Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.
She bored me terribly, but she seemed to fascinate my father. Could she have been “his type”? Nothing like my mother: in their wedding pictures, petite, fashionable, and curvaceous; and with the years grown into a compliant good-naturedness that found sufficient arena within the bounds of her house, extended more problematically to the block, only edgily and tentatively beyond. No, Mrs. Batki couldn’t have been less like my mother. She was an East European Olive Oyle: tall and thin, plain dressing (long strides in practical pumps, real silk stockings sagging at the ankles, old-fashioned lace blouses, a bit frumpy, sometimes a bit soiled), somber to funereal demeanor interrupted by eruptions of buck-toothed enthusiasm, guffaws, close-eyed transports. Minus the trembling-eyelid transports, one might have guessed she was too gawky for marriage. But I knew better; the whole tangled family was domiciled just an uncomfortable two doors away.
My father always managed to be home for my lessons. I would be dressed for company and, stuck in some scratchy skirt, would have to bide my time on the piano bench while he’d brew coffee, slice cheese. Moments before Mrs. Batki was due, he would emerge from the kitchen with a crystal bowl filled with nuts and a plate of spiraling wheat crackers and mustard-colored cheeses. He’d ready the coffee pot and fine china cups, and, with his back to me, he would study his shelves of records, his cherished collection. I would swing my legs impatiently as, after Mrs. Batki’s arrival, Daddy would turn back to his records, slide one out as though impulsively, wipe it with a special red cloth, then place it on a record player that was his greatest pride, his construction: the parts researched and ordered and somehow, during late nights in the basement, organized into a machine. He would press a tiny button on the phonograph arm and it would raise its head like a captive insect. He would release the button, and the needle would drop nicely onto the record. He would play it for her. She would stand in front of his speakers as though in a brisk wind, those flaring horn-shaped speakers that Daddy would travel to other states to purchase whenever he would hear that a great movie theater with a great sound system was to be razed. Daddy and Mrs. Batki would discuss the musician’s technique as if talking about a close personal friend, his success or failure as crucial as though they had lent him their life savings. I would swing my legs in increasingly disruptive arcs, put fingers on keys as if to experiment, but from experience knew I must not make noise. “Mrs. Batki will be with you in a minute,” Daddy would chide, assuming that was what I was eager for.
Chubby, troubled by their high decibel enthusiasms, would scratch to go out, and I would be allowed off the bench to open the door for him. And then back to my spot under the print of Brahms, who, with his promise of weighty, unruffled genius, was really beginning to get on my nerves.
I put up with it for Daddy. He was having a good time. I was genuinely glad he had found someone who could appreciate his records and grasshopper-agile phonograph arms, the system of horns that he had gathered, protected, and added to, despite much domestic dispute: for no other family of her acquaintance, my mother would point out, in any home of any period or style, had filled its living room with towers of dust-trapping speakers. He could explain his latest hi-fi modifications to Mrs. Batki, flip switches that coaxed lost rolling notes to a near-hopeful moan and landed the saddest trills at a more peaceful melancholy. Together they turned knobs that moved cellists from corner to corner, and violists from shy to bold. He was excited to have her there. It was embarrassing but tolerable.
It was the next part that was really too much for me. At some point, Mrs. Batki would look at her watch and then, revived by the coffee and concert, remember that I was the reason for her visit. Daddy would retire to the kitchen, from which, through the open swinging doors, I could hear the distinct sound of teeth cracking open sunflower seed shells. From my “practices” I knew that every note I hit came through loud and clear to him, for he would yell “Wrong note!” each time I missed one. Mrs. Batki would put me through my paces, requesting that I play what had been assigned the previous week. And after I offered my more than ordinary renditions, sprinkled with near or full misses, she would show me the correct version, and would play with feeling, with technique, with long and competent fingers. As she played, as if on cue, Izzy would appear on the other side of the metal front-door screen. He would appear at each lesson with the same message: the piano was out of tune, hopelessly, offensively, out of tune.
Daddy would rush to welcome Izzy, delighted to escape from his exile in the kitchen. Mrs. Batki would stop playing and, half turning to her boy, her face flushed and correcting itself in and out of an incongruously dreamy smile, she would begin to goonily beam her special frequency of maternal approval. Guided by Daddy to the coffee table, Izzy would refuse the nuts and coils of crackers and cheese and request a cup of coffee, black, no sugar. Daddy would pour into the readied cup, his hand trembling. Through the remainder of each session, Izzy sipped coffee like a pro, while both adults delighted in the boy’s version of their sober, steeped pleasures.
