually on Tuesdays, but she felt that today was a happy accident.

            “If you are usually here on Thursday mornings, I’ll try to drop by. I’m retired and have a pretty flexible schedule. Actually, I don’t really have a schedule. My husband is an avid golfer, my kids live their own lives, and I have my zither. My name is Betty.”

            For several weeks, they met and developed a short repertoire of duets. From time to time, some of the passersby would stop and listen. Buzzy and Betty quickly developed as an offbeat musical duo with a sturdy friendship. Betty was more than twice Buzzy’s age, and it would have been easy for her to assume a motherly relationship with him. However, it was more of a buddy-to-buddy connection. Betty was quick with crude humor. “I hope you’re not as limp as your saw when it counts. Hold that bow like your girlfriend and caress her with a gentleness that makes her swoon.” Buzzy often blushed and, when he revealed that he didn’t currently have a girlfriend, Betty said that needed to be fixed. “A nice young man like you needs a woman in your life. No wonder you are so heavy-handed on that saw.”

            One day Betty mentioned that she had some friends who enjoyed playing instruments not generally considered mainstream and asked if it would be okay to invite them to play with them. Buzzy, who was gaining confidence with the saw, didn’t see a problem and looked forward to playing with others. And so, the duet grew to a septet with the addition of a slide whistle, washboard, Jew’s harp, triangle, and castanets. The slide whistle added an ethereal element with its wispy background tones. The washboard player eschewed metal thimbles for Lee’s Press-on Nails saying it gave a softer percussive sound that wasn’t as forward as metal on metal. The Jew’s harpist offered a haunting, distant and persuasive sound when used judiciously. And the triangle and castanets provided subtle punctuation when called upon.

By default, Buzzy and Betty shared leadership. Buzzy’s musical talent was intuitive while Betty’s was learned. She was thought to be the only one in the group who could read music, although that never mattered. It was a play-by-ear that relied on musical memory type of group. If someone could hum the tune, they could play it. They enjoyed working things out. Anyone might suggest a song to play and Buzzy and Betty would deliberate for a few moments before deciding if they would give it a try. Buzzy had a talent for being able to listen to the whole group and simultaneously the individual instruments while they played. He was able to make suggestions about the arrangement and how their playing could be tweaked to make a combination of instruments, which in theory didn’t belong together, sound like they did.  Other than Betty and the Jew’s harp player, Buzzy didn’t refer to each player by name; rather he simply referred to them by instrument. “That sounds perfect washboard. A little softer slide whistle.” The Jew’s harp player’s name was Zelda Bronstein and Buzzy, being a Jew, felt he ought to call her by her given name and not her instrument. “Nice job, Jew’s harp” didn’t sound quite right or politically correct.

Zelda was the first to suggest that they give their group a name. Betty enthusiastically agreed and triangle said, “How about the Duck Pond Band?” Washboard added, “I’m thinking the Unconventional Duck Pond Noisemakers, since “‘band’ might be too much of a stretch.” More suggestions were thrown out and they finally agreed to call themselves the Weird Duck Pond Ensemble Gone Quackers. Castanets, who came up with the name, preferred puns and slide whistle thought they were “just plain weird.” They ended up referring to themselves as the Quackers and even thought about adding a duck call to the group but decided it would be an inflexible instrument and too representative of a culture none of them held in much esteem.

Betty proposed they expand by one more player to make them an octet. “It’s a nice even number and I know a woman who might be an interesting addition. She happens to own my apartment building and I’ve heard she likes to play the comb. She’s busy with a successful real estate career but, like me, seems to have very flexible time.” No one objected and on the following Thursday Betty introduced Clara to the group.

Clara strolled up to the Quackers carrying a longer-than-usual comb wrapped in trailing pink tissue paper. Her red hair looked like an explosion organized by a gifted stylist. Her smile full of welcome and her lithe stature full of energy. Buzzy was put off by the brashness of the pink tissue paper but instantly attracted to her natural red hair. And then Betty asked Clara to give the group a sample of her playing. Clara skillfully played a lively rendition of “Oh, Susannah.”