(I seem to have stumbled upon the origin of Izzy’s liking for coffee. I came upon this in a recently translated biography, in a chapter on his early years in Hungary:
By the year, his third, when the toddler began to show signs of unusual talent, Mr. Batki, once the most highly esteemed teacher of violin in Budapest, had fallen into an engulfing sadness which left his fingers deadened and his attentions inconstant. His wife, well acquainted with the decimated population of musicians from which a teacher for her child must emerge, turned a new and “medicinal” attention to her husband, for she needed him to revive from his melancholia. And revive he did, each day for several hours, wakened by her demand, by the bites and pricks of his own ambition for his son, by sweets and coffees and liquors that Mrs. Batki had procured through elaborate trades with the shopkeeper and baker, indebting her to many grim hours of piano instruction of their thick-thumbed progeny. Sampling the sweets and liquors as he critiqued his son’s performance at the conclusion of each session, Mr. Batki held forth while his wife, mother-in-law, and son, studiously refraining from the impossibly expensive delicacies, sipped coffee companionably and encouragingly. Thus coddled and distracted from his grievances and despair, Mr. Batki began to pass on to the son what he had assumed was lost, and humbly and carefully, as he had never proceeded in his prime, devoted himself to Isadore’s formal musical education.)
After coffee, Izzy would expound on the particular notes that had wafted into his window two doors down like a foul odor, distracting him from his musical study. My many mistakes did not seem to bother him, but when sour sounds came from keys depressed by his mother, immediate action was required.
Izzy had perfect pitch. I wondered if all people who had this ability had such ears: enormous ones, open like wings. Or behaved so oddly.
As Daddy would rush to help Izzy wheel the piano away from the wall, Mrs. Batki would slide the bench back. This was my moment: sometimes I was lucky and they didn’t notice me slipping away. Usually, I wasn’t. Izzy would open the instrument and, reaching into the piano’s innards with a tool he just happened to have brought along, he would yank and prod happily, plunking the same note again and again as my father and Mrs. Batki, finally attacking the cheeses, would chat in low tones about the rapt, poking child.
How would it end? Daddy would return to the shelves for records to be shared with mother and son. On more than one occasion, after a particularly inspiring performance by some virtuoso, and upon the barest breath of motherly encouragement, Izzy would run home for his violin and then offer the same piece of music as he stood (no sheet music necessary) in the center of the room. Daddy would be beside himself when this occurred, it somehow topping the recording, though not so that the renditions couldn’t be compared, analyzed, and discussed until dusk entered the room, rousing Mrs. Batki to return home for the dinner that her mother would reheat.
Sometimes it would end as my mother arrived home with bags of groceries. She would call out her real, homespun concerns about Izzy’s adjustment to school, pals, English, the weather, as she passed through the hall on her way to the kitchen. He would watch her secure, friendly entrance with a kind of woebegone condescension; if only he could take her seriously for a moment, he would like to come close. Once or twice he followed her to the kitchen only to emerge chagrined, his hands sticky with her favorite pink marshmallow cookies, melting pillows of sugar that he bit into with perplexity. Mrs. Batki would rescue him with the sudden guilty remembrance of the congealing meals that were her mother’s specialty. Her “poor mother” was waiting, she would announce, and they would be gone in a moment, with an assignment shot back at me over her shoulder.
Through the summer and fall I learned nothing. Sobered by my complete lack of promise, my father lost even the optimism necessary to call out “Wrong note!” whenever I hit one. I had become a pounder, and in this way made myself understood. There was a truce: I would continue to take lessons. There would be no more nighttime meetings with Mrs. Batki to plot my progress and no more music education from my father’s limitless shelves of records. I would not spend another Saturday morning stationed in front of the speakers, out of which, to everyone’s consternation, Bernstein’s noble attempt to awaken even the most ordinary American child had, week after week, failed. It was eventually understood by all concerned: I was ineducable, and now, dangerously irritated. And yet, and yet, I could be a productive conspirator, a cynic, a willing cover, if only I wasn’t asked to take any of it seriously—not beauty, genius, Izzy, or autumnal romance—or whatever it was that drew Mrs. Batki into our living room long after the more challenging pieces had been neatly filed beneath the seat of the piano bench.
My mother, of all people, was always defending the Batkis. Ordinarily, she took years, really, to formulate conclusions on even the most straightforward matters. For example, every year we had to compare the different types of corn so that we should know once and for all which was the sweetest. But she was always uncertain about something—whether we had had a good example, or whether we had perhaps forgotten the actual flavor of a strain. We had to go back to try again the different kinds from the various farm stalls, rotating and tasting, chewing some cud of ultimate fairness, never biting into a difference so profound that it could warrant a final judgment. Mother applied the same good-hearted dithering evaluating to whatever came into our home: tomatoes, potatoes, pickling spices, bird seed, dog treats, bedtime stories, and, luckily for my father and Mrs. Batki, people.
Things were changing. First a supermarket had come to town, then a bowling alley, then a roller rink. People were eager, exhilarated, not anxious about change. A local children’s store had run a contest: the grand prize was a bucket-seated, child-sized, spearmint-blue convertible. This miniature replica was on display in the store, and parents and children would come in to stare, thrilled at the prospect of observing the newest of trends. The father of the richest girl in our school had bought her a baby ranch house—big enough for several girls to gather in for a picnic lunch, the maid passing tuna melts in through the open window—and a trampoline on which we would jump every evening until the stars came out. We were excited by how we lived, moved about, communicated. I possessed a cherished battery-operated robot that blinked his red-bulb eyes as he motored across the room while I crept behind him punching out Morse code messages from the buttons at the nape of his neck. Even my father participated, it seemed, with his subscriptions to all available hi-fi magazines, his late nights spent soldering the wires of superior amplifiers in the basement, or evenings seated by a radio that pulled in beams from Moscow to Tel Aviv, news and commentary in languages that we listened to optimistically and uncomprehendingly by the hour. The town’s first Chinese restaurant opened, and we were there the first night, ready to taste something new.
The Batkis, by contrast, had no car, no moped, no bicycle. While families who lived in old Victorians and Edwardians were spreading into “rec rooms” and “sunrooms”—additions with the incongruous sleek lines of racing sloops—the Batkis lived cramped, mostly in the parlor of their first floor apartment (the only house on the block to be divided up into apartments). Once or twice I took lessons there. I remember two pianos on opposite walls. Music stands. Their furniture consisted of immense mournful pieces, with feet. Fraying, dusky tapestries were nailed over the windows. It was always steamy warm, with sweet, greasy smells emanating from the depths of lumpy armchairs. There were small and large tables covered with cascading lace tablecloths, embroidered throws, fancy doilies, layers and layers of them, nibbled, yellowed, unraveling. My father had lent them a huge old radio, but they had no television, no gadgets, no pets, no toys. It struck me that the old lady, home every day, seemed to have no hobbies, no optimistic industriousness, no self-improving projects. (My mother and her friends, freed by cleaning aids and cleaning ladies, were always taking classes, learning to fashion jewelry, build vases, hook rugs.)
Those lessons in their apartment were the few times I saw Mr. Batki up close. When I think of him now it occurs to me he might have been a handsome man, though that was not something I thought of at the time. He was, above all, rumpled. Outside, he wore a raincoat, winter and summer. His hair long and unkempt, his clothes wrinkled, he always seemed to be rushing somewhere. That’s how we would see him out our front windows: flying down the street in his raincoat, disheveled, swinging his violin case as though in a storm. Before we were acquainted with the Batkis, we would push Chubby (in theory, our guard dog) out the front door as Mr. Batki ran past. But Chubby actually seemed to like him and would lumber after him, tail wagging, for an initial sniff.
When I entered the room, Mr. Batki was just finishing his meal. The old lady had set him up at the dining room table, and she sat me down near him to wait for Mrs. Batki, who had not returned from her last lesson. He ignored me, mopping up the last of his meal with small pieces of bread, downing a glass of wine. Around him the tablecloth was a shambles, a map of fresh spills and slops. He seemed oblivious, refilling his cup unsteadily and splattering drops of purple on the already stained damask. He was reading from a pile of newspapers in a language I couldn’t decipher.
The old lady came in with a glass of soda and placed it between him and me. She spoke to her son-in-law in a language I know now was Hungarian and he turned to me, wiping his hands on the heavy napkin that had been tucked into his collar. He dropped the soiled cloth onto his plate. “You would like some soda? Madame Batki should be back very shortly,” he said to me. The glass was fancy, chipped, and the soda too fruity and warm.
He rose to gather himself to leave. A violin teacher, he was not doing well. I had overheard my parents say that, unlike his wife, he was not hired widely. As he searched for his things—sheet music, violin, sports jacket, raincoat and umbrella—he would come close to the object and then stand there perplexed. The old lady would dog him, as if following his lead, then spring into action, gathering, ordering, packing, closing, even straightening his sports jacket and raincoat on his shoulders. She spoke to him constantly and it seemed to me she was scolding, but he seemed rather pleased, as though they were sharing a joke. She looked quite satisfied as she turned back to me after closing the apartment door behind him. A small smile faded as she began to clear the disorder he had left behind on the table.
My father had become a kind of groupie, striking up acquaintances with musicians, intently following their careers, going to concerts wherever they performed. He had become friendly with a wealthy couple in a nearby town, the Feldsteins, manufacturers of electric can openers, who held Sunday afternoon chamber music events at their home. Musicians from the best conservatories in the state, both students and faculty, would come to perform and to socialize. My mother would come home from these excursions pale with boredom, but Daddy would be enraptured. Smitten with the day’s performers, he would describe their appearance and manners over dinner: by the end of the meal, they were the most refined, most inspired, most transcendent individuals he or anyone else could hope to meet.