“Well, it’s not really in our wheelhouse, but you certainly have potential,” said Buzzy. “How about trying The Doors “Light My Fire.”

“Not a problem,” replied Clara. Her enthusiastic version impressed the Quackers, and Zelda immediately invited her to join the group. Buzzy and Betty agreed and now the Quackers were an octet.

Clara faithfully showed up every Thursday morning regardless of her busy schedule with her red hair alive and her energy intoxicating. She amused the Quackers with her comb wrapped in a variety of tissue paper color choices, which she rotated from week to week: pink, blue, yellow, red, and green. She used a full sheet of tissue paper, which fluttered softly in the breeze like a victory flag. Clara was the only fully employed member of the Quackers and was always dressed for work while the rest of the group looked a bit like a ragtag collection of idiosyncrasies.  

The Quackers were developing something of an oddball reputation around the duck pond. Regulars and irregulars alike were showing up in increasing numbers. Observers kept offering donations, but the octet kept themselves free of gratuities. Zelda always explained that they were there for fun and amusement only. It was after six months of building a broad repertoire of rock, country-western, and folk music when Clara spoke up for the first time and recommended that they try something classical. “Let’s try “Clare de Lune.” I think it was made for the saw.” Buzzy stared open-mouthed. Betty began directing supporting roles for the other players by humming their parts before Clara interrupted with an abbreviated comb version. 

Their first date was shortly after “Clare de Lune.” They sat across from one another in a forgotten coffee shop. The type where the owners were going for the retro look but ended up with a schlocky version of imagined yesteryear: black and white linoleum floor tiles, Formica-topped tables and red Naugahyde chairs. They were served by women dressed like Alice and Flo from Mel’s Diner who tried acting gruff with a heart of gold and insisted on being called waitresses. They ordered root beer floats and a plate of fries. “We ought to pretend we’re teenagers again,” said Clara. “For some reason, I’m feeling a sense of adolescent first date jitters with you.”

It was the beginning of a conversation that immediately went deeper than any Buzzy had ever experienced with a date. Once they reviewed their short histories…family, schooling, work, and what they enjoyed doing in their free time…which Buzzy was happy to learn was Clara’s regular workout routine…. Clara turned serious and asked, “What has been your biggest regret?”

“That’s an odd question?” said Buzzy. “Maybe you should go first. I’m not sure I’m old enough to have big regrets.”

“Mine is easy. I regret not having learned to play the piano and continuing with the violin. And now I seem to be stuck with a comb.”

Buzzy asked, “You play the violin?”

“I did. It’s been almost a year since I put it away.”

“You quit?”

“Let’s say I’m on a hiatus.”

“A hiatus? You plan to go back?”

“I plan to think about it.” With that Clara looked down at her hands resting on her lap and appeared to be somewhere in the past. Buzzy noticed a sadness around her half-closed eyes but didn’t say anything. After a few moments of appearing to be in a trance, Clara’s eyes opened fully with a familiar gleam and she asked again, “What about your regret, Buzzy? You can’t use your age as an excuse.”

“Well, I can’t say it isn’t making into the NBA. It was something I dreamed of and worked my butt off to achieve. I’m happy with the effort and know that my talent is as a coach and I’ll continue to work toward bigger and better opportunities. No, my regret is not having spent enough time listening and collecting stories from my grandfather.”

At the mention of ‘grandfather’, Clara leaned in, rested her chin on her right hand and listened to Buzzy’s story with increased attention.

Buzzy told how his grandfather Dvorak, named after his father’s favorite composer, was a self-made man. He grew up near Coney Island a short, scrawny outcast who quit school at sixteen and ran away from home with fifty dollars in his pocket, a heavy Navy pea jacket to protect him from winter’s cold, and a backpack filled a few changes of clothes, a toothbrush and toothpaste (he was always proud of his smile) and a fistful of candy bars. He hitchhiked across country to Portland. His parents and five siblings gave up looking for him after a month and were relieved and disappointed when he finally called four months later to tell him he was fine and finding a new life in Portland.