One Sunday they insisted on taking me along. They said the Feldsteins wanted to meet me. (This is something that perhaps happens only to only children: their parents’ friends feel compelled to include them, as if they were indigent visitors.) The place was as they had described it: a large gracious home, then a yard, and then a beach—the kind of house that people in warmer, more glamorous latitudes might live in. The room where the musicians played was surrounded by big windows filled with Long Island Sound. A room like in a magazine, composed of light, lithographs, wood floors, Oriental rugs: expansive, ever-so-welcoming, and fine. The wife was a progressive gourmet, passing around plate after plate of natural delicacies, exotic foods I wouldn’t see in stores for decades.
The husband, Cookie, a man I am sure was more interested in scrap metal than sonatas, must have been as bored as I was. When the quartet took a break, he asked me if I’d ever seen a bomb shelter, then told me to follow him. I remember a normal looking basement, then a heavy door, then a narrow anteroom full of food—shelf after shelf of canned goods, the kind of stuff that we ate every day, but that Mrs. Feldstein considered appropriate fare for a nuclear attack. Then the small main room, bare, no books, no art, no musical instruments. Not even a TV. It was silent and cold. I asked Cookie if I could stay down there instead of rejoining the music lovers, and he said, “Sure.” He opened a pack of cards set aside for the millennium and I remained where neither violins nor cellos could pierce, playing Solitaire and wondering vaguely about the connection between this cool, plain room and the tastefully decorated, melody-filled warmth up above.
It was into that upstairs world that Daddy became determined to bring Izzy that winter.
Izzy should be introduced to the salon of the Feldsteins, Daddy would whisper to Mrs. Batki during my lessons. “What can it hurt? He’ll meet people who can help him, who can appreciate. You never know who will be there.” She wasn’t so sure. “He’s a poor boy. You don’t want to dwell on it, but you can’t forget either.” She resisted, looking glum when he’d bring it up, shaking her head, not so much in refusal as in a gesture of confusion. How not to harm this bud of a boy whose birth, survival, transport to this country, and reincarnation as a misfitted New Englander were each more unlikely to her than the fact of his genius?
I understand now that for Mrs. Batki this was a battle of past versus present. Today, seeing what Izzy has become, it seems as though his success had been inevitable. But at that time she still yearned deeply for the period before the war, before her internment in a series of concentration camps, when, showered with encouragement, with acknowledgement and scholarships, she had studied with Bartok. In the circle that she had entered, one knew where one stood. Neither flatterers nor strivers penetrated this circle. In that society of great teacher and devoted protégés, the trajectory of a career was visible.
Here, now, she was at sea, with little but Daddy to guide her. And Daddy was proposing to launch Izzy from the shoals of the can-opener king’s Sunday soirees. For weeks, as she contemplated the prospect, she looked very sad. Her face took on a jowly, timid softness. During my lessons she seemed to have rediscovered me, and, almost apologetically, began to try to instruct me—from my point of view, a step in entirely the wrong direction. With Daddy she was quiet, as though they’d had a tiff. She still drank coffee with him, still listened to his latest recordings, but she seemed oddly demure. He didn’t let up about Izzy, assuring and importuning her: “How long can you keep him in that apartment? You know what he is as well as I do. These people will be able to hear him. They’ll be dazzled.” He would regale her with the biographies of the faculty members who had been present at the Feldsteins’ on that Sunday and with whom he had munched the most innovative canapés. She looked remorseful, long-suffering. “Who are you afraid of? Don’t you trust me?”
When Daddy spoke of Ivy League department chairmen, she saw cadres of faded party hacks charged with children’s music training. When he described the charm of the Feldsteins’ Sundays, their funding of scholarships and chairs, their quiet adoption of poor but promising artists, she saw a mirage of crude and whimsical capitalists, omnivorous tantalizers of the weak, of which, she had no doubt, Izzy was one. She began to shake her head unaccountably when no one was speaking to her. Then one week Izzy did not appear on cue at our door. Mrs. Batki called a few days later to request that the next class be held at her apartment.
In a recent interview in Sonata, Izzy speaks about what I am quite sure must have been this period in his family’s life:
My mother became determined that we would adapt. She was our scout, going out into this new world of America and bringing bits of it home: hand-me-downs from the brothers of her students, cowboy shirts and boots, baseball caps, and the double-breasted overcoats of recently deceased grandfathers. I wore them all happily. Then one day she brought home the notion of success, American-style success. She decided I would look well in it. Somewhere she had picked up the idea that there was room in concert halls and recording studios for a young musician like me. At first, I refused to even listen to these hopes. It may seem hard to believe, but I had no hunger for any audience beyond our little household. You know, my grandmother could not face the drudgery of certain chores unless I played for her. From behind a mound of grated potatoes, or from a mouth full of clothespins—I would play for her as she hung our clothes on a line in the yard—she would call out corrections more insightful than many I have heard since in master classes. Our neighbors must have thought we were quite odd.
I can testify that, with the exception of Daddy, who found everything they did brilliant, “odd” was an understatement. And what “American-style success” could have meant to them then, I can’t imagine. Though perhaps they did have some intimation of the American star system, since Izzy has scaled it so stunningly. Striking also is the absence of Daddy in that account. I guess fame can be corrosive, erasing from one’s personal history those individuals who provided the timely little leg-ups. Daddy does show up in the authorized biography, but, I’m sorry to say, as a rather clownish hanger-on.
The next lesson, held in the Batkis’ apartment, started much like my earlier visit. Again I arrived before Mrs. Batki’s return, and again the old lady seated me at the table next to Mr. Batki. He was finishing his meal in the parlor, their only large room. This time he turned his face toward me and studied me. I studied him back: his warm/cold bespectacled eyes, his sagging cheeks, the variations of his untrimmed beard, red to grey to white, and the food embedded there—the yolks of breakfast, the crumbs of lunch, the small oily drops of his just-finished dinner—splattered like paint on a canvas. “Do you like playing piano with Madame Batki?” he asked.
I squirmed, then answered, “Not too much.”
“So why do you continue to study?” he inquired.
I was stumped. It had never occurred to me that what I wanted was involved. “Because,” I said finally, shrugging my shoulders in an effort to convey the politeness, overall, of this response. He made a guttural sound of dissatisfaction—digestive, conclusive—and took a sip of tea.
As on my previous visit to their apartment, the old lady emerged from the kitchen just as Mr. Batki began to gather himself to leave. They chatted non-stop in Hungarian, he seemingly irritated to discover that his things—music, violin case, briefcase, wallet, keys, rubbers, jacket, raincoat, umbrella—could not be found readily, she, as she went about locating them, chiding him it seemed—perhaps for his absent-mindedness, perhaps for his lack of tenacity. He grasped the items she handed him as if he were holding them for a moment for a stranger. At any point, he looked like he might drop them. Then in a moment of real consternation, when his briefcase was eluding the old lady and his sheet music was beginning to slip from his hand, he scanned the room. I hadn’t moved from my chair. “So, your papa is the music lover,” he said.
The exchange between the old lady and her son-in-law, though gibberish to me, was increasingly taking on the nasty tone of adult squabble. The old lady’s good spirits of my previous visit had been replaced by an unrelenting, fast-speed complaint. Mr. Batki also seemed alarmingly shrill. This was not the deep bluster that I associated with my father’s rare, half-hearted tantrums. There was a kind of distress in the air that, I understood vaguely, occurred in the homes of poorer people, unluckier people.
When Mrs. Batki and Izzy finally arrived, little as I enjoyed our sessions, I was very glad to see her. While Mrs. Batki stamped the snow off her boots and removed Izzy’s snow-dusted grown-man’s hat and coat and hung them up, her mother spoke to her a mile a minute. You didn’t have to be a linguist to figure out that this was a complaint. Mr. Batki’s first name, Erno, repeated, was the only thing I understood. Having hung her own coat up, Mrs. Batki jumped in. I was struck by her animation. She spoke English in a kind of slow, flat-footed monotone that I had taken to be the evenness of maturity. I had heard her speak Hungarian before only to Izzy, and then her speech was slow, her intonation slathered with adoration and encouragement. But now I heard something else: a ductile language rising in out-of-patience inquiries and descending into clipped judgments. The gist, if one can get such a thing without understanding a word, seemed to be, Isn’t life hard enough? Are you crazy? That mix of exasperation and self-pity seemed decipherable. Izzy looked positively spectral. Still standing by the coat rack, his hair and lashes dewy with melted snowflakes, the sauna-like heat of the apartment did not seem to be agreeing with him.
Mr. Batki took a last, wounded look at the room before slamming the door behind him. The quavering smile he flashed at Izzy stays with me even today: tenacious doggie-like devotion combined with the keen, lacerated yearning of a fan. I think this parting smile was actually meant to be reassuring.
The old lady guided Izzy out back to the kitchen, then returned with sweet soda and sweeter, crumbling little cakes. Mrs. Batki joined me for cake, making sure I ate and drank. Then the lesson began in earnest, and a most earnest lesson it was, grindingly, unrelievedly difficult for her and for me.