His thumb and sparkling grin made it easy to secure rides and he met drivers full of kindness and stories to tell as he made his indirect journey to his goal of finding freedom from his overbearing family and meaningless high school, where he excelled in mathematics and class clownish antics. By the time he reached his destination, he had accumulated over three hundred dollars from the strangers who offered him rides, meals, places to stay, and a few dollars to help him along the way. He was struck by the generosity of others and was determined to give back when he could.

When he arrived in Portland, he found a cheap motel and an abandoned grocery cart. One thing he learned from his journey was the value of junk. He met one long haul truck driver who had a collection of items he found in his travels. He marveled at what others either threw away or simply lost. He began collecting found objects, cleaning them up, and in some cases learned how to repair broken items. Some of the most valuable items he found were jewelry and watches. He bargained lessons in watch repair from an independent jeweler who traded expertise for janitorial work. He spent weekends at local flea markets making a good profit from his industriousness. By the time he turned twenty-one and enjoyed his first legal beer at a local pizza joint, he had rented a workbench from the jeweler/mentor he had befriended and had three “employees” who scoured neighborhoods for repairable items. The jeweler frequently asked Dvorak if he would be a full-time employee and offered a good salary and benefits. He explained that he was nearing retirement and would offer the business at a fair price. Dvorak consistently declined and said he preferred the freedom that junk afforded. At twenty-five, he had twelve employees, whom he paid a regular salary and who worked multiple flea markets in and around Portland. He was earning enough to purchase his first home, a small bungalow in Milwaukie on the outskirts of Portland. Finding, repairing and selling five Rolex watches was enough for the down payment. He was also paying taxes and investing in a retirement account. His gift of math taught him about compound interest, and he was sharp enough to know that early investments would pay huge dividends in later life.

Dvorak married Flipside, the free-spirited daughter of hippies, and they had two children, Bruce and Chet, by the time he was thirty. Chet eventually became Buzzy’s father.

 Clara listened while sipping at her root beer float and using the straw to mix in the vanilla ice cream. Buzzy had spoken non-stop for almost thirty minutes. Clara’s soda had gone flat, and the ice cream was nothing more than a creamy wisp. Clara commented that Buzzy seemed to know Dvorak’s entire history and asked, again, what was it that he regretted. Buzzy paused, focused his blue eyes to the side seeming to seek out more memories before responding.

“I knew from my grandfather’s stories how he turned what his family thought was a wasted life into a successful enterprise and a small empire built on what others threw away. I learned how perseverance and an independent grit might be more important qualities than genius. What I didn’t learn was how he felt, how he fell for my grandmother, how he felt when she died suddenly and much too early; what it was like to raise two sons on his own; what he thought about dying when he knew his own end was near. I never learned why he never went to shul and why he insisted that I do and even finish my Bar Mitzvah. I never asked why he faithfully attended my basketball games through high school and college and encouraged me to be a pro even though I never had a realistic chance. I never asked why he smoked smelly cigars and drank cheap whiskey, but never to excess. I never learned why he didn’t remarry and why he insisted that I only marry a girl I deeply loved. He would tell me, “Don’t accept okay, only say yes to spectacular.” I’m not sure what he meant by ‘spectacular.’ I never learned about his motivation or interior life.”

Buzzy finished and Clara felt on the verge of love with an unfamiliar flutter in her stomach. She was beginning to think she had met spectacular. Then she was asked about her biggest regret. She pushed aside her half-drunk float and the plate of hardly touched fries, reached across the table to took Buzzy’s hands into her own and said, “Not continuing to play a real instrument and not yet falling in love.”

“I’m serious, Clara. Other than your penchant for playing a comb with loud flowing tissue paper, I don’t know you. Really, what is your biggest regret?”

Clara withdrew her hands and sat back. “Buzzy, my last name is Rothstein. I never told you that. I held back a piece of my history because I feared that we might have too much in common.”