Now I see that there was more than just bad timing in my being present as the curtain rose on their domestic discord. Mr. Batki was at the beginning of his “decline,” and though neither Izzy nor his biographers shed much light on this “setback,” I am quite certain it was related to his growing disdain for Daddy. My presence at his supper table must have been galling. Mrs. Batki had been cogitating Izzy’s course during the mild fall and into the start of an unnaturally cold winter, while Mr. Batki, I know today from the various sources that touch upon this period, had become more and more adamantly opposed to Izzy’s debut. I arrived in their apartment just as the first snow of the year began to fall, as Mrs. Batki’s decision was firming, and as Mr. Batki’s voice in his son’s career calculations and strategies was sinking to a barely heard whisper.
That very weekend Izzy would stride triumphant into the Feldsteins’ salon. Once Mrs. Batki announced her decision, it took only a phone call to arrange: Daddy had been prepping the Feldsteins for Izzy for months.
The day was crystal clear. My mother had been excused: she and some girlfriends had pre-paid for a long-anticipated (and non-refundable, or so she maintained) seminar, “The Fondue and You.” I pled my case to no avail. Daddy insisted that I come along.
So I was glum; Daddy was ecstatic; Mrs. Batki was anxious; and Izzy, well, Izzy was enjoying the drive. He and I shared the back seat, and from the way he absorbed the snowy roadside, you’d think the kid had never been in a car. The Feldsteins’ little seaside town was about an hour away. As soon as you left any of these little towns, you were in real country. Our town and the Feldsteins’ had recently been connected by a highway, not more than a year old, that cut through hills and woods. So that’s all we saw: snow, birches, blasted granite, the occasional car, and the open road ahead, the open sky. I was hugging my armrest more or less on principle while Izzy sat smack in the center of his seat, upright and attentive as if he were on some hard stool. His scrawny body was as still as only newly laid highway would permit. His head would incline suddenly, this way or that, as though moved by a need to study birches or clouds, rocks or road, near or far. These dips of the head, deep like the swoops of the birds through the white sky ahead, seemed to me unacceptably odd.
My father and Mrs. Batki spoke of musicians, recordings, European music schools now empty of Jews, Jews returning to Europe on triumphant tours. They did not discuss the Feldsteins at all, for my father had learned that on this subject he must restrain himself. Though Mrs. Batki had agreed to this one Sunday, she was still dubious. The credentials of the men of high reputation, whom it was their clear mission to impress, Daddy could barely mention. A teacher herself, she would scoff at his professors of music as “careerists.” She would dismiss with a wrinkle of the nose his accounts of the more brilliant moments in the concert careers—admittedly over or in decline—of these chairmen of music departments at Ivy League citadels and the finest conservatories. She had no patience for Daddy’s tales of cultivation and prestige. And yet here she was, giving off a pleasant, heavy fragrance of lilac, attired in her least threadbare coat, a Persian lamb hat suitable for the winds of bleakest Budapest atop someone’s valiant attempt at a French twist.
The entrance to the Feldsteins’ long, winding drive was so unostentatious as to be almost impossible to find. They had marked the spot with no fake-royal filigreed gates or statues of lions or frayed-nerve Dobermans like their tackier neighbors. Not even a mail box. The directions involved trees: “seven birches, a maple, six birches, a cherry beech, more birches, turn at the fir.” If you didn’t know your trees, you asked someone other than the Feldsteins.
Though he had been there countless times, Daddy missed the turn, then backed down the road. The backing up made it impossible to know when to start counting birches. Finally we settled on looking for a hidden drive and in this way located it. As we turned down the long, rutless approach, Mrs. Batki was pale. She had not been amused by the counting of trees. Woods as privacy, as wealth, as good sense/taste/culture were calculations yet to occur to her. It was, however, dawning on her that Izzy would be making his debut in some unnamed, minor American forest.
Mrs. Feldstein had the front door open before we reached it. Properly, astutely, stepping out onto the icy stone steps in the slimmest of pumps, she zoomed in on Mrs. Batki. Taking her by the hand, she led her into the house like a gallant dance partner. “Madame, I cannot tell you how delighted we are to see you at last. Harold (she swung her head a lilting half-swing back, as though sensing Daddy’s general location, but about a birch tree too high) has told us the most exciting things about your talented family.” She was at her smoky-voiced best. She was wearing something pajama-like, loose and flowing and bright, maybe East Indian, definitely couture. Her pageboy she had notched up a degree to pitch black. Izzy, his rubbers forming a little puddle on the hardwood, was wide-eyed, searching out the limits of the foyer.
Daddy was doing the by now unnecessary introductions. Mrs. Feldstein, who had not let go of Mrs. Batki’s hand, gave her a definite squeeze as Daddy introduced Izzy with all the predicable superlatives: “…how unlikely in one’s lifetime…let alone on one’s block… in one’s backyard so to speak….” The squeeze was odd, the kind of thing a relative does when a doctor gives bad news, but Mrs. Batki looked at her gratefully as Mrs. Feldstein relinquished her hand and helped her out of her coat. The woman was charming. And no one, except me and possibly the practical Cookie, seemed to have any immunity.
I was indulging in hangdog, hang-back behavior. As Izzy and Mrs. Batki were herded down the hallway toward the music room, I could see and hear beyond them into the room of milling guests, the reflection of snow, the tuning of instruments, the smells and colors and sounds of consensus, striving, enthusiasm. Straggling by the front door, I wondered at how the bright room repelled me. I knew something about unconstructive loners from school. They stood like this at doors, in corners, or slumped in their seats. For them, reading and writing, doing this or that activity as instructed, were too corny for words. I worried about my relation to those big slow boys and girls, quick to cry or run off when insulted.
So in this manner I hung back in the foyer, contemplating gloomily the prospect of the afternoon concert. I looked up to see Cookie, loose-limbed like a drunk or a cowboy, making a beeline to me. As though I were the actual guest.
“So you think this Izzy would like to see the bomb shelter?” Cookie asked.
“He’s going to play the violin,” I explained, a little disappointed in his obtuseness.
“Are you sure he wouldn’t prefer a tour of the basement?” This must be Cookie’s idea of a joke.
“I’m positive,” I answered, more than a little glum at his determination to tease me.
I had half hoped that Cookie would declare his lack of interest in the afternoon’s scheduled event and that we could adjourn to the bomb shelter for a good game of gin rummy. But Cookie was ensnared in the adult web of planned, mutual pleasures. Not the least deviation would be permitted. We were all part of Mrs. Feldstein’s finale: no hors d’oeuvre too plain to garnish, no guest’s attention too trivial to rivet, no husband too crude to play connoisseur. Vaguely, I got it.
“Shall we?” Cookie said as he took me by the hand. Like this, hand-in-hand, Cookie led me down the hall and into the filled music room, wending our way through a tasteful obstacle course of sofas, ottomans, settees, love seats, divans, and chairs, atop which sat adults of varying importance to the day’s event, their place in the hierarchy discernible by the number of cushions supporting them and their proximity to the trio. We arrived finally at a better-than-most spot—Cookie grabbing a hard chair for himself and seating me below on a little three-legged brass footstool, a captive no doubt of some Far Eastern shopping safari. I spotted Mrs. Feldstein and Mrs. Batki on a bird’s-eye-view loveseat, Mrs. Feldstein having resumed her hand patting. Daddy was on Mrs. Batki’s other side, ensconced in an elaborately upholstered wing chair, and sinking into the fabric’s unmistakably American pattern—George Washington and musket recurring at regular intervals—and looking, well, ecstatic. The musicians had begun to tune their instruments. “The kid is a great tuner. I oughta know,” I offered. Cookie placed his large hand on my head. This is a man who must have chosen great lots of metal by touch, fingering products rushing down the assembly line. Less skittish, I moved my stool inches until I had a clear view of the musicians.
Izzy would later describe that day in an interview in Sonata:
… We played Schubert’s Piano Trio in B flat minor. I was asked to play first violin not because I had earned that privilege, but because there was a curiosity about whether or not I could do it. Understandably, the skeptics were out in force. There had been gossip about the “boy genius,” I believe.
You ask me what I remember. Well, I remember Mrs. Feldstein’s face, raised and beaming at me a kind of absolute encouragement and belief. I had met this extraordinary woman not a half an hour earlier. I felt I would not disappoint her. I cannot recall a time before I was familiar with this piece. One of my earliest memories is of Mother and Father playing it with the cellist Janos Hegedus in our apartment in Budapest. By the age of six, I was playing with Mother and Janos, trying to imitate Father’s fingering and the legato of his bowing. The sonority of Father’s tone, the finesse of his phrasing, the virtuosity of his technique were legendary, you know. It seemed that we played this piece endlessly, so worry about the technical elements did not enter my mind. My concerns that day were solely with the audience. Those poised American musicians and teachers in their beautifully woven suits, with their glinting shoes and gold watches, their sweaters ablaze like spring flowers—they made me deeply uneasy. Would they find my rendition eccentric and frothy? Would the interpretation that had evolved in our little apartment be considered audacious—or overheated and shabbily romantic? So, in answer to your question, no, I was not unconfident that day of my technique. But about these American judges, so odd to me in their sharp reserve, about them I had many misgivings and trepidations. Of course, I was just a boy and could not have articulated such apprehensions then.