She told of her great grandparents and their survival from the Holocaust. “They were very old when I knew them, but I’ll never be able to erase the memory of seeing faded numbers tattooed on their arms. They protected me from their story and the terror of that time, but I regret not asking. I regret not asking their only child, my grandfather, what he knew before he passed. I regret not asking about their intimate histories. You have a history without feelings; I have feelings without a history.”

“And that’s your biggest regret?” asked Buzzy. “You have feelings without a history.”

“Well, yes, to a certain degree. I also regret not playing my violin anymore. My grandparents gave me that violin years before I ever took a lesson or even considered wanting to play an instrument of any kind. I think it was a way of planting a dream of theirs inside me.”

Family legend informed of a distant uncle Isadore who had been a violin protégé and initially taught himself to play on a borrowed half-size violin at age three by listening to his parent’s collection of classical records. Between the Great World Wars, Isadore grew up in Berlin, an only child of well-to-do entrepreneurs. His mother played music while she tended to household chores and Isadore, a smiling and contented child, concentrated on using the small violin to mimic the sounds emanating from his parents’ hi-fi. The family story tells how Isadore began formal lessons at age five, began playing in the youth symphony at seven and became its concertmaster at nine. He began giving solo recitals at fancy, private engagements in the homes of prominent wealthy Germans and his family was approached by an American music agent who wanted to arrange series of concerts in New York, Boston and Philadelphia. His violin was silenced forever when he and his family were murdered in the Holocaust.

Clara told how she played in her high school orchestra and the local youth symphony. Her parents thought she should major in music when she went off to college. She played in a few chamber groups but was more interested in business and having a career where success is measured in currency. Up until a year ago she continued to play with a few friends but put it aside for no discernable reason. She didn’t know if she became bored or simply too busy with other interests. Her violin sits on the top shelf of her bedroom closet, where it’s been for the last year.

“Now I’ve become a musical caricature with a tissue-covered comb.”

“A beautiful one at that,” added Buzzy.

Clara was a duck pond no-show for two months. The Quackers continued to build musical selections connected by whimsy rather than genre or theme. She and Buzzy met two or three times each week for a walk or a meal. Their conversations becoming deeper and more intimate. When Buzzy asked why she wasn’t playing with the group anymore, she said she was giving up the comb for more serious musical pursuits.

“Back to the violin?”

“I’m trying.”

“You are trying to resurrect dreams.”

“No, I’m trying to honor my regrets rather than being stuck in them.”

When Clara eventually returned to the Quackers, she was carrying her violin case. The Quackers were in the middle of playing the theme song “My Heart Will Go On” from the movie “Titanic.” Buzzy’s saw was in fine form and Betty’s zither perfectly underscored the music’s melancholy. The other instruments were silent for the duet. Clara stood behind a small audience of appreciative onlookers, mostly regulars with a few amused newbies.  Clara’s quiet smile and a few tears went unnoticed by all the Quackers except for Zelda who walked over to Clara and whispered, “He’s really gotten pretty good. Are you ready to play today?”

Clara replied, “More than you can possibly know.”

The audience broke into enthusiastic applause. Buzzy looked up, noticed Clara and waved for her to join them. “It’s been a while since our comb player has been here. Please, welcome back Clara.” Betty put down her zither and welcomed Clara with a warm hug. Slide whistle and washboard played a quick flourish.

Clara announced that she was happy to return but not as a comb player. She placed her violin case on the bench next to Betty, opened it and tenderly removed a dark grained violin. She tightened the bow strings, played several notes to properly tune her instrument. Addressing the audience, she said, “I love the Quackers, and I love Buzzy. But I’m no longer part of the group. I’ve chosen a different path, or should I say I’ve decided to return to my real dream. This violin is all that survives from my Uncle Isadore and I want to play a tribute to him.”

Clara played the theme from the movie “Schindler’s List.” While she played, Zelda built a small stone cairn next to the duck pond and Buzzy wept.

Categories: Fiction

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