I remember the hands. Cookie’s reassuring capping of my skull. Mrs. Feldstein (red nails flaring) suddenly checking the lift of her pageboy, slipping a tear quickly across makeup, patting Mrs. Batki’s arm. The crossed hands of the “American judges,” as Izzy later called them, resting quietly in laps. I remember those who were playing. Daddy conducting in small but irresistible cursive from the hollow of his wing chair, from the throes of some generic American battle. And as the program progressed, Cookie’s quiet patting of his own knees. Mrs. Batki, upright and nearly frozen next to Mrs. Feldman, holding her own hands in her lap as if to quiet them, her fingertips jerking in miniscule, potent taps upon the backs of those clasped hands. And my own fingers, running at first in bored excavation of the bottom of the brass stool I was seated upon, feeling for the dents and protuberances left by less-than-meticulous craftsmen, moving gradually and as though by a will of their own into a stroking pattern: pad against curvature of brass, smooth repetitions, short and long, finger following finger in the order of the scales that I had so hated to practice, in grudging concurrence to the picks and plucks, hollows and peaks that held me above my own searching hands.
So that was how Izzy was launched. If one listens to Daddy on the subject, that day marked the birth of an audience that Izzy alone could satisfy. At first, Daddy received announcements of performances and reviews in a multitude of languages—accompanied by tangerine-colored, spice-scented sheets of nearly illegible translations. In the early years, when a performance was in a nearby city, there were last-minute phone calls from Izzy’s agent telling Daddy there was a ticket waiting for him. Otherwise, it was the sound of Izzy’s playing that Daddy retained, produced from new technologies that required relentless research and investment, and refined in evenings of connecting and reconnecting, positioning and repositioning until, Daddy claimed in his happier moments, the sound of the boy, then the young man, then the man, came forth in the room.
Mrs. Batki and her mother followed Izzy into a world of large cities, suspended suites, superb instruments, recording studios, adulation that spilled beyond the edges of continents. With them, without comment, departed my piano studies.
In the years that followed their departure and the divorce that came soon after, Mr. Batki lived downtown in one of the old row houses—tall, tilting wooden houses with rotting porches packed with silent old people and half-dressed children. We passed by the row houses—originally built to house workers at the long-bankrupt textile factories—on our way home from anywhere. I would watch for Mr. Batki out the back window of our Chevy as we slowed and shifted for the hill that began the ascent out of downtown poverty. I saw him many times—it was almost like I had inherited him. His raincoat flying behind him, his violin and briefcase swinging wildly, he would be rushing up the hill past the houses converted to beauty parlors and insurance offices, past the old Edwardians broken up into apartments and the few still undivided Georgians with cracked columns, ancient owners, and drawn shades. More than once I saw him slowing to check an address. For many years, he was the sole violin teacher in town.
In the middle years (when the scented translations of reviews had stopped coming, and the phone calls that had sent Daddy rushing off brightly to this or that box office had ceased), Mr. Batki would sometimes climb to the hill’s crest and, amidst a cluster of immaculate Colonials, he would stall. He would pace and pivot there before turning onto our little dead end. Then he would rush down the street to the house that had once been his home and take up the pivoting pattern again in front of his old apartment. As though inured and indifferent to the present state of the house (by then the exterior girdled in lime green siding; on most days a yapping dog chained to the porch pillar, half-wild kittens wrestling beneath brown dying hedges, and from out the torn front screened windows of what had once been the Batkis’ parlor, the cries of children intermixed with loud TV laughter and applause), Mr. Batki would pace for hours. Perhaps he thought he could hear Izzy practicing, my mother said, or expected one of the women to open the door for him. If my mother spotted him from our living room window, she would call me inside and offer no more explanation than “what can happen to a man.” My father would tilt the thick wooden slats of our Venetian blinds so that we could not see out. Out our front windows, Daddy seemed to say, there would be no indiscrete stares. And, as the afternoon wore on, no madman pacing.
Recently there has been talk of Izzy giving a homecoming performance—not here of course, but in the theater at one of the universities, or in the state capital. So far nothing has come of it, but townspeople who previously had shown no particular fondness for violin concertos have begun to reminisce possessively about Izzy’s formative time among us. There has even been a newspaper article in this vein, praising the local school system and its exemplary music education program. The ambitious young reporter who researched this article somehow discovered Mr. Batki’s presence in town and managed to interview him. Aside from some wholly unsuitable comments upon the musicality of his present crop of students, which, it was widely agreed, a more seasoned reporter would surely have suppressed, nothing Mr. Batki said was considered worth quoting.
Susan Friedland’s stories have appeared in BOMB and Sun & Moon. Her chapbooks The Watermark and Family Fragments were published by Red Dust. She lives in northern Vermont.
Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.